Chapter XXXII. Precontract of Marriage.




Whether Ronald Le Breton's abstruse speculations on the theory of heredity were well founded or not, it certainly did happen, at any rate, that the more he saw of Selah Briggs the better he liked her; and the more Selah saw of him the better she liked him in return. Curiously enough, too, Selah did actually recognise in him what he fancied he recognised in himself, that part of his brother's nature (not all wholly assumed) which was just what Selah had first been drawn to admire in Herbert himself. It wasn't merely the originality of his general point of view: it was something more deep-seated and undefinable than that--in a word, his idiosyncrasy. Selah Briggs, with her peculiar fiery soul and rebellious nature, found in both the Le Bretons something that seemed at once to satisfy her wants, to fulfil her desires, to saturate her affinities: and with Ronald, as with Herbert before, she was conscious of a certain awe and respect which was all the more pleasant to her because her untamed spirit had never felt anything like it with any other human being. She didn't understand them, and she didn't want to understand them: that constituted just the very charm of their whole personality to her peculiar fancy. All the other people she had ever met were as transparent as glass, for good or for evil; she could see through all their faults and virtues as easily as one sees through a window: the Le Bretons were to her inscrutable, novel, incomprehensible, inexplicable, and she prized them for their very inscrutability. And so it came to pass, that almost by a process of natural and imperceptible transference, she passed on at last to Ronald's account very much the same intensity of feeling that she had formerly felt towards his brother Herbert.

But at the same time, Selah never for a moment let him see it. She was too proud to confess now that she could ever love another man: the Mr. Walters she had once believed in had never, never, never existed: and she would raise no other idol in future to take the place of that vanished ideal. She was grateful to Ronald, and even fond of him: but that was all-outwardly at least. She never let him see, by word or act, that in her heart of hearts she was beginning to love him. And yet Ronald instinctively knew it. He himself could not have told you why; but he knew it. Even a woman cannot hide a secret from a man with that peculiarly penetrating intuitive temperament which belongs to sensitive, delicate types like Ronald Le Breton's.

One Sunday evening, when Selah had been spending a few hours at Edie's lodgings (Ronald always made it an excuse for finding them a supper, on the ground that Selah was really his guest, though he could not conveniently ask her to his own rooms), he walked home towards Notting Hill with Selah; and as they crossed the Regent's Park, he took the opportunity to say something to her that he had had upon his mind for a few weeks past, in some vague, indefinite, half-unconscious fashion.

'Selah,' he began, a little timidly, 'don't you think it's very probable we shan't have Ernest here much longer with us?'

'I'm afraid it is, Ronald,' Selah answered. She had got quite accustomed now to calling him Ronald. With such a poor, weak, sickly fellow as that, why really, after all, it did not much matter.

'Well, Selah,' Ronald went on, gravely, his eyes filling with tears as he spoke, 'in that case, you know, I can't think what's to become of poor Edie. It's a dreadful contingency to talk about, Selah, and I can't bear talking about it; but we must face these things, however terrible, mustn't we? and in this case one's absolutely bound to face it for poor Edie's sake as well as for Ernest's. Selah, she must have a home to go to, when dear Ernest's taken from us.'

'I'm very sorry for her, Ronald,' Selah answered, with unusual softness of manner, 'but I really don't see how a home can possibly be provided for her.'

'I do,' Ronald answered, more calmly; 'and for their sakes, Selah, I want you to help me in trying to provide it.'

'How?' Selah asked, looking up in his face curiously, as they passed into a ray of lamplight.

'Listen, Selah, and I'll tell you. Why, by marrying me.'

'Never?' Selah answered, firmly, and with a decided tinge of the old Adam in her trembling voice. 'Never, Ronald! Never, never, never!'

'Wait a minute, Selah,' Ronald pleaded, 'till you've heard the end of what I have to say to you. Consider that when dear Ernest's gone (oh! Selah, you must excuse me; it makes me cry so to think of it), there'll be nowhere on earth for poor little Edie and Dot to go to.'

'Did ever a man propose to a girl so extraordinarily in all this world,' Selah thought to herself, angrily. 'He actually expects me to marry him in order to provide a home for his precious sister-in-law. That's really carrying unselfishness a step too far, I call it.'

'Edie couldn't come and live with me, of course,' Ronald went on, quickly, 'if I were a bachelor; but if I were married, why then, naturally, she and Dot could come and live with us; and she could earn a little money somehow, no doubt; and, at any rate, it'd be better for her than starvation.'

Selah stopped a minute, and tapped the hard ground two or three times angrily with the point of her umbrella. 'And me, Ronald?' she said in a curious defiant voice. 'And me? I suppose you've forgotten all about me. You don't ask me to marry you because you love me; you don't ask me whether I love you or not; you only propose to me that I should quietly turn domestic housekeeper for Mrs. Ernest Le Breton. And for my part, I answer you plainly, once for all, that I'm not going to do it--no, never, never, never!'

She spoke haughtily, flashing her eyes at him in the fierce old fashion, and Ronald was almost frightened at the angry intensity of her contemptuous gestures. 'Selah,' he cried, trying to take her hand, which she tore away from him hurriedly: 'Selah, you misunderstand me. I only approached the subject that way because I didn't want to seem overweening and presumptuous. It's a very great piece of vanity, it seems to me, for any man to ask a woman whether she loves him. I'm too conscious of all my own faults and failings, Selah, to venture upon asking you ever to love me; but I do love you, Selah, I'm sure I do love you; and I hoped, I somehow fancied--it may have been mere fancy, but I did imagine--that I detected, I can't say how, that you did really love me, too, just a very very little. Oh, Selah, it's because I really love you that I ask you whether you'll marry me, such as I am; I know I'm a poor sort of person to marry, but I ventured to hope you might love me just a little for all that.'

He looked so frail and gentle as he stood there pleading in the pale moonlight, that Selah could have taken him to her bosom then and there and fondled him as one would pet a sick child, for pure womanliness; but the devil in her blood kept her from doing it, and she answered haughtily, instead: 'Ronald, if you wanted to marry me, you ought to have asked me for my own sake. Now that you've asked me for another's, you can't expect me to give you an answer. Keep your money, my poor boy; you'll want it all for you and her hereafter; don't go sharing it and spending it on perfect strangers such as me. And don't go talking to me again about this business as long as your sister-in-law is unprovided for. I'm not going to take the bread out of her mouth, and I'm not going to marry a man who doesn't utterly and entirely love me.'

'But I do,' Ronald answered, earnestly; 'I do, Selah; I love you truly and faithfully from the very bottom of my heart.'

'Leave off, Roland,' Selah said in the same angry tone. 'If you ever talk to me of this again, I give you my word of honour about it, I'll never speak another word to you.'

And Ronald, who deeply respected the sanctity of a promise, were it only a threat, bided his time, and said no more about it for the present.

Next day, as Ronald sat reading in his own rooms, he was much surprised at hearing a well-known voice at the door, inquiring with some asperity whether Mr. Le Breton was at home. He listened to the voice in intense astonishment. It was his mother's.

'Ronald,' Lady Le Breton began, the moment she had been shown into his little sitting-room, 'I didn't think, after your undutiful, ungrateful conduct--with that abominable woman, too--that I should ever have come to see you, unless you came first, as you ought clearly to do, and begged my pardon penitently for your disgraceful behaviour. It's hard, I know, to acknowledge oneself in the wrong, but every Christian ought to be above vindictiveness and obstinate self-will; and I expect you, therefore, sooner or later, to come and ask forgiveness for your dreadful unkindness to me. Till then, as I said, I didn't expect to call upon you in any way. But I've felt compelled to-day to come and speak to you about a matter of duty, and as a matter of duty strictly I regard it, not as any relaxation of my just attitude of indignant expectancy towards yourself; no parent ought rightly to overlook such conduct as yours on the part of a son.' Ronald inclined his head respectfully. 'Well, what I've come to speak to you about to-day, Ronald, is about your poor misguided brother Ernest. He, too, as you know, has behaved very badly to me.'

'No,' Ronald answered stoutly, without further note or comment. Where the matter touched himself only he could maintain a decent silence, but where it touched poor dying Ernest he couldn't possibly restrain himself, even from a sense of filial obligation.

'Very badly to me,' Lady Le Breton went on sternly, without in any way noticing the brief interruption, 'and I can't, of course, go to see him either, especially not as I should by so doing expose myself to meeting the person whom he has chosen to make his wife. Still, as I hear that Ernest a in a very serious or even dangerous condition----'

'He's dying,' Ronald answered, the quick tears once more finding the easy road to his eyes as usual.

'I considered, as a mother, it was my duty to warn him to take a little thought about his soul.'

'His soul!' Ronald exclaimed in astonishment. 'Ernest's soul! Why, mother, dear Ernest has no need to look after his soul. He doesn't take that sordid, petty, limited view of our relations with eternity, and of our relations with the Infinite, which makes them all consist of the miserable, selfish, squalid desire to save our own poor personal little souls at all hazards. Ernest has something better and nobler to think of, I can assure you, than such a mere self-centred idea as that.'

'Ronald!' Lady Breton exclaimed, drawing herself up with much dignity; 'how on earth you, who have always pretended to be a religious person, can utter such a shocking and wicked sentiment as that, really passes my comprehension. What in the world is religion for, I should like to know, if it isn't to teach us how to save our own souls? But the particular thing I want to speak to you about is just this: couldn't you manage to induce Ernest to see the Archdeacon a little, and let the Archdeacon speak to him about his deplorable spiritual condition? I thought about you both so much at church yesterday, when the dear Archdeacon was preaching such a beautiful sermon; his text was like this, as far as I can remember it. "There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death." I couldn't help thinking all the time of my own two poor rebellious boys, and of the path that their misguided notions were leading them on. For I believe Ernest does really somehow persuade himself that he's in the right--it's inconceivable, but it's the fact; and I'm afraid the end thereof will be the ways of death; and then, as the dear Archdeacon said, "After death the judgment." Oh, Ronald, when I think of your poor dear brother Ernest's open unbelief, it makes me tremble for his future, so that I couldn't rest upon my bed until I'd been to see you and urged you to go and try to save him.'

'Mother,' Ronald said with that tone in which he was well accustomed to answering Lady Le Breton's religious harangues; 'I don't think you need feel any uneasiness whatever on dear Ernest's account, so far as all that's concerned. What does he want with saving his soul, mother? "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it." Remember what is written: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven."'

'But, Ronald,' Lady Le Breton continued, half angrily, 'consider his unbelief, his dreadful opinions, his errors of doctrine! How on earth can we be happy about him when we think of those?'

'I don't think, Mother,' Ronald answered gently, 'that Infinite Justice and Infinite Love take much account of a man's opinions. They take account of his life and soul only, not of the correctness of his propositions in dogmatic theology; "Other sheep have I which are not of this fold--them also must I bring."'

'It seems to me, Ronald,' Lady Le Breton rejoined coldly, 'that you don't in the least care for whatever is most distinctive and characteristic in the whole of Christian doctrine. You talk so very very differently on religious subjects from that dear, good, excellent Archdeacon.'



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