My Lady Jane by Lucy Maud Montgomery
The boat got into Broughton half an hour after the train had gone. We had been delayed by some small accident to the machinery; hence that lost half-hour, which meant a night's sojourn for me in Broughton. I am ashamed of the things I thought and said. When I think that fate might have taken me at my word and raised up a special train, or some such miracle, by which I might have got away from Broughton that night, I experience a cold chill. Out of gratitude I have never sworn over missing connections since.
At the time, however, I felt thoroughly exasperated. I was in a hurry to get on. Important business engagements would be unhinged by the delay. I was a stranger in Broughton. It looked like a stupid, stuffy little town. I went to a hotel in an atrocious humor. After I had fumed until I wanted a change, it occurred to me that I might as well hunt up Clark Oliver by way of passing the time. I had never been overly fond of Clark Oliver, although he was my cousin. He was a bit of a cad, and stupider than anyone belonging to our family had a right to be. Moreover, he was in politics, and I detest politics. But I rather wanted to see if he looked as much like me as he used to. I hadn't seen him for three years and I hoped that the time might have differentiated us to a saving degree. It was over a year since I had last been blown up by some unknown, excited individual on the ground that I was that scoundrel Oliver--politically speaking. I thought that was a good omen.
I went to Clark's office, found he had left, and followed him to his rooms. The minute I saw him I experienced the same nasty feeling of lost or bewildered individuality which always overcame me in his presence. He was so absurdly like me. I felt as if I were looking into a mirror where my reflection persisted in doing things I didn't do, thereby producing a most uncanny sensation.
Clark pretended he was glad to see me. He really couldn't have been, because his Great Idea hadn't struck him then, and we had always disliked each other.
"Hello, Elliott," he said, shaking me by the hand with a twist he had learned in election campaigns, whereby something like heartiness was simulated. "Glad to see you, old fellow. Gad, you're as like me as ever. Where did you drop from?"
I explained my predicament and we talked amiably and harmlessly for awhile about family gossip. I abhor family gossip, but it is a shade better than politics, and those two subjects are the only ones on which Clark can converse at all. I described Mary Alice's wedding, and Florence's new young man, and Tom-and-Kate's twins. Clark tried to be interested but I saw he had something on what serves him for a mind. After awhile it came out. He looked at his watch with a frown.
"I'm in a bit of a puzzle," he said. "The Mark Kennedys are giving a dinner to-night. You don't know them, of course. They're the big people of Broughton. Kennedy runs the politics of the place, and Mrs. K. makes or mars people socially. It's my first invitation there and it's necessary I should accept it--necessary every way. Mrs. K. would never forgive me if I disappointed her at the last moment. Not that I, personally, am of much account--yet--to her. But it would leave a vacant place. Mrs. K. would never notice me again and, as she bosses Kennedy, I can't afford to offend her. Besides, there's a girl who'll be there. I've met her once. I want to meet her again. She's a beauty and no mistake. Toplofty as they make 'em, though. However, I think I've made an impression on her. It was at the Harvey's dance last week. She was the handsomest woman there, and she never took her eyes off me. I've given Mrs. Kennedy a pretty broad hint that I want to take her in to dinner. If I don't go I'll miss all round."
"Well, what is there to prevent you from going?" I asked, squiffily. I never could endure the way Clark talked about girls and hinted at his conquests.
"Just this. Herbert Bronson came to town this afternoon and is leaving on the 10.30 train to-night. He's sent me word to meet him at his hotel this evening and talk over a mining deal I've been trying to pull off. I simply must go. It's my one chance to corral Bronson. If I lose him it'll be all up, and I'll be thousands out of pocket."
"Well, you are in rather a predicament," I agreed, with the philosophical acceptance of the situation that marks the outsider. I wasn't hampered by the multiplicity of my business and social engagements that evening, so I could afford to pity Clark. It is always rather nice to be able to pity a person you dislike.
"I should say so. I can't make up my mind what to do. Hang it. I'll have to see Bronson. There's no question about that. A man ought to keep an understood substitute on hand to send to dinners when he can't go. By Jove! Elliott!"
Clark's Great Idea had arrived. He bounced up eagerly.
"Elliott, will you go to the Kennedys' in my place? They'll never know the difference. Do, now--there's a good fellow!"
"Nonsense!" I said.
"It isn't nonsense. The resemblance between us was foreordained for this hour. I'll lend you my dress suit--it'll fit you--your figure is as much like mine as your face. You've nothing to do with yourself this evening. I offer you a good dinner and an agreeable partner. Come now, to oblige me. You know you owe me a good turn for that Mulhenen business."
The Mulhenen business clinched the matter. Until he mentioned it I had no notion whatever of masquerading as Clark Oliver at the Kennedys' dinner. But, as Clark so delicately put it, he had done me a good turn in that affair and the obligation had rankled ever since. It is beastly to be indebted for a favor to a man you detest. Now was my chance to pay it off and I took it without more ado.
"But," I said doubtfully, "I don't know the Kennedys--nor any of the social stunts that are doing in Broughton; I won't dare to talk about anything, and I'll seem so stupid, even if I don't actually make some irremediable blunder, that the Kennedys will be disgusted with you. It will probably do your prospects more harm than your absence would."
"Not at all. Keep your mouth shut when you can and talk generalities when you can't, and you'll pass. If you take that girl in she's a stranger in Broughton and won't suspect your ignorance of what's going on. Nobody will suspect you. Nobody here knows I have a cousin so like me. Our own mothers haven't always been able to tell us apart. Our very voices are alike. Come now, get into my dinner togs. You haven't much time and Mrs. K. doesn't like late comers."
There seemed to be a number of things that Mrs. Kennedy did not like. I thought my chance of pleasing that critical lady extremely small, especially when I had to live up to Clark Oliver's personality. However, I dressed as expeditiously as possible. The novelty of the adventure rather pleased me. I always liked doing unusual things. Anything was better than lounging away the evening at my hotel. It couldn't do any harm. I owed Clark Oliver a good turn and I would save Mrs. Kennedy the annoyance of a vacant chair.
There was no disputing the fact that I looked most disgustingly like Clark when I got into his clothes. I actually felt a grudge against them for their excellent fit.
"You'll do," said Clark. "Remember you're a Conservative to-night and don't let your rank Liberal views crop out, or you'll queer me for all time with the great and only Mark. He doesn't talk politics at his dinners, though, so you're not likely to have trouble on that score. Mrs. Kennedy has a weakness for beer mugs. Her collection is considered very fine. Scandal whispers that Miss Harvey has a budding interest in settlement work--"
"Miss who?" I said sharply.
"Harvey. Christian name unknown. That's the girl I mentioned. You'll probably take her in. Be nice to her even if you have to make an effort. She's the one I've picked out as your future cousin, you know, so I don't want you to spoil her good opinion of me in any way."
The name had given me a jump. Once, in another world, I had known a Jane Harvey. But Clark's Miss Harvey couldn't be Jane. A month before I had read a newspaper item to the effect that Jane was on the Pacific coast. Moreover, Jane, when I knew her, had certainly no manifest vocation for settlement work. I didn't think two years could have worked such a transformation. Two years! Was it only two years? It seemed more like two centuries.
I went to the Kennedys' in a pleasantly excited frame of mind and a cab. I just missed being late by a hairbreadth. The house was a big one, and everybody pertaining to it was big, except the host. Mark Kennedy was a little, thin man with a bald head. He didn't look like a political power, but that was all the more reason for his being one in a world where things are not what they seem.
Mrs. Kennedy greeted me cordially and told me significantly that she had granted my request. This meant, as my card had already informed me, that I was to take Miss Harvey out. Of course there would be no introduction since Clark Oliver was already acquainted with the lady. I was wondering how I was to locate her when I got a shock that made me dizzy. Jane was over in a corner looking at me.
There was no time to collect my wits. The guests were moving out to the dining-room. I took my nerve in my hand, crossed the room, bowed, and the next moment was walking through the hall with Jane's hand on my arm. The hall was a good long one; I blessed the architect who had planned it. It gave me time to sort out my ideas.
Jane here! Jane going out to dinner with me, believing me to be Clark Oliver! Jane--but it was incredible! The whole thing was a dream--or I had gone crazy!
I looked at her sideways when we had got into our places at the table. She was more beautiful than ever, that tall, brown-haired, disdainful Jane. The settlement work story I was inclined to dismiss as a myth. Settlement work in a beautiful woman generally means crowsfeet or a broken heart. Jane, according to my sight and belief, possessed neither.
Once upon a time I had been engaged to Jane. I had been idiotically in love with her in those days and still more idiotically believed that she loved me. The trouble was that, although I had been cured of the latter phase of my idiocy, the former had become chronic. I had never been able to get over loving Jane. All through those two years I had hugged the fond hope that sometime I might stumble across her in a mild mood and make matters up. There was no such thing as seeking her out or writing to her, since she had icily forbidden me to do so, and Jane had a most detestable habit--in a woman--of meaning what she said. But the deity I had invoked was the god of chance--and this was how he had answered my prayers. I was eating my dinner beside Jane, who supposed me to be Clark Oliver!
What should I do? Confess the truth and plead my cause while she had to sit beside me? That would never do. Someone might overhear us. And, in any case, it would be no passport to Jane's favor that I was a guest in the house under false pretences. She would be certain to disapprove strongly. It was a maddening situation.
Jane, who was calmly eating soup--she was the only woman I had ever seen who could eat soup and look like a goddess at the same time--glanced around and caught me studying her profile. I thought she blushed slightly and I raged inwardly to think that blush was meant for Clark Oliver--Clark Oliver who had told me he thought Jane was smitten on him! Jane! On him!
"Do you know, Mr. Oliver," said Jane slowly, "that you are startlingly like a--a person I used to know? When I first saw you the other night I took you for him."
A person you used to know! Oh, Jane, that was the most unkindest cut of all.
"My cousin, Elliott Cameron, I suppose?" I answered as indifferently as I could. "We resemble each other very closely. You were acquainted with Cameron, Miss Harvey?"
"Slightly," said Jane.
"A fine fellow," I said unblushingly.
"A-h," said Jane.
"My favorite relative," I went on brazenly. "He's a thoroughly good sort--rather dull now to what he used to be, though. He had an unfortunate love affair two years ago and has never got over it."
"Indeed?" said Jane coldly, crumbling a bit of bread between her fingers. Her face was expressionless and her voice ditto; but I had heard her criticize nervous people who did things like that at table.
"I fear poor Elliott's life has been completely spoiled," I said, with a sigh. "It's a shame."
"Did he confide the affair to you?" asked Jane, a little scornfully.
"Well, after a fashion. He said enough for me to guess the rest. He never told me the lady's name. She was very beautiful, I understand, and very heartless. Oh, she used him very badly."
"Did he tell you that, too?" asked Jane.
"Not he. He won't listen to a word against her. But a chap can draw his own conclusions, you know."
"What went wrong between them?" asked Jane. She smiled at a lady across the table, as if she were merely asking questions to make conversation, but she went on crumbling bread.
"Simply a very stiff quarrel, I believe. Elliott never went into details. The lady was flirting with somebody else, I fancy."
"People have such different ideas about flirting," said Jane, languidly. "What one would call mere simple friendliness another construes into flirting. Possibly your friend--or is it your cousin?--is one of those men who become insanely jealous over every trifle and attempt to exert authority before they have any to exert. A woman of spirit would hardly fail to resent that."
"Of course Elliott was jealous," I admitted. "But then, you know, Miss Harvey, that jealousy is said to be the measure of a man's love. If he went beyond his rights I am sure he is bitterly sorry for it."
"Does he really care about her still?" asked Jane, eating most industriously, although somehow the contents of her plate did hot grow noticeably less. As for me, I didn't pretend to eat. I simply pecked.
"He loves her with all his heart," I answered fervently. "There never has been and never will be any other woman for Elliott Cameron."
"Why doesn't he go and tell her so?" inquired Jane, as if she felt rather bored over the whole subject.
"He doesn't dare to. She forbade him ever to cross her path again. Told him she hated him and always would hate him as long as she lived."
"She must have been an unpleasantly emphatic young woman," commented Jane.
"I'd like to hear anyone say so to Elliott," I responded. "He considers her perfection. I'm sorry for Elliott. His life is wrecked."
"Do you know," said Jane slowly, as if poking about in the recesses of her memory for something half forgotten. "I believe I know the--the girl in question."
"Really?" I said.
"Yes, she is a friend of mine. She--she never told me his name, but putting two and two together, I believe it must have been your cousin. But she--she thinks she was the one to blame."
"Does she?" It was my turn to ask questions now, but my heart thumped so that I could hardly speak.
"Yes, she says she was too hasty and unreasonable. She didn't mean to flirt at all--and she never cared for anyone but--him. But his jealousy irritated her. I suppose she said things to him she didn't really mean. She--she never supposed he was going to take her at her word."
"Do you think she cares for him still?" Considering what was at stake, I think I asked the question very well.
"I think she must," said Jane languidly. "She has never looked at any other man. She devotes most of her time to charitable work, but I feel sure she isn't really happy."
So the settlement story was true. Oh, Jane!
"What would you advise my cousin to do?" I asked. "Do you think he should go boldly to her? Would she listen to him--forgive him?"
"She might," said Jane.
"Have I your permission to tell Elliott Cameron this?" I demanded.
Jane selected and ate an olive with maddening deliberation.
"I suppose you may--if you are really convinced that he wants to hear it," she said at last, as if barely recollecting that I had asked the question two minutes previously.
"I'll tell him as soon as I go home," I said.
I had the satisfaction of startling Jane at last. She turned her head and looked at me. I got a good, square, satisfying gaze into her big, blackish-blue eyes.
"Yes," I said, compelling myself to look away. "He came in on the boat this afternoon too late for his train. Has to stay over till to-morrow night. I left him in my rooms when I came away. Doubtless to-morrow will see him speeding recklessly to his dear divinity. I wonder if he knows where she is at present."
"If he doesn't," said Jane, with the air of dismissing the subject once and forever from her mind, "I can give him the information. You may tell him I'm staying with the Duncan Moores, and shall be leaving day after to-morrow. By the way, have you seen Mrs. Kennedy's collection of steins? It is a remarkably fine one."
Clark Oliver couldn't come to our wedding--or wouldn't. Jane has never met him since, but she cannot understand why I have such an aversion to him, especially when he has such a good opinion of me. She says she thought him charming, and one of the most interesting conversationalists she ever went out to dinner with.