What could she say? What could she do on hearing this sentence pronounced by her father?

He had impressed upon her the kiss of a father. It lay on her forehead and she could feel it there like the seal to a contract. It was his formality that made her feel there was nothing to be said or done further in the matter. When once a contract is sealed no one can do anything. Protest is useless. Submission is taken for granted.

But to come up fresh from the glory of that wheatfield—every ear of grain seemed a unit in the sum of the love which was alive in that field—to come up to town by the side of the man whom she knew that she loved—his hand touching hers now and again—his eyes evermore drawing her own to meet them and to mix with them—his voice still in her heart—to leave him feeling certain of him—certain of the future, and then to hear her father speak that sentence and to feel that cold wax kiss of his on her forehead—oh, the thought of it all was suffocating.

What could she say?

How could she tell her father at that moment that two hours ago she had found out that she loved, not the man who had by some mysterious means won her father’s consent to her name being united with his, but quite another man—a man whom her father had only seen twice, and who had been seen by herself not more than a dozen times, and all within a period of a few weeks.

The surprise was too much for her. The mystery of it all overcame her. She could only stare at her father, while he held her hand and talked to her in a paternal, parliamentary way, patting the back of her fingers very gently.

She felt that his words were in good taste and well chosen. She knew that they could never be otherwise. But how could they ever come to be uttered? That was the question which was humming through her poor head all the while he was assuring her that though perhaps he had had other views in his mind in respect of securing her happiness—other ambitions in regard to her future, still he was content to waive all in order that she might marry the man of her choice.

“Clifton has been perfectly frank with me, my dear,” he said. “Oh, yes, he confessed to me that you and he had an understanding early last autumn that if my consent could be obtained he could count on you. I cannot say that I approve of such secret understandings between young people: an exchange of confidences of this type is almost equivalent to a secret engagement, is it not? But he told me how sensitive you were on this point and how scrupulous you were—I know that he admires you more than ever on account of your scruples—every right thinking man, lover or otherwise, must do so. He too had his scruples—they do him honour also. He was sensible—fully sensible of the fact that we had every right to look higher—much higher for our daughter than our daughter herself thought fit to look. Of course my position in the Government—well, some people have been flattering enough to say that I may look for a place in the Cabinet when the next change takes place, and between ourselves, I think a change is imminent. Never mind that. I know that Clifton is a rising man; he has been a power in our camp for several years past and his advice is esteemed in—I have reason to know—the highest—the very highest quarters. In fact if he had not made himself so very useful as to become almost indispensable he would long ago have been provided with a Seat and a post. He is by no means at the foot of the ladder. He is a man who has made a successful fight against the most adverse influences—he knows his own strength—he still knows it—he does not fritter away his chances, taking up one thing and then dropping it for another. Men of his stamp are the men to succeed. Your future, my child, is, I know, safe in his keeping—oh, quite safe. You have shown your wisdom in your choice. God bless you, my dear, God bless you!”

The paternal kiss was this time impressed upon her forehead with a paternal smile, and she could say nothing. The futility of saying anything was impressed upon her with each of the two paternal kisses. The next moment she was left alone, and her most prominent thought was that he had spoken so convincingly as to leave no opening for any one to say a single word.

And yet, only two hours before, she had been kissed on the cheeks and on the hair by Pierce Winwood!

The result of her father’s words was to make her feel far more deeply than she had yet felt that she had been guilty of something dreadful in the way of double-dealing when she had allowed Pierce Winwood to kiss her—even if she had allowed him to kiss only one of her hands she would have been guilty (she now felt) of something almost shocking. Breathing as she now did, in the centre of the paternal halo of her father’s phrases, she could not but feel shocked as she reflected upon her frankness in confessing (in the breathing spaces between his kisses) her love for Pierce Winwood, and before she met her mother she was actually thinking what reparation she could make to her parents for her shocking conduct. Would an attitude of complete submission to their wishes be sufficient, she asked herself.

She came to the conclusion that it would not be an excessive atonement to make for so terrible a lapse from the conduct which was expected from her. It certainly would not, for her father had given her to understand that he had only been induced to give his consent to her engagement to Ernest Clifton, because it was clearly her dearest hope to get his consent to that engagement. How absurd then was her thought that there was any atonement in an attitude of submission to a fate which her parents had the best reasons for believing that she most ardently sought.

And thus she had to face her mother.

The maternal halo which her mother welded to that of her father formed a most appropriate decoration, any connoisseur of phrases would have admitted. It was mat gilt with a burnished bit of repousse here and there along the border. But the double halo, though decorative enough, was too heavy for Josephine’s head and its weight oppressed her.

Her mother was a charming woman. She had not reached that period of humiliation in the life of a woman of the world when she hears people say that she is a charming woman still. No one ever thought of saying that she was a charming woman still. Growing old has gone out, for it has become acknowledged that the custom of a woman’s doing her best to look hideous with caps and combs and things when she gets married is allied to the Suttee; and Lady Gwendolen West—she was the fifth daughter of the late Earl of Innisfallen in the peerage of Ireland—was one of the leaders of modern intelligence who had made this discovery in the science of comparative superstition. By the aid of a confidential masseuse and an hour’s sleep before lunch and dinner every day of her life, she remained worldly at forty-six.

She kissed her daughter with a subtle discrimination of what her daughter expected of her and gave her her blessing.

“You are a wicked child,” was the opening bar of the maternal benediction. “How wicked you have been!—absolutely naughty: you know you cannot deny it, you sweet thing. And you make me look a hundred, you know, especially when I have anything of mauve about me. Thank heaven, I am not as other women who make up with that absurd mauve complexion and think that it deceives any one. What would you think of your mother, Joe, if she made up like those poor things one meets even at the best houses, though I do think that you might have let me into your confidence, Joe—I do really. You know that I should have been delighted to take your part against your father any day. I see you looking at my new tocque, but if you say that the pink and crimson poppies do not look well among the corn ears I’ll have nothing more to do with you or your affairs. Now what on earth are you staring at, Joe? Isn’t it quite natural for corn and poppies——”

“It’s wheat—wheat,” said Josephine, and still she kept her eyes fixed upon the headdress of her mother. (“Only two hours ago—only two hours ago.”)

“And where’s the difference between wheat and corn, you little quibbler?” laughed Lady Gwen. “You didn’t know that I had ordered the tocque from Madame Sophy. I kept it a secret from you in order to surprise you. But it hasn’t surprised you after all. Now what was I saying apropos of secrets just now?—something about—of course, I knew that we had been talking of secrets. You were very naughty, you sly puss, and you don’t deserve to be forgiven; but Mr. Clifton—I suppose I must call him Ernest now—how funny it will be!—he’s one of the most coming men—he’s awfully coming. Your father agreed with surprising ease. I expect that some one turned him against the notion that he had that Lord Lull-worth would have suited you. Lord Lully is no fool, as I happen to know; so perhaps things are just as well as they are, though I know your father thought that, with you married to the son of the Minister, he was pretty sure of getting into the Cabinet. I met Lord Lully only yesterday and he asked me how it had never occurred to some of the men who do the caricatures in the papers to draw the Marquis in the character of a job-master. Funny, wasn’t it? A bit disrespectful of course; but then everybody knows that the Marquis has done very well for all his relations and his relations’ relations. Good heavens, is that four o’clock striking? Hurry upstairs and get Madeline to put you into another dress. We are going to the Glastonburys’ reception in Hyde Park Gate. The Green Scandinavian are to be there. Make haste. We have two other places of call.”

What was she to say to such a mother? How could she hope for sympathy from such a source? How could she tell Lady Gwendolen that she had changed her mind—that she loved not Ernest Clifton but Pierce Winwood?

That was the terrible part of this greeting of her parents: they took everything for granted; they assumed that her dearest wish was to obtain their consent to be engaged with Mr. Clifton, though it did not look very much as if they expected her to be exuberant in her gratitude to them for their complaisance. She had been deadly cold while her father had spoken to her, and she had not warmed in the least under the influence of her mother’s chatter. Was this the way in which girls as a rule deport themselves when the happiest hour of their life has come?

“I am not going out this afternoon,” she said when her mother had turned to a mirror to pinch some fancied improvement in the poppies that flared over her tocque.

“What nonsense are you talking?” cried Lady Gwen pinching away. “What nonsense! These things should be bordered with wire; they fall out of shape in a day. Is that an improvement?”

She faced her daughter, and Joe said:

“I somehow think that it was best lying flat. No, I’m not going out this afternoon. I am deadly tired.”

“You do look a bit blowsy,” said the mother with a critical poise of the inverted flower-basket on her head. Then, as if a sudden thought had struck her, she added, while Josephine was going to the door: “Don’t you run away with the notion that he is likely to drop in this afternoon upon you. The chances are that he will be at the Oppenkirks’, so your best chance will be to come with me.”

“I have no wish to see anybody this evening—least of all Mr. Clifton. I’m only tired to death,” said Josephine.

Her mother’s laugh followed her to the staircase.

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