Marian was at work as usual in the Reading-room. She did her best, during the hours spent here, to convert herself into the literary machine which it was her hope would some day be invented for construction in a less sensitive material than human tissue. Her eyes seldom strayed beyond the limits of the desk; and if she had occasion to rise and go to the reference shelves, she looked at no one on the way. Yet she herself was occasionally an object of interested regard. Several readers were acquainted with the chief facts of her position; they knew that her father was now incapable of work, and was waiting till his diseased eyes should be ready for the operator; it was surmised, moreover, that a good deal depended upon the girl’s literary exertions. Mr Quarmby and his gossips naturally took the darkest view of things; they were convinced that Alfred Yule could never recover his sight, and they had a dolorous satisfaction in relating the story of Marian’s legacy. Of her relations with Jasper Milvain none of these persons had heard; Yule had never spoken of that matter to any one of his friends. Jasper had to look in this morning for a hurried consultation of certain encyclopaedic volumes, and it chanced that Marian was standing before the shelves to which his business led him. He saw her from a little distance, and paused; it seemed as if he would turn back; for a moment he wore a look of doubt and worry. But after all he proceeded. At the sound of his ‘Good-morning,’ Marian started – she was standing with an open book in hand – and looked up with a gleam of joy on her face.
‘I wanted to see you to-day,’ she said, subduing her voice to the tone of ordinary conversation. ‘I should have come this evening.’
‘You wouldn’t have found me at home. From five to seven I shall be frantically busy, and then I have to rush off to dine with some people.’
‘I couldn’t see you before five?’
‘Is it something important?’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘I tell you what. If you could meet me at Gloucester Gate at four, then I shall be glad of half an hour in the park. But I mustn’t talk now; I’m driven to my wits’ end. Gloucester Gate, at four sharp. I don’t think it’ll rain.’
He dragged out a tome of the ‘Britannica.’ Marian nodded, and returned to her seat.
At the appointed hour she was waiting near the entrance of Regent’s Park which Jasper had mentioned. Not long ago there had fallen a light shower, but the sky was clear again. At five minutes past four she still waited, and had begun to fear that the passing rain might have led Jasper to think she would not come. Another five minutes, and from a hansom that rattled hither at full speed, the familiar figure alighted.
‘Do forgive me!’ he exclaimed. ‘I couldn’t possibly get here before. Let us go to the right.’
They betook themselves to that tree-shadowed strip of the park which skirts the canal.
‘I’m so afraid that you haven’t really time,’ said Marian, who was chilled and confused by this show of hurry. She regretted having made the appointment; it would have been much better to postpone what she had to say until Jasper was at leisure. Yet nowadays the hours of leisure seemed to come so rarely.
‘If I get home at five, it’ll be all right,’ he replied. ‘What have you to tell me, Marian?’
‘We have heard about the money, at last.’
‘Oh?’ He avoided looking at her. ‘And what’s the upshot?’
‘I shall have nearly fifteen hundred pounds.’
‘So much as that? Well, that’s better than nothing, isn’t it?’
‘Very much better.’
They walked on in silence. Marian stole a glance at her companion.
‘I should have thought it a great deal,’ she said presently, ‘before I had begun to think of thousands.’
‘Fifteen hundred. Well, it means fifty pounds a year, I suppose.’
He chewed the end of his moustache.
‘Let us sit down on this bench. Fifteen hundred – h’m! And nothing more is to be hoped for?’
‘Nothing. I should have thought men would wish to pay their debts, even after they had been bankrupt; but they tell us we can’t expect anything more from these people.’
‘You are thinking of Walter Scott, and that kind of thing’ – Jasper laughed. ‘Oh, that’s quite unbusinesslike; it would be setting a pernicious example nowadays. Well, and what’s to be done?’
Marian had no answer for such a question. The tone of it was a new stab to her heart, which had suffered so many during the past half-year.
‘Now, I’ll ask you frankly,’ Jasper went on, ‘and I know you will reply in the same spirit: would it be wise for us to marry on this money?’
‘On this money?’
She looked into his face with painful earnestness.
‘You mean,’ he said, ‘that it can’t be spared for that purpose?’
What she really meant was uncertain even to herself. She had wished to hear how Jasper would receive the news, and thereby to direct her own course. Had he welcomed it as offering a possibility of their marriage, that would have gladdened her, though it would then have been necessary to show him all the difficulties by which she was beset; for some time they had not spoken of her father’s position, and Jasper seemed willing to forget all about that complication of their troubles. But marriage did not occur to him, and he was evidently quite prepared to hear that she could no longer regard this money as her own to be freely disposed of. This was on one side a relief but on the other it confirmed her fears. She would rather have heard him plead with her to neglect her parents for the sake of being his wife. Love excuses everything, and his selfishness would have been easily lost sight of in the assurance that he still desired her.
‘You say,’ she replied, with bent head, ‘that it would bring us fifty pounds a year. If another fifty were added to that, my father and mother would be supported in case the worst comes. I might earn fifty pounds.’
‘You wish me to understand, Marian, that I mustn’t expect that you will bring me anything when we are married.’
His tone was that of acquiescence; not by any means of displeasure. He spoke as if desirous of saying for her something she found a difficulty in saying for herself.
‘Jasper, it is so hard for me! So hard for me! How could I help remembering what you told me when I promised to be your wife?’
‘I spoke the truth rather brutally,’ he replied, in a kind voice. ‘Let all that be unsaid, forgotten. We are in quite a different position now. Be open with me, Marian; surely you can trust my common sense and good feeling. Put aside all thought of things I have said, and don’t be restrained by any fear lest you should seem to me unwomanly – you can’t be that. What is your own wish? What do you really wish to do, now that there is no uncertainty calling for postponements?’
Marian raised her eyes, and was about to speak as she regarded him; but with the first accent her look fell.
‘I wish to be your wife.’
He waited, thinking and struggling with himself.
‘Yet you feel that it would be heartless to take and use this money for our own purposes?’
‘What is to become of my parents, Jasper?’
‘But then you admit that the fifteen hundred pounds won’t support them. You talk of earning fifty pounds a year for them.’
‘Need I cease to write, dear, if we were married? Wouldn’t you let me help them?’
‘But, my dear girl, you are taking for granted that we shall have enough for ourselves.’
‘I didn’t mean at once,’ she explained hurriedly. ‘In a short time – in a year. You are getting on so well. You will soon have a sufficient income, I am sure.’
‘Let us walk as far as the next seat. Don’t speak. I have something to think about.’
Moving on beside him, she slipped her hand softly within his arm; but Jasper did not put the arm into position to support hers, and her hand fell again, dropped suddenly. They reached another bench, and again became seated.
‘It comes to this, Marian,’ he said, with portentous gravity. ‘Support you, I could – I have little doubt of that. Maud is provided for, and Dora can make a living for herself. I could support you and leave you free to give your parents whatever you can earn by your own work. But – ’
He paused significantly. It was his wish that Marian should supply the consequence, but she did not speak.
‘Very well,’ he exclaimed. ‘Then when are we to be married?’
The tone of resignation was too marked. Jasper was not good as a comedian; he lacked subtlety.
‘We must wait,’ fell from Marian’s lips, in the whisper of despair.
‘Wait? But how long?’ he inquired, dispassionately.
‘Do you wish to be freed from your engagement, Jasper?’
He was not strong enough to reply with a plain ‘Yes,’ and so have done with his perplexities. He feared the girl’s face, and he feared his own subsequent emotions.
‘Don’t talk in that way, Marian. The question is simply this: Are we to wait a year, or are we to wait five years? In a year’s time, I shall probably be able to have a small house somewhere out in the suburbs. If we are married then, I shall be happy enough with so good a wife, but my career will take a different shape. I shall just throw overboard certain of my ambitions, and work steadily on at earning a livelihood. If we wait five years, I may perhaps have obtained an editorship, and in that case I should of course have all sorts of better things to offer you.’
‘But, dear, why shouldn’t you get an editorship all the same if you are married?’
‘I have explained to you several times that success of that kind is not compatible with a small house in the suburbs and all the ties of a narrow income. As a bachelor, I can go about freely, make acquaintances, dine at people’s houses, perhaps entertain a useful friend now and then – and so on. It is not merit that succeeds in my line; it is merit plus opportunity. Marrying now, I cut myself off from opportunity, that’s all.’
She kept silence.
‘Decide my fate for me, Marian,’ he pursued, magnanimously. ‘Let us make up our minds and do what we decide to do. Indeed, it doesn’t concern me so much as yourself. Are you content to lead a simple, unambitious life? Or should you prefer your husband to be a man of some distinction?’
‘I know so well what your own wish is. But to wait for years – you will cease to love me, and will only think of me as a hindrance in your way.’
‘Well now, when I said five years, of course I took a round number. Three – two might make all the difference to me.’
‘Let it be just as you wish. I can bear anything rather than lose your love.’
‘You feel, then, that it will decidedly be wise not to marry whilst we are still so poor?’
‘Yes; whatever you are convinced of is right.’
He again rose, and looked at his watch.
‘Jasper, you don’t think that I have behaved selfishly in wishing to let my father have the money?’
‘I should have been greatly surprised if you hadn’t wished it. I certainly can’t imagine you saying: "Oh, let them do as best they can!" That would have been selfish with a vengeance.’
‘Now you are speaking kindly! Must you go, Jasper?’
‘I must indeed. Two hours’ work I am bound to get before seven o’clock.’
‘And I have been making it harder for you, by disturbing your mind.’
‘No, no; it’s all right now. I shall go at it with all the more energy, now we have come to a decision.’
‘Dora has asked me to go to Kew on Sunday. Shall you be able to come, dear?’
‘By Jove, no! I have three engagements on Sunday afternoon. I’ll try and keep the Sunday after; I will indeed.’
‘What are the engagements?’ she asked timidly.
As they walked back towards Gloucester Gate, he answered her question, showing how unpardonable it would be to neglect the people concerned. Then they parted, Jasper going off at a smart pace homewards.
Marian turned down Park Street, and proceeded for some distance along Camden Road. The house in which she and her parents now lived was not quite so far away as St Paul’s Crescent; they rented four rooms, one of which had to serve both as Alfred Yule’s sitting-room and for the gatherings of the family at meals. Mrs Yule generally sat in the kitchen, and Marian used her bedroom as a study. About half the collection of books had been sold; those that remained were still a respectable library, almost covering the walls of the room where their disconsolate possessor passed his mournful days.
He could read for a few hours a day, but only large type, and fear of consequences kept him well within the limit of such indulgence laid down by his advisers. Though he inwardly spoke as if his case were hopeless, Yule was very far from having resigned himself to this conviction; indeed, the prospect of spending his latter years in darkness and idleness was too dreadful to him to be accepted so long as a glimmer of hope remained. He saw no reason why the customary operation should not restore him to his old pursuits, and he would have borne it ill if his wife or daughter had ever ceased to oppose the despair which it pleased him to affect.
On the whole, he was noticeably patient. At the time of their removal to these lodgings, seeing that Marian prepared herself to share the change as a matter of course, he let her do as she would without comment; nor had he since spoken to her on the subject which had proved so dangerous. Confidence between them there was none; Yule addressed his daughter in a grave, cold, civil tone, and Marian replied gently, but without tenderness. For Mrs Yule the disaster to the family was distinctly a gain; she could not but mourn her husband’s affliction, yet he no longer visited her with the fury or contemptuous impatience of former days. Doubtless the fact of needing so much tendance had its softening influence on the man; he could not turn brutally upon his wife when every hour of the day afforded him some proof of her absolute devotion. Of course his open-air exercise was still unhindered, and in this season of the returning sun he walked a great deal, decidedly to the advantage of his general health – which again must have been a source of benefit to his temper. Of evenings, Marian sometimes read to him. He never requested this, but he did not reject the kindness.
This afternoon Marian found her father examining a volume of prints which had been lent him by Mr Quarmby. The table was laid for dinner (owing to Marian’s frequent absence at the Museum, no change had been made in the order of meals), and Yule sat by the window, his book propped on a second chair. A whiteness in his eyes showed how the disease was progressing, but his face had a more wholesome colour than a year ago.
‘Mr Hinks and Mr Gorbutt inquired very kindly after you to-day,’ said the girl, as she seated herself.
‘Oh, is Hinks out again?’
‘Yes, but he looks very ill.’
They conversed of such matters until Mrs Yule – now her own servant – brought in the dinner. After the meal, Marian was in her bedroom for about an hour; then she went to her father, who sat in idleness, smoking.
‘What is your mother doing?’ he asked, as she entered.
‘I had perhaps better say’ – he spoke rather stiffly, and with averted face – ’that I make no exclusive claim to the use of this room. As I can no longer pretend to study, it would be idle to keep up the show of privacy that mustn’t be disturbed. Perhaps you will mention to your mother that she is quite at liberty to sit here whenever she chooses.’
It was characteristic of him that he should wish to deliver this permission by proxy. But Marian understood how much was implied in such an announcement.
‘I will tell mother,’ she said. ‘But at this moment I wished to speak to you privately. How would you advise me to invest my money?’
Yule looked surprised, and answered with cold dignity.
‘It is strange that you should put such a question to me. I should have supposed your interests were in the hands of – of some competent person.’
‘This will be my private affair, father. I wish to get as high a rate of interest as I safely can.’
‘I really must decline to advise, or interfere in any way. But, as you have introduced this subject, I may as well put a question which is connected with it. Could you give me any idea as to how long you are likely to remain with us?’
‘At least a year,’ was the answer, ‘and very likely much longer.’
‘Am I to understand, then, that your marriage is indefinitely postponed?’
‘And will you tell me why?’
‘I can only say that it has seemed better – to both of us.’
Yule detected the sorrowful emotion she was endeavouring to suppress. His conception of Milvain’s character made it easy for him to form a just surmise as to the reasons for this postponement; he was gratified to think that Marian might learn how rightly he had judged her wooer, and an involuntary pity for the girl did not prevent his hoping that the detestable alliance was doomed. With difficulty he refrained from smiling.
‘I will make no comment on that,’ he remarked, with a certain emphasis. ‘But do you imply that this investment of which you speak is to be solely for your own advantage?’
‘For mine, and for yours and mother’s.’
There was a silence of a minute or two. As yet it had not been necessary to take any steps for raising money, but a few months more would see the family without resources, save those provided by Marian, who, without discussion, had been simply setting aside what she received for her work.
‘You must be well aware,’ said Yule at length, ‘that I cannot consent to benefit by any such offer. When it is necessary, I shall borrow on the security of – ’
‘Why should you do that, father?’ Marian interrupted. ‘My money is yours. If you refuse it as a gift, then why may not I lend to you as well as a stranger? Repay me when your eyes are restored. For the present, all our anxieties are at an end. We can live very well until you are able to write again.’
For his sake she put it in his way. Supposing him never able to earn anything, then indeed would come a time of hardship; but she could not contemplate that. The worst would only befall them in case she was forsaken by Jasper, and if that happened all else would be of little account.
‘This has come upon me as a surprise,’ said Yule, in his most reserved tone. ‘I can give no definite reply; I must think of it.’
‘Should you like me to ask mother to bring her sewing here now?’ asked Marian, rising.
‘Yes, you may do so.’
In this way the awkwardness of the situation was overcome, and when Marian next had occasion to speak of money matters no serious objection was offered to her proposal.
Dora Milvain of course learnt what had come to pass; to anticipate criticism, her brother imparted to her the decision at which Marian and he had arrived. She reflected with an air of discontent.
‘So you are quite satisfied,’ was her question at length, ‘that Marian should toil to support her parents as well as herself?’
‘Can I help it?’
‘I shall think very ill of you if you don’t marry her in a year at latest.’
‘I tell you, Marian has made a deliberate choice. She understands me perfectly, and is quite satisfied with my projects. You will have the kindness, Dora, not to disturb her faith in me.’
‘I agree to that; and in return I shall let you know when she begins to suffer from hunger. It won’t be very long till then, you may be sure. How do you suppose three people are going to live on a hundred a year? And it’s very doubtful indeed whether Marian can earn as much as fifty pounds. Never mind; I shall let you know when she is beginning to starve, and doubtless that will amuse you.’
At the end of July Maud was married. Between Mr Dolomore and Jasper existed no superfluous kindness, each resenting the other’s self-sufficiency; but Jasper, when once satisfied of his proposed brother-in-law’s straightforwardness, was careful not to give offence to a man who might some day serve him. Provided this marriage resulted in moderate happiness to Maud, it was undoubtedly a magnificent stroke of luck. Mrs Lane, the lady who has so often been casually mentioned, took upon herself those offices in connection with the ceremony which the bride’s mother is wont to perform; at her house was held the wedding-breakfast, and such other absurdities of usage as recommend themselves to Society. Dora of course played the part of a bridesmaid, and Jasper went through his duties with the suave seriousness of a man who has convinced himself that he cannot afford to despise anything that the world sanctions.
About the same time occurred another event which was to have more importance for this aspiring little family than could as yet be foreseen. Whelpdale’s noteworthy idea triumphed; the weekly paper called Chat was thoroughly transformed, and appeared as Chit-Chat. From the first number, the success of the enterprise was beyond doubt; in a month’s time all England was ringing with the fame of this noble new development of journalism; the proprietor saw his way to a solid fortune, and other men who had money to embark began to scheme imitative publications. It was clear that the quarter-educated would soon be abundantly provided with literature to their taste.
Whelpdale’s exultation was unbounded, but in the fifth week of the life of Chit-Chat something happened which threatened to overturn his sober reason. Jasper was walking along the Strand one afternoon, when he saw his ingenious friend approaching him in a manner scarcely to be accounted for, unless Whelpdale’s abstemiousness had for once given way before convivial invitation. The young man’s hat was on the back of his head, and his coat flew wildly as he rushed forwards with perspiring face and glaring eyes. He would have passed without observing Jasper, had not the latter called to him; then he turned round, laughed insanely, grasped his acquaintance by the wrists, and drew him aside into a court.
‘What do you think?’ he panted. ‘What do you think has happened?’
‘Not what one would suppose, I hope. You seem to have gone mad.’
‘I’ve got Lake’s place on Chit-Chat!’ cried the other hoarsely. ‘Two hundred and fifty a year! Lake and the editor quarrelled – pummelled each other – neither know nor care what it was about. My fortune’s made!’
‘You’re a modest man,’ remarked Jasper, smiling.
‘Certainly I am. I have always admitted it. But remember that there’s my connection with Fleet as well; no need to give that up. Presently I shall be making a clear six hundred, my dear sir!
A clear six hundred, if a penny!’
‘Satisfactory, so far.’
‘But you must remember that I’m not a big gun, like you! Why, my dear Milvain, a year ago I should have thought an income of two hundred a glorious competence. I don’t aim at such things as are fit for you. You won’t be content till you have thousands; of course I know that. But I’m a humble fellow. Yet no; by Jingo, I’m not! In one way I’m not – I must confess it.’
‘In what instance are you arrogant?’
‘I can’t tell you – not yet; this is neither time nor place. I say, when will you dine with me? I shall give a dinner to half a dozen of my acquaintances somewhere or other. Poor old Biffen must come. When can you dine?’
‘Give me a week’s notice, and I’ll fit it in.’
That dinner came duly off. On the day that followed, Jasper and Dora left town for their holiday; they went to the Channel Islands, and spent more than half of the three weeks they had allowed themselves in Sark. Passing over from Guernsey to that island, they were amused to see a copy of Chit-Chat in the hands of an obese and well-dressed man.
‘Is he one of the quarter-educated?’ asked Dora, laughing.
‘Not in Whelpdale’s sense of the word. But, strictly speaking, no doubt he is. The quarter-educated constitute a very large class indeed; how large, the huge success of that paper is demonstrating. I’ll write to Whelpdale, and let him know that his benefaction has extended even to Sark.’
This letter was written, and in a few days there came a reply.
‘Why, the fellow has written to you as well!’ exclaimed Jasper, taking up a second letter; both were on the table of their sitting-room when they came to their lodgings for lunch. ‘That’s his hand.’
‘It looks like it.’
Dora hummed an air as she regarded the envelope, then she took it away with her to her room upstairs.
‘What had he to say?’ Jasper inquired, when she came down again and seated herself at the table.
‘Oh, a friendly letter. What does he say to you?’
Dora had never looked so animated and fresh of colour since leaving London; her brother remarked this, and was glad to think that the air of the Channel should be doing her so much good. He read Whelpdale’s letter aloud; it was facetious, but oddly respectful.
‘The reverence that fellow has for me is astonishing,’ he observed with a laugh. ‘The queer thing is, it increases the better he knows me.’
Dora laughed for five minutes.
‘Oh, what a splendid epigram!’ she exclaimed. ‘It is indeed a queer thing, Jasper! Did you mean that to be a good joke, or was it better still by coming out unintentionally?’
‘You are in remarkable spirits, old girl. By-the-by, would you mind letting me see that letter of yours?’
He held out his hand.
‘I left it upstairs,’ Dora replied carelessly.
‘Rather presumptuous in him, it seems to me.’
‘Oh, he writes quite as respectfully to me as he does to you,’ she returned, with a peculiar smile.
‘But what business has he to write at all? It’s confounded impertinence, now I come to think of it. I shall give him a hint to remember his position.’
Dora could not be quite sure whether he spoke seriously or not. As both of them had begun to eat with an excellent appetite, a few moments were allowed to pass before the girl again spoke.
‘His position is as good as ours,’ she said at length.
‘As good as ours? The "sub." of a paltry rag like Chit-Chat, and assistant to a literary agency!’
‘He makes considerably more money than we do.’
‘Money! What’s money?’
Dora was again mirthful.
‘Oh, of course money is nothing! We write for honour and glory. Don’t forget to insist on that when you reprove Mr Whelpdale; no doubt it will impress him.’
Late in the evening of that day, when the brother and sister had strolled by moonlight up to the windmill which occupies the highest point of Sark, and as they stood looking upon the pale expanse of sea, dotted with the gleam of light-houses near and far, Dora broke the silence to say quietly:
‘I may as well tell you that Mr Whelpdale wants to know if I will marry him.’
‘The deuce he does!’ cried Jasper, with a start. ‘If I didn’t half suspect something of that kind! What astounding impudence!’
‘You seriously think so?’
‘Well, don’t you? You hardly know him, to begin with. And then – oh, confound it!’
‘Very well, I’ll tell him that his impudence astonishes me.’
‘Certainly. Of course in civil terms. But don’t let this make any difference between you and him. Just pretend to know nothing about it; no harm is done.’
‘You are speaking in earnest?’
‘Quite. He has written in a very proper way, and there’s no reason whatever to disturb our friendliness with him. I have a right to give directions in a matter like this, and you’ll please to obey them.’
Before going to bed Dora wrote a letter to Mr Whelpdale, not, indeed, accepting his offer forthwith, but conveying to him with much gracefulness an unmistakable encouragement to persevere. This was posted on the morrow, and its writer continued to benefit most remarkably by the sun and breezes and rock-scrambling of Sark.
Soon after their return to London, Dora had the satisfaction of paying the first visit to her sister at the Dolomores’ house in Ovington Square. Maud was established in the midst of luxuries, and talked with laughing scorn of the days when she inhabited Grub Street; her literary tastes were henceforth to serve as merely a note of distinction, an added grace which made evident her superiority to the well-attired and smooth-tongued people among whom she was content to shine. On the one hand, she had contact with the world of fashionable literature, on the other with that of fashionable ignorance. Mrs Lane’s house was a meeting-point of the two spheres.
‘I shan’t be there very often,’ remarked Jasper, as Dora and he discussed their sister’s magnificence. ‘That’s all very well in its way, but I aim at something higher.’
‘So do I,’ Dora replied.
‘I’m very glad to hear that. I confess it seemed to me that you were rather too cordial with Whelpdale yesterday.’
‘One must behave civilly. Mr Whelpdale quite understands me.’
‘You are sure of that? He didn’t seem quite so gloomy as he ought to have been.’
‘The success of Chit-Chat keeps him in good spirits.’
It was perhaps a week after this that Mrs Dolomore came quite unexpectedly to the house by Regent’s Park, as early as eleven o’clock in the morning. She had a long talk in private with Dora. Jasper was not at home; when he returned towards evening, Dora came to his room with a countenance which disconcerted him.
‘Is it true,’ she asked abruptly, standing before him with her hands strained together, ‘that you have been representing yourself as no longer engaged to Marian?’
‘Who has told you so?’
‘That doesn’t matter. I have heard it, and I want to know from you that it is false.’
Jasper thrust his hands into his pockets and walked apart.
‘I can take no notice,’ he said with indifference, ‘of anonymous gossip.’
‘Well, then, I will tell you how I have heard. Maud came this morning, and told me that Mrs Betterton had been asking her about it. Mrs Betterton had heard from Mrs Lane.’
‘From Mrs Lane? And from whom did she hear, pray?’
‘That I don’t know. Is it true or not?’
‘I have never told anyone that my engagement was at an end,’ replied Jasper, deliberately.
The girl met his eyes.
‘Then I was right,’ she said. ‘Of course I told Maud that it was impossible to believe this for a moment. But how has it come to be said?’
‘You might as well ask me how any lie gets into circulation among people of that sort. I have told you the truth, and there’s an end of it.’
Dora lingered for a while, but left the room without saying anything more.
She sat up late, mostly engaged in thinking, though at times an open book was in her hand. It was nearly half-past twelve when a very light rap at the door caused her to start. She called, and Jasper came in.
‘Why are you still up?’ he asked, avoiding her look as he moved forward and took a leaning attitude behind an easy-chair.
‘Oh, I don’t know. Do you want anything?’
There was a pause; then Jasper said in an unsteady voice:
‘I am not given to lying, Dora, and I feel confoundedly uncomfortable about what I said to you early this evening. I didn’t lie in the ordinary sense; it’s true enough that I have never told anyone that my engagement was at an end. But I have acted as if it were, and it’s better I should tell you.’
His sister gazed at him with indignation.
‘You have acted as if you were free?’
‘Yes. I have proposed to Miss Rupert. How Mrs Lane and that lot have come to know anything about this I don’t understand. I am not aware of any connecting link between them and the Ruperts, or the Barlows either. Perhaps there are none; most likely the rumour has no foundation in their knowledge. Still, it is better that I should have told you. Miss Rupert has never heard that I was engaged, nor have her friends the Barlows – at least I don’t see how they could have done. She may have told Mrs Barlow of my proposal – probably would; and this may somehow have got round to those other people. But Maud didn’t make any mention of Miss Rupert, did she?’
Dora replied with a cold negative.
‘Well, there’s the state of things. It isn’t pleasant, but that’s what I have done.’
‘Do you mean that Miss Rupert has accepted you?’
‘No. I wrote to her. She answered that she was going to Germany for a few weeks, and that I should have her reply whilst she was away. I am waiting.’
‘But what name is to be given to behaviour such as this?’
‘Listen: didn’t you know perfectly well that this must be the end of it?’
‘Do you suppose I thought you utterly shameless and cruel beyond words?’
‘I suppose I am both. It was a moment of desperate temptation, though. I had dined at the Ruperts’ – you remember – and it seemed to me there was no mistaking the girl’s manner.’
‘Don’t call her a girl!’ broke in Dora, scornfully. ‘You say she is several years older than yourself.’
‘Well, at all events, she’s intellectual, and very rich. I yielded to the temptation.’
‘And deserted Marian just when she has most need of help and consolation? It’s frightful!’
Jasper moved to another chair and sat down. He was much perturbed.
‘Look here, Dora, I regret it; I do, indeed. And, what’s more, if that woman refuses me – as it’s more than likely she will – I will go to Marian and ask her to marry me at once. I promise that.’
His sister made a movement of contemptuous impatience.
‘And if the woman doesn’t refuse you?’
‘Then I can’t help it. But there’s one thing more I will say. Whether I marry Marian or Miss Rupert, I sacrifice my strongest feelings – in the one case to a sense of duty, in the other to worldly advantage. I was an idiot to write that letter, for I knew at the time that there was a woman who is far more to me than Miss Rupert and all her money – a woman I might, perhaps, marry. Don’t ask any questions; I shall not answer them. As I have said so much, I wished you to understand my position fully. You know the promise I have made. Don’t say anything to Marian; if I am left free I shall marry her as soon as possible.’
And so he left the room.
For a fortnight and more he remained in uncertainty. His life was very uncomfortable, for Dora would only speak to him when necessity compelled her; and there were two meetings with Marian, at which he had to act his part as well as he could. At length came the expected letter. Very nicely expressed, very friendly, very complimentary, but – a refusal.
He handed it to Dora across the breakfast-table, saying with a pinched smile:
‘Now you can look cheerful again. I am doomed.’