Virginia by Mrs. Forrester

 

PART I.


"He is a very strange mixture."

"I really do not think you ought to ask him to the house. An atheist, a man of disreputable life, a----."

"Come, come, my dear, don't give him such a character, before Virginia."

This fragment of dialogue takes place over a cheery breakfast table in a house not very far from Park Lane.

The first speaker is a pleasant-looking man of between fifty and sixty, and his interlocutor is a rather prim lady, who appears older, but is, in reality, his junior by two years. They are Mr. Hamilton Hayward and his sister, Miss Susan.

The party has a third member—the Virginia alluded to by Mr. Hayward. She is tall, handsome, bright-looking; evidently she possesses character, but with it the grace and charm of manner which prevent a woman of character from falling into that disagreeable being, a strong-minded woman.

"What are Mr. Vansittart's good points?" she says, smiling at her uncle.

"He has the kindest heart in the world," Mr. Hayward replies, warmly, "and he would never do a shabby thing. One of the few men who really practice not letting their left hand know the good their right does. He certainly is a looseish fish; but he does not parade his irregularities before the world—the world need not know anything about them if it does not insist on prying into his affairs. The greatest grudge women have against him is that he is mortally opposed to marriage, and carries on a crusade against it as though he were St. George, and matrimony the Dragon. He says if you want to make two people hate each other who would otherwise be disposed to love—"

"Hush! my dear Hamilton," cries Miss Susan, horrified. "Pray spare us a repetition of Mr. Vansittart's iniquitous opinions."

"I suppose," laughs Virginia, "that women don't insist on marrying him by force, do they?"

"A great many would be very glad to have him," rejoins Mr. Hamilton, "he is a tremendously taking fellow."

"And have you really asked him to dinner?" interposes Miss Susan.

"I have, indeed, my dear, and I had a good deal of difficulty in persuading him to come. He persisted that he went so little into society—into ladies' society."

Miss Susan gave a little snort.

"He has no right to go into it at all with the views he holds; and, pray, whom is he to take in to dinner?"

"Mrs. Ashton, I thought," answers Mr. Hamilton. "I am afraid he would be bored with an unmarried lady."

"When I was young," says Miss Susan, bridling, "married women were as modest and particular in their conversation as unmarried ones."

"Ah!" observes her brother dryly.

"Uncle," cries Virginia, "let him take me. If he is original, I shall be sure to like him; and as I don't intend to marry, he need not be afraid of my having designs on him. I shall give him a hint whilst he is eating his soup that I have made a vow to coiffer Ste. Catherine."

"Virginia!" remonstrates Miss Susan; "and you know Sir Harry Hotspur is to take you."

"No, no," cries Virginia, "he bores me to distraction. Besides," laughing, "he 'goes for married women.' Let him have Mrs. Ashton, and give me Mr. Vansittart."

Miss Susan has one virtue, which is, that she is never quite so shocked as she pretends to be. Moreover, Virginia always gets her way with both uncle and aunt. So when the evening of the dinner party arrives, Mr. Hayward brings Mr. Vansittart up to his niece and introduces him. Whilst he is uttering a few of those banalités which must inevitably be the precursors of even the most interesting conversation between two strangers, Virginia is taking an inventory of him. He is tall, rather dark than fair; his features are well cut, and he has particularly expressive eyes, the color of which it takes her some time to decide about. At the same moment he is saying to himself: "What sort of woman is this, and what on earth shall I talk to her about? I hope to heaven she isn't a girl of the period. She doesn't look like it—still less like a prude. How I hate a society dinner! I suppose I shall be bored to death, as usual."

True to her promise, Virginia apprises him, whilst he yet is assimilating his soup, of her vow of celibacy. He turns to look at her, being just a shade surprised at receiving such a confidence so early in their acquaintance, and then he sees the archest smile curving the corners of her mouth, and meets a glance from a pair of brown eyes that he now perceives to be beautiful.

Mr. Vansittart has a quick intelligence—he understands in an instant the object of her remark. His eyes light up with a sudden gleam, and he murmurs quietly, "Thanks so much for putting me at my ease."

From that moment they are perfectly at home with each other, and fall to animated talk. He does not air his theories about marriage, nor is religion discussed between them, but there are plenty of other topics, and they become aware of a dozen feelings and sympathies in common. Virginia is as bright and witty as she is modest and pure-minded; there is nothing in the world that Mr. Vansittart detests so much as a coarse or immodest lady. So charmed is he with Virginia, that he remains close to her side the whole evening, to the surprise of every one else. No one ever saw him devote himself to a girl before. He stays until the very last. As he walks away from the door, after lighting his cigar, he reflects to himself: "If any earthly power could induce me to marry, it would be a girl like that. But," resolutely, "nothing could." As Virginia wends her way upstairs to bed, she says to herself with a heavy sigh, "Why should he abuse marriage? How happy he might make some woman!"

Virginia is the daughter of a clergyman. Father and mother are both dead. She has a brother in the army, and a sister married to a country rector. Her uncle, Mr. Hayward, has adopted her. She is clever and accomplished. She has both passion and imagination. Some of her ideas are original; she hates common-placeness, but she is also imbued with the attribute possessed by every charming woman, the love of approbation. This prevents her doing or saying anything outre or unconventional; this makes her careful of her appearance and fond of fair apparel; this makes the evidence of admiration from the other sex exceedingly agreeable to her; this causes her to adopt a manner towards them that induces jealous women to call her a coquette. She has had several offers of marriage, but she entertains peculiar ideas about the strength of passion and the sympathy of thought a man and woman ought to feel for each other before they decide to spend a life-time together. She does not think a man who has a good income, and who is simply not repulsive or abhorrent to her, a sufficient inducement.

The days wear on. Virginia does not forget Mr. Vansittart any more than he forgets her, but he weighs more on her heart than she does on his, for, happy man! he is perpetually occupied, being a barrister with a considerable practice, whilst she is an idle woman as the well-to-do of her sex mostly are. If she goes to balls or dances, she is always contrasting every man, with whom she talks or dances, with him; if she works at her embroidery, her thoughts are intent on him; if she reads, a hero of her own ousts the hero of the novel from her brain; if she sings, her voice is moved to strong pathos; her eyes become drowned by that strange passion which consumes her. Days and weeks pass by; and she does not catch a glimpse of him; does not even hear his name. She sees it frequently in the Times. One Sunday afternoon, she and her uncle strolling in the Park meet him. He lifts his hat, and is about to pass, when something that her eyes have communicated to his heart, stops him suddenly. He turns and joins them. It is a delicious summer afternoon: they take chairs under the big trees which shade this cool green spot. Presently a crony joins Mr. Hayward—soon the elder pair are deep in the cause célèbre of the day. Virginia and Mr. Vansittart have forgotten that other people exist in the world—the topics of their conversation are ordinary enough, but it is not from them that a subtle delight steals through their veins. What they heed is the language of each other's eyes. His say—"You fulfil my idea of perfect womanhood. I could love you with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength. I respect you with my purest feelings; I love you with my strongest passions; I would to God I could shake off my doubts about marriage. But I know that if I married you, inexorable Destiny would no longer let us love one another."

And her eyes reiterate one little sentence, "You are my lord, my master, and I am your slave."

It was one of the very strongest cases of love at first sight. Such cases are more common, however, than people affect to think.

"Come home and dine with us," says Mr. Hayward, as a distant clock strikes seven.

"I'm afraid I have not time to dress," replies Philip Vansittart; "that is if you dine at half past seven, as I have heard you say you do."

"Never mind about dress," answers Mr. Hayward. "I won't dress either."

He has no designs on his guest, but he is a good-natured gentleman, and he sees that these two are attracted toward each other.

Miss Susan is at church. If her brother will dine at his usual hour on Sunday, she cannot help it, but she will not countenance him by her presence.

Philip Vansittart thinks he has never spent such a divinely happy evening as this. Virginia sings to him; her voice thrills to his very soul. Mr. Hamilton is asleep in the next room. As for Virginia, when she is alone, she first smiles a happy, triumphant smile, because she knows he loves her, and then she bursts into a passion of tears and sobs until her whole frame is convulsed. If his mind is really set against marriage, what will become of her! She feels as though life without him must be one long night of despair.

Philip Vansittart paces his room until the small hours, thinking of this charming, lovable creature, who inspires stronger, deeper sensations in him than he has ever felt before. He tells himself, without vanity or self-deception, that what he feels for her, with that difference which governs the loves of men and women, she feels for him—heart has gone out to heart, nay, they are twain halves of a perfect heart. It is but for him to stretch out his hand to her, and she will come. Aye! but how can he stretch out his hand? In the society in which they both move there is but one way in which she can be his—the way sanctioned by society, blessed by the church. Society and the church will bless and smile upon any union: the decrepit old man with the blooming child; the drunkard and adulterer with the pure young girl; the avaricious youth with the doting old woman. Marriage purifies, sanctifies, hallows sensuality, greed, any, every base motive. To love as God made you free to love, unfettered, and with a true heart, is a crime; to live together full of hatred, loathing, and revolt, is to perform a sacred duty once you have tied yourself up in church. This was Vansittart's theory. Marriage to him was only another word for satiety, weariness, restraint, tyranny. He had never seen what he called a happy marriage, though he had observed many which the world crowned with that adjective, and he had sworn a thousand oaths that he would never subject himself to that miserable awakening which inevitably follows the temporary sleep of mind and reason, and the short dream of passion which makes a man bind himself with shackles.

Philip paced his room for hours, fighting the hardest battle he had ever fought. It was the first time he had ever been tempted to marry—tempted beyond endurance. And, at last, ashen pale, in the wan morning light, and with set teeth, he took his final oath and resolve. He would save himself years of wretchedness by a month's anguish; he would not go near her, nor see her again. He was not entirely selfish; he did not forget that she might, nay, would suffer, but he said, with a sigh, "It will be best for her as for me."


A month passed by: two months. Virginia grew pale, listless, distraite; her step was languid, her eye haggard. She did not know how to endure her life; she suffered torments day and night from an agonising desire to hear the voice, to meet the eyes again which had given light to her soul and in whose absence she felt it must needs perish of want. It was plain enough to her why he avoided her. He had seen that she loved him; he would not encourage false hopes in her breast. Had she not been warned, ere ever she met him, that he abjured marriage? She remembered, with a breaking heart, her own first playful words to him.

Mr. Hayward saw the change in Virginia, but he put it down entirely to the effects of a London season—to late hours and the want of fresh air. Never mind! the end was near at hand, and then they would go and fill their lungs with mountain air and their eyes with fair scenes, and the roses would come back to her cheeks and lips, and the light to her eyes. He never for an instant connected his niece's pallor with Philip Vansittart. He would have ridiculed the idea of people being twice in each other's company, and breaking their hearts with longing afterwards.


Mr. Hayward, his sister, and Virginia, were dining at a Swiss table d'hote. Exactly opposite were two empty places. The fish had been served, and two gentlemen came in and took them. One was Mr. Philip Vansittart. At sight of him the crimson blood rushed to Virginia's cheeks, then ebbed away, leaving her deathly pale. For a moment she thought she must swoon or die from the intensity of her feelings. Philip was scarcely less moved, though, being a man, he was better able to control his agitation. When he had time to look more narrowly at Virginia, he saw a mighty change in her. His heart smote him; and yet—had he not suffered? Great heaven! had his been a bed of roses? Had he not agonised after her?

Dinner over, the party went off into the garden. A mutual unspoken desire made Vansittart and Virginia steal off together to a secluded spot. Twilight was creeping on—the last glow of a rosy sunset was fading away; the strains of a delicious waltz were borne towards them. Vansittart felt his passion mastering him. He made a herculean effort over himself. He would speak. He would tell her the truth. After that she would forget him. They were sitting under a tree that screened them off from the rest of the garden. He could see well enough that she was trembling with nervousness; that delight, fear, expectation were blended in the beautiful eyes she turned towards him; and, lest suddenly he should yield to that mad longing to catch her to his heart, he began to speak hurriedly—abruptly.

But Virginia scarcely hears him. Her lips are burning to ask him that one question, and, not heeding what he is saying, she turns and in a tremulous voice that vibrates to his very soul, she says:

"Why have you kept away from us all this time?"

Why? And Vansittart catches his breath. Then the gyves of his strong will give way as the withes fell from Samson.

"I will tell you," he says. "I love you so horribly, that it is pain and anguish to me to be with you, for then I feel that when I leave you I am ready to die of longing and misery."

"Well?" she utters in a very low voice, bending her eyes on the ground. It is only one little word, but it speaks such volumes! "Why should you leave me?" it says. "Is it not my case, too? What need you more than speak!"

"You have heard," he goes on, not daring to look at her, "that I have forsworn marriage. Marriage," passionately, "kills love, and I would rather, ten times over, suffer what I have suffered—and God knows that is not a little!--than a day should come when, having known such divine happiness as I should know were you mine, we should grow cold and weary; when our passions should turn to indifference, to disappointment and heart-burnings, and end, perhaps, in our cherishing feelings of vindictive spite and bitterness against each other, and in my thinking every woman pleasanter and fairer than you, end in your believing me to be the greatest brute under heaven!"

"Oh!" utters Virginia, as she raises her eyes to his face with a look of pained wonder.

"I have seen it a thousand times," he continues vehemently. "I have known men passionately, madly in love with women, ready to count 'the world well lost,' to sacrifice all the future only to call that idol of the moment theirs. I have seen them marry. I have watched the weariness that comes from security even more than from satiety. I have seen the links that were forged in roses become gyves of iron—tenderness and courtesy give place to rudeness and contempt. I never saw but two people perfectly happy, and they," lowering his voice, "were not married. I have sworn a thousand times never to court wretchedness for myself and a woman I loved by loading her and myself with chains. My idea has been this. Some day I may meet with a being who, under natural circumstances, she keeping her freedom and leaving me mine, I might love with all my heart and be faithful to until the day of my death. I would give her all I possessed. I would devote myself to making her happy; if she had to sacrifice anything for my sake, I would atone to her for it by my unwearying love. But," his voice mastered by emotion, "how dare I say such words to you? In the sphere in which you live they would be considered a dastardly insult—one must not dare to move one step from the beaten track of custom. The world would scoff at the idea that my love for you is more sacred and reverent than that of a man who, inspired by a momentary passion for a woman and desiring her, obtains his end by a simple and speedy means, without reflection as to the possible misery of both in the future. And yet," his lips quivering, his face growing deathly white, "I believe I could love you more dearly, love you longer than husband ever loved wife."

Virginia sits rooted to the spot, a deadly anguish strangling her heart. Then, whilst the divine strains of music still flow on, she feels herself drawn to his heart; his lips meet hers in one long kiss that steals her very soul away from her. He is gone—the music has ceased—the night grows chill—she shivers. "The world well lost," she mutters to herself, and then, with listless steps, and strange, affrighted eyes, she drags herself up stairs to her room.


PART II.

In a charming house, surrounded by an acre of ground, turned into a small paradise, a house not more than two miles from Hyde Park Corner, live Philip Vansittart and Virginia Hayward. The neighbourhood knows them as Mr. and Mrs. Vansittart, and has not the very remotest conception that in so perfectly ordered an establishment, there is anything which they would designate as "odd." If anything could arouse suspicion in the breasts of the servants who wait upon them, and the tradespeople who serve them it would be the extraordinary tenderness subsisting between them; the excessive courtesy and consideration of Mr. Vansittart for Mrs. Vansittart, and the entire absence of that familiarity commonly seen between affectionate husbands and wives, which almost invariably engenders subsequent contempt.

The house is furnished with exquisite taste. Mr. Vansittart is continually bringing home artistic treasures to add to its embellishment. Mrs. Vansittart has a carriage and a fine pair of horses. She seldom, however, drives into town except to the play, or to dine. A great many gentlemen of distinction and rank come to the house, who treat Mrs. Vansittart like a queen, and a few ladies; clever, literary ladies, ladies holding peculiar views—very rarely the consorts of distinguished and well-born men.

Is Philip happy? Is Virginia happy? To this I can only reply by another question. Is any one Happy? They love each other with unfailing tenderness—they are all the world to each other—the thought of separation would be death to them. And yet the heart of either is gnawed by a secret worm. In the midst of his busy life, Philip can never forget that he has sacrificed the woman whom he adores from the very bottom of his soul, and the horrible suspicion will stab him, that he has sacrificed her needlessly. They are living as husband and wife, and yet no feeling of weariness, of satiety, comes near them—each day draws them nearer together; makes them find fresh points in each other to love and admire. Were she his wife, occupying her proper sphere in society, sought after, courted, admired, he with no feeling of self-reproach, she with no consciousness (which she must feel though she never betrays) of cruelty and selfishness on his part; might they not be even happier? He forgets to tell himself that they are happy because no tie binds them—nay, he says secretly in his heart that that tie is the only thing wanting to make their felicity perfect. Now, it is too late. The world knows the truth—marriage can never whitewash Virginia in society's eyes—no future can condone the crime of the past. He has settled every farthing he has in the world upon her—no mean fortune—he loads her with gifts—he is perpetually thinking of her pleasure and amusement, and yet, for ever, the load of his debt to her weighs down his soul.

And Virginia? Paul is all in all to her; he is her heart, her soul, her conscience, and yet he cannot shield her from the fate which he has brought upon her. What must inevitably be the sufferings of a proud and pure-minded woman, who knows herself to be an object of scorn to her sex? How would a man, naturally honorable and high-minded, feel, if, in some fatal moment, he had been tempted to commit a forgery, or take an unfair advantage at cards, and was afterwards shunned by every man friend; thrust out of every club, banned utterly from the society of his fellows, except those with whom it would revolt him to associate? This is the only case that can parallel that of a woman who has lost the world for a man's sake; and men who have a difficulty in realizing how great is the sacrifice they compel or accept from a woman, would do well to consider this.

Virginia suffered many a bitter pang when she showed herself in public with Philip. She quivered under the open stare, or the look askance of members of her sex; if she showed a brave front, it was that of the Spartan boy! Philip was particularly fond of the opera and the play; he would not have gone without her; so she accompanied him, and made no demur. Of course every relation and friend she had in the world shunned her as though she were a leper, which indeed, morally, she was in their eyes. She loved society; no woman was more calculated to shine in it, and from this she was cut off. True, they constantly entertained brilliant and clever men, whose conversation and company were very agreeable to her; but, however much a woman may like, may even prefer the society of men, it is a bitter thought to her that she cannot command that of her own sex. And, though men treated her with even a greater and more delicate courtesy than they would perhaps have shown their own women, Virginia was none the less keenly conscious of the moral ban under which she lay.

She was the daughter of a clergyman, she had been religiously brought up, and she writhed under the terrible consciousness that her life was a sin against her God. At first she went to church, but everything she heard there sent the iron deeper into her soul; if there were comforting promises to repentant Magdalens, there was nothing but wrath and threatening for those who continued in their sin. By-and-by she left off going to church. Philip was a sceptic, most of his friends were the same. Virginia listened to their talk, and, in time, her faith began to waver; she liked to think they were right, and that the Bible was a string of fables; it lessened her sense of criminality and remorse, but it cut her off forever from the only consolation a woman can know, when her hour of trial comes. If man could supply the place of God and Saviour now, whither should she fly when he was torn from her or grew weary of her?

She was glad that she had no children—could she live to be shamed by them, scorned by them? And yet—how sweet it would have been to feel clinging arms about her neck; to hear little voices lisp the sweetest word on earth to a mother's ear, if only she might have been as other mothers—as other wives! Never, never once had she breathed or hinted a wish that Philip should marry her; she had a superstitious dread that once the chain was forged his love for her would cease—marriage could not now reinstate her in the world's sight—she had ceased to remember that her life was a crime. She had heard it said so often that marriage was simply an institution founded upon expediency; that all systems having been tried, the one that worked best was the union of a man to one wife, that she herself began to doubt its being a heaven-ordained institution, and the only state tolerated by Divine Providence. But if she ceased to feel herself actually a guilty and sinning woman, she was none the less sensitive to the world's scorn; to the bitterness of holding a position that society refused to tolerate or to recognize.

But, after all, she knew happiness which is denied to nine-tenths of women, nay, to ninety-nine out of a hundred. She enjoyed the passionate, unfailing devotion of the man whom she adored—no harsh word ever crossed his lips to her—she was his first care and thought—no party of pleasure ever tempted him from her side—nothing but the claim of business could induce him to spend an evening away from her. And so the years passed on. It is an unalterable law of nature that passion must succumb before habit, but it may be succeeded by a calm content, a happy trustful confidence, that wears better, and is perhaps in the long run more satisfactory.

Twelve years elapsed, and during that time Virginia enjoyed unbroken health. Then, one winter, she caught a severe cold, which settled on her lungs; her life was despaired of. No woman was ever a more tender, more devoted nurse than Philip. But this illness left her extremely delicate; she could no longer brave all weathers as formerly, nor be Philip's constant companion in his walks and drives. She was forbidden to go out at night, and they had been so in the habit of going to the play, especially in the winter months. At first he insisted on remaining at home with her, but she was too unselfish to allow him to sacrifice himself. There was many an evening when she was unable to leave her room, and when talking would bring on severe paroxysms of coughing. She succeeded in prevailing upon him to visit the theatre without her, and sometimes even to dine with a friend. After a time he got into the habit of going about alone, and, although he was even more tender and considerate than before, she felt an agonising consciousness that he could, after all, do without her, which he had sworn ten thousand times he never could. She began to have sleepless nights and passionate fits of crying. Nemesis was coming upon her with gigantic strides. Philip did not suspect that she was unhappy; he thought her illness affected her spirits. A great change had come over her, which he deplored. She no longer was the bright, amusing companion of yore.

Two more years went by. Virginia was almost a confirmed invalid—she could only get out in fine summer weather—then her spirits rallied, and she was something of her old self again. Philip often spent his evenings away from home now; it become a habit; he did not suspect that Virginia suffered from his absence, but thought that it was really her wish, dear, unselfish soul that she was, that he should go out and be amused. And she, fearful of making him fancy that he felt a chain where none existed, was careful never to show him by word or look that she suffered from his absence. She tormented herself with the thought that he might meet any day with a young and beautiful woman who would inspire again in his breast the feeling that he had once known for her. And she remembered that she was free, even if he forgot it. Poor soul! she recognised bitterly enough now, that the only safety for a woman is in that bond which a man may so lightly affect to set at naught: in a contract like hers and Philip's, the man has all to gain, the woman all to lose.

It was growing dusk one November afternoon, when the door of Virginia's drawing-room was thrown open, and Lord Harford announced. A slight blush suffused her cheek as she rose to receive him, and she appeared slightly embarrassed. Virginia was still beautiful, though no longer very young; she had an extremely fragile and delicate appearance, which is attractive to some men, notably to those who, like Lord Harford, are big, strong and robust.

"You are not angry with me for coming, are you?" he asks almost diffidently, as soon as the door has closed on the servant.

"No," she answers gently. Times are changed with her since the last occasion in which she and he stood face to face in this very room. Then she was angry, but then she was in the full flush of health and beauty, and he was her would-be lover. There had been nothing to wound or humiliate her in his love-making; he had come loyally to offer her his hand and all that belonged to him, which of wealth and honor was no mean portion. But she had been deeply stung by a man daring to remember that she was free, and there was only one husband and lover in the world for her. Now that, as it seemed to her, beauty and love were so far removed from her, it was almost a pleasure to remember that she had been beloved.

"I have passed your door a hundred times," he says, "and never been able to summon up courage enough to ask for you."

"But to-day you were braver," she utters, looking at him with something of the old smile and manner.

"I thought perhaps you had a good many dull hours now Vansittart is so much away."

"How do you know that he is much away?" asks Virginia, feeling vaguely hurt at his words and tone.

"Because I so often meet him out."

"Where do you meet him?"

"Oh, at different places. Chiefly at Mrs. Devereux's."

Lord Harford looks full in Virginia's face, and she, who is so quick, cannot fail to see that his eyes and tone are intended to convey some meaning.

"Mrs. Devereux?" she says, inquiringly. "You mean his cousin."

"Yes."

After this there is a pause. It is as though he wanted her to question him; as though she were fighting against the desire to know his meaning. She conquers herself by an effort.

"I have been very ill since you saw me last. You find me much altered, do you not?"

"You look delicate," he answers, "but in my eyes," lowering his voice, "you are as beautiful as ever."

She half-smiles, half-sighs.

"It is very kind of you to say that," she utters, "but I cannot deceive myself. I am an old woman now; if ever I had any good looks they are gone."

"They are not!" cries Lord Harford staunchly. "What I say is gospel truth. I think your delicacy becomes you. I hate your great buxom, dairymaid women."

Virginia smiles at his earnestness.

"Ah, if you had been mine," he goes on, "I should never have wanted to look at another woman, young or old."

Still that strange meaning in his tone. A chill terror creeps to Virginia's heart—she can no longer restrain herself.

"What do you mean?" she says, fixing her eyes on him. "You are hinting at something—you want to convey something to my mind. If you are a man—if you pretend to be my friend, speak out honestly."

He rises, and takes one or two turns in the room, then stops abruptly in front of her.

"Will you believe me, I wonder?" he asks, "or will you think me a mean hound who only seeks his own interest?"

"Interest?" echoes Virginia bitterly, "what interest can it be to you?"

"This much," he answers, a red flush mounting to his brow, "that I am as anxious this moment to make you my wife as I was four years ago."

Virginia makes an impatient movement with her hand.

"Vansittart is in love with Mrs. Devereux's eldest girl, Connie. She is a pretty little kitten of a thing, but a mere child—a doll. I go there rather often—they are old friends of mine. Whenever I go, he is always there."

For a moment Virginia feels as though she were dying; then, by an extraordinary effort, she recovers herself.

"I would rather have my tongue cut out than tell you," Lord Harford continues, half-ashamed, "only that I want you to know where your refuge is if he breaks your heart. Oh!" imploringly, "why will you not care for me who am ready to devote my life to you? Marry me, and let us go abroad and win health for you and happiness for me!"

His voice is broken with emotion—he takes one of her hands in his. She is leaning back in her chair, very white—she is hardly conscious of his action—all the hot blood in his veins cannot warm her chill white fingers.

"Do you think," she says at last, very slowly, "that if—if he were rid of me, he would marry her? Does she care for him?"

"I don't think about it. Yes, it is very strange; but, child as she is, he has perfectly infatuated her."

There is another long pause, during which he eagerly scans her face. Suddenly her eyes light up, and she returns his glance.

"Are you really willing to marry me?" she says.

"Why do you ask?" he returns, simply. "Are my eyes not honest?"

Virginia smiles. "If you mean it," she says, "go now, and write me the same words to-night or to-morrow."

So, as she bids him, he goes.


Lord Harford had set down nothing in malice. What he told Virginia is absolutely true. Philip Vansittart is in love with a gay, pretty child, whose winsome tricks have coiled her round his heart. He has never spoken one word of love to her, for he feels and knows himself as much bound to Virginia as though the marriage-tie he once so utterly abhorred linked them. He no longer, strange to say, thinks and speaks so evilly of marriage. Were he free, would he not joyfully chain himself with all the bonds that church and society can impose to this sweet young life which would make him young again? He has no thought or desire to blast this girl-life as he had done Virginia's. Perish the thought! When these ideas come to him, he hates and loathes himself; he makes superhuman efforts to drive them away—but the limpid blue eyes come and look at him over his briefs; the childish voice rings in his ears in the night watches! He grows pale and haggard. At last he makes a mighty resolve.

"Virginia," he says, two nights after Lord Harford's visit to her, "let us be married!"

He takes her hand kindly, but his eyes do not meet hers, and the tender inflection of yore is missing from his voice.

Virginia betrays no surprise. Poor soul! She understands too well.

"Why?" she says quietly. "I think we are very well as we are."

"No," he returns hastily, "we are not! My views have changed on the subject—changed entirely. Marriage is the best thing. It decides your fate. To live as we do is neither one thing nor the other."

"You forget," she says, in a tone so calm as to be almost unnatural. "This state has great advantages. There is no tie between us. If either of us tired of the other, there is nothing to hinder our parting, to-morrow—to-night even." He looks at her, speechless with amazement. Her eyes do not flinch from his. "If," she continues, with that terrible calmness,—"if you wanted to marry Miss Constance Devereux; if I wished to marry—let us say, Lord Harford—there is nothing to prevent it except," slowly, "the unwritten law of a faithful heart."

Philip Vansittart leans his face between his hands. He cannot find a word to say. He is smitten with remorse, for he knows well enough that she is faithful. But why that allusion to Lord Harford?

"What do you mean about Harford?" he asks presently.

"He wants me to marry him," replied Virginia quietly. "He asked me four years ago; he asked me again the day before yesterday."

She draws a letter from her pocket, and scans Philip's face as he reads it. When he has finished, he looks at her. She understands his glance but too well. There is an only half-suppressed eagerness—a half-suppressed hope in it.

"What shall I do?" she says, so quietly that it deceives him.

"There is no better fellow living than Harford," he says cordially. "If you thought you could be happy with him; if—"

He stops abruptly. There is a look of such terrible agony in Virginia's face that he starts up and takes her hand.

"No, no," he cries. "Let it be as I said. Let us marry each other. It is the only thing to be done."

Virginia's ears, sharpened by suffering, catch the dreary tone of the concluding words.


Next morning, when Philip, according to custom, went to Virginia's room, he found her asleep. From that sleep she never woke. One more of those unfortunate cases of an overdose of chloral. The deceased lady had suffered much from sleeplessness, and always kept the fatal drug by her bedside.

The church gave its blessing, and society smiled when that heretic and sceptic Mr. Vansittart led his charming girl-bride to the altar a few months later. It was whispered that there had been an—entanglement, but that was all hushed up now, and he had become a respectable member of society.