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´╗┐Title: A Question of Marriage
Author: Vaizey, George de Horne, Mrs., 1857-1917
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Question of Marriage" ***

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A Question of Marriage, by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey.

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________
A QUESTION OF MARRIAGE, BY MRS GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY.



CHAPTER ONE.

THE BAN.

The grey London sunlight shone on the face of the patient as she sat
facing the long window of the consulting-room, on the finely cut
features, sensitive lips, and clear, dilated eyes.  The doctor sat in
the shadow, leaning back in his chair, tapping softly with his fingers
upon the desk.

"And you must not be afraid," he said, following a vigorous
cross-questioning with his skilled advice.  "That is the most important
lesson which you have to learn.  Banish fear.  Live it down; if
necessary, crowd it out.  Don't allow yourself time to think and grow
morbid.  I tell you frankly that the chances are quite good that you may
entirely _escape_ this curse of your family, but you must understand
that the power is in your own hands to increase or diminish those
chances.  Anxiety, depression, loneliness--these will be your worst
enemies.  You say that you have sufficient means; that makes things
easier all round.  Cultivate interests; cultivate friends.  Search for
congenial occupation, and when you have found it--work!  Work hard; hard
enough to make rest grateful when the day is over, and sleep
sound--_not_ hard enough to feel worn out.  Avoid fatigue as carefully
as you would idleness.  Take a good holiday twice a year, and as many
little breaks as possible.  Be a hard task-mistress of your mind, but of
your body a careful, even an indulgent, guardian.  The two continually
act and react on each other.  A diseased mind imagines illness where
there is none; a diseased body taints and demoralises the mind.  Look
after both.  You must allow yourself to be somewhat self-indulgent as
regards health.  There will be other matters which will demand all your
courage and self-denial..."

The girl did not speak, but her eyelashes flickered nervously over her
dilated eyes.  The doctor looked down at the tips of those tapping
fingers.

"Marriage," he said slowly--"Marriage is not for you.  It is better that
you should face that fact at once.  Such a family history as the one you
have just related is a standing evidence of selfishness and cruelty.
Your parents, your grandparents, outraged a great moral law, and you and
others are here to pay the price.  You must not follow their example.
This handing on of disease must come to an end.  You may think that in
the case of your possible marriage there might not be children; I will
not discuss that point to-day--it is not needful.  You are my patient,
and you yourself would run a more serious risk of developing the malady
as a wife.  Even the happiest of married lives has responsibilities,
anxieties, physical and mental strains, which might easily prove too
much for your mental balance.  It would not be fair to a man to bring
that dread into his life.  Marriage for you would be a cruel and
cowardly act.  For the man's sake, for your own sake, you must put the
idea out of your life."

There was a moment's silence in the room, then the girl spoke in a low,
faint voice:

"Thank you!" she said softly.  With a hand that moved in mechanical
fashion she took a little paper packet from her muff, laid it down on
the corner of the desk, and rose to her feet.

"One moment!" cried the doctor hastily.  In that room, seated in that
chair, it had been his lot to speak many sentences of death, but he had
not yet hardened himself to maim a life unmoved.  Having dealt his blow,
he was anxious to speak a word of comfort to the girl who had said
"Thank you," in that quiet voice.  His keen, hawk-like face wrinkled
into a network of lines as he looked at her across the room.

"One moment!  What I have said may appear hard; but before you allow
yourself to grieve at a possible sorrow, look around at the women whom
you know--married and unmarried--compare their lives, make what you can
out of the contrast.  There is a large, an increasing number of
unmarried women who consider that their own is the fuller and easier
lot; they refuse to give up their liberty to become what is called the
`slave of a household.'  There are some unlovely features connected with
their cult; but remember there is always a modicum of truth behind such
axioms.  A married woman, if she is worth her salt, lives not for
herself, but for her household.  If she has wider possibilities of joy,
she has also infinitely greater possibilities of pain.  Even putting the
husband apart--and he as a rule comes first of all--if she has ten
children, she must needs suffer with each of the ten.  Give her every
ease and luxury in the world, and if one of the brood is in trouble, the
poor soul must go down to the depths by his side.  To be a wife and
mother is the hardest profession in the world; some people also consider
it the worst repaid.  Don't allow yourself to be blinded by sentiment
concerning the married life.  Remember its drawbacks; exaggerate them if
you will.  Your best medicine is content; to secure that, cultivate, if
needs be, a little intentional blindness.  Never allow yourself to
believe that your happiness is necessarily sacrificed!"

"Thank you," repeated the girl once more.

It was the great man's duty to exhort, and preach cheerfulness and
resignation, but to-day his trained physiological eye gave the lie to
his words.  This was not a woman whom nature had framed to live alone.
Hers was a tender and appealing grace; long sweeping lashes lent a
veiled softness to her eyes; her lips were red and curved; her figure,
though slim, was gracefully rounded; an atmosphere of feminine charm
enveloped her whole personality.  Men would love her, children would
love her; but she must turn from them and live alone.  The doctor's
thoughts over-leapt professional bounds, and took an intimate, personal
tone.

"You say you are a comparative stranger in town," he said abruptly.
"You ought to have friends--plenty of friends.  My wife is at home every
Sunday afternoon.  Will you come to see us sometimes, and let us do what
we can to help your life?"

"Thank you," said the girl for the third time.  After a moment's
hesitation she added quickly, "You are very good.  I should like to
come."

"That's well.  Come soon.  We shall expect you next Sunday, or the one
following.  Good afternoon."

The door opened and shut, and the girl found herself once more in the
big, grim entrance hall.  A table of carved oak strewed with cards and
letters occupied the centre position; plaster busts of well-known
scientific men stood on brackets to right and left, a glass case
containing stuffed birds and fish testified to the doctor's holiday
recreation.  At the girl's approach the butler rose from a bench near
the door, his expression unconsciously sobering, to match her own.

All day long he ushered patients into that dull back room, and escorted
them to the door after the all-important interview; he had grown skilful
in divining the nature of the verdict which each one had received.
Occasionally a friend or a relation of the patient came out from that
room in tears, but the patient himself rarely wept.  He walked with
mechanical steps; he stared before him with blank, unseeing eyes, as
this young lady stared to-day.  She was young, too, good-looking, nicely
dressed; the butler was moved to a sigh of regret as he flung open the
heavy oak door.

The girl who was never to marry walked out into the glare of the
streets, and turned mechanically towards the west.



CHAPTER TWO.

FACING THE MUSIC.

Jean Goring sat in her boudoir, awaiting the return of her friend and
guest, Sunblinds were drawn over the windows, the chairs and sofas were
covered with linen, the cushions with dainty muslins; the carpet was a
stretch of dull, moss-like green; the only bright notes of colour in the
room were to be found in the masses of freshly cut roses which adorned
the various tables, and in that most radiant flower of all, Jean
Goring's face.

The laces of the white peignoir, the muslin of the frilled cushion
showed out in almost startling beauty the dark mist of hair; the
exquisitely flushed cheeks, dark brows, and curling lashes gave a
deepened shade to the violet blue of the eyes.  The rich brunette
colouring had a somewhat un-English aspect, yet there was not a drop of
foreign blood in the girl's veins--she was Irish "all through, except my
mother, who was Scotch," as she herself was accustomed to describe her
lineage.  The contour of her face was oval, the profile showed the
delicate fineness of a cameo.  Happy Jean! her beauty was no light gift
to pass away with her loss of youth; beautiful she was now, beautiful
she must always remain.  Age, sorrow, suffering might do their worst;
those who looked on would ever find her the perfection of her type.  If
she lived to be eighty she would be as essentially an artist's model as
she was now at twenty-two.

The clock struck four.  Jean put down her book and raised her head from
the cushion to listen to the sound of an approaching footstep.  The door
opened, and she beheld Vanna Strangeways' white, strained face.  The
horrid doctor had given a depressing verdict.  So much was evident at a
glance; but Jean had too much tact to allow her knowledge to betray
itself at this moment.

"Well, my dearie, back again!  I was longing for you.  Sit down in that
nice low chair, and let me be lady's-maid.  The streets must be a grill
this afternoon, but you'll soon cool down up here.  There; you'll feel
better without that hat.  Your hair looks charming--don't worry.  It
couldn't look untidy if it tried.  Now your gloves.  I shall peel them
right off.  It will be occupation for an idle hour to turn out the
fingers.  If I were a queen I'd never, never wear gloves a second time.
Now those dusty little shoes.  Your slippers are here all ready.  Sit
still.  I'm _going_ to undo them.  I love to do it."

Her white, ringed fingers untied the laces, and pulled off one shoe
after another so deftly and daintily that they hardly seemed to touch
the surface.  Then, bending still lower, she gave a deft little pull to
the tip of each stocking, thereby altering its position, and giving a
wonderful sense of comfort to the tired feet, Vanna Strangeways had sat
silent and unresponsive till that moment, but something in the simple
thoughtfulness of that last action melted the ice.  She laid her hands
on her friend's shoulders and spoke in a quivering voice:

"Jean, I've had a blow."

"Yes, dear," said Jean softly.  She knelt by Vanna's side, caressing her
face with her lovely eyes.  "I saw.  Would you rather tell me now, or
wait till later on?  You are tired, you know, and after a rest, and some
tea.  Later on--"

"Jean, it's not what you expected--what I expected myself.  I'm not
going to die; I'm going to live.  He thinks there is a good chance that
I shall escape the curse.  He wants me to lead a full, active life--the
fuller the better.  But--there is one thing forbidden.  I may never
marry!"

Jean's lips quivered, but she said never a word.  It seemed to her there
was nothing to say.  Few girls of the early seventies knew any desire
for independent careers; and to Jean to love and to be loved seemed the
stun and substance of life.  She would marry, and her dear Vanna would
marry also.  Of course!  They would be loved and won, whispering happy
confidences into the other's ear; they would bring up their children
side by side, with motherly comparisons, consultations, planning for the
future; they would grow old, and boast concerning their grandchildren.
To be told that one could never marry seemed to Jean the crash of all
things.  She had no consolation to offer.

Vanna laughed feebly; a dreary-sounding little laugh.

"I don't understand why I feel so quelled," she said musingly.
"Marriage has never entered definitely into my calculations.  I have
been content with the present, and have felt no need of it; but I
suppose it lay all the time in the background of my mind, firmly
settled, as a thing that was to be.  I took for granted that I should
enjoy my youth; fly about here and there as the mood took me, enjoying
my liberty to the full, and then, when I'd had my fling, about
twenty-six or seven, perhaps, marry some dear man and settle down to
real, serious living.  Now I can't, and something has gone out of me and
left a big gap.  I feel like a surgeon who has lost his right arm.  It's
my profession that has gone--my work in life.  I shall have to begin
again."

Jean trembled, and drew nearer, leaning caressingly against her friend's
knee.

"Is he _sure_, dear?  Why is he sure?  Is there no chance?"

"No!  He was not thinking of children.  For my own sake it would be
dangerous.  I should have a worse chance.  He said it would be a sin to
put such a dread into a man's life.  That finishes it, you see, Jean!
The more one loved the less it would be possible."

"Yes," breathed Jean softly.  Her woman's heart realised at once the
finality of that argument; she saw the shutters descend over her
friend's life, and knew too deep a sorrow for words.  The pressure of
her hands, the quiver of her lips, were the most eloquent signs of
fellow feeling.  Vanna went on speaking in quiet, level tones:

"I was in the house only half an hour, but when I came out the whole
world seemed changed...  The people who passed me in the streets, the
ordinary little groups that one sees every day, all launched a dart as
they passed.  A husband and wife strolling along together--not young and
romantic at all, just prosaic and middle-aged, and--_content_.  They
were not any happier than I, perhaps, but they had had their time--they
had lived.  They had not that restless, craving expression which one
sees on so many faces.  They were content...  It hurt to see them, and a
big schoolboy, too, walking with his mother.  I'm not fond of boys, and
Etons are the ugliest of clothes.  He was a lanky, freckled, graceless
thing; but--I wanted him!  I wanted to be able to say, `_my son_'...
One always loves the tots in the Park--little white bundles with curly
heads; but to-day I envied the nursemaids.  I wanted to be tired,
wheeling my bundle.  I tried not to look at the people.  I stared into
the shop windows instead; but they hurt too.  You know my craze for
furniture?  I've whiled away many hours mentally furnishing my home of
the future.  I had decided the colour for each room, and the scheme of
decoration.  When anything worried me in another house, I consoled
myself that it would be different in mine; when I admired a thing, I
made a mental note.  Jean, I shall have _no_ home!  A boarding-house, an
apartment, perhaps a solitary cottage in the wilds, never, never a real
warm home with some one to love, and to love me back...  How should you
feel if it were you; if any one had put a blank wall before _your_
life?"

"As you do, dear--dazed and broken; worse, perhaps, for I should not
take it so calmly.  I should storm and rage."

"Yes!  You are _revoltee_.  It doesn't help, Jean, or I would shriek
with the best.  There is only one thing which rouses my wrath--I ought
to have known before.  Aunt Mary thought it was kind to bring me up in
ignorance.  When I asked questions about my relations she put me off
with generalities.  I thought it was strange that so many of them had
been invalids...  I never could understand why I had not seen father for
years before his death.  When I was a child I took for granted that he
had been abroad; later, I scented a mystery and was afraid to ask.  I
suffered tortures, Jean, puzzling over it at nights, trying to piece
together scattered bits of information.  I had terrible thoughts--the
blackest thoughts.  I had visions of him as a forger, shut up in a cell.
When the bell rang late at night I used to tremble, wondering if it
were he escaped from prison, coming to us for shelter...  Then at the
end, as so often happens, it came out just by chance.  Some people were
sitting behind a screen at a reception, and they spoke of me--just a few
words, and before I could move I had heard the great secret.
`Interesting-looking girl!  It is to be hoped she won't go mad, too.  So
many of that family--' It was like a flashlight over the past.  I looked
back, and understood.  All the bits fitted, and the mystery was solved.
I was not the daughter of a criminal--only of a maniac, who had been
shut up for five years before his death.  That was my grandmother's
mysterious illness, and Aunt Bertha's too--pretty Aunt Bertha, who
disappeared for a year at a time, for a `cure,' and came back looking so
worn and sad.  That was the explanation of my boy cousin's violent
temper, and of the misery of his father and mother after each explosion.
And I, arrogant young schoolgirl, used to criticise their weakness, and
expatiate on the firmness with which I should bring up my own children,
and Aunt Mary would look at me so wistfully over the top of her
spectacles.  Heigho!  Well, then I _knew_, and after that I could not
rest.  I grew nervous about myself; I got into the habit of watching
myself, as it were--waiting for danger-signals, for symptoms.  I had
sense enough left to know that that was the best way to develop all that
I dreaded, and this last year I have been waiting for a chance to
consult a specialist and thrash out the question, I could not leave Aunt
Mary while she was so ill; after her death there was so much to be
arranged; now at last I've had my interview, and this is the result,
Jean, is it strange?  I never once thought of this verdict.  It seemed
the right and the wise thing to take skilled advice, but what I expected
was to be soothed and reassured.  Aunt Mary always laid such emphasis on
the fact that I was my mother's child.  It delighted her so, poor soul,
to see my quiet, level-headed ways.  Whenever I had been particularly
controlled and sensible, she would repeat, `Yes, yes!  You are a
thorough Neale; there is not one scrap of Strangeways in you.'  I
expected Dr Greatman to realise as much, and assure me that I had
nothing to fear; that I was not the type; that some fortunate members of
the family always escaped.  I thought he would perhaps lay down certain
rules, restrictions, cautions against over-excitement.  Never, never for
one moment did I expect this."

Jean was silent.  She had feared.  Ever since receiving her friend's
confidence, her thoughts had hovered round this one absorbing question.
Would Vanna be justified in marrying?  Now the greatest living authority
had answered strongly in the negative, and there was no escaping his
decree.  She looked ahead, seeing her friend throughout the years, a
charming girl, a more charming woman; later on losing her freshness and
grace, and becoming faded and tired; later again, becoming old and
infirm, the senses failing--and always alone, for ever alone.  The slow
tears welled to her eyes, a drop brimmed over and fell on her friend's
hand.

Vanna brushed it away with impatient fingers, straightened her back, and
flung back her head.

"Oh, don't cry--don't cry over me, Jean.  We are poor things, we women,
if we can't face the prospect of making our own lives.  Put a man into
my place.  Would he pine?  You know very well he would do nothing of the
kind.  A man never wants to marry until he meets the right woman, and
even then he struggles before he succumbs.  When he once loves it is
different--he is all fire and impatience, but until that hour arrives he
enjoys his liberty, pities the poor fellows who are handicapped with a
wife and family, and privately determines to keep clear.  Here am I--
twenty-three, comfortably off, strong, intelligent, fancy-free.  Why
can't I take a leaf out of his book and be content and happy?  Why need
I consider myself a martyr because I must live alone, rather than as the
wife of some man unknown, who perhaps in even the ordinary course of
events might have persistently evaded my path, or had the bad taste to
prefer another woman when he _was_ found?  It is not as if I were
already in love."

Jean drew her brows together in wistful inquiry.  The doubt in her mind
was so transparently expressed that Vanna referred to it as to a spoken
question.

"I know what you are thinking.  Edward Verney!  You think my regrets
hover round him.  It's not true, Jean, it's not true.  I had forgotten
his very existence until I saw your face.  If I had cared, surely my
thoughts would have flown to him first of all.  He is only a
`might-have-been.'  I had reached the length of noticing the way his
hair grows on his forehead, and his nice, close ears--that was a
danger-signal, I suppose; and I acknowledge that I have dressed with an
eye to his taste, but it has gone no deeper.  I shall be sorry, but it
won't _hurt_ to end our friendship."

"Then why need you--"

"Oh!"  Vanna laughed lightly.  "I think he admires my--ears also!  If we
saw more of each other we should grow nearer; I realise that, therefore
we must separate with all speed.  As things are, he won't suffer any
more than I.  He is just a dear, simple, unimaginative Englishman, who
needs to have things pushed very conspicuously before his eyes before he
can see them.  He knows that I have gone away for a long change after
the strain of Aunt Mary's illness.  It will be some months before it
dawns upon him that my holiday is exceeding its limit; and by that time
my image will have lost its freshness.  He will be sorry, but he won't
attempt to follow.  He'll say to his friends, `pity Miss Strangeways has
left the place.  She was a jolly girl.'  But if all had been well, I
might have been his wife--"

There was silence for several minutes.  Each girl was thinking deeply of
the future; pondering over the difficulty of mapping out a life which
seemed to have no settled direction, Vanna had many gifts, but no one
outstanding talent.  Until this moment she had never dreamt of taking up
any work outside the domestic circle; but it would be impossible to
fritter away life in the care of self alone.  What could she do?  She
herself had announced her decision of leaving her native town.  Where
could she live?  After puzzling the problem in a circle for several
minutes, Jean ventured another timid question.

"Have you thought, dear; have you any idea what you will do?"

"I have thought.  Yes!  I know I must leave Coverley, but that is as far
as I can get.  I must wait until I have calmed down and can think it out
quietly.  But I should like to be near you, Jean.  You are the person I
care for most on earth, and failing a personal romance I must take you
for my lifelong love.  You won't want me always.  When you are happy you
will be independent of my services; but you can't always be happy.
There must come times when you are ill, or anxious, or miserable, when I
shall have my chance.  You will need a woman then.  When the babies are
teething; when the boiler bursts on Christmas Eve, and the cook leaves
at an hour's notice; when you want to make jam, or re-cover the
furniture, or to leave everything behind, and go off honeymooning with
your husband, `send for Vanna' must be a household word.  I shall be
your `Affliction Female,' always ready to be called in in an emergency.
Fancy _me_ an `Affliction Female.'"

"A Consolation Female!" corrected Jean softly, and Vanna looked at her
with a lightening eye.

"That's better.  Thank you, Jean.  Well, that will be one object in
life--to help you, when you need help.  You will marry, of course.  It
is impossible to think that any man could refuse to love you if you
wished it, and the time will come when you _will_ wish.  It will be a
tremendous interest to know your home, and your husband, and children.
Dr Greatman told me that I was to compare my life as a spinster with
the life of married women...  I'll compare it with yours.  There will be
moments when I shall be gnawed with envy, but perhaps, who knows? there
may be times when you may envy me in return.  At any rate, you'll be
sweet to me, dear--I know that; and you must let me help you to
entertain the dull bores, and keep the charming eligibles out of my way.
I don't want to be driven away by a second Edward Verney.  It's a mercy
I am only `interesting,' and not a beauty, like you."

"Yes, it is," sighed Jean, in unthinking agreement.

Vanna's lips twitched, her eyes flashed a humorous glance at her own
reflection in the glass at the opposite end of the room.



CHAPTER THREE.

THE ROSE WAITS.

The evening after her interview with the doctor, Vanna Strangeways
accompanied her friend to a ball, and had her first experience of
society under the altered mental conditions of her life.  Her first
impulse had been to excuse herself and stay at home, but she was an
unusually reasoning creature for her twenty-three years, and a short
mental cross-examination was sufficient to reject the idea, "Can I go to
her and say, `Jean, I am sorry; it is impossible that I can marry any of
the men at the ball, so I would rather not go'?  What nonsense, what
folly, what degradation!"  She put on her prettiest frock, spent an
extra ten minutes over her hair; and even beside the radiant beauty of
Jean in her pale pink tarlatan, attracted notice as one of the most
interesting and distinguished of the dancers.

The floor was good, the music inspiriting, her programme was filled from
beginning to end.  She tried bravely to enjoy the evening in her old,
unthinking fashion, and was furious with herself because she failed.
There was no use denying the fact: something had disappeared which had
been there before, the absence of which strangely transformed the
scene--an interest, a zest, a sense of mystery and uncertainty.  They
had lain so far in the background that she had not realised their
presence, but they had been present all the same.  Each strange man to
whom she had been introduced held within his black-coated form a
dazzling possibility; her young eyes searched his face even as his
searched hers--alert, critical, inquiring; for the moment each
represented to the other the mystery, the fascination of sex.  After the
dance, as they sat talking lightly in some cool shade the inner voice in
each brain was holding a council of its own: "Who, and what are you,
inside that smiling form; what sort of a man, what sort of a woman?  Do
you, can you, by any possible chance, belong to _me_?"

The modern young man and maiden may indignantly deny that such a
feeling, conscious or unconscious, has any bearing on their social joys.
Vanna belonged to an age far more frankly sentimental than to-day, but
she also protested, and felt humiliated when convicted against her will.
Yet what shame can there be in the acknowledgment of a natural magnetic
force?  Empty a ballroom of all except relations within the prescribed
calendar, set a man to dance with his sisters and aunts, a girl with her
brothers and uncles--would any one of the number dare to maintain that
enjoyment continued in the same ratio?

Vanna was fond of dancing, but not to the same extent as Jean, who often
declared that she would waltz with a clothes-prop sooner than not waltz
at all.  With Vanna the enjoyment of movement was always subservient to
the mental pleasure of meeting and talking to new partners.  She
preferred a good conversationalist to a good waltzer, but this evening
the ordinary topics of the ballroom seemed painfully lacking in savour;
she could feel in them no interest, no merriment, no curiosity; her
partner's words seemed to float past, a dull, wearisome echo that had no
meaning in her ears.  She was as one who had returned home after long
wandering in a foreign land, to find herself helplessly out of her
element.  She looked at the gay stream of dancers as across a gulf.  Two
days ago she had been one of themselves, as carelessly happy, as
confidently gay; now, after the passage of a few short hours, she stood
apart, conscious through all her nature that she had outgrown a stage;
had passed on, and left her friends behind.

Vanna's partners were at a loss to understand her dullness and lack of
response, for she had the reputation of wit and charm.  Failing in their
efforts to excite her interest, they shortened the time of waiting
between the dances, by leading her back to the ballroom, and hastening
off in search of a livelier companion.  She saw through their devices,
and smiled to herself with dreary amusement.  "This is no place for you,
my dear.  You must give up these frivolities.  You have to fill a gap
and discover a solace.  You'll never find it in a ballroom."

At twelve o'clock supper was in full swing in the big dining-room of the
house.  In the seventies, hosts had not acquired the present-day
convenient, if less hospitable habit of entertaining their friends in a
hotel.  They contentedly suffered days of discomfort, and turned out
every room in the house to gain the desired effect.  In the present case
the floors of the two great drawing-rooms, which ran the entire length
of the house, were covered with a white waxed cloth, while the walls,
with their treasures of water-colours, miniatures in cases, and old
brass sconces, made a picturesque background to the scene.  Leading out
of the second drawing-room was a spacious conservatory, in which seats
were placed, on which the guests could rest in comparative coolness and
quiet between the dances, while the conservatory itself gave access to a
balcony hung with coloured lanterns.

Vanna sat beside the door of the first dancing-room, and saw with a sigh
of relief that the hands of a clock near at hand pointed to half-past
twelve o'clock.  Only half an hour more and the evening would be over,
for Jean, with her usual tact, had suggested an early return, and at one
o'clock the two friends had agreed to meet and make their adieux
together.

Thank Heaven for that!  But the half-hour that remained promised to be
unusually long, for, mindful of her early departure, Vanna had refused
to fill her programme beyond a certain point, and now supper
arrangements had upset the sequence of dances, substituting for the
printed items a number of extras, for which she had made no engagements.
She had all a normal girl's hatred of the part of wallflower, and was
contemplating a retreat upstairs, when the daughter of the house
suddenly approached and addressed her by name:

"Miss Strangeways, is it possible that you have a dance to spare?  I
have a truant here who has just made his appearance, and expects me to
find partners at this hour of the night.  He doesn't deserve any mercy,
but if you could take pity upon him, it would be very noble."

Vanna looked past the speaker and beheld a tall, spare man, with a
sunburnt face, out of which a pair of brown eyes smiled at her with the
frankness of a lifelong friend, rather than a complete stranger.  It was
impossible not to smile back, and it was with a reviving thrill of
interest that she held out her programme, saying laughingly:

"My partners for the regular dances are busy eating boned turkey, while
I am left lamenting.  I am not engaged for the extras."

"Ah! that is fortunate!  Let me introduce you, then, in due form.  Mr
Gloucester--Miss Strangeways...  You are a lucky man, Rob, to find Miss
Strangeways disengaged."

She rustled away, and the tall man seated himself by Vanna's side with a
sigh of content.  He did not ask for dances, however, and it was she who
made the first move towards conversation.

"Have you really just arrived, or is that merely a figure of speech?
You have not been dancing at all?"

He shook his head.

"I have not been in the room five minutes.  I am an even worse offender
than you suppose, for I am staying in the house.  I did not intend to
come down at all.  I was going to bed, but there was such a confounded
noise going on that there seemed no chance of sleep--"

For the first time that evening Vanna found herself surprised into a
bright, natural laugh.  The man's utter unconsciousness redeemed his
remark from any hint of rudeness; and she felt nothing but pure
refreshment in so unusual a point of view.  She leant back in her chair,
looking at him over the top of a waving fan, with a scrutiny as frankly
unembarrassed as his own.  The deep tan of his skin spoke of a sojourn
under eastern skies, as did also the lines round the eyes--the result of
constant puckerings to avoid the sun's glare.  His hair was brushed in a
straight line across his forehead, the chin itself was slightly square,
but the line of the jaw was finely, even delicately rounded; he was
clean shaven, and his mouth was good to look at, the lips well shaped,
and fitting closely together.  His age might have been anything from
thirty to thirty-five, but there was something inherently boyish in
manner and expression.

"You evidently don't care for dancing."

"No!  I'm out of practice.  I have been abroad for the last ten years,
in out-of-the-way places for the most part, where balls don't come into
the programme.  I'm afraid I'm not much of a partner, but if you will be
good enough to try--"

"But I am not anxious to dance any more.  I am tired and hot.  If you
are contented to talk--"

"You mean it?  Really?  That _is_ jolly!" he cried eagerly.  "Then, what
do you say--shall we go to the balcony?  It's quieter there, and we may
get a breath of air.  There are some comfortable chairs, I know, for I
helped to arrange them."

Vanna rose, nothing loath.  The evening was closing more pleasantly than
she had anticipated, for this Mr Gloucester was a distinct change from
the ordinary habitue of the ballroom, and his conversation promised to
afford some interest.  She seated herself in a corner of the balcony and
put a leading question:

"You say you have lived abroad.  Where does that mean?  India?"

"India mostly; but I have done a lot of wandering about."

"Are you by any chance a soldier?"

"Thank Heaven, no!"

She was both startled and amused by the vehemence of his denial, and
looked at him curiously with her wide, grey eyes.

"Why this fervour?  Most men would consider it a compliment to be asked
such a question.  Do you despise soldiers so heartily?"

"No, I don't.  As the times go, they are a necessary evil, and there are
fine fellows among them--splendid fellows, one ought to be grateful to
them for their self-sacrifice; but for my own part I'm unspeakably
thankful to have escaped.  Think of spending all one's life preparing
for, playing at, a need which may never arise--which one _hopes_ may
never arise.  I couldn't endure it.  Give me active service the whole
time--the more active the better."

"Service in what capacity?  As a--"

"Oh, I have no profession.  I am just an ordinary business man--buying
and selling, and watching the markets, like the rest."

"Humph!"  Vanna pursed her lips with a militant air.  "I think a very
good case might be made for the soldier _versus_ the merchant.  He
works, or waits, for the good of his country.  There is precious little
to be made out of it from a personal point of view.  A merchant's aim is
entirely selfish.  He is absorbed in piling up his own fortune."

Mr Gloucester laughed.

"Oh, you are too down on the poor merchants, Miss Strangeways.  They
have their own share in helping on the country, and it's not every man
who can get a fortune to pile.  I can't, for one.  The faculty of
gaining money is as inherent as the writing of poetry.  Some fellows
like myself can never attain to it."  He held out his right hand,
pointing smilingly at the hollow palm.  "Look at that.  Palmists would
tell you that with that hand I shall never `hold money.'  The day may
come when I should be thankful to exchange my fortune for the soldier's
shilling a day."

Vanna did not reply.  She was looking at that hollowed palm with
puckered, thoughtful glance.  "Palmist!" she repeated slowly,
"fortune-telling!  It's not often one hears a man quoting such an
authority; but you have lived in the East.  I suppose that unconsciously
alters the point of view.  India is the land of--what should one call
it?--superstition, mysticism, the occult.  It is a subject which
fascinates me intensely.  I know very little about it; I'm not at all
sure that it is good to know more; but--it beckons.  Tell me, have you
seen anything, had any extraordinary experiences?  Are the stories true,
for instance, that one hears of these native jugglers?"

"Snake-charming, you mean, the boy in the basket, the mango trick?  Oh,
yes.  I've seen them often, on the deck of a ship, as well as on the
open plain.  People say it is hypnotism, that the fellow doesn't really
do it, only makes you _think_ he does; but that's rubbish.  It's
sleight-of-hand, uncommonly clever, of course, but pure and simple
conjuring.  The mango is chosen because he can get dried-up specimens,
several specimens, of different sizes, to which he attaches false roots,
and it is a plant which will quickly expand beneath the water with which
he deluges the ground.  All that sort of tricks can be explained, but
there are other things more mysterious: the transmission of news from
station to station, so that it is known in the bazaars before the post
can bring the letters, the power of reading others' minds, of seeing
into the future."

"But you don't believe, you can't seriously believe that that is
possible?"

Robert Gloucester bent forward, his elbows crossed on his knees, his
brown, extraordinarily clear eyes fixed on her face.

"Why not?  How shall one dare to put a limit to what is possible even in
material things?  Look at this new electricity, for instance.  One
cannot imagine all that it may mean in improved facilities for the
world.  Its power seems immense--illimitable.  If we live to grow old,
Miss Strangeways, we shall see things as everyday occurrences which
would seem fairy-tale impossibilities to-day.  The most conservative man
would hardly deny that; then why should he be presumptuous enough to
suppose that in the spiritual plane we have reached the limits of our
powers?  It is unthinkable.  There are forces--binding forces, electric
forces--hidden away in the most commonplace human soul, only awaiting
development, powers which may revolutionise our lives, even as this new
electricity will revolutionise the world."

Vanna stared out into the night with rapt, unseeing eyes.  Life, which a
few minutes ago had seemed so dreary in the flat barrenness of outlook,
became suddenly illumined with interest.  She felt the stirrings within
of new life, new powers, and reached out eagerly to meet them.

"You have had experiences yourself--_personal_ experiences--which prove
to you the existence of such powers.  Can you tell me about them?  I
don't ask out of curiosity alone; but if it is too sacred, too private,
I shall quite understand."

He smiled at her with an utter absence of embarrassment.

"Oh, there is nothing private.  My convictions are not founded on any
definite occurrence; but as it happens, I _have_ had one experience
which defies explanation.  Not in India, but by all that is _mal a
propos_ and out of place, in the most modern and material of cities--New
York.  I'll tell it to you with pleasure.  It's an uncommonly good tale,
and it has the merit of being first-hand, and capable of proof.  It came
about like this.  A man asked me to dine in a private room at a hotel
with two or three other men, bachelors--mutual friends.  While we were
sitting over dessert, he said, `I've got a little excitement for you
fellows this evening.  I've engaged a conjurer--thought-reading sort of
fellow, to come in and give you an exhibition.  He's quite the most
uncanny thing in that line that I've ever met.  I never believed in
second-sight before, but it makes one think.  He'll give you a new
sensation; I can promise you that.'

"Well, he came about half an hour after that.  An ordinary-looking
fellow--a white man; nothing in the least unusual about him except his
eyes--light, colourless-looking eyes, extraordinarily wide and clear--
eyes that gave one an uncanny sort of thrill when they were fixed upon
you.  You felt that those eyes could see a lot more than would ever fall
to your own vision.  Well, he told us to sit against the wall at the far
end of the room, and each to write something as personal as possible on
slips of paper, which were afterwards to be shuffled and handed round.
While we were writing he would leave the room.  When we had finished, we
were to ring a bell and he would return.  We ranged our chairs as he
said.  There were no windows on that side, only the bare papered wall.
I couldn't think what to write.  It puzzles one when one is suddenly
told to do a thing like that.  Eventually I put my mother's maiden name,
`Mary Winifred Fielding,' and the date of her marriage, 1822.  The
fellow next me showed me his slip, `I don't believe in any of this
trickery.'  We chuckled together while I read it.  We folded up the
papers, put them in a bowl, and drew out the first that came.  Then we
rang the bell, and the fellow came back.  He first shut the door and
leant back against it.  There were a good eight or ten yards between him
and the end of the room where we sat.  He looked across at me, and we
all laughed together.

"`The words written on the paper in your hand are: "Burmah!  To the
memory of a good old time!"  You did not write it yourself--you have
never been in Burmah; it was the gentleman to your left who wrote it--
the gentleman with the grey hair.  Am I not right, sir?'

"`You are,' said my friend, gasping.  We did not laugh any more.  He
pointed to another fellow, and read out what I had written.

"`That was written by the gentleman with the brown eyes.  It is his
mother's name,' he said; and I felt cold all down my spine.  The man who
had showed me his paper had drawn his own slip when they were shuffled
together in the bowl.  The conjurer knew that too.  He pointed at him
and said: `You have written your own opinion of me in the paper you
hold.  "_I don't believe in any of this trickery_."'  He paused for a
moment, and then said quietly: `You are prejudiced, sir; but you will
learn wisdom.  A year from to-day you will understand my secrets.'  He
drew himself up, and his eyes flashed; he turned to us, each in turn,
and said a few, short, prophetic words.  There was a poor barrister
among us, a clever fellow, but he had no luck; he was in a very tight
place at that time.  He said to him: `on the 2nd of February, 1862, you
will put your foot on the first step of the ladder which leads to
fortune.'  That was five years later on.  The poor fellow smiled and
said: `can't you hurry it on a bit?'  The man who was dining us came
next.  He didn't like his share.  It sounded cryptic enough to the rest
of us, but _he_ understood.  You could see that by his face.  My own
message--"

He stopped short, laughing softly, but with an utter absence of
embarrassment, and Vanna's eager glance bespoke her curiosity.

"My own message was equally cryptic, but I did _not_ understand.  I
don't understand it now.  I have not been too fortunate in money
matters, and it refers to that, no doubt.  He said: `you will seek
fortune, and find it not.  Where the rose blooms beneath the palm, there
awaits your treasure.'"

"`Where the rose blooms beneath the palm!'"  Vanna repeated the words in
a breathless whisper.  "But how thrilling--how exciting!  What could he
mean?  Aren't you anxious; aren't you curious?  Don't you go about daily
waiting to see what will happen?"

Mr Gloucester laughed with boyish abandon.

"Rather not!  It is a good eight years ago, and it has less chance of
being fulfilled at this moment than it has ever had before, for I have
said goodbye to the land of palms.  I should never think of it again but
for the fact,"--his face sobered swiftly--"that two out of those five
prophecies did, as a matter of fact, come true.  Three out of the six
men who were there that evening I have never seen again.  I can't tell
you what happened in their cases, but by the most absolute chance I ran
up against the barrister fellow two years ago.  We talked about our last
meeting, and he said:

"`You remember what that fellow said to me?  It came true to the very
hour.  I had to speak in my first good brief that morning.  I made a
hit, carried the case, got a heap of kudos, and have never looked back
from that hour.'  The second man was the one who had said he did not
believe in such trickery.  He--"

"Yes?"

"He died.  Within a year from our meeting."

Vanna shivered, and drew her scarf more closely round her shoulders.
There was silence for several minutes, while the beating of invisible
wings seemed to throb in the air around.  Her thoughts strayed away on a
long, rambling excursion, from which a sudden crash of music from the
band awoke her with a shock of remembrance.

"You look quite scared.  I hope I haven't depressed you with my
reminiscences.  It was an uncanny experience, but you said you were
interested."

"And I am.  Immensely.  Thank you so much for telling me.  I only hope
your fulfilment, when it comes, may be as satisfactory as your barrister
friend's.  Are you sorry to leave India and settle at home?  Most men
seem to find it difficult to get back into the old ways."

Mr Gloucester shrugged carelessly.

"Oh, I don't mind.  It doesn't trouble me.  One does one's work; one is
tired; one rests.  What does it matter what country one does it in?
They both have their points.  I can be happy in either."

A glance at his face proved the truth of his words.  His was one of the
unexacting, sweet-tempered natures, which was content to take life as it
was; enjoying each good which came, and troubling nothing for sorrows
ahead.

"If he were in my place he would not be sad!  His life has not gone too
smoothly; he has not found success, but he is content.  I must learn his
lesson," Vanna told herself mentally.

"Go on talking!" she said dreamily.  "Do you mind?  Tell me about things
that have happened.  I have lived all my life in a little English
hamlet, and it's so good to hear.  I could listen for hours."

He gave her a bright, pleased look, and without question or protest went
on talking easily and pleasantly about Indian customs, peculiarities,
and rites.  He had lived in the great cities and in the wilds; had
worked and played, hunted elephants and climbed Himalayan peaks; had
come through hair-breadth dangers, had drunk Bass's beer on a steaming
plain, and, as he himself expressed it, "come out smiling every time."

"I'm as strong as a horse," he added.  "A fellow has no right to grumble
when he doesn't know the meaning of pain."

"I should not think you ever grumbled," replied Vanna, smiling.  The
next moment she started as the chime of a distant clock struck on her
ear.  "What time was that?  The half-hour, wasn't it--half-past one?
Have we been here nearly an hour?  It seems impossible.  It is a great
compliment to your powers of conversation, Mr Gloucester, for before we
met I was feeling terribly tired and bored; but I am afraid I must run
away now.  I arranged to leave at one o'clock, and I must be already in
disgrace."

"I'm awfully grateful to you for having listened to me so kindly.  I
hope we shall meet again, and continue the conversation.  I am staying
with these people for a few weeks.  They are old family friends.  It's
the nearest approach to a home I have left."

"Thank you.  I hope we may meet.  I am only a guest in town like
yourself, but I am making a longish stay."  Vanna led the way through
the conservatory, walking with somewhat rapid footsteps, her eyes
looking forward through the door leading into the ballroom.  She had
reached the centre of the floor when she was arrested by the sound of a
laugh, and a light, flute-like voice breaking across the crash and
clatter of the band.

"Well!" cried the voice.  "Have you come at last?  I am waiting for you.
How long must I wait?"

Vanna wheeled round.  Beneath the shade of a great palm tree, whose
leaves swept the glass roof, stood Jean in her rose draperies, a wreath
of roses crowning her dark head.

"I am waiting!" she said once more, and her eyes, passing by Vanna,
rested on Robert Gloucester's face.  Vanna looking at him, saw his teeth
clench, and his cheeks pale beneath their tan.



CHAPTER FOUR.

RIVAL INTERESTS.

That night Vanna lay awake long after lying down, living over again the
dramatic happening of the last few days.

"`It's a mad world, my masters,'" she said to herself between a smile
and a sigh.  "No sooner do I receive a sentence of celibacy for life
than I am promptly introduced to a new and interesting personality, a
nice man, a superlatively nice man, a man, moreover, who shows every
sign of returning the compliment and thinking me a superlatively nice
girl into the bargain--when, presto! he discovers himself in the light
of Jean's future husband.  I know it, and she doesn't.  The drollness of
the situation!  At this moment she is sleeping in placid innocence,
while I am a-thrill at the dawning of her romance.  She will marry him--
oh, yes!  She will marry him; as certainly as she stood under that palm
tree waiting to-night.  What a lovely rose she made, and how his eyes
glowed as he looked at her!  Superstition or no superstition, that big,
simple heart has accepted her as his wife as unquestionably as if a
trumpet blast from heaven had proclaimed her name.  It's such an easy
thing to tumble into love with Jean; the trouble is for any masculine
thing to keep steady on his feet.  He will worship her, and she must
love him in return, as the perfect complement of herself.  He so calm,
and trustful, and serene; she, airy, impulsive, rebellious; but even in
her naughtiest moods so lovable and feminine a thing.  Well! as I am
never to have a romance of my own, I must needs find double interest in
Jean's and enjoy myself vicariously through her.  It will be quick work.
That dramatic meeting carried him in a flash past all the initial stage
of wonder and uncertainty.  It's rather a pity, I should have loved to
watch it grow; but it has sprung into life full-grown.  Oh, Jean, Jean,
how little you know--how little you guess!"

Then Vanna's thoughts flew back to the moment when, on the way through
the ballroom, she had found herself alone with Robert Gloucester after
the dramatic encounter in the conservatory.  Their eyes had met, and she
had spoken a few words on the flood of an overwhelming impulse.

"I won't tell her.  I promise not to tell."

"Thank you," he had replied warmly.  "It will be better.  I would
rather--"

He paused at that, but there was about him a transparency of candour
which made it easy to divine what he had been about to say, "I'll would
rather tell her myself!"

Vanna's heart knew a little cramp of envy at all which that sentence
implied.

Next morning, over a late and leisurely breakfast, Jean had much to say
on the subject of her last night's experiences.

"I danced a hole in my slippers--a little one, and quite a big one in
Captain Gregson's heart.  He is, like all sailors, absurdly susceptible.
I made only my second-best eyes at him.  Like this!  In my best effort
I look up helplessly, appealingly, and then, down, quite a long time
down, because curling dark eyelashes look so well when one's cheeks are
flushed.  I just opened them rather widely at the Captain once or twice
as we sat out after a dance, and he fell down flat.  Dear, big, stupid
thing, he can't take care of himself one bit.  He asked if he might
call, but I shan't be at home.  I always stop short of the danger-point,
as you know quite well, so don't make faces at me, my dear, and, above
all things, don't preach.  If you preached, I might be capable of seeing
him, and showing my eyelashes.  Opposition always drives me hard the
other way.  You looked tired, dear.  Were you bored?  Three separate men
asked me who you were.  I dissembled, and said you were `a Miss
Strangeways,' and listened with all my ears to what they would say next.
One said, `she is not exactly pretty, but one notices her.  She has an
air.'  Another said, `I do like to see a girl well groomed.  It's
refreshing to look at her head.'  The third said, `that girl would be
worth knowing.  It's a fine face.'"

Vanna's smile was a somewhat laboured effort.

"You mustn't repeat masculine compliments, Jean.  They are forbidden
sweets.  I shall never settle down into a steady-going `Affliction
Female' if you dangle worldly gauds before my eyes.  I'm not going to
any more balls.  My capacity for frivol has died a violent death, and I
feel all `out of the picture' in a ballroom.  I must find more serious
occupations for my life."

"Vanna, what rubbish!  You are only twenty-three; you have your whole
long life ahead.  If it's going to be dull, that's all the more reason
why you should enjoy yourself now.  I thought you would live in town,
and we should do everything together.  Can't you forget the future,
dear, and enjoy the hour--buying pretty things and wearing them, and
music, and flowers, and dancing, and talking things over afterwards?
That has always been one of the best bits--comparing notes after the
fray; making fun of other people, and ourselves!  _Don't_ fall out,
Vanna, and leave me to go on alone!"

"You won't be alone!"  The words were spoken instinctively, but Vanna
drew herself up with instant compunction.  "You have so many other
friends, Jean, and I shall fall out for the festivities only.  In all
other respects we shall be as much together as before.  Perhaps in time
to come I may be festive once more, but for the moment I'm knocked out
of time, and must hide my head like the ostrich.  I made myself go to
the ball last night, but it was not a success.  I shan't try it again."

Jean lifted her chin, with the slightly obstinate expression in which
she took refuge when her will was questioned.

"Oh-h!  Well, you know best--or at least, you imagine you do.  I should
have thought, however, being of a simple and credulous nature, that you
were enjoying yourself excessively when you walked through that
conservatory last night.  If you wished to hide your head at that moment
you were a remarkably modest ostrich, for it looked most animated and
attractive.  Who was your partner, by the way?  He looked quite nice."

"Quite nice!"  Vanna lifted her coffee-cup to hide a twitching lip.
Behold the historic moment, and the heroine's romantic impression of her
future spouse.  "I must remember this," was the mental resolve, as she
answered tranquilly:

"He was more than nice, he was a delightful man.  I was not introduced
to him until after twelve o'clock, but our talk together was the best
part of the evening.  His name is Gloucester."

Jean dropped her fork with a little clatter of surprise.

"Gloucester?  Not Robert Gloucester?  Surely not!  He could not possibly
have been there."

"He was, though.  Very much there, for he is staying in the house.  He
naively observed that he had intended to go to bed, but as the
`confounded noise' had kept him awake, he came downstairs in
desperation, and Miss Morton introduced him to me.  You did not look as
if you recognised each other."

"We didn't!  I have never seen him before, but I have heard--oh, my
dear, libraries about him!  He is the Mortons' theme.  We all have
themes, on which we fall back on every possible pause of the
conversation.  My theme, poor butterfly, is fun and clothes; yours, my
angel, has been the same, plus a tinge of duty and maiden aunt; the
Mortons' is Robert Gloucester, his words, deeds, thoughts, looks, ideas.
He's been abroad for years and years, chiefly occupied in losing his
money, so far as I can understand.  He seems to have a specialty for
losing money, but their infatuation is such that it is counted to him as
an added charm.  The boring times I have had listening to prosy accounts
of his trials and adventures, when I have wanted to discuss a hat!  And
then at last he was coming home, the ball was arranged so that he should
be there, I expected him to dance half the night with me: it was the
least he could do, considering how I had suffered for him; and behold he
hides upstairs, and creeps down to sit on balconies with another girl!
Wretch!  Why on earth could they not have introduced him to me, instead
of to you?"

"You were not sitting by your lone, a dejected wallflower, while your
partners gorged in the supper-room.  I was.  We took pity on one
another, and determined to talk, not dance."

"And pray, what did you talk about?"

Again Vanna's lip gave a quick, involuntary twitch.

"Different things.  He told me that he had just returned to England, and
spoke of foreign countries--his adventures--"

"Oh, but this must be stopped!"  Jean shook her head with would-be
solemnity.  "The Mortons have advertised him sufficiently in advance; he
really cannot be allowed to be egotistical on his own account.  I shall
take him in hand.  I shall say to him gently but firmly, `My excellent
youth, your biography has already run through many editions.  Let it
rest.  Variety is refreshing for mind as well as body.  Allow your
thoughts to stray for a moment to some one besides your wonderful self.
Think, for example, of _Me_!'"

She waved her hand in dramatic fashion as she spoke, flashing a
mischievous glance at her friend, her face a-sparkle with mischief.
Jean's vivid young beauty seemed ever to be asserting itself in fresh
phases, so that even those who lived in the same house and looked upon
her every day of their lives were continually evoked to fresh
admiration.  As in watching the movements of an exquisite child, moments
of satiety seemed impossibly remote.

Vanna thought with a leaping pulse: "How he will love her!" and smiled
back tenderly into the glowing face.

How soon, and in what fashion would the dramatic meeting take place?
She was possessed with an immense curiosity to forecast the events of
the next few days.  Robert Gloucester would not, she was convinced, be
content to wait upon chance, but having been vouchsafed a glimpse of his
treasure, would not rest until he had furthered the acquaintance.  In a
light, unsuspicious manner it was evident that Jean's expectation had
also been aroused, for as the visiting hour of the afternoon drew near
she displayed an unwillingness to leave the house, donned her prettiest
dress, and seated herself in the drawing-room, in what was evidently a
waiting mood.

"Put a rose in your belt, Jean.  You ought always to wear a rose," Vanna
said, holding out a bowl of fragrant blooms for approval, and Jean
obeyed, casting the while a smilingly defiant glance at the angular
woman who sat knitting near at hand.  If ever the word spinster was
written large over a human creature, it was written over Mrs Goring,
wife of the genial Philip, and stepmother to his daughter Jean.  Yet she
was not only a wife, but a mother, and her husband and the two growing
schoolboys regarded her with a sincere if somewhat prosaic affection.
Jean's mental position with regard to her stepmother was somewhat more
complicated.  "I love her with my head, with my judgment, with my
conscience; on Sundays, when the sermon is extra good; when she has
asthma, and gasps for breath; when the boys are ill, and she looks white
and trembly; at other times--_no_! with my heart--_never_!  We are miles
apart, and no bridge is long enough to bring us together.  I am her
husband's daughter, so it is her duty to feel an affection for me; she
never shirks a duty, so she tries hard morning and evening to love me as
she should, and asks forgiveness every night because she can't manage to
do it.  I don't try--because I'm bad, you'll say; really, because I'm
too wise.  It's no use _trying_ to love; but I'm far more obedient and
docile than I should be if she were my own dear mother.  I should have
teased her, and argued, and been cross and perverse--every naughty thing
in turn, as the mood took me; and then I should have been sorry, and
cried, and she would have forgiven me, and we'd have loved each other
harder than ever.  But the mater and I never quarrel.  That ought to
score a great big mark to our credit."

On the present occasion Mrs Goring justified her character for keeping
her temper, for, trying as it was to her practical nature to behold her
stepdaughter decking herself with flowers in the afternoon, and idling
over a piece of useless crewel work, she made no spoken protest, but
contented herself with pursing her thin lips, and clicked her
knitting-needles together as she worked.

Presently a visitor was announced, and then another; tea was served, and
it was after five o'clock when at last the announcement came for which
both girls had been impatiently waiting.

"Miss Morton, Mr Gloucester."

The girl swept in with the assurance of an intimate friend.  Robert
Gloucester followed slowly, his spare figure towering above hers, his
face set and strained.  Vanna saw at a glance that he was consumed with
nervousness, and during the first ten minutes of his stay he hardly
allowed himself a glance in Jean's direction.  When she handed tea he
took it with eyes fixed on the cup, and promptly sought the corner by
Vanna's side to mumble platitudes about the weather, and listen absently
to her replies.

How long would Jean allow so unsatisfactory a state of affairs?  "I'll
give her five minutes," was Vanna's verdict; but before that time had
elapsed Jean had so cleverly manipulated the conversation that Vanna was
being questioned across the length of the drawing-room, so that it
seemed the most natural thing in the world to suggest a change of seats.

"Come over here, Vanna, dear, and tell them all about it!  I'll talk to
Mr Gloucester!"  Jean floated across the room in her white dress, and
laid a caressing hand on her friend's shoulder.  It was a pure impulse
of coquetry which made her take the rose from her belt as she seated
herself in the discarded corner of the sofa.  One could make such pretty
by-play with a flower, twirling it to and fro, stroking the petals,
daintily drinking in its fragrance.  To the woman that rose gave an
added consciousness of power; from the man the sight of it took away
what little composure he retained.  His hand shook until the teaspoon
rattled against the cup; and he placed it unemptied on the table by his
side.  He stammered; he was unhinged, tongue-tied.  Jean, who had been
prepared to rebuke self-confidence, adopted an instant change of
tactics.  Her little airs and graces died a rapid death; the tilt of the
head was replaced by a gentle droop, her complacent smile changed to an
artless appeal.  The poor, dear man must be encouraged.  He had been
buried in the wilds, with lions and elephants for companions; he was all
unnerved to find himself in an English drawing-room, face to face with a
pretty girl.

"I've waited such a long time to see you," said Jean softly.  "Edith and
I are great friends and she has told me so much about you.  I could
stand quite a stiff examination on your doings and goings of the last
few years.  Some day you shall cross-question me and see.  When I've
been particularly good I've even heard extracts from your letters.  I
can't possibly treat you as a stranger!"

"I--I ought to apologise.  I hope you have not been bored."

He looked up as he spoke, and for the first time met the full gaze of
Jean's eyes--those eyes which were a revelation of beauty even to dull
elderly members of her own sex.  Gloucester's gaze lingered with an
intensity which held her bound in return; but mingling with his
eagerness was an expression of humility, almost of awe, which Jean found
strangely disconcerting.  She lowered her lids at his glance, forgetful
for once of the effect of fringed ladies, and made her reply with a
little tremble of nervousness in her voice.

"Not at all bored, but very interested.  Are you glad to be back in
England; and how does it look to you after your long absence?  Are you
going to stay at home?"

"I'm glad--immensely glad!  Yes, I shall stay," he said with abrupt,
almost violent emphasis.  Then more quietly, "The country looks--_neat_!
Such neat little fields on either side the line.  I should grow
impatient in the country, but London enthrals.  I love the dull old
roar, and the smoke, and the misty light of this weak little sun.  A man
who has lived long abroad seldom cares for rural England, but he never
loses his love of London.  It is the best of its kind--there's something
in that; but the country is tame."

Jean mused, a smile twitching her lips.

"I have always said that if I could choose an exact site for my home of
the future I'd have the front windows facing west over a range of
mountains, the bigger the better--the Himalayas for choice--and the back
windows over Piccadilly!  Our tastes agree, it appears; but for pity's
sake don't let our sun hear you speaking in such disrespectful tones.
It is so touchy and difficile that it is capable of sulking and hiding
for weeks together, and we have been paying it such compliments these
last days.  `Blazing!'  We preferred to stay indoors this afternoon
because it was `blazing.'  Soon we shall declare that it is impossible
to stay in town, and shall fly away to the country.  In a couple of
weeks London will be emptied of every one who is not chained to a desk."

"Where shall you go?" he asked directly.

Jean glanced at him, and discovered to her surprise that the question
was no idle inquiry put to help in a lagging conversation, but a request
for information seriously desired.  She was not offended, but a feminine
impulse prompted her to prevaricate.

"Oh, to the sea, I suppose.  I possess two small brothers who insist
upon the sea for their holidays.  I suppose you will be going to
Hampshire with the Mortons.  The Moat will seem a haven of rest and
green after the East.  The gardens are more entrancing than ever.  Such
flowers!"  She lifted the rose to her face as if reminded of its
presence, stroked her cheek with its velvety petals, and let it drop
into her lap.  A heightened voice sounded from the end of the room, and
the quick movement of interest with which she turned to see what was
happening sent the rose spray rolling softly to the ground.  She bent
forward to regain it, but Gloucester was quicker than she; he held it
firmly in his big brown hand, not offering a return, but looking down at
it with an expression which Jean found strangely eloquent.

"It is a long time since you have seen English flowers.  To an
Englishman nothing can ever be quite so beautiful.  You must be glad you
came home in the time of roses!"

The intentionally soft tone of the girl's voice threw into greater
contrast the man's hoarse accents.

"Will you give it to me?  May I keep it?"

Jean stared, her delicate brows arched in dignified surprise.  Certainly
she would not give a flower which she had been wearing to a perfect
stranger, and that in the presence of three pairs of watching eyes.
This Robert Gloucester was disconcertingly direct, and must be kept in
his place--gently, however, for he had other points in his favour, such
as being young and handsome, and transparently impressed by herself.

"Not this one, I think.  It is too faded and tired.  I am cruel to
flowers when I wear them.  I can't leave them alone.  Please take your
choice from any in that bowl.  They are all quite fresh!"

She held out her hand, gently imperious, and Gloucester mutely returned
the rose.  He could do no less; but his air was so discouraged, so out
of all proportion abashed, that the girl felt a swift remorse.  It was
like disappointing an eager child, and watching the shadowing of the
happy face.  Now it was not her own wish, but simply the presence of
onlookers which prevented the refusal from being changed into consent.
She laid the recovered flower on the table beside the fragrant bowl of
roses, almost disliking it for having been the cause of this check in
the conversation.  Her eyes softened, she smiled into Gloucester's
troubled face with her sweetest, most childlike expression, and prattled
dainty nonsense, unchecked by his lack of response.  Presently he began
to smile; it was impossible to resist Jean when she set herself to
charm, but once and again the murmured answers missed the point, and she
was conscious that, though his thoughts were absorbed in herself, he was
paying scant heed to her words.  The mysterious nervousness which had
affected her at his first gaze returned to Jean once more in the process
of this one-sided conversation; she turned her head to where the three
ladies were sitting, and met Edith Morton's eyes fixed upon herself with
an intensity of scrutiny which aroused a quick suspicion.

Edith did not care to see her guest monopolised; she was not content to
be banished to the end of the room.  Jean smiled and raised her voice,
addressing her directly by name, so as to show her desire for a general
conversation.

"I have been telling Mr Gloucester, Edith, that when I was very good
you used to read me extracts from his letters, and thrill me by
repeating his adventures.  They were such nice, full, detaily letters.
I think you would get a prize in a foreign correspondence competition,
Mr Gloucester.  Most men write such scrappy notes."

"Ah, I should have been ungrateful if I had done that, for Edith sent me
such splendid letters from home.  No one knows how a fellow appreciates
letters when he is abroad--a blank mail is a blighting experience.
Edith has been a brick to me in that way; as good as any sister."

He smiled at the girl as he spoke, and Edith Morton smiled bravely back.
Gloucester saw nothing strained or unnatural in that smile, but the
three women divined its secret with lightning intuition.  Poor Edith who
had watched and waited all these years, counting each day as it passed,
enduring a grey present in the hope of a golden future which would
surely begin when the Prince returned to his own.  And now her long wish
was fulfilled--her hero was restored to her side, not unconscious of her
care, but full of gratitude and affection.  He smiled at her with kindly
eyes, he paid her public thanks, he compared her to a sister, and
Edith's heart cramped with despair.

She was a tall, slight girl, with dark hair, a dull complexion, and
pretty eyes.  She dressed tastefully, though without style, and spoke
with a delightfully clear, musical intonation.  When addressed she had a
trick of drooping her head, which gave her a somewhat timid and
shrinking air, and her hands were small and white.  Women admired and
loved her, and constantly asked of each other, "Why is she not married?"
Men passed her by as if unconscious of her presence.  The mysterious
quality which attracts masculine approval was lacking in her case, and
until the present she had not regretted its absence.

The while Gloucester continued an easy flow of conversation, the same
thought passed through the mind of each feminine hearer.  If Edith
wished to appropriate this man for herself, why had she so hastened to
bring him into the temptation of Jean Goring's presence?  Jean, with her
characteristic impulsiveness made a dozen impossible resolutions to keep
out of Robert's path; to be cold to him, to refuse to speak.  Vanna
sighed over the hardness of fate which ever advances to its festivals
over the corpses of the slain.  Mrs Goring, with tightened lips,
sneered at the blindness of men whose vision was blinded by a pretty
face.  Edith, with a sad pride, told herself that above all things
sincerity was the most precious, and that if Gloucester were to be hers,
it must be of his own unbiased will.  If he loved her--if he were even
beginning to love her--Jean's beauty would leave him untouched.  Every
day one beheld ordinary-looking women wooed by men who had passed by
others infinitely more favoured, to seek them out.  Beauty meant much,
but it was not all.  The mystic tie of affinity in no way depended on
its presence.  Robert and Jean were bound to meet during the next few
weeks; her own influence should be used to make those meetings more
frequent, rather than less.  She would condescend to no scheming to
attain what was worth having only if it came as a free-will gift.

When she spoke again it was to invite Jean and her friend to dinner the
next evening.

"We are expecting some of Robert's old friends, and we need you two
girls to balance numbers.  You must come!"

Jean hesitated.  She had just decided to refuse all invitations; but
this was put in the light of a favour, which it would seem discourteous
to refuse.  Besides, Vanna had seemed interested in Robert Gloucester.
She must consider poor, dear Vanna!

"You are sure you want us?  Really?  It seems so soon to come again.  If
any of the men drop out, be sure to let us know.  We shall quite
understand," she replied, assuaging her conscience with this loophole of
escape, and Edith rose to say good-bye, smiling another difficult smile.

It was Jean's usual custom to accompany her friend downstairs at the end
of each visit, linking arms, and standing long in the hall as one item
of news after another presented itself for discussion; but to-day she
rang the bell for a maid, and made her adieux at the drawing-room door;
the most careless and perfunctory of adieux to the man, to the girl a
kiss, and an eloquent grip of the hand.  Edith was her friend, a friend
of years' standing; and Jean, for all her flirtatious nature, was loyal
to her sex.  The last thing she would wish to do would be to annex
another girl's lover.  Nevertheless it was with a sigh and an unusual
sense of depression that she re-entered the drawing-room.  Vanna was
standing by the sofa in the corner, looking down on the carved oak
table.  Jean's eyes followed hers, and her heart gave a sudden,
startling leap.  The bowl of roses was untouched, but the table was
bare, the faded bud had disappeared!



CHAPTER FIVE.

JEAN RUNS AWAY.

The next day Jean displayed an inexplicable unwillingness to accept
Edith Morton's invitation to dinner.  All morning she affected to expect
a letter announcing a cancelling of the plan.  When afternoon came and
no letter arrived, she fell back upon the usual feminine subterfuge.

"I think," she announced thoughtfully, "I'm almost sure, I have a
headache!"

The two girls were seated alone in the upstairs boudoir, and anything
less suffering than Jean's appearance would have been difficult to
imagine.  Vanna smiled, and put an incredulous question:

"Poor, puzzled darling.  It is trying for you.  How do you manage to
decide these knotty points?"

For answer Jean ducked her head, and shook it violently from side to
side.  This singular process over, she raised a flushed, sparkling face,
and pronounced slowly:

"Yes, it does; I can feel it.  I can always tell when I do that."

Vanna's clear laugh rang out mockingly.  To one who knew what it was to
suffer from prostrating headache, which made it impossible to move, to
speak, almost to breathe, the sight of Jean's ducked, shaking head was
irresistibly comic.  She brushed aside the frail pretence.

"My dear, it's no use.  I see through you.  Better confess at once.  You
don't want to go.  Why?"

Jean looked at her in silence.  Her eyes dilated, the colour paled on
the rounded cheeks.  It was pretence no longer, but real unaffected
earnest.

"Vanna, he frightens me--that Robert Gloucester!  He behaved like, like
they do, you know--at the end.  It's absurd, at the very first meeting.
He couldn't possibly--_care_!  I don't want to meet him again."

"You didn't like him, then?"

"Oh, yes, I did.  Dreadfully.  That's just why--"

"Enigma!  Will you graciously explain?"

"Edith!" said Jean, in a low voice, almost a whisper.  It seemed
treacherous to speak of Edith's secret, but Vanna was as another self,
to whom so far every thought had been confessed, and she was the most
loyal of confidantes.  Besides, if Robert Gloucester were to be
successfully avoided, Vanna's co-operation would be needed.

"I am sure Edith cares for him, and if she does, she has had such a
long, long wait.  Imagine how it would feel, to love a man with those
eyes, and wait alone at the other end of the world for six long years!
It would make me wretched to spoil Edith's happiness; but if he came
often, and looked at me like that, I--I should look back, Vanna, I know
I should.  I might make all the resolutions in the world, but they
wouldn't last.  I'm a born flirt.  It's shocking, but it's true;
therefore you perceive there's only one thing for it--to avoid
temptation.  You must go alone to-night, and say that I'm ill."

"Which would bring Edith round post-haste to-morrow morning, accompanied
by her guest.  You must think of a better excuse than that if you really
wish to avoid him, my dear," replied Vanna derisively.

There was no contradicting this statement, for Jean was one of those
rare and blessed mortals who did not know the meaning of illness.  As a
child she had romped gaily through the list of juvenile ailments,
thereafter for a dozen years she had bloomed in radiant flower-like
health, without a single day's illness, or a nearer approach to pain
than a headache whose reality had to be diagnosed in the novel manner
already described.  To announce herself too unwell to keep a social
engagement would indeed arouse alarmed attention.  She mused in silence
for several moments then said slowly:

"Yes! quite true!  I should have to stay in bed, and that would be too
boring.  I couldn't immolate myself to that extent even for Edith.
Vanna, what do you say to running off to the country to-morrow--you and
I?  Miggles is there already, getting ready the house.  Theoretically
she would chaperone us, practically we would bully her, and make her do
whatever we liked.  You are not keen on festivities just now, and the
season will soon be over.  I shouldn't mind giving up the few things
that remain.  We'd have lovely times together, and lead the simple life,
and drink milk, and go to bed early, and give our poor tired hair a
rest.  It would be fun, wouldn't it, dear?  Say you would like it too!"

Vanna looked thoughtfully at the lovely face.  Jean was in earnest; and
to one of her warmhearted, impulsive nature to be in earnest meant to be
content with no half measures, but to insist upon wholesale surrender.
It would be useless to protest, and indeed she had no wish to do so.
Jean's flight would not avail; the fates had decreed that she and Robert
Gloucester should meet, and would not be coerced from their plan--of
that she was quietly convinced; at the same time, she felt a keen
sympathy with the shattering of Edith's romance, and was content that
Jean should put herself beyond the reach of blame.

"Oh, yes, I'd love to go," she replied.  "It will be delightful to have
you all to myself, and I'm in no mood for functions.  But are you quite
sure you won't be bored?  You won't find it too lonely?"

"Oh, well!" replied Jean, laughing.  "Incidentally, there is Piers
Rendall!  He went down last week to fish, and to cheer his mother.  He
shall cheer us, too.  Well, then, it's all settled.  You'll go alone
to-night, and to-morrow morning bright and early we'll set off for the
sea.  I wish I had not bought that white dress..."

So it was arranged, and at eight o'clock that evening, Vanna entered
Mrs Morton's drawing-room alone, and saw a shadow fall over Robert
Gloucester's face, while Edith listened to the offered explanations with
a surprise from which she loyally strove to banish any trace of relief.
A shy girl of sixteen was summoned from the schoolroom to fill the
vacant place at the table, and, putting aside his own disappointment,
Gloucester insisted upon claiming her as his own partner, and kept her
happy and amused throughout the meal.  In the drawing-room his laugh was
as cheery and content as if he had never known a care, and Vanna noticed
that in a tactful, unobtrusive fashion he performed many of the duties
overlooked by the host of the evening.  It was he who observed that the
draught from an open window was too strong for a delicate guest; he who
turned aside from a laughing group to speak to the solitary occupant of
a sofa; he who started an interesting topic of conversation, when the
old showed signs of wearing thin; and the Mortons, old and young,
regarded him with glowing eyes and punctuated their sentences with
"Robert says," "Robert thinks," as though his opinion was sufficient to
settle the most knotty point.

It was towards the end of the evening, when Vanna had her first quiet
word with the hero of the occasion.

"What does it mean?" he asked at once.  "Is it serious?"  And when she
queried blankly, "Her headache?" he replied, with such a transparency of
distress, that she was ashamed to confess the unreality of the excuse.

"Oh, no--no.  Nothing serious.  A very passing thing."

"Then why is she leaving town so suddenly?"

Vanna looked at him, and the impulse came to speak the unvarnished
truth, unconventional though it might be.

"To avoid you!  You should not be so precipitate.  It is disconcerting,
to put it mildly, to have a man make violent love to one at a first
meeting."

"I did not make love."

"Not in so many words, perhaps."

Gloucester blushed, remembering the rosebud at that moment pressed
between the leaves of his pocket-book.  For a few moments he was silent,
gazing before him in puzzled fashion, then suddenly the shadow passed,
he turned towards her with a smile, his eyes clear and untroubled.

"And so she is going to run away, a make-believe little journey of two
or three hours?  Does she imagine that she can hide herself so easily?
There is no corner of the earth where I would not follow to find her at
the end.  She belongs to me.  Do you imagine I shall give her up?"

Vanna was silent.  In her heart of hearts she had no doubt on the point,
and believed Jean's fate already settled; but she saw Edith's eyes fixed
upon her from across the room, and felt a keen sympathy with the
disappointment in store.  Edith was no longer young; Edith had waited;
for Edith the chances of life might be few and far between, while Jean
held the open sesame of charm and beauty.

"May I give you some advice?" she said quickly.  "You will probably
refuse to take it, but it's on my mind to give it all the same.  Don't
be in a hurry.  Let Jean go; don't try to see her.  Stay behind, and
think things over.  She is beautiful, and your meeting was dramatic.
Even I felt carried away.  But marriage!--that is terribly serious.  One
ought to be so sure.  You have her happiness to remember, as well as
your own.  Jean is impetuous and romantic.  If she knew what we know,
she would feel that all was settled, and that she had no choice.  You
don't want that.  If she is to be your wife, it ought to be because she
chooses you of her own deliberate will.  Wait quietly for a few weeks
and--drift!  You may find in a few weeks' time that the impression
fades--that there are other possibilities, other attractions."

Gloucester looked her in the face, and laughed, a full-throated,
derisive laugh.

"You don't believe one word that you are saying.  You are talking
because you think you _ought_.  Don't!  What is the use of keeping up
pretences--you and I?  We have seen behind the scenes.  Can't we stick
to the truth?"

"You won't take my advice?"

"No, I won't."

"You refuse to be prudent in regard to the most important happening of
your life?"

"I do.  It's not a matter for prudence.  It belongs to another sphere.
I am thirty-five.  I have waited long enough.  Why should I squander
more weeks to satisfy a convention?  She shan't be hurried--she shall
feel no obligation.  I will not breathe a word about that old prophecy
unless, _until_ she consents of her own will; but she must know what I
want.  I would tell her to-day if I had the chance."

"Which you shall not, if I can prevent it.  It's not fair; it's not
kind.  What is Jean to think?  That you are attracted by her face, and
her face alone?  That's a poor compliment.  If she is worth winning she
is worth knowing; and she has plenty of character.  So far as I can
judge, her nature and yours are quite unlike.  Are you quite sure that
you can make her happy?  In fairness to her, you ought to give her a
chance of knowing you before she takes the plunge."

"I can make her happy.  I have no shadow of doubt about that.  I'll tell
you something more, if you like, Miss Strangeways--I am the only man who
_can_!  She belongs to me, and I am not going to stand aside for any
man--or woman--on the face of the earth!"

Vanna shrugged her shoulders, half laughing, half annoyed.

"Very well, then, now we know where we are.  For the moment please
understand that I have joined the opposition.  I shall run off with Jean
and hide her, and instil principles of prudence and caution into her
ear, coupled with a due suspicion of men who make up their minds in a
hurry.  Don't count upon my good offices."

"I shan't need them, thank you," he returned calmly.

Vanna reflected that it would be as easy to attempt to depress an
india-rubber ball.



CHAPTER SIX.

ENTER MIGGLES.

Three days later the two girls were ensconced in their country quarters,
and Jean was beginning to suffer from the effects of reaction.  Her
impressionable nature was capable of generous impulses, which found vent
in such actions of self-abnegation as the present flight from town, but
long-continued effort was too heavy a trial.  Once settled down in the
quiet house by the sea, and past the excitement of the first arrival,
she began to droop and to fret, and to demand of herself and every one
with whom she came in contact why she had been so foolish as to abandon
her last weeks in town.

"To-night is the Listers' ball.  I was going to wear the new white.  At
this very moment I should have been preening before the glass.  I feel a
horrid conviction that it would have suited me to distraction, that I
should have had the night of my life.  I can't think what you were
dreaming about, Vanna, to let me rush off in that undignified way.  I'm
impulsive; but a word from you would have kept me straight.  And you
never spoke it.  I don't think I can ever forgive you.  If you hadn't
any consideration for me, you might have thought of Edith.  For _her_
sake I should have stayed in town and been as nice as possible to Robert
Gloucester.  If a man can't run the gauntlet of other women, he would
make a poor sort of husband.  When I fall in love, I shall make a point
of introducing the man to the most charming women of my acquaintance,
and if he shows any sign of being attracted by a special one, I'll throw
them together.  I will!  You see if I don't!  If he didn't like me
better than them all put together, I should be glad, thankful, delighted
to let him go.  Any girl would, who had a spirit.  I feel that I have
behaved very meanly and unkindly to poor dear Edith.  Why don't you
speak?  What's the good of sitting there like a mummy?  Can't you hear?"

"Perfectly, thank you.  I am listening with great interest and
attention.  Being of a generous nature, I refrain from repeating the
remarks which you made when I _did_ venture to expostulate, but if you
will cast back your thoughts--"

"Oh, well," interrupted Jean naughtily, "I shall just flirt with Piers.
I deserve some distraction after being such a monument of virtue, and
I'll have it, or know the reason why.  I wrote to tell him we were here,
so he'll come over this afternoon, and we'll go for a walk by the sad
sea waves.  You might twist your ankle on the pebbles, a little innocent
twist, you know, just enough to make it wise to sit down and rest while
we have our _tete-a-tete_.  Since you've brought me here against my
will, it's the least you can do.  Piers shall have tea with us before we
start.  Miggles adores Piers."

"Miggles," formally known as Miss Miggs, was a well-known character in
the Goring _menage_, having been in succession, governess to Jean,
housekeeper during the period of Mr Goring's widowerhood, and
afterwards governess to the two sons of the second marriage.  After so
many years of faithful service it seemed impossible to dispense with
Miggles's services, and in truth no one wished to do so, for she was one
of the cheery souls who carry sunshine as an atmosphere.  According to
ordinary ideas, Miggles might have grumbled with the best, and demanded
a universal toll of sympathy, for she was the most solitary of units--a
woman who could not claim relationship with a angle soul in her own
hemisphere.  She had passed her sixtieth birthday, and despite rigid
economies, possessed only a few hundred pounds between herself and want;
her health, never strong, showed signs of growing more precarious, and
an affection of the eyes shut her off from her loved pastimes of reading
and needlework.  Nevertheless, Miggles was so far from being depressed
by such circumstances, that it had not even occurred to her that she
deserved to be pitied.  This blessed state of mind had been achieved by
no conflict and struggle of the soul--no noble effort of will; religion
itself had contributed little towards it.  Miggles's disposition was a
birthright for which she was seemingly as little responsible as for the
colour of her hair.  As a child, when circumstances had offered a choice
between smiles and tears, she had instinctively elected to smile; as a
girl, the mere facts of life and movement had seemed sufficient to
ensure complete happiness; while later on she had been so much occupied
with being thankful for silver linings that the clouds themselves
flitted by attracting but scanty attention.  In cheery, non-consequent
fashion, _she_ would discourse of her blessings by the hour together.

"Now, would you believe it, my dear, not a soul belonging to me nearer
than Australia--my nephew Henry, dear boy, but rash--such a pity! always
was, from a child.  Thomas now--the elder brother--he would always save.
My mother was so particular about bringing us up to save.  `_Instil_
good principles from the beginning' she would say.  But however--what
was I talking about?  Ah, yes! not a soul nearer than Australia, and
_three_ letters by this morning's post.  Isn't it wonderful?  People are
so kind.  Really, except Monday, when there was a fashion-book from a
shop--I do like seeing the fashions--there's been something on my plate
every morning.  That's so cheering to begin the day.  You know some one
has been thinking of you, and caring enough to sit down and write."

Jean cast a twinkling glance across the table at Vanna.

"What did they want this time, Miggles?  I bet anything you like, that
every second letter was to beg for something that you have no business
to give, and that you were weak enough to say yes all round.  Can you
deny it?"

"Why should I, dear child?  Such a privilege.  Most kind of them to have
given me the opportunity.  Old clothes!  I don't suppose you ever _have_
old clothes, Miss Vanna--they always look so fresh and new.  I like to
see a girl in pretty clothes.  When I was young, shallis were in
fashion.  I don't suppose you ever saw shallis--very stiff, not nearly
so graceful as your delaines.  A dear lady gave me a brown shalli,
trimmed with pipings.  Brown was never my colour, but it wore for
years--so very kind.  Nowadays I have to wear wool for my poor bones.
Wool always did irritate my skin.  It took me weeks to get accustomed to
sleep in blankets.  I used to lie awake at nights tossing from side to
side, and thinking of all the poor creatures who had no warm coverings--
and mine the very best Whitney, the ones from the spare room, Jean, with
the blue stripes.  Mrs Goring said I was to have them.  I'm sure if I'd
been the Queen--"

"Oh, it's wonderful to think of.  Real Whitney blankets with blue
stripes, on which to toss about and groan!  What luck you have, Miggles,
and how thankful you ought to be that you have bones to _ache_.  If you
hadn't had that bad feverish attack, you might have been left stranded
with your own bedding.  It is piteous to think of."

Miggles shook her large, ugly head with elephantine playfulness.

"Naughty child! naughty child!  You are laughing at me, I can see.  It
is very painful, especially during the night, and I used to be so proud
of my hands.  I've had to give up wearing my turquoise ring, the
knuckles are so enlarged.  That really was a trial; but when you think
what other people have to bear...  There's that poor man at Oxford
Circus, who wheels about on a board.  I always wonder if there are any
legs inside his trousers, they lie so very flat; but of course one
couldn't ask.  How monotonous it would be, my dear, to sit on a board
from morning till night.  When I thought of that, it seemed so foolish
to fret about a ring...  Your dear mother gave it to me one Christmas,
because I had such a desire to possess a ring.  It was the only one I
ever had."

"Dear Miggles," cried Jean fondly, "I wonder you didn't have a dozen.  I
wonder that every man you met didn't press one upon you.  They would
have done so, if they had known what was good for them.  You would have
made the dearest wife!"

Miggles smiled appreciatively.

"Well, dear, I _should_, though I say it myself.  I should have made him
very comfortable.  I have such a sympathy with men, poor dears, working
all day long, and banks failing, and upsetting their plans, and all the
bills to pay.  They do deserve a little comfort at home.  My nephew's
wife--Henry's--I can't help feeling she's been a little to blame.  Of
course there's no denying that Henry _is_ rash, but he could have been
_guided_, and Florence is hasty.  A nice girl, too--very nice.  I
wouldn't say a word against her, but you can't help thinking sometimes,
and I'm sorry for Henry.  Yes!  I've always regretted that I never had
an offer.  I was never pretty, like you, my dears; but personable, quite
personable.  A gentleman once passed the remark that if he had been
young he would have wished nothing better than that nice,
wholesome-looking girl; but he was quite old--a colonel, home from
India, with a liver.  When they are like that they admire a fresh
complexion.  And of course he had a wife already.  It would have been
pleasant to look back and remember that some one had wished to make me
his wife."  Miggles gazed at the coffeepot with an air of placid regret,
which quickly melted into smiles.  "But, however--he mightn't have
turned out well.  One never knows, and I read a sweet little poem in a
magazine which might have been written to meet my case.  She said (a
lady wrote it; I should think she had had a disappointment), `If I never
have a child of my own, with its little hands, and pattering feet, still
all the children of the world are mine, to love and to mother.'  Such a
beautiful thought, was it not?"

"Beautiful, indeed, and so original.  She was a great poet, my Miggles.
Talking of suitors, Piers Rendall is coming to tea.  We'll have it here,
please.  Piers likes a nursery tea set out on the table, with plenty of
apricot jam, and thick sensible bread-and-butter; no shavings.
Plum-cake; not plain--he detests caraway seeds, and two lumps of sugar
in his tea."

"I know.  I've poured out tea for him since he was so high," cried
Miggles, waving her hand indefinitely in the air.  "He had it with me
here two days before you came.  It's not many young men who would care
to walk three miles to see an old woman, but I can't say he looks well.
Thin--worried!  A man ought to be full of life at that age."

"Fretting for me, dear!  He'll be all right this afternoon.  You'll
see," announced Miss Jean confidently.  She would have said the same of
any other young man of her acquaintance, nevertheless Vanna waited with
some anxiety for the events of the afternoon.  Strive as she might, she
could not divest her mind of a feeling of responsibility towards Robert
Gloucester; of the conviction that Jean was his by right, and that
separation could end only in disaster.

At three o'clock that afternoon Piers Rendall walked up the garden path,
and Jean rushed out to meet him.  Vanna, from her seat in the hall,
could hear the merry exchange of greetings.

"Halloa, Princess!"

"Halloa, Slave!  How are you feeling?"

"Hugging my chains!  This is a piece of luck, your coming down so soon.
What brought you away from the gay capital before the end of the
season?"

"The train, sir!  People who ask personal questions must expect to be
snubbed.  I ran away, but not alone.  I've a friend with me--Miss
Strangeways.  Come and be introduced."

They had entered the hall while Jean was speaking, and Vanna caught the
quick frown of annoyance on the man's face.  He had a strong, well-knit
figure, and a thin, nervous face.  His hair was dark, his features were
sharply aquiline, the whole effect was handsome and distinguished, but
not altogether agreeable.  The dark blue eyes had a somewhat irritable
expression, and the features were subject to an occasional nervous
twitching.  They twitched at sight of Vanna seated in the deep cane
chair facing the door, and his lips straightened themselves eloquently.
Vanna knew that he was mentally wishing her at Jericho, and seeing his
hoped-for _tete-a-tete_ turned into a dull trio.  But the revelation was
but momentary, and nothing could have been more courteous than his
greeting.

"How do you do, Miss Strangeways?  I have heard so constantly about you
from Jean that it is a double pleasure to find you here."

Vanna murmured a conventional acknowledgment and felt mentally
antagonistic.  To feel oneself _de trop_ is never an agreeable
experience, and unreasonable though it might be, she resented both Mr
Rendall's attitude and his courteous disguise of the same.  During the
meal which followed she remained stiff and silent, while her three
companions chatted and laughed with the ease of old friendship.  Jean
sparkled, her depression dispersed by the presence of a companion of the
opposite sex, Miggles beamed from behind the tea-tray, and indulged in
reminiscent anecdotes, to which the young man lent the most flattering
attention.  His bright eyes softened in genuine kindliness as he looked
into her large, good-natured face, and he waited upon her with the
utmost solicitude.  Evidently there was a real bond of affection between
the homely old woman and the handsome man.  Towards Jean his attitude
was more complex.  Vanna, watching with jealous, anxious eyes--jealous
on behalf of that other suitor whose claims she had denied--could not
decide how much or how little his feelings were involved.  He admired
her, of course--what man would not admire Jean?  They bandied words
together, joked, teased, protested, without a suspicion of
self-consciousness; at times they smiled at each other with undisguised
affection; at other times some light word uttered by the girl seemed to
strike a false note, and the irritable expression in the man's eyes
flamed into sudden anger.

"He has a passionate nature; he could feel very deeply.  I think he is
not happy."  Such was Vanna's diagnosis of Piers Rendall's character as
she drank her tea and ate her plum-cake in almost uninterrupted silence.
Her companions had endeavoured to draw her into the conversation.  Jean
had grimaced eloquently across the table, but Vanna made only a feeble
response.  It seemed as though Jean's depression had been suddenly
shifted on to her own shoulders; the peaceful content of the last few
days had disappeared; she felt solitary, wounded, jarred.  When the meal
was over and the three young people started out on their walk, these
feelings deepened.  Had she not already received her instructions--that
she was to feign an accident as an excuse for obliterating herself for
the others' benefit?  Vanna set her lips with an obstinate little
resolve to do nothing of the kind.  She would not obtrude her society
where it was not desired, but she would stoop to no pretence by way of
excuse.  When they had walked about a mile along the sea-front, she
quietly announced her intention of sitting down.

"I don't think I shall go any farther.  I've brought a book.  I shall
sit here and rest, and you can pick me up as you come back."

"Oh, Vanna!  Why?  Are you tired, dear?  Aren't you well?" demanded
naughty Jean.

"Perfectly well, thank you," replied Vanna coldly, and had the
satisfaction of seeing that Piers Rendall thought her exceedingly
disagreeable for her pains.

The two figures crossed the belt of pebbly stones, and walked over the
sunny sands to the water's side.  Hitherto they had kept to the levelled
promenade, and to Vanna's irritated senses it appeared an added offence
that, once released from her presence, they should at once hasten into
solitude.  She turned her eyes away and stared drearily into space.
Revolt surged in her heart.  It was not fair.  Jean had everything--
home, parents, beauty, strength, the right to be wooed and won.  The
world was cruel--unjust.  Why should such differences exist?  Her own
lot was too hard.  She had not deserved it.  She had done her best.
Circumstances had not been too easy--always there had hung a shadow;
life in the little country hamlet with Aunt Mary, delicate and sad, had
been by no means ideal for a young girl.  Without conceit she knew
herself to have been dutiful, affectionate, kind.  She had put her own
wishes in the background, content to minister to an old woman's
declining years.  Her own turn would come.  Life lay ahead, crowded with
golden possibilities; when they came they would be all the sweeter for
the consciousness of duty well done.  And now?  Ah, well, in converse
with one's nearest friend one might affect to be brave and independent,
but in the solitude of one's own woman's heart it seemed as if those
possibilities had been wiped away, and left nothing behind.

In times of trouble and upheaval the sufferer is constantly exhorted by
sympathetic friends to turn resolutely away from the sad past, and look
ahead.  Onward! they are told--press onward!  Life lies not in the past,
but in the future.  Despair comes of looking back, courage with
expectation.  Poor Vanna recalled these axioms with a weary heart.  That
was just what she dared not do.  What could the future hold for her?

She sat very still, her hands clasped on her lap, her eyes shut against
the glare.  The sun seemed cruel to-day; the dance of golden light
across the sands, the sight of those two light-stepping figures in the
distance.  She would help Jean, help others, who were in need.  There
was no lack of work in the world for hands which were willing and free.
She could make other people happy; could live a noble, selfless life.
Even so, and at the thought, the lips of three-and-twenty quivered, and
the salt tears flowed.  She wanted to be happy herself--longed to be
happy.  The selfless life sounded barren and cold; it roused no flicker
of joy.  "How shall I bear it?" asked Vanna of herself.  "How can I
live, looking on, always looking on, having no part?  Even to-day with
Jean--my darling Jean--and that strange man, I felt sore and angry
and--_bad_!  He thought me a cross, ungracious girl.  His opinion does
not matter, but other people will think so too if I behave in the same
way; and that would be terrible.  I could not exist if people did not
care for me.  In self-defence I must overcome.  But how to do it?"

Vanna leant her head on her hands and sent up a wordless prayer.  In her
own fashion she was deeply religious, but it was not the fashion of her
day.  Her aunt had been shocked and distressed by her heterodox
sentiments, and had spent many hours in prayer for her niece's
conversion, while Vanna, in her turn, had been fully as shocked at the
old woman's conventional ideas.

Aunt Mary had been the most tender and forgiving of mortals.  Her
memory, tenacious till death of the smallest kindness shown towards her,
was absolutely incapable of retaining an injury.  If any one offended,
her own anxiety was to find for them a means of reform; to her charity
there seemed literally no end.

When a trusted servant repaid endless kindnesses by a flagrant theft,
Aunt Mary was bowed down with penitence for occasional carelessness on
her own part which might possibly have led the sinner into temptation.
"I remember distinctly one Sunday night when I left my purse in the
dining-room, and was too lazy to go downstairs to fetch it, and at other
times I have left change lying about.  It was wrong of me--terribly
wrong.  One never knows what need there may be--what _pressing_ need--
and to see the money lying there before her eyes!"

To the scandal of the neighbourhood, instead of giving the offender in
charge, or at least dismissing her in shame and ignominy, Aunt Mary
tearfully apologised for her own share in the crime, and proposed a
future partnership in which both should endeavour to amend their ways.
Jane was sullen and unresponsive, too much overcome by surprise perhaps
to be able to express any gratitude.  That she felt it all the same was
testified by her dog-like devotion to her mistress.  All went well until
another year had passed, when in a sudden burst of emotion the maid
confessed to a fresh peccadillo.  Now, indeed, any sane person would
have realised the folly of keeping such a sinner in the house, and,
hurling reproaches on her head, would have promptly ejected her from the
threshold; but Aunt Mary was once more content to play the part of
comforter.  "I have my own besetting sins, Jane," she said gently, "and
I fear I have given way to them many times during this past year.  You
have kept straight until the last week, and you have confessed your
fault.  Have courage!  You have made a good start.  I shall treat you
exactly as before, and trust you more fully!"

That was the end of Jane's offences.  Henceforth to the day of her
mistress's death she remained the most faithful and loyal of handmaids.
Such was Aunt Mary, who devoutly worshipped a God whom she believed
capable of torturing for eternity a sinner who had transgressed during a
few short years of life, or a helpless infant who had chanced to die
unbaptised!  She was likewise convinced that the whole non-Protestant
world was irrevocably damned, and harboured serious doubts with regard
to Dissenters and the High Church party.  She accepted as final and
irrefutable every doctrine which she had been taught as a child, and
would have been as ready to believe that Jonah swallowed the whale as
the accepted version of the story, if it had been so inscribed in the
Bible.  To think for oneself on matters religious she considered
profane; to expect fuller light with fuller knowledge--a blasphemy.  To
her mind the whole duty of man was comprised in attending his parish
church, supporting his vicar, and subscribing to the creeds--Athanasian
included.  Aunt and niece had had the nearest approach to a quarrel
which they had ever known one day when the girl's intolerance had broken
forth into words:

"Aunt Mary," she had cried, "your religion is _wicked_!  You are good in
spite of it.  You don't _really_ believe it.  You only think you do.
You subscribe ten and sixpence a year to the South American mission, and
lie down in peace and sleep, believing the whole continent to be damned,
while if one poor dog were suffering outside your gate you could not
rest until you had rescued it.  Can ten and sixpence buy peace, while a
continent perishes?  Your creed is unworthy of you!"

"My dear, you forget yourself.  You shock me deeply.  Such words from a
young girl's lips are terrible to hear.  Profane!  Rebellious!  The
poor, dear vicar!  I must ask you never again to allow yourself to speak
in this way.  If the wicked thoughts arise, at least let them not find
vent in words."

After this Vanna was careful to avoid religious discussions with her
aunt, but she noted with amusement that next year the good lady's South
American subscription had been increased by half a crown.

Now Aunt Mary had been moved up to a higher class, and the scales of
ignorance had fallen from her eyes.  The puzzles of life were solved for
her, but her niece was still struggling with her tasks, and they were
hard to learn.  She sat with her hands clasped round her knees, the sea
breeze blowing back the hair from the set, white face.  Aunt Mary would
have said that this trouble was God's will--His direct dispensation; but
Vanna could not accept this explanation.  It was surely _not_ God's will
that in past generations two people had put their own happiness before
duty.  Aunt Mary would have said again that as regards herself this
punishment for the sins of others was "permitted," and intended to be.
Well!--one had only to look around the world, at everyday happenings, to
realise that the Almighty did _not_ interfere with natural laws.  Thrust
an arm into the fire, and that arm burns; infect your child with
disease, and that child suffers, despite your prayers and entreaties.
It is inevitable; but the sufferings were surely of men's causing, "The
thing of all others which, according to my light, must most `grieve' the
Spirit of God is the way in which His own children misjudge Him," Vanna
told herself slowly.  "Dear, sweet Aunt Mary, who believed Him capable
of things to which she herself would never condescend--all the good
people who look out upon a sky full of worlds, and believe that their
own particular tiny sect hold the monopoly of truth, and that every one
who differs from them must inevitably be lost.  Perhaps--who knows? it
is misjudging Him just as cruelly to believe that the ghastly happenings
of our life are of His choice.  He has given us free-will; we make
mistakes and suffer for them, and make others suffer too; but that's our
own doing, and--reverently speaking--outside His power.  He is sorry for
us--infinitely sorry, waiting and longing to send help, when our eyes
are open to receive it.  Perhaps I'm wrong, I can't tell; but it's the
belief that helps me most, and removes the sting.  I have such a big
trouble for a woman to face--a lonely life; such a big effort to make--
to look at happiness through the eyes of others, and keep sweet, and
generous, and ungrudging.  I need so much help..."

The minutes passed, while Vanna sat motionless, buried in thought.
Passers-by cast curious glances at the still figure seated upon the
pebbly beach above the fringed line of seaweed--her scarlet cloak
gathered round her shoulders, her dark hair blown back from her face.
It was not a beautiful nor even a pretty face in the usual acceptance of
the words: the features were neither good enough to be noticeable, nor
bad enough to jar.  The only beauties were found in the dark, finely
arched eyebrows, the oval shape of the face, and the stag-like setting
of the small head, to which characteristics Vanna owed that air of
distinction which redeemed her from the commonplace.  Piers Rendall had
paid little attention to the quiet girl who had sat beside him at the
tea-table, and afterwards made an unwelcome third in the walk along the
sea-front; but as he and Jean retraced their steps across the sands an
hour later, his eyes turning towards the waiting figure fastened on the
pale face, and lingered there.

We all own a mental picture-gallery which we carry about with us till
death.  Some of the pictures are ours by deliberate choice, printed on
memory by loving intent; others, pain has stamped in undying lines; a
few have gained their place as it were by accident.  We had no intention
of yielding them a place, no interest in the purchase; quietly and all
uninvited they ranged themselves against the walls, and refused to be
dislodged.  Piers Rendall's glance had been turned in indifference,
almost dislike; but to the end of his life the picture of Vanna remained
with him, as she sat on the grey stones, above the belt of seaweed, with
the scarlet cloak round her shoulders, and the hair blown back from her
face.  Jean's merry banter fell on deaf ears; he was not listening; had
for the moment forgotten her existence.  Her eye followed his, divining
the explanation; she smiled expectantly, waiting until he should speak.

"What is the matter with that girl?"

"Tiredness, I should say.  Bored!  Sick of waiting so long.  It was
_your_ fault.  You would go on."

"Nonsense.  It's more than that.  What has happened to her?"

"Nothing; I told you so.  She has serious bouts sometimes.  She has one
now.  So would you have, if you sat in this wind, getting chilled
through for an hour on end."

"I am sorry to hear that.  If it has not already happened, it must be
still before her.  It is written in her face."

"Piers, how tiresome!  Leave my Vanna alone.  _What_ is in her face?"

"Tragedy!" said Piers Rendall.



CHAPTER SEVEN.

"THE HAPPY LAND."

The next event was the receipt of a letter from Mr Rendall's _mere_,
containing an invitation for lunch.  Jean read it aloud to Vanna as they
sat together on the tiny lawn where the postman had been intercepted.

"...  Please excuse the formality of a call.  I am getting old, and
these hilly roads try my nerves.  We hope you will all come over to
lunch on Wednesday, at one o'clock.  I shall be pleased to meet Miss
Miggs again, and to make the acquaintance of your young friend.  The
carriage shall call at twelve-thirty.  Believe me, my dear Jean, Your
attached friend--"

"Good for her!  We accept with pleasure, of course."

"I don't."

"Vanna!  How disagreeable you can be when you try.  Why were you so
bleak and crusty to Piers yesterday?  I wanted you to be nice."

"You told me to keep out of the way, and I did it.  I didn't take to
him, nor he to me."

"Humph!  I don't know," Jean considered, her chin resting upon the cup
of her hand.  "He was a trifle quelled to find you here--that was
natural, for he thought I would be alone; but he was impressed.  When we
came back from our walk you were staring out to sea with such big, sad
eyes, and he looked at you, and wondered.  You impressed him, Vanna."

"You are not to tell him!  I forbid you to tell him about me!"

Vanna spoke with a headlong impetuosity which surprised herself.  She
did not understand why she shrank from the idea of Piers Rendall
listening to an account of her family history; but the prospect stung,
and she could not control her impatience.  Jean looked at her with quiet
reproach.

"I should not dream of such a thing.  I shall _never_ speak of it,
never--except at your express request."

"I'm sorry, dear.  I'm very irritable these days.  Write your
acceptance, and I'll do my utmost to behave.  What is she like--this
mamma?  A female Piers?"

"Not one bit.  A little shrinking creature, very proper, very dull--in a
gentle fashion, appallingly obstinate.  She and Miggles together are as
good as a play.  You'll hear.  They'll get entangled in a dual
conversation, and all I ask is--don't look at me!  Mrs Rendall would
never forgive me if I laughed.  She's a trying little person, and Piers
is sweet to her; never loses his patience.  He deserves a halo for
that."

Vanna raised protesting eyebrows.

"Well, I hardly knew my parents, but I have realised the want of them so
badly all my life that I can't screw myself up to an access of
admiration for a son who is decently polite to his mother.  Suppose she
does try his patience at times--that's inevitable, I should say, between
a young man and an old woman--how many times has she borne and forborne
with him; what mountains of patience has she expended on his training?
It's not a virtue, it's mere common decency that he should be kind to
her now.  He would be despicable if he failed."

"Quite true, every word true.  You are theorising, dear, and there's not
an argument against you.  But leave theories alone for a moment and look
at facts.  How many parents and children--grown-up children--do you find
who live together in sympathy and understanding?  Precious few.
Sometimes there's an open feud; that's rare, and can't go on in the
nature of things; sometimes there's an armed truce; sometimes there are
successions of jars; almost always there's a gulf.  They see with
different eyes, and hear with different ears, and each side thinks the
other blind and deaf.  One side lacks sympathy, the other imagination.
It seems the most difficult thing in the world to `put yourself in his
place.'"

"I don't know.  If I'd had my own mother, it seems to me we would have
been _friends_.  It wouldn't have needed a great exercise of sympathy to
realise that she was old and tired, tired with looking after _me_; and
if I had made a friend of her and talked to her, and--_told_ her things,
she would have sympathised with me in return.  I _know_ she would.  I
feel it!"

"Did you, `tell things' to Aunt Mary?"

"No, of course not.  That was different."

"Ah, you think so; but it is not.  It's the generation that's the bar,
not the person," cried Jean with one of her quick flashes of intuition.
"Youth wants youth and looks for it, and finds it easier to confide in a
girl after a week's acquaintance than in her very own mother, I've seen
it not once, but dozens of times.  It doesn't mean that she loves her
more, or a tenth part as much, but in a curious, inexplicable way she's
_nearer_.  It's hard on the parents.  Every age has its own trials: love
troubles when you are young; weakness when you are old; when you are
middle-aged it must be just this, to yearn after your children, to long
to help and comfort, and to see them prefer some one else!  I'm sorry
for parents; but why do they grow so old?  If I have a daughter, I shall
keep young for her sake.  At least I shall remember that I _was_ young.
I shall never say: `the rain is coming down in sheets, the wind is in
the east.  I can't think why you can't be content by your own fireside,
instead of racing half over the town,' I shan't be overcome with
surprise when she forgets to order the fish on the eve of a proposal, or
expect her to look a fright in mackintosh and goloshes when she goes out
with men friends.  I shall remember how I preferred to look nice, even
if my feet _were_ soaked!"

"You may also remember that you suffered from rheumatism thereby, and
wish her to profit from your experience."

"No use, my dear.  Her rheumatism's her own, and if it comes she will
bear it, but never my goloshes!  A parent can be wise and prosy, and
expound the law; but he can't do more.  If he tries, he loses instead of
gains.  I shall school myself to the fact that my little girl is bound
to err, and that we are bound to suffer in consequence, she in deed, and
I in looking on.  That's the price of being a mother.  Then when she's
had her own way and been buffeted, she'll come to me and I'll help her.
Dear little girl!"

The lovely face was aglow with tenderness: it was easy to see that the
maternal instinct was strong in Jean's heart, and that she would rise to
her fullest height as wife and mother.  The next moment she raised
herself, flashed an anxious look at Vanna's face, and deftly turned the
conversation.

"Well, anyway you'll see for yourself that Mrs Rendall's a trial.  When
she and Miggles get started, don't interrupt--let them have it out by
themselves.  Piers loves to listen, and so do I."

The next day an old-fashioned barouche bore the three ladies over
several miles of hilly roads to the square white mansion where the
widowed Mrs Rendall lived in peaceful seclusion from the world.  After
the style of old-fashioned houses, it was situated in a hollow,
sheltered from the wind, but also cut off from a view of the surrounding
country.  The entrance hall was bleak and uninteresting, the rooms, so
many big square boxes, furnished with Early Victorian heaviness, and an
astonishing absence of individuality.  Vanna counted eleven little
tables in the drawing-room, each bearing a weight of senseless
ornaments.  On the marble chimney-piece a pair of red glass "lustres," a
pair of Parian marble figures, male and female, were mathematically
arranged on each side of a Bohemian glass centre-piece, bearing a
medallion portrait of a simpering brunette.  A bannerette of crimson
cross-stitch, on which was worked a cluster of steel-bead roses, hung
pendant from a brass rod; the water-colour paintings on the walls were
encircled by large white mounts; the drab carpet was garlanded with
flowers; in the air was the sweet, somewhat musty flavour of potpourri.
Mrs Rendall wore a large widow's cap on the top of a small grey head,
and was the sort of woman who is instinctively connected with a
shoulder-shawl and mittens.  It was difficult to imagine her the mother
of the handsome man with the bright, irritable-looking eyes, who stood
by her side to welcome the guests on their arrival.

The dining-room was a distinct improvement on the drawing-room, as is
invariably the case when the mistress of the house is devoid of taste.
The mahogany furniture was solid and purposeful, and the family
portraits on the red flock walls added an air of richness to the
prevailing comfort.  The table itself was beautifully spread with the
finest of napery and some treasured pieces of old family silver.  Six
specimen glasses were set at equal distances, each bearing a head of
geranium and a spray of maidenhair fern; two white-capped maids stood
stiffly at attention.

"Piers, my dear," said Mrs Rendall primly, "will you ask a blessing?"

During the progress of the first course the conversation was general and
futile.  The party was too small to allow of separate conversations: the
young people seemed inclined to allow their elders to lead the way, and
as one old lady seemed determined to cling tenaciously to one subject,
and the other to dash continually to pastures new, the result was
something confusing.  Vanna felt the pressure of Jean's foot on her own,
and received a twinkling glance of amusement.  "Now!" said the glance as
plainly as words could speak.  "The fun's beginning.  Let them have it
to themselves."

"No!  I never disturb my borders," announced Mrs Rendall firmly.
"Neither bulbs nor perennials.  My gardener says--"

"But you remember the Totteridges!"  Miggles interrupted, insistently
smiling.  "Emily Mackintosh.  She married the son of the old man, Rev
Totteridge, Vicar of Newley.  My sister Susan was bridesmaid.  Pink
taffetas.  All the go.  He went out to India and was killed by a tiger.
Poor Emily!  You know their garden.  That border by the church wall--"

"_My_ gardener says--"

"Emily always divided the bulbs.  Some people leave them for three
years.  Our old landlord over at Sutton--did you know the Dixons?
_Charming_ family!  They used to come over and play croquet with us at
my old home.  The second son was a dear fellow, but stuttered.  So sad
when a man stutters.  What was I saying, dear?  I _do_ wander!  Oh, yes!
Old Mr Dixon moved them every autumn--"

"My gardener says--"

"But they grew so matted.  You know!  _Matted_!  Jungles!  I always say
take a middle course.  When I was spending my holiday in Devonshire I
had tea in a lovely old garden.  Clotted cream.  Did you ever try it
with marmalade?  De-licious!  All the lilies in one bed, and a stream
running through.  `Cool Siloam.'  Couldn't help thinking of it, you
know, but not in an irreverent spirit.  Wouldn't be irreverent for the
world.  It's the spirit that matters, isn't it, dear--the spirit, not
the letter?  The scent of those lilies--"

"My gardener says--"

"Yes, dear, and of course he _has_ experience, but we must judge by
results--judge by results.  Stands to reason, as I say, and you had so
few blooms.  What can you expect if they never get any attention?  Poor
things.  We all like attention.  I do, I'm sure.  And if they're matted,
_can_ they bloom?  Now try it one year!  You're mistress.  I don't
approve of being overruled.  Consideration, but not concession.  Hear
all that other people have to say, and take your own way afterwards, as
my dear mother used to say.  Jean, you are laughing!  Naughty girl!
What is so funny about bulbs?"

"My gardener says that well-established bulbs bloom better than those
which are continually removed," said Mrs Rendall firmly.  "I intend to
follow his advice."

"Certainly, dear.  Why not, if you wish it?  The garden's your own.
Hope he appreciates his place.  People always say gardeners are
despotic; my dear father would have no interference.  Discharged three
men in succession for giving advice, and when the fourth came for orders
the first morning--I remember it so well; I was a girl at the time,
about fourteen--`d'ye see that row of gooseberry bushes?' he said.  `Dig
'em all up, and plant 'em back again head downward.'  `Very good, sir,'
said the man.  At lunch time there they were--poor things! roots
sticking up in the air--you never saw such a sight--obliged to laugh,
you know, obliged to laugh, though daren't show it.  `You're the man for
me,' said my father.  `There's a shilling for you; go and get a drink.'
My mother was an abstainer, but he would never join.  A pity, but men,
my dear, men, can't be coerced--!"

"Piers," said Mrs Rendall coldly, "return thanks."

In the face of such an interruption Miggles was perforce reduced to
silence, and the luncheon party broke up.  Coffee was served in the
drawing-room, and Vanna mentally resolved to plead fatigue as an excuse
for spending the next two hours with the old ladies; but she was not
allowed to carry her plan into execution.

"I want to take you the round of our little estate, Miss Strangeways,"
Piers announced when the coffee-cups had been put aside.  "Jean knows it
of old, but we always seize the opportunity of showing it to strangers.
I won't ask you to come with us, Miggles, for the paths are distinctly
rough, and you will be more comfortable sitting quietly on the verandah
with mother.  What sort of heels are you wearing this afternoon, Jean?"

"Flat, ugly, English!  I have too much sense of fitness to sport `Louis
quinze' in country roads; but why do English bootmakers set their faces
so sternly against insteps?  I'm never comfortable out of a French
shoe," said Jean with a sigh.

She slid her hand through Vanna's arm with an affectionate pressure
which was intended to show her agreement in Piers's invitation, and the
three young people walked across the lawn, leaving the old ladies seated
in their low cane chairs.

"Sleep sweetly--and dream of bulbs!" quoth Jean, peering at them over
her shoulder.  "Piers, I don't want to grow old.  It doesn't seem
possible that a time can _ever_ come when I shall be content to wear
cashmere boots and sleep on a verandah while other people play in the
sun.  Do you believe that I shall really grow old?"

Piers Rendall looked at her and his lips twitched, but his eyes did not
soften--the hard brilliancy, which was their chief characteristic,
became if anything a trifle more accentuated.  It was a curious look for
a man to cast at a girl with whom he was in love.  _Was_ he in love with
Jean?  Vanna asked herself curiously for the hundredth time in the
course of the last few days.  If she had but known it, Rendall was
engaged in asking himself the same question, and finding it almost as
difficult to answer.

At times, yes!  He would have been less than a man if he had not been
occasionally swept off his feet by the vivid beauty of that upturned
face.  Jean present--laughing, teasing, cajoling--could hold him
captive.  Ear and eye alike were busy in her presence, busy and charmed;
haunting, everyday cares were thrust into the background, and discontent
transformed into joy.  For the hour it would seem as if the whole
happiness of life were to laugh, and dance, and to rejoice in the
sunshine.  So far so good, but--Jean absent, the spell dissolved.  The
thought of her had no power to hold him; he could live tranquilly for
months together, indifferent to, almost forgetful of, her existence.
Here there was surely something wrong.  This could be no real passion,
which was so lightly dispelled.  If he really loved as a man should
love, the thought of her should be as chains drawing him to her side.
Piers Rendall sighed.  "Perhaps," he told himself with weary
self-depredation--"perhaps I am incapable of real passion.  It is the
same story all round.  I never get far enough.  Nature made me in a
mocking mood, cursing me with high aims and poor achievements.  What I
long for is never accomplished, what I attain never satisfies.  If I am
to find any happiness from life, I must adjust the balance and be
satisfied with smaller things.  It's time I married.  Most men can live
alone, but I'm sick of solitude.  Ten years of life in chambers is
enough for any man.  Jean is a darling, a delight to the eyes; she's
only a child, but she's sweet all through, and she'll grow.  She'll be a
dear woman.  I am always happy in her company--it's only when we are
apart that I have doubts.  If she would have me, we should always be
together.  _Would_ she have me, I wonder?"

He looked down at the girl as she walked by his side, critically,
questioningly, with a certain wistfulness of expression, yet without a
throb of the desperate, death-and-life tension which another man might
have felt, which he himself understood enough to miss and to covet.

"Shall I _never_ feel?" he asked himself, and his thin face twitched and
twitched again.

"You don't speak," cried Jean lightly.  "Poor Piers! he thinks it a
silly question, but he is too kind to speak the truth.  Does the girl
expect to be immortal? he is saying to himself, and trying to conjure up
a picture--the picture of Jean Goring, _old_!  Ah, well, it will be only
my husk that alters; and even when it's withered and dry there'll be
_this_ comfort; you'll be withered, too!  We shall all grow old
together, and we'll be friends still, and cling together, and
sympathise, and think the young so--crude!"  She laughed, and pointed
forward with an outstretched hand.

"Here's the tennis-lawn, and there's the fernery, and here's a prosaic
gravel path dividing the two.  You've seen fifty thousand other gardens
like it before.  Now shut your eyes--keep them shut, and let me guide
you for the next two minutes.  Then prepare for a surprise."

Vanna shut her eyes obediently, and surrendered herself to the guiding
hand.  For some yards the path stretched smooth and straight beneath her
feet, then suddenly it curved and took a downward dope.  At the same
time the well-rolled smoothness disappeared, and her feet tripped
against an occasional stone.  The second time this happened a hand
touched her shoulder with the lightest, most passing of pressures--that
was Piers Rendall, who had evidently crossed the path at the opposite
side from Jean, to be a further security to her steps.  Vanna flushed,
and trod with increased care, but the path was momentarily becoming more
difficult, and despite all her precautions she slipped again, more
heavily than before.  This time the hand grasped her arm without
pretence, and at the same moment she stopped short, and cried quickly:

"Oh, it's too rough.  I can't go on.  I'm going to open my eyes."

"Open!" cried Jean's voice dramatically, and with a hand placed on each
elbow twisted her round to face the west.

Vanna gave a cry of delight, and stood transfixed with admiration.  The
commonplace white house with its tennis-lawn and beds of geraniums had
disappeared; she stood on a path looking across a narrow glen
illuminated by sunshine, which streamed down through the delicate
foliage of a grove of aspens.  The dappled light danced to and fro over
carpets of softest moss, through which peeped patches of violets and
harebells.  The trunks of the aspens shone silvery white; here and there
on the crest of the hills stood a grave Scotch fir, grey-blue against
the green.  From below came the melodious splash of water; the faint hum
and drone of insect life rose from the ground; from overhead floated
down the sweet, shrill chorus of birds.  Vanna gazed, her face illumined
with admiration, and her companions in their turn gazed at her face.  It
also was good to look at at that moment, and eloquent as only a usually
quiet face can be.

"Oh! how wonderful!  It's a _dell_--a glade--a fairy glade!  The
unexpectedness of it!  Only a few yards from those beds of geraniums!
One feels as if anything like a house or bedding-out plants must be at
the other end of the world...  And down there the little stream..."  She
lifted her head with a sudden glance of inquiry.  "The stream grows
wider surely--there are stepping-stones--at the end there's a lake.  I
am _sure_ there is a lake--!"

Before Piers had time to reply, Jean had interrupted with a quick
exclamation:

"Vanna!  How did you know?  How did you guess?  You have never been here
before?"

"Perhaps Miss Strangeways thinks that she has.  Have you visited our
glen in another incarnation, Miss Strangeways, that you remember its
details so distinctly?"

Vanna shook her head.

"No; I have never known that feeling.  One hears of it, but it doesn't
come to me.  It's more like--_expectation_.  I seemed for the moment to
see ahead.  It must really be a fairy glen, for there's enchantment in
the air.  Something--something is going to happen here.  I feel it!
Something _good_!  We are going to be happy!"

Piers looked at her curiously, but Jean remained charmingly
matter-of-fact.

"Of course we are, and we are going to begin at once.  Let's sit down
and talk.  It's cool tinder these trees, and I'm sleepy after lunch.  So
you don't remember being here before, Vanna?  How stupid of you!  You
must have a very short memory.  We've played here together scores of
times, when there was no white house, and no smooth lawn, and the
grandparents of these old trees were gay young saplings.  I was a
wood-nymph, and danced about with the other nymphs all day long, and
flirted with the elves--elves are masculine, I'm sure! and feasted on
nuts.  (That habit lasts.  I adore them still.)  When winter came, I
curled up into a tight little ball in the hollow of an oak, and slept
till spring came back.  Where is that old oak, I wonder?  I long to meet
it again.  And all the long summer days we ate wild strawberries, and
drank out of the stream, and played hide-and-seek among the trees.  And
one day, Piers, _you_ came along--do you remember?  I peered out from
behind the leaves, and saw you coming."

"I was not an elf then--one of the number who was honoured by your
attentions?"

"Oh, dear me, no!  Nothing so frivolous.  You an elf!  You were a
woodcutter with a solemn face, and a long white beard, and a big strong
axe, and you came trespassing into my glade with intent to kill my dear
tree friends.  But I circumvented you.  When you took up your axe I
swung on the branches till the sunshine danced on your eyes, and dazzled
them so that you could not see."

"The same old trick!  I seem to have no difficulty in remembering you in
that guise.  It has a flavour of to-day."

"Poof!"  Jean blew disdain from pursed-up lips.  "So much for you.  If
you are so clever at remembering, tell me something about Vanna as she
was at that time.  She was there that day--quite close to me.  What was
she like?"

Piers looked across to where Vanna sat, and, for the first time in the
short history of their acquaintance, their eyes met with smiling ease
and friendliness.  Each felt a sense of relief to see the other in
happier mood, and with it an increased appreciation of the other's
charm.  "If he were always happy, how handsome he would be!"

"She is charming when she smiles.  She should always smile!"

"So we are old friends, Miss Strangeways.  We have Jean's word for it,
so it must be true.  My memory is not very clear.  Let me think.  I was
a woodcutter with a long grey beard.  I must have looked rather striking
in a beard.  And I invaded Jean's glade with intent to kill, and made
your acquaintance there.  What can you have been?  Not a nymph, I think;
perhaps a flower--"

Vanna lifted a protesting hand.  Whence came this sudden tide of
happiness; this swift rush of blood through the veins?  The last year's
burden of sorrow had weighed heavily upon her shoulders; the Harley
Street interview had seemed to put a definite end to youth and joy; but
now suddenly, unreasonably, the mist lifted, she knew a feeling not only
of mental but of actual physical lightness; hard-won composure gave
place to the old gay impulse toward laughter and merriment.

"No--no.  I guess what you are going to say; but spare me, I pray you!
I was _not_ `a violet by a mossy dell.'  It is the inevitable
comparison, but it does _not_ apply.  Whatever I was, I am sure I was
never content to nestle in that mossy bed."

Piers Rendall looked at her reflectively, the smile still lingering
round his mouth.

"No-o," he said slowly.  "I should not think the violet was exactly your
counterpart.  We must leave it to Jean--"

"She was a Scotch fir," said Jean firmly.  "She stood up straight and
stiff against the sky, and there were little sharp spikes on her boughs,
and if you ran against her, she pricked; but when the storms came, and
the aspens bent and swayed, she stood firm, and the little needles fell
on the ground, and made a soft, soft bed, and we lay there sheltered,
and slept till the storm passed by.  There!  You never knew how poetic I
could be.  I'm quite exhausted with the effort, and so sleepy!  I
positively must have a nap.  Run away, you two!  Explore the glen for
half an hour, and leave me in peace.  If there's one thing in the world
I adore, it's sleeping out-of-doors."

She curled up on the ground as she spoke, nestling her cheek in her
hand, and yawning like a tired child, without disguise or apology.
Evidently there was no pretence about her statement, for already her
eyelids had begun to droop, until dark lashes rested on the flushed
cheeks; she moved her head to and fro seeking for greater comfort;
peered upward, and exclaimed with added emphasis:

"Go away!  I told you to go."

Jean was accustomed to issue queenly commands, and her friends were
accustomed to obey.  Piers and Vanna strolled down the sloping path,
leaving her to her dreams.  A day before Vanna would have felt unhappily
that Piers was chafing at the change of companionship, and condoling
with himself in advance on a half-hour's boredom; to-day she was
troubled by no such doubts.  Self-confidence had returned, and with it
the old stimulating consciousness of charm.

Piers Rendall deserved no pity at her hands.

The path grew steeper, strewn with pebbles, interspersed with crawling
roots of trees; the gentle trickle of water deepened in tone as it
swirled in rapid flow round the mossy stones; banks of old-fashioned
purple rhododendron framed the margin of the lake.  A rustic bench stood
at a corner, whence the most extensive view could be obtained; the two
seated themselves thereon, and slid easily into conversation.

"So you have pleasant anticipations concerning our glen?  We are used to
admiration, but I think that it is quite the most charming compliment it
has received.  If it had recalled a dim memory it would not have been
half so interesting, for when the good things arrive we are bound to
have a share in them, if only the pleasure of looking on while you
enjoy.  What form does it take--this presentiment of yours?  Have you
any definite idea of what is to happen--or when?"

Vanna shook her head.

"Nothing!  I only know that the moment I opened my eyes and looked round
I felt a throb of--not surprise, something bigger than surprise, and a
quite extraordinary rush of happiness and hope.  Things have not been
cheery with me of late, so it is all the more striking.  I feel about
ten years younger than when I left the house."

He looked at her searchingly, and Vanna entered it to his credit that he
spared her the obvious flattering retort.  Instead, his own expression
seemed to cloud; he leant his arms on his knees and, bending forward,
stared gloomily into space.

"What sports of circumstances we are!  I was looking round the table at
lunch to-day and puzzling for the hundredth time over the question of
temperament.  Does it interest you at all?  Do you find it a difficulty?
Why are some of us born into the world handicapped with temperaments
which hold us in chains all our days, and others with some natural charm
or quality of mind which acts as an open sesame wherever they go?  Look
at Miggles!  A plain, lonely old woman, without a sou.  If she had been
born with a `difficult' temper, she might have worked, and slaved, and
fought with evil passions, and gone to bed every night of her life
wearied out with the stress of battle, and when the need of her was
past, her employers would have heaved a sigh of relief, and packed her
off with a year's salary.  Can't you hear her requiem? `a good creature,
most painstaking--what a relief to be alone!'  But Miggles!  No sane
creature would willingly send her away.  You would as soon brick up
windows to keep out the sun.  She radiates happiness and content,
without--this is the point--without effort on her own part!  The effort
to her would be to grumble and be disagreeable, yet she receives all the
credit and appreciation which she would have more truly deserved in the
other case.  And Jean!  Look at Jean!  Honestly--we are both her devoted
slaves--but honestly, is it by any virtue of her own?  Does she reign by
merit or by chance?"

Vanna smiled.

"I know what you mean.  Jean is charming, but it is easier for her to be
charming than for most people.  Every glance in the glass must be as
reviving as a tonic.  She has no difficulty in making friends, for
people advance three quarters of the way to meet her; and if by chance
she is in a bad mood--well, she is charming still.  Of course, if she
were plain--"

"Exactly!  She reigns in a kingdom of chance, and by no merit of her
own.  Doesn't that seem rather hard on the unfortunates who start with a
handicap--a restless, unsatisfied nature, for example--a nature which
longs for the affection and appreciation which it seems fated never to
receive; which suffers and struggles, and honestly sees no reason why
life should be harder for it than for another?  Yet there it is--the
inequality, the handicap from the beginning.  Jean has beauty and charm,
but even these don't weigh so heavily in the balance as happiness; the
aura of happiness and content which radiates from Miggles and her kind--
the Mark Tapleys of the world, who triumph over every sort of physical
and material difficulty.  You smile!  Are you thinking of some one you
know, some particular person who is included in this happy category?"

"Yes; of a man I met only the other day--a man over thirty, with eyes
like a child; clear, and unclouded, and happy.  Yet he had known many
anxieties; in a worldly sense I suppose he would be counted a failure,
but, as you say, one _felt_ it, the aura of radiant happiness and
content."

"Lucky beggar!  The world which counts him a failure would think me a
success, because I have plenty of money, and was born to a decent
position; but looking back over my life I can't remember one single
occasion when I have been really _content_.  There has always seemed
something wanting, a final touch of completeness floating out of reach.
Yet I give you my word, if at this moment a wish would bring me anything
I chose, I should not know what to ask!"

Vanna looked at him searchingly, noting the lean cheeks, the hollow
brow, the deep lines around eyes and mouth.

"Isn't that partly physical, don't you think?  You don't look strong.
The body affects the mind."

Her voice involuntarily took a softer tone, the feminine tribute to
weakness in any form; but Piers Rendall would not accept the excuse.

"On the contrary, it's my mind that affects my body.  I'm strong enough.
My body was born free of microbes--the poison was in my mind.  That
seems a hard theory, but it's true.  Have you never noticed how one
child in a family seems to have inherited all the weaknesses and
failings, while the others get off scot free?  He is plain, while they
are handsome; sullen, where they are genial; underhand, while they are
open.  I know such cases where one can only look on and marvel--where
there is no blame to be cast, where the parents have broken no law--are
healthy, no relation--"

Vanna winced.  A shadow passed across her face, as if cast by a
flickering bough.

"_Don't_ talk of it," she cried urgently.  "Don't!  It is too pitiful,
here in this glen.  I can't discuss such things here.  Another time,
perhaps, but let me be happy here.  Talk of happy things.  There is so
much sorrow..."

Piers looked at her, and as he did so there arose in his mind the swift
remembrance of her face as she had sat upon the pebbly beach a few days
before--the face on which he had read tragedy.  Remorse seized him.  He
hastened to retrieve his mistake.

"Forgive me.  You are quite right--the scene is not appropriate.  Miss
Strangeways, by the laws of appreciation, this glen is yours.  I have a
conviction that these trees recognise you as their queen.  Lay down a
law, and we will keep it.  Come what may, when you and I enter this
glen, we will leave our troubles behind.  It shall be a space apart, in
which to be busy over nothing but being happy.  We will talk of happy
things, happy memories, happy prospects; best of all, the happy present.
It shall be a sin against the realm and its sovereign to mention one
painful fact.  Is it agreed?"

Vanna looked around with wistful glance.

"The Happy Land!  That is a charming idea--to keep one spot on earth
sacred to happiness!  Why has not one thought of that before?  Yes,
indeed, Mr Rendall, I'll agree.  The only pity is that I shall be here
so seldom.  One ought to keep one's happy land within reach."

"I hope you may come more often than you think.  Mr Goring is talking
of buying the Cottage, and if that comes off you will be constantly with
them.  My visits also are only occasional.  For nine months of the year
I am in town.  It will be an extra attraction to come down to a place
where I am bound to be happy.  Where is your settled home?"

"I have no home at present."

Vanna vouchsafed no further explanation, and Piers did not ask for one,
for which she was grateful.  More than once this tactful reservation of
the obvious had arrested her attention, and been mentally noted as the
man's best point.  Vanna felt sorry for him, tender over him, as a woman
will do over something that is suffering or weak.  The nervous, restless
face looked far indeed from content, yet he had declared that if he had
power to wish he would not know what to desire.  That might mean that he
was dwelling in that unrecognised stage of love, that period of
discomfort, doubt, and upheaval, which precedes the final illumination.
It would go hard with him if he loved and were disappointed.  She put
the thought aside with resolute effort.  Was not the glen dedicated to
happy thoughts?

The half-hour slipped quickly away, and presently Jean herself descended
to seat herself on the bench by Vanna's side, and take the conversation
under her own control.  At four o'clock they returned to the house,
mounting the steep path, and entering with a sigh the stiff precincts of
the garden.

On the verandah the two stout, black-robed figures of the old ladies
could be seen reposing in their wickerwork chairs, but, behold, the
distance between those chairs was largely increased, and between the
two, the obvious centre of attraction, sat a third form--a masculine
form, clad in light grey clothes, towards whom both glances were
directed, who gesticulated with his hands, and bent from side to side.
The face of this newcomer could not be distinguished; his figure was
half hidden by the encircling chairs.

"Who the dickens?" ejaculated Piers blankly.  He stared beneath frowning
brows, searching memory, without response.  "None of the neighbours.
Some one from town.  How has he come?"

Vanna looked, but without interest.  In a short time the carriage would
be at the door to carry the three ladies back to the cottage by the sea.
The advent of a stranger could not affect them for good or ill.  She
turned to exchange a casual remark with Jean, and behold, Jean's cheeks
were damask--flaming, as if with a fever.  Now what was this?  The
effect of that nap on the mossy ground?  But not a moment before Jean's
colour had been normal.  Had anything been said to arouse her wrath?
Was she by chance annoyed at this interruption to the visit?  And then,
nearer already by a score of yards, Vanna turned once more towards the
verandah, and understood.  There, sandwiched between the two old ladies,
smiling, debonair, at ease, a stranger, yet apparently on terms of easy
friendship, sat--not the wraith of Robert Gloucester, as for a moment
seemed the only possible explanation, but the man himself, in veritable
flesh and blood.  Incredible, preposterous as it appeared, it was
nevertheless true.  One could not doubt the evidence of one's own
senses, of the eyes which beheld him, the ears which listened to his
words, as in characteristic simplicity he offered his explanation.

"How do you do?  You are surprised to see me here.  I came down by the
twelve train.  Mr Goring and I have arranged to have some fishing
together.  I'm putting up at the inn.  I called at the Cottage and found
you were out.  The maid told me where you were to be found, and I
thought I would walk over, and perhaps have the pleasure of escorting
you home.  I have introduced myself as you see!"  So far he had
addressed himself pointedly to Vanna, casting never a glance in the
direction of Jean, but now he turned towards Piers with the frankest of
smiles.  "My name's Gloucester.  I'm just home from abroad.  I'm going
to fish with Mr Goring.  Hope you don't mind my intruding.  I am at a
loose end down here."

"Not at all--not at all!  Pleased to see you.  Sit down.  We'll have
some tea."  Piers spoke cordially; what was more to the point, he looked
cordial into the bargain.  Of a shy, reserved nature, cherishing an
active dislike of strangers, he yet appeared to find nothing
extraordinary or offensive in the intrusion of this man "just home from
abroad," who had raided his mother's privacy in the hope of gaining for
himself the pleasure of meeting her invited guests.  Vanna looked past
him to the faces of the two old ladies seated on the basket chairs, and
beheld them benign, smiling, unperturbed.  They also had fallen beneath
the spell of Gloucester's personality, and had placidly accepted his
explanations.  Jean walked to the farthest of the row of chairs, pushed
it back out of the line of vision, and seated herself in silence.  Piers
strolled towards the house to hurry the arrival of tea, and Miggles
declared genially:

"So nice for gentlemen to fish!  Such an interest, especially getting on
in years like Mr Goring.  Gout, you know! such a handicap.  I believe
the inn is comfortable.  Quite clean; but always mutton.  You will have
to take meals with us."

"I--I've lost my handkerchief.  I'll look upstairs," mumbled Vanna
hurriedly.  She dived through the open window, fled upstairs to the
shelter of the bedroom where she had laid aside her wraps three hours
before, and sinking down on the bed pressed both hands against her lips.
For the first time for many weeks, laughter overcame her in paroxysms
which could not be repressed.  She laughed and laughed; the tears poured
down her cheeks; she laughed again and again.



CHAPTER EIGHT.

A NARROW ESCAPE.

Suddenly Jean wrapped herself in a mantle of reserve.  Not even to
Vanna, her chosen confidante, did she express surprise at Gloucester's
sudden appearance, or make one single comment, favourable or the
reverse.  Driving home in Mrs Rendall's carriage, she maintained her
fair share in the conversation, and betrayed no sign of embarrassment.
That she was embarrassed Vanna knew by the tone of her voice, which was
wont to take a higher, shriller note on such occasions; but neither
Gloucester nor Miggles was likely to recognise so subtle a betrayal.
The old lady was evidently greatly taken with the new acquaintance, and
invited him to dinner at the end of the drive.

"We are only three women, very dull for a young man, but as you are
alone in the inn--so unhomelike, inn-parlours!--if you _would_ care to
dine at seven o'clock, pot luck, just a simple meal!  Don't dress; it's
a picnic life down here, and the girls like to run about as long as it
keeps light."

Miggles had reigned as mistress of Mr Goring's home for so many years
that, failing the second wife's presence, she still managed the
household, without any attempt at interference from her old pupil.  Jean
had no ambition for domestic responsibilities; looking after a house was
dull, stodgy work, Miggles liked it, then for goodness' sake let her do
it; she had no wish to exercise her prerogative.  It was Miggles,
therefore, who gave the newcomer his first invitation to the Cottage,
but when Robert's eyes turned to the girl with an involuntary question,
Jean was ready with a gracious support.

"We are very quiet, as Miss Miggs says.  Next week father brings down
the family, and it will be livelier; but if you care to risk it, we
shall be pleased."

"Seven o'clock.  Thank you!" said Robert simply.  He took his leave for
the time being, and the ladies entered the Cottage.

"We had better get our letters written, as we shall not have time later
on," said Jean calmly.  Even when seated with Vanna at the same
writing-table she made no reference to the event of the afternoon.  It
might have been the most natural thing in the world for Robert
Gloucester to leave his old friends in less than a week after his return
from India, in order to have the privilege of fishing with a strange
elderly gentleman.  When the letters were finished, she talked on
indifferent subjects, gaily, lovingly, intimately as ever, yet with a
certain carriage of the head, a set of the lips which seemed to send
forth an unspoken warning, "Until now my heart has lain bare before you,
but to-day there has entered into it something so intimate, so sacred,
that it cannot be revealed to any human gaze.  _Touch me not_!"  And
Vanna understood, and was silent.

Robert Gloucester came back to dinner and sat at the head of the table
opposite Miggles, the two girls seated one on either side.  A bowl of
roses stood in the centre of the table; roses twined round the framework
of the opened window; tiny sprays of roses wandered over the muslin of
Jean's gown.  They talked of books, of pictures, of foreign lands, of
things extraordinary, and things prosaic.  When Robert recounted
experiences abroad, the two girls questioned him as to scenery and
environment, and Miggles wished to know what he had had to eat, and if
there was any means of drying his clothes.

Gloucester also entered into details about his business life, and the
failure of his investments, explaining his present monetary position
with an incredible frankness.

"It seemed an awfully good thing, perfectly sound, but it came a jolly
big crash.  I was fortunate to get out of it as well as I did.  I
haven't been fortunate in my speculations.  Between them I've dropped
almost all my capital.  I have a share or two in a bank paying rattling
good interest, and the firm pay me a fair salary, and that's all that is
left."

"Oh, we know you don't mean _that_," laughed Miggles easily.  "It will
all go on quite nicely, I am sure, and you will be settling down and
marrying, of course."

"Of course," said Robert Gloucester.

There was something so exquisitely unusual about his frank avowal of
poverty that Vanna had hard work to keep a straight face.  What to
another man would have been a secret between himself and his banker
weighed so heavily on Robert Gloucester's candid soul that he must needs
blurt it out on the first possible occasion.  Vanna knew intuitively the
exact workings of his mind: he had come down to Seacliff to woo Jean for
his wife.  Jean must know from the beginning exactly what he had to
offer; not for a single evening could she be allowed to think of him in
a setting which did not exist.  "He had not been lucky in his
speculations."  Unnecessary explanation!  It was from guileless natures
such as his that the fraudulent made their hoards.  The national savings
bank would be the only safe resting-place for Robert Gloucester's money.

When the simple meal was over the two girls accompanied their guest into
the garden and sat beside him while he smoked.  He neither offered
cigarettes to them, nor did they dream of providing them on their own
account.  In the seventies it was still a rare and petrifying experience
to see a young girl smoke.  The heroine of to-day is depicted to us as
making dainty play with her cigarette, or blowing smoke-rings with
unequalled grace.  If the tips of her fingers are also stained yellow
with nicotine, and her clothes diffuse an atmosphere of a
smoking-carriage, these details are mercifully concealed.  Jean and
Vanna at least had no hankerings after this masculine amusement.

Once and again as the time passed by, Robert looked fixedly at Vanna,
and grey eyes and brown exchanged an unspoken duel.  "Leave us alone!"
entreated the brown.  "You know; you understand!  As you are wise be
merciful..."

"Not one step!" replied the grey.  "Here I am, and here I stay.  This is
my post, and I will stick to it."

"Be hanged to your post!  You take too much upon yourself.  Hand over
your post to me.  Think of the difficulties, the contrivings, the
explainings I have had to undergo before getting away from town!"

"You had no business to leave..."

Vanna stuck obstinately to her guns, and at last Gloucester abandoned
his efforts.  Another man would have been angry, impatient, would have
eyed her with cold antagonism, but Robert betrayed no irritation.
Rather did his brown eyes dilate with mischievous amusement as they met
her own.

"Please yourself," they seemed to say.  "Do your little best.  Erect
your puny barriers.  A day or two more or less--what does it matter?
The end is sure."

The Cottage with its sloping garden was perched high on the side of one
of two outstanding cliffs which formed a deep, narrow bay.  So far did
these chalk-walls jut out, so narrow was the space between, that the
view from the land had a confined, stage-like effect.  The coast-line on
either side was completely hidden from sight, only the blue-green waters
stretched ahead, but these waters were one of the highways of a nation's
life, and o'er its surface all kinds of craft passed to and fro, in
endless panorama.  When the tide was up, the great steamers could safely
take the inshore channel, while near at hand, and looking as if one
could, in nautical language, "throw a biscuit aboard," the smaller craft
plied their way to and fro.  Now it would be a small sailing barge, with
captain, mate, and crew, comprised in one single hand, anon a
white-sailed yacht, with gleaming brass-work and spotless paint, or a
coasting collier, grimy and drab, her screw out of water, as she churned
her homeward way.  In fine weather coasting passenger-boats ventured
near shore, while farther off the pilot-boats of many nations could be
discerned, decked with gay strings of signalling flags, and the busy
tugs plied far and near, endlessly on the watch for chances of salvage.

One misty day as Jean sat perched alone on the edge of the railed-in
garden, at a point from which she could have dropped a stone into the
sea beneath, a smooth grey keel glided noiselessly round the corner of
the cliff, and another, and yet a third--low-built, ominous-looking
monsters, the colour of the fog, the colour of the waves, Her Majesty's
battleships, each bearing on board its complement of seven hundred men.
To-night, as the daylight faded slowly away, the different lights at sea
attracted the watching eye.  From the left came a merry, starlike
twinkle, as from a faithful friend who kept firmly to his post; beyond
him in the dim distance was the humourist, who for ten seconds on end
indulged in a stony stare, then darkened, gave two cunning winks, and so
again to his stare.  Right ahead was the big revolving light which, like
a constable afloat, divided the traffic--"This way for the river, that
for the North Sea!"  High over all swung the rays from the great
lighthouse on the downs.

Presently round the farther cliff came a great ocean liner, its cabin
windows showing out a blaze of light, the throb, throb of its engines
heard distinctly in the distance, a floating city, bearing home an army
of men: the man who had toiled and reaped his reward; the man who had
toiled and failed, the idler, the drone, the remittance man back again
to prey on his friends; the bridegroom speeding to his bride; the
trembler, to whom the wires had flashed a message of tragedy; the
sinner, fleeing from justice, the pleasure lover seeking a new world.
Those brilliantly lighted rooms held them all.  Up the long channel they
sailed; past the shifty sand-banks, past the hidden rocks; gliding
smoothly along the beaten track, while the captain stood on his bridge
and grew pale beneath his tan.  Until the dangerous channel was
navigated, he would not leave his post.

The three who were seated on the garden bench watched the great vessel
in silence until she disappeared behind the cliff.

"A week ago," said Robert softly, "a week ago I was steaming along this
very coast.  Only one little week!"

He broke off suddenly, and there was no response, but Vanna felt Jean's
fingers twitch within her arm.  Was she too beginning to realise the
bearing of this week upon her own life?

During the days which elapsed before Mr and Mrs Goring and the two
schoolboys arrived at the Cottage, Jean kept sedulously by her friend's
side, and allowed Robert Gloucester no chance of a _tete-a-tete_.
Instead of being ordered to keep her distance, as on the occasion of
Piers Rendall's visit, Vanna was held firmly by the arm, invited to join
every expedition, considered so necessary that, without her company no
expedition could be faced.  Where Jean went, Vanna must needs go also;
who wished to see one, must see the other also.

But when the family arrived, the chaperonage could no longer be
preserved.  The Cottage was crowded to its fullest limit.  Miggles was
busy with household affairs.  Mr Goring, his wife, the two schoolboys,
all made their own demands on the girls' time.  If Jean were bidden to
accompany her father for a walk along the downs, Vanna must needs hunt
for crabs among the rocks below.  If Vanna was writing letters to
tradespeople, Jean must run to the village and order cakes for tea.
Young girls should make themselves useful; a daughter should be ready to
wait on her father; a sister should be glad to amuse her brothers in
their holidays.  In these days it was worth while for an occupant of the
inn-parlour to keep a sharp lookout on the winding path leading from the
cliff to the village, for if by chance a girl's graceful form were seen
descending, there was time to snatch hat and stick, and reach the corner
of the road at the same moment as herself.

Jean, intercepted on her way to fulfil a commission, and without
possibility of escape, would promptly adopt an air of freezing dignity,
reply in monosyllables, and hurry through her work in the shortest
possible space of time; but no amount of coldness, of snubbing, or
neglect could damp the ardour of Gloucester's pursuit.  Before a week
was past, the budding romance was discerned not only by the different
members of the household, but by the village _en bloc_; and while
parents discussed prospects and settlements, and the schoolboys planned
holiday visits to "Jean's house," Mrs Jones of the general stores moved
the position of a row of sweet-bottles in the shop window, in order to
enjoy a better view of the daily encounter, and the boatmen waiting
impatiently for customers consulted their watches on the appearance of
either of the interesting couple, and indulging an apparently ingrained
habit, bet pennies together concerning the time which would elapse
before the advent of "t'other," And still Jean wrapped herself in her
mantle of reserve, and refused to mention Gloucester's name even in
private conclave with her friend.

Piers Rendall often walked over to the Cottage to spend some hours of
the day with his friends, and, strange as it might appear, the two young
men seemed mutually attracted to each other.  Vanna believing them both
to be in love with the same girl, was constantly watching for signs of
jealousy and irritation, but none appeared.  If Piers was occasionally
somewhat silent and distrait, the fact did not interfere with his
transparent enjoyment of Gloucester's company; while Robert himself
seemed to take a positive pride and pleasure in the knowledge of the
other's devotion.

"He admires her desperately, doesn't he?  Every one does.  There are
dozens of fellows head over heels in love with her, I suppose.  Scores!
She must be kept busy refusing them, poor fellows!  Hard lines for a
girl, especially when she is so sweet and sensitive, and sympathetic,
and--"

Vanna threw up her hand with a comical little grimace of appeal.

"That's enough, that's enough!  Three adjectives are quite a good
allowance for one sentence.  Spare me the rest.  Miss Goring has a
charming disposition, and she is duly appreciated.  That's settled.  Now
we'll talk of something else.  How did the fishing go this morning?  A
good haul?"

They looked at each other and laughed with mischievous enjoyment.  Each
time they found themselves alone the same thing happened.  Gloucester
persistently endeavoured to talk about Jean; Vanna as persistently
turned the subject.  On both sides the contest was conducted with
absolute good humour.  It was as amusing as a game, in which each tried
to outwit the other, to set for him an unconscious trap and pitfall.

To-day they walked along the country lanes, Jean and Piers Rendall
ahead, Miggles bringing up the rear, with a schoolboy hanging on each
arm.  These two lads, Jack and Pat, adored the old woman who had been
their confidante and mentor from their earliest years, and there was
literally no end to the sympathetic interest which she bestowed upon
them.  Father and mother might weary of eternal cricket and sixth-form
reminiscences, and impatiently suggest bed or a book.  Jean might, and
did, wax frankly cross and bored, but Miggles never failed to produce a
due display of surprise; never denied the expected admiration, nor
shirked a question which gave the conversation a new turn of life.  At
this moment Vanna could hear Pat's voice reeling off the everlasting
details:

"Smith, major, was bowling his hardest--he's a terror to bowl--and the
pitch was fast, and a ball got up, and got me on the shoulder--"

"Dear, dear, think of that!  And you went on playing?  You _are_ brave!
And made a fine score too, I'll be bound!"

How much of Miggles's happiness did she owe to this blessed capacity for
sympathy in the interests of others?

The destination of this afternoon's walk was a little wood lying about a
mile inland, and as a short cut across country, Jean and Piers led the
way through a farmyard, and thence on to a winding lane, sunk deep
between two hedgerows, fragrant with honeysuckle and wild rose.  To
right and left lay the fields belonging to the farm; pleasant fields of
wheat and corn, of delicate, green-eared barley, of sweet-smelling
beans.

It was a typical English lane; a perfect English afternoon, not typical,
alas! except so far as it demonstrated the perfection to which our
erratic climate can occasionally attain.  The sky overhead was deeply,
uncloudedly blue; the sea in the distance the clear, soft green of an
aquamarine, sparkling with a thousand points of light; all that the eye
could see was beautiful and harmonious; all that the ear could hear,
peaceful and serene; laughter, happy voices, the soaring notes of a
lark; all things animate and inanimate seemed to speak of peace and
happiness; and then suddenly, horribly, the scene changed.  What had
appeared the distant lowing of cattle, swelled into a threatening roar;
a man shouted loudly, and his call was echoed by many voices, by a
clamour of sound, by high, warning cries.  From the far end of the
narrow lane came the sound of galloping feet--heavy, thundering feet
seeming to shake the ground; light, racing feet pursuing; swifter
footsteps, which were yet mysteriously left behind.  Borne on the air
came the cries of men's voices, and ever and anon that deep, dull roar.
Nearer and nearer drew the danger, but the tall hedges hid it from
sight.

Jean and Piers turned hurriedly back; Miggles and the boys hurried
forward to where Vanna and Gloucester stood, the centre of the group.
The two men exchanged swift, anxious glances, divining, without
consultation, the nature of the danger--a bull, escaped from its chain,
rushing towards them.  What could be done?

The towering hedges gave no chance of escape, and so far as the eye
could reach there was neither gate nor entrance into the fields.  Before
there was time to consult or to issue directions, the danger was upon
them.  With incredible swiftness, within as it seemed one moment from
the time when the first cry had burst upon their ears, the danger was at
hand.

Round a corner of the road the huge beast rushed into view; a terrible,
nerve-shattering sight, filling up, as it seemed, the whole space of the
narrow path, pawing the earth, sending up clouds of dust, bellowing with
rage and fear.  Breathless with horror, they stood and watched it come.

And then a strange thing happened.  At that moment of strain and terror
the thoughts of the four elders of the little party flew instinctively
towards Jean.  Danger and Jean!  Death and Jean!  The idea was
insupportable.  Jean, who was in herself the embodiment of youth, of
health, of joy.  The woman who had been to her as a second mother; the
girl who was her lifelong friend; the man who until now had been the
most favoured of her admirers, turned with a common impulse to succour
Jean, and Jean, white-faced, trembling, primitive woman, stripped in one
moment of conventions and pretence, indifferent, oblivious of them all,
leapt forward into Gloucester's arms.

They closed round her; she clung to him, hiding her head on his breast;
he pressed a hand on her hair, screening her eyes till the danger should
have passed.  In another moment it was upon them.  An agonised gasp of
fear passed from one to another.  The danger was past!

The great brute went plunging down the lane, his head bent low, his
small eyes blinking, foam upon his lips; in his anxiety to escape his
pursuers, taking no heed of the figures flattened against the hedge.
With shouts and oaths, brandished sticks and panting breath, the farm
hands galloped in his rear.  They passed out of sight, and the quiet
lane, sunk beneath its flowering hedges, regained its wonted peace.

Not so the human beings for whom that moment had been fraught with such
startling emotions.  Jean's revulsion of feeling was as swift as the
impulse which had preceded.  Hardly had the pursuit clattered by than
she had wrenched herself from Robert's grasp, and with crimson cheeks
and haughtily tilted head, taken shelter by Miggles's side.  Vanna,
still trembling, leant back against the hedge, gazing from side to side.
Robert Gloucester turned and walked down the lane, following the line
of pursuit.  She caught a glimpse of his face as he went--radiant,
aglow!  At the other man she would not look.  Sympathy for his
discomfiture and pain withheld her gaze.  She knew exactly how Piers
Rendall would look at this moment: his eyes brilliantly hard, his lips
a-twitch.  For her own sake she would not look.  She hated to see that
twitch.

Miggles leant against the hedge, and burst into unrestrained tears.
Blessed Miggles, who could always be trusted to come to the rescue!  Her
sobs, her tears, her simple oblivion to the subject which was engrossing
the minds of her companions were the saving of the situation.

"Oh, my dear Jean--a bull!  A runaway bull!  Never in all my life--and
to think that to-day, of all others.  This narrow lane!  Oh dear!  Oh
dear!  Your poor dear father!  If you had worn your red dress!  It might
so easily have happened!  Thank God! thank God!  Your arm, dear, your
arm.  I do so tremble!  My poor old heart feels as if it would burst.
What a Providence!  What a Providence!"

"What a wicked, wretched man to leave the gate unlocked!  I'll ask
father to have him discharged at once," cried Jean hotly.  "It's wicked,
criminal carelessness.  We might all have been killed."

From the bottom of the hedge crawled the scratched and blackened figures
of the two schoolboys.

"I say!" gasped Jack, breathless.  "What a lark!  What a blooming lark!"



CHAPTER NINE.

TREASURE TROVE!

Miggles did not easily recover from her fright.  The good body was in
precarious health: it was only the power of mind over body which kept
her going, and when the motive power was temporarily eclipsed it was
startling, even alarming, to behold the corresponding physical change.
The light faded from the eyes; the chin dropped; a dozen unsuspected
lines furrowed the face; beaming middle-age was transformed in a moment
into suffering age.

"I think, my dears," she announced apologetically, "so sorry to spoil
your walk, but I _think_ I'll go home!  Bulls, you know, bulls!  They
_are_ disconcerting.  When you've lived all your life in towns you are
not accustomed...  I've got a little," she gasped painfully, "stitch in
my side!  It will soon be gone."

The grey hue of her face showed only too plainly the explanation of that
stitch.  Miggles knew it herself, but, as ever, preferred to make light
of her ailments.  She leant on Piers's arm, glancing affectionately in
his face, and made no objections when Vanna came forward to support her
on the other side.

"I _am_ honoured!  Quite a triumphal procession!" she gasped, with blue
lips.

The two schoolboys had scampered off to join in the chase.  Jean was
preparing to follow Miggles and her supporters, when a hand was laid on
her arm, and Robert Gloucester's voice spoke in her ear:

"You and I are going on to the wood."

Jean jerked herself free with a haughty air.

"Excuse me, I am going home.  I must look after Miss Miggs."

"Miss Miggs has plenty of helpers.  She doesn't need you.  I do.  Be
kind to me, Jean.  I've waited so long."

So long!  It was not yet a fortnight since he had arrived in England;
but time has different values, as Jean had discovered for herself.
These last days had counted for more in life than all the years which
had gone before.  She looked for one moment into the brown eyes bent
upon her, then hastily lowered her lids.  But she turned down hill in
the direction of the wood.  There was nothing in the world so mad or
impossible that she could have refused Robert Gloucester when he looked
at her with his clear eyes lighted by that flame.

They walked in silence along the quiet lane, golden with buttercups,
into the cool shadow of the wood.  "Now!" said Jean's heart, beating
painfully against her side.  "Now!"  She was not unversed in occasions
of the kind, and as a rule had no difficulty in "heading off" her suitor
by a baffling flow of conversation, but to-day no words would come.  She
looked at the soft carpet of moss beneath her feet; she looked at the
branches overhead; she looked down the gladelike vista, and saw ahead a
green space encircled by trees--a sunlit, sun-kissed space, doubly
bright from contrast with the surrounding shade.  "There!" said the
voice in her heart.  "It will be there."  It seemed fitting that Robert
Gloucester should tell his love in the light and the sun.

Right into the centre of the sunny space they walked, and as by a mutual
impulse halted, face to face.  For once Robert's radiant calm was
eclipsed.  Before the tremendous purport of the moment, confidence,
tranquillity, all the varied qualities which combined to sustain the
equilibrium of his character, were swept aside as though they had never
been.  The world held but one person, and that was Jean; if Jean failed
him, nothing was left.

At that moment the physical strain of long sojourn abroad showed itself
painfully in sunken cheek and pallid hue.  In the light grey clothes,
which hung so loosely on his thin form, he looked like the ghost of a
man, a ghost with living eyes--glowing, burning eyes, aflame with love
and dread.  He stood with hands clasped at his back, not daring a touch.

"Jean!" he said breathlessly, "I am a beggar at your gate, I am
starving, Jean, and I have nothing to offer you--nothing but myself and
my love!"

Afterwards Jean had many criticisms to make concerning the fashion of
Robert's avowal--criticisms at which she would make him blush when his
hair was grey; but at the moment she was conscious of one thing only--
that Robert was in torture and that she could ease him.  With a smile
which was divine in its abandon she held out her hands towards him.

"But that's all I want," said Jean, trembling.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

They sat for an hour by the side of an old oak, the sunshine flickering
through the branches on the illumined loveliness of Jean's face, on
Robert's rapturous joy.  Even to a cold, outside eye they would have
appeared an ideal couple: what wonder that to each the other seemed the
crowning miracle of the world!  The perfect moment was theirs; the
ineffable content, the amazement of joy which God in His mercy
vouchsafes to all true lovers.  The love lasts, but the glory wanes; of
necessity it must wane in a material world, but the memory of it can
never die.  It lives to sweeten life, to be a memory of perfect union, a
foretaste of the life beyond!

------------------------------------------------------------------------

They talked in the tongue of angels, in such words as can never be
transcribed in print; they marvelled and soared, and then at last came
down to facts.  A shadow flitted across Robert's face; his voice took an
anxious note.

"I am a poor man, Jean.  Until now I have not cared, but I'm grieved for
your sake.  I should like to have kept you like a queen, but I am poor,
and I fear shall never be otherwise.  We shall have to live in a small
house with a couple of servants, and think twice of every sovereign we
spend."

"Shall we?" asked Jean absently.  She was occupied in measuring her
small white hand against Robert's sunburnt palm, and had no attention to
spare for such minor details.  Her own dress allowance of a hundred a
year had invariably to be supplemented by an indulgent father, but it
seemed to her a matter of supreme unimportance whether Robert were rich
or poor.  At that moment she would have received with equanimity the
news that he was a huckster of goods, and that she would be expected to
follow his barrow through the streets.  Monetary conditions simply did
not exist; but on another point there was no end to her exactions.

"_How_ much do you love me?"

"Beyond all words, and all measures, beyond the capacity of mortal man.
That is why I feel a giant at this moment--a god!  There's no room for
my love in a man's poor frame."

Jean dimpled deliriously.  This was just as it should be, and such good
hearing that it could bear endless repetition.

"And am I the first?  Have you never loved any one before?"

"Not for a moment.  The thought of marriage never entered my head.  I
thought I was far better off as I was.  Oh, Jean, imagine it!"

Jean smiled at him with shy, lovely eyes.

"And never flirted, nor run after a pretty girl?"

"Goodness, _yes_!"  The emphasis of Robert's affirmative was a trifle
disconcerting to Jean's complacence.  "What do you take me for, Jean?  I
adore pretty girls.  I should be a fool if I didn't.  At balls and
picnics it's part of the programme to get up a passing flirtation.  I
wish I had a sovereign for every one I've enjoyed in the last ten years.
Half a dozen dances and supper, and forget all about her next day--you
know the sort of thing!  It doesn't enter into _our_ calculations."

Jean stared, considered, and finally laughed.

"No, it doesn't!  Thank goodness I am not jealous.  I have dozens of
faults, as you will find out to your cost, poor boy; but that's not one.
I don't mind how many pretty girls you admire.  We'll admire them
together.  You are mine; we belong to each other.  As you say, that sort
of thing doesn't _enter_."  She sat silent, musing with parted lips.  A
bird hopped lightly across the grass, peered at them for a moment with
bright, curious eyes, and soared up to the blue.  The air was sweet with
the fresh, pungent scent of the earth.

"What _is_ it?" questioned Jean, as every lover has questioned since the
days of Eve.  "What is it that makes the difference, the yawning,
illimitable difference between just one person and all the rest of the
world?  Why do we love each other like this?  You have seen hundreds of
girls, but you have never wished to marry one.  Men have loved me, and I
hated them the moment they began to make love.  But you--if _you_
hadn't!--Robert, what should I have done?  I should have lived on--I am
so strong, but my heart would have died; there would have been nothing
left.  And a fortnight ago we had not met!  People will say that it is
madness, that we cannot know our own minds; but the marvel of it is--we
knew at once!  I was frightened, and ran away, but I knew; deep down in
my heart I knew that you would follow.  Tell me when _you_ began to
know--the very first moment!"

And then Robert retold the story to which Vanna had listened on the
night of the ball, with the thrilling addition of the encounter in the
conservatory, and Jean listened, thrilled, and trembling with agitation.

"Yes, it is true.  I was waiting for you.  It was meant to be.  We were
made to meet and love each other."

"From the beginning of the world, my Rose, my Treasure!" said Robert
Gloucester.



CHAPTER TEN.

THE WEDDING DAY.

Jean Goring and Robert Gloucester were married in the early days of
October, after a bare three months' engagement.  They themselves found
the period one of ideal happiness, but, as is usually the case, it was
somewhat trying to their relations and friends.  Jean, in her gay young
beauty, had filled the centre of the stage for many friends, who were
bound to suffer when the light shone no more upon them, and Jean had
neither eyes, ears, nor heart for any one but her _fiance_.  Mr Goring
gave his consent to the engagement with a readiness which was largely
based upon the affection which his prospective son-in-law had already
awakened.

"He's a splendid fellow--a man in a thousand.  Thank Heaven you've
chosen a man who won't bore me to death hanging about the house.  It's a
poor match in a worldly sense, but that's your affair.  You had chances
of rich men before now, and wouldn't look at them.  I believe in letting
people live their own lives, in their own way.  I'll give you a good
trousseau, and allow you two hundred a year; but I can't do more.
There's the boys' education coming on."

"Oh, thank you, father.  That's sweet of you.  I never expected so much.
We shall be poor, of course, but I shan't mind.  It will be rather fun
living in a small house and playing at housekeeping.  I never cared much
for money."

Mr Goring grimaced expressively.  Jean had not cared for money, simply
because she had never realised its value.  Every want had been supplied,
and there had been a comfortable certainty of a lenient parent in the
background when her own generous allowance ran short.  Graceless mortals
never realise the value of the blessings which are theirs in abundance.
Jean had enjoyed easy means and perfect health all her life, and took
them as much for granted as light and air.

"Hadn't you better take some cooking lessons, or something?" asked her
father uneasily.  It crossed his mind at that moment that he had not
done his duty by the man whom Jean was about to marry, in allowing his
girl to grow up in absolute ignorance of her work in the world.
"Gloucester doesn't strike me as a man likely to make money, and you
ought to be trained.  Talk to Miggles.  Ask her.  She has about as good
an idea of running a house as any woman I know.  It's a good thing you
are going to live within reach of home.  I'm thankful Gloucester thinks
of settling in town."

"Yes, oh, yes!  Of course, if they gave him a really good offer for
India--I should rather like to live in India!"

Jean smiled into space, blissfully unconscious of the pain on her
father's face.  He was not a demonstrative man, and no one but himself
knew how he had loved and cherished this child of his youth--the
daughter who had inherited the beauty and charm of the girl-wife with
whom he had spent the golden year of his life.  To his own heart he
acknowledged that Jean was his dearest possession--dearer than wife,
dearer than sons, dearer than life itself, and Jean could leave him
without a pang--would "rather like" to put the width of the world
between them!

"India's a long way off, Jean.  I should miss you if you went."

"But we'd come home, father.  We'd have a long holiday every five
years."

Well! well!  Mr Goring reminded himself that in his own youth he had
been equally callous.  He recalled the day of his first marriage, and
saw again the twisted face of his mother as she bade him adieu at the
door.  He had known a pang of regret at the sight, regret for _her_
suffering, her loss; not for his own.  For himself, the moment had been
one of unalloyed triumph; he had heaved a sigh of relief as the carriage
bore him away and he was alone with his bride.  It was natural that it
should be so--natural and right; but when one came to stand in the
parent's place, how it hurt!  He set his teeth in endurance.

Mrs Goring regarded the engagement and prospective marriage primarily
as a disagreeable upset to domestic routine, and did not rest until she
had secured Vanna's consent to prolong her visit until the bride had
departed.

"There will be so much to arrange, endless letters to write, and people
to see.  Jean will be worse than useless, and poor dear Miss Miggs is
not fit to rush about.  If you _would_ stay and help, my dear, I should
be unutterably grateful.  When you undertake a thing it is always well
done."

"I should like to stay," replied Vanna simply.  The first days of Jean's
rapturous happiness had been hard for her friend.  It was not in human
nature to avoid a feeling of loss, of loneliness, of hopeless longing
for such happiness for herself, but it was a comfort to know that she
could be of real practical help.  Jean, of course, had declared in words
that nothing, no, nothing, could ever lessen the warmth of her
friendship, and Vanna had faith to believe that in the years to come the
love between them would increase rather than diminish.  In the meantime,
however, she must needs stand aside, and be content to be neglected,
ignored, regarded at times as an unwelcome intruder--a difficult lesson
to learn.

At the very first meeting after the engagement the difference of
relationship had made itself felt, for Jean had shown a distinct
annoyance when Vanna referred to the prophecy of the rose.

"He had told you--you knew?  He talked about it to you afterwards.  You
knew how he felt--" Her face flushed with resentment; there was a cool
aloofness in her glance, as though a friend whom she had trusted had
been discovered prying into hidden treasures.  "Please don't speak of it
again; don't let any one else know.  Promise me never to mention it."
That was all, but her manner said as plainly as words, "It is our
secret--Robert's and mine.  What right have you on our holy ground?"

Vanna was by nature just and reasonable, and she told herself that in
Jean's place she might have felt the same irritation, though perhaps she
would have been more chary about showing it.  She held herself in check,
and was careful never again to refer to the forbidden topic.

On another occasion, when called to give her advice on a matter in
consultation between the lovers, Robert had addressed his _fiancee_ as
"Rose" when Vanna, looking up quickly, surprised a swift glance of
reproach on Jean's face.

"You have forgotten," said that look.  "We are not alone.  That name is
not for the ears of a stranger.  It is for use only between you and me,
when we are alone in our own kingdom, with the world shut out."

The lonely ones of the world smart under many darts planted by these
wordless arrows.

And Piers Rendall?  Vanna was perplexed and mystified by his reception
of the news.  She had dreaded to see him amazed, broken down,
despairing, and when he arrived at the Cottage the day after the great
event, had felt her heart throb with a sympathy that was painful in its
intensity.  They were seated in the hall drinking tea, a happy family
group, the lovers side by side on an old oak settle, when the gate
clicked, and Piers's tall figure was seen walking up the path.  He
looked anxiously towards the open door, and Vanna felt convinced that he
had noticed the absence of the couple the afternoon before, and had a
premonition of the news which lay in store.  She lowered her eyes, and
braced herself, as if it had been upon her own shoulders that the blow
were about to fall.

"Oh, it's Piers!  I must tell Piers!" cried Jean gaily.  Now that the
deed was done, her former reserve had given way to an abandon of
light-hearted joy.  She told the great news to every one she met; it was
her great joy to tell it, her regret that there were so few to listen.

Now, at sight of her old friend, she sprang from her seat.

"Robert, come," she cried, stretching out a beckoning hand, and standing
proudly linked together, the lovers met the unconscious Piers on the
threshold.

"Piers!  Piers!  I'm so glad you came.  I did so want to see you.  Guess
what has happened!  Guess--quick!  We are so happy--so ridiculously
happy.  Guess!"

Piers stood still, looking from one to the other with a swift,
questioning glance.  Despite herself, despite her dread, Vanna felt it
impossible to restrain from one look at his face.  She turned shrinking
eyes upon him, but what she saw was strangely, wonderfully different
from what she had expected.

Piers stood looking from one to the other of the triumphant lovers, and
for the first time since she had known him, Vanna saw his face illumined
with happiness and content.  It seemed incredible, but it was true.  The
dark eyes had lost their hard, irritable brilliance, and shone deep and
soft; the discontent of the mouth was turned into a happy smile.

"You mean--you mean--" he stammered incredulously.  "By Jove! you are
engaged--you two!  Is it really possible?"

"Yes!  Yes!"  Jean jumped on her feet, like a small excited child.
"You've guessed it; it's true.  Congratulate us, Piers.  We love to be
congratulated."

"By Jove!" ejaculated Piers once more.  Jean's assumption of haughtiness
had evidently put him off the scent, for the news appeared to take him
completely by surprise.  "By Jove, I _do_ congratulate you.  You deserve
congratulations.  Gloucester, you are the luckiest man on earth.  Jean,
he is the only man I have ever met who is worthy of you.  You're a wise
girl; you've done the right thing.  I do congratulate you with all my
heart."

Jean jumped again, while Robert looked down at her, his soul in his
eyes.

"Oh, you nice Piers!  How nicely you say it.  I knew you would be
pleased.  Come in, come in; we're having tea.  Come and congratulate the
family."

Piers duly went the round, repeating his congratulations in more formal
manner to Mr and Mrs Goring; but it was not until tea was over and
they had adjourned into the garden that he and Vanna had any
conversation together.  He was still overflowing with excitement and
pleasure, and eager to discuss the great news with Jean's chosen friend.

"I saw that he admired her, of course--every one does; but she was so
off-hand and casual that I never imagined that things were near a
_denouement_.  I've seen her more encouraging to half a dozen other
fellows.  But it's splendid; the best news I've heard for an age.  Jean
and Gloucester--those two together--it's poetry, romance, the ideal!  He
is a man in a thousand; she will be safe with him.  Humanly speaking,
her future is assured.  You feel that, don't you--the absolute goodness
and sincerity of the fellow?"

"Oh, yes!  I told you so once before.  It was of him that I spoke when
we were discussing temperaments, and I told you of a man I had just met
whose `aura' was so radiantly attractive--that afternoon in the glen."

"The Happy Land," he corrected, looking down at her with a smile.  "So
that was Gloucester, and we agree in our estimate of his character.
That's good!  Dear little Jean, I'm so glad of her happiness."

Vanna laughed, an inexplicable sense of relief sending her spirits
racing upwards.

"And I'm so glad that _you're_ glad.  I was so afraid that this would
give you pain.  I expected--I imagined--I thought you also were in love
with Jean."

His face sobered swiftly.

"And so did I; but it was only imagination.  It gave me no pain to hear
this news, and if it had, I should deserve no pity.  I've known her for
years; I had my chance, but I never took it; was never even sure that I
_wanted_ to take it; was contented to drift.  Gloucester carried the
camp in fourteen days."  The old shadow of discontent was clouding his
face once more; he was seeing in imagination Robert's face as he looked
at Jean, and telling himself drearily: "Love is a gift, as much as other
great powers.  It is not in every nature to rise to a wonderful,
transforming passion.  He can, that man.  One can read it in his face.
He has not frittered away his gift; it was all there, unused, unsullied,
waiting for Jean, until she should appear.  He has a genius for loving,
and like all geniuses he makes his power felt.  Jean felt it.  It is
that that has drawn her to him.  To gain Jean in a fortnight, while I,
poor weakling, wavered for years, asking myself if I loved her!  _Love_!
I don't understand the meaning of the word.  I never shall.  It's the
same there as in everything else: I only half-way--never to the end..."

Vanna was doubly relieved to be assured of Piers's well-being when the
family returned to town, and she saw Edith Morton's suffering behind her
gallant assumption of content.  Can anything be more pitiful than the
position of a woman who loves, and finds herself passed over in favour
of a chosen friend?  She cannot escape to distant scenes, as a man may
do in a similar strait; her pride forbids her to withdraw from
accustomed pursuits; day by day, night by night, she must smile while
her heart is torn, while her eyes smart with the tears she dare not
shed, while her soul cries out for the sympathy she may not ask.

Vanna's heart ached for Edith during those weeks, when every
conversation turned upon preparations for the forthcoming wedding, and
the lovers were blissfully engaged in the finding and furnishing of
their home; but Jean herself exhibited a curious _volte-face_.

"We were quite mistaken about Edith," she informed Vanna casually one
day.  "Robert and she have been like brother and sister all their lives;
there was never any question of sentiment on either side.  I can't think
why we imagined anything so foolish."

Vanna did not reply.  She divined, what was indeed the truth, that
Jean's disbelief was the result, not of conviction, but of deliberate
intent.  She simply did not choose to allow a painful thought to disturb
the unclouded sunshine of her day.  She was selfish--frankly, openly,
designedly selfish, as young things are apt to be to whom love comes
before suffering has taught it lessons; to whom it appears a right, a
legitimate inheritance, rather than a gift to be received with awe, to
be held with trembling.

And so the weeks passed.  Summer turned into autumn, and one October
morning Jean and Robert stood side by side before the altar of a dim old
church, and spoke the words which made them one for life, while Vanna
Strangeways and Edith Morton stood among the group of white-robed
bridesmaids, hiding the ache in their hearts behind smiling faces.  To
one was given the best gift of life; from the others was taken away, by
the saddest of ironies, that which they had never possessed.

The church and the house were crowded with guests; the paraphernalia of
a "smart wedding" was duly and ceremoniously enacted.  The newly married
pair stood backed against the drawing-room fireplace to receive their
guests, who passed by in a line, thence defiling into the library to
regard a glittering display of gifts; thence again to the dining-room to
partake of the formal, sit-down luncheon which was the fashion of the
day.  The bride and bridegroom sat at the top of the horseshoe table
with the bridesmaids and their attendant groomsmen ranged on either
side, Vanna and Piers Rendall, as foremost couple, occupying the place
of honour.  At the conclusion of the meal Jean stood up in her place,
her gauze-like veil floating behind her, and cut the great white cake,
while the spectators broke into cheers of applause.  There were certain
points at which it was the custom to cheer at these wedding feasts--this
was one of them; another, perhaps the most popular, was when it came to
the turn of the stammering bridegroom to return thanks for the speech in
which his health had been proposed.  It was at the point when the
inevitable reference was made to the newly made partner that the
laughter was timed to break out; but no one laughed when Robert
Gloucester pronounced for the first time those magic words "_My wife_!"

Down the length of the long tables more than one of the elder guests
hurriedly glanced aside, or bit at the end of a moustache, hearing in
that voice a magic note which wafted them back through the long years of
prose and difficulty to the day when they, too, stood upon the glad
threshold of life.

Later on Jean disappeared to died her bridal trappings, and came down
half an hour later in hat and coat, to run the blockade of the assembled
guests in the hall, _en route_ to the carriage at the door.  Her cheeks
were pink, her eyes were shining; as each hand was stretched out she
pressed it warmly in her own; to each good wish she returned a gracious
acknowledgment; when a face was held forward expectantly she was ready
with a kiss and a caress.  Every one praised her graciousness, her
affectionate remembrance of old friends.  "She kissed me _so_ lovingly."
"She said goodbye to me _so_ sweetly."  A buzz of appreciation followed
her as she went; but in reality Jean had walked in a dream, seeing an
indistinct blur of faces, hearing a meaningless babble of words,
conscious only of Robert's figure waiting for her at the door.

Mr Goring had escaped from the crowd and bustle to stand bare-headed on
the pavement, whence he could catch a last glimpse of his daughter as
she drove away from the house which had been her home.  His face looked
pinched and worn in the keen autumn air; he smiled and joked with the
men by his side, but his eyes were restless, and kept turning back to
the door through which Jean would pass for the last time as a daughter
of the house.  Another moment and she was there; the crowd surged after
her on to the pavement.  He stood before her, and held out his hand.
She held up her cheek, smiled, and leapt lightly into the carriage, the
door of which Robert was holding open.  He sprang to his seat, there was
a vision of two heads bent forward, of two radiant, illumined faces; the
coachman flicked up his horses--they had passed out of sight.

Mr Goring shivered, and turned back to the house.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

"The happiest moment of my wedding day?" answered Jean to a question put
to her some months later.  "The happiest moment of all was when the
carriage drove off from the door, and left you all behind!"



CHAPTER ELEVEN.

CONTRASTED FATES.

While Jean was blissfully enjoying the first weeks of her married life,
the friend who had been to her as a second mother was lying dangerously
ill in her upper room.  The bustle of the last few months, culminating
in the excitement of the wedding, had proved too much for Miggles's weak
heart; and having gallantly kept on her feet until the supreme need was
past, she had the less strength left with which to fight the enemy.

"Don't tell Jean.  Promise not to tell Jean!"  That was her first and
most insistent cry; and being satisfied on the point, she laid herself
down, and spoke no more for many weary days and nights.

Once again Vanna found herself bound to the household, and had the
consolation or feeling of help to the mistress and of comfort to the
invalid, who seemed to cling pathetically to Jean's friend in the
absence of her own dear nursling.

Hospital nurses were much rarer luxuries in the seventies than at the
present day, and in this case the duty of nursing the invalid was
undertaken by Mrs Goring, her maid, and Vanna, equally.  The maid slept
in the sick-room, ready to pay any attention which was required during
the night; Mrs Goring was exact and punctilious in administering
medicines and food at the right intervals, and in seeing that the
sick-room was kept scrupulously in order; it devolved upon Vanna to ease
the invalid by the innumerable, gentle little offices which seem to come
by instinct to women of sympathetic natures, and later on as she grew
stronger, to amuse her by reading aloud, talking, and--what in this case
was even more welcome--lending an attentive ear while the other
discoursed.

The sudden breakdown had called attention to the state of Miggles's
heart, which had troubled her at times for some years back.  The result
was serious, so serious that the doctor had warned her that her days of
active service were over.  Henceforth she must be content to live an
idle life, in some quiet country spot, where she would be free from the
bustle and excitement of town life.  Mr and Mrs Goring proposed that
she should live in the Cottage at Seacliff, where the capable woman who
acted as caretaker could wait upon her and do the work of the house, and
Miggles, as usual, was full of gratitude for the suggestion.

"A haven, my dear, opened out to me at the very moment I need it," she
said ardently to Vanna.  "It's been like that with me all my life.
Goodness and mercy!  I've always loved that dear little house by the
sea; there's no place on earth where I would rather end my days.  The
doctor says I shall go off quite suddenly.  He didn't want to tell me,
but I explained that I was not at all afraid.  From battle, murder, and
_lingering_ death, that's the way I've always said it--not that I wish
to put myself above the Prayer Book, but one must be honest, and that's
how I felt in my heart.  I've no claim upon any one, and a long,
expensive illness is a great drag.  I'd be so ashamed!  `Our times are
in His hand,' my dear; but if it's not presumptuous, I hope He'll take
me soon.  Next summer, perhaps, before the boys want to come down for
the holidays.  I should like to have the winter just to be quiet and
prepare.  June, now!  June would be a sweet month to pass away in.
Would it not, my dear?"

"Miggles!" cried Vanna, half laughing, half in tears.  "Miggles, how can
you be so callous?  I absolutely refuse to discuss the date of your
death.  It's not a cheerful subject for us, whatever it may be for you;
and I hope you'll be spared for a long, long rest after your busy life.
How can you talk about dying in that matter-of-fact way, as if it were a
removal from one house to another?  Have you no dread, not of the mere
act of death--that is often a real `falling asleep,' but of the leap in
the dark, the unknown change, the mystery behind?"

Miggles lay back against her pillow, a large, unwieldy figure, with thin
bands of hair brushed back beneath an old-fashioned night-cap, her hands
clasped peacefully on her knee.

"No, my dear," she said tranquilly; "the mystery doesn't trouble me.
I'm a poor, weak creature, and I was never clever at understanding.  I
only know that it's going to be a change for the better, so of course
I'm ready to go.  When I hear people talk of shrinking and trembling at
the thought of death, I think they can't really believe what they
profess, or why should they prefer to live on, lonely, and suffering,
and poor, rather than make a little journey to gain peace and rest?
It's not reason, my dear, it's not reason."

Miggles was silent, blinking her little eyes, and panting after the
exertion of talking.  Gradually a pucker gathered on her forehead, and
an expression of anxiety spread over her face.

"There is only one thing that troubles me--only one thing; but it's very
serious.  I can't"--she turned solemn, innocent eyes upon the girl's
face--"I can't feel myself a sinner!  That's a great secret, my dear,
but you've been so kind to me this last week that I feel I can make the
confidence.  Of course I should not wish it repeated.  No! isn't it sad?
I've tried my best, but I can't do it.  It seems to me that I have done
my best.  I was a good daughter.  My dear mother died blessing my name;
and with the dear Gorings I've done my duty--for love, I've done it, far
more than money.  All through I've done my duty, and I have loved God
and the people round me.  I've never felt ill-will towards a living
creature; and when I come to search for my sins, dear--really and
truly--I tell you in confidence, _I can't find them_," cried Miggles
sadly.  She lowered her chin, glancing sideways at Vanna as a shamed
child might do discovered in the perpetration of an infantile
peccadillo, and Vanna smiled a tender, humorous response.

"Can't you, Miggles?  Not if you try very hard?  I can't help you, I'm
afraid.  My bad memory refuses to remind me of your crimes.  It's a
serious state of affairs."

"It is, dear," agreed Miggles gravely.  "I've been taking myself to
task, lying here upon this bed, and examining into the state of my soul.
I fed very grateful, and full of faith, and quite tranquil and happy at
the thought of passing away.  I could not fed that, you know, if I had a
`conviction of sin,' like all the good people in books.  It has always
put me so terribly out of the way when I have failed to please any one,
and they have been cold and stand-off in their manner.  It does happen
like that sometimes, even with the best intentions...  If I believed I
had grieved my dear Heavenly Father, how wretched I should be!  But I
don't, dear, I don't.  I am quite happy, quite at peace.  The question
is, _Am I justified_?  It would be rather a comfort to be a Catholic
sometimes--would it not, dear?--and confess to a dear, saintly old
priest.  Not, of course, that I could subscribe to their creed I can
tell you that I've been quite upset in church sometimes when they intone
the Litany, and call themselves miserable sinners in such very
despondent tones.  I did not feel myself a miserable sinner, and it was
no use pretending that I did.  That made me wretched in another way, for
I thought I must be a Pharisee, which would be worst of all!"

"Dear Miggles, the Litany was written at the time of the Plague of
London, and was meant to be a sort of national penitential psalm.  The
plague was believed to have been sent as a punishment for the sins of
the nation, and the priests marched in procession through the streets
intoning this cry for mercy.  It was never intended to be used as a
regular part of the Church service in times of peace and prosperity; and
I think a good many people feel like you, who would not have the courage
to put their thoughts into words.  A service of praise would often seem
more dignified and inspiring.  Dear, good, kind little soul, why trouble
yourself to find trouble?  If you have peace, you have the greatest of
all blessings, and a blessing that is never enjoyed, dear Miggles, until
it has been won.  I'm struggling for it now, but it's a long way off.  I
have still many battles to fight."

The old woman looked at the young one with a long, questioning glance.

"Yes, dear child!  I have seen it, and wondered.  But you are so young
still, and your life is ahead.  We shall see you happy like Jean,
starting your home with a fine young husband--"

"No!"  Vanna held up a warning hand.  "Miggles, you have confided in me.
I'll tell you something about myself, but you must never allude to it
again.  It doesn't bear speaking of.  There is a reason why I can never
marry.  I can't tell you what it is, but it is fixed--irrevocable.  I
shall never be happy like Jean."

Miggles stretched out her hand and laid it upon the dark head, smoothing
the hair with gentle touch.  But she did not speak.  In the course of
her sixty years she had heard many such assertions from the lips of
girls who had afterwards lived to become happy wives and mothers.  She
told herself that dear Vanna had no doubt suffered a disappointment, and
was feeling cast-down and hopeless in consequence.  Quite natural, poor
dear--quite; but in time youth would reassert itself; she would meet
some one else, such an attractive girl as she was, and would find that
the heart which she supposed dead was still capable of love and joy.
Oh, certainly she would marry and be happy; but for the moment one could
not tell her so.  That would be cruel.  Time! time! that was the best
medicine.  She smoothed and stroked with tender, motherly touch, and
Vanna, blessing her for her silence, felt the sudden crystallising of an
idea which had been growing quietly in her mind during the past week.

"Miggles," she said quietly, turning her head sideways, so as to be able
to look the other in the face without disturbing that caressing hand.
"Miggles, how would you like it if I came down to live with you at
Seacliff?  Carter can look after the house and make you comfortable, but
you would have no companion, and might feel lonely sometimes.  Evenings
seem very long and dreary when one is alone.  We are two solitary women,
alone in the world, without any ties; we might help each other.  What do
you say?"

Miggles subsided into instant tears.  "It's too good of you.  Oh, my
dear, my dear, I couldn't--I couldn't let you.  It's too good of you,
too sweet.  I shall always remember and bless you for thinking of it,
but it would be too selfish--too grasping.  I could not allow it."

"Miggles, listen!  I've been puzzling what to do with myself this next
year; I have no home, now that my aunt is dead, and no tie to any
special place.  That's a lonely feeling, Miggles, when you are only
twenty-three.  It would be a solution of the problem if you could let me
come to you.  I sounded Mr Goring and he was willing; more than
willing, delighted at the idea.  And I have some money of my own, you
know, dear, and as Mr Goring would not hear of my paying anything
towards the household expenses, I am going to spend it on pleasures and
luxuries.  I have a lovely plan--to buy a comfortable little pony
carriage in which to drive you along the lanes, and give you fresh air
without fatigue.  Then, when you don't feel inclined to go out I'll use
the horse for riding.  I love riding, and it will be good exercise to
scour the countryside.  Perhaps sometimes there'll be a Meet.  If there
were hunting I should feel quite gay.  I _want_ to come, if you care to
have me."

"Care!"  Miggles laughed, cried, gasped, ejaculated, panted, in such
extravagance of joy, such depths of humility, such paeans of gratitude,
that Vanna had to exercise her prerogative as nurse, administer a
soothing draught, and insist upon a rest forthwith.

"Not another word.  If you are good and obedient, I'll come; if you are
not, I won't.  I am not going to saddle myself with a rebellious
patient.  So now you know.  Kiss me, and shut your eyes--"

"But," protested Miggles, "but--but--"

Long after Vanna had left the room she lay awake, staring with wistful,
puzzled eyes at the opposite wall.  A social creature, devoted to her
kind, no one but herself knew how heavily the prospect of loneliness had
weighed upon her.  Vanna's proposition had been like a flash of sunshine
lighting up a grey country, but she could not rejoice with a full heart
until she was satisfied of the girl's happiness.

"A young thing like that shut up with an old, ailing woman--it's not
right, not fitting.  I must not be selfish.  I need quiet at the end of
my days, but at twenty-three!  To take her to that lonely place, away
from all her friends: can it be right?  I'd love her, and mother her,
but with all my will I can't do the thing she needs most of all--be
young with her again.  She is sad, dear child, and it's only a friend of
her own age who can comfort and cheer--"

Suddenly Miggles jerked in her bed; the fixed eyes brightened; the heavy
cheeks broadened into a smile.

"Ah-h!" she murmured happily.  "Ah-h!  _That_ is well, _that's_ well.
That will bring it all right"; and nestling down in the pillows, she
composed herself happily to sleep.

Across the trouble of her mind there had flashed the remembrance of the
visits of Piers Rendall.



CHAPTER TWELVE.

THE COTTAGE ON THE CLIFF.

For the next two years Vanna lived quietly in the cottage on the cliff,
five miles from the nearest railway station, and as many more from
anything in the shape of a town.  The hamlet in which she had lived with
her aunt had been quiet and uneventful, but in comparison with Seacliff
it was a whirl of gaiety.  During the summer months there was indeed a
small influx of visitors, but Seacliff had not as yet sprung into
popularity, and accommodation was limited to a few scattered houses
along the sea-front and the big red hotel on the top of the cliff.  The
hotel was closed in the winter months, and the first day that Vanna
looked across the bay and beheld the smoke rising from the chimneys, she
knew a thrill of joy in the realisation that the long grey winter was at
an end.  Long and grey, yet not unhappy.  Looking back over the
monotonous record of the months, and remembering her own tranquillity
and content, Vanna marvelled, as many of us have done in our time, at
the unlooked for manner in which our prayers have met their response.
She had asked for guidance; had pleaded, with a very passion of
earnestness, for some miracle of grace to fill her empty life, but no
miracle had happened, no flash of light had illumined the darkness; the
heavens had appeared as brass to her cry--and yet, yet, had not the
answer been vouchsafed?  It would not have been her own choice to pass
the best years of her youth in seclusion, with no other companion than a
homely, unsophisticated old woman, over whom the shadow of death crept
nearer and nearer.  She had dreamt of romance and adventure, and not of
a home bounded by two cliff walls; nevertheless, in this companionship
and in this seclusion she had found peace, and as the time passed by a
returning sense of joy and interest in life.  She was loved, she was
needed, she was understood; and the human creature of whom so much can
be said is fortunate among his fellows.  In addition to her sunny
temperament, Miggles possessed the great gift of tact, and when the
shadow of depression fell over the girl's spirits she asked no
questions, made no comment thereon, but ministered to her generously
with the meed of appreciation.  "What should I do without you, child?"
"Ah, my dear, how I thank God for sending you to me these last years!"
Such words as these, uttered with the good-night kiss, dried many a tear
on the girl's cheeks, and sent her to bed revived and peaceful.

As the weeks passed by Vanna found friends out of doors also, and was
surprised to discover the importance of her presence to the community in
the little village.

"Well, now, I tell you, I can't think what we did without you all the
dull old winters," said Mrs Jones of the grocer's emporium one day, as
she scribbled down the weekly order with the much-battered stump of a
lead pencil.  "You've been a regular godsend, cheering us up, and giving
us something to think of, instead of moping along from September to
June.  I'm sure we've cause to be grateful for all you've done."

Vanna flushed, surprised and a trifle overwhelmed by so gushing a
compliment.

"Really, Mrs Jones, I don't feel that I deserve any thanks.  I have
been so much occupied with Miss Miggs that I have had no time to spare.
I can't think of anything I have done to help you."

"Oh, miss!" protested Mrs Jones, in accents of strong reproach.  "Oh,
miss; _and three new hats since autumn_!"

Blessed sense of humour!  That reply was sufficient to brighten Vanna's
whole day.  It did more, for it served to nip in the bud that lassitude
concerning the toilette, that feeling that "anything will do," which
creeps over those who dwell in lonely places.  Henceforth Vanna realised
that to the natives of this little sea-bound village she stood as a type
of the great world of fashion, and that it was a real pleasure in their
quiet lives to behold her moving about in their midst in pretty,
tasteful attire.  The knowledge proved beneficial to her appearance, and
to her spirits.

The pony carriage proved of less use than had been hoped, as the
invalid's nerves grew less and less able to face the precipitous road
leading up to the house; but some time every day Vanna found time for a
scamper on the back of her beloved Dinah, saddling her herself, rubbing
her down, and giving her a feed of oats on her return.  Miggles did not
care for indoor pets, so that it was an extra pleasure to make friends
with Dinah, to rub her soft nose, and bequeath odd gifts of sugar.

Her informal riding-costume was composed of a dark green habit and a
felt hat of the same shade, which, being somewhat battered out of the
original shape, she had twisted into a Napoleonic tricorn, which proved
surprisingly becoming on her small, daintily poised head.

"I've never seen a riding-hat like that before.  That's the very
_latest_ from Paris, I suppose, miss?" said Mrs Jones of the emporium;
and Vanna had not the heart to undeceive her.

Once or twice a week, instead of mounting to the downs, Vanna would turn
inland to pay a visit to Mrs Rendall.  The old lady was not an
interesting personality, but she was lonely, which fact made perhaps the
strongest of all appeals to Vanna's sympathy at this period of her life.

It grew to be an accepted custom that these visits should be paid on
Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, and as she trotted up the long avenue
leading to the house Vanna never failed to see the white-capped figure
at the library window watching for her approach.  The conversation was
almost identically the same on each of these visits.  Mrs Rendall would
discuss the weather of the last three days, inquire into Miss Miggs's
symptoms, relate accurately the behaviour of her own cough and the
tiresome rheumatic pains in her left shoulder, chronicle the progress in
the garden, and the delinquencies of her servant maids.  Vanna seemed to
herself to do little more than murmur a conventional yes and no from
time to time; nevertheless Mrs Rendall invariably pleaded with her to
prolong her visit, and never failed to add to her farewell the urgent
reminder: "You'll come on Wednesday?  You won't forget."  If the visitor
chanced to turn her head at the bend of the avenue, the white-capped
figure was again at the window, watching for the last, the very last
glimpse of her retreating figure.

At the sight of that watching figure a faint realisation came to Vanna
of one of life's tragedies--the pathetic dependence of the old upon the
young; the detachment and indifference of youth to age.  To herself
these weekly visits were a duty and, frankly speaking, a bore.  To the
old woman, alone in her luxurious home, they formed the brightness and
amusement of life, the epochs upon which she lived in hope and
recollection.

"Poor, dull old soul!  I must go regularly.  I must not shirk,"
determined Vanna conscientiously, but she loved her duty none the more.

It was towards the end of her third month's residence at Seacliff that,
on cantering up the drive of the Manor House, Vanna noticed a change in
the position of the white-capped figure.  It was there, watching as
usual, but at the side, instead of the centre, of the library window,
and by her stood a tall, dark figure.  Vanna's heart leapt within her;
the blood rushed through her veins; in one moment languid indifference
was changed to tingling vitality.  She straightened herself on the
saddle, and as Piers's figure appeared in the porch, lifted her
gauntleted hand to her hat in merry salute.

The episode of Jean's marriage, with the association of chief bridesmaid
and groomsman, had brought the two friends of the bride into closer
intimacy, so that the greeting between them was frank and cordial.

"Salaam, Diana!"

"Salaam, oh, Knight of the--!"

Vanna paused, for it was no Knight of the Rueful Countenance who looked
into her face as she drew rein by the door.  The dark eyes looking into
hers were alight with pleasure--with something more than pleasure.
Vanna recognised a gleam of surprised admiration and thrilled at the
sight even as it forced itself into words.

"By Jove, how well you are looking."

"Rusticating suits me, you see."

She leapt lightly to the ground, and, gathering up the graceful long
riding-skirt of that day, entered the house before him.  As she passed
along the ugly, commonplace hall, Vanna was confronted by her own
reflection in the glass of the old-fashioned hat-stand, and started at
the sight.  This was not the girl whom she was accustomed to see in that
same glass--the girl with the pale face, and listless eyes; this girl
walked with a quick, lightsome tread; her daintily poised head, crowned
by the picturesque green hat, assumed a new charm; the grey eyes were
sparkling beneath the arched brows; the cheeks were flushed to the
colour of a wild rose.  This was the vision which Piers Rendall had
beheld, the vision at which his hard eyes had softened in admiration.

Vanna blushed at the sight of her own fairness, and felt the thrill of
pure, undiluted joy which every true daughter of Eve knows at such
moments.  She tilted her head over her shoulder to answer Piers's
question, with a smile and a glance which would have done credit to Jean
herself.  What he asked she hardly knew--some of the conventional,
unimportant questions which are tossed to and fro on such occasions.
What she answered mattered still less; the mere fact of his presence
eclipsed all.  The bigness of him, the strongness, the firm, dark face,
the deep bass voice, the masculine presence after the long, monotonous
months, with no companionship save that of two old women.  It was as if
a part of the girl's being which had been drugged to sleep awoke
suddenly and clamoured for existence.

At the door of the library Vanna knew a momentary pause.  Conscious of
her own transformed face, she shrank with something like shame from
facing old Mrs Rendall.  What would she say?  What would she think?
Another moment proved the needlessness of her dread, for on this happy
day of reunion the mother had no eyes for any one but her son.  In a
mechanical fashion she went through the ordinary list of questions, and
Vanna vouchsafed the ordinary replies; but the ordinary interest was
impossible while Piers stood with his back to the fire, puffing at his
cigarette, listening with a smile on his face.

That smell of smoke impregnating an atmosphere which was usually equally
reminiscent of furniture polish and paregoric--how intoxicating it smelt
in Vanna's nostrils!  She kept her eyes riveted on the old lady's face
so long as conversation between them continued, but the moment that
mother and son were engrossed with each other, her eyes returned
greedily to the long, straight limbs, the close-cropped head, the
strong, sinewy hands.  Youth called to youth.  Sex called to sex.

At the end of ten minutes' general conversation Piers made the move for
which Vanna had anxiously been waiting.

"When will lunch be ready, mother?  Miss Strangeways must stay to lunch
in honour of my return.  We'll go a little turn round the grounds and be
back in half an hour.  Then I'll ride over with her, and see Miggles
while you have your rest."

A shade of disappointment passed over Mrs Rendall's face.  It was hard
to allow her son to pass out of her sight for even half an hour, but she
assented quietly, after the manner of mothers of grown-up sons, and the
two young people strolled out into the garden.

The geranium beds were bare and brown, but the lawn was still a velvety
green and the belt of evergreen trees presented a similitude of summer.
Piers led the way forward, and Vanna followed, a smile upon her lips.

"The Happy Land?"

"The Happy Land.  Naturally!  It is an appropriate walk for you to-day.
No need to ask how it goes.  You look blooming--a different girl from
when you were here last.  And you really like it--this buried-alive
existence?  When I heard of the arrangement I could not believe it would
last beyond a few weeks.  It seemed unnatural--unfair.  But you have
stood it out.  You have not been lonely?"

Vanna hesitated.  They stood at the entrance to the glen, looking down
through a network of bare branches on the stream beneath.  The ground
was covered with a carpet of leaves, the sweet, soft smell of earth rose
refreshingly in the wintry air.

"Yes," she said slowly.  "I have been lonely, but--remember that I am
bound to look on the bright side of things in this place!--I have had
compensations.  I am needed here.  Miggles could not be left alone with
a servant, and there is a great satisfaction in feeling oneself
necessary.  This new home was offered to me at a moment when I was
adrift in the world, and every one in it is kind and loving.  I have
every comfort, and a dear luxury in the shape of Dinah.  I am becoming
quite an experienced horsewoman, and it is impossible to feel depressed
after a gallop across the downs.  And you know Miggles!  It's rather
wonderful to live beside a person who is preparing for death as
cheerfully and happily as most people prepare for a holiday.  We talk
about it every day, but never gloomily.  In a peaceful kind of way she's
excited at the prospect.  Quite suddenly she will exclaim, `Oh, I shall
see Emma.  I haven't seen Emma since we were girls at school.  I shall
have so _much_ to tell Emma.'  And she is full of interest as to her new
work.  It is to be helping her earth friends.  That's quite decided.
`It's what I have been trained for, dear.  It stands to reason I must go
on.'  And she has quite definite ideas of what ought to be done--things
that, according to her judgment, have been overlooked, and concerning
which she can--very tactfully!--drop a gentle reminder.  She has a
mission on hand for each one of us.  You are to receive special
attention."

The young man smiled affectionately.

"Bless her old heart!  That's well.  I am thankful she is happy.  It's a
great thing for her to have you; that's natural enough, but--"

He stopped short with that air of reservation which Vanna _found_ so
attractive.  Never once had he descended to the banality of a compliment
in words; always it had been left to her to divine his approval from
eyes and voice--a gratification delightfully freed from embarrassment.
He bit his lip, frowned, and demanded suddenly, "How long do you mean to
stay?"

"I hope, as long as she lives.  For my own sake as well as hers, for
I've grown to love her, and she is a delightful companion.  Beyond her
simplicity and sweetness, she has such a pretty sense of humour.  She
makes me laugh in my darkest mood, and--which is equally important--she
laughs at me.  It would be too boring to live with a person who received
one's best sallies with silence or a strained smile; but Miggles is
nothing if not appreciative.  I shall certainly not leave her by any act
of my own."

"And--afterwards?"

Vanna looked up at him: her eyes were brave, but her lips trembled.

From his tall stature he looked down upon the struggle on her face, the
trembling lips, the brave, gallant eyes.

"I don't know--I can't say.  I don't want to think.  It's a subject I
can't discuss--_here_.  Talk of something else--something cheerful.
Tell me about Jean.  Have you seen her lately?  When did you see her?
How is she looking?  Tell me everything you can about her."

Piers lifted his brows and slightly shrugged his shoulders.

"Jean is--Robert!  Robert is--Jean!  There you have the situation in a
word!  Bound up in each other--blind, deaf, dumb to every other
interest.  I've called once or twice.  Their house is charming.  She is
lovelier than ever; he is, if possible, still more radiantly content.
They seem unfeignedly pleased to see one--for ten minutes!  After that
their attention begins to flag, and at the end of half an hour you feel
that you would be a perfect brute to stay another second.  I have come
to the conclusion that it is kinder to leave them alone."

"I'm sure of it.  I don't even trouble Jean with letters more than once
a month.  I send constant bulletins of Miggles to Mrs Goring, so that
she knows how things go, and for the rest--I bide my time.  When a year
or so has passed away, I hope they will still be as much in love; but
there will be more room for outsiders.  It's just as well that I am away
from town.  It is easier to be philosophical at a distance.  If I were
in town and felt myself unwanted and out in the cold, I should probably
be huffy and jealous.  As it is, I look forward, and tell myself she
will want me another day.  One can afford to wait when there's a surety
at the end."

"Yes, that's easy.  If one were ever sure--" His brow darkened, but
meeting her eyes, he smiled, throwing aside the dark thought, with an
effort to match her own.  "Doubt is forbidden, I suppose, with other
repinings?  Well! the Queen must be obeyed.  Do you remember saying that
it was little use to possess a Happy Land so far away that you could
rarely see it?  And behold the next move in the game is that you are
plumped down at its very gates!  How many times have you visited your
domain since we were here together in summer?"

"Not once.  When I have ridden over it has been to see your mother, and
I don't care to leave Miggles for long at a time.  Besides, I think I
shirked it.  It was winter, and the trees were bare, and I was alone,
and it is difficult to be very happy all by oneself, and sometimes I was
in a contrary mood, when I did not even want to _try_.  But I am glad to
be here to-day.  I am glad you brought me."

"I must bring you again.  I must come down oftener.  As you are giving
up your life to help Miggles, it is the duty of all her friends to make
things as easy as possible.  I shall feel that Seacliff has a double
claim on me if I can help you as well as my mother.  It will be good for
us both to come here and be compelled towards happiness."

Vanna's smile of acknowledgment was somewhat forced.  It would have been
unmixed joy to look forward to the promised visits, but for those two
words which stood out in such jarring prominence that they seemed to
obscure her joy.  "Duty," "Claim."  When in the history of woman did she
appreciate a service thus offered by a member of the opposite sex?

"That is very kind of you," she answered formally.  "After the
excitements of London, Seacliff must seem very dull at this time of
year.  How long are you going to stay this time?"

"Until--" he hesitated for a moment--"until Monday."

That evening, when Vanna went up to her own room, she sat for an hour
beside her little window facing the bay, living over again the events of
the day.

Duty!  Claim!  For the hundredth time the words tolled in her ears.  She
looked over the grey waste of waters and saw in them a type of her own
colourless life.  Duty!  Claim!  But then the scene shifted.  She was
back again in the library of the Manor House, listening to old Mrs
Rendall's words of lament.  "He is no sooner here than he has gone.  He
tells me he must positively leave on Friday."  Why had Piers elected to
stay on?  She was back again in the dining-room, feeling his gaze upon
her--a gaze so deep, so pregnant with meaning that it had forced the
question from her lips, "What is it?  What are you thinking about?"

"You!  Here!  In this house.  The difference it makes--the astounding
difference--"

_What_ difference was it which her presence made?  His eyes told her
that it was a difference of gain.

A twinkling light shone out on the darkness, flashed and waned, flashed
again into brighter glow.  The waste of waters was illumined with light.



CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

THE SANEST WOMAN.

During the remainder of the winter Piers Rendall paid frequent visits to
Seacliff, appearing at unexpected moments, sometimes after but a week's
interval, sometimes but once in the month.  The feeling that he might
arrive at any moment brought an element of excitement into Vanna's quiet
life.  It was delightful to awake in the morning and feel that there was
something to which she could look forward--an object towards which to
move.  When he came there would be invigorating gallops across the
downs, visits to the Happy Land, where each was bound to cast care to
the winds; happy tea-parties in the dining-room; cosy chats round the
fire, Miggles lying on her sofa, Vanna seated on the footstool by her
side, Piers in his favourite position on the hearthrug, his long legs
stretched out, his back resting against the wall.  Sometimes he would
recount the doings of the great city, and discuss politics up to date
for the edification of the two women, who were keenly interested in the
course of events.  Sometimes he would read aloud from a book in which
Miggles was interested; sometimes they would roast chestnuts, and laugh
and jest and cap amusing anecdotes like a party of merry children.
Looking at Piers's face illumined by the firelight on one of these
occasions, a sudden vision flashed before Vanna's eyes of that face as
she had seen it first.  The tightly drawn skin, the down-turned lips,
the hard brilliancy of the eyes, the nervous twitching of the features.
This man smiling upon her looked strong, and happy, and glad.  Whence
had come the change?

At Whitsuntide Jean and Robert came down for a three days' visit--the
first since their marriage, and the little cottage was filled with the
atmosphere of spring and joy.  Two people more utterly content, more
beautiful in their happiness, it would be impossible to conceive.  Jean
was in her gayest, least responsible mood, full of histories of her own
failures as housekeeper, her difficulty with bills, her hopeless
exceeding of the weekly allowance--the which she recounted with
triumphant amusement, while Robert sat looking on with an air of
penitence and guilt.  That he should dare to inflict petty economies
upon this goddess among women!

Towards her old friend Jean's manner was composed of a mingling of
tenderness and wonder.

"There's no question about this place suiting you, Vanna," she said the
last evening, as the two girls enjoyed a short _tete-a-tete_ in the
garden.  "I have never seen you look so well; nor so pretty.  Robert
says so, too.  Somehow--I don't know how it is, but you look different,
I keep looking at you to see the cause.  You have not changed your
hair?"

"No; my hair is as you last saw it.  It won't `go' any other way.
There's no difference that I know of.  It exists only in your
imagination."

"No!"  Jean was obstinate.  "You look different.  Dear old thing, it's a
comfort to see you so sweet and blooming.  I was afraid I should find
you all gone to pieces.  I _do_ admire you.  When I think of your life,
and mine!  I should be such a beast.  Miggles says you are an angel.  So
does Piers.  Not in so many words, of course.  Piers never says what he
feels.  He is such a silent, shut-up creature, but I could see that he
was simply bursting with admiration of your life down here.  Doesn't he
look well?  I have never seen him so bright.  Robert says he goes a
great deal to the Van Dusens'.  They have such a pretty daughter.  I've
wondered so often if he could be in love at last.  That would account
for it all.  I hope he is--Old Piers!  I should like him to be happy."

"Very probably it is.  He is certainly changed," said Vanna briefly.

The next day the Gloucesters took their departure, and left behind a
sense of loss and blank.  Miggles struggled under a weight of depression
at the thought that this might be the last time that she would ever
behold her beloved child and pupil; the maid covered up the furniture of
the guest-room with dull regret; Vanna was racked by an access of
bitterness and jealousy.  All the dearly won composure of the past eight
months seemed swept aside.  She was back again in the slough of despond
which had followed the memorable visit to the doctor.  Every sight,
every sound, every word that was uttered seemed to press against her
nerves with unbearable jar; she felt a sense of enmity against Miggles,
the village, the whole human race; above all, against Jean and her
husband.  She shut herself within the walls of a cold and sullen
reserve, never speaking unless spoken to, answering with the curtest of
monosyllables.  For three long days she hardened herself against the
pleading of Miggles's eyes and the tenderness in the feeble voice, but
on the afternoon of the third day she brought her footstool to the side
of the sofa, and laid her head against the old woman's knee.

"Comfort me, Miggles!  My heart is so sore.  I'm sad, and I'm bad, and
I've made you miserable, and now I come to you for help.  I'm so
_tired_.  Say something to help me along!"

"What is it, dearie?  Grieving after Jean, and feeling lonely to be left
without your friend?  It was such a short visit.  So good of them to
spare the time, but from our point of view it was _rather_ aggravating.
You want her back again, as I do, and grieve that she's so far away."

"No, I don't!  I don't want to see her.  I'm glad she's in town.  I hope
she won't come again.  The contrast is too great.  I can't stand it.
She has everything, and I have nothing.  It's not fair.  She doesn't
deserve it any more than I do.  Why should she be beautiful, and strong,
and happy, and adored, while I am lonely, and sad, and tainted by
disease?  I can't bear it.  I wish she had never come."

Miggles's face showed a network of lines of distress and bewilderment.

"But--but I don't understand!  You love Jean; she is your best friend.
You are not _sorry_ that she is happy?  You don't grudge her her good
fortune?  That wouldn't be possible.  You are far too sweet."

Vanna gave a short, despairing laugh.

"No, I'm not sweet.  I'm bitter, bitter to the core; and you might as
well know the truth--at this minute I _do_ grudge her happiness.  I
grudge it so much that my very love seems changed to gall.  You are an
angel, Miggles, but you are old, and your life is over.  I'm young, and
it's all ahead.  It's the most difficult lesson of all to stand aside
and look at happiness through the eyes of others.  It's easy enough to
weep with those that weep.  If we are whole ourselves we are thankful
that we have escaped; if we are under the ban, there's a companionship
in suffering.  We understand each other, and help each other along; but
to rejoice with those who rejoice demands a nobility of which at the
moment I am simply incapable.  This world is unfair and unjust.  Things
are too horribly uneven."

"Dear child, this world is not all.  It's only the beginning, and so
soon over."

"Oh, no, Miggles, that's not true.  It may seem so from the standpoint
of eternity; but we are human creatures, and from our standpoint it's
terribly, terribly long.  Fourscore years, and how slow those years are
in the passing!  When I think I may have fifty more!...  Besides, even
eternity doesn't right things.  How can it?  If we are all going to be
happy in heaven, Jean will be as happy as I.  There will be no
difference between us, but she will have had the earth-joy which I have
missed, the dear, sweet, simple, domestic joys for which I was made, for
which my body was fashioned, for which I crave.  They are gone--gone for
ever!  Eternity itself can't make them up.  There seems no
compensation."

The old woman pressed her hand on the girl's dark head, but for some
minutes she did not speak.  Into her placid, gentle nature, such
upheavals had never come; she had been content to walk along the narrow
way, taking each day as it came, without bitterness or repining, but the
natural shrewdness which relieved her character from insipidity would
not allow her to take the credit of this attribute to herself.  "It's
because I was given that disposition," she told herself humbly.  "Vanna
is clever and ambitious.  It's more difficult for her."  She shut her
eyes, and prayed that the right words might be sent to her feeble lips.

"But, dearie, I'm not so sure that we _shall_ all be equally happy in
heaven, any more than on earth.  I never could believe that just because
your body died you were going to wake up a perfected saint.  We've got
to learn our lessons, and perhaps happiness isn't the quickest way.  I
can't argue--never could; the dear boys found that out, and used to lay
traps for me, asking me to explain; but life is only a little voyage--a
trial trip, as the papers say.  You may have fine weather, or you may
have storms; the only thing that matters is to get safe to the haven.
Sometimes when we've been down here for the summer it has rained
persistently; 1861 was one year--the time Pat broke his leg!  We've been
cross and disappointed, and at the time it has seemed hard, but looking
back after a few years it has faded into nothing.  `Wasn't it wet?' we
say, and laugh.  It was only for a month--such a little time!  Who would
think of looking back and grizzling over a little disappointment twelve
years old!  And perhaps, dear, just because we couldn't go out in the
sunshine to pick the dear flowers, because we had to stay indoors and be
quiet and patient, we learnt something, found out something, that helped
us along, and made us fitter for the haven.  I'm very stupid--I can't
explain--"

"Dear Miggles, you are very wise!  I am fortunate to have you.  Be
patient with me, and love me a little bit in spite of my naughty words."

"A little bit!  Indeed, my dear, I have grown to love you with all my
heart.  After Jean, I really believe you are my dearest on earth."

After Jean!  That stung.  Jean had so much.  She might surely have
spared the first place in one old woman's heart; and what a sweetness it
would have been to come first to just one person in the world!  Vanna's
sense of justice pointed out that it was not reasonable to expect a few
months' devotion to eclipse the association of a lifetime; but though
reason may convince the brain, it leaves the heart untouched.

Jean had Robert; Miggles had a whole family of adopted children; Mrs
Rendall had her son; Piers had--a sharp stab of pain penetrated through
the dull misery of her mood, a stab which had pierced her at every
recollection of Jean's light words--"Always at the Van Dusens'--such a
pretty daughter--I believe he is in love."

Was it true? and if so, how did it affect herself?  Vanna went out into
the garden and seated herself in her favourite seat, at the edge of the
cliff, whence the winding steps cut out in the face of the chalk
descended steeply to the shore.  The tide was out, and a few village
children scrambled barefoot over the slippery boulders, searching for
treasures in the pools between; the sound of their happy voices floated
up to her ears.

What was it to her if Piers Rendall loved and wedded another woman?  He
was her friend; during the last few months he had given a hundred signs
of his care for her, his anxiety to help and cheer her life.  She in
return must be equally generous.  She must rejoice over his happiness,
and pray for its coming.  Why not?  It was no loss to her.  She herself
might never marry.  Piers Rendall could be nothing to her.  Vanna threw
back her head and burst into a peal of high, unnatural laughter.  The
children playing on the rocks glanced up in amaze, and stood staring at
the strange spectacle of "The Cottage Lady" laughing all to herself, and
Vanna laughed on and on, with ever harder, higher notes.  Piers could be
nothing to her.  No, nothing! nothing but life, and sun, and air, and
food, and raiment, and hope, and comfort.  Nothing but that.  Everything
in the world, and nothing more.  Unutterable joy, unfathomable loss.
She knew now.  The scales had fallen from her eyes.  In a blinding flash
of light she saw her own heart, and knew that it held but one thought,
one image, one hope.

How long had she loved him?  She recalled their first meeting, when he
had frowned at the sight of her, and she had watched him walk along the
shore by Jean's side with resentment in her heart.  Their acquaintance
had begun with prejudice and dislike, yet almost at once her sympathy
had gone out towards him; almost from the first it had distressed her to
see his depression; that nervous twitch of the features had been a
positive pain, she had turned away her head to avoid the sight.  Later
on, when Jean was engaged, he had drawn nearer, and looking back on the
day of the wedding, she knew that it had been for his sake that she had
taken an interest in her costume, from a desire to appear fair in his
eyes.  At the moment of entering the church it had been his face which
had stood out from all the rest.  She had been so thankful to see his
smile.  All that afternoon and evening he had been quietly,
unostentatiously attentive, as if divining her sense of loss, and
striving, in so far as might be, to fill the gap.  Twice again she had
seen him before leaving town, and then had come the morning when he had
appeared at the Manor House window, and she had seen her own
transfigured face in the glass.  That was the day when the last barrier
had broken down, and friendship had finally made place for love.

Nature, which had decreed that she might never marry, had not at the
same time been merciful enough to take away the power of loving; rather
had it bestowed it upon her in a deeper, fuller fashion than is
possessed by nine women out of ten.  Every power of her being surged
towards this man in a passion of love and longing.  She stretched out
her hands as if to grasp him, and sobbed to feel them empty.  Laughter
turned to tears--the slow, difficult tears of a breaking heart.  For
ever and ever these hands must remain empty.  As if the present were not
sufficiently painful, Vanna then projected herself into the future.  In
imagination she saw Piers engaged to this pretty, strange girl; listened
to his mother's endless prattle concerning her beauty, his happiness,
the coming wedding; saw him located at the Manor with his bride by his
side, bringing her over to the Cottage, sitting beside her in the Happy
Land.  The future was desolated; and the past?  The past also crumbled
to nothingness before this shock of self-revelation.  Where now was the
peace and conquest on which she had congratulated herself during the
last few months?  Not only had they disappeared, but it appeared that
they had never existed.  That lightsome frame of mind, which she
believed to have been gained as a reward for duty well done, had in
reality been nothing more or less than the dawnings of love; the deep
undercurrent of joy and hope which had lain beneath the surface of her
life.

Vanna hid her face in her hands.  At that moment the sight of the gay,
smiling scene seemed but to mock her grief.  She felt a wild longing for
winter, for the stormy sky and sea, the frowning cliff, which would be a
fit setting for her life.  How could she go on tending Miggles, sitting
quietly in the house, separated from Piers, seeing him with another?

The sound of footsteps startled her from her trance--ascending
footsteps, scaling upwards from the beach.  She straightened herself,
thrust back her hair, and struggled to compose her features.  It seemed
part of the same dull trance that it should be Piers's face which rose
into sight, his dark eyes which turned anxiously to her face.  She had
not known of his coming, but she was not surprised; a stupor of
indifference had succeeded the passion of despair; she felt no surprise,
no embarrassment, but sat watching him stonily, until he reached the
last step and stood by her side.

"Was that _you_ laughing just now?  I heard you as I came along the
shore.  It _was_ you?"

"Yes, it was I."

"And now you are crying!"  His tone was quick and tense with anxiety.
"What is the matter?  You are not well.  Something has been troubling
you.  It is not like you to be hysterical."

Vanna's lips curled, her eyes stared steadily into his.  A sudden
impulse seized her, and she gave herself no time to pause.

"And why not?  On the contrary, it is just what you might expect.  There
is no counting on what I may do.  My moods are very variable, but you
must make excuses for me.  There is madness in my family.  My father
died in an asylum, and my grandmother, and two aunts.  I have been
warned that I may have the same fate in store.  You can hardly expect me
to behave like a normal creature.  It is no wonder if I wax hysterical
at times.  It's not exactly a pleasant prospect to look forward and
picture _that_ fate in store.  You must make allowances for occasional
outbursts."

He stood above her, looking down with dark, intent eyes as though he
would see into the very heart of her being.

"When were you warned?  Lately?  Since I was here last?  Is that what is
troubling you now?"

"I saw the doctor last summer.  He warned me then, but I had known the
facts for two years before that.  They had been hidden from me, but I
found them out, and went to the doctor for advice."

"A year ago!  You have known all these months when you have been happy
and gay?  Then this has nothing to do with to-day.  What is troubling
you to-day?"

She looked at him blankly.  On his face was a great sympathy, a great
tenderness, but no sign of the horror and amazement which she had
expected.  The great tragedy of her family seemed to weigh as nothing as
compared to her grief of to-day.  The tears rose in her eyes, but they
were tears of relief.  Her voice faltered in pitiful, childlike fashion.

"I was lonely, and I remembered, and I was afraid--afraid to look
forward..."

He bent down and took her hands in his with a firm but gentle pressure.

"Get up!  You are not lonely any more.  My horse is in the village.  Go
and get ready, and we will have a ride."  He strengthened his grasp,
looking deep into her eyes.  "What does it matter to me if every soul
belonging to you were mad?  You are the sweetest, the _sanest_ woman I
have ever met."



CHAPTER FOURTEEN.

THE COMPANY OF SAINTS.

From that day forward Vanna deliberately shut her eyes to the barriers
which blocked her life, and gave herself up to the joy of the present.
Piers knew her dread secret, and the knowledge would surely be
sufficient to put any thought of her as a wife out of his mind, if
indeed such a thought had existed.  Her conscience being clear that he
at least would not suffer through a continuance of their intimacy, she
for her own part was ready to pay the price of future suffering for the
rich joy of the present.  The joy would not, could not last, but it was
better, a thousand times better, to taste the full flavour of life, even
if but for a few short months, than to drag on to old age ignorant of
the deepest experiences which can stir the human soul.  If suffering
must come, knowledge would come with it--comprehension, sympathy, and to
the end of time the memory of golden hours.

Piers's visits increased in number, and he was unceasing in his efforts
for all that concerned the welfare of the two inmates of the Cottage.
In his presence Vanna expanded like a flower in the sun.  Love, the
magician, worked his spell upon mind and body, so that beholding her own
likeness in the glass she would often blush again, as she had blushed on
the afternoon of Piers's first visit.  Her pale cheeks were tinged with
colour, her eyes shone, her very hair showed rich russet gleams as she
wandered bare-headed in the sun.  The sound of her own laugh, the
aptness of her own words, astonished and delighted no one so much as
herself: it was as if a hundred unsuspected beauties and charms, after
lying latent all her life, had sprung suddenly to birth.  There were
moments when, from sheer pride and self-congratulation, she came near
following Gwendoline Harleth's historic example, and kissing her own
reflection in the glass.  "I am happy!" she told herself triumphantly.
"This is happiness--the best I shall ever know.  I must realise it,
enjoy every moment, enjoy it to the full.  I must guard it preciously,
shut my eyes and ears to all the little jars and frets, and not _allow_
them to interrupt.  It is my golden time.  In years to come, I must be
able to look back and remember that I made the most of it when it was
mine.  It would be madness to waste an hour..."

Meanwhile the two old ladies looked on with silent understanding.  Mrs
Rendall had been in her own way an ardent admirer of Vanna in the
earlier days of their acquaintance; but a mother looks with changed eyes
upon a girl whom she suspects her son of honouring with his love.  No
one is worthy of that honour, and it is rarely indeed that an element of
coolness and jealousy does not tinge the former affection.  Mrs Rendall
pursed her lips at the mention of Vanna Strangeways, and no longer
pressed for repetitions of the weekly visits.

To Miggles it was unalloyed joy to behold the growing attachment between
the two young people whom she loved so dearly.  Never by word or deed
did she hint at her desire; but as the months passed by and her health
steadily declined, she hugged the thought that when her hour came the
dear child who had comforted her last days would find another and a
sweeter home.  An ever-increasing feebleness warned her that her days
were numbered, though so far she had been spared severe suffering.  The
local doctor confided in Vanna that such immunity could not be expected
to the end, for in such cases violent paroxysms of pain were almost
inevitable.  Vanna shrank with fear from the prospect; but the God in
whom Miggles so sweetly trusted had decreed an easier release for His
child.  Sitting beside an open window in the second spring of her
sojourn at the Cottage, Miggles contracted a chill, which quickly
developed into bronchitis.  The attack did not appear serious to
onlookers; but some premonition of the end seemed to visit the invalid
herself, for she called Vanna to her bedside, and whispered an eager
request:

"My keys, dear!  On the ring!  I want them here."

Vanna brought the big, jingling bunch from its place in the work-basket
with its red silk linings.  Miggles had the slavish devotion to locking
up which characterised her time, and it was seldom indeed that any of
her possessions could be reached without the aid of at least two keys.
Now with feeble fingers she separated two from the rest, and held them
out for the girl's inspection.

"This big one with the red thread, that's for the cupboard in the spare
room.  This little one--the smallest but two--that's for the bottom
drawer inside.  If I die this time--one can never tell--go at once and
open that drawer.  _At once_!  To save you trouble."

Vanna nodded, and put back the bunch in the basket.  She herself had no
fear that this illness would end fatally, until in the still hours of
the night she crept to the bedside and beheld on her friend's face the
grey shadow which, once seen, can never be mistaken.  The doctor was
summoned, with Piers Rendall, who by good providence was staying at the
Manor, and the dread sentence was pronounced in the little sitting-room
in which so many peaceful hours had been spent.

"Slipping away!  Heart failure!  The heart is too weak to stand the
extra strain caused by this oppression on the lungs.  She will not last
out the day.  Don't grieve, Miss Strangeways.  It's a merciful release.
If she had lived she would have had great suffering.  We must be
thankful for her sake."

Vanna and Piers sat together by the bedside during the long hours of
that morning.  A telegram of warning had been dispatched to Mr and Mrs
Goring, but it was not possible that they could reach the secluded
village before late in the afternoon.  Miggles lay with closed eyes,
breathing heavily, but without further sign of distress.  For the most
part she seemed to sleep, but once, when Piers bent over her, she opened
her eyes and essayed to smile.

"How are you now, dear?  How do you feel?" asked the young man
anxiously; and Miggles struggled bravely to reply.

"Quite--well!" said the feeble voice; and after a moment's pause--"And
very happy!"

After that she sank ever deeper and deeper into unconsciousness, while
the watchers sat on either side, watching the still face.

It was just as the clock struck five, and the sun passing beyond the
barrier of the cliff left the little room grey and dull, that with a
movement of surprise, as if wakened by the touch of an invisible hand,
Miggles suddenly lifted her lids and gazed around.  The heavy, bulging
cheeks had wasted away, and the eyes, which in health had appeared small
and insignificant, now stared out, large and wide from the hollow
sockets.  As she looked, the first surprise was superseded by a great
and incredulous joy.  She turned her head from side to side, the faint
smile deepening to rapture, while her panting lips gasped out the same
word--once, a second time, and again a third:

"_Angels!  Angels!  Angels_!"

The two who looked on bowed their heads, and were still.  To them it was
a small, dull room, prosaic in furnishing, grey, with the shadow of
night and death, but Miggles's opening eyes beheld therein the company
of saints.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Piers and the faithful maid turned Vanna out of the room.  She had done
enough, they said.  It was not for her to be pained by the last sad
rites.  She allowed herself to be led on to the little landing; but when
Piers tried to lead her downstairs she refused to move.  Remembrance had
come to her of Miggles's request with respect to the keys, and the
search which was to be made "_at once_."  She had no idea what she was
to find as she knelt beside that bottom drawer, while Piers stood
watchfully at her side; it was the impulse of obedience pure and simple
which guided her movements.  The first glance brought no illumination,
for a strip of muslin hid the contents from view.  With its removal came
the scent of lavender, and there, neatly ranged in order, lay a pair of
fine linen sheets with pillow cases to match, a nightgown, and a cap
with a border of pleated lace, its muslin strings neatly folded and
secured in place with a pin.

Miggles's burial clothes! prepared long since with her own hands, and
put aside to "save trouble" to those left behind.  Vanna bowed her head,
and burst into a passion of tears.



CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

VANNA'S KINGDOM.

Miggles was buried at Seacliff by her own written request.  A letter
addressed to Mr Goring was discovered after her death, in which her
wishes were expressed with the simple candour and consideration for
others which had ever characterised her utterances.

  "I wish to be buried here at Seacliff.  It will be less trouble than
  taking me to town, and I have always loved the little place.  I don't
  wish money wasted on an elaborate coffin, but I should love all the
  flowers which people find it in their hearts to send.  I don't wish
  any one to wear mourning, or to give up their pleasures or amusements
  because of my death.  I always loved to see you dear ones happy and
  gay, and if I can still see you from the other world, it would grieve
  me to see you sad.  I want you to go on with your lives in the usual
  way, and not think it necessary to mourn for me.  But I should like to
  be remembered.  I hope you will still let me share your lives.  Talk
  of me sometimes when you are together--not sadly, but quite cheerfully
  and happily.  Say sometimes, `Miggles would like that!'  `Miggles
  would say that!' `how Miggles would laugh!' just as if I were in
  another room.  I may be even nearer, and it seems to me now that even
  heaven itself could not make me happy if I saw you sad..."

Mr and Mrs Goring, the two schoolboys, Piers Rendall, his mother, and
Vanna were the chief mourners.  Jean was expecting a baby, and had been
somewhat alarmingly delicate during the last months, so that it was
impossible for her to travel to Seacliff, and Robert refused to leave
her even for a day.  The little burial-ground lay inland, nearer the
Manor House than the cottage on the cliff, and after the service was
over the mourners returned to lunch with Mrs Rendall.

Piers and Vanna followed slowly after the others until a side gate was
reached leading into the grounds, when Piers produced a key from his
pocket, and, entering, led the way, not towards the house, but down hill
in the direction of the glen, but Vanna stood still in the path, looking
at him with surprised, reproachful eyes.

"_To-day_?"

"To-day!  Why not?  She is happy; it was her great wish for us that we
should be happy, too.  Come!"

He took her hand in his, and she made no attempt to withdraw it.  Worn
out as she was with the strain and grief of the last few days, the firm
clasp seemed to bring with it strength and comfort.  Hand-in-hand they
descended the sloping path and stood beneath the shelter of the trees.
As on the day of their first visit together, the delicate beauty of
early summer surrounded them on every side.  The foliage still retained
the fresh green of springtime, the grass was dotted over with patches of
fragrant violets and anemones, the water of the stream babbled musically
over the mossy stones.  As Piers gazed around there was on his face an
expression which Vanna had never seen before--an expression of
exaltation, of almost incredulous content.

"Vanna," he cried breathlessly, "it is _true_!  All my life I have
feared and doubted.  Even as a child, when my mother taught me at her
knee, the doubts arose in my mind, and the questions.  You have wondered
why I never went to church.  It would have been a mockery when I could
not believe.  I have read, and listened, and discussed; and out of it
all came only more doubt, more confusion.  It is my nature to
mistrust--_was_ my nature, till I met you."  His hand tightened on hers
with almost painful pressure.  "You have taught me the reality of
goodness and truth, and now, through you, this has come--this
revelation.  It is true!  There is another life.  This world is not all.
I have doubted all other evidence, but I cannot doubt what I have
_seen_.  They were there, Vanna, close around us, the spirits--the
`angels' of Miggles's sweet old faith!  We were too blind to see, but
they were there, and she saw them.  That light in her eyes!  Can you
ever forget?  That was not death--it was life--the coming of life!  Oh,
my darling, my darling, what this means to me!  A new heaven--a new
earth.  The falling of the scales!"

He lifted his quivering face to the sky as though asking forgiveness of
the God whom he had denied; but the woman by his side had no thought at
that moment for anything in heaven or earth but himself.  Amazement of
joy following so hard upon grief seemed to sap the last remnant of
strength.  She trembled violently, and gripped at Piers's arm.  He
turned in alarm, but the face looking up to his was quivering with joy,
not pain.

"Vanna!  What is it?"

"You called me--you called me--" She broke off, trembling, shaking,
blushing to the roots of her hair.  "_What_ did you call me?"

For a moment he stared bewildered; then remembrance came--the echo of
his own words throbbed in his ear, bringing with them a second
revelation, the revelation of his own heart.  He seized her in a grasp
violent in its intensity, and drew her towards him, gazing deep into her
eyes.

"Vanna, my beloved!  This too!  My love, and yours!  A new earth indeed.
The words said themselves, darling; they have lived so long in my heart
that they slipped from my lips before I had realised my wealth.  I who
thought I could never love, to have walked into it, step after step,
deliberately, blindly, until I found myself so deep down, so engulfed,
that I could not be free if I would.  Vanna, I have only lived since I
knew you.  It was you I needed all those empty years: you have given me
life, joy, hope; you must give me the last thing, too--your love!  After
this vision I can't live without it.  You are mine, Vanna; I can't give
you up."  He drew her head to his shoulder and pressed passionate kisses
on her lips, her hair, her white, closed lids, and she clung to him,
forgetting everything in the bliss of certainty, the intoxicating
nearness, the touch of his lips on her own.

"Vanna!  Was it _this_ you felt--a foretaste of this joy--when you
walked into your kingdom and read its message?  It's in your Happy Land,
my dearest, you have found your love.  May it be an omen of the future!
Speak to me!...  Tell me in words.  I have never heard a woman's lips
speak to me of love."

Vanna looked up at him, a wealth of devotion in the depths of her
eloquent eyes, but her lips trembled over the words:

"What can I say?  The words won't come.  I was lonely, too, and you are
everything--everything.  From the very first day you filled my mind.  I
thought it was friendship.  When I found out, I struggled, but it was no
use, so I gave in, and let myself love you more and more.  It was my
best happiness--the only happiness I could look for.  I never ventured
to hope that you could love me."

He laughed, a low, tender laugh, and framing her face between his hands,
lifted it towards his own.

"Was I blind and deaf?  Could I see you, and talk to you, and listen to
your praises from far and near, and keep my head?  Do you know in the
least what you are like?  I'll carry a little mirror in my pocket and
let you see yourself some time when you are animated and happy.  I'll
make you admire yourself."

"Have you fallen in love with me for my looks?"

"Partly.  Certainly.  I love your looks, and I won't have them
depreciated.  And with your goodness, and sweetness, and strength, and
your unreasonableness, and temper, and weaknesses--and which I love the
most I really can't say.  There's not a bit of you I don't love, or
would have altered if I could."

Vanna shivered.  Already the golden moment had passed, and a shadow fell
across her joy.  This climax of bliss--what could it be but a presage of
the end?  She drew herself away from Piers's encircling arms.

"Ah, what have I done?  Piers, what have I done?  I have forgotten--we
have both forgotten.  I told you my secret that day on the cliff when
you heard me cry.  Do you know _why_ I cried?  Because Jean had spoken
of a girl in town, with whom she thought you were in love.  It tortured
me; I was nearly wild with jealousy and despair.  And then you came, and
I blurted it all out.  No! it was not noble.  I was thinking of myself.
I wanted to get the weight off my mind, that I might enjoy you with an
easy mind.  I felt that if you knew the worst, and cared to be with me
after that, the responsibility was yours, not mine; and I tried--I
_tried_ to make you care!  I deluded myself, but I know now that I _did_
try.  I thought I could not help it, but it was selfish--cowardly.  I
should have thought of your good.  Piers, I can never be your wife; you
can never marry me.  I have only brought fresh trouble.  Can you ever
forgive me?"

He smiled at her, and, disregarding the outstretched hands, drew her
back into his arms.

"Forgive you, my best of blessings!  For the moment I can think of
nothing but love.  My mind isn't big enough to grasp anything beyond
that tremendous fact.  The present is ours, darling; be content in that.
We are here together in our Happy Land--you and I.  Nothing can rob us
of this hour.  If it ended here, this minute, I should still bless God
for His goodness.  To know you love me, to hold you here in my arms--
it's worth living for, Vanna.  But it's not going to end.  Trust to me.
I will go up to town.  I will interview the doctor.  I will find a way.
You are mine, and all the world shall not keep you from me."

Vanna smiled in his face with happy, love-lit eyes.  He was a god in her
eyes, and the gods are omnipotent.  If Piers willed a thing it did not
seem possible that he could fail.  Reason fled discomfited.  She loved,
and was blind.



CHAPTER SIXTEEN.

THE SECOND BEST.

Piers lost no time in going to town to interview Dr Greatman, but the
result was not encouraging.  He came back to Vanna with a worn face, and
the restless discontent of older days eclipsing the happiness of his
eyes.

"If it were only my own risk, I would take it a thousand times over," he
declared; "but when he tells me that it would be worse for you, that I
should be increasing your danger, there is nothing to be said.  I would
kill myself rather than do that.  I have racked my brain, I paced the
floor the whole of last night, but no inspiration will come.  There
seems no way out."

"There is no way," said Vanna quietly.  They were sitting in the
morning-room in the Cottage, that little room which seemed so empty
without the familiar figure on the sofa by the window.  In deference to
Miggles's wishes, Vanna was wearing a simple white dress; but although
the melancholy aspect of mourning robes was removed, her face also
looked bleached and wan.  The waiting hours had been terribly long to
the woman whose fate hung on the verdict.  "There is no way!  You made
me hope in spite of myself, for it seemed impossible that any one could
refuse you what you wished; but nothing is changed since I saw him last.
There was no reason why he should alter his opinion.  I can see now
that he spoke to me so plainly just to try to avoid this crisis; but it
has come, and it is my fault.  I ran away from another man who was
beginning to love me, but when it came to my own turn my courage gave
way.  I knew that the day would come when I should have to suffer for
every hour of joy, but I was prepared to pay the price.  I am prepared
still.  I have had my day.  I know what happiness is--the greatest
happiness which a human soul can know; and nothing can take that away.
I never dared to think that you would love me, but you do; and it's such
perfect bliss to know that, and to feel your arms round me, and to be
able to say all I feel, instead of bottling it up in my heart as I have
had to do all these months, that for my own sake I can't regret.  Only
for yours, dearest; only for yours!"

"What do you think it means to me?  Before I met you I was lonely and
dissatisfied--you know what I was like!  People talk of _joie de vivre_.
I never knew it--never until this last year, since I have known you.
When we have been together I've wanted nothing.  I've been more than
happy: I've been content.  When we have been apart I have lived for the
time when I should see you again.  If you love me, how can you regret
having given me the great joy of my life?"

"If it could last!  If it could last!  But when it is only to bring a
worse pain upon you, how can I help regretting?  Oh, it is hard.  To
think what this moment means to other couples, and that we should be
shut out.  I feel like you--my own risk is nothing; it is the dread of
its consequences for you that weighs, and he said--he said, that the
worst time, the time of the worst danger lay ahead.  Piers, how _can_
you love me with that knowledge in your mind?  I thought when I told
you, I honestly thought that it would stop every possibility of your
caring."

"Nothing could have stopped me.  I told you then, as I tell you now,
that you are the sweetest, the sanest woman I have ever met, and you are
mine.  I will never give you up; never to my dying day."

"Piers, Piers, we have no choice."

He drew her towards him, a hand on each arm; drew her roughly,
passionately, his dark face twitching with emotion.

"No!  It is true.  We have no choice.  You have said it, and it is the
truth.  We belong to each other, and nothing that any one can say or do
can alter that.  For better or worse we belong; till death us do part.
There is no choice.  You can't get away--Vanna, does it strike you that
we are doing a wrong, a wicked thing?  We are killing our golden hour
almost as soon as it is born.  Those other lovers that you speak of, do
they trouble their heads about marriage the first moment they are alone
with their love?  I don't believe they do.  I don't believe it is even
mentioned.  It is enough joy, enough wonder, to realise the present.
Can't we follow their example?  Can't we be content just to be
together--like this?  Isn't the present rich enough to content us?  It
is more, a hundred times more than I ever dared to expect.  You could
not be so cruel, Vanna, as to take it from me."

"If it could last!  If it could last!" moaned Vanna once more.  "Oh,
Piers, it is heaven just to sit here, with my head on your shoulder, and
your arms around me; but I must go away, far away to the other end of
the world.  We can't even be `engaged' like other people, and have the
right to meet and be alone.  How could we be engaged when we can never
marry?"

"How could we not?  If we cannot have the best thing, we must take the
next.  Do all engaged lovers marry and live happily ever after?  You
know they don't.  They can't see what is waiting one day ahead.  There
are a hundred risks.  At the last moment death may divide them.  The
only thing that is secure is the present; they grasp that, and are
happy.  That's the philosophy of life, darling; that must be our
philosophy.  You are mine.  I am not going to give up my rights.  We
must be able to meet, to see each other when we wish.  If to do that and
satisfy conventions, we must call ourselves `engaged,' engaged we will
be.  I shall tell my mother to-night, you must tell the Gorings.  We are
engaged, and we adore one another, and are gloriously happy.  Do you
remember Jean when she was engaged?  Weren't _they_ gloriously happy?"

"For three months!"  Cruel memory flashed back echoes of impatient words
and sighs which had escaped the lovers' lips even during that short
period: "These eternal good-byes, these eternal interruptions!  When
shall we be alone?"--"For three months!  If it had been three years--
thirteen--thirty!  I can't imagine Robert waiting for long indefinite
years.  Oh, Piers, you would grow tired--impatient--"

He pressed her to him with a groan of anguish.

"Of course I shall be tired; of course I shall be impatient.  Don't
torture me, darling--and yourself.  It's a second best, and it must be
hard; but it is all that's left, and for a time at least it will be
bliss.  One never knows what may happen.  We are not particularly strong
people, you and I; we may not have long to live.  Vanna, knowing the
uncertainty of life, dare you, _dare_ you refuse me my joy?  You say
this has come upon us by your fault; then surely you feel your
responsibility also.  You owe me something, and you must pay.  Vanna, is
it so hard?"

"Hard!  Do you think I want to refuse?  Do you think it would not be
bliss to me to give way too?  For myself it would be all gain--your
love, your companionship, your help; but for you it would be a barrier,
shutting out better things--a wife, children, a home.  You need them,
Piers; you are not made for solitude.  As you grow older you will need
them more.  How dare I shut them out?"

He did not answer.  Vanna felt his cheek twitch against her own, heard
the sharp indrawing of the breath.  Her words had gone home; she felt a
wild surge of anger against herself--against the morbid
conscientiousness which had sought to wreck her own joy.  The gods had
thrust a gift into her hands, and because it was not pure gold she had
thrust it aside, leaving herself to starve.  The slackening of Piers's
arms brought with it a stab of anguish.  Had she convinced him against
his will?  Was he about to take her at her word?

But instead of turning away he drew her to her feet, holding her by both
hands so that they stood face to face.

"Vanna, you remember what I said to you about Miggles?  The lesson of
her death?  You believe--I believe that this world is not all; that it
is only a beginning--the portal of life.  Can't we lift our love above
the ordinary human conception?  Can't we be content to wait--to suffer
if it must be, in the hope of all that is to come?  I don't pretend that
it will be easy; but we have no choice.  The love has come; we can't
alter it; we don't want to alter it.  We belong to each other for life
and eternity; we must help each other to live on the heights.  We must
not allow ourselves to regret and to pine for what we cannot have; we
must be thankful, and look forward.  You are so good, so strong; you
must help me!  We must go on with our lives; but if this love is worth
anything, it will be a strength to us--not a bar.  It would be folly to
part.  Should we think of each other any the less because we were at
opposite ends of the world?  Vanna! surely you of all women should be
the last to deny the possibility of a spiritual love."

But Vanna did not answer.  Her head fell forward until her face was
hidden from sight; her hands burned within his.  She was a woman, and
for the moment there was no place in her heart for Piers's lofty
self-abnegation.  A spiritual love--self-sacrifice and suffering in the
hope of future bliss!  And she was to be strong and brave, and help him
when he failed; she, who was filled with a passion of longing for the
dear, human, everyday joys; to whom for the moment they towered above
the far-off, spiritual gain.  The woman's birthright of intuition
revealed the future with flashlight clarity.  Her heart was torn with a
presage of the pangs which would rend it afresh, as she beheld happy
wives, rich in home, husband, and children, while she wandered outcast,
unsatisfied, athirst.  The man, with shorter vision, could content
himself in the present, and in the fulness of love's revelations delude
himself that joy would remain; but to the woman, for whom the love of
him was an aching longing of body and soul, the sharpest pang of all
came from the certainty of his mistake.  She looked forward and beheld
him restless and rebellious, chafing against his chains--the old,
irritable discontent on lips and eyes.  He would suffer; of a certainty
he would suffer.  So surely as he was made in man's image, the day would
dawn when his joy would be changed into despair.  A wild longing seized
Vanna to give her lover happiness while she might; to give him such a
summer of joy and content that when the winter came he should look back
and feel the price well paid.

Her fingers tightened on his arm, her eyes sought his in feverish
entreaty.

"Piers! if I do give in--I have no strength to oppose you--if I give in,
swear to me that if the time comes when you regret--when you feel bound,
because there is some one"--she gulped painfully--"some one else whom
you could take for a wife--swear that you will be honest with me; that
you will not let me spoil your life!  Swear that you will tell me the
truth."

He smiled into her troubled face, taking possession of her hands in a
close, comforting grasp.

"What would you think if I asked the same promise of you?  Can't you
give me credit for as much consistency as yourself?  Is it possible that
I could grow tired of _you_?"

But at that moment Vanna had no ears for the sweet protestations of
love.  Her grasp grew but the tighter, her gaze the more distressed.

"Swear to me!  Swear!"

Piers gave a short, half-impatient laugh.

"I swear it.  Now are you content?"



CHAPTER SEVENTEEN.

A FALSE POSITION.

Vanna begged a month's grace before the announcement of her engagement
was made public, and before half that time had passed, had said good-bye
to the seaside cottage in which she had known such peaceful, happy days,
and, in response to an urgent invitation, had gone to pay a long visit
to Jean.

"You said the time would come when I should need you," wrote Jean, in a
long pencilled scrawl, "and it has arrived!  I need you badly, dear; I
crave for you.  At this moment I feel I must either have a kind,
understanding woman near me, or die!  I am so ill, Vanna, and so weak,
and so frightened!  It has been such a long, long time, and I never knew
before what it was like to be ill.  One does not grow used to it--it
grows harder and harder, and the days are so eternally long.  I don't
apologise for asking you to exchange one invalid for another; another
person might think it hard, but not you, you dear angel--it will be an
inducement to you.  And you'll stay until it is over, won't you, and
keep house, and look after Robert, when I'm upstairs?  Oh, the joy, and
the ease, and the comfort it would be to see you walk in at this moment,
and to know that you'd come to stay!  I want you more than I've ever
wanted you before; and if you say no, I'll collapse at once, and it will
be your fault, and you'll repent for ever after.  Wire your reply."

Vanna smiled happily as she read the characteristic words.  Yes, her
time had come.  She had waited to a good purpose.  Jean needed her, and
she needed Jean; she was longing eagerly for long, heart-to-heart talks
with her only woman friend.  Except those few short days at Seacliff,
the two friends had not met since the day of the wedding, and there
would be so much to hear, so much to say.  What would Jean have to say
to her great news?  She recalled Jean's face of dismay as, kneeling on
the ground, she had listened to Dr Greatman's verdict; heard again the
tremble in her voice as she asked, "Is there no escape?"  Surely Jean
would not blame her, because when happiness had been placed into her
hand she had not had strength to thrust it away?  Surely out of the
riches of her own wealth she would rejoice that some crumbs had fallen
to her friend?  What would Robert say?  He was a man: he would judge
from a man's standpoint, with his head rather than with his heart.
Vanna shrank nervously from Robert's disapproval.  He was one of the
simple, upright men who are apt to be hard judges.  To them there are
but two courses in life--a right and a wrong.  They have neither
sympathy nor understanding for those who pitifully essay to find byways
by which to escape the rigours of the path.  Yet when love had seized
Robert in its grip he had made short work of obstacles--had laughed to
scorn Vanna's prudent advice.  When she had condemned him, and refused
her help, he had replied that it was not needed.  He required no help
from outside.  Well!  Vanna lifted her chin with proud resolve; she
herself could be equally independent.  It would make the future more
difficult if Robert and Jean adopted a disapproving attitude, but for
the moment she need not trouble herself about such a contingency.  She
would allow Jean time for the discussion of her own affairs before
seizing a quiet opportunity for telling her own great news.

The tall town house, with its narrow staircase, and high, box-like
rooms, felt close and stuffy after the wind-swept cottage, but it glowed
with the colour dear to the heart of its mistress, and was refreshingly
different from the ordinary houses of that most inartistic age.  Jean
had copied her interior from pictures rather than from upholsterers'
catalogues, and her principal furniture had been made from her own
designs.  Robert had placed no limit on her expenditure; he could not
afford a large house, but she was to have "everything she wanted" for
the small one which she had graciously consented to occupy.  Such were
his instructions, and Jean had proceeded to carry them into effect with
a literal interpretation of the words.  Being one of the happy people
who always know exactly what they want, no time was wasted in
discussion, the only difficulty being to procure fabrics as beautiful
and artistically tinted as those which were pictured in her fertile
brain.  When the last treasure had been discovered, and fitted into its
niche, the completed whole was a triumph of good taste, beautiful and
restful; a home of which any man might be proud.  Robert was proud of it
because it was Jean's doing, and spectators waxed enthusiastic in Jean's
praise.  For himself, he would have been as well satisfied with a walnut
suite and moreen curtains, perhaps more so, for he felt uneasily that he
should never be able to smoke comfortably in such fine surroundings, nor
to cross a floor without pausing to rub his boots.  Neither of the two
had a glimmering of an idea of what it cost to furnish a house; but when
the bills came in Robert had a disagreeable shock.  The sum which he had
laid aside was ludicrously inadequate, and he was obliged to have
recourse to "selling a share or two," and so reduce his already slender
capital.  But Jean was content.  Jean was proud of her house; all other
considerations were second to that.

Vanna met her friend in the drawing-room, which, being situated at the
back of the house, with a depressing outlook, had the ordinary window
replaced by one of rich stained glass.  Gas jets had been arranged
outside the window, which, being lit at dusk, served to show the glowing
colours of the design through the evening hours.  On this summer
afternoon the mellowed light, and absence of prospect, combined to give
the room the aspect of a shrine, and Jean moving slowly forward was
certainly beautiful enough for a high-priestess.  She wore a wonderful
flowing robe of a dull blue, softly falling silk, the long open sleeves
hanging almost to the ground, and showing her slim arms encased in some
thin metallic substance, in which gold shot into silver, and silver back
to gold.  The folds at the neck were caught together with a metal clasp
and chains, and slippers of the same colour peeped out beneath the
sweeping skirts.  The first glance at her face, however, brought with it
a thrill of fear, for suffering and weariness were written there with an
eloquence beyond the power of words.  The eyes were haggard and
encircled with violet shadows, the cheeks had lost their curves, the
lips drooped, yet, as ever, Jean's beauty rose triumphant over all
drawbacks.  Vanna asked herself if she were not more beautiful than
ever, for the childlike pathos of expression added the needed touch of
softness to her features.

"Oh, Vanna, you blessing!  You have come at last."

"I've come, darling.  Come to stay!  As long as you want me."

Jean kissed her again and again, the tears gathering in the lovely eyes,
but she dashed them away, and in another minute was laughing and
chattering in her old gay voice.

"Bring tea, bring tea!  And I'm engaged, remember!  Not a soul is to
disturb me this afternoon.  Vanna, you look sweet.  If you go on
improving at this rate, you'll soon beat me hollow.  Sit here, opposite,
where I can see you.  Oh, you look so fresh, and happy, and well!  You
are like a breath of sea air.  I've been stifling for months in this
stuffy room, with not even a tree to look at, to remind me that it's
spring."  She threw an impatient glance at the stained-glass window
which had made such a deep hole in Robert's purse.  "Robert goes out at
nine, and gets home at seven.  Oh, my dear, such days!  I've had such a
dose of my own society that I'm sickened.  If there's a person on earth
I detest at this moment, it's Jean Gloucester."

Vanna smiled whimsically.

"It doesn't look like it.  You seem to me to take a very fair amount of
interest in her still.  You look as charming as ever, you wonderful
person.  What a marvellous gown!  Where in the name of mystery did you
evolve it? and how many coffers of gold did you squander in the
purchase?"

Jean had the grace to blush.

"Oh, well! one must be respectable.  It _is_ rather a marvel.  It was
designed for me by an artist woman who has gone in for gowns; but no
earthly inducement will ever make me tell what it cost.  It's so
soothing to have something becoming that it's been as good as medicine.
Looked at in that way, it's _cheap_!  And I have been so good about
money all the year.  Rob balanced our books last week, and we were only
a hundred out.  Very good, I call it, when you remember that I had _no_
experience.  The first time we had asparagus for dinner I couldn't eat a
bit.  I just sat staring at every stick.  You have always to pay for
experience.  Besides, as I said to Rob, you are only newly married once,
and it would be a sin to rub off the bloom worrying about pennies.  It's
silly to spoil the present for the sake of what may happen in a dozen
years.  We may be dead, or if we are not, we shall probably be better
off.  Rob's position will be improved, the boys' education will be
finished, and father can allow me more.  Men are so fussy about
capital...  Vanna, do you realise that it is a whole year since I've
seen you?  You have told me very little about yourself in your letters.
There's so much I want to hear.  Not about Miggles to-day--we'll leave
that.  I don't want to cry.  Tell me about yourself!"

"Oh, not yet!  One thing at a time.  I've not half finished with you,"
said Vanna with a thrill of nervousness, which she tried her best to
conceal.  "There are a hundred things that I am longing to hear.  But
first about Robert.  How is he?  Well--flourishing--giving
satisfaction--as nice as ever?"

"Nice!"  Jean tossed her head in disdain.  "What a paltry word.  He is
the best man out of Heaven, my dear.  That is the only description for
_him_.  I've lived with him for eighteen months, and have not discovered
one single, solitary fault.  That's simple truth, not exaggeration.  I
honestly believe he is perfect."

"And with you for a wife!  You are a darling, Jean; but method was never
your strong point, and by your own account your housekeeping hasn't
always been a success.  Does he continue to smile through all the
upsets, and forgettings, and domestic crises, such as you described to
us at Seacliff?  I can't believe it of a mere man!"

"Oh, I didn't mean to say that he preserves a dead-level calm.  I should
hate him if he did.  He is rather irritable in small ways.  You can
excite him to frenzy--comparatively speaking--by moving the matches from
his dressing-room, or mislaying his sponge or nail scissors; but then it
is the servants who get blamed--never me; and in big things he is great!
If he became paralysed to-morrow, or lost every penny he possessed, or
if!"--Jean's face sobered--"_died_, he might suffer tortures, but he
would not speak one word of rebellion, and he would keep his interest in
other people, and be truly, unfeignedly, ungrudgingly glad that they
were so much more fortunate than himself.  Oh, he is a marvel!  I adore
him.  I would give worlds to be like him.  I am bursting with pride at
being the woman he has chosen out of all the world; but he spoils me so,
that it's becoming second nature to want all my own way, so I keep
falling farther and farther behind."

"Robert wouldn't admit that!  No doubt he thinks himself the laggard,
and you just such another paragon as you have described."

Jean pursed her lips in a whimsical grimace.

"No!  The droll part of it is, he does _not_.  He doesn't understand me
one bit; I'm a continual enigma to him.  Half the time he is puzzled out
of his wits, and the other half he is--_shocked_.  Such eyes!  You
should see them staring at me, growing bigger and bigger, when I let
myself go, and grumble or rage.  He disapproves, but he makes excuses,
because I am I, and he loves me, and wouldn't change me for the greatest
paragon alive."  She was silent, smiling mischievously to herself for
several minutes, then burst out suddenly:

"Can you imagine it, Vanna?  I sometimes wish he were not quite so good!
It's aggravating for a sinner like me to be shown up continually
against such a contrast.  And sometimes it lands one in such fixes...  I
could tell you such stories of this year!"  She snuggled back against
her cushions.  "Ah, it _is_ good to have you here.  I have so longed for
a girl to talk to...  The first six months we went about a great deal,
paying visits to his friends.  The first time I asked him to describe
the people, as I knew them only by name.  `Oh, Meg!' he said, `Meg is
the simplest of creatures: kindly, and easy-going as you find 'em.
You'll feel at home in five minutes.  No fuss, no ceremony.  The sort of
house where you feel absolutely at home.'  Well, what would _you_ expect
from that description?  I saw a vision of a suburban villa, and a stout,
frumpy woman with a fat smile, and packed a modest little semi-evening
frock to let her down gently.  My dear! it was a mansion, and she was
the very smartest creature I have ever beheld.  The first glimpse of her
in afternoon clothes took away my breath; but there was worse to come.
She had asked a dozen people to dinner to meet us, and while we were
dressing--it was a summer evening, and quite light--I saw carriages
bowling up to the door, and visions in satin dresses trailing up the
steps.  There was nothing for it; I put on my wretched little frock,
eating my heart out the while at the thought of all my trousseau
grandeurs lying useless at home, and descended--the bride, the guest of
honour--the worst dressed woman in the room!  Can you imagine my
suffering?"

Vanna smiled.  She could; and also the manner in which Jean would
upbraid her husband after the fray.

"And Robert?  What had he to say?  How did he look when he first saw you
alone?"

"Radiant, my dear.  Beaming!  Absolutely, utterly content.  Blankly
astonished and dismayed to find that I was not the same.  Utterly
unconscious that my dress had been any different from the rest.  Blindly
convinced that there had not been one in the room to touch it!"

They both laughed, a tender indulgence shining in their eyes.  It was
the look with which women condone the indiscretion of a child; but Jean
was still anxious to expound her own side of the situation.

"Yes!  It's charming; but you've no idea how trying it can be at times.
Other women lament because their husbands complain of their meals.  I
wish to goodness Robert _would_ complain.  It would make things easier
with the maids.  Good plain cooks need so much keeping up to the mark,
and I never get a chance of grumbling.  When the things are unusually
bad, and I am mentally rehearsing what I shall say in the kitchen next
morning--`you really must make the soup stronger.  The gravy was quite
white...  Why did the pudding fall to pieces?'--you know the kind of
thing--Robert will lean back with a sigh, and say, `I _have_ had a good
dinner.  You've eclipsed yourself to-night.  I am getting quite
spoiled.'  I glare at him, but it's no use.  He says, `What is the
matter, dear?' and I see a smug smile on Brewster's face, and know she
will go straight into the kitchen and repeat the whole tale.  How can I
grumble after that?  The wind is taken completely out of my sails.
Sometimes I think that for practical, everyday life a saint is even more
trouble than a sinner.  Then the friends he brings here!  You never knew
such a motley throng.  It may be any one from a duke (figuratively a
duke.  He has met all sorts of bigwigs, `east of Suez') to a vagrant
with broken boots, and not an `h' in his composition.  And it's always
the same description: `do you mind if I bring a man home to dinner
to-night?  I met him at --' some outlandish place--`and he was awfully
decent to me.  He is passing through town, and I should like to have him
here.  Such a good fellow!'  Then, of course, if I have rice pudding,
it's the duke; or if I order in an ice, it's the vagrant.  Once or twice
I've tried cross-questioning, but it's no use.  If I ask, `is he a
gentleman, Robert?' he looks at me with his biggest eyes, and asks,
`would I ask any one to meet _you_, who was not?'  But, bless him! his
ideas and mine on that point do _not_ agree.  So here, my dear, you
behold the novel spectacle of a woman who has only one complaint to make
of her husband, that he is _too_ good!  But he loves me, Vanna, more
than ever.  We haven't grown a bit stodgy, only just lately I've been so
ill and depressed.  It will be better now you are here...  Now tell me
about yourself.  You've had a sad time, but you don't look sad.  You
look happy and well.  Vanna! you are blushing.  What is it?  Tell me.
There is something--I know there is.  Tell me at once!"

"Yes, there is something."  Vanna braced herself against the chair, a
thrill of nervous foreboding coursing through her veins.  She drew off
her left glove, which she had purposely left on during tea, and held out
the hand, on the third finger of which sparkled a large square diamond.
"There is that!"

"Vanna!  A ring?  On your engagement finger!  Who gave you that?"

"Piers Rendall!"

The colour rushed in a crimson flood over Jean's face; her lips parted
in breathless, incredulous surprise.

"_Piers_!  Vanna!  You _mean_ it?  Piers?  Piers and you?  You are
engaged?  When?  Where?  For how long?"

"At Seacliff.  A fortnight ago.  But we have loved each other from the
first."

"And you never told me; you never said a word."

"No.  I have not seen you; but even if I had I could not have spoken.
Remember how _you_ felt!  Could you have discussed Robert with me while
you were waiting?  I asked Piers not to announce the engagement until I
had told you.  No one has been told so far, except his mother."

"Mrs Rendall?  She knows?  It is settled then?  Really absolutely
settled?"

"Certainly.  I told you so.  A fortnight ago."

A little chill of offence sounded in Vanna's voice.  Jean's
congratulations were a trifle too long delayed; her surprise too blank
to be flattering.  "Aren't you going to congratulate me, Jean?"

"But--but--You told me--you said--the doctor said--"

"That I should never marry.  Just so!  That fact remains.  Piers knows;
I did not deceive him; he knew months ago.  He came up to interview Dr
Greatman himself.  We know that we can never marry, but we love each
other, and mean to take what happiness remains.  No one ever forbade me
to be engaged."

"How can you be engaged?  What for?  Engaged _not_ to be married?  It's
absurd.  What could you say?  How could you explain?  What would people
think?"

Vanna laughed--a short, hard laugh.  Still Jean had not congratulated
her, nor said one loving word.

"If it is a false position, it is just those `people' of whom you speak
who force us into it.  The conventions of society don't allow a man and
a woman to enjoy each other's society undisturbed.  To be engaged is the
only way in which they can gain the liberty.  Therefore that is the way
we must take.  There is nothing else to be done."

"And--when you _don't_ marry?  You are both well off, and not too young.
People will expect you to marry at once, and when you don't--"

"That is our own affair.  They will be told at the beginning that it
will be a long engagement, and however much they may wonder among
themselves, they will hardly have the impertinence to question us on the
subject.  I imagine they will be polite, and kind, and congratulate us.
I don't think there will be many who will hear the news without speaking
_one_ kind word."

The inference was undisguised--was intended to be undisguised.  Jean
flushed again, and knitted her delicate brows.

"I don't mean to be unkind, but it sounds so wild, so impracticable, so
utterly unlike you, Vanna.  Where will you live?  How can you meet?  You
are only twenty-five.  People are so ready to talk.  What do you propose
to _do_?"

"To go on with our lives.  I have money, thank goodness.  I must have a
little house--it won't be rich and luxurious like yours--just a little
corner where I can put my things, and feel at home.  I must make a
sacrifice to convention and have a sheep dog, too, I suppose--some
lonely woman like myself, who will be thankful for a home.  She can look
after the servants, and the cleaning, and understand from the first that
she leaves _me_ alone.  Then I shall find some work.  I have an idea
working out in my head which I hope will bring interest and occupation.
And Piers shall come to see me.  We shall have a place where we can meet
in peace and comfort."

"Vanna, you won't have peace--it's impossible.  Oh, I know it's hard
that your life should be spoiled, terribly, terribly hard; but remember
what the doctor said--that you had no right to spoil the man's life
also.  When you repeated that to me that afternoon you said there was no
fighting against it.  If you hold Piers to you now, you will steal his
chance of wife and home and children."

"Ah, there they are again--those children!"  Vanna's lip curled in
bitter passion.  "Those visionary children who are for ever cropping up
to block the way.  No legal form can make a wife and home.  I am more to
Piers than any other woman, despite all my limitations; his home is
where I am.  Why should I be sacrificed, a live woman, with all my
powers strong within me, for the sake of problematic infants who may
never arrive?  And if they did, is it all joy to be a father?  Are you
sure that the joy equals the pain?  Your father was broken-hearted that
day when you left him with a smile.  You did not trouble about him; why
should I give up everything for the sake of possible children?"

There was silence for several moments; then Jean spoke:

"Vanna, you talk as if I did not _want_ you to be happy.  Ask Robert!
He'll tell you how often I have spoken about you; how I've cried in the
midst of my own happiness to think you could never have the same.  But
this!  Oh, it's a mistake, dear; it's a mistake; it will land you in
worse trouble.  Piers will never be content; you won't be content
yourself; it won't be happiness, but a long, long fret."

"Other people--married people, happy married people--look back and call
the years of their engagement the happiest time of their lives.  I've
heard them.  You've heard them yourself."

"Yes.  But why?  They lived in the future, building castles, the castles
in which they were to live.  If you could have heard them talking when
they were alone, you would have found that it was almost always about
the future--When shall we be married?  Where shall we go for our
honeymoon?  Where shall we live?  They imagined it all sunshine, all
joy; and when the reality came, and its shadows, and ups and downs, they
looked back, and realised how happy and unburdened they had been.  But,
Vanna dear, if you take away the future--if there is no looking
forward--a dread, instead of a hope--"

Vanna shivered, but she held herself erect, and took no heed of the hand
held out towards her.  She looked round the beautiful, luxurious room,
at the glowing stained-glass window, which shut out the grey aspect of
the outer world, and as she did so, bitterness arose.  Once more the
knife-edged question cleft her heart.  Why should the ugliness of life
be turned into colour and beauty for one traveller, while the other
might not even take to herself a crumb of life's feast without reproach
and misgiving?  A moment before she had craved for Jean's sympathy; now
she felt cold, and hard, and resentful, unwilling to accept such
sympathy if it were offered.  Jean was too happy to understand.  She was
one of fortune's favourites, for whom life had always been smooth and
easy.  How could she realise the hunger of one who had stood continually
outside the feast?  Of what use were sweet words if understanding were
lacking?  Her voice when she spoke again sounded chill and aloof:

"You need not enlarge.  Piers and I realise too well that our lot is
different from other happy lovers, but we have both known what it is to
feel lonely and sad, and we believe that we shall find consolation in
each other's love.  We mean to try, at least.  Our minds are firmly made
up on that point, whatever our friends may think.  If you wish to cast
me off, Jean--I shall be sorry--but, I tell you frankly, it will make no
difference."

"Vanna, _don't_!  Don't be so bitter; don't speak to me in that voice; I
can't bear it," cried Jean with gasping breath.  The sound of her voice
brought Vanna's eyes upon her in startled inquiry, and at the sight of
her face resentment vanished, in a spasm of love and fear.  So white she
looked, so spent, so pitifully frail and broken.  Jean was ill: this was
no moment to trouble her with exhausting mental problems.  Vanna felt a
swift pang of penitence at the thought that she who had arrived in the
character of nurse and consoler had already contrived to bring about a
crisis of weakness.

In a trice her arms were supporting the lovely head, her lips pressed to
the white cheek, her lips cooing out tenderest reassurements.

"There, darling, there!  I was a brute, a mean, bitter, grudging brute.
Forgive me, and we'll never quarrel again.  I know it, Jean!  All you
have said, and _morel_ I did make a stand; I refused to listen, but I
love him so; I'm so hungry for happiness--I couldn't stand out!
Whatever comes, whatever happens in the future, we shall have _some_
time together.  Think how you would feel in my place, and you'll
understand.  You and Robert mean so much to us both, you _must_ wish us
well."

Jean cried, and clung to Vanna's hands with feverish protests of love
and fealty; but she allowed herself to be soothed and petted and waited
upon with a docility as new as it was touching.  When Vanna skilfully
led the conversation to brighter topics, she slowly regained her
composure, and some of her old brightness, but her face still showed
signs of her distress, and Vanna inwardly quailed at the thought of
Robert's wrath when he returned and discovered the manner in which she
had inaugurated her arrival.

For every one's sake she considered it wise to avoid a second argument
that night, and returned to her own room to unpack before Robert
arrived, leaving Jean to break the news to him as she pleased.  The
sound of his cheery whistle came up to her from the hall; she heard the
doors open and shut, and flushed and paled as she followed in
imagination the conversation in the room below.  A quarter of an hour
passed, then came footsteps, and a tap at the door.

"Vanna!  It's I!  May I speak to you for a moment?"

The voice was cordial, with its old cheery note.  At the sound of it
Vanna dropped the bundle of clothes which she was holding, and hurried
to fling open the door.  Robert was standing before her, pale and, if
possible, thinner than ever, but with a great tenderness shining in his
eyes.  Without preamble he took both her hands in his, and said:

"Jean has told me.  She is your oldest friend.  We want you to feel that
this is your home until you have one of your own.  Ask Piers whenever
you like.  He will always be welcome.  There's the little den; it is at
your service.  We'll do everything we can for you, Vanna."

But he did not congratulate her, and the lack smote on Vanna's heart.

"Thank you, Robert," she said wistfully.  "That's like you.  I am very
grateful, but, but can't you say you are _glad_?  Piers and I love each
other very much, and we have been very lonely.  Robert, you, of all
people, ought to be able to understand the possibility of a spiritual
love!"

But Robert only flushed, and looked distressed.

"We are not spiritual beings yet, Vanna.  That's the trouble.  I
understand the temptation.  I don't presume to judge.  Piers is a better
man than I.  He may be able to rise where I should sink."

"What would _you_ do if you were in our place?  If Jean were like me,
and you loved her, but could not marry?"

Robert's eyes craved pardon, but his lips did not hesitate:

"I should take a passage in the first boat, and put the width of the
world between us."



CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.

THE REAPER.

Robert and Jean made no further remonstrance, but the consciousness of
their disapproval was a weight from which Vanna could only escape in the
company of Piers himself.  Alone with him in the shelter of the den she
tasted content, all the more perfect from the contrast with darker
hours.  Encircled by Piers's arms, with Piers's eyes looking into hers,
the world itself had no power to touch her, and she found herself
translated into that woman's kingdom where everything that _she_ did was
right and beautiful.

"Jean does not approve of me, Piers.  She thinks I am acting unfairly by
you."

"My Heart, why worry about Jean?  She is a child--the most charming and
lovable of children, but still a child.  You have more brains in your
little finger than she has in her whole head.  She is incapable of
understanding your sentiments."

"Robert doesn't approve!"

"Robert doesn't count.  He is an echo of Jean.  He judges you from her
standpoint."

"If you get tired of me, Piers, you have promised to speak!"

"I've sworn it.  I'll swear it again, ten thousand times over.  Does one
grow tired of the sun?"

Then Vanna would abandon argument and talk delicious nonsense, and tell
herself a hundred times over that, come what might, she was the
happiest, the most blessed of women, to have gained the heaven of Piers
Rendall's love.

The days drifted past, quiet and peaceful except for the growing fear
about Jean.  The doctor shook his head, pronounced her condition "not
normal," and Robert, though invariably cheerful in his wife's presence,
grew haggard with suspense.  And then suddenly, some weeks before it was
expected, came the end--a ghastly day, a day of hasty comings and
goings, of urgent summons for further help, of anguish of body for Jean,
and for those who loved her, the mental anguish of sitting still hour
after hour waiting with trembling for the verdict of life or death.

It was four o'clock in the morning, the soft grey dawn of a summer's
day, when at last the waiting ended.  The doctor opened the door of the
den, and faced Robert's hungry eyes.

"It is all over, Mr Gloucester.  Your wife is coming round.  She is
young, and has a good constitution.  I think she will pull through.  She
is very low--that is only to be expected; but we have nature on our
side, and must hope for the best.  Unfortunately, circumstances are not
so favourable for her recovery as one could wish.  I regret to say that
in spite of all our care we could not save the child.  A fine boy!  I
deeply regret; but you will be thankful that your wife is spared."

The tears flooded Robert's eyes, but they were tears of joy, not grief.
At that moment he had no room in his mind for the little son whom he had
never seen.  After the blackness of those hours when he had seen a
vision of life without Jean, he could do nothing but rejoice and thank
God.

But Vanna's heart contracted with a spasm of sympathy.  Poor Jean!  Poor
Jean!  What a bitter awakening would be hers!

------------------------------------------------------------------------

And Jean lay on her bed, bruised, aching, incredibly fatigued.  She
asked no questions, displayed no interest; with eyelids closed over
sunken eyes, pale lips apart, she lay like a broken flower, indifferent
to everything in heaven or earth.  At intervals of a few hours the
doctor came and felt her pulse; at times some one put the tube of a
feeding-cup to her mouth, and she swallowed, shuddering with distaste;
at intervals it was dark, at intervals it was light.  Once an urgent
voice spoke in her ear telling of Robert's presence, and she opened her
eyes and tried to smile.  All her life long Jean remembered that smile.
An effort was required of her; she realised as much, and with all the
force of her feeble will endeavoured to twist her lips into the
looked-for greeting.  They were stiff as iron, heavy as lead; she
struggled wearily--was it for hours she struggled?--and at last
mechanically felt them part.  She smiled, and Robert cried!  It seemed a
poor reward, and she shut her eyes in weary despair.  At times she
slept, to awake with a gasp and a cry.  Always she was falling--falling
from the high gallery of a cathedral, from the top of a pile of
scaffolding, from the topmost crag of a precipice.  Then some one wiped
her brow, and spoke soothing words, and she cried, weakly, without
cause.

Four days of nightmare, then at last rest--a real sleep, without dreams
or fear; peace in the troubled frame, appetite instead of nausea.  The
fire burned brightly on the hearth, the curtains were drawn, nurse was
drinking tea comfortably beside the fire.  The old homely, everyday
life, how good and natural it looked after the black, nightmare dreams.

"Nurse!" whispered Jean weakly, "where is my baby?"

The white-capped nurse leapt to her feet; it must be uncomfortable,
thought Jean, to feel those stiff, white bows for ever pinned beneath
one's chin.  She came to the bedside, and looked down at her patient
with an expression of mingled anxiety and relief.

"Ah, you look better!  You have had a deep.  You will be ready for some
food--"

"My baby--I want my baby!  Why is it not in the room?"

"You have been too ill.  We had to keep you quiet.  You are getting on
nicely now, but you must still be careful.  Be good now, and drink this
milk, and try to sleep again."

"Is it a girl or a boy?"

"A boy."

"Oh!"  Jean's voice thrilled with joy.  "I knew it.  I knew it.  I
_said_ it could not be a girl.  A boy--a son!  Oh, bring him to me,
nurse; bring him!  I can't wait a moment longer."

"You have waited four days; you can wait a few more minutes.  Drink your
milk, and I will call your husband.  Poor man, he has been so wretched!
You would like to see him _first_."

Nurse was masterful, and Jean was weak.  She swallowed the milk, and
impatiently waited for Robert's arrival, hugging the thought of the
burden in his arms.  Surely he would bring him to her--the hard-won
treasure, the tiny, precious son for whose sake she had gone down to the
gates of death!

The door opened, and Robert entered.  His face was drawn and aged, his
hazel eyes haggard with suffering; but for once Jean had no thought for
him--her eyes saw only his empty arms.

"Where is he?"

Robert went down on his knees by the bedside.

"Jean, darling, speak to me!  I have been hungering all these days...
Thank God you are better.  Oh, Jean, nothing matters in all the world if
I have you."

Jean smiled, and her fingers feebly returned his caress.

"Poor lad! poor lad!  You have suffered, too, but he will comfort us.
Bring him to me! put him here, between us on the bed.  Let us look at
him together."

"Jean, sweetheart!  We have been happy together; sufficient for each
other all these months.  Am I not more to thee than ten sons?"

Then in a flash fear dawned on Jean's heart; her great eyes widened, her
lips fell apart.

"My baby!  Don't torture me.  Where is my baby?"

"With God," said Robert softly.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

The nurse had cleared away the tea things.  After a due interval she had
returned to the room, and been relieved to find the patient lying
quietly on her pillow.  Mr Gloucester sitting by her side looked more
agitated and distressed than she did.  His face wore the pitiful,
baffled expression of a child whose overtures have been rejected.  It
was with an air of absolute timidity that he bent forward to kiss his
wife's cheek when bidden to depart by the autocrat of the situation.

"I must go, darling.  I'll come back soon."

Jean's head moved slightly on the pillow, but the movement was away from
him, not nearer.  She spoke no word.

Nurse Emma moved about the room, performing necessary duties in the
deft, noiseless manner of her kind.  From time to time she cast a
curious glance at the still face on the pillow.  "Poor thing!  Too weak,
no doubt, to take it in!  Yet she had seemed excited at the thought of
the boy.  A pity, after such a hard time, but there would be plenty
more."

She shook out some dainty, lace-frilled garments before the fire, and
approached the bed, judiciously cheerful.

"Now, it is six o'clock!  You are so much better this afternoon--what do
you say?  Could you fancy a nice cup of tea?"

Jean opened her eyes, and looked at her.  It was not a look, it was a
glare; the grey eyes were dry, tearless, blazing.  At the sight Nurse
Emma was positively shaken with surprise.

"Oh, my dear, don't look at me like that!  It was not my fault.  We did
our best for you--more than our best.  I never saw Dr Erroll so
anxious.  You owe your life to him.  It's sad, of course; a great
disappointment, but you are so young, and you have your good husband.
You mustn't fret."

"I am not fretting."

"Not?  What then?  You look--"

"Furious!  I'm furious.  I have been cheated.  It's not fair."

"Oh, my dear!  Don't talk like that.  These things happen, you know.
You're not the first.  We all have our troubles, and you are pulling
round so nicely.  There was a time when we feared for you, too.  You
must be thankful that your life was spared for your poor husband's sake.
It's been most trying for him, with your weakness, and the funeral, and
all.  Come now, have a little cry.  It will do you good.  Then you shall
have some tea."

Jean glared at her again--glared with an intensity that was almost
hatred.

"You are a foolish woman," she said coldly.  "You have no right to be a
nurse.  Go away!"

Nurse Emma bit her lip and went back to her seat by the fire.  Really!
But it was her duty to ignore the outbursts of irritable patients, and
preserve an unruffled calm, and she honestly strove to live up to her
creed.  Half an hour later she renewed her offer of tea.  When her
second and third attempt alike failed to produce any response, she
determined once more to summon the husband to second her efforts.

Outside the bedroom door was a small square landing, the sort of
landing, unworthy the name of hall, which one finds in most small,
middle-class houses.  The gas was not yet lighted, and it had a dreary,
depressing air.  Before the window, gazing blankly into the street,
stood Robert Gloucester, every line of his body eloquent of fatigue and
depression.  Nurse Emma looked at him sympathetically; but her first
thought was for her patient.

"I think you had better go to Mrs Gloucester, sir.  I can't get her to
eat.  The food is ready on the table.  Perhaps she will take it for
you."

Robert passed her without a word, shutting the door behind him.  Jean
stared at him across the room.

"Darling!  Nurse is distressed that you won't eat.  She has sent me to
persuade you."

"She is a stupid woman--stupid and heartless.  She has no right to be a
nurse."

"Don't say that, dear.  She has nursed you well--been most devoted.  For
three nights she has not had off her clothes."

Jean's upper lip curled in scorn.  A strong, self-contained woman, who
had lost three nights' rest in performance of her paid duty.  Three
nights!  For how many weary months had she herself missed her sleep,
dreading the night, dreading the day, travelling wearily nearer and
nearer a martyrdom of pain, and now--nothing!  Hungry arms, hungry
heart, incredible disappointment!  She pushed aside the offered cup with
impatient hand.

"I don't want it.  It would choke me."

"But you are so weak; you will be worse again.  For my sake,
sweetheart!"

"No!  I am better.  You can see for yourself.  I feel really stronger."
And strange as it appeared, Jean spoke the truth.  In some mysterious
fashion the flood of anger coursing through her body seemed to have
brought with it fresh life and energy.  The tone of her voice was
clearer, a tinge of colour showed on her cheeks.  She looked her husband
in the face with cold, challenging eyes.

"You took away my baby--my baby, and hid him for ever, without letting
me have one sight of his face!  Was that just?  Was that fair?  Does a
woman wait all those months to be cheated at the end?  It was a cruel
thing to do."

"But you were ill.  Your own life was in danger.  It would have killed
you to be roused to hear that news.  If you think it over, dear, you
will understand."

"It's easy to talk.  You saw him.  You can remember.  I can't."

Robert's face twitched.  Yes! he remembered.  All his life he would
remember the small, dank face of his first-born--that pitiful image, so
cruelly unlike the cherub of Jean's dreams.  He had another memory
also--the memory of a grey, rainy morning when he stood by his son's
grave in the dreary city cemetery, while his wife lay unconscious at
home, grudging each moment in his longing to be back beside her--
dreading to return to hear a worse report.  Jean had been spared more
than she knew--more than she would ever guess, for no word of his would
enlighten her.  It was not Robert Gloucester's custom to speak of his
own woes.

He sat by the bed holding Jean's slack hand, gazing at her with wistful,
puzzled eyes.  He loved her as surely no man had loved a woman before,
but he could not comfort her.  That was the tragic, the inexplicable
fact.  In the first great sorrow of life she thrust him aside.  It was
terribly hard for her, poor darling; a crushing blow, _but_ there was
still so much for which to be thankful.  Her own life was spared; they
were given back to each other's love.  Could she not realise, and be
consoled?

Poor Robert!  As well expect the dead child to rise from its grave as
Jean to develop patience in the crash of her first great grief.  If she
had fallen from one deep faint to another, if she had hysterically cried
and sobbed, he could have understood and sympathised; but this bitter
cry of rebellion was beyond his comprehension.  At the moment when he
most longed to draw near, the great barrier of temperament shut him out
from his wife's heart.

The darkness deepened in the room; the face of Jean on the pillow became
dim and blurred, her hand lay slack and unresponsive in his grasp.
Robert sat silent, his whole being expended in a prayer for strength and
wisdom--for the power to say the right word to meet his wife's needs.

"Beloved," he whispered softly.  "Be patient!  Be content with me a
little longer.  There will be others..."

But what woman fresh from her fiery trial can take comfort in that
thought?  With a cry of pain Jean wrenched away her hand.

"Oh, you don't, you _don't_ understand!  I want Vanna--I want a woman.
Send Vanna to me."

So once again he had said the wrong thing.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Vanna crept in through the doorway, and knelt down by Jean's side.  The
gas was lighted now, turned up just high enough to make visible the
various objects in the room, without dazzling the patient's eyes.  Those
eyes were raised with strained appeal to the other girl's face, as if
mutely asking help.

Here was another woman, a woman who loved her, a woman who would never
have a child of her own.  Would she understand?  What words of comfort
would she offer in her turn?

But Vanna said no words.  She laid her face down on Jean's hand, and the
hot tears poured from her eyes.  The trembling of her form shook the
bed, and Jean trembled in response.  A spasm of weakness threatened her,
but she would not succumb.  She pressed her lips together, and stared
fixedly with burning eyes.  Was this the "little cry" which was to act
as the prelude to the "nice cup of tea"?  What comfort had Vanna to
offer?

"Well!" she said in that cold, faint voice which sounded so poor an echo
of her usual full, musical tones.  "Well! what have you to say?  I sent
for you, you know.  My baby is dead.  He is _dead_.  I have no baby.  It
has been all useless, for nothing!  Nothing is left--"

"Jean!  Jean!  My poor little Jean!"

"Is that all you have to say?  You ought to tell me to be brave, to be
brave and not fret.  I am not the first person!...  Can you believe it,
Vanna; _can_ you?  That little chest of drawers is full of his things.
I've stitched at them for months, and dreamt of him with every stitch.
I've turned them over a hundred times, waiting, looking forward to
to-day.  There's his cot in the corner, and his little bath.  It's all
ready--but he is not here.  My baby is dead.  They took him away, and
hid him where I can never see.  Think of it, Vanna! all those months,
and never even to see his face.  To have had a little son, and never to
have touched him, given him one kiss--"

"Poor little mother!  Poor little hungry mother.  Oh, my poor Jean."

Jean shut her eyes, and pressed her head against the pillow.

"Vanna, Vanna!  How shall I bear it?  I was so happy, so content; I
wanted nothing but Robert, and then _this_ came.  I had never been ill
before--it was dreadful to be ill, but I looked forward: you know how I
looked forward.  I thought and thought; it seemed at last as if one
thought of nothing else.  It grew so real, so near; it filled one's
heart, and then--_nothing_! nothing but pain and loss.  You don't
understand; you can't guess the horror of it--the baffled, incredible
horror.  You'll never know it, Vanna.  Thank God for that!  When you
grieve because you can never marry, remember this day, and what you have
escaped.  My little son, that I shall never see!  What can you say to
me, Vanna?  What can you say to comfort me?"

"Nothing!" said Vanna.  "Nothing!"  She raised her tear-stained face,
and laid it beside Jean's on the pillow, and at that touch, at the sound
of the broken voice, the hard composure broke down.  Jean trembled,
gasped, and clinging tightly to the outstretched arms, sobbed out her
heart in a paroxysm of grief.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

An hour later Robert was again summoned to the sick-room; but this time
it was by Jean's request, and when he entered she stretched out her hand
towards him, and pitifully endeavoured to smile.

"Poor darling!  I'm sorry I was unkind.  I will try, I _will_ try to be
good!  I am calmer now."

"Vanna helped you?"

Jean nodded.  Robert sat gazing at her, his eyes wistful, like his
voice.  It was not jealousy which he felt, nor anger, nor impatience--
but simplest, saddest humiliation.  He had failed and Vanna had
succeeded.  With all his soul he longed to find the secret of her power.

"How did she help you, dear?  What did she say?"

"Nothing!  She cried.  The tears rolled down her face."

Robert sat silent, holding his wife's hand, and striving, hopelessly,
pitifully, to understand.



CHAPTER NINETEEN.

LIFE WORK.

After the first few weeks were over Jean recovered her strength more
quickly than had been expected, and by the end of the second month was
able to take her usual place in the household.

One of the first things which she had done after being pronounced
convalescent was to fold away with her own hands all the tiny garments
which had been prepared with such joy, and to cover the dainty new
furnishings of the nursery with careful wrappings.  This done, the key
was turned in the lock, and henceforward there was a ghost-chamber in
the house--a chamber haunted by the ghost of a dead hope.

Jean spoke but little of her loss--the wound went too deep for words;
and as time went on some of the old interest in life began to revive,
aided by the joys of recovered health, and of Robert's devotion, if
possible more ardent than before.  Nevertheless no one could look upon
her without realising the change wrought by the last few months.  She
had been a merry, thoughtless girl, to whom grief and pain were but
abstract words conveying no definite impression: now the great
revelation had come, anguish of body, anguish of soul, and she emerged
from the shadows, sobered and thoughtful.

"What women have to suffer!  The thought of it haunts me.  I can't get
away from it," she said to Vanna one afternoon as they sat together in
the autumn gloaming, enjoying that quiet _tete-a-tete_ which was the
most intimate moment of the day.  "I walk along the streets staring at
the women I meet, and marvel!  There they are--thousands of them,
British matrons, plain, ordinary, commonplace creatures with dolmans,
and bonnets far back on their heads, each with a family of--what? four,
six, eight, sometimes _ten_ children!  For years and years of their
lives they have been chronic invalids, goaded on by the precepts that it
is `only natural,' and that they have no right to shirk their work on
that account.  The courage of them, and the patience, and the humility!
They never seem to consider that they deserve any praise.  If they read
in the newspaper of a soldier who saved a life in the rush and
excitement of battle, and was wounded in the act, they rave of him by
the hour together; but if you offered _them_ the Victoria Cross, they
would think you were mad!  Yet every life given to the world means
nearly a year of suffering for some poor mother!"

Vanna was silent.  It was inevitable that in her position she should see
the other side of the question, and feel that a year would be a light
price to pay for the joy of holding Piers's son in her arms; but Jean
had lost that great recompense which wipes away the remembrance of the
anguish.  Her heart was still hungry and sore.  Having no words of
comfort to offer, Vanna deftly turned the conversation to a safer
channel.

"Apropos of suffering, Jean, I have been waiting to talk to you about my
own plans.  I've been here over four months, dear, and it's time I moved
on.  I told you I had a plan in my head which was slowly working itself
out.  Well! at last, I think I can see daylight.  I have my life to
live, and I can't be content just to fritter it away.  I must find
something that is worth doing, and which will justify my existence.
I've thought of many things, but it always comes back to nursing as the
likeliest and most suitable.  For the last four years that's been my
work, and I know I did it well.  Every doctor I have met told me I was a
born nurse.  One Sunday when you were ill I went to Dr Greatman, and
had a long talk.  He had asked me to go.  I told him what I wanted--
technical training to add to what I had learnt by experience, and then
when I was properly equipped to _give_ my services to poor gentlewomen
who could not afford to pay to be properly cared for."

"A nurse!  A hospital nurse!  _You_!"  Jean's tone was eloquent with
dismay.  The day of lady nurses was but in its dawn, and public opinion
had yet to be reconciled to the thought.  "Vanna, you could not stand
the everlasting strain.  And you spoke of a home, a house of your own!
If you were at the hospital--"

"Let me finish my story, dear.  Don't interrupt half through.  Dr
Greatman was most kind and understanding.  I think in a kind of way he
feels that he owes me some compensation, as it was he who laid the bar
on my life.  I took him letters from the doctors who know me, giving my
character as professional nurse.  They were rather nice, Jean.  I was
proud of them, and Dr Greatman said he wished he could speak as highly
of many of his certificated nurses.  He advises me to take a two years'
course of training at a hospital.  I should have to `live in,' and give
up all my time; but as soon as the two years are over I will look out
for a house and a sheep dog, and gather together my treasures to make a
real little home of my own.  You shall help me to arrange it, Jean!  It
shall be in town, as near to you as rents will allow, in a quiet street,
with at least two spare rooms facing south.  Then I shall be ready for
work as it comes along.  Sometimes I shall go to a patient's house, and
nurse her there; sometimes--if her own house is unsuitable, or if she is
a poor governess, or a worker who hasn't got a home--I'll take her in,
and look after her in my own rooms.  At other times I'll have
convalescents who want kitchen food and kindness.  Sometimes I'll have
guests--poor, dull drones who are suffering from all work and no play,
and dose them with kindness and amusement.  Then I shall fed of some
use, and that my house is doing good to other people besides myself."

"They'll sponge upon you, and tire you out, and take everything they can
get, and then go away, and slander you behind your back."

"_Tant pis_!  Let's hope they'll do it sufficiently far away to let me
continue in my blissful delusion that I've done some good."

"You'll get sick of it.  It's no use pretending; you were as fond of
gaiety and amusement as I was myself.  You'll get sick of everlasting
invalids."

"Then I'll take a spell off, and do nothing, and be as selfish as I
please.  I'm not bound.  If a roving fit seizes me I can shut up house
and go off on my travels.  I don't intend to spend all my life in a rut.
I'm a poor gentlewoman myself, and need my own medicine.  Don't imagine
that I'm tying myself down to continual drudgery, for I'm not; but I
must, I must have an object in life!"

"And for two whole years you propose to shut yourself up in a hospital?"

"I do; with the exception of an afternoon a week, a day a fortnight, and
three weeks' annual holiday."

"May I ask what Piers has to say?"

Vanna's smile was both whimsical and pathetic.

"You may; but I shan't answer.  Several volumes of very strong language,
poor dear man; but he knows--at the bottom of his heart he knows that I
am right!"

Not even to Jean could Vanna confess that her plans for the future had a
nearer and more personal object than mere philanthropy.  The
conservation of love!  This was the great problem with which she
struggled in secret.  Her clear, far-sighted brain realised the truth,
despised by most lovers, that love is a plant which needs careful and
assiduous tending if it is to live and retain its bloom.  Kindred
interests, kindred hopes, kindred efforts and aims--these are the foods
by which it is nourished in happy home-life; but if these be wanting--if
instead of the hill tops there stretches ahead a long flat plain, what
then can nourish the plant and guard it from decay?  Piers had sworn
that his troth should not bind him if his heart grew tired; but, having
received that promise, Vanna never again allowed herself to allude to
the subject.  Her woman's instinct taught her that no good could come of
continually putting such a possibility into words.  She must write, act,
speak, as if the eternity of the love between them was beyond doubt--
fixed as the hills.  What precautions seemed advisable to keep it so she
must take upon herself, and with as slight an appearance of intention as
might be.  Piers might rage and fume at the prospect of her years in
hospital, but she knew that the scarcity of their meetings would be a
gain rather than a loss.  Once a week they would meet for a few hours;
once a fortnight there would come a long happy day, which would make an
epoch to be anticipated and remembered with tenderest thought.  Better
so than to run the risk of satiety, and the hastening of that day when
the dread question might arise: "What next?"

This conviction, deeply rooted in Vanna's mind, made her strong to
resist all arguments and reproaches, and the end of the year found her
established as a nurse at one of the largest and most advanced of the
great London hospitals.



CHAPTER TWENTY.

AFTER FIVE YEARS.

Five years later Vanna Strangeways and Piers Rendall were taking tea
with Robert and Jean Gloucester in their London home.  Those years of
busy living had left their trace on all four friends; but, as is usually
the case, these changes were most marked on the faces of the women.

A man of forty is almost invariably handsomer than the same man at the
age of twenty-five; but though a woman may gain in expression, the
delicate bloom of youth is a charm which can never be replaced.

Jean Gloucester would always be beautiful, but already in her thirtieth
year she wore a worn and fragile air.  The two children who now occupied
the nursery upstairs had made heavy demands on her strength.  Jean was
one of the women who, though naturally robust, seem totally unfitted for
the strain of child-bearing.  Her figure was slight almost to
emaciation, and her cheeks had lost their bloom, but she was still a
picture fascinating to the eye as she leant back against the cushions of
the sofa--bright rose-coloured cushions, newly covered to show off the
beauty of a wonderful grey gown made in the long flowing folds which she
affected, and which were in striking contrast to the inartistic dresses
of the period.

In whatever direction Jean economised it was never in dress or household
decorations.  She was one of the women in whom the beauty instinct takes
precedence above other tastes.  If it had been her lot to live in a
garret on ten shillings a week she would have deprived herself of food
until she had saved enough money to paper the walls with a harmonious
colour, and to buy a strip of curtaining to match.  To purchase a
prosaic garment for five pounds, when an artistic one could be procured
for ten, was to her practically an impossibility.  She stifled any pangs
of conscience by arguing that the outlay was economical in the end.
Good things wore longer, one did not grow wearied of them as of cheaper
designs; and, to do her justice, these theories were invariably
supported by her husband.  His wife's beauty was a continual joy to
Robert Gloucester, and he took a boyish delight in the moments when,
walking by her side, he encountered chance City friends, and watched the
first casual glance brighten into surprised admiration.  It appeared to
him but another instance of Jean's surprising cleverness that she always
"hit upon such stunning clothes," and he pitied from his heart the poor
fellows who possessed dull, dowdy wives.  Jean looked like a queen
beside them; but a queen is an expensive luxury in the home of a
struggling business man.  The process of "selling out a share or two"
had been resorted to several times in the course of the last few years,
and Robert had begun to lie awake at nights, pondering uneasily about
the future.  The lines in his forehead had deepened into furrows, but
his eyes were clear and bright as ever; he moved in the same quick,
alert fashion, and his laugh rang full and joyous as a boy's.

Piers Rendall's dark hair had turned grey--a curious dark shade of grey
which gave an effect of _poudre_.  The change gave an added distinction
to his appearance, and showed the dark eyes and eyebrows in striking
contrast.  He was thin, however, and the nervous twitching of the
features was more frequent than of old.

As for Vanna, what attractions she possessed had never been of the
golden-haired, pink-cheeked category, and there was consequently little
change visible at a casual glance.  She was prettily dressed in a soft
blue gown, and the stag-like setting of the head, the arched black
brows, and the delicate oval of the face were untouched.  Love and work
had filled her life, and her expression was both sweet and strong; but
there were new lines written on her face--lines whose secret no one knew
but herself.

All these years Vanna had been fighting a battle--a battle against self
and fate.  When at the end of her hospital course _she_ had settled down
in her own house, Piers had been hotly indignant at discovering that the
same embargo as of old was to be laid against his visits.  One night a
week!  The thing was preposterous.  He had given way to her wishes, had
been patient and self-sacrificing, more patient than ninety-nine men out
of a hundred would have been under the circumstances.  He had waited,
marking off the months as they passed, counting on the future to reward
him for his abstinence, and now was she going to put him off again, to
forbid him the house, to treat him like a common acquaintance?  He
stormed and argued, Vanna stood firm.  They parted for the first time in
coldness and anger, but the next day Piers took back his words, and
begged for forgiveness.

"You may be right, I don't know.  Women are so confoundedly calm and
reasoning; but it's hard, Vanna!  If you knew how I long for you--what a
lost, aimless wretch I feel hanging about, knowing that you are alone--a
few streets off!  It was easier when you were shut up in hospital and I
couldn't get to you; but now!  Sometimes it drives me half mad.  You
can't blame me for flaring out.  It's because I love you, darling--love
you so wildly.  You wouldn't have me love you less?"

"No! a thousand times no."  Yet no persuasion could move Vanna from her
point.  On that one evening a week she was all that the most ardent
lover could desire; with every power she possessed she strove to secure
the perfection of that hour.  Piers's favourite dishes appeared at
dinner; his favourite flowers decked the rooms; she rested during the
day, so as to be at her best and brightest in the evening, dressed
herself in his favourite colours, lavished love upon him in generous,
unstinted flow.  Every evening he left her aglow with love, chafing at
the thought of the time which must elapse before their next meeting,
breathing out threats of rebellion.  Now and again he did indeed break
through the rule, making an excuse of an opportunity to take Vanna to
some special entertainment; but these occasions had the excitement of
stolen pleasures, and were not allowed to become common.

Sometimes when Piers was visited by one of his black fits of depression;
when she realised that these fits grew more frequent with each year as
it passed, Vanna knew a terrible sinking of the heart.  But she strove
valiantly to disguise it even from herself, for she realised that for
her wisdom lay in living in the present and resolutely shutting her eyes
to the future.  Piers also she strove to inoculate with this doctrine,
forcing him to see outside reasons for his depression.

"Our love is more perfect, we mean more to each other than nine out of
ten married couples.  If we have not their joys, we are spared their
griefs.  Dearest, is any human being really content?  Is he _meant_ to
be content?  The animals are peaceful and satisfied to browse, and eat,
and lie down and sleep; they are in their rightful environment, but we
as spiritual beings are wandering adrift.  The divine spark within is
eternally urging us on, further, higher--casting aside the baubles.  It
is not a fault; it's a birthright.  We can be patient, but never, never
content."

"Robert--"

"No!  He has Jean, and she has his heart, but he wants her to be
stronger; he wants to be richer for her sake.  He craves for the
perfection which he can never know."

But it was hard to be always strong, to be compelled to reason and
argue, and fight down self, instead of claiming her woman's privilege of
being cared for and protected.  There were hours when Vanna would have
given all she possessed to break down and cry her heart out in Piers's
arms; but it was an indulgence she dared not claim.  A fuller knowledge
of her lover's character had shown that his powers of endurance were
less than her own.  He would have been all tenderness and compassion,
but she would have paid for that hour by weeks of heavy depression.  So
Vanna fought on, and was silent.

In one respect her circumstances were happier than her lover's; for
while Piers's interest in business was of the perfunctory order of the
already rich man, her own work was a continual delight.  From time to
time she visited a patient, but by far the greater number came to her to
be housed and tended.  They were a pathetic crowd; middle-aged and
elderly women of gentle birth, worn out with the struggle of life,
shrinking with terror from bodily illness, not because of the suffering
involved, but from the fear of loss of employment and subsequent want
which it involved.  To be nursed, housed, and fed free of charge was a
godsend indeed, and Jean's prophecy of ingratitude was rarely fulfilled.
Sometimes, indeed, Vanna felt that ingratitude would have been easier
to bear than the trembling blessings called down on her head by those
poor souls for whom perforce she could do so little.  She grew to dread
the last few days of a visit, to shrink afore-hand from the pitiful
glances which the departing guest would cast around the pretty, cosy
rooms, as if storing up memories to brighten barren days.  Her charity
had the sting of all such work, the inability to do more; but in it she
found interest and occupation, and a continual object-lesson.  These
poor waifs and strays, who were thankful for a few weeks' haven, would
think themselves rich beyond measure if they owned one half the
blessings she herself possessed.  Ought she not to be grateful too?

On this autumn afternoon Jean had an exciting piece of news to tell to
her visitors.

"Guess who is engaged!  Some one you know--know very well: an intimate
friend."

"Fine or superfine?"

"Both, of course; but you know her best.  A very old friend.  Near
here--"

"Don't tell, Jean; don't be in such a hurry.  Let them guess," cried
Robert, laughing; but already Vanna was gasping in incredulous tones:

"_Not_ Edith Morton!"

"Yes!  Yes!"  Jean clapped her hands with her old childlike abandon.
"Isn't it lovely?  Aren't you pleased?  She came round last night to
tell me.  To Mr Mortimer.  She has seen a lot of him at their literary
society.  He is a clever man; every one speaks highly of him, and he is
rich.  It's all as charming as possible, and most suitable."

Mr Mortimer!  Vanna knitted her brows, recalling a grave, middle-aged
figure, and striving to imagine him in the new role of Edith Morton's
lover.  Edith had sailed for Canada shortly after Jean's marriage to pay
a visit to a married sister, and had returned at the end of two years,
apparently heart-whole; but Vanna knew that her life had been empty of
interest, and feared lest the attraction of a home of her own and a
definite place in the world might have induced her to give her promise
without love.

"Mr Mortimer!  He is a fine man; I like him--but for Edith?  He seems
so old, so settled down.  I never dreamt of his getting engaged."

"Nonsense!  He is forty-five and she is thirty-two.  Very suitable.  A
woman ages more quickly than a man.  He will look years younger with a
wife to smarten him up; and they are as much in love as if they were
twenty; beaming, both of them--the picture of happiness.  The wedding is
to be almost at once.  He says they have waited long enough, and can't
afford to waste another day.  I shouldn't wonder if they rushed it
through in six weeks, and took a furnished house till they had time to
look round.  Much the best plan."

"Much!" agreed Vanna quietly.  Jean's impetuous speech often planted a
dart of which she was the first to repent; but as she would ruefully
confess to Robert, it was so difficult to think of Vanna and Piers as an
engaged couple.  They were so much more like a settled-down, married
couple, living on quietly from day to day, taking life as it came,
making no plans.  It was only when she saw the shadow fall on the faces
of the two listeners that she realised her mistake.  She sprang to her
feet and pulled loudly at the bell.

"We'll have the children!  Lorna would never forgive me if I let you go.
Babs looks too sweet in her new frock..."

"Just for a moment.  I must be taking Vanna home.  It's damp, and I
can't let her risk cold."

Piers spoke hastily, and rose to his feet as if in preparation for
saying adieu.  Jean's children were dainty little creatures, to whom he
and Vanna were truly attached; but each shrank from seeing them in the
presence of the other.  The family group of the lovely mother, with her
golden-haired babies, the proud, happy father, was so perfect, so
complete, that less happy mortals looking on might well be excused a
stab of envy.  Vanna and Piers each knew the pang of the childless,
which was doubled in intensity in the knowledge of the other's
suffering.

The two little girls entered the room side by side.  Their sex had been
a grievous disappointment to Jean, who had the overpowering desire for a
son which possesses many women; but the little maids were pretty and
charming enough to satisfy any parent.  Lorna, dark, glowing, with her
mother's wonderful eyes; the baby Joyce, a delicious fat ball crowned
with a mop of yellow curls.

They were delightfully free from shyness, and greeted the two visitors
with sweet, moist kisses, and "bears' hugs" from tiny white arms.  Vanna
took Joyce on her knee and tried bravely to talk baby-talk, and keep her
eyes averted from Piers's lowering face; but at the end of ten minutes
she gave up the struggle, made her farewells and followed him into the
street.

It was a dark, misty evening--one of those evenings when the cold
penetrates to the marrow, and the great city is at its worst and
dreariest.  Piers turned up the collar of his coat, so that Vanna could
see little of his face; but his walk, his bearing, the forward droop of
his head were painfully eloquent.  During the whole of the ten minutes'
walk he did not speak a word, but Vanna knew that when they were alone
in her own quiet room the floodgates would open, and trembled at the
thought of yet another scene.  When the door was opened she went
straight to her bedroom, lingering purposely over her toilette, in the
hope that Piers would have time to calm down, and remember his
resolution made so ardently after each fresh outburst.  Of what avail to
rail against fate, when the effort could only revert on one's own head
in weariness and remorse?  Was it not he who had first preached the
beauty of a spiritual love?  This was the view on which she must lay
fullest stress to-night, this the pure and lofty ideal to which she must
raise his thoughts.  And then Vanna--a woman through and through--stood
another five minutes before the glass, carefully bestowing those little
touches to her toilette which would add to her physical charm, and evoke
Piers's admiration to the uttermost.

He was pacing the room from end to end.  The sound of his footsteps
reached her ears before the door opened, and the moment she appeared he
came towards her with outstretched arms.

"Vanna! this must end.  It is unsupportable.  We cannot endure it any
longer.  Why can every one be happy except us?  Edith Morton married in
six weeks!  Good God, and we have waited five years; may wait for ever.
To hear Jean prattling of its being so wise, so sensible, and you
agreeing in a calm, even voice--it drove me wild!  There are some things
a man cannot stand.  I have come to the end of my tether."

Vanna stood like a statue, eyes cast down, hands clenched by her sides.
No! this was not one of the scenes to which she was accustomed; this was
something more.  There was a note in Piers's voice which she had not
heard before--a note of determination, of finality.  Within her soul she
heard the knell of the end.

"Vanna, you must feel for yourself that things are impossible.  We must
marry.  We must risk all.  This farce cannot go on.  We have done our
best, and we have failed.  Nothing that could happen could be worse than
to go on through the years wasting our lives.  We must take our risks,
and face them together.  We must marry!"

To the last day of her life Vanna never ceased to marvel at her own
courage and calmness at this moment of supreme temptation.  A hundred
times over she had tremblingly acknowledged to herself that if Piers
made a violent attack upon her determination she could not answer for
the result.  The temptation to consent, to gain happiness at whatever
cost, would be so immense that continued resistance would be next to
impossible; but at this moment there was no feeling of temptation.  The
steady, persistent effort of years finds its reward in these crises of
life--in a strength of character, a stiffening of the mental muscles,
which changes tumult into calm.  Vanna ceased to tremble; she stood
motionless before her lover, oblivious of his outstretched arms, her
whole being projected into the thought of the future.

It was as if on a darkened night a sudden flash of light had been
vouchsafed, by which the landscape was revealed, with the pitfalls
yawning at her feet.  A tranquil, trustful soul like Robert Gloucester
might have taken on himself the burden of her life, and have come
unscathed through the ordeal--calm himself, calm in his influence, a
true doctor in the home; but Piers, by reason of those very qualities
which endeared him to her woman's heart, was the last man on earth to
support the strain.  His fear, his anxiety, though expressed in
tenderest devotion, must inevitably act and react on both.  At this
moment the great question appealed to her woman's heart less in its
abstract than in the personal form, as affecting the happiness of the
beloved.  Whatever he might feel at this moment of stress and passion,
it could not be for Piers Rendall's ultimate happiness to marry a woman
over whom hung the deep cloud of inherited madness.  His aim
accomplished, joy would be speedily eclipsed in dread.  In imagination
she could see his haggard looks, feel the dark eyes brooding over her
with fearful care.  So far he had been free.  If the chains fretted too
sorely he had only to drop them, and go forth.  How would he bear it if
there were no escape?  How could _she_ bear it for his sake?

Vanna lifted her head and looked deep into her lover's eyes.  Her voice
was clear and steady:

"No, Piers!  I will never marry you.  Never, to the end of time.  But I
will not bind you.  You are quite free--"

"Free!"  He turned from her with a loud, harsh laugh.  "Good God, how
you quibble with words!  I have loved you, I have given you my life--how
can I be free?  What have I left if you cast me off?  What have _you_
left?  How can you insult me with such words?  How can you be so cold,
so cruel?  Women have no hearts.  They don't know what it is to love--"
The wild words flowed on in breathless torrent.  Then suddenly came the
collapse: he turned towards her, met the glance of her piteous eyes, and
melted into remorse.  "My poor Vanna, I am hurting you.  Forgive me,
darling!  I am a brute, a selfish brute; I am half mad myself...  Oh,
this world! what a hell it can be!  What have we done to be cursed and
set aside?  It is cruel--unjust.  If we can never marry, why did we ever
meet?"

Vanna shivered.  "_Why did we ever meet_?"  Was it Piers who had spoken
those words?--Piers, who had declared that to love her was a higher joy
than to be the husband of any other woman!  Once again the knell-like
bell tolled in her ears.  It was almost a relief when, after a few more
incoherent words, Piers suddenly turned to depart.

"I won't stay.  I am hurting you.  I'll go now, and come back when I am
calm.  You'll be better alone--"

For the first time in five years he left her without a kiss or a caress,
and Vanna sat, stunned and motionless, gazing on the ruins of her life.
No one came near to interrupt her solitude.  It was a rule that she
should be uninterrupted when Piers was present, and his departure had
apparently passed unnoticed by the household.  A dense, overhanging
shadow possessed her spirit, out of which one thought alone was clear.
Piers was unhappy.  She, who would have sheltered him from every ill,
had brought upon him the keenest suffering of his life.

Two hours later, when Piers himself opened the door, he found Vanna in
practically the same attitude in which he had left her, crouched in the
corner of the sofa.  The fire had died out in the grate, and the air of
the little room struck bleak and chill.  The face turned towards him had
the delicacy of an etching, the dark brows arched above the deep-set
eyes, the finely moulded cheeks white and wan.  Unlike most women,
Vanna's attraction was distinct from colour; she looked her best, not
her worst, in minutes of mental strain.  Piers closed the door,
approached her hastily, and, taking her hands in his, drew her to his
side.  He spoke but two words, but they were prompted by the force which
is the greatest diviner of the needs of the human heart, and the whole
wealth of the language could not have added to their eloquence.

"_My Joy_!" he said, in that deep, full voice which Vanna had heard but
once or twice before, in the great moments of their love.

They wept, and clung together, and Vanna's hungry heart found comfort
once more.  After all, would she have been more content if Piers had
_not_ rebelled?



CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.

PARTED.

The next year passed slowly and heavily.  In the spring Jean had an
illness which made it necessary for her to spend several months on the
sofa--a decree which she accepted with extraordinary resignation.
Nothing could have demonstrated so powerfully the change which the last
seven years had wrought in her physical condition as this willingness to
be shut off from social life.

"I've been so tired," she confided in Vanna, letting her head fall back
on the pillow, and closing her eyes with a long-drawn sigh, "so tired,
that it's been a struggle to get through each day.  It's bliss to be
lazy, and to feel that one is justified.  When I wake up in the morning
and remember that I needn't get up for breakfast, I could whoop with
joy.  The doctor expected me to rebel.  Goodness!  I wonder how many
thousand tired women would hail such a prescription--to lie in bed until
eleven; dress quietly, and go down to the sofa; read amusing books; have
a friend to tea; sleep again, to be fresh for the husband's return; to
bed at nine; and _you must not be worried_!  My dear, it's Heaven begun
below!  I don't say I should like it as a permanency, but as a change
from general servants' work (which is plain English for a middle-class
wife and mother) it is highly refreshing.  We'll have to get an extra
maid, of course.  I've worked like a slave to keep the house as it must
be kept if I'm to have any peace in life.  We have such heaps of silver
and in town it needs constant cleaning, and the mending is everlasting,
and the making for the children, _and_ the shopping, and helping in the
nursery to set nurse free to do some washing.  The laundry bills are
ruinous; but you _must_ have children in white!  It's a nuisance having
to spend more.  It always happens like that with us.  Just as we say,
`the next quarter must be lighter; we shall need nothing new,' bang
comes another big drain, and sends us back farther than ever.  Money
_is_ a trial!  You don't half realise how much you are saved by having a
comfortable income, Vanna.  That's a _big_ blessing, and you ought to be
thankful for it."

Vanna considered.  No! she was not actively thankful.  When at any
special moment the subject was brought before her, she could indeed
realise the benefit of a sufficiency of money, which enabled her to
choose and carry on the work which was most congenial; but as a rule the
accustomed good was calmly taken for granted, and brought no feeling of
joy.  She made a mental note, and passed on to the consideration of
Jean's problem.

"Couldn't you contrive to reduce work while you are laid up, dear?  Lock
up all the silver that is not absolutely needed, and let the children
wear coloured overalls.  I'd make them for you, of a pretty, becoming
blue, which would save half their washing.  You might shut up the
drawing-room, too.  You can't entertain, and you are comfier here in the
den.  It would be so nice if you could avoid extra help.  Another
servant in the house would be a trial."

But Jean only smiled with indulgent patronage.

"Oh, my dear, I can't upset everything.  And I shall need some one to
wait upon me, and run up and down.  It would be very poor economy to
save a few pounds, and be worried to death.  You have no idea how
difficult it is to get any rest when you are the mother of a family.
One day--I've often intended to tell you about this, and make you
laugh!--you know how you have told me how lonely and sad you feel when
_you_ are ill, and lie all day alone in your room, never seeing a soul
except when your meals are brought up.  _Well_, at the beginning of this
attack I awoke one morning with a crashing headache.  I struggled up,
hoping it would go off after breakfast, but it grew worse.  Robert
brought me in here and tucked me up on the sofa, and ordered a `quiet
day.'  He said it was such a comfort to think that I _could_ be quiet,
and need do nothing but lie still and rest.  He could not have borne to
go away and leave me ill if he had not been sure of that.  Dear, blind
bat!  He had not been gone five minutes when cook arrived for `orders.'
There was nothing in the house except the bit of mutton, and she thought
that was going bad.  Would I like to look at it?  She stood there gazing
before her in that calm, detached way they have--it is so maddening!--
never making one single suggestion, while I wrestled with it all--
children's dinner, kitchen dinner, dining-room dinner, kitchen supper,
to-morrow's breakfast...  I was so worn out that I forgot all about my
own lunch.  So did she!  After she went it took about ten minutes before
the horrible throbbing in my head calmed down to what it had been
before, and by that time nurse appeared to say that Joyce had some spots
on her chest, and did I think it was wise for her to go out?  Would I be
able to keep her for an hour while she promenaded with Lorna?  Lorna got
so fratchety if she was in all day.  I investigated the spots.  I sent
for the doctor, and said they were _all_ to stay in, and nurse was
cross, and slammed the doors all day long.  I lay down again, and
sniffed smelling-salts, till cook came back to say the fishman was very
sorry, but he _had_ no smelts, and what would I have instead?  After
that I slept for a good quarter of an hour, till a parcel arrived with
tenpence to pay.  I had only a sovereign in my purse, and no one had
change.  There was nothing for it but to get the keys and go upstairs to
my bureau.  After that the piano-tuner arrived.  He comes once a
quarter, and picks his visits with demoniacal cunning for the very
_worst_ times in the whole three months.  Mason hadn't the sense to send
him away, and I didn't know he was there until the awful _arpeggios_
began.  Then I worked myself into a fever trying to decide whether I
should send him away, whether he would charge twice over if I did,
whether it would be bad for the piano, whether he would be long, whether
I could bear it if I covered my head.  At last the strum, strum, on one
note began, and I rang and told Mason to send him away at once, and
_she_ was cross.  Half an hour later some one sent a note with, `bearer
waits reply' on the envelope, and I had to sit up and write.  The doctor
came at twelve, and said Joyce was perfectly well, but I looked
feverish; couldn't I lie down and rest?  I could not look at lunch,
which was just as well, as there was none for me, and Joyce fell off her
high-chair just over my head, and I thought she was killed.  She
screamed for an age, and I forgot my own head, thinking of hers; but
afterwards!  I cried to myself with sheer pain and misery, and I thought
of your `long, solitary day' with such envy.  The afternoon was the same
story, and when Robert came home he was _so_ disappointed to find me
worse!  I didn't tell _him_ my experiences; he doesn't see the humour of
them when they affect me, but I said miserably to myself, `some day I'll
tell Vanna, and we'll laugh.'  Dear me, what a comfort it is to have a
woman friend!"

Vanna smiled at her affectionately.  It was good to hear Jean rattle
away in her old racy fashion, but her skilled eye was quick to note the
signs of fragility in the lovely face, which paled and flushed with such
suspicious rapidity.

"I think Sister Vanna had better apply for the vacant `place,' and take
possession until you are strong.  Would you like to have me with you,
dear?  We have been having rather a strenuous time lately, and when the
present inmates leave at the end of this week, I should be quite glad to
shut the house and give the staff a rest.  It's a poor thing if I give
my life to nursing, and can't wait upon my one friend when she needs me.
Would you like to have me?"

Needless to say, Jean was enchanted at the prospect; so was Robert when
he returned at the close of the day; so also, more inexplicably, was
Piers himself.  Vanna had been prepared for expostulations against a
proposal which would leave her less free for his visits, but none came,
and their absence added to the dull weight of oppression which had hung
over her ever since the evening when she had heard of Edith Morton's
engagement.  Try as she would to live in the present, and avoid vain
imaginings, she could not blind herself to a certain change in Piers,
which seemed to increase rather than diminish.  It was not a lessening
of love; never had she known him more devoted, more passionately her
own; but in his tenderness was an element of sorrow, of self-reproach,
which chilled her heart.  Piers was sorry for her!  Some thing was
working in his mind, the knowledge of which must give her pain.  What
could it be?

The revelation came one evening after she had been located for some
weeks in the Gloucester _menage_, and for all her forebodings, found her
unprepared.

"Vanna, I have something to tell you to-night.  I have been trying to
say it for some time.  Darling, can you be brave?"

Vanna looked at him sharply.  They were sitting together on a sofa drawn
up before the fire, and the kindly glow hid the sudden whitening of her
cheeks.  She leant back against the pillows, feeling faint and sick with
the rapid beating of her heart.

"Not--very, Piers!  Tell me quickly.  Don't wait."

"Vanna, I'm going abroad."

Her eyes dilated with surprise.  This was not what she had expected.
Compared with the greater dread, the announcement came almost as a
relief.  She struggled with the oppression in her throat and breathed a
breathless, "Where?"

"To India.  I have a chance.  A junior partner is invalided home.  I can
take his place for a few years.  It is the best thing--I am sure of it.
I have made up my mind."

"Is it because you are--_tired_ of me, Piers?"

He turned upon her in passionate protest.

"Tired?  Heaven knows I am tired; tired to the soul of waiting for the
woman I love; of eternal fighting against self!  It's more than I can
bear.  I can't go on without some change, some break."

"You would find it easier to leave me?"

He hesitated, shrinking, then braced himself to a painful effort.

"Yes! it would be easier.  You think me brutal, but I am a man.  I
cannot endure this life.  If you cannot be my wife, I must go.  It is
hard to part, but it will help us both, and after a year or two we can
begin afresh.  I have been trying to tell you.  I was thankful to know
you were to be here, with Jean, for I must sail soon.  In a few weeks."

"Yes."  Vanna had a sudden rending remembrance of the moment when she
sat in Dr Greatman's consulting-room, and heard her life laid waste.
Now, as then, she felt no disposition to weep or lament; the fountains
of her heart were frozen, and she was numb with pain.  "Yes; I suppose
so.  The best time for the Red Sea.  You must avoid the heat...  You
will enjoy the voyage, Piers."

Her frozen calm was more piteous than tears.  Piers groaned, and buried
his face in his hands.

"Oh, Vanna, Vanna! my poor, poor darling!  What must you think of me?  I
have failed you after all my vows; and yet, God knows, it is _because_ I
love you, because my love is stronger than myself, that I must go!  You
will never understand, but can't you believe me?  Can't you trust me
still?"

"I know you love me, Piers.  Will you write to me when you are away?"

"Will I write?  Do you need to ask?  I shall live for your letters.
There will be nothing else to look for but their arrival, and being able
to write back, and tell you all my thoughts.  I'll make a diary for you,
dearest; write something every day, so that each mail shall bring you a
small volume.  We have always maintained that distance could make no
difference to our love, but it does this much, darling--it silences
angry words!  I have made you miserable with my repinings many times
these last years; but whatever I might feel, I could never endure to
send a hard word travelling to you across the world.  It may be happier
for you, darling--more peaceful."

She smiled--a wan, strained smile.

"I won't try to keep you, Piers, if you want to go, but--I can't
pretend!  Letters can never make up.  I have been happy--happier than I
even thought I could be; but Jean was right, Robert was right--it has
not been fair to you.  I should not have consented, but I loved you so;
I was so tempted.  Even now I am not sorry.  No; I am _not_ sorry!  Even
if I never see you again, I have had these years--six years of happiness
and love, and you are still young, you have your life ahead--"

He stopped her with his lips on hers.

"You don't meant it, you don't believe it.  Don't hurt me, my heart!  Be
generous; be patient; and I'll come back more your own than ever.  It's
because I love you--because I love you--."

That was the strain which he dinned into her ears--the one fundamental
fact on which all arguments hung; but Vanna's sore heart could find in
it no solid comfort.  A love which finds separation easier than loving
intercourse is incomprehensible to a woman's mind.



CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.

MARKING TIME.

Robert and Jean were not surprised.  That was the fact which, for Vanna,
stood out in conspicuous relief.  They were grieved, sympathetic,
unspeakably tender towards her; but she divined that if they felt any
surprise, it was not that Piers had found his present position
untenable, but rather that he should have been able to endure it so
long.  That they should feel so, who were her dearest, most admiring
friends, planted a sharp stab in Vanna's heart, yet it was to them that
she owed what poor comfort was to be found during the long intolerable
weeks before Piers's departure.

Jean said little.  In her own hour of blackness she had discovered the
futility of words, but in a hundred quiet, exquisitely tactful ways she
forced upon Vanna the importance of what remained: of the place which
she occupied in so many lives; of her own love and need.

"You will never know what you have been to me, Vanna!  I have often
wanted to tell you; but it isn't easy to speak of these things.  I think
after one has married and settled down, one needs a woman friend more
than ever.  There is so much that even the best and tenderest of men
can't understand.  You've been my safety-valve and my prop.  Multiply my
gratitude by the number of all the poor souls whom you have nursed and
tended, and you will realise your riches.  Thoughts _help_, Vanna--I'm
convinced of that--loving, thankful thoughts going out towards you from
all parts of the land.  It's impossible that your life should be cold or
bald--"

"Is it, Jean, is it?  It sounds very sweet, dear, and very lofty; but
put yourself in my place.  Would all the gratitude in the world cheer
you if Robert went away?"

The colour flooded Jean's face, then slowly ebbed away, leaving her pale
and wan.

"No," she sighed, breathlessly.  "No; nothing!  There would be no
comfort.  He is everything to me--everything!  More, a thousand times
more, than when we were married; but, Vanna, can you believe it? there
have been times during these last years when I have envied _you_.  The
balance hasn't been _all_ on my side.  To be well; to be strong; to be
able to run about, and plan out one's life; to say `I will do this, I
will do that'; to shut up house at a day's notice, shake off
responsibilities, and go away for long, lovely rests--oh, it has seemed
so _good_!  When we were young we took health for granted: one has to be
ill to realise how it counts; how desperately it counts.  Love is said
to triumph over all; but, Vanna dear, one needs to be well to be able
even to love.  That sounds strange, but it's true; there's no feeling
left.  Often and often I've longed all day for Robert to come home, and
after he has been in the room for five minutes, I've longed for him to
go away again.  I've been too tired!  Of course every woman does not
suffer as I have done; but then how many have a husband like Robert?  I
tell him sometimes that my bad health is the price I've had to pay for
having a saint for my husband.  If I'd kept well, it would have been too
perfect.  One does not get everything...  And the children--little pets!
they love me now; I am a sort of god to them; all that I do is right;
but sometimes as I hold them a pang goes through my heart; such a pang!
_I know it won't last_!  I shall go on loving them more and more,
_needing_ them more; but they will grow past me.  They will make their
own lives, their own friends, and I shall retreat farther and farther
into the background.  They will love me still; I shall be the `dear old
mater; but they won't need me any more.'  I won't really touch their
lives.  I remember how father loved me, and how I left him without a
pang!  Is it _possible_ that he felt as I should do, if Lorna or
Joyce...  The young are cruel to the old--"

Thus Jean, with many tender, loving words; but Vanna noted with a pang
that she never once expressed the belief which alone could have brought
comfort--the belief that Piers would speedily return home, and remain
faithful until death.

The last day came--a blur of pain and grief.  Piers spent his last hour
alone with Vanna in the den, in which the first happy hours of their
engagement had been passed, demanding of her a dozen impossible
promises--that she would stay with Jean until his return, that she would
not tire herself, that she would be happy; and if at times a bitter
reply trembled on her lips, she repressed it valiantly, knowing that by
so doing she was saving herself an added sting.  His last words
imprinted themselves in her brain, and were sweet to remember:

"...  If I am ever any good in this world or the next, it is your doing.
You have given me faith, you have given me joy, the revelation of
heaven and earth.  Everything that I have, that is worth possessing, is
your gift...!"

When the door closed behind him--oh, the knell of that closing door!--
Jean left her friend alone until an hour had passed, and then sent her
children as missioners of comfort--the two dainty little maidens in
their sublime innocence of untoward happening.  Lorna had acquired two
new pieces of "poentry"--"Oh, Mary, go and call the kettle home," and
"anozzer one" called, "Twice ones is two"--which she must needs recite
without delay.  Joyce developed earache, and remembering former help in
need, expressed a wailing desire to sleep in "Wanna's bed," for "Wanna
to _stwoke_ me!"  The little, soft, warm body clinging to her, the touch
of the baby lips were unspeakable comfort to Vanna during those long
wakeful hours when every moment carried Piers farther and farther away.

A week later Vanna returned to the hospital where she had been trained,
to fill a temporary vacancy for a few months.  Hard work was her best
medicine--hard, incessant work, which left no time for thought, and sent
her to bed so weary that sleep came almost as soon as her head touched
the pillow.  A nurse by instinct, it was not in her nature to perform
her duties in mechanical fashion.  The human aspect of a case made a
direct appeal to her heart, and, surrounded on every hand by suffering
and want, she was forced into a realisation of her own blessings.  She
was alone, but youth, health, and money remained to help her on her way,
and Piers's letters arrived by each mail--long, closely written sheets,
detailing every day of his life, drawing word-pictures of home
surroundings, new acquaintances; above all, breathing the tenderest,
most faithful love.  Each letter was read and reread until it was known
by heart, was answered with a length equal to its own, and by the time
this was dispatched--wonderfully, surprisingly soon--another letter was
due.  She read of the arrival of the mail at Brindisi, and counted over
the hours.

The first shock of parting was over, six months had already passed by.
Six months was half a year, a quarter of the time of Piers's probable
absence!  When the half was over, what joy to strike off the months
which must elapse before his return; and meantime could any other man in
the world have written such delightful, heart-satisfying letters?

Vanna was keenly interested also in the changes in hospital treatment
which had taken place during the four years since she had finished her
course, and felt that the six months' experience had been valuable from
a medical as well as a mental point of view.  Nevertheless, it was with
no regret that she saw the nurse return whose place she had taken, and
made her own preparations for departure.  At thirty-two the unaccustomed
strain of hospital life told heavily on a constitution weakened by
mental strain, and she thought with joy of the comfort of her own home,
of long, restful hours, when she could write to Piers at her ease, of
talks with Jean, of play with the children.

She drove straight from the hospital to the Gloucesters', where she had
arranged to spend a week in idleness before the effort of reopening her
own home.  The rooms were _en fete_, profusely decorated with flowers.
Jean and the children rushed to the door to receive her--a charming
trio, all dressed alike, in a flutter of white muslins and blue ribbons.
The whole made an entrancing picture to one accustomed to the bare
austerity of a hospital ward; and Vanna felt her spirits soar upwards
with a delightful sense of exhilaration.  She hugged Jean with
schoolgirl effusion, swung the children about in a merry dance, and gave
herself up with undisguised zest to the pleasures of the moment: the
daintily spread, daintily provided tea, the luxurious appointments of
the little house, her own comfortable bedroom, the easy laxity of hours.
The first long chat with Jean seemed but to open out the way for a
hundred other subjects which both were longing to discuss, and when it
was over, the agreeable task remained of dressing herself in a pretty
gown to partake of the sociable evening meal.

"Oh, dear!  The pomps and vanities of this world, how I love them; how
good they are," she sighed happily.  "What a delight it is to sit at a
dear little table bright with silver and flowers, and eat indigestible
dainties, and know you can sit still and be lazy all evening, and go to
bed when you like, and get up, no, _not_ get up, stay in bed and have
breakfast, and snoodle down to sleep again if you feel so inclined!  I
_shall_ be lazy to-morrow!  And to wear a pretty dress, and a necklace,
on a nice bare neck, instead of a stiff starched bow sticking into one's
chin.  Have my strings marked my neck?  How do I look?  I seemed to
myself a perfect vision of beauty, but Jean looks at me askance.  I
don't fancy she looks flattering."

"No, not a bit," said Jean bluntly.  "You look a wreck, like most
discharged patients--fit for nothing but a convalescent home.  Don't
talk of necks!  It's nothing but bones, a perfect disgrace.  I shall
feed you up, and forbid work for weeks to come.  What you need is a
good, bracing change.  I need a change, too.  Couldn't we three go off
together, and do something _nice_?  I've had nothing but seaside
holidays with the babies since we were married.  A month in Switzerland,
in high, bracing air, in good hotels, among the mountains--oh, how good
it sounds.  Say yes, Rob, like a darling.  I _want_ it so!"

But Robert did not speak.  It was the first time in the history of their
acquaintance that Vanna had known him show even a moment's hesitation in
granting a request from Jean's lips, and _she_ looked at him in
surprise.  Distress was written upon his face, and a wistful appeal for
forgiveness, but stronger than all, an air of decision which gave no
promise of weakening.

"I'm sorry, darling; but it's impracticable.  It will be hard enough to
squeeze out any holiday this year; an extra trip abroad is out of the
question.  Expenses have been heavy lately"--he shrugged his shoulders
with a smile.  "They always _are_ heavy, somehow, and we must be careful
not to launch into fresh extravagance."

"We have _not_ been extravagant.  The money has gone in uninteresting,
disagreeable _necessities_.  No one can call a doctor's bill
extravagance, or a new cistern, or stair carpets.  _Au contraire_, we've
been so dull and prudent that it would be a tonic to spend a little
money on fun, for a change.  Can't we manage it, somehow, Rob?  Do!
Sell a share, or something.  It _would_ be a treat."

The lines on Robert's face deepened suddenly; his smile flickered out.

"No; I've done that too often.  That must come to an end.  My shares are
painfully near an end.  I'm sorry, dear, but it's impossible."

Jean shrugged her shoulders.  The lines deepened on her face also, and
her lip quivered with disappointment, but she made no fruitless
protestation.  For the rest of the meal she was silent, leaving the
conversation to be carried on by Vanna and Robert; but before leaving
the room she went out of her way to pass Robert's chair and lay a
caressing hand on his shoulder.

He lifted his face to her with the old adoring expression in his brown
eyes, and the tired lines disappeared from his brow.  He had kept up the
conversation out of consideration for Vanna's feelings, but his
attention had really been engrossed by Jean, and his own regrets at
being obliged to refuse her request.  Now he evidently felt himself
forgiven, and was transparently grateful for his wife's forbearance.



CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.

DISASTER.

It was the first of October, 1878, a day of fateful memory.  Jean
Gloucester stood before the mirror in her bedroom, surveying a new gown
which she was wearing for the first time.  The soft grey crepe was
swathed and draped in absolute disregard of the stiff fashion of the
day, two quaint silver buckles of Norman design held the folds together
over the breast, an old lace tucker was tied by a silver cord.  Jean
affected delicate shades of grey, and the neutral colour formed a
perfect background for the vivid beauty of her face.  She stood back
from the mirror, turning slowly round and round, patting, smoothing,
pressing with careful, deliberate touch, but the light in her eyes spoke
more of expectation than complacence.  Jean was not vain.  Really
beautiful people are seldom victims of this sin.  It is your "rather
pretty" woman who spends her life in the effort to add to her charms.
Jean was accustomed to her beauty, and accepted it--with other such
blessings--as a matter of course, but Robert's fervid admiration was a
factor in her life.  This afternoon she was feeling unusually well, and
as usual under these circumstances, was fired by the old girlish spirit
of mischief.  Jean was ever a child at heart, loving to play tricks, to
plan surprises, and weave pretty, dramatic _denouements_ out of the
prose of life.  A hundred times had she so taken Robert by storm, and
the hundredth time had found him as astounded, as unprepared, as blankly
mystified as the first.  After years of matrimony Jean was still an
enigma, concerning which nothing could be foretold but the unexpected;
but the mystery added strength to her charm.  Life with Jean might at
times be somewhat difficult and trying, but never by any possibility
could it become dull.

This evening Jean amused herself by planning an effective appearance for
herself in her new gown.  Instead of awaiting Robert in the den, she
would stay in her bedroom until he was safely inside the hall, and would
then sweep down the staircase in all her bravery, while he stood gazing
upward with the glow of delight she loved to see shining in his hazel
eyes.  Then he would affect to be overcome with surprise, would stagger
against the wall, and lean there helplessly while she stood beneath the
lamp, revolving slowly round and round to show herself from every point
of view.  Then they would retreat into the den, and he would kiss her,
and call her his beautiful darling, his bonnie, bonnie Jean, and she
would preen herself, and ask if he were not a proud man to be allowed
the privilege of paying the bill for such a heavenly gown, and they
would laugh and spar, like a couple of happy children, rather than a
staid old married couple, Jean gave a little skip of anticipation even
as she crept to the head of the staircase to listen for Robert's return.
He was due now--this minute!  She failed to catch his usual whistle,
but presently the key turned in the latch, and she drew back her head,
not wishing to be seen until the dramatic moment should arrive.

Robert shut the door and advanced a few steps into the hall.  He did not
whistle again, which seemed curious, as no wife had appeared to greet
him, neither did he advance towards the carved oak armoire in which he
was used to hang his coat and hat.  Jean gathered her skirts round her,
and stretched forward her lovely, laughing face to spy what was
happening.  What she saw smote the smile from her lips in a flash of
agonised fear.

Robert had not taken off his hat.  He stood still just within the
threshold, in the attitude of a man unable to move a step, the light of
the lamp shilling full on his face--the face of an old man, haggard,
contorted, vacant-eyed.

For one moment Jean stood still, paralysed with horror; at the next the
blood raced through her veins, and her heart swelled within her in an
anguish of love and longing.  In the history of the last eight years
Jean had invariably been the one to need pity and help; Robert, the one
to strengthen and console.  She had suffered, and he had ministered; she
had despaired, and he had consoled; she had repined, and he had
gallantly borne her burden as well as his own.  Until this moment his
strength had made no demand on her weakness.  But now, now it had come.
He was in trouble--her Robert--in desperate, aching need, and Jean's
whole being rushed out towards him in a passion of love and longing.
Dropping her skirts, she skimmed down the stairway, scarcely seeming to
touch the ground, so light and swift were her steps.  Out of her white
face her eyes gleamed with unnatural light.  There was something almost
tigerish in the flame of Jean's love at that moment.  Some one had been
cruel to her mate, her man.  She must fly to the rescue--hold him safe
in her arms.

"Robert!  What is it?"

The vacant eyes looked into hers, those clear, brown eyes, which more
than any other eyes she had ever seen were the windows of the soul
within, and for the first time since their meeting there came no
lightening to greet hers.  Jean's thoughts flew backward to that
afternoon years ago when she had seen the same dazed look in Vanna's
eyes.  Her heart contracted with a sickening dread.

"Robert, are you ill?  Have you seen a doctor?  Has he said--"

He shook his head blankly.

"No!  No--not that!"

Jean drew a long, thankful breath.  Relieved of this dread, she felt
prepared to face all other ills; but first she must be alone with
Robert, behind shut doors, safe from intruding eyes.  She slid her arm
through his, and leading him into the den, pushed him gently into his
own big chair.  His hat was still on his head, she lifted it off,
smoothed the hair on his forehead with a swift, caressing touch, then
sinking on her knees before him, lifted her face to his.

"Robert, we are here together--you and I, in our own dear home.  The
children are upstairs.  There is nothing, nothing in all the world worth
grieving for so much!"

He looked at her hopelessly, blankly.

"But it's gone, Jean--it's gone.  The home's gone!  It's all gone--
everything!  Gone!  Ruined!"

"What, darling?  What has gone?  Tell me!  I want to know--I want to
help!"

"The Bank, Jean!  The Glasgow Bank.  To-day!  Ruin for us; ruin for
thousands."

Jean rested her hands on the arms of the chair, and braced herself to
thought.  The Glasgow Bank!  Father had disapproved of it from the
first, and had wished Robert to sell his shares, but he had objected
because of the high interest given.  They were always hard up, and
needed every penny they could get.  Besides, Robert declared that it was
perfectly safe--as safe as the Bank of England; it was absurd to doubt
it.  And now it had stopped, and he talked of ruin.  Jean's knowledge of
finance had not increased with her years of matrimony, and after the
first shock of surprise she told herself with a sigh of relief that,
after all, there could not be so much to lose.  When she had spoken of
selling shares a few weeks ago, Robert had refused on the score that
there were so few left.  Robert was so dazed, poor man, that he was
exaggerating his loss.  He must be calmed and soothed.

"Dearest boy, I'm sorry--dreadfully, dreadfully sorry for all those poor
people; but you and I have not much to lose, have we?  We have rubbed
along quite comfortably without a big balance at the Bank, and if a few
hundreds have gone--well, we'll do without them, too.  I'll turn over a
new leaf, and be economical.  We'll have no holiday, no new things, the
bills for the new furniture are all paid--we need nothing more.  Don't
grieve so, dear.  I'll help you.  I _will_ help!"

Robert stretched out his arms and folded her close to his heart.  The
dazed expression was beginning to give way to a yearning tenderness.
Jean had yet to be enlightened as to the full extent of the calamity.
He must brace himself to the task of explanation.

"Jean, it is not an ordinary bank--it's unlimited; that was why your
father disapproved.  But I thought I knew best--I stuck to my own way.
If I could bear the consequences alone I wouldn't grumble; it's for you,
and the children.  I have only five shares, but I'm responsible, to my
last penny.  They can clean me out of everything I possess, can sell our
furniture above our heads--every stick in the house, leave us without a
bed.  And they'll do it.  The calls will be enormous--must be enormous.
I've ruined you, Jean, by my self-willed folly."

Jean lifted her lips and kissed him softly on the cheek.  She felt faint
and limp, as though suddenly overpowered by fatigue; but the predominant
feeling was still that Robert was in trouble, that he was appealing to
her for strength, that whatever trials were to come, she must not fail
him now.

"You've given me everything worth having.  All the riches in the world
couldn't give me happiness without you.  If the money goes, we'll have
to love each other more, and no bank, no bank, can touch that.
Robert!"--her voice broke on a note of exquisite tenderness--"remember
what you called me that first day--remember the prophecy!  If fortune
has gone, you have still your treasure!"

And Robert, blessing her, shedding tears of mingled joy and sorrow,
declared that he was rich indeed.



CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.

THE FEET OF CLAY.

Time did nothing to soften the severity of the blow which had fallen
upon the shareholders of the Glasgow Bank; rather, with every day as it
passed did the situation become more hopeless and terrible.
Defalcations of three years' standing left a deficit so abysmal that
nothing short of the uttermost farthing could hope to fill it, and even
the enormous preliminary call spelt ruin to many small holders, of whom
Robert Gloucester was one.  When every copper which he possessed had
been realised, he was still far behind the amount demanded, and a bill
of sale was issued on his household effects.

To Mr Goring the disaster came at once as a shock and a confirmation of
old fears.  He found himself in the position of being able to say "I
told you so"; but there was little pleasure in the advantage when the
chief sufferer was his dearest child, and the transgressor so humble and
penitent as his son-in-law.  His chief grief was that, owing to
decreasing income from his own investments, and the expenses of two big
sons at Oxford, he could not increase the allowance of two hundred a
year which he had regularly contributed towards the Gloucester _menage_.
Jean expected him to offer to buy her furniture at a valuation, but, to
her intense disappointment, he made no such proposition.

"Get rid of the things as best you can--they'll sell well, or ought to,
considering the price Robert paid.  They wouldn't fit into a small
house, and you'll want a different style of thing altogether--plain,
simple furniture, that can be kept in order by less experienced maids.
All these curios and odds and ends are very well in their way, but they
mean work--work!  There'll be no time for dusting old china and
polishing brasses.  Get rid of them all, and I'll see what I can do
towards helping you to a fresh start.  We have been looking through the
rooms at home, and there are a lot of odds and ends which we can share.
You'll have to lie low for a time, and be satisfied with usefuls; but
I'll see that you are comfortable, my dear.  I'll see to that."

"Thank you, sir, thank you indeed," cried Robert warmly.  "It's most
good and kind of you.  You have always been most generous.  You are
quite right about this furniture, it would be unsuitable under the new
conditions.  It's all one to me--I don't notice these things, and Jean
has been heroic about it all--she doesn't mind either.  She's quite
prepared for the change.  Aren't you, dear?"

Jean assented with a small, strained smile, and Robert continued to
discuss the subject with philosophic calm.  Jean had declared with her
own lips that worldly goods were of no importance in her eyes when
compared to the treasure of their love, and in simple faith he had taken
her at her word.  It was beyond his powers of comprehension to realise
that the last few minutes, with their calm condemnation of her Lares and
Penates, had been one of acute agony to his wife's soul--the worst
moment she had known, since the springing of the bad news.  When she was
silent and distrait for the rest of the day, he asked her tenderly if
her head ached, and enlarged enthusiastically on the goodness of Mr and
Mrs Goring in proposing to despoil their own home.

"You'll find life easier, I hope, darling, in a smaller house.  They've
been a worry to you sometimes, all these collections, keeping them
cleaned and dusted, and that kind of thing.  We'll go in for the simple
life, and be done with useless ornamentation," he declared cheerily.

Now that the first shock of the misfortune had spent itself, his
invincible optimism was slowly but surely beginning to make itself felt.
The worst had happened; every penny that could be scraped together had
already been confiscated; he faced the situation, and calmly and
courageously set his face towards a fresh start.

"Jean doesn't mind.  Jean says she is prepared.  That takes away the
sting.  So long as she is happy, it doesn't matter a rap to me where we
live.  After all, we ought to consider ourselves jolly lucky.  It's only
the extras which we shall have to shed, while many poor wretches will be
in actual need.  We ought to be thankful!"

As the weeks passed by, Robert's complacence increased, just as, in
inverse ratio, Jean's courage collapsed.  It was one thing to declare
the world well lost, when her husband lay in her arms, broken-hearted,
dependent on her support; but it required a vastly more difficult effort
to maintain that attitude during the painful process of hunting for a
house at about a third of the old rent, and arranging her treasured
possessions for an auction sale.  To Vanna, her invariable safety-valve,
Jean poured forth her feelings, in characteristic, highly coloured
language.

"I feel sometimes as if I could not bear it another moment--as if I must
shriek, as if I must scream, as if I must take Rob by the arms and shake
him till I drop!  It's so maddening to be taken so literally at one's
word, and to be expected to sit smiling on the top of a pedestal while
the world rocks.  Yesterday, going over that hateful, stuffy little
house, when he would persistently make the best of everything, even the
view of the whitewashed yard and I had to go on smiling and smiling as
if I agreed, I felt as if something in my head would snap...  I believe
it will some day, and I shall lose control, and rage, and say terrible
things, and he will be broken hearted with sorrow--and surprise!  He
hasn't an idea, not a glimmering ghost of an idea, what I'm suffering!
I said I didn't care, and he _believed_ it, just as simply as if I'd
told him the time.  Oh, dear! the blindness of men."

"And the strangeness of women!"  Vanna looked at her with her tender,
whimsical smile.  "You believed it yourself at the time, dear girl.  I
can imagine how eloquent you would be.  No wonder poor Robert was
convinced.  I was overcome with admiration for you that first week, but
being a woman, I knew that the reaction must come.  That's inevitable;
but you must live up to yourself, Jean; you've created a precedent by
being magnificently brave, and you must keep it up."

"I--_can't_!" said Jean, and the tears rolled down her cheeks.  "That
night I could think of nothing but Rob--his poor face!  I would have cut
off my hand to make him smile, but my home--my home!  To have to break
it up!  My home where we came after we were married, where the babies
were born...  It breaks my heart to leave it, and to give up all my
treasures that I collected with such joy...  And Robert doesn't see, he
doesn't know--that seems hardest of all.  If he just realised--"

"He would suffer again!  Is _that_ what you want?"

Jean cast a startled glance, and sat silent, considering the problem.
Her eyes were circled by dark violet stains, as from long wakeful
nights; there were hollows at her temples which the cloudy hair could
not altogether conceal.

"It sounded rather like it," she said slowly at last, "but _no_! indeed
I don't--I love him far too much.  But just sympathetic a little,
Vanna--and _appreciative_ of my loss!  Yesterday when we stood in that
little back dining-room if he had said to me: `it's awfully hard on you,
darling, but it's only for a time: put up with it for a time!'  I should
have hugged him, and felt a heroine.  But he looked out on that awful
backyard, and said serenely, `oh, it doesn't matter about views!  You
never cared about looking out of windows,' and went on calmly planning
where we could put a sideboard.  And I wanted to scream!  He doesn't
_understand_, Vanna.  He doesn't understand--"

"Men don't, dear!  It's no use expecting more than they can give.  They
pull a wry face, accept a situation, and say no more about it.  It would
seem to them contemptible to go on grizzling.  It's a fine attitude--
much finer than ours; and if you look upon it in the right light,
Robert's unconsciousness is a great compliment.  He simply gives you
credit for being as good as your word, as he is himself."

But Jean pouted, and protruded her chin in the old pugnacious fashion.

"But--in our case, I'm not so sure that it _is_ finer!  This upheaval is
not one hundredth part so great a trial to Rob as it is to me.  He's
sorry, of course, and regrets that he did not sell out his shares; but
it will be no trial to him to have a small house, with a greengrocer's
shop at the corner of the road.  _He_ won't mind a marble paper in the
hall; it won't cost him a thought to have a drawing-room composed of odd
hideosities, instead of my lovely Chippendale.  He won't even notice if
the little girls are shabby, and I wear a hat two years.  Is there much
credit in being calm and resigned over a thing you don't _feel_?  I nag
at the servants, and snap at the children, and grizzle to you, and any
one looking on would say: What a saint!  What a wretch! but really and
truly I'm fighting hard, and slaying dragons every hour of the day; and
if I succeed in stifling my feelings and being decently agreeable for an
hour or two in the evening, I've won a big victory; and it's I who am
the saint, not he!  Vanna--do you think I am a beast?"

Vanna's laugh was very sweet and tender.

"Not I!  I quite agree; but I want to help you, dear, to fight to the
end.  Grumble to me as much as you like.  I'm a woman, and understand;
but play the game with Robert.  You are his Ideal, his Treasure.  Be
pure gold!  Hide the feet of clay--"

"Don't preach!  Don't preach!" cried Jean; but before the words were out
of her mouth, she had rushed across the room and thrown her arms
impetuously round Vanna's neck.  "Yes; I will!  I will!  Oh, Vanna, how
you help!  Scold me!  Make me ashamed!  I don't want anything in the
world but to be a good wife to Rob."

------------------------------------------------------------------------

A month later the removal was accomplished, and Jean struggled valiantly
to make the best of the altered conditions.  She rarely complained--
never in Robert's presence; set herself diligently to the study of
economy, and put aside embroidery and painting in favour of plain sewing
and mending.  In six months' time the new _menage_ was running as
smoothly as if it had been in existence for years, and neither the
master of the house nor his children had suffered any diminution of
comfort from the change.  Robert's special little fads were attended to
as scrupulously as in the larger establishment; the little girls were
invariably spick-and-span, but no observant eyes could fail to notice
the change in Jean herself.  She was older, graver, less ready to
sparkle with mischievous gaiety.  She had hidden her trouble out of
sight, as years before she had hidden the baby clothes destined for the
little dead son, but it had left its mark.  With the best will in the
world she could not change her nature, and her artistic sensibilities
met a fresh wound every time she walked up and down stairs, every time
she entered a room, every time she walked down the dull suburban street.
She was in the wrong environment, and her beauty-loving nature was
starved and hungry.

Robert was happily unconscious of the change, or if he noticed it was
content to ascribe it to a more obvious reason.  He himself was ready to
welcome his fourth child with an ardour undamped by considerations of
money.  He adored children, and was delighted that the three-year-old
Joyce should have a successor; but Jean's satisfaction was dependent on
a possibility--"If it is a boy!"  A live son would compensate a hundred
times over for the added strain and burden involved by the addition to
the nursery.  But the son was not forthcoming, and when a third little
daughter was put into her arms Jean shed weak tears of disappointment.

"She's the prettiest of all your babies, Jean," Vanna declared a week
later as she nursed the little flannel bundle on her arm, and gazed down
at the small downy head.  "She has just your eyes."

"All babies' eyes are the same."

"This baby's aren't; and she has the daintiest little head!  Lorna's
head was ugly at this stage.  And her nose!  Her nose is perfect."

"Is it?"  The voice from the bed was so listless and faint that Vanna
held up the little face, insisting upon notice.

"Look at her!  Look for yourself.  Acknowledge that she is a duck!"

Jean's lip quivered.

"I wanted a boy, a little son to make up...  It seems so hard--"

Vanna pressed the downy head to her heart.

"Poor little superfluous woman!  You are not wanted, it seems.  Give her
to me, Jean--she'd be worth the whole world.  I mean it, you know!  Say
the word and I'll take her home this moment, and adopt her for life."

But at this Jean opened wide, protesting eyes.

"As if I would!  My own little child!  She _isn't_ superfluous.  I shall
adore her as much as the others, but just at first it _is_ a
disappointment.  But I'll call her after you this time, Vanna, say what
you will, and you shall be her second mother."

"Yes!  I'd like this one to have my name, and she _is_ mine, for I
wanted her, and you didn't.  Remember that, if you please.  No one pays
one penny piece for anything this baby wears, or wants, or learns, but
her Mother Vanna.  I'm going to have a _real_ claim, not only sentiment.
She's going to mean a great, great deal in my life!"

Jean smiled, well content.  For herself it would be a relief to be freed
from extra expense; and she realised that in giving her consent she was
enriching rather than impoverishing her friend's life.  And so little
Vanna adopted a second mother.



CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.

THE INDIAN MAIL.

Two years had passed since Piers Rendall had left England, and still
there came no word of his return.  Vanna heard from him regularly every
mail, letters as long, as intimate, as tender as during the first month
after his sailing, yet gradually there dawned in them a difference which
made itself surely, increasingly felt.  What was it?  In the depths of
her own heart, where alone the change was admitted, Vanna pondered the
question, but could find no reply.  The first zest of interest and
occupation in a new world had died an inevitable death; that was natural
enough and could raise no surprise.  The effects of a hot climate were
beginning to make themselves felt, he had been overworked,
overstrained--natural again; but in this case the remedy lay in his own
hands.  Why did he not use it?  Vanna had never allowed herself to ask
one questioning word on the subject of Piers's return; but she could not
avoid knowing that the junior partner whose place he had taken was
entirely recovered, and most anxious to return to his post.  Old Mrs
Rendall, too, was growing sadly impatient, and, on the rare occasions
when they met, treated Vanna with frigid disapproval.  It was this
girl's doing that her son was homeless and exiled--deprived of the joys
of manhood.  There was some mystery about this long, dragging
engagement--a mystery which had been purposely concealed, a mystery
which in some inexplicable fashion referred to Vanna herself.  What
could it be?  The consciousness of this underlying curiosity had been
one of Vanna's greatest trials in her social intercourse during the last
few years, and its presence heightened the ever-growing longing for
Piers's return.  The evening of mail-day often found her depressed
rather than cheered, though the three closely written sheets had arrived
as usual; for weary and disconsolate as was Piers's mood, there was
still no reference to a return; but during the week hope would again
lift up its head and whisper encouragement concerning "next time."  So
elastic a thing is the human heart, that a bracing wind, a gleam of
sunshine through the fog, will send the spirits racing upwards, and open
out possibilities where the road has appeared hopelessly barred.

It was in such a mood that Vanna greeted her weekly letter one grey
morning in February.  The night before she had spent a particularly
happy evening with Jean and Robert, who had appeared in better spirits
than since the beginning of their trouble.  Little Vanna had developed a
fresh set of baby charms, and had allowed herself to be nursed with
bland complacence, and on returning to her own house Robert had spoken a
few memorable words when saying good-bye: "Every day of my life I thank
God for you, Vanna!  Such a friend is a big gift.  You have been a good
angel to us this last year."  The memory of those words had been a good
sleeping-draught; the warmth of them remained to cheer her as she
dressed in the morning, and when her eye fell on the well-known envelope
on the breakfast table, a little leap of the heart prophesied good news.
To-day it seemed fitting that her waiting should come to an end.

It was a thin envelope.  One sheet of paper replaced the usual three.
So much the better.  Four words would be sufficient to say all that she
wanted to know.  Vanna seated herself at the table, and bent eagerly
over the sheet.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

  "My Dearest and Best--

  "I have your last letter beside me, and have been reading it over and
  over, wondering how to answer all that is written between the lines.
  I can read it, Vanna; I have read it for a long time, but have not had
  courage to reply.  You are too sweet and unselfish to allow yourself
  to write what is really in your thoughts, but I know you so well--you
  are no calm, equable, cold-blooded saint; you must have known many
  moments of bitterness, of anger, of resentment.  I know it; I
  understand; I bless you for your patience.  _Why have I not come home
  to you_?  That is the question you are asking me across the world; the
  question I can almost hear spoken in my ear.  You know by my letters
  that I am miserable and alone; you must have heard by this time that
  Brentford is anxious to get back.  He wrote to me last mail.  It is
  for me as senior partner to make my choice, and I have made it.  I
  wrote to-day to say that I preferred to stay on--"

The paper trembled in Vanna's hand; her lips lost their curves and
straightened into a thin red line.  She shut her eyes for a moment
before she could see clearly to continue her reading:

  "There! it is out.  It is terrible to write it.  I feel as if with the
  writing I have cut myself off from the best and happiest years of my
  life.  For that is what it means, Vanna--the end!  I have suffered
  tortures this last year, fighting it out, arguing it over and over
  again in my heart.  I could not have borne it if it had not been for
  your letters, and yet in a fashion they have added to my suffering.
  If ever a man loved a woman, with his soul and strength, I have loved
  you.  I have waited eight years, and it would have seemed as a day if
  there had been hope at the end.  I would wait twenty years to gain you
  in the end.  But, Vanna, when hope is dead!...  I am very sad, very
  lonely; I miss you every hour, but I dare not come home to endure a
  worse pain.  The years are passing; my youth is over; I cannot face a
  solitary age.  Vanna, dearest, I promised you to be honest.  I swore
  it.  I must keep my word.  If the best is denied me, I must be content
  with what I can have.  There is a girl here--"

Vanna's arm dropped on to the table, the fluttering sheet fell from her
fingers, the dull, heavy thuds with which her heart had been beating for
the last few minutes seemed suddenly to cease.  She lifted her hand to
her head, and brushed back her hair.

"A _girl_!"  For one moment the room seemed to swim; consciousness
appeared about to desert her, the next _she_ was tinglingly alert,
devouring the remaining words with hot, smarting eyes.

  "--The daughter of our Colonel.  I have seen a good deal of her these
  last months.  She is not pretty, but she is sweet and kind, and has an
  echo of _your_ charm.  If I tried, I think I could love that girl.
  _Vanna, I am going to try_!...  Do you despise me?  Do you think me a
  faithless hound?  Can you understand in the faintest degree that it is
  just because you have shown me what love can mean that I cannot live
  my life alone?  Will you care to write to me still?  I don't know; I
  can't tell.  I dare not think how you may feel.  I, who longed above
  all else in life to shield and guard you, to have to deal you this
  blow!...  Forgive me, Vanna--my dearest, dearest love..."

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Vanna laid the letter on the table once more, and raised a grey face,
from which the lingering youth had been stricken at a blow.  Her eyes
stared through her window.  The dull vista of chimney-tops stretched
away into an illimitable distance.  Dun banks of smoke hung pall-like
over the city.  The rain was falling.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

How does one live through the first days of an intolerable grief?
Looking forward, looking back, it appears impossible that reason itself
could remain, yet in reality the automaton with the broken heart eats
and sleeps, clothes itself, speaks in an ordinary voice, performs its
necessary work.

Throughout the hours of that tortured morning Vanna told herself
repeatedly that she would go mad, she would certainly go mad.  It was
impossible that any human creature could endure such anguish.  She, in
whose blood ran the fatal taint, must surely succumb sooner than others.
She would go mad, and Piers would be justified.  All the world would
pity him.  All the world would hail his escape.

But she did not go mad.  She was not even ill.  During the whole time of
that awful soul-sickness there was not one hour when she was physically
incapacitated.  This extraordinary immunity of the flesh, over which
each mourner marvels afresh, seemed at the time a fresh grievance.  To
be too ill to think, too ill to care, would have been heaven as compared
with this hell of bitter, rambling thoughts.  Her hero had fallen; his
protestations had been empty words; there was no faith, or truth in this
world, or the next; no mercy, no justice!  She shut her doors and would
admit no one.  Jean and Robert would grieve for, and with her.  Jean
would cry.  Robert's face would cloud over with that pained, shrinking
expression which it wore when any one dear to him was in grief, _but
they would not be surprised_!  In conclave one with another they would
absolve Piers's conduct, and say it was "natural."  Vanna laughed--a
harsh, bitter laugh at the thought.  So easy, so easy, when one had all
the world could give, to be calm and judicial for others less fortunate!
She hated Jean.  She hated Robert.  She hated the whole world.  She
hated God Himself.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Days and nights of darkness, weeks of black anger and despair, then
slowly, quietly, like the coming of the dawn, the clouds began to melt,
and the struggling light to make itself felt.  First shame, and a
shuddering horror of evil thoughts; secondly, bitterness thrust aside,
instead of welcomed; finally the search-light turned upon herself,
instead of on others.  At that moment healing began, though it would be
long indeed before any comfort from the process could be sensibly felt.
To a just and generous nature it is impossible to cherish a heart-grudge
where the head has pronounced absolution; and when Vanna's first flame
of anger had burnt itself out she had little blame in her heart for
Piers Rendall.  If he had fallen short of the ideal, was not she herself
open to the same reproach?  She who had always insisted upon the
possibility of a spiritual love, was it consistent that she should wish
to keep him sad and dissatisfied, or grudge him happiness because it was
given by other hands than her own?  He had given her eight years of his
life; he had been honest with her.  Could she not bear to stand aside,
and say "God speed"?

But the light was still flickering and uncertain; the black clouds hung
overhead ready to engulf her in fresh storms; a chance word or sound
would open up the wound with a piercing anguish of pain.  Why dwell upon
the picture of a soul in torment?  Vanna struggled on as thousands have
done before her; but it was not until five weeks had passed that her
return letter was dispatched to Piers in India.

  "You are right, and you are brave.  Thank you for being brave.  Thank
  you for sparing me from the doom of spoiling your life.  Don't pity me
  too much.  You have given me more than you know, far more; something
  greater even than love--understanding!  Now I can feel; now I can
  sympathise; now I can help.  This is your doing, your gift to me, so
  be comforted!  All my life long I shall be thankful for these eight
  years.

  "No!  I will not write; not yet!  In time to come we may meet and be
  friends, but this is Her day, it belongs to her--to that young girl
  who will be your wife.  I'm not perfect, dear; you know my faults.  I
  should be jealous--that's only natural, I think.  It would hurt me to
  hear her praises, and perhaps (I'm very feminine!)  I might in revenge
  put out all my wiles--and I know how to charm you, Piers!--to keep you
  a little longer to myself.  I'm honest, you see; as you say, we have
  always been honest with each other--for all our sakes, we'll leave
  letters alone.  When it is settled--it _will_ be settled, I feel
  that--you can write and let me know, and tell me her name, and send me
  her photograph.  I'm so poor and mean a thing that I am glad she is
  not pretty; glad that for the last time you called me your `dearest
  love.'

  "I am quite well, and Jean is good to me, and so--good-bye...!"



CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.

THE SUPREME SECRET.

On the evening of her thirty-eighth birthday Vanna Strangeways said
adieu to her last patient, and slowly traversed the streets leading
towards Jean Gloucester's home.  It was a dull and dreary evening, but
her thoughts were not sad.  The years which had passed by since the
receipt of Piers Rendall's farewell letter, and the subsequent news of
his engagement and marriage, had marked the various stages which attend
all great griefs.  First the storm, with the roar of the wind, which
threatens to destroy the very foundations of life; then the desert;
loneliness; an outlook of flat, colourless sand; finally, slowly and
surely, the inflowing calm.  Hopeless, long-cherished grief is
impossible to a soul who has tasted of love for God and its fellow-men.
However severely a tree has been pruned, its leaves shoot forth bravely
at the call of the spring, and in a few years' time strength is gathered
for another blossoming.

Vanna had put much good hard work into these last years.  In the great
metropolis of the world, a woman who is willing to work for others, and
to work without pay, need never know a moment's idleness, and Dr
Greatman had always a list of patients who were in dire need of help--
patients belonging to that section of humanity to whom in especial
Vanna's sympathies went out.  Every day of her life she was brought into
contact with women compared with whom her own lot was unspeakably calm
and happy--poor waifs on life's ocean, perishing not only for lack of
physical help, but also for the want of love, and sympathy, and
brightness; and Vanna, as a free agent, blessed with health and means,
had it in her power to minister to mind as well as body.  She was that
rare thing, a voluntary worker on whom one might depend for regular,
systematic service; and in her work she found her best and sweetest
comfort.

Jean's old epithet, "Consolation Female," was truly descriptive of Vanna
in these first years of her sorrow; but as time passed by, and the
inevitable healing began to make itself felt, there came moments of
restlessness and rebellion--moments when a life of philanthropy no
longer satisfied, when the inner Ego awoke, and clamoured for
recognition.  A duller woman might have looked upon these outbursts as
backslidings, and have taken herself severely to task for faltering in
the path, but Vanna, more clear-sighted, recognised in them a natural
and healthy revival of her old spirit.  She made no attempt to stifle
the growth of this unrest, but rather welcomed it as a sign of recovered
strength, and took a keen natural joy in ministering to herself, even as
she had done to others.  The first longing for a pretty new dress, the
first time that a social gathering became a pleasure instead of a bore,
the first interested planning for the future on her own behalf--she
congratulated herself on each impulse as it came, and so far as might
be, gratified it to the full.

"You are the sanest woman I ever met."  Piers's words were echoed by
more than one person who knew Vanna at this period of her life--by Dr
Greatman himself, between a frown and a sigh.  "Absolutely sane; no
extremes--a perfectly balanced woman, sweet and capable, and humorous--
one in ten thousand!  It seems as though she had inherited the extra
share of ballast which her relations have lacked; and yet it is there,
the danger, the shadow.  I was right.  If I were consulted again I
should say the same.  Even in the last year another cousin has developed
symptoms.  Such a family ought to be stamped out.  But I'd give five
years of my life to see that woman happy."

This evening as she paced the muddy streets, Vanna's thoughts were
engaged with half a dozen details of her busy life.  From ten o'clock in
the morning she had been hurrying from house to house, yet had not been
able to finish the list with which she had started the day.  More people
had been waiting for her, longing for her coming, than she had been able
to visit; the memory of grateful words sounded in her ears.  She was
returning home to rest and ease, or, if she pleased, to go forth in
search of amusement and distraction of mind.  For the hundredth time she
told herself that she was one of the fortunates of earth; and for the
hundredth time "_But I am alone_" answered the woman's heart, and could
find no solace to fill that void.  Vanna threw back her head with the
quick, defiant gesture which had grown habitual in years of struggle.
This was the direction in which thought could not be allowed to turn,
the direction of earthquake and upheaval; the death of peace.  Even as
the pain cramped her heart she had decided on her medicine.  "I will go
to see my baby!  There is still half an hour before her bedtime."

Little Vanna, Jean's youngest daughter, had been brought up by her
parents to consider herself as equally the child of themselves and
"Mother Wanna" and had shown herself delightfully eager to avail herself
of the privilege.

"You've gotten only one mummie; I'se two!" was one of the earliest
boasts by which she endeavoured to demonstrate her superiority over her
sisters.  She was a delightful little person, pretty, as were all Jean's
children, with her mother's dark, cloud-like hair, and her father's
hazel eyes; affectionate, strong-willed, and already, at five years old,
amusingly conscious of the powers of a dimpled cheek and a beguiling
lisp, to gain for her the ambition of the minute.  Jean had faithfully
kept her promise of allowing her friend to adopt the small Vanna
financially as well as mentally; and if it was a delightful task to
purchase her small garments, it was still more thrilling to plan for
years ahead.  Little Vanna must have an education to fit her for her
place in life.  Her talents from the beginning should receive the most
skilful training; she should be taken abroad to learn languages in the
only way in which they can be truly mastered; if her attainments
justified she should go on to College; if she preferred a social life,
she should enjoy it to the full.  Privately Vanna cherished the hope
that her fledgling might develop not into a grave student but into a
natural, light-hearted girl, whose happiness might atone to her in some
wise for her own blighted youth.  All that love, and money, and the most
careful forethought could do, should be done to secure for the second
Vanna an unclouded girlhood.  In imagination she pictured her in the
various stages of growth; the schoolgirl coming home from school, to be
taken for holiday trips abroad; the gayest, least responsible of
companions, running short of pocket-money, mislaying her effects, full
of wild, impractical plans; later on the debutante, a tall, dim maiden,
reviving memories of her lovely mother at the same age, attiring herself
in a filmy white gown, peeping with sparkling eyes inside a jeweller's
case, showering sweet kisses as thanks.  Later on, the coming of Prince
Charming--a Prince Charming who could be welcomed without a pang, for,
thank God, there were no dark pages in the history of this second Vanna.
Finally a marriage, with its happy bustle of preparation, trousseau
buying, and furnishings, the interests of the young home; children of
the third generation.  The future could not be blank with such an
interest as this in prospect!

The church clock at the corner of the street had just struck five as
Vanna knocked at the door of Robert Gloucester's house.  It was the
children's hour, when Jean was sure to be found in the den striving to
amuse her three little daughters, while each vied with each other in the
effort to attract the largest share of attention.

They crowded into the hall at the sound of Vanna's patent knock, and
drew her into the room in a clamour of welcome.  Each one of the four
had a budget of news to unfold, and was eager, for the privilege of
first innings.  Jean made several futile efforts to send the children
back to their several games, but soon abandoned the effort and lay back
comfortably in her chair, content to bide her time.  As usual, she was
beautifully dressed, though more simply than of old.  In the shaded
lamplight it was impossible to believe that her fortieth birthday was
well in sight.  Her soft dark hair was as abundant as ever, and the
thinness of her face seemed but to show more plainly the exquisite
moulding of her features.  Vanna glanced at her with the old,
never-dying admiration, as she held her godchild on her knee, and
listened to the eager confidences of her sisters, and Jean smiled back
with affectionate languor.  Behind her in a recess of the wall stood a
medley of photographs, large and small: Mr Goring, white-haired and
spectacled, proudly holding his eldest grandchild on his knee; the two
tall, handsome brothers; Robert, with uplifted head and happy, smiling
eyes; baby faces nestled closely together.  At her feet in front of the
old brass fender lay Robert's dippers waiting his return, but Jean had
no thought of any of these things.  She had an air of snatching the
moment's leisure, as something precious which should not be wasted, and
her eyes showed a dreamy indifference to the children's sallies--an
abstraction which, with juvenile sharpness, they were quick to note.
Vanna was a newcomer, and could always be counted on as an interested
audience; but no normal child can be satisfied for long if there remains
one person in the room who is not paying the due meed of attention.
Before ten minutes were passed the trio were once more swarming over
their mother's chair, tugging at her gown to attract attention.

"Jean!" asked Vanna suddenly, "are you happy?"

Jean stared at her with stolid surprise.

"Of course I am happy," she said flatly.  "What do you mean?"

"But are you blissfully, ecstatically, unspeakably happy--almost too
happy to live?"

Jean's stare took on a tinge of affront.

"No!  Of course not.  Why should I be?"

"Why should you not?  If such a thing is possible to any one on earth,
it ought to be to you.  You have everything that is worth having--
everything!  Robert--his wonderful love; these children, interest in
life, hope, expectation.  You are so _rich_!"

Jean's face softened.  She looked at the white-robed figures at her
feet, and for a moment her eyes shone; for a moment, and then once more
the shadow fell.

"Yes," she said.  "Oh, yes, I know!  I _am_ well off, but one can't live
on the heights; and, oh, dear! oh, dear, there are such worries!  Morton
has given me notice.  It's so difficult to find a decent cook for small
wages.  I shall have to begin the weary old hunt once more.  And Lorna
keeps complaining of her eyes.  Robert says she must see an oculist, but
I do so dread it.  If _she_ has to wear spectacles it will break my
heart.  And you remember those dining-room curtains that I sent to be
dyed?  They came back to-day the wrong shade--simply shrieking at the
walls.  Ruined!  Isn't it maddening--I feel so depressed--"

She looked across the room with a transparent appeal for sympathy, but
with a quick, glad laugh Vanna leapt to her feet and swept towards the
door.

"Good-bye.  I'm going.  Thank you so much!"

"_Going_!"  Jean rushed after her in dismay.

"Vanna, you've just come.  Thank me for _what_?  You mad creature, what
do you mean?"

"My lesson!  Don't stop me, Jean, I'll come again--I must go."

She fled into the street, and the sound of her laughter floated back to
Jean as she stood by the open door.

"_The dining-room curtains don't match_!"  Jean, the beloved, had said
these astounding words; had advanced them in all seriousness as a reason
for unhappiness!  In the midst of plenty, this infinitesimal crumb could
mar her joy.  And Jean was but a type of her class.  All over London
while their lonely sisters were eating their hearts with envy, the women
rich in home, husband, and children, were allowing pigmy trials to
obstruct the sun, squandering their joy, wasting the precious days.  And
at the other end of the world that young girl who was Piers Rendall's
wife, the mother of his child, she too, perchance, was vexing herself
over many things, bemoaning her trials, so dulled by custom that she no
longer appreciated her joys.

The great, the supreme secret of life, came home to Vanna with
overwhelming force as she walked through the quiet streets.  Not
without, but within, must man look for happiness; in himself, the divine
soul of him, or nowhere lies his joy.  All outer possessions are as
naught--the baubles, the playthings of a child, which, once gathered,
grow tame and lose their gilt.

Vanna had known great grief, and had travelled on bleeding feet through
the desert of loneliness, but from the rough journey she had reaped her
spoil.  Her eyes were opened; she saw the riches of this world at their
true worth; her heart was filled with an immense, encompassing love.  It
was impossible that she should ever again be lonely.  She thanked God,
and took courage.





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