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Title: The Supreme Test Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305421h.html Language: English Date first posted: Sep 2013 Most recent update: Sep 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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THE big dining-room at Heronsmoat was all in dusky shadow, save for the glow-lamps burning incense before the pair of Holbeins on the west wall, and the twin Rembrandts opposite, and the shaded points of filtered electric gleams half hidden beyond the pink and gold and blue orchids that twined lovingly around them. In the centre of the fine old room, a small oblong table carried those priceless blooms and the matchless Waterford glass and Cellini silver which formed some of the treasures of Sir Bryan Goldworthy's house. And in it he and his forebears had lived and died any time this last four hundred years. Soldiers they had been, and statesmen and diplomats, with never a one to bring any stain on the family escutcheon.
But Sir Bryan was none of these. He was quite content to stay at home and manage the broad estates and look after his shooting and the famous herd of Shorthorn cattle which was a household word far beyond Heronsmoat. He had come back after a great day with the hounds, he had bathed and changed into his perfectly cut evening dinner-suit, and was now dining with his wife, at peace with all the world. It was a wonderfully mild and soft November night, so that the big log fire had been allowed to smoulder down, and the curtains over the two French windows, that gave on to the terrace, were open, and the silken folds were drawn back showing a purple patch of wintry sky powdered with a clutch of misty stars. A decorous silence reigned everywhere.
The man seated at one end of the table was young, not more than five and thirty, with a finely-cut face and a short upper lip that denoted not only his power and determination, but pride of race as well. If Bryan Goldworthy had a weakness—and few people had noticed such a fault—it was his pride of birth and family and the consciousness of the cleanness of the ancestral record. But for the most part it was a handsome, kindly face enough, with generally a smile for all he met and a look of almost adoring affection for the woman who sat facing him on the other side of the table.
She was worth it, too, every divine inch of her. Tall and slight, all graceful curves and bewildering lines under her silken sheath of a dinner gown, Betty Goldworthy fitted into the picture as a fine piece of imagery fits into the masterpiece of some famous poet. Her wine-colored hair wound round her small head and white brows, with its one diamond star, seemed the dominating note that gave inspiration to the room. And when she smiled and those red lips of hers parted over the gate of pearls, then Bryan Goldworthy lay back in his chair and told his intimate gods that he had nothing else in the world to want for.
Yet she had not been of his world, and she had told him so very plainly when he had sought an introduction to her after hearing her sing one night at Harrogate, where he had taken his invalid mother for treatment some few months before the proud old dowager had died. All this had happened nearly three years ago, when the critics were raving over the new contralto and vowing that she had all the world at her feet, which was true enough, and a great singer can go anywhere, even in circles where a Goldworthy might have found it hard to follow. She had not a single relative in the world, she told Goldworthy; she owed her education and her musical training to a stranger, who was now dead, and her art sufficed. All this with the smile that went to Goldworthy's heart and even melted some of the ice of pride and tradition that had collected in the course of years, round the heart of Lady Goldworthy, and told Bryan that in spite of her brilliant promise she was very lonely.
Within a month Sir Byran was at her feet, and within six months even the dowager, with all her pride and prejudice, was brought to believe that her immaculate Byran might do worse. She came to understand what Bet was sacrificing when she gave up her career to marry the master of Heronsmoat, which she did because Bryan wanted her and because she was one of those fine natures that finds life's happiness in giving royally where her heart was in question. But there was one thing she had never told Bryan, because she shrank from doing so as long as the dowager Lady Goldworthy lived, because—well—because we shall see, all in good time. And nothing seemed to matter now when they had nothing but themselves to think of, and perfect happiness is a fine anodyne for a dead trouble.
She was not thinking about this crumpled roseleaf now, as she sat there opposite her husband, with the soft light touching her ivory tints and making lakes of her dark eyes with the little flecks of gold in them. She was lapped just then in a warm sea of happiness, and the tide of life was at the flood.
Bryan Goldworthy struck a match and lighted his after-dinner cigarette; the lantern clock over the big carved mantelpiece struck ten on a drift of silver bells. A footman crept into the room and spoke to his master with due respect.
"Can Vellacot speak to you a moment, sir?" he asked. "He thinks he has captured one of the Maudesley poachers."
Goldworthy was on his feet in a moment. Vellacot was his head keeper, and the Maudesley poachers were a sore thorn in the flesh of all at Heronsmoat. Up to now they had laughed at all sorts of authority, and never yet had one of them appeared before a bench of magistrates. And Goldworthy was very sore about it.
"You don't mean that Parsons!" he cried. "Where?"
"Vellacot's cottage, Sir Bryan," the man said. "With two of the helpers looking after him."
With a word of apology to his wife, and a smile, Goldworthy vanished. Betty sat there calmly waiting. She was feeling just a little sorry for that unfortunate poacher, and all the more because her sympathies were instinctively democratic. She could never quite understand the sacredness of anything that flew and had the freedom of the woods. And what difference did a bird more or less make when a man might need a meal? Still, perhaps it was part of the traditions of the house, like the rest of the family pride, and Bryan had all that to the full. There was pride in everything that he did, from the way he treated his servants to the manner in which he passed the humblest woman on the estate with uplifted hat. And here was his wife, who ought to have been behind him in all these things, wishing that the unhappy poacher might make his escape. She had watched a poacher once.... years ago.
She was conscious of a step on the stone terrace outside. It was a hurried step past the open windows, then the silken curtains parted, and a man stepped into the room.
He was big and broad, a magnificent figure of humanity, dark to swarthiness, with a romanesque face in a setting of black hair sprinkled with grey. He carried with him the breath of the woods and the freedom of the broad highway. A man like that could never have lived in the atmosphere of a town.
Dress him properly and put him down in the Carlton or the lobby of the House of Commons, say, and he would have been marked and his identity demanded by the curious in personal psychology; dressed as he was, in a deerstalker cap and rabbit-skin waistcoat, with cord trousers strapped at the knees, he was just one of those wandering Romany nomads who swing along country lanes on the front of a caravan, swaying with the basketwork peculiar to the tribe.
"Ham!" Lady Goldworthy whispered. "What does this mean?"
The man smiled, a broad, benevolent smile with the spirit of kindliness shining behind it. Yet there was trouble in those clear dark eyes, and an appeal that brought Lady Goldworthy instinctively to her feet. She was beginning to understated.
"I didn't aim to do it," the man said, in the soft accent of the countryside, that sounded strangely out of place on his lips. "I never meant to come disgracing the little girl as I carried in these arms of mine many a mile. We seen you, me and Luke, to-day, in your car, we did. And we knowed this two years as our little gal were her ladyship in these parts. And didn't Azoubah always say as you would come to great things?"
They made a fine contrast as they stood there, the woman in her clinging silk with the diamond flashing in her dusky hair, and the shaded table with its artistic confusion of plate and glass and warm, red fruits behind her. She stood there, a perfect picture in a perfect frame, as if she had been born to the part. And over against her the big man in his moleskins, and his atmosphere redolent of the soil.
"What is the trouble, Ham?" Lady Goldworthy asked.
She was perfectly at her ease, quite cool and collected, and with no fear of what might happen any moment now. Here was fate taking a hand in the unfolding of her life, and she would know how to meet the crisis when it came.
"I couldn't help it," the big man said, with a sob in his voice and hanging his head like a child. "I come to see Sir Bryan, and they told me it was not possible at this hour, and if there was anything particular I'd better come in the morning. But by that time Luke will be in gaol."
"Go on," Betty whispered. "I am beginning to understand, Luke has been arrested on a charge of poaching. He is detained at the cottage of our head keeper, Vellacot. And you came to see Sir Bryan before the police were called in."
"That's it, little girl, that's it," the big man said. "It was but a rabbit as Luke took, but he'd scared off those Maudesley poachers and they dropped a silk partridge net as Luke picked up. And him never in trouble in his life afore. If he gets six months, as is certain, it will kill him. We're a rough lot, we Stanleys, but none of us has even been in gaol before, and we has our pride same as the gentlefolks. There's royal blood in our veins, as you know, little gal, though I ought not to call you that."
"I, at any rate, am pleased to hear you call me so," Bet smiled. "How did you find your way here?"
"When they refused me at the big door, I came along the terrace on the way to the main road, and I see you sitting here, and on the impulse I came in. Because Luke's going to prison and it will break the heart of him. Him what loves the smell of the good red earth and never slept under cover since he were at his mother's knees. You got to save him, Bet. You got to."
As Lady Goldworthy turned, she saw her husband standing in the doorway. She smiled as she saw the doubt and anger and outraged pride struggling for the dominant mastery on his face.
"What—what does all this mean?" he stammered.
By a sort of blind instinct he closed the door behind him and drew the curtains across the open window. All that fine, intimate, exclusive world of his lay crumbling at his feet; he could sense the scandal that hung threateningly over his house.
"Bryan," Bet said quietly, "this is Mr. Ham Stanley. He is one of the last of the real Stanleys, and there is royal blood in his veins. It is his only son who is detained at Vellacot's cottage on suspicion of being connected with those Maudesley poachers. Mr. Stanley says that his son picked up that partridge net when he surprised the gang, and if Luke says so, then it must be so. Luke is incapable of telling a lie. We were brought up as children together, and I know."
"And by what right does Mr. Stanley intrude here?" Goldworthy asked frigidly. "Has the whole world suddenly gone mad? What claim has this man on you, Betty?"
"As the only father I ever knew," Betty said.
Goldworthy dropped into a chair like another Marius seated amidst the ruins of Carthage. The thing was preposterous, farcical. Betty and this man! That beautiful, smiling creature, and a wandering seller of basket work! Oh, madness, certainly!
"You are actually asking me to believe this?" he gasped.
"Only because it is true," Betty said. "I told you that, so far as I knew, I had not a single relative in the world, and that was also true, Mr. Stanley will explain."
"Perhaps you had better be seated," Goldworthy said wearily. "This business looks like being a long one."
"I'd rather stand if your honor don't mind," Stanley said, with a rugged dignity that sat well on him. "And, mind you, I didn't come here meaning to intrude, though I knew as the little gal were mistress of this great house, and happy, as she deserves to be. But, Lor' bless you, sir, me and Azoubah—that's my wife sir, as is dead and gone—always knew as the little gal would come to big things. And that's why, after she'd gone out into the great world and made a name for herself I never answered her letters. But never forgotten, little maid, never forgotten."
A fine, rugged natural affection glowed in Stanley's eyes. There was something great and noble in this simple man that appealed to all the proper pride in Goldworthy's heart.
"Tell my husband everything," Betty said. "He should have known long ago. Ham, you have done me a kindness by coming here to-night. Everything, mind you, from the start."
"It was like this, sir," Stanley went on in his direct simplicity. "We had no little gal for ours had died, and Azoubah was pining for another. Prayed for one, she did, and the Lord He up and answered her prayer.... We come across her by the roadside in a silk shawl and a note, asking the finder of the little mite to be good to her.... and we was. Brought up as our own child she were, until she come to be about twelve, maybe. Then Azoubah, she makes up her mind to send the little gal to school, she being that forward with her knowledgement. And different from us, as you could see from the first. Look at me, sir, and tell me could you make anything but a pure Romany of Ham Stanley?"
Goldworthy nodded vaguely. He was trying to visualise this big, strong man, with his simple dignity and pride of freedom, in the garb, black and white, that he wore himself. There was breed in every line of the man, as Goldworthy could frankly admit.
"I thank you, sir," Stanley went on. "And it was the same with the little lass. You can't make an Arab out of a moorland pony, and you can't make what you see there out of a pauper's child as you find on the roadside, unless the right blood is there. Do you see what I mean, sir?"
Goldworthy nodded again. The right blood must be there. He could see it in every line and curve of Bet's figure, in the easy carriage of her head and the smile on her lips. It was the sort of smile one sees at great railway termini and on the wharves whence ocean-going liners sail, the smile of one who parts with a loved object bravely, and hides the tear behind a smiling mask. She had no fear or shame, either, nor did the diamond in her hair tremble or the flowers on her corsage vibrate unduly. But a foundling! Goldworthy swallowed hard as he thought of it. There had been one other such instance in the history of the house, but she had turned out to be the kidnapped daughter of a noble knight. Her portrait loomed vaguely over Goldworthy's head with much the same smile on her lips that he could read on Bet's now.
"So we sent her to school. The money didn't matter, because we have more than we want, we Stanleys, though we do live in a caravan. And she did well; took scholarships, and went on to college. It was her music master who found out she had a voice and showed her the way to get to Italy. And she became a sort of queen as Courts raved over, and our little lass was famous at twenty-three. But she got to love a man and stepped down from her throne and married him, and honored him by doing it."
Goldworthy started. This was a new point of view to him, a sort of electric mental shock, but his innate sense of fairness told him that perhaps Stanley was right. Patti had had her court, and Lind had hers, and who would ever have asked a question as to the birth of either? And Patti was the intimate friend of a great and powerful queen. Truly. Goldworthy was learning things.
"She came and seen us just the same, when she could spare the time, and once we went to the Albert Hall and heard her sing. Ah! But when she married, which we heard of just befor Azoubah died, we makes up our mind to leave her to her new life and see her no more. 'Twasn't fit like. And we didn't."
"That was not my fault, Ham," Betty spoke for the first time. "I wrote you more than one letter."
"I know it, my dear," Stanley smiled, "and those letters be in my pocket at this very moment. But you was her ladyship, and we was only wanderers on the face of the earth, and Luke and me was of the same mind. You would never have seen us now, but for the bitter trouble as Luke fell into. And we come this long way out of our beat just to get a secret look of your face once more. I wish I had cut off my right hand first."
"Is all this true, Bet?" Goldworthy asked.
"Every word of it," Bet responded proudly. "But don't you think, Bryan, that there is something else before we consider our own intimate matters? Ham comes here in great trouble, to right what he considers to be a great wrong. He is concerned for his son, who was my playmate until I was twelve, and if you believe him—"
"I most certainly do," Goldworthy said evenly. "The word of a gentleman is always to be accepted."
"Meaning me?" Stanley asked. "Me, as isn't too proud to sit on a cottage doorstep and mend a broken basket!"
"I should like to see this boy of yours, Mr. Stanley," Goldworthy went on, "and if you like I will come along with you now. As a matter of fact, I have been telling my keeper that he has no kind of right to detain his prisoner. It ought to have been a matter of a summons before magistrates—"
"And what difference would that make, sir?" Stanley asked. "They would have convicted him just the same. Ah, I know these county gentlemen where the game is concerned. Six months for any man caught with a net in his possession. But if you see the boy, sir, and believe what he says, then you can decline to go any further, and we can get on the high road again."
"Very well," Goldworthy said, "I will come at once."
"I think I will come along," Bet said evenly. "It is a fine, dry night, and I shall take no harm."
Goldworthy raised no objection, and, with a wrap over her shoulders, Bet set out with the others on the way to the keeper's cottage. There, presently, they found themselves in a dimly lighted outhouse, where a young man, a finer counterpart of Ham Stanley, raged up and down, with hair dishevelled, and a cold, despairing fury in his dark eyes. The wild hostility which he turned on Goldworthy died as he met Bet's steady gaze.
"You!" he gasped. "Our Bet! Father, it's you as done this thing. Why drag the little lass into it? She ought never to have known. It was mother's wish on her dying bed. Gone out of our lives, had Bet, into the place as God Almighty intended for her, and there was an end of it. You shouldn't have done it, father."
It seemed to Goldworthy that he was groping like a child in a new world. Was he the same man who, an hour or so ago, had surveyed the plains of life from the horizon of his dining-room with the atmosphere of refinement and aloofness from the common herd? The dim light, the white washed walls, the wild-eyed young man fighting for his liberty and yet prepared to sacrifice all that the lover of the wild holds most dear rather than bring trouble on to a girl who has gone out of his sphere for all time! Here was something calculated to bring even a Goldworthy to his knees. His fine sense of justice rose to it.
"Believe me," he said, almost eagerly, "believe me, I only want to see justice done. Your father did the only thing possible in the circumstances."
"I'd rather have gone to gaol," Luke Stanley muttered.
"Upon my word, I believe you would," Goldworthy cried, with a sudden admiration. "But tell me your story, my boy."
"I had the rabbit all right," Luke explained. "But the net I found. The Maudesley lot mistook me for a keeper, as I was gathering firewood in the big meadow, and took to their heels. Then the keeper comes up and I was done. But, Lord bless you, sir, who is going to believe the mere word of a gipsy?"
"Well, I'm going to, for one," Goldworthy said. "And as it rests entirely with me, there is an end of it. We old families must stick to one another, you know. What is to become of all the old blood in Europe if we don't?"
Bet listened with a queer feeling at her heart. In her eyes there was something fine in the way her husband was behaving. He had had a great shock that night, and yet nobody but herself could possibly have guessed it. But what of the aftermath, when he and she were alone together? But be this as it might, she had never loved him as much as she did at that moment....
They were outside presently, under the shadow of the darkness. There was a powder of stars adrift on the purple velvet of the sky. A great silence brooded everywhere. A little way along the road the caravan loomed in the murk. Ham Stanley paused before it.
"I thank you, sir," he said, in his fine, simple way. "But, after all, it's no more than I might have expected from the man as the little lass chose as a mate. Ah, she'd know, she would. And to-night you go your way and we go ours, and we shall never meet again. It's better not, sir, and, besides, I promised Azoubah on her dying bed. And she knew. There was no wisdom like hers. Harness up old Pete, Luke, and let's be moving."
"Not quite like that, Ham," Bet cried; "not quite like that, if you please. Come here."
She held out one hand to Luke, but the other went round the broad shoulders of the elder man. Then she laid her lips on his swarthy cheek and broke away presently with a cry in her throat that sounded like a sob.
"The little lass," Stanley said dreamily. "The little lass as we was both so fond of.... But it's better that way."
The caravan, with its swaying load and ancient horse, plunged slowly down the road, and was presently lost to sight and hearing down the high road. Bet watched it with the tears streaming freely down her cheeks. In that battered old caravan some of the happiest years of her life had been passed. She was back in the old days now, and the man at her side was almost forgotten for the moment. Without a word, he touched her on the arm, and in silence they made their way along the road until the house was reached. The great secret was still their own, and never a one would be any the wiser, unless either chose to proclaim it to the world. It would be sacred so far as the Stanleys were concerned.
It seemed almost strange to Bet that nothing had changed since she had last turned her back on Heronsmoat; she did not find the old house in ruins about her feet. The cloistered order of the place was moving on oiled wheels all the same, the servants in the great hall, the pictures on the walls, the clock in the tower, with its leisured chimes. They both turned by instinct into the small library where they sat after dinner when alone and made their plans for the morrow. The shaded lamps burned low; a pleasant wood fire spluttered and crackled on the wide hearth. Goldworthy dropped into a chair with his face half in shadow. Almost mechanically Bet sat on a stool at his feet as she was in the habit of doing most evenings. It was she who spoke first.
"This has been a great shock to you," she suggested.
"Naturally," Goldworthy replied. "Let us try and discuss it calmly, if you please. You first, I think."
With a childlike confidence, Bet laid her elbows on her husband's knee, and the familiar gesture touched him.
"What am I to say," Bet asked. "Oh, I know—why didn't I tell you in the first place. But I think I did, Bryan. At least, I told you that I had not a single relative in the world and that I owed everything to a stranger, who was dead. You knew about my schooldays and my scholarships, and how I managed to get to Italy, and how I completed my training there. I told you that my father and mother died before I could recollect them, and—"
"But was that strictly true, Bet?"
"Perhaps not, but it did not seem to matter much then. Nothing seemed to matter to a girl who found herself famous at my age. But I don't think they spoilt me, Bryan."
"They didn't," Goldworthy conceded almost eagerly.
"That remark is like you, Bryan. Well, I had the whole world at my feet; I was another Titian. What mattered it what I was? Who would have cared had I been born in a workhouse? They accepted me for my gift, and, I hope, a little for myself."
"Everybody did," Goldworthy murmured. "Go on, Bet."
"You are very just," Betty said, with a little catch in her voice. "Bryan dear, my position was as good as yours. There is more than one sort of aristocracy, you know. When we first met amongst your friends, no questions were asked. If I had told you the truth then, the great world would have been just as glad to take me as I am. And then you loved me. I did not realise it at first, but when I did I was just the happiest girl in all the world. Because, Bryan, I was very lonely. No man, least of all a man like you, with a position like yours, can ever know how lonely a girl can be who has no relatives. And I was so glad, so glad to find that you loved me for myself. But it was a struggle, Byran, a terrible struggle. I loved my art, I loved to stand there on the platform and feel that I could hold a vast audience with my voice. And I worked so very hard before I got there. Disraeli must have felt like that the first time he found he could compel a hostile House of Commons in spite of itself. For my dreams had come true and the world was all my own. Do you understand, Bryan?"
"Go on," Goldworthy murmured. "I am beginning to understand many things. We men are blind fools in all sorts of ways."
"It was a great fight, Bryan. My darling career on the one side and my love for you on the other. Oh, Bryan, only an artist can realise what I was asked to sacrifice, though you may smile—"
Goldworthy sat quite still, with his face shielded from the light of the fire. Bet could see no more than his shadow.
"I am not smiling," he said. "I am learning things."
"I was like a princess happy amongst her people, who had been asked to step from one throne to another. I lay awake all one night and fought it out. And when the dawn came I knew that love had conquered. I knew that my woman's instinct had prompted me to do the only thing. Then I slept for a long time, and when I awoke I was in a sort of paradise."
Her voice was vibrating now, and the tears were in her eyes. But Goldworthy's face was still hidden in the shadows.
"But if you had told me then," he suggested. "If only—"
"Please don't interrupt me yet, Bryan. Then you introduced me to your mother. She was a—"
"Woman who loved you from the first."
"You are wrong, Bryan. You men never see these things, but the other woman knows them by instinct. You were everything to your mother. There is never a girl in the world who, in a mother's eyes, is good enough for an only son like you. She never showed it, like the grande dame that she was, but the antagonism was there, and I had to fight it, as women do. And I won, Bryan, not so much because of my own qualities, but because your happiness was the one thing in the world a woman who was dying most valued. Remember the school she had been brought up in, remember that she was related to most of the great houses in England. She grew to be proud of me and my voice, she delighted when I gave up my career to become your wife; but if I had told her the truth, and she had turned from me, what would you have done, Bryan?"
"A man's life happiness—"
"Ah, precisely. You would have gone your own way, and I should have had it on my conscience that I had driven your mother to her grave before her time. That's why, Bryan."
"Well afterwards nothing seemed to matter. I have been too happy to think of the past. If you had made one sacrifice, I had made another. I don't regret mine, Bryan; and now that you know, perhaps you won't regret yours."
Goldworthy's face suddenly emerged from the shadow? He drew Bet closely to him and smiled down tenderly into her eyes.
"Forgive me," he whispered, "my other self, my alter ego, my own, dear wife."
Bet slipped her arms about his neck.
"Oh, my dear," she whispered. "I didn't know that there could be such perfect happiness as this."
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