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A BLOW FOR BORROWDEAN
There was a somewhat unusual alertness in Borrowdean's manner as he passed out from the little house in Sloane Gardens and summoned a passing hansom. He drove to the corner of Hyde Park, and dismissing the cab strolled along the broad walk.
The many acquaintances whom he passed and repassed he greeted with a certain amount of abstraction. All the time he kept his eyes upon the road. He was waiting to catch sight of some familiar liveries. When at last they came he contrived to stop the carriage and hastily threaded his way to the side of the barouche.
Berenice was looking radiantly beautiful. The exquisite simplicity of her white muslin gown and large hat of black feathers, the slight flush with which she received him, as though she carried about with her a secret which she expected every one to read, the extinction of that air of listlessness which had robbed her for some time of a certain share of her good looks--of all these things Borrowdean made quick note. His face grew graver as he accepted her not very enthusiastic invitation and occupied the back seat of the carriage. For the first time he admitted to himself the possibility of failure in his carefully laid plans. He recognized the fact, that there were forces at work against which he had no weapon ready. He had believed that Berenice was attracted by Mannering's personality and genius. He had never seriously considered the question of her feelings becoming more deeply involved. So many men had paid vain court to her. She had a wonderful reputation for inaccessibility. And yet he remembered her manner when he had paid his first unexpected visit to Blakely. It should have been a lesson to him. How far had the mischief gone, he wondered!
"So Mannering has gone North," he remarked, noticing that she avoided the subject.
She nodded. Her parasol drooped a little his way, and he wondered whether it was because she desired her face hidden.
"You saw him?"
"Yes," she answered. "He explained how he felt to me."
"And you could not dissuade him?"
"I did not try," she answered, simply. "Lawrence Mannering is not a man of ordinary disposition, you know. He had come to the conclusion that it was right for him to go, and opposition would only have made him the more determined. I cannot see that there is any harm likely to come of it."
"I am not so sure of that," Borrowdean answered, seriously. "Mannering is au fond a man of sentiment. There is no clearer thinker or speaker when his judgment is unbiassed, but on the other hand, the man's nature is sensitive and complex. He has a sort of maudlin self-consciousness which is as dangerous a thing as the nonconformist conscience. Heaven knows into whose hands he may fall up there."
"He is going incognito," she remarked.
"He is not the sort of man to escape notice," Borrowdean answered. "He will be discovered for certain. Of course, if it comes off all right, the whole thing will be a feather in his cap. But when I think how much we are dependent upon him, I don't like the risk."
"You are sure," she remarked, thoughtfully, "that you do not over-rate--"
"Mannering himself, perhaps," Borrowdean interrupted. "There is no man whose personal place cannot be filled. But one thing is very certain. Mannering is the only man who unites both sides of our scattered party, the only man under whom Fergusson and Johns would both serve. You know quite well the curse which has rested upon us. We have become a party of units, and our whole effectiveness is destroyed. We want welding into one entity. A single session, a single year of office, and the thing would be done. We who do the mechanical work would see that there was no breaking away again. But we must have that year, we must have Mannering. That is why I watch him like a child, and I must say that he has given me a good deal of anxiety lately."
"In what way?" she asked.
Borrowdean hesitated. He seemed uncertain how to answer.
"If I explain what I mean," he said, "you will understand that I do not speak to you as a woman and an acquaintance of Mannering's, but simply as one of ourselves. Mannering's private life is, of course, interesting to me only as an index to his political destiny, and my acquaintance with it arises solely from my political interest in him. There are things in connection with it which I feel that I shall never properly be able to understand."
She looked at him steadily. Her cheeks were a little whiter, but her tone was deliberate.
"I do not wish to hear anything about Mr. Mannering's private life," she said. "You will understand that I am not free or disposed to listen when I tell you that I am going to marry him."
This was perhaps the worst blow Borrowdean had ever experienced in the course of his whole life. The possibility of this was a danger which he had recognized might some time have to be reckoned with, but for the present he had felt safe enough. He was taken so completely aback that for a few moments his mind was a blank. He remained silent.
"You do not offer me the conventional wishes," she remarked, presently.
"They go--from me to you--as a matter of course," he answered. "To tell you the truth, I never thought of Mannering, for many reasons, as a marrying man."
"You will have to readjust your views of him," she said, quietly, "for I think that we shall be married very soon."
Borrowdean was a little white, and his teeth had come together. Whatever happened, he told himself, fiercely, this must never be. He felt his breast-pocket mechanically. Yes, the letter was there. Dare he risk it? She was a proud woman, she would be unforgiving if once she believed. But supposing she found him out? He temporized.
"Thank you for telling me," he said. "Do you mind putting me down here?"
"Why? You seemed in no hurry a few minutes ago."
"The world," he said, "was a different place then."
She looked at him searchingly.
"You had better tell me all about it," she remarked. "You have something on your mind, something which you are half disposed to tell me, a little more than half, I think. Go on."
He looked at her as one might look at the magician who has achieved the apparently impossible.
"You are wonderful," he said. "Yes, I will tell you my dilemma, if you like. I have just come from Sloane Gardens!"
Her face changed instantly. It was as though a mask had been dropped over it. Her eyes were fixed, her features expressionless.
"Well?" she said, simply.
He drew a letter from his pocket.
"You may as well see it yourself," he remarked. "For reasons which you may doubtless understand, I have always kept on good terms with Mrs. Phillimore, and she was to have dined with me and some other friends to-morrow night. Here is a note which I had from her yesterday. Will you read it?"
Berenice held it between her finger tips. There were only a few lines, and she read them at a glance.
My dear Sir Leslie,
I am so sorry, but I must scratch for to-morrow night. L. is going North on some mysterious expedition, and I am afraid that he will want me to go with him. In fact, he has already said so. Ask me again some time, won't you?
Berenice folded up the letter and returned it.
"It is a little extraordinary," she remarked. "I am much obliged to you for showing me this. If you do not mind, we will talk of something else. Look, there is Clara Mannering alone under the trees. Go and talk to her."
Berenice touched the checkstring, and Borrowdean was forced to depart. She smiled upon him graciously enough, but she spoke not another word about Mannering. Borrowdean was obliged to leave her without knowing whether he had lost or gained the trick.
Clara Mannering received him not altogether graciously. As a matter of fact, she was looking for some one else. They strolled along, talking almost in monosyllables. Borrowdean found time to notice the change which even these few months in London had wrought in her. She was still graceful in her movements, but a smart dressmaker had contrived to make her a perfect reproduction of the recognized type of the moment. She had lost her delicate colouring. There was a certain hardness in her young face, a certain pallor and listlessness in her movements which Borrowdean did not fail to note. He tried to lead the conversation into more personal channels.
"We seem to have met very little during the last month," he said. "I have scarcely had an opportunity to ask you whether you find the life here as pleasant as you hoped, whether it has realized your expectations."
"Does anything ever do that?" she asked, a little flippantly. "It is different, of course. I do not think that I should be willing to go back to Blakely, at any rate."
"You have made a great many friends," he remarked. "I hear of you continually."
"A host of acquaintances," she remarked. "I do not think that I have materially increased the circle of my friends. I hear of you too, Sir Leslie, very often. It seems that people give you a good deal of credit for inducing my uncle to come back into politics."
"I certainly did my best to persuade him," Sir Leslie answered, smoothly. "If I had known how much anxiety he was going to cause us I might perhaps have been a little less keen."
"Anxiety!" she repeated.
"Yes! Do you know where he is now?"
"I have no idea," Clara answered. "All that I do know is that he has gone away for three weeks, and that I am going to stay with the Duchess till he comes back. It is very nice of her, and all that, of course, but I feel rather as though I were going into prison. The Duchess isn't exactly the modern sort of chaperon."
Borrowdean nodded sympathetically.
"And consider my anxiety," he remarked. "Your uncle has gone North to consider the true position of the labouring classes. Now Mr. Mannering is a brilliant politician and a sound thinker, but he is also a man of sentiment. They will drug him with it up there. He will probably come back with half a dozen new schemes, and we don't want them, you know. He ought to be speaking at Glasgow and Leeds this week. He simply ignores his responsibilities. He yields to a sudden whim and leaves us plantes la."
She seemed scarcely to have heard the conclusion of his sentence. Her attention was fixed upon a group of men who were talking near.
"Do you know--isn't that Major Bristow?" she asked Borrowdean, abruptly.
Borrowdean put up his glass.
"Looks like him," he admitted.
"I should be so much obliged," she said, "if you would tell him that I wish to see him. I have a message for his sister," she concluded, a little lamely.
Borrowdean did as he was asked. He noticed the slight impatience of the man as he delivered his message, and the flush with which she greeted him. Then, with a little shrug of the shoulders, he pursued his way.
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