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"And I was on my way to a dinner party," she whispered, with humorously uplifted eyebrows. "I must drive back home, and--and--"
"And what?" he demanded.
"And send an excuse," she declared, demurely. "I am not equal to a family dinner party."
"Would you like," she asked, "to take me out to dinner?"
"Would I like!"
"Go and change, and call for me in half an hour. We can go somewhere where we are not likely to be seen," she said, softly. "I must cover myself up in my cloak. Whatever will Perkins say? Please remember that I have no hat."
He held her hands and looked into her eyes.
"Don't go for one moment," he pleaded. "I want to realize it. I want to feel sure of you."
The gravity of his manner was for a moment reflected in her tone.
"I think," she said, "that you may feel sure. There are things which we may have to say to one another--presently--but--"
He stooped and kissed her fingers.
THE CONSCIENCE OF A STATESMAN
He was shown into her own little boudoir by a smiling maid-servant, who seemed already to treat him with an especial consideration. The wonder of this thing was still lying like a thrall upon him, and yet he knew that the joy of life was burning once more in his veins. He caught sight of himself in a mirror, and he was amazed. The careworn look had gone from his eyes, the sallowness from his complexion. His step was elastic, he felt the firm, quick beat of his heart, even his pulses seem to throb to a new and a wonderful tune. These moments whilst he waited for her were a joy to him. The atmosphere was fragrant with the perfume of her favourite roses, a book lay upon the little inlaid table face downwards as she had left it. There was a delicately engraved etching upon the wall, which he recognized as her work; the watercolours, all of a French school which he had often praised, were of her choosing. Perfect though the room was in colouring and detail, there was yet a habitable, almost a homely, air about it. Mannering moved about amidst her treasures like a man in a dream, only it was a dream of loneliness gone forever, of a grey life suddenly coloured and transformed. It was wonderful.
Then the soft swish of a skirt, and she came in. She had changed her gown. She wore white lace, with a string of pearls about her neck. He looked eagerly into her face, and a great relief took the place of that single instant of haunting fear. The change was still there. It was not the great lady who swept in, but the woman who has found an answer to the one question of life, a little tremulous still, a little less self-a.s.sured. She looked at him almost appealingly. A delicate tinge of colour lingered in her cheeks. He moved quickly forward to meet her.
"Dear!" she murmured.
He raised her hand to his lips. He was satisfied.
"You see what my new-born vanity has led to," she declared, smilingly. "I have had to keep you waiting whilst I changed my gown. I hope you like me in white."
"You are adorable," he declared.
"I wonder," she said, "would you mind dining here alone with me? It will be quite a scratch meal, but I thought that it would be cosier than a restaurant, and afterwards--we could come in here and talk."
"I should like it better than anything in the world," he declared, truthfully.
"You may take me in, then," she said. "I hope that you are as hungry as I am. No, not that way. I have ordered dinner to be served in the little room where I dine when I am alone."
To Mannering there seemed something almost unreal about the chaste perfection of the meal and its wonderful service. They dined at a small round table, so small that more than once their fingers touched upon the tablecloth. A single servant waited upon them, swiftly and perfectly. The butler appeared only with the wine, which he served, and quietly withdrew. Across the tangled ma.s.s of flowers, only a few feet away all the time, sat the woman who had suddenly made the world so beautiful to him. A murmur of conversation continually flowed between them, but he was never very sure what they were talking about. He wanted to sit still, to feast his eyes, all his senses, upon her, to strive to realize this new thing, that from henceforth she was his! And then suddenly she broke the spell. She leaned back in her chair and laughed softly.
"I have just remembered," she said, in response to his inquiring look, "why I came to call upon you this evening. What a long time ago it seems."
"And I never thought to ask you," he remarked.
"We must have no secrets now," she said, with a delightful smile. "Leslie Borrowdean came to see me this afternoon, and he was very anxious about you. He declared that you wanted to postpone your great meetings in the North until after you had made some independent investigations in some of the manufacturing centres. Poor Sir Leslie! You had frightened him so completely that he was scarcely coherent."
Mannering smiled a little gravely. It was like coming back to earth.
"Politics with Borrowdean are so much a matter of pounds, shillings and pence that the bare idea of his finding himself a day further away from office frightens him to death," he said. "We are all like the p.a.w.ns, to be moved about the chessboard of his life."
"He is certainly a very self-centred person," she remarked; "but do you know, I am really a little curious to know how you succeeded in frightening him so thoroughly."
"I had a fright myself," Mannering said. "I was made to feel for an hour or so like a Rip van Winkle with the cobwebs hanging about me--Rip van Winkle looking out upon a new world!"
"You a Rip van Winkle!" she laughed. "What was it that man who wrote in the _Nineteenth Century_ called you last week? 'The most precise and far-seeing of our politicians.'"
"The men who write in reviews," he murmured, "sometimes display the most appalling ignorance. There was also some one in the _Sat.u.r.day Review_ who alluded to me last week as a library politician. My friend quoted that against me. 'A man who essays to govern a people he knows nothing of.' It was one of the labour party who wrote it, I know, but it sticks."
"You are not losing confidence in yourself, surely?" she remarked, smiling.
"My views are unchanged, if that is what you mean," he answered. "I believe I know what is good for the people, and when I am sure of it I shall not be afraid to take up the gauntlet. But I must be quite sure."
"You puzzle me a little," she admitted. "Has any one written more convincingly than you? Arguments which are founded upon logic and statistics must yield truth, and you have set it down in black and white."
"On the other hand," he said, "my unlearned but eloquent friend dismissed all statistics, all the science of argument and deduction, with the wave of a not too scrupulously clean hand. 'Figures,' he said, 'are dead things. They are the playthings of the charlatan politician, who, by a sort of mental sleight of hand, can make them perform the most wonderful antics. If you desire the truth, seek it from live things. If you desire really to call yourself the champion of the people, come and see for yourself how they are faring. Figures will not feed them, nor statistics keep them from the great despair. Come and let me show you the sinews of the country, whether they are sound or rotten. You cannot see them through your library walls. It is only the echo of their voice which you hear so far off. If you would really be the people's man, come and learn something of the people from their own lips.' This is what my friend said to me."
"And who," she asked, "was this prophet who came to you and talked like this?"
"A retired bookmaker," he answered. "I will tell you of our meeting."
She listened gravely. After he had finished there was a short silence.
The dessert was on the table, and they were alone. Berenice was looking thoughtful.
"Tell me," he begged, "exactly what that wrinkled forehead means?"
"I was wondering," she said, "whether Sir Leslie was right, when he said that you had too much conscience ever to be a great politician."
"It mirrors Borrowdean's outlook upon politics precisely," he remarked.
She smiled at him with a sudden radiance. She had risen to her feet, and with a quick, graceful movement leaned over him. This new womanliness which he had found so irresistible was alight once more in her face. Her eyes sought his fondly, she touched his lips with hers. The perfume of her clothes, the touch of her hair upon his cheek, were like a drug. He had no more words.