The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories
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He took another sheet from his blotting-book, and wrote a second note, much more rapidly than the first one. It ran after this fashion —
"Now, that's bold, but judicious," Ernest said to himself, admiringly, as he held the letter at arm's-length, after blotting it. "She might have been angry at my inviting myself, though I don't think she would be; but I'm sure she'll be only too delighted if I offer to take her guests over Aunt Portlebury's conservatories. The postscript's a stroke of genius. What a fuss these people will make, even over the widow of a stupid old cavalry officer, because her husband happens to have been knighted. It's all the better that she's a widow, indeed. The delicious vagueness of the title 'Lady' is certainly one of its chief recommendations. Sir Antony being out of the way, Mrs. Montagu's guests can't really tell but that poor dear old Aunt Portlebury may be a real live Countess." And he folded his second letter up with the full satisfaction of an approving conscience.
When Isabel Walters received Ernest Carnegie's mysterious note, she was certainly mystified by it as he had expected, and also not a little gratified. He meant to propose to her, that was certain; and there was never a woman in the whole world who was not flattered by a handsome young man's marked attentions. It was a very queer letter, no doubt; but it had been written skilfully enough to suit the particular personality of Isabel Walters: for Ernest Carnegie was a keen judge of character, and he flattered himself that he knew how to adapt his correspondence to the particular temperament of the persons he happened to be addressing. And though Isabel had no very distinct idea of what the two Carnegies were severally like (it could hardly have been much more distinct if she had known them both intimately), she felt they were two very good-looking, agreeable young men, and she was not particularly averse to the attentions of either. After all, upon what straws we all usually hang our love-making! We see one another once or twice under exceptionally deceptive circumstances; we are struck at first sight with something that attracts us on either side; we find the attraction is mutual; we flounder at once into a declaration of undying attachment; we get married, and on the whole we generally find we were right after all, in spite of our precipitancy, and we live happily ever afterwards.So it was not really very surprising that Isabel Walters, getting such a note from one of the two handsome young Mr. Carnegies, should have been in some doubt which of the two identicals it actually was, and yet should have felt indefinitely pleased and flattered at the implied attention. Which was Ernest and which Harold could only mean to her, when she came to think on it, which was the one she danced with first last night, and which the one she danced with second. She decided in her own mind that it would be better for her to go to the Montagus' picnic to-morrow, but to say nothing about it to her mother. "Mamma wouldn't understand the letter," she said to herself complacently; "she's so conventional; and when I come back to-morrow I can tell her one of the young Carnegies was there, and that he proposed to me. She need never know there was any appointment."
At six o'clock, Harold Carnegie returned from the office. He, too, had been thinking all day of Isabel Walters, and the moment he got home he went into the library to write a short note to her, before Ernest had, as usual, forestalled him. As he did so he happened to see a few words dimly transferred to the paper in the blotting-book. They were in Ernest's handwriting, and he was quite sure the four first words read, "My dear Miss Walters." Then Ernest had already been beforehand with him, after all! But not by a fortnight: that was one good point; not this time by a fortnight! He would be even with him yet; he would catch up this anticipatory twin-brother of his, by force or fraud, rather than let him steal away Isabel Walters from him once and for ever. "All's fair in love and war," he muttered to himself, taking up the blotting-book carefully, and tearing out the tell-tale leaf in a furtive fashion. "Thank Heaven, Ernest writes a thick black hand, the same as I do; and I shall probably be able to read it by holding it up to the light." In his own soul Harold Carnegie loathed himself for such an act of petty meanness; but he did it; with love and jealousy goading him on, and the fear of his own twin-brother stinging him madly, he did it; remorsefully and shamefacedly, but still did it.
He took the page up to his own bedroom, and held it up to the window-pane. Blurred and indistinct, the words nevertheless came out legibly in patches here and there, so that with a little patient deciphering Harold could spell out the sense of both letters, though they crossed one another obliquely at a slight angle. "Very brief and casual acquaintance … Montagus' steam-launch expedition up the river from Surbiton to-morrow … am going and am particularly anxious to meet you … this favour of you…" "So that's his plan, is it?" Harold said to himself. "Softly, softly, Mr. Ernest, I think I can checkmate you! What's this in the one to Mrs. Montagu? 'Expect me to turn up at half-past two.' Aha, I thought so! Checkmate, Mr. Ernest, checkmate: a scholar's mate for you! He'll be at the hospital till half-past one; then he'll take the train to Clapham Junction, expecting to catch the South-Western at 2.10. But to-morrow's the first of the month; the new time-tables come into force; I've got one and looked it out already. The South-Western now leaves at 2.4, three minutes before Mr. Ernest's train arrives at Clapham Junction. I have him now, I have him now, depend upon it. I'll go down instead of him. I'll get the party under way at once. I'll monopolize Isabel, pretty Isabel. I'll find my opportunity at Aunt Portlebury's, and Ernest won't get down to Surbiton till the 2.50 train. Then he'll find his bird flown already. Aha! that'll make him angry. Checkmate, my young friend, checkmate. You said it should be war, and war you shall have it. I thank thee, friend, for teaching me that word. Rivals now, you said; yes, rivals. 'Dolus an virtus, quis in hoste requirat?' Why, that comes out of the passage about Androgeos! An omen, a good omen. There's nothing like war for quickening the intelligence. I haven't looked at a Virgil since I was in the sixth form; and yet the line comes back to me now, after five years, as pat as the Catechism."
Chuckling to himself at the fraud to stifle conscience (for he had a conscience), Harold Carnegie dressed hastily for dinner, and went down quickly in a state of feverish excitement. Dinner passed off grimly enough. He knew Ernest had written to Isabel; and Ernest guessed from the other's excited, triumphant manner (though he tried hard to dissemble the note of triumph in it) that Harold must have written too – perhaps forestalling him by a direct proposal. In a dim way Mrs. Carnegie guessed vaguely that some coldness had arisen between her two boys, the first time for many years; and so she held her peace for the most part, or talked in asides to Nellie Holt and her daughter. The conversation was therefore chiefly delegated to Mr. Carnegie himself, who discoursed with much animation about the iniquitous nature of the new act for reducing costs in actions for the recovery of small debts – a subject calculated to arouse the keenest interest in the minds of Nellie and Edie.
Next morning, Harold Carnegie started for the office with prospective victory elate in his very step, and yet with the consciousness of his own mean action grinding him down to the pavement as he walked along it. What a dirty, petty, dishonourable subterfuge! and still he would go through with it. What a self-degrading bit of treachery! and yet he would carry it out. "Pater," he said, as he walked along, "I mean to take a holiday this afternoon. I'm going to the Montagus' water-party."
"Very inconvenient, Harold, my boy; 'Wilkins versus the Great Northern Railway Company' coming on for hearing; and, besides, Ernest's going there too. They won't want a pair of you, will they?"
"Can't help it, Pater," Harold answered. "I have particular business at Surbiton, much more important to me than 'Wilkins versus the Great Northern Railway Company.'"
His father looked at him keenly. "Ha!" he said, "a lady in the case, is there? Very well, my boy, if you must you must, and that's the end of it. A young man in love never does make an efficient lawyer. Get it over quickly, pray; get it over quickly, that's all I beg of you."
"I shall get it over, I promise you," Harold answered, "this very afternoon."
The father whistled. "Whew," he said, "that's sharp work, too, Harold, isn't it? You haven't even told me her name yet. This is really very sudden." But as Harold volunteered no further information, Mr. Carnegie, who was a shrewd man of the world, held it good policy to ask him nothing more about it for the present; and so they walked on the rest of the way to the father's office in unbroken silence.
At one o'clock, Harold shut up his desk at the office and ran down to Surbiton. At Clapham Junction he kept a sharp look-out for Ernest, but Ernest was not there. Clearly, as Harold anticipated, he hadn't learnt the alteration in the time-tables, and wouldn't reach Clapham Junction till the train for Surbiton had started.
At Surbiton, Harold pushed on arrangements as quickly as possible, and managed to get the party off before Ernest arrived upon the scene. Mrs. Montagu, seeing "one of the young Carnegies" duly to hand, and never having attempted to discriminate between them in any way, was perfectly happy at the prospect of getting landed at Lady Portlebury's without any minute investigation of the intricate question of Christian names. The Montagus were nouveaux riches in the very act of pushing themselves into fashionable society; and a chance of invading the Portlebury lawn was extremely welcome to them upon any terms whatsoever.
Isabel Walters was looking charming. A light morning dress became her even better than the dark red satin of the night before last; and she smiled at Harold with the smile of a mutual confidence when she took his hand, in a way that made his heart throb fast within him. From that moment forward, he forgot Ernest and the unworthy trick he was playing, and thought wholly and solely of Isabel Walters.
What a handsome young man he was, really, and how cleverly and brilliantly he talked all the way up to Portlebury Lodge! Everybody listened to him; he was the life and soul of the party. Isabel felt more flattered than ever at his marked attention. He was the doctor, wasn't he? No, the lawyer. Well, really, how impossible it was to distinguish and remember them. And so well connected, too. If he were to propose to her, now, she could afford to be so condescending to Amy Balfour.
At Lady Portlebury's lawn the steam-launch halted, and Harold managed to get Isabel alone among the walks, while his aunt escorted the main body of visitors thus thrust upon her hands over the conservatories. Eager and hasty, now, he lost no time in making the best of the situation.
"I guessed as much, of course, from your letter, Mr. Carnegie," Isabel said, playing with her fan with downcast eyes, as he pressed his offer upon her; "and I really didn't know whether it was right of me to come here without showing it to mamma and asking her advice about it. But I'm quite sure I oughtn't to give you an answer at once, because I've seen so very little of you. Let us leave the question open for a little. It's asking so much to ask one for a definite reply on such a very short acquaintance."
"No, no, Miss Walters," Harold said quickly. "For Heaven's sake, give me an answer now, I beg of you – I implore you. I must have an answer at once, immediately. If you can't love me at first sight, for my own sake – as I loved you the moment I saw you – you can never, never, never love me! Doubt and hesitation are impossible in true love. Now, or refuse me for ever! Surely you must know in your own heart whether you can love me or not; if your heart tells you that you can, then trust it – trust it – don't argue and reason with it, but say at once you will make me happy for ever."
"Mr. Carnegie," Isabel said, lifting her eyes for a moment, "I do think, perhaps – I don't know – but perhaps, after a little while, I could love you. I like you very much; won't that do for the present? Why are you in such a hurry for an answer? Why can't you give me a week or two to decide in?"
"Because," said Harold, desperately, "if I give you a week my brother will ask you, and perhaps you will marry him instead of me. He's always before me in everything, and I'm afraid he'll be before me in this. Say you'll have me, Miss Walters – oh, do say you'll have me, and save me from the misery of a week's suspense!"
"But, Mr. Carnegie, how can I say anything when I haven't yet made up my own mind about it? Why, I hardly know you yet from your brother."
"Ah, that's just it," Harold cried, in a voice of positive pain. "You won't find any difference at all between us, if you come to know us; and then perhaps you'll be induced to marry my brother. But you know this much already, that here am I, begging and pleading before you this very minute, and surely you won't send me away with my prayer unanswered!"
There was such a look of genuine anguish and passion in his face that Isabel Walters, already strongly prepossessed in his favour, could resist no longer. She bent her head a little, and whispered very softly, "I will promise, Mr. Carnegie; I will promise."
Harold seized her hand eagerly, and covered it with kisses. "Isabel," he cried in a fever of joy, "you have promised. You are mine – mine – mine. You are mine, now and for ever!"
Isabel bowed her head, and felt a tear standing dimly in her eye, though she brushed it away hastily. "Yes," she said gently; "I will be yours. I think – I think – I feel sure I can love you."
Harold took her ungloved hand tenderly in his, and drew a ring off her finger. "Before I give you mine," he said, "you will let me take this one? I want it for a keepsake and a memorial."
Isabel whispered, "Yes."
Harold drew another ring from his pocket and slipped it softly on her third finger. Isabel saw by the glitter that there was a diamond in it. Harold had bought it the day before for that very purpose. Then he took from a small box a plain gold locket, with the letter H raised on it. "I want you to wear this," he said, "as a keepsake for me."
"But why H?" Isabel asked him, looking a little puzzled. "Your name's Ernest, isn't it?"
Harold smiled as well as he was able. "How absurd it is!" he said, with an effort at gaiety. "This ridiculous similarity pursues us everywhere. No, my name's Harold."
Isabel stood for a moment surprised and hesitating. She really hardly knew for the second which brother she ought to consider herself engaged to. "Then it wasn't you who wrote to me?" she said, with a tone of some surprise and a little start of astonishment.
"No, I certainly didn't write to you; but I came here to-day expecting to see you, and meaning to ask you to be my wife. I learned from my brother ("there can be no falsehood in putting it that way," he thought vainly to himself) that you were to be here; and I determined to seize the opportunity. Ernest meant to have come, too, but I believe he must have lost the train at Clapham Junction." That was all literally true, and yet it sounded simple and plausible enough.
Isabel looked at him with a puzzled look, and felt almost compelled to laugh, the situation was so supremely ridiculous. It took a moment to think it all out rationally. Yet, after all, though the letter came from the other brother, Ernest, it was this particular brother, Harold, she had been talking to and admiring all the day; it was this particular brother, Harold, who had gained her consent, and whom she had promised to love and to marry. And at that moment it would have been doing Isabel Walters an injustice not to admit that in her own soul she did then and there really love Harold Carnegie.
"Harold," she said slowly, as she took the locket and hung it round her neck, "Harold. Yes, now I know. Then, Harold Carnegie, I shall take your locket and wear it always as a keepsake from you." And she looked up at him with a smile in which there was something more than mere passing coquettish fancy. You see, he was really terribly in earnest; and the very fact that he should have been so anxious to anticipate his brother, and should have anticipated him successfully, made her woman's heart go forth toward him instinctively. As Harold himself said, he was there bodily present before her; while Ernest, the writer of the mysterious letter, was nothing more to her in reality than a name and a shadow. Harold had asked her, and won her; and she was ready to love and cleave to Harold from that day forth for that very reason. What woman of them all has a better reason to give in the last resort for the faith that is in her?
Meanwhile, at Clapham Junction, Ernest Carnegie had arrived three minutes too late for the Surbiton train, and had been forced to wait for the 2.40. Of that he thought little: they would wait for him, he knew, if they waited an hour; for Mrs. Montagu would not for worlds have missed the chance of showing her guests round Lady Portlebury's gardens. So he settled himself down comfortably in the snug corner of his first-class carriage, and ran down by the later train in perfect confidence that he would find the steam launch waiting.
"No, sir, they've gone up the river in the launch, sir," said the man who opened the door for him; "and, I beg pardon, sir, but I thought you were one of the party."
In a moment Ernest's fancy, quickened by his jealousy, jumped instinctively at the true meaning of the man's mistake. "What," he said, "was there a gentleman very like me, in a grey coat and straw hat – same ribbon as this one?"
"Yes, sir. Exactly, sir. Well, indeed, I should have said it was yourself, sir; but I suppose it was the other Mr. Carnegie."
"It was!" Ernest answered between his clenched teeth, almost inarticulate with anger. "It was he. Not a doubt of it. Harold! I see it all. The treachery – the base treachery! How long have they been gone, I say? How long, eh?"
"About half an hour, sir; they went up towards Henley, sir."
Ernest Carnegie turned aside, reeling with wrath and indignation. That his brother, his own familiar twin-brother, should have played him this abominable, disgraceful trick! The meanness of it! The deceit of it! The petty spying and letter-opening of it! For somehow or other – inconceivable how – Harold must have opened his brother's letters. And then, quick as lightning, for those two brains jumped together, the thought of the blotting-book flashed across Ernest's mind. Why, he had noticed this morning that a page was gone out of it. He must have read the letters. And then the trains! Harold always got a time-table on the first of each month, with his cursed methodical lawyer ways. And he had never told him about the change of service. The dirty low trick! The mean trick! Even to think of it made Ernest Carnegie sick at heart and bitterly indignant.
In a minute he saw it all and thought it all out. Why did he – how did he? Why, he knew as clearly as if he could read Harold's thoughts, exactly how the whole vile plot had first risen upon him, and worked itself out within his traitorous brain. How? Ah, how? That was the bitterest, the most horrible, the deadliest part of it all. Ernest Carnegie knew, because he felt in his own inmost soul that, had he been put in the same circumstances, he would himself have done exactly as Harold had done.
Yes, exactly in every respect. Harold must have seen the words in the blotting-book, "My dear Miss Walters" – Ernest remembered how thickly and blackly he had written – must have seen those words; and in their present condition, either of the twins, jealous, angry, suspicious, half driven by envy of one another out of their moral senses, would have torn out the page then and there and read it all. He, too, would have kept silence about the train; he would have gone down to Surbiton; he would have proposed to Isabel Walters; he would have done in everything exactly as he knew Harold must have done it; but that did not make his anger and loathing for his brother any the weaker. On the contrary, it only made them all the more terrible. His consciousness of his own equal potential meanness roused his rage against Harold to a white heat. He would have done the same himself, no doubt; yes; but Harold, the mean, successful, actually accomplishing villain – Harold had really gone down and done it all in positive fact and reality.
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