AN UNSOCIAL SOCIALIST
One morning Gertrude got a letter from her father:
"My Dear Gerty: I have just received a bill for L110 from Madame Smith for your dresses. May I ask you how long this sort of thing is to go on? I need not tell you that I have not the means to support you in such extravagance. I am, as you know, always anxious that you should go about in a style worthy of your position, but unless you can manage without calling on me to pay away hundreds of pounds every season to Madame Smith, you had better give up society and stay at home. I positively cannot afford it. As far as I can see, going into society has not done you much good. I had to raise L500 last month on Franklands; and it is too bad if I must raise more to pay your dressmaker. You might at least employ some civil person, or one whose charges are moderate. Madame Smith tells me that she will not wait any longer, and charges L50 for a single dress. I hope you fully understand that there must be an end to this.
"I hear from your mother that young Erskine is with you at Brandon's. I do not think much of him. He is not well off, nor likely to get on, as he has taken to poetry and so forth. I am told also that a man named Trefusis visits at the Beeches a good deal now. He must be a fool, for he contested the last Birmingham election, and came out at the foot of the poll with thirty-two votes through calling himself a Social Democrat or some such foreign rubbish, instead of saying out like a man that he was a Radical. I suppose the name stuck in his throat, for his mother was one of the Howards of Breconcastle; so he has good blood in him, though his father was nobody. I wish he had your bills to pay; he could buy and sell me ten times over, after all my twenty-five years' service.
"As I am thinking of getting something done to the house, I had rather you did not come back this month, if you can possibly hold on at Brandon's. Remember me to him, and give our kind regards to his wife. I should be obliged if you would gather some hemlock leaves and send them to me. I want them for my ointment; the stuff the chemists sell is no good. Your mother's eyes are bad again; and your brother Berkeley has been gambling, and seems to think I ought to pay his debts for him. I am greatly worried over it all, and I hope that, until you have settled yourself, you will be more reasonable, and not run these everlasting bills upon me. You are enjoying yourself out of reach of all the unpleasantness; but it bears hardly upon
"Your affectionate father,
"Dear Papa: Considering that it is more than three years since you paid Madame Smith last, and that then her bill, which included my court dress, was only L150, I cannot see how I could possibly have been more economical, unless you expect me to go in rags. I am sorry that Madame Smith has asked for the money at such an inconvenient time, but when I begged you to pay her something in March last year you told me to keep her quiet by giving her a good order. I am not surprised at her not being very civil, as she has plenty of tradesmen's daughters among her customers who pay her more than L300 a year for their dresses. I am wearing a skirt at present which I got two years ago.
"Sir Charles is going to town on Thursday; he will bring you the hemlock. Tell mamma that there is an old woman here who knows some wonderful cure for sore eyes. She will not tell what the ingredients are, but it cures everyone, and there is no use in giving an oculist two guineas for telling us that reading in bed is bad for the eyes, when we know perfectly well that mamma will not give up doing it. If you pay Berkeley's debts, do not forget that he owes me L3.
"Another schoolfellow of mine is staying here now, and I think that Mr. Trefusis will have the pleasure of paying her bills some day. He is a great pet of Lady Brandon's. Sir Charles was angry at first because she invited him here, and we were all surprised at it. The man has a bad reputation, and headed a mob that threw down the walls of the park; and we hardly thought he would be cool enough to come after that. But he does not seem to care whether we want him or not; and he comes when he likes. As he talks cleverly, we find him a godsend in this dull place. It is really not such a paradise as you seem to think, but you need not be afraid of my returning any sooner than I can help.
"Your affectionate daughter,
When Gertrude had closed this letter, and torn up her father's, she thought little more about either. They might have made her unhappy had they found her happy, but as hopeless discontent was her normal state, and enjoyment but a rare accident, recriminatory passages with her father only put her into a bad humor, and did not in the least disappoint or humiliate her.
For the sake of exercise, she resolved to carry her letter to the village post office and return along the Riverside Road, whereby she had seen hemlock growing. She took care to go out unobserved, lest Agatha should volunteer to walk with her, or Jane declare her intention of driving to the post office in the afternoon, and sulk for the rest of the day unless the trip to the village were postponed until then. She took with her, as a protection against tramps, a big St. Bernard dog named Max. This animal, which was young and enthusiastic, had taken a strong fancy to her, and had expressed it frankly and boisterously; and she, whose affections had been starved in her home and in society, had encouraged him with more kindness than she had ever shown to any human being.
In the village, having posted her letter, she turned towards a lane that led to the Riverside Road. Max, unaware of her reason for choosing the longest way home, remonstrated by halting in the middle of the lane, wagging his tail rapidly, and uttering gruff barks.
"Don't be stupid, sir," said Gertrude impatiently. "I am going this way."
Max, apparently understanding, rushed after her, passed her, and disappeared in a cloud of dust raised by his effort to check himself when he had left her far enough behind. When he came back she kissed his nose, and ran a race with him until she too was panting, and had to stand still to recover her breath, whilst he bounded about, barking ferociously. She had not for many years enjoyed such a frolic, and the thought of this presently brought tears to her eyes. Rather peevishly she bade Max be quiet, walked slowly to cool herself, and put up her sunshade to avert freckles.
The sun was now at the meridian. On a slope to Gertrude's right hand, Sallust's House, with its cinnamon-colored walls and yellow frieze, gave a foreign air to the otherwise very English landscape. She passed by without remembering who lived there. Further down, on some waste land separated from the road by a dry ditch and a low mud wall, a cluster of hemlocks, nearly six feet high, poisoned the air with their odor. She crossed the ditch, took a pair of gardening gloves from her plaited straw hand-basket, and busied herself with the hemlock leaves, pulling the tender ones, separating them from the stalk, and filling the basket with the web. She forgot Max until an impression of dead silence, as if the earth had stopped, caused her to look round in vague dread. Trefusis, with his hand abandoned to the dog, who was trying how much of it he could cram into his mouth, was standing within a few yards of her, watching her intently. Gertrude turned pale, and came out hastily from among the bushes. Then she had a strange sensation as if something had happened high above her head. There was a threatening growl, a commanding exclamation, and an unaccountable pause, at the expiration of which she found herself supine on the sward, with her parasol between her eyes and the sun. A sudden scoop of Max's wet warm tongue in her right ear startled her into activity. She sat up, and saw Trefusis on his knees at her side holding the parasol with an unconcerned expression, whilst Max was snuffing at her in restless anxiety opposite.
"I must go home," she said. "I must go home instantly."
"Not at all," said Trefusis, soothingly. "They have just sent word to say that everything is settled satisfactorily and that you need not come."
"Have they?" she said faintly. Then she lay down again, and it seemed to her that a very long time elapsed. Suddenly recollecting that Trefusis had supported her gently with his hand to prevent her falling back too rudely, she rose again, and this time got upon her feet with his help.
"I must go home," she said again. "It is a matter of life or death."
"No, no," he said softly. "It is all right. You may depend on me."
She looked at him earnestly. He had taken her hand to steady her, for she was swaying a little. "Are you sure," she said, grasping his arm. "Are you quite sure?"
"Absolutely certain. You know I am always right, do you not?"
"Yes, oh, yes; you have always been true to me. You—" Here her senses came back with a rush. Dropping his hand as if it had become red hot, she said sharply, "What are you talking about?"
"I don't know," he said, resuming his indifferent manner with a laugh. "Are you better? Let me drive you to the Beeches. My stable is within a stone's throw; I can get a trap out in ten minutes."
"No, thank you," said Gertrude haughtily. "I do not wish to drive." She paused, and added in some bewilderment, "What has happened?"
"You fainted, and—"
"I did not faint," said Gertrude indignantly. "I never fainted in my life."
"Yes, you did."
"Pardon me, Mr. Trefusis. I did not."
"You shall judge for yourself. I was coming through this field when I saw you gathering hemlock. Hemlock is interesting on account of Socrates, and you were interesting as a young lady gathering poison. So I stopped to look on. Presently you came out from among the bushes as if you had seen a snake there. Then you fell into my arms—which led me to suppose that you had fainted—and Max, concluding that it was all my fault, nearly sprang at my throat. You were overpowered by the scent of the water-hemlock, which you must have been inhaling for ten minutes or more."
"I did not know that there was any danger," said Gertrude, crestfallen. "I felt very tired when I came to. That was why I lay so long the second time. I really could not help it."
"You did not lie very long."
"Not when I first fell; that was only a few seconds, I know. But I must have lain there nearly ten minutes after I recovered."
"You were nearly a minute insensible when you first fell, and when you recovered you only rested for about one second. After that you raved, and I invented suitable answers until you suddenly asked me what I was talking about."
Gertrude reddened a little as the possibility of her having raved indiscreetly occurred to her. "It was very silly of me to faint," she said.
"You could not help it; you are only human. I shall walk with you to the Beeches."
"Thank you; I will not trouble you," she said quickly.
He shook his head. "I do not know how long the effect of that abominable water-weed may last," he said, "and I dare not leave you to walk alone. If you prefer it I can send you in a trap with my gardener, but I had rather accompany you myself."
"You are giving yourself a great deal of unnecessary trouble. I will walk. I am quite well again and need no assistance."
They started without another word. Gertrude had to concentrate all her energy to conceal from him that she was giddy. Numbness and lassitude crept upon her, and she was beginning to hope that she was only dreaming it all when he roused her by saying,
"Take my arm."
"No, thank you."
"Do not be so senselessly obstinate. You will have to lean on the hedge for support if you refuse my help. I am sorry I did not insist on getting the trap."
Gertrude had not been spoken to in this tone since her childhood. "I am perfectly well," she said sharply. "You are really very officious."
"You are not perfectly well, and you know it. However, if you make a brave struggle, you will probably be able to walk home without my assistance, and the effort may do you good."
"You are very rude," she said peremptorily.
"I know it," he replied calmly. "You will find three classes of men polite to you—slaves, men who think much of their manners and nothing of you, and your lovers. I am none of these, and therefore give you back your ill manners with interest. Why do you resist your good angel by suppressing those natural and sincere impulses which come to you often enough, and sometimes bring a look into your face that might tame a bear—a look which you hasten to extinguish as a thief darkens his lantern at the sound of a footstep."
"Mr. Trefusis, I am not accustomed to be lectured."
"That is why I lecture you. I felt curious to see how your good breeding, by which I think you set some store, would serve you in entirely novel circumstances—those of a man speaking his mind to you, for instance. What is the result of my experiment? Instead of rebuking me with the sweetness and dignity which I could not, in spite of my past observation, help expecting from you, you churlishly repel my offer of the assistance you need, tell me that I am very rude, very officious, and, in short, do what you can to make my position disagreeable and humiliating."
She looked at him haughtily, but his expression was void of offence or fear, and he continued, unanswered.
"I would bear all this from a working woman without remonstrance, for she would owe me no graces of manner or morals. But you are a lady. That means that many have starved and drudged in uncleanly discomfort in order that you may have white and unbroken hands, fine garments, and exquisite manners—that you may be a living fountain of those influences that soften our natures and lives. When such a costly thing as a lady breaks down at the first touch of a firm hand, I feel justified in complaining."
Gertrude walked on quickly, and said between her teeth, "I don't want to hear any of your absurd views, Mr. Trefusis."
He laughed. "My unfortunate views!" he said. "Whenever I make an inconvenient remark it is always set aside as an expression of certain dangerous crazes with which I am supposed to be afflicted. When I point out to Sir Charles that one of his favorite artists has not accurately observed something before attempting to draw it, he replies, 'You know our views differ on these things, Trefusis.' When I told Miss Wylie's guardian that his emigration scheme was little better than a fraud, he said, 'You must excuse me, but I cannot enter into your peculiar views.' One of my views at present is that Miss Lindsay is more amiable under the influence of hemlock than under that of the social system which has made her so unhappy."
"Well!" exclaimed Gertrude, outraged. Then, after a pause, "I was under the impression that I had accepted the escort of a gentleman." Then, after another pause, Trefusis being quite undisturbed, "How do you know that I am unhappy?"
"By a certain defect in your countenance, which lacks the crowning beauty of happiness; and a certain defect in your voice which will never disappear until you learn to love or pity those to whom you speak."
"You are wrong," said Gertrude, with calm disdain. "You do not understand me in the least. I am particularly attached to my friends."
"Then I have never seen you in their company."
"You are still wrong."
"Then how can you speak as you do, look as you do, act as you do?"
"What do you mean? HOW do I look and act?"
"Like one of the railings of Belgrave Square, cursed with consciousness of itself, fears of the judgment of the other railings, and doubts of their fitness to stand in the same row with it. You are cold, mistrustful, cruel to nervous or clumsy people, and more afraid of the criticisms of those with whom you dance and dine than of your conscience. All of which prevents you from looking like an angel."
"Thank you. Do you consider paying compliments the perfection of gentlemanly behavior?"
"Have I been paying you many? That last remark of mine was not meant as one. On my honor, the angels will not disappoint me if they are no lovelier than you should be if you had that look in your face and that tone in your voice I spoke of just now. It can hardly displease you to hear that. If I were particularly handsome myself, I should like to be told so."
"I am sorry I cannot tell you so."
"Oh! Ha! ha! What a retort, Miss Lindsay! You are not sorry either; you are rather glad."
Gertrude knew it, and was angry with herself, not because her retort was false, but because she thought it unladylike. "You have no right to annoy me," she exclaimed, in spite of herself.
"None whatever," he said, humbly. "If I have done so, forgive me before we part. I will go no further with you; Max will give the alarm if you faint in the avenue, which I don't think you are likely to do, as you have forgotten all about the hemlock."
"Oh, how maddening!" she cried. "I have left my basket behind."
"Never mind; I will find it and have it filled and sent to you."
"Thank you. I am sorry to trouble you."
"Not at all. I hope you do not want the hemlock to help you to get rid of the burden of life."
"Nonsense. I want it for my father, who uses it for medicine."
"I will bring it myself to-morrow. Is that soon enough?"
"Quite. I am in no hurry. Thank you, Mr. Trefusis. Good-bye."
She gave him her hand, and even smiled a little, and then hurried away. He stood watching her as she passed along the avenue under the beeches. Once, when she came into a band of sunlight at a gap in the trees, she made so pretty a figure in her spring dress of violet and white that his eyes kindled as he gazed. He took out his note-book, and entered her name and the date, with a brief memorandum.
"I have thawed her," he said to himself as he put up his book. "She shall learn a lesson or two to hand on to her children before I have done with her. A trifle underbred, too, or she would not insist so much on her breeding. Henrietta used to wear a dress like that. I am glad to see that there is no danger of her taking to me personally."
He turned away, and saw a crone passing, bending beneath a bundle of sticks. He eyed it curiously; and she scowled at him and hurried on.
"Hallo," he said.
She continued for a few steps, but her courage failed her and she stopped.
"You are Mrs. Hickling, I think?"
"Yes, please your worship."
"You are the woman who carried away an old wooden gate that lay on Sir Charles Brandon's land last winter and used it for firewood. You were imprisoned for seven days for it."
"You may send me there again if you like," she retorted, in a cracked voice, as she turned at bay. "But the Lord will make me even with you some day. Cursed be them that oppress the poor and needy; it is one of the seven deadly sins."
"Those green laths on your back are the remainder of my garden gate," he said. "You took the first half last Saturday. Next time you want fuel come to the house and ask for coals, and let my gates alone. I suppose you can enjoy a fire without stealing the combustibles. Stow pay me for my gate by telling me something I want to know."
"And a kind gentleman too, sir; blessings."
"What is the hemlock good for?"
"The hemlock, kind gentleman? For the evil, sir, to be sure."
"Scrofulous ulcers!" he exclaimed, recoiling. "The father of that beautiful girl!" He turned homeward, and trudged along with his head bent, muttering, "All rotten to the bone. Oh, civilization! civilization! civilization!"
"What has come over Gertrude?" said Agatha one day to Lady Brandon.
"Why? Is anything the matter with her?"
"I don't know; she has not been the same since she poisoned herself. And why did she not tell about it? But for Trefusis we should never have known."
"Gertrude always made secrets of things."
"She was in a vile temper for two days after; and now she is quite changed. She falls into long reveries, and does not hear a word of what is going on around. Then she starts into life again, and begs your pardon with the greatest sweetness for not catching what you have said."
"I hate her when she is polite; it is not natural to her. As to her going to sleep, that is the effect of the hemlock. We know a man who took a spoonful of strychnine in a bath, and he never was the same afterwards."
"I think she is making up her mind to encourage Erskine," said Agatha. "When I came here he hardly dared speak to her—at least, she always snubbed him. Now she lets him talk as much as he likes, and actually sends him on messages and allows him to carry things for her."
"Yes. I never saw anybody like Gertrude in my life. In London, if men were attentive to her, she sat on them for being officious; and if they let her alone she was angry at being neglected. Erskine is quite good enough for her, I think."
Here Erskine appeared at the door and looked round the room.
"She's not here," said Jane.
"I am seeking Sir Charles," he said, withdrawing somewhat stiffly.
"What a lie!" said Jane, discomfited by his reception of her jest. "He was talking to Sir Charles ten minutes ago in the billiard room. Men are such conceited fools!"
Agatha had strolled to the window, and was looking discontentedly at the prospect, as she had often done at school when alone, and sometimes did now in society. The door opened again, and Sir Charles appeared. He, too, looked round, but when his roving glance reached Agatha, it cast anchor; and he came in.
"Are you busy just now, Miss Wylie?" he asked.
"Yes," said Jane hastily. "She is going to write a letter for me."
"Really, Jane," he said, "I think you are old enough to write your letters without troubling Miss Wylie."
"When I do write my own letters you always find fault with them," she retorted.
"I thought perhaps you might have leisure to try over a duet with me," he said, turning to Agatha.
"Certainly," she replied, hoping to smooth matters by humoring him. "The letter will do any time before post hour."
Jane reddened, and said shortly, "I will write it myself, if you will not."
Sir Charles quite lost his temper. "How can you be so damnably rude?" he said, turning upon his wife. "What objection have you to my singing duets with Miss Wylie?"
"Nice language that!" said Jane. "I never said I objected; and you have no right to drag her away to the piano just when she is going to write a letter for me."
"I do not wish Miss Wylie to do anything except what pleases her best. It seems to me that writing letters to your tradespeople cannot be a very pleasant occupation."
"Pray don't mind me," said Agatha. "It is not the least trouble to me. I used to write all Jane's letters for her at school. Suppose I write the letter first, and then we can have the duet. You will not mind waiting five minutes?"
"I can wait as long as you please, of course. But it seems such an absurd abuse of your good nature that I cannot help protest!"
"Oh, let it wait!" exclaimed Jane. "Such a ridiculous fuss to make about asking Agatha to write a letter, just because you happen to want her to play you your duets! I am certain she is heartily sick and tired of them."
Agatha, to escape the altercation, went to the library and wrote the letter. When she returned to the drawing-room, she found no one there; but Sir Charles came in presently.
"I am so sorry, Miss Wylie," he said, as he opened the piano for her, "that you should be incommoded because my wife is silly enough to be jealous."
"Of course. Idiocy!"
"Oh, you are mistaken," said Agatha, incredulously. "How could she possibly be jealous of me?"
"She is jealous of everybody and everything," he replied bitterly, "and she cares for nobody and for nothing. You do not know what I have to endure sometimes from her."
Agatha thought her most discreet course was to sit down immediately and begin "I would that my love." Whilst she played and sang, she thought over what Sir Charles had just let slip. She had found him a pleasant companion, light-hearted, fond of music and fun, polite and considerate, appreciative of her talents, quick-witted without being oppressively clever, and, as a married man, disinterested in his attentions. But it now occurred to her that perhaps they had been a good deal together of late.
Sir Charles had by this time wandered from his part into hers; and he now recalled her to the music by stopping to ask whether he was right. Knowing by experience what his difficulty was likely to be, she gave him his note and went on. They had not been singing long when Jane came back and sat down, expressing a hope that her presence would not disturb them. It did disturb them. Agatha suspected that she had come there to watch them, and Sir Charles knew it. Besides, Lady Brandon, even when her mind was tranquil, was habitually restless. She could not speak because of the music, and, though she held an open book in her hand, she could not read and watch simultaneously. She gaped, and leaned to one end of the sofa until, on the point of overbalancing' she recovered herself with a prodigious bounce. The floor vibrated at her every movement. At last she could keep silence no longer.
"Oh, dear!" she said, yawning audibly. "It must be five o'clock at the very earliest."
Agatha turned round upon the piano-stool, feeling that music and Lady Brandon were incompatible. Sir Charles, for his guest's sake, tried hard to restrain his exasperation.
"Probably your watch will tell you," he said.
"Thank you for nothing," said Jane. "Agatha, where is Gertrude?"
"How can Miss Wylie possibly tell you where she is, Jane? I think you have gone mad to-day."
"She is most likely playing billiards with Mr. Erskine," said Agatha, interposing quickly to forestall a retort from Jane, with its usual sequel of a domestic squabble.
"I think it is very strange of Gertrude to pass the whole day with Chester in the billiard room," said Jane discontentedly.
"There is not the slightest impropriety in her doing so," said Sir Charles. "If our hospitality does not place Miss Lindsay above suspicion, the more shame for us. How would you feel if anyone else made such a remark?"
"Oh, stuff!" said Jane peevishly. "You are always preaching long rigmaroles about nothing at all. I did not say there was any impropriety about Gertrude. She is too proper to be pleasant, in my opinion."
Sir Charles, unable to trust himself further, frowned and left the room, Jane speeding him with a contemptuous laugh.
"Don't ever be such a fool as to get married," she said, when he was gone. She looked up as she spoke, and was alarmed to see Agatha seated on the pianoforte, with her ankles swinging in the old school fashion.
"Jane," she said, surveying her hostess coolly, "do you know what I would do if I were Sir Charles?"
Jane did not know.
"I would get a big stick, beat you black and blue, and then lock you up on bread and water for a week."
Jane half rose, red and angry. "Wh—why?" she said, relapsing upon the sofa.
"If I were a man, I would not, for mere chivalry's sake, let a woman treat me like a troublesome dog. You want a sound thrashing."
"I'd like to see anybody thrash me," said Jane, rising again and displaying her formidable person erect. Then she burst into tears, and said, "I won't have such things said to me in my own house. How dare you?"
"You deserve it for being jealous of me," said Agatha.
Jane's eyes dilated angrily. "I!—I!—jealous of you!" She looked round, as if for a missile. Not finding one, she sat down again, and said in a voice stifled with tears, "J—Jealous of YOU, indeed!"
"You have good reason to be, for he is fonder of me than of you."
Jane opened her mouth and eyes convulsively, but only uttered a gasp, and Agatha proceeded calmly, "I am polite to him, which you never are. When he speaks to me I allow him to finish his sentence without expressing, as you do, a foregone conclusion that it is not worth attending to. I do not yawn and talk whilst he is singing. When he converses with me on art or literature, about which he knows twice as much as I do, and at least ten times as much as you." (Jane gasped again) "I do not make a silly answer and turn to my neighbor at the other side with a remark about the tables or the weather. When he is willing to be pleased, as he always is, I am willing to be pleasant. And that is why he likes me."
"He does NOT like you. He is the same to everyone."
"Except his wife. He likes me so much that you, like a great goose as you are, came up here to watch us at our duets, and made yourself as disagreeable as you possibly could whilst I was making myself charming. The poor man was ashamed of you."
"He wasn't," said Jane, sobbing. "I didn't do anything. I didn't say anything. I won't bear it. I will get a divorce. I will—"
"You will mend your ways if you have any sense left," said Agatha remorselessly. "Do not make such a noise, or someone will come to see what is the matter, and I shall have to get down from the piano, where I am very comfortable."
"It is you who are jealous."
"Oh, is it, Jane? I have not allowed Sir Charles to fall in love with me yet, but I can do so very easily. What will you wager that he will not kiss me before to-morrow evening?"
"It will be very mean and nasty of you if he does. You seem to think that I can be treated like a child."
"So you are a child," said Agatha, descending from her perch and preparing to go. "An occasional slapping does you good."
"It is nothing to you whether I agree with my husband or not," said Jane with sudden fierceness.
"Not if you quarrel with him in private, as wellbred couples do. But when it occurs in my presence it makes me uncomfortable, and I object to being made uncomfortable."
"You would not be here at all if I had not asked you."
"Just think how dull the house would be without me, Jane!"
"Indeed! It was not dull before you came. Gertrude always behaved like a lady, at least."
"I am sorry that her example was so utterly lost on you."
"I won't bear it," said Jane with a sob and a plunge upon the sofa that made the lustres of the chandeliers rattle. "I wouldn't have asked you if I had thought you could be so hateful. I will never ask you again."
"I will make Sir Charles divorce you for incompatibility of temper and marry me. Then I shall have the place to myself."
"He can't divorce me for that, thank goodness. You don't know what you're talking about."
Agatha laughed. "Come," she said good-humoredly, "don't be an old ass, Jane. Wash your face before anyone sees it, and remember what I have told you about Sir Charles."
"It is very hard to be called an ass in one's own house."
"It is harder to be treated as one, like your husband. I am going to look for him in the billiard room."
Jane ran after her, and caught her by the sleeve.
"Agatha," she pleaded, "promise me that you won't be mean. Say that you won't make love to him."
"I will consider about it," replied Agatha gravely.
Jane uttered a groan and sank into a chair, which creaked at the shock. Agatha turned on the threshold, and seeing her shaking her head, pressing her eyes, and tapping with her heel in a restrained frenzy, said quickly,
"Here are the Waltons, and the Fitzgeorges, and Mr. Trefusis coming upstairs. How do you do, Mrs. Walton? Lady Brandon will be SO glad to see you. Good-evening, Mr. Fitzgeorge."
Jane sprang up, wiped her eyes, and, with her hands on her hair, smoothing it, rushed to a mirror. No visitors appearing, she perceived that she was, for perhaps the hundredth time in her life, the victim of an imposture devised by Agatha. She, gratified by the success of her attempt to regain her old ascendancy over Jane—she had made it with misgiving, notwithstanding her apparent confidence—went downstairs to the library, where she found Sir Charles gloomily trying to drown his domestic troubles in art criticism.
"I thought you were in the billiard room," said Agatha.
"I only peeped in," he replied; "but as I saw something particular going on, I thought it best to slip away, and I have been alone ever since."
The something particular which Sir Charles had not wished to interrupt was only a game of billiards.
It was the first opportunity Erskine had ever enjoyed of speaking to Gertrude at leisure and alone. Yet their conversation had never been so commonplace. She, liking the game, played very well and chatted indifferently; he played badly, and broached trivial topics in spite of himself. After an hour-and-a-half's play, Gertrude had announced that this game must be their last. He thought desperately that if he were to miss many more strokes the game must presently end, and an opportunity which might never recur pass beyond recall. He determined to tell her without preface that he adored her, but when he opened his lips a question came forth of its own accord relating to the Persian way of playing billiards. Gertrude had never been in Persia, but had seen some Eastern billiard cues in the India museum. Were not the Hindoos wonderful people for filigree work, and carpets, and such things? Did he not think the crookedness of their carpet patterns a blemish? Some people pretended to admire them, but was not that all nonsense? Was not the modern polished floor, with a rug in the middle, much superior to the old carpet fitted into the corners of the room? Yes. Enormously superior. Immensely—
"Why, what are you thinking of to-day, Mr. Erskine? You have played with my ball."
"I am thinking of you."
"What did you say?" said Gertrude, not catching the serious turn he had given to the conversation, and poising her cue for a stroke. "Oh! I am as bad as you; that was the worst stroke I ever made, I think. I beg your pardon; you said something just now."
"I forget. Nothing of any consequence." And he groaned at his own cowardice.
"Suppose we stop," she said. "There is no use in finishing the game if our hands are out. I am rather tired of it."
"Certainly—if you wish it."
"I will finish if you like."
"Not at all. What pleases you, pleases me."
Gertrude made him a little bow, and idly knocked the balls about with her cue. Erskine's eyes wandered, and his lip moved irresolutely. He had settled with himself that his declaration should be a frank one—heart to heart. He had pictured himself in the act of taking her hand delicately, and saying, "Gertrude, I love you. May I tell you so again?" But this scheme did not now seem practicable.
Gertrude, bending over the table, looked up in alarm.
"The present is as good an opportunity as I will—as I shall—as I will."
"Shall," said Gertrude.
"I beg your pardon?"
"SHALL," repeated Gertrude. "Did you ever study the doctrine of necessity?"
"The doctrine of necessity?" he said, bewildered.
Gertrude went to the other side of the table in pursuit of a ball. She now guessed what was coming, and was willing that it should come; not because she intended to accept, but because, like other young ladies experienced in such scenes, she counted the proposals of marriage she received as a Red Indian counts the scalps he takes.
"We have had a very pleasant time of it here," he said, giving up as inexplicable the relevance of the doctrine of necessity. "At least, I have."
"Well," said Gertrude, quick to resent a fancied allusion to her private discontent, "so have I."
"I am glad of that—more so than I can convey by words."
"Is it any business of yours?" she said, following the disagreeable vein he had unconsciously struck upon, and suspecting pity in his efforts to be sympathetic.
"I wish I dared hope so. The happiness of my visit has been due to you entirely."
"Indeed," said Gertrude, wincing as all the hard things Trefusis had told her of herself came into her mind at the heels of Erskine's unfortunate allusion to her power of enjoying herself.
"I hope I am not paining you," he said earnestly.
"I don't know what you are talking about," she said, standing erect with sudden impatience. "You seem to think that it is very easy to pain me."
"No," he said timidly, puzzled by the effect he had produced. "I fear you misunderstand me. I am very awkward. Perhaps I had better say no more." Gertrude, by turning away to put up her cue, signified that that was a point for him to consider; she not intending to trouble herself about it. When she faced him again, he was motionless and dejected, with a wistful expression like that of a dog that has proffered a caress and received a kick. Remorse, and a vague sense that there was something base in her attitude towards him, overcame her. She looked at him for an instant and left the room.
The look excited him. He did not understand it, nor attempt to understand it; but it was a look that he had never before seen in her face or in that of any other woman. It struck him as a momentary revelation of what he had written of in "The Patriot Martyrs" as
"The glorious mystery of a woman's heart,"
and it made him feel unfit for ordinary social intercourse. He hastened from the house, walked swiftly down the avenue to the lodge, where he kept his bicycle, left word there that he was going for an excursion and should probably not return in time for dinner, mounted, and sped away recklessly along the Riverside Road. In less than two minutes he passed the gate of Sallust's House, where he nearly ran over an old woman laden with a basket of coals, who put down her burthen to scream curses after him. Warned by this that his headlong pace was dangerous, he slackened it a little, and presently saw Trefusis lying prone on the river bank, with his cheeks propped on his elbows, reading intently. Erskine, who had presented him, a few days before, with a copy of "The Patriot Martyrs and other Poems," tried to catch a glimpse of the book over which Trefusis was so serious. It was a Blue Book, full of figures. Erskine rode on in disgust, consoling himself with the recollection of Gertrude's face.
The highway now swerved inland from the river, and rose to a steep acclivity, at the brow of which he turned and looked back. The light was growing ruddy, and the shadows were lengthening. Trefusis was still prostrate in the meadow, and the old woman was in a field, gathering hemlock.
Erskine raced down the hill at full speed, and did not look behind him again until he found himself at nightfall on the skirts of a town, where he purchased some beer and a sandwich, which he ate with little appetite. Gertrude had set up a disturbance within him which made him impatient of eating.
It was now dark. He was many miles from Brandon Beeches, and not sure of the way back. Suddenly he resolved to complete his unfinished declaration that evening. He now could not ride back fast enough to satisfy his impatience. He tried a short cut, lost himself, spent nearly an hour seeking the highroad, and at last came upon a railway station just in time to catch a train that brought him within a mile of his destination.
When he rose from the cushions of the railway carriage he found himself somewhat fatigued, and he mounted the bicycle stiffly. But his resolution was as ardent as ever, and his heart beat strongly as, after leaving his bicycle at the lodge, he walked up the avenue through the deep gloom beneath the beeches. Near the house, the first notes of "Grudel perche finora" reached him, and he stepped softly on to the turf lest his footsteps on the gravel should rouse the dogs and make them mar the harmony by barking. A rustle made him stop and listen. Then Gertrude's voice whispered through the darkness:
"What did you mean by what you said to me within?"
An extraordinary sensation shook Erskine; confused ideas of fairyland ran through his imagination. A bitter disappointment, like that of waking from a happy dream, followed as Trefusis's voice, more finely tuned than he had ever heard it before, answered,
"Merely that the expanse of stars above us is not more illimitable than my contempt for Miss Lindsay, nor brighter than my hopes of Gertrude."
"Miss Lindsay always to you, if you please, Mr. Trefusis."
"Miss Lindsay never to me, but only to those who cannot see through her to the soul within, which is Gertrude. There are a thousand Miss Lindsays in the world, formal and false. There is but one Gertrude."
"I am an unprotected girl, Mr. Trefusis, and you can call me what you please."
It occurred to Erskine that this was a fit occasion to rush forward and give Trefusis, whose figure he could now dimly discern, a black eye. But he hesitated, and the opportunity passed.
"Unprotected!" said Trefusis. "Why, you are fenced round and barred in with conventions, laws, and lies that would frighten the truth from the lips of any man whose faith in Gertrude was less strong than mine. Go to Sir Charles and tell him what I have said to Miss Lindsay, and within ten minutes I shall have passed these gates with a warning never to approach them again. I am in your power, and were I in Miss Lindsay's power alone, my shrift would be short. Happily, Gertrude, though she sees as yet but darkly, feels that Miss Lindsay is her bitterest foe."
"It is ridiculous. I am not two persons; I am only one. What does it matter to me if your contempt for me is as illimitable as the stars?"
"Ah, you remember that, do you? Whenever you hear a man talking about the stars you may conclude that he is either an astronomer or a fool. But you and a fine starry night would make a fool of any man."
"I don't understand you. I try to, but I cannot; or, if I guess, I cannot tell whether you are in earnest or not."
"I am very much in earnest. Abandon at once and for ever all misgivings that I am trifling with you, or passing an idle hour as men do when they find themselves in the company of beautiful women. I mean what I say literally, and in the deepest sense. You doubt me; we have brought society to such a state that we all suspect one another. But whatever is true will command belief sooner or later from those who have wit enough to comprehend truth. Now let me recall Miss Lindsay to consciousness by remarking that we have been out for ten minutes, and that our hostess is not the woman to allow our absence to pass without comment."
"Let us go in. Thank you for reminding me."
"Thank you for forgetting."
Erskine heard their footsteps retreating, and presently saw the two enter the glow of light that shone from the open window of the billiard room, through which they went indoors. Trefusis, a man whom he had seen that day in a beautiful landscape, blind to everything except a row of figures in a Blue Book, was his successful rival, although it was plain from the very sound of his voice that he did not—could not—love Gertrude. Only a poet could do that. Trefusis was no poet, but a sordid brute unlikely to inspire interest in anything more human than a public meeting, much less in a woman, much less again in a woman so ethereal as Gertrude. She was proud too, yet she had allowed the fellow to insult her—had forgiven him for the sake of a few broad compliments. Erskine grew angry and cynical. The situation did not suit his poetry. Instead of being stricken to the heart with a solemn sorrow, as a Patriot Martyr would have been under similar circumstances, he felt slighted and ridiculous. He was hardly convinced of what had seemed at first the most obvious feature of the case, Trefusis's inferiority to himself.
He stood under the trees until Trefusis reappeared on his way home, making, Erskine thought, as much noise with his heels on the gravel as a regiment of delicately bred men would have done. He stopped for a moment to make inquiry at the lodge as he went out; then his footsteps died away in the distance.
Erskine, chilled, stiff, and with a sensation of a bad cold coming on, went into the house, and was relieved to find that Gertrude had retired, and that Lady Brandon, though she had been sure that he had ridden into the river in the dark, had nevertheless provided a warm supper for him.
Erskine soon found plenty of themes for his newly begotten cynicism. Gertrude's manner towards him softened so much that he, believing her heart given to his rival, concluded that she was tempting him to make a proposal which she had no intention of accepting. Sir Charles, to whom he told what he had overheard in the avenue, professed sympathy, but was evidently pleased to learn that there was nothing serious in the attentions Trefusis paid to Agatha. Erskine wrote three bitter sonnets on hollow friendship and showed them to Sir Charles, who, failing to apply them to himself, praised them highly and showed them to Trefusis without asking the author's permission. Trefusis remarked that in a corrupt society expressions of dissatisfaction were always creditable to a writer's sensibility; but he did not say much in praise of the verse.
"Why has he taken to writing in this vein?" he said. "Has he been disappointed in any way of late? Has he proposed to Miss Lindsay and been rejected?"
"No," said Sir Charles surprised by this blunt reference to a subject they had never before discussed. "He does not intend to propose to Miss Lindsay."
"But he did intend to."
"He certainly did, but he has given up the idea."
"Why?" said Trefusis, apparently disapproving strongly of the renunciation.
Sir Charles shrugged his shoulders and did not reply.
"I am sorry to hear it. I wish you could induce him to change his mind. He is a nice fellow, with enough to live on comfortably, whilst he is yet what is called a poor man, so that she could feel perfectly disinterested in marrying him. It will do her good to marry without making a pecuniary profit by it; she will respect herself the more afterwards, and will neither want bread and butter nor be ashamed of her husband's origin, in spite of having married for love alone. Make a match of it if you can. I take an interest in the girl; she has good instincts."
Sir Charles's suspicion that Trefusis was really paying court to Agatha returned after this conversation, which he repeated to Erskine, who, much annoyed because his poems had been shown to a reader of Blue Books, thought it only a blind for Trefusis's design upon Gertrude. Sir Charles pooh-poohed this view, and the two friends were sharp with one another in discussing it. After dinner, when the ladies had left them, Sir Charles, repentant and cordial, urged Erskine to speak to Gertrude without troubling himself as to the sincerity of Trefusis. But Erskine, knowing himself ill able to brook a refusal, was loth to expose himself.
"If you had heard the tone of her voice when she asked him whether he was in earnest, you would not talk to me like this," he said despondently. "I wish he had never come here."
"Well, that, at least, was no fault of mine, my dear fellow," said Sir Charles. "He came among us against my will. And now that he appears to have been in the right—legally—about the field, it would look like spite if I cut him. Besides, he really isn't a bad man if he would only let the women alone."
"If he trifles with Miss Lindsay, I shall ask him to cross the Channel, and have a shot at him."
"I don't think he'd go," said Sir Charles dubiously. "If I were you, I would try my luck with Gertrude at once. In spite of what you heard, I don't believe she would marry a man of his origin. His money gives him an advantage, certainly, but Gertrude has sent richer men to the rightabout."
"Let the fellow have fair play," said Erskine. "I may be wrong, of course; all men are liable to err in judging themselves, but I think I could make her happier than he can."
Sir Charles was not so sure of that, but he cheerfully responded, "Certainly. He is not the man for her at all, and you are. He knows it, too."
"Hmf!" muttered Erskine, rising dejectedly. "Let's go upstairs."
"By-the-bye, we are to call on him to-morrow, to go through his house, and his collection of photographs. Photographs! Ha, ha! Damn his house!" said Erskine.
Next day they went together to Sallust's House. It stood in the midst of an acre of land, waste except a little kitchen garden at the rear. The lodge at the entrance was uninhabited, and the gates stood open, with dust and fallen leaves heaped up against them. Free ingress had thus been afforded to two stray ponies, a goat, and a tramp, who lay asleep in the grass. His wife sat near, watching him.
"I have a mind to turn back," said Sir Charles, looking about him in disgust. "The place is scandalously neglected. Look at that rascal asleep within full view of the windows."
"I admire his cheek," said Erskine. "Nice pair of ponies, too."
Sallust's House was square and painted cinnamon color. Beneath the cornice was a yellow frieze with figures of dancing children, imitated from the works of Donatello, and very unskilfully executed. There was a meagre portico of four columns, painted red, and a plain pediment, painted yellow. The colors, meant to match those of the walls, contrasted disagreeably with them, having been applied more recently, apparently by a color-blind artist. The door beneath the portico stood open. Sir Charles rang the bell, and an elderly woman answered it; but before they could address her, Trefusis appeared, clad in a painter's jacket of white jean. Following him in, they found that the house was a hollow square, enclosing a courtyard with a bath sunk in the middle, and a fountain in the centre of the bath. The courtyard, formerly open to the sky, was now roofed in with dusty glass; the nymph that had once poured out the water of the fountain was barren and mutilated; and the bath was partly covered in with loose boards, the exposed part accommodating a heap of coals in one corner, a heap of potatoes in another, a beer barrel, some old carpets, a tarpaulin, and a broken canoe. The marble pavement extended to the outer walls of the house, and was roofed in at the sides by the upper stories which were supported by fluted stone columns, much stained and chipped. The staircase, towards which Trefusis led his visitors, was a broad one at the end opposite the door, and gave access to a gallery leading to the upper rooms.
"This house was built in 11780 by an ancestor of my mother," said Trefusis. "He passed for a man of exquisite taste. He wished the place to be maintained forever—he actually used that expression in his will—as the family seat, and he collected a fine library here, which I found useful, as all the books came into my hands in good condition, most of them with the leaves uncut. Some people prize uncut copies of old editions; a dealer gave me three hundred and fifty pounds for a lot of them. I came into possession of a number of family fetishes—heirlooms, as they are called. There was a sword that one of my forbears wore at Edgehill and other battles in Charles the First's time. We fought on the wrong side, of course, but the sword fetched thirty-five shillings nevertheless. You will hardly believe that I was offered one hundred and fifty pounds for a gold cup worth about twenty-five, merely because Queen Elizabeth once drank from it. This is my study. It was designed for a banqueting hall."
They entered a room as long as the wall of the house, pierced on one side by four tall windows, between which square pillars, with Corinthian capitals supporting the cornice, were half sunk in the wall. There were similar pillars on the opposite side, but between them, instead of windows, were arched niches in which stood life-size plaster statues, chipped, broken, and defaced in an extraordinary fashion. The flooring, of diagonally set narrow boards, was uncarpeted and unpolished. The ceiling was adorned with frescoes, which at once excited Sir Charles's interest, and he noted with indignation that a large portion of the painting at the northern end had been destroyed and some glass roofing inserted. In another place bolts had been driven in to support the ropes of a trapeze and a few other pieces of gymnastic apparatus. The walls were whitewashed, and at about four feet from the ground a dark band appeared, produced by pencil memoranda and little sketches scribbled on the whitewash. One end of the apartment was unfurnished, except by the gymnastic apparatus, a photographer's camera, a ladder in the corner, and a common deal table with oil cans and paint pots upon it. At the other end a comparatively luxurious show was made by a large bookcase, an elaborate combination of bureau and writing desk, a rack with a rifle, a set of foils, and an umbrella in it, several folio albums on a table, some comfortable chairs and sofas, and a thick carpet under foot. Close by, and seeming much out of place, was a carpenter's bench with the usual implements and a number of boards of various thicknesses.
"This is a sort of comfort beyond the reach of any but a rich man," said Trefusis, turning and surprising his visitors in the act of exchanging glances of astonishment at his taste. "I keep a drawing-room of the usual kind for receiving strangers with whom it is necessary to be conventional, but I never enter it except on such occasions. What do you think of this for a study?"
"On my soul, Trefusis, I think you are mad," said Sir Charles. "The place looks as if it had stood a siege. How did you manage to break the statues and chip the walls so outrageously?"
Trefusis took a newspaper from the table and said, "Listen to this: 'In spite of the unfavorable nature of the weather, the sport of the Emperor and his guests in Styria has been successful. In three days 52 chamois and 79 stags and deer fell to 19 single-barrelled rifles, the Emperor allowing no more on this occasion.'
"I share the Emperor's delight in shooting, but I am no butcher, and do not need the royal relish of blood to my sport. And I do not share my ancestors' taste in statuary. Hence—" Here Trefusis opened a drawer, took out a pistol, and fired at the Hebe in the farthest niche.
"Well done!" said Erskine coolly, as the last fragment of Hebe's head crumbled at the touch of the bullet.
"Very fruitlessly done," said Trefusis. "I am a good shot, but of what use is it to me? None. I once met a gamekeeper who was a Methodist. He was a most eloquent speaker, but a bad shot. If he could have swapped talents with me I would have given him ten thousand pounds to boot willingly, although he would have profited as much as I by the exchange alone. I have no more desire or need to be a good shot than to be king of England, or owner of a Derby winner, or anything else equally ridiculous, and yet I never missed my aim in my life—thank blind fortune for nothing!"
"King of England!" said Erskine, with a scornful laugh, to show Trefusis that other people were as liberty-loving as he. "Is it not absurd to hear a nation boasting of its freedom and tolerating a king?"
"Oh, hang your republicanism, Chester!" said Sir Charles, who privately held a low opinion of the political side of the Patriot Martyrs.
"I won't be put down on that point," said Erskine. "I admire a man that kills a king. You will agree with me there, Trefusis, won't you?"
"Certainly not," said Trefusis. "A king nowadays is only a dummy put up to draw your fire off the real oppressors of society, and the fraction of his salary that he can spend as he likes is usually far too small for his risk, his trouble, and the condition of personal slavery to which he is reduced. What private man in England is worse off than the constitutional monarch? We deny him all privacy; he may not marry whom he chooses, consort with whom he prefers, dress according to his taste, or live where he pleases. I don't believe he may even eat or drink what he likes best; a taste for tripe and onions on his part would provoke a remonstrance from the Privy Council. We dictate everything except his thoughts and dreams, and even these he must keep to himself if they are not suitable, in our opinion, to his condition. The work we impose on him has all the hardship of mere task work; it is unfruitful, incessant, monotonous, and has to be transacted for the most part with nervous bores. We make his kingdom a treadmill to him, and drive him to and fro on the face of it. Finally, having taken everything else that men prize from him, we fall upon his character, and that of every person to whom he ventures to show favor. We impose enormous expenses on him, stint him, and then rail at his parsimony. We use him as I use those statues—stick him up in the place of honor for our greater convenience in disfiguring and abusing him. We send him forth through our crowded cities, proclaiming that he is the source of all good and evil in the nation, and he, knowing that many people believe it, knowing that it is a lie, and that he is powerless to shorten the working day by one hour, raise wages one penny, or annul the smallest criminal sentence, however unjust it may seem to him; knowing that every miner in the kingdom can manufacture dynamite, and that revolvers are sold for seven and sixpence apiece; knowing that he is not bullet proof, and that every king in Europe has been shot at in the streets; he must smile and bow and maintain an expression of gracious enjoyment whilst the mayor and corporation inflict upon him the twaddling address he has heard a thousand times before. I do not ask you to be loyal, Erskine; but I expect you, in common humanity, to sympathize with the chief figure in the pageant, who is no more accountable for the manifold evils and abominations that exist in his realm than the Lord Mayor is accountable for the thefts of the pickpockets who follow his show on the ninth of November."
Sir Charles laughed at the trouble Trefusis took to prove his case, and said soothingly, "My dear fellow, kings are used to it, and expect it, and like it."
"And probably do not see themselves as I see them, any more than common people do," assented Trefusis.
"What an exquisite face!" exclaimed Erskine suddenly, catching sight of a photograph in a rich gold and coral frame on a miniature easel draped with ruby velvet. Trefusis turned quickly, so evidently gratified that Sir Charles hastened to say, "Charming!" Then, looking at the portrait, he added, as if a little startled, "It certainly is an extraordinarily attractive face."
"Years ago," said Trefusis, "when I saw that face for the first time, I felt as you feel now."
Silence ensued, the two visitors looking at the portrait, Trefusis looking at them.
"Curious style of beauty," said Sir Charles at last, not quite so assuredly as before.
Trefusis laughed unpleasantly. "Do you recognize the artist—the enthusiastic amateur—in her?" he said, opening another drawer and taking out a bundle of drawings, which he handed to be examined.
"Very clever. Very clever indeed," said Sir Charles. "I should like to meet the lady."
"I have often been on the point of burning them," said Trefusis; "but there they are, and there they are likely to remain. The portrait has been much admired."
"Can you give us an introduction to the original, old fellow?" said Erskine.
"No, happily. She is dead."
Disagreeably shocked, they looked at him for a moment with aversion. Then Erskine, turning with pity and disappointment to the picture, said, "Poor girl! Was she married?"
"Yes. To me."
"Mrs. Trefusis!" exclaimed Sir Charles. "Ah! Dear me!"
Erskine, with proof before him that it was possible for a beautiful girl to accept Trefusis, said nothing.
"I keep her portrait constantly before me to correct my natural amativeness. I fell in love with her and married her. I have fallen in love once or twice since but a glance at my lost Hetty has cured me of the slightest inclination to marry."
Sir Charles did not reply. It occurred to him that Lady Brandon's portrait, if nothing else were left of her, might be useful in the same way.
"Come, you will marry again one of these days," said Erskine, in a forced tone of encouragement.
"It is possible. Men should marry, especially rich men. But I assure you I have no present intention of doing so."
Erskine's color deepened, and he moved away to the table where the albums lay.
"This is the collection of photographs I spoke of," said Trefusis, following him and opening one of the books. "I took many of them myself under great difficulties with regard to light—the only difficulty that money could not always remove. This is a view of my father's house—or rather one of his houses. It cost seventy-five thousand pounds."
"Very handsome indeed," said Sir Charles, secretly disgusted at being invited to admire a photograph, such as house agents exhibit, of a vulgarly designed country house, merely because it had cost seventy-five thousand pounds. The figures were actually written beneath the picture.
"This is the drawing-room, and this one of the best bedrooms. In the right-hand corner of the mount you will see a note of the cost of the furniture, fittings, napery, and so forth. They were of the most luxurious description."
"Very interesting," said Sir Charles, hardly disguising the irony of the comment.
"Here is a view—this is the first of my own attempts—of the apartment of one of the under servants. It is comfortable and spacious, and solidly furnished."
"So I perceive."
"These are the stables. Are they not handsome?"
"Palatial. Quite palatial."
"There is every luxury that a horse could desire, including plenty of valets to wait on him. You are noting the figures, I hope. There is the cost of the building and the expenditure per horse per annum."
"Here is the exterior of a house. What do you think of it?"
"It is rather picturesque in its dilapidation."
"Picturesque! Would you like to live in it?"
"No," said Erskine. "I don't see anything very picturesque about it. What induced you to photograph such a wretched old rookery?"
"Here is a view of the best room in it. Photography gives you a fair idea of the broken flooring and patched windows, but you must imagine the dirt and the odor of the place. Some of the stains are weather stains, others came from smoke and filth. The landlord of the house holds it from a peer and lets it out in tenements. Three families occupied that room when I photographed it. You will see by the figures in the corner that it is more profitable to the landlord than an average house in Mayfair. Here is the cellar, let to a family for one and sixpence a week, and considered a bargain. The sun never shines there, of course. I took it by artificial light. You may add to the rent the cost of enough bad beer to make the tenant insensible to the filth of the place. Beer is the chloroform that enables the laborer to endure the severe operation of living; that is why we can always assure one another over our wine that the rascal's misery is due to his habit of drinking. We are down on him for it, because, if he could bear his life without beer, we should save his beer-money—get him for lower wages. In short, we should be richer and he soberer. Here is the yard; the arrangements are indescribable. Seven of the inhabitants of that house had worked for years in my father's mill. That is, they had created a considerable part of the vast sums of money for drawing your attention to which you were disgusted with me just now."
"Not at all," said Sir Charles faintly.
"You can see how their condition contrasts with that of my father's horses. The seven men to whom I have alluded, with three hundred others, were thrown destitute upon the streets by this." (Here he turned over a leaf and displayed a photograph of an elaborate machine.) "It enabled my father to dispense with their services, and to replace them by a handful of women and children. He had bought the patent of the machine for fifty pounds from the inventor, who was almost ruined by the expenses of his ingenuity, and would have sacrificed anything for a handful of ready money. Here is a portrait of my father in his masonic insignia. He believed that freemasons generally get on in the world, and as the main object of his life was to get on, he joined them, and wanted me to do the same. But I object to pretended secret societies and hocus pocus, and would not. You see what he was—a portly, pushing, egotistical tradesman. Mark the successful man, the merchant prince with argosies on every sea, the employer of thousands of hands, the munificent contributor to public charities, the churchwarden, the member of parliament, and the generous patron of his relatives his self-approbation struggling with the instinctive sense of baseness in the money-hunter, the ignorant and greedy filcher of the labor of others, the seller of his own mind and manhood for luxuries and delicacies that he was too lowlived to enjoy, and for the society of people who made him feel his inferiority at every turn."
"And the man to whom you owe everything you possess," said Erskine boldly.
"I possess very little. Everything he left me, except a few pictures, I spent long ago, and even that was made by his slaves and not by him. My wealth comes day by day fresh from the labor of the wretches who live in the dens I have just shown you, or of a few aristocrats of labor who are within ten shillings a week of being worse off. However, there is some excuse for my father. Once, at an election riot, I got into a free fight. I am a peaceful man, but as I had either to fight or be knocked down and trampled upon, I exchanged blows with men who were perhaps as peacefully disposed as I. My father, launched into a free competition (free in the sense that the fight is free: that is, lawless)—my father had to choose between being a slave himself and enslaving others. He chose the latter, and as he was applauded and made much of for succeeding, who dare blame him? Not I. Besides, he did something to destroy the anarchy that enabled him to plunder society with impunity. He furnished me, its enemy, with the powerful weapon of a large fortune. Thus our system of organizing industry sometimes hatches the eggs from which its destroyers break. Does Lady Brandon wear much lace?"
"I—No; that is—How the deuce do I know, Trefusis? What an extraordinary question!"
"This is a photograph of a lace school. It was a filthy room, twelve feet square. It was paved with brick, and the children were not allowed to wear their boots, lest the lace should get muddy. However, as there were twenty of them working there for fifteen hours a day—all girls—they did not suffer much from cold. They were pretty tightly packed—may be still, for aught I know. They brought three or four shillings a week sometimes to their fond parents; and they were very quick-fingered little creatures, and stuck intensely to their work, as the overseer always hit them when they looked up or—"
"Trefusis," said Sir Charles, turning away from the table, "I beg your pardon, but I have no appetite for horrors. You really must not ask me to go through your collection. It is no doubt very interesting, but I can't stand it. Have you nothing pleasant to entertain me with?"
"Pooh! you are squeamish. However, as you are a novice, let us put off the rest until you are seasoned. The pictures are not all horrible. Each book refers to a different country. That one contains illustrations of modern civilization in Germany, for instance. That one is France; that, British India. Here you have the United States of America, home of liberty, theatre of manhood suffrage, kingless and lordless land of Protection, Republicanism, and the realized Radical Programme, where all the black chattel slaves were turned into wage-slaves (like my father's white fellows) at a cost of 800,000 lives and wealth incalculable. You and I are paupers in comparison with the great capitalists of that country, where the laborers fight for bones with the Chinamen, like dogs. Some of these great men presented me with photographs of their yachts and palaces, not anticipating the use to which I would put them. Here are some portraits that will not harrow your feelings. This is my mother, a woman of good family, every inch a lady. Here is a Lancashire lass, the daughter of a common pitman. She has exactly the same physical characteristics as my well-born mother—the same small head, delicate features, and so forth; they might be sisters. This villainous-looking pair might be twin brothers, except that there is a trace of good humor about the one to the right. The good-humored one is a bargee on the Lyvern Canal. The other is one of the senior noblemen of the British Peerage. They illustrate the fact that Nature, even when perverted by generations of famine fever, ignores the distinctions we set up between men. This group of men and women, all tolerably intelligent and thoughtful looking, are so-called enemies of society—Nihilists, Anarchists, Communards, members of the International, and so on. These other poor devils, worried, stiff, strumous, awkward, vapid, and rather coarse, with here and there a passably pretty woman, are European kings, queens, grand-dukes, and the like. Here are ship-captains, criminals, poets, men of science, peers, peasants, political economists, and representatives of dozens of degrees. The object of the collection is to illustrate the natural inequality of man, and the failure of our artificial inequality to correspond with it."
"It seems to me a sort of infernal collection for the upsetting of people's ideas," said Erskine. "You ought to label it 'A Portfolio of Paradoxes.'"
"In a rational state of society they would be paradoxes; but now the time gives them proof—like Hamlet's paradox. It is, however, a collection of facts; and I will give no fanciful name to it. You dislike figures, don't you?"
"Unless they are by Phidias, yes."
"Here are a few, not by Phidias. This is the balance sheet of an attempt I made some years ago to carry out the idea of an International Association of Laborers—commonly known as THE International—or union of all workmen throughout the world in defence of the interests of labor. You see the result. Expenditure, four thousand five hundred pounds. Subscriptions received from working-men, twenty-two pounds seven and ten pence halfpenny. The British workmen showed their sense of my efforts to emancipate them by accusing me of making a good thing out of the Association for my own pocket, and by mobbing and stoning me twice. I now help them only when they show some disposition to help themselves. I occupy myself partly in working out a scheme for the reorganization of industry, and partly in attacking my own class, women and all, as I am attacking you."
"There is little use in attacking us, I fear," said Sir Charles.
"Great use," said Trefusis confidently. "You have a very different opinion of our boasted civilization now from that which you held when I broke your wall down and invited those Land Nationalization zealots to march across your pleasure ground. You have seen in my album something you had not seen an hour ago, and you are consequently not quite the same man you were an hour ago. My pictures stick in the mind longer than your scratchy etchings, or the leaden things in which you fancy you see tender harmonies in gray. Erskine's next drama may be about liberty, but its Patriot Martyrs will have something better to do than spout balderdash against figure-head kings who in all their lives never secretly plotted as much dastardly meanness, greed, cruelty, and tyranny as is openly voted for in London by every half-yearly meeting of dividend-consuming vermin whose miserable wage-slaves drudge sixteen hours out of the twenty-four."
"What is going to be the end of it all?" said Sir Charles, a little dazed.
"Socialism or Smash. Socialism if the race has at last evolved the faculty of coordinating the functions of a society too crowded and complex to be worked any longer on the old haphazard private-property system. Unless we reorganize our society socialistically—humanly a most arduous and magnificent enterprise, economically a most simple and sound one—Free Trade by itself will ruin England, and I will tell you exactly how. When my father made his fortune we had the start of all other nations in the organization of our industry and in our access to iron and coal. Other nations bought our products for less than they must have spent to raise them at home, and yet for so much more than they cost us, that profits rolled in Atlantic waves upon our capitalists. When the workers, by their trades-unions, demanded a share of the luck in the form of advanced wages, it paid better to give them the little they dared to ask than to stop gold-gathering to fight and crush them. But now our customers have set up in their own countries improved copies of our industrial organization, and have discovered places where iron and coal are even handier than they are by this time in England. They produce for themselves, or buy elsewhere, what they formerly bought from us. Our profits are vanishing, our machinery is standing idle, our workmen are locked out. It pays now to stop the mills and fight and crush the unions when the men strike, no longer for an advance, but against a reduction. Now that these unions are beaten, helpless, and drifting to bankruptcy as the proportion of unemployed men in their ranks becomes greater, they are being petted and made much of by our class; an infallible sign that they are making no further progress in their duty of destroying us. The small capitalists are left stranded by the ebb; the big ones will follow the tide across the water, and rebuild their factories where steam power, water power, labor power, and transport are now cheaper than in England, where they used to be cheapest. The workers will emigrate in pursuit of the factory, but they will multiply faster than they emigrate, and be told that their own exorbitant demand for wages is driving capital abroad, and must continue to do so whilst there is a Chinaman or a Hindoo unemployed to underbid them. As the British factories are shut up, they will be replaced by villas; the manufacturing districts will become fashionable resorts for capitalists living on the interest of foreign investments; the farms and sheep runs will be cleared for deer forests. All products that can in the nature of things be manufactured elsewhere than where they are consumed will be imported in payment of deer-forest rents from foreign sportsmen, or of dividends due to shareholders resident in England, but holding shares in companies abroad, and these imports will not be paid for by ex ports, because rent and interest are not paid for at all—a fact which the Free Traders do not yet see, or at any rate do not mention, although it is the key to the whole mystery of their opponents. The cry for Protection will become wild, but no one will dare resort to a demonstrably absurd measure that must raise prices before it raises wages, and that has everywhere failed to benefit the worker. There will be no employment for anyone except in doing things that must be done on the spot, such as unpacking and distributing the imports, ministering to the proprietors as domestic servants, or by acting, preaching, paving, lighting, housebuilding, and the rest; and some of these, as the capitalist comes to regard ostentation as vulgar, and to enjoy a simpler life, will employ fewer and fewer people. A vast proletariat, beginning with a nucleus of those formerly employed in export trades, with their multiplying progeny, will be out of employment permanently. They will demand access to the land and machinery to produce for themselves. They will be refused. They will break a few windows and be dispersed with a warning to their leaders. They will burn a few houses and murder a policeman or two, and then an example will be made of the warned. They will revolt, and be shot down with machine-guns—emigrated—exterminated anyhow and everyhow; for the proprietary classes have no idea of any other means of dealing with the full claims of labor. You yourself, though you would give fifty pounds to Jansenius's emigration fund readily enough, would call for the police, the military, and the Riot Act, if the people came to Brandon Beeches and bade you turn out and work for your living with the rest. Well, the superfluous proletariat destroyed, there will remain a population of capitalists living on gratuitous imports and served by a disaffected retinue. One day the gratuitous imports will stop in consequence of the occurrence abroad of revolution and repudiation, fall in the rate of interest, purchase of industries by governments for lump sums, not reinvestable, or what not. Our capitalist community is then thrown on the remains of the last dividend, which it consumes long before it can rehabilitate its extinct machinery of production in order to support itself with its own hands. Horses, dogs, cats, rats, blackberries, mushrooms, and cannibalism only postpone—"
"Ha! ha! ha!" shouted Sir Charles. "On my honor, I thought you were serious at first, Trefusis. Come, confess, old chap; it's all a fad of yours. I half suspected you of being a bit of a crank." And he winked at Erskine.
"What I have described to you is the inevitable outcome of our present Free Trade policy without Socialism. The theory of Free Trade is only applicable to systems of exchange, not to systems of spoliation. Our system is one of spoliation, and if we don't abandon it, we must either return to Protection or go to smash by the road I have just mapped. Now, sooner than let the Protectionists triumph, the Cobden Club itself would blow the gaff and point out to the workers that Protection only means compelling the proprietors of England to employ slaves resident in England and therefore presumably—though by no means necessarily—Englishmen. This would open the eyes of the nation at last to the fact that England is not their property. Once let them understand that and they would soon make it so. When England is made the property of its inhabitants collectively, England becomes socialistic. Artificial inequality will vanish then before real freedom of contract; freedom of competition, or unhampered emulation, will keep us moving ahead; and Free Trade will fulfil its promises at last."
"And the idlers and loafers," said Erskine. "What of them?"
"You and I, in fact," said Trefusis, "die of starvation, I suppose, unless we choose to work, or unless they give us a little out-door relief in consideration of our bad bringing-up."
"Do you mean that they will plunder us?" said Sir Charles.
"I mean that they will make us stop plundering them. If they hesitate to strip us naked, or to cut our throats if we offer them the smallest resistance, they will show us more mercy than we ever showed them. Consider what we have done to get our rents in Ireland and Scotland, and our dividends in Egypt, if you have already forgotten my photographs and their lesson in our atrocities at home. Why, man, we murder the great mass of these toilers with overwork and hardship; their average lifetime is not half as long as ours. Human nature is the same in them as in us. If we resist them, and succeed in restoring order, as we call it, we will punish them mercilessly for their insubordination, as we did in Paris in 1871, where, by-the-bye, we taught them the folly of giving their enemies quarter. If they beat us, we shall catch it, and serve us right. Far better turn honest at once and avert bloodshed. Eh, Erskine?"
Erskine was considering what reply he should make, when Trefusis disconcerted him by ringing a bell. Presently the elderly woman appeared, pushing before her an oblong table mounted on wheels, like a barrow.
"Thank you," said Trefusis, and dismissed her. "Here is some good wine, some good water, some good fruit, and some good bread. I know that you cling to wine as to a good familiar creature. As for me, I make no distinction between it and other vegetable poisons. I abstain from them all. Water for serenity, wine for excitement. I, having boiling springs of excitement within myself, am never at a loss for it, and have only to seek serenity. However," (here he drew a cork), "a generous goblet of this will make you feel like gods for half an hour at least. Shall we drink to your conversion to Socialism?"
Sir Charles shook his head.
"Come, Mr. Donovan Brown, the great artist, is a Socialist, and why should not you be one?"
"Donovan Brown!" exclaimed Sir Charles with interest. "Is it possible? Do you know him personally?"
"Here are several letters from him. You may read them; the mere autograph of such a man is interesting."
Sir Charles took the letters and read them earnestly, Erskine reading over his shoulder.
"I most cordially agree with everything he says here," said Sir Charles. "It is quite true, quite true."
"Of course you agree with us. Donovan Brown's eminence as an artist has gained me one recruit, and yours as a baronet will gain me some more."
"But what?" said Trefusis, deftly opening one of the albums at a photograph of a loathsome room.
"You are against that, are you not? Donovan Brown is against it, and I am against it. You may disagree with us in everything else, but there you are at one with us. Is it not so?"
"But that may be the result of drunkenness, improvidence, or—"
"My father's income was fifty times as great as that of Donovan Brown. Do you believe that Donovan Brown is fifty times as drunken and improvident as my father was?"
"Certainly not. I do not deny that there is much in what you urge. Still, you ask me to take a rather important step."
"Not a bit of it. I don't ask you to subscribe to, join, or in any way pledge yourself to any society or conspiracy whatsoever. I only want your name for private mention to cowards who think Socialism right, but will not say so because they do not think it respectable. They will not be ashamed of their convictions when they learn that a baronet shares them. Socialism offers you something already, you see; a good use for your hitherto useless title."
Sir Charles colored a little, conscious that the example of his favorite painter had influenced him more than his own conviction or the arguments of Trefusis.
"What do you think, Chester?" he said. "Will you join?"
"Erskine is already committed to the cause of liberty by his published writings," said Trefusis. "Three of the pamphlets on that shelf contain quotations from 'The Patriot Martyrs.'"
Erskine blushed, flattered by being quoted; an attention that had been shown him only once before, and then by a reviewer with the object of proving that the Patriot Martyrs were slovenly in their grammar.
"Come!" said Trefusis. "Shall I write to Donovan Brown that his letters have gained the cordial assent and sympathy of Sir Charles Brandon?"
"Certainly, certainly. That is, if my unknown name would be of the least interest to him."
"Good," said Trefusis, filling his glass with water. "Erskine, let us drink to our brother Social Democrat."
Erskine laughed loudly, but not heartily. "What an ass you are, Brandon!" he said. "You, with a large landed estate, and bags of gold invested in railways, calling yourself a Social Democrat! Are you going to sell out and distribute—to sell all that thou hast and give to the poor?"
"Not a penny," replied Trefusis for him promptly. "A man cannot be a Christian in this country. I have tried it and found it impossible both in law and in fact. I am a capitalist and a landholder. I have railway shares, mining shares, building shares, bank shares, and stock of most kinds; and a great trouble they are to me. But these shares do not represent wealth actually in existence; they are a mortgage on the labor of unborn generations of laborers, who must work to keep me and mine in idleness and luxury. If I sold them, would the mortgage be cancelled and the unborn generations released from its thrall? No. It would only pass into the hands of some other capitalist, and the working class would be no better off for my self-sacrifice. Sir Charles cannot obey the command of Christ; I defy him to do it. Let him give his land for a public park; only the richer classes will have leisure to enjoy it. Plant it at the very doors of the poor, so that they may at last breathe its air, and it will raise the value of the neighboring houses and drive the poor away. Let him endow a school for the poor, like Eton or Christ's Hospital, and the rich will take it for their own children as they do in the two instances I have named. Sir Charles does not want to minister to poverty, but to abolish it. No matter how much you give to the poor, everything except a bare subsistence wage will be taken from them again by force. All talk of practicing Christianity, or even bare justice, is at present mere waste of words. How can you justly reward the laborer when you cannot ascertain the value of what he makes, owing to the prevalent custom of stealing it? I know this by experience. I wanted to pay a just price for my wife's tomb, but I could not find out its value, and never shall. The principle on which we farm out our national industry to private marauders, who recompense themselves by black-mail, so corrupts and paralyzes us that we cannot be honest even when we want to. And the reason we bear it so calmly is that very few of us really want to."
"I must study this question of value," said Sir Charles dubiously, refilling his goblet. "Can you recommend me a good book on the subject?"
"Any good treatise on political economy will do," said Trefusis. "In economics all roads lead to Socialism, although in nine cases out of ten, so far, the economist doesn't recognize his destination, and incurs the malediction pronounced by Jeremiah on those who justify the wicked for reward. I will look you out a book or two. And if you will call on Donovan Brown the next time you are in London, he will be delighted, I know. He meets with very few who are capable of sympathizing with him from both his points of view—social and artistic."
Sir Charles brightened on being reminded of Donovan Brown. "I shall esteem an introduction to him a great honor," he said. "I had no idea that he was a friend of yours."
"I was a very practical young Socialist when I first met him," said Trefusis. "When Brown was an unknown and wretchedly poor man, my mother, at the petition of a friend of his, charitably bought one of his pictures for thirty pounds, which he was very glad to get. Years afterwards, when my mother was dead, and Brown famous, I was offered eight hundred pounds for this picture, which was, by-the-bye, a very bad one in my opinion. Now, after making the usual unjust allowance for interest on thirty pounds for twelve years or so that had elapsed, the sale of the picture would have brought me in a profit of over seven hundred and fifty pounds, an unearned increment to which I had no righteous claim. My solicitor, to whom I mentioned the matter, was of opinion that I might justifiably pocket the seven hundred and fifty pounds as reward for my mother's benevolence in buying a presumably worthless picture from an obscure painter. But he failed to convince me that I ought to be paid for my mother's virtues, though we agreed that neither I nor my mother had received any return in the shape of pleasure in contemplating the work, which had deteriorated considerably by the fading of the colors since its purchase. At last I went to Brown's studio with the picture, and told him that it was worth nothing to me, as I thought it a particularly bad one, and that he might have it back again for fifteen pounds, half the first price. He at once told me that I could get from any dealer more for it than he could afford to give me; but he told me too that I had no right to make a profit out of his work, and that he would give me the original price of thirty pounds. I took it, and then sent him the man who had offered me the eight hundred. To my discomfiture Brown refused to sell it on any terms, because he considered it unworthy of his reputation. The man bid up to fifteen hundred, but Brown held out; and I found that instead of putting seven hundred and seventy pounds into his pocket I had taken thirty out of it. I accordingly offered to return the thirty pieces. Brown, taking the offer as an insult, declined all further communication with me. I then insisted on the matter being submitted to arbitration, and demanded fifteen hundred pounds as the full exchange value of the picture. All the arbitrators agreed that this was monstrous, whereupon I contended that if they denied my right to the value in exchange, they must admit my right to the value in use. They assented to this after putting off their decision for a fortnight in order to read Adam Smith and discover what on earth I meant by my values in use and exchange. I now showed that the picture had no value in use to me, as I disliked it, and that therefore I was entitled to nothing, and that Brown must take back the thirty pounds. They were glad to concede this also to me, as they were all artist friends of Brown, and wished him not to lose money by the transaction, though they of course privately thought that the picture was, as I described it, a bad one. After that Brown and I became very good friends. He tolerated my advances, at first lest it should seem that he was annoyed by my disparagement of his work. Subsequently he fell into my views much as you have done."
"That is very interesting," said Sir Charles. "What a noble thing—refusing fifteen hundred pounds! He could ill afford it, probably."
"Heroic—according to nineteenth century notions of heroism. Voluntarily to throw away a chance of making money! that is the ne plus ultra of martyrdom. Brown's wife was extremely angry with him for doing it."
"It is an interesting story—or might be made so," said Erskine. "But you make my head spin with your confounded exchange values and stuff. Everything is a question of figures with you."
"That comes of my not being a poet," said Trefusis. "But we Socialists need to study the romantic side of our movement to interest women in it. If you want to make a cause grow, instruct every woman you meet in it. She is or will one day be a wife, and will contradict her husband with scraps of your arguments. A squabble will follow. The son will listen, and will be set thinking if he be capable of thought. And so the mind of the people gets leavened. I have converted many young women. Most of them know no more of the economic theory of Socialism than they know of Chaldee; but they no longer fear or condemn its name. Oh, I assure you that much can be done in that way by men who are not afraid of women, and who are not in too great a hurry to see the harvest they have sown for."
"Take care. Some of your lady proselytes may get the better of you some day. The future husband to be contradicted may be Sidney Trefusis. Ha! ha! ha!" Sir Charles had emptied a second large goblet of wine, and was a little flushed and boisterous.
"No," said Trefusis, "I have had enough of love myself, and am not likely to inspire it. Women do not care for men to whom, as Erskine says, everything is a question of figures. I used to flirt with women; now I lecture them, and abhor a man-flirt worse than I do a woman one. Some more wine? Oh, you must not waste the remainder of this bottle."
"I think we had better go, Brandon," said Erskine, his mistrust of Trefusis growing. "We promised to be back before two."
"So you shall," said Trefusis. "It is not yet a quarter past one. By-the-bye, I have not shown you Donovan Brown's pet instrument for the regeneration of society. Here it is. A monster petition praying that the holding back from the laborer of any portion of the net value produced by his labor be declared a felony. That is all."
Erskine nudged Sir Charles, who said hastily, "Thank you, but I had rather not sign anything."
"A baronet sign such a petition!" exclaimed Trefusis. "I did not think of asking you. I only show it to you as an interesting historical document, containing the autographs of a few artists and poets. There is Donovan Brown's for example. It was he who suggested the petition, which is not likely to do much good, as the thing cannot be done in any such fashion However, I have promised Brown to get as many signatures as I can; so you may as well sign it, Erskine. It says nothing in blank verse about the holiness of slaying a tyrant, but it is a step in the right direction. You will not stick at such a trifle—unless the reviews have frightened you. Come, your name and address."
Erskine shook his head.
"Do you then only commit yourself to revolutionary sentiments when there is a chance of winning fame as a poet by them?"
"I will not sign, simply because I do not choose to," said Erskine warmly.
"My dear fellow," said Trefusis, almost affectionately, "if a man has a conscience he can have no choice in matters of conviction. I have read somewhere in your book that the man who will not shed his blood for the liberty of his brothers is a coward and a slave. Will you not shed a drop of ink—my ink, too—for the right of your brothers to the work of their hands? I at first sight did not care to sign this petition, because I would as soon petition a tiger to share his prey with me as our rulers to relax their grip of the stolen labor they live on. But Donovan Brown said to me, 'You have no choice. Either you believe that the laborer should have the fruit of his labor or you do not. If you do, put your conviction on record, even if it should be as useless as Pilate's washing his hands.' So I signed."
"Donovan Brown was right," said Sir Charles. "I will sign." And he did so with a flourish.
"Brown will be delighted," said Trefusis. "I will write to him to-day that I have got another good signature for him."
"Two more," said Sir Charles. "You shall sign, Erskine; hang me if you shan't! It is only against rascals that run away without paying their men their wages."
"Or that don't pay them in full," observed Trefusis, with a curious smile. "But do not sign if you feel uncomfortable about it."
"If you don't sign after me, you are a sneak, Chester," said Sir Charles.
"I don't know what it means," said Erskine, wavering. "I don't understand petitions."
"It means what it says; you cannot be held responsible for any meaning that is not expressed in it," said Trefusis. "But never mind. You mistrust me a little, I fancy, and would rather not meddle with my petitions; but you will think better of that as you grow used to me. Meanwhile, there is no hurry. Don't sign yet."
"Nonsense! I don't doubt your good faith," said Erskine, hastily disavowing suspicions which he felt but could not account for. "Here goes!" And he signed.
"Well done!" said Trefusis. "This will make Brown happy for the rest of the month."
"It is time for us to go now," said Erskine gloomily.
"Look in upon me at any time; you shall be welcome," said Trefusis. "You need not stand upon any sort of ceremony."
Then they parted; Sir Charles assuring Trefusis that he had never spent a more interesting morning, and shaking hands with him at considerable length three times. Erskine said little until he was in the Riverside Road with his friend, when he suddenly burst out:
"What the devil do you mean by drinking two tumblers of such staggering stuff at one o'clock in the day in the house of a dangerous man like that? I am very sorry I went into the fellow's place. I had misgivings about it, and they have been fully borne out."
"How so?" said Sir Charles, taken aback.
"He has overreached us. I was a deuced fool to sign that paper, and so were you. It was for that that he invited us."
"Rubbish, my dear boy. It was not his paper, but Donovan Brown's."
"I doubt it. Most likely he talked Brown into signing it just as he talked us. I tell you his ways are all crooked, like his ideas. Did you hear how he lied about Miss Lindsay?"
"Oh, you were mistaken about that. He does not care two straws for her or for anyone."
"Well, if you are satisfied, I am not. You would not be in such high spirits over it if you had taken as little wine as I."
"Pshaw! you're too ridiculous. It was capital wine. Do you mean to say I am drunk?"
"No. But you would not have signed if you had not taken that second goblet. If you had not forced me—I could not get out of it after you set the example—I would have seen him d—d sooner than have had anything to do with his petition."
"I don't see what harm can come of it," said Sir Charles, braving out some secret disquietude.
"I will never go into his house again," said Erskine moodily. "We were just like two flies in a spider's web."
Meanwhile, Trefusis was fulfilling his promise to write to Donovan Brown.
"Dear Brown: I have spent the forenoon angling for a couple of very young fish, and have landed them with more trouble than they are worth. One has gaudy scales: he is a baronet, and an amateur artist, save the mark. All my arguments and my little museum of photographs were lost on him; but when I mentioned your name, and promised him an introduction to you, he gorged the bait greedily. He was half drunk when he signed; and I should not have let him touch the paper if I had not convinced myself beforehand that he means well, and that my wine had only freed his natural generosity from his conventional cowardice and prejudice. We must get his name published in as many journals as possible as a signatory to the great petition; it will draw on others as your name drew him. The second novice, Chichester Erskine, is a young poet. He will not be of much use to us, though he is a devoted champion of liberty in blank verse, and dedicates his works to Mazzini, etc. He signed reluctantly. All this hesitation is the uncertainty that comes of ignorance; they have not found out the truth for themselves, and are afraid to trust me, matters having come to the pass at which no man dares trust his fellow.
"I have met a pretty young lady here who might serve you as a model for Hypatia. She is crammed with all the prejudices of the peerage, but I am effecting a cure. I have set my heart on marrying her to Erskine, who, thinking that I am making love to her on my own account, is jealous. The weather is pleasant here, and I am having a merry life of it, but I find myself too idle. Etc., etc., etc."
One sunny forenoon, as Agatha sat reading on the doorstep of the conservatory, the shadow of her parasol deepened, and she, looking up for something denser than the silk of it, saw Trefusis.
She offered him no further greeting, having fallen in with his habit of dispensing, as far as possible, with salutations and ceremonies. He seemed in no hurry to speak, and so, after a pause, she began, "Sir Charles—"
"Is gone to town," he said. "Erskine is out on his bicycle. Lady Brandon and Miss Lindsay have gone to the village in the wagonette, and you have come out here to enjoy the summer sun and read rubbish. I know all your news already."
"You are very clever, and, as usual, wrong. Sir Charles has not gone to town. He has only gone to the railway station for some papers; he will be back for luncheon. How do you know so much of our affairs?"
"I was on the roof of my house with a field-glass. I saw you come out and sit down here. Then Sir Charles passed. Then Erskine. Then Lady Brandon, driving with great energy, and presenting a remarkable contrast to the disdainful repose of Gertrude."
"Gertrude! I like your cheek."
"You mean that you dislike my presumption."
"No, I think cheek a more expressive word than presumption; and I mean that I like it—that it amuses me."
"Really! What are you reading?"
"Rubbish, you said just now. A novel."
"That is, a lying story of two people who never existed, and who would have acted very differently if they had existed."
"Could you not imagine something just as amusing for yourself?"
"Perhaps so; but it would be too much trouble. Besides, cooking takes away one's appetite for eating. I should not relish stories of my own confection."
"Which volume are you at?"
"Then the hero and heroine are on the point of being united?"
"I really don't know. This is one of your clever novels. I wish the characters would not talk so much."
"No matter. Two of them are in love with one another, are they not?"
"Yes. It would not be a novel without that."
"Do you believe, in your secret soul, Agatha—I take the liberty of using your Christian name because I wish to be very solemn—do you really believe that any human being was ever unselfish enough to love another in the story-book fashion?"
"Of course. At least I suppose so. I have never thought much about it."
"I doubt it. My own belief is that no latter-day man has any faith in the thoroughness or permanence of his affection for his mate. Yet he does not doubt the sincerity of her professions, and he conceals the hollowness of his own from her, partly because he is ashamed of it, and partly out of pity for her. And she, on the other side, is playing exactly the same comedy."
"I believe that is what men do, but not women."
"Indeed! Pray do you remember pretending to be very much in love with me once when—"
Agatha reddened and placed her palm on the step as if about to spring up. But she checked herself and said: "Stop, Mr. Trefusis. If you talk about that I shall go away. I wonder at you! Have you no taste?',
"None whatever. And as I was the aggrieved party on that—stay, don't go. I will never allude to it again. I am growing afraid of you. You used to be afraid of me."
"Yes; and you used to bully me. You have a habit of bullying women who are weak enough to fear you. You are a great deal cleverer than I, and know much more, I dare say; but I am not in the least afraid of you now."
"You have no reason to be, and never had any. Henrietta, if she were alive, could testify that it there is a defect in my relations with women, it arises from my excessive amiability. I could not refuse a woman anything she had set her heart upon—except my hand in marriage. As long as your sex are content to stop short of that they can do as they please with me."
"How cruel! I thought you were nearly engaged to Gertrude."
"The usual interpretation of a friendship between a man and a woman! I have never thought of such a thing; and I am sure she never has. We are not half so intimate as you and Sir Charles."
"Oh, Sir Charles is married. And I advise you to get married if you wish to avoid creating misunderstandings by your friendships."
Trefusis was struck. Instead of answering, he stood, after one startled glance at her, looking intently at the knuckle of his forefinger.
"Do take pity on our poor sex," said Agatha maliciously. "You are so rich, and so very clever, and really so nice looking that you ought to share yourself with somebody. Gertrude would be only too happy."
Trefusis grinned and shook his head, slowly but emphatically.
"I suppose I should have no chance," continued Agatha pathetically.
"I should be delighted, of course," he replied with simulated confusion, but with a lurking gleam in his eye that might have checked her, had she noticed it.
"Do marry me, Mr. Trefusis," she pleaded, clasping her hands in a rapture of mischievous raillery. "Pray do."
"Thank you," said Trefusis determinedly; "I will."
"I am very sure you shan't," said Agatha, after an incredulous pause, springing up and gathering her skirt as if to run away. "You do not suppose I was in earnest, do you?"
"Undoubtedly I do. I am in earnest."
Agatha hesitated, uncertain whether he might not be playing with her as she had just been playing with him. "Take care," she said. "I may change my mind and be in earnest, too; and then how will you feel, Mr. Trefusis?"
"I think, under our altered relations, you had better call me Sidney."
"I think we had better drop the joke. It was in rather bad taste, and I should not have made it, perhaps."
"It would be an execrable joke; therefore I have no intention of regarding it as one. You shall be held to your offer, Agatha. Are you in love with me?"
"Not in the least. Not the very smallest bit in the world. I do not know anybody with whom I am less in love or less likely to be in love."
"Then you must marry me. If you were in love with me, I should run away. My sainted Henrietta adored me, and I proved unworthy of adoration—though I was immensely flattered."
"Yes; exactly! The way you treated your first wife ought to be sufficient to warn any woman against becoming your second."
"Any woman who loved me, you mean. But you do not love me, and if I run away you will have the advantage of being rid of me. Our settlements can be drawn so as to secure you half my fortune in such an event."
"You will never have a chance of running away from me."
"I shall not want to. I am not so squeamish as I was. No; I do not think I shall run away from you."
"I do not think so either."
"Well, when shall we be married?"
"Never," said Agatha, and fled. But before she had gone a step he caught her.
"Don't," she said breathlessly. "Take your arm away. How dare you?"
He released her and shut the door of the conservatory. "Now," he said, "if you want to run away you will have to run in the open."
"You are very impertinent. Let me go in immediately."
"Do you want me to beg you to marry me after you have offered to do it freely?"
"But I was only joking; I don't care for you," she said, looking round for an outlet.
"Agatha," he said, with grim patience, "half an hour ago I had no more intention of marrying you than of making a voyage to the moon. But when you made the suggestion I felt all its force in an instant, and now nothing will satisfy me but your keeping your word. Of all the women I know, you are the only one not quite a fool."
"I should be a great fool if—"
"If you married me, you were going to say; but I don't think so. I am the only man, not quite an ass, of your acquaintance. I know my value, and yours. And I loved you long ago, when I had no right to."
Agatha frowned. "No," she said. "There is no use in saying anything more about it. It is out of the question."
"Come, don't be vindictive. I was more sincere then than you were. But that has nothing to do with the present. You have spent our renewed acquaintance on the defensive against me, retorting upon me, teasing and tempting me. Be generous for once, and say Yes with a good will."
"Oh, I NEVER tempted you," cried Agatha. "I did not. It is not true." He said nothing, but offered his hand. "No; go away; I will not." He persisted, and she felt her power of resistance suddenly wane. Terror-stricken, she said hastily, "There is not the least use in bothering me; I will tell you nothing to-day."
"Promise me on your honor that you will say Yes to-morrow, and I will leave you in peace until then."
"I will not."
"The deuce take your sex," he said plaintively.
"You know my mind now, and I have to stand here coquetting because you don't know your own. If I cared for my comfort I should remain a bachelor."
"I advise you to do so," she said, stealing backward towards the door. "You are a very interesting widower. A wife would spoil you. Consider the troubles of domesticity, too."
"I like troubles. They strengthen—Aha!" (she had snatched at the knob of the door, and he swiftly put his hand on hers and stayed her). "Not yet, if you please. Can you not speak out like a woman—like a man, I mean? You may withhold a bone from Max until he stands on his hind legs to beg for it, but you should not treat me like a dog. Say Yes frankly, and do not keep me begging."
"What in the world do you want to marry me for?"
"Because I was made to carry a house on my shoulders, and will do so. I want to do the best I can for myself, and I shall never have such a chance again. And I cannot help myself, and don't know why; that is the plain truth of the matter. You will marry someone some day." She shook her head. "Yes, you will. Why not marry me?"
Agatha bit her nether lip, looked ruefully at the ground, and, after a long pause, said reluctantly, "Very well. But mind, I think you are acting very foolishly, and if you are disappointed afterwards, you must not blame ME."
"I take the risk of my bargain," he said, releasing her hand, and leaning against the door as he took out his pocket diary. "You will have to take the risk of yours, which I hope may not prove the worse of the two. This is the seventeenth of June. What date before the twenty-fourth of July will suit you?"
"You mean the twenty-fourth of July next year, I presume?"
"No; I mean this year. I am going abroad on that date, married or not, to attend a conference at Geneva, and I want you to come with me. I will show you a lot of places and things that you have never seen before. It is your right to name the day, but you have no serious business to provide for, and I have."
"But you don't know all the things I shall—I should have to provide. You had better wait until you come back from the continent."
"There is nothing to be provided on your part but settlements and your trousseau. The trousseau is all nonsense; and Jansenius knows me of old in the matter of settlements. I got married in six weeks before."
"Yes," said Agatha sharply, "but I am not Henrietta."
"No, thank Heaven," he assented placidly.
Agatha was struck with remorse. "That was a vile thing for me to say," she said; "and for you too."
"Whatever is true is to the purpose, vile or not. Will you come to Geneva on the twenty-fourth?"
"But—I really was not thinking when I—I did not intend to say that I would—I—"
"I know. You will come if we are married."
"Yes. IF we are married."
"We shall be married. Do not write either to your mother or Jansenius until I ask you."
"I don't intend to. I have nothing to write about."
"Wretch that you are! And do not be jealous if you catch me making love to Lady Brandon. I always do so; she expects it."
"You may make love to whom you please. It is no concern of mine."
"Here comes the wagonette with Lady Brandon and Ger—and Miss Lindsay. I mustn't call her Gertrude now except when you are not by. Before they interrupt us, let me remind you of the three points we are agreed upon. I love you. You do not love me. We are to be married before the twenty-fourth of next month. Now I must fly to help her ladyship to alight."
He hastened to the house door, at which the wagonette had just stopped. Agatha, bewildered, and ashamed to face her friends, went in through the conservatory, and locked herself in her room.
Trefusis went into the library with Gertrude whilst Lady Brandon loitered in the hall to take off her gloves and ask questions of the servants. When she followed, she found the two standing together at the window. Gertrude was listening to him with the patient expression she now often wore when he talked. He was smiling, but it struck Jane that he was not quite at ease. "I was just beginning to tell Miss Lindsay," he said, "of an extraordinary thing that has happened during your absence."
"I know," exclaimed Jane, with sudden conviction. "The heater in the conservatory has cracked."
"Possibly," said Trefusis; "but, if so, I have not heard of it."
"If it hasn't cracked, it will," said Jane gloomily. Then, assuming with some effort an interest in Trefusis's news, she added: "Well, what has happened?"
"I was chatting with Miss Wylie just now, when a singular idea occurred to us. We discussed it for some time; and the upshot is that we are to be married before the end of next month."
Jane reddened and stared at him; and he looked keenly back at her. Gertrude, though unobserved, did not suffer her expression of patient happiness to change in the least; but a greenish-white color suddenly appeared in her face, and only gave place very slowly to her usual complexion.
"Do you mean to say that you are going to marry AGATHA?" said Lady Brandon incredulously, after a pause.
"Yes. I had no intention of doing so when I last saw you or I should have told you."
"I never heard of such a thing in my life! You fell in love with one another in five minutes, I suppose."
"Good Heavens, no! we are not in love with one another. Can you believe that I would marry for such a frivolous reason? No. The subject turned up accidentally, and the advantage of a match between us struck me forcibly. I was fortunate enough to convert her to my opinion."
"Yes; she wanted a lot of pressing, I dare say," said Jane, glancing at Gertrude, who was smiling unmeaningly.
"As you imply," said Trefusis coolly, "her reluctance may have been affected, and she only too glad to get such a charming husband. Assuming that to be the case, she dissembled remarkably well."
Gertrude took off her bonnet, and left the room without speaking.
"This is my revenge upon you for marrying Brandon," he said then, approaching Jane.
"Oh, yes," she retorted ironically. "I believe all that, of course."
"You have the same security for its truth as for that of all the foolish things I confess to you. There!" He pointed to a panel of looking glass, in which Jane's figure was reflected at full length.
"I don't see anything to admire," said Jane, looking at herself with no great favor. "There is plenty of me, if you admire that."
"It is impossible to have too much of a good thing. But I must not look any more. Though Agatha says she does not love me, I am not sure that she would be pleased if I were to look for love from anyone else."
"Says she does not love you! Don't believe her; she has taken trouble enough to catch you."
"I am flattered. You caught me without any trouble, and yet you would not have me."
"It is manners to wait to be asked. I think you have treated Gertrude shamefully—I hope you won't be offended with me for saying so. I blame Agatha most. She is an awfully double-faced girl."
"How so?" said Trefusis, surprised. "What has Miss Lindsay to do with it?"
"You know very well."
"I assure you I do not. If you were speaking of yourself I could understand you."
"Oh, you can get out of it cleverly, like all men; but you can't hoodwink me. You shouldn't have pretended to like Gertrude when you were really pulling a cord with Agatha. And she, too, pretending to flirt with Sir Charles—as if he would care twopence for her!"
Trefusis seemed N little disturbed. "I hope Miss Lindsay had no such—but she could not."
"Oh, couldn't she? You will soon see whether she had or not."
"You misunderstood us, Lady Brandon; Miss Lindsay knows better. Remember, too, that this proposal of mine was quite unpremeditated. This morning I had no tender thoughts of anyone except one whom it would be improper to name."
"Oh, that is all talk. It won't do now."
"I will talk no more at present. I must be off to the village to telegraph to my solicitor. If I meet Erskine I will tell him the good news."
"He will be delighted. He thought, as we all did, that you were cutting him out with Gertrude."
Trefusis smiled, shook his head, and, with a glance of admiring homage to Jane's charms, went out. Jane was contemplating herself in the glass when a servant begged her to come and speak to Master Charles and Miss Fanny. She hurried upstairs to the nursery, where her boy and girl, disputing each other's prior right to torture the baby, had come to blows. They were somewhat frightened, but not at all appeased, by Jane's entrance. She scolded, coaxed, threatened, bribed, quoted Dr. Watts, appealed to the nurse and then insulted her, demanded of the children whether they loved one another, whether they loved mamma, and whether they wanted a right good whipping. At last, exasperated by her own inability to restore order, she seized the baby, which had cried incessantly throughout, and, declaring that it was doing it on purpose and should have something real to cry for, gave it an exemplary smacking, and ordered the others to bed. The boy, awed by the fate of his infant brother, offered, by way of compromise, to be good if Miss Wylie would come and play with him, a proposal which provoked from his jealous mother a box on the ear that sent him howling to his cot. Then she left the room, pausing on the threshold to remark that if she heard another sound from them that day, they might expect the worst from her. On descending, heated and angry, to the drawing-room, she found Agatha there alone, looking out of window as if the landscape were especially unsatisfactory this time.
"Selfish little beasts!" exclaimed Jane, making a miniature whirlwind with her skirts as she came in. "Charlie is a perfect little fiend. He spends all his time thinking how he can annoy me. Ugh! He's just like his father."
"Thank you, my dear," said Sir Charles from the doorway.
Jane laughed. "I knew you were there," she said. "Where's Gertrude?"
"She has gone out," said Sir Charles.
"Nonsense! She has only just come in from driving with me."
"I do not know what you mean by nonsense," said Sir Charles, chafing. "I saw her walking along the Riverside Road. I was in the village road, and she did not see me. She seemed in a hurry."
"I met her on the stairs and spoke to her," said Agatha, "but she didn't hear me."
"I hope she is not going to throw herself into the river," said Jane. Then, turning to her husband, she added: "Have you heard the news?"
"The only news I have heard is from this paper," said Sir Charles, taking out a journal and flinging it on the table. "There is a paragraph in it stating that I have joined some infernal Socialistic league, and I am told that there is an article in the 'Times' on the spread of Socialism, in which my name is mentioned. This is all due to Trefusis; and I think he has played me a most dishonorable trick. I will tell him so, too, when next I see him."
"You had better be careful what you say of him before Agatha," said Jane. "Oh, you need not be alarmed, Agatha; I know all about it. He told us in the library. We went out this morning—Gertrude and I—and when we came back we found Mr. Trefusis and Agatha talking very lovingly to one another on the conservatory steps, newly engaged."
"Indeed!" said Sir Charles, disconcerted and displeased, but trying to smile. "I may then congratulate you, Miss Wylie?"
"You need not," said Agatha, keeping her countenance as well as she could. "It was only a joke. At least it came about in a jest. He has no right to say that we are engaged."
"Stuff and nonsense," said Jane. "That won't do, Agatha. He has gone off to telegraph to his solicitor. He is quite in earnest."
"I am a great fool," said Agatha, sitting down and twisting her hands perplexedly. "I believe I said something; but I really did not intend to. He surprised me into speaking before I knew what I was saying. A pretty mess I have got myself into!"
"I am glad you have been outwitted at last," said Jane, laughing spitefully. "You never had any pity for me when I could not think of the proper thing to say at a moment's notice."
Agatha let the taunt pass unheeded. Her gaze wandered anxiously, and at last settled appealingly upon Sir Charles. "What shall I do?" she said to him.
"Well, Miss Wylie," he said gravely, "if you did not mean to marry him you should not have promised. I don't wish to be unsympathetic, and I know that it is very hard to get rid of Trefusis when he makes up his mind to act something out of you, but still—"
"Never mind her," said Jane, interrupting him. "She wants to marry him just as badly as he wants to marry her. You would be preciously disappointed if he cried off, Agatha; for all your interesting reluctance."
"That is not so, really," said Agatha earnestly. "I wish I had taken time to think about it. I suppose he has told everybody by this time."
"May we then regard it as settled?" said Sir Charles.
"Of course you may," said Jane contemptuously.
"Pray allow Miss Wylie to speak for herself, Jane. I confess I do not understand why you are still in doubt—if you have really engaged yourself to him."
"I suppose I am in for it," said Agatha. "I feel as if there were some fatal objection, if I could only remember what it is. I wish I had never seen him."
Sir Charles was puzzled. "I do not understand ladies' ways in these matters," he said. "However, as there seems to be no doubt that you and Trefusis are engaged, I shall of course say nothing that would make it unpleasant for him to visit here; but I must say that he has—to say the least—been inconsiderate to me personally. I signed a paper at his house on the implicit understanding that it was strictly private, and now he has trumpeted it forth to the whole world, and publicly associated my name not only with his own, but with those of persons of whom I know nothing except that I would rather not be connected with them in any way."
"What does it matter?" said Jane. "Nobody cares twopence."
"I care," said Sir Charles angrily. "No sensible person can accuse me of exaggerating my own importance because I value my reputation sufficiently to object to my approval being publicly cited in support of a cause with which I have no sympathy."
"Perhaps Mr. Trefusis has had nothing to do with it," said Agatha. "The papers publish whatever they please, don't they?"
"That's right, Agatha," said Jane maliciously. "Don't let anyone speak ill of him."
"I am not speaking ill of him," said Sir Charles, before Agatha could retort. "It is a mere matter of feeling, and I should not have mentioned it had I known the altered relations between him and Miss Wylie."
"Pray don't speak of them," said Agatha. "I have a mind to run away by the next train."
Sir Charles, to change the subject, suggested a duet.
Meanwhile Erskine, returning through the village from his morning ride, had met Trefusis, and attempted to pass him with a nod. But Trefusis called to him to stop, and he dismounted reluctantly.
"Just a word to say that I am going to be married," said Trefusis.
"To—?" Erskine could not add Gertrude's name.
"To one of our friends at the Beeches. Guess to which."
"To Miss Lindsay, I presume."
"What in the fiend's name has put it into all your heads that Miss Lindsay and I are particularly attached to one another?" exclaimed Trefusis. "YOU have always appeared to me to be the man for Miss Lindsay. I am going to marry Miss Wylie."
"Really!" exclaimed Erskine, with a sensation of suddenly thawing after a bitter frost.
"Of course. And now, Erskine, you have the advantage of being a poor man. Do not let that splendid girl marry for money. If you go further you are likely to fare worse; and so is she." Then he nodded and walked away, leaving the other staring after him.
"If he has jilted her, he is a scoundrel," said Erskine. "I am sorry I didn't tell him so."
He mounted and rode slowly along the Riverside Road, partly suspecting Trefusis of some mystification, but inclining to believe in him, and, in any case, to take his advice as to Gertrude. The conversation he had overheard in the avenue still perplexed him. He could not reconcile it with Trefusis's profession of disinterestedness towards her.
His bicycle carried him noiselessly on its india-rubber tires to the place by which the hemlock grew and there he saw Gertrude sitting on the low earthen wall that separated the field from the road. Her straw bag, with her scissors in it, lay beside her. Her fingers were interlaced, and her hands rested, palms downwards, on her knee. Her expression was rather vacant, and so little suggestive of any serious emotion that Erskine laughed as he alighted close to her.
"Are you tired?" he said.
"No," she replied, not startled, and smiling mechanically—an unusual condescension on her part.
"Indulging in a day-dream?"
"No." She moved a little to one side and concealed the basket with her dress.
He began to fear that something was wrong. "Is it possible that you have ventured among those poisonous plants again?" he said. "Are you ill?"
"Not at all," she replied, rousing herself a little. "Your solicitude is quite thrown away. I am perfectly well."
"I beg your pardon," he said, snubbed. "I thought—Don't you think it dangerous to sit on that damp wall?"
"It is not damp. It is crumbling into dust with dryness." An unnatural laugh, with which she concluded, intensified his uneasiness.
He began a sentence, stopped, and to gain time to recover himself, placed his bicycle in the opposite ditch; a proceeding which she witnessed with impatience, as it indicated his intention to stay and talk. She, however, was the first to speak; and she did so with a callousness that shocked him.
"Have you heard the news?"
"About Mr. Trefusis and Agatha. They are engaged."
"So Trefusis told me. I met him just now in the village. I was very glad to hear it."
"But I had a special reason for being glad."
"I was desperately afraid, before he told me the truth, that he had other views—views that might have proved fatal to my dearest hopes."
Gertrude frowned at him, and the frown roused him to brave her. He lost his self-command, already shaken by her strange behavior. "You know that I love you, Miss Lindsay," he said. "It may not be a perfect love, but, humanly speaking, it is a true one. I almost told you so that day when we were in the billiard room together; and I did a very dishonorable thing the same evening. When you were speaking to Trefusis in the avenue I was close to you, and I listened."
"Then you heard him," cried Gertrude vehemently. "You heard him swear that he was in earnest."
"Yes," said Erskine, trembling, "and I thought he meant in earnest in loving you. You can hardly blame me for that: I was in love myself; and love is blind and jealous. I never hoped again until he told me that he was to be married to Miss Wylie. May I speak to you, now that I know I was mistaken, or that you have changed your mind?"
"Or that he has changed his mind," said Gertrude scornfully.
Erskine, with a new anxiety for her sake, checked himself. Her dignity was dear to him, and he saw that her disappointment had made her reckless of it. "Do not say anything to me now, Miss Lindsay, lest—"
"What have I said? What have I to say?"
"Nothing, except on my own affairs. I love you dearly."
She made an impatient movement, as if that were a very insignificant matter.
"You believe me, I hope," he said, timidly.
Gertrude made an effort to recover her habitual ladylike reserve, but her energy failed before she had done more than raise her head. She relapsed into her listless attitude, and made a faint gesture of intolerance.
"You cannot be quite indifferent to being loved," he said, becoming more nervous and more urgent. "Your existence constitutes all my happiness. I offer you my services and devotion. I do not ask any reward." (He was now speaking very quickly and almost inaudibly.) "You may accept my love without returning it. I do not want—seek to make a bargain. If you need a friend you may be able to rely on me more confidently because you know I love you."
"Oh, you think so," said Gertrude, interrupting him; "but you will get over it. I am not the sort of person that men fall in love with. You will soon change your mind."
"Not the sort! Oh, how little you know!" he said, becoming eloquent. "I have had plenty of time to change, but I am as fixed as ever. If you doubt, wait and try me. But do not be rough with me. You pain me more than you can imagine when you are hasty or indifferent. I am in earnest."
"Ha, ha! That is easily said."
"Not by me. I change in my judgment of other people according to my humor, but I believe steadfastly in your goodness and beauty—as if you were an angel. I am in earnest in my love for you as I am in earnest for my own life, which can only be perfected by your aid and influence."
"You are greatly mistaken if you suppose that I am an angel."
"You are wrong to mistrust yourself; but it is what I owe to you and not what I expect from you that I try to express by speaking of you as an angel. I know that you are not an angel to yourself. But you are to me."
She sat stubbornly silent.
"I will not press you for an answer now. I am content that you know my mind at last. Shall we return together?"
She looked round slowly at the hemlock, and from that to the river. Then she took up her basket, rose, and prepared to go, as if under compulsion.
"Do you want any more hemlock?" he said. "If so, I will pluck some for you."
"I wish you would let me alone," she said, with sudden anger. She added, a little ashamed of herself, "I have a headache."
"I am very sorry," he said, crestfallen.
"It is only that I do not wish to be spoken to. It hurts my head to listen."
He meekly took his bicycle from the ditch and wheeled it along beside her to the Beeches without another word. They went in through the conservatory, and parted in the dining-room. Before leaving him she said with some remorse, "I did not mean to be rude, Mr. Erskine."
He flushed, murmured something, and attempted to kiss her hand. But she snatched it away and went out quickly. He was stung by this repulse, and stood mortifying himself by thinking of it until he was disturbed by the entrance of a maid-servant. Learning from her that Sir Charles was in the billiard room, he joined him there, and asked him carelessly if he had heard the news.
"About Miss Wylie?" said Sir Charles. "Yes, I should think so. I believe the whole country knows it, though they have not been engaged three hours. Have you seen these?" And he pushed a couple of newspapers across the table.
Erskine had to make several efforts before he could read. "You were a fool to sign that document," he said. "I told you so at the time."
"I relied on the fellow being a gentleman," said Sir Charles warmly. "I do not see that I was a fool. I see that he is a cad, and but for this business of Miss Wylie's I would let him know my opinion. Let me tell you, Chester, that he has played fast and loose with Miss Lindsay. There is a deuce of a row upstairs. She has just told Jane that she must go home at once; Miss Wylie declares that she will have nothing to do with Trefusis if Miss Lindsay has a prior claim to him, and Jane is annoyed at his admiring anybody except herself. It serves me right; my instinct warned me against the fellow from the first." Just then luncheon was announced. Gertrude did not come down. Agatha was silent and moody. Jane tried to make Erskine describe his walk with Gertrude, but he baffled her curiosity by omitting from his account everything except its commonplaces.
"I think her conduct very strange," said Jane. "She insists on going to town by the four o'clock train. I consider that it's not polite to me, although she always made a point of her perfect manners. I never heard of such a thing!"
When they had risen from the table, they went together to the drawing-room. They had hardly arrived there when Trefusis was announced, and he was in their presence before they had time to conceal the expression of consternation his name brought into their faces.
"I have come to say good-bye," he said. "I find that I must go to town by the four o'clock train to push my arrangements in person; the telegrams I have received breathe nothing but delay. Have you seen the 'Times'?"
"I have indeed," said Sir Charles, emphatically.
"You are in some other paper too, and will be in half-a-dozen more in the course of the next fortnight. Men who have committed themselves to an opinion are always in trouble with the newspapers; some because they cannot get into them, others because they cannot keep out. If you had put forward a thundering revolutionary manifesto, not a daily paper would have dared allude to it: there is no cowardice like Fleet Street cowardice! I must run off; I have much to do before I start, and it is getting on for three. Good-bye, Lady Brandon, and everybody."
He shook Jane's hand, dealt nods to the rest rapidly, making no distinction in favor of Agatha, and hurried away. They stared after him for a moment and then Erskine ran out and went downstairs two steps at a time. Nevertheless he had to run as far as the avenue before he overtook his man.
"Trefusis," he said breathlessly, "you must not go by the four o'clock train."
"Miss Lindsay is going to town by it."
"So much the better, my dear boy; so much the better. You are not jealous of me now, are you?"
"Look here, Trefusis. I don't know and I don't ask what there has been between you and Miss Lindsay, but your engagement has quite upset her, and she is running away to London in consequence. If she hears that you are going by the same train she will wait until to-morrow, and I believe the delay would be very disagreeable. Will you inflict that additional pain upon her?"
Trefusis, evidently concerned, looking doubtfully at Erskine, and pondered for a moment. "I think you are on a wrong scent about this," he said. "My relations with Miss Lindsay were not of a sentimental kind. Have you said anything to her—on your own account, I mean?"
"I have spoken to her on both accounts, and I know from her own lips that I am right."
Trefusis uttered a low whistle.
"It is not the first time I have had the evidence of my senses in the matter," said Erskine significantly. "Pray think of it seriously, Trefusis. Forgive my telling you frankly that nothing but your own utter want of feeling could excuse you for the way in which you have acted towards her."
Trefusis smiled. "Forgive me in turn for my inquisitiveness," he said. "What does she say to your suit?"
Erskine hesitated, showing by his manner that he thought Trefusis had no right to ask the question. "She says nothing," he answered.
"Hm!" said Trefusis. "Well, you may rely on me as to the train. There is my hand upon it."
"Thank you," said Erskine fervently. They shook hands and parted, Trefusis walking away with a grin suggestive of anything but good faith.