“Well, George,” he said to his brother at breakfast, “so you are going to marry Lady Croston?”
Bottles looked up surprised. “Yes, Eustace,” he answered, “if she will marry me.”
Sir Eustace glanced at him. “I thought the affair was settled,” he said.
Bottles rubbed his big nose reflectively as he answered, “Well, no. I don’t think that marriage was mentioned. But I suppose she means to marry me. In short, I don’t see how she could mean anything else.”
Sir Eustace breathed more freely, guessing what had taken place. So there was as yet no actual engagement.
“When are you going to see her again?”
“To-morrow. She is engaged all to-day.”
His brother took out a pocket-book and consulted it. “Then I am more fortunate than you are,” he said; “I have an appointment with Lady Croston this evening after dinner. Don’t look jealous, old fellow, it is only about some executor’s business. I think I told you that I am one of her husband’s executors, blessings on his memory. She is a peculiar woman, your _inamorata_, and swears that she won’t trust her lawyers, so I have to do all the dirty work myself, worse luck. You had better come too.”
“Shan’t I be in the way?” asked Bottles doubtfully, struggling feebly against the bribe.
“It is evident, my dear fellow, that you cannot be _de trop_. I shall present my papers for signature and vanish. You ought to be infinitely obliged to me for giving you such a chance. We will consider that settled. We will dine together, and go round to Grosvenor Street afterwards.”
Bottles agreed. Could he have seen the little scheme that was dawning in his brother’s brain, perhaps he would not have assented so readily.
When her old lover went away reluctantly to dress for dinner on the previous day, Madeline Croston sat down to have a good think, and the result was not entirely satisfactory. It had been very pleasant to see him, and his passionate declaration of enduring love thrilled her through and through, and even woke an echo in her own breast. It made her proud to think that this man, who, notwithstanding his ugliness and awkwardness, was yet, her instinct told her, worth half a dozen smart London fashionables, still loved her and had never ceased to love her. Poor Bottles! she had been very fond of him once. They had grown up together, and it really gave her some cruel hours when a sense of what she owed to herself and her family had forced her to discard him.
She remembered, as she sat there this evening, how at the time she had wondered if it was worth it–if life would not be brighter and happier if she made up her mind to fight through it by her honest lover’s side. Well, she could answer that question now. It had been well worth it. She had not liked her husband, it is true; but on the whole she had enjoyed a good time and plenty of money, and the power that money brings. The wisdom of her later days had confirmed the judgment of her youth. As regards Bottles himself, she had soon got over that fancy; for years she had scarcely thought of him, till Sir Eustace told her that he was coming home, and she had that curious dream about him. Now he had come and made love to her, not in a civilised, philandering sort of a way, such as she was accustomed to, but with a passion and a fire and an utter self-abandonment which, while it thrilled her nerves with a curious sensation of mingled pleasure and pain, not unlike that she once experienced at a Spanish bull-fight when she saw a man tossed, was yet extremely awkward to deal with and rather alarming.
Now, too, the old question had come up again, and what was to be done? She had sheered him off the question that afternoon, but he would want to marry her, she felt sure of that. If she consented, what were they to live on? Her own juncture, in the event of her re-marriage, would be cut down to a thousand a year–she had four now, and was pinched on that; and as for Bottles, she knew what he had–eight hundred, for Sir Eustace had told her. He was next heir to the baronetcy, it was true, but Sir Eustace looked as though he would live for ever, and besides, he might marry after all.
For a few minutes Lady Croston contemplated the possibility of existing on eighteen hundred a year, and what Chancery would give her as guardian of her children in a poky house somewhere down at Kensington. Soon she realised that the thing was not to be done.
“Unless Sir Eustace will do something for him, it is very clear that we cannot be married,” she said to herself with a sigh. “However, I need not tell him that just yet, or he will be rushing back to South Africa or something.”