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- Stella Fregelius - 40/56 -
Eliza Layard; it was found upon the beach. After this even the local police admitted that the conjectures as to her end must be true, and, since for the lack of anything to hold it on there could be no inquest, the excitement dwindled and died. Nor indeed, as her father announced that he was quite satisfied as to the circumstances of his daughter's death, was any formal inquiry held concerning them. A few people, however, still believed that she was not really drowned but had gone away secretly for unknown private reasons. The world remembers few people, even if they be distinguished, for ten whole days. It has not time for such long-continued recollection of the dead, this world of the living who hurry on to join them.
If this is the case with the illustrious, the wealthy and the powerful, how much more must it be so in the instance of an almost unknown girl, a stranger in the land? Morris and her father remembered her, for she was part of their lives and lived on with their lives. Stephen Layard mourned for the woman whom he had wished to marry-- fiercely at first, with the sharp pain of disappointed passion; then intermittently; and at last, after he was comfortably wedded to somebody else, with a mild and sentimental regret three or four times a year. Eliza, too, when once convinced that she was "really dead," was "much shocked," and talked vaguely of the judgments and dispensations of Providence, as though this victim were pre-eminently deserving of its most stern decrees. It was rumoured, however, among the observant that her Christian sorrow was, perhaps, tempered by a secret relief at the absence of a rival, who, as she now admitted, sang extremely well and had beautiful eyes.
The Colonel also thought of the guest whom the sea had given and taken away, and with a real regret, for this girl's force, talents, and loveliness had touched and impressed him who had sufficient intellect and experience to know that she was a person cast in a rare and noble mould. But to Morris he never mentioned her name. No further confidence had passed between them on the matter. Yet he knew that to his son this name was holy. Therefore, being in some ways a wise man, he thought it well to keep his lips shut and to let the dead bury their dead.
By all the rest Stella Fregelius was soon as much forgotten as though she had never walked the world or breathed its air. That gale had done much damage and taken away many lives--all down the coast was heard the voice of mourning; hers chanced to be one of them, and there was nothing to be said.
On the morning of the eleventh day came a telegram from Mary addressed to Morris, and dated from London. It was brief and to the point. "Come to dinner with me at Seaview, and bring your father.--Mary."
When Morris drove to Seaview that evening he was as a man is in a dream. Sorrow had done its work on him, agonising his nerves, till at length they seemed to be blunted as with a very excess of pain, much as the nerves of the victims of the Inquisition were sometimes blunted, till at length they could scarcely feel the pincers bite or the irons burn. Always abstemious, also, for this last twelve days he had scarcely swallowed enough food to support him, with the result that his body weakened and suffered with his mind.
Then there was a third trouble to contend with,--the dull and gnawing sense of shame which seemed to eat into his heart. In actual fact, he had been faithful enough to Mary, but in mind he was most unfaithful. How could he come to her, the woman who was to be his wife, the woman who had dealt so well by him, with the memory of that spiritual marriage at the altar of the Dead Church still burning in his brain-- that marriage which now was consecrated and immortalised by death? What had he to give her that was worth her taking? he, who if the truth were known, shrank from all idea of union with any earthly woman; who longed only to be allowed to live out his time in a solitude as complete as he could find or fashion? It was monstrous; it was shameful; and then and there he determined that before ever he stood in Monksland church by the side of Mary Porson, at least he would tell her the truth, and give her leave to choose. To his other sins against her deceit should not be added.
"Might I suggest, Morris," said the Colonel, who as they drove, had been watching his son's face furtively by the light of the brougham lamp--"might I suggest that, under all the circumstances, Mary would perhaps appreciate an air a little less reminiscent of funerals? You may recollect that several months have passed since you parted."
"Yes," said Morris, "and a great deal has happened in that time."
"Of course, her father is dead." The Colonel alluded to no other death. "Poor Porson! How painfully that beastly window in the dining- room will remind me of him! Come, here we are; pull yourself together, old fellow."
Morris obeyed as best he could, and presently found himself following the Colonel into the drawing-room, for once in his life, as he reflected, heartily glad to have the advantage of his parent's society. He could scarcely be expected to be very demonstrative and lover-like under the fire of that observant eyeglass.
As they entered the drawing-room by one door, Mary, looking very handsome and imposing in a low black dress, which became her fair beauty admirably, appeared at the other. Catching sight of Morris, she ran, or rather glided, forward with the graceful gait that was one of her distinctions, and caught him by both hands, bending her face towards him in open and unmistakable invitation.
In a moment it was over somehow, and she was saying:
"Morris, how thin you look, and there are great black lines under your eyes! Uncle, what have you been doing to him?"
"When I have had the pleasure of saying, How-do-you-do to you, my dear," he replied in a somewhat offended voice--for the Colonel was not fond of being overlooked, even in favour of an interesting son--"I shall be happy to do my best to answer your question."
"Oh! I am so sorry," she said, advancing her forehead to be kissed; "but we saw each other the other day, didn't we, and one can't embrace two people at once, and of course one must begin somewhere. But, why have you made him so thin?"
The Colonel surveyed Morris critically with his eyeglass.
"Really, my dear Mary," he replied, "I am not responsible for the variations in my son's habit of body." Then, as Morris turned away irritably, he added in a stage whisper, "He's been a bit upset, poor fellow! He felt your father's death dreadfully."
Mary winced a little, then, recovering her vivacity, said:
"Well, at any rate, uncle, I am glad to see that nothing of the sort has affected your health; I never saw you looking better."
"Ah! my dear, as we grow older we learn resignation----"
"And how to look after ourselves," thought Mary.
At that moment dinner was announced, and she went in on Morris's arm, the Colonel gallantly insisting that it should be so. After this things progressed a good deal better. The first plunge was over, and the cool refreshing waters of Mary's conversation seemed to give back to Morris's system some of the tone that it had lost. Also, when he thought fit to use it, he had a strong will, and he thought fit this night. Lastly, like many a man in a quandary before him, he discovered the strange advantages of a scientific but liberal absorption of champagne. Mary noticed this as she noticed everything, and said presently with her eyes wide open:
"Might I ask, my dear, if you are--ill? You are eating next to nothing, and that's your fourth large glass of champagne--you who never drank more than two. Don't you remember how it used to vex my poor dad, because he said that it always meant half a bottle wasted, and a temptation to the cook?"
Morris laughed--he was able to laugh by now--and replied, as it happened, with perfect truth, that he had an awful toothache.
"Then everything is explained," said Mary. "Did you ever see me with a toothache? Well, I should advise you not, for it would be our last interview. I will paint it for you after dinner with pure carbolic acid; it's splendid, that is if you don't drop any on the patient's tongue."
Morris answered that he would stick to champagne. Then Mary began to narrate her experiences in the convent in a fashion so funny that the Colonel could scarcely control his laughter, and even Morris, toothache, heartache, and all, was genuinely amused.
"Imagine, my dear Morris," she said, "you know the time I get down to breakfast. Or perhaps you don't. It's one of those things which I have been careful to conceal from you, but you will one day, and I believe that over it our matrimonial happiness may be wrecked. Well, at what hour do you think I found myself expected to be up in that convent?"
"Seven," suggested Morris.
"At seven! At a quarter to five, if you please! At a quarter to five every morning did some wretched person come and ring a dinner-bell outside my door. And it was no use going to sleep again, not the least, for at half-past five two hideous old lay-sisters arrived with buckets of water--they have a perfect passion for cleanliness--and began to scrub out the cell whether you were in bed or whether you weren't."
Then she rattled on to other experiences, trivial enough in themselves, but so entertaining when touched and lightened with her native humour, that very soon the evening had worn itself pleasantly away without a single sad or untoward word.
"Good night, dear!" said Mary to Morris, who this time managed to embrace her with becoming warmth; "you will come and see me to-morrow, won't you--no, not in the morning. Remember I have been getting up at a quarter to five for a month, and I am trying to equalise matters; but after luncheon. Then we will sit before a good fire, and have a talk, for the weather is so delightfully bad that I am sure I shan't be forced to take exercise."
"Very well, at three o'clock," said Morris, when the Colonel, who had been reflecting to himself, broke in.
"Look here, my dear, you must be down to lunch, or if you are not you ought to be; so, as I want to have a chat with you about some of your poor father's affairs, and am engaged for the rest of the day, I will come over then if you will allow me."
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