Josephine had at one time—and it was not so very long ago—been accustomed to send little missives to Mr. Ernest Clifton giving him some information as to the entertainments to which she was going from week to week so that their accidental meetings were frequent. A good deal of fortuitous coming together can be arranged for by two persons of ordinary enterprise. Since she had, however, become sensitive on the subject of her duty to her parents, and had come to the conclusion that her attitude in regard to Mr. Clifton was not one that any girl with a right appreciation of what was due to herself as well as to her father and mother would adopt, she had dropped this illicit correspondence—after giving him due notice—so that their meetings were altogether the result of chance.

Still, even trusting only to this fickle power, they had a good many opportunities of exchanging hand clasps and of sitting in the same drawing-room. Since that momentous dinner at Ranelagh, however, neither of them had had an opportunity of reverting to the subject of her conversation when alone with him on the terrace; hence she had been compelled to write to him that letter which he had read and upon which he had pondered before the arrival of Sir Harcourt Mortimer, and some time too after the departure of that minister.

(By the way, that thunderstorm came on all right before the evening.)

Two days later, he was fortunate enough (so he said) to find himself in a group of which she was a member, in the grounds of an historic house in Kensington—not South Kensington: it will be a hundred years or more before there are historic houses in South Kensington. But in this house a great statesman had once lived—a century has passed since there was a great statesman in England—and before the birth of the statesman, a great Man of Letters had, by a singular mischance of marriage, also lived in the same house—according to some critics a hundred years have passed since there was a great Man of Letters in England.

Josephine was once again on a terrace—one with an Italian balustrade overlooking a lawn and the little park that surrounded the historic house—when Clifton saw her. He had no difficulty getting into the group of dull celebrities, to whom she had been introduced by her father—dull peers whose names figured largely on the first page—the title page it should properly be called—of prospectuses; and deadly dull representatives of county families who had never done anything but represent the county; a moderately dull judge or two, an immoderately dull Indian lieutenant-governor (retired), and a representative of literature. (The last named had been invited in sympathy with the traditions of the house; and indeed it was a matter of tradition that this literary link with the past had written the most illiterate volume of verse that had ever remained unread by the public.)

Josephine suffered herself to be detached from this fascinating group after a time, but resisted the temptations of a tent with moselle cup and pâté de foie gras sandwiches which Ernest held before her dazzled eyes.

They stood together at the top of the steps leading from the terrace to the lawn, and they talked, not of the Great Statesman but of the Great Literary Man. His writings have the boracic quality of wit to keep them ever fresh.

“To think that he stood here, just where we are standing,” said Josephine. “To think that he looked at those very trees. He went to live on the Fulham Road afterwards. Why did he not remain here, I wonder?”

“You see his wife was here,” said Mr. Clifton with the air of the one who explains.

“Ah—perhaps,” laughed Josephine. “I came upon a letter of his the other day in a magazine—a letter written from his cottage on the Fulham Road to his stepson, who lived here, asking him to come to hear the nightingale that sung every night in one of the lanes.”

“There are other places besides the lanes off the Fulham Road where one may listen to the song of the nightingale nowadays,” said Mr. Clifton.

“His example should be a warning to a man not to marry beneath him,” remarked Josephine.

“Yes, it was rather a come down for him, wasn’t it?” said her companion. “He lived in a garret off the Haymarket, didn’t he?—and his wife brought him here.”

“He was the greatest writer of his time, and she was only a Countess,” said Josephine.

“Quite so. But they lived very happily apart, so that it was not such a misalliance after all,” said Clifton. “I suppose it was one of Dr. Johnson’s customary brutalities to say that the man died from that insidious form of heredity known in recent diagnoses as habitual alcoholism.”

“The notion is horrid—quite worthy of Dr. Johnson,” said Josephine, making a move as if to rejoin another sparkling group.

“Don’t let us separate for a minute yet,” said Clifton. “Though I admit that you are very properly cautious, still there are limits: we have not been together, so that we could talk, for some weeks. Since then I got a letter from you.”

“I have been very unhappy, Ernest,” said she, gazing into the distance of the lovely woodland.

“Not more unhappy than I have been, my dearest,” said he. “Was that letter of yours calculated to allay my unhappiness, do you think? It made me doubly unhappy because it made me aware of your unhappiness.”

“I felt that I could not avoid writing it, Ernest. It would have been impossible for me to remain any longer in the position I was in: I could not carry on the course of deception into which you led me—no, that is going too far; I did not quite mean to say so much.”

“Then it was only your own kind heart that restrained you; for you might have meant all that you said and a great deal more. I admit that I was to blame in leading you to make me the promise that has caused you all this unhappiness.”

“You were not more to blame than I was. In these matters it is decreed that the blame is not to be laid at the door of one person only. You are a man with ambition—you could not be expected—that is to say, the world does not expect that you should feel the same way as a woman does over such a point as the one which I dwelt on. A secret such as ours was is, I know, a very little matter in the life of such a man as you are. You are, I have heard, the guardian of some of the most important secrets in the world. But in any case a man’s life contains innumerable secrets that are never revealed until he is dead.”

“That is quite true.”

“A man with a career to—to—cultivate—men cultivate a career as gardeners do their roses——”

(They were standing beside a rose bed now.)

“And not unfrequently by the same agents of fertilisation.”

“Such a man must of necessity come to think more of the great issues of certain incidents than of the incidents themselves.”

“That is perfectly true.” He shook his head with a mournfulness that was precisely in keeping with the sadness which could be seen in his expression. “Too true—too true!” he murmured. “Yes, a man loses a sense of perspective——”

“Not he,” cried Josephine. “A man’s sense of perspective is fairly accurate. It is a woman who is wanting in this respect. We have so accustomed ourselves to see only what is under our noses that we become shortsighted and are utterly unable to perceive the size and significance of everything at a distance. That is how it comes that something beneath our eyes seems so enormous when after all, it is quite insignificant. Oh, men do not take such narrow—such shortsighted views of the incidents of life.”

“I am not so sure of that.”

“What, would you say that any man takes the same narrow view of an incident like love as a woman takes of it? Oh, no. He is too wise. He has his career in the world to think about—to shape; it is a matter of impossibility with him to distort out of all proportion to its importance that incident in his life known as love. That is how it comes, I know, that you think I am very foolish to lay so much emphasis as I have done upon so simple a thing as my giving you my promise and keeping it hidden from my father and mother. You think that it is making a fuss about nothing. You cannot understand how it should be the means of making me suffer tortures—tortures!”

“On the contrary,” said the man, “I have myself suffered deeply knowing that you were suffering and recognising as I do, that my want of consideration for you—my selfishness—my want of appreciation for the purest soul of woman that ever God sent on earth, was the direct cause of your burden. I am glad that you wrote to me as you did, and I rejoice that I am not selfish enough to hold you to the promise you made to me.”

She turned her eyes upon him and looked at him in more than surprise—in actual amazement.

“You mean to say that you—you release me from my promise,” she said.

“I release you freely,” he replied. “Until I receive your father’s consent to an engagement I will not think that there is any engagement between us—there may be an understanding between us; but there is nothing between us that need cause you uneasiness through its concealment from your father and mother. When the day comes on which I can ask your father’s consent to our engagement with some hope of success, I shall not be slow to go to him, you may be sure; but till then—you are free—you need not feel any self-reproach on the score of concealing anything: there is nothing to conceal.”

She was dumb. She thought that she would have to fight for her freedom; but lo, he had knocked the shackles off before she had uttered more than a petulant complaint—she had no need to make any impassioned appeal to him; the rhetoric on the subject of Freedom with which she was fully acquainted she had no chance of drawing on. He had set her free practically of his own free will.

She was too surprised to be able to do more than thank him in the baldest way.

“I am sure that it is for the best.” she said, “I feel happy already—happy feeling that a great burden has been lifted from me—that I need no longer fear to look my own people in the face. Thank you—thank you.”

There was gratitude in her face as she looked at him. She could scarcely put out her hand to him considering the number of people who were about the terrace, or she would, he felt assured, have done so.

But there was undoubtedly gratitude in her face.

He would have given a good deal to know if she was grateful by reason of being released from the pressing care of the secret which he had imposed upon her or because she now considered herself free to listen to the other man, the man whose identity he had not been able to discover.

She herself would have given a good deal to know so much.

“I admit that I was in error from the very first,” said he. “I had no right to place you in a false position. I did not know—but I had no excuse for not knowing—how a sensitive creature such as you are could not but feel deeply—as I do now—that you were not one who needed to be held in the bondage of a promise. I know now how that the real bond that exists between us is one that is not dependent for its endurance upon any formal promise—upon any formal engagement. I trust you, my Josephine, and I know that you can trust me.”

And then he took off his hat to Sir Digby and Lady Swan, and there was something in his action, Josephine thought, that compelled them to stop and shake hands with him and with her also, for she was acquainted with the great ex-Solicitor General and his wife.

Curiously enough that little movement on his part—a movement which suggested that he expected something more than a formal recognition—imparted to her an element of distrust. But it was not until several other fellow-guests had come up and joined her group separating her effectually from Ernest Clifton, that she began to be dimly conscious of the truth—that she became aware of the fact that while he had been ostentatiously knocking off her shackles of iron he had been gently imposing on her shackles of gold. He had so contrived, by the adroitness of his words, that she should remain bound to him by a tie far stronger than that from which he had just released her.

He had spoken quite truly: in telling her that he trusted her completely he had put upon her a bondage from which she would not try to escape. He had, so to speak, torn up her I O U before her eyes and had thereby turned the debt for which he held security into a debt of honour.

She felt that she had a right to resent this, and her feeling was that of a person who has been got the better of by another in a bargain, and who has come to be aware of this fact. She resented his cleverness of attitude in regard to her. There is no love strong enough to survive a display of cleverness on the part of either the man or the woman, and in her irritation of the moment she felt very bitterly regarding the man. “Trickster” was actually the word that was in her mind at the moment. It never occurred to her that a liberal allowance should be made for any man who has attained to a foremost position as a political organiser.

She should have known that to judge a professional politician by the ordinary standards that one instinctively employs in estimating the actions of people whom one meets in social life is scarcely fair. She should have known that there is honour among politicians just as there is honour—its existence has been proverbial, among the representatives of a mode of living whose affiliation with the profession of politics has not yet been fully recognised in England, though it is in America; but the standard of honour among either is not just the same as that which prevails at a public school or even in a public house. The art of jerrymandering is scarcely one that would be practised by the Chevalier Bayard; but it is an art that statesmen have studied with great advantage to themselves, without fear and without reproach—except, of course, the reproach of the opposing statesman.

Josephine West had talked a good deal about the point of view, and the sense of perspective and other abstractions; and yet she could feel irritated because she fancied that a man who had reduced dissimulation to a science had not been quite frank with her.

She was still suffering from this irritation when Amber Severn came up to her accompanied by Pierce Winwood.

“I thought that as I would see you here I need not write to remind you that you are to come to us at The Weir to-morrow week,” cried Amber.

“Is to-morrow week one of the dates that we agreed upon last month?” asked Josephine.

“Yes; you have got it all properly noted in your book. We shall be a quiet little party. Mr. Win-wood is coming.”

“That is a sufficient guarantee,” said Josephine nodding to Mr. Winwood. They had reached these confidential terms, having met frequently since they had had their little chat together in the rose-garden.

“My ordinary deportment is chilling to the Hooligan element,” said Winwood. “Miss Severn mentioned my name to allay your suspicions.”

“Our only excitement is to be the visit which we are to pay to The Gables,” said Amber. “Guy has invited us to drink tea on his lawn.”

“That is something to look forward to,” said Josephine.

“I hope his caterers are not the Casa Maccaroni,” said Winwood.

And then two or three other people joined their group, and Winwood got parted from Amber by the thoughtfulness of Lord Lullworth who, it seemed, was an emissary from his mother, the Countess of Castlethorpe. The great lady hoped, according to Lord Lullworth, that Miss Severn would consent to be presented to her, and, of course, Miss Severn would not be so absurd as to return a rude answer to a request which represented so modest an aspiration.

By this means Lord Lullworth who had great difficulty in finding his mother had for a companion for quite half an hour of this lovely afternoon, Miss Severn, and for even a longer space of time Josephine West was by the side of Pierce Winwood beneath the red brick walls which had once sheltered a great Man of Letters.

They talked of the great Man of Letters and indeed other topics.

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