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MATRIMONY AND AN AWKWARD MEETING
"How delightfully Continental!" Blanche exclaimed, as the head-waiter showed them to their table. "Hester, did you ever see anything more quaint?"
"It is perfect," the girl answered, leaning back in her chair, and looking around with quiet content.
Mannering took up the menu and ordered dinner. Then he lit a cigarette and looked around.
"It certainly is quaint," he said. "One dines out of doors often enough, especially over here, but I have never seen a courtyard made such excellent use of before. The place is really old, too."
They had found their way to a small seaside resort, in the north of France, which Mannering had heard highly praised by some casual acquaintance. The courtyard of the small hotel was set out with round dining tables, and the illumination was afforded by Japanese lanterns hung from every available spot. A small band played from a wooden balcony. Monsieur, the proprietor, walked anxiously from table to table, all smiles and bows. Through the roofed way, which led from the street, one caught a distant glimpse of the sea.
Mannering, to the surprise of his friends, and to his own secret amazement, had survived the crisis which had seemed at one time likely enough to wreck his life. Politically he was no longer a great power, for the party whose cause he had half espoused had met with a distinct reverse, and he himself was without a seat in Parliament, but amongst the masses his was still a name to conjure with. Socially his marriage with Blanche Phillimore had scarcely proved the disaster which every one had anticipated. Her old ways and manner of life lay in the background. She had aged a little, perhaps, and grown thinner, but she had shown from the first an almost pathetic desire to adapt her life to his, to assume an altogether unobtrusive position, and if she could not in any way influence his destiny, at least she did not hamper it. She had made no demands upon him which he was not able to grant. She had lived where he had suggested, she had never embarrassed him with too vehement an affection. As for Mannering himself, he had found solace in work. Defeated at the polls, he had declined a safe seat, and remained the chosen independent candidate of a great Northern constituency. He addressed public meetings occasionally, and he contributed to the reviews. Without having ever finally committed himself to a definite scheme of tariff reform, he preached everywhere the doctrine of consideration. In a modified way he was reckoned now as one of its possible supporters.
They were almost halfway through their dinner when some commotion was heard in the narrow street outside. Then with much tooting of horns and the shrill shouting of directions from the bystanders, two heavily laden touring cars turned slowly into the cobbled courtyard, and drew up within a few feet of the semicircular line of tables. Mannering's little party watched the arrivals with an interest shared by every one in the place. Muffled up in cloaks and veils, they were at first unrecognized. It was Mannering himself who first realized who they were.
"Clara!" he exclaimed to the young lady who was standing almost by his side. "Welcome to Bonestre!"
She turned towards him with a little start.
"Uncle!" she exclaimed. "How extraordinary! Why, how long have you been here?"
"We arrived this afternoon," he answered. "You remember Hester, don't you? And this is Mrs. Mannering."
Clara shook hands with both. She declared afterwards that she was surprised into it, but she would certainly never have recognized in the quiet, rather weary-looking, woman who sat at her uncle's side the Blanche Phillimore whom she had more than once passionately declared that she would sooner die than speak to. She murmured a few mechanical words, and then, suddenly realizing the situation, she glanced a little anxiously over her shoulder.
"You know who I am with, uncle?" she whispered.
But Mannering was already face to face with Berenice. She held out her hand without hesitation. If she felt any emotion she concealed it perfectly. Her voice was steady and cordial, if her cheeks were pale. The dust lay thickly upon them all. Mannering, tall and grave in his plain dinner clothes and black tie, stood almost like a statue before her, until her extended hand invited his movement.
"What an extraordinary meeting," she said, quietly. "I am very glad to see you again, Mr. Mannering. We have had such a ride, all the way from Havre along roads an inch thick in dust. This is your wife, is it not? I am very glad to know you, Mrs. Mannering."
All that might have been embarrassing in the encounter seemed dissolved by the utterly conventional tone of her greeting. Sir Leslie Borrowdean came up and joined them, and Lord and Lady Redford. Then the little party, escorted by the landlord, disappeared into the hotel. Mannering resumed his seat and continued his dinner. He leaned over and addressed his wife. His tone was kinder than usual.
"When we have had our coffee," he said, "I hope that you will feel like a walk. The moon is coming up over the sea."
She shook her head.
"Take Hester," she said. "She loves that sort of thing. I have a headache, and I should like to go upstairs as soon as possible."
So Hester walked with Mannering out to the rocks where pools of water, left by the tide, shone like silver in the moonlight. They talked very little at first, but as they leaned over the rail and looked out seawards Hester broke the silence, and spoke of the things which they both had in their minds.
"I am sorry they came," she said. "I am afraid it will upset mother, and it is not pleasant for you, is it?"
"For me it is nothing, Hester," he answered, "and I hope that your mother will not worry about it. They all behaved very nicely, and we need not see much of them."
She passed her arm through his.
"Tell me how you feel about it," she begged. "It must seem to you like a glimpse of the life you left when--when you--married!"
"Hester," he said, earnestly, "don't make any mistake about this. Don't let your mother make any mistake. It was my political change of views which separated me from all my former friends--that entirely. To them I am an apostate, and a very bad sort of one. I deserted them just when they needed me. I did it from convictions which are stronger to-day than ever. But none the less I threw them over. I always said that they very much exaggerated my importance as a factor in the situation, and my words are proved. They carried the elections without any difficulty, and they have formed a strong Government. They can afford to be magnanimous to me. If I had stayed with them I should have been in office. As it was, I lost even my seat."
"You did what you thought was right," she said, softly. "No one can do any more!"
Mannering thought over her words as they walked homewards over the sand-dunes. Yes, he had done that! Was he satisfied with the result? He had become a minor power in politics. Men spoke of him as a weakling--as one who had shrunk from the burden of great responsibility, and left the friends who had trusted him in the lurch. And then--there was the other thing. He had paid a great price for this woman's salvation. Had he succeeded? She had given up all her old ways. She dressed, she lived, she carried herself through life even with a furtive, almost a pathetic, attempt to reach his standard. Often he caught her watching him as though fearful lest some word or action of hers had been displeasing to him. And yet--he wondered--was this what she had hoped for? Had he given her what she had the right to expect? Had he indeed received value for the price he had paid? He asked Hester a sudden question:
"Hester, is your mother happy?"
Hester started a little.
"If she is not," she answered, gravely, "she must be a very ungrateful woman."
He left it at that, and together they retraced their steps to the hotel. Hester slipped up to her room by a side entrance, but Mannering was obliged to pass the table where the new arrivals were lingering over their coffee. Clara and Lord Redford both called to him.
"Come and have a smoke with us, Mannering, and tell us all about this place," the latter said. "The Duchess and your niece are charmed with it, and they want to stay for a few days. Are there any golf links?"
"Come and sit next me, uncle," Clara cried, "and tell me how you like being guardian to an heiress. How I have blessed that dear departed aunt of mine every day of my life."
Mannering accepted a cigarette, and sat down.
"The golf links are excellent," he said. "As for your aunt, Clara, she was a very sensible woman. Her money was so well invested that I have practically nothing to do. I expect my duties will commence when the young men come!"
"Miss Mannering," Sir Leslie said, gravely, "is not at all attracted by young men. She prefers something more staid. I have serious hopes that before our little tour is over I shall have persuaded her to marry me!"
"You dear man!" Clara exclaimed. "I only wish you'd give me the chance."
"There's a brazen child to have to chaperon," the Duchess said. "Positively asking for a proposal."
"And not in vain," Sir Leslie declared. "Walk down to the sea with me, Miss Clara, and I'll propose to you in my most approved fashion. I think you said that the investments were sound, Mannering?"
"The investments are all right," Mannering answered, "but I shall have nothing to do with fortune-hunters."
"And I a Cabinet Minister!" Sir Leslie declared. "Miss Clara, let us have that walk."
"To-morrow night," she promised. "When I get up it will be to go to bed. Even your love-making, Sir Leslie, could not keep me awake to-night."
The Duchess rose. The dust was gone, but she was pale, and looked tired.
"Let us leave these men to make plans for us," she said. "I hope we shall see something of you to-morrow, Mr. Mannering. Good-night, everybody."
Mannering rose and bowed with the others. For a moment their eyes met. Not a muscle of her face changed, and yet Mannering was conscious of a sudden wave of emotion. He understood that she had not forgotten!
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