The Last Sacrifice by Ian Maclaren
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
"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
"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
"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."
"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
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
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 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
"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.
"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
"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
"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
"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...
"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
"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
"'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
"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
"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.