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BORROWDEAN MAKES A BARGAIN
Borrowdean sank into the chair which Berenice had indicated, with a little sigh of relief.
"These all-night sittings," he remarked, "get less of a joke as one advances in years. You read the reports this morning?"
"And Mannering's speech?"
"Every word of it."
"Our little conspiracy," he continued, "is bearing fruit. Honestly, Mannering is a surprise, even to me. After these years of rust I scarcely expected him to step back at once into all his former brilliancy. His speech last night was wonderful."
"I heard it," she said. "You are quite right. It was wonderful."
"You were in the House?" he asked, looking up quickly.
"I was there till midnight," she answered.
Borrowdean was thoughtful for a moment.
"His speech," he remarked, "sounded even better than it read."
"I thought so," she admitted. "He has all the smaller tricks of the orator, as well as the gift of eloquence. One can always listen to him with pleasure."
"Will you pardon me," Borrowdean asked, "if I make a remark which may sound a little impertinent? You and Mannering were great friends at Blakely. On my first visit there you will remember that you did not attempt to conceal that there was more than an ordinary intimacy between you. Yet to-day I notice that there are indications on both your parts of a desire to avoid one another as much as possible. It seems to me a pity that you two should not be friends. Is there any small misunderstanding which a common friend--such as I trust I may call myself--might help to smooth away?"
Berenice regarded him thoughtfully.
"It is strange," she said, "that you should talk to me like this, you who are certainly responsible for any estrangement there may be between Mr. Mannering and myself. Please answer me this question. Why do you wish us to be friends?"
Borrowdean shrugged his shoulders.
"You and he and myself, with about a dozen others," he answered, "form the backbone of a political party. As time goes on we shall in all probability be drawn closer and closer together. It seems to me best that our alliance should be as real a thing as possible."
"Rather a sentimental attitude for you, Sir Leslie," she remarked. "Have you ever considered the fact that any coolness there may be between Lawrence Mannering and myself is entirely due to you?"
"To me!" he exclaimed.
"Exactly! At Blakely we were on terms of the most intimate friendship. I had grown to like and respect him more than any man I had ever met. I don't know exactly why I should take you so far into my confidence, but I am inclined to do so. Our friendship seemed likely to develop into--other things."
"My dear Duchess--"
"Don't interrupt me! I have an idea that you were perfectly aware of it. Perhaps it did not suit your plans. At any rate, you made statements to me concerning him which, as you very well knew, were likely to alter my entire opinion of him. I had an idea that there was some code of honour between men which kept them from discussing the private life of their friends with a woman. You seem to have been troubled with no such scruples. You told me things about Lawrence Mannering which made it absolutely necessary that I should hear them confirmed or denied from his own lips."
"You would rather have remained in ignorance, then?" he asked.
"I would rather have remained in ignorance," she repeated, calmly. "Don't flatter yourself, Sir Leslie, that a woman ever has any real gratitude in her heart for the person who, out of friendship, or some other motive, destroys her ideals. I should have married Lawrence Mannering if you had not spoken."
Borrowdean was silent. In his heart he was thinking how nearly one of the most cherished schemes of his life had gone awry.
"I am afraid, then," he said, "that even at the risk of your further displeasure I have no regrets to offer you."
"I do not desire your regrets," she answered, scornfully. "You did what it suited you to do, and I presume you are satisfied. As for the rest, I can assure you that the relations between Mr. Mannering and myself are such that the balance of your political apple-cart is not likely to be disturbed. Now let us talk of something else. I have said all that I have to say on this matter--"
Sir Leslie was not entirely satisfied with the result of his afternoon call. He walked slowly from Grosvenor Square to a small house in Sloane Gardens, in front of which a well-appointed victoria was waiting. He looked around at the well-filled window-boxes, thick with geraniums and marguerites, at the coachman's new livery, at the evidences of luxury which met him the moment the door was opened, and his lips parted in a faint, unpleasant smile.
"Poor Mannering," he murmured to himself. "What a millstone!"
Mrs. Phillimore was at home. She would certainly see Sir Leslie, the trim parlour-maid thought, with a smile. She left him alone in a flower-scented drawing-room, crowded with rococo furniture and many knick-knacks, where he waited more or less impatiently for nearly twenty minutes. Then Mrs. Phillimore swept into the room, elaborately gowned for her drive in the park, dispersing perfumes in all directions and bestowing a dazzling smile upon him.
"I felt very much inclined not to see you at all," she declared. "How dared you keep away from me all this time? You haven't been near me since I moved in here. What do you think of my little house?"
"Charming!" he declared.
"Every one likes it," she remarked. "Such a time I had choosing the furniture. Hester wouldn't help with a single thing. You know that she has left me?"
"I understood that she had gone to Mr. Mannering as secretary," he answered. "She has done typing for him for some time, hasn't she?"
Mrs. Phillimore nodded.
"Worships him, the little fool!" she remarked. "I must admit I detest clever men. You are all so dull, and such scheming brutes, too."
Borrowdean smiled. A certain rough-and-ready humour about this woman always appealed to him. He looked around.
"You seem to have done very nicely with that little offering," he said.
"Oh, ready money goes a long way," she declared, carelessly.
"And when it is spent?" he asked. "Five thousand pounds is not an inexhaustible sum."
"By the time it is spent," she answered, "your party will be in, and I suppose you will make Lawrence something."
Borrowdean regarded the woman thoughtfully.
"Has it ever occurred to you," he asked, "that the time is likely to come when Mannering might want his money for himself? He might want to marry, for instance."
She laughed mirthlessly, but without a shade of uneasiness.
"You don't know Lawrence," she declared, scornfully. "He'd never do that whilst I was alive."
"I am not so sure," Borrowdean answered, calmly. "Between ourselves, I cannot see that your claim upon him amounts to very much."
"Then you're a fool!" she declared, brusquely.
"No, I'm not," Borrowdean assured her, blandly. "Now I fancy that I could tell you something which would surprise you very much."
"Has he been making love to any one?" she asked, quickly.
"Something of the sort," he admitted. "Mannering is quixotic, of course, and that hermit life of his down in Norfolk has made him more so. Now he has come back again into the world it is just possible that he may see things differently. I flatter myself that I am a man of common sense. I know how the whole affair seems to me, and I tell you frankly that I can see nothing from the point of view of honour to prevent Mannering marrying any woman he chooses. I think it very possible that he may readjust his whole point of view."
The woman looked around her, and outside, where her victoria was waiting. At last she had attained to an environment such as she had all her life desired. The very idea that at any moment it might be swept away sent a cold shiver through her. Borrowdean had a trick of speaking convincingly. And besides--
"Who is the woman?" she asked.
"I had been wondering," Borrowdean said, "whether it would not be better to tell you, so that you might be on your guard. The woman is the Duchess of Lenchester."
She stared at him.
"You're in earnest?"
Her face hardened. Whatever other feelings she may have had for Mannering, she had lived so long with the thought that he belonged to her, at least as a wage-earning animal, a person whose province it was to make her ways smooth so far as his means permitted, that the thought of losing him stirred in her a dull, jealous anger.
"I'd stop it!" she declared. "I'd go and tell her everything."
"I am not sure," Borrowdean continued, smoothly, "that that would be the best course. Supposing that you were to tell her the story just as you told it to me. It is just possible that her point of view might be mine. She might regard Lawrence Mannering as a quixotic person, and endeavour to persuade him that your claim was scarcely so binding as he seems to imagine. In any case, I do not think that your story would prevent her marrying him."
"Then all I can say is that she is a woman with a very queer sense of right and wrong," Mrs. Phillimore declared, angrily.
"A woman," he said, "who is fond of a man is apt to have her judgment a little warped. The Duchess is a woman of fine perceptions and sound judgment. But she is attracted by Lawrence Mannering. She admires him. He is the sort of person who appeals to her imagination. These feelings might easily become, if they have not already developed into, something else. And I tell you again that I do not believe your story would stop her from marrying him."
She leaned a little towards him.
"What would?" she asked, earnestly.
"Well," he said, "I think I could tell you that!"
She held up her hand.
"Stop, please," she said. "I want to ask you something else. Are you Lawrence's enemy?"
"I? Why, of course not!"
"Then where do you come in?" she asked, bluntly. "You couldn't persuade me that it is interest on my account which brings you here and makes you tell me these things. You don't care a button for me."
Borrowdean took her hand and leaned forward in his chair. She snatched it away.
"Oh, rot!" she exclaimed. "I may be a fool, but I'm not quite fool enough for that. I'm simply a useful person for the moment in some scheme of yours, and I just want to know what that scheme is. That's all! I'm not the sort of woman you'd waste a moment with, except for some purpose of your own. You've proved that. You wormed my story out of me very cleverly, but I haven't quite forgotten it yet, you know. And to tell you the truth," she continued, "you're not my sort, either. You and Lawrence Mannering are something of the same kidney after all, though he's worth a dozen of you. You've neither of you any time for play in the world, and that sort of man doesn't appeal to me. Now where do you come in?"
Borrowdean looked at her thoughtfully. He had the air of a man a trifle piqued. Perhaps for the first time he realized that Blanche Phillimore was not altogether an unattractive-looking woman. If she had desired to stir him from his indifference she could not have chosen any more effectual means.
"I am not going to argue with you," he said, quietly. "I have ambitions, it is true, and the world is not exactly a playground for me. Nevertheless, I am not an ascetic like Mannering. The world, the flesh and the devil are very much to me what they are to other men. But in a sense you have cornered me, and you shall have the truth. I want to marry the Duchess of Lenchester myself."
"That's right," she said. "Now we know where we are. You want to marry the Duchess, and therefore you don't want her to have Lawrence. You think that I can stop it, and as I don't want him married, either, you come to me. That is reasonable. Now how can I prevent it?"
"By a slight variation from your story," he answered. "In fact, words are not needed. A suggestion only would be enough, and circumstances," he added, glancing around, "are strongly in favour of that suggestion."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Mannering is security for your lease," he remarked. "You pay in his cheques to your bank every quarter. He occupies just that position which in a general way is capable of one explanation only."
"Let the Duchess believe him, or continue to believe him, to be an ordinary man--instead of a fool--and she will never marry him."
"And she will you?"
"I hope so!"
She leaned back in her chair. He could not altogether understand her silence. Surely she could have no scruples?
"It seems to me," she said at last, "that I am to play your game for nothing. I don't care so very much, after all, if he marries. He'd settle all he could on me. In fact, I should have just as much claim on him as I have now."
"I did not say that you should play it for nothing," he answered. "I want us to understand each other, because I have an idea that you may be seeing something of the Duchess at any moment. Let us put it this way. Suppose I promise to give you a diamond necklace of the value of, say five thousand pounds, the day I marry the Duchess!"
She rose and put pen and paper before him. He shook his head.
"I can't put an arrangement of that sort on paper," he protested. "You must rely upon my word of honour."
She held out the pen to him.
"On paper, or the whole thing is off absolutely," she declared.
"You won't trust me?"
She looked at him.
"There isn't much honour about an arrangement of this sort, is there?" she said. "It has to be on paper, or not at all."
A carriage stopped outside. They heard the bell.
"That," she remarked, "may be the Duchess of Lenchester."
He caught up the pen and wrote a few hurried lines. The smile with which he handed it to her was not altogether successful.
"After all, you know," he said, "there should be honour amongst thieves."
"No doubt there is," she answered. "Only thieves are a cut above us, aren't they?"
"I don't believe," Borrowdean said to himself, as he reached the pavement, "that that woman is such a fool as she seems."
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