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Title: The Perversity of Human Nature
Author: Ada Cambridge
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0607101.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: September 2006
Date most recently updated: September 2006

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The Perversity of Human Nature
Ada Cambridge



Chapter I.



Amongst the hundreds and thousands of pretty and cosy little villa
houses that cluster round our Melbourne city, The Nest, at St. Kilda
is one that seldom escapes the notice of the passer-by. It stands a
little back from the street, at the top of a sloping lawn, a one
storied, broad verandahed, rose embowered bungalow--as charming a nest
as you would wish to see. Jupiter Pluvius twirls upon the velvet grass
and the gorgeous flower borders, making a delicate liquid tinkle and
patter with its spreading showers. The gravel path, sweeping in the
form of a horse shoe from the front gate, has never a weed on its
smooth face. The shrubs are glossy and bushy; the fern trees thrive as
in their native forests; the dark pines that line the enclosure and
guard the little dwelling and its exquisite garden from wind and dust
and prying eyes are dense and shapely, without a ragged branch
anywhere. And the house itself, retiring under its spreading eaves, is
simply perfection in the finish of its simple appointments and the
almost glittering cleanliness of every part of it.

The inside matches the outside. Persian carpets on the dark floors;
Liberty stuffs at the windows; Morris chintzes on the chairs and
sofas; good, though not rare, pictures on the walls, which are tinted
on purpose to suit them; low book cases running like dados round the
rooms, filled with books to read and not to look at, and bearing on
the top shelf dainty bric--brac, of which every piece has been
selected on its own merits, and not at the command of a vulgar
fashion. A thoroughly refined and harmonious house, in short; such a
house as could only belong to cultivated and enlightened people.

Three years ago--and it was then very much as it is now--these people
were newly settled in it.

They were two only--a young Australian husband and his English wife,
to whom he had been married about eighteen months. He had met her at
the Grosvenor Gallery, a bright girl fresh from Girton, when he was
himself enjoying a six months' trip to Europe. He was then, as now,
partner in a flourishing firm of stock and station agents having
offices in Collins-street west--Brown, Brown and Ponsonby. He was the
second Brown--Brown the younger; the old one was his uncle. Until the
memorable occasion when he met his wife, he had never travelled beyond
the bounds of his native continent; and he went to England with the
conviction that he knew as much as the old country could teach him and
a little more--except on one point. He was prepared to own, and
subsequently did own, that England could furnish more and better
pictures than all he had seen in Australia. It was his one artistic
taste. Goodness knows how he came by it, but there it was. From a
child he had been fond of drawing and fond of pictures--of which,
naturally, he considered himself a connoisseur--after his return from
Europe, an infallible judge.

So he went to the Grosvenor Gallery. And so (for she was fond of
pictures, too) he met Miss Alexandra Hay. She was an orphan, of five
and twenty, independent of guardians and interfering relatives,
entirely mistress of herself and of a safe little income of 200 a
year. She lived--or had been living--with a fellow Girtonian in
aesthetically furnished lodgings in Whitechapel, and made "slumming"
her profession--scorning delights (except such as rush bottomed chairs
and high art cups and saucers), and living laborious days, enjoying
the very life for which, if she had not had it, she would have sighed
and aspired as the highest and most satisfying that could fall to the
lot of woman.

But at the time of this visit to the Grosvenor--for the East-End
missionaries took their little artistic diversions in the West End
occasionally, as a duty to themselves and to everybody--she was very
unhappy. She and her dearest friend had quarrelled irrevocably (I am
sorry to say they often did it), and life, that had been so rich and
full, was now utterly blank and desolate. They had gone the length of
selling their furniture and dividing the proceeds; and Alexandra Hay
was alone in the world. A mutual acquaintance introduced Robert Brown
to her at this juncture--he was a fine figure of a man, tall, broad
shouldered, blue-eyed, with a handsome red beard--and she took his arm
to walk through the crowd and look at the pictures with a sense that,
after all, it was possible that men were more generous, more constant,
and more to be depended on than women. But how she came to marry him,
and that within six weeks of their first meeting, she declares to this
very day that she never knew. My own notion is that she did it because
she thought it would be nice, when her dear friend came to her to
"make it up," and beg for a resumption of the old life, to be able to
say "It is too late now." Or because the suddenness and strikingness
of the enterprise was irresistible to her impulsive nature and
dramatic imagination. But how can I tell? It is one of those things
that no one is expected to understand. They were both lonely, and on
the look out for sympathy; and Robert Brown, criticising the Grosvenor
Gallery pictures, showed to the best advantage. She thought him a most
cultivated person, with the true artist's soul. And time was short.
Robert's passage was taken, and she had to make up her mind quickly.
There were no parents to consult, and, of course, she, with her
training, had nothing but scorn for conventional practices. So in six
weeks they became man and wife, walking out to be married in their
everyday clothes, and afterwards lunching tte--tte at an hotel. And
thereafter they lived together, as she often bitterly expressed it,
like a pair of convicts dragging their connecting leg-irons between
them, and feeling the weight and pain of them at every step.

When they arrived in Australia they went to live in the Riverina,
where Robert Brown had charge of a branch office and a good deal of
country business. Here young Mrs. Brown, cut off from every interest
she had in the world, and disappointed in her marriage, moped and
moped until she nearly went melancholy mad. At the end of the first
year her nervous state was such that the doctors ordered her change of
scene and a change of life--declared that it was absolutely necessary
to her mental health that she should have more cheerful surroundings.
Thereupon her husband, anxious to do his best for her, exchanged posts
with Mr. Ponsonby and transferred himself to the office in town. And
they went to live at The Nest--that abode of love and peace, as it
appeared to the uninitiated spectator out of doors--and made an
attempt to start afresh and turn over a new leaf.

At St. Kilda Mrs. Brown grew stronger, and for a little time she was
happier--for just so long as she was occupied in the fitting up of her
new house and making it pretty, according to her own ideas.

When that was done, and she had nothing more to do, with her husband
at business all day, and often at his club at night, and herself
refusing to associate with the intellectually benighted persons
amongst whom she had come to dwell, her solitude was as complete and
depressing as before, and she became more miserable and more
melancholy than ever.

On the evening of Christmas day three years ago she and her husband
sat in their charming drawingroom together. Christmas in these parts
is seldom a complete success, under the most favorable conditions; to
them, as a reason of domestic festivity, it was the most dismal
failure imaginable, and both were longing for the interminable hours
to pass and bring the common days again.

Robert sat in one of the luxurious Morris chairs, sorely tempted to go
away and smoke off the effects of the plum pudding, but feeling that
it would be an impropriety to do so on such an occasion, which
demanded that the head of the household should devote himself to his
family; and, between the little dozes into which he lapsed at
intervals, he gazed at his wife--who seemed, for her part, unconscious
of his existence. She sat by an open window, leaning an elbow on the
sill and her cheek in her hand, and stared at the sky with eyes that
evidently saw nothing. They were very pretty, sad, dark eyes, with a
kind of starry brilliance in them--strictly speaking, the only beauty
of her face, which was nevertheless intelligent and interesting. She
was picturesquely dressed in sage-tinted Liberty silk, draped Greek
fashion in mysterious loose folds from her shoulders to her feet, and
slightly held to her slender figure with a silk cord tasselled at the
ends. The Philistines of the tight waists, whose acquaintance she
would not condescend to, called her Mrs. Cimabue Brown, and scoffed at
her eccentric garments, of which they caught a glimpse occasionally;
but, all the same, she contrived to look very graceful in them. Her
husband thought so to-night, as he studied her--sitting in the dying
daylight--from his chair in the shadow of the room. She had been his
choice, and he still believed in her as a most elegant and superior
woman, bitterly as she had disappointed him.

"Lexie," he said, breaking a long silence, and speaking kindly and
cheeringly, "don't look so utterly miserable."

She did not move her position, nor did her face lighten. "You needn't
look at me," she said indifferently.

He felt repulsed, but made no verbal retort. With an impatient,
ostentatious sigh, he kicked away a footstool, rose, and, taking a
match box from his pocket, proceeded to light the gas under half a
dozen tinted shades.

"It's a nice sort of Christmas," he grumbled presently, beginning to
perambulate the room with his hands behind him. "A nice sort of home--
after a man has done his best to make his wife comfortable and happy."
She took no notice of this remark, and he added sharply, "If you don't
shut that window you'll have the mosquitoes in."

She shut the window with an exasperating air of humble obedience, and
turned into the room to seek another seat. As the soft pink light fell
upon her face, and he saw how pale and worn it looked, another twinge
of uxorious pity visited him.

"I don't mean to find fault with you, my dear. But I wish you had a
more occupied life, and enjoyed your home and did more to make
yourself and me happy. You have everything that heart can wish--
nothing to do but to amuse yourself--and a good husband, though I say
it that shouldn't. It isn't every man that would make the sacrifices I
have done to give his wife pleasure."

"What sacrifices?"

"Coming to town, when I was doing so well where I was."

"I am very sorry you came, if it involved a sacrifice. I am very
sorry"--here her voice trembled--"that I ever came across your path,
to be so much trouble to you."

"Now, Lexie, don't begin that."

"It was the most unlucky day in my whole life--the day that I married
you," she declared recklessly.

"Well, at any rate, you did it of your own accord. You can't say I
forced you," said Robert, with a grim smile.

"Are you going to insult me by implying that I threw myself at your
head--that I ran after you?" she demanded, her woman's soul burning
within her.

His grim smile relaxed, and there was a twinkle in his blue eyes.
"Like Barkis, you were willin', Lexie. You were very willin', my dear.
You know you were, so don't pretend you weren't."

For a moment her rage and indignation at this deadly and unexpected
outrage deprived her of the power of speech. She looked at him with
her dark eyes blazing, her delicate nostrils quivering, her lips
compressed, her hands clenched. Then she broke out wildly--addressing
the walls and furniture--"O, it serves me right! It richly serves me
right! I have brought it upon myself--I ought to have known better
than to expose myself to the indignities and degradations of a married
woman's lot! I ought to have listened to Emily Price!--she warned me
of what I was doing, and how bitterly I should repent it when it was
too late!" She raved with fluency and bitterness for full five
minutes, and her husband only interrupted her once.

"It's all very well to talk about your dear Emily Price now; you know
that when you were with her you quarrelled like cat and dog," said he.
"You couldn't even live under the same roof."

"We never quarrelled," said Lexie, solemnly. "We did not always agree
on the surface, but at bottom we understood each other thoroughly. We
had one heart and mind in everything." And then she went off into
harrowing reminiscences of her Girton and Whitechapel life with Emily,
contrasting the noble freedom of that happy time with the present
ignominious bondage. "I only wish," she concluded fervently, "that I
were back in that old life now!"

"I'm sure I wish you were," said Robert, for his patience was
exhausted. It was the first time he had expressed himself in those
terms, and after he had done so he was rather sorry for it. Lexie
looked as if he had struck her; she quite staggered as she stood. She
thought nothing of telling him that she wished herself away from him;
but that he should wish himself away from her was quite a different
matter. She sat down silently, laid her arms upon a little table near
and her face in her arms, and broke into a tempest of hysterical tears
and sobs. She felt herself utterly desolate and abandoned now. Robert
let her cry for a little, for he was angry, and he thought she
deserved no pity. Then he reminded himself that she was only a woman
and that her health was delicate, and made an attempt at consolation.

"You're just moped with having nothing to do," said he. "Why don't you
get some needlework? Other women occupy themselves embroidering things
and so on, but I never see you with a needle in your hand. Get some
crewel work--or knit me some socks; that'll be better for you than
always reading and thinking and idling about. You've no idea how
charming a woman looks in a man's eyes when she's doing those feminine
kind o' things--sitting by her fireside and stitching away--"

He laid his hand on her shoulder as he spoke, meaning the gesture for
a caress. But she snatched herself from it with a shudder, as if it
had been a toad or a snake. "O let me alone!" she cried sharply.

"Don't speak to me! Don't touch me!"

He drew himself up straight, and then turned away, deeply offended.
"All right," he retorted roughly, "please yourself; I'll not meddle
with you. You may go to the devil for what I care; I'm sick and tired
of your tantrums."

And with that he went off to bed, banging the doors behind him.



Chapter II.



Like many another woman, Lexie dearly loved a grievance, though she
would never have forgiven the frank friend who dared to tell her so.
And now she had one of sufficient importance to satisfy her.

Robert had told her he wished she was gone--had called her abusive
names, sworn at her--treated her, in short, as no woman who respected
herself could submit to be treated. Therefore, she determined not to
speak to him again until he had suitably apologised, and nursed vague
but desperate plans for the vindication of her honor and dignity.

Robert, for his part, thought it was high time for a husband of spirit
to put his foot down. He had borne with her tantrums, because she was
delicate and "only a woman," until he had completely spoilt her.

Therefore he resolved that, until she made amends for her conduct, he
would withhold his pardon and favor. And so it came to pass that for
many days they were not on speaking terms, except at meal times when
the servants were in the room. Robert went off to his business after
breakfast, returned to dinner, went off again to spend the evening at
his club; and, when he came home at night and found his wife gone to
bed and her door locked, retired peaceably to rest in his dressing
room. And Lexie, her sense of injury deepening hour by hour with the
continuance of this state of things, her nerves overwrought with the
long strain upon them, became nearly frantic. In her husband's
presence pride kept her severely calm and composed; but when he was
out of the house, or she could hear him snoring in his bachelor bed on
the other side of the locked door, as if nothing were the matter, she
cried, and wrung her hands, and paced wildly about the floor, and
declared that she could not and would not stand it.

Since she had come to St. Kilda her favorite and only amusement had
been to look at the sea and the ships. In the hottest weather she
would walk along the beach till she found a sufficiently lonely spot,
and there sit down on a sand hummock, or a bit of driftwood, clasp her
hands round her knees, and stare from under her lowered hat brim at
the twinkling water and the arriving and departing vessels, for hours
together. After dinner, when her husband was not at home, she would
put a light wrap over her evening dress and walk down to the pier, and
there sit till bed time without stirring, wistfully gazing at the
clustering lights of Williamstown and Sandridge--the riding lights of
the great ships resting in port between their ocean voyages.
Frequently she went to the piers where those ships were berthed to
have a nearer look at them--wandering up and down amongst the trucks
and the smoke and the clatter, and watching the loading and unloading
of cargo going on busily on both sides--to the surprise and curiosity
of idle sailors and sweating stevedores, who could not make out what a
lady, all by herself, could be wanting there. What she really wanted
was to look at the fabric and the faces that had come direct from
England and were going back there again--to get, in fact, as near to
England itself as possible. She looked back to England now as the true
believer looks forward to Heaven. There was the home of the elect--the
city of satisfied desires--the haven where she would be.

One day, when loitering on the pier at Sandridge, she was astonished
to hear her name called.

"Miss Hay--ahem!--Mrs. Brown--Lexie!"

It was the voice of a young sailor lad who leaned over the poop
railing of a big clipper that she was slowly passing, her attention at
the moment being absorbed by a still bigger steamer on the other side.

With a start she looked up, and recognised Joe Price--none other than
her darling Emily's own cousin.

She had known of his going to sea, but had not known in what
direction--in fact, had not cared. In those old days boys were of no
interest to her whatever. Now she hurried to meet him as he ran down
the gangway, and nearly threw herself into his arms.

"Joe! Joe!" she cried excitedly. "My dear, dear boy, how did you come
here? Is this your ship? Oh, how glad I am to meet you again! And when
did you see them last? How did you leave Emily? Oh, do tell me all
about everything!"

"Come up on deck," said Joe. And up on deck they went accordingly.
There was an awning over the poop, and the captain's wicker chair
stood there. "Sit here," said Joe, "and I'll tell them to get you some
lemonade or something." He was third mate, it appeared, and in charge
of the ship. She was one of the few passenger sailing ships left on
the line, but there were no passengers on her now, and, for a wonder,
no cargo going in or out. It was very peaceful in contrast with the
racket of the pier. Lexie sat down in the captain's chair, refreshed
herself with lemonade, and had a long talk with her new found friend.

"No," said Joe. "She never seemed to care for anybody else after you
were gone. She tried living with Miss Fothergill, but that didn't
answer at all. They were ready to tear each other's hair off in a
week."

"Bless her!" ejaculated Lexie fervently, with tears in her eyes.

"So she gave up slumming and went home and took to painting. She's
regularly studying at it now--Royal Academy and all that sort of
thing, you know. She's going to be a great gun someday, like Mrs.
Butler and the Montalbas--at least, so she says. For my part, I wish
she'd take pattern by you, and get married and be comfortable, like
other people."

"Oh, don't wish anything so cruel!" cried Lexie, with a tragical air.
"Let her be as she is--free and happy, and using all her faculties.
Believe me, she is far better off than she has any idea of."

Joe gave her a long look, feeling rather as if he had put his foot in
it, and hastened to change the conversation. But Mrs. Brown did not
want to talk upon the new topic; she went back to the old one
lovingly.

"How well I remember the first day we became friends! It was at
Girton, soon after I went there--dear Girton! I had to go out one
afternoon, and it was cold, and I wanted my fire kept in; so I put a
notice on my door, asking anyone who happened to pass to look in and
see to it; and when I returned there was Emily on her knees blowing it
up. She was wearing a terra-cotta cashmere--I can see it now! And then
I put the kettle on, and we had tea together, and a long, long talk.
That was the beginning, and from that day to this," said Lexie,
without a falter or a blush, "there has never been a cloud between
us."

Joe rounded his mouth to whistle, but forbore. "You certainly seemed
to suit each other down to the ground," he said gravely. "She always
said you were the only real friend she ever had."

"I was--I was," said Lexie, clasping her hands in her lap. "And she
was my only one. Oh, if I could only be with her now--if we could only
work together as we used to do!"

"Oh, well," said Joe encouragingly, "I suppose you will be coming home
some day. Then you can do things."

"Ah! what wouldn't I give!"

"You must talk to Mr. Brown. Tell him a change would do him good.
Nothing like the sea, you know. You ought to come along with us."

"When are you leaving?"

"In about a month, I suppose. Come and have a look round." And he
jumped up from the flag box on which he had been sitting. He was proud
of his ship, of course, though in the matter of art and luxury she was
not much to boast of in comparison with the great steam vessels which
had rendered her nearly obsolete; and he showed his guest over her
with a complacent and superior air. "Ever so much better than the mail
boats, you know. No noise, no vibration, no coal dust, no smells fit
to knock you backwards, no Red Sea, no dressing up and bothering
yourself. There's no romance on those modern steamers--you might as
well be in an hotel at once." Lexie let him ramble on, and said
nothing in reply. He thought it was because she was so impressed and
interested that she was so silent. But, in point of fact, she did not
take in a word that he was saying. The great enterprise of her life
was just then shaping itself in her brain.

"I will go," she was thinking to herself--the thought had been in her
mind for days, but only now presented itself as a practicable idea. "I
will run away to England and to Emily--I will get off secretly, so
that Robert shall not find it out and stop me. He wants to get rid of
me--he said so. He will be happy when I am gone." (This was what she
persuaded herself to be the case, but what she knew in her inmost
heart was that he would be miserable when she was gone; and therein
lay the great merit of the scheme.)

"I am afraid you are not well," Joe said at last, when he saw that she
was really inattentive, and looked perturbed and nervous.

"Yes, I am," she replied, mouth and hands trembling. "But I must be
going now. I have a great deal to do."

He protested against this sudden hurry, and begged her to wait for
lunch, which would be ready in half an hour; but she would not stay
another minute. So he escorted her down the gang way, and they said
good-bye, and she hastened up the pier to the station without having
made any appointment for seeing him again. He looked after her with a
gloomy face, wondering why she hadn't asked him to her house, when she
must have known that he had no other friend in Melbourne, where he was
going to kick his heels for a month or more. "She always was a queer
girl," he soliloquised, as he returned to the deck.

"And I fancy she's got a brute of a husband by the manner of her. She
was afraid to stay any longer for fear he'd make a row."



Chapter III.



Lexie went home in a fever of excitement. Minute by minute her
desperate plan grew more distinct and looked more reasonable and more
attractive. Minute by minute her determination to carry it out
increased. It was full of difficulties, but the difficulties
disappeared when she strenuously thought them out. She had the woman's
quickness of imagination and readiness of resource. By the time she
reached home the whole thing was arranged in her mind down to the most
trifling detail. It was like an inspiration. It would set Robert free,
who openly wished himself rid of her; and (only of course she didn't
consider that) it would give her the most dramatic and magnificent
revenge. "I will do it," she said, setting her teeth. And do it she
did.

When she reached The Nest, hot, dusty, and tired, though not conscious
that she was tired, she found her lunch ready for her in the cool and
pretty diningroom. She sat down and tried to eat because the housemaid
was there to wait upon her, but she had no appetite for food. She
messed a plate or two, drank two tumblers of iced water, and then went
to her bedroom, taking the morning newspaper with her. Locking the
door, she sat down to read the shipping advertisements, and found that
a mail steamer was to leave in two days. This was the ship she decided
to go by, for she felt that if the thing was to be done it must be
done quickly, before her courage could cool. Then she thought of her
luggage. What should she take? She must not be seen packing and making
arrangements, nor carrying boxes from the house. And yet she must have
clothes and necessaries. Here was the chief difficulty of her
undertaking.

She called for a cup of tea, and while it was being prepared went into
the boxroom to look at the chests and portmanteaus stowed there to see
if there was anything she could make use of. It was a vain search, as
she knew it would be. On every article, hers as well as his, "Robert
Brown" or "R.B." was printed in staring letters (he had had it done
when they were married without asking her leave); and she did not mean
to take her passage under that name. Besides, she did not want to
carry off anything that would be missed. Robert would eventually guess
where she was gone, and probably would follow to fetch her back; but,
considering what a husband's powers were, and that the telegraph and
police might be used to supplement them, it was necessary to the
success of her scheme that she should get as long a start as possible.
She looked at the rows of lettered trunks with a curling lip. "A
married woman has not even a name of her own," she said to herself
bitterly. "The husband swallows us up. We have no longer any
individuality whatever."

Then she returned to her bedroom, and Ellen brought her tea. Her
servants were excellent of their kind, but she had only two in the
house, cook and housemaid. A boy came for an hour or two in the early
morning and a gardener twice a week. This was not the gardener's day,
fortunately. Lexie looked at her watch and saw that it was past two.

"Ellen," she said carelessly, "when you have cleared away the lunch
things you may go and see your mother, if you like."

Ellen's mother at Hawthorn was ill, and Ellen was a dutiful and
affectionate daughter. She accepted her mistress's offer with a joyful
heart, and hurried off to scamper through her work. And as soon as her
back was turned Mrs. Brown resumed her bonnet, slipped unperceived
from the house, caught a train that was just going out, and returned
to Melbourne.

At Flinders-street she took a cab and had herself driven to the bank
where the interest of her money (still funded in London) was
periodically lodged, and drew out all she had. It amounted--for she
had needed very little since her marriage--to over two hundred pounds.
Then she went to the office of the company whose ship she had selected
to go home by, and there applied for and obtained a second class
passage (which seemed better for her purpose than a first), giving her
name as Mrs. Smith. After that she hurried to an outfitter's--avoiding
Collins-street lest she should encounter Robert--and bought a good
sized leather mail trunk. This was stowed on the cab, and, when she
had made a few other little purchases, she had herself driven home. As
the cab turned into the street where she lived, she recognised that
she had now to face one of the many risks of failure which no
ingenuity could entirely provide against. If she were seen with the
new trunk, curiosity would be aroused and all her elaborate plans
would be defeated. Her nervous agitation almost deprived her of her
presence of mind, but not quite. She was too desperately bent on
success not to make a stout struggle for it. With a beating heart she
ordered the cabman to pull up within a few yards of the gate, and
looked round fearfully. The street was empty; the house was quiet,
with all its blinds drawn down; Ellen would not be back from Hawthorn
for a good hour. Everything depended on Sophia the cook.

"You need not carry it up," said Lexie, indicating the portmanteau,
and opening her purse. "If you put it just inside the gate, that will
do."

"All right 'm," said the man, not anxious to do more than he was
obliged. And he put it down on the gravel, took his fare, touched his
hat and departed. This was the point of greatest danger, but it was
safely passed. There was no sign of Sophia. The moment the cab was
gone, and after one more terrified look round, Lexie flung her little
parcels on the grass, and, seizing the trunk, carried it into the
shrubbery and hid it in a clump of laurel bushes. She had marked the
place before going out, and intended to leave her purchase there until
night time, when, under cover of the darkness, she might manage to
smuggle it into the house.

However, when she went indoors and found Sophia peaceably cooking in
the kitchen, whisking eggs that had not yet begun to froth, she saw
that no time would be so good as the present; and she went back to the
shrubbery and fetched in the portmanteau. Being empty, it was not very
heavy; and in two minutes she had it in her bedroom, and was standing
over it, holding her hand to her side and panting for breath,
exhausted by her exploit, but triumphant at its success.

Where was she to put her trunk now she had got it? It could not go
into the box room, which was liable to be invaded at any time, though
very seldom entered; nor into her only private cupboard, which was too
shallow; nor under the bed, where Ellen would see it when she was
sweeping the floor. Lexie felt as if she had committed a murder and
had the dead body on her hands, until she found a snug place for it in
the wardrobe by drawing out two of the sliding shelves. Here, at
considerable inconvenience to her clothes in general, the trunk
reposed at last, and she could lock the door upon it, and no one could
be any the wiser.

She had an hour to herself before she had to dress for dinner, and she
turned it to good account.

Never, I venture to say, were preparations for a long voyage--at any
rate, a lady's long voyage--made with such despatch. "I will take
nothing but what is absolutely necessary," she said to herself. "I can
get all I want in London." Her secret conviction was that Robert would
soon be after her; but even if not, she could always send for her
things. Moreover, she did not want her drawers and cupboards to look,
when she had left them, as if they had been depleted. So she made her
one trunk hold all her outfit, the greater part being composed of
underclothes that no one in the house had seen--hygienic garments that
Emily had sent out to her, and that had been lying unopened for months
on a top shelf.

She left all her jewels in their cases: all her dresses (except two or
three that she had not worn in Melbourne) hanging on their pegs; her
bonnets and laces and trifles in their places in the wardrobe; her
ivory-backed brushes on the dressing table. None of these things would
she take--indeed, she had no place for them--though she relinquished
them with regret.

She had done the greater part of her packing when Robert returned; she
finished the rest before she went to bed. In the meantime she wondered
how he could help noticing the change she was conscious of in
herself--her ill-repressed excitement and restlessness. Evidently he
did not notice it.

He was more indifferent to her than usual. Some little touch of
compunction prompted her, for the first time since their quarrel on
Christmas day, to address a few remarks to him; and he only answered
in monosyllables, and thereafter became dull and silent as before. He
had had some serious business worries, and his mind was full of them;
but she thought it was pure "nastiness", and, of course, felt all the
more justified in the course she had undertaken. The next morning she
set herself to the task of getting her packed portmanteau out of the
house. She did not feel that she could breathe freely till this
difficulty had been safely surmounted. When Robert was gone, and the
servants had cleared away the breakfast, she sent Sophia to the
fishmonger's and Ellen to fruit shop; and then, the house being empty
for a few minutes, ran out herself to call a cab, made the cabman
fetch the trunk from her room, and drove with it to Spencer-street,
where she deposited it, along with a bundle of wraps, in the cloak
room. Again fortune favored her. No one who knew her saw what she had
done. Returning by train, she then sat down to write a letter to her
husband--a letter which she meant to leave behind her, for him to read
when she was gone.

"My dear Robert," she wrote (at last, after tearing up several closely
written sheets), "your words on Christmas day, when you told me you
wished I was away from you, and that you were sick and tired of me,
have haunted me ever since. I can't bear to feel that I am a
disappointment and a burden to you, and I have made up my mind to set
you free. Our marriage has been a sad mistake, but I am going to do
the only thing I can to rectify it. I hope you will be happy, dear
Robert, and think a little kindly of me when I am gone.

"Your loving, 'LEXIE'."

As fate would have it Robert did not return to dinner that night. He
sent a telegram to say that he had an engagement, and would probably
not be home till late. Lexie felt this terribly. That he should stay
away--who so seldom stayed away--on her last night (as if he had known
that it was her last night!) was a crowning grievance. "He is utterly
tired of me," she thought. "He hates his home--he would rather be
anywhere than where I am." And she was more than ever sure that she
was doing the right thing in leaving him.

She did not dress for dinner, nor would she have dinner served for
her. She had some more tea and bread and butter, and, putting on her
hat and hanging a light shawl over her arm, went for a long ramble on
the beach--nearly to the Red Bluff. She was very miserable, and she
wept every now and then, as she thought of her great step, and of her
desolation, and of her many troubles. But when she thought of how
Robert would feel "to-morrow night at this time" she cheered up; and
looking across the sea to the lights of Williamstown, braced herself
to carry out her purpose to the bitter end.

She had long gone to bed when he came home, and he went straight to
his dressing room, as a matter of course, though she had not locked
her door. Later on, when she was wide awake and tossing from side to
side, she heard him snoring comfortably in that little narrow bed that
he seemed so fond of, as if she were miles away. "O! how can he?" she
sobbed under her breath, burying her face in her lonely pillow. "How
can he--when perhaps he may never see me again!"

In the morning, when she met him at breakfast, she was very pale, but
composed. This was their last interview, and a sense of the tragic
nature of the occasion lifted her to the level of the heroic. If he
had only known it, a word from him would have broken her down and
knocked all her grand scheme to pieces. It was unfortunate that he was
still so preoccupied with his business affairs that he had no
attention to spare for her. He ate his breakfast and read his
newspaper at the same time, and when his meal was over prepared to
depart as usual. Lexie felt as if she should choke when she saw him
brushing his hat in the hall. She had had a natural wish to kiss him
and bid him good-bye (and if she had done that the complexion of
affairs would have been entirely altered); but it was hard to go up to
him without some little encouragement. He did not even look at her,
did not seem aware of her presence; and while she stood watching him,
in an agony of indecision, he strode out of the house and through the
garden to the street--and the golden opportunity was gone.

Lexie listened to the click of the gate and the sound of his quick
footsteps dying away on the pavement, and, realising what had
happened, ran to her room, threw herself on her bed, and cried wildly
as if her heart would break. But only for two or three minutes. Very
soon she sprang up, and bathed her eyes, and set her teeth. "That
settles it," she said to herself sternly.

And that did settle it.

She put the shelves back in her wardrobe, and restored them to their
usual order. Then she called Ellen to her and gave her a little
brooch. "You are a good girl, Ellen," she said, rather tremulously,
"and I would like to make you a little present. And here's something
for Sophia. Give it to her presently, with my kindest wishes. Not
now--by and bye. And you needn't get any lunch for me to-day, I am
going out for a walk."

Robert might be dull--naturally he was so, being a man; but Ellen was
as sharp as a needle, and saw at once that something was, as she
described it, "up". She smiled, and thanked her mistress, and went
into respectful raptures over her brooch, but was all the while keenly
observant of the wavering eyes and fluttering manner that had escaped
the husband's notice. Immediately she understood that Mrs.

Brown was going to "do something", and went off to tell Sophia about
it. And it was while the two servants were gossiping in the kitchen,
enlarging upon the mysterious and delightful topic, that Lexie left
her home--neither of them seeing her go.

She tied on her bonnet and a black lace scarf, took a chuddah shawl,
her favorite wrap, on her arm (she had two white chuddahs, but had
accidentally left one at the Red Bluff the night before), and a small
bag in her hand; and, having placed her letter in Robert's dressing
room where he would find it when he went to bed, quietly walked out of
the house, without taking leave of anybody. The gardener was at work
in the garden and thought she was going for a morning stroll. She
stopped a moment to speak to him, and ask him for some roses; and he
remembered afterwards that she carried the white shawl, because a rose
fell from her hand, and its thorny stem caught in the soft fabric, and
he was afraid to disentangle it lest he should soil the creamy stuff
with his earthy fingers. But he did not see the bag, which she carried
on her arm under the shawl.

Tucking the roses into the front of her dress, she walked to the
station, five minutes' distant from the house; took the train to town
as she had done the previous day; drove from Flinders-street to
Spencer-street, and got her portmanteau from the cloak room; had it
carried round the station to the Williamstown platform, and by the
half-past 10 train went down to the ship--horribly frightened at
finding herself really on the way, but feeling that the die was cast--
that it was too late to turn back now.

The train stopped at the pier station and a man wheeled her luggage to
the steamer in a handcart. She went on board to see it stowed in her
cabin, and then re-descended the gangway and walked to the end of the
pier, where she could have a little cry without anyone seeing her. It
was a lovely summer morning, and the great pool, encircled with that
soft fringe of city, was full of limpid color, blue and green both,
and so still that the masts and hulls of the many craft cruising about
and at anchor all around were reflected in wavering shadows on the
shining surface. A ship was coming in, with all her sails set--four
tiers of them--looking as beautiful as only such an object can look,
when the sun shines on the white cloths and makes them gleam like
satin. In all her trouble and preoccupation she could not help seeing
how fair a scene it was, and feeling an additional pang in
consequence.

She turned round and sat down on the end of the pier by the Customs
stairway, and looked at the great vessel which was to carry her off,
remembering with what passionate longing she had looked at one just
like it, berthed in the same place, not a week ago. As she watched the
special train came down, and the decks and gangways were soon alive
with embarking passengers--wives with husbands taking care of them,
sisters embracing each other, happy people who were not alone in the
world as she was. Then the post office boat came round with its sacks
of mails, and the bell rang. With one last effort she rose, drew her
veil over her face, and mounted the fatal ladder.

A few hours later she was lying in her second class bunk, dreadfully
sick and unspeakably solitary, a poor, ill furnished, unconsidered
woman, of no consequence to anybody--wishing with all her heart that
she was either dead, at the bottom of the sea, or back at The Nest
with Robert.



Chapter IV.



Now, when Robert arrived at his office that morning he found letters
which relieved his mind of its late mercantile anxieties; and, having
leisure for the consideration of his more personal affairs, he came to
the conclusion, in the course of the day, that his quarrel with his
wife had lasted long enough. They were acting like a couple of
children in making such a fuss about such a trifle. Lexie, with all
her cultivation and intelligence, was wonderfully young and
schoolgirlish in many ways, and he was just as bad as she was. It was
high time for them to begin to behave themselves like reasonable
beings.

And if she would not make the first advance, he must.

So he got away from business a little earlier than usual, and he went
to Swanston-street and bought the most beautiful bouquet that could be
had for money. Armed with this peace offering, he set off to St.
Kilda, and pleased himself as he went along by thinking of the coming
reconciliation--of the talk he would have with Lexie before dinner--of
the cosy meal, at which, freed from all restraint, he would tell her
the news of the town--of the friendly evening afterwards, when they
would walk about the garden arm in arm together. Not the ghost of a
misgiving as to the issue of his magnanimous project for a moment
crossed his mind. For he had never found Lexie impracticable when he
had humbled himself sufficiently. It was on those occasions that she
showed him (for a little while) that she had a heart like other women.

Entering the house with his latchkey, he looked around with a
benignant and a complacent air. What a pretty little nest it was! How
dainty, how tasteful, how orderly, how different from the houses of
his friends, whose wives were only ordinary persons and not delicate
and fastidious creatures like Lexie.

It is true that he often wished her more like Mrs. Ponsonby, who had
roses on her drawingroom carpet and a hair-cloth suite in the
diningroom; but, nevertheless, he was proud of her unlikeness to that
excellent wife and mother--of the very qualities which unfitted her
for the life he desired her to lead.

His eager face grew dull, and his sprightly step began to lag, as he
went from room to room and failed to find her. He ventured to tap
again and again at the door of her bedchamber, and at last to turn the
handle and gently open it. Finally he went to the kitchen, and Ellen
told him that Mrs. Brown had gone out.

This was not at all what he had expected, and he was sorry he had been
in such a hurry to get home.

He put his bouquet in one of her artistic pots, had a bath and changed
his clothes, and then sat down with a magazine to wait for her. Seven
o'clock--dinner time--came, and she was still absent. The master of
the house, who has been at his business all day, never likes to be
kept waiting for his dinner; and as the minutes went by Robert began
to fume, and to forget all about his intention to humble himself to
his wife. He opened and shut his watch, he paced up and down the
verandah and to and from the gate; he grew more and more angry, and
further and further from the point of reconciliation to which he had
been so near. At 20 minutes past 7 he shouted for Ellen. "Where is
Mrs. Brown gone to?" he demanded peremptorily.

"I don't know, sir," said Ellen, who looked very alert and conscious.
"She merely said she was going for a walk."

"When did she go?"

"Well, sir, it couldn't have been much after half-past 9."

"And she has not been home since?"

"No, sir."

"Does she often go away for all day like this?" "She has been away a
good deal lately," said Ellen. "She often misses her lunch. Yesterday
she wouldn't have any dinner. She wouldn't even let me lay the cloth."

"But yesterday I was out. That was quite another thing. She would not
care to sit down by herself. She knew I should be at home as usual to-
night. Have you no idea where she is gone?"

"None, sir, at all. She didn't tell me, nor Sophia either. But I think
she mostly goes on to the beach. I notice the bottoms of her dresses
full of sand when I brush them."

Ellen looked as if she would like to say more, but was afraid to
venture. Robert glanced again at his watch and ordered dinner to be
served.

He ate his solitary meal without enjoyment and with a gloomy face; and
then, having given orders that something was to be kept hot for Mrs.
Brown, took his pipe and coffee to the verandah and there stretched
himself upon a long cane chair and resumed his watch. He felt quite
sure that she was doing this to avoid and to annoy him, but did not
doubt that he should see her return when the necessity for joining him
at the table was past. When she came he was determined not to make it
up with her as he had intended, but to give her "a piece of his mind"
instead. There was reason in all things, and not to be in her place at
dinner time was going a trifle too far. He would have to show her that
he was master in his own house, and not to be disregarded as if he
were a child.

However, when 9 o'clock came he began to feel very uneasy--to forget
his personal wrongs in anxiety for her safety. Many a time he had
begged and commanded her not to be out at night alone, and she was
continually disobeying him (on principle, she said--because she had as
much right to liberty of action as he had). He was always in fear of
some accident befalling her on such occasions--that she should be
molested by casual drunkards or villains, or lose her way in the dark.
Visions of those possible disasters began to disturb him now, and he
fetched his hat and went out to look for her. For an hour he hurried
up and down the Esplanade and up and down the pier, peering into
strangers' faces; he investigated dark objects on the sands; he looked
into shop windows; he went to the station and waited for two trains to
come in. Then he persuaded himself that she must have returned in his
absence, and went home again. As he entered his garden he saw a female
form on the verandah, and his heart leaped for joy. He was in no mood
for scolding her now; he would reproach her tenderly for making him so
anxious, and then beg her to kiss him, and to let bygones be bygones,
and not to be cold and cross any more.

"That you, Lexie?" he called, eagerly.

"No, sir," answered Ellen; and he saw Ellen's white cap in the dusk,
and the shock quite staggered him.

"It's only me, sir. Here's something for you, sir."

He hurried into the gas lit hall and snatched from her hand a letter--
the letter Lexie had written yesterday.

"I was turning down the bed in your dressingroom, sir," explained
Ellen, in a hurried, excited voice, "and I took up your nightgown that
was lying on the pillow, and the letter was wrapped up in it and it
fell out. O, sir, I hope there's nothing the matter! Mrs. Brown was
very strange this morning. She was crying before she went out, and she
said good-bye to Sophia and me. At least, she didn't exactly say good-
bye, but she gave us both a present, and spoke as if she were going to
do something. I didn't like to tell you before, but Sophia and me both
thought the same--that she seemed like as if she was going away and
not coming back any more."

Robert stared at the girl for some seconds as if in a trance, his
ruddy face blanched to a sickly grey, and there was a look of dread
and horror in his eyes. Then he turned into the drawingroom, shutting
and locking the door behind him. And Ellen crept on tip toe to the
kitchen, where Sophia was breathlessly awaiting her.

"I always knew how it would be," said she, oracularly. "They've done
nothing but quarrel, quarrel, quarrel--they thought I didn't notice,
but I've got eyes like other people--and something was bound to
happen. You mark my words, Sophia--she's gone off with somebody else."

"No doubt," said Sophia. "I suspected it all along. Ladies don't go
out alone, morning, noon and night, the moment their husbands' backs
are turned, neglecting their meals and everything, without it's to
meet somebody. Of course not."

This was their instant interpretation of the mystery. Needless to say,
it was not Robert's. He knew Lexie better. She was not so partial to
men as all that. But he was quite as wide of the mark in his
conjectures. When he read her farewell letter, his strong frame
trembling as with a sudden ague, his honest heart bursting with grief,
one only explanation of her disappearance presented itself to his
mind; and it took permanent root there--nothing occurring to displace
it. "I have made up my mind to set you free. Our marriage has been a
sad mistake, but I am going to do the only thing I can to rectify it.
Think a little kindly of me when I am gone." Lexie, in her haste and
agitation, had not weighed her words properly, and had had no thought
of suggesting such a meaning as they seemed obviously to bear to her
husband. How, he naturally asked himself, could a marriage be annulled
(where the legal process of divorce was out of the question), except
by death? How else could such a mistake--if it were a mistake--be
rectified? It was to him as clear as day that in writing thus Lexie
had contemplated putting an end to her life. He remembered how the
doctors up-country had warned him that her mental state was inclined
to be morbid, and that she needed cheerful surroundings to prevent the
development of disease in that direction; and he thought of the
miserable life they had had together of late--how, while he had had
his resources and distractions in office and club, she had had
unbroken silence and solitude in which to eat her heart and wear her
nerves to pieces; and he cursed himself for a blind dolt and a
heartless villain, believing himself to be wholly responsible for the
catastrophe. He felt as if he had murdered her, and was almost
inclined to go and cut his own throat in his remorse and grief.

Of course the house was searched, on the bare chance that some
circumstance might be discovered tending to disprove this dreadful
theory; but Lexie's anxiety not to be immediately followed had led her
"to cover her tracks" so well as to baffle their investigations. The
trunks in the box room were counted, and were all found to be in their
place; her pretty bedroom was rummaged over, and apparently nothing
was missing. Robert had no idea how many nightgowns and petticoats his
wife was supposed to have; nor had the servants, who had only lived
with her during the few weeks of her sojourn in Melbourne; and when
they saw the layers of linen in the drawers, and the familiar dresses
hanging on their pegs, and the last new bonnet lying on the wardrobe
shelf, even Ellen and Sophia were convinced that their early judgment
of the case had been a mistaken one, and that there was only one
explanation possible. The sight of the brushes and bottles and scraps
of jewellery scattered about the toilet table, of the dressing gown
hung over a chair and the little slippers by the bedside, just as they
had been used in the morning and ready for use at night: these, more
than anything, quenched hope utterly. When they were pointed out to
Robert he broke down altogether. The servants went away to cry in the
kitchen; and old Stephen Brown, who had been sent for, hurried off to
tell the police that his nephew's wife, who was rather weak in her
mind (if Lexie had only heard that!), had, to the best of their
belief, committed suicide, and to institute an immediate search for
the body.

There was a sort of fatality about it. The search was made, and the
white shawl was discovered lying on the sand near the Red Bluff.
Sophia and Ellen both swore their most solemn oaths that it had
belonged to their mistress, and the gardener also declared himself
ready to pledge his soul that she had taken it with her when she left
the house for the last time. He had seen it with his own eyes, and he
should know it again anywhere. Was not that conclusive? None of them,
not Robert himself, knew that Lexie had two white Rampore chuddahs--
one of her own purchasing when she was a girl, and the other a wedding
present. For days and weeks the distracted husband hunted round the
bay, on land and on water, for the corpse of his drowned wife, offered
rewards in all directions for its recovery--of course in vain. At last
Uncle Stephen urged him to give it up, to put a black band on his hat,
and submit like a man to the will of Providence. "The place swarms
with sharks," said the old man. "You may depend they've got her, or
she'd have been washed up before now."

That was how they settled it--that Lexie had found a grave in a
shark's stomach. Not a doubt of her death, nor of the manner of it,
remained in anybody's mind.

"If she'd been anywhere else, she'd have been found by this time,"
said Uncle Stephen, when a weak wild hope would dare to lift its
voice. "If she was alive, somebody would know it, and then we should
know, for the newspapers have been full of it for weeks, and everybody
reads the newspapers. Besides, she'd have come back herself, when she
saw what trouble she'd made, if she'd been able to."

This statement of the case seemed quite unanswerable. And yet, as we
know, it was altogether erroneous. Lexie was alive, and nobody did
know it--nobody who was of any use in discovering her existence and
whereabouts. The Melbourne cabman who had driven her and the empty
portmanteau to St. Kilda had never known the name of his fare, nor the
name of the house to which she directed him, nor had he given a
thought to either; and the St. Kilda cabman who drove her and the full
portmanteau to Spencer-street chanced to fall ill of a brain fever the
day afterwards, and subsequently died unconscious. She was an utter
stranger to the outfitter from whom she had bought her trunk, and also
to the clerks at the shipping office, who supposed her to be Mrs.
Smith. Young Joe Price, when he read of the affair in the newspapers,
brushed himself up and went to call on Robert, to tell him of her
visit to the ship at Sandridge Pier; but his history of that little
incident did not seem to throw any light upon the case. Owing to the
short time she had lived in Melbourne, and to her social
exclusiveness, her face was little known in public; and neither on her
way to Williamstown nor on board the steamer had she met anybody who
was acquainted with it. And when she arrived in England, although
constantly on the lookout for letters (knowing that her husband was
familiar with her London haunts, and supposing he would certainly
guess that she had returned to them), always expecting to be followed
or sent for, she never thought of looking at a colonial paper. In
Australia she had ignored the local literature when delivered at her
own doors and scattered about her own tables; in London she did not
even remember that it existed.

And the only thing Robert ought to have done he did not do, and that
was to take action as administrator of her little estate. Had he
looked into her money affairs he would have discovered something that
he would have been very glad to know, and that would have set him
looking for her in other places than where the surf flung the sea's
rubbish on the shore. But he knew what were the difficulties and
delays incident to taking over property left as Lexie was supposed to
have left hers; and her possessions were too little, and his own by
comparison too large, to make the matter of any consequence to him. He
did not care to think of it. "I will wait for a year or two, at least,
before I do anything," he said to his uncle, when the old man, who had
a frugal mind, showed a natural anxiety on the subject. "The money is
quite safe. I could not get it, if I tried. And I'm sure I don't want it."



Chapter V.



And so Robert Brown believed himself, and was believed by others, to
be a widower--which was a result of her machinations that Lexie
certainly had never bargained for; and a very disconsolate widower he
was. Even her obdurate heart would have melted at the spectacle of his
grief. In spite of their quarrels--in spite of his conviction, which
equalled hers, that they were not suited to each other--he had always
admired and been proud of her; and, mixed with his man's love of
domestic domination, he had the true man's tenderness for the thing
that he protected, and that seemed to depend upon his strength and
benevolence. Then, when people are dead their faults are forgotten,
while their virtues are remembered and made the most of. He thought
and spoke of Lexie now as if there never had been such a woman in the
world before. Her personal distinction and refinement, her
intellectual superiority, her fine taste, her artistic culture--these
topics became quite wearisome to Aunt Stephen and Mrs. Ponsonby, who
were conscious of appearing but ordinary creatures by comparison; and
not a word did they hear of her selfishness, her waywardness, her
ingratitude, her general unwifeliness, though as to these shortcomings
it is not to be supposed that they had not opinions of their own. Had
she been the best of wives, and had she really died and been buried in
the orthodox way, he could not have mourned for her in a more
exemplary manner.

By and bye, however, he began to adapt himself to circumstances, as
was to be expected. He could not bear, he said, the loneliness of his
house, haunted as it was by the ghost of its departed mistress. Every
time that he went into it its pretty things reminded him of her in a
thousand ways. When he sat down to his solitary dinner the thought of
the graceful figure, in its picturesque aesthetic garments, that used
to face him at the opposite end of the table, robbed him of his
appetite; and when he went to bed he was so surrounded by associations
of her former presence that he could not sleep.

Ellen got married, and Sophia would not stay with the new housemaid;
servants came and went, and robbed him and bothered him, and the
beautiful order of the establishment became a thing of the past.

So he determined to cease from single-handed housekeeping and to
return to bachelor life and lodgings; and he carried out his intention
in an active spirit that testified to a reviving interest in himself
and in things in general.

The St. Kilda property was his own, and he would not sell it; nor
would he part with Lexie's curtains and carpets and Morris chintzed
chairs and sofas, which she had made him buy in London and on which
she had set such store; so, having packed her wardrobe and special
treasures in boxes, and stuffed his newly acquired rooms with all the
pictures and bric--brac that they would hold, he advertised The Nest
to be let furnished, and looked out for suitable tenants who should
have no boys in family. The most suitable of all possible tenants
turned up in the person of a well to do widow who had not even one
small child--a Mrs. Penrose, well known in Melbourne society. She
called one morning at the office, and asked to see him, and for
permission to see the house; and he made an appointment to meet her at
The Nest on the afternoon of the same day. Escorting her out into the
street again, he found a neat pony phaeton standing by the pavement,
and in it a handsome young lady, holding the reins.

"My daughter, Mr. Brown," said Mrs. Penrose graciously; and the girl
bowed to him with a charming smile.

She had fair skin and golden hair and a rather full and remarkably
"fine" figure--well set off by a smart tailor made gown, fitting like
a glove, and her face was animated and her whole air expressive of
style and fashion. She was as unlike Lexie as one young woman could be
unlike another, but Robert admired her excessively. I think I have
already mentioned that he, too, was a very personable fellow.

There was a great deal of him, and bigness in his sex is always the
chief element of beauty, and he had a pleasant open countenance, fresh
and ruddy and handsomely bearded, and an assured manner, as of a man
accustomed to success and a good place generally. So Miss Penrose
approved of him almost as much as he did of her.

They met at The Nest in the afternoon. Robert went down early, with a
bag of cakes in his pocket, and instructed the caretaker in charge of
the house to light a fire in the drawingroom, and to bring tea there
when the ladies arrived. This was an attention he had not previously
shown to any potential tenant. He made a careful inspection of the
rooms, putting little things in order with his own hands; and, being
in Lexie's bedroom, surveyed himself at full length in her cheval
glass, and hoped rather anxiously that he was not going to grow stout.
Did he think of Lexie then, standing amongst all the sweetest and
saddest memories of their intimate life together? I am very much
afraid he didn't. She had been some months away from him now, and he
was a man like other men, and not like the transcendental heroes of
romance, who, of course, care only for one woman and remain faithful
to her for ever, alive or dead.

Miss Penrose appeared with her mother at four o'clock, looking more
handsome than before in another and richer dress, and he certainly
gave her his entire attention after that, though he did not forget the
outward observance due from him to the elder lady. The fire was
bright, the tea was good, his guests were charmed with everything--not
least with him. Between themselves they thought the colors of the
Liberty stuffs rather dingy, and the patterns of the Morris chintzes
(ye gods!) old fashioned; but they did not breathe a word of this to
Robert, and it was the only fault they had to find.

The widow was a woman of business, and before discussing terms made a
thorough examination of the entire premises, missing no hole or corner
anywhere. In this proceeding she associated herself with the old
caretaker, and the young people, restrained by a proper modesty from
sharing in her investigations, remained in the drawingroom and
entertained each other. Miss Penrose sauntered round the pretty
apartment, and praised everything in it indiscriminately.

"What a lovely picture!" she exclaimed, stopping in front of a
painting that represented a reach of the Thames, and that hung over
the piano.

"Well now, Miss Penrose," replied Robert, authoritatively, "I am sorry
to contradict you, but that really is not a good picture. It's about
the only poor one that I have in my whole collection. I flatter myself
that I am a pretty good judge, and I shouldn't like anyone to run away
with the idea that I don't know good work from bad because I tolerate
a thing like that."

"I did not say it was good work," rejoined Miss Penrose, coloring
slightly. "It was the subject I admired."

"Of course, of course. It was for the sake of that it was hung up
here. It always was an eyesore to me, but my poor wife liked it
because it was a landscape she knew--she was English, you know, and
had a passion for everything English--and she wouldn't give it up. She
bought it herself before we were married, and she didn't know much
about pictures, though she was so clever in everything else. Of course
you see what meretricious work it is" (he pointed out several
technical defects), "and if you like I will have it taken down and put
away and hang a good one in its place."

"O no, no!" said the young lady earnestly, making a protesting gesture
with her white hand. "If poor Mrs. Brown liked to have it there, there
it shall stay. Ah!" she added softly, after a sympathetic pause, "what
a terrible trial that must have been! I can't tell you how my heart
bled for you when I heard of it, though I did not know you. I could
not get it out of my head."

"You are awfully good," said Robert gratefully. "Yes, it was a
dreadful thing. Never to have found her, you know--and such a death!
We feel sure she must have gone out of her mind suddenly. She was so
delicately organised, so peculiarly sensitive--not like ordinary
people; and I am afraid I left her too much alone."

"Oh, I am sure you can have nothing to reproach yourself with," Miss
Penrose quite fiercely affirmed.

"One has only to look round at the home you provided for her"--suiting
the action to the word--"to see how you considered her every wish and
want."

This was very soothing to Robert's feelings, and inclined him still
more to his companion. "I suppose you never happened to see my poor
wife?" he murmured, as they came back to the fireside.

"Never," she answered in the same low tone. "Never that I know of. I
should like--but no, I won't ask--it would be too painful--never
mind!"

But already Robert was rummaging in an inner pocket for the little
leather case that he now always carried there. Drawing it forth, he
opened it and handed it to Miss Penrose, who took it with silent
reverence and gazed at it as if she could never leave off gazing.
There was Lexie, slim and fragile, with her starry eyes and her pale,
pathetic face--robed in her favorite chiton, with gold fillets in her
hair; a beautiful London photograph, and an excellent likeness in the
opinion of those who knew the original. "The very living image of her,
poor girl," said Robert, taking out his handkerchief and blowing his
nose elaborately.

"What a sweet, sweet face!" whispered Miss Penrose. "What lovely eyes!
Oh, I cannot have seen her; if I had I should never have forgotten
her." After a long pause she added, necessarily, "And what a charming
fancy dress! What was the character?"

"It is not a fancy dress," said Robert, a little hurt by the mistake.
"It is Greek. She used to wear it of an evening quite commonly; and it
suited her too, though any other woman would have looked ridiculous in
it. She was so--so different from ordinary people."

Miss Penrose shut up the case at last and gave it back to him. "Thank
you so much for letting me see it.
"
she said, earnestly. "I shall never forget that face." (Nevertheless,
when she met the original, not so very long afterwards, no resemblance
to the photograph was suggested to her mind.) Then Robert pocketed his
treasure, and they sat by the fire and talked of Lexie as if they had
known each other for years.

By-and-bye Mrs. Penrose returned in a hurry lest she and her daughter
should be home late for dinner.

She had satisfied herself that house and grounds were in perfect
repair, and was ready to come to terms forthwith; and, as Robert was
very easy to deal with (not as a rule, but in this particular
instance), a bargain was soon concluded.

"And when we are settled," said the widow, giving him her hand at the
gate, "I hope you will sometimes drop in and see us, Mr. Brown--as a
friend, you know, not as a landlord." She was very gracious and
confiding, considering she had never spoken to him until to-day; but
then everybody knew Brown, Brown and Ponsonby--there was no sounder
business house in Melbourne. And everybody knew, also, that eligible
young men were not so plentiful as charming girls, and, when found,
were to be made much of.

Of course he braced himself to bear the painfulness of the sight of
Lexie's home in the occupation of strangers; and went to call on Mrs.
and Miss Penrose when they were settled. Of course he went again and
again--oftener and oftener--until scarcely a day passed that he did
not present himself.

And of course he fell in love with the charming young lady of the
golden hair and the magnificent figure, who made so much more of him
than Lexie had ever done--and, not knowing of any just cause or
impediment to prevent him, proposed to her. What else was to be
expected?



Chapter VI.



Meanwhile Lexie was in London, wondering why her husband had abandoned
her in this heartless manner. She never could have believed that she
was so worthless in his eyes that he did not even care to inquire
after her health and welfare. She had never anticipated that he would
be so relentlessly unforgiving.

The intelligent reader will hardly need be told that neither London
nor Emily had fulfilled her expectations. She could not enjoy
intellectual satisfactions when her mind was always racked with
anxiety and suspense on account of the postman; and the charms of
independence were not what they once had been. As for Emily--her
friend had altogether disappointed her. Emily had welcomed her on her
arrival as warmly as she could have desired, and had applauded the
womanly spirit and courage that had prompted her to separate herself
from a tyrant and a brute; but in a week or two it became to Lexie
sadly evident that her beloved one had changed. In fact they were not
on speaking terms after the first month. Perhaps it was not altogether
Emily's fault. I don't think it was. I am afraid our dear Lexie was so
inconsistent as to give herself a few little airs with her old friend,
on the score of being a married woman; and this was naturally very
aggravating to Miss Price, who was not only a spinster getting on in
years, but prided herself above all things--and certainly not without
some justification--on the advantageousness of her condition. However
that may be, Lexie was quite as unhappy in England as she had been in
Australia, and quite as lonely--indeed, rather more so.

One day--it was in May, more than a year after her return--she left
her lodgings to spend an hour or two at the Royal Academy. Alone she
went up the wide, soft-carpeted stairs, a slender little figure in a
close-clinging gown and a queer felt bonnet, and speedily lost herself
in the fast filling rooms. As had become her custom, she paid rather
less attention to the pictures, artist as she called herself, than to
the strange faces around her--especially the faces with red beards to
them; and several people, noticing the seeking look in her eyes,
assumed that she was hunting for a lover who had failed to keep his
appointment. She did not expect to see anyone she cared to see--she
looked about her from mere force of habit; and so she was intensely
surprised when presently she encountered the sunbrowned visage of
young Joe Price, which she had last seen on the pier at Sandridge. Her
surprise, however, was nothing to his. He positively jumped when he
recognised her. His jaw dropped, his eyes stared, he seemed struck
dumb with astonishment. As soon as he could articulate, he exclaimed
with profound solemnity, "Good Lord!"

"Well," said Lexie, laughing, "that's a nice way to greet an old
friend! What's the matter with me?" She looked up and down her
clothes.

"Why, Lexie," he cried, still in great excitement, "why, I thought you
were dead."

"Dead!" retorted she. "No, indeed; I'm no more dead than you are. What
could have put such an idea into your head?"

"But where have you been, then?" he persisted eagerly.

"In this world, where I have always been. In London, if you wish to
know the exact locality."

"Ever since you left St. Kilda last year?"

"Ever since." The color came into her face. "Didn't Emily condescend
to speak of my return? I went to her the first thing."

"I have been at sea nearly all the time, and I haven't seen Emily, and
she never writes to her own relations. Look here, Lexie, did you come
away straight when you left St. Kilda?" "Quite straight, Joe"--
speaking rather tremulously. "There was a mail steamer starting, and--
and I was home sick, and I thought a change would do me good."

"And didn't you write to tell your husband?"

She lifted her little head and stiffened herself. "You ask too many
questions," she said, trying to be cold and haughty, though the
beating of her heart was sinking her whole frame. "Suppose you tell me
something about yourself now. When did you arrive from Australia?"

"Look here, Lexie"--he laid a huge paw on her slender arm and dragged
her to a seat, unconscious of the liberty he was taking with her,
which she was too perturbed to resent--"does he know where you are?
Tell me now, without any nonsense."

"Of course, he does," she replied with bitterness. "He knows perfectly
well there is no other place I would think of going to, of my own free
will."

"You have had no communication with him all this time?"

"Joe Price," she burst out, "you are an impertinent boy. What business
have you to meddle with my private affairs?"

"And you didn't try to make him think you were dead?"

She rose majestically, but dropped back on her seat, trembling.

"What do you mean?" she demanded, suddenly frightened by his manner.

"I mean," said Joe solemnly and deliberately, "that Mr. Brown believed
you left him to go and kill yourself, and he believes you dead at this
moment--that is, if you haven't told him to the contrary."

"Nonsense!" she ejaculated; but she was as white as a sheet. "How
could he be so--so idiotic?"

"Well, anybody would have done the same in his place. You left him a
letter telling him you were going to put an end to yourself---"

"I'm sure I did nothing of the sort. I told him I was going away and
bade him good-bye."

"You said you were going to set him free, and that there was only one
way of doing it. No more there is. Only death sets married people
free, unless--unless things happen that didn't happen in your case.
And there was no sign of your having taken anything with you---"

"That was because I did not want them to follow me at once--that was
nothing. He might have made inquiries. He might have written to Emily.
People are easily found now--a-days when people want to find them."

"Well, he tried hard enough to find you. Only of course he looked for
your dead body and not your live one. They found your shawl out on the
beach, and the gardener said you had it on your arm when you went
away. That and your letter, and nothing being taken out of the house,
and nobody turning up to give any information about you, seemed to
settle the thing beyond a doubt. The police and the newspapers and
everybody put you down as dead--drowned in the bay and your body
washed away or eaten up by sharks. I never had a doubt about it till
this afternoon, and when I caught sight of you I couldn't believe my
senses. I never had such a start in all my life. You might have
knocked me down with a crowbar." Lexie was very much agitated by these
unexpected disclosures. "How came you to know so much?" she asked him,
in a feeble voice, seeing what she had done and trying not to believe
it. "You are not inventing, are you, Joe?"

"Inventing? Good heavens, no! I was there all through it, and the
whole place was ringing with it. Newspapers full of it. Besides, I
went to your house and saw Mr. Brown; terribly cut up he was, poor
fellow. How on earth you managed not to hear of it is what puzzles me.
You haven't been in a nunnery for 12 months, have you?"

"I have not seen any papers; no one told me," she said faintly. "I'm
sure Emily didn't know. And I never thought of such a thing. Was--was
my husband in a great way, Joe?"

"He was in a devil of a way I can tell you--pretty near distracted. He
just lived on the sea, hunting the shore all round to find you--that
is, to find your body. I tell you what it is, Lexie, you played him a
confounded shabby trick, even if you didn't mean it to turn out so bad
as it has done, and I couldn't have believed it of you."

She did not fire up at this plain speaking, though it was merely a boy
who had taken upon himself to reprove her; she was too much
overwhelmed by the contemplation of what she had done. Indeed, she was
on the verge of hysterics. "Take me out," she whispered hurriedly, her
face working and her limbs trembling. "I feel ill." It was evident
that she did.

He jumped up and gave her his arm, and she walked so uncertainly and
looked so faint that the crowd made way for her. Out in the air she
felt better, and by the time she reached her lodgings had collected
her faculties and was ready for any heroism.

Joe had an engagement to dine with his mother that night and to take
her to his Devonshire home next morning; so he could not stay by Lexie
to help her as he would have liked. But before he left he gave her a
glass of wine and some excellent advice. "You telegraph to Mr. Brown
at once," said he, "and he'll come and fetch you. Or else go home by
the very next mail. By the way, there's one leaving the day after to-
morrow."

"I'll take it," said Lexie, rising to the occasion. "I got ready in
two days before, and I can do it again. Poor Robert, I owe it to him,
after making him suffer so! But I never dreamt that he would think
that."

"Be sure you don't forget to telegraph," Joe specially insisted, over
and over again. At the gate he turned back to still further [insist
on?] the necessity for this important duty being immediately
discharged. "If you give me the [message?], I'll do it for you now,
Lexie. You oughtn't to lose an hour in letting him know."

She thanked him and told him she would see to it herself, and he went
away. And when he was gone, and she had calculated her resources, she
found that she really could not afford the cost of an Australian
telegram. She had barely enough money for the expenses of her journey.
Moreover, she did not like the idea of employing the wire for a first
communication with her husband after so long a silence. She could not
frame a message in a few words that would convey what she wanted to
say, and she felt that the dramatic effect of her return and
reconciliation with him would be spoiled if she sent one. So she
decided not to send one, and, of course, she did not write, since a
letter could not reach him sooner than she would.

Two days later she was on board ship again, a first class passenger
this time and answering to her proper name--feeling herself already
restored to her place in the world and prepared to appreciate its
advantages. She was full of good resolutions. No more would she give
way to her personal feeling.

Robert's feelings should be of paramount consideration. Poor Robert!
The picture of his distress and despair when he thought she was dead--
of his many days' search round the Bay for her drowned body--touched
her heart, which was not, after all, a stony one. By her want of
thought he had been made to suffer far beyond his deserts, and it was
her bounden duty to atone for her mistake.

Henceforth she would patiently bear with his man's perversities, with
his neglect, his dulness, his domineering temper; and she would do her
best to accommodate herself to the uncongenial surroundings of her
Australian home. In short there was no sacrifice that she was not
ready to make to prove herself the superior woman she had always
believed herself to be.

In this exemplary frame of mind she neared the end of a pleasant
voyage. At Adelaide she was tempted to send her husband a telegram to
announce her approach, for she thought it would be nice to see his
tall form on the Williamstown pier, and to have somebody to take care
of her and her luggage once more. But she resisted the temptation, for
she said to herself that, under the peculiar circumstances, it was her
part to go to him and not to summon him to her. She had to make amends
for treating him badly, and she determined to do it thoroughly.

The day was well advanced before the ship came in sight of her
anchorage. The lights of Williamstown were already shining through the
early winter dusk as the huge vessel drew up to the pier, where the
usual crowd awaited her; and it was dark night before the gangways
were out and a train ready to take the passengers to town. Lexie
hurried away like a smuggler trying to evade the Customs, only that
she went quite empty handed, leaving everything until she and Robert
should return together in the morning. At Spencer-street she sprang
with a light step to the platform, pushed her way hastily through the
crowded wicket and out into the street, hailed the nearest cab, and
was soon running up and down the stairs of the other station, hurrying
to catch her St. Kilda train, just as if she had been doing a day's
shopping and made herself late for dinner. How familiar it all seemed!
Her flight and the interregnum were like as a dream when one awaketh.
She could not believe that it was a year and a half since she had gone
into town last.

But when she reached St. Kilda she began to feel terribly nervous. For
the first time she wondered whether Robert was alive and well--whether
he was here or miles away in the bush--whether she was going to
realise her anticipations or be disappointed after all? The crisis
seemed rather overwhelming now that she was so near to it. She wished
she had sent the telegram. Refusing all offers of cabs, and pulling
her veil down lest she should be recognised returning to her home in
this unattended and ignominious manner, she walked out of the station
into the quiet, lamplit streets. Her knees trembled under her, her
heart thumped in her breast, and the speeches she had prepared for the
occasion went wholly out of her head. She felt sure now that all the
"effect" was going to be spoiled--that she should disgrace herself by
falling headlong into Robert's arms and then into a fit of hysterics.

However, she did nothing of this kind. The first sight of The Nest,
which should have been the signal for giving way altogether, brought
her spirit back to her. Instead of looking dark and sad, as it behoved
a house to look whose mistress was mourned as dead, all its windows
were ablaze as if for some high festivity. The ruddy glow streamed out
upon the rose-wreathed verandah, and the glistening laurels, and the
velvet lawn, and it made the little place look a perfect picture of
comfort and brightness to the spectator in the street; but I cannot
describe how its gala aspect offended Lexie. What! Had Robert so
completely forgotten her already (as if she had left him only the day
before yesterday) that he could entertain company and enjoy himself?
This, she told herself, was the last thing she had expected--that she
should find her home given up to a dinner party on the very night of
her return.

She felt it to be a tragic accident, a bitter blow--little dreaming
what much worse shocks were about to befal her.

For some minutes she hesitated at the gate, not liking to risk an
encounter with strangers before she could have a word with Robert, and
feeling keenly what an undignified figure she would cut in any eyes
but his, coming in alone out of the dark night from nobody knew where.
But it was too late to return to the ship, and she could not go to an
hotel, destitute as she was, without so much as a nightgown to sleep
in. The "effect" was indeed spoiled with a vengeance, but there was
nothing for it but to go on and make the best of it. She opened and
shut the gate softly, and stole as noiselessly as she could over the
gravel path to the front door, hoping that Ellen would answer her
knock and help her to escape to her own room unnoticed. Her own room!
Little she guessed how far it was from being her own room now.

She knocked, and after some delay a servant came to the door--a smart
young woman with pink ribbons in her cap. It was not Ellen, but a
stranger.

"Is Mr. Brown at home?" inquired Lexie. Her consciousness of the
disadvantages of her position at this moment stung her to pride and
anger, and she spoke with great peremptoriness.

"Yes, but you can't see him now," replied the maid, in much the same
tone. "We've a dinner party, and he's engaged." And she made a
movement to shut the door.

"But I must see him now," cried Lexie, taking a step forward. "Be good
enough to show me into a room. I will send him a message." She could
not bring herself to tell this impudent girl that she was the mistress
of the house and not to be parleyed with in this manner, but she
burned to do it. She could hear on her right hand the cheery rumble of
men's voices in the dining room, and on her left the lighter tones of
women in the drawing room. And here was she standing on the door mat
outside, denied admittance as if she were a beggar. It was
intolerable.

The girl gave way before her, though with an ill grace. "O very well,"
she muttered, with a toss of her head. "If you must, I suppose you
must. Come in here"--showing her into a little breakfast room at the
back, her favorite morning sitting room in the old days--"and tell me
your message. I'll give it to Mr. Brown when he leaves the table."

Lexie took out her pocket book and wrote on a blank leaf in pencil, "I
have come back and I want to see you. L." This she folded into a tight
note and desired the servant to give it to her master immediately.

For several minutes she walked up and down, trembling with wrath--
trying in vain to compose herself to meet her husband. The purpose of
her home coming was quite put in the shade by the circumstances
attending it, which were so utterly unlike what she had anticipated.
Gazing round the familiar room, lighted by one small jet of gas, she
saw fresh evidences of the fact that her memory had not been respected
as it ought to have been. Her beautiful high-art curtains had been
replaced by lace ones, of which Robert knew she had an abhorrence; and
hideous velvet draperies, bordered with lustra-painted swans and water
lilies, fell from the mantel-shelf to the floor, hiding the pure
simplicity of the tiled hearth and the sweetest pair of brass dogs
that ever were seen. It did not strike her that these changes, and
especially the lustra painting, could only mean one thing--that
another woman had control of the establishment; they only added to the
sense of neglect and injury that was burning through and through her.
How dared they make her house common and vulgar? How dared they meddle
with her things? She was almost as angry with Robert now as she had
been 18 months ago, and was as far as possible from feeling ready to
fall into his arms when at last she heard the diningroom door open and
his voice and step in the hall.

"Hey? What?" he exclaimed carelessly, between two hearty laughs at
some joke a guest was making.

She heard the pert maidservant explaining that "a woman wanted to see
him," and, holding her breath and straining her ears to listen, heard
the faint rustle of her note in his fingers.

"Anything the matter?" a strange voice then inquired in a gruff
undertone. There seemed no answer to this question, but the men did
not laugh and talk so loudly, and in a few minutes they all streamed
into the drawingroom. There was a brief silence in the hall, during
which Lexie put back her veil. Then the door of the breakfast room
opened and Robert came in.



Chapter VII.



Alas! a dreadful thing had happened. Not only had Robert proposed to
Miss Penrose--he had married her! married her months ago, in the
innocence of his heart and in the full blaze of publicity, with all
due legal and ecclesiastical sanctions. He had taken her to New
Zealand for her wedding trip, and brought her back to settle at The
Nest, of which he had resumed possession. Mrs. Penrose, after proudly
assisting at several dinner parties to celebrate their return, and
having now disposed of all her daughters, had betaken herself to
England on a visit to elder children from whom she had long been
separated; and Mr. and the new Mrs. Robert Brown were enjoying a life
of tranquil domesticity--or had been, poor things, up to this moment.

Little did Lexie imagine such a tragic consequence of her foolish
escapade. The possibility of it, which should have been obvious to
anybody, had never entered her head. And yet in the first moments of
her interview with her husband, and almost before a word had been
uttered in explanation, the truth flashed upon her--not gradually, but
all at once; and immediately she understood the situation so clearly
that she felt as if she must have foreseen it all along. His
appearance when he came in, literally staggering, and staring wildly
at her, warned her at once of complications. A sense of shock subdued
her irritation, and at the same time braced her nerves; she was
conscious of confronting an emergency that demanded heroism. Also, the
sight of his shattered self-command roused her to coolness and
courage--roused that subtle vanity to which we give so many grand
names; impelling her to distinguish herself should she be given the
opportunity. Though she saw that his surprise was not the kind of
surprise she had expected, it was still clear to her delicate feminine
apprehension that his dismay did not mean disappointment. It did not
repulse her. And a sudden admiration for his stalwart beauty and a
great pity for him, to whom she had been so hard, rushed over her. She
was ready, now, not to fall into his arms, but to take him into hers
and comfort him.

"Robert," she murmured, in the tenderest tone he had ever heard her
use, hovering towards him, with her hands outstretched. "Oh, what is
the matter, dear? Are you not glad to see me back?"

Simultaneously there was a rustle of silk and a series of neat taps on
the other side of the door, and another voice called to him.

"Robert--Robert darling!"

"Go away," he shouted savagely. "Don't come here. I am busy."

The silk rustled stealthily about the door for a few seconds and then
trailed away; and he turned to Lexie again, staggering towards her as
if he were intoxicated, and fell heavily upon her neck, dropping his
head on her shoulder. In this position he began to sob under his
breath--deep sobs, such as only grown men utter--while she put out her
arms to support him with all her strength.

"O Lexie," he whispered in a passion of reproach that shook her heart,
"you don't know what you have done."

"Yes," she replied steadily, "I think I know."

She piloted him to a chair, into which he sank, slipping his arms to
her waist and his head to her bosom; and she stood over him, smoothing
his hair with her little white hand, and felt herself to be, not only
the greatest martyr, but the greatest heroine that the world had ever
seen. All her life she had longed to do some great and striking thing,
to make some tremendous and glorious sacrifice; and here was a chance
which, if taken, would lift her to heights of moral grandeur
calculated to put Joan of Arc herself into the shade. She seized the
sublime opportunity there and then, and her pride in herself was so
supporting that she felt able, not only to bear her own share of the
calamity that had so unexpectedly befallen her, but to bear Robert's
share also. She knew that he had married again--put another woman in
her place, which she had only left so recently--and already she had
forgiven him. (Whether she would have forgiven him if he had answered
that summons from the hall in another tone of voice I don't know:

I am inclined to think she wouldn't.) In a steady, brave voice, she
told him where she had been, what she had done, how she had generally
sinned against him; and confessed that these dreadful consequences
were only what she richly deserved.

"Of course you found another to love--it was only natural--when I had
left you so sad and lonely--when I had never given you any comfort,"
said she, in her new born passion of magnanimity. "And if you love her
better than ever you loved me, how can I blame you, dear? I am sure
she deserves it more than I do."

"I don't," protested Robert, still with his head on her breast, and a
stray tear oozing from his closed eyes.

"If you do, and I am sure you must, it is only right. And I want you
to be happy, my poor boy. I have done nothing but make you unhappy,
but I havn't come back to do still worse. No, I shall help you,
Robert, and not be a hindrance and a danger to you. I will go away
again, and change my name, and hide myself, so that no one shall know
that I am alive. If I could be so lost when I did not try to lose
myself---"

"O no, no," broke in Robert, clinging closer to her waist. "You
mustn't go away again. You are my lawful wife, Lexie, and it wasn't my
fault--everybody knows that. We must manage it somehow. But oh, poor
Mabel! What will she do? What an awful thing it will be for her!" And
he lifted himself up and looked at Lexie with miserable eyes full of
grief and pity, an appeal to her heroism that she was in no mood to
resist.

"Now look here," she said with great solemnity, "Mabel--is that her
name?--is never to know a word about it. She married you in good
faith, and she is not to be thrown upon the world as if she were a bad
woman. It is my fault, all my fault, that she fell into such a
mistake; I must take care that she does not suffer for it. The
punishment is justly for me, not for her. I have forfeited my right to
be your wife, dear Robert--when I had my privileges I did not value
them; now Mabel must be your wife, and you must let me go away, and
forget that I ever came back from the grave, imagine that my bones are
still at the bottom of the Bay," catching her breath with a little
hysterical laugh and sob.

"No, no," protested Robert again, drawing her back to him. He felt
that he had never known till now how immensely superior she was--how
"different from other people"--and he had never loved her so much. In
the old days she had not been "nice" to him, as she was now, and he
had not been allowed to lay his head on her breast and to hold her
with his arms round her waist like this. And--and he had been married
to Mabel Penrose long enough to find out her little faults and to grow
tired of her affectionate exactions. She was suspicious in her
devotion, consumed with curiosity about his out door life and private
affairs, allowing him no liberty; and his sweet Lexie, with all her
faults, had never oppressed or interfered with him. He had got her
back, and he wanted to keep her. "No, don't go--don't go," he pleaded,
with the unreasoning persistence of a child; and Lexie, letting him
cling to her, and even holding him close with her soft outspread
palms, felt in her heart, and in despite of heroic resolutions, that
it would be very hard to go.

Even at this moment, however, the necessity for her immediate
departure, for a time, at any rate, was forced upon them both. They
heard the sound of carriage wheels on the gravel, and the rustle of
silk outside the door. Again came the neat volley of little taps on
the panel--louder this time than before; and the voice of Mabel, with
a sharp edge to it, called him peremptorily. "Robert--Robert, what are
you doing? Don't you know it is 10 o'clock, and Mrs. Morgan is going."

Robert had sprung to his feet like a surprised conspirator. Truth
compels me to state that he looked terribly frightened. Then he seemed
to remember that the door was locked, and calmed himself. "Ask Mrs.
Morgan to wait two minutes," he replied loudly. "I will be with you
directly." Then he took hurried counsel with Lexie as to what was best
to be done. It ended in his softly opening the French window of the
breakfast room, and leading her by way of a back gate into the street.

Hatless, in his evening dress, he walked with her till he found a cab,
into which he put her tenderly--feeling himself the most unmitigated
brute, poor fellow, though indeed he was doing his best for her.

"To think of your being turned out into the street at night like
this!" he murmured, in a broken, indignant voice. "And after your
voyage too! Lexie, think better of it--let me take you to Uncle
Stephen's, won't you?"

"No, no," she replied, still strung up to her high purpose. "They
would only abuse me, and I shall be all right. Don't let anyone get a
suspicion that I am alive. She is not to be punished for my fault."

"I am ready to take what comes, for my part," said he.

"But you are bound to consider her. The mischief is done, Robert, and
it can't be undone. It is my fault, and I must take the penalty. It is
only what I deserve."

"My darling, you never meant to do it. And I ought to have made more
sure. I might have waited---"

But she would not let him blame himself. She protested that he had
done quite right to fill her place--that she had forced him into it.
And then she reminded him of Mrs. Morgan, and he drew his head out of
the cab.

"Go to that corner," he said to the driver, pointing in the direction
of his house, "and wait there with this lady till I come back. I may
be half an hour," he added, to Lexie, "but you may depend on my being
as quick as I can. And I will bring you some things, love, and take
you to the hotel, and see you made as comfortable as possible."

"O Robert, hadn't you better let me go alone?" she whispered
anxiously. "Won't she be angry if you come out again?"

"What do I care?" he returned, in a rough voice that warmed her heart.
"It's not likely that I am going to let you muddle for yourself. Wait
for me here--I will be as quick as possible. Lean back, and try and
rest in the meantime. And don't fret when you are alone. We are in an
awful mess, no doubt, but we must talk it over presently and see if we
can't find some way out of it."

"There is only one way out of it," said Lexie, solemnly.

"We will see," he repeated. And then he hurried away.

Robert was a long time--considerably over an hour--before he came
back, running, with a Gladstone bag in his hand. "The Esplanade
Hotel," he shouted breathlessly to the cabman, who had been having his
own thoughts as to the relations between the lady and gentleman; and
then he jumped in by Lexie's side, flinging the bag upon the opposite
seat, and put his arms around her.

"My darling, I have kept you waiting so long. But I could not help it.
Those confounded people--I could have wrung their necks. And I had
such difficulty in getting anything for you--I'm afraid you'll be very
short, but to-morrow you shall have all you want, if you can manage
for to-night. Are you very tired, love? Are you cold? What an idiot I
was not to bring a fur rug for you. Lean against me, let me keep you
warm."

It was very sweet to Lexie to be cared for like this, after her
experience of Emily's callous and selfish indifference to her wants
and welfare, and her lonely travels and struggles. Theoretically she
believed that women could take better care of themselves than any man
could take of them, but practically she owned the natural (or shall we
say the acquired?) dependence of her sex upon the strong arm and the
strong will. She leaned against him, when he asked her, with a womanly
abandonment of herself to his protection that went straight to his
heart. O dear, dear! If only she had been like this in the old days!

In a few minutes the cab drew up on the Esplanade, and, jumping down,
he lifted her out of it and led her into the lighted vestibule of the
hotel. He ordered a bedroom and sittingroom, supper and a good fire,
champagne and tea--all he could think of to refresh and cheer her; and
he stayed with her, coaxing her to eat and drink and talking of their
mutual trouble and embarrassment, till past 1 o'clock in the morning.
What the people of the hotel thought of it (like the cabman, they knew
him, but did not know her) the sagacious reader will readily divine;
but, of course, it was none of their business.

"The more I think of it the more I see that there is nothing for it
but for me to efface myself," said Lexie, when she was warmed and fed
and exhilarated afresh by half a tumbler of champagne. "I need not be
entirely buried from you, Robert; indeed, I could not bear to be where
I could not know that you were alive and well and things going on all
right; but I am sure I could keep the secret from other people. And
that must be done. You see what would result from the truth being
discovered now? That poor woman, who has no father, no brother--her
whole life would be blighted and ruined if she found that her marriage
had been illegal. Robert, you shall not do it--for my sake you shall
not do it. It is by my fault that she married you, and if--if I could
turn her out now, and go coolly back myself, I should feel eternally
disgraced. The whole world would cry shame on me."

This, she felt, was not to be borne--especially when she could compel
the homage of the world by a sublime self-sacrifice (which, if not
known in her life time, would perhaps shed immortal glory on her after
death). She presented her point of view so effectively, impressed him
so strongly with the uncommonness of her mind and understanding, that
he submitted to let the matter remain undecided for a little while.
Certainly it would be very terrible to have to confess to Mabel--to
have to turn that poor woman upon the world, a ruined outcast, whom he
had sworn to keep and cherish and who relied on him to do it.

"But, oh Lexie," he said, for the 20th time, "you must not go quite
away again! Anything but that! I could not bear it. If you did, I
should leave Mabel and everything to go after you and find you."

"I will not," replied Lexie solemnly, her bosom glowing and her eyes
sparkling. "I must, of course, give up thinking of myself as your
wife--and you must give up thinking of it, too, Robert--but I will not
abandon you. No, I will be like your sister--I will help you all I
can. I will go away, but not far away, not where you cannot find me
when you want me; and when you are in trouble you must come to me,
Robert--and when I can do anything for you you must let me know."

The pathos of this imaginary arrangement overcame her as she described
it, and she wept a little.

Robert kissed away her tears. "My noble girl," he murmured fondly. And
she felt that she was indeed noble--if she had never been so before.

One o'clock struck, and they told each other it was time to part.
Again Robert made his protest against her plan--said he must have her
back in her own place, to which she had every legal and natural right,
at whatever cost; and again she resisted and overcame him. "Well, we
won't decide off hand. We must talk of it again to-morrow," he said,
sighing heavily. And he took her into his arms for the last time.
"Good night--if it must be. O my Lexie, how can I go away and leave
you--now that I have got you back?"

"You must," she replied. But she put her arms round his neck and
raised her face to his. Never, when they had been free to embrace as
much as they liked, had they particularly cared to do it; but now that
they were separated--was it because they were separated?--they held
each other long and close, and kissed as if they could not leave off.
Such is the perversity of women--and men.

When he was gone, and she was alone in her strange bedroom, her
fortitude deserted her, and she cried bitterly over her woes. She was
tired; she was nervous; she felt unspeakably desolate; she began to
doubt her strength to bear what lay before her. And the thought of
that little warm Nest, to which she had flown back with so much hope
and confidence, and of that usurping cuckoo whose hateful presence
profaned it (thus she regarded her rival in the silence of her own
thoughts), was almost unendurable. More and more she felt that she was
the most hardly used woman--specially singled out by fate for
misfortune--that ever was born into this unhappy world. She grew
wildly restless with thinking of her wrongs--thinking how Robert had
left her to go back to that creature who had not a shadow of right to
him--until the room seemed too small to hold her bursting heart.

Sleep and rest were out of the question, though she was worn out with
excitement and fatigue.

Towards morning she opened the window and looked down upon the quiet
bay--the scene she knew so well, yet which now seemed so new and
strange--and that soothed her a little, though it rather enhanced the
sentimental misery that consumed her. The moonlight flooded the placid
surface of the sea, across which she had passed a few hours ago,
little thinking how the day was going to end; and the familiar
constellations that denoted the ports of Williamstown and Sandridge
reminded her of the ship which had brought her so far, to meet such a
cruel disappointment. There it was, amongst those clustering lights--
she felt for it as for a humble but faithful friend to whose merits
she had not done justice--and last night at this time she lay cradled
in her little bunk within it, as happy as a child, dreaming of the
home she was hastening to, that was to cast her out. She gazed, and
wept, and gazed again, until she found her teeth chattering in the
cold air. Then at last she turned into the room and dejectedly went to
bed.



Chapter VIII.



Meanwhile Robert went home to experience the first results of her
scheme for settling the difficulties she had occasioned. It was nearer
2 than 1 o'clock when he let himself into his house with his latch
key, and he found Mabel sitting up for him. She came into the hall to
meet him, looking very handsome in her trailing pale-blue gown, with
her golden hair flowing over her shoulders; and as he elaborately
wiped his shoes, that were perfectly clean, upon the doormat and tried
to think of an excuse for his proceedings in case he should be called
upon to account for them, she flung herself upon his shoulder
impulsively. "O, Robert, I ne-ever thought you would tre-eat me like
this!" she wailed with a burst of tears.

He stiffened himself and his face grew set. He did not offer to kiss
away her tears, nor to respond to an embrace which, under the
circumstances, certainly deserved acknowledgment. He merely growled
forth the familiar marital inquiry, "What's the matter now?"

"Whatever you did out of doors, and men will be men, I know," sobbed
poor Mabel, "I didn't think you would bring a--a--an abandoned woman
into the house, under the same roof with your wife---"

"She is no more an abandoned woman than you are," he replied angrily.
"She is a lady, who--who--whom I won't allow to be insulted by such
suggestions."

"Lady," said Mabel sarcastically--her whimpering voice was now hard
like his, and she had a flush on her fair cheek--"ladies don't come
alone to pay calls on gentlemen late at night--don't push their way
into decent houses by main force---"

"Who says she did that?"

"Alice says so. Alice, very properly, tried to shut the door in her
face--and she pushed Alice backwards and forced her way in, as if the
house belonged to her. Of course, she knew you would back her up,
whatever she did."

"I certainly should," said Robert quietly. "And you'll oblige me by
giving Alice a month's wages and sending her off about her business.
If that's the way she behaves to--to my friends when they come to see
me she's not fit for her place, and I won't have her here. No, not
another day. Mind that."

Then Mabel flew out at him--as what wife would not? "I will not send
Alice away. That girl only did her duty--she tried to protect her
mistress from outrage and insult--and if she goes out of the house for
that I will go out of it, too. Your friends indeed! Friends--I like
that? Oh! I know the kind of friend she is. Coming here to find you,
with a thick veil over her face--defying me and everybody, shaming me
before Mrs. Morgan and all those people, who kept looking at each
other, bursting with curiosity. Oh! I saw them, though I had to
pretend I didn't. And then you go and shut yourself up with her in a
back room, locking the door without a thought for your guests, or me,
or the credit of the house. And then you steal away with her through
the window and a back yard gate, showing you are ashamed to have her
here, to have anyone see her. And then, Robert, you may swear to the
contrary till you are black in the face, but I know you went back to
her as soon as the people were gone, and that you have been with her
ever since. And you imagine you can impose on me with that nonsense
about friends and ladies! Do you think I am a baby born yesterday? Do
you think I am a perfect fool?"

"I think you are an insufferable woman," said Robert. And with that he
walked into the breakfast room, where he had had his interview with
Lexie (it offered the nearest shelter from the storm), and shutting
the door behind him, locked it.

Mabel could not continue her tirade without risk of drawing the
attention of the servants to it, and she went away to her bedroom.
Robert sat down in the dark, and laid his head on his arms and tried
to think, but found himself utterly bewildered by the complication of
difficulties and responsibilities that hemmed him round. What should
he do? He did not know which way to turn. It seemed more clear than
ever that Lexie's plan was a miserable mischievous device for making
bad worse in every kind of way, and yet there were reasons which
seemed to make the disclosure of the truth--for a time, at any rate--
impossible. A circumstance, known to him, but unknown to her, was the
only valid excuse for the proceeding which seemed to her to have so
much to recommend it; and the importance of this circumstance grew
upon him now that he had a moment to think things over. Surely an
innocent and well-meaning man was never in such a fix before, he
thought, as he wrestled ineffectually with the tough facts of the
case. "What shall I do?" he cried dumbly from the depths of his
perplexity and despair. "What shall I do?"

What he did was to drop asleep, with his head on the table. Nature
refused to be bothered after 3 o'clock in the morning. His thoughts
grew vague and slipped away from him; dreams came in their stead; he
began to breathe heavily; then he began to snore. Between 3 and 4
there came a tap at the door, and a tearful voice called to him--
"Robert! Robert, darling!" It seemed to him that he and Lexie were
locked up together, continuing their conversation as if it had never
been interrupted, and he muttered to the disturber of their peace--
imagining that he was shouting at the top of his voice--"go away.
Don't come here. I'm busy." But as the knocking continued he awoke
slowly to the fact that the room was dark, that Lexie was not there,
and that Mabel was standing outside in the hall, wanting to make peace
with him after their quarrel. He rose heavily, groped his way to the
door, and unlocked it.

There she was in her blue dressing gown, her pretty hair tumbled and
tangled and the bloom washed out of her cheeks, red-eyed and red-
nosed--a picture of woe. His man's heart smote him as he looked at
her.

"My dear, why are you not in bed?" he said kindly. "Why don't you take
more care of yourself?"

"O, Robert, how can I rest when you are cross with me? I came to ask
you to forgive me for making you angry---"

She fell again upon his shoulder, and this time he did not repulse
her. He put his arm round her waist and laid his hand on her head.

"Poor little woman!" he murmured, pressing her to him for a moment. "I
wish I could help making you unhappy--I wish to God I could! There,
don't cry--don't upset yourself. You know how bad it is for you. Go
back to bed, and try to sleep, and don't get up to breakfast."

"Aren't you coming, Robert?"

He hesitated and looked at his watch. "Well, it seems hardly worth
while for me. I wanted to get up early, and it's past 4 o'clock now.
I'll put out the gas and lie on the sofa for an hour, and then I'll
have a bath and change my things. But you go--go at once now, or
you'll be ill. And be sure you don't get up till lunch time."

So Mabel went to bed, quite unshaken in her belief as to what her
husband's friend was. She had an easy going tolerance for men "who
would be men" (though of course an unmitigated horror and hatred of
the women who were associated with those virile characters); and she
thought Robert was sorry for the insult that had been put upon her,
and would take care that it was not repeated. "I don't suppose it was
his fault," she said to herself as she got into bed, yawning. "He
couldn't help it if that creature insisted on forcing herself in, and
I suppose he was obliged to take her away and pacify her." She forgot
how Robert had spoken of the creature, and how the devoted Alice had
been treated, and went to sleep with an easy mind.

Robert did not sleep again. He returned to the breakfast room and
threw himself upon the sofa, where he lay and thought of Lexie until
he grew afraid of his servants finding him; then he took off his shoes
and stole to his dressing room. At half-past 5 he had a bath and
changed his clothes, and went out to walk down to the beach to have a
look at the Esplanade Hotel, which stood silent, with its blinds down,
scarcely awake yet, in the morning twilight. He wandered to the end of
the pier, and sat down where he could keep one eye on the window he
imagined to be his wife's and another on the sea, which was very
beautiful at this hour, clearing and gleaming in the sunrise, with
shining sails and little clouds of grey smoke growing and fading on
the horizon. Then he shivered with cold and want of sleep, and for
half an hour walked briskly up and down to rouse and warm himself. At
half-past 7 he returned to The Nest, and encountered Alice as he
entered the hall. He did not then and there call that young woman to
account for her impertinence to Lexie, as he was tempted to do, but he
spoke to her in freezing accents.

"Alice, take in your mistress's breakfast when she wakes; she is not
going to get up this morning. Listen at her door, and don't knock till
you hear her moving. The party last night tired her, and I wish her to
rest."

"Very well, sir," replied the girl demurely, with a sidelong look at
him that made him redden in spite of himself.

"And tell the cook she needn't get anything for me. I have an early
engagement. I can't wait for breakfast. I shall breakfast in town."

"Very well, sir."

And then, after walking about the house for a little with an elaborate
air of leisure, but not going near Mabel's room, lest she should be
awake and call him, he went out suddenly when no one was looking, and
returned at a brisk pace to the esplanade.

Ascending to Lexie's sitting room, he found a servant lighting the
fire, and the table was not yet laid.

The lady was not up, he was told. Her bedroom was only next door, and
the natural thing would have been for him to go in and see if she were
awake and ask her how she felt; but in the present horrible state of
affairs he felt that he must deny himself this privilege. He ordered
tea and hot water to be taken to her, and then occupied himself with
the mnu of the breakfast, standing on the rug with his back to the
fire, until she made her appearance.

When she came in, looking delicate but refreshed, and prettier, Robert
thought, than she had ever been, she too was evidently conscious of
the embarrassments of their false position. He took a quick step to
meet her, and, no servant being present at the moment, drew her into
his arms and kissed her. She made a slight effort to free herself,
and, blushing deeply, suggested that they ought not to kiss each other
any more.

"O my dear," he said in a weary tone--he had lost his night's rest and
was naturally dispirited--"don't let us be greater hypocrites than we
can help." Then he added, with rather a bitter laugh, "even brothers
and sisters may kiss each other, you know. And you said you were going
to be my sister."

"I'm afraid it was rather a farce my saying that."

"I'm afraid it was indeed, Lexie. What's in a name? You can call me
your father if you like, but that won't make me feel paternal. There's
only one relationship for us, my dear--that or none."

"It will have to be none, then. I must go away and lose myself again."

"No, you mustn't. We have trouble enough and to spare as it is. It
won't improve things to add another to them--heavier than all the rest
of them put together."

"Would it be so very heavy, Robert?"

"Speaking for myself," he returned promptly, "it would just kill me--
strong as I am." "My darling," she murmured, leaning towards him. And
she kissed him voluntarily, without seeking to excuse herself. The
waiter coming in with the hot dishes nearly caught her at it.

"Now sit down and eat a good breakfast," said Robert. He spoke
cheerily, and gently forced her into a chair. "I am going to breakfast
with you. I've a fancy for a cup of tea of your pouring out. Do you
remember that I don't take sugar?"

"Of course I remember."

"And I remember that you like sweetbread, you see. Will you have some?
or fish first?"

"Sweetbread, please. Only a tiny bit. I'm not hungry."

"But you must eat--we must both eat, to fortify ourselves. I shall
give you a little fish, and the sweetbread after. Yes, you must eat
both--to please me. Doesn't it seem," he added, when they were left
alone, "like our honeymoon over again?"

"Oh," she cried piteously. "How can you joke about it?"

"Well, it isn't a joking matter, I'll allow. But we must keep our
hearts up, Lexie; if we don't we shall never pull through. However,
it's no use crying over spilt milk. How's the fish? Let me give you
some butter. We must take things as they come, one at a time; and the
first thing we must do is to see about your luggage. Shall we go down
to the ship together as soon as we have done breakfast?"

"Do you think it would be safe?" she asked anxiously, thinking how
lovely such an excursion would be.

"I'm ready to risk it if you are. If anybody finds us out, why, we
can't help it. What will be will be." In his heart he felt he should
be thankful for such an accident, so long as he was not responsible
for it and for the dire consequences that would ensue.

"We must not be found out," said she, earnestly.

"And you must not go by yourself, without a man to help you. And
there's only me."

"I have done without a man to help me for a long time."

"Well, you won't do it now. I can take care of you, at any rate, if I
can't do any more. Put a thick veil on, and it will be all right."

So she put a thick veil on, and they set off together. They did not
take the train to town, because Robert knew it would be full of
business men who knew him, but engaged a hansom at the station and had
themselves driven to Spencer-street. They were bumped over that
abominable road that we all know so well, and were smothered in dust,
but that they did not mind. They held each other's hands, and were--
comparatively speaking--happy. At Spencer-street they had to wait some
time for their train, and they paced up and down the quiet
Williamstown platform and talked to each other--not perfunctorily as
they used to talk when they were declared husband and wife--but
without reserve, and with a tender and implicit confidence that was
quite enchanting to them both. At the ship and at the Custom House
Robert managed her business with that ease and promptness which she
had to acknowledge was more usual with men than women; and she stood
by him looking on and having none of the trouble, delighting in the
sensation of being taken care of. The few of her late associates whom
she saw did not seem to recognise her in her gossamer mask--at any
rate, they did not accost her; and, altogether, she enjoyed herself.
She did not know it, but such was the fact. "Now I am afraid I must go
to the office," said Robert reluctantly, when the luggage had been
made over to the carriers to be taken to the Esplanade Hotel (where he
decided that she should stay for the present, until they could think
of a better arrangement). "Can you manage to find your way back alone,
Lexie? I'll come to you again this afternoon, my darling, and bring
you some money, and see how you are getting on. But they'll be
wondering where I am, and perhaps sending to look for me, if I don't
turn up."

"Oh yes, dear; go, go," she replied earnestly. She was not affronted
by being asked whether she could take care of herself, nor by the
offer of his money, which was a most significant sign of the change
that had been wrought in her. "I shall be all right. I have something
to do in town."

"Take care of yourself, anyhow," he said anxiously. "And don't get
tired." He called a cab and put her into it, and, diving into his
pockets, drew out a handful of gold and silver, which he poured into
her lap.

"Take it--take it," he urged almost angrily, as she made a little
gesture of reluctance. "Don't be petty--you should be above that" (an
argument which was wonderfully effective). "Where do you want to go?"

"To Gaunt's," she said, slipping the money into her pocket.

"What do you want to go to Gaunt's for?"

"Never mind. I'll tell you this afternoon."

"To Gaunt's," he called to the cabman. "And wait for this lady, and
take her where-ever she wants to go. Mind, Lexie, you are not to
walk."

"All right, dear. I won't if you don't wish it," she responded with
meek obedience; and then she was driven off, and Robert went to his
office--wondering how many hundred years had passed since he left it
yesterday.

Lexie's errand to Gaunt's was to buy a pair of smoked glasses--those
large grey spectacles with wire sides to them that are so useful to
weak eyes in summer and so hideous at all times; and these, when she
had selected and paid for them, she put on under her veil. It was not
summer now, and her eyes were not weak (though she told the shopmen
they were), and, moreover, they were too pretty to hide--those starry
eyes that were her special beauty. She bought the glasses for a
disguise, rightly judging that her best friends would not know her
when she had so disfigured herself. Was she not a heroine? Joan of Arc
was indeed nothing to her, for Joan must have known that she was fine
to look at as she sat on her war horse at the head of her troops, and
that every man of them admired her.

Leaving Gaunt's, she had herself driven to Buckley and Nunn's. There
she bought some widow's caps, a widow's bonnet, with crape streaming
behind it almost to the ground, a widow's mantle, also covered with
crape, together with lawn weepers, black gloves, all the trappings of
deepest woe. She ordered a crape covered dress, which had to be made,
and went into a little cupboard to have herself measured, and made an
appointment to be fitted next day. It is needless for me to say that,
with her principles, she would never have worn weeds for a husband
actually defunct--no, not for her (now) beloved Robert himself. An
enlightened woman, as she was, knew better than to insult reason and
good taste by such outward show and sham, to pander to hypocritical
convention and an absurd fashion that branded her sex as still, for
the most part, the undeveloped and childish creatures that men
believed them. But she intended to wear weeds now because they would,
she imagined, effectually cloak her identity, and enable her with
safety to remain in her husband's neighbourhood. They would be a
convenience and a protection. At any rate, while she wore them (with a
crape veil over her face as well as hanging down her back) no one
would have the indelicacy to ask questions about her private life. And
if no one asked questions she would be relieved from the necessity of
telling stories.

And that was a great point. For she had the utmost horror of a lie.
Thus she prepared herself for years of martyrdom and self effacement,
little thinking in what a few days her grand schemes would be blown
into the ether.



Chapter IX.



Robert, who came to the Esplanade Hotel twice a day at the least, did
not think much of the widow's dress. The notion seemed a little
trivial to his masculine mind, and to savor of unnecessary hypocrisy;
though (being one of the Philistine majority, only slightly modified
by the influence of his cultured wife) the wearing of weeds under the
legitimate circumstances was a custom that he approved of as he
approved of other established customs. But he would not hurt his
little Lexie's feelings by expressing his dissatisfaction. He betrayed
it clearly to her quick apprehension, and she was only flattered by
it.

She did not suppose he would like a thing that so significantly
suggested his loss of her.

"But I really am a widow, Robert," she said, when she wore her crape
dress for the first time and saw the unspoken antipathy in his eyes.

"You are nothing of the sort," he answered with gruff impatience.

"Yes, darling," pensively shaking her head, "I am. I have lost you
even more entirely, more utterly, than if you were in your grave."

"Nonsense," he retorted. "Should I be sitting here with you if you
had?"

From the moment when she discovered that her husband had married again
she had a burning desire to behold the woman of his choice. This
desire grew in feverish intensity from day to day; until at last she
felt that she must gratify it at all costs. As she could never see the
mistress of The Nest passing in or out of the house, or walking in the
garden, she determined to find a pretext for calling upon her,
trusting to her widow's dress and veil to baffle the penetration of
the sharp-eyed parlor maid.

She said nothing to Robert of this intention. Robert did not like
talking about Mabel. He grew very red and gloomy if she was only
distantly alluded to; and Lexie had a dim feeling that he would regard
the projected interview as a great indelicacy. He might even forbid
it, or make it a reason for divulging the secret which, it was
evident, oppressed him heavily. She therefore resolved to do it first
and tell him afterwards.

It was extremely difficult to find an excuse for presenting herself at
The Nest. But she was a woman of resource, as the reader knows, and
she did find one after a little trouble. She boldly turned into the
garden one fine afternoon--it was not much more than a week after her
first, or rather her last, visit--and marched up to the front door,
carrying a neat parcel, like a roll of music, in her hand.

"Is Mrs. Brown at home?" she inquired of Alice, who came to the door,
and stared at her with great intentness.

"What name if you please?" demanded Alice. She held a little brass
tray; and on it Lexie laid a card on which she had written "Mrs.
Smith".

"If you'll walk in I'll see whether she can see you," said the maid,
still trying to make out the face of the visitor through the crape
mask and spectacles, for Lexie had thought it wise to guard herself
with both for this encounter. "I'm not sure, for this is not her day,
and she's lying down."

"Tell her I won't detain her a minute," said Lexie, making a great
effort to speak low and softly. And she was shown into the drawing
room.

Her own drawing room, the little room upon which she had expended such
taste and pains! She looked round her with a swelling heart, at first
almost overcome with the pathos of the dear associations, and then
sharply resentful of the changes that the new mistress had made--the
general and hideous subversion of her own perfect arrangements which
she saw on every side. Lace curtains were here too, ruining the effect
of the soft toned woollen stuffs that overlapped them; and the
beautiful Morris chintzes were gone altogether, chairs and sofas being
now upholstered in gorgeous tapestry with crimson velvet borderings--
exactly like all the chairs and sofas in the windows of all the
furniture shops. There was a disgusting little gipsy table with gaudy
needlework of natural flowers wreathed around it, and things tied up
with ribbon bows, and painted plaques that made her ill to look at
them.

Every bit of furniture was in the wrong place, and the subtle harmony
that used to be--the delicate blending of beauty and comfort that was
like music to cultivated senses--had turned to discord that set one's
teeth on edge. No doubt it suited Mabel, to whom the Queen was
probably the highest authority on matters of taste; but how Robert
could bear to see his house so hopelessly vulgarised passed Lexie's
comprehension.

It troubled and irritated her for the time that she was kept waiting
alone, with nothing to do but to look about her. But when the lady of
the house appeared she thought no more about it. Mabel came in,
walking languidly, dressed in a loose tea gown of satin and lace; and
at sight of her Lexie received a shock that almost deprived her of her
self-command. The woman was very handsome, undeniably--even now, under
the least favorable conditions, and in the style that Lexie, as an
artistic person, slight and dark herself, most admired and envied. A
large and copious figure, that would be classic and grand in its
normal state, a complexion like milk and blush roses, and yellow hair
with a tinge of Titian red in it--these were beauties that she knew
the value of as well as anybody. It will be readily imagined what a
bitter blow it was to find them in her rival's possession. But this
was not the worst.

She instantly comprehended--what Robert, strange to say, had not given
her an idea of--that Mabel was about to become a mother. This
discovery ought to have filled her woman's heart with compassion
considering all the circumstances of the case, but it did not. It
filled it with grief indeed, but also with a wild rage that almost
choked her. All that she had gone through--all her previous wrongs and
sorrows put together--were nothing to this. She was speechless with
consternation and fury.

Mabel's voice, speaking easily and politely, broke the rather long
silence in which they gazed at each other. "You wished to see me, I
think?" And, as her visitor did not answer, she added, in the same
pleasant interrogative tone, "I don't think I have the pleasure of
knowing you, Mrs. Smith."

Lexie felt the necessity for making an effort to control herself, and
did it wonderfully. But she was far from acting her part as she had
meant to do. Unrolling her parcel with trembling hands, she opened out
a long strip of embroidery, a beautiful piece of Kensington needlework
that she had intended to mount on a screen to stand behind her
husband's chair, to protect him from a draught that he used to
complain of. As she displayed this treasure, and despite of the tumult
of passion that surged within her, she thought of the pearls and the
swine, and grudged the waste she was about to risk. "I want to raise a
little money for--for a charitable purpose," she said, and she was
enraged to find her voice shaking like her hands, "and I took the
liberty of calling on you to see if you would buy this."

Mabel glanced at the outspread panel. "It is very pretty," she said
dubiously. "But I don't think I am in want of anything of that sort
just now. What is the price of it?"

"Ten pounds," replied Lexie promptly. She had intended to ask five,
which was its fair value, but suddenly made up her mind that it was
too precious to be thrown away on a person who could not appreciate
it.

"Oh! that is a great deal. I could not afford to buy anything so
expensive. I'm afraid you won't get so much as that for it," said
Mabel. She spoke kindly, partly out of deference to the widow's weeds,
and partly in consideration of the stranger's evident nervousness,
which she attributed to her being unused to this sort of business.

The kind tone, the easy manner, added fuel to the flame of Lexie's
wrath and anguish. She felt that she could not contain herself much
longer, and was now more eager to get out of the house than she had
been to get into it. She ought to have shown some anxiety to
negotiate, some real desire to assist that charitable object of which
she had spoken; but she did not think of her part now. She hastily
bundled up her wares and turned towards the door. "Never mind, it
doesn't matter," she said. "I shall dispose of it somewhere else I
have no doubt. I--won't detain you." "If you would like to leave it
till to-morrow, so that my husband can see it, he is rather fond of
things of that kind---"

"O no, no!" cried Lexie, to whom this was a most horrible idea, that
she should seem to want to make money out of Robert. "It is of no
consequence, it doesn't matter in the least. Good afternoon."

"Good afternoon. I'm sorry I cannot help you," returned Mabel; and she
rang the bell for Alice, who opened the front door for the departing
visitor. As the black figure hurried down the garden to the gate,
mistress and maid, who had been on confidential terms of late, looked
after it with eager curiosity.

"That's a very strange person," the former remarked. "I wonder what
she came for? Not for what she pretended, I'm sure. I wonder if she is
quite right? Have you ever seen her before, Alice?"

"Well 'm, I won't be positive," said Alice. "But I'm as certain as
that I'm standing here that it's the woman who came the other night,
when we had our dinner party."

"What? Nonsense!"

"She wasn't in widow's black then; she had a greeny-bluey woollen
dress and a long cloak. But I believe she's put on that crape just so
as we mayn't know her again. I thought I knew the voice as soon as she
spoke, but I couldn't remember where I'd heard it before. And then,
after I'd shown her in, I was puzzling over her wearing those goggles
under that crape veil. Thinks I to myself, 'She can't possibly see
properly with her eyes covered up like that--she must have some reason
for not wanting to show her face.' And then I remembered that that
woman the other night had a thick veil on--double gossamer it was--she
didn't even lift it up to write the note she sent in to master; and,
thinking of her voice again, I made sure it was the same person. She's
just the height and size, and she walks the same. It's her, I'll take
my oath."

"Wretch!" ejaculated Mabel, with all the ferocity of the outraged
wife; her fair face flushed, her hands clenched, her languid form
alert and active. "How dare she set her foot in this house again! Oh,
I knew there was some mystery about it, by the manner of her. I saw at
once she was an impostor. It's the same woman, you may depend on it.
Oh, if only I could get hold of her--if only I knew where to find
her---"

"As to that," said Alice mildly, "I know where to find her if she is
the same person."

"Where?"

"At the Esplanade Hotel."

"How do you know she is there?"

The girl cast down her eyes and affected to hesitate. "Well 'm, I
don't like to say it, but that's where master goes every day. I've
seen him. And I know they've a widow lady there. I've seen her too--in
the distance."

"O, indeed!" panted Mabel, with concentrated fierceness. "Then, if my
husband won't protect me, I must take steps to protect myself. Get me
out my cashmere dress, Alice, and my sealskin--"

"Oh, m'm, don't you go and worry yourself now," pleaded Alice. "You
know you're not fit for it. I daresay she's not the same person at
all, and most likely master only goes to the hotel to play billiards.
You must look on the bright side. It will make you ill if you fret."
"Oh, don't talk nonsense. You can't deceive me. You know how it is as
well as I do. Go and get out my things and then call a cab for me."

"Oh, m'm, you'd better not--you know you're not fit for it."

"Hold your tongue and do as I tell you." Like Lexie, poor Mabel had a
deal of human nature in her, and it was not to be denied.

The object of her pursuing vengeance had reached home, replaced her
widow's bonnet with the widow's cap, and was pacing up and down her
sitting room in imaginary security (without her glasses on), fuming
and quivering with angry excitement, when, to her amazement, the door
opened, and her rival and enemy appeared. Without any previous
announcement the servant said, "A lady to see you, ma'am," and ushered
her in. Almost before the door was closed behind her, and before Lexie
could collect her wits to speak, Mabel burst forth with her
denunciations.

"You--you shameless creature!" she cried, literally glaring at the
slight and elegant woman to whom, had she been cooler, she must have
seen that the epithet was quite inappropriate, "for the second time
you have forced your way into my house in pursuit of my husband; but I
have come to tell you that if you do such a thing again it will be the
worse for you. I--I will have the police informed of it. How dare
you--a person of your character--pollute the home of a respectable
married woman? It is bad enough to have one's husband persecuted out
of doors--men will be men, and this is the sort of thing they must
expect if they are so foolish; but let me tell you that Mr. Brown is
the very last man to allow his wife to be insulted with impunity. You
dress yourself up and think I don't know who you are; but I am not
quite a baby to be so easily imposed upon, and my servant recognised
you in spite of your disguise."

Now Lexie was a woman first and a heroine afterwards, and at hearing
this language addressed to her she threw her heroism to the winds at
once. "And do you know who I am?" she asked with quiet menace, white
to the lips with passion, and her slender figure drawn to its full
height.

"I know you are an abandoned creature, and a disgrace to your sex---"

"I beg your pardon. I am Mr. Brown's lawful wife. Alexandra Hay was my
maiden name--you may have heard it perhaps. I went home for a trip
rather more than a year and a half ago, and by some unfortunate
mistake he thought I was dead. You may have heard of that too. But I
was not dead, and I returned last week. And you are quite right in
saying that Mr. Brown is the last man to allow his wife to be insulted
with impunity. It was his earnest desire that I should declare myself
at once and take my proper place, and I have only delayed to do so,
greatly against his wish and judgment, out of consideration for you."

"You brazen huzzy, how dare you---"

But here poor Mabel's voice broke, she gasped and choked and clutched
her throat. In an instant she saw the resemblance to the photograph,
and knew that Lexie spoke the truth. "O my God!" she wailed, with a
faint shriek that died away in a quivering gurgle; and her eyes grew
dim and her head swam round. Lexie, with a cry of remorse, sprang
towards her, but was too late to break her fall. She fell on the floor
in a heap, and there lay like a stone, without breath or
consciousness.



Chapter X.



Almost at the same moment Robert, who had been home to The Nest, and,
on inquiring of Alice where her mistress was, had learned that she had
gone to the Esplanade Hotel, was bounding up the stairs to Lexie's
room, fully prepared for a catastrophe. Flinging open the door, he saw
his two wives together--one of them prostrate on the floor, and the
other kneeling beside her and supporting her head--and he knew in a
moment what had happened.

Lexie looked up as he entered, with a terror stricken face. Tears were
streaming from her eyes. "O Robert," she cried wildly, "I have killed
her! I have killed her!"

He dropped on his knees beside the unconscious Mabel, and began
hastily to untie her bonnet and loosen her clothes. "Did you tell
her?" he asked in a low tone.

"Yes. I did not mean to--but she called me names--she said such
dreadful things to me that I could not help it--I didn't stop to
think. Oh, look at her! She's dead!"

"No, she isn't. She has fainted, that's all. Ring the bell--no, go
yourself and get some brandy. Be as quick as you can. Give me that
pillow first."

They laid the heavy head, unbonneted now, upon a sofa cushion, and
Lexie flew down stairs for brandy. In a few minutes she returned with
it, and then got water and sponge and eau de cologne from her bedroom,
and she and Robert bent all their energies to the task of restoring
life to the inanimate form. Lexie was sobbing bitterly over her
handiwork; in the reaction she felt that all her future happiness
depended on Mabel's recovery.

"I ought to have gone away at once," she said, again and again. "I
ought not to have come near her--or near either of you. I had done
mischief enough--without this."

"It had to come," said Robert. "I have been expecting it every day. I
am only sorry we did not do it in the beginning, Lexie. Then we might
have broken it to her gently."

"O yes! I was not gentle--I was a perfect fiend. I forgot how dreadful
it would be for her--I forgot the state she was in. I feel like a
murderess, Robert, and if she dies I shall be one. But I hope--O I
hope she will get over it. She looks so strong--as if she could bear a
good deal. And I will atone to her for it. As soon as ever she comes
round I will tell her that I shall go away again and not disturb her--
that nobody but ourselves shall know that she is not your wife."

"No," said Robert gravely--almost sternly. "We'll have no more of
that. Now that the truth is out we must stand by it."

"But it would kill her, Robert! And then how could we ever be happy
together again?"

"I don't fancy it will make much difference now. Look, she is opening
her eyes. My poor girl," he murmured, in a tone that pierced Lexie's
heart, bending his tall head low, "do you feel better? Do you know me,
Mab?"

She gazed at him in a dim, half conscious way, then smiled a faint
recognition, then looked at Lexie, and immediately began again to
choke and cry--straightway falling back into the faint or fit from
which she had begun to emerge. In a minute she was "gone off" as
completely as before.

"Ring the bell," cried Robert sharply. Lexie flew to obey him, and to
the servant who answered the summons he gave orders that a doctor was
to be fetched immediately. "And I think," he added, when the door
closed again, "you had better see about having a bed got ready for
her, Lexie. I don't believe we shall be able to move her home."

"Put her into mine," said Lexie. "It is the nearest, and the room is
large and airy, with a fireplace. I will tell them to light a fire
now."

She ran off to speak to the chambermaid, whom she found in a group of
listening men and women on a landing close by; and, returning quickly,
she again knelt down to chafe Mabel's hands, and to sponge her face,
and to wipe the brandy and water that she could not swallow from the
corners of her mouth.

Lexie had left off crying and was feeling quite stony with despair at
what she had done, which momentarily became more dreadful to
contemplate; but she had her wits about her, and was passionately
determined that nothing should be wanting to give Mabel her utmost
chance--that she would devote herself to that unfortunate victim, and
nurse her night and day, if they would let her. It was the only poor
scrap of comfort that she had left.

The doctor came before the patient had rallied from her second swoon,
and looked very grave over the case. "She has had some sudden shock,"
he said at once. "What was it?"

"It was this," said Robert promptly. "My wife--my first wife, whose
disappearance you will remember hearing about--is not dead, as we all
supposed; and last week she returned, not knowing that I had married
again. Like a noble woman, she wanted, Enoch Arden fashion, not to
disturb this poor girl, but--well, somehow the discovery was made just
now--I can't enter into particulars, and this is the result. It will
go hard with her, I'm afraid, won't it?"

The doctor was silent in utter amazement. Lexie stood, with her hands
over her face, and imagining the look of stern reproach that she
supposed he cast upon her. It was balm to her stricken heart to hear
Robert call her a noble woman, for she had been fearing the most
dreadful things during the last half hour; but nevertheless she was
feeling the shame of what she had done, of the mistakes and miseries
she had caused, so keenly that she tingled from head to foot.

"Well," said the doctor at last, "it's as pretty a mess, take it
altogether, as ever I came across in my life. Hold her up a little,
Mr. Brown--there, that will do. And did--did Mrs. Brown marry again
also?"

"O no, no! She put on a widow's dress, thinking it would be a disguise
and prevent this poor girl from recognising her. But there's no more
need for it now. Go and take it off, Lexie."

Lexie rushed to her room, where the chambermaid was putting fresh
linen on the bed, and tore off her cap and her crape gown without any
regard for that wondering young person's presence, a dim sensation of
triumph making itself felt through all her shame and trouble; and she
threw on the "greeny-bluey woollen dress" that Alice had taken note
of, feeling herself Robert's wife again before the world, whatever
happened. It did not take her five minutes to effect the
transformation, but when she returned to the sitting room it seemed
full of the women of the house, and Mabel, nearly undressed, and
moaning heavily, was being lifted from the floor by the arms of the
two men.

"Is the bed ready, Lexie?" called Robert anxiously.

"Yes," she replied, hurrying forward. "O Robert, how is she now? Is
she very ill?"

"I think, my dear lady, it will be better for you to keep a little out
of the way for the present," said the doctor, backing her off with an
outstretched hand. "If Mrs.--if our patient sees you near her, we may
have all our labor over again."

Lexie, thus repulsed, and flushing to the roots of her hair, stood
still, feeling very badly. A glance at the faces turned to stare at
her showed her that the secret was to all intents and purposes public
property. Robert had determined that there should be no more
concealments, and had taken advantage of her absence to make a brief
and general explanation, rightly concluding that it would save trouble
in the long run to set the news afloat at once. The dreadful
apprehension that "all the world would cry shame on her" overwhelmed
her for the moment. But, in spite of his pressing solicitude for the
greater sufferer, he did not forget to note and understand her misery,
and to protect and encourage her as far as he was able.

"Don't go away, dear--we shall want you; there will be plenty for you
to do," he said, as he passed her with his burden. The kind tones,
heard by all, gave her a little heart again, and his words took her
thoughts from herself to the consideration of Mabel's danger. For the
first time she guessed what was going to happen before that poor woman
could be moved from the house again.

They all passed into the next room, leaving the one lonely little
figure to sit by the fireside and wait. She laid her arms on her knees
and her face on her arms, and wondered how she could ever bear to live
after what she had done. She heard people moving about, opening and
shutting doors and calling to one another. A woman talking in the
passage said, loud enough for her to hear, "It's a pity she took so
long about coming back." Another woman said, a little later, "Perhaps
it'll be the best thing for her if she does, poor soul, for otherwise
I don't see what's to become of her." And Lexie knew what they both
meant. By-and-bye Robert came out of the bedroom. "I have sent for the
nurse," he said, in a low, hurried tone. "And now I must go and get
some things from home."

"Let me go," she cried, jumping up. "O Robert, for Heaven's sake do
let me do something, or I shall simply go raving mad. Let me go and
fetch the things--I know what you want, and the servants will show me
where they are. Then you need not leave her--and you must not leave
her. You must not let her want you and find you gone, and think you
have deserted her."

Reluctantly he let her go, and in half an hour she was standing in
Mabel's bedroom, that had been her own, with the bewildered and
astounded Alice (who had already been communicated with) collecting in
wild haste all the various necessaries.

Lexie returned to the hotel in a cab loaded with the tin box and a
quantity of loose bundles--everything she could lay her hands on that
she thought might be useful in the present emergency.

Some women were at the door waiting for her, and they pounced upon the
luggage and bore it off almost before she had time to settle with the
cabman. They volunteered no report of the state of things upstairs,
and she asked for none. It was growing dark, and they were lighting up
the house. She thought that if she could do no more and was to be
considered de trop amongst Mabel's caretakers, she would wrap herself
in a fur cloak and go and sit on the pier, and ask Robert to send her
word when the crisis was over. She mounted the stairs slowly and
opened the door of the sitting room.

There he stood on the hearthrug, with his back to the fire; and there
beside him sat Uncle and Aunt Stephen, clamorously discussing the
family affairs. At sight of the old people Lexie shrank back,
anticipating the scourge, but in a moment recovered courage and
marched boldly in. Uncle Stephen, who was an irascible old gentleman,
jumped up from his chair and flew at her.

"Well, Miss, here you are, are you? And what have you got to say for
yourself, I should like to know? What do you mean by playing a trick
like this on an honest man, who was a better husband to you than ever
you deserved. A pretty mess you have made of it, upon my word! And
now--"

But here Robert stopped him. "Let her alone," he said sternly. "I
won't have her scolded. She has suffered quite enough for her mistake,
and she'll have plenty more to bear before we've done. Moreover, the
fault is mine--not hers. I drove her away--I was unkind to her. And I
had no business to marry again when I had no proof of her death. Blame
me if you like, you shall not blame her. Don't mind him, Lexie."

"Stuff and nonsense!" shouted Uncle Stephen. "You were only too good
for her, and she just makes a fool of you. Pah! It's sickening to
think of; that a family that has always held its head up should be
dragged in the mud like this." "Be quiet," cried Robert fiercely. "Do
you forget that there's a sick woman on the other side of the wall?"

"O no, I don't forget. And I'm glad you don't. I'm glad you remember
her existence. I'll tell you what it is, Miss," glaring at Lexie
again, "if that poor creature dies over this, as she's like enough to
do--she'll be a wonder of a woman if she doesn't--it'll just be
murder, and neither more nor less."

Here Aunt Stephen put in her word. "Don't ask me to be the one to
break it to Mrs. Penrose, that's all," said she, with a sniffle and a
jerk of her old head. "One of the first families in the colony! And
all the other daughters married so well."

Feeling powerless to stem the torrent of abuse, Robert took Lexie's
hand, and led her out of the room.

He took her to a snug chamber a few doors off, and, entering it with
her, lighted the gas. "I have had this room got ready for you," he
said kindly; "stay here and rest till those old wretches are gone.
Don't fret, Lexie; we must give them a little time to get over it.
They don't know everything, as we do."

In her misery she flung himself into his arms, and clung to him. He
was her only shelter. "Oh, how you must hate me," she moaned.

"I don't, Lexie. I was never further from it, believe me. Don't
trouble your poor little head with any thoughts of that kind. Keep up
your heart, love, and help me to keep up mine. We shall want all the
courage we can muster between us."

"I have been such a beast!" she cried passionately. "And you--you are
an angel, Robert."

"O Lexie, I'm afraid not. But it's sweet to hear you say so, my dear.
I wish--I wish to heaven you had thought as kindly of me a couple of
years ago."

"Uncle Stephen is right--I was never worthy of you."

"Uncle Stephen knows nothing about it. He's an old villain, and I am
just going to pack him off home again. I will come and tell you when
they have both gone."

"How is she, Robert?"

"Well, she's very bad, I am afraid."

"O Robert, what will you do when--when she gets well again?"

"God knows, my dear. I don't. I haven't had time to think yet. As far
as I remember," he added, with a melancholy touch of humor, "there's
no precedent to guide us. I don't think that quite the same thing can
ever have happened before."

"I had better go straight down to the pier and drown myself," she
cried, wringing her hands.

"No, you hadn't. You had better stick to me. And, after all, it's a
comfort to feel that everybody knows--we needn't hide ourselves any
more. Poor Mab has been leading me a devil of a life these last few
days about you. It was getting beyond everything. I'm glad it is all
out, aren't you?"

"It seems so wicked to feel glad about anything now!"

"No. That is a conventional sentiment that is unworthy of you. Be glad
whenever you can. You won't get the chance often--for the present, at
any rate." "Oh, I know that!"

He left her for a little while, and she occupied herself in hanging up
on pegs and laying in drawers the clothes that had been carried out of
the bedroom she had vacated. She wondered at herself that she could
attend to such a trivial matter, but she was growing accustomed to the
terrible circumstances into which that day had plunged her. Her nerves
were getting numbed to the strain of the situation. We find it so in
all such crises; otherwise we should none of us die of old age. She
was left alone so long that she took off her dress, washed, and did
her hair afresh. She found a little yellow lace fichu amongst her
stores (Robert had bought it for her in Malta when they were first
married) and she twisted it round her throat. It made a pretty harmony
with the greeny-bluey gown. Having nothing else to do, it was
reasonable that she should use her leisure to make herself look nice.
It might be wicked to be glad of anything at that sad and shocking
juncture, but there was one thing she could not help feeling very,
very glad of, and that was to have done with the widow's cap and
crape. She bundled them into a box together, and pushed them far under
the bed; she could not look at them now without a shudder.

It was 8 o'clock before anyone came to her, and then the knock that
her heart leaped to hear proved not to be Robert's. She flung open the
door (conscious of her improved costume and freshly dressed hair),
only to see a chambermaid standing in the passage, holding a tray
containing wine, a plate of chicken and ham, and other materials for a
modest meal.

"Mr. Brown told me to bring you this, ma'am," said the woman, marching
in, "and to say he hoped you would try and eat something."

"And are Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Brown here still?" inquired Lexie with a
sinking heart.

"No'm. They left some time ago. Mrs. Stephen is gone to The Nest to
keep house, I believe."

"Who is here then? What are they doing?"

"The doctor has come back'm, that's all. He went home for a little
while, but they sent for him again. I heard that the lady was took
worse."

"Oh," cried Lexie, clasping her hands, "Do go and ask Mr. Brown to
come and speak to me for a minute."

The woman hesitated, but took the message, and presently Robert came
hurrying down the passage.

He looked haggard and agitated, and there was a smudge like a half-
dried tear on his cheek.

"What is it?" cried Lexie imploringly.

"Nothing more than we knew before," he answered in a shaky voice. "But
you had better not come back, Lexie. Undress and go to bed when you
have had some supper, and try and sleep, if you can."

"Sleep!" she echoed. "How do you think I can sleep, any more than you?
If I ever sleep again it will be a wonder. Why mustn't I come and sit
with you, Robert? I might be some little help." She could not bear to
be shut out, as if she were of no consequence to anybody.

"No, no, you can't help. Everything is being done that can be done,
though I wish to God we had her mother with her, poor girl. It's too
dreadful--I won't have you near. You stay where you are, and I'll come
and tell you when there's anything to tell."

At 10 o'clock she had had no further report from the sick room, and
she caught her chambermaid again and sent her to find somebody who
could tell her what was going on. After a long delay the news came in
a whisper that a baby had just arrived--a fine little girl, quite well
grown and strong, nothing at all the matter with her.

"Listen," said the bearer of the joyful tidings, "you can hear her
little voice all down the passage."

Lexie put her head out of the door, and heard it faintly but clearly--
a little hoarse voice, small but vigorous, uttering quick cries; and
it thrilled through her like an electric shock. She thanked and
dismissed the servant, who would have liked to stay and gossip over
this latest development of the situation; and then stood, trembling
with excitement, waiting for Robert to come, as he had promised, to
tell her what had happened.

But Robert did not come. Eleven o'clock struck; half-past eleven,
twelve; and there was no sign of him.

As the minutes passed Lexie's excitement went down and down, and a
cold despair took possession of her.

"Oh, I know how it is!" she cried, flinging herself upon the bed. "He
only thinks of her now, I am forgotten! He always fretted because he
had no child, and now that she has given him one he will care more for
her than he does for me!" And in this case, she declared to herself
that she certainly would go down to the pier and drown herself.

But in the midst of this paroxysm of jealousy and desperation her
husband's step, heavy and slow, echoed along the passage. She did not
hurry to answer his knock, to get off her bed and go to him--until she
heard his voice. Something in the way he called her gave her a sudden
fright, and she jumped up to let him in.

"Oh, what?" she exclaimed, looking in wild fear at his grey and
haggard face.

"It is all over," he said. "They could not save her. She died at 12
o'clock."



Chapter XI.



Thus was the difficulty solved--very fortunately for everybody, except
for the poor innocent one who paid the penalty for the guilty. To the
credit of our heroine, and of human nature in general, let it be said
that she was sorry enough for it. If the event had not set herself and
Robert free to resume their interrupted wedded life, but had been an
altogether immitigable disaster, she could not have been more
prostrated by it. Indeed, she suffered so much that even Uncle Stephen
felt that justice was done, and that his services were not required to
bring the sense of her sin home to her. While the gossips and scandal-
mongers were tearing her character to pieces, while the Penrose
connection were raging over the fate of their relative, while Robert
was going through the fires of public criticism and curiosity, the
doer of all the mischief lay ill in her bed at the Esplanade Hotel,
and at one point it looked rather as if she might die too. I am sure
she would have felt it a great satisfaction to have done so, when her
agonising repentance and remorse were fresh.

But the reader quite well understands that we are dealing, not with
the supernaturally perfect creatures who usually, in the character of
hero and heroine, move through the pages of fiction, but with beings
like ourselves, who (as, alas, we know) are very, very human. And he
will not be surprised to learn that the time came when Lexie and
Robert both felt (though, of course, they did not own to it) that,
given a misfortune for which there was no remedy, things had happened
for the best.

And it was not long in coming either. Only a few days after the dead
mother had been taken away and disposed of, Robert's anguish of pity
subsided into a regret that did not much interfere with his
satisfaction in having his Lexie for his own again; and that young
woman began to feel once more that, with all its drawbacks, life was
worth living.

The first thing that roused her interest in it was the baby. Rumor
came to her that the Penroses wanted to take the little waif that was
supposed to belong to nobody, and she immediately insisted on getting
up from her sick bed to defend it from these robbers.

"You don't mean to say," she demanded of her husband, with flashing
eyes and trembling frame, "that you will let them have it?--that you
will part with your own child, and especially that child, to anybody?"

"I should be very sorry to part with it," replied Robert sincerely.
"But they are very anxious to take care of it, for our poor girl's
sake, and I thought--I thought perhaps it would be painful to you---"

"O Robert, how could you--how could you think such a thing? I never
thought you could be so unjust to me! Why, if I am ever to have any
comfort again it can only be by doing everything I can for her. And I
want to devote myself to that precious child, to give my life to it---
"

"I want you to give your life to me now, Lexie."

"O no, no! I must think of her first. And I made up my mind from the
first moment that I would be a mother to her baby--and so I will. It
shall not go to those Penrose people. O Robert, surely you have the
first right to it?--you will not give it up?"

"You are sure you would like to keep it?" he asked anxiously.

"Like! I simply must have it, Robert. Nobody can ever care for it as I
shall."

"Then we will keep it," said Robert gladly. "And you are a noble
woman, Lexie."

"I noble! Don't mock me. I am the most wicked creature that ever
lived." "I don't think so. We are none of us perfect, and accidents
will happen. You never meant to do any harm. Are you sure you feel
able to get up, my darling."

"Yes--O yes; I must get up to see after that sweet child. I will put
on my dressing gown only. And, Robert dear, let us have an early tea
together to-night, shall we? we and the baby. If I can't sit up at
table I can lie on a sofa beside you."

He hurried off to get everything ready. He engaged a new sitting room,
one that had no associations, and had a sofa drawn to the fireside,
and ordered all the delicacies of the season for the evening meal.

An hour later Lexie was lying there, propped up with pillows, and
Mabel's baby was lying on her arm, wrapped in the fatal Rampore
chuddah shawl, and she was looking at it with fond eyes, as if it had
been her own. Robert thought he had never seen a prettier picture, and
could do nothing but gaze at them.

That day they began to be happy again. The idea of making atonement to
Mabel by devotion to her child soothed Lexie, as did the child itself;
and Robert, feeling the relief and convenience of having but one wife
at a time, and she the one he loved best, was charmed to see her
reviving from her despair, and showing an appetite for life once more.
He fed her with tit-bits, and coddled her, and made love to her with
real (though decorously subdued) enjoyment to them both; and she
talked with animation of the superior education that little Mab should
have--how she should never wear stays, and should go to Girton, and
become the woman of the future generally. The doctor came in the
evening, and reported a great improvement in his patient, and when she
was put back to bed, taking the baby with her (the nurse being
accommodated with a stretcher in her room), he had a long conversation
with her husband.

"The best thing you can do," said he, "before resuming home life on
the original basis--which would come as rather a shock, don't you see,
so soon after what has happened--is to take Mrs. Brown away for a few
months. Take her to England, or anywhere, just till the thing has
blown over and she has had time to get strong again."

"I want to go to England," said Robert gravely. "I want to see Mrs.
Penrose."

"Very well. Go, and take your wife, as soon as ever you can get off. I
wouldn't advise you to put her in the way of Mrs. Penrose, but you can
easily manage to avoid that. Things are at a deadlock now, and
something must be done. You are neither married nor unmarried--the
position is awkward and embarrassing for everybody, and as soon as she
is able to get about Mrs. Brown will feel it acutely. So just clear
out altogether, and don't come back till people have had time to
forget you. It won't take long."

Robert thought this was very good advice, and next morning he
communicated it to his wife. Lexie jumped at the chance of escape from
the very hot place that she had got herself into, and, though she had
seemed to have had enough of England and the sea, she was charmed at
the idea of getting back to both--seeing that she would go in her
husband's company. "It will be very different this time," she said, as
she busied herself over the packing of her own and the baby's
wardrobe. And indeed, if it had not been for the manner in which this
arrangement had been brought about and her accusing conscience, she
would have been wildly happy now. Perhaps it is not too much to say
that she was more happy than she had ever been in her life. Human
nature is human nature, and it is not very difficult to forget what we
wish to forget; and so she was able after a time to stifle the voice
that cried from Mabel's grave, and to persuade herself that things had
not gone so very wrong after all. She had her fits of depression, of
course, paroxysms of memory and remorse; but these generally occurred
when the machinery of her domestic life was a little out of gear, and
Robert did not allow that to happen often.

By the very same ship that brought her out alone she and her husband
went back together. "Mr. and Mrs. Robert Brown, infant and nurse," the
party was designated in the passenger list, and there were people on
board who never guessed that Lexie was not the baby's mother. In fact,
Robert himself almost forgot it sometimes. When he saw her washing and
dressing it, or carrying it up and down the deck (while the nurse
amused herself with a novel) cuddling the little golden head upon her
breast and beaming with content as long as it was happy, he used to
have a little dimness about the eyes that was not caused by any
harrowing recollections of the past. "I always said," he would remark
to himself, "that all that Lexie wanted was a baby."

A more attached family it would be impossible to see--so the
passengers said. They had the usual board-ship squabbles amongst
themselves, but I don't think Lexie quarrelled with her husband once
during the whole voyage. She hurried to him when he called her; she
was content to sit with him tte---tte in retired corners, while the
committee of amusement appealed to her in vain; and the great red-
bearded Australian cared neither for whist nor tobacco so long as he
could make himself of use to his little mistress. He even courted the
smile of ridicule, which a man fears more than the cannon's mouth, by
occasionally showing himself in public with the baby's bottle in his
hand. And when they got to London and to privacy--far away from the
cupboard that held the skeleton--it may be imagined how they enjoyed
themselves; how they went to the picture galleries together, and how
Lexie discovered that Robert really had been born an artist, and
Robert convinced himself that Lexie had developed into a first rate
connoisseur; and how they met Emily Price one day, and Mrs. Brown,
leaning on her handsome husband's arm, enjoyed the exquisite
satisfaction of cutting her old friend dead. It was indeed a lovely
time, "the real honeymoon," said Robert, "compared with which the
first one was a delusion and a snare." Poor Mabel, cut off in her
youth and beauty, mouldered to dust in the St. Kilda cemetery,
abandoned and forgotten, her own child scarcely allowed to be hers;
and those two whose happiness was built upon her grave had no scruple
about taking it and making the most of it--not after a little while.
An interview with Mrs. Penrose made them sad for a day, but the day
after, having got that over, they enjoyed themselves more than ever.
Alas! such is life, and it is no use to pretend it isn't.

They stayed but a short time in England, after all. Lexie could not go
about much, because she would not leave the baby to servants. She
would not go over to the Continent, because she did not believe that
any city in the length and breadth of Europe was in such a sanitary
condition as would make it a fit place for that dear child to be taken
to. The drains of St. Kilda were under a British board of health, no
matter how abominably they stank, but the sewers of France and
Switzerland and Italy, not being subject to that essential
guardianship, were not to be thought of in the case of a person so
precious as little Mab. And, when October fogs began to rise and
November winds to blow, the pseudo-mother was thrown into a state of
wild alarm lest the baby should catch bronchitis, and declared that
the idea of exposing those infant lungs to the rigors of an English
winter was utterly out of the question.

"What shall we do then?" asked Robert, anxious to do anything to
please her.

"Let us go home," she replied, leaning towards him and resting her
head on his breast (they were sitting by their fireside one night
after dinner, the child asleep in its cradle in a corner of the room).
"Let us go back to our own little Nest, Robert. Oh, you can't think
how I am longing to be there again."

"It is rather soon, isn't it?"

"What does it matter? It is nobody's business but our own. If people
talk, let them, it won't hurt us. We shall have each other, Robert,
and that's all we shall care about."

"My darling, if you are willing to go back, I am. It will be a happy
day for me when I see you in your own place again. I don't think you
will leave it any more Lexie."

They started back to Australia very shortly after this, and reached
home a few days before Christmas.

Mrs. Brown in her own house was like a banished queen restored to her
kingdom. Down came the lace curtains; away went lustra painting and
crewel work; in no time all trace of the usurper's government had
disappeared. Lexie did not wish to show any disrespect to the memory
of the poor woman whom her husband had honored, but, as she explained
to Robert, when he looked a little dubious about it, it was a sort of
matter of religion not to allow the divine instinct of beauty to be
insulted and profaned. By Christmas day the whole establishment was
put in order--furniture in its right place, colors harmoniously
blended, as of yore; and when she sat down to her Christmas dinner,
robed in gold tinted Liberty silk, her starry eyes glowing with joy
and her delicate cheek with health, she felt that the mistakes of the
past had been rectified; while Robert, her husband, looking at her and
at the general surroundings, gave pious thanks to Providence, which
(as far as they two were concerned) had done all things well.

"Do you remember our last Christmas together?" she murmured, a few
hours later, as she reclined in his arms in the unlighted drawing
room.

"Don't speak of it," he answered, kissing her. "Let the dead past bury
its dead. We must never quarrel again, my darling."

"Never, Robert, never! We are like the hero and heroine of the novels,
who have got their troubles over. We will live happy ever after, now."



THE END



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