When Stafford got into the train on his headlong flight from Millstead Manor, he had no settled idea of his destination, and he arrived in London without having made much progress toward a resolution. Not knowing what he wanted, he could not decide where he was most likely to find it. Did he want to forget or to think; to repent or to resolve? This is the alternative that presents itself to a mind puzzled to know whether its doubt is a concession to sin or a homage to reason. Stafford had been bred in a school widely different from that which treats all questions as open, and all to be referred to the verdict of the balance of expediency. Among other lessons, he had been taught a deep distrust of the instrument by which he was forced to guide his actions. But no training had succeeded in eradicating a strong mind's instinct of self-confidence, and if up till now he had committed no rebellion, it was because his reason had been rather a voluntary and eager helper than a captive or slave to the tribunal he distinguished from it by the name of conscience. With some surprise at himself--a surprise that now took the place of shame--he recognized that he was not ready to take everything for granted, that he must know that what he was flying from was in fact sin, not only that it might be. That it was sin he fully believed, but he would be sure. So much triumph his passion extorted from him as he paced irresolutely up and down the square in front of Euston, after seeing Kate and Haddington safely away, while the porter and cabman wondered why the traveler seemed not sure where he wanted to go. Of their wonder and their irreverent suggestions he was supremely careless.
No, he would not go back at once to his active work. Not only did his health still forbid that--and, indeed, last night's struggle seemed to him to have undone most of the good he had gained from the quiet of Millstead--but, what was more, he believed, above all, in the importance of the state of the pastor's own soul, and was convinced that his work would be weak and futile done under such conditions; that in theological language, there would be no blessing on it. When he had once reached that conclusion, his path was plain before him. He would go to the Retreat. This word Retreat has become familiar to those who study ecclesiastical items in the paper. But the Retreat Stafford had in his mind was not quite of the common kind. It had been founded by one of the leaders of his party, and was intended to serve the function of a spiritual casual ward, whither those who were for the moment at a loss might resort and find refuge until they had time to turn round. It was not a permanent home for any one. After his stay, the visitor returned to the world if he would; if he were finally disabled he was passed on to a permanent residence of another kind. The Retreat was a temporary refuge only. Sometimes it was full, sometimes it was empty; save for the Superintendent, as he was called; for religious terms were avoided, and a severe neutrality of description forbade the possibility of the Retreat itself seeming to take any side in the various mental battles for which it afforded a clear field, remote from interruption and from the bias alike of the world and of previous religious prepossessions. A man was entirely left to himself at the Retreat. Save at the dinner hour, no one spoke to him except the Superintendent. The rule of his office was that he should always be ready to listen on all subjects, and to talk on all indifferent subjects. Advice and exhortation were forbidden to him. If a man wanted the ordinary consolations of religion, his case was not the special case the Retreat was founded to meet. When nobody could help a man, and nothing was left for him but to go through with the struggle in his own soul, then he came to the Retreat. There he stayed till he reached some conclusion: that is, if he could reach one within a reasonable time; for the pretense of unconquerable hesitation was not received. When he arrived at his resolve, he went away: what the resolve was, and where he was going, whether to High or Low, to Rome or Islington, to Church or Dissent, or even to Mohammed or Theosophy, or what not, or nothing, nobody asked. Such a foundation had struck many devoted followers of the Founder as little better than a negation or an abdication. The Founder thought otherwise. "If forms and words are of any use to him, a man will never come," he said; "if he comes, let him alone." And it may be that this difference between the Founder and his disciples was due to the fact that the Founder believed that, given a fair field in any honest mind, his views must prevail, whereas the disciples were not so strong in faith.
It is very possible the disciples were right, in a way; but still the Founder's scheme now and then caught a great prize that the disciples would have lost through their overgreat meddling. The Founder would have repudiated the idea of differences in value between souls. But men sometimes act on ideas they repudiate, and with very good results.
Whatever the merits or demerits of the Retreat might be, it was just the place Stafford wanted. He shrank, almost with loathing, from the thought of exposing himself to well meant ministrations from men who were his inferiors: the theory of the equalizing effect of the sacred office, which appears to be held in great tranquillity by many who see the absurdity of parallel ideas applied in other spheres, was one of the fictions that proved entirely powerless over his mind at this juncture. He did not say to himself that fools were fools and blind men blind, whatever their office, degree, or profession, but he was driven to the Retreat by a thought that a brutal speaker might have rendered for him in those words without essential misrepresentation. Above all, he wanted quiet--time to understand the new forces and to estimate the good or evil of the new ideas.
Arriving there late in the evening of the same day on which he left Millstead, for the Retreat was situated on the borders of Exmoor and the journey from Paddington was long and slow, he was received by the Superintendent with the grave welcome and studious absence of questioning that was the rule of the house. The Superintendent was an elderly man, inclining to stoutness and of unyielding placidity. It was suspected that the Founder had taken pains to choose a man who would observe his injunction of not meddling with thorny questions the more strictly from his own inability to understand them.
"We are very empty just now," he said, with a sigh. Poor man! perhaps it was dull. "Only two, besides yourself."
"The fewer the better," said Stafford, with a smile, half in earnest, half humoring the genius of the place.
The Superintendent looked as if he might have said something on the other side but refrained, and, without more ado, made Stafford at home in the bare little room that was to serve him for sleeping and living. Stafford was full of weariness, and sank down on the bed with a sense of momentary respite. He would not begin to think till to-morrow.
Here we must leave him to wage his uncertain battle. When the visible and the invisible meet in the shock of strife about the soul of a man, who may describe the changes and chances of the fight? In the peace of his chosen solitude would he re-conquer the vision that the clouds had hidden from him? Or would the allurements of his earthly love be less strong because its dazzling incitements were no longer actually before his eyes? He had refused all aid and all alliance. He had chosen to try the issue alone and unbefriended. Was he strong enough?--strong enough to think on his love, and yet not to bow to it?--strong enough to picture to himself all its charms, only to refuse to gather them? Should he not have seized every aid that counsel and authority could offer him? Would he not find too late that his true strategy had been to fly, and not to challenge, the encounter? He had fancied he could be himself the impartial judge in his own cause, however vast the bribe that lay ready to his hand. The issue of his sojourn alone could tell whether he had misjudged his strength.
While Stafford mused and strove the world moved on, and with it that small fraction of it whose movements most nearly bore on the fortunes of the recluse.
The party at Millstead Manor was finally broken up by the departure of the Territons and of Morewood about a week after Stafford left. The cricket-match came off with great éclat; in spite of a steady thirteen from the Rector, who spent two hours in "compiling" it--to use the technical term--and of several catches missed by Sir Roderick, who was tried in vain in all positions in the field, the Manor team won by five wickets, and Bob Territon felt that his summer had been well spent. Ayre lingered on with Eugene, shooting the coverts till mid September, when the latter abruptly and perhaps rudely announced that he could not stand it any longer, and straightway took himself off to the Continent, sending a line to Stafford to apprise him of the fact, and another to Kate, to say he would have no address for the next month.
For a moment Sir Roderick was at a loss. He was tired of shooting; he hated yachting; the ordinary country-house visit was nothing but shooting in the daytime and unmitigated boredom in the evening. Really he didn't know what to do with himself. This alarming state of mind might have issued in some incongruous activity of a useful sort, had not he been rescued from it by the sudden discovery that he had a mission. This revelation dawned upon him in consequence of a note he received from Lord Rickmansworth. It appeared that that nobleman had very soon got tired of his moor, had resigned it into the eager hands of Bob Territon, and was now at Baden-Baden. This was certainly odd, and the writer evidently knew it would appear so; he therefore appended an explanation which was entirely satisfactory to Sir Roderick, but which is, happily, irrelevant to the purposes of this story. What is more to the purpose, it further appeared that Mrs. Welman, Kate Bernard's aunt, had discarded Buxton in favor of the same resort, and that Mr. Haddington, M. P., had also "proceeded" thither.
"They are at the Victoria," wrote Rickmansworth; "I am at the Badischerhof, and--[irrelevant matter]. I go about a good deal with them, but it's beastly slow. Haddington is all day in Kate's pocket, and Kate at best isn't amusing. But what's Lane up to? Do come out here, old fellow. I'll find you some amusement. Who do you think is here with--[more irrelevant matter]."
Sir Roderick was influenced in part, no doubt, by the irrelevant matter. But he also felt that what concerns us concerned him. He had come to a very definite conclusion that Kate Bernard ought not to marry Eugene Lane. He was also sure that unless something was done the marriage would take place. Kate did not care for Eugene, but the match was too good to be given up. Eugene would never face the turmoil necessary to break it off.
"I am the man," said Sir Roderick to himself. "I couldn't catch the parson, but if I can't catch Miss Kate, call me an ass!"
And he took train to Baden, sending off a wire to Morewood to join him if he could, for a considerable friendship existed between them. Morewood, however, wouldn't come, and Ayre was forced to make the journey in solitude.
"I thought I should bring him!" exclaimed Lord Rickmansworth triumphantly, as he received his friend on the platform, and conducted him to a very perfect drag which stood at the door. "Oh, you old thief!"
Rickmansworth was a tall, broad, reddish-faced young man, with a jovial laugh, infinite capacity for being amused at things not intrinsically humorous, and manners that he had tried, fortunately with imperfect success, to model on those of a prize-fighter. Ayre liked him for what he was, while shuddering at what he tried to be.
"I didn't come on that account at all," he said, "I came to look after some business."
"Get out!" said the Earl pleasantly; "do you think I don't know you?"
Ayre allowed himself to yield in silence. His motives were a little mixed; and, anyhow, it was not at the moment desirable to explain them. His vindication would wait.
In the afternoon he paid his call on Mrs. Welman. She was delighted to see him, not only as a man of social repute, but also because the good lady was in no little distress of mind. The arrangement between Kate and Eugene was, as a family arrangement, above perfection. Mrs. Welman was not rich, and like people who are not rich, she highly esteemed riches; like most women, she looked with favor on Eugene; the fact of Kate having some money seemed to her, as it does to most people, a reason for her marrying somebody who had more, instead of aiding in the beneficent work of a more equal distribution of wealth. But Kate was undeniably willful. She treated her engagement, indeed, as an absolutely binding and unbreakable tie--a fact so conclusively accomplished that it could almost be ignored. But she received any suggestion of a possible excess in her graciousness toward Haddington and her acceptance of his society, as at once a folly and an insult; and as she was of age and paid half the bills, all means of suasion were conspicuously lacking. Mrs. Welman was in a position exactly the reverse of the pleasant one; she had responsibility without power. It is true her responsibility was mainly a figment of her own brain, but its burden upon her was none the less heavy for that.
It must be admitted that Ayre's dealings with her were wanting in candor. Under the guise of family friendship, he led her on to open her mind to him. He extracted from her detailed accounts of long excursions into the outskirts of the forest, of numberless walks in the shady paths, of an expedition to the races (where perfect solitude can always be obtained), and of many other diversions which Kate and Haddington had enjoyed together, while she was left to knit "clouds" and chew reflections in the Kurhaus garden. All this, Ayre recognized, with lively but suppressed satisfaction, was not as it should be.
"I have spoken to Kate," she concluded, "but she takes no notice; will you do me a service?"
"Of course," said Ayre; "anything I can."
"Will you speak to Mr. Haddington?"
This by no means suited Ayre's book. Moreover, it would very likely expose him to a snub, and he had no fancy for being snubbed by a man like Haddington.
"I can hardly do that. I have no position. I'm not her father, or uncle, or anything of that sort."
"You might influence him."
"No, he'd tell me to mind my own business. To speak plainly, my dear lady, it isn't as if Kate couldn't take care of herself. She could stop his attentions to-morrow if she liked. Isn't it so?"
Mrs. Welman sadly admitted it was.
"The only thing I can do is to keep an eye on them, and act as I think best; that I will gladly do."
And with this very ambiguous promise poor Mrs. Welman was forced to be content. Whatever his inward view of his own meaning was, Ayre certainly fulfilled to the letter his promise of keeping an eye on them. Kate was at first much annoyed at his appearance; she thought she saw in him an emissary of Eugene. Sir Roderick tactfully disabused her mind of this notion, and, without intruding himself, he managed to be with them a good deal, and with Haddington alone a good deal more. Moreover, even when absent, he could generally have given a shrewd guess where they were and what they were doing. Without altogether neglecting the other claims at which Rickmansworth had hinted, and which resolved themselves into a long-standing and entirely platonic attachment, he yet devoted himself with zest and assiduity to his self-imposed task.
In its prosecution he contrived to make use of Rickmansworth to some extent. The young man was a hospitable soul, delighting in parties and picnics. Only consent to sit with him on his four-in-hand and let him drive you, and he cheerfully feasted you and all your friends. His acquaintance was large, and not, perhaps, very select. But Ayre insisted on the proper distinctions being observed, and was indebted to Rickmansworth's parties for many opportunities of observation. He was sure Haddington meant to marry Kate if he could; the scruples which had in some degree restrained his actions, though not his designs, at Millstead, had vanished, and he was pushing his suit, firmly and daringly ignoring the fact of the engagement. Kate did nothing to remind him of it that Ayre could see, but her behavior, on the other hand, convinced him that Haddington was to her only a second string, and that, unless compelled, she would not let Eugene go. She took occasion more than once to show him that she regarded her relation to Eugene as fully existent. No doubt she thought there was a chance that such words might find their way to Eugene's ears. It is hardly necessary to say they did not.
Watch as he might Ayre's chance was slow in coming. He knew very well that the fact of a young lady, deserted by him who ought to have been in attendance, consoling herself with a flirtation with somebody else, was not enough for him to go upon. He must have something more tangible than that. He did not, indeed, look for anything that would compel Eugene to act; he had no expectation and, to do him justice, no hope of that, for he knew Eugene would act on nothing but an extreme necessity. His hope lay in Kate herself. On her he was prepared to have small mercy; against her he felt justified in playing the very rigor of the game. But for a long while he had no opportunity of beginning the rubber. A fortnight wore away, and nothing was done. Ayre determined to wait on events no longer; he would try his hand at shaping them.
"I wonder if Rick is too great a fool?" he said to himself meditatively one morning, as he crossed one of the little bridges, and took his way to the Kurhaus in search of his friend. "I must try him."
He found Lord Rickmansworth alone, but quite content. It was one of his happy characteristics that he existed with delight under almost any circumstances. One of his team was lame, and a great friend of his was sulky and had sent him away, and yet he sat radiantly cheerful, with a large cigar in his mouth and a small terrier by his side, subjecting every lady who passed to a respectful and covert but none the less searching and severe examination.
"I say, Rick, have you seen Haddington lately?"
"Yes; he's gone down the road with Kate Bernard to play tennis, or some such foolery."
"Rather! Didn't expect anything else, did you?"
"Does he mean to marry that girl?" asked Ayre, with a face of great innocence, much as if it had just occurred to him.
"Well, he can't, unless she chucks old Eugene over."
"Will she, do you think?"
"Well, I'm afraid not. I've got some money on that they're never married, but I don't see my way to handling it."
"Well, no; about twopence-halfpenny--a fancy bet."
"I'm glad it's nothing, because I want you to help me, and you couldn't have if you had anything on; besides, you shouldn't bet on such things."
"Oh, I'm not going to meddle with the thing. It's enough work to prevent one's self getting married, without troubling about other people. But I rather like you telling me not to bet on it!"
"She wouldn't suit Eugene."
"No; lead him the devil of a life."
"She don't care for him."
"Not a straw."
"Then, why don't she break it off?"
"Ah, you innocent?" said Rickmansworth, with a broad grin. "Never heard of such a thing as money in the case, did you? Where have you been these last five-and-forty years?"
"Your raillery's a little fatiguing, Rick, if you don't mind my saying so."
"Say anything you like, old chap, as long as it isn't swearing. That's verbot here--penalty one mark--see regulations. You must go outside, if you want to curse, barring of course you're a millionaire and like to make a splash."
"Rick, Rick, you do not amuse me. I do not belong to the Albatross Club."
"No; over age," replied his companion blandly, and chuckled violently.
"I like to score off old Ayre, you know," he said, in reporting the episode afterward. "He thinks himself smart."
"But look here. I want you to do this: you go to Haddington and stir him up; tell him to bustle along; tell him Kate is fooling him, and make him put it to her--yes or no."
"Why? it's not my funeral!"
"Is that your latest American? I wish you'd find native slang; we used in my day; but I'll tell you why. It's because she's keeping him on till she sees what Eugene'll do. She's treating Eugene shamefully."
"Oh, stow all that! Eugene is not so remarkably strict, you know." And Lord Rickmansworth winked.
"Well, we'll leave that out," said Ayre smiling. "Tell him it's treating him shamefully."
"That's more the ticket. But what if she says 'No'?"
"If she says 'No' right out, I'm done," said Ayre. "But will she?"
"The devil only knows!" said Lord Rickmansworth.
"Do you think you won't bungle it?"
"Do you take me for an ass? I'll make him move, Ayre; he shall give her a chaste salute before the day's out. Old Eugene's no better than he should be, but I'll see him through."
Ayre thought privately that his companion had perhaps other motives than love for Eugene: perhaps family feelings, generally dormant, had asserted themselves; but he had the wisdom not to hint at this.
"If you can frighten him, he'll press it on."
"Do you think I might lie a bit?"
"No, I shouldn't lie. It's awkward. Besides, you know you wouldn't do it, and you couldn't if you tried."
"I'll stir him up," reiterated Rickmansworth. "Give me my prayer-book and parasol, and I'll go and find him."
Ayre ignored what he supposed to be the joke buried in this saying, and saw his friend off on his errand, repeating his instructions as he went.
What Lord Rickmansworth said to Mr. Haddington has never, as the newspapers put it, transpired. But ever since that date Sir Roderick has always declared that Rick is not such a fool as he looks. Certainly the envoy was well pleased with himself when he rejoined his companion at dinner, and after imbibing a full glass of champagne, said:
"To-night, my worthy old friend, you will see."
"Did he bite?"
"He bit. That fellow's no fool. He saw Kate's game when I pointed it out."
"Will he stand up to her?"
"Rather! going to hold a pistol to her head."
"I wonder what she'll say?"
"That's your lookout. I've done my stage."
Ayre was nearer excitement than he had been for a long while. After dinner he could not rest. Refusing to accompany Rickmansworth to the entertainment the latter was bound for, he strolled out into the quiet walks outside the Kurhaus, which were deserted by visitors and peopled only by a few frugal natives, who saved their money and took the music of the band from a cheap distance. But surely some power was fighting for him, for before he had gone a hundred yards he saw on one of the seats in front of him two persons whom the light of the moon clearly displayed as Kate and Haddington. At Baden there is a little hillside--one path runs at the bottom, another runs along the side of the hill, halfway up. Ayre hastily diverted his steps into the upper path. A minute's walk brought him directly behind the pair. Trees hid him from them; a seat invited him. For a moment he struggled. Then, rubesco referens, he sat down and deliberately listened. With the sophisms by which he sought to justify this action, we have no concern; perhaps he was not in reality much concerned about them. But what he heard had its importance.
"I have been more patient than most men," Haddington was saying.
"You have no right to speak in that way," Kate protested; "it's--it's not respectful."
"Kate, have we not got beyond respect?"
"I hope not," said Sir Roderick to himself.
"I mean," Haddington went on, "there is a point at which you must face realities. Kate, do you love me?"
Ayre leant forward and peered through the bushes.
"I will not break my engagement."
"That is no answer."
"I can't help it. I have been taught--"
"Oh, taught! Kate, you know Lane; you know what he is. You saw him with Lady--"
"You're very unkind."
"And for his sake you throw away what I offer?"
"Won't you be patient?"
"Ah, you admit--"
"No, I don't!"
"But you can't deny it. Now you make me happy."
The conversation here became so low in tone that Ayre, to his vast disgust, was unable to overhear it. The next words that reached his ear came again from Haddington.
"Well, I will wait--I will wait three months. If nothing happens then, you will break it off?"
A gentle "Yes" floated up to the eavesdropper.
"Though why you want him to break it off rather than yourself, I don't know."
"He doesn't appreciate her morality," reflected Ayre, with a chuckle.
"Kate, we are promised to one another? secretly, if you like, but promised?"
"I'm afraid it's very wrong."
"Why, he deliberately insulted you!"
The tones again became inaudible; but after a pause there came a sound that made Ayre almost jump.
"By Jove!" he whispered in his excitement. "Confound these trees! Was it only her hand, or--"
"Then I have your promise, dear?"
"Yes; in three months. But I must go in. Aunt will be angry."
"You won't let him win you over?"
"He has treated me badly; but I don't want it said I jilted him."
They had risen by now.
"You ask such a lot of me," said Haddington.
"Ah! I thought you said you loved me. Can't you wait three months?"
"I suppose I must. But, Kate, you are sincere with me? Tell me you love me."
Again Ayre leant forward. They had began to walk away, but now Haddington stopped, and laying his hand on Kate's arm, detained her. "Say you love me," he said again.
"Yes, I love you!" said Kate, with commendable confusion, and they resumed their walk.
"What is her game?" Ayre asked himself. "If she means to throw Eugene over, why doesn't she do it right out? I don't believe she does. She's afraid he'll throw her over. And, by Jove! she fobbed that fool off again! We're no further forward than we were. If he makes trouble about this she'll deny the whole thing. Miss Bernard is a lady of talent. But--no, can I? Yes, I will. Rather than let her win, I'll step in. I'll go and see her to-morrow. We shall neither of us be in a position to reproach the other. But I'll see what I can do. But Haddington! To think she should get round him again!"