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CLOUDS--AND A CALL TO ARMS
The first cloud appeared towards the end of the third day at Bonestre. Blanche and Sir Leslie were left alone, and he hastened to improve the opportunity.
"The Duchess and your husband," he remarked, "appear very easily to have picked up again the threads of their old friendship."
"The Duchess," she answered, "is a very charming woman. I am sure that you find her so, don't you?"
"We are very old friends," he answered, "but I was never admitted to exactly the same privileges as your husband enjoys."
"The Duchess," she answered, calmly, "is a woman of taste!"
Sir Leslie muttered something under his breath. Blanche made a movement as though to take up again the book which she had been reading in a sheltered corner of the hotel garden.
"Don't you think," he said, "that we should make better friends than enemies?"
"I am not at all sure," she answered, calmly. "To tell you the truth, I don't fancy you particularly in either capacity."
He laughed unpleasantly.
"You are scarcely complimentary," he remarked.
"I did not mean to be," she answered. "Why should I?"
"You are content, then, to let your husband drift back into his old relations with the Duchess? I presume that you know what they were?"
"Whether I am or not," she answered, "what business is it of yours?"
"I will tell you, if you like," he answered. "In fact, I think it would be better. It has been the one desire of my life to marry the Duchess of Lenchester myself."
She smiled at him scornfully.
"Come," she said, "let me give you a little advice. Give up the idea. They say that lookers-on see most of the game, and so far as I am concerned I'm certainly the looker-on of this party. The Duchess doesn't care a row of pins about you!"
"There are other marriages, besides marriages of affection," Sir Leslie said, stiffly. "The Duchess is ambitious."
"But she is also a woman," Blanche declared. "And she is in love."
"With my husband! I presume that is clear enough to most people!"
Sir Leslie was a little staggered.
"You take it very coolly," he remarked.
"Why not? The Duchess is too proud a woman to give herself away, and my husband--belongs to me!"
"You haven't any idea of taking poison, or anything of that sort, I suppose, have you?" he inquired. "The other woman nearly always does that."
"Not in real life," Blanche answered, composedly. "Besides, I'm not the other woman--I'm the one. The Duchess is the other!"
"But your husband--"
"Do you know, I should prefer not to discuss my husband--with you," Blanche said, calmly, taking up her book. "He is not the sort of man you would be at all likely to understand. If you want a rich wife why don't you propose to Clara Mannering? I suppose you knew that some unheard-of aunt had left her fifty thousand pounds?"
Sir Leslie rose to his feet.
"I don't fancy that you and I are very sympathetic this afternoon," he remarked. "I will go and see if any one has returned."
"Do," she answered. "I shall miss you, of course, but my book is positively absorbing, and I am dying to go on with it."
Sir Leslie left the garden without another word. Blanche held her book before her face until he had disappeared. Then it slipped from her fingers. She looked hard into a cluster of roses, and she saw only two figures--always the same figures. Her eyes were set, her face was wan and old.
"The other woman!" she murmured to herself. "That is what I am. And I can't live up to it. I ought to take poison, or get run over or something, and I know very well I shan't. Bother the man! Why couldn't he leave me alone?"
After dinner that evening she accepted her husband's nightly invitation and walked with him for a little while. The others followed.
"How much longer can you stay away from England, Lawrence?" she asked him.
"Oh--a fortnight, I should think," he answered. "I am not tied to any particular date. You like it here, I hope?"
"Immensely! Are--our friends going to remain?"
"I haven't heard them say anything about moving on yet," he answered.
"Are you in love with the Duchess still, Lawrence?"
"Don't be angry! You made a mistake once, you know. Don't make another. I'm not a jealous woman, and I don't ask much from you, but I'm your wife. That's all!"
She turned and called to Hester. The little party rearranged itself. Mannering found himself with Berenice.
"What was your wife saying to you?" she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"It was the beginning," he remarked.
"It is a strange thing," she said, "but in this world no one can ever be happy except at some one else's expense. It is a most unnatural law of compensation. Shall we move on to-morrow?"
"The day after," he pleaded. "To-morrow we are going to Berneval."
"We are queer people, I think," she said. "I have been perfectly satisfied this week simply to be with you. When it comes to an end I should like it to come suddenly."
He thought of her words an hour later, when on his return to the hotel they handed him a telegram. He passed it on at once to Lord Redford, and glanced at his watch.
"Poor Cunningham," he said, "it was a short triumph for him. I must go back to-night, or the first train to-morrow morning. The sitting member for my division of Leeds died suddenly last night, Blanche," he said to his wife. "I must be on the spot at once."
She rose to her feet.
"I will go and pack," she said.
Lady Redford followed her very soon. Clara and Sir Leslie had not yet returned from their stroll. Lord Redford remained alone with them.
"I scarcely know what sort of fortune to wish you, Mannering," he said. "Perhaps your first speech will tell us."
Berenice leaned back in her chair.
"I can't imagine you as a labour member in the least," she remarked.
"Doesn't this force your hand a little, Mannering?" Lord Redford said. "I understand that you were anxious to avoid a direct pronouncement upon the fiscal policy for the present."
Mannering nodded gravely.
"It is quite time I made up my mind," he said. "I shall do so now."
"May we find ourselves in the same lobby!" Lord Redford said. "I will go and find my man. He may as well take you to the station in the car."
Berenice smiled at Mannering luminously through the shadowy lights.
"Dear friend," she said, "I am delighted that you are going. Our little time here has been delightful, but we had reached its limit. I like to think that you are going back into the thick of it. Don't be faint-hearted, Lawrence. Don't lose faith in yourself. You have chosen a terribly lonely path; if any man can find his way to the top, you can. And don't dare to forget me, sir!"
He caught her cheerful tone.
"You are inspiring," he declared. "Thank heaven, I have a twelve hours' journey before me. I need time for thought, if ever a man did."
"Don't worry about it," she answered, lightly. "The truth is somewhere in your brain, I suppose, and when the time comes you will find it. Much better think about your sandwiches."
The car backed into the yard. Blanche reappeared, and behind her Mannering's bag.
"I do hope that Hester and I have packed everything," she said. "We could come over to-morrow, if there's anything you want us for. If not we shall stay here for another week. Good-bye!"
She calmly held up her lips, and Mannering kissed them after a moment's hesitation. She remained by his side even when he turned to say farewell to Berenice.
"I am sure you ought to be going," she said calmly. "I will send on your letters if there are any to-morrow. Wire your address as soon as you arrive. Good luck!"
The car glided away. They all stood in a group to see him go, and waved indiscriminate farewells. Blanche moved a little apart as the car disappeared, and Berenice watched her curiously. She was rubbing her lips with her handkerchief.
"A sting!" she remarked, becoming suddenly aware of the other's scrutiny. "Nothing that hurts very much!"
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