The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXVII. The Awakening
In her heart of hearts Hylda had not greatly welcomed the Duchess of Snowdon to Hamley. There was no one whose friendship she prized more; but she was passing through a phase of her life when she felt that she was better apart, finding her own path by those intuitions and perceptions which belonged to her own personal experience. She vaguely felt, what all realise sooner or later, that we must live our dark hours alone.
Yet the frank downright nature of the once beautiful, now faded, Duchess, the humorous glimmer in the pale-blue eyes, the droll irony and dry truth of her speech, appealed to Hylda, made her smile a warm greeting when she would rather have been alone. For, a few days before, she had begun a quest which had absorbed her, fascinated her. The miner, finding his way across the gap of a reef to pick up the vein of quartz at some distant and uncertain point, could not have been more lost to the world than was the young wife searching for a family skeleton, indefinitely embodied in her imagination by the name, James Fetherdon.
Pile after pile of papers and letters of the late Earl and his Countess had passed through her hands from chaos to order. As she had read, hour after hour, the diaries of the cold, blue-eyed woman, Sybil Eglington, who had lived without love of either husband or son, as they, in turn, lived without love of each other, she had been overwhelmed by the revelation of a human heart, whose powers of expression were smothered by a shy and awkward temperament. The late Countess's letters were the unclothing of a heart which had never expanded to the eyes of those whose love would have broken up a natural reserve, which became at last a proud coldness, and gave her a reputation for lack of feeling that she carried to her grave.
In the diaries which Hylda unearthed--the Countess had died suddenly-- was the muffled cry of a soul tortured through different degrees of misunderstanding; from the vague pain of suffered indifference, of being left out of her husband's calculations, to the blank neglect narrowing her life down to a tiny stream of duty, which was finally lost in the sands. She had died abroad, and alone, save for her faithful maid, who, knowing the chasm that lay between her mistress and her lord, had brought her letters and papers back to the Cloistered House, and locked them away with all the other papers and correspondence which the Countess had accumulated.
Among these papers was a letter to the late Lord Eglington written the day before she died. In the haste and confusion ensuing on her death, the maid had not seen it. It had never reached his hands, but lay in a pocket of the dead woman's writing-portfolio, which Hylda had explored without discovering. Only a few hours, however, before the Duchess of Snowdon came, Hylda had found again an empty envelope on which was written the name, James Fetherdon. The writing on the envelope was that of Sybil Lady Eglington.
When she discovered the envelope, a sense of mystery and premonition possessed her. What was the association between the Countess of Eglington and James Fetherdon, the father of David Claridge? In vain she searched among the voluminous letters and papers, for it would seem that the dead woman had saved every letter she received, and kept copies of numberless letters she had written. But she had searched without avail. Even the diaries, curiously frank and without reserve, never mentioned the name, so far as she could find, though here and there were strange allusive references, hints of a trouble that weighed her down, phrases of exasperation and defiance. One phrase, or the idea in it, was, however, much repeated in the diaries during the course of years, and towards the last almost feverishly emphasised--"Why should I bear it for one who would bear nothing for me, for his sake, who would do nothing for my sake? Is it only the mother in me, not the love in me?"
These words were haunting Hylda's brain when the telegram from the Duchess of Snowdon came. They followed her to Heddington, whither she went in the carriage to bring her visitor to Hamley, and kept repeating themselves at the back of her mind through the cheerful rallying of the Duchess, who spread out the wings of good-humour and motherly freedom over her.
After all, it was an agreeable thing to be taken possession of, and "put in her proper place," as the Duchess said; made to understand that her own affairs were not so important, after all; and that it was far more essential to hear the charming gossip about the new and most popular Princess of Wales, or the quarrel between Dickens and Thackeray. Yet, after dinner, in the little sitting-room, where the Duchess, in a white gown with great pink bows, fitter for a girl fresh from Confirmation, and her cheeks with their fixed colour, which changed only at the discretion of her maid, babbled of nothing that mattered, Hylda's mind kept turning to the book of life an unhappy woman had left behind her. The sitting- room had been that of the late Countess also, and on the wall was an oil- painting of her, stately and distant and not very alluring, though the mouth had a sweetness which seemed unable to break into a smile.
"What was she really like--that wasn't her quite, was it?" asked Hylda, at last, leaning her chin on the hand which held the 'cello she had been playing.
"Oh, yes, it's Sybil Eglington, my dear, but done in wood; and she wasn't the graven image that makes her out to be. That's as most people saw her; as the fellow that painted her saw her; but she had another side to her. She disapproved of me rather, because I was squeezing the orange dry, and trying to find yesterday's roses in to-morrow's garden. But she didn't shut her door in my face--it's hard to do that to a Duchess; which is one of the few advantages of living naked in the street, as it were, with only the strawberry leaves to clothe you. No, Sybil Eglington was a woman who never had her chance. Your husband's forbears were difficult, my dear. They didn't exactly draw you out. She needed drawing out; and her husband drove her back into her corner, where she sulked rather till she died--died alone at Wiesbaden, with a German doctor, a stray curate, and a stuttering maid to wish her bon voyage. Yet I fancy she went glad enough, for she had no memories, not even an affaire to repent of, and to cherish. La, la! she wasn't so stupid, Sybil there, and she was an ornament to her own sex and the despair of the other. His Serene Highness Heinrich of Saxe-Gunden fancied the task of breaking that ice, and he was an adept and an Apollo, but it broke his reputation instead.
"No doubt she is happy now. I shall probably never see!"
In spite of the poignant nature of the talk, Hylda could not but smile at the last words.
"Don't despair," she rejoined; "one star differeth from another star in glory, but that is no reason why they should not be on visiting terms."
"My dear, you may laugh--you may laugh, but I am sixty-five, and I am not laughing at the idea of what company I may be obliged to keep presently. In any case I'm sure I shall not be comfortable. If I'm where she is, I shall be dull; if I'm where her husband is, I'll have no reputation; and if there is one thing I want, it is a spotless reputation--sometime."
Hylda laughed--the manner and the voice were so droll--but her face saddened too, and her big eyes with the drooping lashes looked up pensively at the portrait of her husband's mother.
"Was it ever a happy family, or a lucky family?" she asked.
"It's lucky now, and it ought to be happy now," was the meaning reply.
Hylda made no answer, but caught the strings of the 'cello lightly, and shook her head reprovingly, with a smile meant to be playful. For a moment she played, humming to herself, and then the Duchess touched the hand that was drawing the bow softly across the strings. She had behind her garishness a gift for sympathy and a keen intuition, delicacy, and allusiveness. She knew what to say and what to leave unsaid, when her heart was moved.
"My darling," she said now, "you are not quite happy; but that is because you don't allow yourself to get well. You've never recovered from your attack last summer; and you won't, until you come out into the world again and see people. This autumn you ought to have been at Homburg or at Aix, where you'd take a little cure of waters and a great deal of cure of people. You were born to bask in friendship and the sun, and to draw from the world as much as you deserve, a little from many, for all you give in return. Because, dearest, you are a very agreeable person, with enough wit and humanity to make it worth the world's while to conspire to make you do what will give it most pleasure, and let yourself get most-- and that's why I've come."
"What a person of importance I am!" answered Hylda, with a laugh that was far from mirthful, though she caught the plump, wrinkled little hand of the Duchess and pressed it. "But really I'm getting well here fast. I'm very strong again. It is so restful, and one's days go by so quietly."
"Yet, I'm not sure that it's rest you want. I don't think it is. You want tonics--men and women and things. Monte Carlo would do you a world of good--I'd go with you. Eglington gambles here"--she watched Hylda closely--"why shouldn't you gamble there?"
"Eglington gambles?" Hylda's face took on a frightened look, then it cleared again, and she smiled. "Oh, of course, with international affairs, you mean. Well, I must stay here and be the croupier."
"Nonsense! Eglington is his own croupier. Besides, he is so much in London, and you so much here. You sit with the distaff; he throws the dice."
Hylda's lips tightened a little. Her own inner life, what Eglington was to her or she to Eglington, was for the ears of no human being, however friendly. She had seen little of him of late, but in one sense that had been a relief, though she would have done anything to make that feeling impossible. His rather precise courtesy and consideration, when he was with her, emphasised the distance between "the first fine careless rapture" and this grey quiet. And, strange to say, though in the first five years after the Cairo days and deeds, Egypt seemed an infinite space away, and David a distant, almost legendary figure, now Egypt seemed but beyond the door--as though, opening it, she would stand near him who represented the best of all that she might be capable of thinking. Yet all the time she longed for Eglington to come and say one word, which would be like touching the lever of the sluice-gates of her heart, to let loose the flood. As the space grew between her and Eglington, her spirit trembled, she shrank back, because she saw that sea towards which she was drifting.
As she did not answer the last words of the Duchess, the latter said presently: "When do you expect Eglington?"
"Not till the week-end; it is a busy week with him," Hylda answered; then added hastily, though she had not thought of it till this moment: "I shall probably go up to town with you to-morrow."
She did not know that Eglington was already in the house, and had given orders to the butler that she was not to be informed of his arrival for the present.
"Well, if you get that far, will you come with me to the Riviera, or to Florence, or Sicily--or Cairo?" the other asked, adjusting her gold- brown wig with her babyish hands.
Cairo! Cairo! A light shot up into Hylda's eyes. The Duchess had spoken without thought, but, as she spoke, she watched the sudden change in Hylda. What did it mean? Cairo--why should Cairo have waked her so? Suddenly she recalled certain vague references of Lord Windlehurst, and, for the first time, she associated Hylda with Claridge Pasha in a way which might mean much, account for much, in this life she was leading.
"Perhaps! Perhaps!" answered Hylda abstractedly, after a moment.
The Duchess got to her feet. She had made progress. She would let her medicine work.
"I'm going to bed, my dear. I'm sixty-five, and I take my sleep when I can get it. Think it over, Sicily--Cairo!"
She left the room, saying to herself that Eglington was a fool, and that danger was ahead. "But I hold a red light--poor darling!" she said aloud, as she went up the staircase. She did not know that Eglington, standing in a deep doorway, heard her, and seized upon the words eagerly and suspiciously, and turned them over in his mind.
Below, at the desk where Eglington's mother used to write, Hylda sat with a bundle of letters before her. For some moments she opened, glanced through them, and put them aside. Presently she sat back in her chair, thinking--her mind was invaded by the last words of the Duchess; and somehow they kept repeating themselves with the words in the late Countess's diary: "Is it only the mother in me, not the love in me?" Mechanically her hand moved over the portfolio of the late Countess, and it involuntarily felt in one of its many pockets. Her hand came upon a letter. This had remained when the others had been taken out. It was addressed to the late Earl, and was open. She hesitated a moment, then, with a strange premonition and a tightening of her heart-strings, she spread it out and read it.
At first she could scarcely see because of the mist in her eyes; but presently her sight cleared, and she read quickly, her cheeks burning with excitement, her heart throbbing violently. The letter was the last expression of a disappointed and barren life. The slow, stammering tongue of an almost silent existence had found the fulness of speech. The fountains of the deep had been broken up, and Sybil Eglington's repressed emotions, undeveloped passions, tortured by mortal sufferings, and refined and vitalised by the atmosphere blown in upon her last hours from the Hereafter, were set free, given voice and power at last.
The letter reviewed the life she had lived with her husband during twenty-odd years, reproved herself for not speaking out and telling him his faults at the beginning, and for drawing in upon herself, when she might have compelled him to a truer understanding; and, when all that was said, called him to such an account as only the dying might make--the irrevocable, disillusionising truth which may not be altered, the poignant record of failure and its causes.
The letter ended there. She had been interrupted or seized with illness, and had never finished it, and had died a few hours afterwards; and the letter was now, for the first time, read by her whom it most concerned, into whose heart and soul the words sank with an immitigable pain and agonised amazement. A few moments with this death-document had transformed Hylda's life.
Her husband and--and David, were sons of the same father; and the name she bore, the home in which she was living, the estates the title carried, were not her husband's, but another's--David's. She fell back in her chair, white and faint, but, with a great effort, she conquered the swimming weakness which blinded her. Sons of the same father! The past flashed before her, the strange likeness she had observed, the trick of the head, the laugh, the swift gesture, the something in the voice. She shuddered as she had done in reading the letter. But they were related only in name, in some distant, irreconcilable way--in a way which did not warrant the sudden scarlet flush that flooded her face. Presently she recovered herself. She--what did she suffer, compared with her who wrote this revelation of a lifetime of pain, of bitter and torturing knowledge! She looked up at the picture on the wall, at the still, proud, emotionless face, the conventional, uninspired personality, behind which no one had seen, which had agonised alone till the last. With what tender yet pitiless hand had she laid bare the lives of her husband and her son! How had the neglected mother told the bitter truth of him to whom she had given birth! "So brilliant and able, and unscrupulous, like yourself; but, oh, sure of winning a great place in the world . . . so calculating and determined and ambitious. . . . That laboratory which I have hated so. It has always seemed to me the place where some native evil and cruelty in your blood worked out its will. . . ."
With a deep-drawn sigh Hylda said to herself: "If I were dying to-morrow, would I say that? She loved them so--at first must have loved them so; and yet this at the last! And I--oh, no, no, no!" She looked at a portrait of Eglington on the table near, touched it caressingly, and added, with a sob in her voice: "Oh, Harry, no, it is not true! It is not native evil and cruelty in your blood. It has all been a mistake. You will do right. We will do right, Harry. You will suffer, it will hurt, the lesson will be hard--to give up what has meant so much to you; but we will work it out together, you and I, my very dear. Oh, say that we shall, that.... " She suddenly grew silent. A tremor ran through her, she became conscious of his presence near her, and turned, as though he were behind her. There was nothing. Yet she felt him near, and, as she did so, the soul-deep feeling with which she had spoken to the portrait fled. Why was it that, so often, when absent from him, her imagination helped her to make excuses for him, inspired her to press the real truth out of sight, and to make believe that he was worthy of a love which, but through some inner fault of her own, might be his altogether, and all the love of which he was capable might be hers?
She felt him near her, and the feelings possessing her a moment before slowly chilled and sank away. Instinctively her eyes glanced towards the door. She saw the handle turn, and she slipped the letter inside the portfolio again.
The door opened briskly now, and Eglington entered with what his enemies in the newspaper press had called his "professional smile"--a criticism which had angered his wife, chiefly because it was so near the truth. He smiled. Smiling was part of his equipment, and was for any one at any time that suited him.
Her eyes met his, and he noted in her something that he had never seen before. Something had happened. The Duchess of Snowdon was in the house; had it anything to do with her? Had she made trouble? There was trouble enough without her. He came forward, took Hylda's hand and kissed it, then kissed her on the cheek. As he did so, she laid a hand on his arm with a sudden impulse, and pressed it. Though his presence had chilled the high emotions of a few moments before, yet she had to break to him a truth which would hurt him, dismay him, rob his life of so much that helped it; and a sudden protective, maternal sense was roused in her, reached out to shelter him as he faced his loss and the call of duty.
"You have just come?" she said, in a voice that, to herself, seemed far away.
"I have been here some hours," he answered. Secrecy again--always the thing that had chilled the dead woman, and laid a cold hand upon herself --"I felt the shadow of secrecy in your life. When you talked most I felt you most secretive, and the feeling slowly closed the door upon all frankness and sympathy and open speech between us."
"Why did you not see me--dine with me?" she asked. "What can the servants think?" Even in such a crisis the little things had place-- habit struck its note in the presence of her tragedy.
"You had the Duchess of Snowdon, and we are not precisely congenial; besides, I had much to do in the laboratory. I'm working for that new explosive of which I told you. There's fame and fortune in it, and I'm on the way. I feel it coming"--his eyes sparkled a little. "I made it right with the servants; so don't be apprehensive."
"I have not seen you for nearly a week. It doesn't seem--friendly."
"Politics and science are stern masters," he answered gaily.
"They leave little time for your mistress," she rejoined meaningly.
"Who is my mistress?"
"Well, I am not greatly your wife," she replied. "I have the dregs of your life. I help you--I am allowed to help you--so little, to share so little in the things that matter to you."
"Now, that's imagination and misunderstanding," he rejoined. "It has helped immensely your being such a figure in society, and entertaining so much, and being so popular, at any rate until very lately."
"I do not misunderstand," she answered gravely. "I do not share your real life. I do not help you where your brain works, in the plans and purposes and hopes that lie behind all that you do--oh, yes, I know your ambitions and what positions you are aiming for; but there is something more than that. There is the object of it all, the pulse of it, the machinery down, down deep in your being that drives it all. Oh, I am not a child! I have some intellect, and I want--I want that we should work it out together."
In spite of all that had come and gone, in spite of the dead mother's words and all her own convictions, seeing trouble coming upon him, she wanted to make one last effort for what might save their lives--her life- -from shipwreck in the end. If she failed now, she foresaw a bitter, cynical figure working out his life with a narrowing soul, a hard spirit unrelieved by the softening influence of a great love--even yet the woman in her had a far-off hope that, where the law had made them one by book and scrip, the love which should consecrate such a union, lift it above an almost offensive relation, might be theirs. She did not know how much of her heart, of her being, was wandering over the distant sands of Egypt, looking for its oasis. Eglington had never needed or wanted more than she had given him--her fortune, her person, her charm, her ability to play an express and definite part in his career. It was this material use to which she was so largely assigned, almost involuntarily but none the less truly, that had destroyed all of the finer, dearer, more delicate intimacy invading his mind sometimes, more or less vaguely, where Faith was concerned. So extreme was his egotism that it had never occurred to him, as it had done to the Duchess of Snowdon and Lord Windlehurst, that he might lose Hylda herself as well as her fortune; that the day might come when her high spirit could bear it no longer. As the Duchess of Snowdon had said: "It would all depend upon the other man, whoever he might be."
So he answered her with superficial cheerfulness now; he had not the depth of soul to see that they were at a crisis, and that she could bear no longer the old method of treating her as though she were a child, to be humoured or to be dominated.
"Well, you see all there is," he answered; "you are so imaginative, crying for some moon there never was in any sky."
In part he had spoken the truth. He had no high objects or ends or purposes. He wanted only success somehow or another, and there was no nobility of mind or aspiration behind it. In her heart of hearts she knew it; but it was the last cry of her soul to him, seeking, though in vain, for what she had never had, could never have.
"What have you been doing?" he added, looking at the desk where she had sat, glancing round the room. "Has the Duchess left any rags on the multitude of her acquaintances? I wonder that you can make yourself contented here with nothing to do. You don't look much stronger. I'm sure you ought to have a change. My mother was never well here; though, for the matter of that, she was never very well anywhere. I suppose it's the laboratory that attracts me here, as it did my father, playing with the ancient forces of the world in these Arcadian surroundings--Arcady without beauty or Arcadians." He glanced up at his mother's picture. "No, she never liked it--a very silent woman, secretive almost."
Suddenly her eyes flared up. Anger possessed her. She choked it down. Secretive--the poor bruised soul who had gone to her grave with a broken heart!
"She secretive? No, Eglington," she rejoined gravely, "she was congealed. She lived in too cold an air. She was not secretive, but yet she kept a secret--another's."
Again Eglington had the feeling which possessed him when he entered the room. She had changed. There was something in her tone, a meaning, he had never heard before. He was startled. He recalled the words of the Duchess as she went up the staircase.
What was it all about?
"Whose secrets did she keep?" he asked, calmly enough.
"Your father's, yours, mine," she replied, in a whisper almost.
"Secret? What secret? Good Lord, such mystery!" He laughed mirthlessly.
She came close to him. "I am sorry--sorry, Harry," she said with difficulty. "It will hurt you, shock you so. It will be a blow to you, but you must bear it."
She tried to speak further, but her heart was beating so violently that she could not. She turned quickly to the portfolio on the desk, drew forth the fatal letter, and, turning to the page which contained the truth concerning David, handed it to him. "It is there," she said.
He had great self-control. Before looking at the page to which she had directed his attention, he turned the letter over slowly, fingering the pages one by one. "My mother to my father," he remarked.
Instinctively he knew what it contained. "You have been reading my mother's correspondence," he added in cold reproof.
"Do you forget that you asked me to arrange her papers?" she retorted, stung by his suggestion.
"Your imagination is vivid," he exclaimed. Then he bethought himself that, after all, he might sorely need all she could give, if things went against him, and that she was the last person he could afford to alienate; "but I do remember that I asked you that," he added--"no doubt foolishly."
"Read what is there," she broke in, "and you will see that it was not foolish, that it was meant to be." He felt a cold dead hand reaching out from the past to strike him; but he nerved himself, and his eyes searched the paper with assumed coolness-even with her he must still be acting. The first words he saw were: "Why did you not tell me that my boy, my baby Harry, was not your only child, and that your eldest son was alive?"
So that was it, after all. Even his mother knew. Master of his nerves as he was, it blinded him for a moment. Presently he read on--the whole page--and lingered upon the words, that he might have time to think what he must say to Hylda. Nothing of the tragedy of his mother touched him, though he was faintly conscious of a revelation of a woman he had never known, whose hungering caresses had made him, as a child, rather peevish, when a fit of affection was not on him. Suddenly, as he read the lines touching himself, "Brilliant and able and unscrupulous.... and though he loves me little, as he loves you little too," his eye lighted up with anger, his face became pale--yet he had borne the same truths from Faith without resentment, in the wood by the mill that other year. For a moment he stood infuriated, then, going to the fireplace, he dropped the letter on the coals, as Hylda, in horror, started forward to arrest his hand.
"Oh, Eglington--but no--no! It is not honourable. It is proof of all!"
He turned upon her slowly, his face rigid, a strange, cold light in his eyes. "If there is no more proof than that, you need not vex your mind," he said, commanding his voice to evenness.
A bitter anger was on him. His mother had read him through and through-- he had not deceived her even; and she had given evidence against him to Hylda, who, he had ever thought, believed in him completely. Now there was added to the miserable tale, that first marriage, and the rights of David--David, the man who, he was convinced, had captured her imagination. Hurt vanity played a disproportionate part in this crisis.
The effect on him had been different from what Hylda had anticipated. She had pictured him stricken and dumfounded by the blow. It had never occurred to her, it did not now, that he had known the truth; for, of course, to know the truth was to speak, to restore to David his own, to step down into the second and unconsidered place. After all, to her mind, there was no disgrace. The late Earl had married secretly, but he had been duly married, and he did not marry again until Mercy Claridge was dead. The only wrong was to David, whose grandfather had been even more to blame than his own father. She had looked to help Eglington in this moment, and now there seemed nothing for her to do. He was superior to the situation, though it was apparent in his pale face and rigid manner that he had been struck hard.
She came near to him, but there was no encouragement to her to play that part which is a woman's deepest right and joy and pain in one--to comfort her man in trouble, sorrow, or evil. Always, always, he stood alone, whatever the moment might be, leaving her nothing to do--" playing his own game with his own weapons," as he had once put it. Yet there was strength in it too, and this came to her mind now, as though in excuse for whatever else there was in the situation which, against her will, repelled her.
"I am so sorry for you," she said at last.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"To lose all that has been yours so long."
This was their great moment. The response to this must be the touchstone of their lives. A--half dozen words might alter all the future, might be the watch word to the end of all things. Involuntarily her heart fashioned the response he ought to give--"I shall have you left, Hylda."
The air seemed to grow oppressive, and the instant's silence a torture, and, when he spoke, his words struck a chill to her heart--rough notes of pain. "I have not lost yet," were his words.
She shrank. "You will not hide it. You will do right by--by him," she said with difficulty.
"Let him establish his claim to the last item of fact," he said with savage hate.
"Luke Claridge knew. The proofs are but just across the way, no doubt," she answered, almost coldly, so had his words congealed her heart.
Their great moment had passed. It was as though a cord had snapped that held her to him, and in the recoil she had been thrown far off from him. Swift as his mind worked, it had not seen his opportunity to win her to his cause, to asphyxiate her high senses, her quixotic justice, by that old flood of eloquence and compelling persuasion of the emotions with which he had swept her to the altar--an altar of sacrifice. He had not even done what he had left London to do--make sure of her, by an alluring flattery and devotion, no difficult duty with one so beautiful and desirable; though neither love of beauty nor great desire was strong enough in him to divert him from his course for an hour, save by his own initiative. His mother's letter had changed it all. A few hours before he had had a struggle with Soolsby, and now another struggle on the same theme was here. Fate had dealt illy with him, who had ever been its spoiled child and favourite. He had not learned yet the arts of defence against adversity.
"Luke Claridge is dead," he answered sharply. "But you will tell--him, you will write to Egypt and tell your brother?" she said, the conviction slowly coming to her that he would not.
"It is not my duty to displace myself, to furnish evidence against myself--"
"You have destroyed the evidence," she intervened, a little scornfully.
"If there were no more than that--" He shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
"Do you know there is more?" she asked searchingly. "In whose interests are you speaking?" he rejoined, with a sneer. A sudden fury possessed him. Claridge Pasha--she was thinking of him!
"In yours--your conscience, your honour."
"There is over thirty years' possession on my side," he rejoined.
"It is not as if it were going from your family," she argued.
"Family--what is he to me!"
"What is any one to you?" she returned bitterly.
"I am not going to unravel a mystery in order to facilitate the cutting of my own throat."
"It might be worth while to do something once for another's sake than your own--it would break the monotony," she retorted, all her sense tortured by his words, and even more so by his manner.
Long ago Faith had said in Soolsby's but that he "blandished" all with whom he came in contact; but Hylda realised with a lacerated heart that he had ceased to blandish her. Possession had altered that. Yet how had he vowed to her in those sweet tempestuous days of his courtship when the wind of his passion blew so hard! Had one of the vows been kept?
Even as she looked at him now, words she had read some days before flashed through her mind--they had burnt themselves into her brain:
"Broken faith is the crown of evils, Broken vows are the knotted thongs Set in the hands of laughing devils, To scourge us for deep wrongs. "Broken hearts, when all is ended, Bear the better all after-stings; Bruised once, the citadel mended, Standeth through all things."
Suddenly he turned upon her with aggrieved petulance. "Why are you so eager for proof?"
"Oh, I have," she said, with a sudden flood of tears in her voice, though her eyes were dry--"I have the feeling your mother had, that nothing will be well until you undo the wrong your father did. I know it was not your fault. I feel for you--oh, believe me, I feel as I have never felt, could never feel, for myself. It was brought on you by your father, but you must be the more innocent because he was so guilty. You have had much out of it, it has helped you on your way. It does not mean so much now. By-and-by another--an English-peerage may be yours by your own achievement. Let it go. There is so much left, Harry. It is a small thing in a world of work. It means nothing to me." Once again, even when she had given up all hope, seeing what was the bent of his mind-- once again she made essay to win him out of his selfishness. If he would only say, "I have you left," how she would strive to shut all else out of her life!
He was exasperated. His usual prescience and prudence forsook him. It angered him that she should press him to an act of sacrifice for the man who had so great an influence upon her. Perversity possessed him. Lifelong egotism was too strong for wisdom, or discretion.
Suddenly he caught her hands in both of his and said hoarsely: "Do you love me--answer me, do you love me with all your heart and soul? The truth now, as though it were your last word on earth."
Always self. She had asked, if not in so many words, for a little love, something for herself to feed on in the darkening days for him, for her, for both; and he was thinking only of himself.
She shrank, but her hands lay passive in his. "No, not with all my heart and soul--but, oh--!"
He flung her hands from him. "No, not with all your heart and soul-- I know! You are willing to sacrifice me for him, and you think I do not understand."
She drew herself up, with burning cheeks and flashing eyes. "You understand nothing--nothing. If you had ever understood me, or any human being, or any human heart, you would not have ruined all that might have given you an undying love, something that would have followed you through fire and flood to the grave. You cannot love. You do not understand love. Self--self, always self. Oh, you are mad, mad, to have thrown it all away, all that might have given happiness! All that I have, all that I am, has been at your service; everything has been bent and tuned to your pleasure, for your good. All has been done for you, with thought of you and your position and your advancement, and now--now, when you have killed all that might have been yours, you cry out in anger that it is dying, and you insinuate what you should kill another for insinuating. Oh, the wicked, cruel folly of it all! You suggest--you dare! I never heard a word from David Claridge that might not be written on the hoardings. His honour is deeper than that which might attach to the title of Earl of Eglington."
She seemed to tower above him. For an instant she looked him in the eyes with frigid dignity, but a great scorn in her face. Then she went to the door--he hastened to open it for her.
"You will be very sorry for this," he said stubbornly. He was too dumfounded to be discreet, too suddenly embarrassed by the turn affairs had taken. He realised too late that he had made a mistake, that he had lost his hold upon her.
As she passed through, there suddenly flashed before her mind the scene in the laboratory with the chairmaker. She felt the meaning of it now.
"You do not intend to tell him--perhaps Soolsby has done so," she said keenly, and moved on to the staircase.
He was thunderstruck at her intuition. "Why do you want to rob yourself?" he asked after her vaguely. She turned back. "Think of your mother's letter that you destroyed," she rejoined solemnly and quietly. "Was it right?"
He shut the door, and threw himself into a chair. "I will put it straight with her to-morrow," he said helplessly.
He sat for a half-hour silent, planning his course.
At last there came a tap at the door, and the butler appeared.
"Some one from the Foreign Office, my lord," he said. A moment afterwards a young official, his subordinate, entered. "There's the deuce to pay in Egypt, sir; I've brought the despatch," he said.