It was still early when he awoke, weary, stiff, and unrefreshed, but with a conviction in his mind that had grown plain and strong in the mysterious way notions sometimes seem to gather force in hours of unconsciousness, and surprise us with their mature vigor when we awake. "I must go!" he kept muttering to himself; "I must go--go and think. I dare do nothing now." He hastily packed a hand bag, wrote a note for Eugene, asking that the rest of his luggage might be forwarded to an address he would send, went quietly downstairs, and, finding the door just opened, passed out unseen. He had three miles to walk to the station, but his restless feet brought him there quickly, and he had more than an hour to wait for the first train, at half-past eight. He sat down on the platform and waited. His capacity for thought and emotion seemed for the time exhausted. His thoughts wandered from one trivial matter to another, always eluding his effort to fix them. He found himself acutely studying the gang of laborers who were going by train to their day's work, and wondering how many pipes each of their carefully guarded matches would light, and what each carried in his battered tin drinking-bottle, remembering with a dreary sort of amusement that he had heard this same incurable littleness of thought settled on men condemned to death. Still, it passed the time, and he was surprised out of a sort of reverie by the clanging of the porter's inharmonious bell.
At the same moment a phaeton was rapidly driven up to the door of the station, and all the porters rushed to meet it.
"Label it all for London," he heard Eugene's voice say. "Four boxes, a portmanteau, and a hat-box. No, I'm not going--this lady and gentleman."
Kate, Haddington, and Eugene came through the ticket-office on to the platform. Stafford involuntarily shrank back.
"Just in time!" Eugene was saying; "though why the dickens you people will start at such an hour, I don't know. Haddington, I suppose, always must be in a hurry--never does for a rising man to admit he's got spare time. But you, Kate! Its positively uncomplimentary!"
He spoke lightly, but there was a troubled look on his face; and as Haddington went off to take the tickets he drew near to Kate, and said suddenly:
"You are determined on this, Kate?"
"On what?" she asked coldly.
"Why, to go like this--to bolt--it almost comes to that--leaving things as they are between us?"
"And with Haddington?"
"Do you mean to insult me?"
"Of course not. But how do you think it must look to me? What do you imagine my course must be?"
"Really, Eugene, I see no need for this scene. I suppose your course will be to wait till I ask you to fulfill your promise, and then to fulfill it. You have no sort of cause for complaint."
Eugene could not resist a smile.
"You are sublime!" he said. Perhaps he would have said more, but at this moment, to his intense surprise, his eyes met Stafford's. The latter gave him a quick look, in obedience to which he checked his exclamation, and, making some excuse about a parcel due and not arrived, unceremoniously handed Kate to a carriage, bundled Haddington in after her, and walked rapidly to the front of the train, where he had just seen Stafford getting into a third-class compartment.
"What in the world's the meaning of this, my dear old boy?"
"I have left a note for you."
"That will explain?"
"No," said Stafford, with his unsparing truthfulness, "it will not explain."
"How fagged you look!"
"Yes, I am tired."
"You must go now, and like this?"
"I think that is less bad than anything else."
"You can't tell me?"
"Not now, old fellow. Perhaps I will some day."
"You'll let me know what you're doing? Hallo, she's off! And, Stafford, nothing ever between us?"
"Why should there be?" he answered, with some surprise. "But you know there couldn't be."
The train moved on as they shook hands, and Eugene retraced his steps to his phaeton.
"He's given her up," he said to himself, with an irrepressible feeling of relief. "Poor old fellow! Now--"
But Eugene's reflections were not of a character that need or would repay recording. He ought to have been ashamed of himself. I venture to think he was. Nevertheless, he arrived home in better spirits than a man has any right to enjoy when he has seen his mistress depart in a temper and his best friend in sorrow. Our spirits are not always obedient to the dictates of propriety. It is often equally in vain that we call them from the vasty deep, or try to dismiss them to it. They are rebellious creatures, whose only merit is their sincerity.
Sir Roderick Ayre allowed few things to surprise him, but the fact of any one deliberately starting by the early train was one of the few. In regard to such conduct, he retained all his youthful capacity for wonder. Surprise, however, gave way to unrestrained and indecent exultation when he learned that the early party had consisted of Kate and Haddington, and that Eugene himself had escorted them to the station. Eugene was in too good a temper to be seriously annoyed.
"I know it makes me look an ass," he said, as they smoked the after-breakfast pipe, "but I suppose that's all in the day's work."
"No doubt. It is the day's work," said Ayre; "but, oh, diplomatic young man, why didn't you tell us at breakfast that the pope had also gone?"
"Oh, you know that?"
"Of course. My man Timmins brings me what I may call a way-bill every morning, and against Stafford's name was placed '8.30 train.'"
"Useful man, Timmins," said Eugene. "Did he happen to add why he had gone?"
"There are limitations even to Timmins. He did not."
"You can guess?"
"Well, I suppose I can," answered Ayre, with some resentment.
"He's given it up, apparently."
"I don't know."
"He must have. Awfully cut up he looked, poor old chap! I was glad Kate and Haddington didn't see him."
"Poor chap! He takes it hard. Hallo! here's the fons et origo mali."
Morewood joined them.
"I have been," he said gravely, "rescuing my picture. That insipid lunatic had wrapped it up in brown paper, and put it among his socks in his portmanteau. I couldn't see it anywhere till I routed out the portmanteau. If it had come to grief I should have entered the Academy."
"Don't give way so," said Ayre; "it's unmanly. Control your emotions."
"Where are you going?"
"This," said Ayre to Morewood, with a wave of his hand, "is an abandoned young man."
"It is," said Morewood. "Bob Territon is going rat-hunting, and proposes we shall also go. What say you?"
"I say yes," said Sir Roderick, with alacrity. "It's a beastly cruel sport."
"You have lost," said Morewood, as they walked away together.
"Wait a bit!" said his companion. "But, young Eugene! It's a pity that young man has no morals."
"Is that so?"
"Oh! not simpliciter, you know. Secundum quid."
"Secundum feminam, in fact?"
"Yes; and I brought him up, too."
"'By their fruits ye shall know them.' But here's Bob and the terriers."
"Don't you fellows ever have a sister," said Bob, as he came up; "Claudia's just savage because the pope's gone. Can't get her morning absolution, you know."
"Are absolution and ablution the same word, Morewood?" asked Ayre.
"Don't know. Ask the Rector. He's sure to turn up when he hears of the rats."
"I think they must be--a sort of spiritual tub. But Morewood will never admit he's been educated. It detracts from his claim to genius."
Eugene, freed from this frivolous company, was not long in discovering Claudia's whereabouts. He felt like a boy released from school and, turning his eyes away from future difficulties, was determined to enjoy himself while he could. Claudia was seated on the lawn in complete idleness and, apparently, considerable discontent.
"Do your guests always scurry away without saying good-by to anybody, Mr. Lane?" she asked.
"I hope that you, at least, will not. But didn't Kate say good-by, or Haddington?"
"I meant Father Stafford, of course."
"Oh, he had to go. He sent an apology to you and all the party."
"Did he tell you why he had to go?"
"No," said Eugene, regarding her with covert attention.
"It's a pity if he's unaccountable. I like him so much otherwise."
"You don't like unaccountable people?"
Claudia seemed quite willing to let Stafford drop out of the conversation.
"No," she said; "I tolerate you, Mr. Lane, because I always know exactly what you'll do."
"Do you?" he asked, only moderately pleased. A man likes to be thought a little mysterious. No doubt Claudia knew that.
"I don't think you know what I am going to do now."
"I'm going to ask you if you know why Father Stafford--"
"Oh, please excuse me, Mr. Lane. I can't speculate on your friend's motives. I don't profess to understand him."
This might be indifference; it sounded to Eugene very like pique.
"I thought you might know."
"Mr. Lane," said Claudia, "either you mean something or you don't. If the one, you're taking a liberty, and one entirely without excuse; if the other, you are simply tedious."
"I beg your pardon," said Eugene stiffly.
Claudia gave a little laugh.
"Why do you make me be so aggressive? I don't want to be. Was I awfully severe?"
"I meant it, you know. But did you come quite resolved to quarrel? I want to be pleasant." And Claudia raised her eyes with a reproachful glance.
"In anger or otherwise, you are always delightful," said Eugene politely.
"I accept that as a diplomatic advance--not in its literal sense. After all, I must be nice to you. You're all alone this morning."
"Lady Claudia," said he gravely, "either you mean something or you do not. If the one--"
"Be quiet this moment!" she said, laughing.
He obeyed and lay back in his low chair with a sigh of content.
"Yes; never mind Stafford and never mind Kate. Why should we? They're not here."
"My silence is not to be taken for consent," said Claudia, "only it's too fine a day to spend in trying to improve you or, indeed, anybodyelse. But I shall not forget any of my friends."
Now up to this point Eugene had behaved tolerably well. It is, however, a dangerous thing to set yourself deliberately to study a lady's attractions. Like all other one-sided views of a subject, it is apt to carry you too far. The sun and the wind were playing about in Claudia's hair, her eyes were full of light, and her whole air, in spite of a genuine effort after demureness, conveyed to any self-respecting man an irresistible challenge to make himself agreeable if he could. Eugene's notions of making himself agreeable were, as may have been gathered, liberal; they certainly included more than can be considered strictly incumbent on young men in society. And, besides being polite, Eugene was also curious. It is one thing to silently suffer under a passion which a sense of duty forbids; such a position has its pleasures. The situation is altered when the idea dawns upon you that there is no reciprocity of graceful suffering; that, in fact, the lady may prefer somebody else. Eugene wanted to know where he stood.
"Shall you be sorry to leave here?" he asked.
"My feelings will be mixed. You see, Rickmansworth has actually consented to take me with him to his moor, and that will be great fun."
"Why, you don't go killing birds?"
"No, I don't kill birds."
"There'll be only a pack of men there."
"That's all. But I don't mind that--if the scenery is good."
"I believe you're trying to make me angry."
"Oh, no! I know Sir Roderick doesn't let you be angry. It's not good form."
"Have you no heart, Claudia?"
"I don't know. But I have a prefix."
"Have you, after ten years' friendship?"
"You make me rather old. Were we friends when I was ten?"
"Oh, bother dates! I don't count by time?"
"Really, Mr. Lane, if you were anybody else I should call this absurd. It would be flattering you and myself to call it wrong."
"Because that would imply you were serious."
"Would it be wrong if I were?"
"Well, it would be generally considered so, under the circumstances."
"I don't care about that. I have endured it long enough. Oh, Claudia! don't you see?"
"I suppose so," thought Claudia, "I ought to crush him at this point. I think I'll wait a little bit, though."
"See what?" she said.
"Hang it! why is it always so abominably absurd? Why, that I love the ground you tread on, Claudia? Is this wretched thing to keep us apart!"
"Mr. Lane, you're magnificent; but isn't there a trifling assumption in your last remark?"
"Well, you seemed--perhaps you didn't mean it--to imply that only that 'wretched thing' kept us apart. That's rather taking me for granted, isn't it?"
"Ah! you know I didn't mean it. But if things were different, could you--"
"A conditional proposal is a new fashion. Is that one of Sir Roderick's ideas?"
Eugene was at last angry. He was silent for a moment. Then he said:
"I see. I must congratulate you."
"On having bagged a brace--without accident to yourself. But I have had enough of it."
And without waiting for a reply to this very rude speech, he rose and flung himself across the lawn into the house.
Claudia seemed less angry than she ought to have been. She sat with a little smile for a moment, then she threw her hat in the air and caught it, then lay back, sighed gently, and murmured:
"Heigho! a brace means two, doesn't it? Who's the other? Oh! Mr. Haddington, I suppose. I didn't think he knew. Poor Eugene! He's very angry, or he'd never have been so rude. 'Bagged a brace!'"
And she actually laughed again, and then said "Heigho!" again.
Just at this moment Ayre came up the drive, looking very hot and very disgusted. Seeing Claudia, he came and sat down.
"Bob's rat-hunting's a mere fraud," he said. "I was there half an hour, and we only bagged a brace."
"What a curious coincidence!" exclaimed Claudia.
"How a coincidence!"
"Oh, nothing. Bagging a brace means killing two, doesn't it?"
"Oh, I wanted to know."
Ayre looked at her.
"He was here just now, but he's gone into the house."
Ayre stroked his mustache meditatively.
"Did you want him?"
"No, not particularly. I thought I should find him here."
"You would if you'd come a little sooner."
"Ah! I'll go and find him."
"Yes, I should."
And off he went.
"It is really very pleasant," said Claudia, "to prevent Sir Roderick finding out things that he wants to find out. I think it does me credit--and it annoys him so very much. I will go and have a nice drive with Mrs. Lane, and see some old women. I feel as if I ought to do something proper."
And perhaps it was about time.