Stafford had probably painted his state of mind in colors somewhat more startling than the reality warranted. When a man is going to act against his conscience, there is a sort of comfort in making out that the crime has features of more striking depravity than an unbiased observer would detect; the inclination in this direction is increased when it is a question of impressing others. Sin seems commonplace if we give it no pomp and circumstance. No man was more free than Stafford from any conscious hypocrisy or posing, or from the inverted pride in immorality that is often an affectation, but also, more often than we are willing to allow, a real disease of the mind. But in his interview with Morewood he had yielded to the temptation of giving a more dramatic setting and stronger contrasts to his conviction and his action than the actual inmost movement of his mind justified. It was true that he was determined to set action and conviction in sharp antagonism, and to follow an overpowering passion rather than a belief that he depicted as no less dominant. Had his fierce words to Morewood reproduced exactly what he felt, it may be doubted whether the resultant of two forces so opposite and so equal could have been the ultimately unwavering intention that now possessed him. In truth, the aggressive strength of his belief had been sapped from within. His efforts after doubt, described by himself as entirely unsuccessful, had not in reality been without result. They had not issued in any radical or wholesale alteration of his views. He was right in supposing that he would still have given as full intellectual assent to all the dogmas of his creed as formerly; the balance of probability was still in his view overwhelmingly in their favor. But it had come to be a balance of probability--not, of course, in the way in which a man balances one account of an ordinary transaction against another, and decides out of his own experience of how things happen--Stafford had not lost his mental discrimination so completely--but in the sense that he had appealed to reason, and thus admitted the jurisdiction of reason in matters which he had formerly proclaimed as outside the province of that sort of reasoning that governs other intellectual questions. In the result, he was left under the influence of a persuasion, not under the dominion of a command; and the former failed to withstand an assault that the latter might well have enabled him to repulse. He found himself able to forget what he believed, though not to disbelieve it; his convictions could be postponed, though not expelled; and in representing his mind as the present battle-ground of equal and opposite forces, he had rather expressed what a preacher would reveal as the inner truth of his struggle than what he was himself conscious of as going on within him. It is likely enough that his previous experience had made him describe his own condition rather in the rhetoric of the pulpit than in the duller language of a psychological narrative. He had certainly given Morewood one false impression, or rather, perhaps Morewood had drawn one false though natural inference for himself. He thought of Stafford, and his letter passed on the same view to Eugene, as of a man suffering tortures that passed enduring. Perhaps at the moment of their interview such was the case: the dramatic picture Stafford had drawn had for the moment terrified afresh the man who drew it. His normal state of mind, however, at this time was not unhappy. He was wretched now and then by effort; he was tortured by the sense of sin when he remembered to be. But for the most part he was too completely conquered by his passion to do other than rejoice in it. Possessed wholly by it, and full of an undoubting confidence that Claudia returned his love, or needed only to realize it fully to return it fully, he had silenced all opposition, and went forth to his wooing with an exultation and a triumph that no transitory self-judgments could greatly diminish. Life lay before him, long and full and rich and sweet. Let trouble be what it would, and right be what it might, life and love were in his own hands. The picture of a man giving up all he thought worth having, driven in misery by a force he could not resist to seek a remedy that he despaired of gaining--a remedy which, even if gained, would bring him nothing but fresh pain--this picture, over which Eugene was mourning in honest and perplexed friendship, never took form as a true presentment of himself to the man it was supposed to embody. If Eugene had known this, he would probably have felt less sympathy and more rivalry, and would have assented to Ayre's view of the situation rather than doubtingly maintained his own. A man may sometimes change himself more easily than he can persuade his friends to recognize the change.
Stafford left the Retreat the morning after his meeting with Morewood, feeling, he confessed to himself, as if he had taken a somewhat unfair advantage of its hospitality. The result of his sojourn there, if known to the Founder, might have been a trial of that enthusiast's consistency to his principles, and Stafford was glad to be allowed to depart, as he had come, unquestioned. He came straight to London, and turned at once to the task of finding Claudia as soon as he could. The most likely quarter for information was, he thought, Eugene Lane or his mother; and on the afternoon of his arrival in town--on the same day, that is, as Eugene had surprised Sir Roderick at breakfast--he knocked at the door of Eugene's house in Upper Berkeley Street, and inquired if Eugene were at home. The man told him that Mr. Lane had returned only that morning, from America, he believed, and had left the house an hour ago, on his way to Territon Park; he added that he believed Mr. Lane had received a telegram from Lord Rickmansworth inviting him to go down. Mrs. Lane was at Millstead Manor.
Stafford was annoyed at missing Eugene, but not surprised or disturbed to hear of his visit to Territon Park. Eugene did not strike him as a possible rival. It may be doubted whether in his present frame of mind he would have looked on any man's rivalry as dangerous, but of course he was entirely ignorant of the new development of affairs, and supposed Eugene to be still the affianced husband of Miss Bernard. The only way the news affected him was by dispelling the slight hope he had entertained of finding that Claudia had already returned to London.
He went back to his hotel, wrote a single line to Eugene, asking him to tell him Claudia's address, if he knew it, and then went for a walk in the Park to pass the restless hours away. It was a dull evening, and the earliest of the fogs had settled on the devoted city. A small drizzle of rain and the thickening blackness had cleared the place of saunterers, and Stafford, who prolonged his walk, apparently unconscious of his surroundings, had the dreary path by the Serpentine nearly to himself. As the fog grew denser and night fell, the spot became a desert, and its chill gloom began to be burdensome even to his prepossessed mind. He stopped and gazed as far as the mist let him over the water, which lay smooth and motionless, like a sheet of opaque glass; the opposite bank was shrouded from his view, and imagination allowed him to think himself standing on the shore of some almost boundless lake. Seen under such conditions, the Serpentine put off the cheerful vulgarity of its everyday aspect, and exercised over the spirit of the watcher the same fascination as a mountain tarn or some deep, quick-flowing stream. "Come hither and be at rest," it seemed to whisper, and Stafford, responsive to the subtle invitation, for a moment felt as if to die in the thought of his mistress would be as sweet as to live in her presence, and, it might be, less perilous. At least he could be quiet there. His mind traveled back to a by-gone incident of his parochial life, when he had found a wretched shop-boy crouching by the water's edge, and trying to screw his courage up for the final plunge. It was a sordid little tragedy--an honest lad was caught in the toils of some slatternly Jezebel; she had made him steal for her, had spent his spoil, and then deserted him for his "pal"--his own familiar friend. Adrift on the world, beggared in character and fortune, and sore to the heart, he had wandered to the edge of the water, and listened to its low-voiced promises of peace. Stafford had stretched forth his hand to pluck him from his doom and set him on his feet; he prevailed on the lad to go home in his company, and the course of a few days proved once again that despair may be no more enduring than delight. The incident had almost faded from his memory, but it revived now as he stood and looked on the water, and he recognized with a start the depths to which he was in danger of falling. The invitation of the water could not draw him to it till he knew Claudia's will. But if she failed him, was not that the only thing left? His desire had swallowed up his life, and seemed to point to death as the only alternative to its own satisfaction. He contemplated this conclusion, not with the personal interest of a man who thought he might be called to act upon it,--Claudia would rescue him from that,--but with a theoretical certainty that if by any chance the staff on which he leant should break, he would be in no other mind than that from which he had rescued his miserable shop-boy. Death for love's sake was held up in poetry and romance as a thing in some sort noble and honorable; as a man might die because he could not save his country, so might he because he could not please his lady-love. In old days, Stafford, rigidly repressing his aesthetic delight in such literature, had condemned its teaching with half-angry contempt, and enough of his former estimate of things remained to him to prevent him regarding such a state of mind as it pictured as a romantic elevation rather than a hopeless degradation of a man's being. But although he still condemned, now he understood, if not the defense of such an attitude, at least the existence of it. He might still think it a folly; it no longer appeared a figment. A sin it was, no doubt, and a degradation, but not an enormity or an absurdity; and when he tried again to fancy his life without Claudia, he struggled in vain against the growing conviction that the pictures he had condemned as caricatures of humanity had truth in them, and that it might be his part to prove it.
With a shiver he turned away. Such imaginings were not good for a man, nor the place that bred them. He took the shortest cut that led out of the Park and back to the streets, where he found lights and people, and his thoughts, sensitive to the atmosphere round him, took a brighter hue. Why should he trouble himself with what he would do if he were deceived in Claudia? He knew her too well to doubt her. He had pushed aside all obstacles to seek her, and she would fly to meet him; and he smiled at himself for conjuring up fantasies of impossible misfortune, only to enjoy the solace of laying them again with the sweet confidence of love. He passed the evening in the contemplation of his happiness, awaiting Eugene's reply to his note with impatience, but without disquiet.
This same letter was, however, the cause of very serious disquiet to the recipient, more especially as it came upon the top of another troublesome occurrence. Rickmansworth had welcomed Eugene to Territon Park with his usual good nature and his usual absence of effusion. In fact, he telegraphed that Eugene could come if he liked, but he, Rickmansworth, thought he'd find it beastly slow. Eugene went, but found, to his dismay, that Claudia was not there. Some mystery hung over her non-appearance; but he learned from Bob that her departure had been quite impromptu,--decided upon, in fact, after his telegram was received,--and that she was staying some five miles off, at the Dower House, with her aunt, Lady Julia, who occupied that residence.
Eugene was much annoyed and rather uneasy.
"It looks as if she didn't want to see me," he said to Bob.
"It does, almost," replied Bob cheerfully. "Perhaps she don't."
"Well, I'll go over and call to-morrow."
"You can if you like. I should let her alone."
Very likely Bob's words were the words of wisdom, but when did a lover--even a tolerably cool-headed lover like Eugene--ever listen to the words of wisdom? He went to bed in a bad temper. Then in the morning came Stafford's letter, and of course Eugene had no kind of doubt as to the meaning of it. Now, it had been all very well to be magnanimous and propose to give his friend a chance when he thought the pear was only waiting to drop into his hand; magnanimity appeared at once safe and desirable, and there was no strong motive to counteract Eugene's love for Stafford. Matters were rather different when it appeared that the pear was not waiting to drop--when, on the contrary, the pear had pointedly removed itself from the hand of the plucker, and seemed, if one may vary the metaphor, to have turned into a prickly pear. Eugene still believed that Claudia loved him; but he saw that she was stung by his apparent neglect, and perhaps still more by the idea that in his view he had only to ask at any time in order to have. When ladies gather that impression, they think it due to their self-respect to make themselves very unpleasant, and Eugene did not feel sure how far this feeling might not carry Claudia's quick, fiery nature, more especially if she were offered a chance of punishing Eugene by accepting a suitor who was in many ways an object of her admiration and regard, and came to her with an indubitable halo of romance about him. Eugene felt that his consideration for Stafford might, perhaps, turn out to be more than a graceful tribute to friendship; it might mean a real sacrifice, a sacrifice of immense gravity; and he did what most people would do--he reconsidered the situation.
The matter was not, to his thinking, complicated by anything approaching to an implied pledge on his part. Of course Stafford had not looked upon him as a possible rival; his engagement to Kate Bernard had seemed to put him hors de combat. But he had been equally entitled to regard Stafford as out of the running; for surely Stafford's vow was as binding as his promise. They stood on an equality: neither could reproach the other--that is to say, each had matter of reproach against the other, but his mouth was closed. There was then only friendship--only the old bond that nothing was to come between them. Did this bond carry with it the obligation of standing on one side in such a case as this? Moreover, time was precious. If he failed to seek out Claudia that very day, she, knowing he was at Territon Park, would be justly aggrieved by a new proof of indifference or disrespect. And yet, if he were to wait for Stafford, that day must go by without his visit. Eugene had hitherto lived pleasantly by means of never asking too much of himself, and in consequence being always tolerably equal to his own demands upon himself. Quixotism was not to be expected of him. A nice observance of honor was as much as he would be likely to attain to; and friendship would be satisfied if he gave the doubtful points against himself.
He sat down after breakfast, and wrote a long letter to Stafford.
After touching very lightly on Stafford's position, and disclaiming not only any right to judge, but also any inclination to blame, he went on to tell in some detail the change that had occurred in his own situation, avowed his intention of gaining Claudia's hand if he could, clearly implied his knowledge that Stafford's heart was set on the same object, and ended with a warm declaration that the rivalry between them did not and should not alter his love, and that, if unsuccessful, he could desire to be beaten by no other man than Stafford. He added more words of friendship, told Stafford that he should try his luck as soon as might be, and that he had Rickmansworth's authority to tell him that, if he saw proper to come down for the same purpose, his coming would not be regarded as an intrusion by the master of the house.
Then he went and obtained the authority he had pledged, and sent his servant up to London with the letter, with instructions to deliver itinstantly into Stafford's own hand. His distrust in the integrity of the postmaster's daughter in such a matter prevented his sending any further message by the wires than one requesting Stafford to be at home to receive his letter between twelve and one, when his messenger might be expected to arrive.
With a conscience clear enough for all practical purposes, he then mounted his horse, rode over to the Dower House, and sent in his card to Lady Julia Territon. Lady Julia was probably well posted up; at any rate, she received him with kindness and without surprise, and, after the proper amount of conversation, told him she believed he would find Claudia in the morning-room. Would he stay to lunch? and would he excuse her if she returned to her occupations? Eugene prevaricated about the lunch, for the invitation was obviously, though tacitly, a contingent one, and conceded the lady's excuses with as respectable a show of sincerity as was to be expected. Then he turned his steps to the morning-room, declining announcement, and knocked at the door.
"Oh, come in," said Claudia, in a tone that clearly implied, "if you won't let me alone and stay outside."
"Perhaps she doesn't know who it is," thought Eugene, trying to comfort himself as he opened the door.