The Romance of His Life


Mary Cholmondeley

First published in The Romance of His Life: and other romances, John Murray, 1921.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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The Romance of his Life

I have always believed that the exact moment when the devil entered into Barrett was four forty-five p.m. on a certain June afternoon, when he and I were standing at Parker’s door in the court at ——s. He says himself that he was as pure as snow till that instant, and that if the entente cordiale between himself and that very interesting and stimulating personality had not been established he is convinced he would either have died young of excessive virtue, or have become a missionary. I don’t know about that. I only know the consequences of the entente aged me. But then Barrett says I was born middle-aged like Maitland himself, the hero of this romance, if so it can be called. Barrett calls it a romance. I call it—I don’t know what to call it, but it covers me with shame whenever I think of it.

Barrett says that shame is a very wholesome discipline, a great eye-opener and brain stretcher, and one he has unfortunately never had the benefit of, so he feels it a duty to act so as to make the experience probable in the near future.

On this particular afternoon we had both just bicycled back together from lunching with Parker’s aunt at Ely, and she had given me a great bunch of yellow roses for Parker and a melon, and we were to drop them at Parker’s. And here we were at Parker’s, and apparently he was out or asleep, and not to be waked by Barrett’s best cat-call. And as we stood at his door, Barrett clutching the melon, I found the roses were not in my hand. Where on earth had I put them down? At Maitland’s door, perhaps, where we had run up expecting to find him, or at Bradley’s, where we had stopped a moment. Neither of us could remember.

I was just going back for them when whom should we see coming sailing across the court in cap and gown but old Maitland in his best attitude, chin up, book in hand, signet ring showing.

Parker’s aunt used to chaff us for calling him old, and said we thought everyone of forty-five was tottering on the brink of the tomb. And so they mostly are, I think, if they are Dons. I have heard other men who have gone down say that you leave them tottering, and you come back ten years later and there they are, still tottering.

Barrett said Maitland did everything as if his portrait was being taken doing it, and that his effect on others was never absent from his mind. I don’t know about that, but certainly in his talk he was always trying to impress on us his own aspect of himself.

If it was a fine morning and he wished to be thought to be enjoying it, he would rub his hands and say there was not a happier creature on God’s earth than himself. He pined to be thought unconventional, and after drawing our attention to some microscopic delinquency, he would regret that there had been no fairy godmother at hand at his christening to endow him with a proper deference for social conventions. If he gave a small donation to any college scheme the success of which was not absolutely assured, he would shake his head and say: “I know very well that all you youngsters laugh in your sleeve at the way I lead forlorn hopes, but it is a matter of temperament. I can’t help it.”

The personal reminiscences with which his conversation was liberally strewed were ingeniously calculated to place him in a picturesque light. Parker’s aunt says that stout men are more in need of a picturesque light than thin ones. Maitland certainly was stout and short, with a thick face and no neck, and a perfectly round head, set on his shoulders like an ill-balanced orange, or William Tell’s apple. We should never have noticed what he looked like if it had not been for his illusion that he was irresistible to the opposite sex; at least, he was always adroitly letting drop things which showed, if you put two and two together, and he never made the sum very difficult—what ravages he inadvertently made in feminine bosoms, how careful he was, how careful he had learnt to be not to raise expectations. He was always pathetically anxious to impress on us that he had given a good deal of pain. But whether it was really an hallucination on his part that he was hopelessly adored by women, or whether the hallucination consisted in the belief that he had succeeded in convincing his little college world of his powers of fascination, I cannot tell you. I don’t pretend to know everything like Barrett.

Parker’s aunt told Parker in confidence, who told Barrett and me in confidence, that she had once, on his own suggestion, asked Maitland to tea, but had never repeated the invitation, though he told her repeatedly that he frequently passed her door on the way to the cathedral, because he had hinted to mutual friends that a devoted friendship was, alas! all he felt able to give in that quarter, but was not what was desired by that charming lady.

And now here was Maitland advancing towards us with one of Parker’s aunt’s yellow roses in his buttonhole.

We both instantly realised what had happened. I had left the roses at his door by mistake. How gratified she would be when she heard of it!

I giggled.

“Don’t say a word about them,” hissed Barrett, her fervent admirer, as Maitland came up to us.

“Won’t you both come in to tea,” he said genially. “Parker’s out.”

We left Parker’s melon on his doorstep to chaperon itself, and turned back with him. And sure enough, on his table was the bunch of roses.

“Glorious, aren’t they?” said Maitland, waving his signet ring toward them.

I do believe he had asked us in because of them. He loved cheap effects.

We both looked at them in silence.

“The odd thing is that they were left here without a line or a card or anything while I was out.”

“Then you don’t know who sent them,” said Barrett, casting a warning glance at me.

“Well, yes and no. I don’t actually know for certain, but I think I can guess. I fancy I know my own faults as well as most men, and I flatter myself I am not a coxcomb, but still—”

I giggled again. I should be disappointed in Parker, who was on very easy terms with his aunt if he did not score off her before she was much older.

“You are not, I hope, expecting me or even poor Jones (Jones is me) to be so credulous as to believe a man sent them,” said Barrett severely. When Maitland was in what Barrett called his “conquering hero mood” he did not resent these impertinences, at least not from Barrett. “If you are, I must remind you that there are limits as to what even little things like us can swallow.”

“Barrett, you are incorrigible. Cherchez la femme,” said Maitland with evident gratification, counting spoonfuls of tea into the teapot. He often said he liked keeping in touch with the young life of the University. “One, two, three, and one for the pot. Just so! I don’t set up to be a lady-killer, but—”

“Oh! oh!” from Barrett.

“I’m a confirmed old bachelor, a grumpy, surly recluse wedded to my pipe, but for all that I have eyes in my head. I know a pretty woman from a plain one, I hope, even though I don’t personally want to “domesticate the recording angel.”3

3 I thought the recording angel funny at the time until Barrett told me afterwards that it was cribbed from Rhoda Broughton.

“She’ll land you yet unless you look out,” said Barrett with decision. “I foresee that I shall be supporting your faltering footsteps to the altar in a month’s time. She’ll want a month to get her clothes. Is the day fixed yet?”

“What nonsense you talk. I never met such a sentimentalist as you, Barrett. I assure you I don’t even know her name. But it has not been possible for me to help observing that a lady, a very exquisite young lady, has done me the honour to attend all my lectures, and to listen with the most rapt attention to my poor words. And last time, only yesterday, I noted the fact, ahem! that she wore a rose, a yellow rose, presumably plucked from the same tree as these.”

There were, I suppose, in our near vicinity, about a hundred and fifty yellow rose trees in bloom at that moment. Barrett must have known that. Nevertheless, he nodded his head and said gravely:

“That proves it.”

On looking over these pages he affirms that this and not earlier was the precise moment when the devil entered into him, supplying, as he says, a long felt though unrealised want.

“I seldom look at my audience when I am lecturing,” continued Maitland. “I am too much engrossed with my subject. But I could not help noticing her absorbed attention, so different from that of most women. Why they come to lectures I don’t know.”

“I think I have seen the person you mean,” said Barrett, in a perfectly level voice. “I don’t know who she is, but I saw her waiting under an archway after chapel last Sunday evening. I noticed her because of her extreme good looks. She was evidently watching for someone. When the congregation had all passed out she turned away.”

“I should have liked to thank her,” said Maitland regretfully. “It seems so churlish, so boorish, not to say a word. You have no idea who she was?”

“None,” said Barrett.

Shortly afterwards we took our leave, but not until Maitland had been reminded by the lady’s appearance of a certain charming woman of whom he had seen a good deal at one time in years gone by, who, womanlike, had been unable to understand the claims which the intellectual life make on a man, and who had, in consequence, believed him cold and quarrelled with him to his great regret, because it was impossible for him to dance attendance on her as she expected, and as he would gladly have done had he been a man of leisure. Having warned us young tyros against the danger of frankness in all dealings with women, and how often it had got him into hot water with the sex, he bade us good evening.

As we came out we saw across the court that the melon had been taken in, so judged that Parker had returned. He had. We were so tickled by the way Maitland had accounted for the roses that we quite forgot to score off Parker about them, and actually told him what Maitland supposed.

Barrett then suggested that we should at once form a committee to deliberate on the situation. Parker and I did not quite see why a committee was necessary to laugh at old Maitland, but we agreed.

“Did you really see the woman he means, or were you only pulling Maitland’s leg?” I asked.

“I saw her all right,” retorted Barrett. “Don’t you remember, Parker, how I nudged you when she passed.”

Parker nodded.

“She was such a picture that I asked who she was, and found she was a high school mistress, the niece of old Cooper, the vet. She is going to be married to a schoolmaster, and go out to Canada with him. I don’t mind owning I was rather smitten myself, or I should not have taken the trouble.”

“She has left Cambridge,” said Parker slowly. “When I got out of the train half-an-hour ago she was getting in. Cooper was seeing her off.”

“Oh, don’t—don’t tell poor old Maitland,” I broke in. “Let him go on holding out his chest and thinking she sent him the roses. It won’t matter to her, if she is off to Canada, and never coming back any more. And it will do him such a lot of good.”

“I don’t mean to tell him—immediately,” said Barrett ominously. “I think with you he ought to have his romance. Now I know she is safely gone forever, though I don’t mind owning it gives me a twinge to think she is throwing herself away on a schoolmaster: but as she really can’t come back and raise a dust, gentlemen, I lay a proposal before the committee, that the lady who sent the roses should follow them up with a little note.”

The committee agreed unanimously, and we decided, at least Barrett decided, that he should compose the letter, and Parker, who was rather good at a feigned handwriting, should copy it out.

Parker and I wanted Barrett to make the letter rather warm, and saying something complimentary about Maitland’s appearance, but Barrett would not hear of it. I did not see where the fun came in if it was just an ordinary note, but Barrett was adamant. He said he had an eye on the future.

He put his head in his hands, and thought a lot and then scribbled no end, and then tore it up, and finally produced the stupidest little commonplace letter you ever saw with simply nothing in it, saying how much she had profited by his lectures and rot of that kind. I was dreadfully disappointed, for I had always thought Barrett as clever as he could stick. He said it was an awful grind for him to be commonplace even for a moment, and that by rights I ought to have composed the letter, but that it was no more use expecting anything subtle from me than a Limerick from an archbishop.

He proceeded to read it aloud.

“But how is he to know it is the person who sent him the roses?” said Parker, “and how is he to answer if she does not give him an address? Hang it all. He ought to be able to answer. Give the poor devil a chance.”

“He shall be given every chance,” said Barrett. “But don’t you two prize idiots see that we can’t give a real name and address because he would certainly go there?”

“Not a bit of it. He’s as lazy as a pig. He never goes anywhere. He says he hasn’t time. He’s been seccotined into his armchair for the last ten years.”

“I tell you he would go on all fours from here to Ely if he thought there was the chance of a woman looking at him when he got there.”

“Then how is he to answer?” said Parker, who always had to have everything explained to him.

“I am just coming to that. I don’t say anything in the note about the roses, you observe. I am far too maidenly. But I just add one tiny postscript:

‘If you do not regard this little note as an unwarrantable intrusion, please wear one of my roses on Sunday morning at chapel, even if it is faded, as a sign that you have forgiven my presumption in writing these few lines.’”

“That’s not bad,” said Parker suddenly.

“Now,” said Barrett, tossing the sheet over to him, “you copy that out in a fist that you can stick to, because it will be the first of a long correspondence.”

“We’ve not settled her name yet,” I suggested.

“Maud,” said Barrett with decision. “What else could it be?”

The letter was written on an unstamped sheet of paper, was carefully directed—not quite correctly. Barrett insisted on that, and posted it himself.

The following Sunday we were all in our places early, and sure enough, Maitland, who came in more like a conquering hero than ever, was wearing a faded yellow rose in his buttonhole. He touched it in an absent manner once or twice during the service, and sat with his profile sedulously turned toward the congregation. He was not quite so bad profile because it did not show the bulging of his cheeks. As he came out he looked about him furtively, almost shyly. He evidently feared she was not there. Barrett and I joined him, and engaged him in conversation (though we had some difficulty in dragging him from the chapel), in the course of which he mentioned that he had intended to go to his sister at Newmarket for Sunday, but a press of work had obliged him to give up his visit at the last moment.

Poor Maitland! When he left us that morning, and Barrett and I looked at each other, I felt a qualm of pity for him. I knew how ruthless Barrett was, and that he was doomed.

But if I realised Barrett’s ruthlessness, I had not realised his cunning. His next move was masterly, though I did not think so at the time. He was as cautious and calculating as if his life depended on it. He got some note-paper with a little silver M. on a blue lozenge on it and wrote another note. He was going to Farnham for a few days to stay with his eldest brother, who was quartered there. And in this note Maud—Maitland’s Maud as we now called her—diffidently ventured to ask for elucidation on one or two points of the lectures which had proved too abstruse for her feminine intellect. She showed considerable intelligence for a woman, and real knowledge of the lectures—I did that part—and suggested that as her letters, if addressed to her, were apt to go to her maiden aunt of the same name with whom she was staying, and who was a very old-fashioned person, totally opposed to the higher education of women—that if he was so good as to find time to answer her questions it would be best to direct to her at the Post Office, Farnham, under her initials M.M., where she could easily send for them.

I betted a pound to a penny that Maitland would not rise to this bait, and Barrett took it. I told him you could see the hook through the worm. Parker was uneasy, even when Barrett had explained to him that it was impossible for us to get into trouble in the matter.

“You always say that,” said Parker, with harrowing experiences in the back-ground of his mind.

“Well, I say it again. I know your powers of obtruding yourself on the notice of the authorities, but how do even you propose to wedge yourself into a scrape on this occasion? With all your gifts in that line you simply can’t do it.”

Parker ruminated.

“Ought we to—”

“Ought we to what?”

“To pull his leg to such an extent? Isn’t it taking rather a—rather a—er responsibility?”

“Responsibility sits as lightly on me as dew upon the rose,” said Barrett. “You copy out that.”

Parker copied it out and Barrett went off to Farnham. A few days later he reappeared. I was smoking in Parker’s room when he came in.

He sat down under the lamp, drew a fat letter from his waistcoat pocket, and read it aloud to us. It was Maitland’s answer.

It really was a ghastly letter, the kind of literary preachy rot which you read in a book, which I never thought people really wrote, not even people like Maitland, who seem to live in a world of shams. It was improving and patronising and treacly, and full of information, partly about the lectures, but mostly about himself. He came out in a very majestic light you may be sure of that. And at the end he begged her not to hesitate to write to him again if he could be of the least use to her, that busy as he undoubtedly was, his college work never seemed in his eyes as important as real human needs.

“He’s cribbed that out of a book,” interrupted Parker. “Newby the tutor in ‘Belchamber,’ who is a most awful prig, says those very words.”

“Prigs all say the same things,” said Barrett airily. “If Maitland read ‘Belchamber,’ he would think Newby was a caricature of him. He’d never believe that he was plagiarising Newby. The cream of the letter is still to come,” and he went on reading.

Maitland patted the higher education of women on the head, and half hinted at a meeting, and then withdrew it again, saying that some of the difficulties in her mind, which he recognised to be one of a high order, might be more easily eliminated verbally, and that he should be at Farnham during the vacation, but that he feared his stay would be brief, and his time was hopelessly bespoken beforehand, etc., etc.

“He might be an Adonis,” said Parker. “He’ll be coy and virginal next.”

“He’ll be a lot of things before long,” said Barrett grimly. “Get out your inkpot, Parker. I’m going to have another shy at him.”

“You’re not going to suggest a meeting! For goodness sake, Barrett, be careful. You will be saying Jones must dress up as a woman next.”

“Well, if he does, I won’t,” I said. “I simply won’t.”

I had taken a good many parts in University plays.

“The sight of Jones as a female would make any man’s gorge rise,” said Barrett contemptuously. “I know I had to shut my eyes when I made love to him at ‘The Footlights’ last year. I never knew two such victims of hysteria as you and Jones. Suggest a meeting! Maud suggest a meeting! What do you know of women! I tell you two moral lepers, unfit to tie the shoestring of a pure woman like Maud, that it takes a Galahad like me to deal with a situation of this kind. What you’ve got to remember is that I’m not trying to entangle him.”

Cries of “Oh! Oh!” from the Committee.

“I mean Maud isn’t. I am, but that’s another thing. You two wretched, whited sepulchres haven’t got hold of the true inwardness of Maud’s character. Your gross, assignating minds don’t apprehend her. Maud is just one of those golden-haired, white-handed angels who go through life girthing up a man’s ideals; who exist only in the imagination of elderly men like Maitland, who has never seen a woman in his life, and who does not know that unless they are imbeciles they draw the line at drivel like that letter. Bless her! She’s not going to suggest a meeting. He’ll do that and enjoy doing it. Can’t you see Maitland in his new role of ruthless pursuer—the relentless male? No more easy conquests for him, sitting in his college chair, mowing them all down like a Maxim as far as—Ely. He’s got to work this time. I tell you two miserable poltroons that this is going to make a man of Maitland. He’s been an old woman long enough.”

“All I can say is,” said Parker, ignoring the allusion to Ely, “that if the Almighty hasn’t a sense of humour you will find yourself in a tight place some day, Barrett.”

My pen fails me to record the diabolical manner in which Barrett played with his victim. It would have been like a cat and mouse if you can imagine the mouse throwing his chest out and fancying himself all the time. Barrett inveigled Maitland into going to Farnham, and accounted somehow for Maud’s non-appearance at the interview coyly deprecated by Maud, and consequently hotly demanded by Maitland. He actually made him shave off his moustache. Parker and I lost heavily on that. We each bet a fiver that Barrett would never get it off. It was a beastly moustache which would have made any decent woman ill to look at. It did not turn up at the ends like Barrett’s elder brother’s, but grew over his mouth like hart’s tongue hanging over a well. You could see his teeth through it. Horrible it was. But you can’t help how your hair grows, so I’m not blaming Maitland, and it was better gone. But we never thought Barrett would have done it. I must own my opinion of him rose.

And he kept it up all through the long vacation with a pertinacity I should never have given him credit for. He took an artistic pride in it, and the letters were first rate. I did not think so at first; I thought them rather washy until I saw how they took. Barrett said what Maitland needed was a milk and water diet. He seemed to know exactly the kind of letter that would fetch a timid old bachelor. But it was not all “beer and skittles” for Barrett. He sorely wanted to make Maud stand up to him once or twice, and put her foot through his mild platitudes. He wrote one or two capital letters in a kind of rage, but he always groaned and tore them up afterward.

“If Maud has any character whatever,” he sometimes said, “if she shows the least sign of seeing him except as he shows himself to her, if she has any interest in life beyond his lectures, he will feel she is not suited to him, and he will give his bridle-reins—I mean his waterproof spats—a shake, and adieu for evermore.”

Barrett eventually lured Maitland into deep water, long past the bathing machine of adieu forevermore, as he called it. When he was too cock-o-hoop, we reminded him that, after all, he was only one of a committee, and that he had been immensely helped by the young woman herself. She really looked such a saint, and as innocent as a pigeon’s egg.

But Barrett stuck to it that her appearance ought, on the contrary, to have warned Maitland off, and that he was an infernal ass to think such an exquisite creature as that would give a second thought to a stout old bachelor of forty-five, looking exactly like a cod that had lain too long on the slab. I could not see that Maitland was so very like a cod, but there was a vindictiveness about Barrett’s description of him that I really think must have been caused by his romantic admiration of Parker’s aunt, and his disgust at the slight that he felt had been put upon her. She married again the following year Barrett’s elder brother’s Colonel.

Barrett hustled Maitland about till he got almost thin. He snap-shotted him waiting for his Maud at Charing Cross station. And he did not make her write half as often as you would think. But he somehow egged Maitland on until, by the middle of the vacation, he had worked him up into such a state that Barrett had to send Maud into a rest cure for her health, so as to get a little rest himself.

When we met at Cambridge in October he had collected such a lot of material, such priceless letters, and several good photographs of Maitland’s back, that he said he thought we were almost in a position to discover to him exactly how he stood.

He threw down his last letter, and as Parker and I read them, any lurking pity we felt for him as having fallen into Barrett’s clutches, evaporated.

They showed Maitland at his worst. It was obvious that he was tepidly in love with Maud, or rather that he was anxious she should be in love with him. He said voluntarily all the things that torture ought not to have been able to wring out of him. He told her the story of the woman who had quarrelled with him because he did not dance attendance on her, and several other incidents which meant, if they meant anything, that there was something in his personality, hidden from his own searching self-examination, which was deadly to the peace of mind of the opposite sex. He was very humble about it. He did not understand it, but there it was. He said that he had from boyhood lived an austere, intellectual life, which he humbly hoped had not been without effect on the tone of the college, that he had never met so far any one whom he could love.

“That’s colossal,” said Parker, suddenly, striking the letter. “Never met any one he could love. He’ll never better that.”

But Maitland went one better. He said he still hoped that some day, etc., etc., that he now saw with great self-condemnation that if his life had been altruistic in some ways, it had been egotistic in others, as in preferring his own independence to the mutual services of affection; that he must confess to his shame that he had received more than his share of love, and that he had not given out enough.

“He’s determined she shall know how irresistible he is,” said Barrett. “I had no idea these early Victorian methods of self-advertisement were still in vogue even among the most elderly Dons.”

“Hang it all!” blurted out Parker, reddening. “The matter has gone beyond a joke. We haven’t any right to see his mind without its clothes on. You always say the nude is beautiful. But really—Maitland undraped—viewed through a key-hole, sets my teeth on edge.”

“Undraped? you prude,” said Barrett. “What are you talking about? Maitland is clothed up to his eyes in his own illusions. He’s padded out all round with them back and front to such an extent that you can’t see the least vestige of the human form divine. Personally, I don’t think he has one. I don’t believe he is a man at all, but just a globular mass of conceit and unpublished matter, swathed in a college gown. The thing that revolts me is the way he postures before her. Malvolio and his garters isn’t in it with Maitland. Good Lord! Supposing she were a real live woman! What a mercy for him that it’s only us, that it’s all strictly en famille. I always have said that it’s better to keep women out of love affairs.”

“How did you answer this?” said Parker, pushing the last letter from him in disgust.

“I let him see at last—a little.”

“That it was all a joke?”

“No. That I—that Maud, I mean—cared. She did not say much. She never does. She mostly sticks to flowers and sunsets, but she gave a little hint of it, and threw in at the same time that she was very much out of health and going abroad.”

“That’ll put him off. He’ll back out. He would hate to have a delicate wife. He might have to look after her, instead of her waiting hand and foot on him.”

“We shall see,” said Barrett. “Her last letter was posted at Dover.”

“Well, mind! It’s got to be the last,” said Parker decisively. “I had not realised you had been playing the devil to such an extent as this. I had a sort of idea that you were only one of a committee. And what a frightful lot of trouble you must have taken. I suppose Maud was always moving about so that he could never nail her.”

“Always, just where I was going, too, by a curious coincidence. And her old aunt is a regular tartar; I don’t suppose there ever was such a typical female guardian outside a penny novelette. But she is turning out a trump now about taking Maud abroad, I will say that for her. They remain at Dover a week. I’ve arranged for it. I knew you two would wish me to feel myself quite untrammelled, and, indeed, I wish it myself. Then we’ll hand him the whole series, and see how he takes it; and tell him we’ve shown it to a few of his most intimate friends first, and your aunt, Parker—she’ll nearly die of it—and that they are all of opinion that it’s the best thing he has done since his paper on Bacchylides.”

Neither of us answered. In spite of myself I was sorry for Maitland.

A few days later Barrett came to my rooms. We knocked on the floor for Parker, and he came up.

Then he put down a letter on the table and we read it in silence.

It was just what we expected, an enigmatic, self-protecting effusion. Maitland was hedging. He had evidently been put off by Maud’s illness, and talked a great deal about friendship being the crown of life, and how she must think of nothing but the care of her health, etc., etc.; and he on his side must not be selfish and trouble her with too many letters, etc.

“Brute,” said Parker.

“There’s another,” said Barrett.

“You don’t mean to say you wrote again. There’s not been time.”

“No. He wrote again. He doesn’t seem to have been perfectly satisfied with the chivalry of the letter you’ve just read. He’s always great on chivalry, you know. And it certainly would be hard to make that last letter dovetail in with his previous utterances on a man’s instinct to guard and protect the opposite sex.”

Barrett threw down a bulky letter and—may God forgive us—Parker and I read it together under the lamp.

“I can’t go on,” said Parker after a few minutes.

“You must,” said Barrett savagely.

We read it through from the first word to the last, and as we read Parker’s face became as grave as Barrett’s.

It is an awful thing when a poseur ceases to pose, when an egoist becomes a human being. But this is what had befallen Maitland. The thing had happened which one would have thought could not possibly happen. He had fallen in love.

I can’t put in the whole of his letter here. Indeed, I don’t remember it very clearly. But I shall not forget the gist of it while I live.

After he had despatched his other letter he told her the scales of egotism had suddenly dropped from his eyes, and he had realised that he loved for the first time, and that he could not face life without her, and that the thought that he might lose her, had possibly already lost her by his own fault, was unendurable to him. For in the new light in which now all was bathed he realised the meanness of his previous letter, of his whole intercourse with her: that he had never for a moment been truthful with her: that he had attitudinised before her in order to impress her: that he had always taken the ground that he was difficult to please, and that many women had paid court to him, but that it was all chimerical. No woman had ever cared for him except his mother, and a little nursery governess when he was a lad. During the last twenty years he had made faint, half-hearted attempts to ingratiate himself with attractive women: and when the attempts failed, as they always had failed, he had had the meanness to revenge himself by implying that his withdrawal had been caused by their wish to give him more than the friendship he craved. He had said over and over again that he valued his independence too much to marry, but it was not true. He did not value it a bit. He had been pining to get married for years and years. He saw now that to say that kind of thing was only to say in other words that he had never lived. He had not. He had only talked about living. He abased himself before her with a kind of passion. He told her that he did not see how any woman, and she least of all, could bring herself to care for a man of his age and appearance, even if he had been simple and humble and sincere, much less one who had taken trouble to show himself so ignoble, so petty, so self-engrossed, so arrogant. But the fact remained that he loved her; she had unconsciously taught him to abhor himself, and he only loved her the more, he worshipped her, well or ill, kind or unkind, whether she could return it or not.

We stared at each other in a ghastly silence. I expected some ribald remark from Barrett, but he made none.

“What’s to be done?” said Parker at last.

“There’s one thing that can’t be done,” said Barrett, and I was astonished to see him so changed, “and that is to show the thing up. It’s not to be thought of.”

We both nodded.

“I said it would make a man of him, but I never in my wildest moments thought it really would,” continued Barrett. “It’s my fault. You two fellows said I should go too far.”

We assured him that we were all three equally guilty.

“The point is, what’s to be done?” repeated Parker.

“I’ve thought it over,” said Barrett, putting the letter carefully in his pocket, “and I’ve come to the conclusion it must go on. I have not the heart to undeceive him. And I don’t suppose you two will want to be more down on him than I am.”

“If it goes on he’ll find out,” I groaned.

“He mustn’t be allowed to find out,” said Barrett. “He simply mustn’t. I’ve got to insure that. I dragged the poor devil in, and I’ve got to get him out.”

“How will you do it?”

“Kill her. There’s nothing for it but that. Fortunately she was ill in the vacation. He’s uneasy about her health now. I put her in a rest cure, if you remember, when he became too pertinacious, and I was yachting.”

“He’ll feel her death,” said Parker. “It’s hard luck on him.”

“Suggest something better then,” snapped Barrett.

But though we thought over the matter until late into the night we could think of nothing better. Barrett, who seemed to have mislaid all his impudent self-confidence, departed at last saying he would see to it.

“Who would have thought it,” said Parker to me as I followed him to lock him out. “And so Maitland is a live man, after all.” We stood and looked across the court to Maitland’s windows, who was still burning the midnight oil.

“You don’t think he’ll ever get wind of this,” I said.

“You may trust Barrett,” Parker replied. “Good-night.”

Barrett proved trustworthy. He and Parker laid their heads together, and it was finally decided that Maud’s aunt should write Maitland a letter from Paris describing her sudden death, and how she had enjoined on her aunt to break it to Maitland, and to send him the little ring she always wore. After much cogitation they decided that Maud should send him a death-bed message, in which she was to own that she loved him. Barrett thought it would comfort him immensely if she had loved him at first sight, so he put it in. And though he was frightfully short of money he went up to London and got a very nice little ring with a forget-me-not in turquoises on it, for the same amount he had won off us about Maitland’s moustache. I think he was glad as it was blood money in a way (if you can call a moustache blood) that it should go back to Maitland.

The old aunt’s letter was a masterpiece. At any other time Barrett’s artistic sense would have revelled in it, but he was out of spirits, and only carried the matter through by a kind of doggedness. The letter was prim and stilted, but humane, and the writer was obviously a little hurt by the late discovery that her dear niece had concealed anything from her. She returned all the letters which she said her niece had evidently treasured, and said that she was returning heartbroken to her house in Pimlico the same day, and would, of course, see him if he wished it, but she supposed that one so busy as Maitland would hardly be able to spare the time. The letter was obviously written under the supposition that the address in Pimlico was familiar to him. It was signed in full. Yours faithfully, Maud Markham.

Barrett got a friend whom he could rely on to post the packet on his way through Paris.

I don’t know how Maitland took the news. I don’t know what he can have thought of his grisly letters when he saw them again. But I do know that he knocked up and had to go away.

There is one thing I admire about Barrett. He did not pretend he did not feel Maitland’s illness, though I believe it was only gout. He did not pretend he was not ashamed of himself. He never would allow that we were equally guilty. And when Maitland came back rather thinner and graver, we all noticed that he treated him with respect. And he never jeered at him again. Maitland regained his old self-complacency in time and was dreadfully mysterious and Maitlandish about the whole affair. I have seen Barrett wince when he made vague allusions to the responsibility of being the object of a great passion, and the discipline of suffering. But he had suffered in a way. He really had. And when the Bursar’s wife died Maitland was genuinely kind. He shot off lots of platitudes of course; but on previous occasions when he had said he had been stirred to the depths he only meant to the depth of a comfortable arm-chair. Now it was platitudes and actions mixed. He actually heaved himself out of his armchair, and exerted himself on behalf of the poor, dreary little bounder, took him walks, and sat with him in an evening—his sacred evenings. To think of Maitland putting himself out for anyone! It seemed a miracle.

After a time it was obvious that the incident had added a new dignity and happiness to his life. He settled down so to speak, into being an old bachelor, and grew a beard, and did not worry about women any more. He felt he had had his romance.

I don’t know how it was, but we all three felt a kind of lurking respect for him after what had happened. You would have thought that what we knew must have killed such a feeling, especially as it wasn’t there before. But it didn’t. On the contrary. And Maitland felt the change, and simply froze on to us three. He liked us all, but Barrett best.

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