Give a man his chance, and he has sufficient hardihood for anything. Within a week of the accident Rob was in Dick Abinger's most luxurious chair, coolly taking a cup and saucer from Nell, while Mary arranged a cushion for his poor head. He even made several light-hearted jests, at which his nurses laughed heartily—because he was an invalid.
Rob's improvement dated from the moment he opened his eyes and heard the soft rustle of a lady's skirts in the next room. He lay quietly listening, and realised by and by that he had known she was Mary Abinger all along.
'Who is that?' he said abruptly to Dick, who was swinging his legs on the dressing-table. Dick came to him as awkwardly as if he had been asked to hold a baby, and saw no way of getting out of it. Sick-rooms chilled him.
'Are you feeling better now, old fellow?' he asked.
'Who is it?' Rob repeated, sitting up in bed.
'That is my sister,' Dick said.
Rob's head fell back. He could not take it in all at once. Dick thought he had fallen asleep, and tried to slip gently from the room, discovering for the first time as he did so that his shoes creaked.
'Don't go,' said Rob, sitting up again. 'What is your sister's name?'
'Abinger, of course, Mary Abinger,' answered Dick, under the conviction that the invalid was still off his head. He made for the door again, but Rob's arm went out suddenly and seized him.
'You are a liar, you know,' Rob said feebly; 'she's not your sister.'
'No, of course not,' said Dick, humouring him.
'I want to see her,' Rob said authoritatively.
'Certainly,' answered Dick, escaping into the other room to tell Mary that the patient was raving again.
'I heard him,' said Mary.
'Well, what's to be done?' asked her brother. 'He's madder than ever.'
'Oh no, I think he's getting on nicely now,' Mary said, moving toward the bedroom.
'Don't,' exclaimed Dick, getting in front of her; 'why, I tell you his mind is wandering. He says you're not my sister.'
'Of course he can't understand so long as he thinks your name is Simms.'
'But he knows my name is Abinger. Didn't I tell you I heard him groaning it over to himself?'
'Oh, Dick,' said Mary, 'I wish you would go away and write a stupid article.'
Dick, however, stood at the door, ready to come to his sister's assistance if Rob got violent.
'He says you are his sister,' said the patient to Mary.
'So I am,' said Mary softly. 'My brother writes under the name of Noble Simms, but his real name is Abinger. Now you must lie still and think about that; you are not to talk any more.'
'I won't talk any more,' said Rob slowly. 'You are not going away, though?'
'Just for a little while,' Mary answered. 'The doctor will be here presently.'
'Well, you have quieted him,' Dick admitted.
They were leaving the room, when they heard Rob calling.
'There he goes again,' said Dick, groaning.
'What is it?' Mary asked, returning to the bedroom.
'Why did he say you were not his sister?' Rob said, very suspiciously.
'Oh, his mind was wandering,' Mary answered cruelly.
She was retiring again, but stopped undecidedly. Then she looked from the door to see if her brother was within hearing. Dick was at the other end of the sitting-room, and she came back noiselessly to Rob's bedside.
'Do you remember,' she asked, in a low voice, 'how the accident happened? You know you were struck by a cab.'
'Yes,' answered Rob at once, 'I saw him kissing you. I don't remember anything after that.'
Mary, looking like a culprit, glanced hurriedly at the door. Then she softly pushed the invalid's unruly hair off his brow, and glided from the room smiling.
'Well?' asked Dick.
'He was telling me how the accident happened,' Mary said.
'And how was it?'
'Oh, just as you said. He got bewildered at a crossing and was knocked over.'
'But he wasn't the man to lose his reason at a crossing,' said Dick. 'There must have been something to agitate him.'
'He said nothing about that,' replied Mary, without blushing.
'Did he tell you how he knew my name was Abinger?' Dick asked, as they went downstairs.
'No,' his sister said, 'I forgot to ask him.'
'There was that Christmas card, too,' Dick said suddenly. 'Nell says Angus must be in love, poor fellow.'
'Nell is always thinking people are in love,' Mary answered severely.
'By the way,' said Dick, 'what became of the card? He might want to treasure it, you know.'
'I—I rather think I put it somewhere,' Mary said.
'I wonder,' Dick remarked curiously, 'what sort of girl Angus would take to?'
'I wonder,' said Mary.
They were back in Dick's chambers by this time, and he continued with some complacency—for all men think they are on safe ground when discussing an affair of the heart:—
'We could build the young lady up from the card, which, presumably, was her Christmas offering to him. It was not expensive, so she is a careful young person; and the somewhat florid design represents a blue bird sitting on a pink twig, so that we may hazard the assertion that her artistic taste is not as yet fully developed. She is a fresh country maid, or the somewhat rich colouring would not have taken her fancy, and she is short, a trifle stout, or a big man like Angus would not have fallen in love with her. Reserved men like gushing girls, so she gushes and says "Oh my!" and her nicest dress (here Dick shivered) is of a shiny satin with a dash of rich velvet here and there. Do you follow me?'
'Yes,' said Mary; 'it is wonderful. I suppose, now, you are never wrong when you "build up" so much on so little?'
'Sometimes we go a little astray,' admitted Dick. 'I remember going into a hotel with Rorrison once, and on a table we saw a sailor-hat lying, something like the one Nell wears—or is it you?'
'The idea of your not knowing!' said his sister indignantly.
'Well, we discussed the probable owner. I concluded, after narrowly examining the hat, that she was tall, dark, and handsome, rather than pretty. Rorrison, on the other hand, maintained that she was a pretty, baby-faced girl, with winning ways.'
'And did you discover if either of you was right?'
'Yes,' said Dick slowly. 'In the middle of the discussion a little boy in a velvet suit toddled into the room, and said to us, "Gim'me my hat."'
In the weeks that followed, Rob had many delicious experiences. He was present at several tea-parties in Abinger's chambers, the guests being strictly limited to three; and when he could not pretend to be ill any longer, he gave a tea-party himself in honour of his two nurses—his one and a half nurses, Dick called them. At this Mary poured out the tea, and Rob's eyes showed so plainly (though not to Dick) that he had never seen anything like it, that Nell became thoughtful, and made a number of remarks on the subject to her mother as soon as she returned home.
'It would never do,' Nell said, looking wise.
'Whatever would the colonel say!' exclaimed Mrs. Meredith. 'After all, though,' she added—for she had been to see Rob twice, and liked him because of something he had said to her about his mother—'he is just the same as Richard.'
'Oh no, no,' said Nell, 'Dick is an Oxford man, you must remember, and Mr. Angus, as the colonel would say, rose from obscurity.'
'Well, if he did,' persisted Mrs. Meredith, 'he does not seem to be going back to it, and universities seem to me to be places for making young men stupid.'
'It would never, never do,' said Nell, with doleful decision.
'What does Mary say about him?' asked her mother.
'She never says anything,' said Nell.
'Does she talk much to him?'
'No; very little.'
'That is a good sign,' said Mrs. Meredith.
'I don't know,' said Nell.
'Have you noticed anything else?'
'Nothing except—well, Mary is longer in dressing now than I am, and she used not to be.'
'I wonder,' Mrs. Meredith remarked, 'if Mary saw him at Silchester after that time at the castle?'
'She never told me she did,' Nell answered, 'but sometimes I think—however, there is no good in thinking.'
'It isn't a thing you often do, Nell. By the way, he saw the first Sir Clement at Dome Castle, did he not?'
'Yes,' Nell said, 'he saw the impostor, and I don't suppose he knows there is another Sir Clement. The Abingers don't like to speak of that. However, they may meet on Friday, for Dick has got Mr. Angus a card for the Symphonia, and Sir Clement is to be there.'
'What does Richard say about it?' asked Mrs. Meredith, going back apparently upon their conversation.
'We never speak about it, Dick and I,' said Nell.
'What do you speak about, then?'
'Oh, nothing,' said Nell.
Mrs. Meredith sighed.
'And you such an heiress, Nell,' she said; 'you could do so much better. He will never have anything but what he makes by writing; and if all stories be true, half of that goes to the colonel. I'm sure your father never will consent.'
'Oh yes, he will,' Nell said.
'If he had really tried to get on at the Bar,' Mrs. Meredith pursued, 'it would not have been so bad, but he is evidently to be a newspaper man all his life.'
'I wish you would say journalist, mamma,' Nell said, pouting, 'or literary man. The profession of letters is a noble one.'
'Perhaps it is,' Mrs. Meredith assented, with another sigh, 'and I dare say he told you so, but I can't think it is very respectable.'
Rob did not altogether enjoy the Symphonia, which is a polite club attended by the literary fry of both sexes; the ladies who write because they cannot help it, the poets who excuse their verses because they were young when they did them, the clergymen who publish their sermons by request of their congregations, the tourists who have been to Spain and cannot keep it to themselves. The club meets once a fortnight, for the purpose of not listening to music and recitations; and the members, of whom the ladies outnumber the men, sit in groups round little lions who roar mildly. The Symphonia is very fashionable and select, and having heard the little lions a-roaring, you get a cup of coffee and go home again.
Dick explained that he was a member of the Symphonia because he rather liked to put on the lion's skin himself now and again, and he took Mrs. Meredith and the two girls to it to show them of what literature in its higher branches is capable. The elegant dresses of the literary ladies, and the suave manner of the literary gentlemen, impressed Nell's mother favourably, and the Symphonia, which she had taken for an out-at-elbows club, raised letters in her estimation.
Rob, however, who never felt quite comfortable in evening dress, had a bad time of it, for Dick carried him off at once, and got him into a group round the authoress of My Baby Boy, to whom Rob was introduced as a passionate admirer of her delightful works. The lion made room for him, and he sat sadly beside her, wishing he was not so big.
Both of the rooms of the Symphonia club were crowded, but a number of gentlemen managed to wander from group to group over the skirts of ladies' gowns. Rob watched them wistfully from his cage, and observed one come to rest at the back of Mary Abinger's chair. He was a medium-sized man, and for five minutes Rob thought he was Sir Clement Dowton. Then he realised that he had been deceived by a remarkable resemblance.
The stranger said a great deal to Mary, and she seemed to like him. After a long time the authoress's voice broke in on Rob's cogitations, and when he saw that she was still talking without looking tired, a certain awe filled him. Then Mary rose from her chair, taking the arm of the gentleman who was Sir Clement's double, and they went into the other room, where the coffee was served.
Rob was tempted to sit there stupidly miserable, for the easiest thing to do comes to us first. Then he thought it was better to be a man, and, drawing up his chest, boldly asked the lion to have a cup of coffee. In another moment he was steering her through the crowd, her hand resting on his arm, and, to his amazement, he found he rather liked it.
In the coffee-room Rob could not distinguish the young lady who moved like a swan, but he was elated with his social triumph, and cast about for any journalist of his acquaintance who, he thought, might like to meet the authoress of My Baby Boy. It struck Rob that he had no right to keep her all to himself. Quite close to him his eye lighted on Marriott, the author of Mary Hooney: a Romance of the Irish Question, but Marriott saw what he was after, and dived into the crowd. A very young gentleman, with large empty eyes, begged Rob's pardon for treading on his toes, and Rob, who had not felt it, saw that this was his man. He introduced him to the authoress as another admirer, and the round-faced youth seemed such a likely subject for her next work that Rob moved off comfortably.
A shock awaited him when he met Dick, who had been passing the time by taking male guests aside and asking them in an impressive voice what they thought of his great book, Lives of Eminent Washer-women, which they had no doubt read.
'Who is the man so like Dowton?' he repeated, in answer to Rob's question. 'Why, it is Dowton.'
Then Dick looked vexed. He remembered that Rob had been at Dome Castle on the previous Christmas Eve.
'Look here, Angus,' he said bluntly, 'this is a matter I hate to talk about. The fact is, however, that this is the real Sir Clement. The fellow you met was an impostor, who came from no one knows where. Unfortunately, he has returned to the same place.'
Dick bit his lip while Rob digested this.
'But if you know the real Dowton,' Rob asked, 'how were you deceived?'
'Well, it was my father who was deceived rather than myself, but we did not know the real baronet then. The other fellow, if you must know, traded on his likeness to Dowton, who is in the country now for the first time for many years. Whoever the impostor is, he is a humorist in his way, for when he left the castle in January he asked my father to call on him when he came to town. The fellow must have known that Dowton was coming home about that time; at all events, my father, who was in London shortly afterwards, looked up his friend the baronet, as he thought, at his club, and found that he had never set eyes on him before. It would make a delicious article if it had not happened in one's own family.'
'The real Sir Clement seems great friends with Miss Abinger,' Rob could not help saying.
'Yes,' said Dick, 'we struck up an intimacy with him over the affair, and stranger things have happened than that he and Mary——'
'My father, I believe, would like it,' he added carelessly, but Rob had turned away. Dick went after him.
'I have told you this,' he said, 'because, as you knew the other man, it had to be done, but we don't like it spoken of.'
'I shall not speak of it,' said miserable Rob.
He would have liked to be tearing through London again, but as that was not possible he sought a solitary seat by the door. Before he reached it his mood changed. What was Sir Clement Dowton, after all, that he should be frightened at him? He was merely a baronet. An impostor who could never have passed for a journalist had succeeded in passing for Dowton. Journalism was the noblest of all professions, and Rob was there representing it. The seat of honour at the Symphonia was next to Mary Abinger, and the baronet had held it too long already. Instead of sulking, Rob approached the throne like one who had a right to be there. Sir Clement had risen for a moment to put down Mary's cup, and when he returned Rob was in his chair, with no immediate intention of getting out of it. The baronet frowned, which made Rob say quite a number of bright things to Miss Abinger. When two men are in love with the same young lady one of them must be worsted. Rob saw that it was better to be the other one.
The frightfully Bohemian people at the Symphonia remained there even later than eleven o'clock, but the rooms thinned before then, and Dick's party were ready to go by half-past ten. Rob was now very sharp. It did not escape his notice that the gentlemen were bringing the ladies' cloaks, and he calmly made up his mind to help Mary Abinger on with hers. To his annoyance, Sir Clement was too quick for him. The baronet was in the midst of them, with the three ladies' cloaks, just as Rob wondered where he would have to go to find them. Nell's cloak Sir Clement handed to Dick, but he kept Mary's on his arm while he assisted Mrs. Meredith into hers. It was a critical moment. All would be over in five seconds.
'Allow me,' said Rob.
With apparent coolness he took Mary's cloak from the baronet's arm. He had not been used to saying 'allow me,' and his face was white, but he was determined to go on with this thing.
'Take my arm,' he said to Mary, as they joined the crowd that swayed toward the door. After he said it he saw that he had spoken with an air of proprietorship, but he was not sorry. Mary did it.
It took them some time to reach their cab, and on the way Mary asked Rob a question.
'I gave you something once,' she said, 'but I suppose you lost it long ago.'
Rob reddened, for he had been sadly puzzled to know what had become of his Christmas card.
'I have it still,' he answered at last.
'Oh,' said Mary coldly; and at once Rob felt a chill pass through him. It was true, after all, that Miss Abinger could be an icicle on occasion.
Rob, having told a lie, deserved no mercy, and got none. The pity of it is that Mary might have thawed a little had she known that it was only a lie. She thought that Rob was not aware of his loss. A man taking fickleness as the comparative degree of an untruth is perhaps only what may be looked for, but one does not expect it from a woman. Probably the lights had blinded Mary.
Rob had still an opportunity of righting himself, but he did not take it.
'Then you did mean the card for me,' he said, in foolish exultation; 'when I found it on the walk I was not certain that you had not merely dropped it by accident.'
Alas! for the fatuity of man. Mary looked up in icy surprise.
'What card?' she said. 'I don't know what you are talking about.'
'Don't you remember?' asked Rob, very much requiring to be sharpened again.
He looked so woebegone, that Mary nearly had pity on him. She knew, however, that if it was not for her sex, men would never learn anything.
'No,' she replied, and turned to talk to Sir Clement.
Rob walked home from the Langham that night with Dick, and, when he was not thinking of the two Sir Clements, he was telling himself that he had climbed his hill valiantly, only to topple over when he neared the top. Before he went to bed he had an article to finish for the Wire, and, while he wrote, he pondered over the ways of women; which, when you come to think of it, is a droll thing to do.
Mr. Meredith had noticed Rob's dejection at the hotel, and remarked to Nell's mother that he thought Mary was very stiff to Angus. Mrs. Meredith looked sadly at her husband in reply.
'You think so,' she said, mournfully shaking her head at him, 'and so does Richard Abinger. Mr. Angus is as blind as the rest of you.'
'I don't understand,' said Mr. Meredith, with much curiosity.
'Nor do they,' replied his wife contemptuously; 'there are no men so stupid, I think, as the clever ones.'
She could have preached a sermon that night, with the stupid sex for her text.