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- Stella Fregelius - 3/56 -
deadly insult. Few indeed could be deadlier, except, perhaps, that of the cruelty which can suggest to a woman that no man will ever look at her because of her plainness and lack of attraction; or the coarse taunt which, by shameless implication, unjustly accuses the soldier of cowardice, the diplomat of having betrayed the secrets of his country, or the lawyer of having sold his brief. All the more, therefore, was it to Morris's credit that he felt the lash sting without a show of temper.
"I have tried to explain to you, father," he began, struggling to free his clear voice from the note of indignation.
"Of course you have, Morris; don't trouble yourself to repeat that long story. But even if you were successful--which you are not--er--I cannot see the commercial use of this invention. As a scientific toy it may be very well, though, personally, I should prefer to leave it alone, since, if you go firing off your thoughts and words into space, how do you know who will answer them, or who will hear them?"
"Well, father, as you understand all about it, it is no use my explaining any further. It is pretty late; I think I will be turning in."
"I had hoped," replied the Colonel, in an aggrieved voice, "that you might have been able to spare me a few minutes' conversation. For some weeks I have been seeking an opportunity to talk to you; but somehow your arduous occupations never seem to leave you free for ordinary social intercourse."
"Certainly," replied Morris, "though I don't quite know why you should say that. I am always about the place if you want me." But in his heart he groaned, guessing what was coming.
"Yes; but you are ever working at your chemicals and machinery in the old chapel; or reading those eternal books; or wandering about rapt in contemplation of the heavens; so that, in short, I seldom like to trouble you with my mundane but necessary affairs."
Morris made no answer; he was a very dutiful son and humble-spirited. Those who pit their intelligences against the forces of Nature, and try to search out her secrets, become humble. He could not altogether respect his father; the gulf between them was too wide and deep. But even at his present age of three and thirty he considered it a duty to submit himself to him and his vagaries. Outside of other reasons, his mother had prayed him to do so almost with her last breath, and, living or dead, Morris loved his mother.
"Perhaps you are not aware," went on Colonel Monk, after a solemn pause, "that the affairs of this property are approaching a crisis."
"I know something, but no details," answered Morris. "I have not liked to interfere," he added apologetically.
"And I have not not liked to trouble you with such sordid matters," rejoined his parent, with sarcasm. "I presume, however, that you are acquainted with the main facts. I succeeded to this estate encumbered with a mortgage, created by your grandfather, an extravagant and unbusiness-like man. That mortgage I looked to your mother's fortune to pay off, but other calls made this impossible. For instance, the sea-wall here had to be built if the Abbey was to be saved, and half a mile of sea-walling costs something. Also very extensive repairs to the house were necessary, and I was forced to take three farms in hand when I retired from the army fifteen years ago. This has involved a net loss of about ten thousand pounds, while all the time the interest had to be paid and the place kept up in a humble fashion."
"I thought that my uncle Porson took over the mortgage after my mother's death," interrupted Morris.
"That is so," answered his father, wincing a little; "but a creditor remains a creditor, even if he happens to be a relative by marriage. I have nothing to say against your uncle John, who is an excellent person in his way, and well-meaning. Of course, he has been justified, perfectly justified, in using his business abilities--or perhaps I should say instincts, for they are hereditary--to his own advantage. In fact, however, directly or indirectly, he has done well out of this property and his connection with our family--exceedingly well, both financially and socially. In a time of stress I was forced to sell him the two miles of sea-frontage building-land between here and Northwold for a mere song. During the last ten years, as you know, he has cut this up into over five hundred villa sites, which he has sold upon long lease at ground-rents that to-day bring in annually as much as he paid for the whole property."
"Yes, father; but you might have done the same. He advised you to before he bought the land."
"Perhaps I might, but I am not a tradesman; I do not understand these affairs. And, Morris, I must remind you that in such matters I have had no assistance. I do not blame you any more than I blame myself--it is not in your line either--but I repeat that I have had no assistance."
Morris did not argue the point. "Well, father," he asked. "what is the upshot? Are we ruined?"
"Ruined? That is a large word, and an ugly one. No, we are no more ruined than we have been for the last half-dozen years, for, thank Heaven, I still have resources and--friends. But, of course, this place is in a way expensive, and you yourself would be the last to pretend that our burdens have been lessened by--your having abandoned the very strange profession which you selected, and devoted yourself to researches which, if interesting, must be called abstract----"
"Forgive me, father," interrupted Morris with a ring of indignation in his voice; "but you must remember that I put you to no expense. In addition to what I inherited from my mother, which, of course, under the circumstances I do not ask for, I have my fellowship, out of which I contribute something towards the cost of my living and experiments, that, by the way, I keep as low as possible."
"Of course, of course," said the Colonel, who did not wish to pursue this branch of the subject, but his son went on:
"You know also that it was at your express wish that I came to live here at Monksland, as for the purposes of my work it would have suited me much better to take rooms in London or some other scientific centre."
"Really, my dear boy, you should control yourself," broke in his father. "That is always the way with recluses; they cannot bear the slightest criticism. Of course, as you were going to devote yourself to this line of research it was right and proper that we should live together. Surely you would not wish at my age that I should be deprived of the comfort of the society of an only child, especially now that your mother has left us?"
"Certainly not, father," answered Morris, softening, as was his fashion at the thought of his dead mother.
Then came a pause, and he hoped that the conversation was at end; a vain hope, as it proved.
"My real object in troubling you, Morris," continued his father, presently, "was very different to the unnecessary discussions into which we have drifted."
His son looked up, but said nothing. Again he knew what was coming, and it was worse than anything that had gone before.
"This place seems very solitary with the two of us living in its great rooms. I, who am getting an old fellow, and you a student and a recluse--no, don't deny it, for nowadays I can barely persuade you to attend even the Bench or a lawn-tennis party. Well, fortunately, we have power to add to our numbers; or at least you have. I wish you would marry, Morris."
His son turned sharply, and answered:
"Thank you, father, but I have no fancy that way."
"Now, there's Jane Rose, or that handsome Eliza Layard," went on the Colonel, taking no notice. "I have reason to know that you might have either of them for the asking, and they are both good women without a breath against them, and, what in the state of this property is not without importance, very well to do. Jane gets fifty thousand pounds down on the day of her marriage, and as much more, together with the place, upon old Lady Rose's death; while Miss Layard--if she is not quite to the manner born--has the interest in that great colliery and a rather sickly brother. Lastly--and this is strange enough, considering how you treat them--they admire you, or at least Eliza does, for she told me she thought you the most interesting man she had ever met."
"Did she indeed!" ejaculated Morris. "Why, I have only spoken three times to her during the last year."
"No doubt, my dear boy, that is why she thinks you interesting. To her you are a mine of splendid possibilities. But I understand that you don't like either of them."
"No, not particularly--especially Eliza Layard, who isn't a lady, and has a vicious temper--nor any young woman whom I have ever met."
"Do you mean to tell me candidly, Morris, that at your age you detest women?"
"I don't say that; I only say that I never met one to whom I felt much attracted, and that I have met a great many by whom I was repelled."
"Decidedly, Morris, in you the strain of the ancestral fish is too predominant. It isn't natural; it really isn't. You ought to have been born three centuries ago, when the old monks lived here. You would have made a first-class abbot, and might have been canonised by now. Am I to understand, then, that you absolutely decline to marry?"
"No, father; I don't want you to understand anything of the sort. If I could meet a lady whom I liked, and who wouldn't expect too much, and who was foolish enough to wish to take me, of course I should marry her, as you are so bent upon it."
"Well, Morris, and what sort of a woman would fulfil the conditions, to your notion?"
His son looked about him vaguely, as though he expected to find his ideal in some nook of the dim garden.
"What sort of a woman? Well, somebody like my cousin Mary, I suppose-- an easy-going person of that kind, who always looks pleasant and cool."
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