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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Strange World » CHAPTER XVII. 'DEATH COULD NOT SEVER MY SOUL AND YOU.'
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CHAPTER XVII. 'DEATH COULD NOT SEVER MY SOUL AND YOU.'
Churchill Penwyn lost little of that morrow to which he had looked forward so eagerly. He was in Cavendish Row at eleven o'clock, in the pretty drawing-room, among brightly bound books and music, and flowers, surrounded by colour, life, and sunshine, and with Madge Bellingham in his arms.

For the first few moments neither of them could speak, they stood silent, the girl's dark head upon her lover's breast, her cheek pale with deepest feeling, his strong arms encircling her.

'My own dear love!' he murmured, after a kiss that brought the warm blood back to that pale cheek. 'My very own at last! Who would have thought when we parted that I should come back to you so soon, with altered fortunes?'

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'So strangely soon,' said Madge. 'Oh, Churchill, there is something awful in it.'

'Destiny is always awful, dearest. She is that goddess who ever was, and ever will be, and whose veil no man's hand has ever lifted. We are blind worshippers in her temple, and must take the lots she deals from her inscrutable hand. We are among her favoured children, dearest, for she has given us happiness.'

'I refused to be your wife, Churchill, because you were poor. Can you quite forgive that? Must I not seem to you selfish and mercenary, almost contemptible, if I accept you now?'

'My beloved, you are truth itself. Be as nobly frank to-day as you were that day I promised to win fame and fortune for your sake. Fortune has come without labour of mine. It shall go hard with me if fame does not follow in the future. Only tell me once more that you love me, that you rejoice in my good fortune, and will share it, and—bless it?'

He made a little pause before the last two words, as if some passing thought had troubled him.

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'You know that I love you, Churchill,' she answered, shyly. 'I could not keep that secret from you the other day, though I would have given so much to hide the truth.'

'And you will be my wife, darling, the fair young mistress of Penwyn?'

'By and by, Churchill. It seems almost wrong to talk of our marriage yet awhile. That poor young fellow, your cousin, he may have been asking some happy girl to share his fortune and his home—to be mistress of Penwyn—only a little while ago.'

'Very sad,' said Churchill, 'but the natural law. You remember what the father of poets has said—"The race of man is like the leaves on the trees."'

'Yes, Churchill, but the leaves fall in their season. This poor young fellow has been snatched away in the blossom of his youth—and by a murderer's hand.'

'I have heard a good deal of that sort of talk since his death,' remarked Mr. Penwyn, with a cloudy look. 'I thought you would have a256 warmer greeting for me than lamentations about my cousin. But for his death I should not have the right to hold you in my arms, to claim you for my wife. You rejected me on account of my property; yet you bewail the event that has made me rich.'

Miss Bellingham withdrew herself from her lover's arms with an offended look.

'I would rather have waited for you ten years than that fortune should have come to you under such painful circumstances,' she said.

'Yes, you think so, I dare say. But I know what a woman's waiting generally comes to—above all when she is one of the most beautiful women in London. Madge, don't sting me with cold words, or cold looks. You do not know how I have yearned for this hour.'

She had seated herself by one of the little tables, and was idly turning the leaves of an ivory-bound volume. Churchill knelt down beside her, and took the white ringed hand away from the book, and covered it with kisses—and put his arm round her as she sat—leaning his head against her257 shoulder, as if he had found rest there, after long weariness.

'Have some compassion upon me, darling,' he pleaded. 'Pity nerves that have been strained, a mind that has been overtaxed. Do not think that I have not felt this business. I have felt it God alone knows how intensely. But I come here for happiness. Time enough for troublous thoughts when you and I are apart. Here I would remember nothing—know nothing but the joy of being with you, to touch your hand, to hear your voice, to look into those deep, dark eyes.'

There was nothing but love in the eyes that met his gaze now—love unquestioning and unmeasured.

'Dearest, I will never speak of your cousin again if it pains you,' Madge said, earnestly. 'I ought to have been more considerate.'

She pushed back a loose lock from the broad forehead where the hair grew thinly, with a gentle caressing hand; timidly, for it was the first time she had touched her lover's brow, and there was something of a wife's tenderness in the action.

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'Churchill,' she exclaimed, 'your forehead burns as if you were in a fever. You are not ill, I hope?'

'No, dear, not ill. But I have been over-anxious, over-excited, perhaps. I am calm now, happy now, Madge. When shall I speak to your father? I want to feel myself your acknowledged lover.'

'You can speak to papa whenever you like, Churchill. He came home last night from Newmarket. I know he will be glad to see you either here or at his club.'

'And our marriage, Madge, how soon shall that be?'

'Oh, Churchill, you cannot wish it to be soon, after——'

'But I do wish it to be soon; as soon as it may be with decency. I am not going to pretend exaggerated grief for the death of a kinsman of whom I hardly knew anything. I am not going to sit in sackcloth and ashes because I have inherited an estate I never expected to own, in order that the world may look on approvingly,259 and say, "What fine feelings! what tenderness of heart!" Society offers a premium for hypocrisy. No, Madge, I will wear crape on my hat for just three months, and wait just three months for the crowning happiness of my life; and then we will be married, as quietly as you please, and slip away by some untrodden track to a Paradise of our own, some one fair scene among the many lovely spots of earth which has not yet come into fashion for honeymoons.'

'You do not ask my terms—but dictate your own,' said Madge, smiling.

'Dear love, are we not one in heart and hope from this hour? and must we not have the same wishes, the same thoughts?'

'You have no trousseau to think about, Churchill.'

'No, a man hardly considers matrimony an occasion for laying in an unlimited stock of clothes, though I may indulge in a new suit or two in honour of my promotion. Seriously, dearest, do not trouble yourself to provide a mountain of millinery. Mrs. Penwyn shall have an open account with as many milliners and silk-mercers as she pleases.'

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'You may be sure that I shall not have too expensive a trousseau, and that I shall not run into debt,' said Madge, blushing.

And so it was settled between them that they were to be married before the end of September, in time to begin their new life in some romantic corner of Italy, and to establish themselves at Penwyn before Christmas and the hunting season. Churchill had boasted friends innumerable as a penniless barrister, and this circle was hardly likely to become contracted by the change in his fortunes. Everybody would want to visit him during that first winter at Penwyn.

The lovers sat together for hours, talking of their future, opening their hearts to each other, as they had never dared to do before that day. They sat, hand clasped in hand, on that very sofa which Lady Cheshunt's portly form had occupied when she read Madge her lecture.

Viola was out riding with some good-natured friends who had a large stable, and gave the Miss Bellinghams a mount as often as they chose to accept that favour. It was much too early for261 callers. Sir Nugent never came upstairs in the morning. So Madge and her lover had the cool, shadowy rooms to themselves, and sat amidst the perfume of flowers, talking of their happy life to come. All the small-talk of days gone by, those many conversations at evening parties, flower shows, picture galleries, seemed as nothing compared with these hours of earnest talk; heart to heart, soul to soul; on one side, at least, without a thought of reserve.

Time flew on his swiftest wing for these two. Madge started up with a little cry of surprise when Viola dashed into the room, looking like a lovely piece of waxwork in a riding habit and chimney-pot hat.

'Oh, Madge, we have had such a round; Ealing, Willesden, Hendon, and home by Finchley.—I beg your pardon, Mr. Penwyn, I didn't see you till this moment. This room is so dark after the blazing sunshine. Aren't you coming down to luncheon? The bell rang half an hour ago, and poor Rickson looks the picture of gloom. I dare say he wants to clear the table and compose himself for his afternoon siesta.'

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Madge blushed, conscious of having been too deep in bliss for life's common sounds to penetrate her Paradise—in a region where luncheon bells are not.

'You'll stay to luncheon, Churchill, won't you?' she said—and Viola knew it was all settled.

Miss Bellingham would not have called a gentleman by his Christian name unless she had been engaged to be married to him.

Viola got hold of her sister's hand as they went downstairs, and squeezed it tremendously.

'I shall sit down to luncheon in my habit,' she said, 'if you don't mind, for I'm absolutely famishing.'

That luncheon was the pleasantest meal Churchill Penwyn had eaten for a long time. Not an aldermanic banquet by any means, for Sir Nugent seldom lunched at home, and the young ladies fared but simply in his absence. There was a cold chicken left from yesterday's dinner, minus the liver-wing, a tongue, also cut, a salad, a jar of apricot jam, some dainty little loaves from a German bakery, and a small glass dish of Roquefort cheese. The wines were Medoc and sherry.

The three sat a long time over this simple feast,263 still talking of their future;—the future which Viola was to share with the married people.

'Have you ever seen Penwyn Manor?' she asked, after having declared her acceptance of the destiny that had been arranged for her.

'Never,' answered Churchill. 'It was always a sore subject with my father. His father had not treated him well, you see; he married when he was little more than a boy, and was supposed to have married badly, though my mother was as good a woman as ever bore the name of Penwyn. My grandfather chose to take offence at the marriage, and my father resented the slight put upon his wife so deeply that he never crossed the threshold of Penwyn Manor House again. Thus it happened that I was brought up with very little knowledge of my kindred, or the birthplace of my ancestors. I have often thought of going down to Cornwall to have a look at the old place, without letting anybody know who I was; but I have been too busy to put the idea into execution.'

'How different you will feel going there as master!' said Viola.

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'Yes, it will be a more agreeable sensation, no doubt.'

It was between three and four o'clock when Churchill left that snug little dining-room to go down to Sir Nugent's club in St. James's Street, in the hope of seeing that gentleman and making all things straight without delay.

'Come back to afternoon tea, if you can,' said Viola, who appeared particularly friendly to her future brother-in-law.

'If possible, my dear Viola—I may call you Viola, I suppose, now?'

'Of course. Are we not brother and sister henceforward?'

'Well, dear, have you been trying to like him?' asked Madge, when her lover had departed.

'Yes, and I found it quite easy, you darling Madge! He seemed to me much nicer to-day. Perhaps it was because I could see how he worships you. I never saw two people so intensely devoted. Prosperity suits him wonderfully; though that cloudy look which I have often noticed in him still comes over his face by fits and starts.'

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'He feels his cousin's awful death very deeply.'

'Does he? That's very good of him when he profits so largely by the calamity. Well, dearest, I mean to like him very much; to be as fond of him as if he really were my brother.'

'And he will be all that a brother could be to you, dear.'

'I don't quite know that I should care about that,' returned Viola, doubtfully; 'brothers are sometimes nuisances. A brother-in-law would be more likely to be on his good behaviour, for fear of offending his wife.'
* * * * *

Churchill succeeded in lighting upon Sir Nugent at his club. He was yawning behind an evening paper in the reading-room when Mr. Penwyn found him. His greeting was just a shade more cordial than it had always been, but only a shade, for it was Sir Nugent's rule to be civil to everybody. 'One never knows when a man may get a step,' he said; and, in a world largely composed of younger sons and heirs presumptive, this was a golden rule.

Sir Nugent expressed himself profoundly sympathetic266 upon the subject of James Penwyn's death. He was perfectly aware of Churchill's business with him that afternoon, but affected the most Arcadian innocence.

Happily Churchill came speedily to the point.

'Sir Nugent,' he began, gravely, 'while I was a struggling man I felt it would be at once presumption and folly to aspire to your daughter's hand; but to be her husband has been my secret hope ever since I first knew her. My cousin's death has made a total change in my fortune.'

'Of course, my dear fellow. It has transformed you from a briefless barrister into a prosperous country gentleman. Pardon me if I remark that I might look higher for my eldest daughter than that. Madge is a woman in a thousand. If it had been her sister, now—a good little thing, and uncommonly pretty—but I have no lofty aspirations for her.'

'Unhappily for your ambitious dreams, Sir Nugent, Madge is the lady of my choice, and we love each other. I do not think you ought to object to my present position—the Penwyn estate is worth seven thousand a year.'

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'Not bad,' said the baronet, blandly, 'for a commoner. But Madge could win a coronet if she chose; and I confess that I have looked forward to seeing her take her place in the peerage. However, if she really likes you, and has made up her mind about it, any objections of mine would be useless, no doubt; and as far as personal feeling goes there is no one I should like better for a son-in-law than yourself.'

The two gentlemen shook hands upon this, and Sir Nugent felt that he had not let his handsome daughter go too cheap, and had paved the way for a liberal settlement. He asked his future son-in-law to dinner, and Churchill, who would not have foregone that promised afternoon tea for worlds, chartered the swiftest hansom he could find, drove back to Cavendish Row, spent an hour with the two girls and a little bevy of feminine droppers-in, then drove to the Temple to dress, and reappeared at Sir Nugent's street door just as the neighbouring clocks chimed the first stroke of eight.

'Bless the young man, how he do come backwards and forwards since he's come into his estates!' said the268 butler, who had read all about James Penwyn's death in the papers. 'I always suspected that he had a sneaking kindness for our eldest young lady, and now it's clear they're going to keep company. If he's coming in and out like this every day, I hope he'll have consideration enough to make it worth my while to open the door for him.'
* * * * *

'I hope you are not angry with me, papa,' said Madge, by and by, after her lover had bid them good night and departed, and when father and daughter were alone together.

'Angry with you? no, my love, but just a trifle disappointed. This seems to me quite a poor match for a girl with your advantages.'

'Oh, papa, Churchill has seven thousand a year: and think of our income.'

'My love, that is not the question in point. What I have to think of is the match you might have made, had it not been for this unlucky infatuation. There is Mr. Balecroft, with his palace in Belgravia, a picture gallery worth a quarter of a million, and a superb place at Windermere——'

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'A man who drops his h's, papa—complains of being 'ot!'

'Or Sir Henry Featherstone, one of the oldest families in Yorkshire, with twelve thousand a year.'

'And not an idea which he has not learnt from his trainer or his jockey! Oh, papa, don't forget Tennyson's noble line,—
"Cursed be the gold that gilds the straightened forehead of the fool!"'

'All very well for poets to write that sort of stuff, but a man in my position doesn't like to see his daughter throw away her chances. However, I suppose I mustn't complain. Penwyn Manor is a nice enough place, I dare say.

'You must come to stay with me, papa, every year.'

'My love, that kind of place would be the death of me, except for a week in October. I suppose there are plenty of pheasants?'

'I dare say, papa. If not, we'll order some.'

'Well, it might have been worse,' sighed Sir Nugent.

'You'll let Viola live with me when I am married,270 papa, won't you?' pleaded Madge, coaxingly, as if she were asking a tremendous favour.

'My dear child, with all my heart,' replied her father, with amiable promptitude. 'Where could she be so well off? In that case I shall give up housekeeping as soon as you are married. This house has always been a plague to me, taxes, repairs, no end of worry. I used to pay a hundred and fifty pounds a year for my rooms in Jermyn Street, and the business was settled. Bless you, my darling. You have always been a comfort to your poor old father.'

And thus blandly, with an air of self-sacrifice, did Sir Nugent Bellingham wash his hands of his two daughters.


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