Of course she knew who it was, and her uninviting tone was a result of her knowledge. We are yet awaiting a systematic treatise on the psychology of women; perhaps they will some day be trained highly enough to analyze themselves. Until this happens, we must wait; for no man unites the experience and the temperament necessary. This could be proved, if proof were required; but, happily, proof of assertions is not always required, and proof of this one would lead us into a long digression, bristling with disputable matter, and requiring perhaps hardly less rare qualities than the task of writing the treatise itself. The modest scribe is reduced to telling how Claudia behaved, without pretending to tell why she behaved so, far less attempting to group her under a general law. He is comforted in thus taking a lower place by the thought that after all nobody likes being grouped under general laws--it is more interesting to be peculiar--and that Claudia would have regarded such an attempt with keen indignation; and by the further thought that if you once start on general laws, there's no telling where you will stop. The moment you get yours nicely formulated, your neighbor comes along with a wider one, and reduces it to a subordinate proposition, or even to the humiliating status of a mere example. Now even philosophers lose their temper when this occurs, while ordinary mortals resort to abuse. These dangers and temptations may be conscientiously, and shall be scrupulously, avoided.
Eugene advanced into the room with all the assurance he could muster; he could muster a good deal, but he felt he needed it every bit, for Claudia's aspect was not conciliatory. She greeted him with civility, and in reply to his remark that being in the neighborhood he thought he might as well call, expressed her gratification and hinted her surprise at his remembering to do so. She then sat down, and for ten minutes by the clock talked fluently and resolutely about an extraordinary variety of totally uninteresting things. Eugene used this breathing-space to recover himself. He said nothing, or next to nothing, but waited patiently for Claudia to run down. She struggled desperately against exhaustion; but at last she could not avoid a pause. Eugene's generalship had foreseen that this opening was inevitable. Like Fabius he waited, and like Fabius he struck.
"I have been so completely out of the world--out of my own world--for the last month that I know nothing. Didn't even have my letters sent on."
"Fancy!" said Lady Claudia.
"I wish I had now."
Claudia was meant to say "Why?" She didn't, so he had to make the connection for himself.
"I found one letter waiting for me that was most important."
"Yes?" said Claudia, with polite but obviously fatigued interest.
"It was from Miss Bernard."
"Fancy not having her letters sent on!"
"You know what was in that letter, Lady Claudia?"
"Oh, yes; Rickmansworth told me. I don't know if he ought to have. I am so very sorry, Mr. Lane."
"From not getting the letter, I didn't know for a month that I was free. I needn't shrink from calling it freedom."
"As you were in America, it couldn't make much difference whether you knew or not."
"I want you to know that I didn't know."
"Really you are very kind."
"I was afraid you would think--"
"Pray, what?" asked Claudia, in suspiciously calm tones.
Eugene was conscious he was not putting it in the happiest possible way; however, there was nothing for it but to go on now.
"Why, that--why, Claudia, that I shouldn't rush to you the moment I was free."
Claudia was sitting on a sofa, and as he said this Eugene came up and leant his hands on the back of it. He thought he had done it rather well at last. To his astonishment, she leapt up.
"This is too much!" she cried.
"Why, what?" exclaimed poor Eugene.
"To come and tell me to my face that you're afraid I've been crying for you for a month past!"
"Of course I don't mean--"
"Do I look very ill and worn?" demanded Claudia, with elaborate sarcasm. "Have I faded away? Make your mind easy, Mr. Lane. You will not have another girl's death at your door."
Eugene so far forgot himself as to stare at the ceiling and exclaim, "Good God!"
This appeared to add new fuel to the flame.
"You come and tell a girl--all but in words tell her--she was dying for love of you when you were engaged to another girl; dying to hear from you; dying to have you propose to her! And when she's mildly indignant you use some profane expression, just as if you had stated the most ordinary facts in the world! I am infinitely obliged for your compassion, Mr. Lane."
"I meant nothing of the sort. I only meant that considering what had passed between us--"
"Passed between us?"
"Well, yes at Millstead, you know."
"Are you going to tell me I said anything then, when I knew you were engaged to Kate? I suppose you will stop short of that?"
Eugene wisely abandoned this line of argument. After all, most of the talking had been on his side.
"Why will you quarrel, Claudia? I came here in as humble a frame of mind as ever man came in."
"Your humility, Mr. Lane, is a peculiar quality."
"Won't you listen to me?"
"Have I refused to listen? But no, I don't want to listen now. You have made me too angry."
"Oh, but do listen just a little--"
Claudia suddenly changed her tone--indeed, her whole demeanor.
"Not to-day," she said beseechingly; "really, not to-day. I won't tell you why; but not to-day."
"No time like the present," suggested Eugene.
"Do you know there is something you don't allow for in women?"
"So it seems. What is that?"
"Just a little pride. No, I will not listen to you!" she added with an imperious little stamp of her foot, and a relapse into hostility.
"May I come again?"
"I don't know."
Eugene was not a patient man. He allowed himself a shrug of the shoulders.
"Are you about to congratulate me on having 'bagged' another?"
"You're entirely hopeless to-day, and entirely charming!" he said. "If any girl but you had treated me like this, I'd never come near her again."
Claudia looked daggers.
"Pray don't make me an exception to your usual rule."
"As it is, I shall go away now and come back presently. You may then at least listen to me. That's all I've asked you to do so far."
"I am bound to do that. I will some day. But do go now."
"I will directly; but I want to speak to you about something else."
"Anything else in the world! And on any other subject I will be--charming--to you. Sit down. What is it?"
"It's about Stafford."
"Your friend Father Stafford? What about him?"
"He's coming down here."
"Oh, how nice! It will be a pleasant ref--resource."
"Don't mind saying what you mean--or even what you don't mean; that generally gives people greater pleasure."
"You're making me angry again."
"But what do you think he's coming for?"
"To see you, I suppose."
"On the contrary. To see you."
"Pray don't be absurd."
"It's gospel truth, and very serious. He is in love with you. No--wait, please. You must forgive my speaking of it. But you ought to know."
"But he--he's not going to marry anybody. He's taken a vow."
"Yes. He's going to break it--if you'll help him."
"You wouldn't make fun of this. Is it true?"
"Yes, it's desperately true. Now, I'm not going to tell you any more, or say anything more about it. He'll come and plead his own cause. If you'd treated me differently, I might have stopped him. As it is, he must come now."
"Why do you assume I don't want him to come?"
"I assume nothing. I don't know whether you'll make him happy or treat him as you've treated me."
"I shan't treat him as I've treated you, Eugene; is he--is he very unhappy about it?"
"Yes, poor devil!" said Eugene bitterly. "He's ready to give up this world and the next for you."
"You think that strange?"
Eugene shook his head with a smile.
"'A man had given all other bliss
And all his worldly worth,'"
he quoted. "Stafford would give more than that. Good-morning, Lady Claudia."
"Good-by," she said. "When is he coming?"
"To-day, I expect."
"Claudia, if you take him, you'll let me know?"
She seemed so absent and troubled that he left her without more, and made his way to his horse and down the drive, without giving a thought to the contingent lunch.
"She'll marry me if she doesn't marry him," he thought. "But, I say, I did make rather an ass of myself!" And he laughed gently and ruefully over Claudia's wrath and his own method of wooing. He would have laughed much the same gentle and rueful laugh over his own hanging, had such an unreasonable accident befallen him.
So far as the main subject of the interview was concerned, Claudia was well pleased with herself. Her indignation had responded very satisfactorily to her call upon it and had enabled her to work off on Eugene her resentment, not only for his own sins, but also for annoyances for which he could not fairly be held responsible. A patient lover must be a most valuable safety-valve. And although Eugene was not the most patient of his kind, Claudia did not think that she had put more upon him than he was able to bear--certainly not more than he deserved to bear. She would have dearly loved the luxury of refusing him, and although she had not been able to make up her mind to this extreme measure, she had, at least, succeeded in infusing a spice of difficulty into his wooing. She was so content with the aspect of affairs in this direction that it did not long detain her thoughts, and she found herself pondering more on the disclosure Eugene had made of Stafford's feelings than on his revelation of his own. It is difficult, without the aid of subtle distinctions, to say exactly what degree of surprise she felt at the news. She must, no doubt, have seen that Stafford was greatly attracted to her, and probably she would have felt that the description of his state of mind as that of a man in love only erred to the extent that a general description must err when applied to a particular case. But she was both surprised and disturbed at hearing that Stafford intended to act upon his feelings, and the very fact of her power having overcome him did him evil service in her thoughts. The secret of his charm for her lay exactly in the attitude of renunciation that he was now abandoning. She had been half inclined to fall in love with him just because there was no question of his falling in love with her. Her feelings toward Eugene, which lay deeper than she confessed, had prevented her actually losing her heart, or doing more than contemplate the picture of her romantic passion, banned by all manner of awful sanctions, as a not uninteresting possibility. By abandoning his position Stafford abandoned one great source of strength. On the other hand, he no doubt gained something. Claudia was not insensible to that aspect of the case which Ayre had apprehended would influence her so powerfully. She did perceive the halo of romance; and the idea of an Ajax defying heavenly lightning for her sake had its attractiveness. But Ayre reasoning, as a man is prone and perhaps obliged to do, from himself to another, had omitted to take account of a factor in Claudia's mind about the existence of which, even if it had been suggested to him, he would have been profoundly skeptical. Ayre had never been able, or at least never given himself the trouble, to understand how real a thing Stafford's vow had been to him, and what a struggle was necessary before he could disregard it. He would have been still more at a loss to appreciate the force which the same vow exercised over Claudia. Stafford himself had strengthened this feeling in her. Although the subject of celibacy, and celibacy by oath, had not been discussed openly between them, yet in their numerous conversations Stafford had not failed to respond to her sympathetic invitations so far as to give himself full liberty in descanting on the excellences of the life he had chosen for himself. Every word he had spoken in its praise now rose to condemn its betrayal. And Claudia, who had been brought up in entire removal from the spirit which made Ayre and Eugene treat Stafford's vow as one of the picturesque indiscretions of devotion, was unable to look upon the breaking of it in any other light than that of a falsehood and an act of treachery. Religion was to her a series of definite commands, and although her temperament was not such as enabled or led her to penetrate beneath the commands to the reason of them, or emboldened her to rely on the latter rather than the former, she had never wavered in the view that at least these commands may and should be observed, and that, above all, by a man whose profession it was to inculcate them. This much of genuine disapproval of Stafford's conduct she undoubtedly felt; and there it would be pleasant to leave the matter. But in the commanding interest of truth it must be added that this genuine disapproval was, unconsciously perhaps to herself, strengthened by more mundane feelings, which would, if analyzed, have been resolved into a sense of resentment against Stafford. He had come to her, as it were, under false pretenses. Relying on his peculiar position, she had allowed herself, without scruple, a freedom and expansion in her relations toward him that she would have condemned, though perhaps not abstained from, had he stood exactly where other men stood; and she felt that, if charged with encouraging him and fostering a delusion in his mind, her defense, though in reality a good one, was not one which the world would accept as justifying her. She could not openly plead that she had flirted with him, because she had never thought he would flirt with her; or allowed him to believe she entertained a deeper regard for him than she did because he could be supposed to feel none for her. Yet that was the truth; and perhaps it was a good defense. And Claudia was resentful because she could not defend herself by using it, and her resentment settled upon the ultimate cause of her perplexities.
When Eugene got back to Territon Park he was received by the brothers with unaffected interest. They were passing the morning in an exhaustive medical inspection of the dogs, but they left even this engrossing occupation, and sauntered out to meet him.
"Well, what luck?" asked Rickmansworth.
"The debate is adjourned," answered Eugene.
"Did Clau make herself agreeable?"
"Well, no; in fact she made herself as disagreeable as she knew how."
"Raised Cain, did she?" inquired Bob sympathetically.
"Something of the sort; but I think it's all right."
"You play up, old man," said Bob.
"Well, but what the devil are we to do with this parson?" Lord Rickmansworth demanded. "He'll be here after lunch, you know. You are an ass, Eugene, to bring him down!"
"I'm not quite sure, you know, that he won't persuade her."
"Why didn't you settle it this morning?"
"My dear fellow, she was impossible this morning."
"Oh, bosh!" said his lordship. "Now I'll tell you what you ought to have done--"
"Oh, shut up, Rick! What do you know about it? Stafford must try his luck, if he likes. Don't you fellows bother about him. I'll see him when he comes down."
"Would it be infernally uncivil if we happened to be out in the tandem!" suggested Rickmansworth.
"I expect he'd be rather glad."
"Then we will be out in the tandem. If you kill him, or the other way, just do it outside, will you, so as not to make a mess? Now we'll lunch, and then Bob, my boy, we'll evaporate."
It was about three o'clock when Stafford arrived. He had managed to catch the 1:30 from London, and must have started the moment he had read his letter. He was shown into the billiard-room, where Eugene was restlessly smoking a cigar.
He came swiftly up, and held out his hand, saying:
"This is like you, my dear old fellow. Not another man in England would have done it."
"Nonsense!" replied Eugene. "I ought to have done more."
"I ought to have waited till you came before I went to see her."
"No, no; that would have been too much."
He was quite calm and cool; apparently there was nothing on his mind, and he spoke of Eugene's visit as if it concerned him little.
"I daresay you're surprised at all this," he continued, "but I can't talk about that now. It would upset me again. Beside, there's no time."
"Why no time?"
"I must go straight over and see her."
"My dear Charley, are you set on going?"
"Of course. I came for that purpose. You know how sorry I am we are rivals; but I agree with what you said--we needn't be enemies."
"It wasn't that I meant. But you don't ask how I fared."
"Well, I was expecting you would tell me, if there was anything to tell."
"I went, you know, to ask her to be my wife."
"Well, did you?"
"No, not exactly."
"I thought not."
"I tried to--I mean I wasn't kept back by loyalty to you--you mustn't think that. But she wouldn't let me."
"I thought she wouldn't."
Eugene began to understand his state of mind. In another man such confidence would have made him angry; but he had only pity for Stafford.
"I must try and make him understand," he thought.
"Charley," he began, "I don't think you quite follow, and it's not very easy to explain. She didn't refuse me."
"Well, no, if you didn't ask," said Stafford, with a slight smile.
"And she didn't stop me in--in that way. Look here, old fellow; it's no use beating about the bush. I believe she means to have me."
Stafford said nothing.
"But I don't say that to put you off going, because I'm not sure. But I believe she does. And you ought to know what I think. I tell you all I know."
"Do you tell me not to go?"
"I can't do that. I only tell you what I believe."
"She said nothing of the sort?"
"Merely declined to listen?"
"Yes--but in a way."
"My dear Eugene, aren't you deceiving yourself?"
"I think not. I think, you know, you're deceiving yourself."
They looked at one another, and suddenly both men smiled.
"I want to spare you," said Eugene; "but it sounds a little absurd."
"The sooner I go the better," said Stafford. "I must tell you, old fellow, I go in confident hope. If I am wrong--"
"Everything is over! Would you feel that?"
Eugene was always honest with Stafford. He searched his heart.
"I should be cut up," he said. "But no--not that."
Stafford smiled sadly.
"How I wish I could do things by halves!" he exclaimed.
"You will come back?"
"I'll leave a line for you as I go by. Whatever happens, you have treated me well."
"Good-by, old man. I can't say good luck. When shall I see you?"
"That depends," said Stafford.
Eugene showed him the road to the Dower House, and he set out at a brisk walk.