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James felt no relief. He had looked forward to a sensation of freedom such as a man might feel when he had escaped from some tyrannous servitude, and was at liberty again to breathe the buoyant air of heaven. He imagined that his depression would vanish like an evil spirit exorcised so soon as ever he got from Mary his release; but instead it sat more heavily upon him. Unconvinced even yet that he had acted rightly, he went over the conversation word for word. It seemed singularly ineffectual. Wishing to show Mary that he did not break with her from caprice or frivolous reason, but with sorrowful reluctance, and full knowledge of her suffering, he had succeeded only in being futile and commonplace.
He walked slowly towards Primpton House. He had before him the announcement to his mother and father; and he tried to order his thoughts.
Mrs. Parsons, her household work finished, was knitting the inevitable socks; while the Colonel sat at the table, putting new stamps into his album. He chattered delightedly over his treasures, getting up now and then gravely to ask his wife some question or to point out a surcharge; she, good woman, showed interest by appropriate rejoinders.
"There's no one in Tunbridge Wells who has such a fine collection as I have."
"General Newsmith showed me his the other day, but it's not nearly so good as yours, Richmond."
"I'm glad of that. I suppose his Mauritius are fine?" replied the Colonel, with some envy, for the general had lived several years on the island.
"They're fair," said Mrs. Parsons, reassuringly; "but not so good as one would expect."
"It takes a clever man to get together a good collection of stamps, although I shouldn't say it."
They looked up when James entered.
"I've just been putting in those Free States you brought me, Jamie. They look very well."
The Colonel leant back to view them, with the satisfied look with which he might have examined an old master.
"It was very thoughtful of Jamie to bring them," said Mrs. Parsons.
"Ah, I knew he wouldn't forget his old father. Don't you remember, Frances, I said to you, 'I'll be bound the boy will bring some stamps with him.' They'll be valuable in a year or two. That's what I always say with regard to postage stamps; you can't waste your money. Now jewellery, for instance, gets old-fashioned, and china breaks; but you run no risk with stamps. When I buy stamps, I really feel that I'm as good as investing my money in consols."
"Well, how's Mary this morning?"
"I've been having a long talk with her."
"Settled the day yet?" asked the Colonel, with a knowing little laugh.
"Upon my word, Frances, I think we shall have to settle it for them. Things weren't like this when we were young. Why, Jamie, your mother and I got married six weeks after I was introduced to her at a croquet party."
"We were married in haste, Richmond," said Mrs. Parsons, laughing.
"Well, we've taken a long time to repent of it, my dear. It's over thirty years."
"I fancy it's too late now."
The Colonel took her hand and patted it.
"If you get such a good wife as I have, Jamie, I don't think you'll have reason to complain. Will he, my dear?"
"It's not for me to say, Richmond," replied Mrs. Parsons, smiling contentedly.
"Do you want me to get married very much, father?"
"Of course I do. I've set my heart upon it. I want to see what the new generations of Parsons are like before I die."
"Listen, Richmond, Jamie has something to tell us."
Mrs. Parsons had been looking at her son, and was struck at last by the agony of his expression.
"What is it, Jamie?" she asked.
"I'm afraid you'll be dreadfully disappointed. I'm so sorry--Mary and I are no longer engaged to be married."
For a minute there was silence in the room. The old Colonel looked helplessly from wife to son.
"What does he mean, Frances?" he said at last.
Mrs. Parsons did not answer, and he turned to James.
"You're not in earnest, Jamie? You're joking with us?"
James went over to his father, as the weaker of the two, and put his arm round his shoulders.
"I'm awfully sorry to have to grieve you, father. It's quite true--worse luck! It was impossible for me to marry Mary."
"D'you mean that you've broken your engagement with her after she's waited five years for you?" said Mrs. Parsons.
"I couldn't do anything else. I found I no longer loved her. We should both have been unhappy if we had married."
The Colonel recovered himself slowly, he turned round and looked at his son.
"Jamie, Jamie, what have you done?"
"Oh, you can say nothing that I've not said to myself. D'you think it's a step I should have taken lightly? I feel nothing towards Mary but friendship. I don't love her."
"But--" the Colonel stopped, and then a light shone in his face, and he began to laugh. "Oh, it's only a lovers' quarrel, Frances. They've had a little tiff, and they say they'll never speak to one another again. I warrant they're both heartily sorry already, and before night they'll be engaged as fast as ever."
James, by a look, implored his mother to speak. She understood, and shook her head sadly.
"No, Richmond, I'm afraid it's not that. It's serious."
"But Mary loves him, Frances."
"I know," said James. "That's the tragedy of it. If I could only persuade myself that she didn't care for me, it would be all right."
Colonel Parsons sank into his chair, suddenly collapsing. He seemed smaller than ever, wizened and frail; the wisp of white hair that concealed his baldness fell forward grotesquely. His face assumed again that expression, which was almost habitual, of anxious fear.
"Oh, father, don't look like that! I can't help it! Don't make it harder for me than possible. You talk to him, mother. Explain that it's not my fault. There was nothing else I could do."
Colonel Parsons sat silent, with his head bent down, but Mrs. Parsons asked:
"What did you say to Mary this morning?"
"I told her exactly what I felt."
"You said you didn't love her?"
"I had to."
They all remained for a while without speaking, each one thinking his painful thoughts.
"Richmond," said Mrs. Parsons at last, "we mustn't blame the boy. It's not his fault. He can't help it if he doesn't love her."
"You wouldn't have me marry her without love, father?"
The question was answered by Mrs. Parsons.
"No; if you don't love her, you mustn't marry her. But what's to be done, I don't know. Poor thing, poor thing, how unhappy she must be!"
James sat with his face in his hands, utterly wretched, beginning already to see the great circle of confusion that he had caused. Mrs. Parsons looked at him and looked at her husband. Presently she went up to James.
"Jamie, will you leave us for a little? Your father and I would like to talk it over alone."
James got up, and putting her hands on his shoulders, she kissed him.
When James had gone, Mrs. Parsons looked compassionately at her husband; he glanced up, and catching her eye, tried to smile. But it was a poor attempt, and it finished with a sigh.
"What's to be done, Richmond?"
Colonel Parsons shook his head without answering.
"I ought to have warned you that something might happen. I saw there was a difference in Jamie's feelings, but I fancied it would pass over. I believed it was only strangeness. Mary is so fond of him, I thought he would soon love her as much as ever."
"But it's not honourable what he's done, Frances," said the old man at last, his voice trembling with emotion. "It's not honourable."
"He can't help it if he doesn't love her."
"It's his duty to marry her. She's waited five years; she's given him the best of her youth--and he jilts her. He can't, Frances; he must behave like a gentleman."
The tears fell down Mrs. Parsons' careworn cheeks--the slow, sparse tears of the woman who has endured much sorrow.
"Don't let us judge him, Richmond. We're so ignorant of the world. You and I are old-fashioned."
"There are no fashions in honesty."
"Let us send for William. Perhaps he'll be able to advise us."
William was Major Forsyth, the brother of Mrs. Parsons. He was a bachelor, living in London, and considered by his relatives a typical man of the world.
"He'll be able to talk to the boy better than we can."
"Very well, let us send for him."
They were both overcome by the catastrophe, but as yet hardly grasped the full extent of it. All their hopes had been centred on this marriage; all their plans for the future had been in it so intricately woven that they could not realise the total over-throw. They felt as a man might feel who was crippled by a sudden accident, and yet still pictured his life as though he had free use of his limbs.... Mrs. Parsons wrote a telegram, and gave it to the maid. The servant went out of the room, but as she did so, stepped back and announced:
"Miss Clibborn, ma'am."
The girl came in, and lifted the veil which she had put on to hide her pallor and her eyes, red and heavy with weeping.
"I thought I'd better come round and see you quietly," she said. "I suppose you've heard?"
Mrs. Parsons took her in her arms, kissing her tenderly. Mary pretended to laugh, and hastily dried the tears which came to her eyes.
"You've been crying, Mrs. Parsons. You mustn't do that.... Let us sit down and talk sensibly."
She took the Colonel's hand, and gently pressed it.
"Is it true, Mary?" he asked. "I can't believe it."
"Yes, it's quite true. We've decided that we don't wish to marry one another. I want to ask you not to think badly of Jamie. He's very--cut up about it. He's not to blame."
"We're thinking of you, my dear."
"Oh, I shall be all right. I can bear it."
"It's not honourable what he's done, Mary," said the Colonel.
"Oh, don't say that, please! That is why I came round to you quickly. I want you to think that Jamie did what he considered right. For my sake, don't think ill of him. He can't help it if he doesn't love me. I'm not very attractive; he must have known in India girls far nicer than I. How could I hope to keep him all these years? I was a fool to expect it."
"I am so sorry, Mary!" cried Mrs. Parsons. "We've looked forward to your marriage with all our hearts. You know Jamie's been a good son to us; he's never given us any worry. We did want him to marry you. We're so fond of you, and we know how really good you are. We felt that whatever happened after that--if we died--Jamie would be safe and happy."
"It can't be helped. Things never turn out in this world as one wants them. Don't be too distressed about it, and, above all things, don't let Jamie see that you think he hasn't acted--as he might have done."
"How can you think of him now, when your heart must be almost breaking?"
"You see, I've thought of him for years," answered Mary, smiling sadly. "I can't help it now. Oh, I don't want him to suffer! His worrying can do no good, I should like him to be completely happy."
Colonel Parsons sighed.
"He's my son, and he's behaved dishonourably."
"Don't say that. It's not fair to him. He did not ask me for his release. But I couldn't marry him when I knew he no longer cared for me."
"He might have learned to love you, Mary," said Mrs. Parsons.
"No, no! I could see, as he pressed me to marry him notwithstanding, he was hoping with all his might that I would refuse. He would have hated me. No; it's the end. We have separated for ever, and I will do my best to get over it."
They fell into silence, and presently Mary got up. "I must go home now, and tell mamma."
"She'll probably have hysterics," said Mrs. Parsons, with a little sniff of contempt.
"No, she'll be delighted," returned Mary. "I know her so well."
"Oh, how much you will have to suffer, dearest!"
"It'll do me good. I was too happy."
"Don't you think you could wait a little before telling anyone else?" asked the Colonel. "Major Forsyth is coming down. He may be able to arrange it; he's a man of the world."
"Can he make Jamie love me? Ah, no, it's no good waiting. Let me get it over quickly while I have the courage. And it helps me to think I have something to do. It only means a few sneers and a little false sympathy."
"A great deal of real sympathy."
"People are always rather glad when some unhappiness befalls their friends! Oh, I didn't mean that! I don't want to be bitter. Don't think badly of me either. I shall be different to-morrow."
"We can never think of you without the sincerest, fondest love."
At that moment James, who did not know that Mary was there, came into the room. He started when he saw her and turned red; but Mary, with a woman's self-possession, braced herself together.
"Oh, Jamie, I've just been having a little chat with your people."
"I'm sorry I interrupted you," he answered, awkwardly. "I didn't know you were here."
"You need not avoid me because we've broken off our engagement. At all events, you have no reason to be afraid of me now. Good-bye! I'm just going home."
She went out, and James looked uncertainly at his parents. His father did not speak, staring at the ground, but Mrs. Parsons said:
"Mary has been asking us not to be angry with you, Jamie. She says it's not your fault."
"It's very kind of her."
"Oh, how could you? How could you?"
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