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The Marquis, with several account books and Mr. Merridrew, who had ridden over from his office on a motor-bicycle, had settled down to a laborious evening. The former, for no particular reason, was enjoying a slight relapse into his customary optimism.
"I am not without expectation," the Marquis commenced by explaining to his agent, "that at the end of the next two months I may find myself in possession of a large sum of money. Under those circumstances, it will not be a purposeless proceeding to work out what is really required in the way of repairs on the various farms. It will be a great pleasure for me to meet my tenants in any way possible. On the whole, I consider that they have been very reasonable and loyal."
Mr. Merridrew agreed with his lordship, agreed with him fervently.
"Some of them," he confessed, "have been very troublesome. A few of them have been driven to make some slight repairs themselves, but on the whole, your lordship, it would be a great relief if one were able to assist them so far as regards positive dilapidations."
The Marquis dipped his pen in the ink and settled down to his task. At that moment, however, Gossett knocked at the door, opened it and advanced towards his master with a card upon a salver.
"The gentleman is staying at Fakenham, I believe, sir, and has motored over."
The Marquis lifted the card. "Mr. James Borden" at first conveyed nothing to him. Then he felt a sudden stab of memory.
"The gentleman wishes to see me?" he enquired.
"He begs to be allowed a short interview with your lordship," Gossett replied.
"You can show him into the library," was the brief direction. "Mr. Merridrew," he added, turning to the agent, "you can proceed with the abstract without me. I shall return in time to go through the totals and learn the family records of the various tenants—I refer, of course, to those with which I am not acquainted."
Mr. Merridrew was quite sure that he could manage alone and settled down to his task. The Marquis presently left him and crossed the great hall, one of the wonders of Mandeleys, the walls of which were still hung with faded reproductions, in ornate tapestry, of mediaeval incidents. From somewhere amongst the shadows came Gossett, who gravely took up his stand outside the library. As though with some curious prescience of the fact that this was an unwelcome visitor, his bow, as he threw open the door, was lower even than usual.
"Shall I light the lamp, your lordship?" he asked.
The Marquis glanced towards the oriel windows, through which the light came scantily, and at the figure of James Borden, advancing now from somewhere in the dim recesses of the room—an apartment which remained marvellously little altered since the days when it had contained the laboriously collected books of a Franciscan order of Monks.
"Perhaps it would be as well, Gossett," his master assented. "You wish to see me?" he added, turning towards his visitor.
James Borden had come posthaste from London, acting upon an impulse which had swept him off his feet. All the way down he had been the prey to turbulent thoughts. A hundred different ways of conducting this interview had presented themselves before him with such facility that he had come to look upon it as one of the easiest things on earth. Yet now the moment had arrived he was conscious of an unexpected embarrassment. The strange tranquillity of the house and this stately apartment, the personality of the Marquis himself—serene, slightly curious, yet with that indefinable air of good-breeding which magnifies the obligations of a host—had a paralysing effect upon him. He was tongue-tied, uncertain of himself. All the many openings which had come to him so readily faded away.
"My name is Borden," he announced. "I have come here, hoping for a short conversation with you."
The Marquis made no immediate reply. He watched the lighting of a huge lamp which Gossett silently placed in the middle of an ebony black writing table, to the side of which he had already drawn up two high-backed chairs.
"Is there anything else your lordship desires?" the man asked.
"Not at present, Gossett. I will ring."
The Marquis pointed towards one of the chairs, and seated himself in the other.
"I shall be very glad to hear of your business with me, Mr. Borden," he said courteously.
His visitor had lost none of his embarrassment. The Marquis, in his old-fashioned dinner clothes, his black stock, the fob which hung from his waistcoat, his finely chiselled features, and that mysterious air of being entirely in touch with his surroundings, had him at a disadvantage from the first. Borden was wearing the somewhat shabby blue serge suit in which he had travelled all day, and which he had neglected to brush. He had been too much in earnest about his mission to do more than make the most hasty toilet at the hotel. The high-backed chair, which suited the Marquis so well, was an unfamiliar article of furniture to him, and he sat upon it stiffly and without ease. Nevertheless, he reminded himself that he was there—he must say what he had come to say.
"I am venturing to address you, Lord Mandeleys," he began, "upon a personal subject."
The Marquis raised his eyebrows gently. It was perhaps a suggestion of surprise that a personal subject should exist, lending itself to discussion between him and this visitor.
"And before I go any further," the latter continued, "I want to make it clear that I am here at my own initiative only—that the other person interested is entirely ignorant of my visit."
Mr. Borden paused, and the Marquis made no sign whatever. He was sitting quite upright in his chair, the fingers of his right hand toying lazily with an ancient paper knife, fashioned of yellow ivory.
"Nevertheless," the speaker went on, "I wish to tell you that my visit is a sequel to a conversation which I had last night with Miss Marcia Hannaway, a conversation during which I asked her, not for the first time, to be my wife."
The Marquis's fingers ceased to trifle with the paper knife. Otherwise, not a muscle of his body or a single twitch of the features betrayed any emotion. Nevertheless, his visitor realised for the first time that all his life he had had a wrong conception of this man. He knew quite well that he had altogether underrated the difficulties of his task.
"I am taking it for granted," he proceeded, "that you are broad-minded enough, Lord Mandeleys, to admit that we can discuss this, or any other matter, on terms of equality. I am unknown to you. My father was a Dean of Peterborough; I was myself at Harrow and Magdalen."
The Marquis's fingers stretched out once more towards the paper knife.
"You mentioned, I believe," he said, "the name of a lady with whom I am acquainted."
"I am coming to that," was the eager reply. "I only wanted to have it understood that this was a matter which we could discuss as equals, as man to man."
"I am so far from agreeing with you," the Marquis declared calmly, "that I prefer to choose my own companions in any discussion, and my own subjects. It happens that you are a stranger to me."
Borden checked a hasty retort, which he realised at once would have placed him at a further disadvantage.
"Lord Mandeleys," he said, "I was at first Miss Hannaway's publisher. I have become her friend. I desire to become her husband. Her whole story is known to me, even from the day when you brought her away from the Vont cottage and chose her for your companion. I have watched the slow development of her brain, I know how much she has benefited intellectually by the forced seclusion entailed upon her by the conditions of your friendship. I realise, however, that the time has come when in justice to her gifts, which have not yet reached fruition, it is necessary that she should come into closer personal contact with the world of which she knows so little. She can attain that position by becoming my wife."
"Really!" his listener murmured, with a faint note of unruffled surprise in his tone.
Borden set his teeth. The task which had seemed to him so easy was presenting now a very different appearance. Nevertheless, he kept an iron restraint upon himself.
"I do not wish to weary you," he went on, "by making a long story of this. I am forty-one years old and unmarried. Marcia Hannaway is the first woman whom I have wished to make my wife, and I wish it because I—care for her. I have been her suitor for nine years. During all that time she has given me no word of encouragement. I have never once, until these last few days, been permitted to dine alone with her, nor been allowed even the privilege of visiting her at her home. The restrictions upon our intercourse have been, I presume, in obedience to your wishes, or to Marcia's interpretation of them."
"If we could come," the Marquis said gently, "to the reason for this visit—"
The words supplied the sting that Borden needed.
"I believe," he declared, "that Marcia Hannaway in her heart wishes to marry me. I believe that she cares enough to marry me. Only a short time ago she admitted it, and within twelve hours I received a note, retracting all that she had promised."
There was a deep silence throughout the great room. The faces of the two men—a little closer now, for Borden had moved his chair—were both under the little circle of lamplight. For a single second something had disturbed the imperturbability of the Marquis's countenance—it seemed, indeed, as though some strange finger had humanised it, had softened the eyes and drawn apart the lips. Then the moment passed.
"Are we nearing the end of this discussion, Mr. Borden?"
"Every word brings us nearer the end," was the ready reply. "I am going to tell you the truth as I feel it in my heart. Marcia would be at her best in the life to which I should bring her. Mentally, spiritually and humanly, as my wife she would be happier. She has refused me out of loyalty to you."
"Are you suggesting," the Marquis enquired, "that I should intervene in favour of your suit?"
Borden struck the table with the flat of his hand.
"Damn it," he exclaimed, "can't you talk of this like a man! Don't you care enough for Marcia to think a little of her happiness? I want you to let her go—to let her believe, whether it is the truth or not, that she is not, as she seems to think, necessary to your life. Come! Life has its sacrifices as well as its compensations. You've had the best part of a wonderful woman's life. I am not saying a word about the conditions which exist between you. I don't presume. If I did, I should have to remember that Marcia speaks always of your treatment of her with tears of gratitude in her eyes. But your time has come. Marcia has many years to live. There is something grown up within her which you have nothing to do with—a little flame of genius which burns there all the time, which at this very moment would be a furnace but for the fact of the unnatural life she is forced to lead as your—companion. Now you ask what I've come for, and you know. I want you to forget yourself and to think of the woman who has been your faithful and sympathetic companion for all these years. She hasn't come to her own yet. She can't with you. She can with me. Write and thank her for what she has given you, and tell her that for the future she is free. She can make her choice then, unfettered by these infernal bonds which you have laid around her."
The Marquis turned the lamp a little lower with steady fingers. The necessity for his action was not altogether apparent.
"You suggest, Mr. Borden, if I understand you rightly," he said, "that I am now too old and too unintelligent to afford Marcia the stimulating companionship which her gifts deserve?"
"There can't be a great sympathy between you," the other declared, "and, to be brutal, the place in life which she deserves, and to which she aspires, is not open to her under present conditions."
"You allude, I presume," the Marquis said, "to the absence of any legal tie between Miss Hannaway and myself?"
"I do," Borden assented. "The world is a broad-minded place enough, but there are differences and backwaters—I am not here to explain them to you. I don't need to. Marcia Hannaway, married to her publisher, going where she will, thinking how she will, meeting whom she will, would be a different person to Miss Marcia Hannaway, living in isolation in Battersea, with nothing warm nor human in her life except—"
"Precisely," the Marquis interrupted, with a little gesture which might have concealed—anything. "I am beginning to grasp your point of view, Mr. Borden."
"And your answer?"
"I have no answer to give you, sir. You have made certain suggestions, which I may or may not be prepared to accept. In any case, matters of so much importance scarcely lend themselves to decisions between strangers. I shall probably allude to what you have said when I see or write Miss Hannaway."
"You've nothing more to say to me about it, then?" Borden persisted, a little wistfully.
"Nothing whatever! You may possibly consider my attitude selfish," the Marquis added, "but I find myself wholly indifferent to your interests in this matter."
"I should be able to reconcile myself even to that," was the grim reply, "if I have been able to penetrate for a single moment that accursed selfishness of yours—if I have been able to make you think, for however short a time, of Marcia's future instead of your own."
The Marquis rose without haste from his place, and rang the bell.
"You will permit me, Mr. Borden," he invited, "to offer you some refreshments?"
"Thank you, I desire nothing."
The Marquis pointed to the door, by which Gossett was standing.
"That, then, I think, concludes our interview," he said, with icy courtesy.
Mr. Borden walked the full length of the very long apartment, suffered himself to be respectfully conducted across the great hall, out on to the flags and into the motor-car which he had hired in Fakenham. It was not until he was on his way through the park that he opened his lips and found them attuned to blasphemy. At the top of the gentle slope, however, where the car was brought to a standstill while the driver opened the iron gate, he turned back and looked at Mandeleys, looked at its time-worn turrets, its mullioned windows, the Norman chapel, the ruined cloisters, the ivy-covered west wing, the beautiful Elizabethan chimneys. A strange, heterogeneous mass of architecture, yet magnificent, in its way impressive, almost inspiring. He looked at the little cottage almost at its gates, from which a thin, spiral column of smoke was ascending. Perhaps in those few seconds, and with the memory of that interview still rankling, he felt a glimmering of real understanding. Something which had always been incomprehensible to him in Marcia's story stood more or less revealed.
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