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Title: The Fever of Life Author: Fergus Hume * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1701341h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2017 Most recent update: December 2017 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Chapter 1. - Pinchler’s Dockyard
Chapter 2. - Wanted, A Chaperon
Chapter 3. - The Woman With The Fierce Eyes
Chapter 4. - What Mrs. Belswin Had To Say
Chapter 5. - The Prodigal Son
Chapter 6. - The Dragon
Chapter 7. - The Garden Of Hesperides
Chapter 8. - Mrs. Belswin’s Correspondence
Chapter 9. - A Rustic Apollo
Chapter 10. - A Boudoir Consultation
Chapter 11. - The Art Of Dining
Chapter 12. - Ars Amoris
Chapter 13. - Exit Mrs. Belswin
Chapter 14. - Signor Ferrari Declines
Chapter 15. - The Return Of The Wanderer
Chapter 16. - Forewarned Is Forearmed
Chapter 17. - Before The Storm
Chapter 18. - Face To Face
Chapter 19. - The Outer Darkness
Chapter 20. - A Mysterious Affair
Chapter 21. - Archie Makes His Plans
Chapter 22. - Mrs. Belswin Considers Ways And Means
Chapter 23. - Better Leave Well Alone
Chapter 24. - A Memory Of The Past
Chapter 25. - Silas Plays His Little Game
Chapter 26. - Vae Victis
Chapter 27. - The Case
Chapter 28. - What Mrs. Belk Found
Chapter 29. - Danger
Chapter 30. - Clever Defence
Chapter 31. - A Tragic Situation
Chapter 32. - News From Australia
Chapter 33. - Mr. Dombrain Shows His Teeth
Chapter 34. - In Open Court
Chapter 35. - Expiation
Chapter 36. - A Memory Of The Past
“Fashion for the nonce surrenders
Giddy Mayfair’s faded splendours,
And with all her sons and daughters
Hastens to health-giving waters;
Rests when curfew bells are ringing,
Rises when the lark is singing,
Plays lawn tennis, flirts and idles,
Laying snares for future bridals;
Thus forgetting pleasures evil,
In return to life primeval.”
It was Toby Clendon who named it “Pinchler’s Dockyard”—Toby Clendon, young, handsome, and a trifle scampish, who wrote witty essays for The Satirist, slashing criticisms for The Bookworm, and dainty society verses for any journal which chose to pay for such poetical effusions. A very cruel remark to make about Mrs. Pinchler’s respectable private hotel at Marsh-on-the-Sea; but then the truth is always cruel, and Mr. Clendon proved the truth of his statement in this wise—
“A dockyard is a place where broken-down ships are repaired. Man, by poetical license, is a ship on the ocean of life. Some broken-down human ships under stress of circumstance put in to Pinchler’s private hotel for repair in the matter of bodily ailments. Pinchler’s harbours these broken-down human ships, therefore Pinchler’s is a human dockyard. Strike out the word human as redundant, and there you are, Pinchler’s Dockyard.”
A whimsical deduction, doubtless, yet by no means void of a certain amount of truthful humour, as the guests at Pinchler’s private hotel were for the most part deficient as regards physical completeness. If the lungs were healthy the liver was out of order. Granted that the head was “all there,” the legs were not, unless one leg counted as two. Splendid physique, but something wrong with the internal organs. Yes, certainly a good many human ships were undergoing repair under the calculating eye of Mrs. Pinchler; and as her establishment was not healthy enough for a hotel nor sickly enough for an hospital, Toby Clendon’s intermediate term “dockyard” fitted it exactly; so Pinchler’s Dockyard it was called throughout Marsh-on-the-Sea.
It was a square red-brick house, built on a slight eminence, and facing the salt sea breeze of the Channel. On the one side a pleasant garden, on the other smooth green tennis lawns, and in front a mixture of turf, of flower-beds, and of gravel, sloping down to the road which divided it from the stony sea beach. A short distance away to the right was Marsh-on-the-Sea, with its rows of gleaming white houses set on the heights, while below was the red-roofed quaint old town, built long before its rival above became famous as a watering-place. To the left, undulating hills, clumps of trees, tall white cliffs, and here and there pleasant country houses, showing themselves above the green crests of their encircling woods. Add to this charming prospect a brilliant blue sea, a soft wind filled with the salt smell of the waters, and a sun tempered by intervening clouds, and it will be easily seen that Marsh-on-the-Sea was a pleasantly situated place, and Pinchler’s Dockyard was one of the pleasantest houses in it.
“And why,” said Mr. Clendon, continuing an argument, “and why English people want to go to the Riviera for beauty, when they have all this side of the Channel to choose from is more than I can make out.”
It was just after luncheon, and the wrecks at present being repaired in the dockyard were sunning themselves on the tennis lawn. Some were reading novels, others were discussing their ailments, a few ladies were working at some feminine embroidery, a few gentlemen were smoking their after-dinner pipe, cigar, cigarette, as the case might be, and all were enjoying themselves thoroughly in their different ways.
Toby himself, arrayed in spotless white flannels, with a blue-ribboned straw hat was lying ungracefully on the grass, smoking a cigarette, and talking in an affectedly cynical vein to three ladies. There was Mrs. Valpy, fat, ponderous and plethoric; Miss Thomasina Valpy, her daughter, familiarly called Tommy, a charmingly pretty girl, small, coquettish and very fascinating in manner. As a rule, men of susceptible hearts fell in love with Tommy; but when they heard Mrs. Valpy say that she was like Thomasina when young, generally retreated in dismay, having a prophetic vision that this fragile, biscuit-china damsel would resemble her mother when old, and as Mrs. Valpy—well they never proposed, at all events.
There was a third lady present, Miss Kaituna Pethram, who was staying at Pinchler’s with the Valpys, and without doubt she was very handsome; so handsome, indeed, that Tommy’s brilliant beauty paled before her sombre loveliness. She was dark, unusually dark, with a pale, olive-coloured skin, coils of splendid dusky hair, luminous dark eyes, and clearly-cut features, which were not exactly European in their outline. Neither was her Christian name European, and this being taken in conjunction with her un-English look, led some people to think she had African blood in her veins. In this supposition, however, they were decidedly wrong, as there was no suggestion of the negro in her rich beauty. Indian? not delicate enough, neither as regards features nor figure. Spanish? no; none of the languor of the Creole; then no doubt Italian; but then she lacked the lithe grace and restless vivacity of the Latin race. In fact Miss Kaituna Pethram puzzled every one. They were unable to “fix her,” as the Americans say, and consequently gave up the unguessable riddle of her birth in despair.
As a matter of fact, however, she was the descendant, in the third generation, of that magnificent New Zealand race, now rapidly dying out—the Maories, and the blending of the dusky Polynesian with the fair European had culminated in the production of this strange flower of two diverse stocks—neither wholly of the one nor of the other, but a unique blending of both. Her great grandparents had been full-blooded Maories, with uncivilised instincts and an inborn preference for a savage life. Their daughter, also a full-blooded Maori, being the daughter of a chief, had married a European settler, and the offspring of this mixed marriage was Kaituna’s mother, a half-caste, inheriting the civilised culture of her father, and the savage instincts of her mother. Kaituna was born of this half-caste and an English father, therefore the civilised heredity prevailed; but she still retained the semblance, in a minor degree, of her primeval ancestry, and without doubt, though ameliorated by two generations of European progenitors on the male side, there lurked in her nature the ineradicable instincts of the savage.
Of course, self-complacent Europeans, pure-blooded in themselves, never argued out the matter in this wise, and were apt to look down on this inheritor of Maori ancestry as “a nigger,” but were decidedly wrong in doing so, as the magnificent race that inhabits New Zealand is widely removed from the African black. At all events, whatever they might think, Kaituna Pethram was a uniquely beautiful girl, attractive to a very great degree, and inspiring more admiration than the undecided blondes and brunettes who moved in the same circle cared to acknowledge. Toby Clendon was not in love with her, as he preferred the saucy manner and delicate beauty of Miss Valpy, but Archie Maxwell, who was the best looking young man at Pinchler’s, had quite lost his heart to this unique flower of womanhood, and the damsels of Pinchler’s resented this greatly. Mr. Maxwell, however, was at present engaged in talking to some of them at a distance, and if his eyes did wander now and then to where Clendon was playing Shepherd Paris to goddesses three—Mrs. Valpy being Minerva in her own opinion—they did their best to enchain his attention and keep him to themselves. Kaituna herself did not mind, as she was not particularly taken with Mr. Maxwell, and was quite content to lie lazily back in her chair under the shelter of a large red sunshade and listen to Toby Clendon’s desultory conversation.
It was a pleasant enough conversation in a frivolous fashion. Mr. Clendon made startling statements regarding the world and its inhabitants, Kaituna commented thereon. Tommy sparkled in an idle, girlish way, and Mrs. Valpy, with sage maxims, culled from the monotonous past of an uneventful life, supplied the busy element requisite in all cases. Three of the party were young, the fourth was gracefully old, so, juvenility predominating, the conversation rippled along pleasantly enough.
After the patriotic Toby had made his remark concerning the superiority of things English over all the rest of the world, Kaituna waved the banner of Maoriland, and laughed softly.
“Ah! wait till you see New Zealand.”
“Ultima Thule,” said Clendon classically. “Eh! why should I go there, Miss Pethram?”
“To see what nature can do in the way of beautiful landscape.”
“I am a domestic being, Miss Pethram, and find the domestic scenery of England sufficiently beautiful to satisfy my artistic longings. New Zealand, I have been told, is an uncivilised country, full of horrid woods and wild beasts.”
“There are no wild beasts at all,” replied Kaituna indignantly, “and the bush is not horrid. As to it being uncivilised, that is the mistake you English make.”
“Oh, the contempt in the term ‘you English,’ ” interjected Toby, impudently.
“We have cities, railways, theatres, musical societies, shops, and everything else necessary to make life pleasant. That is civilisation, I suppose. We have also great plains, majestic mountains, splendid rivers, undulating pasture lands and what not. This is uncivilised—if you like to call it so. England is pretty—oh yes, very pretty, but tame like a garden. One gets tired of always living in a garden. A garden is nature’s drawing-room. I don’t say a word against England, for I like it very much, but at times I feel stifled by the narrowness of the place. England is very beautiful, yes; but New Zealand,” concluded Miss Pethram with conviction, “New Zealand is the most beautiful place in the whole world.”
“My dear,” said Mrs. Valpy in a patronising manner, “are you not going a little too far? I’ve no doubt the place you come from is very nice, very nice indeed, but to compare it with England is ridiculous. You have no city, I think, like London. No, no! London is cosmopolitan, yes—quite so.”
Having stated this plain truth, Mrs. Valpy looked round with a fat smile of triumph and resumed her knitting, while Tommy dashed into the conversation with slangy vivacity.
“Oh, I say, you know, New Zealand’s a place where you can have a high old time, but London’s the place for larks.”
“Why not the country,” said Clendon drily, “the morning lark.”
“Oh, I don’t mean that sort of lark,” interrupted Tommy ingeniously, “the evenin’ lark; my style, you know. Waltzin’, flirtin’, talkin’, jolly rather.”
“You move in the highest circles, Tommy,” said Kaituna, who was a somewhat satirical damsel. “You drop your ‘g’s.’ ”
“Better than dropping your ‘h’s’.”
“Or your money,” said Toby, lighting a fresh cigarette. “I don’t know what we’re all talking about.”
“I think,” observed Mrs. Valpy in a geographical style, “we were discussing the Islands of New Zealand.”
“Rippin’ place,” said Tommy gaily.
“Thomasina, my dear,” remarked her Johnsonian mamma, “I really do not think that you are personally—”
“Acquainted with the place! No! I’m not. But Kaituna has told me a lot. Archie Maxwell has told me more—”
“Mr. Maxwell?” interposed Kaituna, quickly. “Oh, yes! he said that he had visited Auckland on his way to Sydney—but you can’t tell New Zealand from one city.”
“Ex pede Herculem,” said the classical Toby, “which, being translated means—by the foot shall ye know the head.”
“Auckland isn’t the head of New Zealand. It was, but now Wellington is the capital. The city of wooden match-boxes built in a draughty situation.”
“Oh, no, I’m not, Mr. Clendon. But I reserve my patriotism for Dunedin?”
“You mean Edinburgh.
“I mean the new Edinburgh with the old name, not the old Edinburgh with the new name.”
“Epigrammatic, decidedly. This is instructive, Miss Pethram. Do they teach epigram in the schools of Dunedin?”
“And why not? Do you think Oxford and Cambridge monopolise the learning of nations? We also in Dunedin,” concluded Kaituna proudly, “have an university.”
“To teach the young idea how to shoot—delightful.”
“But I thought there was no game to shoot,” said Tommy wickedly.
Mrs. Valpy reproved the trio for their frivolous conversation.
“You are all talking sad nonsense.”
“On the contrary, gay nonsense,” retorted Clendon lightly; “but I foresee in this badinage the elements of an article for The Satirist. Miss Pethram, I am going to use you as copy. Tell me all about yourself.”
“To be published as an essay, and ticketed ‘The New Pocahontas.’ ”
“Perhaps,” replied the essayist evasively, “for you are a kind of nineteenth century Pocahontas. You belong to the children of Nature.”
“Yes, I do,” said Kaituna, quickly; “and I’m proud of it. My father went out to New Zealand a long time ago, and there married my mother, who was the daughter of a Maori mother. My grandmother was the child of a chief—a real Pocahontas.”
“Not quite; Pocahontas was a chieftainess in her own right.”
“And died at Wapping, didn’t she?” said Mrs. Valpy, placidly. “Of course the dark races always give way to the superiority of the white.”
Kaituna looked indignantly at this fat, flabby woman, who spoke so contemptuously of her Maori ancestors, who were certainly superior to Mrs. Valpy from a physical point of view, and very probably her equal mentally in some ways. It was no use, however, arguing with Mrs. Valpy over such a nice point, as she was firmly intrenched behind her insular egotism, and would not have understood the drift of the argument, with the exception that she was a white, and therefore greatly superior to a black. Toby saw the indignant flash in her eyes, and hastened to divert the chance of trouble by saying the first thing that came into his mind.
“Is your mother in England, Miss Pethram?”
“My mother is dead.”
“Oh! I beg—I beg your pardon,” said Toby, flustering a little at his awkwardness: “I mean your father.”
“My father,” replied Kaituna, cheerfully. “Oh, he is out in New Zealand again. You know, we lived out there until a year ago. Then my father, by the death of his elder brother, became Sir Rupert Pethram, so he brought me home. We always call England home in the Colonies. He had to go out again about business; so he left me in Mrs. Valpy’s charge.”
“Delighted to have you, my dear,” murmured the old lady, blinking her eyes in the sunshine like an owl. “You see, Mr. Clendon, we are near neighbours of Sir Rupert’s down in Berkshire.”
“Oh!” said Clendon, raising himself on his elbow with a look of curiosity in his eyes, “that is my county. May I ask what particular part you inhabit?”
“Why, I lived near there also.”
“What,” cried Tommy, with great surprise, “can it be that you are a relative of Mr. Clendon, the Vicar of Deswarth?”
“Only his son.”
“The young man who would not become a curate?”
“It didn’t suit me,” said Toby, apologetically; “I’m far too gay for a curate. It’s a mistake putting a square peg into a round hole, you know; and I make a much better pressman than a preacher.”
“It is a curious thing we never met you, Mr. Clendon,” observed Mrs. Valpy, heavily; “but we have only been at ‘The Terraces’ for two years.”
“Oh, and I’ve been away from the parental roof for five or six years. I do not wonder at never meeting you, but how strange we should meet here. Coincidences occur in real life as well as in novels, I see.”
“Mr. Maxwell told me he met a man in London the other day whom he had last seen in Japan,” said Kaituna, smiling.
“Maxwell is a wandering Jew—an engineering Cain.”
“Hush! hush!” said Mrs. Valpy, shocked like a good church-woman, at any reference to the Bible in light conversation. “Mr. Maxwell is a very estimable young man.”
“I called him Cain in a figurative sense only,” replied Toby, coolly; “but if you object to that name, let us call him Ulysses.”
“Among the sirens,” finished Kaituna, mischievously.
Tommy caught the allusion, and laughed rudely. Confident in her own superiority regarding beauty, she was scornful of the attempts of the so-called sirens to secure the best-looking man in the place, so took a great delight in drawing into her own net any masculine fish that was likely to be angled for by any other girl. She called it fun, the world called it flirtation, and her enemies called it coquetry; and Toby Clendon, although not her enemy, possibly agreed with the appropriateness of the term. But then he was her lover; and lovers are discontented if they don’t get the object of their affections all to themselves.
“The sirens!” repeated Miss Valpy, scornfully. “What, with voices like geese? What humbug! Let us take Archie Maxwell Ulysses away from the sirens, Kaituna.”
“No, no, don’t do that!” said Kaituna with a sudden rush of colour; “it’s a shame.”
“What! depriving them of their big fish? Not at all. It’s greedy of them to be so selfish. I’ll call him. Mr. Maxwell!”
“It’s very chilly here,” said Kaituna, rising to her feet. “Mr. Clendon, my shawl, please. Thank you I’m going inside.”
“Because of Mr. Maxwell?” asked Miss Valpy, maliciously.
“No. I’m expecting some letters from Mr. Dombrain. Oh, here is Mr. Maxwell. Au revoir,” and Miss Pethram walked quickly away towards the house.
Maxwell having extricated himself from the company of the sirens, who looked after their late captive with vengeful eyes, saw Kaituna depart, and hesitated between following her or obeying the invitation of Miss Valpy. His heart said “Go there,” the voice of Tommy said “Come here,” and the unfortunate young man hesitated which to obey. The lady saw his hesitation, and, purposely to vex Mr. Clendon, settled the question at once.
“Mr. Maxwell, come here. I want you to play lawn-tennis.”
“Certainly, Miss Valpy,” said Maxwell, with sulky civility.
“Why, I asked you to play twice this afternoon, and you refused,” cried Clendon, in some anger.
“Well, I’ve changed my mind But you can play also, if you like.”
“No, thank you. I’ve—I’ve got an engagement.”
Tommy moved close to the young man and laughed.
“You’ve got a very cross face.”
At this Clendon laughed also, and his cross face cleared.
“Oh, I’ll be delighted to play.”
“And what about Miss Pethram?” asked Maxwell, rather anxiously.
“Miss Pethram has gone inside to await the arrival of the post.”
“Isn’t she coming out again?”
“I think not.”
“If you will excuse me, Miss Valpy, I won’t play just at present.”
“Oh, never mind.”
So Maxwell stalked away in a very bad temper with himself, with Miss Pethram, and with everything else. In any one but a lover it would have been sulks, but in the ars amoris it is called despair.
Tommy held her racket like a guitar, and, strumming on it with her fingers, hummed a little tune—a vulgar little tune which she had picked up from a common street boy—
“Tho’ I’m an earl,
And she’s a girl,
Far, far below my level,
Oh, Mary Jane,
You give me pain,
You wicked little—”
“Thomasina!” cried the scandalised Mrs. Valpy, and Thomasina laughed.
“We are told in stories olden
Dragons watched the apples golden,
Quick to send a thief to Hades.
Now no fruit the world-tree ladens,
Apples gold are dainty maidens,
And the dragons are old ladies.”
After dinner—a meal cooked, conducted, and eaten on strictly digestive principles—most of the inmates of Pinchler’s retired to bed. Sleep was necessary to the well-being of these wrecks of humanity, so those who could sleep went to their repose with joyful hearts, and those who could not, put off the evil hour precluding a restless night by going to the drawing-room for a little music.
Here they sat in melancholy rows round the room, comparing notes as to their physical sensations, and recommending each other patent medicines. Some of the younger people sang songs and played popular airs on the out-of-tune piano furnished by Pinchler’s. During the intervals between the songs scraps of curious conversation could be heard somewhat after this fashion—
“There’s nothing like a glass of hot water in the morning.”
“Dry toast, mind; butter is rank poison.”
“Rub the afflicted part gently and breathe slowly.”
“Put a linseed poultice at the nape of the neck.”
With such light and instructive conversation did the wrecks beguile their leisure hours, keeping watchful eyes on the clock so as not to miss taking their respective medicines at the right times. Mrs. Pinchler, a dry, angular woman with a glassy eye and a fixed smile, revolved round the drawing-room at intervals, asking every one how they felt.
“Better, Mrs. Tandle? Yes, I thought that syrup would do you good—it soothes the coats of the stomach. Miss Pols, you do look yellow. Let me recommend a glass of hot water in the morning. Mr. Spons, if you lie down on the sofa I’m sure it will do you good. Oh, are you going to play, Miss Valpy? Something quiet, please. Music is such a good digestive.”
Tommy, however, was not a young lady who could play quiet tunes, her performance on the piano being of the muscular order. She therefore favoured the company with a noisy piece of the most advanced school, which had no melody, although full of contrapuntal devices. Having shaken every one’s nerves with this trying performance, she glided off into a series of popular waltzes, mostly of the scrappy order, in which she sandwiched hymn tunes between music-hall melodies. The wrecks liked this style of thing, as they could all beat time with their feet, and when it was finished said waltzes were charming, but not so fine as “Batch’s” passion music, of which they knew nothing, not even how to pronounce his name correctly.
“Bach!” echoed Tommy contemptuously. “Oh, he’s an old fossil! Offenbach’s more in my line. Oui! You bet! Sapristi! Vive la bagatelle!”
The company did not understand French, so suffered this observation to pass in discreet silence, but Kaituna laughed. She was sitting in a corner by herself, with a look of impatience on her face, for she was expecting a letter and the post was late.
“Kaituna,” cried Tommy, attracted by the laugh, “why are you sitting in the corner like a graven image? Come out and sing.”
“No, I don’t want to. I’m waiting for my letter.”
“Hasn’t it arrived yet?” said Miss Valpy, skipping across the room. “I’d give it to that Dombrain thing if I were you. Dombrain! What a name! Who is he?”
“My father’s solicitor.”
“Oh, in the law and the profits? I don’t mean biblically, but commercially. But, I say, don’t keep thinking of your letter, or it won’t come. The watched postman never boils.”
“What nonsense you talk!”
“I can’t help it, dear. My brains leave me when there are no male things in the room.”
“There’s Mr. Spons.”
“Oh, I don’t bother about him. He’s not a man; he’s a medicine bottle. Hark! I hear footmarks approaching on horseback. It is the man. Now, will you take Mr. Clendon and I Mr. Maxwell, or will you take Mr. Maxwell and I Mr. Clendon?”
“I don’t want either,” said Kaituna hastily.
“Now that’s ungrateful, especially when Mr. Maxwell is such a dear. ‘Oh, that heaven would send me such a man!’—Shakespeare, Kaituna, so don’t look indignant. You can take Archie, and I’ll satisfy myself with Toby.”
“You shouldn’t call men by their Christian names, Thomasina.”
“Don’t say that; it sounds like ‘ma. I only call them by their Christian names to you. I wouldn’t do it to their faces.”
“I hope not.”
“How proper you are! Behold the male sex are at the door! I can smell the tobacco on their clothes.”
The rattle of the lively damsel was put an end to by the entry of the gentlemen, headed by Maxwell and Clendon, the latter of whom Miss Valpy bore off at once to the piano to make him sing, turn over her music, and make himself generally useful. Maxwell, however, went straight across to Kaituna, and held out a newspaper.
“This is yours, Miss Pethram,” he said, seating himself beside her, “I knew you were anxious about the post, so I waited downstairs till it came.”
“Was there no letter?” said Kaituna, in some dismay.
“No; nothing but that Telegraph.”
“Oh, there maybe something marked in it,” she said quietly. “Excuse me a moment while I look.”
Maxwell bowed and sat watching her as she tore the cover off the paper and opened the rustling leaves. He had only known this girl a fortnight, yet within that time had contrived to fall deeply in love with her. It was not her beauty, although, man-like, he naturally admired a pretty woman. It was not her charming manner, fascinating as it was in every way. It was not her clever brain, her bright conversation, her perfect taste in dress. No. It was that indescribable something which she had about her to attract him in a greater degree than any other woman he had ever known. What that something is no man knows until he has fallen in love, and then he feels it, but cannot describe his sensations. Scientists, no doubt, would call it animal magnetism; poets would call it love; scoffers would term it sensuality. But whatever scientists, poets, or scoffers choose to call it, the thing is unnameable, indescribable, and is the necessary concomitant of a happy marriage.
It was this indescribable feeling that had sprung up suddenly between those two young people. Kaituna also felt drawn to Maxwell, but in a lesser degree, for no matter what cynics may say about the frivolity of women, they are certainly less inflammable than men. A pretty woman knows her power to attract the opposite sex, and uses it daily, mostly for amusement; therefore when her time does come to feel the genuine pangs of love, she is more able to govern and control her feelings than a man who, as a rule, simply let’s himself go. So this was exactly how the case stood between these two lovers. Maxwell felt that Kaituna was the one woman in the world for him, and never attempted to suppress his passion in any way. He allowed himself to be so entirely dominated by it, that it soon became his master, and all his days and nights were given over to dreams of this beautiful dark woman from a distant isle of the sea. On the other hand, Kaituna felt that she loved him, but controlling herself with feminine dexterity, never let her infatuated lover see that his passion was responded to in any way. Had he tried to go away she would speedily have lured him back by means of those marvellous womanly arts, the trick of which no man knoweth; but the poor love-lorn wretch was so abjectly submissive that she coolly planted her conquering foot on his neck and indulged in a little catlike play with this foolish mouse.
He was a handsome fellow too, Archie Maxwell, with his fresh-coloured face, his yellow hair and moustache, his blue eyes, and his stalwart figure. A lover any girl would be proud to have at her feet, as Kaituna undoubtedly was, though the woman predominated in her too much to allow her to let him see her approval. Poor! yes, he was poor, certainly. An engineer, who wandered over half the world building bridges and railways, and all kind of extraordinary things. Still, he was young, and engineering is a money making profession, so Kaituna positively determined that should he ask her to marry him, she would consent. But her father—well, he was thousands of miles away, and when he returned she would no doubt gain his approval; so at present she surrendered herself entirely to this new delicious feeling, and Ulysses, tangled in the snares of Calypso, forgot everything save the face of the conquering nymph.
Meanwhile Calypso read the paper while Ulysses watched her, and they both sat silent while every one round them talked loudly. Tommy was playing a nigger minstrel tune, and Toby, leaning on the piano, was chatting to her gaily, evidently on the fair way to become as much enamoured of his nymph as this other sighing rover.
“Well, have you found what you wanted?” asked Maxwell, as the lady looked up with a bright smile.
“Yes! It is marked with a blue pencil, and as you have been so kind in playing postman, you can read it.”
Archie did so.
“Wanted, a companion for a young lady. Apply by letter, Dombrain, 13, Chintler Lane, City.”
“Short and sweet,” he said, handing the paper back, with a puzzled look on his face; “but I don’t understand it.”
“It’s easily explained,” replied Miss Pethram, composedly. “Mr. Dombrain is my father’s solicitor, and is advertising for a chaperon—for me.”
“For you! But you have Mrs. Valpy.”
“Mrs. Valpy is a dear old lady, but she is—Mrs. Valpy.”
“It is a very serious thing to advertise in a paper for a chaperon. You never know the kind of person you may get.”
“Mr. Dombrain will.”
“Mr. Dombrain may not be infallible,” retorted Archie, feeling rather angry, he knew not why, at the repetition of the name. “If your father wished you to have a chaperon, why didn’t he ask Mrs. Valpy to recommend some one.”
“I’m sure I can’t tell you! Papa has gone away to New Zealand on business, and asked Mrs. Valpy to look after me in the meantime. He left instructions with Mr. Dombrain—in whom he has full confidence—that I was to be provided with a companion, so I suppose Mr. Dombrain’s only idea of getting one suitable is through the newspapers.”
“I think it’s a pity.”
“Oh, not at all! Don’t be afraid of me, Mr. Maxwell; I assure you I can take excellent care of myself. All colonial girls can. They are more self-reliant than English young ladies. If I don’t like the companion chosen for me by Mr. Dombrain, I’ll easily get rid of her.”
“But if Mrs. Valpy recommended you someone who could introduce you into society.”
“Some pauper peeress I suppose you mean,” said Kaituna, equitably. “No, I wouldn’t care for that at all. I don’t wish to go into society until my father comes home again. Then it will be easy, for the Pethrams are an old family, and have sisters and cousins and aunts everywhere. When I wish to see the world, I’ve no doubt papa will find some one to present me at Court; but at present I want a companion to talk to. I say a chaperon, but I mean a companion.”
“Oh, I wish!—I wish!” stuttered Archie, growing red; “I wish—”
He stopped short, this wise young man, for he was on the verge of saying something very foolish, which might have jeopardised his chances with the Maori maiden, but the fruit was not yet ripe, so with wisdom beyond his years, he refrained from finishing his sentence.
“You’ve wished three times,” said Miss Pethram calmly. “What is it about?”
“I wish that you may get a good chaperon.”
“So do I, but I suppose they are as difficult to get as anything else. I’m afraid I’ll be very hard to please. Of course, it’s a difficult thing to choose a person to live with.”
“Even in marriage.”
Kaituna blushed, and folded up the paper in a somewhat embarrassed fashion.
“Marriage is a lottery,” she said at length, with an attempt at lightness.
“I think I’ve heard that remark before.”
“Very likely. It’s hard to say anything original nowadays.”
“I suppose,” said Archie, after a pause, “that when your chaperon is chosen by Mr. Dombrain, she will come down here.”
“Oh, dear, no. I’m going home next week with the Valpys.”
“Yes. To Thornstream, near Deswarth, in Berkshire. Papa’s house, you know.”
“And I’ll never see you again,” he said dismally.
“Oh, I don’t know; the world is small.”
Maxwell groaned in vexation of spirit, thinking that the heart of this desirable maiden was as the flint which is hard; and the maiden herself, having thus worried her mouse, consoled it in a pleasant fashion.
“Besides, Berkshire is not very far from London.”
“I know that, of course, but I have no acquaintances in Deswarth.”
“Oh, fie! What about Mrs. Valpy!”
“Mrs. Valpy! of course, I quite forgot Mrs. Valpy,” said Archie, determined to pay court at once to the old lady. “You know I like Mrs. Valpy.”
“Since when?” asked Kaituna, mischievously.
Archie took out his watch gravely, and looked at it.
“To be exact, since a minute ago.”
“Oh, the craft of the male sex.”
“The end justifies the means,” quoted Archie, Jesuitically; “but oh, I say—” He stopped, and a look of alarm overspread his face.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to come down to Berkshire.”
“Because I have to go to South America next month.”
Kaituna froze instantly, and annihilated him with a glacial look, at which he quailed visibly.
“I can’t help it, Miss Pethram,” he said piteously, “don’t look at me like that.”
“I’m not looking at you like that,” retorted Miss Pethram vengefully. “I—I hope you’ll have a pleasant voyage.”
“I won’t! I hate the sea.”
“Then why go?”
“Needs must, when the devil drives.”
“That’s very coarse.”
“But it’s very true. I beg your pardon, really; but, you know, it is hard to have to go prancing about the world when you don’t want to.”
“How long will you be out in South America?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps for ever, if I get yellow fever.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that.”
“Man is mortal,” said Maxwell, with gloomy relish.
“Man is silly,” retorted Kaituna rising to her feet, “so I’m going to ask Mr. Clendon to sing a song.”
“You never ask me!” said the young man reproachfully.
“Oh! can engineers sing?”
Maxwell said a naughty word under his breath, and walked meekly to the piano beside her. Toby was in possession of the instrument, and was giving Miss Valpy selections from the latest London burlesque.
“This is the dance, you know,” he said playing a breakdown; “and then comes the song ‘Skip the gutter daddy, dear,’—a rippin’ song.”
“Sounds like it,” said Maxwell, caustically; “so refined.”
“Well, you needn’t talk my boy, I’ve seen you enjoying it immensely.”
Kaituna directed another look of scorn at the unhappy Maxwell, which inspired him with a vehement desire to break Toby’s head. He refrained, however, and smiled in a sickly manner.
“I prefer Shakespeare,” he said at length, telling the best lie he could under the circumstances.
“Dry old stick,” observed Tommy, lightly. “There’s no fun in him.”
“But he’s so high class.”
“Listen to the virtuous one,” said Clendon, scoffingly. “Oh, my gracious! that my boy should talk such jargon. You don’t feel ill, do you, Archie?”
“No, I don’t,” retorted Archie, in a rage, seeing that Kaituna was enjoying this little dialogue with great zest. “I wish you’d be quiet and sing something.”
“How can I be quiet and sing also?”
“Dosing, Mr. Clendon,” said Kaituna, with a kind flash of her beautiful eyes at the happy bard.
Maxwell suppressed a second naughty word and sat down in dismal silence.
“What shall I sing?” asked Toby, running his fingers over the piano.
“No, no! Something sentimental,” said Kaituna, in a commanding tone, and sat down beside Miss Valpy.
Toby cleared his throat, looked up at the ceiling for inspiration, and laughed.
“I’ll sing a betwixt and between thing.”
So he did.
“She is the dearest of girls I confess,
Her milliners’ bills are a sight to see;
Dearest of girls in the matter of dress,
Dearest of girls in the world to me.
I lost my heart, but I lost my gold,
And hearts without gold are romantic trash;
Her love was a thing to be bought and sold,
But I couldn’t purchase for want of cash.
“Now she is spouse to an aged man,
He’s eighty-five and a trifle frail;
Soon he’ll finish his life’s brief span,
Then she’ll look for another male.
Ah! but love comes not twice in our life,
Cupid for ever has passed us by;
So if she asked me to make her my wife,
I would not marry her, no not I.”
“Oh!” said Tommy, when the song was ended, “so that’s your idea of a woman’s love.”
“Not mine—the world’s.”
“And what about the love which cannot be bought?” asked Kaituna.
“Is there such a love?”
“Yes, cynic,” growled Maxwell in disgust; “true love is not a saleable article. The woman who truly loves a man,” here his eye rested on Kaituna, “lets nothing stand in the way of that love. She gives up rank, fortune, everything for his sake.”
“And what does she receive in return?” demanded Miss Pethram, innocently.
“The true joy which arises from the union of two loving hearts.”
“Very pastoral indeed,” said Toby, lightly. “Chloe and Corydon in Arcadia. It once existed, indeed, but now—”
“But now,” finished Kaituna, rather tired of the discussion, “it is time to retire.”
Both the gentlemen protested at the ladies going away so early, but Kaituna remained firm, and was supported by Tommy, who said she felt very tired.
“Not of us, I hope!” said Toby, meekly.
“Thyself hath said it,” she replied, holding out her hand. “Good-night.”
When they were leaving the room, Maxwell, who was escorting Kaituna, bent over and whispered in her ear—
“I won’t go to South America.”
“South America,” she repeated, with a pretended look of surprise, “Oh! yes, of course. I forgot all about it, I assure you. Good-night.”
She was gone before he could say a word, leaving him overcome with anger at the flippant manner in which she spoke. Was she in jest or earnest. He could not tell. Perhaps she said one thing and meant another. He could not tell. Perchance—oh, women were all alike, they liked to put their victim on a sharp hook and watch him wriggle painfully to be free.
“She’s a coquette!”
“Who? Miss Valpy?” asked Toby, overhearing.
“No, Miss Pethram; but I dare say her friend’s no better.”
“I’m afraid not!” sighed Mr. Clendon, dismally; “it’s six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. But what ails my Archibald? His brow is overcast.”
“Oh! rubbish,” growled Archibald, rudely; “come and smoke.”
The smoking-room was quite empty, so the young men established themselves in two comfortable armchairs, and devoted their energies to the consumption of tobacco. Clendon preferred the frivolous cigarette, but Archie produced with loving care a well coloured meerschaum, which had been his companion for many years.
“This is a travelled pipe,” he said to his friend when the blue smoke was rolling in clouds from his mouth, “a very Ulysses of pipes. It has been in far countries and knoweth the ways of the stranger.”
“Good idea for a story,” observed Toby, who was always on the look-out for copy. “‘The Tale of a Pipe in ten Fills.’ Egad! I think it ought to go capitally. It’s so difficult to get an idea nowadays.”
Maxwell, luxuriating in his pipe, grunted in a manner which might have meant anything, so Toby promptly attacked him on his want of manners.
“You might speak to a fellow when a fellow speaks to you! I tell you what, Archie, you’ve changed for the worse since we were at school together. Then you were a gregarious animal, and now you are an unsociable beast.”
“Don’t call names, my good man! I can’t help being quiet. My thoughts are far away.”
“Pish! not so very far.”
“Well, perhaps not.”
“Have you asked her to marry you?”
“Hardly! I’ve only known her a fortnight, and besides, I’ve got no money.”
“No; but she has!”
“I don’t want to live on my wife. I’m going away to South America.”
“Never to see her again, I suppose,” said Toby, ironically; “don’t talk nonsense, Archie. You’re madly in love with Miss Pethram and don’t want to lose sight of her.”
“True! but I must when she goes away from here.”
“Not a bit of it. Listen, I will be your good angel.”
Maxwell laughed grimly at the idea.
“I will be your good angel,” repeated Toby, imperturbably, “and take you down with me to Deswarth.”
“To your father’s house? I thought you weren’t friends with your governor.”
“I am not,” acknowledged Clendon with touching candour; “he wanted me to become a churchman, and I didn’t care about it. We had words and parted. Now, however, I’ve won a success in literature, I’ll go back and ask the pater to kill the domestic veal. You I will bring with me to the banquet, and as Miss Pethram lives near you will be able to see her, woo her, wed her, and be happy ever afterwards.”
Archie made no reply, but smoked furiously; and Toby, having delivered himself of what he had to say, also subsided into silence.
After a pause said Maxwell—
“What about South America?”
“D— South America.”
You are a snake,
For the sly beast lies
Coiled in the brake
Of your sleepy eyes,
Lo, at your glances my weak soul dies.
Woman you are
With a face so fair;
But the snake must mar
All the woman there.
Your eyes affright, but your smiles ensnare.
Such a poor room it was, with a well-worn carpet, shabby furniture, a dingy mirror over the fireplace, and a mean sordid look everywhere. The bright sunshine, pouring in through the dirty windows, showed up the weak points of the apartment in the most relentless manner. Great folding-doors at one side half open, showing an untidy bedroom beyond, and on the other side the many-paned windows, veiled by ragged curtains, looked out into Jepple Street, Bloomsbury.
There was a shaky round table in the centre of the apartment, on which was spread a doubtfully clean cloth, and on it the remains of a very poor breakfast. An egg half eaten, a teacup half filled, and a portion of bread on the plate showed that the person for whom this meal was provided had not finished, and, indeed, she was leaning on the table with her elbows, looking at a copy of the Daily Telegraph.
A noticeable woman this, frowning down on the newspaper with tightly closed lips, and one whom it would be unwise to offend.. After a pause she pushed the paper away, arose to her feet, and marching across to the dingy mirror, surveyed herself long and anxiously. The face that looked out at her from the glass was a remarkable one.
Dark, very dark, with fierce black eyes under strongly marked eyebrows, masses of rough dark hair carelessly twisted up into a heavy coil, a thin-lipped, flexible mouth and a general contour of face not at all English. She had slender brown hands, which looked powerful in spite of their delicacy, and a good figure, though just now it was concealed by a loose dressing-gown of pale yellow silk much discoloured and stained. With her strange barbaric face, her gaudy dress, Mrs. Belswin was certainly a study for a painter.
Mrs. Belswin, so she called herself; but she looked more like a savage queen than a civilised woman. She should have been decked with coloured beads, with fantastic feathers, with barbaric bracelets, with strangely striped skins, as it was she was an anomaly, an incongruity, in the poor room of a poor lodging-house, staring at her fierce face in the dingy mirror.
Mrs. Munser, who kept the establishment, acknowledged to her intimate friend, Mrs. Pegs, that the sight of this lady had given her a turn; and certainly no one could blame cockney Mrs. Munser, for of all the strange people that might be seen in London, this lithe, savage-looking woman was surely the strangest. Indian jungles, African forests, South American pampas, she would have been at home there, having all the appearance and fire of a woman of the tropics; but to see her in dull, smoky London—it was extraordinary.
After scrutinising herself for a time, she began to talk aloud in a rich full voice, which was broken every now and then by a guttural note which betrayed the savage; yet she chose her words well, she spoke easily, and rolled her words in a soft labial manner suggestive of the Italian language. Yet she was not an Italian.
“Twenty years ago,” she muttered savagely, “nearly twenty years ago, and I have hardly ever seen her. I must do so now, when Providence has put this chance into my hands. They can’t keep a mother from her child. God’s laws are stronger than those of man. Rupert would put the ocean between us if he could, but now he’s in New Zealand, so for a time I will be able to see her, to speak to her, to hold her in my arms; not as her mother,—no, not as her mother,—but as her paid servant.”
She turned away from the mirror with a savage gesture, and walked slowly up and down the room with the soft sinuous movement of a panther. Her soft silk dress rustled as she walked, and her splendid hair, released by her sudden movement, fell like a black veil over her shoulders. She thrust the tresses back from her temples with impatient hands, and her face looked forth from the cloud of hair, dark, sombre, and savage, with a flash of the fierce eyes and vicious click of the strong white teeth.
“Curses on the man who took me away from her. I did not care for him, with his yellow hair and pink face. Why did I go? Why was I such a fool? I left her, my own child, for him, and went out into the world an outcast, for his sake. God! God! Why are women such fools?”
For a moment she stood with uplifted hands, as if awaiting an answer; but none came, so, letting her arms fall, she walked back to her chair, and lighting a cigarette, placed it in her mouth.
“I daren’t use a pipe here,” she said, with a discordant laugh, “it would not be respectable. But Spanish women smoke cigarettes, Russian women smoke cigarettes, so why should not the Maori woman smoke them also. Respectable, eh! Well, I’m going to be respectable now, when I’ve answered this.”
This was an advertisement in the paper, which read as follows—
“Wanted, a companion for a young lady. Apply by letter, Dombrain, 13, Chintler Lane, City.”
“Apply by letter,” muttered Mrs. Belswin, with a sneer. “Indeed I won’t, Alfred Dombrain. I’ll apply in person, and I think I’ll obtain the situation. I’ll hold it, too—hold it till Rupert returns, and then—and then—”
She sprang to her feet and blew a cloud of smoke with a mocking laugh. “And then, my husband, I’ll match myself against you.”
“Salve dimora casta e pura.”
The singer was coming slowly upstairs, and, as he finished the line, knocked at the door.
“Stephano,” said Mrs. Belswin, with a frown, glancing at the clock; “what can he want so early? Avanti.”
The door opened and Stephano, the singer, a tall, lithe Italian, with a beaming smile, presented himself and burst out into a torrent of greeting.
“Buon Giorno cara mia! Ah, my beautiful Lucrezia! my splendid Norma! how like an angel you look this morning. Gran dio che grazia. Signora, I kiss your hand.”
He dropped on one knee in an affectedly theatrical manner and pressed his lips to Mrs. Belswin’s hand, upon which she twitched it away with a frown, and spoke roughly to her adorer.
“What do you want, Ferrari?”
“Niente! niente! but to pay a visit of ceremony.”
“It’s not customary to pay visits of ceremony at ten o’clock in the morning. I wish you would go away. I’m busy.”
“Che donna,” said the Italian. With a gesture of admiration, and taking off his hat, sat down on the sofa.
Stephano Ferrari was a handsome man in a wicked way. He was tall and slender, with a dark, expressive face, white teeth, which gleamed under his heavy black moustache, wonderfully fine eyes, and a bland, ingratiating manner. English he spoke remarkably well, having been for many years away from his native land, but had a habit of interlarding his conversation with Italian ejaculations, which, in conjunction with his carefully-learnt English, had a somewhat curious effect. Being the tenor of an opera company in New York, he had become acquainted with Mrs. Belswin, who was also in the profession, and had fallen violently in love with this splendid-looking woman, who had so many of the characteristics of his countrywomen. Mrs. Belswin did not reciprocate this passion, and treated him with marked discourtesy; but this only added fuel to the fire of his love, much to her annoyance, as Ferrari had all the ardour and violence of his race strongly developed, and was likely to prove dangerous if she did not return his passion, a thing she felt by no means inclined to do.
At present he sat smiling on the sofa before her, adjusted his bright red tie, ran his fingers through his curly hair, and then twisted the ends of his moustache with peculiarly aggravating complacency.
“Don’t you hear what I say?” said Mrs. Belswin, stamping her foot angrily. “I’m busy. Go away.”
“Bid me not fly from those star-like eyes,” sang the Signor, rolling a cigarette with deft fingers. “Ah, che bella musica. If the words were but my beautiful Italian instead of this harsh English. Dio! It hurts the throat, your speaking—fog-voiced pigs that you are.”
“Take your abuse and yourself somewhere else,” replied Mrs. Belswin, bringing her hand down sharply on the table. “I tell you I’m busy. You never leave me alone, Stephano. You followed me over from America, and now you stay beside me all day. Why do you make such a fool of yourself?”
“Because I love thee, carissima. Let me light this; not at thine eyes—stelle radiante—but from thy cigarette. Grazia!”
Mrs. Belswin knew of old that when Ferrari was in this humour nothing reasonable could be expected from him; so, resigned to the inevitable, she let him light his cigarette as he wished, then, flinging herself down on her chair, looked moodily at him.
“How long is this foolery going to last?” she demanded caustically.
“Till you become the Signora Ferrari.”
“That will never be.”
“Nay, angela mia—it will be some day.”
“Was there ever such a man?” burst out Mrs. Belswin, viciously. “He won’t take no for an answer.”
“Not from thee, Donna Lucrezia.”
“Don’t call me Donna Lucrezia.
“Because I’m tired of opera. I’m tired of you. I’m tired of everything. I’m going to leave all the old life and become respectable.”
“The life of a singer is always respectable,” declared Ferrari, mendaciously. “You mean to leave me, Signora?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Ebbene! we shall see.”
“What claim have you on me? None. I met you in America two years ago. We sang together for a time, and because of that you persecute me with your ridiculous attentions.”
“I love thee.”
“I don’t want your love.”
She spoke defiantly, and folding her arms stared steadily at her persistent lover. The Italian, however, was not at all annoyed. He simply threw his half-smoked cigarette into the teacup, and rising from his seat stood before her smiling and bland as ever.
“Non e vero, Signora? Ebbene. I am the same. We met in San Francisco two years ago. I was a singer of opera. I obtained for you engagements. I loved you. Carissima, I love thee still! You are cold, cruel, you stone-woman, bella demonia. For long time I have been your slave. You have given me the kicks of a dog. Pazienza, I finish soon. I have told you all of myself. You have told me all of yourself. I come to this fog land with you, and now you say, ‘Addio.’ Bellissima, Signora, but I am not to be talked to like a child. I love you! and I marry you. Ecco! You will be Signora Ferrari. Senza dubbio!”
Having thus delivered himself of his determination with many smiles and gesticulations, Signor Farrari bowed in his best stage manner, sat down in his chair and began to roll another cigarette. Mrs. Belswin heard him in silence, the clenching of her hands alone betraying her anger, but having had two years’ experience of the Italian’s character, she knew what to do, and controlling herself with an effort, began to temporise in a highly diplomatic manner.
“I suppose no woman could be indifferent to such love as you profess, Stephano, and some day I may be able to answer you as you wish—but not now, not now.”
“And why, cara mia?”
“Because I am going to see my daughter again.”
“Yes! You know I told you all my past life. I was a fool to do so, as it gives you a certain hold over me. But I am a lonely—woman. Your manner was sympathetic, and so—well it’s only natural I should wish to confide in some one.”
“So you confided in me. Per l’amor di Dio, Signora. Do not be sorry, I am simpatica! I feel for you. Ah, Dio! It was a terrible story of your husband, and the parting in anger. Basta! Basta! Think of it no more.”
“I must! Do you think I can forget the past by a simple effort of will? Happy for me, happy for all, if such a thing could be. But—I have forgotten nothing. That is my punishment!”
“And now, cara?”
“Now I am going to see my dear daughter again.”
“She is in London, then? Ah, che gioja.”
“Yes! she is in—in England.”
“And il marito?”
“He is at the other end of the world.”
“Bene. Let him stay there!”
Mrs. Belswin nodded her head in savage approval, then began to walk to and fro, talking rapidly.
“While he is away I have a plan. In the paper there is a notice requiring a companion for my daughter.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it is put in by a Mr. Dombrain. He is Rupert Pethram’s solicitor. Oh, I know him, better than he thinks. All these years I have been away from my child I have watched over her. Ah, yes! I know all of her life in New Zealand. I have good friends there. I found out when her father brought her to England, and that is why I came over here so quickly. I intended to see her again—to speak to her—but without revealing I was her unhappy mother. But—I was afraid of Pethram. Yes, you may smile, Stephano, but you do not know him. I do.”
“E incrédibile. You who fear no one.”
“I do not fear him physically,” she said proudly, with a savage flash from her fierce eyes. “I fear no man in that way. But I am afraid because of my daughter. She thinks I am dead. It is better than that she should know I am a divorced, disgraced woman. If Sir Rupert were angry he might tell her all, and then—and then—oh, God! I could not bear to see her again. She would despise me. She would look on me with scorn. My own child. Ah, I should die—I should die!”
The tears actually came into her eyes, and for a moment softened their fierceness. This woman, hard and undisciplined, with savage instincts derived from a savage mother, yet felt the strong maternal instinct implanted in the breast of every woman, and quailed with terror as she thought of the power her former husband had to lower her in the eyes of her daughter. Ferrari, of course, could not understand this, having been always accustomed to think of Mrs. Belswin as an untamed tigress, but now she had a touch of feminine softness about her which puzzled him.
“Ah! the strangeness of women,” he said philosophically. “Ebbene, now il marito is away, what will you do?”
“I’m going to see Mr. Dombrain, and obtain the situation of companion to my own daughter.”
“Not so fast, Signora! She will know you.”
“No; she will not know me,” replied Mrs. Belswin softly; “she does not remember me. When I left her she was a little child. She thinks I am dead. I go to her as a stranger. It is hard; it is terribly hard. I will see her. I will speak to her. I will perhaps kiss her; but I dare not say, ‘child, I am your mother!’ Ah, it is cruel—but it is my punishment.”
“It is a good plan for you, cara mia! But about me, you forget your faithful Stephano!”
“No, I do not,” she said coaxingly, for she was afraid he would spoil all, knowing what he did; “but you must wait. I want to see my daughter—to live with her for a time. When my husband returns he will know me, so I must leave before he sees me. Then I will come back to thee, carissima.”
“Basta!” replied Ferrari, with great reluctance. “I do not wish to keep you from the child. I am not jealous of il marito.”
“You’ve no cause to be—I hate him.”
“Look, then, the love I bear you, carissima mia. Though all your life I know. Though you have had husband and lover, yet I wish to make you mine.”
“It is strange,” said Mrs. Belswin, indifferently. “I am not a young woman; my good looks are going; my past life is not that of a saint; and yet you would marry me.”
“Because I love thee, carissima,” said Ferrari, taking her hand. “I have loved many before, but none like thee, bella demonia. Ah, Dio, thou hast the fierceness of the tiger within thee. The hot blood of Italy burns in thy veins, my Lucrezia Borgia. I am weary of tame women who weep and sigh ever. I am no cold Englishman, thou knowest. The lion seeks but the lioness, and so I come to thee for thy love, stella adorata.”
He caressed her softly as he spoke these words in his musical voice, and the woman softened under his caress with feline grace. All the treachery and sleepiness of the panther was observable in this woman; but under the smoothness of her manner lay the fierceness of her savage nature, which was now being controlled by the master hand of the Italian.
“You will let me go to my daughter, then,” she said in a soft, languid voice, her fierce eyes dulling under the mesmeric influence of his gaze.
“As you will. I can deny thee nothing, regina del mia vita.”
“The deeds we do, though done in heedless ways,
May have the shaping of our future lives;
And, stretching forth their long arms from the past,
May alter this and that in such strange fashion
That we become as puppets in their hands,
To play the game of life by old events.”
Mr. Dombrain’s office, situate in Chintle Lane, was a shabby little place consisting of three rooms. One where his clients waited, another occupied by three clerks constantly writing, and a third where Mr. Dombrain himself sat, like a crafty spider in his web waiting for silly flies. The three rooms were all bad, but Mr. Dombrain’s was the worst; a square, low-roofed apartment like a box, with a dim twilight atmosphere, which filtered in through a dirty skylight in the roof. This being the case, Dombrain’s desk was lighted by a gas-jet with a green shade, fed by a snaky-looking india-rubber tube attached to the iron gas-pipe projecting from the wall above his head.
The heavy yellow light flaring from under this green shade revealed the room in a half-hearted sort of fashion, illuminating the desk, but quite unable to penetrate into the dark corners of the place. On the writing-table were piles of papers, mostly tied into bundles with red tape, a glass inkstand, a pad of pink blotting-paper, three or four pens, all of which were arranged on a dingy ink-stained green cloth in front of a row of pigeon holes, full of loose letters and legal-looking documents.
In front of this table sat Mr. Dombrain in a heavy horsehair-covered chair, and near him were two other chairs of slender construction for the use of clients. Along the walls more pigeon holes crammed with papers, a tall bookshelf filled with hard-looking law books, which had a second-hand look of having been picked up cheap, a ragged carpet on the well-worn floor, and dust everywhere. Indeed, so thickly lay the dust on books, on floor, on papers, on desk, that the whole room looked as if it had just been opened after the lapse of years. The chamber of the Sleeping Beauty, perhaps, and Mr. Dombrain—well no, he was not a beauty, and he never was sleeping, so the comparison holds not. Indeed he was a singularly ugly man in a coarse fashion. A large bullet-shaped head covered with rough red hair, cut so remarkably short that it stood up stiffly in a stubbly fashion, a freckled face with a coarse red beard clipped short, cunning little grey eyes, rather bleared by the constant glare of the gaslight in which he worked, and large crimson ears. Dressed in a neat suit of black broadcloth, he appeared singularly ill at ease in it, and with his large stumpy-fingered hands, with clubbed nails, his awkward manner, his habit of stealthily glancing out of his bleared eyes, Mr. Dombrain was about as unsuited a person for a lawyer as one could find. There was nothing suave about him to invite confidence, and he looked as if he would have been more at home working as a navvy than sitting behind this desk, with his large red hands clumsily moving the papers about.
Three o’clock in the afternoon it was by Mr. Dombrain’s fat-faced silver watch lying on the table in front of him, and as the lawyer noted the fact in his usual stealthy fashion, a timid-looking clerk glided into the room.
“Yes?” said Dombrain interrogatively, without looking up.
“If you please—if you please, sir, a lady,” stammered the timid clerk, washing his hands with invisible soap and water, “a lady about—about the situation, sir.”
“Humph! I said the application was to be by letter.”
“But—but the lady, sir?”
Mr. Dombrain looked complacently at his nails, but said nothing.
“But—but the lady, sir?” repeated the timid clerk again.
“I said the application was to be by letter.”
The clerk, seeing that this was the answer he was expected to deliver, went sliding out of the room; but at the door encountered the lady in question, dressed in black, and closely veiled.
“Madam,” he stammered, growing red, “the application was to be by letter.”
“I preferred to come personally.”
As she spoke, low though her voice was, Mr. Dombrain looked up suddenly with a startled look on his face.
“Can you see me, Mr. Dombrain?”
He arose slowly to his feet, as if in obedience to some nervous impulse, and with his grey eyes looking straight at the veiled woman, still kept silence.
“Can you see me, Mr. Alfred Dombrain?”
The lawyer’s red face had turned pale, and looked yellow in the gaslight. The hot atmosphere of the room evidently made him gasp, used as he was to it, for he opened his mouth as if to speak, then, closing it again, signed to the clerk to leave the room.
Left alone with his visitor, Dombrain, still maintaining the same position, stood watching her with a mesmeric stare as she glided into one of the chairs beside the table.
“Won’t you sit down, Mr. Alfred Dombrain?”
His face was suddenly suffused with a rush of blood, and he sat down heavily.
“Madam! who are you?”
“Don’t you know? Ah! what a pity; and you have such a good memory for voices.”
“I—memory—voices,” he stammered, moving restlessly.
“Yes; why not, Mr. Damberton?”
“Hush! For God’s sake, hush! Who are you? Who are you?”
The woman flung back her veil, and he recoiled from the sight of her face with a hoarse, strangled cry.
“Once Jezebel Pethram, now Miriam Belswin. I see you remember faces as well as voices—and names also. Ah! what an excellent memory.”
Mr. Dombrain alias Damberton collected his scattered senses together, and, going over to a small iron safe set in the wall, produced a tumbler and a bottle of whisky. Mrs. Belswin looked at him approvingly as he drank off half a glass of the spirit neat.
“That’s right; you’ll need all your Dutch courage.”
Quite forgetting the demands of hospitality, Dombrain replaced the bottle and glass in the respectable safe, and resumed his seat at the table with his ordinary bullying nature quite restored to him by the potent spirit.
“Now, then, Mrs. Pethram, or Belswin, or whatever you like to call yourself,” he said, in a harsh, angry tone, “what do you want here?”
“I want you.”
“Ho, ho! The feeling isn’t reciprocal. Leave my office.”
“When I choose.”
“Perhaps a policeman will make you go quicker,” growled Dombrain, rising.
“Perhaps he will,” retorted Mrs. Belswin, composedly; “and perhaps he’ll take you along with him.”
“Is it! We’ll try the experiment, if you like.”
Mr. Dombrain resumed his seat with a malediction on all women in general, and Mrs. Belswin in particular. Then he bit his nails, and looked at her defiantly, only to quail before the fierce look in her eyes.
“It’s no use beating about the bush with a fiend like you,” he growled sulkily, making a clumsy attempt to appear at his ease.
“Not a bit.”
“I wish you’d go away,” whined Dombrain, with a sudden change of front. “I’m quite respectable now. I haven’t seen you for twenty years. Why do you come now and badger me? It isn’t fair to pull a man down when he’s up.”
“Do you call this up?” sneered Mrs. Belswin, looking round the dingy office.
“It’s up enough for me.”
The woman grinned in a disagreeable manner, finding Mr. Dombrain’s manner very amusing. She glanced rapidly at him with her fierce eyes, and he wriggled uneasily in his chair.
“Don’t look at me like that, you witch,” he muttered, covering his face with his large hands. “You’ve got the evil eye, confound you.”
Mrs. Belswin, leaning forward, held up her forefinger and shook it gently at the lawyer.
“It won’t do, my friend; I tell you it won’t do. You’ve tried bullying, you’ve tried whining; neither of them go down with me. If you have any business to do you’ve got to put it aside for me. If you have to see clients you can’t and won’t see them till I choose. Do you hear what I say, you legal Caliban? I’ve come here for a purpose, Mr. Dombrain—that, I believe, is your present name—for a purpose, sir. Do you hear?”
“Yes, I hear. What is your purpose?”
She laughed; but not mirthfully.
“To tell you a story.”
“I don’t want stories. Go to a publisher.”
“Certainly. I’ll go to the Scotland Yard firm. Hold your tongue, sir. Sneering doesn’t come well from an animal like you. I have no time to waste.”
“Neither have I.”
“That being the case with both of us, sit still.”
Mr. Dombrain stopped his wriggling and became as a stone statue of an Egyptian king, with his hands resting on his knees.
“Now I’ll tell you my story.”
“Can’t you do without that?”
“No, my good man, I can’t. To make you understand what I want I must tell you all my story. Some of it you know, some of it you don’t know. Be easy. It’s short and not sweet. Listen.”
And Mr. Dombrain did listen, not because he wanted to, but because this woman with the fierce eyes had an influence over him which he, bully, coarse-minded man as he was, could not resist. When he recollected what she knew and what she could tell, and would tell if she chose, a cold sweat broke out all over him, and he felt nerveless as a little child. Therefore, for these and divers other reasons, Mr. Dombrain listened—with manifest reluctance, it is true, but still he listened.
“We will commence the story in New Zealand twenty years—say twenty-two years ago. One Rupert Pethram, the younger son of a good family, come out there to make his fortune. He made it by the simple process of marrying a Maori half-caste, called Jezebel Manners. You see I don’t scruple to tell everything about myself, dear friend. Well, Mr. and Mrs. Pethram got on very well together for a time, but she grew tired of being married to a fool. He was a fool, wasn’t he?”
She waited for a reply, so Dombrain, against his will, was forced to give her one.
“Yes, he was a fool—to marry you.”
“The wisest thing he ever did in his life, seeing what a lot of property I brought him. But I couldn’t get on with him. My mother was a pure-blooded Maori. I am only half a white, and I hated his cold phlegmatic disposition, his supercilious manners. I was—I am hot-blooded, ardent, quick-tempered. Fancy a woman like me tied to a cold-blooded fish like Rupert Pethram. Bah! it was madness. I hated him before my child was born; afterwards I hated him more than ever. Then the other man came along.”
“There always is another man!”
“Naturally! What would become of the Divorce Court if there wasn’t? Yes, the other man did come along. A pink and white fool. My husband was a god compared to Silas Oates.”
“Then why did you run away with Oates?”
“Why indeed! He attracted me in some way, I suppose, or I was sick of my humdrum married life. I don’t know why I left even Rupert Pethram for such a fool as Silas. I did so, however. I gave up my name, my child, my money, all for what?—for a man that tired of me in less than six months, and left me to starve in San Francisco.”
“You didn’t starve, however.”
“It is not my nature to act foolishly all my life. No, I did not starve. I had a good voice, which I managed to get trained. I had also a good idea of acting, so I made a success on the operatic stage as Madame Tagni.”
“Oh! are you the celebrated Madame Tagni?”
“I was. Now I am Mrs. Belswin, of no occupation in particular. I sang in the States; I sang in New Zealand—”
“You didn’t sing in Dunedin?”
“No, because my husband was there. Do you know why I came to New Zealand—a divorced, dishonoured woman? No, of course you don’t. I came to see my child. I did see her, unknown to Rupert or to the child herself. I was in New Zealand a long time watching over my darling. Then I went again to the States, but I left friends behind me—good friends, who kept me posted up in all the news of my child Kaituna. Since I left her twenty years ago like a fool, I have known everything about her. I heard in New York how Rupert had lost all his money, owing to the decrease in the value of property. I heard his elder brother had died, and that he had come in for the title. He is Sir Rupert Pethram; I ought to be Lady Pethram.”
“But you’re not,” sneered Dombrain, unable to resist the opportunity.
She flashed a savage glance at him and replied quietly.
“No, I am Mrs. Belswin, that’s enough for me at present. But to go on with my story. I heard how my husband had brought our child home to the old country, and leaving her there had returned to New Zealand on business. When this news reached me, I made up my mind at once and came over here. I found out—how, it matters not—that my husband’s legal adviser was an old friend of mine, one Alfred Damberton—”
“Hush! not that name here!”
“Ah, I forgot. You are the respectable Mr. Alfred Dombrain now. But it was curious that I should find an old friend in a position so likely to be of use to me.”
“Use to you?” groaned Dombrain, savagely.
“Yes; I have seen your advertisement in the paper for a companion for a young lady. Well, I have come to apply for the situation.”
“Yes. Personally, and not by letter as you suggested in print.”
Mr. Dombrain felt that he was in a fix, and therefore lied, with clumsy malignity.
“That advertisement doesn’t refer to your daughter.”
“Doesn’t it?” said Mrs. Belswin sharply. “Then, why refer to my daughter at all just now?”
“Because you couldn’t think of a better lie, I suppose,” she finished, contemptuously. “It won’t do, my friend, I tell you it won’t do. I’m not the kind of woman to be played fast and loose with. You say it is not my daughter that requires a chaperon.”
“I do! yes I do!”
“Then you lie. What do you think private detectives are made for? Did you think I came here without having everything necessary to meet an unscrupulous wretch like you!”
“I thought nothing about you. I thought you were dead.”
“And wished it, I daresay. But I’m not! I’m alive enough to do you an injury—to have your name struck off the roll of English solicitors.”
“You can’t!” he retorted defiantly, growing pale again. “I defy you.”
“You’d better not, Mr. Damberton! I’m one too many for you. I can tell a little thing about your past career which would considerably spoil the respectable position you now hold.”
“No one would believe you against me. A respectable solicitor’s word is worth a dozen of a divorced woman.”
“If you insult me I’ll put a knife in you, you miserable wretch!” said Mrs. Belswin, breathing hard. “I tell you I’m a desperate woman. I know that you have advertised for a chaperon for my daughter, and I—her mother—intend to have the situation under the name of Mrs. Belswin.”
“But your husband will recognise you.”
“My husband is out in New Zealand, and will be there for the next few months. When he returns I will deal with him, not you. This matter of the chaperon is in your hands, and you are going to give the situation to me. You hear, gaol-bird—to me!”
Dombrain winced at the term applied to him, and jumped up with a furious look of rage.
“I defy you! I defy you!” he said in a low harsh voice, the veins in his forehead swelling with intense passion. “You outcast! You Jezebel! Ah, how the name suits you! I know what you are going to say. That twenty years ago I was in gaol in New Zealand for embezzlement. Well, I own it—I was. I was a friend of your lover, Silas Oates—your lover who cast you off to starve. I lost money betting. I embezzled a large sum. I was convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. Well, I worked out my term! I left the colony where, as Alfred Damberton, I was too well known to get a chance of honest employment, and came to England through America. I met you again in America. I was fool enough to think Silas Oates might help me for old time’s sake. I found he had left you—left you alone in ‘Frisco. You were little better than a vile creature on the streets; I was a gaol-bird. Oh, a nice pair we were! Outcasts, both you and I.”
He passed his handkerchief over his dry lips as he paused, but Mrs. Belswin made no sign in any way, but simply sat looking at him with a sneer.
“When I left you,” resumed Dombrain, hurriedly, “I came to England—to my father. He was a lawyer in the country. He received me well—took me into his office and admitted me into partnership. When he died I came up to London, and have prospered since. I have changed my name to Alfred Dombrain, and am respected everywhere. Your husband does not know my story. He was recommended to me by a friend, and he has employed me for some years. I have his confidence in every way. I am a respectable man! I have forgotten the past, and now you come with your bitter tongue and spiteful mind to tear me down from the position I have so hardly won.”
He dropped down exhausted into a chair; but Mrs. Belswin, still smiling, still sneering, pointed to the safe.
“Take some more whiskey. You will need it.”
“Woman, leave me!”
“Not till I leave as chaperon to my child.”
“That you shall never have.”
“Oh yes, I shall!”
“I say you shall not! You can go and tell my story where you please; I shall tell yours; and we’ll see who will be believed—Alfred Dombrain, the respectable, trusted lawyer, or Mrs. Belswin, the divorced woman! Bah! You can’t frighten me with slanders. There is nothing to connect Dombrain the solicitor with Damberton, the convict.”
“Indeed! What about this?”
She held up a photograph which she had taken out of her pocket—a photograph resembling Mr. Dombrain, but which had written under it—
“You may alter your face,” said Mrs. Belswin maliciously, “but you can’t very well alter your handwriting. And now I look at you, I really don’t think there is much alteration. A beard when there used to be only a moustache, more wrinkles, less smiles. Oh, I think any one will recognise this for you.”
Dombrain made a snatch at the photograph, but she was too quick for him.
“Not quite. This is my evidence against you. I heard in America, through my useful detectives, that you were lawyer to my husband; so, thinking I might require your help, and knowing I shouldn’t get it without some difficulty, I took the trouble of writing to New Zealand for a full report of your very interesting case. You’ve cost me a good deal of money, my dear sir; but they pay well on the opera-stage, so I don’t mind. I have all the papers telling your little story. I have this photograph with your own signature, proving the identity of Damberton with Dombrain; so taking all things into consideration, I think you had better do what I ask.”
She had so completely got the better of Mr. Dombrain that she had reduced him to a kind of moral pulp, and he leaned back in his chair utterly crushed.
“What do you want?” he asked feebly.
“I want the situation of chaperon to Miss Kaituna Pethram.
“If I give it to you, as I can, will you hold your tongue about—about—my past life?”
“Yes, certainly; provided that you never disclose that the divorced Mrs. Pethram has anything to do with the respectable Mrs. Belswin.”
“I agree to all you say.”
“You will give me the situation?”
“I am engaged, then?”
“As chaperon to Miss Pethram?”
“Yes; as chaperon to Miss Pethram.”
Mrs. Belswin arose with a smile of triumph and took her leave.
“Beaten all along the line, I see. Let this be a lesson to you, my dear friend, never to put your thick head against a woman’s wits!”
“Oh, what becomes of our prodigal sons
When worried by troublesome debts and duns.
When fatherly loving is quite worn out,
And how to exist is a matter of doubt?
Well, some go writing in London town,
A few rise up and a lot fall down,
Many as squatters go south of the line
And ‘tend to their sheep instead of their swine,
Dozens in African jungles now rest,
Numbers ranch in the far wild west;
But have they full or an empty purse,
Have they lived decently or the reverse,
Married or single, wherever they roam
Our prodigal sons in the end come home.”
When Mr. Clendon, Vicar of Deswarth, preached on the parable of “The Prodigal Son” he little thought that it would one day be applicable to his own offspring. Yet such was the case, for Tobias Clendon—called after that celebrated character in the Apocrypha—came home from Oxford, where he was supposed to be studying for the Church, and resolutely refused to become a curate, with the chance of a possible bishopric somewhere about the forties. The fact is, the young man had contracted the fatal habit of scribbling, and having had a few articles on dogcarts, poetry, Saint Simonism—such was the wideness of his range—accepted by friendly editors, had resolved to devote his energies to literature. He had not ambition enough to become a great writer, nor enough modesty to sink to the level of a literary hack; but seeing a chance of earning his bread and butter in an easy fashion, he determined to take advantage of it and get through life as happily as possible. Having, therefore, made up his mind to be a scribbler of ephemeral essays, verse, stories—anything that paid, in fact—he had also made up his mind to tell his respected parent, but, having a wholesome dread of said parent, was afraid to do so.
Chance—meddlesome goddess—helped him.
He was rusticated for an amusing escapade arising from a misuse of spirits—animal spirits and—and—other spirits. Unfortunately, the college authorities did not look at the affair precisely in Toby’s way, so they banished him from Alma Mater, whom Toby henceforward regarded as an unjust step-mother.
Being thus summarily treated, he went home to Deswarth, and was received by his respectable parent with as strong language as his position as vicar allowed him to use.
Clendon père was a dry-as-dust old gentleman, who was always grubbing among antique folios, and he had sketched out his son’s life in black and white. Clendon fils—this is the parental prophecy—was to be a curate, a vicar, edit a Greek play—something of Æschylus for choice—blossom into a full-blown bishop, keep a holy but watchful eye on any possible vacancy in the sees of York or Canterbury, and die as high up in the Church as he could get. It was truly a beautiful vision, and Bookworm Clendon, burrowing in out-of-way libraries, looked upon this vision as a thing which was to be.
But then that terrible cacoeihes scribendi, which spoils so many promising Bishops, Lord Chancellors, Prime Ministers, had infected the wholesome blood of Toby, and, in obedience to the itch, he scribbled—he scribbled—oh, Father Apollo, how he did scribble! Having scribbled, he published; having published he showed his printed compositions to his father; but that gentleman, despising modern print, modern paper, modern everything, would not look at his son’s effusions.
This narrow-mindedness grieved Toby, as he had hoped to break the matter gently to his reverend sire; but as this could not be done, instead of shivering on the brink like a timid bather, he plunged in.
In plain English, he told his father that he wished to be a Shakespeare, a Dickens, a Tennyson, a—a—well select the most famous writers in the range of literature, and you have the people whom Toby wished to emulate in a nineteenth century sense.
After this the deluge.
No prophet likes to have his prophecies proved false, and Mr. Clendon was no exception to the rule. Having settled Toby’s career in life, he was terribly angry that Toby should presume to unsettle it in any way. Not be a curate, not be a vicar, not be a bishop—what did the boy expect to be?
The boy, with all humility, stated that he expected to be a Dickens, a George Eliot.
“George Eliot, sir, was a woman.”
Well, then, a Walter Scott. Had his father any objections?
The reverend bookworm had several.
First objection.—Literature has no prizes. Money? Yes. Fame? Yes. But no official prizes. If you go into the law, you may hope some day to sit on the woolsack, which is stately but uncomfortable. If you prefer the Church, you may attain the dignity of a bishop—even of an archbishop. In medicine you may become physician to the court, and physic royalty, which entails large fees and a chance of populating the royal vaults in Westminster Abbey. Even in painting, the presidentship of the Royal Academy is not beyond the reach of a conventional painter who does not startle his generation with too much genius. All these things are worth striving for, because they smack of officialism. But literature—oh, shade of Richard Savage, what prize is there in literature?
Suggestion by Toby.—The Poet Laureateship.
Which has no salary worth speaking of attached to it; and rhymes to order are seldom rhymes in order. No, the Laureateship is out of the question; therefore literature has no prizes.
Second objection.—Literature is a good stick, but a bad crutch,—a remark of Walter Scott, which was uttered in the primeval times of scribbling. Still, according to Mr. Clendon, who knew nothing past that period, it held good to-day. If Toby went in for literature, how did he expect to live till the fame period, seeing that he could earn but little, and the paternal purse-strings were to be closed tightly? Poetry. It doesn’t pay.
Is a curse;
Doesn’t fill the purse.
Rhyme and reason both, according to Clendon père. Novels! Pshaw, the field is overrun by three volume rubbish by talented lady scribblers. Essays! No one wants essays when Lamb and Addison can be bought cheaply. Altogether, literature has no money in it.
Third objection, and strongest.—You were intended for the Church; and you must carry out my plans, even if against your own judgment.
Having thus stated his objections, Clendon père ordered Toby to take holy orders at once, and think no more of the draggle-tailed muse and all her tribe.
His father used clerical bad language.
Toby left the room.
His father cut him off with a shilling, and bade him leave the paternal roof, which he did.
Here endeth the first Book of Tobias.
In London Toby had a hard time. He went through the mill, and did not like it. He sounded the depths of the London ocean, which contains all kinds of disagreeable things which appear not on the surface—fireless grates, abusive landladies, obdurate editors, well-worn clothing. Oh, it was certainly an unpleasant experience, but Toby sank to rise, and never forgot, when wandering amid this submarine wreckage of London, that he was a gentleman and had one definite object in view.
If a man keep these two things in mind, they are bladders which will float him to the surface among successful crafts.
Therefore Tobias Clendon rose—slowly at first, then rapidly.
He wrote articles about the wreckage amid which he wandered, and had them accepted by editors, who paid him as little as they could. Afterwards he scribbled comic songs for opulent music-hall artistes, which contained the latest ideas of the day and a superfluity of slang. These efforts brought him into contact with the theatrical profession, which is renowned for its modesty, and he put new wine into old bottles by patching up old burlesques. In this cobbling he was very successful, and what with one thing and another, he got on capitally. From burlesques he advanced to little curtain raisers; he wrote short abusive stories for charitably-minded society papers, scathing articles on books by celebrated writers, in which he proved conclusively that they did not know their business as novelists, and altogether became a sort of literary Autolycus, being a picker-up of unconsidered trifles in the literary line. This brought him in a good income, and in a few years he actually could face his bankers without blushing. Then he took a holiday, and during such holiday went to Marsh-on-the-Sea, where he met Miss Valpy, who reminded him about his father, and then—
“I am,” said Toby, sententiously, “a prodigal son. I have lived in a far country, and eaten husks with London swine. Unlike the young man, however, I have risen above the profession of swineherd. I have become friends with Dives, and he has bidden me to feasts where I have fared sumptuously. The prodigal son began with money and ended with swine. I began with swine and end now with money. This is a distinct improvement on the old parable; but now ‘I will arise and go to my father.’ I’m afraid he won’t kill the fatted calf, but I don’t particularly mind as I detest veal; it’s indigestible. He won’t fall on my neck because he’s not a demonstrative old gentleman, but still I’ll go, especially as there is no dear brother to make things unpleasant. My Lares and Penates I will collect, and the country of my fathers will see me once more.”
With this idea in his mind, Toby, who had left home in a third-class carriage, returned in a first-class, and was puffed up accordingly. With all such pomposity, however, he took a common sense view of things with regard to the reception committee, and walked to the vicarage with a becoming air of humility. He had left his father grubbing among relics of Fust and Caxton, and on his return found him still grubbing—a little older looking, a little dryer—but still stranded among rare folios of the middle ages. Toby saluted this paternal ghoul, and was received kindly, the ghoul having a heart concealed somewhere in his anatomy.
“I am glad to see you again, Tobias,” said Clendon père, with marked cordiality. “I am a clergyman, and you offended me by not making the profession hereditary. However, I am also a father, and I have missed you very much, my boy—very much indeed—shake hands.”
Which Toby did, and actually surprised a tear on the parchment cheek of his father, which touch of nature making them both akin, had a marked effect on the soft heart of the young man, and he fell into the arms of his sire.
Thus far the parable was excellently interpreted.
But the fatted calf.
Ah! it was truly an excellent beast, that same calf, for it consisted of several courses, and the wine was undeniable. Clendon père looked after his cellar as well as his folios, and after a good dinner father and son clasped hands once more under the influence of ‘47 port, which made them both sentimental.
“You will stay with me, Tobias, and comfort my declining years?”
“Certainly, father; but you will let me go to London occasionally?”
“Oh, yes, Tobias; you must attend to your business. By the way, what is your business?”
“That of a scribbler.”
“Ah! Richard Savage and Grub Street. Never mind, my boy, I’ve got money enough for us both.”
“No, not Grub Street. Nous avons change tout cela, eh, father! I make about five hundred a year.”
“What!—what, at scribbling?”
“Dear me,” remarked Clendon père, eyeing his port, “what a lot of money there must be in the world.”
“My dear father, literature has improved since the Caxton period.”
“But printing has not, Tobias. No, no! Nowadays they use flimsy paper, bad type—”
“But the matter, father; the contents of a book.”
“I never read a modern book. Pish! You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I don’t believe in your cheap literature.”
“It’s a good thing for me, at any rate, father.”
“Of course. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.”
“Well, this wind has blown me to you with five hundred a year.”
“Good, good! Yes, folios make one narrow. You shall expand my mind, Tobias. You shall bring me into contact with the nineteenth century. But I won’t read any books but your own.”
“I don’t write books.”
“No? Well, I’m thankful for small mercies. How long are you going to stay with me?”
“Till you grow tired of me.”
“Then, Tobias, you are settled here for the rest of your life.”
“My dear father. By the way, I want to ask a friend of mine down here.”
“Not a woman?”
“No; I haven’t got that far yet. A fellow called Archie Maxwell. He used to go to school with me, and we’re great chums.
“Tobias, no slang. You mean you are a David and Jonathan?”
“I do. That’s about the size of it.”
“Eheu, hinc illæ lachrymæ. I like not the nineteenth century talk. It grates on the ear.”
“I beg your pardon, father; but can I have Archie Maxwell down?”
“Certainly. Is he also in Grub Street?”
“Oh, no! He’s an engineer.”
“On the railway?”
“No; a civil engineer—builds bridges.”
“Well, well, let the young man come; but he’ll find it dull here.”
“Oh no, he won’t, because you see, father, there’s a lady.”
“Miss Kaituna Pethram, whom he loves.”
“Ho, ho! I know the young lady. She is a parishioner of mine. Her father came into the title a year ago, and has gone out to New Zealand again, leaving his daughter in charge of Mrs. Belswin.”
“Yes! a very charming lady who acts as chaperon.”
“What, are you afraid of the dragon who guards the golden apples?” said the bookworm with great good humour. “Pooh! pooh! in my time young men were not such faint-hearted lovers. If he really adores this nymph of the ocean—she comes from New Zealand I believe—he’ll soon propitiate the dragon.”
“Is it an amiable dragon?”
“Humph! I’m afraid not! Your Hercules must be stout-hearted.”
“What a pity Mrs. Valpy and her daughter are not the chaperons still.”
“Eh! why I think Miss Valpy requires a chaperon herself, but perchance no Hercules eyes that golden fruit.”
Silence on the part of Tobias, and a blush on his cheek.
“Tobias! Tobias,” said his father, with uplifted finger, “you’ve been looking over the garden wall of the Hesperides, and the golden fruit of the Valpys tempts you. Eh! my son, you also are in love—with Miss Valpy.”
“And your friend is in love with Miss Pethram.”
“And you both intend to stay with me for a time, so as to be near your inamoratas.”
“If you please, father.”
Mr. Clendon smiled grimly and finished his glass of port, which he really felt he needed.
“Cupid! Cupid! what have I done that thus I should be Sir Pandarus of Troy in my old age. Tobias, go to bed.”
“Good-night, father;” and he vanished.
Sir Pandarus groaned.
“Farewell, oh, lovely peace! I dwell no more under the shade of thy desirable olive. Four lovers in one parish, and I the vicar thereof. Alas! Alas! The Prodigal Son I sent abroad with curses has returned, and he hath brought back his curse with him. Eheu infelici.”
“An elderly dragon with cold grey eyes,
Tongue that gibes at a lover rash,
Ears quite deaf to pathetic sighs
Uttered by men who are scant of cash.
“But when a millionaire comes to woo,
The dragon inspires him not with fear.
Her sole idea of love that is true
Is measured by so many pounds a year.”
Thornstream Manor, the residence of the Pethrams for many generations, was a quaint old house, surrounded by pleasant grounds. A grey weather-beaten structure of two stories, built on a slight rise, on which were wide terraces down to the green lawns below, which were girt some distance away by a circle of ancient trees. The house itself was a long, low, embattlemented place between two sharply pointed gables, beneath which were diamond-paned oriel windows. Along the front other wide low windows, and a massive door set in a heavy stone porch. The roofs above of deep-red tiles, with twisted chimneys here and there, and the whole house covered with a clinging garment of dark green ivy, as if to shelter it from the cold winds blowing across the park. Seen at the end of the drive as it emerged from the trees, the white terraced rise topped by the grey ivy-covered house, with the tint of red afforded by the roof, looked singularly peaceful and pleasant. The goddess with the olive branch had established herself in this pleasant domain, and a brooding air of Sunday quiet pervaded the place, as if it were indeed that delightful Castle of Indolence whereof one James Thomson discourseth so pleasantly.
The grounds were also charming—wide stretches of green lawn, flower-beds filled with homely cottage flowers, still stone-rimmed ponds, where broad-leaved water-lilies kept the sun from grilling the hoary carp in the depths below. An antique dial with its warning motto, and on the verge of the lush glass, heavily foliaged trees making pleasant shades for the timid deer browsing round their gnarled boles. White pigeons flashed in the blue sky round the grey walls of Thornstream, or nestled among the trees with gentle cooings, while a glimpse could be obtained every now and then of lazy cows in distant meadows, chewing the cud of contentment. It was one of those scenes of intense quiet which are only to be seen in full perfection in the pleasant lands of pastoral England, a home, a veritable home, which one engaged in the turmoil of the world would remember with regretful longing. Peace, absolute peace, that most desirable of all blessings was here. Peace, which youth scorns but which age prizes, brooded over the homestead, and the Sleeping Beauty herself might have dreamed away her hundred years in this happy English mansion without being disturbed in any way.
“And one an English home—grey twilight poured,
On dewy pastures, dewy trees,
Softer than sleep—all things in order stored,
A haunt of ancient Peace.”
“I never understood those lines of Tennyson until I saw Thornstream.”
It was Kaituna who was speaking—Kaituna arrayed in a cool white dress, standing on the terrace in the early morning looking over the peaceful scene spread out before her. The birds were singing joyously in the trees, the cool dew was lying on the grass, and this young girl, reared in a far-distant country, was now viewing with dreamy eyes the pleasant land of England.
Beside her was Mrs. Belswin, in a simple dress of black serge, with all her splendid hair smoothed firmly back, and a pensive look in her fierce eyes—eyes which had now lost in a great measure their savage expression, and which filled with soft maternal love when they rested on the straight slim form of her daughter. In the sordid lodging in Bloomsbury, in a gaudy dress, with her real nature unrestrained in any way, she had looked like a savage; but now, with all her feelings well under control, her sombre dress, and her demure look, she appeared quite civilized. The savage was there, however, all the same, and should occasion arise to excite her in any way, a keen observer could easily see that the thin veneer of civilization would vanish, and the true instinct of the uncivilized being would flash forth, with a force all the greater for suppression. Her voice also had altered, as it was no longer strident or harsh in its tones, and in replying to Kaituna’s remark anent Tennyson, it was as soft and sweet as that of a Quakeress.
“It is very beautiful in a mild way,” she said quietly; “but I’m afraid I should grow weary of this everlasting tranquillity.”
“Oh, Mrs. Belswin, I’m sure that truer happiness can be found here than in the world.”
“I dare say you are right, Kaituna; but the sentiment sounds curious, coming from one so young.”
“It’s the fault of my colonial training,” replied Kaituna, with a smile. “Life in New Zealand is very quiet, you know. When I came home with papa I was quite bewildered by the noise and turmoil of London—every one rushing here and there—restless crowds in the streets, chattering women in the houses—no rest, no pause, no quiet. Oh, it was terrible.”
“And down here?”
“Down here it is charming. One can dream dreams in this delicious old place, and take life easily, not at the railroad speed of London folk.”
“You are too young for a hermit, Kaituna.”
“Oh, but I’m not a hermit, I assure you. I’m fond of gaiety. I adore balls and garden-parties. I’m never tired of riding and tennis-playing, but I can get all those in the country, and can live slowly, which I like. The hurry-skurry of town life would kill me.”
“You like England, then?”
“Oh, very much, very much indeed! It’s a wonderful country; but my home has my dearest love. Life there is so pleasant, so steady-going. You can take pleasure at your own time, if you want to. Here in England it is all fever and excitement. When I stayed in London I felt as if it were a nightmare with the gas and glare and endless streets, with their endless crowds rushing on—on, without rest or pause. Ah, if you saw New Zealand I am sure you would like it. Do you know New Zealand?”
“No,” answered Mrs. Belswin, quietly. “I do not know New Zealand; but I have been in Melbourne.”
“Ah, that’s too much like London.”
“Say rather San Francisco. Melbourne is wonderfully like ‘Frisco.”
“Are you an American, Mrs. Belswin?”
“Yes; I was born in New Orleans.”
“Then you are—”
“A Creole,” finished Mrs. Belswin, quickly. “Yes, you can tell that from my appearance. I have black blood in my veins. In America it is thought a crime. Here it doesn’t matter.”
“I’ve got black blood in my veins also,” said Kaituna, with a flush in her olive-tinted cheek; “that is Maori blood. My mother was the granddaughter of a chief.”
Mrs. Belswin moved a few steps away, as she could not trust herself to speak, so tumultuous were the feelings raging in her bosom. Her child—her own child, and yet she dare not take her to her bosom and tell her the truth. The girl’s innocent words wounded her to the quick, and it needed all the stoical resignation of her savage nature to enable her to preserve a calm demeanour.
“I don’t remember my mother at all,” went on Kaituna, idly leaning her arms on the terrace. “She died when I was a child; but I often picture her to myself.”
“And the picture?” asked Mrs. Belswin, unsteadily, her face turned away.
“Oh, a tall, beautiful woman, with dark eyes and haughty bearing. Proud to all, but loving to me. I once saw a picture of Pocahontas, and I always fancied my mother a woman like that—wild and free and majestic. Ah, it was a great sorrow to me that she died. I should have loved her so. I used to envy other girls when I saw them with their mothers, because I have none. Oh, it must be very, very beautiful to have a mother to take care of you—to whom you can appeal for comfort and sympathy; but—but—Mrs. Belswin, why, you are crying!”
She was crying—crying bitterly, and the tears ran down her dark cheeks in great drops that showed how much she was moved by the girl’s idle words—tears that were caused by the terrible agony of carrying on the part she was playing. Kaituna, in great wonder, approached her; but at the light touch of the girl’s fingers the woman shrank back with a low cry of fear.
“Don’t touch me!—don’t touch me, child!”
Kaituna paused with a puzzled look on her face, upon which Mrs. Belswin dried her eyes hurriedly, and took the girl’s hand.
“I beg your pardon, Kaituna,” she said, with forced composure, “but you must not mind me, my dear. I am not very well at present. My nerves are out of order.”
“I hope I have said nothing to vex you?”
“No, dear, no! But I—I had a little child of my own once, and—and—and she died.”
“Oh, I am so sorry!” cried Kaituna, touched to the heart by this pathetic confession. “I should not have spoken as I did.”
“You did not know, my dear. It was not your fault. I lost my little girl many years ago, but the wound is quite fresh, and it bleeds on occasions. I am all right now, Kaituna—don’t look so dismayed. We have all our skeletons, you know. Mine—mine is a little child!”
“Dear Mrs. Belswin,” said Kaituna, touching her with tender fingers, “I have only known you a fortnight, it is true, but there is something about you that draws me to you. I don’t know what it is, as I don’t make friends easily, but with you, why, I feel as if I had known you all my life.”
“My dearest!” replied Mrs. Belswin, taking the girl in her arms with fierce affection, “you do not know how happy your words have made me. If my daughter had lived, she would have been just like you now—just like you. Let me give you my love, dear—my dead love that has starved for so many years.”
She pressed the girl to her breast, but Kaituna hesitated. As she had said, she was not ready in making new friends, but there was something in the tones of Mrs. Belswin’s voice, something about the look in her eyes, in the pressure of her arms, that sent a thrill through her, and, hardly knowing what she did, with sudden impulse she kissed the woman on the mouth, upon which Mrs. Belswin, with an inarticulate cry, leant her face on the girl’s shoulder and burst into tears.
Was it Nature that was working here to bring mother and daughter together?—Nature, that has her secret springs, her mysterious instincts, which enable those of one flesh to recognise one another by some hidden impulse. Who can tell? Science dissects the body, analyses the brain, gives hard and fast reasons for the emotions, but there is something that escapes her prying eyes, something that no one can describe, that no one has seen—a something which, obeying the laws of being, recognises its affinity in another body, and flies forth to meet it. We boasted scientists of the nineteenth century have discovered a great deal about that wonderful being—man, but there is one secret which is hidden from all save God Himself, and that is the secret of maternal instinct.
Suddenly they were disturbed by the sound of the gong, and hastily drying their tears—for Kaituna had been crying as much as Mrs. Belswin—they went in to breakfast.
Such a pleasant room, with bright, cheerful paper chintz-covered furniture, and the white cloth of the table covered with hearty country fare. Mrs. Belswin took her seat at the head of the table to pour out the coffee, and Kaituna sat at the side, looking over the bunch of homely flowers, brilliant among the dishes, out on to the fair country beyond. By the side of her plate Kaituna found a letter with the New Zealand postmark on it, and, knowing it came from her father, opened it at once.
“Papa will be back in three months,” she said, when she had finished reading it. “His business will not take him so long as he expected.”
“What is the business, dear?” asked Mrs. Belswin, with her face bent over her plate.
“Selling land. You know, my mother brought him a good deal of property, and he is now going to sell it.”
“Going to sell it!” reiterated Mrs. Belswin, in angry surprise. “Why is he going to do that?”
Kaituna was rather astonished at her tone, on seeing which Mrs. Belswin hastened to excuse herself.
“I beg your pardon, my dear,” she said apologetically, “but I thought land in the colony was so very valuable?”
“So it is; but papa desires to establish himself in England altogether now that he has come in for the title, so he wishes to sell his New Zealand property and invest the money in some other way; besides the value of property in the colony has decreased of late years.”
“You seem to be well up in the subject, Kaituna.”
“I could hardly help being so! Papa was always talking about the Government and their dealings with the land. You see, Mrs. Belswin, politics with us are more domestic than here. In England they deal with kings and governments, but there we attend to the welfare of the people—the parcelling out of the land, and all those kinds of things. I’m afraid I’ve got but a hazy idea of the true facts of the case, but you understand what I mean.”
“Oh, I understand,” replied Mrs. Belswin, composedly—and so she did, a deal better than Kaituna herself. “So your papa is coming home in three months. I suppose you will be very pleased to see him?”
“Oh, yes. I am very fond of my father. We are more like brother and sister than anything else. People say that papa is supercilious and haughty, but I never saw it myself.”
“He could hardly be so to you.”
“No! he is all that is good and kind. I try to make him as happy as possible, for it was a heavy blow to him when he lost my mother.”
Mrs. Belswin turned away her head to conceal a sneer.
“So I try to supply my mother’s place as much as possible.”
“I’m sure you succeed,” said Mrs. Belswin warmly; “he can hardly miss your mother when he has you beside him.”
“That’s what he says, but of course I know he says it only to please me. A daughter cannot supply the place of a wife.”
“In this case it seems she can,” said the lady caustically; “but what will he do when you marry?”
Kaituna blushed and cast down her eyes.
“Well, I—I have not thought of marriage yet.”
“No, really,” said the girl, raising her clear eyes to Mrs. Belswin’s face. “I should not think of marrying without gaining papa’s consent.”
“Then you have not seen the prince yet?”
“Yes, the fairy prince who is to awake the sleeping beauty.”
Kaituna blushed again, and laughed in rather an embarrassed manner.
“Dear Mrs. Belswin, what curious things you say,” she replied evasively. “I have not seen any one in New Zealand I cared about, and since my arrival in England I have lived so quietly that I can hardly have met the fairy prince you speak of.”
“When the hour arrives the fairy prince comes with it,” said Mrs. Belswin, oracularly. “My dear, you are too charming to remain with your father all your life, as I am sure he must acknowledge himself. Have the young men of to-day no eyes or no hearts that they can see my Kaituna without falling in love with her?”
“I’m sure I don’t know. No one has spoken to me of love yet.”
“Ah! it’s not the speaking alone, dear! You are a woman, and the instinct of a woman can tell what a man means without him using his tongue.”
“But you see I am not versed in love lore.”
“My dear, you are a delightful girl in the first days of innocence. I am glad to see that the bloom of maidenhood is not rubbed off you by premature wisdom in love-affairs. A girl who flirts from her teens upwards, loses that delightful unconsciousness which is the great charm of a maiden. You have lived secluded in New Zealand. You are living secluded in England, and the world has passed you by. But the fairy prince will arrive, my dear, and his kiss will awaken you from the sleep of girlhood into the real life of womanly existence.”
“I thought such things only happened in novels.”
“No, dear, no. They happen around us every day. When you see a girl with a blushing face and a dreaming eye, or hear a young fellow singing gaily for very joy of life, you will know that love has come to them both, and they are telling each other the beautiful story, in the full belief that such story is quite original, though Adam told it to Eve in the garden of Eden.”
“It sounds delightful,” sighed the girl, pensively. “I suppose you are telling me your experience.”
“My experience,” echoed Mrs. Belswin, flushing acutely. “No, child, no. I have had my romance, like all women, but it ended sadly.”
“I understand,” said Kaituna quietly; “you are thinking of your lost child.”
Mrs. Belswin was about to make some passionate rejoinder, but checked herself suddenly, and went on eating her breakfast with forced composure.
Kaituna also became silent, thinking over what had been said, and there was no further conversation until the butler entered and handed the girl a letter.
“From the vicarage, miss,” he said ceremoniously, and retired.
The letter proved to be from Toby Clendon, being a few lines announcing the fact that Mr. Maxwell was staying with him, and that they would both come on that afternoon to Thornstream to renew the acquaintance so pleasantly begun at Marsh-on-the Sea.
“What is the matter?” asked Mrs. Belswin, staring in some astonishment at the rosy face and bright eyes of the girl. “Nothing is wrong, I hope?”
“No! no! I’m sure I don’t look as if anything were wrong. It’s this letter from Mr. Clendon.”
“Mr. Clendon?” repeated Mrs. Belswin, taking the letter handed to her by Kaituna. “Is that the charming young fellow we met the other day?”
“Oh, I see he has a friend staying with him, and they are going to call this afternoon. Kaituna, I am a sorceress—a witch, my dear, I should have been burnt in the middle ages as a practitioner of the black art. Give me your hand.”
“What for,” asked Kaituna in some confusion, as Mrs. Belswin took her by the wrist.
“For a magical ceremony! There! Now tell me. Is Mr. Clendon the prince?”
“No! No! No!”
“That’s very emphatic. I mistrust emphasis in a girl. Well, we will dismiss Mr. Clendon, though he is very delightful. What about Mr. Maxwell? Ah! Now I know! Your pulse leaped at the name. Your face is rosy, your eyes are bright. By the white witchcraft I practise I interpret these signs. You are in love, my dear.”
“And with Mr. Maxwell.”
Kaituna snatched away her hands with a little laugh and covered her burning face.
“You the sleeping beauty,” said Mrs. Belswin, with mock severity. “My dear, your sleep is over. The true prince has arrived and the hundred years are at an end.”
The girl made no reply, but between her fingers one bright eye looked forth at her chaperon.
“I will talk to Mr. Maxwell this afternoon, and see if he is a man worthy of you.”
“Oh, I’m sure he is.”
“Ah! you have betrayed yourself. It is the prince after all. But what about your father?”
“My father will not cross me in this.”
“Of course not, provided your prince is rich.”
“Rich or poor; it doesn’t matter. Papa will deny me nothing. He is the kindest man in the world.”
“Humph!” muttered Mrs. Belswin under her breath. “He has altered since my time, then.”
“In a garden fair you met me,
And I told you all my woes.
Then, in case you might forget me,
I bestowed on you a rose.
“Love had captive to you brought me,
For I felt his arrow’s smart;
So in mercy quick you sought me,
And bestowed on me a heart.”
Oh, wonderful! wonderful! and thrice wonderful was the soul of Vicar Clendon seeing that in this mummified body, battered by the assaults of sixty years, it still kept itself fresh and green in the very heyday of perennial youth. In spite of his grubbing among dusty books; in spite of the hardening process of continually celebrating marriages; in spite of the pessimistic ideas which come with old age, he could still feel sympathetic thrills when he heard the sighings of two lone lovers. He should have frowned and looked askance on such youthful foolery; he should have forgotten the days when Plancus was consul, and he wooed Amaryllis with bashful courtesy; he should have preached sermons a mile long on the sin of going to the temple of Venus, but, strange to tell, he did not. This withered old husk encased a fresh young soul, and the venerable clergyman felt a boyish pleasure in the courting of these young men. Is the age of miracles past, when such things can happen—when sober age can sympathize with frolic youth without pointing out the follies of the world, as seen telescopically from a distance of sixty years? No! oh, no! in spite of cynicism, and pessimism, and various other isms, all belonging to the same detestable class, there are still those among us whose souls bloom freshly, though cased in antique frames.
“Your father,” said Archie Maxwell, after making the acquaintance of the bookworm, “your father, Toby, is a brick.”
“My father,” stated Toby solemnly, “is not a brick, for a brick is hard, and the pater is anything but that. On the contrary, he is as soft as butter. If you wish to express approval of my progenitor, O quoter of slang, say that he is the ninth wonder of the world—which he is.”
“And why, O utterer of dark sayings?”
“Because he is an old man who can see his son in love without calling him a fool.”
This was true, and Toby appreciated the novelty of possessing such a father; demonstrating such appreciation by being a most attentive son, which exhilarated the old gentleman to such a degree that he became younger every day in appearance: thereby proving this saying of a forgotten sage to be true—
“The body takes its complexion from the soul, not the soul from the body.”
Archie Maxwell, having at the cost of many lies postponed his trip to Buenos Ayres, has duly arrived, and, strange to say, the vicar takes a great fancy to him. After living for so many years with no other company than a rusty housekeeper and a library of rustier books, he is quite delighted at the presence of two young men in the house, and actually foregoes his after-dinner sleep in order to talk with them while they smoke their pipes. Archie tells him all his history, of his travels, his struggles, his income, his aspirations, his love-affairs—in fact, everything about himself, and the old man’s heart warms towards this handsome, graceless youth, who he sees has the makings of a fine man about him. He listens sympathetically to the endless catalogue of Kaituna’s charms, to the hopes and fears and heart-burnings which are part of the disease of love, and then undergoes the same thing in duplicate from Toby. Indeed, so genial is he that both the young men wax eloquent on the merits of their respective Dulcineas, and spare him no detail, however small, of their perfections.
As to Toby’s suit, Mr. Clendon thinks it will prosper if Thomasina is that way inclined, as Mrs. Valpy is a widow and would be only too glad to see her daughter in the safe keeping of such an excellent young man; but when questioned about Archie’s wooing, the sage is doubtful. He has seen Sir Rupert and thinks him haughty and supercilious—not at all the kind of man to bestow his daughter on a pauper engineer, however good his prospects. The best thing he can do is to bid Archie wait and hope. If Kaituna loves him, parental opposition may be overcome; but the course of true love never did run smooth, and Archie must be prepared for trouble. But as gold is refined by passing through fire, so both these young lovers, if frizzled up in the furnace of affection, may benefit by the ordeal, and prove their mutual passions to be strong and enduring, whereas at present it may merely be the effect of juxtaposition and a desire to pass the time.
Archie is horrified at this flippant view of the case being taken by venerable age, and vows by the stars, the moon—yea—by the heart of his sweet mistress, that the love he bears her is not of to-day or to-morrow, but of all time, and that nothing shall prevent him marrying the object of his passion, even if he should have to adopt that last resource of young Lochinvar—a runaway marriage.
So things stand at present, and Toby sends a note over to Kaituna, asking permission to renew their acquaintance with her; then, without waiting for such permission to be granted—the note being a mere matter of form—sets off Thornstream-wards with his friend Archibald.
Before they start on this errand of charity on the part of Toby, and wooing on the part of Archibald, the sage discourseth.
“You are going to seek the Garden of Hesperides, but there you will find no golden fruit. No; the dragons are better employed. They watch two beautiful maidens, and eye jealously wandering knights, such as yourselves, who would steal them. I am speaking not of the dragons, but of the maidens. Nevertheless, from this quest I know not how you will return. The dragon who guards the princess of Tobias is amenable to reason, and if the son succeeds in gaining the love of the princess the father may gain the consent of the dragon. But the other dragon, Mr. Maxwell, is a fire-breathing beast, and even if you succeed in overcoming this first danger your princess is still beyond your reach, because of her father. True, at present he is away, but when he returns, young man—oh, when he returns!”
“When he does it will be too late; for I shall have gained the heart of his daughter.”
“True. When the steed is stolen it is useless to shut the stable-door. Go, Mr. Maxwell, I see you have all the egotism and confidence of youth necessary to enable you to achieve this quest successfully.”
So they went.
It was a bright summer day, and the sun shone brightly in a blue sky dappled with fleecy clouds. Gently blew the wind through the trees, rustling their foliage, wherein sang the joyous birds. Thrush and black-bird and ouzel and redcap piped gaily on the swaying boughs in very gladness of heart. At intervals there sounded the mellow voice of the cuckoo, and from the blue sky rained the song of the lark, invisible from the verdant earth. In the quaint gardens of Thornstream Manor bloomed the flowers—roses, roses everywhere in rich profusion, from pale cold buds to deeply crimsoned blossoms. A sudden flame of scarlet geraniums burns along the foot of the garden wall, and among their cool green leaves flash the orange circles of the marigolds. Rosemary dark and sombre, old man, with its thin leaves like grey-green seaweed, form beds of reposeful tint, overlaid by brilliant coloured flowers, scarlet and blue and yellow; but the prevailing tint is white. Foxgloves with delicate white bells round which hum the noisy bees—scattered clusters of pale flushed roses, other flowers with white petals all streaked and dappled and spotted with innumerable tints. A beautiful garden, truly, and the thievish wind stealing odours from the profusion of sweets carried them on languid wings to Mrs. Belswin and Kaituna, sitting on the terrace.
They had erected a great Japanese umbrella at one end, and were sitting beneath it in basket chairs. Between them stood a small table, on which lay some feminine work and a yellow-backed novel, but neither the work nor the novel were in requisition, for both ladies were chatting to Toby and Archie, as they lounged near in their cool-looking gray suits. Both gentlemen, by kind permission of the feminine half of the party, were smoking cigarettes, and Mrs. Belswin, knowing how it would shock Kaituna, bravely suppressed a desire to have one also.
Very handsome she looked in her dark dress, with a bunch of crimson poppies at her breast, but handsomer still looked Kaituna, her pale olive face delicately flushed as she toyed with a heap of pale white blossoms, and talked gaily to Archibald.
“I think instead of spoiling those flowers you might make me a button-hole,” said the audacious Archie in a small voice.
Kaituna looked doubtful.
“You have a button-hole.”
“One of my own gathering,” he said, throwing it away. “No man can arrange flowers; now you being a woman—”
“Can arrange them charmingly. Don’t pay me any more compliments, Mr. Maxwell.”
“Well, I won’t, if you give me a button-hole.”
“I have nothing here worth making up,” said Miss Pethram, rising suddenly and letting all the flowers fall on the terrace. “Come down with me to the garden. Mrs. Belswin, Mr. Maxwell and I are going to pick flowers.”
“Very well, dear,” replied Mrs. Belswin, languidly, “I do not mind so long as I am not expected to come also.”
“Two’s company,” muttered Toby softly.
“What did you say?” asked the chaperon quickly.
“We’ll leave you two here to talk,” said Kaituna, gaily. “Come, Mr. Maxwell, you shall choose your own flowers.”
They descended the steps into the garden.
“I’d rather you did so.”
“I—oh, I should not know which to choose.”
“Then, suppose I suggest something. A red rose, which means love, and a white rose, which means silence.”
“And the red and white roses together?”
“Mean silent love.”
“Oh! I see you are versed in the language of flowers. Does it form part of the education of an engineer?”
“No, but it does of every young man. Thank you, Miss Pethram. Two red roses and no white one, that means double love. The love of a girl for a boy, two buds; of a woman for a man, full blown blossoms.”
“Why do you not say the love of a man for a woman?”
“Eh! ah, well you know, ladies first always. Let me ask you to put these two red rosebuds in my coat.”
Kaituna hesitated a moment, and looked down at the green grass, seeking for some excuse. None feasible enough came into her mind, so, still with downcast eyes, she took the flowers from his outstretched hand and placed them in his coat. He was taller than she, and could just espy her face flushing under the broad-brimmed straw hat, and she must have felt the devouring passion of his eyes instinctively, for her hands busied with the flowers trembled.
“You have given me no white rose, I see,” said Archie, in an unsteady voice, “so I am not compelled to keep silence. May I speak?”
She had finished fastening those obstinate flowers with a pin, and they had revenged themselves by wounding her finger with a thorn.
“Miss Pethram, what’s the matter? Oh, have you hurt your finger?”
“Yes, but it’s not very sore.”
“Why, it’s bleeding,” he cried in alarm, taking her hand; “let me bind my handkerchief round it.”
“Oh, yes! You must obey your doctor. There! that’s better.”
He still held her hand, and before she was aware of what he was doing, bent down suddenly and kissed it.
“Oh!” she cried, blushing, “you must not do that.”
“Mr. Maxwell! If you say another word I’ll go back to my chaperon.”
“I won’t hear another word! So there!”
Archie looked down disconsolately, not knowing what to say, when suddenly he heard a gay laugh in the distance, and on raising his head saw a white figure flitting away across the lawn towards the sun-dial. He hesitated a moment, and then laughed softly.
“Faint heart never won fair lady.”
Certainly nobody could accuse Archie Maxwell of being faint-hearted, for he ran after his sweet enemy with the utmost courage. When he reached her she was standing by the sun-dial, and the two spectators on the terrace saw the two actors suddenly appear on the stage. One spectator—a woman—frowned; the other—a man—laughed.
“Don’t go, Mrs. Belswin,” said Toby, seeing she was about to rise. “We are having such a jolly conversation.”
“That’s a very artful remark, but it doesn’t deceive me.”
“Artful! I assure you, Mrs. Belswin, I am the most unsophisticated of men—a perfect child!”
“So I should judge from your description of London life,” said Mrs. Belswin, drily, leaning back in her chair. “But perhaps you are not aware, Mr. Clendon, that I am Miss Pethram’s chaperon?”
“Happy Miss Pethram. I wish you were mine.”
“I’m afraid the task of keeping you in order would be beyond my powers.”
“Do you think so?” observed Toby, sentimentally. He was a young man who would have flirted with his grandmother in default of any one better, and Mrs. Belswin being a handsome woman, this fickle youth improved the shining hours. Mrs. Belswin, however, saw through him with ease, not having gone through the world without learning something of the male sex, so she laughed gaily, and turned the conversation with feminine tact.
“You are a good friend, Mr. Clendon.”
“I am! I am everything that is good!”
“Your trumpeter is dead, I see.”
“Yes, poor soul! He died from overwork.”
Mrs. Belswin laughed again at Toby’s verbal dexterity, and then began to talk about Maxwell, which was the subject nearest her heart. The lady wished to know all about Archie’s position, so as to see if he was a suitable lover for Kaituna, and the man being a firm friend of the love-lorn swain, lied calmly, with that great ease which only comes from long experience.
“Mr. Maxwell is a great friend of yours, isn’t he?”
“Oh, yes! We were boys together,”
“You’re not much more now. What is his profession?”
“He’s an engineer! Awfully clever. He’d have invented the steam-engine if Stephenson hadn’t been before him.”
“Would he indeed? What a pity he wasn’t born before the age of steam. By the way, how is he getting on in his profession?”
“Splendidly! He’s been in China, building railways, and at the end of the year he’s going out to Buenos Ayres to build a bridge.”
“He’s got no money, I suppose?”
“Well, no! He’s not rich; but he’s got great expectations.”
“Has he? But you can’t marry on great expectations.”
“No; I can’t, but Archie can.”
“Indeed! You forget there are always two people to a bargain of marriage.”
“There’s double the number in this case.”
“There’s Archie, Miss Pethram, Mrs. Belswin, and Sir Rupert Pethram.”
There was a pause after this, as the lady was pondering over the situation. Toby had his eyes fastened on the two figures at the dial, and he smiled. Mrs. Belswin, looking up suddenly, caught him smiling, and spoke sharply—
“Mr. Clendon! I believe you to be a sensible man. If my belief is correct, stop laughing and listen to me.”
Toby became as serious as a judge at once.
“I am not blind,” continued Mrs. Belswin, looking at him, “and I can see plainly what is going on. As you know, I am responsible to Sir Rupert Pethram for his daughter’s well-being, and this sort of thing won’t do.”
“What sort of thing?” asked Toby, innocently.
“Oh, you know well enough. Mr. Maxwell making love to my charge is ridiculous. Sir Rupert would never consent to his daughter marrying a poor engineer, and I’m not going to have Kaituna’s happiness marred for a foolish love-affair.”
“But what can I do?”
“Discontinue your visits here, and tell your friend to do the same.”
“He won’t do what I ask him.”
“Then I’ll take Kaituna away.”
“It’s no use. He’ll follow. Archie’s the most obstinate fellow in the world, and he’s too much in love with Miss Pethram to give her up without a struggle. Why, do you know, Mrs. Belswin, he gave up a good billet at Buenos Ayres because it would have taken him away from her.”
“I thought you said he was going out there at the end of the year?”
“So he is. But it’s not half such a good billet. The one he has given up is worth two hundred pounds a year more.”
“And he gave it up for the sake of Kaituna?”
“Yes! He’s madly in love with her.”
“He was very foolish to jeopardise his success in life because of a love-affair, particularly when nothing can come of it.”
“But why shouldn’t anything come of it? I’m sure you will be a friend to these lovers.”
“These lovers,” repeated Mrs. Belswin jealously. “Do you think Kaituna loves him.”
“I’m sure of it.”
“You seem very learned in love, Mr. Clendon; perhaps you are in love yourself.”
A blush that had been absent for years crept into the bronze of Toby’s cheeks.
“Perhaps I am. I may as well tell the truth and shame the—
“Oh, you understand. I am in love, so is Archie. He loves your charge; I love another girl. Be a kind, good friend, Mrs. Belswin, and help Archie to make Miss Pethram Mrs. Maxwell.”
“What about Sir Rupert?”
“Oh, you can persuade him, I’m sure.”
Mrs. Belswin frowned.
“I have no influence with Sir Rupert,” she said shortly, and rose to her feet. “Come with me, Mr. Clendon, and we will go to Kaituna.”
“You won’t help them?”
“I can’t, I tell you,” she replied impatiently. “From all I can see, your friend seems a true-hearted man, but I shall have to know him a long time before I can say he is fit for my—for Miss Pethram. But even if I approve it is of no use. Sir Rupert is the person to give his consent.”
“And he’ll never give it.”
Toby felt depressed at this, and followed Mrs. Belswin meekly to the couple at the sun-dial. The said couple, both nervous and flushed, to all appearances having been talking—Chinese metaphysics.
“Kaituna, don’t you think these gentlemen would like some afternoon tea?” said Mrs. Belswin sweetly.
“I dare say they would,” replied Kaituna with great composure. “What do you say, Mr. Clendon?”
She did not address herself to Archie, who stood sulkily by the dial following the figures with his finger. Toby glanced from one to the other, saw they were both embarrassed, and promptly made up his mind how to act.
“I’m afraid we won’t have time, Miss Pethram,” he, replied, glancing at his watch. “It’s nearly four, and we have some distance to walk.”
“Well, if you won’t have tea you will take a glass of wine,” said Mrs. Belswin, looking at Archie; then, without waiting for a reply, she made him follow her, and walked towards the house.
Toby followed with Kaituna, and surely never were maid or man more unsuited to each other. He was bold, she was shy. He talked, she remained silent, till they were in the drawing-room, and then the feminine element broke forth.
“Mr. Clendon,” she said, in a whisper.
“Yes! speak low if you speak love.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not mine. It’s Shakespeare’s. By the way, you wanted to say something.”
“I do! Tell him I didn’t mean it.”
She flitted away and Toby gasped.
“Tell who? Didn’t mean what? Things are getting mixed. Thank you, I’ll take a glass of sherry.”
How we all act in this world. Here were four people, each with individual ideas regarding the situation, and yet they chatted about the weather, the crops, the country—about everything except what they were thinking about. Mrs. Belswin and Toby did most of the talking, but Kaituna and Archie put in a word every now and then for the sake of appearances.
At last the young men took their departure, and when left alone with Kaituna, Mrs. Belswin drew her caressingly to her breast.
“I like your prince, my dear.”
“Oh, Kaituna, you’ve been quarrelling.”
“I haven’t! He has! He doesn’t understand me.”
“Does a man ever understand a woman?”
“Of course! If he loves her.”
“Then in this case there ought to be no misunderstanding, for I am sure he loves you.”
“Oh, do you think so? Do you really think so?”
“My dear,” said Mrs. Belswin, as the girl hid her face on the breast of the chaperon, “I am quick at judging a man. All women are. It’s instinct. I think Mr. Maxwell an honourable young fellow, and very charming. He would make you a good husband, but your father will never consent to your marrying a poor man.”
“Oh, you don’t know papa.”
“Don’t I?” said Mrs. Belswin grimly, and closed the discussion.
This was one side of the question—and the other?
“We have,” said Archie, in deep despair, “been to the Garden of Hesperides, and the dragon has beaten us?”
“Have you quarrelled with your mash?” asked Toby, leaving allegory for common sense.
“My mash! Toby, you are growing vulgar. I did not quarrel with Kaituna, but we had words.”
“Several hundred, I should think. What was the row?”
“How coarse you are!” said the refined Archie. “There was no row. I spoke of myself in the third person.”
“When there are only two people, and those are of the opposite sex, you shouldn’t introduce a third person. Well, what did you say?”
“I asked her whether she would accept a poor man if he proposed to her.”
“And she said?”
“She said ‘no.’ ”
Archie’s face was tragic in its deep gloom, so Toby comforted him.
“Yes,” said the despairing lover.
“She said she didn’t mean it.”
“What! Did she say that to you?”
“Toby,” cried Archie, with great fervour, “I love that girl!”
“So you’ve said a hundred times.”
“And I’ll marry her!”
“Oh, will you?” said Toby, grinning. “I can paint your future: a little cottage, a nice income, a charming girl—”
“Don’t you wish you may get it?”
“Oh, Toby, if you only knew—”
“I do know. I know all about it, so don’t rhapsodise. And I know another thing; I’m hungry, so hurry up.”
“The wisest of plans
A letter upsets,
The penny post bans
The wisest of plans
Tho’ woman’s tho’ man’s,
And then one regrets
The wisest of plans
A letter upsets.”
About three weeks after the visit of Archie and his friend, Mrs. Belswin was seated on the fallen trunk of a tree in Thornstream Park, meditating deeply over two letters lying on her lap. Around her the heavy foliage of the trees rustled in the chilly morning air, above her the sun shot golden arrows from the blue sky, and below her feet the lush grass, starred with delicate woodland flowers, sloped gently down to a babbling brook, the brown waters of which rippled noisily over its smooth stones.
But Mrs. Belswin, with a frown on her face, paid no attention to these things, being occupied with disagreeable thoughts, evoked by the letters aforesaid; and after a pause she took up one impatiently, in order to read it for the second time.
“Why have you not written to me for so long? Every day I say, ‘She will send to me a letter,’ and every day I find the postman comes not. This is not right conduct to him who adores thee, my Lucrezia, and there is fear in my heart that I may lose thee. I am now singing at the Theatre Folly, in an opera comique called ‘Sultana Fatima,’ and they pay me well, as they should, seeing I leave the grand Italian Opera for this street music. But that my English is so good, I would not have been the chief tenor here. It is not hard to sing, and I am content since I waste not my time and am near thee. But thou, oh my star adorable, must not stay long from him who hungers for thy smile. When does the illustrious husband come again? for I know that he will drive thee back to me, and we will go at once to my beautiful Italy. Send me a letter and say when thou wilt come to me, or I swear that I will come to thee in the country, in order to behold thee again. Thou hast seen thy child those many months; now I will that thou should’st return. I wait thy answer saying thou wilt return, or I myself will behold thee in thy village. Cara signora, I kiss your hand,
When she had finished this, Mrs. Belswin let it fall on her lap, with a shrug of her shoulders, and picked up the other letter, which consisted of two lines—
“Pethram returns in three weeks, so unless you want trouble you’d better clear out.—A. D.”
“Had I?” said the reader, sneering. “I’m not so sure about that, Mr. Dombrain. I’ll leave this place when I choose. So Rupert Pethram is coming home, and I, if I please, can see him. Husband and wife will meet again after twenty years of separation. How dramatic the interview will be! I can well imagine it, and yet I am not sure it will take place. I cannot retain my position as chaperon to Kaituna if he is in the house. I cannot disguise myself, for Kaituna would ask the reason—besides, I’m too impulsive to act a part. If I go I part from my daughter for ever; if I stay, Rupert will certainly recognise me, and then he will force me to leave the house. What a terrible position!—to be driven away after a glimpse of paradise; and yet I can do nothing to help myself—positively nothing.”
She stopped short, with a feeling of deep anger at her helplessness, but she did not attempt to disguise the truth from herself—she could do nothing. The law was on the side of her husband, and she could never hope to regain the position she had forfeited by her former folly. ‘As to Stephano Ferrari—
“He’ll do what he says,” she muttered, glancing at the Italian’s flowery letter. “If I don’t go to him, he will come to me, and, with his hot foreign blood, may create a disturbance. I wouldn’t mind for myself, but Kaituna—I must consider Kaituna. If I refuse to go with Stephano, he is quite the sort of man to tell her all, and that would exile me from my daughter more than anything else. Rupert would make me leave the house; Stephano would lose his temper at what he calls my obstinacy—I should not care; but if Kaituna knew that I—her mother—was alive, that I had lost my place in the world and become an outcast, she would scorn me—my own child! Oh, I could not bear that, it would kill me!”
With her face in her hands she rocked to and fro in an agony of grief, and when she recovered herself somewhat, her countenance, haggard and worn, showed how bitterly she felt the position in which she was placed.
“If I could only die! I wish I could! Hell cannot be worse than the life I live now. I am near my child, yet dare not tell her I am her mother; but soon I shall have to go away, and be denied even the poor consolation of being near her. If only I had the courage to kill myself! But there, I have the courage, and would die willingly, were it not for Kaituna. Oh, God! God! I have sinned deeply, but my punishment is very heavy—heavier than I can bear!”
She had risen to her feet, and was walking to and fro in the narrow space of the glade, swinging her arms in a very storm of passionate grief. The mask she had worn for the last few weeks so carefully was now thrown aside, and she abandoned herself to her agony of despair in the most reckless manner. She wept, she cried, she raved, she flung herself on the ground—in fact, she gave herself up wholly to her mood of the moment. Truly the quiet English glade had never seen a stranger sight than that of this savage woman abandoning herself to transports of impotent fury.
“Why am I so helpless?” she cried furiously, lifting up her arms to the blue sky. “If I have sinned, I have been punished. For twenty years I have borne my punishment, but I can do so no longer. She is my child—mine—mine—mine! They cannot take her from me. I am her mother! God gave her to me, and man shall not take her away! I love her better than her cold fiend of a father; she is my life, my soul, my existence! If I leave her I shall die. I will not leave her! I will not leave her! No! no! no!”
She stamped furiously on the ground, gnashing her teeth with rage, and staring at the sky with fierce face and clenched hands; but after a time her fury exhausted itself, and, sitting down on the fallen tree again, she began to weep bitterly.
“My little child! oh, my little child! I can do nothing. I must leave you, and go away alone. Ferrari loves me, but what is his love compared to yours, dear. You have kissed me, you have placed your arms round my neck, you have given my starved heart the love it desired; and now—now I must give up all, and go away—for ever! Oh, cruel! cruel! And I can do nothing!”
Rocking herself to and fro, she wept quietly for a time; then, drying her tears, put the letters in her pocket and rose to go.
“I must not give way like this,” she said to herself as she left the glade. “It will do no good. I must see how I can manage to retain my position. Rupert, Stephano, Dombrain—they are all against me. Three against one, but I’ll try my hardest to conquer them. It’s a woman’s wit against men’s brutality; but I’ll fight—I’ll fight and win. If I win, I gain all. If I lose—oh, God! if I lose!—I surrender everything.”
The morning was very chilly, in spite of its being summer, and Mrs. Belswin, having all the love for warmth inherent in those born in the tropics, shivered at the cold east wind, but feeling too upset to return direct to the house and face Kaituna’s inquiring gaze, made up her mind to take a brisk walk. She wore a heavy sealskin mantle, and thrusting her hands into the deep pockets, walked quickly against the wind, thinking deeply over her position.
It was truly a terrible dilemma in which she now found herself. Exiled from her daughter for so many years, and all through her own fault, yet she had been quite unable to stifle the natural instinct in her heart. It may be that the desire to be near her daughter constantly was all the stronger because she knew it was out of the question, and the enforced suppression of her love in her own breast had given the pleasure of living with Kaituna, even as a servant, a peculiar charm of its own. It will doubtless be argued by some people that a woman who could give up her child for the sake of a lover, could not have had much maternal instinct; but then it must be recollected that Mrs. Belswin had then acted on the impulse of a moment in doing so, and had regretted her folly ever since. When she thought of all she had lost for one moment of folly it made her mad with rage, and she would have sacrificed anything to regain her forfeited position.
Thanks to her knowledge of how matters stood, and her own dexterity, she had been enabled to gain her ends for at least some months, but now her husband was coming home again she knew that she would have to seek refuge in flight. She was a bold woman, a determined woman, and all her life’s happiness was at stake, yet she knew it was perfectly useless to appeal to her husband for pity or help. By her own act she had forfeited her right to approach him, and the act had brought its own bitter punishment, by robbing her of the delight of gratifying her strong maternal instinct. Like a tiger who desires more blood when he has once tasted it, Mrs. Belswin had just experienced sufficient delight in being near her child to make her passionately regret having to depart. Plan after plan she thought of and rejected as useless, because she saw quite plainly that she could do nothing against the position held by her husband. Law, society, morality were all against her, and she could only stand afar off weeping bitterly as she surveyed the paradise from which she had banished herself.
“Oh, I could kill Rupert! I could kill him,” she thought madly, “but that would do no good. If I thought it would I should not hesitate. I dare not tell Kaituna the truth, because she would shrink from me. Rupert, once he knows I am here will not let me remain. If I sold my soul it would be useless. I can do nothing except bear my punishment till I die.”
Suddenly an idea came into her head. Suppose Rupert Pethram were to die before he came to Thornstream. In that case she would still retain her position, and be happy for the rest of her life. But then there was no chance of him dying—a healthy, strong man. And unless something happened he would return to Thornstream and turn her out on the world.
“If the ship would only go down! If God would only unchain the winds of heaven and dash the ship to pieces on the rocks.”
Mrs. Belswin, as it will be seen, was not a religious woman when she thought thus, and was willing to sacrifice dozens of human lives in order to get rid of her enemy. It was simply Balzac’s mandarin over again, and Mrs. Belswin, with her savage disregard of human life, would have sacrificed all the mandarins in China, yea, China itself, if by so doing she could have retained her position undisturbed.
However, there was but small possibility of either mandarin or ship perishing to please her, so she began to wonder in her own mind how she could get rid of Pethram before he could arrive at Thornstream. Ah, if Stephano Ferrari—
Stephano Ferrari! The idea came to her like an inspiration, and she hurriedly thought out a plan. Ferrari loved her, he would do anything to get her to marry him. Well, she would do so provided he got rid of Pethram and secured her position with her daughter. Murder! no, not murder, but suppose Pethram disappeared? Then—
Her brain was in a whirl, her throat was dry with excitement, and she leaned against a fence for a few minutes to keep herself from falling, for the earth seemed spinning round her and the sky red as blood before her eyes. With an effort she pulled herself together and looked around.
“Mrs. Belk’s cottage,” she said, with a gasp of relief! “I’ll go in and rest.”
“The marble statue of an antique god
May win our admiration for a time,
Seeing it lacks not any outward grace,
But stands a type of flesh idealised.
Yet as we gaze in silent wonderment,
We weary of the irresponsive stone,
Because the cold perfection wants a soul.”
It was without doubt a charming cottage—such as one reads of in a fairy tale. Clay walls, thatched roof, wide diamond-paned casements, and twisted chimney, with all the violent colours subdued to a pleasant neutral tint by the sun and rain, while ivy, rose-trees and wistaria clambered over all, enclosing it in a network of greenery.
And the garden—oh, it was a most delightful garden; not too neat, but all the handiwork of man softened by the gentle touch of nature. Tall hollyhocks, odorous stocks, crimson-tipped daisies, flaunting dahlias, and staring sunflowers grew together in riotous sweetness, breaking bounds here and there as they nodded over the low white fence and bent across the narrow path leading up to the rose-wreathed trellis of the porch. There was an apple-tree, too, on one side—a gnarled, moss-tufted apple-tree, already snowy with white blossoms, and on the other a low-branched cherry-tree, looking like a frosted twelfth cake. Pigeons fluttered around the eaves of the cottage, fowls strutted among the flowers, and over all blazed the hot sun of summer from the cloud-dappled sky. It was really charming in its rustic picturesqueness, and Mrs. Belswin, pausing at the gate, looked regretfully at this vision of bucolic ease so far removed from her own feverish existence.
“If I had been a village girl I might have been a good woman,” she thought, walking up to the porch; “but I daresay I should have tired of this innocent sweetness and gone up to the evil life of London, as all village beauties have done.”
On knocking at the door it was opened shortly by a tiny woman, old, shrivelled, and evil-looking enough to have been the witch of the cottage. Not that Mrs. Belk was ill-looking; on the contrary, she must have been pretty when young, for she still retained a sufficiency of beauty to warrant a second glance; but there was a restless look in her dark eyes, a settled sneer on her thin lips, and a generally discontented expression on her face which repelled the onlooker. Mrs. Belswin had an intuitive capability of reading faces, and the first glance she threw on this little figure with the withered face put her at once on her guard. On her guard against a cottager! Mrs. Belswin would have laughed at the idea. Still, the fact remains that Mrs. Belk bore her character in her face, and Mrs. Belswin at once put herself on her guard against Mrs. Belk. Hardly probable that these two women would meet again. The cottager could never have it in her power to harm the lady; but in spite of the absurdity of the situation, Mrs. Belswin, with that inherent suspicion created by a long life of duplicity and watchfulness, did not think it beneath her dignity to pick and choose her words while talking to this humble woman, in case chance should turn her into a possible enemy.
“I beg your pardon,” she said slowly; “but I am very tired, and would like to rest.”
“There’s a public a little way on, ma’am,” replied Mrs. Belk, respectfully, by no means inclined to entertain a stranger.
“I prefer to rest here,” said Mrs. Belswin, coolly. “You know me, I daresay—Miss Pethram’s companion.”
“Mrs. Belsin?” said the old woman, doubtfully.
“Let the lady come in, mother,” remarked the slow soft voice of a man inside the cottage. “Don’t you see she looks tired?”
Whereupon Mrs. Belk with manifest reluctance moved to one side, and Miss Pethram’s companion entered the room to find herself face to face with the handsomest man she had ever seen. He offered her a chair in silence, and she sat down thankfully, while Mrs. Belk closed the door, and the rustic Apollo stood leaning against the table looking at their visitor.
Handsome! yes; splendidly handsome this man, in a massive Herculean fashion. One who would be called a magnificent animal; for there was no intellect in the fresh-coloured face, no intelligence in the bright blue eyes, and his whole figure had but beauty and symmetry after the fashion of a brute. He was very tall—over six feet—with long limbs, a great breadth of chest, and a small, well-shaped head covered with crisp locks of curly golden hair. His skin was browned by the sun, he had a well-shaped nose, sleepy blue eyes, and his mouth and chin were hidden by a magnificent golden beard which swept his chest. Nature had lavished her gift of physical beauty on this man, but the casket contained no jewel, for the soul which would have lent light to the eyes, expression to the mouth, and noble bearing to the body, was absent, and Samson Belk was simply a fine animal whom one would admire like a soulless picture, but tire of in a few moments. Mrs. Belswin’s first thought was, “What a handsome man!” her second, “What a brute he would be to the woman who loved him!”
They were a curious couple, the little withered mother and the tall handsome son, dissimilar enough in appearance to negative the relationship except for the expression of the face; for there, in the countenance of the man, appeared the same expression that pervaded the face of the woman. The eyes were not so restless, because they had rather a sleepy expression, the sneer on the lips was hidden by the drooping moustache, and the general look was more of ill-humour than discontent: but in spite of the physical difference between them, no one could have helped noticing, by the worst traits of the woman appearing in the man, that this splendid specimen of humanity was the offspring of this dwarfish feminine personality.
“You are Sir Rupert’s head bailiff, are you not?” said Mrs. Belswin, when she had sufficiently admired her host.
“Yes, madam, I have that honour.”
He spoke in a slow sleepy voice, eminently attractive, and suited to his appearance; a voice which, in its languor and oily softness, had an accent of refinement and culture. Yet this man was a simple rustic, a bailiff, one of the peasant class. It was most perplexing; and Mrs. Belswin, clever woman of the world as she was, felt herself puzzled. She was a woman and inquisitive, so she set herself to work to solve this problem by a series of artful questions.
“Have you been a bailiff here long?”
“About four years, madam. I was bailiff to Sir Robert, and when Sir Rupert came into the title he kindly kept me on.”
“I should think you were fitted for better things.”
Belk gazed at her in a slow, bovine fashion, and a spark of admiration flashed into his sleepy eyes as he looked at this stately woman who spoke in such a friendly manner.
“It’s very kind of you to say so, madam, but I have no one to say a good word for me.”
“Ah! the rich never say a good word for the poor, my lady,” said Mrs. Belk, with fawning deprecation. “If looks go for anything, my Samson ought to live in a palace. He’s the finest wrestler in all the county, and the best shot, and the most daring rider—”
“And the poorest man,” finished Samson, with a coarse laugh, which betrayed his real nature. “Aye, aye, mother, if I’d money to play the swell, I’d cut a dash with the best of these fine, lily-handed gents.”
“What would you do?” asked Mrs. Belswin, curious to find out how different this man’s soul was to his body.
“Do!” echoed the giant, folding his arms; “why, madam, I’d keep a fine stable, and race my horses at the Derby. I’d marry a lady, and have a fine house with servants, and the finest of wine to drink and food to eat—that’s what I’d do.”
“A very modest ambition, truly,” said Mrs. Belswin, with a scarcely concealed sneer. “I presume you would not cultivate your brains.”
“I’ve had enough schooling,” growled Belk, stroking his beard. “Mother made me learn things, and a fine time I had of it.”
“You were never a good boy, Samson,” said his mother, shaking her head with a look of pride which belied her words. “Handsome is as handsome does—that’s what I always tells him, my lady.”
“If it were handsome does as handsome is, your son would be a clever man,” replied Mrs. Belswin, rising to go.
Neither Mrs. Belk nor Samson were clever enough to understand this remark, but after a time a faint idea of what she meant dawned on the obtuse intellect of the giant, and he smiled approvingly.
“Won’t you have a glass of milk, my lady?” asked Mrs. Belk, dropping a curtsey.
“No, thank you!”
“May I have the honour of showing you the nearest way through the wood, madam?” said Belk, hat in hand, resuming his polite manner, and languid mode of speaking.
“No, thank you, I know my way,” answered Mrs. Belswin, coolly; “many thanks for your courtesy—good-day.”
When she had vanished, Samson Belk stood for some minutes in a brown study, then, recovering himself with a huge sigh, ordered his mother to bring him a mug of beer.
“Eh, she’s a fine madam that,” he said, as he drank the ale; “got a spice of the devil in her too. I wish I could marry her.”
“That wouldn’t do much good,” said his mother contemptuously, “she’s only a companion. Now if you married Miss Pethram, you’d have all this place, and be master here.”
“Not much chance of that,” growled Belk, putting on his hat; “she’s in love with that friend of parson’s.”
“Aye, that he is. I could smash him with one hand; not any great shakes with money either, as I’ve heard tell. What’ll Sir Rupert say to his courting?”
“Well, I heard at the great house this morning, that Sir Rupert was on his way home.”
Belk scowled and shook his broad shoulders in an uneasy manner. He did not like Sir Rupert, who was a severe master, and therefore was not at all pleased to hear that his term of liberty would soon be over.
“I hope accounts are all right, Samson,” said his mother anxiously. “Let Sir Rupert see you’ve been a good servant, lad.”
“I’m good enough for the wage I get,” growled Belk, sulkily; “if Sir Rupert meddles with me, he’ll get the worst of it; I’ll stand no man’s handling, d—n me if I do.”
He thrust his hands into his pockets and strolled off defiantly.
“Where are you going, lad?” asked his mother, as he paused at the gate.
“To ‘The Badger,’ ” retorted Mr. Belk, curtly, and hurriedly retreated so as to escape his parent’s expostulations.
“The lad’s always there,” said Mrs. Belk to herself as she closed the door; “he’s after no good I reckon. Eh, if I could only get some money, I’d march him off to America, where he could live like a gentleman. But there’s no chance of that while rich folk have the handling of the money.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Belswin was walking rapidly back to the house, thinking over the curious couple she had just left.
“Not a bit like the ordinary people,” she thought. “The mother’s not to be trusted except as concerns the son, and the son—well, he’s discontented with his lot. I wonder if Rupert finds him a good servant. He must, or he wouldn’t keep him on. But if Mr. Samson Belk tries any games on with his master, I think he’ll get the worst of it.”
“Good-day, Mrs. Belswin.”
It was Gelthrip, the curate, who saluted her, a lank lean man, with a hatchet face, lantern-jawed, and clean shaven, not by any means what the world would term handsome. Dressed in black he looked like a crow, and his hoarse voice—for he suffered from clergyman’s sore throat—was not unlike the cawing of those dreary birds. He was a gossip, and very inquisitive. He supported a sick sister, and professed High Church principles, and it was lucky that he should have vowed himself to celibacy, for certainly no woman would have taken him as her husband. He had long bony hands, and cracked his knuckles in order to punctuate his sentences, and he talked without ceasing, mixing up religion, gossip, literature, music, art, and science in one heterogeneous mass of chatter.
Having drawn the cork of his eloquence by saying Good-day, and touching his low-crowned hat, Mr. Gelthrip cracked his knuckles cheerfully, and poured forth a flood of aimless nonsense.
“Good-day! ah, yes, it is a charming day, is it not. The blue of the sky, with the lark singing so delightfully. You know Shelley’s poem do you not—Yes—Turner might paint that scene. Puts me in mind of his Vale of Health, and this place by the way, is very healthy—plenty of oxygen in the air for weak lungs. Ah—ah, my heart swells with goodness towards the Creator of all things as I drink in the air. I think I saw you coming out of Belk’s cottage, Mrs. Belswin!”
“Yes! I went in there to rest for a few minutes.”
“A great contrast, mother and son, Mrs. Belswin. The Witch of Endor and Apollo, the Far Darter. Yes! but a touching instance of parental affection, for she is devoted to her son. A devotion of which I regret to say he’s not worthy, Mrs. Belswin, not worthy, my dear lady. He never comes to church. Passes his time in public-houses, and at wrestling matches, and horse-races. A most godless young man.”
“But surely Sir Rupert objects to this conduct?”
“He does not know, Mrs. Belswin. Belk, in a rough fashion, is crafty, very crafty, but when the baronet returns I have no doubt he will hear from others of the behaviour of this misguided young man. I deem it my duty,” continued Mr. Gelthrip, inflating his chest, “to inform Sir Rupert of his servant’s misdeeds.”
“I don’t think I would do that,” said Mrs. Belswin, drily. “Sir Rupert does not care about his private business being meddled with.”
“Ah, you know Sir Rupert then?”
Mrs. Belswin bit her lip in vexation, for she saw that she had made a mistake, and at once hastened to put herself right in the eyes of this tale-bearer.
“No I of course not. I only speak from hearsay.”
“Sir Rupert,” said the curate in a dogmatic fashion, “does not, I believe, care about the church, therefore, as you say, he may resent my interference, but I would not be doing my duty as a clergyman if I did not warn him of the dissipated ways of his bailiff.”
“Do you think it is kind to deprive the young man of his situation?”
“In this case, Mrs. Belswin, I do. He is dissipated and neglects his business. He has the handling of money, and, seeing he is always betting on races, he may be tempted to—well, you know what I mean.”
“I know this, sir,” said Mrs. Belswin, with great spirit, “that you are about to act a most unworthy part. If this man is as you say, warn him, remonstrate with him, but don’t take the bread out of his mouth by getting him dismissed. Charity covers a multitude of sins. That remark is in the Bible, I believe. If so, practise what you preach, and you will be far more respected than if you drive this man to despair by taking away his only means of livelihood. Good morning.”
She bowed and walked off, leaving the curate staring after her with open mouth, the stream of his eloquence being for once dried up.
Reflections on the part of Mr. Gelthrip.—“Where has this woman been brought up that she manifests such little reverence for the cloth? A dangerous woman, I am afraid, and not at all suited to be the companion of Miss Pethram. I’m afraid I shall have to warn Sir Rupert about her as well as about Belk. As for Belk! it is my duty—my duty as a clergyman, to open his master’s eyes to the deplorable state of this young man. He gambles, bets, plays cards, drinks, all these things entail money, and yet he spends far more than his salary, so I must warn Sir Rupert of his bailiffs real character. Now, Mrs. Belswin—ah!”
There was a good deal of spiteful meaning in the curate’s “ah,” and there was no doubt that Mrs. Belswin had made a bitter enemy of this well-meaning but meddlesome young man.
Reflections on the part of Mrs. Belswin.—“I’ve been preaching a sermon to a man whose duty it is to preach one to me. Saul among the prophets this time. I’m not sorry, for I hate those meek young men who make mischief under the pretence of doing good. Why are these clergymen so meddlesome? It’s none of his business to enlighten Rupert about Belk. If Belk is dissipated, I know Rupert will find it out quick enough and discharge him. I shouldn’t like to be either Rupert or the curate if such a thing does come to pass, for Belk is a most unforgiving man. I can see that in his face. I have made an enemy of this Rev. Meekness. Well, he can’t harm me until Rupert comes home, and then—ah well, I’ll see.”
“If two ladies talk together,
Be it fine or rainy weather,
Subjects three you’ll find they handle—
Love, sans diamonds and a carriage,
Prospects of a wealthy marriage,
Or the latest piece of scandal.”
What do ladies talk about over five o’clock tea when no male is present? Ah, that is one of the mysteries of Bona Dea, the ritual whereof is known to none of the stronger sex. They doubtless discuss fashions—for no woman, however affecting to despise the pomps and vanities of this world, can contemplate the raiment of another woman without blaming or praising the same, according to taste or price. Very likely they make remarks about their neighbours, and hint, with nods and winks mysteriously suggestive that—well, you know what. Nevertheless, men in their clubs do exactly the same thing, and scandal is by no means monopolized by ladies. However, the question is: What do they talk about?—and as the votaries of the Bona Dea will not tell us, we must be content to accept ambiguous smiles and tightly-closed lips as answer.
On this occasion, however, the subject under discussion was love, and four ladies—two married and two unmarried—were talking together on a very pleasant subject; and the subject was the courting of Tommy Valpy by Toby Clendon.
“I must admit,” said Mrs. Valpy, in her usual heavy fashion, “that I was astonished when the young man spoke to me.”
“I wasn’t,” observed Tommy, with a maiden blush.
“Ah,” from Mrs. Belswin, “forewarned’s forearmed. We all know that.”
“I’m very pleased to hear about it,” said Kaituna, putting her arm around Tommy’s waist “Mr. Clendon is most delightful.”
“But not so much so as another person,” hinted the engaged young lady, with wicked intuition, whereupon Kaituna grew red, and requested another piece of cake.
“Love is all very well,” said Mrs. Belswin, who was a practical person; “but it won’t keep the pot boiling. Now about his income.”
“Eight hundred a year,” declared Tommy, boldly. “We can live on that.”
“No doubt; but is the eight hundred a year certain?”
“Well, three hundred is very certain, because it comes from his father; but the remaining five hundred—well, you know,” said Miss Valpy, hopefully, “literature pays so well nowadays, and Toby’s in the first flight.”
“I don’t think so much of his literature,” observed Mrs. Valpy, stirring her tea. “He may or he may not make the income he says, but the three hundred a year is absolutely certain.”
“I hope you’ll be happy, dear,” said Kaituna, gaily. “I, of course, will be bridesmaid.”
Tommy looked at her friend significantly, and then laughed.
“We will be married together,” she whispered confidentially.
“I’m afraid not. Mr. Maxwell has said nothing—”
“No? Then he has looked a good deal.”
Both girls laughed again, and then Mrs. Valpy began to explain her ideas for Tommy’s trousseau, which interested every one.
The bride-elect and her mother were staying for a few days at Thornstream, and on this evening were going over to dine at the Vicarage in company with Kaituna and Mrs. Belswin.
Clendon père was delighted at the choice of his only son, and was giving this dinner in order to welcome his intended daughter-in-law to his family circle of two. Tommy got on very well with the vicar, who liked her vivacity and brilliant manner so much that he was actually weaned from his beloved library, and the black-letter folios saw less of their owner than they had done since the time when they had been purchased.
Mrs. Valpy was also calmly satisfied with her daughter’s engagement, as her intended son-in-law was a very delightful young man, and, moreover, had a rich father, the latter fact being the most important in the good lady’s eyes. If he dabbled in literature, well, let him do so. It would serve to keep him out of mischief; but as for deriving any solid benefit from novel-writing or play-scribbling, such an idea never entered Mrs. Valpy’s head. All she knew was that Toby was a good son, and would make a good husband, besides which he could keep his wife in comfort, so what more could a mother desire? The old lady therefore sat in Kaituna’s boudoir, smiling and nodding over her tea, completely satisfied with herself and the world.
“By the way,” said Kaituna, when the exhaustive subject of Tommy’s trousseau had come to an end, “you know of course, Mrs. Valpy, that my father is on his way home.”
“Yes, dear, I heard something about it,” replied the old lady lazily. “When do you expect him for certain?”
“In about a fortnight.”
“So soon?” said Mrs. Belswin to herself. “In that case I have no time to lose.”
“You’ll be glad to see Sir Rupert, I suppose?” asked Tommy, turning to the companion.
“Oh, yes, of course! But I’m not sure if I shall be here when he arrives.”
“Not here!” ejaculated Kaituna, in dismay. “Oh, Mrs. Belswin!”
“I have to go up to town, my dear,” said that lady, very slowly, “in order to see a—a friend of mine.”
She hesitated over the last word, knowing in her own heart the errand which was taking her up to town.
“But can’t you put off your visit for a time?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Kaituna said nothing, but looked reproachfully at her friend, whereupon Mrs. Belswin kissed her with a gay laugh.
“Don’t look so scared, my child. I shall only be away for a few days.”
“You will like Sir Rupert, I’m sure,” said Mrs. Valpy, who had been slowly following out a train of thought. “He is a most delightful man.”
“So I have always heard,” replied the chaperon coldly.
“Perhaps he’ll marry again,” said Tommy, idly, more for the sake of saying something than from any idea of Sir Rupert’s matrimonial intentions.
The answer came from Mrs. Belswin, and had escaped her against her will; but on seeing the surprise her sudden ejaculation had created, she explained herself with calm grace.
“Of course I mean that Sir Rupert would surely not think of marrying when he has this dear child to comfort him.”
“I don’t think papa will ever marry again,” said Kaituna, in a low tone. “I wonder at your saying such a thing. He was too fond of my mother to forget her easily.”
Mrs. Belswin turned away her head and sneered, for she was too well acquainted with Rupert Pethram’s selfish heart to believe that he regretted her in the least. Seeing, however, that the subject was a painful one to Kaituna, and by no means relishing it herself, she hastened to turn the conversation by saying the first thing that came into her head.
“By the way, do you know I have an admirer here?”
“Not the vicar?” cried Tommy, clapping her hands.
“No; I’m not antique enough.”
“Then Mr. Gelthrip?”
“Ah, he’s too devoted to his sick sister. No! My admirer is that handsome Mr. Belk.”
“Papa’s bailiff,” said Kaituna, smiling. “Well, he is very handsome, but I must confess I don’t like his face.”
“Nor do I,” declared Tommy, boldly. “He’s got the same disagreeable countenance as his mother.”
“From what I’ve heard I think he’s a very dissipated young man,” said Mrs. Valpy, slowly.
“I suppose Mr. Gelthrip told you that,” remarked Mrs. Belswin, with curling lip. “So like him. He never opens his mouth except to destroy a reputation.”
“I’m afraid Belk has no reputation to destroy,” laughed Tommy, jumping up. “But we shall meet the Rev. Gelthrip to-night, and I declare it’s time to dress.”
The clock chimed the half-hour, and the ladies went away to dress, with the exception of Mrs. Belswin, who remained in her chair absorbed in thought.
“In a fortnight,” she muttered to herself slowly. “Ah! I must be prepared for him. I’ll try and see him in London, and convince him that I must stay by my child. If he consents, well and good; if he refuses—”
She stopped, drew a long breath, and clenched her hands.
“If he refuses—I’ll see Ferrari.”
“If you’d be a healthy sinner,
Eat with judgment when at dinner,
And remember with a shiver
Man is governed by his liver;
Viands rich and wine in plenty
Spoil life’s dolce far niente.
He who shuns this vital question
Suffers soon from indigestion;
The corner-stone of dissipation
Is to act with moderation.”
When the sceptre of the Cæsars passed into the hands of St. Peter and his successors, it carried with it among other fixtures—to use a legal expression—the art of giving a good dinner. The clergy have, therefore, always been famous for their attention to creature comforts, and among the various arts which they rescued from the wreck of the classic world, the art of dining is certainly one of which they were most careful.
In England the fat abbots and portly monks of the past have been transmuted, through the agency of that royal magician, Henry VIII, into the comfortable bishops and delectable vicars of the present; but the change is actually only in the Thirty-nine Articles, and the science of gastronomy still has its wisest savants among the clergy.
It is true that some ascetics, wishing to return to the bosom of the Romish Church, have denied themselves all dainties in favour of lentils and pulse; but, unlike Daniel and his friends, they are no fairer for doing so; yet the general run of curates (provided they are well paid), rectors, vicars, deans, bishops, yea, even archbishops, are worthy successors to the clerical gourmands of the Middle Ages so satirised by Rabelais, and are as careful of their cellars and kitchens as of their churches and parishioners.
Mr. Clendon, dry-as-dust grubber among ancient folios as he was, by no means neglected the substance for the shadow, and satisfied his brain, his stomach, and his palate in equal measure—the former by means of choice editions, the latter by choice viands; but, truth to tell, he to all appearances throve more on the library than on the kitchen.
The number of guests at dinner, according to some gastronomical worthy, should never be less than the three Graces nor greater than the nine Muses, so Vicar Clendon had taken this sage advice by limiting the friends assembled round his hospitable board to eight people, the sexes being in equal numbers, i.e. four of the one and four of the other.
The host took in Mrs. Valpy. A most admirable arrangement, as both were fond of their victuals, and thought eating preferable to talking, especially when the cook was a good one, as happened in this case.
Mr. Gelthrip escorted Mrs. Belswin. Fire and water! Sweet and sour! Black and white! Two galley slaves chained together against their will could not have been less suited than the clergyman and the companion were to one another. Good-breeding forbade either resenting the juxtaposition, so they had smiles on their faces and rage in their hearts at being thus coupled so unsuitably by their Amphitryon.
The engaged ones, of course, went dining-room-wards together—a good omen of the future, in the eyes of both, hinting that they would thus wander side by side towards the good things of this life.
Archie was squire to Kaituna. Ecstasy! Rapture! Bliss! Ah, how poor a language is English when required to express the joy of two lovers coming together for a whole evening, who have not expected Fate or Cupid or Mother Venus to be so kind.
Out of compliment to the month of roses, Vicar Clendon gave his guests a distinctly pink dinner, which was a novelty, both as regards viands, wines, and artistic arrangements. In the centre of the white tablecloth there was an oval, shaped of moist-looking emerald moss, filled with loose rose-leaves, from the midst of which sprang rich clusters of the flower in red, in white, and in yellow, set off here and there by masses of green leaves. No intrusive epergne to hide the faces of the guests from one another, but a tiny fountain shooting up a silver thread that fell again in diamond spray over the odorous blossoms below—rose-wreaths for the white bosoms of the ladies, rose bouquets with entanglements of delicate maiden-hair fern for the men, and on imitation rose-leaf menus the names of the dishes in purple ink. Viands for the most part rose-tinted by an artistic cook, and as for wines, there was claret deeply red, port amethystine in tint, sparkling burgundy of rosy hues, and from the roof roseate light suffused from a red-shaded lamp. The whole prevailing tint of this unique meal was the rose-red of dawn, and Parson Clendon, smiling benignly from the head of the table, felt that he had achieved a distinct success in the way of originality, a thing to be proud of in this century of used-up ideas.
“The Romans,” observed the vicar, discursively, by way of providing a subject of conversation, “the Romans would have enjoyed a meal served up in this fashion.”
“You are thinking of Vitellius,” asserted Mr. Gelthrip, in a dictatorial manner.
“No, sir! I am thinking of Lucullus. A gourmet, sir, not a gourmand.”
Mr. Gelthrip, not being sufficiently learned either in French or gastronomy to appreciate the subtlety of this remark, wisely held his tongue and went on with his soup.
“If we were like the Romans, father, we should be crowned with garlands of roses,” said Toby, in order to keep the ball of conversation rolling.
“Instead of which we wear the roses in our buttonholes,” added Archie, gaily; “not so graceful, perhaps, but more comfortable.”
“Ah, we’re not at all classic,” observed the host, regretfully; “dining with Lucullus we should have reclined.”
“How uncomfortable!” said Tommy, saucily; “as bad as having breakfast in bed.”
“Which is where you generally have it,” interposed Mrs. Valpy, reprovingly.
“Ah!” said Toby, with a world of meaning in his tone, “I am afraid you have not studied one Dr. Watts—”
“The early to bed man, you mean,” cried Mrs. Belswin. “Horrible! I never could see the use of his cut-and-dried little proverbs.”
“His poems, madam, are very edifying,” remarked Gelthrip, in a clerical manner.
“Very probably; and like most things edifying, very dreary.”
She said this so tartly that Clendon père was afraid of the probable rejoinder of his curate, so made the first remark that came into his mind apropos of nothing in particular.
“Our conversation is like that of Praed’s vicar, very discursive; we began with the Romans, we end with Dr. Watts.”
“I prefer the Romans,” declared Archie, sipping his wine.
“Not their dining, surely,” observed Kaituna.
“No,” whispered Archie, literally sub rosa, for she wore a half-opened bud in her dark hair, “because you would not have been present. The nineteenth century, with all its faults, has one great virtue; it allows us to dine with you.”
Kaituna laughed in a pretty confused manner, whereupon Mrs. Belswin flashed her glorious dark eyes sympathetically on the pair, for she was now quite in favour of this, to all appearances, imprudent marriage. Reasons two. First, the young couple loved one another devotedly, which appealed to her womanly and maternal instincts. Second, the match would be objected to by Sir Rupert, which pleased the revengeful part of her nature. With these two excellent reasons she was very satisfied, so smiled kindly on the lovers.
“Thank you, Mrs. Belswin.”
That lady bowed cordially to her host and touched the rim of her glass lightly with her lips. It is not now customary for gentlemen to drink healths with the opposite sex at dinner, but ‘tis an old-fashioned custom, and therefore found favour with the vicar, lover of all things antique, as he was.
“Drink to me only with thine eyes.”
“A most excellent sentiment, Tobias,” said his father, with a waggish smile; “but we are not all so happily placed as you, my son.”
“Every dog has its day, father.”
“True! true! most true. ‘Et ego in Arcadia fui.’ Eh, Mr. Gelthrip?”
“I am not married, sir,” responded that gentleman, stiffly.
“Nor is he likely to be,” whispered Archie to his neighbour. “How lucky—for the possible Mrs. Gelthrip.”
“I’m not so sure of that,” she replied in the same tone; “every Jack has his Jill.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Oh! you are not certain?”
“How can I be certain? You do not wear your heart on your sleeve.”
“Do I not?”
Kaituna was somewhat taken aback at this direct way of putting it, and, not feeling inclined to reply in the only way in which she could do so, looked round for a mode of escape from the pertinacity of her companion. Help came from the vicar.
“Miss Pethram, I understand your father is coming home again.”
“Yes, Mr. Clendon; I am pleased to say he is.”
“Ah, no doubt! no doubt! Well, I can tell him you have been in safe hands,” responded the vicar, bowing to Mrs. Belswin, who acknowledged the compliment with a somewhat doubtful smile.
“You have never seen Sir Rupert?” asked Toby, politely.
Mrs. Belswin started, drew her handkerchief—a flimsy feminine thing of lace and cambric—across her dry lips, and laughed in an embarrassed fashion as she replied—
“No, I have not seen him; but, of course, Kaituna has told me all about him.”
“Ah!” said the vicar, eyeing the rosy bubbles flashing in his glass, “I remember Rupert Pethram very well before he went out to New Zealand. He was a gay, light-hearted boy; but now, alas! tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis.”
“I can’t fancy my father ever having been gay and light-hearted,” cried Kaituna, doubtfully. “Ever since I can remember him he has been so grave and solemn.”
“Trouble! trouble!” sighed the vicar; “it changes us all.”
Mrs. Belswin, affecting to arrange the wreath at her breast, darted a lightning glance at the old man from under her long lashes.
“I wonder if Rupert told you anything,” she thought, rapidly. “Bah! what do I care if he did? This fool can do me no harm. There is only one man I’m afraid of meeting—Rupert Pethram himself. Well, perhaps I shall not need to meet him.”
She smiled cruelly as she thought of the harm she proposed to do her unfortunate husband, and listened idly to Mr. Gelthrip, who was holding forth in his usual dogmatic style on the good which a moneyed man like Sir Rupert could do to the parish of Deswarth.
“I hope, Miss Pethram,” he said, turning to Kaituna, “that you will urge upon your father the advisability of throwing open the picture gallery at Thornstream to the villagers, in order to encourage a taste for art.”
“But they know nothing about art. The Illustrated London News and the Graphic form their idea of pictures.”
“They can learn, Mr. Clendon; they can learn,” replied the curate, easily. “I should like them to appreciate the old masters.”
“Egad, it’s a thing I could never do,” cried Toby, flippantly. “I much prefer the modern painters.”
“You are a Philistine, sir.”
“Humph!” said Toby, under his breath, “and this Samson is slaughtering me with the jawbone of an ass.”
“Then music,” pursued Gelthrip, waxing eloquent; “a little Wagner.”
“Very little,” said Archie, slily; “all chords and no melody.”
“I don’t quite understand you,” remarked Tommy, addressing Mr. Gelthrip with a demure smile. “You believe in Doctor Watts and Richard Wagner. Isn’t it rather difficult to reconcile the two things?”
“Not at all, Miss Valpy. Wagner is understandable by the meanest mind.”
“Meaning himself,” whispered Archie, with a laugh.
“The fact is,” observed Mr. Clendon, with mock solemnity, “that when my worthy friend can get our labourers to descant learnedly on Claude Lorraine, Michael Angelo, and Titian, read and appreciate George Meredith’s novels—of whom, Tobias, I have heard you speak—and understand the advanced school of music, of which I myself know nothing, he will have accomplished his life’s work.”
“It would be a worthy career for a man,” said Gelthrip, energetically.
“So I think,” remarked Mrs. Belswin, dryly; “but if you make all your labourers so learned, Mr. Gelthrip, I’m afraid they won’t do much work. Instead of hedging and ditching, they will take to admiring the sunsets.”
“And to analysing the music of the lark.”
“Or comparing the latest novelist’s description of Nature to the disadvantage of the real thing.”
Mr. Gelthrip bore all this sarcasm with equanimity, smiling benignly all the time. He was an enthusiast on the subject, and had a hide impervious to shafts of ridicule, however skilfully launched. His scheme was simple. Sir Rupert had plenty of money, and, judging from his daughter’s description, seemed to be philanthropically inclined. Mr. Gelthrip had full power in the parish—as his superior was too much taken up with the middle ages to pay attention to the nineteenth century—so he determined, with the aid of Sir Rupert’s money and his own brains, to make Deswarth a model village in the matter of culture and high art. As to religion—well, Mr. Gelthrip was a clergyman, and thought he could mingle religion and high art together so as to make them palatable to his children-of-nature parishioners. Meanwhile his ideas stood in this order: culture, high art, religion. Alas for the possible model parish and the souls of its occupants!
This, however, is talk of futurity; but at present, the ladies, headed by Mrs. Valpy, retired, leaving the four gentlemen to their wine.
“Tobias!” said his father, benevolently—a man must feel benevolent with a glass of ‘34 port in his hand. “Tobias, to the health of your bride.”
“Thank you, father,” replied Toby, gratefully, touching his lips with the glass. “Archie! to the future Mrs. Maxwell.”
“Ah! Ah!” remarked the old gentleman, smiling. “Has it gone as far as that?”
“Not yet, sir.”
Archie was blushing deeply, being an ingenuous youth, and unused to such public compliments.
“I’ll bet,” whispered Toby, looking at him gravely, “that you’ll have something to say to me to-night over a pipe.”
“Do you think so?” faltered Archie, toying with his glass.
“I speak,” said Clendon fils, “I speak from experience, having proposed and been accepted.”
“I can do the first, but what about the second?”
“Faint heart,” remarked Toby, judiciously, “never won fair lady.”
“Then I’ll take your advice this very night,” said Archie, desperately.
“I am,” remarked Toby, as he lifted his glass, “a prophet in a small way. Old boy, your hand. To the health of our double marriage—and no heeltaps.”
Archie finished his glass.
‘Tis very easy to make love;
A smile—a pressure of the hand.
A reference to the stars above,
A “fly with me to some far land,”
A sigh as soft as coo of dove,
A kiss—the rest she’ll understand.
Mr. Gelthrip, thinking no one but himself knew anything, had contradicted his clerical superior on some point connected with the introduction of printing into England, and the vicar in great wrath had carried off his dogmatic curate to the library in order to prove his case. The two elder ladies were talking about Sir Rupert as Mrs. Valpy had met him a few months previously, and Mrs. Belswin was trying to find out all about her quondam husband, in order to strengthen her position as much as possible. At present she knew that she was entirely at the mercy of Sir Rupert, so if she could discover something detrimental to his character it might serve as a weapon against him. The scheme which she hoped to carry through with the assistance of Ferrari, was a dangerous one; and moreover, she was doubtful if the Italian would consent to aid her; therefore she was anxious to try all other methods of coercing her husband before resorting to the last and most terrible expedient. She was a clever woman, was Mrs. Belswin, and the instinct for discovery, which she inherited from her savage grandparents, made her wonderfully acute in cross-examining simple Mrs. Valpy, who not comprehending the subtlety of her companion, told all she knew about the baronet in the most open manner. The result was not gratifying to Mrs. Belswin; for with all her dexterity in twisting, and turning and questioning, and hinting, she discovered nothing likely to compromise Sir Rupert in any way.
“It’s no use,” she thought, with a feeling of despair in her heart, “Rupert has it all his own way, and I can do nothing—nothing except—”
She smiled significantly, and simple Mrs. Valpy, seeing that the companion was looking at Toby and her daughter, who were amusing themselves at the piano, misinterpreted the smile, and therefore spoke according to her misinterpretation.
“They’ll make a very happy couple, won’t they, Mrs. Belswin?”
Mrs. Belswin, thus being appealed to, started, smiled politely, and assented with much outward show of interest to the remark of the old lady.
“It’s so nice for Toby to have his home here,” pursued Mrs. Valpy, with much satisfaction; “because, you know, our place is not far from the vicarage, so I shall not be parted from my daughter.”
The other woman started, and laid her hand on her breast, as if to still the beating of her heart.
“Yes; it would be a terrible thing to part with your only child,” she said in a low voice. “I know what the pain of such a separation is.”
“You have parted from your child, then?” said Mrs. Valpy, sympathetically.
Mrs. Belswin clutched her throat, and gave an hysterical laugh.
“Well, no; not exactly;” she said, still in the same low voice; “but—but my little daughter—my little daughter died many years ago.”
It was very hard for her to lie like this when her daughter was only a few yards away, chatting to Maxwell at the window; but Mrs. Belswin looked upon such necessary denial as punishment for her sins, and accepted it accordingly.
“I’m very sorry,” observed Mrs. Valpy, with well-bred condolence. “Still, time brings consolation.”
“Not to all people.”
“Oh, yes, I think so. Besides, now you have that dear girl, Kaituna, and she seems very fond of you.”
She could say no more. The strangeness of the situation excited her to laughter, to that laughter which is very near tears, and she was afraid to speak lest she should break down.
“And then Sir Rupert will be so glad to find his daughter has such a good friend.”
The mention of the hated name restored Mrs. Belswin to her usual self, and with a supercilious glance at the blundering woman who had so unconsciously wounded her, she answered in her ordinary manner—
“I hope so! But I’m afraid I shall not have an opportunity of seeing Sir Rupert at once, as I go to town shortly, on business.”
“But you will return?”
“Oh, yes! of course I shall return, unless some unforeseen circumstances should arise. We are never certain of anything in the future, you know, Mrs. Valpy.”
“No, perhaps not! At all events I think you will like Sir Rupert.”
Mrs. Belswin sneered.
“Oh, do you think so?”
“I’m certain. Such a gentlemanly man. Quite young for his age. I wonder he does not many again.”
“Perhaps he had enough of matrimony with his first wife,” said Mrs. Belswin, coolly.
“Oh, he was devotedly attached to her.”
“Was he, indeed?”
“Yes! Simply worshipped her. She died in New Zealand when Kaituna was a baby, I believe, and Sir Rupert told me how this loss had overshadowed his life.”
“Hypocrite!” murmured Mrs. Belswin, between her clenched teeth.
The conversation was becoming a little difficult for her to carry on, as she dare not disclose herself yet, and did not care about exchanging complimentary remarks on the subject of a man she detested so heartily.
At this moment Toby struck a chord on the piano, and Tommy burst out laughing, so, with ready wit, Mrs. Belswin made this interruption serve as an excuse to break off the conversation.
“The young people seem to be merry,” she said to Mrs. Valpy, and rising to her feet, “I must go over and see what the joke is about.”
Mrs. Valpy nodded sleepily, feeling somewhat drowsy after her dinner, so Mrs. Belswin, seeing she did not mind being left to her own devices, walked across to the piano and interrupted the two lovers, for which interruption, however, they did not feel profoundly grateful.
“Won’t you sing something?” asked the companion, addressing Toby, “or you, Miss Valpy?”
“Oh, my songs are too much of the orthodox drawing-room’ type,” replied Miss Valpy, disparagingly. “Now Toby is original in his ditties. Come, let’s have a little chin-music, Toby!”
“Wherever do you learn such slang?” said Mrs. Belswin, with a smile.
“I! Oh, how can you? I speak the Queen’s English.”
“Do you really?” said Tommy, laughing. “Well, I at present speak the President’s American, so go right along, stranger, and look slippy with the barrel organ.”
“If your mother hears you,” remonstrated Mrs. Belswin, “she will—”
“Yes, I know she will,” retorted Tommy, imperturbably; “but she’s asleep and I’m awake, very much so. I say, Mrs. Belswin, where’s Kaituna?”
“I think she’s walking on the lawn with Mr. Maxwell.”
“As a chaperon you should hunt them out,” said Miss Valpy, mischievously.
“Suppose I give the same advice to your mother,” replied Mrs. Belswin, dryly.
“Don’t,” said Toby, in mock horror; “as you are strong be merciful.”
“Certainly, if you sing something.”
“What shall I sing?”
“Anything,” said Tommy, sitting down, “except that new style of song, all chords and no tune.”
Toby laughed mischievously and began to sing—
“If I mashed her would she kiss me?
No! no! no!
If I bolted would she miss me?
No! no! no!
She knows I haven’t got a rap;
Besides, there is the other chap—
At him, not me, she sets her cap;
No! no! no!”
“Mr. Clendon,” said Tommy, in a tone of dignified rebuke, “we don’t want any music-hall songs. If you can’t sing something refined, don’t sing at all.”
“I must collect my ideas first,” replied Toby, running his fingers over the piano. “Wait till the spirit moves me.”
Mrs. Belswin had resumed her seat near the sleeping form of Mrs. Valpy, and was thinking deeply, though her thoughts, judging from the savage expression in her fierce eyes, did not seem to be very agreeable ones, while Tommy leaned over the piano watching Toby’s face as he tried to seek inspiration from her smiles.
Outside on the short dry grass of the lawn, Kaituna was strolling, accompanied by Archie Maxwell. The grass extended for some distance in a gentle slope, and was encircled by tall trees, their heavy foliage drooping over the beds of flowers below. Beyond, the warm blue of the sky, sparkling with stars, and just over the trembling tree-tops the golden round of the moon. A gentle wind was blowing through the rustling leaves, bearing on its faint wings the rich odours of the flowers, and the lawn was strewn with aerial shadows that trembled with the trembling of the trees. Then the white walls of the vicarage, the sloping roof neutral tinted in the moonlight, the glimmer of the cold shine on the glass of the upstair windows, and below, the yellow warm light streaming out of the drawing-room casements on the gravelled walk, the lawn beyond, and the figures of the two lovers moving like black shadows through the magical light. A nightingale began to sing deliciously, hidden in the warm dusk of the leaves, then another bird in the distance answered the first. The hoot of an owl sounded faintly through the air, the sharp whirr of a cricket replied, and all the night seemed full of sweet sounds.
Kaituna sat down on a bench placed under the drawing-room windows, and Archie, standing beside her, lighted a cigarette after asking and obtaining the requisite permission. The voices of the vicar and his curate sounded in high dispute from the adjacent library; there was a murmur of conversation from within, where Mrs. Belswin was talking to the other lovers, and at intervals the sharp notes of the piano struck abruptly through the voices, the songs of the nightingale, and the charm of the night.
“What I miss very much in the sky here,” said Kaituna, looking up at the stars, “is the Southern Cross.”
“Yes; I have seen it myself,” replied Archie, removing his cigarette. “You know I have travelled a great deal.”
“And intend to travel still more!”
“You don’t seem very sure, Mr. Maxwell. What about South America?”
“I thought I had told you that I had changed my mind about South America.”
Kaituna flushed a little at the significance of his words, and cast down her eyes.
“I believe you said something about putting off your journey till the end of the year.”
“I’ll put it off altogether, if a certain event takes place.”
“And that certain event?”
“Cannot you guess?”
Duplicity on the part of the woman, who knew perfectly well the event to which the young man referred.
“No, I am afraid I can’t.”
“Miss Pethram—Kaituna, I—”
“Hush! Mr. Clendon is singing.”
It was only to gain time for reflection, as she knew that a declaration of love trembled on his lips, but with feminine coquetry could not help blowing hot to his cold.
And Toby was singing a bold martial song, with a curious accompaniment like the trotting of a horse—a song which thrilled through the listeners, with its fierce exultation and savage passion.
On God and his prophet I seven times called me;
I opened the Koran—the omen appalled me;
I read it—thou wast to be bride to another;
I knew my betrayer, ‘twas him I called brother,
I sprang on my steed as he waited beside me,
Then rode through the desert with Allah to guide me;
Fierce blew the sirocco, its terrors were idle;
I galloped till dawn to be first at your bridal
I rode to the tent-door, your father’s tribe knew me;
They dreamed of the glory they’d gain if they slew me;
I dashed through the cowards—I met my betrayer,
He fell from his saddle, and I was his slayer,
You ran from your dwelling—your father’s spears missed me;
You sprang to my saddle with fervour to kiss me;
We broke through the press of your kinsfolk, my foemen;
I won thee, Zulema, so false was the omen;
“Ah!” said Archie, with a long breath, when the fierce cry had rung out for the last time, “that is the way to win a bride.”
Kaituna thought so too, although she did not make any remark, but the shrill savagery of the song had stirred her hereditary instincts profoundly, and even in the dim moonlight Toby could see the distension of her nostrils, and the flash of excitement that sparkled in her eyes. It gave him an idea, and throwing himself on his knees, he began to woo her as fiercely and as freely as ever her dusky ancestors had been wooed in the virgin recesses of New Zealand woods.
“Kaituna, I love you! I love you. You must have seen it; you must know it. This is no time for timid protestations, for doubtful sighing. Give me your hands.” He seized them in his strong grasp. “I am a man, and I must woo like a man. I love you! I love you! I wish you to be my wife. I am poor, but I am young, and with you beside me, I can do great things. Say that you will marry me.”
“But my father!”
He sprang to his feet, still holding her hands, and drew her forcibly towards him.
“Your father may consent—he may refuse. I do not care for his consent or his refusal. Say you will be my wife, and no human being shall come between us. I have no money. I will gain a fortune for you. I have no home—I will make one for you. Youth, love, and God are on our side, and we are made the one for the other. You must not say no! You shall not say no. You are the woman needed to complete my life; and God has given you to me. Lay aside your coquetry, your hesitations, your fears. Speak boldly to me as I do to you. Let no false modesty—no false pride—no maidenly dread come between us. I love you, Kaituna. Will you be my wife?”
There was something in this akin to the fierce wooing of primeval man. All the artificial restraints of civilisation were laid aside. The doubts, the fears, the looks, the shrinkings, all these safeguards and shields of nervous natures had vanished before this whirlwind of passion, which bore down such feeble barriers set between man and woman. As his eyes ardent with love, passionate with longing, flashed into her own she felt her bosom thrill, her blood rush rapidly through her veins, and, with an inarticulate cry, wherein all the instincts she had inherited from her Maori ancestors broke forth, she flung herself on his heaving breast.
“Yes! yes! take me! take me! I am yours, and yours only.”
She smiles she laughs! she talks of this and that—
To all appearances a very woman.
Ah! but that phrase bears deep interpretation—
“A very woman” is a treacherous thing;
Her smile’s a lie—a lie to hide the truth,
For when the time is ripe for all her schemes
“A very woman” slips her smiling mask,
And lo! behold, a look which means, “You die.”
One who has been in strange lands, and ventured his life in far countries, is by no means anxious to court again the dangers he has so happily escaped. The traveller, telling his tales by his lately gained fireside, shudders as he remembers the perils he has dared, the risks he has encountered, and is thankful for his present safety, so thankful indeed that he is unwilling to place his life for the second time at the disposal of chance.
It was somewhat after this fashion that Mrs. Belswin viewed her present security in contrast to her past jeopardy. She had been a free-lance, and adventuress, an unprotected woman at the mercy of the world, so hard and pitiless to such unfortunates; but now she had found a home, a refuge, a daughter’s love, a bright oasis in the desert of affliction, and she dreaded to be driven out of this peaceful paradise, which held all that made her life worth having, into a stormy world once more. Through perils more deadly than those of savage lands, through storms more terrible than those of the ocean, she had passed into a haven of tranquillity; but now that she was tasting of the pleasures of hope and repose, it seemed as though she would once more be driven forth to battle with her fellow-creatures.
Her quondam husband held her fate in his hand. He had right and might on his side, and she knew that she could expect no mercy from one whom she had so deeply wronged. Had the positions been reversed she felt that she would not have scrupled to enforce the powers she possessed, and, therefore, never for a moment dreamed that her husband would act otherwise. All she knew was that she was now in Paradise, that she enjoyed her daughter’s affection, ignorant as that daughter was of the mother’s identity, and that the husband of her youth, and the father of her dearly-loved child would expel her from this hardly won Paradise as soon as he discovered her therein.
This being the case, she did not waste time in asking for a mercy not likely to be granted, but set herself to work to find out some means of retaining her position in defiance of her husband’s enmity and hatred. After her conversation with Mrs. Valpy, she saw that Rupert Pethram had glossed over the affair of the divorce in order to avoid all suspicion of scandal against himself and the mother of his child, for he was unwilling that the child should suffer for the sin of her parent. This was certainly a point in her favour, as by threatening to denounce the whole affair if she was not allowed to retain her position she could force him to acquiesce in her demand, in order to avoid scandal.
But then if he, though keeping the terrible affair secret from the outside world, told Kaituna all about her mother’s disgrace, thus destroying the love which the girl had for the memory of one whom she thought was dead—it would be too terrible, as she could urge nothing in extenuation of her sin, and would be forced to blush before her own child. No, nothing could be done in that way. Should she throw herself on the mercy of the man she had wronged? Alas! she knew his stern nature well enough to be aware of the hopeless folly of such an attempt. Looking at the whole affair in whatever way that suggested itself to her fertile brain, she saw no means of retaining her position, her child or her newly-found respectability, except by enlisting the sympathy of Ferrari and—
But it was too terrible. It was a crime. Guilty as she was, to do this would render her still more guilty. Even if she succeeded in getting her husband out of the way, and it was not discovered by the law, there was still Ferrari to be reckoned with. It would give him a strong hold over her, which he would use to force her into marriage, and then she would be still separated from her child, so that the crime she contemplated would be useless.
To see this woman raging up and down her bedroom was a pitiful sight. Flinging herself on her knees she would pray to God to soften the heart of her husband, then, realising how futile was the hope, she would start to her feet and think again of the crime she contemplated committing with the assistance of her Italian lover. She raged, she wept, she sighed, she implored. Her mood changed with every tick of the clock; from hope she fell into despair; from despair she changed once more to hope—tears imprecations, prayers, threats, she tried them all in their turn, and the result was always the same—absolute failure. She was dashing herself in vain against an adamantine wall, for in her calmer moments she saw how helpless she was against the position held by her husband—a position approved of by law, approved of by the world. She could do nothing, and she knew it.
Yes, she would go up and see him, for perhaps he could solve the riddle which thus perplexed her so terribly. He would demand his price, she knew him well enough for that. Well, she would pay it in order to still retain possession of her child. Let her accomplish her present desire and the future would take care of itself. So, Mrs. Belswin, summoning all her philosophy to her aid, composed her features, and told Kaituna that she was going up to London on business.
“But papa will be here next week,” said the girl in dismay.
“Yes; I’m sorry to go at such a time, dear,” replied Mrs. Belswin, with an immovable countenance, “but it is a very important matter that takes me away.”
“You will be back again soon?”
“In a fortnight at the least.”
“Oh, I’m glad of that,” said Kaituna, with a flush; “you know I want you to help me gain papa’s consent to my marriage with Archie.”
Mrs. Belswin smiled bitterly as she kissed her daughter, knowing how weak was the reed upon which the girl leaned. She ask Rupert Pethram to consent to the marriage—she dare to demand a favour of the man she had wronged for the child she had forsaken! She almost laughed as she thought of the terrible irony of the situation, but, restraining herself with her usual self-command, bade the girl hope for the best.
“Your father must like Mr. Maxwell, he is such a charming young fellow,” she said encouragingly, “and as you love him so dearly, Sir Rupert, for the sake of your happiness, may perhaps overlook his want of money.”
“But you will speak to papa, Mrs. Belswin?”
“Yes; if I see your father on my return I will certainly speak to him.”
“How strangely you talk,” said Kaituna, rather puzzled; “if you come back in a fortnight you will be sure to see papa.”
“Of course, dear! of course. I was only thinking that some unforeseen accident—”
“Oh, no, no!”
“Kaituna, you love your father very dearly.”
“Very, very dearly. He is all I have in the world.”
It required all Mrs. Belswin’s self-restraint to prevent her then and there throwing herself into the girl’s arms and telling her all. Such a course, however, would have been worse than madness, so she was forced to crush down her maternal feelings.
After this interview with Kaituna, she departed for London—departed for the possible commission of a crime, and as the carriage left Thornstream she looked back with a sigh to the girl standing on the terrace.
“Perhaps I shall never see her again,” she said, with a groan, throwing herself back in her seat. “But no; that will never happen; even if Rupert does turn me out of the house he will not tell Kaituna anything to destroy her belief in her mother, so I shall some day meet her with her husband.”
Her lips curled as she said this, knowing well that Sir Rupert would never give his consent to the marriage, and then she clenched her hands with a frown.
“He must consent to the marriage—Kaituna’s heart is set on it. He can destroy my happiness, but I’ll kill him before he destroys that of my child.”
And with this firm determination she left her husband’s house—the house in which she should have reigned a happy mistress and mother, and the house into which she had crept like a disguised thief, the house which she, in the mad instinct of her savage nature, intended to deprive of its master.
While waiting on the railway platform for the London train, she saw Samson Belk.
The relations between these two were peculiar. Ever since he had seen her at his mother’s cottage, Belk had followed her everywhere like her shadow, much to Mrs. Belswin’s astonishment, for, candid in all things to herself, she could not conceive how a handsome young man could leave younger women for one verging on middle age. Yet such was the case. This bucolic man had fallen passionately in love, and adored her with all the sullen ardour of his obstinate nature. He was slow-witted, dull-headed, and it took a long time for an idea to penetrate into his brain, but once the idea was there, nothing could get it out again. This woman, so different from all he had known, who spoke in a commanding way, who flashed her eyes fiercely on all, as if they were her slaves, had, without a word, without a sign, brought to his knees this uncultured man, who knew nothing of the deference due to the sex, and whose only attributes were great physical strength and a handsome exterior. Formerly, owing to these advantages, he had gained admiration from all women, and in return had treated them with brutal indifference, or scarcely veiled contempt; but now the positions were reversed, and he was the abject slave of this imperious queen, who looked down at him with disdain. It was a case of Samson like wax in the hands of Delilah—of Hercules subjugated by Omphale; and Samson Belk, with all his virile strength, his handsome face, his stalwart figure, was crouching like a dog at the feet of Mrs. Belswin.
He looked somewhat haggard as he came towards her and took off his hat, Mrs. Belswin nodding coldly to him in return.
“Well, Mr. Belk,” she said, indifferently, “what are you doing here?”
“I heard you were going to town, madam.”
“Yes? How can that possibly concern you?”
Belk stood twisting his hat round and round in a sheepish manner.
“I thought I might be of service to you,” he stammered, looking at her portmanteau.
“Thank you, but there is no need. The porters will attend to all that,” replied the lady, graciously. “But you don’t look very well, Mr. Belk. I suppose you’ve been drinking.”
Candour was Mrs. Belswin’s strong point, and looking at Belk as an inferior animal, she treated him accordingly, but he seemed in nowise displeased at her bluntness.
“No; I haven’t been drinking, madam.”
“That’s just as well. You know Sir Rupert returns next week, and if he found you to be dissipated, he’d dismiss you on the spot.”
“Would he?” said Belk, sullenly. “Let him if he likes. You seem to know Sir Rupert, madam.”
“I? No; but I have heard about him.”
“He’s a hard man, what I’ve seen of him.”
Mrs. Belswin was not going to discuss this subject with a servant like Belk, so she turned indifferently away as the train came into the station, and left him standing there, looking in sullen admiration at her graceful form in the dark garments she now affected.
When she was safely installed in a first-class carriage, her rustic admirer, who had seen personally after her luggage, appeared at the window with some newspapers.
“You’ll want them to read, madam,” he said awkwardly, as she thanked him. “I hope you’ll have a pleasant journey.”
“Thank you, Mr. Belk, I hope I shall.”
“You’ll be coming back soon I hope?”
He blurted out this question with a deep flush, and Mrs. Belswin stared at him with undisguised astonishment. She could not understand the reason of this man’s deference, for she judged it impossible that he could be so deeply in love with her as all his actions seemed to denote. Good-natured, however, when not crossed in any way, she replied politely, as the train moved off—
“I shall return in a fortnight.”
“If you don’t,” muttered Belk, as the long line of carriages disappeared, “I’ll follow you up to London.”
“Good heavens!” said Mrs. Belswin, throwing herself back in her seat, “what on earth can the man see in me to admire? I’m not a vain woman. I never was a vain woman, and why that handsome young fellow should leave youth to run after age is more than I can understand. It’s flattering; very much so; but,” continued the lady, struck by a sudden thought, “if Ferrari met my new admirer, I’m afraid there would be trouble.”
She laughed at the idea, and taking up the Telegraph began to read, but suddenly laid it down with a nervous start.
“Ferrari loves me! Belk loves me! I love neither, but only my child. Rupert stands between me and my happiness. Which of these men will remove him out of my path? Ferrari—a subtle Italian, Belk—a brutal Saxon. Humph! The fox and the lion over again—craft and strength! I can depend on them both, and Rupert—”
She struck her hands together with a triumphant laugh.
“Rupert Pethram, you are marching blindfolded into a trap.”
“Number One is the greater number; if I assisted Number Two it would become the lesser.”
Signor Ferrari was a gentleman who knew how to make himself thoroughly comfortable; and, in order to do so, squandered his earnings in a most spendthrift fashion. At present he was receiving a very handsome salary for his singing in Sultana Fatima, therefore he denied himself nothing in the way of luxury. He was a true Bohemian in every action of his life, and accepted his fluctuating fortunes with the utmost equanimity. If he fared badly on dry bread and water one day, he was hopeful of oysters and champagne the next; and when the feast of Dives was before him, made the most of it in eating and drinking, so as to recompense himself for all future deprivations, which would be the lot of poverty-stricken Lazarus.
While his voice lasted he was well aware that he could command an excellent income which satisfied him completely; for when he grew old and songless he was quite prepared to return to Italy, and live there the happy-go-lucky life of his youth on polenta and sour wine. In his impulsive southern fashion he loved Mrs. Belswin madly; but, strangely enough, it never for a moment occurred to him to save money against his possible marriage with her. If he starved, she would starve; if he made money, she would share it; and if she objected to such a chequered existence, Signor Ferrari was quite confident enough in his own powers of will and persuasion to be satisfied that he could force her to accept his view of the matter. This was the Ferrari philosophy, and no bad one either as times go, seeing that a singer’s livelihood depends entirely upon the caprice of the public. As long as he could get enough to eat, be the food rich or plain, a smoke, and plenty of sleep, the world could go hang for all he cared. He lived in the present, never thought about the past, and let the future take care of itself; so altogether managed to scramble through life in a leisurely, selfish manner eminently egotistical in fashion.
At present, being in the heyday of life, he was dining with Dives, which was happiness enough in itself; but, in order that nothing should be wanting to complete his felicity, he had received a letter from Mrs. Belswin, telling him of her contemplated arrival. Under these circumstances he had nothing left to wish for, and lounging on the sofa in his sitting-room in a state of blissful contentment awaited the coming of his fair friend.
“Buõno,” said the signor, with smiling satisfaction, folding up the letter and putting it in his pocket, “the singing-bird returns to its nest. This time I will clip its wings, so that it flies not again. Per Bacco, the kind heart of Stephano surprises himself, for who would let his bird fly as he has done? But I fear not the jealousy, offspring of suspicion. Ecco! she loves but me, and comes again to the nest. And what a nest! Cospetto! My Lucrezia will be hard to please if she likes not this palazzo del amor.”
It was a very pretty nest indeed, from a lodging-house point of view, although its incongruity of colouring and furnishing would have driven an artist out of his mind; but then the signor was not exacting in the way of harmonious effect, and, provided his dwelling was fairly comfortable, felt completely satisfied. Lying on the sofa, he looked complacently at the furniture, covered with painfully bright blue satin, at the scarlet curtains, the green wall-paper, and at all the wax flowers, Berlin wool mats, and gimcrack ornaments with which the room was adorned. Ferrari had added to this splendid furnishing an excellent piano for professional purposes, and numerous photographs, principally feminine, of his artistic friends; so that he conceived himself to be housed in a princely fashion.
It was three o’clock by the incorrect French timepiece on the tawdry mantelpiece, and Ferrari was getting somewhat impatient, as Mrs. Belswin had mentioned two o’clock as the time of her arrival; but with his accustomed philosophy he manifested no anger at the delay.
“La Donna é mobile,” he hummed, shrugging his shoulders, as he strolled towards the piano. “Women are always late; it is one of their charming follies. Ah! EH! EE! Diavolo! my voice is bad this day. These English fogs are down my throat Ah! Eh! EE! Dio! What a note! Voce del oca.
“Ask not the stars the fate they deal.
Read in my eyes the love I feel.”
“That’s a good song, that serenade to Fatima. It shows off my voice. I’ll sing it to exercise my high notes.”
He did so, and was just in the middle of the first verse when Mrs. Belswin made her appearance, upon which he stopped abruptly, and came forward to greet her with theatrical effusion.
“Stella dora! once more you shine,” he cried, seizing her hands, with a passionate look in his dark eyes. “Oh, my life! how dear it is to see thee again.”
“You missed me then, Stephano?” said Mrs. Belswin, sinking wearily into a chair.
“Missed thee, carissima!” exclaimed the Italian, throwing himself on his knees before her and kissing her hand; “by this, and this, and this again, I swear that all has been dark to me without the light of thine eyes. But you will not leave me again, angela mia. Thou hast come back for ever to be my wife.”
Mrs. Belswin drew her hand away sharply and frowned, for in her present irritable state of mind the exaggerated manner of Ferrari jarred on her nerves.
“Do be sensible, Stephano,” she said in a vexed tone. “You are always acting.”
“How can that be acting, cruel one, which is the truth?” replied Ferrari, reproachfully, rising from his knees. “Thou knowst my love, and yet when I speak you are cold. Eh, Donna Lucrezia, is your heart changed?”
“My heart remains as it always was, my friend; but I’ve come up to see you on business—”
“Oh, business!” interrupted Stephano, suspiciously. “Cospetto! You want once more to leave me.”
“For a time; yes.”
“Oh, for a time; yes!” echoed Ferrari, mockingly. “Amica mia, you have a strange way of speaking to him who adores you. Dio, you play with me like a child. I love you, and wish you for my wife. You say ‘yes,’ and depart for a time. Now return you to me and again say, ‘Stephano, I leave you for a time.’ ”
“I made no promise to be your wife,” said Mrs. Belswin, angrily, “nor will I do so unless you help me now.”
“Help you! and in what way? Has the little daughter been cruel? You wish me to speak as father to her.”
“I wish you to do nothing of the sort. My daughter is quite well, and I was perfectly happy with her.”
“And without me,” cried Ferrari, jealously; upon which Mrs. Belswin made a gesture of irritation.
“We can settle that afterwards,” she said, drawing off her gloves: “meanwhile let us talk sense. I shall be up in town for a fortnight.”
“And you stay, cara?”
“At an hotel in the Strand. I’ll give you the address before I leave.”
“Bene! I will then have you to myself for two weeks.”
“It all depends on whether you will help me in what I wish to do.”
“Ebbene! Is it il marito?”
Mrs. Belswin nodded, and the Italian burst out laughing.
“Povero diavolo. He has then come again.”
“No! but he arrives next week.”
“How pleased you are,” said Ferrari, mockingly. “Oh, yes, he will be so sweet to behold you.”
“That’s the very question! I don’t want him to see me.”
“Then return not to the little daughter.”
“I must! I must!” cried Mrs. Belswin in despair. “I can’t give up my child after meeting her again. Twenty years, Stephano, and I have not seen her; now I am beside her every day. She loves me—not as her mother, but as her friend. I can’t give up all this because my husband is returning.”
Signor Ferrari shrugged his shoulders and lighted a cigarette.
“But there is nothing more you can do,” he said, spreading out his hands with a dramatic gesture, “eh, carrissima? Think of what is this affair. Il marito has said to you, ‘Good-bye.’ The little daughter thinks you to be dead. If then you come to reveal yourself, il marito—eh, amica mia! it is a trouble for all.”
“What can I do?”
“Nothing! oh no, certainly! You have beheld the little daughter for a time. Now you are to me again. I say, Stella ‘dora, with me remain and forget all.”
“No, I will not! I will not!” cried Mrs. Belswin, savagely, rising to her feet. “Cannot you see how I suffer? If you love me as you say, you must see how I suffer. Give up my child, my life, my happiness! I cannot do it.”
“Dio! you cannot make the miracles.”
“I can! I must! Do you think I will stay with you while my child calls me?”
“With me you must stay, my Norma. I love thee. I will not leave you no more.”
“You can’t stop me.”
“Ebbene,” said Ferrari, conscious that he held the advantage. “Go, then, and see how il marito will behold you.”
Mrs. Belswin felt her helplessness, and clenched her hands with a savage cry of despair, that seemed to be torn out of her throbbing heart. Up and down the gaudy room she paced, with her face convulsed with rage, and her fierce eyes flashing with an unholy fire, while Ferrari, secure in his position, sat quietly near the window, smoking leisurely. His self-possession seemed to provoke her, ready as she was to vent her impotent anger on anything, and, stopping abruptly she poured forth all her anger.
“Why do you sit there smiling, and smiling, like a fool?” she shrieked, stamping her foot. “Can you not suggest something? Can you not do something?”
“Eh, carissima, I would say, ‘Be quiet’ The people below will hear you cry out.”
“Let them! What do I care? I am a desperate woman, Ferrari, and I am determined to keep my position beside my child. I will stop at nothing—nothing—not even murder!”
Signor Ferrari let the cigarette drop from his fingers, and jumped up with a cry of dismay looking pale and unnerved. She saw this, and lashing him with her tongue, taunted him bitterly.
“Yes, murder, you miserable! I thought you were a brave man; but I see I made a mistake. You love me! You want to be my husband! No, no, no! I marry a brave man—yes, a brave man; not a coward!”
Ferrari winced, with an angry glitter in his eyes.
“Eh, Lucrezia. You think I am a brave man if I go to assassin il marito. Cospetto! I am an Italian; but the Italians are not fools. If another man loved you, and would take you away, I would kill him—yes! But il marito—eh, that is not quite the same. I kill him and you return to the little daughter for always. What gain to me, carissima? I kill him, and your law gives me the rope. What gain to me? No, Donna Lucrezia. Do what you love. Stab him with a stiletto, or give the poison, I say nothing; but as for me to obey—Dio, the life is not trouble to me yet.”
“You are afraid.”
He bounded across the room, and seized her roughly by the wrist.
“Devil-woman, I have no fear! You lie to speak so! You lie, figlia inferna.”
“Then why do you refuse to help me?”
“Per Bacco, I am no assassin. Il marito is not an enemy to me. To you he is hateful. Revenge yourself as it pleases; but I—cospetto. You ask too much.”
He flung her away from him with a gesture of anger, and began to walk about the room. Mrs. Belswin remained silent, savagely disappointed at the failure of her plan, and presently Ferrari began to talk again in his rapid, impulsive fashion.
“If there was any gain. Yes. But I see not anything. I would work against myself. You know that, Signora Machiavelli. Ah, yes; I am not blind, cara mia. While il marito lives, you are mine. He will keep you from the little daughter. But he dies—eh, and you depart.”
“No, no! I swear—”
“I refuse your swearing. They are false. Forget, il marito—forget the little daughter! You are mine, mia moglie, and you depart not again.”
Mrs. Belswin laughed scornfully, and put on her gloves again with the utmost deliberation. Then, taking up her umbrella, she moved quickly towards the door; but not so quickly as to prevent Ferrari placing himself before her.
“Where go you?” demanded the Italian, between his clenched teeth.
“To find a braver man than Stephano Ferrari.”
“No; you will find no one.”
“Won’t I? Pshaw! I have found one already.”
The Italian sprang on her with a bound like a tiger, seized her hands, and placed his face so close to her own that she could feel his hot breath on her cheek.
“You have a lover, traditrice?”
“You lie! I believe you not!”
Mrs. Belswin laughed, and made an attempt to go away.
“Sit in that chair, infamous!”
“I will not.”
“Sit in that chair, I order.”
“Yes, I, Stephano Ferrari.”
She looked first at the Italian, then at the chair; and his aspect was so determined that, in order to avoid an unseemly struggle, she sat down as desired, with a shrug of the shoulders.
“Now, tell me of this lover.”
“There is nothing to tell.”
“I do not lie.”
With eyes as fierce as his own, she looked straight at him, and it became a question as to which of them had the stronger will. Her determination to retain her position at any price, even at the cost of her husband’s life, had roused all her worst passions, and for the first time since he had known her, the Italian averted his eyes with a shudder of dread.
“Jettatura,” he cried, recoiling from her malignant gaze, and making horns with his fingers to avert the blighting consequences of her look. Mrs. Belswin saw her advantage, and immediately began to play on his superstition.
“I have the evil eye, you think. Yes; it is so. Why have you never discovered it before? Because I gave you love. To those who cross me not, I am kind; but an insult— Ah! you shrink. Well, then, take care. I never forgive. I never forget.”
Ferrari, completely cowed by her manner, threw himself on his knees before her, and held out his hands with a gesture of entreaty.
“Stella ‘dora, leave me not. Behold me at your feet, cruel one. I die in your anger.”
Mrs. Belswin saw that she had gained command over him, but was too wise to push her conquest too far; so, bending down, she gave him her hand, which he covered with fierce kisses.
“Rise, Stephano, and I will tell you all. For two weeks I will be in town, and with you all the days. You can call at my hotel if it pleases you. If I decide nothing about my husband you can come down with me to Deswarth, and we will face him together.”
“But this lover?”
“I have no lover. I spoke in jest. Your devotion has touched me, and I will reward it by becoming your wife. For the present,” said Mrs. Belswin, with a charming smile, “I will say ‘a reverderci.’ If you send me a box I will come and hear you sing to-night.”
Ferrari once more kissed her hand, there was a rustling of skirts, a closing of the door, and she was gone.
The Italian stood where she had left him, with a scared look on his face; and after a few minutes looked at the door through which she had vanished, with a nervous smile.
“Jettatura!” he muttered, shivering. “Jettatura.”
“Oh, I have seen the Southern Cross
In Southern skies burn clear and bright,
And I have seen the ocean toss
Beneath its gleam in waves of white.
Its beauty brought me no delight,
For I was on a foreign shore;
But now joy cometh with the sight
Of England’s chalky cliffs once more.”
Quite unaware of the pitfalls prepared for him by his now nearly forgotten wife, Sir Rupert Pethram had returned once more to England, and rejoiced greatly, in his dry fashion, to find himself again under his own roof-tree. Kaituna was delighted to have him home again, and welcomed him with a filial affection that made a deep impression on his somewhat hard nature.
He was not a favourite with the world, being so stiff and dry in his manner that every one felt a feeling of uneasiness towards him; consequently, he was unused to affection, except from his daughter, whom he loved fondly in his own undemonstrative fashion. A difficult man to get on with, at least people said so; and the haughty, distant smile with which he greeted every one was enough to chill the most exuberant expressions of friendship. Not even his residence in New Zealand, where, as a rule, humanity is much more sociable than in England, had eradicated the inherent exclusiveness of his nature. True, in his young days he had been more friendly with his fellow-creatures, but the episode of his wife’s divorce had destroyed his feelings of sociability entirely; and although, being an upright, honourable gentleman, he was respected throughout the colony, he was certainly not loved. He was a man who lived entirely alone, and, except his daughter Kaituna, there was no one on whom he bestowed a thought.
Yet he was not uncharitable. If he saw suffering he relieved it; if any one desired help he was not backward in giving his aid; still, even the recipients of his charity found it difficult to feel warmly towards him in any way. He did not believe in gratitude, and therefore never sought for it, but did his good deeds in a stolid matter-of-fact fashion that robbed them of their charm in the eyes of the onlookers. It seemed as though his unhappy married life had blighted his existence, had frozen in his breast all feelings of tenderness towards humanity, for he was eminently a man who acted from right motives, and not from any feelings of impulse to relieve suffering or help his fellow-creatures.
In appearance he was tall, slender, and rather good-looking, with a thin, wrinkled face, scanty grey hair, and a darkish moustache. Well dressed in a quiet fashion, undemonstrative and distant in his manners, he embarrassed all with whom he came in contact; for the well-bred coldness of his voice, and the supercilious look in his grey eyes, and the noli-me-tangere of his behaviour made every one around him feel uncomfortable.
With Kaituna he was always as pleasant and agreeable as he was able to be, but his daughter felt that any pointed display of affection would be received with disapproval by her singular parent.
A man so straight-laced, so rigid in the due observance of all social duties, could not but be annoyed at the absence of his daughter’s chaperon at a time when he was expected home. She was Kaituna’s guardian in his absence, responsible for her in every way, and he was naturally anxious to see if Mr. Dombrain’s choice was a good one.
Shortly after his arrival he broached the subject to Kaituna, while waiting for his horse to be brought round, as it was his intention to ride round the estate with Belk.
“Kaituna,” he said, in his frigid voice, “when do you expect this lady to return?”
“In about ten days, papa.”
“Do you like her, my child?”
“Oh, papa, I love her.”
Sir Rupert raised his eyebrows.
“That is a strong expression, and a mistaken one. My child, never give your love to any one. They will betray you.”
“Isn’t that rather severe?”
“Not from my experience,” answered Pethram, with emphasis. “But there, there! do not look so sad, child. You are young yet, and all geese are swans in your eyes. But about Mrs. Belswin. I am very much annoyed that she should have gone away at this time. It is not courteous to me, nor in keeping with her position as your companion.”
“But she had to go about some business, papa,” said Kaituna, rather afraid at the frown she saw on her father’s face.
“Business! business! Her business is here, child. I expect Mrs. Belswin to give all her time to you.”
“She has done so until now.”
“And now is the most important time, as I wish to see if she is a good companion for you.”
“I’m sure you will like her very much, papa.”
“Impossible. I like no one very much.”
“Not even me?”
She threw her arms round Sir Rupert’s neck, and his face relaxed somewhat under her smile.
“There, there, child!” he said, pushing her gently away, “if I have a weak spot in my heart it is for you. Now, good-bye at present I’m going to see how things are looking.”
So he went away in the bright, breezy morning, and Kaituna was left alone in deep thought, wondering how she could tell him of the offer of marriage made to her by Archie Maxwell. She was a brave enough girl in most things, but felt decidedly reluctant to speak to her father about a subject she knew would be disagreeable to him. Archie was young, handsome, hopeful, and loved her dearly; but these four excellent qualities would seem nothing in Sir Rupert’s eyes as opposed to poverty. The girl was in despair, knowing her father’s iron nature as she did, and longed for the return of Mrs. Belswin, in order to have at least one friend to stand by her. It was true that Archie had declared himself ready to speak to Sir Rupert at once; but Kaituna, dreading the refusal of her father to countenance the engagement, persuaded him to wait until her chaperon came back. Meanwhile, she went off to her own room to read her lover’s last letter; for as Archie, not being duly accredited, could not come to the house, they were obliged to correspond in a clandestine manner, which was not without its charm to the romantic nature of Miss Pethram.
While, therefore, Kaituna was attending to her business, Sir Rupert was attending to his. Accompanied by Belk, he rode over the estate, looking into things, and exercised the young man’s dull brains pretty considerably by his shrewd questions concerning this and that and the other thing. Sir Rupert Pethram had not been a penniless younger son, nor graduated in New Zealand for nothing, for he knew as much about land, and crops, and cattle, and top dressing as any man. Being thus accomplished, he took occasion to read his bailiff a severe lecture, which Belk received in sulky silence, on the slip-slop fashion in which things were conducted.
“When I pay my servants well,” said Sir Rupert, severely, “I expect them to look after my interests thoroughly. There has been a great deal of neglect here, and I expect you to place things on a much more satisfactory footing. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, sir; I’ll do my best.”
“Your best will be my worst, I’m afraid, judging from what I’ve seen. I’ll give you a few months longer; but if you don’t improve things in that time, Mr. Belk, I’m afraid you and I will have to part company.”
Belk was in a towering rage at thus being spoken to; but, as he wanted to retain his situation, he held his tongue, nevertheless determining in his own mind that he would repay Sir Rupert for his reproof as soon as he was able. Fortune offered him an unexpected chance, of which he took immediate advantage.
Returning home with Sir Rupert, a dogcart containing two young men passed them on the road, the occupants of which nodded to Belk, whom they knew slightly.
“Who are those gentlemen?” asked Sir Rupert, sharply.
“One is Mr. Clendon, the vicar’s son, sir.”
“And the other?”
Belk saw his chance; for, knowing all the gossip of the place, he was aware that Kaituna’s engagement was unknown to Sir Rupert; so in the hope that it would be disagreeable, he spoke out straight.
“Mr. Maxwell, sir. The gentleman engaged to Miss Pethram.”
“What the devil do you mean?” demanded Sir Rupert, haughtily.
“I beg your pardon, sir. I only answered your question.”
Pethram looked keenly at the man, to read his real meaning; but Belk kept his countenance with the greatest skill, so the baronet was forced to believe that he had spoken in all good faith.
“You can go, Belk,” he said curtly, turning his horse’s head; “and don’t forget what I’ve said.”
The bailiff looked after him with a savage look in his face.
“No, I won’t forget,” he said to himself, scowling. “That affair’s been kept from you, but you know all about it now. If I can find a chance of hurting you, my fine gentleman, I’ll do it, to pay you out for your cursed pride this day.”
Meanwhile Sir Rupert, outwardly calm, was riding home consumed with rage. What! his daughter engaged to a man of whom he knew nothing—of whose very name he was ignorant? It was infamous. And she had never said a word about it. Good heavens! where was Mrs. Belswin, to permit such a thing? Evidently it was common gossip. All the county knew it; and his daughter, whom he loved and trusted, had withheld her confidence.
“She’s like her mother,” said Sir Rupert, between his clenched teeth; “deceptive in all things. Never mind, I’ll get the truth out of her before the day is an hour older, and then—Oh, these women! these women! daughters and wives, they are all the same. They smile, they kiss, they betray; and we poor fools believe them.”
Touching his horse with the spur, he rode at full gallop up the avenue, in order to relieve his over-burdened feelings; and, when he was once more in his own study, sent for his daughter without delay.
Kaituna obeyed this unexpected summons with considerable trepidation, having, with feminine instinct, guessed the reason for which her father wanted to see her so suddenly. She found him standing in front of the fireplace, with his hands behind his back, and a stern look on his face—a look she had never before seen directed at her.
“Will you take a chair,” said Pethram, with glacial politeness. “I’m sorry to trouble you about a disagreeable matter; but, being your father, I owe it to myself and to you to speak.”
She sat down in the chair he indicated with a sinking heart, and waited in silence to hear his reproaches. Sir Rupert, however, had no intention of making any; he disliked a scene, and was moreover skilful in using that irony which cuts like a knife, and which is far more effective than unreasoning rage.
“So you have deceived me, Kaituna?”
“Am I your father? I hardly think so, when you conceal from me the most important event of your life.”
Kaituna had a considerable spice of the paternal nature in her, so she took a hint from the baronet, and used his own weapons to defend herself.
“I don’t understand to what you allude, sir.”
“Do you not? If, then, you will give me your attention for a few moments, I will try and enlighten you. I saw a young gentleman in the distance to-day, and asked Belk who he was. In reply I was informed that it was a Mr. Maxwell, to whom you are engaged. Will you kindly inform me if this is the case?”
Kaituna lifted her head defiantly.
“I love Mr. Maxwell, and wish to marry him.”
“Indeed. I presume you never considered that it was necessary to consult me?”
“I intended to do so, father, when—when Mrs. Belswin returned.”
“Ah! Mrs. Belswin then knows all about this affair?”
“And is going to ask me to consent to the marriage?”
Sir Rupert walked up and down the room for a few minutes, then, pausing before his daughter, spoke deliberately.
“I’m afraid you may think me somewhat inquisitive, but I should like to know something about this Mr. Maxwell. Where did you meet him?”
“Indeed! And having fallen in love with you there, he followed you up here.”
“Yes! He was going to ask you to consent to our marriage.”
“Very considerate of him; but as yet he has not done so. Who is my future son-in-law?”
“Father,” cried Kaituna, the tears coming into her eyes, “do not speak so cruelly. He is a civil engineer, and I love him very—very dearly. Mr. Clendon, the vicar, knows him. He is staying there just now.”
“Very interesting indeed. Has he any money?”
“I don’t know! I think not.”
“So you were going to marry in this extremely doubtful fashion. I must say the whole affair does equal credit to your heart and head.”
“Pardon me! one moment. This estate is entailed, and should I die to-morrow, you do not inherit a penny, as it goes to the next male heir of the Pethrams. If, then, you do not make a good match, I confess I do not see how you are to live.”
Kaituna said nothing, but remained with downcast eyes, looking at the ground, while her father went on speaking in a cold tranquil tone.
“Knowing that you would be penniless at my death, I went out to New Zealand, sold all my property, and invested the money in an Australian Silver Mining Company. You may be sure I did not do so without first personally inquiring thoroughly about the prospects of the company. From what I learned, I am sure that it will turn out well, and in the event of its doing so, you will be an heiress. Under these circumstances I can rest assured as to your future, should I die in an unexpected manner.”
“I understand, father, but—but—what are you going to do?”
“I am going to write to Mr. Maxwell, thank him for his very gentlemanly behaviour, and refuse to sanction the match.”
Kaituna flung herself on her knees before him.
“No, no! you will not be so cruel. I love him, papa! Oh, you don’t know how I love him.”
“I know well enough, Kaituna. You love him so much that you would go and live in a cottage, on dry bread and water. This is youthful folly, and I decline to aid you to ruin your life in such a way. Mr. Maxwell has behaved very badly—”
“I say he has,” replied Pethram, with emphasis; “no gentleman would have acted as he has done. I will write him at once, and if he seeks an interview he shall have it, so that I can tell him to his face my opinion of his conduct.”
“Not another word, Kaituna. Rise from your knees, for all your tears won’t alter my decision. I won’t ask you to dismiss this gentleman; I will do it myself.”
His daughter, stung by his cold irony, sprang to her feet with a cry of anger.
“Papa! Papa! Don’t do that. I love him! I want to marry him!” Then, after a pause, stamping her foot, “I will marry him.”
“Will you? I’m afraid not,” replied Pethram, coldly; “you are under age, remember.”
“Oh, what shall I do! what shall I do,” cried the girl, tearfully, raising her head.
“Behave like a sensible woman, and give up this madness.”
“No, I will not. I will be true to Archie!”
Pethram shook his head with a vexed air.
“My dear child, you are really very foolish. I don’t wish to argue any more on the subject.”
“You are going to write to—to Mr. Maxwell?”
“And refuse to let him marry me?”
“Then,” said Kaituna, pausing a moment at the door, “I swear by the name of my mother that I will be true to him.”
She was gone in a moment, and Sir Rupert, over whose face had come a grave, worn look, laughed discordantly.
“By the name of her mother,” he said with a sneer. “Ah! she little knows what her mother was.”
“ ‘Tis ill work fighting in the dark,
Though skilled you be in use of lance;
A random thrust may stretch you sark,
Though guided but by fickle chance.
‘Tis wisest, then, to fight in light,
For you can judge your foeman’s skill;
And though in armour he be dight,
Your lance may find some place to kill.”
The interview which had taken place between Mrs. Belswin and her Italian lover had been productive of a curious change in the demeanour of the latter. From being master he became slave, from commanding he changed to obeying; and taking advantage of this astonishing transformation, Mrs. Belswin ordered her quondam master about like a dog. She saw that by a single flash of her fierce eyes at a critical moment she had inculcated the superstitious Italian with the idea that she was possessed of the evil eye, and had by so doing taken all the manhood out of him. This son of the south, who was decidedly brave in the presence of physical danger, was so completely the slave of superstition that he firmly believed Mrs. Belswin’s eyes exercised a malignant influence upon him, against which he was powerless to struggle. Notwithstanding this terrible feeling, he was too much in love with her to think of removing himself from the dread fascination of her presence, and therefore, he accepted his new position with superstitious resignation. Once or twice, indeed, he attempted to exert his former authority; but the ominous gleam in Mrs. Belswin’s eyes, and the significant sneer on her lips, soon reduced him to obedience, and he cowered at the feet of his sometime slave in abject terror. It was not physical fear, it was not a want of manliness: it was simply the effect of a supernatural terror acting upon a nature singularly prone, both by birth and training, to yield to such weird superstitions.
Having thus reduced Ferrari to such a state of bondage, Mrs. Belswin thought that there would be no difficulty in making him put her husband out of the way in some stealthy manner. Here, however, she was entirely wrong, as Ferrari, being afraid of the English law, absolutely refused to lend himself to the committal of a crime even at the command of his evil genius. In vain, with all the artistic craft of a woman, she prayed, implored, cursed, ordered. Ferrari would not be moved from the position which he had taken up, in holding himself aloof from the power of the law. Afraid of her in every other way, he did exactly as she asked him, but in this special case his fear of the visible power of justice was greater than his fear of supernatural visitation from the glance of the evil eye, and after a fortnight’s battling Mrs. Belswin was obliged to confess herself beaten by the steady refusal of her slave to obey her in what she desired most of all things to be done.
By means of Belk she had kept herself thoroughly well acquainted with all that had taken place at Thornstream during her absence. The bailiff employed his mother, who was always haunting the great house, to find out what was going on. So, the information she gave her son, he, in his turn, retailed by letter to Mrs. Belswin in London. From this source, therefore, the latter learned all about Sir Rupert’s return, the discovery of the engagement, and the dismissal of Archie Maxwell by the angry baronet. On hearing all this news, Mrs. Belswin, with rare resolution, made up her mind to go down to Thornstream and see her husband face to face. She saw plainly that she could do nothing criminal against him, and so determined to have an interview with him, and throw herself on his mercy. If he granted her this all would be well; if, however, he spurned her—well— Mrs. Belswin knitted her brows, clenched her hands, and drew a long breath. She was a despairing, reckless woman, and would stop at nothing to gain her ends, so it seemed as though Sir Rupert was in a very dangerous position. The baronet was no coward, but he would certainly have felt a thrill of fear had he known this meditated attack by his terribly savage wife.
One effect of Ferrari’s newly-born dread of Mrs. Belswin’s supernatural powers was that he followed her like a dog, and seemed afraid to let her out of his sight. Formerly, having a full belief in his power to draw her back to himself, he had not minded her being away for certain periods; but now that he deemed his dominating power was gone, he was afraid lest she should leave him altogether, and kept a close watch upon all her actions. He was with her all day, and at night, when forced to attend to his business, insisted that she should come to the theatre and stay in a private box, where he could see her during the performance. Mrs. Belswin did not wish to abuse her newly-gained power over him, so acquiesced in his somewhat unreasonable demands; but when she made her preparations to return to Thornstream, he insisted upon accompanying her there.
“But what about your business?” objected Mrs. Belswin.
“That will be right, cara mia,” he replied rapidly. “See you—we will go down on Sunday—I do not sing that night; and I will return on Monday—with you.”
“I will not return on Monday.”
“Signora, you will, I think so. On Sunday night you will behold il marito. He will order you away; and what is left but to come back with your faithful Stephano?”
“What you say is very true,” said Mrs. Belswin, coolly, “but things may turn out so that I can stay.”
“Eh! have you the plan, Donna Lucrezia?”
“No; I leave everything to chance.”
“Dio! what faith!” muttered Ferrari, lifting his hands; and the conversation ended with Mrs. Belswin agreeing that Ferrari should accompany her to Thornstream on Sunday afternoon.
With that profound belief in the unseen which is a strong characteristic of half-civilised natures, Mrs. Belswin, seeing that she could do nothing herself, left everything to chance, and expected this blind faith to be rewarded by some miraculous intervention which should change her husband’s heart towards her. She had no grounds for such belief, but, hoping against hope, kept repeating to herself that all would yet be well, and that things would end happily.
Nevertheless, in spite of her striving to look upon the bright side of things, she received something of a shock when, on arriving at the Deswarth railway station, she saw Archie Maxwell advancing towards her with a most lugubrious expression of countenance. Wishing to speak with him, she sent Ferrari off to look after her portmanteau and drew the disconsolate lover into the bare waiting-room, where they could converse freely.
“Well?” asked Mrs. Belswin, sharply, looking at the downcast face of the young man; “is all this true?”
“About Sir Rupert?”
“Yes, of course! What else would I speak of?”
“It’s all true! quite true—worse luck!”
“He has refused to sanction the engagement?”
“Yes. I received a letter from him, in which he accuses me of acting shamefully in winning his daughter’s heart. Oh!” cried, Archie, clenching his hands, “if he was not her father! You never saw such a letter—a cruel, wicked letter! If he was not her father I would make him apologise for its insolence.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Belswin, cruelly. “So, being her father, you are going to sit quietly down under this insult.”
“What can I do?”
“Do! Oh, if I only were a man! Do! Why, marry Kaituna in spite of him. Why don’t you see Kaituna and urge her to marry you at once?”
“I have done so, and she refuses to disobey her father.”
“Good heavens!” thought Mrs. Belswin savagely, “the girl is no daughter of mine to allow herself thus to be robbed of the man she professes to love.”
She kept this sentiment to herself, however, and only said abruptly—
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m going up to town on business.”
“Indeed! So you capitulate without a struggle?”
“No, I don’t,” replied Maxwell, flushing at the cold contempt expressed in her tone. “I am going to see my employers about this Buenos Ayres business which I put off till the end of the year. If I can manage it I’ll start for South America next month.”
“Not if I can help it. On my return I’ll try and persuade Kaituna to accompany me.”
“And disobey her father?”
“There’s no help for it,” replied Archie, with a groan. “We love one another very dearly, and I don’t see why our lives should be spoilt at the caprice of a selfish old man.”
“What does your friend Mr. Clendon say?”
“He is entirely on my side.”
“And Mrs. Valpy?”
“The same. They think Sir Rupert is an old brute,”
“So he is,” muttered Mrs. Belswin, angrily.
“Well, Mr. Maxwell,” she said aloud, “I also am on your side. It’s a shame that your lives should be spoilt for a caprice. But remember one thing, Sir Rupert will cut his daughter off with a shilling.”
“Let him. Kaituna and I can face poverty together.”
“Poor innocents,” said Mrs. Belswin, with a jeering laugh, “you don’t know what poverty is.”
“You needn’t speak so unkindly,” replied Archie, rather hurt at her tone, “I thought you wished me to marry Kaituna.”
“So I do, but I don’t want you to starve.”
“We shall not starve. I can always make a good income.”
“My dear sir,” said Mrs. Belswin, candidly, “your income may be enough for one but it certainly is not enough for two, particularly when the other is a girl brought up as Kaituna has been. If you marry Kaituna without her father’s consent, you drag her down to poverty.”
“Yes, you do. It’s no good glossing over those matters. Better look at the hard simple facts, Mr. Maxwell, and you will find it best in the long run. You love Kaituna, she loves you, and you look forward to love in a cottage and all that kind of thing, which does not exist out of novels. The reality, however, is not so pleasant.”
“Then what am I to do? Give up Kaituna?”
“Certainly not. Kahuna’s happiness is as dear to me as it is to you. If you left her she would pine away, and I’m sure you would not be happy.”
“Mrs. Belswin,” cried the young man in desperation, “I don’t know what you mean. You blow hot and cold; you are both for and against. You say marry Kaituna, and then you add it is a selfish thing to drag her to poverty. I don’t understand your meaning.”
“Oh, the density of lovers,” said Mrs. Belswin, with an angry flash of her fierce eyes. “You are like all men, my dear Mr. Maxwell, and never see an inch beyond your nose. Does it never strike you that I am also fond of Kaituna, and would do anything to insure her happiness.”
“Yes, even I. Oh, don’t look so disbelieving, my friend. I may have more power than you think with Sir Rupert.”
“But you don’t know Sir Rupert.”
“Don’t I?” replied Mrs. Belswin, grimly. “That’s all you know. Well, here is your train, Mr. Maxwell, so I’ll say good-bye.”
“But what are you going to do?” said Archie as they went out on to the platform.
“I don’t know—yet.”
“Will you get Sir Rupert to consent to our marriage?”
Maxwell jumped into a first-class carriage with a sigh of despair, and put his head out of the window for a moment as the train started.
“I don’t know your meaning, but you seem to have some power, so I’ll leave the future happiness of Kaituna and myself in your hands.”
“You will trust me?”
“Very well; you will see your trust has not been misplaced.”
Mrs. Belswin, however, was promising more than she could perform, and stood frowning deeply as the train went off. From this reverie she was aroused by a touch on her shoulder, and on turning saw Ferrari.
“Is that the man?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is it the one who is ready to do for you what I refuse.”
She looked at him mockingly, and, woman-like, determined to torture him.
“My good Stephano, if you knew that, you would be as wise as myself!”
Before the storm the woods are still,
All Nature drowses as in sleep;
Yet, tho’ her slumbers she may keep,
She feels a strange prophetic thrill,
Before the storm.
From heavy clouds on mount and hill,
The thunders mutter—lightnings leap,
And soon the heav’ns commence to weep,
Such strained silence augurs ill,
Before the storm.
Living at Thornstream was hardly very pleasant after the interview between Sir Rupert and his daughter. Everything went on just the same, but this very calmness was a foreboding sign of a coming tempest. The baronet was deeply angered at what he considered Kaituna’s feminine duplicity, but hiding all such feelings under a mask of ultra politeness, he treated her with a cold courtesy which was far more irritating to the proud spirit of the girl than any outburst of wrath would have been.
Inheriting, however, no inconsiderable portion of the paternal pride, she, on her part, treated her father with distant politeness; so these two proud spirits found themselves entirely separated, the one from the other, by the insurmountable barrier of disdainful silence, which they had each contributed to build. They lived under the same roof, they took their meals at the same table, they interchanged the usual remarks concerning daily events, and, to all outward appearances, were the same to one another as they had ever been; but it was far from being the case, for the confidence of the father in the daughter, of the daughter in the father, had entirely disappeared, and they regarded one another with mutual distrust.
It was certainly a very unhappy state of things, and was entirely due to the peculiar views held by Sir Rupert, regarding his bearing towards his womankind. Had he interviewed Maxwell personally, and judged for himself as to his fitness to become the husband of his daughter—had he spoken of the matter to Kaituna in a kindly manner—had he made some allowance for the mutual love of these young people, who had set aside conventional observations, things might have been better. But, by ordering his daughter to give up her lover, as he had formerly ordered his high-spirited wife to give up her friend, he committed a fatal mistake, and as he had reaped the consequences of such high-handed proceedings before by losing his wife, it seemed as though history would repeat itself, and he would lose his daughter. Had he shown Kaituna the folly of a hasty love match, had he entreated her for her own sake to be cautious, had he requested her to consider her determination—but to order, ah, that was the mistake he made.
Curiously enough, he never saw this. In all things he demanded an absolute and unquestioning obedience from his household, so it never for a moment struck him that the girl would dare to defy his authority. Yet it was so; for in place of making her obedient, Sir Rupert’s blundering conduct had made her crafty, and she made up her mind that she would never give up her lover.
Tommy Valpy stood her friend, and Kaituna met Archie at her house, where they parted with many promises of remaining true to one another. Then Kaituna returned to Thornstream, and resumed her mask of politeness; while Sir Rupert, thinking she had obeyed him, and given up her undesirable lover, was to a certain extent content, although still suspicious of her apparent acquiescence in his wish.
Things were in this state when Mrs. Belswin arrived. On leaving the railway station, after her interview with Maxwell, she had met Belk, but did not stop to speak to him, being afraid of Ferrari’s jealousy. In this she was quite right, for Belk, seeing her driving past with a stranger, scowled savagely as he took off his hat; while Ferrari, noting the good looks of the young man, and seeing the scowl directed to himself, guessed directly that this was the rival mentioned by Mrs. Belswin.
“Mia cara,” he said, artfully, as they drove on to Deswarth, “that handsome gentleman who made the bow—is it your friend?”
“Friend,” echoed Mrs. Belswin, carelessly—“oh, I’ve so many friends.”
“Is it—” began Stephano, when Mrs. Belswin turned furiously upon him.
“Don’t worry me, Stephano; don’t you see I’m busy. Is that the man I mentioned to you?—yes, it is. You see he is stronger than you, so don’t fight him unless you like. I don’t care a morsel for either of you. All I want is to stay by my child; and as you can’t help me, you coward, don’t worry me with silly questions.”
Ferrari said no more, but made up his mind to seek an interview with the good-looking stranger, and find out whether Mrs. Belswin regarded him with favour.
On arriving at Deswarth, which was a short distance from Thornstream, Mrs. Belswin put the Italian down at “The Chequers Inn,” told him to wait there in concealment until she saw him again, and then drove to the Hall.
Being determined not to see Sir Rupert until after dinner, in order to discover in the meantime how the land lay, she went up to her own room and sent for Kaituna, who was delighted to see her.
“Now you are here,” said the girl kissing her friend, “you may perhaps induce papa to let me marry Archie. You know—”
“I know all about it, my dear,” replied Mrs. Belswin, with a maternal air; “Mr. Maxwell met me at the railway station, and put me in full possession of all the facts.”
“And do you think papa will let me marry him?” asked Kaituna, timidly.
“I really cannot tell, dear, until I see your papa.”
“No-o,” responded Mrs. Belswin, doubtfully; “I’m tired after my journey, so I’ll have my dinner here. Afterwards I will ask for an interview with Sir Rupert, so you and your papa can dine tête-à-tête.”
“No, I’m sure we can’t,” said Kaituna, in rather a tone of relief; “Mr. Dombrain is here.”
Mrs. Belswin faced round rapidly.
“Dombrain!” she echoed aghast. “Your father’s solicitor.”
“Now what does he want here, I wonder?” muttered Mrs. Belswin, more to herself than to her auditor.
“He came down to make papa’s will, I think,” said Kaituna.
“His will!” echoed Mrs. Belswin, struck with a sudden thought. “Kaituna, if your father dies, will he leave you well off?”
“Oh, I don’t want papa to die.”
“No, no! of course not,” said her companion impatiently; “but one never knows what might happen. But suppose he did die, you would be an heiress no doubt.”
Kaituna shook her head.
“I don’t think so,” she replied, slowly. “You see, Thornstream is entailed on the male side, and none of it comes to me.”
“But your father was well enough off in New Zealand.”
“Why, how do you know that?”
“I don’t know, dear,” answered Mrs. Belswin hurriedly, seeing she had made a slip; “I only presume so.”
“He used to be well off, but he lost a lot of money lately, and this time when he went out he sold all his property.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Belswin, drawing a long breath of relief, “then he will have a large sum of money in hand.”
“No, indeed! He has put it all into silver mining shares in Melbourne.”
“The fool!” muttered Mrs. Belswin, below her breath, “to risk his all in such security.”
“So you see, dear Mrs. Belswin,” said Kaituna, pursuing her own train of thought, “that if Archie wants to marry me for my money, I shall not have any.”
Mrs. Belswin caught the girl in her arms and kissed her with rare tenderness.
“My dear,” she said kindly, smoothing the dark hair, “Archie loves you for yourself, not for your money. Now go downstairs, dear, and excuse me to your father.”
“And you will see him to-night about Archie?”
Mrs. Belswin gasped in a somewhat hysterical manner, and caught at the mantelpiece for support, as she repeated the words.
“I will see him to-night—about—about—Archie.”
Kaituna was satisfied and departed, but when the door was closed after her, Mrs. Belswin rushed madly across the room, and, flinging herself on her knees before the door, burst out into a terrible fit of crying.
“Oh, my dear! my dear!” she wailed, in a low moaning manner, “what can I do? what can I do? If your father dies you will be left penniless; if he lives I shall have to leave you forever—for ever, my dear—and go away into the outer darkness. Oh, God! God! is there nothing I can do?”
She looked up at the painted ceiling, as if expecting an answer, but none came; so, rising wearily to her feet, she locked the door, and dragged herself slowly towards the mirror.
“What an old, old woman I look,” she muttered, peering into the glass. “Grey hairs in the black; wrinkles in the smooth face. I wonder if he will recognise me. Surely not! Twenty years make a great difference. I will see him now in another two hours. He never dreams I am under the same roof, unless Dombrain—”
She started, drew herself up to her full height, and clenched her hands.
“Dombrain!” she said again. “Can he have revealed anything to Rupert? I know he hates me, and would do me an injury if he dared. But he cannot. No! I hold his secret; while I do that mine is safe with him. Oh! how ill I feel, but I must not faint, I must not quail. I must be brave—brave for my child’s sake.”
She bathed her face in cold water, took a small liqueur glass of brandy, which she produced from the dressing-bag, and then went to lie down for a time before facing her husband.
“To-night,” she murmured, as her head sank on the pillows. “To-night, Rupert Pethram, we measure swords. Let us see who will win. You or I!”
“Oh, I was the husband and you were the wife;
We met, and we married, and parted.
Our meeting was happy, our marriage was strife:
Our parting left each broken-hearted.
Our hearts are now cured of their anguish and shame;
We’ve learned each our lesson of sorrow;
‘Tis folly to need the same lesson again,
And so I will bid you ‘good-morrow.’ ”
Sir Rupert’s study, which was one of the most comfortable apartments in the house, was placed in the east angle of the building, so that two of the walls were formed by the outside of the house. It was lighted by four French windows, two of which were generally open in fine weather, looking out on to the terrace.
It was furnished in a heavy, stately fashion, with cumbersome oaken furniture, upholstered in green morocco, and the walls, hung with velvety dark-green paper, were surrounded with low oaken bookcases, the height of a man, filled with well-selected volumes. On top of these cases were placed choice specimens of ceramic art, consisting of red Egyptian water-jars, delicate figures in Dresden china, and huge bowls of porcelain, bizarre with red and blue dragons. Interspersed with these, quaint effigies of squat Hindoo idols, grotesque bronze gods from Japan, and hideous fetishes from Central Africa.
Dainty water-colour pictures in slender gilt frames lightened the sombre tints of the walls, and between these were highly polished steel battle-axes, old-fashioned guns, delicate but deadly pistols of modern workmanship, and dangerous-looking swords, all arranged in symmetrical patterns. The floor of polished oak was covered with buffalo skins from American prairies, opossum rugs from Australian plains, striped tiger-skins from Indian jungles, and white bear-skins from the cold north; while in the centre of the room stood the desk, piled with books and loose papers. The whole room had a workmanlike appearance and an air of literary comfort eminently attractive to a bookish man.
On this night the two French windows were wide open, and into the room floated the rich perfumes of the flowers, broken by the pungent smell of a cigar which Sir Rupert was smoking as he sat writing at his desk. At his feet on either side were heavy books, carelessly thrown down after use, and scattered sheets of paper, while amid the confused mass on the desk itself was the red blotting-pad and the white note-paper on which he was writing. There was a lamp on his left, from beneath the green shade of which welled a flood of heavy yellow light—so heavy that it seemed to rest sluggishly on the floor and be unable to rise to the ceiling, where the shade made a dark circle.
Within—the yellow lighted room, the silent man writing rapidly, the steady ticking of the clock, and the acrid tobacco scent. Without—the close night, moonless and starless, the air drowsy with heat, the faint flower-odours, and the sombre masses of the trees sleeping dully under the soporific influence of the atmosphere.
There was something weird in the uncanny stillness of the night, a kind of premonition of coming woe, which would have certainly affected the nerves of a highly-strung man; but Sir Rupert did not believe in nerves, and wrote on carelessly without giving a thought to the strange prophetic feeling in the air.
If he had only known he would have fallen on his knees and prayed for the protection of his guardian angel until the red dawn broke through the dread shadows of the fatal night.
The rapid scratching of the pen, the sharp peremptory tick of the clock, and suddenly a distinct knock at the door. Sir Rupert raised his head with an expectant look on his face.
A woman entered, tall and stately, arrayed in sombre garments; she entered slowly, with a faltering step, and paused in the shadow before the desk. Sir Rupert, his eyes dazzled by the glare of the lamp, could see her face but indistinctly in the semi-twilight, and only heard her short hurried breathing, which betokened great agitation.
“Mrs. Belswin, is it not?”
The woman placed one hand on her throat, as if striving to keep down an attack of hysteria, and answered in a low, choked voice—
“I beg your pardon, I did not hear what you said, madam.”
“I—I am Mrs. Belswin.”
Sir Rupert started, and passed his hand across his face with a confused sense of memory, but, dismissing the sudden flash of thought, he arose to his feet, and pointed politely to a chair.
“Will you not be seated, Mrs. Belswin?”
She was foolish to betray her identity, but whether it was that her resolution failed her, or that her nerve gave way, or that she determined to forestall discovery, with an appealing cry she fell on her knees.
He tore the shade off the lamp. The heavy, concentrated, yellow light spread through the room in clear waves of brilliance, and there on the floor, with wild, white face, with outstretched, appealing hands, with the agony of despair in her eyes, he saw his divorced wife.
Step by step he retreated before the kneeling figure, with startled eyes and dry lips, until he leant against the wall, and thrust out cruel hands to keep off this spectre of the past.
“Yes. I—your wife!”
He burst out into a discordant laugh, on which, like a wounded snake, she dragged herself painfully along the floor until she reached his feet.
“Keep off,” he whispered, in a hoarse voice; “keep off, you shameless creature!”
“But hear me.”
“Hear you!—hear you!” said Sir Rupert, in a tone of concentrated scorn. “I heard you twenty years ago. The law heard you; the world heard you. What can you say to me now that I did not hear then?”
“Pity me. Oh, Rupert, pity me!”
“Pity you! You that had no pity on me! You that ruined my life—that blasted my name—that made my home desolate! Pity you! I am not an angel! I am a man.”
The woman twisted her hands together, and burst out crying into floods of hot bitter tears that burned and seared her cheeks—those cheeks that burned with shame at the righteous scorn of the man who had trusted her and whom she had wronged.
“What are you doing here?” said Pethram, harshly. “Rise and answer me. Don’t lie grovelling there with your crocodile tears.”
“Have you no mercy?”
“None for such as you.”
At these cruel words she arose to her feet with an effort and leaned heavily against the wall, while her husband took his seat in stern anger, as if she were a criminal brought before him for sentence.
“You are Mrs. Belswin?”
“My daughter’s companion?”
“She is mine as well as yours.”
“Silence!” he said, sternly. “Do not dare to claim the child which you left so cruelly twenty years ago. Have you no shame?”
“Shame!” she replied bitterly. “Yes, I have shame. I know what shame is—twenty years of bitter, cruel shame. God of mercy, twenty years!”
“Twenty thousand years would not be too much for your sin.”
“Are you so pure yourself that you can judge me so harshly?”
“I am not here to argue such a question,” he said, coldly, with a cruel look in his eyes. “I want to know what you are doing here.”
“I came as a companion to my daughter.”
“And you told her—”
“I told her nothing,” said Mrs. Belswin, vehemently. “So help me, Heaven! she knows nothing. I am her companion, her paid companion—nothing more.”
“I am glad you have had the sense to spare my daughter the story of your shame. How did you obtain the situation?”
“It was advertised, and I got it through Dombrain.”
“Did he know who you were?”
“How could he? Do you think all the world knows the story of my folly?”
“Your folly!” he repeated, with deep scorn; “your sin you mean. Dombrain was a long time in New Zealand; he must have heard of the case.”
“If he did he never saw me. He did not recognise me.”
Sir Rupert looked at her doubtfully, as if he would drag the truth from her unwilling lips. She stood before him white, silent, defiant, and he arose slowly to his feet.
“Twenty years ago,” he said, coldly, “the law gave me my freedom from you, and I thought never to see you again. Like a thief you have entered my house during my absence. You have dared to contaminate with your presence my child—yes, my child, not yours. She ceased to be yours when you forsook her. How you obtained this entrance I will make it my business to find out; but now that I know that Mrs. Belswin is my divorced wife, I order her to leave my house at once. Go!”
She uttered a piteous cry, and stretched out her hands towards him in an agony of despair.
“No, no! you cannot be so cruel.”
“I am not cruel. By your own act you forfeited your right to remain under my roof.”
“But my child.”
“Your child! Ah, you remember her now, after deserting her for twenty years! Do you think I will permit you to contaminate her young life by your presence? Do you think that I can see you day after day and not remember what you were, and see what you are?”
His wife cowered before his vehemence, and, covering her face with her hands, shrank against the wall.
“Rupert!” she said, in a low pleading voice, “do not be so harsh with me. If I have sinned I have suffered for my sin. For twenty years I have longed for a sight of my child, but until now I dared not see her. Chance sent you away and gave me an opportunity of living with her as a companion. She does not know who I am. She will never know who I am, and as her paid companion she loves me! Let me stay beside her and have some happiness in my wretched life.”
“No; I will not! I wonder you dare ask me.”
“I dare anything for my child.”
“It is too late to talk like that—twenty years too late.”
“You will let me stay. Oh, Rupert, let me stay.”
“For God’s sake.”
“Reflect! Some day you may need mercy. How can you expect it if you deny it to me?”
“You have heard my determination. Go!”
“At this moment.”
“You would turn me out of your house like a dog?”
“I would, and I do! It is all that you deserve at my hands.”
“Is there no mercy?”
“None—from me. Go!”
“I will not go,” cried Mrs. Belswin, in despair. “I will not go, I tell you.”
Sir Rupert advanced towards the bell rope.
“Then I will order my servants to turn you out.”
“But, Rupert, think. Kaituna will learn who I am.”
“Better that than she should be contaminated by your presence.”
The woman clasped her hands together, and then in a frenzy of rage dashed across the room to pull him away from the bell-rope.
“You shall not! you shall not!” she shrieked, her fierce eyes flashing with mad anger. “I will stay! I am a reckless woman! I love my child! I will not go!”
“I have the power to make you go, and I will,” said Pethram, coldly.
“Are you a man or a devil?”
“I am what you have made me.”
“What I made you!” she hissed, in a voice shaking with bitter scorn. “No! it is you who have made me what I am. I loved you when I married you. As there is a God above, I loved you; but with your cold, cruel words, with your sarcastic sneers, with your neglect you killed that love. I had no friend. I was only a girl, and you crushed my heart. I was dying for the love and tenderness which you refused to give me.”
“I was a good husband.”
“As the world says, ‘A good husband.’ You gave me a good home. You surrounded me with every comfort. To all outward appearance, I had nothing left to desire. Ah, how little you, with your cold, cruel nature, know what a woman wants. I desired love! I desired tenderness, but I did not get it. Oates was kind to me. He cheered my loneliness, and in a moment of madness I went with him. I regretted it the moment afterwards. I have regretted it ever since. God knows how miserable my life has been. Now I have a chance of happiness, I will take advantage of it. I will stay with my child; you can do what you like, you can say what you like—I stay.”
Without changing a muscle of his face, Sir Rupert heard his miserable wife to the end, then advanced once more to the bell.
“You have said all; now go, or I will have you turned out.”
Mrs. Belswin laughed scornfully.
“Do what you like,” she said, indifferently. “You have said what you will do; I have said what I will do.”
For the first time Sir Rupert hesitated, and let his hand fall without ringing the bell.
“You fiend!” he said, in a cold fury. “Having made my life miserable before, you now come to do so again. But I knew I was never safe from your malice. Dombrain, to whom I told all your vile conduct, said you would come again.”
“He said that? Dombrain said that?”
“And he is a fit judge of my conduct!” she burst out in passionate anger. “Do you know who he is? Do you know what he was? A convict—an embezzler—a man who has served his term in prison.”
“My solicitor—Mr. Dombrain?” he said, incredulously.
“Mr. Dombrain!” she scoffed, sneeringly. “Mr. Damberton is his real name, and it was by knowing what he was and what he is, that I forced him to receive me as your daughter’s companion. I would have spared him had he spared me, but now—well, you know the worst of him.”
“Yes, and I know the worst of you,” he said, fiercely. “Oh, you played your cards well. But I will turn you out of my house, and to-morrow I will expose Dombrain or Damberton’s real position to all the world.”
“You can do what you like about him, but I stay here.”
“You go, and at once.”
“I will not,” she said, desperately.
“Then I will shame you in the eyes of your own child,” he replied, resolutely, seizing the bell rope.
“No, no! not that!”
“I say I will. Either you go at once, or I call in Kaituna and tell her who and what you are.”
Mrs. Belswin writhed in anguish.
“Oh, I could not bear that! My own child! Pity, pity!”
“Will you go?”
“Will you go?”
“Yes, yes! My own child! I will go. Yes, don’t ring the bell; I will go now. But do not tell her—oh, Rupert, do not tell her!”
“I will tell nothing if you leave this house at once.”
She dragged herself slowly towards the window, conscious that she was beaten. Firm on every point, reckless to the verge of despair, the thought that her own child should know her shame was too much even for her.
“Oh, God! is there no mercy?”
On the threshold of the window she stood, with her tall form drawn up to its full height, and her fierce eyes flashing with rage.
“You part the mother and the child. You drive me out of your house like a dog. But remember with whom you have to deal. To-night it is your turn; to-morrow it will be mine.”
He looked at her with a scornful smile, and in a moment she was swallowed up by the darkness of the night, from whence she had emerged like a spectre of the past.
“I stand outside in the bitter night,
And beat at the fast-closed door;
‘Oh, let me in to the kindly light,
Give back to me days of yore.’
But an angel says, with a frowning brow,
‘The past can no power restore,
You must dwell in the outer darkness now
For ever and ever more.’ ”
Through the warm summer night, her heart filled with rage, humiliation, and despair, fled the unhappy woman, whither she knew not. All she wanted was to escape from Thornstream, lest her husband, seeing her by chance, should break his word and tell Kaituna what she was. If he did so—oh, the horror of it for her daughter to know that the mother whose memory she reverenced was alive, and an unhappy, fallen creature! A thousand fiends seemed to shriek in her ears as she ran onward, and it was only when she came against the trunk of a tree and fell half-stunned on the cool grass that she stopped in her mad career.
How cool was the delicate touch of the grass, how sweet the perfume of the flowers. She buried her hot face among the primroses, and pressed her aching breast against the chill bosom of the earth to still the agonised throbbing of her heart.
Under the great tree she lay in an exhausted condition, thinking of her failure to conciliate Pethram, of the past with all its follies, of the present with its pain, and the future which looked so hopeless and dreary.
It was all over. She had staked everything on the casting of a die, and lost. Her husband had driven her away from the house, from her child, and there was nothing left for her to do but to return to London with Ferrari and marry him at once. Never again would she live with her child. She might see her—yes; but without being seen—for she knew that if she spoke again to Kaituna everything would be revealed by Rupert Pethram. To destroy that beautiful memory of, motherhood, which was the chief treasure of Kaituna’s life—to show herself in her true colours as a fallen and wretched woman—no, she could not do that; better exile, better wretchedness, better death than the terrible truth.
With a groan she sat up among the soft grass, her hands lying idly on her lap, her wild face raised to the lonely sky. Yes, lonely, for above there was nothing but clouds, black heavy clouds, as gloomy as her own future. Oh, God! was there no hope? Was there—
Stay! the clouds part, rolling heavily to the westward, revealing a glimpse of dark blue sky, and set therein like a diamond, the glimmer of a star. Hope! yes, it was a sign of hope! a sign of promise! a sign of comfort?
She thought she would go back to Ferrari and see if he could suggest any plan by which she could turn the tables on her husband; so brushing the dead leaves off her dress, she threw the lace kerchief she wore round her neck over her head, after the fashion of a mantilla, and walked rapidly down the avenue towards Deswarth.
The rapid motion of walking seemed to restore her nerve and with such restoration she regained again the fierceness of her savage spirit. The moment of softness was past, the good angel who had comforted her with the star of hope fled away in terror, and over her head the angel of evil, who had been her constant companion for so many years, now spread his sable wings.
He had ordered her away. He had parted her from her child. This man—her husband that used to be, who had ruined her life by his cruel words and studied neglect. The blame of her sin rested on his shoulders, and she had suffered in the eyes of the world. Now once more he triumphed, and while he was resting, honoured and respected in his own house, she was flying through the night like a guilty creature.
“Oh!” muttered Mrs. Belswin between her clenched teeth, “if I was a man I’d kill him. But I can do nothing! I can do nothing. Yet I don’t know. If I can persuade that cowardly Ferrari, or Belk. Belk would do anything for me. What is to be done must be done to-night—to-morrow it will be too late. Which way am I to turn?”
She paused a moment; pressed her hands on her beating heart, then suddenly made up her mind.
“I will see Ferrari—first.”
The Chequers Inn was just on the outskirts of Deswarth, and a comparatively short distance from Thornstream, so it did not take Mrs. Belswin long, at the rapid pace at which she was walking, to arrive there.
It stood a short distance back from the road, and the night being hot, all the doors and windows were open, letting the yellow light within stream out on to the dark village street. On the benches outside a number of yokels were drinking and talking loudly together about some fortnight-old event which had just reached their out-of-the-way parish. Mrs. Belswin, not wishing to be recognised, flitted rapidly past them, and was standing in the passage hesitating whether to make herself known to the landlord or not, when luckily at that moment Ferrari came out of a side door with the intention of going into the taproom. Like a ghost the woman glided forward and laid her hand on his arm.
“You, cara mia.”
The passage was so dark that he was able to recognise her by her voice alone, and the noise from the taproom was so loud that only a quick ear like his could have distinguished her low tones.
“Come into some room. I wish to speak to you.”
“Here, then!” he said, drawing her into the room from whence he had emerged, “what is wrong? Il marito! eh! Dio! By your face there is trouble.”
With a sigh of relief Mrs. Belswin flung herself wearily into a chair, while Ferrari carefully closed the door and took up his position on the hearthrug. Even in that moment of anxiety Mrs. Belswin, with that noting of trivial things common to a preoccupied mind, noticed the tawdry furnishing of the apartment—the gaudy wall-paper, on which hung brilliantly coloured portraits of the Queen, the Prince of Wales, and General Gordon; the vivid red of the tablecloth, the dingy blue of the chairs, and the tarnished mirror over the fireplace swathed in fly spotted yellow gauze. Ferrari had evidently been smoking, for there yet lingered about the room the odour of a cigar, and the atmosphere was slightly hazy with smoke, while the smoky flame of a badly trimmed kerosene lamp faintly illumined the whole place.
On a chair near the wall sat Mrs. Belswin, faint and weary, but with an angry light in her wonderful eyes; and standing on the hearthrug the Italian, his hands behind his back, and his body slightly bent forward, eager, anxious, and expectant.
“II marito?” he repeated, inquiringly.
The woman made a gesture of assent, upon which Ferrari rubbed his hands together with an air of satisfaction.
“Bene!” he said, smiling and showing his white teeth; “it is as I said it would be. Il marito has said ‘Depart,’ and you, my Lucrezia, have come back to the faithful one. Ah, che gioja! We will now leave this fog land and go to my beautiful Italy—dolce Napoli. The waiting is over, cara mia. You are to me at last, ah felicita!”
“You go too fast, my friend,” replied Mrs. Belswin, with a cold look of disapproval on her expressive face. “Do you think I will marry a coward?”
“I am no coward! If a man to me dared to speak the word I would show him I am Italian. It is your eyes—your evil eyes—that make me afraid. But you will not be cruel to me again, bellissima,” he added, in a caressing tone. “You have come to say, ‘I love thee.’ ”
“Listen, Stephano,” said Mrs. Belswin, rising to her feet and crossing to the Italian. “I wish to tell you what he said. No! do not touch me! Wait! I saw my husband. He spoke cruelly to me; he made me leave his house—yes, turned me out like a dog!”
“Ah, that stirs your blood! I see your eyes flash! Can you see me—the woman you love—treated in this manner? No! I am sure you love me too much. You are Italian! You have a strong arm and a warm heart! Is it not so?”
“But what wish you, Signora?”
She had caught the Italian by the coat with her two hands, and her face was so close to his own that he felt her hot breath on his pale cheek. With a gesture of alarm he shrank away, and was about to speak, but she prevented him.
“You are afraid of the law,” she went on hurriedly. “Do not be afraid. Listen! He—that man I hate—the man who has treated me like a dog—is in a room with open windows that lead on a terrace. Go there without noise—wait in the shadow. Within all is light—without all is darkness. Draw him to the window by some trick. When his figure is in the light, shoot him with this!”
Ferrari gave a gasp, for she had thrust a small revolver into his hand, upon which his fingers unconsciously closed.
“I cannot do it myself,” went on the temptress; “I dare not. They would find out who I was, and what I did. I bought this pistol to kill him to-night, but my heart failed me. No one will think it is you. Go! Go, if you love me, and kill him, I will be your wife—I will do what you wish—I will go where you like—only kill him! Kill him!”
It was no civilised woman who was thus planning a murder in such a cold-blooded manner. It was a savage, with all the blood-thirsty instincts of a barbaric race. All the European side of this woman’s nature had vanished, and the primeval lust for blood dominated her entirely. Ferrari felt this horrible truth as her face, distorted with passion, pressed close to his own, and with a cry of fear thrust her away, dropped the pistol on the floor, and covered his face with his hands.
“Devil woman that you are! No!”
Mrs. Belswin whirled into the centre of the room like an enraged tigress.
“You won’t do it?” she hissed madly. “You won’t help me? I was right. You are a coward. Well, I will ask you no more—I will do it myself.”
She picked up the pistol lying at his feet and turned to the door, but with a cry of horror he sprang in front of her, and prevented her exit.
“No, no! you are mad! You are mad! I will not let you go.”
“Stand away! I will go.”
“No, cara, think. Dio!”
Like a caged panther she looked round the room for a means of exit, for, mad with rage as she was, she yet retained sufficient sense to know that a scene at the “Chequers” would be detrimental to her plans.
“I must go! I must go!”
Her eye caught the window, and like a flash of lightning she sprang towards it, tore it open, and bounded through into the darkness like a panther, uttering a laugh of triumph as she vanished.
Ferrari darted forward, but stopped half-way across the room in amazement.
“Dio! what a devil. I must go, or she will kill him.”
He put on his hat and coat rapidly, and, closing the window, left the inn by the door.
“My friend,” he said to the landlord, “I go for a little walk. Addio!”
Luckily none of the labourers outside had seen Mrs. Belswin leave, as she had slipped past them in the shadow, and the road to Thornstream being perfectly deserted, she was free from discovery. Ferrari had explored the neighbourhood that afternoon, so, knowing the way to Thornstream, walked slowly along the road until out of sight of the inn, then ran rapidly onward through the darkness, longing to catch a glimpse of the flying woman speeding towards Thornstream with murder in her heart.
“Stark and stiff in the lonely night,
Stiff and stark in the dawning light,
There it lies
With unseeing eyes,
And placid face of a bloodless white.
“Who hath slain this man by guilt and fraud
Bears on his brow, deep-seared and broad,
The blood-red stain
Which is mark of Cain,
Unseen by man but beheld by God.”
The red light of dawn burned in the eastern skies, the first faint thrill of life ran through the earth as the twitter of awakening birds was heard in the green woods, then the glorious sun sent his beams over the chill lands, bathing everything in golden splendour. Thornstream Hall faced to the east, and the great shafts of sunlight breaking through misty morning clouds, pointed downward like the finger of God on to the terrace—to the open window of Sir Rupert’s study, and there in the splendour of sunrise lay a dead man.
Face downward he lay, with half of his body in the room, the other half on the terrace, and the hands stretched out in the form of a cross, clenched in the agony of death.
Last night—this morning—nay, but a few hours back, and this was a living, breathing man, full of all the passions, sins, and hatred of humanity; now an empty shell, a soulless husk, was all that remained of Sir Rupert Pethram.
Then the servants began to move about the house attending to their morning duties, and one—it was the housemaid—entered the study to put it in order. There she saw the dead man, and with a terrible cry fell senseless to the ground. Her cry brought in her fellow-servants, there were expressions of incredulous wonder, exclamations of horror, and then a general hubbub of voices.
In a few minutes all the household knew the terrible truth that Sir Rupert had been found dead in his study, shot through the head, and Dombrain came to the scene of the tragedy with horror on his face, followed by Kaituna and Mrs. Belswin.
“For God’s sake don’t let Miss Pethram see it,” said Dombrain to the butler, “nor Mrs. Belswin. It is not a sight for women.”
But it was too late; they were both in the room, and Kaituna with a cry of horror fell on her knees beside the dead body of her father, while Mrs. Belswin stood looking down at the corpse with an impassive expression on her strongly-marked features.
The servants had left the room in order to send for the police, and only three persons were left with the dead man—Kaituna, convulsed with grief, kneeling by the body, and Mrs. Belswin standing beside Dombrain, both silently looking—at the dead man? No. At the weeping daughter? No. At one another? Yes.
The questioning look of Dombrain said—
“You were the dead man’s enemy. Is this your work?”
Mrs. Belswin’s eyes replied defiantly.
“I was, and am still, the dead man’s enemy. I defy you to prove that this is my work.”
They eyed one another steadily for a few moments, and then the man’s eyes drooped before the fierce daring of the woman’s.
There was silence in the room broken only by the sobs of Kaituna.
“Come away, my dear,” said Mrs. Belswin, bending down with a caressing gesture. “Come to your room; we can do no good here.”
“Oh!” cried Kaituna, rising slowly from her knees; “who has done this? My poor father! My poor father! Who has murdered him?”
Again a flash of suspicion between Dombrain and Mrs. Belswin.
“We do not know dear,” said the latter, soothingly; “but Mr. Dombrain has sent for the police. Perhaps they will find out the truth.”
“They must! they must!” cried the girl, in an agony of grief. “Oh, it is terrible. To have come back for this. To be killed under his own roof by an enemy. Oh, why does God permits such things?”
“God permits many things,” said Mrs. Belswin, bitterly, putting her arm round the shrinking form of her daughter. “Come away, dear. All that can be done will be done. The English police are clever, and may perhaps capture the murderer.”
Dombrain smiled, and Mrs. Belswin noticed the smile.
“Perhaps the murderer may escape,” he said with emphasis, giving a stealthy glance at Mrs. Belswin’s coldly impassive face.
“He may escape man; but he will not escape God,” cried Kaituna, fervently. “Oh, come away, Mrs. Belswin, come away. I shall die if I stay here.”
“You will of course do everything that is necessary, Mr. Dombrain,” said the chaperon, as she led the weeping girl to the door.
“Of course,” he replied, stolidly. “I will arrange everything.”
Mrs. Belswin looked at him steadily, and then left the room with the heart-broken daughter, while Dombrain, left alone beside the corpse, drew a long breath.
“What nerve,” he said, under his breath; “what nerve.”
The police came, took possession of the house, brought down detectives from London, questioned every one, held an inquest, and—discovered nothing. Well; it was a difficult case. The police are not infallible; therefore they failed to discover the murderer of Sir Rupert Pethram. If it had been a low London murder case, for instance, of the Whitechapel poker sort, then, indeed, the criminal would not have escaped human justice; but in this affair it was impossible to move in any direction. Justice promised to do what she could, and did nothing. That bandage over her eyes is often in the way, and in this instance blinded her altogether; so whomsoever had killed Sir Rupert Pethram was quite safe, as far as this stupid, blind, blundering Justice was concerned.
Of course the police had a theory which explained everything, and accomplished nothing. The daily papers argued one way, the police argued another, the public gave their view of the matter; and after great cry, there was little wool.
Sir Rupert, according to an intelligent jury, came by his death at the hands of a person unknown, a verdict which was vague, and might mean anything. Then he was placed in the family vault, and the title and estates went to a distant cousin; Kaituna left Thornstream a penniless orphan, and a new order of things began.
The new heir was a man of business, who was hard, and prided himself on being hard. He had a large family; and thinking the Thornstream rents was quite small enough to rear his dozen children—male and female in equal proportion—declined to do anything for Kaituna, whom he scarcely knew.
Mrs. Belswin, thereupon, stepped forward, and took Kaituna off to London with her to see Mr. Dombrain, and ascertain, if possible, what private property Sir Rupert had died possessed of. Mr. Dombrain was quite happy to oblige Mrs. Belswin in every way and did what he could; but that was comparatively little; so little indeed, that it made no difference in the financial position of Kaituna, and she remained dependent on the bounty of Mrs. Belswin.
But Archie Maxwell! Oh, he behaved admirably. On hearing of the death of Sir Rupert, through the medium of the press, he came down at once to Deswarth, consulted with Toby, and made every effort to find out the assassin of Sir Rupert, but without success. Then he proposed to marry Kaituna as soon as possible after the death of her father, which arrangement was approved of by Mrs. Belswin, who added, however, that they could not marry on nothing; and as Archie was not rich, and Kaituna was now poor, there was nothing left for them but to wait.
This Archie agreed to do, after much persuasion, but meantime was with Kaituna as often as possible. He came up to London with Mrs. Belswin, helped her to select a comfortable lodging; and when his sweetheart and her chaperon were established, went off on his own account to see Mr. Dombrain.
“Has Miss Pethram absolutely nothing?” he asked.
“Really,” says the solicitor, “I don’t know if I can give you any information—”
“Yes, you can! I am engaged to Miss Pethram, and I am going to marry her as soon as I can. I don’t want her money for myself, but I want her to get her rights.”
“Mr. Maxwell,” said Dombrain, solemnly, “the late Sir Rupert was a great friend of mine, and I would do anything for his daughter, but I’m afraid that she inherits nothing but two thousand shares.”
“Oh, indeed! In what company?”
“In the Pole Star Silver Mining Company, Limited Melbourne, Australia.”
“Are they worth anything?”
“Not even the paper they are written on.”
“Hump!” said Archie, thoughtfully, “from what I heard of Sir Rupert, I should hardly think he was a fool, and no one but a fool would invest his money in a rotten company. Do you know anything of Australian mining?”
“I know New Zealand,” replied Mr. Dombrain, evasively, “but I’m not acquainted with Australia. The mine may turn up trumps. On the other hand it may not.”
“Are these shares all the property left by Sir Rupert?”
“Yes! He had land in New Zealand; but when he came in for the title he sold it all, and invested the money in these shares. He thought he would be able to save money from the Thornstream rents, to leave to his daughter, but as he occupied the position of master such a short time, of course he saved nothing.”
“And the new baronet, Sir Thomas, will do nothing for Miss Pethram?”
“What a scoundrel!”
Mr. Dombrain shrugged his shoulders, and declined to commit himself to an opinion,—a legal opinion is worth seven shillings and sixpence, so there is no use wasting that amount.
“By the way,” said Archie, as he was going, “what do you think of this murder?”
“I think it is a most mysterious affair,” said Dombrain, after a pause. “I can’t account for it; I was staying in the house as you know, and left Sir Rupert in his study quite hearty. I heard no pistol shot, and in the morning he was dead. Most extraordinary.”
“Had Sir Rupert any enemies?”
“My dear sir, we all have enemies,” replied Dombrain, evasively.
“I dare say; but one’s enemies don’t go as far as murder as a rule,” answered Archie, dryly.
“No! no! that is true. But really, Mr. Maxwell, you know as much about the murder as I do, and I dare say are as completely in the dark.”
“I shan’t be in the dark long.”
“Because I’m going to find out who murdered Sir Rupert.”
“Take my advice and don’t try,” said Dombrain slowly.
“Why not?” demanded Maxwell, looking at him keenly.
“Because you’ll discover nothing. How can you? The police have failed.”
“I don’t believe in the police much,” replied Archie lightly. “I may succeed where others have failed. Good-bye. Mr. Dombrain, I am going to see Miss Pethram, and will probably see you again about these shares.”
When Maxwell had departed the solicitor sat in deep thought for a few minutes.
“I wonder,” he said at length, “I wonder if he knows anything about Mrs. Belswin.”
“If you are my friend,
I set you this task.
Aid me to an end,
If you are my friend,
Your comradeship lend.
This secret unmask.
If you are my friend
I set you this task.”
“Maxwell, Globetrotters, to Clendon, Vicarage, Deswarth.—Come to me at once. Important.”
Toby was a lover and therefore unwilling to leave the vicinity of his beloved; but he was also a friend, and being of a kind, staunch nature, speedily made up his mind to obey at once the telegram. His father who sincerely regretted the misfortune which had befallen the unfortunate Kaituna and her lover, warmly approved of his son’s going away; so, Toby’s mind being at rest concerning the parental opinion, he rode over to the Valpys, in order to see what Tommy thought about the matter.
As he expected, she said he was to lose no time in going to Maxwell, and also gave him several affectionate messages for Kaituna.
“You don’t know how sorry I am for her, Toby,” she said, with a sigh. “Fancy losing your father and then all your money.”
“Still Archie is left,” observed Toby, wisely.
“Yes; I’m glad of that. She will always have him to protect her, and that kind woman, Mrs. Belswin. Now then, Toby, don’t you say there are no good people in this world when Mrs. Belswin has acted as she has done.”
“I never said there were no good people in the world,” retorted her lover in an injured tone. “I only said that good people are few and far between.”
“Of course,” went on Tommy, without noticing this defence, “Kaituna could always have found a home with ma and I. I wish she had come here instead of going to London; but Mrs. Belswin seems very fond of her, and then Mr. Maxwell will marry her soon, so she will be happy some day.”
“I wonder why Mrs. Belswin is so very fond of Kaituna,” speculated Toby, idly. “Paid companions as a rule don’t go beyond their wages in the matter of affection, but Mrs. Belswin goes the entire bakery.”
“Toby, don’t be vulgar,” replied Miss Valpy, reprovingly; “Mrs. Belswin is a very superior woman.”
“I hate superior women.”
“Oh, thank you!”
“You’re not a superior woman,” said Clendon, laughingly.
“What am I, then?”
“The dearest girl in the world.”
“I am! I am! You’ll find that out when your wife’s milliner’s bill comes in. Now, don’t, Toby! There are more important things than kissing.”
“Not just now,” replied Clendon, and kissed her twice. “Good-bye, dearest I shall expect a letter every day.”
“Will you really? How long will you be absent?”
“I don’t know! It depends on what Archie wants to see me about.”
“Well, I’ll write. Good-bye, and take my love to Kaituna.”
“Certainly; only I hope it won’t get damaged during the transit.”
So they parted, and Tommy returned to discuss Kaituna’s future with her mother, while Toby packed his portmanteau, and, after taking leave of his father, caught the afternoon train to town.
Archie Maxwell, when engaged in foreign parts, underwent all incidental hardships without a murmur, and accepted all disagreeables with a philosophy beautiful to behold; but Archie Maxwell when in London indemnified himself for all such hardships by giving himself as many pleasures as his income permitted him. Being a young gentleman of good family, he had a very reputable circle of acquaintances, he had very pleasant rooms in the West End, and belonged to the Globetrotters, which is, as every one knows, a very exclusive club. Being clever in his profession, Archie made a very decent income, and having no reason that he knew of to save money, spent every penny he made with a kind of “it-will-be-all-right-in-the-end,” philosophy; but now that he was engaged to Kaituna, he made various excellent resolutions about economy, and resolved to put by as much as possible for the future home of Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell.
He was a very methodical young man, was Mr. Maxwell, and speedily made up his mind what course to pursue, which course involved the co-operation of Clendon—hence the telegram which brought the latter up to town.
As Toby had let his chambers during his visit to Deswarth, Archie offered to put him up for the night, which offer Clendon accepted with avidity, as he too was on the economic tack. Oh, it was truly a beautiful spectacle to behold these young men, formerly so careless of money matters, now as careful of the shillings as they had been careless of the pounds. On this night, however, as Archie was going to arrange his future plans, he proposed to Toby that they should, for a few hours only, revert to the dear old extravagant days and enjoy themselves. To this Toby, who hankered after the flesh pots of Egypt, agreed; so they arranged to have the best dinner which the Globetrotters was capable of providing; and afterwards Archie was to unburden his mind to his friend.
The Globetrotters is a very pleasant club, in an excellent situation, and as the members are all travelled men of a sociable turn of mind, the society to be found there is not to be despised from an informative point of view. Had Marco Polo, or Christopher Columbus, lived in the nineteenth century, they would certainly have been members of the Globetrotters; and as for Ulysses—but then Ulysses was fond of feminine society, so perhaps he would not have cared for the exclusively masculine element of the club. At all events, when Archie (who being a traveller, was a member) arrived with Toby—who being a stay-at-home, was not—they found a great many pleasant people there, including a bearded traveller, who had been lion-shooting in Africa; another who had made arrangements to find out the North Pole, if he was able; and several other nineteenth century productions, who all knew and liked Maxwell. Archie, however, was too taken up with his plans to waste much time in hearing adventures about big game shooting, and artful savages; so he went off with Toby to a very retired table, where they had an excellent dinner under the supervision of a friendly waiter, who was as great a traveller as any in the club, having been a steward on a P. & O. liner.
After dinner, during which they had discussed various topics, all bearing on the Pethram murder, and their future married happiness, Archie and his friend sought a secluded corner in the smoking-room, ordered coffee and cigarettes, and, when they were thoroughly comfortable, began to talk business.
“Toby,” said Archie, reflectively, “we’ve known each other a good many years.”
“Seeing we were at school together I may say we have,” replied Clendon, smiling. “Come, now, Archie, you want me to do something, and don’t like asking.”
“That’s true, because I’m going to ask you to make a sacrifice.”
“Not to give up Tommy?”
“No! no! I don’t want to break your heart, old fellow; but I—I—”
“Well, what is the sacrifice?”
“I want you to leave England for a few months and go to Melbourne.”
“What for?” asked Toby, aghast at this strange request.
“I’ll tell you! I have been to Dombrain, who is the late Sir Rupert’s lawyer, about the will; and I find he has left Kaituna all his personal property.”
“Well, that’s jolly.”
“The personal property consists of shares in a silver mine, which at present are worth nothing.”
“Oh! that’s not jolly. But what about Thornstream? Isn’t Kaituna the heiress?”
“No! Thornstream is entailed on the male side, and all the property goes with the title. Had Kaituna been a man, she would have inherited; but as she is a woman she doesn’t get a penny.”
“The present baronet,” pursued Archie, smoothly, “is a beastly skinflint, and won’t give Kaituna a penny; so had it not been for the kindness of a stranger—I allude to Mrs. Belswin—I don’t know what the poor girl would have done.”
“I do,” said Toby, emphatically; “she would have gone to the Valpys, who asked her to come; or to the vicarage, where the dear old pater would have looked after her. Bless you, Maxwell, she would have been all right.”
“I know both your father and the Valpys are good kind people,” replied Maxwell with emotion; “and of course, if the worst came to the worst, she could have married me at once, and we would have got on somehow. Still all these possibilities do not make Mrs. Belswin’s kindness any the less.”
“She’s a good sort,” said Clendon, feelingly. “Why, if Kaituna had been her own daughter she couldn’t do more for her than she is doing. But get on with your story.”
“Well, Kaituna, as I have shown you, gets nothing from Thornstream or the present baronet; so all she inherits is her father’s private property. Now, in New Zealand he had a good deal of land, but when he came in for the title he converted it all into cash, and with that cash he bought two thousand shares in The Pole Star Silver Mining Company, in Melbourne.”
“Wasn’t that rather rash?”
“I don’t know. It certainly appears so. Now Dombrain assures me that the shares are not worth the paper they are written on; but I’ve got my doubts on the subject; so I want you to go out to Melbourne and find out all you can about the mine.”
“But what can I do? I know nothing about mining.”
“Oh, you can find out from the brokers if the mine has any prospect of turning out well. Dombrain is arranging all the will business, so as soon as Kaituna is legally in possession of the shares I will send out the scrip to you, and also a power of attorney. Perhaps the mine will turn up trumps; if it does, you can sell, if not—well, there’s no harm done.”
There was silence for a few moments, during which Toby was thinking deeply, and his good-looking face wore a more thoughtful expression than usual.
“Of course, Archie,” he said at length, “I am anxious to oblige you in all things; but you must admit that this is a little serious.”
“Oh, yes. I told you it was a sacrifice,” replied Archie, readily. “I would go myself, only I have a strong reason for remaining in England.”
“May I ask that reason?”
“Yes. I want to find out who killed Sir Rupert.”
“You’ll never do that,” said Toby, shaking his head. “Why, my dear lad, the police could find absolutely no clue.”
“The police be—blessed,” retorted Archie, with contempt. “I am going on my own ideas in this matter; and I’m going to get Mrs. Belswin to help me.”
“But she knows nothing.”
“That’s very likely; but she saw Sir Rupert on the night of his murder, and if she can recollect her conversation, who knows but what some chance word in it might lead to the detection of the murderer. Besides, Mrs. Belswin is a very clever woman, and in a case of this difficulty, women see clearer than men.”
“Why are you so anxious to find out this murder?”
“Because I want to set Kaituna’s mind at rest. The poor girl is worrying herself about the affair; and if I can find out and punish the assassin of her father, it will give her great relief.”
There was again a short silence, and then Archie went on speaking:
“You see now, my dear lad, why I wish you to help me in this. I cannot do both things myself at the same time; for if I go to Melbourne, the murderer of Sir Rupert may escape; and if I stay and hunt for him, the mine may turn out a success, and no one will be there to look after Kaituna’s interests.”
“Does Kaituna know all your ideas,” asked Toby, thoughtfully.
“Yes; and approves of them. So does Mrs. Belswin. You see, as she has been such a good friend to Kaituna, I had to tell her everything.”
“Of course; quite right,” responded Toby, heartily. “Well, old fellow, I’ll tell you what. Some time ago The Weekly Scorpion spoke to me about taking a trip out to Australia, and writing up the colonies; so if I accept that, I’ll combine pleasure and business.”
“That would be capital,” said Archie, with a sigh of relief; “for to tell you the truth, Toby, I was rather anxious about the money for you to go with. Kaituna has none. I can’t ask Mrs. Belswin; so I would have had to find it myself.”
“Archibald Maxwell,” said Clendon, wrathfully, “do you mean to say that you thought I would have been such a mean wretch as to let you find all the expenses of my voyage?”
“Well, I couldn’t ask you to give your time and money also.”
“Oh, couldn’t you? Don’t be an ass, old chap. Had I gone without the Scorpion chips, I would have halved the ex’s; but this newspaper business cuts the Gordion knot. All I have got to do is to accept their offer, and I shall get all my expenses paid, and a jolly good price for my articles into the bargain, which cash can go to hurry up my marriage.”
“Well; will you go?”
“As far as I can see at present, yes,” replied Toby, quickly; “but I must speak to Tommy and the pater.”
“They may object,” said Maxwell, dolefully.
“Oh, no, they won’t,” retorted Clendon, gaily. “Bless you, a trip to Australia is nothing nowadays. I could do it on my head. And I will too, considering it’s at the Antipodes.”
Archie rose to his feet with a sigh of relief.
“I’m so glad there is a chance of your doing what I ask you,” he said gratefully.
“It all depends upon the home authorities,” replied Clendon, judiciously; “but I think you can set your mind at rest, old fellow. I’ll go home to-morrow, and wire you result of inquiries. I think you can pretty well rely on everything being fixed up beautifully.”
“You’re a good fellow, Toby.”
“I am! I am! My friends don’t know half my virtues. But about this detective business of yours, Archie, I’m afraid you won’t find out anything.”
“I’ll try, at all events. ‘Nothing is done without trying.’ ”
“Oh, if you’re going in for copy-book maxims, I’ve nothing more to say.”
Fortune’s a jade. When we don’t require her,
She ever beside us is staying.
Fortune’s a jade. For when we desire her,
She never responds to our praying.
Mrs. Belswin was not a rich woman. When she left her husband she took no money, naturally supposing that Silas P. Oates, who played the part of co-respondent in the divorce case, would take care of her. Their romance, however, came to an end, for the lady’s temper being uncertain, and the gentleman’s income being equally so, things went anything but smoothly, so they parted. Where her quondam lover went Mrs. Belswin neither knew nor cared, but for her part she earned enough to keep her comfortable by becoming an opera singer. She was a handsome woman, with a fine voice and great dramatic powers, so as time went on she took a first class position on the boards, and therefore earned a great deal of money. Unfortunately, being open-handed and careless in money matters, she spent her income as she earned it, and when she arrived in England in search of her daughter, found herself very badly off. Of course, owing to the peculiar position she held at Thornstream, she had received no salary, as Sir Rupert was the only one who could pay her, and when he saw her, naturally the money question gave way to much more important matters.
After Pethram’s death, Mrs. Belswin had taken possession of Kaituna with the intention of marrying her to Maxwell, but now found herself in London with a daughter to provide for and very little money in the bank.
Ferrari, certainly, would have been delighted to have shared his salary with her, but Mrs. Belswin had always kept the Italian at his distance, and was determined not to give him any hold over her by being in his debt. Since leaving Oates, she had lived a decent life, earning her own money and asking favours from no one, so that although she had led a somewhat Bohemian existence, yet, for the sake of her child, she had kept herself pure. Reckless, vehement, careless as she was of all outward appearances, no one could cast a stone at her in a moral sense, and Ferrari, knowing this well, respected her for it. He had often pressed her to take money from him, to be repaid by her marrying him, but Mrs. Belswin, not being prepared to discharge her debts in this way, had always refused. Even now, when her daughter looked to her for support, and but a few pounds stood between her and absolute want, she never thought of asking Ferrari for money, and had he, suspecting her needs, offered it, she would certainly have declined to take advantage of his generosity.
Therefore to appeal to Ferrari was out of the question. But what about Maxwell?
No, Mrs. Belswin had her daughter’s happiness too much at heart to jeopardise the girl’s future by an appeal to the purse of her future husband. Besides, Maxwell was not rich, for she had heard him lament to Toby Clendon over his lack of money, which made him an unacceptable son-in-law to Sir Rupert.
Clearly, therefore, she could not ask Archie.
Of course there was Dombrain. No doubt, if she asked him he would give her money; but suppose he refused to assist her? Ah, well, then she could force him.
At this point of her meditations Mrs. Belswin stopped.
Could she force him? It was questionable. She did not like the way he looked at her over the dead body of her husband. Certainly she knew his secret and could damage his position in London, which he prized so highly, but then, a worm will turn, and if appearances were against her as they certainly were, about the death of Sir Rupert, he could make things very disagreeable for her. Formerly she would not have minded, but would have dared him in her old reckless fashion, trusting to her indomitable will to carry her through safely, but now she had Kaituna to think of as well as herself, so she determined to leave Mr. Dombrain alone.
Ferrari, Maxwell, Dombrain. She could ask none of the three to assist her, and yet something must be done. The terrible blow of her father’s death had left Kaituna prostrate with grief, and she looked to Mrs. Belswin for every thing. Yes, the daughter, ignorant of the mother’s personality, depended upon the mother as she would have done had she known the truth; and Mrs. Belswin, although concealing her real relationship; acted towards her newly-recovered daughter with the utmost tenderness.
Still, what about money?
There was the stage. She could resume her profession, but that would entail time to obtain an engagement and constant absence from Kaituna, who was not fitted in her present upset state of mind to be left alone. So after going over all kinds of possibilities in her mind, Mrs. Belswin found herself at her wits’ end which way to turn for assistance.
Coincidences happen in real life as well as in novels, and it was a curious thing that Mrs. Belswin should find in a society journal the name of Silas P. Oates mentioned as staying at the Langham Hotel.
Silas P. Oates, millionaire. Most extraordinary! He had arrived just in time, for she could apply to him for money. He was her old lover; he was the man who had ruined her life; he had deserted her shamefully; but now he was rich, and had a right to help her. Yes, she would call on him at once and ask him for assistance. For the sake of the dead-and-gone days he would not refuse. So with a smile of satisfaction Mrs. Belswin looked at the paper again.
“Mr. Silas P. Oates is accompanied by his wife and daughter.”
Oh! he was married then—married and respectable—while she was still tossing on the stormy waters of the Bohemian ocean. Ah, these men, these men! they always have the best of it. They love, and ruin, and forsake a woman, and then settle down into respectable members of society; while the woman, who has lost all for their sake, is condemned for the rest of her life to be the sport of one sex and the scorn of the other.
Still, now that he was married she would certainly be able to obtain what she wished, for he would not dare to refuse lest she should speak to his wife and destroy his happiness.
It never struck Mrs. Belswin that to act in this way would be dishonourable. She had been a free-lance for so long, and had been so accustomed in fighting her way through the world to use all kinds of weapons, that the means she intended to employ to extort money from Oates seemed quite legitimate. Many a woman would have died rather than have applied for help to the man who had basely deserted her; but Mrs. Belswin, her moral sense blunted by constantly battling with the stormy world, not only intended to get money from her old lover, but intended to apply that money to secure the happiness of her innocent daughter. Here is a text for the preacher on human nature. Does the end in this instance justify the means? Strange things are done in this world of ours, but surely nothing more fantastical or shameful entered a woman’s mind than to use her former disgrace as a means to secure her daughter’s ease and peace of mind. And yet Mrs. Belswin could not see it—did not see it—and made up her mind to call on Silas P. Oates the next day, and not leave him until she had his cheque for a considerable amount in her purse.
To-day, however, Archie was coming in order to tell them about Toby Clendon’s proposed mission to Australia, and Kaituna was seated at the window watching for his coming, while Mrs. Belswin pondered over the problem of Silas P. Oates.
It was a dull little sitting-room, in a dull little house, in a dull little neighbourhood, but then the aforesaid neighbourhood was eminently respectable, and that satisfied Mrs. Belswin. In her dread lest her daughter should be tainted by Bohemianism, Mrs. Belswin had gone to the opposite extreme, and, with the assistance of Archie, taken lodgings in a severely respectable quarter, where church bells rang every other hour of the day, and nothing less genteel than a four-wheeler was ever seen in the dingy street.
Their abode was situated in Grail Street, which was so deserted that it put the reflective in mind of London during the plague, especially as a hearse was no uncommon sight owing to the undertakers (Wilps & Co., High Class Pauper Furnishers) being at the corner. All the houses were sad-looking, in keeping with the corner establishment, and Kaituna’s face was sad also as she looked out on to the lonely road on which fell the fine rain.
Dressed in black, with her hands lying listlessly in her lap, and her face thin and worn with trouble, Kaituna looked a very different girl in the dingy London lodging from what she had been at Thornstream. Mrs. Belswin thought so as she glanced at her after answering the money question, and went across to her with a look of anxiety on her face.
“Kaituna, my dearest, do not look so sad,” she said, tenderly bending over the girl. “You make me feel so terribly anxious.”
Kaituna pushed her thick hair wearily off her forehead, and sighed deeply.
“I cannot help looking sad,” she replied, listlessly; “I feel sad. A few months ago and I was so happy; now everything is taken away from me.”
“Not everything, dear. You have still me.”
“You!” echoed Kaituna, with a wan smile, taking the elder woman’s hand. “Ah, Mrs. Belswin, what should I have done without you, my good angel!”
“Don’t call me a good angel, dear,” said Mrs. Belswin, hurriedly. “I am not good. God help me! had I been good things would have been different.”
“I don’t know what you refer to,” replied Kaituna, simply, stroking the hand she held. “All I know is that you have been good to me. Without you I should have died. You are my only friend.”
“You forget Archie,” said Mrs. Belswin, with an attempt at lightness.
“No; I don’t forget him, good, kind fellow; but, Mrs. Belswin, I cannot hold him to his promise. I am poor now. It will be unfair for me to drag him down. I must go away. I cannot stay to be a burden on you—a burden on him. You must let me go.”
“Where?” asked Mrs. Belswin, quietly.
“I don’t know. I will get the position of governess somewhere. Mrs. Valpy will recommend me. She knows what I can do.”
“Then you wish to leave me?” said Mrs. Belswin, reproachfully.
“No, I do not; but how can I ask you to keep me like this? You—a stranger!”
“A stranger!” said Mrs. Belswin, with a strange smile. “My dear, you must not look upon me as a stranger. I told you my story once—about my little child. Now you stand to me in that child’s place. I love you like a daughter! If you left me I should go mad. Leave me! No, Kaituna, you must not—you shall not leave me. Promise that you will always stay beside me!”
The vehemence of the woman frightened Kaituna, unnerved as she was by what she had gone through, and she shrank back in alarm.
“Dear Mrs. Belswin—”
“Oh!” cried the woman, walking up and down the room with tears streaming down her face, “for you to go away—to leave me, after all that I have suffered. You do not know what you say. You call me a stranger. I am a stranger. Yes! I am Mrs. Belswin, who was your hired servant. But I love you, Kaituna, like a daughter. You will not leave me—oh, my child, you will not leave me?”
She flung herself on her knees beside the girl, and looked up into her eyes with a fierce intensity of gaze that moved the girl strangely.
“No, I will not leave you, since you wish me not to,” she said gently; “but indeed, Mrs. Belswin, I don’t deserve such love.”
Mrs. Belswin covered the hand she held with kisses, and sobbed hysterically; then the strange creature suddenly dried her eyes, and rose to her feet with a smile on her lips. It was the savage nature all over. One moment all fury, the next calm and smiling. She never controlled herself in any way, but let her natural moods and fancies have full play; so the result was bizarre, and rather terrifying to a more civilised nature. By this time, however, Kaituna, perhaps from a secret chord of sympathy inherited from her savage progenitors, was beginning to understand Mrs. Belswin’s whirlwinds of passion and sudden transitions from storm to calm; therefore, when the present outburst was over, the two women chatted together quite easily, as if nothing unusual had occurred.
“But of one thing I am certain,” said Kaituna, after a pause; “that it is not right for me to marry Archie at present. I am poor, so is he, and I cannot consent to drag him down with me.”
“My dear, you are too fine in your ideas,” said Mrs. Belswin, with a superior smile. “Archie Maxwell loves you, and if you refused to marry him it would break his heart. Besides, perhaps the Pole Star shares will be worth a lot of money.”
“I’m afraid not. It’s no use building up hopes on those. Ah, my poor father. He thought to make me an heiress, but he has only made me a pauper. My poor, poor father. Was he not a noble man, Mrs. Belswin?”
“Yes, dear; yes! But you forget I only had a short interview with him.”
“I remember, on the night he died—the night that he was murdered. Oh, if I could only discover who killed him. But I can do nothing. I am only a woman, and have no money to employ any one, so he must lie in his grave unavenged. Oh, who will help me?”
The answer came in an unexpected manner from the servant opening the door and announcing—
“Curious!” murmured Mrs. Belswin: “that is the second coincidence to-day.”
“When things to outward view are smooth,
‘Tis wisest to disturb them not.
Restrain the prying eye of youth
When things to outward view are smooth;
For should ye seek to learn the truth
Much evil may by chance be wrought.
When things to outward view are smooth,
‘Tis wisest to disturb them not.”
When he entered the room Archie looked very pleased, and a trifled excited, which happy demeanour was noticed at once by Mrs. Belswin.
“Good news?” she asked, as he greeted her, and walked over to Kaituna with the eager step of an expectant lover.
“Very good news,” he replied gaily, “the best of news. Toby is going out to Australia to look after your fortune, Kaituna.”
“My fortune,” echoed Kaituna, faintly, raising her eyes to his bright face. “I’m afraid my fortune is a myth.”
“Not at all! Not at all!” replied Maxwell, kissing her pale cheek. “Your fortune at present is not in the clouds, but in the earth; and when The Pole Star Company find that rich lode they are now looking for, you will be a female Crœsus.”
“I hope so, for your sake.”
“I hope so, for both your sakes,” said Mrs. Belswin, bluntly; “and then there will be no more talk of breaking off the engagement.”
“What, our engagement?” cried Maxwell, in an astonished tone, looking from the one to the other. “Why, what do you mean?”
“Ask Donna Quixota there, my dear Mr. Maxwell. She has been talking the high-flown nonsense which the virtuous heroine uses on the stage when she appeals to the gallery. She knows you love her for herself alone, and that I cannot live without her; yet she talks about leaving us both on some absurd scruple of honour.”
“My dear Kaituna, you are surely not in earnest,” said Archie, smoothing the girl’s dark hair. “Mrs. Belswin is jesting, I suppose?”
“No! she is repeating my words in a slightly different way.”
“Now you are going to begin a discussion,” said Mrs. Belswin, good-humouredly, “so I will leave you for a time. But first, Mr. Maxwell, tell me about your friend. You say he is going out to Melbourne?”
“Yes! I got a letter from him to-day. Miss Valpy and his father are both agreeable, and he starts by one of the Orient line in a fortnight.”
“But the money?” said Mrs. Belswin, in some dismay, thinking of her straightened means. “What about the money?”
“Oh, that is all right,” answered Maxwell in a satisfied tone. “Providence has tempered the financial wind to the Clendon lamb. He is going to write a series of articles on Australian cities for The Weekly Scorpion, so the benevolent editor of that paper pays his expenses.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Belswin, with a sigh of relief, turning towards the door, “I’m so glad. It’s a good omen for the silver mine. I hope he’ll come back as prosperous as he leaves. Now I’m going away for a few minutes, so I’ll leave you, Mr. Maxwell, to convince Kaituna that things will turn out better than she expects.”
When Mrs. Belswin vanished, Archie took Kaituna by the chin, and turned her face towards his own.
“You wicked young woman,” he said, laughing; “how can you speak, even in jest, about leaving me?”
Kaituna rose to her feet, and walked backwards and forwards several times in deep thought. Then she paused before Archie, and looked steadily at him with her clear, honest eyes.
“Archie,” she said, at length, “believe me, I did not speak without reason. While my father was alive there was a chance of our marrying, for I would have persuaded him to consent some time, and Mrs. Belswin would have helped me. But he is dead, and I have not a penny in the world. How then can I marry you, who have nothing but your profession to depend upon, and that profession one which means constant travelling? If you married me you would have to leave me, for we should not be rich enough to travel together. You would find me a drag upon you. Enough for one is not enough for two. I love you! You know I love you! And it is for that very reason that I want to break off our engagement, and not be a burden to you in the future.”
Maxwell laughed, as she ended this long speech, and seizing her hands drew her towards him.
“What a capital lawyer you would make,” he said, with an indulgent smile; “but let us look on the other side of the question. Say that these shares turn out to be worth a lot of money, will you expect me to give you up?”
“No, no! Oh, no!”
“Ah! you see then that the case is the same with me. You love me for myself. I love you for yourself. It is no question of money between us. With you as my wife, I would work hard. I shall only be too proud to work for you. We shall not be rich; but we should be happy. No, my dearest, I should indeed be unworthy of your love did I look at the future from your point of view. I love you! You are mine; and rich or poor, we will always be together.”
“But me no buts,” said Maxwell, in a peremptory tone, putting his arm round her neck. “You know what I say is right. You love me, do you not?”
“And you will never leave me?”
Kaituna kissed him, with tears in her eyes.
“No; I will never leave you.”
Archie pressed her to his heart with a cry of joy, and at this moment Mrs. Belswin entered.
“Well, young people?”
“I have explained away all objections,” said Maxwell, as Kaituna withdrew her arms from his neck, “and we are going to marry on nothing a year.”
“Meanwhile,” said Mrs. Belswin, satirically.
“Meanwhile,” echoed Maxwell, rising, “I am going to speak to you for a few minutes, and then take Kaituna for a walk in the Park. You’ll take compassion on a lonely bachelor, will you not, dearest?”
“Yes. I’ll go and put on my things at once,” said Kaituna, whose face now looked much brighter than before.
“I am afraid you’ll be a dreadful tyrant when I marry you.”
She laughed, and ran out of the room, whereat Maxwell also laughed out of sympathy; but when the door closed the laugh died away on his lips, and he turned gravely to Mrs. Belswin, who had resumed her seat.
“Well,” said that lady, with a half smile, glancing at him; “you look as gloomy as a November day. What are you thinking about?”
“Sir Rupert’s death.”
Mrs. Belswin half expected this reply; but, notwithstanding, gave a sudden start at the abruptness of his speech.
“You are still determined to find out the cause of his death?” she said, slowly.
“I don’t think there is any question on that point,” he replied, with emphasis. “He was shot, and I want to find out who shot him.”
“What good will that do?”
“It will set Kaituna’s mind at rest.”
His listener played with the plain gold ring on her finger—the ring which had been the symbol of her marriage with the murdered man—and frowned.
“If I were you, I’d let sleeping dogs lie,” she said, at length, without raising her eyes.
“No! I will not! See here, Mrs. Belswin, I know quite well that Kaituna is anxious to find out the murderer of her father. If she does not it will embitter her whole life. She cannot bear to think of him lying unavenged in his grave. Herself, she can do nothing, but I, her promised husband, can.”
“I’m afraid you over-calculate your powers as a detective.”
“Perhaps I do,” he answered, calmly; “but I’m going to try, at all events, and see if I can unravel this mystery. Did I intend to let sleeping dogs lie, as you phrase it, I would have gone out to Australia myself to look after the silver mines, but as Clendon has taken that trouble off my hands I am going to devote myself to finding out the man who murdered Sir Rupert.”
He spoke with such determination that she felt convinced he would carry out his intention, and fidgeted about in her seat for a few moments, then, walking to the window, stood looking out into the dull street, while she made her next remark.
“I don’t think it will do any good. Where the police have failed you cannot hope to succeed.”
“I hope to do so, with your help.”
“My help?” she echoed, facing round suddenly so that her back was to the light and her face comparatively in the shadow. “What can I tell you?”
“Mrs. Belswin,” said Maxwell, gravely, “you were one of the last people who saw Sir Rupert alive.”
“Yes, that is so,” she answered without moving a muscle, “but I told all I knew at the inquest.”
“I suppose you did; but can you think of nothing else?”
She looked at him with a piercing glance, as if trying to read his soul, but saw nothing that could make her think that he suspected her in any way of being connected with the murdered man.
“I told all I knew at the inquest,” she repeated. “I had an interview with Sir Rupert about your marriage with Kaituna. He refused his consent, and I left the study. Kaituna had gone to bed with a bad headache, so I did not wish to make it worse by my ill news. Therefore I retired to rest at once, and knew nothing more until the next morning.”
“You heard no pistol shot?”
“Strange!” said Maxwell, thoughtfully: “no one seems to have heard a pistol shot, and yet such an unusual thing must have attracted attention.”
“You forget that Sir Rupert’s study was some distance away from the sleeping apartments, and I think at the time he was killed every one was in bed.”
“But he was not shot in the room, but from the terrace.”
Mrs. Belswin started again,
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t know it, I only presume so. The body was found lying half in and half out of the window; so my theory is that Sir Rupert came to the open window for a breath of air, and the assassin, concealed in the shadow of the terrace, shot him through the head.”
“It’s a very excellent theory—still, it is only theory.”
“Yes, I know that,” said Maxwell, ruefully. “You don’t know if Sir Rupert had any enemies, Mrs. Belswin?”
“I! Why I did not even know Sir Rupert himself until I spoke to him that night in his study.”
There was no doubt that Mrs. Belswin was a magnificent actress, for she uttered this lie without the least hesitation.
“No, of course not,” answered Maxwell, after a pause. “I know he was a stranger to you. Still he must have had enemies. I wonder if Kaituna could tell me.”
“No, I won’t. It will only upset her. She is so agitated over the whole affair. I’ll go and see the detective who had the case in hand, and I won’t tell Kaituna anything until I can say, ‘This is the murderer of your father.’ ”
“It’s a wild-goose chase.”
“Perhaps. Still something may be discovered.”
At this moment Kaituna returned, dressed for walking, and after bidding fare well to Mrs. Belswin, Archie went out with his sweetheart, leaving the chaperon still standing by the window.
Mrs. Belswin twisted her hands together, and looked at the carpet with an angry frown.
“Something may be discovered,” she repeated in a thoughtful tone. “I don’t think so. The assassin came out of the night, fulfilled his mission, and disappeared again into the night. Not all the machinery of the law could find out the truth, and where the law failed I don’t think you’ll succeed, Archibald Maxwell.”
“The present becomes the future.
Yes! but the present does not again become the past;
Time goes forward forever—we cannot return on his footsteps,
For the laws of the universe are unalterable, unchangeable and fixed.
“Yet when I see you before me,
I am inclined to doubt all that has existed since the shaping of
the earth from chaos.
For you appear as you did in those far-distant days,
When love and sin made up the sum of our lives.
Vanish again into the darkness from whence my memory hath
As a God I have re-created thee—as a God I condemn thee to
I live the present, the future—but the past I will not renew.
Lest such phantoms as you should turn the past into the present.”
In a private sitting-room of the Langham Hotel sat Mr. Silas P. Oates, of New York City, millionaire, who had come to England with his wife and daughter to spend his money, secure a titled husband for his only child, and look round generally.
He had made his money in a somewhat unexpected way by sundry dealings in stocks and shares, besides which he had bought a clever invention cheaply of the inventor—a poor man—and by dint of dexterous advertising and persistent pushing had boomed it into a big success. A far-seeing man was Mr. Oates, none too scrupulous, who regarded his fellow-men as so many sheep to be shorn of their rich fleece; but he always kept to the letter if not the spirit of the law, and therefore regarded himself as a keen business man, who had made his enormous fortune honestly. All his little knavish tricks, his taking advantage of his fellow-creatures when they were in difficulties, and his unscrupulous, unblushing lying, he designated under the collective name of business; and however scandalous his dealings might appear to God, they certainly appeared legitimate to his brother business men, who mostly acted the same way.
Therefore Silas was called “a sharp business man.” All his twistings and turnings and chicanery and sailing close to the wind went to pile up the dollars; and however he might have ruined less clever men than himself, however he imposed, gulled, and swindled the public, he was generally admitted in the Land of Freedom to be a ‘cute man, who was a worthy representative of the great god Mammon. Charity, according to the Bible, covers a multitude of sins, but money occupies a much higher place nowadays in the covering process, and all the doubtful ways by which he had acquired his fortune disappeared in the eyes of the condoning world under the golden cover of the fortune itself.
This worthy product of the nineteenth century was a short, thin, active little man, with a parchment-coloured skin, dark hair, moustache, beard, eyebrows, and eyes, and a quick, delicate restlessness about him, like a bright-eyed bird. He was dressed neatly in a quiet gray suit, wore no jewellery, not even a watch-chain, and was always on the alert to see something to his advantage. Outwardly, he was a quiet, respectable, decent little fellow, who, as the saying goes, would not harm a fly; inwardly, he was an astute blackguard, who called his evil doing “business,” who always kept well within the law, and had dethroned the Deity in favour of himself. His past was bad and tricky, so much so that it would hardly bear looking into by a man with a conscience; but even though Mr. Oates had no conscience, he did not indulge much in retrospection: not that he dreaded remorse, but simply looked upon such dreaming as a waste of time.
At present he was perfectly happy. He had made a lot of money, he had a pretty wife for whom he cared nothing, a charming daughter for whom he cared a great deal, and was now going to show the Old World what the New World could do in the way of making a splash. It was a very enviable frame of mind to be in, and one quite beyond the reach of an honest man, who would have been disturbed at the memory of how he had made his money. But Silas only thought how pleasant it was he had made so much money, for the making of which he had to thank no one—not even God, who, in His inexplicable mercy permitted this gilded worm to reap the golden reward of a life of legitimate legalised rascality.
Mr. Oates, therefore, was happy, and thought no one could upset that happiness in any way; but he found out his mistake when the waiter brought in a card inscribed, “Mrs. Belswin.”
“Well, sir,” drawled Silas, looking doubtfully at the card, “this lady wants to look me up?”
“Mrs. Belswin!” soliloquised the American in deep thought. “I can’t fix her nohow. Ask the lady to step this way.”
The alert, active waiter disappeared, and Mr. Oates pondered. He did not know the name; he had only arrived in England the previous day, and was unacquainted with any one. What then did this strange lady want with him? Luckily, Mrs. Hatty K. Oates had gone out shopping with her daughter, else the situation might have been awkward for Silas, whose domestic hearthstone was not quite free from connubial rows caused by jealousy. His wife, however, was away, and would not be home for the next few hours, so Mr. Oates, feeling rather curious as to the business of his fair visitor, was by no means sorry that he had a chance of passing his afternoon in feminine society.
His visitor entered the room heralded by the waiter; then the latter retired, closing the door carefully after him, leaving the pair alone. The lady was dressed in black, and wore a heavy crape veil, which suggested mourning to the astute Silas; and after he had gathered as much as he was able from a keen glance at this draped veiled figure, he politely placed a chair for her.
“You wish to see me, madam?” he asked, resuming his own seat.
“I do, for a few minutes. I am an old friend of yours.”
Mrs. Belswin’s voice was muffled by the veil, and moreover Silas had not heard it for nearly twenty years, so he did not recognise his visitor in the least, and was considerably puzzled by the concluding part of her speech.
“An old friend!” he said doubtfully, smoothing his chin. “From the States?”
“Yes; down ‘Frisco way.”
Mr. Oates started. He had many acquaintances down ‘Frisco way, but they could hardly be called friends, as they very much disapproved of his method of doing business.
“I’ve got an eye for faces,” said Silas, in a jaunty manner, “so if you put up that veil I’ve no doubt I can fix you.”
“I’m afraid I shall startle you.”
“I’m not easily startled, madam. My nerves are in good working order.”
“Are they? Then I’ll put them to the test.”
Mrs. Belswin suddenly threw back her veil and bent forward so that her face was in the strong light, whereupon Silas gave a whoop like a wild Indian, bounded from his chair and gasped.
“I’m afraid you over-estimate the working order of your nerves, Silas,” said Mrs. Belswin, scoffingly; and then leaning back in her chair, waited for Mr. Oates to make the next move in the game.
“Great Scott! It’s Mrs. Pethram. I thought you were dead!”
“And wished it too, I’ve no doubt,” said Mrs. Belswin, bitterly. “Well, are you not glad to see me?”
“No!” replied Silas, truthfully; “I’m uncommon sorry.”
“Ah! you’ve learned to speak the truth since I saw you last,” observed the lady, raising her eyebrows, “otherwise you’re not much changed. The same ugly little monkey with whom I ran away from New Zealand. I’ve often wondered why I did run away with you,” pursued Mrs. Belswin with charming candour, “and now I see you again I wonder more than ever.”
Silas grinned in an uneasy manner. He would have preferred her to be less cool, to pay more deference to his position, but she seemed as candid as ever, and he almost expected to have something damaging flung at his head, as had been her custom in the old days. It was a very disagreeable position, so Silas rose to the occasion, and immediately set to work to emulate her coolness, and find out how he could circumvent this unwelcome visitor from the past.
“I see you’re still in the vinegar line,” he said easily, resuming his seat. “I guess you did turn me over for a bit. It takes a pretty stiff dose to do that, but this time you’ve raised Cain proper.”
They were delightfully amiable to one another, the more so as a feeling of distrust pervaded the whole conversation; but as Mrs. Belswin wanted to waste no time, in case the wife of her former lover should turn up, she opened fire at once—
“I dare say you’re surprised to see me.”
“It’s no good beating round the bush. I’m surprised and sorry.”
“You’ll be sorrier before I’ve done with you.”
“Hello! What are y’ going to show your teeth about?”
“Nothing, if you’ll do what I ask.”
“See here, Mrs. Pethram,” said Silas, leaning forward with his shrewd, sharp, foxy face, “it’s no good your tryin’ to play low on me. I’ve cut my eye teeth, I can tell you. You think you’ve got the whip hand of me. That’s as I take it. Well, you can drop that dodge. I ran off with you to ‘Frisco ‘cause I was a born fool. I did love you, only you were more like a redskin than a civilised woman. We agreed to part company twenty years ago, and I’ve kept my part of the contract. I’ve gone right along in the money line, and this time I’ve come home on the winner. I’m married and straight now, and I don’t want no one to put things wrong between my wife and me. As you’re an old friend I’ll act square by you if it’s money, but if it’s blackmail your looking you’d better believe it.”
Mrs. Belswin was in all things a headstrong, impulsive woman, without any craft or power to disguise her feelings. She had come to Oates with the fullest intention of threatening to tell his wife their former relations if he refused to give her money; but here was her adversary calmly placing the whole of her nefarious scheme before her, and she felt completely nonplussed. Oates, on the other hand, was so accustomed to trickery that Mrs. Belswin was a mere child in his hands, and the course he was now adopting was certainly the only means by which he could hope to checkmate her.
“Well, madam!” said Silas, seeing his plain speaking had taken Mrs. Belswin aback, “what do you say?”
Mrs. Belswin acted like a fool, lost her temper and stormed.
“You despicable little wretch,” she said, starting to her feet, with her eyes blazing with anger, “how dare you speak to me like this? Was it not for your sake that I lost my husband, my good name, my position in the world? And yet you dare to taunt me with it. You are now rich, married, and respectable. I, on the other hand, am poor—yes, poor, otherwise my life for these last twenty years has been above reproach. Oh, you may laugh! You judge me by yourself, but I tell you since I left you I have led a decent life. The reason I refuse to tell you. Now hear what I have to say. I would not have come to you unless it was a case of dire necessity, I hate you too much to have ever desired to set eyes on you again, but I was compelled to come, because I want money. Give me a cheque for £500 and I won’t trouble you again. Refuse, and I’ll tell your wife all.”
“Will you, indeed?” sneered Silas, mockingly. “Don’t try the black-mailing game, for you won’t bounce a cent out of me. That’s so, Mrs. Pethram. My wife knows all about you. I told her all when I was married.”
“That’s a lie,” said Mrs. Belswin, fiercely. “I don’t believe it.”
“I reckon it’s true, though.”
“I won’t take your word for it, so I’ll ask your wife.”
“She’ll be here at three-forty. You can wait.”
It was all bravado on the part of Oates, as he was in deadly fear lest his wife should come in and learn all. True this discreditable connection had taken place before his marriage: but Mrs. Oates would not take that fact into consideration, and would make things very unpleasant for him. With all his cleverness and craft, Silas was a coward at heart; so as Mrs. Belswin sat there, evidently determined to await the arrival of his wife, he skirmished round, in order to find out some weak spot in her armour by which he could beat her. Had he betrayed fear, Mrs. Belswin would have at once perceived that she had the advantage; but he did nothing but sit smiling before her, and all she could do in her mad rage was to tell all to Mrs. Oates, thereby cutting her own throat, and benefiting nothing by revelation.
“Say,” queried Mr. Oates, airily, “why don’t you look up Pethram?”
“He is dead.’
“Is that so?” said Oates, somewhat startled. “Died in New Zealand, I guess?”
“No, he didn’t. He died in England.”
“What did you kill him for?”
It was simply an idle, malicious question, as Silas never for a moment dreamed that the husband and wife had met, or that there had been anything strange about the husband’s death. Foolish Mrs. Belswin, never thinking, flashed out at once, on the impulse of the moment, quite forgetting that she was putting a sword into her enemy’s hand.
“I didn’t kill him. How dare you say so? No one knows who murdered him.”
Silas jumped up from his seat with an exclamation of surprise, as his apparently idle question had evidently drawn forth something important.
“Oh, he was murdered, then?”
“Didn’t you know,” said Mrs. Belswin, haughtily, “when you spoke to me like that?”
“I know nothing,” returned Silas, coolly. “I only spoke because I know if you had met Pethram in one of your fiendish tempers you would have put a knife in him.”
Mrs. Belswin saw that she had raised a suspicion in the mind of Silas, so was now careful as to what she said.
“You’re talking at random. Pethram is dead, and some one shot him; I don’t know who. You can see all about it in the papers.”
Silas made no answer, as he was thinking. Owing to Mrs. Belswin’s unsuspicious nature he had learned a very important fact, which might possibly lead to his circumventing her demands for money. So he made up his mind at once how to act, and acted.
“See here,” he said, good-humouredly, pulling out his cheque-book; “I’ll do what I can for you. Tell my wife or not, if you like; but now, if five hundred dollars are of any use, I’ll give you that lot straight off.”
“Five hundred dollars,” said Mrs. Belswin, coolly—“one hundred pounds. Well, that will do in the meantime; but I’m to have the rest next week, or I’ll make things hot for you, Silas.”
The American had his own opinion on the subject, but, with his habitual craft, said nothing. Filling up the cheque, he gave it to Mrs. Belswin, who took it without a word of thanks, and put it in her purse.
“I’ve made it payable to Mrs. Belswin,” said Oates. “That’s your last name, I guess?”
“It has been my name ever since I left you in ‘Frisco,” retorted Mrs. Belswin, fiercely. “You need not insinuate that I have been leading a bad life. I’ve no doubt my past would bear more looking into than yours.”
“You’ve the same old style, I see,” said Silas, insolently, “all gunpowder and dynamite. Well, I guess that now you’ve got what you came for you’ll get.”
“As you elegantly phrase it, I’ll get,” rejoined the lady, letting down her veil. “But let me hear from you next week about the rest of the money, or I’ll come and interview your wife.”
“Oh, I’ll write you straight,” answered Silas, with a peculiar smile, as he accompanied her to the door. “Good-bye, Mrs. Pethram—beg pardon, Mrs. Belswin.”
“Neither correct, sir,” said his visitor, jeeringly. “My Lady Pethram.”
Silas closed the door after her, with a smile which faded from his face when he found himself alone.
“Lady Pethram!” he echoed thoughtfully “I reckon then that Pethram got his handle. Well, now I’d better look after that murder case, and then I’ll fix that she-devil right along the line.”
Having thus made up his mind, he sent for a file of the Daily Telegraph of the previous month, and went steadily to work to read up the Thornstream case, which he had no difficulty in finding. He also discovered the address of a private inquiry office, and at once wrote a letter instructing them to send him a detective. This business being concluded, he lighted a cigar, rubbed his dry, lean hands together and chuckled.
“Two can always play at a game, my lady,” he muttered; “but this time I guess you’ll stand out.”
“ ‘Tis very hard to play the game of life;
For tho’ you keep your eye upon the board,
And move your puppets in well-thought-out ways,
Just when the winning seems within your grasp,
Some pawn is touched by stealthy-fingered Chance,
And straight the would-be victor looses all.”
In his dingy office sat Mr. Dombrain before his desk, in deep thought; and judging from the frown on his coarse face, his thoughts were not of the pleasantest. He bit his hard nails, he pulled at his stubbly red moustache, drummed on the table with his large hairy hands, and in fact displayed all the symptoms of a man very much disturbed in his mind. The cause of this disturbance was Mrs. Belswin, and, seeing that he was alone, Mr. Dombrain for the moment threw off his professional suavity and cursed the lady heartily. Had she been present, she would have laughed at his outburst of wrath; but as she had just left the room, he was free to make as rude remarks as he pleased, and he certainly took full advantage of his solitude. The wrath of Mrs. Belswin and the subsequent flattening out of Mr. Dombrain arose out of the following circumstance.
The lawyer, seeing that Kaituna had been left penniless, except for certain shares, which he truly assured her were not worth the paper they were written on, had, in a spirit of philanthropy, offered to buy those shares off her at his own price—which was a very small one—so that Miss Pethram would have something to live on. He wrote a letter—a generous and noble letter, from his point of view—in which he offered to take these undesirable shares in the Pole Star Mining Company off her hands at a great sacrifice to himself, and Mrs. Belswin had answered the letter on behalf of Kaituna in person. As she was a lady who never minced matters, however unpleasant, and moreover never exercised any self-control, Mr. Dombrain had rather a bad time of it for a quarter of an hour. He had seen that phrase in a French novel, but had never thoroughly understood its significance until Mrs. Belswin illustrated it to him in her own graphic manner. She said—oh, he hardly remembered what she said, except that she used the word “swindler” pretty often, and made several pointed allusions to the disgrace of an ex-convict exercising an honourable profession in London.
Mr. Dombrain could have said something rather disagreeable to her, which would certainly have shut her up, but this modern Xantippe gave him no opportunity of saying a word. She came, she saw, she raged, stormed, crushed, conquered, and finally departed in a whirlwind of passion, telling him that Clendon was going to look after the shares in Melbourne, and that if he dared to try any tricks on her she would—she would— Mr. Dombrain shivered when he thought of what she said she would do.
Now, however, that she was out of the room, and he had collected his thoughts, scattered by her terrific onslaught, he began to think, and after several minutes of thinking and frowning, he grinned. Not a pleasant grin by any manner of means—a nasty Mephistophelean grin that boded ill to his adversary. She had been unpleasant to him; well, he could now be unpleasant to her, and in a way she wouldn’t like. He constructed a little scheme in his head which he thought would answer his purpose, and was about to make a few notes relative to the same, when a card was brought in to him.
“Silas P. Oates.”
Mr. Dombrain shivered, and had the clerk not been present he would have sworn. As it was, however, he merely told the clerk to show the gentleman in, and then trembled at the thought of this second phantom of the past which had succeeded to Mrs. Belswin. She knew about his little mistake in New Zealand, so also did Mr. Oates; and Mr. Dombrain groaned in dismay as he thought of the double chance of exposure now threatening him. Did the American come as a friend, as an enemy, or in ignorance? Dombrain hoped the first, dreaded the second, but felt pretty confident that the third was the American’s state of mind, as he certainly would never connect Dombrain the solicitor with Damberton the convict. However, it would be decided in another minute, so Mr. Dombrain smoothed his hair, imposed a nervous grin on his mouth, and waited the advent of this second bogie with inward fear but outward calm.
The millionaire entered, quite unaware of the second shock which awaited him; for his purpose in seeking out Mr. Dombrain was wholly unconnected with the idea that he would find an old friend. The fact is, Mr. Oates had read the Thornstream case, had noticed that Mrs. Belswin was mixed up with it, and had sought out Mr. Dombrain—whose name was also in the papers—with the idea of finding out the precise position held by Mrs. Belswin in the house of her former husband. Sir Rupert’s solicitor could tell him this if it was drawn from him artfully. Mr. Dombrain was Sir Rupert’s solicitor, so to Mr. Dombrain came the wary Silas, wholly ignorant of what awaited him.
Silas did not notice Dombrain particularly at first, but sat down in the chair beside the table and cast about for some good idea wherewith to begin an extremely awkward conversation. Dombrain saw that he was not recognised, so kept his face in the shadow as much as possible, and spoke in a low, gruff voice, as if his throat was stuffed with cotton wool.
“I have called, sir,” observed Mr. Oates, after a preliminary cough, “to speak to you about the late Sir Rupert Pethram.”
“You, sir, I understand, were his lawyer. Is that so?”
“That is so,” replied Dombrain, unconsciously dropping into the Americanisms of the speaker.
“A friend of mine, sir,” pursued Mr. Oates, after another pause, “was connected, I believe, with the deceased. I allude, sir, to Mrs. Belswin.”
The name so startled Dombrain, that he forgot his intention of keeping his identity concealed from his visitor, and speaking in his natural voice started forward so that his face was clearly seen by Silas. Now Mr. Oates, in addition, to his many other gifts for getting the better of his fellow creatures, possessed a remarkably retentive memory in the matter of faces, and in spite of the alteration Mr. Dombrain had made in his appearance, recognised him at once. This time his nerves did not belie the reputation he gave them, and after a slight start he leaned back in his chair with a slight, dry smile.
“I opinionate,” remarked Silas, reflectively, “that I’ve been on your tracks before.”
“It was,” continued Silas, without taking any notice of the denial, “it was in New Zealand, sir. Dunedin was the city. A healthy gaol, sir, according to the guide books.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Dombrain, doggedly, resuming his seat. “I never saw you before, and I’m a stranger to you.”
“Dombrain is a stranger, I confess,” said Silas, fixing his clear eyes on the sullen face of the man before him, “but I can size up the party called Damberton without much trouble. I reckon I can tell you a story about him, Mr. Dombrain, if you want particulars.”
“No, no!” said Dombrain hoarsely, wiping his forehead; “it’s no use beating about the bush. I am Damberton, but now I’m quite respectable. You surely are not going to—”
“I’m goin’ to do nothin’, sir. You ain’t upsettin’ my apple-cart. No, sir. That’s a fact, anyhow.”
“Then what do you want me to do for you?” asked Dombrain, with a sigh of relief.
“Well, now,” replied Silas, thoughtfully, “that’s just what I’ve got to find out. Mrs. Belswin—hey! Do you know who Mrs. Belswin is?”
“Yes, the she-devil! Pethram’s wife. She was here half an hour ago.”
“Is that so? I say, you ain’t playin’ in the same yard, I guess. Not much, when you call her names.”
“I hate her!” said Dombrain, fiercely; “she is the curse of my life.”
“I reckon she’s been raisin’ Cain here,” observed Silas, shrewdly. “Well, that ain’t any of my business, but she’s been tryin’ the same game on with me. Now I’m a quiet man, sir, and I don’t want no catamount spittin’ round my front door, so I want you to put the set on that lady.”
“What can I do?”
“I’ve been readin’ your noospapers, sir. They can’t scream like the American eagle. Not much! But I read all about that shootin’ case, and I see you were waltzin’ round! hey! Mrs. Pethram wasn’t far off neither, I guess.”
“No; she was companion to Miss Pethram.”
“Well, you do surprise me, sir. I s’pose her daughter didn’t rise to the fact that Mrs. Belswin was her mamma.”
“No; she knew nothing. Mrs. Belswin obtained the situation while Sir Rupert Pethram was absent. When he returned she had an interview with him, and—”
“And he passed in his cheques,” concluded Silas, musingly. “Queer thing that, anyhow.”
“You don’t think,” began Dombrain hastily, when Silas interrupted him promptly.
“I don’t think at all,” he said, rising and putting on his hat. “I don’t want to think. Compoundin’ a felony isn’t in my line nohow.”
“But surely, sir—”
Oates, who had turned away, faced round suddenly, with a sharp look in his foxy face which made Dombrain feel somewhat ill at ease.
“See here, Mister,” he said slowly. “Mrs. Belswin’s been round at my hotel tryin’ to get dollars. I gave her five hundred, and now this bank’s shut. She gets no more, I guess, this fall, because you’ll tell her she’s not to come gavortin’ round my claim no more.”
“But I can’t stop her.”
“No?” said Silas, interrogatively, “I guess you can. See here, Mr. Damberton, I know what you are—none better, and that’s straight. You know what Mrs. Belswin is, and if she plays low on you, sir, just ask her where she got the little gun to fix up things with her husband.”
“But she didn’t kill him.”
Silas laughed disbelievingly.
“I don’t know nothin’ of that game, sir. It’s a cut beyond me, and that’s a fact. All I say is, that if Mrs. Belswin comes on the war-path to my ranch, I’ll tell some things about Mr. Damberton that Mr. Dombrain won’t smile at. You take me, sir, I fancy.”
“Yes!” said Dombrain, slowly, while the great drops of sweat gathered on his forehead, “I understand.”
“Bully for you,” replied Mr. Oates, in a friendly tone, going to the door. “Good-mornin’, sir. I’m pleased to see you again. It’s like the old days, and that’s a fact.”
Mr. Oates sauntered out with his hands in his pockets and Dombrain flung himself in his chair, and, burying his face in his hands, sobbed like a child.
“My God,” he sobbed passionately, “am I to lose all after these years?”
“Those who went forth in brave array
Return again at the close of day,
With tattered banners that flaunted gay,
And swords now broken that once could slay;
Their march is sad and slow.
“Oh, sorrow for those who could not die,
Who, lion-hearted, were forced to fly,
And now for ever in chains must lie;
For hark, there rises the terrible cry—
‘Woe to the vanquished, woe.’ ”
When Mrs. Belswin received a letter from Mr. Dombrain asking her to call, she was considerably astonished, as she had thought her last interview with him would have pretty well resigned him to the loss of her society. But evidently he was now throwing down the gage of battle, so Mrs. Belswin, like an old war-horse at the sound of a trumpet, felt a certain exultation at the thought of the coming fight, and lost no time in assenting to the request of the solicitor.
What he wanted to see her about she could not imagine, unless it was to make another offer for the Pole Star shares, and as she had already set his mind at rest on that point, it seemed ridiculous to think that he would waste his time in trying to encompass the impossible. She was now quite at ease in her own mind regarding money matters, as the hundred pounds she had obtained from Silas, together with what she already had in the bank, would enable her and Kaituna to live in comfort for the next three or four months in an economical way. Of course, she quite expected to be in possession of the other four hundred the next week, which would place them in affluence until the report of Toby came home about the Pole Star shares, and judging from the offer made by Dombrain, Mrs. Belswin, with feminine acuteness, guessed that the shares were more valuable than they now appeared to be, so that their sale in a few months would realise a decent sum for Kaituna. If this turned out to be the case, Mrs. Belswin intended to persuade Kaituna to marry Archie at once, and the future of her child being thus secured, she cared little for herself. She could certainly marry herself, as both Ferrari and Belk were devoted to her, but she despised the first for his cowardice in the matter of removing her husband, and the latter, in spite of his good looks, was of too lowly a station for her to think seriously of in any way.
Since her departure from Thornstream, Belk had written to her several times—ardent, passionate letters, which showed plainly how deeply in love he was with her; and Mrs. Belswin could not but feel a thrill of pride at the thought of her own attractions, even at the mature age of forty-five. At present, however, she had more important things to think of than marriage, and drove along to Dombrain’s office in a puzzled state of mind, trying to think of the reason why he wanted to see her, so that she could be prepared to hold her own.
That Silas had stolen a march on her she never for a moment dreamed; and had she guessed the real object of the interview sought by Mr. Dombrain, she would doubtless have felt somewhat ill at ease. As it was, however, she knew nothing; and thus, ignorance being bliss, she walked boldly into the dingy office, and took her accustomed seat with her usual defiant air.
Dombrain himself was rather nervous, although he now assumed a bullying manner towards the woman he was afraid of. She had held a power over him which had hitherto precluded him from talking to her as he would have wished; but now he had discovered something about her life which gave him the advantage, and he determined to use his power to insult, sneer, and crush her; in fact, treat her in the same way as she had hitherto treated him.
In spite of her violent temper, her foolish impulses, Mrs. Belswin was not without a certain amount of feminine cunning; and, as she was quite in the dark concerning the object of the interview, and, moreover, did not like the ill-concealed look of triumph on the part of the solicitor, she held her tongue, waiting for him to begin the attack, so that a chance word might afford her an opportunity of fathoming his motives.
“Well, Mrs. Belswin,” said Dombrain, with a nasty grin on his coarse-looking face, “and how are you to-day, after your conduct in our last interview?”
Mrs. Belswin looked him up and down in a sneeringly insolent manner, which made him writhe.
“I think I ought to ask that question,” she said, disdainfully, “considering that I left you crushed, like the little reptile you are.”
“Oh, no. None of those compliments, if you please. Last time you had it all your own way; this time I have it all mine.”
“Two can play at every game.”
“Yes; but one generally holds trumps. This time I hold trumps. Do you play cards, Mrs. Belswin? If so, you know that the game is to the player with the strongest hand.”
“I congratulate you on your knowledge of gambling. And may I ask what you are talking about?”
“All in good time, Mrs. Belswin—all in good time. First and foremost, I wish to know about your visit to Silas Oates. Ah! you start at that. You are not quite so confident as you were at our last interview.”
“I think you are mistaken,” replied Mrs. Belswin, coldly. “There can be nothing to interest you in my interview with Mr. Oates. If you fancy your knowledge that I called on him makes me afraid, you were never further from the truth in your life. I am not to be terrified by an ex-convict.”
It was the old threat that had formerly reduced Mr. Dombrain to silence; but now it appeared to have lost its power, for the ex-convict leaned back in his chair and laughed insolently.
“People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I say.”
“You seem to have been at your private whiskey-bottle,” said Mrs. Belswin, rising impatiently; “but as I am not in the mood to listen to your drunken ravings I will go.”
“Oh, no, you won’t. Of course you can if you like; but you had better hear what I have to say.”
“I will give you five minutes,” replied Mrs. Belswin, resuming her seat, “no more.”
“That will be enough. Now, just listen to me. Mr. Oates has called, and informed me of your attempt to blackmail him. You have got one hundred pounds, and he says he will not give you any more.”
“That is a question that has nothing to do with you, sir.”
“Oh, yes, it has,” retorted Dombrain, coolly. “He asked me to stop you from calling on him again, and I intend to do so.”
Mrs. Belswin laughed long and loudly.
“Do you, indeed? And may I ask how you intend to stop me?”
Mr. Dombrain leaned across the desk, glanced round to make sure they were alone, then whispered slowly—
“By asking you how you killed your husband.”
She sprang to her feet with a pale face, her eyes flashing fiercely.
“It’s a lie! You know I had nothing to do with it.”
“I’m afraid a jury wouldn’t take that view if they heard my evidence.”
“Your evidence! the evidence of a felon.”
“That’s a pretty name, but instead of abusing me, you’d better look after yourself.”
Mrs. Belswin sat down again and spoke deliberately.
“I don’t know what your object is in talking like this, but I will take it as a favour if you will let me know precisely how you connect me with my late husband’s death. You say I killed him. You hint you can prove it. That’s a lie, because if that was the case I should be in prison now. No! No! Mr. Damberton, you are not the man to spare a woman.”
“Certainly not you, who have made my life a hell for the last few months.”
“We can exchange these compliments afterwards. First your story.”
Dombrain, who was growing weary of all this fencing, lost no time in responding to this request, and began at once.
“As you know, I was staying at Thornstream on the night you arrived. Ostensibly, I had come down to see Sir Rupert on business, but my real motive was to see how you intended to meet him. You did not appear at dinner, and I thought you would put off the interview until the next day. I was tired with my day’s work, and was about to retire to rest when I saw you descending the stairs, upon which I hid myself, lest you should see me.”
“Coward!” ejaculated Mrs. Belswin, disdainfully.
“No, I was no coward, but had I been foolish enough to have spoken to you, in one of your paroxysms of anger, you might have revealed my true position to Sir Rupert, out of spite.”
Mrs. Belswin thought how she had really done this, and how ignorant the man before her was of his narrow escape from exposure—an exposure only prevented by the death of Pethram.
“Therefore,” resumed Dombrain, coldly, “I hid myself, but I watched the door of the study. You entered there, and the door was closed. A long time passed—the servants put out the lights, shut up the house, and retired to rest. Miss Pethram, I have learned since, retired early on account of a headache, and as the whole Thornstream household kept country hours, by the time the clock struck ten—the hall clock I am speaking of—all the house was asleep except you, Sir Rupert, and myself. The half-hour sounded, still you had not left the study—the three-quarters struck, but the door was still closed. I waited, and waited, and wondered. Eleven sounded from the clock in the hall, and at a few minutes past the door opened, and you appeared, pale and ghastly, like a guilty spectre. Closing the door softly after you, with a furtive look round, lest some one should be watching, you fled upstairs, brushed past me, and went into your bedroom. This was all I wanted to see. I knew you had met your husband, that he had not turned you out of the house, so never dreaming that you had committed a crime to screen your real self, I went to bed. Next morning—”
He flung open his arms with a dramatic gesture, quite in keeping with the stagey way in which he had told the story, and became silent, with his small eyes viciously fastened on the unfortunate woman before him.
She was sitting like an image of stone, pale and still, with tightly compressed lips, and a lurid fire burning in her fierce eyes. Only the nervous working of her hands lying in her lap betrayed her deep agitation, and when he had finished, she looked at him with a smile of disdain.
“And you saw all this wonderful thing like a cat in the dark,” she said, scoffingly.
“No! You know perfectly well that the hall lamp was still lighted, for Sir Rupert himself had told the servants not to wait up, as he would work late, and he would put it out himself. I saw perfectly well all I have described and you know it.”
“So you think I killed my husband?”
“I’m sure of it. According to the evidence at the inquest, the time of his death was between ten and eleven. I can prove that you left the room at eleven o’clock, so you must have left your dead husband behind you.”
“If you saw all this, why did you not tell it at the inquest?”
“Because I wished to spare you.”
“No! No! Don’t lie to me like that. I am your bitter enemy! Why did you spare me?”
“I will tell you. Whether you killed Sir Rupert or not was nothing to me, personally. My reputation as a lawyer is a great deal to me. Had I denounced you, the result would have been—”
“That I should have told all about you, and you would have been struck off the rolls. Ah! I thought you had some motive for sparing me. Well, what do you intend to do now?”
“Tell all, unless you promise to leave Oates alone.”
“If you do your position will still be lost.”
“I know it, I know it!” cried Dombrain in despair; “but what can I do? If I do not stop your going to Oates, he knows me, and he will tell all. If I do stop you, then you in revenge will tell all.”
“I see, you are between two fires,” said Mrs. Belswin, calmly. “Well, set your mind at rest; I will trouble Silas Oates no more.”
“You will not?”
“No. All I wanted out of him was money, but as to that you will take his place and be my banker.”
“Yes, you! Pshaw, man, you needn’t look so scared! You know well enough that the money will be returned to you when those shares are sold.”
“But they are worth nothing.”
“So I thought until you wanted to buy them,” said Mrs. Belswin, with a sneer.
“You forget I hold your life in my hand!” cried Dombrain, threateningly.
“Well, and I hold your position in mine,” retorted Mrs. Belswin. “My life is a great deal to me, your position is everything to you. I am willing to leave Silas Oates alone if you give me money when I require it; if not, you can denounce me when you like.”
“And then you will be hanged!” said Dombrain, spitefully.
“Bah! I can prove your story to be a lie.”
“I’ll tell you now. Good heavens! did you think that if I was guilty I’d think my life safe in your keeping? My neck against your position? Bah! the thing is ridiculous. I can clear myself and ruin you at the same time, but I want no scandal, nor my daughter to know who I am, as she inevitably must had I to publicly defend myself of your charge of murder. So you see that on my side I have as much a desire as you to keep matters quiet. Now then, I’ll leave Silas Oates alone, I will not go near him; but if I want money you must supply it.”
“I will do so—to any reasonable amount,” replied Dombrain, hastily. “But you say you are innocent?”
“And I am.”
“After what I’ve seen I don’t believe it. If you did not kill him, who else had a motive?”
“How do I know? I was not in all the secrets of Sir Rupert’s life. But I can tell to you, so afraid of losing your pettifogging position, what I dare not tell any one else. I saw Sir Rupert’s dead body on that night, but I did not kill him.”
“Then you know who did?”
“No, I do not.”
“Let me hear your story,” said Dombrain, with a disbelieving smile.
“When I entered the study,” began Mrs. Belswin, without further preamble, “I saw my husband. He recognised me at once. We had a stirring interview, and he turned me out of the house. I left by the French window, where he was found lying dead; and in order to get shelter for the night, I went to ‘The Chequers’ in Deswarth. I’m not telling you all the story, mind you, but only what suits myself. In the dock I should tell everything. Well, to resume. I waited at ‘The Chequers’ for some time, and then determined to return to Thornstream to say good-bye to my daughter, as I knew Sir Rupert would prevent me seeing her the next day. I arrived on the terrace just when the hour of eleven sounded. There was still a light in Sir Rupert’s study, and stealing along in the dark, I saw his dead body lying half in and half out of the window. A full sense of the danger of my position flashed on me, and I saw that if I was arrested I was lost. I dare not try to enter the house by any door as they were all locked, and if a servant admitted me I should have to account for my being out at that hour of the night, which would lead to my being accused of the murder. The only way to regain my own room in safety was across the dead body of my husband, so I entered by the French window, left by the study door, and regained my bedroom without any one having seen me—except you. I did not kill him! I swear I did not!”
“I’m afraid that story would not go down in a court of law.”
“I told you I had kept some of the story to myself. To use your favourite illustration, I still hold my trump card.”
There was silence for a few moments, during which Mrs. Belswin, considerably agitated, used her smelling-bottle freely. Then Dombrain spoke.
“Well, there’s nothing more to be said.”
“I think not,” said Mrs. Belswin, rising. “You know my conditions!”
“And you know mine, I think,” retorted Dombrain with a malignant grin.
She cast upon him a glance of supreme contempt, and went to the door.
“I’ll see you again when I want money,” she said, and vanished.
“Humph!” said Mr. Dombrain, thoughtfully; “if I can find out the part of the story you won’t tell, I may be able to stop your seeing me altogether.”
“Out of the night, and into the light,
Comes the doer of evil deeds.
Out of the light, and into the night,
With a sin on his soul he speeds.
But the hemp is sown, and the tree is grown,
That will hang him high as a murderer known,
Himself hath planted the seeds.”
To be an amateur detective requires a certain amount of capital. There are people “who know” to be discovered, and a search after them cannot be successfully conducted without money; and when the people “who know” are brought under the eye of the inquirer, they frequently decline to speak unless well paid for their information. Money, therefore, is essential to the success of solving a mystery, and when Archie Maxwell sat down calmly to consider the aspect of affairs, he found himself at once face to face with the question of funds.
He was young, he had talents, he had a profession; so with all these endowments looked forward to making a fortune, which is the ambition of every well-constituted youth in this age of gold. Unfortunately, like the magical draught of Mephistopheles, time is required to make money, and as every moment was of importance in finding out the mystery of Sir Rupert’s death, Archie could not waste four or five years in getting together sufficient to prosecute his inquiries. It was true that he was engaged to go out to Buenos Ayres at the end of the year, but the firm who employed him were hard to deal with, and refused to let him draw in advance of his salary. Toby was not well off, so he could not apply to him for aid, besides which that young man was already on his way to the Antipodes; so Mr. Maxwell found himself with comparatively little money in the bank and a difficult case to solve without funds.
Luckily Archie was of a very sanguine nature, and hopeful in a Micawberish sense of “something turning up;” so making up his mind to at all events make a start in the affair, he collected all the newspaper reports of the inquest, and made himself thoroughly acquainted with the ins and outs of the baronet’s death.
It appeared, from the evidence of the butler, that on the night of the murder Sir Rupert had informed him that he would be sitting up late in his study, looking over some papers, and that the household could go to bed at their usual time. Sir Rupert appeared cheerful, but somewhat preoccupied, and went into his study shortly after dinner. The butler, according to his instructions, locked up all the house, leaving the hall lamp burning for Sir Rupert to put out, and then, with the rest of the servants, retired to rest. He heard no pistol-shot, no sounds of any one being in the house, and knew nothing about the terrible event which had taken place until the next morning.
The housemaid stated that she had entered the study, according to her usual custom, to put it to rights, and had there found the body of her master lying half in and half out of the French window, which was open. Her shriek of terror brought her fellow-servants to the spot, and the police were sent for but she knew nothing more.
Miss Pethram deposed that her father had said good-night to her shortly after dinner, and had retired to his study to attend to some business. She remained in the drawing-room for some time with Mr. Dombrain, her father’s solicitor, who was then staying in the house, and retired to bed about nine o’clock, as she had a bad headache. She had heard no pistol-shot during the night There was nothing in her father’s demeanour that led her to think he contemplated suicide.
Mr. Dombrain, the dead man’s solicitor, said that he had come down to Thornstream in order to witness the signing of Sir Rupert’s will. The signing took place in the afternoon, and at night the baronet went to his study to look over some papers. He (witness) offered to accompany him, but Sir Rupert refused, as he said it was not necessary. Miss Pethram retired to bed about nine o’clock, and as he was left alone, he also retired half an hour afterwards. Sir Rupert never gave him the least idea that he contemplated suicide—in fact, on the night of the murder he seemed very cheerful. Witness was a very heavy sleeper, but he certainly had heard no pistol-shot during the night, and it was only next morning that he learned about the crime.
Mrs. Belswin, chaperon to Miss Pethram, gave her evidence, which was rather important, as she was the last person who saw Sir Rupert alive. She had been engaged when Sir Rupert was in New Zealand, and on his arrival had gone up to London on business. She only returned on the day when the crime was committed, and went to see Sir Rupert in his study between eight and nine o’clock. She only had a short interview with him, as they had nothing particular to talk about, and had gone up to her room shortly after nine o’clock. Knowing that Miss Pethram had retired with a bad headache, she did not disturb her, but went straight to bed. Some of the servants might have noticed her going upstairs to her room; she did not know. Sir Rupert was a complete stranger to her. He seemed well and cheerful; certainly the idea of suicide never crossed her mind for a moment. She heard no sounds of a struggle nor any pistol-shot, and knew nothing of the committal of the crime until next morning.
The doctor’s evidence was to the effect that the deceased had been shot somewhere between ten and eleven o’clock at night. The bullet, penetrating the right eye, had entered the brain, causing death almost instantaneously. From the slanting upward direction of the bullet from the eye towards the back part of the head he would think the pistol or gun had been fired from a low position. According to his idea, the murderer had been crouching behind some shrubs on the terrace. Sir Rupert came to the window, and, as the study was lighted, his form would be clearly defined against the brilliant background. This was the opportunity chosen by the assassin, who had fired from the crouching position he occupied, so that the bullet had travelled upwards and penetrated into the brain through the right eye.
During the evidence of this witness the bullet was produced to the Court, and afterwards the Coroner summed up. Going on the evidence produced, the jury brought in a verdict of murder against some person or persons unknown. In addition to this bold report of the case, there was a short leader, which theorised a great deal, but ultimately came to the conclusion that nothing could be done to unravel the mystery, and (as usual) complimented the police on their vigilance, a compliment wholly undeserved, as, from all appearances, the case had been conducted in a singularly slip-slop fashion, utterly unworthy of English justice.
Being an engineer, Maxwell was consequently a mathematician, therefore, having been trained in that exact science, he had a singularly logical mind. Two and two, according to his way of looking at things, made four, but in this instance he was doubtful as to whether they did so. Everything in connection with the case was wrapped in mystery, and there seemed to be no one on whom suspicion could rest. All the people present in the house on the night in question had given satisfactory accounts of their movements, except, perhaps, Mrs. Belswin, and the only possible suspicion against her was that she had been last in the company of the dead man.
This was all very well, but the committal of a crime pre-supposes a motive, and as Mrs. Belswin, according to her own account, was a complete stranger to Sir Rupert, it would certainly be very foolish to even hint such a thing against her. She had seen the baronet, spoken to him for a few minutes, and then retired to bed. Nothing could be simpler, and whosoever had a hand in the murder it was certainly not Mrs. Belswin, so Archie dismissed this fancy as a foolish one.
The curious part about the whole affair was that no one had heard any report, and, as Sir Rupert had been shot the sound of the weapon employed would certainly have been heard. Yet all present in the house averred that they heard nothing; which was, to say the least, very peculiar.
Judging from the evidence of the doctor, Sir Rupert was shot from the terrace, which argued that the assassin must have been a stranger to the house. With this idea in his head, Maxwell wondered whether any suspicious stranger had been about the neighbourhood at that time, and made up his mind to inquire. Sir Rupert, from all accounts, was not a loveable character, and, in fact, his conduct towards Maxwell had been anything but courteous, so that he was just the kind of man to have enemies. This being the case, what was more probable than that some man or woman whom he had wronged had followed him to Thornstream and revenged themselves by killing him. It was rather a wild idea, still it seemed the only feasible one, so Maxwell made up his mind to go down to Deswarth, ask the hospitality of the vicarage for a few days, and make inquiries regarding what strangers had been to the village on that fatal day.
This was the conclusion he came to, but then the assertion of every one that they had heard no shot was puzzling, and the more Maxwell thought the more puzzled he became.
Suddenly an idea struck him and he jumped to his feet.
“I have it,” he cried, “it was an air-gun.”
All is concealed;
All is revealed.”
It was a great idea, and one which had never entered the brains of the detectives employed in the case, so Maxwell looked upon it as an earnest of success. He told no one about it, not even Mrs. Belswin, nor Kaituna; but informing them that he was called out of town for a few days on business, made his preparations for going to Deswarth, and finding out all particulars regarding the case which had not come to light at the inquest.
Then Chance interfered.
On the morning of his departure he was having breakfast at his rooms, intending to catch the eleven train to Deswarth, when his departure was postponed indefinitely by the appearance of a visitor.
And the visitor was Mrs. Belk.
She sent up her name to Archie, who told the servant to admit her, wondering on what errand she had come—never for a moment thinking that she could have anything to do with the Deswarth tragedy.
Mrs. Belk entered, neatly dressed in her widow’s garb, with her mean evil face looking smug and placid under the white frill of her widow’s cap. On seeing Archie she curtsied in an old-fashioned way, and, with the natural deference of the lower orders, waited for him to speak first.
“You wish to see me,” he said, looking at her in some surprise, for such an odd figure had never before entered his chambers.
Mrs. Belk, with another curtsey, signified that she did wish to see him, and had come to London for that purpose. This reply having been made, she shut her mouth with a snap, and waited, still giving no hint of her errand.
“Will you not be seated, Mrs.—Mrs.—”
“Belk, sir,” said the woman, seeing that Archie was at a loss, “perhaps, sir, you may know my son, Samson Belk.”
“Oh, yes! the good-looking bailiff,” replied Maxwell, carelessly. “Is he your son?”
“He is, sir,” answered Mrs. Belk, her heart swelling with pride at hearing the eulogy on her son’s good looks. “He was bailiff to Sir Rupert, but now he is bailiff to the new baronet, Sir Thomas Pethram.”
“Indeed. I’m very glad his prospects are so good,” said Archie politely, wondering what all this domestic history had to do with him.
“His prospects ain’t good, sir; and that’s why I’ve come up to see you.”
“But, my good woman, what can I do?” cried the young man in amazement.
Mrs. Belk wriggled in her chair, sniffed significantly, and went on talking apparently in a manner most irrelevant to the subject in hand.
“Sir Thomas,” she said, with snappy deliberation, “is a hard man. Sir Rupert was hard, there’s no denying, and my boy—who is proud—didn’t get on with being crushed. If Sir Rupert hadn’t died he would have left his service; but as he did die, and Sir Thomas asked him to stay on—he knowing all the ins and outs of the place—he did so, thinking Sir Thomas would be a better master.”
“And he was disappointed?”
Mrs. Belk nodded her head emphatically.
“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” she said, sententiously; “and that’s what Sir Thomas is. A hard gentleman, sir, who thinks my boy is a slave; so we are going to leave his service.”
“But, Mrs. Belk,” observed Archie, rather puzzled, “what on earth has all this got to do with me?”
“I’m coming to that, sir,” replied the woman, imperturbably; “me and my boy wondered what we’d do when we left Sir Thomas; for situations, Mr. Maxwell, are hard to get—especially for poor folks like us.”
Maxwell nodded an assent, and waited until she came to the reason of her visit.
“In the papers,” pursued Mrs. Belk, with a faint smile of triumph on her pale face, “me and my boy saw that strong men was being exhibited in London, and all the gentry was mad on ‘em.”
“Yes, I believe that is the case. This strong man craze is in all the music-halls.”
“My son, sir, is called Samson, and he is as strong as a horse.”
“Yes, I know that,” said Archie, with the cordial admiration of physical strength which one Englishman feels for another. “He is tremendously strong. I’ve seen him do some wonderful things. Well, and your son proposes to come up to London and exhibit his strength.”
“Yes, sir,” said Mrs. Belk, with a look of triumph; “he does, sir. It’s my idea.”
“I’ve no doubt it’s a good one. While the craze lasts he may make money; but after—”
“I’ll take care of the money, sir,” answered Mrs. Belk, grimly. “He’ll make hay while the sun shines, and I’ll take care when the sun doesn’t shine that we’ll have something to live on.”
“Do you want me to help you in this, then?”
“In a sort of way, sir; but not for nothing.”
“Really, I don’t know what you can do for me.”
“You wait, sir, and I’ll tell. To git a start in London requires money, and me and my son want fifty pounds to give us a start.”
“Indeed. I’m afraid I can’t advance the money.”
“So you say now, sir; but when you know what fifty pounds ‘ull buy, perhaps you will.”
Archie’s curiosity was now fully aroused, owing to the significance of her words. There was evidently something important behind all this apparently idle preamble, and he waited with some anxiety as to what she was going to tell him.
“You are engaged to Miss Pethram, sir, I’m told,” said Mrs. Belk, abruptly.
“Yes, I am. What then?” replied Maxwell rather haughtily, not liking his private affairs being mentioned by a complete stranger.
Mrs. Belk bent forward in a mysterious manner, touched him on the knee, then flung herself back in her chair with a searching look.
“Has she found out who killed her father?”
Maxwell jumped to his feet with an ejaculation, and, one hand grasping the back of his chair, stood looking at the mean figure before him in silent amazement.
“What do you mean?” he demanded in a stifled voice.
The woman carried an obtrusive black leather bag, of no small size, with a metal clasp, and this she shook slowly at him as she replied to his question.
“In here,” she said, in her monotonous voice—a voice that neither rose nor fell, but kept on droning constantly in the same dreary monotone—“in here I have something which may lead to the discovery of the criminal.”
Maxwell gasped. Was chance going to reveal the secret which he had been so afraid was a secret for ever? He had been about to go down to Deswarth on an apparently hopeless quest, without anything to guide him to a conclusion; and lo! at the very time when he was starting, this woman appeared from the clouds with the asseveration that she knew something which would be a sure guide to the revealing of the mystery.
“In that bag?” he said, mechanically, looking at it in a fascinated fashion. “In that bag?”
With a cry of relief he advanced and stretched out his hands eagerly.
“Give it to me! What is it? Give it to me?” The woman put the bag behind her back with a frown.
“No,” she answered, in the same passionless voice. “Nothing for nothing. I have told you what I wanted. Give me fifty pounds, and you shall have it.”
“But what is it?”
“A clue to the man who committed the murder.”
“Give it to me at once!”
“Certainly—when I get fifty pounds.” Maxwell reflected. He was not a rich man, and fifty pounds was a great consideration to him. Still, in his search he would probably spend that amount, and by giving it to this woman he would perhaps learn the name of the criminal at once, so it would be better to save time by acceding to her demand, and thus arrest the assassin before he had time to leave the country. Therefore he made up his mind to give it to her, and secure the evidence she said was in the bag; but first he tried to find out exactly what that evidence was worth.
“Do you know who committed the murder?”
“No, I do not. I found something which I think belongs to him, and may lead to his detection. You shall have it for fifty pounds.”
“Why do you come to me?”
“You are engaged to Miss Pethram, and it is to your interest to find out who killed her father. Besides, you will pay me money. If I went to Sir Thomas or to Sir Rupert’s solicitor, they would probably refuse to give me a penny, and I want the money for my son.”
“If I give you a cheque for fifty pounds you will give me this—this—whatever it is you have in your bag?”
“I will; but I don’t like cheques. I’d rather have the money in gold.”
“You mistrust me?”
“I don’t like cheques,” reiterated Mrs. Belk, doggedly.
Maxwell reflected a few moments, then made up his mind what to do, and rang the bell. When the servant who attended to all the chambers in the building entered, he handed him a cheque for fifty pounds, made payable to bearer, and drawn on the Piccadilly Bank, a branch of which was not far distant.
“Take a hansom and cash this at once—gold. Will you be long?”
“About ten minutes, sir.”
The servant departed, and Maxwell turned to Mrs. Belk, who observed all these doings with a satisfied smile.
“You see I am treating you fairly,” he said quietly; “and when the messenger returns I will place those fifty pounds in your hands.”
“Very well, sir. In return I will give you what is in here,”
“I do not like this distrust!” cried Maxwell, angrily.
“I am a country woman, sir; I know nothing of London ways.”
She was evidently obdurate, and there was silence for a few minutes. Then Archie made another attempt to extract information from her.
“Where did you find this—whatever it is?”
“I will tell you, sir, when you have it in your hands.”
“Do you know to whom it belongs?”
“It seems to me that I am paying a heavy price for what is of comparatively little value.”
“I may be able to tell you something in addition to giving this to you.”
“Likely to be of service in connection with it?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Humph! Is this clue which you have of value?”
“To you, yes.”
“Of pecuniary value, I mean?”
“Yes, it is valuable.”
“Then why did you not sell it instead of giving it to me for fifty pounds?”
“Sir,” said Mrs. Belk, coldly, “I am an honest woman. The thing is not mine to sell. Money obtained dishonestly brings no good luck, and as this money is for my son, I do not wish it to be cursed.”
“The fifty pounds I now give you may be the price of a man’s blood. You are strangely scrupulous. You will not steal, but you will hang a man.”
“If he is guilty he deserves to die. Credit rather than blame is mine for handing him over to justice.”
Maxwell looked curiously at her.
“You speak above your station in life.”
“Very probably,” replied Mrs. Belk, indifferently. “I have had some education.”
This strange dialogue was interrupted by the entrance of the servant, who handed Maxwell fifty pounds in gold and then took his departure. The young man placed the money on the table and motioned to Mrs. Belk.
“Count it, please, and see if it is correct.”
Mrs. Belk eagerly advanced towards the table, and dividing the money into tens, counted it rapidly. Having done so, she took a small canvas bag out of her pocket and put the gold into it.
“That is all right, sir,” she said, with a sigh of relief, opening the black bag. “You have behaved like a gentleman; I have the money I want, and you have in exchange—this.”
“This” was a small diamond pin in the shape of a star, with eight points, and Maxwell took it in his hand with a sensation that he had seen it before.
“Ah!” he said, thoughtfully, turning it over in his hands, “this is the thing I have bought for my fifty pounds.”
“It is worth about twenty, I should say,” said Maxwell, resuming his seat. “But doubtless the story attached to it will render it more valuable.”
“There is no story, sir,” replied Mrs. Belk, who had placed the gold in her obtrusive black bag. “Simply this: I found that on the terrace of the Hall on the morning after the murder. It was lying close to the window.”
“Indeed! And you think—”
“I think that it was dropped by the man who murdered Sir Rupert.”
“How do you know it was a man?”
“That is a gentleman’s scarf-pin, sir.”
“Hah!” cried Maxwell, with a sudden start, “I know now where I saw it.”
“You saw it, sir?” asked Mrs. Belk, eagerly.
“Yes, on the scarf of the man I—never mind, I may be mistaken. Did you tell your son you had found this?”
“No, sir. I wished to surprise him with the money. I have told no one except you.”
“I’m glad of that. Well, I think I have an idea; but surely he cannot be guilty of the murder.”
Maxwell, who had risen to his feet, looked at her keenly.
“Have you any idea of whom I am talking?”
“None in the least, sir.”
The young man walked to the other end of the room, then retraced his steps slowly.
“Mrs. Belk,” he said, after a pause, “do you know if there were any strangers in Deswarth on the night of the murder?”
“Only one, sir. A furriner at The Chequers, and he went away next morning.”
“Do you think he knew Sir Rupert?”
“I do not know, sir. All I know is that I found that scarf-pin near where the murder was committed. If it belongs to the furriner, he killed Sir Rupert.”
“What was he doing at Deswarth?”
“I do not know, sir.”
“Humph! Well, say nothing about this to any one, Mrs. Belk. I will see you again when I come down to Deswarth.”
“You are coming down to Deswarth, sir?”
“Yes, to find out who killed Sir Rupert.”
“I think you’ll find him in London, sir,” said the woman, with a grim smile, as she stood with her hand on the door. “Good-morning, sir.”
Maxwell stood a long time looking at the pin.
“Yes,” he said aloud, “it certainly belongs to that man.”
He had seen it in the scarf of Ferrari in the morning he met Mrs. Belswin at the Deswarth station.
“Woman, this stranger
Knows not thy shame;
Yet there is danger
Hears he thy name.
“Hide it, conceal it,
Heed not the cost;
Breathe it, reveal it,
And thou art lost.”
The diamond scarf-pin had been found on the terrace of Thornstream by Mrs. Belk, so the man to whom it belonged must have been there on the night of the murder, and the owner thereof, according to Maxwell’s firm conviction—on the testimony of his own eyes—was none other than the stranger who had been in the company of Mrs. Belswin at the Deswarth station. The first thing, therefore, to be done was to find out who this stranger was, and demand from him an explanation of his presence at Thornstream on that fatal night.
Maxwell, however, did not know this man whom he suspected of being a murderer; he did not even know his name; but he could discover all about him in two ways, one of which was doubtful, the other certain.
The doubtful way:
To go down to Deswarth and inquire from the landlord of The Chequers the name, position, and business in the village of the man who had stayed at the inn. This was doubtful in this way: that supposing the stranger had come to Deswarth to commit this crime, he would naturally give a false name to the landlord, so as to obviate the danger of discovery, so Maxwell, with this idea in his head, plainly saw that going down to Deswarth in order to interview the landlord would, in all reasonable probability, be a waste of time.
The certain way:
To ask Mrs. Belswin the name of her companion, and the reason of his coming to the village. Archie felt his old doubts about Mrs. Belswin revive as he thought of the doubtful juxtaposition of this suspicious character with the companion. Why had she gone to London at the time of Sir Rupert’s arrival? Why had she returned with a stranger, who had been on the terrace on the night of the murder? And why had Sir Rupert been murdered on the night of her return? Only one person could answer all these inquiries, and that person was Mrs. Belswin. There was certainly something very mysterious about her conduct; but doubtless she would be able to give a satisfactory explanation; otherwise— A cold sweat broke out on Maxwell’s brow as he thought of the alternative.
Suspense is always more terrible than the event itself, and Archie, full of suspicion against Mrs. Belswin and the unknown foreigner, tortured his mind to a frightful extent over the possibility of this woman being concerned in the murder. If, however, she was innocent, she would be able to exculpate herself from any complicity in the affair; but if she was guilty it was terrible to think that she was the daily and nightly companion of Kaituna. She had possibly killed the father! If so she might also kill the daughter. Was she some one whom Sir Rupert had wronged, and who thus avenged herself by the hand of another. The idea was terrible, and Maxwell, filled with the agony of uncertainty, determined to go at once to Mrs. Belswin and demand an explanation.
He made a point of calling that afternoon, and was lucky enough to find Mrs. Belswin alone, as Kaituna had gone out on a shopping excursion with Mrs. Valpy, who had come up to town the previous day. Mrs. Belswin informed the young man of this, and invited him to wait until Kaituna returned at the hour of five o’clock.
“Meanwhile,” she said, ringing the bell, “sit down, and we will have some tea.”
Maxwell mechanically took a seat and glanced at the clock, the hands of which pointed to four. This would give him a full hour to speak to Mrs. Belswin before the arrival of Kaituna, and in that time he expected to learn all he desired to know.
The lady seemed preoccupied, and as Maxwell was racking his brains to invent some leading question, neither of them spoke for a few minutes. The servant brought in the tea, and while Mrs. Belswin busied herself with the cups, she for the first time noticed the unusual silence of the young man.
“Well, Mr. Maxwell,” she said, handing him his tea, with a smile, “speech, I understand, was given to us to conceal our thoughts. You, I perceive, conceal them without speaking.”
“I have come to see you on a matter of business,” said Archie, abruptly putting down his cup on a small table near at hand.
The paleness of his face, the abruptness of his speech, the agitation of his manner, at once put Mrs. Belswin on her guard, and a thrill of fear shot through her heart—fear lest he should have discovered anything about her past life which would be fatal to her living with Kaituna. Her iron stoicism, however, prevailed, and she awaited with outward calm, but inward perturbation, his next words.
“Mrs. Belswin,” he said, slowly bending towards her, “do you know this diamond pin?”
“Oh!” muttered Mrs. Belswin under her breath, recognising it at once, “more misfortune.”
“What do you say?”
“Before I answer your question, Mr. Maxwell,” she observed, fixing her keen eyes on his face, “I wish to know why you put it.”
“Certainly, that is only fair. Do you remember the day I met you at the Deswarth railway station?”
“There was a stranger with you?”
“Pray do not evade the question,” said Maxwell, in an annoyed tone; “I mean the dark gentleman whom you sent off to see about your portmanteau, and who accompanied you from town.”
“How do you know he accompanied me from town?”
“I saw you both leave a first-class carriage together.”
“That proves nothing. Travelling in the same carriage does not prove that he accompanied me from town.”
“But he looked after your luggage at your request!”
“Yes! he did so, certainly, but what does that prove?”
“Simply this, that you know the gentleman.”
Mrs. Belswin would have liked to deny this, as she saw from the production of the diamond pin, and the mention of Ferrari, that Maxwell knew something; but she was so afraid, lest, failing her, he should ask Kaituna, and so possibly discover more than she wished, that she answered him frankly.
“Yes, I do know the gentleman.”
“Ah! and you know his name?”
“Yes! His name is—but why do you want to know?”
“Because he wore this diamond pin on the day I saw him with you, and this diamond pin—”
“Yes! yes!” cried Mrs. Belswin, breathlessly, clasping her hands.
“—Was found on the terrace of Thornstream the morning after the murder.”
The woman sprang to her feet, with a cry.
“Is his name Ferrari?”
“Yes! No! that is, Mr. Maxwell,” she cried, seizing the young man by the lappel of his coat “What do you mean? what do you suspect?”
“I mean that this diamond pin belongs to Ferrari, whom you have just named. I suspect that he murdered Sir Rupert Pethram.”
Mrs. Belswin uttered a cry of terror.
“No! no! It cannot be.”
“Then let him prove his innocence.”
“Prove his innocence?”
“Yes!” said Maxwell, with an air of determination. “I have made up my mind to bring the murderer of Sir Rupert Pethram to justice. Appearances are dead against this man, and I intend to put the matter in the hands of the police.”
“You will never find him.”
Maxwell bounded from his seat, and crossing rapidly to Mrs. Belswin, seized her wrist.
“Tell me,” he said, imperiously, “have you any reason for wishing this man to escape?”
“I!” she murmured, evasively; “I wish him to escape?”
“Yes! To all appearances he is your friend. He comes down with you to Deswarth. A jewel belonging to him is found at the window of a room. In that room a man is found dead. What does it all mean?”
“Wait!” cried the woman, wrenching herself from his grasp. “Wait; I must think.”
Maxwell obeyed, and returned to his seat with a cloud on his brow, for the complicity of Mrs. Belswin in the affair now began to assume gigantic proportions.
On her part, Mrs. Belswin saw at a glance the dangers by which she was environed, and her active brain was already at work seeking some plan by which she could extricate herself. She already saw that Maxwell suspected her, and if he did so she trembled lest he should communicate his suspicions to her daughter. With her hands pressed to her burning face, she rapidly glanced at the aspect of affairs in order to know how to act towards this young man, whose attitude towards her was undeniably hostile.
If she refused to tell him anything he would put the matter into the hands of the police, and they would immediately arrest Ferrari. In doing so they would have no difficulty, as he, being a singer, was easily to be found, and appearances were sufficiently strong against him to authorise the granting of a warrant for his arrest. If Ferrari were arrested he would certainly, urged by a fear of the law, reveal all about her in his examination, and Kaituna would then learn that Mrs. Belswin, the companion, was her mother. If she did so, Mrs. Belswin trembled for the result of such a discovery, so at once she made up her mind to promise Maxwell an interview with Ferrari, and meanwhile warn the Italian of his peril. By this means she hoped that, if guilty, Ferrari would at once fly from England; or, if innocent, he would be able to exculpate himself without incriminating her, so that in either case she would still preserve the secret of her true relationship to Kaituna.
“Mr. Maxwell,” she said at length, suppressing her agitation, “I will tell you all I know, and then you can judge for yourself.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Belswin,” replied Maxwell, in a tone of relief. “I think that will be the best way, as I am anxious to avoid the interference of the police.”
“And why, sir,” demanded Mrs. Belswin, with a piercing glance.
The young man made no reply, but looked confused, upon which the woman laughed bitterly.
“Ah, I see,” she said with scorn; “you think that I, a stranger to the late Sir Rupert, am implicated in his death.”
“I have not said so, madam,” murmured the young man, hastily.
“I swear before God,” cried Mrs. Belswin, rising from her seat and raising her right hand—“I swear before God that I know nothing of the death of this man.”
“I believe Ferrari to be innocent. Appearances are against him, it is true, but that does not render him guilty. Listen, Mr. Maxwell. Stephano Ferrari is a friend of mine, for I met him in America. Before I came to England I was an opera-singer, and he was singing with me in the same company. We are engaged to be married.”
“Yes. I wanted to rest my voice, and as I had but little money I became companion to Miss Pethram. You know whether I have been a good friend to her or not.”
“You have been a good friend, certainly.”
“My duties kept me near Miss Pethram, so I saw Ferrari but rarely, and as he is devoted to me, naturally he missed my society. At the time I left Deswarth, I came to London to see about my marriage, and on my return—which was on a Sunday—Ferrari came down with me, as he was not singing that night. Is there anything strange in this?”
“No; it seems quite natural,” replied Maxwell, after a pause. “I would act the same way towards Kaituna.”
“Signor Ferrari,” resumed Mrs. Belswin, coldly, “stayed that night at The Chequers, and returned, I believe, next morning to town. I did not see him, as, owing to the terrible death of Sir Rupert, I had to stay with Kaituna. I do not know how he spent the night. I do not know at what hour he returned in the morning.”
“But this scarf-pin?”
“It is certainly his; but what of that? He may have come to Thornstream to see me, and lost it on the terrace.”
“If so, why did he not see you?”
“I do not know. I know nothing beyond what I have told you; but set your mind at rest. Come here to-morrow morning at eleven o’clock, and I will take you to Signor Ferrari, who will doubtless be able to explain all to your satisfaction.”
“Yes; at eleven to-morrow. I am sure he is innocent.”
“I hope so,” said Maxwell, heartily, “if only for your sake.”
“You are still suspicious, I see,” replied Mrs. Belswin, with a faint smile. “Well, it is only natural, and I hope your suspicions will be dispelled by Signor Ferrari’s explanation. But now I must ask you to permit me to retire, as all this exciting talk has given me a headache. If, however, you will wait for Kaituna—”
“Not to-night, thank you,” said Maxwell, hastily taking his hat and stick. “I’m too disturbed to see her. Good-bye; I rely on your promise. To-morrow at eleven.”
“At eleven I will wait you,” answered Mrs. Belswin, truthfully; “so at present good-bye, and don’t think worse of me than you can help.”
Maxwell said nothing, but, bowing politely, left the room, while Mrs. Belswin, annoyed at his silence, stood frowning angrily.
“He still suspects,” she muttered, ringing the bell. “Ferrari must put an end to his suspicions—if he can.”
The servant entered the room.
“A hansom at once!”
She put on her cloak and bonnet and returned to the sitting-room to wait for the cab.
“I’m in terrible danger,” she said pulling on her gloves—“terrible danger. One false step, and all may be known. Ferrari is my only hope. Can he be guilty? Appearances are against him. If he is a murderer let him suffer, as long as he keeps silence.”
“The cab, ma’am.”
Mrs. Belswin went downstairs.
“I don’t care what happens,” she cried, when driving away, “as long as I keep my child.”
“You say ‘twas I! Indeed, sir, ‘tis not so;
My hands are innocent of this man’s blood.
Nay, never fear! I pardon what you say;
Your judgment is misled by false report.
Why! if you heed the idle tongues that wag,
There’s not an honest man would ‘scape the law;
For every act bears two interpretations—
One good, one bad—so that our enemies
Use that which fits in best with their desires,
As evil witness ‘gainst our true intents.”
There is no doubt that peril sharpens the wits of all, therefore Mrs. Belswin, in her interview with the Italian, proved herself such an able diplomatist, that after some difficulty she obtained what she wanted. According, therefore, to the arrangement she made with Ferrari, he was to tell Maxwell as much as possible of his doings at Deswarth without mentioning the name of Mrs. Belswin.
On first hearing of Maxwell’s accusation, Ferrari wanted to fly, as he plainly said it would be difficult for him to defend himself against such a charge, although he swore on the crucifix that he was perfectly innocent. Mrs. Belswin dissuaded him from this course, as she pointed out, that if he acknowledged the truth of the accusation by flight, Maxwell would immediately inform the police, and he would be arrested before he could leave England. On the contrary, however, if he faced the charge boldly, and explained the presence of the diamond scarf-pin on the terrace to the satisfaction of the young man, he would not only by doing so clear his own character, but might possibly lead to the capture of the true criminal.
Ferrari agreed, therefore, to grant the interview desired by Maxwell, and tell the truth without betraying Mrs. Belswin’s true position towards the dead man in any way; but during this very curious conversation, both the man and the woman asked each other the same question, “Are you guilty?” Mrs. Belswin solemnly swore that she was innocent, and told Ferrari the same story as she had told Dombrain concerning her doings on that night. This explanation satisfied the Italian, and then in response to Mrs. Belswin’s question as to his innocence, he gave an account of how he had passed the night.
“After you departed, carissima,” he said, volubly, “I went to seek you, but the time was darkness. Cospetto! how black. I knew not the villaggio, so I returned to the osteria in one few minutes.”
“Were you in the hotel before eleven?” demanded Mrs. Belswin, artfully.
“Cara mia, you fled at ten hours. I went. I came back at ten and ten. So I could not have killed Il Marito.”
Mrs. Belswin believed this story, as had he been out longer the landlord would certainly have talked about it, and Ferrari would have been arrested at once on suspicion. As it was she felt quite satisfied that he was innocent; and having thus come to a complete understanding with him, she departed.
Mrs. Belswin, therefore, declared that she was innocent.
Ferrari also declared his innocence.
If this were the case who was guilty?
Ah! that was to be revealed the next day to Archie Maxwell.
True to his promise the young man called for Mrs. Belswin at eleven o’clock the following morning; and after a short interview with Kaituna, to whom he talked on the most indifferent subjects, he departed with the companion. Mrs. Belswin was fearfully pale, as all her future depended upon the caution observed by Ferrari; and she was afraid lest, carried away by his impulsive southern nature, the Italian should reveal more than was desirable to Maxwell. She was not afraid of being accused of the crime, as Dombrain alone could give evidence as to her being in the room after the murder; and she had a perfect understanding with him; but she was terribly afraid of Maxwell’s finding out her true relationship to Kaituna, in which case she would certainly lose the companionship of her child, to retain which she had fought so hard.
Maxwell was also somewhat preoccupied, as in spite of his desire to think the best of Mrs. Belswin, all her conduct, her hesitations, her equivocations, appeared so mysterious that he was forced to believe that she knew more than she chose to tell. Her conduct, however, in conducting him to a personal interview with Ferrari, was one argument in her favour, for it never for a moment struck this simple-minded young man that she had in any way prepared the ground beforehand. Perfectly honest and straightforward in himself, Maxwell foolishly supposed all other human beings to possess the same desirable qualities; and, in the hands of two practised diplomatists, like the Italian and Mrs. Belswin, he could not possibly hold his own. His life had always been a perfectly open one, and although he was not rich, he had never been put to any shifts for money in any way, consequently his wits had grown somewhat rusty from want of exercise. Mrs. Belswin and her friend, however, had led a reckless Bohemian existence, which called for craft, courage, coolness and dexterity, in a very high degree; therefore they were thoroughly competent in dealing with a delicate affair like the present, which required subtle management. Still, a blundering blue-bottle often breaks the web spun by the craftiest spider; so Mrs. Belswin feared lest the straightforward honesty of the young man should rush through all her careful schemes, and by sheer boldness arrive at the truth.
On their arrival at Ferrari’s chambers he was already waiting for them, and Mrs. Belswin having introduced him to Archie, the three sat down to talk. It was a fencing match, and the third fencer was Maxwell, who not only had two opponents against him, but those same opponents were gifted with powers of attack and parry of which he was completely ignorant.
“You speak English, I see,” said Archie to Ferrari, after the first greetings had passed.
“Certainly, signor,” replied the Italian, showing his white teeth. “I have been long from Italy? Oh, yes. The estates of America.”
“Where I had the pleasure of meeting Signor Ferrari,” observed Mrs. Belswin, ceremoniously.
At this the signor bowed, but made no remark, so Maxwell, seeing that he would not commit himself to speech unless questioned, began at once on the main object of the interview.
“Mrs. Belswin, I presume, told you I wished to see you, Signor Ferrari?”
The Italian bowed.
“About an article of jewellery belonging to you?”
Ferrari bowed again.
“Which was found on the terrace at Thornstream, the residence of the late Sir Rupert Pethram?”
The signor bowed for the third time and Maxwell, hot-blooded in all things, began to lose his temper at this persistent silence.
“Well, sir,” he said, sharply, “perhaps you will be kind enough to inform me how this scarf-pin came to be on the terrace in question.”
“One moment,” said Ferrari, politely lifting his hand. “Will you kindly tell me who found what you have?”
Maxwell hesitated a moment, but seeing no reason why he should conceal the part Mrs. Belk had taken in the affair, spoke out boldly.
“A woman you don’t know—Mrs. Belk.”
These ejaculations proceeded, the first from Ferrari, the second from Mrs. Belswin, and in hearing them Maxwell looked suspiciously from the one to the other.
“You seem surprised.”
“So will you be surprised,” said Mrs. Belswin, gloomily, “when you hear what the signor has to tell you.”
“I am at Signor Ferrari’s service.”
“Per Bacco! it is most strange,” cried Ferrari, throwing himself back on his sky-blue sofa. “Alfieri himself could have thought nothing so terrible.”
“The story, sir, the story.”
“Eh, signor, I excite your wonder,” said the Italian, equably. “Is it not so? Dio, I myself am lost in fear. Signor, I will tell all.”
Maxwell bit his nether lip with impatience at the leisurely way in which Ferrari was acting, as he saw from the agitation of Mrs. Belswin that the name of the woman who had found the scarf-pin moved her powerfully.
“Signor,” said Ferrari, gracefully, “I departed with the signora here to the villagio on the day you saw me. Myself I waited at the osteria you know of, I doubt not. The signora departed to the casa of Il—”
“Of Sir Rupert,” interrupted Mrs. Belswin, quickly.
“Grazia, signora. To the casa of Seer Ruperts. I am alone, and I weary of being myself at the osteria. See, then, signor, I take a leetle walk for amusement. I come to the ground of Seer Ruperts, and there I meet a galantuomo, handsome as the Apollo.”
“Yes, the signora tells me that is his name. Well, this large one orders me away from the place. I say ‘no,’ and he would fight me—the box, signor, you understand. I am not afraid, and I tell him I am not afraid. Then he says, ‘I will put you in prison because you are on the estate of Seer Ruperts.’ At this I fear. I know not the English laws, so I say, ‘Addio, I will go,’ but he, signor, answers, ‘Not so.’ Then what am I to do? I cannot fight that large man; I have not the box. I do not know the English laws, and he may truly place me in prison for being on the grounds of Seer Ruperts. Then, signor, I think, ‘Aha, the money!’ but not he refuses the money. Again I say, ‘Signor, I will give you my pin of diamonds if you let me depart.’ He says, ‘Alright.’ I give him the pin of diamonds. I go away; and that, signor, is all I am informed of.”
“But, signor,” cried Maxwell, jumping to his feet in a state of uncontrollable agitation, “by this story the diamond pin was in the possession of Belk.”
“Cospetto! I believe so!”
“And Belk must have lost it on the terrace.”
“Great heavens!” said Archie, violently, “his own mother found it. If he committed the crime he is betrayed to the law by his own mother.”
“Through ignorance,” interposed Mrs. Belswin, quickly.
“Nevertheless it hands her son over to justice. Oh, it’s horrible! it’s horrible!” and the young man covered his face with his hands.
“I regret this sorrow, signor,” said Ferrari, composedly. “Dio, it is a tragedy like Lucrezia Borgia. But I have told you the truth.”
“Yes, yes!” muttered Maxwell, resuming his seat; “you could not make up such a horrible thing.”
“As to myself, signor,” resumed Ferrari, quietly, “if you think a doubt of me, the man of the osteria will tell you I was in the casa on that night.”
“You can prove an alibi?”
“But I do not understand, signor,” said the Italian, in a perplexed tone, looking inquiringly at Mrs. Belswin.
“Oh yes, he can prove an alibi,” said that lady, quickly. “The landlord of The Chequers can give evidence as to his being in the house all night.”
“I did take a leetle walk.”
“A walk!” ejaculated Maxwell, lifting his head.
“But I returned at ten hours,” finished Ferrari, triumphantly. “No, signor, I have nothing to do with this death. I can swear it to your police. The man I spoke to had my diamond. It is found on the terrace. Ebbene! He alone can have lost it there.”
“What motive could Belk have for killing Sir Rupert?” muttered Maxwell to himself.
“Eh, who knows?”
Mrs. Belswin said nothing. Her eyes were cast down, and she was tapping the ground nervously with her foot. The fact is she was in a state of considerable trepidation, as she fancied she knew the motive Belk had in killing Sir Rupert—a motive of which all but herself were ignorant. Belk loved her. He was in intelligence little raised above the brute of the fields; so if he had overheard the interview between herself and Sir Rupert, and seen how ignominiously she was treated, he might have—but no, it was too horrible; and with a cry she covered her face with her hands.
“What is the matter, Mrs. Belswin?” asked Maxwell, looking at her quickly.
Mrs. Belswin at once told a lie.
“It’s so horrible to think of a mother being the means of her son’s death.”
“We don’t know if he is guilty yet.”
“Then how can he explain his presence on the terrace on that night?”
“His presence there does not mean that he committed the crime. He may be able to explain as well as Signor Ferrari.”
“You doubt me, signor,” cried Ferrari, wrathfully, starting to his feet.
“I have not said so.”
“But you think. Dio, I am not blind. Well, if you doubt, bring me to this man, signor. I will make him tell all to you before me.”
“Will you, then, come down to Deswarth with me on Sunday?”
“That is to-morrow! eh! yes, signor, I will come.”
“And I too, Mr. Maxwell.”
“You, Mrs. Belswin?”
“Yes; I cannot believe this horrible thing of that poor young man,” said Mrs. Belswin, hurriedly. “I will also come. Do you intend to have Belk arrested on Sunday?”
“No!” cried Maxwell, vehemently. “I want to hear what he has to say first.”
“I’m afraid your nature is too soft for a detective, Mr. Maxwell,” said Mrs. Belswin cruelly.
“Do you think so,” he answered angrily. “No! But look, Mrs. Belswin, at the horrible position of the case. A mother betrays unconsciously to death the son whom she adores. Oh! it’s terrible.”
“He may be innocent.”
“Per Bacco, I hope so,” cried Ferrari, anxiously. “I myself think it is too much a tragedy.”
“I will not speak to the police,” said Maxwell, taking up his hat. “We three will go to Deswarth together and confront this man. If he is innocent so much the better. If he is guilty—”
“Well?” asked Mrs. Belswin, seeing him pause.
“I will do nothing!”
“No. If I took advantage of what Mrs. Belk told me to hang her son, I should never have a moment’s peace for the rest of my life!”
“She will think the same as I do,” said Maxwell, quickly. “And you, Mrs. Belswin—surely you would not counsel otherwise?”
Mrs. Belswin looked heavenward with a look of almost sublime pity on her strongly marked face.
“No; I am a mother, and I know how a mother feels for her only child.”
“A deed’s to be done. There is sin in the doing.
Oh, see how the mother her child is pursuing!
She smites him unknowing. Oh, mother, blind mother,
Thy son thou hast slain—not the son of another!
The deed thou hast done bodes a life-time of rueing;
Thy son thou hast slaughtered, as Cain did his brother!”
It was on Friday morning that Mrs. Belk had her fatal interview with Maxwell—fatal indeed to her son, to benefit whom that same interview had been sought for. Had she not been of such a secretive disposition she would have told Samson of the finding of the jewel and how she intended to obtain money thereon as a clue to the assassin of Sir Rupert, in which case he would doubtless have prevented her doing so.
Anxious, however, to surprise Samson with a piece of good news, she had refrained from taking him into her confidence, and thus inadvertently placed him in a situation of extreme peril. Ignorant of this, however, she left Maxwell with the fifty pounds in her purse and joy in her heart, thinking she could now give her son a chance of making money by his physical strength. Determined to see for herself what rivals he would have in the event of his entering the arena as “a strong man,” on Friday night she went to Totahoop’s Music Hall, where “The New Milo” was exhibiting his world renowned feats of strength. After witnessing his performance, she was satisfied that her son had nothing to fear in the way of comparison, and on Saturday night went to a rival variety entertainment to see “The Modern Hercules.” This gentleman, in Mrs. Belk’s opinion proved equally disappointing; so the next day, which was Sunday, she departed for Deswarth with the full conviction that her son, aided by the fifty pounds obtained from Maxwell, would only have to appear before a London audience to easily distance both the Milo and the Hercules.
She went down by the morning train, but on arriving at her cottage found that Samson had gone to a town some distance away on an errand for Sir Thomas, his new master, and would not be back again until the afternoon. Under these circumstances she was forced to curb her impatience and wait some hours before she could reveal the good news to her son.
Meanwhile, as fate was thus delaying the warning to Samson which such a revelation would have brought about, Archie Maxwell, accompanied by Mrs. Belswin and her Italian friend, had arrived at The Chequers, from whence they intended to go to Belk’s cottage and demand an explanation from him as to the discovery of the scarf-pin on the terrace at Thornstream. Confronted with the landlord of The Chequers, Signor Ferrari had no difficulty in proving to Maxwell that he was in the house at ten o’clock on that fatal night, and as the doctor at the inquest had asserted that Sir Rupert had been shot shortly before eleven, Maxwell was forced to believe by this circumstantial evidence that Ferrari was innocent of the crime. Mrs. Belswin had also recalled to the young man’s mind her evidence at the inquest, so he could not possibly suspect her in any way, therefore to all appearances Belk was the only person to whom suspicion pointed in any strong degree. This being the case, after the interview with the landlord of The Chequers, Mr. Maxwell and his two friends set off to Belk’s cottage, where Mrs. Belk was now impatiently awaiting the arrival of her son.
It seemed to Mrs. Belswin, superstitious as she was in the highest degree, that Fortune was dead against her in every way. Firstly, she had been beaten on every point by Silas Oates; secondly, it was only by the merest chance that she had been able to conceal her identity from Maxwell, in the matter of his accusation against Ferrari, and now she was afraid of Samson Belk. Afraid, because the finding of the scarf-pin proved conclusively that he was on the terrace on that night, in which case he might have overheard her interview with Sir Rupert. If this was the case, in order to save himself he would certainly tell Archie all he knew, and she would be lost. There was no time to see and warn him as she had done Ferrari, so she walked on to the cottage with a set smile on her face and a deadly fear in her heart.
On their arrival, Mrs. Belk opened the door, and was very much surprised at such an invasion. However, she said nothing, but, standing in her doorway, waited for an explanation of their visit.
“Is your son at home, Mrs. Belk,” asked Maxwell, abruptly.
“No, sir,” replied Mrs. Belk, dropping a curtsey, “but I’m expecting him every minute.”
“Oh, in that case we’ll wait.”
“Yes, sir, certainly!”
Mrs. Belk moved unwillingly on one side, as she was in a state of considerable mystification as to the reason of Mr. Maxwell’s unexpected arrival; and they all entered the cottage. The little woman gave them seats, and then stood waiting to hear what they had to say. Maxwell’s business, however, was with Samson Belk, and not with his mother, so he preserved a masterly silence, in order to give her no opportunity of finding out his errand, and perhaps, by a look, putting her son on his guard.
“I hope nothing is wrong about the money, sir,” said Mrs. Belk, after a long pause.
“No! that is all right.”
“Have you found out anything, sir?”
“You mean about the scarf-pin?” said Maxwell, evasively.
“Mr. Maxwell has found out the owner of it,” interposed Mrs. Belswin, coldly.
“I am the owner,” said Ferrari, complacently.
“You?” cried Mrs. Belk, with a sudden flush on her face; “you, sir?”
“Even I, signora!”
Mrs. Belk felt quite taken back. She was quite sure that the owner of the scarf-pin had killed Sir Rupert, yet, here he was, calmly acknowledging that it belonged to him, which he certainly would not do if he were guilty. The little woman looked from Ferrari to Maxwell, from Maxwell to Mrs. Belswin; and saw in their eyes the same expression—a look of pity. A sudden thrill of fear shot through her heart, and she turned towards Maxwell with a cry of alarm.
“Sir! Sir!” she stammered, nervously, “what does this mean?—why do you come here?”
“We want to see your son, Mrs. Belk.”
“My son, sir? Is anything wrong? Oh, tell me, sir, Samson has been doing nothing wrong?”
None of the three persons present answered her, so filled were their hearts with pity for her coming agony.
“Is it anything to do with the diamond, sir?”
“Oh!” cried Mrs. Belk, with an expression of relief on her face, “perhaps you think my son stole it?”
“Your son,” said Mrs. Belswin, quickly. “Did he have that scarf-pin in his possession?”
Mrs. Belk faced round fiercely.
“No ma’am; he knows nothing about it.”
“Ebbene,” murmured the Italian; “we shall see.”
“What do you say, sir?”
“I say,” replied Ferrari, coolly, “that the scarf-pin was mine, and I gave it to—to—your son.”
“To my son,” shrieked Mrs. Belk, her pale face growing yet paler; “but I found the diamond on the terrace.”
“Per Bacco! Who loses finds.”
Mrs. Belk kept silent for a moment, overwhelmed by the thought of the perilous position in which she had placed her son, for in a single instant she saw all; then, staggering against the wall, she gave a cry which was scarcely human in its agony.
Scarcely had it died away, when hurried footsteps were heard, and the door was dashed open to admit Samson Belk, with a look of astonishment on his face.
“Mother! what is the matter? Mrs. Belswin?”
“Yes!” said Mrs. Belswin, advancing a step, “we have come—”
The mother saw the movement, and with a shriek of jealous rage, darted between them, and flung herself into her son’s arms.
“Yes, my son, yes!” she cried, convulsively; “they have come to kill you! to hang you!”
“They say you killed the master.”
“It’s a lie!”
Samson Belk placed his mother in a chair, where she sat in a half-fainting condition, and turned fiercely towards the two men, like a lion at bay.
“Now then,” he said—his habitually slow voice, sharp and quick—“what’s all this?”
Maxwell held out his hand, and in the palm of it lay the diamond scarf-pin.
“Do you know this?” he demanded, slowly.
Belk gave a mighty laugh of scorn.
“Know it? Yes, I know it. ‘Tis the diamond I got from yonder chap.”
“You acknowledge that he gave it to you, then?”
“Of course! Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because I found it on the terrace, Samson,” cried his mother, madly.
“Well, what of that; I lost it there, mother!”
“When did you lose it?” asked Maxwell, quickly.
Belk thought a moment, and then started as the full meaning of this interrogation flashed across his dull brain.
“Eh! then you chaps say I killed Sir Rupert.”
“We do not say so,” said Maxwell, emphatically; “we only say that this diamond scarf-pin, which you acknowledge to have had in your possession, was found near the window where the body was lying.”
“And that pin hangs me, sir?”
“Not if you can account satisfactorily for its being there.”
“You ain’t got the police, sir.”
“Samson! Samson!” wailed his mother, clinging to him, “say it was not you killed the master!”
“Quiet, mother!” said her son, replacing her in the chair, “I can tell my own story.”
“You are innocent?” asked Mrs. Belswin, impulsively.
“Innocent!” repeated Belk, with scorn, “if I wasn’t I’d have been off to the States by this time. Sit down, gentlemen: sit down, madam, I can tell you the truth.”
All resumed their seats mechanically; but Belk leaned his mighty frame against the wall and looked at them quietly. From Ferrari his eyes wandered to Maxwell, and finally rested on Mrs. Belswin with a curious expression, at which she turned pale.
“My God!” she murmured, clasping her hands tightly, “what is he going to say?”
Belk guessed her thoughts, and reassured her at once.
“My story’s only about myself,” he said, abruptly looking at her again, upon which she thanked him with a silent look of gratitude, although she felt a thrill of fear at the thought that perhaps he knew her secret.
“One word before you speak,” said Maxwell, quietly. “As you know, I am going to marry Miss Pethram, and I promised her to find out the assassin of her father. Chance, in the person of your mother, placed in my hands a clue which led me to believe that Signor Ferrari had something to do with the crime—”
“Cospetto! what honour.”
“Signor Ferrari, however,” resumed Archie, quietly, “has proved his innocence, and in order to do so has unintentionally made out a very strong case against you, Mr. Belk. Whether you are guilty or not I do not know; but, you see, I have not informed the police about anything connected with the matter.”
“And why, sir?”
“Because the clue was placed in my hands by your mother, and I would not have it on my conscience, however guilty you may be, to take advantage of the innocent betrayal of a son by his mother.”
Mrs. Belk sobbed violently at this, and Belk, with a sudden flush, held out his hand, but drew it back at once.
“No, sir,” he said, bluffly, “I won’t give you my hand yet, till you’ve heard my story. I did get that diamond from the foreign gent as he says. He was trespassing, and I could have made things hot for him, but to get off he gave me the diamond.”
“Do you think that was right, seeing Signor Ferrari is a foreigner and ignorant of English laws?” asked Maxwell.
“I don’t say it was right, sir,” replied Belk with a queer look; “and it was not altogether the trespass. There was something else I need not tell you of that made me take his diamond.”
Mrs. Belswin darted a sudden look on both men, who were eyeing her jealously, and flushed a deep red; but Maxwell was so interested in Belk’s story that he did not notice her perturbation, and signed to him to continue.
“Well, sir, I stuck the pin in my scarf careless like, as I was in a hurry to go up to the Hall to see Sir Rupert.”
“What hour was this.”
“About four o’clock, sir. I went up to the Hall, and Sir Rupert, sir, he was in his study; so instead of going in by the door, I went in by the window.”
“So you first went along the terrace?”
“Yes, sir! And as the pin was stuck in careless, I suppose it fell as I went into the room by the window.”
“Not impossible!” said Maxwell, thoughtfully.
“I saw Sir Rupert, took my orders, and then came home, sir, and didn’t go out again that night.”
“Eh!” cried Mrs. Belk, starting up, “no more you did, lad; I can swear to that.”
“And so can Mr. Gelthrip, the parson, sir,” said Belk, triumphantly. “He called here in the evening, and I saw him. So you see, sir, as I didn’t go near the Hall until the next morning, I didn’t have nought to do with the killing.”
“No; certainly not.”
Maxwell heaved a sigh of relief at the turn things had taken, for if both Mrs. Belk and the curate could prove that Samson had been at home on that fatal night, the young man certainly could not be guilty. Meanwhile, he wanted to get away and think the matter over; for what with the story of Ferrari and the story of Belk, he was quite bewildered.
“So my Samson is innocent,” cried Mrs. Belk, triumphantly.
“Yes, and I’m glad to hear it,” replied Maxwell, as he went out. “Good-bye, Mrs. Belk, I’m pleased on your account, but sorry on my own.”
“Ebbene! but who killed Il—I am talking of Seer Rupert,” cried Ferrari, putting on his hat.
Belk shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know,” he replied, nonchalantly; “the master had lots of enemies, I reckon.”
“Belk,” cried Maxwell, overhearing this, “come to The Chequers to-night, I want to speak to you.”
“Very well, sir.”
“You are not coming up to town with us then, Mr. Maxwell?” said Mrs. Belswin, who was lingering behind.
“No! I wish to ask Belk some questions about Sir Rupert’s enemies. From what he says, it appears he had some, and Belk knows them.”
Maxwell and Ferrari both went down to the gate, and Mrs. Belswin was left alone with Samson, the mother still being in the house.
“Don’t go,” she said, in a low tone.
“Oh, yes, I’ll go,” he replied in the same tone, “I tell nothing.”
“What?” she said, uneasily; “do you know anything?”
Belk looked at her with his languid eyes, and stroked his golden beard slowly.
“I know what I know,” he replied emphatically, and with this reply, which roused all her suspicions, Mrs. Belswin was forced to be content.
‘Neath the shining southern cross,
News of gain and news of loss,
Silver veining hidden rocks
Changes hourly shares and stocks:
By the magic power of shares,
Paupers turn to millionaires—
Millionaires to paupers change;
Transformation swift and strange.
Genii, no, nor fairy kings
Could not do such wond’rous things
As are daily done by scores,
On Australia’s golden shores.
What passed between Maxwell and Samson Belk at their interview, Mrs. Belswin could never discover; but as Archie did not in any way change his manner towards her she was satisfied that her name had not transpired during the conversation, or if it had, Belk had said nothing detrimental to her in any way. As to Belk himself, she saw him when he came up to London, but he refused to tell her whether he had overheard the conversation between herself and Sir Rupert, and she was therefore forced to remain in a constant state of uneasiness. Although Belk denied that he had been out of the house after his return from the four o’clock interview, and supported this assertion by the evidence of his mother and the curate, yet Mrs. Belswin had a kind of half suspicion that he had been on the terrace on the night in question, and had heard more than he was willing to confess. But, then, she argued to herself that, if this were the case, he would certainly use his power over her to force her into marriage with him, whereas he did nothing of the sort, but behaved as if he knew absolutely nothing.
It was now three months since the famous interview at the Belk cottage, and Samson had carried out the plan proposed by his mother. He had appeared at a first-class music hall as the “Nineteenth Century Samson,” and, by his superior strength, had easily distanced his rivals, both “The New Milo” and “The Modern Hercules.” They, of course, were furious at being eclipsed, but his mother was delighted with his success; the music hall manager was charmed at the crowds drawn by his new star, and perhaps the only person not thoroughly happy was the star himself. The reason of this discontent was, that in order to preserve his strength, he had to lead a very abstemious life, both as regards food and drink, so that, although he was making a large income, he was not enjoying it. Despite his discontent, however, he still led his life of an ascetic, and saved all his money, which was a marked contrast to his former extravagant ways; but then, he had a purpose in economising, and the purpose was Mrs. Belswin, whom he had made up his mind to marry, as soon as he was rich enough.
In the meantime, that lady was leading a sufficiently comfortable life, as, when she ran short of money, she always drew on Dombrain, who did not dare to refuse it to her. Kaituna still lived with her, and, as some time had elapsed since the death of her father, she had recovered nearly all her former vivacity, and was looking anxiously forward to her marriage with Archie—a marriage which was soon to take place, owing to the good news from Australia about the Pole Star Silver Mine.
Toby Clendon had duly arrived in the land of the Southern Cross, and had sent home brilliantly written letters of his travels, which satisfied the editor, and delighted the readers of The Weekly Scorpion, In addition to this excellent literary work, which, by the way, was giving him a name in journalistic circles, he had made inquiries about the Pole Star Mine, and although the information he obtained was disheartening enough at first, yet, after a time the Pole Star silver shares began to be inquired about, and in a few weeks were actually worth money.
Archie, who had benefited by his mining experiences in the colony, and, moreover, had made friends with an enterprising share broker, who was, as they say “in the know,” sent to Kaituna for the scrip lying in the hands of Dombrain. After some difficulty, Archie, who acted as her agent, obtained it from the unwilling Dombrain, and sent all the scrip, to the value of two thousand shares, out to Toby, with a power of attorney authorising him to deal with them as he judged best.
Acting by the advice of his stockbroker, Toby judged it best to hold the scrip, as the shares were on the rise, and in a few days his confidence in the mine was justified. A lode was discovered in the Pole Star ground, which was said to rival the celebrated Comstock lode in California, which sent all ‘Frisco mad in the old days, and the shares began to rise rapidly, so rapidly indeed, that Toby was justified in thinking that Kaituna would be a great heiress after all. They went from nothing up to twenty pounds a share; again by slow gradations they rose to fifty pounds each, and Toby wanted to sell, but his stockbroker still advised him to hold. In a month they were worth one hundred pounds each, and Toby still held on. The excitement in Melbourne was intense, and other silver mining companies began to spring round the famous Pole Star, in several of which Toby invested the salary he drew from The Weekly Scorpion. The surrounding mines were very fluctuating in the share market, but the Pole Star itself never faltered for a moment in its upward career, and at the end of three months, Toby wired to Maxwell that the shares were now worth the enormous value of two hundred pounds each.
Maxwell, in a state of great excitement, consulted Mrs. Belswin and Kaituna, and they, considering that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, decided to sell at that price. Instructions were wired out to Clendon to realise without delay, which he did carefully by selling the shares in parcels, as two thousand thrown on the market, for no apparent cause, would have caused a drop in the price. The selling took some time; but at the end of a month or so the whole two thousand were disposed of, and the amount standing to the credit of Miss Kaituna Pethram in The Bank of Australia was somewhere about four hundred thousand pounds, which was certainly a very respectable fortune for a girl formerly penniless.
Kaituna herself was wild with joy, and wanted to marry Maxwell at once; but, strange to say, he that had urged on the marriage when she was poor, now held back, lest it should be said he was marrying her for her money. Mrs. Belswin, however, promptly settled all that, and talked him over into getting married at once. Then a letter was received from Toby, saying that he also had been successful in mining speculations to the amount of some thousands, and was on his way home to Miss Valpy and matrimony.
Ultimately the two girls decided that they would be married in the same way, and Archie felt deeply grateful that things had turned out so well; while Mrs. Belswin, confident now that Kaituna’s happiness was secured, both as regards income and marriage, looked upon her life’s work as over.
Of course she had to reckon with Ferrari who still urged her to marry him; and as she had told Archie that she was engaged to the Italian, she did not very well see how she was going to escape this match, which was decidedly repugnant to her, as it separated her from her child, and gave her to a man for whom she cared nothing. Belk also hinted that his intentions were matrimonial as soon as he had amassed sufficient money; so Mrs. Belswin lamented the good looks which had placed her between two matrimonial fires. While she was in this unpleasant situation, Fate, in the person of Mr. Dombrain, intervened and decided the question in a highly unpleasant manner.
After his failure to convict Ferrari and Belk of the crime of murder, Archie had quite given up the idea of finding out the assassin; and Kaituna began to think that he would never be discovered. She proposed to Archie when they were married, to devote their newly gained wealth to seeking out the cowardly assassin; but Maxwell, who had grave doubts about Mrs. Belswin, Ferrari, and Belk, endeavoured to dissuade her. It will be said that if Maxwell had doubts like this, why did he permit Kaituna to remain with the companion? But the fact is, all his doubts were very undecided. He could not accuse Mrs. Belswin, as he had no evidence to go on, so he was forced to remain quiet and let things take their course.
In the acquirement of the money through the Pole Star Mine, in thinking of the double marriage soon to take place, the death of Sir Rupert was beginning to be almost forgotten, when suddenly it was brought to the minds of all interested by a terrible event.
Mrs. Belswin was arrested on a charge of having committed the murder.
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—
That, as I take it, is Bible-truth.
You have robbed me of my good name;
I will bring you to want and shame.
Both are wicked, so both shall fall—
God in His Heaven shall judge of it all.
Mrs. Belswin brought it all on herself. She would play with fire, and although a life-long experience had taught her how dangerous was that pastime, she nevertheless indulged in it, even at the risk of burning her fingers. Indeed, so many times had she rushed into danger in her fierce, impulsive way, and so many times had she emerged scatheless by sheer good luck, that she became reckless in her daring, and at last the inevitable happened—she went too far.
Everything was now progressing smoothly, both with herself and with those she loved. Kaituna had received an unexpected access of fortune, so that the difficulties of her marriage with Archie Maxwell were now removed by the power of gold; and Mrs. Belswin herself, living constantly with her darling, had now nothing left to wish for.
Yes! there was one thing she desired, and that was to see Silas Oates, in order to taunt him with the news of her good fortune. It was sheer devilry made her do this, as she cared nothing for her old lover; but some fiend having whispered in her ear that good fortune to her would be gall and wormwood to the American, she one day went straight to the Langham Hotel, in order to enjoy her triumph. Luckily for himself, Oates was absent in Paris at the time, where he had gone on a matter of business; but on his return he found Mrs. Belswin’s card, and naturally enough being ignorant of her real object in paying him a visit, thought she had called for the sole purpose of getting more money out of him.
Silas Oates, in a most unjust fashion, did not blame his quondam lady-love for her persistency, knowing her real nature too well to expect anything from her; but he blamed Mr. Dombrain for not keeping his promise, and making Mrs. Belswin stop her pecuniary importunities.
The lady herself had entirely forgotten Mr. Dombrain and his threats, or if she did remember them it was with a contemptuous sneer, as she thought in her own heart that he could do nothing to harm her. But if Mrs. Belswin thus proved forgetful of the solicitor, Silas Oates did not. Mr. Oates was genuinely angry at the way Dombrain permitted Mrs. Belswin to annoy him, so, as the unfortunate lawyer had omitted to fulfil his promise of acting as watch-dog, the American determined to punish him as he had threatened for his negligence.
Silas went about the affair in a way peculiarly his own, and in a very few days Mr. Dombrain received a letter demanding an explanation of certain allegations concerning his past made against him by an American gentleman. The unfortunate man was quite stunned at the suddenness of his calamity; nor was he comforted when a spiteful note arrived from Silas, which stated that he had revealed everything about the convict Damberton to the Law Society, as a punishment for the negligence of the lawyer Dombrain. Of course the poor wretch could not defend himself, although he made a feeble attempt to do so; and the consequence of Mrs. Belswin’s folly and Mr. Oates’s letter was, that Alfred Dombrain of London, Solicitor, was struck off the rolls, as not fit to have his name inscribed thereon.
It was truly a terrible thing to happen to this man, who, not having saved much money, now found himself reduced from an honourable profession, which gained him a competence, to a disgraceful position and absolute beggary. The loss of his money troubled him but little, the loss of his name a great deal, for having once more regained the esteem of his fellow-men by years of exemplary life, he felt keenly the bitterness of being reduced to the same ignoble position he had occupied years before. He tried every means in his power to escape the disgrace, but the Law Society were relentless, and Dombrain, lawyer, once more became that phantom of the past—Damberton, outcast.
Neither lawyer nor outcast, however, were satisfied to accept this crushing blow without making some return thereto; and when Mr. Dombrain found that all his ideas of respectability were at an end, he turned round venomously to punish Mrs. Belswin, whom he considered to be the main cause of his unmerited disgrace. He did not write to her, he did not see her, he did not even mention her name to a soul, but he went straight to the nearest police magistrate, told his story of what had taken place at Thornstream on that fatal night, and, as a result, obtained a warrant of arrest against Mrs. Belswin for the murder of Sir Rupert Pethram. This being done, he departed, in company with two detectives, to feast his eyes on the disgrace of this woman, who had cost him his hardly earned position; and for the first time for many days he laughed—not a pleasant laugh, but a nasty, sardonic, sneering laugh, which boded ill to the liberty and peace of mind of Jezebel Manners, alias Lady Pethram, alias Mrs. Belswin. In spite of the tragic force of the whole matter, there was something positively grotesque in the situation; for Silas Oates wronged by Mrs. Belswin, had revenged himself upon Mr. Dombrain; and Mr. Dombrain wronged by Silas Oates, had revenged himself upon Mrs. Belswin. It was a three-cornered duel, to speak paradoxically, in which every one shot at every one else, but the only person of the three principals who came off scot-free was the American, and he appreciated the grim irony of the situation.
Meanwhile Mrs. Belswin, quite unaware how dearly her attempt to see Oates had cost her, was seated in company with Kaituna and Archie Maxwell at afternoon tea, and the trio were talking about the Pole Star shares, the expected arrival of Toby Clendon, and, of course, about the approaching marriages.
“And you will be perfectly happy, Kaituna,” said Mrs. Belswin, looking wistfully at her daughter—the daughter whom she dare not acknowledge.
Kaituna caught hold of Archie’s hand, with a quick flush and a look of delight in her large black eyes.
“Yes, perfectly happy,” she replied, smiling. “We are going to be the Darby and Joan of romance, are we not, Archie?”
“I trust so, dear; but Darby and Joan! Oh, what a prosaic comparison. No! Kaituna we will be—let me think—we will be like Lord Lovel and Lady Nancy Bell in the old ballad.”
“Fie, that is a worse comparison than mine! They were unhappy, and if a red rose and a briar did grow out of their respective graves, I don’t know that such a miracle proves your case.”
“Well, you certainly ought to be happy,” said Mrs. Belswin, with a quick sigh, as she realised how soon she was to lose the girl she loved. “Health, wealth, and love—what a trinity of perfections.”
“All of which are to be found in Kaituna. But you, Mrs. Belswin, what about Signor Ferrari?”
“Oh, I have not made up my mind yet to marry him, Mr. Maxwell; besides, I have another offer.”
“Another offer?” cried Kaituna, gaily. “Oh, fortunate woman; and from whom?”
“Mr. Samson Belk.”
“Oh!” said Maxwell, smiling, “he is the other Romeo in the field. Well, he is certainly very handsome—”
“And is very fond of me,” interrupted Mrs. Belswin, quickly. “But all the same I am not for him.”
“Nor for Signor Ferrari either?” laughed Kaituna, going over to her chaperon and putting her arms round her neck. “Ah, there is a third person.”
“I think you can pretty well guess whom that third person is,” said Mrs. Belswin, kissing the girl; “but Mr. Maxwell is going to rob me of my third person.”
“I cannot deny the soft impeachment,” replied Archie, with a gay nod. “As soon as Toby comes home we will be married.”
The talk was certainly frivolous; but then, after all the trials these three people had undergone, it was a great relief to chatter idly in a desultory manner, especially when all three beheld the brightness of the future. For them the storms and trials of life had passed—so they fondly thought; and the elder woman, looking back at the dismal past, thanked God in her heart for the peaceful present, while the lovers saw before them nothing but a shining path, strewn with roses, leading to the paradise of perfect felicity.
At this moment a knock came at the door, and the servant entered with a frightened look on her face.
“Oh, mum,” she said, going quickly to Mrs. Belswin, “there are three gentleman to see you.”
“Who are they?” asked Mrs. Belswin, in some surprise, never thinking for a moment of the coming storm.
“Mr. Dombrain, mum, and—”
“Mr. Dombrain,” repeated Mrs. Belswin, with a chill of fear at her heart; “what does he want?”
“I want you, Jezebel Manners,” said Dombrain, making his appearance at the door, with a malignant grin on his coarse red face.
The moment she heard the name Mrs. Belswin knew it was all over, and with a cry of agony held out her imploring hands to the lawyer.
“Oh, not before her! not before her!” she moaned piteously.
Kaituna, overcome with astonishment at this strange scene, went up to Mrs. Belswin as if to protect her, but the woman shrank from her with a moan of pain, and hid her face in her hands.
“What does this mean?” demanded Maxwell, as soon as he recovered his breath.
“You will soon know,” retorted Dombrain, savagely. “Jezebel Manners, Pethram, Belswin, or whatever name you like to call yourself, I warned you the last time we met what I would do if you played me false. You have done so, to my ruin, my shame, my disgrace, and I have come to drag you down to where you have hurled me. This is the woman, officers.”
One of the detectives advanced and touched Mrs. Belswin on the shoulder.
“In the Queen’s name, I arrest you—”
“Arrest her?” interrupted Kaituna, her face flaming with indignation; “but for what—for what?”
“For the murder of Rupert Pethram.”
Kaituna gave a shriek of horror, and seized Maxwell by the arm, while he, scarcely less thunderstruck, stared at the detective with a look of amazement on his face.
“It is false! it is false!” shrieked Mrs. Belswin, throwing herself on her knees before Kaituna, “I swear to you it is false. I did not kill your father.”
“You did,” said Dombrain, in a deep voice, “I saw you do it!”
Mrs. Belswin sprang to her feet and made a bound forward, with a fierce light flashing in her eyes, and it would have been a bad thing for Mr. Dombrain had she succeeded in reaching him. The detective, however, was on the watch, and throwing himself on the wretched woman, had the handcuffs on her wrists in a moment.
“I cannot believe it! I cannot believe it!” moaned Kaituna, hiding her face on Maxwell’s breast.—“Mrs. Belswin, my kind good friend—”
“Your friend,” scoffed Dombrain, with an ugly glitter in his ferret-like eyes. “Yes, you don’t know who your friend is!”
“For God’s sake, silence!” shrieked Mrs. Belswin, pale to the lips.
“No, I will not keep silence, you fiend, who have ruined me. I will tell all. Miss Pethram, do you see that wretched woman with the handcuffs on—that guilty wretch who murdered your father, that—”
“I see Mrs. Belswin,” cried Kaituna, with sudden fire; “I see the woman who saved me from starvation, and I do not believe this base charge you make.”
With noble indignation she walked across to Mrs. Belswin, and threw her arm round the poor woman’s neck, while Archie, who respected and liked the companion, mutely approved of the girl’s generous action.
“Ah, you put your arm on her neck now,” said Dombrain, with a sneer, “but you will take it away when you know—”
“Dombrain!” cried the wretched woman, for the last time, “spare me—spare me!”
“I will spare you as you have spared me.”
“Be silent, with your cowardly threats, sir,” said Kaituna, looking proudly at him, “and do your worst. Who is Mrs. Belswin?”
Kaituna gave a cry, and recoiled from her companion.
“My mother!” she said, hoarsely. “It cannot be! my mother is dead.”
Dombrain played his trump card.
“Your mother is alive! She stands there, and you can now know her for what she is—a guilty wife—a divorced woman—and the murderer of her husband.”
Kaituna gazed at this gibing devil with a terrified stare in her dilated eyes, then turned slowly and looked at her miserable mother. The unhappy woman, with a grey worn face, haggard and scarred with myriad wrinkles, made a step forward, as if to embrace her child, but the girl, with a look of terror, shrank back, and fell in a faint on the floor at the feet of Maxwell, while Mrs. Belswin sank on her knees with a piteous cry, wringing her manacled hands over the unconscious form of the daughter she had found—and lost.
Who’s sure of Life’s game,
When Fate interferes?
For praise or for blame,
Who’s sure of life’s game?
A sentence—a name,
Turns joy into tears,
Who’s sure of Life’s game,
When Fate interferes?
This strange case—particulars of which in some mysterious way got into the daily papers—excited much curiosity in London, and when the preliminary inquiry into the affair took place, the court was crowded to suffocation. The public, of course, learned all about the matter from the newspapers, but how the reporters managed to learn so much was most extraordinary, as they gave an account of Mrs. Belswin’s previous life—of her presence, under a false name, in the house of her late husband—of the murder of that husband—and of the wonderful amount of money realised by the sale of the Pole Star shares for the daughter of the murdered man, and the woman accused of the crime. All this, more or less garbled and exaggerated, appeared in the leading morning papers, and the “Pethram Paradox”—so it was called—took a prominent place among the sensations of the day. Maxwell, deeply angered at this publicity, which would make the public judge Mrs. Belswin guilty, before she had a chance of defending herself, made several attempts to find Dombrain, whom he suspected of being the author of this malignant gossip in order to damage the chance of the unfortunate woman during her trial, but Mr. Dombrain, suspecting that he would be looked for, made himself scarce, and until the day of the preliminary inquiry, nothing was seen or heard of him by those on the side of Mrs. Belswin.
Kaituna, noble-hearted girl as she was, persistently refused to believe her mother guilty; and, through Maxwell engaged the most prominent legal talent of the day for her defence; but although she sought an interview with Mrs. Belswin in jail, the unhappy woman persistently refused to see her until she was publicly proved innocent of the terrible crime laid to her charge. At this trying time Archie Maxwell proved himself worthy of the high opinion entertained of him by Kaituna, and acting as Mrs. Belswin’s friend did everything in his power to assist her during the coming ordeal. Signor Ferrari too, mad with impulsive Italian wrath at the accusation made by Mr. Dombrain, offered himself as a witness; but on discovering that his evidence would be detrimental to Mrs. Belswin’s defence, the lawyer declined to take advantage of his offer. As for Belk, whom Maxwell thought would be one of the first to come forward and help the unhappy woman he professed to love, he kept persistently out of the way, and neither by word nor deed showed that he took the least interest in her fate. When the day of the preliminary inquiry therefore came, Mrs. Belswin was left with only three friends who believed in her innocence—Kaituna, Maxwell, and Ferrari, who were all present in court when she was placed in the prisoner’s dock.
She looked terribly pale and haggard, for Mrs. Belswin, having one of those natures which are only strong through impulse, was quite unable to bear up against the calamity which had befallen her. All her fierceness, her iron nerve, her reckless daring, which had successfully coped with so many perils, had now deserted her; for this blow, so long dreaded, having descended, she seemed unable to fight against it, and stood silently in the dock, a pale weeping woman, quite unlike the Borgia-like creature of other days. The follower of Mahomet will fight bravely as long as fortune goes with him; but when the tide turns and he believes that it is the will of Allah that evil should befall him, he says Kismet, and bows to the decree of Heaven. Mrs. Belswin behaved in exactly the same way—she had fought bravely against overwhelming odds to keep her daughter and her secret, but now that the worst had come she thought it useless to struggle against destiny, so resigned herself to the inevitable.
The counsel for the prosecution stated that this was one of the most painful cases that had ever come under his notice. It would be remembered that some months previously the public had been horrified to hear of the murder of Sir Rupert Pethram, of Thornstream, Berkshire; who had been shot while standing at the window of his study. In spite of the utmost vigilance of the police the person who had committed this dastardly crime could not be discovered; but now, by the evidence of Mr. Alfred Dombrain, the prisoner was accused of being the guilty person. The chain of circumstances which culminated in the committal of this crime were so extraordinary that he would take leave to inform the court of the whole affair, and the motive for the murder would be clearly proved against the prisoner. It appears that many years ago the deceased baronet—who at that time had not succeeded to the title—had married in New Zealand, where he was then living, the prisoner, Jezebel Manners, who was a half-caste, the daughter of a Maori mother and a European father, a woman of violent and rash temper. One child was born of the marriage, which turned out to be very unhappy; and eventually Mrs. Pethram eloped with an American, called Silas Oates. The late baronet obtained a decree absolute against her, and remained in New Zealand, where he looked after the welfare of his motherless child, while his divorced wife went to San Francisco with the co-respondent Oates. The divorced woman and her lover were together for some time; but he ultimately left her, evidently being quite unable to bear with her outrageous temper. The prisoner then went on the stage, and sang successfully in opera for many years under the name of Madame Tagni. Finally, about eight months previously, she came to England, and found that her husband, by the death of his brother, had succeeded to the title, and was living at Thornstream, in Berkshire, with his daughter Kaituna.
The prisoner, anxious to see her child again concocted a scheme by which to enter the house as a companion to Miss Pethram. Sir Rupert had gone out to New Zealand on business, and, according to his instructions, Mr. Dombrain advertised for a companion for Miss Pethram during his absence. The prisoner applied, and was engaged for the situation by Mr. Dombrain, who was quite in ignorance of her antecedents, and her connection with the late baronet. She took possession of the situation, and while Sir Rupert was absent everything went well. On his arrival, however, he had an interview with the so-called Mrs. Belswin, and, recognising his guilty wife, ordered her out of the house. This interview took place at night, about nine o’clock, in the study at Thornstream; and Mrs. Belswin left the house by the window, vowing vengeance for the course adopted by her husband. Instead, therefore, of going away she lurked outside on the terrace, and when her husband came to the window she shot him with a pistol she had in her possession. Having committed this terrible crime, she had coolly stepped across the body of the man she had murdered, and re-entering the house went to her bedroom. All the household being ignorant alike of her interview with the late baronet and her antecedents, she was never for a moment suspected, except by Mr. Dombrain. That gentleman, hearing the noise of Mrs. Belswin coming upstairs, looked out of the door of his bedroom and saw her pass him. Next morning, when the crime was known, he would have denounced her; but owing to the darkness of the night was unable to be certain of the identity of the woman who crept upstairs. The other day, however, he taxed Mrs. Belswin with the crime; and although she denied it, yet from her agitated manner he felt certain she was the criminal, upon which he at once gave information to the police. Mrs. Belswin was arrested on a warrant, and now stood charged with the murder of her late husband, Sir Rupert Pethram. The first and only witness he would call would be Mr. Alfred Dombrain, upon whose accusation the prisoner had been arrested.
This skilfully worded speech made things look very black against Mrs. Belswin; and when Dombrain stepped into the witness-box to substantiate the terrible statements made by the counsel for the prosecution, there were many who looked upon the prisoner’s committal for trial as a foregone conclusion.
Mr. Dombrain, having been duly sworn, stated that he had acted as the legal adviser of the late baronet, and in pursuance of his instructions had engaged the prisoner as a companion for Miss Pethram. He was wholly ignorant of her former life, and that she was the divorced wife of the late Sir Rupert, but as she seemed a suitable person for a chaperon, he had engaged her at once, upon which she went down to Thornstream in order to take up her duties. Upon the arrival of Sir Rupert in England he had gone down to Thornstream in connection with some legal business the late baronet wished to see him about. Mrs. Belswin was not at Thornstream on his arrival, as she had gone to London a few days previous about some private matter; but she arrived at Thornstream on the same afternoon as he did. She did not appear at dinner, but on leaving the study after an interview with Sir Rupert he had seen the prisoner enter. As she did not re-appear in the drawing-room, where he was sitting with Miss Pethram, he retired to bed, and he believed Miss Pethram also retired to bed, having a bad headache. Towards eleven o’clock he thought he heard the sound of a shot, but was not certain, although he sprang out of bed and went to the door of his room. It was near the staircase, and as he leaned over the banisters in the darkness, he heard the study door shut with a slight noise, after which Mrs. Belswin came hastily upstairs, and went into her own room. Next morning, when the crime was discovered, she said she had not been out of her room at that hour. He was not quite sure if it was Mrs. Belswin, as the staircase was dark. A week ago she came to his office on business, and he accused her of having committed the murder, which accusation she at first denied, but afterwards half confessed to her guilt. He at once gave information to the police, and she was arrested.
In cross-examination Mr. Dombrain said he had found out all about the prisoner’s relations with the deceased from some papers in his possession, and knew Mrs. Belswin was the divorced wife from the description given of her in the handwriting of the deceased.
Counsel for the Accused.—I see that at the inquiry into the death of Sir Rupert you said you had not heard a pistol-shot.
Mr. Dombrain.—I was not certain and sooner than declare I heard, I thought it best to reply in the negative.
Counsel.—Is it not true, Mr. Dombrain, that you have a grudge against the prisoner?
Dombrain.—No, it is not true.
Counsel.—The prisoner declares that she knew you in New Zealand.
Dombrain.—It is a lie. I never was in New Zealand.
Counsel.—Not under the name of Damberton?
Counsel.—I understand your name has been struck off the rolls.
Dombrain.—I don’t see what that has to do with the case.
Counsel.—Ah, you are rather dense; I will explain. Your real name is Alfred Damberton. You were imprisoned in New Zealand for embezzlement, and on your release you came to England. Is this not true?
Dombrain (violently).—No sir! It is false! Who accuses me? The prisoner!—and why? Because I have brought her to justice. Through her lies I have been struck off the rolls, but I can prove myself innocent, and will do so shortly!
Counsel.—I wish you every success, Mr. Dombrain, but I am afraid you will find it difficult!
When Dombrain left the witness-box, the counsel for the prosecution said he had no more witnesses to call at present, upon which the counsel for the defence made a short speech, and said that as his learned brother had set the example of brevity, he would do the same thing, and only call one witness in defence of the prisoner. The name of that witness was Samson Belk.
Mrs. Belswin looked surprised when she heard this name, not for a moment thinking that Belk’s evidence could do her any good; and Kaituna also appeared to be astonished, as she knew how Belk had kept out of the way since her mother’s arrest. Maxwell’s face, however, wore a contented smile, and this smile was reflected in the countenance of the defending counsel, so, without doubt, these two men knew that Belk’s evidence was valuable, and were prepared to abide by the result.
Samson Belk, stepping into the witness-box, made oath according to law, and gave the following remarkable evidence in favour of the prisoner:—
He had been steward to the deceased baronet, and on the night of the murder had come up to the hall to ask his master a question about the discharge of farm hands. If was nearly eleven o’clock when he arrived at the door of the hall, and he hesitated whether to disturb Sir Rupert at that hour. However, seeing the light streaming out of the window of Sir Rupert’s study, he advanced along in that direction, but on hearing angry voices he had hidden himself behind a bush on the terrace, in order to see what was the matter. The voices were those of Sir Rupert and another man, whose tones he did not recognise. The other man was imploring Sir Rupert to keep some secret, but the baronet refused, and said all the world would know the truth on the morrow. The man began to threaten, and Sir Rupert thrust him out of the window on to the terrace, telling him he would ruin him by revealing everything. So strong had been the baronet’s push that the man fell down upon the side of the terrace near the balustrade, and Sir Rupert, with outstretched hand, stood pointing at him. The light of the lamp within shone on the man crouching at the baronet’s feet, and I saw him take out something—I did not know what—and point it at Sir Rupert, who stood in the window. There was no sound, and yet the baronet fell, and the man, with a cry of triumph, rushed away into the darkness. Witness ran forward to see what was the matter with his master, and found him dead. He (the witness) had had a quarrel with Sir Rupert on that day, and being afraid lest, if he gave the alarm, he should be accused of the murder, and could not defend himself, he went away, and said nothing about it. The crime was discovered next morning, but no suspicion was fixed upon him, as no one had known of his presence on the terrace that night.
Counsel for the Prosecution.—But could you not denounce the man who committed the crime?
Belk.—I did not know who he was—I never saw him before or since the light fell on him through the window, until—
Counsel for the Prosecution.—Until when?
Belk.—Until I saw him to-day.
There was a great sensation in court, and every one looked at one another in astonishment, while a gleam of triumph flashed from the eyes of the prisoner.
Counsel for the Prosecution.—If you saw him to-day, as you say, do you know his name?
Counsel for the Prosecution.—And the name of this man who killed Sir Rupert?
Belk.—The man who accuses the prisoner of the murder—the man you call Dombrain.
If there was excitement before, there was ten times more excitement now, and the crier found great difficulty in reducing all present to silence. There was a sudden pause in the noise, and the prisoner, raising her eyes to heaven, said in a solemn voice—
“It is true! I am innocent of this crime. He has fallen himself into the pit he digged for another.”
Yes, she was innocent, and the man who accused her guilty; but when they looked for Dombrain, in order to arrest him, he had disappeared—vanished into the depths of mighty London, when he heard his name coupled with that of murder.
What fools are they who think God ever sleeps,
Or views their follies with a careless eye.
Fortune may heap her favours on their heads.
Blithe Pleasure lull them with her jingling bells,
And life for them be one long carnival;
But in their triumph of prosperity,
When all the smiling future seems serene,
God; frowning, stretches out His mighty arm,
And lo! the hungry grave gapes at their feet.
So Mrs. Belswin was delivered from her great peril, and was taken home by Kaituna and her lover with great rejoicing. Maxwell, indeed, after hearing the story of this woman, had hesitated for a moment as to whether he ought to let her be with her daughter, seeing that she had forfeited her maternal rights by her own act, but when he hinted this to Kaituna she rebuked him with one sentence—
“She is my mother.”
So Maxwell held his peace, and after Mrs. Belswin had been released from her position of ignominy and shame, he had escorted both mother and daughter to their lodgings. There he left them, and at Mrs. Belswin’s request, went to seek for Belk, and bring him there to receive the thanks of the woman he had saved. Having departed on his errand, Kaituna sat down beside her mother, in order to hear from her own lips the story of her sad life.
With many sobs, Mrs. Belswin told the whole pitiful story of her sin, which had brought her to such a bitter repentance, and, when she had ended, fell weeping at the feet of the daughter she feared now would despise her. Ah! she little knew the tenderness which the girl had cherished for her mother, and which she cherished for her even now, when the dead saint had changed into the living sinner. Pitifully—tenderly she raised her mother from her abject position of sorrow, and kissed away the bitter tears of shame and agony that fell down the hollow cheeks.
“Mother!” she said, clasping her arms round the poor woman’s breast, “if you have sinned, you have also suffered. The one false step you made has brought its own punishment; but why did you not tell me all this before, and so have saved yourself this bitter agony?”
“Tell you before?” said her mother, sadly. “Child! child! what good would such a confession have done? You could not have helped me.”
“No, dearest; but I could have loved you. I could have made your life less hard. Oh, mother! poor mother, how you must have suffered when I treated you as a stranger.”
“I did suffer,” replied Mrs. Belswin, in a low tone, “but not so much as you think, for even then you treated me more like a mother than as a companion.”
“And I was the little child of whom you spoke?”
“Oh, blind! blind! how could I have been so blind as not to guess your secret. You betrayed yourself in a hundred ways, my poor mother, but I never saw it. But now—now that I know the truth, I see how blind I have been.”
“Ah, Kaituna, if I had only known you would have received me like this, but I feared to tell you of my shame lest you should turn from me in scorn.”
“Hush! dear mother, hush!”
“And it was terrible to think that the little child I had borne at my breast should spurn me.”
“Oh, my sin! my sin!” wailed Mrs. Belswin, rocking herself to and fro, “how it has cursed my life—how it has turned the earth into a hell of repentance.”
“Do not say another word, mother,” cried Kaituna, wiping the tears from her mother’s eyes; “the past is dead, we will speak of it no more; but the future—”
“Ah, my child, the future for you is bright; you will marry your lover, and have him by your side during the rest of your life, but I—Child, I must leave you.”
“Yes! you know what I am! You know my sin, my folly, my shame! I cannot look into your clear eyes, my child, for I have lost the right to be your mother. No, Kaituna, while you did not know me, and believed your mother to be a pure good woman, I stayed beside you, to love you and hear you talk of me as I once was; but now—now—ah, no! no! I dare not remain in your presence, I dare not kiss you, for my kisses would pollute your lips. I will go away—far away, and expiate my sin!”
“But, mother, you will not leave me?”
“It is for your good, child—it is for your good!”
“You shall not leave me!” said Kaituna, winding her arms round the elder woman’s neck. “You have suffered enough for your sin, and for the rest of your days I will help you to forget the past. Archie thinks the same as I do. Come, mother, you will not leave me; promise to stay beside me for ever.”
“I cannot promise,” cried Mrs. Belswin, breaking away from the tender bonds that held her; “oh! what a paradox I am. When you did not know me I wished to stay. Now you know I am your wretched, guilty mother, I wish to fly. I must go! I must! Seek not to detain me, child. As ye sow so shall ye reap! The Bible, Kaituna! the Bible—let me go to my harvest.”
Mrs. Belswin, with her savage nature maddened by the mental agonies she had undergone, had worked herself up into one of those uncontrollable fits of passion which made her so dangerous. She had found her child, and now she was going to leave her of her own free-will, because she could not bear to live with her own daughter, who knew how vile she was. With a cry of agony, unable to bear any more implorings from Kaituna, she flew to the door in order to escape; but her daughter, who was determined not to let the poor distraught creature go, perhaps to her death, sprang after her, and wrenching her away, flung herself back against the door with outstretched arms.
“No! no!” she cried, panting with excitement, “that way lies death. Oh, mother! mother! I know what you would do; but do not leave me. If you have any pity in your heart for the child you bore let me keep you ever at my side. Where would you go out into the darkness of London?—to the terrible stormy streets—to the river—ah! the river! is that what you think? No! no! mother! my own dear mother, you must not let me mourn your death twice.”
The evening sun was shining through the windows, touching the furniture, the draperies, the mirrors, with soft gleams of light; and Kaituna, with her head thrown back, and her arms outstretched, stood against the door, while Mrs. Belswin, with a sudden cessation of her mad anguish, stared vacantly at her daughter, and round the room.
Ah! what was that gleaming in the sunlight from behind a heavy purple curtain—steel—the barrel of a pistol; and it was pointed full at Kaituna, With a shriek of rage Mrs. Belswin, guessing the truth, sprang in front of her daughter to shield her from harm, and in another moment had fallen in a heap at the feet of the child she loved. There was no sound of a report, and Kaituna in a state of horrified amazement, fell on her knees beside her mother. As she did so a man ran from behind the curtain, and wrenching open the door flung down a pistol and spoke rapidly—
“I wanted to kill you!” he said, with a snarl, “to punish her; but she came between you and the pistol, so let her die as she deserves to, with my curses on her.”
With a shriek Kaituna recognised him. It was Dombrain, and she sprang to her feet to seize him; but eluding her grasp he ran out of the door and down the stairs into the street. Kaituna could not follow him, as her limbs tottered under her; but she managed to drag herself back to her mother—the mother, alas, who was dying.
The red blood was welling slowly from a wound in her breast, and a thick sluggish stream was stealing heavily along the polished floor. Lifting the dying woman’s head on her lap the girl cried aloud for help upon which the servant came rushing in. She shrieked when she saw Mrs. Belswin lying unconscious in her blood, and ran out to call in aid—ran right into the arms of Maxwell, Belk and Ferrari, who were just entering.
“Help! help!” cried the servant, rushing past them, “a doctor—a doctor! She is dying.”
“Kaituna!” exclaimed Archie with a sudden fear in his breast; and without a moment’s pause the three men rushed into the room, where the girl was sitting with a look of agony on her pale face as she bent over the unconscious woman.
“It is my mother—my poor mother,” cried Kaituna, in an agony of sorrow. “Have you caught him? Have you caught him?”
“Who?” shouted Maxwell and Belk, while Ferrari, in a paroxysm of grief, threw himself beside the body of the woman he loved.
“Yes! yes! he was here! he shot my mother with that pistol. He has just left the house.”
“God!” cried Belk, starting, “he was the man we saw running down the street.” And he was out of the room in pursuit without saying another word.
“A doctor! a doctor!” said Kaituna, imploringly, “Oh, Archie! she will die, she will die!”
“Stella adora!” moaned the Italian, covering the cold white hand with kisses.
“A doctor will be here in a few minutes,” said Maxwell, approaching the unconscious form of Mrs. Belswin; “the servant has gone for one. Ferrari, help me to place her on the sofa!”
But Ferrari could do nothing but tear his hair, and cry endearing words in Italian to the woman he loved; so Kaituna, pale as marble, but wonderfully brave, helped Archie to place Mrs. Belswin on the sofa. She was breathing heavily, and Maxwell, tearing open her dress, strove to staunch the blood with his handkerchief, while Ferrari remained on his knees, and Kaituna stood beside him with clasped hands.
“Good heavens, she will bleed to death!”
Just as Maxwell spoke, the doctor entered with the scared servant, and at once proceeded to examine the wound. Having done so he looked very grave, and Kaituna caught him by the arm with a cry of terror as he arose from his knees.
“She will live! she will live! Say she will live!”
“I’m afraid not, my dear young lady,” said the doctor, gravely; “the bullet has gone right through the lungs.”
“Do you think she will die, doctor?” asked Maxwell, in a tone of horror.
“Yes! I am sure of it!”
“Die!” cried the Italian, wildly, “no! no! Lucrezia—my beautiful Lucrezia—you must not die.”
“Take that man away,” said the doctor, sharply, “and get me some brandy.”
Kaituna was the first to obey. The nerve of this girl was wonderful, and notwithstanding all the agonies she had come through, she gave no sign of fainting; and the terrible strain on her mind could only be told by the pallor of her face.
“My brave girl,” said Archie, as he assisted her to get what the doctor required.
How slowly the hours passed in that room, where this poor woman was dying. Yes, dying; for although the doctor did all in his power to save her life, there was no hope that she would live through the night. She was still lying on the sofa, from which she was unable to be removed; and when she recovered consciousness, after the shock she had sustained, she opened her eyes to see Kaituna kneeling fondly by her side, and Maxwell, Belk, Ferrari, and the doctor, in the background. Belk had not been able to find the assassin, who was lost among the crowds that thronged the streets, so had returned in an agony of grief to see the woman he loved die before his eyes without being able to save her.
So strange the scene was in this little drawing-room, with the couch upon which rested the dying woman standing near the piano, the glitter of mirrors and ornaments in the dim candle-light, and the silent group standing round the one who was passing away. Outside the sunlight had died out of the sky, the purple twilight deepened to night, and the melancholy light of the moon streamed in through the windows, the blinds of which no one had troubled to pull down. In the passage crouched the servant, sobbing as if her heart would break; but Kaituna could not cry, she could only kneel there with tearless eyes, and a look of anguish on her white face watching her mother die.
“Kaituna,” said Mrs. Belswin, faintly.
“I am here, dear mother!”
“You are not hurt?”
“Thank God,” said her mother, with a tone of joy in her weak voice. “I have paid the debt.”
“With your life—with your life,” moaned the girl, wringing her hands in despair. “Doctor, can you do nothing?”
“I know I am dying,” went on Mrs. Belswin in a stronger voice, having swallowed some restorative; “it is better so! Hush! hush! my poor child! God knows what is best. If I sinned against you in the past, He has permitted me to expiate that sin by saving you from death. Archie! take her, take my darling, and make her a good husband.”
“As there is a God above, I will,” said Maxwell, solemnly, taking the now weeping girl in his arms.
“My poor Stephano, is it you?”
“Ah, cara mia—cara mia,” cried Ferrari, throwing himself on his knees beside the sofa. “Do not leave me—do not!”
“Alas, Stephano, it is not in my power! Weep! weep, poor heart! Your tears show me how much love I have lost—love that I did not deserve.”
“And I?” said Belk, coming forward.
“You are a good man,” said the dying woman, faintly, stretching out her hand. “You will find some one to love you better than I would have done.”
“Never! Ah, never!”
“Believe me, what I say is true. Ah!” she cried, with a terrified look on her face. “Kaituna, my dearest!”
In a moment Kaituna was on her knees again, bending over her mother, with the hot tears falling from her eyes.
“Mother! mother! would you like to see a clergyman?”
“No, my darling no! I have sinned—I have sinned bitterly, but perhaps God in His mercy will accept the expiation. Archie, be good to my little child. Oh, my little girl, whom I lost for so many weary, weary years, put your arms, your dear arms, round me, and let the outcast die on the bosom of her child!”
The murmuring noise from the street penetrated into the room; the dim light of the candles flickered and flared in the faint breath of the wind, and there was silence among all kneeling there, save for the sobs of Kaituna and the broken mutterings of the dying woman repeating a prayer.
“Our Father, which art in Heaven—Oh, my child, my child, will he forgive me—will He forgive me?”
“I’m sure He will, mother!”
“Half a savage, half civilised! Ah, if I had only been guided, I might have been a good woman; but we were both wrong, Rupert and— Kaituna, my little child, I—I am leaving you! Oh, my baby—kiss me, my dearest—my little—”
Her head fell inertly on the encircling arm of the girl, and Kaituna knew by the terribly calm look on the placid face that not all her love—not all her money—not all her prayers, had availed to save from death this mother whom she had lost and found—this mother who had sinned and repented—this mother who had given her life to save that of her child.
“De Mortuis”—you know the phrase, I think;
A kindly saying, such as poor humanity
Mutters at times when talking of the dead;
Therefore, I pray you, speak not any ill
Of this poor soul who suffered, sinned, and died,
Seeing her sinning brought her but to this;
Yourself when gone may need a pitying word,
When all your virtues with you are entombed,
And naught remains but sins to curse your name.
So it was Dombrain, after all, who had committed this crime, and, by accusing Mrs. Belswin of the murder, placed her life in jeopardy, in order both to revenge and save himself. Had it not been for the unexpected evidence of Samson Belk, without doubt the unhappy woman would have been found guilty, and suffered in the place of the astute Mr. Dombrain. When this ex-lawyer, ex-convict, and constant blackguard heard himself accused of the crime, he slipped out of the court and vanished before he could be arrested, knowing that he could make no defence.
Part of his evidence was true, for he had been in the drawing-room, he had seen Mrs. Belswin enter the study, but here his truth ceased and his lies began. Fearing lest his name should be mentioned by the infuriated woman during the interview, which would be sure to end in the discomfiture of Mrs. Belswin the lawyer, trembling for his respectable position, went to his bedroom and took his air-pistol, so as to be prepared for emergencies. It is but fair to Mr. Dombrain to say that he had no intention of using the weapon unless everything was lost; so, creeping out of the house, he placed himself beside the open window of the study, in order to hear what Mrs. Belswin would say.
In accordance with his expectations, she did tell Sir Rupert all about him, and when Dombrain heard the declaration of the baronet that he would denounce him, he knew that all was lost, and that the sin of his early youth was going to cost him the respectable position of his middle age. When Mrs. Belswin, thrust forth by her unforgiving husband, fled out into the night, Dombrain, trembling, sick at heart at seeing all that made his life worth living vanish, crouched still beside the window, and here Sir Rupert, who had come out to make sure that his divorced wife had taken herself off, found him.
Then an interview between the lawyer and the baronet took place, in which the latter swore to reveal all the infamy of Dombrain, and have him struck off the rolls. In vain the wretched man pleaded for mercy. Coldly and inflexibly the baronet thrust him out of doors, the same way he had done his wife; and then mad with anger at the terrible future before him, Dombrain shot Sir Rupert, in the manner described by Belk in the witness-box. After committing the crime and assuring himself that his victim was dead, he coolly stepped across the body, and took refuge in his own room, from whence he did not emerge for the rest of the night. It was true, as he said, that his room was near the head of the staircase, for he saw Mrs. Belswin leave the study as he described, so it was then that the idea came into his head to secure himself by sacrificing her, and thus both save and revenge himself at one time.
On leaving the court after having been denounced by Belk, his rage against all the world for his thwarted revenge and his perilous position knew no bounds. He had no idea of escaping justice, but determined before he was seized to punish the woman who had—as he believed—dragged him down even lower than his former position. Then he had simply embezzled money, but now he had committed a crime for which he would lose his life; and thus, seeing that his doom was fixed, he determined that Mrs. Belswin should suffer for placing him in such a perilous position.
With this idea in his head, he took the air-pistol with which he had killed Sir Rupert, and went to the lodgings of the dead man’s daughter and Mrs. Belswin. Skilfully managing to evade the notice of the servant, he ensconced himself behind the curtains in the drawing-room, and shot the unhappy woman as described. At first, knowing how bitter it would be to Mrs. Belswin, he had intended to kill Kaituna, but the unexpected action of the mother had saved the daughter from a terrible death. Satisfied with his work, Dombrain threw down the pistol and disappeared—disappeared into the depths of London, from whence he never emerged. What became of him nobody ever knew. Whether he took another name, and resumed his profession in provincial England; whether he left the country; whether he died in the gutter, no one ever discovered. Falling into the immense ocean of London like a drop of rain, he became obliterated, lost, unknown, but no doubt in due time he met his reward for his evil doings.
And his victim? Alas, poor soul, her troubles, her trials, her follies, were all at an end, and a simple cross marked the place where she was buried. To that humble grave, a year after the events described, came Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell, in reverence for the memory of the woman—the mother who had given her life for that of her child. Maxwell had married Kaituna in due course after a decent time had elapsed from the death of Mrs. Belswin, and later on he had gone to South America, on business connected with his profession; for, in spite of Kaituna’s wealth, Archie could not bring himself to live upon her income. He had gone away for a few months to Buenos Ayres, and had now returned to the side of Kaituna for ever. After much difficulty she had persuaded him to accept her view of the question, and share the proceeds of the Pole Star Mine. To this, after much hesitation, Maxwell consented, and now the husband and wife had arranged to make a tour of the world together. Before leaving England, however, they came to Kensal Green cemetery to pay a last visit to the grave of the woman who had sinned, but who also had suffered.
“Poor mother!” said Kaituna, as she leaned on the strong arm of her husband. “What a terribly bitter life she had, and her death was hardly less sad.”
“She saved you, my darling,” replied Maxwell, with a fond smile; “and that, in her eyes, was recompense enough for the sudden ending of her life.”
“If that wretch who killed her had only been punished?”
“I’ve no doubt he is punished. It is true he escaped the hands of men, but I am certain he will not escape the punishment of God. But come, my dear Kaituna, these thoughts make you sad. Let us leave this dreary place.”
“Yes; but see, Archie, that withered wreath of roses! It has been placed there by Ferrari, I am sure.”
“But I thought he had gone to Italy.”
“Only three weeks ago! He came to me and talked a great deal about our poor mother, whom he loved very dearly in his own impulsive way. But now he is back in his own country, he no doubt will forget about her. Men have such short memories.”
“Don’t say that. Remember Belk.”
“Oh, he will go the same way,” said Kaituna, a little bitterly. “Certainly he behaved very well, for he used to bring flowers here every week, along with Ferrari. How these two men must have loved my mother!”
“She deserved their love,” replied Maxwell, after a pause. “She had sinned, it is true, but she was bitterly punished for her sin. Well, she lies here, and the two men who loved her have gone far away—one to Italy, the other to America.”
“Ah, all our friends go thus!”
“Not all, my dear. Remember Toby Clendon and his wife, who are living so happily at Deswarth. We must go down and see them before we leave England.”
“No, no!” said Kaituna, with a sudden shudder. “I cannot bear to go near Thornstream after those terrible events which cost the lives of both my parents.”
“Come, dear one,” urged Maxwell, seeing how overcome she was with emotion, “let us go away.”
“One moment,” replied Kaituna, kneeling beside the grave. “I must say farewell to my poor mother.”
And kneeling there in the long green grass, she breathed a prayer for the soul of her unhappy mother, whose natural love had cost her so dear.
Maxwell, who had removed his hat when he heard this prayer mount like incense to the throne of God, quoted a text from the Scriptures in a low voice—
“She suffered much, so much shall be forgiven of her!”
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