“I am extremely sorry, Lethbridge,” the Earl of Rule said apologetically, “that you should have supposed I could permit you to marry my sister. I had not the least notion of your entertaining such an idea. I assure you I must have spoken sooner if it had occurred to me you might be in earnest.”
The gentleman across the room from him, leaning upon the mantlepiece, had made his request in so careless and easy a mode as to make it plain he had no doubts of his reception; the expressions which succeeded one another upon his face, as the Earl spoke, proceeded from surprise and confusion to a considerably uglier emotion.
“In earnest!” Lethbridge said, taking a step towards the Earl. His fists had clenched, and all traces of the studied languid air he ordinarily affected had vanished. “What else should I have been? Not the least notion—”
He saw that he was in danger of spluttering; an effort closed his lips, although his eyes still glittered. Rule said nothing, only regarded him with apparent mildness. He stood before the desk in his study, leaning against it at insouciant ease. Lord Lethbridge drew a breath behind his teeth, and advanced on the Earl so closely as to nearly brush the ends of their magnificently polished buckled shoes against one another, and leaned in from there to still more intimate distance. “I need not wonder long,” he said, viciously low, “what sin has barred me from your sister’s hand; but ’pon my soul, Marcus, I had never imagined you to be quite so extraordinary a hypocrite.”
The Earl’s face did not change even now. He answered gently, “No, dear Robert; you only seem to have imagined me a fool.” Lethbridge paused, and drew back a little. There was still scarcely a handsbreath between them, but Rule drew out a snuffbox and took a pinch, delicately, without scattering so much as a grain upon either man’s sleeve. He shut the box with a snap again, and met Lethbridge’s eyes, his own at last hardened and without pretense. “Did you really suppose me ignorant of the manner in which you would use my sister, as your wife?”
The color came and left Lethbridge’s cheeks. “Perhaps I had supposed you in sympathy with my intentions. It might have made—everything—easy.”
“No,” Rule said, meditatively. “No, I rather think not. You know, after all, that I am very fond of Louisa. And if I were not, I would still be her guardian. But it scarcely matters. My answer does not change. I will not give you my sister, not to make a polite cover for our connection—nor to give you a knife to hold at my throat.”
Lethbridge swallowed. Rule saw he had struck home; he nodded a little and said, still with that gentleness, “I am afraid my courage is not quite up to making such a trial of your—affection.”
Lethbridge laughed, a slightly shrill note to the sound. “It is just as well. Yours has certainly proven sadly limited. At least, so far as the emotion may be said to reside in the heart. Tell me you didn’t know, the night of the ball, that I meant to offer for Louisa.”
Rule paused. “Perhaps I hoped you might think better of it.”
“No, I rather think not,” Lethbridge said, throwing the words back at him, deliberately mocking Rule’s tone. “I can only hope to have given satisfaction. I would be sorry indeed to find myself inadequate both as suitor and as—convenience. I regret that I must put you to the effort of finding another.”
“Robert,” the Earl said, but Lethbridge had already flung himself away, and did not see the half-involuntary movement of Rule’s hand towards him before he had slammed from the room.
They did not speak in private again for ten years, and then with blades between them.
“Only I don’t understand why he should hate you so,” Horry said, yawning a little, her head still pillowed upon her husband’s shoulder. “W-what else you were to do, when he had tried to carry Louisa off? Is it all because you wouldn’t l-let him pay his addresses in the first p-place?”
Rule’s hand tightened a little, where he had his arm around her, and she lifted her head. He was staring upwards at the canopy, his face gone oddly stern, and after a moment he said, “There was more to the matter. And I was young, and angry, and let it make me cruel; I might have managed it better, now.”
“Oh,” Horry said, doubtfully; but what there could have been to make Rule angry, in Lethbridge wanting to marry Louisa, when they had been friends, she still could not see. He glanced at her and hesitated. She bit her lip, and waited. She would not beg him to trust her.
“I cannot conceive there exists another lady of quality in whom I could imagine confiding the details,” Rule said, “without provoking strong hysterics: then again, there is a reason I married you. My dear, Robert was my lover, before he meant to be Louisa’s. I hope I have not shocked you past bearing.”
“Oh!” Horry said, with a burst of mingled gratification and surprise, “not at all, Marcus.” Then curiosity took the field; she added, “But I am afraid I must be very stupid: I don’t understand how—”
Rule gave a shout of laughter, and then kissed her with a fierce intensity she didn’t understand, and liked very much anyway. “I must beg you to allow the latter to remain a mystery,” he said. “I find I am not sufficiently advanced to face with equanimity the prospect of explaining the details of my crim. con. to my wife.”
“Oh, all right,” Horry said, trying to think how she might possibly broach the subject with Pelham, and regretfully deciding there was no way in the least, “but then, whyever did he wish to m-marry Louisa? Although I suppose I understand: he wanted to k-keep you, and he hadn’t any other way.”
Beneath her, Rule drew in a sudden sharp breath; Horry was surprised to see his face go very still. “Am I wrong?” she said, uncertainly.
“No,” Rule said after a moment, a little harshly. “No, I dare say you are entirely correct. Good God! What a fool he was, and I was.” He pushed himself up and folded his arms over his knees. Horry sat up and watched him. “He would have held her over me,” Rule said. “Even if he loved me.”
“Of course he would have,” Horry said, “and anyway, how awful for p-poor Louisa: n-nothing more uncomfortable than to be de trop with your husband and your own b-brother, I would think. But I do l-like him a little b-better, if he did it all because he is madly in love with you, even if I suppose I oughtn’t.”
“Yes,” was all Rule said.
He didn’t speak of Lethbridge again, but there had been something in his voice which made Horry feel peculiar: at once irritated and sorry, and when Rule kept not speaking of him, it only grew worse, until when Horry saw Lethbridge again, several months later and rather thinner and more pale than she had last seen him sprawled under her feet on his carpet, she suppressed the shudder of reaction and marched over to him and determinedly said, “Y-you had better take me out on the b-balcony, Robert!”
“You must forgive me,” Lethbridge said. “My health has been delicate lately.”
“Stuff,” Horry said. “It’s p-perfectly fine outside, and quite w-warm.”
“My concern is not really on account of the weather,” Lethbridge said.
“Well, M-Marcus shan’t blame you, either,” Horry said, “when I tell him it was my doing, and anyway he doesn’t want to b-blame you: will you please come outside with me?”
Lethbridge hesitated a moment longer, then offered her his arm. “I ought to inspect the place for pokers before I agree to go, as well,” he remarked, when they had stepped through the heavy curtains onto the balcony. “I do not really know who did me the more damage, you or your husband.”
“You d-deserved all of it,” Horry said severely. “I think you are really a dreadfully selfish sort of p-person.”
“Perhaps my spirits have had more provocation to bear than you know,” Lethbridge said.
“I d-don’t think they have,” Horry said. “Marcus told me it all.” Lethbridge eyed her warily. “Yes, all of th-that,” Horry said, “and I m-must say, I think it outside of enough that you should have t-tried to serve him out by kidnapping Louisa and then me, as though w-we had anything to do with it.”
Lethbridge looked a little paler than he had, when they had stepped out onto the balcony; but after a moment he laughed. “Marcus knew what he was about, when he married you; I ought to have known it from the start. You are right to upbraid me, and I must make you my apologies. It was quite unforgiveable of me to impose upon you. But I am afraid I have been at a loss for any other excuse to call him out.”
Horry frowned. “That is nonsense; unless w-what you m-mean is, for him to c-call you out, and k-kill you, and feel sorry after: I dare say that is what you w-wanted.”
His mouth tightened, and he made her a mocking little bow. “And yet here you see me, balked of my prey.”
“Well, you aren’t,” she said. “Marcus is sorry, and I th-think it is all quite s-stupid. Why d-did you ever w-want to marry Louisa, to begin with?”
“Oh, to have him on a string, naturally,” Lethbridge said lightly. “Marcus was quite right: it would have been delightful to make him dance to my tune, for once.”
“As though you ever d-danced to his tune!” Horry said.
“I loved him,” Lethbridge snapped, with a harder edge than perhaps he had intended to let slip.
“And you d-didn’t feel he l-loved you,” Horry said, with a burst of insight.
They stared at one another, and Lethbridge looked away. “In the nature of things, dear lady, I was destined to be merely a temporary distraction,” he said, recovering his careless tone. “It seemed much more amusing to make myself an inconveniently permanent one.”
Horry surprised herself by feeling a kind of sympathy for Lethbridge, and more strongly than that, a sudden impatience with her husband. She could not help understanding, a little, all the stupid and outrageous things Lethbridge had done, thinking back to everything stupid and outrageous that she had done herself; all, she saw now, because Marcus did not like to show what he felt until he was perfectly sure of himself. Horry knew what a few words might have meant to her, if Rule had only said them. But he had not liked to love his wife if she thought he was too old; he had held his lover at arm’s length.
She hadn’t quite known what she meant to do with Lethbridge, when she had taken him outside with her, but it was all unbearably stupid, and sad. “You had b-better see me h-home,” she decided, “and settle things p-properly. There is n-nothing else for it. W-we are sure to be seeing one another f-forever, and I d-don’t care to be d-dog in the m-manger, anyway.”
“Is it dog-in-the-manger, then?” Lethbridge said, affecting a carelessness belied by every line of his body: he had stiffened where he stood, and did not look round at her. “You astonish me. Indeed, Marcus seemed impassioned on the subject, during our last discussion.”
“Oh, it is not dog in the manger, then; something else. What d-difference does that make,” Horry said crossly. “Are you c-coming, or n-not?”
The silence, when Horry had shut them in together and gone away, lingered awkwardly: both of them purged of the deadly anger which had stood so usefully between them for so long, but neither as yet prepared to allow any other feeling which might have wished to enter. “We are as dull as churchmen,” Lethbridge remarked, finally, and went to help himself liberally from the decanter; he put down the glass empty and said over his shoulder, “I am damned if I will apologize to you! You have had my blood instead; you should have taken the rest of it, if you wanted more.”
“I did not,” Rule said. He paused, and then said abruptly, “Robert, should I have told you, all those years ago, that you might go to the devil before I permitted you to make me jealous of my sister?”
Lethbridge did not turn, but his shoulders rose and fell with a deeply drawn breath. “It would certainly have been unexpected,” he said, roughly.
“I have had a little too much pride for the sake of my happiness, it seems,” Rule said.
Lethbridge choked out a laugh and turned back to him, a sudden light in his face as if some shadow of bitterness had shifted off it; he looked at once several years younger, and Rule moved a little, seeing him, as if a ghost had come into the room. “Marcus! This is unhandsome of you. It has been my failed project for fifteen years to divest you of one ounce of pride, and here you are casting it to the wind before me.”
“It has not served me so well as I might have wished,” Rule said, low. “Robert—”
Lethbridge discarded his glass into the fireplace and crossed the room swiftly. Rule stood once more before a desk, his hands clenched over its edge; Lethbridge put one hand upon its surface to brace himself, and took hold of Rule’s head with the other, and kissed him.
Rule held himself motionless a few moments longer, his eyes shut, only his mouth yielding; then abruptly he came away from the desk and they were grappling with one another, violently enough to knock several small treasures from the shelves, unheeded, before they came to the long sofa before the fireplace. “Marcus,” Lethbridge said, panting. “Marcus.”
“What does the fellow mean by it, is what I want to know,” Viscount Winwood said belligerently. He was standing in the breakfast-room at Meering, having arrived unexpectedly and late the previous evening—on an errand of mercy, one might have said, for his debtors—and glaring out the French doors, which gave onto the gardens. “A pretty business, ’pon my word! He abducts Horry, has to be hit on the head with a poker, steals her jewelry, and now here I find him cool as a cucumber, strolling in your gardens and making one of the party. A nice thing for my sister. Who said he might come?”
“Your sister,” Rule said absently, without turning from his breakfast.
“I never heard the like. What mad notion has she taken into her head this time?” the Viscount demanded. “Whatever is he wanted for?”
“I suppose there ought to be a polite answer to the question,” Rule mused. “You must concede he is an excellent card player, perhaps?”
“Oh, he is your man, if you want a good hand of piquet,” the Viscount readily allowed. “But it ain’t the thing to sit down at cards with a fellow who has tried to ravish your sister! Or your wife,” he added, with a faintly accusatory tone. “What are you about, letting him haunt the place?”
“Ah, well, I am afraid I have very little idea of explaining myself to you, Pelham,” Rule said.
“I suppose you know your business,” the Viscount said, not mollified, “but I don’t know that it ain’t mine to push his nose in for him.”
“Not in my house,” Rule said, and then relented enough to add, “Permit me to assure you that your sister is in no danger of any further insult from Lethbridge: quite the contrary. I believe he considers himself indebted to her.”
“Beyond all power to repay,” Lethbridge said, kissing Horry’s wrist, later that evening, when Rule had finished recounting the exchange. They lay entangled in the large bed, somewhat breathless. “Was Winwood satisfied with your explanations, or must I go away?”
He asked it in deliberately wistful tones, looking at them both through his lashes, and Rule laughed; an almost boyish sound. “Much too brown,” he said, mockingly. “Perhaps we ought banish you, after all. What say you, Horry?”
“No. P-Pel will have to p-put up with it,” Horry said firmly; she was lying rather bright-eyed and pink-cheeked between them. “B-but we ought to c-contrive some explanation, for the busybodies. I am sure we m-might think of something! W-what if we should have been held up on the road, by highwaymen?”