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The Last Sacrifice by Ian Maclaren

I

Firelight casts a weird enchantment over an old-fashioned room in the gloaming, and cleanses it from the commonplace. Distant comers are veiled in a shadow full of mystery; heavy curtains conceal unknown persons in their folds; a massive cabinet, full of Eastern curios, is flung into relief, so that one can identify an Indian god, who distinctly grins and mocks with sardonic humour, although in daylight he be a personage of awful solemnity; a large arm-chair, curiously embroidered, grows into the likeness of a stout elderly gentleman of benevolent heart but fierce political prejudices; the flickering flames sketch on the ceiling scenes of past days which can never return; and on a huge mirror the whole interior is reflected as in a phantasmagoria.

"It is, I do honestly believe, the dreariest room in Bloomsbury, and one can hardly go farther," said a young woman, lying at her ease on the white bearskin before the fire; "and yet it has a beauty of its own—sober, of course, but kindly; yes, that is the word, and true. My room at Kensington, that Reggie and his artist friends have been doing up in their best style, as Maples say, does not look prettier to-night, nor your lovely black oak at the Rectory."

"If you had got your will, Frances," answered a sister some six years older from the couch, "every stick of this furniture would have been sold long ago, and the walls draped in pale green. You are full of sentiment to-night."

"It's the double wedding and the departure from the ancestral mansion which is casting shadows over my too susceptible heart and a glamour over this prosaic old room with its solid Philistine furniture," and Frances pretended to conceal her rising emotion behind a fan. "Your already matronly staidness, Gerty, is incapable of entering into such moods. It is a mercy one daughter, at least—I think there are two—reproduces mother, and can never be accused of sentiment—and such a blessing for the Rector! It is a rule, one would say from observation, that clergymen choose matter-of-fact and managing wives, as a check, I suppose, on their own unworldliness and enthusiasm. As for me, so frivolous and... affectionate, poor papa must have the entire responsibility," and Frances sighed audibly.

"Are you really deceived by mother's composure and reserve?" Gertrude's quiet tone emphasized the contrast between her refined face and Frances' Spanish beauty. "Strangers count her cold as marble, and I can excuse them, for they judge her in society. We ought to know better, and she has always seemed to me the very type of loyalty and faithfulness."

"Of course she is the dearest mater ever was, and far too unselfish, and she has been most patient with her wayward youngest daughter; but she is—well, I could not say that she is a creature of emotion."

"You believe, I suppose,"—Gertrude was slightly nettled—"in women who kiss frantically on meeting, first one cheek and then the other, and sign themselves 'with a thousand remembrances and much love, yours most affectionately,' who adopt a new friend every month, and marry three times for companionship."

"Gertrude, I am ashamed of you; you are most provoking and unjust; my particular detestations, as you know very well, are a couple of girls' arms round each other's waists—studying one another's dresses all the time—and a widow who marries again for protection,—it's a widower who says companionship,—but I enjoy your eloquence; it will be a help to Fred when he is sermon-making. You will collaborate—that is the correct word, isn't it?"

"None of us will ever know how deep and strong is the mater's love," continued Gertrude, giving no heed to her sister's badinage; "she cannot speak, and so she will always be misunderstood, as quiet people are. Did you ever notice that she writes her letters on that old desk, instead of using the escritoire? that is because it was father's; and although she never mentions his name, I believe mother would rather starve than leave this house or part with a chair that was in it when he was living.

"Frances, I'll tell you something I once saw and can never forget. When I slept in mother's room, I woke one night, and found she had risen. She opened a drawer that was always kept locked, and took out a likeness of father. After looking at it again and again—can you believe that?—she laid it on a chair, and, kneeling down, prayed to God for us all, and that they might meet again; and then she looked at him once more, and put the picture in its place.

"Pray God, Frances, that you and I, who are to be married on Tuesday, may love as she has done, once for ever; do you know I've often thought that Grace is the only one of us that has mother's power of affection, and yet we are to be married and she is to be left."

"Yes, Grace is like mother, and yet I don't think mother understands her one bit What a wife she would make to some man, Gerty; only it would be bad for him. She would serve him like a slave, and he would be insufferable.

"But there is no fear of that calamity," Frances went on, "for Grace will never marry. She is beginning to have the airs of an old maid already, a way of dressing and a certain primness which is alarming."

"It passes me," said Gertrude, "how no man has seen her excellence and tried to win her; do you know I've sometimes thought that Mr. Lennox admired her; they would certainly make a perfect pair."

"You are the dearest old stupid, Gertrude. Of course George Lennox adores Grace, as he would do a saint in a painted window; and Grace appreciates him because he teaches astronomy or conchology or something to working men in the East End. Neither of them knows how to make love; their conversation is a sort of religious exercise," and Frances' eyes danced with the delight of a mistress in her art "Why, I once did my best with him just to keep my hand in, and Gertrude, you might as well have flirted with that wretched god. I would rather have the god, for he winked to me just now quite distinctly, the reprobate old scoundrel."

"Perhaps you're right, and Grace does not wish to marry. But it will be lonely in this big, empty house for mother and her when we are gone."

"Dull! Gerty, you do not understand the situation. It will be a relief for the two of them to have this love traffic over, and no more men about the house. Grace simply endures it, as a nun might, and the mater resents any of her daughters being married. They have their programme fixed. Grace will visit her sick people in the forenoon, and the mater will do her tradesmen; in the afternoon the two will attend the Committee for the Relief of Decayed Washerwomen, and after dinner Gracie will read to mother out of Hallam's Middle Ages.

"I'll box that creature's ears," and Frances jumped to her feet, a very winsome young woman indeed; "he's grinning from ear to ear on his pedestal at some wicked joke, or as if he knew a family secret He's an old cynic, and regards us as a pair of children prattling about life."

II

"My work at Court was finished a little earlier to-day, and I have done myself the pleasure of calling to inquire for Mrs. Leconte and you after the marriage. Will you accept a few roses?" The manner was grave and a trifle formal, but George Lennox was one in whom any woman might safely put her trust—tall and well built, with a strong face and kindly eyes—a modest and courteous gentleman.

"It is good of you to remember us, but, indeed, you have always been most kind," said Miss Leconte, with the faintest flush on her cheek. "Mother is out, and will be sorry to have missed you. Will you not sit down, and I'll order tea."

The London sun, which labours hard, with many ingenuities, to do his part by every home and give to each its morsel of brightness, found the right angle at that moment, and played round Grace's face with soft afternoon light She was not beautiful like her sisters, but one man out of a thousand would learn to love her for the loyalty that could be read in the grey eyes, and the smile, a very revelation of tenderness, as if her soul had looked at you.

"Yes, mother and I have settled down to our quiet round after the festivities; mother needs a rest, for you know how little she thinks of herself; her unselfishness puts one to shame every day."

Mr. Lennox looked as if he knew another unselfish person, and Grace continued hurriedly: "Every one thought the marriage went off so well, and the day was certainly perfect Didn't Gertrude and Frances make lovely brides, each in her own way?"

"So the people said, and I know how they would look; but it happened that I stood where I could only see the bridesmaids."

"Will you excuse me putting the roses in water? they are the finest I've seen this summer, and I want to keep them fresh," and she escaped for the moment He watched her place one dish on the end of the grand piano and another on a table near her mother's chair, and a yearning look came over his face.

They talked of many things, but both were thinking of one only, and then it was she, In her kindness, that provoked the catastrophe.

"You will come again and see mother; she misses Gerty and Frances, and it is very pleasant to have a talk with old friends."

"And you, Grace—Miss Leconte, I mean—may I not come to visit you?"

"You know that I am glad when you come, and always will be; you are my friend also," and she looked at him with frank, kind eyes.

"Nothing more than friend after all these years—seven now since first we met Do you not guess what I was thinking as your sisters stood beside their bridegrooms in church?" But she did not answer.

"Can you give me no hope, Grace? If you told me to come back in five years, I would count them days for the joy of hearing you call me by my name at the end, as a woman speaks to the man she loves."

"You ought not to open this matter again" but she was not angry, "for my mind is made up, and cannot be changed. There is no man living whom I respect more; none to whom I would rather go in time of trouble; there is nothing I would not do for you, Mr. Lennox, except one..."

"But it is the one thing I desire;" and then Lennox began to plead. "No man is worthy of you, Grace, and I least of all. The world counts me proud and cold, and I regret my manner every day, but I can love, and I love you with all my heart You know I can give you a house and every comfort of life—perhaps I may be able to bring you honour and rank some day; but these are not the arguments I would urge or you would care to hear. Love is my plea—that I never loved before I saw you, and if you refuse me that I will not love any other.

"Do not speak yet" His face was white, and he stretched out his hands in appeal. "Have we not the same... faith and the same ideals? Could not we work together for a lifetime, and serve the world with our love? Perhaps I ought to have spoken years ago, but the Bar is an uncertain profession, and my position was not made. It seemed to me cowardly to ask a woman's love before one could offer her marriage, so I kept silent till last spring, when I saw your sisters' lovers and their happiness—and then I could not help telling you that one man hoped to win your heart Now I ask for your answer.

"If you love another man," he went on, "or feel that you can never love me, tell me at once, Grace, for this were better for us both. I would never cease to love you, for we slow, cold men do not change, and if you had need I would serve you, but never again would I... trouble you," and the ablest of the junior counsel at the Chancery Bar broke down before a girl that had no other attraction than the goodness of her soul.

Grace Leconte was the calmer of the two when she spoke, but her face was set like a martyr's in his agony.

"I had hoped, Mr. Lennox, that you would not have followed up what you said in March, but yet so selfish is a woman, I am not sorry to be told that I... am loved by such a man.

"Believe me, it is I that am unworthy. You have made too much of a very ordinary woman But I am proud of... your love, and in after years, when I find the strain too heavy, will often say, 'God has been good to me. George Lennox loved me."

He was waiting anxiously, not knowing how this would end.

"You have spoken frankly to me, and have laid bare your heart," she went on. "I do not see why I should be hindered by custom from telling you the truth also," and then she hesitated, but only for a little. "For years—I do not know how long—I have... loved you, and have followed your career as only a woman who loves could—gathering every story of your success, and rejoicing in it all as if you had been mine. Wait, for I have not yet done.

"If I could say 'Yes,' I would, George—may I call you this, only to-day?—without any delay but I must say 'No' instead, although it may break my heart I can never be your wife."

"What do you mean...?"

"Bear with me, and I will tell you all. You know now it is not because I do not want to marry you—I do; I also can love, and I do not wish to be an old maid—no woman does. I will not pretend indifference, but it is not possible for me to leave my mother."

"Is that all?" cried Lennox, as one who has cast off a great dread. "I would never ask Mrs. Leconte to part from the last of her daughters. She will come with you, and we shall strive to make her life peaceful and glad...."

"Please do not go on, for this can never be. No power could induce mother to change her way or live with us. She will live and die alone, or I must stay with her. My duty is clear, and, George, you must... accept this decision as final."

"You will let me speak to her and put our case...?"

"No, a thousand times no. She must never know our secret. It would still be the same between you and me, but mother would fret every year because I had made this sacrifice. As it is she knows nothing, and will never guess the truth. Promise me you will say nothing; that is one favour I have to ask, and there is another, that... you do not call again, for I could not bear to see you for a little... for some years. You will do so much for me, will you not?"

He had sat down, his head on his breast, a figure of utter dejection, when she laid her hand on his arm.

"Things cannot end after this fashion," and Lennox sprang to his feet; "does not the Book say that a man will forsake father and mother for love's sake, and should it not be so with a woman also? What right have you to deny your love and blight two lives?"

"Many would say that I am wrong, but my mind is made up. Do not try me farther, George; God knows how hard it is to obey my conscience. My duty, as I see it, and that is all one can go by, is to mother, and if I made it second even to love, I should be inwardly ashamed, and you... you could not respect me.

"Say you understand," and her lips trembled; "say that you forgive me for the sorrow I have brought upon you, and let us say farewell."

He made as though he would have clasped her in his arms and compelled her to surrender, and then he also conquered.

"God keep and bless you, Grace; if I cannot have you in my home, none can keep me from carrying you in my heart," and he was gone.

She watched him till he disappeared round the corner of the square, and noticed that he walked as one stricken with age. One of their windows commanded a corner of the square garden, where the trees were in their first summer greenery, and she could hear the birds singing. As she turned away, the sunlight lingered on the white roses which George Lennox had brought as the token of his love, and then departed, leaving the faded room in the shadow.

III

"This frame seems to have been made for our purpose, Grace," and Mrs. Leconte arranged in order Gertrude with her two girls and Frances with her two boys. "It seems only a few months, instead of four years, since the wedding day.

"They have good husbands and happy homes. I only wish their father..." This was so unusual that Grace looked at her mother, and Mrs. Leconte checked herself. "You are going down to the Rectory, I hope, next week; Gertrude is always anxious to have you, and August in London is very trying."

"Certainly; but on one condition, mother, that you go too; it would be such a joy to Gerty, and you must have some change."

"Perhaps I will, a little later, but I never leave London in August. I have always been very strong, and I like a... quiet time then."

"Mother," and Mrs. Leconte turned at the passion in her daughter's voice, "why will you not allow any of us to share your remembrance and your grief? We know why you shut yourself up alone in August, and now, when there are just you and I, it hurts me that I may not be with you, if it were only to pray... or weep. Would it not be some help?" and Grace took her mother's hand, a very rare caress.

"You are a good daughter, Grace," she spoke with much difficulty, "but... God made me to be alone, and silent I was not able to tell either joy or sorrow even to your father. You spoke of weeping; do you know I've never shed a tear since I was a child—not often then.

"When he died, my eyes were dry.... Oh, Grace, you are most like me: may God deliver you from a tearless grief; but it must be so with me to the end."

"Dearest mother," said Grace, but she did not kiss her.

"You are often in my thoughts, Grace," after a long silence, "and I am concerned about you, for you have aged beyond your years. Are you... well?"

"What a question, mater; you know that I have the health of a donkey—save a headache now and then that gives me an interesting pallor. You forget that I am getting to be an old maid, nearly thirty."

"Is it really that... I mean, do you not feel lonely?—it is a contrast, your sisters' lot and yours, and a woman's heart was made for love, but if it be so do not sorrow over-much... I can't explain myself—there are many in this world to love, and, at any rate... you will never know the sense of loss."

"That is the postman's ring," and Grace made an errand to obtain the letters, and lingered a minute on the way.

"Only one letter, and it's for you, mother. I think I know the handwriting."

"Of course you do; it's from Mrs. Archer, George Lennox's aunt. She is a capital correspondent, and always sends lots of news. Let me see. Oh, they've had Gertrude and her husband staying a night with them for a dinner.

"'Everything went off well'... 'Gerty looked very distinguished, and has just the air of a clergyman's wife. Gerty was always suited for that part, just as Frances does better among the painters.... I wish all the same they were both here, Grace, but I suppose that's a wrong feeling, for marriage is a woman's natural lot... that is in most cases, some have another calling.'

"Do you know who has been staying with the Archers? Why, you might guess that—George Lennox; he's Jane Archer's favourite nephew, and I don't wonder; no woman, I mean sensible woman, could help liking him; he's so reliable and high-toned, as well as able, and do you know, I always thought Mr. Lennox good-looking.

"What's this? 'You will be sorry to hear that George is looking very ill indeed, and just like an old man, and he's not forty yet. Are you there, Grace? Oh, I thought perhaps you had left the room. Isn't that sad about Mr. Lennox?

"Mrs. Archer goes on to say that he overworks shockingly, and that he is bound to break down soon; he will take no advice, and allows himself no pleasure. What a pity to see a man throwing away his life, isn't it?"

"Perhaps he finds his... satisfaction in work, mother."

"Nonsense; no man ought to kill himself. Mr. Lennox ought to have married years ago, and then he would not have been making a wreck of himself; I don't know any man who would have made a better husband, or of whom a woman would have been prouder." And Mrs. Leconte compelled a reply.

"He is a good man, and I think you are right, mother." Something in her tone struck Mrs. Leconte's ear.

"Grace, Mr. Lennox used to come frequently to this house, and now I have noticed he never calls."

Her daughter said nothing.

"It was after your sisters' wedding that he ceased to call. Do you think... I mean, was he in love with Gerty? Frances it couldn't be. I never thought of that before, for I am not very observant. Nothing would have given me more pleasure, if my daughters were to be married, than to have George Lennox for a son-in-law. Can it be, Grace, that Gerty refused him, and we have never known?"

"I am sure she did not, mother;" and again Mrs. Leconte caught a strange note in her daughter's voice.

"Do you know, I suspect that if you had given him any encouragement, George Lennox would have been a happy man to-day. Is that so, Grace?

"Pardon me, Grace, perhaps I ought not to ask such a question; it came suddenly into my mind. Whatever you did was no doubt right; a woman cannot give her hand without her heart even to the best of men. If it be as I imagine, I do not blame you, Grace, but... I am sorry for George Lennox."

Grace wept that night over the saddest of all the ironies of life—a sacrifice which was a mistake and which had no reward.