He opened a door into one of the smaller compartments of the drawing-room, looked, crept in, and closed the door behind him.
Lufa was there--alone! He durst not approach her, but if he seated himself in a certain corner, he could see her and she him! He did not, however, apprehend that the corner he had chosen was entirely in shadow, or reflect that the globe of a lamp was almost straight between them. He thought she saw him, but she did not.
The room seemed to fold him round with softness as he entered from the dreary night; and he could not help being pervaded by the warmth, and weakened by the bodily comfort. He sat and gazed at his goddess--a mere idol, seeming, not being, until he hardly knew whether she was actually before him, or only present to his thought. She was indeed a little pale--but that she always was when quiet; no sorrow, not a shadow was on her face. She seemed brooding, but over nothing painful. At length she smiled.
"She is pleased to think that I love her!" thought Walter. "She leans to me a little! When the gray hair comes and the wrinkles, it will be a gracious memory that she was so loved by one who had but his life to give her! 'He was poor,' she will say, 'but I have not found the riches he would have given me! I have been greatly loved!'"
I believe myself, she was ruminating a verse that had come to her in the summer-house, while Walter was weeping by her side.
A door opened, and Sefton came in.
"Have you seen the 'Onlooker'?" he said--a journal at the time in much favor with the more educated populace. "There is a review in it that would amuse you."
"Of what?" she asked, listlessly.
"I didn't notice the name of the book, but it is a poem, and just your sort, I should say. The article is in the 'Onlooker's' best style."
"Pray let me see it!" she answered, holding out her hand.
"I will read it to you, if I may."
She did not object. He sat down a little way from her, and read.
He had not gone far before Walter knew, although its name had not occurred as Sefton read, that the book was his own. The discovery enraged him: how had the reviewer got hold of it when he himself had seen no copy except Lufa's? It was a puzzle he never got at the root of. Probably some one he had offended had contrived to see as much of it, at the printer's or binder's, as had enabled him to forestall its appearance with the most stinging, mocking, playfully insolent paper that had ever rejoiced the readers of the "Onlooker." But he had more to complain of than rudeness, a thing of which I doubt if any reviewer is ever aware. For he soon found that, by the blunder of reviewer or printer, the best of the verses quoted were misquoted, and so rendered worthy of the epithet attached to them. This unpleasant discovery was presently followed by another--that the rudest and most contemptuous personal remark was founded on an ignorant misapprehension of the reviewer's own; while in ridicule of a mere misprint which happened to carry a comic suggestion on the face of it, the reviewer surpassed himself.
As Sefton read, Lufa laughed often and heartily: the thing was gamesomely, cleverly, almost brilliantly written. Annoyed as he was, Walter did not fail to note, however, that Sefton did not stop to let Lufa laugh, but read quietly on. Suddenly she caught the paper from his hand, for she was as quick as a kitten, saying:
"I must see who the author of the precious book is!"
Her cousin did not interfere, but sat watching her--almost solemnly.
"Ah, I thought so!" she cried, with a shriek of laughter. "I thought so! I could hardly be mistaken! What will the poor fellow say to it! It will kill him!" She laughed immoderately. "I hope it will give him a lesson, however!" she went on. "It is most amusing to see how much he thinks of his own verses! He worships them! And then makes up for the idolatry by handling without mercy those of other people! It was he who so maltreated my poor first! I never saw anything so unfair in my life!"
Sefton said nothing, but looked grim.
"You should see--I will show it you--the gorgeous copy of this same comical stuff he gave me to-day! I am so glad he is going: he won't be able to ask me how I like it, and I sha'n't have to tell a story! I'm sorry for him, though--truly! He is a very nice sort of boy, though rather presuming. I must find out who the writer of that review is, and get mamma to invite him! He is a host in himself! I don't think I ever read anything so clever--or more just!"
"Oh, then, you have read the book?" spoke her cousin at length.
"No; but ain't those extracts enough? Don't they speak for themselves--for their silliness and sentimentality?"
"How would you like of a book of yours judged by scraps chopped off anywhere, Lufa!--or chosen for the look they would have in the humorous frame of the critic's remarks! It is less than fair! I do not feel that I know in the least what sort of book this is. I only know that again and again, having happened to come afterward upon the book itself, I have set down the reviewer as a knave, who for ends of his own did not scruple to make fools of his readers. I am ashamed, Lufa, that you should so accept everything as gospel against a man who believes you his friend!"
Walter's heart had been as water, now it had turned to ice, and with the coldness came strength: he could bear anything except this desert of a woman. The moment Sefton had thus spoken, he rose and came forward--not so much, I imagine, to Sefton's surprise as Lufa's and said,
"Thank you, Mr. Sefton, for undeceiving me. I owe you, Lady Lufa, the debt of a deep distrust hereafter of poetic ladies."
"They will hardly be annihilated by it, Mr. Colman!" returned Lufa. "But, indeed, I did not know you were in the room; and perhaps you did not know that in our circle it is counted bad manners to listen!"
"I was foolishly paralyzed for a moment," said Walter, "as well as unprepared for the part you would take."
"I am very glad, Mr. Colman," said Sefton, "that you have had the opportunity of discovering the truth! My cousin well deserves the pillory in which I know you will not place her!"
"Lady Lufa needs fear nothing from me. I have some regard left for the idea of her--the thing she is not! If you will be kind, come and help me out of the house."
"There is no train to-night."
"I will wait at the station for the slow train."
"I can not press you to stay an hour where you have been so treated, but--"
"It is high time I went!" said Walter--not without the dignity that endurance gives. "May I ask you to do one thing for me, Mr. Sefton?"
"Twenty things, if I can."
"Then please send my portmanteau after me."
With that he left the room, and went to his own, far on the way of cure, though not quite so far as he imagined. The blood, however, was surging healthily through his veins: he had been made a fool of, but he would be a wiser man for it!
He had hardly closed his door when Sefton appeared.
"Can I help you?" he said.
"To pack my portmanteau? Did you ever pack your own?"
"Oftener than you, I suspect! I never had but one orderly I could bear about me, and he's dead, poor fellow! I shall see him again, though, I do trust, let believers in dirt say what they will! Never till I myself think no more, will I cease hoping to see my old Archie again! Fellows must learn something through the Lufas, or they would make raving maniacs of us! God be thanked, he has her in his great idiot-cage, and will do something with her yet! May you and I be there to see when she comes out in her right mind!"
"Amen!" said Walter.
"And now, my dear fellow," said Sefton, "if you will listen to me, you will not go till to-morrow morning. No, I don't want you to stay to breakfast! You shall go by the early train as any other visitor might. The least scrap of a note to Lady Tremaine, and all will go without remark."
He waited in silence. Walter went on putting up his things.
"I dare say you are right!" he said at length. "I will stay till the morning. But you will not ask me to go down again?"
"It would be a victory if you could."
"Very well, I will. I am a fool, but this much less of a fool, that I know I am one."
Somehow Walter had a sense of relief. He began to dress, and spent some pains on the process. He felt sure Sefton would take care the "Onlooker" should not be seen--before his departure anyhow. During dinner he talked almost brilliantly, making Lufa open her eyes without knowing she did.
He retired at length to his room with very mingled feelings. There was the closing paragraph of the most interesting chapter of his life yet constructed! What was to follow?
Into the gulf of an empty heart
Something must always come.
"What will it be?" I think with a start, And a fear that makes me dumb.
- can not sit at my outer gate
And call what shall soothe my grief;
- can not unlock to a king in state, Can not bar a wind-swept leaf!
Hopeless were I if a loving Care
Sat not at the spring of my thought-- At the birth of my history, blank and bare. Of the thing I have not wrought.
If God were not, this hollow need. All that I now call me,
Might wallow with demons of hate and greed In a lawless and shoreless sea!
Watch the door of this sepulcher,
Sit, my Lord, on the stone,
Till the life within it rise and stir. And walk forth to claim its own.
This was how Walter felt and wrote some twelve months after, when he had come to understand a little of the process that had been conducted in him; when he knew that the life he had been living was a mere life in death, a being not worth being.
But the knowledge of this process had not yet begun. A thousand subtle influences, wrapped in the tattered cloak of dull old Time, had to come into secret, potent play, ere he would be able to write thus.
And even this paragraph was not yet quite at an end.