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CHAPTER XIV. BREAKING IT OFF.
At Chiddingwick, meanwhile, Dick Plantagenet himself had been oddly enough engaged on rather opposite business. When he arrived at the house in the High Street, so long his father's, he found Maud flown, of course, and nobody at home but his mother and little Eleanor. Now, if Maud had been there, being a forcible young person in spite of her frail frame, she would soon have stirred up Mrs. Plantagenet to take her own view of the existing situation. But the widow, always weary with the cares of too large a family for her slender means, and now broken by the suddenness of her husband's death—thus left without Maud's aid—was disposed like Dick himself to take the practical side in this pressing emergency. To her, very naturally, the question of bread-and-cheese for the boys and girls came uppermost in consciousness. And though it was terrible they should have to face that sordid question at such a moment as this, yet that was a painful fate they shared, after all, with the vast majority of their fellow-creatures, who constantly have to consider practical difficulties of daily bread at the very time when their affections have just been most deeply lacerated. The more Dick talked with his mother, indeed, the more did he feel himself how imperative a duty it was for him to resign his dream and return home at once, to do what he could for her and his brothers and sisters. He was a Plantagenet, he reflected, and noblesse oblige. That motto of his race stood him in good stead on all such occasions. If do it he must, then do it he would. A Plantagenet should not be ashamed of earning his livelihood and supporting his family in any honest way, however distasteful. For no matter what trade he might happen to take up, being a Plantagenet himself, ipso facto he ennobled it.

Fired with these sentiments, which, after all, were as proud in their way as Maud's equally strong ones, if not even prouder, Dick went out almost at once to inquire at the White Horse about the possibility of his keeping up the rent of the rooms as his father had paid it; for if the scheme was to be worked no time must be lost over it, so that the lessons might be continuous. He was a capital dancer himself (worse luck!) and a tolerable violinist—and, for the matter of that, Maud could help him with the music; though he shrank, to be sure, from the painful idea that the heiress of the Plantagenets, a born princess of the blood royal of England, should mix herself up any longer with that hateful profession.

Oh, how his soul loathed it! Indeed, on second thoughts he decided 'twould be best for Maud to-be set free from the classes for her ordinary music lessons. While his father lived he couldn't have done without Maud; but now the head of the house was gone, never more should she be subjected to that horrid slavery. Enough that one member of the family should give himself up to it for the common good. Maud, poor, delicate, high-strung Maud, should, at least, be exempt.

If he needed any help he would hire an assistant.

The interview at the White Horse was quite satisfactory—too satisfactory by far, Dick thought, for he longed for a decent obstacle; and as soon as it was finished Dick felt the hardest part of his self-sacrifice was yet to come. For he had to give up not only Oxford, but also Mary Tudor. For her own sake he felt he must really do it. He had never asked her to think of him till he got his Scholarship; and it was on the strength of that small success he first ventured to speak to her. Now that Oxford must fade like a delicious dream behind him, he saw clearly his hopes of Mary must needs go with it.

They were never engaged: from first to last Mary had always said so, and Dick had admitted it. But, still, they had come most perilously near it. During the Long Vacation, when Dick had had some coaching to do for matriculation at a neighbouring town, he and Mary, had almost arrived at an understanding with one another. Dick was a gentleman now—he had always been a gentleman, indeed, in everything except the artificial position; and since he went to Oxford he had that as well, and Mary felt there was no longer any barrier of any sort interposed between them. But now all, all must go, and he must say farewell for ever to Mary.

It was hard, very hard; but duty before everything! With a beating heart he mounted the Rectory steps, and for the first time in his life ventured to ask boldly out if he could see Miss Tudor. It would be the last time, too, he thought bitterly to himself, and so it didn't matter.

Mrs. Tradescant was kinder than usual. Mr. Plantagenet's sudden death had softened her heart for the moment towards the family—perhaps even towards Maud herself, that horrid girl who committed the unpardonable offence, to a mother, of being prettier and more ladylike than her own eldest daughter. The lady of the Rectory was in the schoolroom with Mary when Ellen, the housemaid, came in with the unwonted message that Mr. Richard Plantagenet—'him as has gone up to college at Oxford, ma'am, has called for to see Miss Tudor.'

Mary blushed up to her eyes, and expected Mrs. Tradescant would insist upon going down and seeing Dick with her.

But Mrs. Tradescant had a woman's inkling of what was afoot between the two young people; and now that that horrid old man was dead, and Richard his own master, she really didn't know that it very much mattered. Young Plantagenet was an Oxford man, after all, and might go into the Church, and turn out a very good match in the end for Mary Tudor. So she only looked up and said, with a most unusual smile:

'You'd better run down to him, dear. I dare say you'd like best to see him alone for awhile, after all that's happened.'

Taken aback at such generosity, Mary ran down at once, still blushing violently, to Dick in the drawing-room. She hardly paused for a second at the glass on her way, just to pull her front hair straight and rub her cheek with her hand—quite needlessly—to bring up some colour.

Dick was dressed in black from head to foot, and looked even graver and more solemn than usual. He stretched out both his hands to hers as Mary entered, and took her fingers in his own with a regretful tenderness. Then he looked deep into her eyes for some seconds in silence. His heart was full to bursting. How could he ever break it to her? 'Twas so hard to give up all his dreams for ever. At last he found words.

'Oh, Mary,' he cried, trembling, 'you've heard of all that's happened?'

Mary pressed his hand hard, and answered simply, with a great lump in her throat: 'Yes, Dick dear, I've heard—and all these days long I've lived with you constantly.'

Dick sat down on the sofa and began to tell her all his story. He told her first about his father's death and the things that had followed it; and then he went on to the more immediately practical question of what he was to do for his mother and sisters. His voice trembled as he spoke, for he was very, very fond of her; but he told her all straight out, as a Plantagenet should, without one word of the disgrace he felt it would be. He dwelt only on the absolute necessity of his doing something at once to provide for the family.

'And under these circumstances, Mary,' he said at last, looking down at her with some moisture in his brimming eyes. 'I feel that my duty to you is perfectly plain and clear. I must release you unconditionally from the engagement, which, as we both know, has never existed between us.'

Mary looked at him for a moment as if she hardly took in the full meaning of his words; then, in a. very low and decided voice, she answered clearly: 'But I don't release you, dear Dick—and I shall never release you.'

'But, Mary,' Dick cried, unable to conceal his pleasure at her words, in spite of himself, 'you mustn't think of it, you know. It's—it's quite, quite impossible. In the first place, I shall never be able to marry at all now, or if ever, why, only after years and years—oh, Heaven only knows how many!'

('That's nothing!' Mary sobbed out parenthetically; 'if necessary, I could wait a thousand years for you.')

'And then again,' Dick continued, resolved not to spare himself one solitary drop in his cup of degradation, 'it would never do for you to be engaged—to the local dancing-master. If it comes to that, indeed, I'm sure Mrs. Tradeseant wouldn't allow it.'

With a sudden womanly impulse Mary rose all at once and flung herself, sobbing, on her lover's bosom.

'Oh, Dick,' she cried—'dear Dick, I'm proud of you—so proud of you, no matter what you do—prouder now than ever! I think it's just grand of you to be so ready to give up everything for your mother and sisters. You seem to me to think only of them—and of me—and not a word of yourself; and I say it's just beautiful of you. I couldn't be ashamed of you if you sold apples in the street. You'd always be yourself, and I couldn't help being proud of you. And as for Mrs. Tradeseant, if she won't let me be engaged to you, why, I'll throw up the place and take another one, if I can get it—or else go without one. But I'm yours now, Dick, and I shall be yours for ever.' She threw her arms round his neck, and, for the first time in her life, she raised her lips and kissed him. 'Why, what a wretch I should be,' she cried through her tears, 'if I could dream of giving you up just at the very moment when you most want my help and sympathy! Dick, Dick—dear Dick, we never were engaged till now; but now we are engaged, and you won't argue me out of it!'

Dick led her to a seat. For the next few minutes the conversation was chiefly of an inarticulate character. The type-founder's art has no letters to represent it. Then Dick tried to speak again in the English language. (The rest had been common to the human family.)

'This is very good of you, dearest,' he said, holding her hand tight in his own; 'very, very good and sweet of you! It's just what I might have expected; though I confess, being engaged chiefly in thinking of the thing from the practical standpoint, I didn't expect it, which was awfully dull of me. But we must be practical—practical. I must devote myself in future to my mother and sisters; and you mustn't waste all the best of your life in waiting for me—in waiting for a man who will probably never, never be able to marry you.'

But women, thank God, are profoundly unpractical creatures! Mary looked up in his face through her tears, and made answer solemnly:

'Oh, Dick, you don't know how long I would wait for you! I want to tell you something, dear; to-day I feel I can tell you. I could never have told you before; I wouldn't tell you now if it weren't for all that has happened. Eighteen months ago, when you first spoke to me, I thought to myself: “He's a charming young man, and I like him very much; he's so kind and so clever; but how could I ever marry him? It wouldn't be right; he's the son of the dancing-master.” And now to-day, dear Dick, you darling good fellow, if you turn dancing-master yourself, or anything else in the world—if you sweep a crossing, even—I shall be proud of you still; I shall feel prouder of you by far than if you stopped there selfishly in your rooms at Oxford, and never gave a thought to your mother and sisters.'

She paused for a second and looked at him. Then once more she flung her arms round his neck and cried aloud, almost hysterically:

'Oh, Dick, dear Dick, whatever on earth you do, I shall always love you; I shall always be proud of you!'

And when they parted that morning, Richard Plantagenet and Mary Tudor were for the first time in their lives engaged to one another.

That's what always happens when you go to see a girl, conscientiously determined, for her sake, much against the grain, to break things off with her for ever. I have been there myself, and I know all about it.


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