It was about half-past three when Stafford left Territon Park; about the same hour Claudia sallied forth from the Dower House to take her constitutional. When two people start to walk at the same time from opposite ends of the same road, barring accidents, they meet somewhere about the middle. In accordance with this law, when Claudia was about two miles from home, walking along the path through the dense woods of Territon Park, she saw Stafford coming toward her. There were no means of escape, and with a sigh of resignation she sat down on a rustic seat and awaited his approach. He saw her as soon as she saw him, and came up to her without any embarrassment.
"I am lucky," he said, "I was going over to see you."
Claudia had given some thought to this interview and had determined on her best course.
"Mr. Lane told me you were coming."
"Dear old Eugene!"
"But I hoped you would not."
"Don't let us begin at the end. I haven't seen you since I left Millstead. Were you surprised at my going?"
"I was rather surprised at the way you went."
"I thought you would understand it. Now, honestly, didn't you?"
"Perhaps I did."
"I thought so. You had seen what I only saw that very night. You understood--"
"Please, Father Stafford--"
"Say Mr. Stafford."
"No. I know you as Father Stafford, and I like that best."
"As you will--for the present. You knew how I stood. You saw I loved you--no, I am going on--and yet felt myself bound not to tell you."
"I saw nothing of the kind. It never entered my head."
"Claudia, is it possible? Did you never think of it?"
"As nothing more than a possibility--and a very unhappy possibility."
"Why unhappy?" he asked, and his voice was very tender.
"To begin with: you could never love any one."
"I have swept all that on one side. That is over."
"How can it be over? You had sworn."
"Yes; but it is over."
"Dare you break your vow?"
"If I dare, who else dare question me? Have I not counted the cost?"
"Nothing can make it right."
"Why talk of that? It is my sin and my concern."
"You destroy all my esteem for you."
"I ask for love, not for esteem. Esteem between you and me! I love you more than all the world."
"Ah! don't say that!"
"Yes, more than my soul. And you talk of esteem! Ah! you don't know what a man's love is."
"I never thought of you as making love."
"I think now of nothing else. Why should I trouble you with my struggles? Now I am free to love--and you, Claudia, are free to return my love."
"Did you think I was in love with you?"
"Yes," said Stafford. "But you knew my promise, and did not let yourself see your own feelings. Ah, Claudia! if it is only the promise!"
"It isn't only the promise. You have no right to speak like that. I should never have done as I did if I'd even thought of you like that."
"What do you mean by saying it's not only the promise?"
"Why, that I don't love you--I never did--oh, what a wretched thing!" And she rose and paced about, clasping her hands.
Stafford was very pale now, but very quiet.
"You never loved me?"
"But you will. You must, when you know my love--"
"Yes, but you will. Let me tell you what you are--"
"No, I never can."
"Is it true? Why?"
"Because--oh! don't you see?"
"No. Wasn't it because you loved me that you wouldn't let Eugene speak?"
"No, no, no!"
"Claudia," he cried, clasping her wrist, "were you playing with him?"
No answer seemed possible but the truth.
"Yes," she said, bowing her head.
"And playing with me?"
"No, that's unjust. I never did. I thought--"
"You thought I was beyond hurt?"
"I suppose so. You set up to be."
"Yes, I set up to be," he said bitterly.
"And the truth--in God's name let us have truth--is that you love him?"
"Have you no pity? Why do you press me?"
"I will not press you; God forbid I should trouble you! But is this the end?"
"It is final--no hope? Think what it means to me."
"If I do care for Mr. Lane, is this friendly to him?"
"I am beyond friendship, as I am beyond conscience. Claudia, turn to me. No man ever loved as I do."
"I can't help it," she said: "I can't help it!"
Stafford sank down on the seat and sat there for a moment without speaking. Claudia was awed at the look on his face.
"Don't look like that!" she cried. "You look like a man lost."
"Yes, lost!" he echoed. "All lost--all lost--and for nothing!"
Silence followed for a long time. Then he roused himself, and looked at her. Claudia's eyes were full of tears.
"It's not your fault, my sweet lady," he said gently. "You are pure and bright and beautiful, as you ever were, and I have raved and frightened you. Well, I will go."
"Where? I don't know yet."
"I am so very, very sorry. But you must try--you must forget about it."
"Yes, I must forget about it."
"You will be yourself again--your old self--not weak like this, but giving others strength."
"Yes," he said again, humoring her.
"Surely you can do it--you who had such strength. And don't think hardly of me."
"I think of you as I used to think of God," he said; and bent and kissed her hand.
"Oh, hush!" she cried. "Pray don't!"
He kissed her hand once again, and then straightened himself, and said:
"Now I am going. You must forget--or remember Millstead, not Territon. And I--"
"Yes, and you?"
"I will go, too, where I may find forgetfulness. Good-by."
"Good-by," said Claudia, and gave him her hand again, her heart full of pity and almost of love. He turned on his heel, and she stood and watched him go. For a moment a sudden thought flashed through her head.
"Shall I call him back? Shall I ever find such love as his?"
She started a step forward, but stopped again.
"No, I do not love him," she said. "And I do love my careless Eugene. But God comfort him! O God, comfort him!"
And so standing and praying for him, she let him go.
And he went, with no falter in his step and never a look backward. This thing also had he set behind him.
Claudia still stood fixed on the spot where he had left her. Then she sat down on the seat, and gave herself up to memories of their walks and talks at Millstead.
"Why need he spoil it all?" she cried. "Why need he give me a sad memory, when I had such a pleasant one? Oh, how foolish they are! What a pity it's Eugene, and not him! Eugene would never have looked like that. He'd have made a bitter little speech, and then a pretty little speech, and smoothed his feathers and flown away. But still it is Eugene! Oh, dear, I shall never be quite happy again!"
We may reasonably, nay confidently, hope that this was looking at the black side of things. It is pleasant to act a little to ourselves now and then. The little pieces are thrilling, and they don't last much longer than their counterparts upon the stage. With most of us the curtain falls very punctually, leaving time for a merry supper, where we forget the headache and the thousand natural and unnatural ills that passed in our sight before the green baize let fall its merciful veil.
Stafford pursued his way through the woods. Arriving at the lodge gates, he stopped abruptly, remembering his promise to Eugene. He saw a little fellow playing about, and called to him.
"Do you know Mr. Lane, my boy?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," said the child.
"Then I'll give you something to take to him."
He took a card out of his pocket and wrote on it: "You were right. I am going to London"; and giving it, with a sixpence, to his messenger, resumed his journey to the station.
He was stunned. It cannot be denied that he had been blindly hopeful, blindly confident. He had persuaded himself that his love for Claudia could be nothing but the outcome of a natural bond between them that must produce a like feeling in her. He had attributed to her the depth and intensity of emotion that he found in himself. He had seen in her not merely a girl of more than common quickness, and perhaps more than common capacity, but a great nature ready to respond to a great passion in another. She had much to give to the man she loved; but Stafford asked even more than was hers to bestow. He had deceived himself, and the delusion was still upon him. He was conscious only of an utter, hopeless void. He had removed all to make room for Claudia, and Claudia refused to fill the vacant place. With all the will in the world she could not have filled it; but no such thought as this came to console Stafford. He saw his joy, but was forbidden to reach out his hand and pluck it. His life lay in the hollow of her hand, to grant or withhold, and she had closed her grasp upon it.
He did not rest until he reached his hotel, for he felt a longing to be able to sit down quietly and think it all over. He fancied that when he reached his own little room, the cloud that now seemed to hang over all his faculties would disperse, and he would see some plain road before him. In this he was not altogether disappointed, for it did become clear to him, as he sat in his chair, that the question he had to solve was whether he could now find any motive strong enough to keep him in life. He realized that Claudia's action must be accepted as a final destruction of his short dream of happiness. He felt that he could not go back to his old life, much less to his old attitude of mind, as if nothing had happened--as if he were an unchanged man, save for one sorrowful memory. The transformation had been too thorough for that. He had almost hoped that he would find himself the subject of some sudden revulsion of feeling, some uncontrollable fit of remorse, which would restore him, beaten and bruised, to his old refuge; but had his hope been realized, his sense of relief would, he knew, have been mingled with a measure of contempt for a mind so completely a prey to transient emotions. His nature was not of that sort, and he could not by a spasm of penitence nullify the events of the last few months. He must accept himself as altered by what he had gone through. Was there, then, any life left for the man he was now?
Undoubtedly, the easiest thing was to bid a quiet good-by to the life he had so mismanaged. He had never in old days been wedded to life. He had learnt always to regard it rather as a necessary evil than as a thing desirable in itself. Its momentary sweetness left it more bitter still. There would be a physical pang, inevitable to a strong man, full of health. But this he was ready to face; and now, in leaving life he would leave behind nothing he regretted. The religious condemnation of suicide, which in former days would not have decided, but prevented such a discussion in his mind, now weighed little with him. No doubt it would be an act of cowardice: but he had been guilty of such a much more flagrant treachery and desertion, that the added sin seemed a small matter. He felt that to boggle over it would be like condemning a murderer for trying to cheat the gallows. But still, there was the natural dislike of an acknowledgment of utter defeat; and, added to this, the bitter reluctance a man of ability feels at the idea of his powers ceasing to be active, and himself ceasing to be. The instinct of life was strong in him, though his reason seemed to tell him there was no way in which his life could be used.
"It's better to go!" he exclaimed at last, after long hours of conflicting meditation.
It was getting late in the evening. Eleven o'clock had struck, and he thought he would go to bed. He was very tired and worn out, and decided to put off further questions till the next day.
After all, there was no hurry. He knew the worst now; the blow had been struck, and only the dull, unending pain was with him--and would be till the hour came when he should free himself from it. He resolutely turned his mind away from Claudia. He could not bear to think about her. If only he could manage to think about nothing for an hour, sleep would come.
He rose to take his candle, but at the same moment a waiter opened the door.
"A gentleman to see you, sir."
"To see me? Who is it?"
"He says his name's Ayre, and he hopes you'll see him."
"I can't see him at this time of night," said Stafford, with the petulance of weariness. Why did the man bother him?
But Ayre had followed close on his messenger, and entered the room as Stafford spoke.
"Pray forgive me, Mr. Stafford," he said, "for intruding on you so unceremoniously."
Stafford received him with courtesy, but did not succeed in concealing his questioning as to the motive of the visit.
Ayre took the chair his host gave him.
"You think this a very strange proceeding on my part, I dare say?"
"How did you know I was here?"
"I had a wire from Eugene Lane. I'm afraid I seem to be taking a liberty, and that's a thing I hate doing. But I was most anxious to see you."
"Has Eugene any news?"
"What he says is this: It has happened as we feared. I am uneasy about him. Can you see him to-night?"
"I suppose, then, my fortune is known to you?"
"Yes; I wish I had seen you before you went. Do you mind my interfering?"
"No, not now. You could have done no good before."
"I could have told you it was no use."
"I shouldn't have believed you."
"I suppose you were bound to try it for yourself. Now, you think I don't understand your feelings."
"I suppose most people think they know how a man feels when he's crossed in love," said Stafford, trying to speak lightly.
"That's not the only thing with you."
"No, it isn't," he replied, a little surprised.
"I feel rather responsible for it all, you know. I was at the bottom of Morewood's showing you that picture."
"It must have dawned on me sooner of later."
"I don't know. But, yes--I expect so. You're hard hit."
"Hard hit about her; and harder hit because it was a plunge to go into it at all."
"You're quite right."
"Of course I can't go into that side of it very much, but I think I know more or less how you feel."
"I really think you do. It surprises me."
"Yes. But, Stafford, may I go on taking liberties?"
"I believe you are my friend. Let us put that sort of question out of the way. Why have you come?"
"What does he mean by saying he's uneasy about you?"
"It's the old fellow's love for me."
Ayre was silent for a moment. Then he asked abruptly:
"What are you going to do?"
"I have hardly had time to look round yet."
"Why should it make any difference to you?"
Stafford was puzzled. He thought Ayre had really recognized the state of his mind. He was inclined to think so still. But how, then, could he ask such a question?
"You've had your holiday," Ayre went on calmly, "and a precious bad use you've made of it. Why not go back to work now?"
"As if nothing had happened?" This was the very suggestion he had made to himself, and scornfully rejected.
"You think you're utterly smashed, of course--I know what a facer it can be--and you're just the man to take it very hard. Stafford, I'm sorry." And with a sudden impulse he held out his hand.
Stafford grasped it. The sympathy almost broke him down. "She is all the world to me," he said.
"Aye, but be a man. You have your work to do."
"No, I have no work to do. I threw all that away."
"I expected you'd say that."
"I know, of course, what you think of it. In your view, that vow of mine was nonsense--a part of the high-falutin' way I took everything in. Isn't that so?"
"I didn't come here to try and persuade you to think as I do about such things. I am not so fond of my position that I need proselytize. But I want you to look into yours."
"Mine is only too clear. I have given up everything and got nothing. It's this way: all the heart is out of me. If I went back to my work I should be a sham."
"I don't see that. May I smoke?"
He lighted a cigar, and sat quiet for a few seconds.
"I suppose," he resumed, "you still believe what you used to teach?"
"Certainly; that is--yes, I believe it. But it isn't part of me as it was."
"Ah! but you think it's true?"
"I remain perfectly satisfied with the demonstration of its truth--only I have lost the faith that is above knowledge."
It was evidently only with an effort that Ayre repressed a sarcasm. Stafford saw his difficulty.
"You don't follow that?"
"I have heard it spoken of before. But, after all, it's beside the point. You believe the things so that, as far as honesty goes, you could still teach them?"
"Certainly I should believe every dogma I taught."
"Including the dogma that people ought to be good?"
"Including that," answered Stafford, with a smile.
"I don't see what more you want," said Sir Roderick, with an air of finality.
Stafford felt himself, against his will, growing more cheerful. In fact, it was a pleasure to him to exercise his brains once again, instead of being the slave of his emotions. Ayre had anticipated such a result from their conversation.
"Everything more," he said. "Personal holiness is at the bottom of it all."
"The best thing, I dare say." Ayre conceded. "But indispensable? Besides, you have it."
"Yes, I say--in all essentials."
"I can't do it. Ah, Ayre! it's all empty to me now."
"For God's sake, be a man! Is there nothing on earth to be but a saint or a husband?"
Stafford looked at him inquiringly.
"Heavens, man! have you no ambition? Here you are, with ten men's brains, and you sit--I don't know how you sit--in sackcloth, clearly, but whether for heaven or for Claudia I don't know. You think it odd to hear me preach ambition? I'm a lazy devil; but I have some power. Yes, I'm in my way a power. I might have been a greater. You might be a greater than ever I could."
"Do good if you can," Ayre went on, "and you can. But do something. Don't throw up the sponge because you had one fall. Make yourself something to live for."
"In the Church?"
"Yes--that suits you best. Your own Church or another. I've often wondered why you don't try the other."
"I've been very near trying it before now."
"It's a splendid field. Glorious! You might do anything."
Stafford was silent, and Ayre sat regarding him closely.
"Use my office for personal ambition?" he asked at last.
"Pray don't talk cant. Do some good work, and raise yourself high enough to do more."
"I doubt that motive."
"Never mind the motive. Do, man, do! and don't puke. Leave Eugene to lounge through life. He does it nicely. You're made for more."
Stafford looked up at him as he laid a hand on his shoulder.
"It's all misery," he said.
"Now, yes. But not always."
"And it's not what I meant."
"No, you meant to be a saint. Many of us do."
"I feel what you mean, but I have scruples."
Ayre looked at him curiously.
"You're not a man of scruples really," he said; "you'll get over them."
"Is that a compliment?"
"Depends on whom you ask. You'll think of it? Think of what you might do and be. Now, I'm off."
Stafford rose to show him out.
"I'm not sure whether I ought to thank you," he said.
"You will think of it?"
"And you won't kill yourself without seeing me again?"
"You were afraid of that?"
"Yes. Was I wrong?"
"You won't, then, without seeing me again?"
"No; I promise."
Ayre found his way downstairs, and into the street.
"It will work," he said to himself. "If the Humane Society did its duty, I should have a gold medal. I have saved a life to-night--and a life worth saving."
And Stafford, instead of going to bed, sat in his chair again, pondering the new things in his heart.