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THE UNCLEAN THING.
A few days later, Mr. Dick Derosne was walking in the Park at noon. He had been down to the Club and found no one there. Everybody except himself was at work: the politicians were scattered all over the colony, conducting their election campaign. Medland himself had gone to his constituency: his seat was very unsafe there, and he was determined to keep it if he could, although, as a precaution, he was also a candidate for the North-east ward of Kirton, where his success was beyond doubt. His friends and his foes had followed him out of town, and the few who were left were busy in the capital itself. Such men as these when at the Club would talk of nothing but the crisis, and, after he had heard all there was to hear about the Benyon affair, the crisis began to bore Dick. After all, it mattered very little to him; he would be out of it all in a month, and the Medlands were not, when he came to think of it, people of great importance. Why, the Grangers had never heard of them! Decidedly, he had had enough and to spare of the Medlands.
Nevertheless, he was to have a little more of them, for at this instant he saw Daisy Medland approaching him. Escape was impossible, and Dick had the grace to shrink from appearing to avoid her.
"The deuce!" he thought, "this is awkward. I hope she won't--" He raised his hat with elaborate politeness.
Daisy stopped and greeted him with much effusion and without any embarrassment. Dick thought that odd.
"I was afraid," she said, "we were not going to see you again before you disappeared finally with the Governor."
"Oh, I came back just to settle things up. I hope you are all right, Miss Medland?"
"Yes, thank you. Did you have a pleasant trip?"
"Yes, very," he answered, wondering if she knew of his engagement.
"We missed you very much," she went on.
"Awfully kind of you to say so."
"You started so suddenly."
"Oh, well--yes, I suppose I did. It just struck me I ought to see Australia."
"How funny!" she exclaimed, with a little laugh.
"Why funny?" asked Dick, rather stiffly.
"I mean that it should strike you just like that. However, it was very lucky, wasn't it?"
"You mean I----"
"Yes, I mean you--" said Daisy, who had no intention of saving Dick from any floundering that might befall him. Mercy is all very well, but give us justice sometimes.
"You heard of my--my engagement?"
"I saw it in the papers. A Miss Granger, isn't it?"
"A Miss Granger!" thought Dick. Everybody knew the Grangers.
"I'm sure I congratulate you. You lost no time, Mr. Derosne."
Dick stammered that it was an old acquaintance renewed.
"Oh, then you've been in love with her a long while?" asked Daisy, with a curiosity apparently very innocent.
"Not exactly that."
"Then you did fall in love very quickly?"
"Well, I suppose I did," admitted Dick, as if he were rather ashamed of himself.
"Oh, I mustn't blame you," said Daisy, with a pensive sigh.
Dick, on the look-out for a hint of suppressed suffering, saw what he looked for. She was taking it very well, and it was his duty to say something nice. Moreover, Daisy Medland was looking extremely pretty, and that fact alone, in Dick's view, justified and indeed necessitated the saying of something nice. Violet Granger was leagues away, and a touch of romance could not disquiet or hurt her.
"Indeed I am anxious to hear that you don't," he said, accompanying his remark with a glance of pathetic anxiety.
"Why should I?" she asked.
This simple question placed Dick in a difficulty, and he was glad when she went on without waiting for an answer.
"Indeed I should have no right to. Love is sudden and--and beyond our control, isn't it?"
"And yet," said Dick, "a man is bound to consider so many things."
"I was thinking of a girl's love. She just gives it and thinks of nothing. Doesn't she?" and she looked at him with an appeal to his experience in her eyes.
"Does she?" said Dick, who began to feel uncomfortable.
"And when she has once given it, she never changes."
If this last remark were a generalisation, it was certainly an audacious one, but Dick was thinking only of a personal application. Daisy's words, as he understood their meaning, were working on the better nature which lay below his frivolity. He began to suffer genuine shame and remorse at the idea that he had caused suffering--lasting pain--to this poor unsophisticated child who had loved him so readily. Moved by this honourable, if tardy, compunction, he ejaculated,
"Oh, don't say that, Miss Medland. I never thought--I--I mean, surely you don't mean--?" And then he came to a dead stop for a moment; only to start abruptly again the next, with--"It would spoil my happiness, if I thought--you don't really mean it, do you? I don't know how I should ask you to forgive me, if you do."
Daisy's plot (which it is not sought to justify) had been crowned with success. A mischievous smile replaced her innocent expression.
"What do you mean, Mr. Derosne? Forgive you? I was speaking of my own feelings."
"Yes, so--so I understood, and I wanted to say that I hoped you wouldn't think I had been inconsid----"
"What does it matter to me, how long or how short your wooing is? They say lovers are self-centred, but really I think you're the worst I ever met. I must confess I wasn't thinking of you, Mr. Derosne."
"What?" exclaimed Dick.
"Is it possible you haven't heard of my engagement?" she asked in the sweetest tone.
"Yes--to Mr. Norburn," and she watched the effect with obvious pleasure.
Dick pulled himself together. She had made a fool of him; that was pretty clear now it was too late to help it.
"I hadn't heard. I congratulate you," he said, stiffly and awkwardly.
"Thanks. Of course that was what I meant when I said my feelings could never change. How odd you must have thought it of me, if you didn't know!"
"Well, I--I didn't quite understand."
"You seemed puzzled and I couldn't understand why. We were both thinking of ourselves too much, I suppose!"
"May I ask if you have been engaged long?"
"Oh, not actually engaged very long, but, like yours, it's been an old acquaintance, and--if you won't betray me--perhaps a little more for ever so long."
Dick was not quite sure whether he believed the lady or not. He ought to have wished to believe her; as a fact, he was extremely reluctant to do so, but Daisy's look was so candid and at the same time so naturally shy, in making her little avowal, that he was almost convinced that the semi-tragedy of their parting scene a few weeks before had been all acting on her side. Alicia could have undeceived him, but, for reasons tolerably obvious, Dick did not rehearse this interview to Alicia or to any one else.
"Ah! here comes Mr. Norburn!" cried Daisy, rosy with delight. "You must congratulate one another."
This very hollow ceremony was duly performed, and Dick left the lovers together. In fact he may be said to have made his exit in a somewhat shamefaced manner. Fortune put him at a disadvantage in that his partner was far away, while Daisy stood triumphant by the side of hers and watched him.
"Upon my honour," he exclaimed, hitting viciously at a flower, "I believe she was humbugging me all the time!" And from that day to this he thinks Miss Medland a flirt, and is very glad, for that among other weighty reasons, that he had nothing more to do with her.
Her behaviour towards Dick Derosne was fairly typical of Daisy Medland's attitude towards the world at large at this time. She made the mistake, natural enough, of being defiant, of emphasising outwardly an indifference that she did not feel, of anticipating slights and being ready to resent slurs which were never intended or inflicted. There are so many people in the world who want only an excuse for being kind, but yet do want that, and who are ready to give much, but must be asked. There were many among the upper circles of Kirton society who would have been ready enough to act a friendly part, to overlook much, to play protector to the girl, and do a favour to a man who had been and might again be powerful; but they too needed to be asked--not of course in words, but by a hint of gratitude waiting for them, a touch of deference, some kind of appeal from the loneliness and desolation of a doubtful position to the comfortable regions of unaspersed respectability. They could not help feeling that Daisy, though by no fault of hers, was yet one who should ask and accept as favours what among equals are no more than courtesies. The knowledge of this point of view drove Daisy into strong revolt against it: she was more, not less, offhand than of yore; more, not less, ready to ignore people with whom she was not in sympathy; more, not less, unscrupulous in outraging the small conventions of society. And, unfortunately, Norburn was a man to encourage instead of discouraging her in this course, for conventions and respectability had always been a red rag to him. In the result the isolation of the Medland household from most of the families of their own level in the town, and from all of a higher, if there were any such, grew from day to day, until it seemed that Daisy's "We three against the world!" was to come true so far as the world meant the social circle of their neighbours. Medland himself was too engrossed with larger matters to note the progress of this outlawry: when he did for a moment turn his thoughts from the campaign he was engrossed with, there was only one face in Kirton society whose countenance or aversion troubled him: and that one was sternly and irrevocably turned away.
Thus Daisy, though she might be cheered in the streets, and though she bore herself with exuberant gaiety out of doors, passed lonely evenings, especially when Norburn left her to help in the country elections. The Chief Justice had been to see her once, and Lady Perry had left a card, but she was almost always alone, and then the exuberant gaiety would evaporate. One evening about half-past nine, she was sitting alone, wishing her father or her lover would come back to her, when there was a knock at the door. Alicia Derosne came in, with a hasty, almost furtive, step.
"You are alone, aren't you? I saw Mr. Medland was away."
"Yes, I am alone," said Daisy, doubtful whether to put on her armour or not.
"Oh, Daisy, I've never been able to come and wish you joy yet. I wouldn't do it by letter. I'm so glad. You are happy, aren't you?" and she took Daisy's two hands and kissed her.
"Yes, I am very happy. It's sweet of you to come. How did you manage it?"
Neither cared to pretend that Lady Eynesford would approve of such a visit.
"Oh, I slipped out," said Alicia, nestling beside her friend. "Poor child! What things you have been through! Still--you have Mr. Norburn."
"Yes; with him and father I really don't mind." She paused, and then there slipped out, in lower tone, a tell-tale "Much."
Alicia answered it with a caress.
"How brave you are!" she said. "Does--does he mind?"
"I meant your father."
"He has no time to mind now. We are fighting," said Daisy.
"Ah, a man can fight, can't he?"
"Oh, but so can a girl. I'm fighting too."
"I've no one to fight for."
Daisy turned quickly towards her: there were tears in her eyes. Surely she was a sorry comforter: perhaps she had come as much seeking as to bring comfort.
"You don't look very happy," remarked Daisy.
"Don't talk about me, Daisy. It will never make the least difference between you and me. I wanted to tell you. You know we are going? You must write to me, dear, and some day you and Mr. Norburn must come to England and stay with me, when I have my own house. Promise now! I--I don't want to lose you quite."
"Of course I will write, but you won't care for our news when you are gone."
"Indeed I shall care to hear of you and Mr. Norburn, and--of your father too."
"Will you really? Oh, then I shall have lots to say. Father always gives one lots to say about him," said Daisy proudly.
"Tell him he mustn't despair."
"No, no. From you."
"Oh, of course I tell him that."
"I--I mustn't send him any message."
"You're not against him too, are you, Alicia?"
"I'm not much against him," whispered Alicia. "And, if any one says I am, Daisy, don't believe it of me. I must go, dear. I shall be missed. I shall come again."
"Do," said Daisy. "I'm just a little lonely now," and she nearly broke down, as Alicia took her in her arms.
Thus they stood when Medland, suddenly returned on an urgent matter, opened the door, and, standing, looked at them for a moment. Alicia seemed to feel his presence; with a start she looked up. He crossed the room, holding out his hand.
"It is like you," he said simply.
She shook her head.
"I--I did not know you were here."
"I am not supposed to be," he answered, kissing his daughter.
Alicia hastily said good-bye, Medland not trying to detain her. But he signed to Daisy to stay in the room and escorted Alicia down-stairs.
At the hall door he kept her, laying his hand on the door.
"Yes, that was very kind. Poor child! She wants friends."
"I can do very little--I----"
"Yes, I know. And you are going?"
"Yes, in three weeks."
He was silent for a moment: then he looked in her eyes.
"You know the worst now," he said in a low voice.
"Yes," she murmured, trying to escape his gaze.
"And you still say what you said before?"
"I--I say nothing. I must go."
"Very likely we shall never speak alone again as long as we live--perhaps never at all."
"Isn't it best?" she murmured.
"Best!" he echoed. "You are happy in it then?"
"I happy! Ah!"
He could not miss the meaning of her tone.
"Most people," he said, "would call me a criminal for what I am going to say--and you a fool if you listen. Alicia, will you face it all and come to me?" and he drew nearer to her. "I know what I ask--but I know too what I have to give."
"Let me go," she gasped, as though his hand were on her.
"Can you do it?" he asked. "I needn't tell you to think what it means."
"I don't mind that," she broke out suddenly. "Don't think it's that. I would face all that if--if I could----"
She bowed her head.
"You can never trust me again?"
"Why make me say it?"
"But it is so?"
Again she bowed her head.
"It is still--horrible?"
He drew back and opened the door, letting in the cool night air.
"Good-bye," he said. "It's your last word?"
She seemed to sway towards him and away again.
"I shan't ask again," he went on, still in that calm, low voice. "I shall accept what you say now. You think me--unclean?"
Her silence was answer as she stepped out into the path.
"For the last time!"
"I can't," she said, with a sob. "You--you know why."
"And yet, if you loved me!"
"Loved you!" she cried. "But no, no, no!" and she turned and disappeared in the gloom.
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