Chapter VIII. The Dove and the Serpent
 

Rachel was bereft of speech; and yet a certain sense of relief underlay the natural embarrassment caused by a proposal so premature and so abrupt. Nor was the deeper emotion very difficult to analyze. Here at last was a logical explanation of the whole behavior of this man; it was the first that had occurred to her, and, after all, it was the only possible one.

"I want you to be my wife," repeated Mr. Steel, with enough of respect in his tone, yet none the less with the air of a man who is accustomed to obtain what he wants.

And Rachel, looking at the wiry, well-knit, upright figure, and at the fresh, elderly, but virile face, with its sombre eyes and its snowy hair, thought once again of the ancient saw which she had quoted to herself the night before, only to dismiss it finally from her mind. This man was no fool, nor was he old. He might be eccentric, but he was eminently sane; he might be elderly, in the arbitrary matter of mere years; but an old man he was not, and never would be with those eyes.

She tried to tell him it was absurd, but before the word could come she saw that it was the last one to apply; he was so confident, so quiet, so sure of himself, if not of Rachel. At last she told him she could not think of it, he had seen nothing of her, and could not possibly care for her, even supposing that she cared for him.

"By 'caring,'" said he, "do you mean being 'in love,' as they say, and all that?"

"Naturally," said Rachel, with great ease and irony, but with a new misgiving every moment.

"And have I said I was in love with you?" inquired Mr. Steel, with a smile as indulgent as his tone. "It might, perhaps, be no more than the truth; but have I had the insolence to tell you so?"

"It is a greater insult if you are not," returned Rachel, speaking hotly and quickly, but with lowered eyes.

"What! To offer to marry a person whom one does not--as yet--pretend to love?"

Rachel vouchsafed no reply.

"Whom one only--but tremendously--admires?"

Rachel felt bound to answer him, for at least there was no insult in his tone. She raised her candid eyes, a sweet brown blush upon her face.

"Yes," she said, "I think there is absolutely no excuse for a proposal of marriage, if it is not founded upon love and nothing else!"

"Or its pretence and nothing else," amended Steel, with a bow and a smile of some severity. "That is a hard saying," he went on, resuming his chair, and wheeling it even nearer to Rachel's than it had been before; "moreover," he added, "since I have already insulted you, let me tell you that it is an exceedingly commonplace saying, into the bargain. It depends, you must admit, upon the commonplace conception of marriage; and before we go any further I should like to give you my own conception, not of the institution, but of the particular marriage which I have in view."

So he had it in view! It was not an inspiration, but already quite a prospect! Rachel made an acid little note of this; but there was no acidity in her permission to him to proceed; her turn was coming last.

"The marriage that I propose to you," continued Steel, "is simply the most convenient form of friendship of which I can think. I want to be your friend; indeed, that much I mean to be, if necessary, in spite of you. I was interested in your case, so I came up to hear your trial. I was more interested in your trial, but most interested of all in yourself. There, indeed, the word is too weak; but I will not vex your spirit with a stronger. My attraction you know; my determination you know; even the low wiles to which your pride reduced me, even my dodging and dogging, have been quite openly admitted to you on the first reasonable opportunity. All this business of the shipwrecked daughter was of course a crude device enough; but I had very little time to think, and my first care was that you should not be recognized here or elsewhere in my society. That was essential, if there was the slightest chance of your even listening to my proposition, as indeed you are doing now. Last night I told you nothing, because that's always easier than telling only a little; moreover, you were so distraught that you would possibly have gone right away without benefiting even to the slight extent of the comfortable night's rest you so badly needed; but this morning I am prepared to put it to the touch. And let me begin by saying, that if circumstances would permit me to continue the paternal imposture, that would be quite enough for me; unluckily, I am known in my own country as an old bachelor; so that I cannot suddenly produce a widowed daughter, without considerable unpleasantness for us both. What I can do, however," and Steel bent further forward, with eyes that held Rachel's in their spell; "what I can do, and will, is to go back with a lady who shall be my wife in name, my daughter in effect. We should, I trust, be the best of friends; but I will give you my word, and not only my word but my bond, that we never need be anything more."

He had spoken rapidly; the pause that followed lasted longer than this lengthy speech. And through it all they sat with eyes still locked, until he spoke again.

"You believe, at least, in the bona fides of my offer?"

And Rachel, still looking in his eyes, murmured that she did.

"You will bear in mind how essentially it differs from the ordinary offer of the kind; also, that I have never for a moment pretended to be in love with you?"

"I will."

Steel had risen as if to go; the keen scrutiny was withdrawn, a distinct spell as distinctly broken; and yet he lingered, with a smile.

"That," said he, "was a poor compliment to pay twice over! But it is human to err, and in my anxiety not to do so on the side of sentiment I own myself in danger of flying to the other extreme. Well, you know which is the common extreme in such cases; and at all events we shall avoid the usual pitfall. I am going to give you a few minutes to think it over; then, if you care to go into it further, I shall be most happy; if not, the matter is at an end."

A few minutes! Rachel felt very angry, without knowing that she was most angry with herself for not feeling angrier still. She had heard quite enough; it were weakness to listen to another word; and yet--and yet--

"Don't go," said Rachel, with some petulance; "that is quite unnecessary. Anything more extraordinary--but I owe you too much already to be your critic. Still, I do think I am entitled to go a little further into the matter, as you said, without committing myself."

"To be sure you are."

But this time he remained standing; and for once he kept those mesmeric eyes to himself. Obviously, Rachel was to have a chance.

"You spoke of your own country," she began. "Do you live abroad?"

There was the least suspicion of eagerness in the question. Rachel herself was unaware of it; not so Mr. Steel, and he sighed.

"A mere figure," he said; "what I meant was my own country-side."

"And where is that?"

"In the north," he replied vaguely. "Did you look twice at my card? Well, here is another, if you will do me that honor now. The initials J. B. stand for no very interesting names--John Buchanan. A certain interest in the Buchanan, perhaps; it comes out in the flesh, I fancy, though not on the tongue. As for the address, Normanthorpe House is the rather historic old seat of the family of that name; but they have so many vastly superior and more modern places, and the last fifty years have so ruined the surroundings, that I was able to induce the Duke to take a price for it a year or two ago. He had hardly slept a night there in his life, and I got it lock-stock-and-barrel for a song. The Northborough which, you will observe, it is 'near'--a good four miles, as a matter of fact--is the well-known centre of the Delverton iron-trade. But you may very well have spent a year in this country without having heard of it; they would be shocked at Northborough, but nowhere else."

Rachel had dropped the card into her lap; she was looking straight at Mr. John Buchanan Steel himself.

"You are very rich," she said gravely.

"I am nothing of the kind," he protested. "The Duke is rich, if you like, but I had to scrape together to pay him what would replenish his racing-stud, or stand him in a new yacht."

But Rachel was not deceived.

"I might have known you were very rich," she murmured, as much to herself as to him; and there was a strange finality in her tone, as though all was over between them; a still more strange regret, involuntary, unconscious, and yet distinct.

"Granting your hypothesis, for the sake of argument," he went on, with his simplest smile; "is it as difficult as ever for the poor rich man to get to heaven?"

Rachel spent some moments in serious thought. He was wonderfully honest with her; of his central motive alone was she uncertain, unconvinced. In all else she felt instinctively that he was telling her the truth, telling her even more than he need. His generous candor was a challenge to her own.

"It may be very small of me," she said at length, "but--somehow--if you had been comparatively poor--I should have been less--ashamed!"

And candor begot candor, as it generally will.

"Upon my word," he cried, "you make me sigh for the suburbs and six hundred a year! But you shall know the worst. I meant you to know it when I came in; then I changed my mind; but in for a penny, in for the lot!"

He caught up the magazine which he had brought in with the sheaf of newspapers, and he handed it to Rachel, open at an article quite excellently illustrated for an English magazine.

"There," he cried, "there's a long screed about the wretched place, before it came into my hands. But it's no use pretending it isn't quite the place it was. I took over the whole thing--every stick outside and in--and I've put in new drainage and the electric light."

His tone of regret was intentionally ludicrous. Had Rachel been listening, she would once more have suspected a pose. But already she was deep in the article in the two-year-old magazine, or rather in its not inartistic illustrations.

"The House from the Tennis Lawn," "In the Kitchen Garden," "The Drawing-room Door," "A Drawing-room Chimney-piece," "A Corner of the Chinese Room," "A Portion of the Grand Staircase"--of such were the titles underneath the process pictures. And (in all but their production) each of these was more beautiful than the last.

"That," observed Steel, "happens to be the very article from which I first got wind of the place, when I was looking about for one. And now," he added, "I suppose I have cut my own throat! Like the devil, I have taken you up to a high place-"

It was no word from Rachel that cut him short, but his own taste, with which she at least had very little fault to find. And Rachel was critical enough; but her experience was still unripe, and she liked his view of his possessions, without perceiving how it disarmed her own.

Presently she looked up.

"Now I see how much I should have to gain. But what would you gain?"

The question was no sooner asked than Rachel foresaw the pretty speech which was its obvious answer. Mr. Steel, however, refrained from making it.

"I am an oldish man," he said, "and--yes, there is no use in denying that I am comfortably off. I want a wife; or rather, my neighbors seem bent upon finding me one; and, if the worst has to come to the worst, I prefer to choose for myself. Matrimony, however, is about the very last state of life that I desire, and I take it to be the same with you. Therefore--to put the cart before the horse--you would suit me ideally. One's own life would be unaltered, but the Delverton mothers would cease from troubling, and at the head of my establishment there would be a lady of whom I should be most justly proud. And even in my own life I should, I hope, be the more than occasional gainer by her society; may I also add, by her sympathy, by her advice? Mrs. Minchin," cried Steel, with sudden feeling, "the conditions shall be very rigid; my lawyer shall see to that; nor shall I allow myself a loophole for any weakness or nonsense whatsoever in the future. Old fellows like myself have made fools of themselves before to-day, but you shall be safeguarded from the beginning. Let there be no talk or thought of love between us from first to last! But as for admiration, I don't mind telling you that I admire you as I never admired any woman in the world before; and I hope, in spite of that, we shall be friends."

Still the indicative mood, still not for a moment the conditional! Rachel did not fail to make another note; but now there was nothing bitter even in her thoughts. She believed in this man, and in his promises; moreover, she began to focus the one thing about him in which she disbelieved. It was his feeling towards her--nothing more and nothing else. There he was insincere; but it was a pardonable insincerity, after all.

Of his admiration she was convinced; it had been open and honest all along; but there was something deeper than admiration. He could say what he liked. The woman knew. And what could it be but love?

The woman knew; and though the tragedy of her life was so close behind her; nay, though mystery and suspicion encompassed her still, as they might until her death, the woman thrilled.

It was a thrill of excitement chiefly, but excitement was not the only element. There was the personal factor, too; there was the fascination which this man had for her, which he could exert at will, and which he was undoubtedly exerting now.

To escape from his eyes, to think but once more for herself, and by herself, Rachel rose at last, and looked from the window which lit this recess.

It was the usual November day in London; no sun; a mist, but not a fog; cabmen in capes, horses sliding on the muddy street, well-dressed women picking their way home from church--shabby women hurrying in shawls--hurrying as Rachel herself had done the night before--as she might again to-night. And whither? And whither, in all the world?

Rachel turned from the window with a shudder; she caught up the first newspaper of the sheaf upon the writing-table. Steel had moved into the body of the room; she could not even see him through the alcove. So much the better; she would discover for herself what they said.

Leading articles are easily found, and in a Sunday paper they are seldom long. Rachel was soon through the first, her blood boiling; the second she could not finish for her tears; the third dried her eyes with the fires of fierce resentment. It was not so much what they said; it was what they were obviously afraid to say. It was their circumlocution, their innuendo, their mild surprise, their perfunctory congratulations, their assumption of chivalry and their lack of its essence, that wounded and stung the subject of these effusions. As she raised her flushed face from the last of them, Mr. Steel stood before her once more, the incarnation of all grave sympathy and consideration.

"You must not think," said he, "that my proposal admits of no alternative but the miserable one of making your own way in a suspicious and uncharitable world. On the contrary, if I am not to be your nominal and legal husband, I still intend to be your actual friend. On the first point you are to be consulted, but on the second not even you shall stand in my way. Nor in that event would I attempt to rob you of the independence which you value so highly; on the other hand, I would point the way to an independence worth having. I am glad you have seen those papers, though to-morrow they may be worse. Well, you may be shocked, but, if you won't have me, the worse the better, say I! Your case was most iniquitously commented upon before ever it came for trial; there is sure to be a fresh crop of iniquities now; but I shall be much mistaken if you cannot mulct the more flagrant offenders in heavy damages for libel."

Rachel shivered at the thought. She was done with her case for ever and for ever. People could think her guilty if they liked, but that the case should breed other cases, and thus drag on and on, and, above all, that she should make money out of all that past horror, what an unbearable idea!

On second thoughts, Mr. Steel agreed.

"Then you must let me send you back to Australia." No, no, no; she could never show her face there again, or anywhere else where she was known. She must begin life afresh, that was evident.

"It was evident to me," said Steel, quietly, "though not more so than the injustice of it, from the very beginning. Hence the plans and proposals that I have put before you."

Rachel regarded him wildly; the Sunday papers had driven her to desperation, as, perhaps, it was intended that they should.

"Are you sure," she cried, "that they would not know me--up north?"

"Not from Eve," he answered airily. "I should see to that; and, besides, we should first travel, say until the summer."

"If only I could begin my life again!" said Rachel to herself, but aloud, in a way that made no secret of her last, most desperate inclination.

"That is exactly what I wish you to do," Steel rejoined quietly, even gently, his hand lying lightly but kindly upon her quivering shoulder. How strong his touch, how firm, how reassuring! It was her first contact with his hand.

"I wish it so much," he went on, "that I would have your past life utterly buried, even between ourselves; nay, if it were possible, even in your own mind also! I, for my part, would undertake never to ask you one solitary question about that life--on one small and only fair condition. Supposing we make a compact now?"

"Anything to bury my own past," owned Rachel; "yes, I would do anything--anything!"

"Then you must help me to bury mine, too," he said. "I was never married, but a past I have."

"I would do my best," said Rachel, "if I married you."

"You will do your best," added Steel, correcting her; "and there is my compact cut and dried. I ask you nothing; you ask me nothing; and there is to be no question of love between us, first or last. But we help each other to forget--from this day forth!"

Rachel could not speak; his eyes were upon her, black, inscrutable, arrestive of her very faculties, to say nothing of her will. She could only answer him when he had turned away and was moving towards the door.

"Where are you going?" she cried.

"To send to my solicitor," replied Steel, "as I warned him that I might. It has all to be drawn up; and there is the question of a settlement; and other questions, perhaps, which you may like to put to him yourself without delay."