Chapter VIII.
 

They were bound for Italy; so Alan had decided. Turning over in his mind the pros and cons of the situation, he had wisely determined that Herminia's confinement had better take place somewhere else than in England. The difficulties and inconveniences which block the way in English lodgings would have been well-nigh insufferable; in Italy, people would only know that an English signora and her husband had taken apartments for a month or two in some solemn old palazzo. To Herminia, indeed, this expatriation at such a moment was in many ways to the last degree distasteful; for her own part, she hated the merest appearance of concealment, and would rather have flaunted the open expression of her supreme moral faith before the eyes of all London. But Alan pointed out to her the many practical difficulties, amounting almost to impossibilities, which beset such a course; and Herminia, though it was hateful to her thus to yield to the immoral prejudices of a false social system, gave way at last to Alan's repeated expression of the necessity for prudent and practical action. She would go with him to Italy, she said, as a proof of her affection and her confidence in his judgment, though she still thought the right thing was to stand by her guns fearlessly, and fight it out to the bitter end undismayed in England.

On the morning of their departure, Alan called to see his father, and explain the situation. He felt some explanation was by this time necessary. As yet no one in London knew anything officially as to his relations with Herminia; and for Herminia's sake, Alan had hitherto kept them perfectly private. But now, further reticence was both useless and undesirable; he determined to make a clean breast of the whole story to his father. It was early for a barrister to be leaving town for the Easter vacation; and though Alan had chambers of his own in Lincoln's Inn, where he lived by himself, he was so often in and out of the house in Harley Street that his absence from London would at once have attracted the parental attention.

Dr. Merrick was a model of the close-shaven clear-cut London consultant. His shirt-front was as impeccable as his moral character was spotless--in the way that Belgravia and Harley Street still understood spotlessness. He was tall and straight, and unbent by age; the professional poker which he had swallowed in early life seemed to stand him in good stead after sixty years, though his hair had whitened fast, and his brow was furrowed with most deliberative wrinkles. So unapproachable he looked, that not even his own sons dared speak frankly before him. His very smile was restrained; he hardly permitted himself for a moment that weak human relaxation.

Alan called at Harley Street immediately after breakfast, just a quarter of an hour before the time allotted to his father's first patient. Dr. Merrick received him in the consulting-room with an interrogative raising of those straight, thin eyebrows. The mere look on his face disconcerted Alan. With an effort the son began and explained his errand. His father settled himself down into his ample and dignified professional chair--old oak round-backed,--and with head half turned, and hands folded in front of him, seemed to diagnose with rapt attention this singular form of psychological malady. When Alan paused for a second between his halting sentences and floundered about in search of a more delicate way of gliding over the thin ice, his father eyed him closely with those keen, gray orbs, and after a moment's hesitation put in a "Well, continue," without the faintest sign of any human emotion. Alan, thus driven to it, admitted awkwardly bit by bit that he was leaving London before the end of term because he had managed to get himself into delicate relations with a lady.

Dr. Merrick twirled his thumbs, and in a colorless voice enquired, without relaxing a muscle of his set face,

"What sort of lady, please? A lady of the ballet?"

"Oh, no!" Alan cried, giving a little start of horror. "Quite different from that. A real lady."

"They always are real ladies,--for the most part brought down by untoward circumstances," his father responded coldly. "As a rule, indeed, I observe, they're clergyman's daughters."

"This one is," Alan answered, growing hot. "In point of fact, to prevent your saying anything you might afterwards regret, I think I'd better mention the lady's name. It's Miss Herminia Barton, the Dean of Dunwich's daughter."

His father drew a long breath. The corners of the clear-cut mouth dropped down for a second, and the straight, thin eyebrows were momentarily elevated. But he gave no other overt sign of dismay or astonishment.

"That makes a great difference, of course," he answered, after a long pause. "She is a lady, I admit. And she's been to Girton."

"She has," the son replied, scarcely knowing how to continue.

Dr. Merrick twirled his thumbs once more, with outward calm, for a minute or two. This was most inconvenient in a professional family.

"And I understand you to say," he went on in a pitiless voice, "Miss Barton's state of health is such that you think it advisable to remove her at once--for her confinement, to Italy?"

"Exactly so," Alan answered, gulping down his discomfort.

The father gazed at him long and steadily.

"Well, I always knew you were a fool," he said at last with paternal candor; "but I never yet knew you were quite such a fool as this business shows you. You'll have to marry the girl now in the end. Why the devil couldn't you marry her outright at first, instead of seducing her?"

"I did not seduce her," Alan answered stoutly. "No man on earth could ever succeed in seducing that stainless woman."

Dr. Merrick stared hard at him without changing his attitude on his old oak chair. Was the boy going mad, or what the dickens did he mean by it?

"You have seduced her," he said slowly. "And she is not stainless if she has allowed you to do so."

"It is the innocence which survives experience that I value, not the innocence which dies with it," Alan answered gravely.

"I don't understand these delicate distinctions," Dr. Merrick interposed with a polite sneer. "I gather from what you said just now that the lady is shortly expecting her confinement; and as she isn't married, you tell me, I naturally infer that somebody must have seduced her--either you, or some other man."

It was Alan's turn now to draw himself up very stiffly.

"I beg your pardon," he answered; "you have no right to speak in such a tone about a lady in Miss Barton's position. Miss Barton has conscientious scruples about the marriage-tie, which in theory I share with her; she was unwilling to enter into any relations with me except in terms of perfect freedom."

"I see," the old man went on with provoking calmness. "She preferred, in fact, to be, not your wife, but your mistress."

Alan rose indignantly. "Father," he said, with just wrath, "if you insist upon discussing this matter with me in such a spirit, I must refuse to stay here. I came to tell you the difficulty in which I find myself, and to explain to you my position. If you won't let me tell you in my own way, I must leave the house without having laid the facts before you."

The father spread his two palms in front of him with demonstrative openness. "As you will," he answered. "my time is much engaged. I expect a patient at a quarter past ten. You must be brief, please."

Alan made one more effort. In a very earnest voice, he began to expound to his father Herminia's point of view. Dr. Merrick listened for a second or two in calm impatience. Then he consulted his watch. "Excuse me," he said. "I have just three minutes. Let us get at once to the practical part--the therapeutics of the case, omitting its aetiology: You're going to take the young lady to Italy. When she gets there, will she marry you? And do you expect me to help in providing for you both after this insane adventure?"

Alan's face was red as fire. "She will not marry me when she gets to Italy," he answered decisively. "And I don't want you to do anything to provide for either of us."

The father looked at him with the face he was wont to assume in scanning the appearance of a confirmed monomaniac. "She will not marry you," he answered slowly; "and you intend to go on living with her in open concubinage! A lady of birth and position! Is that your meaning?"

"Father," Alan cried despairingly, "Herminia would not consent to live with me on any other terms. To her it would be disgraceful, shameful, a sin, a reproach, a dereliction of principle. She couldn't go back upon her whole past life. She lives for nothing else but the emancipation of women."

"And you will aid and abet her in her folly?" the father asked, looking up sharply at him. "You will persist in this evil course? You will face the world and openly defy morality?"

"I will not counsel the woman I most love and admire to purchase her own ease by proving false to her convictions," Alan answered stoutly.

Dr. Merrick gazed at the watch on his table once more. Then he rose and rang the bell. "Patient here?" he asked curtly. "Show him in then at once. And, Napper, if Mr. Alan Merrick ever calls again, will you tell him I'm out?--and your mistress as well, and all the young ladies." He turned coldly to Alan. "I must guard your mother and sisters at least," he said in a chilly voice, "from the contamination of this woman's opinions."

Alan bowed without a word, and left the room. He never again saw the face of his father.