Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 10

‘O Bitterness of Things Too Sweet.’

Only for an instant did John Hammond stand motionless after hearing that unearthly shriek. In the next moment he rushed into the corridor, expecting to hear the sound repeated, to find himself face to face with some midnight robber, whose presence had caused that wild cry of alarm. But in the corridor all was silent as the grave. No open door suggested the entrance of an intruder. The dimly-burning lamps showed only the long empty gallery. He stood still for a few moments listening for voices, footsteps, the rustle of garments: but there was nothing.

Nothing? Yes, a groan, a long-drawn moaning sound, as of infinite pain. This time there was no doubt as to the direction from which the sound came. It came from Lady Maulevrier’s room. The door was ajar, and he could see the faint light of the night-lamp within. That fearful cry had come from her ladyship’s room. She was in peril or pain of some kind.

Convinced of this one fact, Mr. Hammond had not an instant’s hesitation. He pushed open the door without compunction, and entered the room, prepared to behold some terrible scene.

But all was quiet as death itself. No midnight burglar had violated the sanctity of Lady Maulevrier’s apartment. The soft, steady light of the night-lamp shone on the face of the sleeper. Yes, all was quiet in the room, but not in that sleeper’s soul. The broad white brow was painfully contracted, the lips drawn down and distorted, the delicate hand, half hidden by the deep Valenciennes ruffle, clutched the coverlet with convulsive force. Sigh after sigh burst from the agitated breast. John Hammond gazed upon the sleeper in an agony of apprehension, uncertain what to do. Was this dreaming only; or was it some kind of seizure which called for medical aid? At her ladyship’s age the idea of paralysis was not too improbable for belief. If this was a dream, then indeed the visions of Lady Maulevrier’s head upon her bed were more terrible than the dreams of common mortals.

In any case Mr. Hammond felt that it was his duty to send some attendant to Lady Maulevrier, some member of the household who was familiar with her ladyship’s habits, her own maid if that person could be unearthed easily. He knew that the servants slept in a separate wing; but he thought it more than likely that her ladyship’s personal attendant occupied a room near her mistress.

He went back to the corridor and looked round him in doubt, for a moment or two.

Close against her ladyship’s door there was a swing door, covered with red cloth, which seemed to communicate with the old part of the house. John Hammond pushed this door, and it yielded to his hand, revealing a lamp-lit passage, narrow, old-fashioned, and low. He thought it likely that Lady Maulevrier’s maid might occupy a room in this half-deserted wing. As he pushed open the door he saw an elderly man coming towards him, with a candle in his hand, and with the appearance of having huddled on his clothes hastily.

‘You heard that scream?’ said Hammond.

‘Yes. It was her ladyship, I suppose. Nightmare. She is subject to nightmare.’

‘It is very dreadful. Her whole countenance was convulsed just now, when I went into her room to see what was wrong. I was almost afraid of a fit of some kind. Ought not her maid to go to her?’

‘She wants no assistance,’ the man answered, coolly. ‘It was only a dream. It is not the first time I have been awakened by a shriek like that. It is a kind of nightmare, no doubt; and it passes off in a few minutes, and leaves her sleeping calmly.’

He went to her ladyship’s door, pushed it open a little way, and looked in. ‘Yes, she is sleeping as quietly as an infant,’ he said, shutting the door softly as he spoke.

‘I am very glad; but surely she ought to have her maid near her at night, if she is subject to those attacks.’

‘It is no attack, I tell you. It is nothing but a dream,’ answered Steadman impatiently.

‘Yet you were frightened, just as I was, or you would not have got up and dressed,’ said Hammond, looking at the man suspiciously.

He had heard of this old servant Steadman, who was supposed to enjoy more of her ladyship’s confidence than any one else in the household; but he had never spoken to the man before that night.

‘Yes, I came. It was my duty to come, knowing her ladyship’s habits. I am a light sleeper, and that scream woke me instantly. If her ladyship’s maid were wanted I should call her. I am a kind of watch-dog, you see, sir.’

‘You seem to be a very faithful dog.’

‘I have been in her ladyship’s service more than forty years. I have reason to be faithful. I know her ladyship’s habits better than any one in the house. I know that she had a great deal of trouble in her early life, and I believe the memory of it comes back upon her sometimes in her dreams, and gets the better of her.’

‘If it was memory that wrung that agonised shriek from her just now, her recollections of the past must be very terrible.’

‘Ah, sir, there is a skeleton in every house,’ answered James Steadman, gravely.

This was exactly what Maulevrier had said under the yew trees which Wordsworth planted.

‘Good-night, sir,’ said Steadman.

‘Good-night. You are sure that Lady Maulevrier may be left safely — that there is no fear of illness of any kind?’

‘No, sir. It was only a bad dream. Good-night, sir.’

Steadman went back to his own quarters. Mr. Hammond heard him draw the bolts of the swing door, thus cutting off all communication with the corridor.

The eight-day clock on the staircase struck two as Mr. Hammond returned to his room, even less inclined for sleep than when he left it. Strange, that nocturnal disturbance of a mind which seemed so tranquil in the day. Or was that tranquillity only a mask which her ladyship wore before the world: and was the bitter memory of events which happened forty years ago still a source of anguish to that highly strung nature?

‘There are some minds which cannot forget,’ John Hammond said to himself, as he meditated upon her ladyship’s character and history. ‘The story of her husband’s crime may still be fresh in her memory, though it is only a tradition for the outside world. His crime may have involved some deep wrong done to herself, some outrage against her love and faith as a wife. One of the stories Maulevrier spoke of the other day was of a wicked woman’s influence upon the governor — a much more likely story than that of any traffic in British interests or British honour, which would have been almost impossible for a man in Lord Maulevrier’s position. If the scandal was of a darker kind — a guilty wife — the mysterious disappearance of a husband — the horror of the thing may have made a deeper impression on Lady Maulevrier than even her nearest and dearest dream of: and that superb calm which she wears like a royal mantle may be maintained at the cost of struggles which tear her heart-strings. And then at night, when the will is dormant, when the nervous system is no longer ruled by the power of waking intelligence, the old familiar agony returns, the hated images flash back upon the brain, and in proportion to the fineness of the temperament is the intensity of the dreamer’s pain.’

And then he went on to reflect upon the long monotonous years spent in that lonely house, shut in from the world by those everlasting hills. Albeit the house was an ideal house, set in a landscape of infinite beauty, the monotony must be none the less oppressive for a mind burdened with dark memories, weighed down by sorrows which could seek no relief from sympathy, which could never become familiarised by discussion.

‘I wonder that a woman of Lady Maulevrier’s intellect should not have better known how to treat her own malady,’ thought Hammond.

Mr. Hammond inquired after her ladyship’s health next morning, and was told she was perfectly well.

‘Grandmother is in capital spirits,’ said Lady Lesbia. ‘She is pleased with the contents of yesterday’s Globe. Lord Denyer, the son of one of her oldest friends, has been making a great speech at Liverpool in the Conservative interest, and her ladyship thinks we shall have a change of parties before long.’

‘A general shuffle of the cards,’ said Maulevrier, looking up from his breakfast. ‘I’m sure I hope so. I’m no politician, but I like a row.’

‘I hope you are a Conservative, Mr. Hammond,’ said Lesbia.

‘I had hoped you would have known that ever so long ago, Lady Lesbia.’

Lesbia blushed at his tone, which was almost a reproach.

‘I suppose I ought to have understood from the general tenor of your conversation,’ she said; ‘but I am terribly stupid about politics. I take so little interest in them. I am always hearing that we are being badly governed — that the men who legislate for us are stupid or wicked; yet the world seems to go on somehow, and we are no worse.’

‘It is just the same with sport,’ said Maulevrier. ‘Every rainy spring we are told that all the young birds have been drowned, or that the grouse-disease has decimated the fathers and mothers, and that we shall have nothing to shoot; but when August comes the birds are there all the same.’

‘It is the nature of mankind to complain,’ said Hammond. ‘Cain and Abel were the first farmers, and you see one of them grumbled.’

They were rather lively at breakfast that morning — Maulevrier’s last breakfast but one — for he had announced his determination of going to Scotland next day. Other fellows would shoot all the birds if he dawdled any longer. Mary was in deep despondency at the idea of his departure, yet she laughed and talked with the rest. And perhaps Lesbia felt a little moved at the thought of losing Mr. Hammond. Maulevrier would come back to Mary, but John Hammond was hardly likely to return. Their parting would be for ever.

‘You needn’t sit quite in my pocket, Molly,’ said Maulevrier to his younger sister.

‘I like to make the most of you, now you are going away,’ sighed Mary. ‘Oh, dear, how dull we shall all be when you are gone.’

‘Not a bit of it! You will have some fox-hunting, perhaps, before the snow is on the hills.’

At the very mention of fox-hounds Lady Mary’s bright young face crimsoned, and Maulevrier began to laugh in a provoking way, with side-long glances at his younger sister.

‘Did you ever hear of Molly’s fox-hunting, by-the-by, Hammond?’ he asked.

Mary tried to put her hand before his lips, but it was useless.

‘Why shouldn’t I tell?’ he exclaimed. ‘It was quite a heroic adventure. You must know our fox-hunting here is rather a peculiar institution — very good in its way, but strictly local. No horse could live among our hills, so we hunt on foot, and as the pace is good, and the work hard, nobody who starts with the hounds is likely to be in at the death, except the huntsmen. We are all mad for the sport, and off we go, over the hills and far away, picking up a fresh field as we go. The ploughman leaves his plough, and the shepherd leaves his flock, and the farmer leaves his thrashing, to follow us; in every field we cross we get fresh blood, while those who join us at the start fall off by degrees. Well, it happened one day late in October, when there were long ridges of snow on Helvellyn, and patches of white on Fairfield, Mistress Mary here must needs take her bamboo staff and start for the Striding Edge. It was just the day upon which she might have met her death easily on that perilous point, but happily something occurred to divert her juvenile fancy, for scarcely had she got to the bottom of Dolly Waggon Pike — you know Dolly ——’

‘Intimately,’ said Hammond, with a nod.

‘Scarcely had she neared the base of Dolly Waggon when she heard the huntsman’s horn and the hounds at full cry, streaming along towards Dunmail Raise. Off flew Molly, all among the butcher boys, and farmers’ men, and rosy-cheeked squireens of the district — racing over the rugged fields — clambering over the low stone walls — up hill, down hill — shouting when the others shouted — never losing sight of the waving sterns — winding and doubling, and still going upward and upward, till she stood, panting and puffing like a young grampus, on the top of Seat Sandal, still all among the butcher boys and the farmer’s men, and the guides and the red-cheeked squireens, her frock torn to ribbons, her hat lost in a ditch, her hair streaming down her back, and every inch of her, from her nose downwards, splashed and spattered with mire and clay. What a spectacle for gods and men, guides and butcher boys. And there she stood with the sun going down beyond Coniston Old Man, and a seven-mile walk between her and Fellside.

‘Poor Lady Mary!’ said Hammond, looking at her very kindly: but Mary did not see that friendly glance, which betokened sympathy rather than scorn. She sat silent and very red, with drooping eyelids, thinking her brother horribly cruel for thus publishing her foolishness.

‘Poor, indeed!’ exclaimed Maulevrier. ‘She came crawling home after dark, footsore and draggled, looking like a beggar girl, and as evil fate would have it, her ladyship, who so seldom goes out, must needs have been taking afternoon tea at the Vicarage upon that particular occasion, and was driving up the avenue as Mary crawled to the gate. The storm that followed may be more easily imagined than described.’

‘It was years and years ago,’ expostulated Mary, looking very angry. ‘Grandmother needn’t have made such a fuss about it.’

‘Ah, but in those days she still had hopes of civilising you,’ answered Maulevrier. ‘Since then she has abandoned all endeavour in that direction, and has given you over to your own devices — and me. Since then you have become a chartered libertine. You have letters of mark.’

‘I don’t care what you call me,’ said Mary. ‘I only know that I am very happy when you are at home, and very miserable when you are away.’

‘It is hardly kind of you to say that, Lady Mary,’ remonstrated Fräulein Müller, who, up to this point, had been busily engaged with muffins and gooseberry jam.

‘Oh, I don’t mean that any one is unkind to me or uses me badly,’ said Mary. ‘I only mean that my life is empty when Maulevrier is away, and that I am always longing for him to come back again.’

‘I thought you adored the hills, and the lake, and the villagers, and your pony, and Maulevrier’s dogs,’ said, Lesbia faintly contemptuous.

‘Yes, but one wants something human to love,’ answered Mary, making it very obvious that there was no warmth of affection between herself and the feminine members of her family.

She had not thought of the significance of her speech. She was very angry with Maulevrier for having held her up to ridicule before Mr. Hammond, who already despised her, as she believed, and whose contempt was more galling than it need have been, considering that he was a mere casual visitor who would go away and return no more. Never till his coming had she felt her deficiencies; but in his presence she writhed under the sense of her unworthiness, and had an almost agonising consciousness of all those faults which her grandmother had told her about so often with not the slightest effect. In those days she had not cared what Lady Maulevrier or any one else might say of her, or think of her. She lived her life, and defied fortune. She was worse than her reputation. To-day she felt it a bitter thing that she had grown to the age of womanhood lacking all those graces and accomplishments which made her sister adorable, and which might make even a plain woman charming.

Never till John Hammond’s coming had she felt a pang of envy in the contemplation of Lesbia’s beauty or Lesbia’s grace; but now she had so keen a sense of the difference between herself and her sister that she began to fear that this cruel pain must indeed be that lowest of all vices. Even the difference in their gowns was a source of humiliation to her how. Lesbia was looking her loveliest this morning, in a gown that was all lace and soft Madras muslin, flowing, cloud-like; while Mary’s tailor gown, with its trim tight bodice, horn buttons, and kilted skirt, seemed to cry aloud that it had been made for a Tomboy. And this tailor gown was a costume to which Mary had condemned herself by her own folly. Only a year ago, moved by an artistic admiration for Lesbia’s delicate breakfast gowns, Mary had told her grandmother that she would like to have something of the same kind, whereupon the dowager, who did not take the faintest interest in Mary’s toilet, but who had a stern sense of justice, replied —

‘I do not think Lesbia’s frocks and your habits will agree, but you can have some pretty morning gowns if you like;’ and the order had been given for a confection in muslin and lace for Lady Mary.

Mary came down to breakfast one bright June morning, in the new frock, feeling very proud of herself, and looking very pretty.

‘Fine feathers make fine birds,’ said Fräulein Müller. ‘I should hardly have known you.’

‘I wish you would always dress like that,’ said Lesbia; ‘you really look like a young lady;’ and Mary danced about on the lawn, feeling sylph-like, and quite in love with her own elegance, when a sudden uplifting of canine voices in the distance had sent her flying to see what was the matter with the terrier pack.

In the kennel there was riot and confusion. Ahab was demolishing Angelina, Absalom had Agamemnon in a deadly grip. Dog-whip in hand, Mary rushed to the rescue, and laid about her, like the knights of old, utterly forgetful of her frock. She soon succeeded in restoring order, but the Madras muslin, the Breton lace had perished in the conflict. She left the kennel panting, and in rags and tatters, some of the muslin and lace hanging about her in strips a yard long, but the greater part remaining in the possession of the terriers, who had mauled and munched her finery to their hearts’ content, while she was reading the Riot Act.

She went back to the house, bowed down by shame and confusion, and marched straight to the dowager’s morning-room.

‘Look what the terriers have done to me, grandmother,’ she said, with a sob. ‘It is all my own fault, of course. I ought not to have gone near them in that stupid muslin. Please forgive me for being so foolish. I am not fit to have pretty frocks.’

‘I think, my dear, you can now have no doubt that the tailor gowns are fittest for you,’ answered Lady Maulevrier, with crushing placidity. ‘We have tried the experiment of dressing you like Lesbia, and you see it does not answer. Tell Kibble to throw your new gown in the rag-bag, and please let me hear no more about it.’

After this dismal failure Mary could not feel herself ill-used in having to wear tailor gowns all the year round. She was allowed cotton frocks for very warm weather, and she had pretty gowns for evening wear; but her usual attire was cloth or linsey woolsey, made by the local tailor. Sometimes Maulevrier ordered her a gown or a coat from his own man in Conduit Street, and then she felt herself smart and fashionable. And even the local tailor contrived to make her gowns prettily, having a great appreciation of her straight willowy figure, and deeming it a privilege to work for her, so that hitherto Mary had felt very well content with her cloth and linsey. But now that John Hammond so obviously admired Lesbia’s delicate raiment, poor Mary began to think her woollen gowns odious.

After breakfast Mary and Maulevrier went straight off to the kennels. His lordship had numerous instructions to give on this last day, and his lieutenant had to receive and register his orders. Lesbia went to the garden with her book and with Fräulein — the inevitable Fräulein as Hammond thought her — in close attendance.

It was a lovely morning, sultry, summer-like, albeit September had just begun. The tennis lawn, which had been levelled on one side of the house, was surrounded on three sides by shrubberies planted forty years ago, in the beginning of Lady Maulevrier’s widowhood. All loveliest trees grew there in perfection, sheltered by the mighty wall of the mountain, fed by the mists from the lake. Larch and mountain ash, and Lawsonian cyprus — deodara and magnolia, arbutus, and silver broom, acacia and lilac, flourished here in that rich beauty which made every cottage garden in the happy district a little paradise; and here in a semi-circular recess at one end of the lawn were rustic chairs and tables and an umbrella tent. This was Lady Lesbia’s chosen retreat on summer mornings, and a favourite place for afternoon tea.

Mr. Hammond followed the two ladies to their bower.

‘This is to be my last morning,’ he said, looking at Lesbia. ‘Will you think me a great bore if I spend it with you?’

‘We shall think it very nice of you,’ answered Lesbia, without a vestige of emotion; ‘especially if you will read to us.’

‘I will do any thing to make myself useful. What shall I read?’

‘Anything you like. What do you say to Tennyson?’

‘That he is a noble poet, a teacher of all good; but too philosophical for my present mood. May I read you some of Heine’s ballads, those songs which you sing so exquisitely, or rather some you do not sing, and which will be fresher to you. My German is far from perfect, but I am told it is passable, and Fräulein Müller can throw her scissors at me when my accent is too dreadful.’

‘You speak German beautifully,’ said Fräulein. ‘I wonder where you learned it?’

‘I have been a good deal in Germany, and I had a Hanoverian valet who was quite a gentleman, and spoke admirably, I think I learned more from him than from grammars or dictionaries. I’ll go and fetch Heine.’

‘What a very agreeable person Mr. Hammond is,’ said Fräulein, when he was gone. ‘We shall quite miss him.’

‘Yes, I have no doubt we shall miss him,’ said Lesbia, again without the faintest emotion.

The governess began to think that the ordeal of an agreeable young man’s presence at Fellside had been passed in safety, and that her pupil was unscathed. She had kept a close watch on the two, as in duty bound. She knew that Hammond was in love with Lesbia; but she thought Lesbia was heart-whole.

Mr. Hammond came back with a shabby little book in his hand and established himself comfortably in one of the two Beaconsfield chairs.

He opened his book at that group of short poems called Heimkehr, and read here and there, as fancy led him. Sometimes the strain was a love-song, brief, passionate as the cry of a soul in pain; sometimes the verses were bitter and cynical; sometimes full of tenderest simplicity, telling of childhood, and youth and purity; sometimes dark with hidden meanings, grim, awful, cold with the chilling breath of the charnel-house. Sometimes Lesbia’s heart beat a little faster as Mr. Hammond read, for it seemed as if it was he who was speaking to her, and not the dead poet.

An hour or more passed in this way. Fräulein Müller was charmed at hearing some of her favourite poems, asking now for this little bit, and anon for another, and expatiating upon the merits of German poets in general, and Heine in particular, in the pauses of the lecture. She was quite carried away by her delight in the poet, and was so entirely uplifted to the ideal world that, when a footman came with a message from Lady Maulevrier requesting her presence, she tripped gaily off at once, without a thought of danger in leaving those two together on the lawn. She had been a faithful watch-dog up to this point; but she was now lulled into a false sense of security by the idea that the time of peril was all but ended.

So she left them; but could she have looked hack two minutes afterwards she would have perceived the unwisdom of that act.

No sooner had the Fräulein turned the corner of the shrubbery than Hammond laid aside his book and drew nearer Lesbia, who sat looking downward, with her eyes upon the delicate piece of fancy work which had occupied her fingers all the morning.

‘Lesbia, this is my last day at Fellside, and you and I may never have a minute alone together again while I am here. Will you come for a little walk with me on the Fell? There is something I must say to you before I go.’

Lesbia’s delicate cheek grew a shade more pale. Instinct told her what was coming, though never mortal man had spoken to her of love. Nor until now had Mr. Hammond ever addressed her by her Christian name without the ceremonious prefix. There was a deeper tone in his voice, a graver look in his eyes, than she had ever noticed before.

She rose, and took up her sunshade, and went with him meekly through the cultivated shrubbery of ornamental timber to the rougher pathway that wound through a copse of Scotch fir, which formed the outer boundary of Lady Maulevrier’s domain. Beyond the fir trees rose the grassy slope of the hill, on the brow of which sheep were feeding. Deep down in the hollow below the lawns and shrubberries of Fellside the placid bosom of the lake shone like an emerald floor in the sunlight, reflecting the verdure of the hill, and the white sheep dotted about here and there.

There was not a breath in the air around them as those two sauntered slowly side by side in the pine wood, not a cloud in the dazzling blue sky above; and for a little time they too were silent, as if bound by a spell which neither dared to break. Then at last Hammond spoke.

‘Lesbia, you know that I love you,’ he began, in his low, grave voice, tremulous with feeling. ‘No words I can say to-day can tell you of my love more plainly than my heart has been telling you in every hour of this happy, happy time that you and I have spent together. I love you as I never hoped to love, fervently, completely, believing that the perfection of earthly bliss will be mine if I can but win you. Dearest, is there such a sweet hope for me; are you indeed my own, as I am yours, heart and soul, and mind and being, till the last throb of life in this poor clay?’

He tried to take her hand, but she drew herself away from him with a frightened look. She was very pale, and there was infinite distress in the dark violet eyes, which looked entreatingly, deprecatingly at her lover.

‘I dare not answer as you would like me to answer,’ she faltered, after a painful pause. ‘I am not my own mistress. My grandmother has brought me up, devoted herself to me almost, and she has her own views, her own plans. I dare not frustrate them!’

‘She would like to marry you to a man of rank and fortune — a man who will choose you, perhaps, because other people admire you, rather than because he himself loves you as you ought to be loved; who will choose you because you are altogether the best and most perfect thing of your year; just as he would buy a yearling at Newmarket or Doncaster. Her ladyship means you to make a great alliances — coronets, not hearts, are the counters for her game; but, Lesbia, would you, in the bloom and freshness of youth — you with the pulses of youth throbbing at your heart — lend yourself to the calculations of age which has lived its life and forgotten the very meaning of love? Would you submit to be played as a card in the game of a dowager’s ambition? Trust me, dearest, in the crisis of a woman’s life there is one only counsellor she should listen to, and that counsellor is her own heart. If you love me — as I dare to hope you do — trust in me, hold by me, and leave the rest to Heaven. I know that I can make your life happy.’

‘You frighten me by your impetuosity,’ said Lesbia. ‘Surely you forget how short a time we have known each other.’

‘An age. All my life before the day I saw you is a dead, dull blank as compared with the magical hours I have spent with you.’

‘I do not even know who and what you are.’

‘First, I am a gentleman, or I should not be your brother’s friend. A poor gentleman, if you like, with only my own right arm to hew my pathway through the wood of life to the temple of fortune; but trust me, only trust me, Lesbia, and I will so hew my path as to reach that temple. Look at me, love. Do I look like a man born to fail?’

She looked up at him shyly, with eyes that were dim with tears. He looked like a demi-god, tall, straight as the pine trunks amongst which he was standing, a frame formed for strength and activity, a face instinct with mental power, dark eyes that glowed with the fire of intellect and passion. The sunlight gave an almost unearthly radiance to the clear dark of his complexion, the curly brown hair cut close to the finely shaped head, the broad brow and boldly modelled features.

Lesbia felt in her heart that such a man must be destined for success, born to be a conqueror in all strifes, a victor upon every field.

‘Have I the thews and sinews of a man doomed to be beaten in the battle?’ he asked her. ‘No, dearest; Heaven meant me to succeed; and with you to fight for I shall not be beaten by adverse fortune. Can you not trust Providence and me?’

‘I cannot disobey my grandmother. If she will consent ——’

‘She will not consent. You must defy Lady Maulevrier, Lesbia, if you mean to reward my love. But I will promise you this much, darling, that if you will be my wife — with your brother’s consent — which I am sure of before I ask for it, within one year of our marriage I will find means of reconciling her ladyship to the match, and winning her entire forgiveness for you and me.’

‘You are talking of impossibilities,’ said Lesbia, frowning. ‘Why do you talk to me as if I were a child? I know hardly anything of the world, but I do know the woman who has reared and educated me. My grandmother would never forgive me if I married a poor man. I should be an outcast.’

‘We would be outcasts together — happy outcasts. Besides, we should not always be poor. I tell you I am predestined to conquer fate.’

‘But we should have to begin from the beginning.’

‘Yes, we should have to begin from the beginning, as Adam and Eve did when they left Paradise.’

‘We are not told in the Bible that they had any happiness after that. It seems to have been all trouble and weariness, and toil and death, after the angel with the flaming sword drove them out of Eden.’

‘They were together, and they must have been happy. Oh, Lesbia, if you do not feel that you can face poverty and the world’s contempt by my side, and for my sake, you do not love me. Love never calculates so nicely; love never fears the future; and yet you do love me, Lesbia,’ he said, trying to fold her in his arms; but again she drew herself away from him — this time with a look almost of horror — and stood facing him, clinging to one of the pine trunks, like a scared wood-nymph.

‘You have no right to say that,’ she said.

‘I have the divine right of my own deep love — of heart which cries out to heart. Do you think there is no magnetic power in true love which can divine the answering love in another? Lesbia, call me an insolent coxcomb if you like, but I know you love me, and that you and I may be utterly happy together. Oh, why — why do you shrink from me, my beloved; why withhold yourself from my arms! Oh, love, let me hold you to my heart — let me seal our betrothal with a kiss!’

‘Betrothal — no, no; not for the world,’ cried Lesbia. ‘Lady Maulevrier would cast me off for ever; she would curse me.’

‘What would the curse of an ambitious woman weigh against my love? And I tell you that her anger would be only a passing tempest. She would forgive you.’

‘Never — you don’t know her.’

‘I tell you she would forgive you, and all would be well with us before we had been married a year. Why cannot you believe me, Lesbia?’

‘Because I cannot believe impossibilities, even from your lips,’ she answered sullenly.

She stood before him with downcast eyes, the tears streaming down her pale cheeks, exquisitively lovely in her agitation and sorrow. Yes, she did love him; her heart was beating passionately; she was longing to throw herself on his breast, to be folded upon that manly heart, in trust in that brave, bright look which seemed to defy fortune. Yes, he was a man born to conquer; he was handsome, intellectual, powerful in all mental and physical gifts. A man of men. But he was, by his own admission, a very obscure and insignificant person, and he had no money. Life with him meant a long fight with adverse circumstances; life for his wife must mean patience, submission, long waiting upon destiny, and perhaps with old age and grey hairs the tardy turning of Fortune’s wheel. And was she for this to resign the kingdom that had been promised to her, the giddy heights which she was born to scale, the triumphs and delights and victories of the great world? Yes, Lesbia loved this fortuneless knight; but she loved herself and her prospects of promotion still better.

‘Oh, Lesbia, can you not be brave for my sake — trustful for my sake? God will be good to us if we are true to each other.’

‘God will not be good to me if I disobey my grandmother. I owe her too much; ingratitude in me would be doubly base. I will speak to her. I will tell her all you have said, and if she gives me the faintest encouragement ——’

‘She will not; that is a foregone conclusion. Tell her all, if you like; but let us be prepared for the answer. When she denies the right of your heart to choose its own mate, then rise up in the might of your womanhood and defy her. Tell her, “I love him, and be he rich or poor, I will share his fate;” tell her boldly, bravely, nobly, as a true woman should; and if she be adamant still, proclaim your right to disobey her worldly wisdom rather than the voice of your own heart. And then come to me, darling, and be my own, and the world which you and I will face together shall not be a bad world. I will answer for that. No trouble shall come near you. No humiliation shall ever touch you. Only believe in me.’

‘I can believe in you, but not in the impossible,’ answered Lesbia, with measured accents.

The voice was silver-sweet, but passing cold. Just then there was a rustling among the pine branches, and Lesbia looked round with a startled air.

‘Is there any one listening?’ she exclaimed. ‘What was that?’

‘Only the breath of heaven. Oh, Lesbia, if you were but a little less wise, a little more trustful. Do not be a dumb idol. Say that you love me, or do not love me. If you can look me in the face and say the last, I will leave you without another word. I will take my sentence and go.’

But this was just what Lesbia could not do. She could not deny her love; and yet she could not sacrifice all things for her love. She lifted the heavy lids which veiled those lovely eyes, and looked up at him imploringly.

‘Give me time to breathe, time to think,’ she said.

‘And then will you answer me plainly, truthfully, without a shadow of reserve, remembering that the fate of two lives hangs on your words.’

‘I will.’

‘Let it be so, then. I’ll go for a ramble over the hills, and return in time for afternoon tea. I shall look for you on the tennis lawn at half-past four.’

He took her in his arms, and this time she yielded herself to him, and the beautiful head rested for a few moments upon his breast, and the soft eyes looked up at him in confiding fondness. He bent and kissed her once only, but a kiss that meant for life and death. In the next moment he was gone, leaving her alone among the pine trees.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31