She stared at him blankly. The colour in her cheek was like a lurid patch under the pallor of her skin. She gave a little gasp, and her hand went to her side. Then she laughed hardly, almost offensively.
“What a man of sentiment,” she declared. “After fifteen years, too, and only just engaged to another woman! No, thank you, my dear Lawrence. I’ve lived my life, such as it has been. I’m not so very old, but I look fifty, and I’ve vices enough to blacken an entire neighbourhood. Fancy, if people saw me, and heard that you might have married the Duchess of Lenchester. They’d hint at an asylum.”
“Never mind about other people,” he said. “Give me a chance, Blanche, to show that I’m not such an absolute brute.”
“Rubbish,” she interrupted. “Fifteen years ago I would have married you. In fact, I expected to. The reason why I found the courage to shield you from any unpleasantness that awful day was because I knew if trouble came and there was any scandal you would feel yourself obliged to marry me, and I wanted you to marry me—because you wanted to. What an idiot I was! Now, please go away, Lawrence. Marry the Duchess, if you like, but don’t worry me with your re-awakened conscience. I’m going my own way for the rest of my few years, and the less I see of you the better I shall be pleased. You will forgive me—but I have an engagement—down the river! I really must hurry you off.”
Her teeth were set close together, the sobs seemed tangled in her throat. It seemed to her that all the longing in her life was concentrated in that one passionate desire, that he should seize her in his arms now, hold her there—tell her that it had all been a mistake, that the ugly times were dreams, that after all he had cared—a little! The room swam round with her, but she pointed smilingly to the door, which her trim parlour-maid was holding open. And Mannering went.
THE FALTERING OF MANNERING
Mannering left by the afternoon train for Hampshire, where he was to be the guest for a few days of the leader of his party. He arrived without sending word of his coming, to find the whole of the house party absent at a cricket match. The short respite was altogether welcome to him. He changed his clothes and wandered off into the gardens. Here an hour or so later Berenice’s maid found him.
“Her Grace would like to see you, sir, if you would come to her sitting-room,” the girl said, with a demure smile.
Mannering, with something of an inward groan, followed her. Berenice, very slim and stately in her simple white muslin gown, rose from the couch as he entered, and held out her hands.
“At last,” she murmured. “You provoking man, to stay away so long. And what have you been doing with yourself?”
Her sentence concluded with a little note of dismay. Mannering was positively haggard in the clear afternoon light. There were lines underneath his eyes, and his face had a tense, drawn appearance. He did not kiss her, as she had more than half expected. He held her hands for a moment, and then sank down upon the couch by her side.