The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 16

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BREAKFAST was always served punctually at nine o'clock at The Cloisters. As the clock chimed the hour, Lady Hyde-Bassett would descend the stairs, and woe to the guest who was not there to observe her freshness and vivacity. On this one point, she was as unreasonably severe as all malleable men and women are, who make up their minds to be unyielding on, at least, one subject. When she entered the breakfast-room, therefore, on that eventful Monday morning, and saw no Sophia Jenyns, her eyebrows began to twitch. Wrath was reading the Times, and Miss Bellarmine was studying a new novel, which dealt with the evolution of the soul from protoplasm to immortality — a work to be attacked when the mind was not predisposed to slumber.

"Where is Sophia?" said Margaret, having wished them both good morning.

"To be sure," said Wrath. "Where is she?"

"I think," said Eliza, slowly,"she has gone for a short walk."

"At this hour," said Margaret, "and without her breakfast?"

"Are you quite sure?" said Wrath.

"I believe," murmured Eliza, "she said last night that she intended to try an early prowl. Did you not hear her say so?"

It was very extraordinary, but neither of them had heard Sophia make the remark.

"But young Mauden——— " began Lady Hyde- Bassett.

She caught a beseeching glance from Eliza, and felt a sharp step on her toe. They were now sitting at the table.

"Young Mauden," she went on, calmly," was very wise to go by that eight o'clock train."

"I wish," said Wrath, suddenly, "Sophia would not wander about the country like a Tom o' Bedlam. I know she is studying Ophelia, but all the same, it is most annoying!"

The two women dared not look up. But they were holding a conversation without words, which is not a difficult feat — although few mortals seem aware of it — when minds are sympathetic, and ordinary means of communication are impossible. To explain this mental phenomenon, however, is work for the metaphysician. We can only say that Lady Hyde- Bassett understood Miss Bellarmine so perfectly, that she lost her appetite for breakfast.

"Could not some one be sent to her room to inquire?" said Wrath, rising from his seat, and oblivious alike of manners, his two companions, and general facts. Thought was swallowed up in sensation, and he recognized the sensation as fear.

"I will go," said Eliza.

"Thank you," he said; "you are very good. Thank you."

When she had gone out of the room, he turned to Lady Hyde-Bassett. "Margaret," he said, "do you think I have been blind this last fortnight? Do you think I have seen nothing?"

"Seen — nothing?" she repeated; "how? — what? "

"Do not act," he said; "be a woman — be honest. You have seen all that I have seen — perhaps more."

"No! no! not more . . . it was all very innocent . . . a childish flirtation. . . . I thought it best to ignore it. . . . I would not allow myself to give it consideration."

"Ah! that is what I thought. . . . The question is — Was I wrong? Should I have spoken?"

"No, no. You were right to trust her. The dreadful things we are both fearing are an insult — an injustice. Mauden is the soul of honour. Sophia is light-hearted, but — trust her. Only trust her!"

"I do . . . but . . . where is she now?"

"Do not ask me ! Do not ask yourself!"

"Is she with Mauden?"

"No! no! no! how can you say it?"

"Why not ask me how I can say it — and live?"

She took his hand. "Tom," she said, "I would swear that she was innocent even if she told me with her own lips———"

"Innocent!" he said, angrily. "Am I so vile already? I want no man or woman to assure me of my wife's innocence. You know," he went on, after a painful pause, "I am naturally jealous. I — I try to conquer this. . . . I am so many years older than she is, and she is so . . . there is every reason why I must love her, and there are none why she should care for me . . . it would be absurd to expect her to sit gazing at me all day — me, bald, dull, plodding. ...Mauden is her own age, and amusing...It was a crime to marry her: she was a child. She knew nothing about love. She has no idea how much she is to me. I could not tell her, it would frighten her...the responsibility———"

"Ah!" said Lady Hyde-Bassett, "why did you not speak out and risk the frightening?"

"I was selfish," he went on, not hearing, "and thought only of my own happiness. And I persuaded her———Don't you understand how I must hate myself? Innocent! She is only too innocent. It is I who am guilty!"

"I wish," said Lady Hyde-Bassett—"I wish Eliza would make haste."

"She will not come back," said Wrath, "because she has found the room empty, and because she, too, thinks———"

Then he left her. And Margaret could only sit with her hands clasped, trying her best not to think. For thinking was not to be trusted at that moment. Faith—"the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen"—was her only refuge. For there is no virtue so sublime that it cannot be used with advantage even in a comedy situation.

When the grocer stopped his horse at the main entrance to The Cloisters, Sophia got down, gave the man a tip, and lurked under a tree until he had driven out of sight. Then she went out into the road again, and walked to a certain side-door which was cut in the wall of the kitchen-garden, and which was rarely used except by the servants and the men employed on the estate. She opened this door and found herself face to face with the head-gardener.

"How unlucky!" she exclaimed. "I had just come in to steal some strawberries. Please don't give me any of them, because that would not be the same thing! "And, laughing gaily, she sauntered up the path. The gardener stroked his beard and stared after her. Had not his wife kept him awake the whole of the preceding night, with her "firm beliefs" and "dying breaths" on the subject of Miss Sophia Jenyns? And now she was hankering after strawberries. He whistled.

Sophia, meanwhile, went on her way, rejoicing that she had been able to make such a plausible excuse for entering the grounds by a back-door. She hugged the elusive hope that Wrath had not yet seen her nonsensical letter, and she was now wondering how she could get round to the studio, where, perhaps, if the Fates were kind, she would find the envelope with its seal unbroken. She glanced at the big clock which smiled from the archway of the stable-yard: it was exactly nine. They would all be at the breakfast-table: she could cross the lawn without the smallest risk of meeting either Wrath, or Margaret, or Eliza Bellarmine. Sophia caught up her skirt and ran. Once started, she did not seem able to stop; she had only a frantic notion that she was chasing her own head. The chase ended, however, when she reached the studio window. Her limbs grew heavy and her sight dim; she stumbled over the threshold, and groped her way to the mantel-piece. The letter was gone. She tore off her veil and stared helplessly about the room. Then something thing made her look under the clock. It was there, after all. She thrust the hateful thing into her pocket, and fell.

Wrath found her senseless on the floor when he entered the studio a few moments later.