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"Julia!" Maraton exclaimed.
"Aaron was run over just as he was starting," she explained quickly. "He is not hurt badly, but he wasn't able to catch the train. He had an important letter from Manchester and one from the committee for you. We thought it best that I should bring them. I hope we decided rightly."
She was standing out of the circle of the lamplight, in the shadows of the room. There was a queer nervousness about her manner, a strained anxiety in the way her eyes scarcely left his face, which puzzled him.
"It is very kind of you," he said, as he took the letters. "Please sit down while I look at them."
The first was dated from the House of Commons:
"Dear Mr. Maraton:
"At a committee meeting held this afternoon here, it was resolved that I should write to you to the following effect.
"We understood that you were coming over here entirely in the interests of the great cause of labour, of which we, the undersigned, are the accredited representatives in this country. Since your arrival, however, you have preserved an independent attitude which has given cause to much anxiety on our part. After declining to attend a meeting at the Clarion Hall, we find you there amongst the audience, and you address them in direct opposition to the advice which we were giving them authoritatively. We specially invited you to be present at a meeting of this committee to-day, in order that a definite plan of campaign might be formulated before your visit to Manchester. You have not accepted our invitation, and we understand that you are now staying at the private house of the Prime Minister, notwithstanding our request that you should not interview, or be interviewed by any representative of the Government without one of our committee being present.
"We wish to express our dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, and to say that should you be still intending to address the meeting at Manchester on Monday night, we demand an explanation with you before you go on to the platform. We understand that the residence of Mr. Foley is only sixty miles from London. If you are still desirous of acting with us, we beg you, upon receipt of this letter, to ask for a motor car and to return here to London. We shall all be at number 17, Notting Hill, until midnight or later, telephone number 178, so that you can telephone that you are on the way. Failing your coming, some of us will be at the Midland Hotel, Manchester, from mid-day on Monday.
PETER DALE, Chairman,
The second one was from Manchester:
"We understand that you will be arriving in Manchester about mid-day on Monday. We think it would be best if you were to descend from the train either at Derby or any adjacent station, as no police force which could possibly be raised in the county, will be sufficient to control the crowds of people who will gather in the streets to welcome you.
"We beg that you will send us a telegram, informing us by what, train you are travelling, and we will send a messenger to Derby, who will confer with you as to the best means of reaching the rooms which we are providing for you.
"Anticipating your visit,
"Secretary Manchester Labour Party."
Maraton replaced the letters in their envelopes and turned with them in his hand, towards Julia. She had moved a little towards the open French windows. Every one seemed to have made their way out on to the lawn. Chinese lanterns were hanging from some of the trees and along the straight box hedge that led to the rose gardens. The women were strolling about in their evening gowns, without wraps or covering, and the men had joined them. Servants were passing coffee around, served from a table on which stood a little row of bottles, filled with various liqueurs. Some one in the drawing-room was singing, but the voice was suddenly silenced. Every one turned their heads. A little further back in the woods, a nightingale had commenced to sing.
"You are tired," Maraton whispered.
She shook her head. The strained, anxious look was still in her face.
"No," she replied in a low tone, "I am not tired."
"There is something the matter," he insisted, "something, I am sure. Won't you sit down, and may I not order some refreshment for you? The people here are very hospitable."
Her gesture of dissent was almost peremptory.
The monosyllable had a sting which surprised him.
"Tell me what it is?" he begged.
She opened her lips and closed them again. He saw then the rising and falling of her bosom underneath that black stuff gown. She stretched out her hand towards the gardens. Somehow or other, she seemed to grow taller.
"I do not understand this," she said. "I do not understand your being here, one of them, dressed like them, speaking their language, sharing their luxuries. It is a great blow to me. It is perhaps because I am foolish, but it tortures me!"
"But isn't that a little unreasonable?" he asked her quietly. "To accomplish anything in this world, it is necessary to know more than one side of life."
"But this--this," she cried hysterically, "is the side which has made our blood boil for generations! These women in silk and laces, these idle, pleasure-loving men, this eating and drinking, this luxury in beautiful surroundings, with ears deafened to all the mad, sobbing cries of the world! This is their life day by day. You have been in the wilderness, you have seen the life of those others, you have the feeling for them in your heart. Can you sit at table with these people and wear their clothes, and not feel like a hypocrite?"
"I assure you," Maraton replied, "that I can."
She was trembling slightly. She had never seemed to him so tall. Her eyes now were ablaze. She had indeed the air of a prophetess.
"They are ignorant men, they who sent you that letter," she continued, pointing to it, "but they have the truth. Do you know what they are saying?"
Maraton inclined his head gravely. He felt that he knew very well what they were saying. She did not give him time, however, to interrupt.
"They are saying that you are to be bought, that that is why you are here, that Mr. Foley will pay a great price for you. They are saying that all those hopes we had built upon your coming, are to be dashed away. They say that you are for the flesh-pots. I daren't breathe a word of this to Aaron," she added hurriedly, "or I think that he would go mad. He is blind with passionate love for you. He does not see the danger, he will not believe that you are not as a god."
Maraton looked past her into the gardens, away into the violet sky. The nightingale was singing now clearly and wonderfully. Perhaps, for a moment, his thoughts strayed from the great battle of life. Perhaps his innate sense and worship of beauty, the artist in the man, which was the real thing making him great in his daily work, triumphed apart from any other consideration. The music of life was in his veins. Soft and stately, Elisabeth, standing a little apart, was looking in upon them, an exquisite figure with a background of dark green trees.
"When you faced death in Chicago," Julia went on, her voice quivering with the effort she was making to keep it low, "when you offered your body to the law and preached fire and murder with your lips, you did it for the sake of the people. There was nothing in life so glorious to you, then, as the one great cause. That was the man we hoped to see. Are you that man?"
Maraton's thoughts came back. He moved a little towards her. Her hand shot out as though to keep him at a distance.
"Are you that man?" she repeated.
Her thin form was shaken with stifled sobs.
"I hope so," he answered gravely. "My ways are not the ways to which you have been accustomed. In my heart I believe that I see further into the real truth than some of those very ignorant friends of yours who have been sent into Parliament by the operatives they represent; further even than you, Julia, handicapped by your sex, with your eyes fixed, day by day, only upon the misery of life. You blame me because I am here amongst these people as an equal. Listen. Is one responsible for their birth and instincts? I tell you now what I have told to no one, for no one has ever ventured to ask me twice of my parentage. I was born, in a sense, as these people were born. I cannot help it if, finding it advisable to come amongst them, I find their ways easy. That is all. I came here to keep a promise to a man who is, in his way, a great statesman. He is Prime Minister of our country. He has, without a doubt, so far as it is possible for such a man to have it there at all, the cause of the people at his heart. Is it for me to ignore him, to leave what he would say to me unsaid, to pull down the pillars which have kept this a proud country for many hundreds of years, without even listening? Remember that if I speak at Manchester the things that are in my heart, this country, for your time and mine, must perish. Of that I am sure. That has been made clear to me. Do you wonder, Julia, that, before I take that last step, I lift every stone, I turn over every page, I listen to every word which may be spoken by those who have the right to speak? That is why I am here. On Monday morning I leave. On Monday night I speak to the people in Manchester."
She listened to him very much as a prisoner at the bar might listen to a judge who reasons before he pronounces sentence, and her face became as the face of that prisoner might become, who detects some leniency of tone, some softening of manner, on the part of the arbiter of his fate. She ceased to tremble, her lips relaxed, her eyes grew softer and softer. She came a step nearer, resting her finger-tips upon a little table, her body leaning towards him. He had a queer vision of her for a moment--no longer the prophetess, a touch of the Delilah in the soft sweetness of her eyes.
"Oh, forgive me!" she begged. "I was foolish. Forgive me!"
He smiled at her reassuringly.
"There is nothing to forgive," he insisted. "You asked for an explanation to which you had a right. I have tried to give it to you. Indeed, Julia, you need have no fear. Whatever I decide in life will be what I think best for our cause."
The shadow of fear once more trembled in her tone.
"Whatever you decide," she repeated. "You will not--you will not let them call you a deserter? You couldn't do that."
"There isn't anything in the world," he told her quietly, "which has the power to tempt me from doing the thing which I think best. I cannot promise that it will be always the thing which seems right to this committee of men," he added, touching the envelope with his forefinger. "I cannot promise you that, but it should not worry you. You yourself are different. It is my hope that soon you will understand me better. I think that when that time comes you will cease to fear."
The light in her face was wonderful.
"Oh, I want to!" she murmured. "I want to understand you better. There hasn't been anything in life to me like the sound of your name, like the thought of you, since first I understood. Perhaps I am as bad as Aaron," she sighed. "I, too, alas! am your hopeless slave."
He moved a step nearer. This time she made no effort to retreat. Once more she was trembling a little, but her face was soft and sweet. All the pallor, the hard lines, the suffering seemed to have passed miraculously out of it. A soul--a woman's soul--was shining at him out of her eyes. It wasn't her physical self that spoke--in a way he knew that. Yet she was calling to him, calling to him with all she possessed, calling to him as to her master.
He succeeded in persuading her to eat and drink, and she departed, a little grim and unpleased, in the motor car which Mr. Foley had insisted upon ordering round. Then Maraton strolled into the garden to take his delayed coffee. Elisabeth came noiselessly across the turf to his side.
"I hope there was nothing disturbing in your letters?" she said.
"Not very," he replied. "It is only what I expected."
"Every one," she continued, "has been admiring your secretary. We all thought that she had such a beautiful face."
"She is not my secretary," he explained. "She came in place of her brother, who met with a slight accident just as he was starting."
Somehow or other, he fancied that Elisabeth was pleased.
"I didn't think that it was like you to have a woman secretary," she remarked.
He smiled as he replied:
"Miss Thurnbrein is a very earnest worker and a real humanitarian. She has written articles about woman labour in London."
"Julia Thurnbrein!" Elisabeth exclaimed. "Yes, I have read them. If only I had known that that was she! I should have liked so much to have talked to her. Do you think that she would come and see me, or let me come and see her? We really do want to understand these things, and it seems to me, somehow, that people like Julia Thurnbrein, and all those who really understand, keep away from us wilfully. They won't exchange thoughts. They believe that we are their natural enemies. And we aren't, you know. There isn't any one I'd like to meet and talk with so much as Julia Thurnbrein."
He nodded sympathetically.
"They are prejudiced," he admitted. "All of them are disgusted with me for being down here. They look with grave suspicion upon my ability to wear a dress suit. It is just that narrowness which has set back the clock a hundred years. . . . How I like your idea of an open-air drawing-room! Mr. Foley hasn't been looking for me, has he? I am due in his study in three minutes."
Her finger touched his arm.
"Come with me for one moment," she insisted, a little abruptly.
She led him down one of the walks--a narrow turf path, leading through great clumps of rhododendrons. At the bottom was the wood where the nightingale had his home. After a few paces she stopped.
"Mr. Maraton," she said, "this may be our last serious word together, for when you have talked with my uncle you will have made your decision. Look at me, please."
He looked at her. Just then the nightingale began to sing again, and curiously enough it seemed to him that a different note had crept into the bird's song. It was a cry for life, an absolutely pagan note, which came to him through the velvety darkness.
"Isn't it your theory," she whispered, "to destroy for the sake of the future? Don't do it. Theory sometimes sounds so sublime, but the present is actually here. Be content to work piecemeal, to creep upwards inch by inch. Life is something, you know. Life is something for all of us. No man has the right to destroy it for others. He has not even the right to destroy it for himself."
Maraton was suddenly almost giddy. For a moment he had relaxed and that moment was illuminating. Perhaps she saw the fire which leapt into his eyes. If she did, she never quailed. Her head was within a few inches of his, his arms almost touching her. She saw but she never moved. If anything, she drew a little nearer.
"Speak to me," she begged. "Give me some promise, some hope."
He was absolutely speechless. A wave of reminiscence had carried him back into the study, face to face with an accuser. He read meaning in Julia's words now, a meaning which at the time they had not possessed. It was true that he was being tempted. It was true that there was such a thing in the world as temptation, a live thing to the strong as well as to the weak.
"You could be great," she murmured. "You could be a statesman of whom we should all be proud. In years to come, people would understand, they would know that you had chosen the nobler part. And then for yourself--"
"For myself," he interrupted, "for myself--what?"
Her lips parted and closed again. She looked at him very steadily.
"Don't you think," she asked quietly, "that you are, more than most men, the builder of your own life, the master of your own fate, the conqueror--if, indeed, you desired to possess?"
She was gone, disappearing through a winding path amongst the bushes which he had never noticed. He heard the trailing of her skirts; the air around him was empty save for a breath of the perfume shaken from her gown, and the song of the bird. Then he heard her call to him.
"This way, Mr. Maraton--just a little to your left. The path leads right out on to the lawn."
"Is it a maze?" he asked.
"A very ordinary one," she called back gaily. "Follow me and I will lead you out."
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