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experience long ago, at high cost; but Theodora was but too well aware of his unsteadiness of purpose and facile temper; and in spite of his resolutions, it was a fearful thing to have seen him in such a place, in such company, and to know that almost against his own desire she had conducted him thither for the gratification of her self-will.
Vainly did she strive to banish the thought, and to reassure herself by his manner. She knew too well what it was wont to be when he had been doing anything of which he was ashamed. One bet, however, was no great mischief in itself. That book which Percy had given to her spoke of 'threads turning to cords, and cords to cables strong.' Had she put the first thread once more into the hand of the Old Evil Habit'?
If she would confess the sin to herself and to her God, with earnest prayer that the ill might be averted, perhaps, even yet, it might be spared to them all.
But the proud spirit declared there was no sin. She had merely been resolute and truthful. So she strengthened herself in her belief in her own blamelessness, and drove down the misgiving to prey on the depths of her soul, and sharpen her temper by secret suffering.
In the morning she accompanied Violet to call on Lady Fotheringham, sullen, proud, and bashful at the sense of undergoing inspection, and resolved against showing her best side, lest she should feel as if she was winning Worthbourne for Percy.
That majestic ill-humour was wasted--Lady Fotheringham was not at home; but Violet left a note begging her to come to luncheon the next day. It passed, and she appeared not: but at twelve on Saturday, Percy's tread hurried up-stairs and entered the back drawing-room, where Theodora was sitting.
Sounds of voices followed--the buzz of expostulation; tones louder and louder--words so distinct that to prevent her anxious ears from listening, Violet began to practise Johnnie in all his cries of birds and beasts.
All at once the other room door was opened, and Theodora's stately march was heard, while one of the folding leaves was thrown back, and there stood Percy.
Before a word could be spoken, he snatched up the child, and held him up in the air to the full reach of his arms. Doubtful whether this was to be regarded as play, Johnnie uttered 'Mamma,' in a grave imploring voice, which, together with her terrified face, recalled Mr. Fotheringham to his senses. With an agitated laugh he placed the boy safely beside her, saying, 'I beg your pardon. What a good little fellow it is!'
Violet asked him to ring for the nurse; and by the time Johnnie had been carried away, he had collected himself sufficiently to try to speak calmly.
'Do her parents know what is going on?' he said. 'I do not speak for my own sake. That is at an end.'
'Oh!' exclaimed Violet.
'I told her I could not be made a fool of any longer, and when she answered "Very well," what could that mean?'
'I am very much grieved that it has come to this,' sighed Violet.
'How could it come to anything else?' he said, his face full of sorrow and severity. 'I was mad to suppose there was any hope for such a temper of pride and stubbornness. Yet,' he added, softening, and his quick, stern eyes filling with tears, 'it is a noble nature,- -high-minded, uncompromising, deeply tender, capable of anything. It has been a cruel wicked thing to ruin all by education. What could come of it? A life of struggle with women who had no notion of an appeal to principle and affection--growing up with nothing worthy of her love and respect--her very generosity becoming a stumbling-block, till her pride and waywardness have come to such an indomitable pitch that they are devouring all that was excellent.'
He paused; Violet, confused and sorrowful, knew not how to answer; and he proceeded, 'I have known her, watched her, loved her from infancy! I never saw one approaching her in fine qualities. I thought, and still think, she needs but one conquest to rise above all other women. I believed guidance and affection would teach her all she needed; and so they would, but it was presumption and folly to think it was I who could inspire them.'
'O, Mr. Fotheringham, indeed--'
'It was absurd to suppose that she who trifles with every one would not do so with me. Yet, even now, I cannot believe her capable of carrying trifling to the extent she has done.'
'She was in earnest,--oh! she was!'
'I would fain think so,' said he, sadly. 'I held to that trust, in spite of the evidence of my senses. I persuaded myself that her manners were the effect of habit--the triumph of one pre-eminent in attraction.'
'That they are! I don't even think she knows what she does.'
'So I believed; I allowed for her pleasure in teasing me. I knew all that would come right. I ascribed her determination to run after that woman to a generous reluctance to desert a friend.'
'Indeed, indeed it is so!'
'But how am I to understand her neglect of my aunt--the one relation whom I have tried to teach her to value--my aunt, who was the comfort of my sister and of her brother--who had suffered enough to give her a claim to every one's veneration! To run away from her to the races, and the society of Mark Gardner and Mrs. Finch! Ay, and what do you think we heard yesterday of her doings there, from Gardner's own mother? That she is giving him decided encouragement! That was the general remark, and on this, poor Mrs. George Gardner is founding hopes of her son settling down and becoming respectable.'
'Oh! how terrible for you to hear! But it cannot be true. It must be mere report. Arthur would have observed if there had been more than her usual manner.'
'A pretty manner to be usual! Besides, Jane Gardner did not deny it.'
'Yes. My aunt called at Mrs. Finch's, but saw neither of them; but this morning, before she went, Miss Gardner called. I did not see her. I was out with Pelham, and my aunt spoke to her about all this matter. She answered very sensibly, regretted her sister's giddy ways, but consoled my aunt a good deal on that score, but--but as to the other, she could not say, but that Mark was a great admirer of-- of Miss Martindale, and much had passed which might be taken for encouragement on Wednesday by any one who did not know how often it was her way!'
'It is a pity that Miss Gardner has had to do with it,' said Violet. 'When I have been talking to her, I always am left with a worse impression of people than they deserve.'
'You never have a bad impression of any one.'
'I think I have of Miss Gardner. I used to like her very much, but lately I am afraid I cannot believe her sincere.'
'You have been taught to see her with Theodora's eyes. Of course, Mrs. Finch despises and contemns prudence and restraint, and the elder sister's advice is thrown aside.'
'You never saw Jane Gardner?'
'Never;--but that is not the point here. I am not acting on Jane Gardner's report. I should never trouble myself to be jealous of such a scoundrel as Mark. I am not imagining that there is any fear of her accepting him. Though, if such a notion once possessed her, nothing would hinder her from rushing on inevitable misery.'
'Oh, there is no danger of that.'
'I trust not. It would be too frightful! However, I can look on her henceforth only as John's sister, as my little playmate, as one in whom hopes of untold happiness were bound up.' He struggled with strong emotion, but recovering, said, 'It is over! The reason we part is independent of any Gardner. She would not bear with what I thought it my duty to say. It is plain I was completely mistaken in thinking we could go through life together. Even if there was reason to suppose her attached to me, it would be wrong to put myself in collision with such a temper. I told her so, and there is an end of the matter.'
'It is very, very sad,' said Violet, mournfully.
'You don't think I have used her ill.'
'Oh, no! You have borne a great deal. You could do no otherwise; but Arthur and John will be very much vexed.'
'It is well that it is known to so few. Let it be understood by such as are aware of what has been, that I bear the onus of the rupture. No more need be known than that the break was on my side. We both were mistaken. She will not be blamed, and some day'--but he could not speak calmly--' she will meet one who will feel for her as I do, and will work a cure of all these foibles. You will see the glorious creature she can be.'
'The good will conquer at last,' said Violet, through her tears.
'I am convinced of it, but I fear it must be through much trial and sorrow. May it only not come through that man.'
They shook hands with lingering regret, as if unwilling to resign their relationship. 'You will explain this to Arthur, and give him my thanks for his friendliness; and you--accept my very best thanks for your great kindness and sympathy. If she had known you earlier-- But good-bye. Only, if I might venture to say one thing more--you and Arthur will not give me up as a friend, will you?'
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