Eugene Lane had been rather puzzled by Claudia's latest proceedings. On the morrow of her interview with Stafford he had received from her an incoherent note, in which she took great blame to herself for "this unhappy occurrence," and intimated that it would be long before she could bear to discuss any question pending between herself and her correspondent. Eugene was not disposed to acquiesce in this decision. He had done as much as honor and friendship demanded, and saw no reason why his own happiness should be longer delayed; for he had little doubt that Stafford's rebuff meant his own success. He could not, however, persist in seeking Claudia after her declaration of unwillingness to be sought; and he departed from Territon Park in some degree of dudgeon. All this sort of thing seemed to him to have a touch of the theater about it. But Claudia took it seriously; she did not forbid him to write to her, but she answered none of his letters, and Lord Rickmansworth, whom he encountered at one of the October race-meetings, gave him to understand that she was living a life of seclusion at Territon Park. Rickmansworth openly scoffed at this behavior, and Eugene did not know whether to be pleased at finding his views agreed with, or angry at hearing his mistress's whims treated with fraternal disrespect. Ultimately, he found himself, under the influence of lunch, coinciding with Rickmansworth's dictum that girls rather liked making fools of themselves, and that Claudia was no better than the rest. It was one of Eugene's misfortunes that he could not cherish illusions about his friends, unless his feeling toward Stafford must be ranked as an illusion. About the latter he had heard nothing, except for a short note from Sir Roderick, telling him that no tragedy of a violent character need now be feared. He was anxious to see Ayre and learn what passed, but that gentleman had also vanished to recruit at a German bath after his arduous labors.
It was mid-November before any progress was made in the matter. Eugene was in London, and so were very many people, for Parliament met in the autumn that year, and the season before Christmas was more active than usual. He had met Haddington about the House, and congratulated him with a fervor and sincerity that had made the recipient of his blessings positively uneasy. Why should Lane be so uncommonly glad to get rid of Kate? thought the happy man who had won her from him. It really looked as if there were something more than met the eye. Eugene detected this idea in Haddington's mind, and it caused him keen amusement. Kate also he had encountered, and their meeting had been marked by the ceremonious friendship demanded by the circumstances. The flavor of diplomacy imparted to private life by these episodes had not, however, been strong enough to prevent Eugene being very bored. He was growing from day to day less patient of Claudia's invisibility, and he expressed his feeling very plainly one day to Rickmansworth, whom he happened to encounter in the outer lobby, as the noble lord was finding his way to the unwonted haunt of the House of Lords, thereto attracted by a debate on the proper precautions it behooved the nation to take against pleuro-pneumonia.
"Surprising," he said, "what interesting subjects the old buffers get hold of now and then! Come and hear 'em, old man."
"The Lord forbid!" said Eugene. "But I want to say a word to you, Rick, about Claudia. I can't stand this much longer."
"I wouldn't," said Rickmansworth, "if I were you; but it isn't my fault."
"It's absurd treating me like this because of Stafford's affair."
"Well, why don't you go and call in Grosvenor Square? She's there with Aunt Julia."
"I will. Do you think she'll see me?"
"My dear fellow, I don't know; only if I wanted to see a girl, I bet she'd see me."
Eugene smiled at his friend's indomitable self-confidence, and let him fly to the arms of pleuro-pneumonia. He then dispensed with his own presence in his branch of the Legislature, and took his way toward Grosvenor Square, where Lord Rickmansworth's town house was.
Lady Claudia was not at home. She had gone with her aunt earlier in the day to give Mr. Morewood a sitting. Mr. Morewood was painting her portrait.
"I expect they've stayed to tea. I haven't seen old Morewood for no end of a time. Gad! I'll go to tea."
And he got into a hansom and went, wondering with some amusement how Claudia had persuaded Morewood to paint her. It turned out, however, that the transaction was of a purely commercial character. Rickmansworth, having been very successful at the race-meeting above referred to, had been minded to give his sister a present, and she had chosen her own head on a canvas. The price offered was such that Morewood could not refuse; but he had in the course of the sitting greatly annoyed Claudia by mentioning incidentally that her face did not interest him and was, in fact, such a face as he would never have painted but for the pressure of penury.
"Why doesn't it interest you?" asked she, in pardonable irritation.
"I don't know. It's--but I dare say it's my fault," he replied, in that tone which clearly implies the opposite of what is asserted.
"It must be, I think," said Claudia gently. "You see, it interests so many people, Mr. Morewood."
"Dear me! no!"
"Oh, the nobility and gentry."
A shadow passed across her face--but a fleeting shadow.
"You paint very slowly," she said.
"I do when I am not inspired. I hate painting young women."
"They're not meant to be painted; they're meant to be kissed."
"Does the one exclude the other?"
"That's for you to say," said Morewood, with a grin.
"I think they're meant to be painted by some people, and kissed by other people. Let the cobbler stick to his last, Mr. Morewood."
"I wonder if you'll stick to your last," said Morewood.
Claudia decided that she had better not see this joke, if the contemptible quip could be so called. It was very impertinent, and she had no retort ready. She revenged herself by declaring her sitting at an end, and inviting herself and her aunt to stay to tea.
"I've got no end of work to do," Morewood protested.
"Surely tea is compris?" she asked, with raised eyebrows. "We shan't stay more than an hour."
Morewood groaned, but ordered tea. After all, it was too dark to paint, and--well, she was amusing.
Eugene arrived almost at the same moment as tea. Morewood was glad to see him, and went as near showing it as he ever did. Lady Julia received him with effusion, Claudia with dignity.
"I have pursued you from Grosvenor Square, Lady Julia," he said. "I didn't come to see old Morewood, you know."
"As much as to see me, I dare say," said Lady Julia in an aside.
Eugene protested with a shake of the head, and Morewood carried him off to have such inspection of the picture as artificial light could afford.
"You've got her very well."
"Yes, pretty well. It's a bright little shallow face."
"Go to the devil!" said Eugene, in strong indignation.
"I only said that to draw you. There is something in the girl--but not overmuch, you know."
"There's all I want."
"Oh, I should think so! Heard anything of Stafford?"
"No, except that he's gone off somewhere alone again. He wrote to Ayre; Ayre told me. He and Ayre are very thick now."
"A queer combination."
"Yes. I wonder what they'll make of one another!"
Morewood was a good-natured man at bottom, and after a few minutes' more talk he carried off Aunt Julia to look at his etchings.
"So I have run you down at last?" said Eugene to Claudia.
"I told you I didn't want to see you."
"I know. But that was a month ago."
"I was very much upset."
"So was I, awfully!"
"Do you think it was my fault, Mr. Lane?"
"Not a bit. So far as it was anybody's fault, it was mine."
"Well, you see, he thought--"
"Yes, I see. You needn't go on. He thought you were out of the question, and therefore--"
"Now, Lady Claudia, are you going to quarrel again?"
"No, I don't think so. Only you are so annoying. Is he in great trouble?"
"He was. I think he's better now. But it was a terrible blow to him, as it would be to any one."
"It would be death!"
"Nonsense!" said Claudia. "What is he going to do?"
"I don't know. I think he will go back to work."
"I never intended any harm."
"You never do."
"You mean I do it? Pray don't try to be desperate and romantic, Mr. Lane. It's not in your line."
"It's curious I can never get credit for deep feeling. I have spent a miserable month."
"So have I."
"Because I could not see the person I love best in the world."
"Ah! that wasn't my reason."
"Claudia, you must give me an answer."
Claudia rose, and joined her aunt and Morewood. She gave Eugene no further opportunity for private conversation, and soon after the ladies took their leave. As Eugene shook hands with Claudia, he said:
"May I call to-morrow?"
"You are a little unkind; but you may." And she rapidly passed on to Morewood, and with much sparring made an appointment for her next sitting.
"Why does she fence so with me?" he asked the painter, as he took his hat.
"What's the harm? You know you enjoy it."
But it is very possible he did.
The next day Eugene took advantage of Claudia's permission. He went to Grosvenor Square, and asked boldly for Lady Claudia. He was shown into the drawing-room. After a time Claudia came to him.
"I have come for my answer," he said, taking her hand.
Claudia was looking grave.
"You know the answer," she said. "It must be 'Yes.'"
Eugene drew her to him and kissed her.
"But you say 'Yes' as if it gave you pain."
"So it does, in a way."
"You don't like being conquered even by your own prisoner?"
"It's not that; that is, I think, rather a namby-pamby feeling. At any rate, I don't feel it."
"What is it, then? You don't care enough for me?"
"Ah, I care too much!" she cried. "Eugene, I wish I could have loved Father Stafford, and not you."
"I was at the very center of his life. I don't think I am more than on the fringe of yours."
"A very priceless fringe to a very worthless fabric!" said he, kissing her hand.
"Yes," she answered, with a smile, "you are perfect in that. You might give lessons in amatory deportment."
"Out of a full heart the mouth speaketh."
"Ah! does it? May not a lover be too point-de-vice in his speeches as well as in his accouterments? Father Stafford came to me pale, yes, trembling, and with rugged words."
"I am not the man that Stafford is--save for my lady's favor."
"And you came in confidence?"
"You had let me hope."
"You have known it for a long while. I don't trust you, you know, but I must. Will you treat me as you treated Kate?"
"Slander!" cried he gayly. "I didn't 'treat' Kate. Kate 'treated' me."
He had sat down in a low chair close to hers, and she bent down and kissed him on the forehead.
"At least, I don't think you'll like any one better than you like me, and I must be content with that."
"I have worshiped you for years. Was ever beauty so exacting?"
"With lucid intervals?"
"Never a moment. A sense of duty once led me astray--dynastic considerations--a suitable cousin."
"Yes; and I suppose a moonlight night."
"Pereant quae ante te! You know a little Latin?"
"I think I'd better not just now."
"You may want it for yourself, you know, with a change of gender. But we'll not bandy recriminations."
"I wasn't joking."
"Not when you began; but with me all your troubles shall end in jokes, and every tear in a smile. Claudia, I never knew you so alarmingly serious before."
"Well, I won't be serious any more. The fatal deed is done!"
"And I may say 'Claudia' now without fear of any one?"
"You will be able to say it for about the next fifty years. I hope you won't get tired of it. Eugene, try to get tired of me last of all."
"Never while I live! You are a perpetual refreshment."
"A lofty function!"
"And the spring of all my life. Let us be happy, dear, and never mind fifty years hence."
"I will," she said; "and I am happy."
"And, please God, you shall always be so. One would think it was a very dangerous thing to marry me!"
"I will brave the danger."
"There is none. I have found my goddess."
The door opened suddenly, and Bob Territon entered at the very moment when Eugene was sealing his vow of homage. Bob was pleased to be playful. Holding his hands before his face, he turned and pretended to fly.
"Come in, old man," cried Eugene, "and congratulate me!"
"Oh! you have fixed it, have you?"
"We have. Don't you think we shall do very well together?"
Bob stood regarding them, his hands in his pockets.
"Yes," he said at length, "I think you will. There's a pair of you."
And he could never be persuaded to explain this utterance. But it is to be feared that the thought underlying it was one not over-complimentary to the happy lovers. And Bob knew them both very well.