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Title: Branded, or, The Daughters of a Convict Author: Gerald Biss * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305101h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2013 Most recent update: August 2013 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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CHAPTER I.—THE CASE OF HELEN JERNINGHAM.
CHAPTER II.—FROM GRAVE TO GAY.
CHAPTER III.—A DEADLOCK IN COURTSHIP.
CHAPTER IV.—COUNSEL'S OPINION.
CHAPTER V.—NO ALTERNATIVE.
CHAPTER VI—PHYLLIS PROPOSES.
CHAPTER VII.—MARRIED IN HASTE.
CHAPTER VIII.—A BOND OF SYMPATHY.
CHAPTER IX.—HONEY AND HERBS.
CHAPTER X.—ON THE THRESHOLD.
CHAPTER XI.—LITERA SCRIPTA.
CHAPTER XII.—IN THE LOVER'S WALK.
CHAPTER XIII.—FACING FACTS.
CHAPTER XIV.—PLANS AND PREPARATIONS.
CHAPTER XV.—THE FINDING OF A MOTHER.
CHAPTER XVI.—THE RENEWAL OF LOVE.
CHAPTER XVII.—THE REASON WHY.
CHAPTER XVIII.—A CHANGE OF PLANS.
CHAPTER XIX.—AN UNEXPECTED DEVELOPMENT.
CHAPTER XX.—THE K.C. STRIKES AN IDEA.
CHAPTER XXI.—OPEN WAR.
CHAPTER XXII.—INTO THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW.
CHAPTER XXIII.—PARADISE RE-LOST.
CHAPTER XXIV.—A REACTION AND ITS RESULT.
CHAPTER XXV.—DREAMS AND DEVELOPMENTS.
CHAPTER XXVI.—THE LONG ARM OF FATE.
CHAPTER XXVII.—AT THE JUDGMENT SEAT.
CHAPTER XXVIII.—THE LAST CARD.
CHAPTER XXIX.—THE END OF THE JERNINGHAM CASE.
"AS swiftly and as surely as I snuff out this candle, so swiftly and surely do you by your verdict snuff out the life of a fellow-creature. Gentlemen of the jury, may the Almighty direct your verdict."
And as he sat down the great advocate leant forward impressively with a grave gesture and extinguished between his finger and thumb the flickering candle near him, his eyes fixed solemnly upon the twelve intent men in the jury-box.
Then he sank back into his seat, wearily wiping the perspiration from his forehead and pushing his full-bottomed wig back from his brow, immediately inert from the reaction of the intense strain.
The Old Bailey was hot and stifling at the close of a long day, and everyone was tired, sustained only by suppressed excitement and keen interest. It was the third day of the great Jerningham case, with which the whole country was ringing, and England was agog for the verdict, stirred as it seldom is by a criminal trial. Being a Saturday, the judge had announced his intention of sitting late, so as to conclude the case before Sunday, rather than adjourn over the week-end.
It had been a scorching hot July day, and the sun had blazed incessantly and mercilessly into the court, crowded beyond endurance. As it set and darkness began to fall, the heat had not abated, and the foetid atmosphere seemed to grow even more stifling. There was a heavy feeling of thunder in the air.
The Old Bailey, narrow, cramped, and uncomfortable, looked murky in the deepening gloom, with no other light save the flickering candles, and out of the dimness peered grim, expectant faces.
The judge on the bench seemed weary as he sorted his notes, but the counsel on both sides, despite the hard work of the week, were keenly alert, as they played the great game of their profession, with a life as the stake. Still, for once, the sympathies of all had been strangely touched, contrary to logic and evidence. On the side of the prosecution there was no animus, merely a cool, well-reasoned statement of facts, unusually colorless in its moderation, as the Attorney-General asked for a verdict on the overpowering evidence he had accumulated. Opposed to him was not only the passionate eloquence of the greatest lawyer of the day, typically Irish in his enthusiasm and his power of stirring souls, carrying the court at times off its feet with a rush of words and an exuberance of eagerness, yet sinking to well-modulated passages where reason was met by reason and logic battled with logic. There was also a further note of deep sincerity of belief in the prisoner's innocence, that unprofessional personal expression of opinion which sometimes slips from an advocate who pleads a cause, rather than a great case. All the personality of the lawyer had been thrown into the scales, and it seemed as though he had staked his whole professional reputation upon the result.
In his conduct of the case, Sir Patrick O'Brien, Q.C., M.P., had been most ably and willingly seconded by his junior, Caton Bramber, who had served his apprenticeship in the courts and on circuit with lesser briefs, and now for the first time appeared in a really big case, which had set the whole world talking. His enthusiasm had been hardly second to that of his leader, and it had helped him to subdue all natural nervousness at such a crucial moment in his career, with the result that he had been brilliant, a worthy aide-de-camp to a great general, and had earned the hearty congratulations, not only of his briefless brethren, but also of the leading lights of the profession. In a short week he had sprung from obscurity to find himself praised and paragraphed on all sides, and whatever the result of the Jerningham case, it had certainly assured Caton Bramber's future. Yet as he sat by his leader, carried away by his great speech with its impressive ending, his thoughts were centred more upon the result of the case than his own career.
For Helen Jerningham was a very beautiful woman, young and fascinating. As she stood in the dock in her widow's weeds, arraigned upon the charge of having poisoned her husband, she presented a pathetic picture. Her face was pale, and there was weariness in her eye, but her pluck had never once failed her, nor had she flinched under the ordeal. She was only twenty-three, as she stood called upon to face the most terrible accusation which can be levelled against a human being, and it required an iron will and a nerve of steel for a girl to hold her head up and meet her accusers.
Helen Jerningham was a peculiarly beautiful woman, and this was unquestionably a point in her favor, commanding public sympathy and making her cause the easier to plead. In France such beauty would have meant acquittal, but in England hearts are harder and emotions more easily curbed, and the case against her was unquestionably black.
Her widow's cap, in the full fashion of the day, almost hid her glorious hair, but here and there a stray curl of auburn forced its way on to her forehead, curving like a tiny tongue of flame upon her dead-white face. The very colorlessness of the oval contour accentuated the blackness of the tired eyes and the brows above and the red fulness of the lips of her small mouth. The nostrils of her little nose were highly arched, and moved sensitively as a question or a word struck home, but otherwise the lovely face, reproduced in all the weekly papers, and scanned by millions of curious eyes, remained impassive. That her life hung in the balance seemed of little moment to her beside the daily staring of the inquisitive crowd, and the glaring publicity afforded to her unhappy married life.
With a grave, grateful smile, which hovered for an instant round her lips, and a pathetic look from her weary eyes, she dumbly thanked the great Q.C. for his splendid speech on her behalf, and then she relapsed once more immobile into the chair in the dock between the grim guardians of her person.
Slowly, and with a stern, unemotional face, the Attorney-General rose, exercising the right of his office to have a last word on behalf of the Crown, and in a cold, measured voice he recapitulated the damning evidence—the incarnation of the Avenger of Death. Each sentence fell like a drop of ice-cold water upon the enthusiasm aroused by the speech for the defence, and his metallic voice, harsh from suppressed emotion and a desire to do justice at the same time to his duty and the prisoner, adduced fact after fact, logically arrayed, which affected the straining ears and palpitating hearts of the listeners far more than any outburst of eloquence, any tirade of partisanship, could possibly have done. It was as though each calm, cold word was the far-off echo of the wretched woman's death-knell.
The court was crowded with friends who had frequented the Jerninghams' house, seeking emotion from the sight of a social sister on the rack, and ready in the main to take one side or the other, according as the verdict should go. They had dined with Montagu Jerningham, not because they had liked him particularly, but because he had given admirable dinners, and the music at his house had always been so good. Helen Jerningham had been adored by the men privately, and the women publicly, but behind her back many a jealous word and thought had been flung by the latter at her beauty and her voice. Still, it had always been a house to dine at, and the Jerninghams, or, rather, the wife, had always been counted an addition to any party. So society was proportionately horrified from esprit de corps to find itself involved in such a middle-class scandal as a poisoning case. It was inclined to resent it bitterly—at least, the feminine section of decorous dowagers and outshone ingenues was; and it blamed itself the more for having received Helen Jerningham with open arms. For she had not, they consoled themselves, originated from out their select circles.
Five years previously she had flashed like a brilliant, fiery meteor, across the social sky in the season, and had instantaneously become the rage. No one had stopped to inquire her origin; her voice had been her passport. She had made her debut at a ballad concert, and scored one of those extraordinary successes which so seldom fall to the lot of an artist; and within a month hostesses were tumbling over each other to engage Helen Stanton and her marvellous contralto for their parties.
Of all, no one was more completely carried away than Montagu Jerningham, the well known connoisseur, dilettante, and lover of music. A man close on forty, and with all the artistic propensities of a notorious free-liver, he had always steered clear of the shoals of matrimony, until just before Helen Stanton's appearance upon the social stage, when—whether from a desire to settle down, or from the prospect of more money to spend on art treasures—he had become engaged to the rather elderly heiress of the wealthy Lord Paignton. But so outrageous and undisguised had been his conduct after Helen's debut that the old peer had angrily insisted upon breaking off the match, leaving him free to press on his middle-aged courtship. Yielding to sheer insistence and force of will, by the end of the season Helen had consented to become his wife, and they had been married almost immediately.
At first their life had been happy enough, and she had striven to make him a good wife; but it did not take long for her to prove the pettiness of his nature and to fathom the coarseness of his mind. Soon he on his side had tired of his new toy, his latest objet d'art, and regretted his freedom; and children had brought his discontent to a climax. More responsibility and less money to spend galled his mean nature, and his wife soon learnt to regret on her side her youthful error of judgment. His whole time at home was spent in nagging at her in furious outbursts of jealousy against any man who came to the house, and at times he had not refrained from using actual violence. Life with him had by degrees become almost intolerable, and she had seriously thought of separating from him, but she had always hoped for better things, and for the sake of her children had postponed any final step until—well, until his death.
Though she had always kept a bold front to the world, little by little, principally through his conduct to her in public, their domestic relations had become the public property of their friends, and in many a West-end boudoir and drawing-room, to say nothing of club smoking-rooms, they had often of late come under discussion. Then had come the tragedy, and society had crowded to the Old Bailey, the modern Golgotha of malefactors.
Such thoughts of the past even in the tense present were subconsciously darting in and out of the minds of many of those in court, brooding a sympathy with the woman in the dock, whether guilty or not guilty. But in on them broke the clear, cold voice, as it went on incisively, never betraying emotions or rising above its original pitch, as the Attorney-General marshalled his points, grim and black, when stripped of sentiment and sympathy.
He did not speak for long, simply recapitulating the facts adduced in the evidence of the last five days, and pointing out where Sir Patrick O'Brien's speech had fallen short in point of refutation, and where it had erred on the side of emotion and rhetoric.
"This, gentlemen of the jury," he concluded, after having addressed them for an hour and a half, "is briefly the case for the prosecution. I have endeavored not only to be brief, but also to put the facts to you without prejudice. Believe me, it is not my wish that the wretched woman in the dock should pay the penalty of her crime, but justice demands it, and I am here as the representative of the law which demands justice. These are the facts, and I hand over the responsibility into your keeping. Find your verdict without fear or favor, and if any reasonable doubt exist remember that it is the prisoner's right to be accorded the benefit."
The Attorney-General sat down, white despite the warmth of the court, and the judge began to arrange his papers finally as he cleared his throat to sum up.
Caton Bramber groaned. He had realised how the Attorney-General's cold logic and clear statement of the case, which his own feelings made him revolt from, must effect the jury.
His leader leant over to him, and whispered:
"The worst sort of speech, scrupulously fair and even generous, but it will carry more weight with the jury for that very reason. If only Benson had made an impassioned speech we should have been certain of winning. It all depends on the judge now."
"Gentlemen," began the judge, readjusting his glasses and peering at the jury through them, "it is my unhappy duty to charge you in this peculiarly painful case, and to ask you to decide whether the prisoner at the bar is guilty or not guilty. In the first place, it is my pleasure to say that never before since my elevation to the bench has it fallen to my lot to hear more able or suitable speeches than those of the Attorney-General and Sir Patrick O'Brien. The speech which you have just listened to seems to be the model of what such a speech should be—short, concise, stripped of rhetoric, and adhering strictly to facts, not striving after a conviction for conviction's sake, but adducing the accumulation of evidence, and even ceding any grave point at issue, if not sufficiently established. On the other hand, Sir Patrick O'Brien has left no device of rhetoric, no power of pleading, no method of forcing sympathy untried, while at the same time dealing with the facts in the most masterful fashion. But unfortunately, gentlemen, I am here in the invidious position of having to strip off all devices of rhetoric and to eschew all use of sympathy. My duty is simply to give you the facts and to direct you upon the law. The latter is quite simple. If the prisoner at the bar is guilty, she is guilty of the foulest crime in the calendar, and is liable to the utmost penalty of the law. If she is not guilty, she is a much wronged woman, and must instantly be set free. There is no intricate point of law involved in the case. That is all plain sailing—guilty or not guilty, with their alternative extremes.
"As to the facts, the case seems to me a very simple one, and to rest upon one point only. Did the prisoner or did the prisoner not know, when she administered the fatal dose to her husband, that it was loaded with poison? That she did administer the fatal dose with her own hands admits of no doubt. Now let me recapitulate the facts in brief."
Then the judge began to go over the story of the case. How on the fatal morning in May Mrs. Jerningham had found a registered parcel on the breakfast table addressed to her, and had opened it. It was found to contain a bottle mounted in a silver stand for the dressing-table. The bottle itself was a well-known one containing "Brand's Saline Powder," an old-established proprietary article, recommended, amongst other things, for headaches, and much used for that purpose in fashionable circles. No note was enclosed with it, but Mrs. Jerningham did not seem to think anything of that. An oversight, her counsel suggested, and she expected one later on by post. That morning Mr. Jerningham was very crapulous, and his wife proposed a dose of the "saline powder." He consented, asking where the bottle had come from. Her answer was that "she had bought it," as she had not wished, according to her own statement, to arouse his jealousy by saying that she did not know. She mixed the drink herself in a glass of water, brought by the butler, and he drank it. Shortly afterwards he was taken very ill, and the doctor was sent for. Mr. Jerningham, however, expired before he could arrive, but before expiring he was overheard to say to his wife, "You've done for me at last," and would not allow her to come near him while he remained conscious. The bottle of powder was found to be strongly impregnated with cyanide of potassium. That Mr. Jerningham had died of cyanide of potassium poisoning there was no question, and it had certainly been administered to him by his wife. The question was whether she knew that the salts were impregnated with poison.
The judge went on to dwell upon the other points in the case, paying particular attention to the unhappy marital relations of Mr. and Mrs. Jerningham, not seeking in any way to exculpate him, but pointing out that such a state of affairs might induce, though it could not justify, murder. The hand-writing evidence as to the address was, as usual, conflicting, and, at best was only secondary or corroborative evidence, so it might be dismissed as cancelling itself. The theory of the defence was that the packet was sent by some enemy of Mrs. Jerningham, with a view to poisoning her, but little or no evidence had been produced to back up this theory. On the other hand, the post-office official who had registered the parcel remembered two peculiar facts—that the lady who had registered it had worn a very thick veil, and that she had red hair. In reply to this the defence had asked if anyone who desired secrecy would have registered the parcel at all, thereby drawing attention to themselves, but it was his duty to point out that even the cleverest criminal usually gave themselves away by some stupid oversight. Again, the prisoner's maid swore that her mistress never wore veils, and had never to her knowledge possessed one, but at how many shops in London could they not be purchased? Then there was the prisoner's own statement that she had bought it herself, which, though speciously accounted for, was very prejudicial. It had not been definitely proved, on the other hand, where the bottle and silver stand had been purchased, but they were standard articles, and could be bought almost anywhere without attracting attention. They might even have been laid aside for months, and, perhaps, not originally bought with the intention of murder at all. As to the poison itself, the prosecution had proved that cyanide of potassium was easily obtainable, and was often used for cleaning jewellery, of which the prisoner had a large quantity. Too much reliance must not be placed upon the maid's denial that she ever used it. There were, too, other common purposes for which it was used. Thus the judge continued for just over an hour, summing up in a self-satisfied manner, sweeping away all theories, and sticking closely to the facts, which, in their nakedness, made Sir Patrick O'Brien groan in his seat.
"There are ways of putting things," he murmured to his junior; "and this is deadly—damning."
Caton Bramber nodded moodily as the judge concluded his solemn charge, and the jury began to file out of the dock.
For close on an hour the spectators sat huddled together in silent suspense, glad of each other's company in the gloom of the old court. Seldom has the Old Bailey looked more grim and solemn, and awe was in every heart. The dock was empty, the bench was empty, the seats of the counsel were empty. But the rest of the court was packed.
Just before midnight there was a stir, and the various counsel and officials hurriedly made their way back to their seats.
The judge followed, and the black cap, conspicuous on his desk, sent a thrill through the breathless court.
Then the jury filed into the box one by one, with pale, anxious faces, and took their seats with eyes averted from the dock.
Last of all, the prisoner, pale but brave, was brought up from below, and once more put into the dock, where for three days she had stood passively fighting for her life.
Then a silence fell.
"Are you all agreed upon your verdict?" came the familiar formula of the clerk of arraigns.
"We are," said the foreman, in a voice choked with emotion.
"Do you find the prisoner guilty or not guilty?"
"Guilty!" was the answer, in little more than a hasty whisper; "but we wish to recommend her to mercy."
A murmur of protest rose from the back of the court, which almost instantly gathered volume. By a great effort silence was restored, the judge angrily threatening to have the court cleared.
Then he motioned the attendants to lead the prisoner forward, and the clerk of arraigns again spoke.
"Prisoner at the bar, have you anything to say why you should not be sentenced according to the law?"
In reply came the clear contralto voice, which had won London, ringing clear and true through the dim court:
"Nothing, my lord, except that I am not guilty—Not Guilty!"
The whole court was profoundly moved by this outburst, with the exception of the judge, who motioned sharply for silence as he arranged the black cap on his wig.
There was a fascination in the simple action, and the eyes of all were glued upon the little square of black, placed corner-wise on the judge's head.
There was a catch in the throats of the men, and the women began to weep hysterically.
At length the judge spoke, turning towards the white-faced woman in the dock with a stern expression.
"Helen Jerningham," he said, in a measured voice, which seemed to cut its way into every heart in the court, "a jury of your fellow-countrymen has found you guilty of the foulest act in the whole category of crime. You have been convicted—and I consider that no other verdict could have been reasonably brought in on the overwhelming evidence offered against you—of having poisoned him whom you promised to love, honor, and obey, yet, at the same time, you have been recommended to mercy. No provocation could lessen the guilt of such an awful crime, and, though the recommendation shall be forwarded to the proper quarter, I beg of you to make your peace with Almighty God, and can hold out to you little hope of any alteration of the sentence of the court. And that is that you be taken from the place where you now stand to the place whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, and that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul."
"Amen," came solemnly from the chaplain's lips.
In the body of the court there was tense silence and bated breath.
Outside the great clock struck midnight with a harsh, clanging note, which seemed to go through and through everybody in the court.
While the judge had been pronouncing sentence, the prisoner had stood erect at the front of the dock, unsupported and facing the man who was dooming her to disgrace and a felon's death.
When he had finished she stood for an instant as though about to speak. Then she turned round slowly and silently, with no sign but a slight stately inclination of her head, and rapidly disappeared down the narrow stairs.
Thus the world saw the last of Helen Jerningham in all her radiant beauty.
As the judge left the bench a murmur of protest again rose in court, accompanied by sobs, and outside a hoarse roar of disapproval and disgust could be heard, announcing the fact that the verdict was known to the mob in the street.
Then a sudden vivid flash of lightning illuminated the weird scene, followed by a reverberating peal and crash of thunder, and the rain began to fall in big, heavy drops.
The London season had almost run its little course, and despite the prolonged Session dances were becoming belated. Society had laughed its laughs, dined its friends, done its Ascot, and danced the edge off the small hours to the despite of its beauty sleep; and the artificial life of the town, with its utter disregard of nature and its general topsy-turveydom of things, was beginning to pall and to cloy even the most hardened patrons. Business in the marriage mart was growing slack. Matches had been made, bargains struck, and announced to the world, or else they had not come off, to the disgust of dowagers and their daughters.
To ring down the curtain the Countess of Teviotdale was giving a small dance at her house in Park Lane, and amongst the girls who were not a little excited at the prospect were Phyllis and Doris Chichele. They were the twin nieces of Mrs. Chichele, a popular and wealthy widow, on the borderland of fifty, and reputed to be heiresses in a small way.
Moreover, it was their first season, and they had enjoyed it to the full. But, although they were both very attractive girls, so far neither had received an offer of marriage which was either worth considering seriously or had appealed to that unfashionable organ, the heart. But both were building on Lady Teviotdale's dance, each hoping from her different point of view that the evening would bring forth her desire.
There was an unusual contrast between the twins, who, beyond a vague general likeness, were totally unlike each other in face or figure; and of the two Phyllis was commonly accepted as the beauty without question.
She was undoubtedly a very lovely girl, with her tall willowy figure and abundance of rich auburn hair. She had a very clear complexion, and a skin that was almost transparent in its fineness of texture, and in her cheeks there was no trace of color. Her eyes were large and blue, perhaps a shade too light in tint, but strikingly surrounded by long dark lashes, and surmounted by arched black brows. Her nose was small and finely cut, but her chin was slightly too square for the oval of her face, though not very noticeable. Her mouth was contradictory, inclined at times to suggest sensuality, whilst at others it contracted to a thin line of determination. She had, however, a way of smiling which showed the full beauty of her teeth and her mouth at its best.
Doris shared only two points with her—the beautiful teeth and the color of the hair; but hers was considerably darker and less conspicuous. In figure she was petite and plump, and her nose and mouth were not as regular as the canons of beauty demanded. The former ended rather too abruptly, suggesting a snub, but the nostrils were small and sensitive. The latter was inclined to be large and full-lipped, but it was always smiling, and her eyes were full of fun. They were large and black, merry or passionate according to her mood, and they alone took her face out of the commonplace. And more characteristic still were the liberal freckles, which gave her a distinction and lovableness of her own. Altogether there was a quaint irregularity about her face which was very charming in its unexpectedness; but in the eyes of the majority she had to play second fiddle to Phyllis.
Both the young girls were dressed with a smart simplicity, in white, with touches of eau de nil here and there, and Mrs. Chichele eyed them very proudly and affectionately as they entered the drawing-room ready to start.
"You had better make the best of things to-night, children, and have your full fling," she said, smiling, "as there will be no more dances or new dresses for some time to come. I'm going to take you off to the country in a day or two. I think I've been patient to stand so much racketing about this season. Now I'm going to strike!"
"Dear old Aunty," said Doris, kissing her affectionately. "You know you won't. You'll do just as you are told, and take us just where we want to go."
"Don't be too sure, dear," replied Mrs. Chichele, as she returned her kiss.
"I hope Lord Shelford will be there," she said.
An anxious look flitted across Phyllis' face.
"I don't suppose he will," said Doris. "It's only a 'boy and girl' affair, and he must be nearly fifty."
"Lord Shelford," answered Phyllis, sharply, "is only just over forty, and he is quite a young man in all his ways."
"In his vices, you mean, my dear," put in Mrs. Chichele, with some asperity. "You know I have always told you that I don't care about you girls seeing much of him."
"You must be polite," argued Phyllis, sophistically, "and he always pays me such a lot of attention."
A cloud crossed her aunt's brow.
"You are both too young at present to think of such things," she said, abruptly, as though closing the subject, "and you have got to learn this, Phyllis, that Lord Shelford has not the reputation of being a marrying man, and that, even then, to marry some marquises is dear at any price." And with this little homily she preceded them to the carriage.
However, neither of the twins was doomed to disappointment when they arrived at Lady Teviotdale's, as they found plenty of partners awaiting their arrival, including one or two their hearts were specially set on.
"Come, Sir Lionel," said Phyllis, laughing, to a tall, handsome boy with a slight, dark moustache, "you mustn't be greedy and take all my cards to yourself. Besides, I should get terribly bored if I had to see too much of you."
"Would you?" he asked, in a serious undertone, looking full into her face with a passionate glance.
She shrugged her shoulders with a dainty gesture, not pretending to take him seriously.
"There you are, after all, Lord Shelford," she went on, to an older man, assuming surprise as he approached her. "I thought you had gone to Goodwood."
"No, sweet lady," he replied, with rather a drawl, eyeing her up and down through his single glass, "the thought of seeing you once more was too much for me, so I decided, much against my principles, to get up early to-morrow morning instead, and go down by the morning train, which will land me in time for the first race."
"How nice and unselfish of you," said Phyllis, half seriously, half banteringly, as she gave him her card. "I will give you an extra dance as a reward."
He smiled indulgently at her under his heavy moustache, raising his eyebrows with a characteristic movement as he scanned her programme, scratching in an 'S' here and there.
He was an undeniably handsome man for his age, or rather, the remnants of a good-looking young man, who had lived his forty-seven years hard. His hair was grizzled, but cut short, and parted in the middle. His moustache was as black as ever it had been, and it was as much as his valet's life would have been worth to allow any suspicion of a grey hair to show. His eyebrows, too, were black and heavy above his keen black eyes, and his aquiline nose well preserved. His bearing was military, and he carried himself very erect, making the most of his bare six feet. His dress was irreproachable, and he always prided himself subconsciously on living up to the nickname of "Dandy Shelford of the Guards."
"Your little Doris does not like me," he said, as, late in the evening, he led her away to a corner of the conservatory.
"She's such a child," rejoined Phyllis, deprecatingly.
"You are twins, I believe?" he said, with a smile.
"Oh, but actual age is not everything," the girl argued, with an answering smile.
"So I like to make myself believe," said the Marquis, lightly. "You do not think me very old, do you, Miss Chichele?" he continued, leaning forward, and looking into her face.
Her head swam for a second. She felt that her ambition was going to be realised, that she was going to be a marchioness.
Then with a great effort she recovered herself, and looked up at him with a gay smile.
"Oh! Lord Shelford!" she exclaimed, as though surprised at the question. "Indeed, no! I always looked upon you as only a very few years older than I am—and I hate boys fresh from school or the 'Varsity."
Lord Shelford drew back a little, smiling inscrutably. She had given herself away, and he had found out what he had wanted to know.
"Even young Lionel Erskine?" he went on, coolly.
"Poof! Sir Lionel!" said the girl, with a dainty shrug of her white shoulders, "he is quite a child."
"He came of age last week," rejoined the Marquis, laughing, "and he thinks himself very grown up."
At that moment, to Phyllis' disgust, the young baronet under discussion appeared in person to claim the next dance.
"How annoying!" she exclaimed to herself, as Lord Shelford yielded place to the younger man.
"I will leave you to tell Sir Lionel what we have just been discussing," he said, mischievously, as he strolled away with a rather careless bow.
"What have you been saying?" asked the other man, eagerly, not noticing her ill-concealed annoyance.
"Oh, nothing of any importance, only discussing ages," she answered, rather shortly.
Then she recovered herself with an effort, and smiled on him, showing her teeth.
"Rather a delicate subject with old 'Dandy' Shelford, I should think," he laughed.
"I don't think he's very old," said Phyllis, decidedly, "and it's better than being too young, you know. Let's go and dance."
"No; one minute, please," said Lionel, eagerly. "Do you mind if we sit it out?"
Phyllis assented rather dubiously, but she felt that she could play Lionel Erskine without danger, even if she had failed to fathom the older man.
"Do you think I'm too young?" he went on, pursuing the subject.
"Too young for what?" parried Phyllis, playing a question off with a question.
"To marry," he answered, bluntly. Then he gave rein to his passion. "To marry you, Phyllis, the woman I adore. Since I met you I've had eyes for no one else, thoughts for nothing else, and it's eating my whole heart out. I know I'm young, but that's a fault on the right side, isn't it? We can go through life together hand in hand, starting level. Besides, I'm of age. I waited till then. And if you'll only marry me I'll be so good to you."
The very rush of words from Lionel, usually self-contained, and rather reserved, almost carried the girl off her feet, and for a moment held her speechless.
Meanwhile, she was summing up the situation, and calculating the chances. Lionel was a baronet with a very fair income and a nice place in Hertfordshire, so he was not to be despised, especially as he was entirely his own master. But, of course, he was not to be compared with the Marquis of Shelford, with his forty thousand a year and great historic castle in the Midlands. Moreover, Lionel in some of his ways was rather too reserved and old-fashioned, and bored her at times. Still, she must not lose him altogether, and it would certainly do no harm to temporise.
"Hush, Sir Lionel," she said softly, yet with a touch of imperiousness, "hush, please; you bewilder me. I had no idea; it comes as such a surprise to me. I always looked on you as a friend—as too young to think of marriage."
"But," he broke in, eagerly, "not too young to love? Oh, Phyllis, you don't know how much it means to me. Don't you—won't you—can't you love me?"
"I don't know," answered the girl, with deliberate slowness. "I'm not sure of myself. That's the truth, Lionel," (she let the name without the prefix slip out as though unconsciously), "and I'm bewildered. I must have time to think. Give me time; give me a few days."
"Yes, dear, of course," said the man, tenderly, "of course, as long as you like. I have been too abrupt, but may I hope?"
She flashed an enigmatic look at him from her bright eyes.
"Take me back to my aunt, please," she said, softly, slipping her hand into his arm.
But she was doomed to disappointment, as the Marquis of Shelford, though very charming and attentive, did not again get on dangerous ground.
"Lionel spoilt it," she thought, rather vindictively, as she laughed and joked with her elderly admirer, trying to outdo him in lack of seriousness.
Suddenly she looked up and caught the eye of Caton Bramber, the famous K.C., focussed upon her, and for an instant she felt uncomfortable. Somehow, she never felt at her ease with him, and of late she had caught him staring at her several times.
"I wonder if he's worth marrying?" she thought, instinctively. "But I should always feel afraid of him."
"Who is it that that girl reminds me of?" the big lawyer muttered to himself, as he dropped his eyes.
Meanwhile, Doris was fully occupied with partners, but in looking back upon Lady Teviotdale's dance one event eclipsed all others, and left the rest of the evening a delicious blank.
Girls, despite the psychology of story-books and the tenets of twenty years ago, are not too illogically modest not to have desires of their own or to set their hearts upon an undeclared suitor, and all through the season Doris had been gradually weeding out the men she met until only one was left in the place of pride in her heart.
This was Ralph Shopwyke, and in the world's eyes he was not a great catch. Therein, however, Doris differed, and her heart held only one desire to the exclusion of everything else. He, too, was little more than a big over-grown schoolboy, a year senior to Lionel at Oxford, but to the little girl his immense frame dwarfed all considerations of age and income. For though he was well enough off as a bachelor on two or three thousand a year, with his old manor-house in Sussex, which had come down to him in unbroken sequence from Norman times, it was but a drop in the London whirlpool, too inconsiderable to engage the consideration of the more important match-maker.
Moreover, he was not accounted particularly good-looking, erring on the big side with his six foot four and his forty-eight inch chest. But he was finely made, and his frank, clean-shaven face, with its big, obstinate chin, and good-natured blue eyes, was distinctly pleasing in effect. His fair hair curled just enough to be pleasant, and Doris herself certainly saw very little, if anything, to find fault with. Above all, he had a big, protecting, masterful manner, which was as reassuring at times as it was disconcerting at others.
Ralph was not a society man, nor was he particularly fond of the society of women in general. In fact, he was a man's man, and liked men as much as they liked him. But, somehow, through that inexplicable kink called love, in Doris he seemed to find something different to all other women, and whereas with most of her sex he was tongue-tied and felt foolish, to her he could rattle away breezily on all manner of subjects of mutual interest. But as the season waned, and he began to become more definitely self-conscious of his real feelings towards her, he found conversation growing proportionately more difficult, and it needed a woman's tact to help him out and to keep him from any appearance of awkwardness.
Yet, while acknowledging himself hopelessly in love, he could not bring himself to speak, partially from a fear of refusal, which in his saner moments he felt was ungrounded, and partially because he did not consider himself a good enough catch for a girl who was not only charming, but also reputed to be well dowered. This he had had rubbed into him by a certain celebrated countess two years before, when, in a passionate fit of calf love, he had, with the arrogance of youth, offered himself to her daughter, destined for a duke.
However, in view of the approaching parting, which was inevitable with the decline of the season, he had nerved himself to take the plunge, which afterwards seems so simple, whereas beforehand it appears so stupendous.
"I ought to be at home to-night," he said, approaching his object deviously. "I've got my usual bachelor party for Goodwood, but I wired to say I'd be down to-morrow."
"That was very rude," said Doris, severely, with a violent but pleasant throb inside; "why aren't you there?"
"It's because of—of you," he went on, haltingly, "and they are all old pals."
"I don't like people to be rude," she said, whimsically, sure of her ground, and mercilessly ignoring any personal responsibility.
"Oh, hang it!" floundered the big man, wretchedly; "can't you understand?"
And she did.
All three were very silent in the carriage driving home. Doris felt that if she had been seated by her aunt in the dark she might have whispered something to her, if only a hint; but somehow the back seat, like many other things in life, always fell to the lot of, or was quietly appropriated by, Phyllis. And she did not appear to be in the best of tempers; so Doris decided to put things off till they got home, and sat quite quiet nursing her happiness.
When they found themselves in Mrs. Chichele's bedroom, where they always said good-night, Phyllis broke the ice.
"Lionel Erskine proposed to me to-night," she said abruptly.
Mrs. Chichele started, and an anxious look came into her eyes.
"Did you accept him?" asked Doris, instantaneously sympathetic.
"No-o," said her sister slowly. "I told him I'd think it over."
"Why?" asked Doris, rather puzzled. "Don't you love him?"
"Well, it's not a question of that," went on Phyllis composedly. "He isn't a bad sort of boy! but earlier in the evening Lord Shelford all but proposed, and he is a far better match."
"I hate Lord Shelford," said Doris scornfully. "He's an elderly roue, old enough to be your father. I'm surprised at your thinking of such a thing."
Phyllis smiled complacently.
"What a silly child you are, Doris! I think my metier in life was to reform a marquis, whatever you and aunty may say. And," she added, acidly mischievous, "love in an overgrown cottage with an overgrown boy like Ralph Shopwyke isn't everybody's ambition."
"What do you mean?" asked Doris, blushing hotly.
"It doesn't take a very smart person," laughed the other, "to see what happened to-night. Your cheeks give you away."
"Is it true?" asked Mrs. Chichele in a strange voice, speaking for the first time.
"Yes, aunty dear, I'm glad to say it is," answered Doris, slipping her arm round Mrs. Chichele. "Surely you of all people are pleased, too?"
"No, dear, I'm not," answered the older woman slowly, in a low, strained voice. Then she kissed the puzzled girl passionately. "I forgot it would come to this."
Doris drew back, pained and puzzled; but Phyllis proceeded blandly with the question of her own affairs, scarcely noticing Mrs. Chichele's strange words.
"Lionel is such a boy, and he comes of a very new family, without being wealthy enough to atone for it. Besides, he's a fool, and has no brains."
"Hush, Phyllis," interrupted Mrs. Chichele abruptly. "I hate to hear you speak in such an abominably callous strain. You don't know what you are talking about."
"Indeed I do, aunty," the girl answered flippantly. "I assure you that I have been into the question very closely. Having no father or elder brother to do it for me, and a guardian who is absurdly unworldly, I've felt it incumbent to do it for myself."
Meanwhile, Doris had made as though to speak two or three times, but had repressed herself with a strong effort. Internally she was seething with angry surprise and passionate rebellion.
"Have you—have you," she began at last, speaking in an unnaturally restrained voice, "anything against Ralph?"
"Why, of course," broke in Phyllis contemptuously, "he's an absolute nobody, without enough money to——"
Doris' pent-up anger burst out.
"I will not have you speak like that about him. I hate and loathe your worldly calculations and matrimonial schemings. Please remember I—I love Ralph"—her lip quivered and her cheeks flushed, partly with passion and partly at the bold avowal—"and I was speaking to aunty, not you."
Phyllis shrugged her shoulders with a characteristic gesture, smiling slightly with an obvious sneer.
"What a silly, quick-tempered child you are, Doris," was all she said.
"No, darling," answered Mrs. Chichele, taking up her question and stroking her hand tenderly. "I have nothing against Ralph Shopwyke at all. He's a fine, manly young fellow, and I admire him immensely. It's something far deeper than that, I fear; and I don't know how to make you understand. Can't you trust me, child?"
"Of course I can, dearest aunty," answered the girl slowly, returning her caress; "but—but I'm puzzled. And it means so much to me," she added softly.
"I know, dear, I know," said the older woman sadly. "I wouldn't have had it happen for worlds, and I am most distressed."
"But surely it can't be anything serious?" pursued Doris eagerly, gaining confidence. "If it's nothing against Ralph, what can it be?"
Mrs. Chichele did not answer for a moment, and there was a puzzled pause, Phyllis impatiently kicking at a hassock with her white shoe.
At last she spoke, obviously deeply moved.
"You'll have to trust me till to-morrow," she said wearily, passing her hand across her brow. "Believe me, my dearest children, I have only our happiness at heart, and it is nothing but the strictest sense of duty which forces me to say a word at such a time. But I am not mistress of my own actions in the matter, and must act as I think right to all concerned. I must have time to think it over. Now say good-night to me, children, and leave me to myself; and, Doris, darling," she added, as she kissed the girl warmly time after time, "you know—surely you know how wretched it makes me to make you unhappy?"
Doris kissed her back in silence, nodding her head, afraid to speak in case she broke down altogether. It was such a contrast to what she had expected; and Ralph's first kisses of love were still sweet upon her lips, pledges of greater joys in the future, which had so suddenly been dashed aside by the aunt she loved and trusted.
She left the room without a word; and Phyllis followed, smiling a little scornfully at the scene. She did not intend that anything should interfere with her plans. Her future was in her own hands, and she had made up her mind to mould it as suited her best. Her self-confidence discounted any fear of the future which Mrs. Chichele's strange attitude might otherwise have engendered.
Left alone, the older woman buried her white, haggard face in her hands.
"Oh, God," she murmured passionately to herself, "I forgot it would come to this—I forgot it would come to this. All those years I have striven to bring those children up to happiness in ignorance of the terrible past; and now, as a reward, fate forces me to dash them down from the heights at the crowning moment. How cruel life is—how cruel! And have I been cruel to them, meaning mistakenly to be kind? Poor, poor little Doris!"
Her whole big, motherly heart went out to the girl in her distress, bitter at the impotence of her position, her inability to help, her necessity to wound.
And then, growing calmer, she began to review the situation. What would be the outcome of it all? What was she to do? Must the girls be told the whole story, which would necessarily cast a cloud over their whole lives? Yet she could see no honorable way out of it; and, knowing Doris as she did, she knew that nothing less would satisfy her, now that things had gone so far. It was hard that the responsibility should fall upon her of all people, after the voluntary responsibilities she had already taken upon herself, but she could see nothing else for it.
She sat brooding for some time, trying to argue some other way out of the deadlock; but her reason and sense of justice always brought her back to the same point. The girls must be told, and she must tell them herself, and, moreover, without delay.
Then, womanlike, she began to crave for counsel, for someone to share the momentous task of decision with her. Seldom during her fifteen years of widowhood had she felt so strongly the need of a man's advice—someone to lean on. It did not seem fair that she should have to face and fight the battle of life not only for herself, but for others, single-handed. But to whom could she turn at such a crisis?
Name after name suggested itself to her swiftly working mind, only to be dismissed as unsuitable. Suddenly the picture of a great, strong man, keen of intellect and sound in judgment, rose up before her.
"The very man," she exclaimed to herself. "Why didn't I think of him before? I will go down and see him at his chambers in the morning."
And with the daylight Mrs. Chichele went to bed.
Caton Bramber was a busy man, and he was setting his house in order in view of the approach of the Long Vacation.
At forty-three the great King's Counsel was at the zenith of his career, and no big case in the Courts was ever fought without his being briefed for one side or the other. The first preliminary to a great legal battle was always a dash for his chambers with a heavily-marked brief. From the days of the great Jerningham case he had never looked back or lacked work; and now he had too much of it. Money poured in from all sides; and, as he often said with a laugh, the only drawback was that he hadn't sufficient time to spend it. Parliament, the stepping-stone of all ambitious lawyers, claimed a considerable share of his leisure. Still, by dint of early rising and burning midnight oil over lengthy briefs, he always managed to keep in touch with the social side of life, and no man in London was more sought after as a diner-out than the bachelor K.C.
Still, with it all, owing to an invaluable capacity to sleep promptly and to rest lightly, combined with regular exercise, he had kept marvellously young. He did not even look his age, and his enjoyment of life was as keen as a schoolboy's.
As he walked with his usual rapid swing towards the Temple, it must be confessed that his mind for once was not centred on the day's work or things political. The cases of the day were humdrum and commonplace, and he foresaw without regret a comparatively slack morning. His thoughts were pleasantly anticipating "the Twelfth," and in imagination he was tramping over the heather after the grouse. His favorite extravagance was a grouse moor, and there for a brief period of the year he shifted all questions of law and law-making, entertaining his friends, eschewing shop, and enjoying himself whole-heartedly.
It was just before ten when he entered his chambers in King's Bench Walk, banishing the attractions of the moor and compelling his mind into its legal groove.
"There is a lady waiting to see you, sir," said his clerk, following him into his room.
"A lady? Who is she?" exclaimed Caton Bramber in surprise.
"Her card is on the table, sir," answered the clerk.
The K.C. picked it up and glanced at it.
"Mrs. Chichele," he murmured. "Can you spare me a few moments? I need your advice urgently."
He had been on friendly terms with Mrs. Chichele for several years, and often dined at her house, which he regarded as one of the pleasantest in town; but he had to confess himself surprised at her unexpected and unconventional visit.
"Is she alone?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," replied the clerk; "quite alone."
"What time does 'Allanton v. Judd' come on?"
"Second on the list in King's Bench No. V., sir—expected to come on about 11.30."
"All right, Adams. Show Mrs. Chichele in at once."
Mrs. Chichele entered the room with a certain diffidence, bred by the unusual surroundings.
Caton Bramber rose and held out his hand.
"I must apologise," she began hastily, "for what must appear at first sight an unwarrantable intrusion upon such a busy man; but, believe me, my reason is a good one."
"I am sure of that, Mrs. Chichele," he said pleasantly, putting her at once at her ease. "Can I do anything to help you?"
"I want your advice most urgently, and when you hear my story you will readily understand why I came to you of all people. I am suddenly—since I saw you last night, in fact—brought face to face with a strange crisis, and I hesitate to act on my own responsibility.
"Sit down," said the K.C. kindly, "and tell me your story."
"Where it will claim your interest," began Mrs. Chichele, "is that it is connected with the Jerningham case."
"The Jerningham case?" he exclaimed surprised out of himself.
"Has it ever occurred to you," she went on, watching him closely, "who Phyllis and Doris are?"
"No," he answered, in a strange voice, guessing suddenly by intuition.
"They are only my nieces by adoption. They are the Jerningham twins."
"Good heavens!" he exclaimed, interestedly. "So you are the anonymous lady who came forward and adopted them?"
Mrs. Chichele nodded assent.
"I've often wondered whom the elder one reminded me of," went on the K.C. "Only last night at Lady Teviotdale's I was puzzling about it, and she caught me staring at her once or twice."
A momentary silence ensued.
"I have kept it to myself all these years," continued Mrs. Chichele, "and no one has ever suspected their identity. But now I am called upon by a very natural conjuncture of circumstances which I had foolishly overlooked to reveal it to them—or to someone else."
"You mean the fact that Mrs. Jerningham will be free again within a month?" asked Caton Bramber, frowning reflectively.
"No, that is not the immediate reason; but my story will explain. I offered to adopt them, partly out of sympathy for poor Helen Jerningham, whom, though I did not know her personally, I always believed to be not guilty, and partly out of sheer loneliness. I had just been left a widow without children and without ties," she explained with unconscious pathos; "and my heart yearned for the two poor babies in such an awful position. The one condition she made was that they should never know who they were. 'I wish them to think me dead,' she said in the fulness of her love, sacrificing her own feelings utterly for the sake of their happiness and their future. As often as I have been allowed to I have visited her at Aylesbury, and a warm friendship has sprung up between us. The last time I saw her, just before she was sent to Cornwall in February, she once more insisted upon this point, though craving to see them with a passionate eagerness I cannot describe in words. She always asks after them most tenderly and pathetically, but refuses to see them or to allow them to hear one word which might upset their lives. 'It is the hardest part of all,' she said at our last meeting, 'but I insist.' For their sakes I agreed that it was best."
"Quite so, quite so," assented the lawyer, gently.
"But now another problem has arisen, and I do not see how I can honorably keep back the secret of their identity."
"What is that?" asked Caton Bramber interestedly.
"Last night both received proposals of marriage; and Doris accepted Ralph Shopwyke, with whom she is deeply in love, I fear."
"Umph," grunted the K.C., meditatively, clinching his brows sharply.
Another silence ensued.
"You know that I have always believed devoutly in Mrs. Jerningham's innocence?" began the lawyer, looking straight into her face.
Mrs. Chichele nodded.
"Well, for years Sir Patrick O'Brien moved heaven and earth to obtain her release, petitioning Home Secretary after Home Secretary for a pardon, even after his elevation to the Bench, and his failure was a very great grief to him. I, in my small way, did all I could to help him, and just before his death, of which he seemed to have a strange prescience, he made me promise never to relax my efforts to prove her innocence and to obtain a free pardon. I have done everything in my power since then, but I, too, have failed. There were many points in the case which were never satisfactorily proved, though the circumstantial evidence was unquestionably strong. For instance, there was no proper proof adduced that it was she who posted the bottle—that was pure theory on the part of the prosecution, and no attempt was made to show that it was she who bought it. The judge himself was dead against her all along, and did not give her a chance with the jury. And, above all, her own statements were all logical and clear and compatible with innocence. Sir Patrick O'Brien did not invent the line of defence which appealed so strongly to the public; he just used her own story, told to us with great simplicity and convincing directness by Helen Jerningham herself. To the day of his death he always contended that a grave miscarriage of justice had taken place. So, you see, my sympathies are very keenly enlisted upon her side, and I am anxious to do all that lies in my power for her. I am making arrangements to see her at once upon her release, and I shall then make a final effort for a revision of the sentence. From what I saw personally of Helen Jerningham, I believe that she thought more of the disgrace and the loss of her good name than of the sentence of death itself; and I can quite understand her nobly unselfish desire with regard to the girls. But what you tell me is most unfortunate, though inevitable, if that's any comfort. But I am glad you came to me, Mrs. Chichele—very glad, as the Jerningham case, if I may phrase it, has been the dominating influence of my career, and anything connected with it demands my most careful attention."
The K.C. paused. He was sitting forward in his chair, his elbows on his arms, and the tips of his fingers lightly touching—a favorite attitude of his when thinking deeply.
"All those years I have never dreamed that those two girls of yours were her children, the much-discussed twins, and I must candidly confess that I never realised that they must now be grown up. Nor, for that matter," he went on, "did I really realise that Phyllis and Doris had grown out of the schoolroom stage into marriageable misses! Yet of late Phyllis has puzzled me strangely by a likeness I now understand."
"Yes," said Mrs. Chichele, "she is very like her mother; far more so than little Doris. However, in disposition I should imagine Doris had more of the mother in her."
Caton Bramber listened with keen interest, nodding his head in comprehension.
"But, to return to the main point," he said, thinking of the time, "I know this young Shopwyke well—a splendid type of youngster—and I have a great regard for him. And though, in our opinion, it is no disgrace to be the daughter of a much-wronged woman, the verdict of the world, which always follows that of the jury, makes Doris ineligible as a wife. I am almost tempted to wish that she could marry him as she is, both in ignorance of the real state of affairs. However, that would not be an honorable mode of procedure, and might shipwreck the happiness of their lives at some future date."
"I thought of all that last night," interrupted Mrs. Chichele; "and I feel that it is impossible."
"And, moreover," continued the K.C., "you could not permit her to marry under any name but her own."
Mrs. Chichele nodded in assent.
"And that in itself would reveal the truth. The papers lately have been full of echoes of the case, and the name Jerningham is a household word. No," he concluded, with decision, "sad as it may be in some respects, I see no other course open to you but to tell the girls frankly who they are, and leave them to tell any man who wishes to marry them. It is the only upright and satisfactory way."
"But is very hard," said Mrs. Chichele, sadly.
"I know it is, my dear Mrs. Chichele, and I feel very strongly for both you and the girls themselves, and above all for the poor mother. But you must make up your mind to be brave about it. Rely on me to help you in any way I possibly can at any time; and we must hope that things will turn out better than they look at the moment."
"Thank you very much for your kindness and advice, Mr. Bramber," said Mrs. Chichele. "I am very grateful to you. Your words confirm my judgment on the situation; but in facing the crisis I felt suddenly weak, and needed moral support—someone to share the responsibility. That's why I came to you."
The K.C. nodded sympathetically.
"But now that I see my duty clearly," she went on, rising from her chair, "I will act at once. I will tell the girls without delay as soon as ever I get home. Poor little Doris is deeply pained and distressed, and I fear that my news will not help her much. Thank you again," she concluded, holding out her hand.
"You may always count upon me to do anything I can this matter," he answered, pressing it warmly. "It is one that lies very near my heart, and I deeply sympathise with you in the sad task ahead of you."
And with the hand-grip of a common bond she left the room, conscious of the addition of an ally in her time of need.
It was with a heavy heart that Mrs. Chichele left the Temple and drove home, almost wishing that the drive would never end. But all too soon she found herself back in Cadogan Place; and she set her teeth with determination as she entered the house.
"Ask Miss Phyllis and Miss Doris to join me in the boudoir," she said to the butler as he opened the door.
She went straight upstairs and took off her hat before meeting the twins in her own special room—a cosy corner, full of comfort and cushions.
She found them waiting for her there, and kissed them warmly.
"I had to go out early this morning on business," she explained, by way of breaking the ice, taking her usual seat on the corner of the couch. "Now sit down, children, as I have something very serious to tell you, which will take a little time."
Doris, looking paler than usual under her freckles, took the corner opposite to her; and Phyllis threw herself into her favorite low armchair, lolling back.
"What I am going to say to you," began Mrs. Chichele rather nervously, "will, I am afraid, make a great difference to your lives; and I would have kept it to myself, if circumstances did not make it impossible."
She paused for an instant; and both girls regarded her with an anxious curiosity.
"I don't suppose," she went on, in a low, level voice, steeling herself to the ordeal, "that it has ever occurred to either of you that you might be anything but what you have always thought yourselves; but now the time has come when I must tell you frankly who you are. To begin with, you are only my nieces by adoption, though," she added gently, to break the blow, "I could not love you more dearly if you were my own daughters."
As she spoke she took Doris' hand and pressed it affectionately. Both the girls were listening attentively—Doris quietly and anxiously, and Phyllis with a vague uncomfortable curiosity; but neither spoke.
"I have always tried to make up to you both for the lack of a mother; and I hope I have to some extent succeeded. You came to me under peculiar circumstances, and since then my whole life has been bound up in you and your happiness. Fifteen years ago my dear husband died, leaving me a widow with an empty heart—no children, no ties, and plenty of money; and my lonely life craved for something to love. It was just at that time I heard of two little girls left motherless under peculiarly sad circumstances, and—and I came forward and offered to adopt them. My offer was accepted, and from that day forward your real identity has been sunk in that of my own twin nieces. That is what the world thinks you both, and no one has any suspicion to the contrary."
She paused again, wondering how to go on; and Doris took the hand she held and kissed it with a passionate reassurance of gratitude and love.
"Your mother, however, is not dead," went on Mrs. Chichele; and both the girls started in surprise. "But to the world she has been dead fifteen years. Have you ever heard of Mrs. Jerningham?" she asked abruptly.
"The murderess!" exclaimed Phyllis, sitting up sharply; and Doris' grip tightened on Mrs. Chichele's hand.
"Yes," said Mrs. Chichele, in a low voice; "but I, in common with many thousands of others, have never believed her guilty. Mrs. Jerningham is your mother, my dear, dear children; and I have tried as long as possible to keep this from you."
For a moment there was a stunned silence. Then Phyllis broke out:
"No one will marry us if our mother is a murderess."
"Hush, dear," said the older woman, gently; "that is not the only thing to think of. I daresay you have both read something of the case lately owing to the agitation which has been raised in the papers over her pending release. Fifteen years ago your mother was accused of having poisoned your father, and convicted on purely circumstantial evidence in the teeth of public opinion. She was sentenced to death and reprieved; and since them she has been in Aylesbury Gaol, serving a sentence of penal servitude for life. But in the supreme moment of her life her one thought was for her children and their future. It was then that I came forward anonymously and offered to adopt you. She most gratefully accepted the offer, stipulating only that you should never know who your mother was. Her words were: 'I wish my children to think me dead.' And her love for you has always been most tender, constant, and passionately unselfish."
"Poor, poor mother," murmured Doris, half to herself.
"Her one desire," went on Mrs. Chichele, "was never to enter your lives, as she knew that any knowledge of the past must cast a shadow over you; but fate has proved stronger than her wish. The very last time that I saw her, just before she was sent from Aylesbury down to Cornwall, she reiterated this particular point over and over again; and I promised solemnly to keep her secret. But I overlooked the fact that you were both grown up, and that with your beauty and your money—for the bulk of your father's fortune was divided between you—the question of marriage must inevitably arise. And it could not be right or even possible that you could go to husbands who did not know the truth."
"I don't see any reason why anyone need know," broke in Phyllis, hotly, "or why our lives should be ruined because of our mother. We are not responsible for her crime."
Mrs. Chichele looked pained at her ready acceptance of her mother's guilt, and spoke very sharply.
"I had given you credit for better feeling, Phyllis. Besides, you could not be married under any name but your own, and that in itself would reveal everything."
"Why not?" asked Phyllis, abruptly. "It wouldn't invalidate the marriage, would it?"
Mrs. Chichele took no further notice of her interruption.
"The fact remains," she went on decidedly, "that any man would have to be told the whole truth. It is the only honorable course. That would, as you must see, put him in a very invidious position. I do not say that I would not have you marry a man provided that he loved you and you loved him, if he were still anxious to do so with his eyes open; but this, as your guardian, I must insist on—that either you or I tell the secret of your birth before any engagement takes place. Without that there could be no happiness in marriage; and I would as soon see you both in your graves."
Mrs. Chichele spoke warmly, showing great feeling; and Phyllis was silent in the face of her words, only shrugging her shoulders almost imperceptibly.
"There is no reason for you to take your mother's guilt for granted. Lord O'Brien, the late Chief Justice, who defended her, most strenuously believed in her innocence, and worked up to the time of his death to obtain a revision of the sentence. Mr. Bramber, who assisted him in the defence, is equally of the opinion that your mother was the victim of circumstantial evidence, and he is now preparing an appeal to the Home Secretary to be presented upon her release. I saw him this morning, and asked his advice how to act in this matter, telling him frankly who you were."
Both girls started.
"Yes," went on Mrs. Chichele, "you could have no better friend; and he is keenly interested in you both. But he agrees with me that any serious suitor must be told everything before an engagement would be justifiable."
"Only this week," said Doris, in a low voice, speaking for the first time, "I was reading on account of the case in one of the papers; and, little knowing how we were affected by it, I said to Phyllis that I could not believe Mrs. Jerningham guilty."
"That is right, dear," said Mrs. Chichele, tenderly. "Continue to think that, and you will be happier for the belief."
"To me," said Phyllis, coldly, "the whole thing seemed as plain as a pike-staff. If she didn't do it, who did?"
"You are hardly in a position to judge," answered Mrs. Chichele; "and do not in the first flush of excitement say things you will afterwards regret."
"I shall regret nothing," said Phyllis, calmly. "I am not the least bit excited. I am thinking what it is best to do under the circumstances."
And there was a pause; and then Mrs. Chichele spoke in a voice full of emotion.
"I can't tell you how grieved I am, my dear, dear children, to have to bring this cloud into your lives. I have tried to make your girlhood as happy as possible, and I have tried to be a mother to you as far as possible. And remember, dears, I am still and always shall be your aunt."
"How good you have been to us!" exclaimed Doris, throwing her arms round her and kissing her passionately several times. "We owe everything to you."
Even Phyllis unbent, and crossed the room to kiss her with as much warmth as she could muster in her disappointment.
"You have been very good to us," she said, in a dull, almost expressionless voice.
"Oh, if you only knew what a joy it has been to me, and how I loved you!" said Mrs. Chichele, with a break in her voice; and, kissing them hastily, she left the room.
For a moment the twins did not speak.
"That's why we were not presented, like other girls," burst out Phyllis scornfully, after a pause. "The Lord Chamberlain would naturally object to the daughters of a convict, so he was wisely never given the chance."
"Don't," said Doris, sharply. "That's a very minor matter."
"Poof," said Phyllis; "I think it counts for a good deal. We are branded with a broad arrow, whether we like it or not, and no one will marry us now."
"But think of all Mrs. Jer——our mother, I mean—has suffered," interposed Doris.
"Only what she deserved," said Phyllis, harshly. "I don't see any particular reason for doubting her guilt. I didn't before I knew who she was, and I don't now. I hate this mealy-mouthed sentiment. Mother or no mother, Mrs. Jerningham is nothing to me, and I am not going to let it spoil my life more than I can help."
"What do you mean?" asked Doris, in a shocked voice.
"Oh, I suppose now I shall have to marry Lionel; that's what I mean. I shan't be able to do any better now, and he won't ask any questions. He'll only be too glad to have me—and I shan't be such a fool as to tell him. What are you going to do about Ralph Shopwyke?"
"I shall write and tell him that it was all a big mistake," said Doris, in a low voice. "I shan't tell him the reason, as I know he'd say it made no difference; but he might feel it later on in life, and I love him too well to wait to spoil his life. And besides, our mother will soon be free, and she will need someone to look after her; and I'd like to try and make up as far as possible for all she has suffered."
"You always were a sentimental little fool, Doris," exclaimed Phyllis contemptuously; "but, of course, you can do as you like with your life. I've only one life myself, and I am going to get the most enjoyment out of it that I can."
"You talk as though you had no heart at all," protested Doris.
"I'm not sure that I have got much," answered Phyllis, lightly; "and in this wicked world it's each for himself, and devil take the hindermost. I'm not going to be last in the race of life, I can assure you. Why don't you tell Ralph Shopwyke if you won't marry him without?" she went on speciously, suggesting the very thing she least desired in order to strengthen Doris' resolve. "I'm not sure he's fool enough to marry you in spite of everything—and Mrs. Jerningham, too, for that matter! And then you'd be perfectly happy!"
"I am sure he would," said Doris, with frank confidence; "but I am not going to blight his life and his prospects. It would be too utterly selfish, and—and, well, he might regret it afterwards later on in life. No," she concluded, speaking calmly with a great effort, "I'll—I'll go and write him now, and tell him that it was all—all a great mistake."
There was a catch in her voice as she concluded, and without another word she left the room before her courage failed her.
Left to herself, Phyllis' lip curled slightly. The deeper emotions always bored her and excited her contempt.
"I must write Lionel to meet me in the park this afternoon," she murmured to herself. "I must strike while the iron is hot, and not lose any time."
Lunch was one of those silent, uncomfortable, meals which follow a family crisis, and Phyllis was the only one of the three who made any endeavor to eat. She had an excellent appetite and an unimpeachable digestion, and it was one of her principles to let nothing interfere with her enjoyment of her food. It was part of her scheme of frank materialism in life.
After lunch Mrs. Chichele announced a headache and an intention to rest.
"I shall go out for a walk, I think," said Phyllis, preparing the way for her plan of campaign, and then with her usual deliberateness she set herself down to work out the details.
Nothing is more conducive to clear thinking than a brisk walk, so an hour later she set out on foot for the park, walking up Sloane-street towards Albert Gate. She entered by the French Embassy, and found Lionel Erskine already waiting at the appointed spot.
She greeted him with a brilliant smile as he took her hand eagerly.
"It was good of you to wire me," he said with boyish eagerness. "I have been hung up between heaven and hell since last night, sagging up and down like an old see-saw."
"I wanted to have a long talk with you, Lionel," she said, giving him the key of the situation by her use of his Christian name; "and I know you wouldn't mind meeting me. Let's go somewhere where we can talk quietly. I've got such lots to say to you."
"Where shall we go?" asked Lionel, rather blankly. "London's such a beastly place for meeting people."
"Shall we take a hansom and tell the man to drive out towards Richmond?" suggested the fertile Phyllis. "People you may see in a cab; but they can't interrupt you. And," she added, with a knowing little smile, "I don't think we shall either of us mind them coupling our names together."
Lionel fell in with the suggestion delightedly; and soon they were seated side by side in a rubber-tyred cab, bowling towards the western extremities of civilisation.
For a minute there was silence—Lionel was supremely happy from the feeling of close contact and the promise implied by her actions; and after a second's hesitation he ventured to take her hand in his under cover of the closed doors, and pressed it warmly. To his delight the pressure was returned.
"Dearest," he murmured, leaning close to her, "then you mean you will marry me?"
"Yes," said Phyllis, softly, "that's what I wanted to tell you. Didn't you guess?"
"I hardly dared hope," said Lionel, happily, "but—but——"
"But you did?" suggested the girl, smiling radiantly. "You know you did?"
"Yes, I did," he admitted, with an answering smile, and he put his face so close to hers that Phyllis was afraid that he was going to kiss her in public.
"Take care," she said, a little sharply. "People will see you. You must wait."
"I don't mind people seeing me," he rejoined, eagerly; "and I don't want to wait."
"But you've got to," said the girl, firmly. "There'll be plenty of time later on. And, perhaps, if you are good," holding up a warning finger, "I'll give you just one little kiss when we get well outside the radius in some nice shady lane."
Accepting the inevitable delay, Lionel tried to slip his arm round her waist, and she allowed him to, sitting back so as to hide his action from curious eyes.
"You're a dear, bad boy," she said, in her softest voice; "but I like it, you know. Is that a very shameful confession?"
"No, darling," he answered; "it's only right that you should, if you are going to marry me. But why didn't you say 'yes' last night, when I asked you?"
"Because—well, because you took me by surprise," answered Phyllis, lying frankly, "and it's such a serious thing, isn't it? I just wanted to make sure of myself; but it didn't take me long, you know, dear. I didn't say a word to anyone, but just got into bed and thought and thought quietly all about you; and then I knew."
She felt his arm squeeze her more tightly than ever.
"Are you glad?" she went on.
"Glad?" her said, in a choked voice. "God knows how glad! I can't find words for it, my darling, darling sweetheart."
His voice seemed to hang longingly on the terms of endearment; and she saw how deeply he was moved. His emotion showed her that she would not find it very difficult to mould him to her wishes and to make him do as she wished; and she was satisfied.
"But, I'm afraid it's not all plain sailing, dear," she went on, pursing her lips and frowning slightly.
His face fell.
"What do you mean, dearest?" he asked abruptly. "Surely Mrs. Chichele doesn't object?"
Phyllis nodded without a word, realising the golden value of reticence.
"Why?" asked Lionel, shortly.
"I—I hardly like to tell you," began Phyllis, as though hesitating.
"But you must," said Lionel, firmly, assuming the airs of an accepted lover. "I insist upon the whole truth."
"Well, it's like this," continued the girl gently. "There's someone else who has been paying me a lot of attention; and—and aunt thinks he's the better match."
"Who is it?" said Lionel, with his mouth set.
"It's—it's that horrid old Lord Shelford," said Phyllis, with a little disdainful shrug of her shoulders.
"What?" exclaimed the young man, fiercely. "Old Dandy? That wretched old faked-up roue?"
"It's an abomination," broke out Lionel, angrily, "an absolute abomination. Don't your feelings in the matter count for anything? I should never have thought that Mrs. Chichele was so cold-hearted and worldly-minded. I have quite misread her character."
"Hush, Lionel," interposed Phyllis, soothingly. "I can't have you say such things about dear aunty. She may be mistaken; but she is only thinking of my good."
"Oh, you're such an angel, so sweet and so gentle, that you'd find an excuse for anyone," went on the infatuated young baronet, lovingly; "but I know the world so much better than you do, dear. It's nothing short of a criminal scandal to think of marrying a pure young girl like you, little more than a child, to such an old reprobate. He has the worst reputation in London; and, if he weren't a marquis and a millionaire, no one would have him inside their houses."
"He has always been very nice to me," objected Phyllis, ingeniously, fanning the flames of Lionel's anger.
"Naturally," said Lionel, sharply. "He always is to a pretty woman, and it's often the worse for them. Excuse me, darling," he went on, "but it is impossible for you to understand what I mean. When you know more of the world, as a married woman, you'll understand the enormity of the whole idea. It's horrible, repulsive."
"I didn't know you had such a temper, dear," said Phyllis, softly, secretly amused at his outburst. "You quite frighten poor little me! But, to resume my story, when I told auntie this morning what you had said last night, and that I"—she paused tantalisingly—"well, loved you, she showed a side of her character I had never suspected. She said that for a girl with my looks—excuse my mentioning them, dear; I'm not conceited—and my prospects, you weren't nearly a good enough match for one's first season. You were only the sort of husband a sensible chaperone would look for if a girl seemed to be hanging fire towards the end of her fourth or fifth season; and then she hinted about that horrid Lord Shelford. She said that every mother in London was mad to catch him, and that she thought I stood a good chance."
"Horrible," muttered Lionel, angrily; "disgusting!"
"But I wouldn't listen to her, darling," went on Phyllis, squeezing his hand in hers, "as you can imagine. I told her firmly that I loved you, and intended to marry you, and no one else; and then she got so angry. But I've got a bit of the devil in me, though you mayn't believe it,"—she smiled up into his face coquettishly—"and opposition makes me only the more determined. So I went out and telegraphed to you; and here I am, you see!" she concluded with a gay little laugh. "Now, what are we to do about it?"
"My staunch little sweetheart," he exclaimed, passionately taking her in his arms, and kissing her passionately again and again.
They were right out in the country, and there was no one about; so Phyllis did not stop him or discourage his eager outburst. She even went so far as to kiss him back with simulated shyness.
Then she put her hand on his mouth.
"Now stop, dear, and be sensible," she said, out of breath with the warmth of his caress. "This won't help us out of our troubles."
"No," agreed Lionel, savagely, "I know it won't. I'll drive round with you at once and see Mrs. Chichele."
"No, indeed you won't, you silly old darling," said the girl, promptly, cooling his ardor. "You'd get me into a terrible row. Do you imagine that aunty suspects that I'm with you discussing all our family matters?"
"No-o," assented Lionel, realising the position more keenly.
"Besides, it wouldn't do any good," went on Phyllis, confidently. "You don't know how stubborn aunty can be when she's made up her mind; and she has a nasty, cold, irresistible way of sitting on an importunate person that you'd find very trying. She'd never consent, and you'd only quarrel. And think how nice that would be for me, dear. I shan't be of age for another three years nearly; and I'd have to bear the brunt of it. You must try and think of something better than that."
She looked at him disconsolately, wondering in her heart whether she had sufficient intelligence to take the initiative.
"Poor little girl," he murmured, tenderly.
Then a pause ensued, during which Phyllis felt an acute desire to kick him or do something to stir him into action. His mind worked too slowly for her quick brain, and she felt that it would be very boring to go through life with him as her constant companion. But she was forced to play a card at once in the great game, and, not holding the ace, she had to play her highest and hope for the best. Besides, a married woman nowadays was not as absurdly tied to her husband as she used to be in the stupid old Victorian era, and in the thought she found a certain consolation. Further, she did not dislike Lionel. In fact, she rather liked him in some ways, and he wasn't bad-looking. And she most urgently needed another name and a protector, and she felt that Lionel would be staunch. Only it was such a pity he was so slow.
"Can you trust, me, little sweetheart?" he said at last.
"You know I can, dear, with my life, if necessary," she answered warmly, leaning forward spontaneously and kissing him impulsively. With a feeling of triumph one realised that his slow-working brain had grasped the alternative she had intended, but did not care to express.
He kissed her back gratefully, a lump in his throat at the unexpectedness and warmth of the caress. It touched him beyond words to think that this woman whom he adored so utterly with the passion of a young man's first love should love him back with such full measure.
"There's only one thing for it that I can see," he said, thoughtfully, "and I hardly like to suggest it to you, darling."
"What is that?" asked Phyllis, in a subdued voice.
"Well," went on Lionel, warming to his subject, "I'm perfectly independent, and fortunately have enough to get married pretty comfortably on; so I don't see why we should consult anyone or worry about angry old aunts. Let us act for our own happiness, darling."
"What do you mean, Lionel?" asked Phyllis, feigning ignorance.
"Let us elope, dear heart," said Lionel, eagerly, drawing her very close to him. "Let us get married quietly and tell no one till afterwards. Let us take happiness in both hands, and live out our lives to the full. Why wait three years and be the constant source of unhappiness to each other? Better far take the matter into our own hands. It will be forgiven and forgotten as soon as it's once done. That's the way of people, once you have made it inevitable. All the difficulties vanish, and a few words of reproach close the question for life."
He spoke with great eagerness, the words coming right from his heart; and Phyllis warmed instinctively. If he could only always be like this, she felt that the problem of life might solve itself more easily than she anticipated.
"But what would people say?" she said, pretending to offer a feeble protest, but allowing him to take her right into his arms without resistance.
"People can mind their own business," said Lionel, as he kissed her time after time. "They will have forgotten it in a week."
"But an elopement is so unusual nowadays," objected Phyllis, half-heartedly, as she settled herself in her corner again.
"So is love," said Lionel, fiercely. "It's all a question of price now to the exclusion of romance."
"I shall have some money, too," said the girl gaily, "when I'm twenty-one—quite a lot."
"I don't want money, I want you," said the man warmly. "Will you trust yourself to me?"
With a gesture of assent Phyllis yielded, having gained her point without his knowing it.
"It will be so sweet," she murmured softly, "to be alone with you—to be always with you. The prospect's so nice that I can't resist."
And Lionel kissed her again in his infatuation.
"But you mustn't tell a soul," she said, solemnly, "as I don't intend to be interrupted like people in story-books, once we have started."
"No, of course not," said Lionel, decidedly. "Shall you tell Doris?"
"No; she would be as likely as not to tell aunty," answered Phyllis, shutting her mouth with a little snap. "I shan't trust anyone! I shall only bring a hand-bag with my jewellery and a few things, and we'll have to buy the rest in Paris. And I shall leave some things ready packed which can be sent after us."
"How quickly you grasp a situation," said Lionel admiringly, unaware how carefully the details had been thought out; and Phyllis repressed a smile. "Tell the man to drive back, dear, or I shall get into such trouble," she said; and as they drove homewards they talked out their arrangements.
"I'll see my solicitor to-morrow," said Lionel looking lovingly at her, "and get the settlements drawn up."
"Oh, don't worry about those silly things," said Phyllis, secretly delighted. She had not liked to make such a suggestion herself; it looked too business like.
"Of course," said her fiancée firmly; "I shall insist upon it. And then I shall get the licence and arrange about the wedding. I'm afraid it will have to be first thing in the morning," he said, with a happy little laugh, "as we must catch the morning train for Paris. We must get away at once, to give your irate aunt a chance of cooling before we meet."
Phyllis gave a little enigmatical laugh; and they went on discussing the details.
Suddenly she interrupted him as they approached Sloane-square.
"You must drop me here, dear, and I must hurry home."
With obvious reluctance he helped her out.
"Shall I see you to-morrow, darling?" he said tenderly, as he wished her goodbye.
"No, I'm afraid not, you greedy boy," she answered, laughing. "Two days more and you'll see too much of me."
"I couldn't," he said fervently. "But I want just an hour. I want to take you to my man in Bond-street and get an engagement ring and one or two little things, you know."
Phyllis' eyes lit up.
"All right, dear," she said. "How sweet of you to think of it! I'll meet you at the same place to-morrow, at three o'clock."
And with another smile she left him.
"He isn't a bad boy," she murmured to herself. "I do hope he won't bore me too much, though."
Even Phyllis felt an unwonted thrill as she stole out of the house in Cadogan-place in the early Summer morning.
The marriage had been arranged for half-past eight, and was to take place at St. James', Piccadilly, the church of the parish in which Lionel Erskine's chambers were situated. He had made all arrangements, and was to meet her at the church door.
As soon as she was safely round the corner, Phyllis hailed a hansom and gave the address—and the man smiled knowingly to himself as he whipped up his horse, scenting a liberal fare.
The girl was all in white, dressed as prettily as possible for the occasion; but in her heart she regretted the splendid wedding, with its magnificent white satin dress, great train, and old lace veil, and the long row of bridesmaids she had always planned in her mind. She had always meant to have a wedding on a very grand scale, one which people would talk about; and an elopement seemed to her a very hole-and-corner way of doing the thing. There would be no one there to admire the bride, except, of course, the bridegroom; and that was taken for granted. So Phyllis entered upon the most important step in a girl's life with several regrets at the back of her mind; but she realised that, considering the circumstances, it was the best that could be done. Therefore, being a philosopher, she decided to make the best of things.
All her luggage was a dressing-bag, with a light dust-cloak thrown over her arm. In her bedroom at home she had left two boxes awaiting instructions; and she had been up half the night packing them. At Lionel's chambers a third was waiting, filled with things hastily bought during the last two days.
The cab drew up outside the principal gate of the old church; and there she found Lionel waiting to hand her out.
He was looking very tall, smart, and handsome; and Phyllis eyed him up and down with approbation. He was dressed in a dark flannel suit and a straw hat, and, despite the early hour, he had a white carnation in his button-hole.
"This is splendid," he whispered, excitedly. "I was almost frightened at the last moment that you wouldn't come."
"Silly boy," she said, laughing lightly; "you might have trusted me."
"I did really," he answered gaily, as they walked across the flagged courtyard to the church door; "but a man can't help getting a bit nervous on an occasion like this. I couldn't sleep a wink last night, and was up ever so early this morning. So I went down to Covent Garden to get you a few flowers to make it look more like the real thing."
"How sweet of you!" said Phyllis, taking the big shower bouquet of white roses he put into her hand. "But I shall have to leave them behind at your chambers as soon as it's over, or we shall give ourselves away as an eloping couple at this hour of the morning."
"Who cares?" said Lionel, with a happy laugh. "Once you are mine, dearest, I don't care two pins for anybody. I've brought my solicitor, Mr. Hammond, to give you away and witness the register; and his son is going to play best man and be the other witness."
At the entrance of the church Lionel introduced her to Mr. Hammond, a typical family solicitor, with a professionally parental air, and his son; and Phyllis found herself, after an awkward interchange of complimentary greetings, walking up the aisle of the old church on his arm.
At the altar steps one of the curates was waiting; and he eyed them with a mild curiosity. The service did not take long; and Phyllis hardly heard a word, so intent were her thoughts upon how they would take it in Cadogan-place when they heard.
She went through her part mechanically, waking up suddenly when the clergyman whispered to her to take off her glove. On her hand shone the splendid engagement ring Lionel had bought for her in the first flush of possession; and she noticed his eyes sparkle as he slipped on the massive gold wedding-ring.
The unusual hour, and the fact that the curate had not yet breakfasted, saved them the infliction of the conventional homily; and they were soon in the vestry signing the register.
It was with an intense feeling of relief that she wrote "Phyllis Chichele" for the last time. Now, at least, she had an honorable name which no one could challenge, and it gave her a thrill of pleasure when a moment later Mr. Hammond, in offering his congratulations, addressed her as Lady Erskine. It was not a very high title in her estimation; but still it was better than no title at all.
With her best grace and daintiest manner she thanked him, and the curate who had married them, and left the church on Lionel's arm, while the younger Hammond distributed fees and largesse to the church officials.
A private hansom was waiting for them; and it did not take Phyllis long to hide herself from the few spectators who had gathered outside, despite the early hour—the inevitable accompaniment of a wedding, which acts like a magnet to the curious.
"So that's over," she said, with a sigh of relief. "I want my breakfast."
"Greedy little girl," said Lionel, gaily, "I'm afraid you're more practical than sentimental."
"I'm never sentimental when I'm hungry," Phyllis answered, with the characteristic slight shrug of her shoulders. "I didn't even dare to order a cup of tea for fear of rousing suspicion."
"Poor little woman," said her husband, tenderly; "but I've got quite a saucy little wedding-breakfast waiting for you at my chambers."
"You're a dear," said the girl, gratefully, as the cab drew up just off Piccadilly. "But what will they think of you here, when they find you with a girl at breakfast."
Lionel frowned slightly, as she laughed gaily at the suggestion.
Once inside his own door, however, the tinge of annoyance evaporated, and he took her eagerly in his big arms, crushing her closely to him and kissing her lips again and again.
"Don't, Lionel, please," she protested, half in fun and half petulantly. "I shall be an awful sight, and not fit to travel; and I hate being mauled about."
He let her go reluctantly, and opened the door of the sitting-room.
"Oh, how delightful!" she exclaimed, in sudden delight.
On the table was a wedding breakfast in miniature, with a magnificent cake at one end. Facing it, side by side, were two seats, and in front of one were lying two jewel-cases.
"My little token of love, my darling wife," said Lionel, using the word for the first time in an almost awed voice.
Phyllis opened them. The first contained a large diamond tiara, and the other a superb necklace to match. She gave a little exclamation of pleasure.
"Oh, Lionel, you are a darling," she said, and then she kissed him of her own accord, placing her lips on his, and for a long moment he held them there.
"Now I must try them on," she said, eagerly; and with deft fingers she took off her hat.
She clasped the necklace round her throat, and then she looked in the glass.
"Oh, I shall have to alter my hair," she exclaimed, and in a minute it was hanging in an auburn shower almost down to her knees.
"How gorgeous, how splendid!" murmured Lionel, rapturously, as he took it up in handfuls and kissed it again and again.
"I didn't dare bring my maid," said Phyllis, as she coiled it up on top and round and round her head, sticking in a hairpin here and there. "So you'll have to be my maid, Lionel, till I can get one."
"That will be jolly," he said, eagerly. "We won't hurry about getting another."
"I don't know," said Phyllis, dubiously. "You don't know how exacting I am. Besides, who's to look after my frocks and brush them and put them away? And you'd be for ever getting my hair in a tangle if you tried to brush it."
Lionel looked a little hurt, but did not say a word. Phyllis, oblivious of his feelings, went on with her impromptu toilette and crowned it with the tiara. She stood for a minute gazing at herself in the glass with undisguised admiration and delight.
"Isn't that splendid?" she said, turning her radiant face round to him. "Are you satisfied with your wife?"
"Rather!" he said, in a husky voice. "You don't know how I have longed for this time, my darling."
Phyllis kissed him lightly.
"Now to breakfast," she said. "Give me your arm, Lionel, and lead me to my place in proper style."
Lionel laughed, entering into the spirit of the game; and, when he had placed her in her seat, he poured out two glasses of champagne.
"Now I'm going to propose the bride's health," he said, standing up.
He made a neat little speech, full of pretty things, and Phyllis supplied a willing audience, punctuating it with applause and exclamations of "hear, hear," at intervals. At the end he leant forward and clinked his glass against hers.
"Long life and happiness to you, my darling," he said, lovingly.
Phyllis rose to her feet, raising her glass.
"Long life and happiness to ourselves," she cried gaily, draining her glass and throwing it into the fender, where it broke in pieces.
He laughed and followed suit.
"That's correct, isn't it?" she asked, laughing.
"Yes, little madcap," he said smiling back. "No other toast should be drunk out of those glasses. Now to breakfast; we haven't too long."
"You'll have to get some fresh glasses," said Phyllis practically, as she began to eat.
She looked very charming and enticing in the bright morning light, with her sparkling eyes and sparkling diamonds, and Lionel could hardly eat for looking at her, feasting his eyes on her beauty, while she feasted herself on one dainty after another.
"You aren't eating anything," she said at length. "I shall have to feed you."
And, suiting the action to the word, she held out her fork to him with a piece of chicken on it. He took it with a happy laugh, and then began a little comedy of feeding each other till she got tired of it.
The merry little meal concluded with the solemn ceremony of cutting the cake.
"We'll send cake round to everybody," said Phyllis, laughing, "and show them that we did the thing in style, though we didn't ask them. We'll send aunty and Doris an extra large hunk by a messenger boy."
Delighted with the idea, she sat down at his writing table and wrote a note.
"Dearest aunty," it ran, "Lionel and I were married this morning at St. James's, Piccadilly, and I send you and Doris a piece of our wedding-cake. Will you please have the two boxes in my room sent on to Grand Hotel, Paris? Your loving niece, Phyllis Erskine."
She signed her name, with a large flourish and handed it to Lionel.
"How will that do?" she asked.
"Excellently, darling," he answered, reading it; "she doesn't deserve any wedding-cake after the way she has treated us. But we can afford to be forgiving now; and we'll send it on to Cadogan Place, when we start for Charing Cross."
"I came to you in what I stand up in," said Phyllis, gaily, as he drew her on to the couch beside him, "No trousseau, no anything."
"You are all I want," he said, with a happy laugh. "And you'll soon be able to remedy the other. You've got a thousand a year of your own now under your marriage settlement, and that will buy you plenty of frocks and frills."
"O, Lionel, you are a darling," she said, enthusiastically, kissing him again in her delight. "I never expected such a thing."
Things were panning out much better than she had expected, and she was, on the whole, very pleased. She was getting far more than she had expected, and it is always a pleasant feeling to find that one has based one's calculations too low. At the moment she felt serenely happy, and almost imagined herself in love with her husband.
"No, of course, you don't," he said, laughing again; "but I wanted to have a pleasant little surprise for you. Besides, I felt honor-bound in the case of an elopement to act as though I were dealing with the sternest of parents, you know. A little innocent girl like yourself can't be expected to understand business, and even if you could, you couldn't very well talk about it, could you, dearest?"
"No, of course not," agreed Phyllis, who had already realised the responsibility for herself. "But you are far too good for me."
"I couldn't be," he objected, loyally. "Nothing could be good enough for you."
There was a pause, during which she allowed herself to be kissed, experiencing a certain amount of natural pleasure from the action, and encouraging rather than opposing it. To be kissed by a man, young, good-looking, and devoted, is not unpleasant to any girl who is not an iceberg in temperament, even though she may not be deeply in love herself.
"Hammond is going to send round the announcement to all the papers," said Lionel, looking at his watch; "so all the world and his wife, who takes far more interest in those kinds of things than he does, will know all about our elopement by to-morrow. Now, it's time you got on your hat, little woman, if we are to catch the boat train at Charing Cross."
"I must take off my jewellery," she said, a trifle reluctantly; and suiting the action to the word, after a final look into the mirror, she put the tiara and the necklace back into their cases. "Fetch my dressing-bag, Lionel," she went on, "and I'll pack them in it."
She put on her hat, and took two or three of the roses out of her bouquet.
"I shall have to leave my lovely bouquet behind, I'm afraid," she said, pinning the roses into her dress; "but I'll take these with me. Now I'm ready, dear, if you are. Just hold my cloak for me. You see what a lot of waiting on I need," she concluded, as he exacted another kiss by way of payment.
"Do you know," she said, looking up into his pleased face as they left the flat, "I don't know when I've enjoyed anything so much for a long time as our breakfast? It seemed so deliciously improper to be having breakfast all alone in a man's flat."
The messenger boy with his lump of cake and curt note came like a bombshell to Cadogan Place.
It was about noon when he arrived, judiciously despatched after the departure of the train by Lionel's orders; and Mrs. Chichele and Doris were beginning to grow very anxious about Phyllis' absence. The latter had instinctively jumped at the truth when she found the two packed boxes in her sister's room, which led out of her own; but she had refrained from making any suggestion. For the last two days she had felt from Phyllis' mysterious manner and unusual excursions that there was something in the air, but at the same time she had judged it wiser not to inquire, knowing that she only courted a snub or a lie direct. With Phyllis during their girlhood she had always found this negative policy the most effective.
Besides, in the present instance, Doris was finding her own burden of trouble quite enough to bear without the necessity of adding to it from outside. Since her letter to Ralph, though she had borne up bravely, she had felt as though her brain had been stunned and her heart numbed by the sudden catastrophe of all her hopes. Her letter had brought him up to town the following day like a whirlwind; and by noon, regardless of Goodwood and guests, he had presented himself at Cadogan Place, demanding to see her. She, however, had felt unequal to the strain, and had refused, not daring to trust herself. She had tried to console herself with the thought that it was kinder to him, and that in a few weeks, or months, at the outside, being a man, he would have got over it; but it was cold comfort.
Then he had asked insistently for Mrs. Chichele, who had seen him. Her heart was full of sympathy for him, which she had not dared to show; and she had been very kind, but firm. It was a mistake, she told him, an inexplicable mistake; and the sooner it was forgotten the better for all concerned. After a brief revolt and a rush of impetuous questions, he had taken the blow like a man, and had left the room with a white, set face—a contrast to the merry boy of the day before. All that was worth living for seemed to have passed out of his life, and he felt as though he had suddenly grown old. And, facing his first great trouble in life, in a day he changed from a boy into a man.
But in Doris' case a fresh interest had at the same time entered into her life; and she was eager to learn all she could about her mother, and the history of the case. With all the enthusiasm of her nature, she had espoused her cause and made up her mind, to devote her life to the mother who had suffered so cruelly; but though she had spent hours in talking with Mrs. Chichele, she had refused to mention the matter to Phyllis, revolted by her practical cynicism. This new interest had served to some extent to lighten the blow which had fallen, as it gave her something to think about, and kept her from brooding; but the light had gone out of her life, and she had not laughed since in that bright, piquant way which had been one of her chief charms. She had gone about as usual; but she was very quiet and pale-faced.
The butler brought the parcel to Mrs. Chichele, who was in the boudoir discussing the extraordinary absence of Phyllis with Doris.
"The messenger-boy is waiting to know if there is any answer, ma'am," he said, presenting it to his mistress on a salver.
Mrs. Chichele opened the parcel and read the short note with raised eyebrows, but immobile face. Then she passed it to Doris.
"No, Reynolds," she said, "no answer, thank you. Pay the boy and send him away. And, by-the-bye, Reynolds," she added, quietly, in a forced voice. "Miss Phyllis was married to Sir Lionel Erskine this morning. You might see that the two boxes in her bedroom are despatched at once to Lady Erskine, at the Grand Hotel, Paris."
"Yes, ma'am," said the man, keeping his well-trained features perfectly impassive as he left the room.
There was a pause, broken by Mrs. Chichele a moment later.
"So much for Phyllis!" she said, rather sharply, tossing the slab of wedding-cake into the waste-paper basket contemptuously.
"I wonder whether she has told him all?" said Doris, slowly.
"My dear," said her aunt in her most cutting voice, "surely, you, of all people, know your sister well enough by this time? Now I wish no further reference at all made to the subject, please. Lionel Erskine has made his own bed, and he has got to lie on it. To-night, when Mr. Bramber arrives, I want a few minutes alone with him before dinner."
And without another word Mrs. Chichele dismissed the subject; but by her manner Doris could see how deeply she had been hurt.
That evening, when Doris entered the drawing-room, she found her aunt sitting on the couch beside the great King's Counsel, deep in conversation.
At her entrance he rose, walking across the room to meet her; and with an impulsive action he took both her little hands in his big ones, looking down into her face with a kindly smile.
"So you are the daughter of my poor friend?" he said, making things easier for her. "And to think that all these years I have never suspected it! Believe me, Doris," he went on, calling her by her Christian name for the first time by a happy intuition, "your mother has no firmer friend than myself; and no one more deeply or sincerely believes in her innocence."
The girl looked up gratefully into his face. She had always felt very much drawn to this big, clever man, but had hitherto been rather afraid of him. But his one touch of tactful sympathy had ousted all fear in an instant, and she felt as though at one bound he had become a very close and dear friend to whom she could open her heart.
"Thank you so much," she said; "and thank you so much for all you have done for my mother. I can never express my gratitude in words; but it is there, very deep down, right inside me somewhere. Aunty has told me all about your goodness and Lord O'Brien's. I only wish I could thank him, too."
"I can't tell you what a pleasure it has been to me to do what little I could do," said Caton Bramber, in his deep, sincere voice; "and my only regret is that I should have failed. It was Lord O'Brien's greatest regret, too, for from the day we were brought into contact—professionally, at first—with Mrs. Jerningham, we were both struck by her innocence and pluck. Your mother, Doris, is a very exceptional woman."
The announcement of dinner interrupted any further talk on the subject for the time being, and during the meal the conversation, on account of the servants, turned upon general topics.
Doris listened with an eager interest to every word which fell from the K.C.'s lips. She was struck by the ease with which he talked upon any and every subject, showing a deep knowledge, and expressing it in strong, illuminating sentences.
"You seem to know about everything, Mr. Bramber," she said at last, in admiration.
"Jack of all trades and master of none," he said, with a pleasant laugh. "That's the business of a lawyer in big general practice. One day you'll be dealing with an engineering case, and you'll be coached up in the science of nuts and cranks. The next day it will be stocks and shares; and another expert will make you at home with 'bulls' and 'bears.' That may be followed by a case involving medicine or chemistry; and before going into Court you've got to assimilate sufficient of the subject to understand your brief and tackle the 'expert' liars on the other side. As soon as the verdict is given, most of your knowledge of the special subject vanishes into space, or if you have a particularly retentive memory a little gets locked up in some out-of-the-way cell in your brain. Then when the opportunity arises you bring it out with a great flourish of trumpets, hoping that you have not lit upon the special subject of anybody present. That's the philosophy of the bar in a nutshell."
He laughed lightly.
"What is your special subject, Doris?"
"Dogs," said Doris with decision; and for the first time since Lady Teviotdale's ball her irresistible little laugh rang out, as she realised the bathos. "Dogs of all shapes, sizes, and breeds, or no breed at all. I ought to be matron of the Dogs' Home at Battersea—only I'd never let one go into that horrid lethal chamber."
"Yes," said Mrs. Chichele, delighted to see Doris recovering her wonted brightness, "the silly child is always bringing in some unspeakable mongrel for a stray meal or medical attention. If they were only of greater value, I'm sure she would get run in one day for dog-stealing."
"When you are, send for me," said the lawyer, laughing; "and I'll be unprofessional enough to defend you for nothing. I'm very fond of dogs myself."
And then he proceeded to delight Doris by telling her about several dog-stealing cases in which he had appeared in his early days.
"My own favorite terrier was once stolen," he concluded, laughing at the reminiscence, "and the beggar made me pay through the nose to get him back. But I got my knife into him two years later. I had to prosecute in a dog-stealing case at the Middlesex Sessions; and, when the man was put into the dock, I recognized my friend, and I think his face lengthened when he saw who was appearing against him. A dog, strangely enough, is not regarded by English law as a chattel; so, even after previous convictions, the maximum penalty is only eighteen months for misdemeanor. Finding that the man was an old hand, I had, however, framed two indictments against him—one for statutable misdemeanor for dog-stealing, and the other for felony for stealing the collar! When I recognised him I determined to let him have it hot, so, as soon as he had been convicted of the misdemeanor, I proceeded with the felony and got a second verdict. On the first count he got eighteen months' hard labor, and on the second twelve months, the sentences to run consecutively; and, as it is well-known that criminals prefer twice the dose of penal servitude to half the term of hard labor, I think I got my own back."
Thus the dinner progressed far more pleasantly than any of the three had anticipated; and by the time they returned to the drawing-room Doris was quite at home with Caton Bramber and on the best terms.
"Now," he said, growing more serious when the coffee had been served and Reynolds had left the room, "we can talk upon the one subject which is uppermost in all our minds. I was telling your aunt, Doris," he went on, stirring his coffee, "that upon your mother's release I am making a final effort with the new Home Secretary for a revision of the sentence and a free pardon. It means very little beyond restoring to your mother her good name in the eyes of the world; but I must tell you frankly that, unless I can discover any fresh evidence, which is unlikely after so long, I have little hope of success. But it shall not be for want of trying, I can assure you. She is due out now in about a month's time, which will bring us to September. A public agitation has already commenced and will grow as the time approaches; and it is certain to gather strength immediately after her release. Well, I shall act on the top of the wave about the beginning of October. I am shooting with the Home Secretary during the last week in September, and shall take the opportunity of a quiet talk before my formal application; and we will see what can be done."
Doris thanked him with grateful eyes.
"You know I was junior counsel for your mother?" he asked the girl, who nodded assent. "Well, never in the whole course of my professional career, of which the real success dates from her trial, have I been so deeply touched by any case. We have sometimes in our profession to do our best for some scoundrel whom we can't help feeling to be guilty; but into her defence Sir Patrick O'Brien, as he was then, and I threw our whole hearts and personal feelings. She was a very beautiful woman, which swayed many in her favor; but the judge was adamant. His summing up, indeed, was dead against her, as though he feared that she might get off from what he viewed as mistaken sympathy. It was the most deadly summing-up I ever heard, I think; and it was much challenged at the time, and has been since, for its fairness. Of course, we had a fearful case against us, an enormous weight of circumstantial evidence combined with the two undoubted facts that Mr. Jerningham did die of poison and that it was actually administered by your mother. Our contention, of course, was that it was given unwittingly; that of the prosecution that it was given on purpose. Our defence was theory against fact; and we lost against heavy odds. Still we, together with thousands of others, never doubted her innocence, I can tell you," he went on, his eyes lighting up, "it was a great fight; and I shall never be happy until her innocence is established."
Doris was listening with rapt attention, her eyes fixed upon his face and her ears drinking in every syllable.
"Go on," she said eagerly, as he paused; and he went on, telling her the whole story in its thousand and one details, sketching the scenes graphically with a master touch, and dwelling upon the salient points for and against the accused, weighing and sifting the evidence, and showing the whole theory of the defence, concluding with a vivid description of Helen Jerningham in all her youth and beauty, and eulogising the splendid pluck with which she had faced the ordeal.
"I never met a woman like her," he ended, with striking simplicity.
"Poor mother," whispered Doris in a choked voice. "How she has suffered!"
Mrs. Chichele put her arm round the girl lovingly and kissed her.
"You must make it up to her as far as you can," she said, softly; "and I know you will. To have her child, contrary to her expectation, will in itself atone for a great deal."
There was a pause; and then Caton Bramber spoke again.
"Have you made preparations in view of the release? Remember that absolute privacy is essential. The public and the papers will soon be on her track; and we must get a start of them."
"I had," answered Mrs. Chichele, "but I shall have to alter all my plans now. Doris has decided, with my full desire and consent to live with her mother and look after her; and I hope to be allowed to spend part of my time with them."
It was Doris' turn to kiss Mrs. Chichele, but she could not trust herself to speak. But the older woman understood the meaning of the caress.
"So," she went on, "I am looking out now for a quiet little cottage right out of the world, with a nice garden of its own, and no fear of intrusion."
"I know the very place," said the K.C., quickly. "Some friends of mine, with whom I sometimes spend a week-end, have to go abroad for their daughter's health and want to let their little place at once until next May at least. It is an ideal place—a 'coy, retired spot,' to quote Pater. A little cottage overgrown with roses and creepers, just three sitting-rooms and four or five bedrooms, with a large garden. It is situated between Selsey Bill and Bognor, nearer the former, in an almost unknown corner of England. It is lonely, but lovely. Its surroundings are thoroughly rural; and a chance stranger seldom lights upon it, though it is within such easy reach of town. It is a splendid place for dogs, Doris," he concluded, smiling at the little girl, to whom he had taken a great fancy.
"The very place, indeed," agreed Mrs. Chichele. "We will take it upon your recommendation."
"I'll write to-night," said Caton Bramber, rising.
The moon had begun to wane, and in Phyllis' case, at any rate, the honey to cloy; and she was beginning to realise the need for less limited society.
There is a conspiracy of silence with regard to the reality of honeymoons, and there is a general chorus of praise, no one liking to own up to disappointment in the belief that his is an isolated case. But in the majority of marriages it is the most trying period of the whole cycle of matrimony, full of disillusions, both small and great, on both sides. As a rule, prior to marriage, bride and bridegroom have seen comparatively little of each other alone, and they have always been on their best behavior, anxious to please and unwilling to offend. Character and individuality are to a large extent laid aside during courtship by common consent. Then comes the sudden intimate life of loneliness, when details of disposition make themselves manifest one by one, and the clay begins to peep out at the toes of the idol through the veneer. Each has hitherto placed the other upon a pedestal; and before the true happiness of marriage can be realised both have to come down from the world of ideals to the realm of hard facts. Often it means learning to love all over again with the assistance of nature and common-sense; and equally often it spells shipwreck. A honeymoon is a necessary but dangerous experiment; and it is seldom that time of ecstacy commonly reported. It is the transition stage from the ideal to the real; and often the poetic anticipation is preferable to the bald realisation. And transition periods are generally painful, though instructive.
At first for a few days Phyllis' nature had revelled in the freedom of marriage; and Lionel, ever attentive and eager to please, had proved a more pleasant companion than she had anticipated. But it was not long before she had begun to suffer from a surfeit of his society and to long for a change. Never a brilliant conversationalist, he seemed to have talked himself out; and Phyllis grew tired of interminable love-making. She had always had a great contempt for the turtle-dove type of lover, and had no intention of allowing her life to degenerate into a duologue of bill and coo. Again, Lionel's strong ideas as to the rules of conduct for his wife seemed to her bigoted and prudish; and she began to think what a dull time Mrs. Caesar must have had! The role of Caesar's wife was by no means her conception of life; and it was not long before she made this fact felt in their little world of two. Paris, however, pleased her as a place; and, despite Lionel's hankerings after more rural resorts, she sternly set her face against leaving the French capital. There, at least, she could dine out, go to the theatre, visit the shops, drive in the Bois, see people even if she could not mix with them, and, above all, buy things.
Lionel did not arrive at disillusion so quickly; and at first he was an enraptured lover, giving way to her slightest whim and waiting upon her hand and foot. To him she was a goddess not merely physically, but in disposition, and he could not imagine her at fault. He felt that to have her for his own and to live his life with her was all that his heart could desire.
Her hair was a special source of delight to him, and that alone he considered was enough joy to fill one's lifetime. He sincerely and honestly believed her beauty to be unrivalled; and he was never tired of looking at her, without feeling the necessity of talking. To him it seemed sufficient to murmur words of love and terms of endearment into her ear.
But after a few days, little by little the scales began to fall from his eyes; and he began to realise that his divinity had a distinct temper of her own and a sharp tongue, if anything crossed her. At first he put it down to nerves and the novelty of her position; but gradually it was borne in upon him that it was nature. Next he became aware of the obvious fact that she was utterly selfish, though he was too loyal to admit it to himself.
And, above all, her extravagance began to appal him. She could not see anything without wishing to buy it, regardless of price, an unconscious throwback to her unknown father. The jewellers' shops in the Rue de la Paix exercised a peculiar fascination for her; and at the end of a fortnight Lionel found that he had spent almost as much in that short period as in all the rest of his life put together, and that he was dipping deep into the accumulations of his minority. He hated in his infatuation to refuse her anything; and a refusal only courted a most disillusioning outburst. Now that she was safely married, she was perfectly callous of his feelings, as she always had been of everybody else's. When not in the mood for love-making she repulsed his advances; and often she meretriciously used her power over him to obtain some object or some end she coveted.
But Lionel was no fool, nor was he naturally weak in character; and one day he felt it was time to speak.
It was after lunch, and an expensive morning's shopping.
"Dearest," he began, gently, lighting a cigarette, "you must know that I don't grudge you anything and that my one object is to gratify your every desire; but we must come to a clearer understanding. I'm afraid that I am not as rich a man as you imagine."
Phyllis bridled, knowing what was coming.
"Well, during our honeymoon, or this first part of it, we have spent an unconscionable amount of money," he went on, trying to speak lightly. "But it's a thing which only happens once in our lifetime; so we can, perhaps, afford to throw a little money about. All told, my income is only between seven and eight thousand a year; and the Hall costs a good bit to keep up. You in your dear, silly little head have no idea of the value of money, so I must talk to you like a father. Well, we've already spent the best part of a year's income, you know, on jewellery and all sorts of things; and now we must pull in our horns a bit."
"I didn't think you were mean enough to throw it in my teeth," said Phyllis, curtly, flushing angrily.
"Don't speak like that," said her husband sharply, cut to the quick. "You know it is not that. I've enjoyed buying the things for you, but we can't go on at that rate."
"Fortunately I shall have money of my own in a year or two," said Phyllis, loftily; "but I suppose you will want to control that, too?"
With a great effort he kept his temper in hand, biting his lips as a counter irritant.
"You have no right to speak to me like that, dear," he said, speaking gently by a great effort. "I'm not mean; but, on the other hand, I'm not a Monte Cristo. When you come into your money, you can do what you like with it; but with my income I must keep things going. And, whatever you may say or think, I am not going to involve our finances, our happiness, and our lives by stupid extravagance. Before our marriage I made a settlement, the largest I could afford; and that ought to cover your dress and your personal expenses at the least."
Phyllis sniffed angrily. Nothing she hated more than being taken to task.
"To do the thing decently, as befits our position," he continued quietly, "the balance of my income will need to be handled very judiciously, as you must realise; and you must help me."
"This means I'm not to have the Mercedes?" asked Phyllis abruptly.
She had set her heart upon a show car, beautifully fitted, which they had seen in the morning.
"No, dear, I'm afraid not," answered Lionel gently, but firmly. "Honestly I can't afford it; and the motor I have at home is a very good one."
"I hate your English cars," said Phyllis, spitefully. "They are no class compared with the foreign ones."
"Nonsense, dear," began her husband soothingly; but Phyllis interrupted him with a passionate outburst.
"I might have known it," she exclaimed, her usual white face blazing and her lips compressed. "I always thought you were mean; but I didn't think you would have put the screw on so soon."
And then ensued their first open quarrel with hot words on both sides. It was several hours before peace was outwardly restored; but, despite the reconciliation, the recollection rankled on both sides. Phyllis did not get the car she coveted; and she hated Lionel for having won a victory. He, on his side, had suffered a severe shock to his whole system; but he would not allow himself to believe the worst of her, and with a lover's eagerness consoled himself by finding excuses for her. But even to himself he had to admit that the honeymoon was not turning out the blissful success he had anticipated, and he took refuge in the idea that it would be different when they got home; and he began to long for home, thoroughly sick of Paris.
Another thing which worried him was Mrs. Chichele's silence. He had expected that she would write to Phyllis and that there would be a general making up in due course; but beyond sending on the boxes, she had utterly ignored their existence. He had wanted to write to her and had wanted Phyllis to write; but she would not hear of it. So, for a time, the matter dropped; but he could not help worrying about it.
Early in the honeymoon he had turned the conversation to the subject of Phyllis' parents, remarking lightly that he had no mother-in-law to complicate his relations with his wife. Phyllis had been equal to the occasion and had told him a pretty and carefully prepared story of Mrs. Chichele's only brother, a bit of a scapegrace, but very dear to her, and a runaway match. And with truth she added that she had never known either of her parents. The story sufficed Lionel, who was not deeply interested, only vaguely curious; and it does not take much to satisfy an infatuated man in the first flush of love.
The days after their quarrel, though it had been outwardly patched up, dragged somewhat, and Phyllis seemed listless. Lionel tried to interest her in the sights of Paris, but failed. He suggested excursions to Fontainebleau and the country round; but she did not fall in with the idea. In fact, she spent a large part of the time in her room with her newly-acquired French maid, making toilette after toilette and experimenting in dressing her hair, more for her own satisfaction than for Lionel's. When they went out driving or walking he denied her nothing; but the incident of the motor had taught her not to go too far.
The days were not without their minor quarrels, and she appeared to take little care to conceal her irritation, or to control her temper. It seemed as though she had grown callous; and Lionel daily more disillusioned, marvelled at the change. And the breach gradually widened.
Towards the end of the third week he suggested that they should go home; and, tired of Paris, and anxious for a change, she assented.
"What sort of a place is Bawndon Hall, and how far from town is it?" she asked.
"About thirty-four miles," he answered, replying to the second question first; and then he launched out into a glowing description of the home he loved.
"But," said Phyllis, as he paused, seeing a chance of damping his enthusiasm, "It hasn't been in your family very long, has it?"
"No," answered her husband, frankly. "My father only bought it from Lord Bawndon when he married his daughter, who was my mother. He was M.P. for the district, and had just been baroneted; and he found it handy for the city. My mother died at my birth, and my father five years later. If he had only lived a little longer it would have made a great difference to my prospects. As it was, his partners bought me out of the firm; and the estate itself has greatly depreciated in value, not even paying its own way owing to agricultural depression. But I'm very fond of the old place, and the shooting's awfully good."
"Oh," said Phyllis, seeing a chance of amusement, "we'll have some big shooting parties then. How many will the house hold?"
"There are about twenty bedrooms altogether," answered Lionel, "and quite enough, too, to keep up, I can assure you! You've no idea how much money the place runs away with to do it properly."
Phyllis' lip curled. She hated any reference to a shortage of money; and she intended, an soon as she had got firmly hold of the reins of management, to make the place hum. She could not see herself leading a juvenile Darby and Joan existence with Lionel in a great barrack of an empty house. And the sooner she got back the better, she realised, if she were to arrange any parties for the ensuing shooting season.
So, as it suited her, she gracefully acceded to his wishes; and at the end of the third week they left Paris, both decidedly relieved at the prospect of a change.
After one night in town they travelled on to Bawndon the following afternoon.
Very little was known of their arrival in the neighborhood; and there was no formal reception on the part of the tenantry, which was a distinct disappointment to Phyllis, who had looked forward to creating an impression.
"I have heard from Cox, the agent," Lionel told her, "that the tenants on the estate are arranging to give us a wedding present; but they did not expect us home so soon. So we shall have to have a garden party, or something of the sort, when they are ready. I've written to tell him that we don't want any fuss upon our arrival."
It flashed across Phyllis' mind how entirely dissimilar Lionel and she were in their ideas and views of life; but it did not seem worth saying anything.
The servants, headed by the housekeeper, and the butler, met them in the hall and presented them with a piece of plate; and Phyllis, to Lionel's delight, made herself very gracious.
And then she proceeded to explore the house, casting a critical eye over everything.
The park was pretty, and had pleased her; but the house had seemed to her unimposing. Being Georgian, it was plain and compact, with very little effort at ornamentation; and from the front it looked far smaller than it really was.
Inside, the rooms were very good, especially the drawing-room, which ran the whole depth of the house, opening with long windows on a wide terrace, and the library, which similiarly opened on the terrace with long windows.
Lionel accompanied her, explaining everything with an enthusiasm which served out of a spirit of contrariety and a growing hostility of disposition to prejudice her and make her find fault wherever she could.
"Some of the rooms are dreadfully gloomy," she said, "but they can be made to do with a good deal of alteration. But the bedroom furniture all through is utterly impossible. It's old-fashioned without being old-fashioned enough, and it's hideous without being valuable. Every one of them will have to be re-furnished. I couldn't sleep in such horrible, worm-eaten sort of rooms myself. We must have a man down from Maple's at once; and, to begin with, we'll have smart new brass twin-bedsteads in to replace those cumbersome old double-beds."
She spoke half petulantly and half on purpose to annoy him, vexed at his self-complacent satisfaction in his own home. Lionel's face showed his keen disappointment at her words; and he bridled resentfully at her criticisms.
"I can't see anything particular to find fault with myself," he said, curtly; "and what is more, I cannot afford to refurnish the whole place merely to suit a whim."
He spoke more sharply than he had meant; and Phyllis took up the gauntlet.
"'Can't afford,' 'can't afford,'" she said, mimicking him contemptuously; "it seems to be your one idea in life. I hate this constant talk of money—money—money." And she flounced out of the room angrily.
This was their home-coming upon which he had set such store.
Sick at heart, and bitterly disappointed, Lionel made no attempt to follow her, but went outside to do a tour of the stables and see the head keeper; and it was not until just before dinner that they met.
Phyllis, without rhyme or reason, was in one of her most fascinating moods and it did not take long to thaw Lionel's reserve. He was still very much in love with the outer shell of his young wife; and he was, in consequence, always ready to find excuses for any fault of the inner part, hoping against hope for the best. So, after all, a very pleasant evening was spent; and by bed-time, by dint of feminine artifices and tactful handling, Phyllis had extorted certain preliminary concessions.
The next morning broke gloriously fine; and Lionel got up early without disturbing his wife, to take a turn round with the keeper. When he got back at nine o'clock he was disappointed to find that Phyllis had ordered her breakfast in bed.
He ran upstairs to kiss her good-morning.
"What unearthly hours you do keep, Lionel," she said, throwing back her great shock of vivid hair over her shoulders, and raising her lips to his; "bed at half-past ten, and up before decent people have done their beauty sleep! I hope you don't expect me to do the same because I've suddenly turned country bumpkin to please you?"
"You shall do just as you like, darling," answered Lionel, lovingly; "but I'm disappointed not to find you up this morning, as directly after breakfast I've got to go out, and see about something on the estate, which will take the best part of the morning. There are some urgent repairs wanted on one of the farms, and as the cost will be considerable Cox did not like to sanction the expenditure without my consent. I was hoping that you would have come with me," he concluded, "especially as I am anxious for you to get to know our tenants as soon as possible. There hasn't been a mistress on the estate for so many years."
"I suppose that's what runs away with your income," asked Phyllis coldly. "Why can't these farmers do their own repairs?"
"I don't think you'd make a very good landlord," laughed her husband, lightly, "but you'll get to understand these things in course of time. I'm sorry to have to leave you the first morning of our home-coming, darling, when I so particularly wanted to take you round the gardens myself; but it can't be helped. I'll be as quick an I can."
And with another kiss he left her.
As soon as she had finished her breakfast, Phyllis, infected by the glorious day, got up and began to dress.
When she heard the motor come round she leant out the window, and kissed her hand to Lionel lightly as he started.
Then she paused for a few minutes, watching him out of sight; and as he disappeared he turned and waved back to her, delighted to see her still at the window! She responded mechanically, but the sight of the motor had recalled the coveted car in Paris, and stirred her smouldering discontent. The prospect across the park was beautiful; but it seemed to jar on her mood.
"It's pretty enough," she murmured with a touch of contempt, "but I couldn't stand a country life, visiting tenantry, and playing lady bountiful to a lot of laborers. I'm afraid my tastes aren't bucolic. Besides, this place only seems an expense which runs away with all Lionel's income. He'll have to sell it," she ended up to herself. "I'll make him."
And with this determination she rang for her maid, and went on with her toilette.
With a sense of fitness of things which Phyllis never lacked in question of dress, she put on a simple white frock, and surveyed herself in the glass with satisfaction.
"Nothing suits me better than white," she murmured, smiling at her reflection and showing her lovely teeth, a trick she practised in private for public use; "and nothing fetches a man so much. I suppose they like to continue to believe in our innocence?"
Then she started to explore the house on her own account, making mental notes of the changes and alterations her taste suggested.
"The place needs a lot of money spent upon it," she continued, "to make it decent. Some of the stuff isn't bad; but a lot of it is utterly hideous, bought at the wrong period when furniture was solid but unattractive. They made up for lack of design in the amount of wood they put into it; and the worst of Victorian furniture is that it won't wear out. But it has got to go."
The room in which she ended up her tour of inspection was the library; and, though no great reader, she began to scan its shelves to see if there were any novels likely to interest her. But it turned out, also, to be thoroughly old-fashioned; and Phyllis was not sufficiently educated to appreciate the value of many of the dusty tomes. Lionel's father had been a great book collector, and his library had been his hobby.
"The mustiest, fustiest lot of old rubbish I ever set eyes on," she murmured, disgustedly. "I wouldn't give it house-room myself—only it looks well in a country house, I suppose."
She made a cursory tour of the shelves; and at last, in a dim corner, she espied on the bottom shelf a complete set of bound volumes of the "Illustrated London News," Lionel's great joy as a boy. She preferred pictures to print at any time; and she pulled out one of the bulky volumes at random.
"They will be rather interesting," she said to herself; "but, phew! how dusty they are!"
Finding the bulky book too heavy to hold up to her level, she promptly descended to its, seating herself on the floor. She began to turn its pages over idly, looking at the pictures, interested especially in the old fashion plates. Suddenly an idea struck her; and, struck by a morbid curiosity she replaced the volume on her lap, and searched the backs for the one covering the date of her mother's trial.
"There are certain to be pictures of her," she thought to herself, "and it will be rather interesting to see what she was like."
Each year was in two volumes, and she took out the second volume of the year in question.
"The trial was in July," she murmured, "so it will be near the beginning of this one. I can go back to the other volume afterwards, and look at the illustrations, but there is certain to be a lot about the trial itself."
With a strange feeling of morbid expectancy she began to turn the pages over slowly, searching methodically. Suddenly she came across a full page portrait of herself, or what appeared to be herself in the full glory of her beauty; and she felt as though her heart would stop. For a moment she experienced a queer, asphyxiated sensation, almost apoplectic; and a mist seemed to rise in front of her eyes. Gradually it cleared, and the blurred print became plain.
Underneath the portrait were the words in clear, cold type. "Helen Jerningham, who is being tried this week at the Old Bailey on a charge of poisoning her husband."
She sat staring at the picture with fascinated eyes, unconsciously picking out the points of resemblance to herself and analysing the likeness. It was strangely alike in every respect, and she felt with an ominous little shudder that no one could overlook it or fail to be struck by it. It seemed as though, after all her precautions, it was fated to rise up in silent judgment against her; and she felt instinctively that it was doomed to be her undoing. The whole country, she knew, would have been inundated with these portraits; and she wondered that no one had remarked the likeness before. It was intolerable to think that owing to circumstances beyond her own control, owing to Nature and conspicuous beauty, she was practically at the mercy of any curious individual who might come across it by accident and take the little trouble necessary to ferret out the whole truth. She realised that at all costs she must get rid of these tell-tale volumes in which she saw a constant source of danger to herself in her own house.
Turning over the pages, she became absorbed in a preliminary precis of the case, and almost eagerly she hurried on to the following week. The next number contained several sketches of the trial, including another excellent portrait, which would have done as well for Phyllis as for her mother; and with a fascinated interest she devoured the account of the trial, reading every word she could find. A vivid picture of the scene was drawn by a clever pen; and the pregnant words of description made the whole tragedy live before her. The main points and the chief incidents, selected with the unerring skill of the clever journalist, led up to the climax of the conviction, and the anti-climax of the sentence; and Phyllis paused drawing a deep breath.
Then turning over the pages, she searched through the following numbers, reading about the subsequent agitation and the reprieve which resulted; and then a paragraph suddenly riveted her attention.
It was headed, "The Jerningham Twins," and announced that Mrs. Jerningham's little twin daughters of three years old had been adopted by an anonymous lady, who, with the consent of all parties concerned, intended, for their own sakes, to bring them up under another name in ignorance of their parentage. Portraits of these children, who were well-known in society from being constantly about with their mother, it added, had often appeared in the Press, and would be found in the May issue, which had dealt with Mr. Jerningham's sensational death, and Mrs. Jerningham's arrest.
Eager to examine it, Phyllis was putting out her hand to reach the preceding volume, when suddenly behind her she heard a step. Acting on instinct, she slammed the volume on her lap with a guilty start, and an uncontrollable rush of color surged furiously to her face.——
So absorbed had she been in her reading that Phyllis had not heard the motor arrive at the front door; and almost before she was aware of it, her husband was stooping down beside her and kissing her over her shoulder on the tip of the ear.
In her confusion she started up, almost knocking him over, and dropping the book on the floor, where it lay, face downwards.
"Oh," she exclaimed, angrily, "how stupid you are! What a fright you gave me!"
Lionel was surprised and hurt at the rebuff; and he wondered at her strangely flushed face. But with a ready forgiveness of a man who is still a lover, he made haste to take all the blame.
"I'm so sorry, darling," he said, penitently. "I didn't mean to give you a fright like that. It was silly of me."
And he took her, hot and defiant, into his arms.
"You—you oughtn't to," she said, incoherently. "You frightened me."
"Silly little woman," he said, tenderly. "It must have been your guilty conscience. What were you doing?" He looked round at the books. "Oh, looking at the pictures? They always used to fascinate me, when I was a boy, and that collection of the 'Illustrated London News' was my particular hobby. I've always kept up binding it for old acquaintance sake and to keep the set complete. It may come in useful again some day," he concluded, with a little laugh.
He stooped down, all unconsciously, to pick up the incriminating volume, but Phyllis was before him snatching it out of his hand, and putting it hurriedly back into its place.
"What do you mean always spying on me, everything I do?" she burst out, angrily, overwrought, and completely losing her head, growing hysterical under the nervous strain. "Why can't you leave me alone for a moment? Haven't I the right to look at any dirty old book in the library if I want to, without you interfering?"
And then, afraid of herself, she pushed him aside and ran out of the room in a state of furious agitation.
Lionel's first instinct, as he got over his utter astonishment at her inexplicable attitude, was to follow her; but at the door he stopped and turned back.
He threw himself down miserably at the writing-table, and buried his face in his hands.
"I can't understand it," he muttered to himself. "She seems to have changed completely. Her moods and her tempers are utterly unintelligible—this morning most of all. But what could have upset her?"
He sat forward, leaning on his elbows, brooding disconsolately. It was all such a contrast to his hopes and expectations. But, lover-like, rather than face the truth and the worst, he began to make excuses. Perhaps she was ill? That would account for her varying moods and outbursts of temper. He would take her to see a doctor. Or, perhaps, in her love of enjoyment she had overdone it in Paris, and only needed a rest? A few days' quiet in the country would work wonders. But how strange she had seemed, and how agitated! The little start he had unconsciously given her was surely not sufficient to account for her utter confusion and the blazing color of her face. Could anything have upset her before his arrival? The idea was absurd; but he seemed to feel by instinct that it was so, and the impression refused to be effaced. What could it have been? Something in the book she was reading? He almost laughed aloud at the very idea; it seemed so preposterous. But all the same he could not get rid of it; and he rose from the table, and walked up and down the room restlessly. What particular reason for her upset, he argued to himself, could be found in an old volume of the "Illustrated London News?"
His walking brought him to the corner where he had spent so many hours as a boy, sitting on the ground just as Phyllis had done, and with the vague curiosity he surveyed the row of great volumes, the history of half a century in themselves.
Suddenly he noticed that the particular volume Phyllis had been reading was easily distinguishable, as it had not been put back quite so far as the others; and, again, it was not so dusty on the top.
With a movement, half-idle, half-instinctive, he stooped down and took it out of the shelf. Then he opened it vaguely, partially allowing it to open itself; and in front of him he saw a portrait of his wife.
"Phyllis," he exclaimed out aloud, in utter astonishment; and then in his turn, with fascinated eyes he stared at it stupidly, taking in nothing but the likeness.
It was a full minute before the type under the portrait began to take form.
"Helen Jerningham"—he knew the name of course; everyone did—"who is being tried this week at the Old Bailey on the charge of poisoning her husband."
The letters seemed to eat their way red-hot into his staring eyeballs; and on the corner of the page was a dainty thumbprint, in dust. That, too, fascinated him in its suggestion.
Gradually the story of the Jerningham case began to come back to him in vague outlines; but his knowledge or his memory could not supply the missing link, which his reason was groping for. Instinct told him that there was some secret, some mystery behind the whole thing; but what—how—why?
At length his mind began to recover its logical balance; and with a deliberate movement he carried the volume over to the table and laid it down, open. If the clue was to hand, it was in the book before him; and he must search till he found it, for the sake of his own happiness and hers.
Then, acting on a sudden impulse, he went across the room to the door, and turned the key in the lock.
Returning to the table, he sat down, and began to read slowly and methodically, covering the ground that Phyllis had covered a few minutes before.
The story itself engrossed him in its human interest; and he read on interestedly paragraph by paragraph, searching each page as he turned them over one by one in order to miss none of it. But so far the history of the trial afforded no clue or hint of the personal application of the case; and he went on, growing more and more puzzled. That she must be some connection of Phyllis he concluded from the likeness and her palpable distress; but what relation? He must go on till he found that out; but the truth never entered his head, excluded by pre-conceived ideas obvious as it might have been to another person.
In cold print, far away from the personality of the woman on trial, from the excerpts of the evidence it seemed clear to him that Mrs. Jerningham was guilty, and in his practical, unimaginative way he could muster up no sympathy for her. That her husband was a beast he did not doubt; but that was no excuse for such a cold-blooded murder. It was so openly and clumsily done, too, that he felt a contempt for her intellectually. Many poisoning cases were works of art and ingenuity; but this one was so crude and ill-conceived. The explanation of an accident readily offered seemed to him the proof of careful planning; but he could not see how it could deceive anyone.
As he read on he marvelled at the excitement and indication aroused throughout the country, and, having made up his mind as to Mrs. Jerningham's guilt, he could not understand the agitation.
"The public are always fools over a pretty face, however abominable the nature behind it," he thought, contemptuously, and then, with a sudden stab, he recognised whom Mrs. Jerningham's face resembled.
Page by page he went on methodically till at last, as he turned one over, the heading of a paragraph arrested his attention sharply. It was the paragraph on the Jerningham twins, which Phyllis had been reading just before he entered the room.
He read it over and over again, and the truth gradually began to dawn upon him. He felt strangely calm and cool as he analysed the situation. To his mind, it was clear that Mrs. Chichele was the anonymous lady referred to, and that Phyllis and Doris were the twins in question. That was the mystery which his young wife had been eager to keep from him, and, as is often the case at the crisis of life, his wits were perfectly collected, and he was able to think calmly and without emotion.
Phyllis herself must have known about it, or else why should she have gone straight to the book-case and picked out the right volume? She must at least have been aware of the fact and the date even if she did not know the details. And she must have wittingly deceived him. It was a very bitter thought, and his lip curled contemptuously.
He sat back in his chair thinking, and, from force of habit, feeling the craving of a smoker who has been so interested that he has forgotten to smoke for an unusually long time, he took out his cigarette-case and lit a cigarette. And as he smoked he began again to review the case in his mind point by point, analysing it particularly where it touched Phyllis and himself. Inhaling the smoke in big puffs and blowing it slowly out of his lungs.
A sudden sound recalled him to himself, and he started. Somebody was trying the handle of the door softly. It was turned twice, and then the attempt was abandoned. He smiled grimly as he rose from his chair, but made no movement to open it. He felt in no mood at the moment to meet Phyllis, and he was afraid that he might, under the stress of the unexpected revelation, say either too little or too much. His inclination, therefore, was to postpone the unpleasant situation.
His next step was to walk across the room to the corner and take out the other volume, which he dusted with due deliberation with his handkerchief, prolonging vaguely his anxiety for further knowledge. Then he retraced his steps to the table, and sat down again, laying the volume on top of the other.
He opened it and turned to May, searching particularly for the portrait of the twins referred to. In the first number, which mentioned the case, under the heading of "A Sensation in Society," there were portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Jerningham—the former a rather ill-tempered-looking man of middle age, with eye-glasses, dressed dandiacally in the fashion of the day, and the latter more like Phyllis than ever. In the next issue was the picture of the twins, little girls between three and four years of age, obviously. Phyllis and Doris, even at such an early age.
There was no mistake about it, and, if there had previously been any doubt, it was positive proof. Lionel examined the picture most carefully in every detail, even making use of an old magnifying-glass which lay on the table. In both the faces, especially Phyllis', he was able to trace every line of the features of maturity; and even the expression seemed familiar. And as he looked a groan escaped him unconsciously, the first sign of the depth of his feelings and the severity of the blow.
How awful the whole situation was! Phyllis' mother was a convicted murderess; and he knew what that meant in the world of conventions if ever the fact became known. And in the full knowledge of the situation it seemed to him marvellous that it had not been discovered before. Now that Mrs. Jerningham was on the eve of being released, immunity from recognition appeared more unlikely than ever. It would mean that the young wife he was so proud of, and had been so eager to see installed as hostess in his old home, would be cut by the county; and he would have to share the obloquy of the situation with her. But, worst of all, rankled the thought that Phyllis must have known; and had not trusted him or his love sufficiently to tell him.
The boom of the luncheon gong gradually growing louder and gathering volume under the expert touch of the butler, called him back to himself and the realities of the moment. He had little appetite, but he felt that he could not avoid putting in an appearance at the table. He wished that he could have got out of meeting Phyllis so soon, but it was inevitable; and, above all, he dreaded the necessity of talking lightly to Phyllis and acting under the expressionless eyes of Hobson, lest he should suspect that anything was wrong.
Putting the books back in their place, he unlocked the door and ran up to his dressing-room to wash the dust from his hands; and then, with a white, set face, he entered the dining-room, feeling more like a man who had just returned from a funeral instead of a honeymoon.
To his relief Phyllis was not in the room, and Hobson relieved him still further with a message.
"Her ladyship's apologies, sir," he said, "and she hopes you will excuse her. She is lying down in her room with a bad headache, and does not wish to be disturbed."
Lionel was devoutly glad to be alone; but he had not much appetite. He hurried over his lunch, making a pretence of eating, and then returned to the library.
Once more getting out the fateful old volumes, he sat down and read the whole case over again from beginning to end, taking care not to miss a word; and then he put them back again with a sigh.
He was uncertain as to his next step, and sat thinking the situation over in all its phases. Suddenly it occurred to him to write to Mrs. Chichele. At first he felt loth to do so, remembering Phyllis' unanswered letter; but he decided that it was the best and most manly course.
Sitting down at the writing table, he wrote a letter, first expressing his regret that she had not answered Phyllis' letter and forgiven their precipitate action, as he had hoped. Then he went on to the main point, tackling the facts squarely, and asking for confirmation or refutation. If what he feared was true—and to him it seemed the only explanation which would fit the circumstances—he added, in conclusion, that it would be his life's aim and object to screen the two girls from the consequences of their mother's crime.
He closed up the letter, and felt better from the very fact of having taken someone into his confidence.
Then he rang the bell and ordered his horse. A gallop would clear his head.
In times of worry nothing is more conducive to clear thinking and sane reasoning than fresh air. The very fact of being out of the house and away from the depressing influence of four walls lifts a weight from the mind; and the finest cure for depression is simply to go out.
His ride did Lionel a great deal of good; and the blackness of the situation appeared a great deal less black as he galloped across the grass and between the hedges of his favorite country. On every side the corn was being harvested; and the fields, bristling yellow, gave promise of the shooting he loved best. The sound of his horse's hoofs put up covey after covey of partridges, and he noticed that the birds were strong and healthy; and in every direction he saw bob-tailed bunnies scudding over the stubble in search of shelter. The rhythmical click of reaping machines lent a pleasant sound to the air; and here and there came the sharp report of a gun as he passed a field nearing completion of the cutting, with a crowd of men with sticks, and one or two with guns, awaiting the compulsory eviction of the rabbits, crowded into the centre by the ruthless circuit of the self-binder. It reminded him of playing "prisoner's base" as a boy. After a spell of frightened doubt a bunny would suddenly make up its mind to do a dash for liberty. Sometimes almost before it got clear of the corn, the life would be beaten out of its palpitating little body with sticks. At others it would get away and bob in and out of the shocks towards the sanctuary of the hedge, to be picked off on its way by a well-aimed shot, or to reach safety under cover of the stocks.
The sights and sounds of the country exhilarated him, and made life seem worth living again. Cares and worries naturally assumed their proper perspective; and the joy of living coursed through his veins.
He rode on at a sharp pace, bearing to the right towards his favorite spot of all, where the lavender, all shades from rich purple to delicate mauve, waved and rippled in its full ripeness, ready to be harvested. Each breath of wind brought a message of fragrance; and with distended nostrils he drank it in eagerly. In the sun the fields shimmered silver in the light breeze; and in the shade they deepened into purple, growing blue and almost black under shadow of the distant hedges. It was the sight and the scent typical of his own country; and for that reason he loved it the more.
Then, as the sun began to sink lower and lower on the horizon, throwing out long arms of lurid light, he turned his horse towards home and began to ride back slowly.
On his way home his thoughts centred themselves upon his approaching meeting with Phyllis, and his heart went out instinctively to her. If the situation was bad for him, it was ten thousand times worse for her; and, if he did not back her up loyally, who would? As for himself, he must make the best of it and endeavor to compensate her for what she might suffer from other sources. Her mother was not her fault; and it would be worse than foolish to blame her for her mother's crime. No wonder she had shrunk from telling him and had been overwrought by his sudden raid upon her secret. She ought to have told him, no doubt; but she was only a child, all said and done, put upon and repressed at home by her adopted aunt, who held this fearful fact over her and had tried to force her into a more advantageous marriage. Perhaps she was afraid of losing him? She might have been fearful lest his love for her would not stand such a test, if it were put to it. The thought was very sweet to him; and he told himself that it was so—that Phyllis had been actuated by a fear of losing him. Now his object must be to show her how wrong she had been not to take him fully in to her confidence; and, far from separating them, this secret must act as a common bond to draw them more closely together.
It was time to dress for dinner when he reached home; and he went straight up to his dressing-room.
There, as he dressed, he could hear Phyllis in her room next door, singing gaily to herself as though she had not a care in the world. He could hardly understand levity under the circumstances, but ascribed it to the buoyancy of youth.
She met him in the drawing-room frankly and affectionately, coming forward and putting up her lips for a kiss.
"I was silly this morning," she said, by way of explanation and apology, eyeing him closely to read his mood. "I think I must have been tired and overwrought by the excitement of the home-coming. I don't know when I've had such a splitting headache for a long time."
In his softened mood Lionel gladly accepted the olive-branch she offered him, and kissed her even more tenderly than usual.
At dinner she was brighter and gayer than she had been since the first day or two of the honeymoon, and laid herself out to be charming. She could talk well, and not without wit, when she took the trouble; and it was not long before she regained her old ascendancy over him, fascinating him and banishing any thought but great love and great sympathy. He felt that now he really had to protect and shield her; and the feeling made his heart big and tender towards her, as he glanced across the table and tried to enter into her mood. His inclination, as a lover, was to look upon the whole thing as a nasty nightmare, and to forget it as soon as possible.
"I'm beginning to understand your love for this old place," she said, designedly, knowing that it would please him. "After dinner you must take me round the grounds in the twilight and show me all your favorite nooks, especially the Lover's Walk you have told me so much about."
"Yes, sweetheart," he agreed, eagerly, "we will go to the Lover's Walk and talk about love and the future that lies before us. We will build castles in the air, impregnable through love against all outside assaults; and the love shall make us one in every word, deed, and desire."
Hobson had left them alone in the waning light, the room lit only by the candelabra on the table, which illuminated their faces and glinted on the silver of the dessert dishes and the cut-glass of the decanters losing themselves in the vista of the side-board mirror which faced Lionel. Phyllis, in the soft light, looked even more beautiful than usual, as she smiled across the table to him, and he smiled back an invitation to her.
She rose from her place and came round the table, putting her soft arms round his neck and leaning over him from behind.
"Let us go to the Lover's Walk," she whispered, kissing him lightly on the forehead.
Instinctively he looked up in his happiness to catch a glimpse of her face in the glass opposite. On it he saw a strange look, half of contempt, half of malignity, which accorded strangely with her action.
In an instant his heart hardened and contracted; and he realised that she was playing some deep game for her own ends and that once again she was using his love to make a dupe of him. A feeling of strong revulsion came over him; and he decided that once and for all they must come to an understanding.
Taking up his glass of port, he swallowed it at a gulp.
"Yes," he acquiesced grimly, "let us go to the Lover's Walk."
On the way she slipped her hand through his unresisting arm, chattering away in gay unconsciousness of the storm which was brewing in his heart. He was very silent, answering only when obliged in the curtest of monosyllables, as he puffed at his cigar with a savage intensity.
He led the way from the terrace at the back of the house through the grounds to an avenue of climbing roses over a grass path with a summer house at the end. The path itself was in deep shadow, except at intervals where it was cut sharply across by the light of the full moon, round and lurid at the season of the harvest and the approach of the equinox.
A vague feeling of surprise at his coldness began to grow upon Phyllis, who could not account for the sudden change of his mood.
"Throw away your nasty cigar, darling," she said, drawing closer still, "and make love to me."
Lionel stopped abruptly in one of the yellow patches of light and took her by the elbows with a powerful grip.
"I have a few questions to ask you first," he said in a clear, sharp voice, speaking in a way he hardly recognised himself, and looking down into her upturned face with unflinching eyes.
For a second Phyllis, usually imperturbable, quailed in front of him; and then she pulled herself together, wrenching her arms from his grasp, as he relaxed his hold.
"I—I don't understand you," she said, with a trace of nervousness in her voice. She felt utterly taken aback by his sudden change of attitude, for which she saw no reason, and she wondered how much he knew. Hitherto she had always regarded Lionel as an absolute fool, with whom she could do practically as she wanted to, but now she realised that she might have to play a different game, and a strange feeling of hatred began to grow up in her heart.
"Why did you marry me?" he asked abruptly, in a clear, hard voice.
Phyllis hesitated an instant, and then played a bold card in her dilemma.
"Because I loved you, Lionel," she answered, with studied simplicity. "Why are you so queer to-night?"
He laughed harshly.
"That was your only reason?" he went on, with sarcastic emphasis.
"I don't understand you," she repeated, at a loss.
Lionel abruptly changed his ground.
"What were you reading in the library this morning when I came in?" he asked sharply, bringing matters straight to the point.
"I was looking at some old pictures in the 'Illustrated London News,'" she answered, realising that he knew all.
"Of your mother?" he proceeded in an unnaturally calm tone.
"So—so you played the spy, you—you, sneak?" she said in a strained voice, growing white under the moonlight.
There was a pause; and the young husband and wife eyed each other with strange hard eyes.
"Why didn't you tell me the truth?" asked Lionel suddenly. "You might have trusted me. Do you think I would have cared who your mother was. Didn't you think my love would have stood the test?"
Phyllis shrugged her white shoulders carelessly.
"I didn't feel inclined to come to anyone as a suppliant, thank you," she answered, regaining her nerve and her coolness. "If it had not been for that I might have done much better for myself."
"Then the story about Shelford and your aunt was nothing but an elaborate lie?" he asked with savage contempt.
"If you like to put it so, yes," she answered callously, shrugging her shoulders again. "I should certainly have married Lord Shelford if I hadn't discovered the unfortunate fact that my mother was a murderess. That, I know, must come out, and I did not care for it to do so; so I eloped with you without giving you any time to ask awkward questions."
With a sudden savage movement Lionel seized her gleaming white shoulders in his iron grip and dragged her towards him, looking down into her face with blazing eyes.
"You——," he began; and then he restrained himself, realising that she was a woman.
Pushing her contemptuously away he dashed wildly from her, striking through the bushes into the open park, afraid lest his anger might overpower him and lead him to do her some mischief.
For an instant Phyllis had blanched before his savage passion, fearing that he meant to kill her; but her nerve returned as the sound of his footsteps died away.
"I thought he meant to murder me," she murmured to herself. "As it is, he has bruised my shoulders, with his great, brutal hands. The fool not to make the best of things when I gave him the chance! I wonder what changed his whole mood so suddenly? I really believe he might have made me love him if he had been sensible and kind. Now——"
And, shrugging her bruised shoulders viciously, she returned to the house with a sneer on her lips.
That night she locked herself in her bedroom.
Oblivious of direction, time, or anything, except a dull aching pain at his heart and a ceaseless throbbing in his brain, Lionel wandered wildly about the park. He was stunned by the cruelty of the blow and the callousness of Phyllis' confession. Love dies hard; and few men give up a great passion without a struggle. He had forced himself to hope against hope and to believe in Phyllis, despite appearances; but now he was beginning to feel that it was all over. She herself had dealt the deathblow to his dream of love; and life, which a bare month before had held so much for him, was void and empty.
Even as it was, he could hardly believe the worst; but that reasoning part of him, which love at first obscures in a man, told him that it was true. Gradually, as he grew calmer and better able to think, it was borne in upon him bitterly that Phyllis had never for a moment loved or even cared about him, and that she had only made a cat's-paw of him for her own purposes. She had required a name; and his had been conveniently offered. She had wanted a buffer between the world and herself; and she had used him. Love had never entered into her deep-laid calculations; and it had been at best a question of convenience.
Worst of all, everything went to prove that Phyllis, his idol and his ideal, was a thoroughly bad woman without heart and without principle—a consummate liar, callous to consequences, save as they affected herself personally. Her very kisses, which had been such utter joy to him, had each one been calculated and priced with the deepest cunning; and he saw that the extravagance of the honeymoon had in her eyes been nothing but her own conception of the price he would be willing in his infatuation to pay for her favors. The whole thing was cold and brutal, calmly analysed; and it revolted him beyond all words.
With a groan he threw himself on the grass, burying his head in his arms and trying to compose his thoughts. But one seemed to banish all the others from his brain. Phyllis was a thoroughly bad woman! It repeated itself again and again in his head to the exclusion of everything else, except one fact. He loved Phyllis still. In a vague, indefinable way he loved Phyllis still. The attraction might be purely physical, the remains of a great passion burning itself out slowly; but, despite all that had occurred and his full knowledge of her worthlessness, in a way he loved her still, and almost wished that he had not forced the bitter, degrading truth from her so bluntly. It was a struggle between his self-respect and his love. Many a man had fought the same bitter battle, he knew; but the knowledge made it none the easier for him. He was hardly more than a boy; yet now he was called upon to face the greatest crisis in life. It was hard, and he revolted against it, fighting hard; but he knew in his heart that it was no good, and he felt that he would carry the scars of the conflict to his grave.
In his anguish of heart he writhed as he lay on the grass, plucking it out in handfuls and digging his nails into the hard earth, and great sobs broke from him, shaking his whole frame convulsively. There is no unmanliness in a man's tears in times of real feeling; and Lionel was alone with the catastrophe of his love, facing his Gethsemane.
Only the moon saw him, throwing her yellow, bizarre light upon his black, sobbing body, as he lay with his face hidden. All around was calm and still and peaceful, auguring fair. In his heart alone raged the storm. The deep, uninterrupted blue of the sky looked serenely down on the earth below, whispering a message of peace. Not a breath of air was stirring; and the trees stood silent and motionless, throwing long black shadows away from the moon. There in the midst of his own domain, cut off by right of possession from the world without, he found himself single-handed against Nature, left to fight the great battle alone. But he was vaguely glad that there was no one to see his agony or to hear his sobs.
By degrees the intensity of his agony began to pass, and his sobs to cease, growing gradually less and less violent in their paroxysms; and he became calm again. But he did not move or lift his head, as though afraid to face the world of facts, which in so relentless to a man when he is down. But, lying still, he began to think clearly and rationally of the future. He saw that it was black enough, with no ray of light or hope before him; but he realised that he had a part to play in life's comedy, which affords concealment to many a grim tragedy. His self-respect demanded that he should act, hiding his secret and Phyllis's from the eyes of the idly curious. He felt morbidly sensitive lest the true state of his relations with his wife should be suspected even by the servants round them. It was necessary that some show should be kept up, whatever was felt. Decent breeding demanded it; and all would expect it of him. Above all, the secret of Phyllis' parentage must be kept at all costs, not only for her sake, but for the sake of his own good name. It must, as far as possible, be his life's work to keep it inviolate and to allow no suspicion to enter the minds of others. As time went on he could by degrees see less and less of his wife; but at present, however strained their relations or distasteful their company to each other, his place was clearly at her side. At all costs an open scandal, every Briton's bugbear, must be avoided.
At last Lionel raised himself and sat up, grimly calm. He had no idea of the time, and took out his watch. The moon was brighter than ever; and by holding it close to his face, he found that he could distinguish the hands quite easily. It was close upon midnight.
Rising to his feet, he began to retrace his steps towards the house, walking listlessly.
He entered the house by the library window, where a lamp was still burning, and threw himself wearily into an arm-chair. By his side was a small table, on which stood a tray with a tantalus, glasses, and apollinaris; and he poured himself out a drink with an unsteady hand and drained the glass.
He was not in the ordinary way a big drinker; and the generous dose of whisky warmed him as it sent the blood circulating and tingling to the extremities of his body. He felt the better for it, mentally, and physically; and he poured himself out another with no niggard hand. Then he lit a cigar and begun to think.
The action of the spirit lent color to his thoughts, and a curious rush of indignation supplanted his more philosophic mood. Anger and bitterness took the place of grief and pain; and, as he became more incensed against his wife, he grew more self-reliant and certain of his attitude towards her. An idea entered his actively working brain: and after a moment's hesitation he yielded to it.
Rising from his chair, he walked over to the corner and took out of the book-shelf the two volumes which had had such a strange influence upon his life; and he sat down again, opening them across his knees at this picture of Helen Jerningham.
He sat gazing at the portrait as though it fascinated him.
"She could not have been a worse woman than her daughter," he muttered to himself; and with a feeling of desperation he took another long pull at the glass beside him.
Towards daybreak he fell asleep; and there, to her surprise, one of the housemaids found him in the morning. The lamp had burnt itself out, and the two volumes lay on the floor beside him.
After that life at Bawndon Hall went on smoothly to the outside eye; but Lionel and Phyllis lived on entirely formal terms, seeing as little of each other as decency demanded. Outwardly there was little change, except that the young baronet's face wore a grim, stern look, and seemed to have suddenly grown older, and he never smiled.
No reference was made by either to the scene in the Lover's Walk, and by tacit consent all discussion of the past was dropped. Lionel was scrupulously polite to his wife, and at the reception of the tenantry he made a neat little reply of banter as though he were the happiest of bridegrooms, without a care in the world, thoroughly taking them all in. Phyllis, too, played her part in the farce; but she made no effort at reconciliation, realising that her influence over Lionel was lost. He, on his side, made no more reference to any desire that she should further her personal acquaintance with his tenants; and he even went so far as to countermand the orders for new furniture, which she had issued without consulting his wishes or his pocket. When he told her this she realised that, as matters stood, it was useless to make a scene; but in private she ground her beautiful white teeth and vowed vengeance.
Mrs. Chichele had answered Lionel's letter by return of post, ignoring his questions pointedly. Any explanations, she pointed out, must come from his wife. He had made his bed without reference to her, and he must lie on it. She washed her hands of the whole matter.
From its tone he realised what she must think of his conduct; and he bitterly regretted that he could not clear himself in her eyes. But noblesse oblige that he should bear the brunt of it all; and he could not excuse himself at Phyllis' expense, strongly as he himself felt about her action in the matter. And at the bottom of his heart he did not wish other people to think her quite as bad as he knew her to be.
And on those lines Lionel and Phyllis began their married life, bound together by a bond of pride on his side and a sense of utilitarianism on hers.
It had not taken Mrs. Chichele and Doris many days after they had heard from Caton Bramber to make their arrangements and to settle into Rose Coppice, as the cottage was quaintly called.
As soon as they had set eyes upon it they had agreed that no more suitable place could have been chosen for their purpose; and there had been no difficulty in coming to terms.
The cottage was small, but cosy; and the garden was secluded. Indeed, the whole place was secluded, planted a mile from the sea in one of the most truly agricultural districts in the whole of England. Roads were few and far between; and such a thing as a main road was some miles away. Neighbors, also, were scanty and removed; and the majority were farm folk, engrossed in the land and what they could get out of it. Though flat, the country was pretty, with its abundance of trees and high hedges; and in the distance ran a great ridge of downs, broken only by patches of pines and clumps of gorse and heather in places. It was as charming a piece of thoroughly English landscape as could be imagined; and a great sense of peaceful loneliness and aloofness from the world pervaded the atmosphere. It was indeed a "coy, retired spot," as Caton Bramber had said, and both felt that it was the place for a broken life to begin to gather up the threads of existence again, secured from curiosity and the glare of publicity.
Mrs. Chichele and Doris were too full of the approaching release of Mrs. Jerningham to care to carry out their original programme of going abroad, so, as soon as they could arrange it conveniently, they moved down to Rose Coppice and took up their abode there, planning and arranging everything with loving hands against the great day of arrival.
"Your mother must have the big bedroom at the back, overlooking the garden," said Mrs. Chichele, sketching out her plans. "It's the most secluded. You shall have the little one next to her; and the two front rooms and the other little one shall be spare rooms, one of which I shall use when I'm down here. That is to say," she added with a touch of sadness, "if you ask me."
"Aunty, how can you talk like that?" exclaimed Doris, reproachfully. "Aren't you going to come and live with us?"
"No, dear," answered Mrs. Chichele, stroking her hair, "two's company, you know; and my nose will be out of joint. I shall go abroad for a bit and then pay some visits as soon as I have got you and your mother settled in here; and then I shall come down to see you both a little later on, when you have got to know each other thoroughly. You'll have such lots to talk about that you won't miss me," she ended up, with a brave smile, not wishing to spoil the joy of the girl's meeting with her mother. And she was rewarded by a look from Doris, whose heart was too full for words and was very near to tears.
"Your mother will at first shrink from any publicity," went on Mrs. Chichele, "and this garden is so pretty that she will hardly want to go outside it. And she can go down to the beach with you almost without fear of meeting anyone. The great thing to avoid is that her whereabouts should get into the papers, which pry everywhere nowadays and probe every secret, however sacred; and with Mr. Bramber's help I am laying all our plans to get your mother here without anyone knowing. Once here, the halfpenny papers, with their Americanised reporters, can scour the whole country without any fear of discovery. The fewer servants the better, too; so I've only kept on the cook and the housemaid, who were here. They are both good servants, and the cook can cook, which is a wonder nowadays; and they are both elderly women, who don't seem likely to gossip. Besides, they were born and bred in this part of the country and don't read the papers; so I doubt if the name of Jerningham would convey anything to them, even if they heard it. Your own maid, who is devoted to you and can be relied upon to do anything you tell her, can look after your mother and yourself, and do anything else that may be wanted. There's no need for a coachman, as you won't be going out at all at present; and the old gardener, whom I've taken with the house, of which he is part and parcel, is as stolid and unimaginative a Sussexer as you could find in this Boeotian county. One thing in conclusion, dear, while we are making our plans," continued Mrs. Chichele. "Of course, it will be impossible for your mother and yourself to use your own name at present, at any rate. So I propose that your mother shall be known as 'Mrs. Jervoise.' Do you think that's a nice name?"
"Yes, I suppose so," agreed Doris, a little dubiously; "but it's horrid to have to live under an assumed name. Still, I see it can't be helped."
And so they talked and planned the future, both trying to make the way as easy as possible for the woman with whom fate had dealt so roughly; and each day Doris wondered more at the greatheartedness of Mrs. Chichele.
Doris herself was trying to forgot the dull aching at her own heart, which at times grew unendurable, when she thought of Ralph and the love she had had to renounce. And then, with her little face set firmly, she would go out for a long run on the beach with her dogs and try to exorcise the demon of despair by hard walking. She would come back pale, but composed; and not even Mrs. Chichele realised the battle the girl was fighting with her heart. But each day the victory grew unconsciously easier as she became more absorbed in the idea of her mother and the day of release drew nearer.
One day Mrs. Chichele came to her in her room.
"I am writing to your mother, dear," she said quietly, "to tell her what arrangements we have made. Would you like to put in a line?"
Doris thanked her with her eyes, feeling a strange catch at her heart. The suggestion brought home to her the realisation of her mother in a way that nothing else had, and she jumped eagerly at the idea. But when she found herself with pen and paper before her, it seemed as though the words would not come, and she sat staring blankly at the clean sheet for a full hour.
"I've so much to say," she murmured to herself, "that I don't know where to begin, and my heart is so full."
At last she wrote a little note, six lines in all, finding safety in simplicity:—
"My dear, dear mother," she wrote.
"My heart is too full to write, and I have too much to say.
I am longing for our meeting, and for the rest of our lives we shall never again be parted.
I long to kiss and to pet you, to have a real mother of my own, and to make up to you for all you have so unjustly suffered.
We can neither of us ever love nor be grateful enough to Aunty, who has done everything for us both.
With passionate love, your little daughter,
And for the first time in her life she signed her real name on the impulse of the moment, to show her mother that, whatever it entailed, she was not ashamed to bear it.
Mrs. Chichele put the little note into the envelope with her letter and closed it up.
"That," she said, "will give your mother more happiness than anything else in the world. I have already written her and told her of your knowledge and your determination, and," she added bitterly, "of Phyllis' action in the matter."
It was the first time that she had voluntarily referred to her since the elopement.
At the cottage the days passed quietly and uneventfully; but in the outside world the agitation and interest increased daily, and the papers were full of the case. The whole controversy was revived, and the history of the trial re-told. There were rumors of release almost dally; but the authorities were most careful to keep the exact date dark from all except those immediately concerned. An enterprising reporter had found out all about Mrs. Jerningham's removal to Cornwall a day or two after it had actually taken place, and the papers were keenly on the scent.
"We shall only get a few hours' start of the public, that is all," said Mrs. Chichele to Doris, detailing the plans which Caton Bramber and she had made, "and in that time we have got to give the reporters the slip and cover our tracks. We will go down the night before to Truro and put up there quietly. The following morning your mother will leave the home she is in all by herself and meet us on the St. Austell road, where we shall be waiting with a carriage. We will drive on to St. Austell and take train from there to Exeter, where we shall change to the South-Western system, working our way by Salisbury and Southampton to Cosham. There we shall change to the London, Brighton, and South Coast, and be at Chichester in a few minutes. It will mean a long day's travelling, but we can fit it in and be home here the same evening. We shall certainly give everyone the slip at the start, and I question whether they will pick up the trail. We shall have no luggage; and, when we change, we will separate, taking care never to give up three tickets at once."
"How carefully Mr. Bramber and you have worked out the details," said Doris admiringly.
"Yes, there's nothing like organisation in these things," said Mrs. Chichele practically; "and we don't want a lot of newspaper sympathy, followed by columns of sensational copy."
The night before they started for Truro, Lionel's letter to Mrs. Chichele arrived; and she handed it to Doris, commenting grimly.
"So he has found out things for himself?" she remarked. "I wonder what lie Phyllis pitched him to bring off the elopement? She was never lacking in inventiveness, I must say; and a man in love will swallow anything. I can't help feeling sorry for him, and he writes a decent, manly sort of letter. But I am not going to interfere now. He has made his bed, and he's got to lie on it, whether he likes it or not."
Doris passed it back without criticism. One thought was uppermost in her mind.
"I wonder if—if Ralph will find out, too?" she said softly, showing where her heart lay.
"Poor little girl," said Mrs. Chichele, drawing her tenderly to her, "I almost hoped you were beginning to forgot about him in your new life. You have never referred to it since."
"People don't talk about what they feel most," rejoined Doris, with a touch of reproach in her voice. "Things had gone too far for me ever to forget it."
"All the more reason why we must prove your mother's innocence," said Mrs. Chichele, trying to speak cheerfully. "But come, I'm not going to have what is practically my last evening with my little girl spoilt by talking on unpleasant subjects. Remember, the day after to-morrow I shall lose my child, when I have to hand her over to her real mother."
"I shall always be your little girl, too, aunty, darling," said Doris, gratefully, nestling close to her.
A last grateful farewell to the kind Sisters of Mercy who had sheltered her; and the side door of the home closed on a lonely woman in a quiet grey dress.
For a moment she stood still as though lost, like a bird let out of a cage that cannot understand its freedom and has forgotten how to fly. With distended nostrils she drank in the lovely air of the early September morning; and a desire to cry out from sheer gladness of heart came over her. She wanted to stretch out her arms to the sun and to greet the morning. Her heart leapt with a sense of liberty, and she wanted to embrace the fields and the hedges, which meant so much to her, symbols of freedom after years of fetters. Free—free—free was the one word which throbbed and echoed through her heart and brain.
Thus Helen Jerningham returned to the world after fifteen years of exile.
With a last look at the kindly home which had alleviated her last few months of imprisonment, she turned sharply to the left and began to walk quickly down the lane, following the directions conveyed to her. Round the first turning to the right a carriage would be waiting for her, and in it her devoted friend and her daughter Doris.
Doris—the name made her throb with a fresh thought and a fresh desire. With every fibre of her being she ached to see her child and to take her in her arms. The last time she had seen her she had been a tiny, toddling baby, just able to string her simple sentences together, so soft, so sweet, and so interesting to the young mother; and now she would be grown up. She could hardly realise it, and she quickened her steps in her anxiety to see for herself.
Time had been very kind to Mrs. Jerningham, sitting lightly upon her despite her heavy ordeal; and the last few months in the lovely Cornish air, and a simple, healthy life had brought back the glow of health to her face. She was naturally a little pale, and there was a trace of weariness still in her dark eyes; but her skin was as transparent as ever, and her hair as gorgeous in its coloring. A few lines, sorrow's furrows, were the only traces of her long years of suffering; but it said much for her strength of will and recuperative powers that at thirty-eight she was still a young woman, and withal beautiful. An eager look lit up her face, banishing for a moment all lines of care and suffering, and with a firm step she hastened on down the lonely lane. Not a soul was in sight; she was alone with Nature and revelled in it.
Five minutes' walk brought her to the corner, and a hundred yards down the road she saw a carriage and pair. Nearer still, almost at the corner, stood a girl, waiting eagerly.
An instinct told her that it was Doris; and she held out her arms impulsively, feeling that overmastering sense of maternity which is the most wonderful thing in nature.
Doris sprang forward with a cry of "Mother!" and in an instant was in her arms; and they kissed each other again and again, with tears running down their cheeks. All the pent-up emotions of fifteen years seemed to break loose in one moment, and the flood-gates of joy were opened.
It was more than a minute before either could find voice to speak.
"My dear, dear child," murmured Mrs. Jerningham through her tears; and she held Doris at arm's length to look at her.
"Mother," said the girl happily, rejoicing in the sound of the name.
"This was a happiness I never hoped for, my darling," said Mrs. Jerningham softly. "If you know how I have longed and longed all those years for my lost babies! And now to find a grown-up daughter waiting to love me! It almost compensates."
Doris smiled up at her, her face aglow.
"I shall never leave you, now I have found you, mother," she said with a glad ring in her voice. "I want to make up to you for all you have suffered."
And hand in hand they made their way towards the carriage, which, despite the glorious morning, was discreetly closed.
Mrs. Chichele grasped Mrs. Jerningham's hand through the door and helped her in. Doris followed, seating herself opposite her mother; and the carriage according to orders, started off at once on its fifteen miles drive.
Moved by a common instinct, the two elder women embraced each other in silence, the one stirred by a great sympathy, the other by a feeling of passionate gratitude; and in the action, straight from the heart of both, there was nothing formal or conventional.
Then Mrs. Jerningham spoke in her clear voice, which, though a little uncertain with emotion, had lost none of its ring.
"My dear, kind friend," she said, obviously under the stress of a deep emotion, "you have been more to me than my sister could have been to me with your great, unselfish kindness. Without you I do not know where I should be. It is you who have kept my heart alive and fed me on hopes of the future; and it is you who have been a mother to my children. Believe me, I have not come to rob you of Doris."
"No, I know," answered Mrs. Chichele softly; "you have come to share her with me, and her heart is big enough for both. For what I have done I have been amply repaid by her love alone."
Then with her wonted tact, feeling the strangeness of the situation, Mrs. Chichele turned the talk into commonplace channels, asking questions and expounding plans; and soon all three were talking easily and naturally of the present and the future. Mrs. Jerningham was delighted to hear of the cottage and the prospect of the near future.
"All I want is peace," she said with a deep pathos in her voice. "The world has not treated me well, and I want it to leave me alone; that's all I ask of it."
By common consent the subject of Phyllis was not mentioned, so as not to mar the first moments of reunion.
The journey itself passed off without a hitch; and in their happiness to none of them did it seem long or wearisome. There was so much to talk about; and after her long imprisonment the very fact of her freedom and the beauty of the country they were passing through were in themselves a constant source of pleasure to Mrs. Jerningham.
Chichester was reached late in the evening; and it was dark before they reached Rose Coppice.
"We shall see what the papers say to-morrow," said Mrs. Chichele triumphantly, as they drove up to the gate; "but I think we have given everyone the slip."
The next morning after breakfast the three strolled down to the beach.
"Do you know of all things," said Mrs. Jerningham, as they sat on the shingle, "when I was penned up between four stone walls, I used to long for the sight and the smell of the sea? There is a great, grand freedom about the sea which you do not find anywhere else; and the very thought of it makes a prisoner's heart sick with longing. If they understood what prison meant to a person of refinement and education, I think they would be merciful and not reprieve them. It is a cruel kindness in many ways, when they commute the short, sharp death-sentence to penal servitude for life. Of course, 'life' in the technical sense only means fifteen years; but it has a fearfully dispiriting sound about it. The period of probation is the most killing of all. I felt at first as though I would never live through it; and I had little desire to do so, except for one thing. I believed, and I still believe, unlikely as it now seems, that my innocence would one day be proved. I longed for my children, my little motherless babies, but I felt that to them I was worse than dead. I made up my mind at once, as soon as I found into what good hands they had fallen, that, until I could face them as an innocent woman, they must, if possible, never know about me. It was my one wish that my misfortune should not blight their lives, and it was only a chance, over which I had no control, which gave you to me, Doris, my darling."
She was holding Doris' hand in hers; and the girl looked up at her with a loving smile.
"I am glad that I was told, mother," she said softly. "I could never have believed any evil of you; and it would have made my whole life miserable if I had found out afterwards that you had only exchanged prison for a life of lovelessness."
"That is like your dear generous heart to say so," said her mother lovingly; "but you were trained in a good school," she added, looking at Mrs. Chichele.
"Tchut," said Mrs. Chichele abruptly, "we act up to our limited lights and do what we can to help a lame dog over a stile. What beats me is how you kept your looks so marvellously. Here am I with a maid and everything done for me, only a few years older than you, and looking old enough to be your mother at least."
Mrs. Jerningham laughed.
"Plain food, hard work, and regular hours, I suppose. When I first went to Aylesbury they put me, after the first nine months of solitude, to the ordinary work of the prison; but later on I was promoted to the post of librarian. Books are the one thing which alleviate the lot of a prisoner; and to an educated person the greatest thing of all possible in prison routine is to become librarian. The books themselves may not be wildly exciting or highly intellectual, but they are books, and serve to take one's mind off one's surroundings, which is the main thing. To begin with, the food, though you get accustomed to it, as to everything else, is not appetising, when you have been used to a properly-laid table and the niceties of life. But it is generally good and eatable, which is the chief thing when you have got over the initial prejudice; and I grew quite to look forward to the soup on Saturdays, especially in winter. It was Thursday's suet pudding which I never could eat! But I think the things which tried me most were the hideous clothes and the still more hideous caps. The contrast of coarse linen and coarser flannel to silk and nainsook was not only revolting, but physically trying; and I, who had always been so proud of my hair, felt the loss of it very keenly. But it's strange how one becomes accustomed to things after fifteen years. Life is only a matter of habit, after all."
And so Mrs. Jerningham talked on to them, telling them bit by bit all her life in prison, while they listened with wrapt attention, realising for the first time in a measure what it meant.
"The only cases in the desert of loneliness," she ended up, "were the visiting-days, when my dear friend here always came, bringing me news of my children and words of hope. Once I was allowed as a special favor to see a photograph of my children, and I was permitted to retain it for a night in my cell. I cried over it, blistering it with tears and kisses; and that day I grudged every minute of the daylight. I almost made myself ill over it, and could not sleep for nights from excitement and the re-action; but it cheered me up and gave me courage. And now," she added sadly, "I have only one of my twins."
It was her first reference to Phyllis in front of Doris, who knew that her mother had heard the whole story of her sister from Mrs. Chichele. But none of them were anxious to pursue what was a painful subject to all.
Turning to the brighter side of things, Mrs. Jerningham referred to Lord O'Brien's kindness and the occasional visits he had paid her.
"His kindness and Caton Bramber's I can never repay; and it is my chief regret in my release that death has done me out of the opportunity of thanking him. It is a thing I feel most deeply; and I am looking forward to my meeting with Mr. Bramber, of whose constant kindness and unselfish efforts I cannot speak with sufficient gratitude. And now, to crown all, you tell me that he is about to make a final appeal for justice. For my own sake, I have almost ceased to care; but for that of my children I shall never rest happy until my good name is given back to me publicly. It is for them that I must establish my innocence."
From talking of the two great barristers it was but a short stop to the trial itself.
"The trial is almost a blur in my mind. The reaction which followed the intensity of the strain seemed to blot the whole thing out. The sea of faces, the stare of hundreds of eyes, the sharp tilt of question and answer on which so much depended—all is a vague impression. One detail, one of those absurd trifles which accentuate the supreme moments of life, stands out is the grotesqueness of the black cap. It seemed to rivet my attention from its very lack of dignity, and the fact that it was put on crooked—a woman's point of view, perhaps, but at the most solemn moment of all it stripped the bench of its impressiveness, and lent a grotesque touch to the judge. It is strange," she concluded, "what little things stand out in the supreme moments of life."
On their return to the house for lunch they found that the papers had arrived; and they scanned them eagerly for news.
Each one gave the announcement of the release with big headlines, but the news was meagre, and the wording the same.
"Late last night," ran the paragraph, "the 'Central News' was informed of the fact that Mrs. Jerningham had been finally released early in the morning. She has, as is well known, for some months been in the charge of a Sisterhood in Cornwall, and her release has of late been daily expected. But owing to the skilful management of her friends she succeeded in evading the numerous reporters who were in the town waiting to interview her. Her method of departure and her present whereabouts are a complete mystery."
Then followed an account of the trial, and a short history of the case.
"Splendid!" said Mrs. Chichele, in a gratified voice; "nothing could be better. Now, if you keep quiet with Doris here for the present, there is no reason why you should be worried with reporters and staring sympathisers. I feel like a Napoleon on a small scale myself."
And she shut up the paper triumphantly.
Two days later Mrs. Chichele went abroad, leaving the mother and daughter alone.
They made every effort to induce her to stay with them; but she refused obstinately.
"I have other things to do," she said, with assumed cheerfulness; "and you two will get on all right without me."
"The most unselfish woman in the world," said Mrs. Jerningham, as she drove away from the cottage, waving her handkerchief to them. "God only knows what you and I owe her, dear. I shall never be jealous if you love her more than me."
Then the mother and daughter settled down to the quiet life they had mapped out; and daily the love between them grew more intense. The days were free from all event, but neither felt the desire for any.
"Thank God for peace and quiet and love," was Mrs. Jerningham's constant cry; and it found an echo in Doris' heart. And "the world forgetting, by the world forgot," they spent the days together on the beach or in the garden, their only companions Doris' dogs, who revelled in tearing up and down the sands or basking in the sun.
One of Mrs. Jerningham's greatest pleasures was to get back to a piano; but Doris had hard work to induce her to sing. But one evening she won her way, and the rich contralto which had won the heart of London was heard again after years of silence.
"I'm all out of practice," she said, as she finished. "The only singing I have had for years has been in the prison chapel, and you can imagine how discordant that was! Still, it was one of the reliefs to the week's monotony, and I must confess to having enjoyed it. But I will practise if it gives you any pleasure."
And in this way Mrs. Jerningham was induced to take up her singing; and they passed long hours together at the piano, of which Doris never wearied. In it she found one way of making her mother forget the past; and that was her great object in life. Gradually, as the days wore on, Helen's spirits revived, and she grew more cheerful under Doris' sunny influence.
"If this dear little cottage were only ours," she said one day, "I should get a great pot of paint and paint over the lintel, 'Parvo domus, magna quies.' It's just the motto for the place."
One thing only Doris kept back from her mother, lest it should pain her; and that was the tragedy of her heart and the catastrophe of her hopes. But it was not without an effort, as she craved for the loving sympathy she knew she would get; and, womanlike, she craved, moreover, for a good cry as a safety-valve for her pent-up feelings. But a hint of how matters stood would, she knew, take all the happiness and pleasure out of her mother's life; and she had learnt the lesson of practical unselfishness from Mrs. Chichele. Still, it did not keep her heart from aching at times; and her mother felt that there must be some reason behind it all to account for her long spells of quiet and her loss of spirits at times. But, tactfully, she waited for Doris to open her heart to her; and she did not press the matter.
Thus a month passed with nothing to mark one day from another; and the only reminder of the date or the outside world, which came to Rose Coppice, was the paper. But early in October a letter arrived which put both Mrs. Jerningham and Doris into an excited state of expectancy. It was from Caton Bramber, who asked permission to come down and visit them.
"I will run down next Saturday, if convenient to you," he wrote, "as I am most anxious to see you and talk over certain matters."
"Ask him to stay the week-end," said Doris, eagerly. "He is so nice and kind."
So Mrs. Jerningham wrote in reply; and he promised to prolong his visit till the Sunday evening.
There were many preparations to be made in the quiet little household in view of the arrival of such an important and honored guest, and Mrs. Jerningham, mindful of the days when she used to give the best dinners in London under the epicurean tutelage of her husband, quite surprised Doris by the interest she took in all the arrangements.
At last Saturday came; and after lunch Mrs. Jerningham, contrary to her practice, announced her intention of lying down till tea-time.
"It may seem silly to you, dear," she said to Doris; "but I honestly feel quite nervous at the thought of meeting anyone, or of entertaining even a solitary guest. It is so many years since I was in the world, or of the world; and I feel particularly nervous of meeting Mr. Bramber somehow. It will be all right when the time comes, I know. I always used to feel the same before a dinner party in the old days; but the feeling always passed away with the arrival of the first guest. But, all the same, I think I'll go and take a rest. What will you do with yourself all alone?"
"Oh, I'll take the dogs for a run on the beach," answered Doris. "I'm rather down in the dumps; and there's nothing like a good sea blow for it. You go and lie down, mother, darling; and don't worry about me. I'll be back in good time for tea."
It was a splendid October afternoon—such an afternoon as only October, the Indian Summer of the climate, can give—warm but breezy, with the little white clouds chasing each other over the sky like lambs at play.
Doris was dressed with the utmost simplicity in a short skirt of brown holland and a white blouse, with a white tam-o'shanter pinned on her obstreperous hair, which answered to every vaguery of the breeze, gradually becoming more beautifully untidy in its wayward carelessness. The exercise flushed her cheeks as she alternately walked and ran with the dogs. It was low tide, and the sea seemed as though it were crossing the Channel, leaving in its wake an enormous stretch of hard, brown sand, broken only by sunken rocks in the distance.
It was good to be alive and breathe the salt of the air, drawing it down into the lungs; and Doris began to find her depression lifting. All the morning her thoughts and her day-dreams had been far away with Ralph, who was she knew not where. He might be dead for all she knew, or abroad; but, somehow, he had felt very near, and her heart had gone all out to him. In a weak moment—one of those weak moments all lovers have and love—she had allowed herself to build air-castles, which had evaporated in due course, leaving depression in the reaction.
She had told herself a little fairy story in a modern setting with Ralph as the fairy-prince, and herself a sort of mental Cinderella, and she had ended it up in the old sweet fashion—"and they got married and lived happily ever afterwards." Then her castle in the clouds had suddenly collapsed, letting her down to earth and hard facts with a moral bump that hurt. It had been very sweet while it had lasted, but its fault was that it had not lasted long enough.
She felt that she wanted to tell him all about it, and somehow he seemed so near. So, in a whimsical mood, with the little cane she always carried on her walks, she scratched, in large letters, on the impressionable sand, "I love Ralph Shopwyke." When she had finished it looked absurd; but there was no one to see it but herself, and it comforted her.
For some minutes she stood looking at it, lost in thought; and then she suddenly came to herself with a start.
Someone was approaching. It was a man, who was walking across the sand straight towards her with long, swinging strides.
She did not pause to look at him, but with a hurried movement began to obliterate her unmaidenly confession with an eager little foot, which seemed clumsy and slow, catching in the sand too deeply at the wrong places, and not doing its work properly.
The footsteps drew closer; and she looked up in an agony of fear in case the stranger who was making so straight for her should arrive before the work of obliteration was complete.
He was big, she noticed, and not unlike Ralph.
Then she started at her task again, scraping vehemently at the inscription. She had only defaced the "Shopwyke" and part of the "Ralph" when she turned round again.
It was Ralph!
She felt a sudden catch in her throat; and the warm color surged wildly to her cheeks as she grew hot all over.
He was hastening towards her in a beeline, and broke into a run when he saw she had recognised him.
"Doris," he exclaimed, holding out both hands.
He was about ten yards away.
"Ralph," she cried, in surprise. Then she put out her arm as though to ward him off.
But in his impetuosity he would not accept the rebuff; and, wilfully misunderstanding her action, he took her in his big arms.
"Let me go," she panted, scarlet and struggling. "You mustn't, you mustn't."
"I won't let you go now I've got you," he said, triumphantly, with an assured air of proprietorship. "I recognised you from ever so far off. But what are you doing here?" he asked, suddenly.
"You—you've followed me down here," answered the little girl, indignantly. "It isn't fair of you."
"On the contrary," he said, coolly, "it's you who have followed me. My place is only five miles from here; and my family have been lords of the manor of Bracklesham for centuries."
"Oh," she exclaimed, blankly, as he released her, "I didn't know it was so close."
Meanwhile the three dogs had gathered round them in a semi-circle, panting with exertion and excitement, and wagging their tails.
"Your dogs aren't much protection," said Ralph, looking at them, amused. "They never attempted to go for me."
"They know you," said Doris, weakly.
Then there was a pause.
"Doris," he said, abruptly, "aren't you going to give me a kiss, and tell me you are glad to see me?"
"No, of course not," she said, stoutly. "Besides, I'm not glad to see you."
"What's that you've been writing on the sand?" he asked, changing the subject.
"You—you mustn't look," commanded Doris, desperately, stepping back and covering as much as she could of it.
"Your little feet aren't big enough," he said, laughing; and he began to spell out the words:
"I—love—R-a-l . . ." he read aloud, and then he broke off, making a sudden movement forward. "Oh, you wicked little story-teller," he exclaimed, catching her in his arms again and kissing her burning face again and again.
She tried to elude him, but it was an uneven combat, and she was not at heart as unwilling as she pretended to be.
"Confess," he said, triumphantly, lifting her right off her feet, and bringing her burning face up to his own level; "confess that you are glad to see me, you wicked, heartless little fibber."
Doris capitulated, surrendering at discretion.
"I'm not heartless," she contradicted, eagerly; "and—and I am, oh, so glad to see you."
And she allowed him to kiss her without resistance.
"Why did you throw me over, darling?" he asked, eagerly, stopping her answer with a kiss. "And how soon will you marry me?"
"I can never marry you, Ralph, dear," she answered, as soon as she had got her breath.
"Do you think I'm going to be put off like that?" he asked, hotly. "I am never going to leave you again, whatever you say. I can't live without you. The torture of the last two months has been more than I can bear. To know that you loved me only made it worse; and I won't go on with it any more. Doris, you haven't been fair to me," he said, reproachfully.
"Oh, Ralph, If you only knew," she answered, plaintively, "you wouldn't say that. I've tried to be fair to you at my own heart's expense."
He looked puzzled; and silence fell on both.
The sea was beginning to come in; and, remorselessly, inch by inch the waves began to eat away the top of Doris' large letters of confession.
"What a pity," said Ralph, regretfully. "They'll wash it out, and I would love to have it framed."
His remark snapped the tension; and Doris laughed her own happy little laugh that he loved no dearly.
"Now, dear," said Ralph, masterfully putting his arm round her, "you've no chance of escape, as I'm stronger than you are. So you've just got to come back to the shingle with me and we'll have it all out. Not that it will make any difference what you say," he added, "because I'm determined to marry you, whatever happens."
They turned away from the sea, and the dogs led the way, running ahead and barking joyously, as though they knew it was all right.
"You mustn't put your arm round me," protested Doris, an she nestled closer to him with a comfortable feeling of protection. "Someone might see us."
"Do you think I care two pins who sees us?" answered Ralph, proudly. "They may take me for a tripper or a costermonger, or anything else they like—I don't care. When a man's as much in love as I am he doesn't mind what people think. It may be bad form, but we are miles from any living soul; and I'm not going to give you another chance of running away from me. You'll find me an awful tyrant, dear heart."
And the big man bent his gigantic form and kissed the little girl with an air of possession.
"I think I like being bullied this way—by you," said Doris, whimsically, as they reached the shingle.
"Here's a nice place," said Ralph, suggestively, pointing out a sheltered corner his roving eye had marked down. "Let's sit there."
She sat down, and he threw himself beside her at full length, while the dogs, with their tongues hanging out to cool, lay down near them, mounting guard.
Both felt that the crucial moment had arrived, and neither spoke at once.
"Are you down here with your aunt?" he said, trying to make a commonplace remark.
"No," answered Doris, abruptly, with a touch of defiance in her voice. "I am with my mother."
"Your mother?" repeated Ralph, in sheer surprise. "I thought she died when you were a baby."
"No," answered the girl, throwing down the gauntlet. "My name is not Chichele, as you thought; it is Jerningham. Mrs. Jerningham is my mother."
For a moment Ralph was too astonished to speak. Then at last he found his voice.
"Mrs. Jerningham?" he repeated, as though he had not heard aright. "The Mrs. Jerningham?"
"Yes," answered Doris, defiantly, "the Mrs. Jerningham! Now you know my secret. She was only released from prison a month ago. I daresay you read all about it in the papers?"
Ralph nodded without speaking.
"I met her when she came out," went on Doris; "and we have been living down here ever since at a little cottage called Rose Coppice. And," she continued in her enthusiastic loyalty, "she is the most injured woman in the world. She is innocent; and I can't tell you how dearly I have grown to love her."
"How long have you known this?" asked Ralph, reflectively.
"Aunty told me the morning after—after Lady Teviotdale's dance," answered Doris; "and that's why I wrote to you. You see, I felt I couldn't marry you for your own sake and drag you into our family misfortune and disgrace in the eyes of the world. Besides, you mightn't have believed her innocent."
"And you loved me all the time?" he asked, with a great gentleness in his voice.
"Oh, so dearly," she answered, simply, speaking from her heart.
He caught her in his arms with an impetuous movement.
"You loved me," he said, holding her very close, "you loved me; but you didn't trust me. My poor wee darling," he went on, speaking hoarsely in his emotion, "what you must have suffered between your loyalty to your mother and your loyalty to me! And what I have suffered, too! Why didn't you tell me? Were you going to ruin both our lives for this—because you wouldn't speak? Do you think anything could have mattered to me? It's your love I want, and must have," he ended, passionately.
A great feeling of contentment and the joy of being loved intoxicated Doris; and she lay still in his arms for a minute while he kissed her hair, her eyes, her lips.
Then she spoke.
"Wait till I've told you all," she said; but he did not relax his hold.
"Tell me here," he said; and she found it far easier than she had expected, held close in his arms.
He let her speak without interruption, feeling instinctively that she would not be happy till she had bared her whole heart to him; and she went through the whole history of the past two months from the moment she had seen him last. He saw from her simple words how much she had suffered; and in silent sympathy he drew her nearer still. She told him of the Jerningham case in all its details, leading up to her mother's release; and then she went on to speak enthusiastically of her mother, of her goodness and her beauty, and of the great love which had grown up between them.
"So you see, Ralph, I could never leave her alone after all she has suffered," she concluded; "and I could not allow you to marry me while in the eyes of the world there is such a stigma on my name, this brand of the broad arrow."
"No one will ask you to leave your mother, darling," he said, as she finished; "and as to the name, we will change that as soon as possible."
"What do you mean?" she asked, hardly able to realise the full meaning of his words.
"Why, I mean that we will get married as soon as possible, silly little sweetheart," he answered gaily; "that is, if you really do love me still? And," he added, with boyish enthusiasm, "your mother shall come and live with us; and she will have no warmer supporter than your husband. I can't tell you how I admire your loyalty to her, though it nearly cost me all my happiness in life; and I will be equally loyal."
"You are splendid, Ralph," said the little girl, eyeing him with unconcealed admiration. "You make it impossible for me to refuse, even if I wanted to; and I am only afraid in case I may spoil your life."
"Then it's all settled?" responded Ralph, cheerfully. "Now give me a kiss of your own accord and don't talk any more nonsense."
And, without further demur, she yielded herself to him for better or worse.
Half an hour later the angle of the sun recalled Doris to a sense of her responsibilities; and she jumped up.
"Oh, I shall be so late for tea," she exclaimed guiltily; "and Mr. Bramber is coming down for the week-end."
Ralph raised himself lazily.
"Hang tea," he said, with a good natured protest; "it's a beastly nuisance. Now you must take me home and introduce me to your mother with all due formality. I am most anxious to meet her; and I shall enjoy seeing Caton Bramber. He's a man I've an immense admiration for."
Doris looked dubious.
"Don't you think I ought to tell mother quietly first?" she asked, doubtfully.
"So you're beginning to rebel already?" said the big man quizzingly, looking down at the little girl in loving amusement. "You'll find it's no good; so you'd better give in with a good grace."
"You're a pig," said Doris, with a little moan; and she burst into a ringing laugh. "Come on," she cried; and she started to run.
He soon caught her up, and reduced her to subjection; and the walk was a very happy one. Only one subject rose to cloud it.
"Please don't mention Phyllis," said Doris, warningly. "It's a sore point with us all, as you can imagine."
And she told him the whole story, filling in the blanks he did not know.
"So she only married Lionel as a makeshift," he said slowly, "and eloped for fear he should find out the truth?"
"I'm afraid so," answered Doris, reluctantly. "But here we are! This is the cottage. You must wait in the hall till I call you in."
Meanwhile things had not stood still at Rose Coppice.
After a rest which had brought no sleep, Mrs. Jerningham got up in a state of suppressed excitement and dressed herself with unusual care. Then she went down to the drawing-room to await the arrival of the expected guest.
She was surprised to hear that Doris had not returned, as she had fully expected to find her in the drawing-room; and she kept glancing anxiously at the little ormolu clock on the mantelpiece, as its hands drew nearer and nearer the time at which the K.C. was due.
At last it struck half-past four; and she knew that if his train were fairly punctual she might expect him at any minute.
"I wonder what can have happened to Doris?" she murmured to herself anxiously.
Then came the sudden sound of wheels; and almost before she realised it, the great lawyer was in the room.
In an instant her nervousness vanished, and she went forward to meet him with both hands eagerly outstretched.
As the door closed she spoke.
"Welcome, Mr. Bramber, a thousand times welcome," she said, as he took her hands and shook them warmly. "I can never hope to find words to express my gratitude for all you have done for me; but, believe me, I am most deeply grateful."
"What I have been able to do has only been a pleasure," answered Caton Bramber gently; "and my only regret is that I have failed to do more. I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to me to find you free and in your proper place again."
"I hate cant," said Mrs. Jerningham, smiling up at him; "but I feel I have a lot to be thankful for in my good friends, apart from my dear little daughter's love. Any woman with such splendid friends as Mrs. Chichele, yourself and the late Lord O'Brien may count herself rich, as this world goes."
"Ah, poor O'Brien," rejoined Caton Bramber sadly, "we all miss him sadly; he was a good friend to me, too. Do you know that a few days before his death, which he seemed somehow to feel approaching, he sent for me and confided your interests to my special care. 'I have failed,' he said regretfully; 'and now you must see what you can do. I would stake my life and my whole professional reputation on Mrs. Jerningham's innocence.' Since then I have tried; but I, too, have failed."
"You mean?" asked Mrs. Jerningham, anxiously.
"That, as you know, I was shooting last week with the Home Secretary," replied the lawyer gently, "and took the opportunity to talk the matter over privately with him prior to sending in another petition, which I have prepared. He was kind and sympathetic, but held out little hope to me. Without fresh evidence, he said, not without logic, that he would not be able to reverse summarily the unanimous decision of his predecessors of the last fifteen years; and I see his point. But we must not give up hope of fresh evidence," he added optimistically; "and there are many points I want to talk over with you in detail."
"It is kind of you," answered Mrs. Jerningham sadly; "but I cannot help a certain feeling of disappointment, I must own, although I have discounted it in my own mind. It is more for the sake of my children than myself that I really care."
"By the way, where is my friend, Doris?" he asked, changing the subject. "In the interest of meeting you I had forgotten to ask after her."
"I don't quite know. She went out for a walk on the beach after lunch and has not returned yet. I am a little anxious, as she promised me faithfully to be back in good time to receive you. Funnily enough," she added candidly, with a little laugh, "I was nervous at the thought of a guest after all these years—even you."
He laughed reassuringly as the maid entered with the tea-tray; and the talk turned to commonplace topics.
Tea was almost over before footsteps were heard on the path, and the front door closed.
"That must be Doris at last," exclaimed Mrs. Jerningham, as the drawing-room door opened.
"You stay there till I call you," said Doris' voice, as she entered the room, flushed and radiant, preceded by the dogs, who bounded in regardless of manners. "Oh, Mr. Bramber," she went on, as she held out her hand to him, "I don't know what you'll think of my manners till you've heard my explanation. Mother darling, you must forgive me, but I met a friend, and it delayed me."
"A friend?" echoed her mother, half in surprise, half in fear of discovery.
"Yes," said Doris, with twinkling eyes; "and, although no followers are allowed, I've brought him back to tea."
Both Mrs. Jerningham and the K.C. started in genuine astonishment at the unexpected announcement.
"Who—who is it?" asked her mother agitatedly.
Doris, heedless of everything, threw her arms round her mother's neck and kissed her.
"It's only Ralph," she said; "and you must be very nice to him for my sake." Then she ran to the door with a merry laugh, calling out, "You may come in, Ralph."
Caton Bramber laughed, too, with a note of approval; but to Mrs. Jerningham, to whom Doris' attachment had never been mentioned, the announcement conveyed nothing. Her next impression was that of a very big man appearing round the door and led up to her by a very little girl, who had taken hold of his hand appropriatively.
"This is Ralph, mother darling," she said happily.
Mrs. Jerningham held out her hand, beginning intuitively to realise what it meant; and Ralph took it between his warmly.
"Mrs. Jerningham," he said, "I hope you will not think me an intruder; but, knowing all there is to know, I came to ask you to accept me as Doris' future husband. We have loved each other very dearly for a long time; and this afternoon a happy chance brought us together again after two months of misery and misunderstanding. Believe me, I do not wish to steal her from you, but to help her to bring a little more happiness into her life."
Then he turned to the barrister, who shook him warmly by the hand.
"Say a good word for me, Mr. Bramber," he said to the older man. "I think we have your good wishes."
"Those, indeed, you have, my dear boy," replied the K.C., warmly. "Mrs. Jerningham, I can recommend Ralph Shopwyke here to you as a son-in-law and a husband for that smiling little rogue opposite. He is a splendid fellow and as true as steel."
Ralph flushed under the warm words of praise; and Mrs. Jerningham smiled.
"The consensus of opinion is in your favor," she said brightly. "The great passport to my heart is that you love my little girl and that she loves you."
"Now where are your objections and difficulties, dear?" asked Ralph, turning to Doris.
"They're all gone, all gone," she answered, slipping her hand into his, happily.
When tea was over, Mrs. Jerningham, who was not quite happy in her own mind and wished for a quiet talk alone with Ralph, turned to Doris.
"Take Mr. Bramber for a walk round the garden before it is quite dark," she said. "I want a talk to this big boy of yours."
"Yes, come on, Doris," said the K.C., divining Mrs. Jerningham's train of thought; "come and show me all my old favorite nooks and corners."
When the door had closed on them, she turned to Ralph.
"You know all?" she asked abruptly.
"Everything," he said simply; and then he added, "and I see you know nothing; so I will explain. Two months ago I proposed to Doris at a dance, and she accepted me. The next day, to my utter astonishment, she wrote to me that it was all a mistake, and that we must never meet again. I knew that she loved me from her happiness the night before; and you can imagine my feelings. I rushed up to town like a madman; but she would not see me. At last Mrs. Chichele consented to interview me, but would give me no reason, though she was very kind. I knew there must be a reason, and a strong reason, as Doris is no idle flirt or a silly girl who does not know her own mind; but I had no option for the time being but to take my answer and go away. I can't tell you the misery of the last two months, and now all is joy again. I must also tell you that my place is only five miles from here; and this afternoon it was quite by accident that I met Doris on the beach."
"She never told me a word about it," said Mrs. Jerningham, softly.
"No, she was afraid of distressing you. She knew that it would spoil your happiness if you thought that she was suffering."
There was a moment's silence. Then Ralph spoke again.
"You must please accept me as one of the family, and let me do what I can to help. I may be of assistance in proving your innocence."
Mrs. Jerningham shook her head sorrowfully.
"I am afraid not; but, believe me, I am very grateful to you, I—I will go away—abroad or somewhere—and then no one need know anything which might upset your life and hers."
"Do you think either of us would hear of such a thing?" broke in Ralph hotly. "Do you think that we could be so selfish? No, you must share our home and our happiness, and let me try in a small measure to make up for the past."
"God bless your big, generous heart," said Mrs. Jerningham with a catch in her voice; "but I could not think of such a thing. It would be too much—too much."
"It is a subject which admits of no argument," said Ralph masterfully. "It is the only condition of our marriage."
"You will force me to consent?" she asked, smiling, though perilously near tears.
"Yes," he answered simply. "Doris' mother and her happiness are sacred to me."
She held out her hand impulsively; and, taking it in his, he bent over and kissed it.
"The seal of our bargain," he said brightly. "Now I will call Doris and tell her of your consent. And—and when will you give her to me?" he added. "There is no reason for delay."
"No, none," answered the mother, generously, "if you are so unworldly as to accept the situation as it stands. It shall be as soon as she and you choose."
"A month, then," said Ralph, decisively; "a month at the outside. It will give us plenty of time to make all our arrangements, and to get the house ready for you both. I feel no compunction in hurrying things on," he added gaily, "as I am not proposing to take your newly found daughter from you—only to add myself to the family party."
Doris was delighted to find on what good terms her mother and her lover were when she returned with the lawyer from their dusky amble.
"Can you be ready in a month, dear?" asked her mother tenderly, looking at her bright face aglow with happiness.
"I'll try," answered the little girl, tantalisingly. "Yes, I think I might manage it. But a month isn't much for a trousseau," she demurred insincerely.
"You mustn't bother too much about trousseau and things," said Ralph, smiling indulgently. "We will buy all that sort of rubbish on the honeymoon. Your mother will not care to be dragged up to town to superintend shopping; and you won't want to leave her alone."
The rest of the evening passed very merrily, Caton Bramber thoroughly entering into the spirit of the whole thing.
"I shall constitute myself best man, if Ralph will ask me," he said, "and we'll have a most discreet little wedding party—just your mother, Mrs. Chichele, and myself. And, of course, the bride and bridegroom," he added, laughing; "I almost forgot them."
"Yes, aunty must be there," said Doris. "I shouldn't feel respectably married without her."
"There's a nice little Norman church handy," said Ralph, "just big enough for about five people and a parson. I've known the old vicar ever since I was a boy; and he's a dear old chap. I'll tell him the whole truth, and get him to keep it as quiet as possible."
"Yes," interposed Caton Bramber; "Doris will have to be married in her own name; so he had better be told everything. You can be married by license, which will do away with the publicity of the bans; and it will be wiser after your marriage for Mrs. Jerningham to continue to use the name of Jervoise."
"Quite so," agreed Mrs. Jerningham.
"Till we have proved your innocence triumphantly," added Ralph, who was rewarded by a squeeze from Doris.
And so it was all arranged.
It was not till the two men were left alone over their wine that they had any chance of discussing the subject which lay uppermost in the minds of both.
"The art of giving dinners was the one thing that that brute Jerningham was good for," said the K.C., as he poured himself a glass of port and pushed the decanter across to Ralph; "and, despite all her troubles, his widow has not forgotten what she learnt under his supervision."
"He was a beast, wasn't he?" asked Ralph curiously.
"Yes, it must be candidly admitted that he was," answered the older man grimly. "'De mortuis nil nisi bonum' is an absurd, mealy-mouthed motto; and I believe in the truth. There is no reason why his inevitable death should place a beast on a pedestal, and by more reason of its occurrence turn a sinner into a saint. Yes, Montagu Jerningham was a beast. He drank to excess and drugged himself freely. He had strong passions, but no heart. He could make himself pleasant enough in society when he chose to exert himself, and he was a brilliant conversationalist; but he had a refined brutality of character, which made him odious to live with. Thank God your little Doris has inherited nothing from him but half his fortune. Phyllis, I fear, seems to have his character rather than her mother's. It is a funny study in hereditary. There is Phyllis, the image of her mother physically, and her father mentally; while Doris has her mother's deposition, but is not unlike her father physically in some respects. Personally, I know which I prefer; and I pity poor Lionel Erskine from the bottom of my heart. But all this must come to you as a great shock and surprise to-day," he concluded.
Ralph blew the smoke of his cigarette out of his lungs meditatively before answering.
"Of course it did in some ways; but in others it was a relief. And now that I know the whole story of Mrs. Jerningham I can feel no doubt in my own mind of her innocence."
"No woman ever had more excuse to poison a man," said Caton Bramber sententiously; "but the fact remains that she had too much principle and self-restraint to do so. I have never doubted her innocence from the first; and Lord O'Brien looked upon it almost as a point of personal honor."
"And the evidence—didn't it seem overwhelming at the time?" asked Ralph.
"Yes, in some ways; but circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing to deal with. In almost every case of crime, if you lay your hands on a likely person, you can build up a strong case against them. But she actually administered the poison, people argue. That fact, which is incontestable, is, however, to my mind a point in her favor. The very fact of a person administering poison in the presence of witnesses, openly and without concealment, so far from forming evidence against them in the first instance or a presumption of guilt, is in most cases a strong proof of innocence. Why, take the instance of Palmer, the Rugeley poisoner; it nearly got him off! And that is the only certain piece of evidence in the whole case."
"If Montagu Jerningham died from the effects of poison, someone must have sent it with guilty intent," said Ralph.
"Of course," rejoined the K.C. "Find that someone and you automatically exonerate Mrs. Jerningham. Has it ever occurred to you that the poison might have been intended for Mrs. Jerningham, not her husband? I should not be surprised if that is not the line to work on. But, believe me, I shall not let the matter rest; and if you can be of any help I will not fail to let you know. Anyhow, from time to time I will inform you of what is being done. Now drink up your port and we'll join the ladies. I don't suppose that to-night you are anxious to sit swilling port and talking with a man old enough to be your father."
A month later a quiet little wedding took place in the little church by the sea.
The clergyman had been pledged to secrecy, and lent a willing hand to the romance; and at 8 o'clock on the bright, cold morning the few people of the neighborhood were too busy tending their beasts and organising the day's work to worry about what was going on in the church. Even the old woman who cleaned the church and dusted the pews had been sent off on an unnecessary errand.
Mrs. Chichele had been at Rose Coppice for several days, and had arranged to stay there with Mrs. Jerningham while Ralph and Doris were away on their honeymoon. Caton Bramber, careless of briefs, had arrived the evening before at Bracklesham Manor, where he had spent the night with Ralph.
They were up betimes and drove over to the church soon after the day had begun to break its way through the darkness of the morning.
"It's going to be a lovely day," remarked the lawyer, removing his cigar from his mouth to inhale the fresh air off the sea.
"It's going to be the loveliest day of my life," said Ralph fervently, giving the horse a cut with the whip from sheer exuberance of spirits and the delight of travelling fast.
Caton Bramber laughed.
"You boys in love can think of nothing else. You drag us poor old folk out of bed in the middle of our beauty sleep and drive like a motor before breakfast, all because you are in love."
Ralph joined in his laugh.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Bramber, but you ought to fall in love yourself. Then you'd know how nice it is. No wonder bachelors and old maids are crusty and cynical!"
"May you never grow cynical over marriage, my dear boy," rejoined the other, "like most of your brother benedicts. That's the best wedding wish I can give you."
"And a very good one, too, thank you," said Ralph, drawing the horse up sharply at the church gate.
The wedding passed off quietly in the dim old church.
Doris looked delightfully dainty in a white cloth dress; and a set of big white furs lent a quaint setting to her happy face. Ralph, towering head and shoulders above her, thrilled with pride of possession; and his heart felt as though it would burst with happiness.
The ceremony did not take long; and then the little party returned on foot to Rose Coppice for breakfast, which was very merry.
"Marriage does not seem to have affected your appetite, Ralph," said Doris, watching him with wonder as he attacked dish after dish. "I'm sadly afraid that you are not really in love."
"I've no reason to pine now that I've got you signed, sealed, and delivered," he answered cheerfully. "And the early morning drive has given me a real hunger. The next time we feed will be in town."
"How long are you going to be away, Mrs. Shopwyke?" asked Caton Bramber.
"How funny it sounds!" exclaimed Doris, blushing with pleasure at her new name.
"Yes, I called you by it on purpose," laughed the other.
"A month," said Ralph, answering his question; "not four weeks, but a proper calendar month. We're going to Italy to get out of the fog; and we mean to enjoy ourselves thoroughly."
"And Mrs. Chichele is going to stay with me here," supplemented Mrs. Jerningham; "and a week after Ralph brings Doris home we are all going to move over to Bracklesham, lock, stock, and barrel."
"And you must promise to come down, for the very first week-end," added Doris, laying her hand on the K.C.'s arm and looking up eagerly into his face.
"And if you can come on the Friday, or stay over the Monday, I can fix you up a decent day's shooting," joined in Ralph, taking the man's view of things.
And thus Doris crossed the threshold of matrimony.
The honeymoon proved all too short; and life, with its new interests and new surroundings, made it a delight to both of them after the separation of the past two months and the fear of utter loss which had stared them in the face. Neither made any profession to the other of being perfect, but love is not lessened by its recognition of human weaknesses; and it has a wonderful way of smoothing the concern of life. Next to love, the greatest contributory to happiness in marriage is a sense of humor; and in both there ran a strong vein of laughter and a keen sense of the ridiculous.
Not that on their honeymoon did Ralph or Doris meet with anything to ruffle the smooth surface of love; but they got to know each other better without disillusion, which is the true consummation of love and the ideal of marriage. Both would have liked to have extended their happy inconsequent ramble through Italy, their life of lolling in the sunshine of the south; but they felt called back to Sussex by the thought of the mother who had so little else left to her in life. And in a womanly way Doris was anxious to be installed in her new home and explore the old house Ralph had told her so much about. So far she had not seen it, as, prior to marriage, she had carefully kept away, as they had decided only to announce their marriage from town after it had actually taken place. Published under the auspices of Mrs. Chichele, no one would ask any questions; and the change could be effected without suspicion.
Bracklesham Manor was a rambling old house in two styles, quaint and old-fashioned, without being very large. Part of it was in the original Old English style, built on a structure of beams black with age and exposure; while the other part had been built on in the days of the Tudors, when architecture was at its best. It had been in the possession of the Shopwykes ever since Norman times; and they had guarded it jealously intact, resenting all innovation and preserving the past with an almost passionate preciosity. In Ralph, like his ancestors, dwelt this spirit of the past; and his devotion to his home came only second to his devotion to his wife.
Doris did not disappoint him in her enthusiasm; and the week which preceded Mrs. Jerningham's arrival was spent in a thorough exploration of the old house, with its quaint nooks and old furniture, and in reorganising it to suit the new regime.
The day after their arrival they drove over to Rose Coppice to show themselves in person and to make final arrangements for the move. The cottage was to be left in charge of the old servants, and Doris' things had already been sent over to Bracklesham.
Mrs. Jerningham and Mrs. Chichele were delighted to see them.
"But you must not think that we two old women have been dull," they added. "On the contrary, we have both enjoyed ourselves very much in a quiet way. And, what is more, we are going to have nothing to do with you till we invade Bracklesham next week. We are going to leave you all to yourselves to get thoroughly settled in before our arrival."
A week later the move was made; and the new life began. Mrs. Chichele refused to stay more than a few days before returning to town; but Mrs. Jerningham settled down in her new position with an air of quiet content.
Nothing could have been more even and unruffled than the life at Bracklesham, a routine of happiness undisturbed by events or intrusion from outside. But in their position and state of mind it was all that was desired by the three occupants. Each day the mother seemed to grow younger and brighter in the atmosphere of love which surrounded her, renewing her youth in the lives of her children and entering into their occupations unostentatiously and without interference.
One thing only occurred to jar upon the happiness of all. It had been evident to Doris that her mother had one reservation in her delight in her freedom and her new life, and that was a desire, unexpressed but existent, to see Phyllis. The separation and the cause of it were more bitter to her than any thought of the past, with all its suffering; and Ralph and Doris, growing conscious of it, laid their heads together to remove it.
"Write frankly to Phyllis, dearest," said Ralph, after they had talked it over, "and tell her how things stand. We'll wipe out the immediate past and ask her down with Lionel. It may in some ways be her place to make the first advance; but anything is better than letting these family troubles run on and grow bigger."
"I'll write to-day," said Doris dubiously; "but it won't do any good, I fear. You don't know Phyllis as well as I do."
But Ralph was optimistic, even injudiciously going so far as to mention to Mrs. Jerningham that they had written to ask Phyllis and her husband down. Doris, however, proved to be correct. The invitation elicited a refusal, roughly phrased. If Doris and her husband did not know what was due to their position, she did; and she did not intend to compromise it or herself by acknowledging any relationship with such a person as Mrs. Jerningham.
It arrived, as such letters will do, at breakfast, when all three were present. Doris read it without a word and then passed it over to Ralph. As he read it his eyebrows rose, and a strange look came over his face. When he had finished he tore it into small pieces with his strong fingers, and, rising deliberately, threw them into the blazing fire.
"Phyllis cannot come," he said curtly. "There is nothing to fret about. We are better and happier without her; and she shall not be asked again."
Then the subject was closed; but for days it was plain how it had pained Mrs. Jerningham. But outwardly things resumed their old course; and the matter was not again referred to.
Little by little callers from the neighborhood began to drop in, beginning with the inevitable wife of the rector, who was followed by the equally inevitable wife of the doctor.
"Thank heaven it's not a very thickly populated neighborhood," said Ralph; "that's one mercy, I'm afraid we shall have to put up with a certain amount of it, as people will be sure to call as much out of curiosity as kindness; and you, dear, will have to return their visits. I've almost dropped out of most of the local people of late years by being away so much and going out so little. But we may reasonably expect them all round in due course now that there is a mistress at Bracklesham—old Squire Elliott and his dour wife, from the next parish, with their maiden daughters, an unappropriated selection of variegated spinsters; Sir Ralph Heron, with his porty nose and juvenile bride; Lady Margaret Maitland, of Maitland Court, who puts on a good deal of side as an earl's daughter, and won't call for some time; the Salliwells, the Custances, the Lomaxes, and a whole crowd more of larger and smaller fry. You'll have to put up with it, dear, and make the best of it."
Doris smiled. She, being a woman, had no particular objection to neighbors herself; but she understood the usual masculine dislike of any but a few selected friends. With regard to her mother they had decided that in such an out-of-the-way spot she was practically safe from recognition, now that the agitation, one of the nation's nine-day sensations, had fizzled out. She, too, need never appear unless she wanted to; but they all saw that for her to keep persistently in the background would fester a mystery and excite suspicion. The least danger lay in an ordinary life without extremes.
Gradually, one by one, the callers began to come; and Mrs. Jerningham, who had at first felt nervous, found herself allowing her anxieties to be lulled to rest. However, she persistently refused to return calls with Doris or to accept any invitation in which she was included.
"No," she argued firmly, "that would tend to enlarge the risk of discovery, which I am most anxious to avoid for your sakes; and, besides, if the truth should ever come out it would give them a chance to say that I had accepted their hospitality under false pretences. A person in my position is apt to feel sensitive," she concluded gently.
So things went on quietly and uninterruptedly. Christmas came and went without any change or excitement greater than an occasional new face or a day's shooting.
Towards the end of the month Doris made an important announcement.
"Mr. Bramber is coming down on Saturday for the week-end," she said, brandishing his letter triumphantly. "I managed it all myself this time. I wrote and told him that I was tired of Ralph and wanted to see another man about the place for a change. Won't it be nice?"
"Rather," said Ralph appreciatively. "It'll be nice to have a man to talk to for a change, I must admit."
Doris looked up at him a little anxiously, forgetful instantly of her own challenge.
"Do you mean it, dear?" she asked, slipping her arms round his neck. "Are you getting bored alone with two women?"
"Little fool," was Ralph's encouraging answer, which more than satisfied her; and they all frankly admitted their eager anticipation of Saturday.
The K.C. arrived at tea-time, but there was no chance of intimate conversation, as the rector's wife and two garrulous old maids were in the drawing-room.
Doris made a little grimace as she gave him a cup of tea.
"Callers?" he said, looking down at her with a little smile.
"Lots." Then she added, inaudibly to everyone but him: "Too many, I think."
"The right or the wrong sort?" he asked, pursuing the subject.
"All sorts," she answered. "In fact, everybody except one—a lady who fancies herself rather a lot, Ralph says."
"Who is that?" he asked amused.
"Lady Margaret Maitland," announced the butler, throwing open the door.
Caton Bramber started up and bit his lip.
"Good God," he muttered, half aloud. "I didn't know that she lived round here."
Doris nodded, as she left him and advanced towards the door. He looked over anxiously at Mrs. Jerningham, who was deep in conversation with the rector's wife.
Lady Margaret Maitland was a tall, stout woman of close on fifty with dull, faded red hair and pale, blue eyes. She was the remains of a good-looking woman, and carried herself with an air of consciousness. Amongst all, save the very big houses, she was accustomed to play at queen in her small way; and each year increased her dignity.
"Ah," she said patronisingly, as she took Doris's hand, "so you are Ralph Shopwyke's wife? I have been meaning to call before; but I am always so busy."
Then she turned to Ralph, whom she had known from boyhood.
"These romantic affairs, my dear Ralph," she began, with a heavy attempt at playfulness, "come as quite a shock at my time of life."
"At mine they come quite naturally," rejoined Ralph, laughing happily. "I can assure you you will find me the model of a devoted young husband, Lady Margaret."
"How do you do, Mr. Bramber?" she went on, holding out her hand to the K.C. "It's a long time since——"
Suddenly she stopped as she caught sight of Mrs. Jerningham in the opposite corner. Their eyes met; and they stared at each other, transfixed by a mutual recognition.
Forgetful of manners and conventions, Lady Margaret raised her hand and pointed an indicative finger at Mrs. Jerningham.
"Who—who," she asked, in a choked voice, "is that woman?"
To those who know the situation was obvious. To the other callers it was inexplicable.
Ralph stepped firmly forward, hoping to give Lady Margaret time to recover herself and save the scandal.
"This, Lady Margaret," he said calmly, as he took Mrs. Jerningham by the hand, as she rose from her seat, "is that awful bugbear in fiction—my mother-in-law, Mrs. Jervoise."
While he had been speaking the other woman had recovered her self-possession and was again fully mistress of herself. Drawing herself up to her full height, she spoke in the most cutting tones, obviously calculated:
"Mrs. Jervoise? Mrs. Jerningham, I think you mean? Or don't you know? Which is it? I regret I must refuse the honor of an introduction to anyone quite so notorious. If you do not understand, I will leave her to explain. I fear I am intruding."
And, without another word or a look at anyone else in the room, the great lady of the neighborhood swept out of the room with the air of having been grossly insulted.
For a full minute, no one spoke. The name "Jerningham" had acted electrically upon the company, who were plainly uncomfortable, though fascinated by curiosity. They had eyes for no one but the tall, beautiful woman brought to bay.
Despite her usual self-control, Helen Jerningham seemed stunned; and a moan broke through her clenched teeth. Ralph's hand was still on her arms; and she felt his grip tighten sympathetically.
At last, with a sigh, feeling that the time had come for action, and that she must follow her leader's example, the rector's wife turned to the door with a few mumbled words and shuffled out in imitation of Lady Margaret. The two old maids followed more indecisively, but no one had eyes for them.
"Something for them to gossip about," burst out Ralph bitterly. "It's a pity such old cats are not drowned as kittens."
Doris ran over to her mother and threw her arms round her. Mrs. Jerningham broke down and began to sob.
"My darling children," she exclaimed brokenly, "my poor children, I shall ruin your happiness. You will both be branded with my disgrace. It will be all over the neighborhood to-morrow and the country in a day or two. I am fated to bring calamity and unhappiness on all I love."
"Rubbish," said Ralph sharply. "If we aren't good enough for the county, they can all go to the devil! We'll all sink or swim together. How was it that Lady Margaret recognised you so quickly and seemed so bitter?"
"Thereby hangs a tale," interposed Caton Bramber quietly, "which I think I can tell you if Mrs. Jerningham will allow me."
She nodded; and he went on.
"Lady Margaret's maiden name was Somers. She was the daughter of the late Earl of Paignton and was for a time engaged to Mr. Jerningham before he met your mother. He behaved badly to her, it must be admitted, practically jilting her after he saw your mother, who knew nothing of it until after her marriage. Lady Margaret, who was then well over thirty, remained unmarried until about a year after the trial, when she married old Sir Theodore Maitland, who died two or three years ago. That is the story and the reason of her bitterness."
"Yes," added Mrs. Jerningham, "she always hated me for what was unintentional on my part. She is the last person I would have wished to discover my whereabouts. I am afraid that she will give no quarter on my account. I didn't know of her marriage."
"Then so much for our neighbors," said Ralph with a grim attempt at gaiety, slipping his arm round Doris and her mother at the same time; "but, thank God, we can be happy without them."
The rest of the week-end passed without incident.
On the Sunday evening, when the ladies had left them, Caton Bramber broke the ice.
"I am afraid I shall have to leave here by an unconscionably early train to-morrow," he said. "Your morning trains on this line are so bad, and I have to be in court in good time to open a very important case."
"Do you mean the first train of all?" asked Ralph. "That means leaving here all in the dark by half-past six or a quarter to seven."
"I know," said the K.C. ruefully, "but I am afraid that it has got to be that one."
"What do you make of yesterday's affair?" asked his host, after a pause.
"As bad as possible, I fear. I know the woman, you see. She's as nasty and vindictive as can be; and for the reason I told you of she always had a bitter enmity against your mother-in-law. From a woman's point of view, no injury could be greater than to supersede her with a man; and a woman will never forgive being jilted. Moreover, they will illogically enough often blame the other woman more than the man himself; and, between ourselves, strange as it may seem, I believe that Margaret Somers always had a tender spot for Jerningham."
"Then she is pretty sure, I suppose, apart from those three other women, to give the fact as much publicity as possible?" said Ralph, grimly.
"I fear so. The county will, of course, cut you, conceiving it to be their duty to themselves; and I expect it will find its way into the papers in a day or two. They will naturally be eager for news of Mrs. Jerningham, as her name always sells plenty of copies. I'm afraid you will certainly have to face the annoyance of publicity, my dear boy."
"All right. That's inevitable, I know; and I've made up my mind to it. I'm ready to bear the brunt of it, if I can keep Doris and her mother from fretting too much about it."
"Good boy," said the lawyer, nodding approvingly. "I know you would prove sound enough if the pinch came; and now's the time to show it. I'll help you as far as I can by running down whenever I'm able, and letting it be known. I don't believe in advertising oneself, but this is a different matter. It won't leave you to do all the fighting on your own account; and it's always a help to feel someone else back to back with you in the battle of life."
"Thanks," said Ralph, gratefully, but feeling the masculine difficulty of expressing gratitude. "It's a great thing to feel I can rely on you. And about the other business? How is that going? Have you struck anything yet?"
Caton Bramber shook his head.
"Nothing, I'm sorry to say, so far. But," he added, "you mustn't question me just at the moment, as an idea has suddenly come into my head, which may be worth following up; but it's too new and too crude at present to bear repetition."
However, the new idea which had installed itself in a flash in the K.C.'s mind, so far as he himself was concerned, had thoroughly gripped his imagination; and, wrapped up warmly in his coat and rug, and puffing at his favorite pipe, he could think of nothing else in the train all the way up to town the next morning.
"I wonder if it's the missing link we have been striving after all these years?" he muttered to himself several times. "I never connected it before; but now it seems so possible, if not so obvious."
Upon his arrival at his chambers his first step was to go to his telephone and ring up the Exchange.
"I want 46,004 Gerrard. Yes: four—six—nought—nought—four."
Then there was a pause; and he heard the usual "Hallo" come along the line.
"Hallo! Are you Barnett's?" he replied. "Yes. I want to speak to Inspector Barnett personally—oh, Mr. Caton Bramber. I want him at once, if possible. Hallo, is that you, Barnett? I say, I've got a little job I want you to do for me. Busy? So am I. Can you come round to my place to-night at nine o'clock, and talk it over? That's right! nine o'clock. Good-bye."
And he rang off, and put on his wig and gown, automatically changing his train of thought into a professional groove. And for the rest of the day his mind was occupied by "Granville v. Osmond" in King's Bench No. V.
Ex-Inspector Barnett had been one of the best known men at Scotland Yard in his day; and when he retired he had set up a private detective agency just off Regent-street.
"A decent, respectable agency, with an experienced man at the head, is badly required," he said, when asked what he was going to do; and the idea met with approbation on every side. During the last five years Barnett's had grown and prospered, until it had become a household word.
The head of the agency was a tall stout man, with a handsome cheery face, a brown beard, and a fresh color. In his time he had been connected with most of the famous cases of his day; and it was over the Jerningham case that he had first come into contact with Caton Bramber. He had been engaged in collecting part of the evidence, but, strong as the case had seemed on paper, he had never felt himself fully satisfied in his own mind that Mrs. Jerningham was guilty. He had frankly expressed this doubt to the K.C., who had talked over the case with him several times in the hope of lighting upon some fresh fact.
Punctually at nine the ex-inspector, a busy man himself, and conscious of the value of time, knocked at Caton Bramber's front door. He was shown straight into the library, where the K.C. was awaiting him.
"Ah, here you are, Barnett," he said, holding out his hand. "Now, sit down in that big chair opposite to me, take a cigar, and help yourself to whisky; and then we can talk more comfortably."
"Thank you, sir," said the detective, seating himself and lighting a cigar. "Now, what is it that I can do for you."
"It's the Jerningham case again," answered the barrister, plunging into the heart of things. "As you know, I am very interested in it; more interested even than most people think; and I have been in close touch with Mrs. Jerningham since her release."
Barnett nodded without comment; and Caton Bramber continued.
"I am sorry to say that owing to an unforeseen accident her whereabouts have become known to an old acquaintance of hers, who is not very well disposed towards her; and, in consequence, I fear that it will soon be public property and find its way into the papers. She is living at present with the younger of her daughters—you remember the twins?—who is married to a young squire in Sussex."
Barnett nodded again in silence, knowing from past experience that the lawyer would tell him as much or as little as he intended him to know, and that questions were superfluous; and the K.C. proceeded to tell him all the details of the release, Doris' identity and marriage, and the climax reached two days before.
"This Lady Margaret Maitland was at one time engaged to Montagu Jerningham, who practically threw her over upon the appearance, of Helen Stanton," he continued; "and she was always her bitter enemy. Shortly after the trial she married old Sir Theodore Maitland of Maitland Court, who died a year or two back. It was a fact which I had completely overlooked; and, of course, not having heard of the marriage, which took place while she was in prison, Mrs. Jerningham never thought of connecting Lady Margaret Maitland with the Lady Margaret Somers of the past."
"A most unfortunate affair altogether," commented Barnett, speaking for the first time. "Such a woman is not likely to keep quiet about her discovery."
"No, I'm afraid not; but, strangely enough, it seems to me possible that out of this evil conjuncture good may possibly come. It has certainly given me an idea."
Barnett sat up, keenly interested.
"This woman is a woman I have always particularly disliked, and could believe anything of. She is one of those cold, vindictive natures, which are capable of anything, if their pride, to say nothing of their feelings, be touched. Now my theory of the Jerningham case is this, that the poison sent to Mrs. Jerningham was intended for her, not her husband, and that it was only by chance that he happened to take the first dose out of the bottle. It is the one logical theory compatible with Mrs. Jerningham's innocence, and which, as you know, I have always been a profound believer. But hitherto I have been at a loss to put my hands on the likely person who would wish to get rid of her."
"And now——" began Barnett, with a trace of excitement in his voice.
"And now," went on Caton Bramber, calmly, "I see a chance—just a chance, mind you. Throw your mind back to the evidence, which you know as well as I do. What was the one salient fact which the post-office clerk remembered about the woman who registered the packet? Her face he did not see as it was heavily veiled; but he swore that she had red hair. Helen Jerningham had deep red hair; and the fact went against her. Margaret Somers, also, had red hair, but of a light and more noticeable color. They are both tall women, much of a height; so his identification, so far as it goes, would cover either or both. One fitted in with the theory of the prosecution; the other fits in with mine. You see my idea?"
"I do," answered Barnett, interestedly, "but it does not go far enough."
"No," admitted the other, "I know that, but it's worth following up, and that is where I want your help. In the Black Museum at Scotland Yard they have the bottle, the silver holder, the paper it was wrapped up in and the label, on which is the address in a disguised handwriting. Can you borrow that for a day or two, or even an hour and get a photograph of it?"
Barnett thought for a minute.
"It's against the rules," he began.
"I know," interjected Bramber.
"But I daresay I could manage it, or rather to get a photograph of it. But have you got a specimen of Lady Margaret Maitland's writing to compare it with?"
The lawyer smiled grimly.
"I wrote to her this afternoon, asking her, in view of all Mrs. Jerningham had suffered, whether she would not help us to keep her identity unknown, and saying that with her permission I would call upon her the next time I was in the neighborhood, and explain matters more fully. It will do no good; but it will draw an answer from her, which ought to be here last post to-morrow night, as she will probably sit down and write a curt note by return. Yes, it will be here by to-morrow night, if I read the dear lady aright."
"Excellent," said Barnett, smiling appreciatively. "I'll put the matter in hand first thing to-morrow morning and with any luck for you I shall have the photos enlarged and ready for you by to-morrow evening. Then we can see how we stand."
"That will be splendid," agreed the lawyer. "Will you come round at the same time, and then we can compare notes?"
"Yes; but mind you, sir, it will not give us a case—only a clue, as far as I can see."
"That's a step forward, anyhow; and look at all the years we have been waiting for a clue," said the K.C., shaking him warmly by the hand. "It will be a great feather in the cap of Barnett's agency if we can rectify this great miscarriage of justice."
The next evening the two men found themselves closeted together at the same time.
"I have been completely successful," began Barnett, an soon as the door closed behind him; "but first, have you seen this?"
In his hand was the latest pink evening paper, which he handed to Caton Bramber, pointing to a paragraph.
He read it carefully from beginning to end.
"We have it on excellent authority that Mrs. Jerningham, who has caused so much public controversy since her conviction, and, more especially, since her recent release, is living in West Sussex with the younger of the celebrated twins, who was married three months ago to Mr. Ralph Shopwyke, of Bracklesham Manor, near Chichester. Immediately upon her release she sought seclusion in a cottage in the neighborhood, and a few weeks ago went to live at Bracklesham Manor, where she has been known as 'Mrs. Jervoise.'
"Her daughters, who, as announced after the trial, were, adopted by a lady whose name was kept secret, were two of the belles of the last London season, when they made their debut under the wings of Mrs. Chichele, who adopted them not as her daughters as was supposed, but as her nieces. The older of the two was married early last August to Sir Lionel Erskine, of Bawndon Hall, Herts."
"The cat is fairly out of the bag," exclaimed the detective, sharply. "Lady Margaret has not lost much time about it."
Caton Bramber nodded grimly, and threw a note over to the detective.
"It's only as I expected," he said. "But here is her reply; it has just arrived. She answered by return of post, as I anticipated."
Barnett read the note, which was short and formal.
"Lady Margaret Maitland has no interest either in shielding or unmasking Mrs. Jerningham; nor does she see what is to be gained by Mr. Bramber calling and entering into explanations."
"Stiff, and to the point," said the K.C., "but that is all we wanted."
"Yes," agreed Barnett, who was examining the writing closely. "I have no doubt that she had acted before your note arrived. Now, sir, here is the photograph of the address, which I have enlarged. I went straight to the chief, and he made no trouble when I explained that it was for you."
"That's right," said the other, taking the enlargement, and placing it on the table under the light with the note beside it.
Then they began to compare the two in the manner of experts, taking various letters singly, then combinations of letters, and the general characteristics of the up and down strokes.
"There is undoubtedly a strong likeness," said Barnett, after the detailed examination. "Strongest of all is the 'Mrs. Jerningham' in both, which is identical in its main features. Many of the experts swore that it was Mrs. Jerningham's handwriting disguised, but it seems to me that it is more like Lady Margaret Maitland's natural handwriting written with a certain hesitation, allowing, of course, for the change of time."
"Yes, I think we are on the right track," agreed the lawyer, suppressing his eagerness. "You must take it to one or two of the modern experts, reliable men, and get their opinion on it."
"I will, of course," answered Barnett, packing up the papers carefully; "But, however strong their verdict, it in only the beginning of a case, of which I must confess I do not see the next step. We are only dealing with surmise; and it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to accumulate proofs after the lapse of all these years."
"I know that," said the K.C. thoughtfully; "but it will give us a fresh basis to work from, which is no small advance in itself. And there is no saying what the future may bring forth."
Meanwhile Phyllis and Lionel had drifted further and further apart, living only on terms of the most formal politeness; and each day made the breach more difficult to bridge over. Outwardly they talked upon the necessary topics of the day, and endeavored vaguely to keep up appearances before the servants, but it was not long before they began to realise below stairs that all was not right, and to talk amongst themselves.
To Phyllis the life grew painfully irksome in its monotony. They went out to a few duty dinner parties amongst their neighbors, before whom both made an additional effort to dissimulate the situation; and they even entertained in return. Lionel, however, refused tacitly to play host more than was absolutely necessary for the sake of appearances; and, despite her suggestion, he vetoed the idea of any house parties for the shooting. Phyllis tried to press the matter, but found him adamant both to argument and to ill-temper. She would have gone up to town if she had dared; but she did not wish to create an open breach under the circumstances. Besides, she had no considerable sum of money available; and she knew that to ask for it would only be to court a calm and polite, but firm refusal. Moreover, she was by degrees beginning to understand and appreciate the strength of Lionel's will when put to the test.
Meanwhile the news of Doris' wedding had reached Bawndon Hall, and was followed in due course by the invitation to Bracklesham; but it only angered her to think of her sister's happiness, especially when she felt that Ralph Shopwyke had married her in the full knowledge of everything. The release of her mother had been passed over in silence both by Lionel and herself; and she felt extremely bitter against the woman, whom she illogically counted as the cause of all her misfortunes. Thus everything tended to make her regard Doris' invitation as little short of an insult; and in that spirit her reply was written without consulting Lionel.
She was frankly bored and annoyed with herself for the false steps she had made at the opening of her married life; and brooding over the situation only tended to make her feelings more bitter. In her loneliness she even went so far as to make advances to Lionel, who rejected them with a coldness that lashed her into a fury.
At last, as the weeks rolled on and the excitement of Mrs. Jerningham's release subsided without any hint of discovery, she began to grow bolder and to feel her position more secure, realising that her identity was now in comparatively little danger of discovery. And one day in a desperate moment of boredom she sat down and, without reference to Lionel, sent out invitations for a house party. The shooting she knew was good; but, with the exception of two or three bachelor parties of neighbors and by Lionel by himself, although the season was well advanced, little had been done.
The first name which occurred to her was the Marquis of Shelford, and the first note was sent to him, asking him for the first week in the New Year, careless of Lionel's openly expressed dislike for him. But she argued to herself that if Lionel would not ask his friends she would ask hers. Then she wrote to Mrs. "Tony" Richards, a fast and impecunious young married woman, whom her aunt had particularly disliked. She knew that her husband and she would be only too glad to come, especially if there was the chance of a game of cards; and he was well known to be a good shot. In addition, she wrote half a dozen other notes, mainly to men; and then without a word she sat down to wait for the replies.
Lord Shelford's acceptance was prompt and couched in his usual style.
"Dear lady," it ran, "your word is a command. I am, I admit, engaged; but what are dukes and duchesses and such dull people to your behests? Your romantic marriage was a blow to many of your admirers; but bygones are bygones, and it will be pleasant to see you in the role of the young matron. Expect me on the day you name."
It was followed by several other acceptances; and, though almost frightened at what she had done, she determined to tackle Lionel on the subject.
When the servants had left them alone at the dinner table, instead of walking straight out of the opposite door, as had become her habit, she sat forward in her chair with her elbows on the table in a characteristic attitude of challenge.
"Oh, by the way," she began with simulated carelessness, "I have asked a few people down for the New Year. It is time that we began to entertain a little."
Lionel sat up sharply.
"What do you mean?" he asked, hardly believing his ears.
"What I say," she answered truculently. "I have arranged a little house party for the first week in January."
"How dare you do such a thing without consulting me?" exclaimed Lionel surprised out of his usual calm.
"If you won't ask people, I have to," she answered, shrugging her shoulders; "and if you think I am going to spend the whole of the rest of my life cooped up here alone with you and your tempers, you are utterly mistaken. I am bored to death with no one to talk to."
"You made your own bed," he said grimly, "and you've got to lie in it."
"Perhaps," she rejoined, sharply; "but I shall endeavor to make it a little more comfortable. And, what is more, I am determined to be mistress in my own house."
There was a pause, and Lionel bit his lip to keep his temper under restraint.
Then she went on:
"It's no good making a row about it; it's so vulgar and never does any good. Lord Shelford is coming, and Mr. and Mrs. Tony Richards, Dick Lauderdale, Captain and Mrs. Blythe, Lily Brandon, George Forrest, and Frank Ward. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine."
She enumerated them slowly and deliberately on her fingers, watching his face closely. But he had recovered his self-control.
"You will kindly leave me to invite my own shooting guests for the future," he said with suppressed fury. "I don't want the honor of entertaining a lot of wasters. If it were not for my dislike of washing dirty linen in public, I might take strong measures; and I shall certainly do so if such a thing occurs again. As it is, for this once you may rely upon me doing my duty in my own house, much as I dislike your friends."
The emphasis he laid on the last sentence stung Phyllis to the quick; but, rising from the table and walking straight out of the room, he did not give her any chance of reply. But it was with a certain feeling of satisfaction that she heard the library door bang behind him.
"The beast," she muttered to herself furiously, "the beast! And I believe he would do it, too!"
And she felt the edge taken off her momentary triumph in the knowledge that one has met her master at last.
The house party arrived in due course; and outwardly Lionel was all that could be required of him, if not effusive.
Phyllis, on the other hand, was radiant with delight in the pleasure of playing hostess for the first time, forgetful momentarily of the short duration of her triumph; and as she went into dinner on Lord Shelford's arm she felt herself a grande dame at the head of her own table. She was full of gaiety and vivacity, and gracious even to Lionel, who took in Mrs. Tony Richards and laid himself out to meet her half-way.
Lord Shelford was persistent in his attentions to his hostess, courtly and witty, yet with an undercurrent of flattering seriousness which appealed to her vanity. That things were not as they should be between the newly married couple he saw at once with his acute perception; and in the rift he saw his own opportunity. Lionel Erskine he had never cared particularly about, classing him as a young prig; and, though he had hardly contemplated going so far as committing the banality of marriage with Phyllis, he was nevertheless secretly annoyed with him for having deprived him of the chance and his favorite ingenue. As he grew older each year his liking for older women grows less, and the younger the girl the more she attracted his elderly admiration. And as the most eligible bachelor in England he was always certain of a warm welcome from mothers with marriageable daughters.
However, being in Lionel's house and wishing to establish his position there, he laid himself out to be as pleasant as a man can be to another who frankly dislikes him and whom he himself does not like. But he promised himself plenty of Phyllis' society the next day when the others were shooting.
He made his excuses for not turning out with the guns on account of a fictitious attack of gout; and none of the men were particularly regretful, as they knew that owing to his age and position, in such company the cream of everything would have fallen to his lot.
As soon as the men had started he asked Phyllis to show him over the house and in her boudoir he made a pause, which developed into a long and confidential chat.
"A charming nest for two little lovebirds," he said lightly, purposely sarcastic.
Phyllis' lip curled.
"Oh, we got over that on the honeymoon. Fancy—a whole month alone with Lionel!"
She spoke lightly, too, adopting his tone; but it did not disguise the bitterness underlying the words.
"Rather boring, I suppose?" he said eyeing her closely. "These young husbands are inclined to be a bit exacting and trying at times."
Phyllis shrugged her shoulders.
"But we in town," went on the marquis, gaily, "ascribed this long occlusion to an extra bad attack of love on both sides. Why, it's five whole months since you showed yourself anywhere!"
"There is nothing to do in town," objected Phyllis in defence.
"No; I suppose the pleasures of the country are paramount with some people; but I had always put you down as a lover of town, like myself."
"Lionel hates town and everything to do with it."
"How nice to have such a devoted and dutiful wife!" said the marquis with a slight sneer; and gradually he drew the conversation round to her matrimonial relations.
Then when he had drawn her out on the subject he began to reproach her with her impetuosity in marrying so hastily, going on to hint what might have been in his own case.
"I feel that you and I understand each other so well," he said, taking her unresisting hand; and by lunch-time he had established an understanding with her which was perfectly satisfactory to himself.
The house party followed the usual course of such gatherings; but it was easy to see that each day Lionel was growing more restive under the strain of the uncongenial society. Each day the obvious intimacy between Phyllis and Lord Shelford thickened until it became the subject of general remark and common conversation behind Lionel's back. She seemed to have lost all care for public opinion as represented by the immediate circle round her in the intoxication of having such an important personage dancing attendance upon her; and she even forgot to be gracious to Lionel in accordance with her pre-conceived plan. Still, feel it as he might through his pride, there was nothing of which he could take hold.
The day before the party broke up Lord Shelford endeavored to go further and make an open avowal of love, infatuated with her tantalising beauty; but Phyllis, frightened at having gone further than she had meant to, rebuffed him. But the rebuff only served to make him the more eager; and he declared that it was only her hasty and unexpected marriage which had prevented him from making her his wife. Why had Lionel come between them? And, though Phyllis checked him and forbade him to say such things, she felt softened towards him and hardened towards her husband, who had from her point of view come between her and the great position which might have been hers. She was both flattered and disappointed by the avowal; and the seeds of further dissension were skilfully sown. Lord Shelford, seeing that he had gone further than she had anticipated, apologised gracefully, and was duly forgiven; but he felt that he distinctly progressed rather than retrogressed by his precipitancy.
After the break-up of the party the following day the reaction set in, and Phyllis spent most of the day shut up in her own room brooding. There was a look upon Lionel's face, too, which she had not liked. It seemed to bode a scene, and she was, as she had unwillingly to admit, almost afraid of him. In fact, each day her fear and dislike of him seemed to increase till she had begun to hate the very sight of him. And all day long the thought which was in her mind to the exclusion of all others was what she might have been but for Lionel.
Dinner was a silent meal; and after it the storm burst. Lionel had sat through the meal with a black cloud on his face, and Phyllis had determined to leave the room as soon as the butler had gone. But as she rose Lionel looked up and spoke in a hard, even voice.
"Would you oblige me by remaining a moment? I have something to say to you."
She resumed her seat in silence, and a slight pause followed.
"I have not much to say," went on Lionel in a concentrated voice; "but it is as well that we should once and for all come to an understanding. Unfortunately circumstances render it compulsory that we should live together, outwardly at least, and I intend as far as possible to do my duty. If you look back over the history of the cause which brought about our marriage, and the events which immediately followed our home-coming, you will have sufficient power of perception to realise my feelings without my dilating upon them. The fact remains, that the whole thing was a lamentable mistake. But nothing alters the fact that I am master in my own house. In the first place, under the circumstances I do not care to entertain, and thereby make public the state of affairs between us. And, secondly, when I wish to entertain I can ask my own guests; and for the future I definitely put my foot down against anyone being asked to my house without my being consulted first. If such a thing occurs again as has just occurred, I shall take strong steps which would be distasteful to both of us. Thirdly and finally, so long as you are my wife and bear my name, I put my foot down absolutely, and refuse to watch you making a fool of yourself and me with another man, especially an elderly scoundrel like Shelford, whether he be a marquis or not. If you have no self-respect, I have; and never have I felt more humiliated than during the past week. Now, once and for all, I forbid you ever again to speak to Lord Shelford or to have anything to do with him."
Though obviously furious, Lionel had kept his voice at one level and had not taken his eyes off his wife the whole time. She had sat still looking at him defiantly, though writhing mentally like a dog under the lash; but something in his face had compelled silence and precluded interruption.
When he ceased she summoned all her will-power to her aid, but her voice lacked its usual determination.
"I—I," she said, almost choking, "shall do as I like in the matter."
"You will do as I tell you," rejoined Lionel in a hard, metallic voice which carried conviction.
For a second Phyllis was almost cowed. Than her passion broke all bounds.
"You—you beast!" she broke out, livid with rage, and losing all semblance of self-control.
"Thank you," said Lionel calmly, with a bitingly sarcastic intonation, realising that he had won.
His coolness stung her on the raw; and in a frenzy she picked up her wine-glass and threw it at him with all her force.
With the deft hand of a cricketer he caught it, smiling contemptuously at her futile exhibition and wiping the dregs of the wine from the front of his shirt with his napkin. And without another word she turned and rushed from the room in the knowledge that she was thoroughly beaten.
That night an idea came into her mind; and before morning she had formed a resolve.
The idea had taken root and the resolve was formed; and Phyllis had turned once more into her cold, calculating self. With the determination of her nature and usual promptness of action, she wasted no time in setting to work.
With Lionel life had become intolerable; and he stood between her and all she held worth living for. After what had occurred she saw no chance ever of future reconciliation, little as that meant in itself to her; and her decision was to rid herself of him. She was surprised that she felt no repugnance at the idea, no shudder at the thought; and with a cynical curl of her lip she ascribed it to heredity. The one thing which possessed her mind was the desire to safeguard herself, and it resolved itself into a consideration of ways and means.
As she sat thinking deeply there rose up to her mind a poisoning case which she had read a year before—a case in which the murderer had all but got off scot-free and had only given himself away by a single careless oversight. His method had been excellent and carefully planned, and it would have been successful but for a slip. Why should not she profit by his experience? It would be easy enough for her to avert suspicion; and the genial, muddle-headed old family doctor who had dined with them was the last man in the world to suspect anybody, especially a young and pretty girl, if she read him aright. And then she thought of a master-stroke to stave off suspicion. Why should not she be ill, too, in the same way, but in a milder form? It would immediately turn suspicion away from her if any should arise, and divert it to the drainage or some cause common to both cases.
With her ideas taking shape she sought the library the following day when Lionel was out, and there found an account of the case in her memory. Then she searched the shelves for a medical book which had caught her eye on the first fateful morning she had spent at Bawndon and in it she found the information she required as to doses and quantities. Then she felt equipped for the undertaking, cool and collected, without even a thrill at the thought.
Poisoning she had decided was the only feasible way; and with her little knowledge of the subject she had hit upon antimony as the best for the purpose. With it, for one thing, she knew what she was doing; and she had a precedent with its one and only slip to guide her. Besides, it was a thing that she, too, could take without serious risk, thereby doubling her own security.
The next step she felt was to obtain the antimony; and she waited for a favorable opportunity. Tartar emetic she knew that she could obtain easily enough, but it would not do to buy it in the neighbourhood where she was known.
A day or two later Lionel, who had treated her with a contemptuous silence in the meantime, announced his intention of going over to the other side of the county for a day's shooting. He would start early in the motor, he informed her casually, and would not be back till late. In his absence she saw her opportunity. He would never think of inquiring about her movements from the servants; and she could easily slip up to town and back in his absence.
Soon after he had started she got up and dressed, taking care to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. And, ordering the trap, she drove into the town to catch the 10 o'clock train, avoiding the local station. Having concluded her delicate little piece of shopping, she drove to one or two shops and paid a visit to her dressmaker in order to justify her visit to town, should it come out by any chance. Then she had lunch at the Carlton with a clear conscience and a good appetite, satisfied with her morning's work. By tea-time she was back at Bawndon Hall again, and she was in bed and asleep by half-past ten before Lionel returned.
A few days later she decided to act, after due deliberation and a careful revision of her plans; and in the evening it was announced that she was ill.
Lionel took little notice beyond sending up a message of inquiry. The next morning she was a little better, but in the afternoon again the sickness returned, and he sent for the doctor.
When Dr. Richards left her room he met him in the hall.
"Nothing seriously wrong, doctor, I trust?" he asked him, as they shook hands.
"Oh, no, nothing at all, my dear fellow," the doctor replied genially; "a little internal upset, you know. Lady Erskine will be all right in a day or two, you can take it from me. I'll look in again to-morrow morning."
Reassured, Lionel gave the matter little further thought; but to prevent gossip amongst the servants he went to her room personally to inquire. He was met at the door by Phyllis's maid, who said that her mistress did not wish to be disturbed; but later on Phyllis, upon reconsideration, sent for him and saw him for a few moments.
During the next three days she seemed to grow worse and to be in considerable pain; and Dr. Richards, though outwardly optimistic, began inwardly to feel alarmed. Then suddenly she took a turn for the better; and a week later she was almost herself again, though a little pale and pulled down. During her illness Lionel's heart had softened considerably towards her, and some of his old tenderness had returned. It was not in his nature to see any living thing suffer with out sympathising with it; and illness seemed to blot out the events of the last few months and to recall the first days of their love. With a man's weakness towards women, he found himself making excuses for the past, and even blaming himself for his harshness. But Phyllis, during the time she had passed in bed in voluntary pain, had hardened her heart to the determination of carrying through her scheme; and in her own discomfort she felt a feeling of satisfaction in the thought that it would make her path easier and the future more secure.
On her first appearance downstairs, Lionel welcomed her more tenderly than she had expected, and fussed over her with many little attentions, which irritated her nerves rather than soothed them. She wore a softened and subdued air, which she felt was necessary to the part, and suffered them rather than encouraged them, preserving an air of reserve which she knew he would be quick to interpret. Then he began to make definite overtures, suggesting that the past might be as far as possible forgotten, and that they might try to begin again; and, as he spoke, he grew more passionate. In her heart of hearts she felt a contempt for his weakness, where a week before she had admired, yet hated his strength; and she repulsed him, not with any harsh finality, but with a pained air which had a suggestion of promise in it. But seemingly, although the old lover-like footing had not been restored, they were on friendly terms which boded well; and that night Lionel was happier than he had been for months. But Phyllis set her lips firmly in the darkness and told herself that it was all too late. She could not forgive and forget as easily as he could.
Three days later she was quite her old self and about the house as usual. In the evening Lionel began to feel ill.
His illness was more gradual than hers and less violent in its earlier stages, beginning with depression and malaise, which after a day or two developed into attacks of sickness. But he hated any idea of coddling, and resented illness with the vigor of a healthy-minded, healthy-bodied man; and with all his reserve of mental and bodily strength he fought it till he had to give in. He kept it from Phyllis, as he thought, as it was always at nights that he was worse after she had gone to bed; and one night, when after a more acute attack of sickness than usual he went downstairs and took a little whisky neat, he was in great pain all night.
"I'm afraid I'm going to be ill," he said with a brave attempt at a smile when he met his wife the next morning. "I've been going off my feed for some days; and this morning I couldn't look at my breakfast."
"I hope it's nothing serious," she said with an air of concern.
"Oh, no," he said lightly; "it's nothing. The same sort of attack that you had."
"If you don't got better I shall send for Dr. Richards at once," Phyllis said with decision. "I believe there's something wrong with the drains in this old house. One of the maids has a sore throat."
"Humph," said Lionel thoughtfully. "I never thought of that. They haven't been examined for some years. I tell you what. As soon as I'm all right again we'll go up to town for a little jaunt, and I'll have everything thoroughly overhauled."
"Well, in the meantime you must take care of yourself," went on Phyllis, making a mental note of the servant's opportune sore throat and forming a plan.
That afternoon her own maid was far from well and showed similar symptoms, and in the late evening Lionel was much worse. Phyllis rang up the house, much against her husband's wishes, and sent ostentatiously for the doctor.
She met him in the hall with every sign of anxiety.
"Well, well, what have we here?" he asked, in his usual genial manner. "Nothing serious, I hope."
"Oh, Dr. Richard's, I am so anxious about Lionel," began Phyllis.
"Ah, yes, you young wives always are," he interrupted cheerfully. "But what's wrong now?"
"He has got the same sort of attack as I had," she went on, "only I'm afraid it's worse. It has been coming on for some days; but he has been keeping it to himself."
"Oh, silly fellow, silly fellow," ejaculated the doctor. "Why didn't he send for me? I'd have put him right in a trice, as I did you; but he always did hate making a fuss ever since he was quite a boy."
He found Lionel in more pain than he would admit, and with a knowing air prescribed a few simple remedies, laying down a scheme of diet.
"I'm afraid it's due to the drains, doctor," said Lionel, trying stoically to disguise his sufferings. "They haven't been overhauled for a long time."
"Yes," chimed in Phyllis in a low, sickroom voice, "one of the maids has got a sore throat, and my own maid is ill; and, coming on the top of my own little illness, it is apt to make one suspicious."
Dr. Richards looked concerned and interested. "Oh, yes," he said, putting on a knowing look, "in these cases when sickness runs through a house I always suspect the sanitation; and in your husband's case there appears to be acute internal inflammation. It is very foolish to let these cases run on without consulting a doctor, you know. Once they get a hold it often means a serious illness."
During the next few days Lionel grew worse and worse, and Dr. Richards at last, grew thoroughly concerned, as much for Phyllis as for her husband. She was unremitting in her attentions to him, nursing him with an assiduity and a tenderness which commanded the admiration of the whole household. She would allow no one else near him, and fed him with her own hands and at last, when Dr. Richards insisted upon a nurse, she yielded with an air of keen disappointment.
"Yes, I know you want to do everything, my dear lady," he said, taking her hand paternally between his, "but you will overdo it, and we shall have you ill again, I'm afraid. The nurse will only help to relieve you; and you can help as far as ever you are able to and be with him as much as you like."
"I know you are right, doctor," she said resignedly, "but I can't bear anyone else to do anything for him."
"I know, I know," he said, soothingly, patting her hand gently; "but I don't think you know how ill he is. This gastric fever has weakened him fearfully."
"There is no cause for alarm, doctor?" she asked, looking up into his face with an anxious look and clutching his sleeve with a little sudden movement of simulated fear.
"Oh, no; I trust not, I trust not," he answered reassuringly; "but the inflammation is very acute and prolonged."
"Do you think we ought to have a specialist down?" she asked, knowing the man and his self-confidence in his own ignorance. "I wish no expense to be spared."
"Oh, dear no," said Dr. Richards, with a touch of injured pomposity. "Nothing more could be done than is being done, I assure you, my dear lady. It is quite a simple case—quite, you know—only obstinate. It is only a matter of time, and it must yield to treatment."
And with a look of triumph in her eyes Phyllis returned to the sick room. Lionel, touched by her tender devotion and unremitting attention, had forgotten everything in the present, and could not bear to have her out of the room. He followed her every movement with a dumb dependence and dog-like eyes, smiling pathetically in silent suffering every time she came near him and murmuring husky thanks. Nothing could have exceeded her gentleness and constant care; but she knew that she was playing a dangerous game, and took pains not to overact her part. She assumed a cheerfulness inside and outside the sick-room, as though she did not realise that he was really seriously ill or in any danger. But each day she hardened her heart.
The result of Dr. Richards' decision to call in a professional nurse was the conclusion that before her arrival she must hasten matters somewhat. His pulse was very feeble, and he had appeared exhausted when she returned to the room; and she slipped out again quietly to think things over. She knew that he was far worse than the doctor had any idea of in his optimistic ignorance, but she thought that it might be wise to give a stronger dose of the poison before she handed the case over to the nurse. She did not want to hasten things unduly, but she felt that too much delay might be unwise, as her opportunities would be lessened. Besides, her movements would not be so unrestricted as heretofore in the presence of a watchful stranger; so with her mind made up she went down to the dining-room and rang the bell.
"Tell cook to let me have a little thin arrowroot in about half an hour for Sir Lionel," she said to the butler when he came.
"How is Sir Lionel now, your ladyship?" asked the man sympathetically.
"He is quiet at the moment," Phyllis answered, as though anxious about him; "but Dr. Richards thinks that he is very ill and is sending for a nurse to help me with him."
The man withdrew, respectfully murmuring his sympathy, and Phyllis threw herself into an arm-chair. She began to think, but her thoughts were not pleasant companions; and she picked up the morning paper which was lying on the table and opened it.
A large headline caught her eye at once:
A tight band seemed to be suddenly pressed round her heart; and she could hardly repress a cry of dismay. It meant social ruin to her, she knew; ostracism from the life she aspired to, and the end of all her hopes and schemes. It was a full minute before the smaller type in the body of the paper took shape before her eyes; and then, forcing herself to be calm, she read the paragraph through.
It was practically word for word identical with the paragraph which Inspector Buckle had shown Caton Bramber the evening before, ending up with her own name in cold, hard black and white. How her mother's whereabouts had become public property so suddenly she had no idea, and she cared for nothing save the fact that now everyone would know her for Mrs. Jerningham's daughter. That she was morally on a plane with the guilty woman she believed her mother to be did not trouble her in the least. Nothing troubled her except the fact of being found out. Therein in her eyes lay the sin. She feared social disgrace almost as much as the gallows. It was a death blow to her pride; and it almost stunned her. In future she would be a marked woman, cut by the majority of her friends and patronised by the few. The thought was intolerable.
For some minutes, in the catastrophe of her hopes, her plans, her very position, Lionel had been completely banished from her thoughts. Suddenly she remembered him with a start. Why, Lionel was now her only hope, her only stand-by; and she had almost by her own act cut away her only sheet anchor. The thought rushed in upon her with terrible force. He was the only buffer between her and the world. He was more useful alive than dead. In his present mood he would stand loyally back to back with her and face everything. Thank goodness, it was not too late! Another twenty-four hours and it probably would have been. What a mercy! She shuddered at the thought. Why, the very identification of her as a Jerningham would have suggested poison in itself; and everything might have come out.
The butler's voice aroused her.
"Sir Lionel's arrowroot, your ladyship."
She started at the sound, and then looked at him curiously, wondering if he had read or heard the news in the morning paper.
From that moment there was a marked improvement in Lionel's condition. It was many days before the inflammation subsided, and for three days Phyllis was in a fever of anxiety. Her nerves for the first time threatened to play her false, and it was only by the mightiest effort that she could control herself. She became more assiduous than ever in her nursing, and she could hardly be persuaded to leave the room even for her meals. Her usually healthy appetite seemed suddenly to have forsaken her, and she could get no sleep. She was not happy unless Lionel was under her immediate care; and he could not bear to take anything from the nurse's hands. He was touched beyond words by her passionate devotion; and the blind attachment of his early love seemed to have returned with redoubled force.
In the evening of the day of the disclosure, Dr. Richards arrived with the nurse whom he had arranged to meet and drive over.
He greeted Phyllis with a very exaggerated air of sympathy, which told her intuitively that he had discovered her identity since the morning, but it was to her interest to appreciate rather than to resent it.
The nurse was a bright, capable woman of about eight and twenty, inclined to gush, and Phyllis, wishing to be on the best of terms with her for her own reasons, greeted her with a cordiality which would otherwise have been lacking. At such a critical time she felt that she must make everyone round her her friends, and she was as gracious as she had hitherto been overbearing. By that time she realised that the whole household must know her secret.
Dr. Richards was delighted with his patient.
"He seems to be better in every way since the morning, my dear lady," he said, rubbing his hands. "The new medicine has worked wonders. I told you that the inflammation would yield to treatment. No sickness since I saw him last? I can hardly believe it. I was more anxious than I cared to say this morning, but now I have great hopes."
Phyllis would have liked to have shaken him for his complacent hypocrisy and exaggerated pomposity, but she restrained herself.
"I shall owe it all to you, my dear doctor," she said, as she led him into the drawing-room. "It is your skill which has saved him, I am sure."
"Ah, no, you exaggerate things," he answered, deprecatingly. "I am only the humble instrument of medical science. He owes far more to your tender and constant devotion."
Phyllis could hardly repress an impatient shrug of her shoulders.
"Not that he is not still in a very critical condition, as it is only right to warn you, my dear lady," he proceeded, benevolently; "but I think, mind you, I think, as far as I can judge, we have pulled him through the worst of it."
"Thank you, ever so much," murmured Phyllis, flatteringly. Then she added: "Can you spare me a few moments?"
"Always at your service, Lady Erskine, believe me," he replied, bowing gallantly.
"Did you notice a paragraph in the morning paper, which mentioned me and my identity?" she asked, feeling that she must take the first plunge.
Dr. Richards nodded gravely.
"Ah, yes, ahem, connecting you with the notor—unfortunate Mrs. Jerningham."
It was Phyllis' turn to nod.
"Yes," she said, stifling a desire to kick him, "yes, I am Mrs. Jerningham's daughter. Of course, Sir Lionel knows—has known, of course, from the first; but it is a distasteful subject to him, and he cannot bear to hear my poor mother's name mentioned. Naturally I cannot—do not believe her guilty, nor does he at heart, I believe; but he is prejudiced and wished the matter kept secret, if possible."
"I quite understand," agreed the doctor, unctuously, thoroughly enjoying the post of confidant to a pretty woman in distress. "Yes, I quite understand. I, for one, have never, never believed Mrs. Jerningham guilty, and you have my sincerest sympathy."
"Thank you; thank you very much," said Phyllis, outwardly grateful, but inwardly almost choking with wrath. "But I think that in his present state the revelation had better be kept from Sir Lionel, as it might upset him."
"Yes, I quite agree with you, my dear lady, I quite agree with you. It would be bound to make him fret—for your sake, you know. It would be better left for you to tell him quietly when he is stronger."
And by her apparent confidence and judicious flattery of his inordinate vanity Phyllis felt that she had firmly added the doctor to her adherents, come what might.
By bed-time she had no more enthusiastic supporter than the nurse, who had a large vein of romance and sentiment in her composition, and was completely won over by the devotion of husband and wife to each other, aided by Phyllis' gracious flattery. The servants' all took sides, and could talk of nothing else; but, influenced by considerations of bread and butter and the butler's weighty advocacy, within three days they were all eager partisans of Phyllis. So gracious was she, even to the junior under-housemaid, that her former coldness and hauteur were forgotten, or ascribed to Lionel's harshness; and within a week they had come to the conclusion that he had behaved very badly to his young wife, and that she had heaped coals of fire on his head by her unparallelled devotion. So by the time of Lionel's convalescence she had the whole household at her feet, and felt secure as to the future inside her own home. Outside she knew that it would be a different matter; but she felt that she must make the best of the inevitable.
One day, when Lionel was well enough to sit up in bed and eat a little chicken, she took heart of grace and told him, kneeling humbly by the side of the bed and fondling his hand. He listened to the end without comment. Then he leant over and put his emaciated arms round her neck.
"My poor, poor darling," he said, kissing her with infinite tenderness, "what you must have suffered! It must be my life's work and my life's pleasure to make up to you for everything."
And from that moment the stage of convalescing was an idyll; and never had Phyllis in her isolation been nearer to loving him. She shuddered to think how near she had stepped to the brink of a great tragedy. She was not troubled with remorse, and it was in her nature to blot out anything in the past which she was anxious to forget; and to her it simply meant making a fresh start.
Lionel had returned whole-heartedly to his devotion; and it seemed as though by mutual consent the dark interregnum of bitter estrangement had been forgotten.
He only referred to it once.
"I can't believe that those dark days ever existed," he said, drawing her very close to him; "and we have got to make believe that it was only a bad dream."
"Yes, dear," she answered, softly, responding to his mood; "it was only a very, very bad dream; and—and I loved you all the time."
He kissed her passionately.
"I—well, I thought you didn't; and it's so easy to drift apart. But we must never, never let anything come between us again."
"No, never," she murmured, burying her face on his shoulder.
In due course he was triumphantly pronounced convalescent by Dr. Richards, and allowed downstairs; and the nurse departed in a flood of tears, overwhelmed by their thanks.
But they were glad to be alone; and the days passed rapidly by in eventless love-making, and lotus-eating. Phyllis had grown almost contented with the inevitable and began to wonder if the other life in the outside world were worth the hurry and bustle. Lionel was blissfully happy in the renewal of love; and all day long his one thought seemed to be of her, to the exclusion of everything else.
It had been arranged that they should go abroad to the Riviera for a few weeks for a thorough change, while the whole sanitation of the house was overhauled; and they were to start the following day.
After lunch they were sitting together on the couch in the drawing-room, sitting very close, after the fashion of lovers, and talking about the journey.
"I'm not sure that I want to leave home, really," said Phyllis, with a little pout. "I am so happy here."
"I know," responded Lionel, delighted at the change in her. "I know, but you see, darling, I shan't be happy now till we've had everything put right, and I'm sure it's quite healthy for you. I don't want to run any risks of your precious health."
At a loss what to answer, Phyllis kissed him silently, and he was satisfied.
"Yes, it will be a bother turning out," he went on, "but it's got to be done. Do you know, darling, now that it's all over safely, I am inclined to bless that illness of mine, much as I have suffered, for bringing us together again."
He laughed lightly.
"It was well worth it, though, and I shall never forget how tenderly you nursed me when I was so weak and helpless. I wonder if your pride would ever have given way if I hadn't got so ill?"
Phyllis shook her head, smiling.
"Don't talk of it," she said. "When two proud people quarrel, it only gets worse and worse till some big thing occurs to bring them together again without apologies and explanations. You see, I've always been fearfully proud and sensitive all my life! That's the reason why I didn't like to tell you the truth from the start."
"Why didn't you, my silly, sensitive darling?" he asked, passionately. "You know I loved you too dearly to allow anything to come between us like that; and you know that I would have stood by you."
"I know," she answered, simply. "I was silly—and wrong."
"I'm only so grieved for your sake," he went on. "It's a terrible thing to be saddled with such a mother; and you will begin to bear the brunt of it now on our tour. That's one reason why I don't want to go away just now. People will stare and talk; and some of the more charitable will, I daresay, cut us. It will be the same here when we get back; but it won't be so bad if we face it together," he concluded, cheerfully. "With your love secure, I don't worry much about anything else in the world. It's more for your sake I feel it. To think that you will be looked down upon by a lot of women who aren't fit to tie your shoelaces!"
"Hush, dear," she said, gently, "you think too much of me, because you love me. We'll just have to make the best of the inevitable; and, as you say, it won't be so hard to face things hand in hand."
He kissed her tenderly; and a silence fell on them for a moment.
Suddenly she started up; and her face puckered into comical little lines.
"Oh, how unromantic!" she exclaimed. "I'm going to sneeze."
She sneezed twice; and he laughed amusedly at her.
"Poor little woman," he said, holding out his hand to draw her back to her place beside him.
"Oh," she said, "I've left my handkerchief upstairs. I must run and fetch it."
She turned towards the door; but he was before her.
"No, let me," he said. "I'm quite strong and well now; and you've done quite enough fetching and carrying for me lately."
And before she could stop him he was half-way upstairs.
She resumed her seat on the couch contentedly, and fell into a reverie. Really, after all, whatever the cynical might say, love was not such a bad thing. It had its compensations, she admitted candidly; and it was more comfortable than ambition, and less cold. She was beginning to find herself rather in love with love, and—yes, she did not mind saying it to herself—with Lionel. He was so tender and unselfish; and she knew him to be strong. She felt that she had met her master; and, strangely enough now, she did not resent it, as she used to. Yes, and she candidly admitted that all the trouble of the past few months was entirely her fault; and she felt she would not have respected him as she did if he had acted any way differently to the way he had. She almost shrank from the thought of how nearly she had compromised herself with Lord Shelford, who did not seem very attractive or important at the moment. One thing only she burked, even to herself, banishing it with a sudden hot and cold feeling of shame and nausea. But that was all past and over, wiped off the slate; and now there remained the future. She felt more softened and gentle than she had ever felt in her life before, and she saw life for the first time in its true colors; and she realised that it is often circumstances and opportunity which make the difference between the good and the bad amongst men and women.
But why was Lionel so long.
She got up and went to the door to call him.
"Lionel," she called out from the hall. "Lionel, why are you such a long time? Come down; I want you, and—my handkerchief."
He did not answer, but she heard his heavy footstep crossing the room above; and she went back into the drawing-room. A sudden shiver, abrupt and unaccountable, ran over her; and she bent down to warm herself at the fire.
"I believe I've got a little chill,"' she murmured.
She turned as she heard him enter, and held out her hand.
"What a long time you've been, dear!" she said, affectionately. "Whatever have you been up to?"
Then she caught sight of his face in the cold light of the winter afternoon; and it gave her a sudden shock. It was as white as death, and set as hard as stone; and in his eyes was that cold, bitter look she had learnt to dread.
"What is wrong, dear?" she asked, apprehensively. "Have you got my handkerchief?"
"No," he answered, mechanically. "I forgot it. I went to the wrong drawer, and I found—something else."
Her heart seemed to stop beating suddenly, and she went white to the lips.
"Yes," he went on, speaking with death-like calm. "I found the cause of my illness."
He took out a packet from his pocket, a small book, and two or three pieces of paper, and laid them on the table. Then he looked at her straight in the face with cold, accusing eyes.
It all came back to her with a rush. She had kept the packet of poison carefully under lock and key, together with the little book which had been her guide and the notes she had so carefully made with reference to the doses given in her own case and his. She had been so careful not to make a mistake, and she was naturally methodical in her habits. Since the fateful day, when she had so suddenly changed her course of action, she had always been intending to destroy the last incriminating link; but she had nervously shrunk from opening the drawer and witnessing the proofs of her abasement. Opportunities of late had been few and far between, as Lionel had hardly left her side, and she had procrastinated time after time. Only that very morning just before lunch she had finally made up her mind and grasped the opportunity. She had braced herself up to the necessity, and unlocked the drawer, when she had heard Lionel's footstep. In her nervousness, she had hurriedly pushed the drawer to as he entered, and till that moment she had been under the impression that she had locked it. But in her excitement her nerveless fingers must have bungled with the key. She had turned as he had entered, and greeted him with a forced smile.
"Just getting a handkerchief," she remembered she had said; and that accounted for his going straight to the very drawer. And there on the table before her lay the proofs of her guilt.
She did not attempt to argue or to defend herself. She felt that it would be useless. The time for provocation had passed.
"Lionel," she said, pleadingly.
He gave an impatient movement of contempt.
"I see it all now," he went on in a cutting voice that made her cringe. "Oh, God, to think that such vileness can exist! Here is your tartar emetic! Here is your book of poisons! And here are your notes on the cases! I see it all, cleverly enough done in all confidence, except for this crowning piece of folly! You are like them all, clever up to a point, and then you give yourself away by an oversight or a loss of nerve. You tried it on the dog too, as they say. By God! you're plucky enough; and it makes you all the more dangerous. Perhaps you can't help it, though. It's bred in the bone."
Phyllis writhed under his stinging sarcasm, and biting intonation, and a moan broke from her.
"Lionel," she said again, in an imploring voice, pleading for her life with outstretched hands.
He motioned her aside angrily.
"Yes," he repeated, "but for a psychological accident I should be dead now and you a widow, happy in your release. It was only the disclosure of your identity on the very day when I was at my worst that saved me. Pah," he said, almost fiercely, without taking his cold eyes off the cringing girl, "you needn't fear; I'm not going to touch you. I wouldn't soil my hands. So you realised that under the circumstances I should be more useful alive than dead? That there was no hope of becoming Marchioness of Shelford? You needed a social screen, and found it handy in me, a mere complimentary nothing. Ugh, it makes me sick!"
Phyllis was crouching by the fire like a beaten dog, with a look of dumb appeal in her eyes.
"Lionel," she repeated, in a tense voice, making one more appeal. "I love you, I love you now. Beat me, make me your slave, but don't spurn me."
He took no notice, but continued bitterly:
"Thank God, I know in time—know how rotten and vile you are. Chance has saved my life once, and I shall run no more risks. If ever I cease to be useful or become in the way, that," snapping his fingers savagely, "for my life! But it's all over now," he went on, picking up the evidences of her guilt from the table, and putting them carefully into the hottest part of the fire, stirring it roughly into a blaze, "it's all over now. Naturally, I shall not say a word; that's the part of a gentleman in the public eye. I shall merely travel. I shall go to Africa and shoot big game. I shall put a few thousand miles between us for the sake of my own safety. I may be a fool—I'm ready enough to admit it—but I'm not quite such a damn fool as to sit down quietly and contentedly, and wait to be poisoned."
Then, with a low sarcastic bow, he turned and left her, crouching by the fire.
"Lionel, Lionel," she cried after him in a paroxysm of fierce despair, but no answer came.
With a moan her limbs relaxed, and she fell forward in a swoon.
The next morning he left by the early train without another word.
Phyllis was stunned by the blow, and for three days she could not hold up her head. For the first time in her life she had allowed herself to become really softened, and she had just begun to realise what love was—never more so than in the few tense moments when she knew that she was losing it altogether. The sudden catastrophe of everything had left her with her spirit broken, with the dim realisation that she was alone, high and dry, on the shore of a new life. Lionel had left her, Lionel hated her—the two thoughts throbbed through and through her brain to the exclusion of everything else.
But as the days advanced her numbed thoughts began to reassert themselves, and a reaction set in, her pride revolting against the situation. The instinct of self-preservation also revived, and the old Phyllis began to return. Little by little her old hatred of Lionel came back to her with redoubled intensity, as illogically she began to put the blame of everything on his shoulders. She argued to herself that she had been ready to start afresh with him, and not only that but to be his slave, if he had wished it, to atone for the past. He had spurned her, reviled her, and cast her away like an old shoe. The thought rankled, and the bitterness grew, and in the cold fury of a woman scorned, her only regret was that she had not completed her original intention. Soon, however, she recovered her old self-centred point of view, looking back on the glimpses of love as a short, sharp attack of momentary madness, and ashamed of the temporary softness. Then her one idea became what would be the best thing for herself in the future and the course of action out of which she would personally get the best time; and she decided to go up to town.
In ten days Phyllis was quite herself again, and bore no traces, save in character, of the crisis of her life. She had received a letter from Lionel's lawyer to the effect that every quarter-day five hundred pounds would be lodged to her credit at the bank, which could in no way be anticipated or increased under their precise and particular instructions. They added that they had instructions to dismiss part of the staff at Bawndon Hall, but to keep the place up, and they added that it was to be at her disposal, whenever she wished, on the conditions that, while there, she did not entertain, and that she paid all house-bills incurred by herself. Should Sir Lionel, according to his anticipation, not be back at the beginning of the Autumn, they were instructed to let the shooting. The agent of the estate had been ordered to deal direct with them.
Phyllis' lip curled scornfully as she read the letter to its bitter, business-like end. It was typical of Lionel, she told herself, and she laughed at the idea of his expecting her to live on two thousand a year. At any rate, she would make him pay through the nose for his voluntary desertion. As for Bawndon, the place was of no interest to her, and she was glad to shake the dust of it off her feet. That she would have a great deal to face and to put up with in town she knew, but it would be the same anywhere else, and, after all, London was the best place for fun. So she acknowledged the lawyers' letter curtly, instructing them as to her bankers, but vouchsafing no information as to her intentions. Then with all her own possessions, and a few things which took her fancy, and were of value, she left Bawndon Hall, accompanied only by her maid.
Her first move in town was to take a smart furnished flat in the heart of Mayfair for six months, whilst she looked round and decided more definitely upon her future plans. Then, when she had settled in, she dropped Lord Shelford a little note, informing him of her whereabouts, and casually mentioning Lionel's absence.
The marquis, with his acute knowledge of the world, had deemed it as well to hold aloof for a time after the revelation of her parentage; but he considered the present opportunity was too good to be missed. So, spic and span as ever, with his heavy black moustache carefully waxed, he presented himself at the flat the very next afternoon, and greeted Phyllis with a great show of impressment, holding her hand just sufficiently long to re-establish the old footing.
"Well, dear lady, what does this mean?" he asked, as he took a seat by her upon the sofa.
"Only that I am a grass-widow," answered Phyllis, shrugging her shoulders with a show of gaiety. "My worthy husband has gone off to the wilds of Central Africa in search of big game."
"And left you all alone?" he asked, lightly. "That shows very bad taste on his part."
"No doubt," she agreed, laughing, "but I'm trying to make the best of things. Like most men," she went on, with an appearance of bitterness, "when the pinch came and the unfortunate accident of my pedigree became public properly, he shirked facing what people would say, and left me to do as best I could for myself. No open rupture, of course, because he knew everything before we were married; and in those brave days, when in his infatuation he thought it would never become public property, he was full of eagerness to face it with me. But so much for men's professions," she concluded, scornfully, with a dainty snap of her fingers. She had prepared her little story skilfully, with a view to putting herself in the right and throwing the onus of everything upon Lionel's shoulders.
Lord Shelford assumed an air of sympathetic concern.
"Very hard on you, and devilish mean of him," he said, censoriously. "I consider a man like that a cad. I hate your fair-weather lovers and fair-weather friends myself. For you I am most truly sorry. I know what a hard, gossiping world we live in, and I realise that you will have a great deal to put up with from people who were ready enough to fawn on you when the sun shone, and women who kissed and 'deared' you a few weeks ago. I myself care little what people say, and am here to offer you my humble friendship."
"It is very good of you," murmured Phyllis, looking down as though embarrassed, "I knew I could count on you."
"That your mother—I speak in all friendliness and sympathy for you," he went on, with marked deference—"should have put herself outside the pale is very hard luck on you; and if only people were more generous they would recognise it and regard it in that light. But the best people—the people whom we have been in the habit of mixing with—are always the hardest in that respect on principle; while the people one does not want to know, the small fry on the fringe, are, on the other hand, ready to presume upon it and show openly a distasteful sympathy. I don't know which is the worse of the two."
Phyllis curled her lip scornfully.
"I have no use for the latter," she answered, contemptuously, "and I mean to face the former. I have no intention of becoming an outcast on my mother's account."
Lord Shelford looked dubious, but was too tactful to say anything. In fact, he felt that it suited his book better, as the more lonely she was the more he would see of her.
Such was the beginning of Phyllis' campaign against social prejudice; but she found it even more bitter than she had bargained for. But she stuck manfully to her guns, and refused, despite humiliations, which made her rave when alone, to acknowledge herself beaten. Men she found ready enough to attach themselves to her, apart from their womenfolk; but the latter, with the characteristic charity of their sex, would have nothing to do with her. The motives of the men she was woman of the world enough to realise were not above suspicion. No one was more assiduous in his attentions than the Marquis of Shelford; and soon she lost much regard for appearances, and they were soon about everywhere together, unchaperoned or under the shadiest auspices, till they became the talk of the town, which, if it would not talk to her, was ready enough to talk about her.
She had not long to wait for her first direct cut from a former intimate; and, as town filled up, she had to face the unpleasant experience constantly until she began to prepare herself for it, if not to take the initiative. As time went on and she found herself ignored by the set she was eager to be in, she grew more and more restless in her conduct and her expenditure. Bills began to accumulate upon every side; and as the tradespeople, who in the Went End knew as much about their customers as their customers knew about themselves, began to eye her askance and to hint politely for payment. This, in her actual inexperience of life and paying her own way, frightened her; and towards the end of the Summer she made an appeal to Lionel's lawyers. Their answer was that they were not only unable to pay her a farthing above and beyond her actual allowance, but were instructed to publish a notice in the papers disclaiming liability on Lionel's behalf. This they promptly did without further discussion; and it brought her creditors down about her ears like a nest of hornets.
Considerably frightened, she appealed to Lord Shelford in her dilemma.
"My dear girl," he said cynically, "you are only a minor and not liable for a farthing; and they know it. It's only a bit of bluff on their part; but any time you are short of money, if I can be of any help, just let me know."
Phyllis had during the summer accepted several valuable presents from him, but never actual money. However, once the idea had been suggested it did not seem a very difficult matter; and she found in him an ever-ready banker at the slightest hint; and credit being out of the question, she found that she needed a lot of ready money. Thus their intimacy assumed a new phase; but in her recklessness it troubled her very little. She had lost the last vestige of self-respect long before; and she consoled herself by blaming circumstances and sneering at everybody and everything with the cheap cynicism of desperation.
But each week found her more bored and disgusted with the anomaly of her position; and at times she used to throw off the mask and give way to bursts of petulance.
"I'm little better than a demimondaine," she exclaimed angrily one day late in the season to Lord Shelford when they were alone, "and all on my mother's account. If it had not been for her I should be received anywhere. As it is, I'm cut by everyone, asked nowhere, and my only visitors are men without their wives, and, bachelors who behave too familiarly."
"And you would be living the virtuous life of Lionel's happy and contented wife," he added, with a slight sneer.
"Oh, Lionel!" she went on vehemently. "I hate him worst of all the lot—worse even than my mother, I think! I hope I shall never set eyes on him again."
Lord Shelford laughed cynically.
"The older we grow, the less store we set on love's young dream," he remarked. "When you ran away so romantically with him less than a year ago I did not lose all hope myself, knowing that only one out of a hundred of these ardent love affairs outlive the test of three months. You should have consulted me first," he concluded, with an ambiguous laugh.
"I wish I had," said Phyllis, with undisguised candor and no effort at concealment.
"It would have made a lot of difference," went on his lordship, half seriously. "I was inclined to marry you myself; and no one would have dared to cut my wife."
He laid an unconscious emphasis on the last two words which struck home with Phyllis, who appeared, however, not to notice the condescension of his tone.
"Well, you've been an awfully good friend to me, which makes me regret it all the more," said the girl, looking up into his face from under her long dark lashes. She could not afford to take offence at anything he might do or say.
"Any more bills worrying you?" he asked, almost brutally.
"Don't be unkind, Dandy," she said quickly, "and spoil things. You are the only pal I have to talk straight to nowadays."
He laughed again more gently.
"Poor little girl," he said, patting her hand. "Yes, it is beastly rough luck on you; and I'd like to horsewhip that hound Erskine, if he hadn't got safely out of the way."
Lord Shelford had no illusions concerning either vice or virtue; but he had a certain code of how other men should treat a pretty woman. He himself was lax in every respect, and gave himself special license as the premier bachelor in the kingdom, as he had often been dubbed.
After a moment's silence Phyllis broke out again passionately:
"I'm sick of the season; I'm sick of everything. The season's all right when you're in the swim. Otherwise, it's the dullest time of the whole year. Thank goodness it's nearly over. Anyhow, I want to get away."
"Why not throw it up and take a trip to Paris?" suggested the marquis promptly. "I've got my rooms over there; and you could take a little flat there and give this place up. You could have a much jollier time, and not so many people to talk about things."
"Are—are they gossiping much about us—coupling our names, I mean?" she asked, as though surprised.
"It would be strange if they weren't," he answered cynically. "You know my reputation; and we go about a lot together."
"I don't care," said Phyllis vehemently, after a second's pause. "It makes no odds to me. I guess I couldn't have a worse time than I have had here; so here's to Paris and more freedom."
She spoke with a reckless abandon which delighted him; and he laughed again.
"They can't say much more," he said; "and you have just as much right to live in the French capital as the English. You'll have your own flat, just as in London; and I have had my rooms over there ever since I first began to see life. Half the people won't know anything about it; and the other half won't care. If you don't like Paris, you can come back to London again."
"I hate London," exclaimed Phyllis passionately. "I hate it, and I hope I shall never see the place again."
So off to Paris a few days later Phyllis went, shaking the dust of London off her smart frocks; and once in the French capital she plunged more assiduously than ever into a life of reckless gaiety. Everywhere she went Lord Shelford was her constant attendant; and he seemed to take a delight in her whims and extravagances.
The place itself at first recalled her honeymoon of just a year before to her mind; but the thought only made her the more reckless, as though by her actions she was spiting the memory of those days when Lionel had thought so much of her and been so absolutely at her beck and call. But they appeared very far distant owing to the many happenings in the year which had intervened; and, whereas then she had tolerated him, now the very mention of his name lashed her into a fury.
Little by little, however, Lord Shelford began to tire of her caprices and to resent the wild extravagances which he had first encouraged. Moreover, despite the blackness of his dyed hair and the youthful trimness of his well-laced figure, he was not so young as he had been; and he soon grew tired of always being on the move with hardly an hour's peace. Once or twice he had seriously thought of cutting the whole thing and returning to England; but Phyllis had still a fascination for him in the freshness of her beauty. He was pleased, too, by the difference of her bearing towards himself and other people; and he found a constant source of cynical amusement in the haughty scornfulness of manner she assumed in public.
"By Gad," he used to mutter to himself at times, "what a grande dame spoilt! What a wife she might have made under other circumstances!"
But with all her fascination, by the end of October he had made up his mind at any rate to take a holiday to save himself from satiety, little as he liked to trust her alone. That she would not be likely to take it quietly he knew very well; and he wondered to himself whether, if he left her, she would break out with somebody else. She was the cynosure of all the men, and it flattered him to be her constant companion; and, though he told himself that that would be an easy way out of the entanglement, it was not without serious twinges of senile jealousy that he admitted the thought even to himself.
"I'll tell her that I've got to go to England on an important matter of business," he said to himself; "and then I'll return unexpectedly in a few days' time and see how things are shaping."
And with this intention he set out one morning for her flat, afraid that, if he delayed, his courage might ooze away; for frankly he was rather afraid at heart of this beautiful, imperious young girl, who had mastered him in a way that none of his many former loves had done.
He found Phyllis in a morning-wrapper seated on the sofa in her boudoir in a deep reverie.
As he entered she jumped up, waving a piece of pink paper in her hand. He saw that it was a telegram.
"News, Dandy, news," she cried eagerly. "Guess what it is."
He shook his head.
"Erskine coming back?" he suggested tentatively.
It was Phyllis's turn to shake her head.
"No," she said, with an unsuccessful attempt to conceal her delight, "no, he's dead. Died of fever in Central Africa."
The marquis started abruptly.
"Dead?" he exclaimed. "Erskine dead?"
The girl nodded.
"Yes," she answered slowly, "he is dead; and I am free!"
At first her callousness almost shocked even him; and then he began hastily in his own mind to review his position. Lionel had been all right in Africa. He had not wanted him home; but still less did he want him dead. Alive and several thousand miles away, he was a convenience. It had left him free to make promises and protestations which could not be misunderstood or taken too literally. Now he might at any time be taken at his word and called upon to fulfil them.
"My dear child," he began, hesitatingly, "I hardly know whether to—to congratulate you or—or to condole with you. It is altogether a rather unique situation."
Phyllis' lip curled.
"Don't condole, please," she said; "I'm not such a hypocrite as all that. When a man has treated a woman so badly as Lionel treated me, it's hardly fair to expect her to pretend to be sorry that he has passed out of her life. To congratulate might be brutal; but I'm not sure that it isn't a subject for congratulation."
Her coolness astounded him; and for the first time in his life he found himself at a loss what to say. He began to speak once or twice and then stopped short.
"I—I thought you would be pleased," said Phyllis at last, looking up at him puzzled. "It clears our path for us, doesn't it?"
"I don't know," said Lord Shelford grimly. "He was very convenient in a way; and you must realise that a young and lovely widow of your age practically reverts, so far as liberty is concerned, to the status quo ante."
Phyllis shrugged her shoulders impatiently. She had been waiting for him to say something which he had not said; and for the second time she felt the necessity of usurping the masculine function in the most embarrassing situation of the sexes.
"But, Dandy, dear," she begun with an unwonted diffidence, "you see it—it makes our marriage possible now—at least, that is, after a decent conventional interval."
The expected blow had fallen; and Lord Shelford promptly pulled himself together to extricate himself out of an unpleasant position.
"My dear child," he began, clearing his throat a trifle nervously, "as you know, of course, I'm very fond of you; but, you know, we mustn't rush things."
"I don't want to rush things," answered Phyllis composedly. "I proposed myself that we should wait as long as decency demanded, I thought that you might be in more of a hurry after the hundreds of times you have told me that, if it weren't for Lionel, you would marry me—that it would have been your greatest happiness to make me the Marchioness of Shelford."
Dandy had by this time completely recovered himself and his cynicism. The situation he felt must be nipped in the bud with the utmost promptitude.
"I'm quite content with things as they are," he said, with a chuckle. "I'm not a marrying man, you know."
For a moment Phyllis was in doubt how to act, how to meet this straight rebuff. Then with a great effort she mastered the rage which was boiling over inside her.
"I know that," she began, laughing with an assumption of gaiety; "but your time has come at last. It is all very well to try and postpone the evil day; but there is no getting out of it this time, Dandy."
He looked at her admiringly for a second. No woman had ever treated him like this before. The thought of marrying flashed across his mind; but his liberty was too precious. Besides, there was the unsurmountable obstacle of the mother. Such a thing was impossible.
"By Gad, you are a woman," he said appreciatively; "and if things were only different I swear I would marry you. You're the only woman who has ever got me to say as much as that seriously. But it's impossible, my dear child, utterly impossible."
Phyllis bit her lip sharply.
"Why impossible?" she asked in a measured, metallic voice.
Dandy shrugged his shoulders. Then he pulled the end of his carefully waxed moustache.
"You know, my dear child, you know quite well," he answered, with a peremptory touch of impatience. "Why worry me by asking useless questions?"
Phyllis blazed out. She saw that she was fighting a losing game against the callous cynicism of a brutalised sensualist; and that desire to kill, which had sometimes come over her in the case of Lionel, surged up in her heart till it nearly choked her, and a red haze seemed to come over her eyes.
"You mean that you are not going to marry me after all your protestations?" she said, in a voice hoarse with anger.
He nodded imperturbably.
"Just so," he said in a cool, level voice, free from any trace of nervousness. "Circumstances preclude it; and, besides, I am quite content with the present regime; and have no desire for matrimony."
"You—you cad!" exclaimed Phyllis furiously.
The marquis picked up his hat and shrugged his shoulders depreciatingly.
"If you are going to be vulgar and abusive," he said calmly, "I shall be forced to take my departure."
His tone cut Phyllis' pride to the quick; and she recovered herself with a superhuman effort.
"Only last night," she began in an even voice, "you told me for the thousandth time that you had never loved any woman but me—to the same extent—and that if it had not been for the obstacle of Lionel you would have been proud to make me your wife. Now chance has given you the opportunity of making good your words."
"Quite so, my dear child, quite so," he answered, with an easy air of assurance; "but these figures of speech, made under exceptional circumstances, must not be taken too literally. Not but what it is not true. Never in my life have I seen a woman for whom I have so great an admiration, a woman who would make such an ideal marchioness; but, you see," he added cynically, "it's out of the question. As a woman of the world you must admit it would be impossible for me to marry Mrs. Jerningham's daughter. And surely we are quite happy as we are?"
Phyllis did not say a word, but looked him straight in the face until his eyes dropped.
"I know women are apt to have absurd ideas on these points," he went on, abashed but not moved from his purpose. "But you, my dear child, are full of common-sense; and I am sure a little reflection will prove to you that every word I say is true—more's the pity. So I will leave you to think it over quietly by yourself. I will call this afternoon at four to take you out for a drive in the Bols; and then we can talk it over calmly without getting angry."
He paused for her reply; but Phyllis vouchsafed none. She merely continued to stare coldly and half-insolently into his face.
He looked at her admiringly for a moment, and then he turned and left the room without another word.
As the door closed on him a sound like a snarl broke from Phyllis' lips; and she crushed savagely in her hands the pink paper which half an hour before had meant so much to her.
"I'll be even with him yet," she muttered, as she heard the outer door shut on the marquis and all her hopes of social rehabilitation.
The intervening months had passed peacefully and pleasantly at Bracklesham Manor with that supreme uneventfulness which marks the happiest periods of life. At first Ralph had chafed at the attitude of his neighbors, who ignored the existence of the Shopwyke menage and cut all it's members, individually and collectively, whenever they happened to meet them; but he had soon got accustomed to it, realising how little he missed by it. Doris, too, had been distressed by the thought that he was paying the penalty of having married her with the disabilities of her position; but soon she in her turn began to realise that he was far happier as he was than he would ever have been had she persisted in her refusal. Moreover, there was a new source of interest to both of them which daily drew them more closely together with the strongest bond which can unite a man and a woman who love each other. And, above all, in the early days of love it is not such a great privation for two people to be left alone by the rest of the world, which is more often interfering and impertinent in its persistent curiosity and attentions, and always superfluous. Thus a little life within itself grew up at Bracklesham, monotonously happy and free from intrusion.
Of the three, Mrs. Jerningham, always keenly sensitive of her position, felt it the most, counting herself the sole cause of the anomalous condition of affairs; and it took many months for Ralph and Doris to persuade her that they did not bear her any unspoken grudge in their hearts for their compulsory isolation. But by degrees she, too, came to absorb the happiness of the atmosphere surrounding her, and in her turn grew absolutely contented, desiring only that her innocence might sooner or later be proved, though facing the improbability of such a thing.
The only events which broke in upon the monotony of their life were the appearances of Mrs. Chichele and Caton Bramber, who paid them week-end visits as frequently as possible, and always found an enthusiastic welcome awaiting them from all three. Mrs. Chichele was looked upon in the light of a second mother; and the lawyer was regarded as the family friend and counsellor, and always brought a fund of good spirits with him, which made his visits lively and interesting. At Bracklesham he seemed to throw off all the cares and worries of his busy life and to become as young as Ralph himself; and a warm friendship sprang up between the two men, despite the disparity of their ages. Doris he treated like a little daughter, and he never failed to bring her down all sorts of little presents, which delighted her and showed how much she was in his thoughts. Towards Mrs. Jerningham his attitude was one almost of reverence; and he always sought her society and laid himself out to brighten her clouded life. Between themselves, in the happiness of their own love, Ralph and Doris built up a little romance around them and allowed themselves to hope for developments in the future, though there was no outward sign on either side in existing relations.
And so the summer passed all too quickly for all three of them, as they began to realise that life holds no greater gift than the monotony of happiness. All was sunshine indoors and out, and things seemed too good to last; but for once they belied the ordinary contradictory course of nature, which too often allows happiness only to presage impending evil. But in their case the pleasure of living increased as the autumn drew on, and they began to expect the great event which had been the keynote of their happiness.
The only thing which had not fared satisfactorily was the investigation which Caton Bramber had instituted through Barnett's Agency; and they both had to admit that they had made no progress whatever. They had arrived at a certain point of suspicion; but they had entirely failed to discover any evidence to substantiate it and found themselves hampered at every turn by the long interval which had elapsed. The K.C. especially, felt the failure and began to realise the hopelessness of the task he had undertaken; and he realised that unless some chance aided him the matter would remain as it stood and Mrs. Jerningham's name would never be cleared. Many a long hour he spent poring over the matter, which was always the topic uppermost in his mind and he did not like to admit himself beaten even to himself. By the end of the summer he had reluctantly to acknowledge defeat after he had tried every possible clue and run them to a blind conclusion; and never in all his career had anything caused him keener disappointment. Therefore, being analytic and introspective by temperament, when he was up north on his holidays he set himself to probe the inmost workings of his own mind and to discover why the disappointment was so keen and so personal.
At the beginning of October Doris' baby was born—a chubby, aimless fragment of humanity, which seemed so wonderful to its young father and mother. Hardly second to them in their frank admiration were the baby's grandmother and Mrs. Chichele, who was staying at Bracklesham, and the little addition to the small community was the centre of a select throng of worshippers. Caton Bramber telegraphed his delight from Scotland and allotted to himself the post of godfather without waiting to be asked. It was the crowning point of the year's happiness, and to its inhabitants it seemed a very full little world in the west of Sussex.
During the days of Doris's convalescence Ralph could hardly be got to leave her side, and showed much paternal solicitude and ignorance with regard to his son and heir.
The great subject of discussion was what it should be called.
"Of course, aunty will be the godmother," said Doris decisively, "and you will have to be the other godfather yourself, Ralph as I don't know anybody else whom I would care to ask. Mother will be a sort of official godmother as well, but according to the canons of the church the official sponsors are limited."
"I don't mind betting she'll have more to do with the education of the brat than anyone else," laughed Ralph, trying to dissemble his paternal pride. "She hates it to be out of her sight."
"So do you," rejoined Doris, laughing back happily and patting the great, big hand which held her little one, "so you needn't pretend you don't."
"Yes, the kid's all right," admitted Ralph, "when it's not squawking."
"Baby never cries," said the young mother indignantly, "at least, hardly ever," she added, overcome by her sense of truthfulness.
"Yes, it's better than other babies," agreed Ralph indulgently.
"I wish you wouldn't call him 'it'," said Doris reprovingly. "Baby's a boy—not an animal or a thing."
"I'm sorry, darling," said her husband penitently. "It shan't occur again, but it will be easier to remember, when he's got a name of own, signed, sealed, and settled."
"He must be called after you," decided Doris promptly. "He's so like you, and—well, besides, I'd like him called after his father."
"Do you really think he's like me?" asked Ralph quizzingly, though secretly delighted. "To my mind he's more like a lump of dough with two currants in it."
Doris ignored the suggestion contemptuously and proceeded.
"And he must be called 'Chichele,' after aunty, and 'Caton' or 'Bramber,' after his godfather. Which do you think, dear?"
"'Bramber,'" said Ralph. "We'll call him 'Ralph Bramber Chichele Shopwyke—there's a name for you."
Doris clapped her hands with delight, and then, turning to the sleeping baby, confided to him his newly acquired name, speaking in that peculiar language which seems to come naturally to all mothers with the arrival of their firstborn, however tongue-tied or prosaic they may have been before.
Mrs. Chichele accepted the invitation with delight. She had been counting upon it secretly for many months, and had laid in a whole stock of presents in anticipation; and instead of going abroad as usual, she had spent the greater part of August and September with them to make certain of not missing the baby's arrival.
The christening was fixed for the end of October, and the night before Caton Bramber arrived with a silver mug large enough to put the baby in.
"These things aren't much use," he remarked, as he presented it; "but you are supposed to give a mug of some sort, I believe, on such occasions. I must confess never to have acted in such a capacity before. I've always refused hitherto."
"And this time you arranged to do it without being asked," said Doris laughing.
"So I did," he answered, laughing back. "But I was afraid you wouldn't ask me, and I wanted to have a sort of vested interest in this particular infant."
When he heard the baby's name he laughed again.
"Poor little brat," he said, pitying, "the name is big enough for a seven-foot man. Let's hope, if he ever has any cheques to sign, he'll have the sense to restrict himself to his initials!"
It was a merry family party that evening with Doris off an invalid footing for the first time, and Mrs. Chichele and the barrister to make things lively, but after dinner when the ladies had retired Caton Bramber settled himself down to talk seriously to Ralph about a subject very near to his heart.
"I have just been shooting with the Home Secretary," he began, as he took a preliminary sip of his port. "Elkington and I are very old friends, you know, and I shoot with him every year. In fact, we are such old friends that he and I can discuss almost any subject confidentially, and I made yet one more effort with regard to the case of your mother-in-law, treating it as an almost personal matter. He was very receptive, and, I may say, sympathetic, as he always is, but he gave me to understand that it was practically impossible to do anything without fresh evidence."
"Which, of course, you haven't got?" said Ralph, half interrogatively.
The K.C. shook his head grimly.
"Nor, I fear, am I likely to get any," he answered, admitting failure for the first time. "Barnett and I have been at work for months, with no result, and I am afraid that the lapse of 16 years makes the task hopeless. I have done everything in my power or in the power of any mortal man, and, disappointing and humiliating as it is, I must admit that I have failed utterly."
"We can never be grateful enough to you," began Ralph warmly, but the barrister interrupted him.
"It is not only for the sake of you all that I have tried to exonerate Mrs. Jerningham," he said in a clear, measured voice, "but for my own sake too."
Ralph looked up at him curiously and waited for him to go on.
"Yes," he proceeded deliberately, "for my own sake, too; for during the last year Mrs. Jerningham has grown to be more to me than a mere case, or even a dear friend. To go back sixteen years, at the time of the trial she touched my heart in a peculiar way which I hardly understood, being by nature and instinct a bachelor rather than a marrying man, and for years the impression remained with me, growing vaguer and vaguer as time went on. But I have never married, not so much because I was consciously in love with Helen Jerningham, but because I never met a woman I cared for sufficiently to bring into my life and to live with day in and day out under the peculiarly trying conditions of modern matrimony. But a year ago, when once again after all those long years I met Helen Jerningham I began to realise that to me she was different from other women, though not for some considerable time could I call myself in love with her. But in due course that came, too, but I lacked your pluck in facing the world, Ralph, my boy, and hoped to clear her in the eyes of the world before asking her to share my life. And, I must be allowed to add in fairness to myself, I felt that I could work better on her behalf with the authorities if there were no personal connection between herself and myself. But now that I have failed, and feel that it is hopeless to expect a revision of the case, I have made up my mind to offer her all that I have to offer—my love and the protection of my name."
He paused, looking Ralph straight in the face.
The younger man flushed with pleasure and held out his hand, which the other gripped heartily.
"It's too good to be true," said Ralph warmly. "Doris and I have been watching and building and hoping for it all the summer; and we have felt that it was all we wanted to complete our happiness. But with regard to yourself, the sacrifice——"
Caton Bramber interrupted him.
"The sacrifice I am prepared to make. I am a rich man, independent of anybody and everybody; and I prefer love to ambition. Moreover, I have many influential friends who will back me up, and nothing will go further to convince the world of Mrs. Jerningham's innocence than this step, if she will accept me. If she loves me, well and good; if not, it shall make no difference to the existing state of affairs. But I mean to allow no false ideas of my career or the future to come between her and me if she loves me; and she shall see that I am in earnest on that point. I have come down here with the intention of putting my fate to the test; and I shall speak to her after the christening to-morrow. I never dreamt that little Doris and you were match-making though," he concluded with a contented laugh. "But it's a real pleasure to me to learn that it would be so welcome to you both."
Ralph laughed gaily.
"It's just splendid. We're both devoted to the mother and to you, too; and to see you both happy in such a way would just complete and round off the happiness of our life. And, if I may hazard a guess, I think she is as much in love with you as you are with her. She is always so eager when you are coming down and always seems so delighted. But I know, on the other hand, that you'll have a hard task to make her yield, as she will imagine that it is wrong to you, just as Doris did once in my case. I never met a more truly unselfish woman."
"I'm with you there, Ralph," laughed the K.C.; "and if that is her only objection I may confide in you that I do not intend to take 'no' for an answer. It is my one hope in life to make up a little to her for all she has so unjustly suffered."
"People will talk tremendously," said Ralph thoughtfully.
"Let them," answered Caton Bramber contemptuously. "But, mind you, Ralph, I've taken you into my confidence; and not a word to a soul till after I have had my little say to-morrow."
"Mayn't I tell Doris?" asked the younger man disappointedly.
"Well, I'll stretch a point and let you tell Doris, as I think she is safe enough not to give things away," said the other indulgently. "Now, come along and join the ladies."
The big, warm kiss with which Doris greeted him the next morning and the unspoken message of her big, shining eyes showed the K.C. that she shared and sympathised with his secret; and he felt happy in the thought that there was no fear of his reception by the family.
He walked across to the little church with Mrs. Jerningham, but adhered to his intention to say nothing till the afternoon in case it might upset the harmony of the little party. Besides, he knew that, even though Mrs. Jerningham might reciprocate his feelings, it would be no easy matter to break down the many objections which she would be sure to raise.
The ceremony in the almost deserted church did not last long, and after it the party returned to the house for lunch. It was a merry little gathering, and everybody was in the highest of spirits. Doris and Ralph were particularly happy, their own private happiness doubled by the thought of the happiness which was at last in store or the mother, to whom they were both so devoted.
At the close of lunch Caton Bramber rose to propose the baby's health with a glass of champagne in his right hand. He made a neat, playful little speech in the style which had gained him the reputation of being the best after-dinner speaker in London.
"For the virtues of this infant," he concluded, "I must refer you to the mother. To me they appear negative rather than positive; but I am prepared to take her assurance. So we are all agreed that Master Ralph Bramber Chichele Shopwyke is the finest baby which ever was born; and I ask you all to drink his health."
As he finished they all rose and lifted their glasses to toast the unconscious hero of the occasion when suddenly a loud crash followed by a report startled and interrupted them.
"A motor accident," exclaimed Ralph, putting down his glass quickly, "and it sounds a bad smash. Come on, Mr. Bramber."
And the two men left the room hurriedly and ran down the drive.
The house at Bracklesham was only a short distance from the road, and the gate stood on a sharp double curve, which was dangerous if taken carelessly or too fast.
When the two men reached the spot they found the keeper who lived at the lodge already on the spot beside the blazing wreck of a car. The dark form of a woman lay in the road between the gateposts, and a man in the livery of a chauffeur was leaning against the hedge, breathing heavily.
"What has happened, Giles?" Ralph called out to the keeper as they ran up.
"The driver took the corners too fast, sir," the man answered, "and the near wheel of the car crashed bang into the gatepost. He doesn't seem much hurt, but the lady is pretty bad, I reckon."
The chauffeur turned as they came up.
"I'm all right, sir," he panted, "only winded and a bit stunned. Something snapped in the steering, I think, at the critical moment. It's Lady Margaret Maitland's car and she seems badly hurt."
"Lady Margaret Maitland?" both men exclaimed, and then the K.C. added, below his breath. "Good God, it must be fate."
Ralph and he approached the still figure in the road and knelt down beside it.
"She is still alive," said the lawyer, laying his hand on her heart, "but she seems badly damaged. We must get her up to the house as quickly as possible and send for the doctor."
All Ralph's resentment against the woman who had done her best to wreck the happiness of his home vanished in the face of her dire need.
"Here, Giles," he called out to the keeper, "run like the devil to the stable and send one of the men off post-haste for Dr. Turner, and tell the others to come down here at once and lend a hand. Then go on to the house and tell them to get a bed ready, and hurry back here with some brandy and a mattress. The car's done for," he added, glancing at the burning motor as the man started off, "it's no good trying to do anything for that."
Caton Bramber, meanwhile, with a stern face, was examining the motionless form of Lady Margaret.
"Concussion," he said shortly, "and pretty bad, too. Left leg broken and internal injuries, I expect. Give me your knife."
Ralph handed him his knife, and he began to cut away the torn and tangled clothing and to straighten out the limbs.
"We must unhitch a gate," he went on. "That one leading into the park will do it; it's firm and flat. Lay the mattress on it and we'll lift her on to it to carry her up to the house."
With the aid of the men who ran up from the stable Ralph lifted the gate from its hinges, and by the time Giles returned with the brandy and the mattress it was lying beside the black figure on the ground.
The K.C. forced a little brandy between the clenched teeth and then helped the men to place her gently on the improvised stretcher. As they moved her she groaned.
"Still alive," he said, "and in great pain; so be very careful all of you to lift the gate evenly, and, above all, keep step so as not to jolt her."
The journey to the house was a slow and painful affair, and in the hall Mrs. Jerningham met them.
"You will have to leave the gate here," she said, "and carry her upstairs on the mattress. The gate is too wide; I have been measuring."
Then as the men started on the last part of their difficult journey she turned to Caton Bramber and said:—
"I have sent Doris into the drawing-room to wait and I am going to take charge of the nursing. I had a good deal of experience, you see—in prison."
He looked at her admiringly.
"You are an angel," he said in a low voice, and she understood and felt repaid for much.
He went straight into the drawing-room, where he found Doris and Mrs. Chichele pale and white-faced.
"Is she—is she—?" began Mrs. Chichele.
"No," he answered gravely; "she is not dead; but I think she is very bad. But we must wait and see what Dr. Turner says."
"Fancy it being Lady Margaret of all people," said Doris in a shocked voice, "and this house, too!"
"Yes," said Caton Bramber grimly, "it is the hand of Providence—more so, perhaps, than you realise."
Neither fully understood him, but they nodded in silent acquiescence.
Then Doris spoke.
"I must go and see if there is anything I can do to help mother. They may want something."
"I'll come with you dear," said Mrs. Chichele, and Caton Bramber found himself left alone.
Accustomed to crises, he was perfectly cool and wore an almost professional air. His brain, too, was working rapidly and he was forming his plan of action.
"If she only lives long enough," he murmured to himself, "it may still be possible to put things right."
For many months he had been searching for proofs and had only found confirmed suspicions with nothing tangible behind them. Now fate had thrown in his way such a chance of cross-examination as had never been vouchsafed to the keenest Treasury official; and he did not mean to let it slip. He did not believe in sham sentiment or mock conventions. He had work to do, and he intended to do it. He was convinced in his own mind, and if he could right the wrong of the past sixteen years and lift the disgrace from the name of the innocent woman who had suffered, he did not mean to mince matters. His face was grim and set, and there was a strange determination about the line of the lips.
He sat down on the couch for a moment and mentally organised his plans, rehearsing the scene in which he hoped to play the principal part.
"If only she does not die," he said half aloud in a compressed voice.
Then, as he heard the men descending the stairs, he stepped out into the hall, his plans fully formed.
"One minute," he said. "You, Giles, run over to the rectory and ask Mr. Saunders to come across at once. Explain to him what has happened. And you, Roberts," he went on, addressing Ralph's newly-acquired chauffeur, "bring the motor round to the front door as quickly as possible. I want you to take a note into Chichester for me at top-speed and bring back one or both the gentlemen I am writing to. I want to speak to you a minute, Ralph," he concluded, leading the way to the library.
Ralph followed him, and as the door closed the K.C. asked him,
"Who are your solicitors in Chichester?"
"Ferrers and Forsyth," he answered, puzzled.
"And who act for Lady Margaret Maitland?"
"They do, too."
"So much the better. It simplifies matters."
He sat down at the table and dashed off a note, asking both partners, if possible to return on the motor on a matter of life or death. His name in the legal world, he knew, would ensure their doing what he asked.
He took it out to Roberts with his own hands and gave him minute instructions. Then he returned to Ralph.
"You will think I am acting strangely, my dear chap," he said, laying his hand on the other's arm, "and you must forgive me for issuing orders in your house, but it is a matter of such urgent importance that we have no time to stand on ceremony."
"Of course," said Ralph heartily. "Do whatever you think best and give any orders you want to. You know you have my fullest sanction to do anything in this house. But," he added, looking at him closely, "what is there behind this?"
Caton Bramber looked grim.
"You remember that I told you once that I had suspicions as to who was the real criminal in the Jerningham case?"
Ralph looked up in surprise.
"Well," went on The K.C. abruptly, "it is Lady Margaret Maitland whom I suspect. Since then I have been unable to obtain any proofs, but I have had my suspicious strengthened. If she recovers consciousness I mean to have the matter out before witnesses. That's why I have sent for Ferrers, Forsyth, and Saunders, and Turner will be here, too. Now not a word to a soul; leave everything to me."
Ralph was too astonished to speak, and before he could recover himself they heard the sound of wheels coming up the drive.
"That's the doctor," exclaimed the older man, eager for action, and he hurried out of the room.
In a few words he explained to the doctor what had occurred and then he led him upstairs to the sick-room.
Mrs. Jerningham met them on the threshold.
"She is still unconscious," she whispered as they entered.
It did not take Dr. Turner long to run his skilled hands over the inanimate form, and as he left the bedside his face was very grave.
"No hope," he said shortly. "The left leg and arm are broken in several places, and the internal injuries are frightful."
"God help her," murmured Mrs. Jerningham softly.
"Will she recover consciousness?" rapped out Caton Bramber with a sharp eagerness which appeared almost indecent and made Mrs. Jerningham look up at him in surprise.
"Probably—just before the end," the doctor answered. "That is the usual thing in these cases."
"Thank you," said the K.C., almost triumphantly. "May I speak to you alone downstairs for a moment?"
"In a little while," answered the doctor; "but I have some things to do up here first, if you will leave us."
Caton Bramber left the room with a feeling of triumph. At last he felt that he saw the end of his long search after truth. For the motionless woman on the bed he had little or no sympathy. To him she was merely a case, and it seemed to him that her sufferings were small beside what she had made another suffer in her place. That she was a murderess he was convinced in his heart.
Downstairs he found Ralph in the library with the rector.
"A change from the happy auspices of this morning," said the latter, shaking hands with the barrister. "'In the midst of life we are in death.'"
"Yes," admitted Caton Bramber grimly; "it is a truism which we are most of us apt to forget. Dr. Turner says that the case is hopeless, and that it is at the outside a matter of a few hours, but he expects a return of consciousness before the end. I sent for you, Mr. Saunders," he went on, "on a matter of vital importance, which I will explain to you and Dr. Turner together, as soon as ever he comes downstairs. I will then state frankly what is in my mind and ask you to help me. I have also sent for Mr. Ferrers and Mr. Forsyth, from Chichester and I hope that they will be here shortly. Meanwhile, if you will excuse me, I have some orders to give."
The K.C. left the room and sought out the butler.
"I want a table at which two men can write and half a dozen chairs taken upstairs and placed outside the sick-room so that they can be moved in at a moment's notice. I shall also need some screens to shut them off from the bed and plenty of writing materials. See that this is done at once, as I wish everything to be in readiness."
Then he returned to the library.
"Ralph," he said to the younger man, "you had better go and tell Mrs. Chichele and Doris what the doctor says; but, mind, not a hint of the other matter to a soul."
Ralph nodded and left the room.
Then Caton Bramber turned to the clergyman.
"You will excuse my smoking?" he asked, lighting a cigar, as the other acquiesced, but refused one on his own behalf. "My nerves at the moment are at high tension and nothing has the same effect as tobacco."
"I smoke myself," said the rector, "but only when off duty. I am not one of these extremists who feel called upon to forswear it as a luxury. Of course it has its abuses as well as its uses."
"I am going to ask you to take part in the strangest scene in all my experience," said the barrister, plunging into the middle of things, "and probably of your own, too, and I hope that when I have fully explained things to you, you will help me in the matter. Indeed, I am sure your sense of duty as a clergyman will make you feel the necessity of the action I intend to take. All you will have to question is my view of the preliminary facts and my most earnest conviction, and I will personally take the fullest responsibility. As a clergyman, do you not believe that a soul should not face its Maker with the great sin of a life time unconfessed, especially if another has suffered for and will continue to suffer for that sin?"
"So far I am with you most heartily," agreed the rector, "but——"
"I am convinced," continued the K.C. solemnly, "that Lady Margaret Maitland is guilty of the gravest sin in the calendar—the sin of murder—and, moreover, that an innocent person has suffered for her sin, and will continue to do so, unless she confesses that sin."
Mr. Saunders stared in surprise.
"You astound me," he said, "I have always known her as a good Churchwoman and a most charitable woman."
"I expected that you would be surprised," said Caton Bramber gravely. "But most people have two sides to their lives, one public and the other private. But I will explain."
The door opened and Ralph entered.
"The car is just arriving with both Ferrers and Forsyth," he announced. "Shall I ask them in here?"
"Please," answered the K.C. "I will defer any explanation till we are all together, as it will save telling a painful story twice over."
A moment later the two solicitors were shown in and introduced by Ralph.
Caton Bramber greeted them cordially, and they treated him with a certain deference of manner which Ralph was quick to notice.
"It is very kind of you, gentlemen," said the K.C., "to respond so promptly to my note. You may be sure that if it had not been so urgent I should not have made such a point of it."
"That is what we both felt, Mr. Bramber," said Ferrers, the senior partner, a white-haired man of close on sixty; "and we knew that you must have a good reason. Therefore we both came along without a moment's delay."
Forsyth, a smart-looking young man of thirty, who possessed the brains of the firm, nodded, but omitted to point out that it was he who had emphasised that such an eminent lawyer as Caton Bramber was not likely to send such urgent messages to solicitors without strong cause.
"It is a terrible thing this about Lady Margaret," went on Ferrers, to the clergyman. "Is there no hope?"
"The doctor says there is none," answered Mr. Saunders, gravely.
"All her legal affairs are in order," continued the solicitor, as though at a loss for the reason of the summons. "Did she ask for me and my partner personally?"
"Lady Margaret Maitland has not yet recovered consciousness," said Caton Bramber. "It is I personally who am responsible for sending for you, and I am about to explain the reason why as soon as Dr. Turner joins us. I expect him downstairs every minute."
It was not long before the doctor entered the room, looking particularly grave.
He nodded to the rector and the two solicitors, whom he knew well.
"How is Lady Margaret?" asked Ferrers, eagerly.
"As bad as can be," answered the medical man. "She has not yet recovered consciousness, or shown any signs of doing so. She is badly injured internally, in addition to external fractures; and she can not live more than a few hours."
A silence fell on the room, and then Caton Bramber, who was standing on the hearthrug, began to speak in the deep, resonant voice, which had so often kept the court spell-bound.
"Gentlemen, I have a very grave and sad duty before me, but one from which I shall not flinch; and I want your help in righting a wrong of old standing. You who know my reputation as an experienced and hard-headed lawyer will realise that I am not the kind of person to waste my time and that of other people on wild goose chases, nor am I in the habit of jumping at rash conclusions. Now, gentlemen, the case in all my career which has absorbed my attention more than any other, and has been constantly present with me ever since my early days at the bar, is the Jerningham case. Lately I have grafted on the purely legal aspect the additional interest of personal friendship; and, as is well known, I have have always regarded Mrs. Jerningham as the victim of a grave misfortune, to give it no harsher name. Now, gentlemen, as we sit here this afternoon, we are or the edge of the mystery; and within a few hours Mrs. Jerningham will, I feel confident, be exonerated, and our names will be appended to a confession which will set the whole of England ringing. You do not follow me, I see. I will make myself clearer. That a crime was intended in the Jerningham case is clear; and the weak point of the defence which was conducted by the late Lord O'Brien and myself was the fact that we could produce no alternative criminal. Only a few months ago, owing to an incident which occurred in this very house, I, after all those years, stumbled across a clue, which provided me with the missing link; but unfortunately the lapse of time made it impossible to bring the case home to the real criminal. Now the hand of Providence has come to aid the cause of innocence by a strange interposition. Gentleman, I will tell you the name of the real criminal in this case, and then I will give you my reasons for what I assert. The real criminal is no other than the woman who lies so near to death upstairs, Lady Margaret Maitland."
He paused for a moment at the exclamation of surprise which broke from his small audience. Then he continued, holding up his hand for silence.
"All I ask of you is a hearing. Let me give you my reasons and let me recapitulate the facts of the case in the light of this later discovery."
The K.C. proceeded to recount the whole familiar story, going into all the facts and analysing them carefully; and then he went on to read his own conclusions into them, speaking sharply and concisely to his spell-bound listeners.
"I admit, gentlemen, that I have not proved my case against the unhappy woman upstairs, who is so soon to meet her Maker face to face. All I claim to have done is to have established the right to ask her a few questions when she recovers consciousness, and to give her, if guilty, the opportunity of unburdening her conscience before it is too late. The responsibility is mine. All I ask of you is your presence in the sick chamber to witness any confession that may be made, and to append your names, if any be made, to a document, with which in a day or two the whole of Britain will ring. Will you go so far with me?"
No one spoke for a minute, and Ralph's eyes scanned their faces eagerly one after the other.
At last the rector broke the silence.
"Having known Lady Margaret as I have known her for many years, it is hard to credit such a thing; but Mr. Bramber has certainly made out a superficial case. Therefore, I think, if it is only to give her the chance of denying this grave charge, that we ought to countenance these questions being put to her. As her spiritual adviser I consent."
"As her medical adviser, I can only say that it can make no difference one way or the other," said Dr. Turner, grimly. "She may or may not recover consciousness; but I anticipate that she will do so. I shall be present, and shall remain until the end."
Then Forsyth spoke, knowing that the onus of making a decision for the firm lay on him.
"In a way Mr. Ferrers and I may be said to be acting for all the parties concerned," he said; "and in such a capacity I will be present, and will, if Mr. Bramber wishes it, take down any confession should one be made."
The K.C. thanked him with a look.
"I—I hardly like the position, I must own," said the old lawyer, wiping his glasses, nervously; "but I suppose that I must be present, as everyone else seems to think it right."
"Then, gentlemen, you are all agreed; and I thank you for the confidence which you are displaying in my judgment. Believe me, it is only a sense of duty and justice which has made me put you and myself into such a painful position. I have had everything prepared upstairs; and you shall be summoned as soon as Dr. Turner considers it necessary."
Then, with an inclusive bow, Caton Bramber left the room accompanied by the doctor.
Darkness was drawing on, and the Autumn afternoon was closing in; and soon the lights had to be lit. Then began the grim vigil.
Hour after hour passed almost in silence as the men sat in the library immersed in thought, wondering at the strange turn which things had taken. At each footstep or turn of the door handle they started up, expecting the summons to the sickroom.
Caton Bramber kept apart from the others, pacing up and down the dining-room in feverish anxiety, fearful lest death might deprive him of the opportunity of exonerating the woman he loved. It was easy to see in him a personal as well as a professional desire to put his theory to the test; and he smoked incessantly, chewing the ends of the cigars in his nervous tension. Every half-hour he paid a visit of inquiry to the sick-room, only to meet with the same tale. Lady Margaret was still unconscious, though alive; and each time he retraced his steps to the dining-room with increased anxiety.
There was no attempt made at a formal meal; but at eight o'clock the watchers snatched a few hasty mouthfuls at the suggestion of Dr. Turner, who realised that, little inclined as they might feel for food, they might be in need of it before all was over. Then they returned to the library to renew their vigil, talking and smoking intermittently. Mrs. Jerningham kept her place by the bedside of the dying woman, and Mrs. Chichele and Doris remained upstairs. Ralph acted as host to the best of his ability under the extraordinary circumstances.
Towards eleven o'clock the K.C. began to show signs of increased anxiety as he paced up and down with great impatience and smoked more furiously than ever.
"If she should slip through my hands now," he muttered anxiously to himself. "Perhaps she will not recover consciousness."
For the first time since he had conceived his daring plan of action, upon which so much depended, he began to lose confidence. From the beginning he had not questioned but that she would recover her senses; but now he began to fear that she might pass away without coming to herself.
In a fever of anxiety he hastened upstairs to pay yet another visit of inquiry to the sick-room.
Dr. Turner met him on the threshold.
"I see signs of returning consciousness; I think," he whispered, with a warning finger on his lips. "It may or it may not be so; but it is as well to be prepared."
"Good," muttered the barrister, almost eagerly; but he repressed the feeling of triumph. Then he added: "By the way, I do not wish Mrs. Jerningham to be in the room; will you kindly send her out? I will go and fetch the others at once."
The two solicitors, the clergyman, and Ralph were anxiously awaiting the summons, and followed Caton Bramber upstairs noiselessly in single file. Entering the room behind him they seated themselves at the writing-table hidden by the screen.
The K.C. leaned over and whispered something in Mr. Saunders' ear; and the clergyman rose and took his place near Dr. Turner at the bedside. The doctor was holding his patient's uninjured hand in his with one finger on the pulse; and from time to time he rose from his seat, and pushed back an eyelid, scanning the eye carefully.
It was a weird scene. On the bed lay the motionless body with its pale face, and beside it stood the clergyman and the doctor. At the end of the bed in the shadow stood Caton Bramber with his arms crossed, grimly waiting and watching. Behind the screen was a table covered with writing materials; and on it stood a reading-lamp with a dark shade. At the table sat Mr. Ferrers polishing his glasses nervously; and beside him was his partner with a pen in his hand, alert and ready for action. Ralph sat a little back, lost in thought, and looking into space. In the darkened room there was no sound except the tense breathing of anxious men.
At length a low moan came from the bed.
"She is coming to," said Dr. Turner in a quiet voice, audible to all, as he forced a little brandy through the pallid lips. "I am going to inject something to strengthen the action of the heart."
There was another anxious pause, during which Ralph felt as though he could scream from the strain on his nerves. Then there was a louder moan, and a slight movement.
Then a weak voice broke the awful silence.
"Where—where am I?" came the faint, querulous question.
Mr. Saunders stepped forward, following the K.C.'s instructions.
"In the house of Helen Jerningham's daughter," he said, in a low, clear voice. "Do you understand me?"
A faint affirmative came from the bed.
"She is quite conscious now," said Dr. Turner quietly, keeping his hand on his patient's pulse.
"You have only a short time to live," went on the clergyman, solemnly. "Do you wish to make your peace with God?"
Then Caton Bramber swiftly intervened, stepping forward with upraised hand, and accusing finger stretched out. He spoke in a loud distinct voice that sent an icy thrill through the anxious listeners, articulating slowly.
"Margaret Somers, you stand at the bar before Almighty God; and I adjure you to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as you hope for His mercy."
The dying woman started, gazing dimly through her glazed eyes.
"I ask you solemnly," the great barrister went on, impressively, "knowing that within a few hours you will face your Makers, as you hope for God's justice on the last Great Day, did you or did you not on the fourteenth of May, 1880, dispatch from the Vere-street Post-office, London, with your own hands a registered parcel containing a bottle of 'Brand's Saline Powder' mounted in a silver stand, and poisoned with cyanide of potassium, addressed to Mrs. Montagu Jerningham, at 199, Portland Place, with intent to kill her and not her husband, Montagu Jerningham? This I ask you solemnly in the presence of witnesses, as you hope for future salvation."
A deep silence again fell on the room as the cold, measured voice of the King's Counsel ceased.
The eyes of the woman on the bed seemed transfixed, and burned like live coals. She made an effort to move, and fell back with a hideous groan.
"I—I did," she gasped; "and may God have mercy on my soul?"
"Amen," murmured the clergyman, kneeling by the bed.
Meanwhile Forsyth had been writing rapidly on the foolscap in front of him; and he rose and handed it silently to Caton Bramber with a pen.
Then he spoke again, addressing the wretched woman on the bed.
"Are you prepared to sign this confession which I have here, so that justice may be done? If so, I will read it over to you."
Lady Margaret made a sign of assent; and he read over to her slowly in his clear, unflinching voice the confession which the lawyer had drafted, giving each word a solemn emphasis.
"Have you anything to add?" he asked.
"The registration receipt is in the secret drawer of my jewel case," she murmured, speaking with difficulty. "I—I don't know why I kept it."
A look of triumph flitted over the K.C.'s face; but he suppressed it instantly.
"If you cannot write your name, make a mark," said Forsyth, taking her hand gently, and placing the pen in it, and with a painful effort she made a cross.
Then he withdrew to the table, and one by one they witnessed the document in silence.
The woman on the bed lay moaning and babbling.
"God, oh God," she groaned feebly, "I'm too wicked to die—too wicked to die. Oh, God!"
The groans seemed to be growing feebler, and a glaze again began to shroud her eyes.
"Can I do anything for you?" asked the kneeling clergyman, who was holding her hand, and praying audibly. "Remember, 'If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.'"
"Ah, forgive——" panted the dying woman—"Helen Jerningham—forgive!"
Ralph left the room swiftly and silently, and a moment later Mrs. Jerningham entered the door, and approached the bed.
She leant over the gasping body of her enemy, as her fast closing eyes opened for the last time, and caught sight of the woman she had wronged.
"For—give," she muttered with difficulty, pleading hoarsely.
"I do forgive," said Helen Jerningham, in her sweet, calm voice, bending down and kissing the forehead of the dying woman.
Lady Margaret sank back with a sigh and a groan, followed by a strange rattling sound.
"She is dead," said Dr. Turner quietly, closing her eyes.
And Caton Bramber turned and left the room without a word.
A blind rage seized Phyllis when she found herself alone. The room began to go round, and she began to see red, and paroxysm after paroxysm shook her from head to foot. She dug her teeth into the cushion on the couch, raving and tearing at it as though it were an animate object. She seemed to have lost all power and control over herself and her faculties, and for the moment she was mad with passion.
It was some time before she recovered herself sufficiently to articulate; and then she broke out into a wild storm of abuse against everybody and everything, especially Lord Shelford.
"Curse him, curse everybody," she exclaimed passionately. "The insult and the degradation of it! I could kill him—kill him! I only wish I had the chance. I hate him, loathe him—the detestable, old roue. I'll kill him, I swear I'll kill him, if I get a chance; and I don't care if I do swing for it, if only I can avenge the insults he has heaped upon me."
Gradually her rage calmed down; and little by little she regained control over herself, and began to think coolly.
She realised that she had failed in her calculations to rehabilitate herself by becoming a marchioness; but she was candid enough to own that for the present, at any rate, she was unable to do without the financial and personal assistance of Lord Shelford. It was the bitterest blow that her pride had ever suffered that she should have to accept the situation tamely and pocket the insult she had received from the cynical lips of her elderly admirer; but she had sufficient worldly sense to realise that she must keep in with him for the present, at any rate, till something better turned up. And for the first time the realisation was borne in upon her that she had put herself, proud woman that she was, into such a position that she could not afford to be proud. But the fact that she had to smother her rage against him and dissimulate it did not tend to make it any the less real; and in her heart she consoled herself with a promise of ultimate vengeance at any cost.
Soon she completely recovered her old faculty of cool reasoning; and she decided that at least she could afford to play him for a day or two and awaken him to a sense of what he might have lost. That he was sincerely attached to her in his own peculiar way, she was perfectly certain; and, moreover, she knew that it flattered him to be seen about with such a young and lovely woman. So she made up her mind to deny herself to him for a few days and to see what effect that would have upon his frame of mind. All his life he had been accustomed to too easy successes of good looks, position, and wealth; and Phyllis wondered how he would take a little opposition.
So for once she allowed herself to indulge in the feminine luxury of a nervous headache, as the reaction of the excitement of the morning and her furious outbreak of temper, and lay down in her room with the blinds drawn, instructing her maid that she was not at home to anybody, even his lordship.
He, on his side, was rather amused at the events of the morning, reckoning that he had not got out or it so badly, and anticipating no further trouble.
"Damned nuisance, Erskine's death!" he muttered to himself, as he strolled back to his apartment. "Very tactless of him to go and die when he was so much required by his young wife and her best friends; but it can't be helped now. By Jove, she did look devilish fine when she drew herself up and tried to wither me!"
He chuckled to himself at the recollection and allowed himself again to think with no little regret what a splendid marchioness she would have made for him under happier auspices. For the last year or two the thought of a suitable marriage of convenience had been in his mind; but he was so very exacting in his ideas of the lady whom he should honor with the offer of his hand, if not his heart, that he had as yet found no suitable candidate for the post. In Phyllis he saw the very woman he wanted, and one to whom he could even give a strictly limited portion of his withered heart; but unfortunately there were insuperable social objections.
"She will have got over it by the afternoon, and be herself again," he told himself optimistically, over a carefully selected lunch and a bottle of his favorite champagne. "I'll call about four and take her out for a drive in the Bols."
Four o'clock sharp found him ringing the bell of Phyllis' flat with the smartest of electric landaulets waiting outside. To his surprise and chagrin he was told that she was at home to nobody, as she was lying down with a bad headache.
"I wonder if it is a migraine or a little bit of temper?" he reflected to himself, as he drove off; and then, deciding to make overtures, he ordered the man to stop at the nearest florist, from whom he bought a large bouquet of roses to be sent round at once with his card.
The next morning he called again, only to be refused admittance on the ground that Phyllis was not up yet, and was still prostrated with headache; and he went away by no means in the best of tempers, stifling his wrath, however, and leaving a message to say that he would call again at four to take her for a drive.
At four o'clock he was informed that her ladyship had gone out half an hour before and had left no message.
He was furious at what he could see was meant to be an intentional snub; and his first impulse was to leave Paris at once and return to England. With this intention he drove straight back to the flat, begging for an interview on the ground that he was leaving Paris for England on urgent business. Previously he had sent round a magnificent basket of flowers to pave the way for his reception. This, combined with the half threat of desertion, would, he thought, bring Phyllis to her bearings; but, to his intense chagrin and surprise, her maid brought him down a message to say that her mistress was engaged all the morning. She would, however, be in at four that afternoon if he cared to call.
The marquis bit his lip savagely, but put the best face on things before the servant, saying that he would drop in to tea. For the first time in his life he was piqued. As a rule, women of all classes had tumbled over one another to fawn on and flatter him, and he was totally unaccustomed to resistance. At first his arrogant temper had revolted abruptly from the new sensation and the woman who had furnished him with it; but, as he had cooled down and the hours had grown into days, he had found his thoughts more and more centred upon the elusive object of his affections, and the more difficult of approach Phyllis became and the more likely it appeared that he was about to lose her finally, the more desirable did she grow in his eyes, until his intention of being angry and authoritative dwindled into an attitude of pleading and submission. Phyllis, as a beautiful young widow with a title and no inconsiderable dowry between her own money and the money Lionel had left her, he realised would be certain to marry again, despite the handicaps of her birth, and to marry well; and she could not, therefore, afford to compromise herself too far with him. So it was with mixed feelings of anxiety and sulkiness, coupled with a more ardent desire for her than he had ever felt for her or any other woman, that he entered the drawing-room at 4 o'clock.
"Hallo, Dandy, how do you do?" was her cool greeting, as she extended the tips of her fingers to him.
"How are you, dear child?" he answered, rather dumbfounded by her obviously hostile attitude. "I have been very anxious about you the last two or three days."
"Oh, I have been all right," she answered, carelessly, passing him a cup of tea; "a bit headachey, you know. Besides, it is only etiquette for a widow to keep in retirement for a short time, if only to give herself a chance of fixing things up comfortably with her dressmakers."
"But I don't see any trappings of woo about you?" said Lord Shelford, interrogatively, eyeing her filmy green tea-gown.
Phyllis shrugged her shoulders.
"Not in Paris, but I've got to be ready to go back to town and see the family lawyers, and do a penance to conventions for a time."
"May I have the pleasure of acting escort?" asked Lord Shelford diffidently.
Phyllis eyed him coolly.
"Really, I think you had better not," she answered, coldly. "Even to me it seems hardly decent. And, besides, as it is now worth my while not to compromise myself, I don't suppose in the future we shall see nearly so much of each other."
Lord Shelford cleared his dry throat nervously.
"What do you mean?" he asked, with an anxious look in his black eyes, which were devouring Phyllis greedily.
"Only that I am not content with the present state of things; and I do not intend it to continue. You must marry me or give me right up. The choice lies with yourself. But I do not intend to ruin all my prospects in the future by compromising myself with you."
The marquis sat thinking for a minute.
"I can't marry you," he said, hoarsely. "You know I can't marry you under the circumstances. I owe something to my family and my breeding."
It was Phyllis' turn to bite her lip; but she maintained her attitude of sang froid.
"Very well, then, I don't think there is much more to be said. Will you have another cup of tea?"
"I—I would marry you if it weren't for the obstacle of your mother," began Lord Shelford, trying to make an explanation; "but that makes it impossible apart from anything else."
Phyllis went on pouring out the tea with a steady hand, and handed the cup to him coolly.
"So you have been good enough to give me to understand before," she answered with a touch of asperity. "Now kindly let us close the subject; and do not let me detain you too long from your packing and preparations for departure."
The marquis winced under the directness of the hint.
"Mayn't I——" he began.
"No, you mayn't," replied Phyllis, without waiting to hear the end of his sentence. "The line is drawn now hard and fast at the bottom of the page, and we start immediately upon our new footing, Lord Shelford."
He was about to speak when the door opened, and the maid entered with a telegram.
"You will excuse me?" asked Phyllis, taking it off the salver and opening it.
He bowed acquiescence as she began to read it.
As she read a sudden flush came into her cheeks, and her eyes grew bright.
"Will you marry me now?" she asked, handing it over to him.
He read it carefully. It was from her solicitors, and ran:
"Confession by Lady Margaret Maitland published this morning completely exonerating Mrs. Jerningham. Intense excitement everywhere."
"Now will you marry me?" Phyllis repeated, with a note of triumph in her voice. As a marchioness she would be in a splendid position to pay off a lot of old social scores.
"Noblesse oblige," he answered, with a shrug of his shoulders and a bad grace, feeling that there was no way out of it, and suffering a sudden revulsion of feeling. "But, by Gad," he added, grimly, "you'll have to behave yourself."
Phyllis shrugged her shoulders impatiently.
"You can go your way, and I can go mine, when we get tired of each other," she answered, lightly.
Throughout England Mrs. Jerningham was the heroine of the hour; and her name was upon everybody's lips. Those who had always upheld her innocence triumphantly congratulated themselves upon their own perspicuity, and discussed the great event with a conscious air of superiority, while in the case of those who had regarded her as guilty chagrin yielded to love of sensation. The papers were full of the case, and the old story was told again and again, whilst the evidence was analysed afresh in the light of the new facts. Everything seemed so simple and so obvious that everybody wondered why they had not all thought of the real criminal before; and Mrs. Jerningham, from being the subject of debate, and anything from the object of execration to a case for condescending pity, became the most popular person in the kingdom. The Press, voicing the public desire, demanded official pardon and compensation; and Bracklesham was besieged with reporters and interviewers.
Owing to the loquacity of Mr. Ferrers the part which Caton Bramber had played in the final elucidation of the problem became public property; and he shared with Mrs. Jerningham the popularity of the hour. Personally, he was annoyed that the details of the painful, though necessary, scene beside the death-bed should have become generally known, and he kept himself as much in the background as possible.
The morning after Lady Margaret Maitland's death he had left Bracklesham armed with the confession; and, when he arrived in town, he drove straight to the Home Office, and sent up his card to Mr. Elkington. The Home Secretary saw him at once.
"Is this a friendly or a professional call, Bramber?" he said, shaking him warmly by the hand. "Glad to see you, anyhow. It isn't the Jerningham case again, I hope?" he added, with a smile, as he resumed his seat. "It has become a perfect monomania with you of late."
The K.C. smiled back at his old friend with a quizzical look in his eyes, feeling that, as victor, he could afford to be generous.
"It is about the Jerningham case," he said, quietly, "but I do not come as a supplant this time to beg mercy, but as an avenger to demand justice. I have been wholly successful at last in exonerating Mrs. Jerningham."
The Home Secretary stared incredulously, eyeing him curiously as though doubtful of his sanity.
"Explain yourself, please," he said, quietly. "It almost passes belief."
"It does," admitted Caton Bramber with a note of triumph in his voice. "I had given up hope at last myself and had determined in consequence to take a step which would have very much surprised a good many people. I had determined to ask Mrs. Jerningham to marry me."
"What, my dear fellow!" exclaimed the Home Secretary, almost jumping out of his chair in surprise and convinced that Caton Bramber had gone out of his mind.
"Yes," went on the K.C., smiling, "it would have surprised people a bit, I expect; but I had fully intended to do so, when chance threw an unexpected opportunity of exonerating her in my way. I am telling you this as a friend," he went on, laying his hand on the other's arm, "not in your official capacity. I am not quite sure how long I have been in love with Helen Jerningham. Sometimes I think it dates right back from the trial, though I did not realise it at the time."
The Home Secretary took his hand and pressed it warmly, though still regarding him with ill-concealed anxiety.
"I sincerely trust that we shall be able to put things right," he said, non-committally, at a loss what to say without binding himself. "Please tell me about your latest discovery."
"You remember I told you my theory the other day, when I was shooting at your place?" began Caton Bramber.
"Well, I have found the red-haired woman in question, and have her full confession, duly witnessed," said the K.C., making no effort to restrain his triumph as he drew a packet of papers from his pocket.
"And her name?" asked the Home Secretary, eagerly, beginning to believe for the first time that there was really something in it.
"Lady Margaret Maitland," said Caton Bramber, solemnly. "She confessed on her death-bed."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Elkington. "What a sensation this will create!"
The K.C. nodded gravely, and then began to tell his tale step by step, recounting the tragic incidents of the day before.
"It is a painful story," he concluded; "but it had to be done for the sake of everybody concerned."
The Home Secretary nodded in his turn and then held out his hand to the other.
"My warmest congratulations, old chap," he said, heartily. "It was a painful duty; but you couldn't afford to let the opportunity go by. The document is quite convincing; and there can be no question now that Mrs. Jerningham has been a terribly ill-used woman. I will put the matter of an official pardon in hand at once. The King will be in town again on Thursday; and I will take it to him myself. And, as for the other matter, may you both be as happy as you deserve to be after the cruel anxiety and trouble you have been through."
"Mrs. Jerningham has not yet done me the honor of accepting me," said the K.C., smiling; "but I have every hope of a favorable reception, now that she knows that marriage with her will not hamper my career."
On Thursday afternoon Caton Bramber found himself once more on his way to Bracklesham with the precious parchment in his pocket.
Ralph found him in the highest of spirits when he met him at Chichester.
"It doesn't matter if you are fined," he said, laughing like a schoolboy; "but you must make the motor do record time to Bracklesham."
And as they flew through the air he told Ralph all that had happened in town.
Mrs. Jerningham was waiting on the steps with Mrs. Chichele and Doris and almost before the car had stopped Caton Bramber jumped out, waving a paper in his hand.
He went straight up to Mrs. Jerningham, who held out her hand. He took it in his and, bending over it, kissed it.
"At last," he said simply, handing her the document. "It is the proudest and happiest day of my life; and I am honored that I am the messenger to bring you this tardy and inadequate acknowledgement of your innocence."
Then he turned to Doris, picking her up in his arms and kissing her.
"I don't care if Ralph is jealous," he said, laughing happily, as he shook hands with Mrs. Chichele. "I've a good mind to kiss Mrs. Chichele, too!"
"I don't believe aunty would mind half as much as I do," said Doris mischievously, as she stood on tip-toe to kiss Ralph in his turn.
"May I?" asked Caton Bramber to Mrs. Jerningham as they passed into the hall, holding out his hand for the pardon.
She nodded with glistening eyes, her heart too full for words, as she handed it to him.
The K.C. took it and read it aloud in his deep ringing voice:
"Whereas Helen Jerningham was at the sessions of the Central Criminal Court, commencing on the 14th day of July, 1880, convicted of the wilful murder of Montagu Jerningham, and sentenced to be hanged, which sentence was afterwards commuted to one of penal servitude for life.
"We, in consideration of circumstances humbly represented to us, are graciously pleased to extend our grace and mercy unto her, and to grant her a free pardon for the offence on which she stands convicted.
"Our will and pleasure, therefore, is that you do take due notice hereof, and for so doing this shall be your warrant.
"Given at our Court of St, James', the thirtieth day of October, 1902, in the second year of our reign,
"(Signed) H. R. Elkington.
"By His Majesty's Command.
"To our trusted and well-beloved judges
of the Central Criminal Court,
the Clerk of the said Court,
and all others whom it may concern."
As he concluded he waved the parchment above his head.
"Hip, hip, hurrah!" he cried, leading the cheers with a school-boy eagerness. "Three times three!"
"It is you who deserve the cheers, not I," said Helen Jerningham softly, as they subsided. "However can I thank you for all that you have done for me?"
"Come into the drawing-room with me," he whispered in a low, passionate voice, taking her unresisting hand in his, "and I will tell you."
And with bright, glistening eyes she allowed him to lead her away from the little group in the hall.
Ralph bent down and kissed Doris.
"Not bad for a couple of young amateur matchmakers!" he murmured.
"Isn't it splendid?" she answered, smiling back happily into his eyes.
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