A MAN stalwart, tall, distinguished, slowly descended the steps of the Metropole Hotel and turned his face westward. The doorkeeper, who had bowed low at his exit, raised his whistle to his lips.
The man shook his head.
"No thanks! I prefer to walk!" he said, shortly.
His clothes were perfectly correct, and his carriage was commanding, but amongst Londoners it is always easy enough to mark the stranger. His cheeks were bronzed with the heat of a tropical sun, and his bushy black beard, carefully trimmed though it was, suggested at once the colonial. As he walked slowly up Northumberland Avenue, he glanced frequently around him. Once or twice he made a brief inquiry of a policeman. Yet he had the air of one who revisits a locality perfectly familiar to him at some time or other during his life.
The month was May, and the sky was blue, dotted here and there with fragments of fleecy broken clouds. The waters in the fountains at Trafalgar Square glittered like little specks of molten silver in the clear sunlight. The air was soft and warm. At every corner women were selling great bunches of yellow primroses and fragrant violets. One, more energetic than the rest, planted herself in his way, holding out a bunch of the purple blossoms so that their sweetness forced itself upon him.
"Sweet violets, sir? Only tuppence a bunch! 'Ave a bunch? 'Ave a buttonhole, sir?"
He stopped short and stood in the middle of the pavement while she fastened them deftly in the buttonhole of his immaculate frock coat. When she had finished he dropped something in her palm, at which she started, and, being by chance honest, called after him. He only waved his hand.
"It is quite right," he said. "I have not smelt English violets for ten years. You are welcome."
His eyebrows contracted slightly at her shrill volley of excited thanks, and he passed on a little more rapidly. The girl, with the instincts of her class, tested the little piece of gold between her white teeth. There was no doubt about it. It was perfectly good. She commenced to discuss her good fortune volubly with her fellow-sellers until a neighbouring policeman separated and moved them on.
Meanwhile the man to whom the perfume of English violets had seemed so sweet a thing passed along Pall Mall and into Piccadilly. Here his leisurely walk became a saunter. Everything he saw seemed to interest him. He looked into the faces of the passers-by as though they were the faces of a people from whom he had drifted apart, and with whom he found it no ordinary pleasure to be once more in touch. The shops, too, attracted him, especially the art and picture shops, before every one of which he lingered. London was full—full of the keen, throbbing vitality of her best season, and the whirl and bustle of it all seemed to possess a distinct and curious fascination for him. He was evidently only an onlooker at present, yet in his strangeness there was no touch of gaucherie. He moved like a man accustomed to rule and to be obeyed. Even in the thoroughfare, whose pavements are pressed every day during certain halcyon months by the footsteps of the most distinguished-looking men in Europe, his presence attracted some attention. He had the air of being somebody. His face, with its clean-cut features, its firm mouth and dark bright eyes, was the face of a ruler. Even the deep bronze of his cheeks was, in its way, becoming. A good many people wondered who he was.
With perfect unconsciousness of sundry turned heads, he pursued his leisurely way, until he came to a standstill before the massive front of one of the great clubs. He asked a question of a passer-by, and slowly mounted the broad steps. The glass doors flew open before him. He came to a standstill upon the marble and mosaic tiles of a luxurious circular hall. An elderly man in quiet livery came forward in answer to his interrogative glance around. He produced a letter and a card from his pocket.
"Is the secretary of the club, Colonel Welland, in?" he inquired.
The steward shook his head.
"He is not in at present, sir. We expect him here about four o'clock today. Can I give him any message, sir?"
"You can give him this note and card. I will call again, perhaps this afternoon, or to-morrow."
He was turning away when the man glanced at the card. An instant change took place in his manner. Before he had been quietly civil, now he was deeply respectful. The alteration was subtle but significant.
"I beg your pardon, sir. I have special instructions about you in case you should arrive during Colonel Welland's absence. He desired me to say that he would have called upon you, but you did not mention your hotel."
"It is of no consequence."
"Colonel Welland sent me out to make inquiries, sir, but I could not find you. You are a visiting member here for as long as you choose, sir. Will you allow me to show you over the club?"
The visitor took off his hat.
"I am very much obliged to Colonel Welland," he remarked. "I may as well have some lunch here then. I won't trouble you to show me over just now. Another time will do."
"Just as you please, sir," the steward answered. "The luncheon room is this way, if you will be so good as to follow me, sir."
The steward opened a door leading into a room of magnificent proportions and appointments, where several men were lunching at small tables. If he had expected the newcomer to be impressed, he was disappointed. He glanced around and made his way to a round table near a window.
"By the by, are there any letters for me?" he inquired of the steward, who still lingered by his side.
The man smiled.
"I believe so, sir," he answered, and disappeared. In a few minutes he was back again, staggering beneath the weight of a huge paper-basket. The newcomer laid down his knife and fork and looked at its contents aghast.
"Do you mean to say that all that lot is for me?" he exclaimed, with knitted brows. "There must be some mistake."
The steward bowed and thought not.
"There is another basket which holds as many again, sir," he announced, with the ghost of a polite smile still upon his lips. "I could not have carried it in myself. The bottom would have come out."
The man sat back in his chair with his hands stuck in his waistcoat pockets and looked up from the basket to the steward's face. Evidently he was speaking the truth, and as to this mass of correspondence being intended for him, there could be no doubt about it. Francis Kernham, Esq., was staring up at him from a hundred different envelopes in a hundred different handwritings—envelopes square and long, perfumed and commercial, type-written, and traced in the most delicate of feminine characters. A good many men and women in very different stations of life seemed to have something to say to Mr. Francis Kernham.
"I do not understand it," he said, simply. "I do not know half a dozen people in London."
The man smiled openly.
"Possibly not, sir, but all London knows you, sir," he remarked.
"Ridiculous! And how the deuce did all London know that I was coming to the Wanderer's Club?" the newcomer protested.
"Three or four of the society papers have announced the fact, sir," the man answered. "It was in The World last week. The next morning we had over a hundred letters for you. You will find that quite half of them are begging letters and circulars, sir."
"And the remainder?"
"The remainder are probably invitations, sir."
"But I told you just now that I did not know any one in London."
The steward smiled again, a gentle, deprecating smile.
"That makes no difference at all, sir. You are famous. If you have only just arrived, perhaps you have not seen the papers lately. There has been a good deal written about you, sir, the last few days."
Mr. Francis Kernham leaned forward and recommenced his lunch. Evidently this was a phase of his home-coming which presented itself to him now for the first time.
"Take them away," he said, shortly; "they interfere with my appetite. I will arrange for a secretary, or something."
The steward withdrew with his burden, and the man who had become famous continued his lunch. It was a meal almost severely simple, but with his cheese he ordered a pint of the best Burgundy upon the wine list. He remained for some time sipping it and gazing meditatively out of the window. At last he rose, paid his bill, and walked slowly out into the streets again.
Almost opposite was Hyde Park Corner, already alive with a brilliant stream of the fashionable world. But he turned away from the park, and set his face southwards. This time he asked no questions. He found his way as though by instinct. A change had come over him. He walked no longer as a stranger, sauntering along the highways of a great city, fairly curious, master of his time, indifferent as to his destination. The alertness of his wandering gaze, and the good-humoured smile upon his curving lips, had alike vanished. He walked now like a man dwelling in the past, yet having a fixed destination to which his feet bore him only too slowly. The lines of his face had relaxed. His soft, bright eyes had become the eyes of a dreamer. He had turned the key of a chamber in his thoughts across the portals of which the dust of many years lay thick and undisturbed. A storehouse of old memories had escaped from long confinement; they were thronging around him, they glided along by his side through the crowded streets, they whispered in his ear, caught at his heartstrings, and floated before his eyes. Ah, well! the hand of repression had lain heavy upon him all these years. It was lifted now. Of his own free will he was yielding himself up a willing victim to memories poignant enough still and touched with an inimitable sadness. Yet this was one of the luxuries which he had promised himself at the very crown of his success.
He came to a standstill before a dark, gloomy house in the purlieus of Chelsea. His feet had led him there unerringly, without hesitation or uncertainty. He looked up at the windows. The old legend was still on hand, "Apartments to let." He stretched out his hand and rang the bell.
A girl with a pale sallow face and untidy gown answered it. He looked at her searchingly. She, at any rate, was not familiar.
"Does Mrs. Seely live here still?" he asked.
The girl shook her head.
"Never heard of her. Is she a lodger?"
"She used to let the apartments here," he answered. "It was a long time ago. I daresay that she has left now."
"I guess so," the girl answered. "We've lived here seven years. Our name's Patchett. Did you wish for apartments?" she asked, doubtfully. His appearance was not quite the appearance of a man seeking lodgings in the back streets of Chelsea.
"If you have the room I want, I might take it—for a short time," he answered.
Her face brightened.
"The first floor is all to let," she said briskly. "Won't you step in and look at it?"
He accepted her invitation, and the door was closed. But he did not follower her into the front room.
"It is a room upstairs that I wanted to see," he explained.
"Upstairs! The best rooms are all down here."
"It is not the best rooms I want," he answered. "It is a small room upon the fourth floor."
The girl's face fell.
"The fourth floor! Why there isn't a room fit for you there, sir!" she exclaimed. "They're mostly attics—tiny little holes!"
"I know that they are not large," he persisted; "but there is a room there which I am particularly anxious to take if it is unoccupied. I can show it to you if you will come upstairs with me. I am not particular about the price of it. You can charge me as much for it as the first floor, if you like!" he added, noticing her fallen face.
She seemed puzzled, but became more cheerful.
"Oh, they're mostly empty," she said, leading the way to the stairs. "Letting rooms is just starvation now. There's all the cheap new fiats to stop you from letting your best rooms, and the others don't pay anyhow. I can't see what folks see in flats," she added, disconsolately. "I think they're beastly!"
He followed her in silence. He was sound in wind and limb, but his heart was beating fast when they reached the fourth floor. He led the way to a room at the end of the passage, and touched the handle.
"This is the one," he said. "Is it empty?"
She nodded, and threw open the door.
"You can have it for fifteen shillings a week," she declared, boldly trebling the price.
He pressed some money into her hand.
"I will take it for a month," he said. "Here is the rent in advance. I will go in and sit down if you will be so good as to leave me for a few minutes."
Three pounds! Her fingers closed upon the money. What a stroke of luck! A dull, brick-red streak of colour stained her cheek. Some latent spirit of covetousness was awakened by the sight of the gold.
"There is no bed in the room, you know," she said, looking around. "That will be extra if we put one in."
"Thank you. I shall not sleep here," he answered.
She left him then. He crossed the threshold and shut the door after her. Standing quite motionless just inside the room he listened to her retreating footsteps. When they had died away, when he was sure that he was absolutely alone, he looked around him.
It was the same room. A particular crack in the falling paper running zigzag to the panel, a risen rafter in the uneven floor; a hole in the threadbare carpet where a cinder had dropped—some one of these things brought back, with a vividness which thrilled him through and through, the whole procession of heart-shattering memories. He sank into the hard horsehair easy-chair and sat there with drooped head, a figure curiously at variance with his shabby surroundings. The little drama of years ago rose up before his eyes. A bridge was thrown over to the past The life-labours of the man seemed but as the dreaming of a dream.
SHE was leaning back in that self-same chair, her eyes half closed, and her shabby little jacket thrown back. Her hat lay on the table where she had thrown it, while her ringless hands met clasped together behind her head in a tumbled mass of silky black hair. Neither the pallor of her cheeks nor the frowning contractions of her eyebrows, or the dejection of her posture, seemed to have any power to detract from a beauty at once singular and comprehensive. Something cruelly like starvation had laid its hand upon her wan features. Her cheeks were a trifle hollow. Her eyes were unnaturally bright and large. Her lips lacked the fresh ruddiness of youth. Yet of her beauty there could be no doubt.
A man came to her out of the shadows of the ill-lit room—a young man with dark fiery eyes and pale-lined forehead. She looked up at him listlessly.
"I did not hear you come in," she remarked.
"I was here waiting for you," he answered. "I have been here for an hour."
"If you have been doing nothing for so long you might have come and met me."
"I wish I had. You are tired tonight, Marcia, It is a horrid walk from the Strand."
"Everything is horrid. Life is horrid. Death, I suppose, would be horrid too, or I would try it," she murmured wearily.
He came over to her and she saw his face more clearly in the dim candlelight. There were black lines under his eyes. If he had been a woman you would have said that he had been weeping. She looked at him and sat up in her chair.
"You have heard from those people?"
He clenched his teeth, but a little moan found its way out.
"Ay, it is there, you see."
He pointed to a brown paper parcel lying in the distant corner upon the floor. Her dim eyes followed his shaking finger.
"There lies the letter." He pointed to a pile of white ashes upon the grate. "It was like all the rest. Damn them!"
She nodded softly. Her eyes, as they rested upon him, spoke of pity. They spoke, too, of other things. An inscrutable look had come into her face.
He commenced to walk restlessly up and down the narrow confines of the room. His eyebrows were drawn close together. He seemed to be interested in the pattern of the threadbare carpet.
"It came back soon after you left," he began. "Since then I have been thinking—I have been thinking many things."
"Yes," she murmured. "Tell me about them."
"I have been a dreamer," he said, slowly, "and my dreaming has been the dreaming of a fool. I have been following the old will-o'-the-wisp, like the veriest yokel who ever came up from the provinces to pick up gold in the streets of London. I have dreamed of fame and honour, of winning a share of the beautiful things of the world, of turning my back for ever upon the misery of these days—the grinding, sordid misery of empty pockets and an aching heart. And it has been all a fool's dream."
"Not quite that," she sighed. "You have done a little. You have had some encouragement. You have had promises."
He stopped and faced her now. A spot of colour flared in his sunken cheeks. His eyes were on fire.
"It has been a fool's dream," he repeated, fiercely. "I have wasted my days and my nights. I have spent the labour of my hands and the labour of my brain in vain. I have promises," he cried, a strain of infinite bitterness rising into his words. "What then? What do they mean? Years of strenuous toil, of semi-starvation, of physical suffering, of mental anguish, and then—what then? A place amongst the third-rate scribblers of the day, perhaps a provincial editorship, a villa at Tooting, a migration from the attics of starvation to the suburbanism of genteel poverty. Not for me! A pest upon such promises. If the would can pay me no better for my work than that, it can go to—the flames."
He stooped and flung the brown paper parcel onto the smouldering fire. She half rose as though to check him, but he snatched up the poker and held the package down until the curling flames arose from underneath it and around. A red glow lit up his stooping face. Decidedly he was very handsome. For the first time she saw in his features a suggestion of that subtlest and hardest to define of all the qualities which make men dear to women—power. She sighed and smoothed her ruffled hair.
He stood up only when the manuscript had become a mass of smouldering grey ashes. It seemed to himself that he was holding himself more upright. There was a new glow in his eyes, a new curl to his lips. The white ashes, which a draught of wind from down the chimney sent floating into the room, were like the disintegrated atoms of his old life. Henceforth they marked an era to him.
"Do you mean—that you will write—no more?" she asked, half fearfully.
"No more!" he answered, firmly, and to her listening ears there was more of triumph than regret in his tone. "I have wasted two years of my life. Tonight I start afresh. To-night, Marcia—to-night, we must say—farewell!"
It was like the loosening of an anchor to her. She was sad, unaccountably sad.
"What are you going to do?" she whispered.
"Do! I am going to join the vulgar hustling throng of those who rule the world—I am going to seek and find gold! Oh, it is all very well to rail at wealth, and the barbarisms of wealth, to write philosophy in a sumptuous library with a golden pen, to preach religion in a lawn surplice, to prate of the ethics of content with a well-filled bank-book in your pocket. It is all sham and humbug! There is only one philosophy and one religion, in this country at any rate, and that is gold. I must have it! I will have it!"
His eyes flashed fires at her through the semi-darkness. She listened to him, fascinated, with bated breath.
"I used to dream of art," he cried. "What can art give to a starving man? What can it do but look down from the skies, and mock at him? Grant that I am an artist, that I have a desire for, and a keen appreciation of, the beautiful. I am the more miserable for it. I am more miserable than the dullest clerk who bends his back over a city desk, and sees no further into life than the pages of his ledger. I have no money. I am forced to eat coarse food, and loathe it. The luxuries of clean service, of glass and flowers, and seemly dress are all beyond me. I must spend my days within these hideous walls, where everything I look at is unlovely and stultifying. What can it do for me but deepen my miseries? True, I can go to the National Gallery amongst the great pictures, and lose myself for a little while if I can find a corner where the British sightseer is not munching sandwiches, or the Kensington schoolgirls giggling—and what then? I must come back here! My little dream of beauty is over. The darkness is greater than ever. It is the same with books, the same with that fascinating scribbling." He pointed to the pulp of paper upon the fire. "A few hours' escape only makes return the more miserable. I have done with it! I am young! I am strong! I am passionate! I will taste life or die! I am not content to find happiness in dreams, or to borrow fleeting glimpses of it through other people's spectacles. And in the world there is but one royal road—wealth—which I have not but will have; and the capacity for life, which I have. I will fill my own cup, and my own hands shall hold it to my lips! I will do this or I will die!"
She leaned towards him, her hands clasped, her eyes bright. His excitement was infectious. A spark had thrilled her.
"It is true, what you say!" she cried. "Life without power is misery—misery deeper than ever for us who thirst for beautiful things. You will fight for wealth. You will join in the battle, and you will win! You are a man and you can do it. But what of me? I, too, loathe and shrink from poverty. I, too, desire to live. What of me? What can I do?"
He looked at her with a sudden intentness. Hers was a problem indeed—harder to solve than his, deeper and swept with many strange currents.
"You are prompt in solving your own fate," she cried. "Solve mine! I am a woman without friends, without any particular talent, until to-night a minor actress at a minor theatre, with no hope of advancement, perfectly conscious of my own limitations. I have been cursed with education, and nature has chosen to instill into me a desire for the beautiful. What am I to do with it? I am a woman and I have been delicately bred. I have all a woman's love of soft clothes, and fine linen, of dainty surroundings, of educated companionship, of freedom from the grosser cares of life! I have been earning twenty shillings a week, and living—here! To-night I am dismissed. Our play is a failure, and it has been withdrawn. Our manager is bankrupt. I do not know where to turn, even if I would, for another engagement. What can I do? What hope is there for me? You and I have drifted together here, and we have been friends for a little while. Give me your advice. Let me hear how my position sounds to some one else besides myself!"
She rose suddenly from her chair, and swept across the room to his side. He turned and looked at her. In the half-lights the outline of her superbly graceful figure was softened—its angularities were toned down, the suppleness remained. Even the shabbiness of her gown was invisible. Her pale cheeks only served to heighten the beauty of her soft, dark eyes. He looked out into the lamp-lit streets and away into the darkness.
"You are beautiful," he said, coldly.
She caught the restraint in his tone, and she was grateful for it. She laid her white, ringless fingers upon his arm. A quiver passed through his frame. She was so close to him that her warm breath fell upon his cheek.
"Yes, I have that," she answered, softly. "It is my one marketable commodity. It is the one key which could open the gate into the promised land. You have your sex and your strength—and I have my beauty. But, now tell me, how am I to use it? I am nearly twenty years old. I have been on the stage two or three years—quite sufficient to tell me that I am no use there! To-night has settled that finally. And yet—no one has offered—to marry me. There is no one who seems inclined to. I have been honoured with—other offers. There seem plenty of men who want a mistress—but not a wife. No! no! Don't interrupt me! You are a novelist, or rather you were until a few hours ago. Look upon this as simply a situation—a psychological problem. Here am I dowerless and poverty-stricken, save for two gifts alone—my beauty and my honour. Frankly I cannot live this life any longer. I am half starved now, and from to-night I shall be penniless. Now, what shall I do? Mind, I do not pretend to be a moral woman at all. It is true that I have lived for years alone, and that I have refused all—offers. That has been simply a matter of self-respect. If a man came tonight, this moment for whom I could care, I would go to him. My destiny has never given me the chance of choosing between right and wrong. I should not hesitate a moment. I should go to him without a single qualm. But to become the tool of one of those creatures who come with gold in their hands to tempt—oh, it is hideous!—vile! vile! vile! I should loathe myself. I should feel that I had sunk to their level, that I had become a beast. To think of it even—and I have thought of it—is a nightmare. Yet, what am I to do? I have never seen one man for whom I cared a straw. Perhaps I have not the gift of caring. Perhaps I shall never love any man. Then what am I to do?"
He kept his face turned from her. His voice trembled.
"The lives of such as you and I are hard to shape," he said. "You ask me a riddle. All that I can say must sound like mockery."
"I have been patient," she went on. "I have lived here"—she waved her hand around the room—"for three dreary years. Who can say that I have not been patient? I have waited until my heart is growing old, and sometimes I feel that if I do not escape from it I must die! To-night when I received my dismissal, I was glad. At any rate, the crisis had come. Francis"—he felt her hand tighten upon his arm. Unwillingly he suffered himself to be drawn a little closer to her—"Francis, will you take me with you? I care not how. I am not afraid of any hardship. If you are going into a new country—well, I can work. We can be good comrades. It will not be any hindrance to you. Save me, Francis! If you leave me here alone—my God! don't you see that I must—I must—"
He held out his hands. Her sentence died away.
"Marcia, I cannot!" he cried, vehemently. "I am going into a new world. I am going where you could not go. I am going to work as you could not work. For many years I shall not want to look into a woman's face. You are the only thing that I have to regret in life—but we must part. I am bound for a wild, rough country, where other men have carved their way into future by the strength of their arms and the power of their will. And I shall follow in their footsteps. I shall do the same. But it would be no land for you, Marcia."
Her warm cheeks touched his. Her arms were around his neck.
"I would work, Francis. Do not fear that I cannot work because my hands are soft and you have known me indolent."
He set his teeth, and almost roughly unyoked her arms.
"You would be a hindrance to me every moment," he cried, harshly "Where I am going no woman could follow. If she did it would be death to the man who brought her—and worse than death to her. No, I must have no drawbacks. I am going to start life free. We must part!"
She left his side abruptly. He remained gazing out of the window. The dark clouds away westward were lightening with a faint lurid glow rising up from the centre of pleasure-seeking London. He watched it, fascinated. It was the one side of London he loved, of the joys he thirsted for. Wealth—wealth that was power, that could bring him freedom for ever from sordid cares and hideous surroundings. That was what he craved. That was what he would have; and behind him, in the shadow of the room, a woman sat gazing into the trembling fire, with sad, dull eyes, bidding farewell to the fragments of her past life; a tragic figure indeed: the type of those things at which men mock to-day and sorrow to-morrow. But he never glanced behind. What was passing in her bosom was hidden from him. Between them was a wall of darkness. He was young, and eager, and selfish; his foot planted firmly upon the threshold of his destiny, his strenuous eyes fixed upon the future. He was young, and eager, and selfish—and he was a man.
THE curtain had fallen. It was the end of the first scene in this little drama of reminiscence. The man rose from his uncomfortable seat and walked slowly around the room. At the blindless window he paused and gazed out into the gathering twilight with slow, lingering eyes. The past seemed suddenly to have been brought into marvellous proximity to the present. The effort of recollection had been complete. He could not believe that since that May evening, when he had stood on the same spot with swelling heart, a decade of years had fallen, lives had been lived and lost, others besides himself had measured will with ambition—some to fall, some, like him, to rise. In the grim, uncertain light, he almost fancied that those white arms were once again outstretched towards him, that once more the cry of her despair was in his ears. Often he had fancied that he could hear it, ringing across the grey ocean, throbbing through the dense forests which lay between him and the seaboard, wailing in the light winds which blew down the mountain-side. But in those days of enthralling work, when great schemes throve beneath his hands, and the destinies of a great new country seemed gradually to be gathered in under his control, they had never troubled him for long. Now it was different. That cry of his for wealth and power which had rang out so bitterly from within those shabby walls, had been answered a thousandfold. All and more than he had dreamed of had been accomplished. The world had listened to him. He stood in a position altogether unique and wonderful. And now, when the struggle was over, when the tension was relaxed and the pressure had fallen away, the romance of those early days was blossoming out afresh. A nightmare of conscience had suddenly laid hold of him. He looked back upon that night, and the joy of his triumphs paled. He had kept his word, he had won his battle. And she—
He tore himself from the room, and, putting the key in his pocket walked slowly back to his hotel through the darkening streets. The men whom he passed on the way he regarded with indifference, but into every woman's face he glanced with a sort of wistful earnestness. Somewhere in the bosom of the great city she doubtless was, but where—how? He shrank from all such thoughts. Certain words of hers seemed fixed into his memory. Every now and then he thought of them, and shuddered.
Once or twice he wandered out of his way, and it was late when he reached his hotel. Dinner was already proceeding in the brilliantly-lit salon, and little groups of people, men in evening dress, and women in soft white opera cloaks, stood about in the hall sipping coffee and waiting for their carriages. He walked past them unnoticing, and took a letter from his bureau with his key. In the lift he tore it open. It was from the man on whom he had called earlier in the day.
Welcome to England, my dear Kernham. You were not expected until the 10th. London will be taken by surprise. Whatever engagements you may have, put them off, and dine here with me at eight o'clock. A very distinguished person is coming in later in hope of meeting you. Be sure that you do not fail!
He threw the note on one side, and changed his clothes, assisted by a quiet, dark-faced servant, who had answered his ring. With his cloak upon his arm, he scribbled a few lines to Colonel Welland.
Dear Colonel Welland,—I have to dine—with an old friend. It is an engagement of long standing. If I am not detained I will call upon you about twelve o'clock.
He addressed the note, and handed it to the servant. Then he walked slowly downstairs, and stood upon the steps.
"The Genoa Restaurant is still in existence, I suppose?" he said to the door-keeper.
"The Genoa, sir? Certainly," the man replied. "Shall I call you a hansom?"
Kernham buttoned his coat and lighted a cigarette. "No, thanks. It is not far. I don't care about driving."
He walked slowly through the streets, now thronged with men and women wending their way theatre-wards, and still he kept up that curious watch of his. Once or twice he half-stopped and glanced anxiously at a veiled face, or into eyes which sought his with significant readiness, and at such times a sharp pain shot to his heart, followed by a sense of inexpressible thankfulness. When he reached the restaurant he gave a little sigh of relief.
Apparently the Genoa still maintained its rank. Outside a little string of carriages were waiting, and directly he passed the portals his coat and hat were taken from him by a footman in knee breeches and powdered hair. He made his way to the famous oak dining-room, and stood for a moment looking in upon the brilliant scene. An attendant came up to him.
"I am afraid that you will have to wait a short time, sir," he said, "unless you care for one of the smaller dining-rooms. Every table here and on the balcony is engaged to-night."
"I ordered table No. 34 for to-night by wire from Southampton," Kernham answered. "My name is Kernham—Mr. Francis Kernham."
The man bowed low. "It is quite right, sir," he said. "This way, if you please."
It was a very familiar way, though he had only been in the room once before in his life. Kernham followed him to a distant corner, where, upon a small, round table, was a card bearing his name, and the magic word "Engaged." He sat down and drew a long breath.
No waiter came to him for a minute or two, and he had time to collect himself. In a wild country, where men carried often their lives in their hands, and no one could be sure of seeing the morrow's sun, he had been spoken of and written of as a man of iron nerve, of never-failing sangfroid and presence of mind. Yet from his corner he looked out upon the gay roomful of men and women with dimmed eyes, and a heart beating more tremulously than it had ever done in the presence of death, or when, between the hours of dawn and noon, working with torn shirt, and half-naked beneath a boiling sun, he had drawn from the earth, a spade in one hand and a revolver in the other, a great fortune. A sudden memory of that day, the crowd of envious, scowling faces, himself knee-deep in a trench of rocky sand, parted his lips as he glanced around him. It was odd to think that he was living in the same world. Rose-shaded electric lights were burning in dainty lamps on every table, flashing out from the dark oak walls upon the jewelled hair and white shoulders of beautiful women, shining upon the silver and glass, and upon the soft banks of perfumed flowers. The hum of pleasant conversation, varied with little trills of feminine laughter, filled the air. Waiters moved noiselessly over the thick Oriental carpet. There was no rattling of plates, no disturbing sounds; everything was noiseless, deft, perfect. It was just the same as he remembered it. There was no change. Ten years ago on a May evening he had looked out upon just such a scene as this, only the most beautiful woman in the room sat in that empty chair, with her dark eyes flashing unutterable things upon him over the scarlet flowers at her bosom, and a faint tinge of colour in her cheeks.
A waiter came to him, and he wrote out his dishes, choosing them with a mechanical effort of memory, and selecting his wine at random. They brought him his food, and he ate like the others, and drank. But she was there, his guest had come. He heard the soft swish of her skirts as she sank into her chair, her strange little laugh as their eyes met. He saw her cloak fall away from her white shoulders on to the back of the chair, and that marvellous colour steal into her cheeks as the wine, strange to both of them, glided through her veins, and the heat of the room increased. The sweet caress of her voice was in his ears. She looked at him and spoke.
HER glass was raised to her lips. The wine was foaming to the rim.
"To our farewell, and your future," she murmured. "Drink with me, Francis."
"To the future, yes," he answered; "but to our farewell, no."
"Yet, to-night—we part—for ever."
He backed away from her, and swept an angry glance around the room.
"I could curse these people for their laughter and their happiness and their money," he said. "I am almost sorry we came. What a ghastly farce it is!"
She laughed at him gaily.
"Don't say that, Francis! It was a brilliant idea to spend our last night like this. Let us eat and drink and be merry, for to-morrow we die. Isn't it fascinating to think of? I would not be without the memory of to-night for anything in the world."
He filled his glass and drank, looking at her with growing admiration. She became conscious under his keen scrutiny.
"You mustn't look at me like that," she laughed. "Is there anything particularly wrong with my toilette. Of course my gown is very old-fashioned, but it was a good one once, and I have done my hair well, haven't I? You haven't paid me a single compliment, sir."
"You are the most beautiful woman here—the most beautiful in London," he declared. "Every one looks at you. You know it. You have tried to make yourself beautiful to-night. Was it to madden me, I wonder?"
She laughed softly. Her eyes spoke to him across the tiny table. He set his teeth.
"My beauty, you know, is to be my stock-in-trade."
He writhed in his chair under the sting of her calm words. His eyes were flashing dark lightning out upon the little groups of well-bred, insouciant men, and the gay, smiling women. What a mockery the festivity was! He looked back at her, and the ethical horror of this great, black gulf loomed at her very feet, made his heart feel sick and his blood run cold.
"Not that!" he whispered. "Not that! God! I cannot bear to think of it."
She was suddenly grave. She bent towards him.
"Will you take me with you, then?"
"Marcia, how can I?" he answered hoarsely. "I have not enough money for our passages."
"You have yours, and I can sell enough for my own," she went on, eagerly. "Take me, Francis! Won't you save me?"
His moment of indecision had passed away. The thing was altogether out of the question. He shook his head doggedly.
"I must have a free hand when I get there, and I must go alone."
She shrugged her white shoulders, white as alabaster against that band of black velvet. Her sudden gravity was gone. The brilliant smile of a few minutes ago played once more upon her lips.
"It is settled then," she said, lightly. "Don't look so tragical, my dear Francis. I will not tease you any more. Let us keep to our compact. Let us forget that to-morrow exists. Nothing makes me want to be rich so much as cookery like this. The salad is perfect. I wonder how—Why, it is Lord Mallingford!"
She held out her fingers, and flashed a smile of welcome at the newcomer, a tall young man, who had been passing down the room. He dropped his eyeglass in surprise, and came to a standstill before her.
"Miss Goring, by all that is wonderful!" he exclaimed. "Why, I—I thought that you never came out," he added, with a glance at her companion and a shade of reproach in his tone.
"You mean because I would not come out with you," she remarked. "Ah well, my acquaintance with you was very slight wasn't it, when you first asked me. Do you come here often?"
"Pretty well," he answered. "The supper they give you is awfully good, but It's just a little out of the way. I have never seen you here before."
"I have never been here before. Everything must have a beginning you know, and an ending. This promises to be both in my case."
He moved on with a bow, and a careless glance at Francis Kernham. He recognized him at once as the good-looking boy who generally met Marcia at the stage door and took her home. Probably a brother or relation of some sort he imagined. With Francis the recognition was mutual, and he was boiling with rage.
"Confounded ass!" he muttered under his teeth. "I wonder you could speak to him, Marcia, after the way you used to snub him coming out of the theatre. Didn't you tell me once that he had been rude to you, and you hated him?"
"In future," she said "I shall hate all men. I shall probably have cause to."
He rose from his chair. The perspiration was standing out upon his forehead.
"Come out upon the balcony," he said. "This room is stifling. I can't breathe."
They strolled outside, and leaned against the stone parapet. The murmur of voices seemed suddenly to fade away into a far distant sound. The red tips of cigarettes burning like glowworms here and there upon the balcony alone reminded them that the solitude was peopled. A mild breeze was rustling in the pine-trees. As yet there was no moon, and the stars gave no light. She leaned over with her eyes fixed upon the river.
"It is the end, then," she said, softly, without looking at him. "It is all over."
He tried to answer her, but he could not. His throat was thick with sobs.
"Light a cigarette," she whispered. "You look too much in earnest. People will notice."
He obeyed her in silence. It was a relief to be doing something. He struck a match and smoked.
"Are you going back to Chelsea?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No. My things are all at Waterloo. I shall find a bed somewhere for the night. To-morrow I go to Southampton."
"They will think that we have left together," she remarked.
He stopped smoking, and looked at her. Her face was turned away. He could only see the outline of her delicate profile gleaming white through the darkness.
"Do you mean that you are not going there?" he asked.
There was a full minute's silence. A burst of laughter floated out from the room. A man seated close to them struck a match. By its fitful light Francis saw his face. It was Lord Mallingford, and he was watching them closely. Then she answered him.
"No, I am not going back."
"I do not know. I have not decided. It is for fate to decide."
He trembled from head to foot as though some one had struck him a blow in a vital part. He tried to look at her, but she kept her face averted. Another wave of distant laughter came floating out from the long dining-room. Then there was silence. He could hear his heart beat against his side.
She raised her eyes and looked into his. There was a scarlet flush upon her cheeks. She looked away almost immediately. The hand which played with the fastening of her cloak shook.
"Come," he whispered.
She followed him back into the room. He paid the bill, and walked out through a different entrance. They were in the hotel.
She stood beside a tall palm tree whilst he went into the office. People who passed by looked at her curiously. Her cloak and her dinner gown were simple and a little old-fashioned, and she had not a single jewel upon her person, but her beauty was paramount and extraordinary. The colour in her face kept coming and going. Her eyes were soft and brilliant. She held herself like a queen.
He came back to her and whispered in her ear.
"Tell me where to send for some of your things."
There was a writing-table in the centre of the marble hall. She moved towards it and, taking up a pen, wrote a few lines with unfaltering hand. He passed them on to a commissionaire. For a moment they were alone.
"Marcia," he whispered, "you have no regret? You are perfectly sure?"
Her eyes dropped before his, but he caught their light for a moment and he did not doubt.
"None. Why should I? Don't you know that I love you?"
He stepped across the hall and rang the bell for the lift.
There was a sudden commotion in the brilliantly lit room. A man who had been sitting alone at a small table had suddenly dropped his glass with a low, moaning cry. The wine in a little river was running across the table. The man was leaning back in his chair, as pale as death.
"Shall I fetch a doctor, sir?" whispered the waiter in his ear.
The man opened his eyes and set his teeth hard.
"I am not ill, only a little faint," he said. "Give me your arm. I want fresh air. I will get out on to the balcony."
He rose up slowly, and disappeared through the broad open window, leaning upon the waiter's arm. Conversation was renewed at once. The incident was forgotten. A man had felt a little faint. That was all. And outside, on the balcony, the man was leaning over the parapet with half-closed eyes, and a pain at his heart like death. It was the end of the second scene in the little drama of his memory, the second and the last.
"THAT," said a great painter to a girl who stood by his side, "is success—the heart and core of success. You and I, Miss Fanshawe, are only upon the borderland."
They were standing together in a recess looking out upon Lady Widnerton's drawing-room. She raised her eyes and looked steadily at the man towards whom her companion had inclined his head. She looked at him searchingly and with curiosity, for she knew by the world's report that the painter's words were true.
"It is the head of a conqueror," she said, thoughtfully. "I should like to paint him."
The man by her side smiled.
"That is how we all feel," he said; "but it is useless. He will not sit to any of us. He declined an offer from the President only the other day. I should not like to be sure, Miss Fanshawe—it is a good deal to say of any one now-a-days—but so far as my judgment goes, the man is honest. He is entirely without vanity."
"A man, and without vanity," she murmured. "Is that really possible?"
"I am almost convinced that it is so—in this case," he continued "He has made a great name, and he carries his honours with dignity and with modesty. I daresay that you saw his baronetcy gazetted last night. I know for a fact that he refused a peerage, and was very averse to accepting a title of any sort."
His companion nodded. As a matter of fact she had not been listening. She had scarcely removed her eyes from the man whom they were discussing.
"He has an interesting face," she remarked, "especially for a successful man!"
"Why the addendum?" he asked. "Isn't success generally interesting?"
She shook her head.
"No! Success so often means content and content is absolutely fatal. It is different with this man. He has one trait in common with all the men who have done great things since the days of Moses. There is a German word which nearly expresses it I cannot transcribe it."
"I mean that he is unhappy. He has been disappointed, or he is nursing a vain desire. Perhaps he has still greater ambitions than he has been able to gratify. One cannot tell. But he is not satisfied. He is very far from being contented. My sex will find him charming. He has just that air of languor freed from affectation which they love, only in his case I should say that it was heart languor—heart weariness."
"You know him so well that you must know him better," the painter remarked, smiling. "I will present him to you. We must be quick, though, or he will be gone. He never stays anywhere longer than a few minutes."
They crossed the room, and by an opportune turn came face to face with Kernham. A slanting ray of sunlight which had somehow eluded the holland blinds and the closely drawn venetians, touched the girl's head as they came to a standstill, and a few loose threads of hair, escaped from underneath her hat, shone like threads of gold. Kernham, on whose lips the words of farewell were already framed, stopped short in his progress towards the door. He held out his hand to the painter with more than his usual cordiality.
"I did not know that you were here, Treganon," he said. "I was just going."
He glanced at the girl who stood between them. Treganon hastened to utter a few words of introduction. Kernham heard her name with more than ordinary interest.
"You are an artist too, Miss Fanshawe, are you not?" he asked, after the customary formalities had passed between them.
"I think that I may venture to call myself one—in a very small way," she answered, smiling.
He seemed more interested than the simple fact warranted. Following a half-unconscious movement of his, they detached themselves from the little group by which he had been surrounded, and moved a few steps apart. The slightly wearied air which they had both remarked upon some few moments ago had vanished. The lines of his mouth no longer drooped, his eyes were keen and bright.
"There is a picture—no, not a picture, a study—of a woman's head in the New Gallery," he said, turning to the girl. "It is signed A. H. Fanshawe. I wonder, is it yours?"
"I have several small things there," she replied, "and one is a head, I believe."
"Can you tell me, was it sketched from life?"
"From a model?"
She considered for a moment or two.
"I really am not quite sure," she said. "I had several heads there a few weeks ago, and I transferred some to a smaller exhibition. I could tell, of course, if I saw it, but I am afraid that I did not give my instructions as to the transferring very clearly; and I could not say which have been removed. I am going to see for my own satisfaction though, and if you like I can let you know."
"You are very good indeed. I shall consider it a special favour," Kernham declared, warmly. "And will you forgive me for asking, is it for sale? If so, I should be happy to become a purchaser."
The girl laughed, her head thrown slightly back, and her white teeth gleaming for a moment. It was a musical little trill, but perfectly natural.
"For sale! Of course it is! Do you think that I am an amateur? I can assure you that I paint for my daily bread. If only the price were not in the gallery book, I should double it. We always do for millionaires, you know, and you are a millionaire, aren't you?"
"Whatever the price is, it is mine if you will do me the honour to sell it to me," he said. "The fact is that something in the pose, or in the face itself—I am not sure which—reminds me of some one whom I once knew, whose present whereabouts I am most anxious to discover."
A shade fell upon the girl's face. She felt unaccountably disappointed. After all, then, his interest in the picture was bounded by the fact that it reminded him of a woman he had known. She knew something of the lives of most of her models—certainly of the two or three who were old enough for him to have met before he left England. Was he like that? She looked at him and sighed. He had seemed different.
"I shall be passing Regent Street very shortly," she said. "I will look in then, and see if I can recall the study."
"We were going there now, were we not?" Mr Treganon interposed.
"Why should not Sir Francis Kernham walk down with us? You can let him know on the spot then."
Kernham waited for her reply with a quiet deference which pleased her.
"Certainly, if you care to," she said, turning to him. "I can tell you the price of the picture at the same time."
"A most admirable suggestion," he declared.
THEY passed from the somewhat faint atmosphere of green tea and roses and Bond Street perfumery, into the light, open space of the sunlit square. Kernham raised his hat for a moment, and drew a deep breath of relief.
"I wonder why we, any of us, go to afternoon receptions—especially on fine afternoons!" he exclaimed.
"Flaccidity of the moral caliber," Mr. Treganon suggested, "resulting in a want of firmness to stay away."
"A desire to see what other women are wearing," Miss Fanshawe remarked, looking down at her own perfectly made gown. "But as for you men, what you go for I cannot imagine."
"Neither can I," Kernham assented fervently.
They both laughed. No one cared about driving, so Kernham sent his carriage away. They walked together towards Regent Street, a noticeable trio, the artist with his white, curly hair and beard and grey frock coat, and Adela Fanshawe, tall, pale, distinguished, with large, earnest eyes and toilette elegant indeed, but stamped with an individuality which triumphed easily over fashion where it did not coalesce with it. Kernham, who walked by her side, was of another type, of another world. Yet in a sense, he harmonised.
They talked on the way, almost continuously. Kernham, his old habit of self-restraint strong upon him, effectually concealed his impatience to reach their destination. She asked him a question or two concerning the country of which he had been in effect the ruler and organiser and he answered her readily. What he said was interesting presently, stimulated by her sympathetic appreciation and unusual knowledge of the subject it became fascinating. When they reached the New Gallery, one, if not two, of the little party had forgotten their destination. It was Treganon who brought them to a standstill. The girl drew a quick breath, and looked at the man.
"That was life!" she said, suddenly. "And to think that you were content to come to this, to the puppet show of the world."
His dark eyes flashed out upon her. Something in them seemed to have leaped into life at the sting of her words. Her eyes fell before his. The man was masterful.
"Ten years is a lifetime there," he said, quietly. "I have made more money than I can ever spend, more money than I know what to do with. I have made the way a little easier for those who follow me. Life may be tame here, but I need rest."
And the girl laughed. Once more, she stepped across the pavement, the sunlight smote her hair into red-gold and fire.
"There is life here too to be tasted," she said. "A psychologist would tell you that the human drama of Regent Street is deeper and more subtle than the drama of life and death on the banks of the Gold river."
"We fight for our lives there every day," he said, grimly.
"And we for our souls every hour, here," she answered, with a little quiver in her tone. "We are blocking the way. Let us go in."
Neither of them missed Treganon when he stopped to speak to some friends in the doorway. Kernham was suddenly conscious of a new interest in the girl who walked by his side. The environment of her fashionable attire, the faint perfume of her clothes, the drooping lace of her parasol, the faultless fit of her grey Suede gloves, the soft, clinging folds of her gown, and the gentle swish of silk and lace as she moved—his consciousness of these things faded away. He looked into her eyes, at the curve of her lips, and like a flash he seemed to be brought once more into touch with that wilder, freer life from which he had so lately passed. Here was a woman who was no puppet, a woman of flesh and blood, a woman who was born to live. His heart gave a quick leap. The memory of that moment became an era to him. He was never altogether able to escape from it.
They had mounted to the gallery side by side, and he had led the way to the furthermost corner. A yard or two from the end he paused. A woman was standing before the little group of pictures towards which he was bound. The girl, who was a little in front turned round. Her face had cleared. A smile was parting her lips.
"How odd!" she exclaimed. "That is the head you meant, is it not? I ought to have remembered. It is just a study for a portrait I was to have painted, and curiously enough my subject is here looking at it."
At the sound of her voice the woman turned round. She was tall and superbly handsome. Her toilette was perfect and her carriage was the carriage of a queen. She smiled and greeted the girl with gentle patronage.
"Pray do not think me vain," she said. "I had no idea that the head was here until I looked for your things in the catalogue. I am only sorry now that I cannot stay in England for the rest. It is admirably flattering."
"I am glad you think so," Adela answered, quietly. "I have just sold it."
The woman frowned.
"Sold it! I hope not," she said. "I see that you have ten guineas upon it. I am quite willing to give you fifty."
"And although I shall deeply regret depriving any one else of its possession, I am bound to remind Miss Fanshawe that I have the first offer, and I am willing to give a thousand," Kernham interposed, with a note of irritation in his voice.
The woman turned her head for the first time, and looked towards him. The man looked at the woman. Then his fingers locked like steel into the banisters by his side. A light like the dawn broke across her face. She took half a step towards him and stopped. With a magnificent effort she stood quite still. The sound of his drawn breath passing between his clenched teeth choked back a cry. There was no one else in the corner. It was all over in a second, and it was between those three. The girl was bewildered, but in a sense she understood. She knew that a little drama of emotion and repression was played out before her eyes in those few seconds. The woman was as pale as death, and the man, whose bravery had become the household word of a nation, was white and shaken.
"You will let me present Sir Francis Kernham to you, Princess," Adela said, gravely. "Sir Francis Kernham—the Princess of Hohenmahn."
The man and the woman looked into each other's eyes. He read her bidding, and he was silent.
"The name has been made very familiar," she said, with a brilliant smile. "I think that I must be the last woman in London to bid you welcome home, Sir Francis. We have been on the Continent for a month or two—one always misses something."
He bowed over her outstretched hand. Adela turned away, ostensibly to find Mr. Treganon.
"Not now," she whispered. "Come to me to-morrow at four. You will find my house—Park Lane. Ah! Mr. Treganon, how do you do? I saw your sister in Rome, and she gave me a message for you. Will you see me to my carriage? and I will tell you all about it."
She swept past them with a gracious smile. The man and the girl were left alone.
"It is something like her, is it not?" the girl remarked, looking at the head. "Yes, I should say that the likeness is good."
"There is a certain resemblance," he admitted. She looked after him.
"After all, I think that you will agree with me, some day," she said quietly. "There is plenty of dramatic interest in life, even in this humdrum capital. The puppet show is fair, and the men and women are wooden enough to look at. But if one stirs the water a little one finds out."
"If one stirs the water a little," he repeated, slowly. "Yes."
"LIFE," the princess said, with her eyes fixed upon the green swaying branches of the trees in the park, "is a matter of volition. We have proved it."
"Yet after all, it is a burdensome matter," the man answered. "We accomplish our desires, and then we are forced to pause. We have our will, and we do not know what to do with it."
Her dark eyes gleamed softly at him through the golden twilight.
"That is only a momentary feeling," she said, "an interlude. To a man who has conquered as you have conquered, all things are possible."
He looked into her face and sighed.
"Ten years ago," she continued, "I was a third-rate actress without an engagement, on the threshold of despair. You were penniless and disheartened. We lived in miserable lodging in a miserable street. There seemed to be no future for either of us. To-day you are one of the world's conquerors, you are more talked about than any man in England, you have wealth, rank, fame, and honour And I—I—"
"You are a princess," he said, gravely.
"Yes, I am a princess," she repeated. "Since you came I have been wondering. Is it fancy, or are you disappointed to find me—like this?"
"It is not disappointment," he answered. "To find you as you are is a relief so great that I could not hope to make you understand how I feel about it. It is immeasurable. Yet you must remember that I am ignorant of many things."
"That is true. To you I must seem an adventuress. Do not shake your head. It is true. Yet tell me this. Which was the best? To have thrown myself on the mercy of the world, which has no mercy, to have sunk lower and lower and lower, to have given my body mortgage upon my soul—oh, I may as well say it—to have become the stained puppet of debauchery, or to have lied a little, and schemed a little for this? Which is the greater degradation, I wonder?"
"There can be no question about that," he declared. "I can answer it from my own sensations. Since I returned and found the money which I had sent untouched, my advertisement unanswered, I have suffered, God only knows what I have not suffered! Last night I felt that a load had passed away."
"You thought of me, then," she said, gently. "I am glad of that!"
"For ten years from the day I left to the day I landed again in England the only thoughts I had of any woman were of you. I want to be honest. Listen. When, that morning I awoke and found you gone without a word of farewell, with only that little strip of orange ribbon for a memory, I was glad. I was drunk with my desire to fight the world. Your flight seemed to me to relieve me of all responsibility concerning you. Later on it came back. Later on I suffered terribly. Whilst the fever of my struggle was upon me the thing remained in the background. Directly it was over it came back. When I returned to London the first visit I made was to that house in Chelsea. I stood in your old room, and the passion seemed born again. The past seemed to rise up, and my own black selfishness was there, plain, clear, ugly. From that moment until yesterday I have known no peace. And now—"
"And now?" she repeated, softly.
"I feel as though the cloud had passed away."
"Tell me," she said, "is that all you feel?"
He looked out of the high window across the darkening park. The perfume of spring flowers floated into the room from the heavily laden boxes. He was conscious that her eyes were following him.
"What am I to say to you?" he answered in a low tone. "I came home with the feeling that you belonged to me, that your future was my future, and my fortune yours. But all that is changed. You do not need my help, You are not free."
"It may alter events," she said, calmly. "It can not alter sensations. Do you want me to think that it was a sense of responsibility only which troubled you, that for me—the woman—you cared no longer? There was a time when you loved me surely?"
"I do not understand," he said. "Would you have me love you still?"
"There was never a woman in the world," she murmured, "who parted with a man's love without regret."
He turned towards her, so close that a wave of her silky hair touched his cheek, filling him with half-forgotten memories. He took her hand. She did not draw it away. Her eyes were soft and dim.
"Do you mean that I am to claim you even now?" he said, softly. "I want to do what is right between you and me. In the sight of God you belong to me, and to no other man. But there is your husband. What of him?"
She withdrew her hand. The quiver upon her lips had ceased; her face was clouded. Instinctively he felt that he had blundered.
"You are right to remind me of him," she said, quietly. "So far as he is concerned, this is the position. When he pressed me to marry him, I told him—of you. I told him the exact truth, but I added a lie. I said that you were dead. And, knowing all, but believing that you were dead, he still persisted, and I married him."
"And if he knew that I was alive?"
"He would probably insist on a separation," she said, coolly. "He is not so much in love with me as he was. There is a dancing girl at one of the halls—I forget her name—but they say that he has taken her to Paris. It is very likely. He is old enough and foolish enough."
Kernham was silent for a moment or two.
"I feel like a stranger in a strange world," he said, in a low tone. "It seems to me that there have been many changes here during the ten years of my exile."
"It is true," she answered. "There is a little less hypocrisy and a little more freedom. Women are not quite the slaves they were. It is bad enough as it is!"
"Marriage, I presume, is still in vogue?" he inquired with bland satire.
"Marriage is an incident," she answered. "Love alone makes epochs, and of love there is very little left in the world. You come from your great new country, almost a stranger, into the shallows and whirlpools of our more complex life. I wonder how it seems to you. I wonder—"
A carriage laden with luggage drew up below. A man descended and entered the house. The princess leaned forward, and her face darkened. Kernham, who watched it was troubled. She was looking downwards with curling lip.
"It is the prince—my husband," she remarked. "He is home several days earlier than I expected. Probably Suzette—I think it is Suzette—was not amiable. You will have the opportunity of making his acquaintance. In small matters he is most punctilious. He will pay his respects to me before he goes to his room."
Kernham half rose. "Would you rather I went away?" he suggested.
She motioned him back again.
"By no means. Sooner or later you would have to meet him. Much better now."
There was a knock at the door. A footman entered.
"His Highness the Prince has returned," he announced, bowing. "Is your Highness receiving?"
She half closed her eyes.
The prince followed close behind. Kernham rose from his chair as he approached. The princess languidly held out her hand, but scarcely turned her head.
"Back again already?" she remarked. "Was Paris dull?"
He took her hand and held it to his lips. He was short of stature, grey, and smooth-shaven. For the rest there was little to be seen of him. From head to foot he was enveloped in a huge fur coat.
"Paris," he said, bowing over her hand, "is never dull. I, on the contrary, am never anything else when—"
"When you are not with me, of course," she concluded abruptly. "How charmingly you say those things! Don't you see that I am not alone? Let me present you to my husband. Sir Francis. Maurice, this is Sir Francis Kernham—the Prince of Hohenmahn."
The two men bowed
"My wife is fortunate in having made the acquaintance of so distinguished a man," the prince remarked with cold cordiality. "One hears much of Sir Francis Kernham nowadays. Are you home for long?"
"For good, I hope," Kernham answered. "I have no present intention of going back again. My work is over."
The prince bowed again as he turned on his heel.
"In that case I trust to have the pleasure of seeing more of you, Sir Francis," he remarked. "Are you dining at home to-day?" he added, turning to the princess.
"I have not the least idea," she answered. "Let your man ask Celeste. She knows. I am sure I do not."
"I will inquire," the prince said. "If you are not I can easily go to my club."
The door was closed again. They were alone.
"I was going to ask you to stay and dine with me whether I had any engagement or not," she said. "Perhaps it is better not. Perhaps you would not have thought it discreet?"
He stood up and looked down at her. There was a very stern look in his face.
"I have not deserved that," he said. "I do not understand you. You have talked to me in riddles. You have shown me an enigma, and you have withheld the key. Forgive me if I am blunt. As you say, life and morals have become a little complex here. I am not in touch with either. Listen. You have married that man. In a sense you have given yourself to him. Yet you belonged to me first. Who has the better claim to you—your husband or I? Choose for yourself, and for your own happiness. If you are content to stay with him—well, stay, and I will remain the most devoted of your friends. If you are not content to stay with him, put on your things, and come away with me now—this moment. I will take you to whatever country of the world you like. As for laws, I can buy them. I will buy you your divorce if you care for it. I cannot make you a princess, but anything else that the world has to offer I can give you. Will you come?"
She leaned back in her chair and laughed—a slow, rippling laugh.
"Oh, you are delightful she exclaimed. This is the sort of wooing women love. Only persevere and you will be adored. Now, go away, please."
"Then you do not choose to come?" he persisted, unmoved. "You choose to stay! You consider yourself bound!"
"To no man on earth," she replied quickly. "Now you must please go away. Come and see me to-morrow—no, not to-morrow. I shall be away. Come on Friday. I may have something to say to you then."
He held her white fingers for a moment; she offered him the hand which the prince had not touched, and be looked into her eyes. After all she was not mocking him. A tear was trembling on her eyelid. She brushed it away proudly.
"Whatever you decide I—shall be content," he said simply. She walked slowly to her room and locked the door. In an hour she opened it to her maid. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyeballs burned, her crumpled hair fell about her forehead. But what had passed in that hour she alone knew.
SHE was leaning from an open window looking across a wilderness of housetops. The street below was uninspiring and dreary; opposite were the mews from a row of larger houses; away beyond slate roofs and chimney tops of every conceivable shape and pattern. But the girl was high up, on the sixth story of a block of small flats, and bounding the wilderness of suburbanism. She could catch faint glimpses of the spring sunshine upon the green trees of the park, melting away in the distance to a canopy of soft blue sky So she leaned there watching with half-closed eyes and listless manner. The light was good and there was plenty for her to do. Only the will was wanting. She leaned out of the window and watched the sunshine.
"Adela, come back to your work!" a shrill voice cried from the interior of the room. "You are unsettling when you moon about, and gaze and dream, in the daytime too with such a light. Come and work before I too am made lazy!"
Adela turned from the window and walked slowly back to her easel, but she did not take up her brush. The girl who had addressed hex dark, keen-eyed, untidy, stopped painting and watched her for a moment or two unnoticed.
"Adela," she said, in a softened tone, "what is the matter with you these last few days? You are distrait You do no work. Are you planning a new picture, or are you not well dear?"
Adela took up her brush and yawned.
"I am well, but lazy, little one!" she declared. "A trifle low-spirited, perhaps. You see the conception of my work is finished now. It is all execution, mostly mechanical, and it becomes a little monotonous. Everything is monotonous. I wonder that any one lives long enough to do anything. It really does not seem worth while!"
The other girl looked across at her with wide-open eyes. "Pshaw! what rubbish you do talk!" she exclaimed, "This is the result of going out into fashionable society, I suppose. And you are a worker, too! I should be ashamed to talk such vapid twaddle. Fancy if the men and women who have done great things in the world had encouraged such morbidness—your hero Kernham, for instance!"
Adela looked up quickly. There was a faint flush on her pale cheeks.
"My hero!" she repeated, sharply "What do you mean, child? He is nothing to me!"
The keen black eyes sought hers and fixed them. Adela commenced to work again. The other girl leaned back upon her stool.
"Well, I never!" she exclaimed. "You are cranky to-day. I've called him your hero heaps of times, and you haven't stopped me. Haven't you read about him in the papers, and praised him and compared him with all these town men who saunter through life yawning and making vapid epigrams? Why I was beginning to get almost tired of him."
"Oh, he is different, of course," Adela admitted, without looking up. "He may be a hero. I daresay he is. Only don't call him my hero."
The other girl smiled. The corners of her mouth twitched maliciously.
"Oh, very well. By the by, I was going to ask you. You have been out so much lately. I wonder if you have met him?"
Adela bent a little closer over her work.
"Yes," she said, indifferently. "I met him at Lady Widnerton's a fortnight ago. Mr. Treganon introduced me. He has bought my head at the New Gallery, I believe. Since you seem so curious about him," Adela continued, painting steadily on without change of countenance, "you may be interested to know that I saw him yesterday at the Clawsons', Tuesday at the Montagues', Monday at the New Arts Club, Friday in the park, and—oh, a few more times."
The girl laid down her brush, and her lips gathered themselves slowly together. It was not ladylike, but she certainly whistled.
"And you never told me one word!" she exclaimed. "Are you disappointed in him, then?"
Adela threw down her brush.
"Oh, don't tease me, child!" she cried. "Don't you see that I am in a vile temper? And don't ask me any more questions about Sir Francis Kernham. He is not a nice man. I do not want to see him, or hear him spoken of again! I want—oh, God! what do I want?"
She stood up in the middle of the room, her arms raised, her head thrown back. Her plain black gown buttoned close up to the throat, showed every line of her slim but perfectly graceful figure. Her hair, bronze and copper-coloured in the shadows, waved around her face and forehead like dull gold. Her eyes were suddenly flashing, her lips parted, her delicate nostrils quivering. The other girl, being an artist, forgot for a moment to wonder. She looked at her in admiration.
"I cannot tell, Adela," she said. "You have so much. You have fame. The critics are talking about you. You sell your pictures. The future is all bright before you. I cannot tell what it is that you do want!"
"Nor I, nor any one!" Adela cried with a sudden passionate outburst. "Only I know that I hate everything! My pictures sell, you say; the critics are talking of me. Well, that is good. Painting is good, but it is not life. Art is great, but it is not life. You and I who spend our days painting a little, walking a little, visiting and drinking tea—good God! we do not live. We do not know what life is. There are women whom anything seems to content. I am not one of them. I do not know what life is, but it is not this; it is not a little mild fame; it is not made or marred by a critic's word; it is not a succession of tea-parties blended with the occasional dissipation of talking to a young man with a turn-down collar and a green tie. Oh! I am so sick of it all—sick to death of our humdrum spinsterhood. I do not know what life is, but I want it—I want it!"
The other girl sighed. "Is it any man in particular?" she asked, quietly.
Adela walked to the window and back again.
"Oh, I don't care!" she cried, recklessly. "You won't make me simper and blush. Why shouldn't we be honest sometimes? I suppose I do want to care for some one. I daresay every girl feels the same now and then, if only she had the pluck to say so. I used not to. You know that I used to talk a lot of rubbish at Girton about a woman's career, and her independence, and all the rest of it. It's a pack of lies! Woman has no career—alone. The world isn't made for her. She isn't made for the world. To talk of a girl's career may do for mawkish schoolgirls and ignorant children. A woman finds out that there is something else. This isn't life. I want to live, to take deep draughts of life, to feel it bubbling in my veins and burning in my heart. I have passion, I have emotion. I am weary of having them stirred at second hand by Bernhardt on the stage, and Patti, and the fire of poetry. I want to live poetry for myself. There! It may sound immodest child, but at any rate it's honest. Don't look so frightened."
The other girl left her work and came over to Adela, She threw her arms around her neck.
"You do frighten me, Adela. You are so strong and so daring. When you love it will be the love that men have died for, and I am afraid—I am afraid of whom it may be—of where it may lead you."
"You are afraid that I am not orthodox, child," she said, laughing. "Perhaps I am not. You are afraid that if I were tempted I might dare to make my own laws and abide by them. Very likely I might. I cannot tell. But you see there is nothing to fear yet. There is nobody who cares for me. As yet the sky is clear. There is no mischief brooding."
The other girl sighed. "One cannot tell I have never seen you like this. Something has happened the last few days. I am sure of it. You have been ever so odd and snappy. You have done no work. You have done nothing but read and dream, and you have been horribly restless. Tell me, dear—is it that man?"
Adela laughed gaily.
"You are afraid that the seed has been sown, then, little one!" she cried, mockingly. "You are waiting for the harvest!"
There was a knock at the door. It was opened almost immediately. A man, tall, dark, debonair, came slowly across the threshold, hat in hand. When he bowed his lips parted in a faint smile. The perfume of the violets in his faultless frock-coat seemed to fill the bare little room.
FOR once Adela was not entirely mistress of herself. The man's advent was so entirely unexpected and yet so congruous with what had been passing between the two girls. She stood in the centre of the room, with a scarlet flush in her cheeks mounting slowly almost to the temples, and the other girl, who had never seen her friend blush, stood by her side, looking from one to the other with only half-comprehending eyes.
The man showed no embarrassment. He was simply a little perplexed.
"I am not quite sure whether I ought to have come up here," he said. "These flats are a mystery to me. I wanted to see you, and Treganon gave me your address. He said that you were at home on Wednesdays so I came. I asked the commissionaire for your studio, and he said, 'sixth floor,' and vanished. So I came up. Ought I to have waited anywhere?"
He spoke slowly, and it flashed into Adela's mind that he was making his explanation all the longer, that she might have time to recover herself. The idea stimulated her.
"Under the circumstances you couldn't very well do anything else," she said, laughing. "It is true that we receive on Wednesdays, but it is from two until four, and our proper studio is on the third floor. This is just a workshop where we indulge in dishabille, and don't as a rule, see anybody!"
"I am exceedingly sorry," he said, gravely. "You will allow me—"
"Oh, since you are here you needn't go away. Kate, this is Sir Francis Kernham. Sir Francis Kernham—Miss Kate Mayne."
He noticed her for the first time, and bowed. She inclined her head and went on with her work.
"You have a very good light here," he remarked, looking around. "May I see what you are doing?"
Adela threw a cloth over her easel.
"Certainly not The work we have for exhibition we keep down stairs. Miss Mayne may have something to show you," she added, with a touch of malice.
The girl looked up from her canvas for a moment. "Certainly not," she declared, coldly. "I do not show my unfinished work to any one."
He laughed good-humouredly and remained perfectly at his ease.
"I must say that you are neither of you very encouraging to a pictureless man, whose chief desire in life is to become a patron of the arts. I did not understand that this was an amateur studio."
"An amateur studio!" Adela exclaimed indignantly. "What an insult!"
"May I be permitted to remark that you brought it upon yourselves," he said, with suave good humour. "I tell my friend Treganon that I want to buy some pictures, and ask him how to set about it. He tells me to avoid the dealers, and visit the studios. I obey him, and here I am!"
"If you wish to see our work it is downstairs," the other girl remarked, calmly. "You will find us there any Wednesday between two and four."
"I regret to see," he said, looking at his watch, "that it is now half past five. Perhaps, as I am a stranger though, Miss Fanshawe will pardon my being a little late, and take me downstairs?"
Adela laughed and took a latch-key from the shelf.
"You are very persistent," she said, "and a little rash. However, we are not going to turn away a buyer. Won't you come, Kate?"
The girl shook her head. "No, thanks. There is no need for both of us to go. You can show Sir Francis Kernham anything of mine he wishes to see."
Adela nodded and left the room followed by Kernham. They went down several flights of stairs, and she unlocked a door.
"I suppose," she remarked, "that you really came about that study?"
He shook his head.
"I took that home a week ago. The princess admitted that I had a prior claim."
"Then you came only to buy pictures?"
"I came without any definite purpose at all, except to see you," he said, slowly. "I am afraid that I have got into the bad habit of expecting to have my own way always. You were not in the park and I wanted to see you. Treganon, whom I met there, told me that it was your 'at home' day. So I came straight on here. The picture-buying came to me as an inspiration, when I found that my visit needed an explanation. Is your friend always so amiable?"
Adela smiled. She had meant to be angry, but somehow, it was not easy.
His manner was so natural, and he was so obviously in earnest.
"Kate is an odd girl," she remarked. "Won't you sit down?"
"Thanks, since I am here I should like to look at the pictures," he said "I really want a few."
The room they were in was half studio, half drawing-room. A score or so of pictures were hanging on the walls and distributed on easels. Sir Francis looked at them carefully one by one, with his pocket-book in his hand. Now and then he made a few remarks; several he passed at once after a casual glance. When he had finished he had thirteen entries.
"I like your odd little friend's work better, a great deal, than I expected to," he said, frankly. "Those two little landscapes, the 'Apple Orchard' and the 'Moorland Scene,' are charming. Next to your Girl's Head,' I prefer them to anything here. Have you nothing else to show me?"
"Nothing. Haven't you seen enough?"
"I heard something of a picture of yours in last year's Academy. Was it sold, or is it among those I have looked at?"
She hesitated. "No."
"Then may I see it?"
She pointed to a picture with its face to the wall.
"Will you help me turn it round?" she said.
Together they dragged it out and placed it where the light was best. He retreated a few steps and stood looking at it. For several minutes he was silent. Then he spoke without looking away from the picture.
"What did you call it?" he asked in a low tone.
"I call it 'Despair,'" she answered.
He remained silent, his eyes fixed upon the central figure in the painting. A man's face, scarred, lined, aged, yet in a sense redeemed by the high forehead, piercing eyes, and a certain nobility of pose, looked out at him from a background of lurid, misty twilight. His feet were on a mountain-top. Above him was nothing but clouds and space. Below, dimly seen through wreaths of mountain mist, was a little phantasmagoria obviously allegorical. The path by which he had climbed was faintly denoted, and from its sides the white arms and passionate faces of golden-haired women were stretched upward towards that dark, lone figure, whose averted eyes swept the clouds. There was a palace from which he had come, a crown cast away in his haste, men stricken low lying by the wayside, a wasted world of triumphs seemed to lie forgotten behind him. And with his back to these things, yet with their undying marks written into the lines of his face, the man's fierce eyes still unquenched, seemed to look out into the open spaces by which he was surrounded, with a fire wholly unresigned, yet full of the most ineffable and absolute despair. To Kernham, that steadfast, half-scornful gaze seemed almost like a challenge. He stood in the centre of the room with folded arms, handsome dark, determined, his eyes riveted upon that branded face, and as he gazed his cheeks paled, the corners of his firm mouth came together in rigid lines, a flash of answering fire seemed to be kindled in his own passionate eyes. Yet his heart was chilled. The man was mocking him. He, too, had triumphed. Him, too, the world of rest and pleasure, in one long sweet chorus, many-tongued and thrilling, was whispering into her embrace. Yet it had come already. Like the first dim premonitions of a dread disease he had felt it stir within him—that horrible heart-hunger, that strange shadow of depression thrown before—sure token of the eternal despair which the eyes of that man in the picture were flashing out upon him.
And the woman who stood looking into his face read his thoughts, and felt a sudden, deep remorse. The critics had spoken of her work as irreligious, pagan, a product of lassitude and pessimism. The memory of their words came back to her now, and cut her like a knife. If a fervent wish could have done it she would have rent the canvas before his eyes. She moved closer to his side. Her warm breath fell upon his cold cheek. The low cadence of her voice was like a sudden, sweet music cleaving the darkness.
"You are not afraid of that," she cried, softly—"not you! That can only come to men whose hearts have been gnawed and eaten up with sin. For all others sorrows pass! For all others there is hope!"
A flash of sunlight came darting zigzag into the room. The face of the man in the picture was blurred and lost. Kernham looked away into the face of the girl who bent towards him.
The world of mild conventions and social masks seemed suddenly to have rolled away from beneath their feet. At a single step they had passed into vivid and sympathetic communion. And for that girl there came in that same second the crown of her desires. She lived—lived with every fibre of her being. The world went quivering around her with a strange new music. Her face caught a sudden light and held it. He looked at her and wondered.
"It is my fear," he said, in a low tone; "sometimes I feel that it may be my fate. Sometimes I seem to feel it moving on towards me. I am like that man! I have spent all my ambitions.''
"There are other things—besides ambitions," she murmured.
"There are other things for other men," he answered. "They will not come to me."
"You cannot tell. Time is young yet with you. You have only just entered upon your second life. Oh, if I were a man! If I were you I would not suffer such thoughts to come to me. You have youth and wealth and fame. Life is full of possibilities."
He pointed silently to the picture. "He, too, had youth and wealth and fame. Yet he became—that! And he was no sensualist. It was not that you meant!"
She threw a cloth over the canvas.
"Do you want to make me sorry that I showed it to you?" she said softly. "Can't you see his greatest suffering? It is loneliness."
"And who is more lonely than I?" he exclaimed bitterly.
"You need not be lonely," she answered. "The world which rings with your praises will find you many friends."
"Parasites and hypocrites." he cried, scornfully "It is the same world at which I looked from a garret window ten years ago, unknown and friendless. I was very near starvation then, and the world was quite content to let me starve. I think the seeds of what you call my morbidness were sown in those days. Poverty is a bitter taskmaster!"
She sighed. "I, too, know what it is," she said, wistfully. "I was poor once, but I owe the world no grudge for that."
He looked at her in admiration. Before he had not thought of her as beautiful. He was bewildered by this new light in her face, and the magic of her soft, wonderful eyes raised so frankly to his.
"Ah, if I had known you then!" he exclaimed. "We might have been friends now."
"Is it too late? There is the future."
His hands clasped upon hers. She yielded them without reserve.
"It is more than I deserve, more than I have a right to," he said, and he forgot to release her hands.
When she drew them gently away, he watched them pass out of his keeping regretfully. They were ringless, white, and soft, not by any means small, but delicate and shapely. Their touch had given him a peculiar pleasure.
"I am going to exercise my rights at once," she said, briskly, moving a little way from him, and keeping her face in the shadows. "Give me your pocketbook, please."
He handed it over to her. She looked at the list of pictures he had written in, and drew her pencil through half of them.
"You must be content with these, please," she said. "The others are not worth your buying. I have left Miss Mayne's two landscapes and four others—and I have charged you full prices."
"The prices are ridiculous," he said; "but there is one other picture here which I must have."
He lifted the edge of the cloth which hung over it. She shook her head resolutely.
"I would rather not sell you that one," she said; "not as it is now, at any rate."
"I want it!" he declared, firmly. "I want it if for nothing else, as a memento of to-day."
She swept the cloth away, and looked at it for a moment or two.
"Well, you shall have it," she said, "but not just now. I must alter it a little."
"As you will, so long as I have it," he answered. "Do you know that you have done me good already? I am feeling less despondent. After all, there must be things in the world which gratify."
"Try and keep in that faith," she said, gently; "and good-bye. You must really go away. You have been here more than an hour."
She took leave of him with a certain curious shyness, utterly strange to her, and when he had gone she sat for some time in the room alone. Somehow she shrank from facing the other girl and her questions. And he walked home through the crowded streets with a feint smile upon his lips, and a new buoyancy in his spirits—a buoyancy which lasted until he reached his rooms, and found upon his table a letter with a coronet, addressed to him in a handwriting rapidly becoming familiar. He opened it quickly, and read—
Why did you not call this afternoon? I had something to say to you, and waited in for an hour. Come to-morrow without fail. By the by, where were you? You were not in the park. I shall be at the Opera tonight, and at the Marchioness of Downshire's afterwards. Perhaps we may come across one another.
The note fluttered out of his fingers and into the fire. He watched it burn into white ashes. If only men could dispose of their past like that.
ADELA threw down her brush. She was pale, and there were dark rims under her eyes.
"I have a headache and I cannot work!" she cried. "Come, we have not had a holiday for a long time. Let us walk in the Park. I have a new gown, and I want to wear it before it becomes old-fashioned. It is already a week old."
The other girl rose with a half-regretful glance at her work.
"As you will, Adela," she said. "The sun is hot in here, and you do not look fit to work. Only remember that I have no new gown, and I am very shabby; Fortunately no one will look at me while I am with you."
"Nonsense, child! Your magenta looks very well indeed. Don't try and put me off. Kensington Gardens will not do for me this afternoon. I want the real thing. I am going to play at being a woman of fashion."
They set off together, walking slowly towards Hyde Park Corner. Adela's pallor soon vanished. The new gown was a success. Even when they joined the ranks of the promenaders near the Corner she was still a distinguished figure in the little crowd. Her friend looked at her once or twice admiringly.
"Poor dowdy little me!" she exclaimed, gaily. "How dainty and cool you look! It is quite the prettiest dress in the park, but it must have cost you an awful lot of money."
Adela smiled. "Well, I don't often spend much money on dress," she remarked. "This one was a little expensive, of course. I am glad that it is a success. Let us rest for a moment or two. There are two chairs just by you."
They sat down. It was a little late in the season, but the park was still without any signs of thinning. The girls amused themselves by singling out their friends and acquaintances. Suddenly there was a rattle of a coach close to the railing. Adela looked up, and the colour faded beneath her veil. Sir Francis Kernham was driving, and by his side was the Princess of Hohenmahn.
His team was going well, and as he passed he glanced down the walk. Something in Adela's pose seemed to attract him. He looked again, and raised his hat. The coach was past in a second, with a whirl of yellow wheels and a cloud of dust. The girls were silent. Kate looked after it with a frown upon her forehead. She had watched her friend, and her heart was very sore. This was the cause, then, of Adela's pallor and headache. She felt inclined to cry. The pity of it was so great.
A voice from behind broke the silence.
"There goes the luckiest fellow in Europe," a man drawled. "Thirty-five years old, a millionaire, famous, and that most mysterious of all things—the fashion. All the women rave about him."
"Married?" inquired his friend tersely.
"No. The society papers are doing their best to arrange it for him every week, but I haven't heard anything definite. I should say myself that he was not a marrying man—a fact which I should think must cause the Prince of Hohenmahn some anxiety at times."
"The princess and he are a good deal talked about are they not?"
Kate rose with an indistinct remark about the heat.
"Let us walk on and have some tea somewhere," she suggested.
But Adela sat and shook her head.
"I am tired," she said. "I prefer to rest. We will go presently."
The man's voice reached them again from behind.
"The princess is the very last woman in the world whom one would have suspected of indiscretion. For years people used to call her the proudest woman in London. She was literally without a single admirer, and now this man comes along and, 'pon my word, it looks like a case of Veni, vidi, vici! I happen to know that the prince is awfully savage. Serve him right! He's a wretched bad lot himself, and she must know all about it. All the same, I should think it likely that there'll be a big burst up there before long. I—hush! Here he is—and alone too!"
Adela looked up and found him standing before her, hat in hand. She greeted him with a word of surprise.
"I thought that I saw you drive by just now," she remarked, calmly.
"I did go by, and I saw you," he answered. "I have left my coach at the corner. I wanted to come and speak with you. Will you walk a few yards?"
Adela looked toward her companion.
"Do you mind?" she said.
The girl shook her head. Adela rose, and they walked slowly down the broad path. The colour had come back to her cheeks. She was carrying herself well, and her eyes were very bright.
"It is three weeks and a day since I saw you," he commenced.
"How strange that you should remember," she answered, fingering the lace of her parasol for a moment. "The princess is a very handsome woman."
He looked at her in some surprise at the apparent irrelevancy of her remark. Then a light seemed to break in upon him. He frowned, and just then his face was not a pleasant one to look upon.
"You have been hearing things—gossip, I suppose, about her," he said. "I know that women love to talk it. I did not fancy that you would be a willing listener."
"As it happens, I was an unwilling listener," she replied. "I am sorry I mentioned her name. Consider my remark unspoken, if you please."
"I have wanted to come and see you," he said. "I have wanted for three weeks and a day."
She raised her eyebrows. There was the faintest possible curl upon her lips, a shade of mocking sympathy in her tone.
"Dear me! Have you had so many engagements? How wearisome it must be to find one's self a man of fashion and a celebrity! I am sorry."
He looked away. She glanced at him, and her heart sank. He was looking white and ill. There was a change in him already.
"It has not been that—exactly," he said, after a moment's hesitation. "In fact my engagements have had nothing at all to do with it. There has been something else."
At least he was sincere. Woman-like she forgot herself and her wistful waiting.
"You do not look well," she said, kindly. "I hope you have not been imbibing any more morbid fancies."
He laughed shortly.
"You are persuaded that they are morbid. Well, I don't know. I don't want to talk about it now. When may I come and see you?"
"Exactly whenever you choose," she answered, smiling. "Forgive me if I was disagreeable just now. Frankly, I expected you to come before. I have been expecting you every day for three weeks and a day, and when you did not come I was disappointed. You know we were to be friends."
"At least, do not imagine that I have not thought of that," he said, earnestly. "If I have kept away it has been at my own expense. I have had fancies. Some day I may be able to laugh at them, and then I will tell you. May I come to-morrow?"
"I shall be at home all day," she answered. "Come about four, and I will give you some tea. Here is Mr. Treganon, and I want to speak to him. Do you mind if we turn back?"
He assented silently. She walked between the two men, talking mostly to Mr. Treganon, but every now and then appealing to Kernham. Her little friend was walking slowly a few yards in front of them with some friends. When the little group came together they were in the shadow of a coach. The prince looked down from the box seat with an air of relief.
"Here, Kernham!" he called out, "come and drive your own horses, for God's sake! Your wheeler's got a mouth like a brick. I wouldn't have the holding in of such a team if you were to give them to me."
Kernham made his adieu, without any particular hurry, and clambered up the side of the coach. The princess, who was looking a little bored, glanced down at the group through her gold lorgnettes, and bowed to Adela languidly.
"That little artist girl looks quite good style," she remarked to Kernham, as he took up the reins. "By the by, didn't I see you talking to her?"
"Probably. I have been talking to her," Kernham answered, shaking out the reins.
The princess gently closed her eyeglasses, and looked down with uplifted eyebrows. After all, the girl had very little presence. Her figure was too thin, and her hat was quite two months old.
"She is a little dowdy," the princess remarked, with a slight yawn. "But then those sort of people go in for that kind of thing don't they? It is so hard to hit the mean, though, between untidiness and artistic effects. That girl wants a maid to show her how to do her hair."
"Would you care to take one more turn," he asked, "or shall I drive you home?"
"Home, by all means," she decided. "The roads are so horribly dusty, and I want my tea."
Sir Francis touched his leaders with the whip, the horn was blown, and they drove off smartly. Adela and Mr. Treganon watched them side by side in the shade of the lime trees.
"He has soon settled down into London life," Treganon remarked. "Do you remember that it is scarcely six weeks since I pointed him out to you at Lady Widnerton's, and he had not been in England a month then! His star has not commenced to wane yet. Six weeks; it seems longer than that doesn't it?"
The coach was passing out the gate. Adela watched it disappear.
"Yes—it seems longer," she answered.
THE Prince of Hohenmahn for the first time during the season dined tête-à-tête with his wife. An unexpected death had broken up a great dinner party. Left with the choice of his club or his wife's company, he might possibly have chosen the former, but he was forestalled.
"I have ordered dinner at home for both of us," she remarked, looking in at his rooms on her way downstairs. "You have no other engagement until later, at any rate, and there is a matter which I wish to discuss with you."
She was gone before he could frame any objection. On thinking it over, he decided not to attempt any. A few minutes later he joined her in the drawing-room.
"This is quite an unexpected pleasure," he remarked, as he gave her his arm. "I hope we shall not bore one another to death."
"I do not think that you will suffer much in that way," she answered, smiling. And somehow he did not like that smile.
Dinner in the presence of the servants passed with a little languid conversation. The prince, to whom it was the one serious event of a generally misspent day, bestowed upon it his undivided attention. His wife, eating very little, leaned back in her chair and watched her lord through half-closed, scornful eyes. He was old and small and ugly. With every glass of wine he took—and he took a good many—his face grew redder. He had none of the physical qualities which endear a man to her sex. Yet he was a prince, the head of a noble house, and a millionaire. He represented to her at once her salvation and her bondage, but even for that salvation she could not summon up one spark of gratitude. She knew very well what it was in her that had attracted him. She watched him with disgust. Truly she had paid a great price.
With the last course he had lit a cigarette. They were dining in one of the smaller rooms at a little round table. With the arrival of the dessert he turned his chair round to the fire.
"My brougham at ten o'clock, Jean," he ordered, sipping his curaçao.
The man bowed and withdrew. They were alone. He looked through the faint mist of tobacco smoke at his wife, and wondered whether anything unpleasant was coming. She, too, had turned her chair round, and was gazing into the fire. The white swansdown and lace at her bosom was gently rising and falling, and the fire of half hidden diamonds flashed from her hair and throat. Decidedly she was a very handsome woman, only so cold, so disappointingly, impenetrably cold. Not his style at all. He preferred something more chic. He thought of Mademoiselle Suzette, and glanced at his watch. It was barely half-past nine.
He shut his watch with a snap. It had come, then.
"I have a few words to say to you."
"I am entirely at your service, for half an hour," he said, politely.
"Half an hour will, I think, be quite sufficient. Listen, then. We have been married now for eight years; a little longer, I believe. This is the first time I have spoken to you upon a subject which few women would have left so long untouched. During that time I think that you will admit that I have kept the promises I made to you faithfully. I never pretended to love you. I never have done. But I think you will admit that you have had no cause to find fault with me."
"None whatever," he admitted. "We have got on well together, have we not? I have never complained."
She shot a single glance at him, before which his eyes fell. Such ineffable contempt stung even him.
"You complained! What I wish to remark is that I have borne in silence from you what very few women would be content to bear without reprisals. I refer, of course, to your continual and notorious infidelities."
He moved a little uncomfortably in his chair, and lit a fresh cigarette.
"Do I understand that you are bringing this forward as a charge against me?"
"I bring no charge," she interrupted, calmly. "I will do you the justice to admit that you have never attempted to conceal your—what do you call them?—amours. They have been the talk of the clubs, and the scandal of the society papers. I, your wife, have had them brought to my notice with wearisome persistence. To tell you the truth, I am a little tired of them."
"My impression is," he remarked, looking across at her, "that they scarcely form a profitable topic of conversation between you and me. If you will kindly be a little more explicit."
"I am on the point of being remarkably explicit. What I was about to say is, that for eight years I have been passive, notwithstanding unfaithfulness on your part which has been both gross and flagrant. This is the end. From to-night I am adopting a new policy."
"A new policy!" he gasped.
"Exactly! A policy of reprisals."
He half rose from his chair, but sat down again. For several moments he was silent watching her, and taking short thick breaths. The unhealthy flush had partly left his face, under his eyes there was a livid streak of white. He was scarcely master of himself.
"You must explain what you mean a little more clearly," he said, closing his sentence with a quick gasp.
She shrugged her shoulders. "How is that possible, I wonder. I intend to follow your example. What can be clearer?"
"You dare not," he muttered. "Your position—"
"There are plenty of women in my position," she said, calmly, "who have done and are doing, every day what I propose to do. My wit is as good as theirs. What they do I can do. If I valued my position that much—I could retain it."
Her white, jewelled hand had flashed out between them in a gesture of contempt. The vein on his forehead grew larger.
"You would not dare!" he cried, thickly. "I would have you exposed. I would drag you into the Divorce Court. You would be an outcast. The doors of society would be closed upon you."
She smiled pityingly at him. "You are hopelessly behind the times," she remarked. "Divorces are rather the fashion just now. I am afraid there is no chance for me, though. I do not know much about the law, but as regards the Divorce Court, you yourself have, unfortunately, a somewhat tarnished record. They do not grant divorces to men who have lived such lives as you. But after all, that does not interest me."
He tossed off a glass of curaçao, and come and stood over her.
"Look here, Marcia, you're talking nonsense. You've been reading some damned rubbish about new women and new laws and all the rest of it. Take my advice. I'm a man of the world. I know what I'm talking about. There may be no justice about it; I'm not defending it, but there are things a man may do and a woman may not do. I admit my unfaithfulness. But ask yourself this. Have I had no excuse? You yourself have presented me with one. Only a moment ago you said that you did not love me, and that you never had loved me."
She raised her eyes to his. "And those creatures—have they loved you?" she asked, with infinite contempt.
"They have pretended, and that is all a man wants!" he answered, bluntly. "But never mind that. That isn't for you to hear about. What I want you to understand is this. There is a license given to a man, rightly or wrongly, mind, but there is none to a woman. I may deceive you every day of my life, and no one thinks the worse of me for it. But you, you have only to compromise yourself once, and the women will hound you down. Trust them to do it. The higher your position, the more they will go for you. It's in the blood; sort of sporting instinct, I suppose. But they'll do it! Damn it they'll do it! I'm speaking the truth. If it's a woman, it's ruin. If ifs a man, well, it's his license."
"It is the license of brutes, not of men!" she answered scornfully. "You and such as you have no right to call yourselves men. I am sick and ashamed to have lived so long with so unclean a thing. When I leave you I shall feel an honester and purer woman. Oh, I'm not going to rail. I'm not an apostle. Don't be afraid. But I know this, that my purity is more sullied by the touch of the tips of your fingers, even though you are my husband, than by the arms of the man I love!"
He fell back from her. Was this the interpretation? Then he laughed hoarsely, but without mirth.
"The man you love," he repeated. "Bah! you do not know what love is. You are not a woman of flesh and blood at all. You are as cold as ice. Heart! you haven't one. Passion! you don't know what it is!"
She suddenly rose up before him. A rush of colour had flooded her cheeks and throat. Her eyes were soft and brilliant. He looked at her stupefied. It was a new woman standing there in the rose-shaded light. Her bosom was swelling, her eyes were afire. No; he could not say that the woman had no passion.
"Maurice, you remember when you pressed me to marry you, I made a confession?"
So it was the memory of that which had changed her. He nodded.
She leaned over and whispered in his ear. Again that vein stood out like whipcord. His face was purple.
"It is false!" he cried. "He was dead! You swore it!"
"He was not dead!" she answered, fiercely. "Never mind whether I lied or not. He has come back. I love him! I have always loved him! I belong to him; never—never to you. I belong to him, and if he will have me I shall go to him."
He held out his hands despairingly. "Consider—the disgrace."
She laughed in scorn. "Disgrace and the world's censure are tiny weeds beside the great tree of love!" she answered. "I have tried them and they have given me nothing. For eight years I have wearied myself by playing at being alive, and all the while I have known that the cup of life had never once touched my lips, that I was an ignoble creature of type and habit. There is no word which you can say that can stop me. I am your wife no longer. I am free of you. Be off to your dancing girl. It is ten o'clock!"
"Tell me the man's name!" he cried fiercely. "I will know it!"
She laughed. "Why? You cannot fight him. Duelling is out of fashion. Don't be foolish. You are quite powerless. Hush!"
A servant stood upon the threshold.
"His Highness' brougham is at the door," he announced. "Sir Francis Kernham is in the hall. He inquires for Madam the Princess."
"You can show Sir Francis in here," she answered. "Maurice, it is ten minutes past ten."
He stood in the centre of the room with clenched hands. The man, with his cloak on his arm, stood respectfully by his side. After all, how lovely she was! He was blind with passion, mingled with a curious resurrection of his old admiration of her. He waved the man away.
"Marcia," he cried, in a broken voice. "I will give Suzette up! Send that fellow away. We will go abroad. I will be a better husband. I will reform. I swear it!"
"My dear Prince," she said, with a brilliant smile, "your little speech is exactly eight years too late. That is all I have to say to you!"
She touched the bell. The servant reappeared, followed by Sir Francis Kernham. The prince turned on his heel.
SIR FRANCIS looked from the closed door to the princess's face. "Something is wrong with your husband," he remarked, gravely. "He did not speak to me; he did not look in a fit state to speak to any one. Had you not better see what is the matter before he goes out?"
She shook her head. There was a flaring spot of colour in her cheek. She was standing in the centre of a little rose-shaded halo from the lamplight and his first thought was curiously enough the counterpart of the prince's last one. A new beauty seemed to have blossomed out in her. Even the lines and curves of her superb figure seemed to have become softer and more voluptuous. He looked into her face and wondered. A flash of the old Marcia seemed to be lighting up those dark eyes. A curious little thrill of recollection warmed his blood.
"He will take care of himself," she said. "He is very angry, and he has not very much self-control. It is possible that he may come back again. If he does, do not quarrel with him. He is not a man. He is not worth it. Leave me to deal with him."
"But why should he want to quarrel with me?"
"Come into my room, and I will tell you," she answered. "I cannot stay here. Even the odour of his cigarette sickens me. It is suffocating. Come!"
She looked at him over her shoulder as she passed—one of those looks by which a woman knows so well how to express a good deal. His heart leaped up and sank like lead. He followed her across the great hall, and when she lingered for a moment by a tall palm a sudden vision rose up before his eyes, forbidden memories burst the seal which he had placed upon them. Lower down, near the front entrance, three servants, footmen in powdered hair and in the livery of the house of Hohenmahn, stood at attention. So he followed her in silence across the marble tiles, upstairs and down a long corridor. She led him to a room where he had never been before—a room of heterogeneous appointments, half French, half Oriental, with pale green hangings.
"This is my own sanctum," she said, "and you are the first man who has ever set his foot in it. Come here by the fire and talk, or rather listen. I have a good deal to say to you."
He sank into an easy-chair, apprehensive, yet curiously tongue-tied. Between this woman and the woman of a few hours ago there was a change—a subtle marvellous change. The cadence of her voice, the soft, dreamy light in her eyes, even the rhythmic movements of her body bespoke a new and frank abandonment. Despite his will, those old memories were not altogether to be controlled. For him that one dream of love, the one passionate effort of his life, remained amongst those things of his earlier days from which time had irrevocably severed him. His sense of responsibility concerning it had never left him. It was as poignant and real to-day as on the morning when she had drifted from him into what seemed like certain destruction. The passion itself was a dead thing, yet he was a man, stronger a little, and purer a little than most men, yet a man, and she was very beautiful, and there was between them that common consciousness of a past, shrouded indeed, but never without its thrilling suggestions. That she should desire its resurrection or the resurrection of any part of it, he had never seriously believed since he had heard her name and looked into her face amongst the pictures of the New Gallery. Even now he was only bewildered with a terrible suspicion. To-night he was called upon to meet it face to face. It was true that her husband was an evil liver, that her married life in some respects must be an unholy one. Yet he could not seriously bring himself to believe that she would ever be likely to accept that offer wrung from him on his first visit to her. Since that day she had never alluded to it. He had prayed that it might be forgotten. What he had said to her then had seemed to him the right thing to say. Yet, after all, she was the wife of another man, and that man, however great a sinner, had been the means of her salvation. He was a simple-minded man, and he had no vanity. He could not believe that the passion which was dead in his own heart still burned in hers. She was the wife of the Prince of Hohenmahn, a fact which, rendering her all the more desirable to most men, to him made her sacred. In the wide world of honeycombed morals he was almost a purist. And yet behind all his reasoning there lurked sometimes an awful apprehension. He had spent sleepless nights grappling with it; it hung about him like a nameless fear. To-night, at her altered manner it had leaped up.
She sank into an easy chair close to his. The light of the fire played upon her profile, and flashed upon the jewelled hand so close to his.
"You thought," she commenced, "that my husband looked at you strangely. I want to remind you of something. Before I consented to marry him, I told him—you know what!"
With a curious shyness he dropped his eyes before hers. She laughed a low sweet laugh, sweet with the spice of the daintiest mockery.
"It made no difference. He would marry me. He thought himself very much in love. But, as you know, I told him a lie. To-night I have confessed. To-night he knows that you are alive!"
He looked up quickly.
"You have told him that I was the man?"
"He knows it—and more than that—he knows that I am going to leave him. I have borne the shackles of my serfdom long enough. You are a man. You have heard of the manner of his life."
"I have heard it spoken of," he admitted, gravely. "I had hoped that it might not have been true—that at least there might be exaggerations."
"Believe me, there are none. Do you think it right for a self-respecting woman to live with a man like that?"
He was troubled. These were matters hard to solve, and he knew that his ideas, the ideas of his youth, had long ago been laughed to scorn—that they had become the world's derision.
"I do not know;" he said hesitatingly. "You are his wife!"
"My God! Do you think, then, that because the law has joined us together, the bonds which he has cast off like ropes of sand are to remain sacred to me? Do you think that I am bound to live still with a man who gives himself up to debauchery after debauchery? What hideous rubbish! Can I give my lips to his fresh from the lips of his courtesans, and retain a single grain of self-respect? No! I have borne it too long! To-night it is over—and he knows it!"
"And the future?" he murmured.
She came and knelt down by his side. Her head was bowed before his.
"Francis, when I think of your life through all these years and of mine, I am ashamed, miserably ashamed. Your words are always haunting me. Through all your long exile, when you were carving your way to fame and to fortune, no other woman's face came before you to drive out the memory of—of mine. You were faithful. And when your task was ended, and you had won your triumph—when you came back it was before my picture that I found you, and you were there to buy it at any price!"
She took his hand and smoothed it in hers. He looked into the fire with blank, unseeing eyes. His lips were sealed.
"What did you think of me when you knew that I had married another man?"
"I was glad," he answered, simply. "Remember the threat which you uttered, the terrible misery of those days, the future which you deliberately proposed for yourself. Yes, I was glad!"
She shuddered a little. "What I threatened then—I meant!" she said in a low tone. "Do you know what it was that saved me? It was you. That morning when I stole away and left you, I felt that the thing had become impossible. Sooner the river, any sort of death. I felt that I belonged to you. The old life had passed away. I started again, and I endured many things before I married that man—but your kisses were last upon my lips. There was no one else. There could not have been. I married him, and all that I promised he has had from me. Then you came back, and when I looked into your face, the old feeling returned with a rush. I was glad! I would not crush it. It was like a live sweet thing. The horror of living with him became suddenly unbearable. I know why it was. It was because you were here, and, Francis, I had not forgotten that I loved you."
Her voice sank to a whisper. She had moved as though insensibly a little nearer to him. He had only to stretch out his arms to enclose her. But he did not move. He sat still looking into the fire. The pressure of her hand was like a weight of lead to him.
"To-night," she whispered—"to-night I have broken my bonds. I am a free woman. It is like the dawn of a fresh life to me, dear. And you have been so patient so noble. You are glad. Tell me that you are glad."
He thrust her away from him, roughly, feverishly. His bronze cheeks had paled. This then was retribution.
"Hush!" he cried. "You are forgetting—you have not thought! You are a princess. Your name, your rank—your honour!"
She smiled upon him brilliantly. She was so sure of him. It was his great love for her, this hesitation. He was so strong.
"Some day you will understand how small all these things seem to a woman compared with love," she whispered, softly. "Women are not frightened by bugbears now. The greatest shame is the shame of living with such a man as the Prince of Hohenmahn. It is to you I belong. To you I have always belonged. There is not any shame in love. Oh, Francis!" she cried, with a sudden wonderful light sweeping into her face, "I want to be loved. I am famished for love. I have been so heartsick and so weary all these years, that if you had not come, if I had lost you, I think that I should have died. Have you ever imagined, I wonder, that I dared not think of you—of our little page of love? Oh, you are wrong! I gloried in it! I gloried in thoughts of it! It made you mine! It made me yours! It gave us to one another for all eternity! If it was sin—thank God for it! Kiss me, dear!"
Still for a moment he paused. He looked away out of that dainty chamber with its silken hangings and indescribable odour of voluptuousness. He looked into the sweet clear face of that other woman, and there was a sound of wailing in the air, and in his heart. He closed his eyes. It must go. The yoke of those soft, white arms was around his neck, her silky hair with its faint perfume brushed his cheeks. Her kiss burned upon his lips like a brand of an everlasting slavery.
ADELA was sitting alone gazing at her picture. She had had an hour or two of hard work, and there was an idea in her brain. She was thinking it out, her hands clasped round her knee, her faced turned towards the easel where the picture, unframed, was undergoing a transformation. The dark eyes which looked out at hers through the semi-twilight spoke of some subtle and mysterious change. A touch of genius had blended with that despairing gaze, some flashes of the fire of hope. And the solitude of the man had passed away. By his side was the sketch of another figure coming out from the dark background with outstretched arms—and it was of this figure she was thinking.
The lights of the room had burnt low, her companion had gone to bed an hour ago. Midnight a mile westward was accepted as the pivot of the day—in Coombes' Flats every one respectable seemed to have gone to bed. A silence almost depressing reigned throughout the building and in the street below. Adela sat and thought.
The silence of the street was suddenly broken by the trampling of horses' feet. They stopped below. The front door of the place was opened and shut. Adela was only partly aroused from her little dream. She was not curious. That some one had come home late did not concern her. But in another moment she sprang to her feet startled. There was a knock at the door. Before she could answer it was opened and closed again. A man was standing upon the threshold with a long travelling coat over his evening clothes—a man into whose face she looked for a moment without any recognition. Only when he had taken a quick step forward, a little cry burst from her lips. "Sir Francis!" she exclaimed. "You here—at this time! Is anything the matter?"
He caught hold of both her hands and held them in his.
"Look at me, and ask yourself that," he answered, with a dash of fierceness in his tone. "I was right! It has come!"
She looked into his face, and her heart grew faint and anxious. For it was the face of the man in the picture. Line for line the sorrows which she had conceived seemed branded in his haggard features. Before the black fire of his hollow eyes her own felt dim and wet with tears. Had it come to him so soon then, this despair whose shadows had haunted him, and from whose cold clasp he had shrunk with such horror? Since the afternoon there was a change. He had been pale and languid then, but at the sight of her his face had lit up, the languor seemed to have fallen away. He looked at her now with a fierce despair of one beyond the pale of hope. Something had happened.
"What is it?" she murmured. "You are in trouble. Can I help?"
"You can save me," he answered, wildly; "you only! You can save me—if you will—at a great cost."
"I do not understand," she answered, gently. "You are ill. Sit down and tell me all about it. Tell me everything!"
"I can tell you nothing," he answered, doggedly.
"But I do not understand. If you do not tell me, how can I help you?"
He threw his hat upon the table, and thrust back the masses of black hair from his square high forehead. The night was chilly, but the perspiration stood upon his forehead like beads.
"Listen," he cried. "My carriage is outside. The train leaves for Dover in an hour. Put on your hat and cloak and come with me. Make up your mind never to set foot in this country again. Come with me where I shall take you. You shall choose your own home—anywhere so long as it is far enough away. I will build you a palace—I will buy you a kingdom; but you must come with me to-night, now, without farewells, and you must trust me. We can be married in an hour at Paris. If you care for me, you will come. If you do not I am lost body and soul. No! I am not raving! You look at me as if you thought I were mad. I am not. Feel my pulse. It is steady enough. I tell you that I stand upon the border line between salvation and hell. It is you who must save me, you only can do it."
The colour had flooded her cheeks, and her heart was beating. She faced him with dim eyes and trembling lips.
"I do care for you," she said, softly. "I think that you must know it or you would not come to me like this. I care for you so much that I will even do what you ask."
A light leaped into his face. He held out his arms with a low cry of joy. She kept him from her with gentle force.
"I will do what you ask," she continued, "on one condition. You must satisfy me that there is no other way. You must trust me as you ask me to trust you. Don't think that I am trifling with you. Satisfy me, and I will leave this house with you for ever in ten minutes."
His hands dropped to his side. "If I tell you, you will not come," he said, despairingly. "I have sinned, and I would fly from the harvest. If I tell you, you will not come."
"If you do not tell me, I shall not come," she reminded him, firmly. "You need not fear. I shall not be a harsh judge!"
"I will take my chance!" he cried. "Listen. Ten years ago, when I was young and poor and desperate, there was a girl who cared for me. She was an actress, and she was as poor and lonely as I. We were in this great city. I had tried my hand at writing and I had failed. She had tried to act, and she had failed. And one night we looked black despair in the face hand in hand, and a fire rose up in my heart. I burned my manuscripts, I turned everything I had into gold, and I swore that I would find success and wealth, the desire of the world, in a virgin country, even if I had to wrest it from the hands of fate. And she too was desperate. She, too, took a desperate resolve, and in the face of our misery and our hopelessness I had no other words with which to dissuade her. Then, somehow, in that hour of our joint despair and our joint resolution, at the parting of our ways, each on the threshold of our new lives, something in our loneliness, our isolation and our parting—what was it?—God knows—something must have fired my imagination and she—she must have cared for me even before, in those days when she was nothing to me but another waif whom chance had brought near. Women when they are lonely give their hearts so easily. On the night of our parting she gave herself to me body and soul, and on the morrow I sailed away and for ten years she was dead and buried to me."
White and breathless he paused for a moment. A cinder dropped upon the hearth. There was no other sound. Adela was silent but her face was pale as death. Some part of his despair seemed to have fallen upon her.
"I can't make you understand. How should I? I can't understand it myself. When the glamour of it had faded away, I cursed that meeting with her night and day. But we were on the brink of despair. There seemed no foreground for our lives. I was going away out of her life, and it seemed for ever—and she cared for me. To you it must seem like sin. But it was not sin of hers, at any rate; and as for me—I have paid the penalty. In those lonely hours when I lay under the stars outside my tent my sense of responsibility was born. I sent money. It never reached her. What had become of her—oh, the torture I have suffered from that thought I felt like a murderer, only it was a soul that I had murdered. And when I came back my triumph was clouded and my success hung like a millstone about my neck. I haunted all the places where the lost souls of women congregate. I never passed one without looking into her face with fear and horror. When at last I found her my heart leaped up for joy. She had saved herself. I laughed aloud with the joy of it. It was freedom. The burden of years was rolled away. But I was a fool. My freedom was an illusion. The bonds are there still, they are there for ever unless you cut them—unless you set me free—."
And again he paused, and again she did not speak. To the bitter end she had moaned to herself. And she waited.
"I had counted myself free because she was married. It was the bitterest of all illusions. The shadow of it had been growing blacker before me. Tonight I have had my final awakening. To-night I have heard read the sentence of my doom. She had saved herself after my departure because she loved me. The precipice at her feet she had recoiled from because of the memory of our farewell. Our sin had been her salvation. She faced the world again. She became a governess. She married—married a blackguard but—a prince!"
She would not help him on. She would not let him see her face. She waited.
"To-night she has told me of her misery. She turns to me to save her from degradation. 'I am yours,' she cries. 'Our union was above the marriage laws of men. I gave myself to you first and I have loved you and only you. Take me away! I am unhappy!'"
"Adela, I have never loved her. I never knew what love was until you taught me. Am I bound to go to her? She is waiting now—to-night. Come away with me this moment. Leave England with me and cut this cursed knot. She is still with her husband. It will be the same to her as though I were dead, as though I had never come back. She is married to him. To come to me is sin. Save her! Save me! You will come! Quick! The time is flying!"
She leaned upon the mantelpiece, her face buried in her hand. The sound of her low sobbing drove him mad.
"For the love of God turn round and give me your hands!" he cried, wildly. "I will make you happy. On my soul I swear that you shall never repent."
She turned and looked at him. There was white dumb misery in her face. She was like a woman suddenly aged. Yet before her clear eyes the passion of his heart sank down.
"You must make her happy, not me. It is your duty. I cannot come. I cannot be anything to you. I cannot take her place. She has first claim!"
"You to say that!" he cried. "You, to send me to a woman who sins against the laws of God from the moment she leaves her husband. You can justify that to yourself!"
"Alas, yes. A woman who lives like that sins when she lives with any other man, even though he be her husband. She gave herself to you and you belong to her. I am outside your life forever. God help us both! Goodbye!"
He caught her roughly in his arms. His eyes blazed with a sudden triumph. He did not say anything for a moment but he held her like a vice, and rained hot kisses upon her pale cheeks and hair and lips. The she raised her eyes to him.
"Stoop down, love," she whispered, "and I will kiss you."
The fire on his lips grew cold. There was something of reverence in that short embrace.
"You must let me go, dear."
He stood apart from her, breathless. She leaned against the table with her face turned towards him.
A sob rose up in his throat as he turned away. He walked to the door like a blind man. She moved to the window, and, clutching at the curtains with both hands, watched his carriage drive away into the night.
SPRING passed, summer came and lingered. The rhododendrons in the park were over, the greenness had gone from the trees, everything was white with dust. The fashionable parts of London were peopled with a new and unfamiliar throng. But in Kensington things were much the same. Adela was there, pale and heavy-eyed, fighting her battle with despair. For her the summer days were dark, the light of the sun had gone out. From early morning till dark she sat in her studio and painted. There was nothing else left. She was alone. Her little friend, after many sad protests, had packed her easel and gone to the sea. Who but a broken-hearted woman would stay in London during a fiery September? It was afternoon, and Adela, fearless lest her solitude might bring a return of those maddening thoughts which had made many a night a little cycle of horror, was working with a feverish, unnatural concentration.
And in the midst of it the door opened and a woman walked in. Adela's brush slipped from her nerveless fingers. The pallor of her face was like the pallor of death. She rose to her feet at once. She confronted her visitor with burning eyes and unshaken dignity.
"What do you want?" she asked, quickly. "Why are you here?"
The princess laughed softly. It was a slow, maddening laugh. She looked around her with a faint show of curiosity, at the plain walls, the plaster casts, the somewhat bare appointments of the by no means luxurious studio. Last of all, she looked at the pale, slight figure of the girl who stood before her. The eyes of the two women met. Adela's were like still fires of passionate aversion. The princess's were curious and a little wistful.
"Why have I come?" she repeated, slowly. "Really I am not quite sure even now I wished to see you. I wanted—"
Adela moved towards the bell.
"You will forgive me," she said, quietly "I have been ill I am not well enough to see visitors. Will you go away?"
The princess sank into a low chair near the window. Then, as the flood of clear northern daylight fell upon her face, Adela stayed her hand. The face was scarcely the face of a triumphing woman. She gazed at it fascinated. As usual the toilette of the princess was perfect. Her gown was of the newest shade, and its fit was exquisite. Her hat with its fresh roses, was a miracle of dainty simplicity. In the shabby little room she was like a suggestion of another world. But Adela was a woman, and she saw beyond these things.
"Tell me why you have come?" she begged. "Tell me, and go away!"
"I have come," the princess said, smoothing out her gown, "to tell you a little story. After I have told it I shall be as anxious to go as you are to get rid of me. It has cost me a good deal to come, and it will cost me a great deal more to tell my story. You have suffered, and I have suffered. All women are born to suffer. Remember that—and don't interrupt me."
Adela held her peace and listened with bowed head. The voice of the princess was sunk lower, but every syllable was thrillingly distinct. Every word seemed charged with woe.
"It is a little history. There was a woman, lonely, friendless, and desperate, who loved a man. They were young, but they were miserably poor, and they were forced to part. The woman, who saw in the future the shadows of darker things crossing her life, gave herself to the man before they parted, that she might have at least one thing, one memory to cherish, one moment in the past common and dear to both of them. They parted. He went into exile to measure his strength with the world's forces, and won his battle. She, galvanised into life by the memory of him, and the sudden vigour of her passionate love, abandoned her more unworthy resolves, shook herself free from the fatalism which had brought her to the brink of destruction, and worked out her own emancipation. After a time she married.
"This man came back, and commenced to search for the woman. His return was the greatest joy she had ever known. She was a proud woman and she made a terrible mistake. She did not doubt but that his love had lived as hers had done. That was wrong, as you will see. Her husband was everything that is depraved and loathsome. The bonds of her marriage were as ropes of sand to her. She had given herself first to this man. It seemed to her that she was his, body and soul. She never hesitated as to what she should do. She offered herself to the man. She bade him find a home for her. She was coming to him."
She paused. Adela's face was hidden. The princess commenced nervously pulling to pieces the lace border of the handkerchief which had been rolled up in her hand.
"The woman's mistake was hideous. She had believed in the man's love. But the man never loved the woman. It was his sense of responsibility which had made him undertake that feverish search for her. It was purely a matter of conscience. That sounds strange, does it not, in connection with a man? But this is a true story. He heard her proposition and was silent. The stain upon her soul was his. It remained for him to save her from worse things. But when all their plans were made on the very night of their leaving the country together, the man fell ill. It was in her house that he fell ill, and the woman nursed him. And one horrible night he raved and he told her the truth. She leaned over his couch, sick with horror and despair, and she gathered his story from the hot passionate words which leaped out into the dark room. There was another woman!"
The cry came from Adela, and rang through the bare chamber. The princess rose. The floor around her was strewn with the fragments of that lace handkerchief.
"I have come like the heroine of a silly story, to take you to him," she said. "Get ready quickly. I might change my mind."
Adela held out her hand with a passionate gesture. The princess shook her head.
"No," she said, calmly. "Don't make a hypocrite of me. I hate you! I shall always hate you. You have spoilt my life! You, too—what fools men are! I am handsomer than you, and God knows that you cannot love him as I do. Yet he loves you. Don't make any mistake. What I do, I do for his sake not yours. I shall hate the very sight of your face as long as I live. Get ready, child!"
Adela crossed to her side.
"But you," she said, softly. "What will you do?"
The princess pointed out of the window. The prince was smoking a cigar in her victoria below. He wore a large button-hole, and he looked very well. On the whole he did not regret Suzette.
"My husband will be getting impatient," she said, calmly, "do get your things on."