For sheer placid enjoyment and pleasantness of living, there is nothing like a sojourn in a well-appointed country house, peopled by well-assorted guests. The guests at Millstead Manor were not perhaps particularly well-assorted; but nevertheless the hours passed by in a round of quiet delights, and the long summer days seemed in no wise tedious. The Bishop and Mrs. Bartlett had reluctantly gone to open the bazaar, and Miss Chambers went with them, but otherwise the party was unchanged; for Morewood, who had come originally only for two days, had begged leave to stay, received it on condition of showing due respect to everybody's prejudices, telegraphed for his materials, and was fitfully busy making sketches, not of Lady Claudia, to her undisguised annoyance, but of Stafford, with whose face he had been wonderfully struck. Stafford himself was the only one of the party, besides his artistic tormentor, who had not abandoned himself to the charms of idleness. His great work was understood to make rapid progress between six in the morning, when he always rose, and half-past nine, when the party assembled at breakfast; and he was also busy in writing a reply to a daring person who had recently asserted in print that on the whole the less said about the Council of Chalcedon the better.
"The Pope's wild about it!" reported Bob Territon to the usual after-breakfast group on the lawn: "says the beggar's impudence licks him."
"He shall not work any more," exclaimed Claudia, darting into the house, whence she presently emerged, followed by Stafford, who resignedly sat himself down with them.
Such forcible interruptions of his studies were by no means uncommon. Eugene, however, who was of an observant turn, noticed--and wondered if others did--that the raids on his seclusion were much more apt to be successful when Claudia headed them than under other auspices. The fact troubled him, not only from certain unworthy feelings which he did his best to suppress, but also because he saw nothing but harm to be possible from any close rapprochement between Claudia and Stafford. Kate, on the contrary, seemed to him to have set herself the task of throwing them together; with what motive he could not understand, unless it were the recollection of his ill-fated "Claudia." He did not think this explanation very convincing, for he was well aware that Kate's scorn of Claudia's attractions, as compared with her own, was perfectly genuine, and such a state of mind would not produce the certainly activeefforts she put forth. In truth, Eugene, though naturally observant, was, like all men, a little blind where he himself was concerned; and perhaps a shrewd spectator would have connected Haddington in some way with Miss Kate's maneuvers. Such, at any rate, was the view of Bob Territon, and no doubt he would have expressed it with his usual frankness if he had not had his own reasons for keeping silence.
Stafford's state of mind was somewhat peculiar. A student from his youth, to whom invisible things had always seemed more real than visible, and hours of solitude better filled than busy days, he had had but little experience of that sort of humanity among which he found himself. A man may administer a cure of souls with marked efficiency in the Mile End Road, and yet find himself much at a loss when confronted with the latest products of the West End. The renunciation of the world, except so far as he could aid in mending it, had seemed an easy and cheap price to pay for the guerdon he strove for, to one who had never seen how pleasant this wicked world can look in certain of its aspects. Hitherto, at school, at college, and afterward, he had resolutely turned away from all opportunities of enlarging his experience in this direction. He had shunned society, and had taken great pains to restrict his acquaintance with the many devout ladies who had sought him out to the barest essentials of what ought to have been, if it was not always, their purpose in seeking him. The prince of this world was now preparing a more subtle attack; and under the seeming compulsion of common prudence no less than of old friendship, he found himself flung into the very center of the sort of life he had with such pains avoided. It may be doubted whether he was not, like an unskillful swimmer, ignorant of his danger; but it is certain that, had he been able to search out his own heart with his former acuteness of self-judgment, he would have found the first germs of inclinations and feelings to which he had been up till now a stranger. He would have discovered the birth of a new longing for pleasure, a growing delight in the sensuous side of things; or rather, he would have become convinced that temptations of this sort, which had previously been in the main creatures of his own brain, postulated in obedience to the doctrines and literature in which he had been bred, had become self-assertive realities; and that what had been set up only to be triumphantly knocked down had now taken a strong root of its own, and refused to be displaced by spiritual exercises or physical mortifications. Had he been able to pursue the analysis yet further, it may be that, even in these days, he would have found that the forces of this world were already beginning to personify themselves for him in the attractive figure of Claudia Territon. As it was, however, this discovery was yet far from him.
The function of passing a moral judgment on Claudia's conduct at this juncture is one that the historian respectfully declines. It is easy to blame fair damsels for recklessness in the use of their dangerous weapons; and if they take the censure to heart--which is not usually the case--easy again to charge them with self-consciousness or self-conceit. We do not know their temptations and may not presume to judge them. And it may well be thought that Claudia would have been guilty of an excessive appreciation of herself had her conduct been influenced by the thought that such a man as Stafford was likely to fall in love with her. Of the conscious design of attracting him she must be acquitted, for she acted under the force of a strong attraction exercised by him. Her mind was not entirely engrossed in the pleasures, and what she imagined to be the duties, of her station. She had a considerable, if untrained and erratic, instinct toward religion, and exhibited that leaning toward the mysterious and visionary which is the common mark of an acute mind that has not been presented with any methodical course of training worthy of its abilities. Such a temperament could not fail to be powerfully influenced by Stafford; and when an obvious and creditable explanation lies on the surface, it is an ungracious task to probe deeper in the hope of coming to something less praiseworthy. Claudia herself certainly undertook no such research. It was not her habit to analyze her motives; and, if asked the reasons of her conduct, she would no doubt have replied that she sought Stafford because she liked him. Perhaps, if further pressed, she would have admitted that she found him occasionally a useful refuge against attentions from two other quarters which she found it necessary to avoid; in the one case because she would have liked them, in the other for exactly the opposite reason.
It cannot, however, be supposed that this latter line of diplomacy could be permanently successful. When you only meet your suitor at dances or operas, it may be no hard task to be always surrounded by a chevaux-de-frise of other admirers. We have all seen that maneuver brilliantly and patiently executed. But when you are staying at a country house with any man of average pertinacity, I make bold to say that nothing short of taking to bed can be permanently relied upon. If this is the case with the ordinary man, how much more does it hold good when the assailant is one like Haddington--a man of considerable address, unbounded persistence, and limitless complacency? There came a time when Claudia's forced marches failed her, and she had to turn and give battle. When the moment came she was prepared with an audacious plan of campaign.
She had walked down to the village one morning, attended by Haddington and protected by Bob, to buy for Mrs. Lane a fresh supply of worsted wool, a commodity apparently necessary to sustain that lady's life, and was returning at peace, when Bob suddenly exclaimed:
"By Jove! Tobacco! Wait for me!" and, turning, fled back whence he came, at full speed.
Claudia made an attempt at following him, but the weather was hot and the road dusty, and, confronted with the alternative of a tête-à-tête and a damaged personal appearance, she reluctantly chose the former.
Haddington did not let the grass grow under his feet. "Well," he said, "it won't be unpleasant to rest a little while, will it? Here's a dry bank."
Claudia never wasted time in dodging the inevitable. She sat down.
"I am very glad of this opportunity," Haddington began, in such a tone as a man might use if he had just succeeded in moving the adjournment. "It's curious how little I have managed to see of you lately, Lady Claudia."
"We meet at least five times a day, Mr. Haddington--breakfast, lunch, tea--"
"I mean when you are alone."
"And yet you must know my great--my only object in being here is to see you."
"The less I say the sooner it will be over," thought Claudia, whose experience was considerable.
"You must have noticed my--my attachment. I hope it was without displeasure?"
This clearly called for an answer, but Claudia gave none. She sighed slightly and put up her parasol.
"Claudia, is there any hope for me? I love you more--"
"Mr. Haddington," said Claudia, "this is a painful scene. I trust nothing in my conduct has misled you. [This was known--how, I do not know--to her brothers as "Claudia's formula," but it is believed not to be uncommon.] But what you propose is utterly impossible."
"Why do you say that? Perhaps you do not know me well enough yet--but in time, surely?"
"Mr. Haddington," said Claudia, "let me speak plainly. Even if I loved you--which I don't and never shall, for immense admiration for a man's abilities is a different thing from love [Haddington looked somewhat soothed], I could never consent to accept the position of a pis-aller. That is not the Territon way." And Lady Claudia looked very proud.
"A pis-aller! What in the world do you mean?"
"Girls are not supposed to see anything. But do you think I imagine you would ever have honored me in this way unless a greater prize had been--had appeared to be out of reach?"
This was not fair; but it was near enough to the mark to make Haddington a little uneasy. Had Kate been free, he would certainly have been in doubt.
"I bear no malice about that," she continued, smiling, "only you mustn't pretend to be broken-hearted, you know."
"It is a great blow to me--a great blow."
Claudia looked as if she would like to say "Fudge!" but restrained herself and, with the daring characteristic of her, placed her hand on his arm.
"I am so sorry, Mr. Haddington. How it must gall you to see their happiness! I can understand you turning to me as if in self-protection.But you should not ask a lady to marry you because you're piqued with another lady. It isn't kind; it isn't, indeed."
Haddington was a little at loss.
"Indeed, you're wholly wrong. Lady Claudia. Indeed, if you come to that, I don't see that they are particularly rapturous."
"You don't mean you think they're unhappy? Mr. Haddington, I am so grieved!"
"Do you mean to say you don't agree with me?"
"You mustn't ask me. But, oh! I'm so sorry you think so too. Isn't it strange? So suited to one another--she so beautiful, he so clever, and both rich!"
"Miss Bernard is hardly rich, is she?"
"Not as Mr. Lane is, of course. She seems rich to me--forty thousand pounds, I think. Ah, Mr. Haddington, if only you had met her sooner!"
"I shouldn't have had much chance against Lane."
"Why do you say that? If you only knew--"
"I mustn't tell you. How sad that it's too late!"
"Of course. They're engaged!"
"An engagement isn't a marriage. If I thought--"
"But I can't think of that now. Good-by, Claudia. We may not meet again."
"Oh, you won't go away? You mustn't let me drive you away. Oh, please, Mr. Haddington! Think, if you go, it must all come out! I should be so very, very distressed."
"If you ask me, I will try to stay."
"Yes, yes, stay--but forget all this. And never think again of the other--about them, I mean. You will stay?"
"Yes, I will stay," said Haddington.
"Unless it makes you too unhappy to see Eugene's triumph in Kate's love?"
"I don't believe much in that. If that's the only thing--but I must go. I see your brother coming up the hill."
"Yes, go; and I'll never tell that you tried me as--as a second string!"
"That's very unjust!" he protested, but more weakly.
"No, it isn't. I know your heart, and I do pity you."
"Perhaps I shall not ask for pity, Lady Claudia!"
"Oh, you mustn't think of that!"
"It was you who put it in my head."
"Oh, what have I done!"
Haddington smiled, and with a last squeeze of her hand turned and walked away.
Claudia put her handkerchief into her pocket and went to meet her brother.
Haddington returned alone to the house. Although suffering under a natural feeling of annoyance at discovering that he was not foremost in Claudia's heart, as he had led himself to suppose, he was yet keenly alive to the fact that the interview had its consolatory aspect. In the first place, there is a fiction that a lady who respects herself does not fall in love with a man whom she suspects to be in love with somebody else; and Haddington's mind, though of no mean order in some ways, was not of a sort to rise above fictions. He comforted his vanity with the thought that Claudia had, by a conscious effort, checked a nascent affection for him, which, if allowed unimpeded growth, would have developed into a passion. Again, that astute young lady had very accurately conjectured his state of mind, while her pledge of secrecy disposed of the difficulty in the way of a too rapid transfer of his attentions. If Claudia did not complain, nay, counseled such action, who had a right to object? It was true she had eagerly disclaimed any intention of inciting him to try to break the ties that now bound Miss Bernard. But, he reflected, the important point was not the view she took of the morality of such an attempt, on which her authority was nought, but her opinion of its chances of success, which was obviously not wholly unfavorable. He did not trouble himself to inquire closely into any personal motive she may have had. It was enough for him that she, a person likely to be well informed, had allowed him to see that, to her thinking, the relations between the engaged pair were of a character to inspire in the mind of another aspirant hope rather than despair.
Having reached this conclusion, Haddington recognized that his first step must be to put Miss Bernard in touch with the position of affairs. It may seem a delicate matter to hint to your host's fiancée that if she, on mature reflection, likes you better than him, there is stilltime; but Haddington was not afflicted with delicacy. After all, in such a case a great deal depends upon the lady, and Haddington, though doubtful how Kate would regard a direct proposal to break off her engagement, was yet tolerably confident that she would not betray him to Eugene.
He found her seated on the terrace that was the usual haunt of the ladies in the forenoon and the scene of Eugene's dutiful labors as reader-aloud. Kate was not looking amiable; and scarce six feet from her there lay open on the ground a copy of the Laureate's works.
"I hope I'm not disturbing you, Miss Bernard?"
"Oh, no. You see, I am alone. Mr. Lane was here just now, but he's gone."
"How's that?" asked Haddington, seating himself.
"He got a telegram, read it, flung his book away, and rushed off."
"Did he say what it was about?"
"No; I didn't ask him."
A pause ensued. It was a little difficult to make a start.
"And so you are alone?"
"Yes, as you see."
"I am alone too. Shall we console one another?"
"I don't want consolation, thanks," said Kate, a little ungraciously. "But," she added more kindly, "you know I'm always glad of your company."
"I wish I could think so."
"Why don't you think so?"
"Well, Miss Bernard, engaged people are generally rather indifferent to the rest of the world.
"Even to telegrams?"
"Ah! poor Lane!"
"I don't think Mr. Lane is in much need of pity."
"No--rather of envy."
Kate did not look displeased.
"Still, a man is to be pitied if he does not appreciate--"
"I beg your pardon. I ought not to have said that. But it is hard--there, I am offending you again!"
"Yes, you must not talk like that. It's wrong; it would be wrong even if you meant it."
"Do you think I don't mean it?"
"That would be very discreditable--but not so bad."
"You know I mean it," he said, in a low voice. "God knows I would have said nothing if--"
"I shall offend you more than ever. But how can I stand by and see that?" and Haddington pointed with fine scorn to the neglected book.
Kate was not agitated. She seldom was. In a tone of grave rebuke, she said:
"You must never speak like this again. I thought I saw something of it. ["Good!" thought Haddington.] But whatever may be my lot, I am now bound to it. Pledges are not to be broken."
"Are they not being virtually broken?" he asked, growing bolder as he saw she listened to him.
"You are not angry?"
"I cannot be angry if it is as you say. But please understand I cannot listen. It is not honorable. No--don't say anything else. But you must go away."
Haddington made no further effort to step her. He was well content. When a lady hears you hint that her betrothed is less devoted than you would be in his place, and merely says the giving of such a hint is wrong, it may be taken that her sole objection to it is on the score of morality; and it is to be feared that objections based on this ground are not the most efficacious in checking forward lovers. Perhaps Miss Bernard thought they were. Haddington didn't believe she did.
"Go away?" he said to himself. "Hardly! The play is just beginning. Little Lady Claudia wasn't far out."
It is very possible she was not far out in her estimation of Mr. Haddington's character, as well as in her forecast of his prospects. But the fruits of her shrewdness on this point were happily hid from the gentleman concerned.