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THE END OF A DREAM
"You can guess why I brought you here, perhaps," Berenice said, gently, as she motioned him to sit down by her side. "This place, more than any other I know, certainly more than any other at Bayleigh, seems to me to be completely restful. There are the trees, you see, and the water, and the swans, that are certainly the laziest creatures I know. You look to me as though you needed rest, Lawrence."
"I suppose I do," he answered, slowly. "I am not sure, though, whether I deserve it."
"You are rather a self-distrustful mortal," she remarked, leaning back in her corner and looking at him from under her parasol. "You have worked hard all the session, and now you have finished up by three weeks of, I should think, herculean labour. If you do not deserve rest who does?"
"The rest which I deserve," Mannering answered, bitterly, "is the rest of those whose bones are bleaching amongst the caves and corals of the sea there! That is Matapan Point, isn't it, where the hidden rocks are?"
"Really, you are developing into a very gloomy person," she said. "Lawrence, don't let us fence with one another any longer. What you may decide to do politically may be ruinous to your career, to your chance of usefulness in the world, and to my hopes. But I want you to understand this. It can make no difference to me. I have had dreams perhaps of a great future, of being the wife of a Prime Minister who would lead his country into a new era of prosperity, who would put the last rivets into the bonds of a great imperial empire. But one never realizes all one's hopes, Lawrence. I love politics. I love being behind the scenes, and helping to move the pawns across the board. But I am a woman, too, Lawrence, and I love you. Put everything connected with your public life on one side. Let me ask you this. You are changed. Has anything come between us as man and woman?"
"Yes," he answered, "something has come between us."
She sat quite still for several minutes. She prayed that he too might keep silence, and he seemed to know her thoughts. Over the little sheet of ornamental water, down the glade of beech and elm trees narrowing towards the cliffs, her eyes travelled seawards. It was to her a terrible moment. Mannering had represented so much to her, and her standard was a high one. If there was a man living whom she would have reckoned above the weaknesses of the herd, it was he. In those days at Blakely she had almost idealized him. The simple purity of his life there, his delicate and carefully chosen pleasures, combined with his almost passionate love of the open places of the earth, had led her to regard him as something different from any other man whom she had ever known. All Borrowdean's hints and open statements had gone for very little. She had listened and retained her trust. And now she had a horrible fear. Something had gone out of the man, something which went for strength, something without which he seemed to lack that splendid militant vitality which had always seemed to her so admirable. Perhaps he was going to make a confession, one of those crude, clumsy confessions of a stained life, which have drawn the colour and the joy from so many beautiful dreams. She shivered a little, but she inclined her head to listen.
"Well," she said, "what is it?"
"I have asked another woman to marry me only a few hours ago," he said, quietly.
Berenice was a proud woman, and for the moment she felt her love for this man a dried-up and shrivelled thing. She was white to the lips, but she commanded her voice, and her eyes met his coldly.
"May I inquire into the circumstances--of this--somewhat remarkable proceeding?" she inquired.
"There is a woman," he said, "whose life I helped to wreck--not in the orthodox way," he added, with a note of scorn in his tone, "but none the less effectually. The one recompense I never thought of offering her was marriage. I have seen that, despite all my efforts to aid her, her life has been a failure. Her friends have been the wrong sort of friends, her life the wrong sort of life. What it was that was dragging her downwards I never guessed, for she, too, in her way, was a proud woman. To-day she sent for me. What passed between us is her secret as much as mine. I can only tell you that before I left I had asked her to marry me."
"I think," she said, calmly, "that you need tell me no more."
"There is very little more that I can tell you," he answered. "I have no affection for her, and she has refused to marry me. But she remains--between us--irrevocably!"
"You are lucidity itself," she replied. "Will you forgive me if I leave you? I am scarcely used to this sort of situation, and I should like to be alone."
"Go by all means, Berenice," he answered. "You and I are better apart. But there is one thing which I must say to you, and you must hear. What has passed between you and me is the epitome of the love-making of my life. You are the only woman whom I have desired to make my wife. You are the only woman whom I have loved, and shall love until I die. I can make you no reparation, none is possible! Yet these things are my justification."
Berenice had turned away. The passionate ring of truth in his tone arrested her footsteps. She paused. Her heart was beating very fast, her coldness was all assumed. It was so much happiness to throw away, if indeed there was a chance. She turned and faced him, nervous, gaunt, hollow-eyed, the wreck of his former self. Pity triumphed in spite of herself. What was this leaven of weakness in the man, she wondered, which had so suddenly broken him down? He had only to hold on his way and he would be Prime Minister in a year. And at the moment of trial he had crumpled up like a piece of false metal. A wave of false sentiment, a maniacal hyper-conscientiousness, had been sufficient to sap the very strength from his bones. And then--there was this other woman. Was she to let him go without an effort? He might recover his sanity. It was perhaps a mere nervous breakdown, which had made him the prey of strange fancies. She spoke to him differently. She spoke once more as the woman who loved him.
"Lawrence," she said, "you are telling me too much, and not enough. If you want to send me away I must go. But tell me this first. What claim has this woman upon you?"
"It is not my secret," he groaned. "I cannot tell you."
"Leslie Borrowdean knows it," she said. "I could have heard it, but I refused to listen. Remember, whatever you may owe to other people you owe me something, too."
"It is true," he answered. "Well, listen. I killed her husband!"
"You! You--killed her husband!" she repeated vaguely.
"Yes! She shielded me. There was an inquest, and they found that he had heart disease. No one knew that I had even seen him that day, no one save she and a servant, who is dead. But the truth lives. He had reason to be angry with me--over a money affair. He came home furious, and found me alone with his wife. He called me--well, it was a lie--and he struck me. I threw him on one side--and he fell. When we picked him up he was dead."
"It was terrible!" she said, "but you should have braved it out. They could have done very little to you."
"I know it," he answered. "But I was young, and my career was just beginning. The thing stunned me. She insisted upon secrecy. It would reflect upon her, she thought, if the truth came out, so I acquiesced, I left the house unseen. All these days I have had to carry the burden of this thing with me. To-day--seemed to be the climax. For the first time I understood."
"She can never marry you," Berenice said. "It would be horrible."
"She refused to marry me to-day," he answered, "but she laid her life bare, and I cannot marry any one else."
Berenice was trembling. She was no longer ashamed to show her agitation.
"I am very sorry for you, Lawrence," she said. "I am very sorry for myself. Good-bye!"
She left him, and Mannering sank back upon the seat.
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