Daybreak on the following morning found the gas blazing in Rob's lodgings. Rob was seated in an arm-chair, his feet on the cold hearth. The Scorn of Scorns lay on the mantelpiece carefully done up in brown paper, lest a speck of dust should fall on it, and he had been staring at the ribs of the fireplace for the last three hours without seeing them. He had not thought of the gas. His bed was unslept on. His damp boots had dried on his feet. He did not feel cold. All night he had sat there, a man mesmerised. For the only time in his life he had forgotten to wind up his watch.
At times his lips moved as if he were speaking to himself, and a smile lit up his face. Then a change of mood came, and he beat the fender with his feet till the fire-irons rattled. Thinking over these remarks brought the rapture to his face:
'How do you do, Mr. Angus?'
'You must not take to heart what Miss Meredith said.'
'Please don't say any more about it. I am quite sure you gave your honest opinion about my book.'
'I am so glad you think this like Scotland, because, of course, that is the highest compliment a Scotsman can pay.'
'Good-night, Mr. Angus.'
That was all she had said to him, but the more Rob thought over her remarks the more he liked them. It was not so much the words themselves that thrilled him as the way they were said. Other people had asked, 'How do you do, Mr. Angus?' without making an impression, but her greeting was a revelation of character, for it showed that though she knew who he was she wanted to put him at his ease. This is a delightful attribute in a woman, and worth thinking about.
Just before Miss Abinger said, 'How do you do, Mr. Angus?' Rob had realised what people meant by calling her proud. She was holding her head very high as she appeared in the path, and when Nell told her who Rob was she flushed. He looked hopelessly at her, bereft of speech, as he saw a tear glisten on her eyelid; and as their eyes met she read into the agony that he was suffering because he had hurt her. It was then that Mary made that memorable observation, 'How do you do, Mr. Angus?'
They turned toward the castle doors, Nell and the baronet in front, and Rob blurted out some self-reproaches in sentences that had neither beginning nor end. Mary had told him not to take it so terribly to heart, but her voice trembled a little, for this had been a night of incident to her. Rob knew that it was for his sake she had checked that tear, and as he sat in his lodgings through the night he saw that she had put aside her own troubles to lessen his. When he thought of that he drew a great breath. The next moment his whole body shuddered to think what a brute he had been, and then she seemed to touch his elbow again, and he half rose from his chair in a transport.
As soon as he reached his lodgings Rob had taken up The Scorn of Scorns, which he had not yet returned to Mr. Licquorish, and re-read it in a daze. There were things in it so beautiful now that they caught in his throat and stopped his reading; they took him so far into the thoughts of a girl that to go farther seemed like eavesdropping. When he read it first The Scorn of Scorns had been written in a tongue Rob did not know, but now he had the key in his hands. There is a universal language that comes upon young people suddenly, and enables an English girl, for instance, to understand what a Chinaman means when he looks twice at her. Rob had mastered it so suddenly that he was only its slave at present. His horse had run away with him.
Had the critic of The Scorn of Scorns been a bald-headed man with two chins, who did not know the authoress, he would have smiled at the severity with which she took perfidious man to task, and written an indulgent criticism without reading beyond the second chapter. If he had been her father he would have laughed a good deal at her heroics, but now and again they would have touched him, and he would have locked the book away in his desk, seeing no particular cleverness in it, but feeling proud of his daughter. It would have brought such thoughts to him about his wife as suddenly fill a man with tenderness—thoughts he seldom gives expression to, though she would like to hear them.
Rob, however, drank in the book, his brain filled with the writer of it. It was about a young girl who had given her heart to a stranger, and one day when she was full of the joy of his love he had disappeared. She waited, wondering, fearing, and then her heart broke, and her only desire was to die. No one could account for the change that came over her, for she was proud, and her relatives were not sympathetic. She had no mother to go to, and her father could not have understood. She became listless, and though she smiled and talked to all, when she went to her solitary bed-chamber she turned her face in silence to the wall. Then a fever came to her, and after that she had to be taken to the Continent. What shook her listlessness was an accident to her father. It was feared that he was on his deathbed, and as she nursed him she saw that her life had been a selfish one. From that moment she resolved if he got better (is it not terrible this, that the best of us try to make terms with God?) to devote her life to him, and to lead a nobler existence among the poor and suffering ones at home. The sudden death of a relative who was not a good man frightened her so much that she became ill again, and now she was so fearful of being untruthful that she could not make a statement of fact without adding 'I think so,' under her breath. She let people take advantage of her lest she should be taking advantage of them, and when she passed a cripple on the road she walked very slowly so that he should not feel his infirmity.
Years afterwards she saw the man who had pretended to love her and then ridden away. He said that he could explain everything to her, and that he loved her still; but she drew herself up, and with a look of ineffable scorn, told him that she no longer loved him. When they first met, she said, she had been little more than a child, and so she had made an idol of him. But long since the idol had crumbled to pieces, and now she knew that she had worshipped a thing of clay. She wished him well, but she no longer loved him. As Lord Caltonbridge listened he knew that she spoke the truth, and his eyes drooped before her dignified but contemptuous gaze. Then, concludes the author, dwelling upon this little triumph with a satisfaction that hardly suggests a heart broken beyond mending, he turned upon his heel, at last realising what he was; and, feeling smaller and meaner than had been his wont, left the Grange for the second and last time.
How much of this might be fiction, Rob was not in a mind to puzzle over. It seemed to him that the soul of a pure-minded girl had been laid bare to him. To look was almost a desecration, and yet it was there whichever way he turned. A great longing rose in his heart to see Mary Abinger again and tell her what he thought of himself now. He rose and paced the floor, and the words he could not speak last night came to his lips in a torrent. Like many men who live much alone, Rob often held imaginary conversations with persons far distant, and he denounced himself to this girl a score of times as he paced back and forwards. Always she looked at him in reply with that wonderful smile which had pleaded with him not to be unhappy on her account. Horrible fears laid hold of him that after the guests had departed she had gone to her room and wept. That villain Sir Clement had doubtless left the castle for the second and last time, 'feeling smaller and meaner than had been his wont' (Rob clenched his fists at the thought of him), but how could he dare to rage at the baronet when he had been as great a scoundrel himself? Rob looked about him for his hat; a power not to be resisted was drawing him back to Dome Castle.
He heard the clatter of crockery in the kitchen as he opened his door, and it recalled him to himself. At that moment it flashed upon him that he had forgotten to write any notice of Colonel Abinger's speech. He had neglected the office and come straight home. At any other time this would have startled him, but now it seemed the merest trifle. It passed for the moment from his mind, and its place was taken by the remembrance that his boots were muddy and his coat soaking. For the first time in his life the seriousness of going out with his hair unbrushed came home to him. He had hitherto been content to do little more than fling a comb at it once a day. Rob returned to his room, and, crossing to the mirror, looked anxiously into it to see what he was like. He took off his coat and brushed it vigorously.
Having laved his face, he opened his box, and produced from it two neckties, which he looked at for a long time before he could make up his mind which to wear. Then he changed his boots. When he had brushed his hat he remembered with anxiety some one on the Mirror's having asked him why he wore it so far back on his head. He tilted it forward, and carefully examined the effect in the looking-glass. Then forgetful that the sounds from the kitchen betokened the approach of breakfast, he hurried out of the house. It was a frosty morning, and already the streets were alive, but Rob looked at no one. For women in the abstract he now felt an unconscious pity, because they were all so very unlike Mary Abinger. He had grown so much in the night that the Rob Angus of the day before seemed but an acquaintance of his youth.
He was inside the grounds of Dome Castle again before he realised that he had no longer a right to be there. By fits and starts he remembered not to soil his boots. He might have been stopped at the lodge, but at present it had no tenant. A year before, Colonel Abinger had realised that he could not keep both a horse and a lodge-keeper, and that he could keep neither if his daughter did not part with her maid. He yielded to Miss Abinger's entreaties, and kept the horse.
Rob went on at a swinging pace till he turned an abrupt corner of the walk and saw Dome Castle standing up before him. Then he started, and turned back hastily. This was not owing to his remembering that he was trespassing, but because he had seen a young lady coming down the steps. Rob had walked five miles without his breakfast to talk to Miss Abinger, but as soon as he saw her he fled. When he came to himself he was so fearful of her seeing him, that he hurried behind a tree, where he had the appearance of a burglar.
Mary Abinger came quickly up the avenue, unconscious that she was watched, and Rob discovered in a moment that after all the prettiest thing about her was the way she walked. She carried a little basket in her hand, and her dress was a blending of brown and yellow, with a great deal of fur about the throat. Rob, however, did not take the dress into account until she had passed him, when, no longer able to see her face, he gazed with delight after her.
Had Rob been a lady he would probably have come to the conclusion that the reason why Miss Abinger wore all that fur instead of a jacket was because she knew it became her better. Perhaps it was. Even though a young lady has the satisfaction of feeling that her heart is now adamant, that is no excuse for her dressing badly. Rob's opinion was that it would matter very little what she wore, because some pictures look lovely in any frame, but that was a point on which he and Miss Abinger always differed. Only after long consideration had she come to the conclusion that the hat she was now wearing was undoubtedly the shape that suited her best, and even yet she was ready to spend time in thinking about other shapes. What would have seemed even more surprising to Rob was that she had made up her mind that one side of her face was better than the other side.
No mere man, however, could ever have told which was the better side of Miss Abinger's face. It was a face to stir the conscience of a good man, and make unworthy men keep their distance, for it spoke first of purity, which can never be present anywhere without being felt. All men are born with a craving to find it, and they never look for it but among women. The strength of the craving is the measure of any man's capacity to love, and without it love on his side would be impossible.
Mary Abinger was fragile because she was so sensitive. She carried everywhere a fear to hurt the feelings of others, that was a bodkin at her heart. Men and women in general prefer to give and take. The keenness with which she felt necessitated the garment of reserve, which those who did not need it for themselves considered pride. Her weakness called for something to wrap it up. There were times when it pleased her to know that the disguise was effective, but not when it deceived persons she admired. The cynicism of The Scorn of Scorns was as much a cloak as her coldness, for she had an exquisite love of what is good and fine in life that idealised into heroes persons she knew or heard of as having a virtue. It would have been cruel to her to say that there are no heroes. When she found how little of the heroic there was in Sir Clement Dowton she told herself that there are none, and sometimes other persons had made her repeat this since. She seldom reasoned about things, however, unless her feelings had been wounded, and soon again she was dreaming of the heroic. Heroes are people to love, and Mary's idea of what love must be would have frightened some persons from loving her. With most men affection for a woman is fed on her regard for them. Greatness in love is no more common than greatness in leading armies. Only the hundredth man does not prefer to dally where woman is easiest to win; most finding the maids of honour a satisfactory substitute for the princess. So the boy in the street prefers two poor apples to a sound one. It may be the secret of England's greatness.
On this Christmas Day Mary Abinger came up the walk rapidly, scorning herself for ever having admired Sir Clement Dowton. She did everything in the superlative degree, and so rather wondered that a thunderbolt was not sent direct from above to kill him—as if there were thunderbolts for every one. If we got our deserts most of us would be knocked on the head with a broomstick.
When she was out of sight, Rob's courage returned, and he remembered that he was there in the hope of speaking to her. He hurried up the walk after her, but when he neared her he fell back in alarm. His heart was beating violently. He asked himself in a quaver what it was that he had arranged to say first.
In her little basket Mary had Christmas presents for a few people, inhabitants of a knot of houses not far distant from the castle gates. They were her father's tenants, and he rather enjoyed their being unable to pay much rent, it made them so dependent. Had Rob seen how she was received in some of these cottages, how she sat talking merrily with one bed-ridden old woman whom cheerfulness kept alive, and not only gave a disabled veteran a packet of tobacco, but filled his pipe for him, so that he gallantly said he was reluctant to smoke it (trust an old man for gallantry), and even ate pieces of strange cakes to please her hostesses, he would often have thought of it afterwards. However, it would have been unnecessary prodigality to show him that, for his mind was filled with the incomparable manner in which she knocked at doors and smiled when she came out. Once she dropped her basket, and he could remember nothing so exquisite as her way of picking it up.
Rob lurked behind trees and peered round hedges, watching Miss Abinger go from one house to another, but he could not shake himself free of the fear that all the world had its eye on him. Hitherto not his honesty but its bluntness had told against him (the honesty of a good many persons is only stupidity asserting itself), and now he had not the courage to be honest. When any wayfarers approached he whistled to the fields as if he had lost a dog in them, or walked smartly eastward (until he got round a corner) like one who was in a hurry to reach Silchester. He looked covertly at the few persons who passed him, to see if they were looking at him. A solitary crow fluttered into the air from behind a wall, and Rob started. In a night he had become self-conscious.
At last Mary turned homewards, with the sun in her face. Rob was moving toward the hamlet when he saw her, and in spite of himself he came to a dead stop. He knew that if she passed inside the gates of the castle his last chance of speaking to her was gone; but it was not that which made him keep his ground. He was shaking as the thin boards used to do when they shot past his circular saw. His mind, in short, had run away and left him.
On other occasions Mary would not have thought of doing more than bow to Rob, but he had Christmas Day in his favour, and she smiled.
'A happy Christmas to you, Mr. Angus,' she said, holding out her hand.
It was then that Rob lifted his hat, and overcame his upbringing. His unaccustomed fingers insisted on lifting it in such a cautious way that, in a court of law, it could have been argued that he was only planting it more firmly on his head. He did not do it well, but he did it. Some men would have succumbed altogether on realising so sharply that it is not women who are terrible, but a woman. Here is a clear case in which the part is greater than the whole.
Rob would have liked to wish Miss Abinger a happy Christmas too, but the words would not form, and had she chosen she could have left him looking very foolish. But Mary had blushed slightly when she caught sight of Rob standing helplessly in the middle of the road, and this meant that she understood what he was doing there. A girl can overlook a great deal in a man who admires her. She feels happier. It increases her self-respect. So Miss Abinger told him that, if the frost held, the snow would soon harden, but if a thaw came it would melt; and then Rob tore out of himself the words that tended to slip back as they reached his tongue.
'I don't know how I could have done it,' he said feebly, beginning at the end of what he had meant to say. There he stuck again.
Mary knew what he spoke of, and her pale face coloured. She shrank from talking of The Scorn of Scorns.
'Please don't let that trouble you,' she said, with an effort. 'I was really only a schoolgirl when I wrote it, and Miss Meredith got it printed recently as a birthday surprise for me. I assure you I would never have thought of publishing it myself for—for people to read. Schoolgirls, you know, Mr. Angus, are full of such silly sentiment.'
A breeze of indignation shook 'No, no!' out of Rob, but Mary did not heed.
'I know better now,' she said; 'indeed, not even you, the hardest of my critics, sees more clearly than I the—the childishness of the book.'
Miss Abinger's voice faltered a very little, and Rob's sufferings allowed him to break out.
'No,' he said, with a look of appeal in his eyes that were as grey as hers, 'it was a madness that let me write like that. The Scorn of Scorns is the most beautiful, the tenderest——' He stuck once more. Miss Abinger could have helped him again, but she did not. Perhaps she wanted him to go on. He could not do so, but he repeated what he had said already, which may have been the next best thing to do.
'You do surprise me now, Mr. Angus,' said Mary, light-hearted all at once, 'for you know you scarcely wrote like that.'
'Ah, but I have read the book since I saw you,' Rob blurted out, 'and that has made such a difference.'
A wiser man might have said a more foolish thing. Mary looked up smiling. Her curiosity was aroused, and at once she became merciless. Hitherto she had only tried to be kind to Rob, but now she wanted to be kind to herself.
'You can hardly have re-read my story since last night,' she said, shaking her fair head demurely.
'I read it all through the night,' exclaimed Rob, in such a tone that Mary started. She had no desire to change the conversation, however; she did not start so much as that.
'But you had to write papa's speech?' she said.
'I forgot to do it,' Rob answered awkwardly. His heart sank, for he saw that here was another cause he had given Miss Abinger to dislike him. Possibly he was wrong. There may be extenuating circumstances that will enable the best of daughters to overlook an affront to her father's speeches.
'But it was in the Mirror. I read it,' said Mary.
'Was it?' said Rob, considerably relieved. How it could have got there was less of a mystery to him than to her, for Protheroe had sub-edited so many speeches to tenants that in an emergency he could always guess at what the landlords said.
'It was rather short,' Mary admitted, 'compared with the report in the Argus. Papa thought——' She stopped hastily.
'He thought it should have been longer?' asked Rob. Then before he had time to think of it, he had told her of his first meeting with the colonel.
'I remember papa was angry at the time,' Mary said, 'but you need not have been afraid of his recognising you last night. He did recognise you.'
'Yes; but you were his guest.'
Rob could not think of anything more to say, and he saw that Mary was about to bid him good-morning. He found himself walking with her in the direction of the castle gates.
'This scenery reminds me of Scotland,' he said.
'I love it,' said Mary (man's only excellence over woman is that his awe of this word prevents his using it so lightly), 'and I am glad that I shall be here until the season begins.'
Rob had no idea what the season was, but he saw that some time Mary would be going away, and his face said, what would he do then?
'Then I go to London with the Merediths,' she continued, adding thoughtfully, 'I suppose you mean to go to London, Mr. Angus? My brother says that all literary men drift there.'
'Yes, oh yes,' said Rob.
'Immediately,' he replied recklessly.
They reached the gates, and, as Mary held out her hand, the small basket was tilted upon her arm, and a card fluttered out.
'It is a Christmas card a little boy in one of those houses gave me,' she said, as Rob returned it to her. 'Have you got many Christmas cards to-day, Mr. Angus?'
'None,' said Rob.
'Not even from your relatives?' asked Mary, beginning to pity him more than was necessary.
'I have no relatives,' he replied; 'they are all dead.'
'I was in Scotland two summers ago,' Mary said, very softly, 'at a place called Glen Quharity; papa was there shooting. But I don't suppose you know it?'
'Our Glen Quharity!' exclaimed Rob; 'why, you must have passed through Thrums?'
'We were several times in Thrums. Have you been there?'
'I was born in it; I was never thirty miles away from it until I came here.'
'Oh,' cried Mary, 'then you must be the literary——' She stopped and reddened.
'The literary saw-miller,' said Rob, finishing her sentence; 'that was what they called me, I know, at Glen Quharity Lodge.'
Mary looked up at him with a new interest, for when she was there Glen Quharity had been full of the saw-miller, who could not only talk in Greek, but had a reputation for tossing the caber.
'Papa told me some months ago,' she said, in surprise, 'that the liter——, that you had joined the Press in England, but he evidently did not know of your being in Silchester.'
'But how could he have known anything about me?' asked Rob, surprised in turn.
'This is so strange,' Mary answered. 'Why, papa takes credit for having got you your appointment on the press.'
'It was a minister, a Mr. Rorrison, who did that for me,' said Rob; 'indeed, he was so good that I could have joined the Press a year ago by his help, had not circumstances compelled me to remain at home.'
'I did not know the clergyman's name,' Mary said, 'but it was papa who spoke of you to him first. Don't you remember writing out this clergyman's sermon in shorthand, and a messenger's coming to you for your report on horseback next day?'
'Certainly I do,' said Rob, 'and he asked me to write it out in longhand as quickly as possible. That was how I got to know Mr. Rorrison; and, as I understood, he had sent for the report of the sermon, on hearing accidentally that I had taken it down, because he had some reason for wanting a copy of it.'
'Perhaps that was how it was told to you afterwards,' Mary said, 'but it was really papa who wanted the sermon.'
'I should like to know all about it,' Rob said, seeing that she hesitated. Colonel Abinger had not seemed to him the kind of man who would send a messenger on horseback about the country in quest of sermons.
'I am afraid,' Mary explained, 'that it arose out of a wager. This clergyman was staying at the Lodge, but papa was the only other person there who would go as far as Thrums to hear him preach. I was not there that year, so I don't know why papa went, but when he returned he told the others that the sermon had been excellent. There is surely an English church in Thrums, for I am sure papa would not think a sermon excellent that was preached in a chapel?'
'There is,' said Rob; 'but in Thrums it is called the chapel.'
'Well, some badinage arose out of papa's eulogy, and it ended in a bet that he could not tell the others what this fine sermon was about. He was to get a night to think it over. Papa took the bet a little rashly, for when he put it to himself he found that he could not even remember the text. As he told me afterwards (here Mary smiled a little), he had a general idea of the sermon, but could not quite put it into words, and he was fearing that he would lose the wager (and be laughed at, which always vexes papa), when he heard of your report. So a messenger was sent to Thrums for it—and papa won his bet.'
'But how did Mr. Rorrison hear of my report, then?'
'Oh, I forgot; papa told him afterwards, and was so pleased with his victory, that when he heard Mr. Rorrison had influence with some press people, he suggested to him that something might be done for you.'
'This is strange,' said Rob, 'and perhaps the strangest thing about it is that if Colonel Abinger could identify me with the saw-miller, he would be sorry that he had interfered.'
Mary saw the force of this so clearly that she could not contradict him.
'Surely,' she said, 'I heard when I was at the Lodge of your having a niece, and that you and the little child lived alone in the saw-mill?'
'Yes,' Rob answered hoarsely, 'but she is dead. She wandered from home, and was found dead on a mountain-side.'
'Was it long ago?' asked Mary, very softly.
'Only a few months ago,' Rob said, making his answer as short as possible, for the death of Davy moved him still. 'She was only four years old.'
Mary's hand went half-way toward his involuntarily. His mouth was twitching. He knew how good she was.
'That card,' he began, and hesitated.
'Oh, would you care to have it?' said Mary.
But just then Colonel Abinger walked into them, somewhat amazed to see his daughter talking to one of the lower orders. Neither Rob nor Mary had any inclination to tell him that this was the Scotsman he had befriended.
'This is Mr. Angus, papa,' said Mary, 'who—who was with us last night.'
'Mr. Angus and I have met before, I think,' replied her father, recalling the fishing episode. His brow darkened, and Rob was ready for anything, but Colonel Abinger was a gentleman.
'I always wanted to see you again, Mr. Angus,' he said, with an effort, 'to ask you—what flies you were using that day?'
Rob muttered something in answer, which the colonel did not try to catch. Mary smiled and bowed, and the next moment she had disappeared with her father down the avenue.
What followed cannot be explained. When Rob roused himself from his amazement at Mary Abinger's having been in Thrums without his feeling her presence, something made him go a few yards inside the castle grounds, and, lying lightly on the snow, he saw the Christmas card. He lifted it up as if it were a rare piece of china, and held it in his two hands as though it were a bird which might escape. He did not know whether it had dropped there of its own accord, and doubt and transport fought for victory on his face. At last he put the card exultingly into his pocket, his chest heaved, and he went toward Silchester whistling.