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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Prince Of Sinners - Part 3 - Chapter 9. A Question And An Answer
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A Prince Of Sinners - Part 3 - Chapter 9. A Question And An Answer Post by :onefeather Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :1955

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A Prince Of Sinners - Part 3 - Chapter 9. A Question And An Answer

PART III CHAPTER IX. A QUESTION AND AN ANSWER

Brooks returned to London to find the annual exodus already commenced. Lady Caroom and Sybil had left for Homburg. Lord Arranmore was yachting in the Channel. Brooks settled down to work, and found it a little wearisome.

He saw nothing of Mary Scott, whose duties now brought her seldom to the head office. He began to think that she was avoiding him, and there came upon him about this time a sense of loneliness to which he was sometimes subject. He fought it with hard work--early and late, till the colour left his cheeks and black lines bordered his eyes. They pressed him to take a holiday, but he steadily declined. Mr. Bullsom wrote begging him to spend a week-end at least at Woton Hall. He refused this and all other invitations.

One day he took up a newspaper which was chiefly concerned with the doings of fashionable people, and Lady Caroom's name at once caught his eye. He read that her beautiful daughter Lady Sybil was quite the belle of Homburg, that the Duke of Atherstone was in constant attendance, that an interesting announcement might at any moment be made. He threw aside the paper and looked thoughtfully out into the stuffy little street, where even at night the air seemed stifling and unwholesome. After all, was he making the best of his life? He had started a great work. Hundreds and thousands of his fellow creatures would be the better for it. So far all was well enough. But personally--was this entire self-abnegation necessary?--was he fulfilling his duty to himself? was he not rather sacrificing his future to a prejudice--an idea? In any case he knew that it was too late to retract. He had renounced his proper position in life, it was too late for him now to claim it. And there had gone with it--Sybil. After all, why should he arrogate to himself judgment? The sins of his father were not his concern. It was chiefly he who suffered by his present attitude, yet he had chosen it deliberately. He could not draw back. He had cut himself off from her world--he saw now the folly of his ever for a moment having been drawn into it. It must be a chapter closed.

The weeks passed on, and his loneliness grew. One day the opening of still another branch brought him for a moment into contact with Mary Scott. She too was looking pale, but her manner was bright, even animated. She seemed to feel none of the dejection which had stolen away from him the whole flavour of life. Her light easy laugh and cheerful conversation were like a tonic to him. He remembered those days at Medchester After all, she was the first woman whom he had ever looked upon as a comrade, whom he had ever taken out of her sex and considered singly.

She spoke of his ill-looks kindly and with some apprehension.

"I am all right," he assured her, "but a little dull. Take pity on me and come out to dinner one night this week."

They dined in the annex of a fashionable restaurant practically out of doors--a cool green lawn for a carpet and a fountain playing close at hand. Mary wore a white dinner-gown, gossamer-like and airy. Her rich brown hair was tastefully arranged, her voice had never seemed to him so soft and pleasant. All around was the hum of cheerful conversation. A little world of people seemed to be there whose philosophy of life after all was surely the only true one, where hearts were light with the joy of the moment. The dinner was carefully served, the wine, which in his solitude he had neglected, stole through his veins with a pleasant warmth. Brooks felt his nerves relax, the light came back to his eyes and the colour to his cheeks. Their conversation grew brighter--almost gay. They both carefully avoided all mention of their work--it was a holiday. The burden of his too carefully thought out life seemed to pass away. Brooks felt that his youth was coming to him a little late, but with delicious freshness.

He smoked a cigarette and sipped his coffee, glancing every now and then at his companion with approving eyes. For Mary, whose dress was so seldom a matter of moment to her, chanced to look her best that night. The delicate pallor of her cheeks under the rich tone of her hair seemed quite apart from any suggestion of ill-health, her eyes were wonderfully full and soft, a quaint pearl ornament hung by a little gold chain from her slender, graceful neck. A sort of dreamy content came over Brooks. After all, why should he throw himself in despair against the gates of that other world, outside which he himself had elected to dwell? It was only madness for him to think of Sybil. While Lord Arranmore lived he must remain Kingston Brooks--and for Kingston Brooks it seemed that even friendship with her was forbidden. He could live down those memories. They were far better crushed. He thought of that moment in Mary's sitting-room, that one moment of her self-betrayal, and his heart beat with an unaccustomed force. Why not rob her of the bitterness of that memory? He looked at the white hand resting for a moment on the table so close to his, and a sudden impulse came over him to snatch it up, to feel his loneliness fade away for ever before the new light in her face.

"Let us go and sit on the other side of the lawn," he said, leaning over towards her. "We can hear the music better."

They found a quiet seat where the music from the main restaurant reached them, curiously mingled with the jingling of cab bells from Piccadilly. Brooks leaned over and took her hand. "Mary," he said, "will you marry me?"

She looked at him as though expecting to find in his face some vague sign of madness, some clue to words which seemed to her wholly incomprehensible. But he had all the appearance of being in earnest. His eyes were serious, his fingers had tightened over hers. She drew a little away, and every vestige of colour had vanished from her cheeks.

"Marry you?" she exclaimed.

He bent over her, and he laughed softly in the darkness. A mad impulse was upon him to kiss her, but he resisted it.

"Why not? Does it sound so dreadful?"

She drew her fingers away slowly but with determination.

"I had hoped," she said, "that you would have spared me this."

"Spared you!" he repeated. "I do not understand. Spared you!"

She looked at him with flashing eyes.

"Oh, I suppose I ought to thank you," she said, bitterly. "Only I do not. I cannot. You were kinder when you joined with me and helped me to ignore--that hateful moment. That was much kinder."

"Upon my honour, Mary," Brooks declared, earnestly, "I do not understand you. I have not the least idea what you mean."

She looked at him incredulously.

"You have asked me to marry you," she said. "Why?"

"Because I care for you."

"Care for me? Does that mean that you--love me?"

"Yes."

She noted very well that moment's hesitation.

"That is not true," she declared. "Oh, I know. You ask me out of pity--because you cannot forget. I suppose you think it kindness. I don't! It is hateful!"

A light broke in upon him. He tried once more to take her hand, but she withheld it.

"I only half understand you, Mary," he said, earnestly, "but I can assure you that you are mistaken. As to asking you out of pity--that is ridiculous. I want you to be my wife. We care for the same things--we can help one another--and I seem to have been very lonely lately."

"And you think," Mary said, with a curious side-glance at him, "that I should cure your loneliness. Thank you. I am very happy as I am. Please forget everything you have said, and let us go."

Brooks was a little bewildered--and manlike a little more in earnest.

"For some reason or other," he said, "you seem disinclined to take me seriously. I cannot understand you, Mary. At any rate you must answer me differently. I want you to be my wife. I am fond of you--you know that--and I will do my best to make you happy."

"Thank you," Mary said, hardly. "I am sorry, but I must decline your offer--absolutely. Now, let us go, shall we?"

She would have risen, but he laid his hand firmly upon her shoulder.

"Not till I have some sort of explanation," he said. "Is it that you do not care for me, Mary?"

She turned round upon him with colour enough in her cheeks and a strange angry light burning in her eyes.

"You might have spared me that also," she exclaimed. "You are determined to humiliate me, to make me remember that hateful afternoon in my rooms--oh, I can say it if I like--when I kissed you. I knew then that sooner or later you would make up your mind that it was your duty to ask me to marry you. Only you might have done it by letter. It would have been kinder. Never mind. You have purged your conscience, and you have got your answer. Now let us go."

Brooks looked at her for a moment amazed beside himself with wonder and self-reproach.

"Mary," he said, quietly, "I give you my word that nothing which I have said this evening has the least connection with that afternoon. I give you my word that not for a moment have I thought of it in connection with what I have said to you to-night."

She looked at him steadfastly, and her eyes were full of things which he could not understand.

"When did you make up your mind--to ask me this?"

He pointed to the little table where they had been sitting.

Only a few minutes ago. I confess it was an impulse. I think that I realized as we sat there how dear you had grown to me, Mary--how dull life was without you."

"You say these things to me," she exclaimed, "when all the time you love another woman."

He started a little. She smiled bitterly as she saw the shadow on his face.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," she said, deliberately, "that you love Sybil Caroom. Is it not true?"

His head drooped a little. He had never asked himself even so much as this. He was face to face now with all the concentrated emotions which lately had so much disturbed his life. The problem which he had so sedulously avoided was forced upon him ruthlessly, with almost barbaric simplicity.

"I do not know," he answered, vaguely. "I have never asked myself. I do not wish to ask myself. Why do you speak of her? She is not of our world, the world to which I want to belong. I want to forget her."

"You are a little mad to-night, my friend," Mary said. "To-morrow you will feel differently. If Sybil Caroom cares for you, what does it matter which world she belongs to? She is not the sort of girl to be bound by old-fashioned prejudices. But I do not understand you at all to-night. You are not yourself. I think that you are--a little cruel." "Cruel?" he repeated.

Her face darkened.

"Oh, it is only natural," she said, with a note of suppressed passion in her how tone. "It is just the accursed egotism of your sex. What right have you to make us suffer so--to ask me to marry you--and sit by my side and wonder whether you care for another woman? Can't you see how humiliating it all is? It is an insult to ask a woman to marry you to cure your loneliness, to make you a home to settle your indecision. It is an insult to ask a woman to marry you for any reason except that you care for her more than any other woman in the world, and can tell her so trustfully, eagerly. Please to put me in a cab at once, and never speak of these things again."

She was half-way across the lawn before he could stop her, her head thrown back, carrying herself proudly and well, moving as it seemed to him with a sort of effortless dignity wholly in keeping with the vigour of her words. He obeyed her literally. There was nothing else for him to do. His slight effort to join her in the cab she firmly repulsed, holding out her hand and speaking a few cheerful words of thanks for her evening's entertainment. And when the cab rolled away Brooks felt lonelier than ever.

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