After luncheon, at Maria’s invitation he gave Fraulein von Holtzhausen her first lesson in writing in English character; and to speak truth he found the task of guiding her fair hand through the mysteries of the English alphabet a by no means uncongenial occupation. When he came away his admiration of Hilda’s blue eyes was more pronounced than ever; but, on the other hand, so was his conviction that he would be very foolish if he allowed it to interfere with his intention of making Maria Lee his wife.
He who would drive two women thus in double harness must needs have a light hand and a ready lash, and it is certainly to the credit of Philip’s cleverness that he managed so well as he did. For as time went on he discovered his position to be this. Both Hilda and Maria were in love with him, the former deeply and silently, the latter openly and ostensibly. Now, however gratifying this fact might be to his pride, it was in some ways a thorny discovery, since he dared not visibly pay his attentions to either. For his part he returned Hilda von Holtzhausen’s devotion to a degree that surprised himself; his passion for her burnt him like a fire, utterly searing away the traces of his former affection for Maria Lee. Under these circumstances, most young men of twenty-one would have thrown prudence to the winds and acknowledged, either by acts or words, the object of their love; but not so Philip, who even at that age was by no means deficient in the characteristic caution of the Caresfoot family. He saw clearly that his father would never consent to his marriage with Hilda, nor, to speak truth, did he himself at all like the idea of losing Miss Lee and her estates.
On the other hand, he knew Hilda’s proud and jealous mind. She was no melting beauty who would sigh and submit to an affront, but, for all her gracious ways, at heart a haughty woman, who, if she reigned at all, would reign like Alexander, unrivalled and alone. That she was well aware of her friend’s tendresse for Philip the latter very shortly guessed; indeed, as he suspected, Maria was in the habit of confiding to her all her hopes and fears connected with himself, a suspicion that made him very careful in his remarks to that young lady.
The early summer passed away whilst Philip was still thinking over his position, and the face of the country was blushing with all the glory of July, when one afternoon he found himself, as he did pretty frequently, in the shady drawing-room at Miss Lee’s. As he entered, the sound of voices told him that there were other visitors beside himself, and, as soon as his eyes had grown accustomed to the light, he saw his cousin George, together with his partner Mr. Bellamy, and a lady with whom he was not acquainted.
George had improved in appearance somewhat since we last saw him meeting with severe treatment at his cousin’s hands. The face had filled up a little, with the result that the nose did not look so hooked, nor the thick lips so coarse and sensual. The hair, however, was as red as ever, and as for the small, light-blue eyes, they twinkled with the added sharpness and lustre that four years of such experience of the shady side of humanity as can be gathered in a lawyer’s office, is able to give to the student of men and manners.
So soon as Philip had said how-do-you-do to Maria and Hilda, giving to each a gentle pressure of the hand, George greeted him with warmth.
“How are you, Philip? delighted to see you; how is my uncle? Bellamy saw him this morning, and thought that he did not look well.”
“I certainly did think, Mr. Philip,” said the gentleman alluded to, a very young-looking, apple-faced little man, with a timid manner, who stood in the background nervously rubbing his dry hands together—“I certainly did think that the squire looked aged when I saw him this morning.”
“Well, you see, Mr. Bellamy, eighty-two is a good age, is it not?” said Philip, cheerfully.
“Yes, Mr. Philip, a good age, a very good age, for the next heir,” and Mr. Bellamy chuckled softly somewhere down in his throat, and retreated a little.
“He is getting facetious,” broke in George, “that marriage has done that for him. By the way, Philip, do you know Mrs. Bellamy? she has only been down here a fortnight, you know. What, no! Then you have a pleasure to come” (raising his voice so that it might be heard at the other end of the room), “a very clever woman, and as handsome as she is clever.”
“Indeed! I must ask you to introduce me presently, Mr. Bellamy. I only recently heard that you were married.”
Mr. Bellamy blushed and twisted and was about to speak, when George cut in again.
“No, I dare say you didn’t; sly dog, Bellamy; do you know what he did? I introduced him to the lady when we were up in town together last Christmas. I was dreadfully hard hit myself, I can assure you, and as soon as my back was turned he went and cut me out of the water—and turned my adored into Mrs. Bellamy.”
“What are you taking my name in vain about, Mr. Caresfoot?” said a rich, low voice behind them.
“Bless me, Anne, how softly you move, you quite startled me,” said little Mr. Bellamy, putting on his spectacles in an agitated manner.
“My dear, a wife, like an embodied conscience, should always be at her husband’s shoulder, especially when he does not know it.”
Bellamy made no reply, but looked as though the sentiment was one of which he did not approve; meantime the lady repeated her question to George, and the two fell into a bantering conversation. Philip, having dropped back a little, had an opportunity of carefully observing Mrs. Bellamy, an occupation not without interest, for she was certainly worthy of notice.
About twenty years of age, and of medium height, her figure was so finely proportioned and so roomily made that it gave her the appearance of being taller than she really was. The head was set squarely on the shoulders, the hair was cut short, and clustered in ringlets over the low, broad brow; whilst the clearly carved Egyptian features and square chin gave the whole face a curious expression of resoluteness and power. The eyes were heavily-lidded and greyish-green in hue, with enormously large dark pupils that had a strange habit of expanding and contracting without apparent reason.
Gazing at her, Philip was at a loss to know whether this woman so bizarrely beautiful fascinated or repelled him; indeed, neither then nor at any future time did he succeed in deciding the question. Whilst he was still contemplating, and wondering how Bellamy of all people in the world had managed to marry such a woman, and what previous acquaintance George had had with her, he saw the lady whisper something to his cousin, who at once turned and introduced him.
“Philip,” he said, “let me introduce you to the most charming lady of my acquaintance, Mrs. Bellamy.”
Philip bowed and expressed himself delighted, whilst the lady curtsied with a mixture of grace and dignity that became her infinitely well.
“Your cousin has often spoken to me of you, Mr. Caresfoot, but he never told me——” here she hesitated, and broke off.
“What did he never tell you, Mrs. Bellamy? Nothing to my disadvantage, I hope.”
“On the contrary, if you wish to know,” she said, in that tone of flattering frankness which is sometimes so charming in a woman’s mouth, “he never told me that you were young and handsome. I fancied you forty at least.”
“I should dearly like to tell you, Mrs. Bellamy, what my cousin George never told me; but I won’t, for fear I should make Bellamy jealous.”
“Jealousy, Mr. Caresfoot, is a luxury that my husband is not allowed to indulge in; it is very well for lovers, but what is a compliment in a lover becomes an impertinence in a husband. But if I keep you here much longer, I shall be drawing the enmity of Miss Lee, and—yes, of Fraulein von Holtzhausen, too, on to my devoted head, and, as that is the only sort of jealousy I have any fear of, or indeed any respect for, being as it is the expression of the natural abhorrence of one woman for another, I had rather avoid it.”
Philip followed the direction of her sleepy eyes, and saw that both Miss Lee and Hilda appeared to be put out. The former was talking absently to Mr. Bellamy, and glancing continually in the direction of that gentleman’s wife. The latter, too, whilst appearing to listen to some compliment from George, was gazing at Mrs. Bellamy with a curious look of dislike and apprehension in her face.
“You see what I mean; Fraulein von Holtzhausen actually looks as though she were afraid of me. Can you fancy any one being afraid of me, except my husband, of course?—for as you know, when a woman is talking of men, her husband is always excepted. Come, we must be going; but, Mr. Caresfoot, bend a little nearer; if you will accept it from such a stranger, I want to give you a bit of advice—make your choice pretty soon, or you will lose them both.”
“What do you mean—how do you know——”
“I mean nothing at all, or just as much as you like, and for the rest I use my eyes. Come, let us join the others.”
A few minutes later Hilda put down her work, and, declaring that she felt hot, threw open the French window and went out into the garden, whither, on some pretext or other, Philip followed her.
“What a lovely woman that is,” said Mrs. Bellamy, with enthusiasm, to Miss Lee, as soon as Philip was out of earshot. “Her tout ensemble positively kills one. I feel plain and dowdy as a milkmaid alongside of a Court-beauty when I am in the room with her. Don’t you, Miss Lee?”
“Oh, I don’t know, I never thought about it, but of course she is lovely and I’m plain, so there is no possibility of comparison between us.”
“Well, I think you rate yourself rather low, if you will allow me to say so; but most women would but ‘poorly satisfy the sight’ of a man when she was present. I know that I should not care to trust my admirer (if I had one), however devoted he might be, for a single day in her company; would you?”
“I really don’t know; what do you mean?”
“Mean, Miss Lee, why I mean nothing at all; what should I mean, except that beauty is a magnet which attracts all men; it serves them for a standard of morality and a test of right and wrong. Men are different from women. If a man is faithful to one of us, it is only because no other woman of sufficient charm has become between him and us. You can never trust a man.”
“What dreadful ideas you have.”
“Do you think so? I hope not. I only speak what I have observed. Take the case of Fraulein von Holtzhausen, for instance. Did you not notice that whilst she was in the room the eyes of the three gentlemen were all fixed upon her, and as soon as she leaves it one of them follows her, as the others would have done had they not been forestalled? One cannot blame them; they are simply following a natural law. Any other man would do the same where such a charming person is concerned.”
“I certainly did not notice it; indeed, to speak the truth, I thought that they were more occupied with you——”
“With me! why, my dear Miss Lee, I don’t set up for being good- looking. What a strange idea. But I dare say you are right, it is only one of my theories based upon my own casual observations, and, after all, men are not a very interesting subject, are they? Let’s talk of something more exciting—dresses, for instance.”
But poor Maria was too uncomfortable and disturbed to talk of anything else, so she collapsed into silence, and shortly after Mr. and Mrs. Bellamy and George made their adieux.
Meanwhile Philip and Hilda had been walking leisurely down the shrubberies adjoining the house.
“Why have you come out?” she asked in German, a language he understood well.
“To walk with you. Why do you speak to me in German?”
“Because it is my pleasure to do so, and I never asked you to walk with me. You are wanted in the drawing-room, you had better go back.”
“No, I won’t go, Hilda; that is, not until you have promised me something.”
“Do not call me Hilda, if you please. I am the Fraulein von Holtzhausen. What is it you want me to promise?”
“I want you to meet me this evening at nine o’clock in the summer-house.”
“I think, Mr. Caresfoot, that you are forgetting a little what is due to me, to yourself, and—to Miss Lee?”
“What do you mean by due to Miss Lee?”
“Simply that she is in love with you, and that you have encouraged her in her affection; you need not contradict me, she tells me all about it.”
“Nonsense, Hilda; if you will meet me to-night, I will explain everything; there is no need for you to be jealous.”
She swept round upon him, tossing her head, and stamping her dainty foot upon the gravel.
“Mr. Caresfoot,” she said, “once and for all I am not jealous, and I will not meet you; I have too much respect for myself, and too little for you,” and she was gone.
Philip’s face, as he stood looking after her, was not pleasant to see; it was very hard and angry.
“Jealous, is she? I will give her something to be jealous for, the proud minx;” and in his vexation he knocked off the head of a carnation with his stick.
“Philip, what are you doing? Those are my pet Australian carnations; at least, I think they are Australian. How can you destroy them like that?”
“All right, Maria; I was only plucking one for you. Won’t you put it in your dress? Where are the others?”
“They have all gone. Come in, it is so hot out there; and tell me what you think of Mrs. Bellamy.”
“I think that she is very handsome and very clever. I wonder where Bellamy picked her up.”
“I don’t know; I wish he hadn’t picked her up at all. I don’t like her, she says unpleasant things; and, though I have only seen her three times, she seems to know all about me and everybody else. I am not very quick; but do you know just now I thought that she was insinuating that you were in love with Hilda; that’s not true, is it, Philip? Don’t think me forward if I ask you if that is true, and if I say that, if it is, it is better that I should know it. I sha’n’t be angry, Philip;” and the girl stood before him to await his answer, one hand pressed against her bosom to still the beating of her heart, whilst with the other she screened her blushing brow.
And Philip too stood face to face with her sweet self, with conscience, and with opportunity. “Now,” whispered conscience, “is the time, before very much harm is done; now is the acceptable time to tell her all about it, and, whilst forbidding her love, to enlist her sympathy and friendship. It will be wrong to encourage her affection; when you ardently love another woman, you cannot palter any more.” “Now,” whispered opportunity, shouldering conscience aside, “is the time to secure her, her love, and her possessions, and to reward Hilda for her pride. Do not sacrifice yourself to an infatuation; do not tell her about Hilda—it would only breed jealousies; you can settle with her afterwards. Take the goods the gods provide you.”
All this and more passed through his mind; and he had made his choice long before the rich blood that mantled in the lady’s cheek had sunk back to the true breast from whence it came.
Oh, instant of time born to colour all eternity to thine own hue, for this man thou hast come and gone! Oh, fleeting moment, bearing desolation or healing on thy wings, how the angels, in whose charge lie the souls of men, must tremble and turn pale, as they mark thy flight through the circumstances of a man’s existence, and thence taking thy secrets with thee away to add thy fateful store to the records of his past!
He took her hand, the hand that was pressed upon her bosom.
“Maria,” he said, “you should not get such ideas into your head. I admire Hilda very much, and that is all. Why, dear, I have always looked upon myself as half engaged to you—that is, so far as I am concerned; and I have only been waiting till circumstances would allow me to do so, to ask you if you think me worth marrying.”
For a while she made no reply, but only blushed the more; at last she looked up a little.
“You have made me very happy, Philip.” That was all she said.
“I am very glad, dear, that you can find anything in me to like; but if you do care for me, and think me worth waiting for, I am going to ask something of your affection: I am going to ask you to trust me as well as to love me. I do not, for reasons that I will not enter into, but which I beg you to believe are perfectly straightforward, wish anything to be said of our engagement at present, not even to your friend Hilda. Do you trust me sufficiently to agree to that?”
“Philip, I trust you as much as I love you, and for years I have loved you with all my heart. And now, dear, please go; I want to think.”
In the hall a servant gave him a note; it was from Hilda, and ran thus—
|“I have changed my mind. I will meet you in the summer-house this evening. I have something to say to you.”|
Philip whistled as he read it.
“Devilish awkward,” he thought to himself; “if I am going to marry Maria, she must leave this. But I cannot bear to part with her. I love her! I love her!”