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effect is novel, but striking.”

A burst of amusement, light and blinding as the spray from a whirlpool, went up from the women around. The music, the voices, the laughter, seemed to Maurice so many insults flung at him in idle contempt. He looked around him with a bitter anger which could almost have smitten these laughing women on their red mouths. Then he turned back to Berenice. He saw that she shrank before the wrath of his look; he felt with a thrill that he had at least power to make her fear him. He bent toward her full of rage made the wilder by the impulse to catch her in his arms and cover her beautiful neck with kisses.

“Shameless!” he hissed into her ear.

He saw her turn pale and then flush burning red; but he hastened on after the footman without waiting for more. Presently he reached the head of the hall, where Mrs. Wilson stood laughing and talking with several men. Her dress was of alternate stripes of crimson silk and tissue of gold, and since it had excited comment from the loungers at the door, it is small wonder that to the unsophisticated deacon, almost convent bred, it appeared no less than horribly indecent. He cast down his eyes; but his glance fell upon the foot which just then she thrust laughingly forward, evidently in answer to some remark from Stanford, who stood at her right hand. Upon the toe of her exquisite little shoe sparkled a great diamond like a fountain of flame.

“It gives light to my steps,” she laughed.

“The service is worthy of it,” Stanford returned with a half-mocking bow.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Wilson retorted, sweeping him a satirical courtesy. “If you say such nice things to me, what must you say to Berenice!”

It seemed to Maurice that the devil was exerting all his infernal ingenuity that night to have him tormented at every turn. He came forward hastily, eager to stop the talk.

“Ah,” cried Mrs. Wilson, “have you come, ghostly father?”

The men stared at him in careless surprise and open amusement. Maurice could not trust himself to speak, but only bowed in silence.

“I am called, you see,” Mrs. Wilson said gayly. “Now I must go to penance and confession.”

“Surely you will need so little time for confession,” one of the men said, “that there’s no necessity of going so early.”

“You must have been more wicked this winter than I ever suspected, Elsie,” put in the even voice of Mrs. Staggchase. “Or is it that you only mean to be?”

Maurice turned quickly, and found that his cousin was sitting behind the table near which he stood. In front of her were heaps of trinkets of all sorts of fantastic devices.

“Good evening, Cousin Maurice,” she greeted him. “Are you dancing? What sort of a favor ought I to give you?”

“Mrs. Wilson’s wickedness,” Stanford answered Mrs. Staggchase, “is of the sort so original that I’m sure the recording angel must always be too surprised to put it down.”

“What a premium you put on originality!” responded Mrs. Staggchase. “That is all very well for her, but how is it for her victims?”

“Oh, the honor of being her victim is compensation enough for them.”

Mrs. Wilson laughed, and shook her head, twinkling with diamonds which dazzled the eyes of the young deacon.

“You are all worldly,” she retorted. “Brother Martin and I are too unsophisticated to understand you.”

Maurice winced at the name. He felt that he must be a picture of confusion. To stand here among these sumptuously dressed women, to endure the glances which he knew were watching him from all parts of the room, to be pricked with this monkish title by a woman who was making of him and of the whole incident a sport and a spectacle, stung him to the quick. He thought of Berenice, and he cast at Mrs. Staggchase a look of defiance, lifting his head proudly in assertion of his hurt dignity.

“I am at your service, Mrs. Wilson,” he said with cold sternness.

“Well, we will go then. Unless, that is, you are dancing, Mr. Wynne. I see that you have a favor.”

He glanced down at the grotesque little mask, dangling by its red ribbon. With unbroken gravity he detached and laid it upon the table in silence. He would have given much to hide it in his pocket, since it came from Berenice; but even as he put it down a bevy of girls swept up for favors, and one of them bore it away.

“He has abandoned his opportunity,” Mrs. Staggchase observed. “The favor goes to Mr. Stanford.”

The girl who had taken up the mask was indeed pinning it to the coat of that gentleman, with whom she quickly danced away. Maurice felt his heart grow hot, but he looked at his cousin with face hard and determined.

“It was never mine,” he said, “except by the chance of a misunderstanding.”

A maid now came forward with a black domino, which Mrs. Wilson slipped into gracefully, drawing up her glittering draperies. The big diamond on the toe of her slipper glowed fantastically, peeping from beneath the penitential robe.

“Hallo,” Dr. Wilson exclaimed, coming up at this moment, “what’s in the wind now? Is this turning into a masquerade?”

“Your wife is about to retire from the world,” Mrs. Hubbard answered, laughing.

“With a man,” Mrs. Staggchase added, her eyes shining on her cousin.

Wynne stabbed her with a glance of indignation.

“No, with a priest,” corrected Mrs. Wilson, adjusting her domino about her face.

“Elsie, how devilishly fond you are of making a fool of yourself,” Dr. Wilson observed jovially. “Well, good-night.”

Mrs. Wilson swept him a profound courtesy, with her hands crossed on her bosom.

“My lord and master, good-night. Ladies, remember that it will be Lent in ten minutes.”

She took Wynne’s arm, and together the black-robed figures went down the length of the room. The music had for the moment stopped, and it seemed to Maurice as if his presence had brought a chill to the whole gay scene. He was inwardly raging, angry to have been used by Mrs. Wilson as an actor in her outrageous comedy, furious with Berenice for her part in the play, full of rage against the men who stood around grinning and laughing at the whole performance. Most of all, he assured himself, he was righteously indignant at the trifling with sacred things. He looked neither to the left nor to the right, but with Mrs. Wilson sweeping along by his side he strode toward the door.

“He looks as if he belonged to the church militant,” he heard one of the men say as he passed out.

“Even the church militant is nothing against a woman,” another replied, catching the eye of Mrs. Wilson, and laughing.

In the vestibule stood a footman bearing Maurice’s cloak, and a maid with fur over-shoes and an ermine-lined wrap for Mrs. Wilson. Maurice said not a word except to reply in monosyllables to the questions of his companion, and almost in silence they drove to the Church of the Nativity.

XXVII

UPON A CHURCH BENCH
Much Ado about Nothing, iii. 3.

The music of the Church of the Nativity was most elaborate, the very French millinery of sacred music. The selection of a new singer was debated with a zeal which spoke volumes for the interest in the service of the sanctuary, and the money expended in this part of the worship would have supported two or three poorer congregations. The church, moreover, was appointed with a richness beautiful to see. The vestments might have moved the envy of high Roman prelates, and the altar plate shone in gold and precious stones.

It was no wonder, then, that a midnight service at the Nativity attracted a crowd. Mrs. Wilson and Wynne had to force a path between ranks of curious sight-seers in order to make their way to the guarded pew of the former, which was well up the main aisle. It came to Maurice suddenly that in his angry mood he was pushing against these worshipers rudely, and that he was venting upon them a fury which had rather increased than diminished in his ride to the church. He was seething with anger; anger against Mrs. Wilson for having put him in a ludicrous position, at Berenice for her mockery, at Mrs. Staggchase for her satire, and at all the frivolous fools who had stood around, grinning to see him made ridiculous. His hurt vanity throbbed with an ache intolerable, and as he forced his way between the crowding spectators he felt a certain ugly joy in thrusting them aside.

He was recalled to self-control by the expression in the face of a girl whom he pressed back to give Mrs. Wilson passage. She turned to him with a look of surprise and pain, and to his excited fancy her hair in the half shadow was like that of Berenice.

“You hurt me!” she exclaimed.

“I beg your pardon,” he answered with instant compunction. “I did not mean to. Come with me.”

He yielded to the sudden impulse, and then reflected as they passed down the aisle that he had no right to bring a stranger into Mrs. Wilson’s pew. Having invited her, however, it was impossible to retract, and he showed her into the slip after Mrs. Wilson. As the latter turned to sit down, she became aware of the stranger. She paused, and looked at her with haughty surprise.

“I beg pardon,” she said, “this is a private pew.”

The girl flushed, looking inquiringly at Maurice. His masculine nature resented the insolence of the glance with which Mrs. Wilson had swept the stranger, and he came instantly to the rescue.

“I invited her,” he said, leaning forward, speaking with a determination at which his hostess raised her eyebrows.

“Oh, very well then,” Mrs. Wilson murmured.

She sank into her seat, and inclined her head on the rail before her. As Maurice did the same there shot through his mind a wonder at the change there must be in the mental attitude of the woman who spoke with haughtiness almost insulting to the stranger, and the penitent who bent to ask pity and forgiveness from heaven. He tried to fix his thoughts on his own prayer, but the words ran on as mechanically as might water flow over a stone. The serious danger of a ritualistic religion must always be that the mere repetition of words shall come to answer for an act of worship; and to-night Maurice might have exclaimed with King Claudius:–

“My words fly up; my thoughts remain below.”

The service went on with its deep, appealing prayers for pardon, for help, for uplifting, and Maurice followed it only half consciously. It was as if he were drugged, so that only now and then a phrase penetrated to his real consciousness,–words which in their instant and particular application were so poignant that he could not avoid their force.

“‘From all inordinate and sinful affections,'” repeated the rich voice of Mr. Candish, thrilling the church from floor to vaulted, roof, “‘and from the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil.'”

“‘Good Lord, deliver us!'” swelled the response of the congregation; and on the lips of the deacon the words were almost a groan.

He lost himself then in a flood of bitter repentance and prayer, hardly realizing where he was or what was passing around him. The music swelled and eddied; there was a genuine “Kyrie,” wherein a single voice, a rich contralto, wailed and implored in a passion of supplication until the whole congregation quivered with the fervor of the music. Maurice felt himself swayed and lifted upon the rising tide of emotion. He lost his anger, he swam in billows of celestial delight; a blessed peace soothed his troubled soul; he knew again some of the old-time ecstasy. Yet in all this religious fervor there was some subtle consciousness that it was unreal. He was not able so completely to give himself up to it as to fail to watch its growth, its progress, its intensity; he was vexed that he should trap himself, as it were, glorying in the susceptibility to religious influences which such excitement showed. He had even a whimsical, momentary irritation that the part of his mind which was acting the devotee could not do it so well that his other consciousness could not detect the unreality of it all. Then he struggled to forget everything in the service; to steep himself in the spiritual intoxication of the hour.

The girl whom he had introduced into the pew dropped her prayer-book. He turned, startled by the sound, and saw her sway toward him. He realized that the crowd, the heat, the excitement, the odor of incense with which the air was heavy, had overcome her, and that she was fainting. He rose instantly, and, lifting her, assisted her into the aisle. She was half in his arms as he led her down the nave, and her hair, the hair which had seemed to him like that of Berenice, brushed now and again against his shoulder. He recalled the wreck, when Berenice had been in his arms, and his religious mood vanished as if it had never been. His cheek flushed; he thrilled with anger at himself. He had been playing a part here in the church. He had never for an instant wished to be set free from his bondage to Berenice,–Berenice who had to-night mocked him and his profession in the eyes of all the world.

The way to the door seemed interminable. He was eager to get rid of this stranger and escape. Fortunately the party to which the fainting girl belonged were at hand to take charge of her; and presently Maurice had made his way out of the church. He hardly gave a thought to Mrs. Wilson. She was abundantly able to take care of herself, he reflected with angry amusement; or, if not, the very pavement would spring up with troops of men to assist her. She was the sort of woman whose mere presence creates cavaliers, even in the most unlikely places.

The cool outer air seemed to wake him from a bad dream. He walked hastily through the quiet streets toward the Clergy House, full of disordered thoughts, wondering whether the ball were yet over, or if Berenice were still dancing in the arms of other men. The blood flushed into his cheeks at the thought. He hated furiously the partner against whose shoulder her white, bare arm might be resting. He looked back with ever growing anger to the scene at the dance, tingling with shame at the humiliation, at the thought of standing before the women who had laughed when Berenice had fastened upon his breast the tawdry trinket which seemed chosen purposely to mock him. He wished that he had kept the toy, that he might now throw it down into the mire and tread on it. Yet grotesque and insulting as the thing had been, he was conscious that if the little mask were still in his possession he should not have been able to trample on it, but should have taken it to his lips instead. He remembered that now Stanford wore it. He looked up to the shining stars and felt the overwhelming presence of night like a child; his helplessness, his misery, his hopelessness swept over him in bitter waves.

Late as it was when he reached his room he did not at once undress. He sat down heavily, staring with hot eyes at the crucifix opposite. From black and unknown depths of his heart welled up rage against life and its perplexities. He threw upon his faith the blame of his suffering. What was this religion which made of all human joys, of all human instincts only devilish devices for the torture of the very soul? Why should the world be filled only with temptations, with humiliations, with desires which burned into the very heart yet which must be denied? Was any future bliss worth the struggle? He realized with a shudder that he might be arraigning the Maker of the world; then he assured himself that he was but raging against those who misunderstood and misinterpreted the purposes of life.

He flung himself down on his knees before the crucifix in a quick reaction of mood, extending his hands and trying to pray; but he found himself repeating over and over: “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” He felt with the whole strength of his soul the force of the words. This deity to whom he knelt might in a breath change all his agony; might out of overflowing power and dominion and splendor spill but one unnoted drop, yet flood all his tortured being with richest happiness. The contrast between his weakness, his helplessness, his insignificance, and the superabundant resources of the Infinite crushed him. He was transported with aching pity for himself and for all poor mortals. He repeated, no longer in entreaty but with passionate reproach: “For _Thine_ is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” It seemed an insult to the clemency of Heaven to call so piteously when it were a thing lighter than the puffing away of a flake of swan’s down for One with all power to help and to comfort. If he were in the hands of a God to whom belonged the universe, why this agony of doubt? Then he cried out to himself that this was the temptation of the devil. He cast himself upon the ground, beating his breast and moaning wildly: “Mea culpa! Mea culpa!” With quick histrionic perception he was affected by the intensity and the effectiveness of his penitence, and redoubled his fervor.

Then in a flash came over him the sickening realization that this devotion was a sham; that it was hysteria, simple pretense. He ceased to writhe on the floor. It was like coming to consciousness in a humiliating situation. He blushed at his folly, and rose hastily from before the crucifix.

“I have been acting private theatricals,” he muttered scornfully; “and for what audience?”

He threw himself again into his chair, burying his face in his hands. He plunged into a reverie so deep and so self-searching that it could have been fathomed by no plummet.

“I do not believe,” he said at last aloud, raising his face as if to address the crucifix. “I have never believed. I have simply bejuggled myself. I have been a contemptible lie in the sight of men, not even knowing enough to be honest to myself.”

He was silent a moment, a smile of bitter contempt curling his lip.

“I have not even been a man,” he added.

Then he rose with a spring to his feet, and looked about him, stretching out his arms as if to embrace all the world.

“But now,” he exclaimed with gladness bursting through every syllable, “at last I am free!”

XXVIII

BEDECKING ORNAMENTS OF PRAISE
Love’s Labor’s Lost, ii. 1.

When Maurice Wynne’s bitter word stung her, Berenice Morison stood for a second too overwhelmed to speak or move. She felt the blood mount to her temples, and she could see reflected in the eyes of acquaintances around a mingled curiosity and amusement. Wynne passed on, and she shrank into her seat, which fortunately was near.

“Who in the world is that, and what did he say to you when you gave him that favor?” exclaimed her neighbor. “I don’t see how you dared to do it!”

A gentleman took the speaker away, so that Berenice was spared the necessity of answering. She watched Wynne advance to the group of which Mrs. Wilson was the centre, and she understood well enough that his being here was some contrivance of the latter’s. She was angry with Wynne and humiliated by the insult that he had flung at her, yet she had room in her heart for rage against the woman who had brought him there. She looked at Mrs. Wilson laughing and jesting, she watched the comedy proceed as the black domino covered the white shoulders and the gown of gold and crimson, yet most of all was she conscious of how straight and strong Maurice stood among the gay group which surrounded him. The sternness of his mouth, the gravity and indignation of his look, seemed to her most manly and noble. She felt that he had by his bearing mastered the absurd circumstances in which he was placed; she smiled bitterly to think how poor and flippant had been her own thoughtless jest. When Maurice threw the favor on the table, Berenice saw Clara Carstair take it up and give it to Parker Stanford. She watched Wynne and Mrs. Wilson leave the hall, two solemn, black-robed figures passing like shadows among the dancers. When they had disappeared she sat with eyes cast down, her thoughts in a whirl of regret, anger, and confusion.

“Well, did you ever know Mrs. Wilson to get up a circus equal to that before?” queried her partner, coming back to his place beside her. “She gets more amazing every day.”

“She certainly gets to be worse form every day. It’s outrageous that everybody lets Mrs. Wilson do anything she chooses, no matter how bad taste it is.”

“Oh, she amuses folks,” Mr. Van Sandt said. “Nobody takes her seriously.”

“It is time that they did,” answered Berenice rather sharply. “Such a performance as this to-night makes us all seem vulgar,–as if we were her accomplices.”

“Oh, you take it too seriously; besides, I thought that you helped it on a bit.”

Berenice was silenced, but she was none the happier for that. She was vexed with herself for having any feeling about the incident; but the word of Wynne came afresh into her mind, and brought the blood anew to her cheek. She said to herself that she hoped that she should meet him soon again, that she might wither him with a glance of burning contempt, ever after to ignore him.

“You think I wouldn’t do it,” she sneered to some inner doubt; “but I would!”

She was interrupted by a partner, and went whirling down the bright hall to the tingling measures of a new waltz; yet all the while she was thinking of the moment she had stood face to face with Maurice. She scoffed at herself for giving so much weight to a thing so trifling; she made a strong effort to appear gay, only the more keenly to realize that at heart she was miserable.

Mrs. Staggchase, on her way out of the hall a little later, stopped and spoke to her.

“Come, Bee, it is time for you to go home. You don’t seem to profit by the godly example of Elsie Wilson at all.”

“Heaven forbid that I should take her as my exemplar!” Berenice flung back with unnecessary fervor.

“Well,” Mrs. Staggchase observed good-humoredly, “there are things in which it is conceivable that you might find a better model. By the way, what did Cousin Maurice say to you when you gave him that german favor? Of course I haven’t any right to ask, but you see I am interested in bringing the boy up properly.”

Berenice flushed with confusion and vexation.

“It was something no gentleman would have said!”

“Ah,” the other returned with perfect calmness, “that is the danger of doing an unladylike thing. It is so apt to provoke an ungentlemanly return. Men, you know, my dear, haven’t the fine instincts that we have. However, I’m sorry that Maurice didn’t behave better than you did. Good-night, dear.”

Mrs. Staggchase had hardly gone when Parker Stanford came up with a favor.

“I am tired, Mr. Stanford,” Berenice said. “Thank you, but you had better ask some one else.”

“I’d rather sit it out with you,” he answered.

“Nonsense; one doesn’t sit out turns in the german.”

“They do if they wish.”

“Well, instead of sitting it out,” she said, rising, “let us go and get a cup of bouillon. I feel the need of something to hold me up.”

“Here is your favor,” remarked Stanford, as they passed down the hall.

It was an absurd Japanese monster, with eyes goggling out of its head.

“How horrible!” cried Berenice. “It looks exactly like old Christopher Plant when he is talking about his last invention in sauces. Don’t you know the way in which he sticks out his eyes, and says: ‘It is the greatest misfortune in nature that the nerves of taste do not extend all the way down to the stomach!'”

Stanford laughed gleefully.

“Jove, I don’t know but he’s right. Think of tasting a cocktail all the way down to the stomach!”

“Or a quinine pill!” returned she with a grimace. “Thank you, no. Things are bad enough as they are.”

At the door of the supper-room they encountered Dr. Wilson, with a bud on his arm.

“Well, Miss Morison,” he exclaimed, with his usual jovial brusqueness, “I thought that my wife was the cheekiest woman in Boston, but you ran her hard to-night.”

“Oh, even if I surpassed her,” Berenice retorted in sudden anger, yet forcing herself to speak laughingly, “she is entirely safe to leave the reputation of the family in the hands of her husband.”

Dr. Wilson chuckled with perfect good-nature.

“Oh, we men are not in it with the women,” laughed he.

He passed on with his companion, and Berenice, with feminine perversity, avenged herself upon the girl he was escorting.

“How stout Miss Harding is,” she commented. “It is such a pity for a bud.”

“But she is pretty,” Stanford returned.

“Oh, yes, in a way. She has the face of an overripe cherub.”

He laughed and led her to a seat.

“Take your picture of Mr. Plant,” said he, “and I will get you the bouillon.”

“No, I can’t have anything so hideous. Give me one of yours instead. I’ll have that little fat monk.”

“All that I have is at your service,” he responded with seriousness sounding through the mock gravity, as he unpinned the little mask and put it into her hand.

“Thank you, but I don’t ask your all. I hope that you didn’t value this especially.”

“Not that I remember. I haven’t an idea who gave it to me.”

“You don’t seem to value a gift on account of the giver.”

“That depends,” returned he. “Now there are some givers whose favors I cherish most carefully.”

He took from his breast-pocket a little Greek flag of silk, neatly folded. Berenice flushed, recognizing a favor which she had given him early in the evening.

“Now this,” he said, “I put away next to my heart, you observe.”

“The giver would be flattered,” Berenice observed. “Was it Clare Tophaven?”

He looked at her, laughing; then seemed to reflect.

“I don’t know that it is right to tell you,” he returned; “but if you won’t mention it, I’ll confide to you that it must have been Miss Tophaven. Sweet girl.”

“Very. Are congratulations in order?” Berenice inquired.

She was pleased that the talk had taken this bantering tone, and secretly determined to keep it away from dangerous seriousness.

“Somewhat premature, I should say,” Stanford replied. “You see she has no suspicion of my devotion, and her engagement to Fred Springer is to come out next week.”

The bit of gossip served Berenice well. She had heard it already, but it was easy to feign surprise, and to chat lightly about the match, as if she had not a thought beyond it in her mind. To her amazement and disconcerting Stanford cut through the light talk to demand with sudden gravity:–

“And when may our engagement be announced, Berenice?”

She regarded him with startled eyes, but she held herself well in hand, managing to use the same jesting tone in which she had been speaking.

“Certainly not before it exists,” was her answer.

He leaned toward her eagerly. The room was almost deserted, and they sat in the shelter of a great palm, so that she felt herself to be alone with him.

“Don’t try to put me off,” he pleaded. “I am in earnest.”

She rose quickly, setting her cup down in the tub of the palm.

“Come,” she said, “you forget that I am dancing the german with Mr. Van Sandt. He will have no idea what has become of me.”

Stanford stood before her, barring her way.

“Hang Van Sandt! You should be dancing with me, only I had to do the polite to this everlasting English girl. I wish she was in Australia. I wonder why in the world an English girl is never able to learn to dance.”

“That I cannot answer. Perhaps their feet are too big; but you must go back to her all the same, whether she can dance or not.”

“Not until you answer me. You know you are keeping me on hot coals, Berenice. You know I love you.”

She flushed, drew back, grew pale.

“I have answered you already,” she replied, hurriedly but firmly. “Why must you make me say it again? I don’t love you, and that is reason enough why you shouldn’t care for me.”

“It isn’t any reason at all. I should be fond of you anyway. Why, even if you made a guy of me before everybody as you did to-night of that clerical thing”–

“Stop!” Berenice interrupted, her color rising and her eyes shining. “I will not have you speak of Mr. Wynne in that way. What I did was bad enough.”

“Berenice,” demanded Stanford, regarding her keenly, “do you mean to marry _him_?”

“You have no right to ask me whom I mean to marry! I am not going to marry you, at least!”

“A clergyman. A man in petticoats! Well, I must say”–

She drew herself up to her full height, looking at him with anger and excitement in her heart so great that they seemed to choke her.

“Do you see this?” she asked, holding up the little mask dangling from her finger. “I fastened this to his cassock to-night. I insulted him in the sight of everybody. Does that look as if”–

“Is that the same mask?” broke in Stanford. “You begged it of me afterward!”

She could not command her voice to reply. Shame, grief, indignation, struggled in her heart; yet her strongest conscious feeling was a determination that the tears in her eyes should not fall. She slipped past him, and moved toward the ball-room. With a quick step he gained her side.

“I beg your pardon,” he said contritely. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. You used to be nice to me, but lately”–

She mastered herself by a strong effort. She was fully aware that there were too many curious eyes about her to make any demonstration safe.

“Let me take your arm,” she answered. “Folks are watching. We need not make a spectacle of ourselves. I haven’t meant to treat you badly. A girl never knows how a man is going to take things, and I only meant to be pleasant. As soon as you began to show that you were in earnest”–

She was so conscious that her words were not entirely frank that she instinctively hesitated.

“I have always been in earnest,” interpolated he.

“But you will get over it,” murmured she, desperately.

They had come to a group of palms, where they paused to let a bevy of dancers pass.

“Do you really mean,” Stanford asked, in a hard voice, “that there is really no hope for me?”

“There is no hope that I shall ever feel differently about this.”

“Then I shall certainly get over it,” returned he with a touch of anger in his voice. “I don’t propose to go through life wearing the willow for anybody.”

She raised to his her eyes shining with shy but irresistible light.

“Ah,” she half whispered, “that is the difference. I know he wouldn’t get over it.”

“He!”

The monosyllable brought to her an overwhelming sense of the confession which her words had carried. She pressed the arm upon which her finger- tips rested.

“I have trusted you,” she whispered hurriedly. “Be generous. Ah, Mr. Van Sandt,” she went on aloud, “I hope you didn’t think I had deserted you. Mr. Stanford found me incapable of dancing, and had to revive me with bouillon.”

XXIX

WEIGHING DELIGHT AND DOLE
Hamlet, i. 2.

Strangely enough the thought which most strongly impressed Maurice Wynne on the morning following the Mardi Gras ball was the simplicity of life. He had heard in the early dawn the bell for rising; he had started up, then upon his elbow realized that he had freed himself from its tyranny. He had slidden back into his warm place, smiling to himself, and fallen into a sleep as quiet as that of a child. About eight he was roused by a brother sent to see if he was ill, his absence from early mass having been noted. Maurice sent the messenger away with the explanation that having been out to the midnight service he had slept late; then, being left alone, he made his toilet with deliberation. He seemed to himself a new man. There appeared to be no longer any difficulty in life. He reflected that one had but to follow common sense, to live sincerely up to what commended itself to his reason, and existence became wonderfully simplified. He no longer experienced any of the confusing doubts and perplexities which had of late made him so thoroughly miserable.

He hesitated to don again the dress of a deacon, but he reflected that to do otherwise would be to expose himself to the curiosity and comment of his fellows. With a smile and a sigh he put on for the last time the cassock, recalling the contemptuous terms in which at the time of the accident Mehitabel Durgin had referred to the garment. He wondered at himself for ever finding it possible to appear before the eyes of men in such a dress, and blushed to think how incongruous the clerical livery must have looked in the ballroom.

Breakfast was already half over when he appeared, and the reading of Lamentations was accompanying the frugal meal. He sank into his seat in silence, casting his eyes down upon his plate lest they should betray the joy he felt. He knew that he could have no talk with Philip until after nones, and he was not willing to leave the house without bidding his friend good-by. While he went on with his breakfast he was busy planning what he would do when he had left the routine of the Clergy House behind him. He determined to go to Mrs. Staggchase for advice, and to ask her to direct him to some quiet boarding-place where he might reorganize his scheme of life.

In the study hour which followed breakfast Wynne went boldly to the room of Father Frontford, and knocked at the door. When he heard the voice of the Father Superior bidding him enter he was for the first time seized with an unpleasant doubt. The long habit of obedience half asserted itself, so that for an instant he was almost minded to turn back. With a smile of self-scorn he shook off the feeling, and opened the door.

The Father looked up in evident surprise at sight of the deacon who came unsummoned at such an hour. He was alone, a fact which Maurice noted with satisfaction.

“Good morning, Wynne,” he said. “Did you wish to see me?”

“Yes, sir,” Maurice answered, closing the door, and standing before it. “I came to tell you that I have decided to leave the Clergy House.”

The abruptness of the communication evidently startled the Superior. Wynne watched him as he laid down his pen, the lines about his thin lips growing tense.

“Sit down,” he said gravely.

Maurice obeyed unwillingly. He would have been glad to retreat at once, his errand being done; but he knew this to be of course impossible. He sat down facing the other, meeting with steadfast eyes the searching look fastened upon him.

“Since when,” Father Frontford asked, “have you held this determination?”

“Since last night.”

“Is it founded upon any especial circumstance connected with your going with Mrs. Wilson to midnight service?”

Maurice looked down for a moment in thought, then he met the eyes of the other frankly.

“Father,” he said, “I don’t think that I could tell you all that has led to this decision if I would; and I do not see that it would be wise for us to go into the matter in any case. It seems to me that the fact that I have decided, and decided absolutely, is enough.”

The face before him grew a shade sterner.

“You seem to forget that you are speaking to your Superior.”

“Perhaps,” the young man returned with calmness, “it is you who forget that I have ended that relation.”

Father Frontford’s face darkened.

“I do not recognize that you have authority to end it.”

Maurice tried to repress the irritation which he could not but feel; and forced himself to speak as civilly as before.

“Will you pardon me,” he said; “I do not wish that our last talk should be bitter. I owe you much, and I shall never cease to respect the unselfishness with which you have tried to help me. That I cannot follow your path does not blind me to the fact that you have worked so untiringly to make the way plain and attractive to me.”

He was not without a secret feeling that he was speaking with some magnanimity, yet he was entirely sincere. He realized with thorough respect, even at the moment of breaking away, how complete was the devotion of the Father. There was in his mind, too, some satisfaction at the tone he had unconsciously adopted. It flattered him to find that he should be almost patronizing his Superior.

Father Frontford regarded Maurice with a look in which were mingled surprise, disapprobation, and regret. As the two sat holding each other’s eyes, the face of the older man changed and softened. Into it came a smile of high and spiritual beauty, of nobility and unworldliness, of tenderness most touching. All that was most winning in the character of the man was embodied in the look which he fixed upon his recreant disciple, a look pleading and wistful, yet full of dignity and strength. He leaned forward, laying the tips of his thin fingers almost caressingly on the arm of the other.

“My son,” he said, “it is not what I have done that you remember; it is what I represent. The truth and sweetness of religion is what has touched you. I am only the representative; and no one knows better how unworthy I am to be so looked on. If the grace of divine love seems to you good shining through me, think what it is in itself. Oh, my son,” he went on, the tears coming into his eyes, “I have loved you, and I love you more now that I see you tempted and bewildered. Turn back to the bosom of the church before it is too late.”

Maurice sat silent with look downcast. His firmness was not shaken; he had no inclination to reconsider his decision, but he was deeply moved by the emotion of the other. He could not bear to meet pleading so affectionate with a cold negative.

“It is for yourself that I appeal to you,” the priest went on. “It is for the good of your own soul, and for your happiness in this world and the world to come. Think of your mission. Think how men need you; of the sin and the error that cry out to Heaven, and of how few there are to do the Lord’s work. You have been confused by the temptations of the world, and in all of us there is a selfish spirit that may lead us to do in a moment of madness what we shall repent with tears of blood all our lives.”

Still Maurice could not answer; and the Father, bending still nearer, taking one of the young man’s hands in both his own, still pleaded.

“You have said that you felt my interest in you. Do not give me the bitterness of feeling that I am a careless shepherd who has lost a lamb to the wolves. If you have gone astray it must be in part my fault; it must be my negligence. Oh, my son, don’t force me to stand guilty before God to answer for your lost soul.”

It seemed to Maurice that he was being swept away by the simple power of the emotion of Frontford. He felt the tears in his eyes, and almost without his volition his hand responded to the pressure of the hand that clasped it. He made a strong effort to call back his will.

“Father,” he responded, “we must each stand or fall alone. It is not your fault that I can’t see things as you do, or that I can’t any longer remain here. I am changed. If I stayed, it would be against my convictions.”

“Ah,” was the eager reply, “but you could submit your convictions to the church.”

Maurice drew back.

“I am a man, to think for myself. I must be honest with my reason. The church cannot take for me the place of honesty and conviction.”

The Father Superior dropped the hand he held.

“Then you insist on putting your own will and your own wisdom above that of the church?”

“I must do the thing that seems to me right.”

The priest’s face hardened. It was as if over the surface of a pool a film of ice formed. He sank back in his chair, and when he spoke again it was in a voice so hard and cold that the young man started.

“When do you leave?” the Father Superior asked.

“I meant to wait until after nones so as to say good-by to Philip.”

“I prefer that you should go at once.”

“You mean that you prefer that I should not see him?” Maurice demanded quickly.

“I merely said that I prefer that you should go at once,” was the cold reply.

Maurice rose briskly. His impulse was to retort sharply, but he held himself in check.

“Very well,” he answered. “I shall take it as a favor if you will let Philip know that I did not willingly leave him without a word. It would hurt him to think that.”

“The wounds of earth,” the Father Superior said gravely, “are the joys of heaven.”

Maurice stood an instant with a keen desire to reply, to break down this icy statue of religion; then he drew back.

“I will not trouble you longer,” he said. “Good-by.”

“Good-by, Mr. Wynne,” the other responded with the manner of one addressing a stranger.

Maurice went to his chamber thoroughly aroused and excited. The restraint which he had put on himself during the talk with Father Frontford brought now its reaction. He rehearsed in his mind the telling and caustic things which he might have said, then laughed at himself for his unnecessary fervor. He packed his belongings, and, leaving them to be called for, set out for the house of his cousin. To go out from the Clergy House seemed to him like the ending of a life.

Mrs. Staggchase was fortunately at home. It seemed to Maurice that her keen eyes took in the whole story from his secular dress. He blushed as she gave him her hand.

“Well, my dear boy,” she observed, “you have come to luncheon, I suppose, because the fare at the Clergy House is so poor in Lent. Sit down, and give me an account of your doings last night. I trust that you saw Mrs. Wilson safe home.”

“I left her in the church.”

“Ah! And what did you do then?”

“I went home and fought it out with myself. You were right in saying that things were not concluded when I became a deacon. I have given up the whole thing.”

“What do you mean by the whole thing?”

“I mean,” he returned earnestly, “that I found out that I was acting a part. That I didn’t believe even the first principles of the religion I was getting ready to teach. I have broken down in the temptation, Cousin Diana.”

She looked at him closely. The buoyancy of his morning mood was gone, and it was hard for him to endure her searching look. It came over him that he was an apostate; one who had abandoned all that he had vowed to uphold; his vanity smarted at the thought that she must think him weak and unstable as water.

“I am only what I was,” he went on. “The difference is that I have discovered what you probably saw all the time, that I don’t believe the things I have been taught. I am as free from the old creeds as you are. I don’t even pretend to know that there is a God.”

“My dear boy,” she responded, shrugging her shoulders, “you run into extremes like a schoolgirl. I beg you won’t talk as if I could be so vulgar as not to believe in a deity. Don’t rank me with the crowd of common folk that try to increase their own importance by insisting that there’s nothing above them. Really, an atheist seems to me as bad as a man who eats with his knife.”

He changed countenance, but her words left him speechless. He could not hear her speak in this way without being shocked. He might be without creed, but his temper was still devout.

“If you’ve thrown overboard all your old dogmas,” she went on with unruffled face, “you’d better go to work to get a new set. I’ve just heard of some sort of a society got up by women out in Cambridge, where they deduce the ethnic sources of prophetic inspiration–whatever that means!–from the ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘Mother Goose.’ You might find something there to suit you.”

He could not answer her; he could only wonder whether she disapproved of what he had done, or if she were vexed with him for coming to her.

“It’s possible,” she went on mercilessly, a fresh note of mockery in her voice, “that Berenice might help you. Very often a woman wins converts where a priest fails. After last night”–

He came to his feet with a spring.

“Don’t!” he exclaimed. “I can’t stand any more. Do you think that it’s been easy for me to find out the truth about myself; to have to own that I’ve been a cheating fool, without honesty enough to know my own mind? As for Miss Morison”–

His voice failed him. He was unnerved; the reaction from his long vigil, from his interview with Father Frontford, overcame him. The simple mention of the name of Berenice made him choke, and he stood there speechless. His cousin rose and came to him softly. Before he knew what she was doing, she bent forward and kissed his forehead.

“You poor boy,” she said in a voice half laughing, yet so gentle that he hardly recognized it, “don’t take my teasing so much to heart. You are only finding out like the rest of us that it is impossible not to be human.”

He could answer only by grasping her hand, ashamed of the weakness which had betrayed him, and touched deeply by her kindness.

“Come,” Mrs. Staggchase said, moving to the bell, and speaking in her natural tone. “I have helped you to break your life into bits; I must try to help you to put the pieces together into something better. You must stay here for a while, and we’ll consider what is to be done next. Will you tell Patrick how to get your things from the Clergy House? Take your old room. I’ll see you at luncheon.”

And as the servant appeared at one door she withdrew by another.

XXX

PARTED OUR FELLOWSHIP
Othello, ii. 1.

Berenice had abundant leisure to reflect upon her attitude toward her lovers, for Mrs. Frostwinch was soon so seriously ill that it was evident to all that the end was at hand. Berenice devoted herself to the invalid, although there was little that she could do. The sick woman did not suffer; she seemed merely to be fading out of life; to have lost her hold upon something which was slipping from her loosened grasp.

“The fact is, Bee,” Mrs. Frostwinch said one day, “that the doctors say I’m dead. I’m beginning to believe it myself, and when I’m fully convinced, I suppose that that’ll be the end.”

“Oh, don’t joke about it, Cousin Anna,” cried Bee. “It is too dreadful.”

“It won’t make it any less dreadful to be solemn over it,” the other answered. “However, death should be spoken of with respect; even one’s own.”

Berenice longed to know what had taken place between her cousin and Mrs. Crapps, but she hardly liked to ask. That there had been a disagreement of some kind, and that Mrs. Frostwinch had lost faith in the woman, she knew; but beyond this she was in the dark. One afternoon, however, her cousin explained matters.

“It is so humiliating, Bee, that I can hardly bear to think of it, the way things turned out. My conscience will be easier, though, if I tell you the whole of it. It is so vulgar that it makes me creep. We were at Jekyll’s Island, and she had an ulcerated tooth.”

“I thought she couldn’t have such things?”

“She thought or pretended that she couldn’t. I must say that she fought against it with tremendous pluck; but the face kept swelling, and the pain got to be more than she could bear. When she gave out she went to pieces completely. She literally rolled on the floor and howled. I couldn’t go on believing in her after that. She’d actually made herself ridiculous.”

“But,” began Berenice, “I should think”–

“If it had been something dangerous, so that I had had to think of her life,” went on her cousin, not heeding, “I could have borne it; but that common thing! Why, her face looked like a drunken cook’s! I can’t tell you the humiliation of it!”

“But if she could help you, why not herself?”

Mrs. Frostwinch smiled wanly.

“I’ve tried to think that out,” answered she. “It was always said of the old witches, you know, that they couldn’t help themselves. It is faith in somebody else that is behind the wonders they do. I’ve grown very wise in the last few weeks, Bee. I don’t pretend that I understand all the facts, but I do know pretty well what the facts are. I believed in Mrs. Crapps, and that belief kept me up. When I couldn’t believe in her, that was the end of it.”

There seemed to Berenice something uncanny and monstrous in this calm acquiescence. She could not comprehend how her cousin could give up the struggle for life in this fashion, after having succeeded so long in holding death at bay.

“But surely,” she protested, “you can’t be willing to let everything depend upon her. You’ve proved the possibility”–

“I’ve proved the possibility of depending upon somebody else; that’s all.”

“Then find another woman that you can believe in.”

“It is too late. I can’t have the faith over again. I should always be expecting another humiliating downfall of my prophetess.”

She was silent a moment, and then continued:–

“Do you know, Bee, it seems to me after all that my experience is like almost all religion. There are a few men and women who believe in themselves in that self-poised way that makes it possible for them to get on with just ethics; and there are those who can take hold of unseen things; but for the rest of us it’s necessary to have some human being to lean on. I hope I don’t shock you. I lie awake in the night a good deal, and my mind seems clearer than it used to be. All the religions seem to have a real, tangible human centre, a personality that human beings can appreciate and believe in. Mrs. Crapps was so real and so near at hand that I could have faith in her; now that that is gone there isn’t anything left for me. I can’t believe in her, and she has destroyed the Possibility of my believing in anybody else.”

Berenice put out her hand in the growing dusk, caressing the thin fingers of the sick woman.

“But–but,” she hesitated, “she hasn’t destroyed your faith in–in everything, has she?”

“No, dear; she hasn’t touched my belief in God; but it makes me ashamed to see how different a thing it is to believe in what we see and touch, from having a genuine faith in what we do not see. I have a faith in my soul still; the other was only a faith of the body. Perhaps it had only to do with the body, and it is not so bad to have lost it.”

“Oh, Cousin Anna,” Berenice murmured, tears choking her voice, “I can’t bear to see you getting farther and farther off every day, and to feel so helpless.”

“There, there, Bee,” responded the other with tender cheerfulness, “you are not to agitate yourself or to excite me. I’ve lived half a year more now than the doctors allowed me, and I’ve enjoyed it too. Besides, think of the blessedness of not having any pain. Do you know, the night after Mrs. Crapps had that scene in the hotel, I was in a panic of terror lest my old agony should come back; but it didn’t. Then I said to myself: ‘Of course I couldn’t suffer; I’m really dead!’ You can’t think what a comfort it was.”

“Oh, don’t, don’t!” cried Bee. “I can’t bear to have you talk like that.”

“Well, then, we won’t. There’s something else I want to speak to you about while I am strong enough. Do you realize that when I am gone you’ll be a rich woman?”

“I haven’t thought about it. I’ve hated to think.”

“Yes, dear, I understand; but when you are older you’ll come to realize that half of the duty of life is to think of things which one would rather forget.”

“But it could do no good to think of this.”

“Perhaps not; but I want to ask you something. I know you’ll forgive me. It’s about Parker Stanford.”

“You may ask me anything you like, of course, Cousin Anna. As for Parker Stanford, he’s nothing more than the rest of the men I know, only he’s been more polite. We are very good friends.”

“No more?”

“No more; and we never shall be.”

“But he surely wished to be?” The day had darkened until the room was lighted only by the flames of the soft coal fire which sputtered in the grate. The cousins could hardly see each other’s faces; but in the dim light Berenice turned frankly toward Mrs. Frostwinch.

“That is all over now,” responded she. “Of course to anybody else I shouldn’t own that there ever was anything; but whatever there may have been is ended. He understands that perfectly.”

For some minutes Berenice sat smoothing the invalid’s hand, the firelight glancing on her face and hair.

“How pretty you are, Bee,” Mrs. Frostwinch said at length. Then without pause she added: “Is there anybody else?”

Bee sank backward into the shadow with a quick, instinctive movement, dropping the hand she held.

“Who should there be?” she returned.

Her cousin laughed softly.

“You are as transparent as glass,” she said. “Come, who is it?”

Berenice hesitated an instant, then threw herself forward, bending over the hand of her companion until her face was hidden.

“There isn’t really anybody; and besides I’ve insulted him so that he never could help hating me. No, there isn’t anybody, Cousin Anna; and there never will be. I know I should despise him if he wasn’t angry; and besides,” she added with the air of suddenly recollecting herself, “I hate him for what he said.”

“That is evident,” the other assented smilingly. “I could see at once that you hated him. But who is it?”

“Why, there isn’t anybody, I tell you. Of course I thought about him after he saved my life, but”–

“Oh,” interrupted Mrs. Frostwinch. “Then it is Mr. Wynne. But I thought”–

“He isn’t a priest any more,” Berenice struck in, replying to the unspoken doubt as if it had been in her own mind. “I heard yesterday that he has left the Clergy House for good, and is staying with Mrs. Staggchase.”

“Have you seen him lately?”

“He overtook me on the street yesterday.”

Mrs. Frostwinch put out her hand with a loving gesture.

“Bee,” said she tenderly, “I want you to be happy. You’ve been like a daughter to me ever since your mother died, and I’ve thought of you almost as if you were my own child. If this is the man to make you happy”–

But Bee stooped forward and stopped the words with kisses.

“I can’t talk of him,” she said, “and he will never be anything to me. He is angry, and he has a right to be. He”–

The entrance of the nurse interrupted them, and Berenice made haste to get away before there was opportunity for further question. In her anxiety to know something more of Mr. Wynne, Mrs. Frostwinch sent for Mrs. Staggchase, who came in the next day.

Mrs. Staggchase found her friend weak and frightfully changed. The high-bred face was haggard, the nostrils thin, while beneath the eyes were heavy purple shadows. A ghost of the old smile lighted her face, making it more ghastly yet, like the gleaming of a candle through a death-mask. The hand extended to the visitor was so transparent that it might almost have belonged to a spirit.

“My dear Anna,” Mrs. Staggchase exclaimed, “I hadn’t an idea”–

“That I was so near dying, my dear,” interrupted the other. “I am worse than that, I am dead, really; but it doesn’t matter. I want to talk to you about Bee.”

“About Bee?” echoed the other, seating herself beside the bed. “What about her?”

“I should have said that I want to ask you about Mr. Wynne. Do you know anything about his relations to her?”

“The only relation that he has is that of a perfectly desperate adorer. He worships the ground she walks on, but he doesn’t cherish anything that could be decently called hope.”

“Then he does care for her?”

“My dear Anna, it almost makes me weep for my lost youth to see him. He has so wrought upon my glands of sentiment that this morning I actually examined my husband’s wardrobe to see if the maid darns his stockings properly. Fred would be perfectly amazed if he knew how sentimental I feel. I even thought of sitting up last night to welcome him home from the club, but about half past one I came to the end of my novel and felt sleepy, so I gave that up.”

Mrs. Frostwinch smiled with the air of one who understands that the visitor is endeavoring to furnish a diversion from the dull sadness of the sick chamber.

“But Bee said he was angry with her.”

“The anger of lovers, my dear, is legitimate fuel for the flame. That’s nothing. She’s been amusing herself with him, and if she thinks he resents it, so much the better for him.”

“But is he”–

She hesitated as if not knowing how best to frame her question.

“He is a handsome creature, as you know if you remember him,” the visitor said, taking up the word. “He is well born, he is well bred, if a little countrified. He’s been shut up with monks and other mouldy things, and needs a little knocking about in the world; but I am very fond of him.”

“Then you think”–

“I think that whoever gets Bee will get a treasure; but I am not sure that she is any too good for my cousin. He hasn’t much money, unless he gets a little fortune that ought to have been his, and which he has some hope of. I mean to give him something myself one of these days, if he behaves himself; but of course he hasn’t any idea of that.”

“Bee will have all the Canton money, and can do as she likes.”

Mrs. Staggchase looked down at the carpet as if studying the pattern.

“Perhaps,” she returned.

“What do you mean by that?”

“If I know Maurice Wynne, the fact that she has money will make him very slow to speak. Besides, he has a silly crotchet in his head now. He thinks that if he tried to marry her it would look as if he had given up his religion for her.”

“Did he?”

“Bless you, no. He was simply led into the Clergy House by being fond of a friend; one of those men that young men and old women fall in love with. Maurice never belonged there at all. I saw that the first day he came to stay with me at the beginning of the winter. I was abroad while he was in college, so I never knew him except most casually before.”

“But if he really cares for her he’ll get over those obstacles.”

“If she cares for him, he must be made to.”

“I am convinced that she does,” Mrs. Frostwinch said. “I am so glad you speak well of him. I do so want Bee to be happy.”

There was a long silence in the chamber. The two friends sat wrapped in thought. They had seen so much of life, they had had so many blessings of fortune, culture, position, wealth, that there was a grim irony in their sitting here helpless in the face of coming death. To their reverie, moreover, the mention of love could not but give color. No woman has ever come to speak of love entirely unmoved, though her heart may have been deadened or crushed beyond the power of thrilling or quickening at any other thought. These two, who had led lives so happy, so protected, so rich, sat there silent before the possibilities which lay in the love of a girl; until at last both sighed, whether with regret or tenderness perhaps they could not themselves have told. Perhaps both remembered their youthful days; remembered how one had lost her first love by death and the other parted from hers in anger, making a marriage which seemed more a matter of affronting the man discarded than of affection for the man she chose. They knew each other’s history so completely that there could be no disguise between them. Their eyes met, and for an instant there was a suspicion of wistfulness in the glance. Then Mrs. Frostwinch shook her head, and smiled sadly.

“At least,” she said, “I shall be spared the pain of growing old.”

“After all,” the other responded, “the bitterness of growing old is to feel that one has never completely been young.”

The sick woman regarded her with burning eyes.

“But we have been young, Di,” she said eagerly. “Surely we had all that there was.”

“Anna,” Mrs. Staggchase murmured, leaning toward her, “we know each other too well not to say things that most women are afraid to say. We both married well, and we have cared for our husbands and been happy. But we both know that there was deep down a memory”–

“No, no, Di,” her friend interrupted excitedly, “you shall not make me think of that! I have forgotten all that; and I am dying comfortably. You shall not make me think of him! Only, dear Di, I want you to help Bee to marry the man she loves with her whole heart; that she loves as we might have loved if”–

Mrs. Staggchase kissed her solemnly.

“I promise, Anna.”

Then she rose, her whole manner changing.

“Do you know, my dear,” she observed, in a tone gayly satirical, “that I believe that Elsie Wilson is going to be beaten in her bishop steeplechase?”

“Do you mean that Father Frontford won’t be elected?”

“I mean just that. However, things are still uncertain. It will be amusing to see what Elsie will do if she is defeated. She is capable of setting up a church of her own.”

“There are two or three men with whom I have some influence that will go over to Mr. Strathmore if I am not here to look after them. I must write to them to-morrow and get them to promise to hold by our side.”

But that night Mrs. Frostwinch died quietly in her sleep, and the letters were not written.

XXXI

HOW CHANCES MOCK
2 Henry IV., iii. 1.

Maurice had seen Berenice only once since his encounter at the ball. He had hoped and dreaded to meet her, but for more than a week after his leaving the Clergy House he had failed. One morning he saw her walking before him on Beacon Street; and while he instantly said to himself that he trusted that she would not discover him, he hurried forward to overtake her. His feet carried him forward even while he told himself that he did not wish to go. He was beside her in a moment, and as he spoke she raised those rich, dark eyes with a glance which made him thrill.

“Good-morning,” he said with his heart beating as absurdly as if the encounter were of the highest consequence.

“Good-morning, Mr. Wynne,” she responded, with a manner entirely abstract.

She had started and blushed, he was sure, on perceiving him; but if so she had instantly recovered her self-possession. He was disconcerted by the coldness of her manner, and began to wish in complete earnest that he had not overtaken her.

“I beg your pardon for intruding,” he said, his voice hardening, “but”–

“The public street is free to anybody, I suppose,” she returned, with an air of studied politeness. “I don’t claim any exclusive right to it.”

“I didn’t apologize for being on the street, but for speaking to you.”

“Oh, that,” answered Berenice carelessly, although he thought that he detected a spark of mischief in her eye, “is a thing of so little consequence that it isn’t worth mentioning.”

“I venture to speak to you,” he said, ignoring the thrust, “because I have wanted to beg your pardon for my rudeness when I saw you last.”

She turned upon him quickly, her cheeks aflame.

“Your rudeness?” she exclaimed. “Your brutality, I think you mean!”

It was his turn to grow red.

“My brutality, if you choose. I beg your pardon for whatever offended.”

“It was unpardonable! It was a thing no woman could ever forgive!”

Maurice turned pale. He stopped where he stood.

“In that case,” he said, bowing with formality, “I have no business to be speaking to you now.”

He turned and was gone before she could add a word.

This interview probably made neither of the young persons happy; and Maurice it left entirely miserable. He was not without a proper pride, however, and in his present frame of mind was ready to call it to his aid. He bore a brave outward front. He resolved not to think of his love; yet he was not without the hardly confessed hope that if he could find the lost will he might be taking a step in the direction of the realization of his desires. He tried to forget Berenice in the very means he was taking to bring himself nearer to her.

He set out for Montfield one bright February day, amused at himself for the difference in his attitude toward the world from the mere fact that he had discarded the ecclesiastical garb. It gave him a fresh and delightful sensation to be traveling on business in clothing like that of other men. He had no longer any wish to be separated by his dress, and thought with contemptuous amusement of the lurking self- consciousness which had always attached itself in his mind to the fact that he was in a costume apart. He realized now that he had from this derived a certain satisfaction, half simple vanity and half the gratification of his histrionic instinct. He felt as if he had been like a child pleased to attract attention by a feather stuck in his cap, or a toy sword girt at his side. Now that the whole experience was past he could smile at it, but he had small patience with those who still retained the clerical garb. Men have usually little tolerance for the fault which they have but newly outgrown; and Maurice thought with a sort of amazement of his late fellows at the Clergy House, and of their manifest satisfaction in the dress they wore. It was almost with a sensation of self-righteousness that he enjoyed the habiliments of ordinary civilized man.

As the train sped on, and the scenery became more familiar as he approached nearer to Montfield, Maurice naturally fell to thinking, in an irregular, detached fashion, of his youth. Both Wynne’s parents had died in his childhood, and there had been little to keep firm the bonds of family. Alice Singleton he had known, however, both as a girl and as the wife of his half brother, but he had known only to dislike and avoid her. He began now to wonder how she would receive him, and whether she would allude to the scene at Mrs. Rangely’s when he had broken up her spiritualistic deception.

The train of thought into which reminiscence had plunged him carried him over his whole life. He realized for the first time that his religious experiences had been little more than a reflection of those of Philip. It was Ashe who had interested him in spiritual things, who had led him into the church, who had practically determined for him that he should become a priest. For the first time, and with profound amazement, Maurice realized how completely his theological life had been the growth of the mind of Ashe rather than of his own. The thought brought with it a sense of weakness and self-contempt.

“Haven’t I any strength of character?” he asked himself. “In everything practical Phil has always relied on me. It was always Phil I cared for, not the church.”

Imperfectly as he was able to phrase it, Maurice was not in the end without some reasonably clear conception of the fact that in his life Philip had represented the feminine element. It was by love for his friend that he had been led on. Now that his reason was fully awake this emotional yielding to the thought of another was no longer possible; now that his heart was filled with a passion for Berenice his nature no longer responded to the appeal of the feminine in Ashe.

Maurice was half aware that his was a character sure to be influenced greatly by affection; but he felt that it would never again be possible for him so to give up to another the guidance of his life as he now saw that he had yielded it to his friend. He had learned his weakness, and the lesson had been enforced too sharply ever to be forgotten.

He was coming now into the region of his old home. The forests were beginning faintly to show the approach of spring; the treetops were dimly warming in color, the branches thickening against the sky. Here and there Maurice looked down on a brook black with the late rains and with the floods from the snow-drifts still melting on the distant hills. Now he caught a far flash of the river where he had skated in winters almost forgotten, so fast does time move, where he had fished and bathed in summers so long gone that they seemed to belong to the life of some other. Yet once more and a distant hill, duskily blue against the bluer heavens, wakened for him some memory of his boyhood, seeming to challenge him to renew the old joys and to revel in the by- gone fervors.

All these things softened the mood in which Maurice came back to the old town, and as he walked up the village street, so well remembered yet so strange, he had a sense of unreality. The very homely familiarity of it all made it appear the more like a dream. He felt his heart-beats quicken as he approached the Ashe place, wondering if he should see Mrs. Ashe. He had always, with all his affection, felt for Philip’s mother a sort of awe, as if she were more than a simple human creature. He found it difficult to understand that Mrs. Singleton should be staying with her, so incongruous was the association in his mind of two such women. With Mrs. Ashe, Alice must at least be at her best.

He walked up to the house, passing under the leafless lilac bushes with a keen remembrance of how they were laden with odors in June. He wondered if the tansy still grew under the sitting-room window, and if the lilies-of-the-valley flourished on the north side of the house as of old. Then he knocked with the quaint old black knocker, and with the sound came back the present and the thought that he had before him an interview which might be neither pleasant nor easy.

Mrs. Singleton herself opened the door.

“I saw you coming,” she greeted him, “and there is nobody at home but me.”

Maurice tried not to look disappointed.

“Then Mrs. Ashe is not at home?”

“No; she is out, and the girl is out. Will you come in? You probably didn’t come to see me.”

“But I did come to see you.”

She led the way into the long, low sitting-room, with its many doors and its wide fireplace, so familiar that he might have left it yesterday.

“I can’t imagine what you want of me,” Mrs. Singleton said, waving her hand toward a chair. “The last time I saw you you didn’t seem very fond of me.”

She seated herself by the side of the fire in a great old-fashioned chair covered with chintz and spreading out wings on either side of her head.

“You are still angry, Alice, I see,” he rejoined. “Well, I can’t help that. I did what was right. How in the world could you make up your mind to fool those people so?”

“They wanted to be fooled; why not oblige them?”

He regarded her with astonishment. He had expected her to deny that her deception was deliberate, to claim that the manifestations were real. Her frank and cynical speech disconcerted him. He had no reply. She broke into a sneering laugh.

“There,” she said, “you didn’t come here to talk about that seance. What did you come for?”

“I came to ask you if you still have Aunt Hannah’s desk.”

She regarded him keenly.

“The little traveling desk?”

“Yes.”

“What if I have?”

“But have you?”

“Oh, I don’t mind telling you that. I don’t see that it can do you any good to know that I have it. I always carry it round with me. It’s so convenient.”

“Will you sell it to me?”

“Certainly not. If you didn’t want it, I might give it to you; but if you do you can’t have it.”

Maurice began to feel his anger rising. He felt helpless before this woman, with her innocent, baby face, this woman with the guileless look of a child and a child’s freedom from moral scruples, who faced him with a smile of pleased malice. It might be unwise to tell his real errand, but she surely could not do any harm greater than to be disagreeable. There must be some method, he reflected, of getting at the thing legally; but what it was he was entirely ignorant; and now that he had shown a desire for the desk he was confident that Mrs. Singleton would persist until she had discovered the truth. He could think of nothing to do but to make a clean breast of the whole matter. He nerved himself to the task, and told her of the finding of Norah and of what followed.

“Have you ever discovered that the desk had a false bottom?” he asked in conclusion.

“No, brother Maurice. The spirits hadn’t revealed it to me. But then I never asked them about that.”

There was an air of triumphant glee in her manner, an open and mocking sneer, which dismayed him. He was sure that he had erred in telling her his secret; yet he reflected that he could hardly have done otherwise, and that she surely would not dare to refuse to give up a legal document so important.

“Will you let me examine the desk?”

“I am so happy to oblige you,” she returned. “Though whether your story is true or not must depend, you know, upon the unsupported testimony of the medium–I mean of the speaker.”

Maurice rose and went toward her, facing her squarely.

“I understand, Alice,” he said, “that you don’t love me, and I haven’t come to ask favors. This is a matter of simple honesty. I certainly don’t think you would willfully keep me out of my property.”

“Thank you for drawing the line somewhere. It was so noble of you to interfere at Mrs. Rangely’s! You didn’t in the least mind robbing me of my good name, and them of the comfort of believing it was real. Besides, I did see things! I swear to you that I did! I am a medium in spite of whatever you say. I can call up spirits!”

Her voice rose as she went on, and he feared lest she should work herself into one of her furies of excitement and temper which he had seen of old.

“Why should we go back to that?” he said, as gently as he could. “That is past, and I only did what I thought was my duty.”

“Oh, you did your duty, did you?” she sneered.

“Well, I’ll do mine now. Stay here, while I go and empty that old desk. I’ll match you in doing my duty!”

She hurried tumultuously from the room, leaving Maurice in anything but an enviable frame of mind. He began to walk up and down, assailed by old memories at every turn, yet so disturbed by Mrs. Singleton’s words and manner that he could not heed the recollections. The minutes passed, and Alice did not return. It seemed to him that she took a long time to remove her papers from the desk. Then he smiled to himself in bitter amusement and impatience. Of course his sister-in-law was trying to discover the secret of the double bottom. She would probably persevere until she had gained the precious document of which he had come in search. She would read it, and then–He broke off in his reverie with an exclamation of impatience. What a fool he had been to attempt to deal with this woman alone! He had, it was true, expected to find Mrs. Ashe, but he should have sent a lawyer. What did he, a puppet from the Clergy House, know of managing the affairs of life? He felt that he had failed in his match with Mrs. Singleton; and he had almost made up his mind to go in search of her, when he heard her returning.

She came in with her face flushed, her eyes shining, and an air of triumph which struck dismay to the heart of Maurice.

“I am sorry to have kept you waiting so long,” she said, “but I had to light a fire in the parlor, I was so cold. However, I have something to show you that will interest you.”

“Is it the will?” he asked eagerly.

She answered with a laugh, but led the way across the narrow front entry into the parlor. The pleasant noise of a crackling fire sounded within, and as he entered the room he saw that the fireplace was filled with a ruddy blaze. Then he rushed forward with a cry. There on the top of the blazing logs were the unmistakable remains of the desk, eaten through and through by tongues of red flame. He seized the tongs, and dragged the burning mass to the hearth, but even as he did so he saw that he was too late.

“It is kind of you to want to save my old desk, Maurice,” jeered his companion; “but I had the misfortune to put the poker through the bottom of it before I called you, so that I’m afraid it really isn’t worth saving.”

He saw that the wood had indeed been punched through and through, and that it was reduced almost to a cinder. It was easy to see that the bottom had been double, and burned flakes of paper were visible among the remains; whether of the will or not it was obviously impossible now to discover. He looked at the burned bits of board falling into ashes and cinders at his feet, realizing that here was an end to all his dreams of regaining his aunt’s fortune; that with this dream ended, too, his visions of being in a position to offer Berenice–His wrath blazed up in an uncontrollable force.

“You are a fiend!” he cried, facing the woman who smiled beside him. “You are a thief, a shameless, deliberate thief!”

She stood the image of mirthful, innocent girlhood, her smooth forehead unclouded, her eyes gleaming as if with the merriment of a child.

“It is a pretty fire, isn’t it, Maurice?”

Then her whole expression changed. Into her dark, dewy eyes came a look of rage, visible murder in a glance.

“You called me a liar, there in Boston,” she said hissingly. “I am not surprised to have you add thief now. I have only done what I chose with my own property; but I would have been cut into little bits before you should have had that will through me!”

He could not trust himself to reply. He felt that if he spoke he might break out into curses, and he was conscious of an unmanly longing to strike her, to mar that beautiful, false face, childlike and pure in every line,–for the expression of rage had melted as quickly as it had come,–to feel the joy of seeing her limbs slacken and her red lips grow white. He clinched his hands and turned resolutely away.

“I’m sure I don’t know that there was anything there that you had any interest in,” she pursued lightly. “I tried as long as I dared to get the bottom open, and I couldn’t, so I decided that it wasn’t any of my business. Only when I put the poker through there seemed to be papers there.”

Maurice could endure no more. He started toward her so fiercely that she recoiled, a sudden pallor blanching her rosy loveliness. Then he turned abruptly away again, and got out of the house.

XXXII

NOW HE IS FOR THE NUMBERS
Romeo and Juliet, ii. 4.

Interest in the question who would be bishop increased as Lent waned and the time for the meeting of the convention approached. The general public could not be expected to be greatly concerned about a matter so purely ecclesiastical, but the wide popularity of Mr. Strathmore gave to the election a character of its own. The question was generally held to be that of the prevalence of liberal views. Many who cared nothing about the church were interested in seeing whether new or old ideas would prevail. The age is one in which there is a keen curiosity to see what course the church will take. It is partly due, undoubtedly, to the inherited habit of being concerned in theology; it is perhaps more largely the result of unconscious desire for a liberalism so great that it shall justify those who have been so liberal as to lay aside all religion whatever.

The papers had entered into the discussion with an alacrity quickened by the fact that at this especial season there was not much else in the way of news. Rangely wrote for the “Daily Eagle” a glowing editorial in which he urged the choice of Strathmore on the ground that the new bishop should be not the representative of a faction, but of the whole church, and as far as possible of the people. It insisted that only a man liberal himself could have breadth to understand and sympathize with all shades of feeling. Others of the secular press had taken up the discussion, and Mrs. Wilson declared that the devil was contributing editorials to the papers in his keen fear that Father Frontford would be elected.

Lent wore at last to an end, and the festivities which follow Easter came in with all their usual gayety. One evening, about a week before the election, a musicale was given at the house of Mrs. Gore. Mr. and Mrs. Strathmore were present, the tall figure of the former being conspicuous in the crowd which after the music surged toward the supper-room and later eddied through the parlors. Fred Rangely came upon the clergyman at a moment when he had detached himself from the admiring women who usually surrounded him, and taken refuge in the shadow of a deep window.

“Good-evening, Mr. Strathmore,” Rangely said. “Are you making a retreat? I thought Lent was the time for that.”

The other smiled with that kindly benevolence which was characteristic.

“Ah, Mr. Rangely,” he responded, extending his hand. “I am glad to see you. Will you share my retirement?”

“Thank you,” Rangely answered, stepping into the recess. “A retreat is especially grateful to a journalist. We get so tired that even a moment of respite is welcome.”

Mr. Strathmore smiled more genially than ever.

“Yes; you journalists are expected to know everything, and it must be wearing to have to learn all that there is to know.”

“Oh, it’s easy enough to learn instead how to appear to know.”

The clergyman regarded him with a quizzical look.

“Is that the way it is done? I’ve often wondered at the infallibility of your guild.”

“A trick, of the trade, I assure you. We have to seem to be infallible to secure any attention at all, you see; and we soon learn the knack of it.”

The clergyman, as if unconsciously, drew back a little farther into the shadow of the heavy draperies veiling the nook in which they stood.

“I dare say,” he observed, as if speaking at random, “that one of your clever professional writers would be able, for instance, to give the reader quite an inside view even in church matters.”

Rangely’s face changed, and he in turn altered his position by leaning his elbow against the heavy middle sash of the window. The two men were thus not only concealed from the passing crowd, but stood with faces screened from each other by the shadow.

“Oh, even that might be possible,” Rangely returned lightly.

“There is so much interest in church matters now,” the other continued dispassionately. “I noticed that the ‘Churchman’ had rather a striking article two or three weeks ago on a layman’s point of view of the bishop question. Did you see it?”

“I seldom see the ‘Churchman,'” Rangely replied in a voice not wholly free from constraint.

“It is a pity you didn’t see this, it was so well done. It is true that it proved me to be all sorts of a heretic; but if I am, of course it should be known.”

There was a pause of a moment. Outside in the drawing-room rose the constant babble of speech, unintelligible and confusing. Then above it Rangely laughed softly.

“The wisdom of the journalist,” he remarked, “is as nothing compared to that of the clergy. How did you discover that I wrote it?”

“Discover? Isn’t that a word applied to finding things by seeking?”

“What of that?”

“I was merely thinking that you give me credit for more leisure and more curiosity than I possess if you suppose me to have tried to find out about that article.”

Rangely laughed again.

“Mr. Strathmore,” he said with a new resolution in his tone, “will you pardon me if I am frank? I want to ask you what I can do to help you to secure the election.”

“Don’t think I am given to word-splitting, Mr. Rangely, but I’ve no wish to _secure_ it. If the church needs me–but, after all, we need not quibble. Will you pardon me if I say that your question is rather remarkable coming from the author of the ‘Churchman’ paper.”

“Although I wrote the ‘Churchman’ article, I wrote also the ‘Eagle’ editorial,” was the reply. “I see things in a different light. The fact is that I was trapped into writing that stuff for the ‘Churchman,’ and now I’m anxious to undo any harm I may have done.”

“I am glad that you do not really think me as bad as that article made me out,” Strathmore said. “There have been some queer things about this election. Mrs. Gore has a letter that a woman has written which illustrates how injudicious some of those interested have been.”

“What sort of a letter?”

“A letter that is amusing in a way. Of course I only mention the thing confidentially. Very likely, though, Mrs. Gore might be willing to let you see it if you are interested. It was written to a clergyman in the western part of the State by Mrs. Wilson.”

“Mrs. Wilson?”

“Mrs. Chauncy Wilson. Of course you know that she is much interested in the matter. It isn’t a very discreet document. I shall be much relieved when the whole thing is settled. It causes too much excitement, especially for us who have been named in connection with the office.”

“It can’t be pleasant,” Rangely assented.

“It is not, I assure you. Now it is my duty to be talking to ladies and helping Mrs. Gore. She told me that she depended on me.”

He moved forward as he spoke, and the two were soon in the company again. Rangely weltered through the crowd to Mrs. Gore and asked about the letter.

“It is a trump card,” she said. “I am glad you spoke about it. I was wondering how it could be used to the best advantage. Mr. Strathmore talks about its being a private letter, but I have a shrewd suspicion that he wouldn’t mind if somebody else used it. Come in to-morrow about five, and we’ll talk it over.”

Maurice Wynne was naturally not entirely at home in this sort of a gathering. He had not overcome his shyness and want of familiarity with social usages, so that he was especially relieved when he found himself comfortably seated in a corner with Mrs. Herman, to whom he could talk freely.

“Isn’t there something that can be done for Phil, Mrs. Herman?” he asked earnestly. “I haven’t seen him since I left the Clergy House. I had to come away without saying good-by to him, and in answer to my letter he says that Father Frontford advises him not to see me for the present.”

Mrs. Herman sighed, playing with her fan.

“Life is hard for a nature like his,” answered she. “He is born to be a martyr. He has the martyr temperament. It’s part of our inheritance from Puritanism, I suppose.”

Maurice smiled, looking up impulsively.

“I can’t see why you lay so much stress on Puritanism,” he said. “What has Puritanism resulted in? Its whole struggle has come to an end in doubt and agnosticism and flippancy. Intellectual curiosity has taken the place of spiritual stress; ethical casuistry or theological amusements seem to me to stand instead of religious conviction.”

Mrs. Herman regarded him with an inquiring smile.

“You make me feel old,” she interposed; “it is so long since I went through that stage. Will you pardon me for saying that you are not quite a disinterested observer?”

“It is the eyes newly open that see most clearly,” he responded, throwing back his head with a little laugh. “The Puritan came into the wilderness to establish a city of God. Time has shown that he dreamed an impossible dream. The result of that effort has been the establishment of a religious liberty”–

“One might almost say a religious license, I own,” she interpolated.

“A religious liberty or license as you like, but at any rate something that would have seemed to them appallingly wicked,–a thousand times worse than anything they fled from into the desert.”

Mrs. Herman was silent a moment while he waited for her answer. Her eyes grew darker, and the color flushed in her cheeks.

“It is odd enough for me to be the champion of Puritanism,” she said at length, “and yet it seems to me that after all they did their work well, and that it was permanent. They left on the land the stress of sincerity and earnestness. Creeds fall away just as leaves drop from the trees, but each leaf has helped. Religions decay, but the salvation of the race must depend upon human steadfastness to conviction.”

“Then I suppose that you think Phil is nearer to the heart of things than I am.”

“Not in the least. The difference between you is superficial rather than real so long as you are both true to your convictions.”

“But it seems to me,” Maurice objected, “that Phil is looking at truth as a sort of fetish. He seems to feel that the root of the matter is in a dogma, and a dogma is only the fossil remains of a truth that is gone by.”

She laughed appreciatively.

“Have you caught the fever for making epigrams? I’m afraid there’s a good deal of truth in what you say about Cousin Philip. He can’t help looking at religion as an end rather than a means.”

“Has it ever struck you that he might finish by going over to the Catholics?”

“No,” she answered, “I confess I’d never thought of it; but I see what you mean.”

“It will seem to him a moral catastrophe, a sort of ecclesiastical cataclysm,” Maurice continued, “if Father Frontford isn’t elected; and as far as I can judge there isn’t much chance of that.”

“No,” she assented, “I don’t think there is much chance.”

“He said to me one day,” added Maurice thoughtfully, “that in the Catholic Church there never could have been any danger of the election of a heretic bishop. I am afraid this will decide him.”

Mrs. Herman regarded him with a smile, studying him as if she were reading the working of his mind.

“You think that a misfortune,” she commented. “You feel that it is a step farther into the darkness.”

“It is to narrow rather than to broaden his horizon, is it not?”

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