When Morewood was at work he painted portraits, and painted them uncommonly well. Of course he made his moan at being compelled to spend all his time on this work. He was not, equally of course, in any way compelled, except in the sense that if you want to make a large income you must earn it. This is the sense in which many people are compelled to do work, which they give you to understand is not the most suited to their genius, and it must be admitted that, although their words are foolish, not to say insincere, yet their deeds are sensible. There can be no mistake about the income, and there often is about the genius. Morewood, whose eccentricity stopped short of his banking account, painted his portraits like other people, and only deviated into landscape for a month in the summer, with the unfailing result of furnishing a crop of Morewoodesque parodies on Mother Nature that conclusively proved the fates were wiser than the painter.
This year it so chanced that he chose the wilds of Exmoor for the scene of his outrages. He settled down in a small inn and plied his brush busily. Of course he did not paint anything that the ordinary person cared to see, or in the way in which it would appear to such person. But he was greatly pleased with his work; and one day, as he threw himself down on a bank at noon and got out his bread and cheese, he was so carried away, being by nature a conceited man, as to exclaim:
"My head of Stafford was the best head done these hundred years; and that's the best bit of background done these hundred and fifty!"
The frame of the phrase seemed familiar to him as he uttered it, and he had just succeeded in tracing it back to the putative parentage of Lord Verulam, when, to his great astonishment, he heard Stafford's voice from the top of the bank, saying:
"As I am in your mind already, Mr. Morewood, I feel my bodily appearance less of an intrusion on your solitude."
"Why, how in the world did you come here?"
The spot was within ten miles of the Retreat, and part of Stafford's treatment for himself consisted of long walks; but he only replied:
"I am staying near here."
"For health, eh?"
"Well, I'm glad to see you. How are you? You don't look very first-class."
Stafford came down the bank without replying, and sat down. He was, in spite of it being the country and very hot, dressed in his usual black, and looked paler and thinner than ever.
"Have some lunch?"
"There's only enough for one," he said.
"No, really; I never take it."
A pause ensued. Stafford seemed to be thinking, while Morewood was undoubtedly eating. Presently, however, the latter said:
"You left us rather suddenly at Millstead."
"You of all men know why I went, Mr. Morewood."
"If you don't mind my admitting it, I do. But most people are so thin-skinned."
"I am not thin-skinned--not in that way. Of course you know. You told me."
"Yes; you did me a service."
"Well, I think I did, and I'm glad to hear you say so."
"Shows you've come to your senses," said Morewood, rapidly recovering from his lapse into civility.
Stafford seemed willing, even anxious, to pursue the subject. The regimen at the Retreat was no doubt severe.
"What do you mean by coming to my senses?"
"Why, doing what any man does when he finds he's in love--barring a sound reason against it."
"And that is?"
"Try his luck. You needn't look at me. I've tried my luck before now, and it was damned bad luck. So here I am, a musty old curmudgeon; and there's Ayre, a snarling old cur!"
"I don't bore you about it?"
"No, I like jawing."
"Well then, I was going to say, of course you don't know how it struck me."
"Yes, I do, but I don't think any the better of it for that."
"You knew about my vow? I suppose you think that--"
"Bosh? Yes, I do. I think all vows bosh; but without asking you to agree to that, though I think I did ask the Bishop of Bellminster to, I do say this one is utter bosh. Why, your own people say so, don't they?"
"My own people? The people I suppose you mean don't say so. I took a vow never to marry--there were even more stringent terms--but that's enough."
"A vow," continued Stafford, "that you won't marry till you want to is not the same as a vow never to marry."
"No. I think I could manage the first sort."
"The first sort," said Stafford, with a smile, "is nowadays a popular compromise."
"I detest compromises. That's why I liked you."
"You're advising me to make one now."
"No, I advise you to throw up the whole thing."
"That's because you don't believe in anything?"
"Suppose you believed all I believe and had done all I had?"
"How do you mean?"
"You believed what a priest believes--in heaven and hell--the gaining God and the losing him--in good and evil. Supposing you, believing this, had given your life to God, and made your vow to him--had so proclaimed before men, had so lived and worked and striven! Supposing you thought a broken vow was death to your own soul and a trap to the souls of others--a baseness, a treason, a desertion--more cowardly than a soldier's flight--as base as a thief's purloining--meaning to you and those who had trusted you the death of good and the triumph of evil?"
He sat still, but his voice was raised in rapid and intense utterance; he gazed before him with starting eyes.
"All that," he went on, "it meant to me--all that and more--the triumph of the beast in me--passion and desire rampant--man forsaken and God betrayed--my peace forever gone, my honor forever stained. Can't you see? Can't you see?"
Morewood rose and paced up and down.
"Now--now can you judge? You say you knew--did you know that?"
"Do you still believe all that?"
"Yes, all, and more than all. For a moment--a day--perhaps a week, I drove myself to doubt. I tried to doubt--I rejoiced in it. But I cannot. As God is above us, I believe all that."
"If you break this vow you think you will be--?"
"The creature I have said? Yes--and worse."
"I think the vow utter nonsense," said Morewood again.
"But if you thought as I think, then would your love--yes, and would a girl's heart, weigh with you?"
Morewood stood still.
"I can hardly realize it," he said, "in a man of your brain. But--"
"Yes?" said Stafford, looking at him almost as if he were amused, for his sudden outburst had left him quite calm.
"If I believed that, I'd cut off my hand rather than break the vow."
"I knew it!" cried Stafford, "I knew it!"
Morewood was touched with pity.
"If you're right," he said, "it won't be so hard to you. You'll get over it."
"Get over it?"
"Yes; what you believe will help you. You've no choice, you know."
Stafford still wore a look of half-amusement.
"You have never felt belief?" he asked.
"Not for many years. That's all gone."
"You think you have been in love?"
"Of course I have--half a dozen times."
"No more than the other," said Stafford decisively.
Morewood was about to speak, but Stafford went on quickly:
"I have told you what belief is--I could tell you what love is; you know no more the one than the other. But why should I? I doubt if you would understand. You think you couldn't be shocked. I should shock you. Let it be. I think I could charm you, too. Let that be."
A pause followed. Stafford still sat motionless, but his face gradually changed from its stern aspect to the look that Morewood had once caught on his canvas.
"You're in love with her still?" he exclaimed.
"Yes. Haven't you conquered it? I'm a poor hand at preaching, but, by Jove! If I thought like you, I'd never think of the girl again."
"I mean to marry her," said Stafford quietly. "I have chosen."
Morewood was in very truth shocked. But Stafford's morals, after all, were not his care.
"Perhaps she won't have you," he suggested at last, as though it were a happy solution.
Stafford laughed outright.
"Then I could go back to my priesthood, I suppose?"
"Well--after a time."
"As a burglar who is caught before his robbery goes back to his trade. As if it made the smallest difference--as if the result mattered!"
"I suppose you are right there."
"Of course. But she will have me."
"Do you think so?"
"I don't doubt it. If I doubted it, I should die."
"I doubt it."
"Pardon me; I dare say you do."
"You don't want to talk about that?"
"It isn't worth while. I no more doubt it than that the sun shines. Well, Mr. Morewood, I am obliged to you for hearing me out. I had a curiosity to see how my resolution struck you."
"If you have told me the truth, it strikes me as devilish. I'm no saint; but if a man believes in good, as you do, by God, he oughtn't to trample it under foot!"
Stafford took no notice of him, He rose and held out his hand. "I'm going back to London to-morrow," he said, "to wait till she comes."
"God help you!" said Morewood, with a sudden impulse.
"I have no more to do with God," said Stafford.
"Then the devil help you, if you rely on him!"
"Don't be angry," he said, with a swift return of his old sweet smile. "In old days I should have liked your indignation. I still like you for it. But I have made my choice."
"'Evil, be thou my good.' Is that it?"
"Yes, if you like. Why talk about it any more? It is done."
He turned and walked away, leaving Morewood alone to finish his forgotten lunch.
He could not get the thought of the man out of his mind all day. It was with him as he worked, and with him when he sat after dinner in the parlor of his little inn, with his pipe and whisky and water. He was so full of Stafford that he could not resist the impulse to tell somebody else, and at last he took a sheet of paper.
"I don't know if he's in town," he said, "but I'll chance it;" and he began:
"By chance down here I met the parson. He is mad. He painted for me the passion of belief--which he said I hadn't and implied I couldn't feel. He threatened to paint the passion of love, with the same assertion and the same implication. He is convinced that if he breaks his vow (you remember it, of course) he'll be worse than Satan. Yet his face is set to break it. You probably can't help it, and wouldn't if you could, for you haven't heard him. He's going to London. Stop him if you can before he gets to Claudia Territon. I tell you his state of mind is hideous.
This somewhat incoherent letter reached Sir Roderick Ayre as he passed through London, and tarried a day or two in early October. He opened it, read it, and put it down on the breakfast-table. Then he read it again, and ejaculated.
"Talk about madness! Why, because Stafford's mad--if he is mad--must our friend the painter go mad too? Not that I see he is mad. He's only been stirring up old Morewood's dormant piety."
He lit his cigar, and sat pondering the letter.
"Shall I try to stop him? If Claudia and Eugene have fixed up things it would be charitable to prevent him making a fool of himself. Why the deuce haven't I heard anything from that young rascal? Hullo! who's that?"
He heard a voice outside, and the next moment Eugene himself rushed in.
"Here you are!" he said. "Thought I should find you. You can't keep away from this dirty old town."
"Where do you spring from?" asked Ayre.
"Liverpool. I found the Continent slow, so I went to America. Nothing moving there, so I came back here. Can you give me breakfast?"
Ayre rang the bell, and ordered a new breakfast; as he did so he took up Morewood's letter and put it in his pocket.
Eugene went on talking with gay affectation about his American experiences. Only when he was through his breakfast did he approach home topics.
"Well, how's everybody?"
Ayre waited for a more definite question.
"Seen the Territons lately?"
"Not very. Haven't you?"
"No. They weren't over there, you know. Are they alive?"
"My young friend, are you trying to deceive me? You have heard from at least one of them, if you haven't seen them?"
"I haven't--not a line. We don't correspond: not comme il faut."
"Oh, you haven't written to Claudia?"
"Of course not."
"Why should I?"
"Let us go back to the previous question. Have you heard from Miss Bernard?"
"Why probe my wounds? Not a single line."
"Confound her impudence! she never wrote?"
"I don't know why she should. But in case she ought, I'm bound to say she couldn't."
"Why not? She said she would; she said so to me."
"She couldn't have said so. You must have misunderstood her. I left no address, you know; and I had no difficulty in eluding interviewers--not being a prize-fighter or a minor poet."
Sir Roderick smiled.
"Gad! I never thought of that. She held me, after all."
"What on earth are you driving at?"
"If there's one thing I hate more than another, it's a narrative; but I see I'm in for it. Sit still and hold your tongue till I'm through with it."
Eugene obeyed implicitly; and Ayre, not without honest pride, recounted his Baden triumph.
"And unless she's bolder than I think, you'll find a letter to that effect."
Eugene sat very quiet.
"Well, you don't seem overpleased, after all. Wasn't I right?"
"Quite right, old fellow. But, I say, is she in love with Haddington?"
"Ah, there's your beastly vanity? I think she is rather, you know, or she'd never have given herself away so."
"Rum taste!" said Eugene, whose relief at his freedom was tempered by annoyance at Kate's insensibility. "But I'm awfully obliged. And, by Jove, Ayre, it's new life to me!"
"I thought so."
Eugene had got over his annoyance. A sudden thought seemed to strike him.
"I say, does Claudia know?"
"Rickmansworth's sure to have told her on the spot. She must have known it a month; and what's more, she must think you've known it a month."
"Inference that the sooner I show up the better."
"Exactly. What, are you off now? Do you know where she is?"
"I shall send a wire to Territon Park. Rick's sure to be there if she isn't, and I'll go down and find out about it."
"Wait a minute, will you? Have you heard from your friend Stafford lately?"
A shadow fell on Eugene's face.
"No. But that's over. Must be, or he'd never have bolted from Millstead."
Ayre was silent a moment. Morewood's letter told him that Stafford had set out to go to Claudia. What if he and Eugene met? Ayre had not much faith in the power of friendship under such circumstances.
"I think, on the whole, that I'd better show you a letter I've had," he said. "Mind you, I take no responsibility for what you do."
"Nobody wants you to," said Eugene, with a smile. "We all understand that's your position."
Ayre flung the letter over to him and he read it.
"Oh, by Jove, this is the devil!" he exclaimed, jumping off the writing-table, where he had seated himself.
"So Morewood seems to think."
"Poor old fellow! I say, what shall I do? Poor old Stafford! Fancy his cutting up like this."
"It's kind of you to pity him."
"What do you mean? I say, Ayre, you don't think there is anything in it?"
"Anything in it?"
"You don't think there's any chance that Claudia likes him?"
"Haven't an idea one way or the other," said Ayre rather disingenuously.
Eugene looked very perturbed.
"You see," continued Ayre, "it's pretty cool of you to assume the girl is in love with you when she knew you were engaged to somebody else up to a month ago."
"Oh, damn it, yes!" groaned Eugene; "but she knew old Stafford had sworn not to marry anybody."
"And she knew--of course she knew--you both wanted to marry her. I wonder what she thought of both of you!"
"She never had any idea of the sort about him. About me she may have had an inkling."
"Just an inkling, perhaps," assented Sir Roderick.
"The worst of it is, you know, if she does like me I shall feel a brute, cutting in now. Old Stafford knew I was engaged too, you know."
"It all serves you right," observed Ayre comfortingly. "If you must get engaged at all, why the deuce couldn't you pick the right girl?"
"Fact is, I don't show up over well."
"You don't; that is a fact."
"Ayre, I think I ought to let him have his shot first."
"Bosh! why, as like as not she'd take him! If it struck her that he was chucking away his immortal soul and all that for her sake, as like as not she'd take him. Depend upon it, Eugene, once she caught the idea of romantic sin, she'd be gone--no girl could stand up against it."
"It is rather the sort of thing to catch Claudia's fancy."
"You cut in, my boy," continued Ayre, "Frendship's all very well--"
"Yes, 'save in the office and affairs of love!'" quoted Eugene, with a smile of scorn at himself.
"Well, you'd better make up your mind, and don't mount stilts."
"I'll go down and look round. But I can't ask her without telling her or letting him tell her."
"Pooh! she knows."
"She doesn't, I tell you."
"Then she ought to. You're a nice fellow! I slave and eavesdrop for you, and now you won't do the rest yourself. What the deuce do you all see in that parson? If I were your age, and thought Claudia Territon would have me, it would take a lot of parsons to put me on one side."
"Poor old Charley!" said Eugene again. "Ayre, he shall have his shot."
"Meanwhile, the girl's wondering if you mean to throw her over. She's expected to hear from you this last month. I tell you what: I expect Rick'll kick you when you do turn up."
"Well, I shall go down and try to see her: when I get there I must be guided by circumstances."
"Very good. I expect the circumstances will turn out to be such that you'll make love to Claudia and forget all about Stafford. If you don't----"
"You're an infernally cold-blooded conscientious young ruffian, and I never took you for that before!"
And Ayre, more perturbed about other people's affairs than a man of his creed had any business to be, returned to the Times as Eugene went to pursue his errand.