“Rubbish!” Hester declared. “The Duchess is too great a woman to lose so utterly her sense of proportion. Don’t you understand—that she loves you?”
Mannering laughed bitterly.
“She must love a shadow, then!” he said, “for the man she knew does not exist any longer. Poor little girl, are you disappointed?” he added, more kindly. “I am sorry!”
“I am disappointed to hear you talking like this,” she declared. “I will not believe that it is more than a mood. You are overtired, perhaps!”
“Ay!” he said. “But I have been overtired for a long time. The strength the gods give us lasts a weary while. You must send my excuses to the Duchess, Hester. The fates are leading me another way.”
“I won’t do it,” she sobbed. “You shall be reasonable! I will make you go!”
He shook his head.
“If you could,” he murmured, “you might alter the writing on one little page of history. We defeated the Government to-night badly, and I am going to Windsor to-morrow afternoon.”
Hester rose to her feet and paced the room restlessly. Mannering had spoken without exultation. His pallid face seemed to her to have grown thin and hard. He saw himself the possible Prime Minister of the morrow without the slightest suggestion of any sort of gratified ambition.
“I don’t know whether to say that I am glad or not,” Hester declared, stopping once more by his side. “If you are going to shut yourself off from everything else in life which makes for happiness, to forget that you are a man, and turn yourself into a law-making machine, well, then, I am sorry. I think that your success will be a curse to you. I think that you will live to regret it.”
Mannering looked at her for a moment with a gleam of his old self shining out of his eyes. A sudden pathos, a wave of self-pity had softened his face.
“Dear child!” he said, gravely, “I cannot make you understand. I carry a burden from which no one can free me. For good or for evil the powers that be have set my feet in the path of the climbers, and for the sake of those whose sufferings I have seen I must struggle upwards to the end. Berenice and the Duchess of Lenchester are two very different persons. I cannot take one into my life without the other. It is because I love her, Hester, that I let her go. Good-night, child!”
She kissed his hand and went slowly to her room, stumbling upstairs through a mist of tears. There was nothing more that she could do.
CHECKMATE TO BORROWDEAN
Mannering’s town house, none too large at any time, was transformed into a little hive of industry. Two hurriedly appointed secretaries were at work in the dining-room, and Hester was busy typing in her own little sanctum.
Mannering sat in his study before a table covered with papers, and for the first time during the day was alone for a few moments.