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III

THAT same evening Bertram announced that he was going to ask Una to be his wife, and Conway took his hand and said, “Bert, old boy, the greatest happiness that man could have, whatever it may be, I wish to you.”

Conway had avoided the parsonage of late, but chancing to meet Una face to face in the village one day, he was obliged to stop and speak to her. After the awkward interchange of a few common-places between them, he suddenly said, seriously—

“Una, I loved you once, and you trifled with me. My brother loves you now, and you know he is very dear to me. You will make Old Bert happy, won't you, Una? He well deserves it.”

“Indeed I will try hard,” she replied. “And you forgive me now, don't you? You know I could not control my heart—no one can do that.”

He looked at her a little suspiciously, but could see nothing but innocence and earnestness in her upraised face.

“Yes, I forgive you. If you love Bert well, I can forgive you for not loving me.”




  ― 26 ―

Then he left her, and as she stood looking after him, biting a corner of her full lower lip, there was much of anger and something of regret on her pretty face.

Bertram, like an impatient lover, urged a speedy marriage, and easily secured his own way. In a few short weeks the marriage-bells were ringing. It was a quiet affair, by mutual consent. The bride was a vision of loveliness. The bridegroom was earnest, and a little pale. The best man was calm, and a little paler. And so the irrevocable deed was done, and a few hours later Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Osborne were on their way to the Cumberland lakes.

From thence the happy pair were summoned home within a fortnight of their stay by the receipt of a telegram from Conway, short but imperative—“Come home at once. Our father is dying.”

It was strangely and terribly sudden. Mr. Osborne had gone forth for his daily walk in apparently as good condition as he had been for years. He had been seen erect and firm by some of the villagers, and had received the respectful salutations of several of his tenants with his usual cold courtesy. But he had surprised the old woman who kept the lodge gate by asking her for the loan of a walking-stick, and when Conway


  ― 27 ―
met his father in the hall a little later he was inexpressibly shocked.

“Why do you look at me like that?” asked Mr. Osborne, irritably.

Receiving no reply, he supported himself to a mirror, and saw the reflection of a face grotesquely distorted and twisted on one side. The effect upon him was singular; he burst into an hysterical laugh. An hour afterwards Mr. Osborne was in bed and unconscious. “A stroke of paralysis,” said the doctor; “not a very severe one, but the story, I fear, has a sequel.”

The doctor was right. Mr. Osborne had a second and severer stroke, after which he never regained consciousness. He died the day after Bertram's return.

The brothers were shocked and grieved, but their father had ever shown such a lack of affection for them that their sorrow could not be expected to be so deep and lasting as it might otherwise have been. Una wept copiously; partly because she hated events of a dismal character, partly because she thought she should look hideous in black, and the rest for the sake of appearances. But when, upon trial, she found that black was most becoming to her, acting as a capital foil to her gold hair and forget-me-not eyes, she was consoled.




  ― 28 ―

But the world wags on despite the sweeps of the reaper's scythe. Bertram had his politics to attend to, and Una was burning to renew her acquaintance with fashionable life: not now as the pretty daughter of a poor parson, but as the wife of a landed proprietor of ancient name, with a rent-roll of six thousand a-year. And so the Ferns was deserted for South Kensington. Conway, whose portion was thirty thousand pounds in the Funds, also took up his residence in London for the present, partly because he had nothing better to do, and partly because he wanted to be near his brother. He refused a pressing invitation to stay at the house in Kensington, preferring to set up bachelor “diggings” of his own; but the brothers saw each other daily, and were as inseparable as ever.

Una made her second bow to society under the wing of Aunt Rachel, and was an immediate and decided success. She was beautiful, original, and piquante; her husband was regarded as a coming man, sufficiently wealthy for a young commoner of ability, and Aunt Rachel's introduction was all-powerful.

Elated with her success, Una gave herself up wholly to enjoyment. Her dream of happiness was realised; at least she thought it was.

Some months had passed away when one evening,


  ― 29 ―
in the wane of the season, Conway found himself alone with Una. His love for her having long since died out, or been self-slain, he had not avoided such an event. But on that evening he lamented his want of caution, for Una persisted in bringing the conversation round to the days when they had first known each other, before she had seen Bertram.

“You couldn't have loved me so very much, after all, Con.”

“Oh, no. A boy's fancy—very ardent and very brief. Are you going to Lady Lessington's garden party to-morrow?”

“No; you couldn't have loved me very much, or you would have told Bertram, and then things would have been very—different.”

“Very different,” replied Conway. “You would not have been my sister. I think I'll run down to the House and see what Bert is doing.”

“If I had not been your sister I might have been your—wife,” she murmured, in a tone which left it doubtful whether she was in jest or earnest.

Conway reddened. It was a subject that it was not in his nature to jest upon; and if she was in earnest—— But that was a thought he would not entertain for a moment.

“You showed me plainly enough that you never desired that honour, and I never cared for you sufficiently to ask you twice,” he said, rudely.




  ― 30 ―

“Con, you are telling an untruth.”

She was looking him straight in the face—a look which made him turn pale and tremble. Una was deliberately trifling with him; perhaps only for vanity's sake; but, in any case, it was terribly bad—she was his brother's wife.

“I never tell an untruth,” he said, rising in anger, and a few moments after he had left the house.

As Conway walked rapidly away his heart was in a tumult. “Fool that I was,” he thought, bitterly, “not to have told him that she was heartless and shallow, unworthy of any true man's love. Oh, Bert, Bert!”

Meanwhile Una, with a strange, unpleasant light in her eyes, had sunk into a chair with an unmusical laugh.

“He is a fool,” she purred softly. Then she set her white teeth fiercely, and added: “I hate fools!”

A few days afterwards the brothers were alone together in Bertram's sanctum. Conway sat in an easy-chair puffing at a cigar, while the master of the house stood with his back to the fire-place and his hands behind him, with the palms turned towards the grate; but there was no glow to the cigar, and the fire in the grate had been suffered to go out. The most unobservant onlooker, with


  ― 31 ―
any knowledge of the two young men, would have detected something very unusual in the atmosphere—an uneasiness and unpleasant constraint. Bertram's brow was moody and preoccupied, and on the handsome face of the younger brother, notwithstanding his easy attitude, there was perplexity and anxiety.

“Bert,” said the latter, breaking a long silence, “there's no use trying to disguise it from me; something has gone wrong with you. Tell me all about it. You never keep secrets from me.”

“Have you ever kept any from me?” asked Bertram, meaningly.

“None worthy of the telling,” replied Conway, colouring slightly. Then, to cover his confusion, he went on quickly: “It is some political worry, I suppose. I'm sure politics must be a disappointing pursuit—when you gain the prizes you'll find them Dead Sea fruit. Perhaps you are tasting the bitterness already. Is that it? Tell me the trouble, old fellow, whatever it is.”

Bertram shifted uneasily, and made a nervous attempt to clear his throat. Then, looking at the carpet, at the window, at the book-shelves, at the marble statuette of Psyche, at the painting of Una in a great garden hat which hung over his bureau—anywhere but at his brother—he began—

“I am upset, because I have something to say


  ― 32 ―
to you that I would give years of my life to avoid saying. But my honour and your honour are at stake, and it must be said. The fact is, Con” (how painfully he stumbled over that dear old familiar name), “I'd rather you didn't come to the house again.”

He paused and moistened his dry lips. Conway, deadly pale, sat as if frozen to stone.

“Not come to the house again?” he repeated, in a low, inquiring voice. But he saw it all—saw the deception that had been at work to separate him from his brother.

“No, it would be better not,” replied Bertram. “Of course we can see as much of each other as ever elsewhere; because, after all, we are brothers, and—and have always been chums.”

“How little you know me,” said Conway, with a strange calmness, “to think that I could accept such a proposal; and how little I can have known you, when I would have staked my life you would never have made it to me. But, as you have enlightened me, I must enlighten you. I declare now, before God, who knows how clear of offence my heart is, that I neither understand nor will accept any half measures. You and I, Bert, must be the same brothers”—here his voice trembled in spite of him—“we have always been, or—strangers.”

“Don't say that, Con!” exclaimed his brother,


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greatly distressed. “I have tried to speak gently and kindly, for my affection for you is as strong as ever. But, oh! why did you not tell me that you had loved Una?”

“Because I saw how much you were bound up in her, and I feared to upset your happiness. I may have been wrong—I see now that I was—but my motives were good. And my love was but passing; it died at the birth of yours. Never from that moment have I felt anything for her but the regard of a brother. You believe that, don't you, Bert?”

“Una has told me all,” replied the other, evasively. “The poor child was bitterly distressed.”

“You believe me, don't you?” persisted Conway.

“The best of us are, after all, but human, and however strong our sense of honour may be, it is better to avoid——”

“Stop!” exclaimed Conway, rising from his chair. He knew that a lie had robbed him of his brother's confidence, and of more than half his love; but of the author of that lie he would say nothing. “You avoid giving me an answer, because you believe an honest one would give me pain. But I'd rather have the honesty and the pain than your horrible doubting evasion. In all the past years have I ever been false to you? Have you ever


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seen a false look on my face, heard a false ring in my voice, felt a false grip of my hand? No! Then why doubt me now? I want to hear from you the words, ‘Con, I believe you.’ I demand them!”

Pale and gloomy, Bertram remained silent, gazing unconsciously over at the picture of his wife. Twice he moved his lips as if to speak; but no words came.

For fully a minute—ah! what a minute!—Conway stood looking at him, awaiting a reply. As the clock on the mantel-piece ticked the seconds away his face became more and more ashen, and the moisture of mental agony gathered on his forehead. At last he said, in low, husky tones—

“Your silence is more than sufficient. We are brothers no longer.” Then he turned, and, with his heart blighted and cold, left his brother's house.

Just six months after the breaking of that companionship, which only the influence of a woman could have severed, during which nothing had been seen or heard of Conway, Una and Bertram were in Paris. Bertram was looking pale and haggard. “Overwork,” his medical adviser had said, and recommended a change, and Una had greedily seized the opportunity of persuading her husband into a visit to the City of Pleasure.




  ― 35 ―

One morning Bertram was strolling aimlessly in the Champs Elysées, occasionally stopping to look in the shop-windows, when he suddenly met his brother face to face. Both paused instinctively. To pass an erstwhile dear friend and companion with cold composure requires long practice. In that moment each of the brothers must have seen how the other had changed, and have read the cause; have understood that if such a love as theirs could die, how hard and lingering a death it must be.

It was a fateful moment. The future hung upon a slender thread. A look, a word, and they would have been re-united. The yearning love was there, and the longing to forget and forgive. But pride was also there, lurking secretly in each heart. Each waited for an advance from the other; and so, alas! the heaven-sent moment passed. Conway suddenly turned and crossed the road, and with a bitter wail of regret and self-reproach in his heart Bertram passed on his way.

They heard a little of Conway after that. There came whispers of terrible dissipation in various Continental towns. He had desperately wounded a Prussian officer in a duel. He had broken the bank at Monte Carlo. (Bah! the bank is never broken!) Then the bank had broken him. After that they heard no more.

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