Lord Rickmansworth was enjoying himself. Over and above the particular pleasures for whose sake he had come to Baden, he relished intensely the new attitude in which he found himself standing toward Ayre. Throughout their previous acquaintance it had been Rickmansworth who was eager and excited, Ayre who applied the cold water. Now the parts were reversed, and the younger man found great solace in jocosely rallying his senior on his unwonted zeal and activity. Ayre accepted his friend's jocosity and his own excitement with equal placidity. Reproaches had never stirred him to exertion; ridicule would not stop him now. He took leave to add himself to the materials for slightly contemptuous amusement that the world had hitherto afforded him, and he found his own absurd actions a very sensible addition to his resources. He realized why people who never act on impulse and never do uncalled-for things are not only dull to others, but suffer boredom themselves. However the Millstead love-affairs affected the principal actors, there can be no question that they relieved Sir Roderick Ayre from ennui for a considerable number of months and exercised a very wholesome effect on a man who had come to take pride in his own miserable incapacity for honest emotion.
He rose the next morning as nearly with the lark as could reasonably be expected; more nearly with the lark than the domestic staff of the Badischerhof at all approved of. Was not Kate Bernard in the habit of taking the waters at half-past seven? And in solitude? For Haddington's devotion was not allowed by him to interfere with that early ride which is so often a mark of legislators, and an assertion, I suppose, of the strain on their minds that might be ignored or doubted if not backed up by some such evidence. The strain, of course, followed Haddington to Baden; it was among his most precious appurtenances; and Ayre, relying upon it, had little doubt that he could succeed in finding Kate alone and unprotected.
He was not deceived. He found Kate just disposing of her draught, and an offer of his company for a stroll was accepted with tolerable graciousness. Kate distrusted him, but she thought there was use in keeping on outwardly good terms; and she had no suspicion of his shameless conduct the night before. Ayre directed their walk to the very same seat on which she and Haddington had sat. As they passed, either romance or laziness suggested to Kate that they should sit down. Ayre accepted her proposal without demur, asked and obtained leave for a cigarette, and sat for a few moments in apparent ease and vacancy of mind. He was thinking how to begin.
"Ought one ever to do evil that good may come?" he did begin, a long way off.
"Dear me, Sir Roderick, what a curious question! I suppose not."
"I'm sorry; because I did evil last night, and I want to confess."
"I really don't want to hear," said Kate, in some alarm. There's no telling what men will say when they become confidential, and Kate's propriety was a tender plant.
"It concerns you."
"Me? Nonsense! How can it?"
"In order to serve a friend, I did a--well--a doubtful thing."
Kate was puzzled.
"You are in a curious mood, Sir Roderick. Do you often ask moral counsel?"
"I am not going to ask it. I am, with your kind permission, going to offer it."
"You are going to offer me moral counsel?"
"I thought of taking that liberty. You see, we are old friends."
"We have known one another some time."
Ayre smiled at the implied correction.
"Do you object to plain speaking?"
"That depends on the speaker. If he has a right, no; if not, yes."
"You mean I should have no right?"
"I certainly don't see on what ground."
"If not an old friend of yours, as I had hoped to be allowed to rank myself, I am, anyhow, a very old friend of Eugene's."
"What has Mr. Lane to do with it?"
"As an old friend of his--"
"Excuse me, Sir Roderick; you seem to forget that Mr. Lane is even more than an old friend to me."
"He should be, no doubt," said Ayre blandly.
"I shall not listen to this. No old friendship excuses impertinence, Sir Roderick."
"Pray don't be angry. I have really something to say, and--pardon me--you must hear it."
"And what if I refuse?"
"True; I did wrong to say 'must.' You are at perfect liberty. Only, if you refuse, Eugene must hear it."
Kate paused. Then, with a laugh, she said:
"Perhaps I am taking it too gravely. What is this great thing I must hear?"
"Ah! I hoped we could settle it amicably. It's merely this: you must release Eugene from his engagement."
Kate did not trouble to affect surprise. She knew it would be useless.
"Did he send you to tell me this?"
"You know he didn't."
"Then whose envoy are you? Ah! perhaps you are Claudia Territon's chosen knight?"
"Not at all," said Ayre, still unruffled. "I have had no communication with Lady Claudia--a fact of which you have no right to affect doubt."
"Then what do you mean?"
"I mean you must release Eugene."
"Pray tell me why," asked she calmly, but with a calm only obtained after effort.
"Because it is not usual--and in this matter it seems to me usage is right--it is not usual for a young lady to be engaged to two men at once."
"You are merely insolent. I will wish you good-morning."
"I am glad you understand my insinuation. Explanations are so tedious. Where are you going, Miss Bernard?"
"Then I must tell Eugene?"
"Tell him what you like." But she sat down again.
"You are engaged to Eugene?"
"You are also engaged to Spencer Haddington."
"It's untrue; you know it's untrue. Are you an old woman, to think a girl can't speak to a man without being engaged to him?"
"I must congratulate you on your liberality of view, Miss Bernard. I had hardly given you credit for it. But you know it isn't untrue. You are under a promise to give Haddington your hand in three months: not, mark you, a conditional promise--an absolute promise."
"That is not a happy guess."
"It's not a guess at all. No doubt you mean it to be conditional. He understood, and you meant him to understand, it as an absolute promise."
"How dare you accuse me of such things?"
"Nothing short of absolute knowledge would so far embolden me."
"Yes, last night."
Kate's rage carried her away. She turned on him in fury.
"Yes, I listened."
"Is that what a gentleman does?"
"As a rule, it is not."
"I despise you for a mean dastard! I have no more to say to you."
"Come, Miss Bernard, let us be reasonable. We are neither of us blameless."
"Do you think Eugene would listen to such a tale? And such a person?"
"He might and he might not. But Haddington would."
"What could you tell him?"
"I could tell him that you're making a fool of him--keeping him dangling on till you have arranged the other affair one way or the other. What would he say then?"
Kate knew that Haddington was already tried to the uttermost. She knew what he would say.
"You see I could--if you'll allow me the metaphor--blow you out of the water."
"You daren't confess how you got the knowledge."
"Oh, dear me, yes," said Ayre, smiling. "When you're opening a blind man's eyes he doesn't ask after your moral character. You must consider the situation on the hypothesis that I am shameless."
Kate was not strong enough to carry on the battle. She had fury, but not doggedness. She burst into tears.
"If I were doing all you say, whose fault was it?" she sobbed. "Didn't Eugene treat me shamefully?"
"If he flirted a little, it was in part your fault. If you had flirted a little with Haddington, I should have said nothing. But this--well, this is a little strong."
"I am a very unhappy girl," said Kate.
"It isn't as if you cared twopence for Eugene, you know."
"No, I hate him!" said Kate, unwisely yielding to anger again.
"I thought so. And you will do what I ask?"
"If I don't, what will you do?"
"I shall write to Eugene. I shall see Haddington; and I shall see your aunt. I shall tell them all that I know, and how I know it. Come, Miss Bernard, don't be foolish. You had better take Haddington."
"I know it's all a plot. You're all fighting in that little creature's interest."
"Claudia Territon. But if I can help it, Eugene shall never marry her."
"That's another point."
"His friend Father Stafford will have to be considered there."
"Do not let us drift into that. Will you write?"
Kate looked at him with a healthy hatred.
"And you will tell Haddington he needn't wait those three months?"
"I suppose you're proud of yourself now!" she broke out. "First eavesdropping, and then bullying a girl!"
"I'm not at all proud of myself, and I am, if you'd believe it, rather sorry for you."
"I shall take care to let your friends know my opinion of you."
"Certainly--with any details you think advisable. Have I your promise? Is it any use struggling any longer? This scene is so very unpleasant."
"Won't you give me a week?"
"Not a day!"
Kate drew herself up with a sort of dignity.
"I despise you and your schemes, and Eugene Lane, and Claudia Territon, and all your crew!" she allowed herself to say.
"But you promise?"
"Yes, I promise. There! Now, may I go?"
Ayre courteously took off his hat, and stood on one side, holding it in his hand and bowing slightly as she swept indignantly by him.
"I'll give her a day to tell Haddington, and three days to tell Eugene. Unless she does, I must go through it all again, and it's damnably fatiguing. She's not a bad sort--fought well when she was cornered. But I couldn't let Eugene do it--I really couldn't. Ugh! I'll go back to breakfast."
Kate was cowed. She told Haddington. Let us pass over that scene. She also wrote to Eugene, addressing the letter to Millstead Manor. Eugene was not at Millstead Manor; and if Ayre had hastily assumed that his fiancée would be in possession of his address, was it her business to undeceive him? She was by no means inclined to do one jot more than fulfill the letter of her bond--whereby it came to pass that Eugene did not receive the letter for nearly two months and did not know of his recovered liberty all that time. For Haddington, in his joy, easily promised silence for a little while; it seemed only decent; and even Ayre could not refuse to agree with him that, though Eugene must be told, nobody else ought to be until Eugene had formally signified his assent to the lady's transfer. Ayre could not take upon himself, on his friend's behalf, the responsibility of dispensing with this ceremony, though he was sure it would be a mere ceremony.
As for Ayre himself, when his task was done he straightway fled from Baden. He was a hardened sinner, but he could not face Mrs. Welman.
It was, however, plainly impossible to confine the secret so strictly as to prevent it coming to the knowledge of Lord Rickmansworth. Indeed he had a right to know the issue, for he had been a sharer in the design; and accordingly, when he also left Baden and betook himself to his own house to spend what was left of the autumn, he carried locked in his heart the news of the fresh development. On the whole he observed the injunction of silence urgently laid upon him by Ayre with tolerable faithfulness. But there are limits to these things, and it never entered Rickmansworth's head that his sister was included among the persons who were to remain in ignorance till the matter was finally settled. He met Claudia at the family reunion at Territon Park in the beginning of October, and when she and he and Bob were comfortably seated at dinner together, among the first remarks he made--indeed, he was brimming over with it--was:
"I suppose you've heard the news, Clau?"
What with one thing--packing and unpacking, traveling, perhaps less obvious troubles--Lady Claudia was in a state which, if it manifested itself in a less attractive person, might be called snappish.
"I never hear any news," she answered shortly.
"Well, here's some for you," replied the Earl, grinning. "Kate has chucked Eugene over."
"Nonsense!" But she started and colored, all the same.
"I suppose you were at Baden and saw it all, and I wasn't!" said Rickmansworth, with ponderous satire. "So we won't say any more about it."
"Well, what do you mean?"
"No; never mind! It doesn't matter--all a mistake. I'm always making some beastly blunder--eh, Bob?" and he winked gently at his appreciative brother.
"Yes, you're an ass, of course!" said Bob, entering into the family humor.
"Good thing I've got a sister to keep me straight!" pursued the Earl, who was greatly amused with himself. "Might have gone about believing it, you know."
Claudia was annoyed. Brothers are annoying at times.
"I don't see any fun in that," she said.
Lord Rickmansworth drank some beer (beer was the Territon drink), and maintained silence.
The butler came in with his satellite, swept away the beer and the other impedimenta, and put on dessert. The servants disappeared, but silence still reigned unbroken.
Claudia arose, and went round to her brother's chair. He was ostentatiously busy with a large plum.
"Rick, dear, won't you tell me?"
"Tell you! Why, it's all nonsense, you know."
"Rick, dear!" said Claudia again, with her arm around his neck.
He was going to carry on his jest a little further, when he happened to look at her.
"Why, Clau, you look as if you were almost--"
"Never mind that," she said quickly. "Oh! do tell me."
"It is quite true. She's written breaking it off, and has accepted Haddington. But it's a secret, you know, till they've heard from Eugene, at all events. Must hear in a day or two."
"Is it really true?
"Of course it is."
Claudia kissed him, and suddenly ran out of the room.
The brothers looked at one another.
"I hope that's all right?" said the elder questioningly.
"I expect so," answered the younger. "But, you see, you don't quite know where to have Eugene."
"I shall know where to have him, if necessary."
"You'd better keep your hoof out of it, old man," said Bob candidly.
Pursuing his train of thought, Rickmansworth went on:
"Must have been rather a queer game at Millstead?"
"Yes. There was Eugene and Kate, and Claudia and the parson, and old Ayre sticking his long nose into it."
"Trust old Ayre for that; and is it a case?"
"Well, now Kate's out of it, I expect it is, only you don't know where to have Eugene. And there's the parson."
"Yes; Ayre told us a bit about him. But she doesn't care for him?"
"She didn't tell him so--not by any means," said Bob; "and I bet he's far gone on her."
"She can't take him."
"Good Lord! no."
Though how they proposed to prevent it did not appear.
"Think Lane'll write to her?"
"He ought to, right off."
"Queer girl, ain't she?"
"Old Ayre! I say, Bob, you should have seen the old sinner at Baden."
"What? with Kate?"
"No; the other business."
And they plunged into matters with which we need not concern ourselves, and proceeded to rend and destroy the character of that mostrespectable, middle-aged gentleman, Sir Roderick Ayre. The historian hastens to add that their remarks were, as a rule, entirely devoid of truth, with which general comment we may leave them.