"The fellow wants to marry you," he roared.
"And I want to marry him," answered Lucy, with much spirit.
And then there were kisses and tears and embraces among all three of them.
"It is a far cry to England," said Colonel Armytage, "and I had always hoped you would marry some rising young lawyer in Bardstown."
Mrs. Armytage hinted that it might be a marriage of ambition for Sir Percy, who would naturally wish to be allied to a man of such eminent perfections as Colonel Armytage. At eleven o'clock Sir Percy walked into Colonel Armytage's room. His manner was so manly and so debonair, even in his imminent circumstances, that Colonel Armytage could not but compare him mentally with those Kentucky thoroughbreds who are models of decorum in the stable, on the race track and wherever they are seen. Sir Percy told his story and then waited for Colonel Armytage's decision.
"My dear sir," said Colonel Armytage, after a moment, "I appreciate the respectful attitude you take towards me, but, to tell you the truth, these matters are in the hands of our young people entirely. It is the part of parents--and Mrs. Armytage and I stand in that relation to our niece--to advise and take precautions, but not to coerce. However," he continued, smiling, and showing fine white teeth between his grey moustache and beard, "I don't think there is any coercion in this case."
"I believe not," said Sir Percy, with an answering smile, "these things are somewhat differently managed in the States than with us, but the result is the same. Miss Armytage is doing me the honour of marrying me without the consideration of certain matters which must be mentioned between you and me. As regards settlements, I shall be as liberal as I possibly can, but I must frankly tell you that my fortune is modest. All of it, however, shall be settled upon the future Lady Carlyon and her children."
"I beg to differ with you there," promptly replied Colonel Armytage. "I think children are not to be considered in these matters: I don't believe in putting a woman in the power of her children. Every penny I have is settled upon my wife, and she is my sole executrix, without bond. That is what I require of any man who marries my niece, and also that he insures his life for her benefit, and that her money--for my niece has some money of her own--shall be settled upon her irrevocably."
Sir Percy Carlyon longed both to laugh and to swear, but he controlled his inclinations and said calmly:
"I fully appreciate your point of view, but you must remember certain obligations which we, in England, acknowledge to our successors. My baronetcy will descend to my eldest son, if I be blessed with a son, and there are moral obligations in such a case to give a child something to maintain the rank to which he is born. With regard to the future Lady Carlyon--what is hers I desire to remain hers. If I were a richer man, I think I could convince you of my disinterestedness."
Colonel Armytage, like Lucy, had a mind open to conviction, and, after considering this speech for a moment or two, acknowledged that Sir Percy was right. Thus the dangerous question of settlements was got over without friction. After a few minutes more of conversation, Sir Percy asked to see Mrs. Armytage. That excellent woman, in bestowing her approval upon his suit, told him earnestly that to be related by marriage to such a man as Colonel Armytage was in itself a high privilege and carried a special blessing with it. Sir Percy inwardly agreed with this. He was glad that his future wife was brought up in the atmosphere of love and kindliness, which surrounded the Armytages. He had a rapturous half-hour alone with Lucy, and then went away feeling that the gates of paradise had been opened before him.
In order to escape comment, it had been arranged that Sir Percy's visits should be on one or two evenings in the week, when he would not be likely to meet any of his acquaintances as he passed in and out of the hotel, or might be supposed to be going to see a man. Evening visits, although long since abandoned by the smart set, still prevail among the old-fashioned people and the Congressional circle, in which were most of the Armytages' acquaintances. Never had Sir Percy imagined that such delicious hours in life awaited him as those he spent during the next fortnight in the Armytages' little sitting-room. Colonel and Mrs. Armytage, according to the Bardstown custom, felt it their duty to leave their modest sitting-room entirely to the lovers; but Lucy, who was making a close study of Sir Percy Carlyon's class prejudices, insisted that Mrs. Armytage should remain. Mrs. Armytage, feeling guilty, would establish herself with her knitting before the fire and dutifully fall asleep within ten minutes of Sir Percy's arrival. The lovers, sitting in an embrasure of a window and looking down upon a quiet side street, were almost as much alone as they had been in the winter woods, on that February afternoon, when they had first known each other's hearts. Sir Percy had a satisfaction which is often denied lovers--the satisfaction of seeing his fianc�e adapting herself with grace and intelligence to his tastes and wishes. Lucy Armytage was far too clever to have that deadly obstinacy which is the bane of provincials, and which makes them carry their Bardstowns into every company and association in which they may find themselves.
It occurred to Sir Percy, a very short time after his engagement, that the sacrifices which he was prepared to make for the sake of marrying the woman he loved might not be so great after all. Whenever he saw Lucy he found that she had learned something. She had picked up a new phrase, or abandoned an old one which was not in perfect taste; she had learned to curb her wit and to be on her guard against those indiscreet words and actions which are harmless enough in a young girl, but highly dangerous in the wife of a diplomat. Sir Percy had begun to believe all he heard of the adaptability of the American woman after studying Lucy Armytage, and he saw, with profound pride, that Lucy was forming herself to be his wife. One thing only troubled him: should he confess to her then, or after their marriage, the story of Alicia Vernon? It was a difficult thing to tell to a girl so young as Lucy Armytage, and so guileless, and so little familiar with wickedness. If penitence could avail, then he had atoned for that early wrongdoing. He concluded it would be kinder for him to wait until after their marriage, when he could tell her the whole painful story.
One afternoon, three weeks after Lucy Armytage had promised to become Lady Carlyon, a letter was delivered at the British Embassy for Sir Percy Carlyon. One look at the clear, strong handwriting made him turn pale--it was Alicia Vernon's hand and the postmark was Washington. He thrust the letter into his pocket and, declining Lord Baudesert's suggestion to come in to tea, went back to his own chambers. With hatred and repugnance pulsating all through him, he opened the letter and read it. The date was of that day, and it was written from a fashionable uptown hotel.
"We arrived yesterday, my father and I. It was quite unexpected, for Washington has always seemed as far away to me and as unreal as Bagdad, but here we are. We shall call at the Embassy in a day or two, and meanwhile my father asks me to say that we shall be at home at five o'clock every day, and he hopes to see you soon.
How like the letter was to Alicia Vernon! Apparently so conventional, so frankly friendly, and yet how different was she to all of this! Sir Percy Carlyon had reached that age and stage of life when he was sceptical of reformations. One thing was certain, General Talbott's presence ensured Alicia Vernon's entr�e to the British Embassy, and that she and Sir Percy would be much thrown together. At this, rage and shame possessed him. He saw at a glance the grim possibilities of the case, and they were enough to stagger a strong man. He examined the letter before him as it lay upon his study table, and it seemed to bring contamination with it. His sin and the shame had tracked him over the world, and were now seated, hideous spectres that they were, on each side of him. He had repented and had atoned as far as he could, for the sin of his youth.
He rose and, throwing his arms wide, despaired in his heart, and then asked pardon of that Higher Power to which his soul aspired. The thought of Lucy came to him like a lash upon an open wound. Then his mood grew dogged and a kind of fatalism possessed his mind. If it were written that Alicia Vernon should be avenged upon him, then it was written, and struggle were useless. If only he had not told Lucy Armytage of his love! She, poor child, might be dragged into the degradation which awaited him! He remembered that he was to go to see Lucy that evening after dinner. The joy he felt at the thought of being with her was poisoned by the black shadow of Alicia Vernon's presence in Washington. He had to pass the hotel where she and General Talbott were lodged on his way to his club for dinner, and the place which held Alicia seemed odious to him. And General Talbott, too; of all living men he was the man whom Sir Percy should most wish to meet and to serve; but among the keenest pangs of his punishment were the shame and unworthiness he felt in General Talbott's presence.
Sir Percy had some thought of excusing himself from his semi-weekly visit to Lucy on that evening, but, doggedness still possessing him, he went, thinking to himself, at any moment the explosion might come, any meeting might be their last, therefore would he have as many as possible. He had not reached his present position without acquiring perfect mastery over his manner, his voice and his countenance, and Lucy had no suspicion that he was not entirely at his ease when he entered the Armytages' sitting-room.
Never had he seen Lucy more charming than when she came forward to meet him. She was full of the lessons in languages she was taking, especially in rubbing up her superficial knowledge of French. She had got a French newspaper, and read with admirable accent some editorials in which Sir Percy was interested. Mrs. Armytage went sound asleep as usual, and the lovers could talk with a sweet unrestraint. Heretofore it was Sir Percy who had risen promptly on the stroke of ten, but to-night it was a quarter past before he stirred, and Lucy then forced him away. He returned to his chambers accompanied by the ghost of his wrong-doing, and the black dog who kept watch over him prevented him from sleeping all night long.
The next afternoon at five o'clock Sir Percy Carlyon was ushered into General Talbott's and Alicia Vernon's charming little drawing-room at the hotel. As he came in, General Talbott met him with both hands outstretched. Sir Percy realised, as he always did in General Talbott's presence, that here was a man of no common mould. He was small, bald and low-voiced, but in distinction of bearing and manner there were few men superior to General Talbott. This distinction also belonged to Alicia Vernon, and Sir Percy could not but recognise it as she rose and advanced towards him and gave him her hand. She was quite forty, and showed it. Like most women of her exquisite blonde type, each year left a visible mark. Her chestnut hair had lost much of its lustre, and her fine white skin had little marks and lines in it, like a crumpled roseleaf. She had not the freshness and naturalness which Sir Percy Carlyon reckoned the chief charm of the American women. Alicia Vernon was the product of an old civilisation, and showed it; but her tall and stately figure retained all its symmetry, and her eyes and her voice and her smile--ah, they were matchless still! Her voice, low, soft and clear, had a melancholy sweetness and power of expression that Sir Percy Carlyon had never known in any woman's voice but hers, and her eyes, the colour of the violets, had in them a depth of fire, and flickering shadows like the heart of an opal. Everything about her was individual and distinctive. Sir Percy was not much versed in the details of a woman's dress, but he felt, rather than knew, the beauty of the sweeping, pale blue draperies which undulated about Alicia Vernon, and the seductive perfume which exhaled from everything which she wore and used. Hers was the charm of the Shulamite.
In meeting Sir Percy her manner and tone were perfectly calm, friendly and composed. Towards her father she was always perfect; and his air of tender, chivalrous protection was touching and beautiful.
The three sat around the fire and talked intimately, as friends do after a long absence. Mrs. Vernon offered Sir Percy a cup of tea, and even handed it to him with her own hands sparkling with gems, but he declined it. If it had been in Italy during the time of the Borgias he would have hesitated to drink any cup offered him by Alicia Vernon. She said little, leaving the conversation chiefly to her father and Sir Percy. As they talked she sat in a large chair, her head half turned towards Sir Percy and holding between the fire and her face an antique fan painted by Greuze. She had been a slip of a girl when her lips had sought Sir Percy's, and had shown him, in triumph, her long, bright hair; but in some things she was unchanged, and Sir Percy felt that a stripling of to-day, such as he had been in the old days, would not be safe with Mrs. Vernon. While they were talking Lord Baudesert's card was brought to General Talbott. On it was scrawled:
"My first chance to take the air. Gout has me by the leg, so come down and drive with me for an hour."
General Talbott rose at once. Sir Percy had no excuse to leave at the same time and remained perforce.
When the door was shut on General Talbott Sir Percy Carlyon's face changed into the hardness of a flint, and he sat silent waiting to see what position Mrs. Vernon would take with him. She too remained silent for a while, fixing upon him two wells of violet light. The setting sun streamed through a western window upon Sir Percy's face, and she studied it carefully. No; he was not handsome even as a young man, and at thirty-eight his moustache was growing grey and his hair scanty, and there were crow's feet in the corners of his eyes. But what did that matter to her? He was the most considerable man upon whom she had ever tried her power.
"After all," she said presently, her low voice filling the room as a trained singer's softest note is heard at the Paris Opera, "I was right even in my youth, and knew that before you was a great destiny. You are to be the next Ambassador here."
"How did you know that?" asked Sir Percy.
"Partly by observation and partly by a clever guess. I have been staying in the same house with the Prime Minister, and quite naturally we spoke of you. I told him that we were old friends."
As she said the last two words Sir Percy Carlyon turned away his head and a dull flush dyed his sunburnt face.
"However, those are matters really of prescience. I was very young when we loved, but even then I knew that some day you would be a great, if not a famous, man."
"I am neither," responded Sir Percy, taking refuge in commonplace.
Then there was silence again for a time. The firelight played over Mrs. Vernon's face and figure and the masses of pale blue draperies, and over the tip of her pale blue slippers, upon which stones sparkled. Her eyes were fixed upon Sir Percy, and, raising herself in her chair, she leaned over towards him and said calmly:
"Guy Vernon, you know, has been dead more than a year."
Sir Percy knew what she meant--that she was now free.
"I had not heard it," he replied with equal calmness. "I hope that your latter days with him were happier than the earlier ones."
"I had not seen or spoken with him for several years. We had much unhappiness together. If I had been happily married----"
She broke off suddenly and then continued after a while:
"It would be hypocritical for me to express any grief at Guy Vernon's death, and, whatever I am, I am not a hypocrite--except to my father. I love him, for I can love, and he is the one person I really fear--except you."
As she spoke she leaned forward again, and, closing her fan, almost laid the tip of it upon Sir Percy's hand, outstretched on the arm of his chair. In another instant it would have been a caress, but Sir Percy coolly moved his hand and Mrs. Vernon quickly withdrew the fan.
"General Talbott is a man very much to be feared as well as loved," was his answer. "Whenever the memory comes to me of what I owe him and how I repaid him I feel like shooting myself."
"But we were very happy in that time," murmured Alicia, leaning back and letting her hands fall in her lap as she watched the fire.
Sir Percy rose and Alicia Vernon rose too.
"You know very well," she said, showing some agitation, "why I came here. I wanted to see you. I am a fool, of course--every woman is about some man. I have tried to forget you, I have been trying to do that for twelve years, but I have not yet succeeded. Do you remember those tragic stories of the Middle Ages, when a woman who loved a man would dress herself as a page and follow him to the Crusades? Such are the women who knew how to love; not those conventional creatures who sit by the fire and to whom one man is the same as another."
As she spoke her eyes filled and two large bright tears dropped upon her cheeks, and she pressed her handkerchief to her eyes with a trembling hand. Sir Percy had meant to be stern with her, but no man, if he be a man, can be stern to a woman in tears. He remained silent for a minute or two, moved, in spite of himself, at Alicia Vernon's emotion.
"Alicia," he said, and then paused. It was the first time he had called her by her name for years, and as he spoke her eyes lighted up and a sad smile played about her mouth. "I, least of all human beings, can reproach you. I am willing to take upon myself all the guilt, all the shame, of that bygone time, but it was guilt and shame, and let us not deceive ourselves."
"Was it guilt and shame?" she asked in her thrilling voice. "Was it rather not fate? I was married at twenty to a worthless wretch. I was formed to love and be loved, and I found myself tied to a creature like Guy Vernon. Then I met in you the man for whom I was meant and I came into my own. At least I was disinterested, for then you were both poor and obscure. I never had one regret for anything that happened. Do you suppose that Marguerite Gautier regretted, even when she was dying, that she had loved Armand? I always go, when I can, to hear that opera, La Vie de Boh�me. Mimi's death is really a triumph of love. Let me tell you this: no woman who ever loved ever regretted it. If she regretted it she did not love. Men feel and act differently about these things. You know you loved me once and you have seemed to hate me ever since, but love will prevail--it will yet prevail."
It was a piteous sight to see her with clasped hands and the glory of an undying hope in her eyes and voice. To make her believe that the end had come long since between Sir Percy Carlyon and herself was like fighting a shadow. The resolve took possession of Sir Percy to tell her of Lucy Armytage, and then she might realise the inevitable.
"We will speak no more of the past," he said, "and I will tell you what has happened in the present. I have met a woman whom I truly love, and she has promised to marry me."
Alicia Vernon turned deathly pale, and stood looking at him with eyes like those of Dido when she saw �neas sail away from her. She walked steadily to the window and looked with unseeing eyes at the glory of red and gold in which the sun was sinking. Sir Percy Carlyon, standing where she had left him, had to battle with his common-sense. Reason told him that he had done this woman no injury--rather she had injured him--and although Alicia Vernon's protestation of love for him carried with it conviction of truth, it had not kept her in the straight path. Nevertheless he felt as if he had struck her a physical blow. Presently she came from the window towards the fire, and said to Sir Percy what any woman of forty would say:
"The girl you love is young?"
"That is the way of the world," cried Alicia--"youth is everything. What is it Fran�ois Copp�e says? 'There is nothing for women but a little love when they are young.' I ask, however, one thing of you. You can scarcely refuse it." Sir Percy remained silent. He did not refuse it, but he was too much on his guard to promise it. "Only this, let me see this woman whom you prefer to me. You think it childish? Very well; all women have something of the child in them."
Sir Percy went towards the door, and his face, already dark and flushed, grew still darker. Alicia came up to him and said with pleading in her voice:
"You can't suppose that I would let her suspect anything? I think I have shown that I know how to keep the secrets of my life. I would hardly be so foolish as to betray myself to this girl who has succeeded where I have failed."
Then came one of the most exquisitely painful moments of Sir Percy Carlyon's life. The thought of bringing Lucy Armytage into the same room with Alicia Vernon filled him with rage and shame. Rather than see Lucy Armytage become what Alicia Vernon was he would have killed her with his own hand. Something of this dawned upon Alicia's mind as she looked at him. It flashed from her eyes and burst into words.
"It is the old story. You are worthy to marry her, but I am not worthy to speak to her. Oh, what a world it is!"
"'It is the old story. You are worthy to marry her, but I am not worthy to speak to her'"
"It is the world which has made that law, not I," responded Sir Percy. "Don't think that I reckon myself worthy to marry this woman whom I love--I only hope to make myself a little less unworthy. Ever since the world was made it has demanded more of women than of men."
"That law sounds well when it is enforced by you against me. Good-bye," was Alicia's response.
Sir Percy Carlyon went out into the cool March air, which steadied his much-shaken nerves. He had refused to bring about a meeting between Alicia Vernon and Lucy Armytage, and with masculine directness made not the slightest secret to himself why he did it. Yet he was not without shame at the part he had played in the matter.
It was early for his walk, as the spring afternoons were growing longer. He struck out toward the northwest and walked for an hour. As he was returning he reached the top of the hill, where the paved streets began, when Lord Baudesert's carriage with its high-stepping bays overtook him. Lord Baudesert called out of the window, and in another minute Sir Percy was sitting in the carriage opposite Lord Baudesert and General Talbott.
"It is rather pleasant," said Lord Baudesert, "to come across a countryman once in a while, and not to be always considering American susceptibilities. Talbott, here, is delighted with the country as far as he has got. I told him it is the most interesting, as it certainly is the most complex, of all nations and societies." Lord Baudesert leaned back in the carriage and settled himself comfortably to talk upon that agreeable subject, his own affairs. "The Ambassadors at Paris and Berlin and other European capitals have an easy berth compared with mine. I can walk in and talk with the President and arrange affairs to our mutual satisfaction. It might be supposed that I had accomplished something, as it would be in any Chancellery of Europe, but not here, if you please. At the next Cabinet meeting the Secretary of State may say that it is all a stupid blunder on the part of the President, or the Attorney-General may put in his oar, and all goes to smash. Then, if it gets as far as the approval of the Secretary of State, and the permission of the Attorney-General, as soon as it is done up in official form, it goes to the Senate. The Senate likes to lay the Secretary of State by the heels and the British Ambassador on top of him; and that is where our carefully studied arrangements generally land. The House of Representatives, too, can generally find a peg on which to hang some objection, and, if there is any money involved, we can't turn a wheel without the help of the House. That is diplomacy in America."
"How do you get anything done, then?" said General Talbott.
"There are ways, my dear Talbott. The Speaker of the House is a useful man to have as a friend, and there are, besides, a few men in the Senate who can deny themselves the joy of tripping up an Ambassador. One of them I particularly desire you to meet--Senator March. He stands high with the administration, and with everybody, in fact. He is an uncommonly able man, and has a candour and fairness which disarms opposition. I should not venture to call him absolutely the most gifted man in the Senate, or the most profound lawyer, or the most brilliant speaker, but, take him altogether, I consider him the strongest man in public life in Washington to-day. You will meet him when you dine at the Embassy next week. I will send a card in due form to yourself and Mrs. Vernon. I think I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter once before her marriage?"
"That marriage turned out most unfortunately for my poor child," replied General Talbott, with the peculiar tenderness in his voice with which he always spoke of Alicia. "Guy Vernon had a large fortune, but he was a scapegrace inborn. My daughter was young, innocent, and had never had the command of money, so you may imagine she made some mistakes, but she was most cruelly treated; that I found out after her patience could no longer stand her husband's unkindness. Vernon died more than a year ago, after having lived long enough to ruin the life of my only child."
Sir Percy Carlyon, sitting with his back to the horses, listened with an impassive face to General Talbott's words.
"Mrs. Vernon had her settlements, had she not?" asked Lord Baudesert.
"Yes. But she and Vernon between them managed to get some of the provisions of that arrangement set aside, and spent a great part of the money which was supposed would be a provision for my daughter in the event of Vernon's death. Luckily, there were no children. I shouldn't care to have a grandchild with Guy Vernon's blood in him. My daughter is an angel. Pardon a father's pride."
"She looked an angel," replied Lord Baudesert, "when I saw her in the first bloom of her beauty."
Sir Percy Carlyon, listening to this, reflected that his shrift would be short if General Talbott knew what had happened twelve years before.
Lord Baudesert dropped General Talbott at his hotel, then drove back with Sir Percy to the Embassy, where Sir Percy joined the family circle at dinner. When the ladies left the table and the uncle and nephew were alone was Lord Baudesert's favourite time for exchanging confidences with Sir Percy. To-night he chose the subject of General Talbott and his daughter.
"While I have not seen Talbott's daughter for many years, I remember well what a beautiful and captivating young girl she was, but it seems to me that I have heard rumours--eh? Bad marriage, worthless husband, and gay wife. Do you know anything about it?"
Sir Percy then calmly and deliberately proceeded to lie like a gentleman.
"Nothing except what the world knows. I saw a great deal of Mrs. Vernon twelve years ago when I was in India. As you see, General Talbott is a most devoted father and Mrs. Vernon a most affectionate daughter. She was virtually separated from Vernon when I f