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Maraton was more than ever conscious, as he climbed the stairs of the house in Downing Street an hour or so later, of a certain fragility of appearance in Mr. Foley, markedly apparent during these last few weeks. He was standing talking to Lord Armley, who was one of the late arrivals, as Maraton entered, talking in a low tone and with an obviously serious manner. At the sound of Maraton's name, however, he turned swiftly around. His face seemed to lighten. He held out his hand with an air almost of relief.
"So you have come!" he exclaimed. "I am glad."
Maraton shook hands and would have passed on, but Mr. Foley detained him.
"Armley and I were talking about this after noon's decision," he continued. "There will be no secret about it to-morrow. It has been decided to carry out our autumn manoeuvred as usual in South em waters."
"I am afraid that is one of the things the significance of which fails to reach me," he remarked. "You were against it, were you not?"
Mr. Foley groaned softly.
"My friend," he said, "there is only one fault with the Members of my Government, only one fault with this country. We are all foolishly and blindly sanguine. We are optimistic by persuasion and self-persuasion. We like the comfortable creed. I suppose that the bogey of war has strutted with us for so long that we have grown used to it."
Maraton looked at his companion thoughtfully.
"Do you seriously believe, Mr. Foley," he asked in an undertone, "in the possibility, in the imminent possibility of war?"
Mr. Foley half-closed his eyes and sighed.
"Oh, my dear Maraton," he murmured, "it isn't a question of belief! It's like asking me whether I believe I can see from here into my own drawing-room. The figures in there are real enough, aren't they? So is the cloud I can see gathering all the time over our heads. It is a question only of the propitious moment--of that there is no manner of doubt."
"You speak of affairs," Maraton admitted, "of which I know nothing. I do not even understand the balance of power. I always thought, though, that every great nation, our own included, paid a certain amount of insurance in the shape of huge contributions towards a navy and army; that we paid such insurance as was necessary and were rewarded with adequate results."
Mr. Foley forgot his depression for an instant, and smiled.
"What a theorist you are! It all depends upon the amount of insurance you take up, whether the risk is covered. We've under-insured for many years, thanks to that little kink in our disposition. We got a nasty knock in South Africa and we had to pay our own loss. It did us good for a year or two. Now the pendulum has just reached the other extreme. We've swung back once more into our silly dream. Oh, Maraton, it's true enough that we have great problems to face sociologically! Don't think that I underrate them. You know I don't. But every time I sit and talk to you, I have always at the back of my mind that other fear. . . . Have you seen Maxendorf to-night?"
"I have just left him," Maraton replied.
"An interesting interview?"
Mr. Foley gripped his arm.
"My friend," he said,--"you see, I am beginning to call you that--you have talked to-night with one of the most wonderful and the most dangerous enemies of our country. You won't think me drivelling, will you, or presuming, if I beg you to remember that fact, and that you are, notwithstanding your foreign birth, one of us? You are an Englishman, a member of the English House of Parliament."
"I do not forget that," Maraton declared gravely.
"Go and find Lady Elisabeth," Mr. Foley directed. "She was a little hurt at the idea that you were not coming. I have a few more words to say to Armley."
Maraton passed on into the rooms, which were only half filled. Some fancy possessed him to pause for a moment in the spot where he had stood alone for some time on his first visit to this house, and as he lingered there, Lady Elisabeth came into the room, leaning on the arm of a great lawyer. She saw him almost at once--her eyes, indeed, seemed to glance instinctively towards the spot where he was standing. Maraton felt the change in her expression. With a whisper she left her escort and came immediately in his direction. He watched her, step by step. Was it his fancy or had she lost some of the haughtiness of carriage which he had noticed that night not many months ago; the slight coldness which in those first moments had half attracted and half repelled him? Perhaps it was because he was now admitted within the circle of her friends. She came to him, at any rate, quickly, almost eagerly, and the smile about her lips as she took his hand was one of real and natural pleasure.
"How good of you!" she murmured. "I scarcely hoped that you would come. You have been with Maxendorf?"
"Is it a confession?" he asked. "It was Mr. Foley's first question to me."
"It is because we hate and distrust the man," she replied. "You aren't a politician, you see, Mr. Maraton. You don't quite appreciate some of the forces which are making an old man of my uncle to-day, which make life almost intolerable for many of us when we think seriously," she went on simply.
"Aren't you exaggerating that sentiment just a little?" he suggested.
"Not a particle," she assured him. "However, you came here to be entertained, didn't you? I won't croak to you any more. I think I have done my duty for this evening. Let us find a corner and talk like ordinary human beings. Are you going in to supper?"
"I hadn't thought of it," he admitted.
"I dined at seven o'clock," she told him. "We seem to have provided supper for hundreds of people, and I am sure not half of them are coming."
They passed through two of the rooms into a long, low apartment which led into the winter gardens. At one end refreshments were being served, and the rest of the space was taken up with little tables. Elisabeth led him to one placed just inside the winter garden. A footman filled their glasses with champagne.
"Now we are going to be normal human beings," she declared. "How much I wish that you really were a normal human being!"
"In what respect am I different?"
"You know quite well," she answered. "I should like you to be what you seem to be--just a capable, clever, rising politician, with a place in the Cabinet before you, working for your country, sincere, free from all these strange notions."
"Working for my country," he repeated. "That is just the difficult part of the whole situation, nowadays. I know that I am rather a trouble to your uncle. Sometimes I fear that I may become even a greater trouble. It is so hard to adopt the attitude which you suggest when one feels the intolerable situation which exists in that country."
"But we are on the highroad now to great reforms," she reminded him. "Another decade of years, and the people whom you worship will surely be lifting their heads."
He smiled as she looked across at him with a puzzled air.
"It is strange," she remarked, "that you, too, have the appearance of a man dissatisfied with himself. I wonder why? Surely you must feel that everything has gone your way since you came to England?"
"I am not sure how I feel about it," he replied. "Think! I came with different ideas. I came with a religion which admitted no compromises, and I have accepted a compromise."
"A wise and a sane one," she declared, almost passionately. "And to-night--tell me, am I not right?--to-night there have been those who have sought to upset it in your mind."
"You are clairvoyant."
"Not I, but it is so easy to see! It is the dream of Maxendorf's life to bring England to the verge of a revolution by paralysing her industries. Better for him, that, than any violent scheme of conquest. If he can stop the engine that drives the wheels of the country, they can come over in tourist steamers and tell us how to govern it better."
"And if they did," he asked quickly, "isn't it possible that their rule over the people might be better than the rule of this stubborn generation?"
She drew herself up. Her eyes flashed with anger.
"Haven't you a single gleam of patriotism?" she demanded.
"I think that I have," he replied, "and yet, it lies at the back of my thoughts, at the back of my heart. It is more like an artistic inspiration, one of those things that lie among the pleasant impulses of life. Right in the foreground I see the great groaning cycle of humanity being flung from the everlasting wheels into the bottomless abyss. I cannot take my eyes from the people, you see."
She sat almost rigid for some brief space of time. A servant was arranging plates in front of them, their glasses were refilled, the music of a waltz stole in through the open door. Around them many other people were sitting. An atmosphere of gaiety began gradually to develop. Maraton watched his companion closely. Her eyes were full of trouble, her sensitive mouth quivering a little. There was a straight line across her forehead. Her fair hair was arranged in great coils, without a single ornament. She wore no jewels at all save a single string of pearls around her slim white neck. Maraton, as the moments passed, was conscious of a curious weakening, a return of that same thrill which the sound of her voice that first day--half imperious, half gracious--had incited in him. He waved his hand towards the crowd of those who supped around them.
"Let us forget," he begged. "I, too, feel that I have more in my mind to-night than my brain can cope with. Let us rest for a little time."
Her face lightened.
"We will," she assented gladly. "Only, do remember what my constant prayer about you is. Things, you know, in some respects must go on as they are, and the country needs its strongest sons. Mr. Foley would like to bring you even closer to him. I know he is simply aching with impatience to have you in the Cabinet. Don't do anything rash, Mr. Maraton. Don't do anything which would make it impossible. There are many beautiful theories in life which would be simply hateful failures if one tried to bring them into practice. Try to remember that experience goes for something. And now--finished! Tell me about Sheffield? I read Selingman's marvellous article. One could almost see the whole scene there. How I should love to hear you speak! Not in Parliament--I don't mean that. I almost realise how impossible you find that."
"It is only a matter of earnestness," he replied, "and a certain aptitude for forming phrases quickly. No one can feel deeply about anything and not find themselves more or less eloquent when they come to talk about it. By the bye, have you ever met Selingman?"
She shook her head.
"My uncle knew him. He tells me that he asked him here to-night. I wish that he had come. And yet, I am not sure. Some of his writings I have hated. He, too, is a theorist, isn't he? I wonder--"
She paused, and looked expectant.
"I often wonder," she went on, "is there nothing else in your life at all except this passionate altruism? In your younger life, for instance, weren't there ever any sports or occupations that you cared for?"
"Yes," he admitted slowly, "for some years I did a good many of the usual things."
"And now the desire for them has all gone," she asked, "haven't you any personal hopes or dreams in connection with life? Isn't there anything you look forward to or desire for yourself?"
"I seem to have so little time. And yet, one has dreams--one always must have dreams, you know."
"Tell me about yours?" she insisted.
He sat up abruptly. Her fingers fell upon his arm.
"We will go and sit under my rose tree," she suggested.
They moved back into the winter garden until they came to a seat at its furthest extremity. A fountain was playing a few yards away, and clusters of great pink roses were drooping down from some trellis-work before them.
"Here, at least," she continued, as she leaned back, "we will not be tempted to talk seriously. Tell me about yourself? Do you never look forward into the future? Have you no personal ambitions or hopes?"
He looked steadily ahead of him.
"I am only a very ordinary man," he replied. "Like every one else, sometimes I look up to the clouds."
"Tell me what you see there?" she begged.
He was silent. The sound of voices now came to them like a distant murmur, a background to the slow falling of the water into the fountain basin.
"Lady Elisabeth," he said, "it is not always possible to tell even one's own self what the thoughts mean which come into one's brain."
"You will not even try to tell me, then?"
"I must not," he answered.
She sat with her hands folded in front of her, her head drooped a little. Maraton felt himself suddenly at war with a whole multitude of emotions. Was it possible that this thing had come to him, that a woman could take the great place in his life, a woman not of his kind, one who could not even share the passion which was to have absorbed every impulse of his existence to the end? She was of a different world. Perhaps it had all been a mistake. Perhaps it would have been better for him to have stayed outside, to have never crossed the little borderland which led into the land of compromises. And all the time, while his brain was at work, something stronger, more wonderful, was throbbing in his heart. He moved restlessly in his place. Her ungloved hand lay within a few inches of him. He suddenly caught it.
"Lady Elisabeth," he whispered, "I feel like a traitor. I feel myself moved to say things to you under false pretences. I ought not to have come here."
"What do you mean?" she demanded. "You can't mean--"
Their eyes met. He read the truth unerringly. "No, not that," he answered. "There is no one. What I feel is, at any rate, consecrate. But I have no right. I am not sure, even at this moment, whether it is not in my heart to take a step which you would look upon as the blackest ingratitude. My life, Lady Elisabeth, holds issues in it far apart, and it is vowed, dedicate."
"You are going to break away?" she asked quietly.
"I may," he admitted. "That is the truth. That is why I hesitated about coming here to-night. And yet, I wanted to come. I wasn't sure why. I know now--it was to see you."
"Oh, don't be rash!" she begged. "Don't! I may talk to you now really from my heart, mayn't I?" she went on, looking steadfastly into his face. "Don't imagine that that great gulf exists. It doesn't. If you break away, it will be a mistake. You want to feel your feet upon the clouds. You don't know how much safer you will be if you keep them upon the earth. You may bring incalculable suffering and misery upon the very people whom you wish to benefit. You think that I am a woman, perhaps, and I know little. Yes, but sometimes we who are outside see much, and it is dangerous, you know, to act upon theories. I haven't spoken a single selfish word, have I? I haven't tried to tell you how much I should hate to lose you."
He rose to his feet.
"I am going away," he said hoarsely. "I must fight this thing out alone. But--"
He looked around. The words seemed to fail him. Their little corner of the winter garden was still uninvaded.
"But, Lady Elisabeth," he continued, "you know the thing which makes it harder for me than ever. You know very well that if I decide to do what must make me a stranger in this household, I shall do it at a personal sacrifice which I never dreamed could exist."
She swayed a little towards him. Her face was suddenly changed, alluring; her eyes pleaded with him.
"You mustn't go away," she whispered. "If you go now, you must come back--do you bear?--you must come back!"
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