Read CHAPTER XXVIII - IN MR. BROOKE’S STUDY of Brooke's Daughter A Novel , free online book, by Adeline Sergeant, on ReadCentral.com.

Caspar Brooke’s dingy drawing-room looked cheerful enough that night, filled by a crowd of men and women, and animated by the buzz of constant talk and movement. It was a distinguishing characteristic of his parties that they were composed more of men than of women; and the guests were often men or women who had done something in the world, and were known for some special excellence in their work. Lesley generally enjoyed these gatherings very much. The visitors were shabby, unfashionable people sometimes: they had eccentricities of dress and manner; but they were always interesting in Lesley’s eyes. Literary men, professors, politicians, travelers, philanthropists, faddists these were the folk that mostly frequented Caspar Brooke’s parties. Neither artists nor musicians were largely represented: the flow of talk was rather political and literary than artistic; and on the whole there were more elderly people than young ones. As a rule, Oliver Trent was not disposed to frequent these assemblies: he shrugged his shoulders at them and called them “slow,” but on this occasion he was only too glad to find admittance. It was at least a good opportunity for watching Lesley, as she passed from one group to another, doing the duties of assistant-hostess with grace and tact, giving a smile to one, a word to another, entering into low-toned conversation, which brightened her eyes and flushed her fair cheek, with another. Oliver thought her perfection. Beside her stately proportions, Ethel seemed to him ridiculously tiny and insignificant, and her sparkling prettiness was altogether eclipsed by Lesley’s calmer beauty. He was not in an amiable mood. He had steeled himself against the dictates of his own taste and conscience, to encounter Caspar Brooke’s cold stare and freezing word of conventional welcome, because he longed so intensely for a last word with Lesley; but he was now almost sorry that he had come. Lesley seemed utterly indifferent to his presence. She certainly carried his flowers in her hand, but she did not glance his way. On the contrary, she anxiously watched the door from time to time, as if she awaited the coming of some one who was slow to make his appearance. Who could the person be for whom she looked? Oliver asked himself jealously. He had not the slightest suspicion that she was watching for Maurice Kenyon. And Maurice Kenyon did not come.

It was his absence that, as the evening wore on, made the color slip from Lesleys cheeks and robbed her eyes of their first brightness. A certain listlessness came over her. And Oliver, watching from his corner, exulted in his heart, for he thought to himself

“It is for me she is looking sad; and if she will but yield her will to mine, I will win and wear her yet, in spite of all who would say me nay.”

It was a veritable love-madness, such as had not come upon him since the days of his youth. He had had a fairly wide experience of love-making; but never had he been so completely mastered by his passion as he was now. The consideration that had once been so potent with him love of ease, money, and position seemed all to have vanished away. What mattered it that to abandon Ethel Kenyon at the last moment would mean disgrace and perhaps even beggary? He had no care left for thoughts like these. If Lesley would acknowledge her love for him, he was ready to throw all other considerations to the winds.

“Sing something, Lesley,” her father said to her when the evening was well advanced. “You have your music here?”

Oh, yes, Lesley had her music here. But she glanced a little nervously in Oliver’s direction. “I wonder if Ethel would accompany me,” she said. She shrank nervously from the thought of Oliver’s accompaniments.

But Oliver was too quick for her. He moved forward to the piano as soon as he saw Caspar Brooke’s eye upon it. And with his hand on the key-board, he addressed himself suavely to Lesley.

“You are going to sing, I hope? May I not have the pleasure of accompanying you?”

Lesley could not say him nay, but she also could not help a glance, half of alarm, half of appeal, towards her father. Mr. Brooke’s face wore an expression which was not often seen upon it at a social gathering. It was distinctly stormy there was a frown upon the brow, and an ominous setting of the lips which more than one person in the room remarked. “How savage Brooke looks!” one guest murmured into another’s ear. “Isn’t he friendly with Trent?” And the words were remembered in after days.

But nothing could be said or done to hinder Oliver from taking his place at the piano, for Lesley did not openly object, and her father could not interfere between her and his own guest. So Lesley sang, and did not sing so well as usual, for her heart failed her a little, partly through vexation and partly through disappointment at Maurice Kenyon’s disappearance, but she gave pleasure to her hearers, in spite of what seemed to herself a comparative failure, and when she had finished her song, she was besieged by requests that she would sing once more.

“Sing ‘Thine is my heart,’” Oliver’s soft voice murmured in her ear.

“I have not that song here,” said Lesley, quietly. She was not very much discomposed now, but she did not want to encourage his attention. She rose from the music-stool. “My music is downstairs,” she said. “I must go and fetch it I have a new song that Ethel has promised to play for me.”

Oliver bit his lips and stood back as Lesley escaped by the door of the front drawing-room. Mr. Brooke’s eye was upon him, and he could not therefore follow her; but he made his way into the library through the folding doors, and there a new mode of attack became visible to him. By the library door he gained the landing; and then he softly descended the stairs, which were now almost deserted, for the guests had crowded into the drawing-room, first to hear Lesley’s song and then to listen to a recitation by Ethel Kenyon. But where had Lesley gone?

A subtle instinct told him that she had hidden herself for a moment and told him also where to find her. The lights were burning low in her father’s study, which had been set to rights a little, in order to serve as a room where people could lounge and talk if they wanted to escape the din of conversation in the larger rooms. He looked in, and at first thought it empty. But the movement of a curtain revealed some one’s presence; and as his eyes became accustomed to the dimmer light, he saw that it was Lesley. She was standing between the fireplace and curtained window, and her hand was on the mantelpiece.

She started when she saw him in the doorway. It was her start that betrayed her. He came forward and shut the door behind him Lesley fancied that she heard the click of the key in the lock. She tried to carry matters with a high hand.

“I am afraid I cannot find my music here,” she said, “so please do not shut the door, Mr. Trent. There is little enough light as it is.”

She walked forward, but he had planted himself squarely between her and the door. She could not pass.

“Mr. Trent” she began.

“Wait! don’t speak,” he said, in a voice so hoarse and stifled that she could hardly recognize it as his own. “I must have a word with you forgive me I won’t detain you long

“Excuse me, I must go back to the drawing-room.”

Lesley spoke civilly but coldly, though some sort of fear of him passed shiveringly through her frame.

“You shall not go yet: you shall listen to what I have to say.”

“Mr. Trent!”

“Yes, it is all very well to exclaim! You know what I mean, and what I want. I had not time to speak the other night; but I will speak now. Lesley, I love you!

“Mr. Trent, Ethel is upstairs. Have you forgotten her? Let me pass.”

“I have not forgotten her: I remember her only too well. She is the burden, the incubus of my life. Oh, I know all that you can tell me about her: I know her beauty, her gifts, her virtues; but all that does not charm me. You, you and no other, are the woman that I love; and, beside you, Ethel is nothing to me at all.”

“You might at least remember your duty to her,” said Lesley, with severity. “You have won her heart, and you are about to vow to make her happy. I cannot understand how you can be so false to her.”

“If I am false to her,” said Oliver, pleadingly, “I am true to the dictates of my own heart. Hear me, Lesley pity me! I have promised to marry a woman whom I do not love. I acknowledge it frankly. I shall never make her happy strive as I may, her nature will never assimilate with mine. She will go through life a disappointed woman; while, if I set her free, she will find some man whom she loves and will be happy with him. You may as well confess that this is true. You may as well acknowledge that her nature is too light, too trivial to be rent asunder by any falsity of mine. Ethel will never break her heart; but you might break yours, Lesley and I I also have a heart to break.”

Lesley smiled scornfully. “Yours will not break very easily,” she said, “and I can answer for mine.”

“You are strong,” he said, using the formula by which men know how to soften women’s hearts, “stronger than I am. Be merciful, Lesley! I am very weak, I know; but weakness means suffering. Can you not pity me, when you think that my weakness and my suffering come from love of you?”

“I am very sorry, Mr. Trent, but I really cannot help it. It is your own fault not mine,” said Lesley, a little hotly. “I never thought of such a thing.”

“No, you were as innocent and as good as you always are,” he broke in, “and you did not know what you were doing when you led me on with those sweet looks and sweet words of yours. I can believe that. But you did the mischief, Lesley, without meaning it; and you must not refuse to make amends. You made me think you loved me.”

“Oh, no, no,” said Lesley, her face aflame with outraged modesty. “I never made you think so! You were mistaken that is all!”

“You made me think you loved me,” Oliver repeated, doggedly, “and you owe me amends. To say the very least, you have given me great pain: you have made me the most miserable of men, and wrecked all chance of happiness between Ethel and myself have you no heart that you can refuse to repair a little of the harm that you have done? You are a cruel woman I could almost say a wicked woman: hard, false, and cowardly; and I wish my words could blight your life as your coquetry has blighted mine.”

Lesley trembled. No woman could listen to such words unmoved, when her armor of incredulity fell from her as Lesley’s armor had fallen. Hitherto she had felt a scornful disbelief in the reality of Oliver’s love for her. But now that disbelief had gone. There was a ring of passionate feeling in Oliver’s tones which could not be simulated. The coldness, the artificiality of the man had disappeared: his passion for Lesley had taken possession of him, and stirred his nature to the very depths.

“Listen, Lesley,” he said, in a low, strained voice, which shook and vibrated with the intensity of his emotion, “don’t let me feel this. Don’t let me feel that you have merely played with me, and are ready to cast me off like an old shoe when you are tired. Other women do that sort of thing, but not you, my darling! not you don’t let me think it of you. Forgive me the harsh things I said, and help me help me to forget them.”

He had grasped the back of a chair with both hands, and was kneeling with one knee on the seat. He now stretched out his hands to her, and came forward as if to take her in his arms. But Lesley drew back.

“I am very sorry,” she said, “but I cannot help it. I did not mean to be unkind.”

“If you are really sorry for me,” he said, still in the deep-shaken voice which moved her to so uneasy a sense of pain and wrong-doing, “you will do all you can for me. You will help me to begin a new life. I love you so much that I am sure I could teach you to love me. I am certain of it, Lesley dearest let me try!”

Did she falter for a moment? There flashed over her the remembrance of Maurice’s anger, of his continued absence, of the probability that he would never come back to her; and the dream of a tender love that could envelop the rest of her lonely life assailed her like a temptation. She hesitated, and in that moment’s pause Oliver drew nearer to her side.

“Kiss me, Lesley!” he whispered, and his head bent over hers, his lips almost touched her own.

Then came the reaction the awakening.

“Oh, no, no! Do not touch me. Do not come near me. I do not love you. And if I did” said Lesley, almost violently “if I loved you more than all the world, do you think that I would betray Ethel, my friend? that I would be so false to her and to myself?”

“Then you do love me?” he murmured, undisturbed by her vehemence, which he did not think boded ill for his chances, after all.

“No, I do not.”

“You are mistaken. Kiss me once, Lesley, and you will know. You will feel your love then.”

“You insult me, Mr. Trent. Love you? Come one step nearer and I shall hate you. Oh!” she said, recoiling, as a gleam from the lamp revealed to her the wild expression in his eyes, the tension of his white lips and nostrils, the strange transformation in those usually impassive features which revealed the brutal nature below the polished surface of the man, “I hate you now!”

She was close to the wall, and her head came in sudden contact with the old-fashioned bell-rope. She seized it firmly.

“Open the door,” she said, “or I shall ring this bell and send for my father. He will know what to do.”

Oliver gazed at her for a minute or two, then, with a smothered oath upon his lips, he turned slowly to the door and opened it. Before leaving the room, however, he said, in a voice half-stifled by impotent passion

“Is this really your last word?”

“The last I shall ever speak to you,” said Lesley, resolutely.

Then he went out, seizing his hat as he passed through the hall and made his way into the street. He did not notice, as he retired, that a woman’s figure was only half-concealed behind the curtains that screened a door in the study, and that his interview with Lesley must therefore have had an unseen auditor. He forgot that Ethel and Rosalind waited for him above. He was mad with rage; deaf to all voices saving those of passion: blind to all sights save the visions that floated maddeningly before his eyes.

Mad, blind, deaf to reason as he was, he was obliged to come back to earth and its realities before very long. For he was stopped in the streets by rough hands: a hoarse, passionate voice uttered threats and curses in his ear; and he found himself face to face with his long-vanished and half-forgotten brother, Francis Trent.