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Title: Portia - or By Passions Rocked
Author: Duchess, 1855?-1897
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
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.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Portia - or By Passions Rocked" ***

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PORTIA;

OR

BY PASSIONS ROCKED

          BY

          THE DUCHESS

          Author of "PHYLLIS," "AIRY, FAIRY LILLIAN," ETC

          NEW YORK AND CHICAGO
          BUTLER BROTHERS

          TROW'S
          PRINTING AND BOOKBINDING COMPANY,
          NEW YORK.



PORTIA;

Or, "By Passions Rocked."



CHAPTER I.

          "A child of our grandmother Eve, a female; or, for
          thy more sweet understanding, a woman."--LOVE'S
          LABORS LOST.


THE gates are thrown wide open, and the carriage rolls smoothly down the
long dark avenue, beneath the waving branches of the tall elms and the
copper beeches, through which the dying sun is flinging its parting
rays.

The horses, sniffing the air of home, fling up their heads and make
still greater haste, until presently, rounding the curve, they draw up
before the hall door.

It stands open, and on the high, stone steps that lead to it, a very
pretty girl looks down upon the carriage from under her palm, with a
face eager and expectant. When she has barely glanced at it, she says,
"Ah!" in a tone of deep satisfaction, and running down the steps and
over the gravel, turns the handle of the carriage door and looks
anxiously at its occupant.

"You have come," she says, cheerily. "I was _so_ afraid something might
have prevented you."

The person she addresses--a girl about two years older than herself,
says:

"Yes, I have come," in a tone slow and sweet, almost to languor.

"_So_ glad," says the pretty girl, with a smile that must be one of her
sweetest charms, it is so full of life and gaiety; "come out of this
dreadful old sarcophagus and upstairs with me; I have your tea in your
own room for you."

Miss Vibart, stepping out of the brougham, follows her hostess into the
house, through the grand old hall, and up the wide, oak staircase, into
a room huge and old-fashioned--but delicious and cozy, and comfortable
to the last degree.

Having cast one hasty glance round the apartment, Miss Vibart turns to
her young hostess--

"You are Dulcinea? isn't it?" she says, questioningly.

"Yes, I am Dulcinea as a rule--(may I be your maid, just for once--you
will be so much happier without your hat)--but I have so many other
names, that it takes me all my time to remember which one I really
belong to. Uncle Christopher calls me Baby! and Mark Gore, when he is
here, calls me Duchess, and Dicky Browne calls me Tom, and Roger calls
me--I really quite forget what it is Roger calls me," with a slight
shrug of her shoulders.

"Is Dicky Browne your _fiancé_?" asks Miss Vibart, uncertainly; "I know
you are engaged to somebody; Auntie Maud told me that."

"Dicky Browne! Oh, no!" Then, with the gayest little laugh in the world,
"If you could only _see_ Dicky Browne! He couldn't, by any possibility,
be _anybody's fiancé_! You mean Roger, I suppose." But, with a quick
frown and a touch of petulance, "Don't let us talk about _him_. He is
such a worry, and has been making himself so exceedingly unpleasant all
the morning!"

Miss Vibart stares, forgetting her usually very charming manners for the
moment, and then drops her heavily-fringed lids over her eyes.

"By-the-by," says Dulce, breaking in upon what threatens to be an
awkward pause, "how d'ye do? I don't believe I have said that yet." Her
whole tone and expression have changed as if by magic; the suggestion of
ill-temper is gone; the former vivacity re-asserts itself. She lays her
hands upon her visitor's shoulders with a light, caressing gesture, and
leans towards her. "I shall give you a little kiss for your welcome, my
dear cousin, if I may," she says, very prettily.

Portia Vibart, acknowledging her grace, tells herself this new cousin
will suit very well, and returns her soft embrace with some warmth. She
is feeling tired, used up, _ennuye_ to the last degree; even the two or
three weeks she has had in town have been too much for her, and she has
come down to her uncle's house nearly ready to confess to herself that
she is seriously ill. Here, in the stillness, in this great room, with
the elms swaying to and fro outside her windows, and the distant cawing
of the rooks in the branches high up out of sight, she feels rest, and
comfort, and a curious longing, that has a strange pleasure in it, to
stretch out her arms and sigh deeply and contentedly.

"Sit in this chair, and rest a little before thinking of taking off
anything else," says Dulce; "I shall pour out your tea."

She goes, with the quick undulating step that belongs to her, to a
small, round table, and makes a little fuss over the delicate fat little
cups that stand on the tray.

"You take sugar?" she asks, in a moment or two.

"No, thank you," says Portia, slowly; she is looking at her cousin
still, whose hair is as nearly red as it can be, without being exactly
so; it comes very, very close to it, but it is only the rude who have
ever called it so.

"But of course not," says Dulcinea. "One might know that by looking at
you. It isn't a good thing to take sugar in one's tea nowadays, is
it?--it almost touches on immorality;" she is standing with the
sugar-tongs poised in her right hand, and is glancing at Portia over her
shoulder. "_I_ take it, you know--any amount of it, and I have yet the
grace to be ashamed of myself afresh, at every new lump. Dicky Browne
likes it, too."

"Who _is_ Dicky Browne?" demands Portia, suddenly: if she is going to
live in this rather mixed household, she had better learn some
particulars about the inhabitants at once.

"Not know Dicky? it argues yourself unknown. He is our celebrity. He is
really immensely clever, about always doing the wrong thing, and indeed
is inestimable in most ways. He is your cousin, too, as much as he is
mine, which really," declares she airily, "isn't much. But he is such a
pet all through that we magnify the third-cousinship into a first. He
rides very straight and smokes the very prettiest cigarettes, and he is
_such_ a fool!"

Miss Vibart is amused. "What a very charming description," she says,
with the low laugh she allows herself; "he sounds like something I have
seen somewhere, and he certainly would be a treasure to Byron."

"Lord Byron?" asks Dulce, with lifted brows; "I don't myself think he
would show off much as a Conrad, or a Giaour, or a Lara."

"I rather fancy I was thinking of the man who writes plays," says Miss
Vibart, mildly. "Is he here now?"

"Yes. He spends most of his time here. Both he and Roger are consumed
with a desire to see you. You must know," says Dulcinea, laughing over
her cups at her cousin, "that a breath from the outer world came to us,
whispering of your success in town, and how every one raves of your
_beaux yeux_, and your beauty generally."

"Who wafted so insane a breath as that?" asks Portia, with a suppressed
smile.

"Mark Gore. He puts in a good deal of his time here, too."

"Mark Gore never talks anything but the very utterest nonsense," says
Portia with a faint blush. "No one minds him. I shall be quite afraid to
go down-stairs to present myself to Dicky Browne after all you have
said. Consider his disappointment."

"I shan't," says Dulce, calmly, "and you needn't fear him. He is only
Dicky. Well, it is five now, and we dine at seven. I shall send your
maid to you, and I shall call back for you in an hour, if you wish, to
bring you down stairs with me. But, perhaps--"

"Oh! please do," says Portia, graciously. "I shall be just a little
strange at first, shan't I?"

"Strange here? _Indeed_ no," says Dulcinea, earnestly. "Nobody knows the
meaning of that word in this old Court. We all get friends with each
other at once, and I don't think we ever fall asunder again. Now at six
do try to be ready, and I will take you to see Uncle Christopher, who is
sure to be in just then."

"I shall be ready," says Portia, with determination.



CHAPTER II.

"The first and the simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind
is curiosity."--BURKE.


"YES, I am quite ready," says Portia.

The hour has flown, and Dulcinea, standing in the doorway of her
cousin's room, gazes on her with undisguised admiration. To Dulcinea,
anything lovely, be it man, or beast, or flower, is an intense and
everlasting delight, and now Portia enchants her. In very truth so well
she might, as a fairer picture than she presents at this moment can
hardly be imagined.

She is standing before a large glass, let into the wall on one side of
the room from ceiling to floor, and, with a back glass in her hand, is
leaning slightly to one side, as though lost in admiration of the soft
mass of fair, brown hair that lies coiled low down on her neck in
high-art fashion. She is like a soft harmony in black and gold, with her
filmy robes clinging closely round her, and the old gold, that is so
like tarnished yellow, touching her here and there.

"Ah! Mark was right," says Dulce, with a little sigh of intensest
pleasure. "Come down now (you _cannot_ make yourself more beautiful),
and be made known to Uncle Christopher."

It is in the library that Miss Vibart makes herself known. Dulce
entering first, with her gay little air, says:

"This is Portia, Uncle Christopher." Thereupon a tall old man, rising
from a chair, comes quickly up to them and takes Portia's hand, and,
stooping very low, presses his lips to her forehead.

He is a remarkably handsome old man, with light hair, and a rather warm
complexion, and choleric, but kindly eyes. Even at the first glance
Portia tells herself he would be as harsh a foe as he would be a
champion true, and in so far she reads him right. He is hot-tempered,
obstinate, at moments perhaps unjust, but at all times kind-hearted, and
deserving of tenderest regard.

Now he is holding his new niece's hand, and is gazing down at her with
animated eyes, that no age will ever quite dim.

"So glad. _So_ glad you have come to us," he says, in a tone that
reminds her of Dulce's, though it is so deep and strong and masculine,
and hers so very much the reverse in every way, "Bless me, how days go
by! Just last week, as it seems to me, I saw you a little girl in short
petticoats and frills, and furbelows, and now--"

"I wear petticoats still," says Portia, demurely, with a soft laugh,
"and frills sometimes, and often furbelows, I _think_, though I don't in
the least know what they mean, but they sound nice. So, after all, I
should be now very much as I was."

"Very much. But forgive me," says Sir Christopher, "if I say you were
not anything like as good-looking then as you are to-day."

"A speech easy to forgive," said Portia, lightly. Then, after a pause,
"I, too, remember what _you_ were like in those old days."

"What then?" asked Sir Christopher, giving a sudden pull to his collar,
and betraying an increased degree of interest.

"Nothing like so good-looking as you are to-day," retorts she, with a
quick smile and a little flicker of her eyelids.

"Ah! we shall be friends," cries Sir Christopher, gaily. "Baby and you
and I will ride roughshod over all the others; and we have wanted
somebody to help us, haven't we, Baby?" Then he turns more entirely to
Dulce; "Eh, a sharp wit, isn't it?" he says.

"Auntie Maud sent her love to you," said Portia.

"Eh? Much obliged, I'm sure," says Sir Christopher. "Very good of her;
mine to her in return. A most estimable woman she always was, if short
of nose. How she _could_ have thrown herself away upon that little
insignificant--eh?--though he _was_ my brother--eh?"

"She ought to have had you," says Miss Vibart, with soft audacity.

"Eh? eh?" says Sir Christopher, plainly delighted. "Now, what a rogue!"
He turns to Dulce, as he always does on every occasion, be it sweet or
bitter. "You hear her, Dulce. She flatters me, eh?"

"Uncle Christopher, you are a sad, sad flirt," says Dulce, patting his
cheek. "I am glad poor Auntie Maud escaped your fascinations. You would
have forgotten her in a week. Do you know what o'clock it is?--_after_
six. Now do go up and get ready for dinner, and try to be in time for
once, if only to do honor to Portia. He is so irregular," says Dulcinea,
turning to Portia.

Miss Vibart, like Alice, begins to think it all "curiouser and
curiouser;" yet, withal, the house seems full of love.

"Well, indeed as a rule, I believe I _am_ late," says Sir Christopher,
in a resigned tone. "But I always put it down upon Mylder; he _can't_
tie a cravat!" Then, to Portia, "You are pale and thin, child. You must
get rosy and fat, and above all things healthy, before we are done with
you."

"She must, indeed," says Dulce, "though I doubt if she will thank us for
it by-and-by; when she finds herself (as she shall) with rose-colored
cheeks like a dairy-maid, she will be very angry with us all."

"I shall never have red cheeks," says Portia; "and I shall never be
angry with you; but I shall surely get strong in this charming air."

"Here you will live forever," says Dulce. "People at ninety-five
consider themselves in the prime of life."

"Lucky they!" says Portia; "they must 'wear the rose of youth' upon them
forever."

"Oh! we _can_ die young," says Dulce, hastily, as though anxious to take
a stigma off her country-side. "We have been known to do it, but not
much; and the happiest have gone the soonest."

"Yes," says Uncle Christopher, most cheerfully--he is plainly
unimpressed, and shows an inclination to whistle

          "Golden lads and girls, all must,
          As chimney-sweepers come to dust!"

"I say, Dulce, isn't Portia like that picture of your grand-aunt in the
north gallery?"

"Like who?" asks Portia, anxiously.

"Like the handsomest woman in Europe, of her time," says Sir
Christopher, earnestly, with a low, profound bow that might perhaps have
been acceptable to "the handsomest woman in Europe," but only serves now
to raise wild mirth in the breasts of her degenerate grand-nieces.

When they have reached again the hall outside (leaving Sir Christopher
to seek the tender mercies of Mylder) Portia turns to her cousin--

"I am fortunate," she says, in her usual composed fashion that is yet
neither cold nor repellant, "I find Uncle Christopher, also, altogether
charming!"

The "also" is very happy. It is not to be misunderstood, and is full of
subtle flattery. Dulcinea yields to it, and turns, eyes and lips bright
with a warm smile, upon Miss Vibart.

"Yes; he is quite everything that is nice," she says, gracefully
ignoring the compliment to herself. "Now, shall we come and sit on the
balcony until dinner is ready; as a rule, we assemble there in Summer
instead of in the drawing-room, which, of course, is more convenient,
and decidedly more gloomy."

"I have an all-conquering curiosity to know everything about everybody
down here," says Portia, as they reach the balcony. Dulce pushes a low,
sleepy-looking chair toward her, and, sinking gracefully into it, she
turns her eyes up to her cousin. "Tell me all about your Roger," she
says, languidly. "As I must begin with somebody, I think I shall prefer
beginning with--with--what shall I call him? Your young man?"

"It sounds like Martha's baker's boy," says Dulce, laughing; "but you
may call Roger what you like. I wish with all my heart you could call
him husband, as that would take him out of my way."

They are standing on the balcony, and are looking toward the South.
Beyond them stretch the lawns, green and sloping; from below, the breath
of the sleeping flowers comes up to greet them; through the trees in the
far, far distance comes to them a glimpse of the great ocean as it lies
calm and silent, almost to melancholy, but for the soft lap, lapping of
the waves upon the pebbly shore.

"Some one told me he was very handsome," says Portia, at a venture.
Perhaps she has heard this, perhaps she hasn't. It even seems to her
there is more truth in the "has" than in the "hasn't."

"I have seen uglier people," admits Dulcinea, regretfully; "when he has
his face washed, and his hair brushed, he isn't half a bad boy."

"Boy?" asks Portia, doubtfully; to her the foregoing speech is full of
difficulty.

"I daresay _you_ would call him a man," says Dulce, with a shrug of her
soft shoulders; "but really he isn't. If you had grown up with him, as I
have, you would never think of him as being anything but an overgrown
baby, and a very cross one. That is the worst of being brought up with a
person, and being told one is to marry him by-and-by. It rather takes
the gilt off him, I think," says Dulce with a small smile.

"But why must you marry him?" asks Portia, opening her large black fan
in an indolent fashion, and waving it to and fro.

The sun retiring

          "On waves of glory, like an ocean god,"

flings over her a pale, pink halo, that renders even more delicately
fine the beauty of her complexion. A passing breeze flings into her lap
a few rose-leaves from a trailing tree that has climbed the balcony, and
is now nodding drowsily as the day slowly dies. She is feeling a little
sorry for Dulce, who is reciting her family history with such a doleful
air.

"Well, I needn't, you know," says that young lady, lightly; "not if I
don't choose, you know. I have got until I am twenty-one to think about
it, and I am only eighteen now. I daresay I shall cry-off at the last
moment; indeed, I am sure I shall," with a wilful shake of the head,
"because Roger, at times, is quite too much, and utterly insupportable,
yet, in that case, I shall vex Uncle Christopher, and I do so love Uncle
Christopher!"

"But he had nothing to do with the arrangement, had he?"

"Nothing. It was his brother, Uncle Humphrey, who made the mistake. He
left the property between us on condition we married each other.
Whichever of us, at twenty-one, declines to carry out the agreement,
gets £500 a year off the property, and the rest goes to the happy
rejected. It is a charming place, about six miles from this, all lakes
and trees, and the most enchanting gardens. I daresay Roger would be
delighted if I would give him up, but" (vindictively) "I shan't. He
shall never get those delicious gardens all to himself."

"What an eccentric will," says Portia.

"Well, hardly that. The place is very large, and requires money to keep
it up. If he had divided the income between us, and we had been at
liberty to go each our own way, the possessor of the house and lands
would not have had enough money to keep it in proper order. I think it
rather a just will. I wish it had been differently arranged, of course,
but it can't be helped now."

"Is he your first cousin? You know I have heard very little about this
branch of my family, having lived so long in India."

"No, my second cousin. Fabian is Uncle Christopher's heir, but if--if he
died, Roger would inherit title and all. That is another reason why I
hate him. Why should he have even a distant claim to anything that
belongs to Fabian?"

"But, my dear girl, you are not going to marry a man you hate?" says
Portia, sitting up very straight, and forgetting to wave her fan.

"Not exactly," says Dulce, meditatively; "I really don't think I hate
him, but he can be disagreeable, I promise you."

"But if you marry him, hardly tolerating him, and afterwards you meet
somebody you can love, how will it be with you then?"

"Oh, I shan't do that," she says; "I have felt so married to Roger for
years, that it would be positively indecent of me, even _now_, to fall
in love with any one. In fact I couldn't."

"I daresay, after all, you like him well enough," says Miss Vibart, with
her low, soft laugh. "Mark Gore says you are exactly suited to each
other."

"Mark Gore is a confirmed old bachelor, and knows nothing," says Dulce,
contemptuously.

"Yet once, they say, he was hopelessly in love with Phyllis Carrington."

"So he was. It was quite a romance, and he was the hero."

"Phyllis is quite everything she ought to be, and utterly sweet," says
Portia, thoughtfully. "But _is_ she the sort of person to create a
_grande passion_ in a man like Mark?"

"I daresay. Her eyes are lovely; so babyish, yet so full of latent
coquetry. A man of the world, like Mark, would like that sort of thing.
But it is all over now, quite a worn-out tale. He visits there at stated
times, and she has thoughts only for her baby and her 'Duke,' as she
calls her husband."

"I wonder," says Miss Vibart, with a faint yawn, "if at times she
doesn't find that a trifle slow?"

Then she grows a little ashamed of herself, as she catches Dulce's
quick, puzzled glance.

"It is a very pretty baby," says Dulce, as though anxious to explain
matters.

"And what can be more adorable than a pretty baby?" responds her cousin,
with a charming smile. "Now do tell me"--quickly, and as though to
change the current of her companion's thoughts--"how many people are in
this house, and who they are, and everything that is bad and good about
them."

Dulce laughs.

"We come and go," she says. "It would be hard to arrange us. _I_ am
always here, and Uncle Christopher, and--Fabian. Roger calls this his
home, too, but sometimes he goes away for awhile, and Dicky's room is
always kept for him. We are all cousins pretty nearly, and there is one
peculiarity--I mean, Uncle Christopher makes no one welcome who does not
believe--in--Fabian."

Her voice falls slightly as she makes the last remark, and she turns her
head aside, and, leaning over the balcony, plays absently with a rosebud
that is growing within her reach. In this position she cannot see that
Portia has colored warmly, and is watching her with some curiosity.

"You must try to like Fabian," says Dulce, presently. Her voice is sad,
but quite composed. She appears mournful, but not disconcerted. "You
have no doubt heard his unfortunate story from Auntie Maud, and--_you_
believe in him, don't you?" She raises her eyes to her cousin's face.

"I hardly think I have quite heard the story," says Miss Vibart
evasively.

"No? It is a very sad one, and quite unaccountable. If you have heard
anything about it, you have heard all I can tell you. Nothing has ever
been explained; I am afraid now nothing ever will be. It rests as it did
at the beginning--that is the pity of it--but you shall hear."

"Not if it distresses you," says Portia gently. A feeling of utter pity
for Fabian's sister, with all her faith and trust so full upon her at
this moment, touches her keenly. As for the story itself, she has heard
it a score of times, with variations, from Auntie Maud. But then, when
brought to bay, what _can_ one say!

"It will not distress me," says Dulce, earnestly; "and I would so much
rather you knew everything before you meet him. It will make things
smoother. It all happened four long years ago--years that to him must
seem a lifetime. He is twenty-nine now, he was only twenty-five then,
just the time, I suppose, when life should be sweetest."

"It is mere accident makes life sweet at times," says Portia. "It has
nothing to do with years, or place, or beauty. But tell me about your
brother."

"He had just come home for his leave. He was so handsome, and so
happy--without a care on earth--and was such a pet with the men in his
regiment. I was only a child then, but he never seemed too old to talk
to me, or to make me his companion. And then one morning it all
happened; we were at breakfast--as we might be to-morrow"--says poor
Dulce, with a comprehensive gesture, "when one of the men came in and
said somebody wanted to speak to Uncle Christopher. When I think of
it"--with a long-drawn sigh--"my blood seems to run cold. And even now,
whenever Harley comes in at breakfast and bends over Uncle Christopher
in a confidential way to tell him--it may be--about the puppies or the
last filly, a sensation of faintness creeps over me."

"I don't wonder," says Portia, feelingly. "How could one ever forget it?
You are making yourself unhappy; go no farther now, but tell me about it
another time."

"As I have begun I shall finish," says Dulce, heroically, "even at the
risk of boring you. But"--wistfully--"you will forgive me that."

"Go on; I _want_ to hear," says Portia, strangely moved. Yet it seems
cruel to make her repeat what she knows so well already, and what is so
bitter to the narrator.

"Well, Uncle Christopher went out to see the man who wanted him, and
after a little bit came back again, with a white face, and told us one
of the clerks at the County Bank had dared to say Fabian had forged
his--Uncle Christopher's--name for £500. I think I hardly understood;
but Fabian got up, and first, he grew very red, and then very white, but
he said nothing. He only motioned to me not to stir, so I sat quite
still, and then he went up to Uncle Christopher, who was very angry, and
laid his hand upon his arm and led him out of the room."

She pauses.

"Dulcinea," as yet the more familiar appellation "Dulce" is strange to
Miss Vibart. "Dulcinea," she says, very sweetly, holding out a soft,
pale, jewelled hand, with tender meaning, "come and sit here beside me."

Dulce is grateful for the unspoken sympathy, but instead of accepting
half the lounging chair, which is of a goodly size, she sits down upon a
cushion at Portia's feet, and leans her auburn head against her knee.

"It was quite true that somebody had forged Uncle Christopher's name for
£500, but who it was has never transpired. Uncle Christopher wanted to
hush it up, but Fabian would not let him. The writing was certainly
Fabian's, I mean the imitation was exactly like it. I saw it myself; it
was so like Fabian's that no one could possibly know one from the other.
You see"--wistfully--"I am terribly honest, am I not? I do not pretend
to see a necessary flaw."

"I like you the better for that," says Portia; involuntarily she lays
her hand on Dulcinea's throat, just under her chin, and presses her
gently towards her. "If it will make you happier tell me the rest," she
says.

"Unfortunately at that time Fabian _did_ want money. Not much you know,
but the fact that he wanted it at all was fatal. He had lost something
over the Grand National--or one of those horrid races--and people heard
of it; and then, even after long waiting and strictest inquiry, we could
not discover who had been the real offender, and that was worst of all.
It seemed to lay the crime forever upon Fabian's shoulders. He nearly
went mad at that time, and we, who loved him, could do nothing to
comfort him."

"Ah! that was hard," says Portia, leaning over her. "Not to be able to
lift the burden from those whose life is dear to us as our own is almost
more than one can bear!"

"How you understand," says Dulce, gratefully. "And then, you see,
somehow every one got to know about it; Fabian could not prove his
innocence, and--I suppose--the story sounded badly in alien ears. And
then there came a day when somebody--Lord Ardley I think--cut Fabian
publicly, and that made an end of all things. Uncle Christopher wanted
to take notice of that, too--wanted I think" (with a wan smile that has
no mirth in it) "to challenge Lord Ardley and carry him over to France
and fight it out with him _à la mort_, but Fabian would not allow it,
and I think he was right."

"Quite right." There was quite a ring in Miss Vibart's tone as she says
this, but Dulce is too occupied with sad retrospect to notice anything
at this moment. "How could the writing have so exactly resembled
Fabian's?" she says, presently; "it was Uncle Christopher's name was
forged, was it not?"

"Yes, but Fabian writes exactly like him. He makes his capitals quite
the same. Anyone trying to copy Uncle Christopher's writing would
probably succeed in imitating Fabian's perfectly."

"Ah! he writes like Uncle Christopher," says Portia, slowly, as though
adding another link in her own mind to a conclusion already carefully
formed.

"You will like him, I think," says Dulce, getting up from her low
position as though restless and desirous of change. She leans her back
against the balcony and faces her cousin. "Though he is terribly
altered; so different to what he used to be. He is so grave now, and
silent and moody. He seems to be ever brooding over the mystery of his
own life, and trying--trying to get away from everybody. Oh! how he
suffered, how we all suffered just then, knowing him to be innocent."

"You knew he was innocent?" says Miss Vibart. Unfortunately her tone is
one of inquiry. She has her hands clasped in her lap and is looking
steadily at Dulce, who is watching her intently from the railings of the
balcony, where she stands framed in by roses. Miss Vibart's fan has
slipped to the ground; she is really interested in this story. May not
the hero of it prove an absorbing study? Her tone, however, grates upon
the ears of the "absorbing study's" sister. Dulce flushes perceptibly;
opens her lips hastily as though to speak, and then suppresses herself.

"I forgot," she says, quietly, after a moment's reflection, "you have
never seen him."

The faith in this small remark touches Portia keenly--the more in that
she has already formed her own opinion on the subject in hand.

"I wonder he stayed here after it happened," she says, with some faint
acceleration of manner. Haste to Portia, is a word unknown.

"He is a hero, a martyr," says Dulce, earnestly, two large tears
gathering in her eyes. "He was in the K.D.Gs., as you know, but of
course he flung up his commission then, and was going abroad, when Uncle
Christopher fell ill. So ill, that we despaired of him. And when even
the doctor from London refused him hope, he called Fabian to his bedside
and made him swear he would not leave him while he lived--and then he
recovered. But he has always held Fabian to his word; and, indeed, it
was a very necessary promise, because I don't think Uncle Christopher
could live without him now. It is all terribly sad; but it would be
worse if Fabian were really in fault, would it not?"

"It is all very sad," says Portia. Her eyes are bent, and she is slowly
turning a ring round and round upon her finger.

"It has ruined Fabian's life, and broken his heart," says Dulce, in a
low tone. "It is more than sad."

"But if innocent, why should it weigh so heavily upon him?" asks Portia,
gently.

"_If_," says Dulce, quickly, the hot blood mounting to her cheeks.
Then--very coldly--"There is no 'if' about it; he _is_ innocent. However
mysterious his unhappy story may sound in a strang-- in your ears,
nevertheless, our Fabian has nothing to do with disgrace. It could not
touch him."

"I put it badly," says Portia, correcting her mistake with much grace.
"I should have said _as_ he is innocent. Forgive me."

"It was all a mistake," says Dulce, who is now very pale, "But we are so
unaccustomed to even the faintest doubt of Fabian. Even Mark Gore, the
sceptic, believes in him. How tired you look; would you like another
cushion to your back?"

"No, thank you. I am quite comfortable and quite happy. Do you know,"
with a slow, lovely smile, "I rather mean that last conventional phrase:
I _am_ happy; I feel at rest. I know I shall feel no want here in this
delicious old place--with you!" This is prettily toned, and Dulce smiles
again. "I am so tired of town and its ways."

"You will miss your season, however," says Dulce, regretfully--for
_her_.

"Yes, _isn't_ that a comfort?" says her cousin, with a devout sigh of
deepest thankfulness.

"A comfort!"

"Yes. I am not strong enough to go about much, and Auntie Maud has that
sort of thing on the brain. She is like the brook--she goes on for
ever, nothing stops her. Ah! See now, for example, who are those coming
across the lawn? Is one your brother?"

"No! It is only Dicky Browne and--"

"Your Roger?"

"Oh! yes; my Roger," repeats Dulce, with a distasteful shrug.

Then she leans over the balcony, and says:

"Roger, come up here directly; for once in your life you are wanted by
somebody. And you are to come, too, Dicky, and please put on your Sunday
manners, both you boys, because I am going to introduce you to Portia!"



CHAPTER III.

          "Whether youth can be imputed to any man as a
          reproach, I will not, sir, assume the province of
          determining."--W. PITT.


THE boys, as Miss Blount--that is Dulce--irreverently terms them, are
coming slowly across the grass, trampling the patient daisies. The sun
has "dropped down" and the "day is dead," and twilight, coming up, is
covering all the land. A sort of subtle sadness lies on everything,
_except_ "the boys," they are evidently full of the enjoyment of some
joke, and are gay with smiles.

Mr. Browne is especially glad, which convinces his pretty cousin on the
balcony that he has been the perpetrator of the "good thing" just
recorded. At her voice, both he and his companion start, and Roger,
raising his eyes, meets hers.

He is a tall, slight young man, handsome, indolent, with dark eyes, and
a dark moustache, and a very expressive mouth.

Dicky is distinctly different, and perhaps more difficult of
description. If I say he is a little short, and a little stout, and a
little--a _very_ little--good looking, will you understand him? At least
he is beaming with _bonhommie_, and that goes a long way with most
people.

He seems now rather taken by Dulce's speech, and says:

"No! Has she really come?" in a loud voice, that is cheery and
comfortable to the last degree. He can't see Portia, as she is sitting
down, and is quite hidden from view by the trailing roses. "Is she 'all
your fancy painted her?' is she 'lovely and divine?'" goes on Mr.
Browne, gaily, as though seeking information.

"Beauties are always overrated," says Roger, sententiously, in an even
louder voice--indeed, at the very top of his strong young lungs--"just
tell somebody that somebody else thinks so-and-so fit to pose as a
Venus, and the thing is done, and so-and-so becomes a beauty on the
spot! I say, Dulce, I bet you anything she is as ordinary as you please,
from the crown of her head to the sole of her foot!"

"I can't follow up that bet," says Dulce, who has changed her position
so as effectually to conceal Portia from view, and who is evidently
deriving intense joy from the situation, "because I have only seen her
face and her hands; and they, to say the least, are passable!"

"Passable! I told you so!" says Roger, turning to Dicky Browne, with
fine disgust. "Is she æsthetic?"

"No."

"Fast?" asks Dicky, anxiously.

"No."

"Stupid--dull--impossible?"

"No, no, no."

"I thank my stars," says Dicky Browne, devoutly.

"Can't you describe her?" asks Roger, impatiently staring up from the
sward beneath at Dulce's charming, wicked little face.

"She has two eyes, and a very remarkable nose," says Miss Blount, with a
nod.

"Celestial or Roman?" demands Roger, lazily. By this time he and Dicky
are mounting the stone steps of the balcony, and discovery is imminent.

"I think it is a little unfair," murmurs Portia, in a low whisper, who
is, however, consumed with laughter.

At this moment they reach the balcony, and Dulce says, blandly,
_àpropos_ of Roger's last remark, "Perhaps if you ask her that question,
_as she is here_, she will answer you herself!"

She waves her hand towards Portia. Portia rises and comes a step
forward, all her soft draperies making a soft _frou-frou_ upon the stone
flooring; and then there is a good deal of consternation! and a
_tableau_ generally.

"I'm sure I beg your pardon," says Roger, when breath returns to him,
casting an annihilating glance at Dulce, who catches it deftly, plays
with it for a moment, and then flings it carelessly over the balcony
into the rising mist and night.

"Whatever you beg you shall have," says Portia, coming nearer to him and
holding out a slim white hand. "How d'ye do, Roger?"

"It is quite too good of you to forgive me so soon," says that young
man, pressing with deep gratitude the slim, friendly hand. "It was
beastly mean of Dulce, she _might_ have told us"--this with another
glance, meant to wither, at that mischievous maiden, who rather revels
in her guilt. "My only apology is that I didn't know you--had never seen
you, or I could not so have expressed myself."

"What a clever apology," murmurs Portia. "And what flattering emphasis!"
She smiles at him pleasantly through the fast gathering gloom. "You will
now introduce me to your friend, will you not?"

"Dicky, come forward and make your best bow," says Dulce. Whereupon, Mr.
Browne, with a shamefaced laugh, comes to the front, and, standing
before Miss Vibart like a criminal at the bar of justice, bends very
low.

"Miss Vibart--Mr. Browne," says Roger, seriously. But at this Dicky
forgets himself, and throws dignity to the winds.

"She called _you_ Roger! I'm as much her cousin as ever you were!" he
says, indignantly. "_Mr._ Browne, indeed!"

At this, both girls laugh merrily, and so, after a bit, does Dicky
himself, to whose soul the mildest mirth is an everlasting joy.

"I am then to call you Dicky?" asks Portia, smiling, and lifting her
eyes as though half-reluctantly to his; she has quite entered into the
spirit of the thing.

"If you will be so very good," says Dicky Browne.

"You really had better," says Dulce, "because you are likely to see a
good deal of him, and perpetually addressing people by their proper
names _is_ so tiring."

"It is true," says Portia; then turning to Dicky Browne, with
half-closed lids and a subdued smile, she says, slowly:

"I am very pleased to make your acquaintance."

It has its charm, this lowered tone. Dicky gives in to it;
and--metaphorically speaking--instantly prostrates himself at Miss
Vibart's feet.

Perhaps he might have done so actually without metaphor, Dicky's conduct
being at times uncertain, but for a timely interruption.

"Any chance of dinner to-night?" says a cheery old voice behind them,
and turning, they see Sir Christopher standing inside the open window of
the drawing room, smiling upon them with the utmost benignity. "Portia,
my dear," he says, genially, as though he and she have been intimate for
years, "we are all so young here, we hardly require sustenance.
Nevertheless, let me take you into the dining-room, if only to see what
cook has provided for us."

Portia lays her hand upon his arm, and, followed by the others (who are
plainly quarreling in a warm, if subdued fashion), goes into the grand
old dining-room. Roger takes the foot of the table; Dicky seats himself
next Portia; Dulce, as she always does when no foreign guests are
present, or, as she terms it, on "off-days," seats herself near Uncle
Christopher.

One place, however, is empty; by right it is Roger's, who, except when
Fabian is absent, never sits at the foot of the table.

Sir Christopher fusses a little, grows discontented, and finally says
uneasily--

"Where is Fabian?"

"He has a headache, dear," says Dulce, gently. "He hopes we will all
excuse him--especially Portia."

She turns with a sweet glance to Portia, who murmurs something civil in
return.

"He would be better here than moping in his own room," says Sir
Christopher, in a low voice. His spirits are evidently damped, though he
makes an effort to suppress the fact; his smile grows faded, and less
frequent, and presently dies away altogether. Every one makes a noble
effort at conversation, and every one, after a bit, breaks down
ignominiously and looks at his or her fish, as though in it lies some
hidden charm.

Dicky Browne alone remains unimpressed by the gloom of the surroundings.
He is thinking the filleted sole very good indeed, and is lost to all
other ideas.

"Tell you who I saw to-day," he says, airily, "Boer. That clergyman
fellow, you know, who married that annoying girl who used to be always
at Chetwoode. I spent half an hour with him in the High Street, just
opposite the club."

"How you _must_ have enjoyed yourself!" says Roger, feelingly. "How I
wish I could have put myself in your place at that moment."

"Don't you! Not being selfish, I would willingly have resigned to you
the intellectual treat I endured! All things have their end, however,
even my patience, which is known to be elastic like my conscience; so,
as a last resource, I offered him a brandy and soda, and, as it turned
out, it was quite the best thing I could have done under the
circumstances. He looked awfully angry, and went away directly."

"Clever boy!" says Roger. "For the future I shall know exactly what to
do when the reverend Boer inflicts his small talk on _me_. Dead sell,
though, if he accepted your offer. One would have to sit it out with
him, and, probably, he takes his brandy slowly."

"I don't believe he ever took any in his life," says Dulce, idly. "That
is why the chill has never been removed from him. How I wish he could be
thawed."

"I always feel so sorry for Florence," says Portia, languidly; she is
feeling very tired, and is hardly eating anything. From time to time she
looks at Sir Christopher, and wonders vaguely if it is her presence has
kept Fabian from dinner to-night. "But Mr. Boer reads very well."

"When he doesn't turn over two pages at once," says Dicky Browne. "That
is a favorite amusement of his, and it rather makes a mess of the
meaning contained in holy writ. He is rather touchy about that last
little _fiasco_ of his when reading before the bishop the other day, so
I thought I would tell him a story to-day that chimed in deliciously
with his own little mistake, and, I doubt not, brought it fresh to his
mind."

"What a wicked humor you must have been in," says Portia. "Tell the
story to us now."

"You have heard it, I daresay. I only repeated it to Boer in the fond
hope he would go away if I did, but it failed me. It was about the
fellow who was reading the morning lesson--and he came to the words,
'and he took unto him a wife'--then he turned over two pages by mistake,
and went on, 'and he pitched her with pitch within and without!' I don't
think Boer liked my little story, but still he wouldn't go away."

"He is a dreadfully prosy person, and very material," says Portia, when
they have all laughed a little.

"He is a jolly nuisance," says Mr. Browne.

"He hasn't got much soul, if you mean that," says Roger--

          "'A primrose by a river's brim,
            A yellow primrose is to him
            And it is nothing more.'"

"That _is_ such utter nonsense," says Dulce, tilting her pretty nose and
casting a slighting glance at her _fiancé_ from eyes that are

          "The greenest of things blue,
           The bluest of things gray."

"What more _would_ it be?--a hollyhock, perhaps? or a rhododendron, eh?"

"Anything you like," says Roger, calmly, which rather finishes the
discussion.

The night belongs to warm, lovable June; all the windows are wide open;
the perfume of flowers comes to them from the gardens beneath, that are
flooded with yellow moonshine. So still it is, so calm, that one can
almost hear the love-song the languid breeze is whispering to the
swaying boughs.

Across the table come the dreamy sighs of night, and sink into Portia's
heart, as she sits silent, pleased, listening to all around, yet a
little grieved in that her host is strangely silent, too, and looks as
one might who is striving to hear the sound of a distant footstep, that
comes not ever.

"He is always that way when Fabian absents himself," says Dicky Browne,
with so little preface that Portia starts. "He adores the ground he
walks on, and all that sort of thing. Speak to him and get him out of
it."

"What shall I say?" asks Miss Vibart, somewhat taken aback. "Moods are
so difficult."

"Anything likely to please him."

"My difficulty just lies there," says Portia.

"Then _do_ something, if you can't say it. Exertion, I know, is
unpleasant, especially in June, but one must sacrifice one's self
sometimes," says Dicky Browne. "He'll be awfully bad presently if he
isn't brought up pretty short by somebody during the next minute or so."

"But what can I do?" says Portia, who is rather impressed by Mr.
Browne's earnestness.

"You hate port, don't you?" asks he, mysteriously.

"Yes. But what has that got to do with it?"

"Take some presently. It is poison, and will make you dreadfully ill;
but that don't count when duty calls. We all hate it, but he likes it,
and will feel positively benevolent if you will only say you like it
too. 'Pride in his _port_, defiance in his eye!'--that line, I am
convinced, was written for him alone, but modern readers have put a
false construction upon it."

"It will make me _so_ unhappy," says Portia, looking at Uncle
Christopher with a pitying eye. The pity is for him, not for herself, as
Dicky foolishly imagines.

"Don't think about that," he says, valiantly. "Petty inconveniences sink
into nothingness when love points the way. Take your port, and try to
look as if you liked it, and always remember, 'Virtue is its own
reward!'"

"A very poor one, as a rule," says Portia.

"Have some strawberries, Portia?" asks Roger at this moment, who has
been sparring with Dulce, mildly, but firmly, all this time.

"Thank you," says Portia.

"They don't go well with port, and Portia adores port," says Mr. Browne,
hospitably, smiling blandly at her as he speaks.

She returns his smile with one of deep reproach.

"Eh? No, do you really?" asks Sir Christopher, waking as if by magic
from his distasteful reverie. "Then, my dear, I can recommend this. Very
old. Very fruity. Just what your poor father used to like."

"Yes--your _poor_ father," says Dicky Browne _sotto voce_, feelingly and
in a tone rich with delicate encouragement.

"Thank you. Half a glass please. I--I never take more," say Portia,
hastily but sweetly, to Sir Christopher, who is bent on giving her a
goodly share of what he believes to be her heart's desire. Then she
drinks it to please him, and smiles faintly behind her fan and tells
herself Dicky Browne is the very oddest boy she has ever met in her
life, and amusing, if a little troublesome.

Sir Christopher once roused, chatters on ceaselessly about the old days
when he and Charles Vibart, her father, were boys together, and before
pretty Clara Blount fell in love with Vibart and married him. And Portia
listens dreamily, and gazing through the open window lets part of the
music of the scene outside sink into his ancient tales, and feels a
great longing rise within her to get up and go out into the mystic
moonbeams, and bathe her tired hands and forehead in their cool rays.

Dulce and Roger are, as usual, quarreling in a deadly, if
carefully-subdued fashion. Dicky Browne, as usual, too, is eating
anything and everything that comes within his reach, and is apparently
supremely happy. At this moment Portia's longing having mastered her,
she turns to Dulce and asks softly:

"What is that faint streak of white I see out there, through, and
beyond, the branches?"

"Our lake," says Dulce, half turning her head in its direction.

"Our pond," says Roger, calmly.

"Our _lake_," repeats Dulcinea, firmly; at which Portia, feeling war to
be once more imminent, says hastily--

"It looks quite lovely from this--so faint, so silvery."

"It shows charmingly when the moon is up, through that tangled mass of
roses, far down there," says Dulce, with a gesture toward the tangle.

"I should like to go to it," says Portia, with unusual animation.

"So you shall, to-morrow."

"The moon will not be there to-morrow. I want to go now."

"Then so you shall," says Dulce, rising; "have you had enough
strawberries? Yes? Will you not finish your wine? No? Come with me,
then, and the boys may follow us when they can tear themselves away from
their claret!" This, with a scornful glance at Roger, who returns it
generously.

"I shall find it very easy to tear myself away to-night," he says, bent
on revenge, and smiling tenderly at Portia.

"So!" says Dulce, with a shrug and a light laugh that reduces his
attempt at scorn to a puerile effort unworthy of notice; "a compliment
to _you_ Portia; and--the other thing to me. We thank you, Roger. Come."
She lays her hand on Portia's, and draws her toward the window. Passing
by Uncle Christopher's chair, she lets her fingers fall upon his
shoulder, and wander across it, so as just to touch his neck, with a
caressing movement. Then she steps out on the verandah, followed by
Portia, and both girls running down the stone steps are soon lost to
sight among the flowers.



CHAPTER IV.

          "'Tis not mine to forget. Yet can I not
            Remember what I would or what were well.
            Memory plays tyrant with me, by a wand
            I cannot master!"
                                    --G. MELLEN.


PAST the roses, past the fragrant mignonette they go, the moon's soft
radiance rendering still more fair the whiteness of their rounded arms.

The dew lies heavy on leaf and flower. Motionless stand the roses, and
the drooping lilies, and the pansies, purple and yellow. "God Almighty,"
says Bacon, "first planted a garden; and indeed it is the purest of
human pleasures; it is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man!"

Here, now, in this particular garden, where all is so deeply tranquil,
it seems as if life itself is at a standstill, and sin and suffering,
joy and ambition, are alike unknown. A "pure pleasure" it is indeed to
gaze upon it, and a great refreshment to any soul tired, or overwrought,
or sorrowful.

The stars are coming out slowly one by one, studding brilliantly the
pale, blue vault of heaven, while from a

                            "Thin fleecy cloud,
          Like a fair virgin veil'd, the moon looks out
          With such serene and sweet benignity
          That night unknits his gloomy brows and smiles."

Dulce, plucking some pale blossom, lifts it to her lips, and kisses it
lightly. Portia, drawing a deep breath of intensest satisfaction, stands
quite still, and letting her clasped hands fall loosely before her,
contemplates the perfect scene in mute delight.

Presently, however, she shivers, a passing breeze has cast a chill upon
her.

"Ah! you are cold," says Dulce, anxiously; "how thoughtless I am; yes,
you are quite pale."

"Am I?" says Portia. "It was the standing here, I fancy. India gave me
bad habits, that, after three years, I find myself unable to conquer.
Every silly little wind strikes a chill to my heart."

"I shall get you a shawl in no time," says Dulcinea; "but keep walking
up and down while I am away, so as to keep your blood warm."

"Your command shall be obeyed," says Portia, smiling, and then Dulce,
turning, disappears quickly amongst the shadows, moving as swiftly as
her light young feet can carry her.

Portia, left alone, prepares to keep her promise, and walks slowly along
the graveled path once more. Turning a corner, again a glimpse of the
distant lake comes to her. It is entrancing; calm as sleep, and pure as
the moon above, whose image lies upon its breast.

Even as she looks the image fades--the "fleecy cloud" (jealous, perhaps,
of the beauty of the divine Artemis, and of Portia's open admiration of
her) has floated over her again, and driven her, for a little moment,
into positive obscurity.

The path grows dark, the lake loses its color. Portia, with a sigh,
moves on, confessing to herself the mutability of all things, and
pushing aside some low-lying branches of a heavily-scented shrub, finds
herself face to face with a tall young man, who, apparently, is as lost
in wonder at her appearance as she is at his!

She starts, perceptibly, and, only half-suppressing a faint exclamation
of fear, shrinks backwards.

"I beg your pardon," says the stranger, hastily. "I am afraid I have
frightened you. But, really, it was all the fault of the moon."

His voice is reassuring, and Portia, drawing her breath more freely,
feels just a little ashamed of her momentary terror.

"I am not frightened now," she says, with an upward glance, trying to
read, through the darkness, the face of him she addresses. The clouds
are scurrying swiftly across the sky, and now the moon shines forth
again triumphant, and all things grow clearer. She can see that he is
tall, dark, handsome, with a strange expression round his mouth that is
surely more acquired than natural, as it does not suit his other
features at all, and may be termed hard and reckless, and almost
defiant. His jaw is exquisitely turned. In his eyes is a settled
melancholy--altogether his face betrays strong emotions, severely
repressed, and is half-morbid and wholly sad, and, when all is said,
more attractive than forbidding.

Portia, gazing at him with interest, tells herself that years of mental
suffering could alone have produced the hard lines round the lips and
the weariness in the eyes. She has no time for further speculation,
however, and goes on quickly: "It was more than foolish of me; but I
quite forgot, I"--with some uncertainty--"should have remembered."

"What do you forget? and what should you have remembered?"

"I forgot that burglars do not, as a rule, I suppose, go about in
evening clothes; and I should have remembered"--with a smile--"that
there was yet another cousin to whom I had not been introduced."

"Yes; I am Fabian Blount," he says indifferently. He does not return her
smile. Almost he gives her the impression that at this moment he would
gladly have substituted another name for his own.

"Ah! you are Fabian," she says, half-puzzled by his manner.

"If you will take my word for it." His tone is even more strange as he
says this, and now he _does_ smile, but disagreeably.

Portia colors faintly.

"You have not asked me my name?" she says quietly. "I am Portia."

"What a very pretty name!" He has had a half-smoked cigar behind his
back all this time; now remembering it, he looks at it, and flings it
far from him. "It reminds one of many things; Shakespeare, I suppose
principally. I hope," looking at her, "_you_ will choose the right
casket."

"Thank you. That is a very kindly wish."

"How does it happen that you are here all alone?"

"I was cold; I always am. Dulcinea saw me shiver, I think, and ran to
get a shawl or some covering for me. That is all."

"She is a long time getting it, is she not?"

"Is she?" says Portia. This speech of his piques her a little. "Does it
seem long?"

"Very long, if one is to shiver all the time," replies he, calmly,
reading her resentment in her face, but taking no notice of it. "Much
too long to be out in this chilly night-air without sufficient clothing,
and with a wholesome dread of possible burglars full upon you. May I
stay with you till Dulce returns, and will you walk on a little? It is
foolish to stand still."

"I am sorry you threw away your cigar on my account. I am sure you want
it now."

"I don't believe I ever want anything," says Fabian, slowly; and then
they walk on again, returning by the way she had come. The
night-wallflower is flinging its perfume abroad, the seringas are making
sweet the air, a light eager wind rushes softly past them.

"It was a long drive," says Fabian, presently, with all the air of a man
who is determined to rouse himself--however against his will--and carry
on conversation of some sort. "Are you tired?"

"It _was_ long. But everything here is so new, so fresh, so sweet, that
I have forgotten to be tired."

"You are one of those, perhaps, who always find variety charming." As he
speaks he carefully removes a drooping branch of roses out of her way.

"Not quite always." She smiles as she defends herself. "I like old
friends, and old songs best. I am not absolutely fickle. But I have
always had a great desire to live in the country."

"People who have never tried it, always do have that desire."

"You think I shall be _desillusionne_ in a week? But I shall not. When
George had to return to India, I was so unhappy in the thought that
perhaps I should have to live in town until his return. Of course I
could have gone somewhere to live by myself, and could have found some
charming old lady to take care of me, but I am not fond of my own
society, and I can't bear charming old ladies."

"One feels quite sorry for the old ladies," says Fabian, absently.

"I was afraid I should have to put in my two years of waiting for
George, with Auntie Maud, and that would have been terrible. It would
mean seasons, and months at fashionable watering-places, which would be
only town out of town--the same thing all over again. I was so glad when
Uncle Christopher wrote to say he would like me to come here. I have
often wondered since," she says, suddenly--smiling somewhat wistfully,
and flushing a warm crimson,--"whether all of _you_ didn't look upon my
coming with disfavor."

"What put such a thought as that into your head?"

"A very natural one I think. A stranger coming to a household always
makes such a difference; and you had never met me, and you might not
like me, and--. Did any of you resent my coming?"

"No," says Fabian. There is no energy in his reply, yet it is impossible
to doubt that he means exactly what he says. "You must not begin by
thinking unkindly of us," he goes on, gently. "You may believe me when I
say none of us felt anything but pleasure at the idea of your coming."

"Yes? That was very good of you all." She is longing to say, "Yet you
see I kept you from dinner to-night," but after a moment's reflection
leaves it unsaid.

"I hope the country will not disappoint you," he says, after a slight
pause. "It is unwise to begin by expecting too much."

"How can it disappoint?" says Portia, with some intensity. She says
nothing more, but she lifts her lovely face to the starry sky, and puts
out her hands with a faint gesture, fraught with admiration, towards the
heavy flowers, the distant lake, the statues half hidden by the drooping
shrubs, and the moonlight sleeping upon all!

"There is always in the country, the sun, the flowers, and at night, the
moon," she says.

"Yet, the day will come, even for you, when there will be no sun, and
when the moon will refuse to give its light." He speaks peculiarly and
as though his thoughts are wandering far from her to other scenes in
which she holds no part.

"Still, there will always be the flowers," she says, quickly, impressed
by his tone, and with a strange anxiety to prove to herself that surely
all things are not in vain.

"Oh, no! They are the frailest of the three," returns he; "they are like
our dearest hopes. At the very time they should prove true, when the
cold Winter of our discontent is full upon us, they forsake us--never to
return."

"Never? Does not the Summer bring them again?" She has stopped in the
middle of the path, and is asking her question with an anxiety that
astonishes even herself. "This rose bush," she says, pointing to one
close beside her, "now rich in glory, and warm with golden wealth, will
it not bloom again next year, in spite of the death that must pass over
it?"

"It may. But you will never see again those roses over there, that you
love and rejoice in now! Others may be like them, but they cannot be
quite the same."

Portia makes no reply. The moonlight is full upon him, and she can see
that his lips have lost their hardness, and are as full of melancholy as
his eyes. She is looking curiously at him, regarding him perhaps in the
light of a study--he is looking, not at her at all, but at something
that surely has no place in this quiet garden, lying so calm and
peaceful beneath the light of heaven.

A terrible expression, that is despair and grief commingled, covers his
face. Some past horror, that has yet power to sting, is holding him
captive. He has forgotten Portia, the beauty of the night, everything!
He is wrapt in some miserable memory that will not be laid. Surely, "the
heart may break, yet brokenly live on."

Be he guilty (as she believes him) of this crime that has darkened his
life, or only the victim of unhappy circumstances, at this moment Portia
pities him with all her heart.

Voices in the distance! Roger and Dulce still high in argument; a faint
perfume of cigarettes; Dicky Browne's irrepressible laugh; and then they
all come round the corner, and somebody says, "Ah, here she is," and
Dicky Browne places a shawl round Portia's shoulders.

"You here, Fabian?" says Dulce, gladly. "And making friends with Portia?
That's right."

"Taking a mean advantage of us all I call it," says Dicky Browne. "_We_
got introduced in the cruel glare of day, with all our imperfections on
our heads. _You_ waited for moonshine, balmy air, scent of roses,
poetical effect, and so on! That's why you stayed away from dinner. And
to think none of us saw through you! Well, I always said I was very
innocent; quite unfit to go about alone!"

"Not a doubt of it," said Roger, cheerfully. "But you won't have to
complain of that long. We are all on the look-out for a keeper for you,
and a straight waistcoat." Then, turning to Fabian, "Your headache
better, old man?"

"Thank you--yes. Your cousin is tired, I think, Dulce. Take her in and
make her rest herself."

"Ah! You are worn out," says Dulce to Portia, with contrition. "I have
been so long getting you the shawl; but I could not help it. You must
not stay up, you know, to do manners to us, you must go straight to bed
this moment, and come down like a rose in the morning. Now confess you
are tired."

"Well, yes, I am afraid I am," says Portia, who is feeling faintly
disappointed for the first time since her arrival. Why, she scarcely
knows.

"She said 'I am a-weary, a-weary; I would I were a-bed,'" quotes Mr.
Browne, feelingly. Whereupon everyone feels it his duty to take Portia
at once back to the house, less Mr. Browne, by any ill-luck, should
commit himself still further.

It is only when Portia is at last alone in her own room that she
recollects that Fabian forgot to shake hands with her. Or was it she
with Fabian?



CHAPTER V.

          "Oh, how full of briars is this working-day world!"
                                               --"AS YOU LIKE IT."


"I WISH you would _try_ to remember," says Dulce, a little hastily. She
is sitting in a rather Gothic chair, and the day is ultra-hot, and the
strain upon her mental powers is greater than she can bear. Hence the
haste.

She is leaning back in the uneasy chair now, pencil in hand, and is
looking up at Roger, who is leaning over the table, in a somewhat
supercilious manner, and is plainly giving him to understand that she
thinks him a very stupid person, indeed.

This is irritating, and Roger naturally resents it. A few puckers show
themselves upon his forehead, and he turns over a page or two of the
gardener's book before him with a movement suggestive of impatience.

"I _am_ trying," he says, shortly.

"Well, you needn't tear the book in pieces," says Dulce, severely.

"I'm not tearing anything," retorts Mr. Dare, indignantly.

"You look as if you wanted to," says Dulce.

"I don't want anything except to be let alone," says Mr. Dare.

The windows are all wide open. They were flung wide an hour ago, in the
fond hope that some passing breeze might enter through them. But no
breeze cometh--is not, indeed, born--and the windows yawn for it in
vain. Outside, all Nature seems asleep; inside, the very curtains are
motionless.

In a low rocking-chair, clad in the very lightest of garments permitted
by civilization, sits Sir Mark Gore. He arrived at the Court only
yesterday, in a perfect torrent of passionate rain, and was accused on
all sides of having brought ill weather in his train. But to-day having
asserted itself, and dawned fairly, and later on having burst into
matchless beauty, and heat of the most intense, he is enabled to turn
the tables upon his accusers, who look small and rather crushed.

"Have they had such a day this season?"

"Never! Oh, never!"

"Have they ever seen so lovely a one?"

"Never--at least, _hardly_ ever!"

They are vanquished. Whereupon he tells them they were distinctly
ungrateful yesterday, and that he will never put in a good word for them
with the clerk of the weather again. _Never!_

Just now he is nodding drowsily over his _Times_, and is vainly trying
to remember whether the last passage read was about Midhat Pasha, or
that horrid railway murder, or the Irish Land League.

In the next window sits Portia, clad in a snowy gown that suits her to
perfection. She has been here now for a fortnight, and feels as if she
had been here forever, and almost wonders if in reality she ever knew
another home. She is lounging in the very easiest of cushioned chairs,
and is making a base attempt at reading, which attempt is held up to
public scorn every other minute by Dicky Browne, who is sitting at her
feet.

He is half in and half out of the room. His feet being on the verandah,
his head and shoulders in the room. He is talking a little, and
fidgeting a little, and laughing a little, and, in fact, doing
everything in the world except thinking a little. Thought and Dicky
Browne are two.

The room in which they are all sitting is long and very handsome, with
three windows and two fire-places. It is always called the blue room at
the Court, for no earthly reason that any one can see, except that it is
painted green--the very most impossible green, calculated to create
rapture in the breasts of Oscar and his fellows; a charming color, too,
soothing, and calm, and fashionable, which, of course, is everything.
There are tiny cabinets everywhere, gay with majolica ware and many a
Palissy dish; while Wedgewood, and Derby, and priceless Worcester shine
out from every corner. There are Eastern rugs, and Japanese screens,
and, indeed, everything that isn't Japanese is old English, and
everything that isn't old English is Japanese--except, perhaps, a few
lounging-chairs of modern growth brought in to suit the requirements of
such unæsthetic beings as prefer the comfortable satin-and-down lounge
to the more correct, if more trying oak.

"Perhaps it was the Duke of Edinburgh," says Roger, breaking the silence
that has lasted now for a full minute. "I see he is very handsome, of
robust habit and constitution, and of enormous size and length. Is that
what you want?"

"No; I am sure it was not the Duke of Edinburgh. It doesn't sound like
him. I wonder why you can't think of it. I am sure if I once eat
anything I should remember all about it."

"Good gracious!" says Dicky Browne, from his lowly seat, glancing
solemnly at Portia, "have they eaten the Duke of Edinburgh? It sounds
like it, doesn't it? They must have done it on the sly. And _what_ a
meal! Considering they acknowledge him to be of enormous size and
length!"

"Perhaps it was Sir Garnet Wolseley," says Roger, moodily, in the
discontented tone of one who is following out a task utterly repugnant
to his feelings. "He has an excellent flavor, but is entirely destitute
of shank or shoulder."

Sir Mark Gore, at this dreadful speech, lowers his paper and lifts his
head. Portia looks faintly startled. What can Roger be talking about?

"Ain't it awful," says Mr. Browne, "who'd have thought it of them. They
look quite mild--and--er--like other people. Positively they are
cannibals! And (did you remark?) it is _roast shoulder_ they prefer,
because they are grumbling at the want of it in the unfortunate General
who has evidently been enticed from his home and coldly murdered by
them. I wonder it wasn't in the papers--but doubtless the family hushed
it up. And how heartlessly they speak! But, by the way, what on earth is
a _shank_?--"

"The neck is splendid, and, indeed, there is no waste whatever," goes on
Roger, in a wooden tone.

"No waist whatever! Did you hear that? I always thought poor Sir Garnet
was a lean man," says Dicky, _sotto voce_. "Poor, poor fellow, can
nothing satisfy them but rank and talent?"

"Not a bit like it," breaks in Dulce, petulantly tapping her foot upon
the floor. She is never petulant with any one but Roger, being indeed,
by nature, the very incarnation of sweetness and light.

"Give it up," says Roger, rising hope in his tone--hope that, alas, is
never verified.

"And meet McIlray with such a lame story as that! Certainly not," says
Dulce, warmly. "It must be found out. Do try again."

"Well, this must be it," says Roger, in despair, "The Marquis of Lorne,
exquisite short neck, smooth skin, very straight, nice white spine."

At this Sir Mark rises to his feet.

"Really, my _dear_ Roger!" he says, impulsively--but for the excessive
laziness of his disposition it would have been severely.

"Ah," says Roger, glad of anything in the shape of a reprieve, even
though it be unpleasant argument.

"How _can_ Dulcinea find any interest in the color of the Marquis's
spine?" says Sir Mark, reprovingly. "Forgive me if I say I think you are
going a little too far."

"I shall have to go farther," says Roger, desperately, "There is no
knowing where I shall end. She can't find it out, and neither can I, and
I see no hope of our arriving at anything except a lunatic asylum."

"I can look it up by myself," says Miss Blount, grandly, "I don't want
your help--much. I daresay I can manage by myself, after all. And even
if I can't, I daresay Mark will come to my assistance if you forsake
me."

"I won't," says Gore, decidedly; "I won't indeed. I would do anything in
the world for you, Dulcinea, as you know, but for this work
unfortunately I am too modest. I _couldn't_ go about making inquiries
about the color of people's spines. I couldn't, indeed. As a matter of
science I daresay it would be interesting to know the exact number of
shades, but--I feel I am unequal to the task."

"The Duke of Connaught," goes on Roger, wearily, hope being stifled in
his breast, "bright green skin, well covered with bloom; small neck
and--"

"Oh! hang it all, you know," says Dicky Browne, forgetting himself in
the excitement of the moment, "I don't believe his Royal Highness _has_
a green skin, do you, Portia?--saw him only a fortnight ago, and he
looked all right then, just as white as the rest of us."

"It's cucumbers," says Miss Blount, with dignity.

"Yes, cucumbers," responds Mr. Dare, with a sigh; he is evidently in the
last stage of exhaustion. "McIlray has forgotten the name of some
particular seed he planted in the Spring that we all liked immensely
(how I wish we _hadn't_), and he has compelled Dulce to try and discover
it. So we are looking for it in these infer--I mean these very
prettily-illustrated books that the seedsman has kindly sent us (how I
wish he hadn't), and hope to find it before the millenium. I daresay any
time next month you will still find us here poring over these identical
books, but we shall be _dead_ then--there is at least comfort in that
thought."

"One wouldn't think so, to look at you," said Gore, pleasantly.

"You can go away, Roger, you really can," says Dulce, irritably. "You
are not the least use to me, and I hate grumblers."

"Perhaps it is the Empress of India," says Dicky Browne, who has come
over to the table, driven by sheer curiosity, and is now leaning on
Roger's shoulder. "She 'is of enormous length, and the handsomest this
year. She is beautifully shaped throughout, with scarcely any handle.'
Oh, I say, hasn't the Queen a handle to her name? What an aspersion upon
her royal dignity."

"Ah! here is Fabian! Now, you may go away, all of you," said Dulce, with
fine contempt. "He will really be of some use to me. Fabian, what is the
name of the cucumber that tiresome McIlray wants? I am worn out, almost
in hysterics, trying to remember it."

"What a pity you didn't ask me sooner," says Fabian. "It is all right. I
made it out this morning, and told McIlray. He says now he remembers all
about it perfectly."

"Fabian, may I shake hands with you. You are a man and a brother," says
Roger, effusively, with a sudden return of animation. "I should, indeed,
like to kiss you, but it might betray undue exhilaration. You have saved
me from worse than death. Bless me, isn't it warm?"

"Just a little sultry," says Mr. Browne. "Show me that book you were
looking at? Carter's, eh? How I love a work of that sort! I think I love
Carter himself. I daresay it is he designs those improbable vegetables
and fruits that would make their fortunes as giants at a penny show. You
see there _are_ giants in these days."

"Are there?" says Dulce. "I think there aren't."

"Well, it's just as simple," says Dicky, amiably. "Not a bit more
trouble. It is quite as easy to suppose there aren't, as to suppose
there are. _I_ don't mind. But to return to our muttons. I really do
esteem our Carter--in anticipation. It occurs to me he yet may grow
peaches as big as my head, and then what a time we'll 'ave, eh?--Eating
fruit is my forte," says Mr. Browne, with unction.

"So it is," says Dulce. "Nobody will dispute that point with you. You
never leave us any worth speaking about. McIlray says you have eaten all
the cherries, and that he can't even give us a decent dish for dinner."

"What vile alliteration," says Mr. Browne, unabashed. "Decent, dish,
dinner. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

"Well, I'm not," says Dulce.

"Just shows your moral depravity. If you aren't you ought to be. Three
great big D's in a breath! Shocking, shocking," says Dicky, gravely.

"What a heavenly day, and how depressing. We are never satisfied," says
Mark Gore, flinging his arms above his head with a lazy gesture, and
looking with almost comic despair at the pale-blue-and-gold glory in the
heavens above.

Fabian, who has been standing near him, lost in a daydream, starts
perceptibly at his tone, and moves as though he would go towards the
door. Then, though still a little absent, and still wrapt in the dream
from which he has sought to free himself, he looks round the room as
though in search of something. Perhaps he finds it as his eyes light
upon the window where Portia sits, because they linger there, and the
restless expression, that has characterized his face up to this,
vanishes.

He hesitates; pushes a book upon a table near him backwards and forwards
gently two or three times, as though in doubt, and then walks straight
to the window where Portia is, leans against the sash, just where he can
see the lovely, downcast face before him.

After Dicky's defection (or was it on Fabian's entrance?) Miss Vibart
returned to her neglected book, and has been buried in it ever since.
Even when Fabian comes and stands close to her, she is so engrossed with
the beauty of the story that she forgets to lift her eyes to look at
him. So determinedly do they seek the page beneath them, that Fabian
tells himself she must indeed have got to a thrilling part of her tale.

Her long, dark lashes lie like shadows on her cheeks. Her lips are
closed. The hand that lies beneath the book trembles slightly.

They are all laughing at the upper end of the room at one of Dicky's
absurdities. Down here by the far window, there is a silence marked
enough to make itself felt. I think at last even Mark Gore feels it,
because he rises from his comfortable rocking-chair with a faint yawn,
and, walking down the room, comes to anchor behind Portia's chair.

Leaning over it, he says, pleasantly:

"Is that book of James' so very charming as to make you deaf and blind
to us poor mortals?"

"I am never deaf or blind to you," says Portia, sweetly, glancing up at
him over her shoulder. Her rounded chin is slightly tilted, a soft smile
curves her lips.

At the Court Mark is a special favorite, yet so pretty a speech coming
from Portia, who is usually so cold and indolent, strikes one as
strange. Fabian regards her earnestly. How beautiful she is, yet how
unsympathetic; has she no soul, no feeling? Surely her eyes, so large,
so deep, so intense, belie this thought.

As though compelling himself, he says, with a visible effort:

"Have you been indoors all this lovely day? Has the sun had no power to
tempt you to come out?"

"No;" she shakes her head as she answers him, and smiles, too, but the
smile is cold as death, and though perfect, is altogether different from
the one bestowed only a minute since upon Sir Mark.

"Then come out now," says Gore, as though pleasantly impressed by the
suggestion conveyed in Fabian's speech. "Let us all shake off dull sloth
and make a tour right round the gardens."

"A charming idea," says Portia, sitting more upright, and brightening
visibly. She grows even animated, and animation, even of the faintest,
is to be commended on such a day as this.

"Take your cousin to see the new carp-pond," says Gore, addressing
Fabian, but watching Portia attentively. "You will like to see it,
Portia?"

"So _very_ much," says Portia. "But if I do go it must be with Dicky."

Her manner as she says this gives both the men fully to understand that
early in the day she had pledged herself to go for a walk some time in
the afternoon. So far, so good--it _might_ have so explained
itself--but, unfortunately, at this moment Dicky Browne (who, as Dulce
says, is always in the wrong place at the wrong time) comes up behind
them, and addresses them generally:

"What are you all conspiring about?" he says, genially. "Roger and
Dulce, for the fourteenth time to-day, have again agreed to differ, so I
seek refuge here. Take me in, will you? And, by-the-by, what shall we do
with ourselves this grilling day!"

"I have just been suggesting a quiet stroll," says Sir Mark.

"The very thing," exclaims Mr. Browne, who is amiability itself. "Why on
earth didn't we think of that before? Portia, if you will come with me,
if you have not promised," with a glance at Sir Mark, "to go with anyone
else, I will show you a new tennis court that will draw tears of
admiration from your eyes."

This is the unfortunate part of it. It now becomes apparent to every one
that Dicky did _not_ ask her early in the morning to go for a walk
anywhere. Silence follows Dicky's speech. A faint-pink color, delicate
but distinct, creeps into Portia's cheeks; she does not lower her head,
however, or her eyes either, but gazes steadily through the open window
at the hills in the far, far distance, misty with heat and coming rain.

She feels that Fabian's eyes are on her, and inwardly resents his
scrutiny. As for Fabian himself, his brow contracts, and a somewhat
unpleasant expression mars the beauty of his face; yet, turning to Dicky
with the utmost composure, he says, calmly:

"Take Portia to see the carp-pond; that may interest her."

"So I will," says Dicky. "But you come, too, old man; won't you? You
understand all about fish, you know, and that, and I don't a little
screw. Make him come, Portia; he talks like a book when he has got to
explain things."

"Don't trouble Portia," says Fabian, quietly. "_Even she_ could not
persuade me to leave the house to-day, as I have business on hand that
must be done."

There is the very faintest touch of sarcasm in his tone. The "even she,"
though very slightly done, is full of it. Portia, at least, is conscious
of it. She unfurls her huge, black fan with a lazy gesture, and then
turns her large eyes full upon him.

"So sorry my persuasions have failed," she says, slowly, not having
persuaded him at all; and, satisfied with this speech, waves the fan
indolently to and fro, and with half-closed eyes watches the merry
little sunbeams outside as they run hither and thither over the grass.

"Oh! let us do something," says Dulce, from the distance. "I shall go
mad if I am left here to talk to Roger all day."

"I am sure I don't want you to talk to me if it disagrees with you,"
says Roger, with ill-suppressed ire.

Then they tell her they are going for a gentle stroll before tea is
ready, and she consents to go with them if Sir Mark will walk with her
instead of Roger; and Roger, having indignantly disclaimed all anxiety
to be her companion on this occasion, peace is restored, and they all
sally forth armed with big, white umbrellas, to inspect the stupid carp.

Fabian alone remains indoors to transact the mysterious business, that I
think would have been gladly laid aside had Portia so willed it. That
she had absolutely refused to have him as her companion in her walk, was
so evident at the time of her expressed desire to go to see the carp
with Dicky Browne, that Fabian could not be blind to it. Standing in the
window of the library now, with the dying sunset reddening the scene
without, and shedding upon the flowers its tenderest tints of fair
array, Fabian reminds himself of each word she had said, of each
smallest smile and glance that had belonged to her, and at this moment
hates her with a hatred that is exceptionally bitter.

Then a little wave flows over his soul, and he tells himself how that he
is unjust, and a stranger cannot be reasonably expected to think him
innocent of a crime he himself has been unable to refute.

The day wanes. Twilight falls; a flush of soft violet color deepens the
sky. The sound of footsteps echoes again in the long hall without; they
have returned from the carp and the new tennis ground, and are asking
eagerly for their tea. The sun has gone down behind the Western hills,
and the stained-glass windows are throwing a sombre light over the
antlers and Gothic chairs, and mediæval furniture, in which the halls
delight. Fabian, hearing the footsteps, pulls himself together somewhat
roughly, and, opening a door that leads to a passage in little use,
makes his way to a distant office, where he tells himself, bitterly, he
is "far from the madding crowd," and free from intrusion.

Dulce and Portia, crossing the hall, go down the north corridor that
leads to the library Fabian has just vacated. A heavy crimson curtain
conceals a door on one side, and, as they pass, a figure, emerging from
behind it, brushes somewhat brusquely against Portia, filling her with
sudden alarm.

This figure, as it appears in the vague gloaming, is bowed and bent, and
altogether uncanny.

Portia, shrinking closer to Dulce, lays her hand upon her arm.

"Ah! what was that?" she says, fearfully.

"Only Gregory Slyme," returns Dulce, quickly, "you are not frightened at
_him_, poor old thing, are you? Have you not seen him before?"

"No," says Portia, with a shudder and a backward glance at the shrunken
figure creeping away down the corridor as if ashamed of itself.

"No?--that is strange; but he has affected his own room a good deal of
late."

"But who is he?" anxiously.

"He was Uncle Christopher's secretary for years, and calls himself that
still, but Fabian does all the writing now."

"What a start he gave me," says Portia, putting her hand hurriedly to
her heart as though in pain. "A chill seemed to rush all through my
blood. It was as though I had met something that had worked, and would
work, me harm!"

"Fanciful baby," says Dulce, with very superior scorn; "old Slyme could
not work ill to anyone. He has lived with us for years; but lately,
within the last eight months, he has become--well, a little
uncomfortable; indeed, perhaps, unbearable is the word."

"How so?--what has he done?" asks Portia, unaccountably interested in
this shadow that has crossed her path.

"I think he is very fond of brandy," says Dulce, reluctantly, and in a
very grieved little tone. "Poor old Gregory!"



CHAPTER VI.

          "Present mirth hath present laughter,
           What's to come is still unsure."
                                  --SHAKESPEARE.


"JULIA is coming to-day," says Dulce, looking at them all, with the
tea-pot poised in her hand. It is evident that this sudden announcement
has hitherto been forgotten. "I heard from her this morning," she says,
half apologetically, "but never thought of telling you until now. She
will be here in time for dinner, and she is bringing the children with
her."

"Only the children?" says Roger, the others are all singularly dumb.

"Yes. The _ayah_ has gone home. Of course she will bring a nurse of some
sort, but not Singa."

"For even small mercies we should be thankful," says Roger.

"Who is Julia?" asks Portia, idly.

          "'Who is Julia? What is she
              That all our swains commend her?
            Holy, fair, and wise is she,
              The heavens such grace----'"

"Oh, that will do," says Dicky Browne, turning impatiently to Roger, who
has just delivered himself of the above stanza.

"Don't be severe," says Dulce, reprovingly; "extravagant praise is
always false, and as to the swains, that is what she _wants_ them to do,
only they won't."

"Now, who is severe?" says Roger triumphantly.

"As yet, you have hardly described her," says Portia.

"Let me do it," entreats Mr. Browne, airily, "I feel in the very vein
for that sort of thing. She is quite a thing to dream of; and she is
much too preciously utter, and quite too awfully too-too!"

"That's obsolete now," says Dulce, "quite out of the market altogether.
Too-too has been superseded, you should tell Portia she is very-very!"

"Odious," says Roger, in a careful aside as though determined to think
Miss Blount's speech unfinished.

"She is like Barbauld's _Spring_," put in Sir Mark, lazily, coming up to
have his cup refilled. "She is the 'sweet daughter of a rough and stormy
sire.' Do any of you remember old Charley Blount?"

Plainly, nobody does. Everybody looks at everybody else, as though
_they_ should have known him, but nothing comes of it.

"Well, he was just the funniest old thing," says Sir Mark, laughing, at
some absurd recollection. "Well, he is gone now, and

          'I know it is a sin
           For me to sit and grin
             At him here;
           But the old three-cornered hat
           And the breeches, and all that,
             _Were_ so queer.'

"And bless me, what a temper he had," says Sir Mark, laughing again at
his quotation. "His clothes and his temper were old Blount's principal
features. Hideous old monster he was too."

"Is she hideous?" ask Portia.

"N-o. She is well enough; she isn't a bit like him, if we forget the
clothes and temper. She says her mother was very beautiful."

"I never knew a woman whose mother wasn't beautiful, once the mother was
dead," says Roger. "Sort of thing they tell you the moment they get the
chance."

Five o'clock has struck some time ago. Evening is coming on apace. On
the dry, smooth-shaven lawn, outside, the shadows are lengthening,
stretching themselves indolently as though weary from all the
hide-and-seek they have been playing, since early dawn, in the nooks and
corners of the quaint old garden.

June has not yet quite departed; its soft, fresh glory still gilds the
edge of the lake, and lends a deeper splendor to the golden firs that
down below are nodding to the evening breeze; it is the happiest time of
all the year, for

          "What is so rare as a day in June?
             Then, if ever, come perfect days;
           Then heaven tries the earth, if it be in tune,
             And over it softly her warm ear lays."

"Well, the mother is dead and gone now, this many a year," says Sir
Mark, "and the old fellow went nearly out of his mind when Julia married
Beaufort."

"Oh! she is married?" says Portia.

"Dear Portia, didn't I _tell_ you she had children?" says Dulce,
reproachfully. "She married an Indian Nabob with an aristocratic name
and a _lac_ of rupees, as she believed, but there was a flaw somewhere,
and--er--how was it Dicky?"

"Simplest thing out," says Dicky. "He had a lack of rupees, indeed, as
she found out when he died. It is only the difference of one letter
after all, and that can't count for much."

"Her father, old Charley, left her everything, so she isn't badly off
now," says Sir Mark, "but the Nabob was a sell."

"I wonder if Portia will like her," says Dulce, meditatively, laying her
elbows on the table and letting her chin sink into her palms.

"Tell me something about her personally," entreats Portia, turning to
her with some show of interest.

"What can I tell you? She is pretty in her own way, and she agrees with
everyone, and she never means a word she says; and, when she appears
most earnest, that is the time not to believe in her; and she is very
agreeable as a rule, and she is Fabian's pet aversion."

("Not now," says Portia to herself).

"I don't think there is anything else I can tell you," continues Dulce,
with a little nod.

"I wonder you have her," says Miss Vibart, disagreeably impressed by
this description.

"Why, she is our cousin! And, of course, she can come whenever she
wishes--she knows that," says Dulce. "It is not with her, as with you,
you know. You are a joy, she is a duty. But the children _are_ so
sweet."

"How many of them?" asks Portia, who knows a few things she prefers to
children.

"Three. Pussy, Jacky, and the Boodie. The Boodie is nothing short of
perfection."

"That is the one solitary point on which Dulce and I agree," says Roger.
"We both adore the Boodie. Wait till you see her; she is all gold hair,
and blue eyes, and creamy skin, and her nose is a fortune in itself. I
can't think where Julia found her."

"Fabian is so fond of her," says Dulce, whose thoughts never wander very
far from the brother for whose ruined life she grieves incessantly, day
after day.

"How old is she?" asks Portia--"this little beauty you speak of--this
harmony in blue and gold?"

"Five, I think. She is not in the least like her mother, who goes in for
æsthetics, with a face like a French doll, and who will love you
forever, if you will only tell a lie, and say you think she resembles
Ellen Terry."

"With a soul given entirely to French bonnets and Louis Quinze shoes,
she would be thought ultra-mundane," says Sir Mark, who is trying to
make Dulce's little toy terrier, Gilly, stand on his hind legs, in
search of cake.

"My goodness! what a long word," says Dicky Browne, who is now eating
bread and butter, because he has finished the cake. "Does it mean
anything edible? Because if so, I don't quite follow you; _no_ one could
masticate Julia!"

"I hope she will be in a good temper when she comes," says Roger. "Last
time she terrified us all into fits."

"If the children have behaved nicely in the train, and if anyone has
taken any notice of her, she will be charming," says Dulce, moodily. "If
not, she will be--the other thing."

"And the other thing isn't nice," puts in Dicky, in his pleasantest
tone.

"Then what shall we do with her just at first?" says Miss Blount, who is
evidently in fear of breakers ahead.

"Look here," says Mr. Browne, who couldn't hold his tongue to save his
life, "I'll tell you the first thing to say to any fellow who arrives at
your house. Don't go worrying him about the health of his sister, and
his cousins, and his aunts, but just ask him if he will have a B. and S.
He _will_, you know--and--and there you are. He won't forget it to you
afterwards."

Sir Mark laughs. Portia unfurls her fan, and smiles faintly behind it.

"Julia isn't a fellow, and I'm sure she wouldn't like brandy," says
Dulce, who is feeling a little hopeless as she contemplates the coming
of this new guest.

"The more fool she," says Dicky. "Try Madeira, then. She has a
tenderness for Madeira; and tell her her hat is lovely. That'll fetch
her."

"Come and sit here, Dicky," says Portia, motioning to the footstool near
her. "Your advice is not to be surpassed."

"It's not so bad," says Mr. Browne, comfortably settling himself on the
cushion at her feet, just as Fabian enters the room; "but I'm sorry she
won't entertain the brandy idea. That never fails. It's friendly,
homely, you know, and that."

"Dicky says if you drink rum and new milk every morning before
breakfast, you will live forever," says Dulce, thoughtfully.

"What a miserable idea," says Fabian, in his usual soft voice, that has
yet something stern about it. "It suggests the Wandering Jew, and other
horrors. Who would live forever?"

"_I_ would," says Dicky, with a sentimental glance at Portia, "if I
might only remain here."

"Get up, Dicky, and don't make an ass of yourself," says Sir Mark, a
little sharply for him, considering his natural laziness, and his
tendency to let all things slide. As a rule he makes indolence his god,
and sacrifices everything to it. Now, some superior influence compels
him to make this speech, and to regard Dicky with a glance that bespeaks
disfavor. Fabian is standing somewhat apart, his eyes as usual fixed
upon the flickering shadows and the touch of green in the ocean beyond,
but with his mind many leagues away. Yet now he turns, and looks with
wonder at Sir Mark, as though astonished at his tone, and Sir Mark looks
at him. There is a certain amount of longing, and hope, and affection,
in Sir Mark's glance.

"At all events she will be in time for our ball," says Roger, "and,
besides that, there will be another element of amusement. Stephen Gower
is coming back to the Fens at last. She can get up a little flirtation
with him, and as he is a right-down good sort. I daresay, if I gave him
the right cue, he would take her off our hands for a little while."

"Is your friend coming?" says Dulce, with some surprise. "You never told
us. And that pretty place is to have a master at last? I am rather glad,
do you know; especially as he is a friend, too, of Fabian's."

"I have no friends," says Fabian, suddenly, with a small frown.

"Oh yes, you have, whether you like it or not," says Gore, quickly. "I
can swear to one at least. My dear fellow, this is one of your bad days;
come with me; a walk through the evening dews will restore you to reason
once more."

He passes his arm through Fabian's, and leads him down the balcony steps
into the dew-steeped gardens. A moan from the sea comes up to greet them
as they go. No other sound disturbs the calm of the evening air.

"I think Fabian has the most perfect face I ever saw," says Roger,
suddenly. But Portia makes no reply. She is watching Fabian's figure as
it disappears in the dusk. Dulce, however, turns quickly, and looks at
Roger, a strange gleam in her great, blue eyes.



CHAPTER VII.

          "He is a fool who is not for love and beauty. I
          speak unto the young, for I am of them, and always
          shall be."--BAILEY.


SLOWLY, decorously, they march into church, one by one--Dulce first, and
then Sir Christopher, and then Julia Beaufort and Portia, and so on,
down to the children, who are evidently consumed with a desire to know
more than seems, and who are evincing a dangerous longing to waltz up
the smooth stone aisle.

The Boodie (who has not been overdrawn by Dulce and Roger, and who
really _is_ like an angel, with her sapphire eyes and corn-colored hair,
and the big white bonnet, with its blue bow, that surrounds her face
like a cloud) rather loses her presence of mind. It is either this, or a
sudden accession of ambition, that overcomes her, because, without a
moment's notice, she turns gently on her left heel, and executes a tiny
pirouette on her small Hessian boots. A frown from her mother suppresses
further evolutions, and, with a sigh, she returns to decorum and the
family pew.

In a corner of it the children are comfortably stowed away, while all
the others following suit, fall into their proper places. They are only
barely in time. The organ plays them up the aisle, and they have only
just a second to scramble through the preliminary prayers (so distinct a
token of respectability), when the rector's voice breaks forth.

Portia, who has not been to church before, looks up at Mr. Grainger,
while he is confessing everybody in a tone severe but bilious, and tells
herself he is as like a superannuated old crow as ever he can be. He is
flanked by the curate, a mediæval young man, with a pallid countenance
and an irreproachable gown, cut in the latest fashion, who stands in an
attitude of the most approved, with his eyes fixed immovably upon a side
pillar. The fixity of his gaze is so intense as to suggest the idea that
he never again means to remove it until death claims him for his own.

Then a hymn is sung by the village choir, led by the organist's high
soprano. It is a hymn very unique in its way, and sung with much
fervor, if little tune, and pierces even to the brains of its hearers.
The organ beats a solemn accompaniment to this delicacy, and whether the
strains from the ancient instrument--that squeaks like a dilapidated
bagpipes--is too much for the curate, I know not; but, at the last
verse, he removes his eyes from the pillar of the church and
concentrates them upon Portia.

Portia, at this particular moment, I regret to say, is smiling broadly.
A brilliant smile that illuminates her whole face, rendering her as
lovely as a dream. She is plainly deriving great consolation from the
village choir?

The curate, smitten by the sight of her levity, or by the consciousness
of his own lapse from the path of duty, in so far letting his mind
wander to mundane matters, turns pale, and, lowering his eyes until they
reach the tesselated pavement at his feet, grows sad and thoughtful, and
perhaps decides on eating no meat again to-day as punishment for his
fault.

The church is old, quaint, curious. It is like a thing forgotten. It
looks as if it had been dug up by somebody and planted just here, no one
knows why. The windows are narrow and elongated, and admit but little
light. The pillars in the more distant corners are wrapt in gloom. A
cobweb falling from the roof, spun by some enterprising spider, hangs
over the gaunt pulpit, as though desirous of coming in contact with
whosoever may enter it.

The cobweb, as it waves lazily backward and forward with every breeze
that assails it, is a thing of joy to Roger and Dicky Browne, who are
sitting side by side. It is an unspeakable boon, a sweet attraction, an
everlasting resource to them throughout the service. As it goes to and
fro their eyes follow it; they would willingly bet upon it were such a
thing practicable; and they wait in a charmed suspense until such time
as some one will enter the pulpit, to see whether the some one will
attack the cobweb, or the cobweb attack the some one.

Besides the cobweb there is a clerk and a sexton. Sometimes they say
Amen when the idea strikes them; sometimes they don't; it is awkward
when they _don't_. Then a lull in the performance makes itself felt,
though it is always somewhat broken by the voice of the curate, which is
monotonous in the extreme.

A few stray sunbeams are straggling in through the narrow windows, and
are holding high festival in Dulce's bonnet; a perfect crown of glory
envelops her head. The day being exceptionally warm, everything and
every one is drowsy and sleepy, and a trifle inattentive.

Meanwhile, the service progresses surely, if slowly. Uncle Christopher's
head is courting his chest; Fabian, who always sits next to him, is
unmistakably wide-awake, but has his head lowered, and his eyes fixed
moodily upon the carpet at his feet. He looks attentive, but is really
miles away from the Commandments and from everything.

Portia, in her white gown, is looking more than ordinarily lovely, and
just now is gazing oddly at Fabian. She is vaguely wondering how he
would look if he permitted himself to smile. He is always so
preternaturally grave that she is curious to know if a smile--once
indulged in--would imbitter or sweeten his face. Yes; Roger was quite
right when he said the other day that Fabian's face was perfect. Perhaps
even the smile she desires to see upon it could not improve it. Nay, it
might even mar it, so severe are its lines; but were they _always_ so?
She is lost in impossible speculation!

Dulce, clad all in severe black, with her hands crossed upon her knees,
like a small devotee, is looking straight before her at nothing
particular, and is utterly unconscious that the strange young man in the
"Fens" pew is regarding her with an amount of attention he has certainly
not expended on his prayers.

The children have behaved wonderfully well, all things considered. The
Boodie has only once laughed out loud, and only twice have Jacky and
Pussy indulged in a deadly scuffle; altogether, there is deep cause for
thankfulness.

The cobweb is still waving to and fro, and now (as Mr. Grainger ascends
the stairs and enters the pulpit), driven, perhaps, by some stronger
current of air, moves rapidly to the right, so that the rector reaches
his place and arranges himself therein, without coming into collision
with it, to Roger's and Dicky's everlasting chagrin.

"A narrow escape," says Dicky, in a careful undertone, to Roger, who,
too, has been breathlessly watching the _denouement_.

"Yes, just like our dismal luck," responds that young man, in an
aggrieved tone. "I'd have bet anything on its catching him by the wig."

Mr. Grainger standing up, after a short and private prayer, looks as if
he was making his bow to the audience, and having surveyed them
leisurely for an embarrassing moment (during which the farmers' wives
fidget, and look as if they would gladly inhabit their boots), he gives
forth his text.

Silence ensues; the curate arranges himself in a purely ascetic
attitude; the rector stamps his foot, in a preparatory sort of way, on
the floor of the massive pulpit, which is as hideous as it is clumsy to
the last degree. There are a few meagre little carvings all round it,
suggestive of tares, and wheat, and good Samaritans, and there is an
impossible donkey in the foreground. It is a very depressing pulpit, but
certainly solid.

"No chance of a breakdown," says Roger, gloomily, fixing, his eye-glass
in his left eye, and surveying with ill concealed disgust the unwieldy
structure before him.

"You're a brave boy," returns Mr. Browne, with exaggerated admiration.
"Fancy your looking for excitement _here_."

"It may be nearer than you think," says Roger, _so_ meaningly, that his
companion applies himself to the translating of his glance. It is fixed,
and fixed on the cobweb, too, which is slowly, slowly floating towards
the rector's head. It comes nearer to it, catches in a rising lock (that
has elevated itself, no doubt, because of the preacher's eloquence), and
lingers there, as though bent on lifting pulpit, Grainger and all to the
ceiling with the next puff of wind.

Roger forgets his grievance, his _ennui_, everything! The situation has
its charm. To his delight he finds Dicky as wrapt in the possible result
as himself. The cobweb sticks fast. Mr. Grainger, lifting his hand,
smooths his ear, under the mistaken impression that the ticking feeling
is there, and then goes on solemnly with his discourse, which is dryer
than the weather, which is saying a good deal. He moves his head
impatiently from side to side, but gains nothing by this, as the cobweb
is apparently of an affectionate disposition, and goes with him wherever
he listeth.

Dicky Browne is entranced. _Such_ an interlude was more than he had
hoped for. Involuntarily he lays his hand on Dulce's arm, and, giving
her a mild pinch, shows her the cause of his apparent joy.

"If the flooring gives way he'll die the death of Absalom," he says,
gravely, whereupon Miss Blount also, I grieve to say, gives way to
silent but wild mirth.

The rector waxes warm. The cobweb, giving up the hair as a bad job, has
relinquished its hold, and is now mildly touching his cheek, in a
somewhat coquettish fashion. Mr. Grainger, with a short but decisive
gesture, drags it, and its many yards of spider-workmanship to the
ground. The cobweb and the spider suffer--but they have their revenge.
Mr. Grainger is embarrassed with the cobweb, which has twined itself
loving round his finger, and not until he has lost his place in his
sermon and grown very red in the face, is serenity restored.

The rural congregation shows every symptom of being able to fall at a
moment's notice into the arms of Morpheus. The curate grows leaner, more
toil-worn, more ascetic. The rector drones away. The Boodie, having
walked up and down the pew several times, has finally come to anchor in
Uncle Christopher's arms, and having flung her little white bonnet from
her, has now snuggled her head inside his coat, and is intently
listening to what appears to be a very lengthened whisper from him. It
seems to be a whisper without an end, and one undesirous of response.
Indeed, there is a legend extant that Uncle Christopher employs his time
during the sermon, whenever the Boodie is with him, in telling her tales
of fairyland, not to be surpassed by Grimm or Andersen!

The rector bleats on incessantly; faintly and more faintly his voice
seems to reach his flock. The sun beats with undying fervor upon the
gables outside and the bald heads of the parishioners within. There is a
great sense of quiet everywhere, with only the rector's voice to disturb
it, when suddenly upon the startled ear falls a sound, ambiguous, but
distinct.

It is a snore! An undeniable snore! and it emanates from Jacky! He has
succumbed to heat and Mr. Grainger, and is now travelling in lands where
we poor waking mortals cannot enter. Apparently he is happy, but he
certainly is not as pretty as he need be, with his short and somewhat
aggressive nose uplifted, and his mouth at its widest stretch.

Everyone in the pew gives a decided jump--be the same small or
great--but Pussy alone finds herself equal to the occasion. She is a
child of extreme promise, and, seeing her opportunity, at once embraces
it. She seizes Jacky mildly, but firmly, by the hair, and administers to
him three severe shocks.

The result is everything she can possibly have desired. Jacky,
awakening, comes to his senses with the aid of a partially suppressed
yell, and falling upon Pussy with an evident desire to exterminate her
there and then, rolls with her off the seat, and disappears with her
heavily under it.

An awful moment, fraught with agony for the survivors ensue: and then
the belligerents are once more brought to light by Fabian; who, after
much search and expostulation, restores them to their proper places.
Being nearest to them, he plants them again upon their cushions with
only this precaution--that he himself now sits between them. This is
hardly to their liking, and from their several positions, and right
across poor Fabian's chest, they breathe fire and war, and death and
destruction upon each other.

How it will all end everyone refuses to dwell upon; but, just at the
most critical moment, Fabian, stooping his dark, grave face, whispers
something to the irate little damsel that, as if by magic, reduces her
to order.

She looks at him a little while, then sighs, and finally, slipping her
hand through his arm, lays her blonde head against him, and is the
personification of all things peaceful, until the service ends.

She looks up at him, too, as though desirous of his forgiveness, and
Fabian, taking her slim little baby hand in his, assures her with a
glance that she _is_ forgiven; and then she smiles at him, and nestles a
degree closer, and then Fabian, though always unsmilingly, passes his
arm round the child, and draws her into a more comfortable position.

Portia, who has watched it all, feels a strange pang at her heart; it is
as though he is glad to be friends with these children, to be at peace
with them, because they, at least (sweet, trusting souls), believe in
him. And what a tenderness he betrays towards them! this dark, moody,
concentrated man, whose whole life is burdened with an unsavory mystery.
What a power, too, he possesses over them; even that untractable Pussy
was calmed, charmed into submission by a word, a glance. Yet children
and dogs, they say, have keenest instincts!

While she still wonders, Fabian lifts his eyes and meets hers, and as
though drawn by some magnetic influence each towards the other, though
sorely against their wills, they gaze into each other's faces for more
time than they care to calculate afterwards, until at last Fabian (who
is the first to recover himself) lets his glance fall, and so the spell
is broken.

After this, Portia sits quiet and thoughtful until the last Amen is
uttered, and they all go eagerly, but with a meritorious attempt at
regret, into the open air once more.



CHAPTER VIII.

          "None here are happy, but the very fool,
           Or very wise: I am not fool enough
           To smile in vanities, and hug a shadow;
           Nor have I wisdom to elaborate
           An artificial happiness from pains."--YOUNG.


THEY are all standing in the porch, saying "How d'ye do" to half a dozen
of their neighbors, and being introduced to the dark young man in the
Fens pew. He is a very handsome young man, and very light-hearted
apparently, and looks very frequently at Miss Blount, who smiles at him
very graciously, and tells him he must "really come up to luncheon at
the Court, or Uncle Christopher will be _so_ disappointed. _Any_ friend
of Roger's"--and so on.

"Portia," says Sir Christopher, suddenly--when Stephen Gower has
expressed his extreme pleasure at the thought of lunching at the Court,
always with his dark eyes fixed curiously upon Dulce--"Come with me; I
want to show you your poor mother's last resting-place."

"Ah! yes; I shall like to see that," says Portia, tenderly, though the
dead mother is only a bare memory to her. "Yes, take me to see it."

They separate from the others, and go around an angle of the old church,
and past an ivied corner, and so come to the quiet spot where stands the
vault of the Blounts.

"It was too far to send her to the Vibarts' burying-place," says Sir
Christopher; "at least we tried to think so, because we tried to keep
her with _us_. And your father was dead. And at the very last, she
murmured something about being laid beside her mother; poor, dear girl!"
To Sir Christopher, Portia's mother has always been a girl, and a poor
soul. I think, perhaps, Portia's father had been "_breezy_" in the way
of temper.

Then Portia asks many questions, trivial in themselves, yet of mighty
interest to these two, to whom the dead had been dear. And the questions
and answers occupy some time, insomuch that when at length they return
to the church porch, they find the others have all disappeared, and the
sexton preparing to lock the church door.

"Where have all my people gone to?" asks Sir Christopher of this
functionary, in an elevated tone, the functionary being, as he himself
would describe it, "hard of hearing." Whereupon they are informed that
the "Court folk" went "away home through yon small iron gate," and into
the woods beyond, and are now presumably sauntering lazily homeward
beneath the shade of the spreading oaks and elms.

"Then we cannot do better than follow their example," says Sir
Christopher, but almost before they come to the iron gate they see
Fabian, who, unmindful of their presence, nay, rather, utterly unaware
of it, is walking steadily, but slowly, onward, as though lost in
thought.

Presently, hearing footsteps behind him, he turns, and seeing Portia,
starts perceptibly, and comes to a standstill.

"I thought you would all be at home long before this," he says,
involuntarily. Involuntarily also his tone conveys the idea that his
wish was "father to his thought." There is a note in it that is distinct
disappointment. Portia lets her lids fall over her eyes, and lets her
lips form themselves into an almost imperceptible smile. Plainly he had
loitered in the churchyard in the fond hope of avoiding them all (her
especially it may be), and here is the result.

"We thought the same of you," says Sir Christopher, cheerily, coming to
the front bravely, "we believed you at the Court before this. Very lucky
you aren't though, as I want you to see Portia home. I must go and
interview Bowles about that boy of his--a duty I hardly admire."

"It is late now. If you delay any longer you will miss your luncheon,"
says Portia, hurriedly. Her face betrays unmistakable anxiety.

It is now Fabian's turn to smile, but his lips are rigid, and the
commonest observer may read, that mirth of even the grimmest description
is far from him.

"Luncheon, eh? I don't care a fig about luncheon," says Uncle
Christopher, gaily, "unless I'm shooting, or that. No. Better see Bowles
now if I am to see him at all. Sunday is his only visible day, I've been
told. His '_At home_,' in fact--as all the rest of the week he lies in
bed, and refuses to wash himself."

"Horrid man!" says Miss Vibart, merely for the sake of saying something.
In reality had Bowles felt it his duty to lie a-bed all the year round,
and never indulge in the simplest ablutions, it would not have given her
a passing thought.

"On the Sabbath he rouses himself, and in a spotless shirt (washed by
that idiot of a wife of his, who still will believe in him), and with a
pipe in his mouth, he struts up and down the pavement before the door of
his palatial residence," says Uncle Christopher. "I am sure to find him
to-day."

"Let me go with you," says Portia, as a last resource. "I should like to
be made acquainted with this incomparable Bowles." She smiles as she
speaks, but the smile is somewhat artificial, and is plainly conjured up
with difficulty for the occasion.

"Well, come," says Sir Christopher, who always says "yes," to every one,
and who would encourage you warmly if you expressed a desire to seek
death and the North Pole.

"It is quite impossible," says Fabian, quietly, not raising his voice,
and not moving as he speaks. "Portia cannot go with you to Bowles'
house. The man is insupportable."

Portia has her hand upon Sir Christopher's arm; her eyes are alight;
something within her--some contradictory power--awakens a determination
to see this Bowles. Yet it is hardly so keen a desire to see a man in a
clean shirt and a "churchwarden" that possesses her, as a desire to
circumvent the man who has opposed her expressed wish. Fabian, on his
part, though pained, is equally determined that she shall not be brought
face to face with the unpleasant Bowles. She has her eyes on him, but he
has his on Sir Christopher.

"I should like to go with you," she says, in clear tones, taking no heed
of Fabian's last remark; "I like country people, and strange village
characters, and--and that." This is somewhat vague.

"You remember the last time Dulce went to see _Mrs._ Bowles?" says
Fabian, who has caught Sir Christopher's eye by this. Whatever Dulce
may have endured during that memorable visit is unknown to Portia, but
the recollection of it, as forced upon Sir Christopher's memory, is
all-powerful to prevent her accompanying him on his mission to-day.

"Yes, yes. I remember," he says, hurriedly, "Bowles, as a rule, is not
courteous. My dear child,"--to Portia--"_No_, you cannot, I regret to
say, come with me. This man can be uncomfortable in many ways. You
understand, eh? You wouldn't like him. People in shirt-sleeves, however
clean, are always out of it, eh? There, good-by to both of you. Take her
home, Fabian, and explain my absence to the others, especially to
Roger's friend, that new young fellow, Gower, of the Fens."

So saying, he marched away to do battle with the objectionable Bowles,
with his fine old shoulders well squared, and a world of defiance in his
gait. There is no help for it! The two left behind feel this acutely,
and Fabian pushing open the little iron gate, Portia goes down the stone
steps and enters presently upon a wood all green, and soft and
verdure-clad.

The trees are interlaced above their heads. Through them the calm, blue
sky looks down in wonder, and sheds a scintillating radiance on their
path.

          "In heat the landscape quivering lies,
           The cattle pant beneath the tree:"

No little kindly breath of air comes to break the monotony of the dead
sultriness that lies on everything.

Portia sighs, and with a small, but expressive, gesture pushes her hat
somewhat off her forehead. He is quick to notice the faintest sign of
wrong in those with whom he associates, and now turning to her, says,
gravely:

"Here, beneath the trees, where the sun cannot penetrate too severely,
Dulce often takes off her hat. Take off yours."

"If you think it will do any good," says Portia, doubtfully; and as
though fearful of seeming ungracious, she does take off her hat, and
walks along beside him, bare-headed.

She is feeling sad and depressed. For the first time since her arrival
she is wishing herself back again with Auntie Maud, who is anything but
after her own taste. Yet to live on here in the shadow of a living lie
is bitter to her; more bitter than she had ever supposed possible.

She had come down to the Court fully aware that Fabian (according to the
lights of those with whom she had lived) was guilty of the crime imputed
to him. He had always been discussed in her immediate circle with bated
breath, as one who had eternally disgraced the good old name of Blount,
and dragged it cruelly in the dust.

To be innocent and not to be able to prove one's innocence, had seemed
(and even now does seem to Auntie Maud and her set) a thing not to be
entertained for a moment. It would be _too_ preposterous! He had
rendered their name hideous, but he should not impose upon them with his
absurd stories of utter ignorance. They believed he had wilfully
committed the forgery, trusting he would never be discovered, because of
the unfortunate similarity between his writing and that of Sir
Christopher. But he had failed, in spite of his ingenuity, and had been
found out; and, though none of the forged notes had been discovered in
his possession (which only proved the more to his distant relatives that
he possessed the cleverness of the practised schemer), still they one
and all sat upon him in solemn conclave, and pronounced him outside the
pale of respectability.

That Christopher should elect to leave the beautiful old Court to such a
one seems little less than a crime to the "cousins and aunts." To leave
it to a man shunned by the entire county (and very properly too!), a man
ashamed to lift his head amongst his fellow men, and who had never tried
to live down his disgrace or brave it out. In this fact--the certainty
of his being pusillanimous about his accusation--lies the proof of his
guilt, to them.

Portia is going over the whole sad story now again, while the sinner
walks beside her. Once she lifts her eyes, and looks at him, and tells
herself Roger was indeed right when he made much of his beauty. Yet
Satan dwells in comely bodies! How sad that a face so inclined to
nobility should be stamped with the lines of care, born of dishonor.
Tears fill her eyes as she looks at him, and she turns her head quickly
away, but not before he has seen and marked the signs of distress within
her beautiful eyes. A spasm crosses his face; he recoils a little from
her, as though fear possesses him. He frowns; and a curious light--half
grief, half anger--grows upon him, and expresses itself upon his quiet
lips. Something that is almost agony is in his eyes; truly though the
body can know grief, the "sorrows of the soul are graver still."

"What is it that has risen between us?" he asks, suddenly; there is
something intense in his tone. "Have you?"--he pauses, and then goes on
with an effort--"have you in your heart so utterly condemned me?"

They have come to a stand-still; and Fabian, as he asks this question,
is standing with his back against a huge oak tree, his eyes fixed upon
his companion. His face is as white as death.

She makes him no answer. A very fine shade of color, so faint as to be
almost imperceptible, dyes her cheek for a moment and then vanishes as
suddenly as it came, leaving her quite as pallid as he is himself.

"It is the most natural thing in the world to condemn," he goes on,
somewhat excitedly. "It is only human. One feels how easy it is. If one
hears a damning story about an acquaintance, a story almost unsupported,
how readily one inclines to the cruel side. It is not worse in one than
in another. We all have a touch of savagery about us--a thirst for
blood. For the most part, if placed in a certain set number of
circumstances, we all think and act alike. That we should be cast in one
mould with the very commonest of our brethren is a humiliating thought,
but strictly within the lines of truth. You _do_ condemn me?"

He wishes to force her into saying so. She shrinks from him, and raises
one hand to her throat, as though nervous and unhappy.

"I don't know," she says at last, in a low, hesitating tone. "I know
nothing. Sometimes I don't even know myself."

"That is always a knowledge difficult of attainment," he says, slowly.
"But about me, in your heart, you are _sure_. You believe you do know.
You think me guilty." As he says the word he clenches one hand so firmly
that the nails crush into the flesh.

"I would rather not talk about it," says Portia, faintly.

By a terrible effort he recovers himself; a quick breath, that is almost
a sigh, escapes him.

"That, of course, shall be as you wish," he says, quietly; and, rousing
himself, they walk on together beneath the branching elms, in silence,
painful as it is prolonged.

Coming to a tiny stream (where he is compelled to offer and she to
accept, his hand to help her over), she glances at him, but her glance
is not returned, and then she sees that he has forgotten her very
existence, and is, in thought, miles away from her. He has entered into
some ideal realm of his own--captured during his long years of isolation
from the world.

As she is silently watching him and wondering, a dark figure, moving
from between the shrubs that hide off one angle of the house, comes into
their path, and, seeing them, makes a skulking movement to the right as
though it would gladly escape observation.

"Good evening, Slyme," says Fabian, in half kindly, half contemptuous
tone. The old man murmurs something in return. His eyes refuse to meet
Fabian's, his hands join each other, and rub palm to palm in an uneasy,
shuffling fashion. His voice is husky and slightly uncertain. His dull
old eyes roam from Fabian to Portia in an odd, questioning way, as if
debating some strange matter. Yet, though looking at them, it is at
their arms or chests he looks, rather than at their faces.

Portia (who had stopped when Fabian had) now turns a little to one side
and plucks a flower lazily from a neighboring shrub, and sighs a little
as if weary, and as if she would gladly be at home.

At this, Fabian, who is quick to notice anything concerning her, rouses
himself from his prolonged stare at Gregory, and, noting the instability
of the old man's gait, says, suddenly, with his dark gaze full upon him:

"Again!"

His tone this time is all contempt; no kindliness mingles with it. The
old man seems to wither beneath it, and puts out his hands with a
gesture suggestive of deprecation. Fabian, taking no notice of it, walks
away from him, Portia gladly following.

Then the secretary's face changes. Standing in the centre of the
pathway, he looks after their retreating figures with a half-drunken
scrutiny, full of malice.

"Ay," he says, bitterly, beneath his breath, "as a dog I am in his
sight! So he has destroyed his only hope this many a time!"

His head sinks into its old position on his chest, and with a muttered
curse he continues his way.

Just as Portia ascends the stone steps that lead to the house, Fabian,
by a gentle touch, detains her.

"Remember always this," he said slowly and with an attempt at calmness
that is infinitely sad, "that I do not blame you."

Tears spring to her eyes. She is at least generous, and now a great
longing to be able to believe in him, to be able to assure him of her
unbounded faith in his honor possesses her. But, alas! faith is neither
to be invoked nor purchased, and to lie to him, and tell him a soothing
falsehood against her conscience would be worse than useless. The tears
having gathered, two of them roll slowly down her cheeks. She turns
hastily aside. Catching her hand he holds it for a short moment in his
own.

"They at least are mine," he says, meaning the tears, his voice deeply
agitated, and then she draws her hand from his, and an instant later, is
lost to sight.



CHAPTER IX.

          "Young hearts, bright eyes, and rosy lips are there,
           And fairy steps, and light and laughing voices,
           Ringing like welcome music through the air--
           A sound at which the untroubled heart rejoices."
                                     --HON. MRS. NORTON.


PORTIA, dressed in _merveilleux_ of a cream shade, with a soft, yellow
rose in her hair, is looking her loveliest. She is a little languid
after her walk, and a little _distraite_, but desirable beyond words.
She is coquetting with her dinner, rather than eating it, and is
somewhat uncomfortably conscious that Fabian's eyes are perpetually
wandering in her direction.

Dicky Browne is talking gaily, and is devoting himself with an ardor
worthy of a better cause to Julia Beaufort, who is chattering inanely
about many things, and who is in her element, and a blood-colored gown.

They have all the conversation to themselves, these two, as the others
are depressed, or rather impressed, by Sir Christopher's silence, who
has one of his brooding fits upon him. Either the redoubtable Bowles
disagreed with him, or he disagreed with Bowles, because clouds have
crowned his brow since his return home.

Mrs. Beaufort by this time has got to Sardou's last comedy, and Dicky,
who never heard of it or its author, comes to a conversational
stand-still. This means uninterrupted quiet all round, as nobody else is
saying anything. The footsteps of the solemn butler, and his equally
solemn assistant, is all the sound one hears, and presently they all
wake to the fact that something _must_ be said, and _soon_.

"What wretched artichokes!" says Dulce, coming nobly to the front, with
a laudable desire to fill up the yawning gap.

"Yes--melancholy," says Roger, backing her up, as in duty bound; "out of
all heart, apparently."

At this weak attempt at a joke Dicky grins approvingly.

"I know few people so altogether sufficing as our Roger," he says
patronizingly, addressing nobody in particular; and as nobody in
particular appears to think it necessary to answer him, conversation
once more languishes.

Sir Mark--who can always find resources in his dinner, whatever else may
fail him--is placidly happy, so is Mrs. Beaufort, though, perhaps, she
is a little sorry that her sleeves have not been made as tight as
Portia's, and with the second puffing, which is certainly beyond all
praise!

"What's this?" asks Sir Christopher, addressing the butler in a resigned
tone, and looking at a round, soft mass that has just been laid before
him.

"Suet dumpling, Sir Christopher," replies the butler, apologetically.

"Again!" says Sir Christopher, in an indescribable manner.

"Surely not _again_," repeats Dulce, with unpleasant animation. "It
_can't_ be that frightful thing _again_, after all I said to cook
yesterday!"

"I'm afraid it is, 'em," says the butler, very sadly.

"And this is the cook Miss Gaunt so highly recommended!" says Dulce,
wrathfully. "Save me from my friends, say I; can't she make anything
else, Martin?"

"This is a gooseberry tart, 'em," whispers the butler, respectfully, a
faint shade of encouragement in his voice, laying that delicacy before
her.

"That means sugar--lots of sugar," says Dicky Browne, who is sitting
close to her. "I'm glad of that, I like lots of sugar."

Portia laughs.

"You are like my lord mayor's fool," she says; "you like everything that
is sweet."

"I do," says Dicky, fondly; "that's why I like you."

"I think it was very wrong of Miss Gaunt to impose such a woman upon
us," says Dulce, deeply aggrieved.

"Never trust an old maid," says Roger; "I spend my life giving you good
advice, which you won't take; and such an old maid, too, as Miss Gaunt!
She is as good (or as bad) as two rolled into one."

"She said she was a perfect treasure," exclaims Miss Blount, casting an
indignant glance at him.

"Send her back her treasure, then, and tell her, as you are not selfish,
you could not think of depriving _her_ of her services."

"Is that a sample of your good advice?" asks she, with considerable
scorn. "Besides, I can't; I have agreed with this woman to stay here for
a month."

"Fancy suet dumplings every day for a month," says Dicky Browne,
unfeelingly; "that means four weeks--thirty-one days! We shall be dead,
I shouldn't wonder, long before that."

"No such luck," says Sir Mark.

"Give her anything she wants, Dulce, and send her away," says Sir
Christopher.

"But she will think me so unkind and capricious," protests Dulce, who is
an arrant little coward, and is afraid to tell cook she no longer
requires her. The cook is a big Scotchwoman, with very large bones, and
a great many of them.

"Well, do whatever you like," says Uncle Christopher, wearily.

The night is fine, calm, and cool, and sweet with many perfumes. Some of
them at table cast lingering glances at the lawn without, and long,
silently, to be standing on it. The moon has risen, and cast across it
great streaks of silver light that brighten and darken as clouds race
each other o'er Astarte's sacred brow.

There is great silence on the air, broken only by a "murmuring winde,
much like the sowne of swarming bees." A little rivulet in the far
distance runs musically.

"Let us all go out," says Julia Beaufort, suddenly, feeling she has
already spent quite too long a time over her biscuit and claret.

"Ah! thank you," says Portia, quickly, turning to her almost before she
had finished speaking--her great, soft eyes even larger than usual. "I
have been so longing to say that for the last five minutes."

"The 'lost chord' has been struck again," says Dicky Browne. "Mrs.
Beaufort, I won't be deserted in this barefaced fashion. If you are
determined to court death through night dews, _I_ shall court it with
you."

Julia simpers, and looks delighted. Then they all rise from the table,
and move towards the balcony; all--that is--except Sir Mark, who (though
he would have dearly liked to accompany them into the mystic moonlight)
still lingers behind to bear company with Sir Christopher, and strive to
lay the ghost that so plainly is haunting him to-night.

Joyously they all descend the steps, and then break into a little run as
their feet touch the velvet grass. The sky is bright with pale blue
light, the air is soft and warm as sultry noon. A little baby wind--that
ought to be in bed, so sweet and tender it is--is roaming here and there
amongst the flowers, playing with the scented grasses, and losing itself
amongst the bracken, lower down.

One can hear the roar of the distant ocean breaking itself against the
giant rocks; one can hear, too, in strange contrast, the chirp, chirp of
the green grasshopper.

As they come within view of the fountain, all their mouths form
themselves into many round Os, and they say, "Ah!" as with one breath.

The scene is indeed charming beyond description. The water of the
fountain is bright as silver, great patches of purest moonlight lying on
it as calm as though in death. The water-lilies tremble faintly, as it
might be in terror of the little gods who are leaning over them. A
shadow from the trees in the background falls athwart a crouching Venus.
Some pretty, low chairs are standing scattered about, and Portia sinking
into one, the others all follow her example, and seating themselves on
chairs on the soft sward begin to enjoy themselves.

The men produce cigars, and are presently happy in their own way. Roger
or Dicky asks every one, indiscriminately, if she would like a
cigarette; a question responded to in the negative by all, though in
truth Dulce would have dearly liked one.

Fabian, who has come with them, is lying full length upon the grass,
with his hands behind his head, gazing dreamily at the glimpse of the
far-off sea, that shows through the dark-green firs. Dulce's silvery
laugh is waking an echo lower down. There is a great sense of rest and
happiness in the hour.

A big, lazy bumblebee, tumbling sleepily into Portia's lap, wakes her
into life. It lies upon her, looking larger and blacker than its wont,
as it shows against the pallor of her gown. She starts, and draws
herself up with a half-suppressed cry.

Fabian, lifting the bee from her knees, flings it high into the air, and
sends it off on the errand it was probably bound on before it fell in
love with Portia.

"How foolish of me to be frightened of it--pretty thing," she says, with
a faint blush. "How black it looked."

"_Every_thing frightens me," says Julia Beaufort pensively,
"_everything_!"

"Do I?" asks Dicky Browne, in a tone full of abject misery. "Oh! _say_ I
don't."

"I meant insects you know, and frogs, and horrid things like that,"
lisps Julia. "And they always will come flying round one just on a
perfect night like this, when"--sentimentally--"Nature is wrapt in its
profoundest beauty!"

"I don't think I ever saw a frog fly," says Dicky Browne, innocently.
"Is it nice to look at? Is it funny?"

"No! it's only silly--like you!" says Dulce throwing a rosebud at him,
which he catches dexterously.

"Thank you," he says, meekly, whether for the speech or the flower, he
leaves vague.

"Stephen Gower is coming over here to-night," says Roger suddenly.

"To-night? Why didn't you ask him to dinner?" asks Dulce, a note of
surprise in her tone.

"I did ask him, but, for some reason I now forget, he could not come. He
confessed he was lonely, however, in that big barn of a house, and said
he would feel deeply grateful if you would permit him to drop in later
on. I said you would; and advised him to drop in by all means, though
how people do that has always been a puzzle to me."

"Who is Stephen Gower?" asks Portia, curiously, of no one in particular.
She is leaning back in her chair, and is fanning herself languidly.

"He is Roger's _Fidus Achates_--his second self--his very soul!" says
Dicky Browne, enthusiastically. "He is a thing apart. We must, in fact,
be careful of him, lest he break. At least so I have been told."

"I thought you knew him, too," says Dulce. "I always believed you and
Roger, and this wonderful Stephen Gower, were all at college together."

"You wronged Dicky, albeit unwittingly," says Mr. Dare, taking his cigar
from between his lips to give more emphasis to his words. "We at
Cambridge were too frivolous for such superior beings as Dicky. It was
at Oxford he commenced his honorable career; it was there he indulged in
those high hopes of future fame that have been so splendidly realized in
his maturer years."

"Don't kick me when I'm down," says Dicky, pathetically. "I couldn't
help it--and at least I have _had_ my hopes. That must be always
something. It's any amount soothing, do you know, to look back upon your
past, and remember what a jolly ass you once were."

"I can't imagine your ever having had hopes of future fame," says Dulce,
laughing.

"Well I had, do you know, any amount of 'em. In the early dawn, when I
was awake--which, perhaps, wasn't so often as it sounds, except when I
was returning from--er--a friend's house. I used to sit up with them,
you know, whenever they had scarla"--

"Oh yes, _we_ know," interrupts Roger, most unfeelingly.

"Well, in the early dawn," continues Dicky, quite unmoved, "when the
little birds were singing, I used to think I could be happy as General
Sir Richard Browne, at the head of a gallant corps, with a few darkies
in the foreground fleeing before my trusty blade. By breakfast time,
however, all that would be changed, and I would glory in the belief that
one day would see me seated on the wool-sack. By dinnertime I was
clothed in sanctimonious lawn; and long before the small hours, I felt
myself a second Drake, starting to conquer another Armada, only one even
_more_ Invincible."

They all laugh at him. And then he laughs at himself, and seems, indeed,
to enjoy the joke even more than they do.

"I don't care," he says, at length, valiantly; "no, not a single screw.
I haven't _done_ anything, you know."

"Oh yes, you have, a lot in your time," murmurs Roger, supportingly.

"But I must come in for the title and the estate when the old boy, my
cousin, 'shuffles off this mortal coil,' and in the meantime the
governor stands to me decently enough, and I'm pretty jolly all round."

"Tell us about Stephen Gower," says Dulce, after a pause, "He interests
me, I don't know why. What is he like?"

"He is

          'A greenery yallery
           Grosvenor gallery
             Foot-in-the-grave young man.'"

quotes Dicky, gaily.

"An æsthetic! Oh! I _do_ hope not," exclaims Dulce, in a horrified tone.

"Have they pursued me even down here?" asks Portia, faintly. "I thought,
I _hoped_, they were plants indigenous to London soil alone."

"He is nothing of the sort," says Roger, indignantly. "He is about the
best fellow I know. He would be ashamed to go round (like those idiots
you speak of) with flowers and flowing locks. He leaves all that sort of
thing"--contemptuously--"to girls."

"Who is talking of Stephen Gower?" asks Sir Mark, coming towards them
over the path of moonlight that lies upon the smooth lawn. "Happy man to
be discussed by so fair a trio, 'beneath the sweet-smelling starlight,'
as James has it."

"Bless me," says Dicky, "I had no idea dry monopole would have had such
an effect on Gore. He is talking poetry, I think; I never could
understand it myself. Now for example, about those stars--_do_ they
smell? _I_ never noticed it. What's it like, Gore?"

Everyone disdains to take notice of this sally--all, that is, except
Dulce, who is always only too delighted to laugh whenever the barest
chance of being able to do so presents itself.

Roger, crossing over to where she sits, leans his arms on the back of
her chair, and bends his face to hers.

"Look here," he says, in the conciliatory tone of one who is going to
make a request and is not quite sure it will be granted. "If Gower comes
down by-and-by, I wish you would promise me to be good to him. He is a
very old chum of mine, and a very good fellow, and--be civil to him,
will you?"

"What do you suppose I am going to do to him?" asks Miss Blount, opening
her eyes. "Was I bad to him at luncheon? Are you afraid I shall bite
him? I shan't. You may be happy about that."

"Of course--I know; but I want you to be _particularly_ nice to him,"
goes on Roger, though faintly discouraged by her tone. (Now what did he
mean by saying she _wouldn't_ bite him. It sounds as if she would bite
me!) "He is the oldest friend I have; and--er--as we are to be married
some time or other, I want him to like you very much."

"Who are to be married? You and Mr. Gower? It sounded like it," says
Dulce, wilfully.

"I was thinking of you and myself," he says, a little gravely.

"Well, what is it you want me to do?" asks she, moving restlessly in her
seat. She is, in spite of herself, disturbed by his gravity. "Am I to
make love to him, or am I to let him make love to me? Your devotion to
this old friend is quite touching."

"He would be very unlikely indeed to make love to you," replies Roger,
rather stiffly. "He understands perfectly how matters are between you
and me."

"Oh, no doubt," says Miss Blount, disgustedly. "Everyone seems to know
all about this _absurd_ engagement. I can't think how I was ever brought
to consent to it."

"_Absurd!_" says Mr. Dare, in an impossible tone.

"Yes, _painfully_ absurd! Quite too ridiculous," with unpleasant force.

"Oh!" says Mr. Dare.

"Yes," says Dulce, still defiant, though a little ashamed of herself,
"it is quite enough to make people _hate_ people, all this perpetual
gossip."

"You are at least honest," he says, bitterly.

Silence.

Dulce, whose tempers are always short-lived, after a little reflection
grows very repentant.

Turning to him, she lays her little hand on his, as it still rests on
the arm of her chair, and says, softly:

"I have been cross to you. Forgive me. I did not quite mean it. Tell me
again what you want me to do about your friend."

"It was only a little matter," says Roger, in a low tone, "and it was, I
think, the first favor I ever asked of you; and I thought, perhaps--"

He pauses. And raising himself from his lounging position, on her chair,
moves as though he would go away from her, having abandoned all hope of
having his request acceded to.

But as he turns from her, her fingers tighten upon his, and so she
detains him.

"What is it now?" he asks, coldly, trying to keep up his dignity, but as
his glance meets hers, he melts. And, in truth, just now she could have
thawed a much harder heart, for on her _mignon_ face sits one of her
very loveliest smiles, conjured up for Roger's special benefit.

"Don't go away," she entreats, prettily, "and listen to me. I shall be
charming to your friend. I shall devote myself exclusively to him if it
will please you; and if only to prove to you that I _can_ grant you a
favor."

"Thank you," says Roger gratefully. Then he regards her meditatively for
a moment, and then says, slowly:

"Don't be too kind to him."

"Could I?" says Dulce, naively.

He laughs a little, and, bending his head, presses his lips to the
little slender hand that still rests within his own.

The caress is so unusual that Dulce glances at him curiously from under
her long lashes. A faint, pink glow creeps into her cheeks. She is
surprised; perhaps, too, a little pleased, because once again this
evening she bestows upon him a smile, soft and radiant.

Mr. Browne is rambling on in some incoherent fashion to Julia Beaufort.
Sir Mark is telling Portia some quaint little stories. Fabian is
silently listening to them stretched at Portia's feet.

The last glimpse of day has gone. "Death's twin sister, Sleep," has
fallen upon the earth. One by one the sweet stars come out in the dusky
vault above, "spirit-like, infinite."

In amongst the firs that stand close together in a huge clump at the end
of the lawn, great shadows are lying, that stretching ever and ever
further, form at last a link between the land and the sea.

"Ah! here you are, Stephen," says Sir Mark, addressing the languid
young man they had met in the morning, who is coming to them across the
grass. "Why didn't you come sooner?"

"They wouldn't give me any dinner until about an hour ago," says the
languid young man in a subdued voice. He glances from Portia to Julia
Beaufort, and then to Dulce. There his glance rests. It is evident he
has found what he seeks.

"Dulce, I think I told you Stephen Gower was coming to-night," says
Roger, simply. And then Dulce rises and rustles up to him, and filled
with the determination to keep sacred her promise to be particularly
nice to Roger's friend, holds out to him a very friendly hand, and makes
him warmly welcome.

Then Portia makes him a little bow, and Julia simpers at him, and
presently he finds himself accepted by and admitted to the bosom of the
family, which, indeed, is a rather nondescript one. After a few moments
of unavoidable hesitation, he throws himself at Dulce's feet, and,
leaning on his elbow, tells himself country life, after all, isn't half
a bad thing.

"What a heavenly night it is," says Dulce, smiling down on him, still
bent on fulfilling her word to Roger. Perhaps she is hardly aware how
encouraging her smile can be. "See the ocean down there," pointing with
a rounded, soft, bare arm, that gleams like snow in the moonlight, to
where the sea is shining between the trees. "How near it seems, though
we know it is quite far away."

"It is nearer to you than I am," says Mr. Gower, in a tone that might
imply the idea that he thinks the ocean in better care than himself.

"Well, not just now," says Dulce, laughing.

"Not just now," returns he, echoing her laugh. "I suppose we should be
thankful for small mercies; but I wish the Fens was a little nearer to
this place than it is."

"Portia, can you see Inca's Cliff from this?" asks Dulce, looking at her
cousin. "You remember the spot where we saw the little blue flowers
yesterday, that you so coveted. How clearly it stands out now beneath
the moonbeams."

"Like burnished silver," says Portia, dreamily, always with a lazy
motion wafting her black fan to and fro. "And those flowers--how I
longed for them, principally, I suppose, because they were beyond my
reach."

"Where are they," asks Roger. "I never remember seeing blue flowers
there."

"Oh! _you_ wouldn't notice them," says his _fiancée_, a fine touch of
petulance in her tone, that makes Gower lift his head to look at her;
"but they were there nevertheless. They were the very color of the
Alpine gentian, and so pretty. We quite fell in love with them, Portia
and I, Portia especially; but we could not get at them, they were so low
down."

"There was a tiny ledge we might have stood on," says Portia, "but our
courage failed us, and we would not try it."

"And quite right, too," says Sir Mark. "I detest people who climb
precipices and descend cliffs. It makes my blood run cold."

"Then what made you climb all those Swiss mountains, two years ago?"
asks Julia Beaufort, who has a talent for saying the wrong thing, and
who has quite forgotten the love affair that drove Sir Mark abroad at
that time.

"I don't know," replies he, calmly; "I never shall, I suppose. I
perfectly hated it all the while, especially the guides, who were more
like assassins than anything else. I think they hated me, too, and would
have given anything to pitch me over some of the passes."

Portia laughs.

"I can sympathize with you," she says. "Danger of any sort has no charm
for me. Yet I wanted those flowers. I think"--idly--"I shall always want
them, simply because I can't get them."

"You shall have them in three seconds if you will only say the word,"
says Dicky Browne, who is all but fast asleep, and who looks quite as
like descending a rugged cliff as Portia herself.

"I am so glad I don't know the 'word,'" says Portia, with a little
grimace. "It would be a pity to endanger a valuable life like yours."

Dulce turns to Mr. Gower.

"You may smoke if you like," she says, sweetly. "I know you are longing
for a cigarette or something, and _we_ don't mind."

"Really though?" says Gower.

"Yes, really. Even our pretty town-lady here," indicating Portia, "likes
the perfume in the open air."

"Very much indeed," says Portia, graciously, leaning a little toward
Gower, and smiling sweetly.

"A moment ago I told myself I could not be happier," says Stephen,
glancing at Dulce. "And indeed I wanted nothing further--but if I may
smoke--if I have your permission to light this," producing a cigar, "I
shall feel that my end is near; I shall know that the gods love me, and
that therefore I _must_ die young."

As he places the cigar between his lips he leans back again at Dulce's
feet with a sigh suggestive of unutterable bliss.

"We were talking about you just before you came," says Dulce, with a
little friendly nod, bending over his recumbent form, and making him a
present of a very adorable smile. "We had all, you know, formed such
different opinions about you."

"What was your opinion," asks he, rising to a sitting posture with an
alacrity not to be expected from a youth of his indolence. In this last
attitude, however, it is easier to see Dulce's charming face. "I
_should_ like to know that."

His manner implies that he would not like to hear the opinion of the
others.

"It was nothing very flattering, I am afraid," said Dulce, with a little
laugh. "I was--to confess the truth--just in the very faintest degree
nervous about you."

"About _me_!"

"Yes," she laughed softly again; "I thought you might be a
'blue-and-white young man,' and that idea filled me with dismay. I don't
think I like a 'soul-ful eyed young man,' _too_ much."

"I'm so glad I'm of the 'threepenny 'bus' lot," says Gower, with a
smile. "Ye gods! what a shocking thought is the other. Look at my hair,
I entreat you, Miss Blount, and tell me does it resemble the lanky locks
of Oscar?"

"No, it is anything but wylde," says Dulce, glancing at his shaven
crown, that any hermit might be proud of: "and do you know I am glad of
your sanity; I should quite hate you if you were a disciple of that
school."

"Poor school," says Gower, pityingly, "for the first time I feel deep
sympathy for it. But with regard to myself, I am flattered you troubled
yourself to think of me at all. Did it really matter to you what my
convictions might be?"

"Yes, of course," says Dulce, opening her eyes, and showing herself
half in fun, half in earnest, and wholly desirable. "Such a near
neighbor as you must be. I suppose we shall see a good deal of you--at
least"--sweetly--"I hope we shall; and how would it be with us if you
called here every morning with lanky tresses, and a cadaverous face, and
words culled from a language obsolete?"

This little speech quite dazzles Gower. Not the sauciness of it, but the
undercurrent of kindliness. "_Every_ morning!" Does she really mean that
he may come up to this enchanting spot every morning?

It had, of course, occurred to him, during prayers, in the early part of
the day, when he had sat out the dreary service with exemplary patience,
and his eyes fixed on the Blount pew, that, perhaps, he might be allowed
to call once a week at the Hall, without being considered by the inmates
an absolute nuisance--but every day! this sounds too good to be true,
and is, therefore, received by him with caution.

"You needn't be afraid of me," he says, apropos of Dulce's last remark.
"I can speak no language but my own, and that badly."

"What a comfort," says Miss Blount. She is now wondering if she has done
her duty by her new guest, and if she has been everything to him that
she ought to have been, considering her promise to Roger.

"Where is Fabian?" she asks, suddenly, peering through the dusky gloom.
"Are you there, darling?"

But no one answers her. It seems to them, that, tiring of their company,
he has betaken himself to solitude and the house, once more. No one has
seen him go, but, during the last few minutes, a gray black cloud has
been slowly wandering over the pale-faced moon, and forms and features
have been more indistinct. Perhaps Portia, who is sitting on the outer
edge of the group, might have noticed his departure, but, if so, she
says nothing of it.

Time runs on. Some one yawns, and then tries vainly to turn it into a
sigh. The bell from some distant steeple in the little slumbering
village far below in the plain, tolls slowly, solemnly, as though to
warn them that eleven more hours have slipped into the great and
fathomless sea of Eternity.

"Ah! so late!" says Dulce, with a little start. "How swiftly time has
gone to-night. I never knew it fly with such hot haste. That proves I
have been happy, does it not?"

She smiles down upon Mr. Gower, who is still at her feet, and he smiles
up only too willingly at her.

At this moment a dark figure emerges from amongst the moaning firs, and
comes toward them. In the uncertain and somewhat ghostly light it
appears of an unusually large size. Dulce draws her breath a little
quickly, and Julia, feeling her duty lies in this direction, gives way
to a dainty scream. Portia, whose eyes have been upon this new comer for
a full minute before the others noticed him, only turns her head away,
and lets it sink a degree more lazily into the cushion of her chair.

The firs mounting high into the sky, stand out boldly against their
azure background. Fabian, in answer to Julia's touch of affectation,
advances with more haste, and says:

"It is only me," in his usual clear, slow voice.

Passing by Portia's chair, he drops into her lap a little bunch of dark
blue flowers.

"Ah!" she says quickly, then checks herself. Taking up the deeply-dyed
blossoms, she lays them in her pink palm, and, bending her face over
them, examines them silently. Sir Mark, regarding her curiously from the
background, wonders whether she is thinking of them or of their donor.

"Why, those are the flowers we were talking about," says Dulce, with a
faint contraction of her brows. "Fabian! Did you risk your life to get
them?"

"Your life!" says Portia, in an indescribable tone, and as if the words
are drawn from her against her will. I think she had made up her mind to
keep utter silence, but some horror connected with Dulce's hasty remark
has unbound her lips. She turns her eyes upon him, and he can see by the
moonlight that her face is very white.

"My dear fellow," says Sir Mark, "you grow more eccentric daily. Now
this last act was rashness itself. That cliff is very nearly impassable,
and in this uncertain light--"

"It was the simplest thing in the world," says Fabian, coldly. "There
was the ledge Dulce told you of, and plenty of tough heather to hold on
by. I assure you, if there was the smallest danger, I should not have
attempted it. And, besides, I was fully rewarded for any trouble I
undertook. The view up there to-night is magnificent."

To Portia it is an easy matter to translate this last remark. He is
giving her plainly to understand that he neither seeks nor desires
thanks from _her_. The view has sufficed him. It was to let his eyes
feast upon the glorious riches nature had spread before him that led him
up the mountain-side, not a foolish longing to gratify her whim at any
cost to himself.

She looks at the flowers again, and with one tapered finger turns them
over and over in her hand.

"Well, good people," says Sir Mark, rising to his feet, "as it is eleven
o'clock, and as the dew is falling, and as you are all plainly bent on
committing suicide by means of rheumatism, neuralgia and catarrhs
generally, I shall leave you and seek my virtuous couch."

"What's a catarrh?" asks Dicky Browne, confidentially, of no one in
particular.

"A cold in your nose," replies Roger, uncompromisingly.

"I thought it was something to play on," says Mr. Browne unabashed.

"Dear me! Is it really eleven?" asks Julia. "I should never have thought
it,"--in reality she thought it was twelve--"why did you not tell
me?"--this to the attentive Dicky, who is placing a shawl round her
shoulders--"you must have known."

"'With thee conversing I forget all time,'" quotes that ardent
personage, with a beautiful smile. "I thought it was only nine."

Even with this flagrant lie Julia is well pleased.

"Dulce, tuck up your gown, the grass is really wet," says Roger,
carelessly, "and put this round you." He goes up to her, as he speaks,
with a soft white scarf in his hands.

"Thank you; Mr. Gower will put it on for me," says Dulce, rather more
wilfully than coquettishly handing the wrap to Stephen, who takes it as
if it were some sacred symbol, and, with nervous care, smothers her
slender figure in it. Roger, with a faint shrug, turns away, and devotes
his attentions to Sir Mark.

Portia, still with the flowers in her hand, has wandered away from the
others, and entering the drawing-room before they have mounted the
balcony steps, goes up to a mirror and regards herself attentively for a
moment.

A little gold brooch, of Indian workmanship, is fastening the lace at
her bosom. She loosens it, and then raises the flowers (now growing
rather crushed and drooping) as if with the evident intention of placing
them, by means of the brooch, against her neck.

Yet, even with her hand half lifted she hesitates, glances at her own
image again; and finally, turning away, leaves the brooch empty.

Fabian, entering the drawing-room at this moment with the others, has
had time to notice the action, the hesitation, everything.

Then comes bed hour. The men prepare to go to the smoking-room--the
women think fondly of their own rooms and their maids.

Fabian, lighting a candle, takes it up to Portia. They are all standing
in the hall now, beneath the light of the hanging lamps. She smiles her
thanks without letting her eyes meet his, and lets him place the candle
in her left hand.

"Have you hurt this?" he asks, lightly touching her right hand as he
speaks.

"No." She pauses a moment, and then, slowly opening her closed fingers,
shows him the blue flowers lying therein.

"They are lovely," she says, in a low tone, "and I _did_ wish for them.
But never--_never_--do that again."

"Do what again?"

"Endanger your life for me."

"There was no danger--and you had expressed a wish for them."



CHAPTER X.

  "Every one is as God made him, and oftentimes a great deal worse!"
                                     --MIGUEL DE CERVANTES.


WITH a continuous sob and a roar from the distant ocean the storm beats
on. All night it has hurled itself upon path and lawn with impotent
fury; towards morning it still rages, and even now, when noonday is at
its height, its anger is not yet expended.

The rain falls in heavy torrents, the trees bow and creak most
mournfully, the rose leaves--sweet-scented and pink as glowing morn--are
scattered along the walks, or else, lifted high in air by vehement gusts
of wind, are dashed hither and thither in a mazy dance full of passion
and despair.

"Just three o'clock," says Dulce, drearily, "and what weather!"

"It is always bad on your day," says Julia, with a carefully suppressed
yawn. Julia, when yawning, is not pretty. "I remember when I was here
last year, that Thursday, as a rule, was the most melancholy day in the
week."

Indeed, as she speaks, she looks more than melancholy, almost aggrieved.
She has donned her most sensational garments (there is any amount of red
about them) and her most recherché cap to greet the country, and naught
cometh but the rain.

"I don't know anything more melancholy at any time than one's at-home
day," says Dicky Browne, meditatively, and very sorrowfully; "It is like
Sunday, it puts every one out of sorts, and creates evil tempers all
round. I never yet knew any family that didn't go down to zero when
brought face to face with the fact that to-day they must receive their
friends."

"It's a pity you can't talk sense," says Dulce, with a small curl of her
upper lip.

"It's a pity I _can_, you mean. I am too above-board, too genuine for
the times in which we live. My candor will be my ruin!" says Mr. Browne,
hopelessly unabashed.

"It will!" declares Roger, in a tone that perhaps it will be wise not to
go into.

"I suppose nobody will come here to-day," says Portia, somewhat
disappointedly; they have been indoors all day, and have become so low
in spirit, that even the idea of possible visitors is to be welcomed
with delight.

"Nobody," returns Sir Mark, "except the Boers and Miss Gaunt, and _they_
are utter certainties; they always come; they never fail us; they are
thoroughly safe people in every respect."

"If Miss Gaunt inflicts herself upon us to-day (which the gods forbid),
be sure you pitch into her about the cook she sent you," says Roger,
gloomily, turning to Dulce. "That will be a topic of conversation at all
events; you owe me a debt of gratitude for suggesting it."

"Well I shan't pay it," says Miss Blount, with decision.

"Well you _ought_. As a rule, the attempts at conversation down here are
calculated to draw tears to the eyes of any intellectual person."

"But why?" asks Portia, indolently.

"It is utterly simple," says Roger, mildly. "There is nothing to talk
about; you cannot well ask people what they had for dinner yesterday,
without being rude, and there are no theatres, or concerts, or clubs to
discuss, and nobody ever dies (the country is fatally healthy), and
nobody ever gets married (because there is nobody to marry), and nothing
is ever born, because they were all born years ago, or else have made up
their minds never to be born at all. It is, in fact, about as
unsatisfactory a neighborhood as any one could wish to inhabit."

"I dare say there are worse," says Dulce.

"You have strong faith," retorts Roger.

"Well, it would be a nice question to decide," says Sir Mark, amiably,
with a view to restoring order.

"I don't think it is half a bad place," says Dicky Browne, genially,
addressing nobody in particular, and talking for the mere sake of
hearing his own voice.

"Dicky, I love you," says Dulce, triumphantly.

"Lucky Dicky," says Roger, with an only half-suppressed sneer, which
brings down upon him a withering glance from his betrothed.

"How I hate rain," she says, pettishly, tapping the window with two
impatient little fingers.

"I love it," says Roger, unpleasantly.

"Love rain!" with an air of utter disbelief. "How can you make such a
ridiculous remark! I never heard of _any_ one who liked rain."

"Well, you hear of me now. _I_ like it."

"Oh! nonsense," says Miss Blount, contemptuously.

"It _isn't_ nonsense!" exclaims he, angrily, "I suppose I am entitled to
my own likes and dislikes. You can hate rain as much as you do _me_ if
you wish it; but at least allow me to--"

"Love it, as you do me," with an artificial laugh, and a soft shrug of
her rounded shoulders. "It is perfectly absurd, in spite of your
obstinate determination to say you do, I don't believe you _can_ have a
desire for wet weather."

"Thank you!" indignantly. "That is simply giving me the lie direct. I
must say you _can_ be uncivil when you choose."

"Uncivil!"

"Decidedly uncivil, and even more than that."

"What do you mean! I insist on knowing what you mean by more."

"They're at it again," says Mr. Browne, at this auspicious moment,
waving his hand in an airy fashion in the direction of our two
belligerents.

Mr. Browne is a person who can always say and do what he likes for
several reasons, the principal being that nobody pays the smallest
attention to either his sayings or doings. Everybody likes Dicky, and
Dicky, as a rule, likes everybody. He has a father and a home somewhere,
but where (especially with regard to the former), is vague.

The home, certainly, is kept up for nobody except the servants, as
neither Dicky nor his father ever put in an appearance there. The latter
(who has never yet mastered the fact that he is growing old), spends all
his time in the favorite window of his Club in Pall Mall, with his nose
pressed against the pane and his attention irrevocably fixed upon the
passers-by on the other side of the way. This is his sole occupation
from morning till night; unless one can take notice of a dismal and most
diabolical tattoo that at unfortunate moments he is in the habit of
inflicting upon the window, and the nerves of the other occupants of the
room in which he may be.

Dicky puts in most of his time at Blount Hall. Indeed, it has grown to
be a matter of speculation with the Blount's whether in the event of his
marriage he will not elect to bring his bride also to stay with them for
good and all! They have even gone so far as to hope he will marry a
_nice_ girl, and one whom they can receive in the spirit of love.

"I don't think they really ever quite enjoy themselves, until they are
on the verge of bloodshed," says Sir Mark, in answer to Dicky's remark.
"They are the very oddest pair I ever met."

All this is said quite out loud, but so promising is the quarrel by this
time, that neither Dulce nor Roger hear one word of it.

"You do it on purpose," Dulce is saying in a tone in which tears and
extreme wrath fight for mastery, "You torment me from morning till
night. You are both rude and unkind to me. And now--_now_--what is it
you have just said?"

"What have I said?" asks Roger, who is plainly frightened.

"What indeed! I should be ashamed to repeat it. But I know you said I
was uncivil, and that I told lies, and any amount of things that were
even worse."

"What on earth is the matter now with you two children?" asks Sir Mark,
coming for the second time to the rescue.

"I'm sure _I_ don't know," says Roger, desperately. "It was all about
the rain, I think. She is angry because I like it. How can I help that?
I can't be born again with other preferences just to oblige _her_."

"There is some comfort in _that_ thought," says Miss Blount,
vindictively. "One of you in a century is _quite_ sufficient."

"Oh! come now, Dulce," protests Sir Mark, kindly. "You don't mean that,
you know. And besides only pretty speeches should come from pretty
lips."

"Well, he does nothing but tease me," says Dulce, tearfully. "He makes
my life perfectly wretched to me."

"How _can_ you say that!" exclaims Dare, indignantly. "I spend my whole
time trying to please you--in vain! It is your own temper is at fault."

"You hear that?" exclaims Dulce, triumphantly, turning to Sir Mark, who
is trying vainly to edge in one word.

"I maintain what I say," goes on Roger, hurriedly, fearful lest Sir Mark
if he gets time, will say something to support Dulce's side of the
question. "It _can't_ be my fault. You know I am very fond of you. There
have even been moments," says Mr. Dare, superbly, "when if you had asked
me to lie down and let you trample on me, I should have done it!"

"Then do it!" says Dulce, with decision. "Now this moment. I am in an
awful temper, and my heels are an inch and a half high. I should
perfectly _love_ to trample on you. So make haste"--imperiously, "hurry,
I'm waiting."

"I shan't," says Dare; "I shan't make myself ridiculous for a girl who
detests me."

"Now, isn't that just like him?" says Dulce, appealing to the company at
large, who are enjoying themselves intensely--notably Mr. Brown. "Simply
because I told him it would give me some slight pleasure if he fulfilled
his promise, he has decided on breaking it. He has refused to keep his
solemn word, just to vex me."

"That is not my reason."

"Then you are afraid of the high-heeled shoes," with a scornful laugh.

"I am afraid of nothing," hotly.

"Not even of ridicule?"

"Well, yes, I _am_ afraid of that. Most fellows are. But I don't wish to
carry on the argument, I have nothing more to say to you."

"Nor I to you. I hope you will never address me again as long as you
live. Ah!" glancing out of the window, with an assumption of the most
extreme relief and joy--"Here is Mr. Gower coming across the lawn. I
_am_ glad. Now, at least, I shall have some one to talk to me, who will
not scold and quarrel incessantly, and who can sometimes behave like a
gentleman."

"Tell him so. It will raise him to the seventh heaven of delight, no
doubt," says Roger, in an indescribable tone.

"I thought it was arranged that we were not to speak to each other
again," says Dulce, with considerable severity.

Now Portia, being strange to the household, is a little frightened, and
a good deal grieved by this passage at arms.

"Is it really so bad as they would have us think?" she says, in a low
tone, to Sir Mark, whom she has beckoned to her side. "Is it really all
over between them?"

"Oh, dear, no!" says Sir Mark, with the fine smile that characterizes
his lean, dark face. "Don't make yourself unhappy; _we_ are quite
accustomed to their idiosyncrasies by this time; you, of course, have
yet much to learn. But, when I tell you that, to my certain knowledge,
they have bid each other an eternal adieu every week during the past
three years, you will have your first lesson in the art of understanding
them."

"Ah! you give me hope," says Portia, smiling.

At this moment Mr. Gower enters the room.

"Ah! how d'ye do!" says Dulce, nestling up to him, her soft skirts
making a gentle _frou-frou_ as she moves; "_so_ glad you have come. You
are late, are you not?" She gives him her hand, and smiles up into his
eyes. To all the others her excessive cordiality means only a desire to
chagrin Dare, to Stephen Gower it means--well, perhaps, at this point of
their acquaintance he hardly knows what it means--but it certainly
heightens her charms in his sight.

"Am I?" he says, in answer to her remark. "That is just what has been
puzzling me. My watch has gone to the bad, and all the way here I have
felt as if the distance between my place and the Hall was longer than I
had ever known it before. If I am to judge by my own impatience to be
here, I am late, indeed."

She smiles again at this, and says, softly:

"You are not wet, I hope? Such a day to come out. It was a little rash,
was it not?"

With the gentlest air of solicitude she lays one little white jeweled
hand upon his coat sleeve, as though to assure herself no rain had
alighted there. Gower laughs gaily.

"Wet? No," he says, gazing at her with unmistakable admiration. His eyes
betray the fact that he would gladly have lifted the small jeweled hand
from his arm to his lips; but, as it is, he does not dare so much as to
touch it though never so lightly. "Rain does me more good than harm," he
says.

"How did you come?" asks she, still charmingly anxious about his
well-being.

"I rode. A very good mare, too; though it seemed to me she never
traveled so slowly as to-day."

"You rode? Ah! then you got all that last heavy shower," says Dulce, who
has plainly made up her mind to go in for compassion of the very purest
and simplest.

"My _dear_ fellow!" puts in Roger at this juncture, "you don't half
consider yourself. Why on earth didn't you order out the covered
carriage and a few fur rugs?"

Gower colors; but Roger is smiling so naturally that he cannot, without
great loss of courtesy, take offence. Treating Dare's remark, however,
as beneath notice, he turns and addresses himself solely to Dulce.

"To tell you the truth," he says, calmly, "I adore rain. A sunny hour is
all very well in its way, and possesses its charms, no doubt, but for
choice give me a rattling good shower."

To Roger, of course, this assertion, spoken so innocently, is quite too
utterly delicious. Indeed, everybody smiles more or less, as he or she
remembers the cause of the quarrel a moment since. Had Gower been
thinking for ever, he could hardly have made a speech so calculated to
annoy Dulce as that just made. To add to her discomfiture, Roger laughs
aloud, a somewhat bitter, irritating laugh, that galls her to the quick.

"I must say I cannot sympathize with your taste," she says, very
petulantly, to Gower; and then, before that young man has time to
recover from the shock received through the abrupt change of her manner
from "sweetness and light" to transcendental gloom, she finishes his
defeat by turning her back upon him, and sinking into a chair beside
Portia.

"A gleam of sunshine at last," exclaims Sir Mark, at this moment, coming
for the third time to the surface, in the fond hope of once more
restoring peace to those around.

"Ah, yes, it is true," says Portia, holding up her hand to let the
solitary beam light upon it. It lies there willingly enough, and upon
her white gown, and upon her knitting needles, that sparkle like
diamonds beneath its touch.

"And the rain has ceased," says Julia. "How nice of it. By-the-by, where
is Fabian?"

"You know he never sees anyone," says Dulce, a little reproachfully, and
in a very low tone.

"But why?" asks Portia, turning her face to Dulce. Even as she speaks
she regrets her question, and she colors a hot, beautiful crimson as the
quick vehemence of her tone strikes on her own ears.

Sir Mark, leaning over her chair, says:

"Two lessons in one day? Ambitious pupil! Well, if you must learn, know
this: Fabian never goes anywhere, except to church, and never receives
anybody even in his own home, for a reason that, I suppose, even you are
acquainted with." He looks keenly at her as he speaks.

"Yes--I know--that is, I have heard, of course," says Portia, in a very
still fashion, bending her eyes upon her knitting once more.

"How suddenly the rain has ceased," says some one; "it will be a very
charming evening after all."

"The flowers are already beginning to hold up their poor heads," says
Dulce, gazing down anxiously at the "garden quaint and fair" that
stretches itself beneath the window. The skies are clearing, the clouds
are melting away, far up above in the dark blue dome that overshadows
the earth.

"The great Minister of Nature, that upon the world imprints the virtue
of the heaven, and doles out Time for us with his beam," is coming
slowly into view from between two dusky clouds, and is flinging abroad
his yellow gleams of light.

"I hear wheels," says Dicky Browne, suddenly.

Everybody wakes up at once; and all the women try surreptitiously to get
a glimpse of their hair in the mirrors.

"Who can it be?" says Dulce, anxiously.

"If we went to the upper window we could see," says Dicky Browne,
kindly, whereupon they all rise in a body, and, regardless of tempers
and dignity, run to the window that overlooks the avenue, and gaze down
upon the gravel to see who fate may be bringing them.

It brings them a vehicle that fills them with consternation--a vehicle
that it would be charitable to suppose was built in the dark ages, and
had never seen the light until now. It is more like a sarcophagus than
anything else, and is drawn by the fossilized remains of two animals
that perhaps in happier times were named horses. For to-day, to enable
their mistress to reach Blount Hall, they have plainly been galvanized,
and have, in fact, traversed the road that lies between the Hall and
Blount Hollow on strictly scientific principles.

"The Gaunt equipage!" says Dicky Browne, in an awestruck tone. Nobody
answers him. Everybody is overfilled with a sense of oppression, because
of the fact; that the ancient carriage beneath contains a still more
ancient female, fatally familiar to them all. Smiles fade from their
faces. All is gloom.

Meantime, the coachman (who has evidently come straight from the Ark),
having turned some handle that compels the galvanized beasts to come to
a standstill, descends, with slow and fearful steps, to the ground.

He has thrown the reins to another old man who is sitting on the box
beside him, and who, though only ten years his junior, is always
referred to by him as "the boy." Letting down a miraculous amount of
steps, he gives his arm to a dilapidated old woman, who, with much
dignity, and more difficulty, essays to reach the gravel.

"Some day or other, when out driving," says Dicky Browne, meditatively,
"those three old people will go to sleep, and those animated skeletons
will carry them to the land where they would _not_ be."

Then a step is heard outside, and they all run back to their seats and
sink into them, and succeed in looking exactly as if they had never
quitted them for the past three hours, as the door opens and the man
announces Miss Gaunt.

"Remember the puddings," says Dicky Browne, in a careful aside, as Dulce
rises to receive her first guest.

She is tall--and gaunt as her name. She is old, but strong-minded. She
affects women's rights, and all that sort of thing, and makes herself
excessively troublesome at times. Women, in her opinion, are
long-suffering, down-trodden angels; all men are brutes! Meetings got up
for the purpose of making men and women detest each other are generously
encouraged by her. It is useless to explain her further, as she has
little to do with the story, and, of course, you have all met her once
(I hope not twice) in your lifetimes.

Dulce goes up to greet her with her usual gracious smile. Then she is
gently reminded that she once met Julia Beaufort before, and then she is
introduced to Portia. To the men she says little, regarding them
probably as beings beneath notice, all, that is, excepting Dicky Browne,
who insists on conversing with her, and treating her with the most
liberal cordiality, whether she likes it or not.

Dexterously he leads up the conversation, until culinary matters are
brought into question, when Miss Gaunt says in her slow, crushing
fashion:

"How do you like that last woman I sent you? Satisfactory, eh?"

"Cook, do you mean?" asks Dulce, to gain time.

"Yes--cook," says the old lady, uncompromisingly. "She
was"--severely--"in my opinion, one of the best cooks I ever met."

"Yes, of course, I dare say. We just think her cooking a little
monotonous," says poor Dulce, feeling as if she is a culprit fresh
brought to the bar of justice.

"Monotonous!" says Miss Gaunt, in an affronted tone, giving her bonnet
an indignant touch that plants it carefully over her left ear. "I don't
think I understand. A monotonous cook! In my day there were bad cooks,
and good cooks, and indifferent cooks, but monotonous cooks--never! Am I
to believe by your accusation that she repeats herself?"

"Like history; exactly so. Very neat, indeed," says Mr. Browne,
approvingly.

"Well, in the matter of puddings, she does--rather," says Dulce,
somewhat fearfully.

"Ah! In point of fact, she doesn't suit you," says Miss Gaunt, fixing
Dulce with a stony glare.

"There you are wrong," puts in Mr. Browne, regardless of the fact that
she has treated all his other overtures with open contempt, "that is
exactly what she does. Don't take a false impression of the case. She
_suets_ us tremendously! Doesn't she, Dulce?"

Here Miss Blount, I regret to say, laughs out loud, so does Sir Mark, to
everybody's horror. Mr. Browne alone maintains a dignified silence. What
Miss Gaunt might or might not have said on this occasion must now
forever remain unknown, as Sir Christopher enters at this moment, and
shortly after him Mr. Boer.

"Was Florence unable to come? I hope she is quite well," says Dulce,
with conventional concern.

"Quite, thank you. But she feared the air."

"The heir?" says Julia Beaufort, inquiringly, turning to Dicky, who is
now unhappily quite close to her. Julia, who never listens to anything,
has just mastered the fact that Florence Boer is under discussion, and
has heard the word "air" mentioned in connection with her.

"Yes. Didn't you hear of it?" says Dicky Browne, confidentially.

"No," says Julia, also, confidentially.

"Why, it is common talk now," says Dicky, as if surprised at her
ignorance on a subject so well known to the rest of the community.

"Never heard a word of it," says Julia. "Was it in the papers!"

"N--o. Hardly, I think," says Dicky.

Even as he ceases speaking, three words, emanating from Mr. Boer's
ecclesiastical lips, attract Julia's attention. They are as follows:
"sun and air!" He, poor man, has just been telling Dulce that his wife
(who is slightly hypochondriacal) is very susceptible to the influences
of both light and wind. Julia misunderstands. Misled by Dicky's wilfully
false insinuation about Florence, whose incessant grievance it is that
no baby has come to bless her fireside, she turns to the unfortunate
curate and says blandly.

"Dear Mr. Boer, _so_ glad! I never knew of it until this very instant,
when I heard you telling Dulce of your sweet little son and heir. I
congratulate you. Of course"--coquettishly--"you are very proud of it.
Having had three dear babies of my own I can quite rejoice with you and
Mrs. Boer."

Deadly silence follows this outburst. Mr. Boer blushes a dingy red. The
others relapse into an awed calm; all is confusion.

Portia is the first to recover herself.

"Dear Dulce, may we have our tea?" she says, sweetly, pointing to the
table in the distance, where the man, five minutes ago, had placed the
pretty Sèvres cups and saucers.

By this time Julia has awakened to the fact that she has committed
herself in some way unknown to her; has, in fact, taken a false step not
now to be retrieved.

"What lovely cups!" she says, therefore, very hurriedly, to Dulce,
pointing to the Sèvres on the distant table, with a view to covering her
confusion; "so chaste--so unique. I adore old china. I myself am
something of a connoisseur. Whenever I have a spare penny," with an
affected little laugh, "I go about collecting it."

"I wish she would collect herself," says Dicky Browne, in a careful
aside; "I'm sure it is quite awful the way she has just behaved to poor
Boer. Putting him in such an awkward position, you know. He looks just
as if he had been found guilty of some social misdemeanor. Look at him,
Dulce, he isn't going to have a fit, is he?"

"I hope not," says Dulce, with a furtive glance at the discomfited Boer,
"but what could have induced Julia to make that unlucky speech? Dicky,
you horrid boy, I believe you could tell the truth about it if you
would."

"I object to your insinuation," says Mr. Browne, "and I object also to
being called a boy. Though, after all"--reflectively--"I don't see why I
should. The difference between the boy and man is so slight that nobody
need create a feud about it. A boy has apples, toffy, twine and
penknives in his pocket--a young man has a pipe instead. It is really of
no consequence, and perhaps the pipe is the cleanest. I give in,
therefore, and I am _not_ offended."

"But still, you have not answered me," says the astute Dulce. "Did you
incite Julia to make that unpleasant speech?"

"I'd scorn to answer such a question," says Mr. Browne, loftily. "What a
likely thing, indeed. If I had incited her she would have made a great
deal more of her opportunity. 'Success,' says James, 'is passionate
effort.' I made no effort, but--"

"Nonsense," says Dulce. "She made a most disgraceful lot of _her_
effort, at all events, and I do believe you were the instigator."

"'You wrong me every way, you wrong me, Brutus,'" quotes Mr. Browne,
reproachfully. "However, let that pass. Tea is ready, I think. Pour it
out, and be merciful."

Thus adjured, Miss Blount pours it out. She looks so utterly sweet in
her soft leaf-green tea gown as she does it, that Mr. Gower, in spite of
her unkindness of an hour agone, feels sufficient courage to advance and
offer himself a candidate for unlimited cups of tea.

He is quite three minutes at her elbow before she deigns to notice him.
Then she turns; and letting her eyes rest on him as though she is for
the first time made aware of his proximity, though in truth she has
known of it for the past sixty seconds, she says, calmly--

"Bread and butter, or cake, Mr. Gower?" quite as innocently as if she is
ignorant (which she is not) of his desire to be near her.

"Neither, thank you," says Stephen, gravely. "It was not that brought me
to--"

"But, please, do have some cake," says Miss Blount, lifting her eyes to
his, and making him a present of a sweet and most unexpected smile. As
she says this, she holds out to him on a plate a pretty little bit of
plum cake, which she evidently expects him to devour with relish. It is
evident, too, that she presents it to him as a peace-offering, and as a
sign that all animosity is at an end between them.

"No, thank you," says Mr. Gower, decidedly, but gratefully, and with a
very tender smile, meant as a return for hers.

"Oh, but you must, indeed!" declares she, in a friendly fashion, with a
decisive shake of the head and uplifted brows.

Now, Mr. Gower, poor soul, hates cake.

"Thanks, awfully," he says, in a deprecating tone, "I know it's nice,
very nice, but--er--the fact is I can't bear cake. It--it's horrid, I
think."

"Not this one," says Dulce remorselessly--"you have never eaten a cake
like this. Let me let you into a little secret; I am very fond of
cooking, and I made this cake _all myself_, with my own hands, every bit
of it! There! Now, you really must eat it, you know, or I shall think
you are slighting my attempts at housewifery."

"Oh! if you really made it _yourself_," says the doomed young man, in a
resigned tone, trying to light his rejected countenance with an
artificial smile, "that makes such a difference, you know. I shall quite
enjoy it now. But--er"--glancing doubtfully at her small white hands,
"did you really make it yourself?"

"Should I say it, if not sure?" reproachfully; "I even mixed it all up,
_so_," with a pantomimic motion of her fingers, that suggests the idea
of tearing handfuls of hair out of somebody's head. "I put in the
raisins and currants and everything myself, while cook looked on. And
she says I shall be quite a grand cook myself presently if--if I keep to
it; she says, too, I have quite the right turn in my wrists for making
cakes."

"Is this the cook you don't like?" asks he, gloomily, while sadly
consuming the cake she has pressed upon him. He is eating it slowly and
with care; there is, indeed, no exuberant enjoyment in his manner, no
touch of refined delight as he partakes of the delicacy manufactured by
his dainty hostess.

"Yes," says Miss Blount, in a somewhat changed tone. "But what do _you_
know of her?"

"I think she's a humbug," says Gower, growing more moody every instant.

"Then you mean, of course, that she didn't mean one word she said to me,
and that--that in effect, I can't make cakes?" says Dulce, opening her
large eyes, and regarding him in a manner that embarrasses him to the
last degree. He rouses himself, and makes a supreme effort to retrieve
his position.

"How could you imagine I meant that?" he says, putting the last morsel
of the cake, with a thankful heart, into his mouth. "I don't know when I
have enjoyed anything so much as this."

"Really, you liked it? You thought it--"

"Delicious," with effusion.

"Have some more!" says Dulce, generously, holding out to him the cake
plate near her. "Take a big bit. Take"--she has her eyes fixed rather
searchingly upon his--"_this_ piece."

Something in her manner warns him it will be unwise to refuse; with a
sinking heart he takes the large piece of cake she has pointed out to
him, and regards it as one might prussic acid. His courage fails him.

"Must I," he says, turning to her with a sudden and almost tearful
change of tone, "must I eat all this?"

"Yes--all!" says Miss Blount, sternly.

Sadly, and in silence, he completes his task. But so slowly that when it
is finished he finds Mr. Boer and Miss Gaunt have risen, and are making
their adieux to their pretty hostess, and perforce he is bound to follow
their example.

When he is gone, Roger gives way to a speech of a somewhat virulent
order.

"I must say I think Gower has turned out the most insufferable puppy I
ever met," he says, an ill-subdued flash in his handsome eyes.

"Mr. Gower!" exclaims Dulce, in soft tones of wonder, and with a
somewhat mocking smile. "Why, it is only a week or two ago since you
told me he was your greatest chum or pal, or--I can't really remember at
this moment the horrid slang word you used, but I suppose its English
was 'friend.'"

"Fellows at school and fellows at college are very different from
fellows when they are grown up and launched on their own hook," says Mr.
Dare with a frown.

"What an abominably arranged sentence," says Sir Mark, with his fine
smile, coming to the rescue for the third time to-day. "I couldn't
follow it up. How many fellows were at school?--and how many at
college?--and how many were grown up? It sounds like a small army!"

At this Roger laughs, and moves away to the upper end of the room, where
Julia is sitting. Dulce shrugs her wilful little shoulders, and taking
up the huge white cat that lies on the rug at her feet, kisses it, and
tells it in an undertone that it is a "dear sweet" and a "puss of snow,"
and that all the wide world is cross and cranky, and disagreeable,
except its own lovely self.

She has just arrived at this uncomplimentary conclusion about mankind
generally, when Dicky Browne, who is standing at one of the lower
windows, says abruptly:

"I say; look at Quail and her new puppies. Who let them out?"

At this Miss Blount drops the white cat suddenly, and, cruelly
regardless of her indignant mew, rushes to catch a glimpse of the new
pups; Roger rises precipitately from his chair, on the same purpose
bent. As all the other windows are occupied, except the one nearest the
fireplace, both he and Dulce make for it together.

Quail the red setter, proud and happy, is marching past on the gravel
outside, her two sons beside her. The yellowest puppy has purloined a
bone from some unknown quarter, and is carrying it with him
triumphantly. His brother, eyeing him furtively from time to time, is
plainly filled with envy because of his good luck, and is inwardly
consumed with a desire to make the delicacy above-mentioned his own.

At length avarice conquers prudence; there is a snap, two snarls, and a
violent tussle, during which both puppies roll over and over each other
on the damp path, and finally, the mother interfering, seizes the bone
of contention as her own, and in canine language, desires the two
culprits to follow her with hang-dog looks and lowered tails, to their
kennel.

"Ha, ha, ha!" says Roger, forgetful of everything but the pretty pups
and their tiny war.

"Ha, ha, ha!" says Dulce, equally unmindful of the stormy past. "How
sweet they looked, naughty things. And how they _did_ bark and bite. Dr.
Watts should have been here to see them."

"I wonder will they get that bone back?" says Roger, turning to her, all
animosity forgotten in the pleasurable excitement of the moment.

"Let us come and see," exclaims she, with considerable animation, and in
the friendliest tone imaginable. She glances up at him from under her
long lashes with one of her brightest and sunniest smiles, and moves a
step nearer to him.

"We must run if we want to be in time for the finish," says
Roger--"come."

He takes her hand, and together they move towards the door. They are,
apparently, as happy and as good friends as if no harsh words had ever
passed between them.

"Going out now," says Julia, as they pass the low wicker chair in which
she is lounging, "so late?"

"Don't be long, Dulce," says Portia, in her plaintive way. "I miss you
when you are out of my sight."

"I shan't be any time," says Dulce.

"Mr. Gower said it was going to rain, and it is a long way to the yard,"
says Julia again. "Stay here, and keep dry."

"I suppose Gower is not infallible," says Roger, hastily. "I think it
will not rain."

"I think so too," says Dulce, adorably; "and as for Mr. Gower, I only
know one thing; I shall never give _him_ any of my own cake again,
because he looked just as if he was going to die, or have a tooth drawn,
all the time he was eating it to-day."

Then they disappear, still hand-in-hand, in search of the refractory
puppies, and Portia, turning to Sir Mark, says softly:

"What am I to think now? How is it with them? Have they--"

"Yes; quite that," says Sir Mark, airily. "All is forgotten; the storm
is over--not even a breeze remains. The delicate charms of two snarling
puppies have put an end to strife--for the present. Let us be grateful
for small mercies--_and_ the puppies."

"It is very wonderful," says Portia, still showing some soft surprise.



CHAPTER XI.

          "There's something in a flying horse."
                            --PETER BELL.

          "For of fortunes sharpe adversite,
           The worst kind of infortune is this,
           A man that hath been in prosperite
           And it remember, whan it passed is!"
                              --CHAUCER.


"WHERE are you going, Uncle Christopher?" asks Dulce, as Sir Christopher
enters the small drawing-room, booted and spurred for a long journey.

Portia, in the distance, bending over an easel; Julia is forming some
miraculous flower, that never yet was seen by land or sea, on a coarse
towel, with some crewel wools; the Boodie is lying on her little fat
stomach, drawing diligently with a slate and pencil; Dulce, charmingly
idle, is leaning back in a lounging chair, doing nothing.

"To Warminster," says Sir Christopher "What shall I bring you girls from
that sleepy little town?"

"Something sweet," says Dulce, going up to him, and laying her soft arms
lovingly round his neck.

"Like yourself," says Sir Christopher.

"Now that is sarcasm," says Miss Dulce, patting his fresh old cheek very
fondly. "I meant chocolates, or burnt almonds, or even everton toffy, if
all things fail."

"And what shall I bring the others?" asks Sir Christopher, laughing;
"you have a sweet tooth, you naughty child, perhaps they haven't."

"_I_ have," says Portia, turning round on her seat. "Bring us as much as
ever you can."

"Burnt almonds are my chief delight," murmurs Julia, affectedly and
somewhat absently, being sick with grief, because she cannot reconcile
it to her conscience that the stem of an arum lily should be peacock
blue.

"Bring some crackers," says the Boodie, suddenly warming into life, and
so far condescending to notice Sir Christopher as to roll round her
portly person until she lies prone upon her back. From this dignified
position she eyes Sir Christopher magisterially. "_Real_ crackers,
mind," she says severely, "that will say c-r-r-rack, and show fire!
those last you brought"--contemptuously--"were a humbug!"

"Elizabeth!" exclaims her mother in a would-be shocked tone (the Boodie
rejoices in that lengthy name), "what _are_ you saying?"

"The truth," says the Boodie, unflinchingly; "the last he brought were a
reg'lar swindle--ask Jacky; why they wouldn't go off even if you
_stamped_ on 'em."

She so plainly--by the severity of her glance--conveys to every one the
impression that she believes Sir Christopher on that last unfortunate
occasion had purposely bought for them crackers beneath notice, that the
poor old gentleman, though innocent of offence, feels himself growing
warm beneath her relentless gaze.

"It wasn't my fault, my dear," he says, apologetically; "I quite meant
them to go off. I did, indeed."

"Perhaps so. Take care, however, it doesn't occur again," says the
Boodie, with so careful, though unconscious, an imitation of her
mother's manner when addressing her maid, that they all laugh, whereupon
she rolls back again to her former position, and takes no further notice
of them.

Just at this moment Fabian enters the room.

"Going to drive to Warminster?" he asks his uncle.

"Yes."

"Not Bess, I hope?" alluding to a very objectionable young mare in the
stables.

"Yes," says Sir Christopher again. "Why not?"

"She is utterly unsafe. About the worst thing in chestnuts I ever met.
I took her out myself the other day--rode her straight from this to
Grange; and I confess, I should not care to do it again. Take one of the
other horses, and let that beast lie quiet until you can get rid of
her."

"Nonsense!" says Sir Christopher, scornfully; "I wouldn't part with her
for any money. She is the greatest beauty this side of the county."

"Her beauty is her one point; for the rest, she is vindictive and
ill-mannered."

"Don't do anything foolish, dearest," says Dulce, with her eyes large
and frightened. "Do listen to Fabian."

"And let myself be conquered by a pettish chestnut, at my age," says Sir
Christopher, lightly--he had been a famous horseman in his day. "My dear
child, you don't understand, and there are moments when Fabian romances.
To satisfy you, however, I shall take George with me."

"'Wilful man must have his way,'" quotes Fabian, with a slight shrug.
"Before I go out, shall I look over those accounts with Slyme?"

"Where are you going?"

"To the warren, with the others, to have a few shots at the rabbits;
they overrun the place."

"Very good. Just ask Slyme about the accounts. By-the-by, he gets more
irregular daily."

"More drunk, do you mean?" says Fabian. There are moments when his
manner is both cold and uncompromising.

Portia regards him curiously.

"Yes! yes! Just so," says Sir Christopher, hastily. "But for the
melancholy story that attaches itself to him--and that, of course, is
some excuse for him--I really should not feel myself justified in
keeping him here much longer."

"What story?" asks Portia.

"Oh! well; it all lies in a nutshell. It is an old story, too; one has
so often heard it. A bad son--dissipated--in perpetual hot water. A
devoted father. Then, one day, a very bad story comes, and the son has
to fly the country. And then, some time afterward, news comes of his
death. Slyme never saw him again. He broods over that, I think; at
least, he has never been the same man since the son, Matthew, left
England. It was all a very unhappy business."

"For the father, perhaps. For the son, he had more than ordinary luck
to die as soon as he did," says Fabian. He does not speak at all
bitterly. Only hopelessly, and without heart or feeling.

"Nobody knows how old Gregory got him out of the country so cleverly,"
says Sir Christopher. "It was a marvel how he managed to elude the grasp
of the law."

"He satisfied the one principal creditor, I suppose?" says Fabian,
indifferently.

"Oh! impossible," says Sir Christopher. "It came to hundreds, you know;
and he hadn't a farthing. Well, good-by; I'm off. Expect me and the
bon-bons about dinner-hour."

He nods to Portia and Julia, who smile at him in return, and, kissing
Dulce, quits the room.

Fabian, following him, goes on to the library; and, having desired one
of the men to send the secretary, Slyme, to him, sits down at one of the
tables and turns over leisurely the pages of accounts that lie there.

After a brief examination, he tells himself impatiently that they are
somewhat muddled, or have, at least, been attended to in a most slovenly
manner. He has just discovered a serious mistake in the row of figures
that adorns the end of the second page, when the door opens slowly, and
Gregory Slyme comes in.

"Wait one moment, Slyme," says Fabian, without looking up from the
figures before him. A moment passes in utter silence. Then Fabian, still
with his eyes upon the account, says, somewhat sharply: "Why, it is
altogether wrong. It has been attended to with extreme carelessness. Did
you, yourself, see to this matter of Younge's?"

He waits, apparently for an answer but none comes. Lifting his eyes he
fixes them scrutinizingly on the old man before him, and having fixed
them, lets them rest there in displeased surprise.

Slyme, beneath this steady gaze, grows visibly uneasy. His eyes shift
uncomfortably from one object in the room to another; his limbs are
unsteady; the hand resting on the table near him is shaking. His face
betrays vacancy mixed with a cunning desire to hide from observation the
heaviness and sluggishness that is overpowering him.

"Speak," says Fabian, sternly and remorselessly; "you can frame an
answer, I suppose."

The old man mutters something that is almost unintelligible, so thick
and husky are his tones. His eyes grow more restless;--mechanically, and
as though unconscious of the act, he leans his body stupidly against the
book-case near him.

"You are drunk," says Fabian, with slow scorn--"leave the room."

Having said this he turns again to his papers, as though from this
moment contemptuously unaware of the other's presence.

Slyme attempts an explanation:

"You wrong me, sir," he says, in a thick uncertain voice--"I--I am
ill--; my head is bad at times--I--"

"That will do," says Fabian, such ineffable disgust in his whole manner
as makes the miserable, besotted old wretch before him actually cower.
"No more lies. I have spoken to you already twice this week--and--; do
you know what hour it is?--twelve o'clock! you begin your day early."

"I assure you, sir," begins Slyme again. But Fabian will not listen:

"Go," he says, briefly, with a disdainful motion of the hand, and in a
tone not to be disobeyed. Slyme moves towards the door in his usual
slouching fashion, but, as he reaches it, pauses, and for one instant
lifts his heavy eyes, and lets them rest upon the young man at the
distant table.

This one instant reveals his thoughts. In his glance there is fear,
distrust, and, above and beyond all, a malignant and undying
hatred--such a hatred as might project itself from the eyes of the
traitor upon his victim. There is, too, upon Slyme's face a contortion
of the muscles, that it would be sacrilege to call a smile, that is
revengeful, and somehow suggests the possibility that this man, however
impotent he may now appear, has, in some strange fashion, acquired a
hidden and terrible power over the young man, who a moment since had
treated him with such scorn and contumely.

The old secretary's countenance for this fateful moment is one
brilliant, if wicked phantasmagoria, in which the ghosts of long
sustained thoughts appear and disappear, going from fear and its
brother, hatred, to lasting revenge. Then all vanish; the usual soddened
look returns to the man's face; he opens the door, and once more,
instead of the evil genius he looked a second ago, a broken-down,
drunken old creature crosses the threshold, shambles over the hall, and
is lost presently amongst the many passages.

       *       *       *       *       *

Meantime, _ennui_ is reigning triumphantly in the drawing-room, more
conspicuously in the case of Dulce.

"Hey-day," she says, with a little, idle yawn; "how I do wish everybody
would not go out shooting, all at once. I think they might take it by
turns. But all men are selfish; they never consider how lonely we may
be."

"Why should one miss them?" says Julia, who in her soul considers every
moment unoccupied by the society of a man (that is a possible lover) as
time misspent.

"I don't know," says Dulce, candidly; "I am only sure of this, that I
want them always."

Portia says nothing.

"Well, certainly, at times they are amusing," says Mrs. Beaufort, as
though just awaking to the fact that now and again one _can_ find a man
with some wit or humor in him--"and I honestly confess"--with a little
laugh and a great assumption of candor--"that I wish even Stephen Gower
would drop in now and help us to pass away an hour or two."

"_Even_ Stephen Gower!" repeats Dulce. "Julia, what has that poor young
man done to you, that you should speak thus meanly of him? _Even_, what
an unkind word!"

"I don't believe I quite meant it, do you know," says Julia, relenting.
"I like Stephen Gower very much. By-the-by, what do you think of him? I
never yet heard you express an opinion, good or bad, about him. Do it
now."

Leaning back in her chair, Dulce slowly and thoughtfully raises her arms
in the air, with her fingers tipping each other, until presently they
fall indolently behind her head, where she lets them lie.

"Well, let me see," she says, lazily, "I think, perhaps, like Chaucer's
man, he is a 'veray parfit gentil knight.'"

Portia lifts her eyes from her painting and turns them slowly upon her
cousin; she regards her very silently for a moment or two, and then she
smiles, and leaning forward, opens her lips.

"'And of his port as meke as is a mayde,'" she says, mischievously,
purposely choosing the same poet for her quotation that Dulce had taken
for hers.

Miss Blount laughs.

"You, too, are severe upon our neighbor," she says, defending him more
from obstinacy than from real desire to see justice done. "I confess he
is at times a trifle too mild, but not effeminate, surely?"

"He is very handsome," says Portia, evasively.

"He has a charming mouth," says Dulce.

"I think you ought only to look at Roger's mouth," says Julia,
prudishly, whereupon Dulce shrugs her shoulders, impatiently, and,
turning, devotes herself for the next ten minutes to the small artist
lying at her feet--an attention received by the imperturbable Boodie
with the most exasperating unconcern.

The afternoon wanes; day is sinking to its rest. Behind the tall dark
firs "the great gold sun-god, blazing through the sky" may still be
seen, but now he grows aweary, and would fain give place to his sister,
the pale moon.

"The sweet keen smell--the sighing sound" of coming night is on the air.
The restless ocean is rolling inland with a monotonous roar; there is
scarcely sufficient breeze to ruffle the leaves of the huge chestnut
that stands near one corner of the old house, not far from the balcony
outside the drawing-room windows, where Mrs. Beaufort and the two girls
are sitting.

The children are playing somewhere in the distance. Their sweet and
merry voices come up to the balcony now and then, and mingle with the
breath of descending night.

And now from beneath the fir trees two figures emerge, and come towards
the stone steps where their hostess is sitting.

"Are you clean?" asks Dulce, with a charming smile, leaning over the
railings to see them better as they draw closer.

"To confess a horrid truth, I don't believe we are," says Stephen Gower,
glancing up at her, and regarding his rough shooting coat somewhat
ruefully. "Will that admission exclude us from Paradise?"

"Dulce," says Dicky Browne, who is the second of the two figures, "I'm
worn out. I've been walking all day, a thing I very seldom do; I have
been firing off an unlimited number of cartridges, without, I am bound
to confess--I am, as experience has doubtless taught you, a remarkably
truthful person--without any very brilliant consequences, and I feel
that very little more fatigue will be my death. Have compassion on us.
We faint, we die; show mercy and give us some tea and some cake. You're
awfully hungry, Gower, aren't you?"

"Well, not very," says Mr. Gower, too occupied in his contemplation of
Dulce's charming face to be quite alive to what is so plainly expected
of him.

"Oh, nonsense! He is tremendously hungry," says Dicky Browne. "Let us
up, Dulce, and we will sit out there on the balcony, and won't soil
anything. Except gore, there isn't much staining about us."

"But that is worse than anything," says Dulce with a shudder. "However,
come up, and if you keep _very_ far away, I daresay I shan't mind much."

"Hard conditions," says Gower, in a lower tone.

So tea is got for them again, and the children, who always seem to
_feel_ when plum-cake is to be had, come trooping noisily up the steps
to join, uninvited, in the festivities.

Great content follows, and, indeed, all is peace until something said by
the Boodie creates a confusion that sweeps calm to the winds. She has
ensconced herself on Mr. Gower's knee, without saying so much as "by
your leave" or "with your leave," and now, raising one soft little
dimpled hand to his chin, turns his face towards her own, and for a full
minute regards him with silent curiosity.

"Well, is your Highness satisfied?" says Gower, feeling amused.

The Boodie takes no notice of this enquiry. She puckers up her smooth
brows as if puzzled, and then says, slowly--

"I don't believe one word of it!"

"Of what?" says Gower. Everybody by this time is looking at the Boodie,
and the Boodie is steadfastly regarding Stephen Gower.

"It wasn't true what she said," goes on the Boodie, meditatively,
"because you have hair on your lip. _Girls_ don't have hair on their
lips--do they?"

"Not as a general rule," says Dicky Browne. "There _have_ been noble
exceptions, but unhappily they are rare. Miss Gaunt is perhaps the only
girl down here who can boast of hirsute adornment, and the growth upon
her upper lip is not to be despised. But then she belongs to the higher
and more powerful class of females, in fact, as Wordsworth so touchingly
expresses it, she

          'Wears upon her forehead clear
           The freedom of a mountaineer.'

I always--mildly--think Wordsworth must have been acquainted with Miss
Gaunt."

"Go on," says Stephen to the Boodie, who is still lost in thought. "You
have not yet told me what it is you disbelieve."

"It was something Portia said," returns the Boodie, composedly.

"That _I_ said! surely you are mistaken, darling," says Portia.

"No, I am not," persists the Boodie, in an unmoved tone.

"Stephen," again turning his face to hers, "are you 'meke'?"

At this word all the truth becomes at once known to Portia and Dulce.
The Boodie had been in the room when they were discussing Stephen with
her mother. She had heard everything. She is a little pitcher--she has
long ears. Can nothing be done to stop her further speech?

"He is a very nice boy, but I'm not prepared to go as far as calling him
meek," says Dicky Browne, who begins to scent mischief in the air. "Who
applied that word to him?"

"I think it is time all you children ran away to nurse," says Julia, in
answer to an agonized glance from both girls.

"It was Portia," says the Boodie to Dicky Browne, in her sweet innocent
treble. "Dulce said first he was a 'knight,' and then Portia said he was
a 'meek maid.' She said something, too, about 'port,' but I don't think
she meant Uncle Christopher's port; I think she meant Stephen's."

Deadly silence follows this bombshell. As Mr. Gower, only the day
before, had been reading the "Canterbury Tales" for them in his very
best old English style, it is impossible to believe the two quotations
from them, used in the morning, are not now alive in his memory.

Gower colors, and looks questioningly at Dulce. His expression is not
altogether one of chagrin. The child had said she (Dulce) had called
him a knight--"a veray parfit gentil knight" it must have been. There is
comfort, and even gladness in this thought; so much comfort, that he
even feels inclined to forgive Portia for comparing him to a "mayde."
Still, some awkwardness is naturally felt by all--except the Boodie, who
yawns indifferently, and finally follows the other children up to the
nursery--and every one is vainly trying to think of some commonplace
remark, that, when uttered, shall have the effect of restoring
conversation once more into a safe channel, when an interruption occurs
that puts chagrin and awkwardness out of their minds for the rest of the
evening.

First upon the air the reports of two guns being fired off quickly, one
after the other; then the quick flinty sound of a horse's galloping
hoofs.

Nearer they came, and still nearer, with that mad haste belonging to
them, that suggests unmanageable fury in the brute beast; and as all on
the balcony rise simultaneously and press forward to see what may be
coming, Bess and the dog-cart turn the corner near the chestnut tree,
and dash onwards towards the lower lawn.

Sir Christopher, grim and as full of rage as the animal in whose power
he now finds himself, is still holding the reins--but more for form's
sake than anything else, as he has no control whatever over the
infuriated chestnut, that, with reddened nostrils, and foam-covered
flanks, is rushing madly down the green slope.

A sudden rise in the velvet lawn, causing the dog-cart to sway rather
much to one side, unseats the groom, who is flung somewhat heavily to
the ground. Being fortunately, however, unhurt, he rises hastily, and
runs frantically after the mare, as though in foolish hope, that he may
yet overtake her and be of some service to his master. With a smothered
exclamation, Gower and Dicky Browne dash down the balcony steps to join
him in his vain pursuit.

Vain, indeed! At the lower end, by the long lawn, runs a river, small,
but swift, and turbulent, that flows for two miles through park, and
waving field, and glowing valley, to throw itself finally into the arms
of the thirsty ocean.

Towards this the horse is rushing madly. Once on its bank, who shall
tell what next may happen. There will be a mad bound--a crash--a cry,
perhaps, that will pierce through all other sounds--and then--and Sir
Christopher--.

As these thoughts force themselves upon the girls, they shudder, and
involuntarily move closer to each other. Dulce covers her face with her
hands, as though to shut out some dreadful sight, and a low dry sob
escapes her. Portia, deadly pale, but calm and wide-eyed, is clinging to
the balcony rails, and is gazing in speechless fear at the chestnut,
that every instant is bringing nearer to the fateful goal. Julia, from
time to time, emits short little shrieks of terror, she being the sort
of person who, in moments of peril, would be always safe to scream.

Onward flies the mare. Sir Christopher (as yet bolt upright in his seat,
and apparently, from the back view they can get of him, still so
possessed with rage as to be unconscious of fear) is trying hopelessly
to manage her.

Nearer and nearer to the brink of the stream they draw; now they are
within a few yards of it; soon help will be of little use, and the
panting groom and the two young men who are following him will only be
in time to witness more closely the disaster. All seems, indeed,
hopeless, when a man, springing from behind the thick laurel hedge that
grows on the right, rushes forward, and, seizing Bess by the head by
sheer force of mind and body, forces her upon her haunches.

"It is Fabian!" says Portia, in a voice sharp with fear.
"Dulce!--Dulce!" there is positive agony in her tone.

Dulce, letting her hands fall from her face, looks up. Julia forgets to
scream; all three watch with intensest anxiety the scene being enacted
below.

And now ensues a struggle between man and beast; a struggle sharp but
short. The beast, frightened, or, perhaps, with fury exhausted, it may
be, compelled against its will to acknowledge the superior power of mind
over matter--gives way, and after a good deal of prancing stands
tolerably quiet, though still trembling from excitement and violent
temper.

By this time the groom, with Gower and Dicky Browne, have joined them.

"Get out Sir Christopher," says the groom, in an agitated voice, the
swift run having added to his anxiety.

"Not a bit of it," says Sir Christopher, indignantly, "I'll take her
back to the stables, or--"

"Get down at once," says Fabian, in a quick, decided tone. "Don't delay,
she is dangerous still and may bolt again at any moment. Besides, you
have had enough of it, surely!"

"I'm not going to be conquered by any mare born," says the old Baronet,
obstinacy setting it at this point; "what d'ye think I bred her for, eh?
To be made a laughing-stock for the county, I suppose, eh? Nothing of
the sort. She shall own me as master if I die for it. Here, get out of
my way all you boys--"

It is plain Sir Christopher is as yet undaunted, though, in truth, there
is danger still; the chestnut is flinging up her head in an uncertain,
frightened fashion, scattering angry foam as she does so, and her eyes
are showing more white than is seemly.

Fabian, who is still holding the bridle with both hands, looks at his
uncle, earnestly, almost, it might be said, curiously.

"If you are bent on taking this brute round yourself, of course, I shall
go with you," he says, indifferently. "Hold her head, George, for a
moment."

Even as he speaks the mare moves uneasily, and, as the groom approaches,
throws up her head impatiently, and in so doing touches Fabian's right
arm somewhat roughly. In spite of his self-control he winces
perceptibly.

"You are hurt," says Sir Christopher, anxiously. "How?--where?"

"This arm," says Fabian, touching the injured part lightly. "A mere
scratch, no doubt, but it hurts. Nevertheless, if you persist, I daresay
I shall be able to hold her in check with the other."

"Here, George, lead her home," says Sir Christopher, hurriedly, throwing
the reins he still holds to the groom, and hastily descending from the
dog-cart. "To drive, indeed, with an injured arm! stuff and nonsense!"
he says, severely. "Some people have no sense, eh? though I must say I
believe that poor brute is maligned. But for those shots fired off just
as I was entering the gates nothing would have happened."

"Roger and Sir Mark discharging their guns, I daresay," says Stephen;
"awkward, they should have chosen just that moment to do it."

"Fate!" says Dicky Browne, solemnly.

Meantime, Fabian has turned away and gone quickly in the direction of
the house. Dulce, running down the balcony steps, goes up to him with a
very white little face.

"Darling, how brave you were. I thought something dreadful was going to
happen to you. It was a horrid moment. If that wicked Bess had persisted
she might have thrown you down and killed you."

"Well, she didn't, you see," says Fabian, lightly--but he shrinks a
little from her embrace, and moves so that she cannot touch his right
arm. His eyes are fixed upon the balcony above, where Portia still
stands, pale as an early snowdrop and thoroughly unnerved. There is,
however, about her a certain calm, that is part of her nature, and that,
perhaps, in her very greatest emergency, and in her bitterest hour of
need, would still be hers.

At this moment, however, Fabian so far wrongs her as to attribute this
inborn quietude to coldness and indifference. He turns again to Dulce.

"Take that terrified look off your face," he says, somewhat languidly,
with a smile that is faintly bitter. "You should show more self-control.
Take example by your cousin; see how composed she can be, and how
sensible."

He smiles again, and indicates Portia by a glance. For an instant his
eyes meet hers. Is he wrong in thinking she is even a shade paler now
than she was a moment since? He is not sure; and he has not time given
him to make the thought a certainty, as Miss Vibart, turning slowly,
goes towards one of the drawing-room windows, and presently is lost to
sight.

There was something in her eyes, in the hurried glance he got at them,
that saddens Fabian. Almost forgetful of Dulce's presence, he walks away
from her, and, having gained the house, goes moodily up the stairs
towards his own room.

His soul is disquieted; an agony of unrest, that even in his first days
of despair had not visited him, is on him now; a longing, a craving, for
what he knows (ah! the deep grief of that!) can never be obtained.

Why had her soft eyes looked so reproachful a while ago? Why had she
turned so quickly away from him when he had spoken those few harsh
words, for which he hates himself now?

Her pallor returns to him, and the fear in her large eyes. Surely he
should have taken note of them first, and not of the calmness and
seeming coldness and her utter composure.

And then a strange soft light comes into his face, as he remembers how
sweet she looked standing there, half leaning over the balcony, and
looking down on him--unworthy, pale, but full of beauty.

It may be that other women have been lovely in his eyes, but, surely,
none have reached her standard. One, indeed, in the past years had
appeared to him (though he had not loved her) as nearly perfect as a
woman can be; but, now comparing her with Portia, as he has often done
of late, she--the former beauty--had paled in comparison.

He has been reading some old book of late, and now, thinking of both
women, a description in it of some ancient queen and one of her court
comes to him as being applicable to the train of thought in which he is
indulging.

"One, amongst other purposes, said unto them of late, that she (the
queen) 'excelleth as far the duchess as the golden sun excelleth the
silver moon,' which appeareth in the gravity of her face. Thus say they
that have seen them both."

As he reaches the corridor, and gains the threshold of his own room, a
light step behind him, causing him to turn, he finds himself looking
once again into Portia's eyes.

She is very pale still, and there is something pathetic about her mouth.
Slowly she comes up to him, without uttering a word, until she is so
close to him that she can touch him, if she will. Then she speaks:

"You wronged me just now," she says, in a low voice: "you had an evil
thought about me! But not _now_, I think," regarding him earnestly. "You
have gone over it all again in your own mind, and you understand now you
misjudged me."

"You are quite right in all you say; I did misjudge you. I have
discovered my error. You will forgive me?"

"I suppose so." She is looking down now, and is tapping the ground
impatiently with her foot.

"You ought," says Fabian, quietly. "To misjudge one's neighbor is one of
the commonest failings of mankind."

There is meaning in his tone. She acknowledges unwillingly the fact that
she comprehends this meaning by a sign, silent but perceptible: she
colors deeply, and, still looking down, continues her tattoo upon the
oaken flooring of the corridor.

"You are not very humble," she says at length, "even now, when you have
had to demand my pardon."

"Am I not?" says Fabian, with a partly suppressed sigh. "I should be.
Forgive me that, too, and--" He pauses to draw his breath quickly, as if
in pain. At this she lifts her head, and something she sees in his
expression tells her the truth.

"You are hurt," she says, hastily, going nearer to him. "Where?--how?"

There is deep, unrestrained anxiety in her tone.

"My arm," confesses Fabian, who is, indeed, suffering greatly, laying
his left hand upon his right arm, high up above the elbow.

"Is it a sprain or a bruise?"

"A little of both, perhaps. I came up-stairs just now to ring for
Parkins to help me off with my coat, and do something for me."

"Parkins!" says Portia, with fine contempt; "of what use is a man in a
case like this. Why not ask Dulce--"

"Oh! it is really nothing; and you saw how frightened she was already. I
had pity on her nerves."

"Then let me be Parkins for a few minutes," says Portia, with a little
smile. "I used to be of great use to George" (her brother, Colonel
Vibart) "occasionally when he came to grief at football, or in the
hunting field. Let me see if my hand has lost its cunning."

"You won't like it," says Blount, hesitating; "it will look nasty, you
know, and there will be blood, I think, and perhaps it will be better
for me to--"

"This is my sitting-room," interrupts Portia, calmly, throwing open a
door on the opposite side of the corridor. "Come in here, and let me see
what has happened to you."

Fabian follows her obediently. It all seems to him something like a
dream, that this girl, usually so listless, should now brighten into
life, and grow energetic and anxious for his sake.

With gentle fingers she helps him to take off his coat, and, in a
business-like, very matter-of-fact fashion, unfastens the gold link at
his wrist, and, though paling a little as she sees the blood upon his
sleeve, resolutely rolls it up and lays bare the injured arm.

It is looking dark and swollen, and the skin has been knocked off it in
several places. The flesh has been a good deal bruised, and altogether
the wound is an ugly one without being in any way serious. In spite of
her efforts to the contrary, she blanches perceptibly, and shudders, and
lets her lids droop rather heavily over her eyes.

"You are unfit for this sort of work," says Fabian, angry with himself,
as he marks her agitation. "It was unpardonable of me even to permit you
to attempt it." He moves back from her, and tries his shirt sleeve once
more over his injured arm.

"Ah! do not touch it," says Portia, hastily; "the sleeve will only rub
against it and make it worse."

Involuntarily she lays her hand on his to prevent his covering the
wound, and looks at him with a glance full of sympathy and entreaty. So
standing, with her eyes large and dark with pity, and her soft white
hand trembling upon his, she seems to him so far

          "Beyond all women, womanly,
           He dreads to think how he should fare
           Who came so near as to despair!"

A pang desolates his heart. Alas! is not despair the only portion that
can be meted out for him! The joy and the gladness of living, and the
one great treasure of all--the heart's love--that beautifies and refines
all it touches, can never be his; never for him, while this shadow rests
upon him, will there be home or "hearthstone," or that deeper, more
perfected sense of fellowship that exists between two souls only.

And this girl, with her hand on his, and

          "With eyes like open lotus flowers
           Bright in the morning rain."

looking straight up at him, with gentlest concern in her regard, how
might it have been with him and her, if life had flowed in a pleasant
stream, and no turbulent waves had come to disturb its calm and musical
ripple?

How short have been his days of grace, how long must be his years of
misery; just in the very opening of his life, in the silken morning of
his youth, the blow had fallen, deadening his sky, and rendering all
things gray.

In what a very little space, indeed, lie all our happy moments; even the
most successful of us can count them one by one, as it might be, on the
fingers of one hand; and how tardy, how wearying, are those where
sorrow, and trouble, and despair hold their own.

"Ce qui nous charme s'en va, et ce qui fait peine reste. La rose vit une
heure, et le cyprès cent ans."

Portia has gone into an inner room, and now returns with a basin and a
sponge. Very gently (and as though afraid each movement may increase his
pain) she bathes his arm, glancing up at him every now and then to see
if, indeed, she is adding to or decreasing his agony.

If the truth be told, I believe he feels no agony at all, so glad he is
to know her touch, and see her face. When she has sponged his arm with
excessive tenderness, she brings a cambric handkerchief, and, tearing it
into strips, winds it round and round the torn flesh.

"Perhaps that will do until Dr. Bland can see it," she says hopefully.
"At least tell me you are in less pain now, and that I have done you
some small good."

"Small!" says Fabian.

"Ah! well," she says, lightly, "then I suppose I have succeeded, but you
must promise me, nevertheless, that you will have a doctor to look at
you."

Her tone is still exquisitely kind; but there is now a studied
indifference about it that hurts him keenly. Perhaps in his surprise at
this sudden change of manner he overlooks the fact that the difference
_is_ studied!

"I have given you too much trouble," he says, stupidly, in a leaden sort
of way. "But, as you say, you have been successful, I feel hardly any
pain now."

"Then I suppose I may dismiss you," she says, with a frugal little
smile, just glancing at the half opened door. The nervousness, the
sympathy is over, and she remembers how lost to social consideration is
the man to whose comfort she has been contributing for the past twenty
minutes.

"I have taken up too much of your time already," he says in a frozen
tone, and then he turns and goes toward the door. But, after a moment's
reflection, he faces round again abruptly, and comes up to her, and
stands before her with set lips and eyes aflame. His nostrils are
dilated, there is intense mental pressure discernible in every line of
his face.

"I do not mistake you," he says, with slow vehemence; "I am not such a
dullard that I should count your bare charity as friendship. You have
succoured me, as you would, of your grace, no doubt have succoured the
vilest criminal that walks the earth, were he in death or pain."

She has grown very pale, and is rather frightened, if her eyes speak
truly.

"Now that the reaction has set in," he goes on, bitterly, "you believe
you have demeaned yourself in that you have assisted one who----"

"You are saying what is not true," she says, in a low but clear voice;
speaking slowly, and with difficulty, because her lips are white and
dry.

"Am I?" exclaims he, passionately. "Say, if you can, that you believe me
innocent of all guilt, and I will believe you!"

He pauses--she is silent. A terrible moment ensues, fraught with agony
for Fabian, and still she makes no sign. Her hands, tightly clasped, are
hanging before her; her head is turned aside; her eyes persistently seek
the floor. As if every nerve in her body is strung to excess, she stands
so motionless that she might almost be a statue cut in marble.

Her silence is painfully eloquent. Fabian, in an excess of passion,
tears off the cambric bandages from his arm, and flings them at her
feet.

"I will have none of your charity," he says, with pale lips, and,
throwing wide the door, strides down the corridor, and is soon beyond
recall.

When the last echo of his feet has died away Portia rouses herself, and,
moving towards a low chair near the fireplace, sinks into it, and
presses her hands convulsively against her heart.

Now that she is at last alone, the excitement of the last hour begins to
tell upon her. Her cheeks and lips, that up to this have been positively
bloodless, now grow dyed with richest crimson, that is certainly not of
this earth--earthy, as it gives no promise of health or youthful
strength. She leans back in her chair as if exhausted; and, in truth, in
the fair shell that harbors her soul but very little power remains to
battle with the varied thoughts that rise within her.

Scene by scene the events of the last hour spread themselves before her:
the maddened brute rushing violently over the soft, smooth lawn to where
the treacherous stream awaits him, running gently between its damp green
banks--Sir Christopher's danger--Fabian's unexpected interference--the
short, but terrible fear for him--and then the sudden fall from the
extreme agony of suspense to comparative calm.

And yet, perhaps, all this does not haunt her so much as one or two
other things, that, in reality, were of little moment. That time, for
instance, when he--Fabian--stood beneath the balcony, and when he, with
a glance, a half-spoken word, accused her of coldness and indifference.
He had condemned her all too willingly. But this was only fair, no
doubt. Had not she, in her innermost heart, condemned him, unheard,
unquestioned.

And what was it he had said to Dulce? "Take example by your cousin; see
how sensible _she_ can be," or something like that. Sensible! When this
terrible pain was tugging at her heart strings, and prolonged
nervousness had made speech impossible.

And why had he said "_your_ cousin," instead of "our cousin?" Was it
that he did not care to claim kinship with her, or because--because--he
did not count himself worthy--to--

Again she raises her hand, and presses it with undue force against her
left side. She is unhappy and alone, and full of a vague uncertainty.

"Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows," and all the shadows of
her grief seem now to hem her in, and encompass her on every side. The
old troublesome pain in her heart, that drove her from the dissipations
of town life to seek a shelter in the quiet country, returns to her
again. At this moment the pain of which I speak grows almost past
endurance. A faint, gray pallor supersedes the vivid carmine of a while
ago. She sighs with evident difficulty, and sinks back heavily amongst
her cushions.



CHAPTER XII.

          "Friendship is constant in all other things,
           Save in the office and affairs of love."
                             --MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.


"I SHOULD think if we are going to give our dance at all, it ought to be
soon," says Dulce, with a shrug and a somewhat listless little yawn.

"So we ought," says Dicky Browne, briskly. It seems the most natural
thing in the world that he should use the first person plural, and that
he should appear to be the chief promoter of the dance in question.
"We've been talking of it a considerable lot, you know," he goes on,
confidentially, "and they will all think it a dodge on your part if you
don't give it within the next fortnight."

"A dodge!" says Miss Blount, very justly incensed. "What dodge?"

"Well, look here," says Dicky--"there once was a fellow--"

He breaks off at this interesting juncture, and, fixing his glass in his
best eye, stares at a figure coming slowly towards them from the house.
They all follow his gaze, and find themselves criticising the
approaching form in a vague, surprised fashion.

"Great hat! look at Julia!" says Dicky, at last, giving way to speech
that will not be repressed. The exclamation is quite in keeping with the
scene. Julia, in a head gear of the style usually described as a Rubens,
of the very largest description, comes simpering up to them, filled with
the belief that now, if ever, she is looking her very best. "Great" _is_
the word for it. She is indeed all that.

"My dear Julia, where have you been!" says Dulce, ignoring the hat.

"Searching every room in the house for that last book of Ouida's," says
Julia, promptly, who has in reality been posing before a mirror in her
own room, crowned with a Rubens. "I'm always losing my things, you
know--and my way; my boat, for example, and my train, and my umbrella."
She is plainly impressed with the belief that she is saying something
smart, and looks conscious of it.

"Why don't you add your temper," says Dicky Browne, with a mild
smile--which rather spoils the effect of her would-be smartness.

"We were talking about our ball," says Dulce, somewhat quickly. "Dicky
seems to think that we shall lose caste in the neighborhood if we put it
off much longer."

"You'll create ill feeling," says Mr. Browne. "The Stanley girls have
new gowns, and they want to show them. They'll say nasty things about
you."

"That's your second hint on that subject," says Sir Mark. "Get it out,
Dicky, you are dying to say something. What was it you were going to say
a few minutes ago about some fellow who--?"

"Who for seven years was going to give a ball, and was asked everywhere
on the strength of it. His friends hoped against hope, don't you see,
but nothing ever came of it. At the end of the seven years he was as far
off it as ever."

"And what did his friends do to him then," asks Julia, who is one of
those people who always want _more_ than enough.

"Deponent sayeth not," says Mr. Browne. "Perhaps it was too dark a tale
for publication. I suppose they either smote him between the joints of
his harness till he died, or else they fell upon him in a body and rent
him in pieces."

"What nonsense you can talk at times," says Mrs. Beaufort, mindful of
his speech of a few moments ago.

"Not I," says Dicky Browne.

It is about four o'clock, and already the shadows are lengthening upon
the grass, the soft, cool grass upon which they are all sitting beneath
the shade of the huge chestnut trees, that fling their branches in all
directions, some east, some west, some heavenwards.

A little breeze is blowing towards them sweet essences of pinewood and
dark fir. Above in the clear sky the fleecy clouds assume each moment a
new form--a yet more tender color--now pale blue, now gray, now a soft
pink that verges upon crimson. Down far in the hollows a white mist is
floating away, away, to the ocean, and there, too, can be seen (playing
hide and seek amongst the great trunks of the giant elms) the flitting
forms of the children dancing fantastically to and fro.

The scent of dying meadow-sweet is on the air, and the hush and the calm
of evening.

"Dulce, command us to have tea out here," says Sir Mark, removing his
cigarette from his lips for a moment.

"Dear Dulce, yes; that will be sweet," says Portia, who is very silent
and very pale and very beautiful to-day.

"Dicky, go and tell some one to bring tea here directly," says Dulce;
"and say they are to bring peaches for Portia, because she loves them,
and say anything else you like for yourself."

"Thanks; Curaçao will do me very nicely," says Dicky, with all the
promptitude that distinguishes him.

"And Maraschino," suggests Sir Mark, in the mildest tone.

"And just a suspicion of brandy," puts in Roger, almost affectionately.
Overpowered by their amiability and their suggestions, Dicky turns
towards the house.

"I fly," he says. "Think of me till my return."

"Do tell them to hurry, Dicky," says Dulce, anxiously. "They are always
so slow. And tell them to bring lots of cake."

"You shall have it all in a couple of shakes," says Mr. Browne,
encouragingly, if vulgarly.

"What's that?" asks Dulce, meaning reproof. "It isn't English, is it?
How soon will it be?"

"Oh--half a jiff," returns he, totally unabashed.

Presently tea is brought, and they are all happy, notably Dicky, who
walks round and into the cakes with unceasing fervor.

"By-the-by, I wonder Stephen hasn't been here to-day," says Julia,
addressing no one in particular.

"Something better to do, perhaps," says Portia.

"Yes--where _can_ he be?" says Dulce, waking into sudden animation.
"'Something better to do?' Why, what could that be?"

"Writing sonnets to your eyebrow," answers Roger in an unpleasant tone.

"How clever you are!" retorts she, in a tone even more unpleasant,
letting her white lids fall until they half-conceal the scorn in her
eyes. _Only_ half!

"He is such a jail bird--I beg his pardon, a town bird," says Sir Mark,
lazily, "that I didn't think anything could keep him in the country so
long. Yet, he doesn't _look_ bored. He bears the solitary confinement
very well."

"There is shooting, isn't there?" suggests Portia.

"Any amount of it," says Dicky; "but that don't solve the mystery. He
couldn't shoot a haystack flying, not if his life depended on it. It's
suicide to go out with him! He'd as soon shoot you or me as anything
else. I always say the grouse ought to love him; because I don't believe
he knows the barrel of his gun from the stock."

"How perfectly dreadful!" exclaims Julia, who always takes everything
_au grand serieux_.

"There is other game in the country besides grouse," says Roger, in a
peculiar tone.

"I dare say he can't bear to leave that dear old house now he has got
into it," says Dulce; "it is so lovely, so quaint, so--"

"Now, is it?" asks Dicky Browne, meditatively. "I've seen nicer, I
think. I always feel, when there, as if everything, ceilings, roof and
all were coming down on my unfortunate head."

"But it is so old, so picturesque; a perfect dream, _I_ think," says
Dulce, rather affectedly.

"It isn't half a bad place, but not to be compared to The Moors,
surely," says Sir Mark, gently, looking with some reproof at
Dulce--reproof the spoiled child resents--The Moors is Roger's home. "I
think The Moors one of the most beautiful places in England."

"And one of the draughtiest," says Miss Blount, ungraciously. "I was
there once. It was a year ago. It occurred to me, I remember, that the
sun had forgotten it; indeed, I had but one thought all the time I
stayed."

"And that was?" asks Roger, defiantly.

"How to get away from it again as soon as possible."

"I am sorry my old home found such disfavor in your sight," says Roger,
so quietly that remorse wakes within her breast, bringing with it,
however, no good result, rather adding fuel to the flame that has been
burning brightly since breakfast time. His rebuke is so abominably mild
that it brings Miss Blount to the very verge of open wrath.

"I think Stephen such a dear fellow," says Julia, at this critical
juncture. "So--er--well read, and that."

"Yes; though, I think, I have known better," says Sir Mark, looking at
Dulce.

"Poor Mr. Gower," says that young lady, airily; "everyone seems
determined to decry him. What has he done to everybody, and why should
comparisons be drawn? There _may_ be better people, and there may be
worse; but--I like him."

"Lucky he," says Roger, with a faint but distinct sneer, his temper
forsaking him; "I could almost wish that I were he."

"I could almost wish it, too," says Dulce, with cruel frankness.

"Thank you." Roger, by this time, is in a very respectable passion,
though nobody but he and Dulce have heard the last three sentences.
"Perhaps," he says, deliberately, "it will be my most generous course to
resign in favor of--"

"More tea, Portia?" interrupts Dulce, very quickly, in a tone that
trembles ever so slightly.

"No, thank you. But, Dulce, I want you near me. Come and sit here."

There is anxiety, mixed with entreaty, in her tone. She has noticed the
anger in Roger's face, and the defiance in Dulce's soft eyes, and she is
grieved and sorry for them both.

But, Dulce, who is in a very bad mood indeed, will take no notice of
either the entreaty or the grief.

"How can I?" she says, with a slow lifting of her brows. "Who will give
anybody any tea, if I go away from this? And--" Here she pauses, and her
eyes fix themselves upon a break in the belt of firs, low down, at the
end of the lawn. "Ah," she says, with a swift blush, "you see I shall be
wanted at my post for a little while longer, because--here is Mr. Gower,
at last!"

The "at last" is intolerably flattering, though it is a question if the
new comer hears it. He is crossing over the soft grass; his hat is in
his hand; his eyes dark and smiling. He looks glad, expectant, happy.

"What superfluous surprise," says Roger to Dulce, with even a broader
sneer than his last. "He always _is_ here, isn't he!"

"Yes; isn't it good of him to come," says Miss Blount, with a suspicious
dulness--Stephen has not yet come quite close to them. "We are always so
wretchedly stupid here, and he is so charming, and so good to look at,
and always in such a perfect temper!" As she finishes her sentence she
turns her large eyes full on her _fiancé_.

Roger, muttering something untranslatable between his teeth, moves away,
and then Gower comes up, and Dulce gives him her hand and her prettiest
smile, and presently he sinks upon the grass at her feet, and lies there
in a graceful position that enables him to gaze without trouble upon her
piquante face. He is undeniably handsome, and is very clean-limbed, and
has something peculiar about his smile that takes women as a rule.

"How d'ye do?" he says to Roger presently, when that young man comes
within range, bestowing upon him a little nod. Whereon Roger says the
same to him in a tone of the utmost _bonhommie_, which, if hypocritical,
is certainly very well done, after which conversation once more flows
smoothly onwards.

"What were you doing all day?" asks Dulce of the knight at her feet,
throwing even kinder feeling than usual into her tone, as she becomes
aware that Roger's eyes are fixed upon her.

"Wishing myself here," replies Gower, with a readiness that bespeaks
truth.

"What a simple thing to say," murmurs Dulce, with a half-smile, glancing
at him from under her long lashes. "But how difficult to believe. After
all," with a wilful touch of coquetry, "I don't believe you ever do mean
anything you say."

"Don't you," says Gower, with an eagerness that might be born of either
passion or amusement. "You wrong me then. And some day--some day,
perhaps, I shall be able to prove to you that what I say I mean." Then,
probably, the recollection of many things comes to him, and the quick,
warm light dies out of his eyes, and it is with an utter change of tone
and manner he speaks next.

"Now, tell me what you were doing all day?" he says, lightly.

"Not very much; the hours dragged a little, I think. Just now, as you
came to us, we were discussing--" it is almost on her lips the word
"you," but she suppresses it in time, and goes on easily--"a dance we
must give as soon as possible."

"An undertaking down here, I suppose?" says Gower, doubtfully; "yet a
change, after all. And, of course, you are fond of dancing?" with a
passing glance, that is almost a caress, at her lithe, svelte figure.

"Yes, very; but I don't care about having a ball here." She says this
with a sigh; then she pauses, and a shade saddens her face.

"But why?" asks he, surprised.

"There are many reasons--many. And you might not understand," she says,
rather confusedly. She turns her face away from his, and in doing so
meets Portia's eyes. She has evidently been listening to what Dulce has
just said, and now gives back her cousin's gaze as though against her
will. After a moment she slowly averts her face, as if seeking to hide
the pallor that is rendering even her lips white.

"Both my evening suits are unwearable," says Dicky Browne, mournfully.
"I shall have to run up to town to get some fresh things." He says this
deprecatingly, as though utterly assured of the fact that every one will
miss him horribly.

"You won't be long away, Dicky, will you?" says Roger, tearfully; at
which Dulce, forgetful for the instant of the late feud, laughs aloud.

"I can't think what's the matter with me," says Dicky, still mournful;
"my clothes don't last any time. A month seems to put 'em out of shape,
and make 'em unwearable."

"No wonder," says Sir Mark, "when you get them made by a fellow out of
the swim altogether. _Where_ does he live? Cheapside or Westbourne
Grove?"

"No; the Strand," says Mr. Browne, to whom shame is unknown, "if you
mean Jerry."

"Dicky employs Jerry because his name is Browne," says Roger. "He's a
hanger-on of the family, and is popularly supposed to be a poor
relation, a sort of country cousin. Dicky proudly supports him in spite
or public opinion. It is very noble of him."

"The governor sent me to him when I was a young chap--for punishment, I
think," says Dicky, mildly, "and I don't like to give him up now. He is
such a fetching old thing, and so conversational, and takes such an
interest in my nether limbs."

"Who are you talking of in such laudatory terms?" asks Dulce, curiously,
raising her head at this moment.

"Of Jerry--my tailor," says Dicky, confidentially.

"Ah! A good man, but--er--tiresome," says Julia, vaguely, with a
cleverly suppressed yawn; she is evidently under the impression that
they are discussing Jeremy Taylor, _not_ the gentleman in the Strand.

"_Is_ he good?" asks Dicky, somewhat at sea. "A capital fellow to make
trousers, I know, but for his morality I can't vouch."

"I am speaking of the divine, Jeremy Taylor," says Julia, very justly
shocked at what she believes to be levity on the part of Dicky. "_He_
didn't make trousers, he only made maxims!"

"Poor soul!" says Mr. Browne, with heartfelt pity in his tone, to whom
Jeremy Taylor is a revelation, and a sad one. "Did he die of 'em?"

Of this frivolous remark Julia deigns to take no notice. And, indeed,
they are all too accustomed to Mr. Browne's eccentricities of style to
spend time trying to unravel them.

"You haven't yet explained to me the important business that kept you at
home all day," Dulce is saying to Mr. Gower. She is leaning slightly
forward, and is looking down into his eyes.

"Tenants and a steward, and such like abominations," he says, rather
absently. Then, his glance wandering to her little white, slender
fingers, that are idly trifling with her fan, "By-the-by," he goes on,
"the steward--Mayne, you know--can write with both hands. Odd, isn't it?
Just as well with his left as with his right."

"A rather useless accomplishment, I should think."

"I don't know. It occurred to me we should all learn how to do it, in
case we should break our arms, or our legs, or anything."

"What on earth would our legs have to do with it," says Miss Blount,
with a gay little laugh, which he echoes.

"Oh? well, in case we should sprain our right wrists, then. When Mayne
went away I tried if _I_ could make use of my left hand, and succeeded
rather well. Look here, you hold your hand like this."

"It sounds difficult," says Dulce, doubtfully.

"It isn't though, really. Will you try?" Taking a pencil and an envelope
from his pocket, he lays the latter on her knee, and hands her the
former. "Now let me hold your hand just at first to guide you, and you
will soon see how simple it is. Only practice is required."

"It will take a good deal of practice and a good deal of guidance, I
shouldn't wonder," says Miss Blount, smiling.

"That will be my gain," returns he in a low tone. As he speaks he lays
his hand on hers, and directs the pencil; so the lesson begins; and so
it continues uninterrupted for several minutes; Dulce is getting on
quite smoothly; Mr. Gower is plainly interested in a very high degree,
when Roger, coming up to them, lays his hand lightly upon Dulce's
shoulder. He is still passionately angry, and almost unable to control
himself. To see Dulce's fingers clasped by those of Gower, however
innocently, has fired his wrath, and driven him to open expression of
his displeasure.

"If you have forgotten how to write, Dulce," he says in a low, strained
voice, "I daresay it will be possible to find a master to re-instruct
you. In the meantime, why trouble Gower?"

"Does it trouble you, Mr. Gower?" asks she, sweetly, looking straight at
Stephen and ignoring Roger.

"Need I answer that?" responds he, flushing warmly, and in his turn
ignoring Dare.

"Then you need not worry yourself to get me a master, Roger," says
Dulce, still quite sweetly. "It is very good of you to wish to take such
trouble about me, but you see I have got one already."

"Not a master--a slave!" says Gower, impulsively. There's such evident
and earnest meaning in his tone that she colors violently, and, with a
rather open manifestation of shrinking, withdraws her hand from his
clasp; the pencil falls to the ground, but Roger has turned aside, and
this last act on her part is unseen by him.

"Is anything the matter with Roger?" says Gower, slowly.

"What should be the matter with him?" asks she, coldly.

"Do you remember what we were reading yesterday? Do you remember even
one particular line? It comes to me now. 'So loving jealous.' You
recollect?"

"No; and even if I did, what has it to do with Roger?"

"Nothing--_perhaps_." There is a small fine smile around his lips that
incenses her, she scarcely knows why.

"Then what does your quotation mean?"

"Nothing, too, no doubt. Shall we go on with our lesson?"

"No, I am tired of it," she says, petulantly. "I like nothing, I think,
for very long." She has grown somewhat restless, and her eyes are
wistful. They are following Roger, who has thrown himself at Portia's
feet.

"Are your friendships, too, short-lived?" asks Gower, biting his lips.
You can see that he is lounging on the grass, and at this moment, having
raised his hand, it falls again, by chance upon her instep.

Remorse and regret have been companions of her bosom for the past
minute, now they quicken into extreme anger. Pushing back the garden
chair on which she has been sitting, she stands up and confronts the
stricken Gower with indignant eyes.

"Don't do that again," she says, with trembling lips. Her whole
attitude--voice and expression--are undeniably childish, yet she
frightens Gower nearly out of his wits.

"I beg your pardon," he stammers, eagerly, growing quite white. "I must
_insist_ on your understanding I did not mean it. How could you think
it? I--"

At this instant Roger laughs. The laugh comes to Dulce as she stands
before Gower grieved and angry and repentant, and her whole face
changes. The grief and the repentance vanish, the very anger fades into
weariness.

"Yes, I believe you--I was foolish--it doesn't matter," she says,
heavily; and then she sinks into her seat again, and taking a small
volume of selected poetry from a rustic table at her elbow, throws it
into his lap.

"Read me something," she says, gently.

"What shall I select?" asks Stephen, puzzled by the sudden change in her
manner, but anxious to please her.

"Anything. It hardly matters; they are all pretty," she says,
disconnectedly, and so indifferently that he is fairly piqued; his
reading being one of his strongest points; and taking up the book, he
opens it at random, and begins to read in a low, sweet, rhyming voice
that certainly carries its own charm.

Dulce, in spite of herself, is by degrees drawn to listen to it; yet
though the words so softly spoken attract her and chain her attention,
there is always a line of discontent around her lovely mouth, and a
certain angry petulance within her eyes, and in the gesture with which
she furls and unfurls her huge black fan.

Dicky Browne, who has confiscated all the cake, and is therefore free to
go where he lists, has drawn near to her, and, under cover of a
cigarette, is pretending to be absorbed in the poetry. Gower has fallen
now upon Gray's Elegy in a Churchyard, and is getting through it most
effectively. All the others have grown silent, either touched by the
beauty of the dying daylight, or the tender lines that are falling on
the air. When at length Stephen finishes the poem, and his voice ceases
to break the stillness of the coming eve, no one stirs, and an utter
calm ensues. It is broken by the irrepressible Julia.

"What a charming thing that is," she says, alluding, they presume, to
the Elegy. She pauses here, but no one takes her up or seems to care to
continue the praise of what is almost beyond it. But Julia is not easily
discouraged.

"One can almost see the gaunt trees," she says, sentimentally, "and the
ivied walls of the old church, and the meadows beyond, and the tinkling
of the tiny bells, and the soft white sheep as they move perpetually
onward in the far, far distance."

She sighs, as though overcome by the perfect picture she has so kindly
drawn for their benefit.

"I wish to goodness she would move on herself," says Dicky Browne. "It
is enough to make poor Gray turn in his grave."

"I think she describes rather prettily, and quite as if she meant it,"
says Portia, softly.

"Not a bit of it," growls Dicky; "she _don't_ mean it; she couldn't;
It's all put on--regular plaster! She doesn't feel it; she knows as much
about poetry as I do."

"You underrate yourself, my darling boy," says Roger, fondly.

"Oh! you get out," says Mr. Brown, most ungratefully.

"I think to be able to read _really_ well is an intense charm," goes on
Julia, glancing sweetly at Stephen. "If one had only some one to give
one a kindly hint now and then about the correct intonation and emphasis
and that, it would be a regular study, of course. I really have half a
mind to go in for it."

"So glad she has at last arrived at a just appreciation of her own
powers," says Dicky, _sotto voce_. "I should think she has just half a
mind and no more, to do anything with."

He is hushed up; and then Stephen goes on again, choosing passages from
Shakespeare this time, for a change, while silence once more reigns.

Roger is looking sulky and unkindly critical. Sir Mark has been guilty
of a small yawn or two. Julia, in spite of the most heroic efforts to
the contrary, is openly and disgracefully sleepy. Portia's eyes are full
of tears. Dicky Browne, who is tired of not hearing his own voice, and
whose only belief in the divine William is that he gave him "a jolly lot
of trouble in his schooldays," is aweary, and is only waiting an
opportunity to cut in and make himself heard, in spite of all
opposition.

It comes--the opportunity--and Dicky seizes it. Mr. Gower is at his very
best. He has thrown his whole soul into his voice, and is even himself
wrapt up in the piece he has before him.

"'Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,'" his voice rings out clear
and full of melancholy prophecy; it is a voice that should have
impressed any right-minded individual, but Dicky's mind is below par.

"I should think he'd lie considerably more uneasy without it," he says,
cheerfully. "He'd feel like being scalped, wouldn't he? And get dreaming
about Comanches and tomahawks and Fenimore Cooper, eh?"

For once Dicky scores. The men have grown tired of Mr. Gower's
performance, and hail the interruption with delight. Roger turns on his
side, and laughs aloud. This attention, so unprecedented on his part,
fills Dicky's soul with rapture. He instantly bestows upon his supporter
a smile rich with gratitude; yet perhaps it is not Mr. Browne's wit
alone that has called forth such open manifestation of mirth from Roger.
There is, I think, just the faintest touch of malice in his merriment.

And then the faithless Dulce laughs too; the most musical, ringing
little laugh in the world, but none the less galling for all its
sweetness. It is the last straw. Mr. Gower, suppressing a very natural
inclination, lays the book down gently on the grass beside him (he would
have given anything to be able to fling it far from him), and makes some
casual remark about the excessive beauty of the evening.

And, indeed, it is beautiful; all down the Western slope of the
fir-crowned hill, the fading rays of light still wander, though even now
in the clear heavens the evening star has risen, and is shining calm and
clear as a soul entered on its eternal rest.

"Will you not read us something else?" says Dulce, feeling a little
ashamed of herself.

"Some other time," returns he.

"Dicky rather took the sentiment out of it," says Roger, still
maliciously mirthful. "I hardly think he and the Swan of Avon would be
congenial souls."

"Well, I don't know," says Sir Mark, lazily. "We have been taught that
extremes meet, you see."

"Dicky, how can you stand their impertinence?" asks Dulce, gaily.
"Assert yourself, I entreat you."

"There is such a thing as silent contempt," says Mr. Browne, untouched
by their darts. "There is also a passage somewhere that alludes to an
'unlettered small-knowing soul;' I do not desire to quote it in this
company. Let us return to the immortal Bill."

But they are all laughing still, and in the face of laughter, it is
difficult to get back to tragedy. And so no one encourages Gower to
continue his work, and this, in despite of the fact that the light
growing as it is toward the gloaming, seems in keeping with dismal tales
and softly-mouthed miseries.

Every moment the evening star grows brighter, gaining glory as the day
declines. The mist has died away into the ocean, the breeze has sunk to
slumber, only the song of many birds hymning themselves to roost amongst
the quiet thickets disturbs the tranquility of the air.

Dead leaves that speak of Autumn and coming dissolution float toward the
loiterers on the lawn, and, sinking at their feet, preach to them a
lesson of the life that lasts not, and of that other life that in all
its splendor may yet dawn upon them.

A soft and sullen roar from the ocean makes the silence felt. The sea,
clothed round with raiment of white waves, and rich with sparkling life,
dashing itself along the beach, breathes a monotonous murmur that wafts
itself inland and falls with vague music upon the listening ear.
Thoughts arise within the breast, born of the sweet solemnity of the
hour, and the sadness that belongs to all life--but in this changeable
world nothing lasts, and presently seeing something in the lawn below
that puzzles her sight, Julia says, quickly: "What are the moving forms
I see down there?"

"Only the children undulating," says Mr. Browne, promptly.

"What?" says Sir Mark.

"I have said!" returns Dicky.

"There is surely something besides children," says Portia, trying to
pierce the gathering darkness. "See, what is that coming towards us
now?"

They all peer eagerly in the direction of the firs, from between which a
flying mass may be seen emerging, and approaching rapidly to where they
are all seated.

"It is only Jacky on his fact," says Mr. Browne, at length after a
careful examination of this moving form.

"On what?" asks Roger, curiously.

"His fact," repeats Dicky, unmoved.

"What's that?" asks Jacky's mamma, somewhat anxiously--if a careless, it
must be to her credit said, that Julia is a very kindly mother, and is
now rather upset by Mr. Browne's mysterious declaration.

"You ought to know; you gave it to him," declares he. "He's sitting on
it anyhow."

"Really, Dicky, we must ask you to explain yourself," says Sir Mark,
with dignity.

"Why, it's only a donkey," says Dulce, "and Jacky is riding him."

"Just so," says Mr. Browne, equably; "and a very large donkey, too; I
always call them facts because they are stubborn things. At least, that
one is, because I rode it yesterday--at least I tried to--and it behaved
very ill indeed. It's--it's a very nasty animal, and painfully
unamiable."

"What did it do to you?" asks Julia, who is again in secret fear about
her first born, who every moment draws more near.

"Well, I got on him, incited thereto by Jacky and the Boodie, and when I
had beaten him unceasingly for a full quarter of an hour, in the vain
hope of persuading him to undertake even a gentle walk, he turned
treacherously to the right, and squeezed my best leg against the garden
wall. I bore it heroically, because I knew the Boodie was regarding me
sternly, but I could have wept bitterly; I don't know if all walls are
the same, but the _garden_ wall hurts very much."

"I wonder where Dicky gets all his stories," says Dulce, admiringly.

"He evolves them out of his inner consciousness," replies Sir Mark.

Meantime, Jacky draws nearer and nearer. He advances on the donkey--and
on them, at a furious pace. Surely, never was a lazy ass so ridden
before! Perhaps those watching him are under the impression that when
closer to them he will guide his steed to their right or to their left,
or at least steer clear of them in some way, but if so they are
mistaken.

Jacky is in his element. He gallops wildly up to them, with arms and
legs flying north and south, and his cap many miles behind. That hidden
sense that tells the young and artless one that the real meaning of all
fun is to take some one by surprise and frighten the life out of him, is
full upon him now.

"Out of my way," he shrieks, in frenzied accents almost, as he bears
down upon them. "Out of my way, I say, or he'll kill you; I can't pull
him in. He is running away with me!"

With this the wily young hypocrite gives the donkey a final kick with
his right heel, and dashes ungallantly into the very midst of them.

The confusion that follows is all his heart can desire. Great indeed is
the rout. Camp chairs are scattered broadcast; shawls strew the lawn;
Julia flies to the right, Dulce to the left; Portia instinctively finds
refuge behind Dicky Browne, who shows great gallantry on this memorable
occasion, and devotes himself to the service of the frail and weak.
Indeed, it is on record, that, in the height of his zeal, he encircled
Portia's waist with his arm, and cried aloud to the foe to "come on," as
he waited for victory or death.

Jacky flies past, and is presently seen urging on his wild career in the
little glade that leads to the wood. Once more they breathe, and order
is restored, to Gower's deep regret, as he has managed, in the _melee_,
to seize hold of Dulce's hand, and in an abstracted fashion has held it
ever since.

"That boy deserves a sound whipping," says Sir Mark, indignantly, who
is, nevertheless, a sworn friend of the graceless Jacky.

"You hear, Julia; you are to whip him at once?" says Roger.

"Whip him!" says Mrs. Beaufort, resentfully. "Indeed I shall not. I
never whipped one of them in my life, and I never shall."

"You'd be afraid," says Dicky Browne. "You should see Julia when the
Boodie attacks her; she literally goes into her boots, and stays there.
It is, indeed, a pitiable exhibition. By-the-by, does anybody want
dinner; because, if so, he may as well go and dress. It is quite
half-past six."



CHAPTER XIII.

            "A vague unrest
          And a nameless longing filled her breast."


TIME, as a rushing wind, slips by, and brings us Dulce's ball. The night
is lovely and balmy as any evening in the Summer months gone by, though
now September shakes the leaves to their fall. A little breeze sweeps up
from the ocean, where the "lights around the shore" show mystical and
bright; while overhead, all down the steeps of heaven, myriad stars are
set, to flood the sleeping world with their cold, clear beauty.

Upon the walls, and all along the balconies, lie patches of broken
moonshine; and in the garden the pale beams revel and kiss the buds
until they wake; and "all flowers that blow by day come forth, as t'were
high noon."

In the library the lamps are lowered. Nobody has come down-stairs yet,
and the footman, giving the last lingering touch to the little sweet
gossiping fire that warns them of Winter's approach, turns to leave the
room. On the threshold, however, he stands aside to let Miss Vibart
enter.

She is dressed in a white satin gown, creamy in shade, and rather severe
in its folds. Some pale water-lilies lie upon it, as though cast there
by some lucky chance, and cling to it lovingly, as if glad to have found
so soft a resting place. There is no flower in her hair, and no jewels
anywhere, except three rows of priceless pearls, that clasp her slender
throat. Throwing her gloves and fan upon the centre table, she walks
slowly to a mirror, and examines herself somewhat critically.

As if ungratefully dissatisfied with the lovely vision it presents to
her, she turns away again, with an impatient sigh, and trifles absently
with a paper knife near her. There is a discontented line about her
mouth, a wistful, restless expression in her eyes. She moves slowly,
too, as if gladness is far from her, and shows, in every glance and
movement, a strange amount of languor.

As though her thoughts compel her to action, she walks aimlessly from
place to place; and now, as if she is listening for something to come;
and now, as if she is trying to make up her mind to take some step from
which she shrinks in secret.

At last, drawing her breath with a sudden quickness, born of
determination, she opens a drawer in a cabinet, and, taking from it a
little volume in the Tauchnitz binding, she opens the library door, and,
turning to the right, walks swiftly down the corridor.

From out the shadow a figure advances toward her, a figure bent and
uncomely, that tries in vain to avoid the meeting with her, and to get
out of sight before recognition sets in.

It is the old man Slyme. As she sees him there returns to Portia the
memory of many other times when she has met him here in this corridor,
with apparently no meaning for his presence. Some unaccountable and
utterly vague feeling of dislike for this man has been hers ever since
she first saw him. He is repugnant to her in a remarkable degree,
considering how little he has to do with her life in any way.

"He seems to haunt this part of the house," she says to herself now,
uncomfortably. "If I were Fabian I should hate to know there was a
chance of meeting him every time I opened my door. Has he, perhaps, a
passion for Fabian--or--"

Instinctively she throws an additional touch of hauteur into her shapely
head, and without deigning to notice the old man, sweeps by him, her
glimmering white skirts making a gentle _frou-frou_ as she goes.

When she has passed, the secretary raises his eyes and watches her
departing form, furtively. There is great cunning mixed with malignity
and resentment in his glance. He mutters something inaudible, that
carries no blessing in its tone, but yet, as though fascinated by her
beauty, he stands still and follows each step she takes upon the
polished oaken flooring.

As she stops at a particular door, his whole face changes, and satisfied
malice takes the place of resentment.

"Even such pride can stoop," he mutters, with a half-drunken chuckle.
"And it is I, my fine lady--who can scarce breathe when I am by--that
have power to ring your proud heart."

He turns, and shambles onwards towards his own den.

Portia's steps have grown slower as she gets nearer to the door before
which Slyme has seen her stop. Her eyes have sought the ground; all
along the floor her image may be seen, lengthened, but clear; almost
with every step she seems to tread upon herself. As she reaches the door
she hesitates, and then lifts her hand as if with the intention of
knocking. But again she pauses, and her hand drops to her side. As if
more nervous than she cares to own, she leans against the lintel of the
door, as one might, desirous of support.

Then the weakness vanishes; fastening her teeth upon her under lip, she
rouses herself, and tapping gently but distinctly upon one of the
panels, awaits an answer.

Presently she gets it. "Come in," says Fabian's voice, clear,
indifferent; and slowly turning the handle she enters the room.

The lamps are alight; a fire is burning in the grate. At the upper table
of this room, that is his study, his very _sanctum sanctorum_, Fabian is
sitting with some papers and books before him.

At first, being unconscious of who his visitor is, he does not lift his
head, but now, seeing her, he rises quickly to his feet, and says,

"You!" in accents of the most acute surprise.

She is standing barely inside the door with the little volume pressed
closely, almost convulsively, between her fingers, and for a moment
makes him no reply. It is the first time they have ever been alone since
that day when he had injured his arm through the running away of Sir
Christopher's mare.

Now, his face, his tone, is so unfriendly that a great fear falls upon
her. Is he very angry with her still? Has she sinned past forgiveness?
Will he, perhaps, order her to leave the room? She tries to rally her
power of resistance against what fate--relentless, implacable--is
preparing for her; but in vain. A terrible fear of him (the man
regarding her with such stern eyes) and of herself crushes her. Her
heart dies within her; what evil has fallen upon her days, that _once_
were happy? and yet--and yet--of what--what exquisite sweetness is this
evil formed!

She flushes, first painfully; and then the flush fades, and pallor holds
full sway.

"I can do something for you?" asks Fabian, not advancing toward her,
not letting even one kindly accent warm his frozen tone, and this when
the silence has grown positively unbearable.

"Thank you--no." Her little cold hands are nervously twined around the
book she holds. Speech has cruelly deserted her; a sob has risen in her
throat, and she is battling with it so fiercely, that for a moment she
can say nothing. Then she conquers, and almost piteously she lays the
book upon the very edge of the table nearest her, and says with
difficulty:

"I brought you this. At breakfast this morning you said you had not read
it; and to-night I knew you would be alone, and I thought--it is 'The
Europeans'--it might help you to while away an hour."

Her voice dies away and again silence follows it. She is really
frightened now. She has met many men, has been the acknowledged beauty
of a London season, has had great homage laid at her feet; but no man
has had power to make her heart waken, until she met this man, upon whom
disgrace lies heavy. It is _Kismet_! She feels cold now, and miserable,
and humbled before him who should surely be humbled before her. What has
she meant by coming to his room without so much as an invitation; to
him--who in her sight is guilty, indeed, of an offense not to be
forgiven in the world.

She grows tired and very weary, and the old pain at her heart, that
always comes to her when she is miserable or perplexed, is tormenting
her now, making her feel sick of life and dispirited.

"It was kind of you to think of me," says Fabian, coldly; "_too_ kind.
But there are some matters of importance I must get through to-night,
and I fear I shall not have time for fiction."

She takes up the book again, the little instrument that betrays his
determination to accept no benefits at her hands, and moves toward the
door.

Coming quickly up to her, that he may open the door, he stands between
her and it, and stops her.

"As you are here," he says, "let me look at you. Remember, I have never
seen you dressed for a ball before."

As if astonished at his request, she stands quite still, and, letting
her round, bare arms hang loosely before her, with her hands clasped,
she lets him gaze at her sweet fairness in utter silence. It takes him
some time. Then--

"You are very pale," he says--no more. Not a word of praise escapes him.
She is woman enough to feel chagrin at this, and discontent. Has her
glass lied to her, then? One small word of approbation, even about her
gown, would have been sweet to her at this moment. _Is_ she so very
pale? Is it that this white gown does not become her? A quick dislike to
the beautiful robe--and only an hour ago she had regarded it with
positive affection--now takes possession of her.

"I am always pale," she says, with subdued resentment.

"Not always. To-night one hardly knows where your _dress_ ends, and
where _you_ begin." She has hardly time to wonder if this is a
compliment or the other thing, when he goes on again: "I don't think I
ever saw you in white before?" he says.

"No; and it is probable you will never see me in it again," she says,
petulantly. "I dislike it. It is cold and unbecoming, I think."

"No, not unbecoming."

"Well," she says, impatiently, "not becoming, at least."

"That, of course, is quite a matter of taste," he says, indifferently.

She laughs unpleasantly. To _make_ him give a decided opinion upon her
appearance has now grown to be a settled purpose with her. She moves her
foot impatiently upon the ground, then, suddenly, she lifts her eyes to
his--the large, sweet, wistful eyes he has learned to know so well, and
that now are quick with defiance--and says, obstinately:

"Do _you_ think it suits me?"

He pauses. And then a peculiar smile that, somehow, angers her
excessively, grows round his lips and lingers there.

"Yes," he answers, slowly; "you are looking admirably--you are looking
all you can possibly desire to-night."

She is deeply angered. She turns abruptly aside, and, passing him, goes
quickly to the door.

"I beg your pardon," he says, hastily, following her, with a really
contrite expression on his face. "Of course I know you did not want me
to say that--yet--what was it you did want me to say? You challenged me,
you know."

"I am keeping you from your work," says Portia, quietly. "Go back to
it. I know I should not have come here to disturb you, and--"

"Do not say that," he interrupts her, eagerly. "I deserve it, I know,
but _do not_. I have lost all interest in my work. I cannot return to it
to-night. And that book you brought, let me have it now, will you? I
shall be glad of it by-and-by."

Before she can refuse, a sound of footsteps without makes itself heard;
there is a tinkling, as of many bangles, and then the door is thrown
wide, and Dulce enters.

She is looking very pretty in a gown of palest azure. There is a
brightness, a joyousness, about her that must attract and please the
eye; she is, indeed,

          "One not tired with life's long day, but glad
           I' the freshness of its morning."

"I have come to say good-night to you, Fabian," she says, regarding her
brother with loving, wistful eyes. "I suppose I shan't be able to see
you again until to-morrow. Promise me you will go to bed, and to sleep,
_soon_."

"That is the very simplest promise one can give," returns he, mockingly.
"Why should not one sleep?" Then, seeing the extreme sadness that has
settled on her _mignonne_ face, that should, by right, only be glad with
smiles, goes on more gently: "Be happy; I shall do all you ask me."

"Ah, Portia, you here, too," says Dulce, smiling gratefully at her. "How
sweet you are looking to-night--and your gown--how perfect. Isn't it
lovely, Fabian?"

"Quite lovely," slowly.

"And she herself, too," goes on Dulce, enthusiastically, "isn't _she_
lovely, as well?"

"Yes," says Fabian, still more slowly.

"She is like a dream of snow, or purity--or something," says Dulce,
vaguely, but admiringly.

"Or ice?" says Fabian.

"Oh, _no_, not _ice_. It is too hard, too unsympathetic, too cold."

"They are both cold, are they not?" says Portia, with a very faint
smile. "Both ice and snow."

"Dulce, Dulce!" calls somebody, from without.

"Now, who _is_ that," says Miss Blount, irritably. "Roger, of _course_.
I really never am allowed one moment to myself when he is in the house.
He spends his entire time, first calling me, and then quarreling with me
when he finds me. He does it on purpose, I think. He can't bear me to
have even one peaceful or happy instant. I never met any one so utterly
provoking as Roger."

She runs to him, nevertheless, and Portia moves as if to follow her.

"Don't leave me in anger," entreats Fabian, in some agitation, detaining
her by a gesture full of entreaty. "Do anything but that. Think of the
long hours I shall have to put in here, by myself, with nothing but my
own thoughts; and say something kind to me before you go."

"You forget," she says, with slow reproach, her eyes on the ground. "How
can you hope for anything--even one word--sympathetic from _ice_. Let me
go to Dulce."

"You _shall_ not leave me like this," dictates he, desperately, shutting
the door with sudden passion, and deliberately placing his back against
it. "Am I not sufficiently unhappy that you should seek to make me even
more so; to add, indeed, a very crown to my misery. I will not face the
long night alone with this fresh grief! The remembrance of your face as
it now looks at me, of your eyes, so calm, so unforgiving, would fill
the weary hours with madness. _You_ don't know what it is to endure the
pangs of Tantalus, to have a perpetual hunger at your heart that can
never be satisfied. _I_ do. I have suffered enough. You must be friends
with me before you go."

"I came to make friends with you. I wanted to be friends with you,
and--"

"Yes, I know. I received you ungraciously; I grant it; but was there
nothing for _me_ to forgive? And even if I was unpardonably ungrateful
for your kindness, is that so heavy a crime that I should be punished
for it with what is worse than death? Portia, I entreat you, once again,
put your hand in mine before you leave me."

He is very pale, and there is a very agony of expectation in his dark
eyes. But yet she stands irresolute, not seeing his agony, because her
head is bent, with her fair arms still hanging before her, with her
fingers closely intertwined.

He can look unrebuked upon her beauty, upon the rounded whiteness of her
arms, upon the tumultuous rise and fall of her bosom, upon the little
shapely, perfect head, that might well have graced a throne.

Each rich charm in her lovely downcast face is clear to him; a great
yearning takes possession of his breast, an unconquerable desire to tell
her all he feels for her. There have been moments when he has thought he
_must_ fall at her feet, and laying hold of the hem of her garment, cry
aloud to her from out his heart's wild longing, "I have gone mad! I love
you! Let me die!"

This is such a moment. Oh! to be able to take her in his arms for even
one brief instant, and hold her close to his breaking heart--this silent
girl, with her pride, and her beauty, and her cruel tenderness.

He sighs heavily, and turns his head away. Still no word escapes her.
She might almost be cut in marble, so quiet, so motionless she stands.
Is she indifferent to his pain; or careless of it--or ignorant?

"Go, then," he says, without looking at her, in a voice from which all
warmth and feeling of any sort, be it anger or regret, has flown. "There
is no reason at all why you should waste even one kind word or touch
upon me. I was mad to ask it."

At this, life returns to her. Her lips quiver; she lifts her eyes to
his, and such is the force of her regard that he is constrained, sorely
against his will, to return it. Then he can see her eyes are full of
tears--great liquid loving drops that tremble to their fall; and even as
he watches them, in painful wonder, they part from her lids and run all
down her pale but rounded checks.

She holds out to him, not one, but _two_ hands. His whole face changes;
a gladness, that has in it something of heaven, fills his eyes.

Taking the little trembling hands softly in his own, he lays them on his
beating heart.

For a moment only, then he lets them fall; and then, before this divine
joy has quite left him, he finds himself, once more alone.



CHAPTER XIV.

          "What sudden anger's this? How have I reaped it?
          He parted frowning from me, as if ruin leaped from
          his eyes."--SHAKESPEARE.


The night wears on. By this time everybody is either pleased or
disappointed with the evening. For the most part, of course, they looked
pleased, because frowns are unbecoming; but, then, looks go for so
little.

Julia, who has impounded a middle-aged baronet, is radiant. The
middle-aged baronet is not! He evidently regards Julia as a sort of
modern albatross, that hangs heavily to his neck, and withers beneath
her touch. She has been telling him all about her early life in India,
and her troubles, and the way she suffered with her servants, and
various other private matters; and the poor baronet doesn't seem to see
it, and is very fatigued indeed. But Julia has him fast, and so there is
little hope for him.

Dulce and Roger have been at open war ever since the second dance. From
their eyes, when directed at each other, have darted forked lightning
since that fatal dance.

"If they could only have been kept apart for 'this night only,'" says
Sir Mark, in despair, "all might have been well; but the gods ordained
otherwise."

Perhaps the careless gods had Stephen Gower's case in consideration; at
all events, that calm young man, profiting by the dispute between the
betrothed pair, has been making decided, if smothered, love to Dulce,
all the evening.

By this time, indeed, the whole room has noticed his infatuation, and
covert remarks about the probability of her carrying on to a successful
finish her first engagement are whispered here and there.

Sir Christopher is looking grave and anxious. Some kind friend has been
making him as uncomfortable about Dulce's future as circumstances will
permit.

Meanwhile, Dulce herself, with a bright flush upon her cheeks and a
light born of defiance in her blue-green eyes, is dancing gaily with
Stephen, and is looking charming enough to draw all eyes upon her.

Dicky Browne, of course, is in his element. He is dancing with
everybody, talking to everybody, flirting with everybody, and is, as he
himself declares, "as jolly as a sand boy." He is making love
indiscriminately all round--with old maids and young--married and
single--with the most touching impartiality.

"Dicky is like the bee amongst the flowerets. By Jove, if he improves
the shining hours, he ought to make a good match yet," says Dicky's
papa, who has condescended to forsake his club for one night, and grace
Dulce's ball with his somewhat attenuated charms.

As the above speech will prove, Mr. Browne senior's knowledge of Watts
and Tommy Moore is limited and decidedly mixed.

Among all the fair women assembled at the Hall to-night, to Portia,
beyond dispute, must the golden apple be awarded. She is still pale, but
exceedingly beautiful. The wistful, tired expression that darkens her
eyes only serves to heighten her loveliness, and throw out the delicate
tinting of her fair skin. Dulce, noticing her extreme pallor, goes up to
her, and whispers gently:

"You are tired, darling. Do not dance any more, unless you wish it."

"I am not sure, I _don't_ wish it; I don't exactly know what it is I
_do_ wish," says Portia, with a rather broken smile. "I daresay, like
most other things in this life, I shall find out all about it when it is
too late. But finish your waltz, dearest, and don't puzzle your brain
about me."

All the windows are thrown wide open. Outside the heavens are alight
with stars. The air is heavy with the breath of dying flowers, and the
music--faint and low at times, and again wild and sweet--rises and
swells as the director waves to and fro his magic wand.

Inside, in the conservatories, the lamps are burning low; the tender
blossoms are hanging down their heads. Between the dark green branches
of the shrubs, lights blue and red and yellow gleam softly. In the
distance may be heard the plaintive drip-drip of many fountains.

Roger, passing through one of the halls, and seeing Dulce and Mr. Gower
standing before a huge Chelsea bowl of flowers, stops short, hesitates,
and then, _bon gre mal gre_, goes up to them and makes some trivial
remark that neither deserves an answer nor gets one.

Dulce is apparently wrapped up in the contemplation of a flower she has
taken from the old bowl--that looks something like an indoor Marguerite;
she is plucking it slowly to pieces, and as she so mutilates it,
whispers softly the incantation that will help to declare her fortune:

"Il m'aime--un peu--beaucoup--passionément--pas du tout. Il m'aime--un
peu--"

The petals are all gone; nothing remains but the very heart of the poor
flower, which now, as she breaks it mercilessly in two, flutters sadly
to her feet, and dies there.

"Yes--just so," she says, with a little hostile glance at Roger,
distinctly seen by Gower--"and such a very little, that it need hardly
count!"

"What an unsatisfactory lover," says Roger, rather satirically,
returning her glance with interest. "Of whom were you thinking?"

"My dear Roger, you forget," says Miss Blount, with admirable
promptitude; "how could I think of any one in that light! I have never
had a lover in my life. I have only had--_you_!" She says this slowly,
and lets her lids fall half over her eyes, that are now gleaming with
undue brilliancy.

"True!" replies Dare, with maddening concurrence, stroking his mustache
softly.

"_Isn't_ Roger charming," says Dulce (her own manner deeply aggravating
in its turn), tapping Gower's arm lightly and confidentially with her
fan; "_so_ honest and withal _so_ gracious."

"A compliment from you is, indeed, worth having," says Roger, who is in
a dreadful temper; "but a truce to them now. By-the-by, were you really
thinking of me just now when you plucked that unoffending flower to
pieces? I can hardly bring myself to believe it."

"If not of you, of whom should I be thinking?" retorts she, calmly but
defiantly.

"Well--Gower, for example," says Roger, with a sneering laugh, and
unpardonable bad taste. "_He_ looks as though he could do a lover's part
at a moment's notice, and without the slightest effort."

As he makes this objectionable little speech, he turns on his heel and
leaves them.

Dulce, crimson, and with her breath coming somewhat quickly, still lets
her eyes meet Gower's bravely.

"I must ask you to excuse my cousin," she says, quietly. "How warm the
rooms are; is there no air anywhere, I wonder?"

"On the balcony there is," says Gower, gently. "Shall we go there for a
minute or two?"

She lays her hand upon his arm, and goes with him through the lighted,
heavily-perfumed rooms on to the balcony, where the cool air is blowing,
and where the fresh scent from the waving pines makes itself felt.

The moon is sailing in all its grandeur overhead. Below, the world is
white with its glory. The music of many rivulets, as they rush
sleepless to the river, sounds sweeter far than even the strains of the
band within.

It is past midnight. The stars are growing pale. Already the "world's
heart" begins to throb,

          "And a wind blows,
           With unknown freshness over lands and seas."

Something in the silence and majesty of the hour, and something,
perhaps, within her own heart, brings the unbidden tears to Dulce's
eyes.

"What can be the matter with Roger?" asks Stephen, presently, in a low
tone. "We used to be such good friends, long ago. I never saw anyone so
changed. He _used_ to be a genial sort of fellow." The emphasis is very
expressive.

"Used he?" says Dulce, in a somewhat expressionless tone.

"Yes; a right down good sort."

"Is he so very bad now?" says Dulce, deliberately and dishonestly
ignorant.

"To you--yes."

There is a pause.

"I think I hardly understand you," she says, in a tone that should have
warned him to be silent.

"Have you forgotten the scene of a moment since?" he asks her, eagerly.
"His voice, his glance, his whole manner were unbearable; you bore it
like an angel--but--why should you bear _anything_? Why should you
trouble yourself about him at all? Why not show that you care as little
for him as he cares for--"

"Go on," says Dulce, imperiously.

"As he cares for _you_, then," says Stephen, recklessly.

"You have been studying us to some purpose, evidently," exclaims Dulce,
turning to him with extreme bitterness. "I suppose, indeed, you are not
alone in your judgment. I daresay it is apparent to the whole world that
I am a matter of perfect indifference to--to--my cousin!"

"'Who runs may read,'" says Stephen with quiet determination. "Why
should I lie to you? He must be blind and deaf, I think--it is not to be
accounted for in any other way. Why, that other morning in the garden,
you remember how he then--"

"I remember nothing," interrupts she, haughtily, turning away from him,
deep offence in her eyes.

But he follows her.

"Now you are angry with me," he says, miserably, trying to look into her
averted face.

"Why should I be angry?" she says, petulantly. "Is it because you tell
me Roger does not care for me? Do you think I did not know that before?
It is, indeed, a question with me whether I am or am not an object of
aversion to the man I have promised to marry."

"You speak very hardly," he says.

"I speak what is in my heart," says Dulce, tremulously.

"Nevertheless, I should not have said what I did," says Stephen,
remorsefully, "I know that. Whatever I might have thought, I should have
kept it to myself; but"--in a low tone--"it maddens me to see you give
yourself voluntarily to one incapable of appreciating the treasure that
has fallen to his share--a treasure beyond price--when there are others
who, for a word, a glance, a smile, would barter--"

He pauses. His voice is trembling. His eyes are bent upon the ground as
though he is half afraid to meet her glance. There is genuine feeling in
his tone.

Dulce, impressed by his open agitation, in spite of herself, leans over
the balcony, and lets her fingers wander nervously amongst the leaves of
the Virginian creeper that has intertwined itself in the ironwork, and
is now fluttering within her reach. It is gleaming blood-red beneath the
kiss of the fickle moonbeams, that dance hither and thither amidst its
crimson foliage.

Plucking two or three of the reddest leaves, she trifles with them
gently, and concentrating all her attention on them, gives herself an
excuse for avoiding Stephen's earnest gaze. Her hands are unsteady. She
is affected by the sincerity of his manner; and just now, too, she is
feeling hurt and wounded, and, perhaps, a little reckless. Her
self-pride (that dearest possession of a woman) has sustained a severe
shock; for the first time she has been awakened to the fact that the
whole country considers her as naught in the eyes of the man whose wife
she has promised to be.

To prove to the country that she is as indifferent to Roger as he (it
appears) is to her, becomes a settled desire within her heart; the more
she dwells upon this, the more sweet it seems to her that there should
be another man willing to be her slave; another in whose sight she is
all that a woman should be, and to whom each tone of her voice, each
glance of her soft eyes, is as a touch of heaven!

Her silence emboldening Gower, he bends over her, and lays his hand upon
the slender fingers that are still holding the scarlet leaves of the
Virginian creeper.

"Do you understand me?" he asks, nervously.

"Yes."

She feels almost constrained to answer him honestly, so compelling is
the extreme earnestness of his manner.

"It seems a paltry thing now to say that I love you," goes on Gower in
an impassioned tone that carries her away with it, now that she is sore
at heart; "You _know_ that. You have known it for weeks." He puts aside
with a gesture her feeble attempt at contradiction. "Every thought of my
heart is yours; I live only in the hope that I shall soon see you again.
Tell me now honestly, would it be possible to break off this engagement
with your cousin?"

At this she shrinks a little from him, and a distressed look comes into
her beautiful eyes.

"What are you saying?" she says, in a half-frightened way. "It has been
going on for so long, this engagement--_always_, as it seems to me. How
should I break it off? And then there is Uncle Christopher, he would be
unhappy; he would not forgive, and--besides--"

Her voice dies away. Memory vague but sharp, comes to her. If she should
now deliberately discard Roger, how will it be with her in the future?
And yet what if he should be glad of his freedom; should welcome it with
open arms? If, indeed, he should be only waiting for her to take the
initiative, and give him his release!

This reflection carries its sting; there is madness in it. She closes
her lips firmly, and her breath comes quickly and uncertainly.

"It will be better for you later on," breaks in Gower, tempting her,
surely but quietly. "When you are married--it is all very well for you
now, when escape at any moment is possible; but when you are irrevocably
bound to an unloving husband how will it be with you? Other women have
tried it, and how has it ended with them? Not as it will with you, I
know; you are far above the many; but still your life will drag with
you--there will be no joy! no sympathy! no--Dulce have pity on yourself
(I do not say on _me_), and save yourself while you can."

She makes a last faint protest.

"How do you _know_ he does not love me?" she asks, painfully. "How can
you be sure?--and at least"--wistfully--"we are accustomed to each
other, we have known each other all our lives, and we have quarrelled
_so_ hard already that we can scarcely do anything more--the worst with
us is over."

"It will be different then," says Gower--he is speaking from his heart
in all honesty. "Now you belong to him only in an improbable fashion;
then--"

"It is your belief that he does not love me at all?" interrupts she,
tapping her foot impatiently upon the ground.

"It is my belief," returns he slowly.

Almost as he speaks, some one steps from the lighted room beyond on the
balcony and approaches them. It is Roger.

"This is ours, I think," he says, addressing Dulce, and alluding to the
waltz just commencing.

"Is it--what a pity; I had quite forgotten," she says, wilfully. "I am
afraid I have half promised it to Mr. Gower, and you know _he_ dances
charmingly."

The emphasis not to be mistaken. The remark, of course, is meant alone
for Roger, and he alone hears it. Gower has gone away from them a yard
or two and is buried in thought. As Roger dances divinely her remark is
most uncalled for and vexes him more than he would care to confess.

"Don't let me interfere with you and your new friend," he says, lifting
his brows. "If you want to dance all night with Gower, by all means do
it; there is really no earthly reason why you shouldn't."

Here, as his own name falls upon his ears, Gower turns and looks at
Roger expectantly.

"I absolve you willingly from your engagement to me," goes on Roger, his
eyes fixed upon his wilful cousin, his face cold and hard. The extreme
calmness of his tone misleads her. Her lips tighten. A light born of
passionate anger darkens her gray eyes.

"Do you?" she says, a peculiar meaning in her tone.

"From this engagement only," returns he, hastily.

"Thank you. Of your own free will, then, you resign me, and give me
permission to dance with whom I will."

The warm blood is flaming in her cheeks. He has thrown her over very
willingly. He is evidently glad to escape the impending waltz. How
shall she be avenged for this indignity?

"Mr. Gower," she says, turning prettily to Stephen, "will you get me out
of my difficulty? and will you dance this waltz with me? You see," with
a brave effort to suppress some emotion that is threatening to overpower
her, "I have to throw myself upon your mercy."

"You confer a very great honor upon me," says Gower, gently. The
courtesy of his manner is such a contrast to Roger's ill-temper, that
the latter loses the last grain of self-control he possesses. There is,
too, a little smile of conscious malice upon Gower's lips that grows
even stronger as his eyes rest upon the darkened countenance of his
whilom friend. His whilom friend, seeing it, lets wrath burn even
fiercer within his breast.

"You are not engaged to any one else?" says Dulce, sweetly, forgetting
how a moment since she had told Roger she had half promised Gower the
dance in question.

"Even if I was, I am at _your_ service now and always," says Gower.

"As my dancing displeases you so excessively," says Roger, slowly, "it
seems a shame to condemn you to keep the rest of your engagements with
me. I think I have my name down upon your card for two more waltzes.
Forget that, and give them to Gower, or any one else that suits you. For
my part I do not care to--" He checks himself too late.

"Go on," says Dulce, coldly, in an ominously calm fashion. "You had more
to say, surely; you do not care to dance them with _me_ you meant to
say. Isn't it?"

"You can think as you wish, of course."

"All the world is free to do that. Then I may blot your name from my
card for the rest of the evening?"

"Certainly."

"If those dances are free, Miss Blount, may I ask you for them?" says
Stephen, pleasantly.

"You can have them with pleasure," replies she, smiling kindly at him.

"Don't stay too long in the night air, Dulce," says Roger, with the
utmost unconcern, turning to go indoors again. This is the unkindest cut
of all. If he had gone away angry, silent, revengeful, she might perhaps
have forgiven him, but this careful remembrance of her, this calm and
utterly indifferent concern for her comfort fills her with vehement
anger.

The blood forsakes her lips, and her eyes grow bright with passionate
tears.

"Why do you take things so much to heart?" says Stephen, in a low voice.
"Do you care so greatly then about an unpleasant speech from him? I
should have thought you might have grown accustomed to his _brusquerie_
by this."

"He wasn't brusque just now," says Dulce. "He was very kind, was he not?
Careful about my catching cold, and that."

"_Very_," says Gower, significantly. "Yet there are tears in your eyes.
What a baby you are."

"No, I am not," says Dulce, mournfully. "A baby is an adorable thing,
and I am very far from being that."

"If babies are to be measured by their adorableness, I should say you
are the very biggest baby I ever saw," declares Mr. Gower, with such an
amount of settled conviction in his tone that Dulce, in spite of the
mortification that is still rankling in her breast, laughs aloud.
Delighted with his success, Gower laughs, too, and taking her hand draws
it within his arm.

"Come, do not let us forget Roger gave you to me for this dance," he
says. "If only for that act of grace, I forgive him all his misdeeds."
With a last lingering glance at the beauty of the night, together they
return to the ballroom.



CHAPTER XV.

          "I would that I were low laid in my grave."
                                    --KING JOHN.

          "Proteus, I love thee in my heart of hearts."
                                  --TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA.


THE last guest has departed. Portia has wished "good-night" to a very
sleepy Dulce, and has gone upstairs to her own room. In the corridor
where she sleeps, Fabian sleeps too, and as she passes his door lightly
and on tip-toe, she finds that his door is half open, and, hesitating,
wonders, with a quick pang at her heart, why this should be the case.

Summoning courage she advances softly over his threshold, and then sees
that the bed within is unoccupied, that to-night, at least, its master
is unknown to it.

A shade darkens her face; stepping back on to the corridor she thinks
deeply for a moment, and then, laying her candle on a bracket near, she
goes noiselessly down the stairs again, across the silent halls, and,
opening the hall door, steps out into the coming dawn.

Over the gravel, over the grass, through the quiet pleasaunce she goes
unswervingly, past the dark green laurels into the flower garden, and
close to the murmuring streamlet to where a little patch of moss-grown
sward can be seen, surrounded by aged elms.

Here she finds him!

He is asleep! He is lying on his back, with his arms behind his tired
head, and his beautiful face uplifted to the heavens. Upon his long dark
lashes lie signs of bitter tears.

Who shall tell what thoughts had been his before kind sleep fell upon
his lids and drove him into soothing slumber

                "The sweetest joy, the wildest woe, is love;
          The taint of earth, the odor of the skies
          Is in it."

So sings Bailey. More of wild woe than joy must have been in Fabian's
heart before oblivion came to him. Was he thinking of her--of Portia?
For many days his heart has been "darkened by her shadow," and
to-night--when all his world was abroad, and he alone was excluded from
prostrating himself at her shrine--terrible despair had come to lodge
with him, and grief, and passionate protest.

Stooping over him, Portia gazes on him long and earnestly, and then, as
no dew lies upon the grass, she sits down beside him, and taking her
knees into her embrace, stays there silent but close to him, her eyes
fixed upon the "patient stars," that are at last growing pale with
thought of the coming morn.

The whole scene is full of fantastic beauty--the dawning day; the man
lying full length upon the soft green moss in an attitude suggestive of
death; the girl, calm, passionless, clad in her white clinging gown,
with her arms crossed, and her pale, upturned face beautiful as the dawn
itself.

The light is breaking through the skies; the stars are dying out one by
one. On the crest of the hill, and through the giant firs, soft beams
are coming; and young Apollo, leaping into life, sends out a crimson ray
from the far East.

Below, the ocean is at rest--wrapt in sullen sleep. "The singing of the
soft blue waves is hushed, or heard no more." And no sound comes to
disturb the unearthly solemnity of the hour. Only a little breeze comes
from the south, soft and gentle, and full of tenderest love that is as
the

          "Kiss of morn, waking the lands."

He stirs! His eyes open. He turns restlessly, and then a waking dream is
his. But is it a dream? He is looking into Portia's eyes, and she--she
does not turn from him, but in a calm, curious fashion returns his gaze,
as one might to whom hope and passion are as things forgotten.

No word escapes him. He does not even change his position, but lies,
looking up at her in silent wonder. Presently he lifts his hand, and
slowly covers it with one of hers lying on the grass near his head.

She does not draw it away--everything seems forgotten--there is only for
her at this moment the pale dawn, and the sweet calm, and the solitude
and the love so fraught with pain that overfills her soul!

He draws her hand nearer to him--still nearer--until her bare soft arm
(chilled by the early day) is lying upon his lips. There he lets it
rest, as though he would fain drink into his thirsty heart all the
tender sweetness of it.

And _yet_ she says nothing, only sits silent there beside him, her other
arm resting on her knees, and her eyes fixed immovably on his.

Oh! the rapture and the agony of the moment--a rapture that will never
come again, an agony that must be theirs for ever.

"My life! my love!" he murmurs at last, the words passing his lips as if
they were one faint sigh, but yet not so faint but she may hear them.

She sighs, too; and a smile, fine and delicate, parts her lips, and into
her eyes comes a strange fond gleam, born of passion and nearness and
the sweetness of loving and living.

The day is deepening. More rosy grows the sky, more fragrant the early
breeze. Her love is at her feet, her arm upon his lips; and on the fair
naked arm his breath is coming and going quickly, unevenly--the feel of
it makes glad her very soul!

Then comes the struggle. Oh! the sweetness, the perfectness of life if
spent alone with the beloved. To sacrifice all things--to go away to
some far distant spot with _him_--to know each opening hour will be
their very own: they two, with all the world forgotten and well
lost--what bliss could equal it?

Her arm trembles in his embrace; almost she turns to give herself into
his keeping for ever, when a sound, breaking the great stillness,
changes the face of all things.

Was it a twig snapping, or the rush of the brooklet beyond? or the clear
first notes of an awakening bird? She never knows. But all at once
remembrance returns to her, and knowledge and wisdom is with her again.

To live with a stained life, however dear; to feel his shame day by day;
to distrust a later action because of a former one; to draw miserable
and degrading conclusions from a sin gone by. _No!_

Her lips quiver. Her heart dies within her. She turns her eyes to the
fast reddening sky, and, with her gaze thus fixed on heaven, registers
an oath.

"As she may not marry him whom she loves, never will she be wife to
living man!"

And this is her comfort and her curse, that in her heart, until her
dying day will nestle her sullied love. Hidden away and wept over in
secret, and lamented bitterly at times, but dearer far, for all that,
than anything the earth can offer.

Gently--very gently--without looking at him, she draws her arm from his
touch and rises to her feet. He, too, rises, and stands before her
silently as one might who awaits his doom.

"To hear with eyes belongs to Love's rare wit." _He_ seems to know all
that is now passing in her soul, her weakness--her longing--her
love--her strength--her oath--her grief; it is all laid bare to him.

And she herself; she is standing before him, her rich satin gown
trailing on the green grass, her face pale, her eyes large and mournful.
Her soft white neck gleams like snow in the growing light; upon it the
strings of pearls rise and fall tumultuously. How strange--how white she
seems--like a vision from fairy, or dreamland. Shall he ever forget it?

Laying his hand upon her shoulders, he looks steadily into her eyes; and
then, after a long pause--

"There should be proof," he says, sadly.

And she says,

"Yes, there should be proof," in a tone from which all feeling, and
hope, and happiness have fled.

And yet the world grows brighter. The early morn springs forth and glads
the air.

                    "But, nor Orient morn,
          Nor fragrant zephyr, nor Arabian climes,
          Nor gilded ceilings can relieve the soul
          Pining in thraldom."

A long pause follows her sentence, that to him has savored of death.
Then he speaks:

"Let me raise your gown," he says, with heart-broken gentleness, "the
dew of morning is on the grass."

He lifts her train as he says this, and lays it across the bare and
lovely arm that had been his for some blessed minutes. As he sees it,
and remembers everything--all that _might_ have been, and all that _has_
been, and all that _is_--a dry sob chokes his voice and, stooping, he
presses his lips passionately to her smooth, cool flesh.

At this she bursts into bitter weeping; and, letting her glimmering
white gown fall once again in its straight, cold folds around her, gives
way to uncontrollable sorrow.

"Must there be grief for you, too, my own sweetheart?" says Fabian; and
then he lays his arms around her and draws her to him, and holds her
close to his heart until her sobs die away through pure exhaustion. But
he never bends his head to hers, or seeks to press his lips to
those--that are sweet and dear beyond expression--but that never can be
his. Even at this supreme moment he strives to spare her a passing pang.

"Were she to kiss me now," he tells himself, "out of the depths of her
heart, when the cold, passionless morning came to her she would regret
it," and so he refrains from the embrace he would have sold his best to
gain.

"I wish there might be death, _soon_," says Portia, and then she looks
upon the awakening land so full of beauty, and growing light, and
promise of all good.

The great sun, climbing up aloft, strikes upon her gaze, and the swaying
trees, and the music of all things that live comes to her ears, and with
them all comes, too, a terrible sense of desolation that overwhelms
her.

"How can the world be so fair?" she says. "How can it smile, and grow,
and brighten into life, when there is no life--for--"

She breaks down.

"For us?" he finishes for her, slowly; and there is great joy in the
blending of her name with his. "Yes, I know; it is what you would have
said. Forgive me, my best beloved; but I am glad in the thought that we
grieve together."

His tone is full of sadness; a sadness without hope. They are standing
hand in hand, and are looking into each other's eyes.

"It is for the last time," she says, in a broken voice.

And he says:

"Yes, for the very last time."

He never tries to combat her resolution--to slay the foe that is
desolating his life and hers. He submits to cruel fate without a murmur.

"Put your face to mine," she says, _so_ faintly that he can hardly hear
her; and then once more he holds her in his arms, and presses her
against his heart.

How long she lies there neither of them ever knows; but presently, with
a sigh, she comes back to the sad present, and lifts her head, and looks
mournfully upon the quiet earth.

And even as she looks the day breaks at last with a rush, and the red
sunshine, coming up from the unknown, floods all the world with beauty.



CHAPTER XVI.

          "The quarrel is a very pretty quarrel as it stands."
                                           --THE RIVALS.


IT is two days later. Everyone you know is in the drawing-room at the
Court--that is, everyone except Dulce. But presently the door opens, and
that stormy young person enters, with her sleeves tucked up and a huge
apron over her pretty cashmere gown, that simply envelops her in its
folds.

"I am going to make _jam_" she says, unmistakable pride in her tone. She
is looking hopelessly conceited, and is plainly bent on posing as one of
the most remarkable housekeepers on record--as really, perhaps, she is.

"Jam?" says Mr. Browne, growing animated. "What kind of jam?"

"Plum jam."

"You don't say so?" says Mr. Browne, with unaffected interest. "Where
are you going to make it?"

"In the kitchen, of course. Did you think I was going to make it _here_,
you silly boy?" She is giving herself airs now, and is treating Dicky to
some gentle badinage.

"Are the plums in the kitchen?" asked he, regardless of her new-born
dignity, which is very superior, indeed.

"I hope so," she says, calmly.

"Then I'll go and make the jam with you," declares Mr. Browne, genially.

"Are you really going to make it?" asks Julia, opening her eyes to their
widest. "Really? Who told you how to do it?"

"Oh, I have known all about it for years," said Dulce, airily.

Every one is getting interested now--even Roger looks up from his book.
His quarrel with Dulce on the night of her ball has been tacitly put
aside by both, and though it still smoulders and is likely at any moment
to burst again into a flame, is carefully pushed out of sight for the
present.

"Does it take _long_ to make jam?" asks Sir Mark, putting in his query
before Stephen Gower, who is also present, can say anything.

"Well--it quite depends," says Dulce, vaguely. She conveys to the
astonished listeners the idea that though it might take some
unfortunately ignorant people many days to produce a decent pot of jam,
_she_--experienced as she is in all culinary matters--can manage it in
such a short time as it is not worth talking about.

Everybody at this is plainly impressed.

"Cook is _such_ a bad hand at plum jam," goes on Miss Blount, with
increasing affectation, that sits funnily on her, "and Uncle Christopher
does so love mine. Don't you, Uncle Christopher?"

"It is the best jam in the world," says Uncle Christopher, promptly,
and without a blush. "But I hope you won't spoil your pretty white
fingers making it for me."

"Oh, no, I shan't," says Dulce, shaking her head sweetly. "Cook does all
the nasty part of it; she is good enough at that."

"I wonder what the nice part of it is?" says Roger, thoughtfully.

"There is no nice part; it is all work--_hard_ work, from beginning to
end," returns his _fiancée_, severely.

"I shan't eat any more of it if it gives you such awful trouble," says
Dicky Browne, gallantly but insincerely; whereupon Roger turns upon him
a glance warm with disgust.

"Dulce," says the Boodie, who is also in the room, going up to Miss
Blount, whom she adores, and clasping her arms round her waist; "let
_me_ go and see you make it; _do_," coaxingly. "I want to get some when
it is _hot_. Mamma's jam is always cold. Darling love of a Dulce, take
me with you and I'll help you to _peel_ them."

"Let us all go in a body and see how it is done," says Sir Mark,
brilliantly. A proposal received with acclamations by the others, and
accepted by Dulce as a special compliment to herself.

They all rise (except Sir Christopher) and move towards the hall. Here
they meet Fabian coming towards them from the library. Seeing the
cavalcade, he stops short to regard them with very pardonable
astonishment.

"Where on earth are you all going?" he asks; "and why are Dulce's arms
bare at this ungodly hour? Are you going in for housepainting, Dulce, or
for murder?"

"Jam," says Miss Blount proudly.

"You give me relief. I breathe again," says Fabian.

"Come with us," says Dulce, fondly.

He hesitates. Involuntarily his eyes seek Portia's. Hers are on the
ground. But even as he looks (as though compelled to meet his earnest
gaze) she raises her head, and turns a sad, little glance upon him.

"Lead, and I follow," he says to Dulce, and once more they all sweep on
towards the lower regions.

"After all, you know," says Dulce, suddenly stopping short on the last
step of the kitchen stairs to harangue the politely dressed mob that
follows at her heels, "it might, perhaps, be as well if I went on first
and prepared cook for your coming. She is not exactly impossible you
see, but to confess the truth she can be at times difficult."

"What would she do to us?" asks Dicky, curiously.

"Oh! nothing, of course; but," with an apologetic gesture, "she might
object to so many people taking possession of her kingdom without
warning. Wait one moment while I go and tell her about you. You can
follow me in a minute or two."

They wait. They wait a long time. Stephen Gower, with watch in hand, at
last declares that not one or two, but quite five minutes have dragged
out their weary length.

"Don't be impatient; we'll see her again some time or other," says
Roger, sardonically, whereupon Mr. Gower does his best to wither him
with a scornful stare.

"Let us look up the cook," says Sir Mark, at which they all brighten up
again and stream triumphantly towards the kitchen. As they reach the
door a sensation akin to nervousness makes them all move more slowly,
and consequently with so little noise that Dulce does not hear their
approach. She is so standing, too, that she cannot see them, and as she
is talking with much spirit and condescension they all stop again to
hear what she is saying.

She has evidently made it straight with cook, as that formidable old
party is standing at her right hand with her arms akimbo, and on her
face a fat and genial smile. She has, furthermore, been so amiable as to
envelop Dulce in a _second_ apron; one out of her own wardrobe, an
article of the very hugest dimensions, in which Dulce's slender figure
is utterly and completely lost. It comes up in a little square upon her
bosom and makes her look like a delicious over-grown baby, with her
sleeves tucked up and her bare arms gleaming like snow-flakes.

Opposite to her is the footman, and very near her the upper housemaid.
Dulce being in her most moral mood, has seized this opportunity to
reform the manners of the household.

"You are most satisfactory, you know, Jennings," she is saying in her
soft voice that is trying so hard to be mistress-like, but is only
sweet. "Most so! Sir Christopher and I both think that, but I do wish
you would try to quarrel just a _little_ less with Jane."

At this Jane looks meekly delighted while the footman turns purple and
slips his weight uneasily from one leg to the other.

"It isn't all my fault, ma'am," he says at length, in an aggrieved tone.

"No, I can quite believe that," says his mistress, kindly. "I regret to
say I have noticed several signs of ill temper about Jane of late."

Here Jane looks crestfallen, and the footman triumphant.

"I wish you would _both_ try to improve," goes on Dulce, in a tone meant
to be still dignified, but which might almost be termed entreating.
"_Do_ try. You will find it so much pleasanter in the long run."

Both culprits, though silent, show unmistakable signs of giving in.

"If you only knew how unhappy these endless dissensions make me, I am
sure you _would_ try," says Miss Blount, earnestly, which, of course,
ends all things. The maid begins to weep copiously behind the daintiest
of aprons; while the footman mutters, huskily:

"Then I _will_ try, ma'am," with unlooked-for force.

"Oh, _thank_ you," says Dulce, with pretty gratitude, under cover of
which the two belligerents make their escape.

"Well done," says Sir Mark at this moment; "really, Dulce, I didn't
believe it was in you. Such dignity, such fervor, such tact, such
pathos! We are all very nearly in tears. I would almost promise not to
blow up Jane myself, if you asked me like that."

"What a shame!" exclaims Dulce, starting and growing crimson, as she
becomes aware they have all been listening to her little lecture. "I
call it right down _mean_ to go listening to people behind their backs.
It is horrid! And you, too, Portia! So shabby!"

"Now who is scolding," says Portia; "and after your charming sermon,
too, to Jennings, all about the evil effects of losing one's temper."

"If you only knew how unhappy it makes us," says Dicky Browne, mimicking
Dulce's own manner of a moment since so exactly that they all laugh
aloud; and Dulce, forgetting her chagrin, laughs, too, even more
heartily than they do.

"You shan't have one bit of my jam," she says, threatening Dicky with a
huge silver spoon; "see if you do! After all, cook," turning to that
portly matron, "I think I'm tired to-day. Suppose you make this jam;
and I can make some more some other time."

As she says this, she unfastens both the aprons and flings them far from
her, and pulls down her sleeves over her pretty white arms, to Gower's
everlasting regret, who cannot take his eyes off them, and to whom they
are a "joy forever."

"Come, let us go up-stairs again," says Dulce to her assembled friends,
who have all suddenly grown very grave.

In silence they follow her, until once more the hall is gained and the
kitchen forgotten. Then Dicky Browne gives way to speech.

"I am now quite convinced," he says, slowly, "that to watch the making
of plum jam is the most enthralling sport in the world. It was so kind
of you, dear Dulce, to ask us to go down to see it. I don't know _when_
I have enjoyed myself so much."

"We have been disgracefully taken in," says Julia, warmly.

"And she didn't even offer us a single plum!" says Mr. Browne,
tearfully.

"You shall have some presently, with your tea," says Dulce,
remorsefully. "Let us go and sit upon the verandah, and say what we
thought of our dance. No one has said anything about it yet."

Though late in September, it is still "one of those heavenly days that
cannot die." The sun is warm in the heavens, though gradually sinking,
poor tired god, toward his hard-earned rest. There are many
softly-colored clouds on the sky.

Tea is brought to them presently, and plums for Dicky; and then they are
all, for the most part, happy.

"Well, I think it was a deadly-lively sort of an evening," says Mr.
Browne, candidly, _apropos_ of the ball. "Every one seemed cross, I
think, and out of sorts. For my own part, there were moments when I
suffered great mental anguish."

"Well, I don't know," says Sir Mark, "for my part, I enjoyed myself
rather above the average. Good music, good supper--the champagne I must
congratulate you about, Dulce--and very pretty women. What more could
even a Sybarite like Dicky desire? Mrs. George Mainwaring was there, and
I got on capitally with her. I like a woman who prefers sitting it out,
_some_ times."

"I don't think I even saw Mrs. George," says Dulce. "Was she here?"

"You couldn't see her," says Roger; "she spent her entire evening in the
rose-colored ante-room with Gore."

"What a shameless tarradiddle," says Sir Mark.

"What did she wear?" asks Julia.

"I can't remember. I think, however, she was all black and blue."

"Good gracious!" says Dicky Browne, "has George Mainwaring been at it
again? Poor soul, it _is_ hard on her. I thought the last kicking he had
from her brother would have lasted him longer than a month."

"Nonsense, Dicky," says Dulce; "I hear they are getting on wonderfully
well together now."

"I'm glad to hear it," says Dicky, in a tone totally unconvinced.

"I don't think she is at all respectable," says Mrs. Beaufort, severely;
"she--she--her dress was _very_ odd, I thought--"

"There might, perhaps, have been a little more of it," says Dicky
Browne. "I mean, it was such a pretty gown, that we should have been
glad to be able to admire another yard or two of it. But perhaps that
terrible George won't give it to her; and perhaps she liked herself as
she was. '_Nuda veritas_.' After all, there is nothing like it. 'Honesty
is the best policy,' and all that sort of thing--eh?"

"Dicky," says Sir Mark, austerely, "go away! We have had quite enough of
you."

"How did you all like the McPhersons?" Dulce asks, hurriedly.

"Now, there was one thing," says Dicky, who is not to be repressed, "how
could any fellow enjoy himself in the room with the McPhersons? That
eldest girl clings on to one like ivy--and precious tough old ivy too.
She clung to me until I was fain to sit down upon the ground and shed
salt and bitter tears. I wish she had stayed amongst her gillies, and
her Highland flings, and those nasty men who only wear breeks, instead
of coming down here to inflict herself upon a quiet, easy-going county."

"Why didn't you get her another partner, if you were tired of her?"

"I couldn't. I appealed to many friends, but they all deserted me in my
hour of need. They wouldn't look at her. She was 'single in the field,
yon solitary Highland lass.' She wasn't in the swim at all; she would
have been as well--I mean, much better--at home."

"Poor girl," says Portia.

"She isn't poor, she's awfully rich," says Roger. "They are all rich.
They positively look at the world through a golden veil."

"They'd want it," says Dicky, with unrelenting acrimony; "I christened
'em the Heirs and Graces--the boys are so rich, and the girls think
themselves so heavenly sweet. It is quite my own joke, I assure you.
Nobody helped me." Here he laughs gaily, with a charming appreciation of
his own wit.

"Did she dance well?" asks Stephen, waking up suddenly from a lengthened
examination of the unconscious Dulce's fair features. An examination,
however, overseen by Roger, and bitterly resented by him.

"She didn't dance at all, she only galumphed," says Dicky, wrathfully.
"She regularly took the curl out of me; I was never so fatigued in my
life. And she is so keen about it, too; she will dance, and keeps on
saying, 'Isn't it a pity to lose this lovely music?'--and so on. I
wished myself in the silent grave many times."

"Well, as bad as she is, I'd make an even bet she will be married before
her sister," says Stephen.

"I don't think either of them will be married before the other," says
Mr. Browne, gloomily; "one might go much farther than them without
faring worse. I laughed aloud when at last I got rid of the elder one; I
gave way to appropriate quotation; I fell back on my Wordsworth; I said:

          'Nor am I loth, but pleased at heart,
           Sweet (?) Highland girl, from thee to part.'"

The query represents the expression of Mr. Browne's face as he mentions
the word that goes before it.

"Well done, Dicky!" says Sir Mark.

"What has Dicky been saying now?" asks Fabian, who has been wandering in
a very sad dreamland, and just come back to a sadder earth at this
moment. "Has he been excelling himself?"

"I'll say it all over again for you, if you like," says Dicky, kindly;
"but for nobody else."

"Thanks, but later on," says Fabian, smiling.

He is sitting near Portia, but not very near. Now Dicky, filled with a
desire to converse with Miss Vibart, gets off his seat and flings
himself on a rug at her feet. Sir Mark, who is always kindly, though a
trifle cynical at times, and thoughtful towards those he likes, is
displeased at this change that Dicky has made. Fabian he likes--nay, if
there be one friend in the world he _loves_, it is Fabian Blount.
Portia, too, is a favorite of his, so great a favorite that he would
gladly see her throw some sunshine into Fabian's life. To make these two
come together, and by Portia's influence to induce Fabian to fling away
from him and to conquer the terrible depression that has desolated his
life ever since the fatal affair of the forged check, has become one of
Sir Mark's dearest dreams.

Now it seems to him that when Fabian has so far overcome his settled
determination to avoid society as to find a seat beside Portia, and to
keep it for at least an hour, it is a vile thing in the thoughtless
Dicky to intrude his person where so plainly it is not wanted.

Making some idle excuse, he brings the reluctant Dicky to his side.

"Can't you keep away from them?" says Sir Mark, in an angry whisper.

"Away from whom?" asks Dicky, resentfully.

"From them," with a gentle motion of the hand in the direction of Portia
and Fabian.

"What on earth for?" says Dicky Browne, still more resentfully.

"Don't you see he _likes_ her?" says Sir Mark, meaningly.

"I suppose he does," says Dicky Browne, obtusely. "I like her too. We
all like her."

"Of course, my dear fellow, one can quite understand that she is about
as likeable a person as I know; but--er--don't you see--he wants to be
_alone_ with her."

"I don't doubt him," says Dicky Browne. "So should I, if I got the
chance."

Sir Mark shrugs his shoulders; there isn't much to be got out of Dicky.

"That goes without telling," he says; "you are always prowling around
after her, for no reason that I can see. But you haven't grasped my
idea, he--he's _in love_ with her, and _you_ aren't, I suppose?"

"I don't see why you should suppose anything of the kind," says Dicky,
bitterly aggrieved because of the word "prowling." "I can be as much in
love with her as another, can't I, if I like? In fact," valiantly, "I
think I _am_ in love with her."

"Oh, you be hanged!" says Sir Mark, forcibly, if vulgarly, turning away
from him in high disgust.

"Well, you needn't cut up so rough about nothing," says Dicky, following
him. "He has had his chance of being alone with her, now, hasn't he? and
see the result."

And when Sir Mark turns his eyes in the direction where Portia sits, lo!
he finds Fabian gone, and Miss Vibart sitting silent and motionless as a
statue, and as pale and cold as one, with a look of fixed determination
in her beautiful eyes, that yet hardly hides the touch of anguish that
lies beneath.

Meantime Dulce and Roger are sparring covertly, but decidedly, while
Julia, who never sees anything, is fostering the dispute by unmeant, but
most ill judging remarks. Stephen Gower has gone away from them to have
a cigarette in the shrubberies.

Sir Mark and Dicky Browne are carrying on an argument, that in all human
probability will last their time.

"I can't bear Mrs. Mildmay," says Dulce, _apropos_ of nothing. Mrs.
Mildmay is the Rector's wife, and a great friend of Roger's.

"But why?" says Julia, "she is a nice little woman enough, isn't she?"

"Is she? I don't know. To me she is utterly distasteful; such a voice,
and such--"

"She is at least gentle and well-mannered," interrupts Roger,
unpleasantly.

"Well, yes, there is a great deal in that," says Julia, which innocent
remark incenses Dulce to the last degree, as it gives her the impression
that Julia is taking Roger's part against her.

"I daresay she is an angel," she says, fractiously; "but I am not
sufficiently heavenly-minded myself to admire her inanities. Do you
know," looking broadly at Roger, "there are some people one hates
without exactly knowing why? It is, I suppose, a Doctor Fell sort of
dislike, 'the reason why I cannot tell,' and all that sort of thing."

"I don't believe you can, indeed," says Roger, indignantly.

"Don't you?" says Dulce.

"My dear Roger, if you eat any more sugar, you will ruin your teeth,"
says Julia. Roger, who has the sugar bowl near him, and is helping
himself from it generously, laughs a little. Julia is a person who, if
you wore a smoking cap even once in your life, would tell you it would
make you bald; or if you went out without a veil, you would have
freckles for the rest of your life--and so on.

"_Don't_ eat any more," says Julia, imploringly; "you can't like that
nasty white stuff."

"Oh! doesn't he?" says Dulce, sarcastically. "He'd eat anything sweet.
It isn't three days ago since he stole all my chocolate creams, and ate
them every one."

"I did not," says Roger.

"Yes, he did," declares Dulce, ignoring Roger, and addressing herself
solely to Julia. "He did, indeed, and _denied_ it afterwards, which just
shows what he is capable of."

"I repeat that I did not," says Roger, indignantly. "I found them
certainly in your room up-stairs--your sitting-room--but I gave them to
the Boodie."

"Oh! _say_ so," says Miss Blount, ironically.

"Chocolate creams!" says the small Boodie, emerging from an obscure and
unexpected corner. "What about them? Where are they? Have you any,
mamma?"

"_You_ ought to know where they are," says Dare, flushing; "you ate
them."

"When?" asks the Boodie, in a searching tone.

"Yes, indeed, _when_?" repeats Dulce, unpleasantly.

"You remember the day Roger gave you some, don't you, darling?" says the
darling's mamma, with the kindly intention of soothing matters.

"No, I don't," says the uncompromising Boodie, her blue eyes wide, and
her red lips apart.

"Do you mean to tell me I didn't give you a whole box full the day
before yesterday?" exclaims Mr. Dare, wrathfully, going up to the stolid
child, and looking as if he would like to shake her.

"Day before yesterday?" murmurs the Boodie, with a glance so far from
the present moment that it might be in Kamtschatka.

"Yes, exactly, _the day before yesterday_!" says Roger, furiously.

"How could I remember about that?" says the Boodie, most nonchalantly.

"Oh, don't scold the poor child," says Dulce, mildly, "she won't like
it; and I am sure she is not in fault. Go away, Boodie, Roger doesn't
like being shown up."

"Shown up! Upon my _life_ I gave her those vile bon-bons," says Mr.
Dare, distractedly, "If I wanted them couldn't I buy them? Do you
suppose I go round the world stealing chocolate creams?"

At this, poor Julia getting frightened, and considering the case
hopeless, rises from her seat and beats a most undignified retreat. This
leaves the combatants virtually alone.

"There is hardly anything you wouldn't do in my opinion," says Dulce,
scornfully.

A pause. Then:

"What a temper you have!" exclaims Roger, with the most open contempt.

"Not so bad as yours, at all events. Your face is as white as death from
badly suppressed rage."

"It is a pity you can't see your own," says Roger slowly.

"Don't speak to me like that, Roger," says Dulce, quickly, her eyes
flashing; "and--and say at once," imperiously, "that you know perfectly
well I have the temper of an angel, in comparison with yours."

"Would you have me tell a deliberate lie?" says Roger, coldly.

This brings matters to a climax. Silence follows, that lasts for a full
minute (a long time in such a case), and then Dulce speaks again. Her
voice is quite changed; out of it all passion and excitement have been
carefully withdrawn.

"I think it is time this most mistaken engagement of ours should come to
an end," she says, quite quietly.

"That is as you wish, of course," replies he. "But fully understand me;
if you break with me now, it shall be at once and forever."

"Your manner is almost a threat," she says. "It will be difficult to
you, no doubt, but _please_ do try to believe it will be a very great
joy to me to part from you 'at once and forever.'"

"Then nothing more remains to be said; only this: it will be better for
you that Uncle Christopher should be told I was the one to end this
engagement, not--"

"Why?" impatiently.

"On account of the will, of course. If you will say I have refused to
marry you, the property will go to you."

"That you have _refused_ me!" says Miss Blount, with extreme
indignation. "Certainly, I shall never say that--never! You can say with
truth I have refused to marry you, but nothing else."

"It is utter insanity," says Roger, gravely. "For the sake of a
ridiculous whim, you are voluntarily resigning a great deal of money."

"I would resign the mines of Golconda rather than do that. I would far
rather starve than give you the satisfaction of saying you had given me
up!"

As she has a very considerable fortune of her own that nothing can
interfere with, she finds it naturally the very simplest thing in the
world to talk lightly about starvation.

"What should I say that for?" asks Roger, rather haughtily.

"How can I tell? I only know you are longing to say it," returns she,
wilfully.

"You are too silly to argue with," protests he, turning away with a
shrug.

Running down the steps of the balcony, Dulce, with her wrath still
burning hotly within her, goes along the garden path and so past the
small bridge, and the river, and the mighty beeches that are swaying to
and fro.

Turning a corner she comes suddenly upon Gower, who is still smoking
cigarettes, and no doubt day-dreaming about her.

"You have escaped from everybody," he says to her, in some surprise,
Dulce being a person very little given to solitude or her own society
undiluted.

"It appears I have not," returns she, bitterly.

"Well, I shan't trouble you long; I can take myself off in no time," he
says, good-humoredly, drawing to one side to let her pass.

"No--no; you can stay with me if you care to," she says, wearily,
ashamed of her petulance.

"_Care!_" he says, reproachfully; and then, coming nearer to her, "you
are unhappy! Something has happened!" he says, quickly, "what is it?"

"Nothing unhappy," says Dulce, in a dear, soft voice; "certainly not
that. Something very different; something, indeed, I have been longing
and hoping for, for weeks, for months, nay, all my life, I think."

"And--" says Stephen.

"I have broken off my engagement with Roger."

A great, happy gleam awakes within his dark eyes. Instinctively he takes
a step nearer to her, then checks himself, and draws his breath quickly.

"Are you sure?" he says, in a carefully calm tone, "are you _sure_ you
have done wisely?--I mean, will this be for your own _good_?"

"Yes, yes, of course," with fretful impatience. "It was my own doing, I
wished it."

"How did it all come about?" asks he, gently.

"I don't know. He has an abominable temper, as you know; and I--well, I
have an abominable temper, too," she says, with a very wintry little
smile, that seems made up of angry, but remorseful tears. "And--"

"If you are going to say hard things of yourself I shall not listen,"
interrupts Gower, tenderly; "you and Roger have quarreled, but perhaps,
when time makes you see things in a new light, you will forgive, and--"

"No, never! I am sure of that. This quarrel is for--'_now and
forever!_'"

She repeats these last four words mechanically--words that bear but the
commonest meaning to him, but are linked in her mind with associations
full of bitterness.

"And you have no regrets?" regarding her keenly.

"None."

"And does no faintest spark of love for him rest in your heart? Oh,
Dulce, take care!"

"Love! I never loved," she says, turning her large eyes full on his. "I
have seen people who loved, and so I know. _They_ seem to live, think,
breathe for each other alone; the very air seemed full of ecstasy to
them; every hour of their day was a divine joy; but I--what have I known
of all that?"

She pauses and lays her hand upon her heart.

"And he?" asks Gower, unwisely.

She laughs ironically.

"You have seen him," she says. "Not only that, but you have surely seen
us together often enough to be able to answer your question for
yourself. A very rude question, by-the-by."

"I beg your pardon," says Gower, heartily ashamed of himself.

"Oh, it doesn't matter," says Dulce, throwing out one hand in a quick,
nervous fashion. "Nothing matters much, does it? And now that we are on
it, I will answer your question. I believe if I were the only woman in
the world, Roger would never have even liked me! He seemed _glad,
thankful_, when I gave him a release; _almost_," steadily, "as glad as I
was to give it!"

"_Were_ you glad!" asks Gower, eagerly. Going up to her, he takes her
hand and holds it with unconscious force in both his own.

"Am I to think that you doubt me?" she says with a frown.

"Shall I ever have occasion to doubt you?" says Gower, with sudden
passion. "Dulce! now that you are free, will you listen to me? I have
only one thought in the world, and that is you, always you! Have I any
chance with you? My darling, my own, be kind to me and try to take me to
your heart."

The tears well into her eyes. She does not turn from him, but there is
no joy in her face at this honest outburst, only trouble and perplexity,
and a memory that stings. There is, too, some very keen gratitude.

"_You_ at least do not hate me," she says, with a faint, sobbing cadence
in her voice, that desolates, but sweetens it. Her lips quiver. In very
truth she is thankful to him in a measure. Her heart warms to him. There
is to her a comfort in the thought (a comfort she would have shrunk from
acknowledging even to herself) in the certainty that he would be only
too proud, too pleased, to be to her what another might have tried to be
but would not. Here is this man before her, willing at a word from her
to prostrate himself at her feet, while Roger--

"Hate you!" says Gower, with intense feeling. "Whatever joy or sorrow
comes of this hour, I shall always know that I really _lived_ in the
days when I knew you. My heart, and soul and life, are all yours to do
with as you will. I am completely at your mercy."

"Do not talk to me like that," says Dulce, faintly.

"Darling, let me speak now, once for all. I am not perhaps just what you
would wish me, but _try_ to like me, will you?"

He is so humble in his wooing that he would have touched the hearts of
most women. Dulce grows very pale, and moves a step away from him. A
half-frightened expression comes into her eyes, and shrinking still
farther away, she releases her hand from his grasp.

"You are angry with me," says Stephen, anxiously, trying bravely not to
betray the grief and pain her manner has caused him; "but hear me. I
will be your true lover till my life's end; your will shall be my law.
It will be my dearest privilege to be at your feet forever. Let me be
your slave, your servant, _anything_, but at least yours. I love you!
Say you will marry me some time."

"Oh, no--_no_--NO!" cries she, softly, but vehemently, covering her eyes
with her hands.

"You shall not say that," exclaims he passionately; "why should I not
win my way with you as well as another, now that you say that you are
heart whole. Let me plead my cause?" Here he hesitates, and then plays
his last card. "You tell me you have discarded Roger," he says, slowly;
"when you did so (forgive me), did he appeal against your decision?"

"No," says Dulce, in a tone so low that he can scarcely hear her.

"Forgive me once more," he says, "if I say that he never appreciated
you. And you--where is your pride? Will you not show him now that what
he treated with coldness another is only too glad to give all he has for
in exchange? Think of this, Dulce. If you wished it I would die for
you."

"I almost think I do wish it," says Dulce, with a faint little laugh;
but there is a kindness in her voice new to it, and just once she lifts
her eyes and looks at him shyly, but sweetly.

Profiting by this gleam of sunshine, Gower takes possession of her hand
again and draws her gently towards him.

"You _will_ marry me," he says, "when you think of everything." There is
a meaning in his tone she cannot fail to understand.

"Would you," she says tremulously, "marry a woman who does not care for
you?"

"When you are once my wife I will teach you to care for me. Such love as
mine must create a return."

"You think that now; you feel sure of it. But suppose you failed! No
drawing back. It is too dangerous an experiment."

"I defy the danger. I will not believe that it exists; and even if it
did--still I should have you."

"Yes, that is just it," she says, wearily. "But how would it be with me?
I should have you, too, but--" Her pause is full of eloquence.

"Try to trust me," he says, in a rather disheartened tone. He is feeling
suddenly cast down and dispirited, in spite of his determination to be
cool and brave, and to win her against all odds.

To this she says nothing, and silence falls upon them. Her eyes are on
the ground; her face is grave and thoughtful. Watching her with deepest
anxiety, he tells himself that perhaps after all he may still be
victor--that his fears a moment since were groundless. Is she not
content to be with him? Her face--how sweet, how calm it is! She is
thinking, it may be, of him, of what he has said, of his great and
lasting love for her, of--

"I wonder whom Roger will marry now," she says, dreamily, breaking in
cruelly upon his fond reverie, and dashing to pieces by this speech all
the pretty Spanish castles he has been building in mid-air.

"Can you think of nothing but him?" he says, bitterly, with a quick
frown.

"Why should I not think of him?" says Dulce, quite as bitterly. "Is it
not natural? An hour ago I looked upon him as my future husband; now he
is less to me than nothing! A sudden transition, is it not, from one
character to another? _Then_ a possible husband, _now_ a stranger! It is
surely something to let one's mind dwell upon."

"Well, let us discuss him, then," exclaims he, savagely. "You speak of
his marrying. Perhaps he will bestow his priceless charms on Portia."

"Oh, no!" hastily; "Portia is quite unsuited to him."

"Julia, then?"

"Certainly not _Julia_," disdainfully.

"Miss Vernon, then? She has position and money and so-called beauty."

"Maud Vernon! what an absurd idea; he would be wretched with her."

"Then," with a last remnant of patience, "let us say Lilian Langdale."

"A fast, horsey, unladylike girl like that! How could you imagine Roger
would even _look_ at her! Nonsense!"

"It seems to me," says Stephen, with extreme acrimony, "that no one in
this county is good enough for Roger; even you, it appears, fell short."

"I did not," indignantly. "It was I, of my own free will, who gave him
up."

"Prove that to him by accepting _me_."

"You think he wants proof?" She is facing him now, and her eyes are
flashing in the growing twilight.

"I do," says Stephen, defiantly. "For months he has treated you with all
the airs of a proprietor, and you have submitted to it. All the world
could see it. He will believe you _sorry_ by-and-by for what has now
happened; and if he should marry before you, what will they all
say--what will you feel? What--"

She is now as pale as death. She lifts her hand and lays it impulsively
against his lips, as though to prevent his further speech. She is
trembling a little (from anger, she tells herself), and her breath is
coming quickly and unevenly, so she stands for a moment collecting
herself, with her fingers pressed against his lips, and then the
agitation dies, and a strange coldness takes its place.

"You are sure you love me?" she asks, at length, in a hard, clear voice,
so unlike her usual soft tones, that it startles even herself.

"My beloved, can't you see it?" he says, with deep emotion.

"Very well, then, I will marry you some day. And--and to-morrow--it must
be _to-morrow_--you will let Roger know I am engaged to you? You quite
understand?"

He does, though he will not acknowledge it even to himself.

"Dulce, my own soul!" he says, brokenly; and, kneeling on the grass at
her feet, he lifts both her hands and presses them passionately to his
lips.

They are so cold and lifeless that they chill him to his very heart.



CHAPTER XVII.

          "Too early seen unknown, and known too late!"
                               --ROMEO AND JULIET.

  "There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee."
                                          --HENRY IV.


IT is next day. There has been rain in the night--_heavy_ rain--and the
earth looks soaked and brown and desolate. Great storms, too, had
arisen, and scattered the unoffending leaves far and wide, until all the
paths are strewn with rustling types of death. Just now the drops are
falling, too--not so angrily as at the midnight past, but persistently,
and with a miserable obstinacy that defies all hope of sunshine. "The
windy night" has made "a rainy morrow," and sorrowful, indeed, is the
face of Nature.

Sorrowful, too, is the household. A lack of geniality pervades it from
garret to basement; no one seems quite to know what is the matter, but
"_suspect_" that "crow that flies in Heaven's sweetest air" stalks
rampant up stairs and down, and damps the ardor of everyone.

Dulce had waked early, had risen from her bed, and--with the curious
feeling full upon her of one who breaks her slumber _knowingly_ that
some grief had happened to her over night, the remembrance of which
eludes her in a tantalizing fashion--had thrown wide her window, and
gazed with troubled eyes upon the dawning world.

Then knowledge came to her, and the thought that she had made a new
contract that must influence all her life, and with this knowledge a
sinking of the heart, but no drawing back and no repentance. She dressed
herself; she knelt down and said her prayers, but peace did not come to
her, or rest or comfort of any sort, only an unholy feeling of revenge,
and an angry satisfaction that should not have found a home in her
gentle breast.

She dressed herself with great care. Her prettiest morning gown she
donned, and going into the garden plucked a last Maréchal Niel rose and
placed it against her soft cheek, that was tinted as delicate as
itself.

And then came breakfast. And with a defiant air, but with some inward
shrinking she took her place behind the urn, and prepared to pour out
tea for the man who yesterday was her affianced husband, but who for the
future must be less than nothing to her.

But as fate ordains it she is not called upon to administer bohea to
Roger this morning. Mr. Dare does not put in appearance, and breakfast
is got through--without, indeed, an outbreak of any sort, but in a
dismal fashion that bespeaks breakers ahead, and suggests hidden but
terrible possibilities in the future.

Dulce is decidedly cross; a sense of depression is weighing her down, a
miserable state of melancholy that renders her unjust in her estimate of
all those around her. She tells herself she hates Roger; and then again
that she hates Stephen, too; and then the poor child's eyes fill with
tears born of a heartache and difficult of repression; to analyze them
she knows instinctively would be madness, so she blinks them bravely
back again to their native land, and having so got rid of them, gives
herself up to impotent and foolish rage, and rails inwardly against the
world and things generally.

Even to Portia she is impatient, and Julia she has annihilated twice.
The latter has been lamenting all the morning over a milliner's bill
that in length and heaviness has far exceeded her anticipations.

But this is nothing; Julia is always so lamenting, and indeed, I never
yet saw the milliner's bill, however honest, that wasn't considered a
downright swindle, and three times as exorbitant as it ought to be!

"Now look at this, my dear Dulce," says the unobservant Julia, holding
out a strip of paper about half a yard in length to Miss Blount, who has
been ominously silent for the past hour. "I assure you the trimmings on
that dress _never_ came to that. They were meagre to the last degree;
just a little _suspicion_ of lace, and a touch of velvet here and there.
It is absurd--it is a fraud. Did _your_ trimmings ever come to that?"

"Don't know, I'm sure," says Dulce, impatiently; "I never keep any
accounts of my own money. I make a _point_ of not doing that. If it's
spent, it's spent, you know, and one gains nothing by thinking of it. It
only shows one how extravagant one has been, and I do so _hate_ scolding
myself!"

"But, my dear child, Madame Grande _must_ have made a mistake. It is all
nonsense; if you would just look it over, if only to convince yourself.
I am not unreasonable."

"I won't look it over," says Miss Blount, promptly. "I _hate_ looking
over things, and I hate bills, and I hate Madame Grande, and I
hate--everything."

After this outburst she makes for the door, and the morning-room knows
her no more for a considerable time. Portia looks up from her painting
in some surprise, and Julia tries to smother the thought that the final
expression of hatred should have ended in the word "_you_."

In the hall outside, Dulce almost runs into Stephen's arms, who has come
up to see her very early, being in a restless and most unsatisfactory
mood. His eyes brighten and he flushes warmly as he meets her, but she,
drawing back from him, gives him to understand by the very faintest of
imperative gestures that he is to come no nearer.

"You!" she says, ungraciously.

"Yes--you expected me?" This question suggests the possibility that he
fears he is not altogether welcome. She waives it, and goes on as though
she had not heard him.

"Have you done what you promised?" she asks, coldly.

"No, you mean--?" he hesitates.

"You _must_ remember. You were to tell Roger next day; _this_ (though it
hardly sounds right) is next day; _have_ you told him that I have
promised to marry you some time?"

There is not the faintest nervousness or girlish confusion in her tone.
Stephen, watching her closely, feels a terrible despair that threatens
to overwhelm him. If only one little blush would mantle her cheek, if
for one second her beautiful, feverishly bright eyes would droop before
his! He battles with the growing misery, and for the time being, allays
it.

"Not yet;" he says. Then he colors hotly, and his eyes leaving her face
seek the ground. A sense of shame betrays itself in every feature. "It
is early yet," he says, in a strange reluctant tone; "and if--if you
think it better to put it off for a day or two, or even to let him find
out for himself by degrees--or--"

"No!"--remorselessly--"he shall be told _now--at once_! Remember all you
said about him last evening. _I_ have not forgotten. What!" cries she,
with sudden passion, "do you think I will live another day believing he
imagines me regretful of my decision--cut to the heart, perhaps, that I
am no longer anything to him? I tell you no! The very thought is
intolerable."

"But--"

"There must be no hesitation," she says, interrupting him with a quick
gesture. "It was in our agreement that he should be told to-day. If one
part of that agreement is to be broken, why then, let us break it all;
it is not too late yet. _I_ shall not care, and perhaps it will be
better if--"

Her cruelty stings him into vehement declaration.

"It will _not_ be better," he says, wrathfully. "I will do anything,
everything, you wish, except"--bitterly--"give you up."

To him it seems a wretched certainty that it _is_ her wish _already_ to
break the bond formed between them but a few short hours ago. Has she so
soon repented?

"Where is Roger?" he asks, turning from her, all the lover's gladness
gone from his eyes. He is looking stern and pale, and as a man might who
is determined to do that against which his soul revolts.

How shall he tell this man, who was once his dearest friend, that he has
behaved as a very traitor to him.

"In the stables, no doubt," replies she, scornfully. The change in his
manner has not touched her; nay, he tells himself it has not so much as
been noticed by her.

Moving abruptly away, he goes down the hall and out of the open door,
and down the stone steps across the gleaming sunshine, and so is lost to
sight.

Dulce watches him until the portico outside hides him from view, and
then, walking very slowly and with bent head, she goes in the direction
of Fabian's room. She is so absorbed in her own reflections that she
hardly hears approaching footsteps, until they are quite close to her.
Looking up, with a quick start, she finds herself face to face with
Roger.

The surprise is so sudden that she has not time to change color until
she has passed him. Involuntarily she moves more quickly, as though to
escape him, but he follows her, and standing right before her, compels
her to stop and confront him.

"One moment," he says. His tone is haughty, but his eyes are more
searching than unkind. "You meant what you said last evening?" he asks,
quickly, and there is a ring in his voice that tells her he will be glad
if she can answer him in the negative. Hearing it, she grows even paler,
and shrinks back from him.

"Have I given you any reason to doubt it?" she says, coldly.

"No--certainly not." His tone has grown even haughtier. "I wish,
however, to let you know I regret anything uncivil I may have said to
you on--that is--at our last interview."

"It is too late for regrets." She says this so low that he can scarcely
hear her.

"You are bent, then, upon putting an end to everything between us?"

"Yes." At this moment it seems impossible to her to answer him in
anything but a monosyllable. Her obstinacy angers him.

"Perhaps you are equally bent," he says, sneeringly, "upon marrying
Gower?"

I suppose he has expected an indignant denial to this question, because,
when silence follows it, he starts, and placing both his hands upon her
shoulders, draws her deliberately over to a side window, and stares into
her downcast face.

"Speak," he says roughly. "_Are_ you going to marry him?"

"Yes."

The word comes with difficulty from between her pale, dry lips.

"He has asked you?"

"He has."

"You were engaged to him even _before_ you broke off your engagement
with me?"

"Oh, _no_, NO!"

"Since when, then? Was it last evening he spoke to you?"

"Yes."

"After you had parted from me? Sharp work, upon my life."

He laughs--a short, unmirthful laugh--and taking his hands from her
shoulders, moves back from her, yet always with his eyes on her face.

"You should be glad," she says, slowly.

"No doubt. So he was your confidant--your father-confessor, was he? All
my misdemeanors were laid bare to him. And then came pity for one linked
to such an unsympathetic soul as mine, and then naturally came what pity
is akin to! It is a pretty story. And for its hero 'mine own familiar
friend.'" He laughs again.

She makes a movement as though to leave him, but he stops her.

"No, do not go yet," he says. "Let me congratulate you. _Le roi est
mort, vive le roi._ My successor, it seems, was not difficult to find;
and--By-the-by, why are you alone now? Why is not your _new_ lover by
your side?"

"My _first_ lover--_not_ my new lover," she says, bitterly, speaking now
with some spirit.

"I didn't count, I suppose."

"_You--!_" She draws her breath quickly, and, then, having subdued the
indignation that had almost overcome her, goes on quietly: "you never
loved me. There was never a moment in all my knowledge of you when I
could have flattered myself with the thought that I was more to you than
a cousin."

"He is very different, I suppose?" He flushes a dark crimson as he puts
this question.

"Altogether--_utterly_! At least, I can tell myself, I am to him
something more than a necessary evil, a thing forced upon him by
circumstances. To _you_ I was only that, and _worse_. There were moments
when I believe you _hated_ me."

"We need not discuss that now," says Dare coldly. "Where is Gower?"

"I don't know; at least, I am not sure. What do you want with him? There
is no use in quarreling with him," she says, nervously.

"Why should I quarrel with any man because a woman chooses to prefer him
to me? That is her affair altogether."

He walks away from her, and she, moving into the deep embrasure of the
large bow window, stands staring blankly upon the sunlit landscape
without.

But presently he returns and, standing beside her, gazes out, too, upon
the flowers that are bowing and simpering as the light wind dances over
them.

"I am going away this evening," he says, at length, very gently. "It is
uncertain when I shall return. Good-by."

He holds out his hand, awkwardly enough, and even when, after a
momentary hesitation, she lays hers in it, hardly presses it. Yet still,
though he has paid his adieux, he lingers there, and loiters aimlessly,
as if he finds a difficulty in putting an end to the miserable
_tete-a-tete_.

"You were wrong just now," he says, somewhat abruptly, not looking at
her; "there was never one second in my life when I _hated_ you; you need
not have said _that_."

"Where are you going?" asks she, brokenly.

"I don't know. It doesn't matter. But before I go, I want to say to
you--that--that--if ever you _want_ me, even if I should be at the end
of the world, _send_ for me, and I will come to you."

_Are_ there tears in his eyes? He drops her hand, and turning hastily
away, goes down the corridor, and is beyond recall before she can muster
courage to say anything to him kind or forgiving.

Going into the yard to order the dog-cart to take him to the station to
catch the up-train, he encounters Stephen Gower (who, by-the-by, had
gone to encounter him), on his knees before a kennel, fondling a
two-months old setter pup.

This pup is a baby belonging to one of Roger's favorite setters, and is,
therefore, a special pet of his.

"Put that dog down," he says, insolently.

"Why?" says Stephen, just as insolently.

"Because petting is bad for young things, and because _I_ wish it."

"Oh, nonsense!" says Stephen, rather cavalierly, continuing his
attention to the dog.

"Look here," says Dare, furiously, "it has nothing to do with the dog,
you will understand--_nothing_--but I want to tell you now what I think
of you, you low, mean, contemptible--"

Gower literally gasps for breath. Letting go the dog, he rises to his
feet, and coming close to Roger, says, passionately,

"What do you mean by that?"

"Have you not been making love to my cousin behind my back? Deny that if
you can!"

"I won't deny that I love her, certainly."

"Will you deny anything else? That you have acted as few men would have
done. Without honor--without--"

This of course puts an end to even enforced civility; Mr. Gower
instantly and most naturally strikes out with the most exemplary vigor,
and presently these two most mistaken young men are clasped in an
embrace, warm indeed, but hardly so loving as one might desire.

How things might have ended, whether with death or only with bloody
noses, no one now can tell, because Sir Mark Gore, coming on the scene
just at this awful moment, seizes Roger by the shoulder and by sheer
force of arm and will, forces him back from his adversary.

"What do you two boys mean by this burst of insanity?" he says, angrily.
"Such an example to the young fellows in the yard; you ought to be
ashamed of yourself, Roger." This is plainly meant for two stable boys
in the distance, who, with open mouths, are staring at the combatants,
and have been plainly enjoying themselves to the utmost.

"Well, I'm not," says Roger, doggedly, who is still thirsting for blood.
"If shame should attach itself to any one, it should be to that fellow
there," pointing contemptuously to Gower.

"Well, I forbid any more of this," says Sir Mark. "Stop it at once. It
is all about that child indoors, I suppose; I never heard of--"

"At all events, I have told him what I think of him," says Roger,
panting. "Low, underhand sneak."

"What?" says Stephen, fiercely, making a step forward.

"I insist on knowing what it is all about," says Sir Mark,
authoritatively. "Of course, one understands a disgraceful scene like
this _always_ means a woman, but _is_ it Dulce?"

"To come here under the guise of friendship and deliberately make love
to the girl to whom he _knew_ I was engaged; was there ever such
treachery since the world began?" says Roger. "Would any fellow, with
any claim to the word gentleman, do that? Now, I leave it to you, Gore?"

"My dear fellow, you must remember it is apparent to everybody that
_you_ don't want her," says Sir Mark, taking Stephen's part, though in
his soul he is on Roger's side. "Would you act the part of the dog in
the manger? You don't affect her yourself, yet nobody else must look at
her. She has found out, I _suppose_, that she prefers some one else to
you. Women, as a rule, will choose for themselves, and who shall blame
them! When, later on, you choose for yourself too, you will be very
grateful to her and Stephen for this hour. Just now self-love is
disagreeing with you. If I were you I should clear out of this for a
bit."

"Oh? as for _that_, I'm going," says Roger; "but I'm glad I have had a
chance of speaking to him before I go; he undermined me, and poisoned
her mind with regard to me from first to last. I wasn't _quite_ blind,
though I said nothing. He spoke evilly of me behind my back, I have no
doubt, and maligned me most falsely when there was a chance; a more
blackguardly transaction--"

"You shall answer to me for this," says Gower, in a white rage; "you
have lied in your statement from beginning to end."

"No one shall answer for anything," says Sir Mark, promptly; "I won't
hear of it. Are you both gentlemen! and to dream of dragging a woman's
name into a scandalous quarrel of this kind? For shame! Take my advice,
Roger, and go abroad, or to the--or anywhere you like for a month or
two, and see what that will do for you. You know you are only trying to
make a grievance out of nothing; you never _really_ cared for her, as a
man should for his wife." Sir Mark's eyes sadden as he says this, and an
irrepressible sigh escapes him; is he thinking of the time when he could
have cared for a woman with all his heart and soul?

"No, of course not; you and she and all are quite agreed about _that_,"
says Roger, bitterly.

"My good boy, all your world knows it," says Sir Mark, persistently.

"My world is wiser than even _I_ gave it credit for," says Roger,
sneeringly. But there is a sob in his voice as he turns away that sends
a pang through Sir Mark's heart. What has happened? Have they all been
mistaken, then? Even have the principal actors in this small drama been
blind until now, when the awakening has come too late.

Without another word to Stephen, Sir Mark goes slowly indoors, and,
passing through the hall, meets Portia coming toward him, a troubled
expression in her large sad eyes.

"What is it, Mark?" she says, laying her hand on his arm, "Something has
happened to Dulce; she is lying on her bed, and will not speak to me or
any one. Has she really quarreled finally with Roger?"

"Oh, it is worse than that," says Gore, with something that is almost a
groan.

"It can't be true that she has thrown him over for Mr. Gower?" says
Portia, recoiling.

"One never knows what a woman will do," says Mark, gloomily, "I think
she has."

"But what is it all about? How did it begin?"

"With a chocolate cream," says Sir Mark, sententiously. "I assure you,
my dear Portia, for the sake of a paltry box of bon-bons she has
sacrificed the entire happiness of her life!"



CHAPTER XVIII.

          "The firste vertue, sone, if thou wilt lerne,
           Is to restreine, and kepen wel thy tonge."
                         --THE MANCIPLE'S TALE--CHAUCER.


THE days have grown shorter and shorter. Daylight now is to be prized,
not sported with, as in the gay and happy Summer. "The inaudible and
noiseless foot of Time" has carried us from "Golden September" to
bleakest Winter, and into that month which claims Christmas for its own.

At the hall, everything is very much the same as it was when last we saw
it, if we except the fact that Roger is absent. He is abroad; _so_ much
abroad, indeed, that nobody knows where he is. A week after his
departure he had written to Sir Christopher, and the week after that
again to Mark Gore; but, beyond these two meagre attempts at
correspondence, no news has been heard of him. Whether, as Mr. Browne
has elegantly expressed it, "he is up the Nile, or up the Spout," is a
matter of speculation.

Sir Christopher is looking a little older, a little graver. He is not so
testy as of yore, a change that fills Dulce's heart with misgivings.
That he has fretted greatly over her broken engagement with Roger (who
is to the old Baronet as dear as his own son should have been, and
second only to Fabian in his affections) she well knows; she well knows,
too, how magnanimously--to please her--he has tried to be civil to
Stephen Gower, and to welcome him with cordiality as his future nephew.
But the effort to do all this has aged and saddened him; and from time
to time his mind wanders restlessly to the young man who left his home
full of anger and indignant grief.

As for Stephen, living in his "Fool's Paradise, he drinks delight," nor
heeds how false is all the happiness that seems to surround him. Bitter
is the fruit he feeds on, though he will not acknowledge it even to
himself; and, looking on his dainty lady-love, he is still happy, and
content to bear all things, and suffer all things, for the few grains of
adulterated sweetness doled out by her every now and then with a niggard
hand. He will see no cloud on his horizon, although it sits there
heavily; nor will he notice aught but what is good and lovable in this
girl, upon whom he has centred all his dearest hopes.

For the rest, there has been but little change amongst them. Julia
Beaufort and the children had gone away for a month, but returned to the
Hall a fortnight ago, and are now--that is, the children, at all
events--anxiously awaiting Christmas Day with all its affectations of
gaiety and goodwill, and its hideous paddings.

Sir Mark did pretty much the same as Julia. He went away, too, and came
back again, thus filling up the measure of his days. Mr. Browne had
declined to stir for any pretense whatever, and has been enjoying
himself to the utmost, now at Portia's feet, now at Dulce's, and, when
all things fail, at Julia's.

Perhaps to Fabian the days have seemed longest. He is silent, cold,
self-contained as ever; but now there is something else, a settled
melancholy, that yet has in it a mixture of extreme pride, that forbids
any approach to it; a melancholy born of despair, and the knowledge that
there is laid upon him "a burden greater than he can bear."

"Time, the subtle thief of youth," is stealing from him his best years;
his life is going, and with it all chance of joy and gladness. Ever
since that memorable evening in the garden, after the ball, a strange
reserve has arisen between him and Portia. That morning, as the soft
pink dawn came up from behind the hills--when passion, pale but
triumphant, had held full sway--has never been forgiven by either. A
sense of terror has possessed Portia ever since--the knowledge of a
danger barely overcome; and with him there has been the memory of pain,
and terrible self-restraint that has scathed him as it passed him by.
And withal a settled coldness has fallen upon them, the greater because
of the weakness that had characterised the hour of which I write.

He does not condemn her, but in his heart he does not forgive her want
of faith, her almost openly avowed distrust. Of his own will he never
lets his eyes rest upon the fair beauty of her face, and turns aside
when unlucky chance has flung him in her path.

And she--a contempt for her own want of self-control, together with the
miserable knowledge that her heart is irrevocably his, has rendered her
almost repellent in her manner toward him. When he is near, her eyelids
droop, her lips take a harder curve, she is dumb, silent, unsympathetic;
and yet when he is gone, when the door has closed behind him, the fever
of her blood runs high, and but for social training, she would gladly
rise, and, in spite of all things, call to him and implore him to return
to her side once more.

To a casual observer, of course, all this is not apparent; but to these
two, between whom Fate sits relentless, the pain and sorrow of it is
deep and cruel. More deep, more sorrowful for him, of course. His whole
life is a ruin; he had thought of many things when first the blight fell
upon him; but that he should fall in love, and because of this curse
that has blasted his best days, should be compelled to turn aside from
the love of his heart, had not occurred to him. His life has grown too
bitter to be borne with fortitude, almost he is "half in love with
easeful death." Oh, the joy--the rapture! to pass away from all the
tortures of this "work-a-day world" to a land unknown, but surely full
of rest. To die--to disappear! To court a glad forgetfulness! In this
alone lies hope, and, that sweetest of all sweet things, indifference.

Not coward enough to compel death, he still longs for it; he would slip
away from all and sink into oblivion, and gladly deem himself and his
sad history forgotten. "To cease upon the midnight with no pain?" What
sweeter, kinder fate could visit him than that for which Keats
longed--not vainly.

Into his life, too, some smaller worries are thrown. The old man Slyme,
the secretary, has been going rapidly from bad to worse, of late. His
intemperate habits are growing on him, and now seldom comes the day when
he is not discovered to be unfit for duty of any kind.

Naturally such conduct incenses Sir Christopher to the last degree. The
old man has been for years in his service, but time wears out all
things, and even regard and use can be forgotten. Fabian, falling into
the breach, seeks to mend it, although Slyme has never been a favorite
of his, and although he is fully aware that he is very distasteful to
the secretary for reasons unknown; still he pleads his cause,
principally because the man is old and friendless; and this, too, he
does secretly, the secretary being ignorant of the force brought to bear
upon his delinquencies, a force that keeps a roof over his head, and
leaves him a competence without which the world would be a barren spot
to him indeed, with only the poor-house--that most degrading of all
places--to which to turn.

To-day is melancholy, cold and bleak. The winds are sighing; the earth
is bare and naked; no vestige of a fresh and coming life can yet be
seen. Upon the gray sands, far away, the white waves dash themselves
tumultuously, the sea birds shriek, and, "blasting keen and loud, roll
the white surges to the sounding shore."

Indoors there is warmth and comfort. Julia, sitting over the fire,
finding she cannot get Dulce to gossip with--Dulce, indeed, is not
come-at-able of late--turns gratefully to Portia, who happens to come
into the room at this moment.

"The fire is the only delicious thing in the house," she says,
fretfully. "_Do_ come here and enjoy it with me."

"Anything the matter with you?" asks Portia, gently, seating herself on
a low lounging chair at her side.

"Oh! nothing, nothing. But Dulce is very strange of late, is she not?
Ever since Roger's going, don't you think? And all that affair was quite
absurd, according to my lights. Stephen won't suit her half as well.
Fancy any woman throwing over the man she likes, for a mere chimera.
Wrecking her entire happiness for the sake of a chocolate cream!"

"It sounds absurd," says Portia; "but I cannot believe such a paltry
thing as that has separated them. There must have been something else."

"Well, perhaps so. Sir Christopher, one can see, is very distressed
about it. He is unfortunate about them all, is he not? poor old man.
Fabian's affair was so wretched, so unlooked for, too," says Julia, in
the comfortably gossiping tone one knows so well, drawing her chair a
little nearer to the fire. "I can't think what could have tempted him to
do it."

Portia turns abruptly toward her.

"Do you, too, question his innocence?" she says, her breath coming
quickly.

"Well--er--you see one doesn't like to talk about it," says Mrs.
Beaufort with a faint yawn. "It seems pleasanter to look upon him as a
suffering angel, but there are some who don't believe in him you know.
Do come closer to the fire, Portia, and let us have a good chat."

"Go on," says Portia, "you were talking of Fabian, you were saying--"

"Yes, just so. Was I uncharitable? It doesn't make him a bit the worse
in my eyes, you know, not a bit. It is all done and over years ago, and
why remember nasty things. Really, do you know, Portia--it may be horrid
of me--but really I think the whole story only makes him a degree more
interesting."

Portia shivers, and ignores this suggestion.

"Do other people doubt him, too?" she asks in a strangely cold tone.
Though she may disbelieve in him herself, yet it is agony to her that
others should do the same.

"My dear, yes, of course; a great many; in fact, pretty nearly everybody
but just those you see here--Sir Mark excepted, I think, and then Dicky
Browne. But Dicky hasn't enough brains to believe or disbelieve in
anybody."

"Ah!" says Portia. She leans back in her chair, and holds up a fan
between her and the fire and Julia. She can hardly analyze her own
thoughts; but, even at this moment, when all her finest feelings are
ajar, she tells herself that surely--surely she cordially detests Julia
Beaufort. She tells herself, too, that she loves Mark Gore.

"You see, in your doubt of him, you are not a solitary exception," says
Julia, with elephantine playfulness. "Others think with you. It is the
plainest case in the world, I think. I don't blame you."

"How do you know I _do_ doubt him?" asks Portia, suddenly, turning her
large eyes upon her, that are glittering in the firelight. At this Julia
recoils a little and looks somewhat uncomfortable.

"Your voice, your manner, led me to believe so," she says, slowly, and
with hesitation. "If you don't, of course it is so much to your credit."

"You mean--" asks Portia.

"Well, his whole bearing would preclude the thought of dishonor of any
kind," says Julia, boldly, and with the utmost effrontery, considering
all she had said a moment since. "Suspicion could hardly rest with such
a man as Fabian. Of course, the whole thing is a wretched mistake, that
will be cleared up sooner or later, let us hope sooner, as surely he has
suffered enough already, poor dear fellow!"

She pauses; Portia puzzled, and secretly indignant, says nothing. Seeing
she will not speak, Julia goes on again even more impressively than
before.

"I never entertained a shadow of a doubt with regard to him," she says,
nobly, "never! Who could? I was always one of his very warmest
supporters."

This is too much! Portia murmuring something civil, but distinct, rises
abruptly, and, going to the door, opens it, and is soon beyond call, and
beyond hearing of the voice that has grown hateful to her.

Just at this moment, Julia's absurd shufflings, and equivocations, and
barefaced changes from one asseveration to another fill her with wrath.
She is distressed, and at war with her own heart; and so, crossing the
hall, makes for the one room that is especially dear to all women when
in trouble, namely, her own bedroom.

But passing by Dulce's door, and finding it open, she pauses before it,
and finally, after some hesitation, she crosses the threshold only to
find it empty.

The fire is burning brightly; a little crushed glove lies upon the
hearth-rug, showing how its owner but lately had knelt before the fire,
or stood near it to gaze into its depths, and call up fancied faces from
its coals.

A little low chair attracts her attention; sinking into it, she lets her
chin fall into the palm of her hands, and presently is lost in painful
and half-angry reflection.

"Pretty nearly everybody." The words ring in her ears; does the whole
county, then, look upon Fabian with averted eyes? And perhaps--who
knows--the very people beneath the roof may distrust him, too; she had
not known until this evening Julia's private opinion; the others may
agree with her, but naturally shrink from saying so. Roger, perhaps,
believed him guilty; and Dicky Browne, it may be, in his secret soul,
regards him with contempt, and Sir Mark--

No, _not_ Sir Mark! She could not mistake him. However foolish it may
be, certainly his belief in Fabian is genuine. And somehow of late, she
has grown rather fond of Sir Mark; and here she sighs, and laying her
hand upon her heart, presses it convulsively against it as though to
still the pain that has sprung into life there, because of the agitation
that has been hers for the past half hour.

Dulce, coming up-stairs, presently, finds her still sitting over the
fire, in an attitude that betokens the very deepest dejection.

"You here, _très chère_, and alone," she says, gaily, stooping over her
in caressing fashion. "Naughty girl. You should have told me you were
going to honor me with your presence, and I would have made my room gay
to receive you."

"I don't want you to make a stranger of me. I like your room as it is,"
says Portia, with a smile.

"Well, don't sit crouching over the fire; it will spoil your complexion;
come over to the window and see what the storm has done, and how lovely
nature can look even when robed in Winter's garb."

Portia, rising, follows her to the window, but as she reaches it she
sinks again wearily into a lounging chair, with all the air of one whose
limbs refuse obstinately to support her.

As both girls gaze out upon the chilly landscape, white here and there
with the snow that fell last night, Fabian, coming from between the dark
green branches of an ancient lauristinus, with two red setters at his
heels, and a gun upon his shoulder, passes beneath the window, going in
the direction of the home wood.

Leaning forward, Dulce taps lightly on the pane, and Fabian, heating the
quick sound, stops short, and lifts his eyes to the window. As he sees
his pretty sister, he nods to her, and a bright smile creeps round his
lips, rendering his always handsome face actually beautiful for the
moment.

Only for a moment; his gaze wandering, instinctively, falls on Portia,
standing pale and calm beside her cousin. Their eyes meet, and, as if by
magic, the smile dies, his lips grow straight and cold again, and,
without another glance, he whistles to his dogs, and, turning the
corner, is rapidly out of sight.

"Dear Fabian--poor darling," says Dulce, tenderly, who has noticed only
the kindly smile vouchsafed to her. "How sad he always looks. Even his
smile is more mournful than the tears of others. What a terrible
pressure Fate has laid upon him. He----; how pale you are, Portia! What
is it, dearest? I am sure you are not well to-day."

"I am quite well. I am only cold; go on," speaking with some difficulty;
"you were saying something about--Fabian."

"I _think_ so much of him that it is a relief to talk sometimes; but I
won't make you doleful. Come over to the fire if you are cold."

"No, I like being here; and--do go on, I like listening to you."

"Well, I wasn't going to say anything very particular, you know. It has
all been said so often. _So_ often, and to no use. What a little thing,
Portia, gives rise to the most terrible consequences; the mere fact that
two people wrote alike, and formed their capitals in the same fashion,
has been the utter ruin of a man's life. It sounds dreadful--cruel!
sometimes--_often_--I lie awake thinking of it all, and wondering can
nothing be done, and no hope ever comes to me. That is the saddest part
of it, it will go on like this forever, he will go to his grave,"
mournfully, "and his very memory will be associated with disgrace."

She pauses and sighs heavily, and folds her fingers tightly together.
Not Stephen, nor Roger, but this dishonored brother, is the love of her
life--as yet.

"Of course you heard a good deal about it in town," she says, sadly. "He
had many friends there at one time. Fair-weather friends! They, as a
rule, are cruellest when evil comes; and they never remember. You heard
him often discussed?"

This is a downright question to which Portia is constrained to give an
answer.

"Yes; often," she says, sorely against her will.

"Aunt Maud would enlarge upon it, of course," says Dulce, bitterly. "She
likes whisperings and slanderous tongues. And you, when first you heard
it, what did you think?"

Portia shrinks from her. Must she answer this question, too?

"Think?" she says, evasively.

"Yes; what did you think of Fabian?"

"Very little," says Portia, who has grown quite white; "why should I
think at all? I did not know him then. It was most natural, was it not?
He was a stranger to me."

"A stranger, yes. But still your cousin--your own blood. I should have
thought much, I think. It was natural, I daresay, but even _then_--you
must recollect--did you believe in him? Did you guess the truth?"

"I don't think I quite understand," said Portia, faintly.

Dulce, in a vague fashion, takes note of her confusion.

"Not understand! But it is such a simple matter," she says, in a changed
tone. She looks puzzled, surprised, and a distressed look comes into her
eyes. "I mean even _then_, did you believe him innocent?"

"How can I remember?" says Portia, drawing her breath quickly.

The distrust grows upon Dulce's tell-tale face. She comes a step nearer
to her cousin.

"No," she says, slowly--her eyes are fixed attentively upon Portia--"it
is some time ago. But you can at least tell me _this_. Now--_now_--that
you know him--when you have been beneath the same roof with him for some
months, how is it with you? You _feel_ that he is innocent?"

There is a terrible amount of almost agonized earnestness in her tone.

"How you catechise one," says Portia, with a painfully bald attempt at
indifference that does not impose upon the slowly awakening suspicions
of the other for one instant. "Let us change the subject."

"In one moment. I want an answer to my question first. Now that you have
seen and known Fabian, do you believe him innocent?"

A most fatal silence follows. Had the question referred to any one
else--had even any one else asked the question, she might have evaded it
successfully, or even condescended to an actual misstatement of her real
thoughts on the subject rather than give pain or be guilty of a social
error. She would, in all probability, have smiled and said, "Yes, oh!
yes; one must see that he is incapable of such an act," and so on. But
just now she seems tongue-tied, unable to say one word to allay her
companion's fears. A strange sense of oppression that weighs upon her
breast grows heavier and more insupportable at each moment, and Dulce's
great gleaming eyes of blackest gray are reading her very soul, and
scorching her with their reproachful fire.

"Speak," she cries at last, in a vehement tone, laying her hand on
Portia's arm, and holding her with unconscious force. "Say--say," with a
miserable attempt at entreaty, and a cruel sob, "that you do not believe
him guilty of this cursed thing."

Portia's lips are so dry and parched that they absolutely refuse to give
utterance to any words. In vain she tries to conquer the deadness that
is overpowering her, but without avail. She lifts her eyes beseechingly,
and then grows literally afraid of the girl leaning over her, so intense
and bitter is the hatred and scorn that mar the beauty of her usually
fair, childish face.

This upward, nervous glance, breaks the spell of silence, and gives
voice to Dulce's wrath. It does more, it betrays to her the truth--the
bitter fact--that in Portia's eyes her brother--her beloved--is neither
more nor less than a successful criminal.

"No, do not trouble yourself to answer me," she says, in cold, cutting
tones. "I want no lies, no pretty speeches. I thank you, at least, that
you have spared me those. In your soul--I can see--you think him guilty
of this shameful deed. Oh! it is horrible!" She covers her face with
both her hands, and sways a little, as one might, who is, indeed, hurt
to death. "And you, too," she says, faintly; "the only one of all our
_friends_. And I so trusted you. I so _loved_ you!"

"Dulce!" cries poor Portia, in an agonized tone. "Hear me!" She springs
to her feet, but Dulce, removing her hands from her face, holds them
both towards her in such a repellant manner, that she dares not
approach. In the last half hour, this girl, so pliant, so prone to
laughter and childish petulance, has sprung from the happy insolence of
youth into the sad gravity of womanhood.

"What a fool I was," she says, in a low concentrated tone. "I watched
all, and I was so _sure_. I thought--the idea will make you laugh, no
doubt--but I thought that you _loved_ him. Yet why should you laugh,"
she says with a sudden passion of remembrance. "Many women have loved
him, the best, the loveliest--nay, all the world loved him, till this
false blight fell upon him. And even since--"

She hesitates. It may be emotion, it may be recollection and a thought
that he may not wish further disclosures, check her.

"Yes, and even since?" echoes Portia, bending eagerly forward. Some
feeling even greater than the anguish of the moment compels her to ask
the question. But it is never answered. Dulce, with quivering lips and
flashing eyes, follows out her own train of thought.

"I congratulate you upon your complete success as a coquette," she says.
"No doubt, a London season can develop talents of that sort. You at
least deserve praise as an apt pupil. Step by step, day by day, you led
him on to his destruction--nay, I am not blind--until at last he laid
his whole heart at your feet; you made him adore you only to--"

"Dulce--Dulce," cries Portia, throwing out her arms in passionate
protest. "It is not true, I--"

"I _will_ speak," says Dulce, pressing her back from her, "I _will_ tell
you what I think of you. Scorning him in your heart you still encouraged
him, until his very soul was your own. Do you think I can't see how it
is? Have you forgotten he is my own flesh and blood, and that I can read
him as no one else can? He thinks you sweet and noble, and perfect, no
doubt. Alas! how he has been deceived!"

"Listen to me."

"No, I will not listen. I have trusted you too far already. Oh!"
piteously, "you who have seen him, and have noticed the beauty, the
sweetness of his life, how could you have misjudged him? But," with
vehement anger, "your narrow mind could not appreciate his! You lack
generosity. You could not grasp the fact that there might be in this
wide world such a thing as undiscovered wrong. You condemned without a
hearing. Why," growing calmer, "there have been _hundreds_ of cases
where the innocent have suffered for the guilty."

"I know it," says Portia, feverishly, taking Dulce's hand and trying to
draw her towards her; but the girl recoils.

"Do not touch me," she says. "There is no longer any friendship between
us."

"Oh! Dulce, do not say that," entreats Portia, painfully.

"I will say it. All is at an end as far as love between us is concerned.
Fabian is part of me. I cannot separate myself from him. His friends are
mine. His detractors are mine also. I will not forgive them. I believe
him a saint, you believe him defiled, and tainted with the crime of
_forgery_."

She draws her breath quickly; and Portia turns even whiter than before.

"Whereas I protest to you," goes on Dulce, rapidly losing all
constraint, and letting her only half-suppressed passion have full sway.
"I believe you to be less pure than him, less noble, less self-denying;
_he_ would be slow to believe evil of anyone. And this one thing I am
resolved on. He shall no longer be left in ignorance of your scorn; he
shall not any more spend his affection upon one who regards him with
disdain; he shall know the truth before the day dies."

"Have you no pity?" says Portia, faintly.

"Have you none? You condemned him willingly."

"Oh! not willingly!"

"I don't care, you _have_ condemned him."

"If you will only think, you will see--"

"Don't speak to me, I _hate_ you," says Miss Blount, growling
undignified because of her deep grief and agitation. "And don't think
you can turn me from my purpose. I shall tell him what you think of him
before this evening passes, be sure of that."

"There is no need to tell him," says Portia, in so low a tone that Dulce
can scarcely hear her. "He--he knows already!"

"What!" cries Dulce, aghast. But her rout only lasts for a moment. "I
don't care," she says, recklessly, "that is only another reason why I
should warn him to beware of you!"

Then, as though some cruel thought strikes her, she suddenly bursts into
tears.

"Were there not _others_?" she sobs, bitterly. "If a slave was
indispensable to your happiness, was there not Roger, or Stephen, or
Dicky Browne, or even Sir Mark, that you must needs claim _him_? He was
heart-whole when you came; if not happy, he had at least conquered the
first awful pain; could there be greater wickedness than to add another
grief to his life? He had suffered as no man ever yet suffered, and yet
you came to add another pang, and to destroy him, body and soul! When I
think of it all, and the deliberate cruelty of it," cries she, with a
gesture of uncontrollable passion, "if I could lay you dead at my feet
this moment by a word I would do it!"

"I wish you could do it," says Portia, quite calmly. The terrible grief
of the poor child before her is almost more than she can bear. Her
calmness that is born of despair, brings Dulce back to something that
resembles quietude.

"I shall go now," she says; "you have had enough of me, no doubt; but
remember I shall tell Fabian all that has passed. I warn you of this,
honestly."

She moves towards the door. There is a moment's hesitation, and then
Portia intercepts her, and placing her back against the door to bar
egress, she says, in slow, determined tones:

"You shall tell him nothing. You shall not leave this room until you
promise to keep secret all that has passed here. Do you understand?--you
are to tell him _nothing_."

"Oh! yes, I shall," says Miss Blount, contemptuously, knowing herself
much the stronger of the two. "And even sooner than I first intended. I
shall go to meet him on his return from the wood, and tell him then."

She turns back; and, crossing the room again, goes towards another door;
that opening discloses a large closet beyond, in which many dresses and
other articles of feminine attire are hanging, like so many Blue Beard's
wives. A little window, lattice-paned, illumines this tiny chamber.

Portia following her, lays her hand upon her arm. She has changed her
tone completely, from command to entreaty.

"_Do_ not speak to Fabian of this," she says. "Do not let him think we
two have discussed the wretched subject."

"I shall tell him precisely what has happened," says Dulce, unsoftened.
"That you think him nothing less than a common _felon_."

"Oh! do not put it into language," says Portia, sharp pain in her voice;
she puts up her hands as she speaks, as, though to ward off a blow. "And
I implore you, as you _love_ him, to let things rest as they are."

"And so to give you scope to practise your wiles without hindrance,"
says Dulce, with a short, unlovely laugh. "No, I shall try my very
utmost to lower you in his esteem, and so kill his fatal infatuation for
you."

"You will fail," says Portia, hopelessly. "You will only succeed in
hurting him."

"How sure you are of your power," says Dulce, angrily. "Yet I will not
be disheartened. I will save him if I can."

"You are quite determined?"

"Quite."

"You will go now to meet him, _now_ when your anger is hot, and say to
him what will surely grieve or wound him?"

"Let us talk sense," says Dulce, impatiently. "I shall simply warn him
to have nothing more to do with a woman who looks upon him with scorn
and contempt."

As she speaks she enters the closet that is nothing more than a big
wardrobe, and, as she does so, Portia, quick as thought follows her,
and, closing the door behind her, turns the key in the lock.

"You shall stay there until you promise me to tell nothing of this
hour's conversation to Fabian," she says, with determination.

"Then I shall probably stay here forever," replies Dulce from within,
with equal determination.

Portia going over to the fire seats herself by it. Dulce going to the
latticed window inside seats herself by _it_. An hour goes by. The
little clock up over the mantelpiece chimes five. A gun is fired off in
the growing dark outside. There is a sound as of many voices in the hall
far down below. A laugh that belongs to Dicky Browne floats upwards, and
makes itself heard in the curious stillness of the room above where the
jailer sits guarding her prisoner.

Then Portia, rising, goes to the door of the condemned cell, and speaks
as follows:

"Dulce."

There is no answer.

"Dulce; you are unwise not to answer me."

Still no answer; whereupon Portia, going back to the fire, lets another
half hour pass in silence. Then she says, "Dulce!" again, and again
receives no reply.

Time flies!--and now at last the dressing bell rings loud and clear
through the house, warning the inmates that the best time in the day
draws on apace.

"Dulce," says Portia, in despair, rising for the third time. To tell the
truth, she is growing a little frightened at the persistent silence, and
begins to wonder nervously if Dulce could get smothered in the small
room, because of all the clothes that surround her.

"Dulce! _will_ you promise?" she says. And now, to her relief, even
though the words that come are unfavorable, Dulce answers.

"Never. Not if I stayed here till Doomsday," says Miss Blount, in
uncompromising tones, and quite as unconcernedly as if she was sitting
in the room outside instead of having been ignominiously incarcerated
for the last two hours. "The very moment you open the door, I shall go
down-stairs and tell him everything."

"Then I won't let you out," says Portia, feebly, because she knows that
soon dinner will come, and then she _must_ let her out willy-nilly.

"I didn't ask you," says the rebel. "Dress yourself now, I would advise
you, and go down to dinner. I hope you will enjoy it. When they make
inquiries about my non-appearance, I should think you will have to
explain it later on."

"Come out," says Portia, with a sigh of utter weariness; and then she
opens the door and the incarcerated one steps forth, and sails past her
with the air of a haughty queen, and with an unlowered crest.

Miss Vibart is vanquished. Even to her own soul she confesses so much.
Dulce, passing her in dignified silence, goes toward the bedroom that
opens off the boudoir, where they have been carrying on this most civil
(or rather _un_civil) war, and entering it, closes the door, and fastens
it with unmistakable firmness behind her.

Conquered and subdued, and sick at heart, Portia traverses the corridor
that divides her room from Dulce's, and prepares with languid interest
to make her dinner toilette.



CHAPTER XIX.

          "We must live our lives, though the sun be set,
             Must meet in the masque, where parts we play,
           Must cross in the maze of Life's minuet;
             Our yea is yea, and our nay is nay:
           But while snows of Winter or flowers of May,
             Are the sad years' shroud or coronet,
           In the season of rose or of violet,
             I shall never forget till my dying day!"
                                        --A. LANG.


DINNER to-night, so far as Dulce and Portia are concerned, is gone
through in utter silence. Not a word escapes either. To Portia, even to
say yes or no to the butler, is a wearying of the flesh; to Dulce, it is
an open annoyance. Their positive determination to enter into no
conversation might have been observed sooner or later by somebody, but
for Dicky Browne. He talks for everybody, and is, indeed, in such a
genial mood, that their unusual silence passes unnoticed.

Fabian, too, for a wonder, has risen above his usual taciturnity and is
almost talkative. A change so delightful to Sir Christopher, that he, in
his turn, brightens up, and grows more festive than he has been for many
a day. In fact, for all but the two girls, the dinner may be counted a
distinct success.

Portia, who is dressed in filmy black, is looking white and nervous, and
has in her eyes an intense wrapt expression, such as one might have
whose nerves are all unstrung, and who is in momentary expectation of
something unpleasant, that may or may not happen. Dulce on the contrary
is flushed and angry. Her eyes are brilliant, and round her generally
soft lips lies a touch of determination foreign to them, and hardly
becoming.

Presently dinner comes to an end, and then the three women rise and
rustle away toward the drawing-room, where follows a dreary half hour,
indeed.

Julia, who is always drowsy after her claret, sinks complacently into
the embrace of the cosiest arm-chair she can find, and under pretence of
saving her priceless complexion (it really does cost a good deal) from
the fire, drops into a gentle slumber behind her fan.

This makes things even harder for Portia and Dulce. I need hardly say
they are not on speaking terms--that has explained itself, I hope.
Thrown now, therefore, upon their own resources, they look anxiously
around for a chance of mitigating the awkwardness of the situation that
has thrust itself upon them.

At such trying moments as these how blessed is the society of children.
Even crusty old bachelors, educated to the belief that the young and
innocent are only one gigantic fraud, have been known on occasions like
the present to bestow upon them a careful, not to say artful, attention.

To-night, Portia, Jacky and the Boodie are having it all their own way.
"Quite a bully time, don't you know," says Master Jacky, later, to the
all-suffering nurse, whose duty it is to look after them and put them to
bed. They are talked to and caressed and made much of by both girls, to
their excessive surprise; surprise that later on mounts to distrust.

"Why may I have this album to-night when I mightn't _last_ night?" asks
the Boodie, shrewdly, her big sapphire eyes bigger than usual. "You
scolded me about it last night, and every other time I touched it. And
what's the matter with your eyes?" staring up at Portia, who has turned
a page in the forbidden album, and is now gazing at a portrait of Fabian
that is smiling calmly up at her.

It is a portrait taken in that happy time when all the world was fair to
him, and when no "little rift" had come to make mute the music of his
life. Portia is gazing at it intently. She has forgotten the child--the
book--everything, even the fear of observation, and her eyes are heavy
with unshed tears, and her hands are trembling.

Then the child's questioning voice comes to her; across the bridge of
past years she has been vainly trying to travel, and perforce she gives
up her impossible journey, and returns to the sure but sorry present.

Involuntarily she tightens her hand upon the Boodie's. There is entreaty
in her pressure, and the child (children, as a rule, are very
sympathetic), after a second stare at her, shorter than the first,
understands, in a vague fashion, that silence is implored of her, and
makes no further attempts at investigation.

After a little while the men come; all except Fabian. Their entrance is
a relief to the girls, whatever it may be to Julia. She rouses herself
by a supreme effort to meet the exigencies of the moment, and really
succeeds in looking quite as if she has not been in the land of Nod for
the past sweet thirty minutes.

"You have broken in upon a really delicious little bit of gossip," she
says to Sir Mark, coquettishly; whereupon Sir Mark, as in duty bound,
entreats her to retail it again to him.

She doesn't.

"I hope you have been miserable without us," says Dicky Browne, sinking
into a chair beside Portia, and lifting the Boodie on to his knee. (It
would be impossible to Dicky Browne to see a child anywhere without
lifting it on to his knee). "We've been wretched in the dining-room; we
thought Sir Christopher would never tip us the wink--I mean," correcting
himself with assumed confusion, "give us the word to join you. What are
you looking at? An album?"

"Yes; you may look at it, too," says Portia, pushing it anxiously
towards him. She cannot talk to-night. There is a mental strain upon her
brain that compels her to silence. If he would only amuse himself with
the caricatures of his friends the book contains.

But he won't. Mr. Browne rises superior to the feeble amusements of the
ordinary drawing-room.

"No, thank you," he says, promptly. "Nothing on earth offends me more
than being asked to look at an album. Why look at paper beauties when
there are living ones in the room?"

Here he tries to look sentimental, and succeeds, at all events, in
looking extremely funny. He has been having a good deal of champagne,
and a generous amount of Burgundy, and is now as happy and contented as
even his nearest and dearest could desire. Don't mistake me for a
moment; nobody ever saw Mr. Browne in the very faintest degree as--well,
as he ought not to be; but there is no denying that after dinner he is
gaiety itself, and (as Dulce's governess used to say of him), "very
excellent company indeed."

"I always feel," he goes on airily, still alluding to the despised
album, "when any one asks me to look at a book of this kind, as if they
thought I was a dummy and couldn't talk. And I _can_ talk, you know."

"You can--you can, indeed," says Sir Mark, feelingly. "Dulce, what was
that we were reading yesterday? I remember, now, a quotation from it
_àpropos_ of talking, _not àpropos_ of our friend Dicky, of course.
'Then he will talk. Good gods, how he will talk!' Wasn't that it?"

"Sing us something, Dicky, do. You used to sing long ago," says Julia,
insinuatingly, who thinks she might be able to accomplish another
surreptitious doze under cover of the music.

"I've rather given it up of late," says Mr. Browne, with a modest air,
and a chuck to his shirt collar.

"You used to sing 'Ye banks and braes o' bonny Doon' sweetly," says
Julia, when she has recovered from a vigorous yawn, got through quite
safely behind her sheet anchor--I mean her fan.

"Well--er--such a lot of fellows go in for the sickly sentimental; I'm
tired of it," says Dicky, vaguely.

"You didn't tire of _that_ song until that little girl of the Plunkets
asked you what a 'brae' was and you couldn't tell her. She told me about
it afterwards, and said you were a very amusing boy, but, she feared,
uneducated. You gave her the impression, I think," says Sir Mark,
pleasantly, "that you believed the word had something to do with that
noble (if tough) animal, the donkey!"

"I never told her anything of the kind," says Dicky, indignantly. "I
never speak to her at all if I can help it. A most unpleasant girl, with
a mouth from ear to ear and always laughing."

"What a fetching description," says Stephen Gower, with a smile.

"You _will_ sing us something?" says Portia, almost entreatingly. She
wants to be alone; she wants to get rid of Dicky and his artless prattle
at any price.

"Certainly," says Mr. Browne, but with very becoming hesitation. "If I
could only be sure what style of thing you prefer. I know a comic song
or two, if you would like to hear them."

"Heavens and Earth!" murmurs Sir Mark, with a groan. He throws his
handkerchief over his face, and places himself in an attitude suggestive
of the deepest resignation.

"I'm afraid I shan't be able to remember _all_ the words," says Dicky,
regretfully. "There is any amount of verses, and all as funny as they
can be. But I've a shocking memory."

"For small mercies--" says Sir Mark, mildly.

"Nevertheless I'll try," says Dicky, valiantly, moving toward the piano.

"No don't, Dicky," exclaims Sir Mark, with tearful entreaty. "It would
break my heart if Portia were to hear you for the first time at a
disadvantage. 'I had rather than forty shillings you had your book of
songs and sonnets here,' but as you haven't, why, wait till you have.
Now," says Sir Mark, casting a warning look upon the others; "I've done
_my_ part--hold him tight, some of you, or he will certainly do it
still."

"Oh! if you don't _want_ to hear me," returns Dicky, with unruffled good
humor. "Why can't you say so at once, without so much beating about the
bush. I don't want to sing."

"Thank you, Dicky," says Sir Mark, sweetly.

Stephen is sitting close to Dulce, and is saying something to her in a
low tone. Her answers, to say the least of them, are somewhat irrelevant
and disconnected. Now she rises, and, murmuring to him a little
softly-spoken excuse, glides away from him to the door, opens it, and
disappears.

At this Portia, who has never ceased to watch her, grows even paler than
she was before, and closes one hand so tightly on her fan that part of
the ivory breaks with a little click.

Five minutes pass; to her they might be five interminable hours; and
then, when she has electrified Mr. Browne by saying "yes" twice and "no"
three times in the wrong places, she, too, gets up from her seat and
leaves the room.

       *       *       *       *       *

Before the fire in his own room Fabian is standing, with Dulce crying
her heart out upon his breast. He has one arm around her, but his eyes
are looking into a sad futurity, and he is gently, absently, tapping her
shoulder with his left hand. He is frowning, not angrily, but
thoughtfully, and there is an expression in his dark eyes that suggests
a weariness of the flesh, and a longing to flee away and be at rest.

"Do not take this thing so much to heart," he says, in a rather
mechanical tone, addressing his little sister, who is grieving so
bitterly because of the slight that has been cast upon him from so
unexpected a quarter. "She told you the truth; the very first moment my
eyes met hers I knew she had heard all, and--had condemned."

He sighs wearily.

"Who shall blame her?" he says, with deepest melancholy.

"I blame her," cries Dulce, passionately. "Nay, more, I hate and despise
her. She has seen you, known you. She must, therefore, be
_mad--blind_--to credit so vile a thing of you. And you, my saint, my
darling, what have you not endured all this time! Knowing everything,
bearing everything, without a murmur or reproach. Her scorn, her
contempt. Oh, Fabian! at least you do not suffer alone, for I suffer
with you."

"That only adds another drop to my cup," replies he, gently. "It does
not comfort me. I had some faint pleasure in the thought that you and
she were friends, and now, even that belief is denied me. _I_ have
severed you. What have I to do with either she or you? My misfortune is
my own, let it be so. Your tears only aggravate my pain, my dear,
_dear_ little sister."

He draws her closer to him, and kisses her warmly. Is she not the one
being who has clung to him, and loved him, and believed in him through
good and evil report?

"Who could dream she was so deceitful?" says Dulce, tearfully, alluding
to the unhappy Portia. "I never once even suspected the real truth. Why,
over and over again she has spoken of you, has compelled me to discuss
you, has seemed to court the subject of--"

"Spoken of _me_!"

"Yes, often--often, hundreds of times. She seemed never to tire of you
and your history; I thought she--"

Dulce hesitates.

"Go on; you thought she--"

"Well, then," recklessly, "I thought she was in love with you; I was
_sure_ of it."

"Dulce," sharply, "you forget yourself. What are you saying? Do you
think your cousin would like you to speak like this?"

"I don't care what she likes," cries the rebel, angrily; "as I am
speaking like this, I hope she wouldn't. When I think how good you have
always been to her, how you gave her your friendship--your--" her voice
fails her, and in a whisper, she adds, "_your love_."

"Do not let us discuss this subject any more," says Fabian; though he
speaks quickly one can hear the keen anguish in his tone. "Why could I
not give her my friendship? Is it her fault that she cannot believe?"

"You would defend her!"

"I would be just. Is she the _only_ one who feels distrust, who only
half credits my version of the miserable story? Here, in this very
house, are there none who hesitate between faith and unfaith? You have
faith in me, and Roger had."

"Oh, yes, yes, _yes_!" cries she, suddenly. "_He_ had faith in you, _he_
loved you." Without a word of warning she breaks again into a very
tempest of tears, and sobs bitterly.

"I would you could have loved him," says Fabian, in a low tone, but she
will not listen.

"Go on," she says, vehemently, "you were saying something about the
people in this house."

"That, probably, after you and Roger, I have Dicky on my side,"
continues Fabian, obediently, a still deeper grief within his haggard
eyes, "and, of course, Christopher and Mark Gore; but does Julia quite
understand me? or Stephen Gower! Forgive me, dearest, for this last."

"Don't speak to me like that," entreats she, mournfully; "what is
Stephen--what is anyone to me in comparison with you. Yet I will vouch
for Stephen. But what is it you say of Julia--surely--"

"Yes--no doubt," impatiently. "But is her mind really satisfied? If
to-morrow my innocence were shown up incontrovertibly to all the world,
she would say triumphantly, 'I told you so.' And if my guilt were
established, she would say just as triumphantly, 'I told you so,' in the
very same tone."

"You wrong her, I think. She has lived with you in this house off and on
for many months, and few have so mean a heart as Portia."

Someone, who a minute ago opened the door very gently, and is now
standing irresolute upon the threshold, turns very pale at this last
speech and lays her hand upon her heart, as though fearing, though
longing, to go forward.

"Perhaps I _do_ wrong Julia," says Fabian, indifferently. "It hardly
matters. But you must not wrong Portia. Our suspicions, as our likes and
dislikes, are not under our control; now, for example, there is old
Slyme; he hates me, as all the world can see, yet he would swear to my
innocence to-morrow."

"How do you know that?"

"I _do_ know it; by instinct, I suppose; I am one of those unhappy
people who can see through their neighbors. In spite of the hatred he
entertains for me (why I know not) his eyes betray the fact that he
thinks me guiltless of the crime imputed to me. So you see, vulgar
prejudice has nothing to do with it, and Portia is not to be censured
because she can not take me on trust."

"Oh, Fabian! how can you still love one who--"

"My dear, love and I are not to be named together, you forget that. I
must live my life apart. You can only pray that my misery may be of
short duration. But I would have you forgive Portia," he says,
gently--nay, as her name falls from his lips, a certain tenderness
characterises both his face and tone--"if only for _my_ sake."

At this, the silent figure in the doorway draws her breath, painfully,
and catches hold of the lintel as though to steady herself. Her lips
tremble, a momentary fear that she may be going to faint terrifies her;
then a voice, cold and uncompromising falling on her ears, restores her
to something like composure.

"Do not ask me that, anything but that;" it is Dulce who is speaking. "I
cannot."

At this, the girl standing in the doorway, as though unable to endure
more, comes slowly forward, and advances until she is within the full
glare of the lamplight. It is Portia. She is deadly pale; and her black
robes clinging round her render the pallor of her face even more
ghastly. She has raised one hand, and is trifling nervously with the
string of pearls that always lies round her white throat; she does not
look at Fabian, not even for one instant does she permit her eyes to
seek his, but lets them rest on Dulce, sadly, reproachfully.

"Why can you not forgive me?" she says; "is not your revenge complete?
You have, indeed, kept your word. Now that I am sad at heart, why will
you not try to forgive?"

"Yes--forgive." It is Fabian who says this; he lays his hand upon
Dulce's arm, and regards her earnestly.

"_You_ ask me to forgive--_you_! You would have me be kind to this
traitress!" returns she, passionately, glancing back at Portia, over her
shoulder, with angry eyes. "Do you forgive her yourself?"

"I am beyond the pale of forgiveness so far as he is concerned," says
Portia, slowly. "It is to you I appeal. I have loved you well, that
should count for something. As for your brother, I understand--I know
that he will never forgive and never forget!"

"You are right," says Fabian, addressing her for the first time, yet
without letting his glance meet hers, "I shall _never forget_!"

A sob rises in Portia's throat; there is a terrible sadness in his tone,
the more terrible because of the stern restraint he has laid upon
himself.

"Go to her," he says to Dulce, and the girl who has never disobeyed a
wish of his in all her life goes up to Portia and lays her hand in
hers.

Palm to palm, slender hands clasped close together, they move toward the
door; Dulce, with bent head, trying to stay the mournful tears that are
falling silently, one by one, down her cheeks; Portia, with head erect,
but with an anguish in her lovely eyes sadder than any tears.

Just as she reaches the door she turns her head, and, with a passionate
eagerness that will not be repressed, looks at Fabian. Their eyes meet.
He makes a step toward her; he has forgotten everything but that he
loves her, and that she--dearest but most agonizing of certainties--loves
him, and that she is near him, searching, as it were, into his very
soul; then remembrance comes to him, and, with a smothered groan, he
turns from her, and, leaning his arms on the chimney-piece, buries his
face in them.

Portia, to check the sob that rises in her throat, tightens her clasp on
Dulce's hand and draws the girl quickly from the room. Perhaps, too, she
seeks to hide his grief from other eyes than hers. The unwonted
sharpness of her pressure, however, rouses Dulce from her sad thoughts,
and as they reach the corridor outside she stops short, and glances half
resentfully, half with a question on her face, at Portia.

The extreme pain and grief she sees in Portia's eyes awakens her to the
truth; she draws her breath a little quickly and lays her hand
impulsively upon her cousin's bare white arm.

"You suffer too--you!" she says, in a whisper full of surprise; "Oh,
Portia! is it that you love him?"

"Has it taken you so long to discover that," says Portia, reproachfully,
who has grown somewhat reckless because of the misery of the past few
hours. The self-contained, proud girl is gone; a woman sick at heart, to
whom the best good of this world is as naught, has taken her place.
There is so much genuine pain in her voice that Dulce is touched; she
forgets all, condones all; to see a fellow-creature in pain is terrible
to this hot-blooded little shrew. The anger and disdain die out of her
eyes, and coming even closer to Portia, she looks long and earnestly at
her beautiful face.

"Oh, that you could believe in him," she says, at last, the expression
of her desire coming from her in the form of a sigh.

"If I could, I should be too deeply blessed. Yet is it that I do not
believe, or that I dread the world's disbelief? That is the sting. To
know that a stain lies on the man I love, to know that others distrust
him, and will _forever_ pass him by on the other side. That is the
horror. Dulce, I am ignoble, I fear many things; the future terrifies
me; but yet, as I am so wretched, dear, _dear_ Dulce, take me back into
your heart!"

She bursts into tears. They are so strange to her and have been so long
denied, that by their very vehemence they frighten Dulce. She takes
Portia in her arms, and clings to her; and, pressing her lips to her
cheek, whispers to her fondly that she is forgiven, and that from her
soul she pities her. Thus peace is restored between these two.



CHAPTER XX.

          "Time tries the troth in everything."
                             --THOMAS TUSSER.


THE voice comes to her distinctly across the sward, browned by Winter's
frown, and over the evergreens that sway and rustle behind her back.

"Shall I answer?" says Dulce to herself, half uncertainly; and then she
hesitates, and then belies the old adage because she is not lost, but
decides on maintaining a discreet silence. "If he comes," she tells
herself, "he will only talk, _talk_, TALK! and, at his best, he is
tiresome; and then he worries so that really life becomes a burden with
him near. And the day, though cold, is bright and frosty and delicious,
and all it should be at Christmas time, and when one is wrapped in furs
one doesn't feel the cold," and she really means to enjoy herself with
her book, and now--

"Dulce!" comes the voice again, only nearer this time, and even more
pathetic in its anxiety, and Dulce moves uneasily. Perhaps, after all,
she ought to answer. Has she not promised many things. Shall she answer
or not, or--

This time her hesitation avails her nothing; a step can be heard
dangerously close, and then a figure comes up to her very back, and
peers through the thick hedge of evergreens, and finally Stephen makes
his way through them and stands before her.

He is flushed and half angry. He is uncertain how to translate the
extreme unconcern with which she hails him. _Did_ she hear him call, or
did she not? That is the question. And Stephen very properly feels that
more than the fate of a nation depends upon the solution of this
mystery.

"Oh! here you are at last," he says, in a distinctly aggrieved tone. "I
have been calling you for the last hour. Didn't you hear me?"

When one has been straining one's lungs in a vain endeavor to be heard
by a beloved object, one naturally magnifies five minutes into an hour.

Dulce stares at him in a bewildered fashion. Her manner, indeed,
considering all things, is perfect.

"Why didn't you answer me?" asks Mr. Gower, feeling himself justified in
throwing some indignation into this speech.

"Were you calling me?" she asks, with the utmost innocence, letting her
large eyes rest calmly upon his, and bravely suppressing the smile that
is dying to betray her; "really? How was it I didn't hear you? I was
sitting here all the time. These evergreens _must_ be thick! Do you know
I am horribly afraid I shall grow deaf in my old age, because there are
moments even now--such, for example, as the present--when I cannot bring
myself to hear _anything_."

This last remark contains more in it than appears to Mr. Gower.

"Yet, only last night," he says resentfully, "you told me it would be
dangerous to whisper secrets near you to another, as you had the best
ears in the world."

"Did I say all that? Well, perhaps. I am troublesome in that way
sometimes," says Miss Blount, shifting her tactics without a quiver.
"Just now," glancing at a volume that lies upon her lap, "I daresay it
was the book that engrossed my attention; I quite lose myself in a
subject when it is as interesting as this one is," with another glance
at the dark bound volume on her knee.

Gower stoops and reads the title of the book that had come between him
and the thoughts of his beloved. He reads it aloud, slowly and with grim
meaning--"_Notes on Tasmanian Cattle!_ It sounds enthralling," he says,
with bitter irony.

"Yes, doesn't it," says Miss Blount, with such unbounded audacity, and
with such a charming laugh as instantly scatters all clouds. "You must
know I adore cattle, especially Tasmanian cattle." As a mere matter of
fact she had brought out this book by mistake, thinking it was one of
George Eliot's, because of its cover, and had not opened it until now.
"Come and sit here beside me," she says, sweetly, bent on making up for
her former ungraciousness, "I have been so dull all the morning, and you
wouldn't come and talk to me. So unfeeling of you."

"Much you care whether I come to talk to you or not," says Mr. Gower,
with a last foolish attempt at temper. This foolish attempt makes Miss
Blount at once aware that the day is her own.

"You may sit on the edge of my gown," she says, generously--she herself
is sitting on a garden-chair made for one that carefully preserves her
from all damp arising from the damp, wintry grass; "on the _very_ edge,
please. Yes, just there," shaking out her skirts; "I can't bear people
close to me, it gives me a creepy-creepy feel. Do you know it?"

Mr. Gower shakes his head emphatically. No, he does not know the
creepy-creepy feel.

"Besides," goes on Dulce, confidentially, "one can see the person one is
conversing with so much better at a little distance. Don't you agree
with me?"

"Don't I always agree with you?" says Mr. Gower, gloomily.

"Well, then, don't look so discontented, it makes me think you are only
answering me as you think I want to be answered, and no woman could
stand that."

Silence. The short day is already coming to a close. A bitter wind has
sprung from the East and is now flitting with icy ardor over the grass
and streamlet; through the bare branches of the trees, too, it flies,
creating music of a mournful kind as it rushes onward.

"Last night I dreamt of you," says Stephen, at last.

"And what of me?" asks she, bending slightly down over him, as he lies
at her feet in his favorite position.

"This one great thing: I dreamt that you loved me. I flattered myself in
my dreams, did I not?" says Gower, with an affectation of unconcern that
does not disguise the fear that is consuming him lest some day he shall
prove his dream untrue.

          "Now what is love, I will thee tell,
           It is the fountain and the well
           Where pleasure and repentance dwell,"

quotes she, gaily, with a quick, trembling blush.

"I expect some fellows do all the repentance," says Stephen, moodily.
Then, with a sudden accession of animation born of despair, he says,
"Dulce, once for all, tell me if you can care for me even a little." He
has taken her hand--of course her right hand on which a ring is--and is
clasping it in the most energetic manner. The ring has a sharp diamond
in it, and consequently the pressure creates pain. She bears it,
however, like a Cranmer.

"I don't think even my angelic temper would stand a cross-examination on
such a day as this," she says, with a slight frown; it might be slighter
but for the diamond. "Besides, I have made answer to that question a
thousand times. Did I not, indeed, answer it in the most satisfactory
manner of all when I promised to marry you?"

"Yes, you promised to marry me, I know that, but when?" asks he,
quickly. "Up to this you have always declined to name any particular
date."

"Naturally," says Miss Blount, calmly. "I'm not even dreaming of being
married yet, why should I? I should hate it."

"Oh! if you would hate it," says Stephen, stiffly.

"Yes, hate it," repeats she, undauntedly. "Why, indeed, should we be
married for years? I am quite happy, aren't you?"

No answer. Then, very severely, "Aren't _you_?"

"Yes, of course," says Mr. Gower, but in a tone that belies his words.

"Just so," says Dulce, "then let us continue happy. I am sure all these
past months I have been utterly content."

"You mean ever since Roger's departure?" asks he, eagerly.

"Yes; principally, I suppose _because_ of his departure." There is a
good deal of unnecessary warmth in this speech. Yet the flush has faded
from her cheeks now, and she is looking down toward the sea with a
little set expression round her usually mobile lips.

"We are happy now, but why should we not be even happier if we were
married?" asks Stephen, presently, trying to read her averted face.

"Why? Who can answer that?" exclaims she, turning her face inland
again, with a little saucy smile. Her thoughts of a moment since are
determinately put out of sight, resolutely banished. "You surely don't
believe at this time of day that a bird in the hand is worth two in the
bush? That is old-world rubbish! Take my word for it, that _two_ birds
in the hand do not come up to even one sweet, provoking, unattainable
bird in the bush!"

She has risen, and is now standing before him, as she says this, with
her hands clasping each other behind her head, and her body well thrown
back. Perhaps she does not know how charming her figure appears in this
position. Perhaps she does. She is smiling down at Gower in a half
defiant, wholly tantalizing fashion, and is as like the "sweet,
provoking, unattainable bird" as ever she can be.

Rising slowly to his feet, Gower goes up to her, and, as is his lawful
right, encircles her bonnie round waist with his arm.

"I don't know about the bird," he says, "but this I _do_ know, that in
my eyes you are worth two of anything in all this wide world."

His tone is so full of feeling, so replete with real, unaffected
earnestness and affection that she is honestly touched. She even suffers
his arm to embrace her (for the time being), and turns her eyes upon him
kindly enough.

"How fond you are of me," she says, regretfully. "Too fond. I am not
worth it." Then, in a curious tone, "How strange it is that you should
love me so dearly when Roger actually _disliked_ me!"

"You are always thinking of your cousin," exclaims he, with a quick
frown. "He seems never very far from your thoughts."

"How can I help that," says Dulce, with an attempt at lightness; "it is
so difficult to rid the mind of a distasteful subject."

"And," eagerly--"it is a distasteful subject? You are really glad your
engagement with him is at an end?"

"Of course I am glad," says Miss Blount, impatiently; "why should I be
otherwise? How often have you told me yourself that he and I were
unsuited to each other--and how many times have you reminded me of his
unbearable temper! I hope," with passionate energy, "I shall never see
him again!"

"Let us forget him," says Gower, gently; "there are plenty of other
things to discuss besides him. For one thing, let me tell you this--that
though we have been engaged for a long time now, you have never once
kissed me."

"Yes--and don't you know why?" asks Miss Blount, sweetly, and with all
the air of one who is about to impart the most agreeable
intelligence--"Can't you guess? It is because I think kissing a
_mistake_. Not only a mistake, but a positive _bétise_. It commonizes
everything, and--and--is really death to sentiment in my opinion."

"Death to it?--an aid to it, I should say," says Mr. Gower, bluntly.

"Should you? I am sure experience will prove you wrong," says Dulce,
suavely, "and, at all events, I hate being kissed."

"Do you? Yet twice I saw you let your cousin kiss you," says Stephen,
gloomily.

"And see what came of it," retorts she, quickly. "He got--that is--we
_both_ got tired of each other. And then we quarrelled--we were always
quarrelling, it seems to me now--and then he--that is, we _both_ grew to
hate each other, and that of course ended everything. I really think,"
says Miss Blount, with suppressed passion, "I am the one girl in the
world he cordially dislikes and despises. He almost told me so
before--before we parted."

"Just like him, unmannerly beast!" says Mr. Gower, with deep disgust.

"It was just as well we found it all out in time," says Dulce, with a
short, but heavily-drawn sigh--probably, let us hope so, at least--one
of intense relief, "because he was really tiresome in most ways."

"I rather think so; I'm sure I wonder how you put up with him for so
long," says Gower, contemptuously.

"Force of habit, I suppose. He was always in the way when he wasn't
wanted. And--and--and the other thing," says Miss Blount, broadly, who
wants to say '_vice versa_,' but cannot remember it at this moment.

"Never knew when to hold his tongue," says Stephen, who is a rather
silent man; "never met such a beggar to talk."

"And so headstrong," says Dulce, pettishly.

"Altogether, I think he is about the greatest ass I ever met in my
life," says Mr. Gower, with touching conviction, and out of the
innocence of his heart.

"Is he?" asks Dulce, with a sudden and most unexpected change of tone. A
frown darkens the fair face. Is it that she is looking back with horror
upon the time when she was engaged to this "ass," or is it--"You have
met a good many, no doubt?"

"Well, a considerable few in my time," replies he. "But I must say I
never saw a poorer specimen of his kind--and his name, too, such an
insane thing. Reminds one of that romping old English dance and nothing
else. Why on earth couldn't the fellow get a respectable name like any
other fellow."

This is all so fearfully absurd, that at any other time, and under any
other circumstances, it would have moved Dulce to laughter.

"Isn't the name, Roger, respectable?" asks she, sweetly, as though
desirous of information.

"Oh, well, it's respectable enough, I suppose; or at least it is hideous
enough for that or anything."

"Must a thing be hideous to be respectable?" asks she again, turning her
lovely face, crowned with the sunburnt hair, full on his.

"You don't understand me," he says, with some confusion. "I was only
saying what an ugly name Dare has."

"Now, _do_ you think so?" wonders Miss Blount, dreamily, "I don't. I
can't endure my cousin, _as you know_, but I really think his name very
pretty, quite the prettiest I know, even," innocently, "prettier than
Stephen!"

"I'm sorry I can't agree with you," says Stephen, stiffly.

Miss Blount, with her fingers interlaced, is watching him furtively, a
little petulant expression in her eyes.

"It seems to me you think more of your absent cousin than of--of anyone
in the world," says Gower, sullenly. Fear of what her answer may be has
induced him to leave his own name out of the question altogether.

"As I told you before, one always thinks most of what is unpleasing to
one."

"Oh, I daresay!" says Mr. Gower.

"I don't think I quite understand you. What do you mean by that?" asks
she, with suspicious sweetness.

"Dulce," says Stephen, miserably, "say you _hate_ Roger."

"I have often said it. I detest him. Why," with a sudden touch of
passion, "do you make me repeat it over and over again? Why do you make
me think of him at all?"

"I don't know," sadly. "It is madness on my part, I think; and yet I
believe I have no real cause to fear him. He is so utterly unworthy of
you. He has behaved so badly to you from first to last."

"What you say is all _too_ true," says Dulce, calmly; then, with most
suspicious gentleness, and a smile that is all "sweetness and light,"
"_would_ you mind removing your arm from my waist. It makes me feel
faint. Thanks, _so_ much."

After this silence again reigns. Several minutes go by, and nothing can
be heard save the soughing of the rising wind, and the turbulent rushing
of the stream below. Dulce is turning the rings round and round upon her
pretty fingers; Stephen is looking out to sea with a brow as black as
thunder, or any of the great gaunt rocks far out to the West, that are
frowning down upon the unconscious ocean.

Presently something--perhaps it is remorse--strikes upon Dulce's heart
and softens her. She goes nearer to him and slips one small, perfect
hand through his arm, she even presses his arm to her softly, kindly,
with a view to restoring its owner to good temper.

This advance on her part has the desired effect. Stephen forgets there
is such a thing as a sea, and, taking up the little, penitent hand,
presses it tenderly to his lips.

"Now, do not let us be disagreeable any more," says Dulce, prettily.
"Let us try to remember what we were talking about before we began to
discuss Roger."

Mr. Gower grasps his chance.

"I was saying that though we have been engaged now for some time you
have never once kissed me," he says, hopefully.

"And would you," reproachfully, "after all I have said, risk the chance
of making me, perhaps, hate you, too? I have told you how I detest being
kissed, yet now you would argue the point. Oh, Stephen! is this your
vaunted love?"

"But it is a curious view you take of it, isn't it, darling?" suggests
Gower, humbly, "to say a kiss would raise hatred in your breast. I am
perfectly certain it would make _me_ love _you_ MORE!"

"Then you could love me more?" with frowning reproach.

"No, no! I didn't mean that, only--"

"I must say I am greatly disappointed in you," says Miss Blount, with
lowered eyes. "I shouldn't have believed it of you. Well, as you are
bent on rushing on your fate, I'll tell you what I will do."

"What?" he turns to her, a look of eager expectancy on his face. Is she
going to prove kind at last?

"Sometime," begins she, demurely, "no doubt I shall marry you--some
time, that is, in the coming century--and then, when the time is finally
arranged, just the very morning of our marriage, you shall kiss me, not
before. That will prevent our having time to quarrel and part."

"Do you mean to tell me," indignantly, "you have made up your mind never
to kiss me until we are married?"

"Until the morning _of_ our marriage," corrects she.

"You might as well say _never_!" exclaims Gower, very justly incensed.

"I will, if you like," retorts she, with the utmost _bonhommie_.

"It is getting too cold for you to stay out any longer," says Stephen,
with great dignity; "come, let us return to the house."



CHAPTER XXI.

          "'Tis impossible to love and be wise."


THEY return. The early Winter night has fallen, and in the smaller
drawing-room the curtains are already drawn, and though no lamps are
lit, a sweet, chattering, gossiping fire sheds a radiance round that
betrays all things to the view.

As Dulce enters the room everyone says, "Well, Dulce," in the
pleasantest way possible, and makes way for her, but Miss Blount goes
into the shade and sits there in a singularly silent fashion.

Sir Mark, noting her mood, feels within him a lazy desire to go to her
and break the unusual taciturnity that surrounds her.

"Why so mute, fair maid?" he asks, dropping into a chair near hers.

"Am I mute?" she asks in her turn, thereby betraying the fact that she
has been very far from them in her inmost thoughts.

"Rather," says Sir Mark; "would you think me rude if I asked the subject
of your waking dreams?"

"No; I was merely thinking what an unsatisfactory place this world is."
She says this slowly, turning her large eyes somewhat wistfully on his.
If she likes any one on earth honestly it is Mark Gore.

"What a morbid speech," returns he. "Do you want a footstool, or a cup
of tea, or what? Evidently something has made the whole world gray to
you. And I can't even agree with you, I think this present world an
uncommonly good old place, all things considered. Rough on us now and
then, but quite passible."

"You are happy," she says.

"And you?"--he lets his keen eyes seek hers--"of what can you complain?
You seem one of fortune's favorites. Have you not got as your most
devoted slave the man of your heart?"

"I suppose so." There is a thorough lack of enthusiasm in her tone, that
irritates him. He puts the end of his mustache into his mouth and chews
it slowly, a certain sign that he is both grieved and annoyed. Then he
changes his glass from his right eye to his left, after all of which he
feels better for the moment.

"And besides," he says, with a valiant determination to follow his
cross-examination to its bitter end, "you have successfully got rid of
the man you hate. I refer to Roger."

"I suppose so." Just the same answer, in just the same tone.

Sir Mark is plainly indignant. Perhaps he had hoped to see her betray
some emotion on the mention of her cousin's name, but if so he is
disappointed.

"You grow apathetic," he says, somewhat sharply. "Soon you will care for
nothing. A bad trick for any girl to learn."

"I have learned that trick already. I care for very little now," says
Dulce, in a perfectly even tone. Her hands, lying in her lap, are
without motion. Her eyelids are without a tremor. "And yet she is _not_
heartless," says Sir Mark to himself, reflectively. "I suppose she is
only acting for my special benefit, and though it is rather a good
performance, it is of no earthly use, as I can see right through her."

Nevertheless he is angry with her, and presently rising, he goes away
from her to where Dicky Browne is holding high revelry amongst his
friends.

Dicky has only just arrived. He has been absent all day, and is now
being questioned--desired to give an account of himself and his time
ever since breakfast-time.

"It is something new to be asked where I have been," says Mr. Browne,
who also thinks it will be as new as it is nice for him to take the
aggrieved tone and go in heavily on the ill-used tack.

"Never mind that," says Julia; "tell us only--where _have_ you been?"

"Well, really, I hardly quite know," says Dicky, delightfully vague as
usual. "Round about the place, don't you know."

"But you must remember where?"

"As a rule," says Mr. Browne, meditatively, "I come and go, and no
account is taken of my wanderings. To-night all is different, now I am
put under a cross-examination that reduces me to despair. This is
unfair, it is cruel. If you would always act thus it would be
gratifying, but to get up an interest in me on rare occasions such as
the present, is, to say the least of it, embarrassing. I am half an
orphan, some of you might be a father to me sometimes."

"So we will, Dicky, in a body," says Mark Gore, cheerfully.

"I like that," says Portia, laughing. "Instead of looking after _you_,
Dicky, I rather think we want some one to look after _us_."

"Well, I'll do that with pleasure," says Mr. Browne. "It is my highest
ambition. To be allowed to look after you has been the dream of my life
for months:

          "'Thy elder brother I would be,
            Thy _father_, _anything_ to thee!'"

"By-the-by, Dicky, where is your father now?" asks Stephen Gower, who is
leaning against the mantelpiece in Dulce's vicinity, but not quite close
to her. Ill-temper, called dignity, forbids his nearer approach to his
goddess.

"Down South," says Dicky. "_Not_ in Carolina, exactly, but in Devon. It
_does_ remind one of the ten little nigger boys, doesn't it?" Then he
begins with a quite uncalled for amount of energy, "'Eight little nigger
boys traveling in Devon, one overslept hisself, and then there were
seven,'" and would probably have continued the dismal ditty up to the
bitter end, but that Sir Mark calls him up sharp.

"Never mind the niggers," he says, "tell us about your father. Where is
he now?"

"Down at the old place, cursing his fate, no doubt. By-the-bye, talking
of my ancestral home, I wish some day you would all come and put in a
month there. Will you?"

"We will," says Julia, directly. Julia is always ready to go anywhere,
children and all, at a moment's notice.

"Is it a nice place, Dicky?" asks Sir Mark, cautiously.

"No, it isn't," says Mr. Browne; "not _now_, you know. I hear it used to
be; but there's no believing old people, they lie like fun. I'll get it
settled up for all of you, if you'll promise to come, but just at
present it isn't much. It is an odd old place, all doors and dust, and
rats, I shouldn't wonder."

"That's nothing," says Gower. "Anything else against it?"

"Well, I don't know," replies Dicky, gloomily. "It _smells_, I think."

"Smells! good gracious, of what?" asks Julia.

"_Bones!_" says Mr. Browne, mysteriously. "_Dead_ bones!"

"What sort of bones?" asks Portia, starting into life, and really
growing a little pale, even beneath the crimson glare of the pine logs.

"Human bones!" says Dicky, growing more gloomy as he says this, and
marks with rapture the impression it makes upon his audience. "It
reminds one of graves, and sarcophaguses, and cemeteries, and horrid
things that rustle in coffin cloths, and mop and mow in corners. But if
you will come, I will make you all heartily welcome."

"Thank you. No, I don't think _I'll_ come," says Julia, casting an
uneasy glance behind her; the recesses of the room are but dimly lit,
and appear ghostlike, highly suggestive of things uncanny from where she
sits. "Dicky," pathetically, not to say affrightedly, "you have told us
plenty about your horrid old house; don't tell us any more."

"There isn't any more to tell," says Dicky, who is quite content with
his success so far.

"You haven't yet told us where you were all day," says Portia, lowering
her fan to look at him.

"In the village for the most part--I dote on the village--interviewing
the school and the children. Mr. Redmond got hold of me, and took me in
to see the infants. It was your class I saw, I think, Dulce; it was so
uncommonly badly behaved."

Dulce, in her dark corner, gives no sign that she has heard this
gracious speech.

"I don't think much of your schoolmaster either," goes on Mr. Browne,
unabashed. "His French, I should say, is not his strong point. Perhaps
he speaks it 'after the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe,' for certainly
'Frenche of Paris, is to him unknowe?'"

"I shouldn't think one would look for foreign languages from a village
schoolmaster," says Sir Mark, lazily.

"I _didn't_ look for it, my good fellow, he absolutely showered it upon
me; and in the oddest fashion. I confess I didn't understand him. He has
evidently a trick of coloring his conversation with fine words--a trick
beyond me."

"What did he say to you, Dicky?" asks Julia, whose curiosity is excited.

"He told me a story," says Mr. Browne; "I'll tell it again to you now,
if you like, but I don't suppose you _will_ like, because, as I said
before, I don't understand it myself. It was hardly a story either, it
was more a diatribe about his assistant."

"Peter Greene?"

"Ye--es. This objectionable young man's name was Peter, though, if the
the schoolmaster is to be believed, he isn't _green_. 'Sir,' said he to
me, 'that Peter is a bad lot--no worse. He can teach the Latin, and the
Greek, and the astronomy, fust-class; but as for probity or truth, or
honest dealin's of any sort, he is _au revoir_!' What on earth did he
mean?" says Mr. Browne, turning a face, bright with innocence, upon the
group that surrounds the fire.

"To-morrow will be Christmas Day," says the Boodie, suddenly. She is
lying, as usual, full length upon the hearth-rug, with her chin sunk
between both her palms, and her eyes fixed upon the fire. This remark
she addresses apparently to a glowing cinder. "I wonder if I shall get
many presents," she says, "and if they will be things to _love_."

"How sweet it is to study the simplicity, the lack of mercenary thought
in the little child," says Dicky, regarding her with admiration; "now
this dear Boodie of ours would quite as soon have an ugly present as a
pretty one; she thinks only of the affection of the giver of it."

"I do not," says the Boodie, stoutly, "and I'd _hate_ an ugly present;"
then, with a sudden change of tone, "have you anything for me?"

"Darling," murmured Julia, with mild reproof.

"Certainly not," says Mr. Browne, promptly; "I want you to love me for
myself alone!"

"_Really_ nothing?" persists the Boodie, as if unable to credit her
senses.

"Really nothing."

"Then what did you go to London for last week?" demands the irate
Boodie, with rising and totally unsuppressed indignation.

This question fills Mr. Browne with much secret amusement.

"There have been rare occasions," he says, mildly, "on which I have gone
to town to do a few other things besides purchasing gifts for you."

"I never heard anything so mean," says the Boodie, alluding to his
unprofitable visit to the metropolis, "I wouldn't"--with the finest, the
most withering disgust--"have believed it of you! And let me tell you
this, Dicky Browne, I'll take very good care I don't give you the
present I have been keeping for you for a whole week; and by-and-bye,
when you hear what it is, you will be sorrier than ever you were in your
life."

This awful speech she delivers with the greatest gusto. Mr. Browne,
without a moment's hesitation, flings himself upon his knees before her
in an attitude suggestive of the direst despair.

"Oh, _don't_ do me out of my Christmas-box," he entreats, tearfully; "I
know what your gifts are like, and I would not miss one for any earthly
consideration. My lovely Boodie! reconsider your words. I _will_ give
you a present to-morrow" (already the biggest doll in Christendom is in
her nurse's possession, with strict injunctions to let her have it, with
his love and a kiss, the first thing in the morning); "I'll do
_anything_, if you will only bestow upon me the priceless treasure at
which you have darkly hinted."

"Well, we'll see," returns the Boodie, in a reserved tone; after which
Mr. Browne once more returns to his seat and his senses.

But, unfortunately, the Boodie has not yet quite finished all she has to
say. Rolling her little, lithe body over until she rests upon her back,
and letting her arms fall behind her sunny head in one of her graceful,
kittenish ways, she says, pathetically:

"Oh, how I wish Roger was here! He always was good to us, wasn't he,
Pussy?" to her sister, who is striving hard to ruin her sight by
stringing glass beads in the flickering firelight. "I wonder where he is
now!"

As Roger Dare's name has been tabooed amongst them of late, this direct
and open allusion to him falls like a thunderbolt in their midst.

Nobody says anything. Nobody does anything. Only in one dark corner,
where the light does not penetrate, one white hand closes nervously upon
another, and the owner of both draws her breath hurriedly.

Dicky Browne is the first to recover himself. He comes to the rescue
with the most praiseworthy nonchalance.

"Didn't you hear about him?" he asks the Boodie, in a tone replete with
melancholy. "He traveled too far, his hankering after savages was as
extraordinary as it was dangerous; in _his_ case it has been fatal. One
lovely morning, when the sun was shining, and all the world was alight
with smiles, they caught him. It was breakfast hour, and they were
hungry; therefore they ate him (it is their playful habit), nicely fried
in tomato sauce."

At this doleful tale, Jacky, who is lying about in some other corner,
explodes merrily, Pussy following suit; but the Boodie, who is plainly
annoyed at this frivolous allusion to her favorite, maintains her
gravity and her dignity at the same time.

"Nobody would eat Roger," she says.

"Why not? Like 'the boy, Billie,' he is still 'young and tender.'"

"Nobody would be unkind to Roger," persists the Boodie, unmoved. "And
besides, when he was going away he told me he would be back on New
Year's Day, and Roger never told a lie."

"'He will return, I know him well,'" quotes Mr. Browne.

This quotation is thrown away upon the Boodie.

"Yes, he will," she says, in all good faith. "He will be here, I _know_,
to-morrow week. I am going to keep the present I have for him, until
then. I'm afraid I won't be able to keep it any longer," says the
Boodie, regretfully, "because--"

She hesitates.

"Because it wouldn't let you. I know what it is, it is chocolate
creams," says Dicky Browne, making this unlucky speech triumphantly.

It is too much! The bare mention of these sweetmeats, fraught as they
are to her with bitterest memories, awake a long slumbering grief within
Dulce's breast. Fretted by her interview with Stephen; sore at heart
because of the child's persistent allusion to her absent cousin, this
last stab, this mention of the curious cause of their parting, quite
overcomes her.

Putting up her hands to her face, she rises precipitately to her feet,
and then, unable to control herself, bursts into tears.

"Dulce! what is it?" exclaims Portia, going quickly to her, and
encircling her with her arms. Stephen, too, makes a step forward, and
then stops abruptly.

"It is nothing--nothing," sobs Dulce, struggling with her emotion; and
then, finding the conflict vain, and that grief has fairly conquered
her, she lays down her arms, and clinging to Portia, whispers audibly,
with all the unreasoning sorrow of a tired child, "_I want Roger_."

Even as she makes it, the enormity of her confession comes home to her,
and terrifies her. Without daring to cast a glance at Stephen, who is
standing rigid and white as death against the mantelpiece, she slips out
of Portia's arms and escapes from the room.

Another awkward pause ensues. Decidedly this Christmas Eve is not a
successful one. To tell the truth, everyone is very much frightened, and
is wondering secretly how Stephen will take it. When the silence has
become positively unbearable, Sir Mark rises to the situation.

"That is just like Dulce," he says--and really the amount of feigned
amusement he throws into his tone is worthy of all admiration; though to
be quite honest I must confess it imposes upon nobody--"when she is out
of spirits she invariably asks for somebody on whom she is in the habit
of venting her spleen. Poor Roger! he is well out of it to-night, I
think. We have all noticed, have we not," turning, with abject entreaty
in his eyes, to every one in the room except Stephen, "that Dulce has
been very much depressed during the last hour?"

"Yes, we have all noticed that," says Portia, hurriedly, coming nobly to
his assistance.

Dicky Browne, stooping towards her, whispers, softly:

          "Quoth Hudibras--'It is in vain,
           I see, to argue 'gainst the grain!'"

"I don't understand," says Portia; just because she doesn't want to.

"Don't you?--well, you ought. Can't you see that, in spite of her
determination to hate Roger, she loves him a thousand times better than
that fellow over there?--and I'm very glad of it," winds up Dicky,
viciously, who has always sorely missed Roger, and, though when with him
quarrelled from dawn to dewy eve, he still looks upon him as the one
friend in the world to whom his soul cleaveth.

"Yes, I, too, have noticed her curious silence. Who could have vexed
her! Was it you, Stephen?" asks Julia, who is as clever as Dicky at
always saying the wrong thing.

"Not that I am aware of," replies Gower, haughtily. Calling to mind his
late conversation with his betrothed, he naturally looks upon himself as
the aggrieved party. All she had said then, her coldness, her
petulance--worse than all, her indifference--are still fresh with him,
and rankles within his breast. Coming a little more into the ruddy light
of the fire, he says, slowly, addressing Portia,

"As--as Miss Blount seems rather upset about something, I think I shall
not stay to dinner to-night. Will you excuse me to her?"

"Oh, do stay!" says Portia, uncertain how to act. She says this, too, in
spite of a pronounced prod from Dicky Browne, who is plainly desirous of
increasing the rupture between Stephen and Dulce. May not such a rupture
reinstate Roger upon his former throne? Oddly enough, Dicky, who has no
more perspicacity than an owl, has arranged within himself that Roger
would be as glad to renew his old relations with Dulce as she would be
to renew hers with him.

"There are other things that will take me home to-night, irrespective of
Dulce," says Stephen, smiling upon Portia, and telling his lie
valiantly. "Good night, Miss Vibart."

And then he bids adieu to the others, quite composedly, though his brain
is on fire with jealousy, not even omitting the children. Sir Mark and
Dicky, feeling some vague compassion for him, go with him to the hall
door, and there, having bidden him a hearty farewell, send him on his
way.

"I give you my word," says Dicky Browne, confidentially detaining Sir
Mark, forcibly, "we haven't had a happy day since she engaged herself to
Gower; I mean since Roger's departure. Look here, Gore, it is my opinion
she doesn't care _that_ for him," with an emphatic and very eloquent
snap of his fingers.

"For once in my life, Dicky, I entirely agree with you," says Sir Mark,
gloomily.



CHAPTER XXII.

          "Sir, You are very welcome to our house:
           It must appear in other ways than words,
           Therefore I scant this breathing courtesy."
                                  --SHAKESPEARE.


FROM Christmas Day to New Year's Day we all know is but a week--but
_what_ a week it is! For my part I think this season of supposed jollity
the most uncomfortable and forlorn of any in the year. During all these
seven interminable days the Boodie still clings to her belief in Roger,
and vows he will surely return before the first day of '82 shall have
come to an end. It is very nearly at an end now; the shadows have fallen
long ago; the night wind has arisen; the snow that all day long has been
falling slowly and steadily, still falls, as if quite determined never
again to leave off.

They are all sitting in the library, it being considered a snugger room
on such a dreary evening that the grander drawing-room. Stephen Gower,
who has just come in, is standing by the centre-table with his back to
it, and is telling them some little morsel of scandal about a near
neighbor. It is a bare crumb, yet it is received with avidity and
gratitude, and much laughter, so devoid of interest have been all the
other hours of the day.

Nobody quite understands how it now is with Dulce and Stephen. That they
have patched up their late quarrel is apparent to everybody, and as far
as an ordinary eye can see, they are on as good terms with each other as
usual.

Just now she is laughing even more merrily than the rest at his little
story, when the door opens, and Sir Christopher and Fabian enter
together.

Sir Christopher is plainly very angry, and is declaring in an extremely
audible voice that "he will submit to it no longer;" he furthermore
announces that he has "seen too much of it," whatever "_it_" may be, and
that for the future he "will turn over a very different leaf." I wonder
how many times in the year this latter declaration is made by everybody?

Fabian, who is utterly unmoved by his vehemence, laying his hand upon
his uncle's shoulder, leads him up to the fireplace and into the huge
arm-chair, that is his perpetual abiding-place.

"What is it?" asks Sir Mark, looking up quickly.

"Same old story," says Fabian, in a low voice, with a slight shrug of
his shoulders. "Slyme. Drink. Accounts anyhow. And tipsy insolence,
instead of proper explanation." As Fabian finishes, he draws his breath
hastily, as though heartily sick and tired of the whole business.

Now that he is standing within the glare of the fire, one can see how
altered he is of late. His cheeks are sunken, his lips pale. There is,
too, a want of energy about him, a languor, a listlessness, that seems
to have grown upon him with strange rapidity, and which suggests the
possibility that life has become rather a burden than a favor.

If I say he looks as dead tired as a man might look who has been for
many hours engaged in a labor trying both to soul and body, you will,
perhaps, understand how Fabian looks now to the eyes that are gazing
wistfully upon him from out the semi-darkness.

Moving her gown to one side, Portia (impelled to this action by some
impulsive force) says, in a low tone:

"Come and sit here, Fabian," motioning gently to the seat beside her.

But, thanking her with great courtesy, he declines her invitation, and,
with an unchanged face, goes on with his conversation with Sir Mark.

Portia, flushing hotly in the kindly dark, shrinks back within herself,
and linking her fingers tightly together, tries bravely to crush the
mingled feelings of shame and regret that rise within her breast.

"I can stand almost anything myself, I confess, but insolence," Sir Mark
is saying, _à propos_ of the intoxicated old secretary. "It takes it out
of one so. I have put up with the most gross carelessness rather than
change any man, but insolence from that class is insufferable. I
suppose," says Sir Mark, meditatively, shifting his glass from his left
to his right eye, "it is because one can't return it."

"One can dismiss the fellow, though," says Sir Christopher, still
fuming. "And go Slyme shall. After all my kindness to him, too, to speak
as he did to-night! The creature is positively without gratitude."

"Don't regret that," says Dicky Browne, sympathetically. "_You_ are
repining because he declines to notice your benefits; but think of what
Wordsworth says--

          'I've heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds,
             With coldness still returning;
           Alas! the _gratitude_ of men
             Has oftener left me mourning.'

Look here, Sir Christopher, my experience is, that if once you do a
fellow a good turn he'll stick to you through life, and make you feel
somehow as if he belonged to you, and _that_ isn't pleasant, is it?"

Dicky pauses. Wordsworth is his strong point, and freely he quotes and
misquotes him on all occasions. Indeed, I am of the opinion he is the
only poet Dicky ever read in his life, and that because he was obliged
to.

"I have done with Slyme," goes on Sir Christopher, hotly. "Yes,
_forever_. Now, not a word, Fabian; when my mind is made up (as you all
know) it is made up, and nothing can alter it." This is just what they
do _not_ all know. "As for you," continues Sir Christopher, indignantly,
addressing himself solely to Fabian, "you plead for that miserable old
sot out of nothing but sheer obstinacy--not because you like him. Now,
_do_ you like him? Come now, I defy you to say it."

Fabian laughs slightly.

"There, I knew it!" exclaims Sir Christopher, triumphantly, though
Fabian in reality has said nothing; "and as for him, he positively
detests you. What did he say just now?--that he--"

"Oh, never mind that," says Fabian, poking the fire somewhat vigorously.

"Do let us hear it," says Julia, in her usual lisping manner. "Horrid
old man; I am quite afraid of him, he looks so like a gnome, or--or--one
of those ugly things the Germans write about. What did he say of dear
Fabian?"

"That he had him in his power," thunders Sir Christopher, angrily. "That
he could make or unmake him, as the fancy seized him, and so on. Give
you my honor," says Sir Christopher, almost choking with rage, "it was
as much as ever I could do to keep my hands off the fellow!"

Portia, sinking further into her dark corner, sickens with apprehension
at these words. Suspicion, that now, alas! has become a certainty, is
crushing her. Perhaps before this she has had her doubts--vague doubts,
indeed, and blessed in the fact that they may admit of contradiction.
But now--_now_--

What was it Slyme had said? That he could either "make or unmake him,"
that he "had him in his power." Does Slyme, then, know the--the _truth_
about him? Was it through _fear_ of the secretary that Fabian had acted
as his defender, supporting him against Sir Christopher's honest
judgment? How quickly he had tried to turn the conversation; how he had
seemed to shrink from deeper investigation of Slyme's impertinence. All
seems plain to her, and with her supposed knowledge comes a pain, too
terrible almost to be borne in secret.

Fabian, in the meantime, had seated himself beside Julia, and is
listening to some silly remarks emanated by her. The Boodie, who is
never very far from Fabian when he is in the room, is sitting on his
knee with her arms around his neck.

"Come here, Boodie," says Dicky Browne, insinuatingly. "You used to say
you loved me."

"So I do," says the Boodie, in fond remembrance of the biggest doll in
Christendom. "But--"

She hesitates.

"'I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not Fabian more,'"
parodies Mr. Browne, regretfully. "Well, I forgive you. But I thought it
was Roger on whom you had set your young affections. By the by, he has
disappointed you, hasn't he? Here is New Year's Day, and he has not
returned to redeem his promise."

"He will come yet," says the Boodie, undauntedly.

"'He will return; I know him well,'" again quotes Mr. Browne; "that's
your motto, I suppose, like the idiotic young woman in the idiotic song.
Well, I admire faith myself; there's nothing like it."

"Don't mind him," says Fabian, tenderly, placing his arm round the
discomfited Boodie, and pressing her pretty blonde head down upon his
breast. "I don't understand him, so, of course, you don't."

"But why?" says Dicky Browne, who is evidently bent on mischief; "she
has a great deal more brains than you have. Don't be aspersed by him,
Boodie; _you_ can understand me, I know, but I dare say I can soar
higher than he can follow, and what I say to you contains 'thoughts that
lie beyond the reach of his few words of English speech.'"

"Thank you," says Fabian.

The Boodie is plainly puzzled.

"I don't know what you mean," she says to Dicky; "I only know this,"
defiantly, "that I am certain Roger will return to-night, even if I am
in bed when he comes."

The words are hardly out of her mouth when the door opens and somebody
appears upon the threshold. This somebody has had an evident tussle with
the butler outside, who, perhaps, would fain have announced him, but
having conquered the king of the servants' hall, the somebody advances
slowly until he is midway between the centre of the room and the direct
glare of the firelight.

Every one grows very silent. It is as though a spell has fallen upon
them all; all, that is, except Dulce. She, rising hurriedly from her
seat, goes toward the stranger.

"It is _Roger_!" she cries suddenly, in so glad a voice, in a voice so
full of delight and intense thankfulness, that every one is struck by
it.

Then Roger is in their midst, a very sunburnt Roger, but just at first
his eyes are only upon Dulce, and after a little bit it becomes apparent
to everybody that it is Dulce alone he sees; and that she is in fact the
proud possessor of all the sight he owns.

He has taken between both his the two little trembling hands she has
extended to him, and is pressing them warmly, openly, without the
slightest idea of concealing the happiness he feels in being at her side
again.

A little happy smile wreathes her lips as she sees this, and with her
white fingers she smooths down the gray sleeve of his coat, as if he
were a priceless treasure, once lost, but now restored to her again.

I think Dare likes being looked upon as a long-lost priceless treasure,
because he does not move, and keeps his eyes still on her as though he
would never like to remove them, and makes no objection to his sleeve
being brushed up the wrong way.

"It seems like a hundred thousand years since you went away," says
Dulce, with a little happy sigh, after which every one crowds around
him, and he is welcomed with extreme joy into the family circle again.
Indeed, the Boodie exhibits symptoms of insanity, and dances round him
with a vivacity that a dervish might be proud of.

This is, of course, very delightful, specially to Stephen Gower, who is
sitting glooming upon space, and devoured with something he calls
disgust, but might be more generally termed the commonest form of
jealousy. The others are all crowding round Roger, and are telling him,
in different language, but in one breath, how welcome he is.

This universal desire to light mythical tar-barrels in honor of the
wanderer's return suggests at last to Mr. Gower the necessity of
expressing his delight likewise. Rising, therefore, from his seat, he
goes up to Roger, and insists on shaking him cordially by the hand. This
proceeding on his part, I am bound to say, is responded to by Roger in a
very niggardly manner--a manner that even undergoes no improvement when
Mr. Gower expresses his overwhelming satisfaction at seeing him home
again.

"We are all more pleased to see you again than we can say," declares Mr.
Gower, purposely forgetful of that half-hour in the back-yard, when they
had been bent on pommeling each other, and doubtless would have done so
but for Sir Mark.

He says this very well indeed, and with quite an overflow of
enthusiasm--perhaps rather too great an overflow; because Roger, looking
at him out of his dark eyes, decides within himself that this whilom
friend of his is now his bitterest enemy, hating him with all the
passionate hatred of a jealous heart.

The Boodie is in a state of triumph bordering on distraction. "_She_
had always said he (Roger) would return on New Year's Day; _she_ had
believed in his promise; _she_ had known he would not disappoint," and
so on. Every now and then she creeps up to the returned wanderer, to
surreptitiously pat his sleeve or his cheek, looking unutterable things
all the time. Finally she crowns herself by pressing into his hand a
neatly tied little square parcel, with a whisper to the effect that it
is his Christmas-box, that she has been keeping for him all the week.

At this Roger takes her up in his arms and kisses her warmly, and tells
her he has "something lovely" for her up-stairs in his portmanteau, and
that after dinner she must come up with him to his room, and they will
unpack it together.

This announcement is very near being the cause of bloodshed. Jacky and
Pussy, who have been listening intently to every word of it, now glare
fiendishly upon the favored Boodie, and sullenly, but with fell
determination, make a movement toward her. In another moment all might
have been over, and the poor Boodie a mangled corse, but that Roger,
coming hurriedly to the rescue, declares there are two _other_ "lovely
things" in his portmanteau, suitable to the requirements of Pussy and
her brother, whereon peace is once more restored.

To Sir Christopher this unexpected return of Roger is an indescribable
blessing. His mind at once rises above all things disagreeable; Slyme
and his impertinence fade out of remembrance, at least for the present.
He sees and thinks of nothing but his handsome lad, who has returned to
him safe and sound. There is quite a confusion indeed just at first;
every one is talking together, and nobody is dreaming of listening to
anybody. All Dulce's heart seems to go out to Roger, as she marks the
glad light that brightens his dark eyes as he returns Fabian's greeting.

After a little while every one sobers down, and Roger, who is looking
brown and healthy, if a trifle thin, seats himself besides Dulce upon
the small ottoman, that, as a rule, is supposed to be only equal to the
support of one individual at a time. As neither Dulce nor Roger,
however, appear in the very slightest degree uncomfortable upon it, a
doubt is at once and forever afterwards thrown upon this supposition.
Once only a little hitch occurs that throws a slight damp upon their
content. Roger, feeling the Boodie's offering growing warm within his
hands, mechanically opens it, even while carrying on his smiling
_tete-a-tete_ with Dulce, but soon the smiles vanish! There, on his open
palm, lies a very serpent, a noisome reptile, a box of chocolate creams!

A most improper word escapes him. He precipitately drops the box (it is
a very pretty box with a lovely young lady on the cover), chocolates and
all, behind the ottoman, where they fall softly, being in a high state
of decay and damp, and looks gloomily at Dulce. She responds with
fervor; she is, indeed, perhaps, a trifle the gloomiest, and for a
moment silence is unbroken.

Then they sigh, then they look again, then they try to pretend that
nothing has happened to disturb them, and presently so far succeed that
conversation once more falls into an easy channel and flows on
unbrokenly.

She is smiling up at him in a happy fashion, long unknown to her, and he
is looking down at her with such an amount of satisfaction and content
in his gaze as cannot be mistaken. One might easily believe he has
forgotten the manner of their parting, and is now regarding her as his
own particular possession.

When this sort of thing has gone on for five minutes, Gower, feeling he
can stand it no longer, draws his breath quickly, and going over to the
small ottoman seats himself upon a low chair, quite close to his
betrothed; this effort he makes to assert his position, with all the air
of a man who is determined to do or die. Her fan is lying on her knee.
Taking it up, with a defiant glance at Roger, he opens it, and trifles
with it idly, in a sort of proprietary fashion.

Yet even while he does it, his heart is sad within him and filled with a
dire foreboding. The thought that he is unwelcome, that his presence at
this moment is probably being regarded in the light of an intrusion by
these two, so near to him, fills him with bitterness; he is almost
afraid to look at Dulce, lest he shall read in her eyes a cold
disapprobation of his conduct in thus interrupting her _tete-à-tete_,
when to his surprise a little hand is laid upon his arm, and Dulce's
voice asks him a question that instantly draws him into the
conversation.

She is smiling very kindly at him; more kindly indeed than she has done
for many days; she is in such a happy mood, in such wonderfully gay,
bright spirits, that all the world seems good to her, and it becomes
necessary to her to impart her joyousness to all around. _Every one_
must be happy to-night, she tells herself; and so, as I have said
before, she smiles on Gower, and pats him gently on the arm, and raises
him at once to the seventh heaven out of the very lowest depths of
despair.

The change is so sudden that Stephen naturally loses his head a little.
He draws his chair even nearer to the ottoman. He determines to outsit
Roger. In five minutes--in half an hour, at all events--the fellow will
be obliged to go and speak to somebody else, if only for decency's sake.
And then there is every chance that the dressing-bell will soon ring.
Dulce's extreme delight, so innocently expressed at her cousin's return
had certainly given him a severe shock, but _now_ there is no reason why
he should not remain victor, and keep the prize he had been at such
pains to win.

All is going well. Even with Roger freshly returned by her side, she has
shown kindness to him, she has smiled upon him with a greater warmth
than usual. I daresay she is determined to show her cousin her
preference for _him_ (Stephen). This thought makes him positively glow
with hope and pride. By guarding against any insidious advances on the
part of the enemy, by being ever at Dulce's side to interpose between
her and any softly worded sentimental converse, he may conquer and drive
the foe from off the field.

Not once this evening until the friendly bedroom candlesticks are
produced will he quit her side--never until--

In one moment his designs are frustrated. All his plans are laid low.
The voice of Julia breaks upon his ear like a death-knell. She, being
fully convinced in her own mind that "poor dear Stephen" is feeling
himself in the cold, and is, therefore, inconceivably wretched,
determines, with most mistaken kindness, to come to the rescue.

"Stephen, _may_ I ask you to do something for me?" she says, in her
sweetest tones and with her most engaging smile.

"You may," says Mr. Gower, as in duty bound, and in an awful tone.

"Then do come and help me to wind this wool," says Julia, still in her
most fetching manner, holding out for his inspection about as much
scarlet wool as it would take an hour to wind, doing it at one's utmost
speed.

With a murderous expression Stephen crosses the room to where she is
sitting--at the very antipodes from where he would be, that is, from
Dulce--and drops sullenly into a chair at her side.

"Poor dear fellow, already he is feeling injured and out of spirits,"
says Julia to herself, regarding him with furtive compassion.

"Beast! she is in a plot against me!" says Mr. Gower to his own soul,
feeling he could willingly strangle her with her red wool.

So do we misunderstand the feelings and motives of our best friends in
this world.

Dulce and Roger thus left to their own resources, continue to be openly
and unrestrainedly happy. Every now and then a laugh from one or other
of them comes to the stricken Stephen, sitting on his stool of
repentance, winding the endless wool. By and by it becomes worse when no
laugh is heard, and when the two upon the ottoman seem to be conversing
in a tone that would be a whisper if it dared. To Gower it is already a
whisper, and frenzy ensues.

Wild thoughts arise within his breast; something it seems to him must be
done, and that _soon_. Shall he throw this vile wool, this scarlet
abomination, in Julia's placid face, and with a naughty word defy her to
hold him prisoner any longer? Or shall he fling himself bodily upon
Roger and exterminate him? Or shall he publicly upbraid Dulce with her
perfidy? No; this last is too mild a course, and something tells him
would not create the havoc that alone can restore peace to his bosom.
Shall he--

Oh, blessed sound, the dressing bell. Now she must tear herself away
from this new-found cousin and go up-stairs--doubtless to array herself
in her choicest garments for his delectation later on. He grinds his
teeth again, as this thought comes to torment him.

Regardless of Julia's cry of horror and remonstrance, he drops the wool
and rises to his feet, leaving it a hopeless mass on the carpet. He
makes a step in Dulce's direction, but she, too, has got up, and before
he can reach her has disappeared through the doorway, and is half-way up
the old oak staircase.

He takes her in to dinner, certainly, later on, but finds, on seating
himself, that Roger, by some unaccountable chance, has secured the seat
on her other side. He finds out, too, presently, that she is devoting
all her conversation to her cousin, and seems curiously inquisitive
about his travels. She appears indeed positively athirst for information
on this subject; and the soup is as naught, and the fish as sawdust, in
the eyes of Mr. Gower.

"You were in Egypt, too? Tell me all about it. I have always so _longed_
to hear about Egypt," says Dulce, with soft animation.

"Egypt?" says Roger, with some natural hesitation as to how to begin;
Egypt is a big place, and just now seems a long way off. "Well, there is
a good deal of it, you know; what do you want to know most?"

"Whether you enjoyed yourself--whether you were happy there?" replies
she, promptly. I daresay it isn't quite the answer he had expected,
because he looks at her for half a minute or so very intently.

"Happy? That includes such a great deal," he says, at length. "It is a
very interesting country beyond doubt, and there are Pyramids, you know;
you heard of 'em once or twice, I shouldn't wonder; and there are
beggars and robbers, and more sand than I ever saw in my life,
and--_No_," with a sudden, almost startling change of tone, "I was _not_
happy there, or anywhere else, since last I saw you!"

"Robbers!" says Dulce, hastily, with a rather forced little laugh;
"regular brigands, do you mean, going about in hordes, with tunics, and
crimson sashes, and daggers. How _could_ one be happy with such terrible
people turning up at every odd corner? I daresay," trifling nervously
with a wine glass, "it would make one often wish to be at home again."

"I often wished to be at home again." Somehow his manner gives her to
understand that the gentlemen in crimson sashes had nothing whatever to
do with this wish.

"I fancied brigands belonged exclusively to Greece and Italy," says
Dulce, still intent upon the wine-glass. "Are they very picturesque, and
do they really go about dressed in all the colors of the rainbow?"

Plainly Miss Blount has been carefully studying the highly-colored
prints in the old school-books, in which the lawless Greeks are depicted
as the gayest of the gay.

"They are about the most ill-looking ruffians it has ever been my fate
to see," says Mr. Dare, indifferently.

"How disappointing! I don't believe you liked being in Egypt after all,"
says Dulce, who cannot resist returning to tread once more the dangerous
ground.

"I think one place is about as good as another," says Mr. Dare,
discontentedly, "and about as bad. One shouldn't expect too much, you
know."

"Perhaps it would be as well if one didn't expect anything," says Dulce.

"_Better_, no doubt."

"You take a very discontented view of things; your traveling has made
you cynical, I think."

"Not my _traveling_?"

This is almost a challenge, and she accepts it.

"What then?" she asks, a little coldly.

"Shall I tell you?" retorts he, with an unpleasant smile. "Well, no; I
will spare you; it would certainly not interest _you_. Let us return to
our subject; you are wondering why I am not in raptures about Egypt; I
am wondering why I should be."

"No; I was finding fault with you because you gave me the impression
that all places on earth are alike indifferent to you."

"Perhaps that is true. I don't defend myself. But I know there was a
time when certain scenes were dear to me."

"There _was_?"

"Yes; I've outgrown it, I suppose; or else memory, rendering all things
bitter, is to blame. It is our cruelest enemy, I dare say we might all
be pretty comfortable forever if we could only 'Quaff the kind Nepenthe,
and forget our lost Lenores!'"

"'Ock, 'm?" asks the sedate butler at this emotional moment, in his most
prosaic tones.

Dulce starts perceptibly, and says "No," though she means "Yes." Roger
starts too, and, being rather absent altogether, mistakes the sedate
butler's broken English for good German, and says, "Hockheim?" in a
questioning voice; whereupon Dicky Browne, who has overheard him, laughs
immoderately and insists upon repeating the little joke to everybody.
They all laugh with him, except, indeed, Portia, who happens to be
miles away in thought from them, and does not hear one word of what is
being said.

"Portia," says Dicky, presently.

No answer; Portia's soul is still winging its flight to unseen regions.

"Still deaf to my entreaties," says Mr. Browne, eyeing her fixedly.
Something in his tone rouses her this time from her day-dreams, and,
with a rather absent smile, she turns her face to his. Fabian, who has
been listening to one of Mark Gore's rather pronounced opinions upon a
subject that doesn't concern us here, looks up at this moment and lets
his eyes rest upon her.

"Will you not deign to bestow even one word upon your slave?" asks
Dicky, sweetly. "Do. He pines for it. And after all the encouragement,
too, you have showered upon me of late, this behavior--this studied
avoidance is strange."

"You were asking me--?" begins Portia vaguely, with a little soft laugh.

"'Why art thou silent? Is thy love a plant?'" quotes Mr. Browne, with
sentimental reproach. As usual, he attacks his favorite author, and, as
usual also, gives to that good man's words a meaning unknown to him.

Portia, raising her head, meets Fabian's eyes regarding her earnestly,
and then and there colors hotly; there is no earthly reason why she
should change color, yet she does so unmistakably, nay, painfully. She
is feeling nervous and unstrung, and--not very well to-night, and even
this light mention of the word love has driven all the blood from her
heart to her cheeks. A moment ago they were pale as Lenten lilies, now
they are dyed as deep as a damask rose.

For a moment only. She draws her breath quickly, full of anger at her
own want of self-control, and then the flush fades, and she is even
paler than she was before. Again she glances at Fabian, but not again do
her eyes meet his. He has seemingly forgotten her very existence and has
returned to his discussion with Sir Mark. He is apparently deeply
interested, nay, animated, and even as she watches him he laughs aloud,
a rare thing for him.

She tells herself that she is glad of this; _very_ glad, because it may
prove he has not noticed her emotion. Her awkward blush, doubtless, was
unseen by him. Yet I think she is piqued at his indifference, because
her eyes grow duller and her lips sadder, and there is a small, but
painful, flutter at her heart, that reminds her of the days before she
came to Old Court, and that compels her to press her fingers tightly
together, under cover of the table-cloth, in a vain effort to subdue it.

Dicky, who had noticed her quick transitions of color, and who feels
there is something wrong, without knowing what, and who also understands
that he himself, however unwittingly, has been the cause of it, grows
annoyed with himself, and, to distract attention, turns to the Boodie,
who is generally to be found at his elbow when anything sweet is to be
had.

The butler and his attendant are politely requesting the backs of all
the heads to try a little jelly, or cream, or so on. This, at the Court,
is virtually the children's hour, as Sir Christopher--who adores
them--is of opinion that they prefer puddings to fruit, and that, as
they should be made free of both, they are to put in an appearance with
the first sweet every evening.

The Boodie, whose "vanity" is whipped cream, has just been helped to it,
and Dicky, at this moment (that he may give Portia time to recover
herself) turning to the golden-haired fairy beside him, adds to her
felicity by dropping some crimson jelly into the centre of the cream.

"There now, I have made an island for you," he says.

Julia overhears him, and thinking this a capital opportunity to show off
the Boodie's learning, says, proudly:

"Now, darling, tell Dicky what an island really is."

Dicky feels honestly obliged to her for following up his lead, and so
breaking the awkward silence that has descended upon him and Portia.

"A tract of land entirely surrounded by water," says the Boodie,
promptly, betraying a faint desire to put her hands behind her back.

"Not at all," says Mr. Browne, scornfully; "it is a bit of red jelly
entirely surrounded by cream!"

"It is _not_," says the Boodie, with a scorn that puts his in the shade.
To be just to the Boodie, she is always eager for the fray. Not a touch
of cowardice about her. "How," demands she, pointing to the jelly, with
a very superior smile, "how do you think one could live upon _that_?"

"Why not? I don't see how anyone could possibly desire anything better
to live upon."

"Just fancy Robinson Crusoe on it," says the Boodie, with a derisive
smile.

"I could fancy him very fat on it; I could also fancy him considering
himself in great luck when he found it, or discovered it. They always
discovered islands, didn't they? _I_ should like to live on just such an
island for an indefinite number of years."

"You are extremely silly," says Miss Beaufort, politely; "you know as
well as I do that it wouldn't keep you up."

"Well, not, perhaps, so strongly as a few other things," acknowledges
Mr. Browne, gracefully; "but I think it _would_ support me for all
that,--for a _time_, at least."

"Not for one minute. Why, you couldn't stand on it."

"A prolonged acquaintance with it _alone_ might make me totter, I
confess," says Mr. Browne. "But yet, if I had enough of it, I think I
_could_ stand on it very well."

"You could _not_," says the Boodie, indignant at being so continuously
contradicted on a point so clear. "If you had ten whole jellies--if you
had one as big as this house--you couldn't manage it."

"I really beg your pardon," protests Mr. Browne, with dignity. "It is my
belief that I _could_ manage it in time. I'm very fond of jelly."

"You would go right through it and come out at the other side," persists
the Boodie, nothing daunted.

"Like the Thames Tunnel. How nice!" says Dicky Browne, amiably.

"Well, you can't live on it _now_, anyway," says the Boodie, putting the
last bit of the jelly island into her small mouth.

"No, no, indeed," says Dicky, shaking his head with all the appearance
of one sunk in the very deepest dejection.



CHAPTER XXIII.

          "I do perceive here a divided duty."--_Othello._


JEALOUSY is the keenest, the most selfish, the most poignant of all
sufferings. "It is," says Milton, "the injured lover's hell." This
monster having now seized upon Stephen, is holding him in a close
embrace and is swiftly crushing within him all hope and peace and joy.

To watch Dulce day after day in her cousin's society, to mark her great
eyes grow brighter when he comes, is now more than he can endure. To
find himself second where he had been first is intolerable to him, and a
shrinking feeling that warns him he is being watched and commented upon
by all the members of the Blount household, renders him at times half
mad with rage and wounded pride.

Not that Dulce slights him in any way, or is cold to him, or gives him
to understand, even indirectly, that she would gladly know her
engagement at an end. She is both kind and gentle--much more so than
before--but any doubt he had ever entertained about her having a real
affection for him has now become a certainty.

He had won her unfairly. He had wrought upon her feelings in an evil
hour, when her heart was torn with angry doubts and her self-love
grievously hurt; when all her woman's soul was aflame with the thought
that she was the unwelcome property of a man who would gladly be rid of
her.

Her parting with Roger, and the unexpected emotion he had then betrayed,
had opened her eyes in part, and had shown her how she had flung away
the thing she desired, to gain--naught. Even now, I think she hardly
knows how well she loves her cousin, or how well he loves her, so openly
displayed is her pleasure in his society, so glad is the smile that
welcomes him whenever he enters the room where she is, or seats himself
beside her--which is very often--or when he addresses her, which means
whenever he has anything at all to say to anybody.

At first he had fought manfully against his growing fears, but when a
week had gone by and he had had it forced upon him that the girl he
loved was every day becoming more silent and _distraite_ in his
presence, and when he had seen how she would gladly have altogether
avoided his coming if she could, he lost all heart, and, flinging up his
cards, let a bitter revengeful feeling enter and take possession of his
heart--where love, alone, before, had held full sway.

If not his--she shall at least never be Roger's. This he swears to
himself, with white lips and eyes dangerously bright.

He has her promise, and he will keep her to it. Nothing shall induce
him to release her from it; or if he has to consent to her not
fulfilling her engagement with him, it shall be _only_ on condition that
she will never marry Dare. Even should she come to him with tears in her
eyes and on her bended knees to ask him to alter this decision, she will
beg in vain. He registers a bitter vow that Roger shall not triumph
where he has failed.

He knows Dulce sufficiently well to understand that she will think a
good deal of breaking the word she gave him of her own free will, even
though she gave it in anger and to her own undoing. He can calculate to
a nicety the finer shades of remorse and self-contempt that will possess
her when he lays his case in all its nakedness before her. She is a
wilful, hot-tempered little thing, but the Blounts for generations have
been famed for a strain of honor toward friend and foe that runs in
their blood, and is dear to them as their lives. Therefore he knows her
word will be as sacred to her as her bond.

To Stephen just at this time the world is a howling wilderness; there is
no sun anywhere, and every spring is dry. He has fallen into the habit
of coming very seldom to the Court, where he used to be morning, noon,
and night, ever since his unlucky engagement; indeed, no one in the
house or out of it has seen him since the day before yesterday.

Sitting at home, brooding over his wrongs, with a short and
well-blackened pipe in his mouth, he is giving himself up a victim to
despair and rage. That he can still love her with even, it seems to him,
a deeper intensity than before, is the bitterest drop in his cup. It was
all so sudden, so unexpected. He tortures himself now with the false
belief that she was _beginning_ to love him, that she _might_ have loved
him had time been given him, and had Egypt held Roger but a few months
longer in her foster arms. In a little flash it had all come to him, and
now his life is barren, void of interest, and full of ceaseless pain.

          "Bring withered Autumn leaves,
           Call everything that grieves,
             And build a funeral pyre above his head!
           Heap there all golden promise that deceives,
           Beauty that wins the heart, and then bereaves,
             For love is dead.

          "Not slowly did he die.
           A meteor from the sky
             Falls not so swiftly as his spirit fled--
           When, with regretful, half-averted eye,
           He gave one little smile, one little sigh,
             And so was sped."

These verses, and such as these, he reads between his doleful musings.
It gives him some wretched comfort to believe Dulce had actually some
sparks of love for him before her cousin's return. An erroneous belief,
as she had never cared for him in that way at all, and at her best
moments had only a calm friendship for him. It is my own opinion that
even if Roger had never returned she yet would have found an excuse at
some time to break off her engagement with Gower, or, at least, to let
him understand that she would wish it broken.

To-day is fine, though frosty, and everybody, the children included, are
skating on the lake, which is to be found about half a mile from the
house at the foot of a "wind-beaten hill." The sun is shining coldly, as
though steadily determined to give no heat, and a sullen wind is coming
up from the distant shore. "Stern Winter loves a dirge-like sound," and
must now, therefore, be happy, as Boreas is asserting himself nobly,
both on land and sea.

Some of the _jeunesse doree_ of the neighborhood, who have been lunching
at the Court, are with the group upon the lake, and are cutting (some of
them) the most remarkable figures, in every sense of the word, to their
own and everybody else's delight.

Dulce, who is dressed in brown velvet and fur, is gliding gracefully
hither and thither with her hand fast locked in Roger's. Julia is making
rather an exhibition of herself, and Portia, who skates--as she does
everything else--to perfection, but who is easily tired, is just now
sitting upon the bank with the devoted Dicky by her side. Sir Mark,
coming up to these last two, drops lazily down on the grass at Portia's
other side.

"Why don't you skate, Mark?" asks Portia, turning to him.

"Too old," says Gore.

"Nonsense! You are not too old for other things that require far greater
exertion. For one example, you will dance all night and never show sign
of fatigue."

"I like waltzing."

"Ah! and not skating."

"It hurts when one falls," says Mark, with a yawn; "and why put oneself
in a position likely to create stars before one's eyes, and a violent
headache at any moment?"

"Inferior drink, if you take enough of it, will do all that sometimes,"
says Mr. Browne, innocently.

"Will it? I don't know anything about it" (severely). "You do, I
shouldn't wonder; you speak so feelingly."

"If you address me like that again, I shall cry," says Dicky, sadly.

"Why are not you and Portia skating? It is far too cold to sit still on
this damp grass."

"I am tired," says Portia, smiling rather languidly. "It sounds very
affected, doesn't it? but really I am very easily fatigued. The least
little exertion does me up. Town life, I suppose. But I enjoy sitting
here and watching the others."

"So do I," says Sir Mark. "It quite warms my heart to see them flitting
to and fro over there like a pretty dream."

"What part of your heart?" asks Mr. Browne, with a suppressed
chuckle--"the cockles of it?" It is plain he has not yet forgotten his
snubbing of a minute since.

Nobody takes any notice of this outrageous speech. It is passed over
very properly in the deadliest silence.

"By Jove!" says Sir Mark, presently, "there's Macpherson down again.
That's the eighteenth time; I've counted it."

"He can't skate a little screw," says Dicky. "It's a pity to be looking
at him. It only raises angry passions in one's breast. He ought to go
home and put his head in a bag."

"A well-floured one," responded Sir Mark.

Portia laughs. Her laugh is always the lowest, softest thing imaginable.

"Charitable pair," she says.

"Why, the fellow can't stand," says Mr. Browne, irritably. "And he looks
so abominably contented with himself and his deplorable performance.
That last time he was merely trying to get from that point there to
that," waving his hand in both directions. "Any fool could do it. See,
I'll show you." He jumps to his feet, gets on to the ice, essays to do
what Captain Macpherson had tried to do, and succeeds in doing exactly
what Captain Macpherson _did_. That is to say, he instantly comes a most
tremendous cropper right in front of Portia.

Red, certainly, but consumed with laughter at his own defeat, he returns
to her side. There is no use in attempting it, nothing earthly could
have power to subdue Dicky's spirits. He is quite as delighted at his
own discomfiture as if it had happened to somebody else.

"You were right, Dicky," says Sir Mark, when he can speak, "_Any_ fool
could do it. _You_ did it."

"I did," says Dicky, roaring with laughter; "with a vengeance. Never
mind--

          'Only the actions of the just
           Smell sweet, and blossom in the dust.'"

"I hardly think I follow you," says Sir Mark. "Where's the dust, Dicky,
and where's the just? I can't see either of them."

"My dear fellow, never be literal; nothing is so--so boring," says Mr.
Browne, with conviction. "I'm," striking his chest, "the dust, and
there," pointing to the lake, "is the just, and--no, by-the-by, that
don't sound right--I mean--"

"Oh, never mind it," says Sir Mark.

Dulce and Roger having skated by this time past all the others, and
safely over a rather shaky part of the ice that leaves them at the very
farthest corner of the lake, stop somewhat out of breath and look at
each other triumphantly.

Dulce is looking, if possible, more bonny than usual. Her blood is
aglow, and tingling with the excitement of her late exertion; her hair,
without actually having come undone, is certainly under less control
than it was an hour ago, and is glinting and changing from auburn to
brown, and from brown to a warm yellow, beneath the sad kisses of the
Wintry sun. One or two riotous locks have escaped from under her
otter-skin cap and are straying lovingly across her fair forehead,
suggesting an idea of coquetry in the sweet eyes below shaded by their
long dark lashes.

          "Your eyes are stars of morning,
           Your lips are crimson flowers,"

says Roger softly, as they still stand hand in hand. He is looking at
her intently, with a new meaning in his glance as he says this.

"What a pretty song that is!" says Miss Blount, carelessly. "I like it
better almost every time I hear it."

"It was you made me think of it now," says Roger; and then they seat
themselves upon a huge stone near the brink, that looks as if it was put
there on purpose for them.

"Where is Gower?" asks Roger, at length, somewhat abruptly.

"Yes--where?" returns she, in a tone suggestive of the idea that now for
the first time she had missed him. She says it quite naturally and
without changing color. The fact is it really _is_ the first time she
has thought of him to-day, but I regret to say Roger firmly believes she
is acting, and that she is doing it uncommonly well.

"He hasn't been at the Court since yesterday--has he?" he asks, somewhat
impatiently.

"N--o. But I dare say he will turn up by-and-by. Why?" with a quick
glance at him from under her heavy lashes. "Do you want him?"

"Certainly not. _I_ don't want him," said Roger, with exceeding emphasis
upon the pronoun.

"Then I don't know anybody else who does," finishes Dulce, biting her
lips.

"She is regularly piqued because the fellow hasn't turned up--a lover's
quarrel, I suppose," says Mr. Dare, savagely, to himself, reading
wrongly that petulant movement of her lips.

"YOU do!" he says. To be just to him, he is, and always, I think, will
be, a terribly outspoken young man.

"_I_ do?"

"Yes; you looked decidedly cut up just now when I spoke of his not being
here since yesterday."

"You are absurdly mistaken," declares Miss Blount, with dignity. "It is
a matter of the most perfect indifference to me whether he comes or
goes." (Oh, if he could only know how true this is!)

"Even more piqued than I supposed," concludes Roger, inwardly.

"However, I have no doubt we shall see him this evening," goes on Dulce,
calmly.

"_That_ will be a comfort to you, at all events," murmurs he, gloomily.

Silence follows this. Nothing is heard save the distant laughter of the
skaters at the other end of the lake and the scraping noise of their
feet. The storm is rising steadily in the hills above, but as yet has
not descended on the quiet valley. The gaunt trees are swaying and
bending ominously, and through them one catches glimpses of the angry
sky above, across which clouds are scudding tempestuously. The dull sun
has vanished: all is gray and cheerless. The roar of the breakers upon
the rock-bound coast comes up from afar: while up there upon the wooded
hill the

          "Wind, that grand old harper, smites
           His thunder-harp of pines."

"Perhaps we had better return to the others," says Dulce, coldly, making
a movement as though to rise.

"Now I have offended you," exclaims Roger, miserably, catching her hand,
and drawing her down to the stone beside him again. "I don't know what's
the matter with me; I only know I am as wretched as ever I can be.
Forgive me, if you can."

He pulls his hat over his eyes and sighs deeply. At this moment his
whole appearance is so decidedly suicidal that no true woman could look
at him unmoved. Miss Blount is a true woman, her _hauteur_ of a moment
since vanishes like snow, and compassion takes its place.

"What is making you wretched?" she asks, in a tone meant to be severe,
but which is only friendly.

"When I remember what a fool I have been," begins Roger, rather as if he
is following out a train of thought than answering her.

"Oh, no; not that," says Dulce, very kindly; "don't call yourself that."

"There is no other name for me," persists Roger, with increasing
melancholy. "Of course, at _that time_--I knew you didn't particularly
care for me, but," disconsolately, "it never occurred to me you might
care for any other fellow!"

"I didn't!" said Miss Blount, suddenly; and then, as suddenly, she
remembers everything, her engagement to Stephen, her horror of that
engagement, all that her last words have admitted, and, growing as red
as a rose, she seeks to hide her confusion by burying her rounded chin
as deep as she can in her soft furs. At the same time she lowers her
lids over her shamed eyes and gazes at her boots as if she never saw
small twos before.

Roger, I need hardly say, is too much of a gentleman to take any notice
of this impulsive admission on her part. Besides, he hardly gets as much
consolation out of it as he should. He is in that stage when to pile up
the agony becomes a melancholy satisfaction, and when the possibility of
comfort in any form takes the shape of a deliberate insult.

"Did you ever once think of me all the time I was away?" he asks,
presently, in a low tone that distinctly gives her to understand he
believes she didn't. That in fact he would--in in his present frame of
mind--_rather_ believe she didn't. His voice is growing absolutely
tragic, and, altogether, he is as deplorably unhappy as any young woman
could desire.

"I wish," says poor Dulce, her voice quivering, "that you would not
speak to me like this now, or--or that you had spoken like it long ago!"

"I wish I had, with all my soul," says Roger, fervently. "However," with
a heavy sigh, "you are engaged to _him_ now, you know, so I suppose
there is no use in talking about it."

"If I do know it, why tell me again about it?" says Dulce reproachfully,
her eyes full of tears. "Just like you to remind me--of--my
_misfortune_!"

It is out. She has been dying to tell him for the last half-hour of this
trouble that has been pressing upon her for months, of this most
distasteful engagement, and now that she has told him, though
frightened, yet she would hardly recall her words. Her lashes linger on
her cheeks, and she looks very much as if she would like to cry but for
the disgrace of the thing.

"Your misfortune!" repeats Roger, in a strange tone. "Are you not happy,
then?"

He has risen to his feet in his surprise and agitation, and is looking
down on her as she sits trembling before him, her hands tightly clasped
together.

"Do you mean to tell me he is not good to you?" asks Roger, seeing she
either cannot or will not speak.

"He is too good to me; you must not think that," exclaims she,
earnestly. "It is only--that I don't care about his goodness--I don't
care," desperately, "for anything connected with him."

"You have made a second mistake, then?"

"Not a _second_," in a very low tone.

"Then let us say, you have again changed your mind?"

"No."

"You liked him once?" impatiently.

"No."

"You might as well say you _did_ like me," says Roger, with angry
warmth; "and I know I was actually abhorrent in your sight."

"Oh, no, _no_," says Dulce for the third time, in a tone so low now that
he can hardly hear it; yet he does.

"Dulce! do you know what you are implying?" asks he, in deep agitation.
"It is one of two things now: either that you never liked Stephen, and
always lov--liked me, or else you are trying to make a fool of me for
the second time. Which is it?"

To this Miss Blount declines to make any reply.

"I won't leave this spot to-day until you answer me," says Roger, fell
determination on his brow; "Which--is--it?"

"I'm sure, at least, that I never liked Stephen in _that_ way,"
confesses she, faintly.

"And you did like me?"

Silence again.

"Then," says Mr. Dare, wrathfully, "for the sake of a mere whim, a
caprice, you flung me over and condemned me to months of misery? Did you
know what you were doing? Did _you_ feel unhappy? I hope to goodness you
_did_," says Roger, indignantly; "if you endured even one quarter of
what I have suffered, it would be punishment sufficient for you."

"Had you nothing to do with it?" asks she, nervously.

"No; it was entirely your own fault," replies he, hastily. Whereupon she
very properly bursts into tears.

"Every woman," says some one, "is in the wrong till she cries; then,
instantly, she is in the right."

So it is with Dulce. No sooner does Roger see "her tears down fa'" than,
metaphorically speaking, he is on his knees before her. I am sure but
for the people on the lake, who might find an unpleasant amount of
amusement in the tableau, he would have done so literally.

"Don't do that," he entreats, earnestly. "Don't Dulce. I have behaved
abominably to you. It was _not_ your fault; it was all mine. But for my
detestable temper--"

"And the chocolate creams," puts in Dulce, sobbing.

"It would never have occurred. Forgive me," implores he, distractedly,
seeing her tears are rather on the increase than otherwise. "I must be a
brute to speak to you as I have done."

"I won't contradict you," says Miss Blount, politely, still sobbing.
There is plainly a great deal of indignation mingled with her grief. To
say it was all _her_ fault, indeed, when he knows.

"Don't cry any more," says Roger, coaxingly, trying to draw her hands
down from her eyes; "don't, now, you have got to go back to the others,
you know, and they will be wondering what is the matter with you. They
will think you had a bad fall."

This rouses her; she wipes her eyes hastily and looks up.

"How shall I explain to them?" she asks, anxiously.

"We won't explain at all. Let me take off your skates, and we will walk
up and down here until your eyes are all right again. Why, really,"
stooping to look at them, "they are by no means bad; they will be as
good as ever in five minutes."

Inexpressibly consoled, she lets him take off her skates, and commences
a gentle promenade with him up and down the brown and stunted grass that
lies upon the path.

"There was a time," says Roger, after a pause, "when I might have dared
to kiss away your tears, but I suppose that time is gone forever."

"I suppose so," dismally; tears are still wetting the sweet eyes she
turns up to his.

"Dulce! let me understand you," says Roger, gravely. "You are quite sure
you don't care for him?"

"Quite," says Dulce, without a second's hesitation.

"Then ask him to give you up--to release you from your promise," says
Roger, brightly.

"I--I'd be afraid," replies Miss Blount, drooping her head.

"Nonsense!" says Roger (of course it is not _he_ who has to do it). "Why
should you feel nervous about a thing like that? You don't want to marry
him, therefore say so. Nothing can be simpler."

"It doesn't sound simple to me," says Dulce, dolefully.

Just at this moment a young man, dressed in gray, emerges from the group
of alders that line the south edge of the lake, very near to where Dulce
and Roger are standing. He is so situated that he is still concealed
from view, though quite near enough to the cousins to hear what they are
saying. The last two sentences having fallen on his ears, he stands as
if spell-bound, and waits eagerly for what may come next.

"He can't possibly want to marry you if you don't want to marry him,"
says Roger, logically, "and you _don't_?" a little doubtfully still.

"I don't, indeed," says Dulce, with a sad sigh and a shake of her auburn
head.

At this the young man in the gray suit, with a bitter curse, turns away,
and, retracing his steps, gets to the other side of the lake without
being seen by either Dulce or his companion.

Here he declines to stay or converse with anyone. Passing by Portia and
the two men who are still attending to her, he bows slightly, and
pretends not to hear Dicky's voice as it calls to him to stop.

"He is like that contemptible idiot who went round with the 'banner with
the strange device,'" says Dicky Browne, looking after him; "nothing
will stop him."

"What's up with him now?" asks Sir Mark, squeezing his glass into his
eye, the better to watch Stephen's figure, as it hurriedly disappears.

"I expect he has eaten something that has disagreed with him," says
Dicky, cheerfully.

"Well, really, he looked like it," says Gore. "A more vinegary aspect it
has seldom been my lot to gaze upon, for which I acknowledge my
gratitude. My dear Portia, unless you intend to go in for rheumatics
before your time, you will get up from that damp grass and come home
with me."



CHAPTER XXIV.

                         "Never morning wore
          To evening, but some heart did break."
                                  --_In Memoriam._


"DID _he_--I mean did _you_--ever--; Dulce, will you be very angry with
me if I ask you a question?"

"No. But I hope it won't be a disagreeable one," says Dulce, glancing at
him cautiously.

"That is just as you may look at it," says Roger. "But I suppose I may
say it--after all, we are like brother and sister are we not?"

"Ye-es. _Quite_ like brother and sister," says Dulce, but somehow this
thought seems to give her no pleasure.

"Only we are _not_, you know," puts in Roger, rather hastily.

"No, of course we are _not_," replies she, with equal haste.

"Well, then, look here--"

But even now that he has got so far, he hesitates again, looks earnestly
at her, and pulls his mustache uncertainly, as if half afraid to go any
further.

It is the afternoon of the next day, and as the sun has come out in
great force, and the mildness of the day almost resembles Spring in its
earliest stages; they are all about the place, strolling hither and
thither, whithersoever pleasant fancy guides them.

Roger and Dulce, after lingering for some time in the Winter garden
looking at the snowdrops, and such poor foster-babes as have thrust
their pallid faces above the warm earth, that, like a cruel stepmother,
has driven them too early from her breast, have moved slowly onwards
until they find themselves beside a fountain that used to be a favorite
haunt of theirs long ago.

Dulce, seating herself upon the stone-work that surrounds it, though the
water is too chilly to be pleasant, still toys lightly with it with her
idle fingers, just tipping it coquettishly now and then, with her eyes
bent thoughtfully upon as it sways calmly to and fro beneath the touch
of the cold wind that passes over it.

Just now she raises her eyes and fixes them inquiringly on Roger.

"Go on," she says, quietly. "You were surely going to ask me something.
Are you afraid of me?"

"A little, I confess."

"You need not." She is still looking at him very earnestly.

"Well, then," says Roger, as though nerving himself for a
struggle--"tell me this." He leaves where he is standing and comes
closer to her. "Did--did you ever kiss Gower?"

"Never--_never_!" answers Dulce, growing quite pale.

"I have no right to ask it, I know that," says Roger. "But,"
desperately, "did he ever kiss _you_?"

"Never, indeed."

"Honor bright?"

"Honor bright."

A long silence. Miss Blount's fingers are quite deep in the water now,
and I think she does not even feel the cold of it.

"He has been engaged to you for three months and more and never wanted
to kiss you!" exclaims Roger at last, in a tone expressive of great
amazement and greater contempt.

"I don't think I said quite _that_," returns she, coloring faintly.

"Then"--eagerly--"it was _you_ prevented him!"

"I don't care much about that sort of thing," says Dulce, with a little
shrug.

"Don't you? Then I don't believe you care a button about _him_," replies
he, with glad conviction.

"That is mere surmise on your part. Different people"--vaguely--"are
different. I don't believe if I had any affection for a person that a
mere formal act like kissing would increase the feeling."

"Oh, wouldn't it, though!" says Mr. Dare--"that's all you know about it!
You just try it, that's all."

"Indeed I shall do nothing of the kind," says Dulce, with much
indignation, and some natural disappointment--that _he_ should recommend
such a course to her!

"I didn't mean that you should--should--I didn't, in the least, that you
should be a bit civiller to Gower, or any one, than you are _now_," says
Roger, hastily, greatly shocked at the construction she has put upon his
words, and rather puzzled for language in which to explain himself more
clearly. At this the cloud disappears from her pretty face, and she
bestows a smile upon him that at once restores him to equanimity.

"I can't say I think much of Gower as a lover," he says, after a while,
a touch of scorn in his voice. "To be engaged to you for three whole
months, and never once to kiss you."

"_You_ were engaged to me for three whole _years_," replies his cousin,
quietly, yet with a flash from her deep gray eyes that means much, "and
I cannot remember that you ever cared to kiss me _at all_."

This is a home-thrust.

"I don't know what was the matter with me then," he says, making no
attempt at denial, though there certainly were one or two occasions he
might have referred to; "I don't believe"--in a low tone--"I ever knew I
was fond of you until--until I lost you."

"Oh, you must not talk to me like this!" entreats she, the tears coming
into her eyes and trembling on her long lashes.

"I suppose not. But this new-found knowledge is hard to suppress; why
_did_ I not discover it all sooner?"

"Better late than never," says Dulce, with a poor attempt at lightness
and a rather artificial little laugh, meant to conceal the sorrow that
is consuming her. "I think you ought to feel gladness in the thought
that you know it at last. Knowledge is power, isn't it?"

"I can feel only sorrow," says Roger, very sadly. "And I have no power."

Dulce's wretched fingers are getting absolutely benumbed in the cold
water, yet she seems to feel nothing. Roger, however, stooping over her,
lifts the silly little hand and dries it very tenderly, and holds it
fast between both his own; doubtless only with the intention of
restoring some heat to it. It is quite amazing the length of time it
takes to do this.

"Dulce!"

"Well?" She has not looked at him even once during the last five
minutes.

"If you are unhappy in your present engagement--and I think you are--why
not break with Gower? I spoke to you of this yesterday, and I say the
same thing to-day. You are doing both him and yourself an injustice in
letting it go on any longer."

"I don't know what to say to him."

"Then get some one else to say it. Fabian, or Uncle Christopher."

"Oh, _no_!" says Dulce, with a true sense of delicacy. "If it is to be
done at all I shall do it myself."

"Then do it. Promise me if you get the opportunity you will say
something to him about it."

"I promise," says Dulce, very faintly. Then she withdraws the hand from
his, and without another word, not even a hint at what the gaining of
her freedom may mean to either--or rather both--of them, they go slowly
back to the garden, where they meet all the others sitting in a group
upon a huge circular rustic seat beneath a branching evergreen; all,
that is, except Fabian, who of late has become more and more solitary in
his habits.

As Stephen has not put in an appearance at the Court now for fully two
days, speculation is rife as to what has become of him.

"It is the oddest thing I ever knew," Julia is saying, as the cousins
come up to the rustic-seat.

"What is it?" asks Roger, idly.

"Stephen's defection. He used to be as true as the morning post, and
now--I hope he hasn't made away with himself," says Dicky Browne.

"He has had since this time yesterday to do it," says Sir Mark. "I
wonder if it takes long to cut one's throat."

"It entirely depends on whether you have sharpened your razor
sufficiently, and if you know _how_ to sharpen it. I should think a
fellow devoid of hirsute adornment would take a good while to it,"
returns Mr. Browne, with all the air of one who knows. "He wouldn't be
up to it, you know. But our late lamented Stephen was all right. He
shaved regular."

"He was at the lake yesterday," says Portia. "He came up to us from the
southern end of it."

At this both Dulce and Roger start, and the former changes color
visibly.

"I really wonder _where_ he can be," says Julia.

"So do I," murmurs Dulce, faintly, but distinctly, feeling she is in
duty bound to say something. "Stephen never used to miss a day."

"Here I am, if you want me," says Stephen, coming leisurely up to them
from between the laurels. "I thought I heard somebody mention my name."

He is looking pale and haggard, and altogether unlike the languid,
unemotional Stephen of a month ago. There are dark circles under his
eyes, and his mouth looks strangely compressed, and full of an
unpleasant amount of determination.

"I mentioned it," says Dulce. She is compelled to say this, because he
has fixed his eyes upon her, and plainly everybody expects her to reply
to him.

"Did you want me?" asks he, casting a scrutinizing glance upon her. So
absorbed is he in his contemplation of her that he has positively
forgotten the fact that he has omitted to bid any one a "fair
good-morrow."

"I was certainly wondering where you were," says Dulce, evasively. She
is frightened and subdued--she scarcely knows why. There is something
peculiar in his manner that overawes her.

"It was very good of you to remember my existence. Then you were only
wondering at my absence. You did not want me?"

Dulce makes no reply. She would have given anything to be able to make
some civil, commonplace rejoinder, but at this moment her wits cruelly
desert her.

"I see. Never mind," says Stephen. "Well, even if you don't want me, I
do want _you_--you will come with me as far as the Beeches?"

His tone is more a command than a question. Hearing it, Roger moves
involuntarily a step forward, that brings him nearer to Dulce. He even
puts out his hand as though to lay it upon her arm, when Stephen, by a
gesture, checks him.

"Don't be alarmed," he says, with a low, sneering laugh, every vestige
of color gone from his face. "I shall do her no harm. I shan't murder
her, I give you my word. Be comforted, she will be quite as safe with me
as she would even be with--_you_." He laughs again, dismisses Roger from
his thoughts by an indescribable motion of his hand, and once more
concentrates his attention upon the girl near him, who, with lowered
eyes and a pale, distressed face, is waiting unwillingly for what he may
say next.

All this is so unusual, and really, every one is so full of wonder at
Stephen's extraordinary conduct, that up to this none of the spectators
have said one word. At this juncture, however, Sir Mark clears his
throat as if to say something, and, coming forward, would probably have
tried the effect of a conciliatory speech, but that Stephen, turning
abruptly away from them, takes Dulce's hand in his, and leads her in
silence and with a brow dark as Erebus, up the gravelled path, and past
the chilly fountain, and thus out of sight.

It is as though some terrible ogre from out of a fairy tale had
descended upon them and plucked their fairest damsel from their midst,
to incarcerate her in a 'donjon keep' and probably eat her by and by,
when she is considered fit to kill.

"Do--_do_ you think he has gone mad?" asked Julia, with clasped hands
and tearful eyes.

"My dear Mark, I think something ought to be done,--some one ought to go
after her," says Portia, nervously. "He really looked quite dreadful."

"I'll go," says Roger, angrily.

"No, you won't," says Sir Mark, catching hold of him. "Let them have it
out,--it is far the best thing. And if she gets a regular, right-down,
uncommonly good scolding, as I hope she will"--viciously,--"I can only
say she richly deserves it."

"I can only say I don't know whether I am standing on my head or on my
heels," says Mr. Browne, drawing a long breath; "I feel cheap. Any one
might have me now for little or nothing--quite a bargain."

"I don't think you'd be a bargain at any price," says Sir Mark; but this
touching tribute to his inestimable qualities is passed over by Mr.
Browne in a silence that is almost sublime.

"To think Stephen could look like that!" he goes on, as evenly as if Sir
Mark had never spoken. "Why, Irving is a fool to him. Tragedy is plainly
his _forte_. Really, one never knows of what these æsthetic-looking
people are capable. He looked murderous."

At this awful word the children--who have been silent and most attentive
spectators of the late scene, and who have been enchanted with it--turn
quite pale, and whisper together in a subdued fashion. When the
whispering has reached a certain point, the Boodie gives Jacky an
encouraging push, whereupon that young hero darts away from her side
like an arrow from a bow, and disappears swiftly round the corner.

Meanwhile, having arrived at the Beeches, a rather remote part of the
ground, beautiful in Summer because of the luxuriant foliage of the
trees, but now bleak and bare beneath the rough touch of Winter, Stephen
stops short and faces his companion steadily. His glance is stern and
unforgiving; his whole bearing relentless and forbidding.

To say Miss Blount is feeling nervous would be saying very little. She
is looking crushed in anticipation by the weight of the thunderbolt she
_knows_ is about to fall. Presently it descends, and once down, she
acknowledges to herself it was only a shock after all, worse in the
fancy than in the reality; as are most of our daily fears.

"So you wish our engagement at an end?" says Stephen, quite calmly, in a
tone that might almost be termed mechanical.

He waits remorselessly for an answer.

"I--you--I didn't tell you so," stammers Dulce.

"No prevarications, please. There has been quite enough deception of
late." Dulce looks at him curiously. "Let us adhere to the plain truth
now at least. This is how the case stands. You never loved me; and now
your cousin has returned you find you do love him; that all your former
professions of hatred toward him were just so much air--or, let us say,
so much wounded vanity. You would be released from me. You would gladly
forget I ever played even a small part in the drama of your life. Is not
all this true?"

For the second time this afternoon speech deserts Dulce. She grows very
white, but answer she has none.

"I understand your silence to mean yes," goes on Stephen, in the same
monotonous tone he had just used, out of which every particle of feeling
has been absolutely banished. "It would, let me say, have saved you much
discomfort, and your cousin some useless traveling, if you had
discovered your passion for him sooner." At this Dulce draws her breath
quickly, and throws up her head with a haughty gesture. Very few women
like being _told_ they entertain a passion for a man, no matter how
devotedly they adore him.

Mr. Gower, taking no notice of her silent protest, goes on slowly.

"What your weakness and foolish pride have cost _me_," he says, "goes
for nothing."

There is something in his face now that makes Dulce sorry for him. It is
a want of hope. His eyes, too, look sunk and wearied as if from
continued want of sleep.

"If by my reprehensible pride and weakness, of which you justly accuse
me, I have caused you pain--" she begins tremulously, but he stops her
at once.

"That will do," he says, coldly. "Your nature is incapable of
comprehending all you have done. We will not discuss that subject. I
have not brought you here to talk of myself, but of you. Let us confine
ourselves to the business that has brought me to-day--for the last time,
I hope--to the Court."

His tone, which is extremely masterful, rouses Dulce to anger.

"There is one thing I _will_ say," she exclaims, lifting her eyes fairly
to his. "But for _you_ and your false sympathy, and your carefully
chosen and most insidious words that fanned the flame of my unjust
wrath against him, Roger and I would never have been separated."

"You can believe what you like about that," says Gower, indifferently,
unmoved by her vehement outburst. "Believe anything that will make your
conduct look more creditable to you, anything that will make you more
comfortable in your mind--if you _can_. But as I have no wish to detain
you here longer than is strictly necessary, and as I am sure you have no
wish to be detained, let us not waste time in recriminations, but come
at once to the point."

"What point? I do not understand you," says Dulce, coldly.

"Yesterday, when passing by the southern end of the lake, hidden by some
shrubs, I came upon you and your cousin unawares, and heard you
distinctly tell him (what I must be, indeed, a dullard, not to have
known before) that you did not love me. This was the substance of what
you said, but your tone conveyed far more. It led me to believe you held
me in positive detestation."

"Oh! You were eavesdropping," says Dulce, indignantly.

Stephen smiles contemptuously.

"No, I was not," he says, calmly. He takes great comfort to his soul in
the remembrance that he might have heard much more that was not intended
for his ears had he stayed in his place of concealment yesterday, which
he had not. "Accident brought me to that part of the lake, and brought,
too, your words to my ears. When I heard them I remembered many trivial
things, that at the moment of their occurrence had seemed as naught. But
now my eyes are opened. I am no longer blind. I have brought you here to
tell you I will give you back your promise to marry me, your
_freedom_"--with a sudden bitterness, as suddenly suppressed--"on _one_
condition."

"And that?" breathlessly.

"Is, that you will never marry Roger without my consent."

The chance of regaining her liberty is so sweet to Dulce at this first
moment that it chases from her all other considerations. Oh, to be free
again! In vain she strives to hide her gladness. It will _not_ be
hidden. Her eyes gleam; her lips get back their color; there is such an
abandonment of joy and exultation in her face that the man at her
side--the man who is now resigning all that makes life sweet to
him--feels his heart grow mad with bitter hatred of her, himself, and
all the world as he watches her with miserable eyes. And he--poor
fool!--had once hoped he might win the priceless treasure of this girl's
love! No words could convey the contempt and scorn with which he regards
himself.

"Do not try to restrain your relief," he says, in a hoarse, unnatural
tone, seeing she has turned her head a little aside, as though to avoid
his searching gaze. "You know the condition I impose--you are prepared
to abide by it?"

Dulce hesitates. "Later on he will forget all this, and give his consent
to my marrying--any one," she thinks, hurriedly, in spite of the other
voice within her, that bids her beware. Then out loud she says, quietly:

"Yes."

Even if he _should_ prove unrelenting, she tells herself, it will be
better to be an old maid than an unloving wife. She will be rid of this
hateful entanglement that has been embittering her life for months,
and--and, of course, he _won't_ keep her to this absurd arrangement
after a while.

"You swear it?"

"I swear it," says Dulce, answering as one might in a dream. Hers is a
dream, happy to recklessness, in which she is fast losing herself.

"It is an oath," he says again, as if to give her a last chance to
escape.

"It is," replies she, softly, still wrapt in her dream of freedom. She
may now love Roger without any shadow coming between them, and--ah! how
divine a world it is!--he may perhaps love her too!

"Remember," says Gower, sternly, letting each word drop from him as if
with the settled intention of imprinting or burning them upon her brain,
"I shall never relent about this. You have given me your solemn oath,
and--I shall _keep you to it_! I shall never absolve you from it, as I
have absolved you from your first promise to-day. Never. Do not hope for
that. Should you live to be a hundred years old, you cannot marry your
cousin without my consent, and that I shall never give. You quite
understand?"

"Quite." But her tone has grown faint and uncertain. What has she done?
Something in his words, his manner, has at last awakened her from the
happy dream in which she was reveling.

"Now you can return to your old lover," says Stephen, with an
indescribably bitter laugh, "and be happy. For your deeper satisfaction,
too, let me tell you that for the future you shall see very little of
me."

"You are going abroad?" asks she, very timidly, in her heart devoutly
hoping that this may be the reading of his last words.

"No; I shall stay here. But the Court I shall trouble with my presence
seldom. I don't know," exclaims he, for the first time losing his
wonderful self control and speaking querulously, "what is the matter
with me. Energy has deserted me with all the rest. You have broken my
heart, I suppose, and that explains everything. There, _go_," turning
abruptly away from her; "your being where I can see you only makes
matters worse."

Some impulse prompts Dulce to go up to him and lay her hand gently on
his arm.

"Stephen," she says, in a low tone, "if I have caused you any
unhappiness forgive me now."

"Forgive you?" exclaims he, so fiercely that she recoils from him in
absolute terror.

Lifting her fingers from his arm as though they burn him, he flings them
passionately away, and, plunging into the short thick underwood, is soon
lost to sight.

Dulce, pale and frightened, returns by the path by which she had come,
but not to those she had left. She is in no humor now for questions or
curious looks; gaining the house without encountering any one, she runs
up-stairs, and seeks refuge in her own room.

But if she doesn't return to gratify the curiosity of the puzzled group
on the rustic-seat, somebody else does.

Jacky, panting, dishevelled, out of breath with quick running rushes up
to them, and precipitates himself upon his mother.

"It's all right," he cries, triumphantly. "He didn't do a bit to her. I
watched him all the time and he never _touched_ her."

"Who? What?" demands the bewildered Julia. But Jacky disdains
explanations.

"He only talked, and talked, and talked," he goes on, fluently; "and he
said she did awful things to him. And he made her swear at
him--and--and--"

"_What?_" says Sir Mark.

"It's impossible to know anybody," sighs Dicky Browne, regretfully,
shaking his head at this fresh instance of the frailty of humanity. "Who
could have believed Dulce capable of using bad language? I hope her
school-children and her Sunday class won't hear it, poor little things.
It would shake their faith forever."

"How do you know he is talking of Dulce?" says Julia, impatiently.
"Jacky, how _dare_ you say dear Dulce swore at any one?"

"He _made_ her," says Jacky.

"He must have behaved awfully bad to her," says Dicky, gravely.

"He said to her to swear, and she did it at once," continues Jacky,
still greatly excited.

"_Con amore_," puts in Mr. Browne.

"And he scolded her very badly," goes on Jacky, at which Roger frowns
angrily; "and he said she broke something belonging to him, but I
couldn't hear what; and then he told her to go away, and when she was
going she touched his arm, and he pushed her away awfully roughly, but
he didn't try to _murder_ her at all."

"What on earth is the boy saying?" says Julia, perplexed in the extreme,
"Who didn't try to murder who?"

"I'm telling you about Dulce and Stephen," says Jacky, in an aggrieved
tone, though still ready to burst with importance. "When he took her
away from this, I followed 'm; I kept my eyes on 'm. Dicky said Stephen
looked murderous; so I went to see if I could help her. But I suppose he
got sorry, because he let her off. She is all right; there isn't a
_scratch_ on her."

Sir Mark and Dicky were consumed with laughter. But Roger, taking the
little champion in his arms, kisses him with all his heart.



CHAPTER XXV.

                    "For aught that ever I could read,
          Could ever hear by tale or history,
          The course of true love never did run smooth."
                                     --_Midsummer Night's Dream._


WHEN dinner comes Dulce is wonderfully silent. That is the misfortune of
being a rather talkative person, when you want to be silent you can't,
without attracting universal attention. Every one now stares at Dulce
secretly, and speculates about what Stephen may, or may not, have said
to her.

She says yes and no quite correctly to everything, but nothing more, and
seems to find no comfort in her dinner--which is rather a good one. This
last sign of depression appears to Dicky Browne a very serious one, and
he watches her with the gloomiest doubts as he sees dish after dish
offered her, only to be rejected.

This strange fit of silence, however, is plainly not to be put down to
ill temper. She is kindly, nay, even affectionate, in her manner to all
around, except, indeed, to Roger, whom she openly avoids, and whose
repeated attempts at conversation she returns with her eyes on the
table-cloth, and a general air about her of saying anything she _does_
say to him under protest.

To Roger this changed demeanor is maddening; from it he instantly draws
the very blackest conclusions; and, in fact, so impressed is he by it
that later on, in the drawing-room, when he finds his tenderest glances
and softest advances still met with coldness and resistance, and when
his solitary effort at explanation is nervously, but remorselessly,
repulsed, he caves in altogether, and, quitting the drawing-room, makes
his way to the deserted library, where, with a view to effacing himself
for the remainder of the evening, he flings himself into an arm-chair,
and gives himself up a prey to evil forebodings.

Thus a quarter of an hour goes by, when the door of the library is
opened by Dulce. Roger, sitting with his back to it, does not see her
enter, or, indeed, heed her entrance, so wrapt is he in his unhappy
musings. Not until she has lightly and timidly touched his shoulder does
he start, and, looking round, become aware of her presence.

"It is I," she says, in a very sweet little voice, that brings Roger to
his feet and the end of his musings in no time.

"Dulce! What has happened?" he asks, anxiously, alluding to her late
strange behavior. "Why won't you speak to me?"

"I don't know," says Dulce, faintly, hanging her head.

"What can I have done? Ever since you went away with Stephen, down to
the Beeches to-day, your manner toward me has been utterly changed.
Don't--_don't_ say you have been persuaded by him to name your wedding
day!" He speaks excitedly, as one might who is at last giving words to a
fear that has been haunting him for long.

"So far from it," says Miss Blount, with slow solemnity, "that he sought
an opportunity to-day to formally release me from my promise to him!"

"He has released you?" Words are too poor to express Roger's profound
astonishment.

"Yes; on one condition."

"A condition! What a Jew! Yes; well, go on--?"

"I _can't_ go on," says Dulce, growing crimson. "I can't, _indeed_,"
putting up her hands as she sees him about to protest; "it is of no use
asking me. I neither can or will tell you about that condition, _ever_."

"Give me even a _hint_," says Roger, coaxingly.

"No, _no_, NO! The rack wouldn't make me tell it," returns she, with a
stern shake of her red-brown head, but with very pathetic eyes.

"But what _can_ it be," exclaims Roger, fairly puzzled.

"_That_ I shall go to my grave without divulging," replies she,
heroically.

"Well, no matter," says Roger, after a minute's reflection, resolved to
take things philosophically. "You are free, that is the great point. And
now--_now_, Dulce, you will marry me?"

At this Miss Blount grows visibly affected (as they say of ladies in the
dock), and dropping into the nearest chair, lets her hands fall loosely
clasped upon her knees, and so remains, the very picture of woe.

"I can't do that, either," she says at last, without raising her
afflicted lids.

"But why?" impatiently. "What is to prevent you?--unless, indeed,"
suspiciously, "you really don't care about it."

"It isn't that, indeed," says Dulce, earnestly, letting her eyes,
suffused with tears, meet his for a moment.

"Then _what_ is it? You say he has released you, and that you have
therefore regained your liberty, and yet--yet--Dulce, _do_ be rational
and give me an explanation. At least, say why you will not be my wife."

"If I told that I should tell you the condition, too," says poor Dulce,
in a stifled tone, feeling sorely put to it, "and _nothing_ would induce
me to do that. I told you before I wouldn't."

"You needn't," says Roger, softly. "I see it now. And anything more
sneaking-- So he has given you your liberty, but has taken good care you
sha'n't be happy in it. I never heard of a lower transaction. I--"

"Oh! how did you find it out?" exclaims Dulce, blushing again
generously.

"I don't know," replies he, most untruthfully, "I guessed it, I think;
it was so like him. You--did you agree to his condition, Dulce?"

"Yes," says Dulce.

"You gave him your word?"

"Yes."

"Then he'll keep you to it, be sure of that. What a pity you did not
take time to consider what you would do."

"I considered _this_ quite quickly," says Dulce: "I said to myself that
_nothing_ could be worse than marrying a man I did not love."

"Yes, yes, of course," says Roger, warmly. "Nothing could be worse than
marrying Gower."

"And then I thought that perhaps he might relent; and then, besides--I
didn't know what to do, because," here two large tears fall down her
cheeks and break upon her clasped hands, "because, you see, _you_ had
not asked me to marry you, and I thought that perhaps you never might
ask me, and that so my promise meant very little."

"How could you have thought that?" says Roger, deeply grieved.

"Well, you hadn't said a word, you know," murmurs she, sorrowfully.

"How could I?" groans Dare. "When you were going of your own free will,
and my folly, to marry another fellow."

"There was very little free will about it," whispers she, tearfully.

"Well, I'm sure I don't know what's going to be done now," says Mr.
Dare, despairingly, sinking into a chair near the table, and letting his
head fall in a distracting fashion into his hands.

He seems lost in thought, sunk in a very slough of despond, out of which
it seems impossible to him he can ever be extricated. He has turned away
his face, lest he shall see the little disconsolate figure in the other
arm-chair, that looked so many degrees too large for it.

To gaze at Dulce is to bring on a state of feeling even more keenly
miserable than the present one. She is looking particularly pretty
to-night, her late encounter with Stephen, and her perplexity, and the
anxiety about telling it all to Roger, having added a wistfulness to her
expression that heightens every charm she possesses. She is dressed in a
white gown of Indian muslin made high to the throat, but with short
sleeves, and has in her hair a diamond star, that once belonged to her
mother.

Her hands are folded in her lap, and she is gazing with a very troubled
stare at the bright fire. Presently, as though the thoughts in which she
has been indulging have proved too much for her, she flings up her head
impatiently, and, rising softly, goes to the back of Roger's chair and
leans over it.

"Roger," she says, in a little anxious whisper, that trembles ever so
lightly, "you are not angry with me, are you?"

Impulsively, as she asks this, she raises one of her soft, naked arms
and lays it round his neck. In every action of Dulce's there is
something so childlike and loving, that it appeals straight to the
heart. The touch of her cool, sweet flesh, as it brushes against his
cheek, sends a strange thrill through Roger--a thrill hitherto unknown
to him. He turns his face to hers; their eyes meet; and then, in a
moment, he has risen, and he has her in his arms, and has laid his lips
on hers; and they have given each other a long, long kiss, a kiss of
youth and love!

"Angry--with you--my darling!" says Roger, at length, in a low tone,
when he has collected his scattered senses a little. He is gazing at her
with the most infinite tenderness, and Dulce, with her head pressed
close against his heart, feels with a keen sense of relief that she can
defy Stephen, the world, cruel Fate, _all!_ and that her dearest dream
of happiness is at last fulfilled.

When they have asked each other innumerable questions about different
matters that would concern the uninitiated world but little, but are
fraught with the utmost importance to them, they grow happily silent;
and, sitting hand in hand, look dreamily into the glowing embers of the
fire. Trifles light as air rise before them, and strengthen them in the
belief at which they have just arrived, that they have been devoted to
each other for years. All the old hasty words and angry looks are now to
be regarded as vague expressions of a love suppressed, because fearful
of a disdainful reception.

Presently, after a rather prolonged pause, Dulce, drawing a deep but
happy sigh, turns to him, and says, tenderly, though somewhat
regretfully:

"Ah! if only you had not stolen those chocolate creams!"

"I didn't steal them," protested Roger, as indignantly as a man can
whose arm is fondly clasped around the beloved of his heart.

"Well, of course, I mean if you hadn't _eaten_ them," says Dulce, sadly.

"But, my life, I never _saw_ them!" exclaims poor Roger, vehemently; "I
swear I didn't."

"Well, then, if I hadn't _said_ you did," says Dulce, mournfully.

"Ah! that indeed," says Mr. Dare, with corresponding gloom. "If you
hadn't all might now be well; as it is-- Do you know I have never since
seen one of those loathsome sweets without feeling positively murderous,
and shall hate chocolate to my dying day."

"It was a pity we fought about such a trifle," murmurs she, shaking her
head.

"Was it?" Turning to her, he lifts her face with his hand and gazes
intently into her eyes. Whatever he sees in those clear depths seem to
satisfy him and make glad his heart. "After all, I don't believe it
was," he says.

"Not a pity we quarreled, and--and lost each other?" Considering the
extremely close proximity to each other at this moment, the allusion to
the loss they are supposed to have sustained is not very affecting.

"No. Though we were rather in a hole now," says Mr. Dare, rather at a
loss for a word. "I am very _glad_ we fought."

"Oh, Roger!"

"Aren't you?"

"How can you ask me such a heartless question?"

"Don't you see what it has done for us? Has it not taught us that"--very
tenderly this--"we _love_ each other?" His tone alone would have brought
her round to view anything in his light. "And somehow," he goes on,
after a necessary pause--"I mean," with an effort that speaks volumes
for his sense of propriety, "Gower will give in, and absolve you from
your promise. He may as well, you know, when he sees the game is up."

"But when will he see that?"

"He evidently saw it to-day."

"Well, he was very far from giving in to-day, or even dreaming of
granting absolution."

"Well, we must make him see it even _more_ clearly," says Roger,
desperately.

"But how?" dejectedly.

"By making violent love to me all day long, and by letting me make it to
you. It will wear him out," says Mr. Dare confidently. "He won't be able
to stand it. Would--would you much mind trying to make violent love to
me?"

"Mind it?" says Dulce, enthusiastically, plainly determined to render
herself up a willing (very willing) sacrifice upon the altar of the
present necessity. "I should _like_ it!"

This _naïve_ speech brings Roger, _if possible_, a little closer to her.

"I think I must have been utterly without intellect in the old days, not
to have seen then what a darling you are."

"Oh, no," says Dulce, meekly, which might mean that, in her opinion,
either _he_ is not without intellect, or she is not a darling.

"I was abominable to you then," persists Roger, with the deepest
self-abasement. "I wonder you can look with patience at me now. I was a
perfect bear to you!"

"_Indeed_ you were not," says Dulce, slipping her arm round his neck.
"You couldn't have been, because I am sure I loved you even then; and
besides," with a little soft, coaxing smile, "I won't listen to you at
all if you call my own boy bad names."

Rapture; and a prolonged pause.

"What _shall_ we do if that wretched beggar won't relent and let me
marry you?" says Roger, presently.

"Only bear it, I suppose," with profoundest resignation; it is _so_
profound that it strikes Mr. Dare as being philosophical, and displeases
him accordingly.

"_You_ don't seem to care much," he says, in an offended tone, getting
up and standing with his back to the mantelpiece, and his face turned to
her, as though determined to keep an eye on her.

"I don't care?" reproachfully.

"Not to any very great extent, I think; and of course it is not to be
wondered at. I'm not much, I allow, and perhaps there are others--"

"Now that is not at all a pretty speech," interrupts Dulce, sweetly; "so
you sha'n't finish it. Come here directly and give me a little kiss, and
don't be cross."

This decides everything. He comes here directly, and gives her a little
kiss, and isn't a bit cross.

"Why shouldn't you defy him and marry me?" says Roger, defiantly. "What
right has he to extort such a promise from you? Once we were man and
wife he would be powerless."

"But there is my word--I swore to him," returns she, earnestly. "I
cannot forget that. It was an understanding, a bargain."

"Well, but," begins he again; and then he sees something in the little,
pale, but determined face gazing pathetically up into his that deters
him from further argument. She will be quite true to her word once
pledged, he knows that; and though the knowledge is bitter to him, yet
he respects her so highly for it, that he vows to himself he will no
longer strive to tempt her from her sense of right. Lifting one of her
hands, he lays it upon his lips, as though to keep himself by her dear
touch from further speech.

"Never mind," he says, caressing her soft fingers tenderly. "We may be
able to baffle him yet, and even if not, we can be happy together in
spite of him. Can we not. I know _I_ can." Drawing her closer to him,
he whispers gently,

          "A smile of thine shall make my bliss!"

After a while it occurs to them that they ought to return to the
drawing-room and the prosaic humdrumedness of everyday life. It is
wonderful how paltry everything has become in their sight, how it is
dwarfed and stunted by comparison with the great light of love that is
surrounding them. All outside this mist seems lost in a dull haze, seems
pale, expressionless.

Opening the library-door with slow, reluctant fingers, they almost
stumble against a figure crouching near the lintel. This figure starts
into nervous life at their appearance, and, muttering something
inaudible in a heavy indistinct tone, shuffles away from them, and is
lost to sight round a corner of the corridor.

"Surely that was old Gregory," says Dulce, after a surprised pause.

"So it was," returns Roger, "and, _as_ usual, as drunk as a fiddler."

"Isn't it dreadful of him?" says Dulce. "Do you know, Roger, his manner
is so strange of late, that I verily believe that man is going mad."

"Well, he won't have far to go, at any rate," says Mr. Dare, cheerfully.
"He has been on the road, I should say, a considerable time."



CHAPTER XXVI.

          "Let the dead past bury its dead."--LONGFELLOW.


JUST at first it is so delightful to Dulce to have Roger making actual
love to her, and so delightful to Roger to be able to make it, that they
are content with their present and heedless of their future.

Not that everything goes quite smoothly with them, even now. Little
skirmishes, as of old, arise between them, threatening to dim the
brightness of their days. It was, indeed, only yesterday that a very
serious rupture was near taking place, all occasioned by a difference of
opinion about the respective merits of Mr. Morton's and Messrs. Crosse &
Blackwell's pickles; Dulce declaring for the former, Roger for the
latter.

Fortunately, Mark Gore coming into the room smoothed matters over and
drew conversation into a more congenial channel, or lamentable
consequences might have ensued.

They hold to their theory about the certainty of Stephen's relenting in
due time until they grow tired of it; and as the days creep on, and
Gower sitting alone in his castle in sullen silence refuses to see or
speak to them, or give any intimation of a desire to soften towards
them, they lose heart altogether, and give themselves up a prey to
despair.

Roger one morning had plucked up courage, and had gone over to the Fens,
and had forced himself into the presence of its master and expostulated
with him "mildly but firmly," as he assured Dulce afterwards, when she
threw out broad hints to the effect that she believed he had lost his
temper on the occasion. Certainly, from all accounts, a good deal of
temper _had_ been lost, and nothing indeed came of the interview beyond
a select amount of vituperation from both sides, an openly avowed
declaration on Mr. Gower's part that as he had not requested the
pleasure of his society on this, or any other, occasion, he hoped it
would be the last time Roger would present himself at the Fens; an
equally honest avowal on the part of Mr. Dare to the effect that the
discomfort he felt in coming was _almost_ (it never could be _quite_)
balanced by the joy he experienced at departing, and a few more hot
words that very nearly led to bloodshed.

When Roger thought it all over dispassionately next morning, he told
himself that now indeed all things were at an end, that no hope lay
anywhere; and now February is upon them, and Spring begins to assert
itself, and the land has learned to smile again, and all the pretty
early buds are swelling in the hedgerows.

I wonder they don't get tired of swelling only to die in the long run.
What does their perseverance gain for them? There is a little sunshine,
a little warmth, the songs of a few birds flung across their trailing
beauty, and then one heavy shower, and then--death! What a monotonous
thing is nature, when all is told? Each year is but a long day; each
life but a long year: at morn we rise, at night we lay our weary heads
upon our pillows: at morn we rise again, and so on. As Winter comes our
flowers fade and die; Spring brings them back again; again the Winter
kills them, and so--forever!

Now Spring has come once more to the old Court, to commence its
triumphant reign, regardless of the fact that no matter how bright its
day may be while it lasts, still dissolution stares it in the face. The
young grass is thrusting its head above ground, a few brave birds are
singing on the barren branches. There is a stir, a strange vague flutter
everywhere of freshly-opening life.

"We shall have to shake off dull sloth pretty early to-morrow," says
Dicky Browne, suddenly, _apropos_ of nothing that has gone before; his
usual method of introducing a subject.

"Why?" asks Portia, almost startled. It is nearly five o'clock, and Mr.
Browne, having sequestrated the remainder of the cake, the last piece
being the occasion of a most undignified skirmish between him and the
Boodie, the Boodie proving victor, is now at liberty to enter into light
and cheerful conversation.

"The meet, you know," says Dicky. "Long way off. Hate hunting myself,
when I've got to leave my bed for it."

"You needn't go," says Dulce; "nobody is pressing you."

"Oh! I'm not like _you_," says Mr. Browne, contemptuously, "liking a
thing to-day and hating it to-morrow. You used to be a sort of modern--I
mean--decent Diana, but lately you have rather shirked the whole thing."

"I had a cold last day, and--and a headache the day before that,"
stammers Dulce, blushing scarlet.

"Nobody could hunt with a headache," says Roger, at which defence Mr.
Browne grins.

"Well, you've got _them_ over," he says. "What's going to keep you at
home to-morrow?"

"I don't understand you, Dicky," says Miss Blount, with dignity. "I am
going hunting to-morrow; there is nothing that I know of likely to keep
me at home."

She is true to her word. Next morning they find her ready equipped at a
very early hour, "Taut and trim," as Dicky tells her, "from her hat to
her boots."

"Do you know," he says, further, as though imparting to her some
information hitherto undiscovered, "joking _apart_, you will understand,
you are--_really_--quite a pretty young woman."

"Thank you, Dicky," says she, very meekly; and as a more substantial
mark of her gratitude for this gracious speech, she drops a fourth lump
of sugar into his coffee.

Shortly after this they start, Dulce still in the very gayest spirits,
with Roger on her right hand and Mark Gore on her left. But, as they
near the happy hunting-grounds, her brightness flags; she grows silent
and preoccupied, and each fresh hoof upon the road behind her makes her
betray a desire to hide herself behind somebody.

Of late, indeed, hunting has lost its charm for her, and the meets have
become a source of confusion and discomfort. Her zest for the chase has
sustained a severe check, so great that her favorite hounds have
solicited the usual biscuit from her hands in vain.

And all this is because the one thing dear to the soul of the gloomy
Stephen is the pursuit of the wily fox, and that therefore on the field
of battle it becomes inevitable that she must meet her whilom lover face
to face.

Looking round fearfully now, she sees him at a little distance, seated
on an irreproachable mount. His brows are knitted moodily, his very
attitude is repellant. He responds to the pleasant salutations showered
upon him from all quarters by a laconic "How d'ye do," or a still more
freezing nod. Even Sir Christopher's hearty "Good-morning, lad," has no
effect up on him.

"Something rotten in the state of Denmark, _there_," says the master,
Sir Guy Chetwoode, turning to Dorian Branscombe. "Surely, eh? Rather a
safe thing for that pretty girl of Blount's to have given him the go-by,
eh?"

"Wouldn't have him at any price if _I_ were a girl," says Branscombe. "I
don't like his eyes. Murderous sort of beggar."

"Faith, I don't know," says Geoffrey Rodney, who is riding by them, and
who is popularly supposed always to employ this expletive, because his
wife is Irish. "I rather like the fellow myself; so does Mona. It's
rough on him, you know, all the world knowing he has been jilted."

"I heard it was _he_ gave _her_ up," says Teddy Luttrel, who has been
fighting so hard with a refractory collar up to this that he has not
been able to edge in a word.

"Oh, I daresay!" says Branscombe, so ironically, that every one
concludes it will be useless to say anything further.

And now the business of the day is begun. Every one has settled him or
herself into the saddle and is preparing to make a day of it.

Two hours later many are in a position to acknowledge sadly that the day
they have made has not been exactly up to the mark. The various
positions of these many are, for the most part, more remarkable than
elegant. Some are reclining gracefully in a ditch; some are riding
dolefully homeward with much more forehead than they started with in the
morning; some, and these are the saddest of all, are standing forlorn in
the middle of an empty meadow, gazing helplessly at the flying tail of
the animal they bestrode only a short five minutes ago.

The field is growing decidedly thin. Lady Chetwoode, well to the front,
is holding her own bravely. Sir Guy is out of sight, having just
disappeared over the brow of the small hill opposite. Dicky Browne, who
rides like a bird, is going at a rattling pace straight over anything
and everything that comes in his way, with the most delightful
impartiality, believing, as he has never yet come a very violent
cropper, that the gods are on his side.

Roger and Dulce got a little way from the others, and are now riding
side by side across a rather hilly field. Right before them rises a
wall, small enough in itself, but in parts dangerous, because of the
heavy fall the other side, hidden from the eye by some brambles growing
on the top of the stone-work.

Lower down, this wall proves itself even more treacherous, hiding even
more effectually the drop into the adjoining field, which is here too
deep for any horse, however good, to take with safety. It is a spot well
known by all the sportsmen in the neighborhood as one to be avoided,
ever since Gort, the farmer, some years before, had jumped it for the
sake of an idle bet, and had been carried home from it a dead man,
leaving his good brown mare with a broken back behind him.

It would seem, however, that either ignorance or recklessness is
carrying one of the riders to-day towards this fatal spot. He is now
bearing down upon it with the evident intention of clearing the
traitorous wall and so gaining upon the hounds, who are streaming up the
hill beyond, unaware that almost certain destruction awaits him at the
point towards which he is riding so carelessly.

Dulce, turning her head accidentally in his direction, is the first to
see him.

"Oh, see there!" she cries, in a frightened tone, to Roger, pointing to
the lower part of the field. "Who is that going to take Gort's Fall?"

Roger, following her glance, pulls up short, and stares fixedly at the
man below, now drawing terribly near to the condemned spot. And, as he
looks, his face changes, the blood forsakes it, and a horrified
expression creeps into his eyes.

"By Jove! it is Stephen," he says at last, in an indescribable tone; and
then, knowing he cannot reach him in time to prevent the coming
catastrophe, he stands up in his stirrups and shouts to the unconscious
Stephen, with all the strength of his fresh, young lungs, to turn back
before it is too late.

But all in vain; Stephen either does not or cannot hear. He has by this
time reached the wall; his horse, the gallant animal, responds to his
touch. He rises--there is a crash, a dull thud, and then all is still.

Involuntarily Dulce has covered her eyes with her hand, and by a supreme
effort has suppressed the cry that has risen from her heart. A sickening
sensation of weakness is overpowering her. When at length she gains
courage to open her eyes again she finds Roger has forsaken her, and is
riding like one possessed across the open field, and--there beyond,
where the sun is glinting in small patches upon the dry grass, she sees,
too, a motionless mass of scarlet cloth, and a dark head lying--oh! so
strangely quiet.

Roger having safely cleared the unlucky wall higher up, has flung
himself from his saddle, and is now on his knees beside Gower, and has
lifted his head upon his arm.

"Stephen, Stephen!" he cries, brokenly. But Stephen is beyond hearing.
He is quite insensible, and deaf to the voice that in the old days used
to have a special charm for him. Laying him gently down again, Roger
rises to his feet, and looks wildly round. Dulce has arrived by this
time and, having sprung to her feet, has let her horse, too, go to the
winds.

"He is not dead?" she asks at first, in a ghastly whisper, with pale and
trembling lips.

"I don't know, I'm not sure," says Roger, distractedly. "Oh, if somebody
would _only_ come!"

Not a soul is in sight. By this time every one has disappeared over the
hill, and not a human being is to be seen far or near.

"Have you no brandy?" asks Dulce, who is rubbing the hands of the
senseless man, trying to restore animation by this means.

"Yes, yes, I had forgotten," says Roger, and then he kneels down once
again, and takes Stephen into his arms, and raising his head on his
knee, tries to force a few drops of the brandy between his pallid lips.

At this supreme moment all is forgotten--all the old heartaches, the
cruel taunts, the angry words. Once again he is his earliest friend; the
boy, the youth, the man, he had loved, until a woman had come between
them. Everything rushes back upon him, as he stoops over Gower, and
gazes, with passionate fear and grief, upon his marble face.

After all, there had been more good points than bad about Stephen, more
good, indeed, than about most fellows. How fond he had been of him in
the old days; how angry he would have been with any one who had dared
then to accuse him of acting shabbily, or-- Well, well, no use in raking
up old grievances, now, and no doubt there was great temptation; and
besides, too, uncivil things had been said to him, and he (Roger) had
certainly not been up to the mark himself in many ways.

Memories of school and college life crowd upon Roger now, as he gazes
with ever-increasing fear upon the rigid features below him; little
scenes, insignificant in themselves, but enriched by honest sentiment,
and tenderly connected With the dawn of manhood, when the fastidious
Gower had been attracted and fascinated by the bolder and more reckless
qualities of Dare, recur to him now with a clearness that, under the
present miserable circumstances, is almost painful.

He tries to shake off those tormenting recollections; to bury his happy
college life out of sight, only to find his mind once more busy on a
fresh field.

Again he is at school, with Stephen near him, and all the glory of an
Eton fight before him. What glorious old days they were! so full of life
and vigor! and now, it is with exceeding pathos he calls to mind one
memorable day on which he had banged Stephen most triumphantly about the
head with a Latin grammar--Stephen's grammar, be it understood, which
had always seemed to add an additional zest to the affair; and then the
free fight afterwards, in which he, Roger, had been again victorious;
and Stephen had not taken it badly either; had resented neither the
Latin banging nor the victory later on. No, he was certainly not
ill-tempered _then_, dear old chap. Even before the blood had been
wiped from their injured noses on that never-to-be-forgotten occasion
Stephen had shaken hands with him, and they had sworn publicly a
life-long friendship.

And here is the end of it! His sworn friend is lying stark and
motionless in his embrace, with a deathly pallor on his face that is
awfully like death, and with a heart, if it still beats, filled with
angry thoughts of him, as he bends, scarcely less bloodless than
himself, above him.

Will _no_ one _ever_ come?

Roger glares despairingly at Dulce, who is still trying to get some
brandy down the wounded man's throat, and even as she does so Stephen's
eyes unclose, and a heavy sobbing sigh escapes him.

Strangely enough, as the two bend over him, and his gaze wanders from
one face to the other, it rests finally, with a great sense of content,
not on Dulce's face but Roger's. Instinctively he turns in his hour of
need from the woman who had wronged him to the man whom _he_ had wronged
in the first instance, and who--though he had suffered many things at
his hands of late--brings to him now a breath from that earlier and
happier life, where love--which has proved so bitter--was unknown.

"Stephen! Dear old fellow, you are not _much_ hurt, are you?" asks
Roger, tenderly. "Where is the pain? Where does it hurt you most?"

"Here!" says Stephen, faintly, trying to lift one of his arms to point
to his left side; but, with a groan, the arm falls helpless, and then
they know, with sickening feeling of horror, that it is broken. Stephen
loses consciousness again for a moment.

"It is broken!" says Roger. "And I am afraid there must be some internal
injury besides. What on earth is to be done, Dulce?" in a frantic tone;
"we shall have him here all night unless we do something. Will you stay
with him while I run and try to find somebody?"

But Stephen's senses having returned to him by this time, he overhears
and understands the last sentence.

"No, don't leave me," he entreats, earnestly, though speaking with great
difficulty. "Roger, are you there? Stay with me."

"There is Dulce," falters Roger.

"No, no; don't leave me here alone," says the wounded man, with foolish
persistency, and Roger, at his wits' end, hardly knows what to do.

"Are you anything easier now?" he asks, raising Stephen's head ever so
gently. Dulce, feeling her presence has been thoroughly ignored, and
fearing lest the very sight of her may irritate her late lover, draws
back a little, and stands where he can no longer see her.

"Try to drink this," says Roger, holding the flask again to Gower's lips
and forcing a few drops between them. They are of some use, as presently
a slight, a very slight tinge of red comes into his cheek, and his eyes
show more animation.

"It is very good of you, old man," he whispers, faintly, looking up at
Roger. "I believe you are sorry for me, _after all_."

The "after all" is full of meaning.

"Why shouldn't I be sorry for you?" says Roger, huskily, his eyes full
of tears. "Don't talk like that."

"I know you think I behaved badly to you," goes on Stephen, with painful
slowness. "And perhaps I did."

"As to that," interrupted Roger, quickly, "we're quits there, you know;
nothing need be said about that. Why can't we forget it? Come, Stephen,
forget it all, and be friends again."

"With all my heart," says Gower, and his eyes grow glad, and a smile of
real happiness illumines his features for a moment.

"Now, don't talk any more; don't, there's a good fellow," says Roger,
with deep entreaty.

"There is--one thing--I must say," whispers Gower, "while I have time.
Tell _her_--that I have behaved like a coward to her, and that I give
her back her promise. Tell her she may marry whom she pleases." He gasps
for breath, and then, pressing Roger's hand with his own uninjured one,
says, with a last effort, "And that will be _you_, I hope."

The struggle to say this proves too much for his exhausted strength; his
head drops back again upon Roger's arm, and, for the third time, he
falls into a dead faint.

The tears are running down Roger's cheeks by this time, and he is gazing
with ever-increasing terror at the deathly face below him, when looking
up to address some remark to Dulce, he finds she is nowhere to be seen.
Even as he looks round for her in consternation, he sees two or three
men hurrying toward him, and two others following more slowly with
something that looks like a shutter or door between them. Dulce, while
he was listening to Stephen's last heavily-uttered words, had hurried
away, and, climbing over all that came in her way, had descended into a
little valley not far from the scene of the accident, where at a
farmhouse she had told her tale, and pressed into her service the men
now coming quickly toward Roger.

With their help the wounded man (still happily unconscious) is carried
to the farm-house, where he remains until, the carriage from the Court
having arrived, they take him home in it as carefully as can be managed.

       *       *       *       *       *

In a few hours the worst is known; and, after all, the worst is not so
very bad. His arm is broken and two of his ribs, and there is rather a
severe contusion on his left shoulder. Little Dr. Bland has pledged them
his word in the most solemn manner, however, that there is no internal
injury, and that his patient only requires time and care to be quite
himself again in _no time_. This peculiar date is a favorite one with
the little medico.

The household being reassured by this comfortable news, every one grows
more tranquil, and dinner having proved a distinct failure, supper is
proposed; and Roger having hunted the whole house unsuccessfully for
Dulce, to compel her to come in and eat something, unearths her at last
in the nursery, where she is sitting all alone, staring at the sleeping
children.

"Where's nurse?" asks Roger, gazing around. "Has she been dismissed, and
have you applied for the situation?"

"She has gone down for a message. I came here," says Dulce, "because I
didn't want to speak to anybody. I feel so strange still, and so
frightened."

"Come down and eat something," says Roger. "You _must_. I shall carry
you if you won't walk, and think how the servants will speak about your
light behavior afterwards! _Do_ come, darling; you know you have eaten
nothing since breakfast."

"I wonder if he is really in no danger?" says Dulce wistfully.

"He certainly is not. I have it from Bland himself; and, Dulce," and
here he hesitates, as if uncertain whether he ought to proceed or not,
"now it is all right, you know, and--and that--and when we have heard
he is on the safe road to recovery, it can't be any harm to say what is
on my mind, can it?"

"No; I suppose not," says Dulce, blushing vividly.

"Well, then, just say you will marry me the very moment he is on his
feet again," says Roger, getting this out with considerable rapidity.
"It will seem ungracious of us, I think, not to take advantage of his
kindness as soon as possible."

"Supposing he was _to go back of it all_ when he got well," says Dulce,
timidly.

"Oh, he _can't_; a promise is a promise, you know--as he has made us
feel. Poor old Stephen!" this last hastily, lest he shall seem hard on
his newly-recovered friend.

"If you think that," says Dulce, going close up to him and looking at
him with soft love-lit eyes, "I will marry you just whenever you like."
To make this sweet assurance doubly sweet, she stands on tiptoe, and,
slipping her arms round her lover's neck, kisses him with all her heart.



CHAPTER XXVII.

                       "About some act
          That has no relish of salvation in't."
                                       --_Hamlet._

          "Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge."
                               --_Titus Andronicus._


"BEFORE you begin, Fabian, it is only fair to tell you that I will not
listen favorably to one word in his defense. Under the farsical term of
secretary, Slyme has been a disgrace and a torment to me for years; and
last night has finished everything."

"It was very unfortunate, no doubt," says Fabian, regretfully. "What a
curse the love of drink is!--a madness, a passion."

"I have told him he must go," says Sir Christopher, who is in a white
heat of rage, and is walking up and down the room with an indignant
frown upon his face. Just now, stopping short before Fabian, he drops
into a seat and says, testily, "_Unfortunate!_ _that_ is no word to use
about it. Why, look you how it stands; you invite people to your house
to dine, and on your way to your dining-room, with a lady on your arm,
you are accosted and insolently addressed by one of your household--your
secretary, forsooth--_so_ drunk that it was shameful! He reeled! I give
you my word, sir--he _reeled_! I thought Lady Chetwoode would have
fainted: she turned as pale as her gown, and but for her innate pluck
would have cried aloud. It was insufferable, Fabian. Waste no more words
over him, for go he shall."

"After all these years," says Fabian, thoughtfully, thrumming gently on
the table near him with his forefinger.

All night long the storm has raged with unexampled fury, and even yet
its anger is fierce and high as when first it hurled itself upon a
sleeping world. The raindrops are pattering madly against the
window-panes, through the barren branches of the elms the wind is
shrieking, now rising far above the heads of the tallest trees, now
descending to the very bosom of the earth, and, flying over it, drives
before its mighty breath all such helpless things as are defenceless and
at its mercy.

Perhaps the noise of this tempest outside drowns the keen sense of
hearing in those within, because neither Fabian nor Sir Christopher
stir, or appear at all conscious of the opening of a door at the upper
end of the library, where they are sitting. It is a small door hidden by
a portière leading into another corridor that connects itself with the
servants' part of the house.

As this door is gently pushed open, a head protrudes itself cautiously
into the room, though, on account of the hanging curtains, it is quite
invisible to the other occupants of the apartment. A figure follows the
head, and stands irresolutely on the threshold, concealed from
observation, not only by the curtain, but by a Japanese screen that is
placed just behind Sir Christopher's head.

It is a crouching, forlorn, debased figure, out of which all manliness
and fearlessness have gone. A figure crowned by gray hair, yet gaining
no reverence thereby, but rather an additional touch of degradation.
There is, too, an air of despondency and alarm about this figure to-day
new to it. It looks already an outcast, a miserable waif, turned out to
buffet with the angry winds of fortune at the very close of his life's
journey. There is a wildness in his bloodshot eyes, and a nervous tremor
in his bony hand, as it clutches at the curtain for support, that
betrays the haunting terror that is desolating him.

"I don't care," says Sir Christopher, obdurately. "I have suffered too
much at his hands; I owe him nothing but discomfort. I tell you my mind
is made up, Fabian; he leaves me at once, and forever."

At this, the crouching figure in the doorway shivers, and shakes his
wretched old head, as though all things for him are at an end. The storm
seems to burst with redoubled fury, and flings itself against the panes,
as though calling upon him to come out and be their pastime and their
sport.

"My dear Sir Christopher," says Fabian, very quietly, yet with an air of
decision that can be heard above the fury of the storm, "it is
impossible you can turn the old man out _now_, at his age, to _again_
solicit Fortune's favor. It would be terrible."

At this calm, but powerful intervention of Fabian's, the old head in the
doorway (bowed with fear and anxiety) raises itself abruptly, as though
unable to believe the words that have just fallen upon his ears. He has
crept here to listen with a morbid longing to contemptuous words uttered
of him by the lips that have just spoken; and lo! these very lips have
been opened in his behalf, and naught but kindly words have issued from
them.

As the truth breaks in upon his dulled brain that Fabian has actually
been defending his--_his_ case, a ghastly pallor overspreads his face,
and it is with difficulty he suppresses a groan. He controls himself,
however, and listens eagerly for what may follow.

"Do you mean to tell me I am bound to keep a depraved drunkard beneath
my roof?" demands Sir Christopher, vehemently. "A fellow who insults my
guests, who--"

"The fact that he has contracted this miserable habit of which you speak
is only another reason why you should think _well_ before you discard
him now, in his old age," says Fabian, with increasing earnestness. "He
will starve--die in a garret or by the wayside, if you fling him off. He
is not in a fit state to seek another livelihood. Who would employ him?
And you he has served faithfully for years--twenty years, I think; and
of all the twenty only three or four have been untrustworthy. You should
think of that, Christopher. He was your right hand fur a long time,
and--and he has done neither you nor yours a real injury."

Here the unhappy figure in the doorway raises his hand and beats his
clenched fist in a half-frantic, though silent, manner against his
forehead.

"You are bound, I think," says Fabian, in the same calm way, "to look
after him, to bear with him a little."

"_You_ defend him!" exclaims Sir Christopher, irritably, "yet I believe
that in his soul he hates you--would do you a harm if he could. It is
his treatment of _you_ at times," says Sir Christopher, coming at last
to the real germ of the danger he is cherishing against Slyme,
"that--that-- Remember what he said only last week about you."

"Tut!" says Fabian, "I remember nothing. He was drunk, no doubt, and
said what he did not mean."

"I believe he did mean it. _In vino veritas._"

"Well, even so; if he does believe in the story that has blasted my
life, why"--with a sigh--"so do many others. I don't think the poor old
fellow would really work me any mischief, but I doubt I have been harsh
to him at times, have accused him somewhat roughly, I dare say, of his
unfortunate failing; and for that, it may be, he owes me a grudge.
Nothing more. His bark is worse than his bite. It is my opinion,
Christopher, that underneath his sullen exterior there lurks a great
deal of good."

The trembling figure in the doorway is growing more and more bowed. It
seems now as if it would gladly sink into the earth through very shame.
His hand has left the curtain and is now clinging to the lintel of the
door, as though anxious of more support than the soft velvet of the
portière could afford.

"Well, as you seem bent on supporting a most unworthy object," says Sir
Christopher, "I shall pension Slyme, and send him adrift to drink
himself to death as soon as suits him."

"Why do that?" says Fabian, as quietly as ever, but with all the
determination that characterizes his every word and action. "This house
is large, and can hide him somewhere. Besides, he is accustomed to it,
and would probably feel lost elsewhere. He has been here for the third
of a lifetime--a long, _long_ time." (He sighs again. Is he bringing to
mind the terrible length of the days that have made up the sum of the
last five years of his life?) "Give him two rooms in the West wing, it
is seldom used, and give him to understand he must remain there; but do
not cast him out now that he is old and helpless."

At this last gentle mark of thoughtfulness on Fabian's part the figure
in the doorway loses all self-control. With a stifled cry he flings his
arms above his head, and staggers away down the corridor outside to his
own den.

"What was that?" asks Sir Christopher, quickly; the smothered cry had
reached his ears.

"What? I heard nothing," says Fabian, looking up.

"The storm, perhaps," says his uncle, absently. Then, after a pause,
"Why do you so strongly espouse this man's cause, Fabian?"

"Because from my soul I pity him. He has had many things of late to try
him. The death of his son a year ago, upon whom every thought of his
heart was centered, was a terrible blow, and then this wretched passion
for strong drink having first degraded, has, of course, finished by
embittering his nature. I do not blame him. He has known much
misfortune."

Sir Christopher, going up to him, places his hands upon the young man's
shoulder and gazes earnestly, with love unutterable, in his eyes. His
own are full of tears.

"No misfortune, however heavy, can embitter a _noble_ nature," he says,
gently. "One knows that when one knows _you_. For your sake,
Fabian--because you ask it--Slyme shall remain."

       *       *       *       *       *

It grows towards evening, and still the rain descends in torrents. Small
rivers are running on the gravel-walks outside, the snow-drops and
crocuses are all dead or dying, crushed and broken by the cruel wind.

Down below in the bay the sea has risen, and with a roaring sound rushes
inland to dash itself against the rocks. Now and then a flash of
lightning illumines its turbulent breast and lets one see how the
"ambitious ocean" can "swell, and rage, and foam, to be exalted with the
threatening clouds." The sailors and boatmen generally, in the small
village, are going anxiously to and fro, as though fearful of what such
a night as this may produce.

Now a loud peal of thunder rattles overhead, rendering insignificant the
wild howling of the wind that only a moment since had almost been
deafening. And then the thunder dies away for a while, and the storm
shrieks again, and the windows rattle, and the gaunt trees groan and
sway, and the huge drops upon the window panes beating incessantly, make
once more a "mournful music for the mind."

They are all assembled in Dulce's boudoir, being under the impression,
perhaps, that while the present incivility of the elements continues,
it is cosier to be in a small room than a large one. It may be this, or
the fact that both Dulce and Portia have declined to come down stairs or
enter any other room, until dinner shall be announced, under any pretext
whatever. And so as the mountain won't come to Mohammed, Mohammed has
come to the mountain.

Sir Christopher has just gone through an exaggerated _resume_ of old
Slyme's disgraceful conduct last night, when the door is opened, and
they all become aware that the hero of the story is standing before
them.

Yes, there stands Gregory Slyme, pale, breathless, and with one hand
already uplifted, as though to deprecate censure, and to stay the order
to "begone," that he plainly expects from every lip.

"Why, he is here again!" cries Sir Christopher, now incensed beyond
measure. "Even my niece's room is not safe from him."

He points angrily to the secretary, who cowers before his angry look,
yet shows no intention of retiring. With all his air of hopeless
sottishness, that clings to him like a spotted garment, there is still
something strange about the man that attracts the attention of Mark
Gore. He has been closely watching him ever since his entrance, and he
can see that the head usually buried in the chest is now uplifted, that
in the sunken eyes there is a new meaning, a fire freshly kindled, born
of acute mental disturbance; and indeed in his whole bearing there is a
settled _purpose_ very foreign to it.

"Hear me, hear me!" he entreats, with quivering accents, but passionate
haste. "Do not send me away _yet_, I _must_ speak now--now, or never!"

The final word sinks almost out of hearing. His hands fall to his sides.
Once again his head sinks to its old place upon his breast. Sir
Christopher, believing him to be again under the influence of drink,
opens his lips with the evident intention of ordering him from his
presence, when Sir Mark interposes.

"He has come to say something. Let him say it," he says, tapping Sir
Christopher's arm persuasively.

"Ay, let me," says Slyme, in a low tone, yet always with the remnant of
a wasted passion in it. "It has lain heavy on my heart for years. I
shall fling it from me now, if the effort to do it kills me."

Turning his bleared eyes right and left, he searches every face slowly
until he comes to Fabian. Here his examination comes to an end.
Fastening his eyes on Fabian, he lets them rest there, and never again
removes them during the entire interview. He almost seems to forget, or
to be unaware, that there is any other soul in the room, save the man at
whom he is gazing so steadfastly. It is to him alone he addresses
himself.

"I call you to witness," he says, now striking himself upon his breast,
"that whatever I have done has not gone unpunished. If my crime has been
vile, my sufferings have been terrible. I have endured torments. I want
no sympathy--none. I expect only detestation and revenge, but yet I
would have you remember that there was a time when I was a man, not the
soddened, brutish, contemptible _thing_ I have become. I would ask you
to call to mind all you have ever heard about remorse; its stings, its
agony, its despair, and I would have you know that I have felt it all;
yea, more, a thousand times more!"

All this time he has had his hand pressed against his chest in a rigid
fashion. His lips have grown livid, his face pale as any corpse.

"This is mere raving," exclaims Sir Christopher, excitedly; but again
Gore restrains him as he would have gone forward to order Slyme to
retire.

"To-day," goes on Slyme, always with his heavy eyes on Fabian, "I heard
you speak in my defence--_mine_! Sir, if you could only know how those
words of yours burned into my heart, how they have burned since, how
they are burning _now_," smiting himself, "you would be half avenged. I
listened to you till my brain could bear no more. You spoke kindly of
_me_, you had pity on my old age--upon _mine_, who had no pity on your
youth, who ruthlessly ruined your life, who--"

"Man, if you have anything to confess--to explain--_say it_!" breaks in
Sir Mark, vehemently, who is half mad with hope and expectancy.

Portia has risen from her low seat, and forgetful or regardless of
comment, is gazing with large, white eyes at the old man. Sir
Christopher has grasped Mark Gore's arm with almost painful force, and
is trembling so violently that Gore places his other arm gently round
him, and keeps it there as a support. All, more or less, are agitated.
Fabian alone makes no movement; with a face white to the very lips, he
stands with his back against the mantelpiece, facing Slyme, so
motionless that he might be a figure carved in marble.

Really deaf and blind to all except Fabian, the secretary takes no heed
of Sir Mark's violent outburst. He has paused, indeed, at the
interruption, some vague sense telling him he will not be heard while it
continues, but now it has subsided he goes on again, addressing himself
solely to Fabian, as though it had never occurred.

"It was for _him_ I did it, for _his_ sake," he says, monotonously. He
is losing his head a little now, and his mind is wandering back to
earlier days. "For my boy, my son--to save him. It was a sore
temptation; and he never knew, he never knew." A gleam of something like
comfort comes into his eyes as he says this.

"What _did_ you do?" demands Dicky Browne, in an agony of hope and
doubt. "Can't you say it at once and be done with it? Speak out,
man--_do_!"

"Curse me! _Kill_ me if you will!" cries Slyme, with sudden vehemence,
stretching out his hands to Fabian, and still deaf to any voice but his.
"You have been deceived, falsely accused, most treacherously dealt with.
It was I forged that check--not you!"

The miserable man, as he makes this confession, falls upon his knees and
covers his face with his hands.

A terrible cry bursts from Dulce; she springs to her feet, and would
have rushed to Fabian but that Roger, catching her in his arms, prevents
her. And indeed, it is no time to approach Fabian. He has wakened at
last into life out of his curious calm, and the transition from his
extreme quietude of a moment since to the state of ungovernable passion
in which he now finds himself is as swift as it is dangerous.

"_You!_" he says, staring at the abject figure kneeling before him, in a
tone so low as to be almost inaudible, yet with such an amount of
condensed fury in it as terrifies the listeners. "_You!_" He makes a
step forward as though he would verily fall upon his enemy and rend him
in pieces, and so annihilate him from the face of the earth; but before
he can touch him, a slight body throws itself between him and Slyme, and
two small, white hands are laid upon his breast. These little hands,
small and powerless as they are, yet have strength to force him
backwards.

"Think," says Portia, in a painful whisper. "Think! Fabian, you would
not harm that old man."

"My dear fellow, don't touch him," says Dicky Browne. "Don't. In your
present frame of mind a gentle push of yours would be his death."

"Death!" says old Slyme, in such a strange voice that instinctively they
all listen to him. "It has no terrors for me." He has raised his head
from his hands, and is now gazing again at Fabian, as though fascinated,
making a wretched and withal a piteous picture, as his thin white locks
stream behind him. "What have I to live for?" he cries, miserably. "The
boy I slaved for, sinned for, for whom I ruined you and my own soul, is
dead, cold in his grave. Have pity on me, therefore, and send me where I
may rejoin him."

Either the excitement of his confession, or the nervous dread of the
result of it, has proved too much for him; because just as the last word
passes his lips, he flings his arms wildly into the air, and, with a
muffled cry, falls prone, a senseless mass, upon the ground.

When they lift him, they find clutched in his hand a written statement
of all he has confessed so vaguely. They are very gentle in their
treatment of him, but when he has recovered consciousness and has been
carried by the servants to his own room, it must be acknowledged that
they all breathe more freely.

Sir Christopher is crying like a child, and so is Dicky Browne. The
tears are literally running in little rivulets all down Dicky's plump
cheeks, but he is not in the least ashamed of them--as indeed, why
should he be? As in between his sobs he insists on telling everybody he
is so glad--so awfully glad, his apparent grief, had they been in the
mood for it, would have struck them all as being extremely comic.

The effect of their tears upon the women has the most desirable result.
It first surprises, and then soothes them inexpressibly. It leaves
indeed a new field entirely open to them. Instead of being petted, they
can pet.

Julia instantly undertakes Dicky, who doesn't quite like it; Dulce
appropriates Sir Christopher, who likes it very much.

Fabian, now that his one burst of passion is at an end, is again
strangely silent. Mark Gore, laying his hand upon his shoulder, says
something to him in a low tone unheard by the rest, who are all talking
together and so making a solitude for these two.

"It is too late," says Fabian, replying to him slowly; "too late." There
is more of settled conviction than of bitterness in his tone, which
only renders it the more melancholy. "He was right. He has ruined my
life. Were I to live twice the allotted time given to man, I should
never forget these last five horrible years. They have killed me; that
is, the best of me. I tell you, deliverance has come _too late_!"

Even as his voice dies away another rises.

"Do not say that--_anything_ but that," entreats Portia, in deep
agitation. Once more this evening she lays her small, jeweled hand upon
his breast and looks into his eyes. "Fabian, there is renewed hope, a
fresh life before you; take courage. Remember--Oh, Mark, _speak_ to
him!"

She is trembling violently, and her breath is coming with suspicious
difficulty. Her lips are quivering, and pain, actual physical pain,
dimming the lustre of her violet eyes. The old ache is tugging angrily
at her heart strings now.

Still Fabian does not relent. As yet the very salve that has cured his
hurt has only made the hurt more unendurable by dragging it into public
notice. Now that he is free, emancipated from the shadow of this crime
that has encompassed him as a cloud for so long, its proportions seem to
grow and increase until they reach a monstrous size. To have been
wounded in the body, or deprived of all one's earthly goods at a stroke,
or bereaved of one's nearest and dearest, would all have been sore
trials no doubt. But, alas! to make him a fixed figure for scorn to
point his slow, unmoving finger at. What agony, with misfortune, could
cope with that?

And she, who had not trusted him when she _might_, will he care that she
should trust him now when she _must_?

Slowly he lifts the pale, slender hand, and very gently lets it fall by
her side. His meaning is not to be misunderstood; he will none of her.
Henceforth their paths shall lie as widely apart as they have lain (of
_her own_ choice) for the past few months.

"I repeat it," he says, quietly, letting his eyes rest for a moment upon
hers, "it is _too late_!"

And outside the wild winds, flying past with an even fiercer outbreak of
wrath, seem to echo those fatal words, "Too late!" The very rain, being
full of them, seeks to dash them against the window panes. A sudden roar
of thunder resounding overhead comes as a fit adjunct to the despair
embodied in them. All nature is awake, and the air seems full of its
death-knells.

Portia, sick at heart, moves silently away.



CHAPTER XXVIII.

          "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now."
                                      --_Julius Cæsar._

            "Eyes, look your last;
          Arms, take your last embrace!"
                       --_Romeo and Juliet._


THE night closes in, the rain has ceased, or only now and then declares
itself in fitful bursts, but still the wind rages and the storm beats
upon land and sea, as though half its fury is not yet expended. The
clouds are scudding hurriedly toward the West, and now and then, as they
separate, one catches a glimpse of a pale, dying moon trying to shine in
the dark vaults above, her sickly gleam only rendering more terrible the
aspect of the land below.

Still the lightning comes and goes, and the thunder kills the sacred
calm of night; Dulce and Julia, standing in the window, gaze fearfully
towards the angry heavens, and speak to each other in whispers. Portia,
who is sitting in an arm-chair, with her colorless face uplifted and her
head thrown back, is quite silent, waiting with a kind of morbid longing
for each returning flash. The very children are subdued, and, lying in a
pretty group upon the hearth-rug, forget to laugh or play, or do
anything save cry aloud, "Ah! wasn't _that_ a big one?" when the
lightning comes, or, "That was the loudest one yet," when the deafening
thunder rolls.

The men are standing in another window, talking in low tones of Fabian's
exculpation, when Fabian himself comes in, eagerly, excitedly, and so
unlike the Fabian of old that Portia gazes at him in silent wonder.

"There's a ship in sore trouble down there," he says, pointing as though
he can see the sea down below, where now the angry surf is rolling in,
mountains high, hoarsely roaring as it comes. "Brown from the
coast-guard station has just run up to tell us of it. They are about to
man the life-boat; who will come down to the beach with me?"

They have all come forward by this time, and now the men, going eagerly
to seize on any coats and hats nearest to them, make themselves ready to
go down and render any assistance that may be required of them. The
station is but a little one, the coast-guards few, and of late a sort of
intermittent fever has laid many of the fishermen low, so that their
help may, for all they yet can know, be sorely needed.

Fabian, who has been delayed in many ways, is almost the last to leave
the house. Hurrying now to the doorway, he is stopped by a slight
figure, that coming up to him in the gloom of the night, that rushes in
upon him from the opened hall-door, seems like some spirit of the storm.

It is Portia. Her face is very white, her lips are trembling, but her
eyes are full of a strange, feverish fire.

"May I go, too? Do not prevent me," she says, in an agitated tone,
laying her hand upon his arm. "I _must_ go, I cannot stay here alone;
thinking, thinking."

"You!" interrupts he; "and on such a night as this! Certainly not. Go
back to the drawing-room at once." Involuntarily he puts out his hand
across the doorway, as though to bar her egress. Then suddenly
recollection forces itself upon him, he drops his extended arm, and
coldly averts his eyes from hers.

"I beg your pardon," he says; "Why should I dictate to you? You will do
as you please, of course; by what right do I advise or forbid you?"

Oppressed by the harshness of his manner and his determined coldness,
that amounts almost to dislike, Portia makes no reply. When first he
spoke, his words, though unloving, had still been full of a rough regard
for her well-being, but his sudden change to the indifferent tone of an
utter stranger had struck cold upon her heart. Cast down and
disheartened, she now shrinks a little to one side, and by a faint
gesture of the hand motions him to the open door.

As though unconscious, or cruelly careless of the wound he has
inflicted, Fabian turns away from her and goes out into the sullen,
stormy night, and, reaching the side-path that leads direct through the
wood to the shore, is soon lost to sight.

Upon the beach dark forms are hurrying to and fro. Now and then can be
heard the sound of a distant signal-gun; small knots of fishermen are
congregated together, and can be seen talking anxiously when the lurid
lightning, flashing overhead, breaks in upon the darkness.

There is terrible confusion everywhere. Hurried exclamations and shrill
cries of fear and pity rise above the angry moaning of the wind, as now
and then a faint lull comes in the storm; then, too, can be heard the
bitter sobs and lamentations of two women, who are clinging to their
men, as though by their weak arms they would hold them from battling
with the waves to-night.

The sea is dashing itself in wildest fury against rock and boulder, and
rushing in headlong up from the sands only to recede again in haste, as
though in a hurry to fly back again to swell the power of the cruel
waves that would willingly deal out death with every stroke.

The clouds, having changed from black to murky yellow, are hanging
heavily in mid-air, as though undecided as to whether they will not fall
in a body and so overwhelm the trembling earth. The spray, dashed inland
by the terrific force of the wind, lighting on the lips of those who
stand with straining eyes looking seaward, fills their mouths with its
saltness, and blinds their aching sight.

All the people from the little village are on the shore, and are talking
and gesticulating violently. Some of them have fathers, brothers, and,
perhaps, "nearer and dearer ones still than all others," on the point of
incurring deathly danger to-night. Some of them are standing, with
clinched hands and stony eyes, watching as though fascinated by the
cruel, crawling sea, as it runs up to their feet, gaily, boisterously,
heedless of the unutterable misery in their pallid faces. But for the
most part, people are full of energy, and are shouting from one to the
other, and examining ropes or asking eager questions of grizzled old
sailors, who, with plug in cheek and stoical features, are staring at
the sea.

"Where is the ship?" asks Dicky Browne, laying his hand on the arm of
one of those ancient mariners to steady himself, while the old salt, who
is nearly thrice his age, stands steady as a rock.

"Close by; a schooner from some furrin' port, with wine, they say." So
shouts the old man back again.

"And the life-boat?"

"Is manned an' away. 'Twill be a tussle to-night, sir; no boat can live
in such a sea, I'm thinking. Hark to the roar of it."

The dull moon, forcing itself through the hanging clouds, casts at this
moment a pallid gleam upon the turbid ocean, making the terrors of the
hour only more terrible. Now at last they can see the doomed vessel; the
incessant dashing of the waves is slowly tearing it in pieces; some
figure with flowing hair can be seen near one of the dismantled masts.
Is it a woman? and what is that she holds aloft?--a child! a little
child!

The agony increases. Some run along the beach in frantic impotency,
calling upon heaven to show pity now, in tones that even pierce the
ghastly howling of the wind. Anon, the quivering lightning comes again,
shedding a blue radiance over all.

Twice has the life-boat been repulsed and beaten back, in spite of the
strenuous efforts of its gallant crew. The second time a cry goes up
that strikes dismay to the hearts of those around, as a man is laid upon
the damp beach, who had gone forth full of courage with his fellows, but
now lies stiffening into the marble calm of death.

Dulce, who has run down to the strand without a word to any one, and who
is now standing a little apart with Roger's arm round her, hearing this
unearthly cry, covers her face with her hands and shivers violently in
every limb. The darting lightning has shown her the ghastly outline of
the poor, brave figure on the sand, now hushed in its last sleep.

At this moment, Portia, creeping up to where they are standing, with
hands uplifted to her forehead, tries to pierce the gloom. The spray
from a projecting rock being flung back upon them, drenches them
thoroughly. Roger, putting out his hand hurriedly, draws Dulce out of
its reach, and would have persuaded Portia to come to a more sheltered
spot, but she resists his entreaty, and, waving him from her
impatiently, still continues her eye-search for something that she
evidently supposes to be upon the beach. Where she is standing, a shadow
from a huge rock so covers her that she is invisible to any comer.

Now some one is advancing towards them through the darkness and clinging
mist. Dulce, who is sitting on the ground and weeping bitterly, does not
see him, but Roger goes quickly toward him. It is Fabian, pale, but
quite composed, and with a certain high resolve in his dark eyes. There
is, indeed, in this settled resolve something that might be almost
termed gladness.

"Ah! it is you," he says, hurriedly beckoning to Roger to come farther
away from Dulce, which sign Roger obeying brings both him and Fabian a
degree nearer to Portia. Yet, standing motionless as she does within the
gloom, they neither see her nor feel her presence.

"Here, catch my watch," says Fabian, quickly, in a business-like tone;
"and," with a short laugh, "keep it if I don't get back." He flings him
the watch as he speaks.

"Where are you going?" asks Roger, breathlessly, "where?"

"With those fellows in the life-boat. They want another hand now poor
Jenkins has been bowled over, and I shall go; they are losing heart, but
my going with them will change all that. Tell Dulce--"

"You _shall_ not go!" cries Roger, frantically. "It is throwing away
your life. There are those whose lives can be better spared; let _them_
go. Let _me_ go. Fabian, think of that old man at home."

"My dear fellow, don't bury me in such a hurry," says Fabian, lightly.
"These poor fellows below have wives and families depending on them, and
no one implores them not to go. I will take my chance with them. Now
listen--"

"But not alone!" says Roger; "you shall not go alone. I will go with
you. To venture in such a sea--but, of course, that should not be
considered. Well, come then, come!" The poor boy, in spite of himself,
does consider it, but bravely pushes forward in the vague thought that
if he goes he may be of use to his friend, his brother.

"Impossible!" says Fabian. "There is not room for another. If we come
back again unsuccessful, I promise you, you shall try your chance then.
Here, don't look so gloomy, but hold my coat, and keep it dry, as I
daresay I shall be chilly enough when I get back to you."

He speaks with the utmost cheerfulness, indeed with a subdued gayety
that might emanate from a quiet man just starting on a pleasurable
expedition.

"Do you know the danger?" says Roger, in a broken voice, clinging to his
hand, but feeling that all remonstrance will be in vain.

"Tut! why should there be more danger for me than for another? Now go
back to her--she is there, is she not? my _dear_ little Dulce. Tell her
from me-- No!--tell her nothing. Good-by, old man; wish me a safe return
till I come; and--and--be good to her--always love her--"

He turns abruptly aside, and, springing down from the rock where he has
been standing, finds himself again on the beach. He is hurrying once
more toward the boat, which having sustained some slight injuries in its
last attempt is not quite seaworthy, but requires some looking after by
the men before they can start afresh, when he is stopped by the pressure
of two soft hands upon his arm.

Turning, he looks into Portia's eyes. She is haggard, ghastly in her
pallor, but unspeakably beautiful. Her fair hair, having come undone,
is waving lightly in the tempestuous wind. Her lips are parted.

"You are not going _out there_?" she says, pointing with a shudder to
the tumultuous waves, and speaking in a tone so full of agony and
reckless misery that it chills him. "You _shall_ not! Do you hear?
Fabian! Fabian! listen to me."

It is so dark and wild that no one can see her; no ears but his can
hear. She flings herself in a passion of despair upon her knees before
him, and encircles him with her arms.

"My darling! My best beloved, stay with me!" she cries, wildly. "Hate
me--spurn me--live--_live_! that sea will tear you from me--it will
kill--"

Stooping over her, with a very gentle movement, but with determination,
he unclasps her clinging arms and raises her to her feet.

"You must not kneel there on the wet sand," he says, quietly; "and
forgive me if I remind you of it, but you will not care to remember all
this to-morrow."

"I shall not remember it to-morrow," replies she, in a strange, dreamy
tone, her hands falling nerveless at her sides. She does not seek to
touch or persuade him again, only gazes earnestly up at him, through the
wretched mist that enshrouds them, with a face that is as the faces of
the dead.

Upon his arm is a shawl one of the women below (he is very dearly
beloved in the village) had forced upon him an hour ago. He is bringing
it back now to return it to her before starting, but, a thought striking
him, he unfolds it, and crosses it over Portia's bosom.

"One of the women down there lent it to me," he says, coldly still, but
kindly. "Return it to her when you can."

With a little passionate gesture she flings it from her, letting it lie
on the ground at her feet.

"It is too late--the coldness of death is upon me," she says,
vehemently. Then in an altered tone, calmed by despair, she whispers,
slowly, "Fabian, if you _will_ die--forgive me first?"

"If there is anything to forgive, I have done so long ago. But there is
nothing."

"Is there nothing in the thought that I love you, either? Has not this
knowledge power to drag you back from the grave?"

          "'Too late for the balm when the heart is broke,'"

quotes he, sadly.

"And yet you loved me once," she says, quickly.

"I love you now as I never loved you," returns he, with sudden, eager
passion. Her arms are round his neck, her head is thrown back, her
lovely eyes, almost terrible now in their intensity, are gazing into
his. Instinctively his arms close around her--he bends forward.

A shout from the beach! The boat is launched, and they only await him to
go upon their perilous journey. When death is near, small things of
earth grow even less.

"They call me! All is over now between us," he murmurs, straining her to
his heart. Then he puts her a little away from him--still holding
her--and looks once more into her large, tearless eyes. "If life on
earth is done," he says, solemnly, "then in heaven, my soul, we meet
again!"

He lays his lips on hers.

"In heaven, my love, and soon!" returns she, very quietly, and so they
part!

       *       *       *       *       *

It is but a little half-hour afterwards when they bring him back again,
and lay him gently and in silence upon the wet sand--cold and dead! Some
spar had struck him, they hardly know what, and had left him as they
brought him home.

Many voices are uplifted at this sad return, but all grow hushed and
quiet as a girl with bare head presses her way resolutely through the
crowd, and, moving aside those who would mercifully have delayed her,
having reached her dead, sits down upon the sand beside him, and,
lifting his head in her arms, dank and dripping with sea-foam, lays it
tenderly upon her knees. Stooping over it, she presses it lovingly
against her breast, and with tender fingers smooths back from the pale
forehead the short, wet masses of his dark hair. She is quite calm, her
fingers do not even tremble, but there is a strange, strange look in her
great eyes.

_His_ eyes are closed. No ugly stain of blood mars the beauty of his
face. He lies calm and placid in her embrace, as though wrapt in softest
slumber--but oh! how irresponsive to the touch that once would have
thrilled his every sense with rapture!

There is something so awful in the muteness of her despair, that a
curious hush falls upon those grouped around her--and him. The whole
scene is so fraught with a weird horror, that when one woman in the
background bursts into bitter weeping, she is pushed out of sight, as
though emotion of a demonstrative nature is out of place just here.
Noisy grief can have no part in this hopeless sorrow.

Dicky Browne, bending over her (Roger has taken Dulce home), says:

"Oh, Portia! that it should end like this, and just now--_now_, when
life had opened out afresh for him!" His voice is choked and almost
inaudible. Now that he is gone, they all know how dear he has been to
them, how interwoven with theirs has been his quiet melancholy life.

"I knew it," says Portia, not quickly, but yet with some faint, soft
vehemence. "I am not surprised, I am not grieved." She whispers
something else after this repeatedly, and Dicky, bending lower, hears
the words, "And soon--and soon." She repeats them in an ecstatic
undertone; there is joy and an odd _certainty_ in it. They are the last
words she ever spoke to _him_.

"He is very cold," she says then, with a little shiver.

Sir Mark, seeing the tears are running down Dicky's cheeks and that he
is incapable of saying anything further, pushes him gently to one side,
and murmurs something in Portia's ear. She seems quite willing to do
anything they may desire.

"Yes, yes. He must come home. It will be better. I will come home with
him." And then with a long-drawn sigh, "Poor Uncle Christopher!" This is
the last time her thoughts ever wander away from her dead love. "It will
be well to take him away from the cruel sea," she says, lifting her eyes
to the rough but kindly faces of the boatmen who surround her. "But,"
piteously, "oh! do not _hurt_ him!"

"Never fear, missy," says one old sailor, in a broken voice; and a young
fellow, turning aside, whispers to a comrade that he was "her man" in
tones of heartfelt pity.

Still keeping his head within her arms, she rises slowly to her knees,
and then the men, careful to humor her, so lift the body that she--even
when she has gained her feet--has still this dear burden in her keeping.
At the very last, when they have laid him upon the rude bier they have
constructed for him in a hurry, she still hesitates, and regards with
anguish the hard spot where she must lay her burden down.

She gazes distressfully around her, and then plucks with a little
mournful, helpless fashion at a dainty, fleecy thing that lies close to
her throat, and is her only covering from the angry blast. One of the
women divining her purpose, presses forward, and, in silence, folds her
own woollen shawl and lays it on the bier, and then unfastening the
white Shetland fabric round Portia's neck, lays that upon her own
offering, so that the dead man's cheek will rest on it. Her womanly soul
has grasped the truth, that the girl wants his resting-place to be made
softer by some gift of hers; and when her task is completed, and the
men, gathering up their load, silently prepare to move with it towards
the old Court, Portia turns upon this woman a smile so sweet, so full of
gratitude, that she breaks into bitter weeping, and, flinging her apron
over her honest, kindly, sunburnt face, runs hurriedly away.

"She was his lass. Poor soul! poor soul!" says another woman in a hushed
tone, and with deep pathos.

Holding his dead hand in hers, Portia, with steady steps, walks beside
the rough bier, and so the sad procession winds its solemn way up to the
old Court, with Sir Mark at its head and Dicky Browne at his feet, and
Portia, with bare uplifted head and wrapt eyes, still clinging fondly to
the poor clay, so well beloved by all.

Silently, with breaking hearts, they carry him into the grand old hall,
and lay him reverently upon the marble flooring. Silently, they gaze
upon his unmarred beauty. Not a sound--not a sob--disturbs the sacred
stillness. Portia, always with his hand in hers, falls upon her knees,
and, pressing it against her breast, raises her eyes devoutly
heavenward. One by one, they all withdraw--Sir Mark, to break the
terrible news to the old man. She is alone with her dead! With a little
sigh she crouches close to him, and lays her cheek against his. The icy
contact conveys no terror to her mind. She does not shrink from him, but
softly, tenderly, caresses him from time to time, and yet he moves not,
nor wakens into life beneath her gentle touch. Truly,

          "After life's fitful fever, he sleeps well."



CHAPTER XXIX.

          "'Whom the gods love die young,' was said of yore."
                                             --DON JUAN.

          "Death came with friendly care."
                               --COLERIDGE.


IT all happened only yesterday, yet how long ago it seems already; and
now the sun is shining again, bravely, cheerily, as though life is all
made up of joy and gladness, and as though storms that despoil the
earth, and heavier storms that wreck the soul, are miseries unknown; and
yet he is dead, and she--

In silence they had carried him to his own chamber, and had laid him on
his bed, she going with him always with his clay-cold hand in hers, and
never a moan from her pale lips.

The storm had gone down by that, and a strange mournful stillness,
terrible after the late rioting of the elements, covered all the land.
The silence might be felt, and through it they listened eagerly for her
sighs, and hoped for the tears that should have come to ease her
stricken heart, but all in vain; and watching her they knew at last that
the springs of grief within her were frozen, and that the blessed
healing waters that can cool the burning fever of despair were not to
flow for her. Only a certain curious calm lay on her, killing all
outward demonstrations of grief. She spoke to no one, she was hardly,
perhaps, at times, aware of the presence of those around her. Dulce's
sobs did not rouse her. She showed no symptom of emotion when Sir
Christopher bent his white head in inexplicable woe over the form of the
man who had been dear to him as his own soul. As she knelt beside the
corpse, she moved now and then, and her breath came and went softly,
regularly, but her eyes never departed from the face before her, with
its closed eyes and sad, solemn smile. Perhaps, in her strange musings,
she was trying to follow him in spirit to where he had

                              "Gone before,
          To that unknown and silent shore"

so dimly dreamt of here, because her eyes are gleaming large and clear,
and almost unearthly in their brilliance.

At first, though somewhat in awe of her, they had sought by tenderest
means to draw her from the room. But she had resisted, or rather been
utterly deaf to all entreaties, and, kneeling by the bed that held all
that she had loved or ever could love, still fed her eager gaze with
sight of him, and pressed from time to time his ice-cold hand to her
cheeks, her lips, her eyes.

Then Sir Mark had admonished them to let her be, and sinking into a
chair, with a heavy sigh, had kept her vigil with her. Tall candles
gleamed on distant tables. The night wind sighed without; footsteps came
and went, and heart-broken sighs and ill-suppressed sobs disturbed the
air. The little child he had loved--the poor Boodie--would not be
forbidden, and, creeping into the sad room, had stolen to the bedside,
and had laid upon his breast a little pallid blossom she had, secretly
and alone, braved all the terrors of the dark night to gain, having
traversed the quiet garden to pluck it from the tiny plot out there she
called her own.

She had not been frightened when she saw him, but had stood gazing in
some wonder at the indescribably pathetic smile that glorified his lips,
after which she had given her hand obediently to Dicky Browne, and had
gone back with him to her nursery, content, and far less sad than when
she came.

Sometimes they all came and gazed on him together; Julia trembling, but
subdued; Dulce with her hand in Roger's; the old man inconsolable. Now
Dicky Browne whispers feeble but well-meant words of comfort to him, now
Sir Mark touches his arm in silent sympathy. But they all keep somewhat
apart from Portia; she has grown suddenly sacred in their eyes, as one
to whom the beloved dead more especially belongs.

One of them, Sir Mark, I believe, seeing a little bit of dark-hued
ribbon round his neck, bent forward, and, loosening it, draws to light a
flat gold locket with the initials P. V. sunk deeply in it. His hand
shook at this discovery; he hesitated; then, some fine instinct
revealing to him that it might contain some hidden charm strong enough
to rouse her from her unnatural calm, he touched Portia's shoulder and
laid the locket in her hand.

Mechanically she opened it, yet testily too, as if unwilling or unable
to keep her eyes for even the shortest space of time from the lifeless
face so dear to her. But, once opened, her glance riveted itself upon
its contents. Her own face looked up at her, her own eyes smiled at her.
It was her portrait that she saw, painted by him, no doubt, sadly and in
secret, and worn against his heart ever since.

Long she gazed at it. Her whole face changed. The terrible calm has
broken up, but no grief came in its place. There was only joy
unutterable and a rapture most blessed and divine.

"My love, I knew it without this," she said, softly. Her eyes once more
returned to him; a quick but lengthened sigh escaped her; her head fell
forward on his breast.

They waited. The minutes grew, but still she never stirred. Some one,
whispering comfort to her, tried to raise her head, but comfort from
heaven itself had reached her. She was _with him_! She was quite dead!

They said some tissue in her heart had given way, and perhaps it was so,
but surely grief had severed it.


THE END.



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       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's Notes:

Obvious punctuation errors repaired.

Approximately halfway through the text, the printer began placing
em-dashes (--) before the sources of the quotes that begin each chapter.
These dashes have now been added to the first half of the text's sources
for consistency.

Text uses: _àpropos_, _à propos_, _apropos_ and apropos. This was
retained. Text also uses "Virginian creeper" instead of the more common
"Virginia creeper." Text uses both: "tete-a-tete" and "tete-à-tete."

Page 2, "fiance" changed to "fiancé" (Dicky Browne your _fiancé_?)

Page 3, "litte" changed to "little" (rest a little)

Page 11, "mu t" changed to "must" (You must try to)

Page 13, "initation" changed to "imitation" (the imitation was exactly)

Page 13, "m he" changed to "me the" (tell me the rest)

Page 16, "convines" changed to "convinces" (which convinces his pretty)

Page 37, "amiabilty" changed to "amiability" (who is amiability)

Page 48, "unwieldly" changed to "unwieldy" (disgust the unweildy)

Page 50, "cushionss" changed to "cushions" (upon their cushions)

Page 68, "genitian" changed to "gentian" (of the Alpine gentian)

Page 72, "taper" changed to "tapered" (and with one tapered)

Page 86, "dainy" changed to "dainty" (by his dainty hostess)

Page 96, "esconced" changed to "ensconced" (has ensconced herself upon)

Page 109, "Curaçoa" changed to "Curaçao" (Curaçao will do me)

Page 111, "abominally" changed to "abominably" (is so abominably mild)

Page 112, "superflous" changed to "superfluous" (What superfluous
surprise)

Page 131, "Ma k" changed to "Mark" (Sir Mark, in despair)

Page 134, "daresary" changed to "daresay" (judgment. I daresay)

Page 140, "tho" changed to "the" (the odor of the skies)

Page 142, redundant "to" removed from text. Original read: (eyes to to
the fast) now reads (eyes to the fast)

Page 143, "thra dom" changed to "thraldom" (Pining in thraldom)

Page 149, "dan e" changed to "dance" (thought of our dance)

Page 152, "B ount" changed to "Blount" (it is Fabian Blount)

Page 158, "t e" changed to "the" (question, by-the-by)

Page 173, "Keates" changed to "Keats" (for which Keats longed)

Page 176, "woman" changed to "women" (dear to all women)

Page 183, "hesitatien" changed to "hesitation" (is a moment's
hesitation)

Page 186, "mighn't" changed to "mightn't" (when I mightn't)

Page 188, "suceeds" changed to "succeeds" (succeeds, at all events)

Page 193, repeated word "to" removed from text (her eyes to seek his)

Page 194, "corrider" changed to "corridor" (to reach the corridor)

Page 204, "gr y" changed to "gray" (whole world gray to you)

Page 207, "mercernary" changed to "mercenary" (the lack of mercenary)

Page 210, "mantlepiece" changed to "mantelpiece" (against the
mantelpiece)

Page 212, "say" changed to "says" (word," says Dicky Browne)

Page 212, "scout" changed to "scant" (I scant this breathing)

Page 213, "langour" changed to "languor" (a languor, a listlessness)

Page 219, "On" changed to "One" (One might easily)

Page 229, "erroneons" changed to "erroneous" (An erroneous belief)

Page 233, "occured" changed to "occurred" (never occurred to me)

Page 238, "a k" changed to "ask" (right to ask it)

Page 256, " o" changed to "So" ("So it was,")

Page 267, "threshhold" changed to "threshold" (the threshold, concealed)





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