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Title:  Whom God Hath Joined
Author: Fergus Hume
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eBook No.: 1701111h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  October 2017
Most recent update: October 2017

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Whom God Hath Joined
A Question of Marriage

by
Fergus Hume

CONTENTS

Chapter 1. - Two Friends
Chapter 2. - An Incomplete Madonna
Chapter 3. - The Waning Of The Honeymoon
Chapter 4. - The Art Of Conversation
Chapter 5. - An Australian Girl
Chapter 6. - A Day’s Shopping
Chapter 7. - Lady Errington’s Little Dinner
Chapter 8. - Eustace Examines His Mind
Chapter 9. - “Oh, Wilt Thou Be My Bride, Kathleen?”
Chapter 10. - Auf Wiedersehn
Chapter 11. - A Maiden Lady
Chapter 12. - Aunt Jelly’s Opinion
Chapter 13. - Bringing Home The Bride
Chapter 14. - An Undesirable Acquaintance
Chapter 15. - A Woman Scorned
Chapter 16. - The Events Of Eighteen Months
Chapter 17. - Gossip
Chapter 18. - From Foreign Parts
Chapter 19. - Aunt Jelly Discusses Family Affairs
Chapter 20. - The Old House By The Sea
Chapter 21. - From The Husband’s Point Of View
Chapter 22. - From The Wife’s Point Of View
Chapter 23. - Mrs. Veilsturm’s At Home”
Chapter 24. - “On Revient Toujours A Ses Premieres Amours”
Chapter 25. - Fascination
Chapter 26. - Aunt Jelly Interferes
Chapter 27. - The Deity Called Fate
Chapter 28. - Husband And Wife
Chapter 29. - The Question Of Marriage
Chapter 30. - Cleopatra Victrix
Chapter 31. - In The Coils Of The Serpent
Chapter 32. - What Made The Ball Sae Fine?
Chapter 33. - Pallida Mors
Chapter 34. - The Assaults Of The Evil One
Chapter 35. - For My Child’s Sake
Chapter 36. - The Death Of The First-Born
Chapter 37. - The Truth About Mrs. Veilsturm  
Chapter 38. - The Last Temptation
Chapter 39. - “And Kissed Again With Tears”
Chapter 40. - A Letter From Home

Chapter 1
Two Friends

“Like doth not always draw to like—in truth
Old age is ever worshipful of youth,
Seeing in boyish dreams with daring rife,
A reflex of the spring time of its life,
When sword in hand with Hope’s brave flag unfurled,
It sallied forth to fight the blust’ring world.”

It was about mid-day, and the train having emerged from the darkness of the St. Gothard tunnel, was now steaming rapidly on its winding line through the precipitous ravines of the Alps, under the hot glare of an August sun. On either side towered the mountains, their rugged sides of grey chaotic stone showing bare and bleak at intervals amid the dense masses of dark green foliage.

Sometimes a red-roofed châlet would appear clinging swallow-like to the steep hill-side—then the sudden flash of a waterfall tumbling in sheets of shattered foam from craggy heights: high above, fantastic peaks swathed in wreaths of pale mist, and now and then the glimpse of a white Alpine summit, milky against the clear blue of the sky.

On sped the engine with its long train of carriages, as though anxious to leave the inhospitable mountain land for the fertile plains of Italy—now crawling fly-like round the giant flank of a hill—anon plunging into the cool gloom of a tunnel—once more panting into the feverish heat—sweeping across slender viaducts hanging perilously over foaming torrents—gliding like a snake under towering masses of rock—and running dangerously along the verge of dizzy precipices, while white-walled, red-roofed, green-shuttered villages, shapeless rocks, delicately green forests, snow-clad peaks, and thread-like waterfalls flashed past the tired eyes of the passengers in the train with the rapidity of a kaleidoscope.

And it was hot—the insufferable radiance of the southern sun, blazing down from a cloudless sky, beat pitilessly on the roofs of the railway carriages, until the occupants were quite worn out with the heat and glare from which they could not escape.

In one of the first-class carriages two men were endeavouring to alleviate the discomfort in some measure, and had succeeded in obtaining a partial twilight by drawing down the dark blue curtains, but the attempt was hardly successful, as through every chink and cranny left uncovered, shot the blinding white arrows of the sun-god, telling of the intolerable brilliance without.

One of the individuals in question was lying full length on the cushions, his head resting on a dressing-bag, and his eyes half closed, while the other was curled up in a corner on the opposite side, with his hands in his pockets, his head thrown back, and a discontented look on his boyish face, as he stared upward. Both gentlemen had their coats off, their waistcoats unbuttoned and their collars loose, trying to make themselves as comfortable as possible in the sweltering heat.

On the seats and floor of the carriage a litter of books and papers showed how they had been striving to beguile the time, but human nature had given in at last, and they were now reduced to a state of exhaustion, to get through the next few hours as best they could until their arrival at Chiasso, where they intended to leave the train and drive over to their destination at Cernobbio, on Lake Como.

“Oh Jove!” groaned the lad in the corner, settling himself into a more comfortable position, “what a devil of a day.”

“The first oath,” murmured the recumbent man lazily, with his eyes still closed, “is apt, and smacks of classic culture suitable to the land of Italy, but the latter is English and barbaric.”

“Oh, bother,” retorted his friend impatiently, “I can’t do the subject justice in the way of swearing.”

“Then don’t try; the tortures of Hades are bad enough without the language thereof.”

“You seem comfortable at all events, Gartney,” said the boy crossly.

“St. Lawrence,” observed Mr. Gartney, opening his eyes, “had a bed of roses on his gridiron compared with this eider-down cushion on which I lie—the saint roasted, I simmer—I’ll be quite done by the time we reach Chiasso.”

“I’m done now,” groaned his companion. “Do shut up, Gartney, and I’ll try and get some sleep.”

Gartney laughed softly at the resigned manner in which the other spoke, and once more closed his eyes while his friend, following his example, fell into an uneasy slumber interrupted by frequent sighs and groans.

He was a pleasant enough looking boy, but not what would be called handsome, with his merry grey eyes, his rather wide mouth, his well-cut nose with sensitive nostrils, and his wavy auburn hair suiting his fair freckled skin; all these taken individually were by no means faultless, yet altogether they made up a countenance which most people liked. Then he had a tall, well-knit figure, and as he dressed well, rode well, was an adept in all kinds of athletic sports, with exuberant animal spirits and a title, Angus Macjean, Master of Otterburn, was a general favourite with his own sex, and a particular favourite with the other.

What wit and humour the lad possessed came from his Irish mother, who died, poor soul, shortly after he was born, and was not sorry to leave the world either, seeing it was rendered so unpleasant by her stern Presbyterian husband. Why she married Lord Dunkeld when, as a Dublin belle, she could have done so much better, was a mystery to everyone, but at all events marry him she did with the aforesaid results, death for herself after a year of unhappy married life, and an heir to the Macjean title.

Lord Dunkeld was sincerely sorry in his own cold way when she died, never dreaming, narrow-minded bigot as he was, that life in the gloomy Border castle was unsuited to the brilliant, impulsive Irishwoman, and after placing her remains in the family vault, he proceeded to apply to his son’s life the same rules that finished Lady Dunkeld’s existence. The boy, however, had Scotch grit in him as well as Celtic brilliance, and as he grew up under his father’s eye, gave promise both intellectually and physically of future excellence, so that when he reached the age of nineteen, he was the pride of the old lord, and of the endless Macjean clan, who were very proud, very poor, and very numerous.

But whatever pride Dunkeld felt in the perfections of his heir he took care never to show it to the lad on the principle that it would make him vain, and vanity, according to Mr. Mactab, the minister who looked after the spiritual welfare of the family, “was a snare o’ the auld enemy wha gaes roaring up an’ doon the warld.” So Angus was never pandered to in that way, but led a studious, joyless existence, his only pleasures being shooting and fishing, while occasionally Dunkeld entertained a few of his friends who were of the same way of thinking as himself, and made merry in a decorous, dreary fashion.

At the age of nineteen, however, the lad rebelled against the dismal life to which his father condemned him, for as the princess in the brazen castle, despite all precautions, found out about the prince coming to release her, so Angus Macjean, from various sources, learned facts about a pleasant life in the outside world, which made him long to leave the cheerless castle and rainy northern skies for a place more congenial to the Irish side of his character. With such ideas, it is scarcely to be wondered at that he became more unmanageable every day, until Lord Dunkeld with many misgivings sent him to Oxford to finish his education, but as a safeguard placed by his side as servant one Johnnie Armstrong, a middle-aged Scotchman of severe tendencies, who was supposed to be “strong in the spirit.”

So to this seat of learning, Otterburn went, as his progenitors had gone before him, and falling in by some trick of Fate with a somewhat fast set, indulged his Irish love for pleasure to the utmost. Not that he did anything wrong, or behaved worse than the general run of young men, but his ‘Varsity life was hardly one which would have been approved of by his severe parent or the upright minister who had nurtured his young intellect on the psalms of David.

Still Johnnie Armstrong!

Alas, for the frailty of human nature, Johnnie Armstrong, the strong in spirit, the guardian of morality, the prop of a wavering faith, yielded to the temptations of the world, and held only too readily that tongue which should have warned Otterburn against the snares of Belial, for, truth to tell, Johnnie made as complaisant a guardian as the most dissipated rake could have desired. The world, the flesh, and the devil was too strong a trinity for Johnnie to stand against, so he surrendered himself to the temptations of this life in the most pusillanimous manner, aiding and abetting his young master with misdirected zeal. Behold then, Angus Macjean and his leal henchman both fallen away from grace and having a good time of it at Oxford, so much so, indeed, that Otterburn was quite sorry when his father, after two years’ absence, summoned him to Dunkeld Castle to grace the ceremony of his coming of age.

That coming of age was a severe trial to Angus, as the guests were mostly Free Kirk ministers and their spouses, the ministers in lengthy speeches, exhorting him to follow in the footsteps of his father, i.e., support the Free Kirk, make large donations to the funds thereof, and entertain ministers of that following on all possible occasions. Otterburn having learnt considerable craft at Oxford, made suitable replies, promising all kinds of things which he had not the slightest idea of fulfilling, and altogether produced a favourable impression both by such guile and by a display of those educational graces with which Alma Mater had endowed him. It is needless to say that, aided by the faithful Johnnie Angus did not tell either his father or Mactab of his gay life at the University, and the result of this reticence was that the old lord, bestowing on him a small income out of the somewhat straitened finances of the Macjeans, bade him enjoy himself in London for a year, and then return to marry.

To marry! Poor Angus was horror-struck at such a prospect, the more so when his father introduced him to the lady selected to be his bride, a certain Miss Cranstoun who had a good income, but nothing else to recommend her to his fastidious taste.

However, being a somewhat philosophical youth, he accepted the inevitable, for he knew it would be easier to move Ben Nevis than his father, and trusting to the intervention of a kind Providence to avert his matrimonial fate, he went up to London with Johnnie to enjoy himself, which he did, but hardly in the way anticipated by Lord Dunkeld.

Thinking his marriage with the plain-looking Miss Cranstoun was unavoidable, he made up his mind to see as much of life as he could during his days of freedom, and proceeded to do so to his own detriment, morally, physically and pecuniarily, when he chanced to meet with Eustace Gartney.

Eustace Gartney, whimsical in his fancies, took a liking to the lonely lad, left to his own devices in such a dangerous place as London, and persuaded him to come to Italy hoping to acquire an influence over the young man and keep him on the right path until his return to Dunkeld Castle.

There was certainly a spice of selfishness in this arrangement, as Eustace was attracted by the exuberant animal spirits and Irish wit of the lad, which formed a contrast to the general run of young men of to-day, and to his own pessimistic views of life, so, much as he disliked putting himself out in any way, he determined to stand by the inexperienced youth, and save him from his impulsive good nature and love of pleasure.

Lord Dunkeld, deeming it wise that Angus should see something of Continental life, and having full confidence in the straightforwardness of Johnnie Armstrong, agreed to the journey, much to his son’s surprise, and this was how The Hon. Angus Macjean, in company with Eustace Gartney, was in a railway train midway between St. Gothard and Chiasso.

And Eustace Gartney, poet, visionary, philosopher, pessimist—what of him? Well, it is rather difficult to say. His friends called him mad, but then one’s friends always say that of anyone whose character they find it difficult to understand. He was eminently a child of the latter half of this curious century, the outcome of an over-refined civilization, the last expression of an artificial existence, and a riddle hard and unguessable to himself and everyone around him.

For one thing, he always spoke the truth, and that in itself was sufficient to stamp him as an eccentric individual, who had no motive for existence in a society where the friendship of its members depends in a great measure on their dexterity in evading it. Again Gartney was iconoclastic in his tendencies, and loved to knock down, break up, and otherwise maltreat the idols which Society has set up in high places for the purposes of daily worship. The Goddess of Fashion, the Idol of Sport, the Deity of Conventionalism, all these and their kind were abominations to this disrespectful young man, who displayed a lack of reverence for such things which was truly appalling.

It was not as though he had emerged from that unseen world of the lower classes, of which the upper ten know nothing, to denounce the follies and fashions of the hour; no, indeed, Eustace Gartney had been born in the purple, inherited plenty of money, been brought up in a conventional manner, and the astonishing ideas he possessed, so destructive to the well-being of Society, were certainly not derived from his parents. Both his father and mother had been of the most orthodox type, and would doubtless have looked upon their son’s eccentricities with dismay had they lived, but as they both finished with the things of this life shortly after he was born, they were mercifully spared the misery of reflecting that they had produced such a firebrand. Indeed they might have checked his radical-iconoclastic-pessimistic follies at their birth had they lived, but Fate willed it otherwise, and in addition to robbing Eustace of his parents had given him careless guardians, who rarely troubled their heads about him, so that he grew up without discipline or guidance, and even at the age of thirty-eight years was still under the control of an extremely ill-regulated mind.

Tall, heavily-built, loose-limbed, with a massive head, leonine masses of dark hair, roughly-cut features, and keen grey eyes, he gave the casual observer an idea that he possessed a fund of latent strength, both intellectual and physical, but he rarely indulged the former, and never by any chance displayed the latter. Clean-shaven, with a peculiarly sensitive mouth, his smile—when he did smile, which was seldom—was wonderfully fascinating, and completely changed the somewhat sombre character of his face. He usually dressed in a careless, shabby fashion, though particular about the spotlessness of his linen, rolled in his gait as if he had been all his life at sea, looked generally half asleep, and, despite the little trouble he took with his outward appearance, was a very noticeable figure. When he chose, he could talk admirably, played the piano in the most brilliant fashion, wrote charming verses and fantastic essays, and altogether was very much liked in London Society, when he chose to put in an appearance at the few houses whose inmates did not bore him.

Without doubt a singularly loveable man; children adored him, animals fawned on him, and friends, ah—that was the rub, seeing that he denied the existence of such things, classing them in the category of rocs, sea-serpents, hippogriffs, and such-like strange beasts. Therefore dismissing the word friends, which only applies to uncreated beings, and substituting the word acquaintances, which is good enough to ticket one’s fellow creatures with, the acquaintances of Mr. Gartney liked him—or said they liked him—very much.

Absence in this case doubtless made their hearts grow fonder, as Eustace was rarely in England, preferring to travel in the most outlandish regions, his usual address being either Timbuctoo, the Mountains of the Moon, or the dominions of Prester John. He had explored most of this small planet of ours, and had written books in the Arabian Nights vein about things which people said never existed, and talked vaguely of yachting in the Polar seas, exploring the buried cities of Central America, or doing something equally original. At present, however, he had dismissed these whimsical projects for an indefinite period, as the marriage of his cousin Guy Errington and the friendship of Angus Macjean now occupied his attention.

Then again his last book of paradoxical essays had been a great success, as everybody of his acquaintance, both friends and foes, abused it—and read it. The critics, who know everything, had denounced the book as blasphemous, horrible, coarse, drivelling, with the pleasing result that it had an exceptionally large sale; and although most people, guided by the big dailies, said they were shocked at the publication of such a book, yet they secretly liked the brilliant incisive writing, and wanted to lionise the author, but Eustace getting wind of the idea promptly betook himself to the Continent in order to escape such an infliction.

It was impossible that such a peculiar personage could be happy, and Eustace certainly was not, as his fame, his money and his prosperity were all so much Dead Sea fruit to his discontented mind. And why? Simply because he was one of those exacting men who demand from the world more than the world, which is selfish in the extreme, is prepared to give, and because he could not obtain the moon sulked like a naughty child at his failure to attain the impossible.

If he made a friend, he then and there demanded more than the most complaisant friend could give, so his friendship always ended in quarrels, and he would then inveigh against the heartlessness of human nature simply because he could not make his friend a slave to his whims and fancies.

He had been in love, or thought so, many times, but without any definite result, as he had a disagreeable habit of analysing womankind too closely; and as they never by any chance came up to the impossible standard of perfection he desired, the result was invariably the same, irritation on his side, pique on the woman’s, and ultimate partings in mutual disgust. Then he would retire from the world for a time, nurse his disappointment in solitude, and emerge at length with a series of bitter poems or a volume of cynical essays, in which he summarised his opinions regarding his last failure in love or friendship. A bitter man, a discontented man, absurdly exacting, intolerant of all things that were not to his liking, yet withal—strange contrast—a loveable character.

Angus Macjean therefore was his latest friend, but it was not altogether a selfish feeling, as he was genuinely anxious to save the friendless lad from the dangerous tendencies of an impulsive nature; nevertheless, his liking was not entirely disinterested, seeing that he enjoyed the bright boyish nature of Otterburn, with his impossible longings, and his enthusiastic hero-worship of himself. So this spoilt child, pleased with his new toy, saw the world and his fellow men in a more kindly light than usual, and, provided the mood lasted, there was a chance that the happy disposition of Macjean might ameliorate to some extent the gloom of his own temperament.

On his part, Angus was flattered by the friendship of such a clever man, and moreover secretly admired the cynicism of his companion, though, truth to tell, he did not always understand the vague utterances of his oracle, for Gartney was somewhat enigmatic at times. Still on the whole Angus liked him, and his enthusiastic nature led him to endow his idol with many perfections which it certainly did not possess.

Thus these two incongruous natures had come together, but how long such an amicable state of things would last was questionable. There was always the fatal rock of boredom ahead, upon which their friendship might be wrecked, and if Gartney grew weary of Otterburn or Otterburn of Gartney, the result would be—well the result was still to come.

Chapter 2
An Incomplete Madonna

“She is a maid
Who hath a look prophetic in her eyes,
A longing for—she knows not what herself;
Yet if by chance when kneeling rapt in prayer,
She raised her eyes to Mother Mary’s face,
Within her breast a thought—till then unguessed,
Amazing all her dreamings virginal,
Would show her, by that vision motherly,
The something needed to complete her life.”

“Then what is she?”

“She is an Incomplete Madonna.”

They were near the end of their journey when Gartney made this reply, and having reduced the chaos of books and papers into something like order, they were both sitting up with their garments in a more presentable condition, smoking cigarettes, and talking about the Erringtons.

This family, consisting of two people, male and female, bride and bridegroom, were staying at the Villa Tagni on Lake Como, and Sir Guy Errington, being a cousin of Gartney’s, had asked his eccentric relative to pay them a visit while in the vicinity, which he had consented to do. This being the case, Otterburn, who, unacquainted with the happy pair, except as to their name and relationship to his friend, was cross-examining Eustace with a view to finding out as much as he could about them before being introduced.

Sir Guy, according to his cynical cousin, was a handsome young fellow, with three ideas of primitive simplicity in his head, namely, shooting, hunting, and dining. Quite of the orthodox English type, according to the Gallic “it’s-a-fine-day-let-us-go-and-kill-something” idea, so Otterburn, having met many such heroes of sporting instincts, asked no more questions regarding the gentleman, but being moved by the inevitable curiosity of man concerning woman, put the three orthodox questions which form a social trinity of perfection in masculine eyes.

“Is she pretty?”

Silence on the part of Mr. Eustace Gartney.

“Is she young?”

Still silence, but the ghost of a smile on the thin lips.

“Is she rich?”

Oracle again mute, whereupon the exasperated worshipper queries more comprehensively:

“Then what is she?”

Vague, enigmatic answer of the oracle:

“She is an Incomplete Madonna.”

Otterburn stared in puzzled surprise at this epigrammatic response to his boyish cross-examination, and after a bewildered pause burst out laughing.

“You’re too deep for me, Gartney,” he said at length, blowing a cloud of thin blue smoke. “I don’t understand that intellectual extract of beef wherein the qualities of one’s friends are boiled down into a single witty phrase.”

This reply pleased Eustace, especially as he was conscious of having said rather a neat thing, so glancing out into the brilliant world of sunshine to see how far they were from their destination, he lighted another cigarette and explained himself gravely:

“I am very fond of ticketing my friends in that way, as it saves such a lot of trouble in answering questions; if you asked me what I should like in my tea, I should not answer ‘the sweet juice of cane crystallized into white grains.’ No! I should simply say ‘sugar,’ which includes all the foregoing; therefore when you ask me to describe Lady Errington, I say she is an incomplete Madonna, which is an admirable description of her in two words.”

“This,” remarked Otterburn, somewhat annoyed, “is a lecture on the use and abuse of epigrams. I don’t want to know about epigrams, but I do want to know about Lady Errington. Your two-word description is no doubt witty, but it doesn’t answer any of my questions.”

“Pardon me, it answers the whole three.”

“I don’t see it.”

“Listen then, oh groper in Cimmerian gloom. You ask if Lady Errington is young—of course, the Madonna is always painted young. Is she pretty? The Madonna, as you will see in Italian pictures, is absolutely lovely. Is she rich? My dear lad, we well know Mary was the wife of a carpenter, and therefore poor in worldly wealth. Ergo, I have answered all your questions by the use of the phrase incomplete Madonna.”

“A very whimsical explanation at best, besides, you have answered more than I asked by the use of the word incomplete—why is Lady Errington incomplete?”

“Because she is not yet a mother.”

“Oh, confound your mystic utterances,” cried the Master, comically, “do descend from your cloudy heights and tell me what you mean. I gather from your extremely hazy explanation that Lady Errington is young, pretty, and poor, also that she is not a mother. So far so good. Proceed, but for heaven’s sake no more epigrams.”

“I’m afraid the beauty of an epigram is lost on you Macjean?”

“Entirely! I am neither a poet nor a student, so don’t waste your eloquence on me.”

“Well, I won’t,” answered Gartney, smiling. “I’ll have pity on your limited understanding and tell you all about Alizon Errington’s marriage in plain English.”

“Do, it will pass the time delightfully until we leave this infernal train.’

“Lady Errington, my young friend,” said Eustace leisurely, “is what you, with your sinful misuse of the Queen’s English, would call ‘a jolly pretty woman,’ of the age of twenty-five, but I may as well say that she looks much older than that—this is no doubt the peculiar effect of the life she led before her marriage.”

“On the racket,” interposed Otterburn, scenting a scandal.

“Nothing of the sort,” retorted Gartney, severely. “Lady Errington has led the life of a Saint Elizabeth.”

“Never heard of her. The worthy Mactab didn’t approve of saints, as they savoured too much of the Scarlet Woman.”

“At present I will not enlighten your ignorance,” said Eustace drily, “it would take too long and I might subvert the training of the excellent Mactab which has been such a signal success with you.”

Otterburn grinned at this fine piece of irony, but offered no further interruption, so Eustace went on with his story.

“I knew Lady Errington first—by the way, in saying I know her, I don’t mean personally. I have seen her, heard her speak and met her at the houses of friends, but I have never been introduced to her.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know if I can give any particular explanation; she didn’t attract me much as Alizon Mostyn, so I did not seek to know her, nor did she ever show any desire to make my acquaintance, so beyond knowing each other by sight we remained strangers, a trick of Fate, I suppose—that deity is fond of irony.”

“You’re becoming epigrammatic again,” said Otterburn, warningly, “proceed with the narrative.”

Eustace laughed, and took up the thread of his discourse without further preamble.

“Lady Errington is the daughter of the late Gabriel Mostyn, who was without doubt one of the biggest scoundrels who ever infested the earth, that is saying a great deal considering what I know of my friends, but I don’t think it is exaggerated. He was a man of good family, and being a younger son, was, in conformity with that ridiculous law of English primogeniture, sent out into the world with a younger son’s portion to make his way, which he did, and a very black way it was. Why a man with a handsome exterior, a clever brain, and a consummate knowledge of human nature, should have devoted all those advantages to leading a bad life I don’t know, but the wicked fairy who came to Gabriel Mostyn’s cradle, had neutralised all the gifts of her sisters by the bestowal of an evil soul, for his career, from the time he left the family roof until the time he died under it, was one long infamy.

“He was a diplomatist first, and was getting on capitally, being attaché at the Embassy at Constantinople, when he was caught selling State secrets to the Russian Government somewhere about the time of the Crimean War, and as the affair was too glaring to be hushed up, he was kicked out in disgrace. After this disagreeable episode he led a desultory sort of existence, wandering about the Continent. He was well known at the gambling hells, and his compatriots generally gave him a pretty wide berth when they chanced to meet him. In Germany he married a charming woman, a daughter of a Baron Von Something, and settled down for a time. However, to keep his hand in, he worried his poor wife into her grave, and she died three years after the marriage, leaving him two children—a son and the present Lady Errington.

“Mrs. Mostyn had some property of her own, which she left to her son, and in the event of the son’s death the husband was to inherit. It was a foolish will to make, knowing as she must have done her husband’s disposition, and it was rather a heartless thing for the mother to leave her daughter out in the cold. No doubt, however, the astute Gabriel had something to do with it. At all events he did not trouble much about his children, but leaving them to the care of their German relatives, went off to Spain, where he was mixed up in the Carlist war, much to the delight of everyone, for they thought he might be killed.

“The devil looks after his own, however, and Mostyn turned up at the conclusion of the war minus an arm, but as bad as ever. Then he went off to South America, taking his son with him.”

“There was nothing very bad in that, at all events,” said Otterburn, who was listening with keen interest.

“Shortly after he arrived at Lima the son disappeared.”

“The devil!” interrupted Angus, sitting up quickly; “he surely didn’t kill the boy?”

“That is the question,” said Eustace grimly, “nobody knows what he did with him, but at all events the boy disappeared and was never heard of again. There was some of that eternal fighting going on between the South American Republics, and Mostyn said the lad had been shot, but if he was,” pursued Gartney slowly, “I believe his father did it.”

“Surely not—he had no reason.”

“You forget,” observed Eustace sardonically, “I told you the boy inherited his mother’s money, that was, no doubt, the reason, for Mostyn came back to Europe alone, claimed the money, and after obtaining it with some difficulty, soon squandered it on his own vicious pleasures. Then, as a reward for such conduct, his elder brother died without issue, and Mr. Gabriel Mostyn, blackguard, Bohemian and suspected murderer, came in for the family estates.”

“The wicked flourish like a green bay tree,” observed Angus, remembering the worthy Mactab’s biblical readings in a hazy kind of way, and misquoting Scripture.

“The wicked man didn’t flourish in this case,” retorted Eustace, promptly. “Nemesis was on his track although he little knew it. He took his daughter back with him to England, duly came into possession of the estate, and tried to white-wash his character with society. His reputation, however, was too unsavoury for anyone to have anything to do with him, so in a rage he returned to his old ways and outdid in infamy all his previous life. No one was cruel enough to enlighten his daughter, whom he had left in seclusion at the family seat, and she remained quite ignorant of her father’s conduct, which was a good thing for her peace of mind.

“For some years Mostyn, defying God and man, pursued his evil career, but at length Nature, generous in lending but cruel in exacting, demanded back all she had lent, and he was struck down in the full tide of his evil prosperity by a stroke of paralysis.”

“Served him jolly well right,” observed Otterburn heartily.

“So everybody thought. Well, he was taken down to his country house, and there for four terrible years Alizon Mostyn devoted herself to nursing him. What that poor girl suffered during those four years no one knows nor ever will know, for despite the blow which had fallen on him, Gabriel Mostyn was as wicked as ever, and I believe his curses and blasphemy against his punishment were something awful. No one ever came to see him but the doctors, although I was told a clergyman did attempt to make some enquiries after his soul, but retreated in dismay before the foul language used by the old reprobate. His daughter put up with all this, and in spite of the persuasions of her friends, who tried to take her away from that terrible bed-side, she attended him to the end with devoted affection. She saw him die, and from all accounts his death-bed was enough to have given her the horrors for the rest of her life, for only his lower extremities being paralysed, they said he tore the bedclothes to ribbons in his last paroxysm, cursing like a fiend the whole time.”

“And did she stay through it all?”

“Yes! till the breath was out of his wicked old body. I believe his last breath was a curse, and just before he died it took two men to hold him down by main force in the bed.”

“Great heavens! how awful,” ejaculated Otterburn in a shocked tone; “what a terrible scene for that poor girl to witness—and afterwards?”

“Oh, afterwards she came up to London,” replied Gartney, after a pause; “the old man had got rid of all the property, and even the Hall was so heavily mortgaged that it had to be sold. She stayed with some relatives, and there was some talk of her becoming a Sister of Mercy. I dare say she would have done so, her vocation evidently being in the Florence Nightingale line, had she not met with my cousin Errington, who fell in love with her, and three months ago married her.”

“Curious history,” commented Angus idly. “I don’t wonder she looks older than she is, after coming through all that misery, but I hope she doesn’t make her past life a text upon which to prose about religion.”

“No, I don’t think she does. I have been told she is somewhat serious, but a charming woman to talk to.”

“Not the sort of woman likely to be attracted by a sporting blade like Errington.”

Gartney held his peace at this remark and looked thoughtfully at his cigarette.

“Does she love him?” asked the Master, noticing the silence of his companion.

“Does she love him?” replied Gartney, meditatively. “I hardly know. Guy isn’t a bad sort of fellow as men go, he’s a straightforward, athletic, stupid young Englishman.”

“Married to a saint.”

“Oh, I assure you he admires and loves the saint immensely, judging from his enthusiastic letters to me about her perfections. She is fair to look on, she is a thoroughly pure, good woman, and will, without doubt, make an excellent mother. What more can a man desire?

“I’m afraid you’d desire a good deal more.”

“Ah but then you see I’m not a man, but a combination of circumstances.”

“I don’t understand.”

“No? It is rather difficult of comprehension, I admit. What I mean is, that the circumstances of my having been an orphan of my bringing up, my command of money, and above all the circumstances of the age I live in, have all made me the curious creature I am.”

“Oh! you admit then that you are curious.”

“So much so that I doubt if any woman in existence would satisfy me as a companion for more than a few days. A fast woman irritates me, a clever woman enrages me, and a good one bores me.”

“And Lady Errington?”

“Is happier with her stupid adoring husband than she would be with a bundle of contradictions like myself.”

“Yet she does not love this stupid adoring husband.”

“I never said that,” observed Eustace hastily.

“Not in words, certainly, but you hinted—

“I hinted nothing, because I’m not sure—how can I be when I tell you I don’t know Lady Errington?”

“You appear to have studied her pretty closely at all events.”

“A mere whim on my part, I assure you; besides, Guy has written to me about his wife, and I—well I’ve gathered a lot of nonsensical ideas from his letters.”

“Then there is a possibility that she does not love him,” persisted Otterburn, a trifle maliciously.

“How annoying you are, Macjean,” said Eustace in a vexed tone. “Of course there are always possibilities. In this case, however, I can only refer you to Heine, ‘There is always one who loves and one who is loved.”

Otterburn saw that Eustace was rather annoyed at his persistency, so did not press the point, but contented himself with observing:

“Well, I think I know Lady Errington’s character pretty well by this time. She is a charming woman with a bad history, a serious face, and a wifely regard for an adoring husband. Am I right?”

“Well, yes—to a certain extent.”

“Still, all this does not explain the whole of your incomplete Madonna phrase. Tell me exactly what you mean.”

Eustace thought for a moment, and then began to speak in his slow languid voice.

“Last time I was in Italy,” he said dreamily, “I one day strolled into a village church built on the side of a hill above the blue waters of a still lake. Outside it was a hot, brilliant day, something like this, but within all was coolness and dim twilight.

“At a side altar tall candles glimmered before a shrine of the Virgin, and cast their pale glow on a large picture of the Madonna which was hanging upon the wall of the chapel. I don’t know the name of the artist who painted the figure, but it made a great impression upon me. I’m afraid I was impressionable in those days. We all lose our finer feelings as the years go by.

“Well, the painter had depicted the Mother standing alone, with sombre clouds beneath her white feet, her hands, long and pale, folded across her breast, and her face with a yearning expression lifted to a ray of light from the mystic dove of the Holy Ghost, which pierced the darkness of the sky. There was no infant Jesus in her arms, such as we generally see in altar-pieces, and I fancy the idea of the artist was to depict Mary as a pure solitary woman, before the announcement of the Conception. In her eyes, sad and deep, dwelt an expression of intense yearning, and on her beautiful face the look of a woman longing for the pleasures of maternity.

“I never forgot the hopeless craving of that gaze, the hungry longing for the fondling arms and inarticulate cries of a child. Only once have I seen such a look on a human countenance, and that was on Lady Errington’s before her marriage; she had the same hungry look in her eyes which can only be appeased by the birth of a child, and which will give her that special love and affection needed to complete her life. Therefore I call her an incomplete Madonna, for when she becomes a mother that yearning gaze will pass away for ever, and be succeeded by the serene beatitude that painters give the face of the Virgin when she clasps the child Jesus to her breast, encircled by the adoring hosts of heaven.”

“That is a very poetical interpretation of a picture,” said Otterburn when Eustace had ended. “I doubt however if I should draw the same conclusions were I to see the picture.”

“You will not see the picture I refer to but you will meet Lady Errington, then you can give me your opinion.”

“I’m afraid it will not coincide with yours. But if all her love is thus centred on the coming of a child, when it is born she will love it passionately to the exclusion of her husband.”

“Perhaps!” replied Eustace calmly. “However we shall see. It is a curious study of a woman’s character, and I am anxious to see if my idea is a correct one. Of this, however, I am certain, that the day a child is born to Alizon Errington will be a sad day for her husband if he worships her over much, for he will have to be satisfied with the crumbs of love that fall from the child’s table.”

“Ah! that is one of those things yet to be proved,” said Otterburn rising, as the train, approaching Chiasso, slowed gradually down. “But here we are at the end of our journey.”

“For which the Lord be thanked,” replied Eustace, and jumped out on to the platform.

Chapter 3
The Waning Of The Honeymoon

“Ah, love how quickly fades the rose,
When after sunshine come the snows,
So joys may change to cruel woes
         Thro’ Cupid’s treason.
But roses will their bloom renew,
And snows fall not from heavens blue,
So hearts like ours will still be true,
         Through every season.”

It certainly would be difficult to find a more charming residence than the Villa Tagni. Standing on the extreme verge of a low rocky promontory, which ran out some distance into the tideless waters of Lake Como, it appeared like some fairy palace as it nestled amid the cool green of its surrounding trees and reflected its delicately ornate façade in the still mirror of the water.

Like most Italian houses it had a somewhat theatrical appearance, with its bright pink-coloured walls and vividly green shutters, set in broad frames of snow-white stone. Then again, these walls being decorated with arabesque designs in various brilliant tints, the general effect at a distance was that of cunningly wrought mosaic, while above this bizarre combination of colours sloped the roof of dull-hued red tiles; the picturesque whole standing out in glowing relief from the emerald background of heavily-foliaged trees of ilex, tamarisk, chestnut and cypress. High above towered a great mountain, with its grey scarred peak showing suddenly through its green forests against the clear blue of an Italian sky. More than half-way down, the highway ran along the slope like a sinuous white serpent, and below nestled the villa by the water’s edge. Bright, fanciful, jewel-like, it was the very realization of a poet’s dream, the magic outcome of some Oriental phantasy, such as we read of in those strange Arabian tales where the genii rear visionary palaces under the powerful spells of Solomon ben Daoud.

A broad stone terrace ran along the front of the villa, on to which admission was given from the house by wide French windows, generally masked by their venetian shutters, which excluded the glare of the sun from the inner apartments. A double flight of steps descended from this terrace sheer into the cool water upon which floated the graceful pleasure boat belonging to the villa, and on either side grew dense masses of sycamore, fir, oak and laurel sloping down to the verge of the lake, their uniform tints broken at intervals by the pale grey foliage of olive trees. Radiant in the sunlight glowed the rosy blossoms of the oleander, sudden amid the shadow flashed the golden trails of drooping laburnams—here, like the fabled fruit of Hesperides, hung golden oranges, there the pallid yellow ovals of scented lemons, and deep in the faint twilight of glossy leaves glimmered the warm white blossoms of the magnolia tree, ivory censers from whence breathed those voluptuous perfumes which confuse the brain like the fumes of opium smoke.

And then the flowers! Surely this was the paradise of flowers, which here grew in a prodigal profusion unknown in the carefully-cultured gardens of chill northern lands where the fruitful footsteps of Flora pause but a moment. In this favoured clime, however, the goddess ever remains, and adorns her resting place with lavish bounty of her fast-fading treasures.

Here deeply-flushed roses scattered their showers of fragrant leaves, yonder bloomed the pale amethystine heliotrope, fiercely amid the verdure burned the scarlet blossoms of the geranium, and, in secluded corners, slender virginal lilies hinted at the pale mysticism of the cloister, while red anemones, grey-green rosemary, blue violets, still bluer gentian, many-tinted azaleas, snowy asphodels, and yellow hawkweeds all grew together in a confused mass of brilliant colours, and every vagrant wind ruffling the still surface of the lake sent a rich breath of fragrance through the drowsy air. Over all, the deep azure of the cloudless sky, from whence shone the fierce sun on the lofty encircling mountains, the arid plains, the clustering villages huddled round the slender white campanili of their churches, the glittering waters of the lake, the brightly coloured villas, and on the brilliant profusion of flowers which almost hid the teeming bosom of the green earth in this garden of the world.

It was late in the afternoon, and the cool breeze of the coming night was already commencing to make its welcome presence felt, when Guy Errington and his wife, the present occupants of Villa Tagni, came out on to the terrace to enjoy this most delightful hour of the Italian day. The servants arranged some Turkish rugs on the tesselated pavement, placed thereon three or four comfortable lounging chairs of wicker work, and set forth a small round table, on the white cloth of which stood a tea service, with a small silver kettle hissing merrily over a spirit lamp, some plates of cake and fruit, a few tall thin-stemmed glasses, and a straw-covered flask of red Chianti wine.

These arrangements being completed they retired, and Lady Errington making her appearance sat down in one of the chairs, while Sir Guy, looking cool and comfortable in his white flannels, perched himself perilously on the balustrade of the terrace with a cigarette between his lips. And surely nothing could be more charming than this peaceful scene, with the exquisite view of the lake, the fragrant coolness of the breeze, the romantic-looking terrace, the pleasant evidence of hospitality, and this young Adam and Eve to give life to the whole.

Aged twenty-eight, with a sunburnt face, a fair moustache, merry blue eyes and a stalwart figure, Sir Guy was certainly a very handsome young man, the very type of a well-born, well-bred Englishman, and a greater contrast to his lusty physique could hardly have been found than that of his wife, with her fragile frame, her pale serious face, and smooth coils of lustrous golden hair. In her loose tea-gown of dead white Chinese silk unrelieved by any tint, she looked almost as wan and colourless as the perfumed knot of snowy lilies at her breast, and the great fan of white ostrich feathers she wielded in her slender hand was rivalled by the pallor of her face. The dreaming look in her calm, blue eyes, the slight droop of the thin red lips which gave a touch of sadness to her mobile mouth, and the exquisite transparency of her complexion, all added to the fragile look of this fair pale woman, whose spirituality was enhanced by the faint shadows which now began to fill the warm air.

Guy Errington, sturdy and practical, did not as a rule indulge in any fanciful musings, but something in the peculiar delicacy of her expression seemed to strike him suddenly, and throwing away his cigarette he bent over his pale wife with an air of the utmost solicitude.

“I hope you have not felt the heat too much, dear,” he said, anxiously touching the faint rose tint of her cheek with a gentle finger, “you look as white as a ghost.”

Lady Errington smiled languidly and put her fan up to her lips with a low laugh.

“I’m afraid I must be a very deceptive person,” she replied lightly, “for I feel perfectly well. I am always pale, and I obtain a great deal of undeserved sympathy under false pretences.”

“Do you mind my smoking?”

“Not in the least. Why did you throw away your cigarette?”

“I thought it annoyed you.”

His wife looked at him with a slightly mocking smile on her lips.

“I wonder if you will always be so ready to sacrifice your pleasures to my unexpressed desires.”

“Always! always!” replied Guy fervently, kneeling beside her chair. “Your slightest wish will always be my law, Alizon.”

“Till the honeymoon is over, I suppose,” said Alizon a trifle sadly, as she passed her fingers through his hair.

“I’m afraid the honeymoon is over—in the eyes of the world at least,” responded Errington ruefully. “We’ve been three months married, you know, and to-day is our last one of solitude, for Eustace and his friend will soon be here—are you sorry?”

“Oh, yes, very sorry,” she replied, indifferently, suppressing a yawn; “these last three months have been charming.”

Errington looked slightly disappointed at her lack of fervour, and to make up for it commenced to vehemently declare that he did not want to see anyone, that he could live for the next century with her alone, she was all the world to him, the one thing he lived for, etc., etc. in fact gave glib utterance to all the fond rhapsodies which constantly pour from the mouths of adoring lovers and newly-married men.

Kneeling beside her, his face glowing with passionate feeling and his blue eyes fixed adoringly on the face of his divinity, Guy Errington looked gallant, handsome and fervid enough to have satisfied the most exacting woman. Yet, strange to say, for some inexplicable reason, this wife of three months appeared slightly bored by his erotic enthusiasm.

“You are the pearl of husbands, my dear Guy,” she observed idly when he ceased his protestations, “but confess now, on your knees as you are, that you feel a trifle weary of this perfect bliss—this society of two—and long for your dogs, your horses, and your coverts.”

At this accurate divination of his real feelings, Errington looked somewhat disconcerted, for despite the ardour of his protestations he did feel slightly weary of this monotonous tranquillity, and in his secret heart longed for the things she mentioned.

“Well, you know I’m not a bit romantic,” he said apologetically, as if he were confessing to some crime, “and I am a little tired of churches and pictures. Besides, I am anxious for you to see the Hall, and there’s such a lot of things to be looked after, and—and—”

“And this is somewhere about the twelfth of August,” said Lady Errington slyly, cutting short his excuses, whereat he laughed in a somewhat embarrassed manner.

“Ah, you’ve found me out,” he observed with a smile. “Well, yes, dear, I confess it is true, I was thinking about the coverts—it ought to be a good year for the birds. Besides there are the stables, you know. I am going to get a new hunter for next season. Baffles tells me there’s a good one to be picked up—belongs to some Major Griff or Groff—don’t know the name—and I’ve got my eye—Good gracious, Alizon,” he added, breaking off—“What is the matter?”

“Nothing, nothing!” she replied, trying to smile although she looked singularly disturbed, “only that name you mentioned, Major Griff.”

“Yes, what about him?”

“Nothing at all—only he was—I believe, a friend of my father’s.”

“Oh! don’t trouble your head about those things, dear, all that sort of thing is past and done with,” said Guy fondly, who knew what she had suffered at the hands of her father, “your life will be all sunshine—if I can make it so.”

Alizon bent forward and kissed him tenderly on the forehead.

“You’re a good, dear fellow, Guy,” she said softly, “and if I do sometimes remember the bitterness of the past, I always thank God for the sweetness of the present, and for the husband He has given me. We will go back to Errington Hall whenever you like. I am anxious to see our home.”

This last phrase sounded delightful to the ears of Guy, and in a sudden access of tenderness he bent his head and kissed the cool slim hand which lay so confidingly in his own. Alizon’s momentary fit of emotion being past, she withdrew her hand with a slight laugh at his action.

“How foolish you are, Guy,” she said gaily, “you must have graduated at the court of Versailles, but do something more sensible and tell me all about the Hall, so that I may not be too ignorant on my arrival.”

He had done so hundreds of times before, but the recital never lost its charm for him, and he thereupon entered into a long and minute description of his ancestral home with the greatest zest. He described the quaint old building where so many generations of Erringtons had been born, lived and died, the well-timbered park with its mighty oaks, ferny glades and ancient beech-trees, the shooting, which was said to be the best in the county, the characteristics of the different people who lived around, to all of which Alizon listened with praiseworthy attention, although truth to tell her thoughts were far away and she was in her own mind contrasting this gallant, tender husband, with her selfish, vicious father.

Gabriel Mostyn had been a thorough Bohemian in every way, regarding the world at large as his special property, and always at home wherever he chose to pitch his tent. Some unknown strain of gipsy blood which had been in abeyance for several generations, had suddenly developed in him with overpowering force, and impelled him to restless wanderings which he was quite unable to withstand. The semi-barbaric life of Russia had been as well-known to him as the refined civilization of London, and it was all the same to him whether he wintered at Rome, passed the summer in Norway, or explored the wild recesses of the Andes. Owing to this indulgence of his nomadic instincts he had developed within himself all the vices inseparable from such a primeval existence, and became a man accustomed to exist by the law of might against right, taking as his own whatever came to his hand, preying on the weaknesses of his fellow creatures, and binding himself by no law of honour or kindness so long as his own selfish desires were gratified.

With such a father it was hardly to be wondered at that Alizon had small respect for the masculine sex, and, foolishly no doubt, judged everyone else by the only standard she had known. During those four terrible years when her father had been dying inch by inch, and disputing every inch with the inexorable Angel of Death, she had learned a great deal of his previous existence, and the knowledge of such a foul life had appalled her gentle soul. The idea of marriage with a man resembling her father even in the most distant manner was repellent to all her ideas, and she certainly would never have become the wife of Guy Errington, had not her position with her relatives been made so disagreeable in every way that with many misgivings she consented to marry a possible Caliban.

To her surprise, however, she was agreeably disappointed in finding in her husband a straightforward, honourable man, with the truest instincts of a gentleman. He did not pass his life like a modern Cain in restless wanderings round the world, at war with society and shunned by all as an outcast, a pariah, a leper, beyond the pale of human love and companionship. No, he loved his birth-place, his position, his good name, and knew that he had duties to fulfil in life, both towards himself, his friends and his tenants. Remembering the vices of her father, Errington’s every-day virtues seemed those of an angel, and although she did not love him when she became his wife, yet it was possible that love might be born of genuine admiration and respect, and subsequently develop into the stronger passion.

At present, however, she had not got beyond her first stage of surprise, but simply admired, respected, and honoured Errington as a man possessed of a just, kind, straightforward nature, and who was anxious to make her happy by every means in his power. There have been worse marriages than this consisting of love on one side and admiration of good qualities on the other, therefore Guy had every prospect of being happy in such a union as he deserved to be by his inherent good qualities and his honourable desire to do right in every way.

While Alizon was letting her thoughts run on in this fashion, Guy had become so excited in his narration concerning Errington Hall and their future life of happiness, that he had risen to his feet, and was now striding up and down the terrace giving full reins to his imagination.

“We’ll have an awfully jolly time of it,” he said blithely, “and you’ll soon forget all your past worries in looking after things; there’s everything to make life happy at the Hall, only I do wish there was a little more money.”

“Money’s the root of all evil,” observed Alizon smiling.

“And the want of it’s the whole tree,” retorted Guy, laughing at his own mild witticism. “You see, my father hadn’t much idea about things, and muddled a good deal, so the consequence is that there is a mortgage on the estate which I must pay off, so we’ll have to live quietly for some years.”

“I’m sure I don’t mind.”

“But I do. I’m not going to have you waste your sweetness on the desert air,” replied Errington vehemently, “but at present I don’t see how it can be helped. I need a large sum of ready money, but won’t get it, unless—unless Aunt Jelly dies.”

“I don’t think that probable,” said Alizon lightly, “Miss Corbin looks strong enough to outlive Methusaleh.”

“And I daresay she will, the tough old party, but if she does die I’m sure to come in for her money unless she leaves it to Eustace.”

“Well, why shouldn’t she?”

“Because in the first place she doesn’t like him as much as she does me, and in the second he’s got lots of money already, and no wife to support.”

“Lucky man,” observed Lady Errington mischievously.

“Lucky woman to have escaped him, you mean,” retorted Guy sagely; “he’s the most exacting man you ever met.”

“I’ve never met him to speak to, but I do know him by sight.”

“And that’s quite enough. He’s such a fastidious chap—an angel out of Heaven wouldn’t satisfy him.”

“Probably not. I don’t think angels are desirable wives as a rule.”

“Oh, yes they are, dear,” said Errington fondly, pausing near her, “you are an angel.”

“A very prosaic angel, I’m afraid.”

“Good enough for me anyhow.”

“Isn’t that rather a doubtful compliment?”

“Do you think so? Well, now I come to think of it, perhaps it is a little doubtful. But I haven’t got the gift of tongues like Eustace; you should hear him talk, Alizon.”

“If his talk is like his books I don’t think I shall like it.”

“Eh!—why not? I haven’t read them, but I hear they’re deuced clever.”

“Too much so, cynical and bitter.”

“That’s just like his own character. Eustace is the most pessimistic man I know.”

“I’m certain I shall not like him,” asserted Lady Errington calmly.

Her husband chuckled a little before replying.

“Don’t be too sure of that. Eustace is a very fascinating sort of man.”

“More so than you?”

“Oh, I’m not fascinating.”

“You’re very modest, at all events.”

“Do you think so? Wait till you hear me tell shooting stories about my prowess.”

“Is that your special weakness?”

“By no means—you are.”

“Thank you for a very pretty compliment, but I’m afraid this conversation is becoming frivolous,” said Alizon, with a faint pink colour creeping into the pallor of her cheeks, “however, it’s ended now, for here come your friends.”

“Better late than never,” remarked Guy, turning round to salute his cousin, who advanced along the terrace, followed by Otterburn. “How do you do, Eustace?”

“Quite well, thank you Guy,” replied Eustace, gravely shaking hands. “This is Mr. Macjean—my cousin, Sir Guy Errington.”

“Glad to see you, Mr. Macjean,” said Errington bluffly, “and now let me introduce both you gentlemen to my wife, Lady Errington. Alizon, this is my cousin Eustace and Mr. Macjean.”

Lady Errington bowed with a charming smile, and the whole party, sitting down, proceeded to make themselves comfortable.

Chapter 4
The Art Of Conversation

“It’s difficult to hold a conversation
    With three or five, odd numbers are a bore,
For some one’s sure to be sans occupation,
So talk should always be ‘twixt two or four.
One can’t gain any secret information,
    If there should be a single person more:
But four’s a pleasant number without doubt,
Because there’s not a chance to be the ‘odd man out.’ ”

It was certainly a very pleasant little party which was seated on the terrace of the Villa Tagni, talking social nonsense under the clear glow of the sunset sky. Behind the solemn hills the sun had disappeared, leaving the sky filled with soft rosy tints, against which the serrated outline of tall peaks stood clear and distinct. Slender clouds of liquid gold floated in the roseate western sky which resembled in its pale flushing the delicate tints of a rose-heart, softening off by degrees into a cold blue, which in its turn gave place towards the darkening east to faint shadows and throbbing stars glimmering in the aerial gloom of coming night.

But the four people on the terrace took no notice of the wonderful gradations of colour, but chatted gaily over the cakes and tea provided by the hospitality of Villa Tagni. All the gentlemen, tired of the thin wines of Italy, had taken tea, and Otterburn was especially enthusiastic as he drained his cup with keen relish.

“I’m a perfect old woman for tea here,” he said, handing back his cup for a second supply. “I don’t know why, as I never bothered much about it at home.”

“That’s because you can’t get a decent cup here,” observed Eustace drily, “man always longs for the impossible.”

“I long for a decent dinner,” retorted Otterburn with a hollow groan. “I’m not a particularly greedy sort of chap—don’t laugh, please, Lady Errington, I assure you I’m not—but these Italians haven’t the slightest idea how to cook.”

“Well you see their ideas of cooking differ from yours, Mr. Macjean,” said Alizon, smilingly handing him back his cup.

“Yes, that’s true enough. I daresay they give a fellow the best they can, but look at their victuals; bread that’s all full of holes, some yellow mess they call polenta, skinny chickens and sour wine, you can’t make a square meal of such stuff.”

“Some people could,” said Errington, who was listening to the boy’s remarks with an amused smile, “but I agree with you about the roast beef of old England.”

“Or the wholesome parritch of Scotland,” observed Eustace satirically. “As a North Briton you surely forget that, Master.”

“No, I don’t,” retorted Macjean. “I got too much of that when I was young.”

“Being so aged now.”

“Isn’t that shabby?” said Otterburn good-humouredly, turning to Lady Errington. “He’s always making fun of my age—as if youth were a crime.”

“It’s a very charming crime at all events,” replied Alizon pleasantly; “don’t you mind Mr. Gartney, he is a poet, and poets are always praising—and envying—youth.”

“That’s true enough,” said Eustace with a sigh, “all the poets from Mimnurmus downward have ever lamented the passing of youth. What a pity we can’t always remain young.”

“And why not? I don’t count age by years, but by experience,” said Lady Errington quietly. “One may be old at twenty and young at fifty.”

Eustace, knowing what her experience had been, looked curiously at her fair placid face as she said this, and she must have guessed his thoughts, for a flush burned in her cheeks under his searching gaze.

“That’s what I say,” cried Guy, referring to his wife’s remark. “If a fellow’s got health, wealth and a good temper, the world’s a very jolly sort of place.”

“The best of all possible worlds, according to Voltaire,” remarked Eustace, leaning back with a disbelieving smile, “but you’ve left out one ingredient which some people consider very necessary.”

“And that is—?”

“Love!”

“Ah, I’ve got that,” said Guy turning a fond eye on his wife.

“Lucky man, other people are not so fortunate.”

“No,” observed Otterburn with a huge sigh, having finished a very decent meal, “it’s so difficult to procure the genuine article.”

“Hark to the cynic of one-and-twenty,” cried Gartney.

“It’s your example, Eustace,” observed Guy, producing a cigarette case, “but don’t for Heaven’s sake start a philosophical discussion on happiness. Why should the children of the king go mourning when the soothing weed is within reach? Have a cigarette, Macjean.”

“Thank you—if Lady Errington—”

“Oh, I do not mind. Guy has habituated me to smoke. Light your cigarettes by all means.”

Whereupon Otterburn accepted the small roll of paper and tobacco with much satisfaction, and was soon puffing away contentedly, Guy following his example.

“These are jolly good cigarettes,” he said emphatically. “You can’t get decent tobacco in Italy, so I smuggled these past the Customs at Chiasso. I suppose it’s no use offering you one, Eustace?”

“Not in the least,” responded Gartney smiling. “It’s a pity to spoil this perfect fragrance with tobacco smoke.”

“Ah, that’s so like you poets—always sacrificing the comforts of life for the sake of its illusions. Well, we won’t spoil your esthetic feelings on the subject, Come, Macjean, let us leave these two to continue the conversation, and we’ll walk up and down till we finish our smoke.”

Angus glanced enquiringly at Lady Errington, who smilingly gave the requisite permission, and was soon strolling up and down the terrace with Errington, talking sport, upon which subject both gentlemen were quite in accordance.

Left alone with Lady Errington, Eustace lay back in his deep chair gazing dreamily at her as she sat silent and pensive, fanning herself slowly with an absent expression in her blue eyes.

The charm of the scene, the influence of the hour, the presence of this pale, beautiful woman, and the delicate fragrance of the flowers which permeated the still air, all touched the poetical part of his nature, and he could not help wondering in his own mind how such a spiritual nature as that of Alizon Errington’s could tolerate such a matter-of-fact man as her husband, who could leave her so calmly to talk sport with a shallow-minded boy. In this, however, Eustace Gartney was entirely wrong, as love is not to be measured by sentimental talk or silent adoration, and a man who loves a woman in an honest respectful fashion does not need to be constantly on his knees to prove the sincerity of his passion. But then Eustace, who believed in this exaggerated fashion of love-making, was a poet, and poets have whimsical ways of manifesting their sentiments.

From these musings he was aroused by the voice of his hostess, who had suddenly awakened to the fact that Eustace was silent, and feared she had neglected her social duties.

“You are singularly silent, Mr. Gartney!”

Eustace started suddenly as her voice struck on his ear, and looked idly at her with a vague smile on his lips.

“The influence of the hour and the scene, I suppose,” he said idly; “one is always silent in Paradise.”

“I should think that depended upon the absence or presence of Eve,” replied Alizon demurely.

“Or of the serpent. Confess now, Lady Errington, the serpent was a charming conversationalist.”

“And a bad companion—for a woman.”

“No doubt Adam thought so—after the Fall.”

“What a pity there should have been a Fall,” said Lady Errington after a short pause. “It would have been a charming world.”

“Humph! consisting of what the French call a solitude à deux.”

“Oh, but I was supposing the Garden of Eden became populated. It would have been a world without sin or temptation.”

“I beg your pardon. The trees of knowledge and life would still have been flourishing to tempt the primeval population nor do I suppose the wily serpent would have been wanting.”

“Satirical, but scarcely true.”

“Ah, but you see we’re both talking the romance of what-might-have-been,” said Gartney smiling, “so my view of the subject is no doubt as probable as your own. However this Italian Paradise with all its faults, consequent on our present-day civilization, has exquisite scenery, and if one were to live here for some years I daresay he would arrive at the nearest approach to primeval happiness possible in this world.”

“I’m afraid we shall not have an opportunity of testing the truth of your assertion. We leave here in a fortnight, for Guy is longing for England and the country.”

“A nostalgia of the coverts, I presume?”

“Exactly! ‘It’s a fine day, let us go and kill something.’ ”

Eustace laughed at this reply, as the neatness of it satisfied his somewhat cynical sense of humour.

“Don’t you feel nostalgia yourself, Mr. Gartney?” asked Lady Errington, arranging the lilies at her breast.

He turned his expressive face towards her with a sad smile.

“Not of this earth! I am like Heine, un enfant perdu, and have a home-sickness for an impossible world.”

“Created by your own fancy no doubt.”

“Yes! Though I dare say if my fancy world became a real one it wouldn’t be so pleasant as this one. After all, Chance is the most admirable architect of the future. When men like Sir Thomas More, Plato, Bulwer Lytton and the rest of them, have indulged in paper dreams of ideal worlds, they have always committed the fatal mistake of making the inhabitants insufferable bores, who have attained perfection—and when perfection is attained happiness ceases.”

“How so?”

“Because the greatest pleasure in life is work, and when perfection renders work unnecessary, life becomes a lotos-eating existence.”

“Well surely that is a very pleasant thing.”

“To the few Yes, to the many No! Some men need constant excitement to make them enjoy life. I can quite understand Xerxes offering a reward to the man who could invent a new pleasure, for if Xerxes had not attained the perfection of debauchery, he would not have found existence a bore.”

“You can hardly call such an ignoble height perfection,” said Lady Errington quietly. “I should call it satiety.”

“No doubt you are right. But what does it matter what we call it? the thing is the same.”

“That sounds as if you spoke from experience, and at your age that can hardly be the case.”

“I remember,” observed Eustace a trifle satirically, “that a short time ago you said you measured youth by experience not by age. It is the same with me, I am only thirty eight years of age, yet in that short time I have exhausted all that life has to give.”

“Surely not!”

Eustace Gartney laughed in a dreary, hopeless manner that showed how truly he spoke.

“I’m afraid it is,” he remarked with a sigh. “I have been all over the world and seen what is to be seen. I have mixed with my fellow creatures and found the majority of them humbugs. I’ve been in love and been deceived. I’ve published books and been abused, in fact I’ve done everything possible to enjoy life, and the consequence is I’m sick of the whole thing.”

“Your own fault entirely,” said Lady Errington warmly, “as you have denied yourself nothing you now reap the reward of such indulgence and enjoy nothing. Your present satiety is the logical sequence of your own acts. Why not therefore try and lead a nobler and better life? Go among the poor and give them the help they so much need. Look upon your fortune as money entrusted to you, not to squander on unsatisfying pleasures, but to use for the benefit of humanity. Do this, Mr. Gartney, and I assure you the result will be satisfactory, for you will find in such well-doing the new pleasure which Xerxes desired but never obtained.”

With a sceptical smile on his massive features Eustace listened to her earnest speech, and at its conclusion laughed softly in his own cynical manner.

“A most delightful view of one’s duties to the world at large,” he said satirically, “but hardly satisfactory. That recipe for happiness has been given to me before, Lady Errington, and is, I think, more charming in theory than in practice. Suppose I did take this advice you give me in the goodness of your heart, and went out into the world to play the thankless part of a philanthropist, what would I gain—only a more intimate knowledge of human selfishness and human iniquity. If I assisted A, a most deserving person from his own point of view, I’ve no doubt A would become my bitterest enemy because I had not done enough for him. I might rescue B from the workhouse, and B would consider me shabby if I did not support him for the rest of his natural life. As for C, well, I need not go through the whole alphabet, in order to illustrate my views of the matter, but I assure you, Lady Errington, if I employed my money in alleviating the distresses of my fellow creatures, I would get very little praise and a great deal of blame during my life, and when I died no doubt a short paragraph in a newspaper as ‘an earnest but misguided philanthropist!’ No! believe me I have thought deeply about the whole thing, and the game is not worth the candle.”

“You look at things in a wrong light.”

“In the only possible light, I’m afraid. Rose-coloured spectacles are not obtainable now-a-days.”

“Still such a pessimistic view—”

“Is forced upon us by circumstances. This is the nineteenth century, you know, and we have no illusions left—they went out with religion.”

“Well, I must try and convince you of the falsity of your views some other time,” said Alizon closing her fan with a sigh, “but at present I see Guy and Mr. Macjean are coming to interrupt our conversation.”

She rose to her feet as she spoke, a tall, slim, white figure, that seemed to sway like a graceful lily at the breath of the evening breeze. Eustace, ever prone to poetical impressions, made this comparison in his own mind as he left his chair and advanced with her to meet Guy and Angus.

“I say Alizon,” cried Errington gaily as his wife came up, “just fancy! Aunt Jelly’s ward, Miss Sheldon, is staying at the Villa Medici.”

“Miss Sheldon,” said Lady Errington reflectively, “is that the pretty girl I met at Miss Corbin’s?”

“Yes! you remember. On the day we went to see Aunt Jelly and ask her blessing,” replied Guy eagerly.

“Who is she with?” asked Lady Errington; “surely Miss Corbin—”

“Oh no,” interrupted Eustace, mirthfully. “You might as well expect to meet the Monument abroad as Aunt Jelly. I asked Miss Sheldon all about it, and it appears that ever since her arrival from Australia she has been anxious to come to the Continent, so as a friend of Aunt Jelly’s was making what she calls the ‘grand tower’ with her husband, this young lady was placed under their mutual protection.”

“I wish she was under mine,” said Otterburn audibly, on whom the charms of the young lady in question had evidently made a deep impression, “she’s so awfully pretty.”

“I’m afraid it would be a case of the blind leading the blind,” remarked Eustace drily.

“By the way,” observed Guy, “who is Miss Sheldon? I asked Aunt Jelly, but she told me, sharply, to mind my own business.”

“Wasn’t that rather severe?” said Alizon mildly.

“Not for Aunt Jelly,” retorted her husband. “Aunt Jelly’s a huffy old party, but she’s got a weakness for Eustace, who doesn’t object to be sat upon, so perhaps he knows about this young lady.”

“I think I’ve got a hazy idea,” assented Eustace leisurely, “she comes from the City of Melbourne, Australia, and her name is Victoria, called after our gracious Queen, or the Colony, I forget which. Sheldon père was an admirer of our mutual aunt in the old days when she was flesh and blood instead of iron. He went out with a broken heart to the Colonies because Aunt Jelly wouldn’t marry him—fancy any man breaking his heart for such a brazen image! Well, at all events, he made a large fortune out there, got married, became the father of one little girl, and then, his life’s work being done, died, leaving his fortune to his daughter Victoria, and his daughter Victoria to dear Aunt Jelly, who cherishes her for the sake of the one romance of her youth.”

“How cruelly you tell the story,” observed Lady Errington in a rather disapproving tone. “I’ve only seen Miss Corbin once, but I think she’s got a kind heart.”

“Most people are said to have that, who possess nothing else,” retorted Eustace grimly. “However, you now know who Victoria Sheldon is, and I won’t deny she’s pretty, very pretty.”

“Very pretty,” echoed Otterburn, with a sigh.

“You ought to marry her, Macjean,” said Eustace, “she has plenty of money.”

“I wouldn’t marry a girl for her money alone,” remonstrated Angus indignantly.

“Then take the American advice,” said Sir Guy gaily, “never marry a girl for money, but if you do meet a nice girl with any, try and love her as hard as ever you can.”

“I think I’ll call and see Miss Sheldon,” observed Alizon, after a pause, “for, as she is a ward of your Aunt’s, I shall very likely see a good deal of her. Are the people she is with pleasant?”

“That,” observed Eustace calmly, “depends greatly on individual taste. The Honourable Henry Trubbles is the most egotistical specimen of misshapen humanity I have ever met with, and his wife, whom he married for her money, is a modern edition of Mrs. Malaprop with a dash of Sary Gamp and a flavouring of the Sleeping Beauty.”

“What a mixed description,” said Errington laughing. “How does she resemble the Sleeping Beauty?”

“Only in sleeping.”

“You make me quite curious to see her,” cried Alizon smiling. “And if—well, I won’t promise anything about what I intended yet.”

“What did you intend?” asked her husband.

“To have a small dinner party, and give Mr. Macjean a real English dinner, but I’ll first see how I like this extraordinary couple, and then—well, we’ll see.”

“It would be awfully jolly,” said Otterburn, whose stock of adjectives was limited.

“I know it’s ‘awfully’ late,” remarked Eustace, in a tone of rebuke, “and we have just time to get back to dinner.”

“To what they call a dinner.”

“It’s better than nothing at all events—well, goodbye, Lady Errington; thank you for a pleasant afternoon.”

“Don’t forget your way to the Villa Tagni,” said Alizon as she shook hands, and the two gentlemen, having vowed warmly that they would not, made their adieux, leaving Sir Guy and his wife alone on the terrace.

“Well, Alizon,” said Errington, jocularly, “and what do you think of my cousin, Eustace?”

“I think,” replied Lady Errington slowly, “that he is the most unhappy man I ever met with in my life.”

Chapter 5
An Australian Girl

“Charming, no doubt, her face is fair.
As dark as night, her curling hair,
Her eyes—two stars, her lips—a rose,
Whoever saw a prettier nose?
Charming indeed,—but Fate to vex,
Has given her faults like all her sex,
Believe me, she’s not worth regret,
She’ll break your heart, the vain coquette.”

What a number of charming old romances begin at an inn. Did not M. Gil Blas commence his adventurous career by being swindled in one? and Don Quixote, blinded by fanatic chivalry, mistake the inns for mediæval castles? Tom Jones became involved in a network of intrigue at a hostelry; the heroes of Dumas invariably meet their enemies of King and Cardinal at the same place, while Boccaccio generally brings about the complications of gallant and donzella at some gay Florentine “osteria.” Without doubt all the elements of romance are to be found at these resting places of man and beast; and the most incongruous characters, the most dissimilar ranks of society’s adventurers, gallants, priests, bona robas and virtuous ladies all pass and repass, enter and exeunt, under the hospitable signs of inns.

Birds of passage rest momentarily at inns before continuing their flight to the four quarters of the world, and during such rest meet other birds of passage with sometimes curious results. Mr. A, a gentleman of swallow-like tendencies, on his way to the warm south, may linger for a night at an hotel where Miss B, due in some northern latitude, is also resting, with the result that Mr. A will delay his flight for an indefinite period; nay more, the juxtaposition of the two may end in A and B both continuing their journey as man and wife, which is the termination of all romance. Strange that a chance meeting at a place of public resort should alter two lives, but then life is made up of strange events, and a good many people date their happiness or misery from an accidental meeting at an inn.

Gartney was letting his thoughts run on in this somewhat whimsical vein, as he smoked an after dinner cigarette over his coffee on the terrace at Villa Medici.

Before him, huge and indistinct, arose the grand façade of the hotel, glimmering whitely in the moonlight, with its innumerable windows, its broad arcade, and its myriad lamps shining brilliantly on groups of gaily-dressed people who strolled to and fro amongst the pink-blossomed oleanders, or sat chatting gaily round small marble-topped tables, where white-cravated waiters, lithe and active, attended to their wishes.

Beyond lay the lake, dark and solemn, under the shadow of the sombre mountains, at whose base gleamed orange-coloured points of light, telling of the presence of distant villages, while high above in the cold, blue sky, glowed the yellow orb of the moon and the glimmering stars. Through the leaves of sycamore, tamarisk, and magnolia sighed the soft breath of the night-wind, filling the air with cool odours, and the sound of music, rendered thin and fairy-like by distance, floated across the still waters from some slow-moving boat.

An historic place this Villa Medici, with its palatial halls, its innumerable chambers, and its stately flights of white-marble steps; for it was here that the great Emperor intended to rest for a time in his victorious career, an intention never carried out, although everything was prepared for his reception, and the hotel guests now dine in the small saloon hung round with yellow damask stamped with the imperial ‘N’ and kingly crown.

Then again it was here that unhappy Caroline of Brunswick, who became Queen of England in name only, kept her state as Princess of Wales, and tried to find in the calm seclusion of Como that peace denied to her in the land of her adoption. Ah, yes, the Villa Medici is connected with the lives of some great personages, but now that they all have vanished from the world’s stage, whereon they played some curious parts, the Villa is turned into an hotel, and strangers from far America, and still further Australia, reside in the many chambers, and wander with delight through the enchanting gardens which Nature, aided by art, has made a paradise of beauty.

“Poor Caroline,” murmured Gartney to himself, as he thought of all this, “no one has a good word to say for her, and yet, I daresay, she was a good deal better than the first gentleman in Europe. It was just as well she died, for George would never have given her any rights as queen-consort. No doubt she passed some of her happiest days here, although she always hankered after the forbidden glories of Windsor and Buckingham Palace.”

His meditations were interrupted at this point by a gay laugh, and on looking up he saw Victoria Sheldon coming towards him escorted by the Master of Otterburn, who was evidently telling her some funny story, judging from the amusement his conversation seemed to afford her.

She was certainly a very pretty girl, one of those feminine beauties who strike the beholder at first sight with a sense of indescribable charm. A brilliantly tinted brunette, overflowing with exuberant vitality, she had all the intense colouring and freshness of a southern rose at that time when the cold rain draws its perfume strongly forth in the chill morning air.

Her eyes, hair, eyebrows and long lashes were dark as night; red as coral the lips, which when parted showed two rows of pearly teeth; full and soft the round of the cheeks, and a peach-like skin with a rosy glow of delicate colour under the velvety surface. She was the modern realization of that vivacious Julia whom Herrick describes so charmingly in his dainty poems. And as a matter of fact the skin of this young girl had all the brilliant colouring of the south, no doubt assimilated by her system under the sultry glow of Australian skies. Having an excellent figure, dainty hands and feet, with a perfect taste in dress, and boundless vivacity, there was no doubt that Victoria Sheldon was a feminine personality eminently attractive to the stronger sex.

As to her nature, it was quite in unison with her outward appearance—bright, sparkling, vivacious, albeit somewhat shallow, yet not without a certain veneer of surface knowledge. Eminently womanly, capricious in the extreme, witty, amusing, tireless, she had one of those attractive natures which charm everyone in a singularly magnetic fashion. Some men, eccentric in their likings, admire those semi-masculine women who have missions, support the rights of their sex on lecture platforms, emulate masculine peculiarities to the best of their abilities, and pass noisy lives in shrieking aimlessly against the tyranny of mankind. Those men who approved of such semi-masculine tendencies, certainly would not have admired the womanly characteristics of Victoria, but the connoisseur of feminine beauty, the judge of a brilliant personality, and the appreciator of a witty nature, would each see in her the realisation of an extremely difficult ideal.

The Master, young and rash, was just at that delightful age when every woman appears a goddess to the uncultured fancy of youth; judge then the effect produced upon his impressionable nature by this riant vision of strongly vitalised beauty. He did not even make an attempt at resistance in any way, but prone as god Dagon on the threshold of his temple, he fell before the powerful divinity of this young girl, and she produced on him the same effect as Phryne did on her judges when she displayed the full splendour of her charms in the Areopagus under the clear blue of Athenian skies. Mactab, severe, ascetic and self-mortifying, opposed to every form of admiration of the flesh, would have blushed for the grovelling idolatory of his quondam pupil; but no doubt the sunny climate of Italy aided in a great measure this worship of Venus, and Angus Macjean, Master of Otterburn, prostrated himself in abject worship before this outward manifestation of carnal beauty.

Eustace saw this, and was selfishly annoyed thereat, because he had taken a fancy to Otterburn, and thought that he (Otterburn) should agree with him (Eustace) in despising the sex feminine, which was foolish in the extreme on the part of such an acute observer of human nature; but then he was blinded by egotism, and that vice distorts every vision. Still he could not deny that physically she was wonderfully pretty, despite his feeling of animosity against her for coming between himself and his friend. Therefore he admired her greatly from an æsthetic point of view, while Victoria, with the keen instinct of a woman, scented an enemy and neither admired nor liked Eustace the cynic in the smallest degree.

“My dear Mr. Macjean,” she said in answer to the remonstrances of Angus who wanted everyone to like his friend as much as he did himself. “Your friend is a pessimist, and I don’t like that class of people; they always take a delight in analysing one’s motives, which is disagreeable—to the person concerned. A flower is charming, but those who pull it to pieces in order to find out how it is made—are not. I don’t like analysts—they destroy one’s illusions.”

This plain-spoken young lady’s chaperone was enjoying an after-dinner nap; the Hon. Henry was talking Irish politics with an Irish M.P., who did not believe in Home Rule out of contradiction to the rest of his countrymen who did. So Victoria Sheldon, feeling in a most delightful humour, was chatting gaily with Otterburn, when they thus chanced on the melancholy Eustace, moralising on the mutability of human life.

“A penny for your thoughts, Mr. Gartney,” said Victoria, pausing before him with a gay smile on her lips.

“They’re not worth it,” replied Eustace, looking approvingly at the charming girl before him, in her dainty white dinner dress, with a bunch of vividly scarlet geraniums at her breast. “I’ll sell them as bankrupt stock.”

“Haw! haw! haw!” from the Master, who was in that pleasant frame of mind when everything seems to scintillate with wit—but then it was after dinner, and a pretty woman was at his elbow. Wine, wit, and feminine influence, really the worst-tempered man would feel pleasant with such a delightful trinity.

“My dear Master,” said Eustace reprovingly, “your mirth is complimentary, but rather noisy—will you not be seated, Miss Sheldon?”

“Thank you,” replied Victoria, sitting down in a chair under the shadow of a myrtle tree, the light from a distant lamp striking full on her piquant face. “I am rather tired.”

“Of walking, or the Master?” asked the cynic gruffly.

She flashed a brilliant glance on him out of the dusky shadow, and spread her red feather fan with a grand wave of irresistible coquetry.

“Mr. Macjean,” she said lightly as he sank into a chair opposite to her, and leaned his arms on the cold marble of the table, “What do you think?”

“Eh,” observed the Master obtusely. “Oh, I think the same as you.”

“Then,” remarked Eustace, re-lighting his cigarette, “you cannot object to that diplomatic reply. Do you mind my smoking?’

“Not in the least. I hope Mr. Macjean will follow your example.”

Mr. Macjean was only too happy to so far indulge himself. So the gentlemen sat and smoked with great enjoyment, while the feminine element of the party smiled serenely and impartially on both; smiles quite wasted on the misogamistic Eustace, but then Victoria, with that unerring instinct of coquetry implanted in every woman’s breast, took a delight in behaving thus, simply because she saw Otterburn admired her. He on his part naturally began to grow jealous, and being without the self-control habitual to those who live long in society, would doubtless have shown his irritation very plainly, only Eustace, taking in at a glance the whole situation, and being by no means agreeable to gratifying Victoria’s love of conquest, arrested the storm at once by beginning to talk with judicious diplomacy of the first thing that came into his mind.

“Tell me,” he said, addressing himself to the volatile Victoria, “Do you not find our narrow English life somewhat irksome after the freedom of Australia?”

“Not so much as you would think,” replied Miss Sheldon promptly, “for after all there is a good deal of similarity between home and the colonies.”

“You still call England ‘home,’ I observe,” said Eustace with a smile.

“We do, because most of the generation who emigrated are still alive, but even now the term is dying out, and in another fifty years I don’t suppose will be in use.”

“I should awfully like to go out to Australia,” observed Otterburn languidly. “I’m sick of civilisation.”

“Oh don’t imagine you leave civilisation behind when you come out to us,” retorted Victoria sharply, with rising colour, “that is a mistake many English people make. They think Australia is like the backwoods of America, but it’s nothing of the sort. Melbourne is just as cultured and wealthy in its own way as London, with the additional advantage of having a better climate and being smaller.”

“Do you think the latter quality an advantage then?” asked Gartney with ironical gravity.

“I should just think so, rather,” said Miss Sheldon nodding her head emphatically. “London is a delightful place, I grant, but it’s a terrible nuisance visiting your friends and going out to amusements.”

“We have,” observed the Master in an authoritative guidebook tone, “trains, tramways, carriages—”

“So have we—but even with them it takes a long time to get about London. We can get from one end of Melbourne to the other in a reasonable time, but it’s like an African exploring expedition to start round London.”

“London,” remarked Eustace in a judicious manner, “is not one but several cities. There is the West End, which is devoted to wealth and pleasure, the East End, famous for work and poverty. The City of London proper, noted for its mercantile enterprise and its stock-broking fraternity, and finally the huge shipping town which forms the port of the Metropolis. Every person stays in the special city with which his business is connected, therefore there is no difficulty in getting about one’s own particular local town, which is much smaller in the aggregate than Melbourne.”

“I understand all that perfectly,” replied Victoria, who had listened attentively, “but suppose you chose to live on the outskirts of London, so as to get a breath of country air. In that case if you want to go to a theatre you have to travel for over an hour to get to one.”

“People who live as you say, are worshippers of Nature, and go to bed with the sun—they don’t want the gas and glare of theatres.”

“Oh, anyone can argue that way,” said Victoria disdainfully, “so I have nothing to say in reply. Let us talk of something else.”

“By all means—the weather.”

“And the crops. No! I am not an agriculturist.”

“Aunt Jelly,” suggested Angus wickedly.

Miss Sheldon turned towards him with a mirthful smile in her bright eyes.

“What do you know of Aunt Jelly, Mr. Macjean?” she asked, putting her fan up to her lips to hide a laugh.

“I know nothing; absolutely nothing,” he replied, with mock humility, “beyond the fact that Gartney and Errington have both mentioned her as an eccentric character, so I wish to know more about her.”

If he did, his curiosity was not destined to be gratified at that moment, for, with the whimsical caprice of a woman, Victoria suddenly began to talk on quite a different subject, suggested by the casual mention of a name.

“Do you like Lady Errington?” she demanded, looking from one to the other.

“She is a very charming woman,” said Eustace evasively. “She knows you, I believe.”

“Slightly! I met her at Aunt Jelly’s, when she called one day.”

“And what is Aunt Jelly’s opinion?”

The girl laughed, and then, composing her features into a kind of stern severity, spoke in a harsh, measured voice:

“Not what I approve of; limp! washed out, no backbone, but no doubt she’ll make Guy a good wife. Not a hard thing for any woman to do seeing he’s an idiot. So was his father before him, and he did not take after his mother, thank God.”

“The voice is the voice of Miss Sheldon,” murmured Eustace, delicately manipulating a cigarette, “but the sentiments are those of my beloved aunt.”

“How mean you are,” said Victoria, rewarding Otterburn with a bright look for having laughed at her mimicry. “I thought I did her voice to perfection.’

“Nothing but a saw-mill could do that,” retorted the irreverent Eustace. “So that is Aunt Jelly’s opinion. It isn’t flattering.”

“Neither is Aunt Jelly.”

“I’m dying to know Aunt Jelly,” declared Angus mirthfully, “she must be as good as a play.”

“She is! tragedy.”

“No! No! Miss Sheldon, excuse me, comedy.”

“I should say burlesque, judging from your descriptions,” said the Master, gaily. “How did you drop across her, Miss Sheldon?”

“I didn’t drop across her,” said Miss Sheldon, candidly, “she dropped across me. My father left me to her guardianship, and I was duly delivered in due course like a bale of goods.”

“Why isn’t Aunt Jelly fulfilling her guardianship by seeing you through the temptations of the Continent?” asked Eustace, severely.

“Oh, she placed me under the wing of Mrs. Trubbles.”

“I’m glad she didn’t place you under the eye of Mrs. Trubbles,” observed Otterburn, with the brutal candour of youth, “because both her eyes are invariably closed.”

“What a shame—I wonder where she is?”

“Asleep! don’t disturb her,” said Gartney, as Miss Sheldon arose to her feet. “Physicians all agree that sleep after dinner is most beneficial to people of the Trubbles calibre.”

Victoria laughed at this remark, and as she showed a desire to stroll about, the gentlemen left their chairs and escorted her through the grounds, one on each side, the lady being thus happily placed between the sex masculine.

A good many of the promenaders had retired for the night, evidently worn out by the heat of the day; but some indefatigable pianist was still hard at work in the music saloon, and the steady rhythmic beat of the last new valse, “My heart is dead,” sounded tenderly through the still night air, broken at intervals by the light laughter of young girls, the deeper tones of men’s voices, and the melancholy sound of the waters washing against the stone masonry of the terrace. Beyond on the lake all was strange and mystical, filled with cold lights and shadows, vague and dreary under the gloom of the distant mountains; but here, by the garish lights of the hotel, the pulse of life was beating strongly, and the indescribable tone of idle frivolity seemed to clash with the silent solemnity of Nature.

Perhaps Eustace felt this incongruity as his eyes strayed towards the steel-coloured waters, for after a time the shallow conversation of Victoria jarred so painfully on his ears that with a hurried excuse he left the young couple to their own companionship, and wandered away alone into the fragrant darkness of the night.

“He’s awfully fond of his own company,” observed Victoria, indicating the departing Eustace. “Such a queer taste. I hate being left to myself.”

“So do I,” asserted Otterburn eagerly. “I always like to be with someone—”

“Of the opposite sex,” finished Miss Sheldon, laughing. “Well, yes! women have always been my best friends.”

“You answer at random.”

“I dare say; one is incapable of concentrated thought on a perfect night.”

“You are also growing poetical, then indeed it is time for a prosaic individual like myself to retire.”

“No don’t go yet, you can’t sleep here if you go to bed early.”

“Oh, that is your experience,” said Miss Sheldon, as a bell from a distant campanile, showing white and slender against the sky, sounded the hour of nine o’clock. “Well, I’ll stay for a few minutes longer, though I’m afraid Mrs. Trubbles will be dreadfully shocked.”

They leaned over the iron balustrade of the terrace, and watched in charmed silence the dark waters rising and falling in the chill moonlight. The valse still sounded silvery in the distance, with its sad tone of regret and hopeless despair, and after a time Victoria began to hum the melancholy refrain in a low voice:

“My heart is dead,
And pleasure hath fled,
But the rose you gave me blooms fresh and red.”

“What nonsense,” she said contemptuously, breaking off suddenly. “I daresay the rose was quite withered, only his imagination saw it was blooming.”

“Like his love for the girl.”

“A bad shot, Mr. Macjean. How could it be so? His heart was dead, his pleasure fled, so under these discouraging circumstances the rose must certainly have been dead also.”

“You said Gartney was cynical,” said Angus slowly, “what about yourself?”

“What about myself,” she repeated with a sigh, turning round and leaning lightly against the balustrade. “I’m sure I don’t know. I’ve never thought about the subject. Very likely it’s not worth thinking about.”

“Believe me,” began the young man earnestly, “you are—”

“Everything that’s charming,” interrupted Victoria, crossing her hands. “Do spare me any compliments, Mr. Macjean, I’m so tired of them. I wonder if you men think we women believe all the lies you tell us.”

“But they’re not lies.”

“Not, perhaps, for the moment, but afterwards.”

“Don’t trouble about afterwards, the present is good enough for us.”

He was getting on dangerous ground, for his voice was soft, and his young eyes flashed brightly on her face, so as Victoria had only known him twenty-four hours, even with her reckless daring of coquetry this was going too far, and with the utmost dexterity she changed the subject.

“By the way,” she said lightly, “do you know I’m a relation of yours?”

“Impossible.”

“Well, perhaps it is. Still you can judge for yourself. My mother’s maiden name was Macjean.”

“The dev—ahem! I mean good gracious. You must certainly belong to the family somehow or other. I dare say—yes—I am sure you must be my cousin.”

“Such a strained relationship. In what degree?”

“Oh, never mind. Scotch clan relationships are so difficult to unravel. Besides, we’re all brothers and sisters by the Adam and Eve theory, according to Gartney. But fancy you being a Macjean. It gives me a kind of claim on you.”

“As the head of the clan, I suppose. Never! I am a free-born Australian, so hurrah for the Southern Cross and the eight hours system of labour!”

“I haven’t the least idea of what you’re talking about?

“Very likely. Born amid the effete civilization of a worn-out land, you have no knowledge of our glorious institutions, which render Australia the Paradise of Demos.”

“Sounds like a Parliamentary speech.”

“It is a Parliamentary speech,” asserted Victoria, demurely, “an effort of my father’s when he was elected for the Wooloomooloo constituency.”

“I beg your pardon, would you mind spelling it?”

“No you would be none the wiser if I did.”

“As to my obeying you,” said Otterburn, reverting to the earlier part of the conversation, “I think the opposite is more likely to happen.”

Dangerous ground again.

“Mr. Macjean,” said Victoria in a solemn tone, “the night is getting on to morning, the tourists are getting off to bed. You are chattering in a most nonsensical manner and I’m going to retire, so good-night.”

He did not make any effort to retain her, although he felt very much inclined to do so, but then their friendship was still in its infancy and the proprieties must be observed.

“Good-night, and happy dreams,” he replied, shaking the hand she held out to him.

“Thank you, but I leave that to poets—and lovers,” she responded, and thereupon vanished like a fairy vision of eternal youth.

And lovers.

“Now I wonder—oh, nonsense! What rubbish! I’ve only known her one circle of the clock; Love isn’t Jonah’s gourd to spring up in a night. Still—well she’s a most delightful girl and I—Confound the valse! I do wish they’d stop playing at this hour. It isn’t respectable. Awfully pretty!—and she’s a Macjean too—ah, if I—bother, it’s gone out. I shan’t smoke any more. I wonder where Gartney is. Mooning about by himself, I suppose. I’ll go and look him up. She’s got lovely eyes and such pretty feet. Eh! oh, here’s Eustace—I say Gartney, I’m going to bed. Come and have a hock and seltzer before ta-ta.”

Chapter 6
A Day’s Shopping

    “ ‘Tis an Italian town,
    Almost a city yet not metropolitan wholly.
    Houses red-roofed, white-walled, lofty in height with iron balconies,
    Narrow and twisted the streets, with rough irregular pavements:
    Below are the shops with their awnings o’er windows, filled with gaudy wares we see not in England,
    Amid which stand the shop-keepers, shrill-voiced, thievish, voluble and smiling.
    ‘Questo è troopo? ‘Non e molto’—question and answer and question once more,
    While in the burning sunshine, in nooks, in corners, in courts, in door-ways,
    Lie the dark shadows, fit for the hiding of lovers, of bravos, of damsels and men-at-arms ruffianly.”

Relations were rather strained between Eustace and his young friend, the reason being as usual to be found in the unconquerable selfishness of the former. With his habitual egotism, Gartney insisted that the lad whom he had chosen for a friend should attend solely to him, watch his every action with dog-like fidelity, and have nothing to do with the rest of the world.

This Otterburn, high-spirited and wilful, naturally enough refused to do, though he had hitherto been obedient to Gartney’s whims and fancies in every way. Not having heretofore had anything to attract his attention in any great degree, and being fascinated by the strange nature of his poet-friend, Angus had duly given him unlimited measure of the admiring adulation he so much desired. He had listened patiently to Gartney’s brilliant though somewhat egotistical discourses, but now, with the irrepressible nature of youth, having fallen in love with Victoria Sheldon he began to grow tired of his friend’s dour nature and pessimistic railings against the artfulness of womankind.

They had now been nearly a week at the Italian lakes, and from being her boyish admirer, Otterburn had become the faithful slave of Victoria, and finding that he could not serve both master and mistress in a strictly impartial manner, he renounced his fidelity to Eustace. Of course he was still very friendly with him and liked to listen to his epigrammatic conversation—on occasions, but showed plainly that he much preferred Miss Sheldon’s society, a discovery which vexed his quondam friend mightily, the more so as he saw in such preference a distinct triumph for Victoria.

That young lady had early announced her dislike to Eustace, deeming him cold, vain, proud and an enemy to her sex; so, seeing Otterburn was to a certain extent indispensable to him, she tried her hardest to bring about a separation between these two close friends—and succeeded.

Not that she cared over much for Angus. He was certainly a very nice boy, and wonderfully useful as a carry-and-fetch poodle—but the possibility of Otterburn taking jest for earnest never occurred to her, and, ignoring with the calm egotism of a woman the chance that he might break his heart for her sake, she gave him sweet looks, undeserved frowns, was hot and cold, kind and cruel, doleful and capricious, just as the humour took her, and by a dexterous use of the whole armament of female wiles successfully accomplished the task she had set herself.

So Otterburn having surrendered at discretion, which was hardly to be wondered at against such a crafty enemy, was now devoted to his conqueror and saw comparatively little of Eustace, who though distinctly annoyed at his defeat cloaked his real feelings caused by Otterburn’s desertion under the guise of careless indifference, and either mooned dismally about alone or sought solace in the society of the Erringtons, who were now making preparations for their departure to England.

Before leaving, however, Lady Errington with characteristic good nature had thrown aside all formality and called upon Mrs. Trubbles and Miss Sheldon at the Villa Medici. She took a great fancy to Victoria, both on account of her beauty and her generous straightforward nature, while Mrs. Trubbles amused her mightily with the eccentricities of her character, so she asked them to a dinner at the Villa Tagni, thereby earning the eternal gratitude of Angus, who foresaw a chance of obtaining Victoria all to himself for one whole evening.

Of course she also invited Eustace, whom she pitied for his evident unhappiness, thinking, with the natural fondness of a woman for romance, that it sprang from some unrequited love affair and not, as was actually the case, from satiety and cynicism. Eustace graciously accepted the invitation, and for once in his life looked forward to such entertainment with some pleasure, as the cold, irresponsive nature of Lady Errington roused his curiosity and made him anxious to learn more of her inner life.

A few days before the Errington dinner-party, Mrs. Trubbles so far overcame her disposition to sleep as to propose a day’s shopping in Como to which Victoria eagerly agreed, being anxious to see as much local Lombardian colour as possible. On the morning of their proposed outing, however, Eustace, not being able to endure with equanimity the prospect of a whole afternoon in the company of Mrs. Trubbles, craftily betook himself on a boating excursion to the Villa Pliniana, so Otterburn nothing loth formed the sole escort of the two ladies, and this party of three were now standing in the Piazza awaiting the arrival of the steamer.

A large, fat, good-natured woman was Mrs. Trubbles, with a broad red face ever wearing a sleepy smile and a portly body arrayed in rainbow colours with plenty of jewellery. Everybody in town knew the birth, parentage, and bringing up of Mrs. Trubbles as her history had long ago passed the nine days’ wonder of scandal, and was already somewhat stale and forgotten by all except her most intimate friends, who never forgot to remind the good-natured lady that she was noble only by the accident of marriage.

The Honourable Henry Trubbles was a detestable little man with a bass voice and an overweening vanity concerning his political capabilities, though he had long ago failed in diplomatic circles. A perusal of Beaconsfield’s novels in his youth had fired his ambition to emulate their hero, and like a very second-rate Numa Pompilius he went to seek an Egeria who would inspire him with great ideas. The Hon. Henry, however, was so singularly plain in person and disagreeable in manner that no lady in his own rank of life would agree to help him to attain to the Cabinet, so not being able to secure rank he married money in the person of Miss Matilda Barsip, whose papa had made a fortune in army-contracting during the Crimean War. The noble house of which Trubbles was a cadet offered no opposition to the match, being rather glad to get the budding diplomatist settled and done for, so Miss Barsip was duly married with great pomp to her withered little stick of a lover, and six months after the army contractor had the good taste to die, leaving them all his money.

The Family, to whom Mrs. Trubbles always alluded in a tone of awe as to some unseen divinities, took the young couple up, and having floated them both into smooth social waters left them to carry on their lives in their own way, which they did. The Hon. Henry, now being in command of plenty of money, spent his life in hanging on to the outside fringe of politics and pretended to know all the secrets of the Cabinet, though as a matter of fact he was acquainted with nothing but what he learned through the medium of the papers. He tried to get into Parliament several times but was such a palpable idiot that no constituency would elect him, so Mr. Trubbles not being able to serve his country, which did not want him, fluttered round St. Stephen’s, worried the ministers and bored the members so much that if they could have given him the Governorship of a nice yellow-fever island they certainly would have done so in order to get rid of him. All the Colonial Governors, however, were healthy at present, so the Honourable Henry stayed in town and exasperated everyone with his tea-cup statesmanship.

Mrs. Henry on her side had no ambition whatsoever, but drifted leisurely through life, spending her money in a comfortable homely kind of fashion. She was presented at Court on her marriage by the Dowager Duchess of Margate, but did not appreciate the honour, so never went near St. James’ again in spite of the orders of Henry, who thought the appearance of his rich wife might improve his diplomatic prospects.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the Misses Wilkers, whose academy she had attended at Hampstead, English was not Mrs. Trubbles’ strong point, and being a good-natured old soul, who never pretended to be anything else but what she was, the worthy Matilda was a great favourite with her social circle. Her dinners were always excellent, her dances pleasant and fashionable, and her portly person decked out in gay colours was to be seen at many places, though for the most part she preferred to rest in her own house whenever she got a chance.

“I’m too stout to be skipping about,” she said candidly; “that worriting husband of mine is always hopping round like a cat on hot bricks, but for my part I like peace and quietness.”

She was certainly a most popular lady, such as the men about Town called a “jolly good sort” and the ladies in Society approved of greatly, because she did not give herself airs above her position; so in spite of her defective English, her loud taste in dress, and the lowliness of her birth, the Hon. Mrs. Trubbles got on very well indeed, and had a good number of friends and no enemies, which says a good deal for her kindly disposition.

The trip to Italy had been undertaken at the suggestion of the Honourable Henry, who wanted to study some political question concerning the Great Powers, of which he knew absolutely nothing; so Matilda had also come with him to have a look at foreign parts, and had taken Victoria with her, by permission of Aunt Jelly.

“Where’s Mr. Trubbles to-day?” asked Otterburn, digging his stick into the gravel.

“Oh, Henry,” said Mrs. Trubbles placidly, looking at the water in a somnolent manner, “he’s gone to Bell-baggio, I think.”

“Bellaggio,” corrected Victoria.

“Something like that,” replied Mrs. Trubbles complacently. “Dear! dear! how curious these foreigners do talk!—they call a steamer a vapour-bottle, which is a curious name. Dear me, Mr. Macjean, what are you laughing at?”

Otterburn pulled himself up promptly, and had the grace to blush under the severe eye of Victoria.

“It’s battello di vapore,” he said lightly, “but indeed, Mrs. Trubbles, I’m as much at sea as you are about Italian. I prefer our gude Scottish tongue.”

“Glesgay,” suggested Victoria, whereat Angus made a gesture of horror.

“No! no, I mean the language of Jeannie Deans, of Highland Mary, and of those Jacobite songs that sprang from the leal hearts of the people.”

“I once saw Rob Roy,” observed Mrs. Trubbles heavily; “they were all dressed in tartans. I don’t think the dress is very respectable myself.”

“Then I’ll never come before you in the garb of old Gaul,” said Angus gaily.

“I should think it would suit you splendidly,” said Miss Sheldon approvingly, glancing at his stalwart figure; “if you go to a fancy dress ball you must wear it.”

Otterburn laughed, and promised to obey her commands, but at this moment the steamer drew in to the pier, and they were soon on board, steaming up to Como.

It was a beautiful morning, and as yet not too warm, the heat of the sun being tempered by the cool breeze, which, blowing from the shore, brought with it the resinous odours of fir and pine. On either side precipitous mountains towered up into the intense blue of the summer sky, the innumerable villas made pleasant spots of colour here and there, while the bosom of the lake, placidly treacherous, was of changeful hues, like the varying colours of a peacock’s neck.

Plenty of tourists, in all sorts of extraordinary garbs, were on the deck of the steamer, chattering Italian, German, English, and French, according to their different nationalities, all laden with umbrellas, alpenstocks, Baedekers, luncheon-bags, marine glasses, and such-like evidences of travel. Mrs. Trubbles, having established herself in a comfortable corner, was trying to get a short sleep prior to facing the fatigues of Como, so Victoria and her attentive cavalier, being left to their own devices, began to talk about everyone and everything.

“How these tourists do hold on to their guide-books,” said Victoria disdainfully, “one would think they’d be quite lost without them.”

“Very likely they would,” replied Otterburn, pulling his straw hat over his eyes with a yawn, “they have a prejudice against looking at any place without knowing all about it.”

“It’s such a trouble reading up all about cathedrals and pictures—I like to ask questions.”

“Oh! guides!”

“No! no!—they’re worse than Baedeker. They never stop talking, and their information is so scrappy.”

“Extensive but not accurate,” suggested Macjean with a laugh.

“I’m not sure even about the extensive part,” observed Victoria gaily; “when I was in England I went to a cathedral—I won’t mention names—and the verger had a cut-and-dried story about the place. When he finished his little narrative I began to ask him questions. You’ve no idea how exasperated he became, because he knew absolutely nothing, and at last said, in despair, ‘Why, Miss, you must be an American.’ I told him I was an Australian, so he promptly replied, ‘Well, Miss, that’s quite as bad—for questions.’ ”

As in duty bound, Angus laughed at this story, which was simple enough in itself, but the telling of it seemed to establish a more friendly feeling between them, of which this artful young man took full advantage, and began to point out the various objects of interest on the lake.

“You see that villa over there,” he said in an official tone, “it belongs to the Visconti lot. They used to be Dukes of Milan, you know.”

“Dear me! and why aren’t they Dukes of Milan now?”

“Haven’t the least idea,” replied Angus, whose historical knowledge was of the vaguest description. “Napoleon, you know, I think he upset the apple-cart—turned them out, I mean. You see, Miss Sheldon, I’m like your verger—I know a stereotyped story, but if you ask me anything beyond I’m up a tree.”

“You’re a very honest guide, at all events,” said Victoria with a smile. “What is that tower on the hill?”

“Oh, the castle of Baradello.”

“And who was he?”

“Some ancient Johnnie, I believe,” returned the young man carelessly, “a duke or a pirate, or a picture gallery, I forget which.”

“Your information is most accurate,” said Miss Sheldon gravely, putting up a large red sunshade, which cast a rosy reflection on her piquant face, “you must study Baedeker very closely.”

Macjean laughed.

“How severe you are,” he replied lightly, “but I’ve got such a beastly memory. It’s like a sieve—but, I say, hadn’t we better wake up Mrs. Trubbles? Here’s Como—dirty place, isn’t it?”

“Rather dingy,” assented Victoria, surveying the untidy-looking town with its picturesque red roofs, above which arose the great Duomo like a great bubble. “What do you think, Mrs. Trubbles?”

“Eh? what, my dear?” said that lady, whom the stoppage of the steamer had aroused from a very comfortable slumber. “Very nice indeed. Like a picture I’ve got over the sideboard in the dining-room—but, dear me, how dirty the streets are! I’m afraid they haven’t got a Board of Works. What does this man say?—Bill something—who is he talking to?”

“Biglietti,” explained Victoria, as they paused at the gangway. “Tickets—you’ve got them, Mr. Macjean.”

“Yes, here they are,” said Angus, and, handing them to the officer in charge, they went ashore.

“What little men,” said Victoria, catching sight of some of the military, “they look like tin soldiers.”

“They don’t seem very well fed,” observed Mrs. Trubbles meditatively; “I don’t think the food is good—very bad quality, I’m afraid. Dear me, there’s a fountain.”

“It’s more like a squirt,” said Otterburn laughing.

“Plenty of water about this place,” pursued Mrs. Trubbles, putting up her eyeglass, “but I don’t think these foreigners make enough use of it. Oh, dear! dear! what a dreadful smell, they really ought to look after the drains better. I’m so afraid of typhoid. Mr. Macjean, would you mind smoking?—it’s safer.”

Mr. Macjean was only too delighted, and having lighted a cigarette, was soon blowing wreaths of smoke as they all walked up one of the narrow streets, on their way to the Duomo.

“We must do the church, you know,” remarked Angus with great gravity, “it’s the big lion of Como—built by some one called Roderer or Rodari—I’m not certain about the name. Sounds like a champagne brand, doesn’t it? It was built somewhere about the thirteenth or fourteenth century—I’m not sure which.”

“You don’t seem very sure of anything beyond the fact that there is a church,” said Miss Sheldon disparagingly, “and as it’s straight before you, we can be certain it exists. They say it’s all built of white marble.”

“It doesn’t look like it then,” remarked Mrs. Trubbles emphatically, “a good coat of paint wouldn’t hurt it.”

“Oh, that would spoil it,” chorused both the young people, whereupon Mrs. Trubbles shook her head, and held firmly to her original suggestion.

Having admired the ornate front, with its delicate Renaissance carvings they went out of the burning sunshine into the cool twilight of the cathedral.

Some service was going on as they entered, and in the dim distance they saw the high altar glittering with gold and silver ornaments, beneath gorgeous draperies of yellow damask depending from the ceiling, and innumerable tapers flared like beautiful glittering stars against the brilliant background.

Numbers of worshippers, with bent heads, were kneeling on the chill marble pavement, telling their beads, or silently moving their lips in prayer, while a priest in splendid vestments, attended by a long train of white-robed acolytes, officiated at the altar, and at intervals the melodious thunder of the organ broke through the monotonous voices of the choir. Placid-looking images of saints, dusky pictures of the Virgin throned amid the hierarchy of heaven, before which burned the lambent flames of slender white candles, many-coloured tapestries representing biblical scenes, heavy gold brocaded hangings, elaborately-carved shrines and the sudden flash of precious metals and strangely-set jewels appeared in every nook and corner of the immense building, while from the silver censers of the acolytes arose the drowsy incense, in white clouds of sensuous perfume, towards the gilded splendour of the huge dome. Here, from the lofty roof, the rapt faces of Evangelists, saints, angels and virgins, looked gravely downward; there, slender shafts of sunlight, streaming in through the painted windows, tinted the white monuments of the dead with rainbow hues, and under all this subdued splendour of colour and beauty, softened by the dusky twilight, knelt a mixed congregation. Bare-footed contadini from distant hill villages, devoutly told their beads next to some dark-visaged soldier in all the bravery of military trappings, and delicately beautiful ladies, arrayed in the latest Milanese fashion, knelt beside bare-breasted peasants with sinewy figures full of the lithe grace and suppressed fierceness of Italian manhood.

“I wonder what Mactab would say to all this?” muttered Otterburn involuntarily, as he thought of the severe humility and bareness of the Kirk o’ Tabbylugs.

“Who is Mactab?” asked Victoria in a subdued whisper. Angus chuckled quietly.

“Did I never tell you of Mactab?” he whispered—“oh! I must. He’s a prominent minister of the Free Kirk, of the severest principles.”

“What are his principles?”

“Eh! what? Oh, he hasn’t got any principals! He’s a Free Kirk, I tell you. All this heathenish worship would make him take a fit. He believes in nothing, not even an organ, so the Mactab congregation sing dreadfully out of tune, but they make up for this by strength of lungs. They could give that wheezy old ‘kist o’ whustles’ fits in psalmody.”

At this moment Mrs. Trubbles, who had been gazing complacently about her with the same sort of interest as she would have taken in a theatre, intimated that she had seen enough, and led the way out into the hot sunshine.

“I’m rather tired of churches,” said the matron in her deep voice “we’ve seen such a lot of them in France.”

“Oh, France isn’t in it with Italy in that line,” observed Angus, in his slangy way. “There are more churches than public-houses here.”

“Well, that’s a very good thing,” replied Victoria.

“I should think so, considering how thin the wines are,” retorted Macjean, pausing before a variegated kind of arcade; “but look here—this is the market.”

“Oh, how pretty!” cried Victoria, noting the picturesque colouring of the different piles of fruit—“just like a scene out of Romeo and Juliet.”

“And there is Juliet!” said the Master wickedly, waving his stick in the direction of a ponderous female who was leaning from a projecting iron balcony chattering to a lady below with shrill volubility over some skinny-looking poultry.

“Juliet in her old age buying Romeo’s dinner,” replied Victoria, serenely. “Don’t, please, take the romance out of everything.”

“No; I leave that to Gartney.”

“Horrid man!” said the girl, viciously; “he would disillusionise an angel.”

“There are one or two things, my dear Victoria,” observed Mrs. Trubbles at this moment—“there are one or two things I should like to take home with me as a kind of mementum of Italy. A fan or a shell-box—you know, dear; a box with ‘A Present from Como’ on it. Now, what is the Italian for ‘A Present from Como’?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Miss Sheldon, suppressing a smile. “However, here’s an old curiosity shop. Let us go in and spy out the land.”

“I can’t talk the language myself,” said Mrs. Trubbles, doubtfully, as her bulky figure filled up the door, “but Victoria—”

“Is much worse,” interrupted that young lady, quickly. “I know French, but not Italian, except parrot-like in singing. Now Mr. Macjean—”

“I’m worst of all,” explained Otterburn, in the most brazen manner. “ ‘Questo e troppo’ is all I know.”

“Translate, please.”

“It means ‘That is too much.”

“A very good sentence to know,” said the matron, decidedly. “I believe these foreign people are rarely honest. I shall learn it—’Question he troppus.’ Is that right?”

“Not quite; only three words wrong. ‘Questo e troppo.’ ”

“ ‘Questo e troppo,’ ” repeated Mrs. Trubbles, carefully. “What a pity these foreigners don’t learn English. It’s so much better than their own gibberish.”

“I’m afraid we’ll have to go in for the primitive language of signs,” cried Victoria gaily, as they stood in front of the diminutive counter behind which a smiling Italian was gesticulating politely.

It would take a long time to describe the difficulties of that shopping. How the shopkeeper, assisted by his tragic-looking wife, raved wildly in Italian, and his three customers endeavoured vainly to find out what they both meant. Sometimes one person would speak, then the other four would join in, the most powerful voice taking the lead. What with “Gran’ Dio’s” and “Per Bacco’s” from the sellers, and “Basta, basta,” “Questo e troppo,” and “Si, si” from the buyers, the whole transaction was quite operatic in character.

Mrs. Trubbles’ system of shopping was very simple.

When the shopkeeper said two lire, she replied one; if he requested five, she offered four, always keeping the price down, being convinced in her own mind that these foreigners were trying to swindle her, an idea abhorrent to her sturdy British spirit.

“I’ve got a conversation book somewhere,” she said at last, fishing in a capacious pocket; “it’s got questions in three languages.”

“And the truth in none,” observed Angus, sotto voce.

“Oh, here it is!” exclaimed Mrs. Trubbles, producing a kind of pamphlet. “Here, Mister Signor,” holding up an olive-wood paper-cutter, “Wie viel.”

A shrug of the shoulders and a gesture of dismay from the shopkeeper, who did not understand German.

“Why, he doesn’t know his own language!” said Mrs. Trubbles, with great contempt. “They need a School Board here.”

“I think,” suggested Victoria, who was suffocating with laughter, “I think you are talking German.”

“Dear! dear! you don’t say so?” said the lady meekly, somewhat after the fashion of M. Jourdain, who had talked prose for years and did not know it. “Yes, quite right. These books are so muddling. Where’s the Italian? Oh, here; ‘Quanto, quanto?’ ” shaking the paper-cutter frantically. “Quanto, signor?”

“Tre lire.”

“Bother the man! I’m not talking about a tray!” cried Mrs. Trubbles, in an exasperated tone. “Here!—this! Use your eyes. Paper-cutter. ‘Papero cuttero. Quanto?’ ”

“Tre lire, signora.”

“He means three francs,” explained Victoria.

“Oh, does he. I’ll give him two.”

“Questo e troppo,” said Otterburn, bringing forward his only bit of Italian with great ostentation. “Two—due—lire, signor. Ah, che la morte.”

“No, no,” from the shopkeeper, “non e molto.”

“Now what does that mean?” cried the matron, referring to her text-book. “Here it is: ‘not much,’—si, si; far too much, too molto, due—due lire,” producing them triumphantly from her purse.

With many deprecating shrugs and asseverations in fluent Italian that such a sale would ruin him, the shopkeeper at last accepted the two lire, and Mrs. Trubbles with great satisfaction secured what she wanted. They then bought a few more things by pursuing the same system of beating down the prices, and all three ultimately left the shop with the firm conviction that they had secured bargains, which they decidedly had not.

“These pigs of English,” observed the astute shopkeeper to his wife, “always talk a lot, but they pay in the end.”

Then the three innocents abroad wandered aimlessly through the narrow streets, saw the statue of the great electrician, Volta, the ruined battlements, the church of St. Abbondio, and other objects of interest. Afterwards they had some refreshment at a café, the proprietors of which Mrs. Trubbles, who was a spendthrift in London but a miser abroad, denounced as robbers, and then were fortunate enough to catch a steamer just starting for Cernobbio.

“Oh dear! dear!” moaned Mrs. Trubbles, with a weary sigh, as she sat down in a comfortable seat—“what with their language, their lies, and their nobby-stone streets, I’m quite worn out.”

“I think one visit is quite enough for Como,” said Victoria, as the town receded into the far distance. “When do we leave this place, Mrs. Trubbles?”

“In a week, dear,” murmured the lady in a sleepy tone. “My husband will get all his politics settled by that time, I hope.”

“I hope so, too. I’m tired of the lakes.”

“Don’t say that,” said Otterburn, reproachfully; “I’ll be sorry to leave the Villa Medici.”

“You needn’t. We can go; you can stay.”

“I don’t want to stay if you go.”

Clearly this obtuse young man was irrepressible, and as he was now getting on dangerous ground again, Victoria deftly turned the conversation.

“I suppose we’ll see you and Mr. Gartney at Rome?”

“Oh, yes. Will you be glad to see us?”

“Perhaps. I don’t like Mr. Gartney; I’ve told you so a dozen times.”

“Then will you be glad to see me?” demanded Otterburn, boldly.

Victoria looked at him mischievously, with a dangerous gleam in her dark eyes, then lowering her sunshade with a laugh, she turned abruptly away.

“I shall be glad when we arrive at the Villa Medici,” she said, lightly; “I’m so hungry.”

How on earth was a young man to make love to such a capricious girl?

Chapter 7
Lady Errington’s Little Dinner

“An alien race beneath an alien sky,
Amid strange tongues, and faces strange alone,
Stout English hearts who for the moment try
To form a little England of their own.”

After the constant sight of dark Italian faces, and the everlasting clatter of restless Italian tongues, the guests at the Villa Tagni found it pleasant to form part of an English circle once more, to eat an English dinner, to discuss English subjects and compare everything British to the disadvantage of all things Continental. So great a delight did these six people take in meeting one another at a hospitable dinner-table that one would have thought they had been for years exiled in the centre of Africa, and far removed from all civilizing influences. Heaven only knows there is no lack of English tourists on the Continent, but then to a great extent they preserve their insular stiffness towards one another; consequently when people meet in foreign parts, who have a slight acquaintance at home, they rush into one another’s arms with tender affection, though they would mutually consider one another insufferable bores during the London season.

This, however, was not the case with Lady Errington’s guests, who were all genuinely delighted with one another, and chatted gaily on different kinds of subjects as if they had been bosom friends all their lives. The Hon. Henry had been invited on account of his wife, who in her turn had been invited on account of Victoria, but having gone to Milan to see an Italian Count who had all the complications of European politics at his fingers’ ends, he telegraphed the sad news that he would not be able to be present, at which Lady Errington was secretly very glad, as an extra man would have quite upset the balance of the party.

As it was, Sir Guy took in the portly Mrs. Trubbles to dinner, his wife was escorted by Eustace, and the Master of Otterburn realised the wish of his heart by acting as cavalier to Miss Sheldon. So things being thus pleasantly arranged, they all sat round the well spread table as merry a party as it would be possible to find.

In some mysterious manner Lady Errington had managed to provide a series of English dishes, to which all present did ample justice, not that anyone was particularly a gourmand, but Italian cookery is a trifle monotonous and a real English dinner in Italy is something to be appreciated. At all events, what with the food, the wine, and the continuous strain of light badinage, all the guests were in a state of the highest good humour, and even the pessimistic Gartney deigned to take a moderately charitable view of things.

“This is jolly and no mistake,” said Otterburn, as the servant filled his glass with champagne, “you need to go abroad to appreciate home comforts.”

“I think you would appreciate them anywhere,” remarked Eustace the cynic.

“And quite right too,” chimed in Miss Sheldon, with a gay laugh, “everybody does, only they don’t like to confess it.”

“Why not?” demanded Sir Guy.

Victoria looked rather nonplussed for the moment, having made an idle statement without thinking she would be called upon to give her reasons.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied, after some hesitation. “I suppose people like to be thought romantic, and thinking about what you eat and drink isn’t romantic.”

“It’s very sensible at all events,” said Lady Errington; “do you not agree with me Mrs. Trubbles?”

“I do,” replied the matron ponderously, nodding her head, upon which was perched a cheerful-looking cap of black lace and glittering bugles, “people should always eat and drink well at meal times, but no nibblin’s in between. It isn’t nature to despise good food well-cooked. I’ve no patience with those gells who starve themselves and pinch their waists to look pretty. Wasps I call them.”

“Without the sting,” suggested Sir Guy.

“That depends on their tempers, and their tempers,” continued Mrs. Trubbles impressively, “depend on their eating. Give them good meals and plenty of exercise, and there’s the makin’ of good wives about them. Let them starve themselves and lace tight, and it makes their noses red and their tempers cross.”

“The whole duty of woman then,” murmured Eustace demurely, “is to appreciate her cook and disobey her dressmaker. They might do the first, but never the second.”

Mrs. Trubbles, not understanding irony, looked doubtfully at Eustace to see if he was smiling, but so grave was the expression of his face that she did not know whether he spoke in jest or earnest, so without making any reply, she continued her meal while the conversation became frivolous and general.

“I think Italy a very over-rated place.”

“Really! In what respect—morals, scenery, manners?”

“No, as regards music. It’s a very barrel-organy country.”

“Not more so than the London streets. And after all, `Ah che la Morte,’ is more musical than ‘Tommy make room for your uncle.”

“Both out of date.”

“Well, say Gounod’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the ‘Boulanger March.”

“Yes, it’s much jollier than the Op. 42 andante adagio con fuoco prestissimo sort of things they give you at the Richter Concerts.”

“Maclean,” observed Eustace, gravely regarding his glass, “you are a Philistine, and classical music of the advanced school is thrown away on your uncultivated ear.”

“No doubt! I prefer ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to Beethoven.”

“Naturally, being a Scotchman. You’re like the man who knew two tunes. One was ‘God save the Queen,’ the other—wasn’t.”

“I remember,” observed Mrs. Trubbles, whose ideas of music were primitive in the extreme, “that I went to a concert at St. James’ Hall, where they played something called a fuggy.”

“A fugue,” translated Victoria for the benefit of the company. “I know! One tune starts, a second catches it up. Then a third joins in, and just as it successfully muddles up the other two, a fourth and a fifth have their say in the matter.”

“Sounds dreadfully mixed.”

“Then it sounds exactly what it is,” said Miss Sheldon promptly. “But what about this particular fugue, Mrs. Trubbles?”

“The fugue, dear—yes, of course. There was a young man in front of me wriggled dreadfully. I thought he was uneasy about a pin, but he was only showing how pleased he was with the music, and kept calling out ‘Oh this is food!’ ”

“Wanted the bottle, I expect,” said Eustace sweetly, “such musical babies shouldn’t be allowed to go to classical concerts. It’s too much for their nerves.”

“It’s too much for mine,” remarked Otterburn grimly.

“After dinner,” said Gartney, looking thoughtfully at him, “I shall play the ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ ”

“In that case, Lady Errington, may I stay out on the terrace? Such a suggestion is inhuman.”

Lady Errington laughed and gave the signal to the ladies, whereupon they all arose to their feet.

“I’m afraid you’re talking dreadful nonsense,” she said, shaking her head.

“It’s a poor heart that never rejoiceth,” replied Otterburn impudently, as he opened the door for the ladies to depart.

Following the Continental fashion, Sir Guy and his guests did not linger long over their wine, but, after a few minutes, went into the drawing-room, whence they strolled on to the terrace for cigarettes and coffee.

Mrs. Trubbles, feeling sleepy after her dinner, found a comfortable chair in a distant corner of the room, and went placidly to sleep, while the remaining guests established themselves on the terrace, the gentlemen with cigarettes and the ladies with coffee.

Such a perfect night as it was. Away in the distance, dense and black against the cold, clear sky, frowned the sombre masses of mountains, above which hung in a cloudless firmament the silver shield of the moon. Here and there a liquid star throbbed in the deep heart of the heavens, and overhead shone the misty splendour of the Milky Way; not a breath of wind ruffled the still surface of the lake, which reflected the serene beauty of the sky, but at intervals across the star-smitten surface would move the dark, slim form of a boat, the oars breaking the water into thousands of flashing diamonds.

Far beyond glimmered the orange-coloured lights of Blevio, and the sudden whiteness of some tall campanile shooting up in slender beauty from amid its dark mass of surrounding houses. A sense of perfect fragrance in the still air, a charmed silence all around, and a wondrous restful feeling under the cool magic of the night. Then, mellowed by distance, faint and far like aerial music, the silver tones of a peal of bells sounded at intervals through the clear atmosphere, until the whole night seemed full of sweet sounds.

“This is the night when Diana kisses Endymion,” said Eustace dreamily, “the antique deities which we all deny are still on earth in Italy. They are not visible, nor will they ever be so save to the eye of faith alone. Even then they are doubtful of revealing themselves to a generation who would put them under the microscope and on the dissecting table. But although we try hard to disbelieve in their existence, the spell of their beauty is sometimes too strong, and I never go anywhere among these hills without a secret hope of finding Pan asleep at noontide in the ilex shade, or of seeing the laughing face of a Dryad framed in tamarisk leaves.”

“And your hope is never realised,” said Lady Errington sadly; “that is so true of our modern desires.”

“Because we always desire the impossible,” replied Eustace, clasping his hands over his knees while the chill moonlight fell on his massive face, “and expect to find it in crowded cities under the glare of gaslight, instead of in these magic solitudes where the moon shines on haunted ground.”

“But is it possible to reconcile man and Nature?”

“According to Matthew Arnold, yes.”

“What a romantic way you have of looking at things, Mr. Gartney,” remarked Victoria with some impatience. “If everyone took your view of life, I’m afraid the world would not get on.”

“It’s all humbug,” cried Otterburn, who agreed in every way with Miss Sheldon, “that is, you know, not quite sensible.”

“I daresay it is not—in a worldly sense,” said Eustace bitterly, “but then you see I don’t look at everything from a purely utilitarian point of view.”

“I do” interposed Guy in his hearty British voice, “it’s the only way to get one’s comforts in life. And one’s comforts suggest smoking.”

Otterburn assented with avidity, for they had been sitting with cigarettes for some time, but never lighted up, and even Eustace departed so much from his poetic dreamings as to accept the soothing weed.

“You don’t practise what you preach, Mr. Gartney,” said Lady Errington, smiling.

“How many of us do?” asked Gartney complacently. “I’m afraid we talk a lot and do nothing, now-a-days. It’s the disease of the latter end of the nineteenth century.”

“Oh, everything’s very jolly,” said Otterburn, who resembled Mark Tapley in his disposition. “Who was it said that this was the best of all possible worlds?”

“Voltaire! But by that it was not his intention to infer he didn’t yearn after some better world.”

“Heaven!”

“I don’t think that was in M. Arouet’s line.”

“I’m afraid it isn’t in any of our lines.”

“What a rude remark,” said Lady Errington severely. “This conversation is becoming so atheistical that I must ask Mr. Gartney to carry out his promise and play the Moonlight Sonata. It may inspire us with higher thoughts.”

“The Como Moonlight Sonata—it will be a local hit.”

“What nonsense you do talk, Macjean,” said Eustace rising to his feet and throwing his cigarette into the water, “you’re like that man in the Merchant of Venice.”

“What man in the Merchant of Venice?”

“Oh, if you don’t know your Shakespeare, I’m afraid I can’t teach it to you,” retorted Eustace, and stepping lightly across the terrace, he sat down at the piano, which was placed near the window of the drawing-room, and ran his fingers lightly over the ivory keys. Within the party on the terrace could see the gleam of the marble floor, the dull glitter of heavily embroidered curtains, the faint reflection of a mirror, and over all the rosy light of a red-shaded lamp the glare of which streamed out into the pale moonlight.

Everyone sat silently in the wonderful mystic world created by the magic of the moon, and from the piano a stream of melody, sad and melancholy, in a minor key, broke forth on the still night. The spell of the shadows, the weirdness of the hour, and the presence of Lady Errington, to whom he felt strangely drawn, all had their influence on Gartney’s wonderfully impressionable nature, and he began to improvise delicate melodies on a story suggested to him by the calm lake gleaming without.

“In the crystal depths of the blue lake,” he chanted in a dreamy monotone, while the subtle harmonies wove themselves under his long lithe fingers, “there dwells a beautiful fairy, in a wondrous palace. She is in love with the nightingale who sings so sweetly from the laurels that hang their green leaves over the still waters. The voice of the hidden singer has strange power and tells her of the cool green depths of the forest; of the rich perfumes shaken from the flowers by the gentle night-wind, and of the ruined shrines from whence the gods have fled. As the passionate notes well forth from amid the dusky shadows the eyes of the beautiful fairy fill with hot tears, for she knows that the bird sings of a long dead love, of a long dead sorrow. But she has no soul, the beautiful fairy, and cannot feel the rapture, the passion, the sadness of love. She rises to the glittering surface of the lake, and waves her slender white arms to the nightingale that sings so sweetly in the moonlight. But the dawn breaks rosy in the eastern skies, the rough wind of the morning whitens the lake, and the nightingale sings no more. Then the beautiful fairy, broken-hearted, sinks far down into the placid waters, to where there blooms strange flowers of wondrous hues, and weeps, and weeps, and weeps for the love which she can never feel without a soul.”

A chord, and the player let his hands fall from the keyboard.

“That is a beautiful story, such as Heine might have told,” said Lady Errington softly.

“The inspiration is Heine,” replied Eustace dreamily, and relapsed into silence.

Victoria, eminently a woman of the world, grew weary of this poetical talk and made a sign to Otterburn, who, understanding her meaning, arose to his feet as she left her chair, and they strolled along the terrace laughing gaily. A sound from within showed that Mrs. Trubbles was once more awake, so Guy in his capacity of host went inside to attend to her, and Eustace, sitting at the piano, was left alone with Lady Errington.

So frail, so pale, so ethereal she looked in the thin cold beams of the moon, lying back, still and listless, in her wicker chair, with her hands crossed idly on her white dress. The man at the piano was in the radiance of the rosy lamplight, but the woman, dreaming in the silence, looked a fitter inhabitant for this weird, white world of mystery and chilly splendour. Watching her closely, even in the distance, Eustace caught a glimpse of her eyes for the moment, and fancied, with the vivid imagination of a poet, that he saw in their depths that undefinable look of unfulfilled motherhood which had led him to call her an “incomplete Madonna.”

Filled with this idea, a sudden inspiration of ascertaining the truth seized him, and without changing his position, he replaced his fingers on the ivory keys and broke into the steady rhythmical swing of a cradle song.

His voice was a small sweet tenor, not very loud, but wonderfully soft and sympathetic, so that he rendered the song he now sang with rare delicacy and tenderness.

            I.

“Sleep, little baby! peacefully rest,
Mother is clasping thee close to her breast;
Angels watch over thee gentle and mild,
Guard thee with heavenly love undefiled.
Sleep little baby, safe in thy nest,
Sleep little baby! mother’s own child.”

            II.

“Sleep, little baby! fear not the storm,
Tenderly mother is holding thy form.
Mother’s eyes watching thee ever above
Shine like twin stars with fathomless love.
Sleep, little baby! safely and warm,
Sleep, little baby! mother’s own dove.”

When he had ended the song with one soft, long-drawn note, he glanced furtively at Lady Errington, and saw that he had touched the one sympathetic chord of her nature, for those calm blue eyes were full of unshed tears hanging on the long lashes. Eustace delicately refrained from noticing her emotion, but rising from the piano strolled on to the terrace, leaned lightly over the balustrade and gazed absorbedly at the restless water, dark and sombre under the stone wall.

“A perfect night,” he murmured after a pause, during which Lady Errington found time to recover herself from the momentary fit of emotion.

“Yes,” answered Alizon mechanically, then after a pause, “thank you very much for the song.”

“I’m glad you liked it,” responded Eustace equably, and again there was silence between them. The moonlight shone on both their faces, on his, massive and masterful with a poetic look in his wonderfully eloquent eyes, and on hers, delicate, distinct and fragile, as if it had been carved from ivory. Light laughter from the two young people at the end of the terrace, a deep murmur of conversation from within, where Sir Guy strove gallantly to entertain his drowsy guest, but this man and woman, oblivious of all else, remained absorbed in their own thoughts.

Of what was she thinking? of her past sorrow, her present happiness, her doubtful future (for the future is doubtful with all humanity)—Who could tell? Eustace, delicately sympathetic as he was, stood outside the closed portals of her soul, into which no man, not even her husband, had penetrated. But men and women, however closely allied, however passionately attached, however unreserved in their confidences, never know one another’s souls. There is always a something behind all which is never revealed, which the soul feels intensely itself, yet shrinks from disclosing even to nearest and dearest, and it is this vague secret which all feel, yet none tell, that makes humanity live in loneliest isolation from each other.

Perhaps Lady Errington was thinking of this hidden secret of her soul which none knew, nor ever would know, but Eustace, softened for the moment by the unexpected maternal emotion his song had evoked, was envying his cousin the possession of this cold, silent woman. Had he known her personally before her marriage he might not have cared much about her, save in a friendly way, but his eccentric imagination had endowed her with a vague charm, which no other woman possessed, and the knowledge that she belonged to another man made him bitterly regretful. It was ever thus with the whimsical character of Eustace Gartney. Place something within his reach, and he despised it, place it beyond his hope of attainment, and he would strain every nerve to possess it. He lived in the pursuit of the unattainable, which of all things had the greatest charm for him, and this unattainable vision of charming womanhood filled his soul with passionate anguish and desire.

Suddenly, with a sigh, Lady Errington lifted up her eyes and saw Eustace looking at her, respectfully enough, yet with a certain meaning in his gaze which caused her vague embarrassment, she knew not why.

“Your music has made me dream, Mr. Gartney,” she said, nervously opening her fan.

“You are of a sensitive nature, perhaps.”

She sighed again.

“Yes, very sensitive. It is a most unhappy thing to be impressionable, one feels things other people count as nothing.”

“Other people are wise,” said Eustace in an ironical tone, “they take Talleyrand’s advice about a happy life, and—are happy.”

“What is your experience?”

“The reverse; but then you see I have not taken Talleyrand’s advice. It is excellent and infallible to many people, but not to me.”

“Why not?”

“I refer you to one Hamlet, who said, ‘The time is out of joint.’ ”

“Hamlet was a morbid, self-analysing egotist,” said Lady Errington, emphatically.

“No—you are wrong. He was a man crushed down by melancholy.”

“Principally of his own making, though certainly he had plenty of excuse.”

“And don’t you think I have any excuse for being unhappy?”

Alizon looked at him critically.

“You are young, healthy, rich, famous. No, I don’t think you have any excuse. Do you remember my advice to you the other night?”

“About philanthropy, yes. But we did not come to any agreement on the subject, because we were interrupted.”

“History repeats itself,” said Lady Errington, rising, “for here come Mrs. Trubbles and Guy.”

“And Macjean and Miss Sheldon. Farewell, Minerva—Momus is King.”

“Wisdom gives place to Folly—well, is not that a very good thing,” said Alizon laughing, “you would grow weary of a world without change.”

“I daresay. To no moment of my life could I have said with Faust, ‘Stay, thou art so fair.’ ”

“Alizon, Mrs. Trubbles is going,” said Sir Guy’s voice, as the ponderous matron rolled towards his wife like a war-chariot.

“I’m so sorry,” observed Lady Errington, taking the lady’s hand.

“So am I, dear,” said Mrs. Trubbles in a sleepy voice, “but I always go to bed early here, the climate makes me so sleepy. I have enjoyed myself so much—so very much. Yes.”

“Next time you visit,” whispered Otterburn to Victoria, “bring a chaperon who is wide-awake.”

“I will—you shall choose my chaperon, Mr. Macjean.”

“You mightn’t like my choice,” said Macjean wickedly.

“I mean a lady, of course,” replied Victoria demurely, “not an irreverent young man like—well, never mind.”

“Like me, I suppose?”

“I never said so.”

“No, but you looked it.”

Victoria laughed, and departed with Mrs. Trubbles and her hostess to put her wraps on, while the three gentlemen had a short smoke and conversation, after which they all separated for the night.

Eustace walked silently back in the moonlight with Mrs. Trubbles who did all the talking; and the young couple behind them talked Chinese metaphysics.

Chapter 8
Eustace Examines His Mind

        “I looked into my mind,
        And what did I find?
The waifs of the life I had left behind.

        “The tears of a girl,
        A blossom—a curl,
The heart of a woman who married an Earl.

        “Ambitions and fears,
        Gay laughter and tears,
Dead sorrows, dead pleasures of long perished years.

        “Ah, folly to sigh
        For passions that die,
Sir Poet, ‘tis best to let sleeping dogs lie.”

“I suppose,” said Eustace to his friend, “that as we are here we may as well see something of the place.”

“But we have seen a lot,” objected Angus, removing his post-prandial cigarette.

“Do you think so?” observed Gartney serenely; “it strikes me that your ‘seeing a lot’ has been principally confined to pottering about this place in company with Miss Sheldon.”

Otterburn looked a trifle sheepish at this very pointed remark, and resumed his cigarette with a nervous laugh.

They were seated under a mulberry tree, looking at the lake flashing in the brilliant sunshine, listening to a noisy cicada that was singing to itself in an adjacent flower-bed, and watching the brown lizards chasing one another over the hot stones of the parapet.

“Where do you want to go to?” asked the Master, after a pause.

“I was thinking of driving to Cantari. It’s a queer old village, dating from the time of Il Medeghino.”

“Who the deuce was he?”

“A pirate of this ilk, who used to sweep the lake with a fleet of ships.”

“It wouldn’t take a very big fleet to do that,” said Otterburn, staring at the narrow limits of the lake. “I daresay one of our ironclads could have knocked the whole show to kingdom-come in no time.”

“Very probably,” replied Eustace dryly, “but luckily for Il Medeghino there were no ironclads in those days, and a good thing too. Torpedoes, Gatling guns, and dynamite have taken all the romance out of war. But this is not the question. What about Cantari. Will you come?”

“Well, I hardly know—I—do you think Miss Sheldon would care to come?”

“She might, only I’m not going to ask her. There’s not much amusement in watching her flirting with you in some old church. Besides she’d admire the altar-cloth because it would make such a lovely dress, and the jewels of the shrine because they would look so charming on her own neck. No. I am not going to have my enjoyment spoilt by the everlasting chatter of a woman’s tongue.”

“You’re horribly severe,” said Angus wincing. “You don’t like Miss Sheldon.”

“As a pretty woman, yes. As a companion, no. She’s a coquette.’

“Oh, I don’t think so.”

“Don’t you? Well, wait a week. Your disenchantment will soon commence.”

“She’s a true woman,” declared Macjean hotly.

“And therefore capricious. My dear lad, the two things are inseparable. But once more—for the third time. What about Cantari?”

The young man looked at the blue sky above, the blue lake below, the brilliantly-coloured flowers, and ultimately brought his eyes back to Eustace.

“I’ll come if you like,” he said awkwardly.

“Oh, don’t trouble,” replied Eustace curtly, springing to his feet, “I’ll go alone,” and he walked off in a huff, Otterburn making no attempt to stop him.

“What a cross chap he is,” muttered the Master to himself, “he always wants a fellow to be dodging about those old ruins. It isn’t good enough when there’s a pretty girl about—not much. Life’s too short to waste one’s chances.”

After which slightly egotistical soliloquy, Otterburn pitched his cigarette into a flower-bed and strolled off to the music-room, where he found Miss Sheldon strumming waltzes on a fearfully bad piano.

“Oh, here you are,” she cried, rising with alacrity, “I’m so glad. I want to go out for a stroll, and Mrs. Trubbles doesn’t. That nuisance of a husband of hers is talking her to sleep with politics.”

“He is rather a trial,” murmured Otterburn, as they went outside.

“Trial!” echoed Miss Sheldon, with supreme contempt, unfurling her sunshade, “I should just think so. One might as well have married a Blue-Book. Why did she marry him?”

“For the sake of contrast, probably.”

“It’s not impossible. Where is the amiable Mr. Gartney?”

“Gone geologizing, or ruin-hunting. Something of that sort!”

“Alone?”

“Entirely.”

“Then he’s in very good company.”

“Oh, I say, you know,” said Angus, making a weak stand for the character of his absent friend, “Gartney isn’t a bad fellow.”

“I never said he was.”

“No—but you think—”

“It’s more than you do, or you wouldn’t stand there talking such nonsense,” said Victoria severely. “Come and buy me some peaches.”

So Otterburn held his tongue in the meekest manner, and bought her peaches, which they devoured comfortably by the lake, talking of everything, except Eustace Gartney.

In the meanwhile that gentleman, considerably upset in his own mind by what he termed Macjean’s selfishness (he was quite oblivious of his own), had gone round to some stables in the village, selected a carriage, and was now being driven along the dusty white road in the direction of Cantari.

The driver, a swarthy young man with a somewhat dilapidated suit of clothes, a shining hard hat, and a good-natured smile, called the weak-kneed animal which drew the vehicle “Tista,” and “Tista” was the nearest approach to a skeleton ever seen outside the walls of a museum. Peppino (the driver) encouraged Tista (the horse) by first shouting and then abusing him in voluble Italian.

“Ah, pig of a horse why go so slow? Child of Satan, is not the corn of the illustrious Signor waiting for thee at Cantari?”

It might have been, but Tista seemed to have his doubts about the truth of this statement, for he did not mend his pace, but ambled complacently on, stopping every now and then to whisk a fly from his hide. At last, in despair, Peppino got down from his perch and trudged up the hill beside Tista, who shook his bells bravely and made a great show of speed over the irregular road.

“Hadn’t you better carry him?” asked Eustace in Italian, observing this comedy in sarcastic silence. “I don’t think he’ll live as far as Cantari.”

Peppino touched his hat, grinned at the wit of the English milord, and without any reply went on abusing the stolid Tista with the brilliant vocabulary of a Texus mule driver. At last Tista with much difficulty managed to gain the top of the hill, whereupon Peppino mounted his perch once more, cracked his whip in grand style, and his attenuated horse proceeded to tumble down the incline.

Tista neither galloped, cantered, nor walked, but simply tumbled down the hill, being considerably assisted in his descent by the weight of the carriage behind. Then came a stretch of comparatively level road, running along the side of the lake, where Tista resumed his ambling, and after a deliberate journey the three, horse, driver and passenger, reached Cantari.

Here Eustace left his carriage at the Albergo Garibaldi, and, lighting a cigarette as a preventative against the evil odours of the village, strolled through the narrow streets with listless curiosity.

Cantari is situated on the side of a steep mountain which slopes sheer into the lake, and in fact some of the dwellings are built on stone piles over the tideless waters. All the houses, grey and weather-worn are huddled together as if for warmth, and from the bright green forests high above there falls a great sheet of foaming water, which descends through the centre of the village by several stages until it plunges with a muffled roar into the lake.

A perfect labyrinth of streets, narrow and gloomy, with tall grey houses on either side, cobbled stone pavements sloping from both sides to an open drain in the centre, and high above a glimpse of blue sky rendered all the more brilliant by the chill darkness of the place below. Then endless flights of rugged stairs, worn into hollows by the heavy feet of many generations, long sombre passages with humid walls, and slender stone bridges throwing a single arch across the tumbling white torrent raging below in dusky depths of cruel seeming. Heavily barred doors set in the massive walls, and higher up, rows of grated windows like those of some oriental seraglio, with open green shutters, just catching a fleeting glimpse of sunlight; still higher, iron railed balconies over which white linen hung out to dry, and highest of all, the vivid red of the tiled roofs, round which swooped and twittered the swift swallows.

In these dreary streets and alleys a perpetual twilight ever reigns, adding to the uncanny feeling of the place. Now and then a gaudily-dressed contadina, all red skirt, gold earrings and barbaric colouring, clatters down in her wooden pattens; dark-browed, mobile-faced men lounge idly against the walls, laughing gaily, and at intervals sleek grey donkeys, laden with baskets piled with the vivid colours of vegetables and fruit, climb painfully up the steep ascent.

“It’s like the Middle Ages,” mused Eustace, as he toiled upward. “All kinds of dark deeds could take place in these winding streets. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a band of the Baglioni waiting for some foe of their house in these dark corners, or to meet Dante climbing these steep stairs dreaming of Hell and Beatrice. Stradella might sing in the moonlight under that high balcony, where doubtless at night a peasant Juliet chatters love in villainous patois to some dark-browed Romeo.”

A sudden turn of the stairs brought him into the brilliant sunshine and on to a little piazza hanging midway on the green mountain between the blue lake and the blue sky. Severally on three sides, an albergo, a café, a church, and on the fourth a wondrous view of sparkling waters, cloud-swathed hills, and distant pinnacles of Alpine snow.

Thoroughly tired out by his climb, Eustace sat thankfully down in an iron chair, put his feet on another, and ordered some wine from a dreary little waiter who emerged from the café to attend to his wants. While waiting, Eustace tilted his straw hat over his eyes, weary with the vivid colours of the landscape, and fell fast asleep. The waiter brought the wine, saw that the English gentleman was asleep, so retired cautiously without waking him.

In the pale blue sky the restless swallows flashed in rapid circles or twittered around the sloping eaves of the houses. On the hot stones of the little piazza slept the restless brown lizards, and in the centre a fountain of sparkling water splashed musically in its wide stone basin, all carved in Renaissance style with vines and masks and nude figures of frenzied Bacchanals. The sun dipped behind the arid peak of a great mountain, and threw its shadow on to the mountain village, while the mellow bells began to ring slowly in the slender campanile. Eustace awoke with a start, to find that he had been asleep for some considerable time, and after drinking his wine, and feeing the dreary little waiter, went across to have a look at the church before descending.

It was exactly the same as any other Italian church, frescoes of angels, and saints, and wide-eyed cherubim, side altars, before which burned the low, steady flame of oil lamps, high altar glittering with jewels and flowers, painted windows, faint odour of incense and all such things. A woman was kneeling at the confessional, within which sat a severe-looking priest, and Eustace, catching a glimpse of this, took a seat in the shadow near the door lest he should disturb them.

“If I could only believe like that,” he thought to himself as he enviously watched the kneeling woman, “how much happier I should be; but it is impossible for me to shift my burden of sins on to the shoulders of another man. This is the age of disbelief, and I am of it, but I would give the whole world to be able to return to the primitive simple faith of these peasants, to believe in miracles, in the intercession of saints, in the canonization of pious people, and in all those beautiful fables which make their lives so bright.”

The still church, the faint fumes of incense, the sudden flash in the dusky shadows of cross and pictured face, all influenced his singularly impressionable nature. He felt lifted up from the things of this earth into a higher region of spirituality, and in the exaltation of the moment felt inclined to kneel down on the cold pavement and lift up his voice in prayer. But the mocking spirit of disbelief, the spirit which denies, damped this sudden impulse of strong faith, and he sat there in the cold twilight, pitying himself profoundedly with the self-commiseration of an egotist, for the weariness of his life, which came from the selfishness of his own actions.

“How infinitely dreary is this life of ours, with its cant and humbug, its hollow aspirations and unsatisfying rewards. We try to make ourselves happy and only succeed in rendering ourselves cynical. If there were only some chance of compensation in the next world, but that is such a doubtful point. We are like wanderers on a lonely moor misled by false lights—false lights of our own creation. We know nothing, we can prove nothing, we believe nothing—not very gratifying after eighteen centuries of Christianity. After all, I daresay that old Greek philosopher was right, who said ‘Eat, drink, for to-morrow we die.’ Still, one grows weary of eating, and drinking, and other things—especially other things. Marriage, for instance—I ought to marry, and yet—it’s such a hazardous experiment. I would tire of the best woman breathing, unless I chanced on the other half of myself, according to Plato’s theory. That, I’m afraid, is impossible, though it certainly hasn’t been for the want of trying. I’ve loved a good many women, but the passion has only lasted the life of a rose.”

At this moment of his reflections he chanced to raise his eyes, and saw in front of him a picture of the Madonna, with the calm look of maternity on her face, and this sight turned his thoughts in the direction of Lady Errington.

“It is curious that I should be so attracted by that woman. I wonder what can be the reason. She is not particularly brilliant, nor clever, nor exquisitely beautiful, and yet she seems to satisfy that hunger of the soul I have felt all my life. One can think, but not describe a woman’s character, even the most shallow woman’s; there is always something that escapes one. Alizon Errington has that something, and it is that which attracts me so powerfully. That calm, reposeful, sympathetic nature which appeals so strongly to a worn-out soul. If I were ill, I would like her to sit beside me and lay her cool hand on my forehead—she is like moonlight, dreamy, restful and indescribable.

“Perhaps she is the woman of my dreams, the impossible ideal which all men imagine and no man ever meets. If this should be the case, Fate has played me a cruel trick in making her my cousin’s wife. She does not love him—No!—she loves nothing except a vague fancy, which will turn to a passionate reality when she becomes a mother.

“Guy is living in a fool’s paradise, for he takes her sympathetic nature for a loving one. Some day he will be undeceived and find that he loves a statue, a snow queen, who can never respond to his passion. When she becomes a mother she will find her soul, which will only awaken at the cry of a child; but at present she is an Undine—a faint, white ghost—the shadow of what a woman should be.

“Do I love her?—I don’t know. There is something too spiritual about this new passion of mine. It is as evanescent as the dew, as unreal as moonlight; there is no flesh and blood reality about such platonisms. I am no Pygmalion to worship a statue. Still, if the gods endowed this statue with life—What then? It is difficult to say. I would love her. I would adore her, and yet—she is the wife of my cousin and I—I am the fool of fortune.”

With a dreary laugh he rose from his seat, feeling cramped and chill in the grim shadows. He went outside, but the sunlight had died out of the sky and all the beautiful, brilliant world was dull and grey; the magic light had passed away from on land and water, leaving a sombre, weary earth, across which the wind blew cold and bleak.

“Rose-coloured spectacles! Rose-coloured spectacles!” he muttered, plunging into the gloomy stairs of the street. “If I could only buy a pair.”

Peppino and Tista were waiting for him at the Albergo Garibaldi, and in a few minutes he was on his way back to the Villa Medici.

The sun had disappeared behind the distant hills, and in a rose-coloured sky hung the faint shadow of a waning moon, looking thin and haggard amid the fast-fading splendour.

“She is like the moon,” he sighed sadly, “like the pale, cold moon. As fair—as calm—and as lifeless as that dead world.”

Chapter 9
“Oh, Wilt Thou Be My Bride, Kathleen?”

“Say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’
    Before we part.
Come joy or woe,
    Say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’
I love thee so!
    Hope fills my heart.
Say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’

There was no doubt that Angus Macjean was very much in love with Miss Sheldon, which to wiseacres would appear rather foolish, seeing that he had only known her three weeks. But as, according to Kit Marlowe, “He never loved who loved not at first sight,” Otterburn had fulfilled such practical advice to the letter, and however rapidly love had sprung up in his heart in that short space of three weeks, it had become sufficiently powerful to dominate all his other faculties.

As to the wisdom of this sudden passion, he was somewhat doubtful, for two reasons, one being that he did not know whether Victoria would accept him, and the other that even if she did, his father might refuse to sanction the match, a very probable contingency, seeing that the old Lord had already settled the matrimonial future of his heir.

Under these circumstances Otterburn, much as he was in love, felt rather embarrassed as to the manner in which he should proceed. He adored this bright-eyed, piquant beauty with all his soul, so, according to the neck-or-nothing traditions of Love, should have thrown all other considerations to the winds, but having inherited from his father a vein of Scotch caution he deemed it wise to proceed with due circumspection.

Gartney might have advised this half-hearted lover, but Otterburn knew that neither his lady-love nor his friend liked one another, so thought it useless to ask for an opinion which would be diametrically opposed to his own desires. Seeing, therefore, that there was nothing satisfactory to be obtained from Eustace, Otterburn made up his mind to find out indirectly what Johnnie Armstrong thought of the matter.

It may appear strange that he should condescend to speak of such a subject even indirectly to his servant, but then Johnnie was much more to him than a servant, being an old and faithful friend of the family, who had seen him grow up from childhood, and regarded himself in the light of a humble adviser to the young heir in the absence of Mactab, to whom Johnnie deferred as spiritual adviser.

According to this view of the matter, which would have been quite incomprehensible to Eustace, who regarded his valet as a useful machine, Johnnie was no ordinary servant, and although Angus did not intend to ask him right out how he thought such a union would be received at Dunkeld Castle, yet he knew that once Johnnie’s tongue was set going he would soon find out all he wanted to know.

Johnnie, in himself, represented the home authorities, and feeling very doubtful in his own mind as to the views that might be taken of the affair, after much cogitation Angus determined to ascertain the sage Johnnie’s opinion on the subject, and one morning, while he was dressing, broached the idea in a most artful way.

He was standing before the mirror brushing his hair, and Johnnie was hunting for some special necktie he had been told to find, when the following dialogue took place.

“Johnnie,” asked Angus, without turning his head, “were you ever in love?”

Johnnie paused for a moment and rubbed his bald brow with one lean red hand.

“Weel, Maister,” he said, with habitual Scotch caution, “I’ll nae gang sae far as tae say I michtna hae been. There wis reed-heeded Mysie, ye ken a canty lass wi’ a braw tocher. Ye’ll mind her, sir, doon the burn near Kirsty Lachlan’s but an’ ben.”

“Can’t say I recollect her,” replied Angus carelessly. “All the girls are red-headed about Dunkeld. Well, did you love Mysie?”

“Maybe I did,” said Johnnie coolly, “an’ maybe she would hae made me a decent gudewife if it hadna been for that blithering Sawney Macpherson—the gowk wi’ the daft mither—whae yattered her saul oot wi’ his skirlin’ about her braw looks, an’ sae she married him. It wasna a happy foregathering,” concluded Mr. Armstrong spitefully, “for Sawney’s ower fond o’ whusky, an’ the meenister had him warned fower times i’ the Kirk o’ Tabbylugs.”

“How do you like the Italian girls?” asked the Master, who had been listening with some impatience to Johnnie’s long-winded story.

“A puir lot, Maister, a puir lot. Feckless things whae warship the Scarlet Wuman wi’ gew-gaws an’ tinkling ornaments in high places. They’re aye yelpin’ fra morn till nicht wi’ idolatrous processions an’ graven images.”

As these religious views of the godly Johnnie did not interest Otterburn, he proceeded:

“What do you think of Miss Sheldon, Johnnie?”

“She’s nae sae bad.”

“Oh, nonsense. She’s an angel.”

“Weel, I’ve seen waur.”

Johnnie was evidently determined not to commit himself in any way, so Angus spoke straight out.

“What would you say if I married her, Johnnie?”

“Losh me,” ejaculated Armstrong in dismay, “ye’ll be clean daft to dae sic a thing. The auld Lord would never forgie ye, Maister. An’ Mistress Cranstoun—”

“Oh, hang it. I’m not going to marry her,” retorted Angus, snatching a necktie from Johnnie’s paralysed grasp.

“I misdoubt me what the godly Mactab wull spier—”

“D— Mactab.”

“Hech! just listen tae him,” cried Johnnie, with uplifted hands. “The meenister whae brocht him up in the psalms o’ David an’ led him by mony waters through the paraphrases.”

“Hold your tongue!” said the Master, stamping his foot. “I didn’t ask you to make any remarks.”

“What’s your wull then?” demanded Johnnie sourly.

“Do you think there’ll be a row if I married her?”

“Aye!—that I do.”

“She’s very pretty.”

“Ye mauna gang like th’ Israelites after strange wumen.”

“She’s got plenty of money.”

This artful remark appealed to Johnnie’s strongest passion, and he considered the question.

“Weel, I’ll nae say but what that micht dae ye some gude,” he said cautiously, “but, oh, Maister, it’s nae the auld Lord I fear, it’s the meenister o’ Tabbylugs, as ye weel ken. If ye but get the richt side o’ his lug, maybe ye can tac’ this dochter o’ Belial tae Kirk—if no, I fear me, Maister, there’ll be the deil tae pay.”

Angus made no reply to this speech, as he knew what Johnnie said was perfectly true, so having thus ascertained exactly how his marriage to Victoria would be taken, he rapidly finished his dressing and ran downstairs, leaving his faithful henchman shaking his grizzled head in dour Scotch fashion over the probable anger of Mactab.

“The daft bit laddie,” commented Johnnie, folding up his master’s clothes, “tae fly i’ the face o’ Providence aboot a lass. An’ that auld Jeezebel whae dodders after her would like it fine, I’m thinking, tae see the lass Leddy Otterburn. I’ll no tac’ the responsibility on me. The laddie ma gang tae the auld Laird an’ the meenister, an’ they’ll nay say aye, I misdoot me the Maister ‘ull gang his ain gait for aw their skirling.”

Meanwhile Angus was standing at the front door of the hotel, thinking over the conversation he had just had, and having a considerable amount of common sense saw that Johnnie Armstrong was correct in his remarks about Mactab. Being a man of great shrewdness and genuine piety he had attained a strong influence over the somewhat stern nature of Lord Dunkeld, who knew that Mactab’s advice if not always palatable was essentially sound.

Lord Dunkeld had set his heart on the marriage of his only son with Miss Cranstoun, as that ill-favoured damsel was heiress to the estate adjoining that to which Angus was heir, and such a match would considerably increase the territorial possessions and influence of the Macjean family in the Border land.

Nevertheless Angus, though not a fortune hunter, knew that Victoria Sheldon was very wealthy, and in this democratic age an excellent match in every way, so provided his father was satisfied regarding the birth of the young lady (and the fact that her mother was a Macjean was greatly in her favour), there was a chance of success, especially if Mactab approved, of which, however, Angus was doubtful, for the minister greatly admired Miss Cranstoun owing to her assiduous attendance at the Kirk.

“Deuce take the whole lot of them,” grumbled Otterburn, as he thought over all this. “I wish they’d let a fellow fix up his own life. One would think I had no feelings the way they order me about. That Cranstoun girl is as ugly as sin, and I don’t see why I should marry her just because she’s got the next estate to ours. Why doesn’t my father marry her himself if he’s so jolly anxious to get the property? As for Mactab, he ought to mind his own business instead of meddling with mine. Hang it, I won’t stand it. I’m not engaged to that Cranstoun thing, so I can do as I like. Victoria goes away to-morrow, and Lord only knows when I’ll see her again, so I’ll take the bull by the horns and ask her to marry me. If she won’t, there’s no harm done, and if she will, the whole lot at Dunkeld can howl themselves hoarse for all I care.”

Having, therefore, made up his mind in this impulsive manner, Otterburn, in order to give himself no time to change it, walked off in search of Victoria, to offer her the heart which his father fondly trusted was in the keeping of Miss Cranstoun of that ilk.

Miss Sheldon was seated in the Chinese room writing letters, and so absorbed was she in her occupation, that she did not hear Otterburn enter.

It was a lofty, fantastical apartment, with an oval roof tinted a dull grey, on which were traced red lines of a symmetrical pattern to resemble bamboo framing, and the walls were hung with Chinese paper, forming a kind of tapestry on which the artist, ignorant of perspective, had traced strange trees, brilliant birds, impossible towers, bizarre bridges, and odd-looking figures. In the four corners of the room, on slender pedestals, sat almond-eyed, burly mandarins, cross-legged, with their long hands folded placidly on their protuberant stomachs, and pagoda-shaped hats, with jingling bells on their pig-tailed heads. Chinese matting on the floor, lounging chairs of bamboo work, oblong tables, on which stood barbaric vases of porcelain, all gave this room a strange Eastern look, suggesting thoughts of crowded Pekin, the odour of new-gathered tea, and a vision of queer towers rising from the rice plains, under burning skies.

Otterburn was not thinking of the Flowery Land, however, as his mind was too full of Victoria, and he stood silently watching her graceful head bent over her writing, until, by that strange instinct which warns everyone that someone is near, she raised her eyes and saw him standing close to the door. “Oh, good morning,” she cried gaily, as he advanced. “Sit down for a few moments, and don’t interrupt me. I’m engaged in a most unpleasant task. Writing to Aunt Jelly.”

“Why! is it so disagreeable?” said the young man, sitting down in one of the light chairs, which creaked complainingly under his weight.

“Very,” replied Miss Sheldon, nodding her head and pursing up her lips. “Very, very disagreeable. Being my guardian, she always seems to think I’m in mischief, and I have to report myself once a week to her like a ticket-of-leave man, or rather woman.”

“Do you tell her everything?” asked Otterburn, rather aghast.

“With certain reservations. Yes!”

“I hope I’m included in the reservations?”

“Well, yes. At least, I’ve not yet sent Aunt Jelly a portrait of you.”

“And shall I ever gain that enviable distinction?”

Miss Sheldon shrugged her shoulders with a laugh.

“Do you think it enviable to be dissected for the benefit of a carping old woman? I’m sure I don’t. Besides, as you are a friend of Mr. Gartney’s, you will meet his dreadful aunt on your return to England, and she can criticise you herself, instead of gaining an impression second-hand from me.”

“If I do meet her, I hope the criticism will be favourable.”

“Why so?”

“Because you are her ward.”

“I don’t see the connection,” replied Victoria, with feminine duplicity, but her heightened colour showed that she understood his meaning, and Otterburn, being by no means deficient in understanding regarding the sex, immediately took advantage of the secret sympathy thus suddenly engendered between them.

“I’m a very plain sort of fellow, Miss Sheldon,” he said, with a certain boyish dignity, “and I can’t talk so glibly about things as most men, but I think you can guess what I want to say to you.”

He paused for a moment, but as Victoria made no observation, he drew a long breath, and continued:

“I love you, and I want you to marry me—if you’ll have me.”

In spite of the brusqueness of this declaration, crude in the extreme, adorned with no fine flowers of speech or passionate protestations of eternal love, Victoria felt that he spoke from his heart, and that this manly declaration was more to be believed than any sickly, sentimental speech of honey and spice. Still, she made no sign to show how deeply his honest straightforwardness had touched her, but scribbled idly on the blotting-paper with her pen, whereupon Otterburn, emboldened by her silence, gently took the hand which was lying on her lap, and went on with increasing hopefulness of tone.

“I trust you do not think me presumptuous in speaking so soon, but although I have only known you a few weeks, yet in that time I have learned to love you very dearly, and if you’ll only become my wife, I’ll do everything in my power to make you happy.”

She withdrew her hand from his grasp, and throwing down the pen on the table, turned her clear eyes gravely on his face, then, without any maidenly confusion or any mock modesty, she answered him calmly, although the tremulous quivering of her nether lip showed how deeply she was moved.

“You are doing me a great honour, Mr. Macjean, and I assure you I appreciate the manner in which you have spoken, but—it cannot be.”

“Oh, surely—”

“No,” she replied, lifting her hand to stay his further speech. “I am only a girl, I know, but then I have been brought up in the Colonies, and in these matters I think Australian girls are more self-reliant than those in England.”

She might have been a schoolmistress delivering a lecture on manners, so coldly did she speak.

“I like you! I respect you, but I do not love you, and I could marry no man without loving him. We have only known each other three weeks, so are in total ignorance of each other’s character. No, Mr. Macjean, much as I thank you for the honour you have done me—the greatest honour a man can offer a woman—yet I must say no.”

“Can you give me no hope?”

“I don’t think it would be wise to do so. We part to-morrow, and may meet others we like better, so it would be foolish for either you or myself to bind ourselves in any way.”

Otterburn, seeing from her cool, composed speech that her mind was made up, arose to his feet with a look of despair on his bright, young face, upon which she also arose from her chair, and laid her hand gently on his shoulder.

“Believe me, you will think as I do later on,” she said in a friendly tone; “forget that this conversation has ever taken place, and let us be on the same footing as before. We part to-morrow, as I said before, but it is more than probable that we will meet in London—if so, let us meet as friends.”

The composure with which she spoke irritated Otterburn fearfully, the more so as it was so unexpected. This brilliant, piquant creature, who should have been all fire and passion, talked to him as if he were a schoolboy, and argued about love as if she was an elderly dry as-dust professor of science. Perhaps Victoria knew this, and, as she did not wish to marry Otterburn, thought that such a cold-blooded way of discussing his passion, from a worldly point of view, would have the effect of making him care less about her refusal to marry him.

They stood looking at one another for a moment, the man angry at what he considered her unjustifiable treatment, the woman composed, but withal a trifle frightened at the tempest she had provoked.

“Well, we part friends?” she said, holding out her hand with a quiet smile.

Angus looked at her with a glance of anger in his eyes.

“Coquette!” he growled out between his clenched teeth, and, taking no notice of her extended hand, left the room quickly.

Left to herself, Victoria sat down and thought over the scene. The declaration of Angus had touched her by its manly honesty, but, as she had not thought of marrying him, her mode of refusal had certainly been the best possible in order to cool his passion. His anger, however, and the fast word he had uttered, opened her eyes to the situation, and she saw that her determination to spite Eustace, by taking his friend away, had been more serious than she imagined.

This reflection made her angry with herself, and of course she vented her rage on Angus, simply because she had treated him badly.

“Stupid boy,” she said to herself, angrily, “he might have seen I was not in earnest. I never gave him to understand that I would marry him. These men are so conceited, they think they have only got to throw the handkerchief like the Sultan. The lesson will do him good. Yet he is a nice, honest boy, and I’m sorry we did not part friends. Never mind, I expect he’ll come back shortly. I’m sure he ought to, and beg my pardon—if he’s got any sense of decency—foolish boy.”

She tried to write but felt too angry with herself, Angus and the whole world, to do so, therefore she ran up to her own room, worried herself ill over the whole affair and ultimately ended up in having a good cry and a fit of self-commiseration.

Meanwhile, Otterburn in a towering passion, walked outside, and seeking a secluded seat under a spreading oak, sat down in a most doleful mood.

“The heartless coquette,” said this ill-used young man aloud, staring dismally at the lake. “I wonder what she thinks a man is made of to be preached at? I asked for love and she gave me a sermon. Good Lord! I thought she would have cried and made a fuss like other girls, but she didn’t, confound her! Fancy talking about ignorance of character and all that stuff, when a fellow’s dying of love, and as to being friends, that’s not my style. I’m not going to run after her like a poodle dog, and be driven away every two minutes. I’ll see Gartney, and we’ll go away at once. I’ll never see her again, never! never! never!”

“That’s emphatic, at all events,” said a quiet voice at his elbow, and on turning round, he saw Eustace standing near him complacently smoking a cigarette.

“Oh, it’s you,” said Otterburn, in an ill-tempered tone.

“Yes! forgive me, but I couldn’t help overhearing the last few words you spoke. I—I hope you’ve been successful in your wooing.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” retorted Angus sulkily, stretching his long legs out, and thrusting his hands into his trouser pockets.

“I beg your pardon,” replied Eustace, ceremoniously. “I have no wish to force your confidence.”

The Master made no reply, but glared savagely at his boots, while Eustace, taking in the situation at a glance, stood silently beside him, not without a secret gratification that Otterburn had been punished for his base desertion of friendship for love. This was so like Gartney, whose colossal egotism saw in the successes or failures of others nothing but what tended to his own self-glorification.

“Gartney,” said Otterburn, suddenly looking up, “I’m deadly sick of this place.”

“Everyone seems to be of your opinion,” answered Eustace, complacently; “the Erringtons go to-day, and Mrs. Trubbles to-morrow—of course la Belle Victoria accompanies them—aren’t you inconsolable?”

This was cruel of Eustace, and he knew it.

“No, I’m not,” retorted Angus, doughtily, “she’s not the only girl in the world. I wish to heaven you’d talk sense. Tell me when are we going to start?”

“When you like.”

“For Vienna?”

“I’m rather tired of Vienna,” said Gartney, listlessly, “I’ve been there four times and it’s always the same. If you don’t mind, I’d rather we tried a fresh locality.”

“I don’t care,” said Otterburn, with a scowl. “I’ll go anywhere—to the devil if you like.”

“That’s looking too far ahead,” replied Eustace ironically. “What do you say to Cyprus? I’ve been reading Mallock’s book about it and it seems one place not in the grip of Cook’s tourists and Baedeker’s Guide Books. We can take the train to Venice, and go down the Adriatic.”

“Very well,” said Macjean, rising, with a huge sigh. “If you don’t mind, I’ll go to Milan to-day. You can follow to-morrow.”

“All right,” said Eustace quietly, judging it best to let his young friend go away for a time and get over his disappointment in solitude. “I will come with you to Como, and can see both you and the Erringtons off at the same time.”

“Then I’ll go and tell Johnnie to get my traps together.”

“Certainly, but look here, old fellow, although you have not honoured me with your confidence I can guess your trouble, but don’t worry about it.”

“Oh, it’s all very well for you,” said Otterburn, reddening, “you’re not in love.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” murmured Eustace in a dreary tone, whereupon Angus laughed scornfully.

“It doesn’t sound like it—by-the-way, you can say goodbye to Mrs. Trubbles for me.”

“And Miss Sheldon?”

“Hang Miss Sheldon and you too!” retorted Otterburn, and thereupon bolted, so as to give Eustace no opportunity of making further remarks.

“Love!” quoth Eustace the philosopher, “does not improve manners. Macjean is like a young bear with a sore head, and Miss Sheldon—well, she’s got another scalp to hang in her wigwam.”

Chapter 10
Auf Wiedersehn

“Goodbye! Goodbye!—our lives divide,
We drift apart on Life’s broad tide,
Faint-hearted, sad and solemn-eyed,
        By Fate’s decree.

“Goodbye! Goodbye!—but not farewell,
Tho’ side by side we may not dwell.
Some day we’ll meet—But who can tell
        If this will be?”

So the time of parting had come at last, as it must come to all, and these men and women who had met by chance at the Italian Lakes were about to separate. But who could tell what effect the intimacy of the last few weeks would have on their future lives?

It seemed as though the love-romance of Victoria and Otterburn were over, killed by the woman, and even if they did meet again, it would be under such widely different circumstances that they would surely never be able to renew their earlier intimacy.

True to his resolve Otterburn departed for Como without seeing Victoria again, and Eustace saw him safely off in the train with the faithful Johnnie in attendance. He then went to say goodbye to the Erringtons, who were going up by the St. Gothard line, intending to stay a few days in Paris prior to returning to England.

“Goodbye, old fellow,” said Guy, shaking hands with Eustace in the tumult of the station. “When you come back to Town don’t forget to look us up.”

“No, I won’t forget,” replied Eustace gravely, though he privately determined to keep out of temptation’s way as much as possible. “But I don’t know when I’ll be in England. I go to Cyprus first, and then may look in at Athens and go up the Dardanelles.”

“You should get married and settle down,” said Guy gaily. “What do you say, Alizon?”

“I’m afraid to give an opinion,” replied Lady Errington discreetly. “When Mr. Gartney returns I may be able to say something.”

She looked at Eustace in a friendly manner, and as he saw the cold, pure look in her eyes, he knew at once that whatever passion for this woman he might feel, he had not succeeded in awakening any response in her impassive nature.

“A statue! A statue,” he said to himself. “Poor Guy.”

“Say goodbye to Mr. Macjean for me,” said Lady Errington, giving him her hand. “And as to yourself I will not say goodbye, but au revoir.”

The whistle blew shrilly, the train moved slowly off, and Eustace, with bare head, holding his hat in his hand, stood silently amid the crowd with a vision before his mind’s eye of the sweet face with the cold pure light in the blue eyes.

“A statue! a statue,” he said again, as he went back to Cemobbio. “It is a foolish passion I have for her, but I dare say a few months’ travelling will make me forget that such chilly perfection exists.”

On his return to the Villa Medici, he told his valet to pack up everything and be ready to start by the early train next morning, in order to meet Otterburn and leave Milan by the afternoon train for Venice, as Victoria would be at Milan the next day, and Otterburn did not wish to meet her again.

As for that young lady, although she did not care much about Otterburn, yet her self-love received rather a severe shock when she learned how promptly he had taken his dismissal.

“Where is Mr. Macjean?” she asked Eustace that night, after dinner, as he sat smoking outside in the garden.

“He has gone away,” replied Eustace, who was anxious to prolong her curiosity as much as he could and let her drag the facts of the case piecemeal from his reluctant mouth.

“Where to?”

“Milan.”

Victoria flushed a little under his keen gaze and tapped her foot impatiently on the ground.

“I thought he was going with you to-morrow.”

“So did I. But for some reason he preferred going by himself to-day.”

“Oh!”

There was a vexed tone in the ejaculation, and Eustace smiled to himself as he thought of her anger. She knew the reason of this abrupt departure, so did Eustace, and each of them perfectly understood one another; therefore, when Victoria saw the smile curling the corners of Gartney’s mouth, she felt inclined to strike him in her exasperation.

“Why did he not say goodbye?” she demanded sharply.

“I don’t know. He did not honour me with his confidence.”

It was lucky for Eustace that Victoria did not at that moment possess regal power, for she would then and there have ordered him off to execution, but as she could not do this she did the next best thing to it, and retreated gracefully from the field of battle.

“If I were you, Mr. Gartney, I would teach that friend of yours manners,” she said superciliously. “However, we are not likely to meet again, so it does not matter. You go to-morrow morning, do you not?”

“Yes.”

“And we go in the afternoon, so we won’t have the pleasure of being fellow-travellers—goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

They shook hands coldly, with mutual dislike, and then Victoria went away gaily, so as to afford Eustace no opportunity of seeing her mortification, but when she arrived in her own room she raged like a young lioness.

“How dare he treat me in such a way!” she said wrathfully, referring to the absent Otterburn. “Because I do not choose to marry him, he need not slight me so openly before his friend. Ah! that wretched Mr. Gartney, how detestable he is. Always sneering and supercilious. I should like to kill him, and he knows it.”

There was no doubt that the triumph was now with Gartney, and all through her own fault. She had refused offers before, but the makers of them had always taken their defeat meekly and continued to haunt her steps. Otterburn, however, had treated her as no man had ever treated her before, and when she grew calmer, with the whimsical inconsequence of a woman, she actually began to admire his independence.

“He’s a man at all events,” she said, drying her tears, “and I’m glad he’s got a mind of his own. If I do meet him again I’ll make him propose again, in spite of his temper, and then I’ll pay him out for going off like this.”

It was truly a bad look-out for Otterburn if she remained in the same mind, but then the chances were that his promptitude of action, having secured her admiration, would end up by making her love him, and when they met again it was doubtful who would come off victor.

Eustace, on his side was very much gratified by the conversation he had had with Victoria, and after bidding farewell to Mr. and Mrs. Trubbles, went to bed in quite a good temper.

Next morning he left Cemobbio and started for Milan.

On arriving he found Otterburn at the station, looking tired and haggard, but this was due to want of sleep and not to dissipation, as Eustace charitably surmised. The young man was in a fearfully bad temper, and although he was burning to question Eustace about Victoria, yet his own sense of dignity would not allow him. So during their journey to Venice, he sat in sulky silence, reading a book and inwardly raging at the fickleness, ingratitude and caprices of womankind.

Since they had last occupied a railway carriage together, a change had certainly come over both of them, and instead of friendly talk, they sat in dour silence, each regarding the other as an insufferable nuisance.

The cynical French proverb anent women was, without doubt, very applicable to them both in the present case, and it might have been some gratification to Victoria’s wounded pride to know that she had effectually estranged these two quondam friends. The bond of sympathy formerly existing between them had entirely vanished, and though each was burning to make a confidant of the other, yet neither would make the first advance, so both sat grimly silent, each cursing his luck in having the other for a companion.

Otterburn did not venture to speak to Eustace about his rejection by Victoria, as he was afraid of being laughed at by the cynic, and Eustace held his tongue concerning his passion for his cousin’s wife, as he thought, and with good reason, that Otterburn would consider it dishonourable. It was the quick coupled with the dead, and they both felt it, so when they reached Venice, although they put up together at Danieli’s, by tacit consent they saw as little of one another as possible.

To his great delight Otterburn picked up an old Oxford chum one day, and finding that he was going on a shooting excursion to the Carpathian Mountains with another friend, agreed to join him. To this desertion, Eustace by no means objected, as he was heartily sick of Macjean’s love-lorn sulkiness, so, at the end of the week, the young man, with his two friends, keen sportsmen and capital company, left Eustace in Venice, and departed in high spirits on his excursion.

Eustace therefore was left entirely alone, and preferred his solitude, for had he so chosen he could have found plenty of pleasant companions willing to go to Cyprus if needful, but having a fancy for a solitary journey, and the idea of a new book of travels in his head, he held aloof from Anglo-Italian society and wandered about Venice with no other company than his own dreary thoughts.

Fate, however, evidently had a spite against Mr. Gartney, for one day, while he was sitting at Florian’s, smoking cigarettes and watching the white pigeons whirling aloft in the blue sky, someone touched him on the shoulder, and on turning he found himself facing Billy Dolser, a dapper little man-about-town, whom he particularly disliked.

Mr. Dolser owned a spiteful society paper called “The Pepper Box,” which was always getting into trouble for the lies it told, and Eustace himself had been pretty severely handled in its columns, as the proprietor hated him with all the malignant venom of a little soul. Everybody in society was afraid of Billy, who had an unpleasant knack of finding out things people did not want known, and publishing them in his paper, so everyone was civil to him, except one or two men who had the bad taste to horsewhip him, but Billy did not mind, as it made his paper sell, so there was positively no way of society ridding itself of this little wasp.

“How do, Gartney?” said Mr. Dolser, offering two fingers to Eustace, which that gentleman refused to see. “Heard you were here—yes! Cut away from town I suppose because of your book? No! we thought you did. You’re getting it hot—rather!”

“I’m hanged if I care,” retorted Eustace indolently, “it will only make the book sell. How’s ‘The Pepper Box’ going?”

“Oh capitally—yes!” said Billy, taking a seat. “Three actions of libel on—ha! ha!”

“That sounds well—any horsewhippings?”

Billy grinned, not being a bit offended at this allusion, as it all came under the head of business.

“No, dear boy, no! I’m here with the Pellingers you know—yes! Showing them round. They’re paying my ex’s.”

“Of course. I knew you wouldn’t pay them yourself.”

“Ah! but they like travelling with me—yes!”

“I shouldn’t care about a pet monkey myself,” said Eustace rudely.

“No! you’re a Robinson Crusoe kind of chap, ain’t you?” said Billy, quite unmoved by his epithet. “By the way, I saw your cousin and his wife in Paris—yes! Wife cut me. Beastly rude I think, when I knew her father so well—he was a great friend of mine—rather!”

“Not a very creditable thing to boast of,” replied Eustace, enraged at this reference to Lady Errington.

“Oh, who cares? If Asmodeus unroofed the houses in town, you bet there’d be ‘ructions. Just so!”

“You do your best to play Asmodeus.”

“Yes—want to purify Society. By the way, Mrs. Veilsturm was asking after you.”

“Very kind of her!”

“And Major Griff. I wonder Society tolerates those two, Eh?”

“Oh, Society tolerates all kinds of noxious beasts now-a-days,” said Eustace, with a significant glance at Billy.

“Yes! horrid, isn’t it? Those two have got hold of Dolly Thambits, you know—young fool that came in for a lot of money—rather. She’s plucking him, and the Major is pocketing the feathers—yes!”

“Can’t you share the spoil?” asked Eustace drily.

“No! wish I could, but Mrs. Veilsturm doesn’t like me—not much! I say, look here, where do you go?”

“That’s my business,” retorted Eustace, rising. “I’m not going to tell you my movements and have them recorded in that scurrilous paper of yours.”

“No,” said Billy calmly, “that’s a pity, because they’re all curious about you in town—yes. Never mind, I’ll say I met you at Venice.”

“You’ll say I dropped you into the Grand Canal also, if you don’t mind your own business,” growled Gartney wrathfully, moving towards him.

“Eh! I don’t care. Anything for a paragraph.”

The impudence of the little man so tickled Eustace that he burst out laughing, and without carrying out his threat, walked away, while Mr. Dolser, pulling out his note-book, dotted down a few remarks.

“I’ll get two columns out of him,” he said to himself in a gratified tone. “He’s staying at Danieli’s I know, so I’ll look up his valet and find out where he’s off to—yes.”

Which Mr. Dolser did, and the result appeared in an abusive article a fortnight afterwards in “The Pepper Box” headed “Gartney’s Gaddings” which several of the poet’s friends enjoyed very much.

As for Eustace, after getting rid of Billy Dolser, he went off to his hotel, and arranged all about his departure for Cyprus, anxious to get away at once so as to avoid another meeting with the proprietor of “The Pepper Box.”

Consequently next day be found himself on board an Austrian-Lloyd steamer, slowly steaming down the Adriatic into the shadow of the coming night, and as he stood on the deck with the salt wind blowing in his face, he murmured:

“Well, that chapter of my life is closed.”

He was wrong, for that chapter of his life had just opened.

Chapter 11
A Maiden Lady

“Severe, sedate, and highly bred,
Sad-tinted gown and cap on head.
In high-backed chair she grimly sits,
And frowns, and fumes, and talks, and knits,
Her nephews, nieces, tremble still,
Whene’er she talks about her will,
And wonder oft in glad surmise
What they will get at her demise.
No King upon his throne in State
Was ever such a potentate.
Let others face her eye—I can’t,
I quail before my maiden aunt.”

Few people are acquainted with Delphson Square, no doubt from the fact that it lies on the extreme edge of the great vortex of London life, isolated in a great measure by its position and character. Those concerned with business or pleasure know not this severely respectable neighbourhood, but occasionally men and women, weary of the restless excitability of the metropolis, glance off from the huge central whirl, and drift helplessly into this haven of rest in order to spend the rest of their days in peace.

Not a tempting place certainly, with its four sides of forbidding-looking houses painted a dull brown, with grim iron balconies attached to each window like prison gratings. No bright flowers in oblong boxes to lighten the austerity of these conventual retreats, flowers being regarded as frivolous by the utilitarian inhabitants of the square. Spotless white blinds, heavy dark-red curtains, occasionally a cage in some glaring window, containing a depressed-looking canary, irreproachable white steps, exasperatingly bright brass knockers on massive doors; these were the principal adornment of the four rows of dwellings.

In the centre of the small quadrangle grew a quincunx of heavy-foliaged elms, encircled by a spiky iron fence of defiant appearance, and under one of the trees a weather-stained statue of some dead and gone warrior, with a suitable inscription in choice Latin, which no one could read. Over all this prim locality an air of Sabbath quiet.

The doors of the houses always seemed to be closed. Rarely were any signs of life seen behind the half screens of the windows, the well-swept streets were empty both of traffic and pedestrians, and viewed under a dull, leaden-coloured London sky, with a humid feeling in the air, Delphson Square looked like some deserted city waiting to be re-peopled.

As to the inhabitants, they mostly resembled their dwellings, being elderly, grim, and forbidding, dressed in the plainest puritanical fashion, yet one and all stamped with the impress of wealth.

Sad tints but rich stuffs, serious faces with port-wine complexions, little jewellery, but what there was, massive in the extreme—no ostentation, but a quietly-prosperous air, telling of snug banking accounts. Respectable-looking carriages, with fat horses and still fatter coachmen, at the grim doors every morning to take them drives in the Park. A general air of subdued religion about the place—they were all Broad Church, and held strong opinions about the ritual. No newspaper admitted into the square except the Times, which was heavy and respectable, hansoms unknown, even the sweeper who swept the crossings was serious-minded and given to dreary hymns in wet weather. Everybody went to bed at nine o’clock and rose at the same time in the morning; the tradesmen were always punctual and deferential, and the clocks were never out of order.

Miss Angelica Corbin lived in this delightful locality, and, as her residence there dated from the early part of the Victorian age, she was regarded as one of the oldest inhabitants.

A maiden lady of uncertain age and certain income, her life was conducted in a methodical fashion, which enabled her in a great measure to defy Time. As Miss Corbin was ten years ago she was at present, and would in all human probability be at the end of another decade. Quite at variance with the new-fangled ways of the present generation, this old gentlewoman looked like some disdainful spectre of a sedate past, solitary amid a frivolous present.

Her room, old-fashioned and changeless as herself, had about it the aroma of a former generation, when D’Orsay led the fashions, and people were still talking about Lord Byron, Waterloo, and the Reform Bill.

Situated on the ground floor above the basement, it had three windows of small-paned glass looking out on to the dreary square, and was large and airy, having an oval roof painted with designs of flowers, fruit, birds, and butterflies.

Under this cheerful ceiling a remarkably comfortable room, furnished in an antique style. Warm-coloured Turkish carpet, rather threadbare in places, woolly mats of different tints, heavy mahogany chairs and sofa, with slippery horsehair coverings; a solid-looking table of the same wood, draped with dark-green cloth; out-of-date piano, rigid against the wall, with faded drawn blue silk and tassels above its yellow ivory keys. An ancient fireplace with elaborate brass dogs between which generally blazed a fire of logs (no coal for Miss Corbin, as she thought it detestable), and a massively-carved mantelpiece with quaint ornaments of Dresden china, in front of a gold-framed mirror swathed in green gauze.

On the left-hand side of the fireplace a tall book-case, with glass doors, fitting into a shallow recess and surmounted by a plaster of Paris bust of Shakespeare, imprisoned first editions of books popular in their owner’s youth, editions priceless to bibliomaniacs. These, though now worth their weight in gold, never saw the light of day.

On the red-papered walls, smoky-looking oil pictures in tarnished frames, one or two yellow samplers, worked by dead and gone school-girls; on the table wax flowers, Berlin wool mats, and velvet-bound Books of Beauty, from whose faded pages simpered large-eyed beauties of the Dudu type; on the floor treacherous footstools, always in the way, and a long bead-worked cushion, elevated on six square mahogany legs, in front of the brass fender. Here and there gaudy porcelain jars filled with withered rose-leaves and dried lavender, which gave forth a faint, dreamy odour, redolent of bygone days and vanished summers.

Surrounded by all this faded splendour, in a straight-backed chair placed by the fire-side, her feet resting on a foot-stool, and constantly knitting, sat Miss Angelica Corbin, better known to her friends and relations as Aunt Jelly.

Tall, stiff and commanding, with rigid features, cold grey eyes, iron-grey hair, always dressed in the same kind of silken slate-coloured gown, with a dainty lace apron, lace cap, China crape shawl on her shoulders, lisle thread mittens, and old-fashioned rings on her withered hands, she never changed in the smallest degree.

Her father had been a very wealthy man, connected with the H.E.I.C.S., and on his death left his property equally divided between his three daughters, Jane, Angelica, and Marian, the first and the last of whom married respectively Sir Frederick Errington and Mr. Martin Gartney. Both sisters and their husbands had long since departed this life, leaving Guy Errington and Eustace Gartney, who thus stood in the relation of nephews to Miss Corbin.

That lady had never married, which did not seem strange to those who knew her at present, but without doubt she must have been a handsome woman in her youth, and presumably had had her romance, like the rest of her sex. As a matter of fact, she had been engaged to marry Harry Sheldon, the father of her ward, but owing to some misunderstanding, an explanation of which was forbidden by the pride of both, they separated, and Sheldon went out to seek his fortune in Australia, where in due course he married Miss Macjean, and Miss Corbin, devoting herself to perpetual maidenhood, had removed to Delphson Square, where she had remained ever since.

Having a handsome income well invested in the Funds, Miss Corbin lived in excellent albeit old-fashioned style, and, in spite of her apparent hardness and brusque manner, was not an ungenerous woman. When her old lover, dying in Australia, sent home his orphan child to her guardianship, she had promptly accepted the charge, and loved the girl for the sake of that dead and buried romance which was still fresh in her heart. To Victoria she was strict but kind, and the presence of this bright young girl made a pleasant variety in her dull, methodical life, although she never, by word or deed, betrayed such a weakness.

Hard she undoubtedly was, and but little given to sentimental feelings, which was a great grief to her companion, Miss Minnie Pelch, who was tender-hearted in the extreme, and had oceans of tears on every possible occasion, from a wedding to a funeral.

Miss Pelch was a weak, soulful creature, the daughter of a clergyman who had been curate at Denfield, a village near Errington Hall. The Rev. Pelch was a widower, and his sole offspring was the fair Minnie, but having only a small income, he saved nothing: so when he died she was left destitute, with a doubtful future before her. She had not enough brains for a governess, no talents except a pretty taste in poetry, which was not a marketable commodity, and no beauty to attract marriageable young men, so Minnie wept over the mistake of having been born, and Heaven only knows what would have become of her had not Miss Corbin, like a kind-hearted vulture, swooped down on the poor creature and taken her up to London as her companion.

So Minnie was provided for by brusque Aunt Jelly, although no one ever knew what a trial she was to that sensible old lady, for Miss Pelch was one of those exasperatingly limp creatures who always pose as martyrs, and shed tears at the least thing.

Aunt Jelly was not unkind by nature, but sometimes the tearful Minnie was too much for her endurance, and if she could have got rid of her she certainly would have had small hesitation in doing so. But there was no chance of this coming to pass, as Minnie was one of those meek creatures who rest where they are thrown, so Miss Corbin, regarding her as a necessary cross, did the best she could to put up with her tears, her milk-and-water conversation and her longings after fame.

Fame! yes! this invertebrate creature, whose intellect was of the smallest, had actually written a book of poems after the style of L.E.L., in which she compared herself to “a withered leaf on the tree of life.” She had several times inflicted these weak rhymes, in which mountain rhymed to fountain, and dove to love, on Miss Jelly, but that stout old dame snorted disdainfully at her companion’s poetical fancies, whereupon Minnie retired with her manuscript, sat in the twilight, and wished herself dead.

When Eustace visited his aunt, Minnie always attacked him about the publication of her poems, and Eustace, the cynical, the bitter, the scornful, actually read her poor little rhymes and promised to see what he could do with them, which proved that a good deal of his cynicism was only skin deep. Perhaps he was forced into this promise by Aunt Jelly, who thought if Minnie could only get her drivel published she would perhaps hold her tongue for the rest of her life, but this hope seemed too good to be realised.

Miss Pelch had a thin drooping figure, a pensive face with pale skin, pale eyebrows, pale eyes, pale lips, in fact she was all pallid, and wore her thin brown hair in girlish curls, with two drooping over her ears after the style of those called “kiss-me-quicks.” She generally wore an ancient black silk dress, with lace cuffs and lace collar fastened by a large brooch containing the portrait (done in oil by a village artist) of her late father.

Seated at the window, in the dull light of an October day, Miss Fetch, having been worsted in an encounter with Aunt Jelly over the question of reading one of her effusions, was drooping like a withered flower over the manuscript, and could hardly read her own scratchy writing for tears.

Aunt Jelly was is her usual place, sitting bolt upright, with her woolly-haired poodle, Coriolanus, at her feet, and no sound disturbed the quiet save an occasional patter of Minnie’s tears, or the vicious clicking of Aunt Jelly’s needles. On the table in the centre of the room were decanters of port and sherry and a plate of cake, for Miss Corbin was expecting her nephew, Guy, and his wife, to call on her that afternoon, the young couple having just arrived from the Continent, and always gave her visitors wine in preference to tea, which she characterised tersely as “wash.”

Miss Corbin opened her mouth once or twice to make a remark, but, casting an angry glance at the tearful Minnie, shut it again without uttering a sound, and knitted with redoubled fury. At last her stoicism could hold out no longer, and she called out in her strong, clear voice:

“For Heaven’s sake, Minnie, stop crying. There’s plenty of rain outside, without you bringing it into the house.”

“Very well, Miss Jelly,” said Minnie meekly, and drying her eyes, she slipped her poem into her pocket and sat with folded hands, looking as if she carried the weight of the world on her round shoulders.

Aunt Jelly looked at her keenly for a moment, and then issued another command.

“Come here, child.”

Minnie rose to her feet and drifted across the room, for her mode of getting about could hardly be called walking.

“You mustn’t cry because I don’t listen to your poetry,” said Aunt Jelly grimly. “I hate poetry—it’s all rubbish, and I can’t and won’t stand it. But I daresay your poetry’s all right—it sounds sing-songy enough. Wait till Mr. Gartney comes home, and then you can read it to him. I’ve no doubt it’s as good as his own. Now take a glass of port, and stop your whimpering.”

“Oh, no, Miss Jelly,” said Minnie’ in a frightened tone.

“Oh, yes, Miss Minnie,” mimicked the old lady fiercely. “Do what I tell you—it will put some blood into you.”

“Tea!” began Miss Pelch nervously.

“Tea! wash!” snorted Aunt Jelly disdainfully, “there’s no strength in tea, girl. You might as well drink vinegar. Your blood’s like water; I’m sure I don’t know how your father reared you.”

“Father was a vegetarian,” volunteered Minnie, in mild triumph.

“And a pretty example you are of the system,” retorted Miss Corbin. “If I didn’t keep my eye on you I don’t believe you’d eat meat.”

“It’s so strong.”

“That’s more than you are!”

“Dr. Pargowker—” began Miss Pelch once more.

“Prescribes iron, I know all about that,” said Aunt Jelly wrathfully. “I don’t hold with drugs, I never did. Meat and port wine is what you want and what you’ve got to take. Hold your tongue and do what I tell you.”

Thus adjured Minnie did not dare to disobey, and although she hated wine, dutifully swallowed a glass of old port, which was so strong that it made her cough. The revivifying effect was soon seen in the colour which came into her pale cheeks, proving that Aunt Jelly was right in her prescription, as a long girlhood of vegetarianism had weakened the Pelch system.

Minnie now feeling better sat down and took up her work, which consisted in crocheting antimacassars, a mode of employing time of which Aunt Jelly approved. Indeed, the industrious Miss Pelch had manufactured enough antimacassars to stock a bazaar, and she was constantly at work on them except when she took a turn at talking, for Miss Corbin would not allow her to knit, that being her own special weakness. The two sat working in silence for a few minutes, Miss Jelly grim and repellent as the Sphinx and Minnie weakly gay, as the wine had slightly affected her brain.

“Minnie,” said Aunt Jelly suddenly, pointing to the table with one lean finger, “wipe your glass.”

“Very well, Miss Jelly,” responded Miss Pelch with her invariable formula, and thereupon arose from her seat and having wiped the glass with a duster which she took from a drawer, replaced the glass on the tray, folded up and put away the duster, then returned to her chair and antimacassar in meek silence.

Silence, however, did not suit Aunt Jelly, who liked to be amused, so she gave Minnie the last letter she had received from Victoria and made her read it, keeping up a running comment on the contents meanwhile.

“Liked Rome did she!—humph! nothing but pictures and priests no doubt. Cooking wasn’t good. Of course not, all oil and garlic. Mr. Trubbles ill! pity that fool doesn’t die—not much loss about him I should think. Wait a bit, Minnie, till I count the heel of this stocking. One, two, three, four—go on, I can listen—ten, eleven, twelve. My nephew gone to Cyprus—twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two—he’s always going to some out-of-the-way place—forty-five, forty-six. He’ll end up by being eaten by cannibals—fifty-three! Humph! I hope his new book will be more respectable than the last one. Eh! The Master of Otterburn. Who is he? Never heard of him. Coming back by Naples!—how can they come back by Naples. Oh! the steamer, yes! I hope Victoria won’t flirt with all the young men on board. Perhaps she’ll be sea-sick. That’ll take all the nonsense out of her. Is that all?—dear me, these girls can’t write a letter now-a-days. Here, give it to me back. You read so quietly, I can’t hear half you say.”

This terrible old woman seized the letter and put it away, frowning on Minnie meanwhile, that damsel having meekly resumed her antimacassar.

“Four o’clock,” said Miss Corbin, as the clock struck the hour, “they should be here by now, but none of you young people are punctual now-a-days.”

“Perhaps they’ve been detained,” expostulated Minnie timidly.

“Nonsense,” snapped Miss Jelly wrathfully. “Why should they be detained? They’ve been two days in town already. Gadding about I daresay. I don’t think much of his wife, but whatever she is he’s worse. I don’t know however I came to have such a nephew. He hasn’t got his mother’s brains. That comes of having an idiot for a father.”

At this moment Aunt Jelly’s courteous conversation was interrupted by a ring at the door, and Miss Pelch being sent to the window to reconnoitre returned with the information that it was Sir Guy and Lady Errington.

Miss Corbin drew her shawl carefully round her angular shoulder, laid her knitting on her lap, and having dismissed Minnie to a distant corner of the room, where she sat in the shadow like an unhappy ghost, was prepared to receive company.

Bickles, the fat, pompous butler of the establishment, threw open the door of the room and announced in a deep voice:

“Sir Guy and Lady Errington.”

And the young couple entered into the presence of the old dragon.

Chapter 12
Aunt Jelly’s Opinion

“All speech is silver, silence gold
    (I wish it were on some occasions),
For though unpleasant to be told,
    You get the truth from your relations.”

Anyone hostile towards matrimony, seeing Sir Guy in the character of a newly-returned bridegroom, would certainly have said that marriage was not a failure in his case, for he looked wonderfully bright and happy as he presented his wife to Aunt Jelly.

Lady Errington, on the other hand, still preserved her appearance of fragility and her air of calmness, forming with her reposeful manner a great contrast to her husband, who was bubbling over with excitement and looked like a happy schoolboy out on his holiday.

“Here we are, Aunt Jelly,” he said in his loud, hearty voice, kissing his elderly relation, “back from foreign parts and glad to be home once more. Don’t you think Alizon is looking well?”

“I don’t know yet,” replied Aunt Jelly sharply, with a keen look at the young couple. “Come here, my dear, and give me a kiss.”

Alizon had a horror of feminine embraces, and always skilfully avoided demonstrative friends, but from this direct command there was no possibility of escaping, so she submitted to the ordeal with the best grace she could and then took her seat near Miss Corbin, while Guy went to the end of the room to shake hands with Minnie Pelch.

“Well, Miss Pelch, and how are you? Jolly, eh!—ah, that’s right. Been writing any more poetry? By Jove, you’re quite a literary person.”

Minnie smiled faintly at this compliment and glanced rather disapprovingly at Guy, who was far too healthy and English-looking to resemble her favourite heroes of the Manfred-Lara type, who all had pale faces, raven hair, and no morals. Guy, however, having done his duty towards his aunt’s companion, wandered back to that redoubtable lady and sat down by his wife.

Being thus placed before the judge, Aunt Jelly commenced to cross-examine them both in her own brusque way.

“Well, Guy,” she said, resuming her knitting, “now you’ve idled away so many months on the Continent, I hope you’ve come back to look after your property once more.”

“Of course I have, aunt. We would have been back long ago, but Alizon was in love with the Italian lakes. Weren’t you, Alizon?”

“Yes, I thought they were very beautiful,” replied Alizon, who, being a comparative stranger to Aunt Jelly, hardly knew how to speak in a way congenial to that lady, “but I’m afraid it is a very lotos-eating place.”

“Humph!” remarked the old gentlewoman, with a sharp glance, “and you don’t like lotos-eating.”

“No! I think life means something more than idleness.”

“For Heaven’s sake, child, understand the value of being idle. Don’t become a woman with a mission. It’s a most detestable class—clatter, clatter, chatter, chatter! They do more harm than good, in my opinion, but then I’m an old woman and my ideas are much behind those of to-day.”

“I don’t think there’s much chance of my becoming a woman with a mission,” replied Lady Errington, smiling, “it’s not my nature, nor do I think Guy admires them.”

“By Jove! no,” said Sir Guy, energetically; “those women who turn themselves into feminine men—I can’t say I care for them at all. They worry a fellow’s life out with their preachings. My ideal of a woman is—my wife.”

Lady Errington’s eyes smiled a grateful recognition of this compliment, and even Aunt Jelly, who hated a display of any demonstrative affection, was not ill-pleased.

“Well, well,” she said grimly; “I’m glad to see a husband appreciate his wife, ‘tis such a novelty now-a-days, they generally appreciate someone else’s. By-the-way, child, you don’t look very strong.”

“Don’t you think so, aunt?” said Guy in alarm.

“No! too pale—far too pale. Have you got any blood, child? Oh, of course, you say you have. Sick people always do. You must eat more and take port wine. Guy, pour your wife out a glass of port.”

Guy obediently did as he was told, but Alizon protested against being made to drink it.

“I’m really very strong, Miss Corbin—”

“Aunt Jelly,” interrupted the old lady.

“Well, Aunt Jelly, I look delicate, but I’m not—I am—”

“Never mind what you are. Drink up the port. You’re as bad as Minnie. Bless the child, do you think I don’t know what’s good for people? Teetotalism fudge? It all comes of adulterated drinks, though I daresay there’s a good deal of truth in it. But a glass of good port is what you want and what you’ve got to take.”

Alizon, anxious to please the old lady on her first visit, did as she was told, and then, after making Guy drink some sherry, Aunt Jelly proceeded to talk about Victoria.

“Yes, we met her abroad,” said Lady Errington, sipping her wine, “a very charming girl.”

“Ah, her father was such a handsome man,” answered Aunt Jelly, with a secret thought of her dead and done with romance. “I never saw her mother.”

“She was a Macjean, I believe,” said Guy indolently, “at least Otterburn said something about his family being mixed up with hers.”

Aunt Jelly raised her head like an old war-horse at the sound of a trumpet.

“Otterburn! Otterburn! Who is he?” she demanded sharply. “Someone Victoria has been flirting with, I suppose. I never heard of him, though she does mention him in her letters.”

“He’s new to town,” explained her nephew carelessly, “the eldest son of Lord Dunkeld. Angus Macjean, you know, his title is the Master of Otterburn. A very nice boy and awfully in love with Victoria.”

“Oh, is he? And I daresay Victoria encouraged him.”

“Rather!”

“No, no!” interposed Lady Errington, seeing a rising storm in Aunt Jelly’s frown, “I don’t think she went as far as that, but you know, Aunt Jelly, Victoria is very pretty and the boy could hardly help admiring her.”

“Oh, I daresay she wasn’t blind to his admiration,” said Miss Corbin viciously; “she’s pretty, no doubt, but after all beauty is only skin deep.”

A weak giggle coming out of the dark corner showed that Minnie agreed with her, whereupon Aunt Jelly, who never permitted any familiarities, vented her anger on Miss Pelch at once.

“What are you sniffling for, Minnie?” she called out. “Come here and show yourself. This is my niece, Lady Errington, and this is Miss Pelch, my dear. Her father was curate at Denfield.”

“How do you do?” said Alizon kindly, feeling sorry for the blushing Minnie. “I’ve heard about you from my husband. You write poetry, do you not?”

An affirmative snort from Aunt Jelly.

“Yes,” replied Minnie, “I do write poetry sometimes.”

“So Mr. Gartney told me.”

“Oh, Eustace,” cried Aunt Jelly significantly, “where is he now? Guy, don’t go to sleep! Where is your cousin?”

“I don’t know,” retorted Guy, who had closed his eyes for a moment. “Gone to Cyprus, or some out of-the-way place. Hasn’t he written to you?”

“Does he ever write letters?” demanded Aunt Jelly in an exasperated tone. “No! he keeps all his scribblings for the public.”

“Oh, he does write beautifully,” said Minnie, clasping her hands.

“Humph! that’s a matter of opinion,” responded Aunt Jelly doubtfully. “He’s as blasphemous as Lord Byron, without any of his genius. He’s more like that Lalla Rookh man that wrote such dreadful things under the name of Little. Don’t be afraid, child, I’m not going to quote them.”

“Mr. Gartney is a very charming talker,” said Alizon quietly.

“Bless me, child, you’ve got a good word to say for everyone,” remarked Aunt Jelly, with a benevolent scowl. “He certainly does talk well. It’s almost a lost art now-a-days. Men and women don’t talk, they drivel about their own virtues and their friends’ faults. But Eustace!—well, yes, he’s more amusing than you, Guy; you, my dear, have got all your goods in the shop window. Good appearance, but no brains.”

Guy, being used to Miss Corbin’s plain speaking, roared with laughter at this flattering description, but Alizon felt indignant at her good-looking, kind-hearted husband being thus decried, and spoke out boldly.

“I don’t think so at all.”

“That’s a very good thing—for Guy,” said the old dame grimly. “Don’t take up the cudgels on your husband’s account, my dear, he’s big enough to look after himself. After all, he has a better heart than Eustace, and he doesn’t write poetry, which is a blessing. We must always be thankful for small mercies.”

Minnie felt rather indignant at this indirect shaft, but stood too much in awe of Miss Corbin to venture a remonstrance, so after a pause, during which Aunt Jelly eyed the trio like an elderly beldame of romance, Lady Errington continued the conversation.

“Well, we must allow some latitude to genius.”

“Genius!” scoffed Aunt Jelly, picking up a stitch she had dropped. “My dear, in my young days every farthing rush-light did not call itself the sun. Eustace is clever in a nasty find-faulty way, I admit, but he’s not a genius. He ought to give up writing abusive books, and marry, but there—if he did he’d worry the best woman that ever breathed into her grave.”

“He sings beautifully, at all events,” said Lady Errington, feeling rather nonplussed as to how to satisfy this contradictory woman.

“God bless my soul, child I don’t go through a list of my nephew’s virtues. I know them already, and from the best authority—himself. When he returns from this tree place—what do you call it?—Cyprus—yes, I knew it had something to do with a tree. Well, when he returns, I hope he’ll be improved—there’s room for it, great room. Guy, when do you go down to Denfield?”

“To-morrow, aunt.”

“That’s sensible. Errington Hall needs a master’s eyes. I don’t believe in absenteeism myself. If I had my way—which I’m not likely to have, because it’s too sensible—I’d pack all landlords back to their estates in the country instead of letting them waste their money in London.”

“But what would London do without them?” asked Alizon, much amused at this new view of the subject.

“Much better,” retorted Aunt Jelly, sharply. “In my young days, before steam and electricity upset everything, people stayed in their own houses. But now everyone comes up to London. A cake’s no good if the currants are all in one place. Scatter them, and it’s an improvement.”

“There’s a good deal of truth in what you say,” remarked Alizon, quietly. “If literary men and musicians, for instance, made little centres of art and letters all over the three kingdoms, it would be more beneficial in every way than centralising everything in London.”

“Literature! Bah!” said Miss Corbin, with scorn; “milk-and-water novels about religion and society, bilious essays, and fault-finding critics—that’s what you call literature now-a-days. As for music, I don’t know much about it. ‘The Maiden’s Prayer’ and the ‘Battle of Prague’ were thought good enough when I was young. But now it’s all systems and theories, and what they call sixths and sevenths. A very good name, too,” concluded the old lady, grimly, “for the whole lot of them do seem at sixes and sevens.”

“Ah! you see, everything is improving,” said Guy, meekly, not having any idea about what he was talking, but only making a vain endeavour to stay Aunt Jelly’s rancorous tongue.

“It’s more than manners are,” replied the old lady, tartly. “Minnie, don’t twiddle your fingers so. It annoys me. Humph! so you’re going down to Errington to play the Lord of the Manor and your wife Lady Bountiful. Mind you take care of yourself, my dear; the mists down there are very bad for the throat.”

“I don’t think they are bad, Aunt Jelly,” expostulated Guy, indignant that she should try to prejudice Alizon against her future home.

“Oh, you think about nothing!” said Aunt Jelly, coolly. “I tell you the place is unhealthy. Bless the man, don’t I know what I’m talking about? Look at that girl,” pointing to the shrinking Minnie, who was dreadfully upset at having public attention thus drawn to her—“she’s lived all her life at Denfield, and what has she had? Measles, whooping-cough, neuralgia; she was a pale rickety mass of disease when she came to me. What built her up? Port wine. I tell you the place is unhealthy, and mind you take plenty of port wine and beef tea, Alizon, or you’ll go out some day like the snuff of a candle. I’ve seen several of your sort go that way.”

“Aunt,” cried Guy, rising to his feet in a rage, “how can you speak so! Hang it all! talk of something more cheerful. I didn’t bring my wife here to be frightened out of her wits.”

“Pooh! nonsense! Don’t you get angry,” said the old lady, quite pleased at upsetting her good-tempered nephew, “What’s the good of being an old woman if you can’t say what you like? Well, go down home at once, and perhaps next year I’ll pay you a visit.”

“I wonder you’re not afraid of dying in such an unhealthy place,” said Guy, scornfully.

“Don’t you be afraid. I shan’t afford you that gratification for some time yet,” answered Aunt Jelly malignantly. “I’m a creaking door. They hang long, you know.”

“Goodbye, Aunt Jelly,” said Alizon, holding out her hand to Miss Corbin, for she felt she could not stand this terrible old woman any longer. “I’ll come and see you when I’m next in town.”

“Humph! that means if you’ve got ten minutes to spare,” growled the old lady, kissing Lady Errington’s soft cheek. “Well! well! go on. The old are always neglected.”

“They wouldn’t be if they were a little more pleasant,” said Guy, still indignant, as he said goodbye.

“Ah! you young folks expect to find life all honey, but there’s a good deal of vinegar in it. I dare say you’ll grow tired of one another.”

Guy, who was at the door with his wife, turned round at this, and called out in a rage:

“No, we won’t!”

“I’ve heard better men than you say the same thing, but it always came to pass.”

“It won’t in this case, so your kind heart will be disappointed for once.”

By this time Minnie Pelch had escorted Lady Errington to the hall door, and Sir Guy was about to follow after his parting shot, but the redoubtable Aunt Jelly was not one to give in without a struggle, and would have the last word.

“Go away! go away!” she said, furiously—“go away and learn manners.”

“I certainly won’t come to you for the teaching,” retorted Guy, in great heat. “Goodbye, Aunt Jelly, and I hope you’ll be in a more Christian spirit next time we come.”

He closed the door after him so as to give her no opportunity of replying, and Aunt Jelly thus being beaten, felt in an exceedingly bad temper. She fought with every one who came to the house, and crushed all except Eustace, whose cool sarcasm was too much for her, but this unexpected resistance of the dutiful Guy surprised her, and she was not ill-pleased.

“I didn’t think he had so much spirit,” she chuckled, as she resumed her knitting. “It comes from his mother, I’ll be bound. Jane always had a fine temper of her own and, was twice the man her milksop of a husband was. Well, well! I’m glad Guy can speak his mind. He hasn’t much to speak, poor fool; still it’s better than nothing.”

In fact, the old lady was so pleased with Guy’s rebellion on behalf of his wife that she became quite good-tempered, and Minnie, on her return, found her patroness for once in her life an amiable companion.

As for Guy and his wife, when they were both snugly ensconced in their carriage and driving back to the hotel, both of them laughed heartily over the visit.

“Isn’t she an old cat?” said Guy, wiping the tears from his eyes; “she fights like the devil! It’s the first time I’ve had a row with her.”

“I’m sorry it was on my account, Guy,” observed Alizon, anxiously.

“Don’t you bother your head, my dear,” he replied coolly, patting her hand; “if it hadn’t been you it would have been someone else. If Aunt Jelly hadn’t a row every now and then she’d die. I wish to Heaven she would, and then I’d get her money!”

“Oh, Guy, how can you speak so?”

“Why not? We need the money badly enough, I’m sure. She only wastes it on churches and orphans’ homes. I wish to Heaven I was an orphan; Aunt Jelly might take some interest in me.”

“Well, you are an orphan.”

“Yes, but that’s not the genuine article. Aunt Jelly loves a snivelling, alone-in-the-world brat who needs reforming. A titled orphan like myself is no fun. I can’t harrow her soul.”

“You did your best to do so just now,” said Alizon, laughing. Sir Guy echoed her laughter, and when they arrived at their hotel both of them came to the conclusion that they had passed a very pleasant afternoon.

Chapter 13
Bringing Home The Bride

“ ‘Oh, mither! mither I’ve brocht hame
    A bonnie bride upon my steed,
Sae lift her o’er the lintel stane,
    An’ brake a bannock o’er her heid.’

“ ‘Oh, bairnie, syn the wand began
    Nane saw sic sicht o’ muckle wae,
Where gat ye, son, this witch wuman,
    Wi gowden hair an’ skin o’ snaw?’

“ ‘Oh, mither, she’s a Chrisom lass
    Wha by the Kelpie’s burn did stray,
Wi buke an’ bell an’ holy mass
    I wedded her at break o’ day.’

“ ‘Oh, bairnie, she’s nae Chrisom child,
    Sae evil glowers her een tae see,
She is a speerit fra the wild,
    An brings but dule tae you an’ me.’ ”

Sir Guy was humming this gruesome ballad as the train neared Denfield Station, where news of their arrival had already preceded them, and the Errington tenantry, in a state of high excitement, were waiting to welcome the young couple home.

Blithe and happy, with a faint roseate tinge in her pale cheeks, arising from a natural feeling of anticipation, Alizon sat opposite to her husband, who was gazing fondly at her, and the glint of her golden hair and the whiteness of her skin set him thinking of that weird old ballad, sung to him in childish days by an old Scotch nurse full of the haunting superstitions of the North.

“What on earth are you muttering about, Guy?” asked Alizon, in a puzzled tone, as she heard him crooning this melancholy strain.

“Only an old song about a bride’s home-coming,” he replied gaily, and thereupon repeated to her all he remembered of the legend, the foreboding strain of which made his wife, sensitive in a great measure to supernatural hintings, shudder nervously.

“Don’t, Guy, don’t tell me any more,” she said apprehensively, putting her gloved hand over his mouth. “It’s a bad omen.”

“What, are you so superstitious as that?” he replied, kissing her hand. “Do you think you are the witch-woman of the ballad, destined to bring woe to Errington?”

“No! No! I hope not! I trust not!” cried Lady Errington, shrinking back with a vague dread in her eyes, “but I am a little superstitious. I think everyone is more or less, and my family has been so terribly unfortunate that I am afraid of bringing you bad luck.”

“Nonsense! I don’t mind the bad luck a bit, as long as you come along with it,” said her husband, soothingly. “I wish I hadn’t put these ideas into your foolish little head. You must have nothing but bright thoughts to-day, my dearest, for this is your home-coming, and I hear we are to have a great reception.”

“Tell me all about it,” asked Lady Errington, recovering herself with an effort.

“Oh, that would take too long, besides I’m as ignorant as you are; but there are to be banners and flowers and music and all that sort of thing, you know, and I expect old Welstarler the Rector will read us an address. Then, of course, everyone will have a tuck-out at the Hall, and there is to be a dance in the evening down the village. All Denfield’s going to have a high old time, so, for once in your life you’ll be received like a royal personage.”

“Don’t make me nervous.”

“Pooh! there’s nothing to be nervous about. Just smile and look sweet, I’ll do all the patter.”

“The what?”

“Patter! talk you know. I’m afraid it is slangy, but very expressive all the same. By Jove, the train’s slowing down, we’ll soon be home now. There’s the square tower of Denfield Church, and yonder, Alizon!—here, quick—on the right—that white wing of a house. That’s our place.”

Sir Guy was quite excited, and chattered like a schoolboy home for his holidays, whilst Alizon, for once aroused from her coldness, stood near him, leaning her head on his shoulder, and looked out of the window at the various objects of interest, as the train steamed slowly onward.

At last they arrived at Denfield.

The little railway station was gaudy with bunting, much to the astonishment of the prosaic folks in the train, who could not understand the reason of such unusual decorative splendour, and as the train went on immediately Sir Guy and his wife alighted, they had no time to find out what the excitement was all about, therefore departed more in the dark than ever.

The station-master, who had known Sir Guy from boyhood, was much flattered at being shaken hands with, and presented to Lady Errington, to whom some children offered a charming bouquet of wild flowers.

Outside the station their carriage with four horses was waiting, and they got in amid the cheers of the villagers, who mustered here in strong force. Sturdy farmers, mounted in good style, labourers, looking forward to unlimited beer, women, in the brightest of dresses, talking shrilly among themselves of the beauty of the bride, school-children, jubilant at an unexpected holiday, all these were present, with banners, flags, and flowers unlimited. A proud man that day was the old coachman, as he guided the prancing horses through the long lane of happy faces, with his master and mistress sitting in the carriage behind, responding to the acclamations resounding on all sides, while from the grey, old church tower rang a peal of joy-bells.

After all, let people pretend to despise it as they may, popularity is a very pleasant thing, and it made life appear very bright to this young couple, receiving such an uproarious welcome, instead of stealing homeward amid indifferent faces. Despite the howlings of Radicals, the spread of socialism, the groanings about agricultural depression, the bond between landlord and tenant is too kindly, and too deeply ingrained to yield readily to the mob-shriekings for equality and equal division of land. Sir Guy was a great favourite in the county, and the Erringtons had been gentry at the Hall for many centuries, so the sturdy British yeomen and kindly neighbours of the young pair determined to make their home-coming as pleasant as possible—and succeeded.

Driving through the quaint, narrow street of the village, followed by a long train of horsemen, all the houses on either side were gay with flags and flowers and handkerchiefs waving from the narrow casements. Flowers strewed the dusty road under the feet of the horses, the village band, in bright uniforms, playing “Home, Sweet Home,” on their brass instruments, with mighty strength of lungs, hearty cheers from hundreds of willing throats, loud clashings from the bells overhead, mad with joy, and at the entrance to the Park a triumphal arch of evergreens, with the word “Welcome” inscribed thereon.

Under this arch waited a gallant company of horsemen in pink, for Sir Guy was a prominent member of the Hunt, and his brother Nimrods gave him a hearty greeting to his paternal acres. Then, when the crowd had cheered themselves hoarse, the old Rector, silver-haired and kindly-faced, read an address to the happy pair wishing them long life and happiness, to which Sir Guy responded in suitable terms, standing up in the carriage, his hat off, and his bright, young face flushed with excitement.

Up the long avenue, still followed by the huntsmen, the farmers, and the villagers more flags overhead among the green boughs of the beech-trees, more flowers on the dusty road below, and at length the wide space before the house and the long façade of Errington Hall, with its tall gables, its innumerable diamond-paned windows, its slender turrets and weather-stained stacks of chimneys.

Cheers from the servants, waiting in two long lines to welcome their new mistress, with whose sweet face they fell in love at once. Sir Guy then helped his wife to alight, and they both stood on the threshold of their new home, whilst a speech of welcome was made by the oldest inhabitant, prompted by the village schoolmaster, to which the young baronet responded with a few manly and straightforward words.

The band then played a noisy quick step, which inspired the villagers to further cheering, and the gentry, having seen the Erringtons safely home, rode off to their different residences, while the tenantry and villagers all rejoiced and made merry on the lawn in front of the terrace.

A blue sky above, a green earth below, happy faces all around, kindly voices sounding in her ears, and her husband by her side, it was no wonder that Alizon Errington, daughter of a social pariah, felt her heart swell with gratitude towards God, who had guided her safely to such a pleasant haven of joy and kindliness.

But it all came to an end at last, and after the tenantry had eaten and drank as much as they possibly could at Sir Guy’s expense, they all went down to the village to finish up the evening with dancing and fireworks. The Erringtons, quite tired out, were left alone standing on the terrace watching the crowd as it melted away in the coming shadows, and the husband, putting a kindly arm round his wife, felt that this was the brightest period of his life.

Suddenly Alizon, who looked pale and worn out with excitement, burst into a passionate flood of tears, as she leaned against her husband’s breast.

“My dearest,” cried Guy, in alarm, “what is the matter?”

“Nothing,” she sobbed, putting her arms round his neck, “only—only I am so happy.”

“You’ve got a curious way of showing it,” said Guy, cheerfully, although his own eyes were now rather wet.

“Come, come, Alizon, you must not give way like this. You are tired after your journey and all this excitement. If Aunt Jelly were here, I’m afraid she would prescribe her favourite port wine,” he added jestingly.

Alizon laughed at this, dried her eyes, and they both went inside to dress for dinner.

A very pleasant little meal they had, in the old-fashioned dining-room, with the staid faces of the family portraits staring down at their frivolous descendants. Guy made his wife drink some famous champagne, which was the special pride of the Errington cellar.

“I believe in fizz myself,” he said sagely, holding his glass up to the light. “Aunt Jelly pins her faith to port, but this is quite as good and not so heavy. Look at all those ancestors of mine frowning down on us, Alizon. No doubt if they could speak they would denounce our conduct as frivolous.”

“I’m very glad they can’t speak then,” replied Lady Errington gaily. “Perhaps, however, they appear at midnight. Do they? This place looks like a haunted house.”

Guy shrugged his shoulders.

“No! We haven’t got a family ghost. It’s a great pity, isn’t it? Ghosts generally run in families who have been bad lots, but the Erringtons have always been a steady-going set, so we haven’t got even a haunted room, or a gruesome Johnnie with a clanking chain.”

“I don’t know if that’s to be regretted,” answered his wife, as she arose from the table; “besides, no one believes in ghosts now-a-days.”

“A good many people do not, but I firmly believe you do.”

Lady Errington laughed a little nervously.

“No! I certainly believe in presentiments, but not in ghosts—there’s a great difference between the two. Are you coming with me now?”

“Yes! you surely do not want me to sit in solitary state over my wine?”

“Certainly not, and as it is such a pleasant evening, let us go outside on the terrace.”

“You must wrap yourself up, Alizon,” said Guy, anxiously, “the air is very keen here.”

He sent a servant for her shawl, and in a few minutes they were strolling up and down the terrace, arm in arm, not talking much, but enjoying each other’s company and the reposeful silence of the hour.

It was an exceptional night for November, in England, being still and restful with a moist, warm feeling in the air, and a gentle wind stirring the distant trees. No moon, no stars were visible, as the sky was hidden by heavy masses of clouds which seemed to press down on the weary earth, and a kind of luminous twilight was spread around, which made everything loom strange and spectral in its half-light.

The warm, yellow light from the drawing-room poured out through the open windows on to the terrace, and away beyond the lawns, the flower beds, and the great masses of beech, elm, and oak lay swallowed up in the dusky shadows. The wind rustled the dry leaves from the trees, and made the great boughs shiver with complaining sighs, as though they dreaded the coming of winter, while there was a salt feeling in the air, coming from the distant sea, and, at intervals, the dull, muffled roar of the surf, beating on the lonely coast.

“This is not like Italy,” said Alizon to her husband, as they stood arm in arm, peering into the shadows, “and yet there is a kind of similarity. This is the terrace of Villa Tagni, beyond the trees are the distant mountains and that strip of luminous ground is the lake.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t your imagination, my dear,” he answered comically, “or, perhaps, I know the place too well, but I’ve got a strong feeling that I’m not in Italy, but in England, and, moreover, that I am at home.”

“It’s a very pleasant feeling.”

“Yes! I think even the most inveterate Bohemian, Eustace, for instance, must experience a home-sickness sometimes.”

“Has your cousin any home?”

“Oh, yes! At least, he owns a kind of tumble-down old ruin about four miles from here. It overlooks the sea, and is a most dismal place. Eustace visits it about once in a blue moon, but I don’t think he likes it. It’s a haunted place, if you like.”

“Haunted by what?”

“Oh, I don’t know. There’s some sort of a ghost, who makes himself objectionable—by-the-way, I’m not sure that it isn’t a lady ghost, with a rustling of silken skirts. But then ghosts have no sex.”

“You seem to be well up in the subject,” said his wife, a little drily, as they re-entered the house.

“Not at all. I only know folk lore in a desultory sort of manner. But when you get to know all the people round about here, you’ll be told the most gruesome stories.”

“I suppose for the next few weeks we won’t have a moment of peace.”

“It’s very probable,” replied Guy coolly, “and then we’ll have to return all the visits. It’s a deuce of a nuisance, but one must do it. We owe it to our position.

“I never heard that last phrase till I married you,” said Lady Errington, a little sadly.

“Why did not your father—?”

“My father! you forget, Guy. I am the daughter of a pariah.”

He took her in his strong, young arms, and kissed her fondly.

“You are my wife, and the mistress of Errington Hall.”

Chapter 14
An Undesirable Acquaintance

“This ghost from the past
    I tremble to see
Behind me I cast
    This ghost from the past,
Life’s pleasant at last,
    So let there not be
This ghost from the past
    I tremble to see.”

Errington Hall, hidden in the green heart of its noble woods, was a building of very mixed architecture, displaying in its incongruities the various dispositions and tastes of the different owners who had lived therein. The original structure was evidently the large hall (from whence the building took its name) which had been erected by the first Errington after the Battle of Bosworth Field, when England was once more settling down to domesticity, after the tumult and strife of the Wars of the Roses. To this noble room, lofty, majestic, and sombre, the various masters of the Hall had added other and smaller rooms, long, winding corridors, and innumerable outhouses, as the fancy took them, or as their needs required them, so that the centre apartment was quite lost amid the huge wings and gables which surrounded it on all sides. The result was a bizarre combination which made the old mansion wonderfully attractive to architects and archeologists, while the lapse of centuries had mellowed the whole mass into one delicate tone of warm-hued loveliness.

From the central hall, with its carven roof, its long narrow windows, and quaint oaken gallery, ran many crooked corridors, full of unexpected angles, queer corners, sudden depressions, and shallow flights of steps, leading to long ranges of bedrooms, to the kitchen and the servants’ wing. This portion was Elizabethan and the outside presented the usual Tudoresque aspect of battlements, venerable walls of grey stone, covered with ivy, diamond-paned windows, and grotesque gargoyles. After the building of this, the Erringtons were evidently too busy with the Parliamentary Wars to attend to their home, for the next portion added to the original fabric was of Queen Anne date, of dark-hued red brick, wide casements and heavy doors. Again there was an architectural interval, as the Hanoverian Erringtons were engaged in making their peace with the new German sovereigns of England for suspected Jacobite practices, and the last notable addition took place in the reign of the third George, when the front wing was added to the house, a vast façade of dull white stone with innumerable windows, ranges of heavy balustrades, and confused decorations in the Renaissance style, of nude figures, fantastic flowers, birds, scrolls and such-like dainty devices. A balustrade ran along the front of the roof, hiding the leads, and in the centre an elaborate carving of the Errington coat-of-arms, supported by two greyhounds, with the motto, “Curro, Capio, Teneo.” A broad terrace, with statues and urns thereon, stretched from end to end, and a double flight of marble steps led downward to the smooth, green lawn, from whence the great white pile standing on its hill presented a noble appearance. The Victorian Erringtons added but little to the house, for the simple reason, that the builder of the Renaissance wing had not only exhausted the family resources in doing so, but had encumbered the estate with heavy mortgages, which his descendants had not yet paid off. Sir Frederick Errington had a turn for amateur gardening, and added long lines of hot-houses to the side of the house, and also a kind of winter garden, while Sir Guy had done his share in the adornment of the place, by building a handsome range of stables. Altogether it was a wonderfully fine place, but far too expensive and costly for the Errington rent-roll, which was not particularly large. So there it stood, a monument of vanity and folly, which often made its present possessor curse his bad luck in owning such a white elephant.

The interior was quite in keeping with the palatial exterior, for the state apartments, situated in the front wing, were of enormous size, splendidly furnished, but which looked lonely in the extreme unless full of company, a gaily-dressed crowd being needed to set them off to advantage. The Errington family were proud of these state-rooms, which were really wonderfully imposing, but, except on grand occasions, when they were thrown open to the county gentry, preferred to inhabit a smaller range of rooms on the western side, which were more comfortable, both as regards size and furniture, than the chilly splendours of the great apartments.

One of these rooms had been especially fitted up for Alizon by her husband, a charming octagon-shaped apartment with windows looking on to a quaint garden set forth in the Dutch fashion, with trim symmetrical lines of box and sombre yew trees clipped into fantastic shapes, known by the name of “My Lady’s Pleasaunce.”

“I think this is delightful, Guy,” said Alizon, as she stood in the garden with her husband; “it is so shut out from the world.”

They were amusing themselves by exploring the great house, and Alizon was quite overwhelmed by the size and magnificence of everything. Range after range of splendidly furnished rooms shut up and left to the dust and spiders, lofty wide passages with figures in armour on either side, stained glass windows here and there in which blushed the Errington escutcheon. It was all angles, and turrets, and gables, and crooked windings, so that Alizon clung closely to Guy as they wandered through the lonely rooms, feeling quite afraid of the vastness of the building.

“It puts me in mind of Mrs. Radcliffe’s stories,” she said with a shudder, “there’s something quite awesome about the place.”

“Awesome? not a bit of it,” replied Guy cheerfully, opening a shutter and letting a flood of sunlight into a room, “it requires living in, that’s all. You see, dear, my parents died ages ago, and I’ve been living here very little, so the whole place has got a little musty. But now we’re here we’ll have more servants, and a lot of people to come and see us. That will wake the place up a bit.”

“But it’s so large, Guy. Why was it built so large?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” said the young man somewhat ruefully, “it’s a deuce of a barn, isn’t it? The Erringtons always had a mania for building, and whenever they’d nothing else to do they added wings. More fools they, as it ran away with all the money and put these confounded mortgages on the property. This is a dear old place, and I’m very fond of it, but it’s miles too big for us, and is a regular white elephant.”

“It must take a lot of money to keep it up.”

“It does! So much that there’s none left for anything else. I wish to heaven I wasn’t sentimental, or I’d pull down a lot of it.”

“Oh, Guy!”

“Well, what is the use of all these empty rooms? It takes an army of servants to keep them clean, and for no purpose. We haven’t got enough money to keep open house, or I could fill all these rooms with people I know, but what with this place, and the mortgages, and bad tenants, it’s a deuce of a nuisance altogether. I wish someone would take the Hall off my hands as a museum, or an almshouse, after the style of Hampton Court.”

“You wouldn’t sell it?”

“No, I daresay I wouldn’t. I can’t do with it, and I can’t do without it. It’s a dead lock. But, if Aunt Jelly would only give up the ghost and leave us her tin, we could keep the whole shop going beautifully.”

“I’m afraid there’s no chance of that.”

“No, there isn’t. Aunt Jelly is one of those aggravating old women who’ll see the end of the present century.”

“Well, that’s not far off,” said Alizon mischievously.

“Too far off for us to get her money, my dear,” replied Guy candidly. “I believe she’s immortal.”

They left the room in which they were standing and resumed their walk through the house, stopping in the picture gallery which contained the Errington portraits, and also a number of celebrated pictures, all of which Guy contemplated ruefully.

“Can’t even sell these,” he said with a groan. “Fancy, what humbug—they’re all heirlooms, and I’d have to apply to Chancery to get permission, which I daresay they’d refuse. It takes me all my time to keep up this place and live decently, yet all this money is hanging on the wall in the shape of these pictures. It’s awful bosh, just like making a child the present of a shilling on condition he doesn’t spend it. Humbug!”

“What! would you sell your ancestors, like Charles Surface?”

“No, I wouldn’t go so far as that. But these pictures are wasting their sweetness on the desert air in being shut up here, and, as I need money more than pictures, I would sell them if I could. I don’t see much chance of doing so, however, for the Errington cousins—and I’ve got about a hundred—would come down on me as a lunatic if I did so. Hang them! I wish they’d this place to keep up on a small income, they wouldn’t be so anxious to keep these miles of painted canvas. But never mind, while there’s Aunt Jelly there’s hope, so come along and look at the hall from the gallery. It’s the best place to see it.”

So they went along a narrow passage into the older portion of the house, and soon found themselves in the wide gallery running round the hall at a height of about forty feet. A wonderfully impressive place it was, with its lance-shaped windows, filled with stained glass, through which the pale sunlight streamed, casting fantastic patterns on the oaken floor. Between every window, shields, spears and battle axes, with faded banners drooping above them, telling of ancient wars and the days of chivalry, when the deserted hall was filled with men-at-arms and bold knights in steel armour, before the invention of gunpowder relegated their iron panoply to the obscurity of country houses and museums. At the upper end of the room a raised dais, above which a royal canopy and the Errington arms flashing in gilt splendour from the dusky shadows, while high above arose the pointed roof with its great oaken rafters faintly seen in the gloom. It was certainly a fine specimen of the mediæval ages and doubtless many stirring tales could be told of the generations that had feasted under its lofty roof, or departed from thence to harry the lands of weaker neighbours, as was the kindly fashion in those misnamed good old days.

“A wonderful old place, isn’t it?” said Guy, as they stood looking from the height of the gallery at the immense space below, “and genuine too. None of the sham antiquity of Abbotsford here. All this is the real thing, and just as it was in the old days when the Erringtons wore those absurd suits of armour, and poked their neighbours’ eyes out with those long spears.”

“You ought to be very proud of your race, Guy.”

“I don’t see much to be proud of in them,” he replied candidly, throwing his arm round his wife’s waist, “they were a humdrum lot at best the Erringtons. Went to church, minded their own business, and left other people’s wives alone. They always seemed to have been on the safe side in keeping their property, however, and if it hadn’t been for their building craze, I’d be decently off. According to their ideas there was no place like home, however, and that is why they spent such a lot of money over it. I am proud of the dear old Hall, but I do wish it wasn’t quite so large.”

“Do you use this place at all?” asked Alizon as they left the gallery.

“Only for dances, and tenants’ dinners,” he answered carelessly; “it looks very pretty when it’s full, but at present one would think it was haunted. Quite a mistake, as there isn’t a single ghost in the whole place. A pity, isn’t it, for this queer old house just looks a fit place for shadowy figures and gruesome legends.”

“I suppose there are plenty of stories about the Hall.”

“Oh yes! but very mild stories, I’m afraid, not even equal to the average shilling shocker. Errington Hall has no history which would delight novelists or antiquaries. Queen Elizabeth didn’t stop here on a royal progress, Oliver Cromwell’s Ironsides didn’t besiege the place, and though I think the Hanoverian Erringtons were mixed up in Jacobite plots they hid neither Prince James nor Prince Charlie. We are a very prosaic lot, my dear, and although the whole house is romantic enough in appearance, there isn’t a story about it that would frighten a five-year-old child.”

By this time they were on the terrace in the pale November sunlight, and could see below the smooth green lawn surrounding the house, girdled by the ancient trees of the park, which were now shedding their leaves for winter time. The carriage drive swept round the front of the terrace in a graceful curve, and then disappeared into the green wood, while beyond the tops of the trees appeared the grey square tower of Denfield Church, sombre against the dull sky. Some pigeons, white as milk, were whirling aloft in the moist air, and the sun, invisible behind the grey clouds, diffused a pale chilly radiance, which made Alizon long for the blue skies and burning heat of Italy.

“Come inside, Alizon,” said Sir Guy, seeing his wife shivering, “this is cold after the South, and you’d better lie down for a time after luncheon, as I daresay for the next week or two you’ll have quite enough to do in receiving our neighbours.”

What Guy said was true enough, and for the next few weeks Alizon had as much as she could do in receiving the county magnates, all eager to see Lady Errington, of whom they had heard much, but of whose father they had heard still more. Despite Sir Guy’s lack of ready money the Errington estates were very large, the Errington position a very high one in the county, and many a daughter of the Shires would have been pleased to have become the mistress of Errington Hall, particularly as its master, young, handsome and debonnaire, was favourite enough with the gentle sex independently of his rank and position.

When, however, it came to be known that this eligible bachelor had married Alizon Mostyn, the county, at least the female part of it, felt vexed that an outsider should have carried off the matrimonial prize, and the provincial belles felt none too well disposed towards the young wife, although they masked their real feelings under many sweet smiles and smooth words.

The “Pepper Box,” with its customary good manners, had set forth in its columns the story of Gabriel Mostyn, and although there was nothing in it but what redounded to Alizon’s credit, yet the fact that she had such a scamp for a father was not desirable in itself. Sir Guy managed to put an end to the “Pepper Box” chatter by threatening to thrash Billy Dolser, and as that gentleman was getting rather tired of being horsewhipped he held his tongue, so nothing more was revealed in that quarter, but Society having got a pretty good idea of the Mostyn history pursued the whole affair to the end, and found out all Gabriel’s iniquities and Alizon’s filial affection. When Lady Errington therefore received the county families, she knew perfectly well that all these smooth smiling people were well acquainted with her history, and although she had nothing personally to fear from their venomous tongues, yet the fact that the history of her iniquitous father was known to them down to the minutest detail, made her position anything but a pleasant one.

The county, however, made a virtue of necessity, and seeing that Lady Errington was of good birth, and that there was nothing against her, whatever there might have been against her scamp of a father, made her welcome among them in the heartiest manner, although a few wiseacres shook their heads doubtfully over Sir Guy’s wife.

“What’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh,” they whispered one to the other, “and it’s curious if she does not inherit some of her father’s bad qualities as well as her mother’s good ones.”

Lady Errington guessed the somewhat unfriendly feeling they bore towards her because she had become mistress of Errington Hall, but spoke of it to no one, not even Guy, who never for a moment dreamt of such a thing, and was delighted to see how his neighbours seemed to like his wife. This calm, statuesque woman, with the impassive face, bore herself with stately grace towards the visitors that called at Errington Hall, and although they all respected her, yet her manner chilled them with its coldness, and no one professed any strong liking for her. The men admired her greatly, but thought her cold and haughty, while the ladies, finding she did not take an interest in their provincial frivolities, said disagreeable things behind her back, and smiled to her face, which did not for a moment deceive Alizon, as she knew what their friendship was worth.

No one could deny, however, that she was a beautiful woman, and filled her position admirably in every way, yet curiously enough everyone arrived at the same conclusion as Eustace, and pitied Sir Guy as a warm-hearted young man married to a statue. Lady Errington was not therefore an unqualified success, but her husband never perceived this and took all the lip service of his friends for gospel truth, while Alizon, although she guessed pretty well the true state of things, did not undeceive him.

She knew she was not disliked, as she had done her best to conciliate everyone, but on the other hand she knew perfectly well that a gulf lay between herself and these people which could not be bridged over in any way. They all wanted to take her to their bosom and gush over her, while she, cold, reserved and self-reliant, objected to the obvious hint of patronage in this desire; so although she received and made visits, went to all provincial gaities, and presided at her own dinner-table in returning hospitality, yet she felt she was an exile among these people, a stranger in a strange land, who could neither learn their ways nor make them understand her own.

In fact, now that the glamour of the honeymoon had worn off, there were times when even Sir Guy felt the chill of her manner towards him, and although he tried to analyse the feeling, never succeeded in doing so. She was perfect in every way, almost too perfect, and at times he had his doubts as to whether it would not have been wiser on his part to have married a common-place provincial belle than this ethereal creature, whose nature he vaguely perceived was utterly at variance with his own. Such ideas as these, however, he rejected as heretical against the woman he loved, and he assured himself with unnecessary vehemence that he had gained a woman who would be perfect in every way both as mother and wife. Therefore the county and Sir Guy were both pleased with Alizon in this somewhat doubtful fashion, and she, knowing the real mistrust she had innocently provoked by her icy reserve, did not trouble herself about it, but went calmly on her way, fulfilling her position as mistress of Errington Hall, and one of the great ladies of the place.

One event, however, took place which showed Guy that under her impassive demeanour there was a strong will and a considerable spice of temper, both of which came to light in the episode of Mrs. Veilsturm.

Everyone far and near had called at the Hall. Stalwart county squires with their comfortable wives and frivolous daughters, loud-voiced, hearty young men whose ideas rarely extended beyond the hunting-field, occasionally an effete inhabitant of Belgravia, whose ancestral acres were but rarely visited, meek curates who wanted Alizon to become the Lady Bountiful of the parish, and gay country damsels who revelled in lawn-tennis and slyly copied Lady Errington’s dresses with feminine subtlety—all these had called at the Hall and been received by Alizon with friendly reserve, after which she returned their visits in company with Guy, feeling she had done her duty. Nothing out of the way happened till Mrs. Veilsturm left her card.

They had been paying a visit to some county magnate, and on their return Alizon had gone inside, while Sir Guy remained without for a moment giving some directions to the grooms about the horses. Having done so he ran up the steps into the entrance-hall, to find his wife even paler than usual, standing by a small table looking at a card with a look of horror on her face.

“Why, what’s the matter, dear?” he asked, coming forward anxiously, “is anything wrong?”

She handed him the card without a word, and having looked at the name, he glanced at her in puzzled surprise. “Well, what’s wrong about Mrs. Veilsturm?” he said inquiringly. “She’s a jolly sort of woman, isn’t she?”

“Do you know her?” asked his wife coldly.

“No, I can’t say I do personally. She came down while I was away and bought old Darton’s place, about two miles from here. But what do you look so horrified at?”

“Come in here, Guy, and I’ll tell you,” answered Alizon, with an effort, and walked into the drawing-room, followed by her husband in a state of wonder as to what could have occurred to upset his wife.

Alizon sat down under the window, twisting her gloves in her hands with a look of anger on her face, while Guy stood near her with his tall hat on the back of his head, looking at her in a state of bewilderment.

“I never saw you so upset before, Alizon,” he said, with an uneasy laugh; “is there anything particularly wrong about Mrs. Veilsturm—is she a leper, or is her character no better than it should be?”

“Have you heard anything against her character?”

“Not a word,” replied Guy, promptly. “She’s a great favourite with everyone. Her husband was a captain in some regiment that was stationed out at the Bermudas or Jamaica, and I believe he married her out there. When he died he left her well off, and she’s a lively sort of woman, but I never heard anything against her morals.”

“What about Major Griff?”

“Major Griff!—oh, he was a friend of her husband’s, I believe, and wants to marry her, only she won’t accept him. I hear that he is her trustee, and looks after her property for her; but what on earth do you know about her, Alizon?”

“I know too much to allow her to visit here.”

“The deuce you do,” cried Sir Guy, taking a seat, “and who told you anything about her?”

“My father,” she replied quickly, turning her pale face towards him.

Sir Guy whistled, and looked thoughtfully out of the window, knowing well enough that Gabriel Mostyn’s name being mentioned did not bode any good to Mrs. Veilsturm. He said nothing, however, as he judged it best to let his wife tell the story her own way, and that this course was the right one was proved by what followed.

“As you know, I attended my father during those four years when he was dying, and although I don’t want to say a word against him, seeing that after all he was my father, yet, I heard sufficient from his own lips to convince me that his life had been a vile one. Not even the fact that I was his child prevented him boasting in my presence of his horrible actions, and although I invariably left the room when he began to talk like this, I could not help overhearing more than I cared to.”

“I wonder you did not leave him altogether,” said Sir Guy indignantly.

“He was my father after all,” she replied simply. “No one would stay by him except me, and I could not let him die alone, like a dog.”

Sir Guy shifted uneasily in his seat, finding a difficulty in making an answer.

“No, I suppose you couldn’t,” he answered reluctantly; “blood’s thicker than water, but still—you are a good woman, Alizon.”

Lady Errington smiled faintly and shook her head.

“Don’t put me on a pedestal,” she said, a trifle bitterly, “or you will find your goddess has feet of clay after all. Well, about Mrs. Veilsturm. I need not tell you all I heard about her, but only this. That my father knew her—intimately—and that her life before she set up for a woman of fashion in England, was not all that could be desired.”

“Where did he meet her?” demanded Sir Guy abruptly.

“In South America. She is a Creole, you know, and when my father knew her she was not married to Captain Veilsturm. She may have lived decently since she became wife and widow, for all I know, but when she was in South America—”

Lady Errington broke off abruptly, and rose quickly to her feet.

“How dare she call on me—how dare she?”

“I daresay she thinks you know nothing about her,” said Sir Guy, rising also.

“She knows I am Gabriel Mostyn’s daughter, and that ought to be enough to make her keep away from me.”

“But of what do you accuse her?”

“I accuse her of nothing, at present,” said Alizon, looking steadily at him. “I only tell you that she is not a fit woman to cross the threshold of Errington Hall, and she will not do so while I am mistress here.”

“What are you going to do then?”

“I’m going to return the card she had the audacity to leave here, and write her a note forbidding her to call again.”

Sir Guy thought for a moment, and then spoke out.

“You are the best judge as to whom you make your friends, Alizon, but if you do this Mrs. Veilsturm will demand an explanation, and there will be a row.”

Lady Errington paused with her hand on the door and looked back.

“Mrs. Veilsturm will not demand an explanation,” she said coldly, “but if she wishes for one I can easily satisfy her on that point. But while I am mistress of Errington Hall if that infamous woman dares to come here I’ll have her turned out by my servants.”

“But she—”

“She!” echoed his wife decisively. “She will take the hint conveyed by the return of this card and keep a wide distance between Gabriel Mostyn’s daughter and herself.”

The door closed after her, and Guy, after a pause of amazement at the change in his usually calm wife, turned towards the window with a half frown on his face.

“She’s got a temper after all,” he said to himself, thrusting his hands into his pockets. “I might have guessed it. Sleeping volcanoes are always the worst when they do start.”

Chapter 15
A Woman Scorned

“What! will she place her foot upon my neck,
And hold me helpless, writhing in the dust?
Nay, such a thing is folly at the best,
‘Tis ill to tamper with the meanest worm,
For, serpent-like, I’ll wound her in the heel,
And when she falls from her magnificence,
I’ll twist my coils around her dainty throat
And sting!—and sting!—and sting!—until she dies.”

“Who is Mrs. Veilsturm?”

A good many people asked this question, when a woman, black-browed, voluptuous, and imperious as Cleopatra, flashed like an unknown star into the brilliance of a London season four years ago. No one could answer this question, the quidnuncs for once were at fault, and although ladies in drawing-rooms and men in clubs set their wits to work to find out all about her, no one could give an opinion with certainty as to who she was, where she came from, and what was the source of her income.

The society papers, who usually know everything, could not unravel this riddle, and it was reserved for the indefatigable Billy Dolser to lift in some measure the veil which hung over the past of this beautiful enigmatical woman. Under the heading of “A Cleopatra of To-day,” an article appeared in the “Pepperbox,” setting forth a very delightful story which satisfied everyone except a few suspicious grumblers, but whether it was fact or fiction, no one was quite sure.

According to this veracious chronicle, Mrs. Veilsturm (or as the “Pepperbox,” thinly veiling her identity, called her, Cleopatra) was a West Indian Creole, born in the island of Cuba, the daughter of a wealthy planter. Her parents died when she was young, and according to all reports, she lived a life of semi-barbaric magnificence in the somnolent Spanish island. Later, becoming tired of her secluded life, she went to Jamaica, and there met Captain Veilsturm, at that time reputed to be the handsomest man in the island. He married her, and for some time she reigned as Queen of the Regiment, but her husband dying suddenly of yellow fever, she left Jamaica, and came to England, intending with her great wealth to enter into London society.

In this laudable ambition she was helped by Major Griff, a well-known man about town, who had been in Veilsturm’s regiment, and who, if report spoke truly, would have been glad to have married his lovely widow. Mrs. Veilsturm, however, did not care to tempt matrimony a second time, and refused the Major, who, nevertheless, remained her closest friend, for her deceased husband had made him his executor. So the wily Major looked after all the entire property of the husband (consisting of a small house in the country), and the large property of the wife (consisting of West Indian estates), to the mutual satisfaction of both himself and the widow.

Major Griff was invaluable to her in more senses than one, as he knew everyone and everything, and was enabled to float her successfully in London society through the influence of his friends.

How it was done the “Pepperbox” scribe did not venture to say, although he hinted that the Major’s influence in inducing his friends to take up the lovely widow, was not due so much to their friendship as to the Major’s possession of certain disagreeable secrets. However, let the means used be what they might, Mrs. Veilsturm obtained a social success in a select circle, and became quite the rage of the season. The Major’s tactics and her own craftiness, added to her undeniable beauty, enabled her to take up an excellent position, and although the next season some people showed a desire to drop her, Mrs. Veilsturm was too clever to let them do so, and managed to confirm her social prestige in the most dexterous manner.

She had plenty of money, great beauty, a delightful house in Park Lane, and was an admirable hostess, so with this galaxy of virtue Society was fain to be content, and spoke well of her to her face, although behind her back they characterised her as an adventuress. It was dangerous to do this, however, as Major Griff was ubiquitous and, constituting himself her protector, dared any man or woman to speak evil of Cleopatra, whose character and life were above suspicion.

With certain reservations this was the story the “Pepperbox” told, and whether people chose to believe or doubt, it did not matter to Mrs. Veilsturm, who went serenely on her way, protected by the faithful Major. Some houses, however, were closed against her, as the Major was not omnipotent, and in these some disagreeable stories were told about the beautiful Creole, but Mrs. Veilsturm’s set, although undeniably fast, was also as undeniably “in the swim,” so she was supremely indifferent to such scandal.

As to the houses closed against her, she did not pose as an exiled Peri at the gates of a Paradise guarded by Mrs. Grundy, but set herself up in rebel authority over her own friends, and defied the ultra-exclusive people in every way. As they did not invite her to visit them in Paradise, she returned the compliment by not asking the pleasure of their company to—well, the other place, and as she gave most delightful entertainments, the dwellers in the Mrs. Grundy-guarded-Paradise could not help feeling rather annoyed. They looked down on Mrs. Veilsturm, they called her an adventuress, they wondered how any decent people could tolerate such a woman, and yet they regretted that the laws of social respectability forced them to ignore such an attractive woman.

This being the position of affairs, rebellious Cleopatra would, without doubt, have gained her ambition, and obliged even these jealously-guarded doors to be opened to her, but for an unfortunate rumour which originated no one knew where, and, creeping through society like a snake, raised its head and hissed disagreeable things regarding gambling.

Gambling!

Yes! Rumour, in the guise of bewigged old ladies over tea, and would-be juvenile old men over something stronger, said that Mrs. Veilsturm had very charming Sunday evenings, very charming indeed, but a trifle expensive to those not greatly blessed with this world’s goods. At these Sunday evening receptions, at a late hour of the night, certain green-covered tables made their appearance, and such production led to the playing of nap, of unlimited loo, baccarat, and such like games, over which a good deal of money changed hands.

It was also observed that who ever lost, Major Griff did not, but that a good deal of the money on the tables managed to find its way into his pockets. This had nothing to do with Mrs. Veilsturm certainly, still it was curious that this wealthy woman should permit her house to be turned into a gambling saloon, for the sake of giving Major Griff a nice little income, so rumour once more set to work to solve the problem, and made several startling assertions.

First, that Society had been imposed upon, as Mrs. Veilsturm was by no means wealthy, and that the West Indian estates were a myth, emanating from the fertile brain of Major Griff.

Second, that the relationship between the beautiful Creole and the disinterested Major was by no means as artless as was supposed, and that the money gained by the Major went to keep up the house in Park Lane.

Third, that Mrs. Veilsturm and the Major were in partnership together for the purpose of making money, and that the woman’s beauty and the man’s skill were the stock-in-trade of the said partnership.

Then these disagreeable reports were whispered everywhere, and even Major Griff, astute and cunning as a fox, could not find anyone to whom he could give the lie; and despite his emphatic contradiction of such report; people began to fight shy of fascinating Mrs. Veilsturm, and the dainty little house in Park Lane.

The second season of Cleopatra in London, however, was nearly over, so Major Griff, being an old campaigner, knew that out of sight is out of mind, and determined to withdraw himself and his partner from town for a time, until the next year, when he hoped to come back to Mayfair, and proceed with more caution. Accordingly, Mrs. Veilsturm announced to her dearest friends in confidence (so that it would sure to be repeated) that she was tired of town, and was going to her little place at Denfield, which she did shortly before the end of the season, and the fact was duly chronicled in the Society papers.

The Major did not accompany her, as he did not want to give colour to the reports about his relationship with Mrs. Veilsturm, and moreover, wanted to hear the result of this dexterous move. The result was exactly as the astute Major calculated, for people began to say that Mrs. Veilsturm was greatly maligned, as the Major had not accompanied her into the country, and that had she been the adventuress she was asserted to be, she would not have left London, where she was reaping such a rich harvest, for a dull country house. The Major’s diplomacy, therefore, was entirely successful, and Society was quite prepared to receive Mrs. Veilsturm when she chose to come back to Park Lane. So after the lapse of some weeks, Major Griff joined Mrs. Veilsturm at Denfield, to talk over the success of their clever move.

He found her in clover, for as no disagreeable rumours had found their way to this out-of-the-world locality, and she was known to be a leading lady in society (videlicet the Society papers), all the provincial gentry called upon her, and she visited at their houses, fascinating everyone with her brilliancy and beauty.

“Major Griff, a great friend of my poor husband,” was duly introduced, and being an admirable sportsman, and a bold rider, soon succeeded in becoming as popular as Cleopatra, so he was perfectly satisfied with the attitude of things as he foresaw the return of the firm to London would be after the fashion of a triumphal entry. Provincial gentry were dull company, certainly, but a guarantee of respectability, and the fact that Mrs. Veilsturm was at all the great houses in the country would be duly chronicled in the papers, and being seen by the London folk, would shew that she was not an adventuress, but a lady of great wealth, moving in the best society.

Then Mrs. Veilsturm made a mistake.

Against the advice of the Major, who had known and detested Gabriel Mostyn, she called on Gabriel Mostyn’s daughter and left her card, with the hope that the visit would be returned. On the evening of the day she had done this, she was waiting for dinner in the little drawing-room, and Major Griff, in evening dress, was lounging against the mantelpiece with a glass of sherry at his elbow, listening to her remarks.

A handsome woman was Mrs. Veilsturm, as she leaned back in a deep arm-chair, fanning herself slowly with all the grace and languor of a Creole. A dusky skin, masses of coal-black hair, with a suspicion of frizziness, betraying the African blood, large black eyes, a sensual, full-lipped mouth, and the figure of a Juno, she was a wonderfully handsome woman in a full-blooded way. Her arms and neck were beautifully proportioned, and dressed as she was, with the negro’s love for bright tints, in a lemon-coloured dress, with great masses of crimson flowers at her breast and in her hair, she looked a beautiful imperious creature, with a touch of the treacherous grace of the tiger in the indolent repose of her lithe limbs. A painter would have admired her voluptuous form, a poet would have raved on the dusky beauty of her face, with the sombre light in the sleepy eyes; but no man who had any instinct of self-preservation would have trusted this feline loveliness, so suggestive of treachery and craft. Some highly imaginative man averred that Mrs. Veilsturm put him in mind of a snake, and certainly there was more than a resemblance to a serpent in the sinuous grace of her evil beauty.

As for Major Griff, he was a tall, dried-up man, like a stick; with a hard, handsome face, iron-grey hair and moustache, and keen eyes, which looked everyone straight in the face. A thorough scamp, it was true, yet with sufficient dexterity to hide his scampishness, and a military cut-and-dried brevity which disarmed suspicion. Some rogues fawn and supplicate to gain their ends, but not so the Major, who habitually grave, plain in his speech, and brusque in his manner, gave everyone the impression of being a blunt, straightforward soldier. He was stopping at a friend’s house in the town of Starton, which was a short distance away, and had come over on a friendly visit to Mrs. Veilsturm, who lived mostly alone, as her house was not large enough to enable her to receive company. This did not matter, as she generally dined out every night, but on this special evening, the two had to consult about their plans, so Mrs. Veilsturm had refused an invitation with many thanks, but “you see I have to speak about business connected with my West Indian Estates with my trustee, Major Griff,” and the givers of the invitation were quite impressed with an idea of her wealth. The West Indian Estates were a capital bait wherewith to gull people as, being at a distance, no one could deny their existence, and the very mention of them had a golden sound, suggestive of toiling slaves and untold riches.

“So you did do what I told you not to, Maraquita?” growled the Major, who called Mrs. Veilsturm by her Christian name when alone.

“If you mean in the way of calling upon Lady Errington, yes,” she replied indolently, sweeping her sandal-wood fan to and fro and diffusing a subtle eastern perfume through the room.

She had a beautiful voice, full, rich and mellow, yet with a certain roughness which grew more pronounced when she became excited. Anyone would have been fascinated by this voluptuous beauty lounging in the chair, while the dreamy fragrance of the sandal-wood seemed to add to her rich, eastern look, but custom had habituated Major Griff to this barbaric loveliness, and he spoke curtly, being annoyed and making no effort to conceal his annoyance.

“You were wrong, quite wrong, I tell you,” he observed, taking a sip of sherry.

“Do you think I’m a fool?” asked Mrs. Veilsturm harshly, with a frown.

“I do! What woman isn’t—on occasions?” was the polite response.

Mrs. Veilsturm laughed in a sneering fashion, in nowise offended, as the private conversations of this precious pair were apt to be rather disagreeable at times, but the Major, always cool and imperturbable, knew better than to provoke the Creole’s wrath, which resembled, in its force and terror, the storms of her native land.

“You are polite, I must say,” said Maraquita, coolly, “but I’m used to your manners by this time, so we need not argue about them. Let us talk business, and tell me why you object to my leaving a card on Lady Errington, seeing that she is a great personage down here, and may be useful to us.”

“You ask me a question of which you know the answer well enough,” returned the Major deliberately. “Lady Errington is the daughter of Gabriel Mostyn, and I don’t suppose you want your relationship with him raked up.”

“I don’t see there is much chance of that,” she replied contemptuously. “Mostyn is dead, and his daughter knows nothing about me.”

“Don’t you be too sure of that,” said Griff significantly. “This girl attended to her father for four years when he was ill, and Mostyn with his monkeyish nature was just the man to torture a woman by telling her all kinds of things of which she would rather have remained ignorant.”

“Still, she was his daughter, and even Mostyn would hold his tongue about some things to her.”

“Humph! I’m not so sure of that.”

“Are you not?—I am.”

The Major frowned, pulled his moustache, and then finishing his sherry at one gulp, spoke sharply.

“You appear to be sure of a good many things, Maraquita, but perhaps you will be kind enough to remember that union means strength, and that your well-being in the eyes of the world is of just as much importance to our schemes as my knowledge of human nature. If I hadn’t made you leave London, things would have been said which would have closed every door against you.”

“And what about yourself?” asked the Creole her dark eyes flashing dangerously as she shut her fan with a sharp click.

“The same thing precisely,” retorted Griff; coolly. “People were beginning to think I knew too much about cards, so it was wise in me to have made an end of things as I did. Don’t you make any mistake, Mrs. Veilsturm, I am no more blind to my own defects than I am to yours, and you have just as much right to pull me up if you catch me tripping as I have to keep an eye on your conduct. And let me tell you that your calling on Lady Errington is a mistake, as the good she can do to us is nothing to the harm she might do to you.”

“Nonsense! I tell you she knows nothing.”

“So you said before, and I hope she doesn’t, but if she does there will be trouble.”

“What can she do?” demanded Mrs. Veilsturm with supreme contempt.

“If she she knows anything, she can tell all her friends about that South American business.”

“If she comes to measuring swords with me in that way,” said Maraquita with vicious slowness, “I can tell a few stories about her late father which won’t be pleasant for her to hear.”

“Pish! what good will that do? You can’t tell stories about Mostyn without inculpating yourself. It won’t harm his memory, which is black enough. It will only harm you, and through you, me. No, no, Mrs. Veilsturm, I’ve too much at stake to risk the world finding out what we want kept quiet, and if Lady Errington does not return your call, put your cursed pride in your pocket and hold your tongue.”

“I’ve got my wits about me as well as you,” said Cleopatra coolly, “so you needn’t lecture me as if I were a school-girl. Besides, my position is too strong in Society to be hurt by Lady Errington or any other silly fool of a woman.”

“Your position, my dear,” remarked Griff with cruel candour, “hangs by a thread, and that thread is Mr. William Dolser, of ‘The Pepper Box.’ He put in what I wanted, and made people shut their mouths, but if he turned nasty, he could find out quite enough to make them open them again.”

“If he tried to, you could promise him a thrashing.”

“That wouldn’t do much good. He’s used to the horsewhip.”

“Then you could have an action for libel against the paper.”

“And very nicely we’d come out of it. Whether we won or lost it would be the death-knell of our campaign in town. No! no, I’ll keep The ‘Pepper Box’ in a good temper by judicious bribes, and you on the other hand, don’t play with fire or you’ll have the whole place in a blaze.”

The dexterous arguing of Major Griff evidently impressed Mrs. Veilsturm, for she made no reply, but looked down frowning at one dainty foot in a high-heeled slipper that was resting on the green velvet foot-stool. She knew her partner was right in all he said, but with feminine persistence was about to renew the argument and have the last word, when a servant entered the room and presenting a letter to his mistress, left it again, closing the door noiselessly after him.

Mrs. Veilsturm, leaning back languidly in her chair, was about to open the letter, when Major Griff stopped her.

“Wait a moment, Maraquita,” he said deliberately, with a certain anxious look on his face. “You know I often have an instinct as to how things will go?”

She bowed her head, but said nothing.

“I had an instinct that your calling on Lady Errington was a mistake, and that letter is from Lady Errington to tell you so.”

Mrs. Veilsturm laughed scornfully as she tore open the envelope, but the Major, putting his hands behind his back, leaned against the mantelpiece, and looked steadily at her with a satisfied smile on his lips.

The woman had wonderful self-command, for as she read Lady Errington’s curt note, no sign of anger escaped from her lips, but her dark skin flushed an angry red and a venomous smile curled the corners of her full mouth. Still she gave no further sign of being moved, but having read the note through in the most deliberate manner, handed it to the Major with a low, fierce laugh.

Major Griff adjusted his eyeglass carefully, smoothed out the sheet of cream-coloured paper, and read as follows in a subdued voice:

“Lady Errington presents her compliments to Mrs. Veilsturm, and returns the enclosed card, which was evidently left to-day at the Hall by some mistake.”

“So I was right, you see,” observed Griff, leisurely folding up this short epistle and letting his eyeglass drop down. “Mostyn did tell her about you after all—damn him!”

The Major swore in a tranquil manner, without any sign of anger, but that he was greatly annoyed could be seen by the twitching of his thin lips under his grizzled moustache. As for Mrs. Veilsturm, her temper had got the better of her discretion, and having left her seat, she was sweeping up and down the little room like an angry panther in its cage.

“Well Maraquita,” said Griff quietly, after a pause, “you see Lady Errington has declared war, as I knew she would.”

“You knew no more than I did,” hissed Maraquita viciously.

Major Griff smiled at her in a pitying manner.

“Instinct, my dear! Instinct! I told you what was in that letter before you opened it.”

“I should like to kill her,” said Cleopatra, glaring at him in a kind of cold fury.

“I’ve no doubt you would, but, as you can’t, why waste time in useless threats?”

“That she, a school-girl—a brainless fool—should dare to put such an insult on me,” raged Mrs. Veilsturm, clenching her fan tightly. “How dare she? How dare she? Does she know what I am?”

“She does,” replied the Major drily, “her letter shows she does.”

Maraquita looked from left to right in wrathful despair, then throwing all prudence to the wind, snapped her fan in two, threw it on the ground, and stamped on the fragments.

“I wish she was there! I wish she was there! What can I do to punish her? What can I do?”

“You can do nothing,” replied Griff, examining his nails. “To make war on Lady Errington would be like throwing feathers at a granite image in order to hurt it. She has an assured position in Society. You have not. She has a past that will bear looking into—you have not. She has everything in her favour—you have nothing, so be a philosopher, my dear Maraquita. Grin and bear it. Vulgar certainly, but sound advice, very sound advice.”

Mrs. Veilsturm turned on her dear friend in a fury, and stamped her foot on the broken fan, looking like a demon with her blazing eyes and clenched white teeth, which showed viciously through her drawn lips.

“Hold your tongue,” she shrieked wrathfully, “don’t stand sneering there you fool. Tell me what I’m to do.”

The Major poured out another glass of sherry from the decanter on the table and advanced towards her.

“Have a glass of sherry, and keep your temper,” he said soothingly.

Cleopatra glared at him in speechless anger, then struck the glass from his hand with such violence that it shattered to pieces on the carpet. Griff shrugged his shoulders, and walked back to the fireplace.

“You’re acting like a fool, Mrs. Veilsturm,” he observed, tranquilly; “first you broke a fan, now you break a glass—silly, my dear, very silly! It doesn’t hurt Lady Errington, but only yourself. By-the-way,” glancing at his watch, “it’s seven o’clock. I wonder when dinner will be ready, I’m dreadfully hungry.”

His partner, however, was not listening to him, but a sudden thought seemed to have struck her, for the fire died out of her eyes and her complexion resumed its usual rich hue of health. After a pause, a gratified smile broke over her face, and bending down she picked up the fan.

“I’m sorry I broke this,” she said, quietly, advancing towards the Major; “it was such a pretty fan. Dolly Thambits gave it to me. Never mind, I’ll make him give me another.”

She spoke quite cheerfully, and the Major stared at her in silent surprise at this sudden change from intense anger to languid tranquillity.

“Upon my word, you puzzle me, Maraquita,” he said doubtfully. “A moment ago you were like a devil, now you are within reasonable distance of an angel. What is the meaning of this change?”

The beautiful widow put one slender foot on the fender, looked in the glass, touched some ornaments in her hair, then replied, in a wonderfully calm manner:

“Simply this, that I see my way to punishing Lady Errington.”

“The deuce you do.”

“Yes; she is newly married, and, no doubt, loves her husband—he’s a fool, for I’ve seen him in London, so through her husband I’ll punish her.”

“Oh, I see,” said the Major, grimly; “you intend to make love to the husband.”

“What acute penetration, my dear Griff! That’s exactly what I intend to do.”

“No good,” answered the man, shaking his head. “Errington is newly married, and can see no beauty in any woman save his wife.”

“He’s a fool I tell you,” retorted Mrs. Veilsturm, coolly, “and I never met a man yet I couldn’t twist round my finger. He may be difficult to manage in his character of a newly married man, but I’ll gain my ends somehow.”

“And then?” queried Major Griff.

“And then,” echoed Cleopatra, viciously, “when I’ve estranged him from her and possibly led to a divorce, I’ll have my revenge.”

“At the cost of your own position.”

“Don’t you be afraid. I’ll look after that! I’ll keep my position and ruin her happiness at the same time.”

“You’re playing with fire.”

“Fire that will burn them, not myself! Come, dinner is ready, give me your arm.”

“One moment! When do you intend to begin the business?”

“That depends on Sir Guy Errington. As a newly married man, I dare say I can do nothing with him. Newly married men sometimes get tired of honey. When he does, then I will step in.”

“Suppose he does not get tired?”

“But he will. I tell you he’s a fool.”

Chapter 16
The Events Of Eighteen Months

“Time flies onward with tireless wings.
Divers gifts to us all he brings,
    Joy and sorrow
    On every morrow,
A thousand pleasures, a thousand stings.

“Love he hath brought to a maiden fair,
Hate hath sundered a loving pair,
    Gauds that glitter,
    And memories bitter,
Each of us born hath his fated share.

“Life is evil, the wise man saith.
Joy comes but at the last-drawn breath,
    Earth’s false pleasures
    Yield no treasures,
There is no gift like the gift of death.”

Perhaps it is due to the way we live now, or possibly to the inherent restlessness of the present generation, but Time certainly seems to pass more rapidly with us than it did with our grandfathers.

They lived in a delightfully leisurely fashion, not without its charm, and either stayed complacently at home, or, if they did travel, went in a sober-sides mode by stage coach and sailing vessel. If they did make a journey through Europe, it was called a Grand Tour, and seemed to have been somewhat after the style of a royal progress, Judging from the stately manner in which it was conducted. Ah, there is, no doubt, our steady-going ancestors knew the value of being idle, an art which we have quite lost, and took life in a wonderfully sedate way, sauntering, as it were, in an idle fashion, from the cradle to the grave.

We, alas, have changed this somnolent existence, and made the latter end of this nineteenth century somewhat trying to a man whose health is not of the best, or to him who desires to shine among his fellow creatures. The struggle for existence is keener, the survival of the fittest more certain than ever, and the art of enjoyment has resolved itself into a series of hurried glances at a multiplicity of things.

If we want to travel, steam whirls us from one end of the world to the other, giving us no time to examine things; if we wish to read, hundreds of books, fresh from the press, call for attention; if we desire to enjoy ourselves, theatres, balls, picture galleries, all offer their attractions in such profusion, that it is difficult to know where to begin. We have gained many aids to enjoyment, yet it is questionable if those very aids have not lost us the faculty itself; for a breathless scamper after pleasure, with a hurried glance here, and a momentary pause there, can hardly be called true enjoyment. The world, and we who live therein, are so busy getting things in order for the beginning of the next century, that all hands are pressed into the service, and no one has a moment to be idle, or to admire the profusion of good things spread before him.

Therefore, amid all this hurry and bustle, Time flies much more quickly than formerly; our ancestors yawned through twelve hours of leisurely work, we scarcely find twenty-four long enough for all we want to do. We eat, drink, marry, and give in marriage, welcome the newly born, and forget the newly dead, with the utmost despatch and rapidity, and no sooner is one year, with all its troubles and breathless enjoyment, at an end, than we have mapped out the cares of the next twelve months before they are fairly started.

Eighteen months had, therefore, passed very rapidly since the Erringtons took possession of the Hall, and a good many important events, both to nations and individuals, had happened in the meantime. It was now the middle of the London season, and those who had parted months before at Como, were now about to meet again under widely different circumstances.

Victoria Sheldon had duly returned home with Mrs. Trubbles, and taken up her abode once more with Aunt Jelly, who was privately very glad to see her, although she took good care that the girl should not know of such weakness on her part. She asked Victoria a good many questions concerning the people she had met abroad, and particularly about Otterburn, of whom Miss Sheldon gave an account quite at variance with the real state of affairs, carefully suppressing the fact that the young man had proposed and been refused. In fact, she passed over her acquaintance with him so very lightly, that she succeeded in deceiving lynx-eyed Miss Corbin as to her feelings towards him, and never, by word or deed, hinted that he had any interest for her in any way.

But although she might deceive the world, she could not deceive herself, and in reality she thought a good deal about the man she had rejected, regretting, with the curious caprice of a woman, that she had done so. The manner in which he had received her refusal had greatly impressed her, for it differed greatly from the behaviour of her other suitors, and if Angus had only asked her again a few months after her arrival in England, he would doubtless have gained her consent to the marriage.

Otterburn, however, had been deeply wounded at what he deemed her unjustifiable coquetry, and being intensely proud, resolved not to submit himself to a second slight, therefore kept out of her way. If some kind fairy had only brought these two foolish young people together, everything would doubtless have been arranged in a satisfactory manner between them, but as such aid was not forthcoming, seeing we live in times when Oberon has resigned his sceptre, they remained apart, each in ignorance of the other’s feelings, and mutually blamed one another for the position of affairs.

Absence, in this case, made Victoria’s heart grow fonder, and she felt that she was really and truly in love with Angus, but as she neither saw nor heard of him, she had to lock up her secret in her own breast, which did not add to the pleasures of life.

At the invitation of Lady Errington, she went down to the Hall at Christmas, and had a very pleasant time, despite her heart-ache, as her hostess made a great deal of her, and the young Nimrods of the county quite lost their heads over “Such a jolly girl who rode so straight to hounds, taking the fences like a bird, by Jove.” She could have been married three or four times had she so chosen, but neither her suitors nor their possession of houses and lands tempted her, so she returned to town and Aunt Jelly still heart-whole, except as regarding the little affair of Angus Macjean.

During the season she kept a keen look-out for him at all the places she went to under the wing of Mrs. Trubbles, but Otterburn did not make his appearance, and it was only by chance that she heard he had gone to America for some big game shooting in the Rockies. Evidently there was no chance of his proposing a second time, and Victoria should have put all thought of his doing so out of her heart, but she felt that she loved him too much to do so, and hugged her secret with all its pain closer to her breast, until she grew pale and thin, so that Aunt Jelly became alarmed about her lungs, thinking she was going into consumption. With this idea the old lady, who hated change, took a villa at San Remo and stayed there for some months with Victoria and Minnie Pelch. The change did both girls good, and when the trio returned to Town, Aunt Jelly took Victoria a round of visits to several country houses, which proved so successful that Miss Sheldon quite recovered her lost spirits and came back to London eager for the pleasures of her third season in the great city.

While Victoria was thus paying the penalty of her prompt rejection of Otterburn’s suit, that young gentleman was having by no means a pleasant time of it himself. The shooting expedition to the Carpathians had been a great success, and the excitement of sport had for the time quite put Victoria out of his head, notwithstanding the genuine love he had for the brilliant Australian beauty. Returned to England, however, he found his thoughts constantly running on her, and with her piquant face constantly in his mind he felt inclined to seek her and try his luck a second time, but his pride forbade him to do so, which was certainly a very foolish view to take of the subject.

Angus, however, was remarkably obstinate in some things, and, as he was determined not to run the chance of a second refusal, put himself out of the way of temptation by going up to Scotland on a visit to his father, thinking that at Dunkeld Castle, at least, he would have peace of mind. He was mistaken in this supposition, for his father, being delighted to find him so improved, immediately urged on him the necessity of a speedy marriage with Miss Cranstoun.

The Master, however, to his father’s dismay, proved very obstinate on this point and flatly refused to marry the lady, which refusal brought down on him the wrath of both Lord Dunkeld and Mr. Mactab, who tried to bully the young reprobate into acquiescence. Plain-looking Miss Cranstoun, however, proved too much for Otterburn, seeing that the charming face of Victoria Sheldon was constantly haunting his fancy, and notwithstanding all the arts which were brought to bear on him, he held out against the match in the most stubborn manner.

Lord Dunkeld raved, and Mactab quoted Scripture, all to no purpose, and at length, becoming weary of dour looks and continual lectures, Otterburn abruptly left his ancestral home in company with Johnnie, and, together with the chum whom he had met in Venice, started for America in order to have some sport in the Rocky Mountains. The wrath of the home authorities at this unexpected revolt of the hitherto obedient Angus can be better imagined than described, but as there seemed to be absolutely no way of bringing the young man to reason, they were forced to let him do as he pleased. For very shame Lord Dunkeld could not cut off the allowance of his only son, so he had to acquiesce in impotent anger in Otterburn’s disobedience, hoping that a lengthened tour in America would bring the young prodigal to reason and induce him to return to Dunkeld Castle and matrimony.

Submission such as this, however, was very far from Otterburn’s thoughts, as he had made up his mind not to marry Miss Cranstoun, and moreover considered he was perfectly entitled to choose his own wife, seeing it was he who would have to live with her, so he went off to the States with a light heart. His adventures and that of his friends would take a long time to describe, as they had a splendid time of it in the Rockies after big game, and becoming quite enamoured of the uncivilized life drifted down Montana way, where they met with cow-boys and plenty of young Englishmen who were cattle ranching in the wilds.

During this wild existence, which had such an ineffable charm for them, Otterburn told his chum, a merry young fellow called Laxton, of his admiration for Victoria, whereupon Laxton, being versed in affairs of the heart, lectured his friend and advised him to once more try his luck.

“And I’ll lay two dollars,” said this sagacious young man, who had Americanised his speech, “that she won’t say ‘no’ a second time.”

With this idea in his head, Otterburn became anxious to return home, and Laxton, being somewhat tired of primeval simplicity, consented to leave the wide rolling prairies for the delights of Pall Mall. Laxton wanted to return in a leisurely fashion by making for San Francisco and going home again by New Zealand and Australia, but then he was heart-whole and had not the vision of a charming face constantly in his mind’s eye. This fact being urged by Otterburn as an argument in favour of taking the shortest route possible to London, Laxton, being really a good-natured young fellow, consented, and leaving their delightfully savage life behind they went to New York. After a few days’ stay in that city they went across to Liverpool by one of the big Cunarders, and duly arrived after a pleasant passage.

Laxton went off to see his people in Yorkshire, but Otterburn did not venture to trust himself within the grim walls of Dunkeld Castle, well knowing the stormy reception he would meet with, so journeyed straight to the Metropolis, where he engaged a comfortable set of chambers in the neighbourhood of Piccadilly, and started on his matrimonial campaign with a dogged determination to succeed in winning Victoria Sheldon for his wife, or, in case of failure, to depart for an uninhabited island and live a Robinson Crusoe misogamistic existence till he died.

Many events had happened in the Errington household since the young couple had arrived at the Hall, the most important being the birth of a little boy, which had greatly rejoiced Guy’s heart, as he now had an heir to succeed to the estates. Aunt Jelly also signified her approval in her own grim way, and actually stood godmother to the child, whom she insisted on christening Henry, after her old love, Sheldon, although no one knew or guessed her reason for doing so.

Eustace Gartney had been right in his estimate of Alizon’s character, for the birth of the child transformed her from a cold statue into a loving, breathing woman, rendered perfect by her motherhood. No one who saw her, with her delicate face flushed with joy bending over the cradle of the child, would have thought it was the same woman who had been so chill and impassive in her appearance and demeanour. The cold, white snow-drop had changed into the warm, red rose, and the passionate idolatry she had for the child seemed to fill out and complete her life, hitherto so void and empty for the want of something to love.

Guy adored his little son, to whom, for some inexplicable reason, he gave the name of “Sammy,” and laughingly averred that Alizon bestowed so much love on the son that she had none left for the father, which assertion his wife smilingly denied, though it was true in the main. Lady Errington gave up going out a great deal, devoting herself entirely to the child, so Guy was left to a great extent to himself, which he by no means relished; yet he made no complaint, as it would have seemed ridiculous to blame a mother for being over fond of her first born. Still, Guy felt a little sore on this point, and much as he had desired an heir and loved his son, he almost wished the child had never been born, so much did it seem to come between them. Had Alizon been a wise woman, she would have seen the folly of loving her child to the exclusion of her husband, but blinded by maternal love she neither saw nor felt anything that did not pertain to the tiny babe she clasped so ardently to her breast.

Mrs. Veilsturm made no further attempt to force her friendship on Lady Errington, but shortly after the rebuff she had received—the knowledge of which she kept to herself—departed for a trip on the Continent, which, for her, meant Monte Carlo, where she was afterwards joined in the most casual way by Major Griff. The partners were too clever to travel together, as it might have attracted attention, but when one was at any special place the other was sure to turn up a few weeks later on business connected with the West Indian estates. So on her return to England for the season, Mrs. Veilsturm told her dear friends that she had sold one estate, although, as a matter of fact, the money she averred she had received therefor was due to luck at the green tables.

Cleopatra and her friend were much more circumspect in their second season in London. They did not wish to run the risk of any more disagreeable reports, and as their winnings at Monte Carlo had been very large the firm was enabled to dispense, to some extent, with baccarat on Sunday evenings. Mrs. Veilsturm fully re-established her position in London, and the Major was more devoted than ever, so the charming widow departed for her health to Algiers with the good wishes of everyone.

“Next year, Maraquita,” said the Major in a satisfied tone, as they discussed their plans in a pleasant room looking out on to the blue waters of the Mediterranean, “we will go in for making money and then we can go off to America.”

“I don’t like giving up London,” objected Mrs. Veilsturm angrily.

“You must, sooner or later,” replied Major Griff shrewdly. “However, we will get together as much cash next season as we can, and if no one says anything so much the better, if they do—well, there is always America.”

At the end of this eighteen months Eustace Gartney returned to Town, having heralded his appearance by a book of travels entitled “Arabian Knights,” in which he described all his wanderings in the native land of Mahomet. Judging from the brilliant descriptions given in this book with its bizarre title, he seemed to have made good use of his time, and the fascinating pages of the volume opened an enchanted land to Western readers. The mysterious deserts with their romantic inhabitants, the lonely cities far in the interior, whose very names were suggestive of the fantastic stories of the “Thousand and One Nights,” the poetic descriptions of the melancholy wastes of sand, whose sadness seemed akin to his own sombre spirit, and the wayward fierceness of the Arab love-songs scattered like gems through the book all made up a charming volume, and even the critics, much as they disliked Eustace for the contempt and indifference with which he treated them, were fain to acknowledge that this “Arabian Knights,” whose punning title they ridiculed, was a worthy addition to English literature.

Eustace himself, in spite of the wide interval of time which had elapsed, was now returning to England in very much the same frame of mind as that in which he had set out. He had gone away to forget Alizon Errington, and he came back more in love than ever, not with the real woman exactly but with an ideal woman whom he had created out of her personality. He was in love with a phantom of delight, conjured up by his vivid imagination, and fancied that she dwelt on earth in the guise of his cousin’s wife, but, having still some feelings of honour left, he determined to avoid the earthly representation of his ideal, as he hardly judged himself strong enough to withstand the temptation.

With his usual egotistical complacency—a trait which all his travelling had failed to eradicate—he never for a moment thought of looking at the question from Lady Errington’s point of view. He was Sultan, and if he threw the handkerchief she would follow, so he would be merciful both to this woman and to her husband, and put a curb on his desire to take her to himself. He came back to England it is true, but with the resolve only to stay a month, and then go to Egypt, as he had an idea of exploring the land of the Pharoahs in a new direction.

He loved Alizon Errington, or rather the glorified Alizon Errington of his imagination, and determined neither to see nor speak to her while in England, because he did not wish to ruin Guy’s happiness. He heard she was a mother, and wondered if the change he had prophesied at Como had come over her. If so he would like to see it for himself; still the flesh was weak, and he did not know but that he might be tempted to make love to her, which would be distinctly wrong.

So Eustace Gartney, blinded by self-complacency, prosed on to himself as he travelled homeward in one of the Orient steamers, and the curious part of it was that he actually believed that he was talking sense. A few sharp words from a sensible man or woman might have dispelled his visions of being an irresistible lover and have shown him that Lady Errington was not likely to give up everything for the sake of a man she cared nothing about; but Eustace made a confidant of no one, and, absorbed in his ridiculous dreamings, deemed himself quite a hero for resisting a dishonourable impulse, which, had he given way to it, would certainly have resulted in a manner vastly different to that which he anticipated.

So the puppets were all on the stage, and it only remained for Fate in the guise of a showman to move them hither and thither according to their several destinies.

Chapter 17
Gossip

“If friends are poor and you can’t use ‘em,
‘Tis always pleasant to abuse ‘em,
Although in their turn it is true,
They’re sure to speak the worst of you.
The pot may call the kettle black,
But kettle pays the favour back,
And useless is all indignation,
For ‘tis the law of compensation.”

Otterburn’s chambers in a pleasant street off Piccadilly were furnished in a very comfortable fashion, having been the property of an extravagant young man who came to grief on the turf, and thereupon disposed of his rooms and their contents to Angus Macjean, who was looking for apartments. As the Master had not much idea of arranging furniture according to individual taste, beyond banishing some rather “rapid” pictures from the walls and replacing them by hunting trophies from his American trip, he left the rooms in their original state, which was by no means a bad one.

Johnnie Armstrong indeed had been moved to wrath by seeing such a lot of money spent on costly trifles, for the charming little statuettes in bronze, the delicate ornaments in Dresden china, and the thousand and one nick-nacks suggestive of cultured taste were all so many objects of horror in the eyes of Mr. Armstrong, being evidence of sinful waste on the part of their purchaser. In spite of his love for the turf, the former proprietor of these rooms must have had a cultured mind, rare among the gilded youth of to-day, as Angus during the earlier days of his occupancy often came across some tiny water-colour, or some rare edition of a book which showed both good taste and critical judgment.

“What a pity for such a clever fellow as Bamfield to go to the dogs through racing, when he could appreciate all this sort of thing,” he said half aloud one day, on turning over a charming edition of Villon’s poems.

“It’s an ill wind that blaws naebody ony guid,” observed Johnnie, who overheard this remark, “an’ ye got the hail thing cheap enow.”

This view of the situation was quite characteristic of Johnnie. He despised the costly furnishing of the room as sinful waste, but was quite content that all this splendour should be paid for by someone else, seeing that his master had got it cheap. Economy in Johnnie’s eyes was the greatest of virtues, and he delighted to make bargains for things which he did not want for the mere sake of getting the better of the seller. This was not strictly speaking economy at all, seeing that the things bought were superfluous, but it pleased Johnnie and amused Angus, so the dour old man pottered on in his own narrow-minded way without interruption.

The rooms, therefore, were furnished in a fashion calculated to please the most fastidious critic, and Angus was very comfortably settled in Town for the season. He had not yet seen Victoria, as he intended to woo his lady love in a somewhat cautious fashion, but had asked Dolly Thambits to breakfast with a view to finding out her movements in Society.

Mr. Thambits was a good-natured young fool, with the comfortable income of thirty-thousand a year and not the slightest idea how to spend it. His father having been an inventor, had made a large fortune by genuine talent and dexterous advertising, and resolved to make his son a gentleman, in which laudable ambition he succeeded fairly well, for Adolphus Thambits was not a bad sort of fellow on the whole, although a monstrous fool in many ways. Not all the tuition of Harrow and Cambridge could put any sense into his silly head, and his father having died suddenly, he was left alone in the world with this large income and not the slightest idea how to guide his life.

For the sake of his money he was asked everywhere, and as he always conducted himself well, and was very good-natured, people liked him after a fashion, although they despised and profited by his weakness of character. Cleopatra had taken him up, and, assisted by Major Griff, was teaching him experience of the world in a manner beneficial to herself and partner, but decidedly detrimental to the pocket of the unfortunate Dolly.

As Angus heard that Thambits was rather smitten with Victoria, he foresaw in him a possible rival, so had invited him to breakfast to find out Victoria’s movements, which Dolly would be sure to know, and also to ascertain if he had any intention of offering himself and his large fortune to the Australian beauty. So Dolly, who liked Otterburn in his own weak way, arrived at that young man’s rooms, accompanied by Mr. Jiddy, a fat, little man, with a timid manner and a frightened eye in his head, who imposed upon Thambits’ good nature by borrowing money from him.

While the three were seated at breakfast, somewhere about eleven o’clock, Laxton made his appearance, having returned from Yorkshire, where he had been playing the part of the prodigal son. Being tired of the domestic veal, he had looked up Angus, to propose another hunting expedition to the wilds of Africa.

Laxton, having had his breakfast, sat in a comfortable arm-chair and smoked, while Angus and his two guests proceeded with their meal under the vigilant eye of Johnnie Armstrong, who hovered around with an air of strong disapproval of breakfast at such a late hour of the day.

“Well, Angus, old fellow,” observed Laxton, when he had made himself at home with a pet meerschaum of his host’s, “aren’t you tired of civilization yet?”

“Hardly?” replied Angus drily, “seeing that I’ve only had three weeks of it. What do you want to do now.”

“Try Africa—we’ll get some elephant shooting.”

“Isn’t that rather dangerous?” said Thambits mildly.

“Dangerous!” echoed Laxton with contempt. “Pooh! nonsense—not a bit of it. Jolliest thing out. It’s life, my boy—life!”

“Yes, and on some occasions it’s death, my boy—death,” rejoined Angus with a laugh.

“I have always heard,” remarked Mr. Jiddy, who sat curled up on the edge of a chair like a white rabbit, “that there is no pleasure without an element of danger.”

“Who said there was,” said Laxton, who hated Jiddy as a parasite and a milksop. “What do you know about danger?”

“Nothing,” replied Mr. Jiddy, who never took offence, being essentially milk and water in his nature, “but I’ve read a good deal about it.”

“Sunday-school books, I suppose?” said Laxton with a sneer. “ ‘Little Henry and his Bearer’ is about your style, I think.”

“I’ve read that book,” observed Dolly with a gratified chuckle, “but it is rather a slow story isn’t it?”

“Not quite so rapid as Zola,” said Otterburn, who was beginning to find both Thambits and his friend a trifle tiresome. “By-the-way, Laxton, have you read the ‘Arabian Knights’?”

“I have,” said Dolly again, “in my schooldays!’

“Oh, bosh!” returned Laxton with supreme contempt. “We’re not talking of that.”

“Oh, no,” chirruped Mr. Jiddy, delighted at knowing something, “it’s the Arabian Knights with a ‘K.’ ”

“What on earth are the Arabian Nights with a K?” demanded Thambits blankly, whereupon both Angus and Laxton burst out laughing at the bewildered look on his face.

“It’s Gartney’s book about Arabia,” explained Angus, rising from the table and lighting a cigarette, his example being followed by his guests.

“Oh, I’ve heard of it,” said Thambits, complacently. “Billy Dolser tells me he does not think much of it.”

“Is Billy Dolser a judge?” asked Laxton, with great scorn.

Thambits turned on him a look of mild reproach.

“Of course! Why he’s got a paper of his own.”

“Oh, that settles it!” returned Laxton, drily. “I thought myself it was a jolly good book, and written by a man who knew what he was talking about, but as that little blackguard Dolser hasn’t been further East than Italy, he must be a capital judge of the book!”

“Why do you call him a blackguard?” asked Jiddy, removing his cigarette.

“Because he is one,” growled Laxton, wrathfully—“a mean little sneak who vilifies people’s character in that rag of a paper which ought to be burnt by the public hangman! Snakes and mosquitoes were created for some purpose, I suppose, but why such a little reptile as Dolser should be allowed to exist, I don’t know.”

Mr. Jiddy contributed himself to the “Pepper Box” in an underhand way, by listening to things he was not meant to hear, so he took up the cudgels on behalf of Mr. Dolser in a weakly, ferocious manner.

“Oh, I say, you know those words are actionable?”

“Are they,” said Laxton, who had risen to his feet and was looking down from his tall height at the scrap of limp humanity in the chair, “you can repeat them to Dolser if you like, and if he doesn’t think they are actionable I’ll be happy to add a thrashing, so that he can have me up for assault.”

Mr. Jiddy wriggled, not liking the turn the conversation had taken, and resumed his cigarette, while Otterburn, who agreed with every word Laxton said, but could hardly endorse it in his character of host, hastened to make an observation.

“By the way, Gartney’s in London.”

“Just come in time to hear Mr. Dolser’s opinion about his book,” said Laxton, grimly.

“I don’t think that would trouble Gartney much,” replied Otterburn, smiling, “but after eighteen months’ travel in the wilds, I’ll suppose he’ll stay at home for some time.”

“I’ll lay you a level fiver he doesn’t,” said Mr. Laxton, removing his pipe, “he’s got prairie fever.”

“What’s prairie fever?” demanded Dolly.

“Do you know what a prairie is?” said Laxton, answering one question by asking another.

“A large field, isn’t it?” said Mr. Jiddy, complacently. Angus roared.

“Yes, a very large field,” he replied, “much larger than any you’ll get in England. I shot that buffalo on the prairie,” he added, pointing to a huge shaggy head adorning the opposite wall.

“It’s a very large head,” observed Mr. Jiddy, wisely. “A buffalo—a kind of cow, isn’t it?”

“Not exactly,” returned Laxton, drily; “it’s more like an enraged bull. But to return to prairie fever. It’s the feeling a man gets when he once sees those undulating grass plains and which haunts him ever afterwards.”

“What haunts him ever afterwards?” asked the intelligent Dolly, lighting another cigarette.

“Oh, damn!” retorted Laxton, politely, and turned on his heel, quite disgusted with the ignorance of the young man. Thambits was not in the least put out by Laxton’s rudeness, but began to talk to Angus about Mrs. Veilsturm, while Jiddy tried to extract a paragraph out of Laxton by a series of mild little questions about buffaloes.

“Mrs. Veilsturm’s an awfully jolly woman, Macjean,” said Thambits—“real good sort, you know! I think you’d like her immensely.”

“Would I?” replied Angus absently, wondering how he was to ask Dolly about Miss Sheldon.

“Yes; she’s got awfully jolly Sunday evenings, you know. Are you fond of baccarat?”

“Not much. Are you?” asked Otterburn, fixing his keen grey eyes on the weak face of the young man.

“Yes, rather. Only I always lose. I’m so unlucky.”

“Oh, you lose at Mrs. Veilsturm’s?”

“Yes. We play there on Sunday evenings. It’s awfully jolly!”

“It must be—for Mrs. Veilsturm!” retorted Otterburn, doubtfully, at once forming an unfavourable opinion of that lady; “but if you’re so unlucky, you shouldn’t play baccarat.”

“Oh, but I’ll win when I get to be a better player.”

“Will you? I wish you all success. Do many people go to Mrs. Veilsturm’s?”

“Yes, lots. All the jolliest people in town. She’s quite in the swim you know. You meet all sorts of pretty girls there.”

“Indeed! Not on Sunday evening, I presume?”

“Oh, no; on week-days. I met that pretty Australian girl there last Thursday for the first time this season.”

“Eh? Miss Sheldon?”

“Yes. Awfully jolly girl. Do you know her?”

“Slightly,” replied Angus, carelessly; “I met her once in Italy. She’s quite the belle of London, I hear.”

“Yes, rather. And such a nice girl! No humbug about her. Lots of fellows want to marry her.”

“You among the number, I suppose?” said Otterburn, with an uneasy laugh.

“Eh? Oh, no! There’s not much chance for me. I’ve got no brains, and she doesn’t care for fellows who can’t talk, you know.”

“You’re very modest, at all events,” said Otterburn, feeling rather amused by this candid admission.

“Oh, no, I’m not,” replied Mr. Thambits wisely; “people think I’m a fool because I’ve got lots of money, you know. But I see further than they think. But about Mrs. Veilsturm—you’ll call and see her with me, won’t you?”

“I don’t know,” said Angus, shortly; “perhaps.”

“She’s going to have a fancy dress ball, soon,” rambled on Mr. Thambits in a weakly fashion. “I’m going as a Crusader. How do you think I’ll look as a Crusader?”

“Oh, the usual thing, I suppose,” replied Otterburn, good-naturedly suppressing a laugh at the idea of Dolly Thambits in chain armour. “I don’t think any one at a fancy dress ball looks like what he pretends to be. I suppose Miss Sheldon will be there?”

“Rather. Everyone in London is going.”

“Then I may as well follow the example of everyone in London,” said Otterburn, quickly. “I’ll call on Mrs. Veilsturm whenever you like.”

“Oh, that’s jolly! But, I say, I’ve got to meet a fellow at the Carnation Club, you know. Jiddy, I’m going.”

“So am I,” replied Mr. Jiddy, slipping off a chair where he had been seated like a whipped schoolboy under the severe eye of Mr. Laxton. “Thank you for telling me about your travels, Mr. Laxton; they’re most entertaining.”

“It’s more than you are!” growled Laxton, grimly.

Dolly Thambits and his friend Jiddy took their departure, to the great relief of both Angus and Laxton, who were quite sick of their frivolous small talk and milk-and-water mannerisms.

“Good heavens, Macjean!” said Laxton, when the door closed on the pair, “what the deuce do you have such fools here for?”

“They are fools, aren’t they?” replied Otterburn, selecting a pipe from his rack; “but the fact is, I asked Thambits to find out something, and Mr. Jiddy came uninvited.”

“Like his cheek! Why didn’t you drop him out of the window?”

“Because we’re in London—not in America,” replied Angus, mildly; “my dear Laxton, do remember that!”

“I never get a chance of forgetting that,” groaned Laxton, sitting down. “I’m sick of this narrow humdrum life. Most of the men I meet are idiots, and the women worse. Let’s go off to Africa, old chap. I’ve found out all about the country, and we’ll get another man to join us—Helstone, you know. He’s got a jolly yacht, and we can take our own time.”

“It sounds tempting,” said Angus, wistfully; “but you see, Laxton, I came here with a purpose, and until I carry out that purpose I can’t leave England.”

“It’s that girl, I suppose?”

Angus nodded.

“Yes. I haven’t seen her yet, but intend to shortly. If she refuses me, I’ll go out to Africa with you, but if she accepts me—”

“Well?” demanded Laxton, grumpily.

“I’ll ask you to be best man at the wedding,” replied Angus, laughing.

His friend arose to his feet with a resigned expression of countenance, and held out his hand.

“It’s no good arguing with a man in love,” he said, in a dismal tone; “but fancy giving up a jolly expedition for the sake of a woman! Let me know soon, as if you don’t go I will, for I’m dying to get out of these clothes.”

He looked down with disgust at his well-fitting frock coat, grey trousers, and neat patent leather boots, all of which he was willing to change for a rough hunter’s dress and a life of danger, such is the instinctive leaning of young Englishmen towards the barbaric delights of their woad-stained ancestors.

“Well, you are a queer stick, old fellow!” said Angus, laughing; “you’ll give up all the comforts of life for what?—jungle fever, Liebig’s Extract, and a dangerous existence!”

“Don’t prose, my boy,” retorted Laxton good-humouredly, taking up his hat, “you’d do the same if you weren’t in love. Well, goodbye at present. I’ll look you up again, and if you want to see me in the meantime, just drop a line to the Globe Trotters’ Club.’ ”

When he departed Angus stood for a moment in deep thought, filling his pipe, with a strange smile on his face.

“I’m in love am I?” he said, striking a match. “Well, that’s true enough, but whether it’s a wise thing to be in love is quite another affair! Humph!” lighting his pipe, “it all depends on Victoria.”

He picked up the morning paper, and was about to settle himself down for a good read, when a knock came to the door.

“Confound it!” grumbled Otterburn, folding up the paper, as he heard Johnnie Armstrong going to the door. “I wonder who that is?”

His question was answered in another moment by himself, for suddenly a massive figure appeared at the door of the small sitting-room, and Otterburn sprang to his feet with a cry of pleasure:

“Eustace Gartney.”

Chapter 18
From Foreign Parts

“I have come from lands fantastic,
    Which the desert sands environ,
Where the Koran’s laws adrastic
    Bind the soul in chains of iron.

“All the land is full of magic,
    Danger ‘neath delight reposes,
Love is fierce and dark and tragic.
    Cypress mingles with the roses.”

It was Eustace Gartney in the flesh, returned to quiet old England after his perilous wanderings in distant lands beyond the verge of civilization, and Otterburn felt most unaccountably glad to see him once more. Why this should be the case seems somewhat strange, seeing that they had tired of one another in their former intimacy, and parted with mutual satisfaction, yet in the heart of each there lurked a kindly feeling which cast a certain glamour round their old friendship, and made them mutually glad to meet again.

Otterburn shook the hand of his former Mentor with genuine pleasure, thrust him into the most comfortable chair in the room, and prepared to ask a series of breathless questions as to all that had taken place since their parting at Venice so many months ago. Eustace, on his part, felt a little touched by this enthusiastic reception, and was glad to think that at least one friend remembered him in a kindly manner.

They had both changed in outward appearance since their last meeting, Gartney being much thinner than formerly, but his face, lean and brown, still retained its dreamy expression, which was, indeed, deepened by his habit of thoughtful self-communings in solitary deserts. For the rest, he was as badly dressed as ever, being now arrayed in a loose suit of grey home-spun, which would have startled the accurately dressed denizens of St. James’ Street on the person of any one else but Eustace Gartney. But, then, he was a privileged person, and, as his poetic book of travels had rendered him more famous than ever, his former friends greeted him heartily, all of which greetings, although kindly meant, Eustace estimated in a cynical fashion at their proper value, until genuinely touched by the boyish and demonstrative affection of Otterburn.

That young man, on his part, had wonderfully improved from the slender boy of eighteen months before, for, although the space of time seems short, Macjean was at that age when the change from adolescence to manhood is very sudden and very marked. The semi-uncivilized life he had led had also a great deal to do with the shaping of his physical characteristics, and he was more manly, more self-reliant, and more matured in every way than the unformed youth from whom Eustace had parted. A heavy moustache adorned his upper lip, he carried himself in a dashing, self-confident manner, and the tones of his voice were deeper and more mellow than formerly. Still he retained that boyish, impulsive manner that had so fascinated the cynical man of the world, and Eustace looked upon him approvingly, as he leaned forward in his chair, with eager eyes and parted lips, anxious to hear all about the elder man’s adventures.

“What a jolly time you’ve had, Gartney!” said Otterburn, gaily, “but, by Jove, what a queer fish you are. You started for a month’s tour in Cyprus, and you end up by a year and a half’s exploration of Arabia.”

“The seductive influence of travel drew me onward,” replied Gartney, crossing his legs and folding his hands. “After all you might as well have come with me that time at Venice, instead of going off to Central Europe.”

“Oh, I’ve been to America since then.”

“Yes, so I heard. Same man you went that Carpathian trip with?”

“Yes. Awfully good sort of fellow, but a mania for wild life. He was here a few minutes ago, wanting me to start off to Africa on another expedition.”

“And you, being very comfortably settled here, declined.”

“Rather! I like breathing time you know. Will you have a cigarette?” said Angus, holding out his open case.

“No, thank you. I’ve contracted the vice of pipe-smoking,” replied Eustace, producing a well-worn briar-root, and filling it leisurely. “You’ve got very pleasant rooms here.”

“Yes, are they not? I bought the whole box and dice just as they stand from Bamfield. Got them at a bargain, much to the delight of Johnnie.”

“Is Johnnie still with you?”

“Of course! he’s part and parcel of my life, and circumnavigated the globe with me, like a Scotch Sir Francis Drake. Do you want a light? Here you are.”

He struck a match, and handed it to Eustace, who lighted his pipe, and then leaned contentedly back in his chair, listening to the vivacious chatter of the young man.

“Of course you know your book has been a great success,” said Otterburn, pointing to a copy on the table, “there it is. I got it as soon as it was published. Some of the critics, however, have been giving it fits, especially the chapter called ‘The Puritans of Islam.’ ”

“Indeed! And what do the critics know about the Wahhabees?” asked Eustace, with calm surprise.

“According to their own showing, everything.”

“Ah, we all know the omniscience of critics! They are truly wonderful men, before whose vast experience and knowledge I remain dumb. And the rapidity of their work, their marvellous grasp of every subject in literature, from a Child’s Primer to a novel of George Meredith’s. Nothing appalls them, nothing daunts them. Oh, what wonderful men they are! truly wonderful, so calm, so learned, so kind-hearted. Why do you know, Macjean, I met a critic once who thought nothing of Dickens as an author! Think of that! Think of the wonderful mind of that man who could afford to speak contemptuously about one of the master spirits of the age.”

“Did he write books himself?” asked Otterburn, shrewdly, at which Eustace looked at him in grave reproof.

“Of course not,” he replied quietly, “he was a most self-denying man. He did write one novel I believe, but it was so far in advance of our present age that the publisher was afraid to print it—fancy that, a publisher afraid! Well, it was so, and now this critic only reviews other people’s books—what self-denial. And then his decisions. Why he makes up his mind about a book, that has taken months to write, in five minutes. I’ve known him analyse a book without cutting the leaves to read it. Of course it is marvellous, simply marvellous, but our age is prolific in such clever men. I’ve met many such, and always felt like a whipped schoolboy before their calm, clear gaze. If you boil down twenty of our best authors you may make one critic, but then it’s quality not quantity.”

“I thought you did not like critics?”

“Not like critics, my dear fellow?” said Eustace sweetly, “why they are my dearest friends, my best benefactors. They always read my books, and give half an hour to each, actually a whole half hour. What friendship! And then, you know, they are so kind, they point out all my mistakes, and if I copy any ideas of foreign authors, they always look them up to see if I have done so correctly, and mention it—really mention it—in their articles. If there is anything naughty in my chapters, they reprove me, oh, so kindly, and tell the public where to look for the worst bits. And then they are so modest; they never tell me they wrote these articles, when I meet them in society. I always put my name to my books, they never do to their articles, and yet my books are full of mistakes which they try to correct for me.”

“How kind of them?”

“Yes, is it not? I wish I was a critic, Angus, instead of a poor author. I am always wrong, you know, and they are constantly right, but then I don’t know so much as they do. When I write a book I’ve to see things for myself, but they can sit down and correct me without going outside the four walls of their study. What a pity Shakespeare had not critics in his day! They would have pointed out all the defects in Hamlet, and good-naturedly corrected Lear for him. I daresay they would have shown him how to improve his blank verse. It does need improving, you know, because I heard a poet say so the other day. A real poet, much better than Browning or Tennyson, only he wasn’t known so well. Just twenty-two years of age, and yet could talk like that—wonderful. But don’t speak any more about critics, because I’m so fond of them that I could praise them for hours. Let us talk of meaner things. Tell me all the news of the day, the scandals of the hour, the gossip of the drawing-rooms, and stories of clubs.”

“Faith, I don’t know that I’ve much to tell you,” said Otterburn candidly. “I’ve been on the war-path as well as yourself, so am just an ignorant of town as you are.”

Gartney smoked on quietly for a few moments, and then suddenly asked the question nearest his heart:

“What about the Erringtons, Macjean?”

“I haven’t the least idea,” replied Angus carelessly, “as I have not seen them since you did at Como. I believe they are still living at their place in the country, and that Lady Errington has presented her husband with a son and heir.”

“Yes, I heard that,” said Gartney, with a slight smile. “I wonder if my prophecy has come true?”

“Eh!—what prophecy?”

“About the Incomplete Madonna.”

“Oh, yes, I remember now,” responded Otterburn indolently, “you said she was unfinished, didn’t you? Well, I suppose she’s happy now, as she has gained her heart’s desire and become a mother.”

“I’ve no doubt she’s happy,” said Eustace significantly; “but what about her husband?”

“I’m sure I don’t know! You seem to take a great interest in the Erringtons?”

Eustace flushed a little under the bronze colour of his skin, and moved uneasily in his seat.

“Do I? A mere whim, I assure you, to see if my prophecy about the incomplete Madonna turns out correct. But never mind, I’m going to call on Aunt Jelly this afternoon, and she’ll give me more accurate information than you can. Have you met Aunt Jelly yet?”

“No! You forget I told you I have been away from England also,” answered Otterburn stiffly.

“True! I forgot that, but you see my dear relations haven’t written a word to me since I’ve been away, and I’m obliged to ask a stranger for information. Is Aunt Jelly’s ward married yet?”

“No; she is still Miss Sheldon.”

“You were rather fond of her, were you not?”

“So fond of her that I asked her to be my wife at Como, and she refused me.”

“I guessed as much,” replied Eustace calmly; “however, that was merely a boyish fancy.”

“I beg your pardon. No!”

“Indeed! You don’t mean to say you are in love with Victoria Sheldon still?”

Otterburn arose to his feet with an angry laugh, and began to walk slowly to and fro with his hands in his pockets.

“Is there anything so extraordinary in that? I loved Miss Sheldon and she refused to marry me, so I tried to forget her. Well, I haven’t forgotten her, and I’ve come back to Town expressly to ask her to be my wife. I daresay I’m a fool, but you’re not in love, and cannot understand the feeling.”

“Can I not!” answered Gartney serenely, thinking of Lady Errington, “well, I don’t know so much about that. Have you met Miss Sheldon yet?”

“No.

“That doesn’t sound like an eager lover.”

“I daresay it doesn’t,” retorted Angus coolly, “but you see I’ve learnt sense since my first rebuff, and now gang warily, as the Scotch say. I’m not going to let Miss Sheldon see I care two straws about her till I find out the state of her feelings towards me.”

“Astute diplomatist!—then I suppose you won’t call with me on my respected aunt?”

“And meet Miss Sheldon!—hardly! I’m going to wait till I see her at a fancy-dress ball Mrs. Veilsturm gives shortly.”

“Oh!” said Eustace, removing his pipe, “is that lady still in the flesh?”

“Very much so, indeed According to Mr. Adolphus Thambits—of whom you’ve no doubt heard—her house is quite a fashionable centre.”

Gartney made a gesture of disgust, and arose to his feet.

“Good Lord! what are we coming to? I thought people would have found out Mrs. Veilsturm and her scamp of a Major long ago. I met them last time I was in London. I suppose they still have the little Sunday evenings, and talk about the West Indian estates?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

“Humph! I should not have thought Aunt Jelly would have let her ward visit Mrs. Veilsturm.”

“Why not? She is in the odour of sanctity—no one knows her little peccadilloes, or, if they do, don’t talk about them. I suppose few people except the initiated know about the real business of those Sunday evenings. Mrs. Veilsturm is all white—on the surface—so not even her dearest friend can throw mud at her.”

“You are getting quite eloquent, Otterburn,” observed Eustace smiling; “I suppose, when you’re married and settled we’ll hear of you in Parliament.”

“I’m not married and settled yet!—perhaps I never will be,” replied Otterburn gloomily.

“You don’t seem very hopeful,” remarked Eustace, with gentle sarcasm, “but as you won’t come to Aunt Jelly’s, suppose I play the part of Cupid’s messenger, and find out how the land lies with Victoria Sheldon.”

“Oh, if you only would,” cried Angus eagerly; “but no! I’m afraid there’s not much chance for me. I daresay she has forgotten I ever existed.”

“Oh, if that is the case I’ll soon improve her memory! Cheer up—while there’s life there’s hope.”

“Not always,” responded Angus gloomily, “particularly in this case. I called her a coquette last time we parted.”

“No doubt she fully deserved the name, if I remember rightly,” said Eustace drily, putting on his hat, “and she’ll remember you for that out of spite.”

“Well, do what you like, Gartney,” replied Otterburn, grasping his friend’s hand, “I’m awfully glad to see you safe and sound once more. When will you look me up again?”

“I’m not quite sure! I’ve got to see Aunt Jelly first—my lawyers second—about a dozen tradesmen, to make myself respectable, and then I am going to run down home for a few days.”

“I didn’t know you had a home.”

“Oh, yes!—the cot where I was born, and all that kind of thing. A tumble-down old place, looking out on to the German Ocean.”

“Well, don’t let me lose sight of you yet,” said Macjean, accompanying his guest to the door.

“No!—by-the-way, I’ll come back and tell you my impressions of Miss Sheldon, and you can shape your course accordingly—in love with the same woman for eighteen months! Good Lord! what constancy! Ah, Johnnie and how are you?”

“Brawly! Brawly! thank ye for speiring, sir,” replied Mr. Armstrong, who stood holding the door open, “may I tac’ the leeberty of obsairving, sir, that ye look a wee bit brown, it’s the weather na doot.”

“Not a bit of it, Johnnie—the sun, my man, the sun.”

“Hech! Hech! Au thocht it was the dochter,” replied Johnnie, laughing at his own wit.

Eustace did not take offence, as Johnnie’s dour ways rather amused him, so he laughed also and departed, while Angus went back to his dressing-room to get ready for paying a round of visits.

Chapter 19
Aunt Jelly Discusses Family Affairs

“You know the marriage service where it says—
‘Whom God hath joined let no man put asunder,’
That answers for an interfering third,
Who sows dissension in a happy home;
But wife and husband can do just the same,
Unless there’s give and take betwixt the pair,
Black looks, neglect, hard words, and other ills,
Will put asunder A and B new wed,
As surely as if C had played the rogue.”

Aunt Jelly was a lady whom everyone judged best to leave alone, as she, being of a tart and aggressive nature, was disposed to be exceedingly disagreeable when meddled with. Old Father Time appeared to be of the same opinion, for he never seemed to come near her in any way, and though year after year went by, changing youth to age, dimming bright eyes, whitening heads brown and golden, and turning mellow voices to shrill trebles, Miss Corbin still preserved the same grim appearance, as if she was indeed the granite figure to which so many of her friends likened her. If Time did add another wrinkle in a stealthy way, or make her blood course more slowly through her withered frame, he did it in such a manner that no one, not even the closest observer, could notice it; and Aunt Jelly, straight and defiant as ever, sat grimly silent in her chair, knitting, knitting, knitting, as though she were some immortal hag weaving the destinies of short-lived humanity.

The old lady had heard of Eustace’s return from abroad, and was in a high state of indignation that he had not called to see her as soon as he arrived in Town, but having received a note from him saying he would pay her a visit that afternoon, she was now waiting with the firm determination to give him an unpleasant reception.

Victoria had already gone out in the carriage to do some shopping for the old dame, and no one was with Miss Corbin except Minnie Pelch, who, more tearful than ever, was seated at the window, like Sister Anne, watching for the approach of Mr. Gartney.

The room had the same old-fashioned look about it, save that here and there a bunch of flowers or some dainty feminine adornment showed that Victoria Sheldon had striven to make things somewhat more home-like. Aunt Jelly sat in her chair with woolly-haired Coriolanus at her feet, and knitted on in severe silence, only opening her mouth every now and then to speak to the tearful Miss Pelch.

That young-old lady was in a state of suppressed excitement at the prospect of seeing Eustace again, as she contemplated making a final assault on him regarding the publication of her poems, but Aunt Jelly had so harassed and worried her, that she was reduced to a state of extreme limpness, and wept in a stealthy manner, making her eyes red, which by no means added to the beauty of her appearance.

The port and sherry decanters were on the table with the usual plate of cake, for though Miss Corbin intended to give Eustace a disagreeable reception she did not think of neglecting the duties of hospitality; fulfilled in her eyes by the production of cake and wine.

“Well,” said Miss Corbin sharply, for the seventh time, “is he coming?”

“Not yet,” replied Minnie meekly, after the fashion of Sister Anne.

Miss Corbin snorted like an old war-horse, tossed her head in an indignant manner, and resumed her work.

“In my young days,” she observed at length in her usual harsh fashion, “the juniors were always civil to the seniors. Civility cost nothing then—now it appears to be unpurchasable. Eh! what do you say, Minnie? Nothing!—it’s your sniffling then! how often have I told you to correct that habit. Look again—is he coming?”

“Not yet,” answered Miss Pelch once more, “it’s only three o’clock.”

“I didn’t ask you the time,” rejoined Aunt Jelly tartly. “I suppose you’re going to worry him about that poetry of yours?”

“I’m going to ask him to get it published,” said Minnie with tearful dignity, “bound in blue and gold with my portrait at the beginning.”

“Poor child,” said Aunt Jelly, pausing a moment, “how you do build castles in the air. Well, I hope my nephew will help you to do what you wish. Nobody will read the book except the critics, and they’ll abuse you. If they do,” continued Miss Corbin, shaking her finger, “don’t come to me for sympathy, for I’ve warned you. Is he coming?”

“Yes!” cried Minnie, in a state of excitement, seeing a hansom rattle round the corner and pull up before the door, “he’s in a cab.”

“Oh, indeed, couldn’t walk I suppose,” grumbled Miss Corbin grimly, “better for his pocket and his liver if he did. Hand me that last volume of his rubbish, Minnie, I’ve got a few words to say about it.”

Minnie obediently did as she was told and Aunt Jelly took the heavy book on her knee, while the door was flung open by the butler, who announced in his usual pompous voice:

“Mr. Eustace Gartney.”

“How do you do, Aunt Jelly?” said Eustace, walking across to the old lady as if he had only parted with her the day before, “you don’t look a day older.”

“Humph! I’m sorry I can’t return the compliment” replied Miss Corbin, presenting her withered cheek to be saluted. “Arabia hasn’t done you much good, at all events.”

“You’re as candid as ever, I see,” said Gartney carelessly, turning to Minnie. “I hope you are well, Miss Pelch.”

“Oh quite, thank you, dear Mr. Gartney,” answered Minnie, in a state of fluttering excitement. “I’m so delighted to see you back.”

“So kind of you,” murmured Eustace, taking a seat in the chair Minnie pushed forward for him. “Well, Aunt Jelly, and how has the world been using you?”

“The same as I’ve been using it,” retorted Miss Jelly epigrammatically. “I keep the world at its distance.”

“Like oil paintings. They always look best at a distance, you know.”

“Don’t talk books to me,” said the old lady, “I’ve had quite enough of your smart sayings in this,” touching the volume on her lap.

“So I see! I told my publishers to send you a copy. I hope you like it.”

“I do very, very much,” cried Minnie clasping her hands, “it’s simply too lovely for anything.”

“The critics don’t think so,” said Aunt Jelly spitefully.

“And I suppose you agree with the critics,” replied Eustace.

“Did you hear me say so?” demanded his aunt fiercely.

“No but—”

“Then don’t cry out till you are hurt. Take a glass of wine—Minnie, the wine.”

Miss Pelch poured out the wine with trembling hand, so excited she was at the presence of the great author, and Eustace, knowing his aunt’s determination on the subject of port, drank it meekly although it was a wine he hated.

“The book,” said Miss Corbin, after a pause, “is not at all bad. I daresay there are a good many lies in it, still they’re decently told lies. You’ve improved this time, Eustace.”

“Thank you, my dear aunt, I’m glad to have your good opinion, but the critics—”

“Critics,” snorted Aunt Jelly scornfully, “do you mean those idiots that scribble for the papers and who would abuse their parents for two pence three farthings? Pooh! I don’t call those critics. In the palmy days of the Quarterly Review there were decent reviewers, but now—rubbish! they write nothing but drivel, though to be sure it’s drivel they criticise. I’m not talking about your book, Eustace, my dear. It’s good!—very good, and I wouldn’t say so if I didn’t think so.”

“No, I’m sure you wouldn’t,” replied Eustace meekly. “And how are things, aunt?”

“What kind of things, child? Be more explicit.”

“Well, my cousin Errington, is he all right?”

“Humph! right enough.”

“And his wife?”

“She’s a fool,” remarked Aunt Jelly politely, at which Eustace felt quite indignant.

“I don’t think so.”

“What do you know about it?” retorted the old lady sharply. “I tell you she is a fool. Guy was up to see me the other day.”

“Well, you can hardly expect me to believe that Guy spoke like that to you about his wife.

“Who said he did, you blind bat? Don’t jump to conclusions, Eustace, for you’re not clever enough to land at them.”

“Well, tell me why you speak of Lady Errington like this”

“I take my own time and own way of telling things,” replied Miss Jelly deliberately. “Minnie, my dear, go upstairs and look for your poetry, I daresay Mr. Gartney will glance at it before he goes.”

Minnie had her precious manuscript in her pocket, but knowing from Miss Corbin’s hint that she wanted to discuss private affairs with her nephew, meekly retreated from the room, closing the door quietly after her.

“I don’t know what I’ve done that you should inflict Minnie’s poetry on me,” said Eustace in an injured tone.

“Pooh, nonsense! don’t be selfish. It gives the poor child pleasure to have her milk-and-water rubbish looked at by you. Do a kind action for once in your life, Eustace. I’m sure it’s little enough you do for your fellow-creatures.”

“They aren’t worth it.”

“I daresay, but no doubt they make the same remark about you.”

“Well, don’t bother about my failings, Aunt Jelly,” said Eustace impatiently, “tell me about the Erringtons.”

“It’s just this,” observed Miss Jelly, letting her knitting fall on her lap, “you know how fond Guy is of that wife of his, a piece of ice with no more feeling in her than that pair of tongs. Well, since this child was born, she has changed altogether, nothing but love and affection, and the Lord knows what!”

“All the better for Guy, I should say,” said Eustace, who knew what was coming.

“All the worse you mean,” retorted his aunt. “Bless my soul, I don’t mind the woman melting, no one could go on loving such an icicle, but she’s melted the wrong way, and every particle of affection she has is given to the child.”

“Well that’s only natural.”

“It’s nothing of the sort, sir,” objected Aunt Jelly energetically. “Why should a woman love nothing but her child, and take no more notice of her husband than if he was a sign-post? Every woman ought to love her children, certainly, but they owe something to the father of the children as well.”

“No doubt! but perhaps Guy exaggerates his wife’s neglect.”

Aunt Jelly shook her head in a doubtful manner.

“I don’t think so,” she replied, deliberately, “Guy isn’t the man to cry out, unless he’s hurt. From what he says, it appears Alizon is always with the child, and the poor lad is left to wander about by himself. Sometimes, she won’t even come to meals. Now, that can’t possibly be right, can it?”

“No, I suppose not,” answered Eustace, after a pause, wondering to himself at finding his prophecy so literally fulfilled, “but, perhaps, the child is ill, and needs care.”

“The child is as well as you are,” retorted Aunt Jelly, snappishly, “though that is not saying much, for you look as if you were sickening for some disease, but in plain words Alizon is neglecting her husband in the most silly manner for the child. If this is the case, how will it end?”

“I’m sure I don’t know!”

“You never know anything! Then I’ll tell you, they’ll learn to do without one another, and that’s a bad thing. She’ll be all right, because she’s got the child, but Guy’s got nothing, and he’s not the man to put-up with such treatment. If she neglects him, he’ll find consolation with some other woman.”

“Oh, aunt!”

“I’ve shocked you, have I?” said the old lady grimly. “Get your nerves better under control, then. I call a spade a spade, and am telling you the truth. If Alizon Errington goes on like this, the first woman that comes along will snap up her husband, and the consequence will be of her own making.”

“Well, what’s to be done?” demanded Eustace, blankly.

“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Aunt Jelly, with an air of vexation, resuming her knitting. “I don’t want to see the affair end in the Divorce Court, and that’s the direction it’s going in at present. Guy was up the other day, and told me some long rigmarole about his feelings, so the best thing you can do is to go down to the Hall, and see what you can do.”

“I!” cried Eustace, jumping to his feet in a state of agitation. “I can do nothing.”

“Take a glass of wine, my dear, take a glass of wine,” said Aunt Jelly, sharply. “Your nerves are all crooked. That comes of gadding about the world.”

Eustace made no reply to this onslaught, but walked to and fro in silence. He was considerably puzzled how to act in this dilemma, as he had made up his mind not to see Lady Errington, thinking his feelings towards her were too strong for him to keep silence. Curiously enough it never seemed to strike him that as Alizon was neglecting her own husband for the child, it was unlikely she would respond to his passion in any way, seeing that she had neither eyes nor ears for anything save her first-born. Gartney’s egotism blinded him on this occasion, as it did on many others, but he felt that he was being forced into a situation, towards the woman he loved, from whence there was no escape. Looking at it in his narrow-minded fashion, it seemed a struggle between love and honour, and he was undecided how to act. All his life, however, he had been accustomed to deny himself nothing, and in this case he carried out his ruling principle of selfishly gratifying himself, so there and then made up his mind to accept Aunt Jelly’s mission and go down to Errington Hall.

“Well, Eustace,” said Aunt Jelly sharply, quite unaware of the struggle going on in her nephew’s mind, “what do you say—will you do a kind action for once in your life?”

Eustace having made up his mind, came slowly back to his elderly relation and resumed his chair.

“I’m sorry you’ve got such a bad opinion of me, Aunt Jelly,” he said coolly, “and I’ll have much pleasure in proving you’re wrong for once in your life, by going down to Ellington Hall, and having a talk with Guy.”

“That’s right,” replied Miss Corbin, much gratified. “And I suppose you’ll have a look at your own place.”

“Of course!”

“I thought so, you never did a thing in your life without a double motive,” said Aunt Jelly, unjustly. “However, I don’t care two straws what you go down for, so long as you try and put things right between those two idiots.”

“Kindly opinion you’ve got of human nature, Aunt.”

“No doubt, I have,” retorted Miss Jelly, coolly, “but that’s human nature’s own fault, not mine.”

“Do you remember what wise La Rochefoucauld says?” observed Eustace, thoughtfully. “ ‘Many people judge the world as if they were its judges, and not its denizens.’ That is true, I think.”

“I don’t like your cut and dried wisdom, Mr. Quoter-of-old-saws,” replied Aunt Jelly, “there’s sure to be a flaw in it somewhere.”

Eustace laughed and leaned back in his chair.

“You’ve got an answer for everything, Aunt Jelly! Well, I’ll go down to Errington, and do my best, but I’m doubtful of success. It’s foolish work meddling between man and wife.”

Miss Corbin sniffed in a doubtful manner, and was about to make some bitter reply, when the door opened and Victoria, bright and piquant as ever, entered the room.

“Here I am, Aunt Jelly,” she cried gaily, “with not one of your orders forgotten—Mr. Gartney!”

“How do you do, Miss Sheldon?” said that gentleman rising from his seat, “it’s some time since we met.”

The memory of their ill-concealed enmity at Como, and of the circumstances under which, she had parted from Otterburn, all rushed suddenly into Victoria’s mind, and she blushed deeply, but with her usual self-command she suppressed all other signs of emotion, as she held out her hand frankly to Eustace.

“It’s eighteen months since we last saw one another,” she said, equably, “and since then, judging from your book, you have been leading a delightfully dangerous life.”

“More fool he!” muttered Aunt Jelly disdainfully.

“And you, Miss Sheldon,” said Eustace, taking no notice of the old lady’s ill-nature, “what kind of a life have you been leading?”

Victoria slipped into a chair, and took off her gloves carelessly, though, truth to tell, her heart was beating somewhat rapidly at this meeting.

“Oh, the usual London life!” she replied nonchalantly. “Theatre, Park, Ball, Church—Church, Ball, Park, Theatre. The only change you can get is to reverse them.”

“You young girls don’t know how to enjoy yourselves in a rational way,” said Miss Corbin, politely; “you ought to marry and settle down.”

“That’s your advice to everyone, Aunt Jelly,” retorted Victoria, her cheeks growing hot; “but you have not practised what you now preach.”

“Circumstances alter cases, child,” returned Aunt Jelly, composedly. “I had my reasons—you, no doubt, would call them ridiculous reasons—but they were good enough for me.”

Victoria did not know of the old love romance between her father and this faded beauty, or she would never have spoken as she did; but as Miss Corbin, with a softened look in her eyes, bent over her work, she felt vaguely that this sharp-tongued woman had suffered, and touched the withered hand with a pretty gesture of penitence.

“I suppose you have quite forgotten Como, Miss Sheldon?” said Eustace, remembering his promise to Otterburn, and artfully trying to find out if she still remembered the boy.

“Oh, no! I liked Como very much! The scenery was delightful.”

She spoke quietly enough, but Eustace was an acute observer of human nature, and his keen ear caught an inflection of a tremor in her voice which considerably guided him in framing his next remark.

“Yes, the scenery was charming, was it not?” he remarked significantly; “and the friends we met there also. What a pleasant party we were. The Erringtons, Mrs. Trubbles, yourself and—Macjean.”

“And what has become of Mr. Macjean?” she asked in a low voice, taking up Aunt Jelly’s ball of wool.

“Oh, Otterburn is in London.”

“In London!” she echoed, starting violently.

“Dear me, Victoria,” said Aunt Jelly, snappishly, “how nervous you are, child! You’ve upset my wool all over the place.”

Victoria, glad of an excuse to hide her face, bent down to pick up the ball, and Aunt Jelly, having caught Otterburn’s name, went on talking.

“Otterburn, eh? I know that name. Wasn’t that the young man you flirted with at Como, Victoria?”

“I didn’t flirt with him,” cried Victoria, raising her head defiantly. “At least,” she added, catching sight of Gartney’s keen eye fixed on her, “at least, not much.”

“That’s so like you, child,” observed Aunt Jelly, disentangling her yarn, “you will play with fire—some day you’ll burn your fingers.”

“Perhaps that catastrophe has happened already,” said Eustace quickly.

Miss Sheldon laughed in a somewhat artificial manner at this remark, and promptly denied it.

“I’m sure it hasn’t,” she said, looking straight at Eustace with crimson cheeks. “I take too good care of myself for that. But talking about Mr. Macjean, how is it I have not seen him?”

“I don’t know I’m sure,” replied Gartney carelessly; “he’s only been a short time in Town, you know. I wanted him to come here to-day, but he was engaged.”

Victoria felt all her old hatred of Eustace revive as he spoke the last words, as she felt sure he was talking sarcastically, and would have liked to reply sharply, but she could hardly do so without betraying an unwonted interest in Otterburn, which might have placed lynx-eyed Aunt Jelly on the qui vive, so wisely held her tongue.

Eustace himself, being satisfied that Victoria still felt an interest in his young friend, inwardly congratulated himself on the result of his diplomacy, and arose to go.

“Goodbye, Aunt Jelly,” he said, kissing his relative. “I’ll go down home to-morrow and tell you what I’ve done on my return.”

“That’s right, Eustace,” said Aunt Jelly, much pleased; “have a glass of wine before you go?”

“No, thank you,” replied Gartney, walking to the door, “one glass is enough for me.”

“Weak head,” muttered Aunt Jelly, “just like your father.”

“Better than a weak character,” retorted Eustace, gaily. “Au revoir, Miss Sheldon. I’ll tell Mr. Macjean I’ve seen you.”

“No, don’t,” said Victoria hastily, then, feeling that she had committed an error, strove to mend it. “I mean yes, of course I’ll be very pleased to see Mr. Macjean again.”

“I’ve no doubt you will,” muttered Eustace to himself, as he got into his cab; “she’s still in love with him, so Otterburn has only to ask and to have.”

Mr. Gartney would hardly have been so confident had he seen Victoria at that moment, for she had ran hastily up to her room and was lying on her bed in a passion of tears.

“He wouldn’t come and see me, I suppose,” she said viciously. “Oh, very well, I’ll punish him for this. He’s forgotten all about me, but I’ll make him propose again if it’s only for the pleasure of refusing him.”

Chapter 20
The Old House By The Sea

“Curs’d by Superstition eerie,
Grim it stands a ruin dreary,
Round it spread the marshes lonely,
Haunted by dim shadows only,
Shadows of an evil seeming,
Such as rise in ghastly dreaming,
Overhead the sky of crimson,
Reddens slowly from the dim sun,
Silently the sluggish waters
Undermine the tower which totters,
And the ocean’s sullen boom,
Prophesies the coming doom,
When the house shall sudden sink,
Shattered o’er destruction’s brink,
And the dark night’s gloomy pall
Evermore brood over all.”

Eustace, with his whimsical fancy for bestowing appropriate names on all things, had christened his ancestral residence Castle Grim, and he certainly could not have hit upon a happier title for such a dreary place.

Standing on the verge of wide-spreading marshes, it faced towards the sea, which was only a little distance away, and the salt winds from the ocean roared day and night round the lonely house. For it was lonely, no habitation being within miles, owing to the malaria which arose from the marshes making the whole neighbourhood unhealthy to live in. Gartney had another residence, much more comfortable, situated in the midland shires, but, with his usual fantastic nature, preferred when staying in the country to inhabit this semi-ruinous mansion.

Whoever built it must have been fond of solitude, and much given to self-communings of a dreary nature, for certainly no one with a healthy mind could have found pleasure in contemplating the melancholy stretches of the marshes and in hearkening to the sullen roar of the surges breaking on the sandy shore. Few of the Gartney family had stayed in it since its erection, and it was reserved for Eustace, in whom the melancholy nature of some far-off ancestor was revived, to make it a habitable residence.

Perhaps the weirdness of the place had a fascination for his poet nature, or the dismal fenlands pleased his distorted imagination, but at all events, Eustace was rarely in England without paying a visit to Castle Grim, and staying there a few days, before his departure to distant lands.

Other people not being so fond of this awesome place, Gartney could get no ordinary servants to stay in it, and consequently it was left to the care of an aged pair, man and wife, who did not mind where they lived so long as they had a roof to cover them, food to eat, and a chance of earning a decent income. They looked after the crazy old place thoroughly, and when their master paid it a visit contrived to make him pretty comfortable considering all things. But as a rule, they lived a Robinson Crusoe-like life, seeing no one from week’s end to week’s end, save when they went into Denfield for provisions.

Mr. and Mrs. Javelrack, the guardians of this unpleasant mansion, had received a telegram from its owner, telling them that he was coming, and consequently the male Javelrack had driven to the Denfield Station for his master, while the female Javelrack set the rooms in order and prepared a meal for Mr. Gartney.

Eustace had not brought his valet to Castle Grim, as that worthy would immediately have given notice had he been asked to stay in such a nerve-shaking place. So he drove away from the station slowly in the dog-cart with his quaint old retainer beside him, and his portmanteau behind.

It was a very decent dog-cart taking it all round, and the horse in the shafts was not by any means a bad specimen of his kind, as Gartney allowed the Javelracks a decent sum yearly to keep up the place, and they made amends for their lonely life by surrounding themselves with all the luxuries they were able. Report said they were misers, and perhaps there was some truth in the rumour, but whenever Eustace came down, he always found things in order, so he never troubled his head to ascertain what proportion of the income he allowed they had spent on the place, or what portion they stowed away in odd corners. Indeed, if he had found that these two old servants were spending as little as they could without being found out, and putting the rest by for a rainy day, he would not have been particularly annoyed, for they were only within their rights in having some pleasure in Castle Grim.

Eustace wrapped himself well up in his ulster, for the winds blew very keenly across the marshes, and as the horse was restive, they soon left the village behind and were moving rapidly across the straight road which stretched a narrow white thread until it vanished on the verge of the horizon. The gables of Errington Hall showed whitely above the sombre woods around it, but after a rapid glance at the roof which covered the woman he loved, Gartney shook the reins impatiently to make the horse go faster, and stared resolutely at the red glare of the sky lowering over the wild waste landscape.

“I’ll see her to-morrow,” he thought, as the hoofs of the horse beat steadily on the hard white road, “and then I can see for myself how things stand between her and Guy.”

Some long sombre clouds lowered heavily over the crimson of the horizon as if Night, like some dark-winged bird, was waiting to settle down on the chill earth, and a keen cold wind, blowing sharply from the distant ocean, brought the salt odours of the sea to their nostrils.

Javelrack, his huge form bowed by age and rheumatism caught from the marsh mists, sat grimly silent beside his master with his large, hairy, brown hands clasped on his lap, and his mahogany-coloured face with its wiry black beard, so screwed up with facing the cutting wind, that under his weather-stained brown hat he looked like a fantastic Chinese idol. Eustace, wrapped up in his own thoughts, paid no attention to his silent companion, but, bowing his head against the blast, indulged in visions of Alizon Errington.

A dreary country, with the wide spreading marshes stretching on either side for miles, and the long straight road running through the heart of the swamp. Sluggish, slimy pools of oily stillness, fringes of stately reeds swaying to and fro in the blast, smooth patches of green grass, pleasing to the eye but treacherous to the unwary foot. Here and there a broken-down fence, deeply implanted in weeds of luxuriant growth, bordering deep ditches of black earth filled with stagnant water, on which floated green slime, rows of depressed-looking willows, and on occasions the gaunt stump of a tree sticking up as if to mark the site of a submerged forest.

Then suddenly against the dull red of the sky a misshapen pile of gables and chimneys on the verge of a slight rise, girdled by a gaunt ring of leafless trees. Beyond, heaps of wind-blown sand covered with sparse vegetation standing as a barrier between the marshes and the ocean, which tossed in waves of blood under the evil red sky as it moaned in a querulous voice on the starved-looking strip of sandy beach. And this was Castle Grim.

Eustace stopped the tired horse at the door of the house (or rather the horse stopped of its own accord), and giving the reins to Javelrack, jumped down. At the door he was met by Mrs. Javelrack, large and gaunt as her husband, with the same embrowned face and the same distorted features, suggestive of Chinese deities. Indeed, as the male Javelrack took the portmanteau into the house and stood by his wife, they looked like two ogres inhabiting Castle Grim, who were prepared to make a meal of Eustace as soon as he was safely within the walls.

The male ogre, however, took his master’s portmanteau into his bedroom, and then coming out again, took the dog-cart round to the stables, while Mrs. Javelrack, her face twisted into a hideous grin meant for a smile, brought hot water for the weary traveller.

“Don’t be long with the dinner, Mrs. Javelrack,” called Eustace as she closed the door.

“No sir,” croaked Mrs. Javelrack in a hoarse voice, as if she had been a frog out of the marsh, “it ‘ull be ready as soon as you, sir.”

Mr. Gartney washed himself in the warm water, which took away the smarting feeling in his face caused by the keen salt wind, and having changed his clothes sauntered into the one habitable room of the place, which did for dining-room, drawing-room, and music-room, for Eustace had sent down a very good piano, which stood in one corner.

“Humph! rather spoilt by the damp,” he said to himself; as he ran his lithe fingers over the keys, “or perhaps the amiable Mrs. Javelrack has been trying to cultivate music.”

The ogress brought in the dinner and waited on Eustace in a ponderous manner, giving him all the news of the neighbourhood, which was remarkably scant, and talked all through the meal in a subdued roar. When Eustace had finished, she removed the dishes, brought in some coffee, and, after making up the fire, retired to the kitchen and the company of Mr. Javelrack. Gartney heard them chatting even through the thick walls, for the dampness of the marshes had made them both somewhat deaf, and consequently they shouted so loudly at one another, that it was difficult at times to tell whether it was the ocean roaring or the ogres conversing.

It was a very comfortable room, having been furnished by Eustace according to his own ideas, and the walls, instead of being papered, were hung with dull red cloth after the fashion of tapestry, which waved at intervals as the searching winds crept in shrilly through crack and cranny. A wide fireplace in which blazed a large coal fire between the grotesque brass dogs, several comfortable arm-chairs, and on one side, a small book-case containing a selection of Gartney’s favourite authors. At the distant end of the room a grand piano, with the music piled neatly beside it, a cumbersome, old-fashioned sofa, and a deep, square window with diamond panes, and a quaint oaken seat set in its depths.

Eustace drew an arm-chair close to the fire and near to the small table upon which Mrs. Javelrack had placed his coffee, produced his pipe, and was soon puffing away in a most comfortable manner. He picked up a slim volume of poems entitled “Rose dreamings,” and turned over the pages listlessly as he sipped his coffee, feeling a drowsy sensation steal over him. A verse in the poem called “Temptation,” however, roused him from this lethargic state, and throwing down the book, he paced restlessly up and down the room repeating the four lines quietly to himself:

“This love so hard the winning.
    For ever will endure,
If all the world be sinning,
    Why should we two be pure?”

“I’m afraid she won’t take the same view as that,” he muttered to himself discontentedly, thinking of Lady Errington. “And yet, if she doesn’t love her husband, she may have a kindly feeling for me. As to the child, surely no woman—not even this Madonna—can devote herself exclusively to it. Still, the child is the obstacle between herself and her husband, so perhaps it will be the obstacle between herself and me. Oh! I could love her! I could love her if she would only let me! She will let me! I’m certain of it! Guy has no brains, and she is starving for the want of intellectual food. The child is the excuse, but that is the real reason of the coldness between them.”

One of the most extraordinary parts of Gartney’s delusion concerning his chance of success with Lady Errington lay in the fact that his present reasoning was diametrically opposed to the views he held when first meeting Lady Errington. He then asserted that she would never care for her husband, but when she became a mother would lavish all her love on the child. This view of Alizon’s character was a correct one, as Eustace in his innermost heart well knew, but he wilfully deceived himself in thinking that now she had obtained her heart’s desire she would give it up for the sake of a man whom she had hardly seen. Eustace, however, had been so uniformly triumphant with the female sex, that the idea of failing with Alizon never entered his mind, and he thought that if he laid siege to Lady Errington, in a dexterous fashion, she would give up everything—husband, child, name, and home—in order to gratify his selfish desire.

When he came to England after his many months’ absence in Arabia, Gartney had determined not to see Lady Errington, feeling that he loved her, or rather her idolized memory, so much, that he would not be able to suppress his passion, and thus behave dishonourably towards his cousin Guy by running away with his wife. Aunt Jelly, however, by telling him of the estrangement between the pair had banished this honourable hesitation from his heart, as he felt himself forced by Fate to see the woman he loved face to face. It was a very convenient excuse with which to quiet his conscience for this wrong-doing, and having settled in his own selfish mind that Fate was too strong for him, he determined to estrange husband and wife still further, so that he would have less trouble in overcoming Lady Errington’s scruples to his dishonourable proposals.

This idea which he held had been singularly strengthened by the remark of Aunt Jelly, when she said that Guy in his present state would be the prey of the first clever woman that came along. Eustace therefore determined to introduce Guy to some clever woman who would entangle him in her net, and the woman he had fixed upon in his own mind for this vile purpose was—Mrs. Veilsturm.

It was curious that he should have fixed on this special woman to do this, seeing that he was ignorant of Mrs. Veilsturm’s grudge against Lady Errington, and did not know how eagerly she would seize this opportunity of revenging herself on the woman who had slighted her so scathingly. He merely chose Mrs. Veilsturm because she was beautiful, clever, and unscrupulous, so a hint to her would be quite sufficient to induce her to fascinate Guy by all the means in her power.

Eustace Gartney was by no means a thoroughly bad man. Indeed, he had very good qualities, although they were, to a great extent, neutralized by his indomitable selfishness, and therefore he suffered several qualms of conscience over the dishonourable scheme he had in hand.

His intense egotism and love of gratifying self, however, came to his aid, and he argued himself into a satisfactory frame of mind by Heaven only knows what sophistry.

“She doesn’t care a bit about her husband,” he reflected, pacing the room with measured strides, “she never did care about him, and it’s a pity to see a clever woman like that tied to an unsympathetic log. With me, her life will be much happier than with him, and after he gets a divorce I will marry her, and we will live abroad, where there will be no narrow-minded bigots to scoff at what they will call her false step. I’ll do it, at whatever cost! My life will be a blank without her, and she will be unhappy with Guy, so it will be far the best for both of us to come together, even at the cost of a public scandal. I’m sorry for Guy, but the one must suffer for the many, and I daresay in after years he will thank me for taking from him a wife from whom, even now, after less than two years of married life, he is estranged.”

So Eustace, sophist as he was, argued in favour of his dishonourable passion, and would have even succeeded in persuading himself that he was a much-injured person by having to undergo such trouble, but for a certain uneasy feeling that he ruthlessly crushed down.

Having settled his plans to his own satisfaction, Eustace had another smoke, then going to the window, drew aside the curtains and looked forth into the black night.

The wind was rising and whistled shrilly round the house, lashing the dark waves into lines of seething white foam which glimmered ghost-like through the gloom, while overhead the thin filmy clouds raced across the sky over the face of the haggard-looking moon. He could hear the thunder of the surge on the distant beach, the wind muttering drearily among the trees, and casting his eyes overhead he saw the pallid moonlight streaming in ghastly radiance through the ragged clouds.

Dropping the curtain with a sigh, he sauntered across to the piano, and began to improvise a weird fantasy in keeping with the feelings aroused by the wild scene without. The roll of the sea, the wuthering of the wind, and the rustle of the reeds were all transmuted into strange harmonies under the touch of his skilful fingers, and stealing out at intervals from amid the tempest of sound, stole a strange, sobbing strain, fitful and wayward as the breeze, as if some malicious demon were piping heart-stealing love-songs to the sky, and the night, and the lonely marsh.

He remained some time at the piano, following his changeful fancies, but when the clock struck nine he closed the instrument, and had one final pipe before going to bed. As he sat in front of the fire, looking into the heart of the burning coals, he went over again in his own mind the details of the scheme by which he hoped to secure his cousin’s wife to himself.

“Yes,” he said aloud in the silence of the room, “it is all right! There is no flaw!”

There was a flaw, however, and one which, in his blind egotism and complacent selfishness, he entirely overlooked, and that was the love of the mother for her child.

Chapter 21
From The Husband’s Point Of View

“A statue cut in marble white
To me gives but a cold delight,
    Although ‘tis fair
    I do not care,
For joy begins and ends with sight.

“A woman pure as virgin snows,
Within whose veins the life-blood flows,
    Whose smile reveals
    The love she feels,
Ah, such a one is Love’s true rose.”

The next morning Eustace made up his mind to go to Errington Hall in the afternoon, and meanwhile amused himself in leisurely strolling along the beach watching the waves rolling landward.

Behind him the sand hills rose in low mounds with their scanty vegetation, shutting out the marshes beyond, then came the narrow strip of sandy beach on which his footsteps left deeply imprinted marks, and before him, sombre under the leaden coloured sky, stretched the heaving ocean, with thin lines of white-crested waves breaking to cold foam at his feet. The sky, filled with rain-charged clouds, lowered heavily on the chill earth, and midway flew a wide-winged sea-gull, uttering discordant cries.

It was a dreary scene, and Eustace, with his hands clasped behind him, stared at the dismal prospect, which was quite in keeping with his own disturbed feelings. He was meditating a dishonourable action, and he knew it, so in spite of his determination to carry it through to the bitter end, he felt oppressed by a vague feeling of dread that all his villainy would be of no avail. In the course of his selfish life he had done many foolish things, at which the world had looked askance, but hitherto his pride had preserved him from dishonour, but now he stood on the edge of an abyss into which he was about to plunge of his own free will, and, in spite of his egotistical philosophy, he trembled at the prospect before him.

Supposing he did induce Lady Errington to return his passion and leave England with him, what benefit would it bring to him or to her? To her a ruined home, the memory of a deserted child, the prospect of exile from all social circles, and an endless regret for her fall; to him, delighted companionship for a time, and then a sense of weary disgust, of futile sorrow for a past that could not be undone, and constant discord between himself and the partner of his shame.

Was it worth the risk he was running, for a chimera, a fanciful creation of his own brain, a desire for a vision that might never be realised? And all this time with characteristic selfishness, not a thought for the deserted husband, for the motherless child.

“Hallo, Eustace! Where are you?”

Gartney arose to his feet with an ejaculation, the red blood rushing to his face.

“Guy!”

It was Guy, his cousin, the man whose wife he loved, the man whose home he intended to destroy, and, even wrapped as he was in his triple armour of pride, egotism, and self-complacency, he felt the sting of remorse. It was too late, however, to think of such things, he having fully made up his mind to act; so he crushed down the feeling which might have made him a better man, and went forward to meet his cousin, who was walking smartly along the beach.

Eighteen months had not made much change in Errington, save that he was a little stouter, but he looked as handsome as ever, only there was a discontented look on his face, as if he were thoroughly dissatisfied with his life, as indeed he was. He had evidently ridden over, as he was in a riding dress, and he advanced towards Eustace with one hand in his pocket, the other holding his hunting crop with which he carelessly switched his boots.

“Well, dear old fellow, I am glad to see you again,” he said, coming to his cousin and holding out his hand.

“You are very kind, Guy,” faltered Eustace, quietly shaking hands, with the feeling of remorse again dominant in his breast. “I was going over to see you this afternoon.”

“Were you?” said Errington, listlessly. “Oh, yes!—of course, but I heard at the village you had come to Castle Grim, so, as I was mounted, I thought I’d come on here. I’ve left my horse with that old Caliban of yours and came down to look you up.”

“I’m very glad to see you,” returned Eustace, turning away his head. “Shall we go back to the house?”

“No, not yet,” responded Errington, throwing himself down on the dry sand. “Let us talk here. I want to speak to you privately, Eustace, and this is the best place.”

Gartney knew in his own mind that Errington wanted to speak about his wife, so sat down near the recumbent form of his cousin, and waited for him to begin the conversation.

Nothing was said, however, until, after a moment’s silence, Guy looked up at Gartney’s face with a frown.

“Good Lord, man, have you left your tongue behind in Arabia?” he said roughly, leaning his cheek on his hand.

Eustace laughed a little bitterly.

“Perhaps it would have been as well if I had done so,” he said deliberately, “it might save my soul the burden of many lies.”

“As whimsical as ever!”

“Do you think so? No doubt! Solitude is rather apt to confirm a man in his eccentric habits. By-the-way, you have not told me how your wife is?”

“Quite well,” replied Errington shortly.

“And the son and heir, on whose birth I must congratulate you?”

“Oh, he’s all right.”

Guy spoke this last sentence in such a bitter tone that Eustace could not help turning round and looking at him. He was gazing moodily at the sand, but glanced upward, as he felt rather than saw that Gartney had turned round, and smiled ironically.

“You seem surprised?” he said at length.

“I am surprised,” answered Eustace deliberately. “When I saw you in Italy, you spoke very differently—very differently indeed.”

“Ah, but you see that was in my character of a newly-married man,” sneered Guy, picking up a handful of sand and letting it stream through his fingers. “All that sort of thing is over.”

“And why is it over?” asked Eustace, coldly. “Eighteen months can scarcely make so much difference—”

“It makes every difference—in my case.”

“Why?”

Guy sat up suddenly, clasped his hands round his knees, and staring at the ocean, answered in a dreary voice utterly devoid of any feeling:

“I daresay it will sound ridiculous to a man like yourself, Eustace, and no doubt you and the world will laugh at me when you know my reason. But I cannot help it. I’ve fought against the feeling, as much as ever I could. I’ve made all sorts of excuses for my wife, but it’s all of no use.”

“I’m quite in the dark as to what you are talking about.”

“I’m talking about my wife,” said Guy deliberately. “You know how much in love I was with her when we married?”

“And are you not in love with her now?”

“Yes, I am!”

“Then what have you to complain of?”

“Complain of!” echoed Errington with a bitter laugh. “I have nothing to complain of, according to the views of the world. Alizon is a perfect wife, a perfect mother, a perfect woman in every way. In fact, that is what I do complain of! She’s too perfect.”

“Good Heavens, man!” cried Eustace, now thoroughly exasperated. “I don’t understand a word you are saying. If Alizon is perfect, both as wife and mother, what more do you want?”

“I want love,” returned Guy, in a low, deep voice, the blood rushing to his face. “I want love and affection. I’m starving for one kind word and I cannot obtain it. It sounds ridiculous, does it not, for a man of my years to whimper about love like a silly schoolboy? But I cannot help it. I married Alizon in order to have a true and loving wife, and I find I am tied to a statue.”

“But I cannot understand—”

“Of course, you can’t,” cried Errington vehemently, leaping to his feet, “how could you? a cold-blooded man, who can do without love and affection, who doesn’t care two straws about any human being, and only adores the phantom creations of his own brain. Great Heaven!” said the unfortunate young man, staring wildly up at the leaden-coloured sky, “if I were only a man like that how happy I should be. But I’m not, I’m only a fellow who wants to be loved by his wife, but even that is denied me. I married Alizon for love. I loved her then, I love her now, and she cares no more for me than she does for yonder ocean.”

“But surely the child is a bond of union between you?”

“The child!” repeated Errington fiercely, “no! the child, which should have drawn us closer together, has put us farther asunder than ever. I longed for a child to succeed me in the estates, and, now I have obtained my desire, I wish it had never been born. I hate the child! It seems horrible, Eustace, but I do. I hate it.”

“Don’t talk like that, Guy,” cried Eustace, springing to his feet, and laying his hand on his cousin’s arm, “it’s terrible—your own child!”

“My own child! my own child,” repeated Guy with senseless reiteration. “Yes! my own child.”

He thrust his hands into his pockets, and abruptly turning away, walked a short distance in order to conceal his emotion, while Eustace stood silently in the same place, wondering at his cousin’s grief over what appeared to him to be such a trivial matter. It might seem so to him, but it certainly was not to Guy, whose whole nature was smarting under a sense of neglect and injury.

After a few moments Errington returned, with a hard look on his face, and a cynical laugh on his lips.

“I beg your pardon, Eustace,” he said ceremoniously, “for troubling you about these affairs, but if I hadn’t someone to talk to about it, I believe I should go mad. I went up to Aunt Jelly the other day, and told her what I am now telling you, but she didn’t seem to think much of it.”

“You make a mistake there,” said Gartney, quickly. “Aunt Jelly thought a great deal about it. In fact, it is because she urged me to see what I could do, that I am down here.”

“You can’t do anything,” replied Errington listlessly, “no one can do anything. Alizon and myself are an ill-wedded pair. The quick coupled with the dead. She is a perfect wife, a perfect mother, and I, in the eyes of the world possessing a treasure in the matrimonial way, am the most miserable devil alive.”

Eustace felt a sudden pang of compunction at the idea of the misery he proposed to add to the unhappy young man’s life, and after a short struggle between the generous and selfish instincts of his nature, the former triumphed, and he determined to do his best to reconcile husband and wife. With this new resolve in his mind, he approached Guy, and taking him by the arm, walked slowly across the beach with him towards Castle Grim.

“Come to the house, old fellow,” he said kindly. “You are working yourself into a perfect state over nothing. Have luncheon with me, and then we’ll drive over together, and I’ll do my best to put things right.”

“Impossible,” said Guy, gloomily, “quite impossible.”

“How so?”

“It’s easy enough explained! When I married my wife, I thought her coldness would wear off, but it did not. To all my love and tenderness, she was as cold as ice. Kind enough in a cold-blooded sort of way, but as far as any answering tenderness or feeling of sympathy, she might as well have been a statue. That was hard enough to bear, as you may imagine, but when the child was born it was much worse. She isn’t a statue now, by any means, but her whole soul is wrapped up in the child. She’s never away from him, she never stops talking about him, she lives in the nursery, and never comes near me. If I offer to caress her, she frowns and resents any display of affection. All her love, all her heart, is given to the child, and I’ve got to be content with cold looks, and about five minutes’ conversation a day. I hardly ever see her, sometimes she doesn’t even come to meals, and when I remonstrated with her, she turned on me in a cold fury, and asked me if I wanted her to neglect the child. What am I to do, Eustace? I can’t force her to love me against her will. I can’t keep her from the child. There seems nothing for me to do, but to be satisfied with the life I am leading now, and it’s Hell, Eustace, Hell. It’s a big word to describe a little thing, isn’t it? The world would laugh at me if they heard me talk, but no one can understand it, unless they undergo it.”

He spoke with great emotion, and although Eustace failed in a great measure to understand his deep feelings on the subject, he could not but see that his cousin had great cause to speak. A young man of ardent nature, to whom love is a necessity, finding himself tied to a woman who chilled every demonstration of affection, and lavished all her adoration on the child of which he was the father—it was truly a pitiable situation, and yet one at which the world would laugh, because the tragic elements therein were so simple.

Gartney listened in silence to the long speech, and saying nothing in reply, made his cousin have some luncheon, while he thought over the whole affair.

“I won’t speak to Mrs. Veilsturm,” he thought to himself, pouring out Guy a glass of wine, “if I can I’ll bring them together again and then leave England for ever.”

During the luncheon, he talked gaily enough to Errington, cheering him up by every means in his power, making up his mind in the meantime as to what was the best course to pursue.

When the meal was finished, he ordered Javelrack to bring round a horse, and, with Sir Guy, was soon trotting along the road on the way to Errington Hall.

“Now, listen to me, Guy,” he said, when they were some distance on their journey. “I think you exaggerate a good deal of this thing. It’s not half so bad as you make out. Alizon is a young mother, and you know they always adore their first-born to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t think she is naturally of a cold nature, and when her first outburst of joy on the child is exhausted, she will, doubtless, give you that love which is your due, and which you so much need. But, in the meantime, it is foolish of you to remain at the Hall, as you will only work yourself up into a frenzy over nothing. Solitude is the worst thing in the world for a man in your condition, so the best thing you can do is to come up to town with me for a week or so.”

“But I cannot leave Alizon alone,” objected Errington in perplexity.

“Why not? She won’t be lonely, as she has the child, and besides, if she neglects you as you say, it is because you are always near her. A few weeks’ absence would make a wonderful change in her demeanour, I can tell you.”

“Do you really think so?” asked poor Guy, his face lighting up.

“I’m certain of it. In spite of your years, my dear boy, I’m afraid you don’t know much about feminine nature. Learn then, that to make a woman value a thing truly, it is necessary to put it out of her reach. Immediately it is in that position, then she’ll strain every nerve to get it back again. Therefore, if you leave your wife, and neglect her for a time, she will begin to grow jealous, and see how wrongly she has treated you. When you come back again, she will alter her conduct, and things will be all right.”

“I don’t believe in that prescription,” retorted Guy, sharply.

“Don’t you? It does sound rather difficult of belief, but it’s true for all that. And I can tell you of a case in question, that of Victoria Sheldon and Macjean.”

“I don’t understand—”

“No! then I’ll explain. If you will carry your memory back to the time we were in Italy, you will remember that Otterburn was very much in love with Victoria Sheldon.”

“To tell you the truth, I’ve almost forgotten Otterburn himself. Was he not your companion then?”

“Yes!—we parted at Venice, and I saw him again for the first time last week. Well, Otterburn was so much in love with Victoria that he proposed. She refused him, so Otterburn, having a spirit of his own, departed, and has never seen her since. Finding, therefore, that he stood on his dignity, she fell in love with him, and I feel certain, that if Otterburn chooses to ask her again, she will say yes.”

“But will he choose?”

“He will! They love one another devotedly, and each is ignorant of the other’s feelings, but when they meet everything will be arranged satisfactorily. So you see, my dear Guy, the value of absence, for if Otterburn hadn’t gone away, he certainly would not have won the heart of Victoria Sheldon.”

“And you advise me to do the same?”

“I do, decidedly! Leave your wife for a few weeks, and if she has any love for you—which she must have, or else she would not have married you—she will miss you hourly, and when you come back—well the game will be in your own hands.”

Guy did not reply for a few minutes, but urged his horse into a canter, and the two rode along for some distance in silence. When nearing Denfield, however, Errington suddenly drew his horse up, and turned his head towards Eustace.

“I will take your advice,” he said abruptly, “it can do no harm, and it may do good.”

Chapter 22
From The Wife’s Point Of View

“What is the purest love on earth?
A maiden’s love for summer mirth?
A lover’s worship of his idol
When bells ring out his happy bridal?
A patriot’s when on foreign strand
He suffers for his native land?
A poet’s or musician’s love
For thoughts inspired from above?
Ah, no, the love most undefiled
Is that the mother gives the child.”

Lady Errington was as usual in the nursery, sitting in a low chair near the window, watching “Sammy” playing on the floor. “Sammy,” otherwise Henry Gerald Guy Errington, was now a year old, and looked what he was, a remarkably fine child, of which any mother might be proud. “Proud,” however, is too weak a word to use in connection with Alizon’s love for her child, seeing that this small scrap of humanity rolling about at her feet was worshipped by her with an affection absolutely idolatrous. All her ideas, her thoughts, her affections, were bound up in Sammy, and had it been a question of death for mother or child, there is no doubt that Alizon would have cheerfully yielded up her own life to save that of her baby.

Nor was Sammy undeserving of worship, for he was really a beautiful boy, with the frank expression of his father’s handsome face, and a healthy, sturdy little frame, which seemed to defy disease. During his twelve months of existence he had been very healthy, and even in the delicate matter of cutting his teeth had been more successful than the generality of infants. With his rosy little face, his big, blue eyes and soft yellow curls of hair, he looked as an obsequious nurse expressed it, “a perfect picter.” That worthy lady, Mrs. Tasker by name, and fat, plethoric and red-faced by nature, was at the end of the nursery attending to some articles of the young gentleman’s toilet, and Alizon had her child all to herself, for which privilege she was profoundly grateful, as Mrs. Tasker was a terrible autocrat.

A wonderful change had come over her since she had become a mother, for the statue had become a woman, the iceberg had melted, and in all her life she never looked so womanly as she did at this moment. Her face, flushed a delicate rose-colour, was sparkling with animation, her lips were parted in a merry laugh, and her eyes, soft and tender, absolutely seemed to devour the child as she bent forward to play with him.

Sammy was sitting like an infant Marius among the ruins of a Carthage of toys, for around him on all sides lay the evidences of his destructive capabilities. A woolly quadruped, something between a dog and a cow, dignified with the name of “Ba-lamb,” lay on its back, piteously extending one mangled leg, the other three having been bitten off, and an indecent india-rubber doll, with no clothes and a squeak, was being dragged about by a string. There were several other things, such as a drum (broken), a toy soldier (head missing), a wooden Noah (paint sucked off), and last, but not least, a hunting crop of his father’s, which was Sammy’s special delight, because it wasn’t supposed to be proper for him to have it.

Sammy at present was hammering “Eliza” (the doll aforesaid) with the whip, when suddenly discovering that one shoe had come off in his exertions, he rendered things equal by pulling off the other shoe, and then chuckled with delight at his success.

“Naughty Sammy,” reproved his mother, bending down to pick up the shoes. “Mustn’t do that—ah, bad child!”

The bad child, attracted by the fact that both shoes were out of his reach, made a snatch at them, with the result that he over-balanced himself, and came down heavily on his head. He was undecided whether to howl or not, when his mother settled the question by picking him up with a cry of pity, whereat, knowing the right thing to do, he howled vigorously.

“Mother’s own precious! mother’s own darling!” lamented Alizon, rocking him to and fro on her breast; upon which Sammy, finding the rocking pleasant, roared louder than ever, whereupon Mrs. Tasker hurried forward to give her opinion.

“Why, whatever’s the matter, my lady?” she asked anxiously. “He hasn’t swallowed anything has he?”

This was Mrs. Tasker’s constant nightmare, for Sammy had an ostrich-like capacity for swallowing anything that came handy, and disposed of all sorts of things in this manner, to the great detriment of his stomach.

“He’s hurt his head, Nurse,” explained Lady Errington, anxiously, while Sammy, satisfied at being the centre of attraction, stopped roaring. “His poor head. He fell over on the floor.”

“He’s allay’s doin’ that,” said Nurse in despair. “I nivir did see sich a topply child. Feathers is lead to his upsettings.”

The comparison was not a particularly happy one, but it served Mrs. Tasker, who thereupon wanted to take Sammy from his mother, a proceeding to which Lady Errington strongly objected.

“No, don’t Nurse please! let me hold him a little time! See he’s quite good now.”

And indeed, Sammy was now behaving like an angel, for being attracted by a small gold brooch his mother wore, he was standing up on his sturdy legs, plucking at it with chubby fingers, and gurgling to himself in a most satisfied manner.

“I nivir did see such a dear child,” remarked Mrs. Tasker admiringly. “ ‘Is ‘owls is hoff as soon as on. Why the last as I nussed, my lady, were that givin’ to hollerin’ as you might ‘ave thought I’d put ‘im to bed with a pin-cushing. But as for Master Sammy, well—” and casting up her little eyes to the ceiling, Mrs. Tasker expressed in pantomime, with a pair of dumpy red hands, that words failed her.

“He’s an angel! an angel!” murmured Alizon fondly, covering the rosy little face with kisses. “Oh, nurse, isn’t he perfect?”

Nurse expressed her firm conviction that there never was nor never would be such a perfectly angelic child, and then the two women indulged in a lavish display of grovelling affection, with many inarticulated words, tender fondlings and indistinct kisses, all of which Sammy accepted with the greatest calmness as his just due.

At this moment a servant entered the nursery to inform Lady Errington that Sir Guy and Mr. Eustace Gartney were waiting for her in the Dutch room, at which Alizon was in despair, for it was now the time when Sammy took his airing, and therefore one of the most interesting events of the day. However, much as she disliked leaving the child, she could hardly refuse to see Eustace without appearing pointedly rude, so sent the servant away with the information that she would be down immediately.

“I won’t be longer than I can help, Nurse,” she said dolefully, delivering Sammy into the extended arms of Mrs. Tasker. “Be sure you take the greatest care in dressing him.”

“Well, my lady,” said Mrs. Tasker, with scathing irony, “I ‘opes as I’ve dressed a child afore.”

“Yes! Yes! of course,” replied Lady Errington hastily, for she had a wholesome fear of the autocrat’s temper, “but you know how anxious I am! and his bottle, Nurse! take care it’s warm, and Nurse! please don’t go out until I send up a message.”

“Will it be long?” demanded Mrs. Tasker determinedly, “because there ain’t much sun, and this blessed child must git as much as he can. It makes ‘im grow.”

“No! only a few minutes,” said Alizon quickly. “You see, Nurse, I’ll want to show him to Mr. Gartney. Take the greatest care—the very greatest care—goodbye, mother’s angel—kiss mother, dearest.”

Sammy opened his button of a mouth and bestowed a damp caress on his mother, which was his idea of kissing, and then Lady Errington, yielding to stern necessity, withdrew slowly, with her eyes fixed on the child to the last, and even when she closed the nursery door, she strained her ears to hear him crowing.

Both gentlemen were waiting in the Dutch room, which received its name from the fact that it looked out on to the prim garden, with the rows of box-wood, the beds of gaudy tulips and the fantastically clipped yew trees. Guy was in a much more cheerful mood than usual, as he thought that the panacea prescribed by Eustace would make an end of all his troubles, and Gartney himself experienced a wonderful feeling of exhilaration at the near prospect of seeing his visionary lady of Como once more.

The soft sweep of a robe, the turning of the handle of the door, and in another moment she stood before him, a fair, gracious woman, who advanced slowly with outstretched hand and a kindly smile.

“How do you do, Mr. Gartney, after all this time?” she said sweetly, clasping his extended hand. “I thought we were never going to see you again.”

Was this the pale, cold Undine he had last seen at Como, more ethereal than the visioned spirits of romance? Was this the perfect, bloodless statue of whom Guy complained? This lovely breathing woman, aflush with all the tender grace of motherhood, with delicately pink cheeks, eyes brilliant with animation, and a voice rich and mellow as the sound of a silver bell. Yes! his prophecy had come true; the haunting, hungry look had departed from her eyes, for in the full satisfaction of the strong maternal instinct the thin, unsubstantial ghost of maidenhood had disappeared; and in this beautiful woman, aglow with exuberant vitality, he recognized the reality of the visionary creation of his dreaming brain.

“Did you think I was lost in Arabian solitudes?” he said, recovering from his momentary fit of abstraction. “I’m afraid I’m not the sort of man to be lost. I always come back again, like a modern Prodigal Son.”

Alizon laughed when he spoke thus, but months afterwards she recollected those careless words. At present, however, she sat down near him, and began to talk, while Guy, who had uttered no word since she entered the room, stood silently at the window, staring out at the quaint Dutch garden.

“Now I suppose you are going to stay at home, and tell your tales from your own chimney corner?” said Lady Errington, clasping her hands loosely on her knees.

Eustace shook his head.

“I thought so the other day, but now—I’m going on an exploring expedition up the Nile.”

“You must have the blood of the Wandering Jew in your veins.”

“Or Cain!—he was rather fond of travelling, wasn’t he?”

“Don’t be profane, Mr. Gartney,” said Alizon, trying to look serious. “But really you ought to settle down and marry.”

“Yes, shouldn’t he?” observed Guy caustically, turning round. “Go in for the delights of the family circle.”

“That all depends whether he would appreciate them or not,” replied Lady Errington coldly, flashing an indignant look at her husband, upon which Eustace to avoid unpleasantness made a hasty observation.

“By the way, talking of the family circle, I have to congratulate you, Lady Errington, on the birth of a son.”

Alizon’s eyes, which had hardened while looking at Guy, grew wondrous soft and tender.

“Yes!—he is the dearest child in the world—everyone loves him except his father.”

“What nonsense Alizon!” said Guy, hastily turning towards his wife. “I’m very fond of him indeed, but one gets tired of babies.”

“I daresay, but not of their own children,” answered Lady Errington indignantly. “You must see him, Mr. Gartney, and I’m sure you’ll say you never saw such a lovely child.”

She arose from her seat and left the room quickly, while Eustace looked reproachfully at Guy.

“You shouldn’t talk like that,” he said quietly, “I don’t wonder you find things disagreeable if you sneer at the child.”

“I don’t sneer at the child,” retorted Guy sullenly, “but I’m tired of hearing nothing but baby chatter all day long.”

“Perhaps, if you were as attentive to the baby as your wife, it would be advisable.”

“Nonsense! I can’t be on my knees before a cradle all day, and besides Alizon won’t let me come near it. One would think I was going to murder the child the way she looks at me when I lay a finger on it.”

“Mr. Gartney,” said Lady Errington’s voice at the door. “Come upstairs with me to the nursery.”

“Can’t I come to Paradise also?” observed Guy wistfully as his cousin was leaving the room.

“Certainly, come if you care to,” replied Alizon coldly.

“No, thank you,” replied Errington abruptly, his brow growing black with rage at the coldness of the invitation.

“I’ll stay here till you return.”

Lady Errington went upstairs slowly with Eustace, with a look of anger on her face.

“You see,” she said bitterly, pausing at the nursery door, “he does not care a bit about his child.”

“Oh, I think he does,” answered Eustace discreetly, “but he thought you did not want him to come.”

“I am always glad for him to come,” remarked Alizon coldly, “but when he does he only makes disagreeable remarks about the boy, so his visits are never very pleasant.”

Things were decidedly wrong between this young couple, and they so thoroughly misunderstood one another that Eustace was at a loss how to set them right. He was saved the trouble of further thought, however, by Lady Errington opening the door and preceding him into the nursery.

“There he is, Mr. Gartney,” said the young mother, “look at my precious.”

“My precious,” in all the glory of white hat, white cape and woolly gloves and shoes, was seated in his perambulator ready to go out for his airing, and Mrs. Tasker, with the under-nurse, were both attached to the wheels of his chariot. At the sight of Gartney’s bronzed face, he set up a howl, and was only pacified by being taken out of his carriage into the protecting arms of his mother.

“The complete Madonna now,” thought Eustace, as he looked at the flushed face of the young mother bending over the rosy one of the child.

“Did he cry then! sweetest! What do you think of him, Mr. Gartney?”

“There can be but one opinion,” replied that gentleman solemnly, “he’s a very beautiful child, and you may well be proud of him, Lady Errington.”

“Did you ever see a finer child?” demanded Alizon, insatiable for praise.

“No, never,” answered Eustace, which was true enough, as he hated babies and never looked at them unless forced to. “Hi, baby, chuck! chuck!”

“Goo! goo! goo!” gurgled Master Errington, and stretched out his chubby arms to Gartney, intimating thereby a desire to improve his acquaintance with that gentleman.

“Oh, he’s quite taken to you,” said Lady Errington gaily. “Just feel what a weight he is.”

So Eustace was forced to take the child in his arms, and looked as awkward as a man usually does when burdened with a baby. Ultimately Sammy was returned to his mother’s arms, and she took him down the stairs, while the footman and Mrs. Tasker between them carried down the light wickerwork perambulator.

“Wheel him up and down the terrace for a time, Nurse,” said Alizon, when the child was once more replaced in his little carriage. “I’ll be out soon.”

They were standing at the door, and Lady Errington waited there until Mrs. Tasker vanished with the baby round the corner on to the wide terrace, when she turned to Eustace with a sigh.

“Does that mean that you are anxious to get to the baby?” asked Eustace, raising his eyebrows, as they walked back to the Dutch room.

“Oh no, really,” replied Lady Errington, with polite mendacity, “do you think I am never happy away from Sammy?”

“Are you?” he asked, eyeing her keenly.

Alizon flushed a bright crimson, laughed in an uneasy manner and fidgeted nervously.

“What a shame to push me into a corner!” she said at length, raising her clear eyes to his face. “No!—I am never happy away from my child. I am so afraid of any accident happening! Dear me, what has become of Guy?”

They had entered the Dutch room by this time and found it empty, but on the table afternoon tea was laid out, so Alizon sat down to pour out Eustace a cup. Gartney looked at her furtively as she did this, and thought he had never seen her look so charming.

“Lucky Guy,” he said at length, taking the cup she handed to him.

“Because of Sammy?” she asked, looking at him with a bright smile.

“No! because of you!” replied Eustace boldly, whereat she shook her blonde head gaily, though her lips wore a somewhat scornful look.

“I’m afraid Guy doesn’t think so!”

Eustace judged this a good opening from which to lead up to his attempt at reconciliation, so spoke out at once.

“Lady Errington, don’t you think you are rather hard upon Guy?”

She turned her face towards him sharply.

“Why do you ask that?” she demanded coldly.

“I am afraid it is a liberty,” answered Eustace slowly, “but you see I am Guy’s cousin, so the near relationship must excuse my apparent rudeness. But the fact is you don’t seem perfectly happy.”

“I am happy, perfectly happy I have everything in the world I desire—health, wealth and my darling child.”

“I see you don’t count your husband among your blessings,” said Eustace.

“Oh, yes! I’m very fond of Guy. He is the father of my child!”

“Is that the only reason you are fond of him?”

“Really, Mr. Gartney, I do not see by what right you speak like this to me,” she said with great hauteur.

“I beg your pardon,” said Eustace, with cold politeness. “I was wrong to do so.”

Lady Errington began to twist her marriage ring round and round, as if she wanted to pull it off, and a frown passed across her mobile face. Eustace, versed in the ways of her sex, knew that those signs betokened further remarks on her part, so he wisely said nothing, but waited for the outburst, which came exactly as he expected.

“I am very fond of Guy,” she asserted defiantly. “I would not have married him if I had not been fond of him. What makes you think I’m not? I suppose Aunt Jelly has been saying something?”

“My dear Lady Errington,” responded Gartney replacing, his cup on the table, “I had no right to speak as I did. I beg your pardon.”

“Please answer my question, Mr. Gartney,” she said angrily, a red spot of colour burning on either cheek. “Has Aunt Jelly been saying anything?”

Gartney was not the man to remain in any difficulty where a lie could help him out of it, so he replied to her question with the greatest deliberation.

“Aunt Jelly has been saying nothing. The only reason that makes me speak is that you seem to me to be fonder of the baby than of your own husband.”

The murder was out, and he was prepared for a storm, but it did not come, as Alizon had quite as much self-control as himself.

“Well, and what is wrong in that?” she said coldly. “I do love my child more than my husband, any mother would.”

“Isn’t that rather hard on the husband?”

“No! I do not see it! Of course, I love Guy very much—much more than he loves his child,” she finished with a burst of passion.

“I think Guy is very fond of the child,” said Eustace quietly.

“He is not,” she replied angrily, rising to her feet; “he grudges every hour I spend with the boy. He would have me neglect the child in order to be always with him. But there, what is the use of talking?—neither you nor Guy can understand the feelings of a mother.”

This remark closed the discussion so far as Eustace was concerned, for he deemed it useless to argue with a woman who was so blind to everything except her maternal feelings, so he hastened to turn the conversation.

“You are right there, Lady Errington,” he said good-humouredly, “I am a bachelor, so know absolutely nothing about these things. But Guy looks a little knocked up, so I want to take him to town with me.”

“Oh, certainly,” replied Alizon indifferently. “A run up to town will do him good. I want Guy to enjoy himself in every way. But now, Mr. Gartney, excuse me for a time, as I must go and see how the baby is getting on. Will you stay to dinner?”

“No, thank you,” said Eustace, rising and holding out his hand. “I have some letters to write this evening, but I will come over to-morrow and see you before I go back to town.”

“That’s right,” answered Lady Errington, smiling as she pressed his hand. “Goodbye at present. Come to-morrow, and I will show you the baby again.”

She went to the door, when it suddenly opened, and Guy entered.

“Oh, here you are, Guy,” she said sweetly, as he stood holding the door open for her to pass through, “I was just going to send for you. Mr. Gartney is going away.”

“And where are you going?” asked Guy, with a half-smile on his stern face.

“Can you ask?” she said archly. “To the baby, of course.” And with a laugh she vanished through the doorway, while Guy, with a scowl, pushed the door roughly to, and strode across the room to Eustace.

“Well?” he demanded curtly.

“Well,” answered Eustace coolly, “I did what I could—but of course, my dear fellow, it’s a very delicate matter, and really I had no right to interfere in any way.”

“What did she say?” demanded Guy roughly, turning as white as a sheet.

“She said you had better go to Town with me,” answered Gartney reluctantly.

Guy burst out with a harsh laugh, and turned towards the window with a gesture of despair.

“Good God! and I’m breaking my heart for that statue.”

Chapter 23
Mrs. Veilsturm’s “At Home”

“I hate ‘At Homes,’ they’re simply Inquisitions
    To torture human beings into fits;
A mixture of plebeians and patricians,
    On whom in judgment Mrs. Grundy sits;
Sonatas played by second-rate musicians,
    And milk-and-water jokes by would-be wits;
Such squallings, scandals, crush of men and ladies—
It’s like a family party down in Hades.”

As this was the first victory he had ever obtained over his egotistical nature, Eustace felt most unjustifiably proud, and viewed his actions with great self-complacency, therefore the good results of such victory merely became egotism in another form. His attitude towards Lady Errington had certainly altered, but not for the better, as the fantastic adoration he had formerly felt towards a vision of his own creation had changed to an earthly love for the real woman, in which there was mingled more of sensuality than platonism. Eustace was certainly not a coarse man in any sense of the word, but he had regarded the visionary Lady Errington so long as his own special property, withheld from him by the accident of her marriage with Guy, that when he saw the flesh-and-blood woman riant in all her newly-found vitality, he viewed her as a Sultan might view a fresh odalisque added to his serail. The pale lily had changed into the rich red rose, and the spiritual being of his fevered imagination had taken the form of a beautiful woman, full of temptation to an ardent lover.

Any sensible man would have seen from the short conversation he had had with Lady Errington that love for the child filled her heart to the exclusion of all else, but Eustace, with supreme egotism, deemed that she loved the child simply because her husband was not worthy of her affection and when he deigned to worship her she would certainly forget the pale passion of maternal love under the fierce ardour of his devotion.

With this idea in his mind it was no wonder he felt that he was exercising great self-denial in trying to bring husband and wife together, and in renouncing his desire to gain possession of a woman for whom he felt an unreasoning admiration. However, being determined to carry out this new mood of asceticism to the end, he took Guy up to Town with him, and tried to amuse that moody young man to the best of his power, which was a somewhat unsatisfactory task.

Seeing that he had abandoned his scheme to gain Alizon’s love, he did not intend to speak to Mrs. Veilsturm, as he had now no desire to entangle Guy with another woman, but as he was going to an “At Home” given by Cleopatra, he did not hesitate to take his cousin with him in the ordinary course of things.

Eustace knew more about Mrs. Veilsturm than she cared he should know, as he had met her at Lima, in South America, when she was—well, not Mrs. Veilsturm—and he judged a woman of her harpy-like nature would not strive to annex anyone but a rich man. Guy was not rich, so Eustace thought she would leave him alone—a most fatal mistake, as he had unconsciously placed Cleopatra’s revenge within her grasp. Mrs. Veilsturm had neither forgiven nor forgotten the deadly insult offered to her by Lady Errington, but hitherto, owing to Guy’s devotion to his wife, had been unable to entangle him in any way. Now, however, Fate was playing into her hands, and when she received a note from Eustace, asking if he might bring his cousin to the house in Park Lane she felt a savage delight at such a stroke of unforeseen luck, but, being too clever a woman to compromise her scheme in any way, wrote a cold reply to Mr. Gartney, telling him he could bring Sir Guy Errington—if he liked.

Of course Eustace did like, and as Guy, who had quite forgotten all about the episode between Mrs. Veilsturm and his wife, listlessly acquiesced, they both arrived at Cleopatra’s “At Home” somewhere about five o’clock.

“I seem to remember the name,” said Guy, as they struggled up the crowded stairs.

“You certainly ought to,” responded Eustace, “seeing that she is about the best-known person in Town.”

“Ah, but you see I’m a country cousin now,” said Guy with a faint smile. “Hang it! what a crush there is here.”

“That’s the art of giving an ‘At Home,’ ” answered Eustace drily, “you put fifty people who hate one another in a room built to hold twenty, and when they’re thoroughly uncomfortable you give them bad music, weak tea, and thin bread-and-butter. After an hour of these delights they go away in a rollicking humour to another Sardine Party. Oh, it’s most amusing, I assure you, and—well, here we are, and here is Mrs. Veilsturm.”

Cleopatra had certainly not lost any of her charms, and looked as imperious and majestic as ever, standing in the centre of her guests, arrayed in a startling costume of black and yellow, which gave her a strange, barbaric appearance. There was no doubt that she wore too many diamonds, but this was due to her African love for ornaments, and with every movement of her body the gems flashed out sparkles of light in the mellow twilight of the room.

A foreign musician, with long hair and pale face, was playing some weird Eastern dance on the piano as Eustace entered and bowed before her, and it suddenly flashed across his mind that this sensuously beautiful woman was quite out of place amid these cold English blondes and undecided brunettes. She ought to be tossing her slender arms in a tropical forest, to the shrill music of pipes and muffled throbbing of serpent-skin drums, whirling in the mystic gyrations of some sacred dance before the shrine of a veiled goddess. The sickly odour of pastilles, which she was fond of burning in her drawing-room, assisted this fancy, and he was only roused from this strange vision by the mellow voice of his hostess bidding him welcome, as she touched his hand with her slender fingers.

“I am glad to see you, Mr. Gartney,” she said, with a slow smile; “it is indeed kind of you to call so soon after your return. And your friend, whom you were to bring?”

“Is here,” replied Eustace, presenting his cousin, “Sir Guy Errington.”

Guy bowed, feeling somewhat bewildered at her rich loveliness, and, with a swift glance from under her heavy eye-lashes, she shook hands with him.

“Mr. Gartney’s friends are mine also—but you are welcome on your own account, Sir Guy.”

“You are very kind,” answered Errington mechanically, “I think the obligation is on my side, however.”

“He’s a fool,” decided Mrs. Veilsturm in her own mind, as she looked at his fresh, simple face; “I can twist him round my finger, and I will, if it’s only to spite his wife.”

At this moment Eustace was seized upon by Mr. Dolser, who was on the look-out for copy, and, much against his will, was dragged to the other end of the room by the pertinacious little man, leaving his cousin in conversation with Mrs. Veilsturm.

The room was quite full of all sorts and conditions of men and women. Cleopatra knew everybody in the literary, artistic, and musical world, and they all came to her receptions, so that it was quite a treat to find somebody there who had done nothing. This happened on occasions when someone who had not done anything was brought to worship someone who had. There were plenty of lady novelists in all shades, from blonde to brunette, picking up ideas for their next three-volume publication; pale young poets, with long hair and undecided legs, who wrote rondels, triolets, and ballads, hinting, in wonderful rhyme, at things fantastical; dramatists, young and old, full of three-act plays and hatred of managers and critics. A haggard young man of the impressionist school drooped in a corner, discoursing of Art, in the newest jargon of the studios, to the last fashionable manageress, who did not understand a word he was saying, but pretended to do so, as she wanted him to paint her picture. Everyone present had an eye to business, and each was pursuing his or her aim with vicious pertinacity.

“Mixed lot, ain’t they?—yes!” said Mr. Dolser superciliously, when he had got the unhappy Eustace pinned up in a corner; “don’t they cackle about themselves too—rather. See that stout old party in the corner, in the damaged millinery—new novelist, you know—disease school—Baudelaire without his genius—wrote ‘The Body Snatcher’ —yes!—read it?”

“No,” responded Eustace, shortly, “and I don’t intend to.”

“It is rather a corker for weak nerves,” said “The Pepper Box” proprietor, affably; “there’s Gibbles—perfect genius as critic; always slashes a book without reading it. He’s destroyed more reputations than any one I know. Yes! Ah! fancy Maniswarkoffi being here—pianist, you know. English, only they wouldn’t have him under his real name of Grubs, so he went abroad and dug up his present jawbreaker. Draws money now, and smashes two pianos a week—beautiful!”

In this way Mr. Dolser artlessly prattled along, destroying a reputation every time he opened his mouth, much to the disgust of Gartney, who wanted to get away.

“Excuse me,” he said, in despair, “but I see a friend over there.”

“Ah! do you really?” replied Dolser, putting up his eyeglass. “Oh, Macjean, isn’t it? Yes. Just come back from America. Had a row with pa because he wanted him to marry some Scotch lassie. Yes.”

“You seem to know all about it?”

“Yes, yes; oh, yes. Business, you know—and by Jove! talking about that, I want an interview with you about your book.”

“Then you won’t get one.”

“That’s all you know,” retorted Mr. Dolser. “What? You won’t tell me anything? Never mind, I’ll make up a few fairy tales. If they ain’t true that’s your look-out. Ta, ta! Look in ‘The Pepper Box’ next week. Jove! there’s Quibbles. ‘Cuse me, I want to ask about Bundy’s divorce,” and he disappeared into the crowd.

It was no use being angry with the little man, as he was so very good-natured with all his impudence, so Eustace merely smiled, and moving across the room to Otterburn, touched him on the shoulder.

“You here?” he said, in a tone of glad surprise. “I am glad! I was just going away.”

“Not enjoying yourself?” observed Eustace, leaning against the wall.

“Can any one enjoy himself here?” retorted Otterburn in disgust. “I’m tired of hearing people talk about themselves; and if they talk about anyone else—”

“They abuse them thoroughly. My dear boy, it’s the way of the world. By the way, you got my note about Victoria?”

Otterburn coloured.

“Yes; I’m very much obliged to you,” he replied, in his boyish fashion. “If it is only true what you think, that she does care for me—”

“Of course she cares for you.”

“It seems too good to be true.”

“Do you think so?” said Gartney, drily. “Oh, I beg your pardon. I forgot you are in love!”

“Cold-blooded cynic,” laughed Otterburn, “go thou and do likewise.”

“With your awful example before me—hardly,” replied Mr. Gartney, with a kindly look in his eyes. “Did I tell you Errington is here to-day?”

“No. Is he really?—and Lady Errington?”

“Oh, she’s in the country. But Errington seemed as if he wanted waking up, so I brought him to town with me.”

“By the way, how is Lady Errington?”

“Very much changed—and for the better. My prophecy concerning the incomplete Madonna has come to pass. She is a mother now, and adores her child.”

“Indeed! And is she going to adore her child for the rest of her life?” asked Otterburn, flippantly.

Eustace shrugged his shoulders.

“I suppose so. She certainly can’t adore her husband. Guy is a real good fellow, as I’ve always maintained, but no woman in the world would put him on a pedestal.”

“Poor Errington! Is he as fond of his wife as ever?”

“Fonder, if possible.”

“Then I pity him!” said Macjean, emphatically—“I pity any man who gives his heart to a woman to play with.”

“Yet that is really what you propose to do with yours.”

“Not at all. I am going to ask Miss Sheldon to be my wife once more. If she accepts me, well and good, as I’ve no doubt we’ll make an exemplary married couple. But if she refuses—well, I’m not going to wear my heart on my sleeve by any means. There is always Laxton, Africa, and good shooting.”

“All of which will console you for the loss of the woman you profess to adore. What a prosaic idea!”

“A very sensible one, at all events,” retorted Macjean, with a grim smile. “I’ve no fancy to play shuttlecock to any woman’s battledore. Oh! there is Errington talking to our fair hostess.”

“Or rather, our fair hostess is talking to Errington.”

“Precisely. You shouldn’t have led this unfortunate fly into the spider’s parlour, Gartney.”

“Why not?” replied Eustace, superciliously. “I assure you the fly is all right. It is not rich enough for Mrs. Spider Veilsturm to seize on. She only cares for opulent flies.”

“I’m afraid I can’t take your view of the situation, seeing what I now see.”

Gartney, moved by a sudden curiosity, looked sharply at Cleopatra, who was certainly putting forth all her fascinations towards Guy, and that gentleman, who had apparently forgotten his wife for the moment, was talking rapidly to her with a flushed face and considerable earnestness. Eustace was puzzled at this, and frowned amiably at the pair.

“Now what the deuce is that for?” he muttered to himself. “I certainly did not ask her to fascinate him, and she has no reason to do so. Humph! Perhaps Fate is once more interfering. If so—Well, Otterburn?”

But Otterburn had disappeared, and Eustace found that his place was taken by Dolly Thambits, attended by Mr. Jiddy, both gentlemen watching Mrs. Veilsturm over Gartney’s shoulder.

“Ah! how do you do, Thambits?” said Gartney, taking no notice of the Jiddy parasite.

“I’m quite well,” replied Dolly, whose mild face wore anything but a pleasant expression. “I say, who is he—the chap talking to Mrs. Veilsturm? He came with you, didn’t he?”

“Yes; that is Sir Guy Errington, my cousin and very good friend.”

“Oh!” returned Mr. Thambits, after a pause. “I thought he was married?”

“Of course—married Miss Mostyn,” murmured Jiddy, meekly.

“Well, marriage isn’t a crime,” said Eustace, raising his eyebrows. “What is the meaning of the remark?”

“Eh?” answered Dolly, vacantly, with another scowl at Cleopatra. “Oh, nothing only—oh, bother! they’ve gone into the next room. Come, Jiddy!” and the young man vanished into the crowd, accompanied by his umbra, leaving Eustace in a state of considerable bewilderment.

“Is the boy mad,” said that gentleman to himself, “or only jealous? The latter, I think. He sees it too. Confound it! What does it mean? She’s surely not going to fight an enemy unworthy of her spear? Yet, I don’t know. Women are strange creatures. She must have some reason. I’ll go and see what Major Griff says about it.”

That redoubtable warrior, looking stiffer, airier, and more military than ever, was talking in his sharp voice to a ponderous gentleman somewhat after the Dr. Johnson type, who was listening attentively.

“Yes, sir,” the Major was saying, “I am growing tired of town. I think I’ll take a run across to New York.”

“And Mrs. Veilsturm?”

“I am not aware what Mrs. Veilsturm’s plans may be,” said Griff, in a frigid tone, “as she does not honour me with her confidence so far.”

The ponderous gentleman smiled meaningly, as he, in common with the rest of society, was beginning to doubt the platonic relationship said to exist between the Major and Cleopatra. Major Griff saw the smile, and, ever on the alert to defend Mrs. Veilsturm from the slightest breath of scandal, would have made some sharp remark, but at that moment Eustace touched him on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, Major,” he said courteously, “but could I speak to you for a few moments?”

“Certainly, certainly,” answered Griff, with great readiness. “Mr. Waldon, we will resume our conversation on some other occasion.”

He was always willing to oblige Eustace from motives of diplomacy, as he was well aware Mr. Gartney was to a certain extent behind the scenes, and judged himself and Cleopatra from a very different standpoint to that of the world. Eustace indeed knew that both Major Griff and his fair friend were neither more nor less than a couple of clever adventurers, but with indolent good nature he never imparted this opinion to any one, as he saw no reason to topple down the house of cards they had so laboriously built up. Besides, he hated the trouble which the exposing of the pair would entail, and, in his innermost heart deeming them not much worse than the rest of London society, he permitted them to continue their predatory career unchecked. The Major knew that Eustace would leave himself and partner alone, but was always scrupulously polite to him, so that nothing disagreeable should arise to mar the perfect understanding between them.

“I’m glad to see you back again, Mr. Gartney,” said the Major, mendaciously, when they were established in a comfortable corner out of earshot.

“It’s very kind of you to say so,” responded Gartney, who quite appreciated and understood the sincerity of the remark, “I thought you would have been glad to have heard of my death in Arabia.”

“And why?” demanded Griff, warmly—“why, Mr. Gartney?”

“Oh, if you don’t know I’m sure I can’t tell you,” retorted Eustace, maliciously; “but don’t trouble yourself to pay fictitious compliments, Major. I think we understand one another.”

“Of course,” assented the Major, with great dignity; “between gentlemen there is always a sympathetic feeling.”

Gartney would have liked to have argued this point, but having no time to do so, he merely shrugged his shoulders, and resumed the conversation.

“I brought my cousin, Sir Guy Errington, here to-day.”

“The devil you did!” ejaculated Griff, considerably astonished.

Struck by the Major’s tone, Eustace fixed his eyes keenly on him.

“If you doubt me,” he said coolly, “you will be convinced by going to the refreshment room, where, at present, he is in conversation with Mrs. Veilsturm.”

“Egad! she’s got him at last,” muttered Griff, pulling his grey moustache with an air of vexation.

“What do you say?” asked Gartney sharply.

Major Griff did not answer, being apparently in deep thought, but when Gartney addressed him the second time he had evidently made up his mind what course to pursue, and spoke accordingly.

“It doesn’t suit me,” said the Major deliberately, “and I’m sure it won’t suit you, nor your cousin, nor your cousin’s wife.”

“It is as I thought,” observed Eustace coolly; “there is something at the bottom of all this, therefore, if you will be less enigmatic, Major, I shall understand your meaning all the sooner.”

“I don’t like to show my hand,” remarked Griff, taking an illustration from his favourite pursuit, “but in this case I’ll treat you as a partner and do so. I know why you want to speak to me.”

“Do you?” said Eustace imperturbably.

“Yes! She”—referring to Mrs. Veilsturm—“is no doubt making the running with Sir Guy Errington to an extent which surprises you, and you want to know the reason.”

“Seeing that my cousin is not rich enough to tempt either Mrs. V. or yourself, I do,” returned Eustace with brutal candour.

Whereupon, the Major, like the daring old campaigner he was, told Gartney the whole story of the card episode, to which he listened attentively, and saw clearly the pit into which he had innocently led his cousin.

“Well, Mr. Gartney,” said Griff, when the story was finished and Eustace made no remark, “what do you say?”

Eustace took out his watch and glanced at the time before replying. Then he replaced it in his pocket and answered the Major.

“At present, I say nothing; later on, I may.”

“Oh, ho!” quoth Griff sharply, “then you have some idea—”

“I have no idea whatever,” replied Gartney sharply. “Your story was quite new to me. I brought my cousin here innocently enough, and if Mrs. Veilsturm thinks him sufficiently handsome to captivate, that’s her business, not mine.”

He turned on his heel and went off, leaving Griff staring after him in the most astonished manner.

“What does it mean?” pondered the old campaigner. “Oh! he doesn’t seem to mind Maraquita playing the devil with his cousin, as she intends to. Now I shouldn’t wonder,” said the Major grimly, “I shouldn’t wonder a bit if there was another lady mixed up in this affair.”

Chapter 24
“On Revient Toujours À Ses Premières Amours”

“You have returned,
    I thought you would,
Tho’ you I spurned,
You have returned;
The lesson learned
    Will do you good.
You have returned,
    I thought you would.”

When Otterburn disappeared so suddenly from the sight of his friend, he had gone straight across the room to where a slender girl dressed in a dark-green walking costume was standing near the door.

“Can you remember an old friend, Miss Sheldon?” he said in a low voice.

She turned round with a cry of surprise, flushing violently as she recognised him, and held out her hand with the greatest self-possession.

“Of course Mr. Macjean! My memory is not quite so short as you think.”

They were both overcome by this unexpected meeting, but as the eyes of the world were on them they were perforce obliged to hide their emotions under a polite mask of indifference. No one, looking at this charming girl and this handsome young man, would have thought there was anything between them but the merest feelings of acquaintanceship. And yet they were both profoundly moved, and each, in some instinctive way, guessed the feelings of the other, although their greeting was so cold and studied.

“I did not expect to meet you here,” said Victoria in a friendly tone.

“I suppose not,” replied Otterburn politely, “as I only returned to Town about three weeks ago.’

“You have been away?”

“All over the world. Africa is the only place left for me to explore.”

“And I daresay you are thinking of going there next?” Otterburn laughed.

“Perhaps! It all depends.”

“Upon what?”

“Truth to tell, I hardly know,” answered Macjean coolly. “Whims, fancies and desires of sport, I think.”

“He doesn’t care a bit about me or he would not talk so coldly about going away,” thought Victoria, with a sad feeling at her heart, but, being too proud to show her real feelings, merely laughed as she answered his remark.

“There’s nothing like enthusiasm! Well, Mr. Macjean, I’m glad to see you again.”

“Do you really mean that?” he said anxiously, “or is it only the conventional society phrase?”

“Why should you think so?” replied Miss Sheldon in a displeased tone. “You know I always spoke my mind regardless of social observances.”

“I have not forgotten that,” observed Otterburn quietly. “Candour is such a wonderful thing to meet with now-a-days, that anyone with such a virtue is sure to be remembered.”

“For nine days, I suppose?” she said jestingly.

“Yes! or eighteen months,” he responded meaningly.

Otterburn was evidently as audacious as ever in trespassing upon dangerous ground, so Victoria, although her heart beat rapidly at his last remark, deftly turned the conversation as she used to do in the old days.

“You have an excellent memory, Mr. Macjean,” she said gaily, “but you have forgotten that I have been standing for the last ten minutes, that you have not asked me to have a cup of tea, and that I’m both tired and thirsty.”

“A thousand pardons,” said Otterburn, penitently offering his arm. “I plead guilty! As you are strong, be merciful.”

“To your failings, certainly! I’ve got too many of my own to refuse absolution. Oh, there’s Miss Lossins going to sing. I can’t bear these drawing-room songs, so let us go at once.”

She took his arm, and as they moved downstairs he felt a thrill run through his body at the light pressure of her hand. He felt inclined to speak boldly then and there, but a vague fear of the result withheld him, and in the presence of the woman he loved, Angus Macjean, man of the world as he was, felt like an awkward schoolboy.

On her part, Victoria felt that she still had an influence on his life, and derived from this instinctive feeling a wonderful amount of pleasure, which could only have been engendered in her breast by a sentiment of reciprocity.

Owing to some ridiculous feeling of pride, neither of them referred to Como during the whole of their conversation, as their parting at that place had been so painful, and although they were both thinking about it yet they talked of everything in the world except what was uppermost in their minds. They had thought of, dreamt of, loved, and desired one another all through these weary eighteen months, and now when they were together and a word would have removed all misunderstandings, neither the man nor the woman had the courage to utter it.

At present, however, they were downstairs indulging in the slight dissipation of afternoon tea, and Victoria, knowing that Otterburn was still her admirer, was quite at her ease, talking gaily about everything and everyone.

“This is awfully nice tea,” she said, nodding her head to the Master. “Why don’t you try some?”

“I will, on your recommendation,” he replied, taking a cup the maid was holding out, “but won’t you have some cake?”

“If there’s some very curranty cake, I will,” said Miss Sheldon gluttonously. “I’ll have the brown outside piece.”

“Why should that be more desirable than any other piece?” said Macjean as she took it.

“More currants in it! I’m fond of currants.”

“So it seems.”

“Now don’t be severe. Let’s talk about something else. Mr. Gartney, for instance.”

“Oh, he’s here to-day.”

“Is he really? I thought it would be too frivolous for him. The Arabian desert is more in his style.”

“Well, judging from his book, the Arabian Desert is not entirely devoid of feminine interest.”

“Don’t be horrid! It’s a very charming book.”

“Nobody said it wasn’t. But I’m astonished to hear you defend Gartney like this. You used to hate him.”

“No, no! I didn’t exactly hate him, but I must say I didn’t like him.”

“Isn’t that splitting straws?”

“Not at all,” retorted Miss Sheldon gaily, “the two things are widely different. But to return to Mr. Gartney. He’s really very nice.”

“I’m so glad you think so,” said Otterburn gravely. “I’ll tell him so.”

“No, don’t,” exclaimed Victoria, with genuine alarm. “I wouldn’t have him know it for the world.”

“Why hide the Sheldon light under the Gartney bushel?”

“You’re talking nonsense, but you always did talk nonsense. But, good gracious, look at the time—six o’clock.”

“Oh, that clock’s wrong.”

“So am I—in listening to you. Mr. Macjean, I must go. My chaperon will be waiting for me.”

“Who is your chaperon?” asked Otterburn, as they ascended the stairs. “Mrs. Trubbles?”

“No! she’s in the country. Now I am under the care of Mrs. Dills. Do you know her?”

“Only as the wife of Mr. Dills.”

“She’s a most amiable woman, but not pretty.”

“Curious thing, amiable women never are.”

“How cruel—to me.”

“Pardon! you are the exception—”

“To prove your extremely severe rule! Thank you!”

Talking in this light and airy manner, which was really assumed to hide their real feelings, Miss Sheldon and her lover arrived at the drawing-room, found Mrs. Dills, small, spiteful and vivacious, to whom Victoria introduced the Master, and then went off to say goodbye to Mrs. Veilsturm.

When she returned, and Otterburn was escorting her downstairs in the train of Mrs. Dills he noticed a puzzled look on her face, and promptly asked the reason of it. She did not answer at first, but as they stood on the step, waiting for the carriage, suddenly asked him a question.

“Who introduced Sir Guy Errington to Mrs. Veilsturm?”

“Gartney did—to-day.”

“To-day,” she repeated, in astonishment. “Why from their manner to one another I thought they were old friends.”

“Mrs. Veilsturm has such a sympathetic manner you see.”

“Yes, very sympathetic,” replied Victoria, sarcastically. “But here is the carriage Goodbye, Mr. Macjean. Come and call on Aunt Jelly.”

“Certainly! I am anxious to make the acquaintance of Aunt Jelly.”

“So anxious that you delayed the pleasure by three months,” replied Miss Sheldon laughing, as the carriage drove away, leaving Otterburn on the steps in a very jubilant frame of mind.

When he had somewhat recovered his presence of mind, he went off to find Eustace, being so overburdened with his secret happiness that he felt it a necessity to speak to some one on the subject. Eustace knew all about his passion, Eustace had been a good friend in finding out Victoria’s sentiments towards him, so Eustace was undoubtedly the proper person to speak to in this emergency.

After a hunt of some moments’ duration, he found Mr. Gartney in company with Errington, talking to Mrs. Veilsturm, and while the latter seemed flushed and excited, the face of the former wore an enigmatic smile. Mrs. Veilsturm herself had been aroused from her habitual languor, and was chatting gaily, while Major Griff, ostensibly talking to Dolly Thambits, was in reality looking at Errington with a frown. It was quite a little comedy, and Eustace alone possessed the requisite understanding to enjoy it, although from the studied expression of his face it was impossible to tell his real feelings.

Otterburn touched Eustace on the shoulder, and drew him away from the group.

“I say, I believe it’s all right,” he said, in a eager whisper.

“What is all right?” asked Eustace, in a puzzled voice.

“Oh, you know,” replied Otterburn, with some disgust at his friend’s density. “I met Miss Sheldon here, and—and I spoke to her.”

“Oh, that’s it, is it?” observed Gartney, with a kindly smile. “I suppose I must congratulate you?”

“Not yet. But I think it’s all right,” said Otterburn, repeating his first remark. “The way she talked, you know, and I talked also, and—and—”

“And you’re counting your chickens before they’re hatched,” said Gartney impatiently. “Don’t be angry, Macjean,” he added, seeing Angus looked annoyed, “it’s only my fun! I think it will be all right—that is if she’s forgiven you for the Como business.”

“Eh?” said Otterburn, obtusely. “I think it’s she who requires to be forgiven.”

“I’m afraid you won’t find her take that view of the question,” replied Gartney cruelly. “In love, the woman is always right and the man everlastingly wrong.”

“What a dog-in-the-manger you are, Gartney,” said Otterburn angrily, the brightness dying out of his face, “you won’t love anyone yourself, or let anyone else do it. I tell you Miss Sheldon and myself understand one another. She asked me to call and see Aunt Jelly.”

“How delightful—for Aunt Jelly,” remarked Eustace sarcastically. “I hope the pair of you won’t indulge in sentiment before the old lady—she doesn’t believe in it.”

“I’ll take my chance of that,” observed Angus cheerfully. “But I’ve got such a lot to tell you about Victoria. Come along with me to the Club.”

“Very well,” replied Gartney, in a resigned manner. “It seems my fate to hear love confidences. I’ll come as soon as I can persuade Guy to leave Mrs. Veilsturm, or rather as soon as I can persuade Mrs. Veilsturm to let Guy go.”

“It seems to me six of one and half a dozen of the other, as far as that goes,” said Otterburn shrewdly.

Eustace did not reply, but walked up to his cousin and the lady.

“I’m afraid we must go, Mrs. Veilsturm,” he said, smiling at Cleopatra.

“Oh, it’s early yet,” remarked Cleopatra languidly. “Must you go, Sir Guy?”

“I suppose so,” answered Errington, looking at his watch. “Time, tide and dinner wait for no man. It’s past six.”

“So like a man,” laughed Cleopatra, “thinking of his dinner before everything else.”

“No, really,” responded Errington, colouring at this rude remark, “but I’ve got an engagement, and I always like to be punctual.”

“In that case don’t forget my ‘At Home’ next week,” said the lady, with a bewitching glance.

“Oh, no, I won’t forget that,” replied Errington coolly, much more coolly than Cleopatra liked, but she suppressed her anger at his nonchalance, and turned to Eustace.

“Goodbye, Mr. Gartney, so good of you to have come to-day. Mr. Maclean, I’ve no doubt I’ll see you to-night at Lady Kerstoke’s dance. Sir Guy, I hope you will find your way here again. Goodbye, all of you,” and then her attention was claimed by another batch of departing guests, while the three gentlemen went downstairs.

“Well,” said Eustace, with a sigh of relief, as they walked down Park Lane, “I must candidly confess I hate ‘At Homes.”

“Oh, no,” replied Otterburn, with his mind full of Victoria, “they’re very jolly.”

“Oh, for the freshness of youth!” sighed Gartney, looking at the bright face of his companion. “Guy, what is your opinion?”

“What about?” asked Errington, rousing himself from a fit of abstraction. “Mrs. Veilsturm?”

“We were talking about ‘At Homes,’ ” said Eustace, equably, “but as you’ve mentioned Mrs. Veilsturm, what is your opinion on that lady?”

“She’s very pleasant, but rather overpowering,” was Errington’s verdict.

“And that’s her reward for devoting the whole afternoon to you—‘Oh, the ingratitude of man!’ ”

“She’s not a woman I would fall in love with,” said Otterburn, with an air of having settled the question.

“Nor I,” echoed Sir Guy, so very resolutely that Eustace knew at once he was doubtful of his own strength of will.

“Self righteous Pharisees, both,” he said scoffingly, “you talk bravely, but if Cleopatra put forth her strength she could twist you both round her finger.”

Chapter 25
Fascination

“Snake! snake! your treacherous eyes,
Grow and deepen to marvellous skies,
Stars shine out in the rosy space,
Every star is a woman’s face,
Flushed and wreathed with amorous smiles,
Drawing my soul with magical wiles,
Vision! while I am rapt in thee,
Death is coming unknown to me.
Snake hath caught me fast in his toils,
Round me winding his shining coils,
Ah, from dreams with a start I wake,
Thou hast stung me, oh cruel snake.”

Most men of strongly imaginative natures are superstitious, and Gartney was no exception to the rule, his instinctive leanings in this direction having been strengthened to a considerable extent by his contact with the fatalistic dreamers of the East. He had travelled over a goodly portion of the world without having been infected by the habits or thoughts of the so-called civilized races but the many months he had dwelt among the descendants of Ishmael, had inoculated him imperceptibly with their strong belief in predestination. In fact, his adaptability to the ways and customs of the East, seemed, to himself, so marvellous, that he almost inclined to the theory of transmigration, and believed he had lived before amid these lonely deserts.

At all events, his last sojourn among them had developed his instinctive vein of superstition in the strongest fashion, and he came back to England fully convinced that all things were preordained by the deity we call Fate. It was a very convenient doctrine, as it enabled him to blame a supernatural power for his own shortcomings, and when anything happened out of the ordinary course of events, he said “Kismet,” like the veriest follower of Mahomet.

With this belief, it was little to be wondered at that he believed he saw the finger of Fate intervening in the matter of his love for Lady Errington, and argued the question in this style:

On his return to England, he had determined to abstain from seeing Alizon so as to keep out of the way of temptation, but Fate, in the person of Aunt Jelly, had forced him to meet her against his will in order to see if he could bring about an understanding between the young couple. Yielding to his passion, he had made up his mind to gratify it, but moved by the spectacle of Guy’s misery, had gained a victory over himself, and strove to reconcile husband and wife.

With this aim, he had taken Guy up to Town, thinking a short absence might be beneficial, but Fate for the second time interfered, and in the most innocent fashion in the world he (Fate’s instrument) had delivered the young man into the power of his bitterest enemy, by introducing him to Mrs. Veilsturm. She hated Lady Errington, and would certainly do her best to estrange husband and wife still further, thus the field was left open to Eustace to declare his dishonourable passion.

Twice, therefore, had he striven to conquer his feeling, and twice Fate had intervened, so that he now felt inclined to fight no longer. Had he given way to his present desires, he would have left Guy to the tender mercies of Cleopatra, and gone down to stay at Castle Grim from whence he would have been able to go over to Errington Hall daily and pay his court to Alizon. All feelings of honour, however, were not absolutely dead in his breast, so he determined to await the course of events and see if Mrs. Veilsturm would manage to subjugate Guy, in which case he determined to interfere. He knew quite enough about Mrs. Veilsturm, for his opinion to carry considerable weight with that lady, and although it was not a pleasant thing to step between a panther and its prey, yet he made up his mind to do so should occasion arise. But if Fate intervened for the third time, and rendered his trouble useless, Eustace felt in his own heart that further struggling against Destiny would be beyond his strength.

At present, however, he had rather over-estimated the situation, as Guy was by no means the abject slave of Mrs. Veilsturm he deemed him to be. Love for Alizon, although but ill-requited, still had possession of Guy’s whole being, and formed a safeguard against the dangerous assaults of Cleopatra. Errington was constantly in attendance on her, and she put forth all her arts to enmesh him in her toils, but although three weeks had now passed, she saw that she had not made much headway. Guy liked her for her kindly manner towards him, admired her for her beauty, felt flattered by her preference, but in reality was as heart-whole as when he first saw her, and had his wife lifted her little finger, he would have flown to her side without a moment’s hesitation.

Cleopatra was much too clever a woman not to see this, and felt rather nettled that any man should dare to withstand her charms. Moreover, being bent on separating Errington from his wife, she had a very powerful reason to do her best in reducing him to a state of bondage; therefore spared neither time nor trouble in attempting to do so. Errington’s love for his wife, however, stood him in good stead, and despite the temptations to which he was subjected, he did not succumb in any way.

Major Griff was by no means pleased with this new fancy of his friend and partner. As a rule, by dexterous management, he could make her do what he liked, but on some occasions she broke away from leading-strings, and did what she pleased. This present desire to captivate Errington was due, not to a feeling of love, but to the more powerful one of revenge, and Griff, being an astute reader of character, saw that in her present frame of mind he could do nothing with her.

It was a terrible trouble to the Major that things should be like this, as during this season Rumour had once more been busy with Cleopatra’s name, and to such a good purpose, that many doors hitherto open were now closed against her. Society began to talk of the number of men who had lost large sums of money at Mrs. Veilsturm’s, hinted that the West Indian estates were a myth, and that Cleopatra was no better than an adventuress. Society suddenly discovered that it had been deceived, that a base woman had passed herself off as the purest of her sex, that it had nourished a viper in its bosom; so now Society, in righteous wrath, was prepared to denounce Mrs. Veilsturm and Major Griff with the bitterest vindictiveness from the house-tops. The storm had not broken yet, but could be heard muttering in the distance, and now this foolish passion of Cleopatra so openly displayed would accelerate the period of its bursting.

The Major, having his eyes and ears open on every possible occasion, saw all this, and took measures to secure a safe retreat in case of an unexpected collapse of the London campaign. America was to be the next field of the firm’s operations, and both the Major and his fair friend had determined to signalize their departure by a grand fancy dress ball, to which friends and foes alike were to be invited, after which they could depart with flying colours to New York.

This little scheme had been very nicely arranged, but unluckily this Errington affair threatened to upset the whole business. Knowing she had very little time at her disposal, and being determined to ruin Guy’s life if she possibly could, Cleopatra went beyond all the bounds of prudence, and blazoned her preference for Errington so very openly that everyone was scandalized.

In vain the Major implored Cleopatra to be cautious and not ruin everything by her mad folly; but, carried away by a fierce feeling of revenge against Lady Errington, she merely laughed at his entreaties and prosecuted her scheme of entangling Guy with redoubled ardour. Major Griff spoke to Eustace, thinking he could stop the affair by taking his cousin away, but Gartney, being determined to leave the matter in the hands of Fate, simply shrugged his shoulders and said he could do nothing. Being therefore unable to do anything, the Major could only look on in a cold fury at Cleopatra striving to ruin herself, Errington, and himself in a fit of mad anger.

Mrs. Veilsturm’s intimate friends were also very indignant about what they pleased to call her infatuation, little dreaming of the real reason of this sudden passion. It was only the Major’s influence over Mr. Dolser that kept the affair out of the scurrilous pages of “The Pepper Box,” but although it had not appeared in print, the whole affair was an open secret.

Dolly Thambits, who was in love with Cleopatra, was furious at the way in which he was neglected, but this kind of treatment only made him all the more in love with his disdainful mistress, much to the relief of Griff, who was afraid that the boy would escape from his toils.

In the midst of this whirl of rage, envy, and revenge, Guy, seeing no special favour in Cleopatra’s condescension, was quite cool and composed, being the most unconcerned person of the whole lot. Of course, no one dared to speak to him about the real facts of the case, and of the enmity he had provoked, so he remained in complete ignorance, anxiously awaiting for a letter from his wife asking him to return.

That letter never came, however, for Alizon was perfectly happy with her baby, and missed Errington no more than if he had been a stock or stone. She knew nothing of the perils to which her husband was exposed, and, curiously enough, none of her London friends wrote and told her, else she might have been for once startled from the serene pleasures of motherhood.

According to his promise, Otterburn called upon Aunt Jelly, and was graciously received by that strong-minded lady, who took a great fancy to him. As yet, he had not spoken outright to Victoria, but still the young couple understood one another, and such understanding was approved of by Miss Corbin, who saw in Otterburn the very husband she would have chosen for her ward. So Otterburn called on the old lady pretty often, and brought her all the news of the town, while Victoria, feeling completely at rest concerning her lover, listened quietly.

All her ideas of making Otterburn propose, and then refusing him out of revenge, had quite vanished, as she was now passionately in love with him, and according to the position now strangely altered since those old days at Como, it was for her to crave and for him to grant. Otterburn, however, knew nothing of this, but wooed in all honour and timidity, while Aunt Jelly, like a good but grim cherub, looked on in silent approval.

It was during one of Otterburn’s visits, that by chance he let fall something of what was going on between Mrs. Veilsturm and Guy, whereupon the old lady, having an eye like a hawk, immediately saw that something was going on of which she knew nothing. With this idea she waited till Maclean departed, and then put Victoria through her facings, with the result that she found out all about it and was terribly wroth against her nephew.

Eustace called to see her, and she spoke to him about it, but Eustace point-blank refused to interfere again, saying he had done his best, but could now do no more. Aunt Jelly, therefore, being alarmed, not only for the happiness but for the respectability of the Errington household, wrote a note to Guy, asking him to call.

Having despatched this, she worked herself up into such a fury over the whole affair that she took a fit, and for some time was in danger of dying, but her indomitable spirit asserted itself, and with iron determination she arose from her bed of sickness to see her nephew.

It was a fight between Cleopatra and Aunt Jelly for possession of Guy, but all this time Guy had no more idea of playing his wife false, than he had of returning Mrs. Veilsturm’s openly-displayed passion.

Chapter 26
Aunt Jelly Interferes

“What vows you made at the marriage altar,
    For better and worse, to take your wife;
Yet at the moment of need you falter,
    Quail at rumours of coming strife.
Nay, it were wiser to cling and cherish,
    Altho’ things evil be said and done;
If in the future you both should perish,
    Husband and wife should be lost as one.”

Aunt Jelly was looking very pale and ill on the day she elected to see Guy in order to expostulate with him on the wild way in which he was behaving. She was suffering from a very serious disease connected with the heart, and Dr. Pargowker warned her against any undue excitement, as it might prove fatal. He was seated with her now, a fat, oily man of the Chadband species, and talked about her ill-health in his usual unctuous manner.

In her accustomed chair sat Miss Corbin, looking worn with illness, but as grim and defiant as ever, while the doctor standing near her felt her pulse with one hand, and held his watch with the other. Minnie, ever watchful of her patroness’s comfort, hovered round like an unquiet spirit, bringing all sorts of unnecessary things, which made Aunt Jelly very irritable and led her to say unpleasant things to Miss Pelch which reduced the poetess to tears.

“Well?” said Miss Corbin sharply, when Dr. Pargowker had finished with her pulse, “what do you say? Is this illness serious?”

The doctor lifted one fat white hand in gentle protest, and resumed his seat with a comfortable sigh.

“No, dearest lady, no,” he said in his heavy, soft voice, “do not I beg of you think you are so bad as all that. You remind me, if I may be permitted to make the comparison, of a dear friend of mine who departed—”

“Bother your dear friend!” snapped Aunt Jelly in her grimmest manner. “I didn’t ask you here to tell me other people’s histories. I want to know about my own state of health.”

Dr. Pargowker folded his chubby hands complacently on his rotund stomach and meekly ventured a protest against this language.

“Do not, oh dearest lady,” he said unctuously, “do not excite yourself like this. It is bad for you, dearest lady, very bad.”

“Very bad, dear Miss Corbin,” echoed Minnie tearfully.

“And might lead to complications,” pursued the doctor, shaking his head.

“Complications,” echoed Miss Pelch, putting her handkerchief to her eyes.

“Minnie,” said Aunt Jelly politely, “you’re getting a bigger fool every day. Have the goodness to hold your tongue and not talk of things you know nothing about. Dr. Pargowker, if you will kindly leave off nodding your head like a Chinese mandarin, and tell me straight out what you mean, I should feel obliged.”

“Dearest lady,” growled the doctor, “it is useless to conceal from you the painful fact that you are very ill.”

“I know that sir,” retorted Aunt Jelly coolly, “go on.”

“You must avoid all undue excitement, such as dances, theatres, and seeing friends.”

“I haven’t been to a dance for the last twenty years,” said Miss Corbin wrathfully, “and as for a theatre, I’ve got no time to waste on that rubbish. What do you mean by talking such nonsense to me?”

“Easily upset, I see,” murmured Pargowker, apparently to himself, “very easily upset.”

“Wouldn’t you like a little pillow for your head, dear Miss Jelly?” said Minnie, holding one over Miss Corbin as though she were going to play Othello to the old lady’s Desdemona.

“I’d like a little common sense,” retorted Miss Corbin, pushing away the pillow, “but it seems I’m not likely to get it.”

“Be calm, dear lady, be calm,” observed Dr. Pargowker, nodding his head. “If you will permit me, I will write out a prescription.”

“Pen, ink, and paper, Minnie!” ordered Aunt Jelly, glaring at the doctor.

The obliging Minnie flew to obtain these necessaries, and having done so, placed them on a little table near the physician, who wheeled his chair round and began to write.

Aunt Jelly and Dr. Pargowker were old friends, and never parted without a fight, which, however, was principally conducted by Miss Corbin, as the doctor resolutely kept his temper, and always left the room as bland, cool, and unruffled as when he entered it. In spite of his round-about way of putting things, Pargowker was really very clever at his profession, and Aunt Jelly reposed the utmost confidence in his power, although she never could resist using her sharp tongue on him when occasion offered, and as it did so now, Aunt Jelly began to talk, showing thereby that she was not so ill as she seemed.

“Lord knows how you get patients,” she said, folding her bony hands, “it’s all chat with you and nothing else.”

“Dear, dear,” murmured Pargowker, going on placidly with his writing, “this is bad, very, very bad.”

“Are you talking about your prescription, or yourself?” snapped Miss Corbin, dauntlessly. “I daresay they’re much of a muchness. If one doesn’t kill me, I’ve no doubt the other will.”

“Pardon me, dearest lady,” said the doctor, smiling blandly, “you are in error. This prescription will do you a great deal of good. Oh, we will pull you round, yes—yes. I think I may venture to say we will pull you round.”

“Pull me round or square, it’s easily seen I’m not long for this world,” replied Miss Corbin.

“Oh, do not speak like that, Miss Jelly,” whimpered Minnie, “you will get quite well, I’m sure of it.”

“Aye! aye!” remarked Pargowker, folding up his prescription. “While there’s life, there’s hope.”

“Don’t quote your proverbs to me,” said Aunt Jelly, determined not to be pleased by anything, “they’re nothing but traditional lies; but seriously speaking, doctor, if you can speak seriously, which I’m very much inclined to doubt, I want to see my nephew, Sir Guy Errington, to-day.”

“No! dearest lady, no!” said Pargowker, rising from his seat, and raising one hand in protest, “pardon me, no!—the very worst person you could see!”

“If you knew him as well as I do, you might well say that,” replied Miss Corbin, malignantly, “but I must see him. It’s imperative.”

“If you will not excite yourself—”

“I’m not going to excite myself,” retorted Aunt Jelly, “but I’m going to excite him.”

Dr. Pargowker took up his hat and buttoned his coat with the air of a man who washed his hands of the whole affair.

“If you attend to my orders,” he said, speaking more sharply than was usual with him, “you will see no one. But I know you of old, Miss Corbin. You expect to be cured, but won’t do what you’re told.”

“Good Heavens!” ejaculated Aunt Jelly, with feeble merriment. “Have you taken to poetry also? The idea is good, doctor, but the poetry is worse than Minnie’s.”

“Oh, Miss Jelly!” murmured Minnie, in tearful protest.

“Well, well,” said Pargowker, good-humouredly, shaking hands with Miss Corbin, “poetry or not, dear lady, do what I tell you. Keep yourself calm, see no one, take this prescription, and I think, yes, I think you will be quite safe.”

“I’ve no doubt about it,” cried Aunt Jelly, as he paused at the door, “safe for the nearest cemetery. Go along with you, doctor. I tell you I’ve made up my mind to see my nephew. It’s a case of life and death.”

“Certainly with you, dear lady—certainly with you,” said Dr. Pargowker emphatically. “Miss Pelch, will you honour me by seeing me to the door?”

“You want to talk about me behind my back,” said Miss Corbin, suspiciously. “It’s no use. I’ll make Minnie tell me everything.” She darted a threatening look at that young lady, which made her shake, and then Minnie disappeared through the door, while the doctor prepared to follow, first giving a parting word to his refractory patient.

“It’s no use, dear lady,” he said, with playful ponderousness, “calling in the doctor if you don’t intend to obey him.”

“I never obeyed anyone in my life,” said Aunt Jelly, stiffening her back, “and I’m certainly not going to begin with you.”

“Dearest Miss Corbin, I am in earnest.”

“So am I,” retorted the old lady, frowning. “There! there! go away, I’ll do everything you tell me, but I must see my nephew to-day.”

Dr. Pargowker sighed, yielded to stern necessity, and spoke.

“Well, you can do so, my dear, old friend, but only for five minutes—only for five minutes.”

“Quite enough for all I’ve got to say.”

The doctor looked waggishly at Miss Corbin, in order to keep up her spirits, but his face grew very grave as he spoke to Minnie at the door.

“She must not see anyone,” he said emphatically, “mind that, Miss Pelch. I was obliged to say she could speak to Sir Guy Errington for five minutes, as she grows so excited over being contradicted. If he does come, let her see him for that time, but don’t let her grow excited. I’ll call in again to-night, to see how she is.”

“Is she very ill?” asked Minnie in dismay.

“So ill,” said Pargowker, putting on his hat, “that if she’s not kept absolutely quiet, she won’t recover.”

“Oh!” said Miss Pelch in an alarmed tone, and would have asked more questions, only Dr. Pargowker was already in his brougham, on his way to another patient.

Minnie returned to the drawing-room, with a cheerful face, so as not to let Miss Corbin see her feelings, but that indomitable lady was determined to have the truth, and tackled her at once.

“Well, what did he say?” she demanded, sharply.

“Only that you were to keep yourself quiet, dear Miss Jelly,” replied Minnie, taking up her work, a green parrot being embroidered on a red tree, against a yellow ground and a purple sky.

“What else?”

“Nothing!”

“Minnie, you are deceiving me,” said Aunt Jelly solemnly. “I can see it in your face. Do you think it’s right to deceive a dying person?”

“You’re not dying,” whimpered Minnie, beginning to cry.

“I’m not far off it, at all events,” retorted Miss Corbin, with a sigh. “I know my own constitution quite as well as that fool of a doctor, and I’m pretty sure I won’t get well this time.”

“Oh, but you will—you will,” cried Minnie, weeping.

“Pooh! nonsense, child,” said Miss Corbin, kindly, “don’t waste your tears over an old woman like me. I’ve had a long life, but by no means a happy one. Quantity not quality, I suppose. If I can only see Victoria engaged to that nice Macjean boy, and persuade my nephew out of his folly, I’ll not be sorry to go.”

“Dr. Pargowker said you were not to see Sir Guy longer than five minutes, Miss Jelly.”

“Quite long enough.”

“And were not to excite yourself.”

“There, there, Minnie!” said Miss Jelly, impatiently. “I’ll take good care of myself, you may be sure. What time did Sir Guy say he would be here?”

“Four o’clock, dear Miss Corbin.”

“It’s nearly that now,” observed Aunt Jelly, looking at the clock. “I hope he won’t keep me waiting. Young men are so careless now-a-days. Miss Sheldon has gone out?”

“Yes! to the Academy with Mrs. Trubbles and Mr. Macjean.”

“Neither of whom know anything about pictures. It means flirting, not art, I’ve no doubt. Well! well, we must not be too hard on the young. Let me leave the world in peace, that’s all I ask.”

Minnie put down her work, and came close to Miss Corbin, whose thin cold hand she took in her own.

“Dear Miss Jelly, don’t talk like that,” she said, softly, “indeed you will get well, I’m sure you will.”

“No, child, no!”

“Oh, but, yes,” persisted her companion, fondly. “Why, whatever would I do, if you did not live to read my little volume?”

“Oh, it’s coming out, then?” said Aunt Jelly, grimly, with a flash of her old spirit.

“Yes, Mr. Gartney has arranged it all. I was going to keep it a secret, but when you talk about dying, I can’t,” and poor Minnie fairly broke down, which touched Aunt Jelly more than she liked to acknowledge.

“There! there!” she said, touching Minnie’s face, with unaccustomed tenderness, “you’re a good child, Minnie. Tell me all about this poetry book.”

“It’s going to be called ‘Heart Throbs and Sad Sobs, by Minnie Pelch,’ ” said the poetess, radiantly, “ ‘dedicated to Miss Angelica Corbin, by her sincere friend, the Authoress.’ ”

Aunt Jelly was silent for a few minutes, feeling, rather a choking in her throat. She had laughed at poor Minnie’s simple rhymes on many occasions, and now the poetess had returned good for evil, paying her the high compliment of inscribing her name on the front of the book. Minnie mistook her silence for indignation at not having asked permission, and tried to pacify the old lady.

“I hope you’re not angry,” she said, timidly smoothing Aunt Jelly’s hand, “but I wanted to surprise you by the dedication. There’s a poem about you too, Miss Jelly, and I think it’s the best in the book—really the best.”

The old lady was so touched by Minnie’s poor little attempt to propitiate her, that she could not trust herself to speak, and when she did there were tears rolling down her hard old face, as she bent down and kissed her.

“It’s very good of you, child,” she said, in a tremulous voice, “and I feel very much honoured, indeed. Perhaps I’ve not been so kind to you as I ought to have been.

“Oh, but you have!—you have!” cried Minnie, throwing herself on her knees, with tears in her eyes. “If it had not been for you, I would have starved, dear Miss Jelly. Indeed, I would. It is so hard to get paid for poetry. And you have been such a kind, good friend—such a kind good friend!”

“If I have spoken harshly to you, dear, on occasions,” said Aunt Jelly, brokenly, “it was from no want of feeling. Age, my dear Minnie, age, and an embittered nature. But the heart was there, my dear, all the time the heart was there.”

“I know it was!—I know it was!” wept Minnie, patting the withered hand of her old friend. “I have never doubted that.”

“Yes! yes!” muttered the old dame dreamily, “the heart was there.”

And there was silence for a few minutes, only broken by the sobs of Minnie, then Aunt Jelly recovered her usual manner with an effort, and ordered wine and cake to be placed on the table. Miss Pelch had barely time to do this, when there came a ring at the front door, and shortly afterwards Sir Guy Errington entered the room. Aunt Jelly, now quite her own grim self, received her nephew coldly, and then sent Minnie out of the room, as she wanted to talk to Sir Guy in private. Miss Pelch, however, mindful of the doctor’s order, did not go far, but waited in the hall, so as to be ready to enter when the five minutes had expired.

Guy looked rather haggard about the face, as he sat down near his elderly relation, which Aunt Jelly put down to fast living, although, in reality, it was due to worrying about his wife. This idea did not make her feel very tenderly towards Errington, and she prepared herself to do battle.

“So you’ve come at last?” she said, straightening her back, and folding her hands on her knees.

“I came as soon as you sent for me,” answered Guy, quietly.

“You should have come without an invitation,” said Aunt Jelly, with a frown, “but young men of the present day seem to take a delight in neglecting those nearest and dearest to them.”

This was said pointedly, with a view to drawing forth some remark about Alizon, but Guy did not take it in that sense.

“I don’t want to neglect you, aunt,” he said moodily, “but our conversations are not so pleasant that I should look forward to them.”

“I only speak for your good.”

“People always do that when they make disagreeable remarks,” replied Errington sarcastically. “You’re not looking well to-day, Aunt Jelly.”

“I don’t feel well either,” responded his aunt shortly. “I’m dying.”

“Oh, no, don’t say that,” said Guy, heartily shocked at her remark.

“But I will say it,” retorted Miss Corbin, nodding her head vigorously, “and I’ll say something else too that you won’t like.”

“I’ve no doubt you will,” answered Guy crossly, rising to his feet. “Look here, Aunt Jelly, you’re not well to-day, and if you brought me here to quarrel, I’m not fit for it.”

“You’re fit for nothing in my opinion except the Divorce Court,” said Aunt Jelly viciously. “Sit down.”

“I don’t know what you mean by talking about the Divorce Court,” answered Errington calmly, obeying her command.

“Think and see.”

“What’s the good of my doing that?” cried Errington angrily, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t shriek,” said Miss Corbin coolly, “it goes through my head.”

“I beg your pardon aunt,” replied Guy politely, “but if you would tell me what you’re driving at I would feel obliged.”

Aunt Jelly sat in silence for a moment, rapping the fingers of one hand on the knuckles of the other, then spoke out sharply.

“What’s all this talk about you and Mrs. Veilsturm?” Guy sat bolt upright in his chair and stared at her in amazement.

“Oh, is that it?” he said with a short laugh. “Don’t worry your head about Mrs. Veilsturm, aunt. All the world can know the relations that exist between us.”

“All the world does know.”

Errington arose from his seat with a smothered ejaculation, and thrusting his hands into his pockets, began to walk backwards and forwards.

“You needn’t use bad language, my dear Guy,” said Aunt Jelly, with aggravating placidity. “All I want to know is what you mean by leaving your wife and running after Mrs. Veilsturm?”

“I’m not running after Mrs. Veilsturm,” said her nephew angrily, “and I’ve not left my wife. I’m simply up in Town for a spell, and have called once or twice to see a very pleasant woman.”

“A very pleasant woman, indeed,” sneered Aunt Jelly scornfully.

“If you think so badly of her, I wonder you let your ward go near her.”

“I don’t know anything against the woman’s character,” replied Miss Corbin, “so there’s no reason I should keep Victoria away. I daresay she’s as bad as the rest of them, and conceals it better. But that’s nothing to do with my question. It has come to my ears that you are paying marked attentions to Mrs. Veilsturm, and I want to know if it is true.”

“No, it is not true?” answered Errington slowly. “I have been a great deal with Mrs. Veilsturm since I came up to Town, but that was simply because she asked me to visit her, and without being absolutely rude, I could not refuse.”

“A very nice explanation,” said his aunt disbelievingly, “but do you think it is one your wife will accept?”

“My wife knows nothing about my visits to Mrs. Veilsturm.”

“Indeed she does,” replied Aunt Jelly coolly. “I wrote and told her all about them.”

Guy’s face grew as pale as that of a corpse, and he stared at Miss Corbin as if he had been turned into stone. At length, with an effort, he arose to his feet and repeated her answer in a harsh, strained voice.

“You wrote and told her all about them?”

“Yes! I did not think your conduct was right, so, as your wife has most influence with you, I wrote and told her to call you back to Ellington.”

All the blood in his body seemed to surge up into his head with the violent effort he made to suppress his anger. Had it been any one else but this feeble old woman, he would have simply let his passion master him, but in this case, with such an adversary he could do nothing.

“God forgive you, Aunt Jelly,” he said at length, “you’ve done a cruel thing,” and he turned and walked slowly to the door.

“I have done what was right,” said Miss Corbin bravely. “You were deceiving your wife, and I was determined she should know of your deception.”

Sir Guy turned towards her as he paused at the door, and when she finished speaking, answered her slowly and deliberately.

“You are quite wrong. I was not deceiving my wife, as I can prove to you. As you know, my wife has treated me very cruelly during the last year, and neglected me in every way, giving all her love to the child. Eustace came down the other day, and advised me to leave my wife for a few weeks, thinking she would not be so indifferent on my return. I took his advice and came up to Town. Eustace took me to Mrs. Veilsturm, and finding her a very pleasant woman, I simply went there in order to amuse myself. But as for caring about her, I love and respect my wife and my name too much to degrade myself so far. Unluckily, until the other day, I did not remember that Alizon disliked Mrs. Veilsturm, because she was mixed up with her father in some way, and forbade her to visit at the Hall. Had I remembered this, I would not have gone there, but it’s too late now to think of it. By believing all these malicious stories, which I give you my word of honour have no foundation, and writing to her, she will believe that I went to see this woman on purpose, and she will never forgive me. I am going down to the Hall by to-night’s train, and will try and explain everything to her, but I’m afraid she will not believe me. No doubt you acted for the best, Aunt Jelly, but in doing so you have simply ruined my life.”

“Guy! Guy!” moaned the old woman, who had listened to all this with a sense of stunned amazement. “Forgive me! I did it for the best, but I will write again and tell her how wrong I have been.”

“It is too late,” he replied sadly, “too late.”

“No, it’s not too late, Guy. But forgive me! forgive me!”

Errington looked at her coldly.

“If my wife forgives me I will forgive you,” he answered, and left the room.

Aunt Jelly stared at the closed door, and strove to call him back, but her voice died in her throat, a mist came before her eyes, and overwhelmed by the fatal discovery she had made, and the excitement she had undergone, she fell back in a dead faint.

Chapter 27
The Deity Called Fate

“Believe me, sir, the deity called Fate,
Is stronger than the strongest of us all,
Fate! Fortune! Destiny! what name you will!
We are the sport of some malignant power,
Who twists and turns the actions of our lives,
In such strange fashion that our best intents
—Not evil in themselves—breed evil things,
And wreck our fairest ventures, tho’ we strive
To bring them holily to some quiet port.”

On leaving Miss Corbin’s house Errington’s first impulse was to drive straight to the railway station, catch the six-thirty train, and go down to the Hall at once, in order to explain matters to his wife. A moment’s reflection, however, convinced him that this would be a foolish thing to do, as he could not possibly reach home before eight o’clock, and his late arrival at such an hour without being expected would be sure to cause comment among the servants. They already guessed more of the strained relations between himself and his wife than he liked, so in order to avoid the slightest chance of any further remark being made, he determined to go down to Denfield next day in the ordinary course of things.

He therefore drove back to his hotel, and while dressing for dinner pondered deeply as to the best course to pursue with Alizon. On this night he was engaged to dine with Macjean at the Soudan Hotel, and recollected that his cousin was to be of the party. Eustace was a man in whom he had a profound belief, and frequently deferred to his cousin’s judgment in delicate matters, so on this present occasion he made up his mind to speak to Gartney, whose clear head would doubtless be able to solve the problem.

It was true that Mrs. Veilsturm expected him to call for her at the Marlowe Theatre, where she had a box. But the idea of being in her company again after what had transpired was too much for him, so he hastily scribbled a note excusing himself on the plea of sudden indisposition, and sent it off to Park Lane by a special messenger.

“Macjean and Laxton can go to the theatre as arranged,” he thought, as he went slowly down the stairs, “and I’ll make Eustace take me to his rooms, where we can talk over things at our ease.”

With this determination he jumped into a hansom and drove off to the Soudan Hotel in Piccadilly, where he found Otterburn waiting for him in company with Laxton.

“Where’s Gartney?” asked the Master after greeting his friend, “he promised to be early.”

“Eustace’s promises are like pie crust,” replied Errington, giving his cloak and hat to the waiter, “made to be broken.”

“You look very broken yourself,” remarked Macjean meditatively, as the gaslight fell on Guy’s face. “What is the matter? Have you had bad news? Will you have a glass of sherry?”

“Nothing is the matter,” replied the baronet categorically. “I have not had bad news, and I will take a glass of sherry.”

He really felt very worried over the position in which he now found himself regarding his wife, but it was better he should dine in company than alone, as a solitary meal would only make matters appear much worse than they really were. Besides he was going to consult Eustace, who, he felt certain, would advise him for the best, so he put the best face he could on the matter, and chatted gaily over his sherry to the two young men while waiting for his cousin.

Presently Eustace, cool, calm and unconcerned, arrived, with a large appetite and an apology for being late.

“I’ve got a man who is in the habit of mislaying things,” he explained as they all sat down to dinner, “he mislaid his brains when he was born, and hasn’t found them yet, so I suffer in consequence. No sherry for me, thank you! Water, please!”

“Ugh, London water,” groaned Laxton, holding up his sherry to the light.

“Water,” remarked Mr. Gartney sententiously, “is the purest of all elements.”

“Not in town,” retorted Macjean with a grimace. “I don’t believe in Adam’s wine.”

“No Scotchman ever did as far as I know,” said Eustace drily. “Presbyterian wine is what you all prefer north of the Tweed.”

“And a very good idea too,” observed Guy, contributing his quota to the conversation, “especially on wet days.”

“That’s why such a lot of whisky is consumed in the Land o’ Cakes,” explained Eustace gravely, “it’s always wet up there. Scotch mist and Scotch whisky invariably go together.”

“This,” remarked Laxton, alluding to the conversation, “is not a teetotol meeting.”

“No one could possibly accuse it of being that,” retorted Gartney, with a significant glance at the full glasses, “but if you three gentlemen don’t mind talking, I’ll eat in the meantime. The Soudan cook is a good one, the Gartney appetite is a large one, so thank God for all His mercies and leave me to pay attention to the good things of this life.”

His three friends laughed at his humorous way of putting things, and devoted themselves to the fish. The conversation went on in a more or less frivolous fashion, the last scandal, the blunders of the Cabinet, the new novel of the realistic school, the prospects of a war in the East—all these were discussed in their turn by the quartette, and then Laxton began to argue with Otterburn about the African expedition, so seizing the opportunity Guy bent forward to speak to Eustace.

“I want to talk to you after dinner,” he said in a low voice.

“Certainly,” replied Gartney carelessly, “but will you have time? What about the theatre?”

“I’ve changed my mind,” said Guy quickly, “so I sent an excuse to Mrs. Veilsturm. Have you anything particular to do? If not we can go to your rooms. I won’t detain you long.”

Eustace flashed a keen look on his cousin, and paused a moment before replying:

“I was going to look in at one or two drawing-rooms to-night,” he said at length, “but as my engagements really aren’t very particular, I’ll not trouble about them, so I will be at your disposal.”

“Thank you,” answered Guy, drawing a long breath.

“Nothing wrong, I hope?”

“Well that is as it turns out. I saw Aunt Jelly to-day.”

“Ah!” said Eustace in a significant tone, knowing that an interview with Aunt Jelly always meant trouble of some sort. “I think I can understand. However, let us go on with our meal. Pleasure and appetite first, business and Aunt Jelly afterwards. What are those two boys fighting about?”

The two boys were still engaged in the African argument, and had arrived at a dead lock, each being firmly convinced in his own mind that his view of the subject was the right one.

“You’re all wrong, I tell you,” said Otterburn hotly, “you’re talking just like you did at Montana. Africa isn’t America.”

“Nobody said it was,” returned Laxton ungracefully, “but I daresay the sport is very much the same in both places. Africa is not a new planet.”

“You might as well say that potting walrus in the Arctic regions is the same as jungle shooting in India.”

“It’s merely a matter of temperature,” declared Laxton decidedly.

“Oh, if you pin your faith to the thermometer, I’ve nothing more to say,” replied Otterburn, throwing himself back in his chair with the air of a man who has crushed his opponent.

“I haven’t the least idea what you are talking about,” observed Eustace leisurely, “and judging from what I’ve overheard you both seem to be in the same predicament.”

“We’ll discuss it later on,” said Otterburn gaily. “What a pity I can’t come out with you to Africa, Laxton, and settle the argument that way.”

“Well, why don’t you come?” demanded Laxton quickly.

Otterburn reddened and laughed in an embarrassed fashion, while Eustace threw a roguish glance at him, and made answer for the bashful lover.

“Don’t you bother your head, Laxton There are more important things than shooting expeditions in this world—at least, Otterburn thinks so.”

Laxton was quite in the dark regarding the meaning of these mystic utterances, when it suddenly dawned on him that the lady whom Otterburn had spoken about in America might have something to do with the turn the conversation had taken, and lifted his glass with a smile as he looked towards Macjean.

“To the health of the something more important than shooting expeditions,” he said gravely, and finished the wine.

“Thank you,” responded Otterburn laughing. “May I some day drink the same health to you?”

“Never!”

“Never’s a long time.”

“And talking about time,” remarked Guy, glancing at his watch, “if you two boys have any idea of the theatre to-night you’ll have to be off.”

“Aren’t you coming too?” chorussed Otterburn and his comrade.

“No! I received an important piece of news to-night, about which I wish to speak to my cousin.”

“What will Mrs. V. say?” asked Laxton gaily.

“Who can foretell a woman’s remarks?” said Eustace quizzically, seeing that Guy was disinclined to speak.

“Depends upon how much you know of the woman,” responded Otterburn smartly.

“Woman,” retorted the cynic, “is an unknown quantity.”

“What about quality?”

“This conversation,” said Eustace, looking at his glass of water, “is getting problematic. After dinner is a bad time to solve puzzles, therefore—coffee.”

It seemed a good suggestion, so they all adjourned to the smoking-room, and indulged in further conversation while they enjoyed their coffee and cigarettes. Shortly afterwards Otterburn and his friend departed for the Marlowe Theatre, while Eustace in company with Guy went off to his rooms in Half Moon Street, Piccadilly.

Used as he was to hardships in foreign lands, Eustace always took care to make up for his deprivations by making himself very comfortable at home, consequently his rooms left nothing to be desired in the way of luxury. His valet was well accustomed to his master coming in at all kinds of unexpected times, consequently when they arrived the room was well lighted, the chairs disposed in tempting corners, and a spirit-stand with glasses and soda-water stood ready for any thirsty soul.

Eustace placed his cousin in a well-cushioned chair, gave him an excellent cigar, then, lighting one himself, took his seat opposite to Guy and prepared to play the part of father confessor.

It was a hot night and the windows were standing slightly open, letting in the pleasant, confused noise of the street, with its rattling of cabs, voices of people, and footfalls of innumerable pedestrians. The faint sound of a barrel organ playing the last new tune, “Oh, she’s left me for another,” came softly to their ears, and they sat smoking silently for a few moments until Errington spoke.

“I told you I saw Aunt Jelly to-day.”

“Yes and what did she say?”

“A good many disagreeable things,” replied Guy bitterly; “according to her showing, I must be a singularly wicked man.”

“Aunt Jelly,” observed Eustace philosophically, “knows very little about the actual world, and having lived apart from her fellow creatures for many years, has formed in her own mind an ideal life to which she expects all her friends and relations to conform. Unfortunately, the majority of nineteenth century people are neither Lucreces nor Bayards, consequently Aunt Jelly, in Pharisee fashion, rails at the world and says, ‘Thank God, I’m not as other women are.’ ”

“She is as other women are in the matter of listening to gossip,” said Guy emphatically, “for she tells me it is common talk that I have left my wife for the superior attractions of Mrs. Veilsturm.”

Eustace looked up suddenly in dismay.

“My dear fellow, you must be making a mistake.”

“I’m making no mistake,” returned Guy doggedly. “Aunt Jelly says it is common talk. Have you heard anything about it?”

“You know I never pay attention to gossip,” said Gartney evasively, “I don’t even listen to it, but you may be certain that anyone who poses as the cher ami of Mrs. Veilsturm won’t escape calumny.”

“I don’t pose as the cher ami of Mrs. Veilsturm,” said Errington fiercely. “I don’t care two straws about her.”

“Actions speak louder than words. You certainly have acted as if you did.”

“Good Heavens, Eustace, you surely don’t believe all these lies?” retorted Guy wrathfully, rising from his chair.

“I never said I did,” answered his cousin coolly, “but I’m looking at it now from the world’s point of view. Mrs. Veilsturm has certainly made a dead set at you, and you, thinking it was natural amiability, have played into her hands. You, no doubt, call it friendship, but the world doesn’t.”

“It is friendship. Indeed, hardly that as far as I am concerned, as I don’t care if I never saw Mrs. Veilsturm again. She has taken an unaccountable fancy to me, and I’m no Joseph where a pretty woman is concerned, but as for leaving my dear wife for a meretricious woman like that—Good God!”

“Well, let the world talk as it likes, so long as it isn’t speaking the truth,” said Eustace impatiently. “Who cares? If you expect justice from your fellow creatures, you won’t get it. As to Aunt Jelly, old women are privileged gossips. It don’t matter to you.”

“But it does matter to me, I tell you,” cried Guy violently, walking to and fro, “she has written all about these lies to my wife.”

The barrel organ outside was still grinding out the popular tune, being now assisted by the shrill voice of a girl singing the words of the song.

“Oh, she’s left me for another,
     Mary Anne! Mary Anne!
And she said he was her brother,
     Mary Anne.
It may be true, for all I know,
But would she kiss her brother so,
And would she leave me for him? No!
     Mary Anne, Mary Anne!”

The regular beat of the melody seemed to repeat itself everlastingly in Gartney’s ears as he sat there in silence wondering over the statement Errington had made. If Alizon knew all, she would never forgive her husband and then—was it Fate that so persistently smoothed the road for his evil doing? He felt dull and stupid at the unexpected announcement he had heard, and, after a pause, lifted his heavy eyes to Guy.

“Well,” he said drearily, “and what do you intend to do?”

Errington sat down heavily in his chair and stretched out his hands with a weary gesture.

“I don’t know what to do,” he answered in a dull voice. “I suppose the best thing will be for me to go down and explain matters to Alizon.”

“But will she accept your explanation?”

“No!”

“Then why make it?”

“A drowning man will grasp at a straw. I must do something! I can’t let my wife think I have wilfully wronged her. Good heavens! surely she must know I love her dearly.”

“I should think it is very probable she does,” answered Eustace slowly, “besides, I think Lady Errington is too sensible a woman to give ear to lying reports. Tell her all you have told me, and I’m certain you will have no difficulty in making your peace with her.”

“Do you think so?” asked Guy, his sad face brightening, “but no, I’m afraid not. You remember the story I told you about Mrs. Veilsturm’s card being returned.”

Eustace nodded.

“That is the difficulty. If it had been any other woman than Mrs. Veilsturm—but as it is, she’ll think I did it wilfully.”

“Surely not.”

“My dear fellow, you’ve never loved a statue,” said Errington bitterly, rising to his feet and putting on his cloak, “but it’s no use talking any more. Aunt Jelly has done more harm than she knows of. I’ll go down to the Hall to-morrow, and tell Alizon everything. If she believes my explanation, well and good, if she does not—”

“Well?” asked Eustace, seeing his cousin hesitated.

“Well!” repeated the other harshly, “I shall come back to London and Mrs. Veilsturm.”

He was gone before Eustace could offer a word of remonstrance on the folly of such a determination, and then Gartney returned to his seat with an air of utter lassitude.

“Kismet,” he said to himself, after a long pause. “It is Destiny.”

Was it indeed Destiny that had interfered for the third time? Was it fixed by Fate that he should be Lady Errington’s lover, and lose his honourable name for her sake? It seemed like it, seeing that all barriers he had set up against this illicit love, were swept away by the actions of other people, and the field left open to him. Still, Alison had not yet had her interview with Guy, and, as she must know how much he loved her, surely she would accept his explanation of the lying reports concerning his infatuation for Mrs. Veilsturm.

If she did so, all would be well with them both, but if she refused to believe his story, and dismissed him coldly, then—

Eustace arose to his feet, and walking over to the window, looked out into the hot night. Below, the glare and glitter of gas-lamps—above, the luminous light of the stars—and far in the east, rising over the sombre masses of clouds, burned an evil planet, which was dreaded of old by the Chaldeans.

The man looking at it with troubled eyes felt the twin powers of good and evil strive in his heart.

And the star gleamed steadily in the thunderous sky.

Chapter 28
Husband And Wife

“You have broken your oath
    And broken my heart,
Oh, sorrow for both,
You have broken your oath;
Although I am loth
    In anger to part,
You have broken your oath
    And broken my heart.”

Alizon Errington was seated in the Dutch room with Aunt Jelly’s letter clenched in her hand, and Sammy playing on the carpet beside her. The child, rolling among his toys was babbling inarticulate words of endearment to them, but the mother’s eyes were fixed on the gaudy bed of tulips blazing in the sunshine as she thought over the words she had just read.

So this was her husband! This man who had gone straight from his home, from his wife, from his child, to the arms of this infamous woman. He knew more than the world did about the character of Mrs. Veilsturm, for she had told him herself. He knew that she, his wife, had refused to receive this adventuress and had returned her card! He knew that Mrs. Veilsturm, Cleopatra, whatever she liked to call herself, had been connected with disreputable Gabriel Mostyn, and yet, in spite of all this, he had dared to enter her house, to clasp hands with her as a friend, to sacrifice his honour and that of his wife to this vile woman.

Was there any faith or honesty in man?

Her father had been bad and vicious all his life; he had destroyed his daughter’s belief in the male sex by the terrible revelations of his death-bed, but her husband—oh!—she had thought him better than this: she had respected and admired him, she had been a good wife, holding her head high and keeping her honour spotless. She was a good mother to his child, and she had done her best in all ways to fulfil the vows made at the marriage altar.

This was her reward! She was deserted for another woman, for a woman who was the vilest of her sex. Her wifely honour had been dragged in the mud, her wifely name had been placed with jeers in the mouths of men and women, and the marriage tie, so sacred in her eyes, had been violated by her husband, by the very man who should have respected its sanctity.

Her first born was playing at her feet in the happy innocence of childhood, a pure soul fresh from the hand of God, who had given her this treasure to nurse and cherish. Yet even now, in its artless babyhood, the shadow of a dark shame was hovering over its golden head, the name it bore was already smirched in the eyes of the world, and its father, who was responsible to God for its well-being, had already degraded it by his own shameful passion.

Ah! all men were the same. Her father was only the type of many others. They loved a woman, or said they loved her, and stayed beside her for a time, yet as soon as they grew weary of her, they flew to the arms of some newer fancy, and not even the sanctity of the marriage tie could restrain their brutal natures. Guy, whom she thought so good and kind, had turned out the same as his fellow men. He had been a good husband for a time, but now, grown weary of his quiet home, satiated with domestic love, weary of his prattling child, he had deliberately flung himself into the arms of this light-o’-love. Well, he would have his reward. The wages of sin is death! and he would be dragged down to destruction by those arms that encircled him so fondly.

But what about herself? What could she do in order to free herself from the companionship of this man who prized her less than he did his dissolute companions? Divorce! Yes, that was the way to break the chain which bound her to the husband she despised. But it was impossible that she could take advantage of the law, for it would reflect on the child in the future, and for the child’s sake she would have to remain in the bondage of marriage.

Tearless, cold, and pale as a lily, she sat there with her hands clasping the hateful letter which told her of her husband’s treachery and destroyed the happiness of her life. The child, weary of its toys, crawled across the carpet to her feet, and clutching her dress raised itself to its feet with a plaintive cry. She looked downward in dry-eyed misery, saw the wax-like tiny hands clasping her dress, and heard the thin little voice utter its inarticulate prayer to lie on her breast.

The full horror of her position broke on her dulled brain like a flash of light, and with a burst of tears she took up the child and strained him convulsively to her bosom.

Ah, how those tears fell—hot, scalding tears that blistered her cheeks, that burned into her very soul, and that fell on the frightened face of the baby like rain, bitter and salt as the waves of the sea. The child was afraid at this passionate outburst of sorrow and began to cry, but she held him close to her breast and, restraining her tears, hushed him to slumber with a low lullaby rocking to and fro, her heart heavy as lead.

“Alizon!”

With a cry she arose to her feet, the sleeping child in her arms, and saw her husband, travel-stained, worn, and haggard, standing at the door with a look of imploring agony on his face. She drew herself up to her full height and shrank against the wall, with one arm stretched out to keep him off, the other holding the tiny form of the child, and at her feet the crumpled letter that had been the cause of all this undoing.

Guy made a step forward and stretched out his arms.

“Alizon!”

“Don’t—don’t come near me!” she said in a low, hoarse voice, with a look of horror on her pale face.

“I come to explain—”

“Nothing can explain that,” she answered, pointing to the letter on the floor, “nothing can explain that.”

“I can explain it, if you will only listen,” he said vehemently. The marks of tears were still on her cheeks, but no other traces of emotion remained to show how she had suffered.

As her husband spoke, a cold, scornful smile crept over her face, and she signed to him to go on, still shrinking against the wall with her arms folded round the child as if she would keep it from being contaminated by its father.

“I saw Aunt Jelly,” said Sir Guy hurriedly, “and she told me what she had done. Written to you about—about Mrs. Veilsturm.”

He brought out the hated name with a great effort, but his wife, neither shrinking nor wincing, stared straight at him with that terrible frozen smile on her face.

“She writes under a mistake,” pursued Errington, clasping the back of a chair in his strong fingers as though he would crush it to dust. “It is not true what she says. I told her all about it and she believed me. I am going to tell you now, and you will believe me, will you not, Alizon?”

“I cannot tell.”

The words dropped slowly from her mouth, and he flung out his arms towards her with a cry of anguish.

“You must believe me—you must, I tell you,” he said breathlessly. “It is not true about that woman. I went up to Town with Eustace, and called at her house—”

A flush of angry red passed over her face, and she turned on him like a tigress.

“You called on her! You called on that woman!” she said in a clear, vibrating voice, tremulous with anger. “The woman about whom I told you—whom I would not receive, and you—you—my husband, dared to put this insult upon me.”

“Alizon—”

“Don’t speak further! I have heard enough. That letter is true, and you cannot deny it.”

“I do deny it,” he cried fiercely. “I tell you it is all a mistake. I forgot all about your refusal to receive Mrs. Veilsturm. Had I remembered I would not have gone.”

“Ah!” she said with ineffable scorn, “if you had remembered. What excuse is that to make? Do my words weigh so lightly with you that you could forget them so easily? It was not for anything that Mrs. Veilsturm had done to me that I declined to receive her. But I heard my father, on his death-bed, speak of her—speak of her as men such as he was speak of such a woman as she is. I told you this, and yet you forget my words and visit her.”

“As God is my judge, I did forget,” he said desperately. “I did not think about it until it was too late.”

“Ah, you did remember at last.”

“Yes! only it was too late. I had been to her house and she—”

“And she,” echoed his wife bitterly. “Oh, I well know what you are going to say. She did her best to captivate you with her vile arts, tried her hardest to win your heart from me—”

“But she did not succeed—she did not succeed,” he said earnestly.

“Do you think I care if she did or if she did not?” replied Lady Errington scornfully. “Do you think I would place myself in rivalry with that woman? No! you have chosen her in preference to me, your lawful wife. Go to her as soon as you like, but don’t dare to come near me.”

“I will come near you,” said Guy desperately. “You have no right to judge me like this.”

“I have the right of a wronged woman.”

“No, no! I swear you have not. On my soul; on my honour—”

“On your honour,” she interrupted with a sneer, “the honour of a man who could act as you have done!”

“Whose fault is it if I have acted badly?” he cried, rendered desperate by her jeers.

“Do you mean to infer it’s mine?” said his wife quietly.

He gnawed his moustache viciously and did not respond, whereupon she was about to ask the question again, when a knock came to the door and startled them both.

“It is the child’s nurse,” said Lady Errington, going to the door. “Wait a moment.”

Guy turned towards the window so that the servant should not see how upset he was, and Lady Errington, opening the door, kept her face bent over the sleeping child as she placed it in Mrs. Tasker’s arms.

“He’s sound asleep, Nurse,” she said quietly, as the old woman took him. “Take him up to the nursery, and I’ll come to him in a short time.”

Her voice was perfectly under control, and Mrs. Tasker never for a moment suspected anything was wrong between her master and mistress as she toiled slowly up the stairs carrying the child tenderly in her stout arms.

Lady Errington drew a long breath as Mrs. Tasker disappeared, and then, closing the door quietly, turned once more to her husband, who still stood looking out at the bright sunshine, which seemed to mock his misery by its glare and cheerful brilliancy.

“I am waiting for your answer,” said his wife’s steady voice behind him, whereupon he turned swiftly round, and crossing to where she stood, stern and silent by the table, caught one of her hands before she could prevent him.

“Alizon,” he said earnestly, “for your own sake, for the sake of our child, listen to me quietly, and I will try and explain things to your satisfaction. I did go to Mrs. Veilsturm’s, but I swear by all that is sacred, that I did not remember anything about her. Not even her name. Think for a moment, the whole affair passed in five minutes—your explanation was a hurried one, and you never referred to it again. It is eighteen months ago, and since then her name has never been mentioned between us, so you can hardly wonder that I quite forgot about the woman. Had I remembered, I would not have gone—give me at least that credit. I went innocently enough with Eustace, and Mrs. Veilsturm, I suppose out of revenge for the slight she received from you, was very attentive to me. I did not respond to her advances in any way, and saw as little of her as I could. I was not responsible for the coupling of our names together. You know how the world talks and magnifies the most innocent things into evidences of guilt. The scandal reached the ears of my aunt, and she, innocently enough, wrote that letter to you—a letter which she now bitterly regrets having sent to you. When she told me about it, I explained all, and she asked my pardon for having written the letter. I came down here at once to tell you everything, and I have now done so. On my honour, Alizon, that is the whole affair. I acted wrongly in forgetting about Mrs. Veilsturm’s past, and I ask your pardon. Let this misunderstanding cease between us. I love you dearly. I have always loved you, never so much as now. Do not let our lives be blighted like this. I have acted wrongly, and I ask your pardon. You in your turn grant it to me, and let us forget this terrible mistake.”

All the time he was pleading, she listened to him without any sign of emotion, her face looking impassable as a marble mask, but at the conclusion of his speech, she withdrew her hand from his with a cold smile of disbelief, which showed how little his tenderness affected her.

“Your explanation would satisfy the world,” she said with chilly dignity, “but it does not satisfy me. I cannot believe that you forgot about my refusal to receive Mrs. Veilsturm. Even if you did forget, that only makes your conduct worse, for you still went to visit her after you recollected the affair, as you acknowledge yourself. I have been a good wife to you, I have been a good mother to your child, and in return you have not even given me the common fidelity of a husband, which every woman has a right to expect.”

“I see it is no use pleading to a cold piece of perfection like you,” said Guy, drawing himself up with dignity. “I have stooped to explain this affair, and you decline to believe me. I can do no more. You are convinced, without the shadow of a reason, that I am vile, and it is impossible for me to undeceive you further than I have done. Under these circumstances it is impossible for us to live together as man and wife. You doubt me, and I resent your doing so, therefore it will be best for us to at once make some arrangement about our future lives.”

He spoke calmly enough, but his heart was hot with indignation, that he should receive such treatment from the woman he loved best on earth. He was innocent, and he knew himself to be innocent, therefore all his nature rose in revolt against the unjust attitude taken up by his wife.

She, on her side, was also indignant, deeming that his explanation was false from beginning to end, so she refused to forgive him, or to believe the skilful tissue of falsehoods he had put forward as a plea for her mercy.

It was a case of misunderstanding on both sides, and as the stubborn pride of each refused to bend, nothing was now left but separation.

“For the sake of the child,” she said coldly, “I am unwilling there should be any scandal, so it will be best for me to stay down here to look after the boy, and you can take up your abode in London, or wherever else it pleases you. Regarding money matters, I presume you will allow me sufficient to live on in a style befitting the mistress of this place. My life will be devoted to bringing up the child, yours—well, I have nothing to do with that, and you are free to act as you desire. These are the only terms upon which I will consent to pass over the matter, and I think there is nothing more to be said.”

Slowly and deliberately she uttered these cruel words, which fell like ice on his heart, and showed him how utterly futile it was to hope for any reconcilement with this pure woman, so pure that she could neither understand nor forgive the infidelity of which she accused him. All his manhood arose in rebellion against such treatment, and, mad with anger, he stepped to her side as she turned to leave the room.

“There is more to be said,” he cried furiously. “I have told you the truth, which you decline to believe. But if I had conducted myself as you say—if I had voluntarily gone to this woman whom you hate, who is to blame, you or I? Have I not been a good husband to you since our marriage? Have I not striven by every means in my power to win your heart? and what have I received in return?—cold words and frigid smiles. Do you think that I did not feel all this? Yes, I did feel it, but you, wrapped up in your icy nature, cannot understand my feelings.”

“I have treated you with all respect—”

“Respect! Respect!” he reiterated bitterly. “I ask for love, you give me respect. I ask for bread, you offer me a stone. All the feelings of my heart have been crushed down by your cold superiority, by your chilly self-respect, which forbade you giving to me those attentions that other men receive from their wives.”

“You dare to talk to me like this,” she said angrily, “you, who have had no respect either for me or for your child!”

“Ah, the child,” he retorted with a sneering laugh, “it was the child that came between us. You have lavished upon it all the love and affection which is due to me. Am I not the child’s father? Why should you treat me as if I were a block of marble? In my own house I have been lonely. In my own house I have been neglected, while you, leaving me to starve, gave all your love to the child.”

“Is it a crime for a mother to love her child?”

“No, it is no crime. I did not say it was. But it is a crime—worse than a crime—to cherish and love the child to the exclusion of the husband and father. The husband has the first claim on the wife’s heart, the child the second.”

“You are wrong.”

“No, I am right,” he replied vehemently, “and if driven forth by neglect, and hungry for love, I left my home to go to another woman, you reproach me for what is your own work! But I have not done so. I have been as true to you as you have been to me. Alizon, let things be as they were before this miserable misunderstanding, and let there be love and affection between us. I will forgive you all the neglect I have suffered these eighteen months, if you will overlook my forgetfulness about Mrs. Veilsturm, and act towards me as a wife should act.”

“You forgive me,” she said contemptuously, “you forgive me? No. It is I who have the right to do that. I do not forgive you. I never shall.”

“Are those your last words?”

“My last words.”

Errington looked at her in silence for a moment, and then, without a word, walked towards the door of the room, at which he paused.

“I have implored and entreated you to be merciful,” he said, with terrible calmness, “you have refused to grant what I ask. Now I go back to London, to Mrs. Veilsturm, the woman you despise so much. You have driven me to this, and the result of it rests on your own head. You do not love me, you never have loved me, so I leave you alone in your immaculate purity, to forget the man whom you have despised and wronged.”

He was gone before she could utter a word, and she was left alone in the room, alone in the world, with nothing but her child to comfort her in the hour of need.

Chapter 29
The Question Of Marriage

“The sea is cruel, its white waves hide me,
Lo I am weary and scant of breath,
Thou to a haven of safety guide me,
Stretch out thy hand, lest I swoon to death.

“Thou art my God in this hour of peril,
Yet in thy sight, I am lost and vile,
All thy love, as the sea is sterile,
I sink, I perish, beneath thy smile.”

There are always two sides to a question, especially to the question of marriage.

One side is invariably taken by the husband, the other by the wife.

Both claim their side to be right, and, as this is an impossibility, one side must be wrong.

Which?

It is a difficult question to settle, more difficult than the judgment of Solomon, more difficult than the judgment of Paris, and though the world, represented by the Law, generally plays the part of arbitrator in conjugal disputes, in this case it was referred to neither by the husband nor the wife.

Under these circumstances it will be as well to argue both sides fairly, and pronounce a verdict in favour of the strongest.

A case for the opinion of Society, unrepresented by any legal tribunal, the parties concerned conducting their own cases personally.

On the part of the wife—

“When I married Guy Errington, I had no belief whatsoever in the masculine sex, such scepticism being due to my knowledge of the character of my father, Gabriel Mostyn. Before his illness I lived in almost conventual seclusion, and from the reading of books formed an ideal world, which I have since found to be as unreal as the fantastic visions of Oriental dreamers.

“My world was based upon a delusive belief in the chivalry of men and the purity of women, and resembled in its visionary loveliness the Garden of Eden, before Eve tempted Adam with the fatal fruit. In this unreal world men were always young, handsome and true-hearted, while the women were beautiful in their forms and faces, pure in their lives. I dreamed that some day I, an inhabitant of this beautiful universe, would meet with a lover who would dedicate his life to mine, and we would go through life side by side in love and purity, until we exchanged this heaven upon earth for one even fairer.

“Alas! these were but the virginal dreams of a girl, unsullied by contact with the world, and my ideal life was shattered by the vile cynicism of my father, who took a delight in destroying all my illusions, and in dragging me down from the light of fancy to the darkness of reality.

“So evil had been his life, that no one would stay by him in his hour of need, and I, a young girl, unsophisticated and innocent, was forced to remain beside his bed. To him I dedicated my youth, my innocence, my womanly feeling, my filial tenderness, and received as a reward a brutal unveiling of the most horrible things on earth. When I went to his bedside at the beginning of those four bitter years I was an innocent girl, when I turned away, leaving him stiff and stark in his coffin, I was, in knowledge, an accomplished woman of the world. I believed in no one. I doubted the motives of all. I looked upon my fellow-creatures as birds of prey who would turn and rend me were I not dexterous enough to foil them with their own weapons. Is it then to be wondered at that I dreaded marriage with a man who would doubtless be as evil in his thoughts and deeds as was my father?

“Had I been in receipt of a sufficient income to keep me from starving, had I been able to earn my own living, I would never have married; but under the grudging hospitality of my relatives, and the iron grip of poverty, the strongest resolution must give way. I was no heroine to battle with the merciless world as represented to me by my father, so, in despair, I married Guy Errington.

“To my surprise and delight, I found him to resemble the ideal inhabitants of my fanciful world, and honoured and respected him for those qualities which I had never seen in my father. He was good, kind, loving and tender, all of which qualities to me, in a man, were like a revelation from God. Still, the teachings of my father could not be easily eradicated, and I dreaded lest some chance should rend the veil which hid his real nature and show me the innate brutality which my father assured me existed in all mankind.

“Meanwhile, I was thankful for his kindness, and strove to show by every means in my power how I reciprocated his love. If he accuses me of coldness, I can offer no defence. I am not a demonstrative woman, as all my timid outbursts of affection were ruthlessly crushed by my father, and self-restraint has become a habit with me. Besides, dreading lest my married happiness should not last, I wore my coldness as an armour against a possible disappointment.

“I loved my husband, but the invincible mistrust which my father had inculcated in my breast isolated me during the earlier portion of our married life, and I was afraid to let my husband see how much I loved him, lest he took advantage of such confidence. Still, I wanted something to love, something that I could worship, could cling to, something that I could trust in fully and that would not deceive me.

“It came at last, a pure, little, white soul from the hand of God; and to my child I gave the whole of the love, the adoration, the passion, which had been pent up in my breast for so many years for want of some one on whom I could bestow them without fear of the consequence.

“My husband hated to see me so fond of the child, for his jealous nature would be content with nothing but undivided love, and in spite of my desire to make him happy, I could not leave my child unloved in order to pander to his selfish passion. He resented my reproval of his folly and withdrew himself from my society, so that I had no one to love but my child, and, although we lived in the same house, the poles were not further asunder than we were.

“Then she came between us—that vile woman whom my father knew in South America—and my husband, weary of his home, of his wife, of his child, left all to go to her. What wife could put up with such an insult? Had it been any other woman, it would have been bad enough, but this special woman whom he knew I despised, whom he knew from my lips to be an infamous creature, this was the woman for whom he forsook me.

“How can I believe his explanations? They are all false, glibly as they are uttered. No! I am deceived no longer, he is the same as my father, and seeks only the selfish gratification of his own appetites. The end has come, as I knew it would—the mask is torn off, and I see my husband, whom I loved and trusted during the early days of our marriage, as he really is. My father was right; there is no faith, honour, honesty, nor truth, in men; and I have only acted rightly in refusing to live with a man who could behave so to his wife and child.

“Even now he is with that woman, on the feeble plea that my coldness drove him away. Does that excuse his vice? No! He should have waited until perfect love, perfect understanding, was established between us, but now we are parted for ever. He has gone back to the life most congenial to him, and I—I, like many other women, can do nothing but pray that my son may not grow up to follow in the evil footsteps of his father.”

On the part of the husband—

“Saints do not live among men, except in the canonization of the Church, and before my marriage I was neither better nor worse than any other young man. But without being either a Saint Anthony or a Saint Francis, I did my best to lead a decent life in every way, and if I had a few vices—or what ascetics term vices—they were so small that they were invisible except to the microscope of certain Pharisees who pass their lives in finding out their neighbours’ faults, and thanking God they are not as other men are.

“I loved my wife from the first moment I saw her, being in the first place attracted by the beauty of her person, and in the second by the difference in her nature to that of other women. I do not put myself forward either as a deep thinker or as a student of humanity, but must confess I grew weary of the ordinary Society woman, married or unmarried. They talked in a frivolous fashion of the most trivial things, but Alizon Mostyn attracted me by the charm of her conversation, not that she was very learned, or particularly brilliant, but she talked of ordinary matters in an original way, which was wonderfully fascinating. I loved her dearly, and saw in this pale, quiet girl, one who would be a companion to me, who would make me a better man, and aid me to lead my life on a higher plane to that which I had hitherto done.

“It was for this reason I married her, and though she was cold in her manner towards me, this very coldness had a certain charm about it which I could not resist. I knew that she had been badly treated by her father, so strove in every way by tenderness and love to make amends for the misery of her early life.

“After marriage I was perfectly satisfied with my wife, and although at times her persistent coldness wounded me, yet I thought by unfailing love and attention to make her open her heart to me. No doubt I would have achieved this object if it had not been for the birth of the child, which has, in a great measure, been the cause of all the trouble of our later married life.

“I was glad to welcome the child, as I thought it would form a new link between us, and by thawing her frigid disposition draw us closer together. But, instead of doing this, the boy was the cause of our estrangement, as she lavished upon him all the love of which her nature was capable, and I was persistently neglected.

“No doubt the world would think I had little to complain of—my wife was perfect, both in her conjugal and maternal capacity—the only trouble being the cherishing of the child to the neglect of the father.

“But, look at the matter from my point of view. I had married my wife for companionship, for the sake of satisfying the craving of human nature to be loved, and instead of my ideas being realized, I found myself shut out of Paradise, while my wife, with her child, rested happily within. She was never away from the boy, and day after day I was forced to live a lonely life, neglected and uncared for by a woman I adored. All her ideas, conversation, and desires, were bound up in the child, so that she had neither the time nor inclination to take an interest in my pursuits, or in my life. We dwelt together as man and wife, to all appearances we were a happy and attached couple, yet the child stood between us, like an evil shadow, which isolated us the one from the other. Often I tried to break down this barrier, by praising the child, but the mother seemed jealous even of the father; she wanted the child all to herself, and, secure in such possession, was contented to treat her husband as an ordinary friend.

“I resented this state of things, I revolted at being condemned to occupy such an isolated position, but I could do nothing. My wife was perfect in every other way, and to have complained would have been ridiculous, so I was forced to suffer in silence. God alone knows how I did suffer in the solitude to which I was condemned, at seeing the love and caresses bestowed on the child, love and caresses in which I had no share. All her life was in the child, and she possessed him. My life was in her—and I was a stranger to her in every way.

“Under the circumstances I thought it best to go away for a few weeks, thinking that she would miss me in some little measure, and would be more affectionate and tender when I returned. Whether such an idea was right or wrong I do not know, I never shall know, for between our parting and our meeting occurred the episode of Mrs. Veilsturm.

“On my honour, I went innocently enough into the presence of this woman. I had forgotten all about my wife’s refusal to receive her, for had I remembered I certainly would not have gone. But, as I said before, I had forgotten. I had never seen the woman; I did not even know her name. How then was I to recollect the episode of eighteen months before?—an episode the memory of which had not lasted longer than a few days.

“I went to Mrs. Veilsturm’s ‘At home.’ I found her a charming woman, and, at her express invitation, I went often to her house. She was different from the ordinary run of women, and I took pleasure in her society, but there was no warmer feeling between us, at least, not on my part. With the scandal of the world I have nothing to do, sin and purity are treated the same way, and the mere fact of my being once or twice seen with Mrs. Veilsturm was sufficient to set afloat the lying story which came to my wife’s ears through the medium of Aunt Jelly.

“To my wife I told the whole story, but she refused to believe me. I confessed that I had remembered about Mrs. Veilsturm when it was too late, but she accused me of knowing the truth from the first, and of having wilfully acted as I had done. Nothing I could say could shake her belief in this matter, and she swore she would never forgive me for the insult I had placed upon her.

“What could I do? Nothing! except retire from the scene. In vain I assured her of my complete innocence. She refused to believe my statement, and drove me from her presence—from my home—with cruel words. This woman, wrapped up in an armour of purity—of selfish purity—could not credit my innocence in any way. She judged me from the ‘I-would-not-have-acted-thus’ standpoint, and insisted that I had betrayed her basely, although she had no further proof than the gossip of the world.

“I left her. I came back to London to see Mrs. Veilsturm again. It is wrong—I know it is wrong—but what am I to do? Live an isolated existence, pass days and nights of abject misery, only to pander to her self-righteous ideas? For eighteen months, in spite of all my tenderness and love, she has wilfully neglected me, she has refused to acknowledge that I have been a good husband, she has rendered my life miserable, and now she has driven me forth from my own home on account of a sin—if it can be called so—of which I am guiltless.

“What am I to do? Live the life of a hermit in order to right myself in her eyes and be called back and pardoned, as if I were indeed guilty? No! I will not do so. It is her fault, not mine, that I am placed in such a miserable position. Unable to win her by tenderness, by love, I will henceforth live my own life and see what neglect will do. For every pang she has inflicted upon me I will inflict a pang upon her, for her months of neglect I will repay her in full, for her coldness I will give coldness in my turn, and to any remonstrances she may offer I will say then what I say now—’It is your work.’ ”

 

So far the cases of husband and wife, each arguing from their own point of view. Now which of them is right, the man or the woman? The husband who strove to win his wife’s love, or the wife who refused to give the husband that love which was his due.

Errington was now acting wrongly, as he himself knew; he was voluntarily flinging himself into the arms of a woman whom he knew to be worthless, but who can say he had no provocation? He had done his best to win his wife’s love, he had suffered in silence during the period of his married life, and in return she had shamefully neglected him, and had finally, with hardly any proof, accused him of voluntarily making a friend of a worthless woman. Outraged by this treatment, the husband left her presence, and she had driven him into the very jaws of destruction.

Doubtless he should have stood firm, and by years of patient self-sacrifice showed her that she was wrong. But how many of us are capable of such asceticism? How many of us would stand for long years in the outer darkness, knowing himself to be guiltless of the crime laid to his charge?

This woman—pure wife, affectionate mother, as she was—had acted as if she were above the weaknesses of human nature. She had arrogated to herself the functions of the Deity in judging and condemning a poor human soul, who, weary with beseeching for what it never received, fell away in despair into the gulf of sin and misery.

Who was wrong—the man who sought evil in despair, or the woman whose coldness and purity had denied him the mercy which would have saved him?

Chapter 30
Cleopatra Victrix

“To my chariot wheels have I bound him,
    To bear him in triumph away;
As master and king have I crowned him,
    To reign but the length of a day.
I woo but to kiss and betray him,
    We meet but a moment to part;
In the hour of his joy will I slay him,
    My wheels will go over his heart.”

Mrs. Veilsturm’s drawing-room was not by any means an artistic apartment, being full of violent contrasts in the way of decoration and furniture, yet not without a certain picturesqueness of its own. It was bizarre, gaudy, fantastic, strange, and a faithful reflection of the curious mind of its mistress. The European side of her nature inspired her with a certain amount of artistic taste, while the African blood in her veins made her delight in brilliant colouring and barbaric ornamentation. The eyes ached as they rested on the confused mass of tints, variegated as a flower-garden, and yet there was a certain design and harmony throughout, something like the tangled patterns of those Oriental carpets, those Indian shawls, which represent the cloudy splendours haunting an Eastern mind.

The paper on the walls of this room, oblong and lofty, was of a dark-red tint, stamped with golden sunflowers rising from their velvety-green leaves. Delicate lace curtains of milky white, interwoven with threads of silver, fell before the three long windows, from under massive gilt cornices. The carpet was of black and yellow stripes in undulating lines, like the skin of a tiger, and here and there a rug of silky-white hair contrasted curiously with the fantastic ground upon which it rested. The furniture was of dark walnut, upholstered with bright yellow satin, smooth and shining as the inside of a buttercup.

In the corners of the room stood slender palms with heavily-drooping leaves, vividly-green ferns with feathery fronds, prickly, fleshy cactus and spiky, fan-shaped plants, suggestive of tropical skies—some rising from the porous red jars of Egypt, others springing from misshapen vases of porcelain, on which, in crimson and green, sprawled the sacred Chinese dragon, and a few growing in shallow basins of pale-yellow pottery.

At the end of the room, behind the veil of Indian bead curtains, was a cool-looking conservatory, skilfully lighted by electric lamps in globes of pale green, which diffused a kind of fictitious moonlight. In the drawing-room the mass of colour, strange and incongruous, was softened, blended, and confused by the tremulous red light that streamed from the tall brass lamps with their umbrella-like shades of crimson silk. Add to this fantasy of light and colour, the sickly odours of the pastilles constantly burning, and it can be imagined how curiously appropriate this strange room was to the rich Eastern beauty and oddly barbaric costume of Cleopatra.

On this night, having been down at Hurlingham, she was too tired to go out, so preferred to remain at home and receive a few friends.

At present, she was lying negligently back in a low chair, arrayed in her favourite costume of amber and black, but, despite the attentions of Dolly Thambits, who was talking to her, she seemed to be out of temper. Mr. Jiddy, seated on the extreme edge of a chair like a white cat, was listening to the conversation of Major Griff, who, stiff and grim, was leaning against the mantelpiece. No other people were present, nor did Mrs. Veilsturm seem very much inclined to receive company, for she yawned once or twice, and looked at the Major significantly, as if to hint that he might take away Mr. Thambits and friend as soon as he liked.

The Major, however, wanted to speak to Mrs. Veilsturm himself, so he did not take the hint, but resolutely waited on, in the hope that the two young men would shortly depart and leave him alone with the charming widow. Meanwhile he chatted about pigeon-shooting to Mr. Jiddy, who knew nothing about it, and Thambits bored Mrs. Veilsturm to death by his dreary small talk.

“I say, you know,” drawled Dolly, after a pause, during which Mrs. Veilsturm had been wondering how she could get rid of him, “what about your fancy-dress ball?”

“Oh, I’ve put it off,” replied Mrs. Veilsturm idly, “a week or two does not make much difference, and my costume was not ready.”

“What are you going to appear as?”

“Ah! that is the question,” said Cleopatra smiling. “I’m not going to tell you. I’m not going to tell anyone. I will appear at my own ball in the most unexpected fashion.”

“Like a surprise packet?”

“Yes! as you elegantly put it—like a surprise packet.”

“Oh, that’s jolly,” observed Mr. Thambits brilliantly, then relapsed into silence.

“I say, Mrs. Veilsturm!” he said at last.

“Yes.”

“Errington’s gone to the country again.”

Mrs. Veilsturm could not suppress an angry start at this information. She had missed Guy for the last three or four days, and, having heard nothing from him since she received his note excusing himself from coming to the Marlowe Theatre, was considerably enraged at this neglect. She was too clever, however, to betray herself to Dolly Thambits, who was jealously vigilant, so she asked quietly:

“Indeed! who told you so?”

“Gartney! He went about four days ago. Got tired of Town, I suppose.”

“No doubt! Town does get wearisome at times.”

“I don’t think so while you are here,” said Mr. Thambits tenderly.

“What a charming compliment,” answered Mrs. Veilsturm with a forced laugh, shutting her fan savagely, for when Dolly was amorous he was simply detestable.

“Not to you,” he murmured softly.

“More compliments,” she said coolly. “You must pass your days making them up. By-the-way, would you mind telling me the time?”

“Certainly. It is now a few minutes past nine.”

“Oh, I say, is it?” cried Mr. Jiddy, jumping up from his chair. “I say, Dolly, we’ve got to go to Lady Kalsmith’s you know.”

“I thought you were coming also, Mrs. Veilsturm?” said Dolly, rising reluctantly.

“I! No,” she answered, lifting her eyebrows. “Would I be dressed like this if I were going?”

“Mrs. Veilsturm,” explained Major Griff, graciously, “is too tired to go out to-night, and thinks a rest will do her good.”

“I’m afraid we’ve tired you,” said Thambits, looking at his divinity.

“Oh dear, not at all,” responded Mrs. Veilsturm, lying with the utmost dexterity. “So glad to see you. Au revoir at present.”

“I’ll call and see if you are better to-morrow,” said Dolly, making his adieux with manifest reluctance.

“Delighted! goodbye, Mr. Jiddy! Major?”

Grill took the hint, and ushered Dolly and his friend out of the room before they had time to change their minds, and having seen them safely bestowed in a hansom, returned to Mrs. Veilsturm, whom he found sitting in her old place, frowning savagely at the fireplace. The Major resumed his lounging attitude on the hearthrug, and lighted a cigarette.

“Don’t smoke,” said Mrs. Veilsturm sharply. “I don’t want my drawing-room to smell like a bar.”

“There’s not much chance of that,” retorted the Major coolly, throwing the match into the fireplace, and blowing a cloud of smoke. “No one will come to-night, and those abominable pastilles you are so fond of burning will dissipate the smoke by to-morrow.”

Mrs. Veilsturm offered no further remonstrance, but tapped her fan thoughtfully in the palm of her hand. Major Griff watched her in silence for a moment, and then made a polite remark.

“You’re a fool, Maraquita.”

“And why?”

“Because you’re thinking about that young Errington. He’s no good to us.”

“Us! Us!” she reiterated savagely, “always us! Do you think I’ve nothing else to do but to think of you?”

“At present, No,” replied Griff coolly. “Now don’t get in a rage, my dear. It doesn’t improve your looks, and certainly does not carry any weight with me. I tell you again you’re a fool for thinking about Errington. He’s gone back to his wife in spite of your cleverness. Didn’t you hear that idiot say so?”

“Yes!”

“Well?”

“Well!” she echoed scornfully, raising her eyes to his face, “what of that? Do you think I’m going to let him go so easily?”

“I don’t see you’ve much option in the matter,” said Griff grimly.

“You see nothing except what suits your own ends.”

“Very likely. That’s the way to succeed in the world.”

“You don’t seem to have made much headway yet,” replied Cleopatra with a sneer.

“Oh, pretty well—pretty well,” said the Major airily. “I think this room—this house—your dress—your diamonds—your position—are all evidences of success. And we’ll do better if you only keep your head clear, and not sacrifice everything for this Errington.”

“I don’t intend to sacrifice anything for Sir Guy Errington,” she replied viciously, “but I intend he shall sacrifice all for me; his wife! his home! his honour! all he holds dearest in the world.”

“And then?”

“And then he can go his own way. I have done with him,” said Mrs. Veilsturm calmly.

“I wouldn’t talk in such a melodramatic fashion if I were you,” observed Griff leisurely, “revenge is all very well on the stage, but it’s silly in real life. You stand to gain nothing, and lose a good deal.”

“Do you think I can forget the insult his wife put upon me?”

“Well then punish the wife.”

“I intend to—through the husband.”

“Now look here, Maraquita,” said her partner earnestly, emphasizing his remarks with his finger. “You take care what you’re about. We’ve had a good time in London, but the game is pretty well played out. It’s always advisable to leave a place with flying colours, so that one can come back again. People are talking about you already, don’t let them talk any more, or you’ll find all your lady friends give you the cold shoulder, and if they do, you may rest assured they won’t be satisfied till they induce their husbands, fathers, and brothers to follow their example. I don’t see the fun of such a scandal, especially as there’s nothing to be got out of Errington. He’s as poor as a church mouse. So leave him alone, and after the ball, we can go for America in good odour with everyone, and after a year or two in the States, we can come back here when a new generation arises that don’t know Joseph. My advice is sound, Maraquita, and you know it.”

Mrs. Veilsturm sat perfectly still during this speech, with her eyes cast down on the closed fan lying on her lap, but when the Major ended, she looked up suddenly with a sombre frown on her face.

“I’ve made up my mind what to do, and neither you nor anyone else will turn me from my purpose.”

Major Griff shrugged his shoulders and walked slowly to the other end of the room. He was a man who never wasted words, and seeing from the set expression of Mrs. Veilsturm’s face that she was determined to carry out her purpose, he judged it useless to argue about the matter. Yet, although he kept his temper well under control, he could not help saying something disagreeable to this woman who was sacrificing everything for the sake of revenge.

“In spite of your cleverness, my dear Maraquita, I shrewdly suspect that Sir Guy sees through your little game, he has placed himself beyond the reach of temptation.”

“He will come back,” she said curtly.

“I doubt it. The moth does not come back to the flame that has once singed its wings. The fly doesn’t trust itself in the spider’s web a second time.”

“He will come back.”

The Major returned to the fireplace, produced his pocketbook in the most leisurely manner, and took a gold pencil case hanging at the end of his chain in his fingers.

“I’ll bet you the worth of that diamond star in your hair he does not.”

“Don’t be rash, the star cost two hundred pounds.”

“So. I’ll lay you two hundred pounds to the promise that you’ll behave decently, that Errington does not come back.”

Mrs. Veilsturm opened her fan with a grand wave, and looked at him serenely.

“Book it,” she said curtly.

Major Griff did so, and restored the book to his pocket. “Well, I must be off,” he said, stretching himself. “I want to see Dolser about putting a paragraph in his paper concerning the ball. Can I do anything for you?”

“Nothing, thank you. Good-night.”

“Good-night.”

He went towards the door, and without vouchsafing a glance at her, left the room.

If Mrs. Veilsturm was tired, she did not make any attempt to go to bed, but remained seated in her chair pondering over the position of affairs.

She was not by any means as confident over Errington’s return as she pretended to be, for she was far too clever a woman to misjudge the impression she had made. Guy had gone away from Town without a word of farewell; therefore she was easily satisfied that he was still heart-whole. As he had acted thus, she could do absolutely nothing, for he certainly would not come back to a woman about whom he did not care. And yet she had done everything in her power to entangle him in her nets. The fool, to leave a woman like her for a pale, sickly wife. Were her charms fading, that he had treated her so scornfully? Was the prize not worth the winning? Was there really a man in the world who could turn coldly away from her beauty when she smiled invitation?

As these thoughts passed through her mind, she arose from her chair rapidly, and leaning her arms on the white marble mantelpiece, examined her face carefully in the glass. The rich, dusky skin, through which flushed redly the hot blood, the delicately drawn eyebrows, arched over the liquid eyes, the shining coils of hair above the low forehead, the full, red lips, the shell-like ears, tinged with pink, the slender neck; she examined them all in a severely critical fashion, and saw that there was no flaw anywhere. A slow smile of triumph curved the corners of her mouth as she looked at her beautiful face in the mirror, and she turned away exulting in her physical perfection.

“Can he resist me?” she whispered to her heart, and her heart answered, “No.”

At this moment a servant entered the room with a magnificent bouquet of white lilies, which he presented to his mistress, and then retired. She held them in her hands, inhaling their faint perfume, and admiring the stainless purity of their deep cups; then, catching sight of a card thrust into the centre of the flowers, she took it out to read the name.

“Sir Guy Errington.”

With a low laugh of triumph she tossed the flowers on the table, and, with the card still in her hand, swept across the room to a desk of rosewood near the window. Sitting down she wrote a note to Major Griff:

“Dear Major,
“Kindly bring with you to-morrow your cheque for £200. He has come back.
“Maraquita Veilsturm.”

Placing this in an envelope, she directed it to Major Griff, at the Globetrotters’ Club, then ringing the bell, gave it to the servant, with instructions that it was to be delivered at once.

When she was once more alone, she picked up Sir Guy’s card, and smiled cruelly as she looked at the name.

“You fool,” she whispered softly. “Oh, you fool.”

Chapter 31
In The Coils Of The Serpent

“By the magic of thine eyes
    Thou hast drawn me to the brake,
As thy victim slowly dies,
    Hiss in triumph, cruel snake.
Strangled now I gasp for breath,
    Thus ensnared within thy toils,
I can only wait for death,
    Helpless in thy shining coils.”

Mrs. Veilsturm was a lady who once having learnt a lesson from experience, never needed to go to that unpleasant school a second time. She saw plainly that her first tactics with regard to Errington had been entirely wrong, as it was a mistake to treat such a non-appreciative person with kindness. Therefore, when he returned to her for a second time, she behaved towards him with cold disdain, which had the effect of making him simply furious, as it resembled the way in which he had been treated by his wife. Instead of taking offence, however, and leaving his capricious divinity in disgust, he followed her everywhere, resolved with dogged perseverance to force her to revert to her earlier demeanour.

Wherever Cleopatra went, Errington was to be seen in attendance, and at balls, theatres, garden-parties, the Park, Hurlingham, his haggard-looking face appeared ever beside her. All the world of London, seeing Mrs. Veilsturm’s change of front, thought that she was tired of her last fancy, and began to pity her for the persistent manner in which she was followed by her discarded lover. When questioned on the subject, she simply laughed, and talked pathetically about being a lonely widow, so that everyone said that she had been badly treated in being suspected of favouring Errington in any way.

“A charming woman, my dear,” whispered the world, behind its fan, “always behaved with the greatest delicacy in every way. But that young Errington! Oh! good gracious! a young libertine—persecutes her with attentions and she can’t possibly get rid of him. A bad young man, my dear, a very bad young man.”

So the world, in its usual capricious manner, changed round altogether, and whitewashed Mrs. Veilsturm as a saint, while it blackened poor Guy’s character as that of an irredeemable scamp. He had a wife, whom he treated very badly, kept her shut up in a gloomy place in the country. Spent all his income in leading a fast life. Terribly in debt, and mixed up with the Hebrews. Mrs. Veilsturm had implored him, with tears in her eyes, to go back to his wife, but he resolutely declined. She was really behaving very well, but as for young Errington—well, what could be expected now-a-days?

As for Saint Cleopatra, she was placed on a pedestal from whence she smiled kindly on her crowd of worshippers, and, possibly, laughed in her sleeve at the way in which she was gulling them. She had completely recovered her position in the eyes of society, and the Major chuckled complacently over the clever tactics of his friend and partner. The ball at which she was to make her last appearance in Town, was near at hand, and it seemed as though the firm were about to depart for the States in a blaze of triumph.

A great change had come over Guy since his return to the feet of Mrs. Veilsturm. Formerly so hearty and cheery, he was now gloomy and morose, with a frown on his good-looking face and a pain in his heart. His wife’s cruelty had wounded him deeply, and though he did not care in the least for Mrs. Veilsturm, yet he was determined, out of bravado, to persevere in his pursuit. After a time, however, he became fascinated by her beauty and persistent neglect, which feeling Cleopatra saw, and determined to profit by it when she judged fit. At present, however, in the eyes of the world she was simply a virtuous woman exposed to the addresses of a libertine, and gained a great deal of undeserved pity thereby.

Eustace was still in Town, and was considerably puzzled over the whole affair, especially by the way in which Mrs. Veilsturm was behaving. He knew that she wanted to fascinate Guy for her own wicked ends, and wondered that she treated him in a way that was calculated to lose her the very prize which she strove to win. From constant observation, however, he gained a clear idea of the means she was adopting both to attract Errington and silence scandal, and could not refrain from admiring the dexterous fashion with which she played this very difficult game.

With regard to his cousin, he, of course, guessed that he had quarrelled with Alizon, but was unable to ascertain clearly what had occurred, as on asking Guy he was savagely told to mind his own business. Eustace would have taken offence at such treatment from anyone else, but he pitied his cousin for his obvious unhappiness, therefore took no notice of his rudeness.

He saw plainly, however, that husband and wife had parted in anger, so the way was made clear for him to carry out his intentions with regard to Lady Errington. But curiously enough, now that the very thing he desired was made so easy for him, he could not make up his mind to go down to Castle Grim, near the home of the woman he loved. Eustace was as selfish and egotistical as ever, still in spite of his strong inclination for Alizon, in spite of the three interpositions of Destiny, which had such an effect on his fatalistic nature! he hesitated about carrying out his project, and lingered in Town in a vacillating frame of mind eminently unsatisfactory to himself.

Once or twice, with an idea that he was doing his duty, he ventured to speak to his cousin about the way he was haunting the footsteps of Mrs. Veilsturm, but such well-meant intentions were received by Guy with such bad grace that he judged it best to remain neutral.

Aunt Jelly heard of Guy’s behaviour, and also of the position taken up by Mrs. Veilsturm, by whose conduct she, in common with the rest of the world, was completely blinded. She sent for Guy in order to remonstrate with him, but he curtly refused to see her at all, and in despair she asked Eustace to speak to his cousin. Eustace told her he had done so without any result, and declined to interfere in the matter again. Miss Corbin would have liked to have written to Alizon, but her last attempt to mend matters had resulted in such a fiasco that she was afraid to do anything. So the poor old lady, already very ill, worried and fretted herself to a shadow over the helpless position in which she found herself.

Seriously angry with Guy, she had altered her will in favour of Eustace, and then took to her bed, resolving to meddle no more in mundane affairs. Victoria and Minnie attended her with great devotion, as she was clearly destined never to recover, but her indomitable spirit held out to the end, and she forbade any of her relations to be summoned. One thing displeased her seriously, that Otterburn had not yet spoken to Victoria, and one day she asked him plainly if he intended to do so, upon which the boy told her the whole state of the case.

“So you see, Miss Corbin,” he said, when he finished, “that I’m afraid to try my luck a second time, in case the answer will be no.”

“You have no fear of that,” replied Aunt Jelly, patting his hand. “No one regrets her refusal more than Victoria. You ask her again, and I’ll warrant the answer will be what you desire.”

So Otterburn, having received this encouragement, made up his mind to speak to Victoria at Mrs. Veilsturm’s ball. Aunt Jelly had not intended to let Miss Sheldon go to this festivity at first, thinking that Mrs. Veilsturm had designedly attracted Guy, but when she heard the way in which she was behaving, she withdrew her prohibition and insisted upon Victoria going. Not only that, but she herself selected a costume for her ward, and considerably astonished that young damsel when she told her what she wanted her to appear as.

“Why Flora Macdonald?” asked Victoria, in surprise. “I’m not a bit Scotch.”

“Are you not?” said Aunt Jelly drily. “I thought your mother was?”

“Oh, yes, but—”

“Don’t make nonsensical objections, child,” replied Miss Corbin sharply, with a flash of her old spirit. “I want you to go as Flora Macdonald, and I’ve no doubt you’ll find out the reason before the ball is ended.”

Whereat Victoria, being less innocent of the reason than she pretended to be, laughed gaily, and went off with Minnie Pelch on a shopping excursion.

“Minnie,” she said to her companion, when they left Miss Corbin, “do you know anything about Flora Macdonald?”

“Oh, yes,” said Minnie, delighted at displaying her historical knowledge. “She was in love with Bonnie Prince Charlie, and saved his life, you know.”

“Bonnie Prince Charlie,” repeated Victoria thoughtfully, “perhaps I’ll meet him at the ball.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” replied Miss Pelch significantly, for being a true woman, and dearly loving a romance, she had seen long ago how matters stood between Otterburn and Miss Sheldon.

So they went shopping all that bright afternoon, hunting up tartans, talking learnedly about Cairngorm brooches, and white cockades, and Jacobite songs, and the Lord knows what else.

Ah me, how strangely does Fate deal with our lives. Here was Guy drifting away from his wife day by day, and Angus being drawn nearer and nearer to Victoria. What Sir Guy Errington and Alizon Mostyn were two years before, they were about to become now—would their future be the same?

Who could tell? Fortune, blind and capricious, whirls her wheel round and round, raising and abasing men and women daily, hourly, momentarily, unaware herself, by reason of her bandage, of the good and evil she allots to one and another.

Chapter 32
What Made The Ball Sae Fine?

“Sure this wild fantastic band
Must have come from Fairy-land.
Those who live in History’s page,
Step once more upon Life’s stage.
All the poet’s dreamings bright,
In the flesh appear to-night,
Columbine and Harlequin,
Knight, Crusader, Saracen,
Cleopatra and her Roman,
Herod, Borgia loved of no man,
Antoinette and Louis Seize,
Faust with Mephistopheles,
All beneath the gas-lamps’ gleam,
Dance as in some magic dream.
Surely at the break of day,
Will the vision fade away,
And these spirits bright and fair,
Vanish into viewless air.”

Mrs. Veilsturm had certainly no reason to complain of lack of popularity, as she looked at her salons thronged with all fashionable London. Her diplomatic behaviour towards Errington for the last few weeks had borne good fruit, having converted foes into friends, and friends into red-hot partizans, therefore everyone came to her fancy dress ball, and this entertainment which signalised her exit from London Society was proving a wonderful success.

Never had she looked so perfectly lovely as she did on this night, when, robed as Cleopatra, she stood near the door receiving her guests. Swathed in diaphanous tissues, broidered with strange figures in gold and silver, with jewels flashing star-like from every portion of her dress, the double crown of Egypt on her lustrous coils of hair, and a trailing mantle of imperial purple silk drooping from her shoulders, she looked like the embodiment of some splendid civilization long since perished from the earth. Truly this woman, with her majestic bearing, her voluptuous form, her rich Eastern beauty, and slow sensuous movements, looked like that antique coquette of the slow-flowing Nile, whose face, fair and deathless, still smiles at us across the long centuries from out the darkness of old Egypt.

The huge room resembled a garden of flowers blown by the wind, as the restless dancers in their brilliant costumes swayed hither and thither to the music of the band. Dainty Watteau shepherdesses, serene Greek maidens, mediæval pages, steel-clad knights, Cavaliers, Louis Quatorze musketeers, and divers other picturesque figures, mingled together in gay confusion, laughing, talking, jesting, smiling, flirting and whispering, without pause or rest. And above the murmur of voices, the sound of feet gliding over the polished floor, and the indistinct frou-frou of dresses, sounded the rhythmical swing of the valse “Caprice d’une femme,” played by an unseen orchestra. The gas-lamps in their many-coloured shades gleamed softly over the noisy crowd, the faint perfume of myriad flowers, drooping in the heat on the decorated walls, floated dreamily on the heavy air, and round and round with laughter and jesting swept the dancers, while the fitful music arose and fell with its recurrent burden of passionate tenderness.

“Dear, dear!” observed a ponderous Britannia, fanning her red face with her shield, “how hot it is to be sure! I wonder if there’s such a thing as an ice to be had?”

“Or champagne?” said a faded-looking Dawn sitting near her. “I’m positively dying for champagne.”

“Young men are so selfish,” sighed Britannia, looking in vain for a friendly face; “they come to my dances, but never think of looking after me when I’m not in my own house. One might starve for all they care, and an ice—”

“Would, no doubt, save you from such a fate,” said a languid voice, as a tall, heavily-built man, in a monkish dress, paused near the representative of the British Empire. “Come then, Mrs. Trubbles, and I’ll get you one.”

“Dear me, Mr. Gartney,” observed Mrs. Trubbles, shifting her trident to her left hand in order to welcome Eustace. “Well, I am astonished.”

“At seeing me here, or at my dress? Both things rather extraordinary, I must confess. I’m rather fond of fancy dress balls, all the same. It’s so pleasant to see one’s friends making fools of themselves.”

“How unamiable, Mr. Gartney,” said Dawn, screwing her wrinkled face into what was meant for a fascinating smile.

“But how true, Mrs. Dills,” responded Gartney, with a bow, “but I see both you ladies are longing for supper, so perhaps I can make myself useful.”

“Indeed you can,” said both eagerly, rising and taking an arm each.

“I feel like the royal arms, between the lion and the unicorn,” remarked Eustace, jestingly.

“No, indeed,” said Mrs. Dills, who set up for being a wit, “we’ve got the lion between us. But what might you be, Mr. Gartney?”

“Rabelais.”

“What’s Rabelais?” cried Britannia, with a faint idea it might be something to eat.

“Rabelais,” explained Eustace, gravely, “was the creator of Pantagruel and Gargantua.”

“I never heard of him,” said Mrs. Dills crossly, being in want of her supper.

“Oh, fame! fame!”

“Bother fame,” observed Mrs. Trubbles, as the two ladies sat down at the table. “I would give the fame of Nebuchadnezzar for a good meal.”

“You shall have it and without such a sacrifice,” said Eustace, assisting Dawn and Britannia plenteously; “by-the-way, isn’t Miss Sheldon with you, to-night?”

“Yes Flora Macdonald, whoever she was,” said Mrs. Trubbles, heavily, “she’s with that young Macjean. Do you remember him at Como, Mr. Gartney? He’s in a Scotch dress to-night.”

“Bonnie Prince Charlie, I suppose?”

“Or a tobacconist’s sign,” said Mrs. Dills who was an adept at saying nasty things. “By-the-way, Mr. Gartney, isn’t the company rather mixed?”

Mrs. Dills’ papa had been an opulent linen-draper, and Mr. Dills had made his money by a speciality in sheets, so she thought herself quite justified in criticising aristocratic society.

Eustace knew all about Mrs. Dills, and was so amused by the little woman’s insolence, that he did not reply half so severely as he had intended to do.

“Ah, you see I’ve not had your opportunities for judging,” he replied drily, “but as far as I can judge, there’s nobody here that isn’t somebody.”

“But their characters,” hinted Mrs. Dills, with a seraphic look.

“Ah, bah! I’m no Asmodeus to unroof people’s houses.”

“What a lucky thing—for the people.”

“And what a disappointment—for their friends,” said Eustace, significantly.

He hated Mrs. Dills, who was an adept at damning with faint praise, and took away people’s characters with the look of a four-year-old child and the tongue of a serpent. Mrs. Dills saw Gartney’s meaning, and resenting it with all the viciousness of a small mind, began to be nasty.

“I see Sir Guy Errington is here,” she said, smiling blandly, “as Edgar of Ravenswood. He looks like a thundercloud in black velvet. I’m so sorry for him.”

“That’s really very kind of you,” retorted Eustace, sarcastically.

“Not at all,” murmured Dawn, sympathetically; “it’s such a pity to see his infatuation.”

“For what?” demanded Gartney, obtusely.

“Oh, really! You know! of course you do! Poor Lady Errington! And then the ‘Other’ doesn’t care for him.”

“Little viper,” thought Eustace, looking smilingly at her, but saying nothing, which encouraged Mrs. Dills to proceed.

“It’s a dreadful scandal, but not ‘Her’ fault—oh, dear no! but he ought to go back to his wife, especially as the ‘Other’ doesn’t care for him.”

“You talk like a sphinx,” said Eustace, coldly. “Whom do you mean by the ‘Other’?”

Mrs. Dills smiled sweetly, and having finished her supper arose to take his arm.

“When one is in Rome, one must not speak evil of the Pope,” she replied cleverly. “Are you quite ready, Mrs. Trubbles?”

“Quite, my dear,” said that matron, who had made an excellent supper. “We’ll go back now, Mr. Gartney. Dear me, there’s Mr. Thambits. How do you do? What is your character, Mr. Thambits?”

“I’m Richard Cœur de Lion,” answered Dolly, who looked very ill at ease in his armour, “and Jiddy is Blondel.”

“Is he really?” said Britannia, poking Jiddy in the back with her trident to make him turn round. “Very nice. I saw Blondin on the tight-rope once.”

“Not Blondin, but Blondel,” explained Jiddy, meekly, “he was a harper, you know, and sang songs.”

“I hope you don’t carry your impersonation so far as that,” said Mrs. Dills, spitefully.

“I’ve had singing lessons,” began Blondel, indignantly, “and I sing—”

“You do, I’ve heard you,” said Eustace, significantly, and then hurried his two ladies quickly back to their seats, being somewhat tired of Mrs. Dills’ spiteful tongue and Britannia’s ponderous conversation.

Having thus performed his duty, he went away to look for Otterburn, being anxious to know how that young man had sped in his wooing. Near the door, however, a man brushed roughly past him with a muttered apology, and Eustace, turning to see whom this ill-bred person could be, found himself face to face with Guy Errington. He was dressed as the Master of Ravenswood, and, in his sombre dress of dark velvet, his high riding boots of black Spanish leather, and his broad sombrero with its drooping white plume of feathers, looked remarkably handsome, though, as Mrs. Dills had remarked, “like a thundercloud in black velvet,” such was the gloom of his face.

“How are you, Guy?” said his cousin, laying a detaining hand upon the young man’s shoulder. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

“I’ve only been here half-an-hour,” replied Errington listlessly. “Anything wrong?”

“Oh, no! only you’ve avoided me for the last week or so, and I want to know the reason.”

“There’s no reason that I know of, and I haven’t avoided you.”

As he spoke, his eyes were looking over the heads of the crowd, and in following their gaze. Eustace saw they rested on Cleopatra, who was talking to Major Griff.

“Oh, I see the reason,” said Eustace coolly, “and a very handsome reason it is.”

Errington laughed in a sneering manner and made no reply.

“I say Guy,” remarked Eustace complacently, “isn’t it about time you stopped making a fool of yourself?”

“I don’t understand you.”

“No? you wish me to speak plainer?”

“I do not wish you to speak at all,” retorted Errington fiercely, his eyes full of sombre fire. “Our relationship has its privileges, Gartney, but don’t take too much advantage of them.”

He shook off his cousin’s hand impatiently, and without another word disappeared in the crowd, leaving Eustace considerably perturbed.

“I’ve done all I can,” he muttered disconsolately. “He’s bent on going to the devil via Mrs. Veilsturm, so I can’t stop him. If I only dared to console his wife, but she’s got the boy—that’s consolation enough for a piece of ice like her.”

Meanwhile, Errington, pushing his way through the dancers, made his way to Cleopatra, who, having finished with Griff, was chatting to a young F.O. man. On seeing Errington, she turned towards him with a slight bow, and began to talk, upon which the F.O. went off to find some one else.

“Are you not dancing, Sir Guy?” she asked, looking at him brightly.

“No, I don’t care about it, unless you dance with me.”

“And what about my duties as hostess?”

“I think you’ve done enough penance for one evening.”

“Meaning that my reward is to dance with you,” she said mischievously. “Thank you, Monsieur.”

She was more amiable to him this evening than she had been of late. And Guy, feeling the change, thawed wonderfully under the sunshine of her eyes.

“Well, am I to have my dance?” he asked, with a smile.

Cleopatra took up her programme and ran her eyes over the series of scratches which did duty for names opposite the dances.

“I don’t know if you deserve one,” she whispered coquetishly.

“Don’t say that. As you are strong, be merciful.”

She handed him the card with a laugh.

“You can have that valse,” she said, indicating one far down, “by that time I will be released from durance vile.”

Errington scribbled his name, and giving her back the card, was about to renew the conversation, when she dismissed him imperiously.

“Now you have got what you wanted, go away. I have a number of people to talk to.”

“A lot of fools,” he muttered peevishly.

“Possibly—we can’t all be Ravenswoods, you know.”

“Maraquita!”

“Hold your tongue,” she said, in a fierce whisper, “do you want to compromise me before all these people? Go away, and don’t come near me till our valse.”

“And afterwards?”

“Entirely depends upon the humour I am in.”

He took his dismissal in a sufficiently sulky manner, which made Mrs. Veilsturm smile blandly, on seeing which he turned away with a stifled curse. It was extraordinary, the change in this man, who, from being a good-natured-enough fellow, had suddenly changed, through his wife’s cruelty and his temptress’s caprices, into a morose, disagreeable individual, whom nobody cared to speak with.

“Is that Sir Guy Errington?” asked a soft voice behind him. “See if it is, Mr. Macjean.”

“There is no need,” responded Errington with forced civility, turning round to Otterburn and Miss Shelton. “You have very sharp eyes.”

“Ah, you see I knew what your costume was going to be,” said Victoria, who looked wonderfully pretty as Flora Macdonald. “Aunt Jelly told me.”

“By the way, how is Aunt Jelly?”

“She’s not at all well,” replied Victoria, reproachfully, “and you have not been near her for some weeks.”

“More pleasantly employed, eh?” said Otterburn, laughing, for which he was rewarded by a fierce glance from Errington.

“I’ve been busy,” he said briefly. “I’ll call shortly. Hope you’ll enjoy this foolery, Miss Sheldon.”

Jerking out these polite sentences he went off, leaving the young couple looking after him in undisguised astonishment.

“I don’t know what’s come over Sir Guy,” said Macjean, as they pursued their way towards the conservatory, “he used to be such a good-tempered fellow.”

“Oh, cherchez la femme.”

“Wouldn’t have to seek far I’m afraid,” replied Angus, glancing at the distant form of Mrs. Veilsturm.

“She’s a horrid woman,” said Victoria, viciously, as they entered the conservatory, and found a comfortable nook.

“I quite agree with you.”

“You shouldn’t talk of your hostess in that way,” observed Miss Sheldon reprovingly.

“But I say, you know,” replied Otterburn, rather bewildered at this sudden change of front, “you say—”

“I say lots of things I do not mean.”

“I wish I could be sure of that.”

“Indeed why?”

“Because—oh! you understand?”

“I’m sure I don’t,” replied Miss Sheldon, demurely, then looking up, she caught his eye, and they both laughed gaily.

The conservatory was certainly a very pleasant place, with its wealth of palms, of cactuses, of ferns and such-like tropical vegetation. A pale, emerald radiance from green-shaded lamps bathed the whole place, and at one end a slender jet of water shot up like a silver rod from the stillness of a wide pool, in which floated great white water-lilies. The band in the distant ball-room were playing a pot pourri of airs from the latest opera, and Otterburn sat under the drooping fronds of a palm-tree beside Victoria, with the fatal words which would bind him for life trembling on his lips. So handsome he looked in his picturesque Scotch dress, with the waving tartans and gleam of Cairngorm brooches, and his bright young face bent towards her, full of tender meaning. Victoria knew quite well that he intended to propose again, and her heart beat rapidly as her eyes fell before the fiery light which burned in his own.

“I suppose you have quite forgotten Como?” said Otterburn, in what he meant to be a matter-of-fact tone.

Miss Sheldon began to draw designs on the floor with the toe of her dainty boot, and laughed nervously.

“Oh no! it was the first time I was in Italy, you know, and first impressions—”

“Are always excellent.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“I hope you don’t think the same about first refusals.”

“Refusals of what?” she replied, wilfully misunderstanding his meaning, at which Otterburn felt somewhat disappointed.

“Ah, your memory is treacherous.”

“I think not! I can remember most things—when I choose.”

“Then do you remember how we talked about Scotch costumes, and I said I’d put mine on the first Fancy Dress Ball we went to.”

“Yes! I remember that.”

“This is the first Fancy Dress Ball.”

“And you are in your tartans,” she answered, with a sudden glance. “How curiously it all comes about. I thought you had forgotten.”

“I never forget anything you say,” he replied eagerly. “I wish I could.”

“Now that’s very unkind of you! Why?”

“Because I wish to forget how cruel you were to me at the Villa Medici.”

“Was I cruel?” she asked, with sudden compunction.

“You know you were,” he answered reproachfully, “so I think you ought to make up for it.”

He took her hand that was lying on her lap, and drew her towards him. She made no resistance, but still kept her eyes cast down.

“How can I make up for it?” she asked, in a low voice.

“By saying Yes, instead of No,” he replied ardently.

“Certainly. Yes, instead of No.”

“How cruel you are still,” he said impatiently. “You understand what I mean quite well. You sent me away to wander all over the face of the earth because you were—”

“A coquette,” she interrupted.

“I never said so,” he answered, rather taken aback.

“You did—then.”

“I? Well I do not now. I’ll say you are the dearest, sweetest girl in the world if you’ll only say—”

“Yes.”

“Ah, you’ve said it,” he said joyfully, slipping his arm round her waist. “You have said, ‘yes.’ ”

“Ah! perhaps I did not mean it,” she answered coquettishly.

“I don’t care,” he retorted recklessly, “you have said it, and I hold you—”

“Yes you do,” she murmured with a smile.

“To your word,” he finished gaily. “Victoria, say you love me a little.”

“No, I can’t say that.”

His face whitened, and a pained look came into his eyes, but she laid her head on his shoulder, and looking up, whispered softly:

“Because I love you a great deal.”

“My darling.”

He bent down and kissed her fondly, and then—then—ah, who can repeat truly the conversation of lovers, who can write down coldly all the fond, foolish words, the tender endearments, that go to make up the happy time that succeeds the little word “yes?”

The music in the distance ceased, there was the noise of approaching feet, and Victoria sprang to her feet quickly.

“We must go back to the ball-room, Mr. Macjean.”

“Mr. Macjean!”

“Well, then, ‘Angus.’ ”

“Ah, that’s much better,” he said gaily, giving her his arm. “You are no doubt engaged for the next dance, but I cannot give you up so soon. Now I’ve got you I’ll keep you for ever.”

“Ever’s a long time,” laughed Victoria, whose face was beaming with smiles, as she looked at her handsome young lover walking so proudly beside her.

“It won’t be long enough for me,” he said fondly, and they passed into the brilliant ball-room at peace with themselves and the world.

On the way they met Eustace, who glanced keenly at both of them, and then held out his hands with a laugh.

“I congratulate you both,” he said, smiling; “you will both be happy—till you get tired of one another.”

“That horrid man,” said Victoria with a shiver as he passed onward. “We will never get tired, Mr.—I mean Angus?”

“Never,” he whispered fervently.

There’s nothing half so sweet in life as love’s young dream, but what a pity there should be any awakening.

Chapter 33
Pallida Mors

        “He comes unsought
            To young and old,
        Can ne’er be bought
            By tears or gold,
He buries us all in the churchyard’s mould.

        “Oh, man, why weep?
            His gifts are blest,
        He brings us sleep,
            He gives us rest.
And the world’s care ceases upon his breast.

        “Receive, if wise,
            Affliction’s rod,
        The body lies
            Beneath the sod,
But the soul we love is at home with God.”

It was now nearly the end of the season, and Society was preparing to amuse itself in another fashion. Brighton, and Trouville, and Dieppe, and Scarborough were thronged with languid men and women, slowly regaining from the fresh salt breeze of the sea the strength they had wasted during the feverish existence of the season. After her brilliant entertainment, Mrs. Veilsturm had taken a villa at San Remo for a month or so, prior to departing for the States, and managed to amuse herself very comfortably by the blue Mediterranean, with an occasional run over to Monte Carlo and Nice.

The Major was in Paris, looking after some business connected with the inevitable West Indian estate, though what Paris had to do with the West Indies nobody could find out. However, his business being duly finished, he went South, at the kind invitation of Mrs. Veilsturm, and found Anthony at the feet of Cleopatra, in other words, Sir Guy Errington in attendance.

Yes! Guy, in spite of the calls of honour and respectability, had followed his charmer to the Continent, and being released from the microscopic vision of Mrs. Grundy, Cleopatra had been very kind to him, fully recouping him for the cavalier fashion in which she had treated him in Town. He had never written to his wife since leaving her, except a curt note telling her he was leaving England for an indefinite period, and to this he had received no answer. Angered at her silence, he abandoned any scruples he might have had and went off to dishonour and Mrs. Veilsturm, who was delighted at the easy victory she had secured over her hated rival. She flattered and caressed Errington with all the infinite charm of which she was mistress, was kind and cruel by turns, but never permitted him to go beyond a certain limit, which cautious conduct perplexed him exceedingly. He had thrown up everything for her, and expected a like sacrifice in return, but Mrs. Veilsturm was not by any means prepared to give up her hardly-won position even for revenge. All she wanted was to destroy the married life of Lady Errington, and she was quite willing to accomplish this by keeping Guy near her under the shadow of suspicion, without giving that suspicion any real grounds. Therefore, she kept him in a fool’s paradise of meaningless caresses, which meant nothing, and had he been a wise man he would have seen that he had given up the substance for the shadow.

He was not a wise man, however, and dangled after Mrs. Veilsturm in a manner that would have won his own contempt had he thought. But he never thought, or if he did, it was more of the wife he had left behind than this capricious woman, whose slave he was supposed to be. He did not love her, but was content to surrender himself to the spell of her evil beauty, and acted as he did more from a sense of revolt against his wife’s scorn, than any innate desire to do wrong. It was an unsatisfactory position, and he felt it to be so, but Mrs. Veilsturm was too clever to let him go until her revenge was quite complete, and every day wound her chains closer round him.

Major Griff was not pleased to find Errington in this position, as he thought it would compromise Cleopatra’s reputation too much, but when he saw the way in which she was conducting the campaign he was perfectly satisfied, and smiled grimly at the dexterous manner in which she was revenging herself for the insult she had received.

Dolly Thambits, in company with the faithful Jiddy, was staying at Monte Carlo, and losing his money with wonderful skill at the tables. This, however, seemed a waste of God’s best gifts to the Major, and, aided by the seductions of Cleopatra, he inveigled Dolly to San Remo and kept him under his own eye. He won a lot of money from him, which came in useful, and occasionally went out with him to Monaco, so as to make such pigeon-plucking look less glaring.

Dolly was anxious to marry Mrs. Veilsturm, who simply laughed at his frequent proposals, as she was by no means tired of being a free lance, but she decided in her own mind, that when she was she would marry Mr. Thambits and give the cold shoulder to Major Griff. At present, however, she coquetted with Guy so as to retain him in her toils, and made poor Dolly deadly jealous of the good-looking baronet, which was useful in keeping him by her side out of contrariness. She was a clever woman, Maraquita Veilsturm, and kept everyone well in hand, so that not even the astute Major suspected her designs.

While Guy was thus abandoning himself to the spell of Circe, Eustace had gone down to Castle Grim, and was seeing a good deal of the deserted wife. He did not make much progress, however, in his wooing, as Alizon was not a woman to wear her heart on her sleeve, and never spoke of her husband in any way. She simply said that her husband was abroad, made no reference to the reason of their separation, and for the rest, passed her days with her child, and treated Eustace in a kindly fashion when he came over on a visit.

Astute man of the world as he was, Gartney was quite at a loss how to proceed, and might have retired from the unequal contest in despair, much as he loved her, had not an event happened which gave him the opening he desired.

Aunt Jelly died.

She had been ailing for a long time, poor soul, and was glad when the time came to leave this world, in which she had found such small pleasure. Her imperious spirit held out to the last, but she was strangely gentle at times, especially to Minnie Pelch, whom she knew would be left quite alone in the world when she died. Otterburn’s engagement to Victoria gave her the greatest delight, and she insisted that they should get married at once, so that she could leave the world satisfied that the child of her old lover was under the safe protection of a husband.

Otterburn was quite willing that the marriage should take place without delay, and wrote a letter to Lord Dunkeld announcing his determination. By the advice of Johnnie (who was greatly pleased with his new mistress, pronouncing her a “canty lass,” which was complimentary if not intelligible), he wrote a crafty letter to Mactab, enlisting his good offices to gain the consent of the old lord. Mactab thought a good deal over the letter, but when he discovered that the proposed bride was handsome, good, and had a large income, he came to the conclusion that “the laddie micht hae din waur,” and went to interview Lord Dunkeld.

The fiery old gentleman was in a great rage, averring that neither money nor good looks could make up for want of birth, but the discovery that Victoria’s mother was a Macjean, and therefore connected with the family, calmed his anger and after some hesitation he consented to the match. Not only that, but he came up to London to the marriage and brought the redoubtable Mactab to tie the nuptial knot, so everything was really very pleasant.

They were married in a quiet fashion at Aunt Jelly’s house, and Lord Dunkeld was very much pleased with his new daughter, both as regards fortune and looks. The young couple went off to Ventnor for their honeymoon, and after a fortnight in Town, round which they were shewn by Eustace, Lord Dunkeld and his spiritual adviser returned to the North, satisfied that the future head of the clan had obtained a “guid doonsettin’.”

Before the end of the honeymoon, however, Mrs. Macjean was summoned home to the bedside of Aunt Jelly, but alas, before she arrived, Aunt Jelly had already passed away attended to the last by Minnie Pelch. Both Otterburn and his young wife were sorry for the death of the stern old woman, who had been so kind to them both; and their sorrow was shared by Eustace, who came up from Castle Grim for the funeral. Guy was telegraphed to, but as his relations with his aunt had not been of the best during the latter part of his life, and he blamed her for making trouble between himself and his wife, he refused to come over.

“Aunt Jelly hated me,” he wrote to Eustace, “and although I would liked to have made it up with her before she died, yet I cannot forget the letter she wrote to my wife, which has been the cause of all my trouble. She will no doubt leave you all her money, as I know she had every intention of altering the will she made in my favour, and I am sorry for my son’s sake, if not for my own.”

There was much more in the letter which Eustace pondered over, as he understood perfectly that Guy was not happy, but as he did not see how he could alter things, he left them alone.

On the will being read, it turned out exactly as Guy had anticipated, for Aunt Jelly left all her real and personal estate to Eustace, with the exception of two hundred a year to Minnie Pelch, and some legacies to her servants, Victoria and Doctor Pargowker. To Guy she did not leave a single thing, his name not even being mentioned in the will.

Eustace wrote to his cousin and offered him half the fortune, but Guy refused, so Gartney found himself an enormously rich man, and more miserable than ever.

He sincerely loved Alizon Errington, but did not know how to make his love known to her, and as he could not see how to remedy the terrible misunderstanding between husband and wife, he was forced to take up a neutral position.

Mr. and Mrs. Macjean, after the funeral, took their departure to Dunkeld Castle, on a visit to the old lord, and after installing Minnie Pelch as mistress of the house in Delphson Square, Eustace went down to Castle Grim, in order to tell Lady Errington about the will.

It was a terribly bitter situation altogether. Husband parted from wife by a miserable misunderstanding, and this man, wealthy and clever, wavering between honour and dishonour, between respect for Guy and love for Alizon.

Chapter 34
The Assaults Of The Evil One

“I sit beside the gate of the heart
That bars the soul of this woman from me;
The little white soul, that dwelleth apart,
Safe from temptation and evil dart,
Nor one chink in the gate can I see.

“Would I could open this gate of the heart,
Enter within, as a conqueror wild;
Nay, but I see a sentinel start,
To guard its treasure from earthly smart,
Evil shrinks from this little white child.”

It was summer down at Denfield, and the noble woods around Errington Hall were waving their heavily foliaged branches over the flower-pranked earth. The wayside hedges were gay with blossoms, the swallows wheeled aloft in the bright blue sky, the farmer looking over the green fields was calculating the promise of harvest, and there was sunshine throughout the land.

Sunshine from dawn till eve over the teeming earth: sunshine in the hearts of village maidens, thinking of plighted troths; sunshine in the stolid faces of farming lads, tramping beside their sleek horses; sunshine among the cronies, seated outside the alehouse, in the warm summer air, but, in the heart of Alizon Errington—ah, there was no sunshine there!

She was walking slowly up and down the terrace of the Hall, dividing her attention between her own sad thoughts, and the gambols of Sammy, who was rolling amid his toys on an outspread bearskin. Straight and slender as an arrow, in her clinging white dress, with a red cluster of summer roses at her throat, but in her face a stern look, which melted into an adoring smile when she looked upon the child.

Since her husband’s departure, Lady Errington had not been happy. Perhaps she had been too hasty in judging him, perhaps she might have won him back from his evil ways by kindly words, but there, it was no use regretting the past, he was an exile on the Continent, and she was alone in her beautiful home. Not quite alone, however, for the child was there; her darling child, who was the joy of her life, the light of her eyes, and the comfort of her heart!

Still, she missed her husband, in spite of her self-congratulations that she had acted as she had done; she missed his kindly ways, his affectionate smile, his thousand little acts of tenderness, which had passed unnoticed when done, but now seemed to start out of the past like a reproach for her severity. Had she been too severe after all? He had sinned, it was true! She felt sure that his character, like that of all men, resembled that of her father, and yet—he had indignantly denied his fault; he had pleaded for one kind look, one parting word, and she had refused his prayer. If his heart was evil, would it not have been better for her to have striven to draw it closer to her by that one strand of affection than sever the strand altogether, and let it sink back into the gulf of iniquity from which it strove to emerge.

Alizon Errington was a good woman, who tried to do her best according to her lights, to whom the very thought of vice was utterly abhorrent, yet sometimes, as at this moment, unpleasant accusations of Pharisaism and self-righteousness were in her mind.

All the tenderness and dog-like fidelity of her husband had failed to touch her heart, but now that he had (as she verily believed) slighted her wilfully, and voluntarily left a life of purity for one of guilt, she felt that he was more to her than anyone else in the world, save his child. If his heart, if his instincts, were as evil as she believed, all the more credit to him for the way in which he strove to act honestly, but if on the other hand she had misjudged him and driven a good man into evil by cruel words and harsh looks, then indeed she was to blame. Either way she looked at things now it seemed to her that she was in the wrong, and yet she could not, would not, acknowledge that she had not acted justly.

“If he had only waited for a time,” she told herself restlessly. “If he had only shown by his actions that he desired to do right, I would have believed him in time. But to go back to that vile woman after what I said—no!—he is like all the rest—he makes evil his God, and would break my heart, and ruin his child’s future, sooner than deny himself the gratification of his brutal instincts.”

Strong words certainly, but then she felt strongly. She was not a broad-minded woman, for the horror with which her father had inspired her, had narrowed down her views of life to Puritanical exactness. She demanded from the world purity—absolute purity—which was an impossibility. What man could come to a woman and say, “I am as pure in my life as you are”? Not one. Why then did she demand it from her husband? but this was quite another view of the question. Her thoughts had gone from one thing to another, until they had become involved and complex.

With a weary sigh she shook her head, as though to drive away all those ideas, and sat down in a low chair, in order to play with the boy.

“Sammy! Sammy! You musn’t put pitty things in mouse mouse.”

“Mum! mum!” from Sammy, who was making a bold attempt to swallow his coral necklace. Finding this a failure he crawled quickly across the bearskin, drew himself up to his mother’s knees, and stood grinning, in a self-congratulatory manner, on his unsteady little legs.

“Come, then,” said Alizon, holding out her arms.

Frantic attempts on the part of Sammy to crawl up on her lap, ending with a fall, and then a quick catching up into the desired place under a shower of kisses.

They made a pretty picture, mother and son; the pale, sad-looking woman, with the fresh, rosy boy, and Eustace paused a moment, at the end of the terrace, to admire it. The boy had caught the tortoise-shell pin in his mother’s hair with one chubby hand, and, before she could laughingly prevent him, had pulled it out, so that the fair ringlets came falling over her breast in a golden shower.

“Oh, naughty Sammy,” she said, gaily tossing him in the air with her two hands. “Look at poor mother’s hair—bad child!”

Sammy, however, appeared to have a different opinion, and chuckled indistinctly to himself, until he caught sight of Eustace, of whom he was very fond, and stretched out his arms with a merry crow.

“Mr. Gartney,” said Lady Errington, flushing a rosy red at the disorder of her hair, “just see what this scamp has done.”

“Young Turk!” said Eustace, taking the boy with a smile, while Alizon hastily twisted up her hair into a loose knot. “How are you, to-day, Lady Errington?”

“Quite well, thank you,” she replied quietly, as he sat down near her, with Sammy still on his knee. “I thought you were up in town?”

“So I was. Came down last night,” answered Gartney, while the baby made futile grabs at his watch chain. “Well, my prince, and how are you?”

“He’s never ill,” said the young mother, with great pride. “I never saw such a healthy child. Not an illness since his birth.”

“Lucky Sammy! if his future life is only as pleasant as the first year of it, what a delightful time he will have.”

Lady Errington’s face had grown very grave during this speech, as she had caught sight of the crape on his arm, and suddenly remembered why he had gone up to town.

“You went to the funeral?” she asked, the colour flushing in her face.

“Yes!” he replied, smoothing the child’s fair curls with gentle hand. “I went to the funeral. Poor Aunt Jelly! I don’t think she was sorry to die.”

Alizon made no reply, but sat perfectly still, looking steadily at him with a questioning look on her face. He knew what she so much desired to know, and broke the bad news to her as gently as he was able.

“I heard the will read,” he said awkwardly, reddening a little through the bronze of his complexion, “and she has left all her property to me.”

“To you?”

“Believe me, I neither expected nor desired it,” he cried hastily. “I have got plenty of money, without wishing more, and I thought she was going to leave it to Guy. I really thought she intended to do so.”

“My poor child!”

That was all she said—not a thought, not a word of pity for her absent husband. All her sorrow was for the unconscious child playing on Gartney’s knee.

“I assure you,” began Eustace, feeling like a robber, “that I—”

“That you could not help it,” she answered quietly. “I know that perfectly well. Who can be accountable for such things? But I am thinking of the future of my son. This property is deeply mortgaged, and most of the income goes to pay the interest. If Guy lived with me here we might save during the boy’s minority, but he is far away spending the money that is to be his son’s. I thought Aunt Jelly would have left the boy something, if she did not the father, and now he will be a pauper when he comes of age. This place will have to be sold, and my poor lad will never be Errington of the Hall—Oh, poor soul!—poor soul!”

Her voice ended in a tragic wail, and it was with difficulty that she restrained her tears. Eustace never felt so awkward in his life, as he did not know what to say in excuse for having unwittingly thwarted her hopes. Sammy had clambered down off his knee, and was now contentedly covering his toys with his mother’s handkerchief, while she, poor woman, was sitting looking at him silently, with an expression of mute misery on her face.

“Lady Errington,” said Eustace earnestly after a pause, “believe me, I am as sorry as you are, but I do not know how to act. I wrote to Guy, offering him half the property by deed of gift, and he refused to take it.”

“He could do no less,” she answered dully. “What right have we to rob you?”

“It’s not robbery,” he replied vehemently. “I have more money than I want. Whenever Guy likes to accept, he shall have half the property.”

Without answering his question, she looked down at the baby playing at her feet, and then glanced at him keenly. “Where is my husband?” she asked quickly.

“On the Continent—at San Remo.”

“With!—with that woman?”

“I!—I don’t know,” replied Eustace in a low voice, turning his face away.

“Mr. Gartney?”

“Yes, Lady Errington.”

“Look me in the face.”

He did so unwillingly, and found her eyes fastened on his with a determined expression.

“Is my husband with that woman?”

“No! I don’t think so, but I certainly heard she was at San Remo,” he answered evasively.

“Ah!” she drew a long breath, and a look of anger swept across her pale face. “He is with her then. I thought so.”

“You must not be too hard on Guy,” said Eustace, very feebly it must be confessed.

“Hard on Guy,” she repeated scornfully. “Hard on a man who leaves his wife and child for a vile woman like that. You, of course, take his side.”

“Why should I?” demanded Eustace hotly, “because I am his cousin?”

“No, because you are a man. Men always stand up for one another. It’s a kind of esprit du corps with them I suppose. It is no wrong to betray a woman in their eyes.”

“I don’t know why you expect me to stand up for my sex, I’m sure,” said Eustace cynically. “I think very little of them I assure you, and am quite incompetent to undertake the Herculean task of defending their failings. I’ve got too many of my own to account for.”

“I’ve no doubt,” replied Lady Errington bitterly. “You men are all the same.”

“I sincerely hope not,” retorted Eustace imperturbably. “I’ve no desire to resemble certain fools of my acquaintance. My character is no better nor no worse than my fellow-creatures’, and had some good woman like yourself taken charge of my life I might have improved.”

“You ought to get married.”

“Do you think so—from your own experience?”

She flushed crimson, and in order to hide her confusion stooped down to pick up the child.

“Marriages are made in heaven,” she said, trying to pass the thing off lightly.

“I understand there’s a tradition to that effect,” responded Eustace, indolently. “If that is the case, it is a pity Heaven gives a woman to one man who doesn’t care about her, instead of bestowing her on another who cannot be happy without her.”

“Is that your case?”

“Yes.”

There was a pause, during which she looked at him curiously. He met her gaze calmly, and not an idea of his meaning crossed her mind.

“So you love a married woman?”

“I do, and therefore no doubt am an object of horror in your eyes?”

The child had fallen asleep on her breast, and rising to her feet she walked slowly to and fro, rocking him in her arms.

“I have no right to judge you,” she said evasively, “but you can hardly expect me—a wife and a mother—to say that I approve of such a dishonourable passion.”

Eustace winced at the scorn of the last words.

“No, I cannot,” he answered slowly, “but let me put the case before you in another way. Suppose a woman is married to a man who cares absolutely nothing about her, neglects her in every way, insults her by his passion for another woman—”

“Oh!” she cried, shrinking as if he had struck her a blow.

“I am putting a supposititious case, remember,” he said hastily. “Well, this woman has a lover who adores her, but who has never ventured to express this passion, which the world calls dishonourable. The woman returns that passion and has only to say one word to the lover in order to be released from the curse of a loveless marriage, a neglectful husband, an unhappy home. What should that woman do in such a case?”

“Remain true to her marriage vows,” she said grandly.

“But if the husband is not true.”

“Is she to sink to the level of the husband? No, Mr. Gartney. Let the wife shame the husband by her fidelity to the vows which he has broken.”

“And the lover?”

“Is not a true lover, or he would not wish to drag the woman he professes to love through the mud of the world.”

“So you would condemn two lives to perpetual misery for the sake of one man, who does not appreciate the sacrifice?”

“Not for the sake of the one man, but for the sake of virtue, of honour, of uprightness.”

Eustace was silent under the cold purity of her look. This woman was no dreamer as he had thought, but had a soul like that Roman Lucrece, who preferred death to dishonour.

“Your creed is severe,” he said at last, with a frown on his strongly marked features.

“My creed is right,” she replied simply.

“Yes! according to the world.”

“No! according to God.”

As a rule, Gartney was not to be daunted by any woman, but there was something about Alizon Errington that made him afraid to talk in his usual cynical vein. Standing a short distance away, with the child in her arms and the golden glory of the sunshine behind her, this young mother looked like the realisation of the Madonna. So pure, so calm, so lovely, with the look of motherhood in her eyes that he involuntarily turned away his head, as though he was not worthy to profane such purity even by a glance.

“You talk above my head,” he said at length, rising to his feet, “it is the language of an ideal world, not to be realized in this matter-of-fact century. But if you will forgive me, Lady Errington—”

“Why not call me Alizon?” she said cordially. “We are cousins, you know, and titles are so formal—Eustace.”

“It’s very kind of you to grant me such permission,” replied Gartney frankly, taking the hand she held out to him. “Goodbye—Alizon.”

“Not goodbye, but au revoir.”

“May I come over again?” he asked eagerly.

“Of course. I am always glad to see you, besides Sammy loves his kind friend who plays with him.”

“And you?”

Their eyes met, a wave of crimson passed over her face, and with an air of displeasure, she turned away coldly, without answering his question.

“Goodbye, Mr. Gartney.”

Seeing that his freedom had offended her, he was too wise to make any further remark, but bowing slightly walked slowly away.

At the end of the terrace he looked back, and saw she was bending over the sleeping child, crooning some cradle-song to soothe his slumbers.

“The castle is well defended,” he said bitterly, as he resumed his walk. “I will never succeed in entering that heart, for the child stands ever as sentinel.”

He mounted his horse and rode slowly down the avenue into the green arcade of trees, through the boughs of which came golden shafts of sunlight.

“A saint! a saint!” he cried, touching his horse with the spur. “And yet the saint drove her husband to evil.”

Chapter 35
For My Child’s Sake

“I’ll look my dear boy in the face
    In after years,
Without the shadow of disgrace
    Or shameful tears.

“Oh, folly did I sin with you,
    And cause him pain,
If hands are clean, and hearts are true,
    His is the gain.

“Through future days of toil and fret,
    Come dull or fair,
Dear God, ah, let him ne’er forget
    His mother’s care!”

It was very dull down at Castle Grim, for even the bright sunshine of summer could not lift the shadow which seemed to lower over the place. Eustace amused himself as well as he could, strolling on the lonely beach, reading his books, playing his piano, and occasionally visiting at Errington Hall, which he did about three times a week.

Alizon was genuinely glad to see him, as in spite of her desire not to do so she missed her husband more than she cared to say, and Gartney’s bright, cheerful talk was a great pleasure to her. Besides, the child was fond of him, and that counted for a great deal in the eyes of the young mother, who was never tired of telling her complaisant visitor about the pretty ways and infantile tricks of her treasure.

As a rule, he rode over in the afternoon and stayed to dinner, after which, he returned to Castle Grim in the shadows of the summer twilight. What long conversations they used to have on the terrace in the gloaming, talks about books, and the burning questions of the day, and travels in far distant lands. Eustace found his companion singularly charming from an intellectual point of view, as, during her lonely girlhood, she had read a great deal, and moreover, remembered what she had read.

They never touched on the subject of their first conversation, however, as Alizon entrenched herself within her reserve, and refused to be drawn into further argument in the matter. Under these circumstances, Eustace was unable to tell whether he had made any impression upon her, and was forced to play the part of an ordinary friend, a rôle not at all to his liking.

After all, it was very questionable whether this platonism would change to a warmer feeling, as the cold demeanour of Alizon entirely forbade, in a tacit manner, any over-stepping of the limit of friendship. Eustace, owing to his inherent cynicism, and peculiar mode of life, had not much belief in woman, but this time he was obliged to confess to himself that he had not entirely mastered the feminine sex.

He loved her devotedly—the actual woman this time—for the pale, virginal vision which had haunted his brain during his travels in Arabia had entirely vanished, and in place of this unsatisfying dream, he adored the living, breathing woman herself. Doubtless he invested the reality with many of the attributes of the ideal, but, at the same time, he found in Alizon Errington the first companion of the other sex, who satisfied his artistic eye and his intellectual desires. Could he have married her, he would have been perfectly happy, and forgotten the old, empty, aimless existence of the past, but, as it was impossible, seeing she was the wife of another man, he could only stand outside the gates of the Paradise he could never hope to enter, and envy the impossible.

All idea that his passion was dishonourable had now vanished, and his dearest hope was that she should divorce her present husband, in order to become his wife. Although he did not understand the actual circumstances of the case, he was well aware that Alizon considered herself outraged by her husband’s companionship with Mrs. Veilsturm. He knew that Guy had shown a marked preference for the society of Cleopatra, and, as he had followed his charmer over to the Continent, Eustace began to actually believe that Errington was in love with the beautiful Creole.

“Small blame to him,” thought Eustace to himself as he drove over to the Hall one evening. “She set her mind upon making a conquest of him, and when a woman does that, a man may as well give in to the inevitable with a good grace. At all events it’s not my fault. I never spoke to Mrs. Veilsturm in any way. I never told his wife about the affair, it’s Fate and nothing else, and seeing that he has forgotten all a husband’s duties, they will never come together again, so I don’t see why I should not profit by the occasion.”

In this way did Eustace pacify his conscience to his own satisfaction, although at times he had an uneasy feeling that a good deal of hard, bitter truth underlay all this sophistry. A good many weeks had gone by, and Lady Errington had come to look upon him as a firm friend. Still, not being satisfied with this, and suffering all the tortures of a restless mind, he determined, as soon as possible, to find out if she was prepared to divorce her husband for his infidelity, and, if so, thought he would plead his own cause.

“If there’s a chance for me, I’ll stay in England and try my hardest,” he said to himself as he alighted from the dog-cart at the Hall. “If not, I’ll go out to Africa with Laxton.”

Javelrack drove the dog-cart off in the direction of the stables, and Eustace, after one look at the opaline evening sky, in which glimmered a pale star over the treetops, went inside, where Lady Errington was expecting him to dinner.

She was in the little Dutch room, which was her favourite, and when Eustace was announced by the servant, was standing by the table tossing Sammy in the air, while Tasker, well pleased, waited to bear off the young gentleman to bed.

“See my treasure?” she cried, as Gartney approached her, “he has come to say good-night. Excuse me shaking hands, Eustace.”

“Certainly, I yield to stronger claims,” said Gartney, looking at the laughing child, and at the happy young mother, in her long, white, dinner-dress. “You ought to be in your nursery, you young scamp.”

“So he ought,” laughed Lady Errington, devouring the baby face with kisses, “but he cried for me so much that Nurse had to bring him down.”

“He hollered, sir,” confirmed Mrs. Tasker, placidly. “I never did see sich a child for his mother.”

“The sweetest, dearest treasure in the world!” said Alizon taking Sammy across to his nurse, “here, Nurse, take him—oh! he’s got my flowers, naughty boy.”

And indeed, Master Errington, crowing with delight, carried off a mangled geranium in triumph to his nursery, kicking vigorously in Mrs. Tasker’s strong arms.

“How you idolize that child, Alizon,” said Eustace enviously.

“He is all I have in the world,” she replied with a sigh. “I don’t know what I should do without him.”

“Don’t inspire the angels with envy,” murmured Gartney, a little cruelly, “it might be dangerous for him.”

“Oh!”

She laid her hand on her heart with a cry, and a pallor over-spread her face.

“It is cruel to talk like that,” she said hurriedly; “you don’t think he looks ill, do you? He’s such a strong child. There’s no chance of his dying. Oh, Eustace, you don’t think that, do you?”

“No! no! of course I don’t,” he replied, soothingly. “Don’t get these foolish fancies into your head. Sammy will live to be a great trouble to you I’ve no doubt.”

“He’ll never be that,” answered Lady Errington, recovering herself. “Ah! there’s the gong.”

“Dinner is served, my lady,” announced a servant at the door, and taking Gartney’s arm, she went with him into the dining-room.

It was “Alizon” and “Eustace” with them now, for after all, they were cousins, if only by marriage, and it was so disagreeable to constantly use the formality of titles. Still, there was always that indefinable barrier between them, which kept Eustace within the limits of kindly friendship, and on her part, Alizon never forgot her dignity as a married woman.

“It’s very kind of you, Alizon, to take pity on a poor hermit,” said Gartney, towards the end of the meal, “but I don’t know what the county will say at this tête-à-tête dinner.”

“The county can hardly complain, seeing we are cousins.”

“By marriage.”

“Yes, by marriage,” she assented, changing the conversation from such a distasteful subject, which reminded her of Guy. “By the way, Eustace, I want you to sing to me this evening.”

“I think I do that pretty nearly every time I come over,” replied Eustace, smiling. “Is there anything special you want?”

“I remember your improvisation at Como about the fairy and the nightingale. It was very charming.”

“Ah! you remember that?” he cried, his face lighting up.

“It was too delightful to forget.”

Eustace laughed a trifle disbelievingly.

“Is that genuine, or a society romance?”

“I always say what I mean,” she answered, with cold dignity.

“I’m glad everybody else does not,” retorted Gartney fervently. “What a disagreeable world it would be, if that was the case.”

“A very honest world, at all events.”

“And therefore disagreeable—the two are inseparable.”

“Why should they be?”

“Ah! why shouldn’t they?” said Eustace meaningly. “If the truth was pleasant, nobody would mind hearing it, but then the truth is not always pleasant.”

“That is the fault of the person spoken of.”

“I daresay, but he doesn’t look at it in that philosophical light.”

“You are as cynical as ever,” she said with a sigh, as she arose to leave the table.

“The fault of the world, as I said before,” he responded, opening the door. “I would like to believe in my fellow-creatures, only they won’t let me.”

When she had vanished, he returned to his wine, and began to ponder over her words. He saw plainly enough that she did not care about him at all, but with ingrained vanity and egotism would not admit the coldness to himself.

“I’ll try what a song can do,” he thought, as he followed her to the drawing-room. “I can say in a song what I dare not say in plain words.”

Of course, Lady Errington had run up to the nursery to take a look at the baby, but shortly afterwards came down with an apology, to find Eustace seated at the piano.

Outside was the luminous twilight of July, with a pale, starlit sky, arched over the prim Dutch garden. The windows were open, and a warm breath of summer, heavy with the perfume of flowers, floated into the room. The sombre trees stood black and dense against the clear sky, the garden was filled with wavering shadows, and a nightingale was singing deliciously in the heart of the still leaves as the bats glided like ghosts through the air. Lady Errington established herself in a comfortable chair near the open window, with a white wrap as a protection against the falling dews, and Eustace, sitting at the Erard, in the bright light of the lamp, ran his fingers delicately over the keys.

“What can I do against that immortal music?” he said absently, alluding to the nightingale.

“Hark how the bursts come crowding through the trees.
What passion, and what pain.”

“You don’t know Matthew Arnold’s poems, I suppose, Lady Errington?”

“Ah! you are wrong there,” she replied quietly. “I am very fond of his melancholy verse.”

“Very melancholy,” he answered musingly. “I agree with you there. I wonder, if in the whole range of English literature, there is a more bitterly true line than that famous one:

“ ‘We mortal millions live alone.’ ”

“That is not my favourite,” said Alizon dreamily, “I like that couplet:

“ ‘And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb’d salt estranging sea.’ ”

“It means very much the same thing,” observed Eustace after a pause, “and it’s in the same poem, I think. But how true it is! Lovers, friends, married or single, we all live alone, isolated by the ‘estranging sea.’ No one really knows the heart of a fellow-creature.”

“But surely if a perfect harmony exists—”

“There is always a something,” said Gartney decisively, “like the perfume of a flower, the sigh of a wind, the throb of joy in the voice of a bird, that escapes us utterly. It is felt, but cannot be communicated.”

“A sad idea.”

“Very sad, but alas, very true.”

There was a silence between them for a few minutes, only broken by the song of the hidden bird and the ripple of notes from the piano, and then Eustace, with a deep sigh, shook off his sombre thoughts and spoke cheerfully.

“I must sing you something, Lady Errington,” he said lightly, “all this conversation will make you melancholy.”

“I like to feel melancholy. It’s suitable to the hour.”

“Then I must make my song the same,” he observed gaily, and thereupon played a soft dreamy prelude, at the end of which his sweet, sympathetic voice arose tenderly on the still air:

               I.

“I love a star that shines above
When day is blending with the night,
Alas, what pain this foolish love,
Such worship brings but cold delight.
I cannot scale the twilight sky,
My love to tell in accents sweet;
It comes not down altho’ I sigh,
And so my star I ne’er can meet.

               II.

“Oh foolish heart! oh cruel star!
Your love I dare not hope to gain;
Yet still you shine each night afar,
To mock my anguish and my pain
And yet thou art so sweet, so pure,
I may not—dare not thee forsake;
For tho’ this pain for aye endure
I’ll love thee—but my heart will break.”

“The story of an impossible love,” said Lady Errington when he ended.

“Yes! It is called ‘My Star in Heaven.’ ”

“As if any man loved so hopelessly and purely—absurd!”

“There are more varieties of the human race than you know of, Alizon.”

“No doubt. But I’m not particularly impressed with those I have met with.”

“You are talking of me.”

“I am talking of my husband.”

Eustace left the piano and stepped outside into the beautiful still night. The moon was looking over the fantastic gables of the hall, and filled the garden with trembling shadows. It was exquisitely beautiful, but human beings bring the prose of life into all the poetry of Nature. Eustace did so now.

“May I smoke a cigarette, Alizon?”

“Certainly!”

He lighted a cigarette and leaned against the wall of the house, watching the ghostly curls of smoke melting in the moonshine. Both were silent for a few minutes, occupied with their own thoughts, and then Eustace spoke.

“Why don’t you divorce your husband?”

Lady Errington started violently, for, strange to say, she was thinking of the same thing. She felt inclined to resent Gartney’s plain speaking, but the light from the lamp was striking full on his grave face, and, seeing how much in earnest he was, she changed her mind.

“I shall never do that,” she replied quietly, with a slight shiver. It might have been the night air or the idea of divorce, but she shivered as she spoke.

“Why not?”

“Can you ask? Think of the disgrace it would be to the child.”

It was all over. Eustace had an intuitive feeling that the last word had been said on the subject. She would never divorce her husband, she would never listen to his offers of affection, for the child was at once her safeguard and her idol.

Had he been wise he would have said nothing more. Not being wise, however, he did.

“You have been very kind to me, Alizon,” he said slowly, “very—very kind, and I shall treasure your kindness in my heart when I leave you.”

“Where are you going?” she asked in a startled tone.

“I am going to Africa.”

“Have you any reason?”

“The best of all possible reasons. I love you too well for my own peace of mind.”

Lady Errington arose, with a slight cry, from her chair, and stood looking at him with wild eyes.

“Are you mad?”

“I have been,” he answered sadly, “but I am mad no longer.”

She put out her hand to grasp the back of the chair and steady herself, still looking at him in amazement. She was not indignant—she was not angered—she was simply bewildered.

“I don’t understand you,” she said at length, in a dull tone. “What are you saying to me? What do you mean?”

“I mean that I love you too well for my own peace of mind,” he said steadily.

“Love me?—the wife of another man!”

“Will you sit down, Lady Errington?” observed Eustace, in a measured tone; “I will tell you all.”

“I cannot listen. Such words from you are an insult.”

“You will not say so when you hear what I have to tell.”

Alizon sat down again in her chair, clasped her slender hands together, then, looking steadily at his face, made a sign for him to go on, but otherwise gave no token of emotion.

“When I met you at Como,” said Eustace, his usually slow enunciation quickened by a powerful emotion, “I fell in love with you. Ah, you need not make that gesture of indignation—the passion was none of my seeking. The most virtuous woman could take no exception to such unrequited homage. I always was a strange man in my likes and dislikes, as you have no doubt heard. Never before had I met a woman I cared about. They tired me with their falseness and follies, but in you I saw for the first time an ideal which had been in my mind for many years. I dared not speak, as you were the wife of my cousin, and it would have been dishonourable, therefore I went away, and for many months strove to forget. Nature, however, was stronger than I was, and when I came back and saw you again, I found that I was more in love than ever. Still I said nothing, and kept out of your presence as much as I was able. Through the difference between yourself and Guy, I was unavoidably forced to see you often. What could I do? A man’s passions are not always under his control. All women are not as pure and cold as you. I was afraid of myself, I was afraid of you, and in order to solve the difficulty I did my best to bring you and Guy together. I spoke to you—I spoke to Guy—but all was useless. He has gone back to Mrs. Veilsturm, and forgets with her all his duties to you. I do not say he is right, but I say he is much to be pitied. Still, whatever my feelings may be towards him, the actual facts remain the same. He is with another woman, and you are left alone in the world. I foolishly dreamed that it might be my fate to release you from this unhappy position. I thought you might divorce the husband who has wronged you, but you refuse to do so, for the sake of the child. Ah, that is the god of your idolatry—you care for nothing in the world save your child. It is the selfish passion of motherhood—pure, good, elevating —but still selfish. It is the child that came between you and your husband—it is the child who comes now between you and me. My love remains unaltered—it will always be the same—and had you been free I might have spoken to you without dishonour. You refuse to loosen the bonds of your loveless marriage, and as I cannot be your lover or your husband, I dare not be your friend. Your husband is parted from you—he will never return. I am going away on a perilous journey—I will never return. Therefore you will be alone with what you love best in the world—your child.”

With her clear eyes fixed steadily on his face she heard him to the end of this long speech without a quiver of the eyelids—without the trembling of her lip—and when he finished:

“So I am the married woman you said you loved?” she asked coldly.

“Yes! and you say—”

“I say now what I said then,” she answered sternly, “no man can be a true lover if he would wish to drag the woman he loves through the mud of the world.”

Eustace flushed deeply.

“You misunderstand me,” he said hurriedly; “I do not want to drag you down. I would not have spoken, only I thought a divorce—”

“A divorce!” she echoed, rising to her feet, “and what is that but dishonour to me and to the child?”

“Always the child,” he said sullenly.

“And why not? The only pure thing in the world I have to love. My husband has deceived me. You have changed from a friend to a lover. I cannot listen to you without dishonour. What you said was perfectly true—my love for the child is the selfish passion of motherhood. I pardon the words which you have spoken to me to-night, but we must never meet again.”

“We will not,” he muttered hoarsely, “I leave England for ever.”

“Then we understand each other, and nothing now remains but to say goodbye.”

“Have you no word of pity?”

“I am sorry for your foolish passion,” she said gently, “but can I say more without lowering myself in your eyes?

“No—you are right. It is best for me to go. The star will never come down from Heaven for me, but it will always shine there.”

He caught her hand and touched it with his hot lips.

“Goodbye, Alizon. God—God bless you, my dearest!”

Was it a fancy that a burning tear had fallen on her chill hand? She looked, and lo! her hand was wet. The door had closed—she was alone in the room, deserted both by husband and lover.

“Poor Eustace,” she said softly, “I am sorry for his madness; but if he is unhappy I also am miserable. My husband and friend have both left me, but I have always my child.”

Chapter 36
The Death Of The First-Born

“Dead!    Dead!
His soul hath sped,
The turf lies over his golden head.

“Cold!    Cold!
In churchyard mould,
And just one stroke hath the death-bell tolled.

“Child!    Child!
The angels smiled,
Then carried thee heavenward undefiled.”

After the departure of Eustace, life went on in the same old fashion at the Hall. Alizon passed her days and nights with Sammy, received the few visitors that called, and was as happy as she could be under the circumstances. She deeply regretted the kind friend who had been such a comfort to her in her loneliness, but looking back on what she had done, could not wish things otherwise. True, he had spoken most delicately, and in such a way as could offend no woman, still she was glad that he had gone, as his presence would have been a perpetual reminder to her of his unhappy passion.

“If I had married him,” she thought sometimes, “perhaps he would have made me a better husband than Guy. But no! his love was a mere passion of envy, wishing for what he could not obtain. Had I been single, very probably he would not have spoken to me as he did. The fact that I am the wife of another man is the true reason of his desire that I should love him. Ah! these men, they are all the same. Eustace is a poet, and his pleading was more delicate than another man’s would have been, but his instincts resemble those of the rest of his sex.”

Thus she talked to herself, trying to harden her heart against the misery of the man who loved her so devotedly and hopelessly. He was going away from England, to exile, perhaps to death, and all for her sake; even the least vain of woman could not but feel a thrill of responsive feeling to such unutterable worship. But whenever she found herself thinking in this dangerous fashion, she tried to change the current of her thoughts. She was the wife of Guy Errington, and, little as he deserved it, he had a right to expect entire purity of thought and deed in his wife, yet, in spite of her Puritanical nature, she dreamed at times of the unhappy exile whose love she had rejected.

Guy never wrote to his wife, nor gave any sign of existence, and she, on her part, acted in the same way, so it seemed as if their lives were parted for ever. Yet she frequently thought about him and began to believe that she had been too harsh in her judgment. If such was the case, let him come back and ask her forgiveness. If he did so—well she might pardon him, and then—but no, there could never be any trust or affection between them. The phantom of the past would always come between them; so far as she could see, nothing remained to make her life happy but the child.

Sammy was the idol of her heart. She forgot everything when she had him in her arms, and she felt that the whole world might go to ruin as long as this blue-eyed darling was left untouched, safe on the tender bosom of his mother. In her daily life she adapted all things to suit the living of her child, and never knew a happy moment when she was away from his side.

The first thing in the morning the child was brought down to her bedroom, and sprawled on the coverlet, while she lay looking at him with happy eyes, babbling fond nonsense suited to his baby understanding. When he slept in the morning she sat beside his crib watching the flushed little face, the tangled golden curls, and the tiny dimpled hands. She went out with him for his daily drive, accompanied by Mrs. Tasker, and would hardly let that worthy woman touch him, so jealous she was of his liking for anyone save herself. He played at her feet for hours, and she sat beside him in a low chair singing tender little songs, playing baby games, amusing him with his toys, and when he grew fretful with wakefulness, lulled him to sleep on her breast. Every hour of the day she found some new perfection in him, she was never tired of talking about his clever ways, his infantile wisdom, his loving disposition, and when he was laid to rest at night, she hung over him like an enamoured lover breathing blessings on his unconscious head.

The world will doubtless laugh at such tender devotion, at such intense absorption in an unformed infant, but no one but a woman, no one but a mother, can understand the wondrous power of maternal love that dominates every other feeling in the feminine heart. All the passion of lovers, the ecstacies of poets, the blind adoration of men for those they love, pale before this strongest of all feelings implanted in the human breast. Perhaps some will say that self-preservation is stronger, but this is not so, as a mother in an extreme case will sacrifice her life for that of her child, thereby proving the superiority of the maternal feeling.

In this worship of the child she forgot earth, she forgot heaven, she forgot God.

And God punished her.

Sammy was cutting his teeth, and was feverish and fretful for some days, but although every care was lavished upon him neither Alizon nor Mrs. Tasker deemed the illness to be anything worse than a slight infantile malady. But one evening, Alizon bending over his sleeping form, saw his face grow black, his little limbs begin to twitch, and in a moment the poor child was in strong convulsions. Pale with terror, she shrieked for Mrs. Tasker and sent off a groom at once for the village doctor who had attended to Sammy since his birth. Mrs. Tasker, terribly anxious, yet restraining herself so as not to affright the agonised mother, did what she could under the circumstances and placed the child in a hot bath. The doctor arrived as quickly as possible, but he was too late—the child was dead.

Dead!

When the doctor told her, she could not believe it, and throwing herself on her knees beside the tiny corpse, tried in vain to see some sign of life. Alas it was all in vain, and after an hour of agonising dread she was obliged to accept the inevitable.

She did not lament, she did not weep, but only sat in dumb tearless silence by the side of her dead child. One thing only she muttered, with ashen lips, and restless hands plucking at her dress.

“It is the judgment of God, because I loved His creature better than Himself.”

There is no grief so terrible as that silent, self-concentrated agony which gives no sign. All through the lonely hours of the night she sat beside the crib, where all that she held dearest and best was lying stiff and cold, the tiny hands crossed on the breast, a smile on the placid little face. They tried in vain to persuade her to go to bed, to take some refreshment, to leave the room where the dead child lay, but all in vain, for rejecting all offers of consolation and kindness, she sat frozen with grief in the darkened room.

The morning came, the time that she had been accustomed to hear the merry little voice and see the happy face, but the voice was silent now for evermore, and the face—could that still, white mask be the face she had seen smiling in her own, the face that she had covered so often with kisses? She could not cry, although tears would have been a relief, she could not talk, although it would have eased her pain, she could only sit in a trance of speechless, thoughtless horror beside her dead.

Mrs. Tasker, wise old woman that she was, knew that unless something was done, and that speedily, to rouse her mistress from this apathetic state, there would be danger of the mind becoming unhinged, so finding out Mr. Gartney’s address in London, which she obtained by sending over to Castle Grim, sent a telegram and afterwards a letter to him urging him to bring the husband, the father, to the stricken mother.

Eustace was leading an aimless life in Town, when he received the news, and was terribly grieved about it. Without delay, he wired to Errington at San Remo, and then wrote to Victoria at Dunkeld Castle, asking her to come at once to the unhappy woman. Mrs. Macjean, much moved by the intelligence, came south without delay, in company with her husband, and went down to the Hall. The sight of the young bride’s kind face did more good to Lady Errington than anything else, and after all the apathy and horror of those dark days succeeding the death, the blessed tears came to relieve her overburdened heart. The two women wept in one another’s arms, and hand in hand stood by the little coffin wherein lay the tiny body of the child. Otterburn kept out of their way as much as he could, feeling that his rough masculine nature was but ill-suited to this house of mourning, but attended to all the details of the funeral pending the arrival of Errington.

And Guy?

Surely he would come over now that his child was dead, come over to bury his first-born and console the afflicted mother! Eustace waited hopefully for a telegram saying that he was on his way, but at length received a wire asking him to come over to San Remo and see his cousin there. He crushed the telegram up in his hand with an oath.

“Good God!” he said to himself in dismay, “surely that woman cannot have besotted him so far that he cannot come to the funeral of his own child.”

He did not hesitate a moment, but wrote a letter to Otterburn at the Hall, telling him he was going over to San Remo to bring back Errington, and then, hastily packing a few things, started from Victoria Station for the Continent.

During the last few weeks since his departure from Castle Grim, he had arranged all his affairs prior to his departure for Africa. Laxton was still in Town as, Otterburn being married, he had not been able to find anyone to go with him as a companion, so when Eustace offered himself, he was greatly delighted. It had been Laxton’s intention to go down to Cape Town, but Gartney persuaded him to alter his destination to the Nile, and, go far up into Nubia, in order to follow in the footsteps of Speke and Bruce. This arrangement was satisfactory, and Eustace and his friend began to arrange everything for their trip, which now began to assume more the appearance of an exploring expedition than a mere shooting excursion.

When he had to go to San Remo in order to bring back Guy, all the preparations were left in Laxton’s hands, which did not, by any means, prove irksome to that young man, as he was going in heart and soul for the business.

Eustace, as he stood on the deck of a Channel steamer in the dark night, drinking in the sea breezes, thought all the time of the woman he loved kneeling beside the open coffin.

“She has nothing to care for now,” he said to himself. “God has taken away her idol, so if I bring back Guy with me, she will forgive and love him for coming to her in her sorrow.”

The fact was, that for the first time in his life Gartney was sacrificing self for the benefit of other people. Hitherto he had gratified without scruple all his egotistical desires, but the hopeless love he cherished for Alizon Ellington had brought to light the nobler traits of his nature, and probably he was never a better man than now, when he was striving to bring wife and husband together for their mutual happiness before leaving his native country for an everlasting exile, and perchance death in a savage land.

Chapter 37
The Truth About Mrs. Veilsturm

“We all have skeletons, everyone,
We hide away from the cheerful sun,
Tearful and sad, or merry and gay,
We all have skeletons hidden away.”

Eustace duly arrived at San Remo, tired out by his long journey, and, as he had written to Guy before leaving London, was rather surprised not to find his cousin waiting for him at the railway station. However, he took the matter philosophically enough, after his usual fashion, although he was seriously annoyed at what seemed like wilful negligence, and drove to the Hotel de la Mer, where Errington was staying. There he found Guy’s valet awaiting his arrival in the hall, and speedily received an explanation, from which it appeared that Errington was seriously ill, and confined to his bed.

“I would have come myself, sir,” concluded the man, “but Sir Guy wouldn’t let me leave him, and I’ve just slipped down stairs for a moment to explain things. I’m very glad you’ve come, sir.”

“So am I,” thought Eustace, as he followed the servant upstairs, “I hadn’t any idea he was ill. No wonder he could not come to England.”

When he entered the bedroom he found his cousin was really seriously ill, being in a highly excited state. He asked Eustace all kinds of questions about Alizon, about the death of the child, and talked incoherently about Mrs. Veilsturm, mixing everything up in a most nonsensical fashion, being evidently quite light-headed. Gartney answered his questions, and soothed him as well as he was able, but was very much perturbed over the matter, although he did not show his real feelings. At last he got Guy to lie down quietly, and then, leaving the room, sent for the doctor who was attending the young man.

In a few minutes Dr. Storge arrived, a tall, spare man, with a keen, clever face, and a sharp manner, who talked straight and to the point, without any loss of time.

“Yes, Mr. Gartney,” he replied briskly to Eustace’s enquiry. “Sir Guy is very ill, indeed. In a highly excited state brought on by worry and fretting. I saw that he was in a bad way about a week ago, when he first consulted me, but something he will not tell me about has occurred since then, and the result—well you see it upstairs.”

“But surely—when—Errington consulted you, he explained—”

“He explained nothing, my dear sir, and now he is so ill that I dare not ask him, as it makes him excited, and that is what I wish to avoid. Perhaps you can give me some idea of what is wrong.”

“Yes, I can. Is it necessary you should know?”

“What’s the good of calling in a medical man if you don’t intend to confide in him?” said Storge coolly. “You know what Balzac says, that a man reveals nothing to the priest, what suits him to the lawyer, and everything to the physician. I want to find out the cause of Sir Guy’s excitement, and then I may do some good. As it is—well, you see for yourself, I am working in the dark.”

This reasoning appeared to be very just, so Gartney, making a virtue of necessity, drew his chair close to that of the doctor, and told him everything.

“The fact is,” said Eustace after a pause, during which he collected his thoughts, “my cousin and his wife have had a quarrel about a woman.”

“Ah! I thought as much—Mrs. Veilsturm.”

“What! You know—”

“Nothing, absolutely nothing,” replied the doctor sharply. “I’ve only put two and two together, and any fool knows that makes four—more or less.”

“Well, Sir Guy loves his wife very dearly, but she believes that he has compromised himself with—but I don’t know if I ought to tell you this.”

Dr. Storge made a gesture of despair.

“I thought you were a man of the world, Mr. Gartney,” he said quickly, “but although I appreciate your delicacy with regard to—well, say our mutual friend, though I only know her by sight—I must insist upon you telling me all. ‘Go on, my dear sir, go on. Your confession is as safe with me as it would be with one of those dingy priests in the town.”

Being satisfied with this explanation, Gartney smothered his scruples, and went on talking.

“I see it’s no use beating about the bush, doctor. My cousin has quarrelled with his wife on account of Mrs. Veilsturm, whom he loves—”

“Pardon me, No,” interrupted Storge smartly, “you mean she loves him—a vastly different thing.”

“Nonsense! She doesn’t care two straws about him,” said Eustace bluntly.

“If you don’t explain, Mr. Gartney,” cried the doctor angrily, “you will have me as bad as your friend upstairs.”

“Then listen, my dear sir, and pray don’t interrupt me,” said Eustace tartly. “Mrs. Veilsturm, who is a lady holding a good position in London Society, thought herself slighted by Lady Errington—in what way it does not matter. She determined to revenge herself by taking Lady Errington’s husband away from her, and she has succeeded. My cousin does not really care for Mrs. Veilsturm, but, owing to an unfortunate misunderstanding with his wife, he has drifted into a false position. This woman has entangled him in her net and won’t let him go until she can bring about a divorce, which will certainly be the end. Errington, I’ve no doubt, has worried himself into a fever over things, thinking he is between the devil and the deep sea, and the other day his only child died, so I expect the news of the death put the finishing stroke to the whole business.”

“I understand,” said Storge, who had been listening attentively, “I can quite appreciate the position, and need hardly tell you Mr. Gartney, that your cousin is dangerously ill. He is an honourable man, who finds himself in a dishonourable position, through no fault of his own, and the knowledge has worked him up into a state of frenzy. I am afraid of brain fever.”

“Good Heavens I hope not.”

“I’m afraid so,” returned the doctor sagaciously, “he’s quite off the balance, with all this business. However, now you are here, things may turn out better, for he must be kept quiet—perfect rest is what is needed.”

“And what am I to do?”

“Keep Mrs. Veilsturm away.”

“But she surely doesn’t visit him,” said Eustace in an astonished tone, “because, in the first place, she doesn’t care for him, and in the second, she’s too cautious to jeopardise her position in Society.”

“She does not exactly visit him,” replied Storge, rising, “but she sends messages, flowers, fruit, three-cornered notes, and all that rubbish. Of course it keeps Errington perpetually thinking about her—then he thinks about his wife, and between the two I’m afraid of the result.”

“Well, I’ll go and see Mrs. Veilsturm,” said Eustace grimly. “I’ve no doubt I’ll be able to persuade her to leave my cousin alone.”

“I don’t envy you the interview,” observed Storge, who was a sharp observer, “nor her either. Still she’s a fine woman.”

“A fine devil,” retorted Gartney, with less than his usual caution.

“She looks like it,” said the doctor coolly, going to the door. “A Creole, isn’t she?—ah! I thought so. Got a considerable touch of the tiger in her I should say. I wouldn’t like to be under her claws—too risky. Well I’ll go up and see our patient.”

“And I’ll go and see Mrs. Veilsturm.”

“You’d better have your lunch first,” said Storge “you’ll need all your strength.”

“Very good advice, Doctor, I’ll adopt it; at the same time don’t be afraid of me—I’m a match for her.”

Storge laughed and looked keenly at Gartney’s powerful face.

“Yes, I think you are,” he said carelessly, “I’ve read your looks—goodbye at present.”

When the Doctor had vanished, Eustace sat down to consider the situation, which was certainly rather problematic at present, especially with regard to the Errington-Veilsturm episode. When a strikingly handsome and decidedly unscrupulous woman sets her heart upon turning the head of a disconsolate man, with a somewhat weak character, she generally succeeds in her task. Guy had been certainly rather weak with regard to the sex feminine in his bachelor days, but since marriage, his love for his wife had been a safeguard against the dangerous raids of daring free-lances. Owing to his unfortunate quarrel with Alizon, however, he had lost his shield, and of this Mrs. Veilsturm had taken instant advantage, securing thereby an indisputable victory.

In England, Gartney had felt some doubts regarding the entanglement of his cousin with Cleopatra, but now he saw plainly that Guy was still true to his wife, and that it required the utmost dexterity of his charmer to keep her captive in chains. If he could only be brought face to face with his wife, Eustace was convinced that everything could be arranged, and the influence of Mrs. Veilsturm over this weak soul destroyed. He would like to have written to Alizon, and asked her to come over in order to nurse him, and be reconciled to her husband, but he was afraid she would not do so. The only thing to be done, therefore, was to try and get Errington cured as soon as possible, and take him away from the dangerous neighbourhood of Cleopatra.

In order to do this, according to the doctor, it was necessary to force Mrs. Veilsturm to leave her victim alone, as she brought herself constantly to his mind, and exercised a malignant influence upon his whole nature highly detrimental to recovery. Eustace, therefore, agreed with the doctor, that the first thing to be done was to deal with Mrs. Veilsturm, and this he made up his mind to do without delay. As Guy could not be removed from the neighbourhood of Mrs. Veilsturm, the next best thing was to remove Mrs. Veilsturm from the neighbourhood of Guy, or, in plain words, to make her leave San Remo at once. It was a difficult task, and involved a disagreeable interview; still, desperate diseases require desperate remedies, so Eustace wasted no time in hesitation, but determined to call upon Mrs. Veilsturm that afternoon.

As Mr. Gartney was nothing if not methodical, he proceeded very deliberately with his preparations, and, truth to tell, felt rather jubilant at the prospect of a tussle with Cleopatra, who was a foeman, or rather foewoman, worthy of anyone’s steel. After a cold bath, which invigorated him considerably after his tiresome journey, he changed his travelling suit for one more in conformity with an afternoon visit, and then made an early luncheon, followed by a soothing cigar. His physical wants thus having been attended to, he ascertained from the “Liste d’Étrangers,” that Mrs. Veilsturm was staying at the Villa Garcia, and departed on his errand of mercy.

Cleopatra had certainly an aptitude for making herself comfortable, for the Villa Garcia was a charming little house, with white walls, vivid green shutters, and dusky, red-tiled roof. Embosomed among the grey olive trees and slender palms, it stood some distance back from the Corso Imperatrice, and from its broad terrace there could be seen the tideless blue of the Mediterranean Sea, the church of the Madonna della Guardia on Capo Verde, and sometimes a glimpse of far-off Corsica floating in a golden mist, or lying amid the rose-red clouds of dawn, like Brünnhilde within the magic circle of Wotan’s fire.

Happily for Eustace the lady he sought was at home, so on sending in his card, he was conducted to an artificially darkened drawing-room, where Mrs. Veilsturm was seated in a comfortable-looking chair, occupied with a French novel and a fan. No one was with her, as Major Griff had gone off with Thambits and Mr. Jiddy for a day’s pleasure at Monte Carlo and, Errington not being obtainable, Mrs. Veilsturm was delighted to see Eustace, who was much more amusing than her own thoughts. She was arrayed in a loose dress of white Chinese silk, with great masses of scarlet geranium at her throat and waist, which suited her so well that Eustace, with a view to making everything pleasant, could not help congratulating her on her appearance.

“I know I’m looking well,” said Cleopatra indolently, as Gartney settled himself in a low chair near her. “The South always agrees with me so much better than that smoky London. That comes of being a daughter of the Tropics I suppose.”

“You look in your proper place under a burning sky,” observed Eustace poetically. “There is more of the gorgeous cactus about you than the English rose.”

“Am I to take that as a compliment?”

“Most women would.”

“I daresay, but then you see I’m unlike most women,” replied Cleopatra, fanning herself slowly. “It’s rather a good thing I think myself. What a horrible idea to be a replica of half a dozen of one’s dearest enemies.”

“Have you any enemies?” asked Eustace, looking keenly at her.

“Plenty! principally of my own sex I think. It doesn’t trouble me, however, as I think it is rather a distinction than otherwise. A person without enemies must be without character. By-the-way, Mr. Gartney, I haven’t asked you what you are doing in San Remo.”

“What do you think?”

“It’s too hot to answer riddles,” replied Mrs. Veilsturm languidly. “I’m sure I can’t tell. Restoring your health, writing a book, hiding from your friends. There, I’ve given you a choice of three answers.”

“None of which are right. I’ve come over to attend to my cousin Errington.”

“How devoted of you,” said the lady ironically. “I was not aware you were so fond of your cousin as all that.”

“Were you not?” answered Eustace nonchalantly. “Rather an oversight on your part, seeing that Errington and myself have been close friends all our lives.”

An angry colour glowed in Cleopatra’s swarthy face as she detected a covert insolence in this reply, but, having a sharp tongue of her own, she lost no time in answering.

“Ah! I see, like does not always draw to like.”

“Certainly not in this case, but the reverse is true. I am not a bit like Errington in any way. For example, I can always take care of myself.”

“And Sir Guy cannot, I suppose?”

“Not when there’s a woman in the case, as there is now.”

Mrs. Veilsturm had never liked Eustace, as he knew more about her former life than she cared he should, but being an eminently diplomatic woman she had always treated him as a friend. Now, however, she saw that his attitude was distinctly hostile, and prepared to give battle. They were now matching their wits against one another, and each knew it would take wonderful skill and cautious dealing in order to come off victor in such a remarkably equal contest.

“I don’t understand you,” said Mrs. Veilsturm, after a pause.

“Try,” responded Eustace curtly.

“Why should I?”

“Because you understand well enough, only you won’t admit it.”

“Do you know, Mr. Gartney, you are very rude?” said the Creole quietly.

“Pshaw!” cried Eustace angrily, “it’s no use our fencing with buttons on the foils. I’ve come here for a certain purpose, and you know what it is.”

“I’m sure I don’t,” said Mrs. Veilsturm doggedly.

“None so blind as those who won’t see.”

“Pithy,” retorted Cleopatra sneeringly, “very pithy, but irrelevant.”

“Not at all, as I will soon show you. Look here, Mrs. Veilsturm, I’m going to be plain, brutally plain.”

“To do you justice you generally are.”

“It is necessary in some cases, especially in this one,” said Gartney quietly, “but I’m not here to discuss my personal character, but to save my cousin.”

“From me, I presume.”

“Exactly! I did not think you would have admitted that.”

She had made a false move in doing so, and saw that Eustace had taken advantage of her rashness, so, throwing down her book, she sat straight up in her chair, and spoke with firm deliberation.

“You’re talking nonsense, my dear Mr. Gartney, which is a thing I don’t care about. You say you have come here for a certain purpose, perhaps you’ll be kind enough to tell me the meaning of that remark.”

“Certainly,” replied Gartney promptly. “I know all about the way you consider yourself to have been slighted by Lady Errington. I know that you have tried your best to inveigle Errington into your net in order to be revenged, and I’ve come here to ask you to leave my cousin alone, and leave San Remo.”

“A very cool request, upon my word,” cried the Creole viciously, with an evil smile on her angry face, “but one I don’t intend to comply with.”

“I think it will be as well for you to do so.”

She sprang to her feet in a fury, and stood looking at him, with clenched hands and face convulsed with rage.

“You threaten me, do you?” she shrieked savagely. “How dare you—how dare you? I shall tell Major Griff—I shall tell—”

“You’ll tell no one,” said Gartney calmly, “that is, you won’t if you are wise.”

Cleopatra stood silent for a moment, struggling with her temper, then, stamping her foot, walked rapidly up and down the room, Eustace watching her meanwhile, with a sardonic smile on his lips. He, also, had risen to his feet, as, knowing Maraquita’s temper of old, he thought it wise to be prepared for possibilities. At last the lady collected herself sufficiently to talk quietly, and stopping opposite her antagonist, spoke in a low, suppressed voice, which was far more deadly in its meaning than the first outburst of wrath.

“As you say, we may as well take the buttons off the foils. Consider them removed.”

“So far, so good,” assented Eustace, not taking his eyes off her. “Go on.”

“Carambo!”

“You still remember your Spanish, I see,” he said mockingly, “but we’re not in South America now.”

“I wish we were,” she hissed savagely, bringing her beautiful, distorted face so close to his own that he felt her hot breath on his cheek. “Oh, I wish we were.”

“I don’t,” he replied, without blenching. “You might treat me as you did Manuel—”

“No! No!” she cried, a terrified expression flitting across her face. “Not that name!—not that name here!”

“Then let us keep to the subject in hand,” said Eustace politely.

If a look could have killed Gartney, he would have there and then fallen dead at the feet of the Creole, but suddenly changing her tactics, she flung herself on the sofa in a storm of tears.

“How cruel you are, oh, how cruel,” she wailed, hiding her face in the cushions. “I am only a woman, you coward—only a woman.”

“You’re a remarkably good actress, my dear Mrs. Veilsturm;” replied Eustace coolly, in no wise moved by her sorrow, “but tears are very weak. Try something else more original.”

After this scoffing remark he resumed his seat, and waited till her passion should have exhausted itself, which happened very soon, for Mrs. Veilsturm was too sensible a woman to waste her weapons when she found they were useless. Drying her eyes carefully, she sat up again quite cool and composed, which warned Eustace that he must be more on his guard than ever.

“Your cousin’s a fool,” she said viciously. “Do you think it was any pleasure for me to have him running after me? No! I hate and detest him, the persistent bore that he is.”

“Don’t you think you’d better drop these flowers of speech?” replied Eustace leisurely. “They’re neither pretty nor necessary. Go on with the main subject.”

“I’ll come to that quick enough,” retorted Mrs. Veilsturm sullenly. “You are right about Lady Errington—she did slight me, and in a way no woman can forgive nor forget. I’d hate her if it were only for the fact that she is Gabriel Mostyn’s daughter—the traitor—but I hate her twice as much on my own account. I vowed I’d punish her for the insult—and I will too.”

“By causing a divorce?”

“Either that or separating them altogether. And I think I’ve managed that now.”

“You can think what you please,” said Eustace coolly, “but at all events you’ve done your worst.”

“Not yet—not yet.”

“Oh, yes, you have. Now you are going to write my cousin a letter, saying you don’t care about him, or—well, say what you like, but give him to understand you won’t see him again.”

“And then?” she demanded, with a sneer.

“And then you’ll leave San Remo as soon as you conveniently can.”

She burst out into a peal of ironical laughter.

“Do you actually expect me to do that?”

“I do, and I’m certain you’ll do it.”

“I will not.”

“No?”

“No.”

They looked at one another in silence, she tapping her foot on the ground with a scornful smile, he eyeing her with calm deliberation.

“If you don’t go to that desk and write what I ask you,” he said at length, in a low, clear voice, “I’ll tell the world all I know about Lola Trujillo.”

Her face grew very pale, but she answered defiantly:

“Do so! No one can connect her with me.”

“Ah, so you think, but I have enough proofs to do so.”

“Do what you like. I defy you.”

“I don’t think it will be wise of you to do so,” said Eustace in a low voice of concentrated fury. “You know me, Lola, and I know you, and all the world of South America knows you also.”

He jumped up, and crossing over to the sofa, bent down and whispered in her ear:

“I can tell about your connection with Gabriel Mostyn, in regard to that boy, his son—who disappeared.”

“I had nothing to do with it,” she muttered, shrinking from him.

“And Manuel Lopez.”

“Be silent!”

“And that little gambling saloon at Lima.”

“Hush! for God’s sake. You will ruin me.”

“I intend to,” said Eustace relentlessly, “unless—” and he pointed to the desk.

Without saying a word, she arose to her feet, and dragging herself slowly across the room sat down at the desk and began to write. Eustace said nothing, but remained standing by the sofa with a smile of satisfaction on his massive features. Nothing was heard in the room but the steady ticking of the clock, and the scratching of Mrs. Veilsturm’s pen as it moved rapidly over the paper. In a few minutes she came back to him holding out a sheet of paper, which he read carefully without taking it out of her hand.

“That will do,” he said quietly. “Will you be so kind as to put it into an envelope and direct it?”

Darting a look of hatred at him, which showed how hard it was for her to control her temper, she returned to the desk and did what he asked. Then, leaving it on the blotting-paper, she went to her seat by the window, while Eustace, picking up the letter, glanced at the address and slipped it into his inner pocket.

“And about leaving San Remo?” he asked, turning towards Mrs. Veilsturm.

“I will leave in three days,” she replied harshly. “Will that suit you?

“Yes! I won’t see you again. Bon voyage.”

He turned to go, but Mrs. Veilsturm’s voice arrested him. “Of course you will say nothing about South America?” she said quietly.

“No! You have done your part, and I will do mine.”

“I wouldn’t go to Lima again if I were you,” said Mrs. Veilsturm, with deadly hatred, “it might be dangerous.”

“I’ve no doubt of that,” replied Eustace carelessly. “If you want to turn the tables you had better send your emissaries to Africa.”

He left the room without another word, and Cleopatra, sitting at the window, saw him walking down the garden path. She was holding her handkerchief in her hands, and with a sudden anger tore it in two.

“If it had only been in South America,” she said in a low, fierce voice. “Oh, if it had only been in South America!”

Chapter 38
The Last Temptation

“Death ever rends asunder marriage bonds,
So should he die, this husband undesired,
She would be free to woo and wed again
And I might haply gain her hand, her heart.
Yet there is folly in this argument,
For such a course would breed but sterile love,
Seeing the first link in the chain of circumstance
Is ominous indeed—a dead man’s grave.”

Having thus routed the enemy, Eustace returned to his hotel very well satisfied with his victory, which he hoped would be productive of good in removing the obstacle to the reconciliation of husband and wife. For his own part, he felt considerable astonishment at the self-abnegation of his conduct, seeing that he was doing his best to place the woman he loved so devotedly beyond any possible chance of being anything to him. But since his last interview with Lady Errington, the astute man of the world had been quick to read her true feelings, and had therefore given up all hope of winning her love. Besides, he had arranged with Laxton to go to Africa, and had it not been for the accident of Guy’s illness would have started almost immediately for that mysterious continent, but since things had turned out otherwise, he resolved to do his duty by his cousin even against his desire of gratifying self. It was true he had done all in his power to conquer this dominant faculty of egotism, he had parted with Alizon for ever, he had saved Errington from the machinations of Mrs. Veilsturm but the great temptation was yet to come, and in a guise least anticipated by the tempted.

Of course, he told Dr. Storge about his success in the delicate matter of Mrs. Veilsturm, at which success the physician expressed himself highly delighted, as he undoubtedly thought that the removal of this disturbing influence on Errington’s life would have a beneficial result on his health.

Doctors are not infallible, however, and the result of this attempt to quiet the patient’s mind only succeeded in exciting it still more, which state of the case considerably dismayed both Storge and Gartney.

Guy, being under the impression that his wife had cast him off for ever, had been touched by the interest displayed towards him by Mrs. Veilsturm, and clung to the idea of her disinterested affection as a drowning man clings to a straw. An old simile, certainly, but one that holds good in this case. He thought that his wife did not love him, that she had never loved him, and that Cleopatra was the only woman who had any tender feelings towards him in her heart. It was true that the world, a notoriously ungenerous critic, said that she was capricious, cruel, fickle as the wind—still, so cleverly had she feigned a love she did not feel, that Errington really believed he had inspired a genuine feeling in her hard heart.

Every day, when tender messages arrived for him with presents of fruit and flowers, he mentally thanked Heaven that one woman, at least, truly loved and remembered him in his hour of trouble. When, however, the messages with their accompanying gifts of fruit and flowers ceased to arrive, he wondered at the omission and became querulously suspicious. Why had she forgotten him? What was the reason of this sudden change? Could she be false to him, seeing that she had made such protestations of love? No, it could not be, and yet—there must be some reason. These were the questions he kept continually asking himself, and thereby working himself into such mad frenzies, that it seemed as though nothing could avert the threatened attack of brain fever.

True to her promise, which would cost her too much to break, Mrs. Veilsturm had departed from San Remo and taken up her abode at Nice, together with the Major, Dolly Thambits and Mr. Jiddy, alleging that she found the Italian watering-place dull and preferred the lively Gauls to the more sedate Latins. Errington, however, knew nothing of this sudden exodus, and his excited brain suggested a thousand reasons for the sudden silence of his quondam charmer. She was ill! She was afraid of exciting him. She had been called to England on business! What could be the reason of this sudden change from attention to neglect, from warmth to coldness? And day and night, and night and day, the weary brain puzzled over these perplexing questions, suggesting and discarding a thousand answers with every tick of the clock.

Eustace did his best to allay his cousin’s excitement without telling him the truth, but all to no purpose, so, in despair, he spoke seriously to Storge as to what was best to be done under the circumstances.

“Things can’t go on like this much longer,” he said decisively, “if my cousin was ill when I arrived, he seems to me to be much worse now.”

“It’s a very difficult case,” remarked Storge musingly. “So difficult, that I hardly know what step to take. I’ve made him keep to his room, see no one, given him sedatives, and yet he is no better. In fact, I think we’re only at the beginning of the trouble.”

“Well, I’ve got that woman out of the way,” said Eustace bluntly, “so that is something gained.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” replied the doctor, biting his nails, a habit he had when irritated; “of course I advised it, and it was done for the best, still, upon my soul Mr. Gartney you must think me a fool. Here am I, a duly accredited M.D., yet I don’t know what steps to take in order to cure my patient.”

“It is perplexing,” sighed Eustace, drumming with his fingers on the table. “Errington has got it into his head that this woman is his good angel—faugh! to what lengths will love carry a man.”

“But you said he was not in love with her.”

“Neither is he! This is one of those rare cases which are veritable enigmas. Most unaccountable. As far as I can see, the whole thing is simply this. My cousin thinks his wife hates him, and, as Mrs. Veilsturm has played her game so cleverly, believes she loves him. He doesn’t love her, but he is intensely grateful for what he thinks is her disinterested kindness. Now she has withdrawn the light of her countenance, he imagines that he is forsaken for the second time, and his feeling is one of absolute despair.”

“ ‘Thou cans’t not minister to a mind diseased,’ ” quoted Storge, musingly. “A very true remark of Shakespeare’s. It seems to me, judging from your theory, with which I must say I agree, that I’m in very much the same dilemma. My drugs are no use while his mind is in such a turmoil. You cure his mind, Gartney, and I’ll cure his body.”

“It’s all very well saying that,” replied Eustace pettishly. “You give me the hardest task.”

“Suppose you send for his wife?”

“She won’t come.”

“But surely when she knows—”

“I tell you she won’t come,” repeated Eustace sternly, “she thinks he has behaved shamefully, and I’m afraid she is rather unforgiving.”

Storge ran his hands through his hair in a most perplexed fashion, but made no reply, as he was quite at his wits’ end what to suggest. It was as he suggested more a mental than a physical case, and though he felt himself competent to deal with nerves, brain, or tissues, he was quite helpless in this emergency, which required the aid of external circumstances. Those external circumstances were best known to Eustace Gartney, so that gentleman was the only man who could have any influence in the matter.

“I tell you what,” said Gartney, after a pause, during which he had been thinking deeply, “Errington imagines Mrs. Veilsturm an angel of light, and is worrying himself because he thinks a good woman has forgotten him. Suppose I show her to him in her true colours, and then—”

“And then,” finished the doctor caustically, “you’ll fix him up nicely for a very bad attack of brain fever.”

“That is one presumption!”

“The only one.”

“I don’t agree with you! I’ll undeceive him about Mrs. Veilsturm, and then he’ll see the snare he has escaped.”

“Oh, and do you think that will quiet him?” asked Dr. Storge sarcastically.

“I think it will turn his thoughts back to his wife. If so, I’ll write to her to come over—”

“What about the forgiveness?”

“I’ll tell her it’s a case of life and death. That will surely soften her.”

“You whirl about like a weather-cock, my friend,” said Storge grimly, “you tell me decisively that the wife is unforgiving, and won’t come, then you say she might soften—which view is the right one?”

“Both.”

“Impossible!”

“Nothing is impossible with regard to a woman. But what do you say to my plan?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Then I’ll try it,” said Eustace determinedly.

“I don’t approve of it,” remarked Storge in desperation, “still, as it’s a case of brain fever if things go on like this, the chance of accelerating the disease doesn’t make much difference, so you’d better begin your disillusionising at once.”

“Very well,” replied Gartney with a sigh of relief, and this closed the conversation.

It was a disagreeable task to undertake, but not more so than that connected with Mrs. Veilsturm, and Eustace made up his mind to speak to Errington at once.

“The sooner things are brought to a crisis the better,” he thought, as he went up to his cousin’s room. “As they stand now, it’s quite impossible to move either way.”

Guy was lying with his arms outside the counterpane, when Mr. Gartney entered, and turned his eyes, unnaturally bright, in the direction of the door when he heard his cousin’s footstep.

“Anything from Mrs. Veilsturm?” he asked eagerly.

“Nothing,” responded Eustace, and took a seat beside the bed.

“What can be the matter with her?” said Guy, feverishly. “Eustace, why don’t you find out? It’s cruel of you to keep me in suspense.”

“I won’t keep you in suspense any longer.”

“What?”

Guy sat up in his bed with a cry, but Eustace forced him to lie down again.

“Keep quiet, or I won’t tell you,” he said sternly. “By-the-way, if you don’t want Albert, he had better go downstairs. I want to speak to you privately.”

“Yes! yes! you can go, Albert. Mr. Gartney will stay with me.”

The well-trained valet bowed his head in answer, arranged a few things on the little table beside the bed, and then noiselessly withdrew, leaving the cousins together.

“Well, Eustace, well?” said Guy, plucking restlessly at the bedclothes. “What is the matter? Nothing wrong with Mrs. Veilsturm.”

“Not that I’m aware of,” responded Gartney drily. “She is a lady who can take remarkably good care of herself.”

“Don’t talk like that about her,” said Guy, with weak anger, “she is my friend.”

“Your friend!” repeated Eustace scornfully. “Yes, the same kind of friend as she is to every man!”

“Eustace!”

He sat up again with a fierce look on his face, but the calm gaze of his cousin disconcerted him, and he sank back on the pillows with an impatient sigh.

“I don’t understand you,” he said fretfully. “I don’t understand—my head is aching—aching terribly.”

“Guy, old fellow,” said Eustace, in his low, soft voice, which had such an indescribable charm in its tones, “I want to speak to you about your wife.”

“My wife?”

“Yes! I have a confession to make to you. I love your wife.”

Guy looked at his cousin vacantly, and as if he did not understand.

“You love my wife?” he repeated mechanically. “You love my wife?”

“Yes,” said Eustace, steadily, going through his self-imposed ordeal with stern determination, although his face was grey with anguish and his heart ached with pain and self-humiliation. “It’s a terrible thing to confess to you—to her husband—but true nevertheless. When I first saw her at Como, I worshipped her for that calm, spiritual loveliness which made her so beautiful in my eyes. But I said nothing, and went into exile for her sake, trusting to come back and find her a happy wife and mother. I went away to forget, and I came back to remember. Oh, Guy, if you only knew how I have despised myself for thus thinking about your wife; but believe me, it was not in the sensual fashion of the world that I loved her. I worshipped her as one might worship a star which is higher and purer than he who kneels to its splendour. My love was pure, still I strove to crush it out of my heart, but all in vain. I came back to England and saw her once more, a happy mother indeed, but not a happy wife. It was not your fault, my poor boy, for I know you did your best to win her heart, but her child blinded her better nature, and she could not see that the father yearned for love, and required it as much as the son. Then came the episode of Mrs. Veilsturm, which was one of those cruel decrees of Fate which no man can guard against. It parted you, as I thought, for ever, and you obeyed the instincts of your lower nature, while she remained sternly unforgiving in her purity—a purity which could not understand the temptations of a weaker soul. I tried my best to make her look more kindly on your mistake—as I am a living man, Guy, I did my best to bring you together again, but it was all useless. Then I lost my head, the devil whispered in my ear, and I spoke to her of love, and the result was what you might have expected from your wife. She told me that she loved her child, and would not stoop to dishonour for his sake. But she said more—not in words indeed, but in looks, in manner, in irrepressible tears—that she loved you, Guy, that she was sorry for her cruel justice, that she longed for the father of her child, for the husband of her vows, to clasp her in his arms once more. I was punished for my daring to lift my eyes to her—I saw that I could be nothing to such spotless purity of soul, and I left—I went away into the outer darkness, intending to exile myself for ever from her sight. Then the child died—the child whom she worshipped—the child who was your strongest rival in her affections, and now she sits alone and in solitude—robbed of her nearest and dearest—waiting for the sound of her husband’s voice, for the clasp of his arms, for the touch of his lips.”

In his fervour, he had slipped from his chair, and was now kneeling beside the bed, holding his cousin’s hot hand in his own. The sick man had listened dully to the long speech, but at the end he flung up his disengaged hand with a bitter cry.

“No! no! It is too late, it is too late.”

“It is not too late,” said Eustace, earnestly. “I have told you the truth. I have humiliated myself in your eyes because I am anxious to repair my fault, to bring you together again. Let me send for your wife, Guy, and believe me, she will come, only too gladly, to your sick bed with words of forgiveness and regret.”

But the sick man rolled his head from side to side on the pillow with dreary despair.

“No; no! it cannot be. My wife can never be mine again—Maraquita—”

“Maraquita Veilsturm!” interrupted Eustace, sternly. “Don’t mention her name in connection with that of your wife.”

“She was kind to me when Alizon was so cruel.”

“Kind, yes, for her own ends. Listen to me, Guy. Mrs. Veilsturm has been using you as a means of revenge against your wife.”

All the listless despair disappeared from Errington’s face, and he wrenched his hand angrily away from Eustace. “What do you mean?”

“Exactly what I say,” said Eustace hurriedly, seeing that his cousin was getting excited, and determined to have the whole thing over and done with it at once. “Do you think Mrs. Veilsturm ever forgave or forgot the slight she received from your wife? Not she! I know Mrs. Veilsturm, none better. However, I’m going to say nothing about her except this, that she pretended to love you in order to cause trouble between yourself and your wife. And now that she has succeeded, she has gone off and left you, ill as you are, to do the best you can without her.”

“No! it’s not true! It can’t be true,” raved Guy, fiercely. “You malign her, she is a true good woman, she loves me—she loves me.”

“I tell you she does not,” said Eustace, rising to his feet, so as to be ready for any emergency, for Guy looked so wild that he was afraid he would spring upon him.

“Liar! You cannot prove it!”

“I can, and by her own handwriting.”

Guy snatched the letter Eustace held out to him, tore open the envelope, glanced over the few cruel words of dismissal, and then, dropping the paper, covered his face with his hands, moaning pitifully.

“You see now, my dear Guy, what this woman really is,” said Gartney tranquilly, picking up the letter; “a vindictive vixen, who simply used you for her own ends.”

The baronet uncovered his face, and looked at Eustace in a vacant manner, his eyes large and bright, his lips twitching with nervous agitation, and a feverish flush on his hot, dry skin.

“I must go to her,” he said in a shrill voice, trying to rise from his bed. “I must see her.”

“No! no! it’s impossible,” cried Eustace in alarm, holding him back; “be reasonable, Guy, be reasonable. Stay where you are, Guy!”

But Guy was now past all understanding, and struggled vehemently with Eustace, uttering short cries of rage and terror like a caged animal. His cousin’s heart bled for the frenzied agony of the unhappy man, but he saw that Guy was rapidly getting worse, and shouted for assistance. No one answered, however, so having forced Guy to lie down with a great effort, Eustace ran to the electric bell, and in a moment its shrill summons rang through the house. In that moment, however, Guy was out of bed, making for the window, swaying, staggering, raving, with outstretched hands, and Eustace had just time to throw himself on the madman—for he was nothing else at present—and prevent him breaking the glass.

Albert entered, and, seeing the state of affairs, shouted for aid, and came forward to help Gartney, whose valet also came up stairs in answer to their cries, and between them the three men managed to get Guy back to bed, where they held him down, raving, crying, shrieking, and entirely insane. Leaving the two servants in charge, Eustace went down stairs and sent for the doctor, who arrived speedily on the scene and prescribed such remedies as were necessary, although, truth to tell, he could do but little.

“Just what I expected,” he said grimly, when things were going smoother, “and now, Mr. Gartney, as you’ve carried out your first intention, perhaps you’ll carry out the second, and send for his wife.”

“I suppose I must.”

“It’s a case of life and death,” said Storge, and walked out of the room.

In two minutes Eustace was on his way to the telegraph office. As he walked rapidly down the street, the temptation came, the terrible temptation that whispered to him not to send for Alizon.

“If you do not,” whispered the devil on his left, “Guy will die, and you will be able to gain her for your wife.”

“No,” said the good angel on his right. “She can never love you, you could buy nothing, not even happiness, at the price of your cousin’s death.”

So Eustace walked along with these two angels, the bad and the good, whispering in his ears, now inclining to one, now to the other, fighting desperately against the temptations of the devil, and again yielding to the insidious whisper of future joy to be won by a simple act of neglect. In that short walk a whole life-time of agony passed, but no one looking at this stalwart, calm-faced man striding along the Street, could have guessed the hell that raged within.

The powers of good and evil fought desperately for the possession of this weak, wavering soul, that was in such sore straits, but in the end the good angel prevailed, and Eustace sat down to write his telegram.

He wrote one to Alizon, as strongly worded as he was able, and a second to Otterburn, telling him he must bring Lady Errington over at once. In both he wrote the words, “It is a case of life and death,” those words that had been ringing in his ears ever since the doctor had said them.

Then, as he handed the telegram to the clerk, the temptation again assailed him. It was not too late, let him withdraw the messages, tear them up, and there would be a chance of his winning the woman he loved instead of going into voluntarily exile. But at the price of a man’s life? No! that was too big a price to pay, and yet—he put down the money demanded by the clerk and walked out of the post office.

Outside in the sunshine he stood with drops of sweat on his forehead, and the soul that had been saved from the commission of a great crime, put up a prayer of thanks to God that this last temptation had passed, and that the powers of evil had not prevailed in the hour of weakness.

Chapter 39
“And Kissed Again With Tears”

“You have returned with your face so fair,
Your sweet blue eyes and your golden hair,
Again to cherish—again to share
This life of mine with its joy and care.

“Alas, my dearest, the days were long,
When memories came in a countless throng,
To sing to my heart such a haunting song,
Of things once right that had changed to wrong.

“You have returned just to heal the smart
That Sorrow made with her cruel dart,
Never again will we sigh and part.
You once more are my leal sweetheart.”

The Hon. Angus Macjean’s experiences of early married life could hardly be called pleasant, seeing the demands made upon himself and his bride by their mutual friends. Shortly after their marriage, Aunt Jelly had died, thereby causing them to return to London before the end of the honeymoon, then, during their visit to Lord Dunkeld, Mrs. Macjean had been summoned south in order to console Lady Errington for the loss of her child, and now as Eustace had telegraphed Alizon to come over to her sick husband at San Remo, it was necessary that Otterburn should escort her, for it was impossible, in her present state of grief, that she could travel alone. The young couple, therefore, did not get so much of each other’s company as they desired, and it said a great deal for the good nature of both, that they were so ready to comfort the mourner, at the sacrifice of their own desires, and the upsetting of all their plans.

Life at Errington Hall was very dreary after the death of the heir, as Victoria was constantly with the unhappy mother and Otterburn was left to wander about with nothing but his own thoughts, which were not particularly cheerful in the present aspect of affairs. Then came the funeral, which Macjean had to look after entirely by himself, as Eustace and Errington were both absent. The young man had received a letter from Gartney, stating that Guy was too ill to travel, and Victoria had shown it to Alizon, but, wrapped up in the selfishness of grief for her great loss, she had made hardly any remark about this new blow.

Then came the peremptory telegrams summoning the wife to the bedside of her sick husband, and Otterburn, through his wife, delicately offered to accompany Lady Errington to San Remo as soon as she was ready to start.

Alizon was a long time making up her mind about going, as she considered that her husband had grossly insulted her by his openly-displayed passion for Mrs. Veilsturm. Still, on calm reflection, she saw that she was to a great extent blameable for his folly, and as the death of Sammy had considerably softened her heart towards his wrong-doing, she determined to fulfil her duty as a wife and go across to the Riviera at once. The child’s death had left a blank in her heart, and she felt that she must have someone to love and console her, or she would go mad in the loneliness of her grief; so with these thoughts in her heart she sent a telegram to Eustace, announcing her departure, and prepared for the journey.

She accepted Otterburn’s escort as far as San Remo, but promised that as soon as she was established by Guy’s sick bed, Angus should return to his wife, who was to be left behind at Errington Hall. Angus agreed to this, and in company with the young man and her maid, she left Victoria Station en route for the Italian Riviera.

The whole journey seemed to her like a dream; the bright English landscape, which she knew so well; the breezy passage across the Channel, with the tossing waves and blue sky; Calais, with its bustling crowd of natives and tourists; the long journey through the pleasant Norman country, and then Paris, gay and glittering, where they stayed all night. Next morning again in the train rushing southward, past quaint, mediæval towns, with their high-peaked houses, over slow-flowing rivers, through ancient forests already bearing the touch of Autumn’s finger—still onward, onward, till they reached Marseilles, sitting by the blue waters of the Mediterranean. Afterwards they continued their journey through smiling Provence, along the sunny Riviera—Cannes, Mentone, Nice, all passed in their turn; a glimpse of Monte Carlo, where the Goddess of Play sits enthroned on high—palm-crowned Bordighera—deserted Ospedaletti, with its lonely Casino—and at last San Remo, amid her grey olive-groves, at the foot of the blue hills.

Eustace was waiting for them at the railway-station, looking very grave, and bowed silently to Lady Errington, as she stepped out of the carriage.

“Is he better?” she asked, looking haggardly at him, a tall slender figure in her sweeping black robes.

“I’m afraid not—still we hope for the best.”

She made no reply, so after greeting Otterburn, Eustace conducted them to a carriage, and they drove to the Hotel de la Mer. Alizon lost no time, but asked to be taken at once to her husband’s room. Eustace tried to prepare her mind, so that the shock of seeing him should not be too much, but she disregarded all his entreaties, and went up to the darkened apartment where her husband was lying. One question only she asked Gartney before she entered:

“Is that woman here?”

“Do you think I would have sent for you had she been?” he replied, deeply hurt. “No! She has left San Remo, and will trouble you no more.”

“Your doing?”

“Yes.”

She gave him her slender, black-gloved hand for a moment, and then passed to her husband’s bedside, where her place was henceforth to be.

The next morning Otterburn, having discharged his duty, returned to his wife, and Lady Errington was left alone with Eustace to nurse the man whom she never thought to meet with kindly feeling again.

Guy was terribly ill for a long time, but as out of evil good sometimes comes, there was no doubt that this illness was beneficial, inasmuch as it showed Alizon the true state of her husband’s heart. In those long, dreary hours, as she sat beside the bed listening to his incoherent ravings, she heard sufficient to convince her that Guy had always tenderly loved her—that his apparent infidelity was the result of despair, and that a word of forgiveness from her would have saved him from the misery he had suffered. No explanation on the part of Eustace Gartney—no explanation from her husband, had he been in good health—would have convinced her of the truth, and there would always have lurked in her heart a terrible suspicion that she had been sinned against, which would have embittered her whole life. She would have perhaps forgiven her husband, but she nevertheless would have believed him guilty, and his presence would have been a constant regret and reproach to the purity of her soul. But these wild mutterings, these agonised ravings, revealed the true state of things—revealed at once his weakness and his strength; so little by little the scales fell from her eyes, and she saw how noble was this nature, how weak was the soul, and how needful to its well-being was love and tenderness.

Again, since the death of her child a terrible sense of utter loneliness had fallen upon her, and now that she saw her mistaken judgment of Guy’s character all her being yearned for his love, and this woman, who had only respected and admired him when he was well and strong, now that he was prostrate and weak, passionately loved him with all the intensity of her nature. The coldness of her nature had departed, the frozen heart had melted, and often, overcome with terror and dread, she flung herself on her knees beside the bed, praying to God to spare her the husband she had never understood nor loved till now. She never spoke to Eustace about Mrs. Veilsturm—all she knew or cared to know was that this obstacle that had stood between herself and her husband had been removed, and that the true feelings of that husband had been revealed to her by the hand of God.

During all this time Eustace acted the part of a brother, and never by word or deed betrayed the true state of his feelings. Heaven alone knew how he suffered in maintaining a cold, patient demeanour towards the woman he loved, and his life, from the time of her arrival till the hour he left San Remo, was one long martyrdom. Often she wondered at his stoical calmness and apparent forgetfulness of the words he had spoken to her at Errington Hall, but neither of them made any reference to the past, and she thought that he was now cured of his passion. Cured! Eustace laughed aloud to himself as he divined her thoughts and contentment that it should be so, and he counted the hours feverishly until such time as he could leave her with a convalescent husband and depart from her presence, where he had to hide his real feelings under a mask of cynical indifference.

Owing to the unintermitting care of Dr. Storge, the careful nursing of his wife, and the watchful tenderness of Gartney, the man who had been sick unto death slowly recovered. The long nights of agony and delirium were succeeded by hours of peaceful slumber, the disordered brain righted itself slowly, and the vacant stare of the eyes and babble of the tongue were succeeded by the light of sanity and the words of sense. He was weak, it is true—very weak—but the first moment of joy she had known since the death of her child came to Alizon when one morning, while kneeling beside his bed, he called her faintly by her name.

“Alizon.”

“Yes, dear!—your wife.”

His wife!—was this his cold, stately wife who knelt so fondly beside him? Were those eyes—shining with love, wet with tears—the cold blue eyes that had so often frozen all demonstrations of affection? Was that face, full of joyful relief and emotion, the marble countenance that had never smiled lovingly on him since he had first beheld it? No!—it could not be Alizon—it was some deceptive vision of the brain, painting what might have been and yet— She saw his state of bewilderment, and, bending over, kissed him tenderly.

“It is I—your wife!—wife not in name only, but in love and trust.”

A smile of joy flitted across his worn face, and he strove to put out one weak hand.

“Forgive,” he said faintly, “forgive.”

“It is I who should ask forgiveness,” she replied in a broken voice; “I was harsh and cold, my dearest, and I do ask your forgiveness. Hush do not say a word—you are very weak, and must not talk. Let me nurse you back to health again, and then I will strive to be a better wife to you than I have hitherto been.”

He said nothing, but lay on his pillows, with eyes shining with love, a contented smile on his lips, and fell asleep, still holding his wife’s hand in his own.

After this he mended quickly, for with the return of Alizon’s affection the desire of life had come back, and each day he grew stronger because the vexed brain was now at rest, and the love of his wife was a better medicine than any drugs of the doctor.

“You see,” said Storge to Eustace on leaving the chamber one day when Guy had been pronounced convalescent, “what has cured him is not my medicines, but his wife’s affection. Ah, Shakespeare was a wise man when he said, ‘Thou canst not minister unto a mind diseased.’ Love is the only cure there.”

“Lucky mind to have such a cure,” replied Gartney with a sigh; “some minds have to bear their diseases till the end of life with no chance of being mended.”

Storge said nothing, but he looked at him curiously, for he half guessed the real state of the case, and sincerely pitied Eustace for his unhappy passion.

“Poor fellow,” he thought as he departed, “he has wealth, health, fame and popularity, yet he would give all these for what he will never obtain—the heart of that woman.”

Guy’s complete recovery was now only a question of a few weeks, so Eustace, feeling that he could not keep up the pretence of indifference much longer, made up his mind to depart. With this idea he produced a letter from Laxton one evening when he was seated with Alizon by the bed of the convalescent.

“I’ve just got a letter from my friend,” he said cheerfully, “and he wants me to come back to England at once.”

“What for?” asked Guy quickly.

“Oh, our African expedition, you know,” replied Eustace, smoothing out the letter. “I put it off because of your illness, but now you are on the way to recovery I can leave you with safety in the hands of Alizon.”

“I never saw such a fellow,” said Guy, fretfully. “Why on earth can’t you stay at home, instead of scampering all round the world?”

Eustace laughed, yet his mirth was rather forced.

“I’m afraid I’ve got a strain of gipsy blood in me somewhere,” he said, jokingly, “and I can’t rest; besides, I really and truly prefer savages to civilized idiots of the London type. They’re every bit as decent, and much more amusing.”

All this time, Lady Errington had remained silent in deep thought, but at the conclusion of Gartney’s speech, she looked up with a grave face.

“When do you start?” she asked quietly.

“To-morrow morning.”

“So soon?” she said, with a start.

“Hang it, Eustace, you might have given us longer notice,” remarked Guy, in a displeased tone of voice.

Cui bono?” said Gartney, listlessly. “Long leave-takings are a mistake, I think—the opposite of ‘linked sweetness long drawn out.’ I always like to come and go quickly, so I’ll say goodbye to-night, and be off the first thing in the morning.”

Neither Guy nor his wife made any further remark, as they both felt dimly that it would be happier for Eustace to go away as soon as possible. It was not ingratitude, it was not a desire to lose his company, but what he had said to the wife, and what he had said to the husband, recurred to both their memories, and they silently acquiesced in his decision.

“Before I go,” said Eustace, after a pause, “there is one thing I wish to say. Can I speak to you both without offence?”

“Certainly,” replied Guy, wondering what was coming. “We both owe you more than we can ever repay.”

“You can repay it easily,” said Gartney, quickly, “by accepting the proposition I am about to make.”

“Let us hear what it is first,” observed Alizon, looking up for a moment with a faint smile on her lips.

“It will not take long to explain,” answered Gartney, in a matter-of-fact tone. “You know I am rich enough to indulge all my whims and fancies, so this new access of wealth from Aunt Jelly, is absolutely useless to me. It ought to have been left to Guy, and had I spoken to Aunt Jelly before she died, no doubt I would have made her see this. As it is, however, it has been left to me, and I do not want it. Guy, however, does so. I wish to make him a free gift of all the property before leaving for Africa.”

“No,” said Guy resolutely, “I will not take a penny.”

“Why not?”

“Because it was left to you. I do not want to rob you.”

“It’s not a question of robbery,” said Eustace, coolly, “if the money was of any use to me, I’d keep it. But it is not. I do not even know that I would touch it, so it’s far better to be employed by you than lying idle in my bank. What do you say, Alizon?”

She flushed painfully.

“What can I say?”

“That you will persuade this obstinate husband of yours to take the money.”

“But suppose he won’t accept?”

“Which is his firm intention,” said Guy, quickly.

“In that case,” remarked Eustace grimly, “I shall simply hand it over to the most convenient charity, say ‘The Society for the Suppression of Critics,’ or ‘The Fund for Converted Publishers’—but keep it, I will not.”

“You’re talking nonsense,” cried Guy, impatiently.

“The sober truth, I assure you.”

There was silence for a few moments, and at last the silence was broken by Guy.

“If I thought you were in earnest—” he began slowly.

“Dead earnest,” said Eustace.

“Then I suppose it will be best to accept your Quixotic offer.”

“I’m glad you look at it in such a sensible light,” retorted Gartney, with an air of great relief. “You agree with Guy, Alizon?”

She raised her eyes slowly to his face, and looked steadily at him before making her reply.

“Yes, I agree with Guy,” she answered frankly.

“Then it’s settled,” said Eustace with a huge sigh. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to escape being buried under this weight of wealth, like Tarpeia under the shields of the Sabines. An old illustration, is it not, but remarkably apt. You will be able to clear the mortgages off the Hall, Guy, and live there in a manner befitting the place. I will see my lawyers as soon as I return to England, so you will have no further trouble over the matter.”

“And what about yourself?” asked Alizon, impulsively.

“Myself?” he echoed, rising slowly from his chair. “Oh, I am going away to foreign parts. The land of Khem—the blameless Ethiopians—the secret sources of the Nile, and all that kind of thing.”

“But when you come back?” said Errington, raising himself on his elbow.

“When I come back,” said Eustace sadly, a presentiment of coming doom heavy on his soul, “then I’ll see you both happy and honoured. Perhaps you’ll find a domestic seat for me by the domestic hearth, and I’ll tell stories of mysterious lands to future generations of Erringtons.”

Again silence, a painful, oppressive silence, which seemed to last an eternity.

“Goodbye, dear old fellow,” said Eustace at last, with a mighty effort.

Guy clasped his hand without a word, his heart being too full to speak.

“And you also, Alizon.”

She gave him her hand also, and there they stood, husband and wife, with their hands clasped in those of the man whom they both knew had fought a good fight—and conquered.

“Goodbye, Eustace,” whispered the woman at last, with a look of infinite gratitude and pity in her deep eyes. “May God keep you—brother.”

And under the spell of that gentle benediction, he passed away from their sight for ever.

Chapter 40
A Letter From Home

“I thought that our old life was over and done with,
    And ever apart we would wander alone,
That Clotho had broken the distaff she spun with,
Weaving the weird web that made my life one with
    Your own.

“Yea, but this letter unbidden appeareth,
    A sorrowful ghost of the sweetness of yore.
Bringing dear thoughts which the lonely heart cheereth,
Recalling the words which the heavy soul heareth
    No more.

“Ah, but love’s blossom can ne’er bloom again, love,
    Withered and brown it lies dead in my heart,
There let it faded and broken remain, love,
We must live ever while years wax and wane, love,
    Apart.”

At the entrance to a tent a man sat silent, watching the setting sun. A wild scene, truly, far beyond the bounds of civilization, where the foot of the white man had never trodden before, where the savage tribes had lived since the first of Time in primeval simplicity, where Nature, with lavish hand, spread her uncultured luxuriance in forest, in mountain, and in plain, under a burning, tropical sky. It was a scene far in the interior of Africa, that mysterious continent, which has yet to yield up her secrets to the dogged curiosity of European races.

The man was reading a letter, a letter that had come through swamp, through jungle, over mountains, across plains, by the hands of savage carriers, the last letter he would receive before plunging still deeper into the unknown lands beyond, the last link that bound him to civilization—a letter from home.

Inside the tent, another man was also reading letters, from friends and club companions, which gave him all the latest gossip of that London, now so far away, but he read them lightly, and tossed them aside with a careless hand. The man outside, however, had only one letter, and, as he read it, his eyes grew moist, blinding him so much that he could not see the writing, and looking up, gazed at the scene before him through a blurred mist of tears.

Undulating grass plains, a wide river winding through the country like a silver serpent, clumps of tropical trees, and a distant vision of fantastic peaks, all flushed with splendid colours under the fierce light of the sunset. And the sky, like a delicate shell of pale pink, fading off in the east to cold blue and sombre shadows, in the west deepening into vivid billowy masses of golden clouds, which tried unsuccessfully to veil the intolerable splendour of the sinking sun. A breath of odorous wind under the burning sky, the chattering of monkeys, the shrieking of brilliant-coloured parrots, and the low, guttural song of a naked negro cleaning his weapons in the near camp.

The man looked at all this with vague, unseeing eyes, for his thoughts were far away, then, dashing away the tears, he once more began to read the letter he held in his hand.

 

“My dear Eustace,

“I can hardly believe that it is nine months since you left us. I wonder in what part of Africa you will read this letter, that is, if it ever reaches you, of which I have considerable doubt. The papers, of course, informed us of your many months of delay at Zanzibar before you could go forward, so perhaps this letter may reach you before you get beyond the confines of civilization. I was very much astonished to hear you were at Zanzibar, as I thought you left England with the intention of going up the Nile, and getting into the inland country that way. However, I suppose you had good reason for changing your plans, and are now pushing forward into unknown lands.

“I have a great deal to tell you about ourselves and friends, which I am sure you will be pleased to hear. In the first place, both my wife and myself are completely happy—all the clouds of our earlier life have vanished, and I think that no married pair can have such perfect confidence and love for one another. I ascribe this happy state of things to you, dear old fellow, for had you not made Mrs. Veilsturm leave San Remo, and brought my wife to my sick bed, we could never have come together again. I know, good friend that you are, you will be pleased to hear we are so perfectly happy, and that every year—every day—every hour, my wife grows dearer to me. As I write these words her dear face is bending over my shoulder to read what I have set down, and she cordially endorses what I have said.

“Thanks to your kind gift of Aunt Jelly’s money, all things pecuniarily are well with me. I have paid off the mortgages on the Hall, and invested the rest of the money, so what with the income arising from such investments, and my rents, now regularly coming to me instead of to the lawyers, I am quite a rich man, and the Erringtons can once more hold up their head in the county as a representative family.

“By-the-way, I have some news to give you about our mutual friend, Mrs. Veilsturm, with whom I was so infatuated. She went on to New York, followed by Dolly Thambits, and has now married him. He is a young idiot to be sure, but then he has an excellent income, and that is all she cares about. Won’t she spend his thousands for him? Well, I think you and I agree on that subject. Regarding Major Griff, she evidently found him less useful after than before she became Mrs. Thambits, so she has pensioned him off with a few thousands, and I hear the Major has gone to Central America, with a view to entering the service of one of the republics of those regions. His future fate is not hard to prophesy, as he will either become President or be shot, but in either event I don’t think he’ll trouble our fair friend again who has retired so peacefully into married life. Next year, I believe, she is coming to town, and is going to cut a great dash, so no doubt Mrs. Thambits will be even more popular than Mrs. Veilsturm—although, I dare say, there will not be any Sunday evenings of the Monte Carlo style.

“You will perhaps wonder at my writing so coolly about this lady, but the fact is, I now see only too clearly the danger I escaped. She would have ruined my life, and certainly made a good attempt to do so, only you fortunately intervened in time. What magic you used to force her to leave me alone I do not know, but I certainly have to thank you for extricating me from a very perilous position.

“Another item of news. Mrs. Macjean has presented the delighted Otterburn with a son and heir. By-the-way, I should not call him Otterburn, as, by the death of his father four months ago, he is now Lord Dunkeld. But old habits are hard to get rid of, and I always talk of them as Mrs. Macjean and Otterburn. They are very happy, as they deserve to be, for Dunkeld is a real good fellow, and Lady Dunkeld—well, she is all that is charming.

“Do you remember Miss Minnie Pelch, poor Aunt Jelly’s companion? She is now down at Errington with us, as she was so lonely in town that Alizon took pity on her, and she is installed as companion at the Hall. Her volume of verse came out in due splendour, and was entirely overlooked by the press, at which I am not sorry, as if the poems had been noticed—well, you know the poems of old. Minnie, however, thinks this silence is jealousy, and quite looks upon herself as a shining light of the Victorian age, so neither Alizon nor I undeceive her, for she is a good little woman, though somewhat of a bore with her infernal—I mean eternal—poetry.

“I really don’t think there is any more news to tell you, except that good old Mrs. Trubbles is dead—apoplexy—and her dear Harry is now on the look-out for another spouse with political influence—I wish it was ‘poetical influence,’ and we might manage to marry him to Miss Pelch.

“Mr. Dolser and ‘The Pepper Box’ have both gone under, never to rise again I hope. Some dreadful libel on a high personage appeared, at which the H.P. took umbrage, and the editor is now expiating his offence in prison. I can’t say I’m very sorry, as when he is released Mr. Dolser will no doubt leave other people’s affairs alone. Such men as he are the curse of the present age, and should all be sunk in the Atlantic for at least half an hour—after that I think we’d have no more trouble with them.

“And now, my dear cousin, I must close this long letter, but first, in confidence, let me hint to you that my wife is expecting an interesting event to take place shortly, which will once more render the nursery a necessity. Poor Alizon has borne up bravely since the death of Sammy, but I know she longs for a child of her own to fill the vacant place in her heart. I am no longer afraid of having a rival in my child, as my wife loves and trusts me now, and my lot is as perfectly happy a one as any mortal can hope for.

“So now goodbye, my dear Eustace. I hope we will soon see you back again at the Hall, where there is always a place for you. My wife sends her kindest regards to you, and so do I, thus closing this letter, and remaining
            “Your affectionate Cousin,
                         “Guy Errington.”

 

When Eustace finished reading the letter he let it fall on the ground, and laughed bitterly.

“Kindest regards,” he said sadly, “and I gave her love.”

The sun was sinking swiftly behind the dark hills, and Gartney, with his hand supporting his chin, sat watching it, thinking of the days that were no more.

So sad, so melancholy he felt, as he thought of the past, of the woman he loved so fondly, whom he had restored to the arms of her husband at the cost of his own happiness. Surely, if he had been selfish, vain and egotistical all his life, he had expiated these sins by his voluntary sacrifice of self—a sacrifice that had banished all delight from his heart.

And he sat there a lonely exile, with sorrow behind him, and danger before him, while the sun sank in the burning west, and the sable wings of night spread over the earth like a sombre pall.

There was darkness on the world, there was darkness in his heart, and from the midst of the shadows still sounded the melancholy chaunt of the slave.

* * * * * *

Extract from “The Morning Planet.”

“By a telegram from Zanzibar there now seems no doubt that the two young Englishmen, who went into the interior of Africa some months ago, have been massacred. Only one survivor of the expedition escaped and managed to get safely to the coast. According to his story, Mr. Laxton was speared first by hostile natives from an ambush. Afterwards Mr. Gartney met with the same fate, although he defended himself for some time with his revolver.

“Much regret will be felt in England at this sad news, as the two deceased gentlemen were both very popular, Mr. Gartney especially being widely known as a charming poet and essayist. He, was very wealthy, and we hear that all his property, by a will executed before he left England, has been left to Lady Errington, of Errington Hall, Dreamshire.”

* * * * * *

So that was the end of Eustace Gartney.


THE END

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