I can't help distrusting a man who does that."
He laughed--not very kindly. "You might as well say you distrust a man who conceals that he is an author, by writing an anonymous book. What Penrose did, he did under orders from his superior--and, moreover, he frankly owned to me that he was a priest. If you blame anybody, you had better blame me for respecting his confidence."
She drew back from him, hurt by the tone in which he spoke to her. "I remember the time, Lewis," she said, "when you would have been more indulgent toward my errors--even if I am wrong."
That simple appeal touched his better nature. "I don't mean to be hard on you, Stella," he answered. "It is a little irritating to hear you say that you distrust the most devoted and most affectionate friend that man ever had. Why can't I love my wife, and love my friend, too? You don't know, when I am trying to get on with my book, how I miss the help and sympathy of Penrose. The very sound of his voice used to encourage me. Come, Stella, give me a kiss--and let us, as the children say, make it up!"
He rose from his writing-table. She met him more than half way, and pressed all her love--and perhaps a little of her fear--on his lips. He returned the kiss as warmly as it was given; and then, unhappily for both of them, he went back to the subject.
"My own love," he said, "try to like my friend for my sake; and be tolerant of other forms of Christianity besides the form which happens to be yours."
Her smiling lips closed; she turned from him. With the sensitive selfishness of a woman's love, she looked on Penrose as a robber who had stolen the sympathies which should have been wholly hers. As she moved away, her quick observation noticed the open book on the desk, with notes and lines in pencil on the margin of the page. What had Romayne been reading which interested him in that way? If he had remained silent, she would have addressed the inquiry to him openly. But he was hurt on his side by the sudden manner of her withdrawal from him. He spoke--and his tone was colder than ever.
"I won't attempt to combat your prejudices," he said. "But one thing I must seriously ask of you. When my friend Penrose comes here to-morrow, don't treat him as you treated Mr. Winterfield."
There was a momentary paleness in her face which looked like fear, but it passed away again. She confronted him firmly with steady eyes.
"Why do you refer again to that?" she asked. "Is--" (she hesitated and recovered herself)--"Is Mr. Winterfield another devoted friend of yours?"
He walked to the door, as if he could hardly trust his temper if he answered her--stopped--and, thinking better of it, turned toward her again.
"We won't quarrel, Stella," he rejoined; "I will only say I am sorry you don't appreciate my forbearance. Your reception of Mr. Winterfield has lost me the friendship of a man whom I sincerely liked, and who might have assisted my literary labors. You were ill at the time, and anxious about Mrs. Eyrecourt. I respected your devotion to your mother. I remembered your telling me, when you first went away to nurse her, that your conscience accused you of having sometimes thoughtlessly neglected your mother in her days of health and good spirits, and I admired the motive of atonement which took you to her bedside. For those reasons I shrank from saying a word that might wound you. But, because I was silent, it is not the less true that you surprised and disappointed me. Don't do it again! Whatever you may privately think of Catholic priests, I once more seriously request you not to let Penrose see it."
He left the room.
She stood, looking after him as he closed the door, like a woman thunderstruck. Never yet had he looked at her as he looked when he spoke his last warning words. With a heavy sigh she roused herself. The vague dread with which his tone rather than his words had inspired her, strangely associated itself with the momentary curiosity which she had felt on noticing the annotated book that lay on his desk.
She snatched up the volume and looked at the open page. It contained the closing paragraphs of an eloquent attack on Protestantism, from the Roman Catholic point of view. With trembling hands she turned back to the title-page. It presented this written inscription: "To Lewis Romayne from his attached friend and servant, Arthur Penrose."
"God help me!" she said to herself; "the priest has got between us already!"
A CHRISTIAN JESUIT.
ON the next day Penrose arrived on his visit to Romayne.
The affectionate meeting between the two men tested Stella's self-control as it had never been tried yet. She submitted to the ordeal with the courage of a woman whose happiness depended on her outward graciousness of manner toward her husband's friend. Her reception of Penrose, viewed as an act of refined courtesy, was beyond reproach. When she found her opportunity of leaving the room, Romayne gratefully opened the door for her. "Thank you!" he whispered, with a look which was intended to reward her.
She only bowed to him, and took refuge in her own room.
Even in trifles, a woman's nature is degraded by the falsities of language and manner which the artificial condition of modern society exacts from her. When she yields herself to more serious deceptions, intended to protect her dearest domestic interests, the mischief is increased in proportion. Deceit, which is the natural weapon of defense used by the weak creature against the strong, then ceases to be confined within the limits assigned by the sense of self-respect and by the restraints of education. A woman in this position will descend, self- blinded, to acts of meanness which would be revolting to her if they were related of another person.
Stella had already begun the process of self-degradation by writing secretly to Winterfield. It was only to warn him of the danger of trusting Father Benwell--but it was a letter, claiming him as her accomplice in an act of deception. That morning she had received Penrose with the outward cordialities of welcome which are offered to an old and dear friend. And now, in the safe solitude of her room, she had fallen to a lower depth still. She was deliberately considering the safest means of acquainting herself with the confidential conversation which Romayne and Penrose would certainly hold when she left them together. "He will try to set my husband against me; and I have a right to know what means he uses, in my own defense." With that thought she reconciled herself to an action which she would have despised if she had heard of it as the action of another woman.
It was a beauti ful autumn day, brightened by clear sunshine, enlivened by crisp air. Stella put on her hat and went out for a stroll in the grounds.
While she was within view from the windows of the servants' offices she walked away from the house. Turning the corner of a shrubbery, she entered a winding path, on the other side, which led back to the lawn under Romayne's study window.