Title: A Woman of Samaria Author: "Rita" (Eliza Margaret Jane Humphreys) * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1701031h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2017 Most recent update: October 2017 This eBook was produced by: Maurie and Lyn 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 Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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A red sky brooded over the sere and bronze of yellowing bracken and fading heather. On all sides wild moorland spread to the base of gloomy hills. Then an upward sweep of clouds curved from west to south, and thickened into gloom. Swiftly it reached the sky line and blotted out the momentary glow of sunset. The distant woods changed from bronze to black, and the wide moor was smitten with a sparkle of raindrops. Then light faded, and mist and darkness took its place, and the sough and sigh of rising wind swept eerily over the hills.
Two figures stood knee-deep amidst heather and gorse, and watched the transformation.
They were young, and deeply in love, and wind and weather mattered little. They had not approached by years or feeling that period of life when personal discomfort brings sharpness of speech and temper. The girl merely laid a brown head against a strong young shoulder, and asked somewhat plaintively:
"What are we to do, Cyril? Haven't you any idea where we are?"
"Not the least," was the answer, given with misgivings, tempered with appreciation of the feminine helplessness so near his rough Norfolk jacket. "These moors are all so alike, I can't tell one from another."
"The rain is coming on."
"It's not rain, sweetheart, only a Scotch mist."
"Mist or rain, it's decidedly damping," she said. "What are we to do, Cyril?"
"Struggle on till we find some habitation or human being, I suppose. The worst of it is, I can't find a path or track of any sort. Nothing but this confounded heather."
"Suppose you fired off your gun. Someone might hear?"
"If they did, do you fancy anyone would come searching for us? Not they. Are you very tired, dear, or can you struggle on a little longer?"
"I'm not very tired. Look here, Cyril, isn't this something like a foot-track?"
He bent down and examined the ground. Certainly there was a track leading to the west, beaten down, narrow, but still showing signs of trampled heather and broken fern.
They followed it amidst many devious windings. They were spent and wearied when it brought them at last to a small hut, from which came the gleam of firelight. A dog flew out, and began to bark violently. Then a man's voice was heard calling it, and demanding who was there, in a dialect barely comprehensible to English ears.
The young man strode forward, and found himself confronting a middle-aged, oddly-dressed individual, short of stature, with large wandering eyes and unkempt straggling locks. He held a lantern in his hand, and threw its light upon the wayfarers.
"We've lost our way," explained the young man. "Can you direct us to Calum Lodge—Mr. Macdonald's shooting box, you know?"
The man only gazed at him and shook his head, his lips parting in a vacant grin. He waved his lantern towards the doorway. "Coom awa' in," he said; "and bring the good leddy wi' you."
"I don't think he understands," said the girl.
"Try him, you, then. What barbarians they are in this country!"
The girl advanced and explained that they were in need of a guide—they had lost their way on the moor. But he only renewed his invitation to the "gudeman and hersel'," as he termed them, and, despairing of making him comprehend, they entered the hut or "bothie," where a bright peat fire was burning on the open hearth, by the side of which sat a woman knitting.
She had a pleasant, homely face, and the aspect of the little kitchen was clean and cheerful enough. A kettle was swinging over the fire. There was a table, scrubbed white and clean as hands could make it. On the walls were ranged a few pewter dishes and delf plates. The wooden rafters were black with smoke and age, and an old wooden bedstead stood against the wall. The woman welcomed them kindly; but according to her they were a good twelve or thirteen miles from the lodge where they were staying. The girl was already tired out. She looked despairingly at her companion.
"You must stay here to-night," he said, "and I'll find my way back—if I can borrow a lantern."
"No, no," she entreated. "You must stay also. When day breaks we can set out again. Perhaps these good people can give us something to eat."
Hospitality offered barley bread, a bowl of porridge, and a "dram."
Cyril Grey took the dram, and his young cousin the porridge. Perhaps it was that draught of spirit, fiery and undiluted, that went to his head and suggested a plan that otherwise would never have entered it.
The strange couple in the cottage persisted in treating them as man and wife. Why should they not become so, without all that fuss of form and ceremony so hateful to lovers, and so far-off a possibility in present circumstances?
Here were witnesses, here were the consenting parties; one of age, supposing that to be necessary. The romance of Romeo spurred the youth's tongue to eloquence and persuasion. Partly in jest, partly in earnest, the girl listened, argued, coquetted, and consented.
The simple ceremony was explained. They joined hands, they took each other for husband and wife before these admiring and approving witnesses. A little "siller" changed hands, a little more whisky was partaken of. So great and wonderful are the changes which primitive simplicity can work in human lives.
Donald Macraw, usually known as Donald the Fool, was enriched to the extent of a couple of sovereigns, and by dint of that gift and much persuasion conducted the wanderers on their way as soon as dawn broke, and sunlight had dispersed the mists of the previous evening.
"But am I really your wife?" the girl asked, eagerly yet doubtfully, as they stood in the doorway gazing out at a golden world of light and warmth and beauty.
"Really and truly. As much my wife as my heart calls you; as much my wife as if a hundred bishops had wedded us."
So answered Romeo, ardent and enthusiastic. So believed Juliet, trusting and passionate. The benison of God's Heaven was upon their heads as they went on their way, and life was still a jest, and they were—wedded.
"A new day and a new life," murmured the girl.
"You will keep the secret until I give you leave to speak?" urged the newly-made husband.
"Of course. I am perfectly content now I know no one can take you from me."
"You weren't jealous, sweetheart?"
"Horribly jealous, Cyril. Oh, I love you so! I love you so! I don't mind telling you now."
"And I love you just as much—my wife."
Their eyes met. The glow of the golden dawn was not brighter or more beautiful than that truthful and passionate light.
The woman stood in the doorway, and watched the retreating figures as they moved onward, blending with the monotonous colouring of the moor.
"God speed them," she said in her heart. "Aye, but she's a bonny wee thing, yon lassie. Sae trustful and sae sweet. But I hae my misgivings there'll be more o' this. And I'm none so sure o' her gudeman, for all he's sae fair-spoken."
As she spoke, the two figures, following their guide, dipped into a hollow, passed down the slope of moorland leading to a rough road, and were lost to sight.
The woman sighed, and passed within the low doorway.
"I doubt I'm fey," she muttered, "or why should I be seeing visions and hearing warnings? There's trouble ahead. . . I ken that for all the sky is fair and the sunlight bright. They twa will nae tread life's path taegither."
"We will sing," said the Vicar, "the 329th hymn, before I read the usual chapter."
He glanced round at a circle of attentive faces, bent over the rustling leaves of respective hymn books. If his eyes rested for a few seconds longer on one down-bent head than on any of the others, there was no one sufficiently inattentive to note the fact. It was the hour of family prayer at the Vicarage, and habits of years had disciplined children and servants alike into deferential attention to that observance. Even strangers and visitors fell into similar decorous habits when staying with the Rev. Gideon Webbe.
He was a man whose personality was the outcome of pure and gentle and generous emotions. A man with the student's dreaminess, the thinker's absorption, the Christian's patience and long suffering. In daily life he was more noticeable for a general belief in humanity's best than worst side. In the exercise of his office he was more faithful than convincing. He was much beloved, and not at all feared. He kept to the simplest form of worship compatible with the rubric, and his only clerical extravagance was an insistence on the best organ and the best music it was possible to procure in an unfashionable parish, where collections were not "de rigeur" after every service, and where "early celebration" was an unheard of ordinance.
The death of his wife after the birth of their second child had left the Vicar to comparative loneliness. He had loved her as his second self, relied on her, trusted her, confided in her. Such relationship cannot come twice into a life, and he did not tempt providence by any effort to replace her. She had been his boyhood's love and his manhood's joy, his staff and help-meet in all that appertained to the duties of his parish. Her loss was terrible to him, and the years, though they softened the pain of that first agonising blow, yet brought no possible consolation. Nothing in his life could ever be again as in those first few happy years, when he had installed her in the quaint old Vicarage of Dulworth. They had been as one in unity of content and use and happiness.
The children she had left were sweet and fair and dutiful, but they were not her, not the sweet helpful other half that had made life complete for him, and the slow years drifted on, and he grew more absorbed and absent-minded, and childhood, girlhood, bloomed and grew beautiful before his dreamy eyes, and yet to him seemed only childhood still. An unmarried sister of his own had ruled his household and seen to the girls' education and manners and well-being. He only noted how like his youngest child was to her mother, and how her voice had the same thrill and her laugh the same music.
Now, as she sang, his ear detected her voice among the others, though to-night it sounded strangely faint and uncertain.
"Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me."
He glanced up. The burnished brown head was still bent. The lamplight shone on a girlish shape somewhat too tall and rounded for her seventeen years, a contrast to her elder sister's fary-like proportions. Decidedly she was not singing as usual. The notes were tremulous; there seemed a pathos as of hidden tears in the words. Emotion seemed on the verge of breaking some leash of strength that checked its overflow. There was a tremor of lip, a flutter of the soft muslin that crossed the girlish breast. Her father watched and wondered.
Near the girl, so near that her white gown touched him, stood the Vicar's nephew—Cyril Grey. He was leaving on the morrow for China. He was a handsome though somewhat effeminate-looking youth of two-and-twenty, and had been staying at the Vicarage for the past month. The Vicar's wandering glance, combining as it did the two handsome young figures, the girl's troubled face, the youth's drooped eyelids and thin lips and beautiful colouring, gathered something of uneasiness into its expression. They were children no longer, this trio before him. What was life already meaning for them?
The last verse of the hymn began. His glance turned to the open page. It seemed to him that the lovely young voice had regained its accustomed firmness and quality. He thought how misleading fancy might be on occasion, and joined his own mellow baritone to the beautiful words:—
"Heaven's morning breaks and earth's vain shadows flee,
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!"
There came a brief pause. The group seated themselves and looked at him expectantly. He opened the Family Bible at the place where lay the old worn book-marker, worked by his dead wife nearly twenty years before. He cleared his throat and gave out the chapter. "The fourth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John."
The Vicar had one great gift, not too common to the clerical profession, and that was a beautiful voice, and one that had been trained to perfect elocution. It was always a pleasure to hear him read or preach, and an impossibility to be unimpressed or inattentive. Even his nephew, to whom the outward and visible signs of the priesthood meant infinitely more than the inward grace of that holy ordinance, admired the Rev. Gideon Webbe's reading.
He listened now with the criticism of mature youth and the assured conviction that it lay in his own power to do equally well what he criticised.
"Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband."
Cyril Grey was conscious of a sudden stifled sob, a quickened breath in his vicinity. He glanced at his young cousin. Her face betrayed visible emotion. A frown darkened his brow, his eye shot an angry rebuke at feminine weakness. She read the anger, and the rebuke, and grew suddenly calm. But the effort to attain such composure left her deadly pale, and gave to her young face a hardness that altered all its bloom and beauty. Then the gentle "Let us pray," brought individual seclusion and gave temporary relief to an enforced strain.
The Vicar's prayer was extempore and eloquent. He alluded impressively to the coming parting. He spoke of the "young traveller preparing his weapons for the battle of life." He asked a blessing on his spiritual life, its guidance and direction into right paths, and then with a few earnest and impressive words closed his petition with a solemn "Amen."
The servants rose and quietly left the room. Miss Sarah Webbe, the Vicar's sister, drew her spare figure into upright position and smoothed a crease or two out of her black silk gown. Cynthia, the eldest girl, crossed the room and put away the books of devotion in their respective places. The vicar's nephew smoothed back his fair hair with a languid hand. He alone noticed that a white-gowned figure had slipped out of the room in the rear of the parlourmaid, a proceeding unusual enough to excite comment.
There was a general murmur of "Good-nights." Cynthia followed her aunt, the Vicar retired to his study, and Cyril Grey walked slowly up the oak staircase to his own room. He put down his candle on the dressing-table and glanced at the white blind screening his window. Then with a sudden movement he blew out his light, and, drawing up the blind, opened the window and leaned out. His room was at the back of the house, and looked down upon a remote corner of the garden, where stood an old tumble-down summer-house covered with ivy and creepers.
The bright moonlight silvered the tall stems of sheltering beech trees that in summer time almost concealed the retreat. Now the leafage was less a screen than an adjunct. Light and shadow, growth and decay, there mingled and met in strange companionship. From the doorway came the white clutter of a handkerchief, waved as if to signal another presence. The young man turned from the window as he noted it, and going to a cupboard near the bedstead, he took out a knotted rope of some length. This he fastened to an iron hook outside the window frame and let drop to the ground below. Then he changed his coat for an old Norfolk jacket, kicked off his boots and replaced them with tennis shoes, and getting out on the broad ledge of the window let himself down by the rope. He rapidly crossed the intervening space, keeping as much as possible in the shadow, and presently stood at the entrance of the little summer-house. A girl sprang forward and threw herself into his arms.
"Oh, Cyril, I had to do it. I couldn't help myself. Your last night! Our last night! Oh, you don't know how awful it is to me!"
The unchecked tears were streaming down her face. A passion of sobs shook her frame. He drew her to a seat and held her closely to his heart, smoothing her hair and murmuring soothing words from time to time.
"It won't be such a long parting," he said. "There, there, darling, don't cry, the time will soon pass. I'll send for you as soon as I am able."
"Oh, if you could only take me with you!"
"Impossible. You know that as well as I do. My father is a crochety old beggar, as you know, and I'm quite dependent on him. He's sending me to the foreign house only out of spite, and because I'd rather be in England. And he's so rich, it's a shame. . . . Now, sweetheart, don't cry. Try and be sensible. Tell me you haven't breathed a word of our secret to anyone."
"Of course not, Cyril. You made me promise that day."
"Yes, brave little girl! Well, you must keep that promise a little longer. You see it would ruin my prospects altogether, and I've made up my mind to be a partner in Grey, Lovel, and Co.'s before I marry."
"But we are married."
"Of course, child, but that was a very queer sort of ceremony. It wouldn't count for much. We'll have to pretend it never happened, and do the thing properly."
A pale face uplifted itself in sudden terror.
"Oh, Cyril, but you assured me——"
"Of course I did. You and I are satisfied with the form. It was enough to pledge us to each other, but it's not what would be called a regular marriage in this country. However, don't you worry. You can live on here until I see how things are going to turn out. Then I'll break it to my father. It's a pity your dad and he are such bad friends. I never could understand why. The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children get the toothache; eh, childie? Come, that's better. You're smiling."
He breathed a sigh of relief. He hated tears, and his conscience accused him of having brought a good many to those fond and foolish eyes.
The moonlight waned. Night and shadow breathed their spells around, enclosing that charmed recess with the magic of passion, set to music of throbbing pulse and tender vows and fond caress. It was such an old story to the night and the springtime. But it was still new and entrancing to one at least of the story tellers.
"You are my love, my law, my conscience," she murmured passionately. "If I have done wrong it has been at your bidding—if you change, regret, repent, it will be my death!"
"I shall not change, Dolores."
"You are going to a new life, a new world. I—I must stay behind, watch the dreary days, weep out my long nights, fearing I know not what. A year ago I was a child, Cyril. Your love has made me a woman. I feel capable of anything—passion, sacrifice, revenge!"
"Revenge!" he said, half-startled by the word and tone. "Revenge, my pretty one. The word has a hateful sound on your lips. I don't like to hear it. You are inclined to be tragic, Dolores. I have often told you so. I fancy sometimes you would have made a good actress."
She laughed mirthlessly.
"I only speak as I feel. My heart is so full to-night I can't say one half of what I want to say. Cyril, you are so calm. You can't love me."
"I do love you," he said, "as well as it is in me to love. Our natures differ."
There was a moment's silence. Some passing memory of a sentence he had read flashed through his mind. Its cynicism affected him uncomfortably. That he should even think of it at such a moment held a suggestion of disloyalty. "We love best the woman we never win."
He had won. He had known all the triumph and pride in a girl's first passionate self-surrender that is so sweet to a lover's heart, but now, he told himself, the plucked fruit ceased to be quite so desirable. There is a subtle pleasure in restraint, a happiness in being unhappy, that one only realises in the "afterwards" of certainty.
She rested in his arms, quiet and subdued, yet a keen sense of misery filled her heart. The love of youth is ever shadowed by forebodings, no matter how sure or how absolute its worship.
He lifted her tear-stained face and looked down into her eyes. They were strangely beautiful. Large, shadowy, full of earnest purpose, self betraying in what they revealed.
"You won't forget, you won't repent," she entreated once more.
He unloosed the clinging arms and rose to his feet.
"I have promised," he said. "Your question shows you lack faith, Dolores."
"Oh, it is so hard, so hard," she cried. The chill of fear stole over her again. A knell of change sounded already in the tones of his voice. They were less lover-like, less assured, and had an undertone of impatience.
"Good-night," she said faintly, "and good-by. I shall not see you to-morrow before you start. I—I could not play a part before the others."
He was thankful she had recognised the fact. A highly-strung emotional nature is usually unreliable.
"Better not, dearest," he said, with a tenderness born of relief and self-reproach. "It would be too hard on us both. We will part here—here where our love was first confessed, our vows plighted."
The moonlight shone on her uplifted face, and lit the soulful sorrow of the eyes that matched her name. He drew her arms about his neck. Their lips met in a parting farewell. A moment later he stood and watched a white figure flitting towards the house.
"Poor child!" he said, softly. "Poor little girl! But she'll get over it."
He felt uncomfortable, and told himself he was unhappy. An element of hypocrisy in his nature mingled with the selfishness of young manhood, and he tried to persuade himself that it was regret, not relief that gave him such discomfort.
He sought his room once more. It would be long before he played Romeo again, he thought. A new life lay before him. One to arouse ambition and interest. This brief love dream had no part in it. With the morrow he would march forth towards a life that wore the smile of promise and worldly success. That he left a shadow behind cost him no pang. If absence were worth anything as a test of constancy, why then they could take up their love story where its first volume had ended. Change comes with the passage of time and ardour cools. No harm was done. She was so young now, naturally her life's horizon seemed bounded by her first love. Women were like that. But a man lived for other things. He could not look out on a limited landscape and call it the world.
At this stage of reflection the philosophic youth lit his candle. His preparations for the morrow were evident on all sides, in the shape of portmanteaux, hat box, straps, and walking sticks. He glanced at them complacently. Then, catching sight of his own face in the toilet glass, he gave himself up to a few moments' consideration of its good-looking promises.
"Poor little Dolly!" he murmured. "She certainly was desperately gone on me. I'm very sorry for her. I suppose she's crying her heart out now, and I can't comfort her."
A man's pity for what he is unworthy to love is only good-natured contempt for the weakness of the sex. He knew in his heart he could not comfort her, because he could not understand the depth of feelings lavished upon him with youth's prodigal delight in giving.
She lay prone on her bed, conscious of nothing save the intensity of her own misery. Tears had exhausted her. Prayer died upon her lips with a sudden sense of its impotence to avert sorrow. She was so young that in her first grief she felt as if she had reached the extremity of earthly woe.
"God keep me from thinking," she cried to the silence, and like a cloud the darkness rolled over her aching senses, and the quick living agony of the day died out of heart and brain in sudden unconsciousness.
"You have done nothing but mope since Cyril left. Talk of wearing one's heart on one's sleeve, why anyone could read your secret," said Cynthia, scornfully.
The tragedy of the parting was ten days old. The sisters were sitting on the grass under the old cedar tree. It was close on sunset. The air was full of warmth and fragrance. Birds chirped a last good-night to day from lilac tree and chestnut bought. Dolores turned a white face and wistful eyes to the speaker.
"I don't care," she said, slowly.
"I suppose you don't, or you wouldn't make such an exhibition of yourself."
Cynthia threw herself full length on the green sward, and clasping her hands behind her head, looked up into the soft blue depths above.
"What's it like?" she asked abruptly.
"What's what like?"
"Being in love, and melancholy over the beloved's absence, and all that. Tell me, Dolly. It will do you good to unburden your soul. 'Give sorrow words,' doesn't someone say? Well, I invite confidence. It's too bad you should take the lead of me when I'm two years older than you and ever so much better looking, but Cyril was a booby."
The white face flushed scarlet.
"How dare you say that? You know he was ever so much cleverer and—and nicer in every way than that idiot you have dangling after you. I wonder you can be civil to him."
"I'm not. That's just why he likes me so much. The worse you treat a man the fonder he gets of you. Believe me, my dear, there's no greater mistake than showing your feelings. I'm always preaching that to you."
"I don't believe you've any to show. You flirt with any male thing that comes in your way, but you couldn't care for one of them. If you love anyone it's yourself, Cynthia. You were always like that."
"Well, I'm worth loving, judging from all the love letters I get. Bobby Trevor has turned that old hollow tree by the stile into a post office for my benefit. Would you like to hear his latest effusion?"
"No. And I don't think it's a nice thing to do to read out what's only meant for yourself to some other person."
"How badly you speak, Dolly. You'll really have to attend to your education."
She glanced at a coldly averted cheek, and smiled meaningly.
"Have I hurt your feelings, dear? Never mind. We can't all have the same tastes. Though what you could see in Cyril passes my comprehension. Now, when I marry——"
"Here comes Aunt Sarah and the tea table," interrupted Dolores. "I should hold my tongue if I were you."
Cynthia sat upright. "Poor Aunt Sarah! Wouldn't she be shocked if she knew that the little god's arrows were already flying about in this sacred retreat, or that a proposal and ten thousand a year are lurking in my pocket at this very moment, waiting only for a word of three letters on father's side."
"What!" exclaimed her sister, glancing round.
"Ah! I thought I'd wake you up. I'm perfectly serious."
"Oh, you little goose, of course it's not Bobby. Calf love and no prospects are all he has to lay at my feet. No, it's—— But never mind. I'll tell you after tea. I see dad leaving the drawing-room. How astonished he'll be to-morrow morning!"
She rose and assisted the maid to set out the tea table. The Vicar joined his sister, and they came up to the two girls. They always took tea out of doors when the weather permitted.
The talk was chiefly about parish matters—the ailments of old people, the vagaries of the young. The Vicar alluded to the forthcoming concert which Mrs. Ferrers, of the Hall, was getting up for the village schools. She was a lively elderly widow, with a large income and no family, and was so socially disposed that she always filled the hall with visitors when she was in residence there.
"Oh, by the way, I have a letter from her," said the Vicar, putting down his tea-cup and trying his pockets in succession. "She wants you to sing, Dolores. I know that is what it is about. Yes—here it is. Read it yourself, my dear. I suppose you will do as she asks. There's a sketch of the programme there, too. Her friends seem very talented. They are all doing something."
"Let me see!" exclaimed Cynthia, taking the slip from her sister's indifferent grasp.
She rattled off a string of names, with accompanying criticisms on their proposed performance. She was a great favourite of Mrs. Ferrers, and knew most of her guests by reason of meetings at luncheons and teas.
"'To Anthea,' Mr. Thomas Lilliecrapp," she read. There was a little touch of consciousness in her voice. But apparently the listening ears were not critical. "Fancy Mr. Lilliecrapp singing! Why, he doesn't know one tune from another. He has positively no ear. And as for Mrs. Ferrers, of course it's 'Luce di quest anima.' Dad, you ought to give the 'Vicar of Bray.' The sentiments don't suit, of course, but it's just your compass. Dolores, shall you appear? For goodness sake don't sing one of your doleful ditties if you do."
"I'd rather not sing at all," said the girl.
"Why, my dear? I thought you'd be pleased," said the Vicar, wonderingly. "And you have an excellent voice, you know. It will seem a little—well, a little impolite, to refuse. Especially when you consider the object for which the concert is given."
"Of course you must sing, Dolores," said her aunt, sharply. "You have no possible reason for refusing."
The girl raised her cup to her lips to hide their sudden tremor. She said no more.
The conversation went on. Cynthia had always plenty to say, and loved the sound of her own voice. She was a gay butterfly of a girl, totally unlike her sister, still more unlike either father or mother. She adored her own small, pretty person, and flirted promiscuously with all and sundry who were flirtable. She had long ago made up her mind that a rich marriage and a position in society were to be her portion in life, and already had achieved their possibility. They took the form of a middle-aged admirer, a friend of Mrs. Ferrer's, who had done great things in the manufacturing line, and patented a certain British industry which had led to fortune.
That he was ugly and commonplace and coarse and stupid were trifles of no importance to the soulless little beauty. He was 45 years of age, and, she hoped apoplectic. He would serve her purpose admirably, and he was quite besottedly in love with herself. She had his proposal in her pocket, and had authorised him to call on the Vicar the next morning. It was little wonder she had no sympathy to spare for her sister's woebegone face and lovelorn listlessness. They were so immeasurably foolish that she could not even take them seriously as a point of discussion.
The swing of the garden gate came as an interruption to the conversation. Miss Webbe looked round. "A gentleman," she said, peering into the distance with short-sighted eyes.
Cynthia turned her head. "Why, it is Mr. Lilliecrapp!" she exclaimed. "He must have come about the concert."
A short, thick-set man, with a red face and iron-grey hair, came towards the group. The Vicar knew him slightly, but that fact made no difference to his greeting. Cynthia's welcome was tinged with a little conscious blush, and Dolores simply shook hands, with a conventional remark, ere retiring into the background.
It appeared Mr. Lilliecrapp had come about the concert. They were anxious to get the programme printed, and Mrs. Ferrers had commissioned him to secure the two young ladies of the Vicarage for "something." Perhaps Miss Cynthia would play and Miss Dolores sing? He gave the message, looking ardently at Cynthia.
"We were just trying to make up our minds when you appeared," she said. "At least I was trying to make up my sister's mind for her. I see you are going to sing 'To Anthea.'"
"I was about to request the favour of your accompanying me. You play so well."
"It is a very difficult accompaniment," observed the Vicar. "And a fine song," he added, "though the sentiment has always appeared to me somewhat exaggerated."
"Love," observed Mr. Lilliecrapp, "cannot be exaggerated when it is real."
His face grew redder, he rumpled his iron-grey hair in sudden confusion, and pronounced the weather "very 'ot indeed for the season." Cynthia rushed into a discussion on the programme, and endeavoured to include her sister. But Dolores was evasive. She would not promise anything.
Presently the visitor evinced an admiration for the garden that impelled his host to suggest further inspection; and they strolled off together, followed by a suspicious glance from Cynthia. Nature had formed her coquette, despite all rules of heredity and example. She knew she had limited her opportunities now by choice of one among her victims. The reflection caused her some uneasiness. She felt she had been hurried, and already saw the Vicar puckering an honest brow in wonderment.
Of course Lilliecrapp would seize the opportunity, and equally of course would confess himself authorised to do so by the lady of his desire. At this stage her thoughts wandered to Aunt Sarah, and took a tinge of triumph. She became less critical respecting the favoured swain, and revelled in pictures of splendid successes and social elegance.
The tea things were removed, and Dolores went indoors. Cynthia remained with her aunt, and awaited events with pardonable impatience.
The world was her golden apple. Lilliecrapp would be the ladder by whose means the fruit might be reached. Once reached she would make him a sharer in her triumph's. He must go into Parliament. He would win a title. "Sir Thomas and Lady Lilliecrapp," had a pleasant-sounding flavour about it. She murmured it over, and the name seemed less homely, and smacked less of manufactures, or licensed victualling.
"My dear Cynthia, I have spoken to you three times," exclaimed her aunt. "What are you thinking about? I want you to take those flannel petticoats to old Mrs. Babbage. They are quite ready and,——"
The future Lady Lilliecrapp rose impatiently. "Oh, bother Mrs. Babbage! I don't want to go down to the village this evening. Send Dolly. I'll tell her."
Aunt Sarah looked dignified. "In my young days——" she began.
"Here comes papa. If he wants me, tell him I'm in the drawing-room."
A lapwing, a swallow, anything airy and graceful, gave its likeness to her swift flight as a pair of infatuated eyes watched it.
"I have your permission to claim her, then?" was murmured rapturously.
"You say she has accepted you, conditionally to my approval. It seems to me that means—everything," answered the Vicar. "I am a little bewildered. It had not dawned upon me that my children were grown up—marriageable, in fact. But if you are so deeply attached to her, and your position is all that you have stated, I cannot offer any objection except that of youth."
"A lovely fault!" said the enamoured swain, "and one I am only too willing to overlook. Then I may tell her you consent?"
"I—I suppose so."
If Cupid ever lends wings to middle-aged feet, his aid was apparently invoked, for the last words were addressed only to vanishing coat-tails.
The two girls were dressing for the concert. Two white gowns lay on the bed in Cynthia's room, and two exquisite bouquets of white flowers with trails of green foliage lay beside them. Cynthia stood before the glass, radiant in déshabillé of snowy mysteries and giving finishing touches to her hair. The door opened and Dolores entered. She moved with a languid step, and her face was pallid and anxious.
"You look awful!" exclaimed Cynthia, with sisterly candour. "I can't think what's come over you! For goodness sake, child, try and put off that melancholy Ophelia business for once. Really, people will begin to notice you. You're just like a ghost. I declare I'd make you rouge if I had any. I've heard geranium petals do as well; but it's not the season for them. Try a rough towel."
Dolores made no reply. She did indeed look ill. Her face had lost its youthful roundness and grown sharp and thin. Dark circles shadowed her eyes and intensified the dusky length of lashes. Her step was slow and languid, and her lips never smiled. She seemed to move and act and speak by mechanical instinct. The verve and spring of life had gone from her.
"No letter yet?" observed Cynthia, enquiringly. "Well, after all, he's not been gone so very long. You'll have to adopt my philosophy, dear. 'If he do not write to me, what care I how nice he be!' Not that Cyril was ever 'nice' in my opinion. He thought too much of himself. A conceited man never makes a satisfactory lover. Now my poor old dear is rather too fond of bringing himself to my notice. See there!" She pointed to the flowers, and then took up a trinket box from the dressing-table.
"'This—to my Anthea,'" she read, and opening it showed the sparkle of a diamond circlet, which was speedily transferred to a slender finger. "Pretty, isn't it? That's the third ring he has given me. I suppose the fourth will be the one."
"Miss Tatton has excelled herself," said Cynthia presently, in approval of her own appearance. "Taste and the 'Lady's Pictorial' can do wonders even in a country village. These gowns have quite a town-made touch about them, I assure you. I've not studied Mrs. Ferrers's frocks for nothing. I hope your bodice will fit, Dolly? Mine is barely comfortable; but you want singing-room. Goodness! there's Aunt Sarah calling, and you're not dressed. What a nuisance punctual people are."
"I'll take this into my room," exclaimed Dolores, hurriedly. "She'll only fuss and detain me. Keep her here for goodness sake. Show her your ring—anything." She seized her bodice and fled.
A quarter of an hour later the two girls were in the drawing-room of the Vicarage, undergoing the criticism of father and aunt. Cynthia was radiant. Her lovely colouring was all the more brilliant in contrast to her colourless attire. Dolores, too, had no lack of roses to complain of, but the flush on her cheeks was too feverishly brilliant to last, and her eyes had a wild strained look that spoke of mental tension.
The Vicar regarded them with admiring interest, their aunt with a due appreciation of the dressmaker's skill as an adjunct of youth and beauty.
Her father's eyes rested on Dolly's face with a dawning expression of wonder, and their gaze growing more intent, noted some change in that face that gave him a momentary pang; it brought out the likeness to that dead wife so strongly. But why should the child look ill, and what had brought that hunted, half-terrified look into her soft eyes? Those eyes which had always seemed to foreshadow sorrow even in childhood.
Ere he could frame his troubled thoughts into words she had thrown her cloak over her shoulders and turned away on pretence of finding her music. Her hands shook, she felt cold and sick. The names and titles of the songs swam hazily before her eyes. She wondered how she would ever get through the evening with this new sense of terror weighing upon her heart.
When she stood on the platform and gazed down on the familiar faces it seemed to her that they all wore a look of curiosity, or question. The blood mounted to her brow, the beating of her heart was quick and painful. Her eyes fell on the flowers she held in her hand, and their snowy purity seemed to mock her agonised thoughts. As one in a dream she heard the accompaniment to her song, and knew the bar that gave the signal for the voice. With a rush of emotion she began,
"The stars shine on his pathway,
The trees bend back their leaves,
To guide him to the meadow
Among the golden sheaves."
The passionate words, the burst of joy that proclaimed the "waiting" over, sent a thrill through the listeners. It seemed as if the singer's very soul was in the music, its longings and abandonment and delight, for it was her own love and longing that she sang, and memory carried her back to hours when she had waited for a footfall and trembled with ecstasy in her lover's embrace. Then Hope arose and whispered that as it had been so it should be again. Her eyes were like stars, and men looking at her thought that she sang too well of love for one to whom love was an unknown guest. But they recalled her again and again, for no voice there was like hers, and the joy and beauty and pathos of it left strange memories behind.
She was succeeded by Mr. Lilliecrapp, whose performance afforded intense amusement to all and sundry, and tried his fiancée's nerves and patience to a degree that the diamond circlet scarcely rendered passive. However, he was so well satisfied with himself that comment was superfluous. Certainly none was made.
Dolores had to sing once more, and this time selected the old ballad of "Robin Gray." There were few dry eyes in the little hall when she had finished, and her own were wet as she left the platform.
Mrs Ferrers greeted her with enthusiasm. "I wonder you don't go into the profession," she said. "With a year's training your voice would be admirable. You'd create a furore in London."
"Nonsense! Don't try to turn the child's head," exclaimed Mr. Lilliecrapp. He did not particularly desire his future wife's sister to adopt a public profession. He had the curious middle-class prejudice against art. It was not a thing by which fortunes were rapidly made; and therefore of small account, commercially considered. Besides, this chit of a child had created quite a sensation where his efforts had only met with polite toleration. It argued badly for country tastes.
To Dolores herself the whole evening was an ordeal from which she was longing to escape. She refused Mrs. Ferrers's invitation to return to supper with the rest of the concert party. She declared her head ached, she was tired, she must go home, and persuasions were useless.
When she was alone in her own room she threw off her pretty frock with a sudden disregard of everything but relief. Then she sat down at the little table in her window, and wrote a letter. It was not long, and as she wrote it all the girlish beauty of her face seemed to harden and grow cold and fierce and determined. When she had sealed and addressed it she blew out her light and sat for long by the open window, gazing out at the starlit garden.
"If I could only stop thought until I get his answer!" she cried to herself. "I cannot bear this silence and suspense. I feel as if I should go mad. Has he altered? Has he forgotten? Oh! if he has, what will become of me!"
She sank down on her knees, her head pillowed against the hard window seat, alone with the night and desolation.
* * * * * * *
The door handle was softly turned. Someone looked in.
"Are you asleep, Dolly?" said a voice. The girl lifted her head and struggled to her feet.
"Why, good gracious me, I thought you were in bed. Don't tell me you've been moping in the dark all this time. How silly you are! And we had such a good time at the Hall. Why wouldn't you come?"
"I didn't want to," said the girl, dully.
"Didn't want to? But why? Surely it was better than sitting up here alone fretting yourself ill. Why," touching her suddenly, "you're as cold as death. Really, Dolly, you want a good shaking! I shall tell father about you. You do nothing but sulk and mope; it's getting unbearable."
"What did you come in for? To tell me this?"
"No. I just came in to say the day has been fixed. I'm going to be married the end of next month. Tom declares he won't wait any longer, and Mrs. Ferrers and I were talking about the bridesmaids' dresses. I'll only have two, and a page to hold up my train. That pretty boy of Mrs. D'Arcy's will do. She's promised him. He has been at lots of weddings, and can be trusted. There's very little time, but it's no use thinking of a grand wedding here. Now what colours do you say? White and pink is pretty, and suits the season, too; and you always look well in pink."
A little uncertain laugh broke from Dolores. "Do I? Well, it's all one to me; have what colour you wish."
"If a girl cannot take an interest in a wedding, and her own sister's, too, there must be something radically wrong about her!"
"What do you mean?" cried Dolores, sharply, her face growing suddenly white.
"Just what I say. You don't show the least interest or sympathy; and it's very hard, considering how we've been brought up together and had everything in common."
"Except our sympathies," said Dolores, coldly. "They were always at variance, to the best of my recollection. And as for your marriage, what do you expect me to say? I know you don't care a rap for this man. You are marrying solely for money and position. You can't expect to be happy. He is vulgar and common and old."
"Thank you; that will do. I might have guessed the sort of things you would say."
She turned, away with the dignity of wounded feelings. The moonlight, flooding the room, showed the two white girlish figures, one seated on the bed with clasped hands and lowered eyes, the other erect and scornful and offended. As her hand was on the door Dolores spoke.
"Say good-night, don't let us part bad friends. It won't be for so very long that we shall be together. And we've no mother to wish us Godspeed on our life's journey, or counsel us by the way."
"No," said Cynthia, suddenly melting. "And I've made my choice and you've made yours. There's no need to quarrel because they're so different. We never did think alike about anything."
She came back to the quiet figure. They kissed each other silently in the moonlight. The tears that were wet on Dolores's cheek were no tribute of her own aching heart as she turned away from the closed door.
Days drifted by. Preparations for the wedding were in full swing. A large order had gone up to a famous London house celebrated for trousseaux, and Miss Tatton was busy on sundry gowns that were to be built on styles popularised by ladies' fashion papers. Cynthia was in a chronic state of excitement.
The honeymoon was to be spent in Paris and Italy, and a promise of a visit to Worth filled her with rapture, duly dashed by misgivings that the great Sartorial King has no enthusiasm for figures of the pocket Venus type. And during these days, flooded with sunshine, perfumed with Spring, joyous with bird's songs, breaking leafage, budding flowers, Dolores moved about the house pale, listless, heavy-eyed.
Her thoughts swept to and fro, a restless sea with but one refrain. She lived in a fevered dream from which Hope gradually withdrew all promise. Suspense was fastening on her heart, and sapping her life, and she knew she must soon face a dilemma from which no one could extricate her.
At last the letter came. It was at breakfast time, and as her father opened the post-bag and handed out the various missives, a wave of crimson swept the pallor from her cheek. It had come: she held it in her hand. Her eyes devoured the familiar writing. Oh! why had she doubted? It was wrong, it was unworthy.
She would not read her letter at the table. She put it in her pocket until she should be alone. She could not eat. Food seemed to choke her, but she drank her tea thirstily and with haste. How long the others were. It seemed as if they would never finish. Then came prayers, and at last the moment of escape.
Turning an indifferent ear to the suggestion of household duties, she escaped into the garden and from thence to the little ivy-coloured tumble-down summer house which had been the trysting-place of her young lover and herself. Here there would be no fear of interruption. She drew out the precious missive, and with trembling fingers tore open the envelope. It was a long letter. Her eyes swept the first page, taking in the meaning more than the actual words. As she read her pulses seemed to grow still. A chill as of death struck her heart and swept slowly downwards through her limbs. She could not move or rise. She hardly breathed.
She read on by some mechanical instinct, losing consciousness almost of her own identity, and seeing nothing before her but a wounded, stricken creature, who presently must rise and face life despoiled of hope, who would stagger along the road of a long and shameful journey with a knife-thrust in her heart.
What she read was the precious reasoning of a selfish passion wearied of its conquest. "Your fears are fanciful and absurd," he wrote. "It is impossible for me to acknowledge our marriage at present. I should wreck my whole career at its outset. I must start free and untrammelled. Your letter is simply a morbid and hysterical outburst, the outcome of girlish ignorance. When you grow calmer you will be ashamed of what you have said, and the foolish accusations you have made. I am not inconstant, and I love you very dearly. I am also prepared to carry out my promise to you in proper time, but at my own discretion. But as matters are at present it would be madness. I can't wreck all my future to satisfy a whim of yours. Perhaps in two years' time——"
She gave a gasp. The letter fell from her hand. Two years—two years! Could he not understand what she had written?
The shock stupefied her for a moment. Thought reeled and surged, her senses seemed escaping.
Had he ceased to love her? Was she no longer the one dear and desirable thing in life, as he had called her that night on the moorland? That night! How long ago was it? Years? Centuries? Surely never a few months back, an autumn holiday dating a first meeting, a new relationship?
All youth and ardour died out of her heart. She felt old and chill, and the bare cold prose of life stared her in the face. He was far away. The ocean rolled between them. It would be a month before another letter could reach him, and another month ere reply could come. Months—when weeks were now winged with terror. Even her ignorance told her that.
She looked at the scattered sheets. "He doesn't love me, he doesn't want me," she moaned, and again reason whirled itself into a chaos of suffering.
To be unloved, undesired, at such a crisis in her life. The shame and humiliation of the thought stung her to fury. She seized the letter and tore it into fragments, never remembering that it contained the address at Shanghai, where she was to write. But in her then mood all thought of further plea or petition was banished.
To be of any use, of any help in her present dilemma, she must have heard that he would send for her at once. Instead of that he refused to acknowledge their marriage, and spoke of "a year or two" further waiting.
She laughed harshly, strangely. The sound of it startled and recalled her to her senses. Her face was like marble, so stern and cold and colourless had it grown in this brief time. She raised her clasped hands heavenwards.
"I promised to keep our secret," she said, whisperingly. "I will keep it. But as God hears me, Cyril Grey, I will never forgive you these cruel words!"
With her heel she stamped the torn scraps of paper into the damp ground, and with one look of despair around that place of many memories she turned and left it—for ever.
As day followed day Dolores grew paler and more silent. But in the stir and confusion and preparations for Cynthia's marriage no one noticed the alteration in her sister save her father. But he attributed it to sorrow at the coming parting. The sisters had always been together since childhood, naturally the one left behind would feel lonely and depressed without her companion.
Meanwhile the prospective bridegroom waxed more jubilant and devoted every clay. Presents poured in upon Cynthia, and she looked quite contented with her choice, and accepted congratulations with the "savoir faire" of one who has listened to the counsels of prudence.
One evening about a week before the wedding Mr. Lilliecrapp strolled over to the Vicarage after dinner, as was sometimes his wont. The distance from the Hall was not great. He marched along with head erect; his light-heartedness sounded in a prolonged and jubilant whistling. It broke off abruptly as a figure suddenly faced him with startling abruptness.
"Oh! it's you," he said, recovering his equanimity. "Alone?"
"Yes. I thought you would be coming over, and I wanted to speak to you."
"To speak to me?" He looked surprised. It was not often Dolores troubled him with any overtures of friendliness.
"Yes." Her voice was nervous and uncertain. She was visibly agitated. His thoughts flew to his beloved. Had anything happened to her?
"Is anything wrong? Is Cynthia——"
"Oh! Cynthia's all right. Don't look so alarmed. What I want to say has only to do with myself."
He breathed relief, and took a brotherly survey of an anxious young face in the clear primrose light. "I am all attention," he said cheerfully.
"I wanted to ask—to say—I mean Cynthia told me that you were going to give each of the bridesmaids a present."
"Certainly, my dear. It is the usual thing for one in my happy position."
"And I thought I would ask, if instead of giving me mine you would let me have its value in—in money," stammered the girl.
He looked astonished. "In money?" he repeated. "I purposed giving you each a diamond bangle, value £100. Do you mean you'd rather have the hundred pounds?"
"Yes. It must seem strange, but I want it to help someone—a friend, who is it great trouble. I know you are kind and generous, and I thought I would ask."
"Oh! I don't mind giving the money," he said. "But the bangles are ordered, you see; and it is too late to change the order. They were made to a special design. Still, I'll tell you what I'll do. You must have the bangle, or it will look strange, and I'll give you a cheque for fifty for your friend. What do you say to that?"
"You are very kind," she faltered. "I—I don't know how to thank you. If you would look upon it as a loan which I would repay——"
His laugh cut her words short.
"Loan! No, my dear. One of my maxims through life has been never to lend money, not to nobody. I'd be in Queer Street to-day if I 'adn't stuck to that. If I give I give, but I don't lend. That's how I stand to-day master of half a million, and likely to be the whole afore I give up business. There, don't look as if you were goin' to cry. Have you said your say, because I'm longin' to get a word with my Cynthy."
"I'm so grateful, pray believe it. And, oh, please, you won't say anything to Cynthia, will you? She'd be so cross if she knew I had bothered you about such a thing."
"All right, my dear. Mum's the word. It's our little secret, eh? And I'm not such a bad un to trust you'll find. A rough husk often hides a soft kernel, and Thomas Lilliecrapp had always a willing ear for a pretty girl's confidence."
They had walked on, and were now at the gates of the Vicarage. Dolores opened it, and left him to pass in by himself. "I'm going down to the village," she explained. "I'll be home to supper."
He watched her with some curiosity as she turned away.
"Queer girl," he thought; "not a bit like my bonnie bird yonder. Wonder now what she really wanted the money for. Has some village protégé got into a scrape? Well, it won't 'urt my pocket. Charity is its own reward."
Meanwhile Dolores's footsteps took her to the post office, where she went to purchase some stamps and make usual enquiries for letters if there should be any.
"A newspaper for you, miss," said the woman. "No letters this last post."
"I'll take the paper," said the girl.
When she was alone that night she opened it, and studied one advertisement attentively. She laid the paper down at last, and her lips set themselves in a hard determined line. "I will go there," she said. "It is a chance. I have only instinct to guide me. But it sounds well. I'll risk it."
The wedding was over. The bride and bridegroom had departed, leaving the village "en fête" in their honour and the Vicarage in confusion and loneliness.
Miss Webbe wandered through the disordered rooms with a troubled face and a mind brooding over the waste of good things unfitted for homely digestions, and the hours that would have to be spent in washing and storing the best glass and china. The servants were at the village feast given by Mr. Lilliecrapp. The Vicar had retired to his study, and Dolores had vanished, presumably to her own room to change her bridesmaid's attire.
Could her aunt have seen how she was really engaged, she would have been filled with astonishment. Attired in a loose dressing-gown, the girl was kneeling before a small leather bag, packing it with the plainest and simplest of her store of linen. All the more elaborate articles, the lace-trimmed petticoats and underwear, the embroidered stockings and dainty shoes, the frills and ribbons and fantasies of a girlish toilet, she replaced in her drawers among bunches of fragrant lavender and dead roses. It was as if she laid by the useless belongings of one dead and gone from her place for ever, and white and cold and still almost as death was the face that bent over those girlish possessions.
But she never flinched from her task. Quiet and self-possessed, she moved to and fro until her preparations were complete. Then she took from a cupboard a plain gown of black cashmere and a long cloak. These she laid on a chair, throwing over them an ordinary linen dress such as she wore in the morning. Her bag she thrust under the bed.
There was but one thing more to do. It was the task she had left to the last, and her courage almost failed as she took up her desk and carried it over to the little table by the window. She sat down, staring blankly at the sheets of paper before her. Outside the quiet garden lay bathed in the rose and saffron light of fading day. A late bird sang to its mate from the drooping cedar boughs, the bloom and beauty of flowers smiled up to heaven, and the evening star stole out from its hiding place as if signalling its fellows to follow after.
The girl leant her head on her hand, and her tired eyes gazed sadly into the odorous dusk. Her thoughts flew to and fro, unconnected, impossible to seize. She had so much to say, and she must only say so little. But when she snatched up her pen in the desperation that often ends in decision, she wrote for many moments without pause or hindrance. Then she read it over, doing battle with herself lest tears should break forth and control be lost.
A thousand memories in her heart throbbed and broke against its stony calm. Sounds and voices reflected perpetual images. The music of evening hymns, the call of church bells, the deep melodious flow of prayer, the tender wisdom of Sunday teaching. To each and all of these she said good-bye in that hour, and said it with a breaking heart that made no outward sign. The fever of emotion had burned itself out. She said no longer "I cannot bear it," only "I must." When with white face and trembling limbs she stole downstairs at last, a letter lay on her dressing-table, blank and unaddressed.
There was yet another ordeal to face: the evening hymn, the evening prayer, the good-night that never again would be given in the old room, among the familiar things of her past life. As she forced her voice to its accustomed task, as she knelt and hid her agonised face in her accustomed place, the ignominy of her fate rushed over her like a fierce wave, and sorrow, struggling with passion, rent from her soul the last memory of tenderness for the selfish ingrate who had brought her to this direful pass.
She rose from her knees. She bade her aunt good-night, and turned to face an ordeal that to her was worse than death. That white head, that kindly face, those gentle eyes. Oh! what sorrow and shame was she bringing on them!
"Good night, my darling. We must be more than ever to each other now, since we have lost our Cynthia," he said.
She hid her face on his breast, a dry choking sob rose to her throat. Mutely she clung to him for a moment while he stroked her hair and murmured tender blessings and consolation. She tried to speak, but no words would come. Her heart ached till the pain seemed to suffocate her. Death would have been easier to bear than this agony of self-suppression, this effort to conceal misery and deny despair.
And still the kindly voice murmured of hope and consolation, of duties and sacrifices. But when he told her she alone was left to comfort him, to be the staff of his declining years, and the joy of heart and eyes, she could bear no more. She thrust his arms aside, and with one frenzied kiss she fled from the room, the tears streaming down her cheeks and all her frame shaken by a storm of passionate grief. They heard her close and lock her door.
"Poor child, it is her first grief! She finds it hard to bear," murmured her father.
He put his book aside and listened to his sister's vague platitudes, and wondered why so strange a sense of depression and trouble rested on his own heart.
Before many hours were over he was to learn the full meaning of a presentiment he had tried to mistrust as being un-Christian and arguing want of faith in the dealings of Providence. He held in his hand the letter found in his daughter's room, and with bewildered eyes tried to follow its meaning.
"I am leaving home not because I am tired of it, not because I do
not love you, father, but because I intend to follow out my own
inclinations and make a career for myself. I am going on the stage. I
knew you would never consent, so I have not stayed to ask you. When I
am great and famous I will return, and perhaps you will try to forgive
me, knowing that I could not help myself.
Do not fear for my welfare. I am well provided for. I cannot tell you more. Only from time to time you shall hear from me, and know that I live and am well and do not forget you. I must seem ungrateful—I feel it. Oh, I am wretched because I cannot open my heart to you, father, so good and loving and forbearing as you have always been. If only you would not trouble about me; but I fear you will. Yet try to think of me as happy, as working for an object which I feel I shall attain, as thinking of you and loving you always, loving you more than ever, though I am leaving your care and must appear ungrateful in your eyes.
God bless you, my kindest and best and dearest, and try to pray that He may forgive me.
"Your unhappy and unworthy child,
The more he read those incoherent, blotted sentences the more puzzled he became. That the girl had seemed low-spirited and unhappy he remembered; but whence had sprung this sudden determination to tear herself from home and all the loving care of kindred, and throw herself on the mercies of the world?
How could she have lived her daily life among them, yet nursed this project in her heart, and alone and unaided gone forth to secure it.
What to do, how to screen her rashness, and yet serve her best interests, set his wits wandering in all directions. Such an emergency had never presented itself before, and he felt helpless to meet it.
Miss Webbe's soul was one ferment of righteous indignation. She was furious with the girl for her deceit, and the disgrace her action would bring on the family.
To go on the stage after such training and bringing up. What madness could have possessed her! It could have been no sudden project. It must have been carefully planned and thought out. Yet she had seemed to live with them in perfect content until just the time of her sister's marriage.
Her father was too broken down to give any assistance or advice. He could only read and re-read those despairing words and ask himself how he could have been blind to the change in her. In all this time, living the quiet home life, fulfilling its simple duties, she must have been meditating on another, its antithesis in every way. Her thoughts had not been their thoughts, her tastes and desires had all wandered into far different channels. She had taken no one into her confidence and gone to a life of danger and temptation, of meretricious triumphs and false excitement. The last life he would have desired or chosen for a child of his.
It was a terrible blow. It met him so unexpectedly that he had no resource at hand. The child he had loved with such fond and faithful affection had deserted him for a whim, a fancy, without hint of either discontent or purpose.
He faced the mystery which every parent has, at some period, to face. The mystery of character developed under home guidance and training, and yet proving itself a thing apart and estranged from all expectations, full of individual force, of feelings and desires undreamt of by the very being who has given the doubtful blessing of life to the mystery.
"So young," he muttered, sitting in his study chair and letting his thoughts run back to days when she had brought her dolls and books and set them by the window for company, she told him. "Only seventeen and she has formed her own theories of life. She has gone to face the world. And I am helpless."
Some thought of wandering off in search of her crossed his mind, but the uselessness of such a course was made apparent by her letter.
Yet he must give some explanation of her absence. He could not tell the parish gossips that she had run away from home. But how had she left? Had anyone seen her? She was so well known that it would have been impossible for her to have got away unrecognised. He paced his study floor in ever-increasing dismay.
His sister's voice entreating him to let her in aroused him. She brought an element of worldly wisdom and common-sense into the dilemma.
"There must be no scandal; it would never do," she said. "Fortunately I went to her room and read that letter. The servants are so busy they haven't even noticed she's not been downstairs. I've been thinking it's best to say she's gone away on a visit, and that I'm to follow. That it was decided suddenly; and I'll bring her clothes and give an appearance of probability. In point of fact, Gideon, I will go to my old friend, Mrs. Sylvester, for a week. I'll start to-night; the 5 o'clock train gets to Waterloo about 8.30. She lives in Ebury-street. If anyone can help us she can. She is one of the cleverest women I know, and trustworthy. Now, my dear brother, let me entreat of you to pull yourself together. Remember we have the girl's good name to save, and if she can be found and brought back without scandal what a blessing it will be!"
"Sarah," said the Vicar, suddenly, "tell me. You don't fear anything else? No love affair? No—disgrace?"
Miss Webbe shook her head doubtfully. "There is a ring of despair about that letter of hers," she said. "I don't like it, I confess. And yet, what could have occurred without our knowing it. She has had no friends or associates. Certainly no young man friend that we have not seen. I have noticed a change in her of late. She seemed so absent and low-spirited. But I put that down to Cynthia's engagement—the prospect of separation. However, what I want to impress on you is the necessity of keeping this matter quiet. There may be a way out of it. I'll do my best to trace her, and if I do find her, rest assured I will talk common sense, and bring her back with me."
"God bless you, Sarah," said the old man. "You have put new life into me."
He wrung her hands in both his.
"If you find her, in whatever case," he said slowly, "deal tenderly with her. She is motherless."
No one had ever considered Miss Sarah Webbe as a very remarkable person. A good-natured, honest soul, with no special talents and a fair amount of common sense, would have seemed a just estimate of her character. But there are characters which lie dormant, so to speak, until some strong emergency rouses them to active life. The quiet routine of months and years had made no call upon faculties that were not purely domestic or charitable. No breath of trouble or tragedy had disturbed the even flow of monotonous works. Then suddenly a storm of both broke over the vicarage roof, and the two old people woke to face its ravages as best they could.
The woman faced it better than the man. Perhaps her feelings were less concerned in it, and the sense of feminine propriety outweighed, temporarily, all other emotion. In any case it was doubtful whether any amount of experience or consideration would have planned a better scheme for concealing the real facts of the case than that upon which Sarah Webbe had hit.
If the servants wondered, they were old family domestics to whom the honour of the household meant a great deal. They accepted facts as told them, and when their mistress departed for London kept their mouths discreetly closed as to the suddenness of another departure preceding and apparently obliging her own. That the Vicar was in heavy trouble was less easy to hide. His nature was too simple and open for concealment. His food was untouched, his face had grown aged and lined within a few hours. He was more than ever absent-minded and dreamy, but his gentleness was shadowed by a gloom that had never touched it before.
"Poor master! he do miss the young ladies," said the kindly cook, whose years of active service had been many in the family. And she devoted much energy to the manufacture of soups and jellies and "light nourishment" by way of diverting his attention from his troubles.
But creature comforts cannot mend a broken heart, and the Vicar, blaming himself for neglect of his dead wife's child, seeing himself confronted by a total ignorance of the character which had suddenly flashed out at him in that strange letter, felt as if his heart was broken. If harm had come to her he should have guessed at its proximity. He had taken too much for granted, and this was his punishment.
He thought of that last night when she had clung to him so passionately, when her white young face had been so eloquent of suffering, and her voice speechless with tears. Why had he been blind and careless before such signs?
His sleep was broken. In his dreams he saw always his wife's accusing face, and heard her ask again and again, "Where is the child with whom I trusted you?" He awoke in grey dawns and stared at the shadows. He folded trembling hands in prayer, yet found no words that shaped his errant thoughts. He faced the day's duties self-accused before his fellow-men, and people wondered at the change, and asked themselves what had come to their beloved parson.
Miss Webbe and her niece were blamed for deserting him at such a time, and the wedding also came in for a share of criticism now that the hall was deserted and the fine folks flown Londonwards.
So passed a week, and then Sarah Webbe returned—alone. Dolores had stayed behind, they were informed, and as time drifted on it was hinted that she had gone abroad to finish her education.
Only her father was silent on the subject. He ministered to them as of old, but the spirit of such ministry was lacking. It was performed mechanically, as a duty, and his sermons were always read. It was noticed also that whenever he could get assistance for the services he did so. At last a final breakdown of health necessitated a long absence. An old college friend took his place, and being genial and easy going and of a lively disposition he suited the parish remarkably well.
The secret of Dolores's flight had been well kept.
There had been no one present at that interview between the Vicar and his sister on her return. No one to hear of the tracing of the girl to London, of a visit to theatrical agents, of the proof that she had accepted an engagement in a company going to Australia, of her change of name, of her final departure, authenticated by a letter from herself, and bidding them farewell for a long time. None of these things crept out. They knew she was safe; that she lived; that she had entered upon a career of independence. They could but think her heartless as their best excuse.
To race to the goal of one's own desires over the broken hearts and ruined hopes of others is not a meritorious achievement. Even success has limitations of self glory. They spoke of her but seldom after that letter. The Vicar's heart was sore, but too tender for blame, and his sister feared to add to his grief. She devoted her energies to his comfort, served, and cheered and tended him, but the months scarcely made a year before she knew his earthly ministry was over.
He "set his house in order," and so in patience and with broken spirit waited for the call that he knew must come. And when it came it found him ready. Gladly his feet went forth on that unknown journey, and with the smile of a little child upon his lips he followed the messenger who came for him.
Sarah Webbe had been left a small income by her brother, also a sum in trust for his youngest daughter, and a sealed letter which he directed was to be given her, whenever she returned, or was found.
The Vicar was buried at Mentone, where he died. Then his sister came back to England to arrange about his personal belongings at the Vicarage. As soon as matters were settled she left the village, telling no one where she was going, or her plans for the future.
It was, however, generally believed that she had gone to live with her niece in London.
In truth Miss Webbe had done no such thing. She had returned to the little Cornish home which she had left at her brother's desire when his wife's death had bereft his children and himself of womanly care and help.
It was such a little out of the world nook that its name had little meaning in the ears of tourists and travellers. It was near the sea coast, and had all the beauty and vivid colour of the sweet West Country. Her little cottage was a bower of fuchsia and escallonia, of flowering myrtles and wild roses. The latticed windows faced a bay or cove, where the sea played wild pranks in winter, and was a glory of blue ripples and feathery spray in the long sunshiny days of summer.
It was an ideal retreat, and she loved it as one loves the resting place that means home. Save for a few cottagers and fisher folk, and a scattered mansion at miles of intervals, the place was very solitary. It had no attractions but its own beauty and quaintness. The nearest town was several miles away, and there was but one post daily. A small general shop supplied such homely necessaries as were exclusive of the market town. Fish, poultry, eggs, and fruit were all to be had at farms or cottages. Life was a simple idyllic thing, free of turmoil or distraction, and Sarah Webbe asked no other fate than to end her days here.
But though she asked it, she had a rooted conviction that such a request would not be granted. She had long ago set herself a duty, and never permitted herself to forget its paramount claims. She felt certain that one day Dolores would be found. She was equally certain that she would need a friend, and perhaps a home. For her father's sake she had determined that both friend and home should be at her service.
The conviction in her own mind about the girl was a conviction she had never breathed to a living soul. A chance word from her friend, Marian Sylvester, had sown the first seeds of this conviction. She had denied its possibility, but worldly wisdom in a representative woman had only nodded mysteriously, and said, "Depend upon it, it's true."
Whether true or false, nothing had been discovered to assure such suspicion until the return of Cynthia from prolonged Continental travels. She was shocked and indignant at her sister's flight, less from affection than fear of scandal in the future. The hint of a family skeleton was not one to be welcomed by the plutocrat who had honoured it with an alliance. When he heard of it he remembered the girl's strange request for money as a present instead of the bangle.
"The baggage! I'll be bound she's turned that into cash also," he said, as he told his wife of the occurrence.
Cynthia pondered. It struck her once that Cyril Gray might know something of the girl's whereabouts, might indeed have been the primary cause of her departure. She wrote and asked his father to forward the letter to his address in China.
An indignant reply came from China denying all knowledge or influence in any such extraordinary proceeding. He had been fond of his young cousin and interested in her talents, but she had given him no hint of an intention to go on the stage, or leave her home. He begged for news of her at any time if news reached the family, and desired his love and sympathy to his uncle in this great trial.
Cynthia read the effusion with an expression that would not have flattered the writer had he seen it.
"He may know nothing," she said to herself, "but all the same he cannot convince me that there was not some understanding between them, and if ever a girl was lovesick and unhappy it was Dolly after his departure for Shanghai."
She wrote no more to Cyril Gray. He had never been a favourite of hers. Gradually the interests and excitements of her new life engrossed her, and she forgot all about her sister. It was such a novelty to have money to spend, a fine house, servants, carriages, dresses, amusements, and gaieties without end. The "lovely Mrs. Lilliecrapp" became quite a person in society, and the seat in the House and the title on which she had determined were quite approaching possibilities for Mrs. Lilliecrapp's husband.
The interests and decoration of her pretty little person grew more and more important; she was of the world worldly: and a "set," made up of fast, pretty women and reckless extravagant men, caught her in their toils, and proclaimed her the fashion.
It was surprising with what rapidity she caught the tone, and followed the examples before her. Her life was a whirl, and being, as yet, a novelty, she enjoyed it amazingly. A period of enforced rest, compelled by an event which made Thomas Lilliecrapp the inordinately proud father of an heir, was also signalised by two important occurrences. They were the death of her father, and the sudden doubling of her husband's income by a marvel of mercantile luck. He realised his million, and retired from active duty. Cynthia already heard herself addressed: as "my lady."
Thus time marked its changes in the passage of years that still left unexplained the mystery of Dolores' fate.
Miss Webbe, in her Cornish cottage, pondered often on the subject. She lived quite alone with the old servant from the Vicarage as her housekeeper and attendant, and years of faithful service having given a certain right to confidence, it happened that mistress and maid talked often together of the absent girl, whom both had loved and tended from infancy to that time of sudden disappearance.
Once in every year Miss Webbe went to London to spend a month with her friend Mrs. Sylvester, and each time returned with a promise that her friend would come and spend a few weeks with her; but the promise remained a promise still, either from adverse circumstances or because Mrs. Sylvester's engagements prevented it.
However, three years after Dolores' disappearance Miss Webbe wrote to Patience Tremlyn, her servant, saying that Mrs. Sylvester would come back to Cornwall with her at the end of July and giving certain directions and orders as to the necessary preparations.
Patience had never seen this friend of her mistress. She was a little inclined to resent her visit as being that of a fine London lady, who would give trouble and find fault with homely meals, and country hours, and plain cooking.
It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to find herself confronted by a pleasant-faced, middle-aged lady, with the most charming of smiles, and a manner that could only be described as "fascinating." Furthermore she gave herself no airs, but simply raved about the cottage and view, and the quaint surroundings. She was full of life and energy. She was up at extraordinarily early hours, bathed in the sea, walked for miles along the coast before breakfast, made friends with the fisher-folk even to the extent of deep-sea fishing excursions, and, in fact, was quite, an addition to the cottage life. One morning she returned to breakfast with the news of a discovery she had made.
The coast around was remarkable for a series of coves, divided from each other by jutting cliffs, each a thing of beauty in point of silvery sands, blue waters, and shell-strewn caves. Marion Sylvester had walked along the firm sands for a mile or two, then suddenly came upon a chine or inlet formed by broken cliffs and leading upward and inland for a considerable distance. Following this natural road she found herself skirting a thick hedge of myrtle and escallonia. Then she came to an iron gate set in heavy grey stonework. It stood half-open and showed a wild expanse of garden, luxuriant and neglected. Thickets of fuchsia, dog roses, geranium, and lemon verbena, spread wild and wide above weed-covered paths. The myrtles were like trees, so sheltered and so sunny was the situation, and the geraniums towered, strong of stem and branch, to the height of the outer walls.
Feeling she was an intruder, but impelled by curiosity, Mrs. Sylvester moved cautiously up the weed-covered paths until she came to an opening and faced a worn, tumble-down old house, yellow with lichen, green with moss, its square windows facing the sea with closely shuttered eyes. Silence reigned everywhere. Silence broken only by the song or flight of birds, the flutter of a falling leaf, the stir of a bough.
Old and grim and desolate it looked, though the warm sunshine poured lavish glory over its tiled roof, and Mrs. Sylvester supposed it untenanted, and moved forward more boldly. She was greeted by a loud bark, and a huge brindled mastiff leaped suddenly towards her, startling her into consciousness of intrusion.
She held her ground, not being in the least frightened of dogs, and the animal surveyed her with the scrutiny of a superior instinct that apparently recognised the types and grades of trespassers. At the same time there came from near at hand the soft incoherent chuckle of a very young child, and from the bushes on her right crept out a small, yellow-headed mortal newly arrived at the dignity of an elevated standing-point.
"You darling baby!" exclaimed the intruder, and went down on her own knees in sudden adoration of anything so small and lovely and incongruous to present surroundings. The mastiff watched her narrowly. The small wanderer was quite friendly and permitted itself to be embraced, and gave incoherent explanation of its presence, which were perfectly satisfactory to a woman's ears.
But Mrs Sylvester's wonder deepened. Her eyes searched the face of the desolate mansion with new curiosity. The presence of so young a member of the human family argued inhabitants in the vicinity; and there was more than a hint of carelessness in the manner the child was arrayed, as well as in its unguarded freedom.
The dog, sitting on its haunches and watching the familiar friendliness of woman and child, could yet offer no solution of the mystery. He seemed content that they should sit on the grass and entertain each other for an unlimited space of time. Again Mrs. Sylvester's eyes swept the front of the house. Two-storied, verandah-shaped, four shuttered windows closing the rooms to the living world without, so it confronted her, giving still no hint of life within, though life there must be, else how account for the child or the dog.
She rose to her feet at last and asked herself what she should do? The child held up arms of entreaty, so she lifted it from the grass. The action elicited a low growl from the dog. He evidently suspected kidnapping intentions. With no further warning he made a spring forward and seized the hem of the intruder's dress, and firmly and unmistakably gave her to understand that he objected to her moving.
Mrs. Sylvester was conscious of feeling foolish. It was impossible to say how long she might be detained in this fashion, and she recognised the misfortune of possessing ancestry who had made curiosity a female virtue for all time. The child nestled cosily into her arms, sucked an apparently nutritive thumb, and gave signs of slumbrous content. At the feet the dog crouched with her gown between his teeth, and overhead the sun streamed warm and bright with no limitations of shade. The moments seemed of quite unwarrantable length. The silence was of a rest and peace, almost deathlike in significance. She gazed at the windows, at the chimneys whence came no sign of smoke, at the door, close-shut and weather-beaten, its peeling paint and blistered wood telling, as the house told, of long neglect or indifference.
It seemed to her she had better sit down again, when suddenly there came the harsh creak of a hinge, and a door at the side of the house opened, revealing the figure of an old woman in a white sun bonnet. She peered across the space that meant a lawn, and saw the prisoner and the gaoler, and the child crooning itself to sleep.
When she had recognised the situation she advanced. Her movements were slow, her face was brown, wrinkled, and weather-beaten as the house. Her short homespun skirts reached only to her ankles.
"Lord keep us!" she ejaculated. "What be 'ee doin' here, and how do 'ee come to be nursin' the babe?"
Mrs. Sylvester laughed. "I found it straying about," she said. "I thought this was an empty house, and came to look at it; and there was the child running about over the grass, and I took it up, and your dog seems to object. He won't let me move."
"Gate didn't ought to be open. That's Peter's doin'. Peter Pasco, servin' man and husband to me. He's down to Penzance now, he be. Now ma'am, gie me the child, and thee may go. We do'ant care too much for strangers here at Penharva."
She held out her arms and Mrs. Sylvester placed the child, now fast asleep, in them. "Perhaps," she said, "you will call your dog off now. I ask your pardon for intruding, but really the place looked quite deserted."
The old woman muttered something about the wisdom of folks minding their own business, and marched away. Marian walked quickly back to the gate, and made her way home to the cottage.
Miss Webbe listened with interest to the story. "I had no idea there was a house there," she said. "I must ask my old Patience about it."
But Patience knew nothing of it either, not being given to gossip, and seldom going beyond her immediate domain, save on errands of marketing and household matters. The subject, therefore, dropped, though Mrs. Sylvester promised herself to make enquiries on the matter and find out what mysterious person lived in those darkened rooms and owned a golden-haired cherub that claimed the privileges of a rover at the dignified age of two years—or thereabouts. She even persuaded Miss Webbe to accompany her one evening to the spot of her discovery, but on that occasion Peter Pasco, whoever he might be, had not been neglectful of his duties, and the gate was closed fast.
Sarah Webbe laughed at her friend's disappointed face. "You surely didn't intend to go in," she said.
"It was such a darling baby. And to think of it shut up in that grim place," lamented Mrs. Sylvester.
"I suppose it has a mother, or father. I wonder if any of the fisher folk know the history or mystery of Penharva? There's old Boaz Trescott, he knows everyone and everything. A regular old gossip. We might ask him, if you really are very curious."
"Interest is not curiosity, Sarah. By all means let us ask Boaz Trescott. What names these people have! And you'll have to be translator, for I can't make out what they say."
Miss Webbe agreed, and they sauntered back in the cool summer twilight to interview Boaz Trescott on the mysterious tenant of Penharva.
The difficulties of translating modern Cornish into comprehensible English having been conquered, Sarah Webbe and her friend became possessed of the following facts:—
The old house of Penharva belonged to a family of that name, all more or less eccentric. Its present owner was a certain Miss Ursula Penharva, in whom the family eccentricity seemed to have run more than ordinary riot.
She had been a comely young woman once, and indeed report went that she was to marry a handsome Englishman—friend of a cousin—one John Trevenna, of Truro. The young man, however, jilted her on the very eve of the wedding, and since then she had elected to shut herself up in darkness and loneliness in the dismal mansion on the cliff's. Two old servants attended to her, but no one outside Penharva House had seen her for many a long year. She refused herself to relatives and friends alike, and the two domestics were so reticent and surly that the outside world got neither hints nor help from them.
"But the child—how did that come there?" exclaimed Marian Sylvester, at this stage of the history.
"The child. Ah, now do 'ee say so? Then my old woman was right."
He waded once more into incomprehensible depths, and Miss Webbe struggled bravely to get him out. She produced a legend of a veiled lady, seen twice, who came and went no one knew how or whence.
Mrs. Sylvester grew tragic with despair, and declared Cornish imagination had no limits. While there were such things as trains and coaches, ladies, even veiled ladies, couldn't drop from the clouds or vanish into space; neither to the best of her belief did golden-haired babies grow on myrtle boughs of deserted gardens.
She went homewards with Miss Webbe more than ever curious about her discovery. She talked of nothing else for many days, and even succeeded in inoculating her prosaic friend with a kindred interest in this mysterious neighbour.
Meanwhile the month of her visit drifted on to a close. By that time the fascination of the scenery and place had taken strong hold of the London lady. She had drunk tea in an old farmhouse at Gurner's Head. She had stood on the Logan Rock, and surveyed the Scilly Isles from the vantage point of the Land's End. She had revelled in sunshine and harmony of colour, such as painters loved and sought. The broad seascape had become familiar to her, and sailing ships and brown sailed fishing smacks were things of delight and interest. The changing face of the ocean, the curving coast and fairy bays had thrown their spell around her. A town looked commonplace and dusty after the lavish loneliness of nature. Society seemed but a hollow note of imitation after the charm and music of that wondrous sea.
For this is the spell of the West Country coast. A spell cast by wizards of old, a witchery breathed out of mystic caves and sounding in the breath of the soft salt winds and myrtle-scented breezes; a witchery looking forth from skies of blue and grey, weaving itself into sight and sound and sense as the eye travels, or the ear listens, or the fancy roams.
And when the time of departure drew near Marian Sylvester confessed that she envied her friend her little Cornish home more than she envied the possessor of Marlborough House, or the denizens of Mayfair mansions.
"Why do you live in London?" asked Sarah Webbe; and common-sense asserting itself and pushing aside a host of shallow pretences, in which neither health nor rational reasons held any part, echoed, "Why?"
True, social claims, women's clubs, and various fashionable obligations of the season loomed in the background, but pitted against a strong friendship, many mutual interests, and the perfectly inexplicable fascination of this land of wizard and saint, they dwarfed into comparative unimportance. In the end Marian Sylvester arranged to let her town house next season, and, for a time at least, rent a cottage that would be tenantless the following midsummer. It was not ten minutes' distance from that occupied by Miss Webbe. She went back to London, where she stayed till the following August. She then selected enough furniture to suit her miniature domicile, and despatched it, in company with Liberty muslins and rugs, art mattings, and basket chairs, to Penzance. From thence it was to be conveyed, and unpacked under Sarah Webbe's direction and supervision.
The Ebury-street house had been put in the hands of house agents. Economy and health rejoiced in the new scheme, and a plentiful store of books, work, (and sketching materials) uttered protests against any possible dullness should the winter fail to fulfil Sarah Webbe's confident predictions.
Laughing at her own enthusiasm Marian Sylvester stepped into a third class carriage at Paddington one August morning. There was the usual hustle and confusion of departure on the platform. Porters were hurrying late arrivals into carriages for Bristol or Exeter or Plymouth.
The Penzance portion of the train was not at all crowded; quite the reverse. For ten minutes or so it had seemed that Mrs. Sylvester would have her carriage to herself; but suddenly the guard flung open the door, a porter threw in a travelling bag and rug strap, and a young girl followed breathlessly. She was tall and slight, and very simply dressed in dark serge, and a plain black straw hat, round which a black gauze veil was twisted and tied under his chin. She selected the furthest corner of the carriage, opposite to its solitary occupant, and turned her face at once to the window in a manner that looked like a decided avoidance of anything suggesting railway acquaintanceship. Marian Sylvester took out a collection of papers from her travelling bag, and for a time devoted herself to their perusal. Since trade enterprise has thought fit to vulgarise country and riverside with hideous advertisements and vulgar puffing of quack medicines, it is scarcely worth while for the modern traveller to waste eyesight or leisure in attempting to admire Nature. Mrs. Sylvester devoted her attention to the affairs of the nation and Society's plans for the winter until the train reached Bristol. Then thinking that the girl must be tired of that monotonous window gazing she leant forward and offered her the "Queen."
A curt refusal. "Thank you, I never read in a train," somewhat surprised her. But she was good-natured, and she thought of weak eyes and overstrained nerves, and suggested that the girl was wise in making such a resolution. Trains were responsible for much loss of eyesight, but still, on a long journey what was one to do?
Her voice and manner were so friendly that the girl could not well maintain her ungracious distance. "It is a long journey," she agreed, "and the trains are so slow after one leaves Plymouth."
"Do you know Cornwell well?" asked Mrs. Sylvester.
"No. I have only been there on short visits," said the girl. A certain hardness came into her voice. She turned her face to the window. But Mrs. Sylvester was not easily discouraged.
"I went there for the first time last summer," she said, "and was so delighted with the climate that I have taken a cottage about five miles from Penzance, and am going to live there for a time. I hear the winter is as enchanting in its way as the summer. Do you happen to have been there in the winter?"
It seemed a simple question to bring that sudden hot flush to the girlish cheek, a question to send a tremor through the clasped hands lying gloveless on her lap.
"Yes, once. It was very beautiful," she said, coldly.
"I suppose you are going to stay with friends?" continued her companion. "Do you remain at Penzance?"
"No," said the girl abruptly.
Marian felt rebuffed. "Excuse me," she said, "I am afraid I seem rather a curious person. But pray don't think I meant to intrude on your affairs."
She turned away, and produced sandwiches and cake, and proceeded to have her lunch. She offered the girl a sandwich, which—repenting apparently of her previous discourtesy—she accepted. She had brought nothing with her in the shape of refreshment, and at such youthful improvidence Marian Sylvester wondered.
She did not like to study the face too intently, but, as the girl pushed back her veil, its beauty and yet tragic meaning struck her with unconquerable interest. It was such a young face, and yet held such a history. The large brilliant eyes wore that look of tears and rebellion against fate that is so rarely seen in youth. "Sorrow and she have made acquaintance," thought Mrs. Sylvester. "I should like to know her story."
The colouring of the face was delicately lovely, but the strange stillness and composure of it were unsuited to its beautiful youth. One looked for dimples in the rounded cheek and dainty chin, for smiles on the curved red lips, but there was only frozen calm, the calm of endurance, passionless yet rebellious, the resignation of one worsted in an unequal battle, yet keeping weapons ready for its renewal.
Marian, than whom few of her sex were more curious, glanced, and looked, and pondered, and wished the girl could be drawn into conversation. Meanwhile the train dashed on and reached Exeter almost up to time. Marian got out, stretched her cramped limbs, bought some fruit and a local paper, and returned to her carriage. Some more travellers had got in bound for Plymouth. She therefore made no further effort at conversation with her silent companion, but read and dozed or watched the flashes of red earth country, as the train skirted cliff and river and sea until the boundaries of Devon lapsed into the beauties of Cornwall.
With the usual courtesy of rival railway companies, the Cornish train is timed to meet the incoming express at Plymouth. As a rule it misses it, and passengers find it steaming out of the station, or anticipating their arrival by four and a half minutes, just as their train draws up. By some chance or fluke, however, Mrs. Sylvester actually caught the Cornish so-called express, and again found herself and her silent companion sole occupants of a carriage. Marian was too delighted and excited at seeing familiar names, crossing enchanted ground, to keep quiet. The girl, too, seemed less absorbed and reserved. They talked of the quaint titles of the stations, and wondered why they had such apparently foreign derivations. They tried to pronounce Menhenoit and Doublebois as the porters did, and failed signally.
The last glow of sunset was still lingering over Mount's Bay as the train ran in. The tide was full, and the blue water swept up almost to the sleepers of the line. St. Michael's Mount towered against a sky of rose and gold, weird and majestic as befitted its traditions. Fishing boats preparing for the night's cruise danced lightly over the sparkling water. The port was crowded and busy. White sails of yachts and pleasure craft chased each other in the golden evening light. A fresh breeze from the sea blew a welcome to the town-worn travellers.
"It is more beautiful than even I thought!" cried Mrs. Sylvester. But the girl made no response to this. She drew down her veil, reached the Gladstone bag from the rack and rolled her rug together.
"I am going to the hotel," continued Mrs. Sylvester. "You, I suppose——"
"No, I am staying with a friend some miles beyond the town. I will say good-by."
"Good-by, then. I hope we shall meet again. If you are anywhere in the direction of Lamorna, I wish you would come and see me. My cottage is called The Myrtles. It stands a little off the high road. You can't mistake it."
"Thank you. My stay here is very short. I fear I shall have no time for visits."
Her hand was on the carriage door. She glanced up the platform, then suddenly shrank back with a faint cry. Marian did not hear it. She had caught sight of a familiar face, and leaned forward in eager welcome.
"Sarah! Why, Sarah, my dear, you don't mean you have come to meet me?"
She sprang from the carriage. The girl had turned her back, and was bending over her rug-strap which had come unfastened.
"She here? Of all the people in the world that she should be here!"
Her face had a wild, scared look, and her hands were shaking.
"Any luggage, Miss?" said a porter at the carriage door.
She started. "That bag," she said; "and call me a cab, please. A closed cab."
(Extracts from the diary of Dolores Webbe. Being notes and particulars of certain episodes in her life, written for a purpose, and intended to be read only by one whom they shall concern.)
* * * * * *
When I was very young, and life meant no more for me than it might mean to a bird, a butterfly, a flower, anything that claimed existence and found the world beautiful, I used to try and write down my thoughts and impressions of all I saw and experienced.
The other day I found an old blotted, tattered MS. book which held those valuable records. Only that childhood's folly is so infinitely pathetic because of its ignorance that it is folly, I should have laughed over them. Instead of which I cried. For the child who wrote them looked back at me from a land of shadows, and something in her eyes spoke of tears yet unshed. They are falling now.
They said at home I was always precocious. I talked and thought beyond my years. I lived out the stories I read, and made my dolls active agents in the small domestic tragedies and incidents of my life. It may be so. One does not make acquaintance with oneself in a day or a year, or even many years. I think events shape our characters. I am sure they are not born in us. I had very intense feelings. I could not love or hate by measure. It was unfortunate for me, as events proved.
I think it was on my sixteenth birthday that I made the acquaintance of Cousin Cyril. Up to that time my life had been entirely spent at home, but the mild and somewhat enervating climate of Hampshire and my own rapid growth had thrown me into a delicate and somewhat morbid condition of health that alarmed my father.
He had some friends in Scotland, and he arranged with them that I should spend a couple of months in the bracing air of the Highlands. Those two months stand out in my life as the sign-post of Fate. For I met Cyril Grey, and I learnt to love him.
Ignorant, high strung, passionate, and romantic, it was little wonder that I endowed him with all the attributes of a girl's first hero. He was handsome, athletic, a good shot, a keen sportsman, and he chose to single me out for special attention. Attention of the kind so dear and novel to a very young girl. Attention that drew down the envy of the fast married women and sporting damsels composing the party at Calum Lodge.
I did not get on with any of those people. I wondered often if my father had any notion of the sort of people they were. Minds, morals, and manners were entirely at variance with any previous experience of my own, and but for Cyril's kindly sympathy and constant companionship, I should have fared badly. But he stood between me and them as interpreter and protector in one. Little wonder that my first attraction developed into a passionate adoration that left me helpless in his hands.
It was my nature to adore and worship. I was Juliet and Haidee and Francesca in feeling, tragic even in mimic griefs and joys, lifted heavenwards by praise or love, sustaining an equally downward flight when enthusiasm vanished. My pleasures were never practical. An element of imagination tinged them all. It was only natural, therefore, that this element should take my first love into its embrace and set him forth as godlike, heroic, sublime.
In those two months I had grown immensely. The keen air and constant exercise had developed my muscles and brought colour to my cheeks and strength to my limbs. I was out on moor or hillside or loch from morning till night, and Cyril Grey was almost always with me. How he excused himself to shooting or fishing parties I cannot tell, but though he set out with them he invariably escaped and managed to meet me.
Once, one memorable fateful day, we were overtaken by a Scotch mist that effectually blotted out all landmarks and kept us wandering hopelessly until night set in. We found ourselves at last near a shepherd's cot, tenanted by an old man and his wife, and they persuaded us to stay in that homely shelter till daybreak. Here it was that Cyril persuaded me to still further strengthen our love-troth by a secret marriage of that quaint, informal fashion made famous by Scotch law and Gretna Green.
It was such a romantic idea, it so suited my own inclination, it so bridged the coming ordeal of parting that I lent a ready ear to persuasion, and in presence of the homely old couple who had offered us hospitality we took each other for husband and wife. How proud and happy I was, how utterly indifferent to the cold looks and veiled innuendoes that greeted our return. What did I care for these women any longer. They might think what they pleased. Cyril was mine—mine only. So he had sworn, so I believed. No human being could part us now. We had vowed eternal love and fidelity to each other.
Oh! how happy I was. How rich and glorious was life. Days drifted on, golden weeks floated me to deeper joys, for Cyril came home with me to make a long deferred acquaintance with my father. Came home, and stayed, and still was lover and beloved of mine. Yet no one guessed, there was no hint of discovery, and while his lips still cautioned secrecy, they kissed me into dreams from which I neither cared nor wished to waken.
* * * * * *
When did these dreams first crystallise themselves into something of glory and strength, of restless longing and exaction? When did I awake, knowing I should sleep the sleep of peace and innocence no longer? Hard questions to answer. I was under a spell. In its first stage as yet, and kisses silenced the doubt on my lips, and a voice in my ear whispered, "Let me be your conscience and your counsellor. Love cannot wrong love."
* * * * * *
Is a girl's love more exacting than a woman's? Does she demand too much; weary with questioning, anger with doubts? He told me so sometimes, and I noted signs of change in him long before I could understand their reason or their portent.
Had I been wiser, more skilled in love's lore, I would have known that reticence is preferable to display of feeling; that when response is lacking enquiry only leads to irritation. But I knew nothing; I only loved. To me he was the dearest thing life held—I thought to be the same to him and—failed.
* * * * * *
Let me look back now on that awful time. Now that I am callous and hardened and can mock at love and turn with jest and jeer from those who would have me believe in it again. I cannot! My faith is killed. To me men are as enemies of the sex I own. Persecutors, deceivers, tyrants! It is no thanks to them I have won a footing in life.
When I faced desperation a curious struggle took place within my soul. Should I fling life away, crushed by treachery and shame as it had become, or should I brace myself to fight and conquest? I was young, I was inexperienced. My one talent was my voice. My one ambition that of acting on the real stage in real drama. That, however, was a subject for the future. A more pressing and terrible emergency had to be faced first, and, taking my courage in both hands, I set myself to face it.
* * * * * *
Mrs. Ferrers, of the Hall, was far too important a member of Society to do without town news and town journals. Her library was always liberally supplied with newspapers and novels and magazines. In the intervals of rehearsing for a concert which she and her friends were getting up I used to peruse those newspapers.
In one I found a strange advertisement. It was oddly worded, and at first I feared it would prove a hoax. I took note of the name and date of the journal, and sent for a copy, directing it to be forwarded to the Post Office. Cynthia was inquisitive. She would want to know why it had been sent to me.
I wrote to the sender of the advertisement, and in due time I received an answer. I had thrown myself on a woman's mercy and my inexperience promised to serve me better than any amount of worldly wisdom would have done. A refuge, a way of escape showed itself to me.
"What must be, shall be," I said to myself. And so keeping my secret buried in my heart I stole from the love and shelter of my childhood's home and went forth to meet the unknown future.
(Many torn and blotted and disfigured pages follow that last entry in my journal. They relate more to my feelings than to my story, and I have cast them aside. I have a purpose in writing these records, and I must try and confine myself to facts and keep an embittered personality out of them.)
* * * * * *
"Money is the root of all things evil," says the proverb. It is also the root of all things necessary to life. My equipment for independence consisted of fifty pounds in cash, a valuable diamond bangle, and a few simple articles of jewellery left by my mother and too insignificant for my sister's consideration. Not much of an equipment, yet it was destined to suffice. My first design was to avoid pursuit or discovery from those I had forsaken.
(How coldly I write that now; but what ache and agony of heart it cost me to appear the heartless thing I would have them believe me.)
I had left a letter saying I was going on the stage. I did not say when. I knew therefore that the first search would be among theatrical agents and managers. That would suit my purpose, for it would be many months before I would be able to seek such an engagement.
I reached London without hindrance, and then took the train to that little town in the West of England to which I had been directed. It was a long and wearisome journey, but I accomplished it. I rested that night at a little quiet inn, giving my name as Mrs. Dering (the name I had resolved to adopt for the stage later on).
By 10 o'clock the next morning I was at the address given me. The discovery that it was a lawyer's office somewhat disconcerted me. I walked past it, and debated the prudence of entering many times before in renewed desperation I did so.
I asked an elderly clerk for the name my letter bore. He laid down his spectacles, looked at me somewhat curiously, and requested me to take a chair. He then retired into an inner room, and was absent for some moments. On his return he informed me Mr. Malpas would see me. I followed him into a dingy room, furnished chiefly with deed boxes and papers. A thin white-haired man, with a shrewd, but not unkindly face, greeted me.
"Mrs. Dering?—the—ahem—the young lady with whom I have had this correspondence?" he questioned, taking up a letter in my handwriting that lay on his desk in company with many blue envelopes and red-taped packages. I gave nervous acquiescence.
"I must tell you," he went on, "that I am acting on behalf of a client in this matter. If it were my duty to express an opinion, I should say the whole affair is morally wrong, and is quite against my judgment. That, however, is your affair. Let me see how the case stands. Do we quite understand each other? 'A lady of means, good family, living a very lonely life, is desirous of adopting a child, to be brought up under her direction, and given to her sole care. A girl preferred. The younger the better. The mother must resign all claim to it from the moment it enters the charge of the lady. Further particulars on application.'"
My dry lips tried to form an assent, as he paused and looked at me, but no sound issued forth.
"To continue," he said. "This is your first letter, explaining your position, and betraying in every line complete ignorance of life and the world. Your face, my dear young lady, fully endorses the opinion I had formed of you from your letter."
"Needless to say, I had numerous other applications. Over a hundred lie there unanswered. But something in yours impressed me. It is, as I said before, a foolish business, but if it's folly can assist a helpless creature of your sex and misfortune, we may put wisdom aside for once."
He then referred to my other letters, and touched upon the particulars of my case with a delicacy for which I was grateful.
"It happens," he said, "that the very situation which to you is so painful lends itself to my client's purpose in a special manner.—'A young widow, left almost without resources, and desirous of going on the stage.'—I am quoting your letter, you see. Well, my client wishes for an interview with you. I am to take you there this evening. I suppose you have no objection?"
"None whatever," I said, calmly.
"You must expect to be astonished," he went on. "She is very eccentric, and, though rich and of good family, lives quite alone with the exception of servants. She can leave her money where and how she pleases, so there is every prospect of your child being provided for in the future."
"Wait," I said, "one moment. Supposing the—the child is not of the sex she desires, will that make any difference to this arrangement?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I should imagine that would be a point for you to discuss with my client. By-the-bye, just a mere formality, do you happen to have a copy of your marriage certificate with you?"
I felt my face blanch. "No, I don't possess a copy."
"You should do so," he said, sternly. "A registrar or a clergyman always hands the certificate to one or other of the contracting parties. Could you procure it? Your marriage must be recent enough for you to remember, where it took place."
I shook my head. "There was no question of my producing such a document in our correspondence."
"True. But it would be more satisfactory. There may be future interests attaching to the legitimacy of your child. It is your duty to think of that."
I said nothing. I foresaw a web of difficulty weaving itself round innocent feet, but I hardened my heart. The present emergency was all that concerned me. To get out of it by some means or other I was determined.
How altered I was in the space of a few months from the dreamy romantic girl who had played Juliet to a false Romeo. How sadly, horribly altered!
Mr. Malpas talked on, but I felt sure that what he said had nothing to do with his client's instructions, and I took heart of grace once more.
I left his office after an hour's interview, having arranged to call back at 5 o'clock and drive to the house of his mysterious client.
Before leaving the hotel to keep my appointment I ran over once more in my own mind the particulars of the story I had invented. It seemed to fit into its place fairly well. I looked at myself in the little toilet glass. I was very pale, the small neat widow's bonnet, the simple dress relieved only at the throat and wrist with plain muslin hands, accentuated my pallor, and, I thought, added years to my age. So much the better. I took up a long black cloth cloak, one of my recent purchases, and then left the hotel for Mr. Malpas's office.
It was a warm, bright evening, and when I found a closed carriage waiting for us I was somewhat annoyed. It was a hired carriage drawn by two horses, and had the stuffy, strawy smell of stables. I got into it, and Mr. Malpas followed.
"When we get out into the country," he observed, "I will have the carriage opened, if you prefer it."
I replied I should very much prefer it, and wondered why he should wish to delay such a proceeding.
It was a queer little town—ill-paved, narrow streets, a market-place, a few shops of the usual country town pattern, the inevitable High-street, leading to an outlying suburb of private houses, gardens, orchards, fields, then a white, dusty road bordered by trees on either side, and hedge banks luxuriant in ferns and wild flowers. After travelling a mile or two of this road, it made a descent into a valley, then wound up a steep hillside, bringing us a sudden view of the sea.
My companion had been obstinately silent so far, but my enthusiastic comments seemed to please him, and he condescended to tell me the names and points of interest that marked our road. A few more miles, then another dip, another ascent, and the country took a new aspect. It had lost much of its fertility, and we seemed traversing a land of granite. Huge boulders lay piled about, the hedges were of grey stone, the soil hard and rocky. Quaint old cottages of granite were scattered here and there, poultry and sheep roosted and browsed among the scanty herbage. Ivy-grown ruins and shafts of disused mines marked the landscape at constant intervals.
Again we turned, and again we found fertility and beauty, and lovely peeps of sea shining clear as glass, white sand, curving bays, bold headlands.
The carriage stopped. It was growing dusk. A faint crescent moon showed itself in the sky, now and then a star gleamed as the light faded over land and sea. All was still and peaceful. The only sound was the faint plash of the sea below, the cry of a gull as it circled round the outlying rocks.
"We must walk now," said my guide.
He gave some directions to the driver. We left the carriage standing by the roadside, and took a steep winding path that apparently led to the base of the cliffs. Here dusky twilight reigned, and I stumbled often over the uneven ground.
We seemed to have reached a point midway between the descent, when Mr. Malpas came to a halt. I heard him unlock a gate. It creaked rustily as it rolled back on its hinges. Before me I saw a pathway, glittering with powdered shells and hemmed in by massive trees and shrubs. The faint moonlight lit the way, and we walked on for some distance.
"This is the house," said Mr. Malpas. He halted before a grim-looking structure, a vast black building with no gleam of light from any window, and no apparent entrance. My guide, however, seemed to know his way about, for, telling me to wait where I was, he disappeared into a space of shadow, and I heard a bell peal in the silence.
After some moments' interval, during which my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom and enabled me to see that the shadowy space was a verandah heavily curtained and fringed with creepers and straying ivy, I heard the sound of bolts withdrawn, a door opened, and a gleam of light shone from within. It came from a lighted lantern held by an old man. There was a short colloquy, then I heard Mr. Malpas addressing me.
"Come on, Mrs. Dering," he said. "Can you find your way?"
My proximity was answer sufficient. I had grown somewhat nervous, and was trembling exceedingly.
The lantern showed me a gloomy entrance hall, oak panelled and bare of furniture, save an oak table and a long carved seat by the empty fireplace. The old man led us upstairs, and I noticed how bare and dim and neglected everything looked. He halted before a curtained doorway and bade us wait. However, he left the lantern on a table, and I saw we were in a long dark corridor with several windows, all closely shuttered.
The eerie, deserted appearance of the place increased my nervousness. For the first time I felt sorry I had entered upon such an adventure.
"What a dreary house!" I exclaimed. My voice had a strange sound, it seemed to me, and I shivered with nervous dread.
"It is dreary," assented Mr. Malpas. "I told you my client was eccentric."
The sound of footsteps became audible once more. The old man appeared, and bade us enter. He held the curtain aside, and we passed through an empty room, and across it to another door. Mr. Malpas opened it, and signed to me to follow. I did so. My eyes took note of nothing save only a tall, strange figure standing in the middle of the room; the strangest I had ever seen or ever shall see in this world, I feel sure.
She was very tall, and draped from head to foot in nun-like draperies of black. Her hair was white as snow, and this it was that made her look so uncanny. For it was not dressed or arranged, but simply parted, and fell in a shining silvery waving mass to her knees—a glittering cloak out of which looked her sallow, colourless face and gleaming black eyes.
So spectral-like and unearthly was the appearance of the woman that I could scarcely repress a cry of fear. Steadily and piercingly her eyes met mine, then turned aside.
She gave no greeting to Mr. Malpas or to me, only signed us to a seat, which I for one was glad enough to take.
"Have you explained—everything?" she then asked.
Her voice was harsh and unmusical, and she seemed to speak with effort, as if words were unusual.
"I have," answered Mr. Malpas.
"She quite understands the terms?"
"Yes," he said.
"Then leave us for a few moments."
He rose, and retired without any comment.
I sat there trembling and unnerved, facing that strange and ghastly figure. Her piercing eyes seemed to read my soul.
"Let me tell you at once," she said, "I do not believe your story."
I remained dumb. I could neither have defended nor excused myself.
"I did not believe it when I read your letter. I know why now that I see you. But that makes no difference. Happy wives, even unhappy widows, do not part with their children in so cold-blooded a fashion. I knew what I must expect. I have found it. I only wish to give you one caution. Do not attempt to deceive me by word or deed. It will be useless. You have been wronged, I know. You have suffered. You are enduring womanhood's keenest pangs of shame and misery, and you clutched at my offer as a helping hand. I shall not withdraw it. Our compact remains. Stay here, safely sheltered from all who seek or have wronged you. Stay here and brood over those wrongs, even as I have brooded over mine, till all of softness and compassion withers and decays, till vengeance usurps the place of Love, and Fate gives it into your hands. For so I read your future."
She closed her eyes a moment, then sank back into the chair beside her. I had not spoken a word. I could not. I sat like a stone figure, passively watching and listening and wondering if I were not the victim of some strangely vivid dream. She lifted her head and looked at me again.
"Have you a heart?" she asked. "A heart that throbs and beats, that loves and hates? Or has it turned to stone—like mine? Are you tired of life? Does the grave look sweet? No—not yet. You are young. Why, you are a mere child. Yet the troubles of womanhood claim you. Do you hate mankind, as I do? They are our enemies—always—remember that. You have proved it once. Treasure that lesson in your heart. Crush from it all softness, all pity, all tenderness. So best, so best!"
She fell into a fit of brooding silence, and waiting on her mood I was silent too.
She lifted her head at last, and asked a question. I answered it, my face burning as I spoke. Then she touched a bell by the fireplace, and a moment later a door at the opposite side of the room opened, and a quaint figure showed itself.
It was an old woman with a wrinkled face, a large flapping cap, and bright, shrewd eyes that shot notes of interrogation in my direction.
"Ruth Pasco," said my strange acquaintance, "this is the lady who is coming to stay with me. Her room is ready, is it not?"
"Ready and waitin' this two days, mistress."
"You hear? Are you prepared to stay?"
"I—I brought no luggage," I stammered. "It is at the hotel, where I slept last night."
"It can be fetched," she said, "to-morrow. For to-night Ruth Pasco can make you comfortable."
For the life of me I could make no objection. I seemed to have lost all power of will. I sat helplessly in my chair looking at the old serving woman. She had a kindly face, and I thought I read in it compassion for my lonely and sad condition.
Her mistress bade her call Mr. Malpas, and I heard her tell him that the necessary arrangements had been made, and that I would remain where I was. My box was to be brought to some place whose name I could not catch, and an individual of the name of Peter Pasco was to fetch it thence on the morrow. The old lawyer listened in silence, his eyes on my face.
"You are satisfied?" he asked at last.
"Yes," I answered.
"Satisfied to stay here, seeing no one, going nowhere beyond this house and its boundary until such time as you are free to leave it in pursuit of your own career?"
"Yes," I said again.
"Then my part in the business is over."
He turned to his client. Her face had a watchful, brooding expression. She leant her cheek upon her hand, and the silver waves of her wonderful hair fell over her arm and over the little table on which it rested.
"I hope," he said, "you will have no cause to repent this whim of yours. Remember, I give it no sanction."
"You are paid to do my bidding, not to approve or disapprove of it," she answered.
"That is true," he said. "You have no further instructions—at present?"
He turned to me. I rose somewhat unsteadily. I felt as if I were taking leave of a friend. When once he was gone, how should I endure this lonely, dreary place—this self-chosen prison? I suppose my face showed some signs of what I felt, for he took my hands and held them in a close, comforting grasp.
"There is nothing to fear," he said with emphasis. "You will be cared for and attended to. And on the first day of every month I come here. If you can stand loneliness and want of companionship for a few months, you may even enjoy an uneventful existence. Life at Penharva is like a dream—passive, stagnant, from which all emotions and all interests are shut out. Can you bear this? If not there is yet time to draw back."
Something, some remnant of that lost girlhood, that sweet past when life was sorrow-less, swept wave-like over my memory. A horror of my deception, a sense of what my present action might mean for some innocent future, broke upon me.
"Not too late," I thought, "not too late."
Alas! like a flood that sense of what I had done, of what I yet was bound to do, rushed back. My momentary softness vanished. The fever of my desperate situation fired my veins with new courage.
"I do not repent," I said firmly; "and I have no intention of drawing back."
He dropped my hands. He looked once more at my face, at the false pretence of mourning, at the ring that circled my finger.
Then he turned away, and in another moment I heard his step on the uncarpeted corridor and followed it with strained ears until the clang of the closing door shut it out from this desolate abode.
If nothing else had driven me to keeping a journal, the loneliness of this new life of mine would have done so. No moated grange, no tower of prisoned princess could have matched for loneliness and isolation this dreary Cornish house.
Nature itself has defended it from all external intrusion. In a cleft of the winding cliff its foundations have been hollowed out, and the house is invisible, I believe, from the top or bottom of the chine. Seen by daylight, it is a dreary place, though the kindly hand of nature has given its walls and casements lavish decoration. The garden has suffered from neglect. The one old serving-man, husband to Ruth Pasco, could not possibly compete with the ever-springing luxuriance of weed and branch and tangling creepers. The paths are moss-grown, the flower beds present a wild magnificence of riotous beauty; the grass grows rank and high, save only in that space which once meant the lawn.
The rooms inhabited by Miss Penharva are three in number, and open out of the corridor I have before described. They are always kept closely shuttered. No gleam of daylight enters there, and if air is given it is only at night. To my knowledge no window is ever opened. She has her meals alone. I am served in the great bleak dining-room below, and so dreary and weird it is, with the old family portraits looking down in grim questioning at such an intruder, that I often long to snatch up my plate and retreat to the homely and less ceremonious regions of the kitchen. Yet Ruth Pasco is not very lively company, and old Peter is more grim and silent even than his wife.
The grounds are spacious, but the mere fact of being limited to their extent gives me a feeling of imprisonment. In a short time I knew every nook and corner of them, every aspect of their wild beauty, every advantage taken by nature of long neglect.
Then a weariness and horror of them overtook me. I longed to be away from these gloomy thickets, to scale the cliffs, to float seawards, to bathe in the blue waves, to roam at will over the firm white sands. But I had given my word, and here I must remain.
* * * * * *
I sewed diligently, though I had never been over fond of my needle. I ransacked the bookshelves for anything of interest, but the musty old volumes were not of a kind to allure my taste, or charm away the dullness of long blank hours. Of papers or magazines, anything that brought news of the outer world, we had none. Days, weeks, passed, and monotony claimed me as its victim, and now I scarcely note the passage of time. In the evenings Miss Penharva sends for me. Sometimes we play picquet or écarté. Sometimes she watches me working, as speechless and motionless as a marble figure. Sometimes she talks strange, bitter talk of wrongs and vengeance, and a fierce fire glows in her eyes, and she rises and paces the room with the savage swift step of a caged animal.
It is a dreary life, a terrible life, yet I must go through with it. This melancholy abode seems to me a City of Refuge; and I can hope to find no other so safe and so secure.
* * * * * *
It is late afternoon, and I have been sitting at my window watching the storm. There is a grim red light in the west, bursting through piled masses of dark clouds. The noise of the sea is like distant thunder. The grass below is strewn with the wreckage of broken boughs and scattered leaves. Forlorn birds perch in sodden misery on the tossing branches. The sweep of rain and wrath of wind chain my eyes and ears with a melancholy fascination.
The unutterable loneliness and dreariness of my life appal me as I realise them afresh. The future has no hope, no ambition in which I may indulge. A few months, and I must leave my present refuge and face the world on my own account, with little money, without friends, without hope. "Perhaps I may die," I say to myself. "It would be best, it would be a way out of all this trouble."
A knock at the door, and the voice of old Ruth Pasco telling me that Miss Penharva wished to see me, interrupted me here. I closed the book, and obeyed the summons.
Miss Penharva was sitting in her usual place. The sound of the storm was audible even in that closed room. The rain beat on the shutters, and the wind howled and moaned like a beast awaiting its prey. The solitary occupant of the lonely room seemed to me more ghostly than usual. Two candles on the mantelshelf threw a straggling light around, but the distant spaces were dim and shadowy.
I approached. "You wished to see me, Miss Penharva?" I said.
She looked up. Something in her eyes touched me. They were more human so to speak; and the cold whiteness of her face seemed touched and warmed by some inner feeling.
"Yes," she said. "I wished to see you. Is there a storm without?"
"Yes, a fearful one. You can hear the wind, can you not?"
"Yes," she said, drearily. "It wakens all the echoes here—the echoes in the house, in my heart, in my life."
I took the chair opposite her own. I made no answer; only looked at her with that curious sense of wonder and interest that she always roused.
"Was he cruel to you? Do you hate him?" she said, suddenly.
"He—who?" I answered, vaguely, for my thoughts had wandered far away.
"The man who wronged you."
"There are no words to express my hate," I said, fiercely. "I see my whole life laid desolate; misery and humiliation on every side. And my only fault was—trust."
She rubbed her thin white hands together. A look of fiendish exultation was in her eyes. "Hate him! Hate him with all your heart and soul!" she cried. "Let hate spur your thoughts to vengeance. Man has no mercy on a woman. She is his prey, his victim, his sport and pastime. Why should she be merciful when her chance and her hour comes. Look here! Look at this!"
She seized her long white tresses and tore at them. She beat her withered hands against her withered breast in a sudden fury. Her face was convulsed. Her eyes gleamed with manifest ferocity.
"A man did this. A man turned me from flesh and blood to stone. A man whom I loved, whom I trusted. If he stopped short of greater wrong it was not from want of will. Child, a mutual sorrow draws us into sympathy. But be warned in time. Fool them, lie to them, hurt them, play with them, but never believe in their love, never trust their honour!"
With a moan she hid her face in her hands, and all that silver veil of hair fell over her like a garment. I watched her wonderingly, started by this sudden outburst of rage and passion. She had never spoken like this to me, never betrayed such intensity of feeling. I remained silent, waiting on her mood, and the sound of the storm filled the gloom, and its eerie echoes moaned through the corridors without.
When she lifted her head again, it was to speak of the reasons that accounted for my presence here, and I began to understand them in the light of those disjointed phrases. A child to be reared and nurtured in such fashion that it would be the instrument of her own revenge; a child who should drink in hatred and contempt of men as it drank in food and light and air; a child who should go forth to the world dowered with this hatred, and owning vast wealth, yet be the minister of hate, and the scourger of passion.
I shuddered as I listened, and yet remembered that this child would be mine. Its heritage contumely, its birthright shame. Yet, with sudden terror, I asked myself had I any right so to dispose of any human thing, even a life for which I might have to give my own? Had I any right to barter freedom of action, possible peace of mind, all or any of those gifts of physical existence which Nature claims for her offspring? The wrong done to myself could not be righted by the further wrongdoing of another, even if that other was the victim of a tragic fate, and wholly innocent of the misery its prospective existence was causing.
In the long silence that followed that passionate outburst thought was merciless to me, and I lived through spaces of both past and future in vivid flashes of what had been and what might be.
When she spoke again her voice was weak and tremulous, it held the echoes of some unexpressed misery, but I lacked courage to ask of its nature. The storm raged on without, and the stress and fury of human passions and human griefs raged on within, and we two sat in the deepening gloom nursing our vengeance in the very impotence of despair.
* * * * * *
Was ever anything stranger than the circumstances of my present life. Sometimes it seems like a dream from which I shall waken to find myself once more in the dear old Vicarage. Sleep itself, with its visions and phantasies, is more real at times than this existence.
I wander through the ghostly corridors, I listen in the silence of night to the whisperings and stirrings that fill the gloom with mystery. I see the moonlight stream through my uncurtained window in the warm summer nights, and I listen to the sea's untiring murmurs and the owl's weird hooting. I am not afraid of the loneliness now. I have grown used to it, and to all the void and darkness that have surrounded my life's once passionate fullness.
But I know it is not good for me. I know that my years are yet too young for the sap of joy to be wrung out of them, and when I rise listlessly to meet each new day and see my hollow eyes and pale cheeks I turn away from the too candid truth-teller that confronts me, and wonder dimly if this pale ghost can really be myself.
* * * * * *
There is nothing to tell, nothing to record. One day is like another as the summer drifts along. The echoes of the harvest fields cannot penetrate here. The failures or successes of the fishing boats are unheard or unheeded by any inmate of Penharva.
The only voice from the outer world that ever reaches us is that of Mr. Malpas. On the first of every month he appears and has an interview with Miss Penharva. Sometimes I see him in the gloomy dining-room, but oftener I avoid him. He makes me uncomfortable.
Day follows day, week drifts after week. The leaves turn from green to gold. Fruit and grain have been gathered and reaped. The tints and scents of autumn sharpen into chilliness at dawn and nightfall. I note a look of question and anxiety in old Ruth's face, and I am surprised when she tells me that she is going to sleep in the little room that opens out of my own. Then I know that the hour of my trial is approaching, and my courage begins to fail.
* * * * * *
It was midnight. I woke from a troubled sleep and looked about me. There was a fire in the grate, and a shaded lamp on the table near by. Ruth Pasco was sitting by the fire on a low chair crooning dreamily to something she held in her arms. Something that made a little odd funny noise, a feeble wail that to me sounded the oddest and most pitiful thing I have ever heard. I lifted myself from the pillows and peered forward.
"Ruth," I said.
She glanced round. "Lie down," she commanded. "You'll have a fever sartin and sure if you be so venturesome."
I sank back. "Have I been ill long?" I asked feebly.
"Long eno'," she answered. "A week or so you've been wandering like, but I be'ant afraid for 'ee now!"
"And—and it—she?" I asked.
"A fine child, eno'. But not exactly what we though her'd be. Don't 'ee let theeself get excited though. For 'tis a boy not a girl babe you've given us."
"A boy!" I started up again, forgetful of warning. "Good heavens! What does Miss Penharva say?"
"She was mazed. She didn't say anything, but she looked at it and sure as fate, my dear life, what do 'ee think? The babe smiled in her face quite knowin' like, and now her has it brought to her own room every day, and 'twill lie on her lap quiet and smilin', and holding av a finger her will be givin' it."
"But didn't she say anything?" I persisted.
"Narra a word. Don't 'ee fluster theeself. 'Tis a child right eno', and the will o' Providence sent it of a different sex to our requirements, but look, my dear life, don't 'ee vex theeself over that."
"May I—see it?" I asked timidly.
"If thee'll lie down and keep still. I've had a rare piece of work wi' thee these seven days."
I obeyed, and she came towards me, the small flannel bundle in her arms. She put it into mine, and I looked wonderingly at the tiny puckered face, the wide-opened blinking eyes, the soft dusky hair.
An odd feeling of pity for its smallness and helplessness was the only sensation of which I was conscious. I saw no beauty in this small parcel of humanity. It was the outward and visible sign of a false love. It perfected my misery, and yet I could not harden my heart against it. The one love common to all things feminine stirred my stagnant soul. The tears were warm on my cheeks as I bent over this small, frail thing. A rough touch, the merest accident, would have arrested the life that was so new and profitless a gift. I felt that, even as I recognised the warring of those new and strange emotions. Hurriedly I gave the child back to Ruth. Then I turned my face to the wall and wept the bitterest tears I had shed yet in all these miserable months.
The time of expectation and dread was over. The waiting at an end. I should soon be free to take up life on my own responsibility, to face the world, and ask its mercy or its scorn as I pleased.
Then once more the feeble wail broke forth, and I felt my heart thrill, and a strange unreasoning tenderness woke to life in place of my hardness and bitterness. My child—mine! Undesired and dowered with shame, and yet claiming me and calling on me by right of that very dower. Mine—and I had bartered its future for my own security, and traded its forlorn innocence for my own selfish purpose.
Yet when the helpless thing had rested in my arms all the womanhood within called out in sympathy. Sin, shame, and despair seemed of less account before this outward and visible sign. The child's touch brought me within sight of heaven's mercy, and lifted me above even sorrow and indifference.
I am well enough now to leave my bed. I can write or read, or work, or sit by the fire with the little one on my knee, watching him curl his rosy toes before the bright flames, and making those odd little choking, chuckling noises that are musical only to a mother's ears.
I have not left my room yet, consequently have not seen Miss Penharva. Old Ruth brings me messages from her, and I answer them, but I shrink with dread from the interview that must take place. I have formed no plans for the future. Yet I know I must soon leave this refuge. My idea has been to go on the stage, but I am quite ignorant how to set about it.
My voice had been considered wonderful in my old home, and in the light of friendly criticism, but I have yet to compare it with voices that have won the favour of the public. Also I have a good memory, and I can learn quickly. But this is all the stock-in-trade with which I have to face the world and earn a livelihood.
* * * * * *
The child grows and thrives. His rosy prettiness enchants me. The golden down on his head, the beauty of his skin, the roundness and firmness of his limbs, the wide wondering gaze of his deep blue eyes—all of these have become a wonder and delight. My heart thrills at the touch of his tiny hands, or the sound of his cry.
I could write pages and pages about him, but I won't. Only it seems as if some miracle has been wrought in me. I am so changed. Instead of hate has come love. I feel it in me to face the world and defy it, strong in the joy of motherhood. That feeling has humanised me once more. I could almost forgive Cyril. If he returned to me now, if he was penitent, I would forgive him. The child unites us once more. A living tie that makes us more than lovers.
I break off here with impatience. Cyril has deserted and forgotten me. Even if I told him of—this, I feel it would make no difference. And I don't want his pity, or his help. I only want his love.
The days fly by. To-morrow I am to see Miss Penharva. I have spent the evening alone here with my child. For the first time it comes home to me that I am going to forsake him. To give him up to strangers. For the first time my selfishness looks criminal in my eyes. It is true I am without means to support him, but have I the right to rob him of the love and care such as motherhood teaches? The promises wrung from me in my helplessness torment me now with living rebuke. Through the shadowy distraction of my mind they wander like pitiless accusers. I cannot give him up. I must see him. I feel I would rather take him away to starve or die with me than yield him to a stranger's care.
The wrangle in my brain has culminated in a passion of tears. Some of them fall on that little gold-fluffed head. It is ill-luck to cry over a young babe—so says Ruth. But what have I brought my innocent but ill-luck from first to last!
* * * * * *
With difficulty I restrain my feelings. I try to pray, but my thoughts wander vaguely from familiar petitions to present anxieties. I will lie down beside my little one and try to sleep. To-morrow will be here soon enough. Why anticipate its troubles?
* * * * * *
I have just returned from the interview with Miss Penharva. While it is fresh in my mind I will write it down here.
There was a change in her. Something softer, more human, I thought. She greeted me with an interest I had never seen her display. The child was in my arms asleep. She looked at it long, and a sigh escaped her. I plunged breathlessly into the subject near my heart.
"Miss Penharva," I said, "as it is not a girl I suppose our compact can be broken. This child can be of no use to your schemes."
She looked at me and then at the babe, in his lovely, innocent slumber.
"What can you do for him?" she asked.
I was silent. The blood ebbed from my face. A sort of despair seized me.
"Very little," I said, "except love him."
"That won't feed and clothe him," she answered. "Tell me—has his birth been any consolation? Has he brought with him that love and compassion one reads of as belonging to mothers?"
"I love him," I said. "I cannot help it."
"And he will be your scourge," she said bitterly. "He will care nothing for a love that bears the stigma of shame. Better he never knows you as his mother than that he should live to break your heart with reproach in years to come."
I was silent. Her words called up in my mind a dread that had not entered it as yet. Of what avail would be love or self-sacrifice if in the end I was to stand self-condemned before my child's eyes?
"Sit down," she said abruptly, "and listen to me. Do you wish to withdraw from your contract? Answer me frankly."
"I have learnt to love him so," I answered weakly. "It is all different now. I made that promise before I had any right to make it. A child is so helpless. He needs a mother's love and—and patience."
"This is maudlin and sentimental," she said coldly. "You can do nothing for him. You are destitute when you leave here. Either necessity will drive you to worse shame than is now your portion, or despair will force you to end a miserable life. I know the world—you don't."
"But there, don't cry, like a foolish baby. We have grown friendly towards one another in these lonely months. You have awakened some feeling in this starved heart of mine. I am not going to keep you to the strict letter of our bargain. I should think badly of you had you proved heartless enough to desire it. Leave the child here. He will be well tended and cared for, and you may come to see him sometimes—not often. For I wish to awaken no curiosity or comment. Besides, you have to work for your own livelihood.
"Until such time as you procure employment I am willing to make you an allowance, conditional on your leaving the child to my guardianship. I am willing also to provide for his education. If you have any real regard for his welfare you will agree to this."
"I cannot help agreeing," I said, gratefully. "It is most kind, most generous. I only wonder why you should do all this for a stranger."
"Say a fellow victim," she interposed. "The scheme I built up has fallen all to pieces, but another has arisen in its place. I want an object, an interest, and this young fresh life will give it me."
I looked at her and then at the babe on my knee. It seemed impossible to associate the one with the other. As I looked I noted the cause of change in her. The loose flowing hair was coiled and twisted round her head. She had lost much of the weird appearance so characteristic of her. There was something more human, more womanly about her, and I felt less afraid of possible eccentricities on her part in time to come. Had the child worked this magic in her, even as it had broken up the hard crust of misery and hatred about my own heart? What magic lay in his helpless innocence, in the light and smile of his eyes?
I marvelled, but even as I marvelled I could only recognise that my own martyrdom had become a joy, and that in this new life my sorrow was chastened and made light.
Miss Penharva said a great deal more, but the gist of it remained the same. I left her with my mind at rest and my heart overflowing with gratitude. True, I should not have my child much with me. I was only to visit him twice a year, but I had the satisfaction of knowing he would be well cared for, and my immediate anxiety was over. I felt Fate had been kinder than I deserved, and I began to equip myself for the battle before me with a strength born of hope and trustful of results.
When the child is two months old I am to leave him. My plans are still somewhat indefinite. I mean to go to London, seek a quiet lodging, and then commence to search for an engagement. There surely must be plenty of openings for a good voice and quick "study," as they call it. I don't expect much of an engagement. I am content to begin at the beginning and work up as others have done before me. I shall go to a dramatic agent, let him hear my voice, and put myself into his hands. The result I must await with patience.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile the quiet and rest and beautiful air have quite brought back my strength and colour. I look like my old self once more, and the misery of the past months is almost forgotten. I spend long sunny hours in the garden, walking to and fro with the child in my arms. The days are never long or wearisome now. He gives me as much occupation as I need, and fills the empty hours with new interest. I dread the time of parting, and yet sometimes I long for it. The pulses of life are active in my veins, and I want to be "up and doing." I am tired of dreamings and idleness. I long to throw myself into work, and see if it is possible to realise my ambition.
Sometimes a wild longing comes over me for news of home; of those I left in ignorance of my fate. I wish it were possible to let them know of my well-being, but I dare not—yet.
I look up at the shuttered windows—I think of that strange, lonely life, martyred by a man's faithlessness, and I register a vow within my own heart to have nothing more to do with that life-wrecking passion called Love, to hold all men in cold abhorrence, to look upon them as enemies. It seems quite possible now. I feel dead mentally and emotionally to all sexual influences. The only warmth or softness in my nature is what my helpless child has called forth, and it only lives for him.
But I suffer less, and I am thankful. I have learnt a bitter lesson. The future will prove what fruit it has borne, or may bear.
* * * * * *
My last night here.
I have come to my room after a long talk with Miss Penharva. I look round on all that has now become familiarised by association. It has been a home to me, and God knows when I shall find another.
My box is packed. There is nothing more to do save make these last entries in my journal, and gather my child to my breast and seek for sleep.
How long it will seem till I hold him there again! My heart aches as I look at him and know that my eyes will not watch the changes of his baby life, the little subtle signs of awakening intelligence, the variations and differences that mark the passage of months in the all-important first year. I wonder if he will miss me? Old Ruth is very kind, but she is old and crabbed, and cannot enter into those infinitesimal interests which are of so much consequence to a mother's eye.
A wave of bitterness follows the wave of softness. What have I done that Fate should have dealt so harshly with me? Only loved too blindly, trusted too entirely to a man's vows and a man's false heart. Surely I am more sinned against than sinning, more fitted for pity than for blame. Yet I know the world would never say so. Miss Penharva has left me in no doubt of that. Her words to-night flashed the lurid gleam of unwholesome truth upon me, swept away every delusive fallacy, filled my mind with misgivings.
Such form my equipment for the battle before me. And to-morrow sees the dawn of that battle morn.
* * * * * *
I will close these pages. I am weary, and my eyes are heavy. Let me creep into my bed and hold my little one in my arms, and draw from his innocent contact such comfort as I can.
Dear, dear little hand, your touch holds a magic that the world is empty of. For to-night it shall charm me to forgetfulness.
The dreary house is morbidly still and sad, but here, here at my side, are sunshine, and laughter, and love. Here, where I can dream and hope. Here, where my treasure looks at me with sweet and sleep-filled eyes.
Lie still, my darling, sleep awhile,
And when thou wakest sweetly smile,
But smile not as thy father did.
* * * * * *
"As thy father did!" O God, forbid that one trait or semblance of that father has found root in this guiltless soul.
Is there any loneliness on earth like the loneliness of a great city?
To walk through crowded streets, to gaze at hundreds and hundreds of unfamiliar faces, to meet cold and indifferent eyes in a passing glance, to feel that among these crowds of human beings you yourself are an unnoticed and uncared-for unit, your fate a matter of indifference, your wants and sorrows unimportant. Surely this is as melancholy a thing as the return of a wandering ghost to the scenes of its earthly pilgrimage. To the living soul as to the dead comes the sense of being undesired or unmissed. The busy world can do without you, the place you filled is occupied by another.
I had had my fill of such loneliness since I came to London. I lived in a quiet lodging in the neighbourhood of Bloomsbury. It was a bed-sitting room at the top of the house. The rent was moderate, and my meals were charged for when I had them, at a stated price. The first thing I had done was to provide myself with the leading theatrical papers and copy out the addresses of various agents. To these I applied in due course, entered my names in the books, paid a fee in advance, and retired more or less hopeful according to the reception they gave me. In my secret heart I did not like any of these gentlemen. There was a certain boldness and familiarity in their looks and questions that annoyed me greatly.
I objected to being addressed as "My dear" or "Ducky," or paid coarse compliments as to my eyes, complexion, or figure. I wanted an engagement from them purely as a matter of business, and expected to be treated in a business-like manner. This, however, was the last thing they seemed inclined to do. When I stated I was unfamiliar with the stage they advised me to "chuck it up" or "go into keeping and get someone to run me."
This was so much Dutch to my ignorant ears, and I frankly suggested that my voice and my knowledge of music were surely worth something. They wouldn't hear my voice, that was the duty of a manager, or someone "bossing a show in the provinces," they informed me. However, I might call again and see if anything had turned up. I did call again, and yet again. I always saw a crowd of untidy-looking girls, with awful hats and made up faces, of men of all ages, on whom the genus "actor" was stamped as indelibly as a brand. This crowd were always laughing, and chaffing, and exchanging broad jokes and witticisms. They called each other by their Christian names, and abused the agents, or recounted wonderful "successes" on tour, which fully entitled them to a London engagement in their own eyes, but apparently the agents differed from them in that respect. They would look at me with critical curiosity, and exchange opinions as to my appearance or my "line" with audible frankness.
I told myself that these were the brothers and sisters of my self-chosen profession, and tried to feel friendly towards them. I did not wish to be prejudiced in advance, but it was hard work to avoid it. They were so loud, so vulgar, so atrociously dressed, and powdered, and "made-up." The men, too, looked as if they had slept in their clothes, so crushed and creased were collars and shirts and coats, and their unshaven, unwashed faces aided this impression.
Sometimes I sat in the office with a "Stage" or an "Era" before me, and listened to the conversation. It was as remarkable for its blunt egotism as the advertisements in these journals.
I used to read these same advertisements with a frank wonder at their unblushing conceit. Miss Viola Delaney would head hers "Our Prize Packet of Ability," and thank Mr. Somebody for an offer which a present first-class engagement prevented her accepting. Miss Ivy St. Claire invited offers, "lead or principal parts preferred." Various other ladies quoted themselves a "terrific success," "amazingly clever," or "specially engaged." A few leading lights added half a dozen press notices to their name and title role. Some were "starring," some were "resting," but none were silent as to their qualifications or modest as to their deserts. Some were so beset by offers and engagements that they employed a private or special agent, to whom all communications were referred; others less fortunate gave a post office or a box office in case their services were in requisition.
After a month of this experience I began to grow impatient. The columns of the papers assured me of vacancies in companies, of incompleted tours, of the need of "good voices," of willingness to take novices or amateurs and bestow on them stage experience and small salaries, but the agents assured me none of these would do. The sort of thing they had in their eye for me would be sure to turn up in a day or two. I must call again.
So I would trudge home through the streets, lonely and heartsick, and wonder if there was anything else I could do while the weary waiting went on. I bought penny papers and studied their contents. Surely it must be easy enough to write stories for them. I resolved to try. I noted the style and kind of fiction they offered their readers, and I had a fluent pen. I made up a "moated grange" tale, with a lovely heroine and a mystery. I wrote it in a couple of days, and sent it to the "Home Tattler." I expected it to be taken at once, so informed them that my terms for such a contribution were five guineas. To my surprise I got the MS. back next day. They were overcrowded with MS., and my story was quite unsuitable. Nothing daunted, I went through all the series of those penny leaflets, and spent my evenings writing "down" to what I considered their level. At the end of another month I had quite a collection of soiled and tumbled MSS., but not one had been accepted, even though I had become magnanimous enough to leave terms to their editor's discretion.
* * * * * *
I am conscious of a growing indignation. My stories may not be works of genius, but certainly they are quite up to the average of those I read. If their authors have found acceptance, why should, not I? I can gain no answer to the question.
This is the history of my London life so far. It brings me back to that dissertation on loneliness with which I commenced this chapter of my journal. For I am very lonely; there is no denying it, and the very excess and abundance of life around and about me intensify that sense of desolation.
Every morning I call on one or other of the agents. Then I wander through streets, lunch at an A.B.C. shop, go to a picture gallery or the British Museum, then home for tea, and spend the evening writing or sewing. This is my life, and I am but eighteen years old.
I wonder sometimes if I had better turn governess; but then governesses nowadays must all possess certificates or have passed examinations, and in fact have received a superior education altogether. I cannot boast of accomplishments; besides, I should hate the drudgery of teaching, and the anomalous position in the household given to the unfortunate teacher. No, I must command my soul in patience. Surely before another month I shall have something to do.
* * * * * *
I have just come back from a long morning at the agents. It is remarkable enough to chronicle. They wrote asking me to call at 11 o'clock. They had something for me at last.
I attired myself in my well-worn black gown and plain sailor hat. I took especial care that my hair should be neat and simply dressed, in contrast to the peroxidised and tousled heads I was so sick of seeing. I did not look fast or smart, but simply what I was—a lady, none too well off in this world's goods and anxious for employment.
Needless to say, I was punctual. I sent in my name and waited patiently amidst the usual crowd in the outer office until I should be summoned. They seemed unusually agitated this morning. I heard the name Leverson repeated very often, and when a voice exclaimed, "Why, here he is?" I looked up with some curiosity. A short, dark, Jewish-looking man had come in. He did not remove his hat, but glanced around, gave a curt nod of recognition here and there, and finally passed into the inner sanctuary, where Messrs. Broadbow and Jupp gave their interviews.
A hush of expectation followed his departure. I gathered from scraps of disjointed talk that the dark little man was the manager of a theatre, where he was running comic opera. The fact of his presence here showed he was in need of additions to his company, and expectation ran high among this crowd of the disengaged. Presently the office door opened. A head looked out. "Mrs. Dering!" called a voice, the voice of Mr. Jupp. I rose to my feet. A row of astonished faces confronted me. I was beckoned forward by the agent, and entered the room with some trepidation.
The little manager was sitting crossways on a chair, his hat tilted to the back of his head and a cigarette in his mouth.
"This is the young lady," observed Mr. Jupp. "Good soprano, excellent musician; appearance, you can judge; but no stage experience."
The manager looked at me with half-closed eyes.
"Ah," he said, "no experience. Just like 'em. Well, my dear, what makes you want to go on the stage?"
"I want to earn a livelihood," I answered.
"Are you going to trust to your face?" he said, "or your talents—supposin' you've got any? Or does a friend back you?"
I felt the colour rising to my face.
"I must learn as others have done, I suppose. I am content to begin at the beginning. And I have no friends."
"Know French?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"What!" I exclaimed, not quite understanding his question.
"Have you good limbs?—for tights, you know; boys' parts; short skirts, all that."
The colour deepened by several shades.
"I—I never thought of taking such parts," I said.
"Then, pray why do you apply for comic opera? Don't you know how the chorus dress?"
"She's just come from a Sunday-school, I imagine," remarked Mr. Broadbow, the senior partner of the firm.
"Well, well," said the manager, noticing my distress, "what about your voice? I want a good steady soprano for front rank of chorus. There's a piano over there. Go and sing something; run up a scale, that'll do."
I drew off my gloves and went over to the piano, horribly nervous. My throat was dry, and my lips were tremulous. I struck a chord or two to gain time, and then ran up the scale of G, gave a few roulades, and finished with a prolonged trill. I looked towards the three men as I finished.
"That'll do," remarked the manager. "Are you quick at learning? Can you read at sight?"
"Oh, yes," I answered.
"Well, of course, you'll want a lot of training, but you may be worth a pound a week. I'm inclined to give you a trial."
He lighted another cigarette, and Messrs. Broadbow and Jupp examined me curiously. I was astonished and delighted.
He wrote something on a card and handed it to me.
"Come round to-morrow," he said. "I'll see your part is sent to you to-night. What's your address?"
I gave it him.
"Mrs. Dering. Are you a widow, then?"
"Yes," I said quietly.
"That'll never do. You must appear as 'Miss' on the stage. What's your Christian name?"
"Miss Dolores Dering. Yes, that sounds very well. Of course your name won't appear while you're in the chorus, but it'll be known to the company and agents. This opera will go on tour soon. I've an interest in it, but it won't have a long run at the Eden. We're obliged to change constantly. Well, that's all. Ten o'clock to-morrow morning for rehearsal, and bring a song. The musical director will want to try your voice."
I thanked him briefly, and retired with heart and face aglow.
This was the beginning, and a somewhat insignificant one, but it was something. I should learn, and I should gain experience. I might achieve success. Hope surged within me. I passed through the crowd in the waiting-room with head erect and smiling lips. I felt on good terms with all the world, and my modest lunch seemed a feast of delicacies.
I am still jubilant as I write these lines. I expect the music by every post, and long for its arrival.
Quite suddenly I remember I have no piano, besides being terribly out of practice. It will be a hard matter to learn the different choruses simply from the written notes. I know I have seen one in the drawing-room, but the drawing-room is let, and I fear to ask my landlady's permission to use it when the lodger is out. I wonder if I could possibly afford to hire one? I fear not. I have no desire to be dependent on Miss Penharva longer than is absolutely necessary, and when I give up her allowance I must live on a pound a week.
* * * * * *
A knock at the door interrupted me here.
Enter Emma, the maid of all work. ("Hemma," as my landlady calls her.) She brought me some tea and bread and butter, and a roll of music. I clutched delightedly at the latter. It was the chorus part of the opera. Emma (who is good-natured, and takes great interest in me) watched as I opened the wrapper.
I glanced over the parts.
"Oh for a piano!" I exclaimed involuntarily.
"A pianner!" exclaimed Emma. "Well there's one in the parlour, ma'am. And Mr. Hericson, 'e don't never come 'ome till height o'clock. Why don't you practise on it?"
I shook my head.
"No, no, I couldn't do that. He might return and catch me, or he might hear of it."
"'Tain't his pianner, 'tis the missus's."
"All the worse. She would be very angry.'"
"Not 'er," said Emma, scornfully. "I'll lay she won't mind. Besides, she's howt to-night. Gone to a theayter with 'er niece. You don't be a fool. Just go down and try your songs if you've a mind to. What's your line? The 'alls, or the dramer, as they calls it?"
"Neither," I said, laughing. "Comic opera. I've got an engagement at last."
"My, that's good. I'm real glad of it," she said, heartily. "I'll come and 'ear you if I gets a chance. But lor, 'ere I am a-chattering, and your tea gettin' cold."
"Never mind," I said. "It's not often I have anyone to talk to. Look here, Emma, do you really think I might venture to try that piano for half an hour?"
"Do I think? Lor, yes, of course I do! I tell you Mr. Hericson don't come 'ome to dinner. Goes to 'is club. 'E's a barrister, you know. A nice spoken gentleman, too, and free with 'is shillings, which the dining-room ain't."
Mr. Ericson didn't interest me, but the piano did. I drank my tea and then somewhat timidly crept down stairs to the drawing-room floor, and looked in. It was a large double room, divided by folding doors, and comfortably furnished. A bright fire burnt in the grate. The gas was lit. A large easy chair stood by the fire, and a table near by was covered with books and papers. There was a litter of pipes and cigarette cases on the mantelshelf, also a quaintly fashioned tobacco jar, and some old Flemish pottery. The piano stood in a recess by the fireplace. It was open, and as I surveyed it, hesitatingly, Emma appeared on the scene.
"It's just gone six," she said. "'E won't be home till height, if then. Go ahead. I'll be on the look-out."
I called up the courage of audacity, and went over to the instrument, seated myself, and began to play over the opening chorus of "The Isle of Consequences."
The music was bright and taking, but singing it alone gave me but slight idea of the effects. However, in half an hour I had got the air of the two choruses in the first act into my head, and considered that would pass me at the first rehearsal. I gathered up the music sheets and closed the piano. As I did so the door suddenly opened and a man came in. I started, and my face grew crimson. He looked at me with unfeigned surprise.
"I—I beg your pardon," I stammered. "I have no piano in my room, and I was told I—I might use this for half an hour."
Then I paused, overwhelmed with confusion, and ready to consign Emma to the furthest regions of the earth.
A pleasant voice answered me. "You are perfectly welcome, I assure you. The piano is not mine, you know, and you are at liberty to use it whenever you wish. I am seldom here."
"You are very kind, but it won't be necessary after to-night. I had to learn a part for rehearsal to-morrow."
"I see. You are on the stage, then?"
His eyes glanced over me. I thought the glance compassionate, but perhaps that was only fancy.
"I am going on the stage," I said.
"Oh, you have not begun the life yet. What made you select it?"
"I had to do something," I answered, "and my only available talent seems to be my voice."
"You look very young to be facing the world on your own account," he observed. "Have you no relatives or friends?"
He flashed a look at my black dress, and then his eyes turned to my face. As I met their kindly sympathy I almost forgot he was of that hateful sex I had determined to regard as enemies.
"I am quite alone," I said, coldly, "and I have to work for my living. You may be sure it is necessity that prompts me to become a chorus girl in comic opera."
I rolled the sheets of MS. together again, and made a step forward. I thought our conversation had lasted long enough.
"May I ask the name of the opera?" he said, not attempting to move from the doorway.
"'The Isle of Consequences,'" I answered. "It is quite new. It has never been performed. It is to be brought out at the Eden Theatre. And if successful is to go on tour. That's all I know about it."
"Well, I know a little more," he said, smiling, "for I am part author of the libretto."
"You! I thought you were a barrister."
"So I am. But a barrister has a great deal of leisure on his hands, and employs it in quite illegal pursuits. Some of us write books and some plays, and some compose lyrics, and some write libretti. I am one of the last class of criminals. Odd that you should be going to take part in my first accepted piece of work. I shall feel a new interest in it now."
"My part is very insignificant," I answered.
He smiled. "Every little helps to make up the whole," he said. "Besides, you are only a beginner. I suppose you wouldn't sing for me now, would you? I have some influence in the theatrical world. I might be of service to you."
I hesitated, but a feeling of shyness and nervousness came over me. I felt I could not sing, and said so. He moved away then from the door, and, with a slight bow and a "good evening," I passed him, and hurried upstairs to my own room.
I was somewhat excited. The day had been full of surprises, and this last was by no means least. It did seem strange to have for neighbour the very man who had composed this same opera. I wondered whether he had written the lyrics as well as the dialogue. The verses of the chorus had not struck me as being particularly brilliant, but then the choruses of comic opera are about the most idiotic compositions that have ever been wedded to music. They should all be divorced if common sense or poetic justice had any say in the matter. Perhaps it is as well they haven't. And the public is long-suffering!
* * * * * *
Ten o'clock! I push away the sheets of MS. at last, and take up my pen instead. I have to record another incident in this eventful day. The late post is in, and brings me a letter from one of the "Home Blessings," whose periodical issue is of such vital interest to the domestic and family circle. A letter containing a cheque for one guinea for a story I had sent, "Mamie's First Love."
I could hardly believe my eyes. I am so accustomed now to rejections that I almost fancied this was a practical joke. However, the cheque lies there, and a little printed slip which I am requested to sign and return.
I feel quite triumphant. True, a guinea is not much; but still it is the price of a pair of boots, and I sadly need them! I sign the slip, put the cheque in my purse, and end up my evening by a letter to Miss Penharva, telling of my success and asking for news of the little one. She never writes herself, but dictates a few formal lines to old Ruth Pasco, which come to me once a week, and are all the food my hungry heart can hope for. It is not much, but it is better than nothing.
Oh, will a day ever come when I can claim him as my own, have him under my roof, support him by my earnings. Actresses do get rich, I believe. I have heard snatches of conversation in the agent's waiting rooms which told of flats, broughams, jewels, all owned by leading stars in the profession, successful dancers, favourite singers. My ambition does not soar to luxuries. I only want a sufficient income to keep my child and myself. Dresses and broughams and jewels hold no temptation for me.
"It must come, it shall," I tell myself. "Success, and then the fruits of success—money. And money means power and independence. My every energy must be set upon their achievement."
* * * * * *
I suppose there are people who like comic opera. Perhaps some even understand it. I only know that judging by a rehearsal it is the silliest and most incomprehensible thing I can imagine. No one seemed to know what the libretto was about. The principals just hummed their airs, and the speaking parts were omitted. The chorus had been through their duties several times. I was the only novice. The musical director first tried my voice, and then the stage manager grouped us in position, and we were ordered to sing the opening chorus to the accompaniment of the piano. About every three or four bars we were stopped.
It was wearisome in the extreme. The stage was cold and draughty, the body of the theatre was lost in gloom. Gas jets flickered above our heads amidst ropes and pulleys and canvas. Supers and scene-shifters were constantly moving about. The footlights threw ghastly reflections on the crowd of faces and dealt mercilessly with "make up." I soon lost my nervousness, and, thanks to my knowledge of music, kept my place firmly. Some of the voices wavered and wobbled and went out of tune in a manner that drove the conductor frantic.
At last after some dozen repetitions we got through sufficiently well to allow of action. The stage manager told us how to stand, and when to move, or raise our hands, or turn our heads. It was horribly mechanical, but necessary, I suppose. Then we had to sing again under the direction of the two men, and I felt painfully awkward and wooden. However, the steadiness and power of my voice pleased the conductor, and I was less bullied than I deserved.
The rehearsal lasted three hours. Then we were dismissed and told to come the following morning at the same time. The opera was to be produced in three weeks' time, and I wondered how it could possibly be ready, judging from present circumstances. Some of the girls now chatted freely to me. They spied "novice" in face and manner, and were sympathetic and cheery and confidential. They laughed at my astonishment and fear of incompletion. "We've seen things as bad as this within a week of production," said one girl. "Of course it's a nuisance, because we're worked to death. I've rehearsed from ten till four or five in the afternoon; and then had to perform another part at night. Talk of African slavery, wait till you've had a year or two of chorus work!"
This was not inspiriting, and I am afraid my face fell. A year or two! But perhaps at the end of that time I should have risen a step. I might have a solo or a small part. Time would soon pass, and hard work and perseverance were bound to tell in the long run. I went home tired and somewhat dispirited. On the table of my room I found a letter awaiting me. I opened it and glanced with some admiration at the beautiful clear handwriting. The signature was Harold Ericson.
"Dear Madam," (it said)—"Pray make use of the piano in my sitting-room
whenever you please. I have told the landlady you are to do so. You
need not be afraid of interfering with me. I am absent all day till
eight or nine o'clock. I shall really feel hurt (in the interests of my
forthcoming work) if you will not grant me this favour.
"It is very kind of him," I thought. "I am sure he means it too. Well, why shouldn't I accept the offer? I could learn my part very much better and in less time if I had a piano. Chance is befriending me, and I should be foolish to quarrel with it."
I had my tea, and then wrote a few lines to Mr. Ericson, thanking him for his offer, and accepting it as frankly as it had been made. I took the letter downstairs with me, and left it on his writing table, and had a good hour's practice afterwards. I wished I had the plot or libretto of the opera. I could form no idea of what it was like from the music. I wondered whether Mr. Ericson had a copy he could lend me so that I could familiarise myself with the piece as a whole. I resolved to ask him.
When I went up to my room again I felt so tired that I could scarcely keep my eyes open. It was barely 8 o'clock, and it seemed absurd to go to bed so soon. I drew the shabby old armchair up to the fire, and lay back and closed my eyes. It seemed to me but a few moments had passed when a knock at the door roused me. I started up. It was ten o'clock, and Emma came in with a parcel and some letters. She handed me the parcel. "With Mr. Hericson's compliments," she observed.
"Mr. Ericson?" I echoed.
"Yes'm. 'E called me into 'is room just now and give it me. 'Take it hup at once,' ses 'e."
I opened the parcel. There before me, neatly typed and bound, lay the libretto of the "Isle of Consequences." I was astonished. He seemed to have divined my thoughts. "Oh, how kind!" I exclaimed, and Emma the sympathetic grinned broadly at me as I looked up.
"That's right," she said. "You're getting quite cheery, mum. Things is a pullin' round, I can see; so don't be so ready to lose 'eart as you was a week ago. And 'ow did you get on at the theaytre, if I may ask. Spiffin' fine, warn't it? Hoften and hoften I says to myself, 'Oh, if I could but hact, I'd go on the stage to-morrer.' That's the life. Hall fun and jollity, and gents a-fallin' in love with you, and throwin' bookays, and people clappin' and applaudin' when you come on. Grand! I henvy you, mum. That's what I do."
I laughed. Servant-girlism is consoling after all. This unblemished frankness found its way to my sympathies as no more elaborate philosophy could have done.
"You needn't envy me for a long time yet, Emma," I answered her. "I am only at the very beginning. It will be a long time before I get the bouquets and applause."
"You've got a lovely voice, though," said this naïve flatterer. "I listened when you was a-singin' to-night, and so did missus. 'Twas as good as a music 'all, and nothink to pay."
"There's the bell ringing for you," I said, desirous to end these confidences and get to bed.
"Drat it," she cried viciously. "I never gets a quiet moment, and I do enjoy a chat with you, mum. You're so different to the parlours, and I've always 'ad such a leanin' towards the theaytrical purfesshon."
I have been so busy all this week and come home so tired that my journal has been entirely neglected.
The rehearsals are very arduous and most uninteresting. How can anyone form any idea of what the piece will be like from interrupted choruses, scraps of dialogue, incessant disputes as to "cuts," positions, and "business?" The music is tuneful and pretty, but not remarkable. Of course I dare not say so, but that is my private opinion. The dialogue, however, is good and very amusing, and the principal comedian, who has no voice but is exquisitely funny, makes us laugh heartily over it and his "gag." He is a popular favourite, and seems to do pretty much as he likes with manager, composer, and company.
There is suppressed indignation one morning when the musical conductor orders me to sing a brief twenty bars solo in the last chorus, because mine is the only trustworthy voice. I am delighted, needless to say; but when I get black looks, tosses of tousled heads, and hear audible mutterings of "favouritism" and "backing up," I feel very uncomfortable.
I am going through a series of rapid disillusions respecting the stage. It is brimful of jealousies and animosities. Every chorus girl is an embryo "star" in her own estimation, and no success is attributed to merit so much as to "luck." Luck seems the titular divinity of the profession, especially the feminine branch of it. Considering my total inexperience, and my excessive nervousness, it does seem rather strange that I should be selected for this coveted solo bit. I wonder sometimes if Mr. Ericson has had anything to do with it. I know he and the musical composer are great friends.
The latter is a mild-looking young German with a strong foreign accent, and long fair hair. He comes to the rehearsals, and listens with a face of vague distress to our performance. He has his own band rehearsals at other times. We are to go through the music with the band next week, when the piano has drummed it into our heads sufficiently. It appears that the little German has produced another opera, which was a great success, so this one found ready acceptance. I suppose it holds the germs of popularity, for a certain tuneful resemblance to other airs and a certain familiarity of phrasing are what the public like best. They are recognisable, and demand no strain of the mind.
I know every note of the choruses by heart now. But I practise my voice every evening in Mr. Ericson's room, and am pleased to find how strong and flexible it has become. I never see him. But then I take good care to leave the piano before his hour of coming home.
I am generally very tired, for it is a long way from the Eden Theatre to Bloomsbury, and 10 o'clock rarely finds me out of my bed. I wonder sometimes what I shall do when the piece is "on," and it will be eleven or twelve o'clock before I can leave the theatre. Sometimes I think I will take lodgings nearer it, but I have got used to my room, my landlady is kind, and Emma is most considerate of my welfare. Then there is the piano.
My life is too monotonous to chronicle daily events. I will write no more until after the opening night of the opera.
* * * * * *
The piece was produced last night with immense success. I have some half-dozen papers before me which the thoughtful Emma ordered beforehand, and which she brought up with my morning tea. She pulled up my blind, and lingered for a gossip. Nothing would convince her that I had not some important part in the opera, so I bade her read the notices and see for herself. They were pretty much as follows:—"The chorus were all that could be desired." "A slight hesitation in the attack was noticeable in the chorus. They grew firmer after the first act, and the finale was admirably given." "The choruses are bright and taking, if not very original. The costumes were a dream of beauty and artistic colouring." And so on, and so on.
Finally she gave a chuckle of triumph.
"There!" she cried. "There you are. Didn't I know you'd get a line to yourself. Look and see if I'm not right."
I did look. I was incredulous, but there certainly, staring me in the face, was my name. "Miss Dolores Dering showed herself the possessor of a charming soprano voice of great power and flexibility. Her few bars of solo in the last chorus of Act I. were noticeable. This young lady has a good stage presence, and should be a useful member of the profession as she gains experience."
I could scarcely believe my eyes. I looked at the name of the journal. It was a leading daily. More and more I wondered why I should have been singled out for special notice, and thought of the spiteful comments I should hear to-night at the theatre.
Emma was radiant. The good-hearted little soul was far more enthusiastic than I was. I had a suspicion of favouritism somewhere, and wondered who had written that notice. It seemed to me that I, a novice, and a total stranger in professional circles, ought not to have received such special commendation; neither could I have done so but through a "friend at court." I had seen and heard enough in this short time to convince myself that "pars," "praise," and "interviews" were not always so entirely deserved as a guileless public imagined. They could be bought and sold and arranged for various considerations. Though ignorant why I was so favoured, I never for a moment attributed such praise to a genuine feeling on the part of the critic.
However, I let Emma babble on, and laughed at her enthusiasm, and wondered what I should do with myself all day now that there were no more rehearsals. The strain and fatigue made themselves felt now the excitement was over. I was almost inclined to take Emma's advice and stay in bed. However, after reading all the notices carefully over once more I rose and dressed and put on my hat to go out. I felt a longing for fresh air and sunshine. My small room was like a prison.
I went downstairs, and half-way met someone advancing towards me. As he looked up I saw it was Herr Elderhof, the musical composer. He recognised me with an eager greeting.
"Ah, my dear mees, I just komm to see you. It is a leetle favour I have to ask, a leetle alteration in ze phrasing of your small solo. It may be much improved. Have you a piano? Yes? Just spare me five moments, and I will show you how it is I mean."
"I have no piano of my own," I said, "but Mr. Ericson allows me to use his. Shall we go into his room?"
"Of course, of course. He is my very goot friend is Ericson. I am quite at home here while I was composing to his libretto. It make great success I think. Not fame, it will never be great, you understand, but it will go. . . Oh, yes, there is no fear about zat. And it will put money in our pockets, that is ze best."
He had talked me into the room by this time, and went unceremoniously up to the piano and opened it.
"This is what I mean," he said. "You sing alone, so: La, la, la, la, la. . . ," and he rattled off the phrase. "Now I wish to alter that—so: go up, then down. It makes all the difference. More melodious, don't you think? And dwell a little more on the last bar. You hurry too much last night, but then of course you were nairvous. But you have a fine voice, a good ear. Oh, yes, you will do goot work yet; in a leetle time of course, when you get experience. Who knows you may be prima donna to me one of these days!"
I laughed. It seemed rather a preposterous idea just then. But I thanked him for his kindly hint.
"How long is the opera to run?" I asked.
"At ze Eden? One, two, tree week perhaps. It goes on tour. It is what you call 'syndicated.' There is money in it, oh yes. My friend Ericson, he has many friends and influence. You will go north, south, west of London, zen the provinces. It is taking—light, funny, fantastic. Not great, not of genius. Oh, no! That is not to be popular. Ze great English public are not musical. They like tunes easy to remember. Zis sort of thing."
He played a succession of popular melodies.
"So. All tinkle, tinkle, catchy to the ear," he resumed. "But not music. No matter. He is wise who understands his public, and gives them what they ask. You are new to the stage, I hear, Mees Deering?"
"Yes, last night was my first appearance."
"You have a good deal to learn. But if you have ze feeling, ze instinct, all ze rest comes easy. Your voice is too good for chorus. Do not stay in it. You will spoil the timbre, the delicacy, the finish of it. Chorus is for those who cannot do better. You can do much better. Would you allow that I give you a few lessons? It would be of use to you and of great pleasure to me. For instance, here—" he played over an air in his opera. "That," he said, "is but one small part. You know Paulette, ze village girl. But you understudy her in ze tour, and if your chance come, you sing this song. And far better you sing than Mees Viola Tancredi, as she call herself. Let me hear you now. Never mind the words. Just sing the air."
"Oh, I know the words," I said. "I am not quite so sure of the music, though."
"I give you ze note if you forget. Now stand a leetle to the back. I play ze prelude six bar, ze chord, zo!"
I commenced. I was quite at home, and the ballad was very pretty and simple. He heard me through without interruption.
"Very good, very good," he said with an elongation of the vowel. "But just not quite enough—what is the word? Sprightly. It must be as if your heart was light; your eyes dancing, your lips on ze laugh. Now, once more, if you please."
I tried it again, throwing more self-forgetfulness into the part, and he professed himself satisfied.
He rose from the piano.
"I have interrupt your walk. It is good of you to gif me so much time. I hope we shall be great friends. Meanwhile, say you permit I gif you some leetle instruction while we are in London. To zing for ze stage is not to sing for ze room or ze concert platform. You are quick to learn. It will be to me a great pleasure."
"You are very kind," I repeated, "but I do not feel justified in taking up your time. It is not as if I could afford lessons at present. Perhaps in the future——"
He interrupted me with a gesture.
"Between artists," he said, "there should be no sense of obligation, none whatsoever. If I help you now it is only for my own help in ze future. I have ze ambition to create a part for an artist that shall be all her own, and all mine also. Not tinkle, tinkle, as is this, but good, and to ze glory and not ze shame of art. You have just ze voice I dream of. Pure, sweet, full of sympathy; it goes to ze heart, not only to ze ear. It is to favour me that you accept my tuition. You should not be too proud yet, dear mees."
I felt myself colour. His young, enthusiastic face, his glowing eyes, all spoke of sincerity. I was sure he meant what he said, and I knew it was an offer entirely to my own advantage.
"You put it very kindly, very generously," I said. "But really, Herr Elderhof, it is you who are conferring an obligation on me."
"Zen we will say agreed, and we shall commence soon. Ze sooner ze better, is it not?"
"If you wish," I said, "and if Mr. Ericson does not mind our using his piano."
"Ericson is my very goot friend. It will be all right as I put it to him. That is quite settled, zo. We get on as ze house on fire. You will get good parts, you see. I have ze dramatic sense. I never make a mistake."
He bowed himself out, and I was free to take my walk.
I felt considerably elated. My good star must certainly be in the ascendant. Chance had thrown me into the company of the author and composer of this opera, and both were kindly interested in me. Yet I was only a chorus girl in the eyes of the company, only on the lowest rung of the ladder. Still I was young and hopeful, and full of energy and determination. No bad stock in trade to start life with. Here my past was no one's business but my own.
These thoughts were running through my brain while I trod the pavements, and drifted on with the crowd. I paid little heed as to where I was going, and it was with some surprise that I found myself at last close to the Temple Gardens.
I had only been there once or twice before. Their quaint old-world surroundings have a great fascination for me. I walked along, beside the dim dingy houses with their endless lists of legal tenants, and past the fountain immortalised by little Ruth Pinch's love story. The birds were chirping in the newly budding boughs, glints of sunshine fell across the grass. It was so restful, so peaceful that it soothed and rested me. I sat down.
The place was quite deserted. I and the chirping sparrows seemed the only living things. I must have been there half an hour or more when I was conscious of footsteps approaching. A figure crossed the intervening space. It was Harold Ericson.
Ericson, robed and wigged in barrister fashion, stopped and regarded me with amazement.
"You here?" he said.
His brown eyes smiled down at me in friendly fashion; he held a roll of papers in his hand.
"It is so quiet and restful. I passed that archway, and I could not resist the temptation."
"I am going to my chambers. I have just come from the Courts. What a deep study you were in! Thinking of last night's triumph?"
"No, of lost illusions," I answered, bitterly.
"You are too young to have lost all yours."
"Oh, no. Years don't age one. It is experience."
"Experience! But surely—I mean I never can regard you as a married woman. You look such a child still."
A sudden desperate courage seized me. Why should I deceive him? What did I care for his opinion, for any man's? They were all equally detestable. No doubt he too had wronged some woman, had whispered false vows, played at sentiment. No doubt those kindly eyes had looked love and then forsworn it, those lips had held the taint of false kisses.
"Your eyes are full of accusations," he said suddenly. "What is it you have against me?"
"Not more than I have against your sex as a whole," I answered bitterly. "Why should I deceive you? I don't wish to play on your pity. I am not a widow: I was never legally married. I was tricked, fooled, betrayed—because I loved. That is my story. It is common enough. You, in your profession, must hear of such and their sequels every day."
His face changed. The kindly eyes grew stern.
"I am glad you have been candid," he said. "For in truth I did not quite believe in your first story. But your wrongs may end in making you unjust. You cannot judge all men by a specimen of one, and one with whom you were in love. Love blinds a girl's eyes to all defects, or only glorifies them. You have the ignorance and passion and heart of youth. Remember, men must be judged by a different standard to women. They can stray with their senses, yet be true of heart. Inconstancy with them is often a fault of temperament, or temptation. Are you quite sure that this—this man you accuse has willingly wronged you? Might he not return, penitent, to make amends?"
I laughed. It sounded strange in that quiet place. It rang false in my own ears.
"I parted from him in that belief," I said. "But I know I was mistaken. Do you know anything about Scotch marriages?"
"Not much, I confess. But I can read up the subject and let you have the benefit of my information."
I shook my head.
"It would make no difference. He denies the legality. The fact of his doing so annuls the marriage, in my mind. I could never hold a man bound by a quibble when his own feelings and inclinations were false."
The kindly face grew stern.
"It was a cowardly and disgraceful action. Someone ought to act on your behalf. Tell me his name and the circumstances, and I——"
"No," I said, firmly. "I would not permit it. What is the use of legalising what is denied by the whole actions and intentions of a man? It would only add to my humiliation. I should not have believed him. I see that. But I was so young, and he seemed to care—so much."
My voice broke. The frown deepened on Ericson's brow.
"Poor little girl!" he said, tenderly.
"Oh, don't pity me. It was partly my own fault. I showed my feelings too plainly. He knew he was my faith—my soul—everything! I have learnt now how little men value what is so easily won."
"It has hurt you very much."
"Naturally; but it will be a safeguard and a warning."
"You will need both in the life you have chosen. You will find men less honest than they appear. There will be no fear that you will listen to their flatteries, or succumb to the first temptation."
"I wish I could neither see nor speak to them," I cried in a sudden fury. "Every look, every word recalls the past, and makes my sex a thing of scorn and contumely. I work because I must, because I have an object for which to work; but," and I laughed bitterly, "the work I have chosen brings me into contact with men who are certainly not calculated to give me nobler ideas of the sex than those you blame me for holding!"
"I suppose not," he said, gently. "You are bound to be distrustful, and distrust breeds resentment. I hope, however, you are not going to quarrel with me. I absolutely decline to be placed on the Index Expurgatorius of yours."
I looked at him searchingly, and he bore the scrutiny with calmness.
"You have been very kind," I said. "I certainly have no reason to quarrel with you. My life is cold and empty enough. I have no friends. I cut myself adrift from love and sympathy. It is winter with me where it should be spring. Winter within and without my soul."
"I cannot bear to hear you speak so hopelessly," he said.
"I speak only as I feel. I don't know why I have told you this. Perhaps I shall be sorry for it to-morrow."
"You need not. No thought of mine wrongs you. Your eyes have kept their innocence. No sin has spoiled your soul. Don't repent your confidence. I know how to respect it. Treat me just as you wish, but let us be friends. You are not strong enough yet to stand alone, and the fight has only begun."
I sighed wearily. I was very tired. The strain of feeling and excitement began to make itself felt.
He looked at me again.
"You are very pale," he said. "I suppose you have had nothing to eat, and been living on your nerves. Oh, you irrational women! Let me advise you to go to the ladies' dining-room of some restaurant, have a plate of good strong soup, a chop, and a glass of wine. Otherwise you'll break down to-night. I'd take you and see you obeyed me only I can't leave chambers for the next two hours. Will you do this?"
I remembered I had had no lunch; nothing since my roll and cup of tea in the morning.
"Yes," I said, rising from my seat, "I think it is very sensible, and I have no wish to break down to-night."
I suddenly thought of Ernst Elderhof's visit and the singing lessons. I told him about the occurrence.
"Elderhof is a good boy, and a genius, too. Clean-souled and honest as the day. He'll get you on, and we shall see you at the top of the tree soon. Of course, make any use you wish of my room and the piano. I wish it was a better instrument. By the way, one of the dailies gives you a notice about that little bit. I hope it will do you good."
"It will make the other girls very spiteful."
"That—you must of course expect. Every chorus girl nurses a private ambition, and sees herself a future prima donna. You need not pay any attention to them. I'm sure you'll rise speedily from their ranks. Voices like yours aren't heard every day."
This was very encouraging and very pleasant. We shook hands and parted then; and I went back to the Strand and found my restaurant, and had a good meal, according to Mr. Ericson's advice, and felt all the better for it. Then I went home and rested myself for the ordeal of my second appearance.
I meet many black looks, and hear many disagreeable remarks in the dressing-room when it gets known that the musical composer has altered my few bars into quite a little melody. He is conducting the music at present, but he is not going on tour with us. The piece seems to have "caught on," and the manager is pleased with his venture.
Meanwhile I keep eyes and ears open, and try to gain hints as to "business" from all sources. I have no doubt that from the front of the house it looks the easiest thing possible to move, gesticulate, dance, smile, or laugh as the various requirements of stage parts demand. But in reality it is extremely difficult. Gesture is apt to be stiff, or stilted, the laugh and the smile, the expressive movements, the walk, the position, the modulation of the voice, all these are matters of constant study.
I am fortunate, or unfortunate, in having gained the interest of two potent factors in theatrical success, the stage manager and the composer of the opera. The one gives me many valuable hints on the art of acting, and the other conducts my musical education with a zeal and enthusiasm which surprise me. I love music passionately, and the improvement in my voice is an endless delight.
Ernst Elderhof is a born musician. Yet, sorely against his will, he has had to sacrifice art to popularity in order to win a place among modern composers. The first opera he wrote, and the score of which he has played to me, was on grand lines. It cost him two years' incessant labour—a year for each act. No one would produce it. In a fit of petulance he vowed he would be heard, and wrote down to the British level of "tuneyness," airs that catch the ear, and are certain of "piano-organ popularity," choruses that jingle with the swing of a dance measure, ballads for the tenor and soprano that allow of eye-lifting to the centre chandelier, of "tip-toe" expression, of quavering "tremolo," and that shrieking termination on a high note which seems to delight the musical public.
The tenor's throbbing appeal to the gallery, and the soprano's tuneless shriek at the end of her aria never fail to bring the house down, and win encores which more often than not the composer accepts with a frowning brow and an expression which speaks volumes of his own private opinion.
But the opera runs smoothly on. It is a medley of nonsense, its light comedy becomes buffoonery in the hands of a "popular" comedian, whose mannerisms have never varied from the first hour he faced the footlights. But he is dear to the gods and the pittites, and their approval spells success for a piece. He is as great a favourite behind the scenes as before, but, candidly, I hate him.
I am not popular with the company. I feel that more and more every day. They call me "The Duchess," which may be flattering, but has its drawbacks. Some of them have left me in no doubt of their opinion on my art of "sneaking into favour." A girl who has never appeared on the stage before and is given every opportunity of displaying voice or figure is almost a criminal in their opinion.
However, I go on my way and sing my thirty bars every night with more or less nervousness, and watch keenly the girl I am to understudy, between whom and myself exists an incipient antagonism.
Since the day of our talk in the Temple Gardens I have not spoken to Mr. Ericson. I see him sometimes in the house, and I hope he is learning to appreciate the comedian's "improvements" of his part. It bears less and less resemblance to its original form. The lines are so cut and altered, and the part is so full of "gag," which again is never two nights the same, that the author must be in doubt as to who really wrote it.
However, the days come and go, and the piece runs merrily on, and I devote all my spare time to hard study. I watch the principals and spend hours in my own room, trying to imitate the tricks and mannerisms necessary to convey the meaning of the stage to an ignorant audience. At least that is what this elaborate exaggeration seems to mean.
No one is natural. No one moves, laughs, weeps, listens, faints, or dies, or, in fact, does anything on the stage as they would do it in real life. It seems to me absurd and ridiculous, but I am told it must be done, and the audience seem to like it, judging from their applause. So I make up my mind to follow conventional lines lest I should seem conceited or desirous of teaching the public any new lesson when they are apparently content with what they have already learnt. Perhaps some day—but no, that is far in the future. Let it remain so.
* * * * * *
The manager, Mr. Leverson, complimented me to-night on my quickness and capability. He told me to take care of my voice. It was well worth it. "If you get on," he said, "I hope to offer you a London engagement in a year or two. I'll keep my eye on you in the meantime. You want experience, but you'll pick that up in the provinces soon enough."
He smiled somewhat meaningly. I thanked him. He is a person of great importance, for the manager of a theatre is a king supreme in his own kingdom, and his subjects are the most submissive and abject in the world. I should have been better pleased if he had contented himself with these remarks, but he began a string of personalities which were very coarse, and led me to regret that "chorus girl" was the present advertisement of my costume. My natural indignation was apparently so very far removed from my position that he could not understand it.
I tried to make it plain. He called me a "silly little fool," and advised me to get rid of such "thin-skinned nonsense" with as little delay as possible.
I dressed and came home too enraged for once to feel fatigued. My simple meal seemed to choke me. The scales had fallen from my eyes with a vengeance, and I saw my position clearly. I could be kept in the background all my life by underhand means. To be unpopular in the profession spelt failure, especially at the very outset of a career. There was nothing to prevent Mr. Leverson cutting out my little solo and relegating me to the back ranks of chorus only, nothing to prevent him cancelling my engagement for the tour. He was all powerful. I had neither money nor influence, and I had offended him.
* * * * * *
I threw down my pen here, put away my journal, and went to bed more miserable and more hopeless than when I had first come to this great city to seek fortune at the hands of agents and managers.
* * * * * *
Three days have passed. I am hoping I alarmed myself unnecessarily. I have seen Mr. Leverson once or twice, but a curt nod was his only recognition. Meanwhile I am feeling more at home with my work, and (according to Ernst Elderhof) singing my thirty bars better every night.
His lessons are of immense advantage to me, and I am learning the part of Paulette for the tour under his directions. I wonder if by any chance I shall ever play it. The girl who is to do it is very pretty, and acts well, but has no voice worth speaking of. She says her throat is delicate, and she is constantly catching cold. On the principle that one person's misfortune is another's benefit I may hope for that "happy chance" to turn up.
* * * * * *
Mr. Leverson spoke to me again to-night. I was standing at a corner of the wings, watching Paulette, when he came up.
"Elderhof tells me you play that part a great deal better than Miss Tancredi," he said, abruptly. "Come round here to-morrow at eleven, and I'll hear you go through it."
I was astonished. I stammered consent, of course, wondering if he had forgiven or forgotten our little scene. He made no allusion to it, at all events. That he should wish to hear me do the part augurs well. Perhaps he intends to give it to me for the tour. I was so elated that my companions in the dressing-room noticed it, and commenced making sarcastic remarks. I only laughed good-humouredly. They had been at the business so long, and no chance had favoured them! A little spite was excusable.
One of my chief difficulties had been the art of painting and whitening my face, and doing up my eyes so as to meet the exigencies of the footlights. It was so easy to overdo it, and so hard to decide whether what looked all right in the dressing-room would be effective under limelight and gas. I watched the others closely, but could never make up my mind to use grease paint and rouge and eye black as lavishly as they deemed necessary. They used to call me "whitewash;" but as I heard no complaint from any other quarter I concluded I was presentable enough from the house. The manager, I knew, used to go to all parts to see how the stage looked, and had singled out one or two girls for rebuke in the matter of attire, or exaggerated make-up. I should not have escaped had there been necessity for fault-finding.
My unusual good temper to-night led to audible surmises that something was up. I gave them no satisfaction, however. It would have been all over the place in no time had I said I was going to rehearse "Paulette" for the manager's opinion.
As I left the theatre by the now familiar stage door I was surprised to find Mr. Ericson waiting. It was raining heavily, and I had no umbrella. He came forward as I sheltered hesitatingly in the doorway.
"Let me take you home," he said. "I have a hansom here."
I accepted the offer with delight. It was too welcome to be refused. We bowled swiftly along through the wet streets, and he chatted in his frank and friendly fashion. He was interested in my success and more hopeful of my future than I was myself. We talked of Elderhof, and he told me of his struggles and difficulties, of their long friendship, beginning at Heidelberg in student days and resumed in London. Of how they had worked at this opera together and what difficulties had beset its production. He made no allusion to our last conversation in the Temple Gardens, nor to that impetuous confession I was now inclined to regret.
I felt instinctively that he was too chivalrous to take advantage of such a confession, even by reference. I knew he was a different sort of man to Cyril Grey, and it struck me that in classifying men as a "sex" I might have made a mistake. The feeling of trust and rest and safety with which his companionship impressed me was an intense relief after the insults of the theatre.
When we reached our lodging he helped me out of the cab and wished me good-night. I ran up to my own room with a grateful remembrance of his courtesy. How unlike most men he was! No forcing of unwelcome attentions, no intrusion. Nothing but that simple helpful friendliness.
I slept well, and dreamt that I was acting Paulette before a London audience, and a crowded house, and that a great personage threw me a bouquet from a box. I lifted the flowers to my face, and then dropped them with a cry of horror, for out of them darted a thin black snake, whose forked tongue shot out at me.
I woke cold and trembling. The sun was shining into my room, and the welcome sound of Emma's housework banished the effects of this nightmare-like vision.
Punctually to the moment I was on the deserted stage of the theatre. The orchestra was practising some new music under the direction of a very youthful conductor. A few carpenters and scene painters were about. As yet Mr. Leverson had not appeared.
The sheeted space of the empty house looked misty in the gloom. The stage itself bore the usual murky, dingy appearance made familiar now by many rehearsals. As I stood listening to the waltz and watching the juvenile conductor with some amusement, Elderhof appeared. I greeted him with delight. I had feared I was to trust myself to the long-haired boy, whose beat was faulty, and who suffered agonies of nervousness.
"You are in good time," said my German friend. "You have the part? Ja, that is goot! You must do me, what you call, credit. Ah, mein Gott! What does that man do with that valse? How can he take such a tempo!"
He glared at the boy, and waved his hand in quick imperative fashion.
"Excuse, but zat is wrong. You have ze tempo in ze wrong place. It should be zo: 'La, la, la-la, la, la, la!"
He hummed a few bars, while the orchestra ceased their interpretation to listen.
"I wish you'd take them through once, Mr. Elderhof," suggested the boy meekly. "You see I'm new at this sort of thing."
"New! Ah! that needs not to say," laughed Elderhof. "But you must learn. You must do your best. It is not my work, this. Ah! here comes Herr Leverson. We go to turn you away now, my young vriend. I want ze piano."
Leverson had appeared. He shook hands with us, and informed me that he had only a short time to spare, and hoped I was ready.
Elderhof jumped into the orchestra, and opened the piano. Mr. Leverson passed round at the back into the stage box, and I, trembling and nervous, and horribly conscious of the difficulties of singing and acting alone in this great empty space, awaited the signal for Paulette's entrance.
My first lines were almost inaudible, but the music gave me courage, and I dashed into the bright catchy melody of the village girl's song with all the courage I could summon.
She had two songs, a long recitative, a part in a quartette, and some rather good dialogue. The latter I read, as I could not act it alone. Mr. Leverson never interrupted or made any comment until I had finished. Then he leant forward in his box.
"A great deal better," he said, "than I expected. Certainly it's the very thing for your voice. Well, you must wait your chance. If Miss Tancredi isn't a success, you can have the part. But you must conquer your nervousness, especially in speaking. Your voice is unequal, and your gestures stiff."
He left the box and came round to the stage. Elderhof vaulted lightly from the piano chair over the footlights, and shook me warmly by the hand.
"Good! Very good! Excellent! Your voice rings well in zis space. I could not hear Paulette more better sung. Zat leetle Mess Tancredi she have no power, no force, no expression. Then also she have no chest notes. You have ze production; it come straight, full; ze chest and lungs open, through ze lips. Good! Good! Sehr gut. Ah! Herr Leverson, keep vat you cal ze eye on zis young lady. She will be worth much one day, not so far off. When she learn also to act. It will come all in good time. I am not often mistaken."
Leverson paced to and fro, his arms behind him, his eyes roving from Elderhof's face to mine.
"Ah! well," he said at last, "time will show. This tour is a good chance for her. Then we'll see."
He took out his watch, glanced at it, then at me.
"Come and have lunch with me," he said: "and we'll talk things over."
I coloured hotly. I did not wish to go, but also I hardly liked to refuse. It would look so prudish. Half-consciously I glanced at Elderhof.
"A good idea!" he exclaimed eagerly. "Lunch! I, too, am hungry. We will all go lonching. Vere shall it be? Has Mees Dering any choice?"
"None," I said, oblivious to Leverson's scowl.
I could have hugged that dear little German.
To-morrow we start on tour with the "Isle of Consequences," and to-night Ericson and Elderhof invited some of the company to a farewell supper after the performance. I was asked also.
It was very pleasant. Just Bohemian enough to hold the charm of freedom and unconventionality without degenerating into licence. Ina Fancourt (the girl who is to take the principal part on tour) was not the same who had performed it at the Eden. I liked her very much. She was clever, and, best of all, gave herself no airs. Of all my stage companions she was the only one with whom I felt at ease or could make a friend of. Harold Ericson was a delightful host, full of fun and good humour. He singled no one out for special attention, and he listened to the inevitable "shop" of the profession with an expression of the keenest interest.
Elderhof, under the influence of champagne, was exquisitely comical, and mixed idioms, tenses, and expressions in a bewildering fashion. He was not to accompany us. He is at work on another opera, less frivolous than the present. He assured me I should have a part in it, and Ina Fancourt also. This was very reassuring, and led us to hope our absence from London would not be a long one.
Ericson came home with me after supper. He stopped the cab at the end of the street, and we walked slowly up and down in the clear moonlight. He gave me much good advice, many valuable hints. He warned me that the life I had chosen might soon disgust and annoy me; that I should be beset by more temptations and dangers than in any other vocation.
I laughed grimly. "Do you suppose I don't know that?" I said. "It didn't take long to discover that actors and actresses live a life of their own, in a world of their own. They care surprisingly little for what goes on in the world around them, and seem to interest themselves in nothing that is unconnected with the personality or success of stage life."
"Life is no longer a sealed book to me. I am not afraid to read its pages."
"I wish you were," he said earnestly. "Or rather, I wish the evil ones might be shut away from your eyes. And this brings me to what I want to say to you. Don't get bitter; don't get hard. Don't let one unfortunate experience blunt your feelings. There is much good in life, as well as much harm. There are clean-souled men, even as there are evil ones. Your instincts are your best guide I am sure. Only when I look at you, so young, so friendless, so beautiful——"
He stopped abruptly once more. I felt annoyed and a little impatient. I failed to see what right he had to lecture me.
"You are very good to give me all this advice," I said, "but indeed I can take care of myself. I am not afraid. For one thing, I hate all men, when I don't despise them. It is fortunate that I am thrown into a life which makes either alternative easy, is it not?"
"I hope," he said gently, "that that very sweeping denunciation does not include me. I assure you my friendship is absolutely disinterested. Were you my sister, I could not feel a warmer interest nor a keener desire to surround you with all care and consideration. Can you look upon me as a friend—trust me as one—appeal to me, or consult me in any difficulty? I solemnly assure you you shall never have cause to repent it."
There was such a ring of earnestness in his voice that I felt he meant every word he said. I looked up at him under the light of the gas lamps. The grave face, the kind soft eyes were eloquent of real feeling. He held out his hands, and I placed mine in them, and for a moment we stood there looking into each other's faces. A wave of bitterness swept over my heart. I found myself saying, "Had Cyril been as this man, what a different fate would have been mine at this present moment."
"Say you will trust me," he said, bending slightly towards me.
"Yes," I answered. "I think I can, and I will."
"Thank you." He dropped my hands. We said nothing more, but turned and walked to our own dwelling. He opened the door, and I wished him good-night. I think I heard a "God bless you, child," under his breath, as I ascended the dark and narrow stairs to my own room.
* * * * * *
Again I finish a record. Again I close a page of my life. I have found work. I have accomplished independence. I have gained a friend. No bad things any of these, and a brief space of time has sufficed to achieve them.
The sense of blank indifference has left me, and even suffering has lost its sharp sting. I turn my thoughts to what "may be" with something of hopefulness. I fancy success winning me friends, and forgiveness too, when courage leads me back to those I so recklessly deserted.
For long I have schooled myself to forget them, but to-night my thoughts will go back to the old home, the old love, the happy safe protection that yet could not guard me from one subtle tempter.
I feel the tears rise, and I do not check them. Something softer and gentler is within my soul to-night than it has held for long miserable months.
"So long as I close my heart, so long as I do not let myself feel anything, I shall conquer difficulties," I tell myself. "But if once again I grow tender of soul God help me!"
* * * * * *
How long have I been sitting here, staring at this blotted page, living over and over again a spring time of joy and delight, the hopes and fears of dawning passion, the utter self-forgetfulness of a girl's first love? I lost myself in a dream. I wake to frenzy.
"Do you know what you have done?" I cry to my betrayer. "Murder! Murder! Of trust, innocence, hope!"
I paced to and fro. I lived once more those hateful hours and days and months in Cornwall, when I was blind to Nature's kindly beauty, and Despair tempted me to death! Why had I chosen to live? Why given myself and my secret to the mercies of Chance? There lay the wrong, for ever in the background. There stood my accuser, the innocent life I had branded with shame. The veil of apparent forgetfulness was rent in a moment like a filmy cobweb. Crushed, abased, horror-struck, I lived another hour of agonised remembrance.
Something whispered: "He may die young. A child's life is a frail thing. He may never live to know the secret of his birth." The whisper held the mockery of a fiend's voice, for I knew that what is expedient is often criminal in design if not in deed!
* * * * * *
I am calm now. I must put this book away and try to get some sleep. The dawn is here already. Grey, cold, shadowy, creeping in through the closed blinds, chilling me with its ghostly presence. The grey dawn, colourless as my own life.
Sorrow has no speech. I take myself and my broken heart and my aching memories to the Land of Dreams.
Down at Penharva the old dim house lay in its accustomed gloom. No change of season or of time looked welcome through those closed windows. No sunshine ever brightened the dull dreariness of the rooms.
Yet a young life grew and throve within, and waxed strong and beautiful as the months slipped by. The pattering feet, the lisping tongue, the pretty laughter of babyhood, chased away the shadows of depression, gave imperative summons at closed doors, and changed the brooding horrors of a morbid life into passive endurance, that in time might reach forgetfulness.
The throb of the mother-heart wakes sometimes in a forlorn breast that actual motherhood has left unblessed. A child's hand holds a magic key that unlocks the stoniest door, be the bars of wrong and grief never so strong.
The down on the baby head had thickened into curls, the helpless limbs grown strong and independent, the cooing tongue expressive, the indefinite nature a thing of character and self-will tempered by excessive sweetness. A happy content in trifles made life full of delightful surprises, and the change from passive to active existence was one brilliant kaleidoscope to those blue deep eyes.
It was a strange life for a child, a life holding nothing akin to its own youth, its own intelligence. Of motherhood it knew nothing, but Nature is human enough for those that trust and love her, and the flowers and the trees, the birds and insects, the sunlight and twilight, the dawns and sunsets, had all a part in educating and companioning this lonely little mortal.
And what better teachers could dawning intelligence desire than the flute-like carols of birds' thanksgivings, the kiss and warmth and glory of the life-giving sun, the mystery of twilight with its shadowy changes, the glitter and dazzle of stars, as one by one they crept from their mystic hiding-place to gem a space of sky on which a wide-seated window looked. From that seat the wondering eyes watched those beautiful lights gleam and glow in widening belts of glory. Often when the old woman who tended him was asleep the child would creep out and lift the blind and gaze untiringly at the sky with its starry host, and the baby brain wove its own fancies about them before ever the tongue's quaint speech could question their nature or import.
The flowers spoke to him, the leaves whispered weird stories of forest and wood, of storm that wrecked and sun-light that wooed. The grass amidst which his unsteady steps first stumbled, was full of life and wonder and delights, its every blade a thing of joy as it danced and waved to the wind's behest.
The little life was beautiful as a dream in its simplicity, and that trustful
Familiar clasp of things divine"
only possible to childhood, and that childhood one sacred to Nature's teaching and development.
Hints of this development, brief comments on growth and intelligence, went forth from time to time, gladdening his mother's heart, but stabbing it with ever-recurrent remorse for what seemed like neglect. But it was an inevitable neglect.
The profession Dolores had adopted proved very exacting. She had rarely more than a week's freedom from tours, rehearsals, performances, and the routine of theatrical education which was fitting her for a higher branch of the profession.
Brief visits at long intervals, and those visits conducted with the greatest secrecy, had been all she could spare from her arduous tasks. Her first long holiday, which was to last a month, was to introduce her to a comparative stranger. To something intelligent and independent, something as enchanting as it was companionable, something on which her passionate love could expend itself freely, something which made that tireless delight of "giving" a pleasure uninfluenced by any thought of duty.
The season was over. She had kept August free for once, declining all offers for tours, and resolved to wait a London engagement which had been half promised, and to secure which she had tried very hard.
She wanted the principal part in a new comic opera. It was one of those brilliant amusing medleys made fashionable by Paris. She knew the composer, and his influence was thrown into the scale. The music suited her to perfection. The acting part presented really more difficulties than the vocal. But she had studied assiduously in those three years, and felt little fear of her powers should she get the engagement. Meanwhile, pending the important decision, she resolved to visit the Cornish retreat sacred to the secret of her girlhood.
She had learnt of her father's death. She knew of her sister as a star in the fashionable firmament. But it seemed to her she had drifted far away from them all. Those few actual years of separation had been so filled with incidents, anxiety and excitement, that they represented half a life time.
She marvelled often that she looked so young still. It seemed that the passage of time should have branded her even as her own feelings and experience had done. Of the feelings of youth she had practically none. The life of the stage is a liberal education, and leaves few illusions behind. If a woman cannot rely on her own strength and fortitude it will not help her.
The word "actress" from time immemorial has had a fascinating sound about it. A sound of temptation, of allurement, of Delilah-like snares, and sensuous attraction. Beauty secures a wide field for display, a magnificent advertising ground, and all the aid that art can lend to natural charms. Great genius may uplift her far above the head of talent, or wealth, or beauty, but genius is a thing distinct from the world, and the world never has, and never will, understand it. So it comes that the stage has a life and a law of its own, with which no mere outsider may intermeddle. Its language and its habits are things apart from the routine of domesticity. It cannot be hampered by conventional scruples, or weighted with social obligations. It soon discovers that illusions are a sentimental inconvenience. All this Dolores had found out quickly enough, and if the discovery created a natural disgust it also quickened suspicion, and sharpened her wits.
Dolores made no secret of her own reason for entering the profession. It was business pure and simple, and as such she persisted in treating it. Hard work, constant study, untiring zeal were bound to win their destined end, and she resolved they should win it.
She might have reached the end in half the time had she chosen to accept outside assistance, but neither ambition nor despondency could render her self-forgetful. She kept wrong and right strictly defined. There was no medium course to tread. She won a great deal of ridicule, raised no small amount of enmity, but also gained a grudging sort of respect even from her would-be protectors.
Still she felt convinced that it would be a hard battle to win her way to the front, or oust even the least of those "popular" favourites.
The only influence she could bring to bear upon her claims was her own talent and the friendship of two men. One, a barrister, who dallied prettily with journalism and had written two or three libretti for comic opera, the other a musician who had won a success d'estime with opéra bouffe, and whose new piece of work was about to be heard in the forthcoming season at a West End theatre. If she appeared in the title role of this opera her fame would be secured. The music had been written with a view to her doing so. It suited her voice to perfection, and the composer had sent her fragments from time to time that she might keep pace with his own work.
Unfortunately, however, the manager of a theatre has more to do with the engaging of a company than the individual who supplies the entertainment for that company. Dolores had had some previous acquaintance with this manager, and had turned a deaf ear to various little pleasantries on his part. She hardly expected he would give her such an important engagement as she desired, but hope dies hard in the young and aspiring, and she came to Penharva full of it.
The journey from London had been made in company with one fellow passenger, a lady, who seemed somewhat curious as to the girl's affairs and destination. She was pleasant enough, and inclined to be friendly, but Dolores resented her attempts at acquaintanceship and was almost ungracious. They were both bound for Penzance.
As the train ran into the terminus Dolores caught sight of a face that startled her into a momentary dread of recognition. It was the face of her Aunt Sarah, and she had apparently come to meet the girl's fellow traveller. The fact of her being in the same neighbourhood, within a certain number of miles of that mysterious house of Penharva, alarmed Dolores not a little. It was possible they might meet—that she would be recognised. In that case what was she to say? How explain her long absence, her cruel silence, or her presence here? These tormenting thoughts filled her mind all through the long drive that led to her destination.
The sun had long set when she reached the place at which she always left the carriage. Here old Peter Pasco, Miss Penharva's serving man, awaited her and took her travelling bag. She never encumbered herself with much luggage on the occasion of her visits, knowing the mystery that enshrouded this drear abode, and in obedience to the wishes of its strange mistress.
The steep road or track leading down the cliff side was almost in darkness. The old man had grunted a surly greeting, then stumbled on ahead, leaving the girl to follow as she best could.
The house lay in its dark setting of tree and cliff, untouched by change, unillumined from within. The old man took a lantern from its hook by the gate and lit it. Then he led the way across the untrimmed lawn and weed-grown paths to the door.
Here he left the girl, who was admitted by his wife, from whom she received a somewhat kindlier welcome.
"Would 'ee go to the mistress when thee'st rested and had summat to eat?" said the old woman as she followed her up the stairs.
"I must see the child first, before I eat, or rest, or anything. How is he, Ruth ?"
"He be just fitty," said the dame, her grim face lighting and a smile softening her lips. "A fine, bould cheeld, and pooty as a posy, and makin' good use of his tongue, as 'tis only natiral."
The girl ran across the corridor impatiently, and entered the room she always occupied. In one corner stood a little iron cot. Its small occupant lay there sound asleep, his golden curls like floss silk upon the pillow, his dimpled fists doubled up on the white quilt. She stood and gazed at him in wonder. He was so grown, so altered, she could scarcely believe he was the same.
As she stood there, breathless and almost awestruck by this beauty and development, the door softly opened and another figure entered and came up to the girl's side.
Dolores started. "Miss Penharva—you!" she cried.
"I heard your step. I came to welcome you. Somehow, child, I miss you more and more. Or, perhaps, he has humanised me. I cannot tell. You will hardly know him. He talks and prattles so prettily, and he is so strong and well. How soundly he sleeps. We must not disturb him."
"Did he know I was coming?"
"No, I told him nothing. He may not even remember you. It is a year since you were here."
"Yes, a year. Naturally he would not remember. A child's memory is short."
She turned away, a touch of the old heart-ache troubling her previous joy. Wondering, she gazed at her benefactress. Humanised? Indeed she was! Her long wild locks were smoothly coiled, her dress in its nun-like simplicity seemed admirably adapted to her tall spare figure. Her eyes had lost their fierceness, and her face had gained flesh and colour.
She made a gesture of silence as Dolores was about to speak.
"Not here," she said, "not now. Our voices might waken him. Come to me after you have supped. I have much to say to you."
And she glided from the room as noiselessly as she had entered.
"Now tell me everything," said Miss Penharva, as Dolores joined her in her own room half an hour later, refreshed by strong tea and one of old Ruth's famous Cornish pasties. The girl glanced round as she took a seat by the fire. It seemed to her the room looked less gloomy, even as its mistress seemed less austerely eccentric.
There were bowls of flowers and bright-hued berries on table and mantelshelf. There was a huge Noah's ark in one corner, a tiny chair, some gay-covered picture books. A change indeed from the dreary chamber where they had first made acquaintance.
"By everything, do you mean the events of this past year?" asked Dolores.
"Yes. Have you got on? Do you still like the life?"
"I like it, and I dislike it," she answered. "The stage would be all very well if it were not for the people who are connected with it."
Miss Penharva smiled grimly. "That might be said of many professions and occupations, I fancy."
Dolores agreed and gave a rapid account of her doings, struggles, and successes during the past twelve months. She ended up with the expression of that cherished hope respecting the London engagement, and mentioned some of its attendant difficulties.
Miss Penharva listened eagerly.
"It must be done," she said. "I have set my mind on your success. You deserve it. You have worked hard, and you have proved yourself capable of heroism and endurance. You refused my assistance once, but you must waive pride now. I have no influence, but I have wealth, and this man, what do you call him?—Leverson?—is not above the racial weakness of his kind, I suppose. He will give you the part if it is made worth his while."
"That I don't doubt," said the girl, bitterly. "But I should hate to feel that I owe my place to money, not my own worth."
"Don't be foolish, child. In this world we get what we desire less by merit than by luck. I have left you entirely to yourself hitherto, because I respected your independence. You have come out of the conflict bravely. The fight has lasted long enough. It is time you had some reward. But first—look me straight in the eyes. Now the truth. Has there been any man—any fancy or foolishness all this time?"
The scorn of the girl's flashing eyes was answer enough. "Never!" she cried. "Never for one single instant. Surely, you don't suspect me to be capable of a second folly?"
"You are young. You have a fair face. You are thrown amongst constant temptations."
"Say that I have no heart; that what may seem tempting to others has for me no meaning."
"No heart? Perhaps it only sleeps. It may wake again."
"It will never wake," said the girl firmly. "It has lost all sentiment, softness, belief. If it loves one earthly thing it is that small atom of humanity yonder."
A faint quiver came over the watchful face. "He is worth your love. He has a charm, a grace, a way of winning hearts." She glanced around, and her lips curved into smiles. "You see there are traces of presence even here. I haven't the power to deny him entrance. He has made life less lonely, more human. You will understand better what I mean to-morrow."
"He can really talk?"
"Oh! yes. And quite intelligibly. And he is so well and healthy and always even-tempered. A quaint creature, but inexpressibly winning."
"He has grown fairer. He is not like me," said the mother, sighing.
"You are sorry for that? To me it matters nothing. It is he—himself, who has the charm. By the way, what do you intend to call him? You evaded registration. In this out-of-the-way place it doesn't matter. His existence is unknown beyond our walls. But he should have a name. You must think of one."
"I can't fancy him of such importance yet. Only the other day he was a tiny, helpless mite."
"He is not helpless any longer."
"Does he call you anything?" asked the girl, faintly.
"Oh! he gave me a name of his own. You know Ruth Pasco always calls me Miss Ursy, and he twisted it into 'Mis'ry,' and 'Mis'ry' I am to him. I never rebuke the little tongue. There might have been less appropriate names to hit upon than that."
"You look less unhappy than you did," said the girl, gently.
"I look what I am then, and I owe it to him. There is a magic in his pretty voice, in his clinging hands, in his deep wistful eyes."
"Oh! to keep him a child always—always!" cried the mother, passionately. She clasped her hands and leant forward, the firelight gleaming on her bright hair and flushed cheeks. "There is a thought that tortures me," she went on. "I can't get away from it. He will grow up. He will want to know who he is—why he is here—in what relation we stand to one another—and then——"
The flush died out of the fair young face and left it ashy white. "Oh!" she went on. "If he should despise me, hate me! What a Nemesis awaits me in the future."
"He will be a man," she said, bitterly. "And he is the son of a coward and a hypocrite. Can stronger virtues outlive that heritage?"
"It may pass him by. A child need not inherit his father's nature. A thousand things may discipline and teach him. Give him woman's training and woman's influence. Then let him stand forth as their champion."
"It would be glorious, if it might be," said the girl, breathlessly, her eyes on the kindling face, so strangely different to the passive mask of old.
"It shall be, if you choose. Leave it to me. I will mould him, discipline, teach him as I think fit. Had he been a girl, she might have avenged our wrongs in another way; but as it is I am not sure we have not a better weapon to our hand."
Her face whitening under strong emotion was startling in its new aspect of resolve. Dolores gazed at her, fascinated and repelled. Yet something in the scheme attracted her. It might be possible to revenge their joint wrongs in years to come if they could rear and train a spirit that would defeat the injustice of man and bear witness against his villainy.
Miss Penharva saw her face change, and the fire die out of her expression.
"What is it?" she asked.
But the girl remained staring into vacancy, her brain trying to steady itself amidst the shifting sands of many troubled thoughts.
Presently she spoke. Her voice was tired, like her face.
"It must be your work, not mine. My life claims so much, and if I have to choose between those claims and the stagnation of days passed here, you know what my choice must be. For a little time I might endure, but it could not last. I know it. In work alone I find safety, excitement, relief. Inactivity is maddening. I can't exist passively."
"I never expected it. But you need not give up all your time. And as you succeed better you can give less. Your guerdon will be richer. You can choose your hours of leisure as well as of work. There is a home, a resting-place always at your service."
"I wonder why you are so good to me—I, who came to you a stranger, an outcast, under the ban of social degradation. At times it hardly seems credible. It would read like a wild romance."
"There are truths in life that no romance could equal; even as there are sorrows and sins that only the human breast can hide. The misery of my own experience made me pitiful to your extremity. I could not push a drowning sister under the waves of despair. I have felt their strength, their chill, gazed at their inky blackness. If I have done little worth remembering in my paralysed, soul-wrecked life, at least I comfort myself with the thought that one perishing soul owes to me its rescue."
"I owe you—everything," said the girl, hoarsely. She sank on her knees, and hid her face in the folds of the nun-like gown, and a sob shook her slight young frame. "My debt can never be paid. Ask what you will of me. I cannot refuse."
There was a moment's silence, broken only by the fall of the wood ash on the hearth, the tick of the clock in the corridor without. In that silence Dolores heard her answer. "If I ask—your child?"
She lifted her head with a quick, frightened gesture.
"What do you mean?"
"You know my scheme, you agreed to it. But then when nature spoke out to your heart you drew back. I pitied you, young and so forlorn. The child gave you comfort, and I made no claim."
"But as the years go on I see many difficulties. The influence brought to bear on him must be constant; single, not divided. Let him imagine I am his mother. He is fond of me, used to me. I will do everything for him as if he were my own son, but I want his love. I want the authority that springs from close relationship."
The girl was silent. She rose slowly to her feet and stood clasping and unclasping her hands, while her thoughts rocked to and fro on a tide of restless emotions. Waive her rights—let him call another woman mother!
A cold trickle of revulsion chilled the warm flow of her blood. Could she yield her rights to a stranger? Take second place in the child's young heart? Watch him as the years flew on apace giving duty, obedience, love to one who has not Nature's holy rights to them? Could she kill out the mother-sense just beginning to stir her long-stagnant pulse? Her instincts, developed through suffering, warned her of the difficulty yet before her. A vision of ineffable delight floated across her memory; something called up in dark hours of loneliness; something associated with the joy born of pain and agony and dread that makes the martyrdom of motherhood its best reward.
"I—I cannot answer you now," she said. "Not till I have seen him, watched the change in his baby mind. It won't be easy to hear the name I've longed to hear him speak given to an other."
"No sacrifice is easy," said the mistress of Penharva, gloomily. "But it is inevitable sometimes." Her head dropped, her hands clasped themselves in a sudden tremor. "I was starved, dying, for want of some human love. Now new life wells up within this frozen bosom. I feel I could glorify my barren existence under the spell and strength of this feeling. But I am exacting. I want to be first. You asked me how you could repay your debt. I have told you."
Dolores knelt by the little cot and gazed at the face of her sleeping child. She had been living over again that interview, with its strain of suppressed passion, and its strange request. In this year of absence the links had evidently strengthened between a lonely woman and a budding life. The mother had been keen to notice the change, and its cause had puzzled her until that demand had sounded both claim and defiance. Now she took counsel with her own heart, and asked herself what was the best course to pursue.
There had been a time when the possibility of shelving her difficulties on to the shoulders of another would have filled her with thankfulness; but then she had been wild with terror, distraught with frenzy at her inability to combat life's manifold problems. Now, the years had brought calmness and wisdom, and Nature had spoken to her out of the anguish of her soul.
"To deny my motherhood!" she repeated to herself as she knelt there beside the little unconscious form, "to put myself out of his life, to see tenderness and duty given to another and stand silently by—ought I to do it? Can I do it?"
She rose, and stood silently there, her hands pressed against her temples. Prudence whispered worldly counsel to her, showed her the work and ambitions of her life, pointed out how much easier it would be to live it unhampered by responsibility. Against such counsel she held only the argument of a foolish fancy that had beguiled lonely moments.
But a child soon ceases to be a child. This boy would need education, companionship, freedom. If she took him with her she would only have to part with him to strangers. She could not expect him to put up with restless changes, the long absences, the discomforts, shifts, and annoyances inseparable from theatrical life. In this safe shelter he would be well cared for, and she could still visit him when she pleased. Only she must not ever confess their relationship.
"It is odd that she should wish that," the girl thought, as she turned away at last and began to undress. "But I owe everything to her. She has a right to make conditions."
Her sleep was troubled. Sometimes the child moved, but he never woke. It was full daylight when she opened her eyes after a restless doze, and found him sitting up in his cot, gazing curiously at herself.
She, too, rose and stretched out eager arms.
"Baby," she cried, "come to me."
But the child only stared, with wide-eyed wondering gaze. He had forgotten her.
She came over to the cot and talked and coaxed, but won never a word, only the shy turning aside of a golden head, the droop of unkissable lips that refused to be cajoled. A sense of bitterness and anger stole over her. Her longings and thoughts during the past year seemed such wasted foolish things. She had remembered so much but he nothing.
She went back to bed, seeing that persuasion was no use, and lay resting against the pillows watching to see what he would do. He seemed to have a morning programme of his own, which he began to carry out.
He clambered out of his cot with no apparent difficulty, and then ran steadily across the floor to the broad window seat. Here he seated himself, and, raising the blind, gave vent to audible chuckles of delight at the scene without. Birds were chirping in the thick growth of ivy that framed the casement, a rain of sunbeams danced and fluttered through the narrow panes, the sound of the sea was distinctly audible through the opening above, for Dolores never slept with closed casements.
The chuckling ceased, and the child began to talk to himself with a fluency that astonished the listener. He seemed oblivious now of her presence, and took birds and sunshine, and sea and air into his confidence, chattering to and of each in a quick inconsequent fashion, as though they were playmates of long standing.
Dolores listened to his quaint conceits and fluent words with a beating heart. His development amazed her as much as his beauty. He seemed perfectly happy and at home; adjuring the birds, trying to catch the sunbeams, laughing and chuckling as he clambered up and down the wide seat.
She did not attempt to speak, but remained watching his antics until a knock at the door startled her. Old Ruth Pasco entered with some tea for her and a cup of milk for the child.
He ran eagerly to her, and the grim, gnarled old face grew soft and almost tender. She took him on her lap and gave him his milk, and the two chattered loudly, if somewhat unintelligibly.
Then she bathed and dressed the child, and prepared to take him down-stairs. Dolores made another effort at a better understanding. The little fellow, however, clung shyly to the old woman's gown, and refused to make friends with one whom he considered a stranger. Dolores saw it was best to adopt old Ruth's advice and "leave 'ee to 'eezelf." All the same she suffered a pang as she saw him trot off contentedly with the old woman, and absolutely indifferent to her own blandishments.
"I needn't have worried myself," she said, as she threw aside the bedclothes and began her morning toilet. "He has quite forgotten me, and seems perfectly happy. After all, I wonder if the affection between parent and child is only a sentimental idea? If a stranger brought up a child and treated it kindly I believe it would be just as fond of the stranger as of its own mother. Nature doesn't speak to the selfishness of the young half so eloquently as comfort."
While she was dressing she could see the little one playing on the lawn with a large dog for companion. "He certainly is a splendid child," she thought, as she watched his sturdy limbs, his quick movements, and heard his clear voice and merry laugh. "I forgot how changed he must be; I expected to find my toddling baby still. I wonder if this is the answer to my perplexities. I have become a mere nonentity in his life, and I fancied myself all-important."
The bitterness of that disappointment stung her to the quick. It is always in mothers to give so much to gain so little. There was the smart of tears in her eyes as she turned from the open window and fastened her gown, and then went downstairs. The front door was wide open. Brilliant sunshine streamed through and lit up the once gloomy hall with its welcome radiance. Without, the great trees stood in all their bravery of colouring, green and gold of screening leafage decking their boughs right loyally.
She stepped out, and stood there bare-headed, and watched the child and the dog running races together over the grass, waking the long silent echoes with their gleeful noise.
Presently the little fellow stopped, tired out and breathless. She resolved to make another effort at friendliness. She crossed the space between them and held out her hands. He seated himself on the grass with startling abruptness, and put his own behind him. "Who you?" he demanded. "You's not Mis'ry."
Dolores hesitated. Under the circumstances she could not say exactly who she was until she had given her decision to Miss Penharva.
"I've come to play with you," she said. "Don't you remember me?"
He shook his head. It was evident he had no recollection of their previous acquaintance. His restless eyes turned to the dog. "My bow-wow," he informed his mother.
Deeming it as well to make friends through the animal's mediumship, she patted it on the head and murmured words of approbation as to character and virtues. The child watched and listened. Evidently the dog's acceptance of these favours impressed him. He began to chatter. He used so many old expressions and phrases that she had some difficulty in understanding him. Probably he had been a good deal in the Pasco's company.
The ice once broken they grew quite friendly together. He told her quaintly of the birds, and what they said to him morning and evening, of the butterflies he chased, of fairies that lurked in the flower bells, and pixies that danced in the moonlight; of wonderful things that the sea washed up and old Peter Pasco brought him; of how he was to go on the sea in a boat one day when he was big.
It seemed to her his life was full of childish pleasures, some born of vivid imagination and some of the elements that were Nature's prodigal gifts. When he had chattered himself out they went in to breakfast. He usually had his in the kitchen; but old Ruth brought in his chair and set it at the dining-room table opposite his mother.
Dolores could scarcely attend to her own meal for watching and wondering at the small sprite. He ate his bread and milk with the zest of a youthful appetite, and with a speed that lacked somewhat of "company manners." When it was finished he slid down from his chair and trotted off to the door, announcing his intention of "going to Mis'ry."
"But she is in her own room; you mustn't go, it's too early," remonstrated Dolores.
"Always go," he asserted. "Mis'ry never mind boy."
He got the handle turned, opened the door, and went off.
"Well!" exclaimed Dolores; "he seems at home, I must say. I can't understand it. And he's so fearless and knows his own business so decidedly, I see now why Miss Penharva wishes to adopt him. He has evidently won her heart."
She left the room, passed softly through the hall and up the dark oak stairs. The gay chatter of a childish voice sounded distinctly through the closed door of Miss Penharva's room. Dolores hesitated before passing it, but she had not courage to enter without the customary summons. It was odd that the child should be so much at home, and she so strange.
The doubts in her mind began to resolve themselves into a decision. If she had ceased to be anything to the child, why hamper him or herself with a false sentiment of duty? Her absences must be constant and often for long periods. Every such absence would only weaken the tie between them. Better the wrench should be made while he was young and indifferent. If he ever needed her, if a time came when the truth must be told, she would not flinch. Meanwhile it should be as Miss Penharva desired.
She fetched her hat, and went out into the grounds alone. She had taken her part of the new opera with her to study, but her mind that morning refused to concentrate itself on either words or music. She found a seat on the trunk of a fallen tree, amidst the golden wealth of bracken that spread to the cliff's edge. Below rolled the sea in its beautiful bay. She caught its gleam and heard its song. The lulling music soothed her, as did the beauty and the peace of her surroundings. For a time it seemed to her such beauty and such peace were worth all the feverish excitement and successes of her life in the world. "But they could not content me for long," she thought. "Work is the only panacea for trouble. It takes one out of one's own small self; it shows one's unimportance. It deadens thought."
Her eyes wandered dreamily to the tangle of russet and gold, the brilliance of weed and flowers abloom in this warm nook. Life was alert even in the silence of solitude. Gay-winged beetles crawled from unseen hiding places, a group of ants paused over the preparation of winter stores, the birds chirped and twittered self-congratulations over family matters. The details of the scene crept to her brain, and set themselves into a picture, demanding her attention. The book lay unheeded on her lap. She listened to Nature, and let its lulling charm steep her senses as it would.
Once unhappiness had sickened her to all love of life, and dulled her brain and closed her eyes to the magic of the great Earth-Mother. Now youth and hope reasserted themselves. There was something in the future to be achieved, something in the past to outlive. Her pulses quickened, her ambition revived. Again her thoughts centred in the work before her, and the music became as a sentient thing. Its melodies sounded in her ear, and she heard her own voice giving them life and meaning. It was not art at its highest, but it was art in the form of giving one's best and fullest interpretation to another's creation.
When she rose at last from her resting-place her mind was made up. She went straight to Miss Penharva's room, and sought admission.
The child was still there, playing with his toys in a corner. His strange guardian sat in the great chair, her hands folded on her stick, her head bent forward, watching him. But the room was no longer in gloom. The long-closed shutters were thrown back. The window was open to light and air. The glory of sunlight played at will over the child's golden head, and the quaint old-fashioned furniture and china.
Dolores stood on the threshold amazed. What a little thing had wrought this miracle in that strange self-centred life. Only a little child's influence. As she stood there silently, he left his toys and trotted over to the quiet figure and climbed into her lap.
"Misery, tell boy story," he said.
She put one arm round him and looked at his mother. The child's eyes followed her glance.
"Go away along," he commanded. "We's don't want you."
The colour left her face. Her heart gave a quick throb of pain.
"No," she said, "you don't want me. I will go away."
Then she looked straight into the eager eyes, flashing a hungry searching glance at her impassive face.
"I came to tell you, Miss Penharva, that it shall be as you wish."
"You know what I mean. He has forgotten. I am nothing. An affection that would have to be perpetually recalled, that every incident of his life and surroundings would weaken year by year, would be but poor comfort. You have been to him more than I could hope to be. He loves you. I will not coerce or interfere with that love."
Even while she was speaking a childish arm had wandered round that withered neck, a little hand was patting the inattentive face.
"Misery tell boy story," repeated an imperative voice. "Send her away!"
A finger pointed at the doorway. A frown puckered the white brow. Without another word Dolores closed the door and left them there together.
A rain of devouring kisses fell upon the child's face as the door shut them in.
There was something almost terrible in the fierceness and passion of those caresses, that pouring out of long restrained heart-hunger. It frightened and displeased the boy. He pushed aside the strange face, and hid his lips from those eager kisses. His hands beat impatiently against her embracing arms.
She ceased her impulsive caresses, and quieted herself by a violent effort. He settled himself once more in her lap and demanded the story of a two-headed Cornish giant who came to grief under the valiant onslaughts of a bold youth named Jack.
The narrator for once combated his eagerness and made an effort at bargaining. She would tell the story on condition he would try and say something—a mere word. "Boy," as he called himself, demurred, finger to lip, rebellion in his glance. At last he promised an effort, and demanded the new word.
"I want you to say 'mother,'" explained his tyrant.
"What's that—to eat?"
"No, child. Something one calls a person one loves very much."
"I love Misery," he graciously announced. "Is she my—muvver?"
Those clear eyes of heaven's own blue and heaven's own lighting looked eager question into the sombre orbs above, long darkened by sorrow and pain. It was hard to lie to them. Yet she said "yes" with a meaning fuller than many a mother's answer to such an appeal.
Then he acceded to the request, pronouncing it in his own fashion, and adding, "Boy like Misery best."
The story was told with quite new energy after this performance, and was barely concluded when old Ruth came to fetch him to his dinner. He was dismissed with another request, and an injunction not to forget the new title. He had his dinner in the kitchen, and the visitor was served in the dining-room. He perplexed old Ruth by questions as to the nature, species, and qualifications of a "muvver," announcing that "Misery" stood in that relationship to him. She listened in astonishment, wondering what had occurred between her mistress and Dolores. She did not accept the child's statement seriously, neither did she correct it. The wisdom of a silent tongue in any matter she could not understand was a wisdom that had served her in many years of life, and gained her the credit of being unusually knowledgeable.
"There's zummat amiss," she told herself, "and I can't catch un's meaning."
She adored the child, but in a grim, undemonstrative fashion. Endearments and caresses were not in her way, and she marvelled greatly at their appearance in her mistress. It was, however, a new freak if she was to set herself up for mothering this child, sent thither by chance, and evidently constituting himself a permanent guest. She wondered what his real mother thought of it. Probably she did not care. She was young, and pretty, and foolish, and a child meant only a burden to life. Finally she dismissed the little fellow to the garden, with the dog for company, and a large rosy apple for sustenance.
Dolores watched him from the room within. She was hurt and sore at heart. She had understood too little of children to take this desertion as lightly as it deserved, and could not realise that a year's absence at his age meant a lifetime, every month of which had been crowded with incidents and fruitful with dawning intelligence.
She marvelled at his perfect content with his own company. The dog stretched himself lazily under a tree, but the child was never still. He seemed to invent games or amusement out of everything; he kept up an incessant dialogue with himself and some imaginary person, ran races, played with sticks and leaves, hid behind the great myrtle bushes, and then pounced out on his drowsy four-footed friend with a glee that was the spontaneous expression of pure enjoyment.
"He is quite happy," thought the girl bitterly, and then the memory of all he had cost her, of the bitter shame and agony and anguish of that awful time, swept over her soul. This was her reward. She knew not whether to blame Nature or Fate, or herself. All the same, the bitterness was there. There was no sweetness to it, no hope for the future. Her dream of motherhood was as futile as her dream of love. Those vague, beautiful, exquisite feelings were only a fool's imaginings. Life itself was hurt and sore at heart. She knew herself to be loyal, passionate, courageous, but these feelings applied to love had won no return. Her mood recoiled upon herself, and she threw herself into the wide arms of the old leather chair by the fireplace, and sobbed heart-brokenly.
That night she sought Miss Penharva, and found her alone, sitting by the fire, which was always kindled every evening. She took her accustomed chair in silence. The elder woman glanced at her absorbed face and noted its pallor and its new sternness.
"Have you come to tell me your decision?" she asked.
"I told you it this morning."
"In a way, yes. But I must have a written promise or guarantee. I cannot wait on caprice. How do I know that you may not change your mind?"
"I shall not do that," said the girl, wearily. "But have your own way. I am not in a position to make terms. I had no idea when we discussed the matter yesterday that your hold on the child's affection was so strong. It is I who am the stranger, not you."
"You need not grudge me the first pure human love I have ever known. You saw what I was, you see what he has made me. Yet I did nothing to win this affection. It seemed a natural tribute of his childish heart, and——" she paused, and her eyes turned to the fire, "I should have been more than human to resist it," she added softly.
"I think you would," said Dolores, bitterly. "But now what is it you wish? Am I to be a stranger to him always? To stand outside of his life? Is he never to know I am his mother?"
"I have thought that out. It could hardly be possible. A day might come when it would be absolutely necessary to reveal the truth to him. I leave that to your discretion. But now, I am all to him that he needs. He is perfectly content. And I love him as if he were my own. . . Do you remember when I told you I had no heart? I thought so then. It is strange—more strange than you can imagine—to find it is not dead, that all these years of misery could not kill it." She laid her hand against her side, and looked wistfully at the lovely face beside her. "A man struck out its life, a child called it back. You will not grudge me that rebirth, knowing something of what I have endured."
"No," said the girl, "I do not grudge it you. Perhaps I envy you. I hardly know. I have to stand aside and see myself of no account. It comes as a surprise, but I suppose it is only natural. He owes everything to you, why should he not love you best?"
"I will send for Mr. Malpas to-morrow, and he shall arrange everything in proper form," said Miss Penharva. "I must alter my will. I have no near relatives, a few distant cousins, that is all. The child will have everything. I shall simply call him my adopted son. . . . . Oh! the name. We have not decided upon that. What was his father's?"
"Not that—never that," cried the girl, fiercely. "I'll have no memory of that false life shadow this innocent one."
"Have you any choice?"
"None. Why should I care? You had better give him that, as you give him everything."
"I had a brother; he died very young. I scarcely knew him, his name was David. Shall it be that."
"If you wish. It matters little to me."
"Very well, David Penharva he shall be. It is a good name. A name of strength and endurance, and the boy has both. Is he not beautiful, manly, bold! He has never cried nor flinched yet for any accident or pain."
"He is a beautiful child. I hope his nature may accord with his face. It seldom happens."
"It shall happen. He will be so safe, so sheltered, so happy. And the first years count for much. Let Nature be your first love none other will hurt or coarsen her charm. He is a creature of air, and sunlight, of the seasons, the woods, the sea. They all speak to him, and he loves them all. What he learns now no school could ever have taught, and no money could purchase."
Dolores' mind flew back to a happy childhood, a time of liberty and innocent joys, and days glad as sunshine. They had been hers, and she had set little value on them till now on looking backward through the misty valley of trouble she caught their glad reflection.
"You are right," she said, hoarsely. "No money could purchase such a time, let him enjoy it as he will."
Then she rose, but an imploring gesture stayed her. "Don't leave me yet. I have so many lonely hours."
The girl looked surprised. "I thought you liked to be alone."
"Not now, not any longer." She glanced round at the dreary room. "I have let the sunshine in," she said, slowly. "I shall never bar it out again, unless the new love prove as false as the old."
"A child's love is never false," said Dolores, bitterly. "It can't betray, it can't cheat you. In its sincerity lies its worth, for the smile or the kiss can't be bought. If it loves you, its love makes your beauty, your virtues, your merits. You will hold all these for him. What man or woman could so endow you?"
"True," said the old woman, dreamily. "Has life taught you that already?"
"Life—I don't know; Nature, I think; 'tis she makes us mothers, whatever makes us wives."
"And you were such a girl, so young, so ignorant," and the dark piercing eyes gazed curiously into the lovely face. "Yet that small helpless creature taught you all this?"
"Yes, I wonder sometimes at myself."
"Do you ever think you will marry—someone else?"
"Do I think? God forbid! I see so much of men that I can afford to despise them. You can't idealise what you know."
"Your face does not agree with your speech, my child. You will never get men to believe your heart is as cold as your words."
The bitterness of the faint smile that was the girl's only answer spoke eloquently of the uselessness of argument. What the older woman had suffered the younger could avenge, and would do it unsparingly if opportunity offered.
The one life-softening influence withdrawn, who should say what other could take its place!
A long silence followed. Silence filled to the brim with memories and emotions, beside which words would have seemed useless.
The quick living agony of thought has no fit speech to frame it. What language could have expressed the passion of anger and repudiation whirling through that girlish soul.
Miss Penharva, watching the stormy changes of her face, thought to herself, "Her wrongs have been greater than mine, so have her sufferings. Where will she find consolation?"
A pang of remorse shot through her own heart as she remembered the new sacrifice demanded. But she consoled herself by thinking she had not willingly influenced the child. She could not blame herself or him because he loved her best. Neither could she force that love into another channel.
Her lips had been parched with thirst for some human love. The first draught only intensified the longing for more. The windows of her soul had opened to life's sunshine once again, and this new happiness was greater, even in its elements of terror and foreboding, than the passion of her youth. Suddenly the girl roused herself.
"I think I ought to go," she said. "I mean from here. As soon as the paper is signed I will leave. It would only be a daily pang to watch him, and be with him, and know I am nothing to his life."
"But you came here for a rest—a holiday?'"
"There are other places. I could go to the Scillys. I have often wanted to. I have this new opera to study too. Work is the best cure for suffering."
"All I can do for you in that matter shall be done. I have told Mr. Malpas to arrange it."
The girl started and flushed.
"There was no time to lose. I am determined you shall get on, if it is in my power."
"It is in the power of money and influence," said Dolores, bitterly. "I need not have waited until now had I chosen to accept offers of both."
"Very well. Let the manager think you have powerful friends—so much the better."
Dolores thought resentfully of that same manager's desire to be himself one of those powerful friends, and of the consequent annoyance and trouble she had experienced.
"If I get this I will repay you every penny. I don't mind how simply I live. I have no ambition to drive to the stage-door in a brougham, or outshine a duchess in diamonds. I love work for its own sake, and if I am ambitious, it is because I know it is in me to do something better than the trashy nonsense it has been my fate to interpret. Once let me be heard, in a good part, by an impartial audience, and I have no fear. The public can defy both critics and managers."
"You are fortunate to have one enthusiasm left. Your life can never be empty."
"It feels empty enough, I assure you. I drifted hither and thither on a sea of misery till I had almost forgotten hope. I had the good chance to find a friend. And though he is a man, I am inclined to believe in him."
"A man? You never told me——"
"No. I don't know why I tell you now. I hardly expect you to believe in a friendship disinterested on one side and passive on the other."
"Who is he? What profession?"
"A barrister, I believe. But he does theatrical work—criticisms of plays, libretti, farces. His name is Harold Ericson."
"Ericson!" There was a startling change in the usually impassive face. "And your friend, you say?" Her eyes gleamed under her snowy hair.
"He calls himself so. Do you know anything of him?"
"If he is like his father. I once knew that name. A bad breed, child—false, traitorous. Have nothing to do with them." She was trembling greatly. "Is it Fate?" she cried, hoarsely. "You call the son friend. It must be the son. Harold Ericson would be older than myself. And he is dead. He perished miserably, as he deserved."
Dolores looked wonderingly at the agitated face.
"I think this man is about thirty," she said. "He is clever, very kind, very trustworthy. He has been a good friend to me."
"Can the fruit be good and the tree poisonous? What miracle allows the son of a villain to lay claim to virtue?"
"Perhaps his mother——"
"His mother!" The low voice was harsh and strained. "Do you care to hear who she was? A low actress—a creature of paint and infamy, for whom he deserted me on the eve of our wedding day. I was struck down by a double blow. What was killed in me was all that made me woman. I shut myself up here alone; too ashamed and humiliated to meet the eyes of my fellows, hating the very daylight because it had filled the room when they brought me his insulting message. And this man you call friend is the son of a traitor and a wanton!"
She laughed aloud. Her face looked grey and terrible in the firelight, and all her frame seemed one quiver of passion. Dolores felt alarmed.
"How could I know?" she said entreatingly. "He never mentioned his parents. I had never heard his name from you. But if you saw him you would know he is all I say. Whatever his parents were, their vices don't live in him."
"Take care," said Miss Penharva warningly, and raised a shaking finger in grim mockery of the chivalrous defence. "Already you see, another man has entered your life. Don't prate to me of friendship. Friendship between a man and a woman is a myth—an impossibility. No man is your friend unless in his heart he hopes to be your lover. Ericson comes of a bad stock, I tell you. Have nothing to do with him or his friendship, if you would keep your own life clean, and your name unsmirched."
Her voice grew weaker, her hands rested more heavily upon her stick. Dolores saw her head droop. She sprang forward, thinking she was about to faint. The old woman waived her aside.
"Leave me!" she said. "You have opened a grave at my feet to-night. In it lies lost youth, lost beauty, lost faith. I am their only mourner; they are the dead children of my unfruitful womanhood!"
"The son of a traitor, and a wanton!" With those words ringing in her ears, Dolores went to her room.
Well, whatever Ericson might owe to his parentage, at least the laws of heredity had left no trace in his own character. She knew him noble and steadfast and clean of heart and mind. A man whom she could trust above all others.
Her friendship for him stood out clear and distinct from any other interest of her life. It was a true and honest feeling, unmarred by false sentiment. There had never been a word of his to disturb its serenity, never a thought in her own heart of the exactions of sex. Miss Penharva's outburst had come to her as something of a shock.
The gathering of grapes from thistles had not presented itself as a possible feat, and yet in the present instance there was little, if any, sign of the parent crop. She remembered that Ericson had never spoken of his people, and had always seemed to be free from any trammels of relationship. True, she had evinced no curiosity in the matter, still there had not been wanting opportunities of confidence had he wished to avail himself of them.
Her restless thoughts cost her more sleepless hours. She dreaded the idea that her nature was awakening again to the possibilities of an emotional crisis. One could never attain to peace and serenity while one's heart concerned itself with other people. And she desired peace above all things. She would rather harden herself to all emotions than yield to one.
The child slept peacefully in his cot, but to-night she could not kneel by his side or kiss his sleeping lips. A barrier lay between them henceforth. Her life must deny itself all foolish common weakness of womanhood, so best would she serve Art and hold sway over others.
"The less I feel the better," she told herself. "Selfishness and success always go hand in hand. To let your strength go out to others is to make your heart a target for any arrow of ingratitude or malice that flies your way. Those who give most gain least. If I can take any of life's favours with pure heartlessness so much the better for me. Even this woman who stood my friend turns robber in her claims upon gratitude. Until I become numb to my own identity I shall never cease to be unhappy, for I shall feel that others can hurt me. I found that out again when I came here full of joy and expectation. Love is not for me in any shape or form. The sooner I grow accustomed to that fact the less shall I suffer."
But morning brought a new trial to her in the shape of quite surprising overtures of friendship on the part of the child. Whether some memory of her part in his life had dawned upon him, or whether twenty-four hours of her presence had established her among his experiences, certain it is that he claimed her attention as soon as his eyes were opened. He climbed out of his cot and got into her bed, and entertained her with ceaseless chatter till Ruth Pasco appeared on the scene. That Dolores was unresponsive did not seem to affect him in the least. His little life was so brimful of importance that it sufficed him to relate its marvels, even to unappreciative ears. His unasked kiss, the careless wave of his little hand from the lawn as she opened the window and looked out, these small things touched her to-day with that sting of regret for coming loss that she had ignored the previous evening.
It was too late now to retract her promise. She must put away those foolish sentiments as she was putting away the child himself. The moment those papers were signed she would leave Penharva, and not return for years. Not until she had quite disciplined herself into playing her own unimportant part in the boy's life.
* * * * * *
When breakfast was over she put on her hat and went out to her retreat on the cliffs. But to-day she could not rest. She strolled hither and thither, forcing a way through the wilderness of bracken, and finally coming to the very edge of the cliff itself. It sloped down irregularly to the silver-sanded bay. A foot track of rough slaty stones, met here and there by rugged boulders, descended steeply to the little cove.
It was a tiring and difficult descent, but the girl was in the mood for conquering obstacles, and soon found herself at the foot. The sands were hard and firm, and strewn with shells of various beauty and size. She sat down beside a jagged piece of rock and watched the tide as it gradually receded.
The little inlet was very lonely, and very peaceful. It seemed as if the busy world of men and matters must be far removed from such tranquil isolation. Not a sound of life was here, save the flash of the waves, or the cry of a passing sea-bird. The base of the cliff was honeycombed with caverns and recesses, hollowed by the force of the very waves that now played with such lazy indifference among the rock, and shell, and seaweed.
Unconscious of time, the girl sat on, wrapped in dreamy and somewhat melancholy musings. At last with a start of surprise she woke to the consciousness of another presence. A woman was standing a few feet away looking at her, her face lit by pleasant recognition. Dolores saw it was her train companion of two days before. As their eyes met the woman advanced.
"Ah! it is you!" she said, cordially. "I thought I recognised you. What a lovely retreat you have found. I discovered it by the merest accident. The chine, or whatever they call that hollow in the cliff that breaks off from the coach road, seems to stop midway—I say seems. I discovered that it is possible to get further down, though not easy. By the way, what a curious old house that is shut in there. I hear it is occupied by a very eccentric old lady, who lives the life of a recluse, I suppose you don't know anything about her?"
"I am staying with her," said the girl, quietly.
"Staying with her!" The voice grew eager. "Oh! then you know of that darling little child who is shut up in the grim old place. I saw him once, by pure accident—such a lovely little fellow. Why is he shut up in that dreary prison? Can you tell me?"
The girl's face hardened.
"He is Miss Penharva's adopted son," she answered. "And he seems very happy in that prison, as you call it. As happy as a child need be."
"Ah! You must think me very curious, but indeed I am only interested. My name is Sylvester—Mrs. Sylvester. I have taken a little cottage near here. I quite fell in love with the spot when I first saw it."
"It is very pretty," agreed the girl, with less expansion than her new acquaintance seemed to expect.
"Of course you have been to the Logan rock?"
"No. I don't feel any special interest in it."
The listless voice and indifferent face drew the elder woman's notice. How came anyone so young and so very beautiful to be so impassive? Her puzzled glance rested on the girl with unexpressed wonder, and for a few moments they were both silent.
"Do you find it very lonely there?" asked Mrs. Sylvester at last, with a glance in the direction of the hidden house.
"Not very. I came for a rest. I have been working hard."
She stopped abruptly, and for the first time her eyes met those frank kindly eyes of her questioner.
"I am an actress," she continued.
Pleasure and surprise dawned in the expressive, kindly face beside her. "Indeed. But you look so young. I wonder if I have ever seen you play. I am a great theatre-goer when in London."
"I have never appeared in London yet."
"Oh! I see. What is your line? Isn't that the correct word?"
"Yes. I am in light opera—comic opera. I have been working for three years."
Mrs. Sylvester's thoughts flew to many little hints and histories of stage "stars." Was there a mystery here? The lonely house and its strange old occupant? The little child? She was far too much a woman of the world to be shocked, but curiosity burned afresh.
"Three years!" she echoed. "And do you hope to appear in London?"
"Of course. We all hope that. I am now trying for an engagement next season."
"I hope you will get it," said Mrs. Sylvester, cordially. "I wish I could do something to further your wishes. I am keenly interested in all matters appertaining to the theatrical world. Indeed I have reason to be, for a nephew of mine has given me a great deal of 'behind the scenes' information. He writes plays and lyrics himself. I often tell him he wastes good time, instead of following his proper profession. He is a barrister."
"A barrister!" The girl's face showed interest for the first time. "I happen to have a friend a barrister also. He writes for the stage. It is a coincidence, I suppose."
"My nephew's name is the same as my own."
"Oh! then they are not the same."
"A great many barristers seem to devote their leisure moments to writing either books or plays, so my nephew tells me. I suppose their own work is rather dry and disinteresting."
"I don't think that. They must come across many strange histories and romances too. The law lets daylight into innumerable follies and crimes in human nature."
"You are right. It has its interesting side. May I ask if you are making a long stay here?"
"No, very short. I am going to spend my holiday in the Scilly Isles."
"Why, my nephew is there, too! I wonder if you will meet? They mean a very circumscribed area, you know."
"I have never been there before. I as going to study a new opera. I shall not make any acquaintances."
Her face had grown cold and hard again. Mrs. Sylvester wondered what her history was. Something there must be in the background to have chilled that lovely warmth of youth into such impassive calm. But Dolores' manner set bounds to curiosity, and gave no hope of satisfying it. The talk became desultory. Mrs. Sylvester expressed a wish that the girl would come and see her before she left for Scilly, or when she returned to Penharva. Dolores excused herself, however. She feared she would have no time. She intended to go back direct when she left the Isles. It was plain that she wished for no further intimacy, and Mrs. Sylvester felt somewhat annoyed at the rebuff.
But in reality Dolores' coldness was due to extreme nervousness. She knew that this kindly-disposed person was a friend of her aunt's. She longed to hear some word of her, but prudence forbade any questioning—yet. One day—a day when she was famous, independent, free—then she would seek them again; the sister and aunt she had left in ignorance of her fate. But not now, not while fortune was uncertain and success a far-off dream. So when Marian Sylvester bade her good-by and took her way up the cliff for her five mile tramp, she took with her also a baffled, but still keen interest in this strange girl.
Dolores herself remained for some time longer. She was passing the facts of her life in review, and thinking how hard it was to really sever the links of that strange chain that bound relationships and friendships together. Even in this out-of-the-way nook her past pursued her.
She dreaded any chance of meeting Sarah Webbe. It would be wiser to keep strictly within the boundaries of Penharva, as of yore, for the short time that intervened between her leaving for Scilly. She rose at last, passed round the rock, and saw advancing towards her another figure.
It was that of an elderly lady, wiry of figure, ruddy of face, her head capped by a shady straw hat. A boat rocking idly by a natural landing-stage formed by a jutting indicated that she had come to the cove by sea.
She came straight towards the girl, stopped short, and gave a cry of astonishment. Dolores faced her, white and trembling. There was no possibility of escape or pretence. She and Sarah Webbe had met at last.
The situation was dramatic; tense with the surprise of the unexpected and the emotional. Astonishment, delight, natural indignation, and terror played their part in the greetings and questionings that followed.
Sarah Webbe, however, was not satisfied with any of the explanations the girl gave for her disappearance, her long silence, and her unfilial neglect of the father who had worshipped her with love so faithful and steadfast. His sufferings and his death lost nothing in the telling, made eloquent by long suppressed indignation.
Dolores listened, her eyes downcast, her face set like a mask of marble, her heart beating wildly and painfully with the surging of grief and remorse.
The change in the face, expression, and manner, astonished her aunt as much as the girl's reticence annoyed her. She would only give the very briefest account of her doings, and her reasons for leaving home as she had left it. A certain coldness and indifference displayed themselves in place of former girlish tenderness.
She heard of Cynthia and her heir and her success in the great world with so little interest that Sarah Webbe was deeply hurt. Her pride in one niece made her inclined to be sharply critical of the other. Here was no history of brilliance or success, only a certain embittered hint of failure, of hardships, struggles, and difficulties.
To say "It serves you right" would have relieved the listener's feelings, and might have been considered a privileged utterance; but something in the girl's sad face and hopeless voice appealed to an unexpressed compassion. There could be no doubt that she had suffered. Her neglect of duty and apparent indifference to home ties had brought their own punishment upon her. Life had taught her some hard lessons since she had last knelt in the old Vicarage parlour and joined her voice in the evening hymn.
But Sarah Webbe was less a stern moralist than her looks and words conveyed, and she had always had a warm corner in her heart for this pretty, wayward niece. Therefore she uttered fewer reproaches than she had once intended, should chance throw them across each other's path as it had done.
Her brow clouded again when she heard where Dolores was staying. Her voice held a note of sharpness in its queries.
"How did you know this woman?" she demanded. "For years she has never been seen outside her own gate. She is a sort of hermit. It is odd you should be acquainted with her."
"I am not at liberty to explain how," answered the girl, the colour rising in her cheeks. "She had proved a very good friend to me—that is all I can say."
"But now, now that we have met again, surely you will make your home under my roof," urged Miss Webbe.
Dolores shook her head. "No, I cannot. I leave here to-morrow. I have to study a new part, and can only do that when I am alone and have perfect liberty."
"Oh, well, you must do as you choose, I suppose," said her aunt, huffily. "You have certainly changed in every way from what you were. I have always heard that the stage had a very bad effect on people, and you don't disprove it. You seem dead to natural affections, and bound up only in this foolish nonsense of play-acting. And you might have lived a respectable life and married well, like your sister."
Dolores laughed for the first time.
"I hope," she said, "my life is respectable. As for Cynthia, well, such a marriage as she made would never commend itself to me. What matter position, or wealth, or social distinction when you owe them to a man you cannot love or respect?"
"She is very happy, and I am sure she is an excellent wife," exclaimed Miss Webbe. "Why should you think she does not love or respect Mr. Lilliecrapp—Sir Thomas, he is now. He was knighted a year ago for—for——"
"For giving a very large sum of money to a popular charity. A sum wrung out of workmen's toil and trade chicanery. I know; I read all about it. I hope Cynthia is proud of her empty honours."
Miss Webbe looked annoyed. A title in a family is always a subject of gratification. No one has any right to cavil at the means by which it is obtained, or peer too closely into the merits of the receiver.
"You were always so hard on Cynthia," she said, sharply. "But I fail to see that you have done better for your family or yourself than she has."
"Perhaps not. I did not take that into consideration. I chose my life because it suited my inclination; because I felt drawn to it; and the harder I work the more I appreciate rest when it comes."
"I suppose you will marry some day," said her aunt.
Dolores' face grew cold and stern. "I don't see the necessity. I have all I want. And marriage would only take from me the independence I have gained."
"You are very changed, Dolores."
"Am I? Well, one can't always revel in the ignorance of girlhood."
"I brought you up so carefully. I always felt as if your dear mother was watching to see how I fulfilled my duties," lamented Miss Webbe, "and I shall never forget my amazement when you left home in that extraordinary manner. At first I thought it was a love affair; that you had eloped. Even Cynthia thought so. She fancied you and Cyril were fond of one another."
The girl's face whitened, her eyes turned seawards to where the little boat was idly rocking on the soft swell of the incoming tide.
"Is that your boat?" she asked.
"Yes; I often go out in it for an hour or two. This morning I came here half-expecting to meet a friend."
"Mrs. Sylvester?" queried Dolores.
"Why, how do you know?"
"We made acquaintance in the train coming from London. I met her again this morning. She has gone up the cliff path there."
"She is very curious about that old house and its mysterious owner," she said. "It is certainly very strange that you should be staying there. Why is she such a recluse? Would it be any use to call?"
"Not the least. She will see no one."
"Most extraordinary. And yet you——"
"I am her guest," said the girl, with an odd little smile.
"That is what I mean. And I can't understand why you won't explain how you became acquainted with her."
"She has her own reasons for living as she does. I cannot accept her hospitality and betray her secrets."
"Ah, then there is a secret!" exclaimed Miss Webbe eagerly. "I thought so. And Marian declares it has something to do with a child. A little creature she saw there one morning."
Dolores' face flushed slightly.
"Your friend is certainly very inquisitive. What can it matter to her whether Miss Penharva has one child, or half a dozen children, staying with her? There's nothing so very extraordinary in adopting one for companionship, is there?"
"I suppose not," said Miss Webbe doubtfully. "But it must be a very young companion; and what a life for the little creature! That lonely house, those closed, dark rooms! The people say she never lets daylight in. Is that true?"
"No, it is not true," said Dolores sharply; "and the child is perfectly happy, whatever gossip chooses to say."
"Oh! I see you are quite one with her. Well, it's hard to see one's own flesh and blood preferring strangers! But now I must be getting home. You won't come, even to see my cottage?"
"I cannot to-day; and I am leaving for Scilly to-morrow."
"The idea of burying yourself alive in that Robinson-Crusoe-like place! Well, I am both glad and sorry to have met you, Dolores. I must say you are very changed. Still, blood is thicker than water, and my home is always open to you, even though I don't approve of actresses as a rule. When shall I see you again? Can't you stay a day or so with me when you leave the islands? I'm only six miles from Penzance. I'll meet you at the pier and drive you to my cottage if you'll let me know when you return."
"Thank you," said the girl, more cordially than she had yet spoken. "It is good of you to ask me. I will try and come, but it depends very much on whether I get an engagement I'm trying for. If I do I shall have to return to London very soon for rehearsals and dresses."
"You'll go and see Cynthia, won't you?" urged her aunt. "She has been so anxious about you. She will be delighted to see you again."
"I'm not sure of that. Her position and mine are very different now."
"Oh, I don't suppose she would ask you to her parties," said Miss Webbe, frankly. "They're always mentioned in the 'Morning Post,' and scarcely an untitled person in the list. But still as you don't act under your own name no one would know that you were on the stage."
The girl laughed a little bitterly.
"Titled people are not at all so prejudiced as you seem to imagine," she said. "They are the greatest supporters of the drama, in more senses than one."
Miss Webbe tried to look shocked. "But patronage does not mean intimacy," she said. "A certain exclusiveness must be observed."
"Are you quoting Cynthia?" enquired the girl with some bitterness. "Don't be alarmed, I shall not intrude upon her."
"No, no, I didn't mean that. Indeed, she'll be as delighted to see you as I am."
They were close to the rock which had served as landing-place. Miss Webbe suddenly embraced her niece, and her eyes grew tearful.
"Now mind, my dear, you are to come and see me. Myrtle Cottage is my address. I shall be quite offended if you don't; and I'm so relieved, you can't imagine, to find you have got on so well. I must tell Cynthia at once. She will want to see you when you go to London, I'm sure. Promise you'll go."
"I'll go if she asks me."
"Your own sister! Of course she'll ask you."
Dolores said nothing, only lent her hand to assist at the embarkation, which the slippery seaweed and rocking boat made no easy matter. Then she stood watching its gradual disappearance until it rounded the next point.
So silent, so absorbed, so still she was, that the gulls circled round her, and the foam swept about her feet, and she seemed unconscious of either. Her thoughts flew to and fro from past to present, converging towards one point of fear. The old claims of the old life reasserted themselves, and the softness of tears was in her eyes when she thought of Cynthia. How widely their ways had diverged! The one had all this world's good things, the other had learnt but its evil.
If they should meet they would be as strangers now. The experience of life is the one thing that divides the ties of relationship, making it of non-effect despite all obligations. Parent and child, brother and sister, each have had to recognise this fact and deplore its truth.
Dolores knew that the two girls who had stood at the parting of the ways but three years before would not be the two women who would meet when fate or chance should bring them face to face again.
The Isles of Scilly possess an element of romance all their own.
The sunshine loves them, the moon-light weaves for them its tenderest spells. For ever and for ever round broken headland and granite rock does the sea murmur its weird stories. The breath of the storm and the tumult of tossing waves sound there their wildest songs of fury or of victory. But in summer-time storms are few, and the sea takes its loveliest hues, and the white surge and the trembling waves are things of beauty, not of terror.
To the tired brain and aching heart of Dolores the charm and wonder of these fairy-like isles were as a dream of peace. Never in all her life had anything so sweet and calm and restful weaved its spell for her, taken her out of herself, girt her round with so exquisite a sense of pure content in the mere fact of living.
There are times in life when to do nothing becomes a positive virtue by reason of necessity. Nature demands a pause in the march, a rest in the pilgrimage. Wise are they who grant the demand without rebellion.
Too tired to care very much, or feel very acutely, the girl simply let existence drift her onwards in a slow and sleepy fashion hitherto unknown. Time became a passive, not an active admonition. Day followed day, night succeeded night. All was peaceful, dreamy, non-expectant. The fret and fever, the harass and toil, of the world beyond seemed foolish and undesirable things. Everything here gave the lie to their necessity, and proclaimed the dignity of perfect rest.
Seven days and nights of this tranquil idleness had done more for her than any medicine of any cult. Even sorrow had become chastened, and the future held no anxious visions. She lay on the hill sides and watched the sails pass to and fro, and listened to the ocean's tireless song, or hired a boat and was rowed or drifted among the inland seas of this delightful archipelago. And all those seven days and nights she had had but her own self for company. On the eighth a change came.
She had stayed at Tresco and not visited St. Mary's, in spite of its attractions to tourists, or rather because of those attractions, for "tripper" patronage is only another term for desecration of all things beautiful and simple in Nature. On this particular morning Dolores hired a boat and directed the man to the principal island. She got off at the landing-steps of Hugh Town, and stood a moment or two looking about and wondering to which point of interest her steps should be directed.
The morning was bright and sunny. A faint breeze blew from the sea. She looked out towards Bishop's Rock and the Longships, and watched the foam breaking over the distant barriers, and then turned towards the garrison ascent. She mounted the steep hill in leisurely fashion. When time is one's own, anything like haste is unseemly.
She stood for some moments at St. George's Battery to view the town and harbour. A man was standing at the great barometer signal, looking up at the crossbars that marked the degrees. Something in the figure struck her as familiar, in spite of straw hat and light tweeds. As she watched he turned and glanced around. Their eyes met in surprised recognition, and he advanced with an exclamation of welcoming delight. It was Harold Ericson.
"I suppose I should say, 'What on earth brings you here of all places in the world?'" he said, as he held her hand in his own. "One expects to meet one's friends picnicking on Mont Blanc, taking photographs at Damascus, or drinking tea in yachts on Norwegian fiords, but in the Scilly Islands—no. They are unknown to globe-trotters and fashionable explorers. Of course neither term applies to you. Still——"
She laughed. It was almost the first time he had heard her laugh. Her moods had usually been sombre and subdued.
"I suppose you are right. But what an idyllic place for a holiday. It is quite unlike any other."
"Are you staying here—at St. Mary's? I wonder we haven't met before."
"I am at Tresco. I came here to-day for the first time. I have been too indolent to do any sightseeing yet."
"I wish you would let me be your guide, then. I know all the islands. From my boyhood I have spent my holidays here whenever I could manage it. Let us go onto Woolpeck Battery. You have the best view there."
She was quite content. It was pleasant and unexpected to meet a friend, and the friend whom she would have chosen had choice been hers. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes shone, her step was light. Ericson thought he had never before recognised how beautiful she was till now.
Woolpack lies at the southernmost point of the garrison, and is triangular in form. It commands St. Mary's Sound, and the view of St. Agnes, the Bishop, and the Western Isles is one of the best obtainable. Dolores admired and listened while her companion explained such mysteries as the use of coast-guards, also of wind gauges, and the various insignia of the Meteorological Office, and told her tales of wreck and disaster, for which the coast is renowned.
They followed the path round the shore, and on to Star Castle. Ericson told her all about that also, and showed her the E.R. (Elizabeth Regina) over the entrance way. The morning drifted on. They were both happy and content. They lunched together and saw all there was to be seen of St. Mary's, and then took boat and were rowed to Peninis.
It was close on sunset when Dolores returned to Tresco, after promising that the morrow should bring about another joint excursion. She had not yet heard whether Leverson would give her the engagement she desired, neither did it appear of such intense importance while time drifted on in this Lotus land. It seemed foolish to worry over possibilities. Sufficient unto the day was the good or ill it brought.
So passed another week.
The weather was glorious. Blue skies, light breezes, long hours of delicious sunshine. Every day they went somewhere. To Bryher, and Sampson, and St. Helen's, and St. Martin's. To the uninhabited islands washed by the Atlantic billows, and ravaged by Atlantic storms, to Cromwell's Castle, and to beautiful bays and beaches where no tourist ever went, because they were not of guide-book celebrity. And they talked a great deal, and got to know each other very well, and found life a pleasant holiday for the time being.
Ericson was a first-rate boatman, as one need be who ventures among the channel currents and shoals of Scilly and its surroundings. He took her out every day on the water, he managing sail and oar and she the tiller. She grew rosy and sunburnt with the salt air and brilliant sunshine, and as perfect health is conducive to mental beatitude she was at times almost happy. She was perfectly frank and at ease with Ericson. The hypocrisies of civilised life were not needed here, neither were they remembered. The simple pleasant comradeship went on, and both were content it should go on.
After the second week, however, of Dolores' stay in the islands there came a letter for her—the long-expected London letter. She opened it, breathless with expectation. She had almost made up her mind for disappointment. If that were realised she thought seriously of abandoning her profession and dwelling in Scilly for the rest of her days.
The first few lines, however, were reassuring. Leverson offered her the principal part in the new opera that Ernst Elderhof had written and which he would bring out in November. As she read her heart throbbed with pride and excitement. It seemed incredible that it really had happened, and the chance she had longed and prayed for was really to be hers. A London engagement, and at a good theatre, and in a part that was specially suited to herself.
"How pleased he will be," she said to herself, and put the letter in her pocket, and went off to meet Ericson as usual.
He was waiting for her with the boat. They were to go sailing to the outer islands, and he had with him an old boatman who knew every shoal and channel of this scattered archipelago. This would give them leisure to talk, and even after a week of daily meetings it was surprising how much they had still to say to one another.
As their eyes met, the young barrister read good news, and also some hint of change. A trumpet call from the busy world beyond had reached Lotus-land at last.
When they were out on the blue water, the boat dipping and dancing over the waves, she handed him her letter. He read it seriously and slowly. He had never expected Leverson would make her such an offer. Indeed, he knew very well that that gentleman must have had some strong influence brought to bear upon him before he would have done so.
"It seems all very satisfactory," he said, when he had come to the end of the page. "I suppose you are pleased?"
"Pleased? I should think so! It is the one thing I have prayed for and desired. It seems too good to believe. Why do you look so grave?"
"Do I look grave? Well, I was wondering why Leverson has done this. When I saw him last he was bent on having Flora St. Clair. She is a big draw always, and very popular."
"And very unsafe. You know how she drinks."
"Yes, that's true enough. But somehow she's always pulled through. The public don't suspect. And she's such a dare-devil. They love her. They never know what she'll be up to. You know, they say it's one thing for the licenser of plays to pass a thing, it's another to see Flora act it."
"You seem to think I won't carry this off, then, because I haven't Flora St. Clair's audacity. You've not seen me act for two years, remember."
"True. But I'd rather not see you act, if Flora is to be your model."
"It can't possibly matter to you whether I am audacious. One's stage life is quite a thing apart from one's private existence."
"Not always. The speck of rust eats into the steel in time."
"You talk as if I were an innocent, ignorant novice. Will you never remember——"
"Ah, hush!" he entreated. "I don't wish to remember. It is impossible to associate you with anything that is not pure and womanly."
"For God's sake, don't idealise me. It is my knowledge of the dark side of human nature that has kept me safe. I distrust everyone till I know I can trust them."
"Tell me," he said, with sudden eagerness, "did you do that with me?"
"No," she said, slowly, and meeting his eyes with steady gaze. "Strange to say, I did not. I often look back at that time and wonder—why?"
"It is a great compliment. All the more so because I'm sure you wouldn't say it as a compliment."
"No," she said. "There are few men I like, still fewer I trust. But we are drifting from our point. Of course I shall accept this. It means a great deal to me—everything in fact—and you know Elderhof wrote the part expressly for me. The music just suits my voice."
"Yes, he told me so. He will be delighted. I shall have no share in your triumph this time."
"Except to write of it. Only you must not praise me unless I deserve it."
He laughed softly. "I was never told that before," he said. "In all my experience of journalism, self-praise has been the universal recommendation. However, I will treat you on strictly professional lines. Criticism must be impartial to be of any worth, so don't suppose that these enchanted weeks will count when I write of Miss Dolores Dering. By the way, you won't shorten your holiday, will you, on account of this? You can study here as well as in town."
"Much better. Oh, I don't wish to go back until I am obliged. Of course it depends on the rehearsals."
"But being the principal——"
"That makes it imperative I should know the opera as a whole. I hate piecemeal work. When I see how the whole thing goes I feel at home with it. I know artistes to whom their own part means all and everything—but I'm not like that. You can't judge a book by one chapter."
"Critics often do," he said, laughing.
"Oh! Critics!" Her voice grew contemptuous. "I don't care for them. I've seen and heard too much of their ways and methods."
"Madam," he said, "your insinuations are personal."
"You know as well as I do that the press can be bought. You know how advertising counts. You know how certain directions accompany certain tickets. You know, too, that heaps of notices are written in London and appear in provincial papers."
"I know—none of these things," he said, still smiling. "I may have heard of them."
"Ah! well, let us change the subject. Where are we now?"
"We are rounding Sampson. There is great Minalto yonder on our lee, and there, with those two high points, is Mincarlo. We will land there, if you like, and explore. It is quite deserted. It is so small and so complete. I call it a doll's island. I should like to build a tiny house between those peaks, and lay out a tiny garden in that miniature valley."
"And live there?"
"It would be lonely I confess, unless one found an ideal companion for the doll's house."
"And ideal weather, and an ideal cook, and a few other necessaries."
"You are sacrificing my romance to your prose. One could almost fancy a mermaiden on yonder rock."
"I see only puffins and seagulls."
"If we land, will you sing to me while I prepare lunch?"
"Certainly, if you wish. Perhaps, if I let down my hair and sat on that rock you might imagine me the mermaiden of your fancy."
"I wish you would," he said gravely. "Your hair must be beautiful. But perhaps it would be dangerous. Your spells are potent enough. And we are on enchanted ground, you know; for this is the land of Lyonesse."
His eyes looked into hers with a look she had never seen in them yet. It angered, and yet disturbed her.
"Even he!" she thought, resentfully. "Can no man be a friend to a woman? Must there always be this folly underlying the pleasure of companionship?"
They landed with some difficulty. Then the old boatman fastened his boat to a rock, and handed out the luncheon basket. They climbed up the steep ascent until they reached a high peak. From thence they could see all the surrounding islands, set here and there in the blue of glittering water. There was no sign of life except the flight and call of sea-birds circling and screaming round their rocky home.
The sun poured down its warmth and splendour, and the great stones glittered in its rays; brown turf covered with massive boulders making soft cushions and seats, ferns grew in hollows and crannies. The little down between the peaks was covered with gorse and heather. It was there they had left their basket. They stood and looked around from north to south, from east to west, across the shining water.
"It is a perfect dream of islands, is it not?" said Ericson.
"An idyll of peace and rest," answered Dolores.
"Ah, if you saw a storm you would not call it that. There are no such storms, I often think, as I have witnessed here. These tranquil-looking waters are full of perils. What tragedies they hold, what secrets, and what sorrows they have buried."
His eyes grew grave. He seemed lost in thought for several moments. Dolores, after a glance at his absorbed face, turned her eyes seawards again.
Presently he spoke. "It was here," he said, "I lost my mother. I was only a lad. We had lived together for some years at St. Mary's. That is how I know the islands so well. I have never told you anything about myself, have I, Dolores?"
The name slipped out so naturally that she scarcely remembered it was unusual.
"No," she said. "Why should you? I never told you about my home, or my people either."
Then she flushed hotly, remembering the story she had told in the Temple Gardens three years before.
"My name," he went on, "is not really Ericson. I only assumed that as a nom de plume. I found it written in one of my mother's books, and adopted it. But my real name is Sylvester."
The girl started. "Why," she exclaimed, "how extraordinary! A lady—an aunt of yours—is living near Penzance. We made acquaintance in the train. She told me of you when she heard I was coming here; at least, she said a nephew of hers was staying in the islands—that the name was the same."
"It must have been Aunt Marian. I knew she came to Cornwall this summer. She wanted me to stay with her. But my heart hankers for my early home, and I come here whenever I get a chance. She is a dear, kind soul, Aunt Marian. She has been very good to me. Indeed, I owe my education in a great measure to her."
"Your father is dead also?"
"Yes. It was after his death my mother came here to live."
Dolores looked puzzled. She was trying to fit in Miss Penharva's story with Harold Ericson's own account of himself. Somehow the two were widely at variance.
"Had your mother anything to do with the stage?" she asked.
"Nothing whatever. At least, not in my recollection. She was very lovely, but very sad. She seemed always suffering the remembrance of some great sorrow. I don't know what it was. She never spoke of her past, or of my father. But let us sit down. You will be tired standing so long."
She seated herself on one of the mossy boulders, and he threw himself down beside her. "You promised to sing, you know," he said.
"Yes, so I will, but not now. Tell me some more about yourself—your youth. It interests me."
"Does it really? It seems to me there is very little to tell. I was rather a lonely boy, and had no special gifts or talents. Life here, too, was not eventful. Most of my days were spent on the sea, rowing, sailing, fishing, climbing crags for birds' eggs, watching the seals, growing weather-wise in the matter of storm signals. It was healthy. I owe my strength and sound constitution to it, also perhaps a certain love of nature and sympathy with her moods and memories that no city life can ever give. Yet I often think I must have seemed a raw youth, rough, moody, intolerant. I wanted a lot of licking into shape when I went to a public school. Aunt Marian looked after me. She wanted me to be a barrister, and so I tried to oblige her. I managed the exams, well enough; somehow learning came easy to me. I was fond of books always. I ate my dinners, and took my degree; and that is all."
"All? No romance; no love episodes?"
"Oh!" he said, colouring slightly, "that of course. It always happens, I suppose. I had an experience. I was a fool. All men are at least once in their lives. It was the usual thing."
"You mean she did not come up to your expectations?"
"I mean she led me on to believe she cared, and then threw me over. She is married to a rich man now."
"Poor thing!" said Dolores.
He looked at her quickly.
"Oh! she doesn't need pity, I assure you. She is perfectly happy. Her nature was purely material. She got all she bargained for."
"Still I say—poor thing. She does not know how much she may have missed."
"Well, I survived it, you see; and I am not unhappy, or even embittered. I can afford to be thankful that she did not choose to share my crust and my garret. I have learnt the blessings of freedom."
"I wonder why marriage is so rarely satisfactory," said Dolores. "Is it that one gives too much and gains too little, or expects more than is possible, or what?"
"I think it is the expecting more than is possible. Love is terribly blind, and as love is the prelude to marriage, as English morality would have us believe, well, the bandage is bound to come off, and then, nothing is left but disillusion. Patience and forbearance may help us along, but there is no real consolation."
Dolores was silent. She sat with her hands clasped round her knees, her eyes turned seawards. He watched her in silence. He never wearied of watching her face. It was a book of endless meanings and variations.
He thought, as he looked, of her own story. The story she had told him with such impetuous scorn. No word of it had ever again escaped her. He could almost have fancied it forgotten, but for the sadness of her eyes, and the bitterness of her words.
The spell of silence lasted long. It was no unfrequent occurrence. The very perfection of true friendship lies in its sympathy with moods, and its comprehension of such spells of silence.
Sometimes their thoughts were very near each other, sometimes they drifted far away. Both were content that it should be so amidst this peaceful, sea-girt solitude. When Dolores turned at last and looked at her companion, her eyes were dark and misty with unshed tears.
"If life could be just like this," she said, passionately. "A dream and a forgetting. Oh, why is it so hard, so cruel, so unjust?"
"Because it is life, I suppose," he answered gently. "The storm and stress must come before we reach the haven, the battle before the victory, the struggle before the rest. And you could not stagnate. You would never be content with a mere passive existence."
She rose abruptly. "We have talked enough," she said. "Let us have our luncheon now, and then we will do some more exploring."
They left their rock and descended to where the basket had been left. The meal seemed less cheerful and merry than they usually found it. Both were absorbed, and a little restraint had crept into their friendly intimacy.
He was thinking of the man of whom she had once told him. She, of the story of his youth and love. To both had come early disillusion, keen suffering. It helped them to a mutual understanding, and united them in a bond of stronger sympathy.
When they were once more in the boat and sailing from point to point as fancy took them, the restraint vanished. Ericson so loved the sea and these isles in particular, and had so much still to tell of them, their history, people, shipwrecks, disasters, that the personal element dropped out of sight for a time, and they were only listener and speaker.
To the mere visitor Scilly is a small and unimportant group of some half dozen islands; to one who knows and loves and has dwelt there, it is a veritable fairyland—a place of strange and mystic and beautiful treasures; of ancient lore and wondrous marvels; of caves and cromlechs and burial places of ancient kings, of white-sanded fairy coves and wild headlands, and towering granite that nature has chosen for fortress or barrier. But the key to understanding these marvels and appreciating these beauties lies not to everyone's hand. Dolores knew this, for her second week was a perpetual and wonderful revelation. But then she had found a true guide, one who not only knew but loved each place they visited.
She tried sometimes to associate this man with his London life, his work, friends, and ambitions. It seemed impossible. She told him so, while they were sailing homewards in the glow of sunset. He laughed.
"Oh, we all live a double life," he said. "It won't do to be our real selves always, and to everyone. Even you are very different here—gentler, more womanly, more natural. Nature takes the starch out of us very effectually. It is no use bringing civilized hypocrisies to bear on her."
She smiled. "I feel very different, I know," she said.
"It will be no use to try and shut yourself up from me again," he went on softly. "I know you, and I shall see through the pretence. Even when you are great and famous you will not be able to forget these enchanted weeks. Oh, Dolores——"
He stopped abruptly. He saw her face turn very pale, and she shivered as if a cold wind chilled her.
"What is it?" he asked, anxiously.
"I don't know. The strangest feeling, as if someone had cried to me—called me." She looked round, her eyes wide and anxious. "Something has happened; I feel it. Some terrible misfortune. Oh! the sensation is awful."
She pressed her hands to her heart. The colour had fled from cheek and lip. He grew uneasy. No mere fancy could have conjured up such terror and such emotion.
He spoke soothingly, but her agitation only increased.
"I shall know when I land," she said. "There will be bad news."
"Then I shall land, too, and return to St. Mary's later. I should like to prove the worth of a presentiment. I have had them often, and found they proceeded chiefly from indigestion. That pastry at lunch, now——"
"Don't jest," she implored; "I cannot bear it. I am convinced something is wrong."
Her thoughts flew to the child, and terror overmastered her. If he should be ill—dead perhaps! A hundred accidents threaten the life of childhood perpetually. Ericson saw she was seriously disturbed, and left her to herself.
When they landed he walked with her to her lodgings. She never addressed a word to him the whole time. She seemed in another world. Her face was cold and white. He could not understand the change, and it frightened him.
She entered her little sitting-room. Her eyes fell on the table. A letter lay there, white and square on a space of crimson cloth.
She took it up and glanced at the writing, then tore it open. He watched her intently. The first page apparently contained nothing special. The colour returned to her face and her hand steadied itself. She turned the page, then suddenly gasped, and sank into a chair.
"My God! it can't be true," she cried hoarsely. "Murdered! Oh, read it—read it, and tell me!"
She covered her face, and rocked herself to and fro in an agony of mind. He took up the sheet and read on. It was from Sarah Webbe, and began thus:—
"My dear Niece,—I am writing to you on the chance of your getting a
letter in Robinson Crusoe land. You only said Tresco, Scilly Islands,
but I suppose there aren't more than half a dozen inhabitants. We
are all convulsed by a terrible catastrophe that has happened at the
mysterious house of Penharva. The old lady was found murdered in her
bed yesterday morning. Her ancient servant discovered her. Robbery is
said to be the reason of the crime, as the house had been broken into
from below. The wildest confusion reigns there. The old man and woman
seem dazed and idiotic, and can tell nothing.
"Mrs. Sylvester has taken the little child, and he is with her. The police, of course, were summoned, and the house is in their charge. There will be an inquest and enquiry into the matter, but at present all is a profound mystery. I write you at once, as you seemed so friendly with the old lady. What a mercy you were not there. You might have been murdered too."
He stopped, and looked at her white face uplifted from shaking hands.
"Is she a relative of yours?" he asked. "What an awful thing!"
"She is only a friend, but such a good friend. She saved me in my deepest trouble. Oh, how terrible! How could anyone have done such a cruel thing?" She shuddered. "I must go back at once," she exclaimed, "at once. There is the child."
He looked astonished. "What child? She was an old woman, the letter says. Besides, you must wait for the steamer. You cannot leave till to-morrow."
She wrung her hands. "Oh, how dreadful to be so helpless! It will seem an eternity. Why did I ever come here? Why didn't I stay as she asked me?"
"It is a terrible thing," said Ericson gravely. "But do not agitate yourself so much. Even if you had been there you could not have helped."
"I am a light sleeper. I might have heard—have raised an alarm."
"And probably shared her fate. There seemed no one there capable of protection. Why did she live in that strange fashion?"
"It was her whim." The tears filled her eyes. She rose and held out her hand for the letter.
"And who is the child spoken of here?" he went on as he gave it to her.
She made no answer.
Suddenly, like a shock, he felt he needed none. There was another mystery about the strange house of Penharva besides the mystery of murder.
It has an ugly sound. A sound that terrifies and sickens the heart and chills the pulse. Murder! It echoed and re-echoed in Dolores's ears, as she sat sleepless and solitary through the hours of the long night. She could not rest. The thought of bed was hateful. She was haunted always by the sight of that strange face, that helpless form. She could think only of the tragedy of that lonely house, whose mistress lay dead.
She had a confused idea that Ericson was to accompany her back; that he had been helpful and compassionate in that first dazed hour when she stood face to face with this horror. But everything seemed vague and dreamlike. She could only picture the murdered woman and the little helpless child.
Of the passage over to Penzance, of any detail or incident of the journey she was quite unconscious. She only knew she found herself driving along with Ericson by her side, and that the carriage stopped at a small pretty cottage surrounded by myrtles, that a childish voice rang gleefully out from the miniature shrubbery, and that she was being kindly and warmly greeted by Marian Sylvester and her aunt.
The child was playing in the garden. He ran to meet her. He was unconscious of the tragedy connected with her appearance here, and gave her the friendly greeting of previous acquaintanceship. Then it seemed to her that the dazed bewilderment of that mental shock passed away. She was very pale, and trembled greatly, but her brain grew clear at last. She found herself in her aunt's pretty bow-windowed parlour, drinking tea, and listening with eager ears to further details of the tragedy.
As yet no trace of the murderer had been discovered. The motive, so far, seemed to have been robbery, for the cash box in the dead woman's room had been broken open, so had a jewel case, the contents of which were unknown. Entrance had been procured through a window of the kitchen; a pane of glass was found broken, and the inside shutter had been forced open. Old Ruth Pasco was dazed with fright and the shock of her mistress's death. Peter was not much better. They could or would give no information respecting Miss Penharva, and the authorities were at a deadlock.
"Did no one send for Mr. Malpas?" demanded Dolores. "He was Miss Penharva's man of business. He lives at Penzance. Surely he must have heard."
"Perhaps he has heard by this time," said her aunt. "I don't know. Marian brought the child here. He could not be left in that dreadful old place."
"I must go there," she said. "To-night—at once."
She looked vaguely round. Her eyes met Ericson's.
"I will go with you," he said. "I told the man to put up the carriage. I fancied it might be wanted."
"Really, Dolores," remonstrated her aunt, "I don't see any necessity for you to rush off there. It's not as if you were a relation. You can do no good. The inquest will be to-morrow, and those two old creatures are the only ones who can give evidence. It is a mercy you weren't there. You might have been murdered also!"
But the girl was obdurate. She must go, she could not rest. It seemed to Ericson as if she feared some discovery; as if her anxiety held a personal element of alarm. Marian Sylvester watched her with curious and troubled eyes. There was plainly a mystery about this girl. She could not fathom its meaning, or extent, but it existed. It annoyed her to witness her nephew's unconcealed interest in her, his deference and devotion to her service. But there was no opportunity for explanation. She could only wait and trust to time for an elucidation of these recurring mysteries.
As soon as tea was over the carriage was summoned and Dolores and Ericson were driven in the jog-trot, unhurrying fashion of Penzance fly-men to that point on the main road where she usually left the carriage.
The dusk had now closed in. Ericson took one of the carriage lamps in his hand, and together they descended to the lonely old house in its concealed nook.
The gate was unlatched. A policeman was on guard in the porch, and made rustic objection to their unofficial entrance on the strength of "orders" from a superior.
Ericson, however, ascertained that Mr. Malpas was within, and sent a message explaining their visit. The door was at last opened by the old lawyer himself, and he invited them to enter. They followed him into the dreary dining-room, made ready for the inquest of the following morning. It appeared that Mr. Malpas was staying for the night at the house.
"No clue yet," he said, in answer to Ericson's anxious enquiries. "Robbery, of course, was the reason. The old lady must have been alarmed; probably she cried out, and the wretch strangled her. I always cautioned her about the way she lived. So helpless; and those two old and decrepit servants, what use were they? The worst of it was I was here the previous night and brought her some money. She wrote for it, and also showed, me a will she had made. I took it away to put it into shape, and was to bring it back for signature to-night. Business called me to Falmouth. When I got home I read of this awful occurrence in the morning paper. I was shocked."
He looked at Dolores. "The will is valueless now," he said. "I am sorry, for your sake."
She grew very white. "For mine?" she asked.
He nodded. "I will tell you later on. It is fortunate that she had secured the money necessary for your engagement in London. That is all settled, but her will would have been of still more advantage."
Ericson with some murmured excuse rose and left them. He detected anxiety on the girl's face, and guessed that the old lawyer might have a private communication to make.
When they were alone Mr. Malpas answered the questioning eyes. "The will was in favour of the child, her adopted son, and she appointed me guardian. Now, it is of no use. Twenty-four hours makes a pauper instead of an heir. It is unfortunate, but it is, alas, only another proof of Fate's irony. You, too, were provided for. That goes for nothing."
"Who will inherit her wealth?" asked Dolores.
"A distant relative—a nephew—if he's alive. I shall have to advertise for him. She had cut herself adrift from all living ties for so long that I don't know where they have been scattered, or who are left in the shape of legal descendants. By the way, what will you do now about the child?"
For one moment the girl's face glowed rosily with love and hope. The next moment brought her face to face with new complications. Marian Sylvester had taken the boy away. He was domiciled under her roof at the present moment. To claim him meant the disclosure of her secret. Could she brave such an ordeal? Who would believe that story of the Scotch marriage? What could she prove except Cyril Grey's denial and desertion? How endure the publicity and obloquy of such an announcement?
She turned imploringly to the old lawyer. "I don't know what to do," she said. "Miss Penharva had adopted him. She was to provide for him—to make him her heir."
"And Fate steps in, in the shape of some starving or desperate outcast, and puts an end to her benevolent intentions! My dear young lady, you are in a very serious predicament. You must prove the legality of your marriage or else suffer the reproaches of society at large by introducing the child as your own. There is, of course, the chance of this charitable lady taking the little fellow into her care; it is a chance, and one you would do well to accept. . . I could act for you. That is to say, state Miss Penharva's intentions, and then use any sum, or sums, for his support that you choose to send."
Her face brightened. "That," she said, "has been made easier for me. My father left me a small sum of money. I intend to settle it on the child. I can support myself once I get a footing, and that is now secure."
"Your father?" queried the lawyer. "Did he then know of this—incident?"
Her lips quivered. "No. He only knew I had adopted the theatrical profession. He died abroad. If I determined to continue this life he did not forbid it. The money makes me independent."
"And you will not use it for yourself?"
"No," she said. "It has come just in a moment of need. I want it all made over to the child."
"Give me your instructions," he said drily.
"Will you still act as his guardian, taking my money instead of Miss Penharva's?"
"Certainly. But I won't offer to look after the boy. I am old and I am not a family man. It would not suit me."
"I don't ask that. I am sure Mrs. Sylvester or my aunt would take charge of him."
"Of course they know—nothing?"
She flushed. "No. What could I say? It is the old story—proof, and what proof have I?"
"You should get someone to look up those witnesses," he said. "Scotch marriages are very queer things, and very difficult to prove. But as there is no question of heirship, or money——"
"Do you think I would force myself upon a man who has falsified every promise? Do you think I have no pride?"
"A woman's pride sometimes leads her into quagmires and pitfalls. Every year between your acceptance of dishonour and your acknowledgement of your child leads also to misconception and estrangement. It is policy in one way, but also you are doing harm to him and yourself by every day of unacknowledged relationship. You should set to work to prove your marriage, as I said."
She shook her head. "Impossible. What use to claim what is practically useless?"
"That, excuse me, is sentiment, not common sense. You have not to consider yourself only—there is the boy. A boy needs a father."
"Better no father than such a father as his!" she cried passionately. "Do you think I could submit to his claims or place the child under his authority? Never! What he owns he shall owe to me only. He has no father, even as I——"
Her voice broke. Hurt pride, shattered hopes, the misery of loneliness swept over her like a wave of desolation, yet she held her ground. No argument or persuasion moved her. The man who had wronged her was nothing to her now, still less should he be anything to the child he had ignored, to the ties he had denied. If she saw the hand of Fate in this sudden alteration of circumstances she, none the less, resolved on that battle of wills and consequences whose issue was lost in the future.
All the careful schemes of her child's protectress had been annulled by this stroke of Destiny. He was left to the mercy of chance once more. But she felt her courage equal to the emergency, and entered into the old lawyer's proposal with eager zest. He showed her the carefully drawn-up document, now alas! valueless as waste paper for want of that one tremulous signature. She read for herself the loving thought and prescience that death had set at nought.
Her soul hardened itself. "What she would have done, that I will do," she vowed. "My love shall be the unseen Providence of his life, from this day forward."
The mysterious house of Penharva had long been left to gloom and solitude. The rooms were closed and locked, the windows barred. The silence of death reigned everywhere, and rumour pronounced it haunted. The heir had been advertised for in vain, and though one or two distant links of the broken family chain put in claims, Mr. Malpas pronounced them valueless. No clue had been found to the murderer. The two witnesses, Ruth and Peter Pasco, were reduced to semi-imbecility by the terror of that night, and the local police were at a deadlock very soon. Arrests had been made, but no proof could be actually brought, and wanderers and tramps, despite auspicious appearances, are not of necessity criminals. Month followed month, and the mystery of Miss Penharva's death remained a mystery still, and sufficed for local gossip in many a farmhouse or fisherman's cottage as time went by. Meanwhile the child lived on at Mrs. Sylvester's rural domicile, and grew rosy and strong and beautiful, and was the idol of her heart, and equally adored by Sarah Webbe.
When Marian went to town for a taste of the season's gaieties she left the boy to her friend's charge, and the cats and dogs and prim old Patience had a lively time of it.
Sarah Webbe obstinately refused to accompany her friend on any of these expeditions. She knew Dolores had won a brilliant success. She read her name in the London papers, but nothing would induce her to witness a stage performance, and she was still convinced that a playhouse was the road to ruin for anyone of the weaker sex. She invited her niece on periodical visits, but they had little in common, and Dolores' holidays were brief and much taken up with the study of new parts. Life for her had suddenly become a brilliant and engrossing thing, but also it was full to the brim of work and anxiety. She lived now in a small flat, whose dainty appointments boasted of no luxury. Neither did she entertain in any way that demanded the accessories of champagne and cigars and Fortnum and Mason's delicacies.
At five o'clock she was usually to be found in her little drawing-room dispensing tea to such callers as chose to drop in on business or pleasure, but further than this she never went. No after-theatre suppers tempted her, no dinners at Richmond, or festive parties on steam launch or houseboat. Occasionally she accompanied Ericson and Elderhof on a Sunday to some quiet river nook, and allowed herself to be rowed or punted to Cookham, or Windsor, or Henley; but dearly as she loved such excursions she often denied them to herself and the two friends who adored her in their different ways.
As yet her name was in a measure respected. The money paid for her debut in the new opera had convinced Leverson that she had some powerful "backer," but her success and undoubted talent won a sullen acknowledgement from him that she was not overestimated by this unknown influence. The Public—that great, strange, mysterious power which makes itself at times an independent force—hailed her as favourite with one accord. The months of anxious study, the care and weariness of hours spent on seeming trivialities, had their reward at last. Her beauty and her voice would not alone have sufficed for success. On the stage she evinced a gaiety, a chic, a charm that was quite apart from her natural character. So those said who only found in her a seriousness and culture which are not the usual qualifications of an actress of the opera bouffe type. The truth was that all that Dolores had missed, the sunny girlhood, the carelessness and vivacity and single-heartedness of youth, came to her in her stage representations. When alone she was a saddened woman with a burdened conscience and much natural bitterness of heart. On the boards she was free, careless, enchanting, indifferent, but capable of charm and able to let herself go with a supreme abandonment of pleasure in all she did, and pride in the success she won. She loved her work. It engrossed and delighted her, and she loved the applause she gained for it.
Elderhof had done her a good service in writing for her voice and style, and the two became firm friends on the strength of their mutual helpfulness. The piece had an exceptional "run," and he was commissioned to do another.
But Dolores had no rest allowed her. Leverson knew a "good thing" when he got it, and did not intend rival managers to secure his "star." He engaged her for three years at a salary that amazed her, and made her promise that she would enter into no new arrangements without giving him the option of a re-engagement. Thus all fear for the immediate future was set at rest. She had only to nurse her health and strength, and she saw herself on the way to fortune. She studied much, and read much. She had few friends, though she never closed her doors to any members of her own profession. They amused and astonished her, but she felt there was between their recklessness and her own sorrows a gulf fixed that they would not and she could not cross.
The quietness of her way of living, and the superior class of men allowed in her rooms, astonished the more lively of her actress friends. They could not understand it. But even the most reckless of these be-jewelled and be-photographed celebrities felt themselves in another sphere when they entered the little flat in Chelsea and took their afternoon tea from the hands of the beautiful woman whose sad eyes held a history they vainly tried to fathom.
She never checked their impulses of gaiety, never, save by a look of surprise, stopped a risky story or a naughty jest. But neither did she encourage them. Some of the more daring spirits declared those teas too "toney" altogether for their taste, and dropped out of attendance; but a great many others pronounced them charming and good style, and recognised that they met with an altogether different reception from Dolores Dering to what they did at Marian Stom's, or Magdalena Ord's, or Phyllis St. Claire's, also leading lights in the theatrical world.
The general idea was that Dolores was a bit "near." It was known she had a good salary, yet she lived very simply, with an elderly housekeeper as sole attendant. She never wore a jewel, her dresses were of the plainest, and she usually walked to the theatre in fine weather, or took a 'bus in bad. All this was quite at variance with stage traditions, and they could not understand it. What was she saving for? Why didn't she support Bond-street dresses, and give champagne suppers, and generally enjoy herself in approved "Cigale" fashion? They could not understand it, but not even the boldest spirit among them dared put the question. One thing was evident. Their respective admirers were safe. For men, rich or poor, titled or shoddy, Dolores cared not a whit. No callow lordling nor Stock Exchange autocrat laid his fortune at her feet, or his banking account at her disposal.
She was proudly, coldly, indifferent to all classes of men. The boldest could not boast of a favour, nor the richest of encouragement. It was marvellous, but it was true, and after these years of public life no scandal had made her name public property.
Every penny she could spare Dolores sent to Mr. Malpas, and by him it was used for little David's benefit.
He professed to be the child's guardian, as Miss Penharva had decreed, but allowed him to remain with Mrs. Sylvester for the present, paying for his board, clothing, and later on for his education, which was conducted by a governess who came daily from Penzance to initiate his juvenile mind in the mysteries of the three R's.
The boy had an ideal child's life. Dolores had declared he should, and she could have chosen no one more capable of carrying out her wishes than was Marian Sylvester.
He was out in the open air in all weathers. The fishermen taught him to row and sail a boat. His mother had sent him a small sure-footed pony, through his guardian's mediumship, and his bright face and golden curls were a well-known sight between Land's End and Penzance.
He was on friendly terms with everyone in the district, but it was only when Dolores came to stay that he had unlimited holiday. The two were sworn friends now. They would spend the whole day out of doors, sailing from bay to bay, or riding or driving to the many picturesque districts around the coast.
When he was seven years old she took him to the Scilly Isles for a few weeks. She had never been there since that brief stay, cut short by the tragedy of Miss Penharva's death. It may have been that reason that brought the memory of the murder so keenly to her mind that she one day questioned the boy on the matter.
They were on the water as usual, sailing on a ruffled sea of crystal blue towards the Western Isles. The boy had been demonstrating to the admiring boatman that he knew perfectly how to set a sail, and now had returned to his mother's side, hot and ruddy and important, and thrown himself down with his head leaning against her knee.
"Davy," she said, "do you remember when you were a little boy and lived in a house that was always dark, with a white-haired lady who was very fond of you?"
He drew his brows together in a puzzled frown.
"Was it Mis'ry, you mean?" he asked abruptly.
"Yes," she said eagerly. "That was what you called her."
"Of course, I remember her," he said. "Why, she comes to see me night times often."
"What!" exclaimed Dolores, breathlessly.
"Yes," he went on gravely. "I never tell no one, but she sits on my bed and looks at me exactly just as she used to do. I know her quite well. Only she won't speak; not ever she won't speak. But she looks so sad, as if she had something to tell me and couldn't. Just before I go to sleep she comes; same as always she did in the Dark House, you know."
Dolores' heart beat fast. She knew the stories told of Penharva. She knew, too, the popular belief that Miss Ursula "walked," and would so walk until her murder was avenged. The child spoke so frankly and simply she had no need to doubt his own belief in what he said, neither did she; but her faith in ghosts and spirits was far removed from the strength of Cornish superstitions, and his simple declaration filled her with wonder.
"Every night does she come, Davy?" she asked.
"Oh, no! not every night. Sometimes it's a long time I don't see her; then she will be there, two or three nights. Dolly, where is she? Do they shut her up in that dark house all alone? She is so white, just as if she never saw the sun, or the sea, or walked in the garden as I made her. And I'm not ever allowed to go to Penharva. The gates are all barred and rusty, and it looks so dark. I peep through the bars sometimes, but no one's there, and old Ruth she says Mis'ry has gone away. But if she's gone away, why does she come and see me, Dolly?"
He always called his mother by the name her aunt and Marian Sylvester used, and she loved to hear it.
At that strange question she felt her cheek pale, and a chill of terror stilled her throbbing pulses.
"Are you—sure?" she asked hoarsely.
"Of course I'm sure. I know she comes."
"Then, ask her—ask her if she has anything to say—she may be in trouble, in sorrow—and if she would tell you."
Her voice broke. What was she talking about? How could the dead speak? What could this vision, this voiceless form be but a phantasm of the brain, a dream-picture impressed on the child's memory?
Yet for all her scepticism this simple belief claimed her attention. She gazed into the boy's deep eyes and remembered that what was hidden from the wise was sometimes revealed to babes.
"Davy, dear," she said again, "when did she come to you last?"
"Last night," he answered.
Dolores started. "What—here?—in your room here? Where was I?"
"I think you was asleep," he answered. Grammar was not Davy's strong point. "It was all dark and I woke, and there she was sitting; and she seemed light somehow, and I could see her quite plain. But I was so sleepy I only said, 'Good-night, Mis'ry,' and went to sleep again."
Dolores clasped her hands together tightly. Her agitation increased.
"Davy, if she should come again will you ask her something? Will you ask her this? 'Have you anything to tell me?'"
He raised his head, and looked surprised. "Oh, yes, but I don't s'pose she will, she never does. But I'll tell you what. I'll call you in, and you talk to her."
"Oh, no. It might—I mean she wouldn't like it. It is you she wants, I'm sure. She was so fond of you, dear."
Half-musingly the words escaped, but the child's quick intelligence gave them meaning.
"She is fond of me," he said. "But she's not my right own mother, is she?"
"No," said Dolores, huskily. "No, Davy. She only took you when you were a little friendless baby, and gave you home and shelter and love because—because your own mother couldn't."
"That's what Aunty Sylvester says, and Aunty Sarah." He called them aunts promiscuously. "Then I had an own mother, Dolly, somewhere, like other children?"
"Yes—and she loved you very, very dearly. But she had to give you up to Miss Penharva because she was very poor and friendless, and could not have you with her."
"Did you know her?" asked the boy, with the startling abruptness that marks a child's aptitude for jumping at conclusions.
"Yes," said Dolores.
He sat bolt upright now, and looked into her face.
"Then where is she now?" he asked. "Can't she never come back and take care of me, and let me help her, and work for her same as other boys work? I could fish and——"
She stopped him with a touch on his eager lips.
"Dear child, you are happy, cared for, why should you want her?"
He considered a moment.
"It seems right to have one's own mother," he said. "But I daresay she'll come back some day. Look here"—with a new eagerness—"suppose, I ask Mis'ry next time I see her where my mother is?"
"No," said Dolores, with sudden passion, and there was fear in her eyes and in her voice. "No, Davy, not that. Ask her only if we shall go to the Dark House, you and I. Perhaps we shall find something, some clue the secret of what she wants to say, Davy—the secret of her death."
She paused abruptly. The child's face looked white and strange.
"But she's not dead," he said, in a queer little puzzled way. "Not like old Peter was when they put him in the wooden box. Ruth says she's at Penharva still. She's seen her walk. Dead folks don't walk, Dolly, do they?"
She shook her head. "No, child, perhaps she's not dead, only shut up there in those grim, dark rooms. We'll go and see her, dear, you and I. It is not kind to have left her in that dark loneliness so long."
"You're crying, Dolly!" exclaimed the child. "Your eyes are all wet."
"It is only the spray," she said, and smiled. But when he gave back his attention to the sail and the dancing waves, she turned her head aside and wiped away those sudden tears from eyes grown anxious and troubled within these brief last moments.
The child's words haunted Dolores with strange persistence. There could be no doubt about his own belief in this fancy of Miss Penharva's visits. Yet how could his mother credit the truth? Had she not seen the dead woman laid in her coffin, the marks of that murderous hand upon her throat, the horror of an unexpected and tragic doom in her staring eyes? And now to hear from those childish lips that this same person was to him a living reality, that he was familiar with it, spoke to it, looked for its visits as naturally as for those of any other personality about him, affected her with a strange dread.
She had only the strength of mind of scepticism. Before a child's faith it wandered and lost balance and became a question, not a conviction. He had no fear, why should she have any? Were there not histories innumerable in all countries and in all tongues of apparitions seen and spoken to, of unquiet spirits bound to walk their way of earthly pilgrimage until peace was given them and vengeance meted out to their wrong-doer his just deserts? She thought and thought, and the shadowy spaces of twilight grew peopled with imagined shapes, and the impetuous resolve to go to Penharva became a fixed and resolute purpose. Something imposed it on her. She could not tell what, but she felt it growing stronger with every day.
The child looked oddly at her one morning as she came in to breakfast. He had been up and out for hours.
As she kissed him she noticed the look, and her heart-beats quickened. She sat down at the table and waited for him to speak, but he ate his breakfast in an absorbed, dreamy fashion, and she left him alone and busied herself with her letters.
When she laid them down she glanced at him again. "You are very silent, Davy," she said.
He suddenly left his place and came to her, and leant his head against her shoulder.
"Dolly," he said, "I saw Mis'ry last night."
"Yes?'" she answered, quietly.
"I was not quite sleepy," he went on, "so I sat up and looked at her for a long time. Then I remembered what you said, and I asked her, like so, 'Mis'ry, have they left you all alone in the Dark House?' And she nodded her head—like that," (he nodded his own). "And I said, 'Are you very lonely? and she said 'Yes.'"
"She—spoke?" gasped Dolores, quickly.
"Of course. What makes you go so white, Dolly?"
"Nothing, nothing. Go on, child, what more?"
"Then I fell asleep."
Dolores looked at him. His face was all truth and innocence.
"Was that all?"
"Yes, but we'll go to the Dark House and see her, won't we, soon? She must be tired of being all alone so long."
His face grew strangely wistful. A sudden terror seized Dolores, as she looked at him. Stories of obsession, of unseen and occult influences, of weird and horrible legends rushed to her memory. The thought of the boy pursued by this dark phantom, yet treating it so fearlessly, frightened her.
"We will go. Of course, we'll go," she said, rising hastily from her chair. "But not till our holiday is over. I am expecting a friend to-day." She paused, smiling softly, as at some pleasant thought. "And we will go to watch for the steamer, and meet him at the pier."
"A man?" asked the boy. "I'm so glad, Dolly. I seem to be always with women."
She stood still, as if struck by some new fear. Her voice when she spoke again was cold and constrained. "Be thankful," she said, "that you have women to guard you, to keep your heart pure. God knows what you'll learn from your own sex. Little that's good, if I am any judge."
He looked puzzled.
"Boys like boys," he said. "I want to go to school."
"Oh, Davy!" she cried, "already?"
The tears rushed to her eyes. She saw at last how true had been the old lawyer's words, how vain it was to try and soften and domesticate the innate force of masculinity.
School! To associate with others—to learn the boisterous games, the hateful mannerisms, the rough and ready ways of that class of being yclept "schoolboys." Davy, with his beautiful face, his charming manners, his well-trained pride in personal cleanliness and order, to become one of the fighting, loud-voiced, dirty mob she had seen rushing out of school gates, shouting themselves hoarse over football, playing practical jokes, inventive of cruelty, and eager for a liberty that led on to worse things than these.
It came to her as a shock that the natural instincts of the boy must always be instincts.
Sex cannot he denied. All mothers have to learn that fact. They may dress their boy in petticoats and keep him in the seclusion of home if they choose, but a day comes when the strings are broken and the skirts sent flying, and he demands his rights, and will have them, trampling all things feminine under foot, and treating with lordly contempt the suggestions of prudence and natural care.
"Go to school!" She had looked upon that as a far-off possibility. He was still so young, and had seemed so happy.
She could say nothing. She felt helpless for the moment. Only when they were out in the sweet cool air, and watching the approach of the Penzance steamer, she said in her heart, "Oh, I am glad Ericson is coming. He will know what to do."
For a moment she had forgotten that Ericson was quite ignorant of her relationship to the boy, that their present introduction would also be their first intimation of each other's existence.
* * * * * *
As the steamer touched the pier at Hughtown she caught sight of the familiar figure. It was long since they had met. He had been to France on some intricate law business, and had now only a very brief holiday before him. They had corresponded regularly, so he knew always where she was and how matters went with her. The restraint he had at first put upon himself had become more natural by force of habit. He had learnt the hopelessness of looking for any return of his own love—for love it was, and he had long ceased to deny it. She called him friend, and friend he had proved himself in every situation or emergency that needed a man's help or counsel. She owed him more than she ever imagined, and the care with which he protected her name from any misrepresentation of this well-known intimacy was itself a good proof of rare unselfishness. Perhaps she had grown too accustomed to this chivalrous devotion to heed its sign or suspect its sufferings. Her life was full, and she allowed in it no place for sentiment or love-dalliance.
As she met him now after an interval of months there was only calm friendliness in her eyes and voice, and a little nervous hesitation of manner that the child's presence occasioned.
"Are you Dolly's friend?" was Davy's immediate greeting, and Ericson's surprised eyes turned from his beautiful little face to the girl's conscious one.
He read at last the secret of her life.
It was not the likeness between them that struck so keenly to his heart, that woke so keen a pang of jealousy, and made the dead weight of long-borne hopelessness a heavier burden, but it was the look in the girl's eyes—the half-proud, half-tender, wholly possessive lovingness that glorifies all true motherhood.
He could not speak for a moment, and the boy looked wonderingly into his white face.
Then, with an effort, he recovered himself. He took the brown friendly hand and looked at the glowing face with sad wonder.
"Yes," he said, "I am her friend, and yours, too, if you will have me."
Then he met Dolores' eyes, and saw the warm colour fly from throat to cheek and cheek to brow.
"I understand," he said, simply. "You need not tell me—anything."
They walked up the pier silently. His words had helped her out of a dilemma. She felt grateful. The boy ran on before them, eager to reach the Garrison. Ericson had sent his luggage to the hotel.
"This is my first visit to the Isles since we were here together," said Dolores.
"And mine," he answered.
"Oh! I thought you came every year."
"Not now." There was a ring of sadness in his voice, and she noted it.
"I have wanted to see you so much," she said suddenly. "I have something strange to tell you. I know you will think it's absurd, or impossible, but it has taken hold of me strangely; I can't shake it off." And then she told him the child's story in few simple words.
"It seems natural she should come to him, for she loved him so; and then death cut short her intentions respecting him. I have a fancy always that when a person is prevented from doing anything—I mean taken from life by crime or accident—they are bound to come back. They can't rest. The link between body and soul has been too suddenly broken. It was not worn out in the natural course of events."
He looked thoughtfully. "There is something in your theory," he said. "And we have excellent authority for haunted houses and apparitions in all countries. Still, this is very strange. You say the child thinks it's Miss Penharva herself."
"Yes. He has no fear whatever—seems to think it quite natural."
Ericson paused a moment, his eyes looking out over the tumbling waters of the Sound.
"There has been no clue, no discovery?"
"Nothing," she answered. "You see it was no one's business except the police to follow it out after the first. No reward was offered; no heir has appeared. I doubt if anyone on earth took the interest in Miss Penharva or knew as much about her as I did."
"She was a good friend to you?"
"In the greatest sorrow of my life she came to my assistance. She gave me a hope; she adopted my child."
"Ah!" He drew his breath sharply. "I thought so. He is your child. Does he know?"
She shook her head. "I could not tell him at first. It was part of our compact, and now. . . . ." She looked at him with sudden earnestness. "Have you ever noticed," she said, "how hard it is to go back on a road of life when you have made one false turning? The way gets blocked with obstacle after obstacle. You want to climb them and can't. It is the same if you speak falsely; one lie demands another to bolster it up. You find yourself entangled in a network of deceit before you are aware of it. . . . It is so with me."
"I feared as much. And you have foregone the love of your child, the companionship, and pleasure, and pride of such relationship because of——"
"Of one false word. To speak now would be impossible. Fate has worked so strangely. The very last person who could understand or excuse my story is part guardian of my child."
"You don't mean Aunt Marian?"
"Her friend, my aunt—Sarah Webbe."
"That's strange," he said.
"Yes. She knows nothing of that marriage; nothing of my real reasons for leaving home as I did."
"But why don't you tell her?"
A swift flush dyed the girl's check with vivid red. "She wouldn't understand; she would not believe. How could I expect it? What was there in just a few words spoken in that shepherd's hut to constitute a legal or binding ceremony? How could I have believed it?"
"The legality of Scotch marriages has been found binding on quite as informal grounds," he answered. "Give me leave to go to Edinburgh to make enquiries from some leading authority on Scotch law. At least it can do no harm."
"And less good," she said. "Could I go back to a man who has denied me, who cast me aside in my helpless, ignorant youth—could I call him 'husband'? No, though a hundred lawyers bade me. Let the matter rest. I will not have it interfered with."
"You must reckon with your child some day," he said. "What then?"
"I will tell him the truth. He shall be our arbitrator. I will leave the matter in his hands."
"And all the intervening years you weaken your hold on his duty and respect. Believe me, you are acting foolishly."
"Perhaps I am. But I cannot help it."
Ericson was silent.
"It seems strange to you, no doubt," she said presently. "But to a woman feeling means so much. No fate could be so hateful to me as to proclaim myself Cyril Grey's wife, knowing in my heart that I am undesired, that he has ceased to love me—that I have ceased to love him."
Ericson's gaze remained fixed on the shining, heaving water, but his heart beat stormily. Everything danced and swam before his eyes. Did she know what dangerous tempting her words held? Had she never guessed what foe he had been fighting in these years when she had called him friend?
Slowly, imperceptibly, they had glided into their present relation with each other. He had assisted her career, watched over her, befriended her on every possible occasion, and she had accepted all in the spirit of a frank and fearless camaraderie, never dreaming that harm might come of it, never caring if her name was linked with his, to the injury of her fame and future.
Now, suddenly, he saw what the situation meant if no tie held her true to her betrayer, if once she put herself under the guidance of feeling, and told him so with unconsidered frankness.
From that hour he knew the fight would be harder. Many a man possesses honour without morality; but Ericson had a full share of both. To wrong anything weak, ignorant, trusting seemed to him nothing short of a crime. And this girl was no conscious sinner, though the world might hold her so, for sake of a quibble. He reverenced her because he knew her worthy of a man's reverence. He hated to think that a moment's self-betrayal might spoil all, that the frank, innocent eyes would cease to regard him as true friend and worthy comrade.
So he held himself in leash and suffered silently.
"Do you propose going to Penzance, then?" he asked, after that long pause.
"I do," she said. "And, what is more, I am compelled to do so by some feeling I can't explain. I feel drawn there. It would be odd if we discovered something, wouldn't it?"
"Yes," he said, "it would. But do you wish me to accompany you?"
"Of course. You and I and Davy."
"And when are we to go?"
"I leave here next week," she said. "But I don't wish anyone to know of our visit. It will only set people talking. I must get the keys, too, from Mr. Malpas. He will wonder why I want them, but I think he won't refuse. I thought if you stayed at old Trewavis's farm for a night, and then met us at the top of the cliff road next morning?"
"Yes, I could manage that, if Mrs. Trewavis will give me house room."
"I'm sure she would."
"Well, we'll consider the matter settled. Here comes the boy running back. What a fine little fellow. How can you bear to keep yourself unknown?"
"Oh! hush," she said. "It is hard enough without talking about it."
"Dolly," cried the child as he joined them, "are we going for a sail? You promised I should go to the lighthouse when Mr. Ericson came."
She glanced at Ericson. It cost him an effort to meet her eyes, to watch her hand as it rested so proudly and tenderly on her boy's bright head.
"What do you say?" she asked. "The sky looks fair enough. We will get a luncheon basket from the hotel and be off. It will be like old times, Harold, won't it, for you and me?"
He smiled and agreed, but in his heart he knew that those old times would never come again for him. Life never goes back on itself. The sweetness of dead yesterdays makes the sorrow of to-morrows yet to come.
There were long intervals of storm and rain after that first day of Ericson's arrival. Days when the wind was so fierce Dolores could not stand on any elevated point of the islands. Days when the channel was turned into a raging torrent, through which the water rushed and foamed, and into which no boat might venture. Days when Ericson at Hugh Town and Dolores at Tresco were as apart as if the ocean divided them.
She fretted somewhat at this enforced separation. Her holiday was brief and she had wanted his companionship. But that time of five years back was not to be repeated. Such days do not come twice in a lifetime, as he had said.
The last day, however, made amends for all. The sea was clear and blue, the sky without a cloud, the sunlight warm and radiant. Every cove and headland and carn stood outlined clear as a cameo against the brilliance of the sky. It was a joy to live and breathe such air on such a day. They met early, resolved on one of their old picnics, and took their old boatman with them. It did not displease Ericson that the boy found his conversation more to his taste than that of his mother's or her friend. It was pleasant to have Dolores to himself once more, to cheat life out of a few hours' happiness again, for though he set stern seal on his lips his eyes held their own love feast, and it seemed to him she had never worn so radiant a beauty as on this day of days.
Their talk was probably not very wise, or very clever. It dealt with things chiefly touching themselves, their mutual interests, and thoughts and fancies. Of the future neither spoke. A cloud of fear dimmed it. There would be troubled times to face, the harsh duties and jealousies and indignities of life. Both were wise enough to accept such gifts as the gods sent them, in shape of dreams that cheated care out of its weariness, and set the idle hours to Nature's tender music.
That night, when the child was asleep, Dolores put on her hat and wandered out. The way she took was quiet and unfrequented. The moonlight made it bright as day. The sound of the sea was all about, and the air distilled the soft salt breath of ocean. She went up to Cromwell's Castle, that grim and silent relic of the past. From there she could see the vast expanse of water, quiet now, as though no storm had ever wakened it to fury and destruction.
She seated herself on a block of stone, her eyes wandering to the enchanting scene of isle and rock, of towering granite and rugged reef.
She sighed. There comes a time in a woman's life when the beauty of Nature saddens instead of delights her. She wants an answer to her thoughts, a response to her joy. She feels the loneliness as an echo of her loneliness. Her heart aches, and the tears rise unconsciously to her eyes. Something of this melancholy touched her. "It is the last night," she said to herself. "That is why. Everything one does for the last time is sad."
She dashed aside the tears at the sound of an approaching footstep. Even before she spoke she felt Ericson's presence.
"What made you come here?" she questioned, as he took a place by her side, with no conventional greeting.
"It is a favourite spot of mine. I came to say good-by to it."
"But you will be here again—next year?"
"Does one ever know what one will do—next year?" he said, sadly. "Life is uncertain and unkind. I'm old enough now to fear chance glimpses of happiness. They are like promises unfulfilled."
She was silent. Her eyes were on the wide sweep of the Atlantic, her clasped hands rested on the ledge of the rock against which she leaned.
The sight of those small hands bathed in moonlight, the glitter of the one ring on the marriage finger, suddenly shook his long enforced composure to the quick. His strong warm hands clasped hers, and her face turned to meet his own. She looked startled. Her usual calm had vanished.
"Dolores," he said, "have you ever thought how hard this is for me? Must I always stand aside, repressed, silenced, hurt——"
"Not that," she cried, suddenly. "Oh, Harold, don't say I have hurt you in all this time."
"You have and you do," he said, doggedly. "I ought not to complain. I have no right to do so, but suffering wears one out in time, and no man's strength is stronger than his weakest link. You are—mine."
She looked up, and in the moonlight her face had a soft weariness, and her eyes the mistiness of tears.
"You too?" she said. "Even you. Oh, can a woman never find a friend to whom she is just enough?"
"Very few, I am afraid. Certainly, you are not such a woman."
"But you know my story," she said. "You know I can be nothing more to you."
"Yes, I know your story. That is why I speak so frankly. Things cannot rest as they are. You must either claim your husband, or free yourself."
"I have told you I do not wish to claim him, and if I were free——"
"It would make no difference."
"You mean there is no hope?"
"I mean," she cried, bitterly, "that I have killed all softness out of my heart where men are concerned. Listen."
She drew aside, and he saw the blood flush her temples, and the scorn flash from her beautiful eyes.
"Before my child became to me a living reality I lived through such a time of agony as only a betrayed and broken-hearted woman can realise. No words could paint it or the change wrought in me. How I lived, why I lived, I don't know. There were times when the sea held an awful tempting, when life was—nothing. Yet I battled on. I have come out of it. I am still alive, but all that was best in me was killed then. It can never live again."
"Not what was best. Only what was unworthy; what had been betrayed and wronged."
She shook her head.
"I have told you the truth."
"No," he said. "That is not you, your real self speaking. It was the result of some strange dream—some horrible nightmare."
"It is—myself," she said, coldly. "Myself—broken-hearted and schooled by one whom Fate had served even worse."
"You mean Miss Penharva?"
"Yes. I never told you under what circumstances I went to her; of our compact, of what I—a mother—promised to do with my innocent child. I will tell you now. Then say whether I am such a woman as any man should love, should wish to make his wife."
He tried to stay her, but the passion in her soul was beyond staying now, and she told him of that compact which Fate had broken, of that strange, cold-blooded bargain that Nature had set at naught and crime had punished.
It stood self-revealed in all the naked horror of unsparing truth. She spared herself nothing. It was as if she had resolved he should think the worst of her, and then cast her out of his life for ever.
But he stood even that test. He thought only of the girl on life's threshold, mad and blind with misery. He was still only her defender, not her judge.
The pity of his eyes, the tender smile that told her she had spoken in vain, soothed the storm within her, and held her mute and wondering.
"You may have been what you say, you may have done all this. It makes no difference to me," he said. "I love you. When a man loves as I do it is not because he is blinded by passion, but because he sees the nobility behind the error, the strength behind the weakness; because he can excuse and pardon, and still love."
Then she broke down. She turned away, and her bent head fell upon the cold stone parapet, and she sobbed without restraint. He too could have kept those tears company, but he held himself in leash. He only stood quietly there and watched her, while the moon climbed up the stairway of the heavens and looked down at both.
* * * * * *
She looked up at last. "I am ashamed," she faltered.
"There is no need to be. And cry your fill. It will do you good. Tears were made easy for women lest the nerve strength should fail them. I wish, often, they were so easy for men."
He took her hand, and held it close against his heart. She could hear its hurried beating. She dried her eyes, and with a great effort calmed herself.
"You are too good," she said. "When I set myself so resolutely against all men I never dreamt of meeting one like you. It is like coming face to face with an unknown possibility."
"I only want to serve you," he said. "But—it seems hard to look forward to long, empty years, and at the end—no reward. I could be as Jacob for my Rachel, but she must be mine at last."
"You have chosen to serve a very unworthy Rachel."
"That," he said, "is my affair. No man's love looks what it is to him, to any other eyes."
"What am I to do?" she asked simply, as she turned her face towards him, the tears still heavy on her lashes.
"Do?" he said. "Let me fight your battle for you, free you from this false position. It is a man's work, and not easy. But I am the man and I will do it, if only to cut the Gordian knot in the end."
"You mean my name would be——"
"Would be set in honour. Your child's birth legitimised. No more. You can divorce your husband the next day if you please."
"On what grounds?"
"I should say they would not be hard to find. Desertion and infidelity. He has never supported you?"
"No; never even tried to find out what has become of me."
"He deserves no mercy. Let him find none."
She shivered suddenly.
"I never thought you could be so hard."
"To treachery and unworthiness, yes," he said. "The law never spares the offender, once he is found guilty."
"And if—he is found guilty?"
"You will be free, this link for ever broken."
"And still dishonoured," she said. "A deserted wife, then a divorced one. Do you like the picture?"
"The picture is of my love—the sweetest, bravest of women."
She shook her head. "Not the woman to be your wife, to bear your name, to take her place beside you in that world we know of."
"Give me but hope, and the world will honour you as I do."
"How can I love?" she cried, passionately. "I have grown hard and bitter. Between me and all the magic of life's sweetness lies the barrier of my past."
"But if I break down the barrier?"
"Oh, if you only could!"
"I can, and will—God helping me," he said solemnly; and his eyes went up to the heavens, and the swell of the sea seemed the echo of that vow.
Into the old house of Penharva, darker now and with an added gloom and mystery about its closed rooms and silent corridors, came a strange trio. Man—woman—child. All bent on some discovery. Each face pale and earnest and set with resolute purpose.
Ericson turned the key in the door of that long-closed room. It was morning, and even through its gloom a sun-ray pierced through a crack in the closed shutters. He threw them open, and for a moment or two they all stood silently gazing around.
The door communicating with the bedroom was open, and the child ran through it and entered the scene of the tragedy with his young uncaring feet.
They did not follow, being occupied in noting the alterations in the room where she had passed most of her time. To Dolores it was full of memories, and most of them were painful. She almost expected to see that strange figure in its nun-like garments walk in and seat itself in the accustomed chair.
A cry from the child startled them. They moved to go forward, but as they did so he appeared in the doorway.
"It's so dark," he said, "and I can't open the shutters, Dolly."
Ericson entered the room. There stood the bed as when she had lain there in her ghastliness, with staring eyes that had seemed full of horror, with dumb lips silenced by the tyranny of force. The light straggled in but faintly. Thick creepers shrouded the outer glass, and formed a veil between it and the living sunshine beyond. The dust lay thick on everything. The carpet was rolled up and lay in a corner, the toilet-ware was piled on the washstand. A table with a framed mirror, a couple of chairs, and an old-fashioned wardrobe and bureau completed the furniture.
"The room has been searched again and again," said Ericson. "There can be no further clue here."
The child pulled at his mother's arm. "Where is Mis'ry?" he asked. "She told me she would be here; and she isn't here."
"She has gone away," said Dolores, looking helplessly round.
It seemed to her that this visit would be of no service in the discovery, and yet that impulse to come had been overmastering.
The boy moved restlessly about the room. Ericson was making notes of the possibilities of entrance and exit. It was supposed the criminal had got into the house from the lower regions. He wondered how he had known so well to find this special room, for Dolores had mentioned that the door was always locked on the inside. He went carefully round now, examining the high oak wainscot and pausing now and again to tap at any suspicious crack or cranny. The bed stood against one portion. Its carved mahogany back touched the panelling. He tried to move it, but its great weight prevented him. The boy watched him curiously.
"How funny," he said. "It was behind the bed that the little door was. She showed it me."
"A door!" exclaimed Dolores.
"Yes, like a cupboard. Mis'ry opened it once when I was playing here."
Ericson got up on the frame of the bed and began to examine the headboard. It moved into a groove, and at pressure slid down so that it rested on the floor. Behind it was the same oak panelling that ran round the room. He sounded it. It gave out a hollow echo.
"There is a space behind this," he said to Dolores.
She approached him. Her face was very pale.
"Can you open it?"
He took out his knife and inserted it in the crack. It seemed to have been carelessly fastened for it yielded at once. A small square panel moved back, and revealed a flight of stairs. Ericson lit a match and peered down.
"They seem to lead to the foundations," he exclaimed. "It is pitch dark. I wish we had brought candle or lantern."
"There should be a lantern somewhere down stairs," said Dolores, excitedly. "I'll go and look for it. There might chance to be a bit of candle in it, too."
She moved away, but ere she reached the door a cry from Ericson made her turn. He had moved away from the opening. He was deadly pale, and holding a handkerchief to his face.
"The stench is unbearable," he exclaimed. "Open the window for God's sake."
She rushed to do his bidding. He sprang down from the bed and went to the casement.
"Ugh!" he said. "If its drains or rats I don't know, but there's pestilence breeding in that black hole, I'll swear."
"Perhaps you had better not go in," she said.
His brow was wet and clammy. A deadly nausea overcame him. He waved her aside, and she turned and called to the child who was trying to climb up on the high old-fashioned bedstead.
"Don't go there, Davy."
"I must," he said, "I must. Mis'ry gone. She wants me."
"Call him back for God's sake," cried Ericson. "It's enough to poison him."
She rushed forward and seized the boy and dragged him back, but he struggled violently, insisting that Mis'ry was beckoning to him.
Ericson turned again from the window. "There must be a way out from there as well as a way in," he said. "Let us try to find the exit. I've got the plan of the rooms in my head. I think I can discover where this secret stair leads. To go down it would be a risk."
They left the window open, and made their way to the kitchen and basement. All was damp and mildewed, the woodwork rotting to decay, the locks and hinges falling from the doors. They found the lantern, but Ericson was hopeful of discovering the other outlet, and after many efforts and many failures he came upon the clue.
An outer passage ran along by the kitchen parallel with the walls. Guided by his knowledge of where the secret stairway led he found the panel or doorway, after much sounding. To open it, however, was impossible. He could not discover the spring.
"I must break it open if we are to finish our search," he said. "That kitchen poker would serve. Shall I venture?"
"Yes, do," entreated Dolores. "I'm sure Mr. Malpas wouldn't mind."
He seized the heavy kitchen poker and battered the panel. For long it resisted, then suddenly gave way, and opened inwards on a mass of mortar and stones—the debris of a broken wall. He lit the fragment of candle in the lantern, and held it up in the cavity thus revealed. Part of the stairway had evidently given way. A huge gap lay between the revealed portions, and in the hollow of this gap lay a dark mass. A something gruesome and horrible. A something to which Harold Ericson's exclamation gave meaning still more horrible, as he moved away from the opening, and waved the curious woman and wondering child aside.
"Keep off, keep away, for God's sake," he entreated. "This is no sight for you."
Dolores shrunk aside. She guessed instinctively what lay there. A heap of rotting clothes, and rat-eaten flesh and mouldering bones. The body of the murderer given back to human ken at last, but given back when no eye could identify him, when no clue should be found to his name or place on earth. Given back by God's judgment to man's mercy, with his ill-gotten gains by his side, and the jewels, for which an innocent life had been sacrificed, scattered in mockery over that broken mass of earth and stones where he had fallen and perished amidst living life around.
Horror-struck by the discovery, Ericson drew Dolores away from the secret entrance.
They had no need of words. The story proclaimed itself. Whoever had planned this robbery must have had complete knowledge of the old house, and made his way by the secret stairway to its mistress's bedchamber in order to accomplish his crime. In all probability she had awakened at the noise of the opening partition, and he had strangled her for fear of alarm. The work of robbery complete, he had made his return by the same method.
Here surmise had to play the part of detective, and prove by inference what was impossible of other proof. During his absence the stairs long unused and probably undermined by damp and decay had fallen away, leaving this huge gap, yawning for the criminal's unsuspecting feet. He had never thought of looking before him, but plunged head foremost into the chasm, and either injured or killed himself by the fall. The jewel box had fallen open; its contents lay scattered around. The gold was probably on his person. Of that Ericson had no desire to make any examination. It was a matter for the police now, and he arranged with Dolores to go straight to Mr. Malpas and tell him of the discovery.
The child, perched upon the table in the dreary kitchen, listened to their talk eagerly. He had to be assured again and again that Mis'ry was not there, having a suspicion in his own mind that she had vanished down the secret staircase.
Ericson closed up the panel, then they retraced their steps to the upper regions and fastened the shutters. After this they left the old house once more to its gloom and solitude, and went their respective ways—Dolores to Myrtle Cottage, Ericson to Penzance.
The story was told to Miss Webbe and her friend, and filled them with horror. They were full of curiosity as to whether any clue would be found to the murderer's identity, even at this late date. Dolores, however, had no hope of that. What could there be about that heap of mouldering bones to afford anyone the slightest hint of who he had been in life?
Yet strange revelations were to follow on the heels of this discovery.
* * * * * *
Ericson accompanied Mr. Malpas and the police officials to the Dark House on the following day. Slowly the horrible work was done, and bit by bit the stolen property amassed. Among other things brought out was the thick leather jewel box, which Dolores recognised at once when Mr. Malpas showed it her. It had escaped all injury, though, owing to the bursting of the lock, most of its contents were scattered amidst the debris of bones, rotting clothes, and earth and stones.
As the jewels were found Mr. Malpas replaced them in the box; the money he placed in another receptacle.
By the end of the day the work was completed. A free current of air flowed through the passage. The remains were placed in a rough coffin to await the inquest, and the house left to the charge of the constables.
The next morning's post brought Dolores a letter. It was from Mr. Malpas.
"I want to see you as soon as you can call here," he wrote. "It is important."
She wondered what had happened, but midday found her in the old dingy office. Mr. Malpas received her in his private room. His usually impassive face looked eager and interested. On the table before him stood the jewel case, and beside it a large parchment. He motioned Dolores to a seat.
"Something very strange has turned up—very strange."
He tapped the parchment, and adjusted his glasses.
"This," he said, "is Miss Penharva's will—the unsigned will—that made your child a beggar."
"Yes?" she acquiesced. "It is of no use, you said."
"None whatever; waste paper—mere waste paper. We may as well tear it up. Only parchment isn't easy to tear."
He smiled oddly, and crushed up the sheet, and tossed it aside. Dolores watched him with ever-increasing wonder.
He turned next to the jewel-case, and opened it. Dirty, mildewed, and even in some places gnawed by the sharp teeth of rodents, yet the inside was quite unharmed.
He took out the jewels—an old watch, two or three gold chains, some quaint old Marquise rings, a heap of brooches, some uncut rubies, a diamond necklet, strings of pearls, hair bracelets—a queer assortment of jewelry that would not have made much show beside the resplendent coffers of a modern "mondaine." Yet they were valuable. They were antique old family jewels with histories attached; and the old lawyer's fingers lingered about them with a certain reverence as he placed them on the table before Dolores.
She watched him with some wonder in her eyes, but she asked no questions.
When the box was quite empty he closed it and handed it to her.
"Yours?" he said, with a queer twinkle in his eye.
"Mine?" she exclaimed, turning it from side to side, and then looking at him for explanation.
"Yours!" he repeated. "It doesn't look much of a legacy, yet it brings you good news and good fortune. Try if you can discover the secret."
She opened the lid; she sounded the bottom and the sides; she shook it, turned it upside down, and then looked back at the old lawyer's watchful face.
"No, there seems nothing here," she said.
Still smiling, he took the box again into his hands.
"You see this lid?" he asked her. "It looks solid, doesn't it? A mere accident revealed its secret to me, Look!"
He passed his forefinger slowly up the side, close against the outer edge. A leather flap flew back, revealing a square hollow compartment. Fitted into it was a thin leather case. Mr. Malpas drew it out.
"How dearly you women love writing down your secrets," he said. "Look here." He opened the case. Within lay a sealed packet of thin paper. It was addressed in the small cramped writing that Dolores knew so well.
"To Dolores Dering. For her private use, perusal and warning, after I shall be dead and my history forgotten."
She turned it over thoughtfully, her heart full of memories of that time when that strange, lonely woman had told her of the past tragedy in her blighted life.
"There is more than that," said Mr. Malpas. "I told you I had good news. Do you see this?"
He showed her a single sheet of notepaper. It was covered with writing, and bore at the end of the page three signatures.
"Her will!" exclaimed the old lawyer triumphantly. "Signed and witnessed, and perfectly legal! She made it herself pending my arrival with the more formal document. It is dated the same day. It merely repeats in simple words her intentions. Everything is left to your boy, and you are his guardian!"
For a moment Dolores could not speak. The room went whirling round, the shadows and sunbeams chased each other in giddy circles. It seemed hardly possible that this could be true.
The voice of the old man reached her dazed senses. "Come, come, take it calmly. It is quite right, it is just what she intended. By some strange foresight she made this herself and had it witnessed, and then put it into that hiding-place along with her journal. That feminine document was evidently written for your perusal only, I have no doubt. Meanwhile, what is more to the purpose is the proving of this will, and the settling of your claim. These jewels are yours by the way. There is no reason why you should not take them away with you. The will I will take steps to prove, and then you can decide what to do with the property."
"But if any of her legal relatives turn up?"
"That's of no moment now. She had full power to act as she pleased. And I'm inclined to think the family has died out. You see, our advertisements never met with any response. Don't make difficulties for goodness' sake, my dear young lady. The Penharva property has been the bane of my existence. I am heartily glad to see it pass out of the Penharva line."
He replaced the jewels in the box, tied it securely and sealed it. Then he handed it to Dolores. The sealed packet still lay unopened on the table.
She felt an odd dislike to take it—a fear lest what she should read there might have some unpleasant effect upon her life or future.
She could not explain why this feeling overcame her, but it was there, and remained with her during the drive back to her aunt's cottage. Not even then did it leave her, but haunted the remaining hours of the day until night came and she was alone and undisturbed, and could set herself to examine those closely covered pages.
In some the ink was dull, and the writing blurred as if by tears. Others were fresh and clear as if they had been recently added.
While the child slept peacefully in his little bed, and the soft air blew the perfume of rose and verbena through the open window, she unfolded, one by one, those long, thin slips of foreign paper, placed them in sequence, and began to read.
EXTRACTS COPIED FROM THE JOURNAL OF URSULA PENHARVA.
March 6th, 1844.
Seventeen to-day, and they kept my birthday for me in right good style at Penharva. It was my grandfather's wish, and that was ever law to my mother, who was a timorous body, and stood in great awe of her husband's family. I wore a new silk gown, and we drove away from St. Just in a chariot and pair, my mother and I, while my father rode at our side for company.
The morning was fine and bright with the coming of spring, and full of scents and sweetness. I envied my father on his horse. I would have loved to ride, too; but my little mare had been left behind, because, for sooth, I must be dressed in fine gown and hat and feathers to do honour to the day and meet my cousin John Penharva from Truro, with whom I am to make a match one of these days. So my mother has hinted, and having been brought up in duty and obedience I listen demurely, and say nothing. For indeed I have little wish to be married. I think girlhood should be free and happy, and have space and time for study and for judgment before it is given away to a man's keeping, and burdened with other cares. Still I do not speak such things even to my mother—good patient soul, who has, I confess here, little will of her own, and no riotous imagination, such as rules me at times, and makes me a wild, rebellious maid whom none may rule or check, save perhaps my grandfather.
* * * * * *
We are to stay the night at Penharva. There is to be a lot of company in the evening, and I hear that my cousin John has brought a friend with him from London.
* * * * * *
I have spent a most pleasant evening. I will just write of it before I go to bed. I have little inclination for sleep.
I have seen Cousin John's friend. He is a fine tall young man, with handsome face and black sparkling eyes. We danced together several times, and he said many pretty things of my light foot and gracefulness of figure. (I fear these London gentlemen are sad flatterers, for what could an ignorant country girl like myself know of manners?) I blushed and stammered when he spoke to me, but I danced with him whenever he asked, for Cousin John is heavy and clumsy, and I found him by no means so entertaining as his friend.
* * * * * *
Home again. I feel tired and out of spirits after so much gaiety. We stayed all day yesterday at my grandfather's request, and went out on the sea and walked to the Logan stone in the afternoon. I was not at all tired.
Yet to-day I feel heavy of limb and heart, and care for nothing. My mother has been busy scolding the maids, who it appears have done nothing right in our absence.
I wandered out in the garden and thought of Cousin John, good, stupid, honest youth. He is to pay us a visit at midsummer. I wish——
I was going to write something foolish. What could have put into my head that a fine London gentleman would ever care to stay in our dull West Country? I cannot tell for the life of me!
* * * * * *
What made me begin to keep a journal? Perhaps it was reading Clarissa in my grandfather's library. I have been much at Penharva of late. The old man has been ill and strange, and would have me with him to read and talk or play at picquet. He loves me in his way, but it is a somewhat trying way. I must do all he wants, and have no will nor opinion of my own.
* * * * * *
Great sorrow and misfortune have befallen us. I was recalled to my own home yesterday. My dear father had been thrown from his horse and killed on the spot. No one knows how it happened, whether Crab Apple stumbled or took fright. My poor father was picked up by a farming man near the mine of Balleswidden. He may have been cantering over the downs near that strange circle of stones, nineteen in number, whose history is unknown. My mother is distraught with grief. I feel too dazed and pained for much show of sorrow. We fear that the shock of his son's death will have a disastrous effect on my grandfather. His mind is already much impaired, and his moods get stranger every day.
* * * * * *
At Penharva. My mother and I are staying here. The old man would have me, and I would not leave her. We laid my dear father to rest in the old churchyard, where many a generation of the family lie buried. My mother tells me that owing to this I may be the heiress of my grandfather. It is therefore probable that they will urge me to marry my cousin, John Penharva. In this manner the name and the property will be kept together. I cannot but confess here, and to my own heart, that the idea does not please me. I have nought but cousinly affection for John Penharva. I do not wish to be his wife. I do not tell my grandfather this. It would vex him, and in his frail condition that would be scarcely kind.
The old house is very melancholy. My bedchamber is in the oldest part of it, and the casements look out on the kitchen garden and orchard, and all the fields of corn and rye now waving green and beautiful in the warm sunshine. The front of the house faces the sea, but is sunk too deep in the hollow of the cliff to allow of more than the sound of it. And weird and melancholy it is in time of storm, such as our coast knows.
How I miss my dear father. He was cheery, and full of good humour and good spirits. My mother is ever weeping and melancholy and my grandfather full of strange fancies and cranks. They say we Penharvas always get crazed as we grow old. If that is so, I am glad my dear father died in his prime, for it would have broken my heart to see him thus. I fancy the old house accounts for it.
It is full of mystery and gloom, of weird sounds and shadows. They say it is haunted, but of that I am supposed to know nothing. Yet I doubt if any ghost would frighten me. I am not timorous or weak like my mother. And if I met some long-passed-away ancestor on ancestress in these gloomy corridors I should but feel a curious and intense interest in their reasons for revisiting Penharva. I would dearly love to question such a ghost.
* * * * * *
I have made a strange discovery.
The maids were engaged in cleaning and arranging my bedchamber this a morning. It necessitated the moving of the great mahogany four-poster from its place, and once moved I bade them leave in its new position facing the window, thus allowing me some chance glimpse of morning sun and waving trees in the grounds beyond. This afternoon, while my grandfather slept, I went up to my newly-arranged chamber to inspect its alterations.
The gardener had cut away a good portion of the screening creepers. The window stood wide open to the sweet fresh air. Curtains of bright chintz framed it on either side, matching those of the bedstead, from which the old, heavy moreen had been removed. The old chairs had been beeswaxed and polished, and the same chintz covered their faded cushions. My writing-table stood under a bookshelf, well filled with my own cherished volumes of Scott, and Milton, and Jane Austen, and Mrs. Gaskell, mostly presents from my father. The room looks transformed, and I feel quite pleased with it.
The new position of the bedstead left a portion of the high panelled wainscot revealed. On this hung a picture. I approached it in order to see what it represented.
It was a portrait of an ancient dame. Some Penharva ancestress, I make no doubt. It did not interest me, and I turned away. I made a few alterations in the arrangement of the furniture, then took a book and seated myself on the wide old window seat, and gave myself up to a quiet hour, with "Marmion" and "The Lady of the Lake" for company.
Now, whether it was the continuous monotony of the metre (for Scott rarely varies) or the slumberous warmth of the air, or the soothing drone of the bees in the garden beyond, any or all of these, I cannot tell but gradually my eyes closed and I fell asleep.
What is more, I dreamt a dream. So strange and weird it was that I started up, rubbing my eyes and gazing at the wall, as if what had happened was real.
It seemed to me that I was looking at the old lady in the picture. As I looked she stepped out of the frame and stood by the wall; more, the open space left by her departure from the frame seemed to widen and deepen until a great cavity showed itself. She turned and looked at me, and pointed to this cavity, and impelled by curiosity I left my seat and went over to her. She pointed with one hand into the dark hollow, and I stood on tip-toe and looked in.
I saw to my surprise a narrow stairway of stone. It was dark and winding. I could not see its direction or its length. In spite of the darkness I saw it, and yet that did not appear strange. Full of wonder, I turned to the old lady to ask her what this meant, and awoke.
So vivid and so real it had been that I remained for several minutes staring at the portrait and the wall. I felt half inclined to approach and try the panel for myself, but the striking of a clock reminded me it was the hour to drink tea in my grandfather's room, and I resolved to defer my investigations till I was at liberty.
* * * * * *
I could not get that strange dream, or rather vision, out of my head. I have written it in my journal so that I may remember it in the future.
After all there is nothing so very strange in the existence of a secret stairway in such an ancient house as Penharva. Doubtless it has histories and tragedies of Cromwell's time and long before, of political intrigues, wanderers and exiles from court favours. Its very position marks it for secrecy and stronghold combined. No, there was nothing singular in hiding-place or refuge connected with its seventeenth century history, but the method of my discovery impressed me all the same.
When I went to bed I lit my two wax candles and approached the portrait, holding them so as to get a good view of the face. It suddenly struck me that it bore a great resemblance to myself.
True, the hair was white and severely banded under a Puritan-like cap, but the colour of the eyes, the features, the long throat, all of these were characteristics of my own. I gazed long and earnestly at the portrait, and the more I gazed the more I seemed to see myself at some future period of time, the living counterpart of this ancestress.
"I must learn her history," I told myself; and, turning from her face to the panel, I began the scrutiny on which I had determined. I searched in vain for opening or crack. Whatever lay behind it was well guarded and well concealed.
"Madam must tell me herself how to discover this seeming stairway," I said half aloud, and my voice struck strangely on the silence, it seemed to me.
I went to bed, and the dream repeated itself.
I have found the clue. There is a spring—a tiny, almost imperceptible knob, more like an unevenness in the wall than anything else. After much pressure and trial it yielded. The panel opens into a recess, and there, leading down to depths unknown, is the winding stairway.
I have not the courage to go down. The air is damp and mouldy, and it is horribly dark. I am quite content to have proved my dream correct. I shall sleep in peace to-night, I hope, and to-morrow I will ask my grandfather if he knows aught of any secret chamber in the basement, or any exit into the grounds through a subterranean channel. These stairs may go down to the foundations, and then lead to the cliffs for aught I know. A fine method of escape when changing dynasties and the iron rule of the Commonwealth made traitors of the good and loyal nobles of England.
* * * * * *
I have got hold of the story by scraps and bits. It is far too long and intricate to put down here. It is sufficient for me to know that the old lady is not only an ancestress but a namesake; that she also was one Ursula Penharva, that her life held a great sorrow and a great tragedy.
What makes me pause here, and ask myself shall I resemble her in more than name, and will my life also hold a great sorrow and culminate in a great tragedy? God knows!
* * * * * *
(A great portion of the diary following these entries consisted only of fragments—odd disjointed scraps concerning the illness of old Michael Penharva, and histories, more or less incoherent, respecting the family.
Dolores hurried over these or omitted them. She wanted to reach the modern portion of the journal.)
* * * * * *
Midsummer Day, June, 1847.
Three years since my grandfather died. Three years since Penharva became mine, and two since I refused John Penharva for the third time.
I cannot marry him. I have no inclination towards marriage at all.
I did ask him once if his friend from London was never again coming to visit us as he had promised, but he answered curtly that he knew nothing of him, and that he bore by no means such a character as should interest a lady. Upon which my colour rose, and I told him haughtily that a lady's interest concerned no one but herself and the person on whom it was bestowed, and so we parted on no better terms than ever did part us. For he was always rebuking, and I always impatient.
'Tis full summer now, the sky of a glory beyond all words to paint, the orchards and gardens fragrant with ripening fruits and full-blown roses, the hayfields ripe for the gleaners, the sea a blue and waveless mirror, stretching far and wide to the dim horizon line.
'Tis a great day for Cornish maids, this 24th of June. At noon they try charms to prove who shall have swain or sweetheart, and who go without. I hear much chattering and ado, but I leave my mother to chide their wasted hours. It has nought to do with me.
I feel strange lack of interest in this old house; I grow pale and languid, and time hangs heavy on my hands.
I wish I could get away to some new place, some new life. I am twenty years of age, and rich—so they say—and yet. . . Heigh-ho! how weary I feel at times, and how old!
Ruth Chirgwyn came running across the orchard path, as I wandered there seeking for ripe cherries. She is a pretty girl, and helps in the kitchen and laundry. When she saw me she stopped and looked confused. I knew what she had been doing, and laughed at her blushes. Peter Pasco the gardener is after her, and I doubt not she had been trying charms to find out when they would be wed—if at all.
"Try to-night again," I said, half in jest, for indeed it is no light matter to be out at midnight on Midsummer Day, since fairies and pixies are seen, not to mention his majesty Tregeagle, who is a mighty tricky spirit, and blamed for many an evil deed through the length and breadth of Cornwall.
"To-night!" gasped the girl, and all her blushes faded into waxen whiteness. "Awk! My dear Miss Ursy, you do never mean the hempseed?"
"I do mean the hempseed."
She began to shake.
"La! La! Miss, I couldn't, were it ever so. I should be skeered of my life. I never did do more than bake a cake on the kitchen hearth, nor more did any of the maids. We han't narra of us goet the sperrit. All the saam, miss, I'd be dearly lovin' to see if he would cum a-followin' I. Do 'ee believe in thicky charm, Miss Ursy?"
"I've never tried it," I said, gravely. "But suppose I come with you?"
"Awk! My dear life!" she gasped. "Would 'ee dare now? And tell not a soul. They do say sure as fate the young man that's to wed wi' un will follow."
"Yes," I said, "I'll come. I'll go down to the kitchen at a quarter before midnight. Wait for me there, but be sure you tell no one."
She promised solemnly, and then ran off to her own regions and her own work, while I ate fruit under the shade of the great pear tree, and asked myself if I had not been very foolish to encourage this silly maid in her superstition.
I soon forgot all about it, but it happened that in the evening I was in the library, looking for a special book I desired to read. On one shelf, thrust into a corner, I came upon an old volume that bore the title, "Cornish Superstitions." I drew it out and began to read it.
Heavens! What a record of legends and charms, witches and wizards, it contained. If one half were true, well, Cornwall must be the most ghost-ridden, witch-bepeopled county in all England.
At some I laughed, at others wondered. But, having saturated myself with this lively literature for some hours, I was doubtless in a fitting frame of mind to test some of its best-known and vouched for superstitions.
* * * * * *
Not an hour ago I staggered into this room more dead than alive. Now I tell myself how foolish, and worse than foolish, I am, and oh, how bitterly ashamed. Let me see if I can write down here what really happened.
I found Ruth waiting for me. We both wore cloaks, with hoods drawn over our heads. We both carried in our hands a small basket of hempseed.
Noiselessly we crept out into the garden, and up the winding path, and so into the high road, stretching white and clear, under the moonlight, to the town of Penzance.
It was quite empty of human figure or living object.
"Ruth," I said, "we will walk on, say, twenty paces, then turn, and scatter the hempseed behind us."
But she objected that we must not be together. So I left her at the twenty paces, and went on further myself for some twenty or thirty more. Just where I paused a group of beech trees, ancient and tall, threw a shadow over the white road. I turned hastily. At the same moment the stillness was broken by the sound of footsteps approaching from behind, and, a voice hailed me.
Now what foolishness overcame me at that moment I cannot tell, but down fell my basket, and I flew like one possessed over the white road, reaching Ruth in a moment, and dragging her with me down the narrow cliff path that led to the back entrance of the house. We had left the gate open, and through it we flew, fast as feet could carry us, slamming the door behind and turning the key in the lock. There we stood a moment to regain breath, trembling and panting, and Ruth, for one, ready to faint with terror.
"Who was it?" she gasped.
"I don't know," I said. "I never waited to see."
"Hush!" she cried. "He do be a folloin' 'ee. O Lord! O Lord! What iver shall us do?"
I clapped my hand to her mouth and listened. Sure enough footsteps were coming down the glen. Quick, firm footsteps—those of a young man, without doubt.
We were too frightened to move. We held each other by the arm and listened.
The footsteps stopped at the gate, and a loud knocking began. Ruth, little fool, dropped on her knees. I, regaining courage and knowing the gate was strong, demanded who was there.
"A belated traveller," said a voice—and what was in its tones that should thrill me, and set my heart beating so wildly? "My carriage broke down midway between Penzance and here, or I should have reached the place hours ago. Are the family all gone to rest for the night?"
"Say 'yes,'" I cried imperatively in Ruth's ear. "I know who the gentleman is."
She staggered to her feet.
"It be no ghaist, miss, then?"
"Ghost—no. It is a friend. He must be admitted. I'll slip upstairs. You let him in, and I will waken my mother."
"I can't e'en daur to open the gate," she cried below her breath.
"Nonsense!" I said, and shook her sharply. "You must wait until I reach the kitchen door, and then turn the key."
She rose to her feet, and I sped silently over the grass, reached the kitchen, and flew upstairs.
I knocked at my mother's door, telling her I had heard someone at the gate—a traveller who had been on his way to see us and met with an accident. She bade me go down as soon as I was dressed, and she would follow. I returned to my room to await Ruth's summons. It would never do to confess myself one of the foolish maids he had pursued. He must only think it was the servants. What should the mistress of Penharva be doing at night, working midsummer charms on the high road?
Pale and demure in my black gown, I went down into the small parlour my mother and I used for meals some quarter of an hour after Ruth had summoned me.
He was sitting by the open window, looking at the mystic whiteness of the moonlit garden. He—I had no need to name him. My heart had done that at the first sound of his voice.
He rose. I saw then how changed he was in these three years. His face was lined and pale. His eyes had lost their brightness and grown dull and lustreless. He wore a moustache and short pointed beard, which gave him the look of one of the Royalists in our picture gallery, and was quite an unknown fashion in our part of the world.
"I—I can hardly flatter myself that you remember me, Miss Penharva," he said. "And what must you think of my disturbing your household at this untimely hour! But my carriage broke down midway between Penzance and here, or I should have arrived hours ago."
"I remember you very well," I said.
He looked at me earnestly.
"You have changed since I saw you last, but the change is only to your advantage," he said.
I drew my hands away from his, and, blushing, asked him to be seated.
I tried to conquer my foolish confusion, to talk naturally, but it was strangely difficult. I welcomed the appearance of Ruth with a tray of refreshment and a jug of cider. She was speedily followed by my mother, who did the duties of hostess in her own kind, simple fashion. Then he told us of London and its gay doings, and spoke touchingly, of our bereavement, of which he had heard from Cousin John. I wondered what business had brought him to our out-of-the-world dwelling, but he did not explain, saying only that he would but trespass on our hospitality the matter of two or three days.
I spoke very little. It was pleasure enough to listen. I noted, though, that when my mother told him the house and everything at Penharva was mine, he looked at me with a new attention, and after that was somewhat silent.
When he had finished his supper, my mother herself showed him to his room. I lingered to give some orders to Ruth, who came in to remove the tray.
"Remember," I said, pressing hard her arm. "Not a word of who was with you on this night's foolish business to anyone."
She promised faithfully, and I went to my own bedchamber.
It was flooded with moonlight. I needed no candle to undress. As I stood and looked at the familiar things around me, beautified now by this silver flame that poured in from the open window, my eyes rested on the portrait. I started. It seemed for a moment as if it looked at me with strange earnestness, with something of warning, as if it fain would speak.
A great fear overcame me. I seized the matches and lit my candles quickly, then drew down the blind.
Truly imagination plays us strange tricks at times.
The two or three days have lapsed into a week, and he is still here. We are much together. We ride, and sail in the bay, and loiter in the garden and the glen. We are great friends, and I have lost my shyness with him. He professes himself in love with our country ways, and the beauty of the coast, and this quaint dwelling-house. He has explored it from garret to basement with the strangest interest. I showed him the secret stair, and he is now keen on discovering the outlet. He thinks it is in some other portion of the house; but among all the deeds and papers and plans relating to Penharva, we have found no clue.
* * * * * *
My mother has been sick the last few days, and kept her room. So he and I have been much thrown together. He speaks now of leaving. But speaks always with regret and sadness of voice, as though his heart was not with the intention. Yet what charm can there be here to keep a fine London gentleman content?
* * * * * *
I am in a terrible fright. To no living soul dare I speak of what happened to-day. But I shall write it here for my own satisfaction.
I was sitting alone in my room this afternoon, not caring to go out of doors in the great heat, when it seemed to me there came a tapping at the wall in the direction of the portrait.
I was startled, then frightened. I made no movement, only sat still, and gazed like one dumb with fear and expectation. The noise ceased, then there was a groping and scraping as of a hand seeking somewhat. Too terrified almost to breathe, I watched the portrait move, the panel sink back, and a face look at me through the opening. Then I screamed as one distraught. A voice cried to me entreatingly to have no fear, and as I saw to whom face and voice belonged I rose, pale and angry and amazed.
"A thousand pardons," he cried. "You gave me leave to find the outlet, if I could, and I have done so. I came to a dead stop here, so tried the wall. Have I frightened you?"
"You have indeed," I said, trembling still.
"May I come in and ask pardon?"
"No, no," I said, hastily. "You did not know, of course." And, curiosity overcoming terror I approached and looked down the secret passage. He had a lantern in his hand, and showed me how it winded and twisted into the darkness below.
"There is but room for one," he said. "Are you afraid to venture before or after me?"
"I am afraid of rats and vermin," I said. "Besides, the stair has no interest for me; I am not likely to use it."
"It is plain," he said, "that country morals are unlike those of town ladies. This would be found mighty useful by some of them."
I told him it was very venturesome of him to have come thither, not knowing whence the stair might have led, and he answered—no matter what. Fine phrases doubtless come easy to town folk. . . . For long he stayed there talking, and as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom I saw what seemed a small chest or case standing on a shelf just above his head.
I drew his attention to it, and he put up his hand and drew it down. It proved to be an iron box with a strong lock, and was of great weight. Full of curiosity to see its contents I made him bring it within my room. Just as we were examining it I heard my mother's voice calling from hers.
He seized my hand. "Say nothing of this, I implore," he whispered. "What would she think if she found me here?"
I nodded acquiescence and withdrew, leaving him there with the box.
My mother detained me some time. When I was free to return to my room again I found it deserted. The box stood in the same place, and the panel was closed, but on the table was a sheet of paper addressed to me. It said:—
"Dear Miss Penharva,
The lid was ill-secured. I leave you to examine it at your leisure. Do not, I entreat you, fear that I shall make any use of this knowledge, and, keep it a secret, I beseech you. I will show you the other entrance whenever you desire.
I put the paper in my pocket, and turned my attention to the box. The lid opened easily, somewhat to my surprise. I knelt down to see what treasure had been so carefully hidden. There were some old silver flagons with the Penharva crest, some fragments of lace, yellow and torn, and a miniature or two set in gold.
"No great treasure, after all," I thought.
I closed the lid and stooped to push the box aside into a corner of the room. Remembering its great weight I put forth all my strength. To my surprise it moved with ease now. As I pushed it I noted a slip of paper lying on the floor. It was yellow with age, and the writing faded and almost illegible. I took it to the light of the window, and made out that it was a list of the contents of this said box or chest, as it was called, bearing the date of 1650, and purporting to be an account of the hidden wealth of one Humfrey Penharva, secreted here for fear of discovery on the part of Cromwell's Ironsides.
I read the list as well as I could. Amazement held me motionless. There should have been bags of gold pieces, bars of silver, melted down into this form for security, coins and gold pieces, and jewels and rich plate. Where had it all vanished? Certainly the present contents of the box did not in any way correspond with the list I held in my hand.
"Someone must have helped themselves to this treasure," I said to myself. I glanced round. Someone——
But it is so old. Generations of Penharvas have lived and died since first it was placed in that secret cupboard. I crossed the room slowly, the list in my hand. I had intended to replace it in the box, but some stronger feeling seemed to counsel me not to do so. As I stood halting between two opinions I glanced up. The portrait was in its accustomed place now. The eyes looked down at me. Was it fancy, or did some stronger light gleam in them? Triumph; the triumph of one who has foreseen or warned, and finds that foresight was prophetic, and the warning has been verified.
A sudden anger swept over me. (I grow fanciful and foolish in this chamber of mine. I must fight this foe of superstition, or change my room for one less uncanny and historical.)
Meanwhile I locked away the list in a drawer of my bureau, and went downstairs to the parlour.
* * * * * *
My mother came down to supper this evening. She looked ill and weak, and I was much concerned about her. She ate scarcely anything, nor did she seem able to join in our conversation.
He, too, was more silent than his wont. We said nothing of our discovery that afternoon, and it surprised me when he told my mother formally that important business called him to London next day, and he must bid us farewell. I tried to betray no emotion. I fear I did not succeed. It came to me as a shock, the feeling his words aroused. For a moment his eyes met mine, and they seemed full of sorrow and regret. A blush of fire stole to my face—it seemed as if the world had grown suddenly old and sad.
I left the room hurriedly, saying I would give the orders for the conveyance of his luggage and himself to Penzance, there to meet the coach. He rose to open the door. "Meet me in the garden in half an hour's time," he whispered: "I must speak to you."
My heart throbbed, my brain seemed in a whirl of confusion. I made no answer, but the pressure of his hand on mine sent the blood to my face once more.
I hurried away, and told the servants of the necessary duties for the morning departure, and then assisted my mother to her room, and left her in charge of her faithful old maid, who was Ruth Chirgwyn's mother, and had been in our family since her widowhood.
I went downstairs, and saw that the house was shut up for the night, and the windows closed, all save those belonging to the summer parlour, as we called it. These opened on to the old stone verandah, and led from thence to the lawn and garden.
In half an hour's time the house had grown silent. The light from my mother's room and that from the parlour where I sat were the only lights in its whole dark frontage.
I waited a few moments, then moved over to the window, and from thence crossed the soft grass and turned into the shrubbery beyond. He was there.
How does one write of that which changes and transfigures one's whole life? I cannot tell. Words will not come to me now. I am too happy. I sit here in the stillness of my own room, and I know that all the world is changed. I drink in the odour of rose and jessamine and myrtle, and the sound of the sea is like a magic song, and the night is full of music and passion and beauty, such as no night before or since has ever known, can ever know.
Love has come to me. Love that makes of woman slave and mistress and goddess all in one. Out of all the world of men, one has stooped to me, and called me queen of his heart, and holder of his life. Oh! glad world. Kind Heaven! Happy blessed Fate that made me woman, since by that charm of womanhood I have gained such a king of men for lover and beloved.
He has gone. And the days are sad and dull and desolate. He binds me to secrecy for a time. There are reasons why we may not marry for a year or two. What do I care for secrecy or reasons so only he loves me? And he does—he does.
* * * * * *
(Here came a long interval in the extracts from the diary, as if many pages had been omitted. The entries were brief, and spoke of sorrow and doubts as to a lover's truth, yet then again were full of blame for such doubts. There were some, too, that spoke of sums of money he had borrowed, with promise of repayment never kept.
At last came a page of sudden rapture. The wedding day was fixed, was at hand. He was once more a guest at Penharva, and peace and harmony reigned.
Then came one single extract. Dolores read it and shuddered. It was a curse. Thus it ran margined around, and interlined with ink red as blood, the words seeming alive, even at this date, with a scorn and hatred that had only died with life itself):—
"Traitor, Dastard, Liar! On you who have taken all that was best to me, and given but false payment of flatteries and broken vows—on you who have betrayed and dishonoured me in all men's sight—on you whom to my eternal shame and misery I loved, with a woman's passionate self-forgetful devotion—on you, coward and deserter, do I breathe this curse on this day that should have seen me bride and happy wife! May misfortune pursue you. May riches fail you, since for them you have forfeited honour. May she for whom your idle fancy has left me to loneliness and despair betray and desert you. May never child be born to give you love or duty, and may Hell's curse blight your dying hours that so their horror and misery may recall mine!"
Dolores shuddered as she read. There was something so awful, so relentless in the words—their despair and their unpardoning hate.
What she next read bore a comparatively resent date, and was addressed to herself:—
"I shall be dead, and my miserable life ended when you read these
lines. I have copied the preceding pages out of an old journal kept
by me in my girlhood. It is burnt now, and when you have read these
extracts I ask you to burn them also, because I wish no other eyes to
read of my folly, and none but you to know the name of my false love.
False surely, as never man before. He won my love, he betrayed my
trust, he stole my very heritage, and begged of my wealth to pay debts
of so-called 'honour'—honour that represented gambling, mistresses,
dissipation of every sort, and then, not content with this, he played
this last dastardly trick. He led me to believe we were to be wedded
at last, and on the very eve of that wedding day ran off with some low
actress—a vile, notorious, hateful thing who, for the time being,
ruled his life with imperious passion. And my money helped him!
"The shame, the bitterness of it all ate into my very soul. I shut myself away from all eyes, lest their pity or their triumph, should drive me mad. Indeed, I trod so nearly on the borderland of fancy that very little more would have crossed it, and left me bound in the outer darkness of a mind distraught.
"How the years have come and gone I know not. I would hear nothing of the outer world, see neither kith nor kin, neither friend nor foe.
"Sick and weary, I shut myself into utter darkness, brooding in lonely grief, calling oft on death for comfort or release. But death, though he took one by one those of my race and kinship, passed me by. I heard of such things only from the family lawyer, who managed the property, and brought me money at stated times.
"Money! What was it to me? Less than nothing now, for my hard heart shut itself in from all the misery and sorrow as well as the happiness and love of the world beyond Penharva. Money! What could I do with these rentals and payments, save shut them in that box which had once held the stolen treasure of dead ancestors. To me gold was nought. My life was laid waste, so might lie the lands, the house, the glen, all that had once meant the beauty of Penharva.
"I kept but three rooms of all the rambling old mansion for my use—the dressing-room that had been my mother's, a sitting-room adjoining it, and my own bedchamber communicating with the old secret stairway. Servants, too, had been dismissed or left or died as time went on. I would not replace them. I had a horror of new faces. Of all that had once served and loved us, none remained but Ruth Chirgwyn, who had married Peter Pasco, the gardener. They did all that was necessary. She took charge of the house and waited on me. He worked at the garden as the mood took him. My shuttered windows were closed to all that lay beyond. It had no interest for me. My life was over.
"And now, child, I reach that portion of my history wherein you play a part. Your coming here was due to many talks and arguments with Mr. Ephraim Malpas, who I think greatly feared for my mind and health in the lonely unemotional life I led. Some chance words of his one day started the idea of adopting a child, to train and bring up as my own. I never thought of the cruelty of immuring a young life in my prison house, of harm that might chance to it in the future. I only seized upon the idea with what morbid strength of brain I had left to me and bade me find what I desired.
"Of how you came, of my eagerness and cruel joy in recognising in you another victim to man's perfidy, of how we lived and brooded over your sad history, and how I dreaded your hour of peril, and watched with Ruth by your side during those days of fever and unconsciousness, of the child and the change he wrought in us, we both know. There is no need to say more. But what you do not know, Dolores, is what I am now about to write, for some presentiment of ill or evil chance is upon me, and the portrait of my ancestress has visited my slumbers once again, to point with warning finger at the secret stairway—always a portent of ill.
"Malpas has warned me often of the danger of living as I do, of the risk of robbers and thieves and bad characters. But the house is always securely barred. The outer walls are high, the gate that leads to the glen locked. I have no fear.
* * * * * *
"To-night a strange thing happened. I will write it here, on this paper, for though its terror has passed, its memory remains.
"Ephram Malpas has been with me and brought me the usual sum of money. Also he read to me the terms of my will, and I copied them for reference on a sheet of paper by my side. An ordinary person would have signed and witnessed and delivered them there and then; but Ephraim Malpas is like all his fraternity, a stickler for form and binding, red tape and parchment, and so took the notes away to put into proper form and phraseology, promising to bring or send the deed the next day.
"When he has gone I re-read my slip of paper. It was a will to all intent and purpose, and I resolved to sign it myself, and was about to do so when I remembered that witnesses of my signature were necessary. I summoned Ruth Pasco and her husband, and they duly signed their names, as I told them, below mine.
"I was pleased when all was done. Should anything prevent Malpas from bringing over that more formal document, or should anything happen to me, the child is provided for, and you, Dolores, you will be his best guardian.
"I feel to-night that strange premonition of evil to come, of misfortune near at hand, that overtakes us Penharvas, and is never to be despised. I will lock this paper away with these extracts of my journal. This box, soon or late, will fall into your hands, my child. The jewels are my last gift to you. These papers I beg you to destroy.
* * * * * *
"Not half an hour ago I went to my room. I took my jewel case out of my bureau and placed these papers in the false lid. A plan of it lies at the bottom, Dolores. You will find it among——"
"I broke off here, overcome by a feeling of such intense terror that my hair seemed to stiffen and my limbs grow cold. I looked over my shoulder. I had forgotten to close the casement. It stood wide open to the soft August night, and looking in upon me was a face—an awful, haggard face, unshaven, fierce, with bloodshot eyes that stared at me hungrily from out grey shaggy hair.
"My hands fell numb and powerless at my side. I tried to scream, but could make no sound.
"How long had it been there? How long had those eyes watched me? I had locked away the gold Malpas had brought in the secret cupboard behind the portrait. Had he seen me?
"Slowly the sickening terror waned. I looked again. The face was gone. Had I only fancied it? Had I been the slave of some delusion? For in the eyes, and about the haggard brow, there had seemed to me a likeness to that false lover of mine—that Harcourt Ericson upon whom I had laid my curse, and whom with all my soul I hated.
Yet that haunted, criminal-looking being, unshaven, ragged, desperate, could that be the courtly, handsome man at whose feet I had lain my life, and for whom my heart had broken?
"As strength and feeling returned I rushed to the window. No one was there. The moonlight slept on flower and leaf, and on the quiet orchard and the paths beyond. With frenzied, trembling hands I closed the windows and barred the shutters within. I locked the outer door of the room leading to the corridor, then my own.
"My courage returned. I felt safe from all intrusion. The bell beside my bed rings into Ruth Pasco's own bedchamber. A touch would call her and her husband had I need of them. Yet what need should I have?"
"Truly, my wits are weakening, and I shall grow to believe Penharva is haunted, as they say.
"I will lock these papers away, and replace the jewel case.
"No, the morning will do for that. Somehow I am too shaken in my wits and nerves to open the secret cupboard."
The last slip fluttered from Dolores' hand. The whole tragedy of that lonely life stood revealed at last. Whether the face seen at the casement had been that of Miss Penharva's false lover or not, certainly it was the face of her murderer. No stronger proof was needed than what these papers contained, than the stolen booty for which his life had paid the penalty.
A miserable life—a miserable end. She shuddered as she thought of it. And this man was Harold Ericson's father, so Miss Penharva had said, and these papers seemed to testify the truth of that saying.
She rested her head on her hands, and gave herself up to long and anxious thought. It seemed impossible to connect the Ericson she knew with this treacherous, degraded criminal. Impossible, too, to associate the mother his loving words had painted with the low, unprincipled actress of Ursula Penharva's description. Then she remembered that Ericson's real name was Sylvester. He had told her that the other was only assumed as a nom de plume for the lighter work with which he varied the stern day work of his profession. But once again her heart grew chill with sudden remembrance. How account for the strong instinct that had drawn him towards the dramatic profession, except by that taint of heredity in his blood. The links seemed to strengthen the chain of proof, and the memory of the father overshadowed the son.
She rose and gathered up the thin slips of paper, and locked them away in her own despatch box. "I will not destroy them until I have read them once again," she thought. Then she replaced the jewels and put them aside, and crossed the room to where the child lay sleeping.
How fair he looked, and innocent and beautiful. Tears dimmed her eyes as she gazed.
"Yet they once looked as fair and innocent to their mothers' eyes, these men who have poisoned and destroyed my life and hers!" she cried in her heart. "Ah! heaven, if we only knew what lay before these creatures of our flesh and blood, could we dare be mothers. . . . What prayer, what teaching of mine, will keep this child holy? Blindly I must let him tread the pathway of life, taking his chance as others have taken it, ruled by a fate stronger than any mother's love!"
She sank down by the little low bed, and buried her head in the snowy quilt. She could not weep, she could not pray. She could only kneel there in dumb patient misery, thinking the old bitter thoughts of long ago.
The day was breaking when she rose from her knees. In her eyes was a look that had never been there before. And from her face, drawn and white, as if by inward suffering, the look of youth had departed for ever.
That night's martyrdom had brought to her resolution and strength. She resolved to tell her aunt in what relation she stood to the child. Deception had lasted long enough. It looked to her the worst form of cowardice. Whatever chanced, whatever befell, the child should know its mother, and acknowledge her authority and claims.
It was close upon noon when Dolores came slowly down the stairs. Miss Webbe's household tasks were finished. Her bustling energy had subsided into an armchair by the open window. Her work-basket lay close at hand. The "Western Morning News," sent daily from Penzance, lay open on her lap.
She looked up as her niece entered. "I hope your headache is better?" she said. "Dear me, I don't wonder at your being upset. This Penharva mystery, as the papers call it, is enough to try anyone's nerves. I am positively alarmed—and so is Marian. Our cottages are so unprotected. What use are shutters and bars? This dreadful miscreant got into the house in spite of all."
Dolores came slowly forward. She now laid her hand upon the newspaper and gently removed it.
"Aunt Sarah," she said, "I want you to give me half an hour of your time and attention. Can you do so?"
"Certainly, my child. Why, how pale you look. Nothing is the matter, I hope; no bad news?"
"No," said the girl, seating herself on the low old-fashioned window seat. "No bad news, dear, for me. What it may be for you remains to be seen."
She looked at the pleasant homely face, the keen eyes, the erect figure which the passing years had touched so lightly.
"Aunt Sarah," she said, "the first time we met after—after my leaving home, you told me you had a letter from my father to give me."
"Yes, a sealed letter. And also a copy of his will, leaving you that money."
"I have used the money. The letter I have not dared open."
"No. My reasons for leaving home were not the reasons I gave in my letter to him. I deceived him. I deceived him, you, all who knew me—there."
"Oh, hush! aunt let me tell you my miserable story in my own way, then you may say what you please."
She clasped her hands tightly together, her sad unyouthful eyes turned towards the garden, with all its wealth of summer beauty and perfume.
"I went away from home because—I dared—not stay. Do you understand?" Her voice was firm and unfaltering. She never looked at the shocked face opposite her own. "I was soon to become a mother and my husband had denied the legality of our marriage."
Miss Webbe gave a gasp, but she said nothing.
The sad voice hurried on, omitting no detail, glossing over her youthful indiscretion with no sophistry.
"I loved him blindly and devotedly. I trusted his word as I trusted in the Holy Book, on which he swore his troth. I am his wife, by the quibble of that strange law which makes a mere informal compact binding in that one country; but I cannot prove it, and he has denied it. Will you believe it, or call my child what the world would call him?"
"Your child? Do you mean this boy—Marian's adopted child?"
"Yes. He is mine, and Cyril Grey is his father."
Miss Webbe's speech and breath failed her utterly at such an announcement. She turned crimson and gasped again.
"I—it seems impossible. Yet now I remember. Cynthia gave me a hint."
"Cynthia knew I loved him. She must have guessed—something."
"She would not say. I know she wrote to Cyril and told him of your disappearance, but he professed the greatest astonishment."
"He is a coward and a traitor," cried the girl, her eyes flashing stormily. "I cannot think of him with patience. What I have suffered, endured—Aunt Sarah, you can never know. I cannot tell."
"But Dolores—try, my dear, to explain. God knows I won't judge you harshly. You were so young——"
"Yes," she said, drearily. "So—young. I think to have killed that youth was in itself a crime beyond all other!"
Tears rushed to the shrewd, keen face that watched hers. Mutual womanhood responded to the touch of mutual wrong.
"Poor child, poor unhappy child! Why did you not tell us, Dolores? Your father would have been no harsh judge."
"Oh! I couldn't—I couldn't. I was mad, and desperate, and terrified at the thought of what I had brought upon myself. My only desire was to escape. To get away from all who knew me, or had loved me. Can't you understand! The word 'shame' was branded on me by the hand of the man I loved. How could I bear that other lips should echo—or that I should read it in the eyes of those so honoured and so loved!"
"Then this was how you came to know Miss Penharva?"
"Yes. I saw an advertisement in a West of England paper. It was so curious that I took note of it. I replied. That reply"—she hesitated. "She was a stranger, but her story was sadder and more tragic than my own. She gave me refuge. She adopted my child. Then I went out into the world to fight the battle of life for myself. I succeeded, partly by her aid, partly by that of friends true and steadfast and most helpful. All that you know; I have told you before. But what you do not know is this. A will has been found. She has left all her wealth, and Penharva too, to Davy."
By this time Miss Webbe could not even gasp. No romance she had read had ever held so many marvels as did this history and its sequence.
Dolores hurried on. "I have never told the child I am his mother. But now it seems to me he must know. I am left guardian of this money. It will provide for his education, start him in life, and relieve me of all responsibility."
"You must tell him," said Miss Webbe, tragically. "And, Dolores, you must take steps to prove your marriage."
"I know," she said; "for his sake. I would never have done it for my own."
"I call that very foolish. Why should you rest under a cloud? But you were always headstrong, even as a child."
And it seemed as if some remembrance of that headstrong period brought the tears to her eyes in a flood. Dolores looked at her in sad wonderment. It seemed to her now that nothing mattered; nothing in all the wide world of sorrow and misfortune could ever bring such tears to her eyes again, with their bitter sad relief.
They sat on, exchanging question and answer at intervals. Miss Webbe could not comprehend this strange calm and patience that held the once passionate, wilful girl in thrall. It frightened her, and yet made her proud and thankful that such strength of character should rest with one so young. How little she had known of this niece, always the wild and wayward and rebellious one of the family. She could not find words to suit an emergency so unexpected. She could only look and wonder.
"When shall you tell the child the truth?" she asked at last.
"To-night, I think. The sooner the better. A friend, a barrister—indeed he is no other than Mrs. Sylvester's nephew—is going to make enquiries into the legality of the marriage. He himself has no doubt that it is perfectly valid."
Miss Webbe shook her head. "Disgracefully informal," she said. "I have heard of these Scotch marriages. Dreadful! It seems you may be legally married without knowing it, and illegally married when you do. Still, Dolores, you are not so much to blame. Cyril is the offender from every point of view. But if he gives in—if he takes you back!"
"Takes me back!" The girl started to her feet, her face ablaze with passionate scorn. "Do you think I would ever consent to be the wife of the man who left me to such a fate?—who condemned my unborn child to the stigma of illegitimacy?"
"Oh! hush, my dear, don't be so—so tragic," entreated her aunt. "If he is proved to be your husband, why he must be your husband; and for the child's sake let bygones be bygones."
Dolores' face grew white as marble. She said not a word.
At that moment the boy's voice sounded from the garden, gay and jubilant, challenging his "Aunty Sarah," as he caught sight of her familiar cap. She looked out and nodded. When she turned her head Dolores had left the room.
"You, Dolly?" said the boy, sleepily.
He was sitting up in bed regarding the highly-coloured pictures in a book. He still adhered to his childish fancy for giants, especially Cornish giants, they seeming, by right of all legends and traditions, to have been the most blood-thirsty of any of their kind.
"Yes, Davy," she said. "I have come to talk to you."
"To tell me a story?" he asked, eagerly, sleep banished by anticipation of a treat in store for him.
"Yes, a story," she said, and seated herself on the edge of the low iron bedstead. He climbed into her lap and laid his head against her shoulder.
"'Bout giants?" he asked.
"Not this time," she answered, in the same low repressed voice that told of hidden pain. "It's a real story, dear, about a little boy—like yourself."
He glanced at her enquiringly. "I hope he went to school," he said, "and fought a big boy, and beat him. But then women don't know those sort of stories."
"This little boy," she said, "came to his mother in a time of great grief and trouble. And his mother was very poor and friendless, and had to go out in the world and earn her own living; and she could not take the little baby with her, he was so small and so helpless."
"I s'pose even I was a baby once," he remarked, discontentedly.
She assured him gravely that he had not escaped that humiliating fate, upon which he bade her get on to the "grown up" part.
"So the mother not being able to take him with her left him in charge of a kind old lady who promised to look after and adopt him."
"It means take him for her own—bring him up, and look after him, and be a mother to him."
"Yes, but a boy can't only have one mother, you know," said Davy, wisely. "What was the real one to do?"
"The real one thought it best that the child should live a child's happy life, well fed, well housed, well cared for. She could give him nothing but her love, but love, however great, wouldn't feed even a little baby, Davy; and he soon ceased to be a baby and grew strong and big and rosy."
"Like me?" enquired the listener, proudly.
"Yes, dear, like you."
"And didn't she never come to see him any more?"
"She came—when she could, but he had forgotten her. She was not in his life, and children's interests are only centred in what is around and about them."
"Where was his father?" suddenly demanded the child. "All the boys I know have fathers; though mostly their mothers work as well."
"His father," she said, coldly, "was a bad man. He did not care that the mother had to work, or that the little child might starve. He left them and went away to a strange country far across the sea."
"I wish the giants had found him and eaten him," said Davy gravely.
She smiled faintly. "No, they left him alone," she said. "He was quite safe all the time. But as the little boy grew older his mother thought of him more and more, and it seemed to her that she ought to tell him his history and take him to be her own little boy, and give him all the love that was in her heart and that he knew nothing of. Yet always something held her back, and he did not seem to want—her."
The boy's straight brows suddenly drew together in a little puckered frown. He lifted his head and looked at her. "It's a queer sort of story, Dolly," he said.
"Is it?" she said, faintly. "Well, I will get on to the end of it. One day a dreadful thing happened to the kind lady who had taken care of the little boy, and he had to leave the house that had belonged to her, and—and his mother knew this, but still she did not claim him, or say he was her child because—because——"
"Dolly," he cried, breathlessly, "you're crying. Was it your own little boy?"
"Yes!" she said, and the tears fell on his upturned face. "It was my own—little boy. It was you, Davy—you. I am our mother."
He sat erect, quite still, as if puzzling out some problem in his own young brain.
"I'm very glad," he said at last. "Because now I shall always live with you, shan't I, Dolly?"
She smiled amidst her tears. "Yes," she said. "My home is yours now, Davy, as long as you want it——But, dear, the story is not finished yet. I have something more to say."
"What?" he asked, for she paused for a moment.
"It is this. Your father may return from that strange country some day, and he may claim you as his son; for you will be rich, my dear—and any father would be proud of you," she added suddenly. "But, Davy, when that day comes, if it ever does, you will have to choose between us, between him and me; between the man who wronged your mother and the mother who loves and has loved you, for all her seeming indifference. Oh! child, child, it breaks my heart to think of it. You are so young, and I can't explain. I can't make you understand!" She strained him to her heart with sudden passion of grief and love combined. "If I could," she said, "you would know more than your young heart could bear. Oh! Davy, Davy, let me cry my fill. Some day you will remember these tears and pity me."
His little bright face grew very grave. He slipped off her knee and stood barefooted by her side, regarding her with those wondering eyes of childhood that look on grief as one of life's unexplained puzzles.
"Don't cry, dolly," he said at last. "I will be good, and I'll take care of you, and if that bad man ever wants to take me away I won't go. I'll always stay with you, now I know I'm your own little boy."
She dried her eyes and looked at him, at the bright hair, the deep blue eyes, the earnest little face, the strong sturdy little figure. "God's blessing on you, child, my life's comforter."
She held out her arms again. "Davy," she said, "do you ever say prayers?"
"I said them to Mis'ry every night," he said. "But no one came to hear me since."
"Say one with me now," she whispered, for the hard crust of years had broken like ice beneath the sun of love renewed. "Say just this:—'God bless me, and the mother who loves me, and give me health and strength and love for her.'"
He repeated the words solemnly, his face very grave, his hands folded tightly in her own. "And if I see Mis'ry to-night," he added, "I'll tell her we're quite happy now. For ever and ever, Amen!"
She laid him back in his little bed. She sat beside him till he fell asleep. Her heart was at rest, as it had not been for many years. The thought of wrong and revenge melted slowly away, as ice before the warmth of spring sunshine. Through all that had chanced she recognised some guiding power, some ruling force. It had brought her back to duty and to motherhood, and to some memory of the godly teaching of her youth, the love of home, the kindly discipline, the patience she had mocked and tried, the sheltering care she had regarded so lightly.
"Oh! I hope he knows. I hope he has forgiven," she cried in her heart, and then she drew out that letter written in the dear familiar hand long since lying cold and still. She drew it out and looked at it, not with failing courage, as she had looked so often, but with eyes radiant and hopeful, and humanised by love.
"I will read it—at last," she said.
The nine days' mystery had sprung to life again. But the real name of the criminal was destined to remain a mystery for ever. Dolores said no word of that fateful diary, nor did Ephraim Malpas ask its nature. There was no need. The man had met his deserts and perished in his own trap.
There had been no difficulty in proving the will, and the house and the hoarded wealth, which had cost Ursula Penharva her life, became the heritage of little Davy. Dolores put it aside in the safe keeping of the Devon and Cornwall Bank, to be invested and used only in her child's name, and for his benefit.
Marian Sylvester and Sarah Webbe talked much together of the strange history and its complications, but neither uttered a word of reproach to Dolores.
Of Ericson she saw nothing. She wondered if he had set out on that journey of discovery. She had given him the only clue she could. She was ignorant even of the name of the old shepherd and his wife.
The time of her appearance in the new opera was at hand, and she was obliged to return to London. Davy went also. She intended to place him at school within reasonable distance, so that from Saturday to Monday he might be with her in her own home. It seemed unwise to part from him altogether. She wanted him to feel her influence and her love around his life as long as possible. The previous years could never be recalled, but she had faith in the strength of love such as she felt; a love watchful, yet never exacting, tender yet wise, patient yet tolerant, and large-minded enough to allow of boyish freaks and follies, and sports and plans. She watched keenly for any likeness to his father, but as yet her fears seemed groundless.
The boy was bold and fearless, generous to a fault. He never told a lie, nor did a mean action. His school fellows adored him for his pluck and courage, his wonderful good temper, and the utter absence of "side" or airs, that unlimited pocket money might have produced.
He was indeed just what his mother had desired—a wholesome, healthy, happy schoolboy, of average intelligence, high spirits, and keen appreciation of life's good things.
Meanwhile her success steadily increased. She was one of the best known and most famous artistes in her own line, and London hailed her as a popular favourite. She saw very little of Ericson now. Whatever had been the result of those enquiries in Scotland they had not led her to open any communication with Cyril Grey. In vain her aunt urged, in vain did Lady Lilliecrapp entreat, holding out the bait of social favours and distinction. On this point she was obdurate. The past was past. Her boy's future was safe. Let Cyril go his way. She would not claim him.
"A day will come," said Ericson, "when you will have to act. Suppose Grey marries—and your marriage can be proved legal."
"That is his own affair," she said. "He must take the risk."
The fear in her own heart that he might, out of revenge, claim the boy, and that the law, ever cruel to feminine weakness, might give him to that father, was year by year becoming a new terror.
Cyril was still abroad. Of what he did, or how he lived, she had no certain knowledge. Never a word from him had reached her since that cruel letter which had denied her claims. Pride, gathered and garnered in years of suffering, formed now a barrier between them that nothing could break down, so she told herself, neither his penitence, nor remorse, nor atonement.
That Ericson suffered cruelly she knew. But she saw no way to end his suffering. Between them stood that shadow, which neither could remove, and if at times he cursed its feeble opposition, yet none the less he felt its power.
Endless consultations and discussions between legal authorities only deepened the quagmire of doubts and difficulties. The two chief parties were at variance. No one could say whether the marriage was one to be proved, or disproved. One of the witnesses was dead, the other could not be found. The supposed wife would do nothing, the supposed husband was not to be reached, and had denied all claims.
Ericson had grown morose and almost fierce over many a discussion that simply seemed to lead to a blank wall of nowhere. He had perused volumes on Scotch Marriage Law to convince Dolores that she was a legal wife, if only she would consent to act. But she had reverted to the old objection, and the old fear. So the matter stood, and the months drifted on and another year dropped into the gulf of the past, leaving him still the faithful friend and silent lover.
It was the first night of the new opera at the new Eden Theatre, and Dolores was to play the leading part.
The house was crammed, the boxes filled, the stalls brilliant with fashion and beauty and sparkling jewels. Through the brilliant array, stepping carefully among trains and satin shoes, and seats gorgeous with the temporary drapings of evening cloaks, came a sallow-faced, tired-looking man. A man about whose age it would have been difficult to guess, though "foreign climes" was writ large on the unhealthiness of cheek and lip, and dull and clouded eye.
He found his seat, and dropped into it as the curtain drew up on the usual gaudily-dressed chorus, whose business it is in comic opera to announce a marriage, or an arrival, or the return of victorious troops—such apparently being the main object in life of peasant girls and village maidens throughout the continent.
The music was bright and sparkling, the scene beautifully unreal, and the voices wonderfully well trained. The languid eyes of the stranger looked lazily at the spectacle, and then swept the theatre as if searching for one familiar face among the many.
His eye had rested on box after box, swept right and left over the grand circle, when suddenly there fell on his ear a sound of rippling notes. Their brilliance, their light-souled delicious mirth, startled him into immediate attention, while a thunder of applause rent the house. Evidently the singer was a favourite.
She took no notice of the applause, but sang on, flitting to and fro, pursued by the chorus; a laughing, lovely maid who would satisfy none of their melodious questioning. It was impossible to catch more than a momentary glimpse of her, but her voice, with its notes like golden rain, thrilled him with a sense of novel delight. He wondered who she was.
The make-up of the stage was misleading. Flushed cheeks, snowy throats, eyes flashing under curling lashes, a form all grace and verve and abandon, a voice the very soul of youth and joy—those were baffling things. Yet through all a haunting memory thrilled him—the memory of a voice as gay, a smile as bright, a form as graceful. It annoyed him, and yet it recurred again and again.
He turned to a man sitting in the next stall. A man with a face more remarkable for strength and purpose than actual good looks, clean shaven, of middle age apparently, judging from the iron-grey hair, the lines of brow and mouth.
"Who is that—lady?" he asked, in a brief pause between her disappearance and the advent of barbaric adventurers from a foreign country.
The man glanced at him, then handed a programme. His finger pointed to a name—Miss Dolores Dering.
The stranger glanced, bowed, and returned it. He longed to put a question, but he felt he could not well do so until the conclusion of the act.
More and more intently he watched the lovely actress. The frown deepened, his face paled and flushed, a certain nervous irritation betrayed itself in his restless movements and his twitching fingers.
"It can't be the same—impossible!" he muttered once. The fact that he had spoken aloud was made apparent by a look of surprise from the iron-grey man. Their eyes met.
When the act was over and the popular favourite was recalled again and again, the stranger noted that his neighbour drew a small notebook and proceeded to make sundry entries.
"Ah! a critic, I suppose," and emboldened by the fact that there was a fountain head to tap, ready and waiting at his side, the stranger put a question.
"Can you tell me anything about that singer? I am quite a stranger in London. I only arrived from China two days ago."
"That—young lady," said the iron-grey man, pausing and looking searchingly at the speaker, "is a very great favourite—an excellent artiste, and a very beautiful and estimable woman."
"You know her?" he asked, eagerly. "Is that her real name?" pointing to the programme.
"No; actresses as a rule adopt different names for the stage. Their godfathers and godmothers never seem to consider the exigencies of nomenclature as called forth by after life, or a public career."
"I suppose you are not at liberty to tell me her real name?" persisted the stranger. "I assure you I am not prompted by mere curiosity. I have a feeling I once knew her—many years ago—before she adopted this—profession I suppose you call it."
The sneer gave an ugly look to his lip, and the steely glitter of his eyes betokened something more than idle curiosity.
"The young lady is a personal friend of my own. I naturally object to give her name to a stranger. However," he paused. His deep grey eyes searched the face behind him, and a sudden change came over his own. He replaced the pencil in his notebook with an unsteady hand. "I was about to say that if you will inform me of your own name, I will give you this information."
The stranger drew a card case from his pocket, opened it, and handed a card to the speaker.
He was not prepared for the sudden change in the face he watched, nor did he understand why the hand that held the card suddenly closed and crushed it in unconquerable agitation.
"May I ask," he began—but the stern gaze, the white face, checked further speech.
"Come out of this. I must speak to you."
The momentary intention of defiance flashed and died out like a damp match. Impelled by strong constraint, by the dominating power of a will that forced his own to compliance, the stranger left his stall and followed the other man. Followed him through passage, and cloak-room, and out into the entrance way, until they stood in the street under the lamps, and it would have been hard to say which face looked the paler and most astonished. Then a hand of steel clasped the thin nerveless arm of the giver of that card. "Mr. Cyril Grey," said the voice of Ericson, "you and I have a long account to settle. Fate has played this game strangely enough, but I thank her for sending you to me first, before you intruded on the woman you have wronged."
"I—I don't understand."
"No. But you soon will. We can't talk in the street like this. You must come with me."
He hailed a hansom. Again that overmastering struggle of weak will against strong purpose. Again the victory lay with Harold Ericson. Neither spoke a word. The drive was short. Ericson's rooms were no longer in Bloomsbury.
He handed the driver his fare through the trap, sprang out, and opened the street door with his latchkey, then stood aside, and waved the other man to enter. The stairs were dimly lit. At the first landing they paused. Ericson opened the door facing them, and then strode in. He turned up the gas, and then faced his new acquaintance.
"I offer you no apology," he said. "When you hear what I have to tell you, you will understand my conduct."
"I hope I shall."
"Sit down," commanded Ericson, curtly. "I will make this interview as short as possible, but it is necessary to go into certain details that will occupy some time."
"I confess I am puzzled as to your business or your meaning."
"I suppose so. Your mind will soon be relieved."
He walked across the room to a large writing-table with many drawers, and opened one. Out of it he took a number of documents tied in a neat package, and labelled with various data. "Now, Mr. Cyril Grey," he said, "for our business."
He took a chair and drew it to the opposite side of the table.
"First and foremost," he said, "allow me to inform you I am a barrister. Therefore I have excellent authority for what I am about to reveal. I am going to lay certain facts before you which may have escaped your memory. I ask you not to interrupt me until such time as I pause for you to question. Do you agree?"
"Very well. I must begin by informing you that on a certain date in the year 1880 you contracted what is called a Scotch marriage with one Dolores Webbe, daughter of Gideon Webbe, of Dulworth Vicarage, Hants."
He paused for the first time, and looked at the ashy face and quivering lips before him.
"It was no—marriage," was the muttered reply.
"A matter of opinion. It may be yours. It is not mine, nor that of some of the leading authorities on such matters. But to proceed. On the strength of this ceremony, which you declared legal and binding, you had no scruples in treating this girl of 16 as your wife, while all the time you bound her to secrecy."
"Sir, I protest. This is an unwarrantable intrusion. My private affairs——"
"Your private affairs!"
Never a lash cut into a criminal's quivering flesh as those words cut into the mean pitiful vanity of the unmasked scoundrel in broadcloth, sitting there before an accused as pitiless as justice itself.
"Learn that your private affairs," repeated Ericson, "are now public property. Learn, too, that the law is on the side of the woman you have wronged—that she is your legal wife, the moment she chooses to assert her claim!"
"But, good God, man, what are you saying? I am married. I married years ago. I have two children. I looked upon that affair in Scotland as a mere joke—a boy's love affair. How dare you tell me——"
Ericson leaned back in his chair and laughed bitterly.
"Just what I expected," he said. "You are caught in your own trap. It lies with your wife now to appeal to the laws you have outraged, not only for her own freedom, but your conviction for—bigamy."
Cyril Grey started to his feet. His face was livid.
"I don't believe it. You and she are in league. How comes it that you are in her confidence? Who is to prove that her conduct has been so correct all these years? I know her now. She is your friend; you are her defender and protector. And you expect to trick me with this story of a marriage."
He laughed aloud, but the laugh was not long. An iron hand thrust him back into his chair, and the face that looked down upon him was one to strike terror into any coward's heart—so full it was of strong purpose and honest truth.
"I always thought you must have been a villain, Cyril Grey—now I know it. I'll waste no words with you. The time has come for action. Take your case into any court in England or Scotland, and we will prove this marriage lawful. Introduce your new—wife, as you call her, into society, and society proclaims her but your mistress! Leave property to your nameless children (God pity them!) and the law calls them bastards——"
"Oh, stop, for God's sake! You kill me!"
"Did you spare the innocent girl you wronged? Did you care for her sufferings, her shame? Did you pause to think of your crime in heaven's sight, if not in man's, when you left her and her unborn child to the mercies of a cruel world? Did you do one or any of these things before you called on God's name, as now you call on it?"
The ashy face was hidden from sight. Those flashing, accusing eyes were like a flaming sword.
"There was no child," he protested feebly.
"There was, and is. She wrote and told you so. What was your answer?"
His arms dropped. "I didn't know. I thought she said that to force my hand. I could not possibly acknowledge her—marry her. On my soul I never believed that nonsense in the Scotch bothie meant anything; could possibly be held binding."
"Scotch marriages have been held up to the world's ridicule for many a day," said Ericson, scornfully. "They have but one recommendation; they cost nothing, and so are dear to the hearts of that frugal race. But occasionally they have an awkward knack of entrapping the unwary. That is your present situation. What have you to say to it?"
He was silent. His shaking hand twirled a feeble moustache in feeble fashion. He found himself confronted by a difficulty that, to give him his due, he never had anticipated. That sudden marriage on the moor-side, born of hot passion, of easy consent, of ungoverned impulse, had never meant any binding tie for his selfish heart. That Dolores had not written again only convinced him that she had come to the same conclusion, and got over her love frenzy, as he himself had got over it.
To return now, rich, respected, the head of the great firm by his father's recent death, and find himself confronted by the consequences of that youthful folly, seemed more than hard—a dastardly trick played by Fate.
His hands fell to his side. His face, horrible and distorted by anguish and despair, looked wildly up at his accuser.
Something in that noble face held him dumb. His own accusations fell back unuttered. Here was indeed a man, strong and pure and steadfast. A man for woman's reverence, and all men's respect.
"God help me! What am I to do?" he muttered. "The woman I have married is the daughter of a leading minister of foreign affairs. Her father—he would kill me if he knew I had wronged his child, even unwittingly. And my poor little girls!"
"You have no thought for your son?" said Ericson.
"A son! My God, how I prayed for a son!"
"Your prayer is granted in Fate's sweet ironic fashion. You are flung upon the horns of a dilemma."
"What shall I do? What can I do? Have you no advice, no help?"
"Seek your wife," said Ericson, sternly. "Ask her."
"My——Do you mean Dolores?"
Great drops stood out on his pallid forehead. Fear and shame quivered on his ashen lips.
"I am not strong," he faltered. "It was on account of my health I had to come home. If I go through such another scene as this it will kill me!"
"Cowards don't die easily," said Ericson, with a scorn that brought a flush to the sallow, sickly face before him.
He walked across to the door and threw it open.
"This is her address. I have said all that is necessary. Go!"
Cyril staggered to his feet. His hair clung limp and damp about his forehead. His eyes sought the ground. All the bravado had died out in that one spurt of defiance. He held the card containing Dolores' address in his hand. Under the street lamp he paused and looked at it. A passing hansom claimed his notice. He got in mechanically, never even heeding the restlessness of the horse, the kick and plunge that marked departure. He had an impression of speed, of cool air upon his brow. Then suddenly the street grew hideous with noise and blare and shout. It seemed to him like a hurricane of fiery sparks, of rushing feet, and flashing helmets.
Voices were filling all the night with hideous din. A huge engine dashed by, and the horse in his cab commenced to plunge and rear. The man tried to hold it in, in vain. The splash-board flew in splinters. There was a rush swift as lightning, and he saw streets and faces and vehicles in a sudden nightmare of terror.
Then came a crash, and amidst broken glass and splintered wood and plunging hoofs he was flung senseless into the crowded street, still clutching in his unconscious hand that small crushed pasteboard Ericson had given him.
It was long after midnight, and Dolores' eyes were closing in the sleep of intense fatigue, when a violent ring at the door of the flat startled her into sudden wakefulness. She sat up and listened, but the maid did not answer the summons. A second peal rang out. She slipped into a dressing-gown and slippers, and crossed the little hall and unfastened the door.
The night porter and a policeman stood there. She started back in affright. He touched his hat. "Beg pardon, mum, does anyone of the name of Dering live here?"
"Yes," she said faintly. Her heart seemed to stand still. What had happened? She thought of Ericson, of Cynthia.
"There's been a—a sort of accident," said the man bluntly. "Gent pitched out of a cab—badly hurt—lying now at Charing Cross Hospital. He had a card in his hand when he was picked up. It had your name and address—leastwise if your name is Mrs. Dering."
"Yes," she said again. It must be Ericson. Who else would have had her name about him?
"Is he much injured?" she faltered.
"The doctors said he was pretty bad," answered the man. "Advised me to let you know. If so be he's a friend o' yours I'd just pop into my clothes and go round there."
"Will they admit me? Who am I to ask for?"
"House surgeon. The case is in the accident ward. You could get round in half an hour, or thereabouts."
"Yes," she said. "Thank you for coming. I'll be as quick as I can."
She went back to her room, and dressed with such speed as her trembling hands allowed. Then she aroused the servant, and told of her sudden summons.
"I don't know how long I may be detained," she said. "If anyone comes for me from the theatre in the morning send word to the hospital."
Then she left the flat, and was soon on her way. She sprang into the waiting cab, and bade the man drive her with all speed, promising him double fare. Her heart was throbbing violently, every nerve in her body quivering with excitement and suspense.
"Oh, Pray God it's not Harold; my one friend, my one hope!" she sobbed, with broken breath and strained eyes that saw nothing but the haze of passing lights, whirling like stars as the horse flew onwards.
When they reached the hospital she did as the policeman had directed. The house surgeon came to meet her. At sight of that lovely face, pallid with fear and agitation, his eyes gave a man's tribute to distress, case-hardened as he was to agonising scenes.
"He is conscious," he said gently, "but that is all. I fear there is no hope of recovery."
"No hope!" Her lips stiffened. "And I have been so unmindful," she thought, as the memory of his long and chivalrous devotion rushed to her mind.
"Can you bear it? May I offer you a glass of wine?" asked the voice at her side.
She shook her head, "I am quite well. Take me to him," she said.
Then nothing seemed quite real, or quite right, until she found herself standing beside a low bedstead, on which lay a figure strapped and bandaged. A figure from which low moans of pain burst at intervals, as if endurance could no longer bear the strain of agony. A figure, but not Ericson's. One glance told her that—one look at the deathly features, the fair hair, clotted and bloodstained, escaping from the linen bandage.
Not Ericson. Yet who—who was this?
The staring eyes looked back to her. Their agony was that of some dying creature, impotent and pitiful.
"Dolores," muttered the white lips. "You! How did you come?"
"I was sent for. You sent, did you not?"
"I! No," he whispered. "You—last of all. Oh, my God! I can't bear this, I can't bear this! Tell them to give me something—something. I'm dying. Can't science make death easy?"
She turned to the nurse. "Is there nothing you could do to ease him for a moment?" she asked.
The woman held a glass to his pallid lips. He drank its contents, and in a moment his brow relaxed, and the agony left his staring eyes.
"He will sleep now," said the nurse.
"No," he cried hurriedly. "Not yet. Not till I have told her all."
Dolores knelt down by the bedside. "It's you, Cyril?" she said. "Almost I doubt it, save for your voice."
"It is I. I was on my way to you when this happened. Your friend gave me your address. He'll tell you all I can't."
She could not understand. How had he and Ericson met? Had she not seen him in the theatre amongst the critics that very evening. It was all a mystery. She knelt there passive and dumb in her great bewilderment. The nurse withdrew a short distance. A screen shut them in from other sufferers and other tragedies around.
"I must try and tell you," he went on. "Now the pain is gone I can speak. I met Ericson at the theatre to-night. I had not recognised you. He made me go to his rooms. He told me all your history and that he had proved our marriage. Dolores, you are my wife. Our son——"
His voice broke again. He was growing weaker.
"You can never forgive me," he said. "How can I expect it? But I am dying, and my soul is burdened with the sin to you—and to them. Others, who are innocent——"
"It would take too long to tell you. But he knows—ask him. Only if I die—But there is no 'if,' I must die—die in my sins, with all my idle, selfish life as my last memory; and no one to say 'God give you peace and pardon.'"
She lifted her head then and looked at him—this poor, broken wreck, this maimed, disfigured, blighted manhood that she had loved once for its beauty and its strength. She looked and remembered her long bitterness, her harsh and unforgiving thoughts. Then slowly she rose to her feet, and a great pity welled within her heart, and a woman's awakening tenderness blotted out past wrongs.
"Oh, Cyril," she said, "if I could think you had not meant to be so cruel. Yet what matters all that now? The past is past. The dead years are my love's grave, and yours. Yet what is love worth if it does not bring forgiveness in one hand and pity in the other?"
"Forgive!" he entreated. "Say you forgive——"
"Even as I hope to be forgiven."
She laid her hand on his. Crime and wrong and shame were all forgotten. She plucked the pride from her heart, and flung it by its bleeding roots aside into the cold dishonoured years that she need never more remember.
He could not move, he could not even clasp the hand that lay upon his own. But he looked up at her, and she saw the great tears well up from his heart into his eyes, and bending down she kissed their bitterness away.
So quiet moments passed, and he lay passive with closed eyes and her hand upon his own. She felt them growing colder, and over the quiet face crept a strange grey look.
She turned to summon the nurse. A sudden terror chilled her heart. The woman came up, looked—then slowly parted the clasped hands, and drew the sheet over the quiet face.
* * * * * *
It was morning, bright and golden, with spring's fresh breath and April's sunny smiles.
In the room where he had so often sat, Ericson awaited Dolores. A telegram had summoned him, but what he was to learn he could not guess.
The door opened and a quiet figure entered. Her simple black gown enhanced her paleness and the dark circles round her eyes. He rose. He gave her no formal greeting. There was something in her face and look that forbade it.
"I want you to tell me everything," she said; "from the hour he was at your rooms."
He resumed his seat and obeyed her. She listened without interruption till that part of the story which spoke of Cyril's other marriage. That seemed to startle her.
When Ericson had finished she took up her portion of the story, and he, in his turn amazed and shocked at so disastrous a termination, remained silent till the end.
"What do you intend to do?" he asked her at last.
"Nothing," she said.
He started to his feet. "You mean to keep silence, to let the other woman——"
"Mourn him as widow and as wife—yes. Oh! dear friend, surely you won't misjudge me. Why should I condemn another to suffer as I have suffered?—make of her innocent children what the world would have made of mine? Let the miserable story be buried with him. It is enough for me that those who love me know me blameless. For the rest—what need I care?"
"And the child—your child?"
"He need never know. His father is dead. That ends all—all the wrong, the doubts, the misery. And oh! Harold, the weight has rolled off my heart at last. I am free—free. Thank God for that."
"Him first, and you next, for your freedom gives me hope—the hope you once whispered. Do you remember that night, Dolores?"
"Yes," she said gravely.
"I have been very patient. Allow that. And now—I shall ask my reward?"
"So like a man," she said, smiling faintly.
"You would not have me otherwise, sweetheart. I was your friend when you needed one. I gave you all and asked—nothing. But it is your turn now to give what I crave. This little hand I have not dared to kiss. This great loyal heart that has proved itself true womanly to the end——"
He held out his arms. She came to him and laid her head on his breast with one deep-drawn sigh of perfect content.
"If I was not first loved at least I am last," he said, softly. "You were worth waiting for—my Rachel."
"And Davy will never miss a father—now," she answered.
And in her heart she knew she had given her child a better father than his birthright had bestowed. For here was honour and true dignity, and love such as it is given to few women to gain or to deserve.
* * * * * *
With Cyril Grey was buried the story of his sin, and his widow lived on undisturbed by any doubts as to her right to bear his name. There are sacrifices that no law can make or unmake. There are wrongs sanctified by higher and nobler rules than ever earthly justice created. And such sacrifice is born only of love, and such wrongs are righted only by forgiveness.
A WOMAN OF SAMARIA. (HUTCHINSON.)
Scotch marriages have not only bred innumerable law-suits fraught with issues of the utmost importance to the litigants engaged in them, but have furnished the theme to many a thrilling story of tarnished honour and disputed inheritance. By no means the least sensational romance of this class has just been given to publicity by the lady who has so largely contributed, of late years, to fictional literature under the pseudonym of "Rita." Its heroine is an unsophisticated girl, the younger daughter of a beneficed clergyman. During an afternoon stroll on a Highland moor with her cousin-germane, Cyril Grey, Dolores Webbe and her companion lose their way, and wander about until they are quite overcome by physical fatigue. Entering a casual bothie with the object of taking a few minutes' rest and obtaining some trustworthy information respecting their itinerary, they learn that they are at least a dozen miles distant from the shooting-box at which they are staying, where-upon Cyril persuades Dolores to go through the ceremony of marriage with him in the presence of the cottagers, who consent to put them up for the night and guide them to their destination early next morning. Accordingly, they join hands before witnesses, and take each other for husband and wife. From this rash and inconsiderate proceeding, one party to which is an unscrupulous knave and the other a credulous fool, spring all sorts of tragical complications, too numerous to recount in this place. Finding herself forsaken by Cyril, who promptly goes to India, and burdened with a baby, whose existence she is unable to justify, Dolores quits her home, changes her name, accepts a misanthropical old maid's offer to adopt the nameless infant, and goes upon the stage, where--being clever and persevering, as well as uncommonly pretty--in the course of a few toil-some years she works her way up to high and remunerative professional distinction. Eventually, through the intervention of a friendly barrister, she obtains proof of her marriage, and when Cyril Grey returns to England, having committed bigamy during his sojourn in Hindostan, she is about to legitimise her son, with the aid of the law, when her husband is opportunely killed in a street accident. His timely death enables Dolores to espouse, "en secondes noces," the man who has stood by her throughout the vicissitudes of her dramatic career, and who is the only really sympathetic person figuring in the story.
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