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Gwynne had never recognized the contingency of a serious rival in the affections of the woman he had elected to mate, and had he heard of the late Lord Brathland's attentions it would not have occurred to him that Mrs. Kaye could weigh a prospective dukedom against the reflected glories of his own career. He intended to be prime-minister before he was forty, and older and soberer heads shared his confidence. It was true that Mrs. Kaye was an emphatic Conservative—scorning even the compromise of Liberal-Unionism—and that so far he had been unable to convert her; but he did not take any woman's political convictions very seriously, knowing that they commonly owed their inspiration to social ambition, a desire for a career, or to marital comradeship. The latter he made no doubt would operate in his own case as soon as the lady gave him the opportunity to demand it as his right; and his sharp political discussions with her were among the spiciest of his experiences. She rarely expressed herself in every-day language; and although it had crossed his mind that epigrammatic matrimony might grow oppressive, he had reminded himself that her speech was but a part of a too cultivated individuality and would be unable to endure the strain of daily intercourse. Although he had in his composition little of the femininity that gives a certain type of man a sympathetic comprehension of women, his Celtic blood imparted a subtle understanding of their foibles of which he was but half aware. More than once this subconscious penetration had induced a speedy recovery from misplaced affections; but the toils of Julia Kaye, who piqued, allured, repelled, dazzled, now and again snubbed every one else for his sake, bound him helpless. He was grateful for his mother's abetment, although it somewhat surprised him; but his mother was the woman of whom he had the least comprehension.
So far Mrs. Kaye had ignored his several proposals, but of this he thought nothing. He would have cared little for a woman to be had for the asking; and he rather welcomed any treatment that stirred the somewhat sluggish surfaces of his nature.
He had determined, however, to force a definite answer from her during this visit, and although he was far too courteous a host to embarrass a guest, he knew that were Mrs. Kaye deliberately to grant him a private interview he should be at liberty to press his suit.
Immediately after the hour in the smoking-room that followed breakfast, he started in search of her; but although many of the women were scattered throughout the lower rooms, reading, writing, gossiping, he saw nothing of his inamorata. Flora Thangue happened to be standing alone, and he went up to her impulsively.
"Do you know if Julia has gone to church?" he asked, without circumlocution.
"She went to her room directly after breakfast. I fancy she is rather cut up over Lord Brathland's death," replied the astute Miss Thangue.
"Of course; we all are—poor Bratty! He was rather a bounder, but it is natural to recall his virtues. Flora, go and tell her I want her to come for a walk. I can't go to her room myself, and I don't care to send a servant."
Miss Thangue reflected. Probably this was the most favorable moment for a repulse that he could have chosen. She was sincerely fond of him and distrusted Mrs. Kaye as much as she disliked her.
"Very well," she said. "I will see what I can do."
Mrs. Kaye admitted her promptly and presented an unstained front, although her color was lower than usual. She was a woman of too much natural and acquired poise to remain askew under any shock. But she had experienced an hour of mixed emotions in which a confused and wondering sense of defeat was paramount. It had left her a little aghast, for although she had met with the inevitable snubs in her upward course, she rarely permitted them to agitate her memory in these days when she had grown to believe herself one of the spoiled favorites of destiny; and her fibres were by no means sensitive. But this sudden blow was a reminder that fate had been capricious to spoiled darlings before. She had stood almost motionless before the window from the moment she had entered her room until Miss Thangue knocked at the door, and by that time she had repoised herself and set her heavy mouth in a hard line as she reflected upon her own will as a factor in any game with life.
"Jack wants you to go for a walk," announced Miss Thangue, who saw no occasion for subtlety.
"That means he intends to propose again," said Mrs. Kaye, in her carefully modulated voice. "I don't know that I care about it. I have letters to write."
"Why not get it over? You could compel him to believe, if you chose, that you have no intention of marrying him, and it would be rather a kindness; he has so much else to think about, and he certainly should have a free mind before the opening of Parliament. If you really did Jack any harm," she added, deliberately, "Vicky would never forgive you—nor a good many others."
"I wouldn't do him any harm for the world," said Mrs. Kaye, casting down her eyes and looking very young and innocent. "But I should hate to give him up. After all, there is no one half so interesting. Well, I'll go down and have it over."
A few moments later she joined Gwynne at the foot of the staircase, and they went out to the woods. She looked her best in a smart walking-frock of white tweed, and a red toque; for the tailor costume modifies where the elaborate accentuates.
Her brilliant eyes melted as Brathland's name was mentioned; naturally at once.
"What a dreadful—shocking thing!" she cried. "I do not realize it at all. Poor dear, we were such friends—and I saw him only a few hours before. Have you heard anything more?"
"Ormond ran off to town directly after breakfast—as if he were afraid of being asked too many questions. I have an idea that he kept the cat in the bag. I saw my cousin Zeal yesterday, and thought he looked as if he had something besides his health on his mind."
"Why?" asked Mrs. Kaye, startled. "What else could it be?"
"Well, Bratty was rather a flasher," said Gwynne, innocently. "The dinner may not have been at the Club at all, and there is a little chorus-girl that engaged the fickle Bratty's affections for a time, and proclaimed her desire for vengeance from the house-tops when he transferred himself to a rival at the Adelphi. She is a Neapolitan, and that sort may carry a stiletto even in prosaic old London. Or perhaps poor Bratty was despatched with the carving-knife. No wonder he didn't want his family. But whatever it was, he has paid the penalty himself, poor chap, and no doubt the matter will be hushed up."
"How disgusting! I don't want to think of human slums on this heavenly Sunday morning."
"Nor to be proposed to, I suppose?"
"I don't mind, Jack dear."
She looked girlish and very piquant. Jack took her hand. She did not withdraw it, and they walked silently in the shadowed quiet of the wood. His heart beat almost audibly. Never before had she given him such definite encouragement. He could think of nothing to say that would not sound banal to this woman of the ready tongue. But agitation unlocks wayward fancies and sends them scurrying inopportunely across the very foreground of the mind. The vagrant hope that she would not accept him in an epigram restored his balance, and he turned to her with his habitual air of confidence, albeit his eyes and mouth were restless.
"I want an answer to-day," he said, boldly. "And there is only one answer I will take. I have let you play with me, as that seemed to be your caprice, and I love caprice in a woman. But there is an end to everything and I want to marry before Parliament meets."
"And you never thought I would not marry you?" she asked, in some wonder.
"I have never faced the possibility of failure in my life. And you are as much to me as my career. I cannot imagine life without either."
He suddenly put his hand under her chin and lifted her face; she was of tiny stature and this disadvantage in the presence of man was not the least subtle of her charms. "Say yes quickly," he cried, and the strength of his will and passion vibrated to her through the medium he had established. But she pouted and drew back.
"Perhaps I want a career of my own. You would swallow me whole."
"You could become the most powerful woman in the Liberal party—have a salon and all the rest of it."
"I happen to be a Conservative."
"What has that to do with it? Or politics with love, for that matter? Tell me that you love me. That is all I care about."
"It is only during the engagement that love is all. Marriage is the great public school of life; the passions fall meekly into their proper place—beside the prosaic appetites, the objective demands; somewhat below the faculties that distinguish the higher kingdom."
"Indeed? Well, I am sanguine enough to believe that we would prove the exception. I hardly dare think of it!" he burst out. "For God's sake keep your epigrams for other people and be a woman pure and simple."
She looked both as she permitted her full red mouth to tremble and his arms to take sudden possession of her.
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