It was a little past eight when Harry knocked at Lady Ongar’s door. I fear he had calculated that if he were punctual to the moment, she would think that he thought the matter to be important. It was important to him, and he was willing that she should know that it was so. But there are degrees in everything, and therefore he was twenty minutes late. He was not the first man who has weighed the diplomatic advantage of being after his time. But all those ideas went from him at once when she met him almost at the door of the room, and, taking him by the hand, said that she was “so glad to see him — so very glad. Fancy, Harry, I haven’t seen an old friend since I saw you last. You don’t know how hard all that seems.”
“It is hard,” said he; and when he felt the pressure of her hand and saw the brightness of her eye, and when her dress rustled against him as he followed her to her seat, and he became sensible of the influence of her presence, all his diplomacy vanished, and he was simply desirous of devoting himself to her service. Of course, any such devotion was to be given without detriment to that other devotion which he owed to Florence Burton. But this stipulation, though it was made, was made quickly, and with a confused brain.
“Yes — it is hard,” she said. “Harry, sometimes I think I shall go mad. It is more than I can bear. I could bear it if it hadn’t been my own fault — all my own fault.”
There was a suddenness about this which took him quite by surprise. No doubt it had been her own fault. He also had told himself that; though, of course, he would make no such charge to her. “You have not recovered yet,” he said, “from what you have suffered lately. Things will look brighter to you after a while.”
“Will they? Ah — I do not know. But come, Harry; come and sit down, and let me get you some tea. There is no harm, I suppose, in having you here — is there?”
“Harm, Lady Ongar?”
“Yes — harm, Lady Ongar.” As she repeated her own name after him, nearly in his tone, she smiled once again; and then she looked as she used in the old days, when she would be merry with him. “It is hard to know what a woman may do, and what she may not. When my husband was ill and dying, I never left his bedside. From the moment of my marrying him till his death, I hardly spoke to a man but in his presence; and when once I did, it was he that had sent him. And for all that people have turned their backs upon me. You and I were old friends, Harry, and something more once — were we not? But I jilted you, as you were man enough to tell me. How I did respect you when you dared to speak the truth to me. Men don’t know women, or they would be harder to them.”
“I did not mean to be hard to you.”
“If you had taken me by the shoulders and shaken me, and have declared that before God you would, not allow such wickedness, I should have obeyed you. I know I should.” Harry thought of Florence, and could not bring himself to say that he wished it had been so. “But where would you have been then, Harry? I was wrong and false and a beast to marry that man; but I should not, therefore, have been right to marry you and ruin you. It would have been ruin, you know, and we should simply have been fools.”
“The folly was very pleasant,” said he.
“Yes, yes; I will not deny that. But then the wisdom and the prudence afterward! Oh, Harry, that was not pleasant. That was not pleasant! But what was I saying? Oh! about the propriety of your being here. It is so hard to know what is proper. As I have been married, I suppose I may receive whom I please. Is not that the law?“
“You may receive me, I should think. Your sister is my cousin’s wife.” Harry’s matter-of-fact argument did as well as anything else, for it turned her thought at the moment.
“My sister, Harry! If there was nothing to make us friends but our connection through Sir Hugh Clavering, I do not know that I should be particularly anxious to see you. How unmanly he has been, and how cruel.”
“Very cruel,” said Harry. Then he thought of Archie and Archie’s suit. “But he is willing to change all that now. Hermione asked me the other day to persuade you to go to Clavering.”
“And have you come here to use your eloquence for that purpose? I will never go to Clavering again, Harry, unless it should be yours and your wife should offer to receive me. Then I’d pack up for the dear, dull, solemn old place though I was on the other side of Europe.”
“It will never be mine.”
“Probably not, and probably, therefore, I shall never be there again. No; I can forgive an injury, but not an insult — not an insult such as that. I will not go to Clavering; so, Harry, you may save your eloquence. Hermione I shall be glad to see whenever she will come to me. If you can persuade her to that, you will persuade her to a charity.”
“She goes nowhere, I think, without his — his —”
“Without his permission. Of course she does not. That, I suppose, is all as it should be. And he is such a tyrant that he will give no such permission. He would tell her, I suppose, that her sister was no fit companion for her.”
“He could not say that now, as he has asked you there.”
“Ah, I don’t know that. He would say one thing first and another after, just as it would suit him. He has some object in wishing that I should go there, I suppose.” Harry, who knew the object, and who was too faithful to betray Lady Clavering, even though he was altogether hostile to his cousin Archie’s suit, felt a little proud of his position, but said nothing in answer to this. “But I shall not go; nor will I see him, or go to his house when he comes up to London. When do they come, Harry?”
“He is in town, now.”
“What a nice husband, is he not? And when does Hermione come?”
“I do not know; she did not say. Little Hughy is ill, and that may keep her.”
“After all, Harry, I may have to pack up and go to Clavering even yet — that is, if the mistress of the house will have me.”
“Never in the way you mean, Lady Ongar. Do not propose to kill all my relations in order that I might have their property. Archie intends to marry, and have a dozen children.”
“Archie marry! Who will have him? But such men as he are often in the way by marrying some cookmaid at last. Archie is Hugh’s body-slave. Fancy being body-slave to Hugh Clavering! He has two, and poor Hermy is the other; only he prefers not to have Hermy near him, which is lucky for her. here is some tea. Let us sit down and be comfortable, and talk no more about our horrid relations. I don’t know what made me speak of them. I did not mean it.”
Harry sat down and took the cup from her hand, as she had bidden the servant to leave the tray upon the table.
“So you saw Count Pateroff,” she said.
“Yes, and his sister.”
“So she told me. What do you think of them?” To this question Harry made no immediate answer. “You may speak out. Though I lived abroad with such as them for twelve months, I have not forgotten the sweet scent of our English hedgerows, nor the wholesomeness of English household manners. What do you think of them?”
“They are not sweet or wholesome,” said he.
“Oh, Harry, you are so honest! Your honesty is beautiful. A spade will ever be a spade with you.”
He thought that she was laughing at him, and colored.
“You pressed me to speak,” he said, “and I did but use your own words.”
“Yes, but you used them with such straightforward violence! Well, you shall use what words you please, and how you please, because a word of truth is so pleasant after living in a world of lies. I know you. will not lie to me, Harry. You never did.”
He felt that now was the moment in which he should tell her of his engagement, but he let the moment pass without using it. And, indeed, it would have been hard for him to tell. In telling such a story he would have been cautioning her that it was useless for her to love him — and this be could not bring himself to do. And he was not sure even now that she had not learned the fact from her sister. “I hope not,” he said. In all that he was saying he knew that his words were tame and impotent in comparison with hers, which seemed to him to mean so much. But then his position was so unfortunate! Had it not been for Florence Burton he would have been long since at her feet; for, to give Harry Clavering his due, he could be quick enough at swearing to a passion. He was one of those men to whom love-making comes so readily that it is a pity that they should ever marry. He was ever making love to women, usually meaning no harm. He made love to Cecilia Burton over her children’s beds, and that discreet matron liked it. But it was a love-making without danger. It simply signified on his part the pleasure he had in being on good terms with a pretty woman. He would have liked to have made love in the same way to Lady Ongar; but that was impossible, and in all love-making with Lady Ongar there must be danger. There was a pause after the expression of his last hopes, during which he finished his tea, and then looked at his boots.
“You do not ask me what I have been doing at my country-house.”
“And what have you been doing there?”
“That is wrong.”
“Everything is wrong that I do; everything must be wrong. That is the nature of the curse upon me.”
“You think too much of all that now.”
“Ah, Harry, that is so easily said. People do not think of such things if they can help themselves. The place is full of him and his memories; full of him, though I do not as yet know whether he ever put his foot in it. Do you know, I have a plan, a scheme, which would, I think, make me happy for one half-hour. It is to give everything back to the family. Everything! money, house, and name; to call myself Julia Brabazon, and let the world call me what it pleases. Then I would walk out into the streets, and beg some one to give me my bread. Is there one in all the wide world that would give me a crust? Is there one, except yourself, Harry — one, except yourself?”
Poor Florence! I fear it fared badly with her cause at this moment. How was it possible that he should not regret, that he should not look back upon Stratton with something akin to sorrow? Julia had been his first love, and to her he could have been always true. I fear he thought of this now. I fear that it was a grief to him that he could not place himself close at her side, bid her do as she had planned, and then come to him, and share all his crusts. Had it been open to him to play that part, he would have played it well, and would have gloried in the thoughts of her poverty. The position would have suited him exactly. But Florence was in the way, and he could not do it. How was he to answer Lady Ongar? It was more difficult now than ever to tell her of Florence Burton.
His eyes were full of tears, and she accepted that as his excuse for not answering her. “I suppose they would say that I was a romantic fool. When the price has been taken one cannot cleanse oneself of the stain. With Judas, you know, it was not sufficient that he gave back the money. Life was too heavy for him, and so he went out and hanged himself.”
“Julia,” he said, getting up from his chair, and going over to where she sat on a sofa, “Julia, it is horrid to hear you speak of yourself in that way. I will not have it. You are not such a one as the Iscariot.” And as he spoke to her, he found her hand in his.
“I wish you had my burden, Harry, for one half day, so that you might know its weight.”
“I wish I could bear it for you — for life.”
“To be always alone, Harry; to have none that come to me and scold me, and love me, and sometimes make me smile! You will scold me at any rate; will you not? It is terrible to have no one near one that will speak to one with the old easiness of familiar affection. And then the pretence of it where it does not, cannot, could not, exist! Oh, that woman, Harry; that woman who comes here and calls me Julie! And she has got me to promise too that I would call her Sophie! I know that you despise me because she comes here. Yes; I can see it. You said at once that she was not wholesome, with your dear outspoken honesty.”
“It was your word.”
“And she is not wholesome, whosever word it was. She was there, hanging about him when he was so bad, before the worst came. She read novels to him — books that I never saw, and played écarté with him for what she called gloves. I believe in my heart she was spying me, and I let her come and go as she would, because I would not seem to be afraid of her. So it grew. And once or twice she was useful to me. A woman, Harry, wants to have a woman near her sometimes — even though it be such an unwholesome creature as Sophie Gordeloup. You must not think too badly of me on her account.”
“I will not; I will not think badly of you at all.”
“He is better, is he not? I know little of him or nothing, but he has a more reputable outside than she has. Indeed I liked him. He had known Lord Ongar well; and though he did not toady him nor was afraid of him, yet he was gentle and considerate. Once to me he said words that I was called on to resent; but he never repeated them, and I know that he was prompted by him who should have protected me. It is too bad, Harry, is it not? Too bad almost to be believed by such as you.”
“It is very bad,” said Harry.
“After that he was always courteous; and when the end came and things were very terrible, he behaved well and kindly. He went in and out quietly, and like an old friend. He paid for everything, and was useful. I know that even this made people talk — yes, Harry, even at such a moment as that! But in spite of the talking I did better with him then than I could have done without him.”
“He looks like a man who could be kind if he chooses.”
“He is one of those, Harry, who find it easy to be good-natured, and who are soft by nature, as cats are — not from their heart, but through instinctive propensity to softness. When it suits them, they scratch, even though they have been ever so soft before. Count Pateroff is a cat. You, Harry, I think are a dog.” She perhaps expected that he would promise to her that he would be her dog — a dog in constancy and affection; but he was still mindful in part of Florence, and restrained himself.
“I must tell you something further,” she said. “And indeed it is this that I particularly want to tell you. I have not seen him, you know, since I parted with him at Florence.”
“I did not know,” said Harry.
“I thought I had told you. However, so it is. And now, listen: He came down to Ongar Park the other day while I was there, and sent in his card. When I refused to receive him, he wrote to me pressing his visit. I still declined, and he wrote again. I burned his note, because I did not choose that anything from him should be in my possession. He told me some story about papers of Lord Ongar. I have nothing to do with Lord Ongar’s papers. Everything of which I knew was sealed up in the count’s presence and in mine, and was sent to the lawyers for the executors. I looked at nothing; not at one word in a single letter. What could he have to say to me of Lord Ongar’s papers?”
“Or he might have written?”
“At any rate he should not have come there, Harry. I would not see him, nor, if I can help it, will I see him here. I will be open with you, Harry. I think that perhaps it might suit him to make me his wife. Such an arrangement, however, would not suit me. I am not going to be frightened into marrying a man, because he has been falsely called my lover. If I cannot escape the calumny in any other way, I will not escape it in that way.”
“Has he said anything?”
“No; not a word. 1 have not seen him since the day after Lord Ongar’s funeral. But I have seen his sister.”
“And has she proposed such a thing?”
“No, she has not proposed it. But she talks of it, saying that it would not do. Then when I tell her that of course it would not do, she shows me all that would make it expedient. She is so sly and so false, that with all my eyes open I cannot quite understand her, or quite know what she is doing. I do not feel sure that she wishes it herself.”
“She told me that it would not do.”
“She did, did she? If she speaks of it again, tell her that she is right, that it will never do. Had he not come down to Ongar Park, I should not have mentioned this to you. I should not have thought that he had in truth any such schemes in his head. He did not tell you that he had been there?”
“He did not mention it. Indeed, he said very little about you at all.”
“No, he would not. He is cautious. He never talks of anybody to anybody. He speaks only of the outward things of the world. Now, Harry, what you must do for me is this.” As she was speaking to him she was leaning again upon the table, with her forehead resting upon her hands. Her small widow’s cap had become thus thrust back, and was now nearly off her head, so that her rich brown hair was to be seen in its full luxuriance, rich and lovely as it had ever been. Could it be that she felt — half thought, half felt, without knowing that she thought it — that while the signs of her widowhood were about her, telling in their too plain language the tale of what she had been, he could not dare to speak to her of his love? She was indeed a widow, but not as are other widows. She had confessed, did hourly confess to herself, the guilt which she had committed in marrying that man; but the very fact of such confessions, of such acknowledgment, absolved her from the necessity of any show of sorrow. When she declared how she had despised and hated her late lord, she threw off mentally all her weeds. Mourning, the appearance even of mourning, became impossible to her, and the cap upon her head was declared openly to be a sacrifice to the world’s requirements. It was now pushed back, but I fancy that nothing like a thought on the matter had made itself plain to her mind. “What you must do for me is this,” she continued. “You must see Count Pateroff again, and tell him from me — as my friend — that I cannot consent to see him. Tell him that if he will think of it, he must know the reason why.”
“Of course he will know.”
“Tell him what I say, all the same; and tell him that as I have hitherto had cause to be grateful to him for his kindness, so also I hope he will not put an end to that feeling by anything now, that would not be kind. If there be papers of Lord Ongar’s, he can take them either to my lawyers, if that be fit, or to those of the family. You can tell him that, can you not?”
“Oh, yes; I can tell him.”
“And have you any objection?”
“None for myself. But would it not come better from some one else?”
“Because you are a young man, you mean? Whom else can I trust, Harry? To whom can I go? Would you have me to ask Hugh to do this? Or, would Archie Clavering be a proper messenger? Whom else have I?”
“Would not his sister be better?”
“How should I know that she had told him? She would tell him her own story — what she herself wished. And whatever story she told, he would not believe it. They know each other better than you and I know them. It must be you, Harry, if you will do it.”
“Of course I will. I will try to-morrow. Where does he live?”
“How should I know? Perhaps nobody knows; no one, perhaps, of all those with whom he associates constantly. They do not live after our fashion, do they, these foreigners? But you will find him at his club, or hear of him at the house in Mount Street. You will do it; eh, Harry?”
“That is my good Harry. But I suppose you would do anything I asked you. Ah, well; it is good to have one friend, if one has no more. Look, Harry! if it is not near eleven o’clock! Did you know that you had been here nearly three hours? And I have given you nothing but a cup of tea!”
“What else do you think I have wanted?”
“At your club you would have had cigars and brandy-and-water, and billiards, and broiled bones, and oysters, and tankards of beer. I know all about it. You have been very patient with me. If you go quick perhaps you will not be too late for the tankards and the oysters.”
“I never have any tankards or any oysters.”
“Then it is cigars and brandy-and-water. Go quick, and perhaps you may not be too late.”
“I will go, but not there. I cannot change my thoughts so suddenly.”
“Go, then; and do not change your thoughts. Go and think of me, and pity me. Pity me for what I have got, but pity me most for what I have lost.” Harry silently took her hand, and kissed it, and then left her.
Pity her for what she had lost! What had she lost! What did she mean by that? He knew well what she meant by pitying her for what she had got. What had she lost? She had lost him. Did she intend to evoke his pity for that loss? She had lost him. Yes, indeed. Whether or no the loss was one to regret, he would not say to himself; or rather, he, of cource, declared that it was not; but such as it was, it had been incurred. He was now the property of Florence Burton, and, whatever happened, he would be true to her.
Perhaps he pitied himself also. If so, it is to be hoped that Florence may never know of such pity. Before he went to bed, when he was praying on his knees, he inserted it in his prayers that God in whom he believed might make him true in his faith to Florence Burton.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55