So she had abandoned the untenable position of reason, and had withdrawn to the cover of a statement of complete femininity. She gave a sigh of relief: she knew where she was now. She was on firm ground.

“I am afraid, Josephine,” said he with the utmost calmness, “that you have been too late in coming to this determination. You cannot be so flagrantly inconsistent.”

“I know nothing about consistency or inconsistency; I love another man, and all the arguments in the world will not prevent my loving him.”

She knew where she stood now. Her position was impregnable.

“You say that you broke off your engagement with me. Why? Because I had not got your father’s consent. Well, if the absence of your father’s consent was a legitimate reason for our engagement coming to an end it is certainly a reason for your refraining from entering into an engagement with another man, for your father cannot give his consent to two men at the same time. You see that you cannot possibly—as you are showing—be engaged to any one but myself.”

“I told you I care nothing for consistency—or reason—or logic—or—or—you. I love another man—I love another man.”

“I am sorry for you, dear Josephine. But if you do not care anything for consistency and me, I care for consistency and you far too much to relinquish either. If you can show me that there has ever been a breach in our engagement I might be led to consider the situation from another standpoint. Look at me and tell me that you understood clearly when we parted last that you were free—that there was no uneasy feeling in your mind that you were still bound to me. You see, you cannot. You are silent. Yes, my dearest, there was a bond between us when we separated, and you and I are engaged now, as we have been for several months, and your father and mother take exactly the same view of our position, and are good enough to sanction it. That is enough for me; it should be enough for you. I decline to take any other view of the matter. You have admitted tacitly—that I never released you. I decline to release you now. Of course you will accept the situation. Think over it and you will find that no alternative remains. Good-bye, my dear—for the present.”

He did not ask her to give him her hand; but simply moved smiling, to the door with a wave of his own hand that somehow produced upon her the effect of shaking hands with her—at any rate that graceful gesture rendered a parting salute unnecessary, without the slightest suggestion of a breach of courtesy.

He was gone, and he had got the better of her—that was her first impression when he had closed the door—very gently—behind him. He had been too clever for her. She knew long ago that it would be ridiculous for her to hope to get the better of him.

And the worst of it was that he was altogether in the right. He was hopelessly in the right. She had treated him badly. She had behaved dishonestly, whatever Pierce Winwood might say by way of exculpating her: she had parted from Ernest Clifton feeling—she could not deny it face to face with him—bound to him, and she could not but acknowledge that until she had a complete understanding with him, she had no right to listen to a word of love to another man.

She had behaved basely—there could be no doubt about that, and the only excuse—and she knew that it was no excuse—that she could make for herself was that Pierce Winwood had come upon her so suddenly—so unexpectedly that she had no chance of giving due consideration to the question as to whether or not she would be justified in listening to him. The idea of her pausing at such a moment to determine whether or not Pierce Winwood had what lawyers term a locus standi in the suit did not strike her as being at all funny. She felt that she should have adopted something of a judicial attitude in regard to Pierce. She could not understand how it was that she had had that moment of recklessness—that moment of recklessness which remains a mystery to so many women.

And the result of all this after consideration of the matter was to convince her that she had been desperately in the wrong—deceiving every one around her and trying to deceive herself also from the very first; for knowing the impression that Pierce had produced on her upon the occasion of their first meeting at Ranelagh, she had not refused to meet him again as she should have done. She had told Amber that she hated him; but she knew perfectly well that why she hated him was because he had compelled her to love him. It was not he whom she hated but only the idea of acting dishonourably in regard to the man whom she had promised to marry.

Oh, she knew all along but too well that she loved him from the first, and yet she had not—after the first week—taken the least trouble to keep apart from him, the result being the feeling of humiliation that now had taken possession of her—this feeling that she had been so dreadfully in the wrong that nothing remained for her but to plunge still deeper into the depths of wickedness by agreeing to marry the man whom she did not love and to throw over the man she did love.

She felt that Ernest Clifton had spoken the truth. No alternative remained to her. She had agreed with her eyes open, to marry him, and she was quite unable to give any reason that would be considered satisfactory by her father for declining to marry him.

After an hour or two she actually became resigned to the idea. After all, what did it matter? She had got into the frame of mind of the one who asks this question. The frame of mind of the French philosopher on the guillotine, who rolled his cigarette, saying “N’importe: un homme de mois!”

What did it matter whom she married? The general scheme of the universe would not be interfered with because she was about to do the thing that was most abhorrent to her of all acts done by women—this act being, by the way, the one which she was most earnest to do only six months before!

She was able, without the shedding of a tear, to sit down to her escritoire and write a letter to Pierce, letting him know the determination to which she had come, and admitting to him that she had behaved basely—cruelly—inconsiderately. She had been bound to Mr. Clifton—and she knew it—at the very moment that she had acknowledged to the man to whom she was writing that she loved him. She admitted how culpably weak she had been—and still was, but she thought that she was strong enough to see that the best way—the only way—of sparing the one who was dearest to her much misery—the only way of escaping from a hopeless position was by submitting to Fate. If he would think over the matter he would, she was sure, see that she was right, and thinking over it all he could not but be thankful that he was saved from a wretched woman who did not know her own mind two days together and who had no sense of honour or truth or fidelity.

That was the substance of the letter which she felt great satisfaction in writing to Pierce Winwood; and she sincerely believed that she was all that she announced herself to be, though she would have been terribly disappointed if she had thought that she would succeed in convincing him that she was unworthy to be loved by him.

She felt greatly relieved on writing this letter embodying as it did so frank a confession of her weakness and—incidentally—of her womanliness, and she was able to dance nine dances and to partake of a very recherche supper in the course of the night. She felt that she had become thoroughly worldly, taking a pleasure in the whirl and the glow and the glitter of all. There was no chance of her being led to think about what lay heavy on her heart while she was giving herself up to this form of intoxication. Every dance had the effect of a dram of green Chartreuse upon her, and the result of her night’s festivity was to make her feel, she thought, that the world was very well adapted as a place of residence for men and women; and as for the worldliness—well, worldliness was one of the pleasantest elements in the world of men and women.

Having come to so satisfactory a conclusion, it was somewhat remarkable, she thought, that, on finding her father drinking his glass of Apollinaris in his study—he had just returned from the House—she should go straight up to him, after shutting the door, and say, “I wish to say to you that I do not wish to marry Ernest Clifton, because I love quite another man.”

He looked at her curiously for a few moments, then he said, laying down his tumbler:

“What stuff is this? Is it not true that you agreed to listen to Clifton six months ago? Heavens above us! Another man—quite another man! Have you been making a fool of Clifton and—and yourself, and do you now think to make a fool of me?”

“I am ready to admit everything,” she cried plaintively. “I have been a fool, I know. I have behaved badly—with no sense of honour—basely—basely—but I am wretched and I will not marry Ernest Clifton—oh, nothing will force me to marry him.”

“Poor child! poor child! It is quite natural this maidenly shrinking!” said the father smiling like a mulberry. “Bromide of potassium—that will steady you. After all, you are not going to be married tomorrow, nor even the next day. Give yourself a night off, my child. Don’t let your mother rush you. It’s all very well for her. At her age women can do anything; but a girl’s nerves——”

“It is not my nerves—it is—because I love another man—and I mean to love him. I cannot help it—I have tried—God knows—oh, my dear father, you will pity me—you must pity me, no matter how foolish I have been.”

She broke down and would have thrown herself into his arms but that he was too quick for her. At the first suggestion of such a thing, he had picked up his tumbler half full of Apollinaris. That saved him. It was on a big red leather chair that she was sobbing, not on his shirt front.

“Poor child—poor child, poor—bromide,” he murmured. “Tell me all about it, my Josephine—my little Josephine. I have had a busy night of it but I can give five minutes to the troubles of my little girl.”

He flattered himself that he was acting the part of the father to a quaver. He half believed that she would accept his representation of an honourable character without misgiving. What could she know of the terms of the contract which he had made—in the most delicate way, no word being used on either side to which exception could be taken by a sensitive person—with Ernest Clifton, respecting the feeling of the ticklish constituency of Arbroath Burghs?

She lost some precious moments of the night in sobbing. But though her father did not know very much about women he knew enough to cause him to refrain from asking her to come to the point upon which she was anxious to talk to him. Upstairs the door of the Lady Gwendolen’s dressing-room banged.

“Poor little Josey!” said the father smoothing her hair. He felt that he really would miss her when Clifton had married her and he had got his seat in the Cabinet.

She looked up.

“I know I have been a fool, my dear father,” she said. “But I love another man—not Mr. Clifton, and I will not marry Mr. Clifton.”

“That is nonsense, my dear,” said he in a pleasant, soothing tone—the tone that suggests a large toleration for human weaknesses, especially those of a girl, because so few of them are worth talking about. “You must not worry yourself, my dear. You will have worries enough when you are married, if I know anything about what marriage means. Now take my advice and have a good dose of bromide and get into bed. Don’t get up early. Had you a touch of the sun when you were up the river?”

“He will not listen to me! He treats me as if I were a child—a sick child!” cried Josephine piteously.

The reproach annoyed him.

“You are behaving as such,” he said. “I am anxious to make every allowance for you, but when you talk in this wild fashion—why did you not stop me yesterday when I told you that I had given my consent to your engagement?”

“I did not know what to say—I was overcome with surprise.”

“Do you mean to tell me that he—Clifton—left you the last time he was with you before you went up the river, under the impression that you and he were no longer engaged?”

“I cannot say what his impression was—I asked him to release me on that very day.”

“What reason did you put forward for making such a request?”

“I said that—that I felt that I was doing wrong in remaining engaged to him in secret—without your consent.”

“You were quite right. But you see I have removed the cause—the legitimate cause of your self-reproach. The consequence is that you are engaged to him, if I know anything of logic and reason.”

“Oh, logic and reason! I am only a woman, God help me!”

“My dear girl, to be a woman is to be a very charming thing, if a bit unreasonable at times. You are the slaves to your nerves. And these days—what does the poet say? ‘It was the time of roses’—ah, neurosis, he would have written to-day—‘and we plucked them as we passed.’”

She had risen.

“I am going to bed,” she said. “Good-night.”

“You couldn’t do better, my dear. Good-night and God bless you! Don’t neglect the bro—by the way, I should perhaps mention to you that even if I were inclined to accept your protest now it would be too late—I should be powerless to do anything, for the announcement is already gone to the papers.”

“What—you have sent it to the papers?”

“Of course I have—that is to say, Clare has sent it.” (Julian Clare was Mr. West’s private secretary.) “It was necessary for it to appear without delay. It will increase the interest in your father—there is always a sort of reflected glory upon the father of a beautiful girl who is about to be married. We cannot fly in the face of Providence and the papers at the present moment. The present moment is critical for the house of West.”

“You are going into the Cabinet,” she said. “That represents the highest height of your ambition.”

“It is one of the peaks, at any rate,” said he smiling. “It is high enough for me. Those who cannot get to the summit of Mont Blanc must be content with the humble Monte Rosa. And feeling that your future, my child, is assured, I shall be the more content, if—ah, you are quite right. Good-night—good-night.”

She went upstairs feeling that the fight with Fate was over. What would be the use of struggling any longer against what was plainly the decree of Fate? Fate is a tough antagonist at any time, but when Fate and the newspapers are pulling together——

She went to bed without saying her prayers.

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