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Title: My Lady Bountiful Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304061h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jul 2013 Most recent update: Jul 2013 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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This PGA/RGL edition of My Lady Bountiful was produced by Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy as part of their ongoing project to collect the works of Fred M. White and present them to readers all over the world via Project Gutenberg Australia and Roy Glashan's Library. The text offered here was taken from the serial version of the novel published in 1905 by The Evening News, Sydney, Australia, and archived at Trove, the web site of the National Library of Australia. A search of Internet resources failed to yield any other verifiable bibliographic information about My Lady Bountiful. There is no record of a library copy at the OCLC WorldCat site. A list of Fred M. White's books at the British Crime Writers web site gives 1915 as the year of publication in book form, but this may be the result of confusion with a book of the same name by Littlestone Gilbert, first published by Ward Lock & Co. in 1914.
The lantern clock in the great hall struck eight in the courtly, condescending way it had done any time since Karl Halz made him in Antwerp "in the yeare of oure Lord, 1619," as the quaint date testified. Immediately—or it would have been immediately in an ordinary household—a tall footman advanced and struck a score of times on the big ship's bell that hung under the aforesaid timepiece. As most visitors to Caradoc knew, this bell was from the Spanish galleon Santa Maria, the Admiral's flagship in the ill-fated Armada.
Everything was leisurely, courtly, high shouldered at Caradoc. The lingering impressiveness of the bell ceremony was reminiscent of mouldy ceremony. The Right Honourable Charles Merrion, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, remarked that it suggested the funeral of some very important but exceedingly disagreeable personage, followed by dinner in a chastened mood, but not so chastened as to render one indifferent to the lack of cayenne in the savoury.
The clanging had not died away when a tall figure in black velvet and diamonds and lace appeared at the head of the staircase. Leaning on the arm of a footman, she came leisurely down into the hall, where the oak pillars and the armour and the tapestry had been any time for the last three hundred years. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram never forgot the fact that there had been a Caradoc House standing in the same spot since the days of Edward the Confessor.
The aforesaid Secretary for Foreign Affairs was standing with his back to the wood fire on the wide hearth in the drawing-room as his hostess entered. The footman bowed her into an armchair, and placed a table with a reading-lamp at her elbow. The quaint, old-world room, all black oak from floor to rafters, was lighted by candles in silver sconces. To the mind of the right honourable gentleman the funeral suggestion and sarcophagus effect was thus heightened.
"I had hoped to see you earlier, Charles," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. There was just the shade of reproach in her voice. The Minister inclined his head meekly. Even a Foreign Secretary has calls upon his time. "But you look worried, Charles."
The speaker was calm enough. She was tall and dark, and whilst owning pleasantly enough to nearly seventy years of age, there was not a grey hair on her smooth head. Her features were handsome and haughty, as befitted Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram, of Caradoc; her eyes were restless and changeable.
The dominant note on her features was pride. But then there had been Wolframs at Caradoc for over a thousand years. No doubt existed on this head. The pedigree of the Wolframs was written in history.
Time was when the late Christopher Eldred-Wolfram had been an important figure in politics. As a holder of office his wife had of necessity seen something of the world. But she had never cared for it; she had never for one moment forgotten Caradoc and the pedigree of a thousand years. The death of her husband had relieved her of the necessity of being polite to comparatively new creations and society leaders, whose social edifice was firmly rooted in beer barrels and the like. For Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had been related to her husband, and the aegis of the pedigree was as a halo about her head.
For seventeen years now she had never moved from Caradoc. On the face of it, hers seemed to be a lonely life. She had openly proclaimed the fact that there were not two families in the county worth knowing, and the county had resented the ultimatum accordingly.
Everything was merged into the glory of the Eldred-Wolframs. The queen regnant seemed to forget that she had no more than a life interest in the estate. She spent her money freely, regally; if her tenants were unfortunate, and could not pay their rents, they had only to come hat in hand to the throne and say so, and there was an end of the matter. It was an open secret that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had mortgaged her income to the last penny, but the glory of the house was as bright as the crests in the great mullioned windows. There was the costly racing stud that never raced in the stables, there was a small army of servants and footmen and gardeners. There were no finer peaches and grapes in the county, and yet every tradesman was paid to the day. It was all very strange, but there it was.
If "My Lady Bountiful," as she was generally called, condescended to take advice from anybody, that fortunate individual was the Right Honourable Charles Merrion. Old Lord Saltoun declared openly that Maria Wolfram would have so far forgotten herself as to marry him—despite the fact that his pedigree failed to go beyond a Speaker of the House of Commons circa Charles II.—only that family claims came first. Be that as it may, Merrion was one of the only men who ever passed the lodge gates of Caradoc.
"I met the boat," Merrion explained.
"You have seen the girl?" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram asked, after a long pause.
"As I wrote to you, the young lady was to have come down with me this afternoon. At the last moment she decided to mote as far as Castleford with the Wiltshires."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram gasped. Merrion had never seen that stately lady gasp before, and he was properly impressed.
"My unhappy sister and her family!" she said. "Charles, how did the girl get entangled with those deplorable people? And she not landed more than four-and-twenty hours from Australia!"
"The explanation is fairly simple," Merrion replied. "The Wiltshires have been round the world in their yacht. Very naturally they looked up your brother in Australia some little time before he died, poor fellow. Hence the acquaintanceship. One of the Wiltshire boys came back with Miss Kathleen Wolfram on the Comus, and there you are."
The listener closed her eyes with pious resignation. All the same, it was a dreadful blow. The idea of a child of her brother's on terms of friendship with the Wiltshires! Of course, the Wiltshires were popular figures in what passed in these degenerate days for society. But Major Wiltshires sire had made his money out of a horrid East End brewery.
"I parted with my sister in sorrow more than anger," she said. "When she married John Wiltshire there was an end of all intercourse. It was in vain that I implored her to remember that, as the widow of Jasper Eldred, her boy would one day be head of the family. When I die, Reginald Eldred will reign here. Lucy pointed out the fact that she was horribly poor and that she liked John Wiltshire. I pointed out that if she married him the boy Reginald would have all his principles sapped in an atmosphere of beer."
"He is a splendid young fellow," Merrion said warmly.
"Well, he is one of the family, after all. We must try and make my poor boy's daughter properly appreciate her position. But to come down close to Caradoc in a motor! And with the Wiltshires! My dear Charles, the mere idea of it makes me feel quite faint!"
Merrion nodded with the polite sympathy of the statesman who always keeps a large stock of that kind of thing on hand. As a matter of fact, he was thinking that his hostess was a little sillier and more childishly proud than usual. Perhaps the loss of her only brother a few months ago in Australia had made a difference. Charles Eldred had always been delicate, so delicate that he could not live in England, hence the fact that he had migrated to Australia and married years ago. It was the only child of this brother that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was so impatiently waiting.
"I had a telegram just now," Merrion explained. "The motor broke down on the road. Miss Kathleen says she shall drive over from Castleford. Probably she will get here before we have finished dinner."
"Perhaps the mistake has not been hers," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said magnanimously. "The atmosphere of Caradoc will not be without its influence. But you have not yet told me what the child is like. Of course, she is tall and dark, like all our family. I selected my poor brother's wife for him, so there is no cause for uneasiness on that score. She is refined and haughty; she is a true descendant of an ancient race, in fact. At the same time, I trust she is not too haughty."
Merrion bent down and replaced a log of wood on the fire. His clean-shaven lips trembled as if at the recollection of some subtle humour.
"Well, no," he said thoughtfully, with his fine eyes still on the refractory log. "I don't fancy Kathleen will be a martyr to that infirmity."
The sonorous clang of the ship's bell filled the house sedately. A magnificent butler announced dinner as if it had been some dark yet sacred rite. He bowed to Merrion, and hoped severely that he was well, though his manner conveyed but a poor opinion of the latter's statesmanlike qualities. The 'Times' had been down upon the Foreign Secretary lately, and the 'Times' invariably had the cachet of Mr. Cedric's approval. In lighter mood he trifled with the 'Morning Post,' but that was only when he unbent in the servants' hall.
"We are not dining in state to-night, Maria?" Merrion asked as he proffered his arm.
"The Saxon parlour," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram explained. "The dining-hall is draughty, I admit. Only ourselves and my nieces."
The big bell was still humming as the two passed along. At the foot of the stairs two girls in white stood. They were pretty girls, and it required no great stretch of imagination to say that they were high-spirited girls naturally. But their plain muslin dresses were painfully severe, as was their brushed back hair tied with ribbons. There was a painful suggestion of the genteel pensioner about them, something, almost monastic, but at the same time redolent of the better class of girls' home usually patronised by the bishop's wife. One felt that their proper policy was to come in with the dessert.
Still, the bishop's wife, represented in this case by Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram, kissed the charity twins in the warmest possible manner, much as if they had just come home from the holidays. Mr. Cedric looked on in a fatherly and approving manner.
"Now shake hands with Mr. Merrion," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. "My dear children, how nice you look. My nieces do me credit Charles."
Merrion muttered something polite and mellow in the mouth. He had a deal of humour for a statesman, and he was profoundly sorry for the twins, Edna and Phillipa. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram collected authentic specimens of her distinguished family as other people collect old Chelsea and Bow china, and once the mark on the articles was passed they were taken to her kindly heart in future. The existing specimens had been unearthed five years before, as also was the vicar of Caradoc, who had originally been usher of a school in Cornwall.
The twins followed behind meekly and dutifully. The Saxon parlour was adorned entirely with old weapons and suite of leather armour. The oak walls were rough from the adze, as they had been shapen centuries before. What light there was in daytime came from slits in the walls. Dinner was served on a round oak gate-legged table at which Richard of the Lion Heart had frequently partaken of meat. There were candles in silver branches with climbing ferns gracefully twisted about them, and for flowers nothing more ornate than white wood violets, dewy and fragrant.
"None of the vulgar class of flowers here," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said as she sipped her soup. "For instance, nothing like the outrageous violets that you are wearing, Charles."
"Do my Neapolitans offend your eye?" Merrion asked.
"And my senses, Charles. They are redolent of the vulgar ostentation of the age. The true fragrance of the blossom has been sacrificed to the size. They suggest casinos and music halls and things of that kind. They also suggest——"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram broke off to critically examine a speck of dust on a slim pink forefinger. There was pollution in the touch. Whence had it the presumption to come?
"Cedric, come here," the soiled hostess commanded. "Lift up my soup plate. It is within the region of possibility that it has not been properly polished!"
Cedric was profoundly regretful. The candles seemed to take on a funeral gloom. On the fair white damask was a circular film of plate powder. Cedric contemplated it with grey hairs borne down with sorrow. The iron had entered his soul. The twins laid down their forks, mildly overcome. There was a decorous silence.
"It seems a most extraordinary occurrence, Madam," Cedric whispered.
"It is an extraordinary occurrence," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram murmured. "I make no charge. It may be a pure accident. Of that you are the best judge. As a favour, may I ask that it does not occur again?"
"I don't think it could occur twice in this household, Madam," Cedric said with conviction.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram waved her plate aside. Cedric bowed before the humiliation—all the more keen in the presence of so poor a statesman as Merrion. The latter was wiping his lips gravely, and hiding them at the same time. His eyes lighted on the faces of the twins. Veritably it was a night of surprises. For Edna winked with almost professional dexterity at Phillipa, and the latter flashed it back again with telegraphic ease. It was so sudden, so spontaneous, and so grave, that Merrion with difficulty preserved his decorum.
"Did you speak to me, Phillipa?" he asked.
"No, indeed, Mr. Merrion," Phillipa replied demurely. "I should never think of speaking unless you addressed me first."
The girl was chaffing him. Her quiet tones and the droop of her eye-lashes told him that. So there were profound depths of humour concealed in the 'Girls' Home' somewhere.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram bridled complacently.
"Five years' training here, Charles," she said, "is bound to have its effect. My children here will be excellent companions for Kathleen. And yet, I recollect the time when Edna used actually to whistle. In this house I don't suppose such a thing even a scullion dares to do. Merciful Heaven!"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram paused with her jewelled fingers to her ears. The startled Cedric nearly went to the length of dropping an entree dish. From the hall arose a long, clear, sweet, and birdlike whistle.
The Foreign Secretary scented comedy. He had a deal of humour for a mere Minister, a blessed gift that rendered even the House of Commons entertaining. There seemed to be all the elements of high comedy here. The shade of Sheridan would have revelled in it.
Out in the hall, under the very shadow of the decorous clock, the clear, rich whistling went on. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram turned a cold, critical eye on Cedric as if he was responsible for the outrage. The butler shook his head with the air of a man who finds a chastened resignation in the decrees of Providence.
"Go and see what it means," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram commanded. "If it is one of the footmen—but that is impossible."
Cedric felt his way from the room like a Chesterfield walking in his sleep. Almost immediately the whistling ceased. There were the notes of a strange voice, a very pleasant voice, and clear laughter.
"Charles," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram whispered, "can it possibly be——"
"I am afraid," Merrion responded with proper gravity, "that it is."
The door opened as if some strange energy were behind it, and a girl entered.
She was rather short, with a beautiful figure; her pretty face was full of vivacity. The restless grey eyes suggested mischief, whilst at the same time there was something demure, almost saintly, in her expression. It was a face of contrasts, and all the more fascinating for that. The slight figure in the close-fitting coat and skirt of grey advanced smilingly and with the most perfect self-possession. The light from the candles gleamed on her shining chestnut hair, dark or burnished, just as the shadows fell.
"My dear aunt," she cried, "I am so glad to see you."
She threw her arms about Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's neck and kissed her heartily, to the speechless admiration of the twins.
"Of course, I am Kathleen," the newcomer went on. "I got here a quarter of an hour ago. I would not let them disturb you as I managed to get a dinner of sorts at Castleford. So I thought I could explore this perfect gem of an old house. I had just started when that magnificent butler of yours came and took me in custody. I fancy he took me for a member of the swell mob. Now, didn't you?"
Miss Kathleen Eldred flashed a dazzling smile at Cedric. All the traditions of the house were toppling about the unhappy butler. Kathleen dropped demurely into a seat, and unfolded her serviette.
"Really, I fancy I could eat something," she said. "But, my dear aunt, don't have anything brought back for me."
"Have you no word for me?" Merrion asked.
Kathleen nodded. Something that turned out to be an eyeglass flashed on her silk shirt front. She screwed it into her right eye quite professionally, and regarded Merrion with critical approval.
"Put down that thing immediately," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. "I desire that you never appear with it in my presence, in anyone's presence, again."
"You dear old goose," said Kathleen with engaging sweetness, "I can't see without it. And it is so much better than pince-nez. Champagne, Cedric."
Cedric emerged from the gloomy corner by the buffet. Nobody spoke. The petrifaction of the twins was complete. The cause of the cataclysm sat quite calmly there, sedately eating an entree, and sipping the champagne that the wondering Cedric had poured out for her. He slopped a little on the table-cloth, but Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was too dazed to notice.
Only the Foreign Secretary was cool and collected. He was interested. To hear anybody call his hostess a dear old goose was a sensation in itself—like a showerbath on a hot afternoon.
"And so you are my brother's child," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said in a hollow voice. "My child, where have you been educated."
"Well, promiscuously," Kathleen laughed. "I always had pretty well my own way. You see, Australian girls come out so much earlier than English ones. They say I don't look it, but I'm twenty-one, you know. And for the last five years I have had the run of Government House, and all that kind of thing. All the same, I'm glad to come home. I shall love this grand old place. In my mind there is no place on earth like a good English country house."
All this with an air of perfect self-possession, patronage almost. Merrion watched the pretty, animated face with pleasure. Of course, the girl had been most abominably spoilt, but nothing could ruin that sunny nature. The vapid artificiality of the twins was a painful contrast.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said nothing. The dazed feeling had not left her yet. Her exile of seventeen years from society and the trend of fashion had rendered her terribly out of date. She had no idea that she was face to face with the modern type of girl, and a very good type too, had she only known it. But nothing like this had ever crossed the threshold of Caradoc. Edna and Phillipa were as near the model of what a young girl should be as their relative could make them. Kathleen was regarding them critically through her eyeglass. The satisfaction was not all on one side.
The dinner had drawn to an end at length. The artistic confusion of silver and gleaming crystal and fruit on old Dresden made a pleasing spot of colour for the eye. Merrion was significantly playing with his cigarette case. It was a dreadful innovation at Caradoc, but the mistress allowed it.
"Children, you can go to the music room," she commanded. "And take your cousin with you. Charles, I shall be glad to have a few words with you here."
"What, whilst I smoke?" Merrion asked, fixedly.
"Certainly. What does it matter for once? What does anything matter after the dreadful events of the evening? Charles, what am I to do with her?"
"What's the matter with the child?" Merrion asked. "She has a charming face, and she's pure and innocent, despite her savoir faire. Of course she is quite different from those two dolls—er—I mean Edna and Phillipa. They are perfectly trained. Nobody could imagine them being guilty of the least breach of decorum."
"It is my reward," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said in a 'nunc dimittis' frame of mind.
It was well for the speaker's peace that she lacked the gift of double sight. Like a prisoner in moral custody, Kathleen walked to the music room between the twins. A long passage cut the music room off from the rest of the house, there were two heavy doors between. The passage was traversed in stony silence. Kathleen was looking as demure as her guardians.
The second door closed. A subdued gloom of candles faintly illuminated the dark old room. In the uncertain light Kathleen was not quire sure of her eyes. But surely the dolls were showing signs of animation. They were smiling. Really, they were not bad-looking girls at all, despite their ridiculous attire.
"Oh, we're not wax," said Edna, nodding in a birdlike manner. "If you press our young and unsophisticated bosoms, we don't say 'mama' and 'papa' in a voice like a penny whistle. Now, ain't we guys?"
"To be perfectly frank," Kathleen said cheerfully, "you are. But why?"
"Because we are the models of what young ladies should be," Phillipa laughed bitterly. "We are moulded on the best examples of eighteenth century samplers. We are nineteenth century monstrosities. Would any modern young man look at us? Could the fancy of a girl whose hair is dressed like mine lightly turn to thoughts of love?"
Phillipa pushed back her hair from her forehead and dexterously twisted it behind. Before an oval Florentine mirror Edna did the same. The lid of a large box ottoman was raised, and therefrom came two evening blouses of blue silk, prettily trimmed with lace. In the twinkling of an eye the girls were transformed. It was like some enchanting conjuring trick.
"Oh, it's all right," Edna cried as Kathleen glanced at the door. "Aunt never moves from the drawing-room after dinner. Nobody sees us except our maid, who is in the secret. We do our utmost to be up to date. We get all the best of the ladies' papers smuggled in here, and all the recent novels. We probably know more of Court and theatrical and society gossip than girls really in the swim. Look here."
Down in the roomy box ottoman were various periodicals and novels.
"Up-to-date, you see," Edna smiled. "Have you read 'A Curious Courtship?'"
"I wrote it," Kathleen said casually. "It was such fun."
The twins gasped. It was an evening of delightful surprises. 'A Curious Courtship' was 'the novel' of the season. The papers were full of paragraphs about it. It had been attributed to various social lights, from Royalty downwards. It was political, and social, and daring. The critics were unanimous in the praise of its freshness and originality. And here was the actual author sitting here as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
"I wrote it for fun," she said, "for my own amusement. Most of the characters were English people that I met out yonder. I happened to show it to an English novelist who was on a tour, and he said he would get it published for me. And when I got to England I found I was a celebrity."
"I should just think you are!" Phillipa said in an awed voice.
"But I never expected it," Kathleen said. "It seems such a joke still. In London I had people pestering me for interviews all day long. There were lots of papers that could never be happy without my photograph. I was asked to lecture at three institutions. They didn't seem to mind what subject. And everybody who knows me tells me I am a great author. Those good kind critics have found qualities in my book that I never expected. They say I have a wonderful gift for introspective analysis. It's rather entertaining, because I don't know what introspective analysis is."
Kathleen laughed in the freest and most unaffected manner. It was clear that she regarded her new fame in the light of a stupendous joke. There was none of the dignity that goes with successful letters about her. She sat on the edge of the box ottoman with a smile on her pretty animated face.
"But I am going to have a rest from those people down here," she said. "I'm going to settle down here and become respectable. Now, what do you do as a rule?"
"Mark Twain's diary," Edna said crisply. "Mark Twain's diary sums up the daily whirl of our giddy life?"
"Mark Twain once kept a diary," Phillipa explained. "It consisted in writing under each day in painful monotony the information that he got up and washed, and went to bed. That is what we do—get up, wash, and go to bed. Nothing expresses our daily existence better than that."
"That sounds inviting," said Kathleen. "And our dear aunt?"
"Aunt Maria is one of the best women in the world," said Edna. "If only the family dignity was not a madness of hers she would be perfect. There isn't a man, woman, or child, for miles round who does not rise up and call 'My Lady Bountiful' blessed. Anything that her tenants want has to be done. And if they won't pay their rent they don't."
"It's nice to be rich," Kathleen said thoughtfully, as she gazed into the log fire with the lights leaping on the quaint blue tiles.
"She hasn't got a penny," said Phillipa. "Oh, you may well look astonished. The house and estates are magnificently administered; we don't owe anybody anything. This is a huge house, a perfect storehouse of treasures. The Eldred-Wolframs have been accumulating treasures for centuries. There is no artistic period that is not represented here in the very best examples—old silver and copper and brass and pewter, old work and old china, pictures, prints, engravings. The Wallace collection is no finer. And everything is authenticated. Aunt Maria is overdrawn at the bank, say; she wants £10,000 or £20,000. She goes into the Saxon wing, which is never used, with some snuffy old expert who comes down from London. Then a van comes and goes away with a few prayer chests or a set of Cromwell brasses or a picture that looks like a study in treacle, and a day or two after you see in the 'Times' that so and so has fetched the record price of fourteen thousand guineas, and there you are. We don't want the things, they are never missed; some parts of the house are packed with them. It's delightfully simple."
Kathleen followed them with the rapt attention of the born novelist who has found something quite new and strange.
"I have a passion for art," she said. "I shall revel in this house. How I should like to show a gentleman I met in Australia the place. It was he who first awakened my perceptions. He goes miles to see houses like this. Do you happen to know the name of Christopher Broadway?"
"My dear, we know the names of no men except the vicar and Mr. Dennison, who is a doctor in these parts," said Edna, mournfully. "We are born to blush unseen. You see, we do not possess your monumental cheek. We should as soon think of dancing a hornpipe on the lawn as addressing Aunt Maria as a dear old goose, as you did to-night. But you are a novelist with an original mind. Perhaps you may find some way to pave the path for a social revolution."
"Have you ever tried yourselves?" Kathleen asked.
"Yes," Phillipa said darkly, "we have."
"Well, hope for the best," Kathleen said. "Now, do you mind relapsing into the dolly stage again, and showing me something of the house?"
By the dim light of candles the manifold treasures were unfolded before Kathleen's delighted eyes. The carvings in themselves were a revelation. Everything was old, and everything was artistic. There were pictures with a history of their own, cabinets of China absolutely priceless. The spirit of the ages seemed to tread over those silent corridors. And presently, to add to the effect, the notes of a mellowed old organ stole upon the air. The whole place seemed to be flooded with a silver melody. Kathleen paused, delighted.
"Who is it?" she asked. "What a touch, what expression! A genius!"
"It is Margaret," said Phillipa, with a reproachful blush. "Edna, we have quite forgotten Margaret. Kathleen, you must see no more treasures, do nothing more till we have presented you to Margaret."
The lantern clock was staggering decorously towards ten as the trio crossed the hall, Phillipa looked at the moon face regretfully.
"We shall have no time to do more than introduce Margaret," she said. "According to the laws of the Medes and Persians, we retire at ten, though we are nearly twenty. At a quarter to eleven you will be expected in the drawing-room to make your curtsey to Aunt Maria. If you stay here you will probably have to make certain changes in your dress."
"I don't think so," said Kathleen, with a glance at the dolly frocks.
"Which reminds me," Edna put in, "a discreet silence as to the evening blouses in Margaret's presence would be esteemed. It is an innocent deception that we have kept even from her. You would not have been let into the secret save in self-defence."
The silver-throated organ still filled the air with its melody. The twins passed before a cell-like door, iron studded, and let into the massive walls. It might have been the entrance to a dungeon, Kathleen thought. But as the door swung back on its long hammered hinges, the girl stood there with a shining delight in her eyes.
There was something here to appeal to her artistic fancy. A long, low room, with a carved and painted ceiling wrought by some cunning hand. Stone walls with the marks of ancient chisels still on them, walls draped for the most part with figured tapestry. There were a few good pictures of the old school, a table marvellously carved, oaken cabinets in exquisite relief, a fine place to dream in, and logs blazing on quaint dogs. A swinging bronze lamp illuminated the room, and fell upon a perfect pyramid of flowers, not the simple blooms of the fields, but blossoms of a grander growth.
Beyond the room was a smaller one given over entirely to banks of flowers, a room half cell, half conservatory, with high painted windows at the sides, and at the back of it the organ with the yellow keys, an instrument so wonderfully carved that Kathleen could not repress a cry of delight.
At the sound the player stopped and turned. She was dressed in unassuming black, with white collar and cuffs, her abundant dark hair was gathered at the base of her neck, in a Grecian knot. Her face had the same clear, pallid ivory hue as the keys of the organ, a lofty face full of sweetness and purity, a pair of dark, tender eyes, and a brilliant set of teeth. Behind the organ stool was a black ebony crutchstick with a silver handle.
"Margaret," Phillipa said, "we have brought Kathleen to see you. She wants to know what relation we are to one another, but I tell her the task is beyond my strength. We must go, because it is time good girls were in bed."
The organ player came down from the organ platform with the aid of a stick. So lame was she that she came across the room as a wounded swallow might have done. She looked so smiling and so sweet and so good, that Kathleen kissed her. Here was a girl that she was certain to love.
"I am going to like you," she said; "I am sure we shall be friends. But I'll not say another word till you sit down, Miss——"
"Margaret, if you please. And you are Kathleen. We will not go into the relationship. And I need not say you are in the least like what I expected."
"Don't say you are disappointed," Kathleen laughed.
Margaret declared with truth that she was not in the least disappointed. Only she was a great invalid, and did not go out much, so that she was a dreamer of dreams. She looked like some beautiful picture in her plain black and white, Kathleen thought. The chastened resignation on her noble features told of some great sorrow. It came into the mind of the young novelist that Margaret had either lost a lover or formed some hopeless attachment.
"Do you suffer any pain?" she asked.
"Not now," Margaret said, "I used to when I lived in London. I had a bad fall some years ago. Because I was poor I neglected myself. For years I managed to get my living by water-colour drawings and the like, Dr. Dennison's son attended me, and his father got to know. By chance Sir John Dennison, who was attending Aunt Maria for something, asked if I were any relation. She came to see me, and carried me down here, where I have been ever since. And, Kathleen, I want you to like Aunt Maria. She has her faults; her family pride and dignity almost amount to madness. But a kinder woman never breathed. You will find that out before you have been here long."
"I'll try," said Kathleen, encouragingly. "But who, oh why, are the twins dressed like funny little inhabitants of a doll's house?"
Margaret smilingly evaded the point, and Kathleen let it pass. She sincerely hoped that Margaret was getting better.
"I am improving," the latter said. "Strange to say, young Dr. Dennison is attending me here. Some two years or so ago a lunatic patient of his shot him in the head, and he had to leave London for a time at any rate. As he loved his profession and could not be idle, he came and took a share of a practice here. When he came first I could not leave my bed. Now I can walk a good long way. John—I mean Dr. Dennison—has, well—I have a deal to thank him for."
There was such a yearning expression in the dark eyes, such a wistful smile on the lips, that Kathleen gathered far more than the speaker intended. With the prophetic instinct of the novelist, she felt that she was on the verge of a love story.
"Is Dr. Dennison a friend of the family?" she asked.
"Bless me, no," Margaret said with the same yearning smile. "Mere doctors are not admitted to the friendship of Eldred-Wolframs. But she is a good woman, Kathleen, and you must never, never forget that."
There was a fierce loyalty in the last few words that startled the listener. Margaret's long, slender fingers had broken off a spray of azalea. And then Kathleen knew that Margaret and John Dennison were in love with one another, and that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram would have died rather than consent to the marriage.
Kathleen looked round at the flowers and the wondrous carved oak thoughtfully. She was fond of constructing little romances, of getting people out of all kinds of imaginary difficulties. And, as a girl, the unspoken love story touched her. What if she were the god in the car appointed to set the thing right? She would treat it exactly as the plot of a novel. In that way it would go hard if she did not find some way out of the difficulty.
She came down from the clouds blushing and smiling at her own conceit.
"Tell me something about the house and its ways," she asked. "The twins spoke of you as if you were a kind of mistress here."
"Well, so I am. I do all the correspondence. It its the strangest household in the word. So well ordained, appointed, but so extravagant and reckless."
Kathleen listened eagerly. It seemed a few minutes more the decorous dock deigned to inform curious humanity that it was eleven o'clock.
"All lights out in ten minutes," Margaret broke off suddenly. "My child, you must fly."
Kathleen was up betimes in the morning. She was anxious to examine the paradise where her lines had fallen. She saw the grand old rooms packed with their treasures, oak and lath and plaster all teeming with memories; she saw the grand old half-timbered front, the trim lawns and terraces beyond what had once been the moat. It was all so quaint and beautiful, that Kathleen could do no more than saturate herself with the savour of it. She knew her Scott almost by heart, her veneration for the spirit of age was intense, but in her wildest flights she had never anticipated anything like this.
She was glad to have it all to herself. It was almost with a sense of dismay that she saw the double doors in the Gothic porch open and the stately figure of Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram emerge. She was dressed precisely as she had been the night before, save that she wore no ornaments. She slightly inclined her weight upon a clouded cane, but it was evident that she had not the slightest need of this support. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram came along stately and smiling.
"My dear, you may kiss me," she said graciously. "It is a gratification to me to see that you love early hours. I always have, and took at me."
"Oh," Kathleen cried, "you are wonderful, Aunt Maria."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram murmured something about flattery, but she was highly pleased. She patted Kathleen's cheek, quite affectionately.
"That was very pretty and very sincere," she said. "But there, as a family, we are always sincere. We can afford to be. But the family traditions must be observed. How old are you?"
"I am over twenty-one," Kathleen said. "I understand what you mean."
"You are clever. Yes, you have a clever face. And you would resent anybody interfering with your freedom of action. Still, if you are to remain here——"
"My dear aunt, I should like nothing better in the world."
"Another compliment," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram smiled. "Yes, yes. But there are certain traditions. I have strong views about girls. For instance, your dress. Now, something more in the style of Edna and Phillipa——"
"Oh, I couldn't," Kathleen cried. "I really couldn't. Don't ask me."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram froze slightly. She had brooked no opposition in her life.
"All that is here, you share," she said. "After my death it will be a different matter. But so long as you are a—pardon me, dependent upon——"
"But I am not," Kathleen exclaimed. "You see there is my book."
"Book! Child! child! Do you mean that you have written a——"
She paused, overcome for words. She stood, like another Dedlock, before the ruined floodgates of society. Kathleen nodded slightly.
"A novel," she said. "Forty thousand copies have been disposed of, and it is still selling. That means some two thousand pounds to me, half of which I have. And I have been offered a lot of money for the serial rights of the new book. As things go, I am quite well off."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram leant upon her clouded cane with real need of support. Here was a new type to her—a Wolfram who actually wrote novels. In her mind's eye the average authoress smoked cigarettes and wore short hair. Visions of Georges Sand rose up horribly and grizzly before her.
"I cannot understand it," she said. "I am bewildered. So that if I ask you, if I implore you to—er—in fact, become more like Edna——"
"I should decline to do it. I couldn't. With my sense of humour, I should pine and die."
"My dear child, but if I made it a condition——"
"Then I should have to go elsewhere. It was always a consolation to my dear, kind, thoughtless father that I should find a home here. And amidst surroundings like these one could do the highest, noblest work. I should be dreadfully sorry, aunt, but I should have to go."
The clouded cane bent beneath the weight upon it. It was a clear case for the advice of the Foreign Secretary. The vitiated influence of the Commons had snatched him from the joys of early rising, so he was not at hand.
"We will discuss the question again," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said in a faraway voice. For the moment she felt dazed and unreal. "You are my brother's child——"
She broke off abruptly and went slowly towards the house. Kathleen smiled unsteadily. There was something pathetic alongside the comedy of it. This wide breach of opinion was trying, but to dress like the twins, like early Victorian dolls! Not only must she decline anything of the kind, but she must do all in her power for the emancipation of the marionettes.
She turned into a green alley along the side of the house, and thence came to a long avenue of yews cropped into the semblance of a solid wall. There was a quaint trimness about it that fascinated Kathleen. Goodness knows how many centuries this alley had been tended and pruned and shaven. The grass was emerald below, here and there arbours had been made in the busy growth, like unto havens carved out of solid stone.
"Never was a glace like it," Kathleen cried. "One could imagine Cavaliers hiding here from the Roundheads, or troubadours waiting to keep some love tryst. Or revenge standing in the gloom yonder with a dagger."
Kathleen slipped into one of the arbours. It was quite dark behind there. The flashing sunshine made quite a dazzle outside. Then, before she could emerge again, the figure of Margaret came into the frame work of dark verdure, and almost instantly the figure of a man. He was young and strong and dark, with a resolute face, lighted by a pair of steady, kindly, blue eyes.
"Dr. Dennison for a groat," Kathleen murmured. "I wish they were a little further off."
The situation was suggestive of eavesdropping but Kathleen's conscience was clear. The stranger was following Margaret evidently, and pleading some cause violently.
"It would break her heart," Margaret was saying.
"I don't think so. Hearts don't break so easily. And they managed to do without you so long."
"I know, I know. And yet she saved my life. She brought me, a total stranger, down here, she gave me all the heart could desire——"
"And if you had not seen her you would have been my wife by this time, Madge."
Margaret threw up her hand as if to ward off something. Her dark eyes were full of tears. Her glance was passionate, yet pleading.
"I know it, Jack," she said. "And I—well, I am between love and duty. If you only knew, if I only dared to tell you. Can't you trust me, Jack, and say no more?"
There were eager words on the man's lips, but he checked himself. He bent over Margaret's hand and kissed it. Then he strode on his way, and was lost to the verdant frame. With a hot face Kathleen crept from the alcove.
"I'm dreadfully sorry," she stammered, "but I could not prevent it. You came upon me so suddenly—Margaret, if I could only help you."
The pink flush was reflected on Margaret's cheeks.
"I can trust you," she said. "And I must tell someone. Come and sit here by this old dial in the sunshine, and I will tell you a story after your own heart. Only it must not be put into a book; it must not be told to anybody."
There was a charm about Caradoc that could not fail to appeal to Kathleen's artistic feeling. Her first successful issue in fiction she had regarded more in the light of a splendid joke than anything else; but the thoughtful, brooding silence of Caradoc was opening up new fields to her.
The charm of the old place was falling upon her like a mantle. Her imagination was inflamed. There were fresh and original types of character to her hand. And there was the pathos and tenderness of Margaret's love story to crown all. It would be a glorious thing to write a novel all about Caradoc and the people there, and to work it all out to a happy ending—the marriage of Margaret, for instance, and the transformation of the twins. But this latter part of the plot puzzled Kathleen exceedingly. She wanted to invent some social cataclysm to bring Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram in line with modernity.
"And that you will never do," said Phillipa. Kathleen and the twins were seated on the lawn by the big sundial. It was a delightful spring morning; the walls of the old house were bathed in sunshine. Beyond the scroll gates the road looked like a ribbon of light. "Aunt is not likely to change."
"Yet she permits me to have my own way," said Kathleen.
"Because you are independent," Edna urged. "If you recollect, she has no power to detain you here. She would never be happy as long as the world could point to an Eldred woman getting her living in a vulgar, practical way. She hopes that in time you will come to our way of thinking."
Kathleen smiled as she looked at the twins. They were dressed in white, with little black cloaks and straw bonnets, more like the bishop's wife's proteges than ever. The twins laughed, too, but they were not in a position to appreciate the humour quite so keenly as Kathleen.
"Prince, prince, come and kiss the sleeping beauty," Phillipa cried. "Behold, a noble young gentleman riding along the road. Is he the prince, I wonder?"
"No, it's Reggie Eldred," Edna said practically. "I believe he's coming here."
"A relative?" Kathleen remarked. "And who may Reggie Eldred be?"
"Why, the heir, of course. Aunt's sister's son. Aunt Lucy, Major Wiltshire's wife, was married first to an Eldred, a cousin or something. But nobody attempts to understand relationships in this family. Anyway, Reggie Eldred comes into all this when Aunt Maria dies. Major Wiltshire is his guardian appointed by the Court of Chancery till Reggie is twenty-five."
"He is coming here," Edna gasped. "He's left his horse at the lodge. I fly."
Phillipa picked up her heels and flew also. They might endure a hard world's gaze in white muslin tuckers and stockings, but under the critical eye of a young man the charity bonnets were impossible.
The young man came slowly up from the drive. He was not particularly nice-looking, Kathleen thought, but he had a pleasant face and steady brown eyes, and that indescribable air that the world over proclaims a gentleman.
"You are my cousin, Kathleen," he said, holding out his hand unaffectedly. "I'm glad you stopped when the twins fled. Poor things, I'm not surprised. If I had fallen under Aunt Maria's sway, I should still be in a velvet suit with a Van Dyke collar. Mr. Merrion told me all about you last night. He broke his journey at Castleford on his way to town. And that's why I came to see you."
He sat down quite coolly by the old sundial and poked at the mossy crannies with his hunting crop. Really, he had very nice eyes.
"I am flattered," Kathleen said demurely.
"Now, don't you get poking fun at me," Reggie Eldred laughed. "Really, you know, I am jolly glad you are here. There's going to be a lot of trouble sooner or later, and as you are so clever, being a novelist——"
"Naturally, I have a brain far above the average."
Reggie nodded. Really, he was a very nice young man. There was something so frank about him.
"So I thought I would come and pay my respects to Aunt Maria, and see you at the same time. You see it's this way. My mother married Major Wiltshire some years ago. The major is a good fellow, but as obstinate as the—as—as they make 'em. He's jolly rich, and not at all ashamed of having a big brewery in London. We were pretty poor before, you know. Well, Aunt Maria, who's clean mad on the subject of the Eldred-Wolframs, made no end of a bother about it. If my mother had been going to marry the village butcher, she couldn't have made a greater tragedy out of the business. Wiltshire is pretty touchy, and the last man in the world to stand any—any——"
"Any nonsense of that kind," Kathleen concluded the sentence.
"That's the word," Reggie said approvingly. "The consequence is that the two sisters are more or less strangers, and once a year the major comes here to formally look over the house; he always brings my mother, because really the major is a very good chap, and he has hopes of a thorough reconciliation. When you see how Aunt Maria snubs him, you will realise that he has a lot to put up with."
"Shall I see it?" Kathleen asked, the novelist side uppermost. "Really!"
"To-day," Reggie went on. "This is the day. I tried to get out of it, but they wouldn't let me off. You've never seen Aunt Maria really on her dignity. But there is extra reason why Wiltshire is desirous of settling the quarrel, if it can be called by so vulgar a name. He's taking a big place close here with a view to buying it. And he's set his heart upon representing this part of the country in Parliament in the ultra Conservative interest. Now Aunt Maria is worshipped by the people about here, and if she sets her face against it, the major hasn't a chance. If you, with that polly clever brain of yours, can only bring her round——"
"She will never be brought round," Kathleen said with deep conviction.
"I'm afraid not," Reggie replied, with a baleful eye for the sundial, "if she crosses the major's pet scheme there will be trouble. You see, he belongs to a new family, and is consequently touchy as to his dignity. If Aunt Maria does not formally call, the county is practically closed to him. And if that happens, the major is certain to fall back upon a wonderfully strong card he has in his hand."
"This is interesting," spoke the novelist. "The setting for the story is perfect, and here is the plot actually unfolding without any trouble on my part. Go on."
"I was going on," said Reggie. "The major only discovered he had the card in his hand a few days ago. Now, Aunt Maria only has a life interest in this property. During that time she can do what she likes with the income. From all accounts, that income has not been nearly sufficient. But there is a way out of the difficulty. Caradoc is crammed with treasures of all kinds. From an artistic point of view the house would be better without half of them. They can be spared. Therefore, Aunt Maria parts with a few from time to time, and in a pleasant and easy way replenishes her exchequer. All that is wrong."
"Why wrong?" Kathleen asked innocently.
"Because they are heirlooms," Reggie explained. "She has no more right to sell them than she has to sell the house. My guardian has found that out. Oh, yes; there is going to be what the Yankees call a heap of trouble here before long."
Here was the plot that Kathleen had been looking for. Everything was ready to the hand of the novelist. And the setting was perfect. But how was it going to end? Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram might break, but most assuredly she would not bend. She would insist upon her right to do anything she pleased with everything at Caradoc, even at the risk of mutual unpleasantness with the Lord Chancellor.
Reggie had gone in to pay his respects to his aunt and pave the way for the momentous interview later on. Usually he did not care to stay to luncheon, though the invitation was generally offered him. But on this occasion there came to him a dainty vision of a pretty girl with a pleasant face and wondrous grey eyes by the side of a mossy sundial, and he complied eagerly.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram sat in the drawing-room in frigid state, as a queen might do when receiving homage from a vassal province. The twins in their virgin white were on either side of her, subdued, not to say gawky. They were pretty girls, too, Reggie thought. Dressed properly, they were not calculated to remain wallflowers for long. They conversed demurely, with eyes cast down. Outside the sun was shining, and a thrush was piping madly on a blackthorn. The drawing-room was cold and draughty—a fitting and proper atmosphere. The conversation of the refrigerator was in keeping with its atmosphere. The twins rose with a half-hysterical gasp on the part of Edna as the ship's bell clanged in its courtly, decorous way.
"Children, go and wash your hands," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said, as one who issues an edict. The twins crossed the room demurely and vanished. The big hall was empty as they raced up the staircase and along the corridor.
"Oh, for something to happen," Phillipa cried. "An earthquake, a revolution, something between a civil war and a workhouse. If something would only happen!"
The cataclysm was nearer than the speaker expected. Edna dabbed at her hair savagely. She was wondering what Reggie thought of her. All too soon the ship's bell rang again. All too soon a subdued company gathered in the Saxon parlour. The large butler, haply recovered from the tragedy of the soup-plate, presided over the functions in the character of leading undertaking. The coffin was not in sight, but the feeling that it was there somewhere was strong.
"Cedric, you may go," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said at length. "Margaret, I am glad that you feel well enough to join us to-day. It is very opportune."
Reggie blushed ingenuously. Kathleen was wondering why he seemed so uncomfortable. A reflective flush of a lighter hue was on Margaret's pallid face.
"If you came to see me a little oftener, as you should, Reginald," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram went on, "I should have no occasion to allude to——"
"Don't," Reggie asked imploringly. "It's so, so very—oh, dash it all, have a little consideration for poor Margaret."
Kathleen wondered vaguely what it all meant. There was some family likeness to an adjourned debate in the House of Commons.
"You know my views," Mrs Eldred-Wolfram went on in the same judicial manner. "For the last five years I have designed Margaret for Reginald. Reginald must marry in his own family. Nobody can say that I have been unduly impatient. Still, up to the last few days I have been content to leave it an open question. It was just possible that Reginald might prefer either Edna or Phillipa."
Curious sounds proceeded from the twins. By a merciful dispensation of Providence Kathleen maintained her gravity. Reggie's face was a fine study in scarlet. He began to wish that he had not been so taken by that winsome picture by the sundial.
"Or perhaps Kathleen," the speaker went on. "I had great hopes for brother's child, but from the first moment that my eyes fell upon Kathleen these hopes were dashed. I have to acknowledge with pain that Kathleen is neither an Eldred nor a Wolfram. She is far too modern and independent. Doubtless the atmosphere of the place will not be without effect, but at present she is hopeless."
From the expression on Reggie's face he failed to share the judicial opinion. Kathleen felt the carmine rising to her own temples. It was a relief when Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram rose at length. Reggie strode into the hall, wiping his forehead.
"I'm going to have a few cigarettes on the lawn," he confided to Kathleen. "Nothing less than a dozen will soothe my shattered nerves."
Kathleen would have followed had she dared, but the late Imperial edict had rendered her unusually constrained and shy. Margaret had fled to her own room, and was solacing her wounded spirit in a flood of Beethoven's melody. In the hall there was a greater show of ceremony than usual. All the footmen were in evidence, and all were arrayed in their best liveries. Cedric moved amongst them as if he had never sullied a dignified reputation by a dusty silver soup-plate.
It was quiet and subdued in the drawing-room. Upstairs the twins had locked themselves in their bedrooms, where they were indulging in the luxury of a pillow-fight. They found it a fine antidote for incipient hysteria.
Kathleen could think out her plot in the drawing-room. So far, everything was clear cut, but she could not see far enough. She wanted everything to end happily, for Margaret to marry her lover, and the twins to be emancipated, and taste the joys of tailor frocks and parties and premieres.
But Kathleen was still feeling for her scheme when Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram entered. She was serene and calm and dignified. She was going to assert herself.
"Aunt?" Kathleen said suddenly, "are you very rich?"
"My dear, I have positively nothing," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram replied with the greatest cheerfulness. "We have always been an extravagant race. When the property came to me, there was much to be done. Whatever our tenants require, they must have. What other purpose is money made for? And after a time it dawned upon me that I had no ready money, and no prospect of getting any."
"That was very awkward," Kathleen said artfully.
"It was, my dear child. Then I reflected. There were wealthy parvenus who craved for old furniture that they could pretend belonged to apocryphal ancestors, for pictures to make those ancestors of, and all the rest. The house was blocked up with all kinds of useless treasures. Then why not sell some of them. The thing was done without the least fuss or bother, and there you are. Since then I have never been without money, and I never hope to be again."
"And if you were prevented from selling any more of it, aunt?" Kathleen asked.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram bridled.
"My dear, you are talking to me," she said.
"It is a liberty, I know," Kathleen said humbly. "But supposing some power steps in and says you are not to part with anything more?"
"If we go so far," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said graciously, "then I should be absolutely penniless; the mistress of a noble house with no means to support it. But such a thing is absolutely out of——"
"Major and Mrs. Wiltshire," said Cedric, seriously.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram seemed to freeze before Kathleen's gaze. The atmosphere grew colder. Kathleen would have fled, but a glance from the glassy eyes detained her.
Well, she would stay now, for she felt that here was the climax of the story.
Mrs. Wiltshire was a sort of faded copy of her sister. It was painfully evident from the first that she had lost her grip of the family dignity. An Eldred of a Wolfram who had in a fit of temporary aberration thoughtlessly married a common place type like the major ought to have made up for the hiatus by frequent snubbings, but here was a decadent Saxon who not only respected her husband, but actually deferred to him in most things. Kathleen's photographic eye recorded the fact immediately.
"You are well, I trust," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram, said, with a frosty peck at her sister's cheek and a sigh. To be well under such circumstances was almost outrage. "Yes, I see you are. You are very much tanned, and you have actually a colour. The same remark might apply to you, sir."
Major Wiltshire flushed hotly. He was quick and small, with a reddish suggestion as to colour, closely buttoned up, trim as to his moustache, a man accustomed to command and be obeyed.
"I'm pretty tough, thank you," he said crisply. "By Jove."
The exclamation was under his breath, a note of admiration. In his way the major was a connoisseur and collector, old oak and china being the small gods of his idolatry. The joy of a 'find' in a snuffy back shop was as the new star to the astronomer. He had never seen anything like this before.
"It seems a long time since I last saw you," Mrs. Wiltshire began timidly. "Do you know, my dear Maria, we are thinking of settling in these parts?"
"So Reginald told me. I have no doubt you will find it pleasant. I believe that the society about here is quite respectable, though I go to few houses myself."
"Well, you'll come to ours, at any rate," the major cut in suddenly, as he ceased ogling a rare bit of old Chinese enamel. "I suppose that's settled."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram made no reply for a moment. She could not grasp as yet what the man meant. Surely he must know, his wife would have told him, that a visit from the mistress of Caradoc was a distinct honour, a precious thing to be valued accordingly.
"It's this way," the major proceeded, absolutely at his ease; "we like the place, and the house I have my eye on suits me down to the ground. Of course, I knew that you had some prejudice—I mean objections—to your sister's marriage with me, but one naturally makes allowances for family weaknesses of that kind. I don't ask you to be particularly friendly with me—we would be treading on each other's corns all the time—only be fairly sociable, and I ask no more. My idea is to get into parliament, and, if you only give me your countenance, and all that sort of thing, why, we can jog along very comfortably indeed."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram listened with the air of one who walks in her sleep. The maker and seller of a degraded liquid was actually taking things for granted. The suggestion of absolute social equality was revolting. He must be made to understand things.
"I had made up my mind not to call," she said slowly. "As a Christian I have forgiven my sister her marriage. I shall be glad to see her when she likes to visit me. But, forgive me, I could never lend my countenance to—er—beer. It is not even homemade beer, I am told. Mr. Merrion tells me that the makers of—er—beer are quite recognised in society at present. The fact is beyond my grasp. It seems incredible."
The major's mouth closed with a snap and clicked open again. A fine imperial purple, deep as the lost tint on the Chinese enamel, spread over his face.
"It's a fact," he said. "Oh, Lord, yes. Only we are only allowed in by the area door, and take our meals in the house-keepers room. We have to be polite to the butler, by gad—and—and——"
Major Wiltshire choked and gurgled, Kathleen's little white teeth were pressed together to keep back the wild laughter that fairly bubbled within her. The biting sarcasm was lost on Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram.
"You underestimate yourself," she said. "A gentleman——"
"Go on," the major cried, holding himself in hand. "Tell me what a gentleman is. I thought I knew, but I am evidently mistaken. Madame, your definition will be taken as a priceless favour."
"With the exception of Mr. Charles Merrion and Reggie, I have not seen one for years."
The remark was made with all the calmness of absolute conviction. There was not the slightest intention of any desire to be mistaken on the part of Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram that her class of race alluded to was practically extinct. She would have said just the same thing to any noble lord sullying his pedigree by contact with trade. So to speak she merely swept the major up into a crumb tray of a class.
"Upon my word," the major exploded. "I really must speak, Lucy. I—what the—what do you call me?"
The speaker stood erect as a ramrod, the perfectly-cut frockcoat tight to his figure. He would have passed as the right thing anywhere, the typical soldier of the Army and Navy Club, a popular member of White's, and the like. He had his world at his finger tips. Kathleen discreetly intervened.
"A veritable curio!" she cried. "Who is that white-haired old man with the velvet coat coming up the drive?"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram glanced casually out of the window. She was utterly unconscious of having given mortal offence. She was still pondering mildly over the majors conundrum.
"That is Mr. Evan Pryce, of Castleford," she explained. "A pure Celt, my dear, a man with a perfect pedigree. He is a wonderful judge of antiques, in fact, he acts as my agent in disposing of my spare treasures. He has evidently called about the Dirk Bouts' triptych."
The major sat down again, or rather he was jerked adroitly into a seat by his wife. Rage still gently simmered in his bosom, rage subtly lessened by the knowledge that Fate had unexpectedly placed a smooth, round stone in his sling. The woman wanted humbling, by gad, and she should get it.
"You don't mean to say you have the Dirk Bouts' triptych here?" he asked. "Why, it's been missing for years. You couldn't sell a thing like that, you know."
"I have yet to learn that there is any power to prevent me," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said calmly. "There are far too many art treasures here, the place is too much like the institutions founded by pill-makers, where respectable artisans are allowed to go on Sundays. The income of the estate is inadequate, absurdly inadequate, to my requirements. Say I want £10,000. As a matter of fact I badly need £10,000 at the present moment. I call in Pryce, and tell him the circumstances of the case. He picks out this or that treasure, he takes it away, and in the course of a week or so he sends me a cheque for the money, less his—his—what do you call it?"
"Commission," Major Wiltshire said crisply. "The deuce he—I mean, does he really? And on this occasion you are going to part with the Bouts' triptych?"
"That certainly is the intention. As a matter of fact, the triptych is a hideous monstrosity. I believe that some newspaper man is most desirous of obtaining it."
The major nodded. He began to see his way now. The name of the newspaper man who collected works of art was perfectly familiar to him, but that mattered nothing for the moment. What did matter was that he found a way of bringing Mrs Eldred-Wolfram to her knees. She should respect him, she should give him the run of her house and call openly upon her sister, or he would know the reason why.
"Very sorry to do anything unpleasant," he said, "but my duty lies plainly before me. My dear madam, much as you may need money, you must not part with the triptych."
"And might I ask," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram began, "what possible business is it of yours to——"
"To interfere. Exactly. You must not part with the triptych for the simple reason that it is not yours to sell. You have no right to sell it any more than I have. As Reggie's guardian and legal protector, being responsible as I am for entailed property, it is my painful duty to ask for the list of art treasures that you have already disposed of, and to call upon you to refund the proceeds to the trustees. I am certain that neither my co-trustee nor myself had the slightest idea of these illegal proceedings. I acquit you of any deliberate violation of the law."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram rose and made a motion in the direction of the bell.
"Ring it," she said, addressing Kathleen with half-closed eyes. "This interview must cease; indeed, it had far better not have taken place. Deeply sorry as I am for my unfortunate and unhappy sister——"
"Neither the one nor the other," snapped the major. "Besides, I'm doing no more than my bare duty. These things you are selling are family heirlooms. Good heavens, madam, is not your connection with an old house long enough to know that heirlooms cannot be sold, even by the holder of the entail? It is only done when estates are heavily encumbered, or the entailer is heavily in debt, and only then by the consent of the next-of-kin, and under an order of the Court of Chancery. The same thing applies even to timber. Of course, I can't prevent Pryce—who, I don't doubt, is quite an innocent party—from taking that triptych away, but I can, and I will, apply to the Court of Chancery for an injunction to restrain him from parting with it."
All this fell as a foreign tongue on the ears of Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram. That any one, even the august Court of Chancery, would ever dare to interfere with her movements she did not imagine for a moment. Nor could she see that the major was doing no more than his manifest duty. It was merely an act of petty spite on the part of the beer man because the head of the family had not taken him, so to speak, to her bosom.
"This painful interview must cease," she said. "As I said before, it should never have taken place. Cedric, will you see Major and Mrs. Wiltshire to their carriage? Lucy, you may come and kiss me."
Mrs. Wiltshire complied almost tearfully. It was more than a farewell, it was a valediction. It meant, as plain as words could speak, that the doors of Caradoc were closed for ever. From the major's point of view it was a direct challenge, which he accepted with martial impetuosity. He would bring this vain old creature to her knees. Outside in the hall the little white-haired man in the velvet jacket was lovingly hanging over a dim study in treacle that the major recognised as the immortal triptych. By no possible stretch of imagination could it be construed into a thing of beauty and a joy for ever. But there it was. Mr. Evan Pryce bowed respectfully to the major, as one does to a royal or profitable customer; but the major saw him not. He was going to drive straight to Castleford, on his way to London. He was doing his plain duty—a disagreeable thing, but in this instance a matter that by no means rendered itself repugnant to the major's feelings.
"You're not going to do anything rash, John?" Mrs. Wiltshire suggested as the carriage moved away.
"Certainly not," the major said with decision. "It is not in my nature to do rash things. I had not the faintest idea that the art treasures at Caradoc were being disposed of in this reckless fashion. If I close my eyes to what is going on, I become directly responsible."
"But Reggie would never be so mean as——"
"My dear, it is not a question of Reggie at all. Reggie may die, and those people at Saltash come into the property. The man there is a lawyer, as you know, and if he finds out he would bring an action against myself and co-trustee to a dead certainty, and we should have to refund, too. Why, your own sister might have to refund as much as £100,000 by her present policy. My course is quite clear."
"But I don't see what you can do, John. Maria is very headstrong."
"She must be brought to her knees. The Court of Chancery will grant an order restraining her from parting with any more of the family property, and if she ignores that——"
"She is certain to do so. She will decline to take the slightest notice."
"Then she'll go to gaol, by gad. People of position can do most things, but they don't play the goat with the Court of Chancery. Contempt of court is a serious matter. Why, not so long ago a duchess was locked up for a spell because she defied the court, and Maria will find herself in the same box if she does not look out. Of course, I may not be a gentleman——"
Mrs. Wiltshire wisely refrained from further questions, and judiciously applied the soothing process to the feelings of her justly irate husband. All the same, she was not easy in her mind; visions of an Eldred-Wolfram picking oakum in a dungeon cell disturbed her.
"Perhaps Reggie could settle matters," she suggested.
"Reggie, thank goodness, has no voice in the affair. Leave it to me, Lucy. A good lesson to your sister would be more than a kindness—it would be a positive charity, by gad."
Kathleen had slipped out into the garden, full of the plot of her new story. Major Wiltshire had given her the very detail she had wanted. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was delightful; such a charming and picturesque central figure for a story. But, of course, 'my lady bountiful' had to be beaten and mildly humiliated in the long run, and here it would be unwise to outrage the conventional by any 'stagey' trick. The humbling process must be both probable and natural. And here Major Wiltshire had kindly provided the very thing.
Kathleen was quite an artist in her way, though she had none of the shibboleths of the superior critic at her finger ends. She had crude ideas as to introspection and restraint, and all that kind of thing, but she possessed feeling, and an eye for colour—there was nothing of the fretwork novelist about her. It seemed to her that the probable action of the Court of Chancery fitted in splendidly. She had followed Major Wiltshire carefully, and he appeared to have a very good case. If these things were heirlooms, then Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had no more right to sell them than the estate itself.
Altogether, here was the making of a charming romance, with Margaret's love story for a tender background. Of course, Margaret must eventually marry the man of her choice, both in the fiction and in the flesh. Kathleen smiled as a very pretty thought came to her.
"I'll do it," she murmured. "It is the very thing. I'll see Margaret at once. Only I had better not let her know my dark designs. I beg your pardon."
Kathleen had turned out of the garden into the drive. She became suddenly conscious of the fact that the little man with the white hair and velvet coat was addressing her. She seemed to know that though the picturesque figure kept a shop for the disposal of antiques, he was a scholar and a gentleman.
"I beg your pardon, I am sure," he said. "Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said she could not see me. I ventured to say my business was urgent, but apparently I had chosen the wrong moment. You see when I was in the hall just now I could not help hearing what Major Wiltshire said. The major has what you call a commanding voice, but that is not the point. The point is that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram is exceeding the powers the law allows her. For some time I have been doing the same thing—quite unwittingly, I assure you. The difficulty happened once before with a young gentleman who defied the Court of Chancery. Had not Lady Belsize befriended me, I should certainly have gone to—in short, suffered involuntary confinement."
"The upshot of all this being?" Kathleen smiled.
"That I must regretfully decline to take the triptych. Mr. Lawson Waddy, of the 'Early News,' wanted it badly. Not that he is exactly a connoisseur, but he wanted it. He is going to call at my shop this afternoon and complete the transaction."
Kathleen nodded. She had heard all about Lawson Waddy, of the 'Early News,' which popular sheet had been evolved gradually from a kind of gratuitous trade journal. The secret of the success of the paper in question was that on no day in the year was it allowed to lack a big sensation. That the sensation was all manufactured in the office and proved to be false, mattered nothing. A certain class of people read it with avidity, the circulation was large, and after all, there was a certain amount of flashy braininess in the conduct of the sheet. To a certain extent Lawson Waddy was a gentleman, the son of a country doctor. He copied other people's ideas unblushingly, he had a real genius for a good advertisement. For journalism in the higher walks he neither knew nor cared anything. The whole thing was as a trade to him. He peddled papers as other men peddle soap; he would have been equally successful had he taken up glue, or tin tacks, or patent medicines, or anything else. He had grown immensely rich of late, and only wanted a wife now from the ranks of the aristocracy to make a social footing for him.
"I'm glad he's not going to get it," Kathleen said. "The first time I met Mr. Waddy it occurred to me what an expressive word 'bounder' is."
Mr. Evan Pryce allowed himself to indulge in a smile. "There are certain men that one does not like to sell to," he murmured. "The modern rich man who buys because it is the thing to do, for instance, but I am detaining you. You will be so good as to tell Mrs. Wolfram why I cannot take the triptych away. Good afternoon."
Mr. Pryce raised his felt hat with quite the grand air and shuffled off down the road. Here was another character for the book, Kathleen thought. She was putting the pieces deftly together when Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram came out leaning on the totally unnecessary stick. The trick and stick had both been copied from a Wolfram of the early Tudor period, whom the head of the household much admired.
"I have been seeing my steward," she explained. "Quite a disturbing day altogether. But I do not fancy that Major Wiltshire will come her again."
"Under the circumstances, I should imagine not," Kathleen said drily.
Something in her tone struck Mrs Eldred-Wolfram's ears. Usually the sarcastic note was lost on her.
"Was I too hard on him, do you think?" she asked.
"Well, yes. You ask me the question, and I am bound to say yes. Do you know, I rather like the major. He has a perfectly honest face, a brave and kindly face, and he has a most distinguished career. I am sure that one could trust him implicitly. And there was no occasion to tell him he was no gentleman."
"But is he one?" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram asked, with an air of speculation. "I don't recollect saying so."
"But you did, indeed you did. You actually emphasised the fact. When he asked for an example, you said you had seen no gentleman, with the exception of Mr. Merrion and Reggie, for years."
"And of course the man naturally took it to himself?"
"He could do nothing else. I thought the reply was deliberate. In anybody less stately and wonderful than yourself, the reply would have been absolutely rude. And you are quite wrong, quite wrong. It is not in the least necessary for a man to have a long pedigree to be a gentleman. I have met plenty of them down under who have tended sheep, and all that kind of thing. I was very sorry to hear you make that remark."
Had she only been able to realise the fact, Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was feeling small. In the whole course of her life, nobody had ever ventured to speak to her like this before, she had never pictured the possibility of it. And here was this child laying down the law, and she was actually listening with something like humility. But nobody had ever resented anything that Kathleen had chosen to say.
"The man always grated upon me," the elder lady said feebly. "And look how he threatened me! But that, of course, was dictated by the meanest spirit of revenge."
"I don't think so," Kathleen argued. "Major Wiltshire has to protect himself. He is honestly of opinion that you are beyond your rights in what you are doing. If he allows it to go on, he is liable like yourself. Of course, Reggie would let it pass. But if anything happened to Reggie, who comes in to this property?"
"A branch of the family in the north. Horrid decadent people who are actually in trade."
"Then they would make you pay; you would have to refund every penny you got for the heirlooms already deposed of. The Court of Chancery might even ask you to do that now. Have you any idea of the amount of money received through the medium of these sales from first to last?"
Really, Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had not the slightest idea. The rest of the estate was not sufficient for her needs. The tenants were part of her being, her beloved vassals. They had only to say it was impossible to pay their rents and there was an end of the matter.
"Then I presume agricultural depression is at a high point here?" Kathleen said drily.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram innocently supposed that it was. The tenants of recent years had suffered a course of misfortunes quite phenomenal. But what did it matter when Caradoc was packed with superfluous art treasures? As far as the mistress knew, she might have had something like £200,000 this way; but she could not tell.
"And if the major is right and you are wrong, and the court asks for this money to be refunded, do you know what is likely to happen?" Kathleen asked. "It is a very pretty plot—I mean, it is a strange position."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram listened with supreme indifference to this dark picture drawn by the young novelist. In all probability the Court of Chancery would not order a prosecution; they would accept the plea of ignorance. But they would assuredly take over the administration of the estate, let the house, and allow Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram a small allowance until the debt was paid off or the heir came into possession.
"And what shall you do then?" Kathleen wound up suddenly.
"I decline to discuss anything so ridiculous," Mrs Eldred-Wolfram said in her best manner. "Your absurd, your undisciplined, imagination runs away with you altogether. Let us in go in and have tea."
Tea was served in a small room at the side of the porch. The twins sidled in presently, demure as usual, followed by Margaret, who seemed depressed and absent. It was a silent, gloomy meal, and no incident to speak of beyond the fact that Phillipa helped herself to cake the second time without asking permission. Even Kathleen fell under the gloomy atmosphere, and promptly proceeded to lose herself in a world of her own. Phillipa looked darkly vengeful at the unconscious novelist who had taken cake and toast indiscriminately without the slightest suggestion of disfavour on Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's part.
There was a long silence, broken only by the velvet movements of Cedric. From the open windows came the sound of a distant boom. The boom grew nearer and nearer, there was a rattle and a hum besides, then something long and shining shot past the window and pulled up before the porch.
"It is a motor-car," Edna cried, as the stricken heroine of melodrama who discerns a sail. "A motor."
"A motor-car at my front door," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram gasped. "None of my friends——"
The rest of the sentence was lost. The rest of the party, with the exception of Margaret had hurried to the window.
"Behold the owner," Kathleen cried. "How the bounder must rise up and call the inventor of motors blessed. It enables him to wear a huge coat with all the fur outside without having mud and broken bottles pelted at him. It enables him to swagger and hoot and cause people to look at him, all of which must be grateful to his soul. I actually believe the man is coming in."
He was, preceded by Cedric with his head in the air, as if the smell of the motor was rank in his nostrils. In a depressed voice he announced Mr. Lawson Waddy, and retired. Kathleen regarded the little man with the moustache, a la the German Emperor, not with out a certain admiration. Here was the typical bloom, so to speak, of modern progress, a kind of essence of 'push.' No ordinary man would have found his way into that room, but it would have been all the same to Mr. Lawson Waddy if it had been Windsor Castle.
"Oh, good afternoon," he said, with a certain mincing of his words as a concession to society prejudice. "Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram, I presume. I came here after seeing Pryce, of Castleford. He has just informed me that he can really have nothing more to do in the matter of the Dirk Bouts' triptych. Something about Major Wiltshire and the Court of Chancery, I believe."
"I was under the impression that the triptych had gone," Mrs. Wolfram said in a frozen voice. "Please understand, sir, that I have nothing to do with these things personally, absolutely nothing. If Mr. Pryce is afraid——"
"Declines to take any risks, quite right on his part. But that makes no difference to me. I particularly want the panel, and I am prepared to pay for it. If the worst comes to the worst—but I beg your pardon, ladies never understand business."
"The thing might make a sensation," Kathleen suggested demurely.
"Why, it's Miss Kathleen Wolfram," Waddy cried. He was quite at his ease; Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's stony glare at him, and her stern disapproval of Kathleen's intervention, were absolutely lost. "I had quite forgotten. Veritably a day of surprises, for, unless I am greatly mistaken, I know Miss Margaret also."
"My family seems to be fortunate," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram murmured.
Margaret's pale face flushed. She seemed uneasy and uncomfortable.
"I used to know Mr. Waddy when I was in London," she said. "He was in the office of a weekly paper where I used to sell some of my drawings occasionally. I fancy Mr. Waddy wrote stories."
"Yes, and precious bad ones, too," the journalist said cheerfully. "I very soon found out that there was more money in publishing than in writing; still, they were jolly days, and we had a very happy Bohemian set. Do you ever see anything of Jack Dennison now, Miss Margaret?"
The flush on Margaret's pale face deepened.
"Dr. John Dennison is here at present," she said. "After his accident he had to live in the country. In fact, he has been attending me for some time past."
"Of course he has. It used to be an understood thing in the old Bohemian set that you and the doctor—but discretion forbids me to say more. It really would not be fair."
Waddy smiled in the manner of one born to the keeping of secrets. He saw nothing of the painful red that had mounted to the roots of Margaret's hair. From his own point of view he was merely making himself agreeable. With ready sympathy Kathleen came to the rescue.
"My dear grandmother, we are wasting Mr. Waddy's valuable time," she said. "As the agent declines to take any further part in the transaction, Mr. Waddy came to ask you if he can have the triptych."
"For the sum of £14,000," Lawson Waddy put in diplomatically, or so it seemed to him.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram nodded in a doubtful kind of manner. A baleful light had broken in upon her, and Margaret's flushed face and painful air had coloured the illumination. Could it be possible that Margaret, a full-blooded Wolfram, had permitted herself to care for a mere doctor?
"I must have a little time to think it over," she said, in a hollow voice.
"Perhaps you would like to look at the triptych," Kathleen suggested sweetly. "It is in the hall."
Lawson Waddy desired nothing better. He admitted with frankness that he was no judge whatever of works of art, especially old art. From his point of view, the panel was a hideous monstrosity, a nightmare in treacle brown and dirty red.
"But it's the fashion," he said breezily. "And it's not a bad investment."
"Nor would an action in the Court of Chancery be," Kathleen smiled. The little man amused her; she could read him like an open book. "The missing Dirk Bouts, the injunction, the picturesque house at Caradoc. I can see it all highly spiced in the 'Early News.'"
Lawson Waddy laughed heartily. With his big coat and his high collar he seemed to strike a discord in the tune of the grand old hall. The fact was not lost upon Cedric, who passed with the afternoon letters on a tray. The intruder gave no more than a passing glance at Dirk Bouts.
"I mean to have it," he said. "You see, I know nothing officially about the Court of Chancery. If you have any kind of influence with Mrs Eldred-Wolfram, I shall be greatly obliged."
But the lady in question was already in the hall, with an open letter in her hand. She stood there with outraged dignity, trembling in every line of her figure.
"I have heard from Major Wiltshire's solicitor in Castleford," she proclaimed. It really was a proclamation. "They give me notice to part with no more of the family heirlooms, and they warn me, warn me, that the consequences——Mr. Waddy, if you will be good enough to walk into the library, I will have my steward sent to you."
"The triptych is but small," Mr. Waddy said, grasping the point at once. "After I have settled with your steward, I can easily take it away in my motor-car."
"Then I shall wish you good afternoon. Come, Kathleen."
It was a dismissal, a royal wayleave from the premises. Back in the small room, Kathleen found that Margaret and the twins had disappeared. From the sound of distant music, Margaret was evidently soothing her nerves with harmony. Kathleen did not fail to notice that the twins had taken advantage of the hiatus to raid the rest of the cake. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram dropped into a chair.
"A most disturbing day," she said, "on the whole, the most disturbing day I ever remember. Really, I might be keeping a shop or something of that kind. But my feelings are nothing; I am not thinking of myself. Though I firmly intend to show Major Wiltshire—Kathleen, I want to have a serious talk with you."
"What have I done this time?" Kathleen asked.
"Oh, it is not you. I have been very much disturbed, greatly upset to-day. And I feel bound to speak to you very seriously about Margaret and—and Dr. Dennison."
A beautiful silence reigned over Caradoc, like the evening tranquility that frequently follows a stormy day. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was not to be seen; always after contact with earthly things she took what the practical call 'a day off' for social purification. Metaphorically speaking, she washed herself of the world, she purged her wounded self-respect in solitary contemplation of her own greatness. For the next four and twenty hours she kept to her room, taking all her meals there.
To Kathleen the peace and tranquility were exquisite. It was one of Margaret's bad days, too, and she kept to her sanctuary, so that Kathleen was thrown more or less on the society of the twins. From their point of view the peacefulness had its drawbacks.
"We get it in too large doses," Edna said flippantly. "We live in an atmosphere of it all the year round. Sometimes we imagine adventures like the girls get in the historic novels. Do you think we are the sort of girls that cavaliers on prancing horses would fall violently in love with?"
"Especially as our dress is contemporaneous with the period," Phillipa added.
As a matter of fact, their dress to-day was quite normal. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was out of the way, and it was pretty certain that Margaret would not appear. Their young souls knew no trouble for the moment.
"Let's go for a walk like this," Edna suggested. "Through the village. Nobody will know us."
They set off presently, leaving Kathleen to work upon her new novel. The plot was clear now, and Margaret's love story was to be the pretty thread holding the whole together. Kathleen fell to with avidity; she worked after luncheon and long after dinner; by bed-time the first ten thousand words were finished. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was down to breakfast the next morning serene and tranquil, as if nothing had happened recently to ruffle her serenity. She was exceedingly gracious and stately, the twins had not looked so depressed for a long time.
Margaret was down again, looking somewhat pale and ill at ease. She went back to her sanctuary directly the meal was over, and for the best part of the morning the house was flooded with the melody of the silver throated organ. She was lost in Gounod's 'Ave Maria,' as Mrs Eldred-Wolfram, fresh from a long interview with her steward, came in.
The long wail of the melody ceased, and Margaret came down from her seat. She still looked pale and downcast, her long slim hands worked restlessly together.
"You want to speak to me," she said.
"Well, yes. Only please sit down and let us talk over matters comfortably. Margaret, do I understand that you knew Dr. Dennison before you came down here?"
"I knew him in my London days very intimately indeed," Margaret replied.
"Then is it not strange that you should not have mentioned the fact to me before?"
"I don't think so. Sir John Dennison, Dr. Dennison's father, was a great friend of my father's. In those days Caradoc was only a name to me. My father was a clever man, and he liked clever society. We knew a great many people connected with art and literature, and gradually I began to paint myself. One of the best known figures in that set was Sir John Dennison. After my father died he was more than kind to me, after my accident his goodness was touching. At one time I was pronounced incurable, but John Dennison took the case up, and I am what you see. In a comparatively short time I shall be as other girls. And it is all due to John Dennison—and yourself."
"What did I have to do with it, Margaret?"
"You found me out, you recognised me as a relative. My work and the hard struggle were throwing me back. Your goodness and Caradoc have nearly worked the cure. It is exactly the final remedy that Dr. Dennison always suggested."
"So when you came he followed you down here?"
Margaret's pale face flushed, and her hands were clasped a little more tightly together.
"I cannot permit you to say that," she said with simple dignity. "John Dennison was compelled to resign London practice for a time owing to a bad accident or something like that at the hands of an insane patient. He had decided to come here before you had discovered me."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram murmured an apology. She accepted the statement implicitly, she had always lived in an atmosphere where the truth was normal and inevitable.
"Was that—that man who came here yesterday in your set?" she asked.
"Well, I suppose so. He has the pushing nature that nothing can put back for long. He writes verses and 'smart' stories, and he had a little connection with the cheap Press. Seven years ago he was barely getting his living. Nobody liked him, but he was tolerated."
"I see," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said thoughtfully. "When I was in the world I met his type occasionally. I suppose he is too rich now to be flippantly familiar. In his poorer days I should judge that he called you by your Christian name."
Margaret smiled; this touch of worldly wisdom on the part of her patroness was utterly unexpected. And, as a matter of fact, Lawson Waddy had had a weakness for the Christian name. Grown rich, that weakness had to be modified, or it tended to place inferiors on too high a plane.
"The man's taste is atrocious," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram went on. "His allusions to Dr. Dennison and yourself were deplorable. Of course, there is no truth in it, Margaret?"
The attack was a direct one, and had to be faced. The flush on Margaret's face deepened. Not for a moment did she make the slightest attempt to prevaricate. Her fingers shook as she played with the petals of a geranium.
"John Dennison and I have been friends for years," she said in a low voice. "He is a man of the highest character, and in every sense of the word a gentleman. From a worldly point of view he would be a good match for any girl. And when he asked me to marry him, I was absolutely happy for a time."
"Till you recognised the absolute impossibility of it, Margaret?"
"I am afraid we are not looking into the matter from the same point of view," Margaret said in her low, sweet voice. Her lips were quite steady now. "At that time I did not know how great a thing it was to be a Wolfram, and I deemed myself honoured amongst women."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's brows contracted. She suggested a high divine in the presence of a freethinker.
"It seemed that I was singularly honoured," Margaret went on. "Then, when the first flush of my happiness faded, I had time for reflection. There was I, practically in the grip of a hopeless malady, and I declined to permit so good a man to tie himself up to so useless a wife. But John insisted. If he could cure me, would I say yes? Aye, I would have said 'yes' with my whole heart and soul."
The last words came low and fervently. Margaret stood with her head thrown back, an aureole of scarlet flowers behind her pale, sweet face. Just for a moment she had forgotten the presence of her companion.
A tender love story was told in those few words. A strange sensation came over Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram. Daydreams from her own lost youth flashed through her mind; there had been a time when Christopher Eldred-Wolfram had been near to losing the proudest mistress that Caradoc had ever had.
"Then I understand that you love him still?" she said.
"Oh, yes, yes. I shall never change. Now I have told you my story, and there is an end of it."
"But a Wolfram could never marry a Dennison. Sir John Dennison was the son of a poor railway clerk."
"That was very thoughtless of him," Margaret said with a faint, unsteady smile. "Still, I am in your hands. Positively, I owe my life to you. You brought me from sordid poverty to this; you brought me from a poor room to the most beautiful and refined home in England. I did nothing to deserve your kindness. And, as to the rest, my future and my happiness are both in your hands."
"You mean that you prefer to remain here, Margaret?"
"Oh, do not let us misunderstand one another," Margaret cried, with just a trace of passion in her voice. "I prefer to follow the man of my heart, to be by his side and help him in his life's work. On the other hand, I owe you everything, I regard you as a mother. If you say stay, I will stay; but it will break my heart all the same."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram kissed the speaker quite tenderly. Not for a moment did she realise the sacrifice that Margaret was making. To be a Wolfram was everything, a Wolfram could control mere human feelings as no ordinary being could do. Margaret would forget this passing folly.
"I am delighted," the elder lady said, "charmed. Of course, as a friend, I have no objection to Dr. Dennison, indeed I have called him in myself once or twice. I will write him, Margaret; he shall be free of the house."
Margaret's pale lips summoned thanks unsteadily. She had known Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram long enough to feel the enormous sacrifice she was making. But she wanted to be alone now to think. And Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's victory was so complete that she did not care to peril it by any further discussion. On her way through the hall she met Kathleen. The girl's eyes flashed like a pair of blue interrogation points.
"I heard that you were with Margaret, so I came in," she said.
"Well, yes," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said beamingly. "I took your advice. It was perhaps fortunate on the whole that that man yesterday said as much as he did. It seems almost incredible on the part of a Wolfram, but Margaret is in love with Dr. Dennison."
"Then my worst fears are confirmed," Kathleen said in a shocked voice.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram sighed. She had not the slightest idea that Kathleen was laughing at her.
"Indeed they are, my dear," she said. "Let me tell you all about it."
They walked together across the lawn, shaven and rolled these many centuries. Kathleen listened intently without the faintest suggestion of curiosity. It seemed to her to be a very charming and tender story indeed, the very background for her own little romance. How the romance was going to end she had not yet decided, but she had an idea. If Mrs. Wolfram knew that idea she would have been startled out of her high serenity. As it was, she deemed Kathleen to be properly impressed with the superiority of the Wolframs to the rest or humanity.
"So you see that Margaret's instincts are perfect," she said with a complacency that moved Kathleen to inward laughter. "The race has always possessed that great virtue. Of course we can none of us rid ourselves of the vulgar emotions, such as love and the like. There was a Wolfram, for instance, in the fourteenth century who married the daughter of a hind, but it was hushed up. Therefore, I do not blame Margaret because she loves this man. But she is not going to marry him, Kathleen."
"Which is a very great pity," Kathleen said in her direct way. "Here are two good and noble souls designed by Providence for each other if ever two people were. I suppose that Providence may be permitted to sway the destinies even of a Wolfram. Grandmother, you are acting with great cruelty. Margaret deemed it her duty to obey you, and inevitably break her heart at the same time. You are deliberately condemning her to a soulless and unloved life. Oh, you ought to be ashamed of yourself."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram looked at Kathleen with astonished eyes. Never in the whole course of her life had she been addressed like this before. She would have resented the charge of being a bully, indeed it is probable that she had no idea of the meaning of the word. She made a fatal mistake now, a mistake that never gave her a grip on Kathleen again—she protested, instead of the policy of silent dignity.
"Really, you make me out quite a monster," she said. "I have done nothing wrong. The family——"
"What has posterity done for me?" Kathleen laughed, quite good-humouredly again. "I declare that you are the most ridiculous old goose in the world."
Goose! Ridiculous! Was the world coming to an end? Were the pillars of society being snapped? At the scared look on her companion's face Kathleen's mind thought of Sir Leicester Dedlock and his favourite simile. Just for the moment Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was routed, horse and artillery.
"My dear," she implored, "let me ask ask you one favour!"
"A dozen if you like," Kathleen said sweetly. "What is it?"
"If you have any respect for me, any feeling for the traditions of the family, say nothing of this to the twins. I suppose it is not altogether your fault that you are so republican. Now the twins are quite different, so simple and unsophisticated. You won't—won't contaminate them?"
Kathleen promised that the lives of the twins should not be blighted by her poisoned influence. They were unusually demure at luncheon, so demure that Kathleen scented mischief in the air. Margaret had not come in; she had remained in her own room under plea of a headache. A walk in the grounds with the twins after luncheon killed a little of the passing time, until the sudden and unexpected appearance of Reggie Eldred coming up the drive. Edna regarded her print dress with a deep sigh.
"Why didn't he come yesterday?" she said, with the air of one who has a substantial grievance. "Then he would have seen us in all our glory. Phillipa with her pretty hair dressed in Christian fashion, myself in a green coat and skirt. We passed through the village and nobody recognised us. If Reggie had come yesterday, he must have proposed to one of us."
"Or perhaps both of us," Phillipa suggested in a sanguine spirit.
"Then we could have tossed for him. Kathleen, I'm going. In this get-up, under the broad canopy of heaven, I could not sit and make myself agreeable to an eligible young man. Exit Edna."
"And Phillipa, left upper entrance," Phillipa cried gaily. "Kathleen, lure him on to stay to dinner. Then in our sacred hour afterwards we could dress up and astonish him. Try."
"I will," Kathleen laughed. "If those smart blouses of yours are without effect, why——"
But the twins had vanished. Reggie came moodily up the drive, slashing his big boots with his stick. From the dirt on his boots he had evidently walked over. The moody frown between his straight brows vanished as he caught sight of Kathleen and came forward.
"The twins fled at your approach," she said. "It was very bad taste."
"And a very good job," said Reggie coolly. "It was you I came to see. You are the only one in the house who seems to have any common sense."
"Terse, vigorous, and no doubt meant to be complimentary," Kathleen laughed.
"My dear girl, it's no laughing matter," Reggie said seriously. "I told you there would be an explosion when the opposing forces met, and so there was. But, of course, you were present. Now don't laugh. Still, I suppose it was very funny, even from the Major's description of it."
Kathleen proceeded to give a trenchant account of the interview. Reggie was amused in spite of himself.
"And therein lies the sting," he said thoughtfully. "But it was a bit too bad to tell the poor old chap that he was not a gentleman, because it isn't true. And then again he must go and play the martinet over those pictures and things, instead of approaching the subject in a diplomatic way. If he had done so, I am quite sure our dear old relative would have listened in a proper spirit."
"Not she," Kathleen replied. "Mark my words, Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram is going to get herself into trouble. If Major Wiltshire goes for an injunction——"
"Why, he's got it, got it yesterday," Reggie exclaimed. "Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram is sure to have had the papers by the second post. The Court granted the injunction at once, restraining our gracious lady from parting with anything else in the house without the consent of all and sundry concerned in the property. And a proper fuss there was over something called a triptych——"
"Not the Dirk Bouts' triptych?" Kathleen cried.
"That's the joker. It appears that some newspaper chap got hold of it a day or two ago, and he was represented in Court yesterday. The Major swears that he'll have the trip something or other back, and the proprietor of the 'Early News' looked like getting a fine advertisement out of it. They have made three columns out of it in the 'Early News' to-day; in fact, I've got a copy of it in my pocket."
Kathleen held out her hand eagerly.
"The spirit of journalistic enterprise," she laughed. "Let me have a look at it. Or, better still, read it aloud. How nice a thing it is to have fame thrust upon you."
From the connoisseur's point of view the 'Early News' was not an attractive sheet. The first page boasted a drawing usually depicting some repellent crime, the details and local colour being left to the artist. The mere fact that a murder scene was frequently portrayed long before the police had a clue to the assassins counted for nothing. The paper itself was atrocious, the articles were vulgar and personal, and in the worst of taste. If Lawson Waddy could have raised his circulation by making the 'Early News' still more vulgar he would not have hesitated to do it. The thing paid, and the rest mattered nothing.
"Beautifully adapted to a public-house isn't it?" Reggie asked as he opened the sheet. "It's all here on page five. 'The Grande Dame and her Treasures! The missing Dirk Bouts' triptych comes to light! Purchased for £14,000 by the Proprietor of the 'Early News!' The Trustees of the Caradoc Estate Intervene! Proceedings in the Chancery Court to-day!' You can imagine the rest."
"I am acquainted with lurid colonial rags," Kathleen said. "Get to the gist of it."
Reggie proceeded to read. The legal details were somewhat dry, but, under the circumstances, interesting. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had not been represented, but that mattered little. A well-known K.C., acting on instructions from the trustees of the Caradoc Estate, had applied to the Court for an order to restrain Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram from disposing of any of the heirlooms of Caradoc. In support of the application Major Wiltshire had given evidence. He had only recently discovered the fact that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had been supplementing her income by disposing of certain heirlooms. As a matter of duty and for his own protection, he had applied to the Court for an injunction. He had made the discovery over the Dirk Bouts' triptych, which he had given Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram instructions not to dispose of.
In spite of this she had persisted in disposing of the unique work of art in question for £14,000 to the editor and proprietor of the 'Early News.' Counsel understood that Mr. Lawson Waddy was represented in Court, and was prepared to resist the suggestion that he should restore the triptych to the trustees and obtain a refund of the money. That matter, however, would be argued later on. All the trustees wanted for the moment was an injunction to restrain these sales in the future, and for a schedule of the protected property.
The K.C. representing Mr. Lawson Waddy interposed. Unless the Court so ordered it, his client had no intention of parting with the triptych. He had purchased the picture in open market, and was quite an innocent party in the matter.
Eventually the Court made the order applied for, certain specific treasures of historic interest being mentioned.
Reggie put down the paper and asked Kathleen if she was interested.
"Of course I am," she said. "From your manner there is something more to come."
"The sting is in the tail, as usual," Reggie said. "Once this kind of thing gets fairly going, there seems to be no end to the lawyers engaged in it. On behalf of the Saltash branch of the family, yet another K.C. shoves his oar in. Failing me, the property, you know, goes to the Saltash branch people, and naturally they are interested. They want Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram to render account of the treasures already disposed of, and the money handed over to the trustees."
"Impossible!" Kathleen cried. "Why that would amount to nearly a quarter of a million, every penny of which has been spent long ago. As you know, the state at Caradoc is semi-regal. And I am quite sure that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram has acted innocently."
"Of course she has," Reggie said, thoughtfully contemplating the tragedy on page one. "If I had my way I should say nothing at all. But I have no more to do with it than yourself. Anyway, the Court made the order asked for by the Saltash people's lawyer."
"Reduced to plain English, what does it all amount to?"
"Reduced to plain English, it amounts to this. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram will have to render a faithful account of all the heirlooms she has disposed of and the amount for the whole. When that is done she will be compelled to hand over the amount to the trustees, plus about four per cent. interest."
"But, my dear Reggie, the thing is impossible. The money is spent."
"I am afraid that argument will not go down with the Court of Chancery. If the money has gone, there is an end of it, and nothing will bring it back. What the Court will probably do is this—order the offender to pay back a stated amount out of income. They will direct the trustees to pay Mrs. Wolfram, say, £1000 a year, and take the rest as a refund. Also they will probably let Caradoc for a term of years, so Major Wiltshire says. Much the same thing happened over the Waldinghurst estates, and that is what took place there."
Let Caradoc! Allow Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram £1000 a year! Kathleen's lively imagination staggered at the prospect. It practically meant the workhouse.
"But this is dreadful, Reggie," she said. "Major Wiltshire has gone too far."
"I don't see that the Major is in the least to blame," Reggie said, with the man's finer sense of justice. "Please don't imagine that he is in the least vindictive over the matter. If Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had received him with open arms he would have acted in just the same way."
Kathleen thought of the Major and his quick, clear eyes, and decided that Reggie was right.
"Do you think that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram knows this?" she asked.
"Of course. I have not the slightest doubt that she knew yesterday. Probably a special messenger brought down the order yesterday, and probably it was thrown regally into the fire."
"And if it is disobeyed, Reggie?"
"Well, in that case, our gracious queen here will find herself in a tight place. That would be the grossest contempt of Court, the one thing that even the rich and powerful cannot evade. It would simply mean going to Holloway Gaol until the offender had purged his or her contempt. Under such circumstances as these, the sentence would not be less than three months."
Kathleen tried to grasp it and failed. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram a prisoner, the mistress of Caradoc actually the occupant of a common cell in an ordinary gaol! The imagination could not picture it; that and scrubbing floors, and eating gruel off a tin plate.
"Does Mr. Waddy mention it in a leader, or anything like that?" Kathleen asked.
"Oh, Waddy has not let the grass grow under his feet, you may be sure of that. On another page is a more or less villainous cut of the triptych, with a full history of it, mostly apocryphal. Also, it is announced that reproductions of the famous work will be ready shortly, £10 10s on India proof paper and a limited number on ordinary paper at £4, payable in so many monthly instalments of so much each. Modern journalism seems to be a fearful and wonderful thing."
"There seems to be a kind of smaller article on art treasures here," Kathleen said, as she held up the lurid sheet as if there was something poisonous about it. "The Warwick Cup is mentioned here. Didn't Cedric tell me something about that piece of plate?"
"I daresay he did," Reggie replied. "Anyway, it's in the house, or was, though, perhaps, that has been disposed of. After the Battle or Towton in 1461, King Edward IV. had that cup made and presented to Warwick, who subsequently gave it to an ancestor of ours. Apart from its artistic by the fact that Warwick scratched his monogram on the bottom of the cup and a doggerel verse as well. You must get Cedric to show it you."
"I suppose it is priceless?" Kathleen asked.
Reggie made no reply. He was looking at something approaching through the shrubbery.
"Do I sleep, do I dream, or are visions about?" he quoted. "Kathleen, who are these?" Through the bushes came the figure of Edna, closely followed by that of Phillipa. They were attired in coats and skirts of neat heather mixture, sweeping black hats with feathers. The transformation was marvellous. There was a suggestion of laughter in the eyes of both, otherwise they were perfectly serious.
"Will you kindly introduce me?" Reggie said, gravely. "Delighted to meet you. Do you happen to have seen anything of Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram lately?"
Edna laughed aloud. Really, they were very pretty girls, once out of their hideous frocks and bonnets. Phillipa seemed to be equally delighted.
"We are not dense," she said, "despite the simplicity of our upbringing; an innocent can gather things at times. All our lavish pocket-money does not go in coals and red blankets of a horribly ticklish description, as our fairy godmother fondly imagines. Kathleen, considering that the genius who built our gowns worked from self-measurement, has he not done splendidly?"
"The Park would be the richer for your presence," Kathleen laughed. "But Reggie put you a diplomatic question just now that you have failed to answer."
"Oh, Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram has gone calling. Something early yesterday or to-day has touched her dignity. She has gone with the best barouche and the bays to call on Lady Leydonmere. Together they will discuss the crumbling fabric of society, and decide that they are the only two ladies left. Hence our temporary emancipation from the Bishop's orphanage. Now, honestly, Reggie, as a man who knows something of the world, are we, or are we not, two pretty girls?"
"Well—er—on the whole, I think you are," Reggie said, critically. "I should not be in the least displeased if I had you at Hurlingham or at Oxford in the May term; in fact, I should be rather proud of you, and very much disappointed if I did not become exceedingly popular with the undergraduates. Why don't you rebel? Why not strike out a line for yourselves? Look at Kathleen."
"We frequently do," Edna said, admiringly, and with envy. "Kathleen is so great that she amounts almost to an institution. Her calm, native assurance is monumental. The first night she came here she whistled!"
"And Cedric is supposed to have a weak heart," Reggie exclaimed. "What happened?"
"Why, nothing. Kathleen had firmly established herself before the temporary paralysis had passed off. She calls our god-mother a silly old goose, and she puts up with it. I fancy if we only dared to make the plunge we might win some sort of concession to popular prejudice."
"You shall begin to-night," Kathleen exclaimed. "If Reggie will stay to dinner and back me up, the first of the fetters shall be struck from your jaded limbs. With what you possess, and what I can find, I'll dress you both. Hair just a little simpler, a silk blouse, with a suggestion of throat and chest showing, a few flowers. Then we can work by easy stages up to an evening frock. If you will be guided by me in the matter, I am sure that I can help you."
The twins beamed with mischievous delight. Reggie listened with a flattering interest. He had more than half a mind to stay and witness the success of the experiment. One of the men from the stables could ride over to Castleford and procure his dress clothes, so that he could stop the night.
"Come along, then," Edna cried. "Come into the library and write the note before you change your mind and flee from the wrath to come. As for me, give me liberty or give me death."
Kathleen passed into the house a little more sedately than the others. The girls, by great good fortune, just escaped detection at the hands of Cedric, who came into the great hall with a tray of old silver on a salver. Kathleen stopped to admire, and the butler so far committed himself as to smile. Kathleen was an outrage at Caradoc, a something out of keeping with the sedate solemnity of the house, but Cedric, like everybody else, had fallen under the charm of her manner.
"There is no silver like ours in England," he said. "Some day when I have time, miss, I should like to show you our plate. Most of it historic, all of it unique. Why, it's a pleasure to have the cleaning of nearly all the stuff under my care."
"There is one piece I should like to see now, if I may," Kathleen smiled. "Would you mind just letting me have a peep at the Warwick Cup?"
Cedric's large manner gave way to a look of deep dejection. It was as if Kathleen had unwillingly touched a tender chord, as if a mother had been suddenly reminded of a lost child.
"I'm sorry I can't do it, miss," the butler said. "It's the one piece I valued most. And Lord only knows what it is worth. But only last night my mistress asked for it. When it occurred to me that it might be for sale a cold perspiration broke out all over me. I actually dropped one of the Venetian tumblers and broke it."
"A dignified protest, perhaps, Cedric," Kathleen suggested.
"Not to my mistress, though I was very near to it. But perhaps I am giving myself a deal of unnecessary anxiety."
Kathleen went off in a thoughtful frame of mind. The dressing up of the twins was not nearly so amusing as she had expected it to be, and when the dinner hour drew near they had become nervous and dejected. Kathleen rallied her forces and went downstairs as the ship's bell tolled its solemn knell. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was already in the drawing-room talking to Reggie. She was in a haughty mood, and stared through her glasses severely as she caught sight of the blushing twins.
"And what may the meaning of this be?" she demanded. "White lace skirts with trains and bronze shoes. And lace blouses open at the neck. Who is responsible for this—this——"
"Don't say outrage," Kathleen smiled. "It's so hackneyed. Place all the blame on my shoulders. Pour on, I will endure. My dear godmother, I have simply transformed two dolls into pretty girls, who look exceedingly nice and refined and well bred."
"Can't be the slightest question about it," Reggie said boldly.
"Now, don't be a ridiculous old goose," Kathleen cut in, kissing the outraged lady affectionately. "I am sure that you are greatly pleased in your heart."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said nothing, though she was all the more convinced something was seriously wrong with the fabric of society. Here was Margaret—rare, pale Margaret—giving her affections to a mere doctor and now the twins had been transformed from their Arcadian simplicity into conventional young ladies. They would be asking for bicycles next, once this innovation was passed.
The bell tolled again, and Cedric solemnly announced dinner, much as an undertaker would have proclaimed the fact that the funeral cortege was ready to proceed. Conversation was fitful, the twins keeping very much in the background, as if fearful of a reaction of the tacit edict sanctioned by Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's silence. Kathleen was thinking of the Warwick Cup and the consequences to the hostess if she had parted with that treasure. A remark about some quaint old silver led up to it.
"I am curious to see the Warwick Cup," the girl said. "I asked Cedric this afternoon, but he said that it had temporarily left his possession. May I see it?"
"It is unfortunate that you did not ask before," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said in her largest manner. "I was told not to part with it, I was threatened. Immediately, I placed those papers on the fire, immediately I telegraphed to a kind of foreigner—an American—who had made an offer previously. Cedric!"
Cedric had forgotten himself, and groaned. One word came from his lips distinct and clear.
"I'm only human," he muttered, with bowed head. "It was 'Good Lord' that I said, madame."
"I am aware of it, Cedric. Your feelings do you credit, but I will ask you not to express them again in that manner. The American man was here early to-day, and renewed his offer. Whether it was £20,000 or so many guineas I don't know."
"And you parted with the Cup?" Reggie said, forgetting his manners. "You sold it?"
"As a means of asserting my authority, yes. The Warwick Cup has passed out of the family."
The speaker looked around her. She had desired to make an impression. And in the minds of two of her hearers at least she had succeeded beyond her wildest expectations.
"Great minds," Edna said sententiously, "rise to great occasions. The remark may not be original, but there is a thoughtful flavour about it. This is a great occasion. Look here."
A score of wax candles made subdued light in the dressing-room given over to the twins. It was the hour before dinner, and they were decking out in vestal robes for the occasion. Edna held up a black dress all filmy with lace; there was an atmosphere of Paris about it.
"Isn't it a wee bit too sudden?" Phillipa said doubtfully.
"I don't think so," Edna said, holding out the skirt admiringly. "Last night the bare arms stage was allowed to pass. You see our godmother has a deal to occupy her attention just at present. There is her lecture to the Lord Chancellor, for instance."
Phillipa smiled. During the last day or two Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had become celebrated beyond the domains of Caradoc. It is not very often that the Court of Chancery finds itself so deliberately defied as had happened in the case of Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram and the Warwick Cup. Mrs Eldred-Wolfram had thrown down the gauntlet, and she had waited calmly for a tyrannous legal tribunal to pick it up, much as an ancestor of hers had once defied the Star Chamber.
A day or two passed and nothing had happened. The delighted owner of the Warwick Cup had omitted to tell his secretary of the transaction, consequently a valuable piece of gossip had not reached the Press. From Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's point of view this was timidity on the part of Chancery. But the paragraph came at length; it was copied, and amplified, and discussed, and finally it had come to the ears of the Saltash branch of the family. Then there were notices and motions and the like, and a pressing request on the part of the Chancellor that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram should stand before him on a certain day to answer that inasmuch as she—but the legal jargon is immaterial.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram perused the verbose document with a certain calm dignity worthy of her. She would not attend. Why should she trouble about Lord Stourmouth. Why, he had been no more than a junior clerk in a lawyer's office at one time. Still, it might be just as well to allow her lawyers to see the summons. All this she imparted to the twins and Kathleen to their boundless admiration. But the reply from the eminent firm of lawyers in Lincoln's Inn had changed everything.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had suddenly grown quiet and distrait; she seemed to have something on her mind. And to-morrow was the day for the interview with Lord Stourmouth. Later in the afternoon she had telegraphed to Mr. Charles Merrion to come and see her, and he had replied that he was coming down to dinner.
Hence the suggested opportunity for the complete emancipation of the twins. Greatly daring, they had ventured upon bare arms the night before. They might have appeared in a fancy dress costume for all the notice Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram took of them. Her mind seemed to be far away. Cedric spilt two drops of claret on the table-cloth and the crime passed without punishment. Cedric, too, seemed to share the grave preoccupation. The only one of the party who appeared to have any knowledge of the subject was Kathleen, and she had got her information second-hand. Reggie and the Major were away in London, though Reggie had telegraphed for permission to come over to dinner that same night, and Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had smiled for the first time during the day.
"A cloud hangs over the fortunes of the house," Phillipa said. "Our godmother is going to be sacrificed to satisfy a brutal judicial system. If she wanted to sell that stupid old cup, why shouldn't she? Still, her mind is not quite easy; she never heeded when I used a spoon with my entree at luncheon. On the whole, I shall venture on my yellow dress."
The yellow dress was a little more chic than Edna's black one. Once the girls were dressed they looked at one another with critical, admiring eyes that had just a suggestion of defiance in them. The bell had sounded, but they still hesitated.
"Who is going into the drawing-room first?" Edna asked.
"Your well-known firmness and strength of character," Phillipa began, "and your——"
"Oh, nonsense. I might suggest your superior sweetness and charm. Let's toss up for it. Your call."
Phillipa called heads and lost. In the drawing-room the guests had already arrived. Mrs Eldred-Wolfram was seated in a low chair, shading her eyes from the light with a screen. Kathleen and Reggie were opposite her, whilst the Honourable Charles Merrion had taken up a forensic attitude with his back to the fire.
"The point is this," he was saying. "The point is this. For the moment we have nothing whatever to do with your legal rights and liberties. The Court has decided in its wisdom to—Good heavens!"
Mr. Merrion pulled up sharply as the visions in black and yellow broke in upon his eyes. Those were the demure twins, no doubt, though he would not have recognised them anywhere else. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram followed the gaze of her distinguished guest sadly.
"Don't blame me," she said, with pious resignation. "Kathleen is the culprit. Foolishly, I gave her an inch, and she has taken an ell. I give up the modern girl, she is beyond me. I suppose it is all right, and I hope it is quite respectable."
Mr. Merrion was understood to say that he saw no outrage of the proprieties. Also he told himself that he had no idea the twins were so pretty. He would have congratulated Kathleen had he found an opportunity of doing so. Being the polished man of the world he was, he turned the conversation into another channel. Cedric came in with the announcement of dinner.
It was a perfect dinner, beautifully served and cooked to perfection, but Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram ate nothing. Again and again she referred to the morrow. She had abandoned all idea of defying the law, at which Mr. Merrion nodded approval.
"I suppose I shall be asked to express my regret," she asked. Merrion glanced at Cedric, the only servant in the room by this time.
"Cedric knows everything," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram went on. "Cedric is distinctly one of the family. I should not hesitate to discuss anything in his presence."
Cedric coughed his approval of this praiseworthy sentiment. He stood behind the chair of his mistress now with the air of a faithful adviser thoughtfully imported into an important family discussion.
"I am afraid that will not do," Mr. Merrion went on. "You don't seem to understand that you have committed the grossest contempt of Court. Even a judge is human, and in this case you have touched the personal dignity of the Court. They order you to do a certain thing, and you deliberately defy them."
"If I express my regret, and undertake in the future not to——"
"I am afraid that will not do. If you could obtain possession of the Cup again——"
"That will be asking a favour—a favour of a foreigner, a sort of American. Quite a dreadful person, I assure you. I had no idea Major Wiltshire could be so vindictive."
"I assure you the Major has had nothing to do with the matter," Reggie said hastily. "It is the Saltash people who are moving. I hardly like to say it, but they will press for an extreme penalty."
"And what may that be?" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram asked with pardonable anxiety.
Reggie glanced at Mr. Merrion, who took up the thread again.
"A committal for contempt," he said. "My dear lady, I am loth to say it but the thing is inevitable. The fact that a national treasure, so to speak, is going to America will tell against you. Still, as they make special provision for these cases at Holloway——"
"Holloway Gaol?" Kathleen exclaimed. "Mr. Merrion, you don't mean to say——"
"Really, my dear young lady, I am afraid I do," Merrion said gravely.
"Good Lord!" Cedric remarked, sotto voce. "Good Lord, you don't mean it?"
Nobody took the faintest notice. The anxious expression faded from Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's face. She was her calm, placid self again.
"Then I shall go," she said. "I want no sympathy, please; no show of feeling. Come, girls."
She rose and swept gravely from the table, followed by the girls. Merrion pushed the cigarettes across to Reggie, and helped himself to another glass of claret.
"I suppose that is what it will really come to?" the younger man asked.
"Certainly, my dear boy. It is a bad case—as bad as that of a certain Duchess some years ago. I have done the best I can. Still, a humble apology, plus the Cup, may do much. The point is—do you think the Major will succeed in getting it back in time?"
"It won't be for the want of trying," Reggie said. "During the last two days the Major and myself have had several interviews with Mr. Wargrave. Of course, he is very sore about it; he bought the Cup in good faith, and he is naturally very proud of it. It is a gem that any collector might covet. Still, he sees now that in any case he will have to refund it, because clearly Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had no authority to sell. I fancy he was convinced of that when we parted last night."
"And, naturally, he would expect to get his cheque back. The point is, whether our charming hostess still has the money."
"I should say not. She has probably discharged some of her heavy obligations with it. Still, we ought to know before long what Mr. Wargrave is going to do."
A second glass of claret was finished, and a second cigarette was smoked before Cedric came in with a telegram. Reggie glanced at it and smiled.
"It's all right, so far," he said. "The Major has got the Cup, by which I infer that he has given his cheque for the money, and so risked losing it. After all, despite Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's ideas, there is something in having a brewery in the family."
"We may just manage to pull through now," Merrion said, "unless the Saltash people are very vindictive. But one thing is quite certain—Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram must appear in person. But, win or lose, there is a painful surprise in store for her."
The royal pageant started the following morning; Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram behind the bays, with Mr. Merrion by her side. Reggie had elected to stay behind; the family would have to be supported in the hour of their need, he argued. The suggestion that an old shoe should be thrown for luck was abandoned as being contrary to the traditions that hung around the family.
"Will she have to clean out her own cell?" Edna asked, unfeelingly.
"I fancy patients with money are allowed to employ the poorer debtors in that capacity," Reggie explained. "Also they can order in their own food, but knives and forks are not permitted. Tobacco is prohibited, and only malt liquor to the extent of two pints a day."
Phillipa was moved to heartless mirth. The situation was not without humour. The connection between Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram and malt liquors was distinctly funny. The twins had come down and dutifully kissed their godmother farewell, and she had embraced their heather mixture costumes without the faintest shade of annoyance. Under the circumstances of the case, they could not take a gloomy view of the future.
It was past four when there came a telegram from Mr. Merrion to the effect that Holloway was not destined on this occasion to number Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram as a temporary member. On the whole she had behaved very well, the Court had been in a good humour, and the Saltash people not unduly vindictive. The production in court of the Warwick Cup had created a good impression. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was detained by pressing business, but would be home to dinner at nine o'clock.
"She will explain the changed aspect of affairs," the message concluded.
This was vague and a little disquieting. Nobody quite knew what it meant. Reggie's legal knowledge was of the slightest, and it had given out earlier in the day. Nor was there a word from Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram as she sat calm and dignified throughout dinner. But there was something heavy in the air, for, as the dessert appeared, Cedric was dismissed. He sighed loudly and went.
"You have something dreadful to tell us?" Kathleen suggested.
"So dreadful that I cannot quite realise it as yet," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said quite calmly. "It appears that I have been living in a fool's paradise all these years. My tenants I have never bothered, because I have regarded them as more or less part of the family. Therefore, I have sold what I have regarded as my own properly in order to keep up the dignity of the house. All this, it appears, is wrong. They make out that from first to last I have had over £200,000 in this way, I have been ordered to refund the money."
"But that does not seem to be possible," Margaret exclaimed.
"My dear, you are perfectly right; it is not possible. I had to agree to everything. Had I not done so there is little doubt that the Lord Chancellor would have sent me to—to——"
The twins nodded in sympathy. Edna smiled sadly as she thought of the two pints of malt liquor.
"It would have been exceedingly unpleasant," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram went on. "They lectured me, and I had to endure it. . . . From a man who was once a lawyer's clerk. . . . They said that I had been foolishly indulgent to my tenants; they made out that they had taken shameful advantage of me. How it happened, goodness only knows, but Mr. Merrion tells me that I consented for the estate to be administered by the trustees, with power to get in the really enormous arrears of rent, which they are to apply to repay off my debt. I am to be allowed £2000 a year, and Caradoc is to be let furnished."
"Did you really agree to that?" Kathleen cried, aghast.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram nodded, and her eyes grew moist.
"I had to," she said, simply. "Unless I had consented they would have sent me . . . yonder. I should have been compelled to mix with dreadful creatures. My dears, the blow has fallen. And that is not the worst."
"Could there be any worse?" Kathleen asked.
"There is always something worse," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said in a deepest gloom. "There are my private debts. How am I going to pay them? So far as I can gather, I owe something like £8000 now. And—and I owe Major Wiltshire half that sum as the balance for the recovery of the Warwick Cup."
It was a bitter confession to make, but Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram made it like the great lady she was. Reggie, with his eyes cast down on the table, said nothing. He knew pretty well what a confession like that had cost the speaker. To be under an obligation to Major Wiltshire was worse than leaving Caradoc. Reggie found himself alone with Kathleen presently.
"It's a dreadful business," she said. "Though I fancy a blow like this will do Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram good. And the way the tenants have taken advantage of her is ridiculous. I suppose, if she places half her income on one side, she can make terms with her private creditors."
"I'll see to that," Reggie said. "You are going to stick to our gracious lady, I see, and she couldn't have anybody better. I'm glad you came home, Kathleen."
"And I'm glad I met you, Reggie," Kathleen said with a flush on her face. "We'll both stick to our gracious lady, and there's my hand on it."
Reggie kissed the slender fingers, and seemed about as if to say something, and then changed his mind.
"We'll pull through all right," he said. "It all depends now upon the tenant who takes Caradoc. Oh, the place will let like anything. There will be scores of rich men after it to-morrow. As soon as everything is decided, I'll come over and let you know. . . . Good night, little Kitty."
They shook hands again, and smiled into each other's eyes. Then Kitty blushed and fled, with a pleased feeling in her mind and her heart beating a little faster than usual. It was two days later before Reggie came over from Castleford again with a grave face and a suggestion of catastrophe in his eyes. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was walking in the garden as he came up.
"If there anything bad?" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram asked. "What is it?"
"Caradoc is let," Reggie stammered. "Never was anything so foolish. And who do you suppose they have let it to? It's infamous."
"I know," Kitty said with fine instinct. "It's been taken by Mr. Lawson Waddy, the newspaper man."
"This," said Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram, "is the crushing blow. Fate can do no further harm now."
There was straw littered about the great Gothic hall at Caradoc, some dreadfully modern-looking deal packing boxes stood side by side with a pair of carved oak dower chests. Contemplating them with a wistful expression on her pretty face was Kathleen.
"There is something very pathetic about a packing case," she said aloud. "Under these circumstances, a poet might write an ode to a packing case. Fancy a family living here since the time of Alfred the Great and then being 'moved' by Maple—'estimates free'—and all the rest of it. Oh, dear; I wish this had never happened. I wish—I do wish, Reggie was here."
"Well, that's a sincere compliment, at any rate," Reggie's clear voice said. "I have pressing business that takes me away for a week, and when I come back I find this. What does it mean?"
"I don't know," Kathleen said hopelessly. She seemed oblivious to the fact that Reginald was still holding her hand in his, and that there was something more than admiration shining in his honest eyes. "I had to go to London with Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram to help her with that dreadful legal business, and we only got back last night. Grandmother's creditors have behaved shamefully. Men who have had thousands of her money are abusing her as if she were a thief. Reggie, it has aged her dreadfully. Some of those people came and abused her. It was like drawing her heart's blood drop by drop."
Reggie nodded in sympathy. To be abused by a tradesman was the deepest depth of all.
"We all came back last night," Kathleen went on. "Margaret and I have been making arrangements, and the twins have been helping us. There are unexpected strong points in the twins that nobody could possibly have anticipated. Never again will they come under the dominating influence of grandmother. We are going to take a flat near Hyde Park for the present."
"Oh, you are," Reggie said, grimly. "I can see the programme quite clearly. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram has decided to immolate herself on the shrine of her order, and refuses to touch a penny of the income allowed her by the Court because some vulgar thief, who has probably been overcharging her for years, has descended to abuse. You are going to help because you are really making a good income, and Margaret is going to take to painting again. The twins are going to act in lieu of servants. Now, isn't that the programme that you have mapped out for yourselves?"
"Well!" said Kathleen, somewhat taken aback, "it—it is rather like that. How did you know?"
"How did I know? Think I never read novels! Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram would die in a year up there, and Margaret will never recover if she goes back yonder. Since you have been away I have been pretty busy. For one thing, I have taken Beacon Lodge."
"The pretty house back under the hills," Kathleen exclaimed. "Are you going to live there?"
"Well, I must have a home somewhere," Reggie said hastily. "The Major has pretty well made up his mind to settle in these parts, and I don't exactly care to take up my abode with him. You see, I have my father's money, so I am pretty well off—too well off to have any desire for Caradoc till I am legally entitled to it. As this place is let, and there was nothing said about the family heirlooms, I am furnishing on the cheap. Every carpet and chair and picture and the rest at Beacon Lodge comes from here. Hence these cases. The trustees allowed me to do that."
Kathleen followed with more or less interest.
"That explains it all," she said. "But it seems strange that nearly everything I miss, and which you have taken, should have been Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's favourite treasures."
"That shows my exquisite taste," Reggie said, with a smile. "You must come and see my place."
"We'll make the most of our time," Kathleen said, sadly. "Did you take Margaret's organ, too? I find that has gone. Oh, Reggie, how she will miss it."
"I took that, too," Reggie said. "I did not fancy Mr. Lawson Waddy playing 'Girl' music on Margaret's favourite instrument. And so you are going to do without servants in London."
"Practically. One little maid from here, or something like that. The great stumbling-block in the way is Cedric; his obstinacy is monumental. He persistently declines to leave us. When I suggested the question of wages to him, he gave me a look—well, I couldn't go on, Reggie. I can't really grasp it. A little time ago my grandmother was absolute mistress here; she seemed both rich and powerful. Then comes a petty dispute; a few words, followed by a thoughtless action, and everything has gone like a vision."
"If it hadn't been for that confounded Cup," Reggie muttered.
"Come and see Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram. You will find her greatly changed."
Reggie was bound to admit that Kathleen was right. The last few days seemed to have added years to the elderly lady's life. She had lost her straightness, there was a shakiness of the hands that was painful to see. Reggie could imagine his relative broken, but he had never anticipated seeing her bent like this.
"I began to fancy you had deserted us," she said, with the first ghost of a smile. "We have been in London, Reggie. There is a deal of business to transact. And there were certain creditors of mine who seemed to think that I had behaved shabbily to them. One or two were exceedingly angry. They ventured to say——"
"Don't," Kathleen said imploringly. "Please don't; try and forget all about it. I have been telling Reggie of our plans. Once we have made the plunge, we shall be quite happy in London."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's lips framed the words, but they did not find utterance. There was a yearning look in her eyes as they roamed about the old room; no suggestion of tears told in her eyes, but there was something very pathetic about the drooping figure in the Jacobean armchair.
"I see a good many of the treasures have been removed," she said. "Cedric tells me several cases have gone away. It is strange that most of them should have been my favourites."
Reggie proceeded to explain. Everything has gone to Beacon Lodge. By this time the whole house was practically straight. It would perhaps be a little break at a mournful period, certainly Reggie would take it as a great honour if the family would dine with him to-morrow night.
"I'll try and come, Reggie," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. "But the last day or two I have been so dreadfully tired. It is quite a new feeling to me. So very, very tired."
She repeated the last words once or twice mechanically. All her old pride and haughtiness seemed to have been swept away. The sound of her ivory-handled stick sounded loud on the stairs; for the first time in her life she needed it. Kathleen looked at Reggie, her eyes full of tears.
"It's very sad," she said unsteadily. "If I could only do something really useful——"
Reggie was of opinion that Kathleen's advent in England was a god-send. Two workmen crossed the hall and proceeded to remove the remaining cases, the sound of hammers echoed from a distant corridor. As Kathleen looked up she saw that the lantern clock and the ship's bell were gone. She was about to remark on this when the twins came in from the garden. As Reggie looked at them he found himself wondering why he had ever compared them to a pair of Dutch dolls. They were alert and vigorous enough now.
"It's no use my pretending I'm sorry, because I'm not," Edna said. "It sounds like blasphemy, but I never cared for Caradoc, it's too grand and overbearing for me. I never felt human here. At last I am going to live and breathe and be of some use in the world."
She stood poised there, with her lips parted and with eager eyes. It was a picture good to see. Then they all passed into the garden again, where they found Margaret, and fell to discussing the future. It was Reggie who was the most buoyant and cheerful. He was quite sure that everything would come all right.
"What you really want is to find a place here," he said.
"I've thought of that," Kathleen said quietly, "but it wouldn't do. It would be too reminiscent. Perhaps we could have managed if the place had not been taken by Mr. Lawson Waddy."
"That was a fatal mistake," Reggie said, shooting the head off a daisy with his stick. "But I've got my little scheme for getting rid of Lawson Waddy. With the true caution of his class he has only taken the house with a proviso that he can relinquish it at the end of a year if he likes. Unless I am greatly mistaken, the end of the twelve months will also see the end of Lawson Waddy. Now, you are all coming to dine with me to-morrow night. Whatever you do, pray don't disappoint me."
Reggie went off, nodding his head mysteriously. It was only a pleasant walk across the fields, so that there was no occasion for a state entry into Beacon Lodge. The girls had forgotten everything in the excitement and curiosity of the moment, nor were they disposed to be critical. They saw a long, low house, covered with creepers, approached by paths past beautifully trimmed lawns. There was a square, oak-panelled hall, with the old lantern clock in the centre, hard by the ship's bell; here were the Elizabethan chairs and the favourite pictures in the drawing-room, lending to a beautifully fitted conservatory, Reggie seemed to have gathered everything that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram most valued; indeed, everything seemed to have been arranged to copy the small dining and drawing rooms at Caradoc. In a small chamber behind was the organ that Margaret had so prized. She clasped her hands together as she looked at it.
"It has been hard work to get it ready," Reggie said. He appeared to have some little difficulty with his words. "I got all the old furniture, you see, down to the carpet and rugs. The trustees allowed me to take them away, on condition that I made myself personally responsible for their safety. If I can't have the rose just yet, I mean to get as near to the rose as I can."
Kathleen looked about her with shining eyes; there was a deep colour on her cheeks. With more zest than she had shown for days, Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram proposed to see the bedrooms.
"It is an excellent idea or yours, Reggie," she said. "And a great compliment to me. Do you mean to say that all the furniture from my chamber——"
"Is upstairs," Reggie said. "It will be for you when you come to see me, which will be often, I hope. It was a poor idea, but the best I could think of."
The others were trooping up the stairs behind Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram; only Kathleen lingered beyond. She looked up to Reggie with eyes that told their own tale.
"You are a darling," she whispered, "a regular darling. Oh, Reggie, Reggie!"
Her hands went out impulsively, and he caught them in his. The next moment his arm was about her waist and his lips pressed to hers. It was a delirious, delicious minute in which Kathleen realised that she loved and was loved in return. An instant later, and they were standing apart as if nothing had happened, save that Kathleen was breathing fast, and her lips were parted in an unsteady smile.
"The subject is not to be mentioned again for a long time," she said. "At the present moment, and, oh, Reggie, do you really and truly love me?"
Reggie made no reply in words. But he was quite sure of his feelings. He listened to Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's praise of his good taste and feeling for decorations without hearing a word she said. It was not till the ship's bell tolled out with startling familiarity that he had recovered himself.
Down in the dining-room, dinner was laid out on the oval gate-legged table that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram affected. There was the familiar damask, the favourite flowers, the old Venetian glass and silver, with the old portraits smiling down from the walls. And in the centre of the table stood the Warwick Cup. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's pale face flushed as she saw it.
"The skeleton at the feast," she murmured. "Well, my pride has had a fall; how strange and yet how familiar it all seems. Dear me, is that Cedric?"
Cedric came forward to wait without a muscle of his face moving. He looked like the repository of a great and wonderful secret. His manners were as perfect as ever, but his hand shook ever so slightly as he handed round the dishes so familiar to him for so many years.
On the whole, it was a cheerful meal, there was a buoyant, sanguine spirit about it. The cloth was removed and dessert laid out when Reggie made a sign to Cedric.
"Take the Cup and fill it," he said.
Cedric removed the Warwick Cup from the table, and proceeded to fill it with champagne. Reggie rose with a graver face than he had worn all through the meal.
"I am going to propose a toast and make a confession," he said. "We are all friends here, in which category, I have no hesitation in including Cedric, who stands behind me."
"And God bless you for saying that, Master Reginald," Cedric said in a muffled voice.
"Well, it is no more than the truth. Circumstances into which I need not go render it imperative for my esteemed relative here to find another home. Really, I am getting on better with my speech than I anticipated. I find myself in command of a fine flow of language. Well, my esteemed relative and her loving relations have decided, in their wisdom, to go to London. The wisdom of that decision I question. It is no place for you, dear lady. I am quite sure it is no place for Margaret. It was my intention to try and persuade my friends to remain in the neighbourhood of Caradoc. Dear Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram, will you be quite candid with me?"
"I will be as candid with you as you like, Reggie," the elderly lady murmured.
"Then, would it not have broken your heart to go away from here?"
"Is it not broken already?" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said quietly. "My punishment is none the less hard because I have brought it on myself. But for the sake of the girls——"
"Oh, the girls will be all right. Edna and Phillipa would look after the house. For Margaret I have procured some splendid commissions to paint—paint——"
Reggie paused in confusion as he met Kathleen's brimming, dancing eyes. Perhaps she loved him none the less for the falsehood uttered in so good a cause and with such good feeling.
"So that Margaret shall have a good income," he went on. "As for Kathleen, I should say she must be making, at least, £1000 a year, which is likely to become much more."
"Oh, much," Kathleen cried, fairly caressing Reggie with her eyes, and entering into the spirit of the thing. "We are going to make my grandmother very comfortable between us. She has given up her income for the honour of the name; we will give everything up also for her dear sake."
"That is how I expected you all to feel," Reggie said. "So, therefore, you are not going to London at all. Kathleen, you guessed my secret. Tell it to the others."
"Reggie bought this house for us," Kathleen said, with shining eyes. "We shall be happy and comfortable, we shall have money and to spare. Pass the loving cup, and let us drink to our future happiness."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram took the Cup with hands that trembled so much that Reggie had to steady it. Then the big silver vessel went slowly round the table till all had sipped, and finally Reggie passed it to Cedric. The old man's face flamed, but he accepted the compliment, and drank without protest or apology.
"I may be able to thank you presently," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. "From you I could accept the gift. If you only knew how I have dreaded—if I could only cry my head would be better."
She bent forward and wiped her dry eyes, a queer laugh came from her lips as Reggie turned towards her. Each smiling, happy face had grown uneasy.
"Cedric, this is a case for a doctor," Reggie whispered. "I had no idea that——"
"Dr. Ford, sir?" Cedric asked. "I'll go myself."
"No, no," cried Kathleen, with a sudden inspiration. "Dr. Dennison, Cedric; send for Dr. Dennison. I am quite sure that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram would like him."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram seemed to comprehend dimly. She met Margaret's eyes.
"I should prefer Dr. Dennison, I think," she said. "They say he is so clever."
A blackbird was piping madly in the apple orchard, a faint breeze stirred the elms. There was a murmur of bees in the air, the sharp tinkle of a whetstone against a scythe as Cedric pompously slaved away in a dark corner. Not the least surprising part of the exodus was the many sidedness of character displayed by Cedric. The mere idea of Cedric playing the part of gardener was past imagination; even Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram would never have dreamt of asking him to do anything of the kind. It was a pleasing feature in the hour of trouble.
And yet the trouble, once faced, had not been nearly so dreadful as on the first blush it appeared. Beacon Lodge would have been voted a delightful house by ordinary mortals. It stood high, and embraced the most charming views, as the house agents picturesquely put it; there was plenty of shade, and the garden and grounds were well matured—to quote the agent again.
And nothing was wanting inside the house to make it complete. The side lawn was delightfully shady, so Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had her basket-chair and knitting placed there, where she could hear the sweet low music of Margaret's organ, and where she could watch Kathleen at her work.
The latter had given herself over, heart and soul, the last few days, to her new book. Kathleen was a rapid worker, and always did best at high pressure. Never before had she been so deeply enamoured of a story, full as it was of Caradoc and the impression of her last surroundings. There were sharp contrasts, too, that gave the story a piquancy of its own.
Kathleen wrote on for another hour, and then closed her pad with a snap.
"There!" she said, looking up with a sunny smile. "We have reached the point where the heroine has to choose between her love and what she considers her duty. Shall I read what I have written to-day?"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram assented eagerly. She was taking the most vivid interest in the new novel. Modern fiction she generally despised; she was out of touch with the latter day spirit, and anything beyond the era of Scott she viewed with contempt. But she had been learning things lately, she had become much more human in the last few months, and there was a tender simplicity about Kathleen's work that charmed her. She listened with an interest that was flattering.
"Of course your 'Gelert House' is Caradoc," she said. "Do you know your heroine strongly reminds me of Margaret? There is quite a likeness."
Kathleen smiled. As a matter of fact Margaret was the heroine of the story—Margaret torn between love and duty—Margaret, the daughter of a gentle lady of high degree, who had married a pushing, shrewd man of the world, who had ordered Margaret's poor lover not to enter the house again. Only in the book the heroine's mother was dead, and she had her father to fight alone.
"The father is familiar, but I can't quite grasp him," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said.
"Then I will let you into the secret," said Kathleen. "My heroine's father is a kind of Lawson Waddy grown older. Gelert House is Caradoc, of course, and the heroine loves it because it is the home of her race bought back by her father after he had made his money. As yet we have not seen much of the hero, but he must not be neglected any longer."
"Who is he going to be like?" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram asked.
The soft sweet harmony of the organ had stopped for a moment and Margaret had come out into the sunshine through the window. Kathleen went on quietly.
"He is to be a doctor," she said. "A noble young fellow who makes great sacrifices and who has saved the heroine's life. Now, can you suggest anybody?"
"Why not Dr. Dennison?" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram asked eagerly. It seemed to her that she was really having a hand in the making of the story. "Dr. Dennison would do admirably."
"You think that he is—is—you know what I mean. Of course, there are gentlemen——"
"My dear," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said with great decision, "you can make your mind quite easy on that point. Dr. Dennison is a gentleman in the best sense of the word. And nobody could have done me so much good as he did. You could not have a more attractive model."
"Then it is settled that Dr. Dennison is to be the model for the hero of the great work," Kathleen said cheerfully. "There are two loyal, noble, loving hearts on the verge of shipwreck because a sordid and worldly father desires to sacrifice his daughter for his own ends."
"But you are not going to let him succeed?" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said eagerly. "Don't be what they call realistic, I believe, and spoil the story in this way. My dear, I have been thinking of a great many things lately, since—since——"
"Since you came here for your holiday," Kathleen interposed.
"Well, yes, if you put it that way. After all, love is everything; there is nothing like it."
"Margaret and Dr. Dennison," Kathleen said vaguely. "Not that they have anything to do with the case."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram blushed a little. She had been talking in the abstract, and this concreting of her sentiments was not altogether pleasing.
"That is a different matter altogether," she said, not without dignity. "I cannot forget that Margaret is a representative of perhaps the oldest family in England. Besides, there is Reggie——"
Kathleen hastened to change the subject. The time was not ripe yet to tell her secret, and, besides, Margaret was standing in the window. At the end of the garden a yellow motor with red wheels whizzed by at a pace that would have caused trouble before a bench of Surrey magistrates, and a grotesque figure raised one of the latest monstrosities in the way of a motor cap.
"Mr. Lawson Waddy," said Kathleen. "What an absurd little creature he is, with his turned-up moustaches. They say he is going to do all kinds of things at Caradoc. He has been here only a few weeks, and I'm told he talks as if he had solved the whole agricultural problem. I'm told that he is going in for jam-making on a large scale."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's face clouded slightly. She had heard most of the stories from the farmers, and the farmers' wives, who had come to do her homage at Beacon Lodge. Most of the tenants on the Caradoc estates had doubtless shamefully abused Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's regal generosity in the past, but they were making up to her now. Amazing gifts, or rather offerings of produce, came streaming into the kitchen at Beacon Lodge. Poultry, butter, cheese, preserves of all kinds, were literally laid at the feet of the Lady Bountiful, and she accepted it all as her right. Thus did the vassals in the old days show their loyalty to the lord of the soil. But as they came they brought strange rumours.
Mr. Lawson Waddy was going to wake them all up, he was going to show them how to make a fortune out of the fruits of the soil, the labourers were to be coaxed back to the land again, a golden time was coming—a golden time and a dividend of 10 per cent. Lawson Waddy had not lost sight of the dividend. He was going to erect his own factory as an object lesson; before long the Caradoc brand or provisions would be famous. It was merely a manner of advertising.
All these things Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had heard with misgiving. She wondered if the trustees had power to prevent this kind of thing. She was still debating the matter in her mind over her knitting when the garden gate opened, and a young man, wheeling a bicycle, entered. As a rule, Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram hated bicycles as a concession to the revolutionary spirit, but she had a smile for the rider. Margaret had a smile for him, too, and her pale face flushed.
"Dr. Dennison," Kathleen murmured. "Grandmother, shall I ring the bell for tea?"
Tea came presently, served on the grass under the sweet-smelling acacias by Cedric, who looked and bore himself as if he had never seen a scythe in his life. Dennison talked in his easy, graceful manner, but there was a suggestion of a frown between his brows.
"What is wrong, Dr. Dennison?" Kathleen asked, in her quick, sympathetic way. "Did Mr. Lawson Waddy run you down in his motor-car?"
"On the contrary, he stopped and spoke to me," Dennison said. "I longed for the freedom of my 'Varsity days again. If I could have recalled them I should have certainly assaulted that distinguished journalist, though I beg Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's pardon for talking so violently in her presence."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram smiled indulgently. She had taken a greater liking to this frank, manly, clever young doctor than she would have cared to acknowledge. Besides, she had the turbulent spirit of her ancestors somewhere, and, sooth to say, she would rather have enjoyed the spectacle of an encounter between these two.
"Was he more than usually offensive?" Kathleen asked.
"Oh, much worse. The fellow is going to build a factory here, or so he says, to make jam. I pointed out to him the other day that it would be a great eyesore to you here, and an offence generally! He was very rude then, he had practically purchased the only available land, and he should do as he liked. Under the circumstances I took the bull by the horns and went to see old Ballard, who has the land to sell. I told him what was going on, and he quite took my view. The long and short of it is that, to save any possible annoyance, I bought that land myself."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was quite warm in her gratitude—it was a most kind and thoughtful thing to do. Dennison blushed slightly under the process.
"Not at all," he said. "I can spare the money and the land is valuable. Mr Waddy met me just now and gave me his opinion on the transaction. Not to be less candid, I gave him a few of my opinions. But he shall not sell anything from Caradoc. I flatter myself that I have some influence with the tenants here, and most of them have promised to refrain from sending anything to Waddy's agents. He will make nothing out of his vulgar commercialism here."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram positively beamed with gratitude. She even said nothing as Dennison, after tea, strolled off with Margaret to see the roses. Cedric had produced a fresh brew in the Georgian teapot, when Reggie came strolling down the garden path.
"I am just over from Caradoc," he explained casually. "Upon my word, our friend there is going it. He proposes to publish a cheap history of the house—price a penny, of course—and get people interested in the place. Then he wants to establish a kind of bacon factory or something of the kind, and make a big market for the Caradoc provisions. He says he shall call it the 'Caradoc,' and have the Warwick Cup as a trade mark."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram turned up her eyes resignedly.
"Can we have no peace from that man?" She said. "Cannot he refrain from his vulgar money-making in a peaceful spot like this? Of course, you stopped it at once, Reggie?"
"Well, you see, I am not exactly in a position to do so," Reggie explained. "I believe the fellow can adopt any name as trade mark he likes. Fortunately, the factory scheme has been knocked on the head owing to the action of Dennison."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram announced her intention of going inside as the dew was falling. She was leaning a little heavily on her stick again. Visions of a reproduction of the Warwick Cup wrapped round a pound of butter or picturesquely adoring a pot of jam, rose before her troubled eyes. The whole thing was horrible. Kathleen lay back in her chair, and laughed gently. She sadly lacked the Wolfram spirit.
"The whole thing sounds so absurd," she said. "And yet I have been quite long enough with her to appreciate the feelings of our gracious lady in the matter. Reggie, it was a great mistake to allow that man to come to Caradoc. Is there no way of getting rid of him?"
"Come down into the garden and let us discuss it seriously," Reggie said. "My darling, I have not seen you for a week."
It was some time before they discussed anything seriously. It was very quiet there, and the scent of the roses was heavy on the air. When the conversation became less warm and personal, it drifted to Margaret and Dennison.
"Can nothing be done there?" Reggie asked.
"Everything is going to be done there," Kathleen smiled. "I am working out a pretty scheme, and our gracious lady is falling into the trap most beautifully. If you want any little schemes like that worked out, you can do no better than consult a novelist. Let me tell you something about my new book, which is getting on famously. And when you have the plot of it, I shall be greatly disappointed if you don't guess what I am working for. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram is deeply interested in the heroine."
"What a clever wife I shall have," Reggie said. "And yet it is dreadful to think that I shall be always pointed out as Mrs. Eldred's husband."
"And what better fate could you have, sir? Now, listen to me carefully. When I have finished I shall expect you to recognise the original of my heroine."
Kathleen told the plot of the story clearly and distinctly. Reggie's interest was clearly flattering.
"That sounds very fine," he said. "I recognised Margaret and Dennison at once. I presume the cruel father is made up of a compound portrait of Waddy and Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram; in other words, you dare not be too near the original in that quarter. My dear girl, I see exactly what you are driving at, and a very clever scheme it is, if you can get over our gracious lady."
"Dearest, I have done so already. She is greatly interested in the story of my heroine, she is quite distressed lest the whole thing should not end happily. And when I make her subsequently confess, I mean when I make Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram confess——"
Reggie moved a little further away as Margaret and Dennison came down the path. The name of Lawson Waddy floated in the air, he seemed to poison everything. Reggie laughed, but Dennison's face was grave again. He proceeded to explain, but Reggie cut him short.
"But I see you don't know everything," the doctor said. "That man is simply bound to turn everything into money. Do you know his latest scheme? He is having practically all your treasures photographed with a view to publication. Says he's going to start a new art journal. I don't speak with legal knowledge, but I fancy you can stop that."
"Is that really a fact?" Reggie asked, with a beaming face.
"I had it from the culprit myself. 'Pon my word, Eldred, you seem to take it pretty coolly."
"Don't let us mention the man again," Reggie said. "I fancy I see my way to deal with him now. Margaret, come and give us a little music, and Dennison shall sing. I must not stay long, as I have to drive out to Castleford to-night."
The organ stood back with the bank of flowers behind it exactly as it had done in the cell at Caradoc. Kathleen sat there dreaming as Margaret's fingers wandered over the keys, her mind was far away as Dennison's fine voice sang some passionate Ave. She sat there still for a long time after the two young men had departed and the shadows had commenced to fall. From outside came the sound of the voices of the twins quarrelling over their game of tennis.
"How material those girls are!" Kathleen said as she came to herself at length. "Margaret, I hardly heard you playing."
"I saw you were in a brown study," Margaret said. "Thinking of the book still. I am quite hurt that I am not allowed to hear any of it. How does your heroine get on?"
"My heroine is like yourself," Kathleen smiled. "The love story is marred by a sinister influence—the struggle between love and duty."
"I know; I have heard it before. Don't spoil it, Kathleen, don't be too material. I hope you are going to let your heroine be happy."
Kathleen leaned over and kissed the white, pathetic face.
"She is going to be happy," she whispered. "She is going to marry the man of her choice. And then she does so about the same time you will marry yours. Dear old Margaret, you are going to have your doctor yet."
Margaret shook her head, but Kathleen's light spirit had affected her. The music of the organ rose and swelled into a triumphal march.
Kathleen sat under the big cedar on the lawn busy at her story. Her head was bent down and her pen was flying over the paper. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram, brushing green fly from the roses, watched her with a certain air of proprietorship. A few weeks ago it had come to her as a great shock that a near relative of hers should have plied for hire, so to speak, as a professional novelist, but she had altered her views widely of late. After all, it was good to have an intellect in the family. In her heart of hearts Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram regarded herself as part author of the story. She was anxious to know how the day's work was progressing, but she had learned the lesson that an author is not to be molested in the moment of inspiration even by a Wolfram.
Kathleen turned back the leaves of her pad presently and began to whistle. It was all very strange and new and wonderful, but that whistle did not shock or annoy Mrs Eldred-Wolfram in the least. Perhaps she was more adaptable than she imagined. She smiled quite amiably as Edna came out of the porch with a book in her hand. Edna, in a black dress with neat collar and cuffs, and her hair becomingly done, looked quite smart and business-like.
"The grocer has been overcharging us again," she said. "I have taken two shillings off his book, and he does not like it. I tell him this is not Caradoc, and that if this occurs again we shall have to send to the stores."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram murmured something. She tried to imagine Edna once again in a straw bonnet and white stockings, and failed. Phillipa was dusting the drawing-room china and whistling over her work. It struck the elderly lady suddenly and quite as a shock that she was the only useless member of the household. Even Margaret, down the garden, was making a water-colour sketch of some white lilac. Edna returned to the house again with an ultimatum for the unhappy grocer. Kathleen came up, still whistling gently.
"Three thousand words since breakfast," she said. "My dear grandmother, I have more or less solved the problem for my heroine."
"Have you, indeed, my dear?" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said eagerly. "I should very much like to hear how. Do you know, your heroine is quite real to me. I don't know why, but whenever she comes into my mind I think of Margaret."
"Very strange, is it not?" Kathleen said drily. "Do you know, I experience exactly the same feeling. I am going to make my heroine's father the victim of mental delusions. All his work and worry, for the time being, have turned his brain. He imagines that he has become suddenly poor and given up his fine house to take quite humble lodgings. Mind you, his daughter quite thinks that the thing is true, and so does her lover. He marries the girl, and suggests that her father shall live with them. It is going to be an awful struggle, but they do it. The millionaire becomes quite senile, like Captain Cardiff in 'This Son of Vulcan.' Of course, all the time his partners think he has gone for a long voyage for the sake of his health. After he is discovered he comes back to his senses again, and there the thing ends happily. I fancy that is quite a new and original idea in fiction."
"It is exceedingly clever," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said with critical approval.
"I fancy that will be a success," said Kathleen. "Don't you think that it will be just as well for me to make the heroine hold back at first for fear her father should think he had been deceived?"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram emphatically thought not.
"It is this way," she said quite eagerly. "Undoubtedly the girl owed much to her father. A child owes much to any parent who does even the ordinary duty by her. But natural love and affection for such a man is absolutely out of the question. And mind you, the girl's whole happiness is at stake. She regarded her real father as being absolutely ruined. Not only had they no money, but she was compelled to keep him, and here was a good man wanting to marry her. The girl obeys the dictates of a pure affection, as anyone might do."
Kathleen glanced at the figure of Margaret down the garden, and smiled.
"The case is not altogether unlike that of Margaret's," she said. "Oh, my dear grandmother, if she could only hear you talk now!"
A rich flush mounted to Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's face. She was quite glad to see the figure of Reggie Eldred come striding up the path.
"You have come to luncheon?" she asked, effusively.
"Well, that depends," Reggie said. "I'm here more or less on business. The trustees are bothered about Wanstead. He contends that he is entitled to have the lease of the farm renewed on payment of the usual fees. We say that he has forfeited that right; in fact, we hope so, as he is a discredit to the estate. We shall get rid of him if we can."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was glad to hear it. There was only one really black sheep amongst the whole of the Caradoc tenants, and Wanstead was the man.
"After all," Reggie went on, "there is nobody who knows the manners and customs of the estate as well as yourself. Now, didn't Wanstead's father—who seemed as bad as himself—sign some release, forty or fifty years ago, resigning his rights in the freehold at the end of a certain period? I seem to recollect something about it."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram recollected something about it also. Gradually the transaction was being fixed in her mind. She had a poor head for details.
"Quite right," she said. "I recollect the whole business now. The deed was signed and placed away in the Tudor muniment chest that stands in the corner of the Saxon parlour. As a matter of fact, it ought to have been sent to the bank, but my husband's father used the muniment chest for his deeds, as generations of Wolframs have done before him. You will find that paper or parchment about fifth from the top on the right hand shelf opposite the Monmouth papers."
"What are the Monmouth papers?" asked Kathleen.
"They have to do with the Monmouth Rebellion," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram explained. "Guy Wolfram of Caradoc, for some mad reason, threw in his lot with Monmouth. He was caught and beheaded. About ten years after, his cousin, Eldred Wolfram (from whence the family got its present double name), was presented to the estates for some notable exploit, and by deed the property was conveyed absolutely to him to do as he pleased with. The break in the succession was made so that the estates might not revert by death or other accident to Guy Wolfram's family. The papers are really very interesting reading."
"I should just think they would be!" Kathleen exclaimed. "What a wonderful place Caradoc is! I have only to open my eyes and ask a few questions, and here are plots by the score ready to one's hand. I should like to see those papers."
"You shall this very day," Reggie said. "I have ascertained that our friend, Lawson Waddy, is out of town, so I shall take this opportunity of fetching that release away. If you like to come along, Kathleen, it will be a famous chance to look at the Monmouth papers."
Kathleen jumped eagerly at the opportunity. From a huge pile Cedric produced a quaint key with a number on it, and, armed with this weapon, Kathleen and her lover crossed the fields towards Caradoc. A number of men were at work here and there, smart, alert-looking workmen, with badges on their caps. Kathleen gave a little gasp.
"National Telephone Company," she said. "Also British Electric Company. My dearest boy, try and picture a telephone and electric light at Caradoc! Has that man no sense of decency? I wonder you are not ashamed to leave all those documents in his charge."
"They have only historic value," Reggie said. "Though if I had my way they would all be sent to the bank. Still, I suppose they are safe enough in those big oak chests."
Kathleen felt dubious, but she did not press the point. In imagination she was already busy on another story, which had for its plot the worsting of Mr. Lawson Waddy and his discomfited exit from Caradoc. She felt that she could put her heart into that.
"They don't seem to be doing much damage," she grudgingly admitted. "The holes in the ceiling are small. But, small as they are, it seems like sacrilege."
They were in the house now, passing through the familiar rooms. A smart, supercilious London footman had hesitated to admit them, but a junior servant imported from the estate signified that it was all right. There was the Saxon parlour at last; the giant key was fitted into the equally giant lock and the lid of the dower-chest thrown back. There was a faint, mouldy smell from the many documents inside. Reggie had not far to search. The release was found exactly as Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said it would be.
"I fancy this disposes of Wanstead," he said in a satisfied voice, as he cast his eye over the parchment. "The estates will benefit by his absence. Come along."
"Certainly not, sir," Kathleen said with decision. "I do not accompany you merely to seek for an instrument to destroy the happiness of some down-trodden tenant. On the contrary, I came quite expressly to have a look at the Monmouth papers."
Reggie apologised, he had quite forgotten that. From one of the shelves in the mouldy smelling chest he produced a package of parchment, faded and yellow, and yet with the cramped letters still quite clear and distinct. One with a huge seal and a scrawling signature attracted Katie's attention.
"This looks very choice," she said. "What a great seal, to be sure! 'James, King, Defender of the Faith, to Aubyn Eldred-Wolfram, greeting.' Why, that must be James II. I suppose that is the great seal and the royal signature."
"Nothing less," Reggie said. "You can make out every word with a little care. 'To Aubyn Eldred-Wolfram and the heirs male of his body for ever.' Isn't that quite clear? Really, I shall have to get the trustees to remove these papers."
"Found anything interesting?" a quick yet mincing voice said from behind. "Upon my word, I am getting a taste for this kind of thing myself. If I had time I should develop into all antiquary. I beg your pardon, Miss Wolfram, I hardly saw you in that dark corner."
Reggie crushed down his annoyance and was fain to take the much be-ringed hand that Lawson Waddy tendered to him. He had expressly waited for a day when he had felt quite sure that the master of the house would be away, and here he was, overdressed, over-confident, and presumably hospitable.
"Of course, you'll stay to lunch," he said. "I fancy my cook will give you every satisfaction."
"Unfortunately it's impossible," Reggie said. "I came over here to get this deed from yonder chest; I had not the slightest idea of intruding. Only Miss Wolfram found some interesting historic documents, and they have fascinated her so that——"
Lawson Waddy flicked up the electric light. There were no shades attached to the glowing bulbs yet, so that the light was garish and repulsive to a degree. But Kathleen did not notice that for the moment. The strange glare fell on the table where the documents lay and she could read every word of the cramped writing now.
"The amount of stuff of interest here is amazing," Waddy went on, not in the least chilled by the cold politeness of Reggie's manner. "I have a first-class photographer down here, and most of the things have come under the eye of the camera. Fact is, I'm going to reproduce them. Amongst other things, I've got a new art journal coming out, and——"
"You have the consent of the trustees?" Reggie asked crisply.
Mr. Lawson Waddy had not troubled about that formality. As tenant of the house, it seemed to him that he had a perfect right to do this kind of thing. It would be an advertisement, he said, the thing would be talked about, paragraphed in the papers, in all probability everybody concerned would find themselves subjects of an illustrated interview before it was all over.
"That would indeed be something like fame," Reggie said gravely. But the sarcasm was wasted on the other; he was absolutely destitute of the faintest spark of humour. "I suppose that some people really like that kind of thing."
"Like it!" Lawson Waddy exclaimed. "Why, they grovel for it. Publicity is the breath of life to the smart brigade. Ask Miss Wolfram what she thinks."
Kathleen smiled vaguely. She was understood to say that she had been interviewed many times already, and that the process was by no means unpleasant.
"Not that I should ever seek for it," she said, "ever angle for it. But it does flatter your vanity to be told that the readers of a great paper are anxious to know something of you. At least, that is my feeling."
"It seems strange, but I can't share it," Reggie said. "On the whole Mr. Waddy, I must ask you to desist from making the goods and chattels at Caradoc public property. The great aspiring multitude must get their education elsewhere."
"But, my dear fellow, you really don't object?" Waddy cried. "The thing is absurd. I have already spent some thousands over the matter. If I were to go to any of the great homes and make me same suggestion, I should be invited to dinner, egad."
Reggie thought it extremely unlikely, but declined to argue the matter. He was quite sure that the trustees would object; under the circumstances of the case it would be an outrage to the feelings of Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram. He had not the slightest wish to make himself objectionable, but he must put his foot down here. He spoke with great determination.
"And if I object altogether?" Waddy asked. His mincing voice had grown truculent.
"Then we shall have to move for an injunction," Reggie said. "As a family we have always kept rigidly to ourselves. We have nothing in common with the modern smart county set. These things are copyright; you know perfectly well that it is not permissible to photograph public buildings for the purpose of trade without permission. We shall strongly object to our chairs and tables and bedsteads being placed in the hands of an inquisitive public."
"We had better argue the matter out legally," Waddy suggested.
"And thereby secure for yourself a first class gratis advertisement for the new journal," Reggie said with sarcastic emphasis. "Do you quite understand the position, sir? If this goes any further we shall have to remove the old furniture altogether."
Waddy laughed somewhat insolently. Did the speaker know that he had taken the house furnished? What did he regard as a furnished house?
"A furnished house is one where the place is properly appointed for letting," Reggie said. Kathleen, deep in her parchments, heard nothing of the discussion. "Let me point out to you that the old furniture is not furniture in the ordinary sense of the word, but heirlooms. They are not part of the house, they belong to the estate. You will find, sir, that if we like to remove these things, you have not the smallest legal remedy."
Something strong and defiant trembled on the lips of the journalist. He looked away to where Kathleen was standing. She had finished her perusal of the yellow parchment.
"It is very interesting," she said, "the signature of King James II."
"What have you got there?" Waddy asked with a sudden change of manner. "Very interesting indeed. A grant of the estates to Eldred-Wolfram some time after the Monmouth rebellion? Pray lock it up or I shall be tempted to have it photographed. Mr. Eldred, I am sorry that I have done anything that seems offensive in your eyes. It never occurred to me that the family might object. Pray think no more about the matter, the loss shall be mine."
Reggie murmured something, but he was too astonished to be quite coherent. He could not possibly account for the sudden change for the better in the manner of his opponent. He wondered vaguely if the James II. grant had anything to do with it, but that seemed absurd. Mr. Waddy's new politeness lasted till he had seen his visitors off the premises. He went back to the Saxon parlour and there lighted a cigarette. A closer inspection of the dower chest seemed to satisfy him.
"The lock can easily be unscrewed without anyone being any the wiser," he muttered. "So then the story that drunken little lawyer's clerk told Wybrow was true, after all. If we can prove that, I'll humble the pride of these people for them. I'll settle the point to-day."
Waddy passed into the library, where he wrote a telegram. It was not a long message, and it seemed to give him a wonderful degree of satisfaction—
"Wybrow, London,—Have discovered that Rackstraw's tale is quite true. Come down here to-night by the 5.15 train and dine and sleep here."
Daylight was at odds with the darkness, so that the candles in the big silver sconces seemed faint under their red shades. It was a warm evening, and the party at Beacon Lodge dined with the windows open, so that the scent of the flowers came in; the rough note of a landrail came in with a certain suggestion of drowsiness.
It all looked so strangely familiar and yet so different; here were the old pictures and silver and china, there sat the mistress of all exactly as she had been wont to do at Caradoc, though she was gentler and quieter now and her features were tranquil. An indescribable refinement lay over everything, that nameless charm that goes with a well-ordered home. Cedric had set out the dessert and vanished; Kathleen was demurely eating strawberries and cream.
"I thought Dr. Dennison was coming in to dinner," she said presently.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram nodded. Dennison frequently came now, the mistress of the house professed to be greatly charmed with his voice. But a few months ago that gift would never have obtained for him the entree of Caradoc. Reggie, discreetly busy with his raspberries, smiled at Kathleen.
"Unfortunately the doctor could not come," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. "The calls of duty, you understand. Really, I find he is most kind to the poorer people on the estate. And they are so selfish when they get hold of a really sympathetic doctor. Old Betty Timms does not really require a doctor, and yet he goes."
"Dennison is a good fellow," Reggie said. "And a gentleman to his finger tips. Let us hope that we will have the pleasure of his company later in the evening."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram hoped so also. She was pleased to approve of a fruit salad that had made its appearance earlier at the table. Edna laughed.
"I made it," she said. "No, I am not going to have my efforts criticised. If my dear grandmother suggests that there are too many strawberries, I contradict her flatly."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram smiled. Kathleen smiled too, but only at her own thoughts. The emancipation of the twins was complete. If either of them had anything to say, they stated it boldly; only the night before Phillipa had actually criticised Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's dress cap. They had taken possession of the house, and they were managing it very capably indeed. The twins had developed unexpected talents that nobody had ever guessed before.
"I always had a passion for fruit salads from a boy," Reggie said. "Whenever I saw one abroad it always brought Caradoc to my mind. And we have Caradoc on a small scale here."
"I like this place infinitely better," Phillipa said boldly. "It isn't so awfully depressing, and one does not feel so small. Besides, one can be useful here."
"There is no place in the world like Caradoc," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram sighed. "Certainly no place that ever suited me half so well."
"That is mere sentiment," Edna said boldly. "My dear grandmother, if you would only confess it, you are better in health now than you have been for years. You have taken up certain duties that occupy your time to the exclusion of the contemplation of a great position. Now we are not going to allow you—even after dinner—to pose as a martyr."
Reggie glanced with admiration at the speaker. He waited for the majestic wrath to follow. But Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram only smiled at the audacious speaker.
"Perhaps you are right," she said mildly. "Still it is good for old people to cherish illusions, especially if they are pleasant ones. Reggie, you may smoke your cigarette here if you like. It is a concession to the spirit of the times."
"They certainly are moving rapidly," Reggie said drily. "We shall have the twins quite grown up before we know what has happened. I'll sit in the verandah and smoke. Won't you come outside?"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram excused herself. A glorious moon was rising, behind a delicate lacework of green leaves, turning them to a wondrous golden pattern. The landrail was still croaking his harsh note, down somewhere in the water meadows.
"Then the others must come out," Reggie cried. "Positively, I'm too unselfish to keep the glorious moonlight all to myself. Margaret, come and talk to me."
But Margaret had a drawing that she must finish at once, and the twins had a heap of freshly-cut flowers to arrange. Only Kathleen was idle. She slipped out on to the balcony, and sat there dreamily, as Reggie lay back in the full enjoyment of his tobacco. Apparently Margaret was not long over her drawing, as presently the dreamy music of the organ stole out on the still air.
"I am glad to see Reggie and Kathleen such good friends," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said placidly, as she sat over some knitting. "No, please don't close the window; it is only when outside that I feel the night air. Reggie and Kathleen seem to get on so well together."
"We have noticed the same thing," Edna said demurely. "Unfortunately, our early chances were blighted by the relegated episcopal charity frocks. Reggie never admired us."
"Except perhaps as curios," Phillipa put in.
"I begin to fear that Reggie is not a marrying man," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram went on. "At first I had hopes that he and Margaret——"
"Margaret ought to be a saint or the wife of a great philanthropist," said Edna. "Or perhaps——"
"The wife of a doctor with a large practice," Phillipa suggested mischievously.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram wisely ignored the suggestions and discreetly admired the arrangement of the flowers. Of course Reggie would marry some time, for the sake of the family and for the utter confusion of those people at Saltash. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's fears would have been considerably modified could she have seen Reggie and Kathleen at that moment. The cigarette was finished, and the two had strolled down the garden together. The light of the moon touched Kathleen's face softly—her pretty face looked very sweet and serious. With his arm about her, Reggie asked her thoughts.
"I had Margaret in my mind at the moment," Kathleen said. "Reggie, have you noticed how much better and stronger Margaret has been of late?"
"Certainly I have," Reggie replied. "She is getting quite a colour. Perhaps the place suits her."
"Perhaps it does, but the frequency of Dr. Dennison's visits of late suit her a great deal better. Reggie, she loves him with her whole heart and soul, and none the less because he has saved her life. It is one of the prettiest and tenderest love romances in the world, and I have taken the liberty of borrowing it for my new book. I want the book and the real story both to end well."
"Doesn't it depend upon Dennison?" Reggie suggested. "He is in an excellent position, and eventually he will be master of a very pretty fortune. If he likes to put his foot down——"
"Margaret will do anything he likes in that case. But that is not in the least what I want—it is far too commonplace and prosaic. And Margaret is so sensitive. I want my grandmother to smile on the match, and I think I shall bring it about."
"Of course you will," Reggie said, with the flattering confidence of the lover. "If you can't do it, nobody can, and if you fail, I'll use my tremendous influence!"
"That is exactly what I wanted to ask you," Kathleen said. "But I would much rather do it all off my own bat, as the boys say. Now, I am going to tell you what my little scheme is."
Reggie listened with Kathleen's head on his shoulder and her lips close to his ear. Told in the moonlight, it sounded tender and charming enough. Looking back to the house Margaret could be seen at her organ, the red flowers gleaming wine dark behind her slender head. The long French windows were open to the lawn, so that the picture was complete.
"It's charming," Reggie cried with effusion, "perfectly charming. And the wonderful artfulness of the girl. Dearest, I am positively afraid of you. And now I must really be going if I am to catch the last train back to Castleford. It's like leaving Paradise, but still——"
Kathleen lingered at the gate until Reggie had disappeared round a turn in the road. A tall figure coming from the other direction stopped and raised his hat.
"Better late than never, Dr. Dennison," Kathleen said. "Reggie has run off to catch his train back to Castleford, and left me desolate and alone. Won't you go up to the house? No, I am going to stay here and dream out the next chapter of my new book."
Dennison passed on up the path and entered the drawing-room by means of the window. Even if structural possibilities had admitted, such a thing would never have been dreamed of at Caradoc, as Edna gravely pointed out, in the absence of Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram upstairs hunting for a mislaid pattern.
Dennison murmured something that sounded like a compliment, but Phillipa waved it aside.
"Don't waste your sweetness on us," she said. "We do not deserve it; we have not been educated up to it. Gather your rose buds whilst you may—in other words, as our dear godmother is out of the way, you will have Margaret all to yourself."
"In my time," Edna said solemnly, "young men were not so backward."
Dennison took the hint and retired. Presently Kathleen, standing by the gate, could see the two talking earnestly together; she could see the twins also busy over their flowers. She saw Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram return, and in a sudden impulse Kathleen fetched her out.
"Positively, I am not going to let you stay indoors," she said. "I am going to place this big shawl over your head and your shoulders, and we are going to walk up and down and abuse the neighbours. I feel pleased with myself, because I have thought of another good idea for the book."
"I haven't heard what you have written to-day yet," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said, interested at once.
"My dear, I have written a most important chapter. You will remember that the heroine's father loses his reason and imagines himself to be penniless. The daughter and her husband believe the delusion to be true. They have got very poor indeed—in fact, their home is going to be sold up. They have made themselves poor in order that the benighted millionaire may have all he needs. As reason comes back to him he hears everything in a discussion. He is not quite sure even now whether he has lost his money or not. He goes to the little room that has been set apart for him, and sees the pile of letters which have remained unopened. There he finds plenty of evidence of the fact that he is still rich. What do you think of that?"
"Splendid!" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram cried. "What is coming next?"
"That I have been just working out," Kathleen said. "I want a pretty tableau that will bring the erring man to his knees, and then the story will be practically complete. This tableau—well, it is terribly like spying, but I require something like that."
Kathleen indicated the open window of the room where Margaret stood with her back to the organ, a faint smile on her face. Dennison had both her hands in his, and was looking eagerly down into the face of his companion as he talked. It was a pretty picture cut out of the darkness, and Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram caught her breath as she looked.
"Margaret seemed transformed," she murmured. "Kathleen, she is quite beautiful."
"Margaret has one of the most tranquilly beautiful faces in the world," Kathleen said quietly. "Do you know she has been more or less my heroine. The gentle girl who holds duty before love. Do you not understand what I mean, dear?"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram murmured something. A sudden light had broken in upon her. She seemed to be looking into her own mind and seeing the selfishness that her pride had built up about her. She would have spoken from her heart then, but Cedric came gliding down the path. She turned her head, held high, as if something was distasteful to her sense of smell.
"Mr. Lawson Waddy would speak to you for a moment, madam," said he, as if repeating a lesson. "He desires to apologise for his intrusion at such a time——"
"How did he manage to get here?" Kathleen exclaimed.
"By the side gate, miss," Cedric explained. "And he further wanted me to say——"
"I will see him," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. She was hard and cold enough now, so that Kathleen feared for the success of her parable. "I must convince Mr. Waddy that his presence here is not desirable. If he must intrude, he might have chosen a more reasonable time."
Mr. Waddy was waiting with some signs of impatience in the drawing-room. There was no fault to find with his evening attire, save that he affected a double collar. He was the sort of man that one might instinctively expect to wear a double collar with a dress coat.
"I am exceedingly sorry to intrude upon you," he said. "I'm afraid that is the right word——"
"I cannot quarrel with your choice of it," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said coldly. "Your business——"
"I will come to that at once," Waddy said, with a fascinating smile. Thick-skinned as he was, the manner of his involuntary hostess galled him. "But it is somewhat difficult to explain matters of this kind to a lady. I daresay you will recollect that after the ill-fated Monmouth Rebellion the estates of Caradoc passed from the holder to his cousin, Aubyn Eldred-Wolfram. There was a deed, you know?"
"Signed by James II., sir. Yes, I recollect it perfectly well."
"Well under that deed certain contingencies may happen. They are very remote, but still under that deed certain privileges may revert to you. I need not go into details. If ever the property came into the market——"
"Which is not at all likely, sir."
"Pardon me," Waddy said eagerly. "The thing is possible. It only means the collapse of three or four lives. Take the case of the Paddingham peerage, for instance. Four years ago there were nine lives, and at the present moment the barony is extinct. The same thing might happen here. If I purchased your contingencies and the property came into the market, I should get it much cheaper if I were disposed to buy. Or I could sell the contingencies for a good profit. At the present moment you would be glad to receive a large sum of money. I am prepared to pay you £40,000."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram fairly gasped. Just for the moment her dignity collapsed utterly. Such a sum of money seemed beyond her wildest dreams. With that she could pay all her creditors, she could bring to her knees those who had so insulted her, she could take up the income allowed by the trustees, and, best of all, she could pay off the money that Major Wiltshire had advanced to save her from the wrath of the Court of Chancery.
"If you would be so kind as to go into details?" she faltered.
"Details, my dear madam, are quite superfluous," Waddy said glibly. "Really, I am offering you a fancy price for what may be absolutely worthless. I am acting on impulse; I may repent of my offer within a week. You have only to sign a deed and the cheque is yours at once."
"If my solicitors draw up the deed, when——"
"Why trouble your solicitors? I have mine at Caradoc at this moment. Under the assignment made by James II., and given by him to Aubyn Eldred-Wolfram——"
Waddy paused as the curtains were pushed back and Kathleen entered.
"I was in the verandah," she said. "I could hot help listening. Under the grant you speak of—but we need not go into that at present. Grandmother, Mr. Waddy has made a strange discovery. Would you kindly ask him to fetch the grant from Caradoc and bring it here. Ask Cedric for the key. Mr. Waddy knows exactly in which dower chest to find the grant, for he saw it replaced by Reggie the other morning. It is a lot of money to give."
"It is indeed," Waddy stammered, lost of all his usual self-possession and very red in the face. "If I may venture to intrude upon you again so late at night——"
"My grandmother will pardon that under the circumstances," Kathleen said quietly.
Kathleen looked curiously at the little man in the doorway. He appeared to have lost a good deal of his native assurance during the last few minutes. He was not at all at his ease; the most casual spectator would have detected in him a sense of inferiority.
"Does Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram want the document to-night, really?" he asked.
Kathleen signified that she did. The elder lady might have been eager, but she disguised her feelings carefully. Still Waddy's offer was revolving like a wheel in her brain.
A few months ago she would have discussed the raising or spending of £40,000 with perfect equanimity, but the environment was different now. There would be something magnificent in sweeping over those recalcitrant creditors and reducing them to mere grovelling worms wriggling under her feet.
"Why not?" Kathleen went on. "You can easily be back in a quarter of an hour, and the time is not so very late. I will get the keys from Cedric."
The girl reappeared presently with the key, which Waddy accepted mechanically. As a matter of fact he had no need for them, seeing that he had unscrewed the hinges of the dower chest, and, together with his lawyer, had been poring over that historic parchment for the last hour. Still, it was not exactly policy to acquaint Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram with that fact.
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram sat back in her chair dreaming dreams. Even Kathleen's imagination was no more vivid than her own at that moment. She was under a deep obligation to Major Wiltshire, and no specious sophistry could alter that fact. To pay the major off would be a supreme satisfaction. At that moment Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram would have cheerfully signed anything and asked no questions.
"I don't like that man," Kathleen said. "There is something under-handed about him. He is a vulgar money-making machine, and I am sure he is not very scrupulous over his methods. If he pays you all that money, you may be sure he sees his way to make as much more for himself."
"He said something about a speculation," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram murmured.
"My dear grandmother, nobody values money more or grudges parting with it than the man who has already made more than he knows what to do with. Mr. Waddy has found something out; he has discovered that you are entitled to something or other, and he proposes to buy it. He argues that you are not likely to seek advice, that you will act on your own judgment, and ask no questions. I should not sign anything until I had had the advice of the family solicitors."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram saw no necessity to do anything of the kind. The forty thousand pounds dazzled her, and blinded what little business judgment she possessed. She was quite capable of managing her own affairs, as she reminded Kathleen with some dignity. She regarded this money as a god-send; she would be able to hold up her head once more. The paean of the family glory was in full blast when Waddy returned. He laid the parchment on the table as if loth to part with it.
"It requires a trained legal head to understand that," he said. "My own lawyer, who has seen——"
The little man paused in some confusion, conscious that Kathleen's eyes were upon him. Kathleen was asking herself many questions, and her distrust of Waddy deepened.
"On the contrary," she said coolly, "it strikes me as a singularly clear and luminous document. I should like to read it again whilst you discuss matters with my grandmother."
Mr. Waddy naturally had no objection. He was quite himself now; there was a smooth oiliness about him that many rising authors, prepared to take a small honorarium for early work, found quite pleasing. But Kathleen saw and heard nothing of this; she was deep in the parchment.
"Then that is settled," she heard Waddy say at length. "I will bring over the papers the first thing in the morning, and you can sign them and take my cheque. Really, it is a tremendous deal of money to part with for so remote a contingency."
"Is it a contingency at all?" Kathleen asked in a clear, cold voice.
Lawson Waddy smilingly admitted that it was a very remote one. As to his money——
"Your money is perfectly safe," Kathleen went on. "A year or two ago, when I first began to write, I did a little story, the plot of which turned upon a point of law. In my ignorance of legal matters, I accepted words to mean what they said instead of directly opposite. A man sold a certain piece of property, and afterwards it turned out it was left to him and 'his heirs for ever,' so I assumed that as it was so disposed the man could not legally sell it. But, as a lawyer friend of the family subsequently pointed out, those very words 'his heirs for ever,' gave him absolute control over the property. Now, Caradoc was strictly entailed until the time of James II. When the property was conveyed to Aubyn Eldred-Wolfram by the deed, it was granted to him and his heirs for ever. If you like to look here, you can see the very words. If I make no mistake, the deed enables any rightful owner of the property to leave it where he pleases. The fact has been overlooked all these centuries, and the property treated as if it had been strictly entailed. But that is not a fact. Grandmother, did my grandfather make a will in your favour before he died?"
"Of course he did, my dear," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram replied. "He left everything he possessed to me. It was a very simple document, as there was very little to leave."
Kathleen brought her hand emphatically down on the historic parchment.
"You are quite wrong," she said, breathlessly. Her eyes were shining with the light of a great discovery. "He left you Caradoc. It was absolutely his. There was no entail in the property; there was no entail on heirlooms, no limitations whatever. Unless I am greatly mistaken, Caradoc and all there is yours to give away to the first beggar that come along if you like."
"Impossible!" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram exclaimed. "Kathleen, you must be wrong."
"No," Kathleen said drily, "ask your lawyer. If you want confirmation of what I say, look at Mr. Waddy and ask him."
Mr. Lawson Waddy was not good to look upon just at that moment. His face was a fine study in mixed emotions. He was angry and sore and disappointed; moreover he had been found out, and he disliked nothing more than that. He protested with flabby dignity, but nobody was deceived.
"I don't know where Mr. Waddy got his information from," Kathleen went on, "nor does it matter. Probably a clever but unscrupulous clerk in the office of the family lawyers made the discovery, and kept the secret with an eye to ultimate gain. Mr. Waddy, have I guessed right?"
For Waddy had started guiltily. That was exactly what had happened. A dissipated clerk, digging amongst the family archives for one thing, had found another. The knowledge had seemed cheap to buy at the small price asked for it, and the rest was easy. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram would do anything silly for a round sum of money, and she would not live much longer in the ordinary course of things. Once she was dead, Waddy could spring the great discovery as a new fact upon Reggie Eldred. For a comparatively small outlay the whole of the magnificent Caradoc estate would be Waddy's. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram would sign any document put before her, and this particular one was to be the assignment of her contingent interests in Caradoc.
"There may be something in what you say," Waddy stammered.
"I am absolutely certain of it, and that I am right," Kathleen went on. "You say your lawyer and yourself have been carefully through this paper. That I can quite believe. That you have also known of its existence for some time I am equally certain. We will keep the parchment, sir, and, if I am wrong, why, then, I shall have to ask your pardon for the rudeness, and will promise most carefully to refrain from interfering any further in any business transaction between Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram and yourself."
Mr. Waddy got away finally with what little dignity remained to him.
"That is the last of your tenant," Kathleen said. "He will not come back here again. What a dishonourable, cowardly thing to do! Has your modern money-grubber any scruples at all? My dear grandmother, we must have the family lawyer down here to-morrow."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram paced up and down the room in a kind of waking dream. Not for a moment did she entertain any doubt as to the soundness of Kathleen's theory. As the head of a great family, she knew all about the law of entail and progeniture, and all that kind of thing. And she had heard of cases on similar lines before. If Kathleen was right, then Caradoc and all that was therein became absolutely her own. She could take possession again, administer the revenues, and sell every heirloom there, in spite of a dozen courts of Chancery. The new, placid look had gone from her face already; she had called back all the haughty pride and dignity that had clothed her like a garment when first Kathleen came to Caradoc.
"I owe you much for this," she said, in a curiously even voice. "I should have signed that paper and asked no questions. It seems to me that Caradoc is my own again; I need not consult anybody. The Court of Chancery has gone beyond its powers. Mr. Lawson Waddy is not the tenant of Caradoc at all; I could turn him out of the house to-morrow. Oh, I shall enjoy that!"
"I shall enjoy that part of the programme myself," Kathleen said dubiously. "But, grandmother, you will do nothing rash. We have been here only a short time, but I fancy we have all been very happy at Beacon Lodge."
But Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was not listening. A change for the worse had come over her already. Kathleen was troubled in her mind as she went to bed. She was not the less troubled when the old Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram came down to breakfast. She had slipped into her pride again, and it seemed to fit her as well as ever. She was distant and haughty to Margaret, she was severe as to the dress of the twins, and commanded certain modifications. Edna and Phillipa, not in the secret, looked aghast. Then they rose to the fray.
"I thought that was all done with," Edna said, with outward calm. "My dear godmother, we can't go back to the old life; that is impossible; but we can go on to the new life."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram shifted her ground a little. She did not quite understand.
"Go out into the world and get our own living," Phillipa explained. "Oh, we mean it. After all is said and done, we should make rather attractive-looking shop assistants."
"The conversations is getting distinctly vulgar," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. "Besides, we are going back to Caradoc. Kathleen will tell you all about it after breakfast."
Kathleen had an interested gallery of listeners when the morning meal was finished. Cedric had been dispatched quite early to send a telegram to London, and Kathleen had barely finished her recital when Reggie rode over, and the story had to be gone over again.
"So that puts your nose out of joint," Edna said, with a mirthless laugh.
"I wasn't thinking of myself," Reggie said thoughtfully. "Under the new condition of things, the heirship to Caradoc won't be worth much. By the time our respected relative is no more, the property will be a pleasing vision of the past. The only good feature I can see is the extinguishing of Waddy."
"I should have liked to have seen his face," Phillipa said, bubbling over into a laugh.
Kathleen gave a graphic little picture of the discomfited journalist, but nobody laughed. A sense of impending misfortune seemed to hang like a cloud over the little group. They had all been getting so happy and comfortable at Beacon Lodge, Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had so changed for the better.
"And now we shall go back to the old business," Reggie prophesied gloomily. "I don't care a hang about it myself, and in any case I shall have all Major Wiltshire's money presently. But I wanted to see my aunt and my mother friends. Now, I am afraid that it is out of the question. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram will pay the major, and send him a letter that will make matters ten times worse. Hang Waddy and his discoveries!"
It was late in the afternoon before the family lawyer came down. For an hour or more he was closeted with Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram, after which he returned to town with the historic document in his possession. Cedric came out on the lawn presently and summoned the little party there to tea. He was the Cedric of old once more, but, on the whole, he did not appear to appreciate the change. There was no smile on Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's face as she sat in the drawing-room, though she looked blandly self-satisfied.
"It is all as I expected," she said. "Kathleen was quite right; I am very pleased."
"And I am downright sorry," Kathleen burst, out passionately. "I have been hoping and praying all the morning that I had blundered. I trusted that we were not going back to Caradoc any more. It is a grand old place, but it is too cold and dignified for me. Here we have worth and love, and kindly feeling all round, and everybody pulling together. There it was nothing but dullness and dignity. I could not go back there."
"Could not go back to Caradoc," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. "The girl is mad."
"I am very sorry," Kathleen subdued herself with an effort. "I am very sorry, but I shall stay here. If we can take back the air of affection and feeling, well and good, but not under the old conditions. You can never really refasten broken ties perfectly. I could not see the twins once more in white frocks and——"
"Calm yourself," Edna said coolly. "The ghost of the white frocks is laid for ever."
Reggie, with a man's want of moral courage under the circumstances, had slipped out into the garden. Margaret made off presently to find consolation in her organ. It was in vain that Kathleen wished Reggie to stay to dinner. The rebellion might break out again at any moment, and he dreaded a scene.
"But were you really in earnest?" he asked.
"My dear boy, we all were, except Margaret, that is. Wherever Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram goes, Margaret goes. She is a martyr to duty. And yet I had hoped to see her finally engaged to Dr. Dennison before the week was out. Reggie, I can't go back to Caradoc unless we take our cheerful condition with us. I am earning quite enough money to live here comfortably, and the twins can remain for the present. If they go back to Caradoc the white frocks and the hideous bonnets are inevitable."
"It's a case of tete montee," Reggie groaned. "Can't you suggest anything?"
But Kathleen had nothing to suggest now or after dinner. She walked about the garden disconsolately. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram came out presently and joined her. She was still profoundly dignified, but more or less human. She did not forget to ask after the progress of the novel.
"It has gone out of my head, for the present," Kathleen confessed. "Not a line have I written to-day. Just for the moment the spell is broken. I had quite a personal interest in my hero and heroine. You see they were the means to an end."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was silent for a moment. She could see the twins talking moodily in the drawing-room; she could see Margaret bent over the organ. The music was low and sad to-night.
"I can't make out why everybody should be so miserable when things have gone so wonderfully," she said. "I can't think why everybody is so changed."
Kathleen took her courage in both hands. She was was going to speak openly.
"We have not changed," she said. "The change is yourself. For the past few weeks I have watched you carefully. I saw all the dignity and coldness falling from you. I marked with delight how the human interest in my story pleased you. I saw you were different to the twins and Margaret and I rejoiced. For myself, I cared nothing. But now it is all different, you are going to be the haughty mistress of Caradoc again, and Margaret will droop and wither. Sometimes we shall come over and cheer her up if we may——"
"My dear Kathleen, you speak as if you were going to remain here!"
"And so I am. And so are Edna and Phillipa. Be your own natural self again, and we will beg to come along. But for the present we stay here. If I have said too much, forgive me."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram turned and walked slowly back to the house, thinking.
The new order of things, or rather the reversion to the old order, did not give her the pleasure she had anticipated. Would she but have owned it, she was utterly miserable. She sat in her room thinking, long after the house was quiet. She could not sleep; she had no desire to go to bed. She pulled up the blind and looked over the peaceful landscape, so still in the light of the waning moon. Why had she that strange pain at her heart, she wondered. As she sat there her eyes grew wet, a tear trickled over her cheeks. Still, she must be firm; she must not give way. In the morning she would insist upon an understanding.
"I almost wish it hadn't come," she murmured. "I almost wish. Why disguise it! From the bottom of my heart I am sorry that old document ever came to light again. If I had only burnt it——"
A bronze gong jangled under Cedric's unaccustomed hand, and he wished for the ship's bell again. But then the ship's bell was still at Beacon Lodge, and Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was back at Caradoc again. The whole thing had been rushed through so quickly that Cedric could not grip it as yet. The baleful shadow of the journalist no longer obscured the family glory, and Caradoc was almost itself again.
But not quite, as Cedric acknowledged sadly. There had been no quarrel, nothing in the way of a vulgar dispute; the twins had simply refused to go back bound hard and fast to the clannish wheels of the conqueror, and Kathleen had backed them up. For the present they were all at Beacon Lodge, with the exception of Margaret who had gone where duty had taken her. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had missed the young people terribly, and indeed they had not opposed her without considerable searching of spirit. So the elderly lady had gone back to her own again with a new sense of dignity and a wider scope than she had ever enjoyed before. The discovery of that wonderful document had changed everything. The family lawyers wondered why it had never been unearthed before, wondered how dead and gone Wolframs had ignored it. If they had not done so, Caradoc would have changed hands long ago.
But there it was, the prediction of that dingy parchment and a few words spoken by a frowsy judge in a stuffy set of chambers had changed everything. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was absolutely tete montee, as Reggie had prophesied she would be. She had not paid Major Wiltshire, for the simple reason that funds were not available as yet. She was absolute mistress of Caradoc, the fear of the Court of Chancery was before her no longer. She ought to have been happy.
But the fact remained that she wasn't. She told herself that she missed the ship's bell and all the familiar objects that had been removed from Caradoc to Beacon Lodge. Not that she meant to have them back; she was too high-souled for that; she would not have consented had there been a bitter quarrel.
As a matter of fact there had been no quarrel at all, the opposing forces had parted quite amiably. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had asked Kathleen to retain everything for the present, till such time as she and the twins come to their senses and begged permission to return to Caradoc. With anybody but Kathleen she would have been furiously angry, but she had come to love the girl too much for that. And from the very first Kathleen had acknowledged no sovereignty and bowed to no discipline.
In her heart of Hearts Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was utterly miserable. She was actually late for dinner, which was a practical evidence of her state of mind. She was so late that the Right Honourable Charles Merrion, who had run over from Castleford for an hour or so wandered into the hall. Cedric stood contemplating the brass gong with an air of sadness chastened by resignation.
"An innovation, Cedric," Mr. Merrion said. "What does it all mean?"
Cedric shook his head scornfully. He was understood to say that the place was not what it had once been. The coming of Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram put an end to further disclosures. She looked drawn and pale, Merrion thought, and by no means so contented as she had been the last time he was at Beacon Lodge. She was stately as usual, but she did not say much till dinner was over and Merrion had produced his cigarettes.
"What has become of Margaret?" he asked.
"Margaret went to Beacon Lodge to dinner," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram explained. "Charles, I really am deeply concerned about that girl. Latterly, she has been so much better, that I hoped to see her quite well soon. But since we returned she has gone back dreadfully."
"What does the doctor say?" Merrion asked with some directness.
"She will not see a doctor, at least, not Dr. Dennison. That in itself is strange."
Merrion braced himself for an effort. He was going to speak plainly.
"It is not strange at all," he said. "My dear Maria, I know no woman who can be more wilfully blind than yourself when it pleases you. Now, can you look me honestly and fairly in the face and declare you don't know what is the matter with Margaret?"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram played with a peach quite nervously.
"If you are alluding to some absurd love story," she said, "why, of course, I know."
"Of course you do. I have seen it myself for some time. What I didn't know, Kathleen told me. It is a very pretty story, and a very pathetic one, at least it would be only it is distasteful to me to see an old friend acting in so cowardly a fashion."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram asked her ears a question. But they resolutely refused to help her out.
"It's not a pretty word," Mr. Merrion went on, "but I can think of no other. The fact is you are a bully, Maria. For a long time you bullied the twins; you did so till Kathleen urged them to revolt. You never bullied Kathleen, because you knew she would not stand it, and in your heart you were afraid to do so. You have lost these young people; you miss them terribly. That is why, with a woman's lack of logic, your are taking it out of Margaret. Naturally the poor girl thought that you were giving way over the Dennison business. Now the dream is shattered, and the thing is telling on her health. Dennison is a gentleman, and will be a rich man. Maria, are you going to let your confounded pride break Margaret's heart?"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was angry, she was very angry indeed. And she was in none the less of a rage because she knew that every word of Merrion's was true. Still, it was hard to find all her friends turning away like this. She would walk over to Beacon Lodge and fetch Margaret presently. She tried to take comfort from the glory of her surroundings, she tried to wrap herself up in her dignity, but there must have been a hole in the garment somewhere.
"I think you are very rude, Charles," she said.
"I don't ever remember being so rude before," Mr. Merrion admitted coolly. "At the same time, I don't take back a single word of it—what's more, you know that I'm right. If I get hold of Margaret, I shall try and persuade her that she ought to take her happiness in her own hands. Give me an hour with Margaret and I shall play the snake in the grass with a vengeance. I give you fair warning."
The right honourable gentleman was perfectly self-possessed and collected. The next moment he was talking about something else in his easy, charming manner. It was impossible to be angry with him for long, and, sooth to say, Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram would not have been very deeply outraged had he carried out his threat. But though she brought the subject up again and again, the wily old minister would have nothing of it. The conscience of his hostess was at work, and she should be left to work out her own salvation.
"Well, I must be going," he said at length. "What a lovely, peaceful old house this is, how grateful it is to nerves like mine. No, you need not ring, Maria. I have plenty of time, and as it is so lovely a night, I shall walk to the station. One does not often see such a night in England."
Merrion spoke truly. A full moon like a great silver shield on a dark wall, rode overhead; there was very little dew, the night was warm and balmy. The air was heavy with the subtle perfumes that come upon the wings of the darkness, Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram threw a wrap over her shoulders.
"I'll come as far as Beacon Lodge with you," she said. "Really, it is quite a sin to be indoors. I shall have the excuse of going to fetch Margaret."
They walked along in silence for a little time, a little impressed by the silent beauty of the night. They came at length to the gate leading to Beacon Lodge. Behind the hedge and the fringe of trees came the gleam of shaded lights; a ripple of laughter floated from the house. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram sighed wistfully. There was no laughter like that at Caradoc.
"Well, good-night, Maria," said Merrion, holding out his hand. "By-the-way, come to think of it, I was very rude to you just now."
"That," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said quietly, "was patent to the meanest understanding."
"I suppose it was," Merrion observed thoughtfully. "Very rude, was I? I ought to apologise. But I shan't. When I peep between those trees, I'm glad I said what I did. Apologies come very easy to a Cabinet Minister, they are the grammar of his art. But you don't catch me apologising this time. Good-night, Maria."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was actually smiling as she walked up the trim path. All the blinds were up; all the windows were wide open. Outside, on the verandah, the twins were seated, drinking lemonade from long glasses. They were chattering gaily about something; from a distance Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's seemed to catch the sound of a man's voice. It was not Reggie's, and yet it sounded familiar.
Altogether it was a charming picture of refined home life, home in the best sense of the word. There was nothing like this at Caradoc, though Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram could see no reason why not. Perhaps it was the wide send of freedom, the sense of liberty. The elderly lady stood there for a moment in the shadow. It was dreadfully suggestive of eavesdropping, but she could not help it.
"I don't care what you say," Edna declared in her fresh, clear voice. "It's a shame; Margaret has herself to think about. If Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram lives to a good old age, which Heaven grant, then Margaret is destined to be an old maid; which is not what Providence meant a girl for."
"Certainly not a pretty girl," Phillips said sententiously.
"Well, they don't get all the luck, as witness ourselves," Edna replied. "I repeat it is a great shame. If I were in Margaret's place, I should——"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram stepped out of the shadow. She really must not listen any longer.
"It's a still night, and words carry far," Phillipa said, with a suggestion of mischief in her voice. "My dear godmother, how much did you hear?"
"I discovered myself lest I should hear more," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram smiled. "Edna, were you going to say something bad about me?"
"Well, I was," Edna retorted. "About you and Margaret. Godmother, you are a wicked woman, and you ought to be thoroughly ashamed of yourself. I've been trying to get Margaret to rebel."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had nothing to say for the moment. Everybody seemed against her to-night, and it seemed strange to hear the Wolfram blood speaking like this; the shackles had been broken and the scabbard thrown away with a vengeance. Edna would never have dared to speak like that a month ago.
"I suppose I must put up with it," the elder lady sighed. "It is my cross to bear; it all dates back to the coming of Kathleen. Where is she?"
"Working on the last chapter of her new book," Phillipa said. "She is undecided about the ending. Novelists who are finishing stories are people distinctly to be avoided."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram sat in the balcony listening to the nonsense of the twins, and presently there came the notes of Margaret's organ. She had not had it removed back to Caradoc again; she said she had lost her taste for music. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had known perfectly well what the girl meant, but she had chosen to listen in silence.
"I am glad to hear that," she said. "Margaret feels better. But who is singing to her accompaniment?"
"Dr. Dennison," Edna said. "When I heard that Margaret was coming to dinner, I asked him to come. I put it so sweetly, that he could not refuse. What I want to do is to string him up to desperation, and make him elope with Margaret. I have taken a great deal of trouble to help those young people."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said nothing. She felt so helpless when the twins talked thus. It was a sign that their emancipation was absolutely complete. Presently there was a shadow in the window, and Kathleen appeared. She welcomed her visitor warmly. Edna and Phillipa slipped away; perhaps their victory was so new a thing that they did not feel quite at home with the vanquished yet.
"You are working too hard," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. "Tell me about the story. They say you are at the last chapter. How is it going to end?"
"Let us walk up and down the garden and discuss it," said Kathleen. "You shall take my arm and try and imagine that you are in our happy midst again. There, is not that like the good old times? I am exercised in my mind. An hour on my story will finish it. It is the end that troubles me."
"Then why not end it happily?" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram cried eagerly. She was back in the spirit of the thing again, and for the moment Caradoc and the family dignity were forgotten. "Kathleen, once I am here I am as deeply interested as ever. I came to fetch Margaret."
"Did you come entirely to fetch Margaret?" Kathleen asked.
"Well, no. I was quite miserable yonder without you. I sent for Mr. Merrion to come and dine with me, and give me his sympathy. Instead of that he bullied me dreadfully. Really he was shockingly rude."
"And so that brought Margaret into your mind, by which I infer that the conversation was mainly about her. Which brings me back to my story. Now let me tell you a little secret. The heroine of my tale is Margaret in another form, the sinister influence in another form is yourself."
"But, my dear, it took the shape of a money-loving father who——"
"Who was absolutely indifferent to the feelings of his child. Make it a man or make it a woman, the pride and the selfishness are the same. Step by step I worked the story out, step by step I consulted you about it; I read it aloud for your delectation. And you threw yourself into the spirit of the thing, and I was glad, because I was certain then that the human note was touched. You were angry with my heroine's father for thinking that he was ruining the girl's life. You said that she was right in the step she took. I enjoyed your interest, which lasted to the finding of that grant of James II. After that things were different. You seemed to have lost all sympathy with my children."
"I was so very busy," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram protested.
"Well, I will let that pass. I wrote the story that I saw blooming under my own eyes. And the end is not for me to write, but for you to finish. Look there."
Margaret and Dennison had come out into the verandah. The pale moonlight was on the girl's face, but it was a smiling and happy face now that she turned to her companion. The usually downcast eyes were smiling, there was a tinge of colour on the cheeks. Her hand rested gently on Dennison's arm for the moment. Her glance sought his. It was a pretty, touching picture, a picture that told its own tale. Dennison was saying something courtly, and Margaret turned away; her face changing.
"What do you think of that?" Kathleen asked. "Here stands my hero and heroine between love and duty. In the spirit you were all with me, in the flesh you seem to be all against me. Shall I recall some of the many things you have said?"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram put up her hands in feeble protest. She was trembling now, and that picture in the verandah dissolved in something very like tears.
"No, no," she cried. "I begin to recognise, I begin to understand. Kathleen, I am a wicked old woman."
"No, no, only a mistaken one. Grandmother, how shall I end the story?"
"Oh, happily, happily. There is no other way. Let the wrong be righted and the eyes of the blind to see the truth. As you end the story so shall the story that was before me just now end. And—and I want you all to come and dine with me at Caradoc to-morrow night. I—I can't wait for Margaret. I should like to go back home alone, you understand. And Dr. Dennison shall bring Margaret back."
The speaker held out her hand, but Kathleen kissed her instead. Then she went to the gate and stood watching the tall black figure till it had vanished in the mist. Down the path Edna came skipping, her gay voice carried far in the still air.
"Have you got it?" she asked. "Is the ending a happy one after all?"
"The end is perfect," Kathleen said in tones that shook a little. "My story is finished. And where my story ends the life happiness of one I love begins."
The Right Honourable Charles Merrion started, thereby losing the correct angle of the dress tie he was just drawing up. Really it had been an unfortunate day altogether. He had come down to Caradoc, at considerable personal inconvenience, at an urgent summons from Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram, and these messages generally meant trouble. It was the clang of the ship's bell—premonition of approaching dinner—that had so startled Merrion. Why was that bell back at Caradoc again? Only last night it had been at Beacon Lodge. Could there have been a quarrel or bother?
"But, no, I'll not believe it," the Minister said, as he settled his tie at last. "Maria is terribly wrong-headed, but she never did anything in bad taste. What's in the wind, I wonder?"
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was alone in the drawing-room when Merrion got down. She was a little more magnificently dressed than usual, her point lace was superb. A thin string of brilliants was around her throat. Evidently something very much out of the common was going to take place. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram's usually calm manner had deserted her, she was palpably nervous, there was some colour in her cheeks, and she glanced at the clock like a debutante going to her first party. Yet, on the whole, Charles Merrion had never admired Maria Eldred-Wolfram quite so much as he did at that moment.
"I am exceedingly sorry to trouble you so soon, Charles," she said. "My only excuse is the certainty of your satisfaction before the evening is over. Something—something has happened, Charles."
Merrion no longer doubted it, for he could see around him many of the treasures so recently transported to Beacon Lodge. Still, the momentous news must be good. No woman ever looked as Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram did at this moment who was not going to perform a brave and generous action. There was almost girlish brilliancy in her eyes.
"You must not be surprised at anything you see," she said.
"Oh, I won't," Merrion promised. "This is where my political training comes in. Eh, what?"
Cedric opened the door solemnly, and announced the twins as if they had been perfect strangers. Cedric too, had caught the excitement, for his cheeks were red. Merrion bowed before the two visions of beauty with a grave air of restrained admiration. The girls really were looking exceedingly nice. There was not the faintest suggestion of there being an evangelical bishop in the family now.
All the same, Merrion was surprised as Margaret came announced in the same way, followed quickly by Dr. Dennison and Reggie. Nobody but the twins seemed at their ease, with the exception of Kathleen, who had headed off Cedric and came like a flash of sunlight into the room and kissed her hostess heartily. There was no forcing even the fringe of the family dignity on Kathleen.
"I was horribly afraid that I was going to be late," she said, "but I was bound to stay and finish my story. It is ended at last, thank goodness."
"And the end?" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram asked, with the shade of suggestion in her voice.
"Oh, the end is lovely," Kathleen laughed. "I decided to place my faith in human nature, and the conclusion worked out splendidly. I hope I am not mistaken."
"I'm perfectly certain you are not," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram murmured.
There was some understanding between these two, there was a subtle meaning somewhere, Merrion decided. What were they driving at? Well, he had promised to be surprised at nothing that happened to-night. But he had reckoned without his hostess's sense of dramatic feeling. The door was thrown back, and Cedric entered in his most solemn and episcopal manner.
"Major and Mrs. Wiltshire," he said evenly; it was a splendid effort of discipline. "Major and Mrs. Wiltshire. And I have to say that dinner is served, madam."
Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram rose with a real smile of welcome on her face. She kissed her sister quite affectionately, and her handshake with the major was genuine.
"I am very glad to see you both," she said, "and it was really good of you to come at so short a notice, especially as I have never been to call on Lucy. John, I was very rude the last time we met, and I most sincerely ask your pardon. Your kindness has touched me deeply."
"Fine weather for the crops," Merrion said mechanically. As a rule, he hated to be banal, but for the life of him he could not think of anything else to say. Kathleen was obviously laughing at him. He coolly put his arm under hers and followed the Major and Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram to the dining-room. "Young woman, you are in the conspiracy," he went on. "Did you hear our gracious lady call him John?"
"Yes, and I'm glad of it," Kathleen said.
"He is what you call a good fellow and a gentleman, Mr. Merrion. This is a great evening, an epoch-making night in the history of the house."
"So it seems," Merrion said drily. "And methinks there is more to follow."
The meal was a little constrained at first, but the feeling gradually wore off. Merrion took brilliant advantage of the field opened to his diplomacy. They were a merry party enough by the time dessert came, and when Major Wiltshire calmly addressed Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram as Maria, Merrion lay back with the air of one who has done his duty successfully and well.
Then came one of the sudden silences that assail even the most carefully chosen dinner party. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram signed to Cedric to fill the glasses. He made a terrible hash of it. His hand trembled, so that he spilt little pools of different hued liquid all along the shining board. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram watched the enormity with a pleased, tolerant smile.
"I am going to say a few words," she said. "Many strange things have happened lately, and not the least startling event is the discovery that places me finally here again. But in the interval, I learnt a great lesson. In future there is going to be no more selfish waste at Caradoc. Just debts will be paid and expected in return. Sitting here, I solemnly pledge my word that not another heirloom at Caradoc is parted from the property. It may be that the entail was broken in the the time of James II., but all the same I regard my present position as a solemn trust. I hold the estate in trust for my rightful heir and successor, Reginald Eldred. I ask you all to drink the health of the future owner of Caradoc."
Heads were solemnly bowed over glasses, and various wines sipped. Reggie murmured something to the effect that he was not worthy, but nobody took the faintest notice of him. There was more to come.
"That is one reason why I asked you here to-night," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram went on. "Another reason was to see the reconciliation between my sister and myself, my sister and her husband. Lucy, you are a fortunate woman, and I have been a very foolish one. I need not say any more than that. This is another cause for the dinner. You are here to-night in honour of the engagement of my dear Margaret to Dr. Dennison. Let us drink life and happiness to the prospective bride and bridegroom."
"Oh, you darling," Kathleen cried eagerly. "You perfect darling. Margaret, my dear, love to you."
Kathleen's hands shook and her eyes filled with tears. Margaret's pale face flushed deeply, but she said nothing. John Dennison's fingers closed on hers, and his heart seemed to be uplifted. It was a beautiful and dramatic surprise. Dr. Dennison stammered out a few heartfelt words.
"I see you are all pleased," Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram proceeded. "I had only decided on that lately. When my good fortune came back to me, I was on the verge of a great folly. I almost quarrelled with my young people; I decided to do without them. I couldn't do it; I was perfectly miserable here. So I asked them to come back on their own term's, and they came. They brought all the treasures back from Beacon Lodge, as you can see. But Beacon Lodge is not going to be deserted. Reggie very kindly placed it at my disposal, and I'm gong to ask a further favour at his hands. I am going to ask him to let me retain Beacon Lodge as the future home of Dr. and Mrs. Dennison, I could not let Margaret go very far away. What does Reggie say?"
Reggie said exactly what was expected of him, and said it very well. Apparently, the pleasant surprises of the night were over, but Kathleen had one more. It was only to be expected that so brilliant a novelist would cap the efforts of an amateur like Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram.
"I don't want to be a brand of strife," she said sweetly. "But what is to become of Reggie and myself? All I ask is where are we going to live when we are married?"
"You don't mean to say——" Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram gasped. "My dear child, this is the most delightful surprise of all. At one time I had intended Margaret for Reggie. For a long time I have seen that it is impossible. Then I thought, perhaps, that Edna or Phillipa——"
"Impossible," Edna said. "Think of the episcopal rampart that——"
Everybody laughed, Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram included. Then she grew grave again.
"I can settle that for you," she said. "If that charter had never been found, under ordinary circumstances Reggie would have come into possession of Caradoc two years hence. Then, I should have retired to the dower house. It is my mood to forget that the charter has ever existed, it is my whim to behave as the dames of Caradoc have behaved for generations. When Reggie marries he comes here. I shall be happier there. I am not a novelist like Kathleen, but I have my visions. It is the happy old age that comes to the good and generous. You may smile at me."
But nobody was smiling, everybody was very silent. Then Kathleen kissed the speaker with lips that trembled. One by one the girls did the same. Margaret, at a sign from Dennison, rose and slipped away from the room. At the grand organ in the hall she sat down and flooded the house with melody. The grand, sad chords rolled out, the glad music rose higher.
"Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March,'" Merrion said. "Never heard it played so in my life, eh, Maria?"
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