Title: The Lie Circumspect Author: Rita (Eliza Humphreys) * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1701381h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2017 Most recent update: December 2017 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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The waning daylight struggled with an autumn mist that crept coldly up from the damp ground, and covered the wide expanse of moorland stretching right and left of a huge stone building shut in by high walls and iron gates—but something stronger, too, than either wall or gates, the strength of that great power which the criminal and the offender have defied, only to fall crushed and broken beneath its iron-handed justice.
While yet the daylight struggled with the gathering shadows, a side gate within the dreary building was unlocked and thrown open. Behind it the light showed a stone-paved square, dreary, and desolate and deserted. Before and beyond, the moor lay wide and dark, stretching into phantom space that the brooding autumn sky shut in on every side. In that gateway a man stood and looked out to freedom, and back to bondage. Stood for one brief moment, and then with drooped head stepped forth to freedom and liberty, unknown for four long, awful years.
The warder who accompanied him spoke a few cheery words, but received no answer. He shrugged his shoulders. "Sullen and silent still," he said. "Well, good-bye, and better luck. You say you can find your way—are you sure?"
"Yes, yes," came the hurried answer. "I know. I need no guide." He almost stumbled in his eagerness.
He lifted his head to the misty sky and drank in the damp, moist air with thirsting lips. He was free at last—free, he told himself, and yet again murmured and echoed the word as if its joy and new-given liberty were something his lips could never tire of repeating. Free to tread God's earth; to breathe God's air; to see the blessed sunshine blurred by no prison bars; to taste the sweets of liberty; to walk unfettered; to speak, laugh, move, breathe once again; to look his fellows in the face.
His thoughts stopped there abruptly. His head drooped again. The iron weight of misery rolled back upon his soul and crushed out the delusive visions hope had begun to weave.
No, never again would he look in men's faces as four years ago he had looked. The prison taint was in his soul, the prison stamp upon his brow. Four years of shame and degradation had bowed his form and embittered his spirit. The crime for which he had suffered seemed light in comparison with the punishment inflicted. He told himself it was a fault of impulse—of youth misled and ill-considered. But even as he told it, he seemed to hear the rattle of dice, the shuffle of cards, the taunt of voices, urging a last venture with Fortune. Even as he thrust away self-reproach he seemed to see the hot flush of shame dyeing a woman's face, and the unutterable rebuke of her gentle eyes.
He stood quite still, his eyes upraised, the air stirred by his labored breath. Quite still and conscious of nothing save that once again life offered him a place in the world beyond—that he was free.
A form, shadowy as the mist stepped suddenly forward and a voice spoke his name—a woman's form, a woman's voice.
"Lawrence?" it said. And once again, as if afraid of his recognition, "Lawrence, husband, it is you? I waited. I knew the day. I counted the hours. I had not courage to go there, to that dreadful place, but I waited here; so that you might feel you were not alone, not forgotten. Oh, my dear, my dear. Say you are glad to see me."
Her hands clasped his. She was sobbing wildly. The sight of the little bundle he carried, of his close-cut hair, of his thin, furrowed face, were all as shocks to her, seen by the light of a memory that had only shown him handsome, young, beloved.
With the touch of her hands and the sound of her sobs a great change swept over him.
"You here! You! You came to meet me? Oh, Nell! What can I say to you?"
"Oh, hush!" she cried. "Who should forgive if not I, your wife, for whom you sinned, for whom you have suffered? But it is all over now. We will not speak of it. All over, all suffered, all atoned for! Oh! let us think only of that. Let all the rest be forgotten."
"You are—alone?" he questioned hoarsely.
"I have a carriage waiting for you close by. We will drive to Moortown to-night. To-morrow we will leave England for a time. Then, when we return, I have a home for you, Lawrence. God has been good to me, and I have prospered. We shall have happy years yet, dear, you and I, and our child. You have never asked about her, Lawrence. But, of course, you have never seen her. Oh! how you will love her. A mischievous sprite, but tender for all that. But how I run on! And it so cold; and you—you are shivering, dear. Oh, come, we are wasting precious time. The carriage is close by, at the corner of the road. Come! Yet stay one moment. Lawrence, do you know you have never kissed me yet?"
He thrust aside her clinging arms and a hoarse cry escaped his lips. "With prison gates in sight," he said. "With the taint upon me? Kiss you! No, Nell, I could not! Wait till we are away from here, out of sight and reach and the atmosphere of this cursed place. Then—and yet not even then. I have forfeited all right to your love. It is pity that brings you here, pity for a felon—an outcast—a man not worth a thought of yours."
"A man," she said, "whom I love, and pity, and forgive with all my heart."
"God for ever bless you!" he cried brokenly. "Your love makes me ashamed. I never deserved it, even at my best; and now——"
"Say no more, dear," she pleaded. "Only come away. And oh, if you would try to forget, as I shall, for life is all before us still, and many happy years and prosperous, God willing. Come."
She linked her arm in his and drew him gently away. The evening shadows fell behind them. The mist seemed to part as the last red spear of sunlight pierced it through and through, and so parting, left a track for them over the stony road. Across this track gleamed the red light of carriage lamps; the breath of the waiting horses mingled with the wreathing mist. The figure of the driver standing at their heads looked ghostly and indistinct. He turned his head at the sound of approaching footsteps. A natural curiosity was in his eyes. When a carriage was brought to this lonely spot a good guess might be made at the reason. The woman hurried forward; she laid her hand on the carriage door and swung it open. Her companion entered. The driver closed the door, mounted the box, and whipped up the tired horses.
Wave upon wave the mist rolled back, blotting out the road behind them, the high stone walls, the gleaming lights of the huge building raised by convict hands for convict prisoners.
The carriage followed the coach road across the dreary moor. Dreary at all times, but unspeakably so in this grey haze that, slowly gliding over vale and hill, left all it touched a deep and shrouded mystery. The horses strained their heads or started as weird shapes loomed suddenly out of darkness into the red halo of the carriage lamps. Steadily they pursued their journey, the driver keeping them at one even trot. Sometimes they dipped into spectral hollows, only to emerge and push their way defiantly against misty crests well-known as obstacles through years of dogged surmounting, sometimes plodded warily over the wide moor, windswept from every quarter, bending patient heads to meet the blast that even in summer holds its revels there.
The inmates of the carriage were very silent. Strong emotions do not readily lend themselves to speech, and both their hearts were full to breaking point, with thoughts that the one dared not utter, the other dared not betray.
Their hands were clasped in a close embrace, palm touching palm, an occasional tremor thrilling them, but otherwise they remained seated side by side, saying not a word, only gazing out of the windows at the rolling mist, the straining horses, the weird and spectral shadows on which the red lamps threw their glow.
On one side that silence was eloquent of suffering, of memory, of pride smarting at every touch, of dead hopes lifting faces wan and pale from their shroud of vanished years.
It lasted so long that the moorland and the mist were things of the past, and the road had lost its dreary outlines and allowed itself bordered by trees rich in autumnal coloring, arched by a sky in which a host of stars had gathered and gleamed to light the path of night. So long that at last, half-frightened, the woman turned and spoke.
"We shall soon be in the town, Lawrence. Our train leaves at midnight. You can dine and rest——"
She felt him shrink back, and guessed his unspoken thought.
"I have a private room, dear," she urged. "No one need see you, and in my box are clothes—those you left behind."
His white face hardened.
"You seem to have thought of everything," he said.
"I tried to—spare you," she said gently. "I knew it would seem strange at first."
"And where does the money come from?" he asked. "There was little enough left when——"
"I know. Do not say it. But remember I told you I had prospects. I have money, plenty of money. Enough for both—for all. You need not ever work again, unless you choose. It is a long story; I cannot tell you now. I only want you to rest and—forget."
"As if I ever could!" he said bitterly.
"Time heals all sorrows and their memories, dear."
"Not such memories as mine. Disgrace—punishment, chains, bondage. A wild beast's life for manhood! God above! How can one forget such things as these?"
She uttered no reproach. She did not tell him that his punishment, severe as it had been, was a punishment his own reckless actions had challenged; that his sufferings sharpened with physical agony had yet been matched by those her own heart had known, and well nigh broken under. She kept silence; but the hot tears welled in her eyes and rolled one by one down her pale cheeks.
He went on, unheeding as unseeing her agony.
"Life is only an ugly tangle for me hence forward. Things like this are never forgotten. Never till one is dead, and even then some evil tongue finds a time to lash one's memory. Those we leave behind have to suffer also."
She thought, "If he had remembered this four years sooner!" But still she was silent, fearing to reproach by seeming to agree.
"I cannot judge you," she faltered at last.
"You never will," he said. "You are one of those women of whom life makes martyrs; loving, suffering, enduring; dwelling in the inner darkness of silence—for fear of hurting what you love. It was seeing your patience, gauging your powers of endurance, feeling that I, by my selfishness, had robbed you of all that was your right, that drove me——"
Her hand tightened on his arm.
"Don't, Lawrence," she cried involuntarily. "Don't say it was my fault. Spare me that, at least!"
He looked at her then and a pang of self-reproach shot through his selfish heart.
"No," he said moodily, "it was not your fault. You were easily content; but poverty is a harsh taskmaster." His tone was sullen and his eyes left her face again and turned to the window with relief. The smallness of his own nature, measured by the greatness of hers, filled him with a grudging self-pity. He was ashamed—and yet the consciousness of shame annoyed him. The news she had brought of prosperity was less welcome because it was her gift—not his. Had Fortune befriended him, had he been able to play at princeliness it would have gratified his pride and seemed a deed of atonement; but to receive benefits from the hand of the woman whom he had loaded with humiliation was inexpressibly galling, even in this hour of liberty.
His thoughts had all been of restitution—of amendment—of righting himself in her eyes—winning some share of the world's prizes to throw at her feet. Now she was playing the part he had set himself, and her very magnanimity shamed him.
The carriage stopped at an old-fashioned hotel in the little town she had named; the lights flashed upon his face and recalled something of long-forfeited liberty.
The coachman held open the door and the woman entered the wide-open passage. The man followed her and she led the way up the shallow stairs and into a room on the first floor. To his dazzled eyes it seemed almost luxurious; yet it was simple enough. The fire threw out a welcome blaze, the lamp on the white cloth lit up the bright autumn flowers, and glass and silver laid ready for a meal.
She opened another door leading from this room and bade him enter.
"You will find all you need there," she said gently. "And dinner can be served as soon as you are ready."
He understood her meaning and her reticence. Words would have seemed indelicate to a mind keenly sensitive to the feelings of others, as was hers. He closed the door and approaching the black leather trunk on the hearthrug opened it and took out the clothes she had brought for his use.
He slipped off those he wore and which had been given back to him on his day of release. They, too, seemed to have the prison taint and were hateful. A can of hot water stood beside the washstand, and with almost feverish eagerness he laved face and arms and chest, as if he sought to cleanse himself from all the hateful stains and memories and indignities of the past four years.
When he stood again in clean linen, in a gentleman's dress, surrounded by the comforts and luxuries so long forfeited, a wild sense of exhilaration rioted in his veins. He drew his slender figure up with some of the old pride and the old satisfaction. He looked at his face, about which the hair and moustache had been allowed to grow a short time before his term of imprisonment ended.
It was a handsome face still, though lined and furrowed, and hardened, too, by reason of trials undergone, of honor forfeited, of shame bitter and self-wrought. A handsome face, and yet marred by an underlying weakness; a certain furtive, half-rebellious defiance, that spoke of a nature coerced not conquered into penitence. For at heart Lawrence Latimer was not penitent, though he told himself he was. He was bitterly ashamed, but he was also bitterly resentful. He blamed circumstances—Fate—life—everything that could be called blamable for his own folly and his own sin.
Temptation had overtaken him in a weak moment; he had swerved from the path of duty—also in a weak moment. Repentance had followed quickly, but not successfully. Awkward results, discovery, trial, condemnation, all these had been as sharp-dealt blows of a Nemesis too swiftly on his track. But he had paid the debt, he told himself. Paid, atoned, suffered. Man can do no more.
Surely he had wiped his sum of offence off the slate of life by those four years of humiliation. Surely he was at liberty now to forget, and make others forget, if their memories threatened inconvenience. As the thought crossed his mind he heard the entry of dinner and its attendant service in the room beyond. He caught sight of his own face, as it had been used to look, his own figure as it had been used to bear itself.
He turned softly to the opening door and the flush that dyed his cheek was less shamed than exultant now. He stretched his arms out to the little patient figure standing there, the light shining upon her uncovered head and in the tender pity of her eyes.
"Come to me, Nell," he said softly. "Come! I can kiss you now."
She closed the door behind her and crept into his outstretched arms, and with a little sob her head fell upon his breast. For a moment he let her rest there—a moment that repaid four empty, torturing years. Then he drew himself away and holding her hands in both his own looked sternly at her troubled face.
"Nell," he said, in a hard, repressed voice, "we take up life again to-night where we laid it down. We go out to face the world and defy it. These four years lie in a grave whose headstone is to be for ever marked by silence. From this hour your lips must never mention them any more than my own. Promise this, and swear you will never break that promise so long as we both shall live."
Startled and white as death, she looked up at his face. It was not the face she had known and loved in her girlish innocence; not the face that had haunted her memory for four despairing years. It was the face of a man into whose soul the iron of suffering had entered, whose heart had been seared, not purified, in the furnace of sorrow. It takes a great nature to bear deserved punishment, and Lawrence Latimer's nature was not great.
"Do you mean," she said slowly, "that you will tell me nothing?—that I am to ask——"
"You are to ask—nothing," he said. "The pages are torn out and burnt. If they may not be rewritten, at least they can be destroyed."
Her labored breath came slowly through her parted lips.
"Four years lie between us," she faltered. "Four years of penance—of atonement. You will tell me nothing of those years?"
"Nothing," he said. "Let them be as if they had had no existence. From this hour they shall have none."
"Others," she said, "will remember, Lawrence, the shadow of committed sin never ceases to dog our footsteps. If I read your secret in other eyes, if its whispers haunt me in the life to which we go, am I still to keep silent? Must all confidence be closed?"
"On this one point," he said doggedly. "To speak of it—even this once—taxes all my powers of endurance. I cannot suffer again—I will not. If you have wealth, as you say, it must purchase peace for me. Peace and silence—buy them how you may. Promise!"
He laid his hands upon her shoulders, pressing the slight frame with unconscious force in the earnestness of his own desire.
Her lips moved, but her eyes sought his no longer. The pity of their gaze was quenched by sudden fear.
"I promise," she said, "but a day may come when it would be better for us both to speak and to trust, as now—we cannot."
His hands released her then. He lifted his head defiantly and the mirror gave him back some momentary flash of his old youth and his old spirit.
But he said nothing, only stretched out his hand and led her into the room where dinner was awaiting them.
The old manor house of Torbart Royal was ablaze with lights. Fires burned cheerily in every room and open doors showed pleasant vistas of comfort and homeliness on which no modern luxury had set its fantastic seal. The old housekeeper, arrayed in rustling black silk and full of importance as befitted her position, passed in dignified silence from room to room, pausing at last in the hall, where the logs crackled and blazed in the open fireplace.
"They should be here by now," she said, and summoned the staff of servants she had been told to engage, in order to give a fitting welcome to the new arrivals.
Her critical glance swept over caps and aprons. The butler was her own husband, and, like herself, a family retainer, well-seasoned and of befitting dignity. Housemaids, parlormaids, cook, all bore her surveillance with equanimity. It had surprised her that no lady's maid was needed. The omission made her somewhat curious about her new mistress.
"Where is Connor?" she asked suddenly.
"I'm here, ma'am," answered a voice rich in possibilities of brogue, held in check by due consciousness of its strangeness in comparison with the mincing English tongue.
Disapproval shone in Mrs. Burton's' eyes. "You have no cap on," she said sternly.
"I never wore one in all my life, ma'am," was the reply. "And if her ladyship the Countess of Cullagh didn't require it of me I'm thinking I'll do very well for plain 'mistress' in this country."
"That is not the way to speak to me," said Mrs. Burton sternly. "And if you mean to keep you place you will have to mend your manners; let me tell you that."
"It was sore need of repair they were in before I came to this country to mend them," retorted the rebuked person, who was a comely-looking woman of some thirty years, with a pale face of Madonna-like beauty, and soft brown hair that rippled on either side of it in a fashion that scorned the power of caps to humiliate or adorn. The other servants tittered. Mary Connor had only been two days in the house, but already had asserted a prerogative of free speech.
"There are the wheels," exclaimed the butler suddenly.
A sense of alertness at once expressed itself in the little crowd, and Irish Mary (engaged as nurse for the little daughter of the new arrivals), stepped slightly out of the rank and bent an eager gaze upon the open door.
The wheels stopped and in another moment the travellers entered. A party of three. A tall man, whose thick iron-grey hair contrasted oddly with his youthful face, and a slight, graceful woman, holding by the hand a little child of some six years of age.
The housekeeper gave a stately curtsey and murmured conventional greeting.
"I trust you will find everything satisfactory, madam," she concluded.
"I am sure I shall," said her new mistress, with a smile so sweet that Irish Mary's heart went out to her at once. Her eyes fell from the mother to the child, and the roguish beauty of the little face completed her conquest.
She advanced to announce herself—regardless of etiquette. "You are kindly welcome, ma'am," she said. "And the darling little lady, too, God bless her; with a face for all the world like sunshine on a May morning. It's I am to be your nurse, darling. Mary Connor at your service. Of Waterford county; that's my native place. Oh, we'll be the great friends intirely when we get to know one another, won't we, me pretty one? Sure and not one of the little countesses beyant where I've been living could hold a candle to ye for beauty and style."
"You—you are the nurse?" said the lady, a half smile touching her pale lips.
"I am, ma'am—as Mrs. Burton here can tell ye."
"Then will you please take my little girl to the nursery and get her some tea. She is tired, I am sure. Burton, will you see about the luggage. My little girl's things are in the trunk marked No. II. What time will dinner be ready?"
"In half an hour, madame, if convenient. Shall I show you your rooms?"
"If you please." She hesitated and glanced at her husband. "Will you come also, Lawrence?"
His glance had been wandering from point to point, taking in the luxury and comfort and beauty of the place with critical eye. He had no right of possession in it whatever save that of owing its inheritor as wife. Unexpectedly and by a curious chain of circumstances the estate had come to her. Its late owner had been an uncle whom she had not seen since childhood. She had never set foot in the house from the time she was as young as her own little girl—yet it seemed to her familiar and unchanged.
A sense of pleasure in its possession swept over her as her eyes wandered from the glowing hall to the richly-carpeted stairs, the oak seats and tables, the quaint pottery, the tapestry and pictures, and spoils of chase and hunting field. Involuntarily she stretched out her hand to her husband. "Do you like it, dear?" she asked softly. "Is it not homelike and beautiful?"
"Yes," he said, throwing off his fur-lined coat and hat. "A nice old place. You described it very well."
The housekeeper's eyes flashed a sudden indignant glance at the indifferent face of the speaker.
"A nice old place!" To hear a house whose age was traditional in the county, whose family history was renowned, described as "a nice old place," and by one to whom it only came through marriage with one of the family. Times were indeed changed.
She led the way up the staircase and across the corridor and showed her new mistress her bedroom with a silent dignity that she hoped was impressive. It might have been had that mistress been less preoccupied by her own thoughts and memories. The housekeeper, bent on maintaining dignity, merely threw open doors to various announcements. "Your bedroom, madam. Mr. Haughton's dressing-room—your boudoir—the bathroom." So she went on. "The nurseries are above, as perhaps you remember?"
A peal of laughter and the sound of eager feet gave due assurance of that fact.
"You gave no orders about a lady's maid," continued the housekeeper. "Shall I assist you for to-night?"
"Thank you—no. I need no one," was the quick answer. "I am used to wait on myself, and prefer it."
Mrs. Burton's physiognomy expressed faint surprise.
"One of the other maids can do what little I require," continued her mistress. "At least for the present. Now, if you will see that my luggage is brought up, I will dispense with your kind offices. We shall not dress for dinner to-night, we are too fatigued."
The housekeeper curtsied again and retired, murmuring that the new successor to the family honors was certainly a very strange lady and apparently unused to the ways of good society.
"No lady's maid, no dressing for dinner. Well, well, what a change for Torbart Manor."
She discussed the newcomers very seriously with her husband, when dinner was over and his duties completed.
Their late master had been somewhat of a recluse. A scholarly, silent, self-absorbed man, caring little for the world around or about him, going nowhere and entertaining no one. Early in life he had married a cousin of his own. She had died and left him childless. The brother, who was next of kin, lived chiefly abroad. They rarely corresponded, and never met. It was to this brother's only child that the property had now descended. All that Mrs. Burton knew of her was that she had married and lived abroad in some part of France ever since. Her husband had assumed the family name with the family inheritance, but neither of them had apparently been in undue haste to take possession. Two whole years had elapsed and only at their expiration had the new owners appeared on the scene.
Naturally, the housekeeper and butler, with stories of "old families" and their behaviour in their possession, found plenty to complain of and criticise here.
"It's being all new and strange to them must make a difference," said the butler. "Living in them foreign countries must be deteriorating in its effects."
Harbury Burton loved long words, and affected a certain scholarly style founded on his late master.
"Deteriorating!—stuff and nonsense. She's married beneath her, that's what it is," snapped the housekeeper. "And she's lowering her dignity to keep pace with his. There's something about that husband of Mrs. Haughton's that I don't like. He don't look you straight in the face. He don't seem masterful and sure as if he had his own rights and his own duties, and meant to do them. It's a thousand pities that Mr. Anthony Haughton hadn't a son. Property in the female line always loses its value. Strangers stepping in and upsetting what's gone before. That's how it will be with Torbart Royal. You'll see if I'm not right."
"Little Miss Valerie is a beautiful child," said the old man suddenly.
"She is, I grant you, but a handful, or I'm no judge. Eyes like her's mean mischief."
"Well, well, it's early days for faulting the family," said the old man. "After all it's dying out fast. What's left is only in the female line again."
"Mrs. Haughton is young enough to have a family of sons!" exclaimed Mrs. Burton. "Though she does look delicate." The old man shook his head. "There's something weighing on her heart, I'm sure of it. And there's fear in her face. Fear of—what, Susan?"
"I'm sure I don't know. What should there be?"
"It's not for me to say. But I caught it. It's in her eyes, her voice sometimes. Perhaps there's a secret in the background of her life."
"Stuff and nonsense. Secret! You're in your dotage Harbury. Secrets! Why, if ever there was a family open and above board, and straight as a die, it's the Haughtons. Quiet, well-conditioned folk, not a scandal among them."
"That's doesn't prevent one coming into their records, Susan."
"Of course it doesn't. But what's the good of looking for it. Sorrows are none too fond of lagging behind us that we should be whipping them up for fear of delay."
"True," he answered. "True. I hope you're right, Susan. But what I saw in her face was fear, I tell you. And when there's fear in the background there's a reason for it."
"Well, they've taken care to bring no one who can tell tales, if so be there's any to tell. No valet, no maid, no nurse. Whatever's to find, Harbury, we've only our own eyes and ears to trust to. Not that I want to make any discovery that's not to the credit of the family, but, all the same, if there's one thing on earth I can't do with, it's secrecy and underhandedness. And I tell you, Harbury, straight, I don't like the new master of Torbart Royal!"
Lawrence Haughton and his wife sat opposite each other in the great dining-room, where the polished table gave back reflections of fruit and wine, and silver and crystal. The butler had withdrawn and the strain which an unwonted presence had occasioned relaxed to the sound of the closing door.
"After all position is a great burden," exclaimed Mrs. Haughton. "I suppose it's not being used to grandeur that makes it so wearisome. One seems obliged to live for other people, to keep up a pretence in which one's heart is not. How worried you look, Lawrence. What is it? Shall I venture to ask our dignified rulers if I may have the Sprite down to dessert."
"It may make things livelier," he said. "We will have her impressions by way of relief."
He rose and rang the bell and gave the order.
"We shall get used to it all in time," he said, as he resumed his seat.
"Of all the faces here I like Mary Connor's best," said his wife. "I hope she and Val will get on."
A peal of laughter, a flash of skirts through the open doorway, and to the sound of hasty remonstrances the child had flown from her nurse's restraining hand, and perched herself upon her father's knee.
"I told you I should come down. I always mean to," she said defiantly. "Mayn't I come to dinner, p'tit papa? like I used to in France. Tell Mary I may, won't you?"
"You must ask your mother," he said. "She knows what is best and how little English girls behave."
"Not to dinner, Val," said Mrs. Haughton. "To dessert, if you are very good, and—and we are alone," she added.
Then she turned to the nurse, who was standing by the door. "I am afraid Miss Valerie has been rather spoilt," she said. "Being so much with grown-up people and going wherever we went, she naturally thinks it must continue."
"Sure, me lady, a bit of wilfulness niver hurt a woman yet," answered Mary O'Connor. "And 'tis she'll be the lovely girl one of these days. Six years, she tells me; and the sense of ten. And the ways of her! Well, I'll niver be saying again an English child is wanting in spirit. When shall I come for her to go to bed, me lady?"
"At eight o'clock," answered Mrs. Haughton. "And, Mary, I am not 'my lady.' You must address me as the other servants do."
"I beg pardon, ma'am. It's being used to it, living so long with the Countess and her granddaughters."
"Why did you leave Ireland?" enquired her mistress.
"I came over with one of the young ladies on a visit. I was acting-maid for her, and the next thing she does is to get married to an officer in the army and go off with herself to India. And then I thought I'd take another situation, and I saw the advertisement of Mrs. Burton, and with me references she took me at once. And that's all, ma'am."
The child meanwhile had slipped from her father's knee and was apparently amusing herself by a survey of the room. She flitted to and fro in a pretty, fantastic fashion that was like a dance set to the music of her wilful fancies. She curtsied and grimaced at her reflection in the mirrors and the polished mahogany, tossed rosy apples to and fro and caught them with elfish laughter, and all the time her wild bright eyes watched the faces of the speakers, flashing interrogation from one to the other, as if she was forming some private judgment of her own from their words and expressions.
Her father tried to coax her back to his knee, but she refused to come, approaching only to elude his outstretched hand, and laughing softly at each futile effort.
"Is that always the way with her, ma'am?" asked Mary O'Connor. "For, indade, it took all me time to catch her, leave alone the dressing of her, and nothing but that she was set upon seeing the big dining-room would have kept her steady under me hands for the space of two minutes."
"Val, dear, this will never do," said her mother, gently. "You must be good and obedient to nurse. It is not possible for me to do everything for you as I used to do. That is why I have engaged Mary."
The child danced still her airy measure up and down the room, and gave no answer save a mocking smile.
"You may go now, Mary," said Mrs. Haughton. "And come back at 8 o'clock."
As the door closed she called the child to her side and something in the voice told the Sprite she meant to be obeyed. She stopped her fantastic movements and approached. Her mother laid a hand upon her shoulder, over which the rich brown hair rippled in natural waves.
"Listen to me, Val," she said. "Now that we have come to England and to our own home I want you to be like other little English girls. You have run wild long enough. But you are older now, and must learn there is something in the world besides play and mischief."
"Mais oui; but regard then, maman, explain to me this, when before I bring to mind we lived in one little home, n'est ce 'pas?—in a big town full of noise, of people. Do we go there again?—for it is triste, this great big house, these long galleries, what nurse calls them. Is it here we stay?"
Her mother's face flushed scarlet and she give a quick apprehensive glance at her husband. Then the flush died away, leaving only a sickly pallor behind it.
"You are talking nonsense," she said sharply. "The big town was in France; where—where we have all come from."
"But he was not with us," answered the Sprite, pointing at her father. "And you were for always, always sewing. And the people—they spoke like they do here. It all came to me when we must leave the steamer, and you say, 'It is England—we are arrived."
Her mother turned away and lifted her half-empty wineglass to her lips.
"Regard but your hand, how it shakes," said the child. "You do not like that I remember things? But I cannot help it. When I shut my eyes—so—I see pictures; and I know I have been in them—the pictures; and you, aussi—but not p'tit papa. Another sort em monsieur—a kind monsieur—who wore bright things over his eyes and did bring to me chocolates. Voila!"
"Run away and play," said her mother. "And don't talk foolish nonsense. It's not possible you can remember; you were only a baby when——"
She stopped abruptly. Her lips tightened. Lawrence rose and pushed back his chair, and went over to the fireplace. His wife's eyes rested on the child, who once again commenced her fantastic movements, tossing the fruit and catching it, and pausing here and there to examine some article of furniture or ornament that attracted her fancy.
Silence fell upon the strange trio. Silence save for the flitting to and fro of those fairly-like feet, the rustling of lace and muslin from the fluttering frock. Such silence was not new in the child's experience, not new in theirs. At times speech seemed impossible. Words could not bridge the gulf that lay betwixt their lives, slowly widening as chill spaces of reserve crept between them day by day. Now, though their hearts were full to overflowing, speech was impossible.
The woman lifted her eyes at last and glanced at the sombre figure, standing by the fire with head bent down and folded arms, and something dogged, self-restrained in attitude and face. From thence her glance travelled round the room, with all its rich appointments, its promise of affluence. "And it all means so little," she thought bitterly. "So little because of one dark stain upon it all—that awful secret he has sworn to keep. How can he keep it? How hide the stain when even a little child's foolish hand can touch it?"
She too, left her place by the table and seated herself by the fire. But neither spoke. They watched the child and the child watched them, in the midst of her fantastic play.
As the clock chimed the hour she suddenly approached her mother.
"You will come and kiss me good-night in my new nursery, is it not?" she asked.
"And tell me stories?"
"Not to-night, Val. Mother is tired."
A shadow darkened the lovely little face.
"Then I will talk," she cried passionately. "But how I will talk. All night I will talk. I will tell Irish Mary about the little room, and the sewing, and you, p'tite maman, and the monsieur with the shining eyes, and——"
Her mother's hand was on her lips, silencing them, with a force that was more angry than rebuking.
"Hush, child! You are wicked. You deserve to be punished."
A knock came to the door. The nurse entered.
"It's 8 o'clock, ma'am. Is me young lady ready?"
"Go, Val," her mother said, pushing her away. "I will come upstairs presently."
"And tell me a story?"
"Then, I will not talk. You don't want that I do what I said?"
"I want you to be good and quiet. And—no—there is no need to talk. Little children mix things up in their foolish little heads and think they really happened."
The child said nothing, only kissed her father, and with a quaint grace gave her hand to the waiting nurse.
"You've not wished your mamma good-night, miss," said Mary.
"It is no matter. She will come to me; she always does. 'Revoir chere p'tite maman.'"
The door closed. Husband and wife looked at one another.
"It's—true then?" he said hoarsely. "He—it was Dormer, I suppose?"
She bent her head. "Yes," she said quietly.
"He helped you?"
"That question belongs to those four years of which we were never to speak. You said the past was dead, Lawrence. Mine, as well as yours—since speaking of the one brings back the reproach of the other."
His brow clouded. "Of course, if Val knows——" he began. Then he looked at the quiet, impassive face. He longed to ask more of this friend; the man to whom he also owed a debt, the man whom he feared and disliked because of his knowledge of a time that was a perpetual shame. But something in his wife's manner checked the words. His own hand had closed the gate on those four years and now it refused to open.
"He never writes to you now, does he?" he asked suddenly.
"No. He went abroad just before—before my uncle died. I wrote to him from Paris, to tell him of the change of name, and—he did not reply. And I thought it best to write no more."
"That is wise," he said hurriedly. "No use in bringing up old memories. All that time had best be forgotten. Even the child will soon forget if she never hears the subject spoken of."
"She does not easily forget," said the mother.
"Well, it need not be alluded to, even indirectly. And here we are removed from all fear of recognition."
"Yes. You should be safe—if one is ever safe!"
She sighed heavily. Well enough she knew that to the criminal and the lawbreaker there is no such thing as safety.
Torbart Manor was situated on the borders of two counties, but it was remote enough to be exclusive and keep its neighbors at a distance if so inclined.
It had shown itself so inclined on occasions, and displayed a calm indifference as to the pursuits and opinions of those neighbors. The late owner had been counted a selfish recluse, simply because he had no political opinions, a weak digestion, and a studious disposition. When he was dead and the vault in the old churchyard of Torbart parish had duly recorded that fact, there was a brief spell of curiosity as to the next occupants of the Manor. Month after month drifted by, and that curiosity burnt itself out from sheer want of fuel to keep it alight.
No one came to the house at all. Servants were dismissed, all save the old butler and his wife and some outdoor helps, and the place was shut up, the beautiful grounds scarcely tended. Roses that had tossed gay, tangled heads to summer skies, bloomed and died unheeded as the seasons passed. The coverts bred game that no sportsman's gun affrighted. In the great elms the rooks built and cawed and held their own important conclaves and seemed striving to atone for the absence of human sounds and human voices.
Then, suddenly, with no notice or forewarning, life stirred once more within the old dark walls. Smoke curled above the trees, horses neighed within the stable-yard, shutters no longer hid the great mullioned windows. The tangled creepers and rejoicing ivy were cut and clipped and trimmed to conventional appearance.
The Manor House was occupied once more and the county announced the fact to its intimates in ceremonious calls and asked itself who should make the first overtures of friendliness.
Lady Vi Langford, one of the hunting celebrities, was entreated to lead the way and report results. She had nothing to report. The family were "Not at home" on the occasion of her visit.
The Dowager Lady Winterton then proceeded to do her duty. The old greys and the ancient landau, which no "nouveau riche" would have allowed in stable or coachhouse, crawled up the avenue of Torbart Manor. The answer was the same, and a further consultation led to a decision that the manor was again inclined to moroseness and neither cared for nor invited neighborly attentions. The county would not believe that on both occasions the answer had been strictly truthful; yet Mr. and Mrs. Haughton were really out—once on a long walk that embraced miles of their new possessions, and the second time driving to the little town of Selbury, ten miles distant, in order to meet a train conveying important parcels, which in the natural course of events would not have been delivered till the next day.
They regarded the cards with indifference—the indifference born of an utter ignorance as to county habits, rules, and obligations. Indeed, Lawrence Haughton's brows met in the blackest of frowns when he saw the creamy pasteboards on his hall table. "Callers already—— d—n it!" he muttered. "Can't people ever leave one alone."
His wife regarded the names with timidity; wondering why titles honored the Manor House, and forgetful of its attending importance—an importance dating far back, and disqualified by no mushroom appendage of knighthood such as distinguished Lady Vi's husband.
"I am glad we were out," she said, and Lawrence answered, "We must be always out; I wish to know no one in the neighborhood."
"Will that be possible?" she asked. "It will look very strange."
"It may look what it likes," he said. "I am not going to put myself out for other people. County society means perpetual boredom. I don't hunt, I'm a wretched shot, and I hate dinner parties. All this spells unpopularity. Better begin at once as we mean to go on."
"It will look—strange," she said.
"No matter. People will get used to our strangeness. We want nothing from them. If you need gaiety we can always run up to town."
"I!" she cried. "I—need gaiety? Lawrence, when did you discover that? When have you found a time that you were not enough for me—you and the child?"
He drew her suddenly to his side and kissed her.
"My dearest," he murmured, "you are too good to me. Yet I cannot but ask you to bear with my morbid habits a little while. It is not easy to live down——"
He broke off abruptly and put her away. "Let the cards lie there," he said. "We need not return the visits."
"Some day," she urged, "we must cease to be hermits—there is the child to think of."
His laugh was harsh and unmusical. "How like a woman! Are you providing a husband and trousseau for her while she is still in the nursery? Surely there is time and to spare. She has not run the gamut of childish ailments yet, nor learnt the discipline of the schoolroom."
Her cheek paled. "You are cruel, Lawrence," she said. "My suggestion was a very natural one. She is young; she has all her life before her. You cannot condemn her to the isolation that you have chosen for yourself."
"There is time and to spare for such considerations," he answered moodily.
"There is a necessity already arising that we must meet—her education. What I have taught is the mere jargon of childhood. She cannot read or spell English. She will need a governess."
"I have thought of that. It is a need easily supplied. You can advertise and then select the most promising. But for heaven's sake secure one who will keep to herself and live to herself. I want no third person to sit at my board, and talk, and listen, and——spy."
"Lawrence!" she cried nervously.
A little shadow had flitted suddenly from the dark background of the tapestried walls.
"Oh, mechant papa!" said a mocking voice. "I heard all you say. I am to have a gouvernante. V'la. Let it be. I shall only learn what I like."
"You will learn what you are told and do as you are bid, Val," said her mother sternly. "And what are you doing here? Where is Mary?"
"I have run away from her. I hide—there!" she laughed softly. "She search, she call, she cannot find. I hear you come in—and p'tit papa."
She flitted to the foot of the staircase. "I heard," she repeated, and the red firelight showed the dancing mischief in her eyes, the mocking smile on her scarlet lips, "all of the funny words he did say."
She began to ascend the stairs, looking down at the two watching figures.
"Dites, donc! Say, what is it to spy?" she asked. "And why did mamma say 'hush?'"
"Valerie, come here," said her father peremptorily. "You are a naughty, wilful, little girl. You deserve to be punished."
"For why then?" asked the child defiantly. "Because it is so dull, so triste, in this great dark house, and I run from Mary to hide? I could not tell you would talk secrets. It was not much, only that I am to have someone to teach me. I shall be glad. I want to learn. I will then know everything that is told me; and no one will say, 'Never mind,' and 'Do not ask questions,' and 'That is not for children, les petites, to know.' And I shall ask her, first of all things, 'Are you a spy, mademoiselle?"
Step by step she had advanced until with the last word she had reached the corridor above. They watched her scarlet frock flash and flutter into the darkness, they caught the gleam of her mocking eyes as she peered through the open oak railings of the gallery running round the hall. They heard the peal of her childish laughter and the challenge of her childish voice as her nurse came towards her. Lawrence Haughton turned suddenly to his wife.
The leaping firelight showed the pallor of her face and flashed on the anger of his own.
"You called her your comfort," he said, in a repressed and wrathful voice. "A strange comforter indeed! The license of her tongue outstrips her years. There is something elfish—uncanny—about her at times. Take care that in years to come she is not more scourge than comfort."
"That must be as God wills," answered the mother. "Her nature, her soul, are of His giving. I only know she saved me once from madness and despair."
She turned away then and went slowly up the wide, old stairs and passed into her room, closing and locking the door behind her. There were times when repression and silence became a living torture, when the restraint on words, looks, memories, was beyond passive endurance. It seemed to her that she was perpetually fighting shadows with straws that bent and mocked her feeble blows.
The child was at once a puzzle and a torment. She had passed from infancy into this mocking, elfish sprite with a rapidity which attendant circumstances scarcely excused. Yet, on the other hand, no traceable accident of heredity could account for the almost foreign style of her beauty, her aptitude for languages, and her fantastic personality.
Her fancy was as swift as a bird's flight, and often as unexpected. Her mind seized on passing words and circumstances, to magnify, distort, or play with them as her whim dictated. She seemed to love her mother, yet at times spent her whole soul on distressing and agitating her. There was something nervous and timid about this mother which she recognised and despised, her father she treated with alternate humor, petulance, and insubordination. He could not influence her even by anger or win any obedience that was not voluntary. When their wills clashed, his had to give way. Punishment enforced nothing except an hysterical frenzy that was too terrifying to risk, once witnessed. Words and threats she mocked at if the fancy took her, or railed back in the broken French and English of a dialect peculiar to herself.
In their wanderings to and fro in foreign lands she had picked up an extraordinary amount of knowledge, to which her natural shrewdness lent precocious importance. She was childish in all but intelligence. There she outstripped her years and her prerogatives. Her vivid fancy, leaping from surmise to certainty, would set its seal of comprehension on details that were less patent to ordinary observers than herself. Her mind played for her the part of a magic lantern, and its various slides held impressions of scenes and events that no one credited her with noticing, and still less remembering.
Her mother sat now before the fire in her great and somewhat dreary bed-chamber, thinking out, as she had been compelled of late to think out, the problem of this child's future.
The passion and force of her own feelings made the task before her all the more difficult. Her temperament was not of an order that escapes from suffering or evades its own responsibilities. She must deal with Val, and Val's future, in the best and wisest fashion that circumstances allowed.
She had to shield her husband's morbid sensibilities and enforce his authority—both matters of difficulty, and threatening yet greater difficulty in the future. His resolution to avoid all intimacy or exchange of courtesies with his neighbors did not seriously disturb one by nature unobtrusive and not anxious to shine as a social star of any importance. But it aroused a new fear—the fear of awakening curiosity and its attendant gossip. If they lived here secluded and unvisited people would naturally think there must be a reason. To find a reason at once sufficient and convincing was the task she set herself.
She lifted her head, and in doing so caught the reflection of her hair, burnished by the flames; of her face sad and wistful, yet still young and still lovely. She started slightly, then kept her gaze fixed on that pictured self, looking into the eyes dark and pain filled; reading the tragedy of past years in the lines of the brow and the sorrowful curve of unsmiling lips.
"It rests with me," she thought. "Whatever reason or excuse has to be made I must make it. No one must think the cause has anything to do with him."
Her eyes wandered round the room and a faint smile touched her pale lips. "It won't be a very dreary prison," she thought. "But a prison it must be. Here I shall stay and spend my days and years, a chronic invalid, a recluse who shuts herself in from outer sympathy or friendship. Can I play the part? Can I cheat him also?"
She rose and slowly paced the room, her hands clasped before her, her head bent.
"Perhaps he will not notice," she went on. "And sometimes we can go away. There are always spas and cures to be found. The plea can hold good still. Yes—it must be. I see no other way. But I must find Val's governess first. It will be less easy to play the part to a woman. I must evolve the woman I want, and then trust to my own intuition to detect her likeness in the answers I receive."
She paused, and again her eyes turned to the graceful figure in the long mirror—to the face whose youth and beauty of womanhood she had determined to deny.
"It will not be easy," she said slowly. "Not easy and not pleasant. But at any cost he must be saved. What was that he said once, I have a genius for martyrdom? . . If so, I must prove it, . . . Perhaps he will never guess why."
"In answering your advertisement I think it best to be perfectly frank. I have never been a governess, but circumstances render it necessary that I should do something for a livelihood, and therefore I have reckoned up my talents and offer them for your inspection. I am a good linguist and musician. I have had a splendid education and enjoyed many social advantages. The death of my husband has left me almost destitute, and as I must turn my wits and brains to account I have been studying those columns in the daily press which are specially provided for the poor and needy.
"Do I seem frivolous? I assure you I am not. Only if I don't laugh I must cry—I am so nearly heartbroken, and so very, very poor. I don't know why I write so frankly. This is not at all the sort of letter that applicants for a governess's situation usually indite. But, as I began by saying, I will be perfectly frank and open with you. I am conscious of disqualifications, and yet they may not seem so to you. I am a widow, and have one child—a boy. The fact of motherhood may present itself to you as a certificate of merit in the management of your little girl. Only a mother rightly understands childhood and can blend authority with comprehension. In any case, this is my story, and here is my application. Distance renders a personal interview impossible. I am at present in Dublin; you, I gather, in an English county. However, I send you my photograph, and it may answer the purpose of introduction. I regret to hear you are an invalid. That, of course, adds to my responsibilities. I say 'my.' It seems to me almost that I am taking your hand and saying 'Madam, I hope I shall suit you.' If I do not the world is wide, and, I suppose, there is a place for me in it.
"Yours very truly,
"P.S.—My little boy will go to school, of course. He is nine years old. I should only expect to see him once a year, in my holiday time.
Mrs. Haughton read this epistle at breakfast-time, a week after her deliberation and its following resolve.
She had received many applications for the post of governess. A salary of £100 a year to educate a child of six is not offered every day.
As she laid down this frankly characteristic effusion she smiled. "I am half-inclined to try her," she said aloud.
Her husband looked up from the newspaper he was reading.
"Try whom?" he asked.
She passed the letter across the table. He glanced over it.
"What an odd production. Frank, indeed! Irish, that's plain to see. Do you think it wise for both attendant and instructress to boast of the same nationality?"
"I think it is of no importance. Connor is certainly an excellent nurse and most trustworthy. Already she is bringing Val into something like order."
He took up the letter again. "What does she mean by this? 'I regret to hear you are an invalid.' Did you state that in your advertisement?"
She colored faintly. "Yes; it is true in a way. I have never felt strong since Val's birth; and sometimes I think——"
He dropped the paper. "Well," he cried, "what is it? Why did you never tell me?"
"Because there is no need for you to be anxious," she said, with a smile. "If I like to lie on couches and drive instead of walk, it may be as much laziness as invalidism."
"You must come to town. You must see a doctor!" he exclaimed. "Now that I look at you, you are paler and thinner than you should be."
"I shall not see any doctor, Lawrence," she answered firmly. "I assure you I know my own health and my own constitution better than any stranger could know them. The—the doctor who attended me at Val's birth cautioned me about—after results. I need only be careful. Come, don't look so grave. Let us examine Mrs. Monteath's photograph. Here it is."
He came over to her side and studied the picture she placed on the table.
It represented a handsome woman of some thirty years, with smiling lips and large frank eyes and a beautiful figure.
"I like her," exclaimed Nell. "She is just what her letter says. I feel as if I heard her saying the words: 'Madam, I hope I shall suit you.'"
"It is a fine face," said Lawrence thoughtfully. "Bright, too—like her letter, as you say." He sighed and put the photograph down. "And God knows," he added, "we need some brightness here."
Mrs. Haughton made no answer. She folded the letter and replaced it in its envelope.
"I will write to her and ask her to come to us for a month," she said. "Of course, paying her expenses. Perhaps, she may not care to stay. The house is dull, as you say, and she may have been used to society before this trouble came."
Did she think at all of a time when she, too, had basked in the sunshine of natural enjoyment and innocent pleasures? Did she throw a regret to bright days and hours from which she had voluntarily cut herself adrift?
If Mrs. Haughton's thoughts were full of regrets, it was not apparent to the eyes that watched her face and read in its tranquil calm only an assurance necessary to his own selfish peace.
"I am anxious for Val's governess to be thoroughly trustworthy and of responsible age," continued Mrs. Haughton. "No young, inexperienced girl would do. I—I am almost sure, Lawrence, that Mrs. Monteath is the very person I want."
"I hope so, I am sure," he said, and he walked over to the window and stood looking out.
"How goes on the book?" asked his wife, as she too rose and gathered up her letters.
"I have got no further than notes yet," he answered. "In an important work, a work that embraces such a vast subject and its many branches, one must collect sufficient materials before one can commence to write even the opening chapter."
"Have you thought of a title for it?"
"Yes." His eyes were still on the lawn, where the autumn leaves had drifted. The falling rain wove a dull network between him and the trees, where the drenched birds perched in sodden discomfort.
"May one ask it?" said Nell playfully.
"I shall call it 'The Evolution of Crime,'" he answered.
Her face blanched. She steadied herself against the table and stared at him with wide, startled eyes. Then, with a strong effort, she recovered her composure, and with no further word left the room.
He, recognising her absence, walked slowly to his study—a small, oak-panelled room opening into the library, with wide windows looking over the park, and beyond, to where the swelling hills were covered with a forest of pine and fir.
His table was littered with papers and books of reference. The heavy brass inkstand looked important as the fire shone on its polished surface. He drew a chair up before the glowing logs and lit a cigar. His brow darkened, his moody gaze rested on the bright flames with brooding discontent.
"If it had all come to me, or if it had only come sooner," he thought. "To be the recipient of another's bounty is a sorry position. To play second fiddle in a place like this—where everyone's pedigree is known, and where, at any moment, popularity means danger. No—the safe path is the best. Fortunately I have no ambition. The limited triumphs of the county squire are not in my line. All the spirit has been crushed out of me by those hateful years. In every stranger's face I seem to see accusation or suspicion."
He rose abruptly and paused before the scattered sheets on his writing-table.
"Yet one must do something," he muttered. "Perhaps I shall find a savage satisfaction in this work—in unearthing the sins of justice, the weakness of laws, the baleful influence of criminal punishment—in proving how oft and how cruelly wisdom has miscarried—how many innocent victims have cried to dumb walls and senseless gaolers for redress. Perhaps—who knows? On the other hand, the task lashes old memories to life, embitters me afresh, and barbs my pen to pierce where it should only point."
Again he seated himself—again relapsed into moody thought. "Other men have enjoyed life; have drunk its wine and rejoiced in its youth. What sort of youth had I? Hard, sordid, unloved, unloving. And then the struggle with fortune—the dread of poverty for her—the incessant toil, the wretched doling out of every sixpence, and still that spectre of debt at each year's end. Was it any wonder that I fell before temptation? It seemed so easy—so possible. With anyone else there would have been no chance of discovery; but with me—my cursed luck again."
He threw the cigar aside and once more commenced that restless pacing.
"I must live it down. There is nothing else for me to do. Other men have their clubs, their friends, their amusements. I—what have I? A morbid horror of the past—a dread that some chance word or memory will point scorn's finger at my head. I have scarce touched 30 years, but my hair is white, my cheek furrowed, my soul dead."
His head sank on his breast. The dark waters of despair and bitterness engulfed him once again. There was no comfort for him in his inner loneliness. Minutes turned to hours, hours struck their warning note; yet still he sat brooding and motionless, forgetful of everything except the shame that a chance thought had fired to life among the blackened ashes of memory.
* * * * * *
The child had tried Mary Connor's patience to its utmost that morning. It was too wet to go out of doors. She refused her playthings, and nothing would induce her to remain in one place for the space of five minutes. Another freak had seized her also. She would only speak French, and Mary particularly objected to what she called "such haythin nonsense." Fortunately, when affairs were almost at a crisis her mother appeared on the scene. She held in her hand the photograph of Mrs. Monteath.
"Come here, Val," she said. "I want to tell you about this lady who is coming to see you."
She took a low chair by the fire and the child approached cautiously.
"Is it the mademoiselle who will spy?" she asked.
Mrs. Haughton flushed angrily. "I forbid you to use that word," she said.
"It is not my word," said the imp. "If it is not a proper word, a nice word, why did papa say it? He was angry, too."
She stood peering at the photograph, just out of reach of her mother's hand.
"Oh! mais 'c'est charmante. Oh! la belle dame!" she exclaimed. "How soon is it she arrives, p'tite mere?"
"She will not arrive at all unless you promise to be good and obedient, and learn your lessons," answered her mother.
"Oh, but I shall. I like her if she laugh like that. You are so grave, you all here. Papa he never laughs, nor you. And Mary—quoi donc. How is it with Mary? She pretend to be cross. She cannot comprehend—make sense of what I say. Is this new mademoiselle of France?"
"She is not mademoiselle at all. She is madame. She has also a little boy."
"A little boy!" cried Val eagerly. "Oh! la! la! She will bring him here with her to play with me, to learn with me? I shall not be alone any more."
She commenced one of her special evolutions to attest the delight this new arrangement afforded her.
"Sure, was there ever the likes of it," murmured Mary, in the background.
"If you will be quiet and come and sit on my knee, as I asked you, I will tell you all about this lady," said Mrs. Haughton.
"The lady!" Val gave a contemptuous twirl. "Oh, she—c'est inferieure; it is of no consequence. It is the little boy I must hear of. Where is his picture? Has it not arrived aussi—also? Oh, I must see his picture. Will you ask the mademoiselle to send it, so I see for myself how he is like? A boy—up p'tit garcon. But that is good, maman. I shall then have someone to talk to—play with—fight at. Oh, it will be si drôle, si drôle."
Her mother listened in despair as she rattled off these sentences at railroad speed.
"The little boy will not come," she said. "He is at school."
In her heart she sorely regretted the inadvertent announcement of the said boy's existence. But then one never knew what Val would do or say.
She paused now in a pirouette and faced her mother wrathfully. "At school, what then? Let him come away from school. I want to see him. Ecoute donc." She raised a rebellious finger to emphasise her words. "If he does not come I will plague the mademoiselle so that she cannot stay here. I will learn nothing—mais c'est vrai—rien de tout. I can be stupid if I so please."
"Valerie, you will break my heart with your wilfulness," said her mother, despairingly. "I am—tired, ill, worn out; and you are more than I can stand. Sometimes I think you are possessed by some evil spirit. You are not a bit like a Christian child—like the children I have seen and know."
"I am good—sometimes," answered Val. "And I do pray to the p'tit Jesu to make me so—every night. It is so, Mary, is it not? Perhaps He does not hear me," she added thoughtfully. "There must be so many little children all praying at the same time and asking the same thing. So—some of them He does not listen to—or else He does not want to make them good. If I do not become good soon, p'tite mère, I shall not ask Him any more. It is that He does not wish it."
Irish Mary crossed herself with righteous horror. The little countesses had never behaved like this. What was one to do with such a child?
Mrs. Haughton did not write the letter she had intended. What she did write was a cordial invitation to Mrs. Monteath to come on a month's visit and bring her little boy with her. They could then decide as to mutual suitability. It was quite an unconventional proceeding in the way of engaging a governess, but Mrs. Haughton neither knew of nor cared for conventionalities. Her life had been a thing apart from them so long that they did not occur to her as important.
Mrs. Monteath answered the invitation with an unhesitating acceptance for her boy and herself.
"You can send him away," she concluded, "if you do not want him. He is good enough as boys go, but a house is quieter without him—that I must say."
Lawrence Haughton was somewhat annoyed at the threatened invasion. His small daughter, however, soon reduced him to order, and the reflection that he need not concern himself about the visitors speedily restored his equanimity. He was beginning to find that his position held certain duties and responsibilities he could not evade. He had a land steward, certainly—but even a land steward cannot do everything necessary for an estate of importance.
His wife relegated all matters connected with farms and leases to him, pleading ill-health as an excuse. He liked the new sense of importance attached to such powers, liked the respect paid to him by tenants and laborers, the giving of orders, and suggestions. The steward, Anthony Hibbs, by name, had grown old in the service of the Haughtons, though he was to outward appearance hale and strong and good for twenty years' more work, as he declared. He was not particularly impressed by the new master of the manor. He liked a man who would ride straight to hounds, be out all weathers, and have a pleasant word for all, rich, poor, or vagrant. Mr. Haughton was, in his opinion, standoffish and stiff—too much concerned about his own dignity and too little about other people's comfort. Besides, he would not see that the property needed improvement. His nearest neighbor, Lord Hallington, had done wonderful things for his tenants—built them model cottages and a model school; and above all, a model alehouse, which was highly appreciated. But the manor was quite behind the times, and Anthony Hibbs pointed this out regretfully, only to receive for answer, "It will do well enough."
"Maybe it's not having a son," reflected the steward, to whom hereditary rights were all important. "The little lady is well enough and a picture of beauty, but those who have property don't need daughters."
The "little lady" indeed was making herself known to all and sundry without respect of persons. She and Mary Connor drove in a little pony-cart every day when the weather was fine, and the child attracted notice wherever she went by reason of her brilliant beauty and her absolute fearlessness.
Some of the country folk pronounced her talk "a bit outlandish," and were inclined to pity her on the score of bringing up; but with her usual quickness Val dropped her foreign tricks in homely company, seeing they interfered with a due appreciation of herself.
Having won her way with regard to the "boy" companion, she was on her best behaviour during the week that intervened between the invitation and its acceptance. But her little brain was busy weaving schemes for his amusement and entertainment, and possibilities of exquisite mischief floated through her mind as park and orchard, farms and granaries, poultry-yards and pigstyes presented themselves in the light of future playgrounds.
When the all-important day arrived at last she was in a fever of expectation. In all her life hitherto she had never had a companion of her own age. Her mother had kept her entirely with herself, with the result that her ideas and opinions were far in advance of her years.
Mrs. Monteath was expected about 5 o'clock, and Val had herself dressed in her scarlet frock and hurried down to the hall, where her mother was reclining in a cushioned lounging-chair.
The tea-table was drawn up near the fire, and the glow of crimson shaded lamps and ruddy flames was reflected in the antique silver tea-service. Great bowls of chrysanthemums and autumn leaves and berries made rich spots of color against the dark panelled walls, and family portraits stared sombrely from the same background.
It was a charming scene, and one rendered doubly so by contrast with the chill mist and dull grey clouds of the world without.
At least Kathleen Monteath thought so as the door opened to admit her. She paused a moment on the threshold, taking in with one quick glance the luxury and comfort and artistic beauty so suddenly revealed. Then she swept forward, holding her boy by the hand.
"How can I thank you?" she said, and there were tears in her eyes as she stooped over the slight figure lying back on the cushions. "I need not ask who you are," she went on rapidly. Her voice was rich and full-toned, her whole personality expressive. "And is this your little girl? Barry, shake hands with Mrs. Haughton, and say 'How do you do?' to the young lady."
"Oh, I like you," exclaimed Val suddenly, and she threw her arms about the boy's neck in a manner that evidently discomposed him.
Mrs. Monteath laughed, Mrs. Haughton looked surprised. The boy colored and struggled in a boyish fashion. But the ice was broken. No formality could exist where Kathlean Monteath was. She threw off her furs and drew up a chair to the fire and rattled off remarks, exclamations, and descriptions with a rapidity that left her hostess speechless. Yet Nell felt irresistibly attracted by her. She was so handsome—so brilliant—so full of life and vivacity. Her very presence was magnetic, and the frail and friendless woman whose whole life had been burdened with tragedy revived like a drooping flower beneath this invigorating influence.
"Let me pour out tea and wait upon you," pleaded the new arrival. "I like to be useful, and you look so very delicate. You really must let me be of some service."
"If you would kindly ring the bell?" said Nell. "I waited for your arrival, and there are some hot cakes to come in for the children."
Mrs. Monteath was a little surprised that no liveried footman appeared—only a neat parlormaid, who placed the teapot on the table and set the cakes on a brass tripod before the fire. However, she poured out the tea and did the honors as if she had known Nell all her life. Yet it would have been impossible to take offence or look upon her actions as presumptuous. Kathleen Monteath was really a large-hearted woman, full of kindliness and goodwill. To anything weak or sickly or helpless she expanded immediately, her bountiful loving-kindness overflowing all conventional restraints and taking the sufferer into a warm and ready-made embrace for no other reason but that there was suffering.
It was impossible to resist her. After the first moment of surprise Nell made no effort to do so, but laughed and talked and listened as for years she had never done to anyone from the world external.
The children meanwhile fraternised in their own fashion, sitting side by side at a small low table, which Val always appropriated to her own tea service, and eating muffins and tea cakes with the natural healthy appetite of their years.
Mrs. Monteath wondered that the master of the house did not present himself, but forebore a question on that matter, being indeed bent on studying her new surroundings and overthrowing any barrier of the cold English prejudice she had half expected. She soon assured herself there was none to overthrow. Mrs. Haughton had no dignity and self-importance. Kathleen Monteath placed her in the position of placid, gentle invalid, and saw herself enthroned as an important member of the household. In a space of time that a less quick imagination would have occupied in mere question and response, she learnt that Mrs. Haughton had but recently entered into possession, that she knew little of the county, less of her neighbors, and seemed inclined to relegate her position to that of a recluse.
Kathleen Monteath felt that such a proceeding was altogether ridiculous. What was the use of possessing a beautiful house and a position of importance if one did not also enjoy their advantages? She resolved, however, to defer expostulation or judgment until she had made the acquaintance of her host. She had never dreamt of placing herself in any position but that of guest after five minutes' conversation with Elinor Haughton.
"Would you like to see your room? We dine at half-past 7," said Nell at last.
She rose at the same time. The soft folds of her olive velvet tea-gown swept around her slight figure. She looked frail and "petite" beside the Juno-like proportions of the handsome Irishwoman.
"I should indeed; but don't you trouble to come upstairs."
"Oh, I am not quite such an invalid," smiled Nell. "And I should like to see that everything is comfortable. I have given your little boy a dressing-room opening out of your bedroom."
"He will come with me now," interposed Val eagerly. "I want to show to him my toys and my big rocker-horse, and the steam train I did ask papa—mon pere, to order from London, because I had no boy toys at my hand. Come, Barry, you do not desire to go with your mamma, is it so?"
"Not I," said the boy. "I'd rather see the train."
They ran off up the great staircase, watched by their mothers' eyes.
"How soon children understand one another. And how quaintly your little girl speaks. It's the prettiest thing I ever heard," said Mrs. Monteath.
"She has been abroad so much that French is quite as familiar to her as English."
"Abroad. How much that word conveys. The happy months I too have spent abroad. France, Italy, Spain—I know them all. Ah, Mrs. Haughton, a widow's loss means more than widowhood—the good things of life—its pleasures and alleviations."
She sighed deeply and Nell's pitying glance spoke sympathy.
"You have had a great sorrow, I fear," she said gently.
"Great—no words can express it," answered her visitor. "I shall walk in darkness all my days henceforward. The shadow of the grave is over all that made my life sunshine."
"The shadow may pass one day. Life cannot always give us gloom. And you have your child to live for."
"That is true, and I love him dearly, but can any child make one's life? You are a happy woman, Mrs. Haughton. You need not answer that question."
Nell did not answer it. Her pale face grew a shade paler; at least so it seemed to those observant eyes. But she only hurried along the softly-carpeted corridor, and stopping before a door threw it open, and signed to her companion to enter.
Kathleen Monteath gave an exclamation of rapture.
"Oh, you are too good," she cried, as her fine eyes roved over the wonders of upholstery, the harmonious blending of color and luxury and convenience which the apartment expressed.
She stood and gazed with clasped hands and quivering lips.
"You are treating me as a guest—not a governess," she exclaimed.
"I am treating you as the friend I hope you will become," said Nell gently.
Mrs. Monteath's eyes turned from her luxurious surroundings to the pale, uplifted face beside her. A wave of color spread from cheek to brow.
"Indeed," she said, "it would be the hardest task in the world not to be a friend to one so generous and so kind. And I am only a stranger. Why——" she broke off abruptly, and then crossed over to the fireplace, where the wood logs blazed and glowed in warm and welcoming glow—"you know nothing of me," she continued rapidly. "You took me at my own valuation, so to speak; not a reference, not a question. For all you know I may be an adventuress—a woman who ought to have no place here in your house by your child's side."
"I never thought of questioning your sincerity," said Elinor Haughton gravely. "When I read your letter I read it as the appeal of a woman in trouble to—to a woman who has known trouble also. I, too, have been poor and friendless. I have known the world's scant mercies. Should such knowledge teach no lesson?"
"It rarely teaches the lesson of such noble charity as yours," exclaimed Kathleen Monteath, turning her tear-filled eyes to the pitying gaze bent on her face. "Usually it hardens or embitters—or leaves one reckless."
"We will not talk of such results," said Nell gently. "We have escaped them in our own instance, I hope—their memory or their possibility need not set us apart. It is an odd thing, but in all my life I have never had a woman friend. Your letter drew me to you in the strangest way. But you are your letter embodied. I felt that at once. I could not treat you as a stranger. Surely you saw——"
"I saw the kindest, dearest, best little woman it has ever been my lot to meet," exclaimed Kathleen Monteath passionately. "May God bless you for what you have done this day. You do not recognise, yourself, how much it means, or may mean; from what shipwreck of soul and body, you may have saved a fellow-sister. But you have made her your bond-slave for ever. Perhaps some day she may be able to prove it."
Dramatic emotion was so little in Elinor Haughton's line that she shrank back from the embracing arms, the tempestuous words.
But only for a moment. The spell this larger, fuller nature exercised over her own swept her once again into its charmed circle. She returned the kiss, though somewhat timidly, and then, murmuring that her guest must need rest after her long journey, she left the room.
* * * * * *
For long Kathleen Monteath stood where she had left her, gazing into the fire, perfectly motionless. With the closing of the door a sudden apathy fell upon her. Hands, eyes, face, all grew still and blind; dumb of outward expression. "If she knew me as the woman I am," she was thinking. "If she could read me as I can read that transparent soul of hers—if she guessed how, or why, I have done this—would she have called me—friend?"
A splendid vision in sombre draperies swept into the dining-room, dwarfing her hostess both in figure and attire. Elinor Haughton was not a woman calculated to show off dress, and always attired herself in the simplest and quietest style compatible with good taste.
Lawrence stared at the beautiful stranger whose dazzling throat and arms showed milk-white against black silk, guiltless of ornament or flower, and regally independent of either adornment. He greeted her with somewhat distant politeness. He scarcely approved of such a queenly personage for the role of governess. Like his wife, however, he soon found himself under the spell of Kathleen Monteath's fascination.
It was not what she said, but the way she said it, that made every topic she chose either amusing or interesting. She had a store of expressions that were novel, and a picturesque method of treating even trivial details that made her excellent company. So gay and pleasant a dinner had never been known since husband and wife had arrived at the Manor. To both a third person came as a relief to a situation daily becoming more strained. Frankness between them was a thing of the past. The cloud, "no bigger than a man's hand," was already assuming larger and darker proportions. The endeavor to keep past memories and past events out of their conversation was a perpetual drag on their liberty of speech. Therefore Kathleen Monteath's flow of talk and light jests and witty remarks were doubly welcome.
"Do we have the children in at dessert time, or is that against the rules?" she enquired when the well-served meal drew near its conclusion.
Elinor Haughton smiled involuntarily at that "we." The new guest had very speedily enrolled herself as one of the family.
"Oh, yes," she answered. "Val always comes down when she is good. I wonder how they have got on together?" she added.
"Barry is a dear boy," said his mother. "He is not used to girls, but I do not think he will be rough with your little one. What a lovely child she is. You should have her portrait painted in that scarlet frock."
The children entered upon that remark, Val in white, and her new companion in a neat knickerbocker suit of black serge.
She led him up to her father. "This is the boy," she said. "He is called Barry. It is a funny name, but ca m'est égal. I like him. His name—what does that matter?"
"Nothing of course," said her father. "How do you do, Barry? You won't let this imp bully you. She'll try to."
The imp calmly indicated a chair next her own as a seat for the boy, and gave him her opinion as to the relative merits of apples and candied fruit.
Barry was a very handsome boy, with his mother's regular features and dark blue eyes. At first he seemed somewhat embarrassed by his position and the strange faces, but Val's incessant chatter put him more at his ease. Their elders watched them with evident amusement. Mrs. Monteath's keen eyes, however, noted that there was a difference between the attitude of father and mother towards Val; that Mr. Haughton's position towards the child was more observant than authoritative. She treated him in a cool patronising fashion, amusing enough to a spectator, yet savoring somewhat of insubordination.
If he issued a command the child instinctively turned to her mother; in any plan or desire it was also to her she appealed and on whom the onus of the decision rested. Slight things apparently, but Kathleen Monteath was by nature an observer of trifles, and nothing seemed unimportant that helped her judgment of character. It struck her also that Lawrence Haughton was not quite at ease with the child—that he listened to her random chatter with vague apprehension, as if he were never certain what she might choose to say.
When she accompanied her hostess to the drawing-room the children came also. Barry at his mother's request sang some Irish songs to her accompaniment. He had a lovely clear treble, one of those beautiful boy-voices whose short-lived perfection is the despair of choirmasters. Val was enchanted. Music was the passion of her soul; and that the "boy" should share it and exemplify it in this fashion filled her with a sort of awe.
Mrs. Monteath treated the accomplishment lightly. "All Irish people are musical," she said. "They have the soul of it even if the outward expression is denied."
"Do you sing yourself?" asked Elinor.
"Oh! yes. Only Irish songs, though. I am not accomplished enough for any other sort. I'll give you 'Kathleen Mavourneen,' if you like?"
"Oh! do. I love singing, and I never hear it."
"That is surely your own fault," exclaimed Mrs. Monteath in surprise. "In London or Paris you can hear the best music the world has to offer."
"Of course—but my health forbids much excitement," said Elinor, in slight confusion.
"And here?" enquired her guest. "Have you no neighbors who are musical?"
"I know nothing of my neighbors as yet," answered Elinor, coldly. "We have been a very short time at the Manor. Scarcely a month."
"A month! Gracious! If you had been in an Irish county a month you and your neighbors would have known pretty well everything about one another."
She seated herself at the Broadwood grand and ran her white fingers lightly over the keys. The children withdrew into a corner to examine an illustrated Don Quixote.
"I suppose they are all well off, or titled, the people about?" went on Mrs. Monteath.
"Oh, yes. There are excellent families, but the distances are great, and I am really not up to entertaining or being entertained. I like quiet—and so does my husband. His tastes are literary, and he spends a great deal of time in his study."
"Is it not rather a dull life—for you?" enquired Mrs. Monteath. "You are too young—and, may I say it, too pretty, to be buried alive in this fashion. But I suppose I have no business to say so, I forget. You are so kind to me that I feel less a visitor than a privileged friend."
"I am glad of that," said Elinor earnestly. "You may speak as frankly as you please. And now, I am waiting for that song."
It was worth waiting for, she told herself, when the power and pathos of that glorious contralto filled the room. It drew Lawrence Haughton from his wine and his brooding thoughts, it held Val spellbound. And one other person seemed fascinated by its charm, and stood white and wide-eyed at the drawing-room door gazing at the singer. That person was Mary Connor.
With the last notes Mrs. Monteath turned. In doing so, she faced the door and the motionless figure standing there. The intent gaze fixed upon her face somewhat surprised her. She glanced half-enquiringly at her hostess.
"That is Mary Connor—Val's nurse. She is a countrywoman of yours," explained Elinor.
"The name tells me that," said Kathleen Monteath, sending her charming smile in Mary's direction. "It is odd you should have an Irish nurse and—an Irish governess," she added.
"It is a coincidence," answered Mrs. Haughton.
"From what part of Ireland are you?" asked Mrs. Monteath of Mary.
"From County Waterford, ma'am," she answered.
"Oh, is that so?" There was just the faintest ripple of surprise or—was it apprehension?—in the beautiful face. Then she turned away. "If Val is going to bed, Barry had better go also," she observed. "I will take him upstairs."
The boy rose at once. He was apparently more obedient than Val.
"Say good-night to Mr. and Mrs. Haughton," continued his mother. "And thank them for so kindly asking you here."
"We don't need thanks," exclaimed Elinor, as she bent down and kissed the boy's uplifted face. "I am glad to have a playmate for Val. She knows no children of her own age and she grows sadly old-fashioned."
"We will go upstairs together," announced that young lady, refusing to be parted from her new friend, and accompanying him in his 'good-night' tour. "I wish you were to sleep in my room. Maman comes to tell me stories—every night. Do you like stories. And does madame, your mère, tell you of giants and fairies, and the great geni that came out of a bottle like smoke?"
"No," said the boy. "I've read them though, those stories."
"Ma foi, you can read then. Read for yourself? It will be as good as that maman tells me the stories."
"Come, Miss Val. I am waiting," said Mary Connor suddenly.
"I come. You always are in such a great hurry. Bon soir, maman; bon soir, p'tit papa. Is it not that I have been good, all that it is of the best to-night? Not one scold all the evening."
"There will be one scold if you keep Mary waiting much longer," said her mother, laughing.
The children ran up the stairs, their hands linked. Slowly the two women followed, the nurse a step behind the visitor.
At the corridor Mrs. Monteath suddenly turned. "You—remembered me?" she asked.
"It wouldn't be so easy to forget a face and a figure like yours, ma'am," answered Mary. "The name, of course, puzzled me a bit, but I suppose it's to be explained?"
"Nothing—is to be explained," said Mrs. Monteath, in a low hard voice. "There is no reason for it."
"Does the mistress know?"
"She knows as much as is necessary. Mary Connor, you are my countrywoman; you have no reason to bear me ill-will. Will you keep silent about—about what you learnt. If I am driven from here it means ruin—starvation—death, perhaps. You would not have a fellow-creature's death on your soul, Mary?"
"'Deed, ma'am, I would not; but all the same it goes hard with me to be deceiving the mistress. And she so kind and trusting."
"I am doing her no harm, nor anyone else; of that you may be sure. But I cannot talk more. Come to my room later—make some excuse—I will tell you the truth, of—of all that happened. In the meantime promise you will say nothing."
"It's not meself would harm a fellow-creature, leave alone one of me own country, and me own birthplace. You may rest happy for that, ma'am."
"Thank you. I am sure you mean it. But come to me as I asked—unpacking will serve as an excuse. It is only right you should know the truth."
Without waiting for reply she entered her room. The communicating door was open, and Val and Barry were chasing each other to and fro, and taking flying leaps over the little brass bedstead. She stood a moment and watched them.
"Even here," she said to herself. "Even here! Can I never escape? Is that wretched scandal to follow me wherever I go? Powers above send help to my invention. What lie am I to tell this woman that will seem most like—truth?"
It was close on midnight. Without the rain fell heavily and the wind shook the loosened leaves in showers upon the ground.
Kathleen Monteath sat before a table drawn near to the fire, reading the pages of her own life. The book was a journal she had kept by fits and starts from girlhood. There were breaks in it and intervals, and loosely jotted notes that would have meant nothing to an outsider. But to her the whole history was a living, palpitating record—a living, passionate outburst of the nature it revealed.
She took a pen and added a date on the blank page before her and commenced to write—
"This date means a new record—the beginning of a new life. I
grasped at a chance. I wrote on an impulse to accept Mrs. Haughton's
advertisement for a governess. I—a governess! Well, Fate has led me
many a dance in my time, and none stranger than the one which has
whirled me over sea and land to this deadly dull corner of Wiltshire—a
corner so remote, so unknown to me that I expected—nothing.
"My host and hostess appear to me as very strange people. They are rich, yet their establishment is conducted on so simple a basis as to lead one to suspect meanness. She is a weak, gentle creature, who looks as if she had known some heavy trouble at some period of her early life. She is young, without anything of youth—its gaiety, its inconsequence, its aptitude for pleasure. She pleads ill-health. I say, pleads, for though fragile she does not look ill. Her husband—what shall I say of Lawrence Haughton? He puzzles me. He looks like a man who is hiding a secret. He is never natural or spontaneous. He, too, is young in years, yet his hair is grey and his eyes speak of an unhappy soul. This house and property belong to his wife, yet she gives him all due as master. They puzzle me, these people, as I said. I am determined to find out everything about them. I am here as a guest—on trial. I could not have remained in Ireland any longer. In half an hour I knew my position was secure as far as the mistress of the establishment was concerned; as for the master—I can snap my fingers. At present I will not speak of him. The child threatens trouble. But at present I can leave her also out of this galère. There is Barry. Fancy a governess bringing her own child with her. If that does not explain my audacity and Elinor Haughton's weakness nothing will."
* * * * * *
She paused here and laid down the pen to gaze long and thoughtfully at the fire. An odd smile broke suddenly the firm lines of her beautiful mouth. She seized her pen once more and wrote across the page.
"THE LIE CIRCUMSPECT."
"There," she said softly. "I have to depend on that. I think it will hold. But it is an odd coincidence to find here, of all houses and all places, a woman who knows me, and—my scandal. I wonder how much the old countess told? She had a bitter tongue. She would not spare me, or, indeed, any woman for the matter of that."
She traced a few more lines, then read over what she had written. She blotted and closed the book. Her glance wandered over the luxurious bed-chamber, the numberless appointments for comfort and convenience.
"It is the best chance," she said, "that life has ever offered me. And if I make my footing secure it means a theme for years to come. And Barry, too, will be safe. Why, if I played my cards well that spoilt little madam would refuse to part with him. If there was a decent school in the neighborhood I could keep him with me. I must find that out. I have a month to lay my plans. I have closed Mary Connor's mouth. There is no one else to fear. Elinor Haughton is too weak, and her husband——. If his secret is not mine before the month is out, then I am not the woman who has faced the law and baffled lawyers on her own account."
* * * * * *
She locked the book away in her desk and proceeded to make her toilet for the night. Before going to bed she opened the door leading into the adjoining dressing-room. The boy was sound asleep. She stood a moment looking down at him. The hard lines of her face softened, her eyes grew misty.
"If it were not for him," she thought, and suddenly sank on her knees and buried her face in his coverlet. "I have sworn to fight the world, to live down the past. But I am only a woman after all—a creature swayed by every gust of passion and of impulse. My heart is cold and empty, but for him."
A sob broke suddenly on the stillness. The boy stirred and turned suddenly on his pillow. She held her breath and kept quite still till he slept again. Then she rose and stole back to her own room.
The dying firelight alone illumined it. She had put out the candles long before.
She went over to the window and drew up the blind. A misty moon struggling through drifting clouds lit up the walks, the leaf-strewn lawn, and the dripping elm trees.
"It is the sort of place I have always wanted to stay at," she reflected. "Dull, no doubt, but surely safe. Oh! heaven grant I have fallen on a little space of rest and peace. I need them sorely. Still, it is almost too good a thing to have had for the asking. What a chance! To think that it was balanced by desperation—starvation—perhaps prison or suicide."
Elinor Haughton had closed her eyes that night in thankfulness, telling herself that a friend and companion had come into her lonely life who would brighten all its days. And Lawrence Haughton felt that his pulses could once more quicken and thrill to a woman's charm as he recalled her beauty and her voice. And Val, dreaming fantastic dreams in her quiet nursery, lived over once again the delight of the "boy's" companionship. And Mary Connor, telling her beads and hearing the clocks strike for many wakeful hours, murmured again and again, "The saints between us and all harm. I hope her story was true. And neither priest nor chapel within a day's journey that I might ease my conscience and ask advice, and she wheedling the promise out of me, so that I can't go back on my word! If it's true, sure she's to be pitied entirely, but by the same token if it's not—well, Mary Connor's the fool for believing her."
So the darkness descended and slumber wrapped the household in its dumb helplessness, and each heart hid its secret, and the burden of regret pressed less heavily through those unconscious hours.
Yet the element of tragedy lurked beside them all, waiting only a word, a chance, an accident, to hurl peace to the winds of torment and mock the assuring confidence that whispered safety.
* * * * * *
Kathleen Monteath met host and hostess as if they were old friends. It was impossible to resist that charm of manner, so frankly cordial, so delightfully at ease with itself and its surroundings, that is the secret of Irish popularity. Neither Elinor nor her husband could stand against that charm. They were full of plans for their guest's entertainment, and she was made free of the house and park and carriages and horses as long as her visit lasted. Day by day strengthened her fascination and held all about her in thrall. Even Val succumbed. It seemed to Elinor that this splendid gifted person was conferring an obligation upon them by accepting the position of governess and she said as much before the month was half-spent.
Mrs. Monteath uttered a warm disclaimer. "It is what I applied for," she said. "It stands between me and penury. Without some sort of employment I must starve."
There was no further question after that as to her remaining.
Meanwhile the devotion of Val to the "boy" was becoming a serious factor in the situation. They were inseparable companions, Barry confessing that for a "girl" she was more than creditable in all manner of enterprise and adventure, such as the country about afforded, and Anthony Hibbs encouraged.
But as the weeks flew by the question of Barry's schooling threatened a separation. Not that he need go till after the Christmas vacation, his mother hinted, but what was to be done with him meanwhile?
"Why not let the children do their lessons together?" suggested Elinor.
It was so desirable a plan that Mrs. Monteath felt it her duty to oppose it. But the opposition was of a kind to enforce arguments in its favor. Sooner than seem ungracious Mrs. Monteath gave in.
"It is only a temporary arrangement," she said. "I feel I am too easily persuaded and you are too generous. Never let anyone say in my presence again that English people are cold and uncharitable. Such kindness as you have shown is a national vindication."
"It is a pleasure—a real pleasure, to me to have you here," said Elinor Haughton warmly. "And I really see no reason why you should be parted from the boy. There must be some means of educating him in the neighborhood. I must enquire."
"When are you going to return the visits you have received?" asked Mrs. Monteath later on that day, when she was driving Elinor along the long level road that led to Lord Hallington's model village.
"It is not a duty for which I have much inclination," she murmured.
"But it would look so—so odd if you did not; as if there was some reason."
Elinor's pale cheek flushed suddenly. "Of course I shall call later on," she said. "But we are not going to entertain—at least not this year. I see no need for haste."
Mrs. Monteath had noticed the flush and drew her own conclusions. She sighed. "How strangely Fortune showers her gifts," she said gravely. "Now I, if I were a rich woman, would love to fill my house with people—to give splendid entertainments—never to be without company, life, gaiety, amusement. And you, who can do all this, seem more inclined for a hermit's life than to be a leader of society."
"It is a matter of disposition, I suppose. I am not cut out by nature for social success. There are few people I like, and it seems a foolish waste of money to entertain those for whom I care nothing, and to whom my existence is equally unimportant. I can quite believe it seems strange to you—you are so brilliant and so beautiful. No, it's not flattery. Women don't flatter one another. I never look at you but I think of a moth beside a lovely fluttering butterfly. I am the moth, a dull grey stupid thing, shunning the sunlight—you——"
"Indeed I cannot have you say such things. If I could only persuade you to try your own wings instead of folding them up in the darkness you would be quite as brilliant a butterfly as any here."
"Lady Vi would not agree with you. She is the social light of the place. Rides to hounds, joins the shooting parties, and dresses—well, if you chance to meet her you will be able to judge. I have never seen her twice in the same gown."
"And what is Lady Hallington like?"
"There is no Lady Hallington; she died ten years ago. And Lord Hallington has lost both his sons since. It has been a sad trial."
"A widower, and all this splendid property!" exclaimed Mrs. Monteath. "Surely he will marry again. Is he old?"
"I believe so. I have never seen him. He has done a great deal of good in the neighborhood and is very popular."
"And what other neighbors have you?"
"The usual thing—clergyman, doctor, retired military, county families of small property and large importance—the sort of people one feels bound to know and dislike."
"We are a livelier lot in Ireland," said Mrs. Monteath. "Is this the model village you spoke of?"
"Yes. It is pretty, is it not?"
"Idyllic. Certainly you would not see anything like that in my country. Who is this in the carriage facing us?" she asked quickly.
"That," said Elinor, "is Lord Hallington. I do not know him personally. He has not called yet."
Mrs. Monteath's fine eyes flashed a demure yet interested glance at the occupant of the passing carriage, with its fine pair of greys and perfectly appointed liveries. She saw a man considerably past middle age, with a pale, high-bred face and almost white hair. His cold blue eyes gave a swift inquisitive glance at her companion and herself. She would have been flattered had she known that he mistook her for the mistress of the Manor House.
"A handsome woman—a deuced handsome woman," he said to himself. "I must really call. I suppose I am their nearest neighbor, and though I always detested old Haughton, these people may be better. It's odd no one knows anything about them. But she certainly looks thoroughbred. Lady Vi will have a dangerous rival, I'm thinking."
"He is not really very old," murmured Mrs. Monteath. "And no son, you said? Who will inherit the property then?"
"I really do not know. Perhaps my husband can tell you. He gets all the county gossip from Anthony Hibbs, his steward."
"That's where Barry is so fond of going. I don't know what he finds to interest himself in, but Val and he are constant visitors."'
"They are quite safe," smiled Elinor. "Mrs. Hibbs is a dear old thing. I expect she spoils them. Her own family are out in the world—married, and doing for themselves. She is devoted to children. I wonder if they are there this afternoon?" she added. "We might call for them."
"Gracious! What's that?" exclaimed Mrs. Monteath suddenly. "Surely——"
"It's the children!" almost screamed Elinor, springing up. "Whatever has happened?"
Two dripping figures stood shivering, mud-stained, and abashed as the carriage drew up.
Mrs. Monteath had opened the door and pounced on her offspring before Elinor had recovered from the shock of their drenched condition.
"I falled in the stream," explained Val, "and Barry got in to help me out."
Mrs. Monteath did not waste time in arguments. She lifted the two culprits into the carriage and wrapped them in the fur-lined rug that had been put in for Mrs. Haughton's use.
"The nearest house or cottage," she ordered the footman. "They'll catch their death of cold," she explained to the trembling Elinor. "We must get them dry before we take them home."
"The nearest house is Mr. Hibbs's, ma'am," said the footman.
"Drive there," said his mistress, as she drew the warm rug closely round the little shivering figures. "Where is Mary?" she asked suddenly.
Val's head lifted itself defiantly. "She was cross; so we did run away from her."
"You are very naughty. How did you fall into the water?"
"I saw little poisson—silver fish—swimming, and I leaned down too far. I was in the water and then Barry he saw me, and jump in and catch me. Ma foi!" she shrugged her tiny shoulders and nestled to the boy, "but it was cold, was it not?"
"Not very," said Barry valiantly. "I didn't want you to be drowned, you know," he added.
"You are a dear brave boy!" exclaimed Elinor, with tears in her eyes. "I shall never forget that you saved Val's life."
"Here we are," said Mrs. Monteath, as the carriage stopped at a comfortable-looking stone house, surrounded by a garden in which fruit trees and flower beds joined company. Dahlias, chrysanthemums, escallonia, and three fuschia mingled with apple trees, gooseberry, and currant bushes. The square porch was wreathed in ivy and clinging tendrils of Virginia creeper, its lovely crimson and gold now devastated by autumn rains and autumn winds.
Into this house the footman carried the two children, still in their fur wrappings, and Mrs. Haughton hastened to explain the accident to the flustered motherly woman who came out in unconcealed alarm at their appearance.
"Well, well, and Mary O'Connor's been hunting high and low for you," she exclaimed. "The kitchen's best, ma'am," she explained to Elinor. "There's a fine fire blazing there. We'll have them wrapped in blankets and I'll soon get their clothes dry for them."
"I will send the carriage back for dry clothes," said Elinor, "if you will kindly let us take off their wet ones and keep them here till the others arrive."
"Keep them? Bless you, ma'am, let them stay as long as ever you like. Ain't I the mother of six myself, and don't I know the ways of them? Mischief is their nature, and mischief they'll be in though you had bolts and bars to every door and window of the place."
The shivering culprits were speedily undressed, dried, and wrapped in warm blankets. After which Elinor delivered a sharp scolding to Val, between sips or hot elder wine administered by Mrs. Hibbs.
Barry drank his at a gulp and declared the whole thing a "jolly lark." His mother felt inclined to agree with him. Could anything be better than that he should pose as life-preserver to the little heiress of Torbart Manor. She felt Fate had done her a good turn when it led Val's wilful feet to the stream in search of "fishes."
Mrs. Hibbs consoled and soothed Elinor and related histories, more or less discreditable, in which her "six" had figured. One, the worst and most troublesome of the lot, it had pleased Providence to take at the age of ten, but she narrated his ill deeds with becoming pride.
Val sighed and stirred restlessly under her blanket. Her mother and Mrs. Monteath were drinking tea. The delightful old kitchen pleased Elinor immensely, and Mrs. Hibbs was so genial and pleasant a personality that she felt sorry she had so long delayed making her acquaintance.
She learnt a great deal about her neighbors and the county in general that afternoon, what time she sipped her well-creamed tea, and played with morsels of home-made cake, watching her child's flushed face with anxious eyes, even while she talked and listened.
Mrs. Monteath was less preoccupied, and stored in her excellent memory the various names, doings, prerogatives, and importance of Mrs. Hibbs's confidences. In the old Lord of Crampton Park she displayed the most interest. Mrs. Hibbs hinted that he had been somewhat "gay" in his youth—in fact, that his good deeds of later years were a sort of atonement for sins that had pre-dated them.
"I like a sinner," laughed Mrs. Monteath. "They have all my sympathy. A good sinner, like a good hater, must have some strength of character. And strength is always interesting."
Mrs. Hibbs regarded the splendid speaker with some surprise. Val had spoken of a "governess" staying at the Manor House to see how she would like or be liked. Could this beautiful queenly woman be that personage "on approval?" She could scarcely believe. It was hard on Elinor to be dwarfed in appearance, personality, and interest by such an uncompromising character as her new friend. Yet she was the last to acknowledge the fact. Lord Hallington had mistaken Kathleen Monteath for the mistress of Torbart Manor, and Mrs. Hibbs, the steward's wife, treated her with deference and an unqualified admiration. In Elinor all self-assertion was utterly absent. She was by nature timid and shrinking. In hands so clever and ingenious as those of Kathleen Monteath she would be as wax and that astute lady was not slow in discovering it.
"Barry's made it all right for himself and for me," she thought as they all drove home in the cold autumn twilight, Mary Connor having turned up at last well-nigh worn out with weeping and terror. "'Tis an ill wind that blows nobody good, and this wind seems just the sort I need to convey my poor shipwrecked barque into a safe harbor."
That night she sat long by her fire, reading and writing in her journal.
"I am to stay there," she wrote, "and Barry will go to the curate for
lessons every morning. For which lessons the Haughtons are to pay. This
is a proof of gratitude for saving their little girl's life. I don't
know about saving. I'm of opinion the water wasn't deep enough to drown
a kitten in—but that's no matter. We've fallen on our feet, the two of
us, and here's a home ready-made, and all the comforts of life, too, at
my hands. Was Fate tired of persecuting me at last, I wonder? It looks
"The question now is about teaching Val. I'm new at the business, and frankly I confess to myself I don't like it. She's a handful to manage. Wilful, passionate, headstrong. Her mother adores her. I must keep the mother's friendship at any cost. For Lawrence Haughton I care not a finger snap! He is nothing in the household—a man of straw—a weak creature who has some hidden fear lurking in the background of his life. I can deal with him later, and something tells me I shall do so."
She paused a moment. She rested her head on her hand and read the last line over again.
"I wonder," she thought, "what made me write that? Why should I trouble myself about Lawrence Haughton or his secrets—And yet, when I catch that look in his eyes, when I see his hand shake as he lifts his glass, when the sudden opening of a door, the announcement of a name, can make him start and pale as my well-trained nerves can never allow of my doing, I ask myself, 'What has he done? What does he fear?'"
"So much for the present. Now for the past. I have cut off all
communication with anyone I know at——. No need to write the name.
It is fortunate Barry knows nothing. He was too young. Mary Connor is
the only person whom I need fear, and my story was so well told that
I think I satisfied even her suspicions. A few years and all will be
forgotten. Less than a few years might see me married—and well married.
"Why should I not secure old Lord H——? I saw him to-day. His eye spoke favor. What a position it would give me. How safe I should feel. With money at my command I need fear no one—not even that reptile who has done his best to ruin my life and reputation. He must wonder what has become of me. He will be cleverer than I take him for if he finds a clue this time."
Again the pen dropped. Again she sighed.
"Oh! what a hateful life is mine!" she cried passionately. "For ever deceiving. For ever in fear of that awful time. And how Elinor believes in me. How easy to win her love and trust. Fancy if she knew. What horror would fill her soul. How even she would turn against me."
Again she wrote:—
"There is a weak place in every plan; a blot on every landscape. What
is the weak place in my plan? Where lies the blot on my landscape? Is
it Mary Connor's suspicion? Is it Elinor Haughton's trust? Neither of
these, though both hold possibilities of danger. The one braces my
courage, the other disarms me. For I am growing fond of Elinor, and I
pity her. I pity her because she is Lawrence Haughton's wife. Is this
my weak spot? Let me consider before I write down what is at present
"I am, unfortunately for myself, only too well versed in every shade and expression of a man's temperament. I am also, unfortunately, the type of woman who irresistibly attracts men. God knows I neither desire nor care to do so, but I seem to have no power to prevent it. My days in this house scarcely run into weeks, and already I have seen the look I dread in Lawrence Haughton's eyes—heard the falter I know so well in Lawrence Haughton's voice. He is a man whose passions have slept under other and more dominating influence. His love for his wife is a love born of youth, and a youth's clinging to sympathy and need of companionship. Something roused him to manhood, and in so rousing split with an earthquake's force the even ground upon which they two had walked side by side. I may never learn the secret, or I may find chance play into my hands. Future events may enlighten me, or mislead. Impossible as yet to say which. When that hour comes I shall look back here. I shall read what I have written to-night. I shall know——"
A flicker overhead, a sudden splutter of the candles, and then darkness fell. She had sat there so long that they had burnt out.
She pushed back the chair and rose. At the same moment a spurt of flame shot up from the burning logs in the grate. Like a crimson tongue it shot out and flew across the space.
She saw it rest a moment, red as blood, upon the white page. She saw the words stand out that she had last written,
"I shall know."
Darkness fell once more. The dying firelight alone kept company with her hurried movements, as she crept into bed, cold, and shivering, and pale.
"Where is the monsieur—your father, Barry," asked Val.
They were sitting side by side before the nursery fire the day after their adventure. Val had a slight cold and was in durance in consequence. Barry had considerately kept her company, partly out of affection, partly because she had such a "jolly lot of toys," as he expressed it. Some he played with, some he dissected, out of curiosity, to see how they worked. He was at present engaged on a clockwork mouse.
At Val's question he lifted his head and looked a little puzzled. "I suppose you mean my dad," he answered. "Where is he? Why dead and buried long ago. I don't even remember him."
"Oh!" said Val, hugging her knees and regarding the mouse with some distrust. It was apt to make unexpected springs while the dissecting process was progressing, and she was never quite sure where it would project itself.
"Fathers," she went on, "is funny persons. Je crois qu'il y a. Oh, pardon, you do not like that I speak French. I mean to say they are not with one—comme les mamans. Par example—mine. I do not know him at all—save until two years."
"What do you mean?" asked Barry. "Wasn't he always with you?"
"Mais non! Ecoute—listen, I mean. I have a memory of a time, autre fois, before we are in France; I had no p'tit papa then. Only maman, and we live in one little trés petite maison. Then one day she go away and I am left with one old cross woman who slap me. That I recall," she nodded her head viciously. "She hurt very much. And then I am taken away somewhere, and in a big great beautiful house—hotel, you call it—I find maman and a monsieur. That is my papa, she say. And we go away over the sea to live in France. And I forget so much my English talk that they think I forget other things. But it is not so."
The mouse, released suddenly, sprang into her lap. She gave a little shriek. Barry recaptured it and continued his work. The history of Val's past did not seem to him of absorbing interest.
"You must have been a very little kid," he observed presently. "I don't remember anything that happened when I was four years old."
Mary Connor, sitting in the background, busy at needlework, pricked up suddenly attentive ears. The children chatted on, regardless of her presence.
"I shall soon have six years," said Val, with importance. "And I have a very good memory. Far, far away back I can see, like pictures, places where I was, and people. Maman she was always sad—always crying. Do you think she looks sad, even now?"
"She looks—well, as if she wasn't strong; didn't care about things, you know. Not like my mother, is she?"
"Madame? Oh! she is une dame tres magnifique. Her laugh—how she laughs—is it not, Barry? Oh! no, she is one altogether different. But it is strange you should have no father."
"Why strange? People do die, you know."
"Of course," said Val consequentially. "Have I not seen the Pére la Chaise, the cimetiére? And even to here, where the old church is, is there not the graveyard also, where the dead people go? Moi, I shall not like to be put into the cold earth. Never, never, to see the sun, the sky, the trees. It would be triste—horrible."
"Well, don't talk of it. We're not going to be put in the ground."
"Little children die also, and animals and birds. Why does le Bon Dieu make things but to let them die?"
"Well," said Barry, ruminating, "I suppose if everything lived they'd get so old we'd be tired of them."
Val nodded. "Yes, it must be so. And to be old, that is not nice. One's face all marks and creases, and legs and arms that are no use. It would be nicer to be always young, always pretty, always happy."
The boy looked at her in surprise. "Fancy a kid like you talking like that!" he exclaimed. "It's like an old woman."
Val's great brilliant eyes turned from the fire to his face.
"That is what the maman says; I talk too old; I think too old. You must make me that I talk and think more young, Barry, comme vous êtes—as yourself I mean. I love to dance and play, to be out in the woods and fields, but when I sit, to myself alone, I begin to think; and that is how I talk."
"Tell me," said Barry, in order to change the subject. "What does your father do all day in his study?"
"He writes a book—one great big clever book!" exclaimed Val.
"Well, whenever I've looked in at the window he's been sitting staring at the fire, doing nothing at all. It seems funny, don't it? He has horses and guns and dogs, and could have such jolly larks, and yet he never goes anywhere or seems to do anything."
"It comes, as I said at one time before, fathers is funny things," observed Val. "If we knew some more children we could ask of them, 'How goes it with your parents. Does monsieur, votre pére, sit by the fire all day, to mope, mope, and to think, think? And your mother—is it that she look so pale, so triste, and sigh, so often, commeca?"
She drew a deep breath, and looked at the boy with her head on one side like a mischievous robin. Barry laughed and spread out the interior of the mouse on the palm of his hand.
"There!" he said. "Now I see exactly how it's done. I could put it all together again."
"Don't!" she entreated. "Ca mest affreux—it frightens me. I do not like it. It run; it spring; it jump. If I want one thing to do that, I have my real live kitten. Ou est—il, done, mon p'tit chat? Mary, where then is my pussy?"
She sprang up and commenced a tour of the nursery. Mary put down her sewing to assist in the search and presently discovered a black fluffy Persian, sleeping placidly in a doll's bedstead. Val seized it in her arms and returned to her chair by the fire.
The conversation, however, ceased to be personal, and presently Mary was wheedled into telling Irish fairy tales, of which she had a store. By the time she had reached the end of the second the luncheon bell rang, and Val and Barry went downstairs.
He, dashing into his own room to wash his hands, ran full tilt into his mother's arms.
"Where have you been all the morning?" she demanded.
"In Val's nursery."
"What were you doing?"
"Talking part of the time, and Mary Connor told us fairy tales."
He seized a towel and gave a perfunctory dab at his face.
"I say, mother, isn't she a rummy kid?" he went on. "Fancy, she can remember things when she was four years old."
"Oh!" said Mrs. Monteath, turning towards him. "How rough your hair is, Barry. Give me the brush."
He stood patient under her manipulation of his tousled fair hair.
"What sort of things does she remember?" she asked presently.
"About when she was living with her mother, before they went abroad. She talks like a regular foreigner, doesn't she? It's funny neither of us remember our fathers, isn't it?"
The hair brush stopped for a moment.
"Val doesn't remember her father?" she repeated. "What nonsense."
"Oh, I don't mean now. But she says he didn't always live with them. Not till she was four years old. And her mother was very poor and then suddenly became rich—like she is now."
"Your hair really requires cutting," observed his mother. "I must take you into Selbury to have it done. Of course I know the Haughtons weren't always rich," she went on. "I suppose Val imagines because she didn't see her father that he wasn't there. But he might have been away on business or something. You can't rely on children's memories."
"Well, I don't suppose it matters anyhow. I've always thought old Haughton a rummy sort, shut up in that library all day. Why he might as well have no money at all as live like he does."
"The money," said Mrs. Monteath, "is his wife's."
"Well, but that comes to the same thing, doesn't it? Oh, I say, there's the second bell ringing. Won't I do?"
"Yes, yes; run along down. I'm coming in a moment."
She went back, however, into her own room and stood before the glass, looking at flushed face and sparkling eyes.
"'Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings!'" she quoted softly, and then laughed. "I should never have thought of that—never. Blessings on Barry. He has paved the way for my future discoveries!"
Mrs. Monteath was in radiant spirits at luncheon. The rain had cleared off and Elinor announced her intention of leaving cards on the visitors who had already called. She asked Lawrence to accompany her, but he declined in so peremptory a fashion that Mrs. Monteath allowed her face to express surprise.
"If you only knew how I detest county society," he muttered, half apologetically.
"True, there is nothing like town for men," she agreed. "Still, if you live in a position of importance you must take some notice of your neighbors, otherwise they will think——"
"Think—what?" demanded Lawrence Haughton, as she paused.
"Think there is some reason," she said softly.
His cheek reddened. "Let them think what they please," he said. "I don't want them, and I'm not going to bother my head about them."
"Of course, after foreign life and society they must seem a little dull and formal," observed his visitor. "And you had so many years of that, hadn't you?"
He glanced quickly at her, but her face told him nothing.
"I preferred it to this," he said. "As soon as the winter is over I shall go to Italy. There is no place like it in the spring."
"Would you like me to accompany you on your drive?" asked Mrs. Monteath of Elinor.
"Only too delighted," she exclaimed. "I have only three calls to make, and I shall not get out of the carriage. We might return by Torbart Mill. It is a lovely spot, well worth seeing."
"Next week," observed Mrs. Monteath, "I must go back to my proper position, and not allow myself to forget it, as your kindness tempts me. I shall have to look after my little pupil."
"Indeed," exclaimed Elinor, "you need not fancy I shall permit you to shut yourself up in the schoolroom all day. Val will only need your attention in the morning. Your afternoons and evenings are to be quite free."
Lawrence Haughton had risen from his seat at the table. He was standing close to Mrs. Monteath.
"If you only knew," he said, in a low, eager voice, "how much these evenings mean to my dull, dreary days."
She affected not to hear him. She answered Elinor. "You are determined to spoil me, I see. If many people treated their governesses as you do, there would be no room for all the applications."
Then she turned to the children. "No more mischief now, Barry, as you are part culprit (for you ran away also), you must stay and keep Val company. There can be no lack of amusement in that delightful nursery. Besides, you might look over your school books. Monday will soon be here."
Barry made a grimace and Val laughed in sympathy.
"Oh, bother," he exclaimed. "Surely, mother, I needn't begin before it's actually necessary. I don't mind staying in the house, as Val can't go out, but lessons——"
"Well—you can get out your books and see they are in order, and do a little drawing, or something," said his mother vaguely. "You had begun to draw very nicely when you were at school."
"Oh," cried Val excitedly. "Can you then draw? But how wonderful. Come, let us find the books at once. We shall have all the afternoon, and you shall show me also."
There was a breathless race upstairs, a slamming of doors, and the sound of loud, eager voices.
Mrs. Monteath smiled at Elinor. "Dear children," she exclaimed. "How they do liven up a house. And your Val is certainly a boy's girl. So brave and bold, and full of enterprise."
The cards were duly left and the carriage driven round by Torbart Mill, as Elinor had suggested. It was a mild afternoon, one of drowsy hours lapped in golden stupor. Summer had sunk into a trance and feared to awaken, knowing that its death-knell was ringing in that relentless soul of nature to which time and seasons appeal in vain.
At the mill the carriage paused. It was a spot to admire, and Mrs. Monteath did her duty. She even asked to get out of the carriage for a nearer inspection, and followed a foot-track down to the water's edge in order to get a better view of the old rustic buildings. She lingered for a few moments, her eyes on the turning wheel and the churned water.
The mill-house was aglow with red and russet creepers, and the smell of stacked corn and freshly ground grain came to her through an open loft above. She looked up at the doorway, and saw standing on the steps that led to it two figures. One was evidently the miller himself, the other—she looked again. Yes, there was no doubt about it—it was Lord Hallington.
Once sure of his identity she remained where she was, gazing abstractedly into the water at her feet. He must pass her to gain the path and she resolved to await that moment.
It came sooner than she anticipated. The old lord, having finished his instructions, turned and came down the steps. She moved aside and glanced up at his face with becoming shyness. He halted and raised his hat.
"A lovely spot," he said. "But may I caution you about the footbridge. It is somewhat insecure and the river has swollen, owing to the heavy rains."
"Thank you," she said graciously, "but I am not going further than where I am at present."
"I believe," he said, "I have the honor of addressing Mrs. Haughton, of Torbart Manor? We are near neighbors, and I should have called before this, but——"
She stopped further words by a gesture, "Oh, no," she said. "I am not Mrs. Haughton. Only a—friend—staying with her. But Mrs. Haughton is waiting in the carriage just beyond, if you would like to repeat your—apologies to her?"
"I beg your pardon," he said somewhat stiffly. "I remembered seeing you the other day, and, of course, I know the liveries. I suppose that delicate-looking lady with you then was the lady of the Manor?"
"She was," said Mrs. Monteath. "I am surprised you mistook me for that important person."
"Perhaps," he said, with a flash of the cold blue eyes that had not yet lost power of expression, "it was because you looked more the important person."
"Is that possible?" she said demurely. "Standing, of course, I have my inches to help me, but in a carriage——"
"The question of inches," he said, "is a relative one, when air and grace and distinction are self-evident."
He bowed once more. She half-turned. There was a charming hesitation in her face and manner. "I am going back to the carriage," she said.
"May I accompany you, and—and pay my respects to the real Mrs. Haughton? I hope I am excused for a very excusable mistake?"
"I think it was a great compliment," she said. "Of course, Lord Hallington, I know who you are. It would not be possible to have lived here three weeks and have been left in such ignorance."
He smiled graciously. "One's county is one's advertisement," he said, "as well as one's deeds."
"It is no wonder," she answered, "if deeds such as yours are their own advertisement. Look at all you have done for the people here."
"Given them some decent houses, that's all," he said indifferently. "It's not much to do for a place where one's ancestors have dwelt since the days of Cromwell. Not that we had much to thank him for, though he laid the beginning of our family fortunes. I shall hope to show you my place some day, madam. Are you making a long stay with your friends?"
"I—I hardly know yet," she answered. "But here is the carriage. It seems odd that I should have to introduce you after all."
But however odd it seemed she did it with a grace and ease that appeared to him delightful. And the old lord was a severe critic of women's manners.
Mrs. Haughton did not appear to any sort of advantage beside this tactful, beautiful friend of hers, whose name he did not know, but who might have been a duchess from her appearance. He lingered by the carriage talking to the two women for some minutes, and assured Mrs. Haughton of an early call. To Kathleen Monteath's surprise that assurance was not received with any sort of pleasure.
The surprise found vent in words as they drove homeward. Lord Hallington had walked to the mill by a short cut through lanes and ploughed fields, and was returning the same way.
"I cannot make you out, you people," Mrs. Monteath exclaimed. "You don't seem to want to know anyone about here. Yet who could be more charming or a greater acquisition than Lord Hallington?"
Elinor colored faintly. "My husband," she said, "has no taste for country pursuits and is somewhat of a bookworm, and I, as I have told you, feel physically unable to do much entertaining."
"Still, a small dinner now and then," suggested Mrs. Monteath.
Elinor looked alarmed. "I hate dinner parties," she said. "Of all forms of social entertainment they seem to me the most dreary."
"That's only when you don't get the right people together," said Mrs. Monteath. "Now, Lord Hallington would, I am sure, be charming; and Mr. Knight, your vicar, is a delightful man—so well informed and not a bit of a toady. For the women, of course, I can't answer; but I hear Lady Vi Langford is absolutely charming. And she always has lots of people staying with her—London people—so that they'd be lively enough."
"Are you advocating a dinner party?" asked Elinor, looking surprised at all this information.
"In your place I should certainly give one. Why, when I was in Ireland, and I hadn't an income a quarter of yours, I was renowned for my entertainments. Why shouldn't you be?"
"I have already explained my reasons," said Elinor coldly.
Mrs. Monteath saw she had made a mistake.
"I beg your pardon, so you have. But it is so hard to believe you an invalid. You seem so bright, and in the evenings you look so young and so well I am half-inclined to think you are only shy."
Elinor shook her head. "I assure you," she said, "my excuse is a very real one. Of course, if my husband was anxious to take a prominent place here I would do my utmost to assist him. But you can judge for yourself. We are dull sort of people, and we have got into a groove, and don't wish to get out of it. I told you I feared you would find it very quiet, but, of course, the decision of putting up with it rests with yourself."
Mrs. Monteath felt a twinge of alarm. Had she gone a step too far?
"Oh, please don't fancy I am complaining," she exclaimed. "Your home is delightful—and you and Mr. Haughton so kind—so like old friends to me, that I am more than happy. It was not unnatural, was it, that I should wish others to share in my pleasure? It seems selfish to enjoy it alone."
Elinor was disarmed once more. She was no match for so skilled an antagonist, and the subject dropped.
Mrs. Monteath exerted all her powers of drollery and entertainment on that drive home. It was true there was little in her conversation to specially remember. It consisted principally of frothy nothings, light-hearted ridicule of people and things, a trick of presenting them and their foibles in an amusing light, but it was pleasant enough for all that, and won back the smiles to Elinor's lips and charmed her afresh. She was no student of character, and therefore took her new friend very much at her own valuation. To one of Kathleen Monteath's mental abilities it was an easy matter to play on a nature so simple. She enjoyed it, too, as she enjoyed anything that assured her of mastery and triumph and her own powers.
"If I could only win this old lord's fancy," she thought to herself, even while her tongue was rattling on amusing nonsense for Elinor's ear. "A conquest to be proud of indeed. It would be the making of me. No one would say a word once I was married to him. 'Lady Hallington!' It has a fine flavor. I could play the part well had I the chance. No keeping in the background, none of the 'modest violet' tricks for me."
She alighted from the carriage and followed Elinor into the hall with her head held high, a smile on her red lips, and a curious flush on her cheeks.
The very footman winked approval of her to his staid coadjutor on the box. "A high stepper—that's what I call her," he allowed. "Tip-top style—looks as if she ought to have her own carriage and pair. Maybe she will, too."
"A fine-figured woman," agreed the coachman. "Not the sort to be little missie's governess, eh, James?"
"She won't be it long, that's what I says," James answered. "There's gentlemen hereabouts as has eyes in their heads. One as I could name special. But time will show, Timothy; time will show."
"I wish Time 'ud teach the master to pluck up a bit of spirit and set things agoin' in style."
"That's what I wish," grumbled James, who was a London importation and found the country little to his taste, if advantageous to his pocket. "Seems as if there's never going to be any entertaining here to do one credit, and as for style, why it's boorjaw, I assure you, Timothy, quite boorjaw!"
* * * * * *
In the hall the family thus disparaged were sitting over afternoon tea, which Elinor had had brought in immediately on their arrival.
As usual, Kathleen Monteath officiated. Elinor was reclining in her favorite lounge, her cloak thrown back, the warm firelight playing on her white, thin cheeks and the delicate ringed hands lying on her lap. The two children were seated in their accustomed chairs, chatting eagerly of the afternoon's pleasures.
"I have shown to myself all Barry's books," exclaimed Val. "And we did draw. I made a little—une p'tite maison—like that of which we once——"
A log in the open iron grate fell suddenly with a crash, startling them all. Elinor bent forward to lift it with the brass tongs. Her delicate face flushed warmly from the exertion.
"Drink your tea and stop chattering, Val," exclaimed her father sternly. "And why don't you look after Barry? He has nothing to eat."
"Barry, will you have un gateau—cake, you know? I shall not ever bring myself to say the English of words."
Mrs. Monteath laughed. "Your English of words is very pretty," she said. "You are quite a little French girl in appearance and talk. Mr. Haughton, I forgot; I put sugar in your tea. Please give me back your cup."
Lawrence brought it to her side. His eyes spoke warm admiration of her appearance; the cool freshness of the autumn evening still lingered on cheeks and eyes and the ruffled, loose curls about her white brow.
"You drove far to-day?" he said.
"To the old mill," said Elinor.
"We made a new acquaintance for you, too," Mrs. Monteath interpolated, "your near neighbor—Lord Hallington. He was talking to the miller when I was admiring the mill. Fancy, he took me for your wife."
An odd flash met her laughing eyes as she looked up at Lawrence Haughton's face.
"How—was that?" he asked, his voice somewhat unsteady.
"I really cannot say. He saw us both driving the other day, and fancied I was Mrs. Haughton of the Manor. My extra inches have a great deal to answer for. I am constantly taken for a person of importance, when I am nothing of the sort. How I wish I was."
She sighed and lifted her cup to her lips with an air of charming resignation.
"Do you think you would be any happier?" asked Elinor, a little bitterly.
"I could make myself think so. Ease and wealth and comfort are very good things, dear Mrs. Haughton; and worth even some self-sacrifice."
Lawrence Haughton put down his tea-cup hurriedly.
"That means loss of self-respect where a woman is concerned. They are fond of dignifying ignoble actions by grand names."
"Is it only women who do that?" asked Mrs. Monteath, meeting his glance unflinchingly. "I have heard of men who were equally capable of the accomplishment. To cloak a cowardice is not entirely a feminine device, Mr. Haughton."
It pleased her to see him wince at the thrust. She had meant it to reach home.
"I hope," she continued presently, "that if Lord Hallington shows himself friendly you will encourage him for my sake. I am not at all averse to the mammon of unrighteousness."
"Lord Hallington is old enough to be your father!" exclaimed Lawrence Haughton impetuously.
"But he isn't my father," she said softly, "and he is unmarried."
"Let me survey my position," wrote Kathleen Monteath that night. "I
have been here three weeks. What have I learnt—what have I done?
"First—what have I learnt?
"That there is some mystery in Lawrence Haughton's life.
"That his wife's delicacy and indifference to society proceed from mental, not physical causes.
"That there are some four odd years in her husband's life which are unexplained.
"That even the most distant allusion to these years is a cause of alarm to both.
"Therefore something he has done has created this mystery and this alarm.
"To find out what it is would be to place him in my power. The question is—Is there anything to be gained by this discovery? Should I make an enemy of him by threatening it? I am not myself so safe that I can risk loss of friends or fortune. He is strongly attracted by me and he is weak. At present my best policy is to make capital out of the attraction, and—play on the weakness.
"Now for the next point. What have I done?
"I have secured myself a home on very easy terms. I have managed to keep my boy with me, and to have his education paid for by these people—out of gratitude.
"I have thrown dust in Mary Connor's eyes and assured her that that scandal was unfounded—that I am an innocent and an injured woman, who must fight for bread and maintenance as best she can.
"I have met Lord Hallington, who is old, rich, and a widower. I have also made a considerable impression on that individual, or I am greatly mistaken.
"I have made Lawrence Haughton jealous. Perhaps that was imprudent. He can avoid any intimacy with Lord Hallington and so throw obstacles in the path of our better acquaintance.
"That I think is all I have accomplished. No bad record in three weeks.
"Will there be any change, I wonder, when I really take up my position as Val's governess? Not if I can manage Elinor. She is warm-hearted and utterly unsuspicious. She needs a friend, poor soul, and I would be no bad one to her, though she could never understand that or believe in me if she knew. But there's no reason why she, or anyone else, should ever know. Heaven grant they may not.
"Sometimes I feel tired of always playing a part. In this life drama of mine it seems as if act succeeded act without one drop of the curtain. I am always being called upon to appear—no rest, no breathing space.
"How thankful I should be for either! Oh, life is hard on women. To-night I feel as if it had been a little too hard on me. As if with a natural inclination to do what is right, I have been constantly forced to do what is wrong.
"Why do I write this here? Is it for my own satisfaction? To play to that poor paltry human pride that tries to believe it is not altogether bad, not entirely to blame, that won't allow its own naked faults to appear without insisting on a covering however slight? I suppose it is. One must have an outlet sometimes. It is very well for women to prose about virtue and excellence who have never known what it is to face starvation, poverty, and disgrace. Like Becky Sharp, I should have found it easy to be good on a thousand a year, even less. At present I am reduced to a hundred. But I have a roof to cover me and a safe refuse.
"Heaven be thanked for that—if indeed heaven cares or heeds one's thanks! Why should it? It is on a par with all the rest of our human vanity to imagine our small paltry affairs interest a celestial universe!
"How quiet the house is. What early hours these good folk keep. I wish I could turn into my bed at 10 o'clock and sleep till 7 in the morning. But it is impossible. I wish I dared introduce cards of an evening. But I suppose they'd be shocked. At least Elinor would. And cards without the excitement of money stakes wouldn't interest me.
"Will Lawrence never get tired of hearing me sing? For my part I'd rather listen to Barry. He will be an acquisition to the choir here and it will keep him out of mischief on Sundays.
"Poor boy! What a bringing up he's had. For his sake as much as my own I must try and gain the old lord's heart. I don't care about love or nonsense of that sort any longer. I live only for ambition—to do the best for myself at any cost. Why should I mind what sort of bargain I make, so only I secure safety, wealth, peace?
"Elinor remarked to-day that I received no letters. I told her that I had positively no friends, now that I had lost money and position. 'Besides,' I said, 'I have not mentioned to anyone where I am.'
"'Have you no relatives?' she asked.
"'None that trouble their heads about me,' I replied.
"'I thought Irish families were so clannish,' she said.
"'No more than other families,' I answered. 'When they are afraid you will claim assistance they make you none too welcome.'
"It was untrue, as I knew, but I felt bitter, and I could not lay the blame of estrangement on myself.
"How hard it is to tell a good lie. It always wants bolstering up and adding to, and a perpetual watchfulness against betrayal or breakdown.
"Mine is becoming a veritable nightmare to me. I have to guard it, and remember it, and act up to it. The most innocent question throws a searchlight on my veracity. I have to guard my tongue at every point. I fear Barry, too—though he knows so little.
"Well, I have reviewed my position from all points. At present I can only leave it as it is.
"Two courses promise me a future of independence. To find out Laurence Haughton's secret and force him to buy my silence, or to marry Lord Hallington. I wonder which course Fate will allow me to pursue?"
* * * * * *
Lord Hallington called the next day and was shown into the great drawing-room, so seldom used and so utterly dreary. Lawrence Haughton was not very cordial. His wife did not appear, but Mrs. Monteath did, with tea as an excuse. She soon broke up the ice of stiffness and formality, and had the two men chattering in quite friendly fashion. It amused her to play Lawrence's jealousy against the old lord's dawning admiration. Amused her, too, that he should speak of her as "our visitor," or "a friend of my wife's," instead of giving her her real place in the household.
"I regret to hear that Mrs. Haughton is unwell," said Lord Hallington, when he rose to take leave. "I wanted you all to come and dine with me on Friday; quite informal; only Knight and his wife. He's bothering me about some Church alteration he wants me to do. You're a lucky fellow, Haughton, to be out of parish affairs. But may I hope to see you?"
Lawrence Haughton stiffened perceptibly, "I regret it will be impossible. My wife's health precludes her from accepting invitations."
"But you're well enough. Couldn't you come and bring Mrs. Monteath. I so long to hear her charming Irish songs. And I'm such a lonely man, you might take pity, on me."
Mrs. Monteath's face expressed infinite compassion. "I should be delighted," she said. "But——"
"Oh, you must come. Do say yes, Haughton. It's so—so unneighborly to refuse. Besides, your wife might be all right by Friday."
Kathleen's eyes went to the hesitating face.
"Accept," they seemed to say, and with a sudden sense of his own powerlessness he murmured a conditional "Yes." If Mrs. Haughton felt equal to it and if Lord Hallington was quite sure there would be no party. His wife was really unfit for large assemblies.
Mrs. Monteath could have shaken him. "Is this weak fool to spoil my chance?" she thought savagely. When the door had closed on the departing visitor she turned suddenly to Lawrence.
"I really think it is very strange of you to be so unfriendly with your neighbors," she said. "Why, people will soon be saying——"
She paused purposely for the pleasure of seeing that white mark round his lips, the sudden fear in his eyes.
"Saying—what?" he asked, with an attempt at indifference.
"That you have some reason for this hermit-like existence."
"What reason should there be, except the one I have stated?"
"None, of course. Only you make it so very apparent that you don't want to receive people or allow them to receive you. I suppose it's from living so much abroad that you have grown indifferent to society. Of course, there one always has amusements. Casinos, theatres, gambling-rooms. Did you ever gamble, Mr. Haughton?"
"N—o," he stammered, growing paler still.
"You have all the virtues of domesticity," she laughed. "You and your wife are a model couple. You seem quite all in all to one another. Such matrimonial content is enough to make one envious."
"I think," he said hoarsely, "it need not make you so."
"Oh! but it does. Recalling happier days—as the poet says."
"Your loss rarely seems to affect your spirits."
"We Irish are more or less mercurial in temperament, but we suffer more perhaps than you even-toned people are capable of doing."
"And inflict suffering," he muttered, as he turned away.
"I really cannot compliment you on your manners, Mr. Haughton," she said. "When you are not rude to me, you avoid me."
His burning glance swept over her almost savagely.
"Perhaps I have reason to," he said. "You can scarcely be unaware of your own powers of fascination."
Her eyes drooped. She took a fold of her black dress between her fingers and pleated it half-consciously as if to hide her confusion.
"Oh, that," he said coarsely. "You seemed to be out of mourning thought and mourning memories half an hour ago."
"What do you mean?" she asked, with affected anger.
"You know very well what I mean, or Lord Hallington does!" he answered.
He left the room, closing the door with a bang that set her nerves ajar.
"What a brute!" she exclaimed, half aloud. "How dared he speak to me like that. In common decency he might hide his feelings under his wife's roof."
Then she laughed. "All the same it is amusing," she said. "And I planted my sting. I think he will go on Friday; I must now work upon Elinor. I am no stickler for etiquette, but I suppose it would hardly do for the master of the house to take his governess to a dinner party, leaving an invalid wife at home. Oh, prudery and pretence, thy names are English!"
Elinor Haughton might have found life a pleasanter thing had she possessed, in even a small measure, the saving sense of humor. But she was a woman easily crushed and unable to look beyond the obstacle in her path with any degree of hopefulness as to its removal.
Kathleen Monteath had roused her to laughter for the first time for many years, and pursuing this advantage she now urged upon her the necessity of coming "out of her shell," as she termed it. To such good end did she argue that Elinor somewhat reluctantly agreed to accept the invitation to Lord Hallington's, and on the eventful night permitted herself to be dressed by Mrs. Monteath's skilful hands, with results that were eminently satisfactory. A black lace dress set off her fair skin and slight figure to becoming advantage, indicating but not exaggerating that fragility which pallor and natural slenderness gave to her appearance.
When her husband saw her standing before the long glass in her bedroom, he gave an exclamation of surprise.
"It is all Kathleen's work," said Elinor. She had dropped the formal "Mrs. Monteath" at its owner's request.
He was silent for a moment and the gravity of his face alarmed her.
"Lawrence," she said, "you are sure you wish to go? It is not too late, even now, to send an excuse."
"Why should I wish to send an excuse?" he said irritably. "I begin to think it's a mistake, this idea of yours, of shutting ourselves up and going nowhere. It looks not only unsociable, but—suspicious."
"This idea of—mine?" she asked quickly.
"Yes—it was yours, you know—just like the going abroad and change of name."
He was fidgeting with the cut glass bottles on the dressing table, taking the stoppers out and putting them in again, with restless fingers.
Elinor looked at him silently. Then she crossed the room and took up a long velvet cloak. He did not offer to put it round her shoulders, even when he saw how heavy it was for her slight arms. It occurred to her suddenly how careless he had become of any of those attentions which courtesy and custom exact from man to woman.
"Of course, Lawrence," she said, "if you wish to meet and associate with these people on less formal grounds than were originally arranged——"
"By you," he said impetuously. "You are the owner of the Manor—its mistress. I—I am nobody—a shadow dwarfed by the substance of your wealth, your family, your importance."
She turned to him, her eyes full of surprise. "You speak as if that fact were an injustice. Surely, Lawrence, it is no such thing. You were aware of the position from the first. I should be only too happy if you would accept my place in it. I am neither strong enough nor—nor brilliant enough to shine in society. It seems odd that you should reproach——"
"I do not reproach. I merely said that our present tactics seem wrong. We must—change them."
She turned very pale. As he saw her white face above the rich ruby velvet of her cloak a sudden shame of himself and yet anger against her swept over him.
"If you don't go anywhere," he said hurriedly, "I can't. To-night, even——"
"You might certainly have gone to-night," she answered.
"Then Mrs. Monteath would have had to stay at home."
"Oh, Kathleen?" she laughed softly, "so she would; I forgot that. I believe she has designs on our neighbor. It would be rather amusing if she became Lady Hallington instead of Mrs. Haughton's governess."
"Who takes my name in vain?" exclaimed a laughing voice, as Kathleen swept in through the open door—a vision of imperial beautiful womanhood that defied the humiliation of her recently expressed position.
"Mrs. Haughton's governess" swept a blocking curtsey to her employers. They stood gazing at her with unconcealed admiration. Severely plain as was her black velvet gown, it had been cut by a master hand of craft. It revealed all the noble lines of the beautiful figure, the statuesque throat and shoulders, the white moulded arms. Save for a touch of old yellow lace on the bodice the dress was untrimmed, and, as usual, Kathleen wore no ornaments, for the excellent reason that she possessed none.
"It is my one and only gown—a relic of past glories," she explained, as Elinor's eyes rested on the costly fabric sweeping the ground with a train that might almost spell "court."
"It looks magnificent," said Elinor; "almost too——"
"Oh, don't say it's too much. You wouldn't have me go in my dowdy old silk? Why I've had it three years."
This was untrue, but Kathleen rarely saw the use of putting dates correctly.
"You look like a veritable goddess," exclaimed Lawrence Haughton.
There was danger in his eyes, and she saw it.
"Thank you," she said. "It doesn't sound very respectable, but I'll excuse it. Mrs. Haughton, are you sure you're warm enough. Hadn't you better have something on your head?"
"Oh, I don't take cold easily," said Elinor. "Still, there are some lace scarves in that drawer. I may as well have one."
Kathleen went to the drawer indicated. She had instituted herself as a sort of lady's maid to Elinor, and there seemed nothing derogatory in the request.
Lawrence Haughton, however, appeared to think so. "Why don't you get a maid to wait on you, Elinor?" he said. "You take too much advantage of Mrs. Monteath's good nature."
The blood crimsoned Elinor's cheeks. "I am looking out for one," she said. "Mrs. Monteath's good nature will not be imposed upon much longer."
"Don't talk such nonsense," exclaimed Mrs. Monteath sharply. "It's the greatest pleasure to me to do anything for you, and you know it. But that's just where men are so stupid. They think if a woman makes herself useful it should be paid for, or else it seems derogatory. Here is some lace; which piece will you have?"
She threw a filmy scarf over Elinor's head and knotted it loosely under her chin. "You sweet Puritan," she exclaimed. "You should have been painted by Romney and hung in the picture gallery."
"Don't you want something yourself?" asked Lawrence Haughton.
"I? Oh, no. I'm a hardened shrub—not a delicate blossom. Why I've walked home bare-headed after a dance in Ireland many a time."
She glanced at his moody face, reading its meaning well enough. Why should his wife have stores of lace and jewels and this queenly creature—nothing? The "queenly creature," however, had made up her mind that she should have her share of this world's good things before she said good-bye to it.
The children came running in now. Val all eager to see the two women "en grande toilette" as she termed it.
Her eyes opened wide with wonder at Mrs. Monteath's splendid appearance. "Mais comme vous êtes belle, madame!" she murmured ecstatically. "The chère p'tite maman, she look what Barry say 'snuffed out' on the side of you!"
"Hush, my dear, that is very rude. And you must not copy Barry's slang expressions," said the pseudo-governess rebukingly.
"But it is true, is it not, little mamma?" said Val. "You don't mind, do you, chèrie?" she went on coaxingly. "For you are très charmante also. But madame, she is grand—grand as those great pictures of the ladies in the Louvre Galleries!"
"You are quite right, Val," said her mother. "Mrs. Monteath looks as few queens look. Many a one would sacrifice half her income for that regal carriage and bearing."
"I shall grow vain with so much flattery," said Kathleen, laughing. "We tall women may carry our clothes to better advantage than you little ones, but there's one thing we can never do, that is, creep into men's hearts and win the tenderness and devotion our small sisters gain so easily. We look too capable to need protecting, and, as a rule, when a woman can look after herself a man is only too glad to permit her!"
"It is time we left, and I heard the carriage quite five minutes ago," interposed Lawrence.
He offered his arm to his wife, but she excused herself from taking it on the plea of her train and her fan. He went downstairs first, the two ladies following, and the children bringing up the rear.
"When I am grown up," announced Val, as the hall door closed upon their elders, "I hope it is for me to be tall, magnifique, comme madame. I like the way she hold her head, and what you say—sweeps the dust."
Her eyes fell on a piece of Oriental drapery thrown over a screen in a corner of the hall. She rushed up and snatched it, and with rapid movements wound it round her tiny figure. Then with yards of the costly material trailing after her she commenced to strut to and fro, in imitation of the regal carriage she so admired. Barry watched her with amusement.
"Now we can play at being grown up," continued Val. "Venez ici. You are mon mari—the husband, you know. I sit here by the fire, and you—you have to talk."
Barry looked somewhat sheepish. "But I don't know what husbands talk about," he said.
Val considered for a moment. "I think they are not very polite," she said reflectively. "Not comme les étrangers—the strangers I mean. You say to me, 'My dear, is it that you have the will to go for the drive this afternoon, because I want the carriage?' Then I say, 'Oh, no, not if you want it' (because maman, she always gives in to what papa desires). Moi, I would not do so. I would have that which pleased myself."
"I think it is a very stupid game," said Barry. "And you do all the talking. It would be better if you took off that stuff and we had a game of hide and seek. We can go all over the house now they're out."
"Mary will not permit. She is so tiresome when we are left to her, seul."
"We might hide from her."
"True for you—as you say, Barry. Let it arrive then that we do it. Help; help me that I get out of this—vite! vite! I do hear her calling."
He unwound the wrapping, and hand in hand they stole off into the outer hall, and concealed themselves until Mary was heard retreating to the kitchen regions in her search. Then they ran softly up the stairs and into Mrs. Haughton's bedroom.
"She has left her jewel-case open. Regard them; look, Barry. Are they not beautiful, these brings and bracelets? Oh! la! la!"
Val handled the shining gems with admiring care.
"Put them on," suggested Barry.
She obeyed without hesitation, sticking brooches and pins all over the bodice of her scarlet frock, hanging bracelets on her little wrists, and fastening a necklet of diamonds round her throat. This done, she commenced one of her fantastic dances before the long mirror. Barry joining in with a wild Irish jig, which delighted her immensely. The little figure in its scarlet frock, the flying hair, the flashing jewels, made up a vivid picture, as Val swayed to and fro before the glass, her hands clasped at the back of her head.
"Mais voila. That is how I have seen them dance at the Cafés Chantants—under the trees with the lamps all shining and the noise of the boulevards, rumble, rumble, all around. Oh, mais c'est beau. I used to wish I was a dancer. Perhaps I will be one when I have grown up, big, like that mamma of yours, Barry."
"I don't think a big woman dancing would look as nice as a little one," he answered. "Let's act a piece, you and I, like a pantomime. I'll be the Demon King and you the Fairy Queen. Shall we?"
"I have not ever seen a pantomime. What then is it?"
"Oh," he said, looking about, "I ought to black my face and have my hair sticking up. Then I jump out of the ground. I'll hide behind the curtains and spring out on you, as I can't manage a trapdoor. You ought to be in white transparent stuff, you know."
"I can slip off my frock. My petticoat is quite thin and lacey, see—will that do?"
"Splendid! Only mind all those brooches. Wouldn't your mother be angry if she saw you with them?"
"Maman is so good she never is angry. Now, what then is it your demon king says?"
Barry had been busy blacking his face with coal. He now divested himself of coat and waistcoat, and stood in his white shirt and serge knickers, making the most hideous contortions he could think of.
Val screamed in an ecstasy of delight. He retired behind the curtain. "Stay! you must have a wand," he said, "a long stick, you know. Can you find anything?"
She pounced upon a small brass poker in the grate, and he approved and retired. Presently he sprang out from behind the curtain, his hair ruffled on end, his hands uplifted.
"I am the Demon—kingliest of kings. I come from Demon Land and imps and—things——" he shouted.
"Now, Val, you say, I am the Fairy Queen and I do defy thy power."
But Val was so terrified at his appearance that she could say nothing. Her wand fell from her hand and she rushed towards the door, Barry pursuing her. His antics and grimaces were so diabolical that the child was really frightened. She shrieked aloud, and the shriek was answered by Mary Connor's voice on the stairs.
When she saw Val's undressed condition and the alarming object pursuing she too shrieked. This brought the housekeeper on the scene, followed by the butler.
"Thieves! robbers! murderers!" cried Mary. "Oh, me blessed child, whatever monster is frightening you?"
She caught Val, and stood clutching the balustrade and staring at the figure, which was now stationary.
"It is only Barry," gasped Val. "But he is pantomiming the Demon King, and it have frightened me fait peur."
"Saints preserve us! It's really you, Master Barry?" cried Mary.
The housekeeper was now at his side and her alarm had vanished.
"Was there ever such children for getting into mischief," exclaimed Mrs. Burton, angrily. "Look at Miss Val. I do declare she has all her mother's jewellery on her. Oh, you naughty, naughty child, you deserve to be put to bed and punished—that you do!"
"If you the Fairy Queen should dare alarm the Demon King will do you deadly harm," extemporised Barry, commencing a war dance and incantation at a safe distance.
"Demon King, indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. Burton. "Just you stop that nonsense, Master Barry, or you'll catch it when your ma comes home!"
"And you come along and take off those jewels," said Mary to Val. "Wherever on earth did you get them from? And I searching the house from top to bottom to find you."
She held Val firmly by the arm and conducted her to the bedroom. Barry had retreated at their approach and was now flying along the corridor regardless of Mary's commands "to be done with his haythen tricks and come back and be sensible, or she'd tell the master of him."
Val was ruthlessly despoiled of her finery, and redressed, but still Barry did not return. Mary tidied up her mistress's room and took the boy's discarded clothes with her to the nursery. "I'm not going to waste me time hunting after that young rascal," she affirmed. "And you'll not be after doing it again either, Miss Val. A pretty handful you are, the two of ye. It's sorry enough I am that iver Mrs. Monteath stepped into this house—with her saycrets and her airs, and that young imp of hers added on to it all."
"Secrets?" Val looked eagerly at the woman's face. "Did you then say that madame has—secrets? I will ask her of them to-morrow."
"Do," said Mary scornfully, "and get slapped for your pains."
"Oh! mais non. It is you that she will slap, for I shall declare you told me. And it is true."
"Look here, Miss Val, there's a sayin' that a silent tongue is better than gold; and you'd better be takin' that to heart, for you're a bit too fond of chattering and talking. That's the way all the mischief of the world is made."
"Let me go and search for Barry, and then I will make myself what you call—silent tongue," said Val.
"No," said Mary firmly. "He knows where we are and he'll find his own way back. A pretty thing to have you off trapayzing the house again and givin' me the work of lookin' for the two of ye. No, thank you, Miss Val, once in an evening is enough."
"You are horrid—cross—cruel; I don't like you. I wish that you had stayed in your own country with the desmoiselles that were so all that is proper and good," exclaimed Val passionately. "I love Barry, and I want him, not you. He amuses me. You—" she stamped her little foot. "Oh, why must I then obey? It is always so. First one, then another. Mamma, madame, and you. It is hateful. I shall run away one of the days, and you will all be then so sorry. Ah, there. Quoi donc. What do I hear? It is Barry returned."
It was Barry, washed and clothed and in his right mind.
"There's no use in trying to have any fun where there's a lot of women," he announced. Then he looked contemptuously at Mary. "Fancy," he said, "your screaming thieves and murderers! And I only a little boy and you an Irishwoman. I wouldn't own you as one if I was asked. Val, come here, and I'll read you a story."
Val flew to him with delight.
"She is horrid," she agreed. "And she did call you an imp, Barry, and said that madame——"
"Miss Val," cried Mary peremptorily.
"Oh, it is then the silent tongue you remind me of? Bien, I will not say more at this one moment."
"But do," Barry entreated. "How dare she speak against my mother? Tell me what she said."
Val looked from one to the other, from Mary's flushed face to the boy's defiant one.
"No," she said. "I will not tell you, and then she will say nothing of to-night, and we are not punished."
Barry threw the book of fairy tales across the room. "You are a pair of sneaks," he cried passionately. "And I won't stop with you." He left the room, banging the door behind him.
For reasons best known to herself Mary kept her own counsel respecting the escapade of that evening.
The children spent the next day in anticipation of scolding or punishment, and receiving neither displayed a penitential and conciliatory spirit towards the nurse which she was not slow to appreciate.
Their lessons were to commence on Monday, so this Saturday seemed a sort of last holiday, and they insisted on spending the afternoon and having tea with Mrs. Hibbs. Mary, of course, accompanied them, and revenged herself by relating their deeds of the previous evening to the steward's wife.
"A pair of them is more than I bargained for," she confided, as they sat by the fire, while Barry and Val made a raid upon the storeroom in search of apples and nuts and other delicacies with which to play being squirrels.
"But you've nothing much to do for Master Barry, have you?"
"Not dressing clothes, of course; though betwixt ourselves, Mrs. Hibbs, that fine lady mother of his would be glad enough to throw it on my shoulders. If you could have seen her going off to the party last night, grand as a duchess she was, and yards upon yards of the finest black velvet ye'd wish to set eyes on trailin' the ground after her—why it's she looked the Lady of the Manor, not the mistress at all."
"Really now?" exclaimed Mrs. Hibbs. "Not but what anyone can help seein' she's a real lady, and a real beauty," she added good-naturedly.
"Beauty enough, I grant you; but give me thim as keeps their own place, and aren't for ever pushin' their noses into other people's concerns. Ah! indeed, then, Mrs. Hibbs, its meself could tell a tale or two of that same lady, only it's not me way to make mischief."
Mrs. Hibbs' good-natured face expressed frank curiosity.
"Do you mean to say, Mary, that she's not quite what she seems?"
Mary Connor nodded oracularly. "Far be it from me, Mrs. Hibbs, to be spakin' a word, good or bad, of any deservin' creature in this world, leave alone a widow woman who has known trouble and the black looks of suspicion. Oh! don't be askin' me what I mean, for my word's given, and I could not be breakin' it, but time will show who's to be trusted and who isn't, and I'm wishin' with all my heart that the mistress wasn't so soft and so believin'. Why, she's just like a bit of putty in Mrs. Monteath's clever hands."
Martha Hibbs stared breathlessly at the speaker. Her words promised future scandal and sensation, and the handsome widow had already been well discussed.
"You think the mistress is too friendly with her?" she hazarded.
"I do. She should keep her in her place. Instead of which the lady goes out with them to call on the quality and receives visitors, if you'll believe me, as grand and as at home as if the place and all belonging to it were her very own."
"Dear, dear, is that so now? But may be, Mary, it's only because she's a lady, and Mrs. Haughton is too kind-hearted to keep her away in the schoolroom at teaching all day long?"
"Teaching is it!" Mary's face grew contemptuous. "Fine teaching! and a mighty lot of it, too. Why, I could do the teaching that Miss Val will be after having. A child of six, and cute and sharp she is, too. And can write her little copy-books almost as good as Master Barry there. And her foreign talk, why she might be Frinch for the ways of her! I doubt if Mrs. Monteath will be in the situation long, for if ever there was a sharp child Miss Val is that, and 'tis she would be the first to find out that the governess didn't know much more than herself."
"I wonder why Mrs. Haughton engaged her?"
"Oh, 'twas the letter of her. The mistress herself told me that she wrote such a clever one. That's the plausible way of her. Don't I know her sort? Ah! Mrs. Hibbs, dear, if you ever come over to Ireland—But there, I'll not be belittling me own country, though there's them there as could talk the hind leg off a donkey and leave him pleased with three; and as for tricks and swindles—all with the best of intentions, though! Sure, 'tis a queer place entirely, and many's the rogue I've come across, and not among the people where you'd be lookin' for them, either!"
"Do you think, Mary, you ought to give the mistress yonder a hint? 'Twould be just terrible if Miss Val wasn't brought up quite proper, for if you think of it, 'tis she will be the lady of the Manor in course of time."
"That's true enough, but you see, Mrs. Hibbs, it's this way——"
But what way it was Martha Hibbs was not destined to hear just then, for the entrance of the steward, with the two children hanging on to his coat tails, effectually stopped further confidences.
* * * * * *
At the Manor, meanwhile, the usual group sat round the tea-table in the hall, Mrs. Monteath officiating.
She was in brilliant spirits and her talent for mimicry was indulging itself at the expense of the rector's wife, who had apparently regarded her with disfavor on the preceding evening.
"Clergymen's wives are certainly a type," she said. "I wonder why they pretend to be different from other women—claim a sort of vested superiority. I shall never forget Mrs. Charlton-Knight's expression when she said, after I had asked her to sing—'Everyone to her vocation; mine is not of the superficial order, I have to administer to the spiritual and bodily needs of our little flock here, and that leaves me no time for frivolous amusements.' 'Only for dinner parties, I suppose,' I said. Then she looked—Did you see how she looked, Mr. Haughton? I fancied I caught your eye."
"Yes, I saw," answered Lawrence. "It was a very annihilating glance, but it seemed more directed at your gown than yourself."
"I think she was hoping it was cotton-back velvet and longed to assure herself of the fact. When a woman can have a thing, and won't have it from ridiculous good scruples, she never forgives another woman for possessing what she has denied herself. That sounds a bit involved, doesn't it. But you understand what I mean, I am sure."
"Its meaning," said Elinor, "is distinctly applicable to Mrs. Charlton-Knight. For she could well afford a velvet gown, if she desired one; and the curate does so much of the parish work that I am sure she should have ample time for keeping up her accomplishments."
"Perhaps she hasn't any," said Lawrence.
"She has cultivated the supreme art of being exceedingly disagreeable to anyone she considers her social inferior," said Mrs. Monteath. "It was not exactly charitable of her to inform Lord Hallington that I was 'only your governess.' Of course I should have made no secret of the matter had he asked me, but she didn't lose a moment in blurting it out."
"I think the incongruity between that fact and your velvet gown upset her equanimity," said Elinor, smiling. "You looked quite too magnificent for the character."
"Well, you see, I possessed the gown before I assumed the character. It is my only evening one. The county will soon know that, if they honor me with any more invitations."
"I should think there is no doubt about that," said Lawrence. "Such singing as yours isn't heard every day."
"My voice is my fortune, sir, she said," laughed Mrs. Monteath. "Do you know," she went on rapidly, "if I hadn't come here I should have gone on the stage. When I wrote that letter——" She paused abruptly, looking at Elinor's quiet face. "It was an audacious letter. You must have thought so. I wonder sometimes you could have answered it so kindly."
"I liked it—perhaps because it was so—audacious. One always admires one's opposites."
"Well, you are meek enough," laughed Kathleen. "I believe a great trouble would crush you entirely."
Involuntarily Elinor's glance sought her husband's. Her cheeks paled. Those watchful Irish eyes caught the glance, followed it, and fathomed it.
"There is something in the background. Something to hide or live down," she told herself. "I wonder if I shall ever discover it?"
"Then I am fortunate in haying no 'great trouble,' am I not?" said Elinor, rising from her chair. "If you will excuse me, Kathleen, I'll go and lie down till dinner time. I am rather tired."
"May I ask for another cup of tea?" said Lawrence Haughton hurriedly.
Kathleen half smiled at the excuse, but it amused her to play with edged-tools, and this was such a weak one. She seated herself at the table and poured him out the tea he had asked for. "I am afraid it's cold," she said, as she handed it.
"You have forgotten the sugar."
"I thought you never took any."
"Sometimes. To-night I am in the mood for sweets."
"You insinuate that last night you were not."
"Last night," he said, "I was bitterly jealous."
"Oh. Of whom—or what? Lord Hallington's attentions to your wife?"
"Lord Hallington's attentions to—someone else."
"Why should that affect you?"
"I hated the way he appropriated you—the way he watched you—the cool insolence of his manner."
"I found no—insolence," she said haughtily.
"Because women are unable to draw fine distinctions. Attention to them is flattery. They accept the compliment and ignore the cause."
"You talk as one having experience," she said lightly.
"I talk as I feel and know. Lord Hallington's character for gallantry gives me a right to criticise and to warn."
She laughed outright. "My dear Mr. Haughton, I am really quite able to take care of myself; I do not need any warning from you. However flattering your interest in me, it need scarcely be stretched to the point of authority."
"Interest," he said. "Well, call it that. It is strong enough to make me hate the idea of your throwing yourself at the head of that old roué for the sake of what he possesses."
"I think you are talking unwarrantably," she said, rising from her seat and confronting him with the majesty of outraged pride.
"You forget your own confession," he said.
"I forget nothing, Mr. Haughton. It is you who do that. You are my host, and in a way—my benefactor, but neither fact gives you the right to speak as you have spoken!"
Her anger frightened him. He capitulated.
"I beg your pardon! Of course, I have no right, but I should hate to have your future unhappiness to reproach myself with. Beauty, talent such as yours, deserve a better price than you put upon them."
"They deserve," she cried, "the best price I can obtain. And they will be sold for it when the time comes for such a bargain."
He bit his lip. She saw the flush that mounted to his brow and then died away. He held out his hand to stay her progress. "Don't be offended. I should not have spoken like that! But for God's sake don't do what you said. Price! Is there any price too high to pay? Love, fame, wealth, honor. Women such as you know their power only too well."
"I have learnt mine in a hard school," she said. "And having learnt, I mean to exercise it. Your sex has a great deal to answer for, Mr. Haughton. But their misdeeds come home to them sometimes. What they teach in jest has often to be learnt in earnest—by the teacher—in after years."
"You have had a hard life—a cruel teacher. But why wreck possible peace and happiness—again? This house is yours as long as you need a home. Does it offer no inducement to remain in it?"
"I have not spoken of leaving it."
"True, but your hints convey that you only wait the first opportunity."
"There are a multitude of deserving females in the world, Mr. Haughton, who go by the name of governesses!"
"Oh!" he said, "why will you misunderstand me?"
She laughed mockingly. "Would it be better for either of us that I should pretend to—understand you—that I should say frankly your interest in me is not on account of my helpless condition, my need of friends, but solely on account of what you are pleased to consider my personal attractions? No; do not say another word. We might both—repent it."
"The inner workings or a man's mind must be curiously involved," wrote
Kathleen Monteath that night in her confessions. "I wish one could see
it working, examine the mechanism, test the springs. I suppose Lawrence
Haughton is assuring himself that his interest in me is only a friendly
platonic one. He is quite unconscious that every look and every word
betrays that he has fallen madly in love with me—that in warning me
against Lord Hallington he is displaying his own jealousy, his own fear
lest I should really win that old gallant's battered heart, and be
asked to reign over his ancestral acres and his model village. I think
he must have built that village as a sort of peace offering to his
"I wish I could make one to mine, escape from myself. My mood is a bad one to-night. A bad one for any man who loved me.
"Shall I recall here the triumph of yesterday, the triumph of dress, of beauty, manner, voice, the triumph that drove the clergyman's wife to sneers and satire, that dazed poor, timid Elinor, that fired the blood of two men at least out of the four present at dinner? (The fourth was my lord's secretary—a quiet, inoffensive individual, not worth powder and shot.) But I am none too sure of the old gentleman's matrimonial intentions—yet. He will require careful playing before I can land him. That he admires me is evident; but there is a long way to travel yet before admiration becomes passion. I should like to be 'my lady,' and queen it over the Haughtons, though, God knows, I have no need to envy poor Elinor. There are women one instinctively calls 'poor,' however rich they may be in this world's goods. Women so weak and yielding that they seem to pass their lives in offering themselves to tyrants for the education of their tyrannical instincts; who afford no more resistance to blows than a feather pillow. It is unfortunate that a woman like Elinor should have married a man like Lawrence Haughton. Does she believe in him? I often find myself asking that question.
"What a lottery is marriage. A million blanks for every prize—and even a prize is only valuable by comparison with the blanks. Oh, dear old novelists of a bygone age, who made your pretty maiden and her sighing swain so fond, so tried, so true, you did wisely when you left them to their fate at the church door. If one only could ever read a true account of 'the years that came after,' a good many illusions would be spared, a good many wedding rings go begging. But as long as women imagine that even a bad husband is better than none there will be tragedies, suffering, broken hearts, wounded spirits, and seeking comfort—finding none. The bitterness of love turned to hatred—can anything exceed it? Nothing—save perhaps the bitterness of the shame that recalls a self-delusion. What is it that love does to a girl? Blinds her eyes; stifles her ears; dulls her powers of judgment, so that she shall neither see, nor hear, nor know the truth of what she is worshipping until the fuller forces of womanhood come into play. And when the scales fall from those blinded eyes, when the ears grow keen to the discord in music's voice, when the brain awakes from sleep, and the mind challenges the senses, what then? What then, ye pretty romancers, with your fond and faithful Chloes and Clarissas, your swains that sigh and die, your blighted hearts, your perpetual song of adoration? Down tumbles the whole barley-sugar structure. Chloe sees that Strephon is only an ordinary shepherd lad, with an appetite for coarse food and a tuneless pipe, and Clarissa knows her own particular Lovelace is no better than he should be, and certainly neither god nor hero. To a woman her lover is all in all—till she knows him. To a man his love is only one among many that he has trifled with and appraised, and thinks he knows. His education is completed where hers begins. The results of knowledge are often—curious.
"Sometimes I feel almost tempted to write my own story. To write in self-defence. To write it in my own vindication of what I have become, through its influence, through a girl's mistake.
"I look at Elinor, and I know she, too, is the victim of such a mistake. What is there in Mr. Craven Heart, as I call him? Does she see him as he is? I wish I could lend her my eyes. If that man has once sinned, he will sin again. He has no moral force to withstand temptation. Were I really as bad a woman as circumstances have tried to make me, I should amuse myself in drawing on Mr. Lawrence Haughton to that point of folly which a man dignifies by the name of passion. But I despise him too utterly to feel the slightest temptation even to make him worthier of my contempt. He has the temperament, the nature, the inclination of—that other tyrant, whose very name I shrink from writing; at whose door I lay the wreck of my life, my sins, sorrows, and desolations, from which only my courage and my temperament have saved me.
"I never go to a theatre and see a melodrama but it makes me laugh as never farce or comedy can do. Why? Because my life was nothing else. Because once out of the 'hurly-burly' I can look back upon storms and whirlwinds, rows and scenes, quarrels and discussions, tyrannies and cruelties, as a spectator; and while applauding my own courage for successfully acting through it all, I almost laugh at the idea of an adequate presentation of its reality, even in the highest form of stage drama. Not even a realist would dare to paint the scenes through which I have lived.
"Such a small stage, too. An unimportant Irish town, and a month of the Swiss Alps. Two scenes—but ah! my God—the acts—the acts!
"I dare not trust myself to go back to that time, I dare not let my thoughts dwell upon it. Who was it that wrote the lines, 'That way madness lies!'? I do not want to tread that way—not yet—not yet."
* * * * * *
There were times when Elinor Haughton felt a vague distrust battling with that fidelity to one object which characterised her nature; times when a filmy shadow spread itself over the surface of belief; times when she asked herself if it was possible that a change she realised was the result of four silent years, or bore a previous date that her eyes had not cared to decipher.
At those times she whispered to her heart that she had accepted him as he was, and that she must always go on accepting him. As she had put the best interpretation even on an action the law had called criminal, so now she felt herself called upon to put that same interpretation on reserve and coldness and indifference. Hard as her position was, he seemed inclined to make it harder. In her eager desire to shield him from the recognition he dreaded she had prepared a scheme of self-suppression. Before that winter was over she found that while taking advantage of her part in the suppression, he chose to put himself forward in every possible way. She had proposed to play the role of invalid. He chose to fancy she was one. Weather, distance, fatigue—all had their part in every suggestion as to her non-appearance at county functions. But at most of those functions Mrs. Monteath would be present. Her beauty and her voice had won a distinct place for her, and Lord Hallington's marked attentions had conferred a certain amount of importance, which no one felt called upon to ignore, save perhaps Mrs. Charlton-Knight. But then Kathleen Monteath did not waste time or thought upon Mrs. Charlton-Knight. She was not necessary to her schemes.
That she should be so constantly escorted by the Master of the Manor, while the lady of it rarely put in an appearance, naturally occasioned a shoulder-shrug, a look of meaning, a chance comment. But the charm of Kathleen's personality was sufficient to carry all before it when she was on the scene herself, and her behavior was the essence of discretion. It annoyed her that Lord Hallington was so hard to bring to the point. His vacillation piqued, while his unconcealed admiration flattered. Yet further than the avowal of admiration he would not go, and she could not spur him.
She wondered often if Lawrence Haughton was to blame. Had he said or hinted anything to her discredit, or were his own attentions an obstacle?
She did her utmost to rouse Elinor from her persistent retirement, but with very small success. As the weather became colder and more inclement her health seemed really to suffer. She grew paler, thinner and more silent and listless every day. The burden of her position, the responsibility of wealth, seemed to crush instead of exhilarate.
Only she herself knew the secret that robbed them of all charm, the terror that lurked behind friendly faces and friendly smiles, the dread with which a strange presence filled her, the ever haunting fear that dogged her steps, and whispered even when she seemed most serene or most important, "If they knew you were a forger's wife!"
Had Lawrence never insisted on that absolute silence, had she been able to talk frankly and freely of his sin, his temptation, and his punishment; had their tears fallen together and blotted out some of the record of that shameful past, she would not have endured this terror or suffered this agony of humiliation. But in that grave of dead years more lay buried than any silence could represent. To ignore was not to stifle. The Thing lived and breathed. Stirred from its cereclothes in that unnamed grave, it rose and confronted her in the night watches, stole to her side in the noonday glow.
Sometimes she thought, "It is more than I can bear." And she would resolve to leave this place, to beg him to live abroad once more, where even if recognition chanced it might be easily evaded. But when the moment came she had no courage.
The little rift had widened so strangely, the first light chill grown into so cold a barrier that it would have needed courage greater than her own to win back the music, to thaw the iceberg.
She was faithful to her promise, as she had been faithful to his memory in those four awful years. When doubt or distrust crept in she tried her best to drive them away. Single-handed she fought the shadows that thickened like evil things upon the bright mirror of her wifely faith.
But the shadows grew apace. They could not always be fought or swept aside.
Barry had made a great discovery. He confided it to Val under strict promise of secrecy. It included the use of the Saturday holiday, which both had claimed as their right, and it promised unusual excitement.
Val's education was conducted on somewhat peculiar methods. Mrs. Monteath would work or draw, or write letters, giving the child something to do in the interim. If Val was so inclined she did it; if not, she let it alone, and her fancy ran like a truant to some mischief or occupation prompted by a ready invention.
On the Saturday holiday she was Mary's charge, and the governess had nothing to do with her. This special Saturday of which Barry had given mysterious hints dawned bright and sunny, with clear sky and the sharp crispness of December frost in the air. Val tormented Mary for leave to run in the grounds until she was at liberty to take her for the usual walk. Mary limited her permission to a certain time and a certain spot. An hour restricted the one and the oak avenue the other. "So as I can be keeping an eye on you," said Mary. For the nursery windows overlooked this portion of the manor grounds.
Val joined Barry in the avenue, as they had appointed. She was warmly clad in scarlet coat and frock, and wore a knitted woollen cap on her russet-hued curls. Her eyes were aglow with excitement and her cheeks like rosy apples.
Barry whispered mysteries, for no other reason than that it suited the project he had in view—a project of tactics and manœuvres such as he loved.
Could Val walk, really walk, say ten miles? Val, ignorant of distances, declared manfully for twenty. About food then—would it be possible to procure it unbeknown of the powers that ruled kitchen and larder? This was a more difficult problem. Cook and housekeeper could not be counted on for supplies, because an ordinary morning walk scarcely came within the requirements of a luncheon basket.
Barry reflected. There was a lime tree outside the storeroom. One branch stretched towards the window. It might not be impossible to open the window. Val hailed him as champion of the situation; a situation that presently resolved itself into strategic triumph and left them with laden pockets. Biscuits and dried fruit—surely a feast for the gods, and sustenance for a marching army—leave alone two small stomachs and a ten-mile tramp!
Thus fortified, they escaped through the park by a small gate that was never locked, and the day's enterprise began.
It commenced with a rush emulative of steam-engines, but proved short-lived, owing to deficiencies on the part of Val. A moderate pace ensued, and that, too, was happily aided by a lift in a farmer's waggon going their way. The driver was old, and had few ideas to jostle as change with the gold and silver of young and daring minds. But he was shrewd and kindly and the jog-trot was a rest. Val's curiosity had grown intense, but Barry always interposed "Not yet" to every question as to the object of their journey.
Five miles of the waggon had rested her thoroughly, and at a meeting of two roads they bade the old man good-bye and partook of lunch.
"They'll have missed us by now," said the boy.
Val looked uneasy. "If it should mean that they search—look—follow. What then, Barry?"
He laughed. "They'll never hit this track. They're sure to think we're off to old Hibbs' or the miller's. Now, Val, do you see this road, going straight on over that hill where the group of trees is?"
"But oui—yes, of course, I see it."
"On either side of it are great mounds; they're called 'burrows.' That's where the Romans and ancient Britons buried their dead after battles."
"Oh!" murmured Val, somewhat awestruck.
"There's men digging there now; and they've found skeletons and weapons and old armor, and all sorts of wonderful things. And they're all being kept in an old house where King John signed the Magnum Charter, or something." (Barry's knowledge of history was as vague as that of most boys.) "Anyhow, the King used to stay there and have hunting parties from it, and that's where we're going, Val."
"A real house of a real king!" Val grew ecstatic. French poured liberally from her tongue till Barry checked her peremptorily. "Do stop that lingo. Didn't you promise you'd not talk a word of it the whole day? What's the use of saying 'Ung vray chattow der roy?' Won't 'king's house' do as well?"
"It's so hard; I forgot," said Val apologetically. Then her glance wandered over the long road and the rising hills. "It's still one very long way," she faltered.
"Oh, I've found out that there's a short cut. It's private property, of course, but we can hide if we see anyone. I believe the house isn't above a mile off now."
He knew it was two or more, but he felt that the actual statement might discourage the "kid," as he called her.
"Oh! that is not of much," said Val, avoiding pitfalls of French expletives.
"No, not at all of much. Let's off. Have you had enough to eat?"
"Mais oui—yes, I mean."
They proceeded on their way. Presently Barry drew an apple out of his pocket and handed it to her. "Munchez-vous?" he enquired gravely.
"You are a too funny boy! What is it you mean? Eat? Of course I will eat—munchez, as you call it."
"Seems to make the way shorter, don't you think?" asked Barry, following her example. "I say, kid, what a wax they're in at home by this time."
"Of what matter?" queried Val indifferently. "We have our pleasure. They will scold, punish; of what good? It is over, what we do. They cannot at least say. 'No, you shall not go!'"
"That's true," said Barry. "I say, it must be prime here in summer, mustn't it? Oh, kiddy, look at the rabbits scudding over that field; why, there's dozens of them. And there goes a pheasant. What a beauty. By Jove, I wish I could shoot!"
His ignorance of the game laws was on a par with that of his historical knowledge.
They watched the rabbits popping in and out of holes and scurrying over the fields. Val envied their quickness. "If we could but run as fast," she said.
Then once more she braced her energies, and trotted on by Barry's side, skirting the ploughed fields, driving through thickets of brushwood or gaps in woody gloom, startling birds who had sought the shelter of holly bush or fir, and emerging breathless upon a wide grassy hill where a few sheep were browsing. It was past midday now and the sun shone with fuller radiance. It lit the grey stone walls of a large mansion, bowered in trees and showing well-cared terraces, smooth lawns, the evergreen and floral treasures which winter permitted in a climate of renowned mildness. Gleams of tawny gold and scarlet ran like smouldering flame at the base of marble steps or iron colonnade. All bespoke wealth and importance and the care given to such appendages.
"Is that the King's house?" asked Val pointing.
"No, you little silly! That's new—or at least not more than fifty years old. The King's house is hundreds of years old—at least, I don't exactly know when King John was alive, do you? It's in 'Little Arthur.' You read that?"
"Oh, yes. He reigned from 1166," said Val proudly.
"The house is thirteenth century—I know that. A chap at Mr. Friar's told me. He lives somewhere out here; a place called Tarrant-Hinton. He's boarded with Friar and goes home once a month. See, this is the plan he drew for me. That's how I know the way."
He pulled a sheet of paper out of its company of catgut, knife, string, keys, apples, and other boyish paraphernalia. Val saw a hieroglyphic of scrawls, dots, and names. It was so much Greek to her, but it assisted in upholding the superiority of boys. A superiority which Barry had of late emphasised in all their games and amusements. He studied the paper now intently, lifting an occasional glance at the landscape for verification. Then he put it back and announced that he knew just where to drop on the old house.
They set off again, Val ignoring fatigue, and fired by her companion's account of the wonders she was to behold. When at last they came in sight of the church adjoining the King's House, or rather Lodge, they uttered a congratulatory sigh. Val felt a little disappointed. It was so small—so insignificant. Had a great English king ever really lived there?
Barry explained the hunting parties, the distances to be traversed, the necessity in certain districts of securing food or lodgings, and rest; the chief palaces, as he assured her, being sometimes too far off to start from and get back to the same day. Therefore did Royalty erect for itself shelters and accommodation in the various hunting districts they frequented. This lodge was a specimen of one.
They descended a grassy slope and found a narrow footpath leading to their destination.
Beside the old house was the caretaker's residence. They surveyed it doubtfully, as an obstacle to that free and informal investigation they had promised themselves.
"Windows," suggested Val, as they stood under shelter of the church walls. But Barry looked doubtful. Slits in a wall whose solid thickness has defied time for six hundred years are scarcely applicable to 19th century uses of light, air, and egress. True the slits had been desecrated by glass now. Yet he eyed them as possessive of small inducement to the noble enterprise of marauder and freebooter, and such forest outlaws as might once have wandered there.
Finally they crept out of their shelter and faced the difficulty on a bolder footing. It seemed as if Fate was bent on favoring them. For presently a buxom person, armed with pan and besom, appeared on the steps and let herself into the Royal building, bent on cleaning purposes.
"We'll ask her to show us," said Barry eagerly, and they marched boldly up to the porch. The woman had left the door open. They heard her ascending the staircase. Delighted at their success, they stood in the first of the rooms. It was small, and the huge stone fireplace seemed out of all proportion to its size. Its carved oak mantel and its decorations of delf and pottery struck a note of anachronism which, happily, those uncritical minds could ignore.
There was the window with its narrow slits, through which the eyes of kings and barons, and knights, and mighty hunters might have gazed; there the walls, whose thickness would have defied the weapons of a siege, even as they had defied time; there the huge, open fireplace, where pine logs might have burnt for the supply of light and warmth, and where a deer might have roasted without incommoding anyone.
The quick young eyes noted it all with just that awed interest awakened by the reality of historical records and their sudden association with everyday existence.
They cast longing glances up the oak staircase, wondering if that, too, had known the tread of kingly feet.
The sound of broom and pail in the distance encouraged further research. They stole up to the next landing. Three oak-panelled rooms opened from it. The large one was the principal bed-chamber. All bore date of the Tudor period and had been additions to the original lodge.
Here their investigations came to an abrupt termination, for a voice suddenly challenged them.
"Well, young master, what d'ye want here?"
Barry confronted the speaker calmly.
"Oh! Only just looking over the place," he said carelessly.
Her eyes twinkled. "Looking over it, are ye? Well, and who gave you leave?"
"Leave," said Barry. Oh, no one. The door was open and—and, of course, we knew it was King John's house—sort or people's property—Magnum Charter, and all that, you know."
"Ye don't say so?" The tone was ironical, but the eyes were good-natured. "Well, indeed, what comes o' book learnin'! How long hev ye known o' King John and Magnum Charter, my little gentleman?"
"It is not your house," interposed Val. "The great king—he so long dead, what matter who now sees where once he lived?"
"Lived?" echoed the woman. "Ye don't suppose King John ever lived here, do ye?"
"It's called his house."
"Ay, true enough. But 'twas only for his hunting parties, just a meetin' place, ye know. And he signed papers, an' deeds, an' things here, all about the preservin' o' the game, and foresters' rights, an' them sort. But 'taint no account telling children these things. Who are ye? Not from anywhere this neighborhood, or I should ha' known ye."
"Oh, we've come from some miles off," said Barry.
"Walked?" she enquired.
"Part of the way."
"Might ye give a guess at the miles?"
"About ten, I fancy."
"Oh; out Lord Hallington's way, then. 'Tis a queer thing for ye to do. Folks do come here, o' course. It'll be a show place one o' these days. There's talk even now o' fillin' up the rooms with—curiosities. 'Twon't be in my time, I hope. 'Tis trouble eno' to scrub and clean and polish all this oak—leave alone a family to mind."
"Do you live here?" asked Val.
"Next door to it. I'm in charge o' the keys, an' people as wants to see the old house gets permission from the great folk at the Park. That's why I asks ye what brought ye here by your two selves?"
"Let us see it all, won't you?" said Barry eagerly. "There ought to be a secret chamber. One of my school chums told me."
"Secret chamber? Nonsense! I never heard o' one. Not but what the walls in th' old part is thick eno' for a room atween 'em."
"Isn't there something about a ghost—a knight in armor who walks about one night in the year?"
"I never took no notice o' such tales. There's a tomb in th' old church with a figure o' one o' they Crusading gentlemen lyin' atop o' it. But I've never seen him walkin'."
"Oh, what a pity!" said Barry. "If I knew the night I'd come—just watch if he really did."
"Ye're a brave little master," said the woman. "An' if so be ye'd like to look over the house ye can do it while I'm cleanin' up this room. An' if you an' the little lady would like a cup o' tea or summat before ye go home ye're welcome. Only mind," she cautioned, "don't get into any sor' o' mischief, for they're mighty set on this place, the family are, and nothin' must be touched or broke. As I said afore, it's to be turned into a sort o' museum like, and a sight o' things is stored in some o' them rooms."
"Oh, we won't touch," said Barry. "It's only the part where the King lived that I care about."
He and Val strolled off hand in hand. They had an hour of delight; peering into the old rooms, opening cupboards, sliding down the oak banisters, standing in the wide old fireplace to gaze up the great chimney and see the sky above, peopling the hall with all the panoply of chase and seigneury, and finally, with delightful indifference to historical records, playing at signing what Barry termed "Magnum Charter" in the principal room.
From time to time the woman watched and listened. They were so pretty, so bold, so quaint; she was delighted with them. When her task of cleaning was over she renewed the invitation to tea, and they were quite willing to accept it.
A pang of regret shot through Val's mind, however, as she saw the great door banged and heard the key turned in the lock. It wasn't every day one had the run of a King's house.
* * * * * *
"And how are ye goin' to get home?" asked their friendly entertainer, when they had taken their fill of bread and butter and home-made cake and hot weak tea, in company with two small rosy-cheeked children, who were terribly shy and whose conversational powers were limited
"Get home," echoed Barry. "Oh, walk, of course."
"Walk? You and that little lady there walk ten miles, and it'll be dark afore ye're out o' these grounds even!"
"Oh, I know the way," said Barry cheerfully. "And Val's rested now, aren't you, Val?"
"Yes," she answered, somewhat dubiously. "But it is one very long way, Barry."
"It's a great deal too long a way for a little lady like you to be a-trampin' night time," said the woman. "I'm just thinkin' what's best to do. I thought o' course ye'd left your own people up at the great house. An' they've carnages an' all sorts there. Maybe I'd best send word to 'em?"
"No, indeed, you mustn't!" exclaimed Barry indignantly. "We're quite able to take care of ourselves and——"
He stopped abruptly. There was a sound of wheels outside and a loud knocking at the door.
The woman opened it. The waning light showed Barry a familiar face.
"Mr. Friar!" he gasped.
"You young rascal!" exclaimed an angry voice. "So you did find your way here. Well, thank goodness, I came on the right track. Do you know your mother and Mrs. Haughton are nearly distracted with terror? There's been search made for you everywhere."
"Oh, you grown-up people are so fussy," remonstrated Barry. "You seem to think children can't do anything for themselves."
To be driven home in charge of the curate and to the sound of sharp reprimands was a somewhat ignominious termination of the day's joy and freedom. Barry sulked.
"Seems to me that children can't do anything to improve their minds without getting rowed for it."
"If you wished to come here only to improve your mind you might have asked me to take you," said Dicky Friar, who was young and good-natured enough to enjoy the joke of the situation.
"Waited? That's just it. Spoils the pleasure of a thing. It's 'not to-day' or 'the weather,' or 'I'm busy.' or—Oh, by Jove, Mr. Friar, I forgot all about the practice."
"Of course you did; and there's that new anthem to-morrow. We can't trust it now."
Barry was silent. His taste for music was almost a passion, and to sing the solo in this anthem had been a promised delight as well as a crow over his predecessor, whose voice had taken to "cracking" on high notes.
Val, wrapped in a warm rug, was well content to have the homeward journey performed by anything save her own two legs. For scoldings she cared very little. The missing of the anthem would, however, be a grave disappointment not only to Barry, but herself. She had listened in ecstasy to his practising of it at the piano.
"Oh, what a pity that we did forget," she cried penitently.
"It wasn't your fault," said the boy. "I am a bit sorry, though. Let's have it next Sunday instead."
"It won't be suitable. Next Sunday will he Christmas Day."
"So it will; I forgot that. Well, it can't be helped. I made up my mind to see old King Johnny's house. And it was a poor sort of place after all, and ever so much altered. Why can't people let things alone? If you want to verify a bit of history nowadays you can't. There's a Tudor addition, or a Norman edition, on an early English something. So stupid."
Mr. Friar laughed. "Well, unfortunately, things won't last for ever. And if one didn't restore, or add to, or alter, then there'd be nothing but ruins left."
He looked down at Val's lovely little face as it nestled so closely to his side. "Do you mean to say you walked all this way child?" he asked.
"Oh, no. We met with a—with a voiture de campagne. The man who drive it he ask will we get up and he brought us quite a far way. N'est-ce pas, Barry?"
"About five miles, Miss Jargon-jabberer," answered the boy.
"I cannot help—I always so forget."
"Good practice for you, Barry," said Mr. Friar. "Only it's odd that there's nothing a boy is so ashamed of as the knowledge of any language but his own."
"You were a boy once. I suppose you ought to know," said Barry.
"Whatever you learnt in Ireland, it wasn't proper respect for your pastors and masters," laughed the young curate.
"No. They've a rough time of it over there. English boys are much too—too——"
"Subservient to discipline?" suggested Mr. Friar.
"I suppose that is what you'd call it. I meant, they fuss about so much before doing a thing. I like to go at it slap-dash. The fuss can come—afterwards."
Mr. Friar tried to improve the occasion by a homily. Val drew attention to the evening star. Barry remembered approaching holidays and the joy of Christmas festivities.
"You might be punished for to-day's escapade," said Dicky Friar.
Barry looked across at Val. "I'm afraid, then, ours would not be the only Christmas that was spoilt," he observed.
"You young rascal," laughed his preceptor. "Whatever's to be done with you? Insubordination seems bred in your bones. I think you're a very unsafe companion for this little lady here."
They both flared out at him then. He had hard work to maintain the dignity of his position.
He delivered no more rebukes until they drove up to the hall door of the Manor House. Then he lifted Val down from the shrouding rugs and set her on her numbed, little feet. "Now you can fight your own battles," he said.
The door flew open. An agitated group awaited the truants, and the first relief of seeing them safe and sound was soon merged into stern queries and stormy reprimands. Kathleen Monteath alternately dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief and displayed a fluency of speech that stilled Elinor's milder rebukes.
Lawrence Haughton strode to and fro, as angry as a man might well be who has been set at defiance by two children and worried for the best part of the day by two mothers. Never a good-tempered man, he now displayed himself to the worst possible advantage.
In the midst of the turmoil Lord Hallington was announced. He had called to ask if any news had been obtained of the truants. The butler showed him in, and Kathleen's motherly agitation took a tender and semi-reproachful tone.
The culprits were dismissed then in charge of Mary Connor, who muttered angrily that it was all the fault of "that Master Barry." Her nursling would be an angel if it weren't for him putting her up to his own wicked mischief.
Peace being restored, tea was brought in, and to its genial accompaniment Dicky Friar narrated the adventure.
"But how came you to think they had gone there?" asked Lord Hallington.
"Well, Barry's great chum, Charlie Cottell, lives at Tarrant-Hinton, and it appeared he had been talking a lot about this old house and had even drawn a plan of the district for Barry. I naturally imagined he had gone there in spite of the distance, and had the dog-cart out and went off to see. I got no word of them on the road, but at this time of year it's not much frequented. However, I traced them to the village and then went to the caretaker's cottage. There they were, having exploited King John's Lodge to their heart's content."
"Children are a dreadful responsibility," sighed Kathleen Monteath, "and a boy especially. Barry is so high-spirited and so full of life and energy one never knows what he will do next."
"He seemed so quiet at first," murmured Elinor, on whom the day's anxiety had left visible traces.
"Wants a stronger hand than a mother's I suppose," said Lord Hallington.
Kathleen sent him a demure challenge from her fine eyes, then dropped them pensively over her tea-cup.
"He is all I have," she sighed.
"Judging from his capabilities I should imagine he is enough," said the old lord dryly.
"His faults are only those of youth and temperament," she pleaded. "Perhaps I have spoiled him a little. It is excusable. A mother's only boy is the vindication of his sex's right to tyrannise."
Lord Hallington looked a little puzzled. "Mothers would do their boys more good by letting them face the world and fight their own battles, than tying them to their apron strings with excuses. School is the finest leveller possible."
"But he is at school now," said the mother.
"And it certainly possesses no levelling power for his sense of mischief," added the young curate. "The boys pay high tribute to his originality in that line. Still, he has many good qualities. He is frank and truthful. I like a boy who has the courage to confess not only what he has done, but his reasons for it. To-day, for instance." He broke into sudden laughter. "Fancy—he excused himself by a desire to improve his mind; and accused those in authority of interfering with that laudable determination and checking it by reproof."
"So like him," said Kathleen Monteath.
Lawrence Haughton frowned slightly. "That's all very well," he said, "but at least he should give due notice of these praiseworthy excursions into the field of research. Had he told me he wished to go to this place I would have made no objection."
"Nor I," said Kathleen.
"We might have made up a party and driven them there," added Lord Hallington. "Well, they've exploited it for themselves now."
"We ought to exploit a suitable penalty," muttered Lawrence Haughton.
"I threatened them with possible loss of Christmas enjoyments," said Dicky Friar. "Barry was frank enough to hint at reprisals."
Elinor looked up in alarm. "Oh, pray let there be no punishments," she exclaimed. "After all, it was only the fact of not asking permission that was blamable. The jaunt itself was quite excusable."
"Meritorious, in fact," said Lord Hallington, rising. "Well, as all's well that ends well, I leave you my most sincere congratulations."
He turned to Lawrence Haughton. "You've often promised to show me that original edition of Sheridan Knowles in your library," he said. "Might I ask you to do so now?"
"Certainly," said his host, looking somewhat surprised. "I shall be delighted."
They went away together, followed by an uneasy glance from Kathleen Monteath.
"That—means something," she said.
* * * * * *
Arriving at the library, Lawrence Haughton offered a chair to his visitor, and then went up to the well-lined bookshelves to search for the volume he had requested.
An abrupt word stayed him. "Never mind, Haughton; that was only an excuse. I've something to say to you."
So ashy-white was the face turned suddenly towards him that the old lord uttered an exclamation. "Good God, man! are you ill?"
Lawrence's delicate-veined hand pressed his side. "A—a sort of stitch," he said. "My heart is not very strong."
"I should think not, if a little exertion turns you that color," exclaimed Lord Hallington. "Here, sit down—have you any brandy here?"
"It's not necessary. I shall be all right in a moment."
The color came gradually back. He laughed off the old lord's evident alarm. "I assure you it's nothing. I often have these attacks."
"You should see a doctor."
"Oh, I have. I'm all right, no organic affection. A little weakness, that's all."
"Well, I suppose you know best, and a man of your age, means, and position wouldn't trifle with life."
His keen eyes searched the haggard face before him. Searched it with an interest and curiosity that he had not felt before in this somewhat eccentric neighbor. From the face his eyes wandered round the room, noting various signs of occupation. "You write, I believe?" he enquired.
"I am contemplating a book," answered Lawrence. "It is as yet barely sketched. It is too ambitious to be easily or readily commenced."
"Um—well, I suppose I'd better get at once to what I have to say. Look here, Haughton, I want you to tell me all you know about Mrs. Monteath—your governess."
"About—Mrs. Monteath?" exclaimed Lawrence Haughton, stooping to pick up a magazine that his elbow had dislodged from the table. "May I ask your reason for this somewhat strange enquiry?"
"My reason? Well, I suppose you're entitled to do that. The truth is I have a great, shall we call it—admiration, for this lady. Before that admiration reaches a further point and threatens, as it almost seems inclined to do, to become a serious consideration, I should like to know something about her. Naturally I come to you for the information."
Lawrence Haughton's lips seemed to have become suddenly dry. His voice had a harsh, almost aggressive accent.
"I really don't see," he answered, "why I should tell you anything about Mrs. Monteath. Your admiration concerns that lady and yourself. It has nothing to do with her position in my house, or—or the reasons that forced her to accept that position. She is not an unattached girl for whom I might serve as reference. What you desire to know of her history should come from herself."
"I daresay you're right. But by asking her for such a history I should stand self-committed. She is a beautiful woman, a clever woman, and a woman who has lived—so much a man's eyes can see. But, as men of the world, my dear Haughton, we both know that all women are not quite what they seem. There are even some indiscreet enough to seem different from what they are. Of course, I would not insinuate that Mrs. Monteath possesses a past that is not—immaculate. But I should like to know—had you any references with her? What part of Ireland did she come from? Who are her friends or relatives? These are points into which you must have enquired before entrusting her with the education of your child, or exposing your wife to her attractive influence. I do not think there can be any breach of confidence in your assuring me that such enquiries were—satisfactory?"
A hot flush rose to Laurence Haughton's brow. For the second time in his life a temptation met him—struck that weak spot in his nature, and demanded resistance, or incited him to yield.
Lord Hallington noted the change of color, the shifty glance, the hesitation before his question met response. But whatever he might have expected he did not expect such an answer as escaped those craven lips—
"The enquiries made were not satisfactory, but——"
The old lord sprang to his feet. "Not satisfactory!" he cried. "Are you aware what you insinuate, sir? That this lady, who is your wife's friend and associate, your child's instructress is unworthy of so responsible a post? That you knew this, and yet permitted it?"
Lawrence Haughton looked up at the angry face. His eyes glistened.
"When I said not satisfactory, I meant that they were not of a nature to recommend this lady for that place in your affections which you seem disposed to bestow on her. They have nothing to do with her qualifications as a governess, or her fitness as companion to an invalid."
Lord Hallington paced the room with angry strides.
"I am an old fool, I suppose. I could see plainly enough what she was angling for, and she should have it too, could I convince myself that I placed my trust in safe hands." He paused suddenly. "Haughton, it seems a craven thing—two men pulling a woman's character to pieces. I hate myself for doing it; but I'm too old to suffer indignity or drag my name into disrepute. Perhaps I'd better say no more. Fortunately, I've kept from committing myself. Another week of her society, her charm, and I would not have answered for myself. I must go away—the Riviera, or somewhere—I must forget her. If any questions are asked here you can say it was my health—gout, liver—anything. Oh! ——, are we never so old but that women can make fools of us."
He struck the table fiercely with his hand. His eyes flashed fire at that wretched "dog in the manger," trying to play at compassionate friendliness to assure his own heart that he had acted for the best.
"She has not succeeded in your case, my lord," he said. "After all, the attraction of a pretty woman is excusable at any age. And you must remember, that your position is a positive temptation."
"True! To anyone of that sort, I suppose. Well, Haughton, you, of course, understand your own business, but after what has passed between us I should consider it better taste if you precluded your governess from those attentions society here seems disposed to press upon her. She goes about with the assurance of one who has nothing to reproach herself with and nothing to fear—on a footing with yourself, in fact. Heavens, man! is that another stitch? How your hand shakes. What was I saying? Oh, yes, drop a hint to your wife that it is advisable to keep this beautiful lady in the background. That's all we'll say on the subject. You really should consult a physician. Heart-attacks are not to be trifled with. No, pray don't trouble to come to the door. Make my adieux to the ladies, in case I don't see them again. This is all in strict confidence, of course."
"In strict confidence," echoed Lawrence.
"And if I'm hurriedly ordered off to Nice, or Mentone, or somewhere, you'll quite understand?"
"Quite. The explanation is in safe hands."
"Then, good-bye. Perhaps I shan't see you again, but though now I owe you a grudge, I may one day count it a benefit."
The door closed.
Lawrence Haughton sank back in his chair. Every word had been like a blow. He cowered there shivering and ashamed before that picture of himself conjured up by the late scene. Those words:—"Nothing to reproach herself with, nothing to fear!" "On the same footing as yourself!" rang still in his ears. Nothing to fear! Why, every day of his life held fear. Fear of the past and its shame—the Future and its Nemesis. And in this last hour he had added to both. He had proved dastard to a woman's faith in him. Ruined her brilliant prospects for his own selfish ends. She could be nothing to him, therefore he had resolved that she should be nothing to this other man. But now how shamed and sickened he felt of that deliberate misleading. What a paltry, pitiful coward he looked even in his own eyes! Supposing a day ever came in which he should look so in hers! Great drops of agony stood out on his brow as he thought of that possibility. He contrasted his feeble love for the woman whose whole life was a sacrifice to him, with this devouring, bitter, insensate passion for one who was supremely indifferent. Therein lay her power—her charm. He could not move, or provoke, or arouse in her a single feeling he desired. She played with him as cat with mouse, velvet sheath and piercing claw alternating; gloried in his agony, his self-suppression, his life of duplicity, his lap-dog subservience; saw, without seeming to see, every subterfuge, and mocked at it—laughed in his face at those impassioned hints and avowals which at times he could not restrain. This—was his life. The concealment of an ignoble secret. The shame of an ignoble passion. He sat there weighing the one against the other, and saw them blotting out the horizon of any future hopefulness. Dishonor had eaten into his nature. The memory of those shameful years had poisoned all that was best in manhood. Association with degraded minds had in no way bettered his moral standpoint or aided a never strong integrity. His efforts to ignore and stamp out these memories had only had the effect of burning them deeper into his soul. The fact of his wife's knowledge, the evidence of her pity, the consciousness of her deserved contempt, had gradually alienated his feelings towards her. Now he saw her broken in health and spirits, reserved towards himself, a direct contrast to the wit and brilliance and beauty of her unconscious rival. The spiritual forces of the one woman had little power beside the fascinations of the other. He was at that critical age when a weak man's passion dominates him as neither honor, nor duty, nor ambition has power to do. He would let all else go for this one thing. Rivalry had spurred him to a distinct dishonor. She would never forgive him if she learnt what he had done to-day. Never. It was not to be expected. To have stepped between her and such brilliant prospects would be unpardonable in her eyes. She had made no secret of what she desired. A wealthy marriage, title, position.
He started suddenly as if an adder had stung him. Two of these things that she coveted might be in his power to offer her if—ah—that if. Its subtle suggestions stole like poison through his veins—if he were only free.
Elinor was sickly—delicate; had but a poor constitution. Why should he not be free—in time? Time—that was just the obstacle. A waiting game is as hard to play as a losing one. He could not propose such a chance—could not expect her to wait on it.
Other suitors would appear. It was unlikely they would all come to him, as this foolish old lord had done. One of them might be content to take her on her merits—even as he and his wife had done. Her beauty was dower enough.
He shuddered apprehensively. Oh, to peer into the future—to learn from any source when, and where, and how soon this coveted freedom would come to him. Elinor could leave him all her wealth—make him her heir. Could—and would. She had promised it.
But oh, the weary waiting for freedom and all its attendant bliss. Oh, the possibilities, the delights guarded only by that feeble barrier—if.
Kathleen Monteath was inclined to view life favorably after that last escapade of the children. She told herself that her position as an anxious and much-tried mother had appealed to the chivalry of her ancient admirer. He could not surely hold out much longer. Yet, as day followed day, and Christmas Eve brought no greeting, no attention, not even a hint of a house party or festivities at Crampton Park, she grew anxious.
A severe cold had confined Elinor to her room. Kathleen and Lawrence dined alone.
He deemed it a fitting opportunity for allusion to Lord Hallington's departure. Her start and evident perturbation showed that she had received no hint of it.
"Gone to Nice—and so suddenly. Surely he might have called or mentioned it."
It occurred to Lawrence Haughton that the governess in a country family does not usually receive intimation—at first hand—of the movements or intentions of county dignitaries. But then all governesses are not Mrs. Monteaths.
"Oh, he mentioned it to me," he said. "A bad attack of gout was the prelude to his sudden departure. Lord Hallington is in the fortunate position of having no one to consult except his own inclinations. He is an example of the perfectly selfish aristocrat."
"He has not neglected his tenants' interests or the duties of his position," she said warmly.
Lawrence Haughton shrugged his shoulders. "The one may be a salve to conscience: the other an enforced obligation."
She gave petulant refusal to a proffered entrée and tried to imagine reasons for this sudden departure. Why, she had been so sure—almost felt the tiara on her head—heard herself addressed as "My Lady"—swept into Buckingham Palace on a Court day—a new peeress introduced as "on her marriage." And now the golden vision was dispersed. The cold mist of commonplace duties and present obligations crept between it and her self-assurance. It was an ordeal so trying that even her trained nerves could scarcely summon up composure or indifference.
Lawrence Haughton noticed her annoyance with inward satisfaction. He remarked on her want of appetite, but made no pretence at guessing its cause. When she passed from silence to that inconsequent talk of which most Irish tongues possess the secret, he followed her lead eagerly. The frivolous chatter, the malicious personalities amused him. By the light of his own knowledge of her disappointment he read her present efforts at indifference. She was anxious to hide the fact that she was disappointed. To an ordinary observer she would have seemed just her usual bright, amusing self. Only when the children came in to dessert there was an accent of sharpness in her tones, a visible impatience of the restraint of their presence.
In Elinor's absence she could not linger long at the table, neither could she dismiss Val or Barry. The occasion, too, brought forth unusual pleas for indulgence. They accompanied her to the drawing-room after dinner and insisted on singing carols. Barry had given Val some instructions in the art, and the results were wonderfully successful. Lawrence strolled in to listen, and the servants lingered in the hall to catch the sweet young voices.
There was disapproval of a dull Christmas in their comments. No tree, no party, nothing different save the appearance of mince pies and cracker bon-bons. The latter they could have dispensed with. Barry having an agreeable knack of letting them off at unexpected moments and in closer proximity to bent heads or unconscious ears than was at all pleasant. More and more were they convinced that the Manor was not what it used to be—that no place in the county has so gone down. The deplorable absence of "style" afforded Mary Connor a glorious opportunity of lauding the ways and methods of the "Irish gentry," illustrated by "My late lady, the Countess," to the great annoyance of Mrs. Burton, who, claimed pre-eminence for all things English.
Meantime the mistress of the Manor lay weak and ill and alone in the great bed-chamber above, and wondered why life had been so hard on her. The room was lit only by a wood fire on the tiled hearth. She had asked Mary to extinguish her lamp, but through one window, where the blind was withdrawn, she could see the dark indigo of the sky above a grove of pine trees, and also one star shining there, clear and bright and watchful—as a ray of hope shines sometimes in a human life.
"Not in mine," she told herself bitterly. "Never again in mine. I seem to have come to the end of all. Even the child——"
Thought snapped abruptly. Clear and sweet through the silence of the house thrilled the echo of young voices. It swept to her ear, spread wavelike over her throbbing heart, and rebuked its bitterness.
"Let nothing you dismay.
"God rest you, merry gentlemen.
The tears welled into her eyes. "Let nothing you dismay." Alas! how easily she had been dismayed. How hard she had found it to be hopeful, or look out on any prospect of future usefulness or future good.
Was it right—was it wise? Life was drifting away from her without any effort to recall it. Sheer weariness and disgust and secret grief preyed on her, body and soul, slowly sapping the springs of energy and hope.
"Let nothing you dismay." Oh! that courage were possible. That she could once more rise and look life fearlessly in the face, and say, "I have something yet to do, and I shall not shrink from doing it."
She lifted herself from the pillows. She listened with eager ears to the ringing joy of the childish voices. If happiness had passed her by in one form might it not come back to her in another? What mother could ever be wholly desolate? Did not Nature itself teach that lesson? The spell of life welling forth from that ever creative spirit communicated itself everywhere—breathed restoration, unity, reviving force.
"Let nothing you dismay." Yet how easily she had been dismayed. How ready to cry, "My heart is broken."
Her head dropped on her hands. The tears welled forth, as so often of late they had welled, from channels of weakness and hopelessness. She had told herself only a few moments ago that she alone of all that household was unnoticed, undesired, forgotten. And then this message came in the ringing notes of that one human creature she loved best.
"Let nothing you dismay." Well, nothing should—henceforward. She had risen superior to the crushing force of trouble once already. Heaven had sent her for reward this little joyous life. Once again that life re-inspired dormant energies, roused her from that apathetic attitude towards existing duties which was little better than lifelessness. With that warm gush of tears, that sudden prayer, the frozen channels of her heart broke up. Duties, obligations, necessities sprang up, a living phalanx, not a dead army. She saw them marshalled before her, the offspring of hidden forces checked but unsubdued.
There was something imperative in this sudden demand on her faculties. Life summoned because life needed her. She lifted her head and looked around the room. Why was she lying here alone, weak, neglected? Did the fault lie with herself? A wave of energy warmed her languid pulses and set her own heart-beats to the music of those youthful hearts below.
A silence had fallen, but as she sat listening for its break a rush of feet came up the stairs and her door was burst open without ceremony.
She found herself embraced with energy, stormed with questions. "Did you hear us, pretty maman? Was it not fine? Barry it is who taught me. And you—ou pauve petite chérie!—al so solitaire, by your own poor self. But I did think of you. Look!" The little hands showered dainties on the white coverlet. Fruit, sweets, bon-bons.
"Come, we will have our little dessert together, you and Barry and I. May he come? He waits out there. I said, 'Attendez. I go and see if the p'tite maman desire us.'"
"Desire you!" Elinor's eyes brimmed again, but her voice held joy. "Come in, of course, both of you. It is a delight to watch your pretty play and hear you talk."
"Barry says you are much more of a mother, than his own mother. If only you were not so often ill and sad." She gave the frail figure another hug. "Mais, we shall have a little happy bright time up here, is it not? Do not let us go to bed for quite a long time. We will be—oh, so very extremêment bon!"
Elinor laughed—such happy heart-whole laughter that the child looked at her amazed.
"What is it that has come to you?" she asked. "You look quite young and pretty and gay. Say then you are not ill—not to be always in your room—no use, as papa says."
The stream of joy froze suddenly. The color faded from Elinor's cheeks. "Papa said that?"
"Mais yes. To madame—but it is a short while ago—after we have sung the carols. Then I remember and feel so sorry, for you are ill and alone and in bed, and I whisper to Barry and we steal away—we two. And they—they take no notice—they sit by the fire and talk. But how they talk! Heads so close and whisper and look. It is papa who looks—and how his eyes shine, ma foi! Is it then one great secret he have to tell madame?"
Paler still grew Elinor's cheek. The heart-beats were dull once more. Pain dragged her labored breath.
"Dear—you must run away. Tell Mary to come and help me dress. I am going downstairs."
Val sprang to the floor. "Downstairs! Are you then well?"
"I am well enough," she said, "for that. Send Mary to me."
Somewhat reluctantly the child turned away. "You need not stay," she said to Barry, as she opened the door. "Maman comes down herself. I go to call Mary to assist her toilette. Mais listen—attendez. We, you and I, will not return. It is stupid downstairs. Let us find some fun for ourselves."
"We will play ghosts," suggested Barry. "Ghosts always walk about on Christmas Eve, specially in old houses like this."
"But if we do frighten someone."
"Well, that would be a jolly lark. I'd like to terrify old Burton. Why there is Mary. I suppose she's looking for you. Catch her forgetting 8 o'clock."
"I send her to maman. Mary, you are to go at once to maman then. She will dress and come downstairs. Depêchez-vous, done."
Mary Connor looked incredulous.
"Dress! Why she's quite ill. In bed all day."
"All the same she get up. She want you tout de suite—at once. Allezvous en."
Mary, still incredulous, knocked at her mistress's door. She found Elinor already out of bed.
"I am much better. I am going down to the drawing-room for an hour or two. Cold? Oh, no. I shall not catch cold. Give me that blue silk wadded gown that came from Allison's the other day. And just coil up my hair loosely."
A few minutes later she opened the drawing-room door. Two figures were seated, one each side the fire; they looked round as the handle turned. The slight form, in its pale blue wrapper, the face so strangely flushed, the eyes so strangely bright, won an astonished greeting, a smothered oath.
"My dear Elinor, were you wise to leave your bed and come down?" exclaimed Kathleen, rising and wheeling a big cushioned chair in front of the fire.
"Wise—yes, I think so," said the soft voice. A little ambiguous smile touched the speaker's lips. "It would be rather hard if I were not here to welcome the first Christmas in my new home. I am a little tired of playing the invalid, Kathleen."
"What does it mean? Again I ask myself, as I write these words, what I
have been asking myself all this evening—What does it mean? Can Elinor
suspect her husband of philandering? Does she mistrust me? Assuredly
I have no desire to play the role of domestic traitor, and for such a
weak fool as this. But also assuredly I am in no mind to be the butt
of jealousy. It will be too bad if the folly of the husband sets the
wife against me and ousts me out of my comfortable position. For I am
comfortable—extremely so; and I have no desire—yet—to part company
with such good fortune.
"As a day may come when the history of events here may be of use to me, I will just commit to these pages the events of to-night.
"Lawrence Haughton and I were dining alone. Elinor had been suffering from a feverish cold and had kept her bed. At dinner Lawrence informed me that Lord Hallington had departed suddenly for the Riviera. To say that the news was a shock is to say very little. I had felt as sure as a woman can feel that he would ask me to be his wife. He had said everything except just the one thing. His actions had aroused comment on all sides. I was, in a measure, compromised by such actions and such attentions. Then, without a word of warning or farewell, he took his departure, leaving me to hear of it through any source of gossip that might chance.
"I tried to keep my temper; I hope I did. It was not easy, more especially as I had to remember the role of governess, and it is not usual for that humble individual to receive p.p.c. cards from a peer of the realm. But what roused my ire was Lawrence Haughton's quiet complacency. He had known perfectly well what I had expected. He showed a mean sense of triumph at the overthrow of those hopes.
"I did not pursue the subject. It was Christmas Eve, and we had to have the children with us. After dinner they sang carols in the drawing-room, and he and I played at 'domestic felicity' in approved fashion. However, they took themselves off suddenly and then he asked me to sing.
"I refused. I was in a vile temper by now, and the necessity for hiding it made me feel in a worse one.
"I sat down by the fire. He drew a chair up opposite. I recommended him to smoke. He refused. 'And leave you?' he murmured, with that voice and look I hate. I hinted amiably that I could put up with that deprivation. He became maundering; I let him go on. It amuses me sometimes to see a man make a fool of himself. They do it so completely, poor things.
"I was not even favoring him with special attention. I only wanted to entrap him into any sort of confession as to Lord Hallington's plans or his knowledge of them. Suddenly the door opened. I turned my head and saw—Elinor. As she stood there wrapped in a semi-invalid gown, that was excusably pretty, her eyes flashed from her husband's face to mine, with a look I had never seen in them before. A look that sent the blood to my face, so sharp was its jealous accusation.
"But I am apt at self-control and my voice never betrayed me. I rose and spoke in the most natural manner. I wheeled her favorite chair to the fire. I was pleased to see her, and sympathetic and apprehensive all in a moment. That booby of a husband only stared and said nothing. Her excuse for her unexpected appearance was a very natural one. It was her first Christmas Eve in her new home. She did not appreciate an enforced absence from her family. That was all very well, but why had it not occurred to her before? It would have been as easy to come down to dinner as to make this dramatic entry, without notifying her intention to anyone. Besides, her manner to me was entirely different. Of course I would not notice the change, would not even seem to see a shade of difference. I was exactly as I had always been—and poor Elinor is not hard to deceive. If only that fool Lawrence had backed me up, all would have been well. But he sulked—absolutely and plainly sulked. Instead of appearing delighted to welcome her, instead of doing his best to wile the waiting hours until the Christmas chimes should sound, he showed himself morose, dull, and unsympathetic.
"I could have boxed his stupid ears. Had I been his wife I believe I should have done so. There we sat, talking spasmodically, and trying to appear at ease, while all the time two at least of the three gathered round that fire were mentally cursing conventionalities.
"At last I could stand it no longer. Besides, one must be 'de trop' sometimes with husband and wife. I rose and begged they would excuse me. I would prefer to hear the Christmas bells in my own room. It was always a sad time for me, &c., &c.
"And here I am writing up my journal, while they are doubtless exchanging confidences by their own fireside. I feel sorry for Elinor Haughton if, to her own hidden sorrows and troubles, she chooses to add wifely jealousy. God knows she needn't be jealous of me, but I cannot tell her so.
"A woman placed in my position is always in the wrong. What force or conviction lie in my coldness, my indifference, if she has detected her husband's infatuation? How could I hope to prove it is only one-sided? How am I to live on here and please both?
"These are the thoughts that torment me—that set my nerves warring and jangling—that fill the air with discords, maddening as those chiming bells! I hate Christmas! I hate those bells! I hate every memory and association connected with this season!
"There! I feel better, even for writing that—even for seeing the black lines that wreathe my own black thoughts facing me on the white paper. God above! What maddening forces sometimes work within a woman's soul, driving her with goads sharp as knives to the verge of desperation. Only a few months ago I thanked heaven for this peaceful haven. I called Elinor Haughton friend—and I meant it. Yet now the haven has shown itself an unsafe port, the friend threatens to become an enemy. And this time it is through no fault of my own.
"A thought has suddenly flashed through my brain. I have been looking back on the various meetings and communications I have had with Lord Hallington, trying to remember whether in any of them I said or did anything to alarm his caution or arouse his suspicion. Memory and these pages both assure me I am innocent. The last time I saw him was on that evening when the children had played truant and taken themselves off for the day.
"He was here in the evening. I remember it perfectly. He has not been here since. Yet on that occasion he talked of spending Christmas at the Park and having a small house party. Now he has left country and party all in a lurch, without any intimation, as far as I am concerned, or Elinor. Lawrence alone knew of it.
"Lawrence! I go back on the track of that night. I remember how Lord Hallington and he were closeted together in his study for nearly an hour. The dressing-bell had rung, and I was in my own room, before I heard the carriage drive away. Why did I never think of this before? Why did it never occur to me to wonder what important matter the two men had to discuss? Had it anything to do with myself? If I only knew——.
"The bells have ceased at last. The house is quiet, still I sit here, restless, miserable, perturbed. If I have to leave the Manor, if I have to face the cold world again, what is to be done? I know the old hateful business so well; the struggling, the writing, the insults of fine ladies who think I look 'above my position,' the impertinent curiosity, the needless questions as to references and reasons for seeking a situation! Where again could I hope to find a woman like Elinor Haughton? Poor, trusting soul. Why can't she believe that at least I would not make her so poor a return for her kindness—that I might be a truer and better friend than ever she imagines? Can she love that man? To me he is so unworthy—so despicable—a creature without honor, or strength, or courage. She is fifty thousand times too good for him, and yet she gives him everything, including her love, and does me the honor to be jealous of my superior attractions.
"Oh! these masks we wear to each other and dare not lift! If but for five minutes I could show her my soul, and she would show me hers, surely we might stretch hands across that gulf that now divides us, and say. 'I understand.'
"But let me return to that evening. Could the two men possibly have discussed me? If so, was Lawrence Haughton dastard enough to utter some aspersion on my character? To relate how and why I came here? Or was he content with merely stating where I came from, and my own version of my antecedents?
"Fool that I was not to foresee what he might do in his jealousy. Fool—doubly, trebly, fool—to show to him of all people the scheme I had in view. Fool, and again fool, to shut my ears to the warning of experience.
"But what use to rage and fume like this? It is not like me to lament the inevitable; on the contrary, my energies usually brace themselves afresh. Twice have I done this! Twice!
"The shadow of that old terror creeps over me. The memory of that other Christmas Eve. In this quiet room, shut away from all eyes, I and my enemy stand once more face to face. Why can't I kill memory? Does even Death do that?
"Oh, that quiet face, that chill, cold smile upon the silent lips, those half-closed eyes, and the grey dawn creeping in through the open window, and his despairing call on me—and then the tragedy that ended it!
"Perhaps some whisper of that it was that reached the old lord's ears. Perhaps Mary O'Connor had broken her promise. Why should I expect her to keep faith with me? I am not rich enough to bribe her, nor powerful enough to persuade. I am at the mercy of her word, or her tongue. True, she can prove nothing, assert nothing, but a hint is as dangerous as accusation, and a lie that is only half a lie can work as much mischief as the truth.
"Such truth as I might speak would convince no one.
"Shall I state it baldly here for my own reasoning powers to sit in judgment upon? I am tempted to do so.
"What I have shut up in my own soul for four silent years rushes back on me to-night like an imprisoned torrent.
"What do I behold? Again a man's insane passion, again a woman's insensate jealousy. A double suicide. And I—a young, beautiful, friendless—accused—accused of purchasing the poison administered by the husband to the wife and—then taken by himself.
"I live again the terrors of the awful time. I see myself confronted by such legal penalties as might well wreck a woman's life. I see one hand stretched out to save me, and I cling to it with all the passion of despair.
"That hand did save me. But for what purpose—for what end?"
When Kathleen Monteath left husband and wife together Lawrence Haughton relapsed into sulky silence. He was angry with Elinor for coming downstairs; doubly angry at the frankly expressed desire to which she gave utterance—a desire to leave England and winter abroad.
"I should get well and strong in sunshine, under bright skies," she said. "And now there is no difficulty in the way, as we need not consider expense."
"What about Val?" he asked.
"She would, of course, remain here under charge of Mrs. Monteath. We would return in the spring."
His brow contracted. "We." How readily she took his consent for granted. What a helpless tool was a rich woman's husband—obliged to give in to her whims and fancies—never independent, never his own master. Truly, there were things to endure in life for which no money could compensate.
"It's a long time to leave home and—and everything," he objected. "And you have had proof of the children's capacity for mischief. It's—it's a great responsibility for Mrs. Monteath."
Elinor smiled. "Oh, Kathleen is quite capable of managing them, I think. There is no reason, of course, why Barry should not be a weekly boarder with Mr. Friar and only come home on Saturdays. That would lessen her anxieties."
"Where do you wish to go?" he asked.
"I thought of Cairo. It would be new ground, and I hear a winter there is delightful."
"Cairo! Good heavens, what a distance!"
"In these days distance is no obstacle. Everything is made easy. The short sea voyage would be beneficial to—both of us."
"You might leave me to answer for myself, I think."
"Certainly I will. But I have noticed that you, too, have seemed out of sorts and out of spirits lately. My suggestion, therefore, embraces both of us."
His cowardice took alarm. Anything was better than that she should suspect. But then to leave Kathleen. Supposing Lord Hallington returned—supposing they met—supposing that his part in this timely separation came out?
He rose and paced the room, as was usual with him when disturbed, weighing pros and cons, and possibilities with every yard he paced.
"I don't fancy you would like Cairo," he said. "Why not try the Riviera?"
"We know that. Besides—so many undesirable English go there."
He colored—knowing what she meant.
"One has to take one's chance wherever one goes. The same risk attends every place. I thought for a year or two you might have been contented here?"
She looked at him and her eyes' quiet earnestness revealed more of her reason for standing between him and future temptation than he had power or inclination to read.
Her thin hands clasped one another as they lay on her lap; the wedding circlet turned loosely on the finger that she touched. How content she would have been here she told herself—how well and perfectly content, but for him!
"You—you look very well," he went on. "Although, with that cold it was foolish to leave your warm room and come downstairs."
"Women are always doing foolish things," she said. "Perhaps they do them sometimes to veil a purpose."
"I fail to see——."
"Dear Lawrence, I meant no particular instance. Shall we leave further discussion till to-morrow? I want to have the children in. I only gave them leave to sit up till 10 o'clock. It will soon be that."
He crossed the room and rang the bell.
"I'm going to have a smoke," he said. "I should not advise you to sit up late. It's such nonsense waiting for Christmas bells and things of that sort. A lot of false sentiment—as if Christmas wasn't just as dreary as any other time of the year!"
He closed the door roughly. Was it only the jar to sensitive nerves that sent that hot smart of tears to those patient eyes, that brought that stifled sigh to her lips?
All the brightness of her face clouded now in the solitude of that great, splendid room. What could its splendor do for her, the owner and mistress of it all? It could not lift the shadow from her life, the old sad shadow of what had been. Nor could any wealth or splendor restore that image of beloved and noble manhood to its place in a girl's mind, or compensate for a broken ideal, a crushed and wounded heart?
Her thoughts turned to him still; turned with pity because of the gentle womanliness of a nature that never could be braced to sternness or harsh judgment; turned with excuse, with even self-blame, seeing so little merit or charm in that self she blamed for sake of him.
In what he said, in his whole bearing of late, there lurked a threat of coming division between lives so closely linked as theirs. With sorrowful unwillingness she had been forced to acknowledge it, though the whole tragic possible truth had only flashed upon her in her child's innocent words.
"I must save him," she thought. "It may be only a passing fascination—pardonable enough, she is so beautiful—but there is so much at stake. I cannot leave this inheritance to one unworthy of it. I cannot see my child doubly dishonored."
The sound of hasty feet, of laughing voices, dried her tears. She drew herself up, and her arms opened wide with a mother's hunger that demanded some satisfaction for the woman-suffering behind it.
The children hurled themselves upon her with boisterous gratitude for such long liberty.
"We played at ghosts up and down the corridor," said Barry. "But no one was frightened. Where's mother?" he added, glancing round the great room.
"She went upstairs about half an hour ago. Now I want you children to sing me that Christmas carol again; I only heard it in the distance. After that you must really go to bed."
"But who's to play for us?" asked Barry, marching up to the piano for the music.
"Perhaps I can," smiled Elinor. "There are a few things still that I can do, although I am supposed to be only capable of lying in bed or taking a carriage drive."
She seated herself at the piano. The two young voices began, faltered, then with surprised zest took up air and words, as a sweet clear soprano steadied them.
"Why, you can sing, too," exclaimed the boy.
"But it is beautiful," cried Val, enthusiastically. "How does it arrive—happen, you say—that I never have heard you before?"
Elinor looked at the bright face and laid one gentle hand on the pretty russet head. "I think," she said, "you may have heard me before, Val, when you were only a tiny child and I would sing you cradle songs. But it's long ago, dear—so long ago that I surprised myself to-night."
Lawrence Haughton, sitting by his study fire in black and gloomy thought, had shared that same surprise; and listening to the long silent voice that rang so true and sweet across the intervening space, he asked himself the question Kathleen was writing in her journal—What does it mean? Had she grown suddenly tired of her inactive part in life? Was she really stronger than she had pretended? The thought brought no gladness, no relief. His brow grew darker; impatience and irritation showed in every line of his face.
Whatever false hope had whispered of freedom, to-night had given it the lie. Not that way would he win what he coveted, and the years were so long and might be so many. His eyes rested on the well-filled bookshelves—on that neat pile of MSS. containing his notes for that book he had now no inclination to write. Wasted days, wasted dreams, wasted labor all.
What was the use of writing? Money he did not need, for fame he did not care. The interest he had first taken in his subject had long since given way to a more engrossing and human interest. It startled him now to see how engrossing it had become. And for a sick woman's whim he was ordered to give it up—to cut himself adrift from a companionship whose danger was half its charm. How could he bear the empty days, the silence, the ignorance as to her welfare or pursuits?
Then suddenly, by a strong effort, he checked these thoughts and turned his mind into another channel. He thought of his wife's love—her patient devotion—the gifts of fortune she had lavished so ungrudgingly upon him. In what way was he repaying them?
Shame smote him at the memory of his ingratitude. Yet neither shame nor remorse were strong enough to hold him back. The tide of passion swept him off his feet once more. This woman had taken complete possession of his soul. Put her aside he could not.
"I am a weak man, but I am as Fate made me," he said. "Weak and false too. If Elinor knew me as I am, would she send me out of her life? It would be only what I deserve. I came out of that hell poisoned in mind and body; hating law and justice and right; afraid to face my fellow-man; afraid of the secret that leaves me the sport of chance; afraid of my wife's pity, and ashamed of her love. I shut myself out from her sympathy. I forbade allusion to those awful years, and the shame of them and the bitterness of them have eaten like a canker into my very soul, destroying honor and strength. Better, I often think, that I had cut myself adrift from her, taken my evil presence out of her life; and I would do it now if I could take Kathleen with me. She has no fine feelings, I am sure of that. Self binds her desires. If I only had in my own right what I share by right of the marriage tie I would not hesitate. But I have nothing; I can do nothing; and to-night I almost feared that Elinor began to suspect. If she did she would dismiss Kathleen, I suppose, without a moment's hesitation. God, what a tangle it all is. In whatever way I act there is danger—to her, to me, to all of us. How to get out of it?"
His restless feet had brought him to a standstill before the book-case. Hardly conscious of what he was doing his eyes wandered up and down the serried ranks of volumes it contained. Wandered, then stayed at one shelf, arrested by the sight of a title, gold lettered on calf binding.
He turned, moved away to the window, looked out at the darkness, at the wintry sky and shining stars, then dropped the blind, and once again came back and let his furtive glance stray over that shelf. But now his hand followed the direction of his eye, touched the volume undecidedly, then drew it out. He went back to his chair, laid the book deliberately on the table, and opened it at the title-page—
"FAMOUS POISONING CASES."
* * * * * *
The bells were chiming and clashing when Lawrence Haughton at last lifted his head from that long and studious perusal. All vestige of color had left his face; his eyes had a strange, wild glitter.
"How easy it seems," he said, half aloud; "how easy! And how many have escaped detection?"
The Manor House people never went to church. Lawrence stubbornly refused, and Elinor's plea of ill-health served her as excuse.
On Christmas Day, however, she ordered the carriage and asked Kathleen to accompany Val and herself. Too surprised to refuse and reluctant to ask a reason Mrs. Monteath said, "Yes," with a briskness that seemed to welcome the opportunity. Church attendance was not much in her line, and on the one or two occasions she had presented herself there it had been more as a critic of congregation and service. Both had suffered considerably at her caustic tongue, but she had not indulged herself in Elinor's presence. To-day, the flutter of plumes, and rustling of satins, and general air of ceremony and occasion afforded her infinite entertainment. So, apparently, they did Val, who had come reluctantly to the service and envied Barry's freedom of will in the matter.
During the drive home Elinor alluded to her intended departure. "Would you have any objection to remaining here in charge of Val?" she asked.
"Certainly not. I should be only too delighted."
"Mr. Haughton feared you might consider the responsibility too great."
"Not in the least. The household arrangements, I suppose——"
"Oh, Mrs. Burton would see to them. Of course the large reception rooms would be closed. But the rest of the house would be at your disposal."
Kathleen laughed. "You don't suppose I should be entertaining on my own account? The hall and the library are all and enough for me. But isn't this a rather sudden determination?"
"Yes," answered Elinor. "But I think my husband and I would both be better for a change."
"You have not been here very long."
"No. But I am never well in the winter. The cold does not suit me. I want to try the swallow's plan and fly to summer climes. I am thinking of Cairo."
"How delightful! And it will be such a change of life as well as scene."
"You have never been there in your wanderings, I suppose?"
"No. France and Italy embrace my travels."
"We should probably be away till April," continued Elinor. "If you have the slightest objection to remaining here alone, do not hesitate to say so."
"My dearest Mrs. Haughton, objection! Did I not tell you how forlorn and homeless I was? I should be ungrateful, as well as foolish, to cavil at any plan you made."
"I thought," said Elinor gravely, "that you would miss the attentions—the society. Of course our absence precludes your acceptance of invitations."
"Of course. You don't suppose I should be asked to dinners and dances when your sheltering wings were withdrawn, or that even if the county forgot its duty to the governess, the governess would forget hers to the county."
In her heart she was saying, "If you want to get rid of me, my dear lady, you must say so straight out. No one can be denser at taking an unpalatable hint than your humble servant."
But Elinor was only feeling her ground. She had no absolute reason to mistrust Kathleen Monteath, no absolute fault to find with her attitude towards the position she held, yet the vague uneasiness of yesterday was far from being dispelled. She might exonerate her governess from blame, but she could not deny her attractions.
"When do you start?" asked Kathleen presently.
Elinor glanced at the child, who was listening to the conversation with evident misgivings.
"Nothing is decided yet," she said hurriedly.
"Oh! but chérie, you will take me!" cried Val suddenly. "It is not ever that you go without your poor little child who loves you so?"
"But, dear, you will be quite happy here. You will have Mrs. Monteath to take care of you, and Barry to play with, and you are to learn to ride. I have bought you a little pony, as a Christmas present, and the coachman will teach you. Think of that."
Val did think of it. Such an event in her small life was of a significance that dwarfed a shadowy sorrow. A pony of her own to ride. She went into ecstasies. Then suddenly remembered facts.
"But I cannot ride alone, and Thomas he is old and stupid. I want Barry to ride with me. I do not care for my pony if I do have him alone. May not Barry have one, too, p'tite maman?"
"Dear child!" exclaimed Kathleen. "You must not expect that Barry is to share all your joys and pleasures. As it is, your parents have been far too considerate."
"I also wanted to say," continued Elinor, "that I should prefer you to arrange for Barry to be a weekly boarder with Mr. Friar. It will not distract your attention so much—and Val is more manageable when by herself."
Kathleen felt the color rise to her brow. This was certainly unexpected.
"Of course, if you wish it," she said stiffly. "I am sorry you think his companionship harmful for your little girl."
She scarcely recognised the timid, soft-spoken Elinor in this cold, decided woman. More and more she wondered what had passed between husband and wife.
"Not harmful," said Elinor, in the same measured tones. "But it is a little injudicious to throw them so much together. And a boy is so different."
"Barry is certainly a handful to manage," sighed his mother. "I often fear you have not forgiven him for taking Val off to that place—where was it?—King's Chase? King's House?"
"King John's House," chimed in Val. "It was one most lovely day. I wish there was another of it."
"I shall look after you a little more carefully in future. Another of it would be a little too much," said Mrs. Monteath.
Her eyes were on the wintry landscape. She sat by Elinor's side and wished the long, uncomfortable drive was over.
"You are quite by yourselves to-night?" she asked suddenly.
"Yes. But the children will dine with us. I think Christmas Day entirely a day for one's family."
"You prim little thing, I should like to shake you," thought the governess. "A very melancholy day, I always think it," she said aloud.
"Most anniversaries are that. They always mean looking back on the changes Time has made."
"Yes, and in others too. We all have our landmarks."
"I think it is better not to look back on them."
Elinor's eyes rested on the child. Kathleen Monteath watched them. "That is 'your' landmark," she said to herself. "I wonder what it means?"
* * * * * *
Luncheon meant a period of forced gaiety. Kathleen tried her best to keep the ball of conversation rolling, but it was hard work. The change in Elinor's demeanor made her uneasy, and kept her on her guard towards Lawrence. He, on the other hand, resented secretly his wife's apparent return to health and duty, and her evident determination to leave the Manor.
Could she possibly suspect him? He watched her furtively, yet avoided her eyes and rarely spoke. The situation was decidedly strained, and all Kathleen's tact scarcely bridged a threatened impasse.
She persisted in alluding to the proposed tour, planning the journey, suggesting plans of travel, the necessary outfit, the wonders and delights in store for Elinor. Val listened in dismay. The idea of her mother going to this wonderful land, to those pyramids which towered to an indigo sky from a desert of flame-colored sand, of which she had read in the big illustrated Bible she had discovered. Wild ideas of pursuit rushed to her brain—of hiding under the carriage seat and having to be taken, whether or no, on this journey of marvels—of appeal and insubordination, or dire vengeance on these opposing powers who had decreed home and schoolroom for her instead of liberty.
When luncheon was over she consulted Barry as to plans, but for once met with no encouragement. "Let them go. I shouldn't bother. We'll have no end of a jolly time without 'em," was his response.
Val thought of measured play hours—of one Saturday only in a long week—of the constant supervision of Mary Connor or Madame, and grew restive.
"For you—oh, it will be all very well for you, but what of myself? You are not to come home but once of a week, Saturday, and you return yourself on the Monday morning. Viola; that is all. Not much of a 'jolly time,' as you say, in that."
"Better than nothing. At least we'll have two whole days to ourselves."
Kathleen Monteath meanwhile was longing for the pronouncement of liberty. She wished discussion would give place to decision; that everything was settled and she left in possession, no one to order, no one to fear, no one to consult. Oh, why wouldn't that hateful, foolish Lawrence see that it was the very best thing that could happen. She longed to have a few moments talk with him, but dared not run the risk. On no account must she strengthen suspicion. The whole fabric of her safety lay in Elinor's hands. She could tear it to pieces in a moment if she chose.
But the thought of Lawrence, sullen, and unwilling, and driven desperate, held a fair amount of uneasiness. Who could ever trust a man or be sure how he would act? The highest code of honor has been broken by a mere flesh and blood temptation. And he was so weak. She knew his mental fibre well. It could scarcely bear any strain, any opposition, any tempting.
To get him away from here, to be relieved of his presence, his pursuit, was her present idea of happiness. The air was poisoned by subterfuge, rent by jealous frenzies, the ground on which she walked was a network of pitfalls.
Oh, if he would only go, only leave her to that promised freedom. Would anything bribe him, supposing he proved obstinate? She went over to her window and stood there for long, debating this point. She watched the red glow of sunset through the bare tree boughs, and saw the great spaces of open country between their leafless gaps.
Oh, for even a month of leisure and safety and peace. A month in which brain and nerve might recover mental balance. A month in which she would not have to act, but could play at being her own mistress and live in peace.
As the thought whirled through her brain she saw a figure moving in the distance—a man's figure that passed between the gaunt tree-trunks and then crossed a space of grass and entered a small plantation of young firs.
"It looks like Lawrence Haughton," she said. "Oh, what a chance. If I could see him alone—speak to him—persuade——"
Swift in her actions, as in her moods, she rushed to the wardrobe and seized a hat and cloak. A quarter of an hour later another figure disappeared into the fir plantation.
Beyond the plantation was a thick pine-wood, through which a little track zigzagged amongst dense straggling undergrowth of weeds and withered bracken. It ended abruptly at a low stone wall, one of the boundaries of the park.
Lawrence Haughton was close to this wall when he heard the sound of quick steps and panting breath. He looked round and saw Mrs. Monteath. The blood leaped quickly to his face, then seemed to ebb back to his heart in a swift current of pain. For a moment he grew dizzy and faint, as if by some acute mental shock. When he steadied himself again he could hear the heavy labored beats like hammer strokes in the silence. The hand that pressed his side pressed a spasm of agony that spoke its own warning.
"I saw you walking along," cried Kathleen. "What a pace! One would think you were entering for a foot race."
His eyes flashed. His face regained its normal color. Time, scene, suffering, all merged into that one dominant joy of her presence.
"I want a chat with you," she went on. "Shall we walk here? It is a dreary place, though."
"Not now," he said, and his breath quickened, and the color flushed his cheek hotly. "Not now."
She laughed lightly.
"Oh, you mean that for a compliment! But I'm in no mood for nonsense. I have something serious to say to you, and you have to listen to it. Yes, and agree to it. Promise!"
"I can't promise till I hear what it is."
"Then, shortly and simply, it is that you are to do what your wife desires and put her suspicion to rest. It is not fair that I should suffer for your, let us call it, temporary interest in Mrs. Haughton's governess. Not fair, and not kind to me. I have had a hard life, Mr. Haughton; I have faced trials and enmities such as few women have had to face; I do not choose to bear any more, if I can prevent it. A little plain speaking sometimes saves a great deal of after sorrow. Let me speak plainly. I like your wife, and I do not wish to make her unhappy. She suspects me of—shall we call it—flirtation with you? Nothing more. Well, for that suspicion you are to blame. You must destroy it—nip it in the bud. When we drove home from church this morning I read a change in her manner, a change in her thoughts. She is bent on taking you away from what she considers a danger. I think she is right. I don't profess to be a good woman or a very virtuous one; but at one thing I do draw the line. I will not have any wife lay her husband's sins at my door. I will not step between a man and his duty to the woman he has married!"
Lawrence Haughton listened with something of wonder and anger combined. That poor shadow of duty and honor to which she appealed gained no firmer substance; his shallow nature was incapable of comprehending her reasons for speaking so boldly.
"It is a little late in the day," he said, "to talk to me of duty. You should have thought of that before you drove me to forget it."
"I—drove you?" she cried, angered and amazed.
"Yes, you! Who else? How could I help contrasting you with that poor milk-and-water thing who claims what you call—duty? What should I care for duty? Every smile and look, every word and wile of yours, has driven me further and further away from it. Now, all my life is bounded for you, and you alone. All else is poor and weak. No; I will speak—you have forced me to it. I love you, Kathleen, and only you; you know it, as well as I do. That love is driving me to desperation. I think, breathe, live, only for you and those hours in which I see you. Were I a free man, all that wealth and position can bestow should be flung at your feet, and nothing of their worth would weigh with me against a smile of yours!"
She stamped her foot with sudden anger.
"Will you cease? These words are the words of a madman. I refuse to listen."
"You have made me a madman, then, and you must listen!" he cried fiercely.
With all her coolness and courage she grew alarmed. But she was too wise to show any sign of fear.
"If it's any satisfaction to you to rave like this," she said, "pray do so. Only, I assure you, it hasn't the slightest effect on me."
"You mean to say that you don't care——."
"Not the tiniest atom! Why should I? You hare no such unfortunate attraction for me as I appear to have for you. But I so value my position here, and I care for your wife's peace of mind. You shall not jeopardise either, if I can help it."
His sullen brows lowered over the anger in his eyes. He could have killed her then as she faced him in her fearlessness and lashed him with the cool insolence of her words.
"If—you can prevent it," he repeated slowly. Then he paused and faced her. "But you cannot. I refuse to leave the Manor. If my wife wishes to go abroad, she can go—without me!"
Kathleen's cheek paled. Her lips set themselves firmly. "Are you aware," she said, "that your words are a deliberate insult? I came here trusting you as a gentleman and a man of honor, expecting under your roof the courtesy and protection usually afforded to a lady, whatever her position. Have you no sense of what is due to me, to your wife, to yourself?"
"None," he said—"none. You have destroyed all—everything, except my love for you. It is all my life; I have no thought or wish or hope apart from that."
She turned away impatiently. Every word he spoke, every sign of her mastery over his craven heart, annoyed and disgusted her. Accustomed as she was to deal with men's passions, she found this man a tougher subject than she had bargained for—a more difficult case to handle.
"You poor wretched coward," she muttered. "What am I to do with you?"
He caught the last low-breathed words and construed them as an appeal, instead of a menace. He saw her pause suddenly and lean against the low stone wall, resting on her folded arms, while her eyes gazed moodily into the woodland depths that stretched away to a red and brooding sky. So she stood motionless for a space of moments, and on her face was a look that changed all its soft alluring beauty to desperation. She saw in him an enemy and an obstacle. His obstinacy threatened her with ever recurring dangers; his infatuation was impossible to deal with.
"I wish," she said viciously, "that your wife could hear you. That she knew you as you are."
"It would make no difference," he said.
"It would make the difference of proving who was master here," she said, with a sweeping gesture of her upraised hand. "She would have every right to banish you as unworthy to share her honors or to spoil them."
He grew ashy white. She noted the change, and wondered what random shot had struck home to him. She remembered her always present suspicion of something in his past life, some secret or shame, whose discovery he dreaded.
"What do you mean?" he whispered hoarsely.
He was close behind her now, his hand closed on her wrist with sudden, savage fierceness. She turned; her eyes ablaze, her lips quivering.
"I mean," she said, "that you have a secret to hide, Lawrence Haughton—a secret I have discovered!"
"You?" he faltered guiltily, and the ashen hue crept like a grey shadow over his face. Then he roused himself to an effort of denial, but she had seen the fear in his eyes and pushed her advantage.
"Yes—I. If it were known here by your neighbors your position would suffer materially. Even your wife could not screen you."
"It's a lie!" he cried. "You can't know—anything."
She did not—but she found guesswork an admirable substitute.
"I know enough," she said, "to humiliate you—to place you under my feet."
"Yet—you wish to stay on here—under my roof."
"Your wife's roof, you mean—you are only a tenant at will. Yes, I have my own reasons for wishing to remain here. But I don't desire a scandal about it."
"I know your reason," he sneered. "You think that old dotard will come back—that you can bring him to your feet again. You still hope to be 'my lady' queen up at the Park yonder. But you won't find it so easy to fool him a second time. Peeresses need a clean family record, and he knows you cannot show that."
"He knows! Then it was you who told him."
She flung off his hand, as if its touch scorched her. The flame and wrath of her hot Irish temper blazed out at last and terrified him. The flood of her words held him dumb, marvelling at the source of so eloquent a torrent. It was useless to try to stop its flow of abuse and defiance. He shrank back, conscious still of a wild and passionate admiration of this force of hers, thrilled with a mad desire to seize this tigress in his arms and kiss the quivering lips into silence or submission. She roused in him a sense of manhood. A longing to master her, to conquer her defiance, set every force of his nature quivering with a passion hitherto unknown.
Oh! for one moment to hold her, conquered and subdued, that lovely form crushed to his breast, those mocking lips silenced by his own; to throw back that taunt of cowardice, to force acknowledgment of strength, even the strength of mere sex against sex, and then—come death, come madness, it mattered not.
In moments such as these the pagan man leaps all boundaries of civilisation and creed and the tutoring of generations. He is still the savage who fought his enemy for food, and captured his love for lust, and bore her, even as he bore his prey, to some primitive retreat, there to be tamed and subdued to his mastery in the solitude of primeval forests.
He felt the blood race through his veins, a red mist swam before his eyes. For a moment silence reigned. Her rage had exhausted her; her breath came in swift, uneven gasps, and one choking, hysterical sob caught her throat and proved her still but woman.
Then, with a sudden loud laugh, he threw his arms around her. "You beautiful termagant," he cried savagely. "At least you shall pay for your insolence."
She felt the brutal force of those compelling arms, the fever passion of the lips that crushed her cry to silence. Then, with every pulse of outraged womanhood stung to desperation, she forced her own arms to freedom and struck wildly, blindly, at his down-bent face.
She had some dim memory of a gasp, a sudden relaxation, then she had wrenched herself away from the outrage of his clasp, and was flying at headlong speed, neither knowing nor heeding where her feet bore her, so long as she was free of that hateful presence.
The dinner bell had rung for the second time and yet the master of the house had not appeared.
Kathleen Monteath had purposely delayed her own entrance and safeguarded that with Val's company.
She stood by the fireplace talking to Elinor, a feverish flush on her cheek, a strange brightness in her restless eyes. Every nerve was strained listening for that footstep she hated and dreaded to hear, and as moment succeeded moment the tension was almost unbearable. Elinor gave audible expression to her wonder. It was unusual for Lawrence to be late. She sent a servant to the library: but he was not there nor in his dressing-room. His evening clothes were laid out, so it was evident he had not dressed for dinner. Could he possibly be still out of doors?
"He told me he was going for a walk after lunch," said Elinor uneasily. "But I never knew him to remain out so late as this—Christmas night, too!"
The dinner was put back for another quarter of an hour—a miserable 15 minutes, spent in alternate surmises or gaps of silence, to which every passing sound lent ominous suggestion.
The children were manifestly impatient and hungry. Yet Elinor could not bring herself to commence dinner on such an occasion without the ostensible head of the house. The drawing-room windows faced the avenue. She stood gazing out or walking between them and the fireplace, ears and eyes alike keen for every sound that might mean Lawrence.
Her movements, her restlessness, her perpetual comments irritated Kathleen's overstrung nerves almost to breaking point. The dread of the approaching ordeal was bad enough without all this suspense. Elinor began to talk of accidents at last, and was not to be convinced that an absence extending over so important a function as a Christmas Day dinner could be otherwise explained. If it had been an ordinary day she would have dispatched some of the men servants in different directions; but they, too, had their plans for Christmas enjoyment and she felt reluctant to break them up.
The children at last persuaded her to have dinner, but as the meal passed through its courses she showed but poor pretence of enjoyment. With every additional five minutes her anxiety increased; she could scarcely sit still. She could not talk about any other subject, and at sight of the plum pudding begged Kathleen to excuse her. She must give some orders about a search. She felt sure an accident had happened.
Kathleen Monteath breathed more freely when she had left the room. A vague uneasiness was creeping over her own distracted and outraged feelings. What had he done—where had he gone? She had some remembrance of a fall, a crash of the brushwood and bracken, but her rage and indignation had only left the idea of flight in her mind, and she had never supposed that Lawrence would do anything save pick himself up and get back to the house.
He had not done so evidently. Was he frightened to face her, or fearful of his wife, or did he suppose Kathleen was tactless enough to go straight to Elinor and inform her of that mad confession?
That anything had happened to him she did not believe. Perhaps shame or cowardice had prevented his return. It might be harder for him to act indifference than for her. He might have felt the ordeal of facing two women he had wronged to be beyond his powers of deception. She counted up all these possibilities, yet could not name them to his wife. Perhaps he was walking off his rage and would turn up when the household had retired.
It was a miserable evening. Even Val began to share her mother's uneasiness and took less pleasure in Barry's company. Music was impossible; even the talk of the children became irksome, and Kathleen, growing compassionate for the poor, nervous woman's sufferings, suggested they should go upstairs to the nursery and she would amuse them. She was wearied of Elinor's perpetual, "Do you think this?" or "Suppose that," or "Perhaps the other." Wearied and yet anxious. Surely the man had done nothing foolish? He was desperate enough, and there had been a look on his face that might well have cowed a stronger woman than herself. However, she was used to violent tragedies and better able to cope with them than Elinor. She resolutely thrust aside that one fear of suicide, and read to the children and told them stories until it was time to go to bed.
When persuasion had effected this difficult matter she rang for Mary Connor to take charge of Val.
The face of that personage brimmed with mysterious excitement.
"It's mortal queer what's after happening to the master," she said. "Search parties have been through the park with torches and the dogs let loose to track him, and never sight nor sound anywhere. Mr. Hibbs, he hasn't seen nor heard of him, nor anyone at the vicarage, nor the farmers round about. The stable boys, they've been riding round for the last hour. The mistress is getting mighty uneasy at last. She's mortal sure there's been an accident."
"Nonsense!" cried Kathleen sharply. "What accident? A strong, healthy man—and one who knows every mile of the country."
"He may have been set upon by tramps, or robbed—or something worse," said Mary, as if desirous of finding comforting suggestions.
"Not likely. There are few bad characters round here. And he is so well known, there'd be a hue and cry directly."
"I mind me," said Mary Connor slowly, "of a sayin' that some people always brings the bad luck with 'em. Wherever they go something terrible is bound to happen. It's not their fault, in a way, only their misfortune; same as cross-eyes, and clubfoots, and such like troubles. (God's pity on them, poor souls!) But as I was sayin', ma'am, with the memory of what passed between the two of us on the night you first put foot in the place, it's not comfortable I feel in my own mind."
Kathleen turned her white face to the speaker.
"You mean that I am to blame again?"
"Begging your pardon, ma'am, and without wishing to be disrespectful, it's more than a little queer that another family should be plunged into trouble so soon after your coming to stay in the house, and it's the master again. And I'm sure to see that poor white ghost of a creature below there, cryin' and sighin' and worryin' herself into a fever. Well, it's not very cheerful company for Christmas time, and you must allow that yourself, ma'am."
"I don't allow that I'm to blame for it," said Kathleen.
"Not by your own will or making, I wouldn't be saying that. But sure, ma'am, you known as well as I do that 'tis the ill-luck you have; and it follows you even across sea and land. I said as much when I found you were here—though with a different name and the old story forgotten by reason of the time, and no one to bring it up to your disfavor. For never a hint would I give after my promise."
"I am glad you kept your promise. It was hard enough for me to struggle on against that load or suspicion. If it had broken out again——"
"But that's what I'm saying. It can't be buried. It can't help following you. It's as sure as Saint Patrick's Day, that those that cause the ill-luck must carry it with them to their graves. When I saw you here I said to myself, 'There's misfortune to follow,' and sure, here it is right upon us. And if my own memory serves me, ma'am, it's on another Christmas time, same as before! No wonder I trembled in my bed this same midnight when the bells began clashing and ringing, for the feeling came over me that there was trouble in the air, and in the house, and even when I saw you and the mistress driving off with yourselves to church this morning I could not get it out of my head that the black shadow was over us."
"I think you are talking foolishly. It will be time enough to speak of misfortune when something more than a few hours' absence is accountable for your forebodings."
"You don't think then that anything has happened to the master?"
"I'm sure there hasn't. He probably went for a longer walk than he intended, or has lost his way, or finding it was too late for dinner stopped at some friend's. There might be a dozen reasons without a catastrophe."
"You ought to know, ma am," said Mary significantly. "Yes, and you're right maybe. 'Tis you saw the last of him."
Kathleen started. Her eyes met those calm, shrewd Irish ones with a look of sudden terror.
"I—What on earth do you mean—woman?"
"Nothing on earth or under Heaven but the truth. I saw you go into the fir plantation this afternoon."
"Well—what of that?"
"Only just this, ma'am, that the master was there first, and you was walking mighty fast for one as had no special need to hurry. It's not unnatural to suppose you came up with him or passed a word together. Yet—you said nothing of that matter to the mistress?"
"There was no need. Mr. Haughton was going for a long walk. I came home by the—avenue."
"True for you, for I saw you. And in mighty haste you was—and your face all flushed and wild looking."
"You spy. How dare you watch me—accuse me—insult me. What right have you to insinuate——"
She stopped abruptly, ashamed of herself betrayal. But what nerves could stand such tortures as hers had undergone this day.
She sank into a chair and a storm of hysterical sobs shook her from head to foot; a storm of mingled anguish and terror and remorse. The woman by her side looked pityingly at her. Such distress appealed to her more than the "queenly airs" of which she had accused this distraught creature.
"There, ma'am, stop now. I wasn't meaning to distress you like this," she said soothingly. "You'll be waking the child; and then there's eyes and ears for you as would get through the mystery of a stone wall. Calm yourself—do now. Maybe I shouldn't have said what I did. It was the thought of that other time and all it brought back. But sure it's past and gone now. And maybe the master will be on his way home by this time; and what's the use of working yourself into a fever like this? Take a gulp o' water, now do—and sure, if I haven't forgot me message all this time. The mistress herself was asking for you to come down to her bedroom and stay with her."
Kathleen drank the water and by a strong effort choked back those strangling sobs.
"It was silly of me," she said. "But I am a little overwrought, and your words——"
"Sure, you needn't be minding them at all. I'm not meaning any harm to ye. Only, putting things together, it did look a bit—queer."
Kathleen lifted her head and dashed away the tears.
"That's just the worst of it—it does look queer. And I can't explain. I did see Mr. Haughton for a few moments, but then—I left him and went my own way. Where he has gone or what has happened I know no more than you do."
"I'm not saying you do know, but it's the keeping of that meeting a secret from my lady that looks strange. If you had said to her——"
"Oh, hush! I really can't bear any more. I see it now, of course. But at the time—why, every moment I thought he would turn up. However, I had better tell Mrs. Haughton that I saw him in the plantation."
She rose unsteadily. She looked so worn and ill that Mary's reluctant sympathy went out to her.
"Indeed, then, it's meself that hopes, for all our sake," she said, "that nothing has really happened to the master. A new scandal has a mighty unpleasant way of raking up an old one along with it. 'Tis best that sleepin' dogs lie when they're sleepin'! I'm thinking of you, ma'am. If anything should have gone wrong here, as it did at the Roche's, that time——"
A shudder ran through the stately figure; the white hand clenched the chair back as if for support.
"For God's sake, don't hint at such a thing. It would mean my ruin."
"It would that same," said Mary Connor slowly. "And I'm sorry for you, ma'am, if the other story has to come out."
"Why—why should it?"
"Ah, God knows why. It's the queer way of things—and their contrariness. But my mouth's closed accordin' to promise—unless——"
The quick look asked a question that the lips could not utter.
"Unless," went on Mary Connor steadily, "I'm forced to speak. Not for you, ma'am, nor any living creature, though I pitied them from my soul, could I lie about—that!"
Night closed in; the men returned. Each told the same tale—no one had seen Lawrence Haughton. No news was to be gleaned from any farm, or village, or house, within a reasonable radius.
Elinor sat in stony silence now, neither weeping nor speaking. From the moment that Kathleen Monteath had told her of a chance meeting, a few words, and then that "parting of the ways," she felt a conviction of the truth. Her husband had left her.
That weak nature had been unable to withstand a second temptation. What had the mild tenderness of domestic love in common with a passion fiery and unprincipled? His desperation had driven him to desert home and wife and child; of that she felt as assured as if his own lips had told her. The question now was of her own course of action.
Some scandal was inevitable, the news of Lawrence's disappearance would be common talk next day. People would call—the Manor was too important to be disregarded, although it had held itself aloof from the county—there would be enquiry, discussion, wonder. How were they to be met?
Kathleen Monteath watched her with ever deepening pity. It was hard, indeed, that this gentle soul should be tortured by one so undeserving of affection or even respect as Lawrence Haughton.
All that was best in her own undisciplined nature went out in a great surging wave of sympathy as she shared with her that lonely midnight vigil. He was so unworthy—so utterly unworthy. That was the sting of the whole matter—the thought that roused her soul to bitterness and resentment, that made her long to tell the whole dishonoring truth, and bid this patient sufferer see him for what he was.
But Kathleen Monteath did not know that it was because his wife knew the unworthiness of this life linked with her own that she suffered so intensely.
It is given strongly to some women that protecting tenderness for what is weak and unstable, the feeling that the burden must be borne, not shared, that the feeble arms must lift it for the feeble nature, and yet march beside it, holding in silence for peace sake.
Better than Kathleen herself did Elinor Haughton know the shallowness and cowardice of the man to whom her young life had been given, by whom that life had been disgraced. But who, beside herself, could know how deep had pierced the iron of his ingratitude; the base return for her patient love, her forgiveness of his crime, her lavish bounty, and her many acts of self-sacrifice. Yet all these had been as nothing beside the mere beauty of a woman who had come into his life for scarce as many months as she had claimed years.
"If only I could make you believe that I am not to blame," Kathleen had cried, with passionate reiteration. And in her heart Elinor felt that this was true. Felt it, too, with a new sharp sting of self-reproach.
In trying to save her husband in one way, she had harmed him in another. Her plea of ill-health, her many absences, her avoidance of society, for his sake, had only exposed him to the charm of new companionship and thrown him into a new temptation.
She was far too sensible to blame Kathleen for her unconscious rivalry, and jealousy was a passion too ignoble to touch her heart or fire her to a recriminating word. In a way she felt sorry for this woman, who had known trials and troubles also, who had come here as to a haven of rest, and now found herself in a position that was both compromising and difficult.
The night wore on and Kathleen still shared her watch, still tried to cheer her with hopes of tidings that the coming day might bring. It was she who kept in the fire and wrapped the slight form in warmer garb, and insisted on administering hot soup and wine at intervals of that long night vigil; she who, when sleep came at last and the weary lids drooped over the tired and burning eyes, placed the pillows so comfortably and watched so patiently by the sleeper's side.
Her own stronger physique rendered her impervious to fatigue and indifferent to rest. But for all her apparent hopefulness her own mind was on the rack, and the new day brought no news of any description to relieve it.
It dawned wet and dismal, with the wind sighing an ever dreary anthem among the treetops, the cawing rooks added their own chorus as they rocked on bare boughs or flitted from one swaying elm to another.
The post brought no news, and when the steward called, full of anxiety and surmise, Elinor entreated Kathleen to see him. That was only one of many interviews the day produced, all more or less trying, but each and all comparatively fruitless so far as any real knowledge of the absentee was concerned.
"Of one thing I am sure," said Kathleen, as dusk drew on and the welcome sight of the tea-table, set in Elinor's dressing-room, struck a cheerful note in the day's despondent dirge. "Of one thing I am sure," she repeated, "and it is that no accident has happened to him. All our fears of tramps were needless. We should have heard by this time if any outrage had been committed."
Elinor was lying on a couch, pale and wan, her eyes circled by dark shadows. But not even anxiety or a sleepless night had robbed Kathleen Monteath of physical charm. If her cheek owned to a shade less color, that rather added to the brilliance of her eyes and enhanced the lustre of her crowning hair. It struck Elinor again, as it had struck her at intervals during those past months, what a wonderfully beautiful woman this was.
As she took the carefully-prepared cup of tea (every detail of special taste in its manipulation had long since been mastered by Kathleen) she signed involuntarily.
"You look," she said, "as radiant and as beautiful as if sorrow and you had never been acquainted."
"I!" exclaimed Kathleen. "Oh, my dear Elinor, never judge an Irish person by their looks. They may die with a heartbreak, but they'll die with a smile and a jest all the same. I suppose it's their nature. But don't suppose that we suffer any the less, individually, or that our dark moods are less black because we pretend to think the sunshine lasts 24 hours in the day."
"The sunshine—" a little pale smile touched the wan face—"one gets to be thankful if it lasts even an hour as life goes on."
"I should like to bathe you in it, for weeks at a time, if I could!" exclaimed Kathleen energetically. "Heart, body, soul, all of you! God knows you deserve it."
Her eyes were brimming with sudden swift tears as she looked at the patient face, the haggard lines that grief and watching had drawn already above the delicate arched brows.
Elinor looked at her in surprise.
"Do you mean to say that you really care for me?" she asked.
"You're about the only woman I've ever known who's worth caring for!" exclaimed Kathleen. "And I mean that with all my heart. When I think of your spontaneous kindness to me, and all you have done, and your fondness, and then see what a return I seem to have made, I could——"
Her voice broke. The sincerity of her emotions for once defied concealment.
"I am glad you say 'seem,'" answered Elinor softly. "For I have many memories of you that have nothing to do with this—unfortunate occurrence. And I should like to think that we are still friends."
Kathleen started, the cup shook in her trembling hand, and she put it back on the table.
"Friends? Do you mean—Oh, but that's impossible!'"
"Impossible for two women with whom life has dealt hardly to be—friends? Why should it be?'"
"Because—Oh, don't you know what will be said of me?"
"I do not know, and I am not very likely to hear. You have been with me in my trouble, it is surely not strange that I should desire to keep you—perhaps until there will be no need to fear the touch of trouble ever again."
"Oh, my dear, but it can't be! A little while ago there was nothing I dreaded so much as the thought of leaving here, of facing the world again. But now it seems the right, the only thing to do. Why should I throw the evil shadow of my life over yours?"
"Why should the shadow of your life be evil?"
"It is. I can't help it. It's Fate I suppose. Wherever I go I bring misfortune. My influence is not a good one. Ask Mary Connor, if you don't believe me. She would tell you that I ought never to have come here."
"Kathleen—what are you saying? I took you on trust because I pitied you so because that frank lovely face of yours appealed to me as no other woman's face had ever done. Don't tell me I was deceived, that my trust was misplaced."
Again Kathleen's only reply was that dogged one—"Ask Mary Connor."
"Is it possible you can so misjudge me? Do you think I would ask from a servant the secret that a friend withholds?"
"Have I been a friend to you in any way? I entered your house under misrepresentation. I have broken up your peace. I have done you the greatest wrong one woman can do another. Oh, Elinor. Why do you force me to speak? God knows the wrong was an unwilling one, but all the same, it is done, and I am the doer. Any woman but yourself would have ordered me out of the house without an hour's notice."
Elinor smiled faintly. "My life has never been ordered on the lines of any other woman. I am glad of that. I could not help liking you, Kathleen, from the first moment I saw you. Perhaps by force of contrast to myself; I so weak and frail, you so strong and glorious. Nothing could alter my feeling except your own confession that you had wronged me with a purpose. But—that you have not done. If even a woman can't help loving and admiring you, surely a man may be excused."
Kathleen slipped on to her knees beside the low chair and put her strong, warm arms about the little figure. "It is women like you," she said, "who make one believe in God and life, and—and better things. But I have only done you harm, and in the future—what is left for me to do?"
"Help me to bear my burden," said Elinor, with sudden passion. "Stand between me and my heart emptiness! Prove that a woman's love has some meaning in it, since a man's has failed so utterly."
Kathleen drew herself away, then rose and stood silent for a moment, gazing down at the pleading face. "I—I cannot," she went on tempestuously, "Supposing he—returns?"
A wave of crimson swept the pallor of Elinor's transparent cheek.
"Is that—likely?" she asked.
"I think it is. Remember all he has left. All he will miss and need. Perhaps a day, a week, may bring tidings. Then—this would be no place for me."
"Would it be strange to live our lives together until that return?"
"Strange? Well, I think so. I never expected you would exonerate me from blame or regard me without suspicion. Besides——"
"You need not mention Mary Connor again. What you choose to tell I will listen to—no more, no less. But from no one else would I ask or accept confidence."
"How generous you are. I hardly know what to say."
"As yet, there is no need to say anything except that you will remain on here. Anything further we can decide when circumstances force us."
Kathleen dashed the tears from her eyes. It seemed so strange that what she desired, what she would almost have schemed to obtain, was freely and spontaneously given.
When she spoke her voice was low and broken. "I will stay," she said, "and with all my heart I will help you and try to cheer your life. You have not been treated well, and I am the cause. The only thing left for me is to atone. If I could only feel sure that in your heart you do not blame me for this awful trouble!"
"I should not ask you to remain if I did. Besides, for both our sakes, it is best to hide the real truth from the world outside these walls."
"That is true, and wise too!" exclaimed Kathleen eagerly. "Some day I am sure he will write and explain. Until then it is best to let things remain as they are."
"I think he will write," said Elinor. "But I hardly fancy he can—explain. I wish the suspense was over. It is the not knowing where he is, what he intends to do, that is so trying."
"Tell me," entreated Kathleen, turning towards her with sudden passion. "Is your heart bound up in this man? Do you really love him? Oh, don't say 'He is my husband, therefore I owe him duty.' Love is better than any duty, because it makes its own right or wrong. And how can one love what is unworthy—despicable? Men win us and sin against us, and hurt and humiliate us, and consider we should sit silent and bear it all because the law has made us their property. What law can recreate love? What law can blind our eyes and senses to the offence and outrage a man's whole life may become? What law can force us to accept moral dishonor and excuse moral treachery? Were Lawrence Haughton my husband——"
She paused. That white face, those sad, imploring eyes, smote her lips to silence as a blow might have done.
"I—I beg your pardon," she faltered. "I had no right to speak so. Forgive me."
Elinor held out her hand. "It is all quite true," she said, "but we do not look at things in quite the same way—you and I. Because one fails in a bargain, must the other also prove false? Because one forgets honor and obligation? must the other prove equally base? Duty stands first in my estimation, Kathleen. The right thing seems to me the only thing to do. What I have excused and forgiven in my husband is a stronger tie than any romantic feeling. That died long ago. I vowed to stand between him and a life long penance. I must keep my vow. The day may come when he will be glad of home and shelter and peace. And those he will always find where I am."
"You are a true wife," exclaimed Kathleen. "But also," she added, half-indignantly, "a true martyr. You are too good for these degenerate days."
Elinor shook her head, smiling through a sudden mist of tears. "Good—oh, no. I suppose I am faithful because I cannot help it. Because I share his secret."
The word slipped out unconsciously. Its significance reached her in the wondering look that flashed from Kathleen's eyes.
She grew suddenly pale, then hurried on. "His secret—heart," she said. "I know him—his weakness and his faults; but a mother does not love her child less because of faults or weakness, and there are men who, if we love them, seem to us only as children. Their mental nature is dwarfed, their sins are those of an undeveloped character. They never reach the fuller, nobler growth of manhood, yet none the less they are men—the men we call husbands, but to whom always, in a way, we are only mothers."
A sharp knock at the door interrupted her. Kathleen hurried to open it. Mary Connor stood there.
"The footman gave me this to bring the mistress," she said. "'Twas left at the back entrance by a boy, who gave it in and ran straight off with himself."
"This," was a dirty-looking envelope. It was addressed to Elinor.
Kathleen brought it to her and watched her fingers trembling over the fastening.
"It is—his—handwriting," she gasped.
A swift word of thankfulness burst from Kathleen's lips. She had scarcely known how deep her anxiety had been till that moment.
Elinor's eyes flashed over the words, taking in the sense more than the actual expression. The note was short. Yet no brevity could have been more callous or less brutally indifferent to the pain inflicted.
"Dear Nell," it said—
"Doubtless you've been wondering what's become of me. The truth is I fell in with some rather jolly fellows I know on Christmas night, and drove to the town and stayed at the hotel and made a night of it. Haven't had such a glorious time since I was a bachelor. Rather knocked me up, though. I'm off to London to-day, I've some business there. Send me a cheque for £100, care of your London bankers. I'll write again.
The paper dropped from Elinor's hand. She looked at Kathleen's eager face and a little bitter smile crept to her lips.
"Only a storm in a tea-cup," she said. "He is quite safe—in London."
"In London! But Christmas Day—that awful evening!"
"I was foolish to be so anxious. You may read what he says."
Kathleen's eyes flamed as she scanned the pencilled words.
"A jolly night of it!" she echoed. "And you——"
"It wasn't exactly hilarious for me, or you, was it?" said Elinor. "But it only proves what foolish, fussing things women are."
* * * * * *
An hour later Elinor was sleeping the deep dreamless sleep of exhaustion, and Kathleen Monteath, relieved of further anxiety, went back to her own room.
She opened her journal and read its last entries. Her brain was in a whirl of excitement. The callous brutality of this man seemed to her an outrage on all decency and honor. How could Elinor be so meek and forbearing? What was there in this secret they shared that linked their lives in such unequal bondage? In passionate, forcible sentences she dashed down the story of that scene in the woods, her compact of friendship, the arrival of the letter, and her opinion of the man's brutal indifference to all his wife had undergone.
"As for me," she wrote, "I am only sorry he didn't end his useless
life as he was about it. Heavens above! Who can respect men? Even
their highest attitude of feeling holds them no longer than its frenzy
of desire. The grief for which they claim our pity can find solace
in a brutal orgie! Here is a man indifferent to every sense of moral
obligation, able to half-kill his wife with suffering and suspense,
bent only on dissipation and self-indulgence, and without even an
apology for his action demanding her money as his right. If I were your
wife, Mr. Lawrence Haughton, I hardly think you would find that cheque
you so coolly ask for. I should leave you to your own resources for a
"I wonder if he intends to remain in London? I wonder if that plan of wintering abroad will hold good now? Only in that case can I remain. It wouldn't be possible to stay on if he returned. Even Elinor could hardly expect that. Poor woman! Driven between the shafts of duty and friendship; clinging so steadfastly to her ideal of what is right, no matter how hard it is. I wonder at her, and I pity her; and as much as it is in me to love another of my unhappy sex I love her. And yet again I sigh—Poor Woman!"
* * * * * *
"How I pray that Lawrence Haughton may remain away. Surely his wife cannot have any strong desire to accompany him, or go to him, after all this? Her health might well excuse her now, for she seems quite broken down. Where does she get that stock of beautiful patience—that power of extenuating faults—that wonderful faith in what is best in human nature? I declare, to-night, I felt quite Christianised, and almost inclined to believe myself. She—believes in me; thank God for that! I may need the sheet-anchor of a woman's trust ere many years go by. Such small things, such mere accidents, might plunge me into desperate straits once more—and where in this callous world shall I find another Elinor?
"Well, my conscience absolves me for once. I gave her the opportunity of finding out all about me, did she choose. She wouldn't do it. Was anything ever so sublimely Quixotic as that little speech of hers to-night? 'What you choose to tell I will listen to; no more, no less. From no one else would I accept confidence.'
"Oh, dear little woman, I wish I was worthier of your trust. I wish I could feel that in accepting it I need fear no reproach in days to come. And, above all, I wish the more desperately because the more vainly, that you were not tied to that cowardly brute whose very presence in your house seems a desecration."
* * * * * *
She blotted the page and closed it. Then her head fell on her folded arms, and she sat in that attitude for long, thinking—only thinking. Perhaps it was as well that in all those thoughts and the maze through which they dragged her she yet gained no suspicion of the course Lawrence Haughton intended to pursue—of the form his vengeance was about to take.
For some days the two women kept to the house and grounds, dreading curiosity or enquiry, which even Elinor felt would be inevitable.
She sent Lawrence the cheque he had requested, wondering somewhat that his quarterly allowance had not sufficed for his needs. She had heard no more after that brief letter, although she wrote, telling him of the anxiety and suspense his unexplained absence had given her.
A week later he wrote again, to the effect that if she still intended to winter abroad she had better make her own arrangements as to a travelling companion. He was going to stay with some friends in Ireland for the winter. The letter arrived at breakfast time. It so surprised Elinor that she quoted the last paragraph to Mrs. Monteath.
"Spend the winter in Ireland," echoed Kathleen, and something of the rich bloom paled in her cheek. "I thought he knew no one there?"
"They must be recent acquaintances. I never heard him speak of any Irish friends."
"Does he mention what part of Ireland?" asked Kathleen.
"No." She folded up the letter and went on with her breakfast.
"I feel as if I ought not to discuss him," she said presently, "and yet, how can I help it? You know my unhappy position. You see how every day, every week, intensifies it. I cannot remain here. I propose that for a year, we, Lawrence and myself, should live apart. That will give us both time to consider the position into which we have drifted. It will also silence scandal, for people will imagine I am with him. Of course I cannot go abroad alone. Will you come with me, and we will take Val? Barry is safe enough with Mr. Friar. But I should not object to his accompanying us, if you would prefer it."
"My dear Elinor," exclaimed Kathleen. "You certainly are the most generous of women. Your scheme is so admirable that my only feeling is I ought not to accept it. Yet—how can I refuse. As you say, you cannot go alone; and I—well, if I can do nothing else I understand you and can look after your comfort—and we get on well, don't we?"
"I wish I could tell you how much you have added to my comfort," said Elinor earnestly. "I wish words were not such poor things when one wants to express feeling."
"And I—I wish you had a little less feeling and a much greater sense of your own good qualities, dear little woman. But as you'll never recognise yourself as the 'house angel' you are, I can only rest content under the shadow of your beneficent wings, and thank Heaven for them."
"A truce to pretty speeches," smiled Elinor. "You are a true daughter of Erin with that flattering tongue. But we don't need words, my dear. I think you are inspiring me with a little of your own spirit. I am becoming rebellious."
"It is about time," said Kathleen significantly.
"So I shall make my own plans, and you shall help me to carry them out. The Manor House must be shut up once more, and Mr. Hibbs can look after the tenants. I'll leave Burton and his wife in charge, and we and Val will go abroad."
"No. I have altered my mind. We will go to the Riviera. There are some lovely spots where the tourist and the restless English never intrude. There I will find me a villa and we will make a home for a year. When the weather gets too warm, there is Switzerland to fly to."
"It sounds delightful," said Kathleen.
"We will try and make it what it sounds. Also, I propose relieving you, for a time, of the charge of Val. I will engage a French governess for her. I am selfish enough to wish to keep you to myself."
Kathleen's eyes brimmed suddenly. "Well might I call you an angel!" she said.
"That is scarcely wise—yet," said Elinor, with her slow, sweet smile.
She turned again to the letter by her side. "This puzzles me more than I can say. Of all places in the world, with the continents of Europe and America at his disposal, to go to—Ireland!"
A sudden hot flush crept to Kathleen's brow. She bent over the tea-cups to hide her face. A hateful suspicion sprang to life, fired by those chance words.
"I know why he has gone," she thought in her heart. "He wants to find out my story. And if he does——"
She rose abruptly from the table. "Elinor," she said, "before your plans are decided, before I agree, there must be perfect confidence between us. I must tell you all there is to tell about—myself. Even if I forfeit your good opinion, even if it means our eternal severance. I must speak."
Elinor rose also, pale and startled. "Do not talk of severance," she said. "Better you should never tell me than destroy my faith in you."
"It is because of that faith I must tell you. If it can stand the test, then, indeed, Elinor Haughton, you are what I called you—'an angel among women.'"
Very grave, very pale, was the face that looked up at her own, but the clear eyes held still then gentle trust.
"Come with me then," she said, "and I will hear your story. Perhaps it is best there should be perfect confidence between us at last."
When Val's music lesson was over Kathleen sent her for a walk with Mary Connor. Then she went to Elinor's room and knocked for admission.
As she entered she gave one long look around the pretty apartment, half boudoir, half dressing-room, which was the favorite retreat of the mistress of the Manor. Its big chintz-covered sofa, its deep-cushioned chairs, its writing-table and book-case, and pictures and china, its general old-fashioned air of comfort, appealed to Kathleen Monteath on this morning as they had never appealed before. Perhaps, for the first time she saw herself regarding them under a new aspect.
Elinor was lying back on the couch among cushions of rose-patterened chintz, with huge frills, which she had employed herself in making during long hours of lonely invalidism. She had some work now in her hands and smiled as Kathleen entered.
"Sit there," she said, pointing to a chair beside the fire, "and let me hear this dreadful confession. You see, there are no adjuncts to help you. It is cold unromantic daylight, and I am doing plain sewing!"
For once Kathleen did not smile. She avoided Elinor's eyes. Then she took the chair and seating herself, kept her face somewhat averted and her eyes on the fire.
"And I," she said, "must do some plain talking—the plainer the better. I don't wish to appeal to your sympathies. I wish only to show you that my sins have not been entirely of my own bringing about. To begin with, I had to earn my own living from the time I left school. I had two situations—one in Ireland, one in France—before I was engaged as governess by a Mrs. Roche. She, like yourself, had one child—a girl. She, also like yourself, was extremely delicate. They lived in a very lonely part of Ireland, in the county of Waterford, and saw little society.
"Before I had been there very long I saw that she and her husband were not living on very good terms. He was a hot-headed, passionate man, she a vain, fanciful, and imaginative woman. He chose to pay more attention to me than she approved of, and she chose to be jealous of me in consequence. My position grew daily more difficult. I was unable to avoid misconception, and yet most anxious to be friends with both husband and wife. Elinor, you have spoken sometimes of my looks—my appearance—what you call my beauty. Oh, there have been hours in my life when I have cursed that beauty; when I have wished that God had made me the plainest of women, so only that I might have kept myself free from men's shameful pursuit, from men's whispered dishonor. Again and again have such things been my fate, leading me on to danger, proving me guilty of intent when I have only been thoughtless or indifferent.
"This man, Sharman Roche, spread a net for my feet that I was too heedless to perceive. He played on my sympathy for his loneliness—my appreciation of his many considerate attentions and generous thought. We were much together, partly on account of his wife's inability to enjoy outdoor pursuits, partly because I could ride, walk, play tennis, do all or any of the things natural to young healthy girlhood, and she could not."
"The result," interposed Elinor, "was inevitable."
"The result," exclaimed Kathleen Monteath, with sudden passion, "was disgrace and horror; a tragedy; a something that has overshadowed my whole life—that placed me in a criminal dock for twenty-four hours—that killed all my girlhood's faith and youth out of me, and left me a woman, desperate and hardened—her hand, her heart, her soul in wholesale revolt against the sex whose cruel persecution of a woman's beauty had stopped at nothing short of her moral destruction."
The work had fallen now from Elinor's hands. She was sitting, pale and anxious-eyed, gazing intently on the passionate quivering face and clasped hands of the woman she had desired as friend.
"Tragedy!" she echoed.
"Yes. He chose to think he loved me. Coldness and avoidance only fanned his passion. His wife, she could not but see. Then came a day—an awful scene. She—she was found dead, Elinor. Her last words had been an accusation. I too—what could I do but accuse him. He, that same night, committed suicide. Scandal was rife in the household, servants talked. There was a public enquiry—a doubt whether I had not poisoned the woman. I! Think of it, Elinor. Imagine the horror and disgrace enveloping my life; stamping my future with infamy. One man came to my rescue. He paid all expenses and engaged a famous barrister, who undertook the case. He won it, and I was safe and set free, but with a name smirched by scandal and a story ringing throughout the country. This man offered to marry me—to give me his name—to hush up the scandal—to relieve me from future need to work for my living. I did not care for him. But I was grateful for all he had done, and I—I consented."
The faint exclamation that fell from Elinor's lips brought Kathleen's eyes to her pitying face.
"You are sorry for me?"
"Oh, my dear—my dear."
"Wait, Elinor, wait. You have not heard all. I—I only lived with my husband one year. I—I came here under a false name. I—I am not a widow, only a divorced woman."
There was a moment's breathless silence. Then she went on pitilessly still, as if determined to tell the worst of herself.
"Wherever I have lived, whatever I have done, my face has always been my enemy. It seems to attract the worst men, or the worst side of them to me, and plunge me into fresh troubles. Even here——"
Elinor shuddered. "I know that was not your fault."
"But it has not saved you from suffering; it has not averted another tragedy. Think of that Christmas night—and now, even though you seem so brave and calm, you suffer. It seems my fate. Wherever I go a shadow follows me. The shadow of trouble and evil fortune. Ask Mary Connor—as I told you. She has the superstition of her race, and to her I am as much an omen of ill as a magpie or a banshee, or any other Irish symbol of bad luck."
"Yet in all this story," said Elinor, "I cannot see that you are guilty. You have been the victim of other's sins, not of your own."
"The distinction is too fine to be apparent to most people, Elinor. No woman's shame can withstand so many scandals as mine has drawn upon it. Do you see now what a godsend your advertisement was, and why I wrote that audacious letter? I wanted to get out of Ireland, away from everything connected with my past life. The quiet, the peace, the remoteness of this place promised me at least safety. Yet only three months have passed and once again my evil fate has brought trouble upon the roof that has given me shelter. You, dearest and kindest of women as you are, have not been able to escape. No one will—I begin to think. I am cursed by some malignant power. It is like the evil eve—the mal occhi, as the Italians call it. Don't you see now, Elinor, that it would be best for us to part—best for me to go my own way, reckless of what may chance at last."
Elinor Haughton bent forward and touched the hands that had suddenly clasped themselves together with a force of suppressed passion.
"No," she said, "I do not see it. Certainly you have been more than commonly unfortunate, but you are no sinner, Kathleen—yet. Heaven forbid that I should help to make you so."
Kathleen looked at her with swimming eyes. Then she began to tremble. She rose from her chair and stood against the mantle-piece trying to steady herself.
"Oh," she cried weakly, "I don't deserve it. Elinor, I could bear your sorrow, your coldness, but not—not that you should think well of me. I was not even true to you—at first. No—not in that way. God knows I never tried to draw your husband from his allegiance, but I—Oh, how can I say it."
She threw herself on her knees beside the couch, covering her face with her hands.
Elinor paled with sudden fear. What more was there to hear to forgive? "Tell me—all!" she entreated. "Let there be no half-measures. I can bear anything except—deceit."
"But it was deceit. I was not open with you. I looked upon you as weak. I thought you would help me to my own ends—the subjugation of Lord Hallington. I wanted to be mistress of Crampton Park, so as to queen it over you. Think how base and mean I am, and hate me, Elinor. More than this, even; I felt sure there was something in the background of your life that you were trying to conceal, and I meant to find it out. I—oh! if you don't believe me, I can show you all my wicked ungrateful self, written down in the pages of my journal. I can show you every mood, date, hour, in which I wrote in the journal; the suspicion I had of—your husband's past life—the very words whose force of prophecy has flung me at your feet now, in moral self-abasement. Have I said enough yet to convince you of my unworthiness? The veil is rent with a vengeance. I don't seem to care, to pretend, to seem one whit better than my actions must make me appear!"
Elinor's face was deadly pale. She had not looked for this, had not dreamt of half that Kathleen had suspected, or fancied the commonplace surface of her own life held any suggestion of undercurrents.
She was silent so long that the kneeling woman at last lifted her tear-stained face and looked up, as one expecting hope's death-sentence.
"You know now how unworthy I am," she faltered.
"I know that you were justified in those suspicions," said Elinor bitterly. "But I am also sure you kept them to yourself."
"I did, indeed. I have never discussed you or your husband with anyone except my own thoughts. That journal answers to my other self. I wonder often why I keep so foolish a habit. But I have never made a confidant of anyone, man or woman, except yourself, Elinor, and feeling—a woman's feeling must have some outlet. What I can say to no one else I say to those pages. They hold the history of that awful year whose end was—what I have told you. They hold some, not all, of the miserable months of my married life. They give glimpses of straits to which I have been reduced, indignities I have suffered, my struggles with poverty, the growing desperation that made me reckless. Sometimes it has seemed that life was too hard for me to bear it any longer. But then the child would save me."
"Only a true woman would say that; only a mother would feel it."
"You have felt it, I know. You are never demonstrative, but one feels what Val is to you, and what you are to her."
"And all my love cannot shield her from harm to come. From a danger the future holds!" cried Elinor passionately. "Think how I have to suffer—brooding, thinking, unable to speak of what I dread and hope for even, of what I suffer!"
Kathleen rose slowly to her feet.
"Through no fault of your own," she said. "Of that I am sure."
"That is what makes it so hard. The fault was never mine. And I make but a poor hypocrite. How can I blame you for discovering that I was one?"
"Oh, no, no—a thousand times no! Never that!"
"Well, that I was acting a part. And I must always act it, Kathleen. That is the worst of it. I cannot quit the stage, I cannot forget the play—never, till my life is over!"
She spoke with a quiet despair more convincing than any passion. Kathleen stood there, looking at her in wondering pity. This small, frail thing, how brave she was—how strong!
"You poor child!" she cried involuntarily. "Now I know why you are so tender to sinners—to me. It is because you have suffered so much, for another, that you cannot find it in your heart to blame me for my sins. I am glad I have told you all. There is nothing now between us for me to fear. Thank goodness, you accepted me so frankly in the first instance—that there was no need to deceive you by a false reference, a false history."
"I think," said Elinor, smiling faintly, "that I accepted you for your own sake from the first hour I saw you."
"And now—now that you know me?"
"I accept you still."
"You are sure that this has made no difference? Can you look upon me as your friend, even if your husband returns here?".
"I shall always look upon you as my friend, whatever happens. But if my husband returns——"
"That," said Kathleen, "would be the end as far as I am concerned. I should have to go."
"You shall never be homeless again," said Elinor earnestly, "never have to face the world's cruel indifference while I can help it. Of that rest assured."
The shadow of a smile that was infinitely sad touched Kathleen's lips. "I know you mean it," she said, "but remember, Elinor, that no one can be another person's providence, however much they love or desire it. For just so long as Fate permits I am happy to be with you; happy that it is your roof that shelters me, not your husband's; your money that pays my salary, your kindness that has served my child."
Elinor made a slight gesture. "I have done very little good with my money. Situated as I am, it has hardly been possible. There is none of that poverty and misery and sickness here that abound in great cities. Charity is a word of wide meaning. To me it means helpfulness, and I have shown little of that as yet."
"I cannot agree with you, there. Think how you helped me. And I am ashamed when I think——"
"We will not speak of that any more. And now that his dreaded confession is over, Kathleen, what do you expect me to say?"
Their eyes met—a long questioning gaze, a gaze that seemed to ask and answer more than speech could have expressed.
"Whatever you expect," continued Elinor softly, as she stretched out her hands, "I only know this—I have no blame for you, only a great, great pity. There is nothing in your story that prevents me saying, 'Be my friend—still.'"
For once in Kathleen Monteath's life fluent tongue and ready wits were silenced by an emotion too deep and heartfelt for any words to convey.
"Be my friend still."
Deep into Kathleen's stormy heart those words sank. "The first woman who has ever asked me that," she thought. "I wonder if she knows how much it means?"
A passionate revulsion of feeling, a sense of safety and relief, set the full tide of her impulsive nature flowing towards Elinor. Love and gratitude, till now uncalled for, welled deep and strong from hidden springs. She vowed herself in faithful amity to this gentle, trusting soul, who had stood between her and despair, who had aroused in her some desire to make life a better thing.
With Elinor's mercy to herself she saw also some of the hidden sorrow that was so bravely and silently borne, and she felt ashamed of that early and hasty judgment that had pronounced her weak. Weak, because she was patient and long-suffering; weak, because of the blameless purity of her life; weak, because she chose to withdraw herself from the privileges of position so that she might shield another's cowardly fears. In the long hours of that day, which had witnessed a mutual confession, the two women fought each a silent battle. They had not yet arrived at a perfect understanding. It would want years of trial, not an hour of emotion, to prove the strength of each nature. At present no public or individual interest threatened interference. They sat apart, and thought of self-revelation and how much it would mean in the future.
"My mind feels like a clean-swept room," wrote Kathleen in her journal.
"Fresh and sweet and purified; the windows open, the dust and cobwebs
gone, the ugly shadows driven forth by sunlight. Oh, the relief; the
peace—the blessed peace!
"Of course I know this cannot last. It is too good. All my glimpses of happiness have been brief. Some storm, some fierce, howling wind is bound to spring up and sweep me out of my haven. Yet, for once, I feel that even that will not terrify, or madden, or harden me, as it has done before. I have an anchor to hold to. Someone has faith in me someone trusts me. Truly the power of human love is a mighty one. Had I known it sooner I might have been a better woman.
"Lawrence Haughton is in Ireland. I seem to know what that portends. It would not take him long to glean the facts which have made my name notorious, if he knew that name. Fortunately he does not. The name I bear now will tell him nothing, even if he traces me to Waterford. I wrote from Dublin and no one there knows me, except through the files of the 'Irish Times' ten years back. Besides, even if he found out the story, if he believed the worst, as some people still do, what difference could it make? Elinor knows now, and Elinor believes in me. Her friendship is my sheet anchor. Why should I fear—him? Yet I do. For the first time to my life I do fear a man. I cannot forget the awful look of his face—the awful passion of his words. I have made him my life-long enemy—what mercy can I expect?
"Elinor is writing to tell him we are leaving the Manor and going abroad. She says it is her duty to inform him of her movements and her plans. Doubtless she is right. She is one of the dutiful wives. Were I in her place my lord might find out for himself, after her cavalier treatment. She also said she intended to tell him that she was perfectly aware of his reasons for leaving home, and that under the circumstances a year's separation would do neither of them any harm and give due time for reflection. Poor, sweet Elinor! (She does like to sermonise a little, though.)
"A year! That is all I have to look forward to now. It stands to reason that Lawrence Haughton will return some day. He has everything to gain by doing so. His return will be the signal for my departure. The same roof cannot shelter us both, though I am his wife's friend and he—my enemy.
"A year! Well, a great deal may happen in a year. And my years have a trick of being eventful."
* * * * * *
The preparations for departure went on apace. Elinor was anxious to get away, and Kathleen had no reason to dissuade her. At the last Val persuaded the two mothers to take Barry also, and the glee and delight of the children served in a great measure to lend a new excitement to the journey. They travelled slowly and luxuriously.
Mary Connor was the only one of the servants who accompanied them, in the dual position of maid and attendant to Val.
The strong and sudden friendship between the two women had occasioned that worthy person an enormous amount of anxiety. Once even the anxiety had bubbled into an indefinite warning, as she brushed her mistress's hair. But after the first hint Elinor sternly silenced her. "I know everything concerning Mrs. Monteath that is necessary to know," she said. "I have heard it from her own lips."
Mary was astonished. Had the governess really confessed her scandalous history, or only glossed over a few of its prominent facts? She could scarcely believe that Kathleen Monteath would have declared herself a suspected poisoner, a destroyer of married happiness, a woman who had been in the Divorce Court. If so, and Mrs. Haughton considered such a person fit to be her friend and companion and the instructress of her child—well—The usual apostrophe to saints in glory concluded the mental argument.
When the party arrived at Nice they went to one of the quieter hotels, where they had engaged rooms. Elinor had decided that Nice was a good centre from which to make her researches for a suitable villa. Their name is legion in that resort, where the Corniche-road winds above the blue gulfs of Villefranche and Eze. The few miles parting the brilliant capital of the Riviera from its more brilliant and wicked sister under the frowning Tete de Chien, offered resorts of all sizes and distinctions.
The day after their arrival they drove to see two or three selected from a house agent's list.
"How lovely it must be to be rich," sighed Kathleen, enviously, as the carriage swept along the famous promenade. The brilliant crowd, the wonderful toilettes, the air of luxury, enjoyment, and abandonment lent passing emphasis to her words. Her own beautiful face, rising from the well-cut severity of a tailor-made gown, and framed in sables that were Elinor's gift, was attracting no inconsiderable attention. But for once she was indifferent to admiring eyes. A feeling of anxiety was uppermost in her mind. She had remembered that Lord Hallington was here also. She wondered if by any chance they would meet. If so——. A throb of anger stirred her heart. Would she ever know, ever be able to discover what Lawrence Haughton had really told the old man? What hint of her unworthiness to be his wife had driven him so suddenly from her side?
Elinor's touch on her hand startled her. "Look, my dear, isn't that Lord Hallington driving towards us. How surprised——"
The carriage, drawn by its two well-matched greys, was abreast of their own more modest hired equipage. The surprise of its occupant was indeed unmistakable. He started and gazed at the two figures as if unable to credit their reality. Perhaps that surprise lent formality to his bow. It certainly was of the oldest and stiffest order.
Kathleen felt her face grow warm. "I was right," she said to herself. "He has been told—something. I have lost my chance."
"Not a very cordial greeting from so near a neighbor," exclaimed Elinor. "He didn't even smile. And now I remember, when he went away he never called or sent a card. Surely——"
She paused. Her eyes rested on her companion's lovely face.
"Kathleen," she said, "was it you who set him away?"
"No, indeed. It was as much a mystery to me as to you. I—I liked him so much, and he was so cordial and pleasant whenever we met. And then suddenly he went off without a word of explanation."
"It was rather strange, though I believe he has a character for eccentricity."
Elinor's face grew thoughtful as she spoke. Her mind was busy with memories of that time—with theories respecting the old lord's attentions and wonder as to their ultimate results.
"Kathleen," she said presently, "was your liking strong enough to let you marry him, if—if he had asked you?"
"I can't profess to any nobler or more exalted feelings than those my position has forced upon me. If I had had the chance of marrying Lord Hallington I should have done so."
"Without caring for him?"
"I have seen so many miserable marriages that began with people 'caring' for one another that I should not have been afraid of the opposite experiment."
"I could hardly blame you," said Elinor. "The world has chosen to make marriage the one aim and object of a woman's life, so I suppose she is entitled to do the best she can for herself."
"I should have tried to make him happy, and I believe it would not have been difficult," said Kathleen. "I am of an age when romance is over; and I could appreciate an honest affection and such good fortune as becoming Lady Hallington would mean."
"It may not be—impossible, even now."
"Oh, my dear, there was a chill in that stately salute; and the surprise of those keen eyes was not one of pleasure. It seemed, indeed, to me to savor of—alarm. What did you think?"
"I am not a very quick observer," said Elinor evasively.
"No, you dear brown mouse, you're not," laughed Kathleen. "Well, I am. And I said to myself, as his stately lordship went by, 'you've lost your chance.' And so I have, Elinor. I feel sure of it."
There was a moment's silence. Then Elinor said diffidently, "Would you have married him, allowing him to think you a widow?"
Kathleen flushed. "I—I never thought about it—then. I suppose it would be better to be straightforward; but, oh, my dear, what man on earth would show me your generous trust and give me your generous forgiveness?"
"One would forgive if he loved you, Kathleen. Your sins are not of your own making."
"No, but I must bear the consequences all the same."
"I have often wished to ask you about your marriage," said Elinor presently. "You were unhappy; you conveyed as much?"
"Unhappy?" Her eyes went to the blue sky and the lovely bay, with its crowd of yachts at anchor. "It was worse than that, a great deal. There must always be some element of unhappiness in every relationship of life; but in marriage we voluntarily take up a relationship for which blood or birth are not responsible. That fact, I suppose, makes us less tolerant. We are not only angry with the bargain, but angry with ourselves for making it. I bartered away one sort of liberty to satisfy a man's passion, and gained another sort of bondage. I had to pay my price, Elinor. No words could tell you what a price it was!"
She shivered, even in the warm sunshine, and all the bloom and brilliance of her face grew cold and hard.
"Was he so cruel?" asked Elinor gently.
"I would rather face death than go through that year again."
"But he allowed you to gain your freedom?"
A little bitter laugh escaped the scornful lips. "He had to. There was no choice. Such freedom as it is. Fortunately, for myself, I never, even in my weakest moments, believed I loved him."
"I knew you would ask that. He led me to believe that he alone could save me from the suspicion that that tragedy cast over me. But oh! Elinor, all your wealth would not have paid the price that my poor beauty had to pay for such safety; the shame, the torture, the degradation. Once"—she laughed again—a laugh that chimed harshly on the air—"once—well, will you believe it?—I bruised my face on purpose from chin to brow, so that it might be black and blue and hideous only to avoid his kisses."
Even at the words she passed her handkerchief swiftly over that face as if to wipe off some polluting stain.
"Can you wonder now that I despise men?" she went on rapidly. "That to me they appear in only one shape—beasts of prey, devouring all that is defenceless? Not one of them has ever roused in me an emotion worthy to be called love."
"But you are young enough and beautiful enough to meet a man whom you could love, and who would atone for all that has gone before."
"I hope I am not," she cried passionately. "Oh, with all my heart I hope I am not. I do not want to care, Elinor. I know enough; I have suffered enough. I only ask peace."
"Peace," said Elinor, "is for the old—the world-weary. It does not seem to suit your characteristics at all."
"Oh! I don't mean stillness or stagnation. It is more the desire to be left alone—to have no tormenting fears, no dread for the future, no terrors of the past."
"And to gain this would you marry Lord Hallington?"
"I would, Elinor; and I believe I should make him a better wife than many a better woman."
"You certainly are a strange creature, Kathleen," she said, "but a very lovable one. I almost hope you will win Lord Hallington."
One of the villas amongst those olive woods and orange groves, set in a romantic solitude of its own, pleased Elinor Haughton's fancy. It was too small, and too remote from the town below, and the charms of Monte Carlo beyond to find a tenant among the rank and fashion of the Riviera.
By taking it for six months, furnished as it was, she secured it at a fairly moderate rental. Servants could be engaged in the town, and there was nothing to prevent the new tenants entering at their own convenience.
Elinor left the engagement of servants and the hiring of carriages to Kathleen, while she interviewed French governesses and tutors on behalf of the children.
The little bustle and strangeness of the next few days were pleasantly exciting. But when the excitement was over the routine of their lives promised to be uneventful enough for that "peace" which Kathleen craved.
No word came from Lawrence Haughton in reply to the letter explaining his wife's intentions; but Elinor had adopted a philosophic attitude towards the matter and ceased to worry herself over his silence. She was very well content with the peace and pleasantness of her present life. Her health benefited greatly by the fine mild air and constant sunshine. The children almost lived out of doors; even their studies were carried on at tables brought out on to the wide terrace, where the blue of the sea gleamed jewel-like through the screening woods, and every breeze brought them the scent of violets or narcissus blossoming in millions under the sheltered hills above.
Life was idyllic, restful, calm; and the two women, thrown into even closer companionship uttered no complaint of dullness, or heeded the gay crowds who filled the city and châteaux around with all the extravagance and frivolity of fashion's caprices.
Kathleen Monteath alone watched each day glide by with apprehensive dread of morrows to come. Such a life was too good to last. No calm on her horizon but had boded storm and shipwreck. "It will come, even here, I suppose!" she told herself. "I feel sure of it."
The lovely days of February opened in fuller sunshine, with warmer winds and yet more fragrant sweep of color, as they drove through blossoming woods or under over-hanging boughs of auracarias, and acacia, and palms. On one of those days Elinor suggested they should drive to Monaco, lunch there, and return in the afternoon.
Kathleen laughed. "Monaco always means 'the tables,' you know," she said. "It has a more virtuous sound than Monte Carlo, but who could resist paying a visit to the one and ignoring the other?"
"I have never seen gambling in any shape," said Elinor. "I cannot realise the fascination it appears to possess."
"You will realise it if you peep into its pretty paradise," said Kathleen. "And you will find the fascination claims both sexes equally."
The carriage came round and they drove off, still discussing the point. They took the lower road, which passes through La Condamine to Monte Carlo, skirting the precipitous cliffs and lovely hills with peeps of the curving bays that fringe the coast-line.
The water was blue as the sky it mirrored, and dotted with white sails of the yachts or the red ones of the cargo boats. Above all poured the golden warmth of sunshine—a thing to make one glad and hopeful and renew life, Nature's lavish gift to this favored clime. The two women were silent for sheer enjoyment.
Now that conversation was no longer a disguise to her real feelings or opinions, Kathleen was much more silent than she had been on first acquaintance. The truest test of friendship is the enjoyment of one's own thoughts in sympathetic company, and this morning she felt only equal for that sympathy. Elinor glanced at her absorbed face from time to time, noting its unusual gravity, and wondering, as she so often found herself wondering, where lay the secret of this woman's charm.
When they reached La Condamine they left their carriage at the hotel and proceeded on foot to the quaint old town, which, like an eagle's nest, occupies its isolated rock, with the sea 200 feet below. They were shown that part of the palace open to the public, and roamed to and fro in company with a few interested or curious tourists.
"Out of evil may come good," said Kathleen, as they stood on the highest point of the promontory and gazed over the castellated towers of the Grimaldi, on to where the marble beauty and palm-girt terraces of Monte Carlo lay glittering in the sunshine. "Think of it, my dear! And read a satire on the human race epitomised by your surroundings. Some 30 years ago a prince of ancient lineage, whose ancestors had fought in the Holy Wars, lived here, supporting his family and people on the produce of a few small vineyards and orchards. The slopes of the mountains were covered with scanty herbage, barely sufficient to sustain life in the miserable cattle and half-starved goats. The town itself was a poor dreary place. That cathedral was represented by a humble little chapel, whose only merit was its 13 centuries of age. Those palatial hotels, those marble terraces, those magnificent roads were undreamt of. Then arrives a magician with gold in his pockets, a magic wand in his hand, and lo! the arid cliffs become verdant, the rugged mountain sides are planed into white broad roads, the untenanted slopes are beautified with miniature palaces. A new populace springs up; gold pours its lavish floods into the empty treasuries of the magnificent principality, society flock in its thousands and tens of thousands, to waste its wealth, barter its honor, destroy soul, body, mind, health, youth, everything that life has lavished upon it, in adoring sacrifice to the Goddess of Play! That lives are ruined, souls cursed, honor slain, matters nothing to the magician. He can point to the wonders performed and say, 'Look at my work; the desert has become a garden, the waste land blossoms like a rose!' And well it might—watered of human life. There, Elinor! I have preached my homily, and it is worth about as much as other homilies."
"Do you ever think," asked Elinor, "of the utter uselessness of trying to convince people of anything about which they don't want to be convinced?"
"It's the most maddening thing in life. Think? Of course I do. Thinking of all that has been said and shown of the evils of gambling, of drink, of Mammon-worship, of false religions, false creeds, false codes of honor, made me say what I did. But have all the words and arguments made one gambler forsake the tables that lure him to perdition, one drunkard become sober, one hypocrite honest, one worshipper of forms and ceremonies a Christian—unless their own interests led them? I don't believe it. What a sermon in face of a Gambler's Paradise. But sometimes, Elinor, I feel mad; mad at the obtuseness and silliness and blindness of the fools around one. Madder still at the uselessness of trying to make them different. Look at that splendid denunciation of society in Ouida's 'Moths.' Has it deterred one mother from forcing her young daughter into a loveless marriage, or held back one husband from the pursuit of a dishonoring passion? I doubt it. Every year the society she satirised so scathingly goes on just in the same way—the extravagant, vicious, foolish way that it sees and knows is harmful, but has no desire or strength to resist. Shame! Pollution! Vice! Can such things be? Well, my sermon is over. You shall read its moral presently. How astonished you look, my dear. Do you suppose I never think out any of the problems of life for myself?"
"You have shown me a new side to yourself. That is what surprised me."
"Oh! I am a chameleon in that respect. The worst of it is, though, my colors change so rapidly and are so short-lived."
Then she laughed. "What possessed me just now, I wonder? Come and let us have some lunch, my dear, and then we'll spend a profitable hour in the rooms, and you shall see if my satire is justified or not."
* * * * * *
That it was justified Elinor could not but acknowledge when she stood an hour later in one of the three rooms of the Casino sacred to roulette. She looked round the tables, with the surprise and almost awe of a first acquaintance with the World's Great Passion. From the outside beauty of sea and sky and orange groves and olive-clad mountains to this meretricious, heated place, with its seething crowd of humanity, was a strange contrast.
The two women stood silent behind a double row of players and lookers-on, watching the impassive face of the croupier, the flushed and eager or vice-hardened countenances and glittering eyes of the gamblers. Men and women were alike too absorbed in watching their stakes, or the rapid gyrations of the little ivory ball, to pay heed to the sauntering crowd around, or the watching faces that marked the favors or reverses of Fortune.
Kathleen's eyes travelled quickly from one to another. From the stoical calm of the professed gambler to the eager, excitement of the novice. From the wrinkles and decrepitude of age to the bloom and beauty of youth. From the meretricious charms of Parisian cocottes to the quieter graces of other nationalities. From the extravagances of fashion, jewels, and bijouterie, to the nervous outstretched hand that claimed or clutched its gains according to temperament.
The moral of the scene needed no zealot to preach it. Self-evident, self-confessed, lay the vileness of a vice confined to no nation, no social grade, no special race. In all its unmasked fascination the face of the glittering Goddess of Play smiled from the heaps of gold and silver coins, leered in the monotonous "Faites vos jeux" of the croupier's cry, and tempted in the luck that endowed at one moment, to desert the next.
"It is awful," said Elinor under her breath. She turned from watching the giddy spinning of the ball in its revolving wheel to the eager faces also watching it. One, a man's, suddenly lifted itself, pushed the soft felt hat back from a heated forehead, glanced up at the crowd standing around, and met her gaze.
It was her husband's face.
For a moment Elinor stood transfixed, so amazed was she at the unexpected meeting.
Lawrence was less surprised. It had not seemed impossible to him, when he heard of the Riviera trip, that chance would bring them face to face. He had been in Monte Carlo a fortnight—spending most of his time at the roulette tables in company with one or two choice spirits whose acquaintance he had made at the hotel.
In fact, he had entered on a career of recklessness that threatened disastrous consequences. That haunting fear of being recognised as Latimer, the forger, had quite left him. He called himself "fool" for a hermit's existence that had once seemed safety, and threw caution to the winds. Baffled passion and a woman's undisguised scorn had but goaded his weak nature to greater evil. The fact that his wife knew, or guessed at, her purposed dishonor, made him afraid of any personal explanation, Yet he had been unable to withstand the temptings of this paradise of sin, unable to resist the fascination of that other passion which had once already led him to disgrace, and might do so again.
Fortune had favored him, and his run of luck had been so great that he was remarked, and his choice of color or number greedily followed. Now, as he looked up and saw the white, startled face of his wife, the turn of the wheel brought him his first heavy loss. He saw his stake swept away by the croupier's greedy rake, and a spasm of anger shook him. He pushed back his chair and rose from the table.
Elinor turned to Kathleen. "Did you see?" she asked.
"Lawrence—my husband. He was playing. I think he is coming to speak to me."
"Then I will go into the concert-room and wait," said Kathleen, coldly. "You know it—facing, the entrance?"
Elinor nodded. She was less agitated now. In fact, a feeling of indignation was uppermost in her mind. That he should be here, so close to her own quarters, and yet have given no hint of his intentions, seemed an unpardonable rudeness. He claimed her money to spend among gamblers and roues, yet had coolly deserted and ignored herself.
Even patience and submission have limits, and she felt within touch of hers at last.
She withdrew from the crowd, and presently saw Lawrence approaching. He had changed—and not for the better. His face bore traces of dissipation, his eyes were dull and sunken, and the flush on his cheek accentuated its hollowness and lines.
"Well, Elinor?" he said, extending his hand. "So you have put your saintly airs aside? This is hardly the place for a woman to come to—alone?"
He glanced round a little nervously.
"I am not alone," she answered. "Mrs. Monteath is with me."
"A fitting companion," he sneered. "I congratulate you on your choice."
"Will you come out into the grounds?" she said in a low, restrained voice. "I have something to say to you."
"Oh, for goodness' sake don't ask me to listen to your reproaches and sermons. I've had enough of them. I know all you want to say. I had no business to leave home, and all the rest of it. Well, I got sick of the infernal place, that's the truth—and you were certainly not very lively company."
"Was that the reason you transferred your attentions?" she asked.
They were out in the grounds now, pacing up and down one of the quiet alleys, deserted at this time of day.
His lips twitched. "Oh, has she told you I paid her a few compliments, to which she was certainly not averse? Perhaps I could turn the tables, and tell you a few truths respecting her life and antecedents."
"You may spare yourself the trouble. I know everything about Mrs. Monteath's life."
"By Jove, do you? Then all I can say is, if you know that you know also that she isn't fit to be in any decent household. Yet you bring her here as your companion."
"It is on a par with the rest of your unmanly deeds, Lawrence, that you should try to blacken a woman's character. You thought it no shame to insult and persecute her under my roof, and because she treated you as you deserve you wish to poison my mind against her. Happily, that is beyond your power."
His face grew livid. "Is it? What if I can prove she is nothing but an adventuress, living under a false name—that she is not a widow, as she pretends."
"I should answer in return that I know all that."
He stopped abruptly from sheer astonishment.
"Know it!—know her character and choose to have her under your roof—your companion—your child's teacher? I don't believe you, Elinor; or, if this is so, I absolutely decline to come back to you unless this women goes."
She smiled somewhat bitterly.
"Don't you think, Lawrence, it would be wiser to wait until I ask your return before making it a thing of conditions? Do you suppose I have no pride? Do you forget the way in which you left 'my roof,' as you term it? Do you think scandal has not been rife with my name—that I have not suffered bitter shame and anxiety? If anyone has failed in duty it is yourself. You did not choose to answer my letter or acquaint me with your whereabouts, yet I find you here—claimed by the old vice you forswore when you came out of prison. Are you always to break your oaths, and am I always to forgive? Is not that expecting too much at my hands?"
His sullen eyes drooped, he kicked the gravel impatiently with his heels.
"You were always good at sermonising. I'm a bit sick of it. I grant I ought not to have gone away as I did, but, after all, a man has some right to freedom of action."
"Has not a woman?"
"I never interfered with yours."
She thought of the hundred and one indirect methods in which she had been coerced and controlled. She remembered sacrifices made, and ingratitude and faithfulness her only return. A sudden spasm of hot anger shook her meek nature to its foundations. That he should dare reproach her.
"Never interfere," she echoed. "That is what all tyrants say. But if we begun to discuss the past, Lawrence, time and patience would be exhausted. The present is all with which we are concerned. You chose to leave me in a manner at once cruel and insulting. I had a perfect right to refuse to maintain you in idleness as I had been doing. But I could not forget that you had some claim on my forbearance, and so I agreed to your demands. However, if the only use you make of my concession is to resume your old vice, I consider I am justified in leaving you to yourself. You ruined my life once, and I forgave you and took you back. I cannot do it a second time."
"You are a d——d prig, Elinor," he said, insolently. "As for taking me back, as you call it, I should go back if I chose, because it's my right. However, life with you is not an alluring prospect, and I would rather live apart and enjoy myself in my own fashion. But I mean to have the means to do it, and you will have to supply them or——"
"Yes," she said, quietly, "or—what?"
"Or I'll come and pitch your precious companion out neck and crop, as she deserves. She——"
As the evil word left his lips, Elinor turned, and walked swiftly back to the Casino.
He gazed after her in dumb surprise. Then in a few rapid strides he gained her side.
"Where are you going?" he asked hoarsely.
"To the friend who is waiting for me," she said, quietly.
"You choose to associate with her after what I have said?"
"I chose to believe her word against yours, her actions against your broken promises."
"Then, by Heaven!" he muttered fiercely, "one or other of you shall suffer for it!"
Elinor shook off his hand and walked back into the entrance hall, and from thence to the concert-room. Her cheek was aflame with indignation; her eyes dark with anger. Kathleen started as she saw the changed and passionate face. She went swiftly towards her. "What is it? What has happened?"
"I cannot tell you now, or here," announced Elinor. "Let us leave this horrible place. I wish, oh, how I wish we had never come here!"
Val and Barry had found their sphere of active mischief considerably limited in their new quarters.
The pardons of the Villa Paillon were very insignificant in comparison with the park at home. Besides, the mornings were always given up to lessons, and a considerable portion of the evenings to music practice or home work. When they saw Kathleen and Elinor drive off on that expedition to Monaco they were conscious that life was not dealing fairly with them. It was hard to have to sit at home, grinding at French verbs and Latin declensions, when other people were taking their pleasure in the lovely sunshine of a brilliant city just beyond. Restlessness worked upon their nerves, and then upon the nerves of the old madame and the young abbé, who were their sole relative instructors. The lessons were a source of trouble to all concerned, and the usual half-hour for recreation which divided the morning came none too soon to be welcome.
"Val," whispered Barry, as they found themselves in the garden at last, "I vote we don't go back. Let's walk into the town, and get an omnibus from the Pont Neuf and go to Villefranche. It only costs half a franc each. I've got two. How much have you?"
Val could only boast of one, which had been given her by her mother that morning.
"Oh! that'll do," exclaimed Barry. "We've been good such a long time that they can't be very angry—and I know the way this time; there's no fear of getting lost. But I say, we must make haste. If we get twenty minutes' start we're all right. They can't catch us up."
Val agreed eagerly. The burden of "goodness" sat heavily upon her conscience. It was a relief to get rid of it. They were soon out of the grounds and racing down the hillside. They kept up a good speed until they neared the town, when they slackened to walking pace. Coming towards them was a handsome carriage, and they stood on one side of the narrow street to watch it pass. The occupant, an elderly man with a pale and discontented face, happened to be looking at that side of the road. As he saw them he leant forward; then called to the coachman to stop.
"If it isn't Lord Hallington. Fancy his being here!" exclaimed Barry, with his usual disregard of grammar.
"Well, you pair of monkeys, are you playing truant again?" enquired the old lord, as they slowly approached.
"We are only going into Nice for—for a message," explained Barry.
"Oh—what part? Does your mother trust you alone?"
They exchanged glances. What an objectionable habit old people had of interfering in matters that couldn't possibly concern them.
Lord Hallington noted their hesitation. "Come," he said, genially. "Jump in here and I'll drive you to the shop—if it is a shop."
"It's not," interposed Val. "It is to where the omnibus goes to Villefranche."
"Oh. And you are going to Villefranche by yourselves? Where is your governess?"
"My mother isn't her governess any longer," explained Barry. "She has an old lady now—Madame Clèry."
The old lord grew interested. He naturally supposed that Mrs. Monteath had returned to England.
"Well, if you are bent on going to Villefranche I'll drive you," he said. "A carriage is preferable to an omnibus, and I promise not to interfere with your plans. I suppose they include lunch?"
Barry looked doubtful, but a footman opened the carriage door, and Val, to whom liveries and fine horses appealed, sprang in. He had no choice but to follow.
The old lord's eyes twinkled. He gave an order, and the carriage turned and drove rapidly toward the east of the town, making for the fortress and port which stand at the head of the bay. He knew a portion of the French squadron were anchored there, and gave a guess at the boy's intentions.
The children were inclined to suspicion, and for the first mile he gained little of their confidence. Barry, in fact, was extremely annoyed at Val's acceptance of this undesirable escort. "But then," he told himself, "girls are always doing foolish things like that. You can never trust them to carry out a plan satisfactorily."
In order to put them at their ease Lord Hallington affected to believe they were on a licensed expedition, and dilated on the glories of the bay and the opportunity of seeing real men-of-war. Barry grew excited. He had a passion for the sea and everything belonging to it.
"Would they allow me on board of one?" he asked.
The old lord thought it just possible he might gain permission. "If you took a boat and rowed up to one of the battleships and asked the official in charge," he said.
"I suppose they only speak French," said Barry dubiously. "Couldn't Val come, to do the talking?"
"But you can speak French too, can't you?" asked Lord Hallington.
"Oh, the sort of rot they call 'The Child's First French Primer.'" exclaimed Barry indignantly. "A lot of good that is. 'Charles a un fusil et un sabre.' Just as if that helped one to get any reasonable information from any French person. And Val too. You should have heard her this morning. How did it go, Val? I thought I'd have choked. 'Tiens, qu'y atil? Arthur has fallen.'"
"Then 'Arthur has fallen on the drum,'" continued Val.
"Then 'He burst the drum,'" added Barry.
"And then 'He was in the drum,' and the whole thing ended up with 'Arthur is not pleased.' I should rather think he wasn't."
"No more was pleased the person to whom the drum belonged," added Val.
Lord Hallington laughed. Really children were very amusing.
"Now, I ask you," continued Barry, "how learning all that stuff helps you to carry on a sensible conversation. I want to hire a boat; and I want the boatman to let me have it for a franc, and take me to the ship of the French admiral. Well, if I was to go and tell him that Arthur had fallen on a drum and burst it, and wasn't pleased, he'd think I was an idiot. Books never do teach you anything sensible."
"It is a pity," said Lord Hallington, "that with this project in your mind you didn't ask your teacher to confine his instructions to matters connected with men-of-war ships and boatmen's fares."
"Then he'd have known where we were going," said Barry, incautiously.
"Oh, then, it is another unauthorised expedition?"
The boy's face crimsoned. "Well, mother's away and Mrs. Haughton too. We didn't ask, certainly—but we'll be home before they're back from Monaco."
"Monaco!" echoed Lord Hallington. "I thought you said your mother had left altogether."
"Did I? No, I think I said Val had a new governess."
"Well, that seemed to imply——"
"Tiens—but you are stupid, Barry," interposed Val. "I have a new governess, an old madame; but it is not therefore necessary that Mrs. Monteath should depart. She is the companion of maman, who cannot be left always too much alone. That is all."
"Then Mr. Haughton, your father, is he not here?" asked Lord Hallington, more and more mystified.
"Papa? Mais non. He went away—there is some long time now, from Christmas. There was much trouble; but he wrote to explain, so maman told me, and then he was going over the sea somewhere, and we—we came here for the winter, because maman likes where the sun shines and it is warm and bright."
Lord Hallington listened in ever increasing bewilderment. Evidently there had been an upset of some sort in the Manor household. Had the beautiful governess——? But then he remembered he had seen the two women driving on the Promenade des Anglais; they were to-day at Monaco. No disagreement could exist on that score. He did not like to question the children too closely, for fear they would report his part of the conversation, yet he felt eager to get at the truth of the mystery.
Having conquered their first diffidence, the young truants commenced an eager dialogue on their own account; the purport off which was that Val should bear Barry company in order to prompt him with the proper words, and she insisted that if her services were to be made use of she meant to be paid in kind by also seeing what was to be seen on board the vessel.
Absorbed in his own thoughts, Lord Hallington allowed them to argue out the matter to their heart's content. He was trying to avoid a temptation to renew his suddenly broken intimacy with Kathleen Monteath, assuring himself that a woman so good and spiritual as Elinor Haughton would never have made a friend of one unworthy to be respected and loved.
The fact of her being no longer in a dependent position served also to convince him that Lawrence Haughton had deceived him on the point of her history. He had evidently had some motive for doing so, and the one possible motive suddenly flashed to his mind. "What a fool I was to take his word, instead of going to the woman herself! And I've no doubt he has told her—a nice opinion she must have of me! No wonder she looked so cold and haughty the other day when I met them."
So ran his thoughts while the carriage bowled swiftly along the dusty road, and the children still held excited argument.
"I ought to have called long before this," he said to himself. "However, I'll take these youngsters back and see if I can make my peace. Mrs. Haughton was always my friend. I've half a mind to confide in her. I suppose she'll think I'm an old fool, but I've been so restless and unhappy ever since I left England that upon my word I wouldn't mind what she thought—if only my doubts were set at rest."
He grew quite genial and cheery after this long process of self-examination. He gave the children a delightful luncheon at the hotel, engaged a boat and a safe responsible boatman, and sent them off to navigate the bay and interview the sentries on the decks of the lordly battleships, what time he indulged in a cigar and coffee and a chasse in the smoking-room of the hotel.
He rested and reflected, and finally argued himself into quite a humble frame of mind. A condition only possible to a very young or a very old lover.
He painted for himself, by light of memory, the lovely face, the queenly figure, the inexplicable fascination of the Irish widow. He told himself that all other loves and passions he had known were feeble in comparison with this, the last he might know. How could he have doubted her—how believe without proof—how steeled himself all these wretched lonely months? He had suffered keenly—gone through the fevers and chills, and hopes and doubts, and miserable hesitations of a first love-dream. And the suffering might have been unnecessary after all. There was still the barrier of his age. But might he not weight against that the rank and wealth he could offer? True, it was a humiliating thought that she could not love him for himself, but if she would give him some consideration—put up with him—let him have the delight of her presence, the charm of her companionship, he would be content.
Through the long, quiet afternoon hours he thought of nothing else but Kathleen and the delight of meeting her. He forgot he had determined to ask Mrs. Haughton the question he had asked her husband; that Kathleen herself might not view his proposal in a favorable light; that some explanation was due to her respecting that abrupt departure of his. With a hopefulness creditable to younger years than those he boasted of he took only the brightest view of the subject. He resolved to brave Fate, to make his peace without more delay, and beg Kathleen to become his wife. "I am a romantic old fool," he said to himself as he rose, with the intention of strolling down to the Mole to see if the children had returned. "Of course everyone will say I am one—still, it is hard if I can't please myself for once in my life. One's friends always seem to consider that one's marriage is their concern; and criticise, approve, or disapprove it as seems best. Still, if I could gain that bright presence to cheer my last years I should be an enviable person, even if a foolish one. I've been fighting against ennui so long that I fear to be beaten single-handed—I needn't trouble about the world's opinion for once."
An hour later the carriage stopped at the villa gates, and Lord Hallington was shown into the drawing-room.
Kathleen and Elinor had returned by train and were listening to the distracted laments of Madame Clery, who had remained all day, in hopes of the truants' return. When they walked coolly in, under the protection of their new champion, there was a moment's startled silence. Kathleen Monteath stood calm, and rather pale, in the background. Lord Hallington took Elinor's hands in both his own. "Dear Mrs. Haughton, permit me to explain. I met our young friends just beyond your own gates. I was going to Villefranche, and offered to take them with me. Hearing you were away for the day I thought there was no need to return and explain. I hope—I trust—there has been no anxiety?"
"A great deal, I fear," said Elinor coldly. "Still, it was very kind of you to trouble yourself with their charge. It seems a hard matter to teach them obedience or consideration for other people's feelings. Go now, children," she added. "I will speak to you presently."
The culprits disappeared with becoming alacrity and little penitence.
Elinor turned towards the silent figure in the background. "Kathleen, you have not forgotten Lord Hallington?"
"On the contrary," came the clear, quiet voice, "I fear Lord Hallington has forgotten so unimportant a person as myself."
No weapon in the whole feminine armory could have been at once so useful and so disarming as that quiet indifference of Kathleen Monteath's.
Lord Hallington had never before seen her anything but bright, talkative, gay. This self-possessed woman, who met his excuse with cold dignity and scarcely paid the least attention to his conversation, was almost a stranger, with whom he must become acquainted—a new introduction that met him behind barriers of conventionality.
He lingered on, accepting Elinor's offer of tea, puzzled beyond expression by the change in both women.
He had hitherto regarded Elinor as an interesting invalid—always tied to a sofa or an armchair, indifferent to life and its social distractions or manifold obligations. He found now a comparatively pretty woman, charmingly dressed, full of information, and well able to baffle his half-expressed curiosity as to present circumstances. He alluded to Lawrence and was informed he preferred Monte Carlo to Nice, "as more fashionable husbands seemed to do," added his wife.
"I don't play—myself," said Lord Hallington, "but I confess I like to look at the tables occasionally. Was this your first visit?"
"Yes, and I hardly think I shall repeat it."
"The spectacle is not morally instructive, you think?"
"Indeed it is not—although I have heard of clergymen going there in order to find a subject for sermons."
"But they generally leave the insignia of their office behind them," said Kathleen.
"They are not the only hypocrites, I am afraid," answered Lord Hallington. "Society is rather fond of going where it ought not to go, and doing the things it ought not to do, for very excellent reasons. The morality of the reason excuses the immorality of the act."
"I suppose you know most of the fashionable world here, Lord Hallington?" said Elinor.
"I know more than I care for. I came for my health's sake, but people seem to think that gout, like charity, covers a multitude of motives, though only one appears."
Kathleen glanced up very quickly at him. "Was—gout the cause of your very sudden departure?" she asked.
"Yes," he answered mendaciously. "If you knew what a bad-tempered brute it can make of a man——"
He stopped abruptly. He felt he was scarcely painting himself in attractive colors. "But I'm all right now," he hastened to add. "And I trust I may be permitted to offer my escort to Mrs. Haughton and yourself on some of the charming excursions in the neighborhood. The children have forestalled you in the matter of the French squadron. But if you feel interested in ships of war I can promise you the run of one, at least. The French admiral who happens to be at Villefranche is a personal friend of mine."
Kathleen glanced at Elinor. "I think it would be very pleasant," she said demurely, "especially as I want to get Barry into the navy. He is mad about ships."
"So he confided to me to-day," said Lord Hallington genially.
"I feel as if I had not sufficiently thanked you for taking charge of those naughty truants," said Elinor. "We really don't know what to do with them. The moment our backs are turned they are in mischief. To-day I thought there was no fear. Every hour was planned out for them, and Madame Clèry was to look after Val and the Abbé after Barry—yet they escaped."
He laughed. "They are full of spirits, one can see that, and neither of them takes kindly to control. However, I am their debtor for some very amusing hours."
Kathleen began to think she, too, was their debtor if they had innocently brought about the renewed subjugation of her old admirer. But she maintained an attitude of indifference. Her experience of men had been learnt in a hard school. She knew how best to profit by its lessons. She felt glad Lord Hallington had returned of his own accord. Whatever reason had occasioned his previous flight, it had evidently not been strong enough to keep him long away from her side. She read the meaning of his glances, the hesitation or eagerness of his tones, the courtly, half-apologetic deference of his manner by the light of her own feminine wisdom. She felt a conscious thrill of triumph when he murmured, "Am I forgiven?" as he bent over her hand.
To ask that argued that he knew he had erred and she punished him by a cool, "For what, my lord?"
He sighed. "If my sin is unknown, then so much the greater is my remorse."
She smiled frankly. "I never thought you self-conscious before. And remorse is a terrible thing to suffer from."
"It is," he said, "unless relieved by confession. If I thought—if I dared——"
She gave him no help. The art of letting things alone when they had reached a certain point was also one of her rare accomplishments.
He felt chilled by her unresponsiveness, and yet it only aroused his feelings to new fervor. As he drove back to Nice in the fragrant dusk that evening he told himself the die was cast. He must and would win this woman. He reviewed their past acquaintance and convinced himself that she had never made any attempt to entrap him, never sought to monopolise his society, never used any of the shallow artifices by which women sometimes seek to allure a rich or desirable wooer. And to-day how absolutely charming and natural her manner had been. No coquetry, no pretence, no affectation of being offended by his abrupt departure, no question as to the delay of his visit since it would have been an easy matter to find out where they were. Just the same delightful natural woman who had so attracted him in England. Could he risk a question to Mrs. Haughton before irretrievably committing himself? They seemed such friends—so intimate. He hardly dared imperil his fate a second time. If Elinor Haughton told Kathleen that he had asked for references as to her respectability she would naturally take offence. No; the best thing would be to trust her—to confess his feelings and let her simple "Yea" or "Nay" suffice.
After all, her history and life must be reputable or a woman like Elinor Haughton would not treat her as a friend and equal.
As he thought of Elinor and her changed appearance there flashed upon him the memory of Lawrence Haughton. Why was he not here with his wife? It seemed odd that one should be at Monte Carlo, the other at Nice.
He recalled his last interview with Lawrence, remembered his distaste and distrust of this man. Has anything happened? Was the relationship strained in some manner? It certainly looked odd. He thought of his words respecting Kathleen—the hateful insinuation that lurked in them. Could it be that he had had some strong motive behind that cowardly traducing of a women's character? That he, himself——?
He started as the thought flashed through his brain. Why had it never occurred to him before? Lawrence Haughton was not the sort of man to be thrown into daily companionship with a beautiful and fascinating woman and remain unmoved—more especially when circumstances forced him to contrast her with a feeble invalid to whom he was tied by honor and obligation. What light this idea threw upon the whole matter—upon Haughton's desire to be rid of so formidable a rival, upon his departure from his wife's roof; his present proximity, yet difference of domicile.
Lord Hallington told himself he had at last hit upon the clue to the problem, and the clue only served to place in clear, unblemished light the character of the woman he loved. He felt as if a weight had rolled off his shoulders, as if years had been swept from his life. Jealousy had been at the bottom of the whole matter, and this noble, splendid creature had, almost, been its victim. She had been true to the friendship she professed for the wife and had doubtless screened the husband. Hence the divided households. But now—what an opportunity was afforded to himself. How easy it would be to put the whole matter straight. He would remove his beloved queen from her compromising position and throne her on high before this coward who had dared to traduce her. Then, he might settle affairs with his own wife as he chose. Kathleen would be Lady Hallington.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile the woman who so occupied his thoughts was standing by Elinor's side, looking with passionate sympathy at the white, quivering face, stirred to a passion hitherto unknown.
"You say he told you to choose between us," she repeated. "Between—us—your husband and a woman of whom you only believe what your generous heart has told you! Elinor, dear little woman, have you acted rightly? Better a thousand times that you should escape the world's criticism and the scandal of evil tongues than that I should part your husband and yourself."
"It is his own actions that have parted us," said Elinor. "There is something behind all this that I can't tell even you, Kathleen. A broken promise. Something that threatens once again to overwhelm my whole life with misery. Surely there is such a thing as carrying self-sacrifice too far? I have done everything for this man—given him my love, my youth, to be trampled on and disgraced, received him back, screened him, helped him, thrown fortune at his feet, martyred myself for sake of his safety. What return have I met? Ingratitude and disloyalty first, and now insult. Surely I owe something to myself, my womanhood? He flung all he had of passion at your feet. You best know how much of it was real—what worth that empty shell of manhood would possess for me, his wife. No, Kathleen, no! There are some things a woman can't bear. He has tried me too far. That he should use threats and insults at last——"
She broke down into passionate sobbing. This sudden yet gradually forced revolt of her gentle, loving nature seemed to tear up patience by the roots and scatter its worthless seeds on a desert of wasted feeling. To have borne so much, to have sacrificed so much, and to have met with such a return.
A contemplated dishonor struck at herself, as well as at the woman she called friend: a contemptible endeavor to destroy that friendship by defaming its character; a brutal threat, at whose memory her soul rose in a passion of indignation; this was her reward. The reward of all those martyred years during which she had waited for the opening of a prison door? The reward of that generous trust which had forgiven a criminal and re-dowered him with all that she possessed. The reward of patient endeavor to hide his secret and screen his cowardice. No wonder she declared that patience had its limits.
There is a point to be reached in self-sacrifice when Nature itself asserts, "Thus far, and no further"—when he who has forgiven not only "till seven times but till seventy times seven" feels that it may be more courageous to deny a demand that to follow a precept.
Life alone disciplines character, and the experiences of life are sometimes capable of creating self-surprise.
Certainly Kathleen Monteath, reviewing herself by the light of a past conception, found an alteration in material points of that personality she had hitherto considered her own.
While she had waited for Elinor in the concert-room of the Casino her mind had presented a chaos of possibilities. Sometimes she saw herself the scapegoat for Lawrence Haughton's infidelity. Again she confronted him with defiance, to be crushed by his proofs of her past life. Who would be capable of Elinor's trust? Who would show her again that sweet wide charity which had accepted her at her best and judged her only with tolerant excuses? Could the world hold another woman capable of such charity? It made her eyes swim and her throat swell, even here, as she thought of it, among surroundings so out of keeping with any emotion unconcerned with their avowed object. The time had seemed long while that interview between husband and wife was being carried on. She could not attend to the music of the admirable orchestra or interest herself in the limited audience. She could only watch the door and wonder when Elinor would return.
When she saw her—alone, a sense of relief swept over her previous anxiety. She rose eagerly.
Elinor's face was flushed, her lips quivered.
"Let us go—at once," she said. "There is a train going back to Nice in five minutes. The carriage can put up at La Condamine and return to-morrow."
Kathleen put no questions. She had never seen Elinor so disturbed, and she deemed it best to await a return of composure.
They found the train waiting at the little station below the terrace and were soon flying swiftly along the beautiful coast.
Elinor sat by a window looking on to the sea. There were other people in the carriage and she never spoke a word to her companion. When they reached Nice she hired a cab to drive them to their villa. Still she only uttered a few commonplace sentences. Their arrival at the house was the signal for a joint confession from nurse and governess as to the flight of the children. This formed a temporary excitement, ended by the arrival of Lord Hallington. Not until he had departed could Elinor unburden her soul at last. When that outburst and its passion of tears had exhausted her, Kathleen persuaded her to retire to her room and lie down till dinner time. Then she sent for the children and demanded an explanation of their conduct.
Both culprits professed penitence as usual. "We were only going to Nice," said Barry. "And when Lord Hallington stopped the carriage and offered to drive us to Villefranche, why—we went. That's all."
"That's all!" echoed Val. "He was of the most kind. We had a déjeuner at the hotel and he sent us in a boat to one of the big ships."
Barry took up his parable then. "And an officer showed us all over. He was the only sensible Frenchman I've ever met. He could speak English; so I hadn't to jabber any of the tomfoolery I learn in French dialogues."
"And—where was Lord Hallington all this time?" enquired Kathleen casually.
"He stayed at the hotel," said Val. "He asked of you, and I said I had a new madame to teach me, and I think he was supposing you had returned to England. But Barry he said no—that you were with maman, and go here and everywhere to her company."
"And I thought the old buffer cheered up wonderfully," said Barry. "He said he'd come back with us and explain; of course, and then I remembered we might have asked him to send a telegram from Villefranche. But those are just the sort of things that always pop into one's head too late."
"You really are very haughty children," exclaimed Kathleen. "Poor Madame Clery was nearly in hysterics with alarm, and as for Mary Connor, she's given notice; and if she goes you'll have to put up with a French nurse, Val, and they're very, very strict."
"Oh, Mary won't go!" said Barry reassuringly. "There's much too jolly a Cathedral here, and she likes a town and lots of shops. Tell Mrs. Haughton to give her a new dress and she'll stay right enough!"
"And we did not be so very naughty," added Val. "Maman did not say we must not take one little promenade, only that we do not get into mischief."
"It's Lord Hallington you should blame; he said so," interpolated Barry.
Kathleen felt inclined to laugh. She was more disposed to bless than to blame, so she dismissed them with a caution, and then, somewhat tired with the day's excitement, got into a loose wrapper and lay down before the cheerful wood-fire to rest and to think.
Her mind was fully occupied. She felt certain that Lord Hallington would return to his allegiance; but now, strangely enough, she did not desire it. That sight of Lawrence Haughton had revived her dislike as well as her fear of him. Elinor had not told her his exact words, but felt no doubt that they had been threatening enough. At any moment he might meet Lord Hallington and repeat them, represent her as a schemer and adventuress, who had wormed herself into the confidence of a weak credulous woman; place himself in the light of a victim instead of an offender.
She dared not accept Lord Hallington now, only to face a constant danger, a too possible humiliation. Either she must tell him her story and trust to his generosity, or place herself in Lawrence Haughton's power.
The crisis was grave. The point at issue meant danger or safety. Try as she might to argue for the one, there was no blinding herself to the probability of the other. Only in one way might Lawrence Haughton be effectually silenced. If she could get at his secret and hold over him a terror that would place him in her power, then she would be in a position to dictate terms, not to hear them.
A sense of the old excitement thrilled her: she could not rest quiet any longer. Her hatred and loathing of the man rendered her indifferent to everything but revenge for his cowardly persecution. He was to her a type of the sex she hated; one more among the many who had persecuted, insulted, and betrayed her. Even to think of him seemed to turn her into the fierce and reckless woman who had gained her present position by sheer audacity and had given to deceit a new title—that of circumspection. She walked up and down, up and down, trying to quell the storm of newly aroused passion, but unable to do so. To have met a foe face to face and defended herself openly would have stimulated her energies; but to feel that some lurking devil was lying in wait, ready and eager to do her any injury for sake of a paltry spite, that was maddening.
All the good that Elinor had done seemed undone by this half-hour's reflection. Elinor was this man's wife. In time she would forgive and take him back, as she had done before.
In time—it might be long, but it would come inevitably. And the same roof could never shelter her foe and herself, and if Lord Hallington failed her a second time——
She stopped in her rapid pacing. A thought had struck her. She unlocked her travelling bag and took out her journal. Rapidly she turned the leaves till she reached those first entries made on her arrival at the Manor. Even then, she had suspected that Lawrence Haughton had something in his past to fear—something that made him shun his fellow-men, avoid society, rush to the excitement of drink or gambling for distraction. Fear! Yes, that was why she had seen in his face, read in his ashy cheek and trembling lip. Fear! What did he fear? The revelation of a crime? a folly of youth? a sin unexpiated?
Elinor in that first and only burst of self-forgetfulness had said some strange words: "Received him back," "screened him," "helped him!"
What did they mean?
Either he had left her voluntarily, or something had compelled him. The blood seemed to fly from her heart to her cheeks in a sudden surging flood. There was only one "something" that could do that. The Law! Had he outraged, or offended, or broken it?
Back went some more leaves. Val's babbling words that so innocently betrayed an absence of years were here, written down; facts that helped the chain of suspicion by another link. Her father had come back to her in a foreign town—a stranger! Why? There must have been a reason, and as the mystery thickened her convictions helped her on to the road of possible discovery.
Elinor would never betray him. Besides, she would not ask Elinor. Whatever was to be learnt, she must learn herself. She must silence those vindictive lips, hold over that craven heart a rod of terror. For herself she had no absolute sin whose revelation she feared. But a woman on whom the shadow of disgrace falls is always a woman whose position is insecure, whose days are passed in a mental pillory, where the stones of chance are for ever aimed.
She closed the book and went over to the dressing-table and looked at herself.
Her beauty shone serene and triumphant over the storms of passion, the chills of fear, the wild, hot anger that every memory of Lawrence Haughton inspired.
"Only yesterday," she said bitterly, "and I told myself I was on the way to becoming a 'good woman' once again. Now I feel as that unfortunate creature must have felt out of whom were cast seven devils, so that seven worse might find an entrance place!"
The children were not permitted to put in an appearance at dessert that evening, by way of marking their disgrace, yet both women would have felt their presence a relief.
Kathleen, being the better actress of the two, carried off the situation with greater ease. But her excitement was almost feverish and her tongue certainly lacked charity. That desperate half-hour she had passed in company with her old self had roused a good deal of the old reckless spirit whose confessions had filled the pages of her journal. Her tongue lashed unsparingly the follies of the world, and the sex who rule that world.
Elinor listened wonderingly. Her own intensity of emotion had left her weak and spiritless. Her passity made her as wax in the hands of this more dominating nature.
They sat through the long hours of that evening, sometimes talking, sometimes thinking, and all the time Kathleen Monteath was turning over in her own mind the possibility of getting a clue to Lawrence Haughton's secret through some chance admission of his wife.
Elinor never suspected how she was being led to reveal incidents of her girlhood—her early love-story, her marriage, her foreign wanderings. Neither did it occur to her that this clever mind was able to trace out a plan of the history concealed by help of history revealed.
It discovered that a certain number of years in Elinor's early married life had been shadowed by a great tragedy. Of its nature, however, it could gain no hint. A barrier of reserve had been built around, and the most skilful questioning met only silence, or denial.
The fact of being able to localise Elinor's whereabouts during those years was something gained. But Kathleen Monteath knew that to pursue this search she would have to leave her present quarters, would require money and patience and time. Once only was Elinor on the point of self-betrayal. Kathleen had spoken of the impossibility of a man's friendship for a woman being disinterested.
"Ah! don't say that," was the answer, and a new and wonderful tenderness came over the gentle face. "For I had once a friend whose sympathy and help have left me his life-long debtor. And never, never in all the years during which he served me was there a word of claim to even a thought of mine. I had to seem ungrateful and forgetful. Oh! how it hurt me. But I think in my heart he knows the reason, and has forgiven me long ago."
"Why was the friendship broken off?" asked Kathleen.
"Because of my husband's selfishness and senseless jealousy. He—he had been absent for—for a long time. He did not choose that I should enjoy another man's companionship, another man's sympathy. It is as you said, Kathleen. What our lawful owners cannot give, we must never receive from any other source. If they choose to starve our hearts, our minds, our natures, we must perish slowly of that starvation though food be within reach."
"True enough," said Kathleen bitterly. "The dog in the manger has a fine matrimonial application."
"I lost my friend," went on Elinor slowly. "I could not see him, but I wrote. He never answered the letter. Sometimes I wonder if he ever received it. I used to be very lonely. There is a heart emptiness that no duty can fill or satisfy. It is not love, not passion—only a deep longing, a something that craves sustenance from one other heart that understands. Oh! how rare it is—that understanding. One may go through life and never find it; but if one does and is forbidden to respond—it is harder than never to have found it at all!"
"I," said Kathleen, "have never found it. You, Elinor, are the nearest approach to friend and comforter my life has chanced upon, but even you, my dear, knock at some closed doors—hear 'not at home' for answer."
"I think that hurts less than hearing what is false. 'No admission' is at least truthful. And there must always be a closed door to someone, Kathleen."
Kathleen looked long and seriously at the quiet face, so tired and wistful, and so full of pain. "I wonder what is beyond yours?" she thought.
* * * * * *
For long Kathleen's journal had been neglected. In the ease of untroubled days, in the gradual sense of power and influence, there had been nothing to chronicle. Smoothly and pleasantly life had rolled on until that rencontre at Monte Carlo. Now face to face with a new problem she resorted to her old habit.
She transcribed Elinor's admissions. She read and re-read them, wondering if that clue would ever lead to the discovery she so eagerly desired. The whole mystery lay enshrouded in a space of four years. Quite unconsciously Elinor had permitted her to date those years. It was no difficult matter. She knew Val's age.
When she had written the account of that evening's conversation, Kathleen wrote underneath her own reflections the purport of the conversation, and then the course of action left for her to follow.
"If I knew the name of the street where she had lived I might be able
to discover this mysterious friend," she wrote. "There are two ways
by which I might make the discovery—first by employing a detective,
secondly, by questioning Val. She was very young at the time, but also
she was constantly with her mother. If she knows the part of London
they lived in I could institute enquiries there. If she remembers the
name of the mysterious friend I might gain from him——
"But would he tell me anything that would seem to betray confidence? It depends entirely on the nature of the man and of his friendship. Myself, I believe in no man's friendship for a woman—unless she is twenty years older than himself. Perhaps, however, I am wrong. There is a type of woman who can make a friend of a man and keep him. Elinor is one. She is so good and pure and gentle that no impure thought could smirch her innocence, no selfish passion humiliate by its confession. This man may be her friend, really—in the best sense of the word. Would he serve her by breaking through her silence, by confessing to me the secret of Lawrence Haughton's life?
"I stop here and look at myself—my old self, the self whose weapon is her beauty, and who has proved its power so often. Would that weapon serve me in this new battle with a woman's reserve and a man's fidelity?
"I hate myself for thinking of it. I hate myself for the change that has come over me. I hate to think that if I am again thrust forth to fight the world and life in the old hateful, bitter warfare I shall go hence a worse woman, because a more desperate one.
"The change Elinor's companionship, Elinor's friendship has wrought is not a lasting one, I suppose. I had hoped it was. But it is easy to be good when one is happy; easier when one is safe!
"There still remains the alternative of frankly revealing to Lord Haughton the history I confessed to Elinor. But I am afraid to do that. Afraid because so much depends on it. She accepted my word. He might ask for proof—and there is none. Could I expect him to read the records of that trial and still believe in me? It would be asking too much of human nature.
"Oh! why have I never been able to live a free, healthy woman's life? Why have I been denied all that goes to make up that life? Wherever I go the breath of intrigue follows me; to plot, and plan, and deceive, seem as essential to my existence as air and light. Even now—even here!"
She dashed down the pen and flung the book aside. She was trembling like a leaf. For the first time since Elinor had claimed her friendship, her own interests clashed with the fidelity she had promised.
"She has believed in me; she refused to turn me adrift as that coward bade her. Can I be disloyal to her? She has suffered so much already."
Thus she argued, for and against her own interests, one moment resolved to find out the mystery Elinor's silence concealed, the next hating herself for the desire to do so. "If she would only speak! What holds her back?" she cried again and again. "Not love, not even pity. Her words to-day showed me that she despises this man with all her heart, yet she screens him so loyally!"
Too restless to write, too unhappy to sleep, Kathleen passed hour after hour pacing her room or brooding over her fire. Yet even when the chill dawn was at hand she was no nearer a conclusion. Perhaps if Lord Hallington called again she would be able to make up her mind. She would await that chance.
Worn out and dispirited, she got into bed at last and fell asleep.
When she awoke the sun was streaming into the room and Mary Connor was standing by her side. She held a tray, with her morning tea. Beside the cup lay a letter. Kathleen's correspondents were few and far between. She took it up with a feeling of uneasiness. The handwriting was unknown. When Mary Connor had left the room she tore open the envelope. These lines met her eye:—
"My wife may, or may not, have told you the purport of our interview yesterday. I wish you clearly to understand that you will gain nothing by setting her against me. I intend to take up my abode under her roof within twenty-four hours of the time you receive this intimation. I hope you will make it convenient to leave before then. Another meeting between us is extremely undesirable. As long as I have the rights and authority of a husband I intend to decide who is, as well as who is not, to be my wife's companion and my child's instructress. Kathleen Ollier is certainly not the person I should select."
The letter fell from Kathleen's nervous fingers.
"Ollier!" she repeated. "So he knows me; he has found out! And I am to go, am I? Go—that he may resume his place and his influence with Elinor?"
Her teeth clenched. A passion of rage and indignation shook her. She flung the letter on to the floor as if its very touch were pollution.
"Trapped, cornered, and by that coward!" she muttered in a fury. "The man who insulted me openly by his hateful passion; who dishonored his wife by every thought. In one way he is right. The same roof could not possibly shelter us—but I, the weakest, am to go to the wall. Very well, Lawrence Haughton, come back here, and take your place and torment your poor victim a little longer—but the day will come when you will rue having made an enemy of me, when it may be my turn to make you bite the dust!"
"Elinor," said Kathleen abruptly, "I am going away from you. I must."
"My dear, I spent nearly the whole night in arguing for a right to stay here, to keep you and your husband apart. I did my best to convince myself that it was almost a moral action. But the morning has brought me wisdom. I see plainly that this state of affairs cannot last. What will people say if you live on here and your husband remains at Monte Carlo? Lord Hallington's polite surprise was only a suggestion of more openly-expressed wonder on the part of others. Someone will be blamed. Do you choose that it should be yourself?"
Elinor's startled eyes met the question doubtfully. She faltered.
"It must be either you or he. When married people live separate lives the blame has to fall on one of them."
Elinor's face grew paler still. "This has only just occurred to you?" she asked.
"Oh, no. It occurred to me when I reviewed our long conference of last evening. My heart is traitor to your interests, dear; for I long and want to stay with you, just as I feel sure you desire to have me. But it won't do, Elinor; it mustn't be. Your husband has a right and I have none. For the child's sake, as well as your own, it would be better to receive him back, even if the moral difference between you can never be bridged. Scandal is a burr that clings to a woman's skirts. A man can shake it off. Why should I become this burr and cling to you, dear little woman? A poor return, indeed, for all your kindness to me."
"It is not—you. It is his own actions that have parted us," said Elinor gravely.
"That may be. But are you going to tell the world that? And if you keep him away, and keep silence, can't you guess what will be said?"
Elinor shivered as with sudden cold. "To have him back—to live under the same roof—to banish you? Kathleen, surely you do not advise this? This? What has made you veer round in such a contradictory fashion?"
"Because I am a weathercock, I suppose. Because, as I told you; I have devoted the night to solving a problem—for you. Because two things stand out as plain as daylight. First—If I remain here your husband cannot return. Second—If your husband does not return there will be scandal. You best know, Elinor, how such scandal would affect you. You have greater interests at stake than I; a position—a name—responsibility, that you cannot evade. You see, I have considered the subject very carefully."
"You have not considered that you are being driven out to face the world again. A cold and cheerless place, Kathleen—you found it so before."
"I know. Don't suppose I have allowed a single 'pro or con' of the subject to evade me."
"What about Lord Hallington?"
"There you touch me on a weak point. But if I fly he will pursue—supposing he is really serious. I only say supposing."
"Oh, Kathleen, don't jest. There is something underlying all this. You don't want to go; something is forcing you. What is it?"
She grew very pale. "Don't ask me, Elinor. If I could tell you I would. Rest assured only a very strong reason drives me from such a shelter as this. I shall never find such another."
"You don't take my feelings into consideration. I told you yesterday I was ordered to choose between Lawrence and yourself, and I chose you."
"Dear, that was yesterday; and you were not your sweet calm good self. The Elinor of Monte Carlo was a revelation to me; those bitter indignant feelings were not natural to her. Before all things, my dear, you are a woman who forgives—and sooner or later you are bound to forgive your husband, be he ever such a sinner. And, as yet, he has only sinned in words, not deeds?"
"Oh! if you knew, if you knew!"
The words burst out with a sudden irresistible passion, startling Kathleen by their revelation of a long hidden sorrow. Yet the mastery of a promise checked further revelation and held back the burning words that longed for utterance.
"If you leave me," said Elinor, desparingly, "I dread to think what my life must be. No one to speak to, to trust, to look for sympathy. The day is past when my husband could give me such things. We are estranged beyond all power of unity. Such poor pretence of duty as is left to give I must give, as you say. But, oh, Kathleen, the empty days—the unhappy hours—the sickening shame of such a life. How am I bear it?"
"Have you not borne—worse?"
She started. "How do you know?"
"I know nothing except what your face has betrayed, your life confessed. Perhaps, Elinor, they were less loyal than your tongue—though why should either be loyal to what is base and unworthy?"
Elinor was silent. Her thoughts travelled back on a long desolate road and stopped at one memory. "Kathleen," she said, "if you are determined on leaving me, at least I must help you. Unfortunately I know so few people, but you must use me as a reference and—shall I—do you think it would be of any service if I gave you the address of that—friend, of whom I told you? He has a great deal of influence—he is a barrister—and oh! the best and kindest man the world holds, I think."
Kathleen looked at her. A queer ambiguous little smile touched her lips. "Elinor," she said; "do you know you remind me of a story I read somewhere about a little child who faced an army, cruel and bloodthirsty, bearing against their weapons only a single lily. Sweetheart, your lily has disarmed me. What use to plot and plan against transparent purity. Yes, give me the address of that friend. It may serve you better than you fancy. But, oh, Elinor——"
The sob that choked back further words was the outcome of that other self of which she had written—the better, purer self, whose resurrection had been the miracle wrought by love. She stood now, holding Elinor's hands, looking down at the white sad face, the drooping figure, and her heart swelled with pity and regret.
The two forces at war within her breast waged a terrible battle in that moment. She dropped Elinor's hands.
"To think," she said, "that we were once girls, and happy, and all life before us—a playground for experiments. How cruel it all is, Elinor. How cruel."
"I will give you that address," said Elinor, her lip quivering.
She went to a writing-table, sat down and wrote a few words on a sheet of paper. Then she rose and handed it to Kathleen. Her eyes scanned it rapidly. It seemed strange that the very name she had schemed to discover should be freely given for her use and service. As she thought of those wasted hours the previous night she laughed bitterly.
"I feel," she explained, meeting Elinor's surprised look, "like a person who has made a long and tedious journey, with one object—and at the end of it finds the object could have been attained by remaining quietly at home."
She folded the paper and put it into her leather porte monnaie. "Thank you for your trust," she said.
"There is one thing more," said Elinor, flushing nervously. "You know, Kathleen, I am a rich woman; too rich for foolish pride to stand between us in any form of debtor or creditor. Let me advance you the sum necessary for your journey and Barry's, and—until you secure something else."
Kathleen looked at her. "You disarm me," she said. "You put an obligation so sweetly that it seems I am conferring a favor, not accepting one. Elinor, I am not a fool, and I know a woman can't live decently and respectably on nothing a year. Still less when she has a child to support. I owe you a great deal, more than money can repay. I suppose money has to come into the debt at last. I am sorry I cannot say no—but it would be foolish to pretend that a hundred or two would materially affect your convenience. They would mean—everything to me, for a time."
"I will give you a draft on my London bankers," said Elinor. "It makes me happy to be of use. I couldn't bear to think of you alone in that great city and in poverty. When must you go, Kathleen?"
"By to-night's Continental express. No good can come of staying longer."
Her voice was hard and bitter. To be thrust away like this by a cowardly traitor—a man to whom honor and decency were alike unknown. A just or deserved condemnation would not have hurt her, but there was no justice in Lawrence Haughton's action, and she was the sufferer.
As she left the room and went back to her own, to commence the labor of packing, Val came running along the corridor. Her cheeks were wet with tears, her voice broken as she burst into her grievance——
"Oh, madame! Say, it is not true that Barry leaves here to-day, to return to England, so he tells. Oh, what shall I do? I cannot, cannot bear that we say adieu. Oh, do not make him go."
"I am sorry, my child, but I have to return to England, and Barry must go with me. Don't cry so, little Val. Perhaps he'll soon see you again. You must remember, boys are not like girls; they have to make their way in the world. He is to be a sailor, and I must soon part with him, as well as you."
The pretty eyes, drowned in tears, looked up at her wonderingly. "A sailor! On a big, great ship like that in the bay at Villefranche? Oh, how fine it is to be a boy. I wish I were one, I would go with him."
"I've no doubt you would," said Kathleen. "How with such a meek-spirited mother and——father do you come by such a spirit, I wonder?"
The word checked was "craven." So alone he stood at the judgment bar of her angry mood. A craven heart—a soul whose smallness and weaknesses was only balanced by its capacity for evil.
* * * * * *
A few hours later a telegram was dispatched from the post-office at Nice to the Hotel de Paris, Monte Carlo. It ran thus:—
"I leave to-night for Paris."
In a room of a somewhat dingy set of chambers in Gray's Inn a man was sitting alone, listening to the storm of wind and rain, as the chill February day drew to a close.
He was not working. The piles of taped documents, the deed boxes, the letter-files, bespoke his profession, but at present the insignia of that profession alone reminded him of work undone or to do.
He was resting in a shabby old leather chair. Everything about and around him had the same touch of shabbiness as the chair—a shadow of the manifold fogs, the atmosphere of soot, and grime, and mustiness inseparable from the old houses of this debilitated region. It seemed to have crept in at the dingy window and never been able to find its way out again. It rested even on the man's face, emphasising its tiredness and haggardness, touching the lines on the brow, the thin locks on the temples, the patient, short-sighted eyes from which the double eye-glasses had fallen unnoticed. Those eyes were fixed on the dull fire, a thing of spasmodic jets and flickers, finding their way through a great deal of dusty coal and raked-up ashes.
The old clerk, who occupied the outer office and had been in Julian Dormer's employment for over twenty years, had just made up the said fire before leaving for the day. It was a bad grate and smoked or sulked alternately. The fire seemed to burn with a sullen resentment of its surroundings and a sullen refusal to cheer them by any brightness it might have contributed. The man who sat there in the loneliness and gloom had grown too used to such surroundings to trouble about them.
They were part and parcel of his life—a lonely, dreary life on which no sun of hope had ever deigned to shine. Once he had had a great career before him—this sad, quiet man with the patient face. But somehow he had let it slip. His friends had accused him of want of energy—of lack of self-confidence—of hesitation in pushing himself forward among the striving, pushing crowd who care nothing for what simple flowers they trample under foot, so that one or many of its glittering prizes be seized.
Not to seize as many as possible seemed worse than folly, and Julian Dormer had not seized one. Worse, had actually dropped behind in the race—to gather, instead of crush, one of those simple wayside flowers. He had loitered so long tending and caring for it that Fortune had determined to punish him for neglect of her own more brilliant chances. Who but a fool would choose the beauty of a blossom before the glitter of gold—cultivate a field daisy instead of a banking account?
Thus, it happened that Julian Dormer found himself out-distanced, poor, forgotten at an age when most men sign themselves successes—or failures. His monotonous days were so much alike that he scarcely noted the passage of time. The seasons appealed to him only as comfort or discomfort touched extremes of heat or cold. The sun rarely shone into those dismal chambers.
The moonlight never threw but a few gleams of light across that wilderness of blackened roofs and dismal buildings. Only the stars, in a little patch of sky, which his windows showed him, gazed sometimes in at the quiet figure, stooping over book or papers, or smoking thoughtfully by an empty fireplace. The stars had seen so many sad and lonely and pathetic sights in that great city—yet shunned none.
His clerk had left; the outer office door was closed. Until it was time to go out for his solitary dinner in a quiet little Holborn restaurant Julian Dormer had no need to fear intruder, or visitor. He reached up for a pipe from the rack above the mantelshelf, filled it slowly and deliberately, as he did most things, and began to smoke.
Suddenly there came a rap at the door; sharp, imperative, as if the intruder were impatient of delay. He lifted his head, listened a moment, then crossed the outer passage, and opened the door.
A woman stood there. Her waterproof cloak glistened with raindrops, her dripping umbrella had already left a shining track on the dingy, uncarpeted boards.
"Does Mr. Dormer live here?" she asked.
The man who had answered her summons took the pipe from his lips and stared with short-sighted gaze at the visitor.
"My name," he said, "is Dormer."
"Oh, I'm glad you're in. I want to speak you—particularly."
He drew aside. "Will you kindly follow me? It is rather dark, I'm afraid. I'll get a light."
She left the umbrella to drip in the dreary passage, unloosened her cloak, and threw it on a chair in the clerk's room, then followed him into the office, where the fire was attempting one of its spasmodic flickers. Her quick glance took in the poverty and depression and shabbiness of her surroundings, and then fell on the figure of the man who was lighting the gas jet near his dusty writing-table. "What a place!" she thought.
"Will you take a seat," enquired Julian Dormer, "and acquaint me with you business?"
He picked up his glasses and adjusted them, and took a long, steady look at her.
The brilliance of her beauty and the style of her dress surprised him. A visitor so radiant and bringing such an atmosphere of the fashionable world was rare in these chambers.
"I must first of all introduce myself," she said. "Through the medium of an old friend of your own. She gave me your address. Mrs. Haughton."
"Haughton?" he repeated. "I—I fancy there must be some mistake. I know no one of that name."
"But—I assure you, she gave me your address. She told me you were an old and valued friend. Surely there cannot be two barristers in these chambers of the name of Dormer?"
"I hardly think so. I have lived here for twenty years."
She took a slip of paper from her purse and handed it to him.
"Do you know that writing?" she asked.
He glanced down. A slight shadow crossed his face. "Yes," he said. "I know it."
"But this is Elinor Haughton's writing! Surely you remember her now?"
"Elinor," he faltered. "I know nothing of any—Elinor. The handwriting on that paper is Nellie Latimer's—a friend who—who died long ago."
It was his visitor's turn to stare now.
"We seem to be at cross purposes. I know no one of the name of Latimer. This lady, Mrs. Haughton, is a rich woman who engaged me as governess to her little girl."
"Tell me," he said, with sudden eagerness. "What was the child's name?"
"Valerie. We always called her Val."
A look of painful bewilderment crept into his eyes. He seemed as one trying to recover a lost memory, a clue to facts that had eluded his grasp.
"Val—little Val," he murmured absently. "A dark-eyed dancing sprite—Nell's little child. But why do you give her this name? It is an unknown one to me."
"That sounds mysterious. I can only repeat what I said before. My name is Monteath. Mrs. Monteath. I came to Elinor Haughton as governess, I stayed on as friend. Circumstances have arisen that forced me to leave. She suggested my calling on you and asking you to interest yourself in finding me something to do. A barrister has generally a wide circle of acquaintances."
"I have none," he said drearily. "None."
She started. Once more her glance went round the desolate room, once more it came back and traced a history in his face.
"You only know Elinor as Nell Latimer?" she went on. "That, I suppose, was her maiden name?"
"No," he said slowly. "Oh, no. She was married. Her husband——" Again he stopped, again groping in long-closed chambers for that clue he had lost.
Kathleen Monteath waited breathless. Would she learn at last something of Lawrence Haughton's life—some reason for changed name?
"If you are her friend," continued the barrister, "doubtless you know her history—some portion of it. When you tell me she is a rich woman living under a changed name you surprise me. She must have known that if she sent you here——"
"I should learn that secret. Perhaps that is why she sent me?"
"You know of its existence?"
"Naturally. Was I not her friend?"
"That is her writing. She has sent you to me. Tell me of her. Is she well, happy, content? Has the dark cloud passed? My poor little Nell!"
Such pathos and sadness came into his voice that the eager woman, trembling on the threshold of discovery, heard in the sad tones the echoes of another secret—his secret—this sad and lonely man who had once served and befriended the rich woman—still to his mind only "poor little Nell."
"She is a most unhappy woman," she replied. "If ever a woman needed a friend, a helper, an adviser, it is Elinor Haughton."
"Latimer," he repeated.
"I know nothing of Latimer. The change of name may have been occasioned by circumstances."
"Of course. Yet I wonder she never told me. She never wrote."
"She did write, but you never answered the letter; she told me so."
"I had no letter," he answered. "I waited, and waited, and waited, but it never came. From the moment her husband was released she dropped out of my sight, my life. To-night I have heard her name at last—and you say she is unhappy. Is it her husband's fault—again?"
"He has not brought more shame upon her head? When I think of her beautiful forbearance——" He sprang to his feet. The patience of silent years snapped suddenly. "I defended him—I tried to save him. But for me his term of imprisonment would have been far longer. Why did I? Why was I so eager to help her to more misery? Oh, fool! fool! Even then I distrusted him, even then I hated him for the curse he had laid on that sweet young life."
Kathleen listened with every sense. At last she had reached the goal of her desire, had come within touch of the knowledge that should humiliate her too. Imprisonment! Then Lawrence Haughton had committed a crime. Had known the prison taint. Had made his wife screen him, serve him, and then for reward given her back his dishonored, cowardly self.
"A criminal rarely stops at one crime, an offender at one offence," went on Julian Dormer. "But I could not counsel Nell to go against her own gentle instincts. And then there was the child—the child who came while its father was in prison—whose innocent life is forever stamped with one shameful memory."
"Did this—trial appear in the papers?" enquired Kathleen warily.
"Of course. Forgery was his crime. The name of Laurence Latimer is on the prison records. His youth pleaded for him. That—and his young wife. They had only been married a year. She was left to face the world, the shame, the scandal—left friendless and in poverty. I—I tried to help her, to get her employment. And then there was the child. It was a cruel ordeal, a pitiful time. Yet she forgave all and took him back. You say she is rich? How is that?"
"She inherited some property unexpectedly. I think that occasioned the change of name. They had to take the family name."
"It was a fortunate thing for Latimer," he said. "A thrice fortunate thing."
He seated himself again. His momentary indignation had passed and left him once more what time and weariness and a lonely heart had made him. He pushed the scanty iron-grey locks back from his temple and looked at Kathleen.
"You," he said, "are also her friend. I am glad she found another. She was not a woman to make many, my poor little Nell. I hope you were always good to her. If I can serve you for her sake I will gladly do so. But first, is there nothing she requires of me herself?"
Kathleen drew a long deep breath. Was this to be her chance? Could she confront Lawrence Haughton, strong in the championship of a man who knew him for what he was?
"I think," she said, "that Nell, as you call her, will certainly need protection soon. Her husband is not only a gambler, but he is unfaithful to her. Her married life is a sham, yet still she sacrifices herself to him. He has free use of her wealth and her roof, and he repays her with—brutality."
"Not that?" he entreated, and his face grew livid.
But Kathleen was in no mood to spare a foe. "Yes—that," she repeated. "I——" her head drooped, and the blush she could command at will stole into her cheeks. "I—her friend, who loved her as a sister—I have been driven from her side by this man."
He sprang to his feet. He was not a man used to consider consequences. A dreary self-centred life left him unprepared for great emergencies. His one desire at this moment was to serve the woman he had loved silently and hopelessly for many sad years. If he could not give her happiness he might spare her some misery.
"Tell me," he said abruptly, "the whole truth. Why are you here—of your own free will, or because she sent you?"
"I had never heard of you until she told me to come here."
"She is unhappy? She has no friend you say?"
"I have been driven from her side by the insulting proposals of her husband."
A great hot wave of color crept up to the man's brow, touching even the thin wisp of iron-grey hair that his rapid strides had shaken forward.
"The hound!" he said. "Well, tell me what is best to be done. Shall I go to her? Where is she now?"
"At present in a villa on the outskirts of Nice. She has rented it for six months."
"That is within easy distance of the world's gambling hell! Does he go there?"
"Every day," said Kathleen.
He pushed the fallen lock of hair impatiently aside. "Then he has broken a solemn promise made to both of us! I need not spare him any longer."
Kathleen looked up eagerly.
"You know something?" she exclaimed.
"I know enough," said Julian Dormer, "to save his wife from his persecution."
"Enough to silence his tongue—to hold him at your mercy?" she cried, starting to her feet and trembling with eagerness.
He looked at her gravely and attentively. "Enough to serve even your purpose, Mrs. Monteath," he said.
When Lawrence Haughton received that telegram a sinister smile played over his lips. "Checkmate at last, my lady!" he thought; and all the ignoble part he had played seemed to him only as fair warfare with an enemy inclined to be dangerous.
"She shall not share Nell's fortune, or catch that titled dotard, or stand between me and my rights," he told himself viciously. "Had she chosen the other course it would have been different."
In what manner it would have been different he did not pause to ask himself. How he had hoped to maintain himself and a mistress by the fortune of his wife, to deceive the woman under whose roof he lived and to whom he owed everything, were not questions that he cared to propound. It was sufficient that he had the power to pay back her scorn and her brief spell of victory, crush her as she had crushed him, turn her adrift on the world, holding over her always that knowledge of her past which he had unearthed and paid for—and, in part, secured.
"A divorced woman!" That was enough to close the doors of most feminine institutions to her entreaties. Lord Hallington would not marry her, Elinor should not maintain her. Society should not receive her, as long as he had the whip hand and could drive her forth to the world's mercies, just as he chose.
"Some day she will be sorry," he told himself. "Some day she will cringe at my feet and beg for mercy. Some day that blow shall be repaid by a kiss; and this time it is she who will kiss and I who may, or may not, strike!"
So consoling did he find these reflections that he was in no hurry to return to the conventional simplicity of home. It was enough to know that he could return when the fancy took him; that he had turned Kathleen out and left Elinor lonely and helpless as she had always been.
It had pleased him to keep her so; it pleased him doubly now that she could not alter the situation. His will and her own desire to shield his secret had held her for long in an ambiguous position. He told himself that she should remain in it as long as seemed good to himself.
Then he put the telegram away and went to the tables.
To-day Fortune refused to smile on him. All his previous winnings were dissipated by one fell swoop of ill-luck. In vain he backed number or color. Both deserted him as the wheel spun and the little ball fell obstinately where the wrong color and the wrong number marked its resting-place. The next day brought no better results. One or two of his Casino friends advised a little rest until Fortune should choose to smile once more. But by this time the fever was hot in his veins. He could not stop. The third morning proved worse than ever. He went back to his hotel in a vile temper. He dined luxuriously as was his wont and after dinner returned once more to try his luck. He knew he ought to be on his way back to Nice, that Elinor must have expected some word from him, but he felt no inclination to face reproaches or tears. Neither was he disposed to take up domestic life, as he would doubtless be expected to do. Mind, mood, and character were thoroughly unhinged. He had been so long used to consider Elinor a weak fool, spiritless, and long-suffering, that he only put down her outburst of passion on their last meeting to a spurt of ill-temper.
This night he played on and on, sometimes winning, more often losing. He only left the rooms when the croupier's announcement, "On ne jouera plus ce soir," forced a general exit from the tables.
He went from the Salle de Roulette with empty pockets and an aching head. Went out into that paradise of moonlight and flowers, balmy air, and starry sky and placid sea, which seem as Nature's protest to men's vilest passions.
Lawrence Haughton paused a moment on the terrace, looking seawards, lit a cigar, and then thrusting his hands in his empty pockets began strolling slowly up and down.
To-morrow he would have to go back to Nice and to his wife. More, he would have to ask her for supplies.
Elinor's income averaged about £12,000 a year. She paid all the household expenses and allowed Lawrence a thousand, whose use she never questioned. This year's allowance had been squandered in the last month. He was absolutely penniless. If he went to Nice on the morrow he must leave his belongings at the hotel there. He had not even the means to pay his bill.
It was not a pleasant thought, especially when he remembered that scene with his wife and their very unceremonious parting. "And if she's sore at Kathleen's departure she'll visit it upon me," he reflected. "Besides, I promised I'd never play, and she caught me at it. If I tell her I owe this bill at the hotel I've no doubt she'll be equal to coming over and settling it herself, but devil a stiver need I expect to amuse myself with. Hang women! What a nuisance they are. They've no business to be allowed to hold property in their own right. Matters were much simpler and more comfortable when a husband had a claim on what his wife earned or inherited."
With which magnanimous speech he returned to the palatial and expensive "Paris" and ordered a bottle of champagne to console himself for his evening's losses. An item more or less in the bill would not matter. Elinor would have to pay it.
About noon the next day he strolled in through the iron-gates of the Villa Paillon and rang the bell.
Madame was in, he was told, but somewhat indisposed. Would monsieur leave his card?
Monsieur sent up his card instead, and armed with martial authority entered the salon. Here the spectacle greeted his eyes of a small, huddled-up figure, weeping mournfully in the recesses of a big armchair.
"Why, Val!" he cried, and a momentary spasm of affection warmed his callous heart. "What's the matter? Here—I've come to see you. Haven't you a word for the p'tit papa?"
"Oh, you!" she said, indifferently. "Have you come to stay? Will you then call back my dear Barry? Madame took him away and would not say why, and maman she cries and cries and is desolee, and I—I am all that is of the most unhappy and have no one to speak to. Oh, why is it so, papa? Can't you make all right again?"
She had left the chair and slowly crossed the room. Now she stood before him, looking up at his face.
"No," he answered. "Madame, as you call her, had to go. She was not nice. Good—to use your own word, Val, convenable. As for Barry, you can soon find other playmates, nicer too. He was a rough, wild boy."
"He was Barry, and I love him!" cried Val passionately. "And I think it is you who are méchant and unkind. You spoil everything. I would rather you would go away. The maman does not cry and madame takes care of her, and I—I am happy with Barry."
"Go to your mother," said Lawrence, curtly. "Tell her I am here and want to see her."
Val retreated a step or two, her dark eyes fixed on his face. "She will not see you," she affirmed. "Of that I am sure. But I will tell her you are here."
"I am going to stay here," he answered. "Isn't there a room ready for me?"
"There is the room of madame," said Val, dubiously, "and the little chamber of my dear Barry." The tears rose in her eyes once more. "And I wish they were back to here, and you gone away!" she added. "You were never nice and kind to us, or made us merry, like the good, kind friend of maman with the glass eyes."
Lawrence started. A frown gathered darkly over his angry eyes. "So he is still spoken of—still remembered," he muttered, as the child left the room, her usual buoyant step heavy now, as if the spirit of her life had forsaken it. "I thought he had been shaken off with all those other horrors. Could he by any means have found out——"
The thought of that chance discovery was evidently not a pleasant one. He turned to the window and stood looking moodily out at the garden.
"This is a hateful place. How the devil am I to pass the time," he exclaimed suddenly. "I'll be driven to Monte Carlo or suicide, in spite of myself."
He heard Val enter again and looked round.
"Maman, she is trés malade; she cannot see you," explained the child. "Her head it aches badly and she can hardly speak. But if you wish to stay I am to tell Mary, and you shall have a room—you are too late for déjeuner. We take it at twelve and a half hours; but there will be dinner at 7 o'clock, if you choose. Maman may be better then and able to come down."
"Oh, may she?" he repeated scornfully. "Then go back and tell her I return to Monte Carlo. I promised some friends to meet them this evening—and—Oh, look here. Val, could you find your mothers purse and get me some money?—a few napoleons would do."
The child looked at him wonderingly. "I will go to ask her," she said in her quaint way.
He seized her arm. "No, don't do that. Don't trouble her. You know where her money is.'
"Mais oui—but I—it is impossible to take it out of her porte-monnaie and not to tell her."
"Oh, then, tell her and be d——to you!" he muttered savagely. "Such a wife and child are enough to make a man curse the folly that ever drove him to marriage. I must have some money. Go and get it. That's enough!"
But evidently Val did not agree with him. She had not the least intention of disturbing her mother, who was prostrate with grief and trouble and anxiety as to her future course of action.
The child went slowly out of the room and up the stairs to her own little chamber. She possessed a single gold piece, a present from her mother a few weeks before, and as yet unspent. This she took out of her netted silk purse and contemplated fondly. So many schemes and associations were linked with its possession. But now all the savor had gone out of them. She could not enjoy truancy or confectionery alone.
"It was for Barry," she said softly. "But he is far away, and I do not seem to care for anything any more. I may as well give it to papa—it will save la pauvre maman a little worry."
Very slowly and reluctantly she returned to the room and handed the piece of gold to her father.
"The purse is empty but of that," she said ambiguously. "And maman she sleeps, and no one must disturb her."
He looked at the money contemptuously, then suddenly bent his head and touched a thread of scarlet silk that had adhered to the coin.
"You are sure," he exclaimed eagerly, "this was all? The only money in the purse?"
"The only single coin," repeated Val emphatically.
"By Jove, then I'm off to try my luck! The very number I dreamt of—the first number I saw as I stepped out of the train, and—the color, my lucky color wound about it. If only I win—good-bye to puling invalids and petticoat government. I'll be my own man for the future!"
He snatched up his hat and was off, leaving the child staring after him. How and in what guise she should see him again, it was well she did not guess.
Lord Hallington had called at the Villa Paillon the day succeeding Kathleen's departure.
He found Elinor alone and very dispirited. When he knew the cause he, too, looked troubled. It would not be so easy to regain lost ground as he had supposed.
"Had—to go?" he repeated. "But surely it was unexpected? Why, on the last occasion of our meeting Mrs. Monteath said she would stay here as long as yourself."
"It was her intention," said Elinor. "But a summons came from England and she had to leave quite hurriedly."
"England? If it had been Ireland now. Mrs. Monteath is an old friend of yours, I believe?"
"Old—oh, no! My acquaintance with her is of barely six months' date. But that does not prevent my affection from being a very sincere one."
"She is a charming woman. I really cannot help confessing to you, Mrs. Haughton, that I have quite lost my heart to her. I was unwise enough to try to resist her fascination and fly from her, but it has only made matters worse. When I saw her again I knew that her attraction for me was no ephemeral fancy, but a reality. Indeed, it may surprise you to hear that I called to-day with the intention of asking her to be my wife. And you say she has left for England. How very unfortunate. There is no one—no one else in the field, I hope?"
Elinor smiled faintly. "I believe not. Her departure had to do with trouble of quite another sort."
"I suppose you could not assure me that I had any hope?" he questioned.
Elinor felt somewhat embarrassed. "She has a great regard for you, Lord Hallington, but I am sure she never expected you would ever ask her to be your wife."
"I confess I hesitated at first. But I am sure she would grace any position, and my feelings have strengthened in absence to such a degree that I can afford to disregard your husband's well-meant cautions."
"My husband's!" exclaimed Elinor.
"Yes. Did he never tell you the subject of our conversation respecting Mrs. Monteath before I left Crampton Park?"
"No-o," faltered Elinor. "At least, I merely thought he had spoken about my having no references when I engaged Kathleen as governess."
"That was it. I questioned him on the matter, and perhaps unconsciously he gave me an impression that there was something mysterious in the background."
"You must have misunderstood him," said Elinor, flushing hotly and indignantly.
"Dear lady, if you only knew how anxious I was to think and hear the best of your friend, you would credit me with more sense than to take up a wrong inference."
"Then—you mean to convey that my husband was answerable for your unexplained departure from England?"
"He was. I had fully intended to acquaint Mrs. Monteath with my feelings. He persuaded me that it would be unwise."
"No wonder!" thought Elinor bitterly. Aloud she said, "My dear Lord Hallington, this is a very delicate subject to discuss, but I regret you did not put your questions to me instead of my husband. I know Mrs. Monteath's past history. She has had a hard and troubled life. She has gone through enough to break some women's hearts, yet bravely and cheerfully she has borne her burden. I know that her nature is pure and good, despite appearances."
"Thank you," he said gratefully. "Your testimony, Mrs. Haughton, would outweigh in my mind a thousand scandals."
"Would it weigh in your mind if I told you—one?" asked Elinor.
"I would rather hear nothing. If you know, and your opinion is unchanged, I am satisfied?"
"I do know," said Elinor gravely. "But what might make no difference to a woman's friendship might mean a great deal to a man's love. Mrs. Monteath would never deceive you voluntarily, and it is therefore no breach of confidence to tell you what you would have to hear from her own lips. She is not a—widow, Lord Hallington."
He started. "Is it possible—do you mean that her husband still lives?"
"She had to divorce him. She was only married a year."
He grew somewhat agitated. "This is quite unexpected," he said. "I am deeply distressed."
"Kathleen would have told you herself had you asked her. For my part, Lord Hallington, and speaking as a woman, I think it need not prejudice you. The man was one with whom no woman could possibly live and keep her own self-respect. Poor Kathleen has suffered terribly. You know how beautiful she is, how fascinating."
"Ah!" he cried quickly, "what need to remind me. All of heart I have to give has gone out to those fascinations."
"She has suffered for them, I can assure you. There are men, Lord Hallington, to whom a beautiful and friendless and unprotected woman seems fair game, as they call it. Kathleen has had to evade the shots and snares and pitfalls that such men deem their prerogative. But she is a good woman, despite it all. Better than many a one who wears a robe of virtue only for the world's eyes."
"It does me good to hear you speak," he said. "Your words drive all my doubts away. I hate to think I have been induced to discuss her affairs at all, but discussing them with so staunch a champion is reassuring. One thing more, Mrs. Haughton. Is there any hope that she could care for me irrespective of my position? I don't want to be married for that, yet I am not vain enough to believe a beautiful, brilliant creature like Kathleen Monteath could think of me as I do of her. It is not possible."
Elinor smiled faintly. "Ah! there I cannot help you," she said. "You must decide that matter for yourself. I fancy Kathleen is too honest to deceive you on a point so important to both. And I also think, Lord Hallington, that trust and devotion and gratitude are no unsafe basis for a marriage where disparity of years comes into consideration."
"You are right," he said, "and I should be very grateful. I have no right to ask more. If she will be truthful, if she will say she is content to marry me, I hope I may win these at her hands. I mean to try."
"You have my best wishes, for your success," said Elinor.
"And will you give me her address in England, that I may write at once?"
She smiled. "Are you, indeed, in such haste?"
"I wish to ask her to give up a life of toil and dependence. I hate to think of her bearing it an unnecessary moment. Besides, my dear lady, a man of my years knows that happiness can only be a short-lived thing at best. You will give me that address?"
She crossed over to her writing-table and wrote something on a sheet of notepaper. "Here it is," she said.
He took it with a smile. He looked so hopeful and eager that ten years seemed cut off from that age he had deplored as a barrier to love. After he had gone Elinor sat for long at the table, thinking over the interview. Finally she wrote to Kathleen, telling her about it and urging her to be perfectly frank with Lord Hallington.
"He knows enough," she concluded, "to be trusted with more. I am sure you will have no cause to regret your confidence."
The letter reached Kathleen in the somewhat dingy boarding-house in Bedford-square where she had taken up a temporary abode, and where Barry was making life pleasant all round to such inmates as a Parsee professor, two old maiden ladies, an octogenarian traveller, whose stories of adventure were culled from the "Strand Magazine," and some lively students of the University Hospital. When these inmates were absent or shut up in their respective rooms, the boy found his way into dark and mystic regions rendolent of soup flavorings, onions, and black beetles. Here he made friends with an ancient cook, who had a partiality for gin and a great love for cats. She had a family of three about her, of all sorts and sizes. Barry was then perfectly happy and wrote an ecstatic letter to Val descriptive of a London boarding-house kitchen. His mother was too much occupied with her own affairs to pay much heed to him in those first days of enforced banishment.
Her mind was absorbed by one idea. Julian Dormer had left for Nice. He had put her in possession of Lawrence Haughton's secret. Would it be possible for her to confront her enemy at last, saying, "Silence for silence!"
She could understand now his avoidance of society, the retired life he led at the Manor. Why, every moment was attended with danger of recognition, and recognition meant the insults or the scorn paid to one who has known the interior of a criminal prison.
A criminal prison! She thought of Elinor Haughton—a young wife, an expectant mother, and bearing all this shame and terror. Bearing it, forgiving it, taking back the man and screening him by every means in her power. What a return she had met with. And all the time this other man had loved her. Had let her go back to duty, and stood aside while the slow, sad years drifted on, and every year left him more sad, more lonely, more desolate. Could he help her now, she wondered?
She would have given a great deal to follow him to Nice, to know what it was he held in his power, by what means he purposed to disarm Lawrence Haughton. However, that was impossible. She must remain on here and await the issue of events.
The Parsee professor was very polite to the handsome widow. He took Barry and herself to the theatre, and offered to instruct that young gentleman in the mysteries of Sanscrit and Hindustanee. But in compliance with Barry's strong objections Kathleen politely intimated that such studies were scarcely necessary for a youth whose choice of profession was the navy.
In due time came Lord Hallington's letter, accompanied by Elinor's. She opened Elinor's first, but after the first page threw it down, and tore open the other envelope. Her eyes sparkled and a cry of incredulous delight escaped her. Barry, who was in the room, looked up from some mechanical construction of cork, cigar box, and twine, which he called a "three-decker," and enquired what was the matter.
"Oh, my boy—my boy. We are saved. What luck. Was ever the like of it." She waved the flimsy sheet above her head and seized and hugged the boy in ecstacy of triumph. "Oh, Barry, only think of it. Your mother a countess, my dear. All the worries and struggles and make-shifts over. No more screwing and pinching, no more hateful women bargaining for services and screwing you down to a pittance they wouldn't dare offer their cooks. Oh, my darling child, think of it. Merchant service, navy, whichever you like. Your education, your future, all secure. Oh, what a providential thing that I went to Torbart Manor."
"What's it all about, though?" asked Barry, disengaging himself from an ecstatic embrace with a boy's disapproval of affection.
"About? Why—Lord Hallington wants to marry me. Think of that. Marry me. Make me the owner of that lovely place of his—carriages, horses, footmen. Why—I shall go to court. I shall have the famous Hallington diamonds."
She stopped breathless with possible expectations. She had been so long in the grip of poverty that she had in some manner lost the finer feelings that regulate obligations. It was perfectly right and fair that the rich should give and the needy should take. Each helped the other—in different ways. The spirit and the life that had made her an adventuress were to blame for any deterioration of character during the process. There was no longer any necessity to be anything but a lady in future. She felt perfectly equal to that necessity, once her excitement had abated. But just at first a natural enthusiasm burst the bounds of mere satisfaction, and she and Barry rejoiced over this changed prospect of affairs with less of gratitude to the benefactor than the benefits.
When Kathleen was calmer, she returned to the perusal of Elinor's letter. As she read the tender sympathy, the gentle counsel, as she recognised how wisely and kindly this one friend had served her cause her heart swelled with gratitude towards her.
"Dear little woman, best and kindest of Elinors," she murmured, and then sat down and wrote her some of the overflowing joy and love of her impulsive soul.
To know such happiness, such relief, was like coming out of a dungeon into God's glad sunshine—from prison to freedom. The struggles, the make-shifts, the experiments, the humiliations of those past years were absolutely forgotten, swept from memory by a sudden flood of joy.
The grace and beauty of face and form were intensified a hundredfold by this sudden stroke of good fortune. Had Lord Hallington seen her then, radiant as a goddess, smiling like a happy child, utterly, blissfully content, he would have felt deeply repaid for his magnanimity.
As it happened, the letter written under stress of these feelings was to the woman who had befriended her in the past—not to the man who had saved her in the future.
Lawrence Haughton returned to Monte Carlo by the next train. That evening found him once more at the tables. He was calm and cool to all outward appearance but excitement was raging within his heart. Anyone looking at the white face and the strangely glittering eyes would have known that the gambler's fever had him in its grip. His head throbbed, his hand burnt like a hot coal. One and one object only held him possessed, and enthralled. He had come here to-night to make his fortune, to be forever independent of the woman whom he had grown to hate. He was early at the Casino. He secured a chair and for a few moments watched the play with careless eyes. He asked a question of a weird, pallid individual, whose card registered a system that could scarcely have been advantageous. The answer was in the negative.
Lawrence took a single gold piece from his pocket. He looked at it furtively.
"Fortunate I took a return ticket," he thought. "Just as it came into my possession, so it leaves it. Here goes!"
He leant forward as the inviting "Faites vos jeux" sounded. He placed his coin on the color and No. 1.
Round went the wheel, off flew the tiny ball, gyrating in giddy circles, slackening, stopping, falling at last into its little well. "Numero un!" cried the croupier. "Rouge impair et manque!" He had won.
He gathered up his coup. His inspiration had been right. The luck had changed at last. The blood flushed to his pallid cheek. He resolved to try again. This time he staked on the color only. Again he won. The number was twelve.
The combination of the one and two attracted his attention. The fever was at its height now. Nothing could stop him. One was the number that had been brought under his notice by two circumstances just as he had turned his back on fortune. He determined to try their chances for all they were worth. To the born gambler nothing is unimportant, and Chance, his favoring goddess, has no freak too fantastic to seem unimportant.
He played next on the numbers one and two. Two won and the color again favored him. He preserved his self-control and went steadily on, finally staking the maximum allowed on 12.
Again he won. Faces began to turn in his direction. A little buzz of excitement went round the table. A man paused at the outer circle of the crowd and leant forward to look at the successful player.
The hot nervous hand was thrust forward to grasp a pile of gold and notes just counted out by the croupiers. For the first time since he had begun to play Lawrence Haughton's eyes were lifted to the circle of watchful faces. They paused, arrested by one compelling gaze that seemed to chill and terrify him. His nerveless hand lay passive on the piled-up heap he had just won. The color faded from his face, leaving it grey and ashen-hued. He gave a little gasp and sank back in his chair.
* * * * * *
Julian Dormer stood alone in a room of the Hotel de Paris. Alone, save for a stirless sheeted figure stretched on the bed.
"Did I come too late?" he said. "Or just in time?"
The doctor had left, the Sœur de Charité had performed her duties. The man who had arrived that night and had followed Lawrence Haughton from the hotel to the gambling rooms was the only one who seemed to know anything about him or his affairs.
He had died from sudden failure of the heart, accelerated by excitement and the sudden shock of success, so the doctor said, and certified. Julian Dormer alone knew the cause of that shock, coming, as it did, on the tide of feverish excitement, which was carrying the gambler to his own destruction.
He knew that the moment Lawrence Haughton looked up and met his eyes was a moment when he felt himself again a criminal in the prisoner's dock, a man from whom all honorable and just-dealing men would shrink in horror, a man whose solemn promise had been broken, and who stood confronted now by the exactor of that promise, the holder of its signed and witnessed record.
"Will she grieve, very much?" thought Julian Dormer, as he turned away at last. "Women are strange creatures, but surely even her patience and forgiveness had limits. Well, I can do no more. Death took my promised vengeance out of my hands. Now the secret that has gone with him to his grave will go with me to mine. To-morrow I shall see—Nell."
The old name came tenderly to his heart as it had always done to his lips. The name he loved, the memory he treasured. The name of the woman he had worshipped with a reverent tenderness, for whose sake he had spared Lawrence Haughton because by so sparing him he saved her a worse shame.
For only Julian Dormer knew that Elinor had never had a legal right to the name she bore, that in a London slum lived a drunken, degraded creature who was Lawrence Latimer's wife. He had believed her dead before marrying Elinor, and when the truth came to him he dealt with it as with most things that demanded honor or self-sacrifice, put it aside—tampered with it. He came out of prison to find a rich woman as well as a forgiving one awaiting him, and knowing that his secret was safe for her sake, he troubled no more about its consequences. He had taken care that Elinor should not acquaint her friend with her changed name; should believe him indifferent or forgetful. He did not know that that friend had exacted a promise that if ever she needed help or protection she would apply to him.
Thus Julian had taken Kathleen for her messenger, and Kathleen's words of accusation as a summons to himself.
Before Lawrence Haughton's release from his term of imprisonment Julian had forced him to sign a document in which he promised never again to indulge in the vice of gambling. When he found that that promise was broken he resolved that Elinor should be released from this traitor's claims. He travelled to Monte Carlo with all speed, and found that Lawrence was staying at the Hotel de Paris. From the hotel he proceeded to the gambling rooms, and watched with stern resentment that last deal with Fortune. When Lawrence looked up from his winnings and met that accusing face the shock precipitated results of a long-standing weakness.
In the hour of his triumph Fate confronted him with the consequences of a broken vow. His life paid the penalty.
Julian Dormer went over to Nice by the early train and made his way to the Villa Paillon. He was met by a dancing sprite, who, after one long gaze, recognised him as that friend of whom her baby lips had spoken, and welcomed him with an ecstasy of delight that brought the tears to his eyes.
"Oh, but maman will be glad!" she cried, dragging him into the deserted salon. "She is not well, the poor maman; but I will tell her of you and she will get up from bed, toute suite, and be down to see you!"
She had danced out of his arms and up the stairs and down again almost before he recovered composure.
"She is astounded—delighted—the little maman!" she exclaimed. "Oh, but so glad! Why is it you never came before?"
"I did not know where you were," he said.
"Not know! But maman, she wrote, is it not?"
"No, little Frenchy," he said. "It is not. She promised to write, but she must have forgotten!"
"Maman never forgets," said Val gravely. "If she makes one promise, she does always keep it."
"Then the letter got lost, or something," he said. "But, tell me, Val, why do you speak like this? You never used to when you were my little girl, and I was—what was it you called me in those days?"
"Mr. Glass Eyes," she laughed. "And so you are still. I used to pull them off—did I not?"
"Yes, indeed, and hide them. You were a tricky sprite always, Val."
"We went away to a foreign place after that time," said Val gravely. "And then I spoke no more the English, and papa, he came to us, and he made that I speak always the French; and one, two years go on, and I could not then remember half the English words—that is how I came to speak so. But I get better now. Only, since that Barry has gone I forget myself for the old way. He did used to tease me so that I was more—more comme il faut, you know."
"Barry," echoed Julian Dormer. "Who is Barry?"
"He is the dearest boy of all the world," said Val. "It is madame who is gone to England, and was one time my governess, that is his maman."
"Mais oui. Yes—I mean. How do you know the name of her?"
"I—she came to see me in London," he answered. "That is how I knew where to find you."
Val nodded her head. The explanation was quite satisfactory. "And my dearest boy? Did you then see him?"
"I am sorry to say no. How you have grown, Val. But you are not much changed. I believe I should have known you anywhere."
She laughed merrily. "I hope," she said, "you will do poor maman some good. She is so pale, so triste, she eats not, and she do cry so often. And papa—oh, but he is mechant—wicked. I told him so yesterday." She lowered her voice and came nearer. "He was here—and maman, she would not see him—and he did want some money. He asked me would I go to the purse of the poor p'tite maman and get out from it some gold, as he was to return to Monte Carlo. We know of Monte Carlo, Barry and I. It is where the people play at wheel for money. Maman and madame, they go one time there, and never has anything been the same since. Maman she is always sick and madame departs herself for England. Therefore I do not like Monte Carlo. When papa say he goes there I do not think it is well. But n'importe. I do not say so or tell the p'tite maman—no. But this is what I do. I go to my own port-monnaie, and I take my own piece of gold, that maman gave me as a present, and bring it to papa. I do not say that it is of mine. I say, 'That is all there is in the purse.' And he look so funny—so funny. Pleased and angry and impatient all of one! Then he go—vite—at once, and he never come back no more as yet."
Julian Dormer listened to the quick flow of words, emphasised by those gestures of hand and head that made Val so unlike an English child. The simple incident related by lips unconscious of the tragedy at which they hinted struck him with horror. To take this child's money; to have made it the stepping-stone to those gains his fevered hands had clutched even in the death-spasm! It seemed to add a new horror to that tragic death.
He put the child down from his knee and turned to the window—the same window at which Lawrence Haughton had stood, only twenty-four hours before. He was still looking out on the garden when the rustle of skirts attracted him. He turned and saw Nell. For a moment he stood rooted to the spot, watching her as she slowly advanced. Then their eyes met. What he saw in hers and the face uplifted to his own arrested any power of speech.
That slight fragile figure in its plain grey dress struck him as more pathetic than anything he had dreamt of.
"Oh, well!" he said, below his breath, and the pity and the wonder in his eyes went to her heart like a stab of pain. She held out her hands. They were trembling like her self.
"Little friend," he said, and he held them close and stood looking down into her flushing face. "Dear little Nell—who forgot me so soon!"
"Forgot!" she said. "Oh, no, Julian! Surely you know me better than that. It was you who were silent. I wrote as I promised; but no answer came, and then I thought it best to keep the silence unbroken."
"I had no letter," he said simply, "nor any sign. I am here now——" He stopped abruptly, remembering why he was here, what he had come to tell.
"Because Kathleen sent you?" she asked.
"No," he said. "Not because she sent me. Because I owed a duty to you and I came to fulfil it."
She drew her hands away and crossed the room to where Val was perched upon the arm of a chair. "Go upstairs or in the garden for a little while, dear," she said. "I have something very serious to talk about with Mr. Dormer."
For once Val was obedient. Something in her mother's face, and in that other face also, touched an instinct of her childish nature and told her of something sad and strange in this meeting.
Elinor seated herself in the chair. The warm sunlight streaming through the window lit up her soft fair hair and lent a little warmth to the pallor of her cheeks.
"Will you tell me," she said, "or shall I guess? I think you came out of kindness, think you heard of a broken silence; but you can do nothing to help me now—any more than you could in those other days."
"Did I never help you—then?" he asked reproachfully.
"Oh, yes, in all ways but—but the one in which I needed help. The circumstances are the same Julian, again."
"Perhaps not," he said. "Perhaps not—quite the same."
"You mean that I am now a rich woman; that I can afford to see money wasted, flung to the winds of caprice for an hour's excitement. That is true—but—do you think I suffer less?"
"I hope," he said very gently, "that you will suffer less in the future!"
"Julian!" she whispered, half-frightened by something behind the words, behind the face whose grave tenderness held a new compassion.
"In the future," he repeated. "Try and compose yourself, Nell, to hear something that it has fallen to my fate to tell you. Somehow I have always been the messenger of ill-news to you—to-day it is my fate again. I came here because the friend you sent to me told me enough of your life and your sufferings to give me courage to end them. I ought to have ended them long ago. I held a written promise from Lawrence, as you know, in which he foreswore gambling and cards from the hour of his release. You were to tell me if ever that promise was broken."
"I know. Indirectly I did so. You learnt it from Mrs. Monteath."
"Yes—and I came here at once. I went to Monte Carlo; I found him at the roulette table. He was winning rapidly. He was in a fever of excitement. I think he had won something like ten thousand francs. Suddenly he looked up and met my eyes. God knows, Nell, what accusation or reminder he read in that brief instant, but he fell back in his chair in a—in a sort of stupor. They carried him out of the room and back to his hotel. I went there with him. He—he never regained consciousness."
She had not removed her eyes from his face. She read there now what his lips had not spoken.
"He is dead!" she said, very low.
"Yes," said Julian Dormer.
There was a long silence. Then she looked up. "Ought I to say I am sorry? Julian—I cannot."
"You ought and need say nothing your heart does not bid you. There was never anything of the hypocrite about you, Nell."
"I did my duty," she went on. "He made it very hard; but I tried my best. Often I thought if it had not been for the child——"
He thought of that time, of his discovery; how, but for the child she should never have gone back to the man who had wrecked her young life.
"You did more than your duty," he broke out, with sudden passion. "I thank heaven he can bring no more suffering upon you."
She looked up. "Dear friend," she said softly. "Dear, faithful friend."
"Always that, little Nell, always that," he answered. "It means less to you than to me, perhaps; for the book of my life is nearer its end than yours."
"It may have many chapters yet," she said. "Happier ones—brighter ones."
His smile was as sad as her voice. "There will always be the same words written in them. Do you remember the little poem you used to read to me, Nell—the one you set to music? How often in the twilight I have listened to your voice singing it! How well I seemed to know even then——!"
He broke off abruptly. Her questioning gaze met his eyes—asked and answered what the lips feared to speak. She, too, saw a fire-lit room, the dusk of twilight, a shadowy form. She, too, heard a voice rising and falling to the rhythm of a simple melody. What did the voice say? What were the words that lived in every chapter of that book of life of which he spoke?—the brave, unselfish life dedicated to her memory and her service.
They spoke afresh in the patient eyes, in the warm hand-clasp that closed upon her own, outstretched to his beseeching.
"Write at the end of the chapter, 'Always the heart of my heart.'"
That was what she was, and had been, and would be till life should end.
The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, N.S.W.) on 6 December, 1902 reports:
"Rita" is an industrious penwoman, and one whose novels are acceptable to many readers, without reaching a high level of merit. Her latest, "The Lie Circumspect" (London: Hutchinson and Co.) is a healthy, satisfying story of man's steadfast devotion and woman's self-sacrifice at the shrine of duty. Julian Dormer, a solicitor, defends a forger, who is justly sentenced to four years' imprisonment, protects the wife of the latter, and secures her a fortune of £1000 per annum, to which she is entitled. The husband, whose crime was the result of gambling propensities, is a worthless fellow who on his release renders his wife's life a burden. He makes dishonorable advances to his daughter's governess, and in revenge and baffled passion, seeks vainly to prevent the governess from marrying a lord. He compels his wife to live in the strictest seclusion, breaks his promise to never gamble again, and dies of heart failure at Monte Carlo. So the tale ends with prospect of well-being and happiness—after long years of honorable waiting—to the deserving Julian and Nell. Pleasantly written fiction it is. "Rita" has the knack of keeping the threads of her story to-gether, and fairly presenting the good and the evil of human nature. From George Robertson and Co.
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