Eyrecourt, to see so many really beautiful country seats in the neighborhood. I was particularly struck--you know it, of course?--by Beaupark House."
Mrs. Eyrecourt's little twinging eyes suddenly became still and steady. It was only for a moment. But that trifling change boded ill for the purpose which the priest had in view. Even the wits of a fool can be quickened by contact with the world. For many years Mrs. Eyrecourt had held her place in society, acting under an intensely selfish sense of her own interests, fortified by those cunning instincts which grow best in a barren intellect. Perfectly unworthy of being trusted with secrets which only concerned other people, this frivolous creature could be the unassailable guardian of secrets which concerned herself. The instant the priest referred indirectly to Winterfield, by speaking of Beaupark: House, her instincts warned her, as if in words:--Be careful for Stella's sake!
"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Eyrecourt. "I know Beaupark House; but--may I make a confession?" she added, with her sweetest smile.
Father Benwell caught her tone, with his customary tact. "A confession at a ball is a novelty, even in my experience," he answered with his sweetest smile.
"How good of you to encourage me!" proceeded Mrs. Eyrecourt. "No, thank you, I don't want to sit down. My confession won't take long--and I really must give that poor pale daughter of mine a glass of wine. A student of human nature like you--they say all priests are students of human nature; accustomed of course to be consulted in difficulties, and to hear real confessions--must know that we poor women are sadly subject to whims and caprices. We can't resist them as men do; and the dear good men generally make allowances for us. Well, do you know that place of Mr. Winterfield's is one of my caprices? Oh, dear, I speak carelessly; I ought to have said the place represents one of my caprices. In short. Father Benwell, Beaupark House is perfectly odious to me, and I think Clovelly the most overrated place in the world. I haven't the least reason to give, but so it is. Excessively foolish of me. It's like hysterics, I can't help it; I'm sure you will forgive me. There isn't a place on the habitable globe that I am not ready to feel interested in, except detestable Devonshire. I am so sorry you went there. The next time you have a holiday, take my advice. Try the Continent."
"I should like it of all things," said Father Benwell. "Only I don't speak French. Allow me to get Miss Eyrecourt a glass of wine."
He spoke with the most perfect temper and tranquillity. Having paid his little attention to Stella, and having relieved her of the empty glass, he took his leave, with a parting request thoroughly characteristic of the man.
"Are you staying in town, Mrs. Eyrecourt?" he asked.
"Oh, of course, at the height of the season!"
"May I have the honor of calling on you--and talking a little more about the Continent?"
If he had said it in so many words he could hardly have informed Mrs. Eyrecourt more plainly that he thoroughly understood her, and that he meant to try again. Strong in the worldly training of half a lifetime, she at once informed him of her address, with the complimentary phrases proper to the occasion. "Five o'clock tea on Wednesdays, Father Benwell. Don't forget!"
The moment he was gone, she drew her daughter into a quiet corner. "Don't be frightened, Stella. That sly old person has some interest in trying to find out about Winterfield. Do you know why?"
"Indeed I don't, mamma. I hate him!"
"Oh, hush ! hush! Hate him as much as you like; but always be civil to him. Tell me--have you been in the conservatory with Romayne?"
"All going on well?"
"My sweet child! Dear, dear me, the wine has done you no good; you're as pale as ever. Is it that priest? Oh, pooh, pooh, leave Father Benwell to me."
IN THE SMALL HOURS.
WHEN Stella left the conservatory, the attraction of the ball for Romayne was at an end. He went back to his rooms at the hotel.
Penrose was waiting to speak to him. Romayne noticed signs of suppressed agitation in his secretary's face. "Has anything happened?" he inquired.
"Nothing of any importance," Penrose answered, in sad subdued tones. "I only wanted to ask you for leave of absence."
"Certainly. Is it for a long time?"
Penrose hesitated. "You have a new life opening before you," he said. "If your experience of that life is--as I hope and pray it may be--a happy one, you will need me no longer; we may not meet again." His voice began to tremble; he could say no more.
"Not meet again?" Romayne repeated. "My dear Penrose, if you forget how many happy days I owe to your companionship, my memory is to be trusted. Do you really know what my new life is to be? Shall I tell you what I have said to Stella to-night?"
Penrose lifted his hand with a gesture of entreaty.
"Not a word!" he said, eagerly. "Do me one more kindness--leave me to be prepared (as I am prepared) for the change that is to come, without any confidence on your part to enlighten me further. Don't think me ungrateful. I have reasons for saying what I have just said--I cannot mention what they are--I can only tell you they are serious reasons. You have spoken of my devotion to you. If you wish to reward me a hundred-fold more than I deserve, bear in mind our conversations on religion, and keep the books I asked you to read as gifts from a friend who loves you with his whole heart. No new duties that you can undertake are incompatible with the higher interests of your soul. Think of me sometimes. When I leave you I go back to a lonely life. My poor heart is full of your brotherly kindness at this last moment when I may be saying good-by forever. And what is my one consolation? What helps me to bear my hard lot? The Faith that I hold! Remember that, Romayne. If there comes a time of sorrow in the future, remember that."
Romayne was more than surprised, he was shocked. "Why must you leave me?" he asked.
"It is best for you and for her," said Penrose, "that I should withdraw myself from your new life."
He held out his hand. Romayne refused to let him go. "Penrose!" he said, "I can't match your resignation. Give me something to look forward to. I must and will see you again."
Penrose smiled sadly. "You know that my career in life depends wholly on my superiors," he answered. "But if I am still in England--and if you have sorrows in the future that I can share and alleviate--only let me know it. There is nothing within the compass of my power which I will not do for your sake. God bless and prosper you! Good-by!"
In spite of his fortitude, the tears rose in his eyes. He hurried out of the room.
Romayne sat down at his writing-table, and hid his face in his hands. He had entered the room with the bright image of Stella in his mind. The image had faded from it now--the grief that was in him not even the beloved woman could share. His thoughts were wholly with the brave and patient Christian who had left him--the true man, whose spotless integrity no evil influence could corrupt.