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In volunteering a promise not to inform her brother of Peak's singular position, Marcella spoke with sincerity. She was prompted by incongruous feelings--a desire to compel Godwin's gratitude, and disdain of the circumstances in which she had discovered him. There seemed to be little likelihood of Christian's learning from any other person that she had met with Peak at Budleigh Salterton; he had, indeed, dined with her at the Walworths', and might improve his acquaintance with that family, but it was improbable that they would ever mention in his hearing the stranger who had casually been presented to them, or indeed ever again think of him. If she held her peace, the secret of Godwin's retirement must still remain impenetrable. He would pursue his ends as hitherto, thinking of her, if at all, as a weak woman who had immodestly betrayed a hopeless passion, and who could be trusted never to wish him harm.
That was Marcella's way of reading a man's thoughts. She did not attribute to Peak the penetration which would make him uneasy. In spite of masculine proverbs, it is the habit of women to suppose that the other sex regards them confidingly, ingenuously. Marcella was unusually endowed with analytic intelligence, but in this case she believed what she hoped. She knew that Peak's confidence in her must be coloured with contempt, but this mattered little so long as he paid her the compliment of feeling sure that she was superior to ignoble temptations. Many a woman would behave with treacherous malice. It was in her power to expose him, to confound all his schemes, for she knew the authorship of that remarkable paper in The Critical Review. Before receiving Peak's injunction of secrecy, Earwaker had talked of 'The New Sophistry' with Moxey and with Malkin; the request came too late. In her interview with Godwin at the Exeter hotel, she had not even hinted at this knowledge, partly because she was unconscious that Peak imagined the affair a secret between himself and Earwaker, partly because she thought it unworthy of her even to seem to threaten. It gratified her, however, to feel that he was at her mercy, and the thought preoccupied her for many days.
Passion which has the intellect on its side is more easily endured than that which offers sensual defiance to all reasoning, but on the other hand it lasts much longer. Marcella was not consumed by her emotions; she often thought calmly, coldly, of the man she loved. Yet he was seldom long out of her mind, and the instigation of circumstances at times made her suffering intense. Such an occasion was her first meeting with Sidwell Warricombe, which took place at the Walworths', in London. Down in Devonshire she had learnt that a family named Warricombe were Peak's intimate friends; nothing more than this, for indeed no one was in a position to tell her more. Wakeful jealousy caused her to fix upon the fact as one of significance; Godwin's evasive manner when she questioned him confirmed her suspicions; and as soon as she was brought face to face with Sidwell, suspicion became certainty. She knew at once that Miss Warricombe was the very person who would be supremely attractive to Godwin Peak.
An interval of weeks, and again she saw the face that in the meantime had been as present to her imagination as Godwin's own features. This time she conversed at some length with Miss Warricombe. Was it merely a fancy that the beautiful woman looked at her, spoke to her, with some exceptional interest? By now she had learnt that the Moorhouses and the Warricombes were connected in close friendship: it was all but certain, then, that Miss Moorhouse had told Miss Warricombe of Peak's visit to Budleigh Salterton, and its incidents. Could this in any way be explanatory of the steady, searching look in those soft eyes?
Marcella had always regarded the emotion of jealousy as characteristic of a vulgar nature. Now that it possessed her, she endeavoured to call it by other names; to persuade herself that she was indignant on abstract grounds, or anxious only with reference to Peak's true interests. She could not affect surprise. So intensely sympathetic was her reading of Godwin's character that she understood--or at all events recognised--the power Sidwell would possess over him. He did not care for enlightenment in a woman; he was sensual--though in a subtle way; the aristocratic vein in his temper made him subject to strong impressions from trivialities of personal demeanour, of social tone.
Yet all was mere conjecture. She had not dared to utter Peak's name, lest in doing so she should betray herself. Constantly planning to make further discoveries, she as constantly tried to dismiss all thought of the matter--to learn indifference. Already she had debased herself, and her nature must be contemptible indeed if anything could lure her forward on such a path.
None the less, she was assiduous in maintaining friendly relations with the Walworths. Christian, too, had got into the habit of calling there; it was significant of the noticeable change which was come upon him--a change his sister was at no loss to understand from the moment that he informed her (gravely, but without expressiveness) of Mr. Palmer's death. Instead of shunning ordinary society, he seemed bent on extending the circle of his acquaintance. He urged Marcella to invite friendly calls, to have guests at dinner. There seemed to be a general revival of his energies, exhibited in the sphere of study as well as of amusement. Not a day went by without his purchasing books or scientific apparatus, and the house was brightened with works of art chosen in the studios which Miss Walworth advised him to visit. All the amiabilities of his character came into free play; with Marcella he was mirthful, affectionate, even caressing. He grew scrupulous about his neckties, his gloves, and was careful to guard his fingers against corroding acids when he worked in the laboratory. Such indications of hopefulness caused Marcella more misgiving than pleasure; she made no remark, but waited with anxiety for some light on the course of events.
Just before dinner, one evening, as she sat alone in the drawing-room, Christian entered with a look which portended some strange announcement. He spoke abruptly:
'I have heard something astonishing.'
'What is that?'
'This afternoon I went to the matinee at the Vaudeville, and found myself among a lot of our friends--the Walworths and the Hunters and the Mortons. Between the acts I was talking to Hunter, when a man came up to us, spoke to Hunter, and was introduced to me--a Mr Warricombe. What do you think he said? "I believe you know my friend Peak, Mr. Moxey?" "Peak? To be sure! Can you tell me what has become of him?" He gave me an odd look. "Why, I met him last, some two months ago, in Devonshire." At that moment we were obliged to go to our places, and I couldn't get hold of the fellow again. Hunter told me something about him; he knows the Walworths, it seems--belongs to a good Devonshire family. What on earth can Peak be doing over there?'
Marcella kept silence. The event she had judged improbable had come to pass. The chance of its doing so had of course increased since Christian began to associate freely with the Walworths and their circle. Yet, considering the slightness of the connection between that group of people and the Warricombe family, there had seemed no great likelihood of Christian's getting acquainted with the latter. She debated rapidly in her troubled mind how to meet this disclosure. Curiosity would, of course, impel her brother to follow up the clue; he would again encounter Warricombe, and must then learn all the facts of Peak's position. To what purpose should she dissemble her own knowledge?
Did she desire that Godwin should remain in security? A tremor more akin to gladness than its opposite impeded her utterance. If Warricombe became aware of all that was involved in Godwin Peak's withdrawal from among his friends--if (as must follow) he imparted the discovery to his sister----
The necessity of speaking enabled her to ignore these turbulent speculations, which yet were anything but new to her.
'They met at Budleigh Salterton,' she said, quietly.
'Who did? Warricombe and Peak?'
'Yes. At the Moorhouses'. It was when I was there.'
Christian stared at her.
'When you were there? But--you met Peak?'
His sister smiled, turning from the astonished gaze.
'Yes, I met him.'
'But, why the deuce----? Why didn't you tell me, Marcella?'
'He asked me not to speak of it. He didn't wish you to know that-- that he has decided to become a clergyman.'
Christian was stricken dumb. In spite of his sister's obvious agitation, he could not believe what she told him; her smile gave him an excuse for supposing that she jested.
'Peak a clergyman?' He burst out laughing. 'What's the meaning of all this?--Do speak intelligibly! What's the fellow up to?'
'I am quite serious. He is studying for Orders--has been for this last year.'
In desperation, Christian turned to another phase of the subject.
'Then Malkin was mistaken?'
'And you mean to tell me that Peak----? Give me more details. Where's he living? How has he got to know people like these Warricombes?'
Marcella told all that she knew, and without injunction of secrecy. The affair had passed out of her hands; destiny must fulfil itself. And again the tremor that resembled an uneasy joy went through her frame.
'But how,' asked Christian, 'did this fellow Warricombe come to know that I was a friend of Peak's?'
'That's a puzzle to me. I shouldn't have thought he would have remembered my name; and, even if he had, how could he conclude----'
She broke off, pondering. Warricombe must have made inquiries, possibly suggested by suspicions.
'I scarcely spoke of Mr. Peak to anyone,' she added. 'People saw, of course, that we were acquaintances, but it couldn't have seemed a thing of any importance.'
'You spoke with him in private, it seems?'
'Yes, I saw him for a few minutes--in Exeter.'
'And you hadn't said anything to the Walworths that--that would surprise them?'
'Purposely not.--Why should I injure him?'
Christian knit his brows. He understood too well why his sister should refrain from such injury.
'You would have behaved in the same way,' Marcella added.
'Why really--yes, perhaps so. Yet I don't know.--In plain English, Peak is a wolf in sheep's clothing!'
'I don't know anything about that,' she replied, with gloomy evasion.
'Nonsense, my dear girl!--Had he the impudence to pretend to you that he was sincere?'
'He made no declaration.'
'But you are convinced he is acting the hypocrite, Marcella. You spoke of the risk of injuring him.--What are his motives? What does he aim at?'
'Scarcely a bishopric, I should think,' she replied, bitterly.
'Then, by Jove! Earwaker may be right!'
Marcella darted an inquiring look at him.
'What has he thought?'
'I'm ashamed to speak of it. He suggested once that Peak might disguise himself for the sake of--of making a good marriage.'
The reply was a nervous laugh.
'Look here, Marcella.' He caught her hand. 'This is a very awkward business. Peak is disgracing himself; he will be unmasked; there'll be a scandal. It was kind of you to keep silence--when don't you behave kindly, dear girl?--but think of the possible results to us. We shall be something very like accomplices.'
'How?' Marcella exclaimed, impatiently. 'Who need know that we were so intimate with him?'
'Warricombe seems to know it.'
'Who can prove that he isn't sincere?'
'No one, perhaps. But it will seem a very odd thing that he hid away from all his old friends. You remember, I betrayed that to Warricombe, before I knew that it mattered.'
Yes, and Mr. Warricombe could hardly forget the circumstance. He would press his investigation--knowing already, perhaps, of Peak's approaches to his sister Sidwell.
'Marcella, a man plays games like that at his own peril. I don't like this kind of thing. Perhaps he has audacity enough to face out any disclosure. But it's out of the question for you and me to nurse his secret. We have no right to do so.'
'You propose to denounce him?'
Marcella gazed at her brother with an agitated look.
'Not denounce. I am fond of Peak; I wish him well. But I can't join him in a dishonourable plot.--Then, we mustn't endanger our place in society.'
'I have no place in society,' Marcella answered, coldly.
'Don't say that, and don't think it. We are both going to make more of our lives; we are going to think very little of the past, and a great deal of the future. We are still young; we have happiness before us.'
'We?' she asked, with shaken voice.
'Yes--both of us! Who can say'----
Again he took her hand and pressed it warmly in both his own. Just then the door opened, and dinner was announced. Christian talked on, in low hurried tones, for several minutes, affectionately, encouragingly. After dinner, he wished to resume the subject, but Marcella declared that there was no more to be said; he must act as honour and discretion bade him; for herself, she should simply keep silence as hitherto. And she left him to his reflections.
Though with so little of ascertained fact to guide her, Marcella interpreted the hints afforded by her slight knowledge of the Warricombes with singular accuracy. Precisely as she had imagined, Buckland Warricombe was going about on Peak's track, learning all he could concerning the theological student, forming acquaintance with anyone likely to supplement his discoveries. And less than a fortnight after the meeting at the theatre, Christian made known to his sister that Warricombe and he had had a second conversation, this time uninterrupted.
'He inquired after you, Marcella, and--really I had no choice but to ask him to call here. I hardly think he'll come. He's not the kind of man I care for--though liberal enough, and all that.'
'Wasn't it rather rash to give that invitation?'
'The fact was, I so dreaded the appearance of--of seeming to avoid him,' Christian pleaded, awkwardly. 'You know, that affair--we won't talk any more of it; but, if there should be a row about it, you are sure to be compromised unless we have managed to guard ourselves. If Warricombe calls, we must talk about Peak without the least show of restraint. Let it appear that we thought his choice of a profession unlikely, but not impossible. Happily, we needn't know anything about that anonymous Critical article.--Indeed, I think I have acted wisely.'
'Yes, I suppose you have.'
'And, by the way, I have spoken of it to Earwaker. Not of your part in the story, of course. I told him that I had met a man who knew all about Peak.--Impossible, you see, for me to keep silence with so intimate a friend.'
'Then Mr. Earwaker will write to him?' said Marcella, reflectively.
'I couldn't give him any address.'
'How does Mr. Warricombe seem to regard Mr. Peak?'
'With a good deal of interest, and of the friendliest kind. Naturally enough; they were College friends, as you know, before I had heard of Peak's existence.'
'He has no suspicions?'
Christian thought not, but her brother's judgment had not much weight with Marcella.
She at once dreaded and desired Warricombe's appearance. If he thought it worth while to cultivate her acquaintance, she would henceforth have the opportunity of studying Peak's relations with the Warricombes; on the other hand, this was to expose herself to suffering and temptation from which the better part of her nature shrank with disdain. That she might seem to have broken the promise voluntarily made to Godwin was a small matter; not so the risk of being overcome by an ignoble jealousy. She had no overweening confidence in the steadfastness of her self-respect, if circumstances were all on the side of sensual impulse. And the longer she brooded on this peril, the more it allured her. For therewith was connected the one satisfaction which still remained to her: however little he desired to keep her constantly in mind, Godwin Peak must of necessity do so after what had passed between them. Had but her discovery remained her own secret, then the pleasure of commanding her less pure emotions, of proving to Godwin that she was above the weakness of common women, might easily have prevailed. Now that her knowledge was shared by others, she had lost that safeguard against lower motive. The argument that to unmask hypocrisy was in itself laudable she dismissed with contempt; let that be the resource of a woman who would indulge her rancour whilst keeping up the inward pretence of sanctity. If she erred in the ways characteristic of her sex, it should at all events be a conscious degradation.
'Have you seen that odd creature Malkin lately?' she asked of Christian, a day or two after.
'No, I haven't; I thought of him to make up our dinner on Sunday; but you had rather not have him here, I daresay?'
'Oh, he is amusing. Ask him by all means,' said Marcella, carelessly.
'He may have heard about Peak from Earwaker, you know. If he begins to talk before people'----
'Things have gone too far for such considerations,' replied his sister, with a petulance strange to her habits of speech.
'Well, yes,' admitted Christian, glancing at her. 'We can't be responsible.'
He reproached himself for this attitude towards Peak, but was heartily glad that Marcella seemed to have learnt to regard the intriguer with a wholesome indifference.
On the second day after Christmas, as they sat talking idly in the dusking twilight, the door of the drawing-room was thrown open, and a visitor announced. The name answered with such startling suddenness to the thought with which Marcella had been occupied that, for an instant, she could not believe that she had heard aright. Yet it was undoubtedly Mr. Warricombe who presented himself. He came forward with a slightly hesitating air, but Christian made haste to smooth the situation. With the help of those commonplaces by which even intellectual people are at times compelled to prove their familiarity with social usages, conversation was set in movement.
Buckland could not be quite himself. The consciousness that he had sought these people not at all for their own sake made him formal and dry; his glances, his half-smile, indicated a doubt whether the Moxeys belonged entirely to the sphere in which he was at home. Hence a rather excessive politeness, such as the man who sets much store on breeding exhibits to those who may at any moment, even in a fraction of a syllable, prove themselves his inferiors. With men and women of the unmistakably lower orders, Buckland could converse in a genial tone that recommended him to their esteem; on the borderland of refinement, his sympathies were repressed, and he held the distinctive part of his mind in reserve.
Marcella desired to talk agreeably, but a weight lay upon her tongue; she was struck with the resemblance in Warricombe's features to those of his sister, and this held her in a troubled preoccupation, occasionally evident when she made a reply, or tried to diversify the talk by leading to a new topic. It was rather early in the afternoon, and she had slight hope that any other caller would appear; a female face would have been welcome to her, even that of foolish Mrs. Morton, who might possibly look in before six o'clock. To her relief the door did presently open, but the sharp, creaking footstep which followed was no lady's; the servant announced Mr. Malkin.
Marcella's eyes gleamed strangely. Not with the light of friendly welcome, though for that it could be mistaken. She rose quietly, and stepped forward with a movement which again seemed to betoken eagerness of greeting. In presenting the newcomer to Mr. Warricombe, she spoke with an uncertain voice. Buckland was more than formal. The stranger's aspect impressed him far from favourably, and he resented as an impudence the hearty hand-grip to which he perforce submitted.
'I come to plead with you,' exclaimed Malkin, turning to Marcella, in his abrupt, excited way. 'After accepting your invitation to dine, I find that the thing is utterly and absolutely impossible. I had entirely forgotten an engagement of the very gravest nature. I am conscious of behaving in quite an unpardonable way.'
Marcella laughed down his excuses. She had suddenly become so mirthful that Christian looked at her in surprise, imagining that she was unable to restrain her sense of the ridiculous in Malkin's demeanour.
'I have hurried up from Wrotham,' pursued the apologist. 'Did I tell you, Moxey, that I had taken rooms down there, to be able to spend a day or two near my friends the Jacoxes occasionally? On the way here, I looked in at Staple Inn, but Earwaker is away somewhere. What an odd thing that people will go off without letting one know! It's such common ill-luck of mine to find people gone away--I'm really astonished to find you at home, Miss Moxey.'
Marcella looked at Warricombe and laughed.
'You must understand that subjectively,' she said, with nervous gaiety which again excited her brother's surprise. 'Please don't be discouraged by it from coming to see us again; I am very rarely out in the afternoon.'
'But,' persisted Malkin, 'it's precisely my ill fortune to hit on those rare moments when people are out!--Now, I never meet acquaintances in the streets of London; but, if I happen to be abroad, as likely as not I encounter the last person I should expect to find. Why, you remember, I rush over to America for scarcely a week's stay, and there I come across a man who has disappeared astonishingly from the ken of all his friends!'
Christian looked at Marcella. She was leaning forward, her lips slightly parted, her eyes wide as if in gaze at something that fascinated her. He saw that she spoke, but her voice was hardly to be recognised.
'Are you quite sure of that instance, Mr. Malkin?'
'Yes, I feel quite sure, Miss Moxey. Undoubtedly it was Peak!'
Buckland Warricombe, who had been waiting for a chance of escape, suddenly wore a look of interest. He rapidly surveyed the trio. Christian, somewhat out of countenance, tried to answer Malkin in a tone of light banter.
'It happens, my dear fellow, that Peak has not left England since we lost sight of him.'
'What? He has been heard of? Where is he then?'
'Mr. Warricombe can assure you that he has been living for a year at Exeter.'
Buckland, perceiving that he had at length come upon something important to his purposes, smiled genially.
'Yes, I have had the pleasure of seeing Peak down in Devon from time to time.'
'Then it was really an illusion!' cried Malkin. 'I was too hasty. Yet that isn't a charge that can be often brought against me, I think. Does Earwaker know of this?'
'He has lately heard,' replied Christian, who in vain sought for a means of checking Malkin's loquacity. 'I thought he might have told you.'
'Certainly not. The thing is quite new to me. And what is Peak doing down there, pray? Why did he conceal himself?'
Christian gazed appealingly at his sister. She returned the look steadily, but neither stirred nor spoke. It was Warricombe's voice that next sounded:
'Peak's behaviour seems mysterious,' he began, with ironic gravity. 'I don't pretend to understand him. What's your view of his character, Mr. Malkin?'
'I know him very slightly indeed, Mr. Warricombe. But I have a high opinion of his powers. I wonder he does so little. After that article of his in The Critical'----
Malkin became aware of something like agonised entreaty on Christian's countenance, but this had merely the effect of heightening his curiosity.
'In The Critical?' said Warricombe, eagerly. 'I didn't know of that. What was the subject?'
'To be sure, it was anonymous,' went on Malkin, without a suspicion of the part he was playing before these three excited people. 'A paper called "The New Sophistry", a tremendous bit of satire.'
Marcella's eyes closed as if a light had flashed before them; she drew a short sigh, and at once seemed to become quite at ease, the smile with which she regarded Warricombe expressing a calm interest.
'That article was Peak's?' Buckland asked, in a very quiet voice.
Christian at last found his opportunity.
'He never mentioned it to you? Perhaps he thought he had gone rather too far in his Broad Churchism, and might be misunderstood.'
'Broad Churchism?' cried Malkin. 'Uncommonly broad, I must say!'
And he laughed heartily; Marcella seemed to join in his mirth.
'Then it would surprise you,' said Buckland, in the same quiet tone as before, 'to hear that Peak is about to take Orders?'
Christian laughed. The worst was over; after all, it came as a relief.
'Not for wines,' he replied. 'Mr. Warricombe means that Peak is going to be ordained.'
Malkin's amazement rendered him speechless. He stared from one person to another, his features strangely distorted.
'You can hardly believe it?' pressed Buckland.
The reply was anticipated by Christian saying:
'Remember, Malkin, that you had no opportunity of studying Peak. It's not so easy to understand him.'
'But I don't see,' burst out the other, 'how I could possibly so misunderstand him! What has Earwaker to say?'
Buckland rose from his seat, advanced to Marcella, and offered his hand. She said mechanically, 'Must you go?' but was incapable of another word. Christian came to her relief, performed the needful civilities, and accompanied his acquaintance to the foot of the stairs. Buckland had become grave, stiff, monosyllabic; Christian made no allusion to the scene thus suddenly interrupted, and they parted with a formal air.
Malkin remained for another quarter of an hour, when the muteness of his companions made it plain to him that he had better withdraw. He went off with a sense of having been mystified, half resentful, and vastly impatient to see Earwaker.
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