It was not within the bounds of possibility that the fascinating Mrs. Abington should remain for the rest of the evening seated by the side of young Mr. Linley in the Assembly Rooms. It was, as a matter of fact, thought very remarkable that she and he were permitted to have so long a conversation without interruption. This circumstance, however, did not prevent the young man’s resenting deeply the intrusion of Mr. Walpole and his friend Gilly Williams upon the artistic and philosophical duologue in which he was taking, as he fancied, the prominent part. (He did not doubt that philosophy as well as art formed the subject of his discourse with the charming lady.)

He thought that he might tire out Mr. Walpole and his friend, who had the bad taste to push themselves forward—they did not even think it necessary to have philosophy and art as their excuse—to the destruction of that seclusion which he had no trouble in perceiving the lady loved dearly. He found, however, that Mr. Walpole and Mr. Williams represented merely a beginning of the obtrusive elements of the mixed society at Bath; for before they had got rid of more than a few brilliant phrases embodying some neatly turned but empty compliments—he was convinced that Mrs. Abington, the actress, was just the sort of woman to detest compliments—quite a number of men, well known in the world of art as well as of fashion (to say nothing of philosophy), were bowing before her and delivering themselves of further compliments in the ears of the lady.

There was Mr. George Selwyn, for instance, who had some coffee-house jargon for her; its delivery necessitated his putting his face very close to her ear, and when she heard it, she gave a delightful simulation of a lady who is shocked—Tom actually believed that she was shocked. And then that awkward little Dr. Goldsmith, who, strange to say, was a great friend of Lord Clare and Bishop Percy and Captain Horneck of the Guards, and others of the most fastidious people in England—people who had it in their power to pick and choose their associates—came up with some witticism so delicately tinged with irony that no one laughed for several seconds. Dr. Goldsmith had to tell her that he had received a letter from Mr. Colman in which he had promised to put his new comedy in rehearsal immediately.

“That is good news for you, doctor,” said the actress.

“For me? Nay, madam, ’tis not of myself I am thinking, but of you; for the comedy contains a part—Kate Hardcastle is the name of the heroine—which will make you famous. Oh yes, indeed, ’tis entirely on your account I am gratified.”

“Sir, poor Goldsmith is vainer even than I believed him to be,” Tom Linley heard the foolish little Scotchman, who followed Dr. Johnson about in Bath as well as London, say to the huge man of letters; and Tom thought that he was fully justified in making such a remark. He was, therefore, all the more surprised to hear Johnson say, after giving himself a roll or two:

“Sir, Dr. Goldsmith may at times have been deserving of reproof, not to say reprobation, but it would be impossible for him to go so far as to make your remark justifiable. It is not for such as you to say ‘poor Goldsmith!’”

Then quite a number of other notable people sauntered up, so that Mrs. Abington became the centre of the most distinguished group in the Long Room, and Tom, who did not see his way to protect her from these inconsiderate obtruders, felt that he would not be acting properly were he tacitly to countenance their attitude; so with a bow he stalked away. What dull-witted wits were these, who were too dense to perceive that the lady’s most earnest desire was to be permitted to remain unobserved!

He hastened to his home and spent the remainder of the night practising over such musical selections as would tend, he hoped, to dissipate the philosophical doubts which Mrs. Abington appeared to have in regard to the relations existing between music and the sentiment of love.

Dick Sheridan did not leave the Assembly Rooms quite so soon. He had boldly entered the place in order to get over the meeting with Betsy Linley. He had felt sure that she would come to the Rooms this evening; for it appeared to him that Mr. Long was anxious to parade his prize—that was the phrase which was in Dick’s mind—before the eyes of the many suitors whom she had discarded in his favour. Dick felt that he, for one, would not shrink from meeting her in a public place now; it was necessary for him to make up for his shortcoming in the morning.

But while she remained away, he was conscious of the fact that Mrs. Abington had given him something to think about. How was it possible that she knew that he loved Betsy Linley? he wondered; and what did she mean by suggesting that she had come down to Bath to say something that should console him for having lost Betsy? What sudden friendship was this which she professed for him? Why should she have assumed, unasked, the part of his sympathiser? He had been frequently in her company during the previous year, both in Bath and London; for she had taken lessons in elocution from his father, and had naturally become intimate with the Sheridan family. Besides, she had more than once helped to drag his father from the brink of bankruptcy in Dublin, and lent the prestige of her presence in some of his seasons at that very fickle city; and for these favours Mr. Sheridan had been truly grateful, and had ordered his family to receive her at all times as their good angel.

Dick remembered how his father had dwelt upon the phrase, “our good angel,” and he was thus led to wonder if it was her anxiety to act consistently with this rôle that had caused her to post to Bath without a moment’s delay in order that she might offer him consolation in respect of Betsy.

He began to feel that he had not adequately expressed his gratitude to her for all the trouble which she had taken on his behalf—for the thoughtfulness which she had displayed in regard to him. He felt that she had not been merely acting a part in this matter. Whatever he may have suspected on this point at first, he could not doubt the sincerity of the note that sounded through that confession of hers—she had called it a confession, and she had called herself a fool. He did not know much about women, but he knew that when a woman calls herself a fool in earnest, she is very much in earnest.

But why should she have called herself a fool?

This was the question which had bewildered him before, and when it recurred to him now, it produced the same effect upon him.

The more he tried to recall her words the more satisfied he became that there was a good deal in the attitude of Mrs. Abington that he had not yet mastered.

He turned and looked up the room to where she was sitting. She was not looking in his direction. Her eyes were fixed upon the face of Tom Linley, and she was listening with the most earnest attention to what Tom was saying. She really seemed to be completely absorbed in Tom.

For a few minutes Dick felt jealous of the other youth. Why should this lovely creature, who confessed that she had come from London solely to say a word of comfort in his (Dick’s) ear, become in a moment so deeply absorbed in Tom Linley, who had no aspiration in the world except to improve himself as a performer on the violin?

In spite of that sudden twinge—it could scarcely be called a pang—of jealousy which he felt while watching Mrs. Abington giving all her attention to Tom Linley, his bewilderment did not disperse. But to do him justice, he had already ceased to think of her as a kind woman, and this was one step—though he did not know it—toward his discovery of the truth.

He did not get a chance to give further consideration to the question of the lady’s motives at that time, for his friend Halhed waylaid him with a lugubrious face and a smile of infinite sickliness.

“You observe, Dick?” he said, nodding significantly.

“I observe much—a good deal more than I can understand,” said Dick. “But what do you observe—that I am observing?”

“What? Oh, you must notice it—everybody must notice it. I dare swear that remarks are being made about it in every part of the Rooms,” said Halhed.

Dick frowned.

“Do you mean Mrs. Abington?” he asked. “Why, man, ’tis only her fancy to give some slight attention to Tom Linley. She is an actress, and she may be about to act the part of a boy. They are all wild to do boys’ parts. My father tells me that it was Mrs. Woffington who set the fashion more than twenty years ago.”

“Mrs. Abington! Who cares the toss of a penny what freaks Mrs. Abington may indulge in?” sneered Mr. Halhed.

“No one, except fifty or sixty thousand playgoers in London,” said Dick. “But pray, what is on your mind, Nat? Who is there present apart from her that calls for observation?”

“You are not so acute as I believed you to be, Dick, or you would know that ’tis not of any one present people are talking. You should have noticed that Miss Linley is absent, and that every one is saying that she is ashamed to face me. She has reason for it, Dick. Do you not allow that she treated me badly? Oh, you must allow so much; she treated me cruelly, for I give you my word, Dick, that I never offended her even by a look. I was not one of those presumptuous fools who made love to her. No word of love did I ever breathe in her hearing. Do you fancy that I am not speaking the truth, sir?”

“I do not doubt it, Nat—indeed I do not doubt it.”

“Give me your hand, Dick; you are my friend. That is why I am perfectly frank with you now, as I have always been. I was ever silent in her presence, and I believed that she respected my silence; she must have known that I was ready to lay my heart at her feet, I was so silent. Ah, she is afraid to face me. She stays away.”

“Nat, my friend, if you ask me for my opinion,” said Dick, “I will tell you without hesitation that if you saw there was great reason to maintain silence in the presence of Miss Linley, the attitude is even more becoming in her absence. Come, sir, be a man. Think that there’s as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it. Good heavens, man! am I doomed to listen to the plaint of every foolish swain who believes that he has been aggrieved by Miss Linley? I tell you plainly, Nat, you must find another confidant. What! Have you no self-respect? Do you think it is to your credit to go about, like a doctor at a funeral, advertising your own failures? Oh, I have no patience with fellows like you who have no backbone. And so good-evening to you, sir.”

He turned about, leaving the young man overwhelmed with amazement, for Dick had always shown himself to be most sympathetic—a man to encourage confidences.

Strolling to another part of the Rooms, he felt himself tapped on the shoulder. Looking round, he saw that he was beside a certain Mr. Bousfield—a young gentleman of property who had been paying great attention to Miss Linley.

“You see, she is not here—she has not the courage to come face to face with me,” said young Mr. Bousfield.

Dick looked at him from head to foot, and then with an exclamation ran for the nearest door, and made his way home without glancing to right or left, lest he should be confronted by some other men seeking to pour their grievances into his ear. He thought that he had exhausted the tale of the rejected lovers, but it seemed that when he had routed the main body, a company of the reserves had come up, and he did not know what strategy they might employ to force themselves upon him. He felt relieved when he found himself safe at home.

But to say the truth, he was greatly disappointed at not meeting Betsy face to face, when he felt sure of himself—when he felt sure that he would be able to offer her his congratulations without faltering. He had prepared himself for that meeting; and now he had begun to lose confidence in his self-possession, having had a proof of his weakness in the presence of Mrs. Abington. It was not satisfactory for him to reflect upon the ease with which that lady had extorted from him his confession that he was miserable because Betsy had promised to marry another man. Although he had begun talking to her in the same spirit that he had meant to adopt in regard to Betsy, yet she had only to utter a single sentence, suggesting that she knew his secret, and forthwith he had broken down, and, by confiding in her, had put himself on a level with the full band of plaintive suitors who had gone about boring him with the story of their disaster.

To be sure, Mrs. Abington had professed to stand in need of no confession from him. She had—if she was to be believed—posted down to Bath the moment she had heard that Betsy had given her promise to Mr. Long, in order to tell Dick that she sympathised with him.

And if Mrs. Abington, living in London, was aware of his secret, might it not be possible that it was known to numbers of people living in Bath, who had far more frequent opportunities than could possibly be available to her to become aware of the truth?

This question caused him a sleepless hour after he had gone to bed. He could not endure the thought of being pointed at—of being whispered at by busybodies as one of the rejected suitors. His vanity recoiled from the thought of the bare possibility of his being relegated to so ignoble a position. He made up his mind to go to Mrs. Abington the next day and beg of her to keep his secret.

But, strangely enough, he became conscious of a curious reluctance—it seemed a curious instinct of reluctance—to go to Mrs. Abington. The truth was that what she had said to him when talking unreservedly and sincerely had somewhat frightened him. He had not quite understood what she meant when she had reproached herself for being a fool, and it was because he did not understand her that he was—in a measure—afraid of her. The young animal is invariably afraid of what it does not understand. To do so is an elementary impulse of instinct. That is why a dog is cowed when it sees a ghost; ghosts are unusual—very unusual; and that is why men who have not gone through a course of astronomy are terrified at the appearance of a comet.

And the more that Dick Sheridan tried to arrive at an understanding of what the fascinating actress had said to him, the more frightened he became. She had spoken with convincing sincerity. That was just where the element of the unusual appeared, giving rise to his fears.

And then there was that little twinge—was it of jealousy?—which he had felt on looking up the Room and seeing her lavishing her attention upon Tom Linley.

He resolved that for the present, at any rate, he would not go near Mrs. Abington.

But when was he to meet Betsy face to face?

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