There was, no doubt, some excuse for the interest that the ladies at Millstead Manor had betrayed on hearing the name of Father Stafford. In these days, when the discussion of theological topics has emerged from the study into the street, there to jostle persons engaged in their lawful business, a man who makes for himself a position as a prominent champion of any view becomes, to a considerable extent, a public character; and Charles Stafford's career had excited much notice. Although still a young man but little past thirty, he was adored by a powerful body of followers, and received the even greater compliment of hearty detestation from all, both within and without the Church, to whom his views seemed dangerous and pernicious. He had administered a large parish with distinction; he had written a treatise of profound patristic learning and uncompromising sacerdotal pretensions. He had defended the institution of a celibate priesthood, and was known to have treated the Reformation with even less respect than it has been of late accustomed to receive. He had done more than all this: he had impressed all who met him with a character of absolute devotion and disinterestedness, and there were many who thought that a successor to the saints might be found in Stafford, if anywhere in this degenerate age. Yet though he was, or was thought to be, all this, his friends were yet loud in declaring--and ever foremost among them Eugene Lane--that a better, simpler, or more modest man did not exist. For the weakness of humanity, it may be added that Stafford's appearance gave him fully the external aspect most suitable to the part his mind urged him to play; for he was tall and spare; his fine-cut face, clean shaven, displayed the penetrating eyes, prominent nose, and large mobile mouth that the memory associates with pictures of Italian prelates who were also statesmen. These personal characteristics, combined with his attitude on Church matters, caused him to be familiarly known among the flippant by the nickname of the Pope.
Eugene Lane stood upon his hearthrug, conversing with the Bishop of Bellminster and covertly regarding his betrothed out of the corner of an apprehensive eye. They had not met alone since the morning, and he was naturally anxious to find out whether that unlucky "Claudia" had been overheard. Claudia herself was listening to the conversation of Mr. Morewood, the well-known artist; and Stafford, who had only arrived just before dinner, was still busy in answering Mrs. Lane's questions about his health. Sir George Merton had failed at the last moment, "like a Radical," said Claudia.
"I am extremely interested in meeting your friend Father Stafford," said the Bishop.
"Well, he's a first-rate fellow," replied Eugene. "I'm sure you'll like him."
"You young fellows call him the Pope, don't you?" asked his lordship, who was a genial man.
"Yes. You don't mind, do you? It's not as if we called him the Archbishop of Canterbury, you know."
"I shouldn't consider even that very personal," said the Bishop, smiling.
Dinner was announced. Eugene gave the Bishop's wife his arm, whispering to Claudia as he passed, "Age before impudence"; and that young lady found that she had fallen to the lot of Stafford, whereat she was well pleased. Kate was paired with Haddington, and Mr. Morewood with Aunt Jane. The Bishop, of course, escorted the hostess.
"And who," said he, almost as soon as he was comfortably settled to his soup, "is the young lady sitting by our friend the Father--the one, I mean, with dark hair, not Miss Bernard? I know her."
"That's Lady Claudia Territon," said Mrs. Lane. "Very pretty, isn't she? and really a very good girl."
"Do you say 'really' because, unless you did, I shouldn't believe it?" he asked, with a smile.
Mrs. Lane had been moved by this idea, but not consciously and, a little distressed at suspecting herself of an unkindness, entertained the Bishop with an entirely fanciful catalogue of Claudia's virtues, which, being overheard by Bob Territon, who had no lady, and was at liberty to listen, occasioned him immense entertainment.
Claudia, meanwhile, was drifting into a state of some annoyance. Stafford was very courteous and attentive, but he drank nothing, and apparently proposed to dine off dry bread. When she began to question him about his former parish, instead of showing the gratitude that might be expected, he smiled a smile that she found pleasure in describing as inscrutable, and said:
"Please don't talk down to me, Lady Claudia."
"I have been taught," responded Claudia, rather stiffly, "to talk about subjects in which my company is presumably interested."
Stafford looked at her with some surprise. It must be admitted that he had become used to more submission than Claudia seemed inclined to give him.
"I beg your pardon. You are quite right. Let us talk about it."
"No, I won't. We will talk about you. You've been very ill, Father Stafford?"
"A little knocked up."
"I don't wonder!" she said, with an irritated glance at his plate, which was now furnished with a potato.
He saw the glance.
"It wasn't that," he said; "that suits me very well."
Claudia knew that a pretty girl may say most things, so she said:
"I don't believe it. You're killing yourself. Why don't you do as the Bishop does?"
The Bishop, good man, was at this moment drinking champagne.
"Men have different ways of living," he answered evasively.
"I think yours is a very bad way. Why do you do it?"
"I'm sure you will forgive me if I decline to discuss the question just now. I notice you take a little wine. You probably would not care to explain why."
"I take it because I like it."
"And I don't take it because I like it."
Claudia had a feeling that she was being snubbed, and her impression was confirmed when Stafford, a moment afterward, turned to Kate Bernard, who sat on his left hand, and was soon deep in reminiscences of old visits to the Manor, with which Kate contrived to intermingle a little flattery that Stafford recognized only to ignore. They had known one another well in earlier days, and Kate was immensely pleased at finding her playfellow both famous and not forgetful.
Eugene looked on from his seat at the foot of the table with silent wonder. Here was a man who might and indeed ought to talk to Claudia, and yet was devoting himself to Kate.
"I suppose it's on the same principle that he takes water instead of champagne," he thought; but the situation amused him, and he darted at Claudia a look that conveyed to that young lady the urgent idea that she was, as boys say, "dared" to make Father Stafford talk to her. This was quite enough. Helped by the unconscious alliance of Haddington, who thought Miss Bernard had let him alone quite long enough, she seized her opportunity, and said in the softest voice:
Stafford turned his head, and found fixed upon him a pair of large, dark eyes, brimming over with mingled contrition and admiration.
"I am so sorry--but--but I thought you looked so ill."
Stafford was unpleasantly conscious of being human. The triumph of wickedness is a spectacle from which we may well avert our eyes. Suffice it to say that a quarter of an hour later Claudia returned Eugene's glance with a look of triumph and scorn.
Meanwhile, trouble had arisen between the Bishop and Mr. Morewood. Morewood was an artist of great ability, originality, and skill; and if he had not attained the honors of the Academy, it was perhaps more of his own fault than that of the exalted body in question, as he always treated it with an ostentatious contumely. After all, the Academy must be allowed its feelings. Moreover, his opinions on many subjects were known to be extreme, and he was not chary of displaying them. He was sitting on Mrs. Lane's left, opposite the Bishop, and the latter had started with his hostess a discussion of the relation between religion and art. All went harmoniously for a time; they agreed that religion had ceased to inspire art, and that it was a very regrettable thing; and there, one would have thought the subject--not being a new one--might well have been left. Suddenly, however, Mr. Morewood broke in:
"Religion has ceased to inspire art because it has lost its own inspiration, and having so ceased, it has lost its only use."
The Bishop was annoyed. A well-bred man himself, he disliked what seemed to him ill-bred attacks on opinions which his position proclaimed him to hold.
"You cannot expect me to assent to either of your propositions, Mr. Morewood," he said. "If I believed them, you know, I should not be in the place I am."
"They're true, for all that," retorted Morewood. "And what is it to be traced to?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said poor Mrs. Lane.
"Why, to Established Churches, of course. As long as fancies and imaginary beings are left free to each man to construct or destroy as he will,--or again, I may say, as long as they are fluid,--they subserve the pleasurableness of life. But when you take in hand and make a Church out of them, and all that, what can you expect?"
"I think you must be confusing the Church with the Royal Academy," observed the Bishop, with some acidity.
"There would be plenty of excuse for me, if I did," replied Morewood. "There's no truth and no zeal in either of them."
"If you please, we will not discuss the truth. But as to the zeal, what do you say to the example of it among us now?" And the Bishop, lowering his voice, indicated Stafford.
Morewood directed a glance at him.
"He's mad!" he said briefly.
"I wish there were a few more with the same mania about."
"You don't believe all he does?"
"Perhaps I can't see all he does," said the Bishop, with a touch of sadness.
"How do you mean?"
"I have been longer in the cave, and perhaps I have peered too much through cave-spectacles."
Morewood looked at him for a moment.
"I'm sorry if I've been rude, Bishop," he said more quietly, "but a man must say what he thinks."
"Not at all times," said the Bishop; and he turned pointedly to Mrs. Lane and began to discuss indifferent matters.
Morewood looked round with a discontented air. Miss Chambers was mortally angry with him and had turned to Bob Territon, whom she was trying to persuade to come to a bazaar at Bellminster on the Monday. Bob was recalcitrant, and here too the atmosphere became a little disturbed. The only people apparently content were Kate and Haddington and Lady Claudia and Stafford. To the rest it was a relief when Mrs. Lane gave the signal to rise.
Matters improved, however, in the drawing-room. The Bishop and Stafford were soon deep in conversation; and Claudia, thus deprived of her former companion, condescended to be very gracious to Mr. Morewood, in the secret hope that that eccentric genius would make her the talk of the studios next summer by painting her portrait. Haddington and Bob had vanished with cigars; and Eugene looking round and seeing that all was peace, said to himself in an access of dutifulness. "Now for it!" and crossed over to where Kate sat, and invited her to accompany him into the garden.
Kate acquiesced, but showed little other sign of relaxing her attitude of lofty displeasure. She left Eugene to begin.
"I'm awfully sorry, Kate, if you were vexed this morning."
"But, you see, as host here, I couldn't very well turn out Lady Claudia."
"Why don't you say Claudia?" asked Kate, in sarcastic tones.
Eugene felt inclined to fly, but he recognized that his only chance lay in pretending innocence when he had it not.
"Are we to quarrel about a trifle of that sort?" he asked; "a girl I've known like a sister for the last ten years!"
Kate smiled bitterly.
"Do you really suppose that deceives me? Of course I am not afraid of your falling in love with Claudia; but it's very bad taste to have anything at all like flirtation with her."
"Quite right; it is. It shall not occur again. Isn't that enough?"
Kate, in spite of her confidence, was not anxious to drive Eugene with too tight a rein, so, with a nearer approach to graciousness she allowed it to appear that it was enough.
"Then come along," he said, passing his arm around her waist, and running her briskly along the terrace to a seat at the end, where he deposited her.
"Really, Eugene, one would think you were a schoolboy. Suppose any one had seen us!"
"Some one did," said Eugene composedly, lighting his cigar.
"Haddington. He was sitting on the step of the sun-dial, smoking."
"How annoying! What's he doing there?"
"If you ask me, I expect he's waiting on the chance of Lady Claudia coming out."
"I should think it very unlikely," said Kate, with an impatient tap of her foot; "and I wish you wouldn't do such things."
Eugene smiled; and having thus, as he conceived, partly avenged himself, devoted the next ten minutes to orthodox love-making, with the warmth of which Kate had no reason to be discontent. On the expiration of that time he pleaded his obligations as a host, and they returned to the house, Kate much mollified, Eugene with the peaceful but fatigued air that tells of duty done.
Before going to bed, Stafford and Eugene managed to get a few words together. Leaving the other men, except the Bishop, who was already at rest, in the billiard-room, they strolled out together on to the terrace.
"Well, old man, how are you getting on?" asked Eugene.
"Capitally! stronger every day in body and happier in mind. I grumbled a great deal when I first broke down, but now I'm not sure a rest isn't good for me. You can stop and have a look where you are going to."
"And you think you can stand it?"
"Stand what, my dear fellow?"
"Why, the life you lead--a life studiously emptied of everything that makes life pleasant."
"Ah! you are like Lady Claudia!" said Stafford, smiling. "I can tell you, though, what I can hardly tell her. There are some men who can make no terms with the body. Does that sound very mediæval? I mean men who, unless they are to yield utterly to pleasure, must have no dealings with it."
"You boycott pleasure for fear of being too fond of it?"
"Yes; I don't lay down that rule for everybody. For me it is the right and only one."
"You think it right for a good many people, though?"
"Well, you know, the many-headed beast is strong."
"Wait till I get at you from the pulpit."
"No; tell me now."
"Of course! I take that for granted."
"Well, then, old fellow," said he, laying a hand on Eugene's arm, with a slight gesture of caress not unusual with him, "in candor and without unkindness, yes!"
"I could never do it," said Eugene.
"Perhaps not--or, at least, not yet."
"Too late or too early, is it?"
"It may be so, but I will not say so."
"You know I think you're all wrong?"
"You will fail."
"God forbid! but if he pleases--"
"After all, what are meat, wine, and--and so on for?"
"That argument is beneath you, Eugene."
"So it is. I beg your pardon. I might as well ask what the hangman is for if nobody is to be hanged. However, I'm determined that you shall enjoy yourself for a week here, whether you like it or not."
Stafford smiled gently and bade him good-night. A moment later Bob Territon emerged from the open windows of the billiard-room.
"Of all dull dogs, Haddington's the worst; however, I've won five pound of him! Hist! Is the Father here?"
"I am glad to say he is not."
"Oh! Have you squared it with Miss Kate? I saw something was up."
"Miss Bernard's heart, Bob, and mine again beat as one."
"What was it particularly about?"
"An immaterial matter."
"I say, did you see the Father and Claudia?"
"No. What do you mean?"
"Gammon! I tell you what, Eugene, if Claudia really puts her back into it, I wouldn't give much for that vow of celibacy."
"Bob," said Eugene, "you don't know Stafford; and your expression about your sister is--well, shall I say lacking in refinement?"
"Haddington didn't like it."
"Damn Haddington, and you too!" said Eugene impatiently, walking away.
Bob looked after him with a chuckle, and exclaimed enigmatically to the silent air, "Six to four, t. and o."