When Sir Roderick Ayre returned to England, he had to undergo much questioning concerning his dealings with Stafford. It had somehow become known throughout the little group of people interested in Stafford's abortive love-affair that he and Ayre had held conference together, and the impression was that Ayre's counsel had, to some extent at least, shaped Stafford's resolution and conduct. Ayre did not talk freely on the matter. He fenced with the idle inquiries of the Territon brothers; he calmed Mrs. Lane's solicitude with soothing words; he put Morewood off with a sneer at the transitoriness of love-affairs in general. To Eugene he spoke more openly, and did not hesitate to congratulate himself on the part he had taken in reconciling Stafford to life and work. Eugene cordially agreed with his point of view; and Ayre felt that he was in a fair way to be rid of the matter, when one day Claudia sprang upon him with a new assault.
He had come to see her, and tender hearty congratulations. He felt that the successful issue of Eugene's suit was in some degree his own work, and he was well pleased that his two favorites should have taken to one another. Moreover, he reaped intellectual satisfaction from the fulfillment of a prophecy made when its prospect of realization seemed very scant. Claudia admitted her own pleasure in her engagement, and did not attempt to deny that her affection had dated from a period when by all the canons of propriety she should have had no thoughts of Eugene.
"We are not responsible for our emotions," she said, laughing; "and you will admit I behaved with the utmost decorum."
"About your usual decorum," he replied. "The situation was difficult."
"It was indeed," she sighed. "Eugene was so very--well, reckless. But I want to ask you something."
"I heard about your interview with Father Stafford; what did you say to him?"
"Of course Eugene has told you all I told him?"
"Probably. I told him to."
"Well, that's all."
"In fact, you told him I wasn't worth fretting about!"
"Not in that personal way. I asserted a general principle, and reluctantly denied that you were an exception."
"I hope you did tell him I wasn't worth it, and very plainly. But hasn't he gone back to his religious work?"
"I think he will."
"Did you advise him to do that?"
"Yes, certainly. It's what he's most fit for, and I told him so."
"He spoke to me as if--as if he had no religion left."
"Yes, it took him in that way. He'll get over that."
"I think you were wrong to tell him to go back. Didn't you encourage him to go back to the work without feeling the religion?"
"Perhaps I did. Did Eugene tell you that?"
"I'll never say anything to a lover again."
"Didn't you tell him to use his work for personal ends--for ambition, and so on?"
"Oh, in a way. I had to stir him up--I had to tide him over a bad hour."
"That was very wrong. It was teaching him to degrade himself."
"He can pursue his work in perfect sincerity. I found that out."
"Can he if he does it with a low motive?"
"My dear girl, whose motives are not mixed? Whose heart is single?
"His was once!"
"Before he met--you and me? I made the best job I could. I cemented the breakage; I couldn't undo it."
"I would rather--"
"He'd picturesquely drown himself?"
"Oh, no," she said, with a shudder; "but it lowers my ideal of him."
"That, considering your position, is not wholly a bad thing."
"Do you think he's justified in doing it?"
"To tell the truth, I don't see quite to the bottom of him. But he will do great things."
"Now he is well quit of me?"
Sir Roderick smiled.
"Well, I don't like it."
"Then you should have married him, and left Eugene to do the drowning."
"Do you know, Sir Roderick, I rather doubt if Eugene would have drowned himself?"
"I don't know; he has very good manners."
They both laughed.
"But all the same, I am unhappy about Mr. Stafford."
"Ah, your notions of other people's morality are too exalted. I don't accept responsibility for Stafford. He would not have followed my suggestion unless the idea had been in germ in his own mind."
Claudia's pre-occupation with Stafford's fate would have been somewhat disturbing to a lover less philosophical or less sympathetic than Eugene. As it was, he was pleased with her concern, and his sorrow for the trouble it occasioned her was mitigated by a conviction that its effect would not be permanent. In this idea he proved perfectly correct. As the weeks passed by and nothing was heard of the vanished man, his place in the lives of those who had been so intimately associated with him became filled with other interests, and from a living presence he dwindled to an occasional memory. It was as if he had really died. His name was now and then mentioned with the sad affection we accord to those who have gone before us; for the most part the thought of him was thrust out in the busy give-and-take of everyday life. Save for the absence of that bitter sense of hopelessness which the separation of death brings, Stafford might as well have passed on the road which, but for Ayre's intervention, he had marked out for himself. Claudia and Eugene were wrapped up in one another; their love tor him, though not dead, was dormant, and his name was oftener upon the lips of Ayre and Morewood than of those who had been most closely united with him in the bonds of common experience. But Ayre and Morewood, besides entertaining a kindly memory of his personal charm, found delight in studying him as a problem. They were keenly interested in the upshot of his new start in life, and their blunter perceptions were deaf to the dissonance between the ideal he had set before himself and the alternative Ayre had suggested for his adoption. Perhaps they were right. If none but saints may do the work of the world, much of its most useful work must go undone.
Haddington and Kate Bernard were married before Christmas. Claudia deprecated such haste; and Eugene willingly acquiesced in her wish to put off the date of their own union. He thought that being engaged to Claudia was a pleasant state of existence, and why hasten to change it? Besides, as he suggested, they were not people of fickle mind, like Kate and Haddington (for, of course, Claudia had told him of Haddington's proposal to herself--it is believed ladies always do tell these incidents), and could afford to wait. Eugene went to the wedding. He was strongly opposed to such foolish things as standing quarrels, and Kate was entirely charming in the capacity of somebody else's wife: it is a comparatively easy part to fill, and he had no fault to find with her conception of it. The magnificence of his wedding present smoothed his return to favor, and Kate had the good sense to accept the rôle he offered her, and allowed it to be supposed that she had been the faithless, he the forsaken, one; whereas in reality, as Ayre remarked, she had herself doubled the parts. Claudia judiciously avoided the question of her presence at the ceremony by a timely absence from London, and enjoyed only at second-hand the amusement Eugene derived from Haddington's hesitation between triumph over his supposed rival, and doubt, which had in reality gained the better part. In spite of this doubt, it is allowable to hope for a very fair share of working happiness in the Haddington household. Kate was hardly a woman to make a man happy; but, on the other hand, she would not prevent him being happy if his bent lay in that direction. And Haddington was too entirely contented with himself to be other than happy.
Eugene's wedding was fixed for the Easter recess, and among the party gathered for the occasion at Millstead were most of those who had been his guests in the previous summer. The Haddingtons were not there--Kate retorted Claudia's evasion; and of course Stafford's figure was missing; but the Territon brothers were there, and Morewood and Ayre, the former bringing with him the completed picture, which was Rickmansworth's present to his sister. The party was to be enlarged the day before, the wedding by a large company of relations of both their houses.
The evening before this invasion was expected, Eugene came down to dinner looking rather perturbed. He was a little silent during the meal, and when the ladies withdrew, he turned at once to Ayre:
"I have heard from Stafford."
"Ah! what does he say?"
"He has joined the Church of Rome."
"I thought he would."
Morewood grunted angrily.
"Did you tell him to?" he asked Ayre.
"No; I think I referred to it."
"Do you suppose he's honest?" Morewood went on.
"Why not?" asked Eugene. "I could never make out why he didn't go before. What do you say, Ayre?"
Sir Roderick was a little troubled. This exact following of, or anyhow coincidence with, his advice seemed to cast a responsibility upon him.
"Oh, I expect he's honest enough; and it's a splendid field for him," he answered, repeating the argument he had urged to Stafford himself.
"Ayre," said Morewood aggressively, "you've driven that young man to perdition."
"Bosh!" said Ayre. "He's not a sheep to be driven, and Rome isn't perdition. I did no more than give his thoughts a turn."
"I think I am glad," said Eugene; "it is much better in some ways. But he must have gone through another struggle, poor fellow!"
"I doubt it," said Ayre.
"Anyhow, it's rather a score for those chaps," remarked Rickmansworth. "He's a good fish to land."
"Yes, it will make a bit of a sensation," assented Ayre. "We'll see what the Bishop says when he comes to turn Eugene off. By the way, is it public property?"
"It will be in the papers, I expect, to-morrow. I wonder what they'll say!"
"Everything but the truth."
"By Jove, I hope so. And we alone know the secret history!"
"Yes," said Ayre; "and you, Rick, will have to sit silent and hear the enemy triumph."
Lord Rickmansworth did not think it worth while to repudiate the odium theologicum imputed to him. Probably he knew he was in reality above the suspicion of caring for such things.
"Shall you tell Claudia?" Ayre asked Eugene, as they went upstairs.
"Yes; I shall show her his letter. I think I ought, don't you?"
"Perhaps; will you show it me?"
"Yes; in fact he asks me to give you the news, as he is too occupied to write to you. The note is quite short, and, I think, studiously reserved."
He gave it to Ayre, who read it silently. It ran:
"A line to wish Lady Claudia and yourself all happiness and joy. Do not let your joy be shadowed by over-kind thoughts of me. I am my own man again. You will see soon by the papers that I have taken the important step of being received into the Catholic Church. I need not trouble you with an argument. I think I have done well, and hope to find there work for my hands to do. Pray give this news to Ayre, and with it my most warm and friendly remembrances. I would write but for my stress of work. He was a friend to me in my need. They are sending me to Rome for a time; after that I hope I shall come to England, and renew my friendships. Good-by, old fellow, till then. I long for hst' agauofrosune kai soiV aganiV epeessiu.
"That doesn't tell one much, does it?"
"No," said Ayre; "but we shall learn more if we watch him."
Claudia came up, and they gave her the note to read.
She read it, asking to have the Greek translated to her. Then she said to Ayre:
"What does it mean?"
"Why do you ask me?"
"Because you are most likely to know."
"Mind, I may be wrong; I may do him injustice, but I think--"
"Yes?" she said impatiently.
"I think, Lady Claudia, you have spoilt a Saint and made a Cardinal!"