When Lord Earlscourt was at home the only two topics that were debarred from the dinner table were religion and politics; but when Lord Earlscourt was absent these were the only two topics admitted at the dinner table. Lady Earlscourt had views, well-defined, clearly outlined, on both religion and politics, and she greatly regretted that there still remained some people in the world who held other views on both subjects; it was very sad—for them; and she felt that it was clearly her duty to endeavor by all the legitimate means in her power—say, dinner parties for eight—to reduce the number of these persons. It was rumored that in the country she had shown herself ready to effect her excellent object by illegitimate means—say, jelly and flannel petticoats—as well.

She wore distinctly evangelical boots, though, in the absence of her husband, she had expressed her willingness to discuss the advantages of the confessional. She had, however, declined, in the presence of her husband, to entertain the dogma of infallibility: though she admitted that the cardinals were showy; she would have liked one about her house, say, as a footman. She thought there was a great deal in Buddhism (she had read “The Light of Asia” nearly through), and she believed that the Rev. George Holland had been badly treated by Phyllis Ayrton. She admitted having been young once—only once; but no one seemed to remember it against her, so she was obliged to talk about it herself, which she did with the lightness of a serious woman of thirty-two. When a man had assured her that she was still handsome, she had shaken her head deprecatingly, and had ignored his existence ever after. She had her doubts regarding the justice of eternal punishment for temporary lapses in the West End, but she sympathized with the missionary who said: “Thank God we have still got our hell in the East End.” She knew that all men are alike in the sight of Heaven, but she thought that the licensing justices should be more particular.

She believed that there were some good men.

She had more than once talked seriously to Phyllis on the subject of George Holland. Of course, George Holland had been indiscreet; the views expressed in his book had shocked his best friends, but think how famous that book had made him, in spite of the publication of Mr. Courtland’s “Quest of the Meteor-Bird.” Was Phyllis not acting unkindly, not to say indiscreetly, in throwing over a man who, it was rumored, was about to start a new religion? She herself, Lady Earlscourt admitted, had been very angry with George Holland for writing something that the newspapers found it to their advantage to abuse so heartily; and Lord Earlscourt, being a singularly sensitive man, had been greatly worried by the comments which had been passed upon his discrimination in intrusting to a clergyman who could bring himself to write “Revised Versions” a cure of such important souls as were to be found at St. Chad’s. He had, in fact, been so harassed—he was a singularly sensitive man—that he had found it absolutely necessary to run across to Paris from time to time for a change of scene. (This was perfectly true. Lord Earlscourt had gone more than once to Paris for a change of scene, and had found it; Lady Earlscourt was thirty-two, and wore evangelical boots.) But, of course, since George Holland’s enterprise had turned out so well socially, people who entertained could not be hard on him. There was the new religion to be counted upon. It was just as likely as not that he would actually start a new religion, and you can’t be hard upon a man who starts a new religion. There was Buddha, for instance,—that was a long time ago, to be sure; but still there he was, the most important factor to be considered in attempting to solve the great question of the reconcilement of the religions of the East,—Buddha, and Wesley, and Edward Irving, and Confucius, and General Booth; if you took them all seriously where would you be?

“Oh, no, my dear Phyllis!” continued Lady Earlscourt; “you must not persist in your ill-treatment of Mr. Holland. If you do he may marry someone else.”

Phyllis shook her head.

“I hope he will, indeed,” said she. “He certainly will never marry me.”

“Do not be obdurate,” said Lady Earlscourt. “He may not really believe in all that he put into that book.”

“Then there is no excuse for his publishing it,” said Phyllis promptly.

“But if he doesn’t actually hold the views which he has formulated in that book, you cannot consistently reject him on the plea that he is not quite—well, not quite what you and I call orthodox.”

This contention was too plain to be combated by the girl. She did not for a moment see her way out of the amazing logic of the lady. Quite a minute had passed before she said:

“If he propounds such views without having a firm conviction that they are true, he has acted a contemptible part, Lady Earlscourt. I think far too highly of him to entertain for a single moment the idea that he is not sincere.”

“But if you believe that he is sincere, why should you say that you will not marry him?”

“I would not marry an atheist, however sincere he might be.”

“An atheist! But Mr. Holland is not an atheist; on the contrary, he actually believes that there are two Gods; one worshiped of the Jews long ago, the other by us nowadays. An atheist! Oh, no!”

“I’m afraid that I can’t explain to you, dear Lady Earlscourt.”

Once more Phyllis shook her head with some degree of sadness. She felt that it would indeed be impossible for her to explain to this lady of logic that she believed the truth to be a horizon line, and that any opinion which was a little above this line was as abhorrent as any that was a little below it.

“If you are stubborn, God may marry you to a Dissenter yet,” said Lady Earlscourt solemnly.

Phyllis smiled and shook her head again.

“Oh, you needn’t shake your head, my dear,” resumed Lady Earlscourt. “I’ve known of such judgments falling on girls before now—yes, when the Dissenters were well off. But no Dissenter rides straight to hounds.”

Phyllis laughed.

“More logic,” she said, and shook hands with her friend.

“That girl has another man in her eye,” said her friend sagaciously, when Phyllis had left her opposite her own tea-table. “But I don’t despair; if we can only persuade our bishop to prosecute George Holland, she may return to him all right.”

She invariably referred to the bishop as if he were a member of the Earlscourt household; but it was understood that the bishop had never actually accepted the responsibilities incidental to such a position; though he had his views on the subject of Lady Earlscourt’s cook.

This interview had taken place a week before the dinner party for which Phyllis was carefully dressed by her maid Fidele while Herbert Courtland was walking away from the house. In spite of her logic, Lady Earlscourt now and again stumbled across the truth. When it occurred to her that Phyllis had another man in her eye,—the phrase was Lady Earlscourt’s and it served very well to express her meaning,—she had made some careful inquiries on the subject of the girl’s male visitors, and she had, of course, found out that no other man occupied that enviable position; no social oculist would be required to remove the element which, in Lady Earlscourt’s estimation, caused Phyllis’ vision to be distorted.

George Holland was at the dinner. Phyllis had been asked very quietly by the hostess if she would mind being taken in by George Holland; if she had the least feeling on the matter, Sir Lionel Greatorex would not mind taking her instead of Mrs. Vernon-Brooke. But Phyllis had said that of course she would be delighted to sit beside Mr. Holland. Mr. Holland was one of her best friends.

“Is his case so hopeless as that?” said Lady Earlscourt, in a low voice, and Phyllis smiled in response—the smile of the guest when the hostess had made a point.

When Lady Earlscourt had indiscreetly, but confidentially, explained to some of her guests the previous week that she meant her little dinner party to be the means of reuniting Mr. Holland and Miss Ayrton, one of them—he was a man—smiled and said, when she had gone away, that she was a singularly unobservant woman, or she would have known that the best way of bringing two people together is to keep them as much apart as possible. There was wisdom in the paradox, he declared; for everyone should know that it was only when a man and a woman were far apart that they came to appreciate each other.

It seemed, indeed, that there was some truth in what that man said, for Phyllis, before the ice pudding appeared, had come to the conclusion that George Holland was a very uninteresting sort of man. To be sure, he had not talked about himself,—he was not such a fool as to do that: he had talked about her to the exclusion of almost every other topic—he had been wise enough to do that,—but in spite of all, he had not succeeded in arousing her interest. He had not succeeded in making her think of the present when her thoughts had been dwelling on the past—not the distant past, not the past of two months ago, when they had been lovers, but the past of two hours ago, when she had watched the effect of her words upon Herbert Courtland.

She chatted away to George Holland very pleasantly—as pleasantly as usual—so pleasantly as to cause some of her fellow-guests to smile and whisper significantly to one another, suggesting the impossibility of two persons who got on so well together as Mr. Holland and Miss Ayrton being separated by a barrier so paltry as an engagement broken off by the young woman for conscience’ sake.

But when the significant smiles of these persons were forced upon the notice of their hostess, she did not smile; she was a lady with a really remarkable lack of knowledge; but she knew better than to accept the pleasant chat of George Holland and Phyllis Ayrton as an indication that the status quo ante bellum—to make use of the expressive phrase of diplomacy—had been re-established between them.

Only when George Holland ventured to express his admiration of Mr. Ayrton’s adroitness in dealing with the foolish question of the gentleman from Wales did he succeed in interesting Miss Ayrton.

“What a very foolish letter those missionaries sent home regarding the explorations of Mr. Courtland!” said he. “Did they hope to jeopardize the popularity of Mr. Courtland by suggesting that he had massacred a number of cannibals?”

“I suppose that was their object,” said Phyllis.

“They must be singularly foolish persons, even for missionaries,” said the Rev. George Holland.

“Even for missionaries?” Phyllis repeated. “Oh, I forgot that you are no believer in the advantages of missions to the people whom we call heathen. But I have not been able to bring myself to agree with you there. They have souls to be saved.”

“That is quite likely,” said he. “But the methods of the missionaries, generally speaking, have not tended in that direction. Hence the missionary as a comestible is more highly esteemed by the natives than the missionary as a reformer. They rarely understand the natives themselves, and they nearly always fail to make themselves intelligible to the natives. It would appear that the two foolish persons who wrote that letter about Mr. Courtland made but a poor attempt at understanding even their own countrymen, if they fancied that any rumor of a massacre of cannibals—nay, any proof of such a massacre—would have an appreciable effect upon the popularity of the man who brought home the meteor-bird.”

“You don’t think that the public generally would believe the story?” said Phyllis.

“I think it extremely unlikely that they would believe it,” he replied. “But even if they believed every word of it they would not cease to believe in Mr. Courtland’s bravery. What is a hecatomb of cannibals compared to the discovery of the meteor-bird,—that is, in the eyes of the general public, or for that matter, the Nonconformist public who turn up their eyes at the suggestion of a massacre of natives of an island that is almost as unknown to them as Ireland itself? The people of this country of ours respect bravery more than any other virtue, and I’m not altogether sure that they are generally astray in this matter. The Christian faith is founded upon bravery, and the same faith has inspired countless acts of brave men and women. Oh, no! Mr. Courtland will not suffer from the attacks of these foolish persons.”

“I saw him this—a short time ago,” said Phyllis, “and he told me that his publishers were delighted at the result of the agitation which that newspaper tried to get up against him: they said it was selling his book.”

“I saw you talking with Mr. Courtland after the first production of ‘Cagliostro.’ I envied you—and him,” said Mr. Holland. “I wonder if he was really placed in the unfortunate position of having to massacre a horde of cannibals.”

Phyllis laughed, and forthwith told him the truth as it had been communicated to her regarding the dynamite outrage upon the unsuspecting natives, and George Holland was greatly amused at the story—much more highly amused, it would have occurred to some persons, than a clergyman should be at such a recital. But then George Holland was not as other clergymen. He was quite devoid of the affectations of his cloth. He did not consider it necessary to put the tips of his fingers together and show more of the white portion of the pupil of his eye than a straight-forward gaze entailed, when people talked of the overflowing of a river in China and the consequent drowning of a quarter of a million of men—that is to say, Chinamen. He was no more affected by such tidings than the Emperor of China. He was infinitely more affected when he read of the cold-blooded massacre by David, sometime King of Israel, in order to purchase for himself a woman for whom he had conceived a liking. He knew that the majority of clergymen considered it to be their duty to preach funeral service over the drowned Chinamen, and to impress upon their hearers that David was a man after God’s own heart. He also knew that the majority of clergymen preached annual sermons in aid of the missionaries who did some yachting in the South Seas, and had brought into existence the sin of nakedness among the natives, in order that they might be the more easily swindled by those Christians who sold them shoddy for calico, to purge them of their sin. George Holland could not see his way to follow the example of his brethren in this respect. He did not think that the Day of Judgment would witness the inauguration of any great scheme of eternal punishment for the heathen in his blindness who had been naked all his life without knowing it. He knew that the heathen in his blindness had curiosity enough at his command to inquire of the missionaries if the white beachcomber and his bottle of square-face represented the product of centuries of Christianity, and if they did not, why the missionaries did not evangelize the beachcomber and his bottle off the face of the earth.

Phyllis, being well aware of George Holland’s views, was not shocked at the sound of his laughter at the true story of Mr. Courtland’s dynamite outrage at New Guinea; but all the same, she was glad that she was not going to marry him.

He had not, however, been altogether uninteresting in her eyes while sitting beside her, and that was something to record in his favor.

She drove home early, and running upstairs found herself face to face with Ella Linton.

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