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James was wandering in the garden of Primpton House while Mrs. Jackson thither went her way. Since the termination of his engagement with Mary three days back, the subject had not been broached between him and his parents; but he divined their thoughts. He knew that they awaited the arrival of his uncle, Major Forsyth, to set the matter right. They did not seek to reconcile themselves with the idea that the break was final; it seemed too monstrous a thing to be true. James smiled, with bitter amusement, at their simple trust in the man of the world who was due that day.
Major Forsyth was fifty-three, a haunter of military clubs, a busy sluggard, who set his pride in appearing dissipated, and yet led the blameless life of a clergyman's daughter; preserving a spotless virtue, nothing pleased him more than to be thought a rake. He had been on half-pay for many years, and blamed the War Office on that account rather than his own incompetence. Ever since retiring he had told people that advancement, in these degenerate days, was impossible without influence: he was, indeed, one of those men to whom powerful friends offer the only chance of success; and possessing none, inveighed constantly against the corrupt officialism of those in authority. But to his Jeremiads upon the decay of the public services he added a keen interest in the world of fashion; it is always well that a man should have varied activities; it widens his horizon, and gives him a greater usefulness. If his attention had been limited to red-tape, Major Forsyth, even in his own circle, might have been thought a little one-sided; but his knowledge of etiquette and tailors effectually prevented the reproach. He was pleased to consider himself in society; he read assiduously those papers which give detailed accounts of the goings-on in the "hupper succles," and could give you with considerable accuracy the whereabouts of titled people. If he had a weakness, it was by his manner of speaking to insinuate that he knew certain noble persons whom, as a matter of fact, he had never set eyes on; he would not have told a direct lie on the subject, but his conscience permitted him a slight equivocation. Major Forsyth was well up in all the gossip of the clubs, and if he could not call himself a man of the world, he had not the least notion who could. But for all that, he had the strictest principles; he was true brother to Mrs. Parsons, and though he concealed the fact like something disreputable, regularly went to church on Sunday mornings. There was also a certain straitness in his income which confined him to the paths shared by the needy and the pure at heart.
Major Forsyth had found no difficulty in imposing upon his sister and her husband.
"Of course, William is rather rackety," they said. "It's a pity he hasn't a wife to steady him; but he has a good heart."
For them Major Forsyth had the double advantage of a wiliness gained in the turmoil of the world and an upright character. They scarcely knew how in the present juncture he could help, but had no doubt that from the boundless store of his worldly wisdom he would invent a solution to their difficulty.
James had found his uncle out when he was quite a boy, and seeing his absurdity, had treated him ever since with good-natured ridicule.
"I wonder what they think he can say?" he asked himself.
James was profoundly grieved at the unhappiness which bowed his father down. His parents had looked forward with such ecstatic pleasure to his arrival, and what sorrow had he not brought them!
"I wish I'd never come back," he muttered.
He thought of the flowing, undulating plains of the Orange Country, and the blue sky, with its sense of infinite freedom. In that trim Kentish landscape he felt hemmed in; when the clouds were low it seemed scarcely possible to breathe; and he suffered from the constraint of his father and mother, who treated him formally, as though he had become a stranger. There was always between them and him that painful topic which for the time was carefully shunned. They did not mention Mary's name, and the care they took to avoid it was more painful than would have been an open reference. They sat silent and sad, trying to appear natural, and dismally failing; their embarrassed manner was such as they might have adopted had he committed some crime, the mention of which for his sake must never be made, but whose recollection perpetually haunted them. In every action was the belief that James must be suffering from remorse, and that it was their duty not to make his burden heavier. James knew that his father was convinced that he had acted dishonourably, and he--what did he himself think?
James asked himself a hundred times a day whether he had acted well or ill; and though he forced himself to answer that he had done the only possible thing, deep down in his heart was a terrible, a perfectly maddening uncertainty. He tried to crush it, and would not listen, for his intelligence told him clearly it was absurd; but it was stronger than intelligence, an incorporeal shape through which passed harmlessly the sword-cuts of his reason. It was a little devil curled up in his heart, muttering to all his arguments, "Are you sure?"
Sometimes he was nearly distracted, and then the demon laughed, so that the mocking shrillness rang in his ears:
"Are you sure, my friend--are you sure? And where, pray, is the honour which only a while ago you thought so much of?"
* * * * * * *
James walked to and fro restlessly, impatient, angry with himself and with all the world.
But then on the breath of the wind, on the perfume of the roses, yellow and red, came suddenly the irresistible recollection of Mrs. Wallace. Why should he not think of her now? He was free; he could do her no harm; he would never see her again. The thought of her was the only sunshine in his life; he was tired of denying himself every pleasure. Why should he continue the pretence that he no longer loved her? It was, indeed, a consolation to think that the long absence had not dulled his passion; the strength of it was its justification. It was useless to fight against it, for it was part of his very soul; he might as well have fought against the beating of his heart. And if it was torture to remember those old days in India, he delighted in it; it was a pain more exquisite than the suffocating odours of tropical flowers, a voluptuous agony such as might feel the fakir lacerating his flesh in a divine possession.... Every little occurrence was clear, as if it had taken place but a day before.
James repeated to himself the conversations they had had, of no consequence, the idle gossip of a stray half-hour; but each word was opulent in the charming smile, in the caressing glance of her eyes. He was able to imagine Mrs. Wallace quite close to him, wearing the things that he had seen her wear, and with her movements he noticed the excessive scent she used. He wondered whether she had overcome that failing, whether she still affected the artificiality which was so adorable a relief from the primness of manner which he had thought the natural way of women.
If her cheeks were not altogether innocent of rouge or her eyebrows of pencil, what did he care; he delighted in her very faults; he would not have her different in the very slightest detail; everything was part of that complex, elusive fascination. And James thought of the skin which had the even softness of fine velvet, and the little hands. He called himself a fool for his shyness. What could have been the harm if he had taken those hands and kissed them? Now, in imagination, he pressed his lips passionately on the warm palms. He liked the barbaric touch in the many rings which bedecked her fingers.
"Why do you wear so many rings?" he asked. "Your hands are too fine."
He would never have ventured the question, but now there was no danger. Her answer came with a little, good-humoured laugh; she stretched out her fingers, looking complacently at the brilliant gems.
"I like to be gaudy. I should like to be encrusted with jewels. I want to wear bracelets to my elbow and diamond spangles on my arms; and jewelled belts, and jewels in my hair, and on my neck. I should like to flash from head to foot with exotic stones."
Then she looked at him with amusement.
"Of course, you think it's vulgar. What do I care? You all of you think it's vulgar to be different from other people. I want to be unique."
"You want everybody to look at you?"
"Of course I do! Is it sinful? Oh, I get so impatient with all of you, with your good taste and your delicacy, and your insupportable dulness. When you admire a woman, you think it impertinent to tell her she's beautiful; when you have good looks, you carry yourselves as though you were ashamed."
And in a bold moment he replied:
"Yet you would give your soul to have no drop of foreign blood in your veins!"
"I?" she cried, her eyes flashing with scorn. "I'm proud of my Eastern blood. It's not blood I have in my veins, it's fire--a fire of gold. It's because of it that I have no prejudices, and know how to enjoy my life."
James smiled, and did not answer.
"You don't believe me?" she asked.
"Well, perhaps I should like to be quite English. I should feel more comfortable in my scorn of these regimental ladies if I thought they could find no reason to look down on me."
"I don't think they look down on you."
"Oh, don't they? They despise and loathe me."
"When you were ill, they did all they could for you."
"Foolish creature! Don't you know that to do good to your enemy is the very best way of showing your contempt."
And so James could go on, questioning, replying, putting little jests into her mouth, or half-cynical repartees. Sometimes he spoke aloud, and then Mrs. Wallace's voice sounded in his ears, clear and rich and passionate, as though she were really standing in the flesh beside him. But always he finished by taking her in his arms and kissing her lips and her closed eyes, the lids transparent like the finest alabaster. He knew no pleasure greater than to place his hands on that lustrous hair. What could it matter now? He was not bound to Mary; he could do no harm to Mrs. Wallace, ten thousand miles away.
* * * * * * *
But Colonel Parsons broke into the charming dream. Bent and weary, he came across the lawn to find his son. The wan, pathetic figure brought back to James all the present bitterness. He sighed, and advanced to meet him.
"You're very reckless to come out without a hat, father. I'll fetch you one, shall I?"
"No, I'm not going to stay." The Colonel could summon up no answering smile to his boy's kind words. "I only came to tell you that Mrs. Jackson is in the drawing-room, and would like to see you."
"What does she want?"
"She'll explain herself. She has asked to see you alone."
Jamie's face darkened, as some notion of Mrs. Jackson's object dawned upon him.
"I don't know what she can have to talk to me about alone."
"Please listen to her, Jamie. She's a very clever woman, and you can't fail to benefit by her advice."
The Colonel never had an unfriendly word to say of anyone, and even for Mrs. Jackson's unwarrantable interferences could always find a good-natured justification. He was one of those deprecatory men who, in every difference of opinion, are convinced that they are certainly in the wrong. He would have borne with the most cheerful submission any rebuke of his own conduct, and been, indeed, vastly grateful to the Vicar's wife for pointing out his error.
James found Mrs. Jackson sitting bolt upright on a straight-backed chair, convinced, such was her admirable sense of propriety, that a lounging attitude was incompatible with the performance of a duty. She held her hands on her lap, gently clasped; and her tight lips expressed as plainly as possible her conviction that though the way of righteousness was hard, she, thank God! had strength to walk it.
"How d'you do, Mrs. Jackson?"
"Good morning," she replied, with a stiff bow.
James, though there was no fire, went over to the mantelpiece and leant against it, waiting for the lady to speak.
"Captain Parsons, I have a very painful duty to perform."
Those were her words, but it must have been a dense person who failed to perceive that Mrs. Jackson found her duty anything but painful. There was just that hard resonance in her voice that an inquisitor might have in condemning to the stake a Jew to whom he owed much money.
"I suppose you will call me a busybody?"
"Oh, I'm sure you would never interfere with what does not concern you," replied James, slowly.
"Certainly not!" said Mrs. Jackson. "I come here because my conscience tells me to. What I wish to talk to you about concerns us all."
"Shall I call my people? I'm sure they'd be interested."
"I asked to see you alone, Captain Parsons," answered Mrs. Jackson, frigidly. "And it was for your sake. When one has to tell a person home-truths, he generally prefers that there should be no audience."
"So you're going to tell me some home-truths, Mrs. Jackson?" said James, with a laugh. "You must think me very good-natured. How long have I had the pleasure of your acquaintance?"
Mrs. Jackson's grimness did not relax.
"One learns a good deal about people in a week."
"D'you think so? I have an idea that ten years is a short time to get to know them. You must be very quick."
"Actions often speak."
"Actions are the most lying things in the world. They are due mostly to adventitious circumstances which have nothing to do with the character of the agent. I would never judge a man by his actions."
"I didn't come here to discuss abstract things with you, Captain Parsons."
"Why not? The abstract is so much more entertaining than the concrete. It affords opportunities for generalisation, which is the salt of conversation."
"I'm a very busy woman," retorted Mrs. Jackson sharply, thinking that James was not treating her with proper seriousness. He was not so easy to tackle as she had imagined.
"It's very good of you, then, to spare time to come and have a little chat with me," said James.
"I did not come for that purpose, Captain Parsons."
"Oh, I forgot--home-truths, wasn't it? I was thinking of Shakespeare and the musical glasses!"
"Would you kindly remember that I am a clergyman's wife, Captain Parsons? I daresay you are not used to the society of such."
"Pardon me, I even know an archdeacon quite well. He has a great gift of humour; a man wants it when he wears a silk apron."
"Captain Parsons," said Mrs. Jackson, sternly, "there are some things over which it is unbecoming to jest. I wish to be as gentle as possible with you, but I may remind you that flippancy is not the best course for you to pursue."
James looked at her with a good-tempered stare.
"Upon my word," he said to himself, "I never knew I was so patient."
"I can't beat about the bush any longer," continued the Vicar's lady; "I have a very painful duty to perform."
"That quite excuses your hesitation."
"You must guess why I have asked to see you alone."
"I haven't the least idea."
"Does your conscience say nothing to you?"
"My conscience is very well-bred. It never says unpleasant things."
"Then I'm sincerely sorry for you."
"Oh, my good woman," he thought, "if you only knew what a troublesome spirit I carry about with me!"
But Mrs. Jackson saw only hardness of heart in the grave face; she never dreamed that behind those quiet eyes was a turmoil of discordant passions, tearing, rending, burning.
"I'm sorry for you," she repeated. "I think it's very sad, very sad indeed, that you should stand there and boast of the sluggishness of your conscience. Conscience is the voice of God, Captain Parsons; if it does not speak to you, it behoves others to speak in its place."
"And supposing I knew what you wanted to say, do you think I should like to hear?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Then don't you think discretion points to silence?"
"No, Captain Parsons. There are some things which one is morally bound to say, however distasteful they may be."
"The easiest way to get through life is to say pleasant things on all possible occasions."
"That is not my way, and that is not the right way."
"I think it rash to conclude that a course is right merely because it is difficult. Likewise an uncivil speech is not necessarily a true one."
"I repeat that I did not come here to bandy words with you."
"My dear Mrs. Jackson, I have been wondering why you did not come to the point at once."
"You have been wilfully interrupting me."
"I'm so sorry. I thought I had been making a series of rather entertaining observations."
"Captain Parsons, what does your conscience say to you about Mary Clibborn?"
James looked at Mrs. Jackson very coolly, and she never imagined with what difficulty he was repressing himself.
"I thought you said your subject was of national concern. Upon my word, I thought you proposed to hold a thanksgiving service in Little Primpton Church for the success of the British arms."
"Well, you know different now," retorted Mrs. Jackson, with distinct asperity. "I look upon your treatment of Mary Clibborn as a matter which concerns us all."
"Then, as politely as possible, I must beg to differ from you. I really cannot permit you to discuss my private concerns. You have, doubtless, much evil to say of me; say it behind my back."
"I presumed that you were a gentleman, Captain Parsons."
"You certainly presumed."
"And I should be obliged if you would treat me like a lady."
James smiled. He saw that it was folly to grow angry.
"We'll do our best to be civil to one another, Mrs. Jackson. But I don't think you must talk of what really is not your business."
"D'you think you can act shamefully and then slink away as soon as you are brought to book? Do you know what you've done to Mary Clibborn?"
"Whatever I've done, you may be sure that I have not acted rashly. Really, nothing you can say will make the slightest difference. Don't you think we had better bring our conversation to an end?"
James made a movement towards the door.
"Your father and mother wish me to speak with you, Colonel Parsons," said Mrs. Jackson. "And they wish you to listen to what I have to say."
James paused. "Very well."
He sat down and waited. Mrs. Jackson felt unaccountably nervous; it had never occurred to her that a mere soldier could be so hard to deal with, and it was she who hesitated now. Jamie's stern eyes made her feel singularly like a culprit; but she cleared her throat and straightened herself.
"It's very sad," she said, "to find how much we've been mistaken in you, Captain Parsons. When we were making all sorts of preparations to welcome you, we never thought that you would repay us like this. It grieves me to have to tell you that you have done a very wicked thing. I was hoping that your conscience would have something to say to you, but unhappily I was mistaken. You induced Mary to become engaged to you; you kept her waiting for years; you wrote constantly, pretending to love her, deceiving her odiously; you let her waste the best part of her life, and then, without excuse and without reason, you calmly say that you're sick of her, and won't marry her. I think it is horrible, and brutal, and most ungentlemanly. Even a common man wouldn't have behaved in that way. Of course, it doesn't matter to you, but it means the ruin of Mary's whole life. How can she get a husband now when she's wasted her best years? You've spoilt all her chances. You've thrown a slur upon her which people will never forget. You're a cruel, wicked man, and however you won the Victoria Cross I don't know; I'm sure you don't deserve it."
Mrs. Jackson stopped.
"Is that all?" asked James, quietly.
"It's quite enough."
"Quite! In that case, I think we may finish our little interview."
"Have you nothing to say?" asked Mrs. Jackson indignantly, realising that she had not triumphed after all.
Mrs. Jackson was perplexed, and still those disconcerting eyes were fixed upon her; she angrily resented their polite contempt.
"Well, I think it's disgraceful!" she cried. "You must be utterly shameless!"
"My dear lady, you asked me to listen to you, and I have. If you thought I was going to argue, I'm afraid you were mistaken. But since you have been very frank with me, you can hardly mind if I am equally frank with you. I absolutely object to the way in which not only you, but all the persons who took part in that ridiculous function the other day, talk of my private concerns. I am a perfect stranger to you, and you have no business to speak to me of my engagement with Miss Clibborn or the rupture of it. Finally, I would remark that I consider your particular interference a very gross piece of impertinence. I am sorry to have to speak so directly, but apparently nothing but the very plainest language can have any effect upon you."
Then Mrs. Jackson lost her temper.
"Captain Parsons, I am considerably older than you, and you have no right to speak to me like that. You forget that I am a lady; and if I didn't know your father and mother, I should say that you were no gentleman. And you forget also that I come here on the part of God. You are certainly no Christian. You've been very rude to me, indeed."
"I didn't mean to be," replied James, smiling.
"If I'd known you would be so rude to a lady, I should have sent Archibald to speak with you."
"Perhaps it's fortunate you didn't. I might have kicked him."
"Captain Parsons, he's a minister of the gospel."
"Surely it is possible to be that without being a malicious busybody."
"You're heartless and vain! You're odiously conceited."
"I should have thought it a proof of modesty that for half an hour I have listened to you with some respect and with great attention."
"I must say in my heart I'm glad that Providence has stepped in and prevented Mary from marrying you. You are a bad man. And I leave you now to the mercies of your own conscience; I am a Christian woman, thank Heaven! and I forgive you. But I sincerely hope that God will see fit to punish you for your wickedness."
Mrs. Jackson bounced to the door, which James very politely opened.
"Oh, don't trouble!" she said, with a sarcastic shake of the head. "I can find my way out alone, and I shan't steal the umbrellas."
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