"You are," flashed she, "a notorious rogue."
It was quite dark. Kennaston could not see the woman with whom he was talking. But they were in an open paved place, like a courtyard, and he was facing the great shut door against which she stood, vaguely discernible. He knew they were waiting for som e one to open this door. It seemed to him for no reason at all, that they were at Tunbridge Wells. But there was no light anywhere. Complete darkness submerged them; the skies showed not one glimmer.
"That I am of smirched repute, madam, I lack both grounds and inclination to deny. Yet I am not so through choice. Believe me, I am innately a lover of all bodily comforts: so, by preference, an ill name is as obnoxious to me as--shall we say?--soiled linen or a coat of last year's cut. But then, que voulez-vous? as our lively neighbors observe. Squeamishness was never yet bred in an empty pocket; and I am thus compelled to the commission of divers profitable peccadilloes, once in a blue moon, by the dictates of that same haphazard chance which to-night has pressed me into the service of innocence and virtue."
She kept silence; and he went on in lightheaded wonder as to what this dream, so plainly recognized as such, was all about, and as to whence came the words which sprang so nimbly to his lips, and as to what was the cause of his great wistfull sorrow. Per haps if he listened very attentively to what he was saying, he might find out.
"You do not answer madam. Yet think a little. I am a notorious rogue: the circumstance is conceded. But do you think I have selfishly become so in quest of amusement? Nay, I can assure you that Newgate, the wigged judge, the jolting cart, the gallows , blend in no pleasant dreams.... But what choice had I? Cast forth to the gutter's miring in the susceptible years of infancy, a girl of the town's byblow, what choice had I, in heaven's name? If I may not live as I would, I must live as I may; in emp erors and parsons and sewer-diggers and cheese-mites that claim is equally allowed."
"You are a thief?" she asked, pensively.
"Let us put it, rather, that I have proved in life's hard school an indifferent Latinist, by occasionally confounding tuum with meum."
"Something of the sort might be my description in puritanic mouths. You know at least what happened at The Cat and Hautbois."
("But what in the world had happened there?" Kennaston wondered.)
"And yet--" The sweet voice marveled.
"And yet I have saved you from Lord Umfraville? Ah, madam, Providence labors with quaint instruments, dilapidating Troy by means of a wood rocking-horse, and loosing sin into the universe through a half-eaten apple. Nay, I repeat, I am not all base; and I have read somewhere that those who are in honor wholly shipwrecked will yet very often cling desperately to one stray spar of virtue."
He could tell her hand had raised to the knocker on the closed door. "Mr. Vanringham, will you answer me a question?"
"A thousand. (So I am Vanringham.)"
The girl continued "I have not knocked. I possess, as you know a considerable fortune in my own right. It would be easy for a strong man--and, sure, your shoulders are prodigiously broad, Mr. Cutthroat!--very easy for him to stifle my cries and carry m e away, even now. And then, to preserve my honor, I would have no choice save to marry that broad-shouldered man. Is this not truth?"
< "It is the goddess herself, newly stolen from her well. O deacerte!"
"I am not absolutely hideous, either?" she queried, absent-mindedly.
"Dame Venus," Kennaston observed, "may have made a similar demand of the waves at Cythera when she first rose among their billows: and I doubt not that the white foaming waters, amorously clutching a her far whiter feet, laughed and murmured the answer I would give did I not know your question was put in a spirit of mockery."
"And yet--" she re-began.
"And yet," the man echoed, "I resist all these temptations? Frankly, had you been in my eyes less desirable, madam, you would not have reached home thus eneventfully; for a rich marriage is the only chance adapted to repair my tattered fortunes; and the devil is cunning to avail himself of our flesh's frailty. Had you been the fat widow of some City knight, I would have played my lord of Umfraville's part, upon my pettier scale. Or, had I esteemed it possible for me to have done with my old life, I wou ld have essayed to devote a cleaner existence to your service and worship. Indeed, indeed, I speak the truth, however jestingly!" he said, with sudden wildness. "But what would you have? I would not entrust your fan, much less your happiness, to the k eeping of a creature so untrustworthy as I know myself to be. In fine, I look upon you, madam, in such a rapture of veneration and tenderness and joy and heartbreaking yearning, that it is necessary I get very tipsy to-night, and strive to forget that I, too, might have lived cleanlily."
And Kennaston, as he spoke thus, engulfed in darkness, knew it was a noble sorrow which possessed him--a stingless wistfull sorrow such as is aroused by the unfolding of a well-acted tragedy or the progress of a lofty music. This ruffian longing, quite h opelessly, to be made clean again, so worshipful of his loved lady's purity to be forever unattainable in his mean life, was Felix Kennaston somehow.... What was it Maugiss d'Aigremont had said?--"I have been guilty of many wickednesses, I have held much filthy traffic such as my soul loathed; and yet, I swear to you, I seem to myself to be still the boy who once was I." Kennaston understood now, for the first time with deep reality, what his puppet had meant; and how a man's deeds in the flesh may trav esty the man himself.
But the door opened. Confusedly Kennaston was aware of brilliantly-lighted rooms beyond, of the chatter of gay people, of the thin tinkling music, and more immediately, of two lackeys, much bepowdered as to their heads, and stately in new liveries of blu e-and-silver. Confusedly he noted these things, for the woman had paused in the bright doorway, and all the loveliness of Etarre was visible now, and she had given a delighted cry of recognition.
"La, it is Horvendile! and we are having the same dream again!"
This much he heard and saw as her hand went out toward him gladly. Then as she touched him the universe seemed to fold about Feliix Kennaston, just as a hand closes, and he was siting at the writing-table in the library, with a gleaming scrap of metal be fore him.
He sat thus for a long while.
"I can make nothing of all this. I remember of course that I saw Muriel Allardyce stand very much like that, in the doorway of the Royal Hotel, at the Green Chalybeate--and how many years ago, good Lord!... And equally of course the most plausible expla nation is that I am losing my wits. Or, else it may be that I am playing blindfold with perilous matters. Felix Kennaston, my friend, the safest plan--the one assuredly safe plan for you--would be to throw away this devil's toy, and forget it completely .... And, I will, too--the very first thing to-morrow morning--or after I have had a few days to think it over, any way...."
But even as he made this compact it was without much lively faith in his promises.
/body> Book Three