THE following morning Miss Merton had risen early, and was sauntering slowly before breakfast up and down the broad terrace in front of the house. She inhaled the fresh delightful air; she looked out over the breezy sea; she scanned the splendid villa, now shining in the sunlight, with its marble porticoes, and its long rows of windows; and she thought over yesterday with all its conversations and incidents. In especial, she thought of Laurence. She thought of him as he was now, and as he had been in former times, when they had known each other so well; and as she thought of him, she sighed.

‘And he might do so much,’ she said to herself, ‘and yet he is so weak and so irresolute; wasting his time in Paris and in London, reading poetry and buying pictures, and talking philosophy he doesn’t believe in with his dilettante friends. And this place—this lovely place—how often does he come here? What does he do for his tenants and dependants—for all who ought to look for help to him? I have no patience with a man who keeps moaning about religion as he does, and yet won’t act up to the light which he must have.’

Whilst she was thus meditating, the subject of her meditations appeared upon the terrace.

‘You are out early,’ he said. ‘I have been just seeing Herbert off. He has had to go before, everybody else, for he is en route for Italy.’

‘You look very tired,’ said Miss Merton sympathetically.

‘Oh, it is nothing,’ said Laurence, turning the subject. ‘Did you notice Leslie last evening in the garden, and how odd his manner was? Do you remember, too, the pretty song he sang the night before, and how surprised we all were at it? Well, I had a letter yesterday, from a friend both of his and mine, which explains it. The heroine of the song was not an ideal young lady, though whether one can call her real any longer is more than I can say. She is dead. I don’t know all the story; but my friend just gave me the outline, and enclosed a note for Leslie, to tell the news to him himself. He never fancies he feels anything; but what he won’t admit to himself, his manner, I am sure admitted to me, and I dare say to you too.’

‘Yes,’ said Miss Merton thoughtfully, ‘I felt sure it must be something of that kind. But you,’ she said, turning to Laurence, ‘how utterly tired and worn-out you look.’

‘To say the truth,’ Laurence answered, ‘I slept very little last night. I was thinking of our culture and our enlightenment. I was thinking of—God knows what; and why should I tell you? I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘that we’re all breaking up to-day. I wish we could have kept the party together for a little longer. I don’t know what I shall do. I can’t stop here; I shan’t go to London—I hate London. I had almost resolved, an hour ago, to go off to Italy with Herbert.’

‘By way of finding some duty to do?’ asked Miss Merton quietly.

‘I have no duties,’ said Laurence. ‘Didn’t Herbert very truly tell us so last night? But in Italy I should at least forget that I ever might have had any. And I should be then, at any rate, with a congenial friend. Herbert and I, you see, are two fools. We both of us want to pray, and we neither of us can.’

There was a long pause. At last Miss Merton said with some embarrassment, stooping as she did so to smell a red geranium:

‘I’m sure I wish I could be of any use to you; but really I don’t quite see how I can.’

There was another pause. At last Laurence said in a very low tone:

‘I cannot pray, because I do not believe in God. Will you pray for me? ’

Miss Merton turned and looked at him with a soft, serious smile.

‘I did last night, if you wish very much to know,’ she said, and her cheek grew slowly tinted with an unconscious blush.

‘Did you?’ exclaimed Laurence with a sudden eagerness. ‘Then, if you cared enough for me to do that, will you care enough for me to do something far better than praying for me? Will you—’ he said, pausing and looking at her; ‘will you—’ But at that instant the gong for breakfast sounded, and the sentence died unfinished. Both he and she were perhaps a little grateful for this interruption. It relieved a sudden sense of shyness that had become painful, and to all intents and purposes their looks had already said all that need be said. It might, both felt, be securely left to find its way into words at a more convenient season. In another moment they were in the midst of that most matter-of-fact bustle that precedes in country-houses the settling down to breakfast of a large party.

‘Well, Mr. Laurence,’ exclaimed Lady Ambrose, ‘all pleasant things come to an end at last. But this visit to you has really been positively delightful. And now, you must be careful not to forget me—that we are expecting you in September in Gloucestershire, to take part in our private theatricals. By-the-by,’ she added, sinking her voice to a fit solemnity, ‘I think I told you, didn’t I, how ill the poor Duchess of ——— had been last week, though she’s better now, I am happy to hear this morning. Ham—tongue—pigeon-pie—omelette,’ she went on, as she sat down at the table; ‘why, amongst all this host of good things, I don’t know really what to choose. Well, suppose, Mr. Laurence, you were to bring me just the little—least bit of omelette. My dear,’ she whispered to Miss Merton, who was on one side of her, ‘what a dreadful blowing-up Mr. Herbert gave us last night, didn’t he? Now that, you know, I think is all very well in a sermon, but in a lecture, where the things are supposed to be taken more or less literally, I think it is a little out of place.’

‘Did you say just now,’ said Leslie, who found himself on the other side of Lady Ambrose, ‘that the Duchess of ——— was ill?’

‘Oh, it was just something I was telling Mr. Laurence,’ said Lady Ambrose coldly. ‘She’s much better now, thank you. Do you know her?’

‘She’s my aunt,’ said Leslie.

Lady Ambrose turned round and looked Leslie full in the face. As she looked, a smile began to dimple her cheek, and light up her sweet grey eyes.

‘You don’t say so!’ she exclaimed at last. ‘Why, of course you are. How stupid of me not to have found that out before. To be sure—you are the redoubtable Eton boy, who made such a dreadful commotion at Daleham by wanting to run away with the nursery governess. And to think that I have only discovered you at this last moment, when we are all of us going to say good-bye!’

‘Your carriage is at the door, my Lady,’ said a servant.

‘Already!’ said Lady Ambrose. ‘How time flies! Dr. Jenkinson, you and I are going to the train together, I believe. And now, Mr. Leslie,’ she went on, ‘Mr. Laurence is coming to us, in September, for some private theatricals. I don’t know if you do anything in that way yourself. But perhaps if you are in England, and have no better engagements, you will come with him. At any rate, if you won’t, please to remember I shall think it very ill-natured of you.’

‘Thank you,’ said Leslie, smiling, ‘I am not ill-natured.’

‘I’m quite ready, Lady Ambrose, if you are,’ said Dr. Jenkinson briskly; ‘and now, Laurence,’ he said, as he was standing in the portico, whilst Lady Ambrose was getting into the carriage, ‘good-bye; I’ve had a most pleasant visit. But as to your Utopia, your ideal of the future—’ he added confidentially, ‘it has been said, foolishly enough, that God was the Brocken-phantom of self, projected on the mists of the non-ego. Well—your Utopia was the Brocken-phantom of the present, projected on the mists of the impracticable. It was simply the present with its homelier details left out. Good-bye—good-bye.’

‘Then in that case,’ said Laurence, as he bade adieu to the Doctor, ‘it is a comfort to know from you that the Present, as it is, is the highest state of things conceivable.’

‘Good-bye,’ said Lady Ambrose, with a smile in her beautiful frank eyes. ‘Good-bye, Mr. Leslie, and mind that you don’t forget September.’