Marian was at work as usual in the Reading-room. She did her best, during th_ours spent here, to convert herself into the literary machine which it wa_er hope would some day be invented for construction in a less sensitiv_aterial than human tissue. Her eyes seldom strayed beyond the limits of th_esk; and if she had occasion to rise and go to the reference shelves, sh_ooked at no one on the way. Yet she herself was occasionally an object o_nterested regard. Several readers were acquainted with the chief facts of he_osition; they knew that her father was now incapable of work, and was waitin_ill his diseased eyes should be ready for the operator; it was surmised, moreover, that a good deal depended upon the girl's literary exertions. M_uarmby and his gossips naturally took the darkest view of things; they wer_onvinced that Alfred Yule could never recover his sight, and they had _olorous satisfaction in relating the story of Marian's legacy. Of he_elations with Jasper Milvain none of these persons had heard; Yule had neve_poken of that matter to any one of his friends.
Jasper had to look in this morning for a hurried consultation of certai_ncyclopaedic volumes, and it chanced that Marian was standing before th_helves to which his business led him. He saw her from a little distance, an_aused; it seemed as if he would turn back; for a moment he wore a look o_oubt and worry. But after all he proceeded. At the sound of his 'Good- morning,' Marian started—she was standing with an open book in hand—and looke_p with a gleam of joy on her face.
'I wanted to see you to-day,' she said, subduing her voice to the tone o_rdinary conversation. 'I should have come this evening.'
'You wouldn't have found me at home. From five to seven I shall be franticall_usy, and then I have to rush off to dine with some people.'
'I couldn't see you before five?'
'Is it something important?'
'Yes, it is.'
'I tell you what. If you could meet me at Gloucester Gate at four, then _hall be glad of half an hour in the park. But I mustn't talk now; I'm drive_o my wits' end. Gloucester Gate, at four sharp. I don't think it'll rain.'
He dragged out a tome of the 'Britannica.' Marian nodded, and returned to he_eat.
At the appointed hour she was waiting near the entrance of Regent's Park whic_asper had mentioned. Not long ago there had fallen a light shower, but th_ky was clear again. At five minutes past four she still waited, and had begu_o fear that the passing rain might have led Jasper to think she would no_ome. Another five minutes, and from a hansom that rattled hither at ful_peed, the familiar figure alighted.
'Do forgive me!' he exclaimed. 'I couldn't possibly get here before. Let us g_o the right.'
They betook themselves to that tree-shadowed strip of the park which skirt_he canal.
'I'm so afraid that you haven't really time,' said Marian, who was chilled an_onfused by this show of hurry. She regretted having made the appointment; i_ould have been much better to postpone what she had to say until Jasper wa_t leisure. Yet nowadays the hours of leisure seemed to come so rarely.
'If I get home at five, it'll be all right,' he replied. 'What have you t_ell me, Marian?'
'We have heard about the money, at last.'
'Oh?' He avoided looking at her. 'And what's the upshot?'
'I shall have nearly fifteen hundred pounds.'
'So much as that? Well, that's better than nothing, isn't it?'
'Very much better.'
They walked on in silence. Marian stole a glance at her companion.
'I should have thought it a great deal,' she said presently, 'before I ha_egun to think of thousands.'
'Fifteen hundred. Well, it means fifty pounds a year, I suppose.'
He chewed the end of his moustache.
'Let us sit down on this bench. Fifteen hundred—h'm! And nothing more is to b_oped for?'
'Nothing. I should have thought men would wish to pay their debts, even afte_hey had been bankrupt; but they tell us we can't expect anything more fro_hese people.'
'You are thinking of Walter Scott, and that kind of thing'— Jasper laughed.
'Oh, that's quite unbusinesslike; it would be setting a pernicious exampl_owadays. Well, and what's to be done?'
Marian had no answer for such a question. The tone of it was a new stab to he_eart, which had suffered so many during the past half-year.
'Now, I'll ask you frankly,' Jasper went on, 'and I know you will reply in th_ame spirit: would it be wise for us to marry on this money?'
'On this money?'
She looked into his face with painful earnestness.
'You mean,' he said, 'that it can't be spared for that purpose?'
What she really meant was uncertain even to herself. She had wished to hea_ow Jasper would receive the news, and thereby to direct her own course. Ha_e welcomed it as offering a possibility of their marriage, that would hav_laddened her, though it would then have been necessary to show him all th_ifficulties by which she was beset; for some time they had not spoken of he_ather's position, and Jasper seemed willing to forget all about tha_omplication of their troubles. But marriage did not occur to him, and he wa_vidently quite prepared to hear that she could no longer regard this money a_er own to be freely disposed of. This was on one side a relief but on th_ther it confirmed her fears. She would rather have heard him plead with he_o neglect her parents for the sake of being his wife. Love excuse_verything, and his selfishness would have been easily lost sight of in th_ssurance that he still desired her.
'You say,' she replied, with bent head, 'that it would bring us fifty pounds _ear. If another fifty were added to that, my father and mother would b_upported in case the worst comes. I might earn fifty pounds.'
'You wish me to understand, Marian, that I mustn't expect that you will brin_e anything when we are married.'
His tone was that of acquiescence; not by any means of displeasure. He spok_s if desirous of saying for her something she found a difficulty in sayin_or herself.
'Jasper, it is so hard for me! So hard for me! How could I help rememberin_hat you told me when I promised to be your wife?'
'I spoke the truth rather brutally,' he replied, in a kind voice. 'Let al_hat be unsaid, forgotten. We are in quite a different position now. Be ope_ith me, Marian; surely you can trust my common sense and good feeling. Pu_side all thought of things I have said, and don't be restrained by any fea_est you should seem to me unwomanly—you can't be that. What is your own wish?
What do you really wish to do, now that there is no uncertainty calling fo_ostponements?'
Marian raised her eyes, and was about to speak as she regarded him; but wit_he first accent her look fell.
'I wish to be your wife.'
He waited, thinking and struggling with himself.
'Yet you feel that it would be heartless to take and use this money for ou_wn purposes?'
'What is to become of my parents, Jasper?'
'But then you admit that the fifteen hundred pounds won't support them. Yo_alk of earning fifty pounds a year for them.'
'Need I cease to write, dear, if we were married? Wouldn't you let me hel_hem?'
'But, my dear girl, you are taking for granted that we shall have enough fo_urselves.'
'I didn't mean at once,' she explained hurriedly. 'In a short time—in a year.
You are getting on so well. You will soon have a sufficient income, I a_ure.'
'Let us walk as far as the next seat. Don't speak. I have something to thin_bout.'
Moving on beside him, she slipped her hand softly within his arm; but Jaspe_id not put the arm into position to support hers, and her hand fell again, dropped suddenly. They reached another bench, and again became seated.
'It comes to this, Marian,' he said, with portentous gravity. 'Support you, _ould—I have little doubt of that. Maud is provided for, and Dora can make _iving for herself. I could support you and leave you free to give you_arents whatever you can earn by your own work. But—'
He paused significantly. It was his wish that Marian should supply th_onsequence, but she did not speak.
'Very well,' he exclaimed. 'Then when are we to be married?'
The tone of resignation was too marked. Jasper was not good as a comedian; h_acked subtlety.
'We must wait,' fell from Marian's lips, in the whisper of despair.
'Wait? But how long?' he inquired, dispassionately.
'Do you wish to be freed from your engagement, Jasper?'
He was not strong enough to reply with a plain 'Yes,' and so have done wit_is perplexities. He feared the girl's face, and he feared his own subsequen_motions.
'Don't talk in that way, Marian. The question is simply this: Are we to wait _ear, or are we to wait five years? In a year's time, I shall probably be abl_o have a small house somewhere out in the suburbs. If we are married then, _hall be happy enough with so good a wife, but my career will take a differen_hape. I shall just throw overboard certain of my ambitions, and work steadil_n at earning a livelihood. If we wait five years, I may perhaps have obtaine_n editorship, and in that case I should of course have all sorts of bette_hings to offer you.'
'But, dear, why shouldn't you get an editorship all the same if you ar_arried?'
'I have explained to you several times that success of that kind is no_ompatible with a small house in the suburbs and all the ties of a narro_ncome. As a bachelor, I can go about freely, make acquaintances, dine a_eople's houses, perhaps entertain a useful friend now and then—and so on. I_s not merit that succeeds in my line; it is merit plus opportunity. Marryin_ow, I cut myself off from opportunity, that's all.'
She kept silence.
'Decide my fate for me, Marian,' he pursued, magnanimously. 'Let us make u_ur minds and do what we decide to do. Indeed, it doesn't concern me so muc_s yourself. Are you content to lead a simple, unambitious life? Or should yo_refer your husband to be a man of some distinction?'
'I know so well what your own wish is. But to wait for years—you will cease t_ove me, and will only think of me as a hindrance in your way.'
'Well now, when I said five years, of course I took a round number. Three—tw_ight make all the difference to me.'
'Let it be just as you wish. I can bear anything rather than lose your love.'
'You feel, then, that it will decidedly be wise not to marry whilst we ar_till so poor?'
'Yes; whatever you are convinced of is right.'
He again rose, and looked at his watch.
'Jasper, you don't think that I have behaved selfishly in wishing to let m_ather have the money?'
'I should have been greatly surprised if you hadn't wished it. I certainl_an't imagine you saying: "Oh, let them do as best they can!" That would hav_een selfish with a vengeance.'
'Now you are speaking kindly! Must you go, Jasper?'
'I must indeed. Two hours' work I am bound to get before seven o'clock.'
'And I have been making it harder for you, by disturbing your mind.'
'No, no; it's all right now. I shall go at it with all the more energy, now w_ave come to a decision.'
'Dora has asked me to go to Kew on Sunday. Shall you be able to come, dear?'
'By Jove, no! I have three engagements on Sunday afternoon. I'll try and kee_he Sunday after; I will indeed.'
'What are the engagements?' she asked timidly.
As they walked back towards Gloucester Gate, he answered her question, showin_ow unpardonable it would be to neglect the people concerned. Then the_arted, Jasper going off at a smart pace homewards.
Marian turned down Park Street, and proceeded for some distance along Camde_oad. The house in which she and her parents now lived was not quite so fa_way as St Paul's Crescent; they rented four rooms, one of which had to serv_oth as Alfred Yule's sitting-room and for the gatherings of the family a_eals. Mrs Yule generally sat in the kitchen, and Marian used her bedroom as _tudy. About half the collection of books had been sold; those that remaine_ere still a respectable library, almost covering the walls of the room wher_heir disconsolate possessor passed his mournful days.
He could read for a few hours a day, but only large type, and fear o_onsequences kept him well within the limit of such indulgence laid down b_is advisers. Though he inwardly spoke as if his case were hopeless, Yule wa_ery far from having resigned himself to this conviction; indeed, the prospec_f spending his latter years in darkness and idleness was too dreadful to hi_o be accepted so long as a glimmer of hope remained. He saw no reason why th_ustomary operation should not restore him to his old pursuits, and he woul_ave borne it ill if his wife or daughter had ever ceased to oppose th_espair which it pleased him to affect.
On the whole, he was noticeably patient. At the time of their removal to thes_odgings, seeing that Marian prepared herself to share the change as a matte_f course, he let her do as she would without comment; nor had he since spoke_o her on the subject which had proved so dangerous. Confidence between the_here was none; Yule addressed his daughter in a grave, cold, civil tone, an_arian replied gently, but without tenderness. For Mrs Yule the disaster t_he family was distinctly a gain; she could not but mourn her husband'_ffliction, yet he no longer visited her with the fury or contemptuou_mpatience of former days. Doubtless the fact of needing so much tendance ha_ts softening influence on the man; he could not turn brutally upon his wif_hen every hour of the day afforded him some proof of her absolute devotion.
Of course his open-air exercise was still unhindered, and in this season o_he returning sun he walked a great deal, decidedly to the advantage of hi_eneral health—which again must have been a source of benefit to his temper.
Of evenings, Marian sometimes read to him. He never requested this, but he di_ot reject the kindness.
This afternoon Marian found her father examining a volume of prints which ha_een lent him by Mr Quarmby. The table was laid for dinner (owing to Marian'_requent absence at the Museum, no change had been made in the order o_eals), and Yule sat by the window, his book propped on a second chair. _hiteness in his eyes showed how the disease was progressing, but his face ha_ more wholesome colour than a year ago.
'Mr Hinks and Mr Gorbutt inquired very kindly after you to-day,' said th_irl, as she seated herself.
'Oh, is Hinks out again?'
'Yes, but he looks very ill.'
They conversed of such matters until Mrs Yule—now her own servant—brought i_he dinner. After the meal, Marian was in her bedroom for about an hour; the_he went to her father, who sat in idleness, smoking.
'What is your mother doing?' he asked, as she entered.
'I had perhaps better say'—he spoke rather stiffly, and with averte_ace—'that I make no exclusive claim to the use of this room. As I can n_onger pretend to study, it would be idle to keep up the show of privacy tha_ustn't be disturbed. Perhaps you will mention to your mother that she i_uite at liberty to sit here whenever she chooses.'
It was characteristic of him that he should wish to deliver this permission b_roxy. But Marian understood how much was implied in such an announcement.
'I will tell mother,' she said. 'But at this moment I wished to speak to yo_rivately. How would you advise me to invest my money?'
Yule looked surprised, and answered with cold dignity.
'It is strange that you should put such a question to me. I should hav_upposed your interests were in the hands of—of some competent person.'
'This will be my private affair, father. I wish to get as high a rate o_nterest as I safely can.'
'I really must decline to advise, or interfere in any way. But, as you hav_ntroduced this subject, I may as well put a question which is connected wit_t. Could you give me any idea as to how long you are likely to remain wit_s?'
'At least a year,' was the answer, 'and very likely much longer.'
'Am I to understand, then, that your marriage is indefinitely postponed?'
'And will you tell me why?'
'I can only say that it has seemed better—to both of us.'
Yule detected the sorrowful emotion she was endeavouring to suppress. Hi_onception of Milvain's character made it easy for him to form a just surmis_s to the reasons for this postponement; he was gratified to think that Maria_ight learn how rightly he had judged her wooer, and an involuntary pity fo_he girl did not prevent his hoping that the detestable alliance was doomed.
With difficulty he refrained from smiling.
'I will make no comment on that,' he remarked, with a certain emphasis. 'Bu_o you imply that this investment of which you speak is to be solely for you_wn advantage?'
'For mine, and for yours and mother's.'
There was a silence of a minute or two. As yet it had not been necessary t_ake any steps for raising money, but a few months more would see the famil_ithout resources, save those provided by Marian, who, without discussion, ha_een simply setting aside what she received for her work.
'You must be well aware,' said Yule at length, 'that I cannot consent t_enefit by any such offer. When it is necessary, I shall borrow on th_ecurity of—'
'Why should you do that, father?' Marian interrupted. 'My money is yours. I_ou refuse it as a gift, then why may not I lend to you as well as a stranger?
Repay me when your eyes are restored. For the present, all our anxieties ar_t an end. We can live very well until you are able to write again.'
For his sake she put it in his way. Supposing him never able to earn anything, then indeed would come a time of hardship; but she could not contemplate that.
The worst would only befall them in case she was forsaken by Jasper, and i_hat happened all else would be of little account.
'This has come upon me as a surprise,' said Yule, in his most reserved tone.
'I can give no definite reply; I must think of it.'
'Should you like me to ask mother to bring her sewing here now?' asked Marian, rising.
'Yes, you may do so.'
In this way the awkwardness of the situation was overcome, and when Maria_ext had occasion to speak of money matters no serious objection was offere_o her proposal.
Dora Milvain of course learnt what had come to pass; to anticipate criticism, her brother imparted to her the decision at which Marian and he had arrived.
She reflected with an air of discontent.
'So you are quite satisfied,' was her question at length, 'that Marian shoul_oil to support her parents as well as herself?'
'Can I help it?'
'I shall think very ill of you if you don't marry her in a year at latest.'
'I tell you, Marian has made a deliberate choice. She understands m_erfectly, and is quite satisfied with my projects. You will have th_indness, Dora, not to disturb her faith in me.'
'I agree to that; and in return I shall let you know when she begins to suffe_rom hunger. It won't be very long till then, you may be sure. How do yo_uppose three people are going to live on a hundred a year? And it's ver_oubtful indeed whether Marian can earn as much as fifty pounds. Never mind; _hall let you know when she is beginning to starve, and doubtless that wil_muse you.'
At the end of July Maud was married. Between Mr Dolomore and Jasper existed n_uperfluous kindness, each resenting the other's self-sufficiency; but Jasper, when once satisfied of his proposed brother-in-law's straightforwardness, wa_areful not to give offence to a man who might some day serve him. Provide_his marriage resulted in moderate happiness to Maud, it was undoubtedly _agnificent stroke of luck. Mrs Lane, the lady who has so often been casuall_entioned, took upon herself those offices in connection with the ceremon_hich the bride's mother is wont to perform; at her house was held th_edding-breakfast, and such other absurdities of usage as recommend themselve_o Society. Dora of course played the part of a bridesmaid, and Jasper wen_hrough his duties with the suave seriousness of a man who has convince_imself that he cannot afford to despise anything that the world sanctions.
About the same time occurred another event which was to have more importanc_or this aspiring little family than could as yet be foreseen. Whelpdale'_oteworthy idea triumphed; the weekly paper called Chat was thoroughl_ransformed, and appeared as Chit- Chat. From the first number, the success o_he enterprise was beyond doubt; in a month's time all England was ringin_ith the fame of this noble new development of journalism; the proprietor sa_is way to a solid fortune, and other men who had money to embark began t_cheme imitative publications. It was clear that the quarter-educated woul_oon be abundantly provided with literature to their taste.
Whelpdale's exultation was unbounded, but in the fifth week of the life o_hit-Chat something happened which threatened to overturn his sober reason.
Jasper was walking along the Strand one afternoon, when he saw his ingeniou_riend approaching him in a manner scarcely to be accounted for, unles_helpdale's abstemiousness had for once given way before convivial invitation.
The young man's hat was on the back of his head, and his coat flew wildly a_e rushed forwards with perspiring face and glaring eyes. He would have passe_ithout observing Jasper, had not the latter called to him; then he turne_ound, laughed insanely, grasped his acquaintance by the wrists, and drew hi_side into a court.
'What do you think?' he panted. 'What do you think has happened?'
'Not what one would suppose, I hope. You seem to have gone mad.'
'I've got Lake's place on Chit-Chat!' cried the other hoarsely. 'Two hundre_nd fifty a year! Lake and the editor quarrelled— pummelled each other—neithe_now nor care what it was about. My fortune's made!'
'You're a modest man,' remarked Jasper, smiling.
'Certainly I am. I have always admitted it. But remember that there's m_onnection with Fleet as well; no need to give that up. Presently I shall b_aking a clear six hundred, my dear sir!
A clear six hundred, if a penny!'
'Satisfactory, so far.'
'But you must remember that I'm not a big gun, like you! Why, my dear Milvain, a year ago I should have thought an income of two hundred a gloriou_ompetence. I don't aim at such things as are fit for you. You won't b_ontent till you have thousands; of course I know that. But I'm a humbl_ellow. Yet no; by Jingo, I'm not! In one way I'm not—I must confess it.'
'In what instance are you arrogant?'
'I can't tell you—not yet; this is neither time nor place. I say, when wil_ou dine with me? I shall give a dinner to half a dozen of my acquaintance_omewhere or other. Poor old Biffen must come. When can you dine?'
'Give me a week's notice, and I'll fit it in.'
That dinner came duly off. On the day that followed, Jasper and Dora left tow_or their holiday; they went to the Channel Islands, and spent more than hal_f the three weeks they had allowed themselves in Sark. Passing over fro_uernsey to that island, they were amused to see a copy of Chit-Chat in th_ands of an obese and well-dressed man.
'Is he one of the quarter-educated?' asked Dora, laughing.
'Not in Whelpdale's sense of the word. But, strictly speaking, no doubt he is.
The quarter-educated constitute a very large class indeed; how large, the hug_uccess of that paper is demonstrating. I'll write to Whelpdale, and let hi_now that his benefaction has extended even to Sark.'
This letter was written, and in a few days there came a reply.
'Why, the fellow has written to you as well!' exclaimed Jasper, taking up _econd letter; both were on the table of their sitting-room when they came t_heir lodgings for lunch. 'That's his hand.'
'It looks like it.'
Dora hummed an air as she regarded the envelope, then she took it away wit_er to her room upstairs.
'What had he to say?' Jasper inquired, when she came down again and seate_erself at the table.
'Oh, a friendly letter. What does he say to you?'
Dora had never looked so animated and fresh of colour since leaving London; her brother remarked this, and was glad to think that the air of the Channe_hould be doing her so much good. He read Whelpdale's letter aloud; it wa_acetious, but oddly respectful.
'The reverence that fellow has for me is astonishing,' he observed with _augh. 'The queer thing is, it increases the better he knows me.'
Dora laughed for five minutes.
'Oh, what a splendid epigram!' she exclaimed. 'It is indeed a queer thing, Jasper! Did you mean that to be a good joke, or was it better still by comin_ut unintentionally?'
'You are in remarkable spirits, old girl. By-the-by, would you mind letting m_ee that letter of yours?'
He held out his hand.
'I left it upstairs,' Dora replied carelessly.
'Rather presumptuous in him, it seems to me.'
'Oh, he writes quite as respectfully to me as he does to you,' she returned, with a peculiar smile.
'But what business has he to write at all? It's confounded impertinence, now _ome to think of it. I shall give him a hint to remember his position.'
Dora could not be quite sure whether he spoke seriously or not. As both o_hem had begun to eat with an excellent appetite, a few moments were allowe_o pass before the girl again spoke.
'His position is as good as ours,' she said at length.
'As good as ours? The "sub." of a paltry rag like Chit-Chat, and assistant t_ literary agency!'
'He makes considerably more money than we do.'
'Money! What's money?'
Dora was again mirthful.
'Oh, of course money is nothing! We write for honour and glory. Don't forge_o insist on that when you reprove Mr Whelpdale; no doubt it will impres_im.'
Late in the evening of that day, when the brother and sister had strolled b_oonlight up to the windmill which occupies the highest point of Sark, and a_hey stood looking upon the pale expanse of sea, dotted with the gleam o_ight-houses near and far, Dora broke the silence to say quietly:
'I may as well tell you that Mr Whelpdale wants to know if I will marry him.'
'The deuce he does!' cried Jasper, with a start. 'If I didn't half suspec_omething of that kind! What astounding impudence!'
'You seriously think so?'
'Well, don't you? You hardly know him, to begin with. And then— oh, confoun_t!'
'Very well, I'll tell him that his impudence astonishes me.'
'Certainly. Of course in civil terms. But don't let this make any differenc_etween you and him. Just pretend to know nothing about it; no harm is done.'
'You are speaking in earnest?'
'Quite. He has written in a very proper way, and there's no reason whatever t_isturb our friendliness with him. I have a right to give directions in _atter like this, and you'll please to obey them.'
Before going to bed Dora wrote a letter to Mr Whelpdale, not, indeed, accepting his offer forthwith, but conveying to him with much gracefulness a_nmistakable encouragement to persevere. This was posted on the morrow, an_ts writer continued to benefit most remarkably by the sun and breezes an_ock-scrambling of Sark.
Soon after their return to London, Dora had the satisfaction of paying th_irst visit to her sister at the Dolomores' house in Ovington Square. Maud wa_stablished in the midst of luxuries, and talked with laughing scorn of th_ays when she inhabited Grub Street; her literary tastes were henceforth t_erve as merely a note of distinction, an added grace which made evident he_uperiority to the well-attired and smooth-tongued people among whom she wa_ontent to shine. On the one hand, she had contact with the world o_ashionable literature, on the other with that of fashionable ignorance. Mr_ane's house was a meeting-point of the two spheres.
'I shan't be there very often,' remarked Jasper, as Dora and he discusse_heir sister's magnificence. 'That's all very well in its way, but I aim a_omething higher.'
'So do I,' Dora replied.
'I'm very glad to hear that. I confess it seemed to me that you were rathe_oo cordial with Whelpdale yesterday.'
'One must behave civilly. Mr Whelpdale quite understands me.'
'You are sure of that? He didn't seem quite so gloomy as he ought to hav_een.'
'The success of Chit-Chat keeps him in good spirits.'
It was perhaps a week after this that Mrs Dolomore came quite unexpectedly t_he house by Regent's Park, as early as eleven o'clock in the morning. She ha_ long talk in private with Dora. Jasper was not at home; when he returne_owards evening, Dora came to his room with a countenance which disconcerte_im.
'Is it true,' she asked abruptly, standing before him with her hands straine_ogether, 'that you have been representing yourself as no longer engaged t_arian?'
'Who has told you so?'
'That doesn't matter. I have heard it, and I want to know from you that it i_alse.'
Jasper thrust his hands into his pockets and walked apart.
'I can take no notice,' he said with indifference, 'of anonymous gossip.'
'Well, then, I will tell you how I have heard. Maud came this morning, an_old me that Mrs Betterton had been asking her about it. Mrs Betterton ha_eard from Mrs Lane.'
'From Mrs Lane? And from whom did she hear, pray?'
'That I don't know. Is it true or not?'
'I have never told anyone that my engagement was at an end,' replied Jasper, deliberately.
The girl met his eyes.
'Then I was right,' she said. 'Of course I told Maud that it was impossible t_elieve this for a moment. But how has it come to be said?'
'You might as well ask me how any lie gets into circulation among people o_hat sort. I have told you the truth, and there's an end of it.'
Dora lingered for a while, but left the room without saying anything more.
She sat up late, mostly engaged in thinking, though at times an open book wa_n her hand. It was nearly half-past twelve when a very light rap at the doo_aused her to start. She called, and Jasper came in.
'Why are you still up?' he asked, avoiding her look as he moved forward an_ook a leaning attitude behind an easy-chair.
'Oh, I don't know. Do you want anything?'
There was a pause; then Jasper said in an unsteady voice:
'I am not given to lying, Dora, and I feel confoundedly uncomfortable abou_hat I said to you early this evening. I didn't lie in the ordinary sense; it's true enough that I have never told anyone that my engagement was at a_nd. But I have acted as if it were, and it's better I should tell you.'
His sister gazed at him with indignation.
'You have acted as if you were free?'
'Yes. I have proposed to Miss Rupert. How Mrs Lane and that lot have come t_now anything about this I don't understand. I am not aware of any connectin_ink between them and the Ruperts, or the Barlows either. Perhaps there ar_one; most likely the rumour has no foundation in their knowledge. Still, i_s better that I should have told you. Miss Rupert has never heard that I wa_ngaged, nor have her friends the Barlows—at least I don't see how they coul_ave done. She may have told Mrs Barlow of my proposal—probably would; an_his may somehow have got round to those other people. But Maud didn't mak_ny mention of Miss Rupert, did she?'
Dora replied with a cold negative.
'Well, there's the state of things. It isn't pleasant, but that's what I hav_one.'
'Do you mean that Miss Rupert has accepted you?'
'No. I wrote to her. She answered that she was going to Germany for a fe_eeks, and that I should have her reply whilst she was away. I am waiting.'
'But what name is to be given to behaviour such as this?'
'Listen: didn't you know perfectly well that this must be the end of it?'
'Do you suppose I thought you utterly shameless and cruel beyond words?'
'I suppose I am both. It was a moment of desperate temptation, though. I ha_ined at the Ruperts'—you remember—and it seemed to me there was no mistakin_he girl's manner.'
'Don't call her a girl!' broke in Dora, scornfully. 'You say she is severa_ears older than yourself.'
'Well, at all events, she's intellectual, and very rich. I yielded to th_emptation.'
'And deserted Marian just when she has most need of help and consolation? It'_rightful!'
Jasper moved to another chair and sat down. He was much perturbed.
'Look here, Dora, I regret it; I do, indeed. And, what's more, if that woma_efuses me—as it's more than likely she will—I will go to Marian and ask he_o marry me at once. I promise that.'
His sister made a movement of contemptuous impatience.
'And if the woman doesn't refuse you?'
'Then I can't help it. But there's one thing more I will say. Whether I marr_arian or Miss Rupert, I sacrifice my strongest feelings—in the one case to _ense of duty, in the other to worldly advantage. I was an idiot to write tha_etter, for I knew at the time that there was a woman who is far more to m_han Miss Rupert and all her money—a woman I might, perhaps, marry. Don't as_ny questions; I shall not answer them. As I have said so much, I wished yo_o understand my position fully. You know the promise I have made. Don't sa_nything to Marian; if I am left free I shall marry her as soon as possible.'
And so he left the room.
For a fortnight and more he remained in uncertainty. His life was ver_ncomfortable, for Dora would only speak to him when necessity compelled her; and there were two meetings with Marian, at which he had to act his part a_ell as he could. At length came the expected letter. Very nicely expressed, very friendly, very complimentary, but—a refusal.
He handed it to Dora across the breakfast-table, saying with a pinched smile: