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I

BERTRAM and Conway Osborne were more than brothers—they were staunch friends. The death of their mother when they were both too young to understand, much less to measure the extent of their loss; the indifference and neglect of their father, a cold and selfish egotist; the absence of brothers and sisters to create domestic cliques and engender estrangement; dispositions which harmonised, and many other circumstances, combined to lay in childhood the foundation of an affection which the subsequent assaults of time and trial only served to strengthen.

A year, so terribly short to the middle-aged, is very long and important in the life of a child.

Only twelve months divided Bertram and Conway, and at seven Bertram was the guide, instructor, and protector, while his little companion


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looked up to him with becoming veneration. It was Bertram who planned their adventures and directed their sports; it was to him that the younger, and, at that age, frailer boy looked for comfort in distress and assistance when weary.

But as the years went on these conditions underwent a change, slow but certain. At the ages of thirteen and twelve respectively, the brothers were of equal height and strength, but three years later Conway had developed into a vigorous youth, powerful for his age, and an inch taller than his brother. Bertram was, in fact, destined never to exceed the medium height and average strength, while it was Conway's fortune to be gifted in his maturity with six feet of splendidly proportioned manhood.

At Harrow Conway thrashed a hitherto unconquered bully who had dared to insult his brother, and Bertram secretly coached his champion so that they might go up to college together. At Oxford Conway presented a stalwart bargeman with a pair of black eyes for having knocked his brother down during a street broil; and Bertram put the brake on his studies so that the inseparables might have the satisfaction of being plucked in company.

When they returned home subsequently with their triumphs, their father, who was deep in a


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realistic French author at the time, scarcely gave them a second glance, and returned to his novel. The brothers decided upon a visit to the Continent. They came home, more firmly attached to each other than ever, after rambling for a year; and were then separated for the first time.

Bertram, very much against his inclination, was sent to London to enter political life under the auspices of a prominent member of the House of Commons, an old friend of his father's. Conway was directed for the present to remain at home—which was a small estate in Hertfordshire, known as the Ferns. Mr. Osborne had never engaged actively in politics, or, for that matter, in any other pursuit except that of pleasure; but he was under a promise of many years' standing to attach himself to a certain party, and it was to avoid further embarrassing importunity that he now sacrificed the inclinations of his eldest son. The stalwart Conway, he reasoned, would relieve him of a great deal of trouble in managing the estate.

“Good-bye, Bertie,” said Conway, feeling rather ashamed of his abortive attempt to speak lightly, as he wrung his brother's hand at the railway station. “I shall be most horribly dull without you. The governor's not very congenial society, you know. You have the best of the bargain, for you're bound to get excitement of some sort or


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other in town. And perhaps,” with a jealous pang, “you'll make a new chum.”

“No fear of that, Con,” replied Bertram, heartily. “I'll meet lots of fellows, of course, but I shall never have but the one chum.”

They had shaken hands several times, the train came up, and Bertram jumped into it. “All aboard!” cried the guard, facetiously, waving his flag. Another grip of the hands, and Conway stood alone on the little platform, looking dimly after the fast-receding train. When it had disappeared he left the station without hearing the porter's suggestive salutation, “It's very chilly to-day, sir,” and drove home, making up his mind on the way to seize the very first excuse of a run up to town.

As he had anticipated, Conway found life at the Ferns without his brother very slow. He further found, upon a little investigation, that the estate, with the assistance of an old and prosy steward, whose probity was sans reproche, managed itself very comfortably, and he wisely decided that interference on his part would simply serve to display his own ignorance. There was a trout stream and an abundance of game, but he found such things stale and unprofitable without Bertram. Eventually he decided that if boredom was inevitable he might just as well take it on horseback as on foot. Accordingly he selected a stout


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roadster, on which he explored the neighbouring country.

On one of his dismal rides he met the parson of a neighbouring parish, who asked him to dinner. Parson Helden had frequently asked Mr. Osborne to dinner, but that gentleman, being timid of placing his digestion, which of late years had been far from robust, at the mercy of a local cook, had made excuses. Conway being more polite, less dainty, and thoroughly weary of his own society, gladly accepted the invitation.

When, on the following evening, he presented himself at the parsonage, and received a hearty welcome from Mr. and Mrs. Helden, Conway experienced no regrets; and when Miss Helden entered the room and was introduced, his feelings were akin to those of the settler who suddenly discovers that the piece of land on which he has failed to raise crops is richly auriferous.

For Miss Heldon was a vision of loveliness. She was petite, with a slender, supple form just ripening into womanly beauty. Her small head was crowned with a mass of hair the colour of virgin gold, cunningly arranged to display its uncommon wealth to the greatest advantage. Her large eyes, both in colour and in softness, plainly said “Forget-me-not,” an entreaty which Conway decided from the first moment was quite superfluous; while the


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long lashes which fringed them and the thick eyebrows above—too thick, perhaps, for absolute perfection—were several shades darker than her hair. If her features were not strictly regular they were none the less bewitching for that. Your classical beauty is often apt to lack expression: Una Helden bewildered you with a hundred new charms of face in an hour, notwithstanding that her nose might have been more exquisitely chiselled and her mouth less richly developed. But no one had ever ventured to suggest a blemish in the beauty of the parson's daughter. One glance from the “Forget-me-not” eyes, one quiver of the heavily-fringed lids, and the critic who came to criticise remained to adore. Men may admire the pale, faultless, spirituelle loveliness, but it is the intensely human, seductive beauty, such as Una Helden possessed, that sets their hearts aflame.

From that evening Conway found life at the Ferns more tolerable, and he missed the companionship of his brother less, although it is probable that he would have knocked the man down who ventured to hint such a thing to him. But after all, what could be more natural? He was young, and deeply, passionately in love. Cannot a great love for a woman and a great friendship for a man live peacefully side by side in a man's heart? A man would answer the question


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in the affirmative, a woman in the negative. Not, necessarily, that the feminine heart is smaller, but because it is more concentrative — because it contains but one chamber, and when that is filled there is room for nought else. The sentiment of friendship, as it is understood by men, is almost unknown among women, and they are suspicious and jealous of it accordingly.

Conway was bewitched. He saw Una Helden daily; he would not have missed a day for the wealth of the Indies. The sun might burn up the grass; the rain might flood the valleys; the hurricane might lay low the forest trees; but at some time during the twenty-four hours the young man would have presented himself at the parsonage. Love at twenty-two laughs scornfully at the elements, and defies them.

The brothers maintained a regular correspondence, and be it recorded to his credit, Conway's passion did not make him neglectful in that respect. He still wrote as warmly and as frequently as ever, but for the first time in his life he withheld a confidence from his brother. It was very unwise, and certainly a deviation from the principles which had always governed their friendship. Conway said nothing in his letters about Una, lest, as he naïvely and foolishly reasoned to himself, “Old Bert might be jealous.”




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At the end of three weeks, during which he walked, talked, rode, played tennis, and spent nearly all his time with Miss Helden, Conway was unable to determine how far, if at all, he had won his way into the young lady's affections. One evening an unmistakably tender glance, or a lingering, regretful softness in the good-bye, would send him home in an ecstasy of happiness; the next morning he would be greeted as though in the meantime his idol had forgotten the fact of his existence.

The truth, however painful, must be told: Una was a most accomplished coquette. An occasional visit in the season to Aunt Rachel, a relative in London who was “in society,” had afforded her opportunities of perfecting the dangerous gift Nature had bestowed upon her—opportunities of which Una had fully availed herself. Conway was some distance down in the list of Una's captures.

“I think, Maria,” remarked the parson to his spouse, one Sunday morning as they walked home from church some paces in the rear of the young couple, “I think that young Osborne is, to say the least of it, palpably attentive to our child.”

Mr. Helden's tone was that of a man who had just discovered an interesting phenomenon.

“So do I,” replied the wife, laconically.

“He is a fine, manly young fellow,” continued


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the parson, after a thoughtful pause, “and he will have a tolerable fortune—probably in cash. It would not be a bad match for Una.”

“Not bad; but not particularly brilliant, considering Una's beauty and accomplishments. Rachel tells me that she could number her admirers in London by the score. Now, if it were the other brother——”

“Maria, I fear you are terribly worldly,” remonstrated the parson, gently. “Remember that all things are ordered for the best. Our innocent child's affections”—the fond parents often spoke of Una as their “innocent child”—“will not be influenced by mundane considerations; although,” he added gravely, after another pause, “it is of course your duty to give her the benefit of your experience and advice.”

That very afternoon Mrs. Helden acted upon her husband's gentle suggestion.

“Una, my dear, do you think Conway Osborne is in love with you?”

“I am sure of it, mamma,” was the answer, soft but decisive.

“And do you reciprocate his feelings?”

“I am not sure of that, mamma.” And Una's face at that moment fully justified the expression, “our innocent child.” “I don't think I shall know until I have seen Bertram.”




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Mrs. Helden, recognising the influence of Aunt Rachael, who was more “in the world,” though perhaps not actually more worldly than herself, felt that a responsibility had been lifted from her shoulders, and said nothing more.

Bertram was coming home, and Una knew it, for Conway had told her. He had not volunteered the information; Una had gently pumped it out of him. She had also heard that Bertram was a “grand old fellow,” and a “perfect brick,” and she had permitted herself to display a curiosity—a childish curiosity, of course—to see the absent paragon.

On the day after the two brief conversations just recorded Conway made his way to the parsonage with a firm purpose in his heart. Ostensibly the object of his visit was a game of tennis with Miss Una; in reality it was to put an end once for all to the miserable uncertainty regarding the relations which were to exist between them. For weeks and weeks she had, in her own pretty, infantine, cruel way, played fast and loose with him. He now vowed that it must end at once, for he could bear the torture no longer. Bertram would arrive at the Ferns in the morning, and would remain for a month, and Conway felt that he could not be the jolly companion that his brother expected if he remained in his then state of mind. It must be Yes or No that very afternoon.




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Una was pleased to accord her lover a kind welcome. She was in one of her brightest moods, which made Conway's gravity and pre-occupation more marked. They played tennis for half-an-hour, and then Una threw down her bat, declaring that he was too horribly dull to be endured, and that she would leave him to bore himself. Conway suggested that they should sit in the arbour and talk, but the young lady, scenting his deep design afar off, made for the house.

But Conway was too quick for her. Resolutely imprisoning her tiny hands, he led her to the arbour, and gently pressed her into a seat. Then he stood before her, with brows gravely contracted, and an eager, anxious, yearning expression upon his handsome face, looking into her great Forget-me-not eyes—which gazed up wonderingly and innocently at him—and trying to read the thoughts that lay within their depths.

He could read nothing, poor fellow! And after all, she looked such a veritable child, with her straw tennis-hat bedecked with blue ribbon thrown back on her small head, and her dead-gold tresses escaping from their bondage, that he had not heart to speak as seriously to her as he had intended. “You are my prisoner, Una,” he said, still holding her hands in his.

“So it seems,” she replied, laughing. Then, with


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a bold determination to hasten what she felt to be inevitable, she added, “What ransom do you require, Signor Brigand?”

“Yourself, Una, yourself—to be my wife I love you with all my soul,” he went on, passionately. “It began when I first saw you, and it has gone on increasing ever since, until it has become too big for me to restrain. But I know you have seen it in my face, have heard it in my voice for days and weeks. And you have shut your eyes to it, and not given me one little peep at your heart to see if it was returned. But I must know now, dear.”

“Now you are making game of me,” said Una, pettishly, trying to withdraw her hands.

“I fear it has been the other way,” replied Conway, somewhat reproachfully. “But it's time now that the game was called. I must know how I stand to-day.”

“And suppose I don't choose to enlighten you?”

“But you must choose to enlighten me,” cried Conway, angrily. “I'm not a boy, to be trifled with. The most beautiful woman on earth shall not make a tennis-ball of my love.”

Una rose to her feet and struggled to release her hands, but she was unable to, so firmly did he hold them. Her face had changed, and now wore an expression that Conway had never seen before.


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Her eyes were contracted and their colour was deeper, while her trembling lips were unpleasantly contorted. For the moment the latent demon that lay unsuspected at the girl's heart had broken from control. Una was not beautiful then.

“No, you are not a boy to be trifled with,” she said, tauntingly. “You are a man; a great, strong, brave man, with the power and will to bully and coerce a weak woman; a courtly, gallant, chivalric man; in fact, a gentleman.”

Conway turned pale to the lips. Releasing her hands, he stepped back, still, however, barring her exit from the arbour.

“I am at least an honest man,” he said, simply. “I have not the art of concealing my feelings, nor the inclination to do so. I am not practised in deceit. Because I love much I am vehement in the expression of it. Some people prefer vehemence to self-control, as being honester. I ask you once more, Una—Do you love me? If you are honest you will answer me Yes or No. If you are not honest—I will never willingly look upon you again.”

“Another threat! What a dangerous fellow you are, Con.” This extraordinary young girl, whose mood was as changeable as the wind, was soft and smiling now—the Una as she was best known. “I'm sure that you must have practised just a little deceit, for you have never given me


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the slightest reason to suspect that you are the volcano you have shown yourself to be to-day. Now don't look black, but come and walk in the garden like a reasonable being, and when I've collected my poor scattered senses I'll answer your question.”

“You will answer me honestly?” asked the young man, eagerly.

“I will, from my heart.”

They paced the garden silently for some minutes—Una with her head bent, and her hands behind her, kicking up the gravel at each step with the point of her tiny shoe, and Conway, his anger, but not his anxiety, having flown, looking down at her golden head, wondering how much of the woman and how much of the child there was in this inexplicable little being.

Suddenly Una paused, and, looking up demurely into his face, said, “Now repeat your question, please.”

“Una, do you love me?” he asked, slowly and earnestly.

“Truly and honestly and from my heart I reply”—she stopped for a moment as he bent over her eagerly—“I don't know.”

Then she sprang lightly from him, and fled, with a swiftness that defied pursuit, towards the house.

As he watched her till she disappeared Conway


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muttered a hasty word. The best of us are impatient at being tricked. It wounds our self-love, which is the most enduring if not always the strongest of our passions. There was as much hatred and contempt as love for Una in Conway's heart at that moment.

“Bah!” he muttered again, “women are cheats —and men are fools!” A cynical observation for a youth of twenty-two, but the tenter-hooks upon which he had been kept dangling for the last few weeks had aged Conway wonderfully. “I'm glad it's over,” he continued, looking the reverse of glad; “and, thank God! old Bert will be down to-morrow.”

Then, to prove to his own satisfaction that he really was indifferent and light-hearted, and not in the least upset, he took up a bat and began to strike the balls over the net. They all went over the net, and also over the hedge, some distance beyond, and were lost in the adjacent corn-field. When the supply of balls were exhausted he threw the bat in the air several times, catching it dexterously by the handle as it descended. Then he tossed it away on the grass, picked up the walking-stick he had left on a garden-seat, and whistling with ostentatious cheerfulness, walked off towards the front gate. As he passed under the shadow of the house he heard a small, soft voice calling him.




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“Con! Con! Con!—Conway!”

Conway whistled louder, and walked on.

“Con—way!!”

This time he could not fail to hear. The call was louder than his whistling, and decidedly more musical.

“I beg your pardon, U——Miss Helden; you called me?”

Una laughed gaily. She was leaning from a little window just out of her lover's reach, with her face between her hands, and her arms resting on the sill.

“‘Miss Helden’ is beautiful,” she said, unconscious of the double construction that might be placed on her words. “How absurd that you should be the first to call me anything else but Una. Do I look more than a simple Christian name?”

Conway was fain to acknowledge to himself that she did not; but he said nothing nor relaxed his gravity.

“Yes, I called you,” she continued, “because I won't allow you to go away angry with me.”

“I am not angry with you but with myself,” he said, coldly.

“And very properly so. I'm glad to see that you still have a conscience. Con!”—and her voice sank to inexpressible softness—“you should not be


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hasty and unkind to me. I couldn't answer your question honestly in any other way. You must have patience with me, Con. At present I only think—perhaps before long I shall be sure. I'm only a baby, you know.”

It is not surprising that Conway relented under those soft words and still softer voice, both of which so plainly said, “You may hope!” As he looked up he saw the crystal tears gathering in her eyes, and he thereupon felt that ten years hard labour would have been a lenient sentence for his brutality.

“Forgive me, Una, dear. I'm afraid I was born a rough animal. I promise to be more gentle and patient in future.”

“And you will come and see me again very soon?”

“Yes. The day after to-morrow, if you like.”

“And bring your wonderful ‘old Bert,’ with you?”

“Yes, and bring my wonderful ‘old Bert,’ ” he answered, smiling, and tossing up a rose to her. And so they parted in peace.

But Conway, as he wended his way to the Ferns, did not walk on air, as successful lovers are popularly supposed to do. On the contrary, he trod the more prosaic and substantial road like any of his father's cottagers, only on this occasion more


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slowly and thoughtfully. He was thinking less of the great tear-brightened, forget-me-not eyes, the ripe, tender mouth, and the small, beautiful face, with its halo of gold hair, that he had just left, than of the weeks of coquetry that had drawn him on and ensnared him, and the pitiful trick by means of which Una had evaded the direct reply that his simple avowal of love deserved. He was so honest himself that he could endure nothing that approached deceit in those he loved. Perhaps in this respect the constant companionship of his brother had spoilt him, or at any rate left his nature too tender for a man to live at ease in this world of small and big deceits. The words “Only a baby” kept ringing doubtfully in his ears. “Only a baby,” he repeated, as he passed through the big gates of the Ferns. “And I certainly have no genius for nursing!”

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