When Richard Sheridan hastily left Sydney Gardens on the appearance of Long with Betsy Linley by his side, causing thereby all the faculties of subtle discrimination and of still more subtle deduction of at least one of the ladies of the fascinating group to be awakened, he sought neither the allurements of the gossip of the Pump Room nor the distractions of the scandal of the Assembly Rooms. He felt a longing for some place where he could hide himself from the eyes of all men—some sanctuary on an island where he might eat his heart out, far from the crowd who take a delight in making a mock of one who sits down to such a banquet.

He had left his father’s house after breakfast, determined that no one whom he might meet should be able to perceive from his demeanour anything of what he felt on the subject of Betsy Linley’s engagement to Mr. Long. He had heard the announcement of this engagement on the previous evening when leaving the Concert Rooms where Betsy had sung and her brother Tom had played, and it had come upon him with the force of a great blow—a blow from which no recovery was possible for him. That was why he had accepted the invitation of one of his friends to supper, with cards to follow. For several months he had resisted steadily the allurements of such forms of entertainment, for then the reward which he held before himself for his abstinence was the winning of the girl whom he had loved since he and she had been children together. But now that his dream was broken he felt in that cynical mood with which the plunge is congenial. He welcomed the opportunity of plunging. When the waters had closed over his head, they would shut out from his sight the odious vision which had followed his pleasant dreams of past years.

He was the merriest, the wildest, the wittiest of the little party of gay youths that night. His was the most gracefully cynical of the banter which was directed against young Halhed—a youth who had acquired quite a reputation at Oxford as the avowed but hopeless lover of Miss Linley, and who was now rather overdoing the part of the rejected swain, going the length of quoting Horace and Juvenal on the subject of the lightness of woman’s love, and being scarcely able to conceal his gratification at the distinction conferred upon him on being made the subject of the banter of his friends in general and of young Sheridan in particular. Before midnight had come and the first dozen of claret had gone, he was really not quite sure whether it conferred greater distinction on a man to be the accepted or the rejected lover of a young woman about whose beauty and accomplishments every one raved. The rôle of the Victim possessed several heroic elements. He was quite certain, however, that in introducing a mildly melancholy note regarding her heartlessness, he was conferring distinction upon the lady.

But when Dick Sheridan had crept upstairs to his room—somewhat unsteadily—after his bitterly merry night, he found that the bracing effects of the plunge are temporary. He found that though the plunge may alleviate, it is not curative—that the momentary alleviation which it secures has to be paid for.

He lay awake for hours, his remorse for having been so weak as to lapse from the straight path which he had laid out for himself since he became conscious of his love for Betsy Linley, adding to the bitterness of the reflection that he had lost her for ever.

When he awoke after a few hours of intermittent sleep, he had a sense of his disaster; but with it came the resolution that he would let no one suspect how hard hit he was by the announcement of Betsy’s engagement to marry Mr. Long—he would not even let the girl herself suspect it. He would smile and shrug when people referred to the matter in his presence. He would not be such a poor, weak creature as Halhed, who went about bleating his plaint in every stranger’s ear. He would show himself to be more a man of the world than that.

He dressed with scrupulous care—he was not going to affect the loose garters of the woeful lover—and sauntered out, swinging his cane with the ease and nonchalance of the man of fashion; and he flattered himself that the sharp and rapid repartee in which he indulged when he joined the group in the gardens, would be sufficient to convince even Garrick himself that he regarded the engagement of Miss Linley with complete indifference. The moment, however, that the girl appeared with Mr. Long at the entrance, he felt unable to sustain the rôle any longer: he felt that he must run away and hide himself in some secret corner where he could see no one and where no one could see him. He had not counted upon facing the girl so soon—he had not counted upon witnessing the chastened pride of her successful lover in the presence of the unsuccessful. He knew that he could not continue acting the part which he had assumed: he knew that he should break down and be shamed for evermore.

He hurried away without once glancing round, and his first impression was that he must weep. He only bore up against this appalling impulse until he reached his home. He entered the house whistling, and shouted out a line or two of a merry song when on the stairs; but before the echo of his voice had died away, he was lying on his bed in tears.

He felt that his part in the world had come to an end—that for him no future but one of misery was possible. The hope which had sustained him in the face of his struggles to make a name for himself had turned to despair. She was not to be his. She was to go to another. She had elected to go to a man who, he believed, with all a true lover’s suspicion of another’s merits, was incapable of appreciating her beauty—her beautiful nature—her lovely soul.

He was overwhelmed by the thought of the bare possibility of a thing so monstrous being sanctioned by Providence. He despaired of the future of a world in which it was possible for so monstrous a thing to occur. It was no world for worthy lovers to live in—so much was perfectly clear to him. He felt himself to be a worthy lover, for had he not resisted temptations innumerable, during the years that he had loved Betsy, only for her sake?

He had felt upon every occasion of resisting a temptation that he was increasing his balance, so to speak, in his banking account with Fate—paying another instalment, as it were, toward acquiring Betsy Linley. He had worked for her as Jacob had worked for Rachel, but Fate had turned out to him as unjust as Laban had been—nay, more unjust, for he had not even a Leah given to him to console him; and, besides, his Rachel was bestowed upon another.

How could he be otherwise than hopeless of a world so ill-governed as to allow of such a gross injustice taking place?

The possible joys of the many temptations which he had resisted appealed to his imagination. So one thinks what one could have done with the sums with which one’s banker has absconded; and the result was to increase his bitterness. But perhaps what poor Dick felt most bitterly of all was his inability to sustain the dignified rôle of a cynical man of the world with which he had started the day. The reflection that he had completely broken down the moment that the girl appeared even in the distance, and that he had given way to his disappointment just as if he were nothing more than a schoolboy, was a miserable one. He wept at the thought of his own weeping, and beat his pillow wildly in vexation; and an hour had passed before he was able to control himself.

He sprang from the bed with a derisive cry of “What a fool I am!—a worse fool than Halhed! Good heavens! A girl!—she is nothing but a girl; and where’s the girl who is worth such self-abasement? I am a man, and I’ll show myself to be a man, even though she elect to marry every dolt in Bath!”

He felt that if she had appeared in the lobby outside his door at that moment, he would not break down. He would be able to smile upon her as Mr. Walpole was accustomed to smile when saying something very wicked and satirical. He knew that he was quite as witty and a good deal readier than Horace Walpole; but even if he lacked something of the polish which Walpole—sitting up all the night for the purpose—was able to give to a phrase, he believed that he could still say enough to let Betsy Linley learn what sort of a man he was. He would let her see that he was a man of the world looking on with a tolerant, half-amused smile and quite a disinterested manner at such incidents of life as marrying and giving in marriage. Oh, the cynical things that could be said about marriage! Some such things had, of course, already been said by the wits, but they had not nearly exhausted the subject. It would be left for him to show Miss Linley how supremely ridiculous was the notion of two people believing—or rather pretending to believe—that they could find satisfaction only in each other’s society!

Oh, the notion of marriage was utterly ridiculous! What was it like? Was it not the last refuge of the unimaginative? Or should he suggest that marriage was the pasteboard façade of a palace of fools?

Oh yes, he felt quite equal to the task of saying a number of witty things on the subject of marriage in general; but when he came to think of all that might be said on the subject of a young woman’s agreeing to marry an old man, he felt actually embarrassed by the wealth of cynical phrases which lent themselves to a definition of such an incident.

He kept pacing his room, becoming more cynical every moment, until he had almost recovered his self-respect, and had forgotten that singular lapse of his from the course which he had marked out for himself in the morning—that lapse into the tears of true feeling from his elaborate scheme of simulated indifference—when the dinner-bell sounded.

He cursed the clanging of the thing. He was in no humour for joining the family circle: he knew that his sisters would delight in discussing the topic of the hour, and as for his brother....

Then it occurred to him that, seeing he would have to face his relations some time, he would excite their suspicion less were he to meet them at once. He now believed himself to be quite equal to sustaining the rôle of the indifferent man of fashion in the presence of his relations, though he had ignominiously failed to realise his ideal after a certain point earlier in the day.

He dipped his face in a basin of water to remove every trace of his weakness—the poor fellow actually believed that tears were an indication of weakness—and he was surprised to find how easily the marks were obliterated. He was comforted by the reflection that his tears had been very superficial; they were not even skin deep,—so that he had not, after all, been so foolish as he fancied—he had been unjust to himself. He only needed a fresh ruffle to give a finishing touch to his freshness.

He descended to the dining-room lazily, and entered languidly. He found that the other members of the family had not been polite enough to wait for him for the two minutes he had taken to complete his toilet. They were deep in their leg of mutton, and the younger Miss Sheridan was calling for another dish of potatoes. The big wooden bowl which, Irish fashion, lay upon a silver ring, was still steaming, but it was empty.

“Bless my soul!” he exclaimed, entering the room, “I had no notion that I was late. Upon my life, I meant only to have a doze of ten minutes, but I must have slept for half an hour.”

He yawned, and then stood before a mirror for a few moments, twitching his front into shape.

“You came in pretty late last night,” said his elder sister, cutting another wedge from the already gaping wound in the leg of mutton before her.

“Nay, sweet sister, you are wrong,” he said with a laugh. “Nay, ’twas not late last night, but early this morning I returned to my home. Prithee, sister, is’t outside the bounds of possibility for you to provide us with a change of fare now and again? Mutton is doubtless wholesome, and occasionally it is even succulent, but after the fourth day of mutton, the most tolerant palate——”

“Have you heard that Betsy Linley is to marry old Mr. Long?” cried the girl with the air of one making an effective retort.

He was about to indicate to her his complete self-possession by inquiring what bearing Miss Linley and Mr. Long had upon the question of the advisability of substituting veal for mutton now and again, but he was clever enough to perceive that his attitude would become convincing were he to appear less nonchalant; so after only an interval of a few seconds, he dropped his fork, crying:

“What! what do you say? Betsy Linley and Mr. Long? Oh, lud!”

Then he threw himself back in his chair and roared with laughter. He was amazed to find how easily he was able to laugh heartily—nay, how greatly he was eased by his outburst of hearty laughter. He felt that he was playing his part very well, and so indeed he was.

“Oh, lud! Oh, lud!” he managed to ejaculate between his paroxysms of mirth. “Oh, lud! ‘Crabbed age and youth!’ Has not Mr. Linley set the lyric to music? If not, he must lose no time in doing so, and Betsy will sing it at all the concerts. I foresee another triumph for her. He is sixty-five if he is a day—I’ll swear it. But are you sure that there is truth in the rumour? How many names have not been associated with Miss Linley’s during the last two years? Were not people rude enough to mention Mathews’s name with hers six months ago?”

“’Tis more than mere rumour this time,” said his sister. “I wonder that you did not hear all about the matter last night. Every one was talking of it in the Rooms.”

“Ah, you see, I was hurried off to that supper, confound it! and, as you remarked, I did not get up in time for the Pump Room gossip,” said he glibly. “Ah, I should have gone to the Pump Room, if only for the sake of studying the effect of this disastrous news upon the beaux! ’Twill be a blow to some of our friends—to some; but we need not travel beyond the limits of the Sheridan family to become acquainted with the effects of that blow.” He pointed a finger toward his brother Charles, who indeed was looking very glum over his mutton. “Oh, my dear brother, you have my profound sympathy in your affliction. But, prithee, be cheered, my Charles; do not let those doleful dumps get hold of you at this time.

‘Shall I, wasting with despair,
Sigh because a woman’s fair?’

Surely not, sir. This is not our way, in these days—these unromantic days.

‘If she be not fair to me
What care I how fair she be?
With a hey, nonny, nonny!’”

“Do not tease him, Dick,” said Alicia. “Poor Charlie!”

“Poor Charlie!” cried Dick. “Nay, I never meant to go so far as to call him ‘Poor Charlie!’ You have a strange notion of what constitutes sympathy, my dear, if you fancy that our brother’s wound is softened by his being called ‘Poor Charlie!’ The cruel shepherdess did not send you any softening message, Strephon?”

“She sent me no message,” said Charles.

“Then she was less unkind than she might have been,” said Dick. “The woman who sends a kind message to the lover whom she has discarded is as cruel as the Red Indian would be were he to scalp his victim and then offer him as a solace a box of Canada Balsam for the healing of the wound. Oh no, dear Charles, Miss Linley is not all unkind.”

“Do you know, Dick, that once or twice I received the impression that ’twas you yourself, and not Charles, that Betsy favoured?” said Elizabeth.

“What! I—I? Oh, my dear, you flatter me at the expense of my elder brother,” laughed Dick. “Moreover, you cast an aspersion on the taste, the discrimination, and the prudence of the young lady. Dear sisters, take the advice of your brother, who knows this world and its weaknesses, and when it comes to your turn to choose husbands, marry nice elderly gentlemen with large fortunes, as your friend Miss Linley is doing. Marriage should be regarded simply as an unavoidable preliminary to a brilliant widowhood. And let me assure you, Eliza, your widowhood will not be long averted if you provide your husband with mutton as tough as that which you set before your brothers four days out of the seven.”

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