The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 12

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XII.

IN WHICH A LADY SPEAKS HER MIND.

When Warbeck dropped his cousin's hand, he gave a half-sigh. He never shook hands with either men or women when he could possibly avoid it: he regarded the act as a sign of friendship or affection
not one to

be heedlessly given. This idiosyncrasy had made him many enemies, but enemies so created are not to be greatly feared. Jane's hand was one of her charms; it was white, delicate in shape, and, what was more, firm, and, what was more than all, very womanly. It seemed made to bestow blessings. Warbeck was extremely sensitive to moral atmosphere: some people made him choke, others gave him new life. He was, therefore, quick to appreciate the young girl's grace and purity, and to appreciate her was to remember his vow. So he half-sighed.

Jane was already what she had promised to be when De Boys left Brentmore
a girl of singular beauty. She had all the brilliance without the self-consciousness of Sophia Jenyns,and for that reason she was, perhaps, less striking at first sight. Sophia never permitted herself to escape attention. Jane did not care whether she was noticed or ignored; she knew that she was far from plain (for the pretty girl who is ignorant of her own comeliness does not exist), but since she had resolved not to think of De Boys as a lover, she had lost all interest in her appearance. At one time, certainly, she had longed to find favour in his sight and so, no doubt, had sent many foolish wishes after the perishable and fleeting attractions of feature and complexion. But this was a weakness of the past— she would never be so vain again— ah, never! At the same time, when she saw her new cousin, she was rather glad that she happened to be wearing her most picturesque gown.

But in spite of the agreeable impression each had produced on the other, the Dowager found them both very dull during luncheon. Warbeck talked on prosaic subjects and rarely addressed himself to Jane. The Countess observed, too, with consternation, that he never once looked at his cousin, but kept his eyes fixed on his plate. She had never seen him so stupid. As for Jane, her shyness was most natural and becoming; she was a girl who could hold her peace without sinking into inanity. It was Warbeck who caused her ladyship uneasiness. Like most determined women she could only be discouraged by time — by the wearing off of enthusiasm, mere facts could not shake her purpose, nor opposition, her courage. The shortest-lived of her projects at least died a natural death, and was immediately succeeded by a direct descendant. Having made up her mind that Warbeck's marriage with his cousin Jane should take place in the autumn, her ladyship regarded his celibate vow as a mere piece of foolery; it had absolutely no bearing on the matter in point. But why was he so depressing in his manner? Had he no eyes? no ears? no taste? no manliness? With all his heroics had he so little of the hero that he remained like a stock or a stone in the presence of girlhood and beauty? If this was the influence of Dawes of Balliol, the sooner that person was given a colonial appointment the better. He was not wanted in London.

When luncheon was at an end, Jane was obliged to leave them, as she had an engagement to drive in the Park with another new relation — a lady who need not detain us, since she was only remarkable for her visiting list. Warbeck coloured a little when he wished Jane good-bye. "I am afraid, too," he added, "we shall not meet again for some time. As my grandmother is so much better, I shall return to France to-morrow." He held the door open for her, and again half-sighed, as, having wished him a pleasant journey, she passed out.

"Warbeck!" said the Dowager, "surely you do not mean that? You are not going away again?"

"I have a great deal of work on hand," he said, with some awkwardness." I am preparing one or two speeches and a short pamphlet, and I find I get fewer interruptions in Veronne. It is such a dull little village. There is only one man there I can talk to — Pere Villard, the historian. And he is also there for quiet, so we only meet to argue!"

"But," said her ladyship— "but what do you think of Jane?" She could scarcely conceal her impatience.

"Your letters," said Warbeck, after some hesitation, "had given me no idea— but I have exchanged so few words with her.I certainly did not expect to see so — so — tall a girl!"

Lady Warbeck had frequently observed that a man's language became ambiguous as his sentiments grew unmistakable. She gathered fresh hope.

"I wonder you think her plain!" This was a stroke of genius. It surprised him into candour.

"On the contrary, I think her lovely."

"H'm! But she is not silly with it — she is most intellectual."

"I am sure of it."

The Dowager looked at the ceiling. At some moments one can claim sympathy even from the inanimate.

"She will no doubt marry very well."

The young man frowned. "She is so young yet," he said. "Do not let her make any rash engagement, if you can possibly keep her free. It is so easy to bind oneself, and — and so impossible to escape the consequences. I mean, a promise may be made in all sincerity and after the most serious consideration, yet without fully realizing———" He paused. "I am only saying this," he said, at last, "because a girl takes so much risk — even in the most favourable circumstances — when she marries. Her very innocence is, in a measure, against her."

"It seems to me," said the Countess, drily, "that innocence is against a great many people."

"Not a great many, my dear grandmother," he replied, with equal dryness. He got up from his chair and walked to the window. Jane at that very moment came out of the house and stepped into the carriage. He watched her drive away.

"Yes," he said. "I can work much better at Veronne."

The Countess began to wonder whether a celibate vow might not be a more calamitous invention than she had at first suspected.

"Warbeck," she said, "you will surely think better of — of this arrangement you have made with Dawes?"

"Think better of it!" he repeated. "The time for thinking about it is past. It is now an accomplished fact. My word has been given."

"But I am certain you will regret———"

"It is not a step I would ever allow myself to regret, nor would I place myself in a situation where I might be even tempted to regret it. I made it with the full knowledge that it might possibly involve some slight self-sacrifice. Dawes has been through the mill: he was most careful not to conceal any probable difficulty." He spoke firmly and fixed his eyes on hers with an expression which she recognized as the family stubbornness.

"Ah," said the Countess, quickly, "you think it would be safer to avoid your cousin Jane. That is why you are going back to Veronne! "

"What an absurd idea," said her grandson. "You must think me very susceptible."

"The Shannons are all alike," said her ladyship; "they are icebergs to all women till they meet the right one. And then they melt at a glance. Look at Jane's father — poor Edmund. He saw this Battle's daughter hanging clothes on a line, and fell in love with her on the spot. Nothing would make him reconsider it ; his obstinacy was simply criminal. But in your case matters are very different. Jane is desirable from every point of view ; there is no reason——— " "There is every reason," said the young man, "why we must change the subject. You must forgive me, but I cannot discuss it further."

"I will speak my mind," said the Dowager. "You are ruining your whole life for a whim—a fad—a piece of arrant coxcombery. It is not even religious—you have admitted as much. What can I call it, then, but affectation? In a year's time—less—you will be ashamed to remember it. But in the meanwhile "

"In the meanwhile," said Warbeck, "I can at least be honourable. And now I think we have talked enough, my dear grandmother. You will be very tired."

"Tired? I am perfectly ill. You have given me my death-blow !" She sank back in her chair, and was evidently far from well. Warbeck knelt down by her side and took her hand.

"You would not have me behave dishonourably," he said; "you don't seem to understand. It —it is not always so easy to do one's duty; is it fair to make it harder ? But it must be done in any case."

"Duty!" she said, peevishly. "It will soon be heroic to wear no collar! Foppery! twaddle! That a man in your position, with your responsibilities, with an unblemished title to support, should stoop to such indecent, mawkish, hysterical balderdash! It is scandalous!" She sank back again, but summoned her remaining strength for one last blow. "I have lived too long!"

"You are very cruel."

"I have lived too long!" she repeated.

"In a calmer moment, you will see how you have wronged me!" "Too——long."

"Shall I ring for your maid ?" He was really alarmed—she had changed so much in the last ten minutes.

"Twenty maids could not help me! Warbeck—you have not meant—what you have been— saying? "Her voice was weak; she looked a very old and very feeble woman. And he loved her dearly. " Tell me—you did not—mean it," she repeated.

"I meant it," he said. "I must always mean it."

"But in the circumstances," she gasped, "this Dawes—he would absolve you from—your— promise."

"Dawes!" said Warbeck. "I do not make vows to Dawes—nor swear by Dawes. As I have said, you do not understand how extremely serious a vow of this kind is."

"You distincty said it had nothing to do with religion," she murmured. "How can it be serious when it has nothing to do with religion?" Her failing eyes were only weak in sight: they could still pierce like needles.

"I can respect religious scruples," she went on, "but I have no patience with any Daweses of Balliols! It is noble, it is saintly to kill your aged grandmother for a Dawes. You do not believe in a God, but you will ruin your family for a Dawes who lives at Shore- ditch ! I am tired of life ! " Once more she bowed her white head. " The country is going to the dogs — and Daweses ! "

"My dear grandmother, will you listen to reason?"

"Reason?" she groaned. "Every bone in my body fairly aches with reason. Ring for Coleman, that I may get to bed!" He had his hand on the bell when Jane entered: she had returned with some message for the Dowager. When she saw her ladyship's pallid face and Warbeck's distress she looked from one to the other and grew pale herself.

"Grandmama," she faltered, "are you feeling ill?"

"He has killed me," said the Countess, pointing to her grandson, "he has given me my death-blow. I shall never recover." She rose with some difficulty from her chair, and drew herself up to her full height.

"Lean on me," said Jane, with a nice disregard of Warbeck.

"No," said the Dowager; "henceforth I lean on no one. My staff has failed me when I needed it most. When I can no longer support myself, I must fall. Where I fall, there let me lie. Remain where you are, my dear, I will not be followed. Solitude now is my only refuge!" and this marvellous invalid walked out of the room with grave and majestic steps, leaving Jane and her cousin Warbeck face to face, and alone.