Walter drew his table near the fire, and sat down to concoct a brief note of thanks and farewell to his hostess, informing her that he was compelled to leave in haste. He found it rather difficult, though what Lufa might tell her mother he neither thought nor cared, if only he had his back to the house, and his soul out of it. It was now the one place on the earth which he would sink in the abyss of forgetfulness.
He could not get the note to his mind, falling constantly into thought that led nowhither, and at last threw himself back in his chair, wearied with the emotions of the day. Under the soothing influence of the heat and the lambent motions of the flames, he fell into a condition which was not sleep, and as little was waking. His childhood crept back to him, with all the delights of the sacred time when home was the universe, and father and mother the divinities that filled it. A something now vanished from his life, looked at him across a gulf of lapse, and said, "Am I likewise false? The present you desire to forget; you say, it were better it had never been: do you wish I too had never been? Why else have you left my soul in the grave of oblivion?" Thus talking with his past, he fell asleep.
It could have been but for a few minutes, though when he awoke it seemed a century had passed, he had dreamed of so much. But something had happened! What was it? The fire was blazing as before, but he was chilled to the marrow! A wind seemed blowing upon him, cold as if it issued from the jaws of the sepulcher! His imagination and memory together linked the time to the night of Sefton's warning: was the ghost now really come? Had Sefton's presence only saved him from her for the time? He sat bolt upright in his chair listening, the same horror upon him as then. It seemed minutes he thus sat motionless, but moments of fearful expectation are long drawn out; their nature is of centuries, not years. One thing was certain, and one only--that there was a wind, and a very cold one, blowing upon him. He stared at the door. It moved. It opened a little. A light tap followed. He could not speak. Then came a louder, and the spell was broken. He started to his feet, and with the courage of terror extreme, opened the door--not opened it a little, as if he feared an unwelcome human presence, but pulled it, with a sudden wide yawn, open as the grave!
There stood no bodiless soul, but soulless Lufa!
He stood aside, and invited her to enter. Little as he desired to see her, it was a relief that it was she, and not an elderly lady in brown silk, through whose person you might thrust your hand without injury or offense.
As a reward of his promptitude in opening the door, he caught sight of Lady Tremaine disappearing in the corridor.
Lady Lufa walked in without a word, and Walter followed her, leaving the door wide. She seated herself in the chair he had just left, and turned to him with a quiet, magisterial air, as if she sat on the seat of judgment.
"You had better shut the door," she said.
"I thought Lady Tremaine might wish to hear," answered Walter.
"Not at all. She only lighted me to the door."
"As you please," said Walter, and having done as she requested, returned, and stood before her.
"Will you not take a seat?" she said, in the tone of--"You may sit down."
"Your ladyship will excuse me!" he answered.
She gave a condescending motion to her pretty neck, and said,
"I need hardly explain, Mr. Colman, why I have sought this interview. You must by this time be aware how peculiar, how unreasonable indeed, your behavior was!"
"Pardon me! I do not see the necessity for a word on the matter. I leave by the first train in the morning!"
"I will not dwell on the rudeness of listening--"
"--To a review of my own book read by a friend!" interrupted Walter, with indignation; "in a drawing-room where I sat right in front of you, and knew no reason why you should not see me! I did make a great mistake, but it was in trusting a lady who, an hour or two before, had offered to be my sister! How could I suspect she might speak of me in a way she would not like to hear!"
Lady Lufa was not quite prepared for the tone he took. She had expected to find him easy to cow. Her object was to bring him into humble acceptance of the treatment against which he had rebelled, lest he should afterward avenge himself! She sat a moment in silence.
"Such ignorance of the ways of the world," she said, "is excusable in a poet--especially--"
"Such a poet!" supplemented Walter, who found it difficult to keep his temper in face of her arrogance.
"But the world is made up of those that laugh and those that are laughed at."
"They change places, however, sometimes!" said Walter--which alarmed Lufa, though she did not show her anxiety.
"Certainly!" she replied. "Everybody laughs at everybody when he gets a chance! What is society but a club for mutual criticism! The business of its members is to pass judgment on each other! Why not take the accident, which seems so to annoy you, with the philosophy of a gentleman--like one of us! None of us think anything of what is said of us; we do not heed what we say of each other! Every one knows that all his friends pull him to pieces the moment he is out of sight--as heartily as they had just been assisting him to pull others to pieces. Every gathering is a temporary committee, composed of those who are present, and sitting upon those whose who are not present. Nobody dreams of courtesy extending beyond presence! when that is over, obligation is over. Any such imaginary restriction would render society impossible. It is only the most inexperienced person that could suppose things going on in his absence the same as in his presence! It is I who ought to be pitied, not you! I am the loser, not you!"
Walter bowed and was silent. He did not yet see her drift. If his regard had been worth anything, she certainly had lost a good deal, but, as it was, he did not understand how the loss could be of importance to her.
With sudden change of tone and expression, she broke out--
"Be generous, Walter! Forgive me. I will make any atonement you please, and never again speak of you as if you were not my own brother!"
"It is not of the least consequence how you speak of me now, Lady Lufa: I have had the good though painful fortune to learn your real feelings, and prefer the truth to the most agreeable deception. Your worst opinion of me I could have borne and loved you still; but there is nothing of you, no appearance of anything even, left to love! I know now that a woman may be sweet as Hybla honey, and false as an apple of Sodom!"
"Well, you are ungenerous! I hope there are not many in the world to whom one might confess a fault and not be forgiven. This is indeed humiliating!"
"I beg your pardon; I heard no confession!"
"I asked you to forgive me."
"For talking of you as I did.'
"Which you justified as the custom of society!"
"I confess, then, that in your case I ought not to have done so."
"Then I forgive you; and we part in peace."
"Is that what you call forgiveness?"
"Is it not all that is required? Knowing now your true feeling toward me, I know that in this house I am a mistake. Nothing like a true relation exists, nothing more than the merest acquaintance can exist between us!"
"It is terrible to have such an enemy!"
"I do not understand you!"
"The match is not fair! Here stands poor me undefended, chained to the rock! There you lurk, behind the hedge, invisible, and taking every advantage! Do you think it fair?"
"I begin to understand! The objection did not seem to strike you while I was the person shot at! But still I fail to see your object. Please explain."
"You must know perfectly what I mean, Walter! and I can not but believe you too just to allow a personal misunderstanding to influence your public judgment! You gave your real unbiased opinion of my last book, and you are bound by that!"
"Is it possible," cried Walter, "that at last I understand you! That you should come to me on such an errand, Lady Lufa, reveals yet more your opinion of me! Could you believe me capable of such vileness as to take my revenge by abusing your work?"
"Ah, no! Promise me you will not."
"If such a promise were necessary, how could it set you at your ease? The man who could do such a thing would break any promise!"
"Then whatever rudeness is offered me in your journal, I shall take as springing from your resentment."
"If you do you will wrong me far worse than you have yet done. I shall not merely never review work of yours, I will never utter an opinion of it to any man."
"Thank you. So we part friends!"
She rose. He turned to the door and opened it. She passed him, her head thrown back, her eyes looking poisonous, and let a gaze of contemptuous doubt rest on him for a moment. His eyes did not quail before hers.
She had left a taper burning on a slab outside the door. Walter had but half closed it behind her when she reappeared with the taper in one hand and the volume he had given her in the other. He took the book without a word, and again she went; but he had hardly thrown it on the hot coals when once more she appeared. I believe she had herself blown her taper out.
"Let me have a light, please," she said.
He took the taper from her hand, and turned to light it. She followed him into the room, and laid her hand on his arm.
"Walter," she said, "it was all because of Sefton! He does not like you, and can't bear me to like you! I am engaged to him. I ought to have told you!"
"I will congratulate him next time I see him!" said Walter.
"No, no!" she cried, looking at once angry and scared.
"I will not, then," answered Walter; "but allow me to say I do not believe Sefton dislikes me. Anyhow, keep your mind at ease, pray. I shall certainly not in any way revenge myself."
She looked up in his eyes with a momentary glimmer of her old sweetness, said "Thank you!" gently, and left the room. Her last glance left a faint, sad sting in Walter's heart, and he began to think whether he had not been too hard upon her. In any case, the sooner he was out of the house the better! He must no more trifle with the girl than a dipsomaniac with the brandy bottle!
All the time of this last scene, the gorgeous book was frizzling and curling and cracking on the embers. Whether she saw it or not I can not say, but she was followed all along the corridor by the smell of the burning leather, which got on to some sleeping noses, and made their owners dream the house was on fire.
In the morning, Sefton woke him, helped him to dress, got him away in time, and went with him to the station. Not a word passed between them about Lufa. All the way to London, Walter pondered whether there could be any reality in what she had said about Sefton. Was it not possible that she might have imagined him jealous? Sefton's dislike of her treatment of him might to her have seemed displeasure at her familiarity with him! "And indeed," thought Walter, "there are few friends who care so much for any author, I suspect, as to be indignant with his reviewers!"