Dinner that evening at the Manor was not a very brilliant affair. Stafford did not appear, pleading that it was a Friday, and a strict fast for him. Kate was distinctly out of temper, and treated the company in general, and Eugene in particular, with frigidity. Everybody felt that the situation was somewhat strained, and in consequence the pleasant flow of personal talk that marks parties of friends was dried up at its source. The discussion of general topics was found to be a relief.
"The utter uselessness of such a class as Ayre represents," said Morewood emphatically, taking up a conversation that had started no one quite knew how, "must strike every sensible man."
"At least they buy pictures," said Eugene.
"On the contrary, they now sell old masters, and empty the pockets of would-be buyers."
"They are very ornamental," remarked Claudia.
"In some cases, undoubtedly," said Morewood.
"If you mean a titled class," said Ayre, "I quite agree. I object to titles. They only confuse ranks. A sweep is made a lord, and outsiders think he's a gentlemen."
"Come, you're a baronet yourself, you know," said Eugene.
"It's true," admitted Ayre, with a sigh; "but it happened a long while ago, and we've nearly lived it down."
"Take care they don't make you a peer!"
"I have passed a busy life in avoiding it. After all, there's a chance. I'm not a brewer or a lawyer, or anything of that kind. But still, the fear of it has paralyzed my energies and compelled me to squander my fortune. They don't make poor men peers."
"That ought to have been allowed to weigh in the balance in favor of Dives," suggested Eugene.
"Not a bit," said Ayre. "Depend upon it, they kept it for him down below."
"I hate cynicism!" said Claudia, suddenly and aggressively.
Ayre put up his eyeglass.
"It's all affectation."
"Really, Lady Claudia, you might be quite old, from the way you talk. That is one of the illusions of age, which, by the way, have not received enough attention."
"That's very true," said Eugene. "Old people think the world better than it is because their faculties don't enable them to make such demands upon it."
"My dear Eugene," said Mrs. Lane pertinently, "what can you know about it? As we grow old we grow charitable."
"And why is that?" asked Morewood; "not because you think better of other people, but because you know more of yourself."
"That is so," said Ayre. "Standing midway between youth and age, I am an arbiter. You judge others by yourself. In youth you have an unduly good opinion of yourself, that unduly depresses your opinion of others. In age it's the opposite way. But who knows which is more wrong?"
"At least let us hope age is right, Sir Roderick," said Mrs. Lane.
"By all means," said he.
"All this doesn't touch my point," said Claudia. "You are accounting for it as if it existed. My point was that it didn't exist. I said it was all affectation."
"And not the only sort of affectation of the same kind!" said Kate Bernard, with remarkable emphasis.
Sir Roderick enjoyed a troubled sea. Turning to Kate, with a rapid side glance at Claudia on the way, he said:
"That's interesting. How do you mean, Miss Bernard?"
"All attempts to put one's self forward, to be peculiar, and so on, are the same kind of affectation, and are odious--especially in women."
There was nothing very much in the words, and Kate was careful to look straight in front of her as she uttered them. Still they told.
"You mean," said Ayre, "there may be an affectation of freshness and enthusiasm--gush, in fact--as bad, or worse, than cynicism, and really springing from the same root?"
Kate had not arrived at any such definite meaning, but she nodded her head.
"An assumed sprightliness," continued Ayre cheerfully, "perhaps coquettishness?"
"Exactly," Kate assented, "and a way of pushing into conversations which my mother used to say girls had better let alone."
This was tolerably direct, but it did not satisfy Ayre's malicious humor, and he was on the point of a new question when Haddington, who had taken no part in the previous conversation, but had his reasons for interfering now, put in suavely:
"If Miss Bernard and you, Ayre, will forgive me, are we not wandering from the point?"
"Was there any point to wander from?" suggested Eugene.
So they drifted through the evening, skirting the coast of quarrels and talking of everything except that of which they were thinking. Verily, love affairs do not always conduce to social enjoyment--more especially other people's love affairs. Still, Sir Roderick Ayre was entertained.
Meanwhile, Stafford sat in his room alone, save for the company of his own picture. He was like a man who has been groping his way through difficult paths in the dark--uneasy, it may be, and nervous, but with no serious alarm. On a sudden, a storm-flash may reveal to him that he is on the very edge of a precipice or already ankle-deep in some bottomless morass. The sight of his own face, interpreted with all Morewood's penetrating insight and mastery of hand, had been a revelation to him. No more mercilessly candid messenger could have been found. Arguments he would have resisted or confuted; appeals to his own consciousness would have failed for want of experience; he could not affect to disbelieve the verdict of his own countenance. He had in all his life been a man who dealt plainly with himself; it was only in this last matter that the power, more than the will, to understand his own heart had failed him. His intellect now reasserted itself. He did not attempt to blink facts; he did not deny the truth of the revelation or seek to extenuate its force. He did not tell himself that the matter was a trifle, or that its effect would be transient. He recognized that he had fallen from the state of a priest vowed to Heaven, to that of a man whose whole heart and mind had gone out in love for a woman and were filled with her image. His judgment of himself was utterly reversed, his pre-suppositions confounded, his scheme of life wrecked; all this he knew for truth, unless indeed it might be that victory could still be his--victory after a struggle even to death; a struggle that had found no type or forecast in the mimic contests that had marked, almost without disturbing, his earlier progress on the road of his choice.
In the long hours that he sat gazing at the picture his mind was the scene of changing moods. At first the sense of horror and shame wasparamount. He was aghast at himself and too full of self-abhorrence to do more than fight blindly away from what he could not but see. He would fain have lost his senses if only to buy the boon of ignorance. Then this mood passed. The long habit of his heart asserted itself, and he fell on his knees, no longer in horror, but in abasement and penitence. Now all his thought was for the sin he had done to Heaven and to his vow; but had he not learnt and taught, and re-learnt in teaching, that there was no sin without pardon, if pardon were sought? And for a moment, not peace, but the far-off possible hope and prospect of peace regained comforted his spirit. It might be yet that he would come through the dark valley, and gaze with his old eyes on the light of his life set in the sky.
But was his sin only against Heaven and his vow and himself? Is sin so confined? If Morewood had seen, had not others? Had not she seen? Would not the discovery he had made come to her also? Nay, had it not come? He had been blind; but had she? Was it not far more likely that she had not deceived herself as to the tendency of their friendship, nor dreamt that he meant anything except what his acts, words, and looks had so plainly--yes, to his own eyes now, so plainly declared? He looked back on her graciousness, her delight in his society, her unconcealed admiration for him. What meaning had these but one? What did she know of his vow? Why should she dream of anything save the happy ending of the story that flits before the half-averted eyes of a girl when she is with her lover? Even if she had heard of his vow, would they not all tell her it was a conceit of youth, a spiritual affectation, a thing that a wise counselor would tell him and her quietly to set aside? Did it not all point to this? He was not only a perjurer toward Heaven, but his sin had brought woe and pain to her he loved.
So he groaned in renewed self-condemnation. But what did that mean? And then an irresistible tide of triumph swept over him, obliterating shame and horror and remorse. She loved him. He had won. Be it good or evil, she was his! Who forbade his joy? Though all the world, aye, and all Heaven, were against him, nothing should stop him. Should he sin for naught? Should he not have the price of his soul? Should he not enjoy what he had bought so dearly? Enough of talking, and enough of reasoning! Passion filled him, and he knew no good nor evil save its satiety or hunger.
The mad mood passed, and there came a worthier mind. He sat and looked along the avenue of his life. He saw himself walking hand in hand with her. Now she was not the instrument of his pleasure, but the helper in his good deeds. By her sweet influence he was stronger to do well; his broader sympathies and fuller life made a servant more valuable to his Master; he would serve Heaven as well and man better, and, knowing the common joys of man, he would better minister to common pains. Who was he that he should claim to lead a life apart, or arrogate to himself an immunity and an independence other men had not? Man and woman created He them, and did it not make for good? And he sank back in his chair, with the picture of a life before him, blessed and giving blessings, and ending at last in an old age, when she would still be with him, when he should be the head and inspiration of a house wherein God's service was done, when he should see his son's sons following in his steps, and so, having borne his part, fall asleep, to wake again to an union wherein were no stain of earth and no shadow of parting.
From these musings he awoke with a shudder, as there came back to him many a memory of lofty pitying words, with which he had gently drawn aside the cloak of seemliness wherein some sinner had sought to wrap his sin. His dream of the perfect joint-life, what was it but a sham tribute to decency, a threadbare garment for the hideousness of naked passion? Had he taught himself to contemplate such a life, and shaped himself for it, it might be a worthy life--not the highest, but good for men who were not made for saints. But as it was, it seemed to him but a glazing over of his crime. Sternly there stood between him and it his profession and his pledge. If he would forsake the one and violate the other, by Heaven, he would do it boldly, and not seek to slink out by such self-cozening. At least he would not deceive himself again. If he sinned, he would sin openly to his own heart. There should be no compact: nothing but defeat or victory! And yet, was he right? It would be pitiful if for pride's sake, if for fear of the sneers of men, he were to kill her joy and defile his own soul with her heart's blood. People would laugh at the converted celibate--was it that he feared? Had he fallen so low as that? or was the shrinking he felt not rather the dread that his fall would be a stone of stumbling to others? for in his infatuation he had assumed to be an example. Was there no distinguishing good and evil? Could every motive and every act change form and color as you looked at it, and be now the counsel of Heaven, and now the prompting of Satan? How, then, could a man choose his path? In his bewilderment the darkness closed round him, and he groaned aloud.
It was late now, nearly midnight, and the house was quiet. Stafford walked to the open window and leant out, bending his tired head upon his hand. As he looked out he saw through the darkness Eugene and Ayre still sitting on the terrace. Ayre was talking.
"Yes," he was saying, "we are taught to think ourselves of a mighty deal of importance. How we fare and what we do is set before us as a thing about which angels rejoice or mourn. The state of our little minds, or souls, or whatever it is, is a matter of deep care to the Creator--the Life of the universe. How can it be? How are we more than minutest points in that picture in his mind, which is the world? I speak in human metaphor, as one must speak. In truth, we are at once a fraction, a tiny fraction--oh! what a tiny fraction--of the picture, and the like little jot of what it exists for. And does what comes to us matter very much--whether we walk a little more or a little less cleanly--aim a little higher or lower, if there is a higher and lower? What matter? Ah, Eugene, our parents and our pastors teach us vanity! To me it seems pitiful. Let us take our little sunshine, doing as little harm and giving as little pain as we may, living as long as we can, and doing our little bit of useful work for the ground when we are dead, if we did none for the world when we were living. If you cremate, you will deprive many people of their only utility."
Eugene gently laughed.
"Of course you put it as unattractively as you can."
"Yes; but I can't put it unattractively enough to be true. I used to fret and strive, and think archangels hung on my actions. There are none; and if there were, what would they care for me? I am a part of it, I suppose--a part of the Red King's dream, as Alice says. But what a little part! I do well if I suffer little and give little suffering, and so quietly go to help the cabbages."
"I don't think I believe it," said Eugene.
"I suppose not. It's hard to believe and impossible to disbelieve."
Stafford listened intently. Memories came back to him of books he had read and put behind him; books wherein Ayre had found his creed, if the thing could be called a creed. Was that true? Was he rending his soul for nothing? A day earlier such a thought would have been to him at once a torture and a sin. Now he found a strange comfort in it. Why strive and cry, when none watched the effort or heard the agony? Why torture himself? Why torture others? If the world were good, why was he not to have his part? If it were bad, might he not find a quiet nook under the wall, out of the storm? Why must he try to breast it? If Ayre was right, what a tragical farce his struggle was, what a perverse delusion, what an aimless flinging away of the little joy his little life could offer! If this were so, then was he indeed alone in the world--except for Claudia. Was his choice in truth between this world and the next? He might throw one away and never find the other.
Then he cursed the voice, and himself for listening to it, and fell again to vehement prayers and self-reproaches, trying to drown the clamor of his heart with his insistent petitions. If he could only pray as he had been wont to pray, he was saved. There lay a respite from thought and a refuge from passion. Why could he not abandon his whole soul to communion with God, as once he could, shutting out all save the sense of sin and the conviction of forgiveness? He prayed for power to pray. But, like the guilty king, he could not say Amen. He could not bind his wandering thoughts, nor dispel the forward imaginings of his distempered mind. He asked one thing, and in his heart desired another; he prayed, and did not desire an answer to his prayer; for when he tried to bow his heart in supplication, ever in the midst, between him and the throne before which he bent, came the form and the face and the voice he loved, and the temptation and the longing and the doubt. And he was tost and driven about through the livelong night till, in utter weariness, he fell on the floor and slept.