The schemers schemed and the waiters upon events waited with considerable patience, but although the days wore on, the situation showed little signs of speedy development. Matters were in fact in a rather puzzling position. The friendship and intimacy between Claudia and Stafford continued to increase. Eugene, whether in penitence or in pique, had turned with renewed zeal to his proper duties, and was no longer content to allow Kate to be monopolized by Haddington. The latter's attentions had indeed been in danger of becoming too marked, and it is, perhaps, not uncharitable to attribute Kate's apparent avoidance of them as much to considerations of expediency as of principle. At the same time, there was no coolness between Eugene and Haddington, and when his guest presented a valid excuse and proposed departure, Eugene met the suggestion with an obviously sincere opposition. Sir Roderick really could not make out what was going on. Now Sir Roderick disliked being puzzled; it conveyed a reflection on his acuteness, and he therefore was a sharer in the perturbation of mind that evidently afflicted some of his companions, in spite of their decorous behavior. But contentment was not wanting in some hearts. Morewood was happy in the pursuit of his art and in arguments with Stafford; and Bob Territon had found refuge in an energetic attempt to organize and train a Manor team to do battle with the village cricket club, headed as it had been for thirty years past by the Rector. Moreover, Stafford himself still seemed tranquil. It would have been difficult for most men to fail to understand their true position in such a case more fully than he, in spite of his usual penetration of vision, had succeeded in doing. But he was now in a strange country, and the landmarks of feeling whereby the experienced traveler on such paths can learn and note, even if he cannot check, his descent, were to Stafford unmeaning and empty of warning. Of course, he knew he liked Claudia's society; he found her talk at once a change, a rest, and a stimulus; he had even become aware that of all the people at the Manor, except his old friend and host, she had for him the most interest and attraction; perhaps he had even suffered at times that sense of vacancy of all the chairs when her chair was vacant that should have told him of his state if anything would. But he did not see; he was blind in this matter, even as, say, Ayre or Morewood would have proved blind if called upon to study and describe the mental process of a religious conversation. He was yet far from realizing that an influence had entered his life in force strong enough to contend with that which had so long ruled him with undivided sway. It was the part of a friend to hope and try that he might go with his own heart yet a secret to him. So hoped Eugene. But Eugene, unnerved by self-suspicion, would not lift a finger to hasten his friend's departure, lest he should seem to himself, or be without perceiving it even himself, alert to save his friend, only because his friend's salvation would be to his own comfort.
Sir Roderick Ayre, however, was not restrained by Eugene's scruples nor inspired by Eugene's devotion to Stafford. Stafford interested him, but he was not his friend, and Ayre did not understand, or, if truth be told, appreciate the almost reverential attitude which Eugene, usually so very devoid of reverence, adopted toward him. Ayre thought Stafford's vow nonsense, and that if he was in love with Claudia Territon there was no harm done.
"Many people have been," he said, "and many will be, before the little witch grows old and--no, by Jove! she'll never grow ugly!"
Trivial as the matter seemed, looked at in this light, it had yet enough of human interest about it to decide him to leave the grouse alone, and wait patiently for the partridges at Millstead. After all, he had shot grouse and most other things for thirty years; and, as he said, "The parson was a change, and the house deuced comfortable, and old Eugene a good fellow."
Now it came to pass one day that the devil, having a spare hour on his hands, and remembering that he had often met with a hospitable reception from Sir Roderick, to say nothing of having a bowing acquaintance with Morewood, looked in at the Manor, and finding his old quarters at Sir Roderick's swept and garnished, incontinently took up his abode there, and proceeded to look round for some suitable occupation. When this momentous but invisible event accomplished itself, Sir Roderick was outwardly engaged in the innocent and aimless pursuit of knocking the billiard balls about and listening absently to a discourse from Morewood on the essential truths which he (Morewood) had grasped and presented alone of modern artists. The theme was not exhilarating, and Sir Roderick's tenant soon grew very tired of it; the presentment of truth, indeed, essential or otherwise, not being a matter that concerned him. But in the course of an inspection of Sir Roderick's consciousness, he had come across something that appeared worth following up, and toward it he proceeded to direct his entertainer's conversation.
"I say, Morewood," said Ayre, breaking in on the discourse, "do you think it's fair to keep that fellow Stafford in the dark?"
"Is he in the dark?"
"It's a queer thing, but he is. I never knew a man who was in love before without knowing it,--they say women are that way,--but then I never met a 'Father' before."
"What do you propose, since you insist on gossiping?"
"It isn't gossip; it's Christian feeling. Some one ought to tell the poor beggar."
"Perhaps you'd like to."
"I should, but it would seem like a liberty, and I never take liberties. You do constantly, so you might as well take this one."
"I like that! Why, the man's a stranger! If he ought to be told at all, Lane's the man to do it."
"Yes, but you see, Lane--"
"That's quite true; I forgot. But isn't he better left alone to get over it?"
Sir Roderick, unprejudiced, might have conceded the point. But the prompter intervened.
"What I'm thinking about is this: is it fair to her? I don't say she's in love with him, but she admires him immensely. They're always together, and--well, it's plain what's likely enough to happen. If it does, what will be said? Who'll believe he did it unconsciously? And if he breaks her heart, how is it better because he did it unconsciously?"
"You are unusually benevolent," said Morewood dryly.
"Hang it! a man has some feelings."
"You're a humbug, Ayre!"
"Never mind what I am. You won't tell him?"
"It would be a very interesting problem."
"That vow of his is all nonsense, ain't it?"
"Why shouldn't he have his chance of being happy in a reasonable way? I shouldn't wonder if she took him."
"No more should I."
"Upon my soul, I believe it's a duty! I say, Morewood, do you think he'd see it for himself from the picture?"
"Of course he would. No one could help it."
"Will you let him see it?"
Morewood took a turn or two up and down, tugging his beard. The issue was doubtful. A certain auditor of the conversation, perceiving this, hastily transferred himself from one interlocutor to the other.
"I'll tell you what I'll do: I'll let him see it if Lane agrees. I'll leave it to Lane."
"Rather rough on Lane, isn't it?"
"A little strong emotion of any kind won't do Lane any harm."
"Perhaps not. We will train our young friend's mind to cope with moral problems. He'll never get on in the world nowadays unless he can do that. It's now part of a gentleman's--still more of a lady's--education."
Eugene was clearly wanted. By some agency, into which it is needless to inquire, though we may have suspicions, at that moment Eugene strolled into the billiard-room.
"We have a little question to submit to you, my dear fellow," said Ayre blandly.
Eugene looked at him suspiciously. He had been a good deal worried the last few days, and had a dim idea that he deserved it, which deprived him of the sense of unmerited suffering--a most valuable consolation in time of trouble.
"It's about Stafford. You remember the head of him Morewood did, and the conclusion we drew from it--or, rather, it forced upon us?"
Eugene nodded, instinctively assuming his most nonchalant air.
"We think he's a bad case. What think you?"
"I agree--at least, I suppose I do. I haven't thought much about it."
Ayre thought the indifference overdone, but he took no notice of it.
"We are inclined to think he ought to be shown that picture. I am clear about it; Morewood doubts. And we are going to refer it to you."
"You'd better leave me out."
"Not at all. You're a friend of his, known him all your life, and you'll know best what will be for his good."
"If you insist on asking me, I think you had better let it alone."
"Wait a minute. Why do you say that?"
"Because it will be a shock to him."
"No doubt, at first. He's got some silly notion in his head about not marrying, and about its being sinful to fall in love, and all, that."
"It won't make him happier to be refused."
Ayre leant forward in his chair, and said: "How do you know she'll refuse him?"
"I don't know. How should I know?"
"Do you think it likely?"
"Is that a fair question?" asked Morewood.
"Perfectly," said Eugene, with an expressionless face. "But it's one I have no means of answering."
"He's plucky," thought Ayre. "Would you give the same answer you gave just now if you thought she'd take him?"
It was certainly hard on Eugene. Was he bound, against even a tolerably strong feeling of his own, to give Stafford every chance? It is not fair to a man to make him a judge where he is in truth a party. Ayre had no mercy for him.
"For the sake of a trumpery pledge is he to throw away his own happiness--and mark you, Lane, perhaps hers?"
Eugene did not wince.
"If there's a chance of success, he ought to be given the opportunity of exercising his own judgment," he said quietly. "It would distress him immensely, but we should have no right to keep it from him. And I suppose there's always a chance of success."
"Go and get the picture, Morewood," said Sir Roderick. Then, when the painter was looking in the portfolio, he said abruptly to Eugene:
"You could say nothing else."
"No. That's why you asked me, I suppose. I hope I'm an interesting subject. You dig pretty deep."
"Serves you right!" said Ayre composedly. "Why were you ever such an ass?"
"God knows!" groaned Eugene.
"He's due here in ten minutes to sit to me. Are you going to stay?"
"No. You be doing something else, and let that thing stand on the easel."
"Pleasant for me, isn't it?" asked Morewood.
"Are you ashamed of yourself for snatching it?"
"Not a bit."
"All right, then; what's the matter? Come along, Eugene. After all, you know you'll like showing it. For an outsider, like yourself, it's really a deuced clever little bit. Perhaps they will make you an Associate if Stafford will let you show it."
Morewood ignored the taunt, and sat down by the window on pretense of touching up a sketch. He had not been there long when he heard Stafford come in, and became conscious that he had caught sight of the picture. He did not look up, and heard no sound. A long pause followed. Then he felt a strong grip on his shoulder, and Stafford whispered:
"It is my face?"
"You see it is."
"You did it?"
"Yes. I ought to beg your pardon," and he looked up. Stafford was pale as death, and trembling.
"A few days ago."
"On your oath--no, you don't believe that--on your honor, is it truth?"
"Yes, it is."
"You saw it--just as it is there?"
"Yes, it is exact. I had no right to take it or to show it you."
"What does that matter, man? Do you think I care about that? But--yes, it is true. God help me!"
"We have seen it, you know. It was time you saw it."
"Where's the harm?" asked Morewood, in a rough effort at comfort.
"The harm? But you don't understand. It is the face of a beast!"
"My dear fellow, that's stuff! It's only the face of a lover."
Stafford looked at him in a dazed way.
"I wish you'd let me go back to my room, Morewood, and give me that picture. No--I won't hurt it."
"Take it, then, and pull yourself together. What's the harm, again I say? And if she loves you--"
"What?" he cried eagerly. Then, checking himself, "Hold your peace, in Heaven's name, and let me go!"
He went his way, and Morewood leaped from the window to find the other two. He found them, but not alone. Ayre was discoursing to Claudia and appeared entirely oblivious of the occurrence which he had precipitated. Eugene was walking up and down with Kate Bernard. It is necessary to listen to what the latter couple were saying.
"This is sad news, Kate," Eugene said. "Why are you going to leave us?"
"My aunt wants me to go with her to Buxton in September, and we're going to have a few days on the river before that."
"Then we shall not meet again for some time?"
"No. Of course I shall write to you."
"Thank you--I hope you will. You've had a pleasant time, I hope? Who are to be your river party?"
"Oh, just ourselves and one or two girls and men. Lord Rickmansworth is to be there a day or two, if he can. And--oh, yes, Mr. Haddington, I think."
"Isn't Haddington staying here?"
"I don't know. I understood not. So your party will break up," Kate went on. "Of course, Claudia can't stay when I go."
"Really, Eugene, it would be hardly the thing."
"I believe my mother is not thinking of going."
"Do you mean you will ask Claudia?"
"I certainly cannot ask her to curtail her visit."
"Anyhow, Father Stafford goes soon, and she won't stay then."
This last shaft accomplished Miss Bernard's presumable object. Eugene lost his temper.
"Forgive me for saying so, Kate," he said, "but really at times your mind seems to me positively vulgar."
"I am not going to quarrel. I am quite aware of what you want."
"An opportunity for quarreling."
"If that's all, I might have found several. But come, Kate, it's no use, and not very dignified, to squabble. We haven't got on so well as we might. But I dare say it's my fault."
"Do you want to throw me over?" asked Kate scornfully.
"For Heaven's sake, don't talk like a breach-of-promise plaintiff! I am and always have been perfectly ready to fulfill my engagement. But you don't make it easy for me. Unless you 'throw me over,' as you are pleased to phrase it, things will remain as they are."
"I have been taught to consider an engagement as binding as a marriage."
"No warrant for such a view in Holy Scripture."
"And whatever my feelings may be--and you can hardly wonder if, after your conduct, they are not what they were--I shall consider myself bound."
"I have never proposed anything else."
"Your conduct with Claudia--"
"I must ask you to leave Lady Claudia alone. If you come to that--but there, I was just going to scratch back like a school-girl. Let us remember our manners, if nothing else."
"And our principles," added Kate haughtily.
"By all means, and forget our deviations from them. And now this conversation may as well end, may it not?"
Kate's only answer was to walk straight away to the house.
Eugene joined Claudia; Ayre, in his absence, had been reinforced by the accession of Bob Territon.
"Kate's going to-morrow," Eugene announced.
"So I heard," said Claudia. "We must go, too--we have been here a terrible time."
"It's all nonsense!" interposed Bob decisively; "we can't go for a week. The match is fixed for next Wednesday."
"But," said Claudia, "I'm not going to play."
"I am," said Bob. "And where do you propose to go to?"
"No, Lady Claudia," said Eugene, "you must see us through the great day. I really wish you would. The whole county's coming, and it will be too much for my mother alone. After the cricket-match, if you still insist, the deluge!"
"I'll ask Mrs. Lane. She'll tell me what to do."
"Good child!" said Sir Roderick. "I am going to stay right away till the birds. And as Lane says I ain't to have any birds unless I field at long-leg, I am going to field at long-leg."
"Splendid!" cried Claudia, clapping her hands; "Sir Roderick Ayre at a rustic cricket-match! Mr. Morewood shall sketch you."
"I've had enough of sketching just now," said Morewood. Ayre and Eugene looked up. Morewood nodded slightly.
"Where's Stafford?" asked Ayre.
"In his room--at work, I suppose. He put off my sitting."
"Never mind Father Stafford," said Claudia decisively. "Who is going to play tennis? I shall play with Sir Roderick."
"I'd much rather sit still in the shade," pleaded Sir Roderick.
"You're a very rude old gentleman! But you must play, all the same--against Bob and Mr. Morewood."
"Where do I come in?" asked Eugene. "Mayn't I do anything, Lady Claudia?"
The others were looking after the net and the racquets, and Claudia was left with him for a moment.
"Yes," she said; "you may go and sit on Kate's trunks till they lock."
"Wait a little while; I will be revenged on you. I want, though, to ask you a question."
"Oh! Is it a question that no one else--say Kate, for instance--could help you with?"
"It's not about myself."
"Is it about me?"
"What's the matter, Mr. Lane? Is it anything serious?"
"Nonsense!" said Claudia. "You really mustn't do it, Mr. Lane, or I can't stay for the cricket-match."
"We shall be desolate. Stafford's going in a few days."
But Claudia's face was entirely guileless as she replied:
"Is he? I'm so sorry! But he's looking much stronger, isn't he?"
With which she departed to join Sir Roderick, who had been spending the interval in extracting from Morewood an account of Stafford's behavior.
"Hard hit, was he?" he concluded.
"He looked it."
"Wonder what he'll do! I'll give you five to four he asks her."
"Done!" said Morewood; "in fives."