The Crown of Life
Part 6 out of 8
Fog still hung about the streets, shifting, changing its density,
but never allowing a glimpse of sky. Alone in the drawing-room Irene
longed for the end of so-called day, that she might shut out that
spirit-crushing blotch of bare trees and ugly houses. She thought of
a sudden, how much harder we make life than it need be, by dwelling
amid scenes that disgust, in air that lowers vitality. There fell on
her a mood of marvelling at the aims and the satisfactions of
mankind. This hideous oblong, known as Bryanston Square--how did
it come to seem a desirable place of abode? Nay, how was it for a
moment tolerable to reasoning men and women? This whole London now
gasping in foul vapours that half obscured, half emphasised its
inexpressible monstrosity, its inconceivable abominations--by what
blighting of eye and soul did a nation come to accept it as their
world-shown pride, their supreme City? She was lost in a
truth-perceiving dream. Habit and association dropped away; things
declared themselves in their actuality; her mind whirled under the
sense of human folly, helplessness, endurance.
A cry escaped her; she started at the sound of her name as if
terrified. Arnold Jacks had entered the room, and drawn near to her,
whilst she was deep in reverie.
"I am sorry to have alarmed you," he added, smiling tolerantly.
With embarrassment which was almost shame--for she despised
womanish nervousness--Irene turned towards the fireplace, where
chairs invited them.
"Let us sit down and talk," she said, in a softened voice. "I am so
grateful to you for coming at once."
His manner was that to which she had grown accustomed, or differed
so little from it that, in ordinary circumstances, she would have
remarked no peculiarity. He might have seemed, perhaps, a trifle
less matter-of-fact than usual, slightly more disposed to ironic
playfulness. At ease in the soft chair, his legs extended, with feet
crossed, he observed Irene from under humorously bent brows; watched
her steadily, until he saw that she could bear it no longer. Then he
"I thought we should get through without it."
"This little reaction. It comes into the ordinary prognosis, I
believe; but we seemed safe. Yet I can't say I'm sorry. It's better
no doubt, to get this over before marriage."
Irene flushed, and for a moment strung herself to the attitude of
offended pride. But it passed. She smiled to his smile, and, playing
with the tassel of her chair, responded in a serious undertone.
"I hoped my letter could not possibly be misunderstood."
"I understand it perfectly. I am here to talk it over from your own
Again he frowned jocosely. His elbows on the chair-arms, he tapped
together the points of his fingers, exhibiting nails which were all
that they should have been. Out of regard for the Derwents'
mourning, he wore a tie of black satin, and his clothes were of
dark-grey, a rough material which combined the effects of finish and
of carelessness--note of the well-dressed Englishman.
"We cannot talk it over," rejoined Irene. "I have nothing to say--
except that I take blame and shame to myself, and that I entreat
Under his steady eye, his good-humoured, watchful mastery, she was
"I was in doubt whether to come to-day," said Jacks, in a reflective
tone. "I thought at first of sending a note, and postponing our
meeting. I understood so perfectly the state of mind in which you
wrote--the natural result of most painful events. The fact is, I
am guilty of bad taste in seeming to treat it lightly; you have
suffered very much, and won't be yourself for some days. But, after
all, it isn't as if one had to do with the ordinary girl. To speak
frankly I thought it was the kindest thing to come--so I came."
Nothing Arnold had ever said to her had so appealed to Irene's
respect as this last sentence. It had the ring of entire sincerity;
it was quite simply spoken; it soothed her nerves.
"Thank you," she answered with a grateful look. "You did right. I
could not have borne it--if you had just written and put it off.
Indeed, I could not have borne it."
Arnold changed his attitude; he bent forward, his arms across his
knees, so as to be nearer to her.
"Do you think _I_ should have had an easy time?"
"I reproach myself more than I can tell you. But you must understand
--you _must_ believe that I mean what I am saying!" Her voice began
to modulate. "It is not only the troubles we have gone through. I
have seen it coming--the moment when I should write that letter.
Through cowardice, I have put it off. It was very unjust to you; you
have every right to condemn my behaviour; I am unpardonable. And yet
I hope--I do so hope--that some day you will pardon me."
In the man's eyes she had never been so attractive, so desirable, so
essentially a woman. The mourning garb became her, for it was
moulded upon her figure, and gave effect to the admirably pure tone
of her complexion. Her beauty, in losing its perfect healthfulness,
gained a new power over the imagination; the heavy eyes suggested
one knew not what ideal of painters and poets; the lips were more
sensuous since they had lost their mocking smile. All passion of
which Arnold Jacks was capable sounded in the voice with which he
"I shall never pardon you, because I shall never feel you have
injured me. Say to me what you want to say. I will listen. What can
I do better than listen to your voice? I won't argue; I won't
contradict. Relieve your mind, and let us see what it all comes to
in the end."
Irene had a creeping sense of fear. This tone was so unlike what she
had expected. Physical weakness threatened a defeat which would have
nothing to do with her will. If she yielded now, there would be no
recovering her self-respect, no renewal of her struggle for liberty.
She wished to rise, to face him upon her feet, yet had not the
courage. His manner dictated hers. They were not playing parts on a
stage, but civilised persons discussing their difficulties in a
soft-carpeted drawing-room. The only thing in her favour was that
the afternoon drew on, and the light thickened. Veiled in dusk, she
hoped to speak more resolutely.
"Must I repeat my letter?"
"Yes, if you feel sure that it still expresses your mind."
"It does. I made a grave mistake. In accepting your offer of
marriage, I was of course honest, but I didn't know what it meant; I
didn't understand myself. Of course it's very hard on you that your
serious purpose should have for its only result to teach me that I
was mistaken. If I didn't know that you have little patience with
such words, I should say that it shows something wrong in our social
habits. Yet that's foolish; you are right, that is quite silly. It
isn't our habits that are to blame but our natures--the very
nature of things. I had to engage myself to you before I could know
that I ought to have done nothing of the kind."
She paused, suddenly breathless, and a cough seized her.
"You've taken cold," said Jacks, with graceful solicitude.
"No, no! It's nothing."
Dusk crept about the room. The fire was getting rather low.
"Shall I ring for lamps?" asked Arnold, half rising.
Irene wished to say no, but the proprieties were too strong. She
allowed him to ring the bell, and, without asking leave, he threw
coals upon the fire. For five minutes their dialogue suffered
interruption; when it began again, the curtains were drawn, and warm
rays succeeded to turbid twilight.
"I had better explain to you," said Arnold, in a tone of delicacy
overcome, "this state of mind in which you find yourself. It is
perfectly natural; one has heard of it; one sees the causes of it.
You are about to take the most important step in your whole life,
and, being what you are, a very intelligent and very conscientious
girl, you have thought and thought about its gravity until it
frightens you. That's the simple explanation of your trouble. In a
week--perhaps in a day or two--it will have passed. Just wait.
Don't think of it. Put your marringe--put me--quite out of your
mind. I won't remind you of my existence for--let us say before
next Sunday. Now, is it agreed?"
"I should be dishonest if I pretended to agree."
"But--don't you think you owe it to me to give what I suggest a
The words were trenchant, the tone was studiously soft. Irene strung
herself for contest, hoping it would come quickly and undisguised.
"I owe you much. I have done you a great injustice. But waiting will
do no good. I know my mind at last. I see what is possible and what
"Do you imagine, Irene, that I can part with you on these terms? Do
you really think I could shake hands, and say good-bye, at this
stage of our relations?"
"What can I do?" Her voice, kept low, shook with emotion. "I confess
an error--am I to pay for it with my life?"
"I ask you only to be just to yourself as well as to me. Let three
days go by, and see me again."
She seemed to reflect upon it. In truth she was debating whether to
persevere in honesty, or to spare her nerves with dissimulation. A
promise to wait three days would set her free forthwith; the
temptation was great. But something in her had more constraining
"If I pretended to agree, I should be ashamed of myself. I should
have passed from error into baseness. You would have a right to
despise me; as it is, you have only a right to be angry."
As though the word acted upon his mood, Arnold sprang forward from
the chair, fell upon one knee close beside her, and grasped her
hands. Irene instinctively threw herself back, looking frightened;
but she did not attempt to rise. His face was hot-coloured, his eyes
shone unpleasantly; but before he spoke, his lips parted in a laugh.
"Are you one of the women," he said, "who have to be conquered? I
didn't think so. You seemed so reasonable."
"Do you dream of conquering a woman who cannot love you?"
"I refuse to believe it. I recall your own words."
He made a movement to pass one arm about her waist.
"No! After what I have said----!"
Her hands being free, she sprang up and broke away from him. Arnold
rose more slowly, his look lowered with indignation. Eyes bent on
the ground, hands behind him, he stood mute.
"Must I leave you?" said Irene, when she could steady her voice.
"That is my dismissal?"
"If you cannot listen to me, and believe me--yes."
"All things considered, you are a little severe."
"You put yourself in the wrong. However unjust I have been to you, I
can't atone by permitting what you call conquest. No, I assure you,
I am _not_ one of those women."
His eyes were now fixed upon her; his lips announced a new
determination, set as they were in the lines of resentful dignity.
"Let me put the state of things before you," he said in his softest
tones, just touched with irony. "The fact of our engagement has been
published. Our marriage is looked for by a host of friends and
acquaintances, and even by the mere readers of the newspapers. All
but at the last moment, on a caprice, an impulse you do not pretend
to justify to one's intelligence, you declare it is all at an end.
Pray, how do you propose to satisfy natural curiosity about such a
"I take all the blame. I make it known that I have behaved--
unreasonably; if you will disgracefully."
"That word," replied Jacks, faintly smiling, "has a meaning in this
connection which you would hardly care to reflect upon. Take it that
you have said this to your friends: what do _I_ say to _mine_?"
Irene could not answer.
"I have a pleasant choice," he pursued. "I can keep silence--which
would mean scandal, affecting both of us, according to people's
disposition. Or I can say with simple pathos, 'Miss Derwent begged
me to release her.' Neither alternative is agreeable to me. It may
be unchivalrous. Possibly another man would beg to be allowed to
sacrifice his reputation, to ensure your quiet release. To be frank
with you, I value my reputation, I value my chances in life. I have
no mind to make myself appear worse than I am."
Irene had sunk into her chair again. As he talked, Jacks moved to a
sofa near her, and dropped on to the end of it.
"Surely there is a way," began the girl's voice, profoundly
troubled. "We could let it be known, first of all, that the marriage
was postponed. Then--there would be less talk afterwards."
He leaned towards her, upon his elbow.
"It interests me--your quiet assumption that my feelings count for
Irene reddened. She was conscious of having ignored that aspect of
the matter, and dreaded to have to speak of it. For the revelation
made to her of late taught her that, whatever Arnold Jacks' idea of
love might be, it was not hers. Yet perhaps in his way, he loved her
--the way which had found expression a few minutes ago.
"I can only repeat that I am ashamed."
"If you would grant me some explanation," Jacks resumed, with his
most positive air, that of the born man of business. "Don't be
afraid of hurting my sensibilities. Have I committed myself in any
"It is a change in myself--I was too hasty--I reflected
afterwards instead of before----"
"Forgive me if I make the most of that admission. Your hastiness was
certainly not my fault. I did not unduly press you; there was no
importunity. Such being the case, don't you think I may suggest that
you ought to bear the consequences? I can't--I really can't think
them so dreadful."
Irene kept silence, her face bent and averted.
"Many a girl has gone through what you feel now, but I doubt whether
ever one before acted like this. They kept their word; it was a
point of honour."
"I know; it is true." She forced herself to look at him. "And the
result was lives of misery--dishonour--tragedies."
"Oh, come now----"
"You _dare_ not contradict me!" Her eyes flashed; she let her
feeling have its way. "As a man of the world, you know the meaning
of such marriages, and what they may, what they do often, come to. A
girl hears of such facts--realises them too late. You smile. No, I
don't want to talk for effect; it isn't my way. All I mean is that
I, like so many girls who have never been in love, accepted an offer
of marriage on the wrong grounds, and came to feel my mistake--who
knows how?--not long after. What you are asking me to do, is to
pay for the innocent error with my life. The price is too great. You
speak of your feelings; they are not so strong as to justify such a
demand--And there's another thought that surely must have entered
your mind. Knowing that I feel it impossible to marry you, how can
you still, with any shadow of self-respect, urge me to do so? Is
your answer, again, fear of what people will say? That seems to me
more than cowardice. How strange that an honourable man doesn't see
Jacks abandoned his easy posture, sat straight, and fixed upon her a
look of masculine disdain.
"I simply don't believe in the impossibility of your becoming my
"Then talk is useless. I can only tell you the truth, and reclaim my
"It's a question of time. You wouldn't--well, say you couldn't
marry me to-morrow. A month hence you would be willing. Because you
suffer from a passing illusion, I am to unsettle all my arragements,
and face an intolerable humiliation. The thing is impossible."
With vast relief Irene heard him return upon this note, and strike
it so violently. She felt no more compunction. The man was finally
declared to her, and she could hold her own against him. Her
headache had grown fierce; her mouth was dry; shudders of hot and
cold ran through her. The struggle must end soon.
"I am forgetting hospitality," she said, with sudden return to her
ordinary voice. "You would like tea."
Arnold waved his hand contemptuously.
"No?--Then let us understand each other in the fewest possible
"Good." He smiled, a smile which seemed to tighten every muscle of
his face. "I decline to release you from your promise."
She could meet his gaze, and did so as she answered with cold
"I am very sorry. I think it unworthy of you."
"I shall make no change whatever in my arrangements. Our marriage
will take place on the day appointed."
"That can hardly be, Mr. Jacks, if the bride is not there."
"Miss Derwent, the bride will be there!"
He was not jesting. All the man's pride rose to assert dominion. The
prime characteristic of his nation, that personal arrogance which is
the root of English freedom, which accounts for everything best, and
everything worst, in the growth of English power, possessed him to
the exclusion of all less essential qualities. He was the subduer
amazed by improbable defiance. He had never seen himself in such a
situation it was as though a British admiral on his ironclad found
himself mocked by some elusive little gunboat, newly invented by the
condemned foreigner. His intellect refused to acknowledge the
possibility of discomfiture; his soul raged mightily against the
hint of bafflement. Humour would not come to his aid; the lighter
elements of race were ousted; he was solid insolence, wooden-headed
Irene had risen.
"I am not feeling quite myself. I have said all there is to be said,
and I must beg you to excuse me."
"You should have begun by saying that. It is what I insisted upon."
"Shall we shake hands, Mr. Jacks?"
"To be sure!"
"It is good-bye. You understand me? If, after this, you imagine an
engagement between us, you have only yourself to blame."
"I take the responsibility." He released her hand, and made a stiff
bow. "In three days, I shall call."
You will not see me."
"Perhaps not. Then, three days later. Nothing whatever is changed
between us. A little discussion of this sort is all to the good.
Plainly, you have thought me a much weaker man than I am: when that
error of judgment is removed, our relations will be better than
The temptation to say one word more overcame Irene's finer sense of
the becoming. Jacks had already taken his hat, and was again bowing,
when she spoke.
"You are so sure that your will is stronger than mine?"
"Perfectly sure," he replied, with superb tranquillity.
No one had ever seen, no one again would ever see, that face of high
disdainful beauty, pain-stricken on the fair brow, which Irene for a
moment turned upon him. As he withdrew, the smile that lurked behind
her scorn glimmered forth for an instant, and passed in the falling
of a tear.
She went to her room, and lay down. The sleep she had not dared to
hope for fell upon her whilst she was trying to set her thoughts in
order. She slept until eight o'clock; her headache was gone.
Neither with her father, nor with Olga, did she speak of what had
Before going to bed, she packed carefully a large dress-basket and a
travelling-bag, which a servant brought down for her from the
box-room. Again she slept, but only for an hour or two, and at seven
in the morning she rose.
The breakfast hour was nine o'clock. Dr. Derwent, as usual, came
down a few minutes before, and turned over the letters lying for him
on the table. Among them he found an envelope addressed in a hand
which looked very much like Irene's; it had not come by post. As he
was reading the note it contained, Eustace and Olga Hannaford
entered together, talking. He bade them good-morning, and all sat
down to table.
"Irene's late," said Eustace presently, glancing at the clock.
The Doctor looked at him with an odd smile.
"She left Victoria ten minutes ago," he said, "by the Calais-boat
Eustace and Olga stared, exclaimed.
"She suddenly made up her mind to accept an invitation from Mrs.
"But--what an extraordinary thing!" pealed Eustace, who was always
greatly disturbed by anything out of routine. "She didn't speak of
Olga gazed at the Doctor. Her wan face had a dawn of brightness.
"How long is she likely to stay, uncle?"
"I haven't the least idea."
"Well, she can't stay long," Eustace exclaimed. "Ah! I have it!
Don't you see, Olga? It means Parisian dresses and hats!"
Dr. Derwent exploded in laughter.
"Acute young man! Now the ordinary male might have lost himself for
a day in wild conjectures. This points to the woolsack, Olga!"
She laughed for the first time in many days, and her appetite for
breakfast was at once improved.
In his heart, Dr. Derwent did not grieve over the singular events of
yesterday and this morning. He had no fault to find with Arnold
Jacks, and could cheerfully accept him as a son-in-law; but it was
easy to imagine a husband more suitable for such a girl as Irene.
Moreover, he had suspected, since the engagement, that she had not
thoroughly known her own mind. But he was far from anticipating such
original and decisive action on the girl's part. The thing being
done, he could secretly admire it, and the flight to Paris relieved
his mind from a prospect of domestic confusion. Just for a moment he
questioned himself as to Irene's security, but only to recognise how
firm was his confidence in her.
Socially, the position was awkward. He had a letter from Jacks, a
sensible and calmly worded letter, saying that Irene was overwrought
by recent agitations, that she had spoken of putting an end to their
engagement, but that doubtless a few days would see all right again.
Arnold must now be apprised of what had happened, and, as all
consideration was due to him, the Doctor despatched a telegram
asking him to call as soon as he could. This brought Jacks to
Bryanston Square at midday, and there was a conversation in the
library. Arnold spoke his mind; with civility, but in unmistakable
terms; he accused the Doctor of remissness. "Paternal authority," it
seemed to him, should have sufficed to prevent what threatened
nothing less than a scandal. Irene's father could not share this
view; the girl was turned three-and-twenty; there could be no
question of dictating to her, and as for expostulation, it had been
"You are aware, I hope," said Jacks stiffly, "that Mrs. Borisoff has
not quite an unclouded reputation?"
"I know no harm against her."
"She is as good as parted from her husband, and leads a very dubious
"Oh, it's all right. People countenance her who wouldn't do so if
there were anything really amiss."
"Well, Dr. Derwent," said the young man in a conclusive tone,
"evidently all is at an end. It remains for us to agree upon the
manner of making it known. Should the announcement come from your
side or from mine?"
The Doctor reflected.
"You no longer propose to wait the effect of a little time?"
"Emphatically, no. This step of Miss Derwent's puts that out of the
"I see--Perhaps you feel that, in justice to yourself, it should
be made known that she has done something of which you disapprove?"
Arnold missed the quiet irony of this question.
"Not at all. Our engagement ended yesterday; with to-day's events I
have nothing to do."
"That is the generous view," said Dr. Derwent, smiling pleasantly.
"Do you know, I fancy we had better each of us tell the story in his
own way. It will come to that in the end, won't it? You had a
disagreement; you thought better of your proposed union; what more
simple? I see no room for scandal."
"Be it so. Have the kindness to acquaint Miss Derwent with what has
passed between us."
After dinner that evening, Dr. Derwent related the matter to his
son. Eustace was astounded, and presently indignant. It seemed to
him inconceivable that Arnold Jacks should have suffered this
affront. He would not look at things from his sister's point of
view; absurd to attempt a defence of her; really, really, she had
put them all into a most painful position! An engagement was an
engagement, save in the event of grave culpability on either side.
Eustace spoke as a lawyer; his professional instincts were outraged.
He should certainly call upon the Jacks' and utterly dissociate
himself from his sister in this lamentable affair.
"Why, what a shock it will be to Mrs. Jacks!"
"She'll get over it, I fancy," remarked the Doctor drily.
The young barrister withdrew to his room, where he read hard until
very late. Eustace was no trifler; he had brains, and saw his way to
make use of them to the one end which addressed his imagination,
that of social self-advancement. His studies to-night were troubled
with a resentful fear lest Irene's "unwomanly" behaviour (a
generation ago it would have been "unladylike") should bring the
family name into some discredit. Little ejaculations escaped him,
such as "Really!" and "Upon my word!" Eustace had never been known
to use stronger language.
When his son had retired, Dr. Derwent stepped up to the
drawing-room, where Olga Hannaford was sitting. After kindly
regretting that she should be alone, he repeated to his niece what
he had just told Eustace. Doubtless she would here very soon from
"I have already heard something about this," said Olga. "I'm sure
she has done right, but no one will ever know what it cost her."
"That's the very point we have all been losing sight of," observed
her uncle, gratified. "It would have been a good deal easier, no
doubt, to go on to the marriage."
"Easier!" echoed the girl. "She has done the most wonderful thing! I
admire her, and envy her strength of character."
The Doctor's eyes had fallen upon that crayon portrait which held
the place of honour on the drawing-room walls. Playing with
superstition, as does every man capable of high emotional life, he
was wont to see in the pictured countenance of his dead wife changes
of expression, correspondent with the mood in which he regarded it.
At one time the beloved features smiled upon him; at another they
were sad, or anxious. To-night, the eyes, the lips were so strongly
expressive of gladness that he felt startled as he gazed. A joy from
the years gone by suddenly thrilled him. He sat silent, too deeply
moved by memories for speech about the present. And when at length
he resumed talk with Olga, his voice was very gentle, his words all
kindliness. The girl had never known him so sympathetic with her.
On the morrow--it was Saturday--Olga received a letter from
Piers Otway, who said that he had something of great importance to
speak about, and must see her; could they not meet at the Campden
Hill House, it being inadvisable for him to call at Dr. Derwent's?
Either this afternoon or to-morrow would do, if Olga would appoint a
She telegraphed, appointing this afternoon at three.
Half an hour before that, she entered the house, which was now
occupied only by a caretaker. Dr. Derwent was trying to let it
furnished for the rest of the short lease. Olga had a fire quickly
made in the drawing-room, and ordered tea. She laid aside her
outdoor things, viewed herself more than once in a mirror, and moved
about restlessly. When there sounded a visitor's knock at the front
door, she flushed and was overcome with nervousness; she stepped
forward to meet her friend, but could not speak. Otway had taken her
hand in both his own; he looked at her with grave kindliness. It was
their first meeting since Mrs. Hannaford's death.
"I hesitated about asking you to see me here," he said. "But I
His embarrassment increased, whilst Olga was gaining self-command.
"You were quite right," she said. "I think I had rather see you here
than anywhere else. It isn't painful to me--oh! anything but
They sat down. Piers was holding a large envelope, bulgy with its
contents, whatever they were, and sealed; his eyes rested upon it.
"I have to speak of something which at first will sound unwelcome to
you; but it is only the preface to what will make you very glad. It
is about my brother. I have seen him two or three times this last
week on a particular business, in which at length I have succeeded.
Here," he touched the envelope, "are all the letters he possessed in
your mother's writing."
Olga looked at him in distressful wonder and suspense.
"Not one of them," he pursued, "contains a line that you should not
read. They prove absolutely, beyond shadow of doubt, that the charge
brought against your mother was false. The dates cover nearly five
years--from a simple note of invitation to Ewell--you remember
--down to a letter written about three weeks ago. Of course I was
obliged to read them through; I knew to begin with what I should
find. Now I give them to you. Let Dr. Derwent see them. If any doubt
remains in his mind, they will make an end of it."
He put the packet into Olga's hands. She, overcome for the moment by
her feelings, looked from it to him, at a loss for words. She was
struck with a change in Otway. That he should speak in a grave tone,
with an air of sadness, was only natural; but the change went beyond
this; he had not his wonted decision in utterance; he paused between
sentences, his eyes wandering dreamily; one would have taken him for
an older man than he was wont to appear, and of less energy. Thus
might he have looked and spoken after some great effort, which left
him wearied, almost languid, incapable of strong emotion.
"Why didn't he show these letters before?" she asked, turning over
the sealed envelope.
"He had no wish to do so," answered Piers, in an undertone.
"You mean that he would have let anything happen--which he could
"I'm afraid he would."
"But he offered them now?"
"No--or rather yes, he offered them," Piers smiled bitterly. "Not
however, out of wish to do justice."
Olga could not understand. She gazed at him wistfully.
"I bought them," said Piers. "It made the last proof of his
"You gave money for them? And just that you might give them to me?"
"Wouldn't you have done the same, to clear the memory of someone you
Olga laid the packet aside; then, with a quick movement, stepped
towards him, caught his hand, pressed it to her lips. Piers was
taken by surprise, and could not prevent the action; but at once
Olga's own hand was prisoned in his; they stood face to face, she
blushing painfully, he pale as death, with lips that quivered in
their vain effort to speak.
"I shall be grateful to you as long as I live," the girl faltered,
turning half away, trying gently to release herself.
Piers kissed her hand, again and again, still speechless. When he
allowed her to draw it away, he stood gazing at her like a man
bewildered; there was moisture on his forehead; he seemed to
struggle for breath.
"Let us sit down again and talk," said Olga, glancing at him.
But he moved towards her, the strangest look in his eyes, the fixed
expressionless gaze of a somnambulist.
"No, no!" she exclaimed, as if suddenly stricken with fear, throwing
out her arms to repel him. "You didn't mean that! It is my fault.
You never meant that."
"Yes! Give me your hand again!" he said in a thick voice, the blood
rushing into his cheeks.
"Not now. You misunderstood me. I oughtn't to have done that. It was
because I could find no word to thank you."
She panted the sentences, holding her chair as if to support
herself, and with the other hand still motioning him away.
"I am ashamed--it was thoughtless--sit down and let us talk as
we were doing. Just as friends, it is so much better. We meant
It was as if the words fell from her involuntarily; they were
babbled, rather than spoken; she half laughed, half cried. And
Otway, a mere automaton, dropped upon his chair, gazing at her,
"I will let my uncle see the letters at once," Olga went on, in
confused hurry. "I am sure he will be very grateful to you. But for
you, we should never have had this proof. I, of course, did not need
it; as if I doubted my mother! But he--I can't be sure what he
still thinks. How kind you have always been to us!"
Piers stood up again, but did not move toward her. She watched him
apprehensively. He walked half down the room and back again, then
exclaimed, with a wild gesture:
"I never knew what a curse one's name could be! I used to be proud
of it, because it was my father's; now I would gladly take any
"Just because of that man?" Olga protested. "What does it matter?"
"You know well what it matters," he replied, with an unnatural
"To me--nothing whatever."
"You try to think not. But the name will be secretly hateful to you
as long as you live."
"Oh! How can you say that! The name is yours, not his. Think how
long we knew you before we heard of him! I am telling the simple
truth. It is you I think of, when----"
He was drawing nearer to her, and again that strange, fixed look
came into his eyes.
"I wanted to ask you something," said Olga quickly. "Do sit down--
will you? Let us talk as we used to--you remember?"
He obeyed her, but kept his eyes on her face.
"What do you wish to ask, Olga?"
The name slipped from his tongue; he had not meant to use it, and
did not seem conscious of having done so.
"Have you seen old Mr. Jacks lately?"
"I saw him last night."
"Last night?" Her breath caught. "Had he anything--anything
interesting to say?"
"He is ill. I only sat with him for half an hour. I don't know what
it is. It doesn't keep him in bed; but he lies on a sofa, and looks
dreadfully ill, as if he suffered much pain."
"He told you nothing?"
Their eyes met.
"Nothing that greatly interested me," replied Piers heavily, with
the most palpable feint of carelessness. "He mentioned what of
course you know, that Arnold Jacks is not going to be married after
Olga's head drooped, as she said in a voice barely audible:
"Ah, you knew it."
"What of that?"
"I see--you knew it----"
"What of that, Olga?" he repeated impatiently. "I knew it as a bare
fact--no explanation. What does it mean? You know, I suppose?"
In spite of himself, look and tones betrayed his eagerness for her
"They disagreed about something," said Olga. "I don't know what. I
shouldn't wonder if they make it up again."
At this moment the woman in care of the house entered with the
tea-tray. To give herself a countenance, Olga spoke of something
indifferent, and when they were alone again, their talk avoided the
personal matters which had so embarrassed both of them. Olga said
presently that she was going to see her friend Miss Bonnicastle
"If I could see only the least chance of supporting myself, I would
go to live with her again. She's the most sensible girl I know, and
she did me good."
"How, did you good?"
"She helped me against myself," replied Olga abruptly. "No one else
ever did that."
Then she turned again to the safer subjects.
"When shall I see you again?" Otway inquired, rising after a long
silence, during which both had seemed lost in their thoughts.
"Who knows?--But I will write and tell you what my uncle says
about the letters, if he says anything. Again, thank you!"
She gave her hand frankly. Piers held it, and looked into her face
as once before.
The girl uttered a cry of distress, drew her hand away, and
exclaimed in a half-hysterical voice:
"No! What right have you?"
"Every right! Do you know what your mother said to me--her last
words to me----?"
"You mustn't tell me!" Her tones were softer. "Not to-day. If we
"Of course we shall meet again!"
"I don't know. Yes, yes; we shall. But you must go now; it is time I
He touched her hand again, and left the room without looking back.
Before the door had closed behind him, Olga ran forward with a
stifled cry. The door was shut. She stood before it with tears in
her eyes, her fingers clenched together on her breast, and sobbed
For nearly half an hour she sat by the fire, head on hands, deeply
brooding. In the house there was not a sound. All at once it seemed
to her that a voice called, uttering her name; she started, her
blood chilled with fear. The voice was her mother's; she seemed
still to hear it, so plainly had it been audible, coming from she
knew not where.
She ran to her hat and jacket, which lay in a corner of the room,
put them on with feverish haste, and fled out into the street.
"I will be frank with you, Piers," said Daniel Otway, as he sat by
the fireside in his shabby lodgings, his feet on the fender, a
cigarette between his fingers. He looked yellow and dried up;
shivered now and then, and had a troublesome cough. "If I could
afford to be generous, I would be; I should enjoy it. It's one of
the worst evils of poverty, that a man can seldom obey the
promptings of his better self. I can't give you these letters; can't
afford to do so. You have glanced through them; you see they really
are what I said. The question is, what are they worth to you?"
Piers looked at the threadbare carpet, reflected, spoke.
"I'll give you fifty pounds."
A smile crept from the corners of Daniel's shrivelled lips to his
"Why are you so anxious to have them," he said, "I don't know and
don't ask. But if they are worth fifty to you, they are worth more.
You shall have them for two hundred."
And at this figure the bundle of letters eventually changed hands.
It was a serious drain on Piers Otway's resources, but he could not
bargain long, the talk sickened him. And when the letters were in
his possession, he felt a joy which had no equivalent in terms of
He said to himself that he had bought them for Olga. In a measure,
of course, for all who would be relieved by knowing that Mrs.
Hannaford had told the truth; but first and foremost for Olga. On
Olga he kept his thoughts. He was persuading himself that in her he
saw his heart's desire.
For Piers Otway was one of those men who cannot live without a
woman's image to worship. Irene Derwent being now veiled from him,
he turned to another beautiful face, in whose eyes the familiar
light of friendship seemed to be changing, softening. Ambition had
misled him; not his to triumph on the heights of glorious passion;
for him a humbler happiness a calmer love. Yet he would not have
been Piers Otway had this mood contented him. On the second day of
his dreaming about Olga, she began to shine before his imagination
in no pale light. He mused upon her features till they became the
ideal beauty; he clad her, body and soul, in all the riches of
love's treasure-house; she was at length his crowned lady, his
perfect vision of delight.
With such thoughts had he sat by Mrs. Hannaford, at the meeting
which was to be their last. He was about to utter them, when she
spoke Olga's name. "In you she will always have a friend? If the
worst happens----?" And when he asked, "May I hope that she would
some day let me be more than that?" the glow of joy on that stricken
face, the cry of rapture, the hand held to him, stirred him so
deeply that his old love-longing seemed a boyish fantasy. "Oh, you
have made me happy! You have blotted out all my follies and
sufferings!" Then the poor tortured mind lost itself.
This was the second death which had upon Piers Otway the ageing
effect known to all men capable of thoughts about mortality. The
loss of his father marked for him the end of irresponsible years; he
entered upon manhood with that grief blended of reverence and
affection. By the grave of Mrs. Hannaford (he stood there only after
the burial) he was touched again by the advancing shadow of life's
dial, and it marked the end of youth. For youth is a term relative
to heart and mind. At six-and-twenty many a man has of manhood only
the physique; many another is already falling through experience to
a withered age. Piers had the sense of transition; the middle years
were opening before him. The tears he shed for his friend were due
in part to the poignant perception of utter severance with boyhood.
But a few weeks ago, talking with Mrs. Hannaford, he could revive
the spirit of those old days at Geneva, feel his identity with the
Piers Otway of that time. It would never be within his power again.
He might remember, but memory showed another than himself.
A note from John Jacks summoned him to Queen's Gate. Not till
afterwards did he understand that Mr. Jacks' real motive in sending
for him was to get light upon the rupture between Arnold and Miss
Derwent. Piers' astonishment at what he heard caused his friend to
quit the subject.
In the night that followed, Piers for the first time in his life
felt the possibility of base action. The experience has come to all
men, and, whatever the result, always leaves its mark. Looking at
the fact of Irene's broken engagement, he could explain it only in
one way; the cause must be Mrs. Hannaford--the doubt as to her
behaviour, the threatened scandal. Idle to attempt surmises as to
the share of either side in what had come about; the difference had
been sufficiently grave to part them. And this parting was to him a
joy which shook his whole being. He could have raised a song of
And in his hands lay complete evidence of the dead woman's
guiltlessness. To produce it was possibly to reconcile Arnold Jacks
and Irene. Viewed by his excited mind, the possible became certain;
he evolved a whole act of drama between those two, turning on
prejudices, doubts, scruples natural in their position; he saw the
effect of their enlightenment. Was it a tempting thought, that he
could give Irene back again into her bridegroom's arms.
It brought sweat to his forehead; it shook him with the fierce
torture of a jealous imagination. He fortified base suggestion by
the natural revolt of his flesh. Once had he passed through the
fire; to suffer that ordeal again was beyond human endurance. Irene
was free. He paced the room, repeating wildly that Irene was free.
And the mere fact of her freedom proved that she did not love the
man--so it seemed to him, in his subordination of every motive to
that passionate impulse. To him it brought no hope--what of that!
Irene did not belong to another man.
The fire needed stirring. As he broke the black surface of coal, a
flame shot up, red, lambent, a serpent's tongue. It had a voice; it
tempted. He took the packet of letters from the table.
He had not yet read them through; had only tested them here and
there under his brother's eye. Yes, they were the letters of a
woman, who, suffering (as he knew) the strongest temptation to which
her nature could be exposed, subdued herself in obedience to what
she held the law of duty. He read page after page. Again and again
she all but said, "I love you"; again and again she told her tempter
that his suit was useless, that she would rather die than yield.
Daniel Otway had used every argument to persuade her to defy the
world and follow him--easy to understand his motives. One saw
that, if she had been alone, she would have done so; but there was
her daughter, there was her brother; to them she sacrificed what
seemed to her the one chance of happiness left in a wasted life.
Piers interrupted his reading to hear once more the voice that
counselled baseness. Whom would it injure, if he destroyed these
papers? Certainly not Irene, his first thought, who, he held it
proved, was well rescued from a mistaken marriage. Not Dr. Derwent,
or Olga, who, he persuaded himself, had already no doubt whatever of
Mrs. Hannaford's innocence. Not the poor dead woman herself----
What was this passage on which his eye had fallen? "I have long had
a hope that your brother Piers might marry Olga. It would make me
very happy; I cannot imagine for her a better husband. It came first
into my mind years ago, at Geneva, and I have never lost the wish.
Ah! how grateful you would make me, if, forgetting ourselves, you
would join me in somehow trying to bring about this happiness for
those two! Piers is coming to live in London. Do see as much of him
as you can. I think very, very highly of him, and he is almost as
dear to me as a son of my own. Speak to him of Olga. Sometimes a
suggestion--and you know that I desire only his good."
The voice spoke to him from the grave; it had a sweeter tone than
that other. He read on; he came to the last sheet--so sad, so
hopeless, that it brought tears to his eyes.
"Cannot you defend me? Cannot you prove the falsehood of that story?
Cannot you save me from this bitter disgrace? Oh, who will show the
truth and do me justice?"
Could he burn that letter? Could he close his ears against that cry
of one driven to death by wrong?
He drew a deep sigh, and looked about him as if waking from a bad
dream. Why, he had come near to whole brotherhood with a man as
coldly cruel and infamous as any that walked the earth! Destroying
these letters, he would have been worse than Daniel.
Straightway he wrote to Olga, requesting the appointment with her.
Upon Olga once more he fixed his mind. He resolved that he would not
part from her without asking her to be his wife. If he had but done
so before hearing that news from John Jacks! Then it seemed to him
that Olga was his happiness.
From the house at Campden Hill he came away in a strangely excited
mood; glad, sorry; cold, desirous; torn this way and that by
conflict of passions and reasons. The only clear thought in his mind
was that he had done a great act of justice. How often does it fall
to a man to enjoy this privilege? Not once in a lifetime to the
multitude such opportunity is the signal favour of fate. Had he let
it pass, Piers felt he must have sunk so in his own esteem, that no
light of noble hope would ever again have shone before him. He must
have gone plodding the very mire of existence--Daniel's brother,
never again anything but Daniel's brother.
Would Dr. Derwent give him a thought of thanks? Would Irene hear how
these letters were recovered?
Sunday passed, he knew not well how. He wrote a letter to Olga, but
destroyed it. On Monday he was very busy, chiefly at the warehouses
of the Commercial Docks; a man of affairs; to look upon, not
strikingly different from many another with whom he rubbed shoulders
in Fenchurch Street and elsewhere. On Tuesday he had to go to
Liverpool, to see an acquaintance of Moncharmont who might perchance
be useful to them. The journey, the change, were not unpleasant. He
passed the early evening with the man in question, who asked him at
what hotel he meant to sleep. Piers named the house he had
carelessly chosen, adding that he had not been there yet; his bag
was still at the station.
"Don't go there," said his companion. "It's small and uncomfortable
and dear. You'll do much better at----"
Without giving a thought to the matter, Otway accepted this advice.
He went to the station, withdrew his bag, and bade a cabman drive
him to the hotel his acquaintance had named. But no sooner had the
cab started than he felt an unaccountable misgiving, an uneasiness
as to this change of purpose. Strange as he was to Liverpool, there
seemed no reason why he should hesitate so about his hotel; yet the
mental disturbance became so strong that, when all but arrived, he
stopped the cab and bade his driver take him to the other house,
that which he had originally chosen. A downright piece of
superstition, he said to himself, with a nervous laugh. He could not
remember to have ever behaved so capriciously.
The hotel pleased him. After inspecting his bedroom, he came down
again to smoke and glance over the newspapers; it was about
half-past nine. Half a dozen men were in the smoking-room; by ten
o'clock there remained, exclusive of Piers, only three, of whom two
were discussing politics by the fireside, whilst the third sat apart
from them in a deep chair, reading a book. The political talk began
to interest Otway; he listened, behind his newspaper. The louder of
the disputants was a man of about fifty, dressed like a prosperous
merchant; his cheeks were flabby, his chin triple or quadruple, his
short neck, always very red, grew crimson as he excited himself. He
was talking about the development of markets for British wares, and
kept repeating the phrase "trade outlets," as if it had a flavour
which he enjoyed. England, he declared, was falling behind in the
competition for the world's trade.
"It won't do. Mark my word, if we don't show more spirit, we shall
be finding ourselves in Queer Street. Look at China, now! I call it
a monstrous thing, perfectly monstrous, the way we're neglecting
"My dear sir," said the other, a thin, bilious man, with an
undecided manner, "we can't force our goods on a country----"
"What! Why, that's exactly what we _can_ do, and ought to do! What
we always _have_ done, and always _must_ do, if we're going to hold
our own," vociferated he of the crimson neck. "I was speaking of
China, if you hadn't interrupted me. What are the Russians doing?
Why, making a railway straight to China! And we look on, as if it
didn't matter, when the matter is national life or death. Let me
give you some figures. I know what I'm talking about. Are you aware
that our trade with China amounts to only half a crown a head of the
Chinese population? Half a crown! While with little Japan, our trade
comes to something like eighteen shillings a head. Let me tell you
that the equivalent of that in China would represent about three
hundred and sixty millions per annum!"
He rolled out the figures with gusto culminating in rage. His eyes
glared; he snorted defiance, turning from his companion to the two
strangers whom he saw seated before him.
"I say that it's our duty to force our trade upon China. It's for
China's good--can you deny that? A huge country packed with
wretched barbarians! Our trade civilises them--can you deny it?
It's our duty, as the leading Power of the world! Hundreds of
millions of poor miserable barbarians. And"--he shouted--"what
else are the Russians, if you come to that? Can _they_ civilise
China? A filthy, ignorant nation, frozen into stupidity, and
downtrodden by an Autocrat!"
"Well," murmured the diffident objector, "I'm no friend of tyranny;
I can't say much for Russia----"
"I should think you couldn't. Who can? A country plunged in the
darkness of the Middle Ages! The country of the _knout_! Pah! Who
_can_ say anything for Russia?"
Vociferating thus, the champion of civilisation fixed his glare upon
Otway, who, having laid down the paper, answered this look of
challenge with a smile.
"As you seem to appeal to me," sounded in Piers' voice, which was
steady and good-humoured, "I'm bound to say that Russia isn't
altogether without good points. You spoke of it, by the bye, as the
country of the knout; but the knout, as a matter of fact, was
abolished long ago."
"Well, well--yes; yes--one knows all about that," stammered the
loud man. "But the country is still ruled in the _spirit_ of the
knout. It doesn't affect my argument. Take it broadly, on an
ethnological basis." He expanded his chest, sticking his thumbs into
the armholes of his waistcoat. "The Russians are a Slavonic people,
"Largely Slav, yes."
"And pray, sir, what have the Slavs done for the world? What do we
owe them? What Slavonic name can anyone mention in the history of
"Two occur to me," replied Piers, in the same quiet tone, "well
worthy of a place in the history of intellectual progress. There was
a Pole named Kopernik, known to you, no doubt, as Copernicus, who
came before Galileo; and there was a Czech named Huss--John Huss
--who came before Luther."
The bilious man was smiling. The fourth person present in the room,
who sat with his book at some distance, had turned his eyes upon
Otway with a look of peculiar interest.
"You've made a special study, I suppose, of this sort of thing,"
said the fat-faced politician, with a grin which tried to be civil,
conveying in truth, the radical English contempt for mere
intellectual attainment. "You're a supporter of Russia, I suppose?"
"I have no such pretension. Russia interests me, that's all."
"Come now, would you say that in any single point Russia, modern
Russia, as we understand the term, had shown the way in _practical_
All were attentive--the silent man with the book seeming
"I should say in one rather important point," Piers replied. "Russia
was the first country to abolish capital punishment for ordinary
The assailant showed himself perplexed, incredulous. But this state
of mind, lasting only for a moment, gave way to genial bluster.
"Oh, come now! That's a matter of opinion. To let murderers go
"As you please. I could mention another interesting fact. Long
before England dreamt of the simplest justice for women, it was not
an uncommon thing for a Russian peasant who had appropriated money
earned by his wife, to be punished with a flogging by the village
"A flogging! Why, there you are!" cried the other, with hoarse
laughter--"What did I say? If it isn't the knout, it's something
equivalent. As if we hadn't proved long ago the demoralising effect
of corporal chastisement! We should be ashamed, sir, to flog men
nowadays in the army or navy. It degrades: we have outgrown it--
No, no, sir, it won't do! I see you have made a special study and
you've mentioned very interesting facts; but you must see that they
are wide of the mark--painfully wide of the mark--I must be
thinking of turning in; have to be up at six, worse luck, to catch a
train. Good-night, Mr. Simmonds! Good-night to you, sir--
He bustled away, humming to himself; and, after musing a little, the
bilious man also left the room. Piers thought himself alone, but a
sound caused him to turn his head; the person whom he had forgotten,
the silent reader, had risen and was moving his way. A tall,
slender, graceful man, well dressed, aged about thirty. He
approached Otway, came in front of him, looked at him with a smile,
"Sir, will you permit me to thank you for what you have said in
defence of Russia--my country?"
The English was excellent; almost without foreign accent. Piers
stood up, and held out his hand, which was cordially grasped. He
looked into a face readily recognizable as that of a Little Russian;
a rather attractive face, with fine, dreamy eyes and a mouth
expressive of quick sensibility; above the good forehead, waving
"You have travelled in Russia?" pursued the stranger.
"I lived at Odessa for some years, and I have seen something of
"You speak the language?"
Piers offered proof of this attainment, by replying in a few Russian
sentences. His new acquaintance was delighted, again shook hands,
and began to talk in his native tongue. They exchanged personal
information. The Russian said that his name was Korolevitch; that he
had an estate in the Government of Poltava, where he busied himself
with farming, but that for two or three months of each year he
travelled. Last winter he had spent in the United States; he was now
visiting the great English seaports, merely for the interest of the
thing. Otway felt how much less impressive was the account he had to
give of himself, but his new friend talked with such perfect
simplicity, so entirely as a good-humoured man of the world, that
any feeling of subordination was impossible.
"Poltava I know pretty well," he said gaily. "I've been more than
once at the July fair, buying wool. At Kharkoff too, on the same
They conversed for a couple of hours, at first amusing themselves
with the rhetoric and arguments of the red-necked man. Korolevitch
was a devoted student of poetry, and discovered not without surprise
the Englishman's familiarity with that branch of Russian literature.
He heard with great interest the few words Otway let fall about his
father, who had known so many Russian exiles. In short, they got
along together admirably, and, on parting for the night, promised
each other to meet again in London some ten days hence.
When he had entered his bedroom, and turned the key in the lock,
Piers stood musing over this event. Of a sudden there came into his
mind the inexplicable impulse which brought him to this hotel,
rather than to that recommended by the Liverpool acquaintance. An
odd incident, indeed. It helped a superstitious tendency of Otway's
mind, the disposition he had, spite of obstacle and misfortune, to
believe that destiny was his friend.
At home again, Piers wrote to Olga, the greater part of the letter
being occupied with an account of what had happened at Liverpool. It
was not a love-letter, yet differed in tone from those he had
hitherto written her; he spoke with impatience of the circumstances
which made it difficult for them to meet, and begged that it might
not be long before he saw her again. Olga's reply came quickly; it
was frankly intimate, with no suggestion of veiled feeling. Her
mother's letters, she said, were in Dr. Derwent's hands. "I told him
who had given them to me, and how you obtained them. I doubt whether
he will have anything to say to me about them, but that doesn't
matter; he knows the truth." As for their meeting, any Sunday
afternoon he would find her at Miss Bonnicastle's, in Great Portland
Street. "I wish I were living there again," she added. "My uncle is
very kind, but I can't feel at home here, and I hope I shall not
stay very long."
So, on the next Sunday, Piers wended his way to Great Portland
Street. Arriving about three o'clock, he found the artist of the
posters sitting alone by her fire, legs crossed and cigarette in
"Ah, Mr. Otway!" she exclaimed, turning her head to see who entered
in reply to her cry of "Don't be afraid!" Without rising, she held a
hand to him. "I didn't think I should ever see you here again. How
are you getting on? Beastly afternoon--come and warm your toes."
The walls were hung with clever brutalities of the usual kind. Piers
glanced from them to Miss Bonnicastle, speculating curiously about
her. He had no active dislike for this young woman, and felt a
certain respect for her talent, but he thought, as before, how
impossible it would be ever to regard her as anything but an
abnormality. She was not ill-looking, but seemed to have no single
characteristic of her sex which appealed to him.
"What do you think of that?" she asked abruptly, handing him an
illustrated paper which had lain open on her lap.
The page she indicated was covered with some half-dozen small
drawings, exhibiting scenes from a popular cafe in Paris, done with
a good deal of vigour, and some skill in the seizing of facial
"Your work?" he asked.
"Mine?" she cried scoffingly. "I could no more do that than swim the
channel. Look at the name, can't you?"
He found it in a corner.
"Kite? Our friend?"
"That's the man. He's been looking up since he went to Paris. Some
things of his in a French paper had a lot of praise; nude figures--
queer symbolical stuff, they say, but uncommonly well done. I
haven't seen them; in London they'd be called indecent, the man said
who was telling me about them. Of course that's rot. He'll be here
in a few days, Olga says."
"She hears from him?"
"It was a surprise letter; he addressed it to this shop, and I sent
it on--that's only pot-boiling, of course." She snatched back the
paper. "But it's good in its way--don't you think?"
"We must see the other things they talk about--the nudes."
There was a knock at the door. "Come along!" cried Miss Bonnicastle,
craning back her head to see who would enter. And on the door
opening, she uttered an exclamation of surprise.
"Well, this is a day of the unexpected! Didn't know you were in
Piers saw a slim, dark, handsome man, who, in his elegant attire,
rather reminded one of a fashion plate; he came briskly forward,
smiling as if in extreme delight, and bent over the artist's hand,
raising it to his lips.
"Now, _you'd_ never do that," said Miss Bonnicastle, addressing
Otway, with an air of mock gratification. "This is Mr. Florio, the
best-behaved man I know. Signor, you've heard us speak of Mr. Otway.
"Ah! Mr. Otway, Mr. Otway!" cried the Italian joyously. "Permit me
the pleasure to shake hands with you! One more English friend! I
collect English friends, as others collect pictures, bric-a-brac,
what you will. Indeed, it is my pride to add to the collection--my
privilege, my honour."
After exchange of urbanities, he turned to the exhibition on the
walls, and exhausted his English in florid eulogy, not a word of
which but sounded perfectly sincere. From this he passed to a
glorification of the art of advertisement. It was the triumph of our
century, the supreme outcome of civilisation! Otway, amusedly
observant, asked with a smile what progress the art was making in
"Progress!" cried Florio, with indescribable gesture. "Italy and
progress!--Yet," he proceeded, with a change of voice, "where
would Italy be, but for advertisements? Italy lives by
advertisements. She is the best advertised country in the world!
Suppose the writers and painters ceased to advertise Italy; suppose
it were no more talked about; suppose foreigners ceased to come!
What would happen to Italy, I ask you?"
His face conveyed so wonderfully the suggestion of ravenous hunger,
that Miss Bonnicastle screamed with laughter. Piers did not laugh,
and turned away for a moment.
Soon after, there entered Olga Hannaford. Seeing the two men, she
reddened and looked confused, but Miss Bonnicastle's noisy greeting
relieved her. Her hand was offered first to Otway, who pressed it
without speaking; their eyes met, and to Piers it seemed that she
made an appeal for his forbearance, his generosity. The behaviour of
the Italian was singular. Mute and motionless, he gazed at Olga with
a wonder which verged on consternation; when she turned towards him,
he made a profound bow, as though he met her for the first time.
"Don't you remember me, Mr. Florio?" she asked, in an uncertain
"Oh--indeed--perfectly," was the stammered reply.
He took her fingers with the most delicate respectfulness, again
bowing deeply; then drew back a little, his eyes travelling rapidly
to the faces of the others, as if seeking an explanation. Miss
Bonnicastle broke the silence, saying they must have some tea, and
calling upon Olga to help her in preparing it. For a minute or two
the men were left alone. Florio, approaching Piers on tiptoe,
"Miss Hannaford is in mourning?"
"Her mother is dead."
With a gesture of desolation, the Italian moved apart, and stood
staring absently at a picture on the wall. For the next quarter of
an hour, he took scarcely any part in the conversation; his
utterances were grave and subdued; repeatedly he glanced at Olga,
and, if able to do so unobserved, let his eyes rest upon her with
agitated interest. But for the hostess, there would have been no
talk at all, and even she fell far short of her wonted vivacity When
things were at their most depressing, someone knocked.
"Who's that, I wonder?" said Miss Bonnicastle. "All right!" she
called out. "Come along."
A head appeared; a long, pale, nervous countenance, with eyes that
blinked as if in too strong a light. Miss Bonnicastle started up,
clamouring an excited welcome. Olga flushed and smiled. It was Kite
who advanced into the room; on seeing Olga he stood still, became
painfully embarrassed, and could make no answer to the friendly
greetings with which Miss Bonnicastle received him. Forced into a
chair at length, and sitting sideways, with his long legs
intertwisted, and his arms fidgeting about, he made known that he
had arrived only this morning from Paris, and meant to stay in
London for a month or two--perhaps longer--it depended on
circumstances. His health seemed improved, but he talked in the old
way, vaguely, languidly. Yes, he had had a little success; but it
amounted to nothing; his work--rubbish! rubbish! Thereupon the
cafe sketches in the illustrated papers were shown to Florio, who
poured forth exuberant praise. A twinkle of pleasure came into the
"But the other things we heard about?" said Miss Bonnicastle. "The
what-d'ye-call 'ems, the figures----"
Kite shrugged his shoulders, and looked uneasy.
"Oh, pot-boilers! Poor stuff. Happened to catch people's eyes. Who
told you about them?"
"Some man--I forget. And what are you doing now?"
"Oh, nothing. A little black-and-white for that thing," he pointed
contemptuously to the paper. "Keeps me from idleness."
"Where are you going to live?"
"I don't know. I shall find a garret somewhere. Do you know of one
Olga's eyes chanced to meet a glance from Otway. She moved,
hesitated, and rose from her chair. Kite and the Italian gazed at
her, then cast a look at each other, then both looked at Otway, who
had at once risen.
"Do you walk home?" said Piers, stepping towards her.
"I'd better have a cab."
It was said in a quietly decisive tone, and Piers made no reply.
Both took leave with few words. Olga descended the stairs rapidly,
and, without attention to her companion, turned at a hurried pace
down the dark street. They had walked nearly a hundred yards when
she turned her head and spoke.
"Can't you suggest some way for me to earn my living? I mean it. I
must find something."
"Have you spoken to your uncle about it?" asked Piers mechanically.
"No; it's difficult. If I could go to him with something definite."
"Have you spoken to your cousin?"
Olga delayed an instant, and answered with an embarrassed
"She's gone to Paris."
Before Piers could recover from his surprise, she had waved to an
empty hansom driving past.
"Think about it," she added, "and write to me. I must do something.
This life of loneliness and idleness is unbearable."
And Piers thought; to little purpose, for his mind was once more
turned to Irene, and it cost him a painful effort to dwell upon
Olga's circumstances. He postponed writing to her, until shame
compelled him, and the letter he at length despatched seemed so
empty, so futile, that he could not bear to think of her reading it.
With astonishment he received an answer so gratefully worded that it
moved his heart. She would reflect on the suggestions he had made;
moreover, as he advised, she would take counsel frankly with the
Doctor; and, whatever was decided, he should hear at once. She
counted on him as a friend, a true friend; in truth, she had no
other. He must continue to write to her, but not often, not more
than once a fortnight or so. And let him be assured that she never
for a moment forgot her lifelong debt to him.
This last sentence referred, no doubt, to her mother's letters. Dr.
Derwent, it seemed, would make no acknowledgment of the service
rendered him by a brother of the man whom he must regard as a
pitiful scoundrel. How abhorred by him must be the name of Otway!
And could it be less hateful to his daughter, to Irene?
The days passed. A pleasant surprise broke the monotony of work and
worry when, one afternoon, the office-boy handed in a card bearing
the name Korolevitch. The Russian was spending a week in London, and
Otway saw him several times; on one occasion they sat talking
together till three in the morning. To Piers this intercourse
brought vast mental relief, and gave him an intellectual impulse of
which he had serious need in his life of solitude, ever tending to
despondency. Korolevitch, on leaving England, volunteered to call
upon Moncharmont at Odessa. He had wool to sell, and why not sell it
to his friends? But he, as well as Piers, looked for profit of
another kind from this happy acquaintance.
It was not long. before Otway made another call upon Miss
Bonnicastle, and at this time, as he had hoped, he found her alone,
working. He led their talk to the subject of Kite.
"You ought to go and see him in his garret," said Miss Bonnicastle.
"He'd like you to."
"Tell me, if you know," threw out the other, looking into her broad,
good-natured face. "Is he still interested in Miss Hannaford?"
"Why, of course! He's one of the stupids who keep up that kind of
thing for a lifetime. But 'he that will not when he may'! Poor silly
fellow! How I should enjoy boxing his ears!"
They laughed, but Miss Bonnicastle seemed very much in earnest.
"He's tormenting his silly self," she went on, "because he has been
unfaithful to her. There was a girl in Paris. Oh, he tells me
everything! We're good friends. The girl over there did him enormous
good, that's all I know. It was she that set him to work, and
supplied him with his model at the same time! What better could have
happened. And now the absurd creature has qualms of conscience!"
"Well," said Piers, smiling uneasily, "it's intelligible."
"Bosh! Don't be silly! A man has his work to do, and he must get
what help he can. I shall pack him off back to Paris."
"I'll go and see him, I think. About the Italian, Florio. Has he
also an interest?"
"In Olga? Yes, I fancy he has, but I don't know much about him. He
comes and goes, on business. There's a chance, I think, of his
dropping in for money before long. He isn't a bad sort--what do
That same afternoon Piers went in search of Kite's garret. It was a
garret literally, furnished with a table and a bed, and little else,
but a large fire burned cheerfully, and on the table, beside a
drawing-board, stood a bottle of wine. When he had welcomed his
visitor, Kite pointed to the bottle.
"I got used to it in Paris," he said, "and it helps me to work. I
shan't offer you any, or you might be made ill; the cheapest claret
on the market, but it reminds me of--of things."
There rose in Otway's mind a suspicion that, to-day at all events,
Kite had found his cheap claret rather too seductive. His face had
an unwonted warmth of colour, and his speech an unusual fluency.
Presently he opened a portfolio and showed some of the work he had
done in Paris: drawings in pen-and-ink, and the published
reproductions of others; these latter, he declared, were much spoilt
in the process work. The motive was always a nude female figure, of
great beauty; the same face, with much variety of expression; for
background all manner of fantastic scenes, or rather glimpses and
suggestions of a poet's dreamland.
"You see what I mean?" said Kite. "It's simply Woman, as a beautiful
thing, as a--a--oh, I can't get it into words. An ideal, you
know--something to live for. Put her in a room--it becomes a
different thing. Do you feel my meaning? English people wouldn't
have these, you know. They don't understand. They call it
"Sensuality!" cried Piers, after dreaming for a moment. "Great
heavens! then why are human bodies made beautiful?"
The artist gave a strange laugh of gratification.
"There you hit it! Why--why? The work of the Devil, they say."
"The worst of it is," said Piers, "that they're right as regards
most men. Beauty, as an inspiration, exists only for the few. Beauty
of any and every kind--it's all the same. There's no safety for
the world as we know it, except in utilitarian morals."
Later, when he looked back upon these winter months, Piers could
distinguish nothing clearly. It was a time of confused and obscure
motives, of oscillation, of dreary conflict, of dull suffering. His
correspondence with Olga, his meetings with her, had no issue. He
made a thousand resolves; a thousand times he lost them. But for the
day's work, which kept him in an even tenor for a certain number of
hours, he must have drifted far and perilously.
It was a life of solitude. The people with whom he talked were mere
ghosts, intangible, not of his world. Sometimes, amid a crowd of
human beings, he was stricken voiceless and motionless: he stared
about him, and was bewildered, asking himself what it all meant.
His health was not good; he suffered much from headaches; he fell
into languors, lassitude of body and soul. As a result, imagination
seemed to be dead in him. The torments of desire were forgotten.
When he beard that Irene Derwent had returned to London, the news
affected him only with a sort of weary curiosity. Was it true that
she would not marry Arnold Jacks? It seemed so. He puzzled over the
story, wondered about it; but only his mind was concerned, never his
Once he was summoned to Queen's Gate. John Jacks lay on a sofa, in
his bedroom; he talked as usual, but in a weaker voice, and had the
face of a man doomed. Piers saw no one else in the house, and on
going away felt that he had been under that roof for the last time.
His mind was oppressed with the thought of death. As happens,
probably, to every imaginative man at one time or another, he had a
conviction that his own days were drawing to a premature close.
Speculation about the future seemed idle; he had come to the end of
hopes and fears. Night after night his broken sleep suffered the
same dream; he saw Mrs. Hannaford, who stretched her hands to him,
and with a face of silent woe seemed to implore his help. Help
against Death; and his powerlessness wrung his heart with anguish.
Waking, he thought of all the women--beautiful, tender, objects of
infinite passion and worship--who even at that moment lay smitten
by the great destroyer; the gentle, the loving, racked, disfigured,
flung into the horror of the grave. And his being rose in revolt; he
strove in silent agony against the dark ruling of the world.
One day there was of tranquil self-possession, of blessed calm. A
Sunday in January, when, he knew not how, he found himself amid the
Sussex lanes, where he had rambled in the time of harvest. The
weather, calm and dry and mild, but without sunshine, soothed his
spirit. He walked for hours, and towards nightfall stood upon a
wooded hill, gazing westward. An overcast, yet not a gloomy sky;
still, soft-dappled; with rifts and shimmerings of pearly blue
scattered among multitudinous billows, which here were a dusky
yellow, there a deep neutral tint. In the low west, beneath the long
dark edge, a soft splendour, figured with airy cloudlets, waited for
the invisible descending sun. Moment after moment the rifts grew
longer, the tones grew warmer; above began to spread a rosy flush;
in front, the glory brightened, touching the cloud-line above it
with a tender crimson.
If all days could be like this! One could live so well, he thought,
in mere enjoyment of the beauty of earth and sky, all else
forgotten. Under this soft-dusking heaven, death was welcome rest,
and passion only a tender sadness.
He said to himself that he had grown old in hopeless love--only to
doubt in the end whether he had loved at all.
The lad he employed in his office was run over by a cab one slippery
day, and all but killed. Piers visited him in the hospital, thus
seeing for the first time the interior of one of those houses of
pain, which he always disliked even to pass. The experience did not
help to brighten his mood; he lacked that fortunate temper of the
average man, which embraces as a positive good the less of two
evils. The long, grey, low-echoing ward, with its atmosphere of
antiseptics; the rows of little white camp-beds, an ominous screen
hiding this and that; the bloodless faces, the smothered groan, made
a memory that went about with him for many a day.
It strengthened his growing hatred of London, a huge battlefield
calling itself the home of civilisation and of peace; battlefield on
which the wounds were of soul no less than of body. In these gaunt
streets along which he passed at night, how many a sad heart
suffered, by the dim glimmer that showed at upper windows, a
hopeless solitude amid the innumerable throng! Human cattle, the
herd that feed and breed, with them it was well; but the few born to
a desire for ever unattainable, the gentle spirits who from their
prisoning circumstance looked up and afar how the heart ached to
think of them! Some girl, of delicate instinct, of purpose sweet and
pure, wasting her unloved life in toil and want and indignity; some
man, whose youth and courage strove against a mean environment,
whose eyes grew haggard in the vain search for a companion promised
in his dreams; they lived, these two, parted perchance only by the
wall of neighbour houses, yet all huge London was between them, and
their hands would never touch. Beside this hunger for love, what was
the stomach-famine of a multitude that knew no other?
The spring drew nigh, and Otway dreaded its coming. It was the time
of his burning torment, of imagination traitor to the worthier mind;
it was the time of reverie that rapt him above everything ignoble,
only to embitter by contrast the destiny he could not break. He rose
now with the early sun; walked fast and far before the beginning of
his day's work, with an aim he knew to be foolish, yet could not
abandon. From Guildford Street, along the byways, he crossed
Tottenham Court Road, just rattling with its first traffic, crossed
Portland Place, still in its soundest sleep, and so onward till he
touched Bryanston Square. The trees were misty with half-unfolded
leafage birds twittered cheerily among the branches; but Piers
heeded not these things. He stood before the high narrow-fronted
house, which once he had entered as a guest, where never again would
he be suffered to pass the door. Irene was here, he supposed, but
could not be sure, for on the rare occasions when he saw Olga
Hannaford they did not speak of her cousin. Of the course her life
had taken, he knew nothing whatever. Here, in the chill bright
morning, he felt more a stranger to Irene than on the day, six years
ago, when with foolish timidity he ventured his useless call. She
was merely indifferent to him then; now she shrank from the sound of
On such a morning, a few weeks later, he pursued his walk in the
direction of Kensington, and passed along Queen's Gate. It was
between seven and eight o'clock. Nearing John Jacks house, he saw a
carriage at the door; it could of course be only the doctor's, and
he became sad in thinking of his kind old friend, for whom the last
days of life were made so hard. Just as he was passing, the door
opened, and a man, evidently a doctor, came quickly forth. With
movement as if he were here for this purpose, Otway ran up the
steps; the servant saw him, and waited with the door still open.
"Will you tell me how Mr. Jacks is?" he asked.
"I am sorry to say, sir," was the subdued answer, "that Mr. Jacks
died at three this morning."
Piers turned away. His eyes dazzled in the sunshine.
The evening papers had the news, with a short memoir--half of
which was concerned not with John Jacks, but with his son Arnold.
It seemed to him just possible that he might receive an invitation
to attend the funeral; but nothing of the kind came to him. The
slight, he took it for granted, was not social, but personal. His
name, of course, was offensive to Arnold Jacks, and probably to Mrs.
John Jacks; only the genial old man had disregarded the scandal
shadowing the Otway name.
On the morrow, it was made known that the deceased Member of
Parliament would be buried in Yorkshire, in the village churchyard
which was on his own estate. And Otway felt glad of this; the sombre
and crowded hideousness of a London cemetery was no place of rest
for John Jacks.
A fortnight later, at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, Piers
mounted with a quick stride the stairs leading to Miss Bonnicastle's
abode. The door of her workroom stood ajar; his knock brought no
response; after hesitating a little, he pushed the door open and
Accustomed to the grotesques and vulgarities which generally met his
eye upon these walls, he was startled to behold a life-size figure
of great beauty, suggesting a study for a serious work of art rather
than a design for a street poster. It was a woman, in classic
drapery, standing upon the seashore, her head thrown back, her
magnificent hair flowing unrestrained, and one of her bare arms
raised in a gesture of exultation. As he gazed at the drawing with
delight, Miss Bonnicastle appeared from the inner room, dressed for
"What do you think of _that_?" she exclaimed.
"Better than anything you ever did!"
"True enough! That's Kite. Don't you recognise his type?"
"One thinks of Ariadne," said Piers, "but the face won't do for
"Yes, it's Ariadne--but I doubt if I shall have the brutality to
finish out my idea. She is to have lying on the sand by her a case
of Higginson's Hair-wash, stranded from a wreck, and a bottle of it
in her hand. See the notion? Her despair consoled by discovery of
They laughed, but Piers broke off in half-serious anger.
"That's damnable! You won't do it. For one thing, the mob wouldn't
understand. And in heaven's name do spare the old stories! I'm
amazed that Kite should consent to it."
"Poor old fellow!" said Miss Bonnicastle, with an indulgent smile,
"he'll do anything a woman asks of him. But I shan't have the heart
to spoil it with Higginson; I know I shan't."
"After all," Piers replied, "I don't know why you shouldn't. What's
the use of our scruples? That's the doom of everything beautiful."
"We'll talk about it another time. I can't stop now. I have an
appointment. Stay here if you like, and worship Ariadne. I shouldn't
wonder if Olga looks round this morning, and it'll disappoint her if
there's nobody here."
Piers was embarrassed. He had asked Olga to meet him, and wondered
whether Miss Bonnicastle knew of it. But she spared him the
necessity of any remark by speeding away at once, bidding him slam
the door on the latch when he departed.
In less than ten minutes, there sounded a knock without, and Piers
threw the door open. It was Olga, breathing rapidly after her ascent
of the stairs, and a startled look in her eyes as she found herself
face to face with Otway. He explained his being here alone.
"It is kind of you to have come!"
"Oh, I have enjoyed the walk. A delicious morning! And how happy one
feels when the church bells suddenly stop!"
"I have often known that feeling," said Piers merrily. "Isn't it
wonderful, how London manages to make things detestable which are
pleasant in other places! The bells in the country!--But sit down.
You look tired----"
She seated herself, and her eyes turned to the beautiful figure on
the wall. Piers watched her countenance.
"You have seen it already?" he said.
"A few days ago."
"You know who did it?"
"Mr. Kite, I am told," she answered absently. "And," she added,
after a pause, "I think he disgraced himself by lending his art to
such a purpose."
Piers said nothing, and looked away to hide his smile of pleasure.
"I asked you to come," were his next words, "to show you a letter I
have had from John Jacks' solicitors."
Glancing at him with surprise, Olga took the letter he held out, and
read it. In this communication, Piers Otway was informed that the
will of the late Mr. Jacks bequeathed to him the capital which the
testator had invested in the firm of Moncharmont & Co., and the
share in the business which it represented.
"This is important to you," said the girl, after reflecting for a
moment, her eyes down.
"Yes, it is important," Piers answered, in a voice not quite under
control. "It means that, if I choose, I can live without working at
the business. Just live; no more, at present, though it may mean
more in the future. Things have gone well with us, for a beginning;
much better than I, at all events, expected. What I should like to
do, now, would be to find a man to take my place in London. I know
someone who, just possibly, might be willing--a man at Liverpool."
"Isn't it a risk?" said Olga, regarding him with shamefaced anxiety.
"I don't think so. If _I_ could do so well, almost an real man of
business would be sure to do better. Moncharmont, you know, is the
indispensable member of the firm."
"And--what would you do? Go abroad, I suppose?"
"For a time, at all events. Possibly to Russia--I have a purpose
--too vague to speak of yet--I should frighten myself if I spoke
of it. But it all depends upon----" He broke off, unable to command
his voice. A moment's silence, during which he stared at the woman
on the wall, and he could speak again. "I can't go alone. I can't do
--can't think of--anything seriously, whilst I am maddened by
Olga sat with her head bent. He drew nearer to her.
"It depends upon you. I want you for my companion--for my wife
She looked him in the face--a strange, agitated, half-defiant
"I don't think that is true! You don't want _me_----"
"You! Yes, you, Olga! And only you!"
"I don't believe it. You mean--any woman." Her voice all but
choked. "If that one"--she pointed to the wall--"could step
towards you, you would as soon have her. You would _rather_, because
she is more beautiful."
"Not in my eyes!" He seized her hand, and said, half laughing,
shaken with the moment's fever, "Come and stand beside her, and let
me see how the real living woman makes pale the ideal!"
Flushing, trembling at his touch, she rose. Her lips parted; she had
all but spoken; when there came a loud knock at the door of the
room. Their hands fell, and they gazed at each other in
"Silence!" whispered Otway. "No reply!"
He stepped softly to the door; silently he turned the key in the
lock. No sooner had he done so, than someone without tried the
handle; the door was shaken a little, and there sounded another
knock, loud, peremptory. Piers moved to Olga's side, smiled at her
reassuringly, tried to take her hand; but, with a frightened glance
towards the door, she shrank away.
Two minutes of dead silence; then Otway spoke just above his breath.
"Gone! Didn't you hear the footstep on the stairs?"
Had she just escaped some serious peril, Olga could not have worn a
more agitated look. Her hand resisted Otway's approach; she would
not seat herself, but moved nervously hither and thither, her eyes
constantly turning to the door. It was in vain that Piers laughed at
the incident, asking what it could possibly matter to them that some
person had wished to see Miss Bonnicastle, and had gone away
thinking no one was within; Olga made a show of assenting, she
smiled and pretended to recover herself, but was still tremulous and
unable to converse.
He took her hands, held them firmly, compelled her to meet his look.
"Let us have an end of this, Olga! Your life is unhappy--let me
help you to forget. And help _me_! I want your love. Come to me--
we can help each other--put an end to this accursed loneliness,
this longing and raging that eats one's heart away!"
She suffered him to hold her close--her head bent back, the eyes
half veiled by their lids.
"Give me one day--to think----"
"Not one hour, not one minute! Now!"
"Because you are stronger than I am, that doesn't make me really
yours." She spoke in stress of spirit, her eyes wide and fearful.
"If I said 'yes,' I might break my promise. I warn you! I can't
trust myself--I warn you not to trust me!"
"I will take the risk!"
"I have warned you. Yes, yes! I will try!--Let me go now, and stay
here till I have gone. I _must_ go now!" She shook with hysterical
passion. "Else I take back my promise!--I will see you in two
days; not here; I will think of some place."
She drew towards the exit, and when her one hand was on the key,
Piers, with sudden self-subdual, spoke.
"You have promised!"
"Yes, I will write very soon."
With a look of gratitude, a smile all but of tenderness, she passed
from his sight.
On the pavement, she looked this way and that. Fifty yards away, on
the other side of the street, a well-dressed man stood supporting
himself on his umbrella, as if he had been long waiting; though to
her shortness of sight the figure was featureless, Olga trembled as
she perceived it, and started at a rapid walk towards the cabstand
at the top of the street. Instantly, the man made after her, almost
running. He caught her up before she could approach the vehicles.
"So you were there! Something told me you were there!"
"What do you mean, Mr. Florio?"
The man was raging with jealous anger; trying to smile, he showed
his teeth in a mere grin, and sputtered his words.
"The door was shut with the key! Why was that?"
"You mustn't speak to me in this way," said Olga, with troubled
remonstrance rather than indignation. "When I visit my friend, we
don't always care to be disturbed-----"
"Ha! Your friend--Miss Bonnicastle--was _not_ there! I have seen
her in Oxford Street! She said no one was there this morning, but I
Whilst speaking, he kept a look turned in the direction of the house
from which Olga had come. And of a sudden his eyes lit with fierce
"See! Something told me! _That_ is your friend!"
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