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"You find sympathy in Miss Hood?' he asked suddenly, with a touch of sarcasm.
'The deepest. Her intellectual tendencies are the same as my own; she has a mind which it refreshes and delights me to discover. Of course that is not all, but it is all I need speak of. I know that I have chosen well and rightly.'
'I won't be so old-fashioned,' remarked Mr. Athel, still with subdued sarcasm, as to hint that some thought of me might have entered into your choosing' (did he consciously repeat his own father's words of five-and-twenty years back, or was it but destiny making him play his part in the human comedy ?) and, in point of fact' (perhaps the parallel touched him at this point) 'you are old enough to judge the affair on its own merits. My wonder is that your judgment has not been sounder. Has it occurred to you that a young lady in Miss Hood's position would find it at all events somewhat difficult to be unbiassed in her assent to what you proposed?"
'Nothing has occurred to me,' replied Wilfrid, more shortly than hitherto, which could cast a shadow of suspicion on her perfect truth. I beg that you will not suggest these things. Some day you will judge her with better knowledge.'
"I am not sure of that,' was the rejoinder, almost irritably uttered.
'What do you mean by that, father?' Wilfrid asked in a lower tone.
'I mean, Wilf, that I am not yet in the frame of mind to regard the children's governess as my daughter-in-law. Miss Hood may be all you say; I would not willingly be anything but scrupulously just. The fact remains that this is not the alliance which it became you to make. It is, in a very pronounced sense, marrying beneath you. It is not easy for me to reconcile myself to that.'
It was Wilfrid's turn to keep silence. What became of his plans? They were hardly in a way to be carried out as he had -conceived them. A graver uneasiness was possessing him. Resolve would only grow by opposition, but there was more of pain in announcing an independent course than he had foreseen.
'What are your practical proposals?' his father inquired, his mollified tone the result of observing that he had made a certain impression, for he was distinctly one of the men who are to be overcome by yielding.
'I had a proposal to make, but of such a kind that it is hardly worth while to speak of it. I shall have to reflect.'
'Let me hear what you were going to say. There's no harm in that, at all events.'
'My idea was, that, with your consent and my aunt's, Miss Hood should return just as if nothing had happened, and continue to teach the twins till next summer, when I should have done with Oxford. There appears to me to be nothing irrational or unseemly in such a plan. If she were our cook or housemaid, there might be reasonable objections. As it is, it would hardly involve a change even in your tone to her, seeing that you are in the habit of treating her as a lady, and with a certain degree of familiar kindness. I confess I had anticipated no difficulties. We are not a household of bigoted Conservatives; it is hard for me to imagine you taking any line but that of an enlightened man who judges all things from the standpoint of liberal reflection. I suppose my own scorn of prejudices is largely due to your influence. It is not easy to realise our being in conflict on any matter involving calm reasonableness.'
In another this would have been a shrewd speech. Wilfrid was incapable of conscious artifice of this kind; this appeal, the very strongest he could have made to his father, was urged in all sincerity, and derived its force from that very fact. He possessed not a little of the persuasive genius which goes to make an orator-hereafter to serve him in fields as yet undreamed of—and natural endowment guided his feeling in the way of most impressive utterance. Mr. Athel smiled in spite of himself. ' And what about your aunt?' he asked. 'Pray remember that it is only by chance that Miss Hood lives under my roof. Do you imagine your aunt equally unprejudiced?'
Mr. Athel was, characteristically, rather fond of side-glancings at feminine weaknesses. An opportunity of the kind was wont to mellow his mood.
'To be quite open in the matter,' Wilfrid replied, 'I will own that my first idea was to take you alone into my confidence; to ask you to say nothing to aunt Edith. Miss Hood felt that that would be impossible, and I see that she was right. It would involve deceit which it is not in her nature to practise.'
'You and Miss Hood have discussed us freely,' observed the father, with a return to his irony.
'I don't reply to that,' said Wilfrid quietly. I think you
must give me credit for the usual measure of self-respect; and Miss Hood does not fall short of it.'
The look which Mr. Athel cast at his son had in it something of pride. He would not trust himself to speak immediately.
'I don't say,' he began presently, with balancing of phrase, 'that your plan is not on the face of it consistent and reasonable. Putting aside for the moment the wretchedly unsatisfactory circumstances which originate it, I suppose it is the plan which naturally suggests itself. But, of course, in practice it is out of the question.'
'You feel sure that aunt would not entertain it?'
'I do. And I don't see how I could recommend her to do so.'
'In that case,' he said, 'I have only one alternative. I must give up my intention of returning to Oxford and marry before the end of the year.'
The words had to his own ears a somewhat explosive sound. They were uttered, however, and he was glad of it. A purposethus formulated he would not swerve from. Of that his father too was well aware.
Mr. Athel rose from his seat, held the rolled-up magazine in both hands behind his back, and took a turn across a few yards of lawn. Wilfrid sat still, leaning forward, watching his father's shadow. The shadow approached him.
'Wilf, is there no via media? Cannot Miss Hood remain at home for a while? Are you going to throw up your career, and lay in a stock of repentance for the rest of your life?'
'I don't think you quite understand me, father. I contemplateno career which could possibly be injured even by my immediate marriage. If you mean University honours-I care nothing about them. I would go through the routine just for the sake of completeness; it is her strong wish that I should. But my future, most happily, does not depend on success of that kind. I shall live the life of a student, my end will be self-culture. And Miss Hood is unfortunately not able to remain at home. I I say unfortunately, but I should have regarded it as preferable that she should continue in her position with us. You and aunt Edith would come to know her, and the air of a home like ours would, I believe, suit her better than that of her own. There is nothing in her work that might not be performed by any lady.'
'What do you know of her people?'
'Nothing, except that her father has scientific interests. It is plain enough, though, that they cannot be without refinement. No doubt they are poor; we hardly consider that a crime.'
He rose, as if he considered the interview at an end.
'Look here,' said Mr. Athel, with a little bluffness, the result of a difficulty in making concessions; if Miss Hood returned to us, as you propose, should you consider it a point of honour to go on with your work at Balliol as if nothing had happened, and to abstain from communication with her of a kind which would make things awkward?'
'Both, undoubtedly. I could very well arrange to keep away from home entirely in the interval.'
'Well, I think we have talked enough for the present. I have no kind of sympathy with your position, pray understand that. I think you have made about as bad a mistake as you could have done. All the same, I will speak of this with your aunt
'I think you had better not do that,' interrupted Wilfrid, 'I mean, with any view of persuading her. I am afraid I can't very well bring myself to compromises which involve a confession of childish error. It is better I should go my own way.'
'Well, well, of course, if you take the strictly independent attitude
Mr. Athel took another turn on the lawn, his brows bent. It was the first time that there had ever been an approach to serious difference between himself and his son. The paternal instinct was strong in him, and it was inevitable that he should be touched by sympathetic admiration of his past self as revived in Wilfrid's firm and dignified bearing. He approached the latter again.
'Come to me in the study about ten to-night, will you?' he
It was the end of the discussion for the present.
Shortly after dinner, when coffee had been brought to the drawing-room, Wilfrid wandered out to the summer-house. Emily would be at home by this time. He thought of her . . . The deuce of it is,' exclaimed Mr. Athel, conversing with his sister, 'that it's so hard to find valid objections. If he had proposed to marry a barmaid, one's course would be clear, but as it
Mrs. Rossall had listened in silence to a matter-of-fact disclosure of Wilfrid's proceedings. In the commencement her attention
had marked itself by a slight elevation of the brows; at the end she was cold and rather disdainful. Observation of her face had the result of confirming her brother in the apologetic tone. He was annoyed at perceiving that Edith would justify his prediction.
'I am sorry to hear it, of course,' were her first words, but I suppose Wilfrid will act as he chooses.'
'Well, but this isn't all,' pursued Mr. Athel, laying aside an affectation of half-humorous indulgence which he had assumed. 'He has urged upon me an extraordinary proposal. His idea is that Miss Hood might continue to hold her position here until he has taken his degree.'
'I am not surprised. You of course told him that such a thing was out of the question?'
'I said that you would probably consider it so.'
'But surely'Really, I hold no views at all. I am not sure that I have got the right focus yet. I know that the plans of a lifetime are upset; I can't get much beyond that at present.'
Mrs. Rossall was deeply troubled. She sat with her eyes drooped, her lower lip drawn in.
'Do you refer to any plan in particular?' she asked next.
'Yes, I suppose I do.'
'I am very, very sorry for Beatrice,' she said, in a subdued voice.
'You think it will
Mrs. Rossall raised her eyebrows a little, and kept her air of pained musing.
'Well, what is to be done?' resumed her brother, always impatient of mere negatives. He has delivered a sort of ultimatum. In the event of this proposal-as to Miss Hood's return-being rejected, he marries at once.'
'And then goes back to Balliol ?"
'No, simply abandons his career.'
Mrs. Rossall smiled. It was not in woman's nature to be uninterested by decision such as this.
'Do you despair of influencing him?' she asked.
'Entirely. He will not hear of her taking another place in the interval, and it seems there are difficulties in the way of her remaining at home. Of course I see very well the objections on the surface to her coming back