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Major Forsyth arrived in time for tea, red-faced, dapper, and immaculate. He wore a check suit, very new and very pronounced, with a beautiful line down each trouser-leg; and his collar and his tie were of the latest mode. His scanty hair was carefully parted in the middle, and his moustache bristled with a martial ardour. He had lately bought a fine set of artificial teeth, which, with pardonable pride, he constantly exhibited to the admiration of all and sundry. Major Forsyth's consuming desire was to appear juvenile; he affected slang, and carried himself with a youthful jauntiness. He vowed he felt a mere boy, and flattered himself that on his good days, with the light behind him, he might pass for five-and-thirty.
"A woman," he repeated--"a woman is as old as she looks; but a man is as old as he feels!"
The dandiness which in a crammer's pup--most overdressed of all the human race--would merely have aroused a smile, looked oddly with the Major's wrinkled skin and his old eyes. There was something almost uncanny in the exaggerated boyishness; he reminded one of some figure in a dance of death, of a living skeleton, hollow-eyed, strutting gaily by the side of a gallant youth.
It was not difficult to impose upon the Parsons, and Major Forsyth had gained over them a complete ascendancy. They took his opinion on every possible matter, accepting whatever he said with gratified respect. He was a man of the world, and well acquainted with the goings-on of society. They had an idea that he disappointed duchesses to come down to Little Primpton, and always felt that it was a condescension on his part to put up with their simple manners. They altered their hours; luncheon was served at the middle of the day, and dinner in the evening.
Mrs. Parsons put on a Sabbath garment of black silk to receive her brother, and round her neck a lace fichu. When he arrived with Colonel Parsons from the station, she went into the hall to meet him.
"Well, William, have you had a pleasant journey?"
"Oh, yes, yes! I came down with the prettiest woman I've seen for many a long day. I made eyes at her all the way, but she wouldn't look at me."
"William, William!" expostulated Mr. Parsons, smiling.
"You see he hasn't improved since we saw him last, Frances," laughed the Colonel, leading the way into the drawing-room.
"No harm in looking at a pretty woman, you know. I'm a bachelor still, thank the Lord! That reminds me of a funny story I heard at the club."
"Oh, we're rather frightened of your stories, William," said Mrs. Parsons.
"Yes, you're very risky sometimes," assented the Colonel, good-humouredly shaking his head.
Major Forsyth was anecdotal, as is only decent in an old bachelor, and he made a speciality of stories which he thought wicked, but which, as a matter of fact, would not have brought a blush to any cheek less innocent than that of Colonel Parsons.
"There's no harm in a little spice," said Uncle William. "And you're a married woman, Frances."
He told an absolutely pointless story of how a man had helped a young woman across the street, and seen her ankle in the process. He told it with immense gusto, laughing and repeating the point at least six times.
"William, William!" laughed Colonel Parsons, heartily. "You should keep those things for the smoking-room."
"What d'you think of it, Frances?" asked the gallant Major, still hugely enjoying the joke.
Mrs. Parsons blushed a little, and for decency's sake prevented herself from smiling; she felt rather wicked.
"I don't want to hear any more of your tales, William."
"Ha, ha!" laughed Uncle William, "I knew you'd like it. And that one I told you in the fly, Richmond--you know, about the petticoat."
"Sh-sh!" said the Colonel, smiling. "You can't tell that to a lady."
"P'r'aps I'd better not. But it's a good story, though."
They both laughed.
"I think it's dreadful the things you men talk about as soon as you're alone," said Mrs. Parsons.
The two God-fearing old soldiers laughed again, admitting their wickedness.
"One must talk about something," said Uncle William. "And upon my word, I don't know anything better to talk about than the fair sex."
Soon James appeared, and shook hands with his uncle.
"You're looking younger than ever, Uncle William. You make me feel quite old."
"Oh, I never age, bless you! Why, I was talking to my old friend, Lady Green, the other day--she was a Miss Lake, you know--and she said to me: 'Upon my word, Major Forsyth, you're wonderful. I believe you've found the secret of perpetual youth.' 'The fact is,' I said, 'I never let myself grow old. If you once give way to it, you're done.' 'How do you manage it?' she said. 'Madam,' I answered, 'it's the simplest thing in the world. I keep regular hours, and I wear flannel next to my skin.'"
"Come, come, Uncle William," said James, with a smile. "You didn't mention your underlinen to a lady!"
"Upon my word, I'm telling you exactly what I said."
"You're very free in your conversation."
"Well, you know, I find the women expect it from me. Of course, I never go beyond the line."
Then Major Forsyth talked of the fashions, and of his clothes, of the scandal of the day, and the ancestry of the persons concerned, of the war.
"You can say what you like," he remarked, "but my opinion is that Roberts is vastly overrated. I met at the club the other day a man whose first cousin has served under Roberts in India--his first cousin, mind you, so it's good authority--and this chap told me, in strict confidence, of course, that his first cousin had no opinion of Roberts. That's what a man says who has actually served under him."
"It is certainly conclusive," said James. "I wonder your friend's first cousin didn't go to the War Office and protest against Bobs being sent out."
"What's the good of going to the War Office? They're all corrupt and incompetent there. If I had my way, I'd make a clean sweep of them. Talking of red-tape, I'll just give you an instance. Now, this is a fact. It was told me by the brother-in-law of the uncle of the man it happened to."
Major Forsyth told his story at great length, finishing up with the assertion that if the army wasn't going to the dogs, he didn't know what going to the dogs meant.
James, meanwhile, catching the glances which passed between his mother and Colonel Parsons, understood that they were thinking of the great subject upon which Uncle William was to be consulted. Half scornfully he gave them their opportunity.
"I'm going for a stroll," he said, "through Groombridge. I shan't be back till dinner-time."
"How lucky!" remarked Colonel Parsons naively, when James had gone. "We wanted to talk with you privately, William. You're a man of the world."
"I think there's not much that I don't know," replied the Major, shooting his linen.
"Tell him, Frances."
Mrs. Parsons, accustomed to the part of spokeswoman, gave her tale, interrupted now and again by a long whistle with which the Major signified his shrewdness, or by an energetic nod which meant that the difficulty was nothing to him.
"You're quite right," he said at last; "one has to look upon these things from the point of view of the man of the world."
"We knew you'd be able to help us," said Colonel Parsons.
"Of course! I shall settle the whole thing in five minutes. You leave it to me."
"I told you he would, Frances," cried the Colonel, with a happy smile. "You think that James ought to marry the girl, don't you?"
"Certainly. Whatever his feelings are, he must act as a gentleman and an officer. Just you let me talk it over with him. He has great respect for all I say; I've noticed that already."
Mrs. Parsons looked at her brother doubtfully.
"We haven't known what to do," she murmured. "We've prayed for guidance, haven't we, Richmond? We're anxious not to be hard on the boy, but we must be just."
"Leave it to me," repeated Uncle William. "I'm a man of the world, and I'm thoroughly at home in matters of this sort."
* * * * * * *
According to the little plan which, in his subtlety, Major Forsyth had suggested, Mrs. Parsons, soon after dinner, fetched the backgammon board.
"Shall we have our usual game, Richmond?"
Colonel Parsons looked significantly at his brother-in-law.
"If William doesn't mind?"
"No, no, of course not! I'll have a little chat with Jamie."
The players sat down at the corner of the table, and rather nervously began to set out the men. James stood by the window, silent as ever, looking at the day that was a-dying, with a milk-blue sky and tenuous clouds, copper and gold. Major Forsyth took a chair opposite him, and pulled his moustache.
"Well, Jamie, my boy, what is all this nonsense I hear about you and Mary Clibborn?"
Colonel Parsons started at the expected question, and stole a hurried look at his son. His wife noisily shook the dice-box and threw the dice on the board.
"Nine!" she said.
James turned to look at his uncle, noting a little contemptuously the change of his costume, and its extravagant juvenility.
"A lot of stuff and nonsense, isn't it?"
"D'you think so?" asked James, wearily. "We've been taking it very seriously."
"You're a set of old fogies down here. You want a man of the world to set things right."
"Ah, well, you're a man of the world, Uncle William," replied James, smiling.
The dice-box rattled obtrusively as Colonel Parsons and his wife played on with elaborate unconcern of the conversation.
"A gentleman doesn't jilt a girl when he's been engaged to her for five years."
James squared himself to answer Major Forsyth. The interview with Mrs. Jackson in the morning had left him extremely irritated. He was resolved to say now all he had to say and have done with it, hoping that a complete explanation would relieve the tension between his people and himself.
"It is with the greatest sorrow that I broke off my engagement with Mary Clibborn. It seemed to me the only honest thing to do since I no longer loved her. I can imagine nothing in the world so horrible as a loveless marriage."
"Of course, it's unfortunate; but the first thing is to keep one's word."
"No," answered James, "that is prejudice. There are many more important things."
Colonel Parsons stopped the pretence of his game.
"Do you know that Mary is breaking her heart?" he asked in a low voice.
"I'm afraid she's suffering very much. I don't see how I can help it."
"Leave this to me, Richmond," interrupted the Major, impatiently. "You'll make a mess of it."
But Colonel Parsons took no notice.
"She looked forward with all her heart to marrying you. She's very unhappy at home, and her only consolation was the hope that you would soon take her away."
"Am I managing this or are you, Richmond? I'm a man of the world."
"If I married a woman I did not care for because she was rich, you would say I had dishonoured myself. The discredit would not be in her wealth, but in my lack of love."
"That's not the same thing," replied Major Forsyth. "You gave your word, and now you take it back."
"I promised to do a thing over which I had no control. When I was a boy, before I had seen anything of the world, before I had ever known a woman besides my mother, I promised to love Mary Clibborn all my life. Oh, it was cruel to let me be engaged to her! You blame me; don't you think all of you are a little to blame as well?"
"What could we have done?"
"Why didn't you tell me not to be hasty? Why didn't you say that I was too young to become engaged?"
"We thought it would steady you."
"But a young man doesn't want to be steadied. Let him see life and taste all it has to offer. It is wicked to put fetters on his wrists before ever he has seen anything worth taking. What is the virtue that exists only because temptation is impossible!"
"I can't understand you, Jamie," said Mrs. Parsons, sadly. "You talk so differently from when you were a boy."
"Did you expect me to remain all my life an ignorant child. You've never given me any freedom. You've hemmed me in with every imaginable barrier. You've put me on a leading-string, and thanked God that I did not stray."
"We tried to bring you up like a good man, and a true Christian."
"If I'm not a hopeless prig, it's only by miracle."
"James, that's not the way to talk to your mother," said Major Forsyth.
"Oh, mother, I'm sorry; I don't want to be unkind to you. But we must talk things out freely; we've lived in a hot-house too long."
"I don't know what you mean. You became engaged to Mary of your own free will; we did nothing to hinder it, nothing to bring it about. But I confess we were heartily thankful, thinking that no influence could be better for you than the love of a pure, sweet English girl."
"It would have been kinder and wiser if you had forbidden it."
"We could not have taken the responsibility of crossing your affections."
"Mrs. Clibborn did."
"Could you expect us to be guided by her?"
"She was the only one who showed the least common sense."
"How you have changed, Jamie!"
"I would have obeyed you if you had told me I was too young to become engaged. After all, you are more responsible than I am. I was a child. It was cruel to let me bind myself."
"I never thought you would speak to us like that."
"All that's ancient history," said Major Forsyth, with what he flattered himself was a very good assumption of jocularity. It was his idea to treat the matter lightly, as a man of the world naturally would. But his interruption was unnoticed.
"We acted for the best. You know that we have always had your interests at heart."
James did not speak, for his only answer would have been bitter. Throughout, they had been unwilling to let him live his own life, but desirous rather that he should live theirs. They loved him tyrannically, on the condition that he should conform to all their prejudices. Though full of affectionate kindness, they wished him always to dance to their piping--a marionette of which they pulled the strings.
"What would you have me do?"
"Keep your word, James," answered his father.
"I can't, I can't! I don't understand how you can wish me to marry Mary Clibborn when I don't love her. That seems to me dishonourable."
"It would be nothing worse than a mariage de convenance," said Uncle William. "Many people marry in that sort of way, and are perfectly happy."
"I couldn't," said James. "That seems to me nothing better than prostitution. It is no worse for a street-walker to sell her body to any that care to buy."
"James, remember your mother is present."
"For God's sake, let us speak plainly. You must know what life is. One can do no good by shutting one's eyes to everything that doesn't square with a shoddy, false ideal. On one side I must break my word, on the other I must prostitute myself. There is no middle way. You live here surrounded by all sorts of impossible ways of looking at life. How can your outlook be sane when it is founded on a sham morality? You think the body is indecent and ugly, and that the flesh is shameful. Oh, you don't understand. I'm sick of this prudery which throws its own hideousness over all it sees. The soul and the body are one, indissoluble. Soul is body, and body is soul. Love is the God-like instinct of procreation. You think sexual attraction is something to be ignored, and in its place you put a bloodless sentimentality--the vulgar rhetoric of a penny novelette. If I marry a woman, it is that she may be the mother of children. Passion is the only reason for marriage; unless it exists, marriage is ugly and beastly. It's worse than beastly; the beasts of the field are clean. Don't you understand why I can't marry Mary Clibborn?"
"What you call love, James," said Colonel Parsons, "is what I call lust."
"I well believe it," replied James, bitterly.
"Love is something higher and purer."
"I know nothing purer than the body, nothing higher than the divine instincts of nature."
"But that sort of love doesn't last, my dear," said Mrs. Parsons, gently. "In a very little while it is exhausted, and then you look for something different in your wife. You look for friendship and companionship, confidence, consolation in your sorrows, sympathy with your success. Beside all that, the sexual love sinks into nothing."
"It may be. The passion arises for the purposes of nature, and dies away when those purposes are fulfilled. It seems to me that the recollection of it must be the surest and tenderest tie between husband and wife; and there remains for them, then, the fruit of their love, the children whom it is their blessed duty to rear till they are of fit age to go into the world and continue the endless cycle."
There was a pause, while Major Forsyth racked his brain for some apposite remark; but the conversation had run out of his depth.
Colonel Parsons at last got up and put his hands on Jamie's shoulders.
"And can't you bring yourself to marry that poor girl, when you think of the terrible unhappiness she suffers?"
James shook his head.
"You were willing to sacrifice your life for a mere stranger, and cannot you sacrifice yourself for Mary, who has loved you long and tenderly, and unselfishly?"
"I would willingly risk my life if she were in danger. But you ask more."
Colonel Parsons was silent for a little, looking into his son's eyes. Then he spoke with trembling voice.
"I think you love me, James. I've always tried to be a good father to you; and God knows I've done all I could to make you happy. If I did wrong in letting you become engaged, I beg your pardon. No; let me go on." This he said in answer to Jamie's movement of affectionate protest. "I don't say it to reproach you, but your mother and I have denied ourselves in all we could so that you should be happy and comfortable. It's been a pleasure to us, for we love you with all our hearts. You know what happened to me when I left the army. I told you years ago of the awful disgrace I suffered. I could never have lived except for my trust in God and my trust in you. I looked to you to regain the honour which I had lost. Ah! you don't know how anxiously I watched you, and the joy with which I said to myself, 'There is a good and honourable man.' And now you want to stain that honour. Oh, James, James! I'm old, and I can't live long. If you love me, if you think you have cause for gratitude to me, do this one little thing I ask you! For my sake, my dear, keep your word to Mary Clibborn."
"You're asking me to do something immoral, father."
Then Colonel Parsons helplessly dropped his hands from Jamie's shoulders, and turned to the others, his eyes full of tears.
"I don't understand what he means!" he groaned.
He sank on a chair and hid his face.
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