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CHAPTER XLI. AUDOUIN'S MISTAKE.

Lothrop Audouin walked round a little tremblingly to the Villa Panormi. He wasn't generally a shy or nervous man, but on this particular afternoon he felt an unwonted agitation in his breast, for he was bound to the Villa on a very special errand; and he was glad when he saw Gwen Howard-Russell walking about alone in the alleys of the garden, for it saved him the necessity of having to make a formal call upon her in the big salon. Gwen saw him coming, and moved towards the heavy iron gate to meet him.

She gave him her hand with one of her sunniest smiles, and Audouin took it, as he always did, with antique Massachusetts ceremoniousness. Then he turned with her, almost by accident as it were, down the path bordered by the orange-trees, and began to talk as he loved so well to talk, about the trees, and the flowers, and the green-grey lizards, that sat sunning themselves lazily upon the red Roman tiles which formed the stiff and formal garden edging.

'Though these are not my own flowers, you know, Miss Russell,' he said at last, looking at her a little curiously. 'These are not my own flowers; and indeed everything here in Rome, even nature itself, always seems to me so overlaid by the all-pervading influence of art that I fail to feel at home with the very lilies and violets in this artificial atmosphere In America, you know, my surroundings are so absolutely those of unmixed nature: I lead the life of a perfect hermit in an unsophisticated and undesecrated wilderness.'

'Mr. Winthrop has told me a great deal about Lakeside,' Gwen answered lightly, and Audouin took it as a good omen that she should have remembered the very name of his woodland cottage. 'You live quite among the prim?val forest, don't you, by a big shallow bend in Lake Ontario?'

'Yes, quite among the prim?val forest indeed; from my study window I look out upon nothing but the green pines, and the rocky ravine, and the great blue sheet of Ontario for an infinite background. Not a house or a sign of life to be seen anywhere, except the flying-squirrels darting about among the branches of the hickories.'

'But don't you get very tired and lonely there, with nobody but yourself and your servants? Don't you feel dreadfully the want of congenial cultivated society?'

Audouin sighed pensively to hide the beating of his heart at that simple question.

Surely, surely, the beautiful queenly Englishwoman was leading up to his hand! Surely she must know what was the natural interpretation for him to put upon her last inquiry! It is gross presumptuousness on the part of any man to ask a woman for the priceless gift of her whole future unless you have good reason to think that you are not wholly without hope of a favourable answer; but Gwen Howard-Russell must certainly mean to encourage him in the bold plunge he was on the verge of taking. It is hard for a chivalrous man to ask a woman that supreme question at any time: harder still when, like Lothrop Audouin, he has left it till time has begun to sprinkle his locks with silver. But Gwen was evidently not wholly averse to his proposition: he would break the ice between them and venture at last upon a declaration.

'Well,' he answered slowly, looking at Gwen half askance in a timid fashion very unlike his usual easy airy gallantry, 'I usen't to think it so, Miss Howard; I usen't to think it so. I had my books and my good companions—Plato, and Montaigne, and Burton, and Rabelais. I loved the woods and the flowers and the living creatures, and all my life long, you know, I have been a fool to nature, a fool to nature. Perhaps there was a little spice of misanthropy, too, in my desire to fly from a base, degrading, materialised civilisation. I didn't feel lonely in those days;—no, in those days, in those days, Miss Russell, I didn't feel lonely.'

He spoke hesitatingly, with long pauses between each little sentence, and his lips quivered as he spoke with girlish tremulousness and suppressed emotion. He who was usually so fluent and so ready with his rounded periods—he hardly managed now to frame his tongue to the few short words he wished to say to her. Profoundly and tenderly respectful by nature to all women, he felt so deeply awed by Gwen's presence and by the magnitude of the favour he wished to ask of her, that he trembled like a child as he tried to speak out boldly his heart's desire. It was not nervousness, it was not timidity, it was not diffidence; it was the overpowering emotion of a mature man, pent up till now, and breaking over him at last in a perfect inundation through the late-opened floodgates of his repressed passion. For a moment he leaned his hand against the projecting rockery of the grotto for support; then he spoke once more in a hushed voice, so that even Gwen vaguely suspected the real nature of his coming declaration.

'In those days,' he repeated once more, with knees failing under him for trembling, 'in those days I didn't feel lonely; but since my last visit to Rome I have felt Lakeside much more solitary than before. I have tired of my old crony Nature, and have begun to feel a newborn desire for closer human companionship. I have begun to wish for the presence of some kind and beautiful friend to share its pleasures with me. I needn't tell you, Miss Russell, why I date the uprising of that feeling from the time of my last visit to Italy. It was then that I first learned really to know and to admire you. It is a great thing to ask, I know, a woman's heart—a true noble woman's whole heart and affection; but I dare to beg for it—I dare to beg for it. Oh, Miss Russell—oh, Gwen, Gwen, will you have pity upon me? will you give it me? will you give it me?' As he spoke, the tall strong-knit man, clutching the rock-work passionately for support, he looked so pale and faint and agitated that Gwen thought he would have fallen there and then, if she gave him the only possible answer too rudely and suddenly.

So she took his arm gently in hers, as a daughter might take a father's, and led him to the seat at the far end of the orange alley by the artificial fountain. Audouin followed her with a beating heart, and threw himself down half fainting on the slab of marble.

'Mr. Audouin,' Gwen began gently, for she pitied his evident overpowering emotion from the bottom of her heart, 'I can't tell you how sorry I am to have to say so, but it cannot possibly be; it can never be, never, so it's no use my trying to talk about it.'

A knife struck through Audouin's bosom at those simple words, and he grew still paler white than ever, but he merely bowed his head respectfully, and, crushing down his love with iron resolution, murmured slowly, 'Then forgive me, forgive me.' His unwritten creed would not have permitted him in such circumstances to press his broken suit one moment longer.

'Mr. Audouin,' Gwen went on, 'I'm afraid I have unintentionally misled you. No, I don't want you to go yet,' she added with one of her imperious gestures, for he seemed as if he would rise and leave her; 'I don't want you to go until I have explained it all to you. I like you very much, I have always liked you; I respect you, too, and I've been pleased and proud of the privilege of your acquaintance. Perhaps in doing so much, in seeking to talk with you and enjoy your society, I may have seemed to have encouraged you in feelings which it never struck me you were at all likely to harbour. I—I liked you so sincerely that I never even dreamt you might fancy I could love you.' 'And why, Miss Russell?' Audouin pleaded earnestly. 'If you dismiss me so hopelessly, let me know at least the reason of my dismissal. It was very presumptuous of me, I know, to dare to hope for so much happiness; but why did you think me quite outside the sphere of your possible suitors?'

'Why, Mr. Audouin,' Gwen said in a low tone, 'I have always looked upon you rather as one might look upon a father than as one might look upon a young man of one's own generation. I never even thought of you before to-day except as somebody so much older and wiser, and altogether different from myself, that it didn't occur to me for a single moment you yourself wouldn't feel so also.' Audouin's despairing face brightened a little as he said, 'If that is all, Miss Russell, mayn't I venture to look upon your answer as not quite final; mayn't I hope to leave the question open yet a little, so that you may see what time may do for me, now you know my inmost feeling? Don't crush me hopelessly at once; let me linger a little before you utterly reject me. If you only knew how deeply you have entwined yourself into my very being, you wouldn't cast me off so lightly and so easily.'

Gwen looked at him with a face full of unfeigned pity. 'Mr. Audouin,' she answered, 'I know how truly you are speaking. I should read your nature badly if I didn't see it in your very eyes. But I cannot hold you out any hope in any way. I like you immensely; I feel profoundly sorry to have to speak so plainly to you. I know how great an honour you confer upon me by your offer; but I can't accept it—it's quite impossible that I can ever accept it. I like you, and respect you more than I ever liked or respected any other person, except one; but there is one person I like and respect even more, so you see at once why it's quite impossible that I should listen to you about this any longer.'

'I understand,' Audouin answered slowly. 'I understand. I see it all now. Colin Churchill has been beforehand with me. While I hesitated, he has acted.'

Gwen's lips broke for a moment into a quiet smile, and she murmured softly, 'No, not Colin Churchill, Mr. Audouin, not Colin Churchill, but Hiram Winthrop. I think, as I have said so much, I ought to tell you it is Hiram Winthrop.'

Audouin's brain reeled round madly in grief and indignation at that astonishing revelation. Hiram Winthrop! His own familiar friend; his dearest ward and pupil! Was it he, then, who had stolen this prize of life, unseen, unsuspected, beneath his very eyesight? If Gwen had never fancied that Audouin could fall in love with her, neither could Audouin ever have suspected it of Hiram Winthrop. If Gwen had looked upon Audouin as a confirmed old bachelor of the elder generation, Audouin had looked upon Hiram as a mere boy, too young yet to meddle with such serious fancies. And now the boy had stolen Gwen from him unawares, and for half a second, all loyal as he was, Audouin felt sick and angry in soul at what he figured to himself as Hiram's cruel and ungrateful duplicity.

'Hiram Winthrop!' he muttered angrily. 'Hiram Winthrop! How unworthy of him! how unkind of him! how unjust of him to come between me and the one object he ever knew me set my heart upon!'

'But, Mr. Audouin,' Gwen cried in warmer tones, 'Hiram no more dreamt of this than I did; he took it for granted all along that you knew he loved me, but he never spoke of it because you know he is always reserved about everything that concerns his own personal feelings.'

The marble seat reeled and the ground shook beneath Audouin's feet as he sat there, his brow between his hands, and his elbows upon his knees, trying to realise the true bearings of what Gwen was saying to him. Yes, he saw it all plainly now; it dawned upon him slowly: in his foolish, selfish, blind preoccupation, he had been thinking only of his own love, and wholly overlooking Gwen's and Hiram's. 'What a short-sighted fool I have been, Miss Russell!' he cried, broken-spirited. 'Yes, yes; Hiram is not to blame. I only am to blame for my own folly. If Hiram loves you, and you love Hiram, I have only one duty left before me: to leave you this moment, and to do whatever in me lies to make you and Hiram as happy as I can. No two people on this earth have ever been dearer to me. I must try to change my attitude to you both, and learn that I am old enough to help even now to make you happy.' In his perfect loyalty, Audouin almost forgot at once his passing twinge of distrust for Hiram, and thought only of his own blindness. He rose slowly from the marble seat, and Gwen noticed that as he rose he seemed to have aged visibly in those few minutes. The suddenness and utterness of the disappointment had unmistakably crushed him. He staggered a little as he rose; then in a faltering voice he said, 'Good-bye, good-bye, Miss Russel.' Gwen turned away her face, and answered regretfully, 'Good-bye, Mr. Audouin.'

He raised his hat, with a touch of old-fashioned courtesy in his formal bow, and walked away quickly, out of the garden, and back towards the hotel where he had been then stopping. For some time his disappointment sat upon him so heavily that he could only brood over it in a vague, half unconscious fashion; but at last, as he passed the corner of the big piazza a thought seemed to flash suddenly across his dazzled brain, and he turned round at once, in feverish haste, pacing back moodily towards the Villa Panormi. 'How selfish of me!' he said to himself in angry self-expostulation, 'how selfish and cruel of me to have forgotten it! How small and narrow and petty we men are, after all! In my dejection at my own disappointment, I have quite overlooked poor Hiram. Love may be all that the poets say about it—I don't know, I can't say—how should I, a lonely wild man of the woods, who know not the ways of women? But one thing I do know: it's a terrible absorbing and self-centring passion. A man thinks only of him and her, and forgets all the rest of the world entirely, as though he were a solitary savage wooing in the gloom his solitary squaw. And yet they write about it as though it were the very head and front of all the beatitudes!'

He walked, or almost ran, to the Villa Panormi, and looked anxiously for Gwen in the alleys of the garden. She wasn't there: she had gone in evidently. He must go to the door and boldly ask for her. Was the signorina at home, he enquired of the servant. Yes, the signorina had just come in: what name, signor? Audouin handed the man his card, and waited with a burning heart in the long open salon.

In a minute Gwen sent down word by her English maid: she was very sorry; would Mr. Audouin kindly excuse her?—she was suffering from headache.

'Tell Miss Russell,' Audouin answered, so earnestly that the girl guessed at once something of his business, 'that I must see her without delay. The matter is important, immediate, urgent, and of more interest to her than even to me.'

He waited again for fully ten minutes. Then Gwen sailed into the room, queen-like as ever, and advanced towards him smiling; but he saw she had been crying, and had bathed her eyes to hide it, and he felt flattered in his heart even then at that womanly tribute of sympathy to his bitter disappointment. 'Miss Russell,' he said, with all the sincerity of his inner nature speaking vividly in his very voice, 'I am more sorry than I can say that I'm compelled to come back so soon and speak with you again after what has just happened. We may still be always firm friends, I'm sure; I shall try to feel towards you always as an elder brother: but I know you would have liked a day or two to pass before we met again on what is to me at least a new footing. Still, I felt compelled to come back and tell you something which it is of great importance that you should know at once. Miss Bussell, you mustn't on any account breathe a word of all this in any way to Hiram. Don't think I'm speaking without good reason. As you value your own happiness, don't breathe a word of it to Hiram.'

Gwen saw from his exceeding earnestness that he had some definite ground for this odd warning, and it piqued her curiosity to know what that ground could possibly be. 'Why, Mr. Audouin?' she asked simply.

'Because it would cause you great distress, I believe,' Audouin answered evasively. 'Because it would probably prevent his ever marrying you. Oh, Miss Russell, do please promise me that you'll say nothing at all to him about it.'

'But I can't promise, Mr. Audouin,' Gwen answered slowly. 'I can't promise. I feel I ought to tell him. I think a woman ought to tell her future husband everything.'

'Miss Russell,' Audouin went on, still more solemnly than before, 'I beg of you, I implore you, I beseech you, for the sake of your own future and Hiram's, don't say a word to him of this.'

'But why, why, Mr. Audouin? You give me no reason, no explanation. If you won't explain to me, you'll only frighten me the more into telling Hiram, because your manner seems so excited and so mysterious. I can't promise or refuse to promise until I understand what you mean by it.'

'I had rather not explain to you,' Audouin went on hesitatingly. 'I should prefer not to have told you. Indeed, unless you compel me, I will never tell you. But from my own knowledge of Hiram's character I feel sure that if you let him know about this he will never, never marry you. He is so unselfish, so good, so delicately self-sacrificing, that if he hears of this he will think he mustn't claim you. I have known him, Miss Russell, longer than you have; I can count better on what he would do under any given circumstances. Most men are selfish and blind in love; I was so just now: I have been all along, when in my personal eagerness to win your esteem I never noticed what was indeed as clear as daylight, that Hiram must have been in love with you too. But Hiram is not selfish and blind, even in love; of that I'm certain. He would never marry you if he thought that by so doing he was putting himself in rivalry with me.'

'And why not?' Gwen asked, with her large eyes looking through and through Audouin's to their very centre. 'Why not with you in particular?'

'Because,' Audouin answered, faltering, and trying to withdraw his gaze from hers, but unsuccessfully, for she seemed to mesmerise him with her keen glance, 'because, Miss Bussell, if you force me to tell you, I have been of some little service at various times to Hiram, and have placed him under some slight obligations, whose importance his generous nature vastly overestimates. I am quite sure, from what I know of him, that if he thought I had ever dreamt of the possibility of asking you to put up with my poor little individuality, he would never feel himself at liberty to marry you; he would think he was being unfriendly and (as he would say) ungrateful. I dare say you will fancy to yourself that I am making him out but a cold lover. I am not, Miss Russell; I am giving him the highest praise in my power. I feel confident that, though he loved you as the apple of his eye, he wouldn't sacrifice what he thought honour and duty even for your sake.'

Gwen looked at him steadily, and answered in a trembling voice, 'I will say nothing to him about it, Mr. Audouin, nothing at all until after we are married. Then, you know, then I must tell him.'

'Thank you,' Audouin said gently. 'That will do sufficiently. Thank you, thank you. If it hadn't been a matter of such urgency I wouldn't have troubled you with it now. But as I went along the road homeward, heavy at heart, as you may imagine, it struck me like a flash of lightning that you might speak to Hiram about it this very day, and that Hiram, if he heard it, might withdraw his pretensions, so to speak, and feel compelled to retire in my favour. And as he loves you, and as you love him, I should never have forgiven myself if that had happened—had even momentarily happened. You will have difficulties and perplexities enough in any case without my adding my mite to them, I feel certain. And I was so appalled at my own wicked selfishness in having overlooked all this, that I felt constrained to come back, even at the risk of offending you, and set the matter at rest this very afternoon. I won't detain you a moment longer now. Good-bye, Miss Russell, good-bye, and thank you.'

Gwen looked at him again as he stood there, with his face so evidently pained with the lasting pain of his great disappointment, utterly oblivious of self even at that supreme hour in his thought for his friend, yet reproaching himself so unfeignedly for his supposed selfishness, and she thought as she looked how truly noble he was at heart after all. The outer shell of affectation and mannerism was all gone now, and the true inner core of the man lay open before her in all its beautiful trustful simplicity. At that moment Gwen Howard-Russell felt as if she really loved Lothrop Audouin—loved him as a daughter might love a pure, generous, tender father. She looked at him steadily for a minute as he stood there with his hand outstretched for hers, and then, giving way to her natural womanly impulse for one second, she cried, 'Oh, Mr. Audouin, I mustn't love you, I mustn't love you; but I can't tell you how deeply I respect and admire you!' And as she spoke, to Audouin's intense surprise and joy—yes, joy—she laid both her hands tenderly upon his shoulders, drew him down to her unresisting, and kissed him once upon the face as she had long ago kissed her lost and all but forgotten mother. Then, with crimson cheeks, and eyes flooded with tears, she rushed away, astonished and half angry with herself for the audacious impulse, yet proudly beautiful as ever, leaving Audouin alone and trembling in the empty salon.

Audouin was too pure at heart himself not to accept the kiss exactly as it was intended. He drew himself up once more, ashamed of the fluttering in his unworthy bosom, which he could not help but feel; and saying in his own soul gently, 'Poor little guileless heart! she takes me for better than I am, and treats me accordingly,' he sallied forth once more into the narrow gloomy streets of Rome, and walked away hurriedly, he cared not whither.


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