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A Lotos of the Nile by Christian Reid

It was nine o'clock on a night of clear July starlight. The heat of the day had been intense, and all the guests of The Willows were assembled on the lawn, intent upon the effort of keeping cool, if such a thing were at all possible. A hopeless effort it seemed, however, for the heavy foliage of the trees hung quite motionless, and the fans which were plied unceasingly made the only possible approach to a breeze. Everything was so still that the voice of the river was distinctly audible as it fretted and surged along its rocky bed, distant at least a mile. The scene was full of the dim, mysterious look which makes summer starlight so fascinating. White dresses, shadowy faces, suggestive outlines of form and head, now and then the glimmer of an ornament: after one had looked long enough it was even possible to tell who was who, but at first the voices were the only clue to recognition. Behind the group rose the house, with light streaming from its lace-draped windows, the pictures and globe-like lamps of the deserted drawing-room making a charming effect.

Everybody had been silent for some time—that is, for half a minute, which seems a long time under such circumstances—when Mrs. Lancaster's voice broke the stillness. "Oh for a whiff of mountain-air or a sea-breeze!" she said. "I came to spend two weeks with you, dear Mrs. Brantley, and I have spent a month—who ever did leave The Willows when they meant to do so?—but I really must be thinking of taking flight. Suppose we get up a party for the White Sulphur?—it is always so tiresome to go away by one's self. Who will join it? Eleanor, will you?"

"I am not going to the White Sulphur this year," answered Eleanor Milbourne.

"Not going to the White Sulphur!" repeated Mrs. Lancaster in a tone of surprise. Then she laughed. "How stupid I am!" she said. "Of course I might have known that the temptation to break the pledge of total abstinence from flirtation would be too great in that paradise of flirtation. Besides, Mr. Brent's yacht is homeward bound, is it not?"

"I am not aware that there is any connection between Mr. Brent's yacht and my decision about the White Sulphur," answered Miss Milbourne haughtily. Then she turned to the person next her, a recumbent figure lying at full length on the grass. "I don't know anything of which one grows so weary as of watering-place life when one has seen much of it," she said. "Its pettiness, its routine, its vapidity, its gossip, all oppress one like a hideous nightmare. I don't think I shall ever go to a watering-place again."

"Take care!" said the recumbent. "Don't make an abstinence pledge of that kind: you will only be tempted to break it, for what will you do with yourself in summer?"

"I should like to travel. I am possessed with an intense desire to see the world and the wonders thereof."

"With a yacht such a desire would be easily gratified."

"But I have no yacht," said she with a sharp chord in her voice. It was an expressive voice at all times, and doubly expressive in this dim, mysterious starlight.

"Mr. Brent has, however, and I am sure he will be happy to place it at your service."

"You are very kind to answer for Mr. Brent."

"I answer for him because I judge him by myself. If I had a fleet it should be subject to your command."

"You are very generous," said she; and now there was a little ripple as of pleasure in her tone.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Lancaster was calling over the roll of the company like an orderly sergeant, intent upon beating up recruits for the White Sulphur. "Major Clare!" she said at last: "where is Major Clare?" Then, when the gentleman who had just offered Miss Milbourne his airy fleet responded lazily, "Here!" she added, "You will go, will you not?"

"I regret to say that it is impossible," he answered. "I have danced my last galop at the White Sulphur. This time next month I shall probably be en route for Egypt."

"For Egypt!" she repeated; and a chorus of voices instantly echoed the exclamation. "For Egypt! Nonsense! You are jesting."

"No, I am not jesting," said Victor Clare, lifting himself on one elbow: "I am in earnest. I received a letter from ——" (naming a distinguished officer) "to-day, offering me a position if I would join him in Cairo. I say nothing about what the position is, because my mind is not yet made up to accept it; and even if it were, such things should not be published on the house-tops. But if anybody here has a fancy for joining the army of the khedive, I may be able to give him a few important particulars."

Nobody responded. The gentlemen seemed to prefer enlisting under Mrs. Lancaster's banner for the White Sulphur. The ladies shrugged their shoulders and said the idea was dreadful, Victor Clare sank back in the grass and addressed himself to Miss Milbourne.

"There is nothing else for me to do," he said in an argumentative tone. "I only waste money on the impoverished acres of that old place of mine. The house itself is falling down over my head. What remains, then, but to go forth and tempt Fortune to do her best—or worst? At least the profession of arms has been in all ages the calling of a gentleman."

For a minute Eleanor Milbourne did not speak. She sat in the starlight a graceful, shadowy figure, furling and unfurling her fan with a slightly nervous motion. Perhaps she was uncertain what to answer. But at last she spoke in a very low tone: "Yet you said you had not decided."

"No, I have not decided. In truth, I have been rooted in idleness and indifference so long that I scarcely feel as if I cared enough about myself to take advantage of the offer. Then I cannot bring myself to think of selling Claremont, though I know that a penniless man has no right to the luxury of sentimental attachments. If I were in Egypt it would not matter to me that some upstart speculator owned the old place."

"I think it would," said Miss Milbourne.

"No, it would not" was the obstinate reply. "I should take care to find a lotos as soon as I reached the Nile. Whoever eats of that forgets his past life, you know. I have scant reason for wishing to remember mine," he added a little bitterly.

"Memory is certainly more often a sting than a pleasure," said Miss Milbourne. "It is strange," she added, "that we should both have thought of obtaining forgetfulness through the same means. When Mr. Brent asked me what he should bring me from Egypt, I said a lotos of the Nile. If he fulfills his promise I will share it with you."

"I am not sure that I care to be indebted even for forgetfulness to Mr. Brent," said Victor Clare ungratefully.

He was sorry the moment after for having spoken so curtly, and would have made amends by promising to accept a dozen lotoses if she desired to bestow so many upon him; but Miss Milbourne had already turned to her neighbor on the other side and plunged into conversation. "Is it not strange that Egypt should be waking from her sleep of centuries?" she said; and—while the gentleman whom she addressed took up the theme readily—Mrs. Lancaster rose and sauntered round the group to where Victor Clare was lying.

"Come, Monsieur Indolence, and take a walk," she said. "I think the policeman's motto is right—'Keep moving.' When one stops to think about anything, even about the heat, it makes it worse."

Now, however comfortable a man may be, if he is bidden to rise by a pretty woman who stands imperiously over him, the chances are that he obeys. So it was with Clare. He most assuredly did not want to go with Mrs. Lancaster, and quite as assuredly he did want to stay just where he was, with the hem of Eleanor Milbourne's dress touching him and a pervading sense of her presence near, even when she encouraged stupid people to expose their ignorance on the Egyptian question. Yet he found himself walking away with the pretty widow before five minutes had passed.

"I know you are not obliged to me," she said when they had gone some distance. "But your divinity is talking commonplaces, or listening to them, which amounts to the same thing; so I fancied you might spare me ten minutes. I want to know if that was a mere assertion for effect a minute ago, or if you are in earnest in thinking of going to Egypt?"

"I never talk for effect," said Victor with a hauteur that was spoilt by a slight touch of petulance. "I always mean what I say, and I certainly am in earnest in thinking of going to Egypt."

"May I ask why?"

"I am surprised that you should need to ask. One's friends usually know one's affairs at least as well as one's self—sometimes much better. Everybody who knows me knows that I am a poor man."

"Not so poor that you need go to Egypt in search of a fortune, however," said she, stopping short and looking at him keenly. "Confess," she added, "that you are about to expatriate yourself in this absurd fashion because Eleanor Milbourne means to marry Marston Brent."

"Your acuteness has carried you too far," said he laughing, but not quite naturally. "Miss Milbourne's matrimonial choice is nothing to me. I have thought of this step for some time. General ——'s letter is a reply to my application forwarded months ago. Yet now that the answer has come," he went on, "I scarcely care to grasp the advantage it offers. Indifference has infected me like a poison. I feel more inclined to rust out on the old place than to sound 'Boots and saddle' again."

"But why rust out?" she asked impetuously. "Are there not careers enough open to you?" Then, after a minute, "Are there not other women in the world besides Eleanor Milbourne?"

"Perhaps so," a little doggedly. "There are other stars in the heavens besides Venus, but who sees them when she is above the horizon?"

"How kind and complimentary you are!" said Mrs. Lancaster with a slight tone of bitterness in her voice.

"Forgive me," said he after a minute. "I am a fool on this subject, and, like a fool, I always say more than I mean. No doubt there are other women in the world even more beautiful and more charming than Eleanor Milbourne, but they are nothing to me."

"In other words, you are determined to believe that the grapes above your reach, instead of being sour, are the sweetest in existence."

"At least I harm only myself by such an hallucination, if it is an hallucination."

"But you may harm yourself more than you imagine," said she with a nervous cadence, in her voice. "For the sake of a hopeless passion for a woman who has no more heart than my fan you will sacrifice more than you are aware of—more, perhaps, than you can ever regain."

She laid her hand—a pretty, white hand, gleaming with jewels—on his arm at the last words, and it was fortunate, perhaps, that she could not tell with what an effort he restrained himself from shaking it impatiently off. A quick feeling of repulsion came over him like an electric shock. Hitherto he had been somewhat flattered, somewhat amused, and only occasionally a little bored, by the favor which the beautiful and wealthy young widow had so openly accorded him; but now in a second he felt that thrill of disgust which always comes to a sensitive man when he sees a woman step beyond the pale of delicate womanhood. If he had been one shade less of a gentleman, he would have said something which Mrs. Lancaster could never have forgotten. As it was, he had sufficient command of himself to speak carelessly. "I was never quick at reading riddles," he said. "I am unable to imagine what sacrifice I should make by indulging the 'hopeless passion' for Miss Milbourne with which you are kind enough to credit me."

"With which I credit you?" she repeated eagerly. "Am I wrong, then? If you can tell me that, Victor—"

But he interrupted her quickly: "You ought to know, Mrs. Lancaster, that this is a thing which a sensible man only tells to one woman; but, since you seem to take an interest in the subject, there is nothing which I need hesitate to acknowledge in the fact that, however hopeless my passion for Eleanor Milbourne may be, it is the very essence of my life, and can only end with my life."

"We all think that when we are young and foolish, and very much in love," said Mrs. Lancaster coolly—whatever stab his words gave the kindly darkness hid—"but I think you are more than usually mad. If she is not already engaged to Marston Brent, she will be as soon as he returns. I know that her family confidently expect the match, and in any case" (emphatically) "Eleanor Milbourne is the last woman in the world whom a penniless man need hope to win."

"I know that as well as you do," said Clare. "I have no hope of winning her, and I am going to Egypt next month."

He uttered the last words as if he meant them to end the subject, but it is doubtful whether they would have done so if they had not at that moment found themselves close upon the house, having paid little attention to the path which they were following. As they emerged from the shrubbery they were both a little surprised to see a carriage standing in the full glow of the light from the open hall door.

"Who can have arrived?" said Mrs. Lancaster, not sorry, perhaps, for a diversion. "I did not know that Mrs. Brantley was expecting any one."

"Who has come, Ellis?" Victor said carelessly to a young man who emerged from the house as they approached.

"Marston Brent," was the answer. "It seems the Clytie made a very quick trip, and came into port yesterday; so of course her owner has come at once to report his safe arrival at head-quarters."

Mrs. Lancaster, whose hand was still on Clare's arm, felt the quick start which he gave at this information, but she was a discreet woman, and she said nothing until they were standing on the verandah steps and he had bidden her good-night, saying that he must ride back to Claremont.

"I understand why you will not remain," she said; "but do not make any rash resolution about Egypt—above all, do not commit yourself to anything." Then she bent forward and touched his hand lightly. "Tell me when you come again that you will join my party for the White Sulphur," she said softly. "It will be the wisest thing you can do."

The result of this disinterested advice was, that as soon as he reached home, after a lonely, starlit ride of six miles, Clare sat down and wrote to General ——, accepting the position he had offered, and promising to report in Cairo as soon as possible.

After this it was several days before the future Egyptian soldier was seen again at The Willows. What went on in that gay abode during this interval he neither knew nor sought to know. He endeavored to banish all memory of the place and the people whom it contained from his mind. They were nothing to him, he told himself. It was impossible to say whether he shrank most from the pain of meeting Eleanor Milbourne with her accepted lover by her side, or from the thrill of disgust with which the mere thought of Mrs. Lancaster inspired him. He buried himself in listless idleness at Claremont for some time: then ordered his horse one day, rode to a neighboring town and made arrangements for the sale of his property with much the same feeling as if he had ordered the execution of his mother. It was when he returned weary and depressed from this excursion that he found a note from Mrs. Brantley awaiting him.

"DEAR MAJOR CLARE" (it ran), "why have you forsaken us? We have looked for you, wished for you and talked of you for days, but you seem to have determined that we shall learn the full meaning of the verb 'to disappoint.' Will you not come over to dinner to-day? I think you have played hermit quite long enough.

"Truly yours, L.M.B."

To say that Clare declined this invitation would be equivalent to saying that a moth of its own accord kept at a safe distance from the glowing flame which enticed it. As he read the note his heart gave a leap. He began to wonder and ask himself why he had remained away so long. Was it not the sheerest folly and absurdity? What was Eleanor Milbourne to him that he should banish himself on her account from the only pleasant house within a radius of twenty miles? A man should have some self-respect, he thought. He should not let every inquisitive fool see when and how and where a shaft has wounded him. Why should he not go? A heartache or two additional would not matter in Egypt. As for Mrs. Lancaster, he could certainly keep at a safe distance from her, even if she had not gone to the White Sulphur, as he hoped to heaven she had.

This devout hope was destined to disappointment. The first person whom he saw when he entered the well-filled drawing-room of The Willows was the pretty widow, in radiant looks and radiant spirits, not to mention a radiant toilette of the lightest possible and most becoming mourning. Despite his previous resolutions, Clare found himself gravitating to her side as soon as his respects had been paid to Mrs. Brantley—a fact which may serve as a small proof of the weakness of man's resolve, and his general inability to fight against fate, especially when it is embodied in a woman's bright eyes.

"What have you been doing with yourself?" she asked after the first salutations were over. "Have you been taking counsel with solitude on the Egyptian question? Or have you decided like a sensible man to go to the White Sulphur? Whatever has been the cause of your absence, you have at least been charitable in furnishing us with a topic of conversation. I scarcely know what we should have done without the 'Victor Clare disappearance,' as Mr. Ellis has called it, during the last week."

"I am sure you ought to be obliged to me, then," Clare said, flushing and laughing. "Assuredly I could not have furnished you with a topic of conversation for a whole week if I had been present."

"Opinion has been divided concerning the mystery of your fate," she went on. "One party has maintained that, rushing away in desperation when you heard of Mr. Brent's arrival, you started the next day for Suez; the other, that you were hanging about the grounds, armed to the teeth, and only waiting an opportunity to dare your rival to deadly combat."

"How kind one's friends are, to be sure, especially when they are in the country, and have nothing in particular with which to amuse themselves!"

"But what have you been doing? I should like to know, if you do not object to telling me."

"I have been very busy making my final arrangements for leaving the country," answered he, stretching a point, it must be owned.

"You are really going, then?" she asked after a minute's silence—a minute during which she was horribly conscious that her changing countenance might readily have betrayed to any looker-on how deeply she felt this unexpected blow.

"I wrote to General —— on the night I saw you last, accepting his offer," Clare answered. "Of course I am in duty bound, therefore, to report in Cairo as soon as possible."

"And you will sell Claremont?"

"I have no alternative."

She said nothing more, but he saw her hand—the same white jeweled hand that had gleamed on his arm in the starlight—go to her throat with a quick, convulsive movement. Instead of the thrill of repulsion which he had felt before, a sudden sense of pity and regret came over him now. He was not enough of a puppy to feel a certain keen enjoyment and gratified vanity in the realization of this woman's folly. He appreciated, on the contrary, how entirely she had been a spoiled child of fortune all her life—a queen-regnant, to whom all things must submit themselves—and he felt how bitter must be this first sharp proof of her own impotence to secure the toy on which she had set her heart. It was these thoughts which made his voice almost gentle when he spoke again: "You must not think that I am ungrateful for your kind interest in my behalf. You can imagine, perhaps, how much I hate to part with Claremont, which has been the seat of my family for generations; but when a thing must be done there is no use in making a moan over it. I cannot sacrifice my life to a tradition of the past; and that would be what I should do if I clung to the old place, instead of cutting loose with one sharp stroke and swimming boldly out to sea."

"But you might stay if you would," said she with that tremulous accent which the French call "tears in the voice."

"No, I could not stay," said Clare resolutely. "I have no money, nor any means of making any in America."

This ended the discussion. Even Mrs. Lancaster, fast and daring and willful as she was, could not say, "I have money—more than I know what to do with: take it." Her eyes said as much, but Clare did not look at her eyes. A minute longer passed in embarrassed silence. Then somebody came up, and Victor was able to walk away. As he crossed the room he saw Eleanor Milbourne for the first time since his arrival. He had not even inquired if she was still at The Willows, and her unexpected appearance, for he had begun to fear that she was gone, filled him with a rush of feelings of which the first and most prominent was delight. After all, did it matter whether or not she was engaged to Marston Brent? Simply to look at her was enough to fill a man's soul with pleasure, to steep him in that "dewlight of repose" which only a few rare things on this earth of ours are capable of inspiring. Did any sane person ever fly from the sight of Venus when she held her court all alone in the lovely summer heaven, because he could not possess her magic lustre for his own? The comparison was not at all highflown to Clare, whatever it may seem to anybody else. He had always entertained as much hope of winning the star as of winning the woman; and as for an abstract question of beauty, he would have held that Venus herself could not have surpassed Eleanor Milbourne. She was an adorable goddess whom any man might be content to worship from a distance, he thought; and he was preparing to go and sun himself in the glance of her eyes, which seemed like bits of heaven in their blueness and their fairness, when Mrs. Brantley touched his arm and bade him take a newly-arrived piece of white muslin in to dinner. Clare looked a little crestfallen, but against the decision of his hostess on this important subject what civilized man was ever known to revolt? He took the white muslin in to dinner, and had the satisfaction of finding himself separated by the length of the table from Miss Milbourne.

After dinner Mrs. Brantley claimed his attention. It seemed that there was a plan under discussion for showing the sole lion of the neighborhood—a hill of considerable eminence known as Farley's Mount—to the guests of The Willows. But it was distant twelve miles, What did Major Clare think of their starting early, breaking the ride by rest and luncheon at Claremont, then going on to the mountain, making the ascent, and returning by moonlight?

"It will not do at all," said Victor. "Twenty-four miles is too much to be undertaken on a July day by a mere party of pleasure. You would break yourselves down and see nothing. I propose an amendment: Take two days instead of one, and spend a night on the mountain. If you have never camped on a mountain, the novelty is well worth experiencing, and these midsummer nights have scarcely any length, you know. Then the sunrise is magnificent."

"That is exactly what we will do," cried Mrs. Brantley, clapping her hands with childish glee. And the proposal, being submitted to the company, was unanimously carried.

Meanwhile, Eleanor Milbourne was walking with Mr. Brent in the soft summer twilight on the lawn.

"You should not press me so hard," she said as they paced slowly to and fro. "I fear I can never give you what you desire, but I cannot tell yet. Grant me a little time."

"A little time! But think how much time you have had!" the gentleman urged, not without reason. "You said when I went abroad that you were not sure enough of your heart to accept me then, but that you would give me a final answer when I returned. You had all the months of my absence to consider what this answer should be, and when I came for it, spending not so much as an hour in tarrying on the road, I found that it was not ready for me—that I had yet longer to wait. Eleanor, is this kind? is it even just?"

"It is neither," said Eleanor, turning to him with a strange deprecation on her fair proud face. "I know that you have been everything that is patient and generous, and I am sorry—oh I am more than sorry—to have seemed to trifle with you; but what can I do? Remember that when I decide, it is for my whole life. You cannot doubt that I will hold fast to my promise when it is once given."

"I do not doubt it, and therefore I desire that promise above all things."

"But you would not desire the letter without the spirit?" said she eagerly. "I dare not bind myself—I dare not—until I am certain of myself."

"But, good Heavens!" said Marston Brent, who, although usually the most quiet and dignified of human beings, was now fairly driven to vehemence, "when do you mean to be certain of yourself? Surely you have had time enough. Can you not love me, Eleanor?" he asked a little wistfully. "If that is it—if that is the doubt that holds you back—say so, and let me go. Anything is better than suspense like this."

But Eleanor was plainly not ready to say that. She stood still for a moment, then turned to him with a sudden light of resolve in her eyes. "You are right," she said. "This must end. I may be weak and foolish, but I have no right to make you suffer for my weakness and my folly. I pledge myself to tell you to-morrow night whether or not I can be your wife. You will give me till then, will you not? It is the last delay I shall ask."

"I wish you would understand that you could not ask anything which I should not be glad to grant," said he, a little sadly. "For Heaven's sake, do not think of me as your persecutor—do not force yourself to answer me at any given time. I can wait."

"You have waited," said she gratefully—"waited too long already. Do not encourage me in my weakness. Believe that I will tell you to-morrow night my final decision."

Later in the evening, Victor Clare was leaving the drawing-room as Miss Milbourne entered it. They came face to face rather unexpectedly, and while the gentleman fell back, the lady extended her hand.

"Have you stayed away so long that you have forgotten your friends, Major Clare?" she said with a smile which was bright but rather tremulous, like a gleam of sunshine on rippling water. "You have not even said good-evening to me, and yet you have an air as if you had said good-night to the rest of the company."

"So I have," answered Victor, smiling in turn, partly from the pleasure of meeting her, partly from the sheer magnetism of her glance, "but it is no fault of mine that I have not been able to speak to you: I have found no opportunity."

"But I thought you always said that; people made opportunities when they desired to do so?"

"Then the time has come for me to retract my assertion. As a general rule, a man cannot make opportunities: he can only take advantage of them when they come, as I hope to take advantage of the present," he added smiling.

"But I thought you were going home?"

"I was going home a minute ago, but so long as you will let me talk to you I shall stay."

"It is a very small favor to grant," said Eleanor, blushing a little. "But why were you leaving so early?"

"Partly because I had no hope of seeing you; partly because I am not a 'young duke' to pencil a line to my steward and know that a princely collation will be served at noon to-morrow for half a hundred, or even for a dozen or two people."

"What do you mean?" she asked, for though she caught the allusion to Disraeli's rose-colored romance, the application puzzled her.

"I see you have not heard of our gypsy plan," he answered, and at once proceeded to detail it.

She was not so much delighted as he expected, but a pretty, lucid gleam came into her eyes at the mention of Claremont.

"I shall be glad to see your home," she said quietly. "I have heard so much of its beauty and its antiquity."

"It is pretty, and it is old," said he, "but it will not be mine much longer. I am negotiating its sale now."

She started: "What! you were in earnest, then? You are really going to Egypt?"

"Yes, I am going to Egypt. Why should I stay? What has life to offer me here save vegetation? There, at least, I can find action."

She looked at him with a strange, wistful expression which struck and startled him. He felt as if a prisoned soul suddenly sprang up and gazed at him out of the clear blue depths of her eyes. "Oh what a good thing it is to be a man!" she said. "How free you are! how able to do what you please and go where you please—to seek action and to find it! Oh, Major Clare, you ought to thank God night and day that He did not make you a woman!"

"I am glad, certainly, that I am a man," said Victor honestly. "But you are the last woman in the world from whom I should have expected to hear such rebellious sentiments."

"I am not rebellious," said Eleanor more quietly. "What is the good of it? All the rebellion in the world could not make me a man; and I have no fancy to be an unsexed woman. But nobody was ever more weary of conventional routine, nobody ever longed more for freedom and action than I do."

It was on the end of Victor's tongue to say, "Then come with me to Egypt," but he caught himself in time. Was he mad to imagine that "the beautiful Miss Milbourne"—a woman at whose feet the most desirable matches of "society" had been laid—would end her brilliant career by marrying a soldier of fortune, and expatriating herself from her country and her kindred? He gave a grim sort of smile which Eleanor did not quite understand, as he said: "Where is your lotos? It ought to make you more content with the things that be."

"I have it," Eleanor said with child-like simplicity. "Mr. Brent remembered and brought it to me. I have not forgotten my promise to share it with you."

"Take it to the mountain to-morrow night, then," said he quickly. "Let us eat it together there. I should like to link you even with my farewell to the past."

And, since an interruption came just then, they parted with this understanding.

The next day Major Clare was standing on the terrace of Claremont—a stately, solidly-built old house, bearing itself with an air of conscious pride and disdain of modern frippery, despite certain significant signs of decay—when his guests arrived in formidable procession. There was something of the "old school" in his manner of welcoming them—a grace and courtesy which struck more than one of them as at once very perfect and very charming.

"The man suits the house, does he not?" said Mrs. Brantley to Mrs. Lancaster. "It is like a vintage of rare old wine in an old bottle. We fancy that it has an aroma which it would lose in a new cut-glass decanter."

"I always thought Major Clare had delightful manners," said Mrs. Lancaster, who could not trust herself to say anything more. She felt with a pang how much she would have liked to bring wealth and prosperity and elegant hospitality back again to the old house, if its owner had not been so madly blind to his own interest, so absurdly in love with Eleanor Milbourne's statue-like face, so insanely intent upon periling life and limb in the service of the viceroy of Egypt. The pretty widow gave a sigh as she arranged her hair before the quaint, old-fashioned mirror in the chamber to which the ladies had been conducted. If he had only been reasonable, how different things might be! She walked to a window which overlooked the garden with its formal walks and terraces, its borders of box and summer-houses of cedar. "He will change his mind before the month is out," she thought. "A man cannot surrender all the associations of his past and the home of his fathers without a struggle."

This consideration lost some of its consoling force, however, when, a few minutes later, two people, walking slowly and evidently talking earnestly, passed down the vista of one of the garden alleys, and were lost to sight behind a tall, clipped hedge. Even at that distance there was no mistaking the figure and bearing of Clare; neither was there another woman who walked with that free, stately grace in a riding-habit which Eleanor Milbourne possessed. "If she is engaged to Marston Brent, he might certainly put an end to such open flirtation as this," Mrs. Lancaster said between her teeth. "If he were not blind or mad, he might see that she is so much in love with Victor that she would go with him to Egypt to-morrow if he asked her to do so."

An old and sensible proverb with which we are all acquainted says that it is never well to judge others by ourselves; and if Mrs. Lancaster had possessed the invisible cap of the prince in the fairy-tale, and had followed the pair who had just passed out of sight, she would have received an immediate proof of the truth of this aphorism. They had paused in a square near the heart of the garden—a green, shaded spot, in the centre of which an empty basin bore witness to a departed fountain, though no pleasant murmur of water had broken the stillness for many a long day. Round the margin of this still ran a seat on which Eleanor sat down. Victor remained standing before her. A lime tree near by cast a soft, flickering shadow over them, and the tall hedges of evergreen which enclosed the square made a sombre but effective background.

"You see that ruin and decay are all that I have to offer you here," Victor was saying with a cadence of bitterness in his voice. "But if you had courage enough to end the life which you despise, to cut loose from all the ties which bind you in America, and go with me to Egypt, there I might have a future and a career for you to share—there at least, you would find freedom and action and life."

A flush came to Eleanor's cheek, and a light gleamed suddenly in her eyes, as if the very wildness of this proposal lent it fascination; but she shook her head, smiling a little sadly. "You are of my world," she said: "you ought to know better than that. I am not so brave as you think. I must do what is expected of me, and I am expected to marry Marston Brent."

"Forget the world and come with me."

"That is impossible. If I had only myself to care for, I would; but there are others of whom I must think." She was silent for a moment, then looked up at him piteously. "They have sacrificed so much for me at home," she said, "and they are so proud of me. They hope, desire, count on this marriage: I cannot disappoint them. Mr. Brent himself has been most kind and patient, and he does not expect very much. I am a coward, perhaps, but what can I do?"

Again he said, "You can come with me."

Again she answered, "It is impossible. Do you not see that it is impossible? Starting forth on a new career, it would be insane for you to burden yourself with a wife. As for me, I am no more fit to marry a poor man than to be a housemaid. Victor, it is hopeless. For Heaven's sake, let us talk of it no longer! The only thing we can do is to forget that we have ever talked of it at all."

"Will that be easy for you? I confess that nothing on earth could be harder for me."

"No, it will not be easy, but I shall try with all my strength to do it. God only knows," putting her hand suddenly to her face, "how I shall live if I am not able to do it." Then passionately, "Why did you speak? Why did you make the misery greater by dragging it to the light, so that we could face it, talk of it, discuss it? Oh why did you do it?"

"Because I wanted to see if you were not made of braver stuff than other women," said he almost sternly. "In my maddest hours I never dreamed of speaking, until—what you said last night. Thinking of that after I came home, I resolved to give you one opportunity to break through the artificial trammels of your life, and find the freedom you professed to desire. It was better to do this, I thought, than to be tormented all my life by a regret, a doubt, lest I had lost happiness where one bold stroke might have gained it."

"And now that you have found that I am not brave, that I am like all the other conventional women of my class, are you not sorry that you have inflicted useless pain upon yourself?"

"Of myself I do not think at all, and even when I think of you I cannot regret having spoken. Let the misery be what it will, it is something to have faced it together—it is everything to know that you love me, though you refuse to share my life."

"You must not say that," said she, starting and shrinking as if from a blow. "How can I venture to acknowledge that I love you when I am going to marry Marston Brent?"

"Are you going to marry him?"

"Have I not told you so?"

He turned from her and took one short, quick turn across the square. Like every man in his position, he felt outraged and indignant, without pausing to consider how infinitely more inexorable the laws of society are with regard to women than to men. He could put Mrs. Lancaster's fortune aside and go his way—to Egypt or to the dogs—without anybody crying out against his criminal folly, his criminal disregard of the duties and traditions of his class. But if Eleanor Milbourne put Marston Brent's princely fortune aside and disappointed all her friends, what remained to her but the bitter condemnation of those friends in particular and of society in general?

When he came back she rose to meet him, making a picture worth remembering as she stood in her graceful youth and picturesque habit by the broken fountain, with the sombre cedar hedge behind and the intense azure of the summer sky above.

"Let us go," she said. "By prolonging this we only give ourselves useless pain. All is said that can be said. Nothing remains now but to forget; and that can best be done in silence. Victor, let us go."

There was a tone of pathos, a tone as if she was not quite sure of herself, in those last words, which made Clare refrain from answering her. He turned silently, and they entered a green alley which led to the foot of the terrace surrounding the house. As they walked along, Marston Brent's figure appeared at the end of the vista, advancing toward them, and it was this apparition which first made Clare speak: "If you will not think me fanciful—I am sure you will not think me presumptuous—promise me that before you give that man his answer you will share the lotos with me of which you have spoken. I may be superstitious, but I feel as if we shall gain new strength with which to face the future after we have together renounced the past."

She shook her head. "I am not superstitious enough to think that it will enable us to forget one pang," she said. "But if you desire it, I promise."

When the afternoon shadows were lengthening the party from The Willows set forth again, and reached the foot of the mountain a little before sunset, making the ascent in time to see the day-god's last radiance streaming over the fair, broad expanse of country beneath them. There was a small cabin on the summit which was to be devoted to the ladies, and round the camp-fire which was soon sparkling brightly the gentlemen proposed to spend the night on the blankets with which they were all plentifully provided. Meanwhile, the party, dividing into groups and pairs, were soon scattered here and there, perched on the highest points of rock, enjoying the cool, fresh air which came as a message of love from the glowing west, and chattering like a chorus of magpies.

When the evening collation was over—a gypsy-like repast for which every one seemed to have an excellent appetite—Mr. Brent asked Eleanor if she would not accompany him to the eastern side of the mountain to see the moon rise. While she hesitated, uncertain what to say, Clare's voice spoke quietly at her side. "Miss Milbourne has an engagement with me," he said. "I fear you must defer the pleasure of admiring the moon in her society for a little while, Mr. Brent." Then to Eleanor, "Shall we go now?"

She assented, and they walked away. Mr. Brent, thus left behind, naturally felt aggrieved, and turned to Mrs. Brantley with some slight irritation stirring his usually courteous repose.

"It strikes me that Major Clare's manners decidedly lack polish," he said with an air of grave reprehension. "Is it true, as I am told, that he is going to sell that fine old place where we spent the day, and emigrate to Egypt?"

"He is quite ready for a lunatic asylum," said Mrs. Lancaster, who was standing near. "But, whatever his folly may be, I certainly do not agree with you, Mr. Brent, in thinking that his manners need any improvement."

Meanwhile, Eleanor was saying, "You should not have spoken so curtly to Mr. Brent."

"If I can avoid it, I shall never speak to him again," Clare answered. "Don't let us talk of him. I did not bring you away to discuss anybody we have left behind, or anything of which we have talked before. We are to be like immortals—to forget the past and live only in the present."

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"Round to a point from whence we can overlook Claremont."

She said nothing more, and he led her to the eastern side of the mountain, where, near the verge of an almost precipitous descent, they sat down together under the shadow of a great gray rock. From this point the view was more extensive than any they had commanded before. The rolling country, with the sunset glory fading from it, lay like a panorama at their feet—shadowy woods melting into blue distance, streams glancing here and there into sight, fields rich with cultivation bounded by fences that looked like a spider's thread. To the left Claremont, seated above its terraces, made an imposing landmark. Behind it the moon was rising majestically in a cloudless sky. After they had been silent for some time, Clare turned and looked at his companion. "How beautiful you are!" he said abruptly. "I wish I had a picture of you as you sit there now. It would be worth everything else in the world to me. But perhaps, after all, the best pictures are those which are taken on the heart."

"You have forgotten," said Eleanor, trying to smile, "that we are going to eat the lotos in order to efface all pictures."

"Nay," said he. "I thought it was to enable us to forget everything but the present, and this is the present."

"But it will be the past in a little while," said she, "and we must forget it, like all the rest. Victor, we must forget! They say that all things are possible to resolution: let us resolve to do that."

For some time longer they sat silent. Then Clare said, with something like a groan, "Would to God I could die here and now, or else that there was some spell by which one could make memory a blank!"

"Let us try the lotos," said Eleanor. "See, I brought it as you told me."

From her pocket she drew a paper which, being opened, proved to contain the dried petals of a flower, evidently an aquatic plant. Yellow and lifeless as it was, Eleanor looked at it with wistful reverence. "It came from Egypt," she said: then she added, "where you are going."

"We will see if there is any magic in it," said Clare.

So, together they took the dried petals and began to eat them, smiling a little sadly at each other as they did so.

"Herodotus says that when the Nile is full, 'and all the grounds round it are a perfect sea, there grows a vast quantity of lilies which the Egyptians call lotos, in the water,'" said Clare. "He adds that this flower, especially the root of it, is very sweet. If this is the same, it has certainly changed its flavor since that time."

"It is not disagreeable," said Eleanor. "But I fear we shall not find the effect for which we have hoped. It is of the lotos fruit that Homer and Tennyson have written."

"And the lotos flower of mythology is an East Indian, not an Egyptian, aquatic; but since we desire to link our fancy with the flower of the Nile, we will ignore the poets and the Brahmins. After all, we only desire it as a symbol of the renunciation of the past on which we have agreed. Eleanor, what if we should indeed resolve to leave the past behind us from this hour, and face our future together?"

He looked at her imploringly and passionately, but instead of replying she put her hand to her head. "How strangely dizzy I am!" she said. "Can it—do you think it can be the lotos?"

"Dizzy!" he repeated. "Then I must take you from the edge of this precipice. Perhaps it is that which affects you. It could not have been the lotos, or I should feel it too. Come, let me lead you round the rock."

But when he attempted to rise he found that to him, too, a sudden strange dizziness came. A constriction seemed gathering about his heart, a mist seemed rising before his eyes. Before he had half risen he sank back against the rock.

"Do you feel it too?" she asked quickly.

"Yes," he said slowly, putting his hand also to his head. "What can it mean? Could there have been anything wrong in that plant? The lotos itself is harmless, either flower or fruit. Eleanor, my darling!" he cried with sudden alarm. "Good Heavens! what is the matter? How pale you look!"

"I—I do not think it could have been the lotos. It must have been some poisonous plant," said she faintly. "This giddiness and numbness increase." Then she held out her hands tremulously. "Hold me," she said. "The earth seems slipping away from me. Oh, Victor, what if it should be fatal?"

"Do not imagine such a thing," he said. "It is impossible! The plant has probably some narcotic property which affects you temporarily. Lean on me until it is over. My God! how mad I was to have suffered you to eat it!"

"Do not blame yourself," she said, clinging to him, her fair head drooping heavily on his breast. "It was I who spoke of it—who sent for it—"

She stopped, gasping a little, and pressing her hand to her heart, where an iron clutch seemed arresting the circulation. A glance at her face filled Clare with a terror which he had not felt before. Partly this, partly his own sensations, told him that the poison of the plant which they had shared between them was fatal—one of the swift and terrible agents of death which abound in the East—and a sense too horrible to be dwelt upon came to him, warning him that aid, to avail at all, must be summoned quickly.

But how? The summit of the mountain was large, the rest of the party were far from them. He had purposely led his companion to this remote spot, where, even if he had been able to raise his voice, there was none to hear. As for leaving her, he doubted his own ability to walk ten steps. He felt sure that if he succeeded in gaining his feet he should reel and fall like a drunken man.

Still, the attempt must be made, and that instantly. Every second lessened the hope of its success—with every pulse-beat he felt the awful, reeling numbness increase. How much longer he could retain his consciousness he could not tell. He saw plainly that Eleanor was losing hers.

"My darling," he said, striving vainly to unclasp the arms that clung to him, "I must go—I must call assistance: this may be more serious than I thought. Try to rouse yourself, Eleanor: I must go!"

Alas! it was easy to say—it was awfully impossible to do. Even when Eleanor relaxed her already half-unconscious embrace, and he strove to rise, he found that not even desperation could give the requisite power. He literally could not gain his feet. Every effort failed: he sank back hopelessly.

Then he tried to raise his voice in a cry for help, but it refused to obey his bidding. He was not able to speak above a broken whisper. Finding this to be the case, he turned in an agony of despair to the girl beside him—the girl whom, with a last effort, he drew to his breast.

"Eleanor," he said, "it is hopeless. If this is poison we must die! Oh, my darling, can you forgive me? O my God, send us help! Eleanor, can you hear me? Eleanor, will you not speak to me?"

For a minute all was silence. Then the fair head raised itself, and the lids slowly and heavily lifted from the blue, flower-like eyes. The moon, which had now risen high in the cloudless July heaven, shone full on her face as she said, "Kiss me."

For the first time their lips met: when they parted both were cold.

Still clinging together, they were found. At their feet lay a fragment of the deadly-poisonous Egyptian river-plant which Marston Brent had ignorantly plucked for a lotos.