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Title: Aunt Mary Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402461h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2014 Most recent update: Aug 2014 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan. 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 spirit of spring was in the air; a thrush piped with full-throated melody from a swinging blackthorn. Over beyond the water-meadows a ridge of larches gleamed with the tenderest green, save where their crests flamed into the sunset. A March evening full of light, a sky wind-swept and saffron to the zenith, crisp and cold, and yet it had been the sort of day when Nature turns in her sleep. There was a jingle of harness somewhere, the bleat of lambs; a long thread of noisy rooks melted into the flaming-red furnace of the west.
A quaintly hammered pair of iron gates (Quentin Matsys gates, Walter Whitworth felt certain) opened upon a winding drive, carpeted on either side by primroses and violets. It was Whitworth's destination, but he hesitated. He was not quite filled with the beauty of it yet. The silence was a little oppressive, for the din and roar of the train was in his ears still.
And he was an artist to his finger-tips. A day or two ago he had been a poor and struggling student, with nothing but genius and a fine ambition behind him. The turn of a day had changed all that He was heir to Grey Gables and a matter of some six hundred pounds a year besides. Miss Mary Bentley's prim letter testified to the fact.
It was all very dreamy as yet. Walter had not yet grasped the full measure of his happiness. Here was a young man who pined for the country. In his dull bed-sitting-room, under the tiles of a Bloomsbury lodging-house, he had drawn glowing pictures against the background of fog. He would have a country residence like Sir John Pettifer, R.A., in whose studio he worked. He thought of the dewy lawns in the sweet June twilight, of the cool splash of the sea against the moonlit rocks, of heathery uplands, and the music of the rippling waters where the ferns grew. He didn't know that he was breaking his heart for it, but he was.
And then came that advertisement, the visit to a dingy solicitor in an equally dingy office, and the production of the last will and testament of Colin Whitworth of Grey Gables, in the county of Norfolk, the uncle of whom Walter had only heard casually. For the best part of a year the family lawyer had been advertising for Walter Whitworth. The cast-iron manner of the man of enactments was in fine contrast to Walter's feelings.
'There are a few formalities, of course,' Mr Benn had said; 'but there is no reason why you should not take possession of your property. There is a distant relative of my late client's there, and a Miss Bentley who has been your uncle's housekeeper for many years. I am afraid it will be a wrench for them—um—because attached to the place, and so forth. If you can see your way to giving them a considerable latitude in the way of—er—um—'
Walter smiled. So there was a heart somewhere even in that flinty bosom....
'They shall stay as long as they like,' Walter said. 'I dare say they won't mind looking after my comfort: the plainest food, and a room to paint in. Seeing that my father is still abroad—'
'Oh, your father is still abroad, eh,' Mr Benn asked dryly. 'In his younger days I knew your father well. To put it mildly, he was a source of some anxiety to his friends. Your uncle Colin was a long way off being my ideal of a wise man, but he showed a fine discrimination when he passed over your father in favour of you. Is he likely to be away long?'
Walter muttered something to the effect that, in his capacity of a mining engineer, his father might be in Spain for months; but, on the other hand, he might be at home next week. He was vaguely impressed with the fact that Mr Benn regarded his father as a mauvais sujet. Walter would have called him a Bohemian. In all the young man's struggles he had not had the least paternal support. Jim Whitworth was proud of his son's genius; he was prodigal of good advice; but there it ended. Walter felt vaguely conscious that there was some mystery here. Mr Benn looked significantly at his watch.
'Go down to Grey Gables,' he said, 'and do your best to please Aunt Mary—I mean Miss Bentley. Good-day.'
And now Walter was at the gate of his terrestrial paradise with Miss Mary Bentley's passport in his pocket. He felt a little nervous and uneasy, for the letter had been terribly stiff and formal. There was a suggestion of chill disappointment about it, too. Walter's quick, artistic temperament had not failed to see that.
He passed up between the shining belt of primroses, past a lawn edged with old-fashioned rose-trees of the standard variety, and under an Elizabethan porch shielding a monastic door. Walter drew a breath of pure delight. He had read about these kind of things; he had studied them lovingly. In his dreams he had pictured a home of this kind when he should have grown rich and famous. There was a blurred mist before his eyes, so that the quaint brass knocker loomed large. Of course there must be an old-fashioned bell-pull somewhere—one of the hanging sort, wrought in bronze. There it was.
A bell clanged somewhere in the distance, and presently an ancient servitor appeared: an old woman amazingly clean; an old woman with white hair, and cheeks red and hard as the sunny side of an apple, and as glowing. She had on a lilac cotton-print dress and a cap of quaint design. It was almost an extinct type, the old-fashioned servant who spends all her life in one family.
'My respects to you, sir,' she said; 'you are Master Walter. And how like your father you be! But a better face, thank God—a better face!'
The last words came involuntarily, like an anxious thought put into words. There was the same strange feeling again, the feeling that his father somehow was at the bottom of some disgraceful family secret. Mr Benn had hinted as much, and old Martha was confirming it. And yet Walter knew that his father was a popular man.
'Miss Bentley is expecting me?' he asked.
'Oh dear, yes,' Martha replied. 'And you just try and be gentle with Miss Mary. The parlour isn't quite ready just yet. Here is the dining-room.'
Walter drew a deep breath. Old oak on the floors; old oak on the walls. A low ceiling that suggested Pugin, a great black settle, a Cromwellian dresser with a marvellous old willow-pattern dinner-service, some carved chests, a deep seated-window or two, a suggestion of stained glass. There snored a grandfather's clock with a date 1694 Wonderful! wonderful!
It was the same in the drawing-room. The great John Pettifer, R.A., would have raved over those fluted-backed chairs. Some cunning hand had arranged blue plates and dishes with a hawthorn pattern along the picture-rail. Spode! Walter had seen collectors tumbling over one another for worse specimens at Christie's. Had he been commercial-minded he would have appraised his surroundings highly. But he was only excited and uplifted by the atmosphere of the place. It was Tennyson's haunt of ancient peace. Some rooks were cawing somewhere. The glow of the March evening filled the room.
That was a portrait by Hoppner in the corner, of course; and there was a Lely and a Romney, also a Gainsborough, and two more portraits by Reynolds: a small collection of pictures, but all of the best The spirit of rest and refinement breathed upon everything like some magic varnish. All this belonged to the young man who had merely dreamt of such things a week ago.
Everything else was as it had been for two centuries. Behind the brass lattice of the bookcase atop of the Dutch bow-fronted bureau were old editions, the one modern volume being Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy. A Shakespeare in leather, a worn edition of Bacon, Beaumont and Fletcher, Ben Jonson, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and a long row of manuscript music-scores. Colin Whitworth had been a fine musician. There was an organ in the house built by Father Prout himself.
Tea was laid out on the oval oak table: a fine service of Chelsea, a fluted teapot circa William and Mary; six candles ready for lighting sprang from candelabra of old English Sheffield plate. The fair white cloth had a faint suggestion of lavender about it Wonderful! wonderful!
Somebody was speaking to Walter, who stood there in a waking dream. He was conscious that a timid hand was touching his shoulder. He came suddenly to earth again; the golden light was fading from the room.
'Martha told me you were here, sir,' the prim voice said. 'I have the honour to be Miss Mary Bentley, at your service, sir.'
WALTER bowed and held out his hand. The prim little figure before him took no notice. The young man's face flushed. He had come down here actuated by the kindliest thoughts and feelings. But, after all, he must make allowances.
He saw before him a slight little lady who might have been any age between thirty and fifty. Her complexion was pure and brilliant, the skin without a wrinkle. The mouth was gentle and sensitive, though now it was drawn tight with a droll attempt at sternness. The hair, piled high on the erect little head, was quite white; and the spare, dignified figure was clad in stiff gray silk; at the throat and neck was lace so beautiful that Walter was quite fascinated by it. He was a little chilled and disappointed, but the man had to be born yet who could be angry long with Miss Bentley. Despite her frosty dignity and the hauteur of her manner, she carried an atmosphere of kindness about her. The small white hands, covered with glittering gems, trembled slightly.
Walter smiled despite himself. It was such a quaint yet pleading picture! He could easily imagine that slight figure at a bedside; those slim hands were made to render hot pillows soft and cool; those dark-gray eyes——
'Aunt Mary,' Walter said with a sudden impulse, 'indeed, indeed I do want to be friends. Won't you shake hands with me?'
The sensitive mouth shook, with the ghost of a smile upon it. Two trembling little hands went out, and Walter caught them heartily. The dark-gray eyes had a yearning look in them, a touch of retrospection. They were reading Walter. He wondered why they filled with tears so swiftly.
'You are very like your mother,' Miss Bentley said. 'The same handsome features; the same fearless eyes. And yet—well, you have your mother's soul and expression. I am glad of that—ah, I am glad of that!'
'I have often heard my father speak about you,' Walter said. 'Of course I knew there was some bitter quarrel, and that the two brothers had not met for years. They called you Aunt Mary when you were quite a little girl, didn't they?'
Miss Bentley nodded with her hand pressed to her side as if some sharp pain racked her. Just for a moment the prim gray figure drew up swiftly.
'Won't you take a seat?' she asked politely.
'Certainly not!' Walter smiled. 'At least, not yet. Aunt Mary, won't you forgive me? It wasn't my fault that Uncle Colin left me this property. I never expected it. Won't you give me a kiss?'
'So like his father!' Miss Bentley murmured. 'So very like his father! And yet different.'
Her face was broken up with smiles and tears, a young face now smiling and rosy. Only the eyes were a little sad and retrospective. 'I am a silly, selfish old woman,' she cried. 'There! That is the first time a man has kissed me since—Well, never mind, sir. I told Kathleen exactly how I was going to treat you, and she laughed. I am afraid my dignity is not a robust plant But Colin Whitworth had no business to leave the property to you, sir.'
'I never expected it for a moment,' Waiter replied.
'Oh, I quite believe you. Did your father ever tell you why he and his brother Colin quarrelled so bitterly and finally?'
Walter shook his head. The little figure in the gray silk lay half-buried in a deep arm-chair, the fitful light of the log-fire touching up her pretty, thoughtful face. The crocus flames were reflected from the blue Dutch tiles of the hearth, with their presentment of the story of Ruth.
'Your father was always a popular man,' Miss Bentley said. 'There was a fascination about him. And he was so handsome, but always careless and charmingly selfish and inconsiderate for the feelings of others. Your uncle Colin was worth a score of him. Colin was engaged to your mother, and Jim—I mean James, your father—to—to somebody else. Then he ran away with your mother and married her. It was a dreadful time for—for all of us. And that's why your uncle and father never met again.'
'I am very sorry,' Walter said humbly. 'It was not a—eh, well, you know what I mean.'
'I understand, my dear boy. Then I came here to keep house, and little Kathleen followed. On the whole, we have had much to be thankful for: years and years of peace and quiet happiness. Your father's name was never once mentioned till three years ago, when he behaved so nobly over that mining business in the north of Spain. It was in all the papers. It was just the kind of reckless, magnificent bravery that your father always revelled in. And he was always so passionately fond of children!'
'Extraordinarily so,' Walter hastened to say.
'Colin Whitworth thought a great deal about it. He told me he should leave the place and the money to your father in trust for you till you came of age. After all, Kathleen was no blood-relation of his. It wasn't at all just; but it was a case where I could say nothing. So the will was made. A little over a year ago Colin told me he had changed his mind. He had heard good accounts of you. He said it would be best for an ambitious young man to make his own way. And Kathleen was ill—'
'I hope she is better now,' Walter said politely.
'Kathleen will never be better. She is dying.'
There was a ring in the little speech, a suggestion of the bitterness of death that is past. A flame leaping from the blue tiles touched the hopeless sadness of Miss Bentley's face. A new world was opening to Walter.
'You will see her presently,' Miss Bentley said. 'Kathleen is dying of consumption. We have to take the greatest care with her. A sudden chill, a cold air, and——You will see her presently. And that is why I am sore and angry with you. By all moral rights this place should be Kathleen's. Colin promised me he would revoke that will; but he put it off till it was too late. And when I heard that they had found you at last, and that you were coming down here, I was hard——'
'Aunt Mary, you were nothing of the kind. You couldn't be.'
'Well, I tried to be. I pictured you as being easy and charming and selfish, as Jim—I mean your father—used to be. You would be very polite and very fascinating; but, all the same, you were going to turn us out of the house'
'Aunt Mary, I swear to you that I never meant anything of the kind,' Walter cried. 'My father has so often spoken of you that I was quite sure from the first we should be friends.'
A blue flame seemed to give a red glow to Aunt Mary's cheeks.
'I am an artist. I have often dreamt of a home like this. Only I never expected to find anything half so perfect. Here I can follow my own bent, and do just the class of romantic picture that my soul loves. I had planned it all out as I came along. You were to look after my comfort, and find me a big room for a studio. And, on the other hand, you were to do me the favour of stopping here, and we were to be as happy as the day is long, Aunt Mary.'
Miss Bentley made no reply. She was crying softly into a cambric handkerchief. Hers was the rare kind of woman's face that looks none the worse for tears.
'Aunt Mary,' Walter said pleadingly, 'you won't go away?'
Aunt Mary dabbed her eyes with fierce little pats.
'I am a very foolish old woman,' she replied. 'Go and get ready for our high tea. Your room is the first door to the right. I am going to do the silliest thing of my life—I'm going to stay here. Goodness knows the complications and troubles there will be; but I stay. Kiss me again, my bonny boy; you are very like your—mother.'
It was quiet and still in the hall; beyond a door at the end of a passage somebody was playing the organ. Walter's artistic soul expanded to the music. He crept down the passage and opened the door.
Here was a lofty room, oak panelled and lighted by two long windows. The very place for a studio! Between the long windows the reeds of an organ upraised. A figure sat before the worn, yellow keys that gleamed in the light of two wax candles in silver sconces. The atmosphere of the place was intolerably warm by reason of a tortoise stove, the one modern innovation in the house.
The room was flooded with the glorious melody. A girl with fair shining hair and a white, purely cut face was playing, with her heart in the music. She turned suddenly; her fingers dropped on the keys; the wailing melody stole into the shadows. There was a hush of silence in the room.
Walter spoke very softly; but his words were plain to the player's ears.
'Kitty,' he said, 'what a day it has been! Oh, Kitty, Kitty!'
NO reply came from the slim figure by the organ. Her lips were parted as if she were worn by some physical struggle. The light from the high window was still on her face.
It was a fine face: white, almost transparent, with a broad forehead from which the fair hair was pushed back; a sweet, refined, noble face rather than a strictly beautiful one. The features were marked with a high intelligence; the small mouth suggested ambition.
'So you have found me out?' she said presently. Walter came forward; he noticed the clear whiteness of her hands, the fragile figure, the pure brilliancy of the complexion. His mind had not taken it all in yet. This was the girl who was dying, the Kathleen to whom Aunt Mary had alluded. The Kitty of Walter's dreams and Kathleen Evershed were one and the same.
'I ought to have told you,' the girl said without moving.
'You knew who I was all the time?' Walter asked.
'Yes. I discovered that the first time we met in Mrs Pettifer's drawing-room. You see, I had heard a great deal about your father——'
'Not all to his advantage, I expect.'
'No. But I—I liked you. We both had ambition; we were both full of enthusiasm. You were to make your fortune as a painter, and I as a musician. It was your uncle who first fired my ambition in that way. He played the organ like a master; you shall hear some of his compositions.'
Kitty Evershed spoke rapidly, nervously. She seemed to have some difficulty with her breathing. Walter watched her with shining eyes.
'But why did you run away from me?' he asked.
'But I didn't; at least not in the way you mean. I never went to the Pettifers' again because I was afraid of meeting you. But you found me out, and we met elsewhere. They were happy days for me, Walter. But I was frightened because I feared what they would say at home.'
'There was no reason why we should not have loved one another, Kitty.'
'Perhaps not,' Kitty said doubtfully. 'I don't know. But as I was going to be a great composer and you a great painter, it didn't seem to matter. Then I had to come down here because I was ill. Soon after that Dr Evans told me I was dying of consumption. He gave me a year to live. I don't think that anybody quite realises what a sentence like that means. And that is why I never gave you a sign or a word. Your pride would be wounded; you would try and forget me. It would save you much pain and suffering.'
'You knew that I should never forget you.'
'Perhaps I hoped that you wouldn't. I tried to arrange it so that you shouldn't find me. It was only for a year, and then it would be all over. And so it comes about that Uncle Colin is dead, and I linger on waiting for the end. But you couldn't be found, and that gave me a cold kind of comfort And then your letter came, and I dared not tell Aunt Mary after all that time. Oh! I did it all for the best.'
Her voice shook; she could say no more. Walter caught up the slim hand still resting on the keys. The golden glory beyond the long windows was fading to a pale-gray like the dim light on Kitty's face.
'I am not going to believe it,' Walter cried. 'Kitty, I have never kissed you yet. But I am going to kiss you now, because you belong to me. We are going to fight this thing together. Just now I thought I had found everything that my heart wanted. But if I am going to lose you, the rest matters nothing.'
He took the girl in his arms and kissed her. A page of music fluttered to the floor. It was the piece that had attracted Walter to the room.
'This is your own?' he asked.
'Yes,' Kitty said hopelessly. 'It is part of a short oratorio. People say that it will live, that I have a fine future. As if they knew! But I shall never see it; I shall never see the day when——Walter, suppose you were suddenly blind! Try to imagine yourself blind, and then you may understand.'
Walter could feel the slender frame shaking passionately. Words seemed cold things to pour on a sorrow like this. Kitty dried her eyes, and a smile shone on her face.
'I have finished,' she said almost gaily. 'I have never broken down like this before, even to Aunt Mary. Was she very frigid to you, Walter?'
'She tried to be,' Walter laughed. 'The regal dignity of five-feet-one! But her eyes betrayed her, and when I called her Aunt Mary and asked for a kiss, she yielded like the dear old soul she is. She's quite in love with me now.'
'Can't you understand why that should be?'
Walter responded that he could see nothing to account for the change beyond his own merits and virtues. But his humour was subdued.
'Did Aunt Mary say anything about your father?' Kitty asked.
'Little to his credit,' Walter admitted. 'Personally, I am fond of my father, though I don't see him much. But he seemed to have behaved badly by stealing the affections of my uncle Colin's choice, and deserting somebody else who——'
'But surely you can guess who that somebody else was?'
'Aunt Mary?', Walter cried. 'Of course! I might have seen that by the way she looked at me. And she said I was very like my mother. Kitty, I believe she is the dearest little woman in the world.'
In the hall a chiming gong made music. Kitty threw a shawl over her head.
'I must make a dive for tea,' she said. 'I have to avoid all draughts and cold airs. It seems superfluous, but these are the doctor's orders.'
Walter followed thoughtfully. It was hard to believe that that bright young life was so near an end. It could not be; it must not be. Walter set his teeth together and choked down a sob. Aunt Mary stood smiling behind the big tea-urn. She was glad, she said, that the young people had found each other out. Why, they might have known each other for years!
'So we have,' Walter said coolly. 'Aunt Mary, a great surprise awaits you. I am going to tell you a love-story—Kitty's and mine.'
'Well, I never did!' Aunt Mary exclaimed.—'Kitty, I am ashamed of you. I don't know when I have been so angry.'
'You never were angry in your life,' Kitty said sweetly. 'You don't know what it means.'
'Well, perhaps not,' Aunt Mary said, setting her cap severely.—'Tell me all about it, Walter. I made those fish-cakes especially for you.'
It was a pleasant meal, despite the dark shadows that had lain over Grey Gables for the past few months. Walter told his story simply, Aunt Mary following with a smile on her face and the tears in her eyes. Then she drew Walter on to speak of his hopes and ambitions: how he meant to travel all over the cities for himself; how Rome the desirable, the unattainable, was now in his hands.
'I'm sure you can't grudge Walter the property after that,' Kitty said. 'It would have been useless to me—to Walter it means everything. And now let us have some more music. Aunt Mary, do have another look in the old Dutch bureau for that fugue of Uncle Colin's. I know it's amongst the manuscript music somewhere.'
Aunt Mary made up her accounts, solemnly debated the next day's domestic programme with Martha, and folded up her work-basket with mathematical precision. Then she donned a huge cotton apron and proceeded to take down a dozen volumes of manuscript music, most of it original compositions of the late Colin Whitworth.
One volume after another was disposed of, but the missing fugue was nowhere to be found. Perhaps Aunt Mary's search was not a very careful one, for her eyes were dim to-night, and her mind was full of bitter-sweet imaginings.
The little love-story, with its inevitable sad ending, touched her. And yet it was far better as it was. Kitty was dying. The property would have been no use to her. And to Walter it had meant everything. What a nice boy he was; how clever and ambitious! Colin Whitworth had always intended to change that impulsive will made after Jim's gallant exploit in Spain, and leave the property to Kitty. Here was a letter from Mr Benn urging him to do so. Mary had remembered that letter. She turned it over idly. A reply in Colin Whitworth's handwriting was duly set out on the other side. Aunt Mary fumbled for her spectacles. She read the letter; then she sat down with her limbs shaking.
'Shall I?' she murmured. 'I recollect my father telling me that a document like that—Yesterday I should not have hesitated. To-day it would be wicked folly. And he is so like his—mother.'
She dropped the letter back, and restored the volume to its place. Then she blew out the candles as if she had done something that needed the shelter of the darkness.
THE big music-room had been transformed almost beyond recognition. In the centre stood a huge easel with a partially finished picture upon it. Walter's two sets of old armour had been imported from London; a carpet had been laid on the floor; there were pictures on the walls and old furniture scattered here and there. Kitty's taste had provided the flowers and their settings.
'It's grand!' Walter exclaimed, with swelling pride. 'I used to envy Pettifer his studio, and wonder when I should have one like it And now look at this!'
'Sir Walter Whitworth, P.R.A.,' Kitty laughed, 'as seen at home in the pages of the illustrated weekly papers. Here is the celebrated Flemish buffet, yonder the Lady Erskine by Hoppner. You are a lucky man, sir.'
Kitty coughed and dropped into a chair. She was looking terribly white and fragile. There was a dull, echoing pain at Walter's heart. Sometimes that dreadful trouble was forgotten; at others Walter fought against it with passionate rebellion. The atmosphere of the studio oppressed him; it was like a greenhouse.
'I am,' Walter sighed dubiously; 'I suppose I am. And if I were to say——Hullo!'
The studio door opened breezily, and a big man in a large-pattern tweed suit stood in the doorway. He was bronzed and bearded; he had a reckless, easy air, and a large cigar in his mouth. He looked just a little disturbed as he noticed Walter's companion.
'Why,' Walter cried, 'it's my father!—I thought you were in Mexico.'
'Just back,' James Whitworth said, with the contempt for distance of the seasoned traveller. 'Finished the job there; back in England looking for another. Pettifer told me of your good fortune, so I thought I'd run down and see you. As you're of age now, my authority over you ceases; but, unless I am mistaken, I am still more or less guardian to this young lady here.'
He held out his hand with a frank smile that most people found so taking. With his bright, breezy selfishness, James Whitworth was not an easy person to snub.
'I am sorry Miss Bentley is not here to receive you,' Kitty said coldly.
'I declare I had forgotten all about her,' Whitworth cried, as if the circumstance was one of the most natural in the world. 'To be perfectly candid, I expected to find Walter in bachelor quarters here. Otherwise—well, I treated Mary Bentley shamefully years ago, and, with all my faults, I'm not blackguard enough to—you understand. My dear young lady, you know all about the story, or the expression of your face belies you. Upon my word, I really am most dreadfully sorry.'
In a vague kind of way, Kitty seemed to feel that James Whitworth was more sorry for himself than anybody else. Yet he was a brave man and loyal to his friends, and he had a perfect passion for little children. Kitty had heard that often. Instability and a desire for change were the alloys that had spoilt his character.
Kitty slipped away, leaving father and son together. Whitworth roamed restlessly about, puffing furiously at his cigar.
'What's the matter with that girl?' he asked. Walter explained. He had a sympathetic listener.
It was a chord that touched Whitworth. He would have parted with his coat to help anybody in sorrow or trouble. The romantic vein in his nature was tapped. Kitty was wonderfully beautiful, and Walter loved her.
'Never heard anything so sad, so pathetic,' Whitworth said huskily. 'That girl must be saved; she must go away. Change is everything in this matter.'
'Change requires money,' Walter said coldly.
'I see. And the poor girl hasn't got any. Also, you are quite sure that neither she nor Aunt Mary would hear of touching yours. Who's the doctor?'
'Mr Evans of Morton Cross.'
'What! that old ass? Biggest old humbug in the profession. Why, he was pretty well past his work when I left home. What's the course of treatment?'
'Perfect seclusion from draughts, a high temperature, and all—'
'I knew it. My dear chap, that poor girl is being slowly murdered. That old-fashioned way of dealing with consumption is as dead as Queen Anne. I'll go and see Partridge. He's got a place at Ambermouth yonder where he comes every weekend. I once saved Partridge's life on the Mosquito Coast years ago, and he'll do anything for me. We'll have that girl of yours about in no time. Fresh air—lots of it—bedroom window open all night all the year round, and, when she's up to it, a trip to St Moritz. Got a cycle of any sort about the place?'
The big man spoke in sanguine, strident tones; in his mind the desired end was already accomplished. It was the buoyant spirit that had lifted him beyond the reach of many a peril. Walter caught a little of the infection.
'Dr Evans will permit no interference,' he said doubtfully.
'Won't he?' Whitworth said, with a resolute air. 'I'll see Evans presently. I'll open his eyes for him. Do you think I am going to stand by and see a lovely creature like that done to death? If you've got as much feeling as I have——'
He paused with just a touch of colour on his bronzed cheeks. A slight gray figure stood silently in the doorway. Her lips were parted; her hands were pressed to her side. Otherwise she gave no sign whatever.
'I did not think it possible,' she began, 'that—'
'I didn't do it on purpose,' Whitworth said. He stood there downcast and ashamed; all his buoyant manner had vanished. 'I swear I had no notion you were here, Mary. If I didn't know that you had forgiven me—-'
'I forgave you long ago, James.'
There was a strange contrast between the two figures, the one so small and gray, so upright; the other big and loud, and yet bent as if caught in some shameful practice.
'I'll go away,' Whitworth said, with loud meekness. 'I'll take my blackguardly self off. I never cared much for any one, so I can't expect any one to care much for me. But I didn't know; upon my word, I didn't know.'
'I believe that,' Miss Bentley said in a low voice; 'I believe that—'
'I was never half good enough for you, Mary.'
'I knew that too. I always knew that you were not the man to make any woman happy for long. But that didn't prevent my loving you, Jim.'
There was no reproach in the speech, no anger or resentment, nothing but sorrow. The humiliation of the man was so complete that Walter was fain to come to the rescue.
'My father is greatly distressed by what I have told him about Kitty,' he said; 'and he is quite convinced that Dr Evans's treatment is all wrong. The modern cure is practically an open-air one.'
Miss Bentley stiffened visibly. She had all the prejudices of the old school to her finger-tips. She and the recreant Evans had not been doctoring the whole parish all these years for nothing. Aunt Mary's essences and herb-teas were famous. There was one noted cure of a stubborn rheumatism where even a great London doctor had failed.
'Nothing has been left undone,' she said. A little red spot glowed on either cheek. 'Dr Evans is very sound. The modern "cure" is murder. Expose my dear child to all kinds of weather; expose those delicate lungs to air! My dear Walter, I would sooner cut off my right hand. Kitty would be dead in a week. In this respect you will find me firm—quite firm.'
She drew herself up; her little foot tapped the floor imperiously. A great principle was at stake. Walter poured oil on troubled waters.
'But, aunt, 'he urged, 'there have been some wonderful cures. The most famous physicians in the world are adopting the open-air cure. And Kitty is dying. Even your friend Evans gives her but a few months to live. We won't hurt his feelings, but we will get him to call Partridge in. It is our duty to try it.'
He spoke pleadingly, and Miss Bentley obviously faltered for a moment. Then she drew herself up resolutely again.
'I cannot discuss the matter further,' she said. 'I came to tell you that luncheon was ready. I am going to give James Whitworth the tulip-panelled bedroom.'
She swept out of the room with her head high in the air, the gray silks rustling. But the offender had been forgiven; the pregnant information as to the tulip-panelled bedroom proved that.
'The best and kindest and dearest little creature in the world,' Whitworth cried, with a little click in his throat, 'but as absolutely obstinate as a loving woman can be. But I'm going to have my own way over this, Wat.'
'Indeed, sir; and how do you propose to get it?'
'Oh, I've thought out a way. Under my brother's will, I am guardian to Kitty until she comes of age. If necessary, I am going to enforce that authority. I don't often do a wise thing, but I 'in pretty sure I'm about to do one now. Old Evans is going to have a lovely afternoon.'
DR ROBERT EVANS partook of his breakfast with the meek and contrite air of a man who knows that he thoroughly deserves the lecture to which he is being subjected. Usually the doctor was accounted rather a terrible person, except to his housekeeper. The rest of the world he rather bullied. He was a small, round, bald man, exceedingly neat and clean-shaven and old-fashioned. His knowledge of archaeology and entomology was international; beyond that, his fellow-practitioners whispered that Evans was an old woman, and he was darkly suspected of such exploded practices as cupping and bleeding.
The doctor had personally attended a call in the middle of the night, a thing absolutely forbidden by the housekeeper, Mrs Allnutt. In vain the little man pleaded that his assistant was quite tired out, and that it was an urgent case.
'Don't tell me,' Mrs Allnutt replied vigorously. 'If you ain't wise at seventy-one, when do you expect to be? And, of course, to make matters worse, you must go off without your flannel waistcoat!'
'Bless my soul! so I did,' the doctor said meekly. 'I'm very sorry.'
'Yes; and it's still sorrier you'll be when you 're lying in your grave with pneumonia,' the housekeeper went or relentlessly. 'Here's Miss Bentley coming up the drive to ask your advice about something or another. She'd get a deal more sense if she consulted my scullery-maid, I'm thinking.'
With which parting shot Mrs Allnutt went out and Miss Bentley came in. Dr Evans wiped his heated face hurriedly. The mingled distress and relief of his features conjured the ghost of a smile to Aunt Mary's lips.
'Mrs Allnutt is in a militant mood to-day?' she suggested.
'A most excellent woman,' Evans said hurriedly, 'and absolutely devoted to my interests. The fact is, I was called out last night and I forgot to put on my—er—um. There's a meeting of the Field Club at Ambermouth this afternoon, and Mrs Allnutt insists—I mean suggests—that I should not go. But there! How is the patient?'
'The patient is no better and no worse. Dr Evans, my dear old friend, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but isn't it just possible that you have made a mistake in your treatment of the case?'
'Bless my soul! no,' Evans said. 'Why?'
Miss Bentley gazed absently round the room. Her eyes were turned from a large case of butterflies to the cleanly pink of Evans's cheeks.
'James Whitworth is absolutely certain of it,' she said.
'James Whitworth! My dear Mary! You don't say—you don't really say—that fellow is at Grey Gables?'
'Indeed he is, Dr Evans.'
'And knowing that you were in the house all the time?'
'He was ignorant of that He was quite distressed about it And, with all his faults, I never knew him to tell a lie.'
'Urn!' Evans muttered, with plentiful lack of enthusiasm. 'You were very angry with him, of course. You informed him that it was impossible for both of you to stay under the same roof. After that he withdrew, with many apologies. Of course that is exactly what happened.'
'Dr Evans, if you are going to be sarcastic I shall ring the bell for Mrs Allnutt'
'Don't; please don't. There was another alternative. It was to make Jim Whitworth welcome, and give him the tulip-panelled bedroom.'
'That's exactly what I did do,' said Aunt Mary, pinkly defiant
Dr Evans replied, with shameless change of port, that he should have been frankly disappointed if Aunt Mary had acted otherwise. She was the kindest and dearest woman in the world; also, Walter Whitworth was a fine young fellow.
'But I am quite right as regards Kitty,' he said firmly. 'I stick to my guns there.'
'And I entirely agree with you,' Miss Bentley replied. 'There must be no change, though James Whitworth insists upon it'
'Oh, he insists upon it!' Evans said blankly. 'Why?'
'Because he says your treatment is all wrong. He declares you to be old-fashioned and hopelessly out of date. He wants to have all the doors and windows open. Kitty is to have a bedroom in the corridor.'
'And he'll get his own way, too,' Evans growled. 'He always did have his own way—confound him!—ever since he was a boy. Does he want to murder the girl? Not that he cares a scrap about that so long as he gets his own way. I tell you that open-air cure is a dangerous fad. I never saw anybody who benefited by it. Didn't we cure Lucy Stiles exactly as I am trying to cure Kitty?'
'James says the Stiles family merely have weak lungs.'
'Much he knows about it! But I am firm; I am resolute. Once roused, and James Whitworth will find me a difficult man to deal with'
'And he wants you to call Dr Partridge into consultation.'
Dr Evans's jaw dropped. If he was a man of iron will and resolution, his looks very much belied him. Dr Partridge belonged to the modern neck-or-nothing school that Evans heartily despised; but then more than one poor body clad in the purple had passed through the hands of that eminent specialist with magnificent results. It was all very well to pooh-pooh the methods of the great surgeon who made Ambermouth his holiday-resort.
'It appears that James once saved Dr Partridge's life,' Mary went on; 'but that has nothing to do with it. I want you to stand firm'
'To the last ditch, my dear Mary.'
'James is coming to see you. You have only to be resolute.'
'Oh, he is coming to see me? And I have only to be resolute? My dear Mary, if you had put your foot down firmly at first you might have saved me—I mean after that there would have been no more to be said.'
'My dear doctor, James Whitworth is not shaken off so easily. You know his ways.'
Evans nodded. He did know those ways by painful experience; and however elaborately he might lay his plans, Whitworth was certain to carry his idea into effect.
'I shall convince him that he is mistaken,' he said.
Miss Bentley sincerely hoped so. All the old-fashioned prejudices in the little gray body were aroused. It was easy to see that she belonged to a bygone generation. Change, reform of any kind, was absolutely painful to her; and she was sincerely impressed with the idea that any alteration in the treatment of Kitty would only hasten the end.
'I'll do all I can for you,' Evans concluded,' if you'll send that impetuous fellow here—'
'Mr James Whitworth to see you,' Mrs Allnutt said as she entered the room with no suggestion of ceremony. 'He is in the consulting-parlour, and he's just as good-looking and impertinent as ever he was.'
The woman's face glowed with pleasure; she might have been a mother who had announced the return of a favourite son.
'Now, what do you think of that?' Evans cried indignantly. 'That woman in my hearing scores of times has vowed and declared that if ever Jim Whitworth came this way again she'd throw a bucket of dirty water over him. And she's as pleased as Punch.'
'I'm afraid it will be a trying interview,' Aunt Mary said, gathering up her skirts for flight
'Oh, it will,' Evans said with pathetic melancholy. 'I will be firm—firm!'
THE wind had gone round to the west; there had been rain during the night, so that the beds of hyacinths gave out a subtle perfume. The jonquils were nodding in the borders; under a lichen-strewn apple-tree was a carpet of yellow daffodils. It was so mild and warm after tea that Kitty had begged for a little turn outside.
She was walking up and down now, leaning on Walter's arm. In the strong flush of sunshine she looked terribly white and fragile. She had to walk slowly, to pause every now and then with her hand on her heart. The exertion of breathing parted her lips and showed the little white teeth within. Just for a moment Walter looked across to the wide sweep of landscape beyond the garden, but he could see nothing but a blurred gray mist. It seemed so-hard, such a useless mockery without Kitty.
'You are not so well to-night,' Walter said gently.
'I don't know,' Kitty replied. 'I fluctuate so terribly. This morning I felt splendid, as if new life came to me. I was going to have a long day at the organ, my mind was full of lovely melodies, my oratorio was to grow apace, and your father actually found me two of the fugues that Uncle Colin left unfinished. Then the room seemed to grow suddenly oppressive, and I could only lie down all the morning.'
Walter nodded in sympathy. He had worked all the morning in an atmosphere that seemed to take the life out of him. For Kitty's sake he had endured it And if old Dr Evans proved to be wrong after all!
But Walter did not dare to think of that; the mere suggestion set his heart beating painfully. No; he must brace himself up for the inevitable. Kitty would be with him for a few months longer; then she would pass away into a beautiful, tender memory. He would work, and forget the past in his labour. Yet he would cheerfully have forfeited everything and started again with nothing but hope and ambition to know that the girl by his side would be with him always.
The little gray figure of Aunt Mary came into the porch presently, and gently reproached Kitty for her imprudence. She begged for one more turn round the garden, for the evening was mild and balmy, and the air eased the pressure on her lungs. A big figure in a loud check loomed over the little shadow in the gray silk; there was a smell of a cigar on the air.
'If you would keep this poor child out in the fresh air for a month right away,' James Whitworth said in his strong, confident voice, 'she would be well on the way to recovery. If something isn't done I shan't be able to stay here.'
'We are not disposed to hamper you,' Aunt Mary said coldly.
She stepped out on to the gravel with her head in the air. Whitworth walked mildly by her side, whistling softly to himself. Presently the small gray figure shrank a little and the clear face began to flush.
'I am sure I beg your pardon,' Miss Bentley said. 'I am very, very sorry. I can't imagine how I came to say such a thing.'
'Never was there a woman like you in the world before!' Whitworth cried. 'And what a blackguard I have been! It would have been less cruel to knock me down out of hand. But I should never have made you happy, Mary.'
'I don't think you would, James. But a woman in love rarely thinks of those things; and the past is buried.'
'And flowers grow on its grave, planted and lovingly tended there by you, Mary. I hurt your feelings just now, and I'm sorry for it; but I honestly meant what I said. I am a man of action. I simply can't sit down here and see that poor girl die without doing something to avert the tragedy.'
'Everything possible has been done. If loving care counts for anything—'
'Then Kitty would be the strongest girl alive; but everything possible has not been done. I say that Evans's treatment is entirely and utterly wrong. With the very best intentions, the poor child is being slowly done to death. My dear Mary, I have seen cases of that kind cured.'
'Not similar cases to Kitty's,' Miss Bentley said with gentle obstinacy.
'There you are! You won't be convinced. I have known men in South Africa who have come out as a last resource to see what open air will do for them. They came with death written on their faces. A few months later and—well, you should see them!'
'Tom and Albert Cotton went to Canada for the same reason, and they were both dead before they had been there a month.'
'Because they waited too long. You can't expect Nature to perform miracles. Kitty has not gone too far. If so, she wouldn't possess so much nervous energy. That fine spirit of ambition would have been quenched long ago. I love that girl as I love my boy. It is only since I came down here that I have realised how shamefully I have neglected Walter. I met two big painter fellows in London the other day, and they were loud in praise of my boy. Now that he has money behind him his fortune is made. I've nothing of my own, but I shall not touch a penny of his. And I thank God for giving my boy the great and glorious chance. By every moral right the money ought to have gone to Kitty. Up to a certain point my brother intended her to have it'
'He never really changed his mind,' Aunt Mary said quietly.
'I suppose not. It was that affair in Spain. It was nothing wonderful either.'
Whitworth put this aside with contempt His sanguine nature was full of Walter's future. It seemed to dominate all his ideas, to rob him of all the selfishness that had ever been his besetting sin. And he was going to save Kitty. Walter's good fortune would be as nothing unless he had Kitty by his side. He did not care a jot for the opinion of a thousand of the Evans type. He had seen Evans that morning, and he had very soon put that individual in his place.
'All the same, I shall not allow it,' Miss Bentley said. 'I cannot. If Kitty came to premature harm I should feel like a murderess.'
'Well, it's going to be done,' Whitworth said coolly, 'and the sooner you make up your mind to it the better. Those young people have gone in, I see. Come along—I promised Kitty to overhaul some more of that old music for her.'
But Miss Bentley elected to remain outside. She was anxious and disturbed. She was going to fight for her old tenets to the last gasp. At the same time she fully realised the strong mind that was bending her. In her heart of hearts she knew that sooner or later she would have to yield. But when the little woman in gray felt that she had right on her side she could go far.
Still, she was troubled and uneasy. All that James Whitworth had said came back to her now: his sanguine hopes, his new-found pride in his boy, his breathless, eager interest in Walter's career. And he had spoken with tears in his eyes of Kitty. Aunt Mary's love for James Whitworth was dead and decently buried years before. She had forgiven him as she had forgiven everybody, but she had never respected the man quite as much as she did to-day.
The mellow notes of the old organ stole into the garden. Walter was singing. Out of the mists a rotund figure absurdly wrapped up loomed largely by the side of the little lady in gray.
'Dr Evans!' Miss Bentley cried. 'Why, what does—'
'Had to,' Evans said with resignation. 'Mrs Allnutt insisted upon it. Otherwise she would have assuredly spoilt my dinner.'
'And so you braved her wrath to come and see me. That was very good of you.'
'Not at all; not at all,' Evans gasped. 'Do you think anybody could see from the road if I took this muffler off? I was anxious in my mind. I had a most exhausting interview with Whitworth to-day.'
'I was afraid of it Still, so long as you were firm—'
'But, my dear lady, I wasn't. To begin with, I was dignified. I sheltered myself behind my superior medical knowledge. I said I was quite prepared to answer any questions, but I could not—I really could not—open a discussion upon my treatment of the case with a mere layman.'
'And what did he say to that?'
'He laughed, simply laughed in my face. He implied that I was a greater ass than he had taken me for. My views on butterflies and on old Gothic architecture he respected. And then he bullied me. He actually called in Mrs Allnutt to back him up. Oh, it was a dreadful time!'
Dr Evans wiped his heated face from a fine perspiration not entirely due to the closeness of the evening. Aunt Mary was duly sympathetic.
'So long as the argument was general it didn't matter,' she said.
'But, my dear Mary, the argument was not general,' Evans cried. 'That man has been reading up his facts. He quoted cases against me. He seemed to know all about what the new school call the consumptive bacillus. Then I really had to stand upon my dignity, and ask him by what right he interfered on behalf of Miss Evershed.'
Miss Bentley drew her breath quickly. A more observant man than the doctor would have noticed her trembling agitation.
'And what did he say to that?' she murmured.
'Why, as her guardian. Under the will of Colin Whitworth, you know. Of course he had me there, and he was not slow to see his advantage. Never was there such a man before. I never meant to yield; I was going to be quite firm. And yet, before I knew what I was doing, I had actually promised about Partridge.'
'Oh, indeed,' Miss Bentley murmured. 'And, pray, what was the promise you made?'
'Why, to see him in consultation, of course. Naturally, I shall have to be exceedingly firm with Partridge. It will be my duty to point out to him that, with all his great skill and with all his wonderful cures, there are cases where humble men have made a critical study of patients.'
Miss Bentley cut this tirade short coldly.
'You have made a great mistake,' she said. 'Dr Partridge may come—indeed it is inevitable now; but nothing shall induce me to follow a different course of treatment And if it comes to the worst, I shall be able to prove that——But I am talking nonsense. Good-night, Dr Evans.'
She turned on her heel and walked slowly and thoughtfully towards the house.
THE family party at Grey Gables bad assembled in the studio. James Whitworth could smoke his strong cigars there without let or hindrance. He was the kind of man who liked plenty of space. The candles were lighted on the organ; a large shaded lamp stood in one of the high window recesses; another one glowed on a big oak table. There were flowers everywhere. The artistic beauty of it all—the mellowed oak, the pictures, the carved rafters, the slender figure before the organ—appealed to Whitworth with a strange new force. For the first time in his life he realised what home meant.
And the life and light of it was Kitty. It would all be as the earth without the sun when she was gone. She looked so bright and well this evening! It seemed hard to realise that the red of her cheeks was the flag of death. James Whitworth swallowed a hard lump down.
The soft melody died away in the carved rafters. Miss Bentley declared aloud that Kitty had played enough.
'But I feel so particularly well and strong tonight,' the girl pleaded.—'Uncle Jim, where is that fugue you promised to find for me?'
'My dear child, I am one of the finest promisers in the world,' Whitworth cried. 'I'll go and look at once.'
He went off in his bustling, imperious way. A solitary lamp glowed in the dining-room. Colin Whitworth's musical library lay dully behind the brass trellis-work of the bookcase over the Dutch bureau. With characteristic energy Whitworth tumbled a score of the bound manuscripts on the table. It was also characteristic of the man that he found what he desired. As he bundled the volumes back again a paper slipped out of one of them, a letter in the neat handwriting of his dead brother.
There were words here and there that he could not fail to see. Whitworth's face was very grave as he read. Then he carefully placed the letter where he had found it, and made a mental note of the volume. He puffed mechanically at his cigar, utterly unconscious that it was extinguished.
'Well, here's a pretty discovery!' he said, addressing a stately Romney on the opposite wall. 'Here's a puzzle for a Puritan! Well, the truth must be told, cruel blow as it will be to poor Walter. Still, that lad is certain to make his way in the world. And if I tell the truth? Stop.'
He frowned hard at the serenely unconscious Romney.
'Stop. If ever there was a case of the end justifying the means, it is here. If I speak now, I lose my grip on Mary and Kitty. The dear little gray lady will be in a position to defy me. And Kitty? Well, Kitty must be saved. Yes, I'm pretty sure I'm on the side of the angels in this business.'
He sauntered back to the studio, dangling the faded manuscript in his hand. He did not look in the least like a dark conspirator. With a pleased little smile Kitty began to play. Aunt Mary, by the light of one of the big lamps, was knitting industriously. Whitworth drew up a chair to her side.
'Why are you looking so preternaturally grave?' he said.
Aunt Mary's lips moved for a moment. She was counting her stitches. Whitworth had to repeat the question before he got any reply.
'I am in great trouble,' she said. 'Dr Evans came up just before dinner. I find that you have been bullying him unmercifully.'
'Nothing of the kind. I went to his house to-day, as I told you I should, and gave him a piece of my mind about Kitty. He was disposed to be obstinate, but I soon knocked that nonsense out of him.'
'You found him very firm?' Aunt Mary asked, with a slight smile.
'I found him very pig-headed. But, of course, he hadn't a ghost of a chance with me from the very first. He consented to a consultation with Partridge. I've written to Partridge to come over here to-morrow afternoon, being Saturday. By this time to-morrow we shall have started the new treatment.'
Whitworth spoke as if the whole thing was settled. He might have been the head of the universe. The little gray lady's lips grew rigid.
'I think not,' she said. 'Of course, I shall be deeply interested in hearing what Dr Partridge has to say. But I go no further. From the bottom of my heart, I firmly believe that the best possible means for prolonging Kitty's life are being taken. To make a change now would be nothing but murder. James, I am forced to forbid it entirely.'
'Then you push me to extremes,' Whitworth replied. 'The happiness of two people is at stake. I don't want to be brutal; I don't want to remind you that our little Kitty is doomed to die, because you already know it. The whole thing is in the nature of a delicate and dangerous operation on an expiring patient. If it is successful, she lives; if not, then she dies in any case.'
'You are too strong and wise for me, James.
But I object If God wills it——'
'Well, the retort to that is obvious to any one besides an illogical woman. Now, listen to me, Mary. A few years ago my brother made his will. For the moment his heart was soft to me because he was pleased to consider that I had done a creditable action. He left everything to Walter, and I was to be his trustee till he came of age. He is of age now, and his own master. But Colin also left me guardian to his dear young relative Kathleen Evershed. That puts you out of the count, Aunt Mary.'
Miss Bentley gasped. The smooth melody of the organ softened the voices. The cruel power of the man was gradually unfolding itself.
'You can't do it,' she said. 'There is no reason why. I can prove to you by—James, James, you are never going to use this cruel advantage?'
'Indeed I am. Call me a brute if you like. It is the only way possible to save the life of that dear little girl opposite. It seems a brutal thing to do after you have so carefully tended her all these years; but I must be firm.'
'I am quite certain that Dr Evans——'
'Will throw you over. Indeed, he has practically done so already. Partridge will turn him inside-out in ten minutes. Try and discount your disappointment, Mary. When that conference comes to an end to-morrow, Evans will be against you. He may be pompous, but he will be plastic.'
Aunt Mary urged her case no further. She knew the resolute nature of her opponent Her lips were tightly pressed together; she had all the aspect of one who is conquered. And yet her lips were tightly pressed together to guard the secret that struggled for words and freedom behind them.
She was not quite sure yet whether she ought to speak or not. She could not fight off the impression that James Whitworth was acting for the best. There was a terrible element of doubt as to whether he was right and she criminally wrong. But the old-world prejudices of the little gray lady were not to be swept aside like that. And she had a terrible weapon behind her.
Should she unmask her battery? The silver-throated organ had ceased; Walter was talking to Kitty, who looked up radiantly into his animated face. He was speaking of Rome and the wonderful things he was going to do there.
A few words and Aunt Mary could have stripped the happiness from that glowing young animated face, she could have tumbled down the house of cards. But for what end? Merely to bolster up what might prove to be a stupid prejudice. And before long Kitty would be no more. Aunt Mary's lips closed together; the secret was conquered.
'Really, it is dreadfully late,' Kitty cried. 'I can only justify myself by saying that I feel so well this evening, I am afraid that when Dr Partridge comes to-morrow he will decline to regard me as an invalid.'
'So you have heard all about that?' Aunt Mary asked blankly.
'Walter told me. I promised him I would not get excited. But, all the same, it has given me hope. If you only knew how I want to live, what a pleasant world I find it now——' She stopped and smiled unsteadily.
James Whitworth huskily proclaimed the fact that he must have caught a cold somewhere. Walter looked steadily at a picture that he could not for the moment see.
'Go to bed,' Aunt Mary said with amiable ferocity. 'Don't you see it's nearly eleven? We are all silly people together, and I am the silliest of the lot' She took her candle from the old chest in the hall and marched stiffly upstairs. The silent tears were running down her cheeks. She was beaten and baffled, and yet she was not in the least angry. Nobody could possibly have believed it, but Aunt Mary looked as if she had been doing something to be ashamed of.
PLUNGING horse in a high dogcart cut up the gravel in front of Grey Gables, and a jolly-looking, well-built man clad in tweeds stepped out He looked more like a prosperous gentleman-farmer than anything else, only there was something about the keen eyes and clean-shaven lips that suggested a successful barrister. But he had a very pleasant mouth, and the gray eyes had a twinkle in them. Dr Partridge brought an air of cheery confidence with him; he was a good doctor to have in the house. Day in and day out he grappled with death, but ever with a smile on his face and a serene confidence in the future.
'Well, Whitworth?' he said breezily.—'Miss Bentley, this is a pleasure I have tried to anticipate for a long time. Do you know, that fellow Whitworth once saved my life.—Dr Evans, I am very glad to meet you. I am taking up entomology. Would you mind imparting some of your learning to a willing pupil?'
Evans went over to the enemy at once under the eyes of Aunt Mary. James Whitworth caught her suggestion of disdain, and winked openly. For the next hour or more the local practitioner did no more than look wise, throwing in an occasional 'Um' and 'Ha!' as dignity required. Walter and his father paced up and down outside for the best part of the hour. It was a trying time, but it came to an end at last.
In the dining-room Partridge was telling a professional story. Kitty was laughing merrily at it with not the slightest sign of the fluttering fear that had poisoned her a while ago. The thick silk scarf had gone from her neck; the three latticed windows were wide open.
'Got a good report?' Whitworth asked with a fine assumption of indifference.
'Of course we have,' Partridge cried. 'Part of one lung is gone, and the other is badly affected; but that's nothing, bless you!—nothing at all. Still, I'm glad that my friend Dr Evans decided to call me in. He quite agrees with me that there must be a change of treatment. Before the summer is over Miss Evershed will be a different girl. I'll pledge my professional reputation on that.'
'Dr Partridge is right,' Evans murmured—'absolutely right.'
'The great thing is plenty of fresh air. Wet or dry, rain or shine, Miss Evershed must be out in it all. She must always be in a room with the windows open; night and day this must not be neglected. Late in the autumn she must go to St Moritz and stay there till the spring. And if she doesn't come back then absolutely cured, why——Well, I'm quite sure she will.'
'We are absolutely convinced of that,' Evans said crisply.
Partridge bowed himself out cheerfully, taking the plastic Evans along with him. The little man was none too loath to escape the cold, displeased eye of Aunt Mary. Never had an ally so basely deserted his consort before. From the very first he had made no show, no kind of fight at all.
'It was absolutely disgraceful!' Aunt Mary cried.
'It was amusing,' Kitty laughed. 'Dr Evans's dignity was splendid at first. Then that subtle stroke about the butterflies finished him completely.'
The girl laughed unsteadily. Her eyes were gleaming with unshed tears. Outside, the sun was shining gloriously; there was a cool touch in the air. The reprieve had come, and their hearts were overflowing with gladness. Walter would have said something to Kitty, but she put him aside.
'Not yet,' she whispered. 'I cannot grasp it all yet. Go into the garden and wait for me. To think that I shall always be able to breathe the air in future! I must be alone in my room for a time, Walter. I am going to have a good cry. And then—then I am going down on my knees——'
She turned and was gone. Walter fumbled his way into the garden, across the neat geranium-beds, without the least idea where he was going. Aunt Mary watched quite unmoved the desecration that at any other time would have stirred her to the depths. With an assumption of indifference, Whitworth was trying to light a cigar. It was a long time before either of them spoke.
'Dr Evans——' Whitworth began. 'I fancy that Dr Evans——'
'James,' Miss Bentley said formally, 'I beg you not to mention that man's name again. In future he and I must be as strangers.'
Whitworth smiled, a slow, exasperating, irritating smile.
'At least, I am very angry with him, James. He was either right or wrong. And the way he deserted me was simply abominable.'
'My dear Aunt Mary, are you sorry or glad that he has deserted you?'
'James, may God send the day when I shall be glad! Fate has taken the matter out of my hands; though, if I had been perfectly honest, I might——Still, they say Dr Partridge is a great man. It will be an anxious time for me. But that St Moritz trip is out of the question.'
'Why? When Walter and Kitty are man and wife——'
'They will not be so until Kitty is pronounced absolutely cured. And this St Moritz business is part and parcel of the cure. I am absolutely poor, and Kitty is poorer still.'
Whitworth was laughing quietly to himself.
'I shall find a way,' he said. 'When you discover the part that I have been playing in this business you will cut me off with a shilling. At the same time I am going to show you how this trip can be accomplished without loss of dignity to any one. My dear Mary, you would be the happier for the loss of your stiff-necked prejudices.'
Aunt Mary made no demur. She was crying softly to herself. She had been baffled and defeated in all directions; but there was a warm feeling at her heart to which she had long been a stranger.
'I am going to my room,' she said. 'I am not quite myself.'
'Ditto to that,' Whitworth murmured as he looked dubiously at the cigar that he had tried to light in the middle. 'I fancy that a five-and-twenty-mile walk would be about the best cure for my distracted feelings.'
Kitty came down into the garden presently. Her eyes were red and swollen; her cheeks were flushed with the marks of recent tears; but the dark shadow was no longer there. She was going to live and be happy, to be strong and well and buoyant like others of her years; the whole shining world lay before her.
A great weight seemed to have rolled from her shoulders. She had something more than hope to carry her forward. In the kitchen-garden, where the apple-blossoms glowed pink and tender, Walter was patiently awaiting her.
* * * * *
The days were running their smooth course along. June had come and gone, and the first virgin green of the trees had departed. And as the days passed, so had the white, wan shadows fallen from Kitty's face; the languor had departed from her limbs; there was a healthy flush on her cheeks.
The new cure was progressing splendidly. Long before the summer was over Kitty was walking with the best of them; she could sit at the organ now without the slightest sense of fatigue. She slept peacefully as a child; the distressing cough was no more than a painful memory.
Autumn had come at last with a touch of frost, followed by warm weather. And still Kitty was going back from the shadows in the valley. Dr Evans openly plumed himself upon the success of the experiment, much to the indignation of Aunt Mary, who had long ago made her peace.
'It's positively shameless of Dr Evans!' she said. 'To hear him talk, any one would imagine that he and not Dr Partridge was responsible for the change.'
'All the same, Kitty is not quite so well today,' Whitworth replied. 'I am afraid she is feeling the fog. A year hence it won't matter at all. I telegraphed to Partridge to-day asking his advice.'
Aunt Mary waited anxiously for the reply. It came at last:
'No cause whatever for alarm. In present state of case, dry air essential Take patient to St Moritz at once, and stay there till April.'
Aunt Mary frowned at the offending telegram, and dropped it amidst the confused artistic litter of the dinner-table.
'It is out of the question,' she said. 'There are no funds. I know what you are going to say, James; but I can't hear of it'
She swept majestically out of the room towards the studio, where the young people had preceded her. With a slow smile, Whitworth crossed over to the music library above the Dutch bureau.
'Now to explode my little mine!' he murmured. 'It will come in quite dramatically at this point. Now, where did I put that letter? I'm certain it was in Fugue 45 of this volume. I'm sure——'
He paused, and dropped the ubiquitous cigar from his lips.
'Gone!' he cried. 'Stolen! Is it possible that——No, she could not do such a thing!'
HERE,' said Whitworth, 'is a most abusive letter from Partridge. He wants to know why Kitty is not at St Moritz.'
There was just a faint suggestion of malice in the speaker's tone; but Aunt Mary quite overlooked that. She had appeared dreadfully troubled and worried the last few days. Kitty had not been nearly so well, either.
'I cannot see my way to it,' she cried. 'It will be dreadfully expensive. If it were somewhere in the direction of Cornwall, for instance.'
'St Moritz is not Cornwall,' Whitworth said sapiently.
'But, James, it will cost quite two hundred pounds. Where is the money to come from?'
'You don't want any money. You must both go to St Moritz as Walter's guests. I shan't be there, because I'm off to Brazil in a day or two. And a good thing, too, seeing that I am down to my last few pounds.'
Aunt Mary protested that the idea was indelicate. She believed that such things were done in modern society. She had heard of dreadful cases where poor brides owed their trousseaux to wealthy husbands.
If Walter and Kitty were married it would be altogether a different matter.
Miss Bentley spoke slowly and with disdain for modern innovation. Whitworth was half-amused, half-inclined to respect her prejudices. But something would have to be done, and he said so bluntly.
'I fancy I have found a way,' Miss Bentley said presently. A pink spot burned on either cheek. 'I am going to Ambermouth presently, and when I return I shall be able to speak more definitely.'
She went off presently in her best gray silk and her sable cloak that had come down from a bygone generation, and wearing a black bonnet of the severest Puritan style. It was no shock to her pride that she travelled to Ambermouth in the carrier's cart, which she graced as if it had been a barouche-and-pair.
A little later James Whitworth swung into Ambermouth with his long, free stride and his easy air, and made his way without the slightest regard for appearances in the direction of the side-door of a jeweller's shop over which hung the familiar trident of brass balls.
He swaggered into one of the dark little closets of the pawnbroking department as if he had visited his bank for the purpose of drawing a large deposit.
'Diamond ring,' he said, 'repeater watch, chain. I've had eighty pounds on the ring alone lots of times. I want a hundred and fifty pounds altogether. Look sharp.'
The keen-eyed man behind the counter gave a searching glance at the valuables. Then he nodded cheerfully. An assistant was attending to a customer in the next box. He came along to the manager with a diamond-and-ruby frame inside of which was an exquisite miniature.
'Lady wants a couple of hundred on this,' he whispered hoarsely.
Whitworth fairly gasped. The miniature in the lovely setting was quite familiar to him. The manager of the establishment shook his head.
'Not worth it,' he said. 'Probably fetch more money at Christie's; but too risky for us to advance more than a hundred upon.——Your name, sir? James Whitworth? Will you have the money in notes or gold?'
Whitworth elected for notes, which he carelessly stuffed in his pocket He strode into the street and waited with confidence for the coming of the person he expected to see. A moment later and Miss Bentley emerged with a face of crimson and eyes full of tears. What an effort it had cost her to enter a pawnbroker's she alone knew.
'What were you doing in there?' she asked indignantly. 'Such a disgrace for Walter! Just think if anybody had seen you!'
She had quite forgotten herself; she was always thinking of other people.
'So I have found you out!' Whitworth said coolly. 'There's pride for you! My word, if anybody had recognised you coming from that place! Mary Bentley in a pawnbroker's! The mind reels at the mere suggestion. Mary, I think you are the best and dearest little woman in the world.'
'Don't!' Miss Bentley faltered. 'If you only knew what I have endured! But I was shocked to recognise your voice.'
'Were you? My dear girl, I am quite used to it Nobody has more ups and downs than a mining-engineer. My last job was a short one, and I had been out of collar for months before this. Now that I am off to Brazil I need money. Now, which is best—to go sponging on friends who may never be repaid, or raise money honestly on your own property? I am glad of the accommodation; the pawnbroker has done an excellent stroke of business. There is nothing to be ashamed of.'
Aunt Mary shook her head sadly. The pawnbroker represented to her the last signpost on the broad road to ruin. She little realised how often the prosperous of to-day have availed themselves of that friendly aid.
'The miniature was worth the amount you asked,' Whitworth said dryly. 'You may flush and tremble, my dear Mary, but I never admired you quite so much as I do at this moment It must have been a dreadful thing for you to violate your feelings in the way you have. But I'm glad you didn't part with the miniature of Marie Stuart, because there is another way out of the difficulty.'
'What do you mean by that?' Aunt Mary asked, trembling violently.
'Never mind for the present. When we come to have an explanation presently, we shall both have something to confess. And yet I am sure that the recording angel will drop a tear on our indiscretion as he did on that of Uncle Toby.'
There was a suggestion of fear in the eye that Miss Bentley turned on Whitworth. He was whistling, with his hands stuck deep in his pockets, whilst his companion fairly trotted along by his side.
'I'm walking too fast for you,' he said. 'We'll have a cab home.'
'Always so fearfully extravagant,' Aunt Mary gasped.
'Not a bit of it. Pocket full of money and a good appointment before me. You have to-day seen an object-lesson in thriftiness. I don't care a rap for a gold watch, and diamond rings for men I abhor. But in a moment of prudence I bought both. What is the consequence? I am in a position to raise a large loan on strict business lines without being under an obligation to any one. I 've got to send off a telegram to Partridge saying that you start for St Moritz on Saturday.'
'But, my dear James, so far as I can see—Eh, what an impulsive man he is!'
'Well, that's done,' Whitworth said cheerfully as he came down the steps of the post-office. 'You think you are not going on Saturday? My dear Mary, unless something entirely unforeseen occurs, the journey is inevitable. Oh! you designing, wicked woman, I have found you out at last.'
'I have done nothing to be ashamed of, James.'
'Of course you haven't You have acted magnificently. At the same time, a judge would say some severe things to you if he knew as much as I do. Here's our cab.—Grey Gables, Anscombe, driver.—Mary, will you answer me a question?'
'Certainly, if the answer is not too difficult'
'Nothing of the kind,' Whitworth said. He bent forward with a mischievous look in his eyes. 'All I want to know is what yon have done with that letter yon found in the third volume of Colin's manuscript music compositions.'
KITTY and Walter were seated with their heads close together by the organ. Whitworth had just airily proclaimed the fact that he would be off in the morning, and that it was rather a good thing, seeing that the others were leaving for St Moritz on Saturday.
'That is, if Aunt Mary can get ready,' he concluded.
'I shall be quite ready,' Miss Bentley said, as if the words hurt her.
'Then come along with me,' Whitworth cried. 'Well go into the dining-room and work out the whole thing. A seasoned traveller like myself can put you up to all the tips. Come along, and leave these young people to themselves.'
Miss Bentley followed slowly. Her face was pale and her eyes heavy with tears. Whitworth carefully closed the dining-room door.
'Now, where is that letter?' he asked curtly.
Very slowly Aunt Mary took a letter from her pocket Her face flamed scarlet
'James,' she whispered, 'I did it for the best.'
'God bless the woman! I know yon did,' Whitworth burst out. 'I suppose you found out quite by accident, and decided that it was best to keep the secret. And yet you knew perfectly well that it would have ousted Walter from here.'
'Yes, I knew that. When my father was going blind I did all the work of his office for him. I am more than half a lawyer myself. If I had mentioned this letter—'
'—Walter would never have come here at all.'
'Oh yes, he would, James. You see, I never found the letter until after Walter came here. I meant to be cold and polite to him, but he won my heart from the first. And when he called me "Aunt Mary" and kissed me I was conquered. I said he was like his mother. But that wasn't the truth. The reason why I took to him was because he so reminded me of you when you were his age.'
Whitworth rubbed his right eye violently. He took Miss Bentley's hand and carried it to his lips. His voice was just a little unsteady. 'Always the best and dearest of women!' he murmured. 'Always.'
'James, don't be foolish,' Aunt Mary said, crying softly. 'The boy went straight to my heart Then, when I was looking for some music for Kitty, I found the letter. It was from Colin to Mr Benn, but when written I can't say. Perhaps it was written before the will was made—the will in Walter's favour, I mean—in which case—'
'It was written after the will in Walter's favour, as I shall prove to you presently. Now, will you read the letter aloud?'
It was a letter written on a sheet of business paper and headed 'Grey Gables, Wednesday,' without further heading and minus a date:
'My dear Benn,—I have given your letter my careful consideration, and I have at length come to the conclusion that you are right and I am wrong. When I made my will two years ago, leaving everything to my brother James in trust for his son Walter on the latter attaining his majority, I am prepared to admit now that I was carried away by the glamour of my brother's bravery in Spain. Acting on that impulse, I allowed myself to commit a gross act of injustice against my adopted daughter Kathleen Evershed.
'My brother I have long since forgiven for the great wrong he did me. He is capable of looking after himself. His son, I hear, is a genius, and would perhaps be spoilt by too much prosperity. Let him make his way in the world.
'This, then, is my will in little. I instruct you to draw up a new testament, leaving everything to my adopted daughter, Kathleen Evershed, with a legacy of one thousand pounds to my nephew Walter. Return the will so that I can sign without delay.—Yours very faithfully, Colin Whitworth.'
'Now, why did you suppress that letter?' Whitworth asked.
'I am coming to that,' Miss Bentley explained. 'It is not dated. It might have referred to one of the last half-dozen previous wills made by your brother Colin.'
'Turn it over,' Whitworth suggested. 'It is written on the back of a letter from Benn asking how much longer the recipient is going to prolong an act of injustice. That letter of Benn's was dated 17th September 1900, two years after the will was signed. Now, if that letter came before a judge, and he was assured of the soundness of mind of my brother at the time he wrote it, it is pretty certain that the will of September 1900 would be set aside and that letter ordered to stand in its place.'
'Really!' Miss Bentley cried, aghast 'I—I never thought of that.'
'And yet I am merely stating a fact That letter is absolutely signed by the would-be testator, setting out his ultimatum deliberately. Why, the draft of a will in the handwriting of a mere lawyer's clerk has been allowed to stand before now. And yet you knew of this—you knew that if you only produced that document Walter would have stood aside and Kitty would have taken his place.'
'Stop!' Miss Bentley cried. 'I did know of this. I found the letter before you did, and in the same way—looking for music for Kitty. It was a great shock to me; but after careful consideration I decided to do nothing. And why? Because I was absolutely and sincerely convinced that Kitty's days were numbered. Again, that letter is not a will in the strict sense of the word. Otherwise I would never have behaved as I have done. Kitty was dying. No harm could possibly be done by holding my tongue. Kitty was dying. The rest mattered nothing. And here was Walter, the boy who so strongly reminded me of you, on the threshold of his career. If you could only have seen his pure delight in the beauties of the old place! All his dreams were realised. And you were so proud of him. I was proud of him. I had not the heart to dispel those dreams. And so I held my peace.'
Again Whitworth kissed the speaker's hand. 'But Kitty,' he urged. 'Kitty came back from the grave. Surely, you should have spoken then. The money was morally all her own.'
'Too late, James. My prejudices were too strong for me. And I always had the miniature in the diamond setting to fall back upon. All this time I had not the slightest idea that you knew of the letter; and James, James—'
Mary Bentley's face lighted up suddenly; she smiled behind her tears. Whitworth smiled too, in an unsteady fashion.
'It's coming,' he said. 'My turn was bound to come. Go on.'
'James, you are worse than I am,' Aunt Mary cried. 'I am an angel of purity compared with you.'
'Well, everybody knows that,' Whitworth said coolly. 'Pray, proceed.'
'You found the letter as well as myself. You knew that Kitty
was morally entitled to everything here. And yet you kept the secret. You
allowed my foolish prejudice to stand in the way of Dr Partridge's cure, when
a word from you would have
made everything quite smooth. Was it for your boy that—'
'No, I'm hanged if it was,' Whitworth cried. 'It was for Kitty's sake. Oh, I am quite as guilty as you are, perhaps more so. But you refused to see Partridge; you declared that all that could be done had been done, and that Kitty must die in the orthodox fashion. Then I played my strong card. As Kitty's legal guardian, I insisted upon having my own way, and you had to yield. That's why I said nothing about the letter. If I had mentioned it you could have defied me, and—'
'And Kitty would have died,' Aunt Mary whispered.
'I'm afraid she would. It seemed to me that here was the typical case where the end justified the means. Mary, let us forgive one another.'
Their hands met across the table, and they smiled. They would be firm friends to the finish now, but nothing more. The old romance was dead and buried, but the fragrance of it lingered, and would sweeten their lives to the end.
'It is best as it is,' Mary said softly, and this was the requiem. They were sitting very quietly when the young people came in.
'Your father leaves us to-morrow,' Aunt Mary said in the same quiet fashion; 'and on Saturday we start on our journey. You smile, Walter. Well, my prejudices have vanished. Sit down, you two, and I will tell you a story.'
She told the tale in her own simple way. She passed the letter from one to the other.
'This is not really a will?' Kitty asked. 'No. And it makes little difference whether the property belongs to Walter or me. Mine is thine, and thine is mine. And now we can settle all disputes like this.'
She rolled up the letter quickly and dropped it into the glowing heart of the wood-fire. The quick spurt of blaze fell on the Romneys and Lelys, who seemed to smile down approvingly. Aunt Mary raised a mittened hand in protest.
'I feel so well to-night,' Kitty said; 'so strong and happy. Aunt Mary, you are the sweetest and dearest woman in the world. And I am going to get well for the sake of those who love me'
'Amen to that!' cried Whitworth. 'Amen to both, say I.'
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