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- The Right of Way, Volume 1. - 5/13 -
"I must not keep you," Charley said, and dismissed him with a bow. "The sheep will stray, and the shepherd must use his crook."
Brown smiled at the badinage, and went on his way rejoicing in the fact that he was to share the amusements of the Seven at Lake Aubergine--the Lake of the Mad Apple. To get hold of these seven men of repute and position, to be admitted into this good presence!--He had a pious exaltation, but whether it was because he might gather into the fold erratic and agnostical sheep like Charley Steele, or because it pleased his social ambitions, he had occasion to answer in the future. He gaily prepared to go to the Lake of the Mad Apple, where he was fated to eat of the tree of knowledge.
Charley Steele and Billy Wantage walked on slowly to the house under the hill.
"He's the right sort," said Billy. "He's a sport. I can stand that kind. Did you ever hear him sing? No? Well, he can sing a comic song fit to make you die. I can sing a bit myself, but to hear him sing 'The Man Who Couldn't Get Warm' is a show in itself. He can play the banjo too, and the guitar--but he's best on the banjo. It's worth a dollar to listen to his Epha-haam--that's Ephraim, you know--Ephahaam Come Home,' and 'I Found Y' in de Honeysuckle Paitch.'"
"He preaches, too!" said Charley drily.
They had reached the door of the house under the hill, and Billy had no time for further remark. He ran into the drawing-room, announcing Charley with the words: "I say, Kathleen, I've brought the man that made the judge sit up."
Billy suddenly stopped, however, for there sat the judge who had tried the case, calmly munching a piece of toast. The judge did not allow himself the luxury of embarrassment, but bowed to Charley with a smile, which he presently turned on Kathleen, who came as near being disconcerted as she had ever been in her life.
Kathleen had passed through a good deal to look so unflurried. She had been on trial in the court-room as well as the prisoner. Important things had been at stake with her. She and Charley Steele had known each other since they were children. To her, even in childhood, he had been a dominant figure. He had judicially and admiringly told her she was beautiful--when he was twelve and she five. But he had said it without any of those glances which usually accompanied the same sentiments in the mouths of other lads. He had never made boy-love to her, and she had thrilled at the praise of less splendid people than Charley Steele. He had always piqued her, he was so superior to the ordinary enchantments of youth, beauty, and fine linen.
As he came and went, growing older and more characteristic, more and more "Beauty Steele," accompanied by legends of wild deeds and days at college, by tales of his fopperies and the fashions he had set, she herself had grown, as he had termed it, more "decorative." He had told her so, not in the least patronisingly, but as a simple fact in which no sentiment lurked. He thought her the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, but he had never regarded her save as a creation for the perfect pleasure of the eye; he thought her the concrete glory of sensuous purity, no more capable of sentiment than himself. He had said again and again, as he grew older and left college and began the business of life after two years in Europe, that sentiment would spoil her, would scatter the charm of her perfect beauty; it would vitalise her too much, and her nature would lose its proportion; she would be decentralised! She had been piqued at his indifference to sentiment; she could not easily be content without worship, though she felt none. This pique had grown until Captain Tom Fairing crossed her path.
Fairing was the antithesis of Charley Steele. Handsome, poor, enthusiastic, and none too able, he was simple and straightforward, and might be depended on till the end of the chapter. And the end of it was, that in so far as she had ever felt real sentiment for anybody, she felt it for Tom Fairing of the Royal Fusileers. It was not love she felt in the old, in the big, in the noble sense, but it had behind it selection and instinct and natural gravitation.
Fairing declared his love. She would give him no answer. For as soon as she was presented with the issue, the destiny, she began to look round her anxiously. The first person to fill the perspective was Charley Steele. As her mind dwelt on him, her uncle gave forth his judgment, that she should never have a penny if she married Tom Fairing. This only irritated her, it did not influence her. But there was Charley. He was a figure, was already noted in his profession because of a few masterly successes in criminal cases, and if he was not popular, he was distinguished, and the world would talk about him to the end. He was handsome, and he was well-to-do-he had a big unoccupied house on the hill among the maples. How many people had said, What a couple they would make-Charley Steele and Kathleen Wantage!
So, as Fairing presented an issue to her, she concentrated her thoughts as she had never done before on the man whom the world set apart for her, in a way the world has.
As she looked and looked, Charley began to look also. He had not been enamoured of the sordid things of the world; he had been merely curious. He thought vice was ugly; he had imagination and a sense of form. Kathleen was beautiful. Sentiment had, so he thought, never seriously disturbed her; he did not think it ever would. It had not affected him. He did not understand it. He had been born non-intime. He had had acquaintances, but never friendships, and never loves or love. But he had a fine sense of the fitting and the proportionate, and he worshipped beauty in so far as he could worship anything. The homage was cerebral, intellectual, temperamental, not of the heart. As he looked out upon the world half pityingly, half ironically, he was struck with wonder at the disproportion which was engendered by "having heart," as it was called. He did not find it necessary.
Now that he had begun to think of marriage, who so suitable as Kathleen? He knew of Fairing's adoration, but he took it as a matter of course that she had nothing to give of the same sort in return. Her beauty was still serene and unimpaired. He would not spoil it by the tortures of emotion. He would try to make Kathleen's heart beat in harmony with his own; it should not thunder out of time. He had made up his mind that he would marry her.
For Kathleen, with the great trial, the beginning of the end had come. Charley's power over her was subtle, finely sensuous, and, in deciding, there were no mere heart-impulses working for Charley. Instinct and impulse were working in another direction. She had not committed her mind to either man, though her heart, to a point, was committed to Fairing.
On the day of the trial, however, she fell wholly under that influence which had swayed judge, jury, and public. To her the verdict of the jury was not in favour of the prisoner at the bar--she did not think of him. It was in favour of Charley Steele.
And so, indifferent as to who heard, over the heads of the people in front of her, to the accused's counsel inside the railings, she had called, softly: "Charley! Charley!"
Now, in the house under the hill, they were face to face, and the end was at hand: the end of something and the beginning of something.
There was a few moments of casual conversation, in which Billy talked as much as anybody, and then Kathleen said:
"What do you suppose was the man's motive for committing the murder?"
Charley looked at Kathleen steadily, curiously, through his monocle. It was a singular compliment she paid him. Her remark took no heed of the verdict of the jury. He turned inquiringly towards the judge, who, though slightly shocked by the question, recovered himself quickly.
"What do you think it was, sir?" Charley asked quietly.
"A woman--and revenge, perhaps," answered the judge, with a matter-of- course air.
A few moments afterwards the judge was carried off by Kathleen's uncle to see some rare old books; Billy, his work being done, vanished; and Kathleen and Charley were left alone.
"You did not answer me in the court-room," Kathleen said. "I called to you."
"I wanted to hear you say them here," he rejoined. "Say what?" she asked, a little puzzled by the tone of his voice.
"Your congratulations," he answered.
She held out a hand to him. "I offer them now. It was wonderful. You were inspired. I did not think you could ever let yourself go."
He held her hand firmly. "I promise not to do it again," he said whimsically.
"Have I not your congratulations?" His hand drew her slightly towards him; she rose to her feet.
"That is no reason," she answered, confused, yet feeling that there was a double meaning in his words.
"I could not allow you to be so vain," he said. "We must be companionable. Henceforth I shall congratulate myself--Kathleen."
There was no mistaking now. "Oh, what is it you are going to say to me?" she asked, yet not disengaging her hand.
"I said it all in the court-room," he rejoined; "and you heard."
"You want me to marry you--Charley?" she asked frankly.
"If you think there is no just impediment," he answered, with a smile.
She drew her hand away, and for a moment there was a struggle in her mind--or heart. He knew of what she was thinking, and he did not consider it of serious consequence. Romance was a trivial thing, and women were prone to become absorbed in trivialities. When the woman had no brains, she might break her life upon a trifle. But Kathleen had an even mind, a serene temperament. Her nerves were daily cooled in a bath of nature's perfect health. She had never had an hour's illness in her life.
"There is no just or unjust impediment, Kathleen," he added presently, and took her hand again.
She looked him in the eyes clearly. "You really think so?" she asked.
"I know so," he answered. "We shall be two perfect panels in one picture
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