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Title: More Than Coronets Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402581h.html Language: English Date first posted: Sep 2014 Most recent update: Sep 2014 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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WHEN the wind blew in from the north-east, and the sea came plunging over the gray granite, the salt sting of the spume was carried up to Deepdene. There was no glimpse of the troubled waters to be seen from the latticed windows of the topmost gable, for the old house nestled in a ferny hollow; still, quiet, and untroubled at times when the gale rushed through the ancient oaks till they groaned again. You could sit in the refectory on winter nights and hear the click-clack of the clock in the stone-flagged hall, where the armoured figures kept watch, and catch the rustle of the mice behind the panel; whilst, a bowshot away, the trees bent before the onset of the gale. The seamews came hurtling over with a flash and a scream, heeling as a yacht runs, whilst at the foot of the oaks the deer lay snug in the withered bracken.
No great house was Deepdene; but gray stone attuned and hammered by the deft hand of time until the granite had grown bloomy like the nectarines ripening on the sunny south wall. Two wings ran out from each side of the great portico; the windows were mullioned; there were high-pointed gables with black barge-boards cunningly carved. In front, a lawn, shaven and rolled and mown until the leisurely flight of centuries had rendered it a sheet of emerald velvet. Beyond, lay the remains of what at one time had been the moat, now crossed by a rustic bridge to the small but well-timbered park. Not a great domain; but inland, the fair meadows trended to the valley, where the red farmhouses lay girt about by barns and yellow ricks. In the Deepdene, land was rich and its yeomen prosperous. And in that fertile valley lay the income of Dene de Ros, which he counted at no less than ten thousand pounds per annum. Yes, a beautiful estate, truly.
The house inside was inclined to gloom, for the windows were small, and the device emblazoned on the panes cast streams of pallid blue and pale amber across the black oak floors. And yet the whole place laid no spirit of gloom or unrest upon the mind: it was a haunt of ancient peace, soothing to the body and mind. The phantoms of trouble and worldly longing would have been out of place there.
In the great hall gleamed polished coats of mail; dark oak chests were here and there; underfoot, skins and rugs; whilst to give the whole a modern touch, were giant palms standing out of dragon vases. In the living-rooms everything was the same; nothing appeared to have been changed since the days of good Queen Bess. It would not have surprised you to see a troop of dames in ruff and farthingale seated in the quaint carved chairs; or a bevy of cavaliers, hawk on wrist, riding through the hammered iron gates, brought from Antwerp by some bygone De Ros, and dividing the kitchen garden from the lawn.
Here and there, some little respect had been paid to changing fashion. But Dene de Ros was proud of his home and its contents, as he was of his long descent and aristocratic line. Many years ago, after the disaster which befell the Spanish Armada, Don del Roso, the commander of one of the great galleons, had been washed ashore, half-dead, after a terrible storm, there to be found by Dorothy Western, the only child of the then owner of Deepdene; and in the course of time there had been a marriage, and the Del Roso became by elision De Ros; and since then the line had remained unbroken.
They were a proud lot—there is no denying that. The Westerns were great people; and Don del Roso had the blood of Castilian kings in his veins. And, from that day to this, the family had retained the regular features and dark flashing eyes of the maritime adventurer whose picture hangs in the hall to witness.
A handsome, well-preserved man of fifty-five or so was Dene de Ros. He looked younger as he stood in his library, where the pale yellow light illuminated the brown volumes with which the room was lined; and yet De Ros seemed hardly happy. Possibly the letter which he had in his hand caused him some uneasiness. The offending communication was written upon a sheet of official-looking blue paper, inscribed in a legal hand, and the contents were of a very pregnant nature indeed.
'Strange, after all these years,' the reader murmured; 'and yet, if what is set out here is correct, there is only one thing to be done.' It was the speaker's favourite expression; everybody in the county knew it. It spoke the upright, honourable man, who never swerved an inch from his duty, however disastrous the consequences might be. People called De Ros hard and cold; but not a soul was there in the whole county who would not have placed his honour implicitly in the hands of Dene de Ros.
The cause of his uneasiness ran as follows:
'485 LINCOLN'S INN FIELDS,
5th August 1891.
'SIR—In accordance with your instructions, we have investigated the case thoroughly, and we have delayed writing until there was something definite to communicate. As you desired, we have spared no expense to sift the matter thoroughly; and it is our painful duty to state that the claim put forward by Mr Vanbrugh—otherwise Ambrose de Ros—appears to be absolutely sound in every particular. Copies of the various certificates and affidavits by persons whose testimony is apparently beyond reproach have been laid before us by our Australian agents, which leave very little doubt in our mind about the matter. It is impossible to convey everything in writing; therefore, our Mr Carson intends calling upon you to-morrow, when the whole matter will be explained. We trust you will be able to grant this interview.
Your obedient servants,
GALLOWAY & CARSON.'
The letter meant ruin, if it meant anything. It would necessitate leaving Deepdene, and commencing the world afresh. Galloway & Carson were not the kind of men to express so candid an opinion unless they were absolutely sure of the facts.
'I shall not fight,' De Ros murmured. 'If this man can prove his title, I shall make no opposition. But it is hard.' With a little fleeting passion, the speaker struck the paper in his hand. His very heartstrings were rooted in the foundations of the old house, which he would soon be compelled to relinquish to a stranger.
The library door opened a little way, and a girl looked in. She was about to withdraw, when De Ros called her to his side. There was no mistaking the likeness between them. Never since the advent of Del Roso into the family had there been any break in the main line; but now it looked as if the old name would die out, since Vera de Ros was an only child. She had the same creamy pallor of skin peculiar to the family, the same haughty, short upper lip and liquid eyes. A beautiful girl, dainty, graceful, and refined, like a modernised picture of the dames whose counterfeit presentment smiled down from the walls.
As she spoke, her voice was low and sweet. 'You are in trouble?' she asked. 'Is it that claim again? I thought that was forgotten long ago. The man is an impostor.'
De Ros shook his head sadly, but his eyes flashed. It is hard to lose everything after twenty years of undisputed sovereignty. 'The man is absolutely owner of Deepdene,' he said. 'My grandfather had two sons—Leslie de Ros, and my father, Dene. Leslie was the elder, as I have often told you. Had he lived, my father would have had nothing but his mothers money, and the Dyke—say one thousand pounds per annum, and the house which you know. But Leslie quarrelled violently with his father, and quitted the country in high dudgeon. Ten years later, proof came to us that he had died in Australia, and till lately we have never heard anything further. And now it transpires that Leslie was married, and left a son, who in turn became a Benedick, and has a son too. It is an old story,' De Ros concluded bitterly; 'but it means the loss of the old place, and its transfer to a man who will probably pull it down and rebuild a red brick mansion on the site.'
Vera's delicate features flushed with pain. 'Pull down this beautiful monument of the past, destroy the—— Oh, impossible!' The creamy pallor on her cheeks became more intensely marked. 'That would be worse than all,' she whispered. 'You are sure of this?'
'Yes. My solicitors say the claim is quite genuine.'
'I can't realise it.' Vera went on after a pause: 'Father, how old is this man, who has come to drive us from our home?'
'About my own age,' De Ros replied mechanically.
'Then you know all about him. Have you seen him?'
For a moment De Ros appeared to be actually confused, an unusual thing for a man who had never yet betrayed the slightest emotion. 'I have heard many particulars from Swayne,' De Ros explained with some little haste. 'I have to thank him for this.'
'But, had you known, Swayne's discovery would have counted for nothing.' Vera spoke with pride; she did not consider it necessary to frame her remark in a spirit of interrogation. The proudest and most honourable man in the county would have acted as a De Ros should—had he been aware that the estates were not his own, he would not have lingered for others interested to make the same discovery.
'I should have done my duty,' he said simply. 'Swayne's vengeance will be a very empty triumph, after all.'
'It is very strange,' Vera said meditatively as she sank into one of the old carved chairs—'very strange that you should have lived seven years in Australia before your marriage, and have discovered nothing of Leslie de Ros and his descendants there. And yet, in fewer than three years, Swayne finds the real owner of Deepdene.'
De Ros was silent for a moment; the heraldic device on the window cast a lurid red shadow athwart the leather-covered volumes; a flash of blue lighted up the carven mantel over the open grate. Outside, a starling whistled as he perched upon the bronze cupola of the pigeon-house. The ordered peace was there still; it lay everywhere save in the heart of the dethroned master of it all.
'Swayne was lucky,' he said at length. 'He blundered upon the clue quite by accident, and his thirst for vengeance dictated the rest. I daresay this Ambrose de Ros has promised to reward him liberally.'
'No one of our name would stoop to barter with a discharged servant, a dishonest steward,' Vera exclaimed, her dark eyes changing hue. 'You should have prosecuted Swayne, father.'
'I could prove nothing that the law recognises,' De Ros replied. 'And I would not build up too high hopes concerning our successor, were I in your place. To commence with—his mother was an emigrant, the daughter of a village hind who left the old country to better himself. Leslie de Ros did not tell his wife who he was; and when he died, leaving a son, his identity perished with him. But De Ros is no common name, and naturally, Swayne knew the whole story so far as this family is concerned. When I discharged him, he found it impossible to get employment in this country; therefore, he emigrated. In the bush he met Ambrose de Ros, tending sheep. The rest of the story you can guess. And now the claimant to this property is in England, and Swayne accompanies him. The latter's revenge'——
'Is nothing,' Vera interrupted loftily. 'So long as we do what is right and just, all that goes harmlessly over our heads. Oh, it is impossible for a creature like Swayne to humiliate a De Ros.' Vera spoke disdainfully as she rose to her feet. She laid her long slim hands, glittering with rose diamonds in old settings, on the bronze dragon that formed the back of a chair, a touch of carmine on her cheek. In another girl, younger, less regally beautiful, the gems would have looked out of place; but they seemed appropriate to Vera.
She sighed. It was the one passing tribute paid by pride to nature. It seemed so hard to be compelled to give it all up: the horses in the old stone stables, which had once been the refectory of a Capuchin hospital; the family pictures; the old silver-throated organ with the yellow keys, which had been fashioned by Father Smith himself. For Vera loved her music, and the organ that stood in the long gallery, opposite the brass-bound oaken chest on which Del Roso had floated ashore. And that—the cradle, as it were, of the race—must go too.
'It will be a wrench,' she murmured between her little white teeth; 'and yet there is comfort in knowing that everything is going to our own flesh and blood. I daresay we shall manage with the Dyke and your younger brother's portion—we are not extravagant.'
'It will be a triumph for Swayne,' De Ros said meditatively.
'It will not,' Vera retorted. 'He will gain nothing by it.' Vera swept out of the room, her black velvet skirts trailing behind her, her little high-heeled slippers clacking on the polished floor. In the soft dim light of the hall she recognised a figure which seemed familiar. The man bowed humbly, but there was a grin on his face.
'Swayne!' said Vera, with an uplifting of the arched brows. 'Why are you here?' There was no anger or indignation in the clear level tones, nothing but the cold, distant contempt naturally felt for a detected scoundrel. Vera simply regarded him as if he had been some noisome insect.
'I came here, Miss,' Swayne replied, striving to speak insolently, and failing lamentably in the attempt, 'to see your father. Subject to the necessary preliminaries, I have been reappointed steward to Deepdene estate by the owner, Mr Ambrose de Ros.'
'Indeed!' Vera said with the same smoothness. 'This is interesting. Your trip to Australia seems to have proved fortunate, Mr Swayne.'
The man smiled uneasily. In a dim way, he was conscious that the proposed triumph was proving somewhat chimerical. The coarse red face was sullen, the little twinkling eyes fell before Vera's calm gaze.
'You may say that,' he retorted with a rising inflection. 'I tried a land speculation, and in a short time I made ten thousand pounds. Then I went up country, where I was fortunate enough to find Mr Ambrose de Ros. He came over to England with me.'
'Indeed! He is to be congratulated upon his new friendship. What manner of man is this relative of mine, Mr Swayne?'
Swayne grinned again, and then coughed behind his hand, with a deference which he found himself unable to master so long as Vera's clear eyes were bent on his face.
'Not much like a De Ros, I fear,' he said. 'In the first place, Mr Ambrose—or, to speak correctly, Mr de Ros—is a gentleman entirely devoid of education. He has lived in the bush all his life, amongst the sheep; he has few ideas beyond his own wants.'
'I suppose you mean that he is a working man?'
'Well, that's about what it really amounts to,' Swayne continued, the feeling of insolence cropping up again. 'A labourer who has a son also, who is very little better. I daresay you'll find it awkward at first.'
But Vera displayed no emotion; her beautiful face was calm and serious, as if she had been listening to the passing chronicle of some village romance. She even smiled slightly as she drew her skirts together. 'Thank you,' she said simply. 'I shall be able to judge for myself presently.'
Vera passed up the wide staircase, leaving Joshua Swayne in a curious frame of mind, in which grudging admiration was uppermost. He had been turned away from Deepdene four years before with scorn and contumely; but now a sudden trick in Fortune's wheel had placed vengeance in his grasp; and yet the first shot had exploded harmlessly—the enemy remained undismayed.
Meanwhile, Vera turned into the great corridor, lighted by a large oriel window, where the purple and primrose device of the race flashed like a jewel in the sun. On either side were family portraits—a general, a famous statesman, a bishop with mitre and full sleeves of lawn. There were beautiful women in whose honour bloods had crushed many a cup, the whole proud noble line that culminated in a rude shepherd from the antipodes.
Vera smiled bitterly as she ran her hands over the ivory keys of Father Smith's work. But to-day there seemed to be a jarring note in the harmonious wail of the Gregorian chant, and Vera abandoned her stool, and, crossing over, stood for some time contemplating an object standing under the great oriel. It was an old oaken chest, brass-bound, and black with the passage of centuries. A little drift of bloomy feathery dust lay on the lid, but not enough to obliterate the curious inscription carved thereon by the hand of Del Roso himself. It was the casket he had clung to when the Santa Maria went down, and the commander had been the only living soul to reach that ironbound coast in safety. Vera traced the inscription with idle forefinger:
Thys was my arke of safetie,
here I found the Englyshe shore;
Thys is my home, and here withyn
Is troubil gone and o'er.
Vera lifted the lid. The chest was crammed with musty documents, expired leases, grants of royalties, and the like. She let the lid fall with a sullen bang, and leaned her face upon it. 'And this is the end of it all,' she murmured. 'What would the Castilian noble say to the shepherd, I wonder?'
There was a step on the stair, and Vera rose as her father came towards her. There was a gray slip of paper in his hand—a telegram.
'This is from my lawyers,' De Ros said gravely. 'They warn me that Ambrose de Ros proposes to honour us with a visit tomorrow.'
THE somewhat ceremonious dinner at Deepdene had drawn to an end. The function was always a more or less solemn one, invariably held in the great dining-hall, with its polished walls, where the spears and ancient arms shone dimly. A shaded argand lamp threw a subdued light upon glass and silver and the picturesque confusion of fruit; the butler had a light to himself on the buffet where the racing-cups were. There was but one spot of crystal flame in the midst of darkness dim and quiet.
Usually conversation between father and daughter proceeded smoothly enough; but on the present occasion they said but little. There had been a delay on the line in consequence of the breakdown of a train, and Ambrose de Ros had not yet arrived. The ordeal was merely postponed.
Vera felt ill at ease, nervous almost. In an absent-minded way, she sat before the piano in the drawing-room playing impromptu snatches. There was ample glow there from the candles on the silver branches to light up Vera's face. She looked cold and haughty in black lace, which showed up the ivory whiteness of her arms. There were diamonds in her hair.
De Ros stood before the high open grate, which was empty save for its complement of feathery ferns and Parma violets. He looked at his watch for the twentieth time. As he did so, there came the crunch of wheels on the gravelled drive. 'I thought I heard the brougham,' he said. 'They have arrived.' The speaker took a step forward, then his mind changed. After all, it was idle to expect him to welcome the coming guests. Courtesy and politeness they would have, but nothing more.
Then the drawing-room door opened, and a solemn footman entered. 'Mr de Ros and Mr David de Ros,' he said, and vanished.
Vera rose to her feet, a superb figure, and stood by her father's side. Her dark eyes were calm and steady as she surveyed the intruders. She was prepared for all that was commonplace and plain, and she found it. Still, the personality of the new head of the house might have been worse. Naturally, it was he who first engaged Vera's attention. The other was merely a young person of the name of David, the class of youth that patrician beauty comes in contact with in shops, a necessary social machine.
Ambrose de Ros stood with the light full upon his face. He smiled. Apparently, he was no more embarrassed than he would have been amongst his sheep. And there was no looking over his head either, for he stood six feet two inches in his stocking feet, which, you will admit, is a tremendous advantage in an interview of this kind. He was broad, too, in proportion—a perfect giant of a man, with a wonderful chest and shoulders. He was straight as a dart. He had regular features, a wonderfully pleasant smile, and blue eyes. Vera gasped. The man was a gentleman. Yes, merely an uneducated shepherd, but unmistakably a gentleman. Nature is a staunch republican in these matters, unfortunately for the theory of hereditary gentility. Vera could not look into that gentle, refined face and doubt it.
'You are welcome,' Dene de Ros murmured. 'I am glad to see you.'
'Yes,' Vera echoed, 'we are both pleased to make your acquaintance.'
The new owner of Deepdene advanced with extended hand. There was a pleasant smile on his lips as he crushed Vera's fingers in a grasp like a vice. 'I am glad to hear you say so,' he responded. His voice was wonderfully sweet and sympathetic, clear and soft as a woman's. 'Fourteen thousand miles have we travelled to see the old place that belonged to my ancestors. David didn't want to come; he was all for letting these things be; but I said no. Not that we're come to turn you out of this house; don't you think it; but I wanted to see my own flesh and blood. I'm a poor uneducated man, who's got his own living ever since twelve years old, and therefore not fit for the likes of you. Very likely you will look down on me, which is natural'——
'They will not look down on you,' David interrupted. 'Nobody who ever knew you well ever did that, father.'
There was an awkward pause for a moment, during which Vera's clear, calm eyes closely scanned the last speaker. Despite his homely name, David was a gentleman too. He was a De Ros every inch of him, with the same dark hair and pallid cheek, save that his eyes were blue. It was De Ros physically glorified by the importation of fresh healthy blood in the family. And the young man's speech, if lacking repose and the falsetto throatiness which obtains in refined circles, was correct and harmonious.
'Now, don't you interrupt me, Dave,' the elder man went on, laying his hand upon his son's shoulder with rugged affection. 'Mind you what the Book says concernin' a son's duty to his parents.—As I was saying, sir, I was only a poor shepherd, although I managed to give Dave the benefit of an education. I can't read myself.'
Vera laughed. The confession was so na´ve, that all the sting went out of it. Fancy a De Ros of Deepdene who was unable to peruse the Times!
'But Dave had advantages. It was terrible hard to part with him; but I did it, and I'm glad. He went to Melbourne, and there he became a gentleman. It was there that he learnt the ways of good society.'
'Exalted society,' David remarked with a certain frigid candour. 'I was assistant in a dry-goods store in Little Collins Street.'
'Where the society was good and the pay excellent,' Ambrose de Ros remarked with pride. 'But Dave was always a very ambitious lad; and I hope, for his sake, that you will be pleasant and amiable to me.'
'They will do so for your own sake, when they know you,' David put in parenthetically.
'Be friendly to me,' Ambrose went on, without noticing the interruption, 'because my boy is a good boy, and a credit to his parents. I come here with peace and good-will in my heart; my feelings go out to you—yes, go out to you.' He repeated the last phrase with childish delight in his own eloquence.
'I don't come as a thief and a robber, to deprive you of this dear old place, which you love as part of yourselves. I don't ask for much. I only want to be on pleasant terms with my own flesh and blood. Let me have the younger brother's portion, the place they call the Dyke, and the little money as goes with it. That's all—only that. And your good-will and esteem. And in saying this I simply echo the feelings of my boy who stands there before you.'
'I thank you for your consideration,' Dene de Ros replied. 'I can see that your little speech cost you a considerable effort.'
'Ay, you may well say that,' exclaimed Ambrose, 'Three months on and off, I've been learning that speech by heart, and yet, when I came into the room, all the tender bits seemed to go out of my head. I did intend to drop into poetry; but I quite forgot it.'
'And yet my father never heard of Silas Wegg,' David said dryly.
'I knew a Wegg who was a driver on Paterson's Station,' Ambrose said innocently. 'But if I remember rightly, his name was Jacob.'
There was another awkward pause, during which Dene de Ros pulled his moustache uneasily. He did not feel himself; he was awkward and restless before these people, whom he could not treat, as he would have liked, with his best and chilliest Quarter-sessions manner. And yet the man who supplanted him stood there smiling and absolutely self-possessed. David smiled too, but then he was reading the thoughts of his host, and they amused him.
'Perhaps I had better speak for my father,' the younger man said at length, 'as it was arranged that I should do. There is no question that this house and the estate connected with it belongs to us.'
'You will find no opposition to that statement,' Dene de Ros said coldly.
'I thank you,' David replied as serenely. 'It will be as well, perhaps, for you to listen to all I have to say before interrupting me again. In the first place, let me thank you for our reception. It is better than we had any right to expect. Naturally, you regard us as interlopers, aliens who appear unexpectedly, and thrust you from your inheritance.'
'Beautiful!' Ambrose murmured. 'That's the result of a natural aptitude for speaking, fostered by association with gentlefolks.'
Vera, to whom this information was communicated in a stage-whisper, bowed coldly, yet conscious of amusement. Like a great many uneducated men, Ambrose de Ros had a weakness for long words, and a wonderful faculty for grasping their meaning and pronunciation. It was quaint and amusing altogether; all the same it was irritating to find a De Ros regarding a shop assistant as a superior. They were the gentlefolk of David's past.
'But you need have no fear,' David continued. 'My father and I have thoroughly discussed the whole matter, and we are perfectly agreed to take no more than he has suggested.—Mr de Ros, for many years your father held this estate, deeming it to be his own; for more years still you have been master here. Is it right that you should be deprived now of your possessions? No. I have my own ambitions to serve. I came to see my father placed in a position of comfort in his declining years; and the younger son's portion will suffice us both. We decline to accept the ownership of Deepdene.'
A thrill of admiration glowed in Vera's breast. The speaker's tones were full and clear, his head was erect. There was no dry-goods salesman there. David was De Ros, the spirit of the race personified.
'I thank you from the bottom of my heart,' Vera's father replied with a little catch in his voice; 'and it is a great consolation to find that my successors will be worthy of the best traditions of our house.—But nothing shall alter my resolution. The place belongs to your father; I can hold it no longer.'
'And this is your absolute determination?' David asked.
'Sir, a De Ros never changes his mind,' was the haughty reply. 'I decline to go on living here under false pretences; I could not do it.'
'David,' Ambrose said reproachfully, 'didn't I tell you this would happen? When Swayne found me out, and told me all that had taken place in the past, and what I was entitled to, didn't I suggest pulling up the sticks and making a bolt of it? "Let us get away from him, so that he can't find us again," I said, because something seemed to tell me that it would come to this.—My dear young lady, I can see that your heart is warm, although your face is cold. I want you to believe that if I'd known what was going to happen, I would have died rather than caused this pain.'
'I am sorry,' Vera murmured, a little touched in spite of herself. 'I am quite willing to believe all that you say; but it cannot be otherwise.'
She moved across the room to the piano, and commenced to play. There was nothing contemptuous or distant in the action, she was merely actuated by a desire to set the Australians more at their ease, to give them a home-like feeling, and show that an awkward incident was closed.
Presently she looked up, and saw that the two elders were conversing earnestly together. Then David crossed over to the piano and stood by Vera's side. She gave him a friendly smile of encouragement. 'Do you know,' she said with a sudden burst of confidence, 'I like your father. He seems to be such a wonderfully single-minded man.'
David's features lighted up with a glow of enthusiasm. 'He is one of the best men in the world!' he exclaimed. 'He has been mother and father to me; he almost starved himself, so that I might have a decent education. Only, he will shake hands with people.'
Vera glanced down demurely at the diamonds on her right hand.
'Of course,' David said, noting the glance; 'and I specially warned him when he came in. I think that my father is the strongest man that I ever met in my life.'
'He certainly impressed me with that fact,' Vera laughed. 'But all the same, I think I am going to like your father very much.'
They breakfasted the following morning in one of the smaller rooms, looking out on the terraced lawn beyond the moat to the park, where the deer lay in the shadow of the great umbrageous oaks. The hour was late for visitors accustomed to rise with the sun, and they had both been out long before. The meal was fairly cheerful. It seemed to be tacitly understood that no further allusion should be made to the ownership of Deepdene. That had been absolutely settled by Dene de Ros on the previous evening.
There was a sunny smile on the face of Ambrose as he took his seat at the table. Everything seemed to be the brighter and better for his presence. 'I've been up since four,' he said. 'I've been all through the village and into most of the cottages.—Cousin Dene, these cottages want seeing to.'
'Do they?' Dene asked carelessly. 'Bronsor looks into these matters.'
'Well, he hasn't looked very far—that's all I can say,' Ambrose responded. 'Some of them are tumbling down, and the hinds there tell me the labourers' wages on the estate are only fourteen shillings a week. Now, when I'——
The speaker paused in some confusion. His own innate tact and refined feeling warned him that he was about to inflict pain upon two of his audience. But Dene de Ros came gravely to the rescue. 'You were about to say that you will alter things when the estate comes into your hands,' he said quietly. 'Yes, that is all right.'
'I am ashamed to say I was,' Ambrose stammered. 'I was going to blunder that out when I stopped. Why? Because it would have been a wicked thing to do. But look you here, Cousin Dene. Isn't it as wicked and as shameful to own ten thousand pounds a year and pay men, with souls in their bodies and families to keep, wages like these? And when they are worked to a standstill, where do they go? To the poorhouse. And if they are ill, what do they get? Nothing. Ah, it is hard, hard, I tell you. And I know, my friends, because I have suffered that way myself.'
'You are a republican,' Vera said with a little smile.
Ambrose's face grew wonderfully grave and solemn. His lips trembled, but the infinitely kind light still dwelt in his blue eyes.
'I am for the Queen,' he said simply. 'But if it's a question of grinding down one of God's poor creatures for the benefit of one richer and more powerful than himself, then I'm a republican indeed. My dear, it seems to me that you are a very ignorant young woman, after all.'
Vera laughed as she rose from the table; it was impossible to be angry with the speaker. In his own rugged, simple way, his dignity was quite as great and lofty as that of Dene de Ros himself.
'You must not mind my father,' David remarked, as they made a tour of the house after breakfast, the young people a little behind the elders. 'He does not mean to be unkind; but he is terribly in earnest.'
'And so are you, or I am lamentably out in my reading. Strange, in a man who has mixed in the very best Melbourne society!'
David laughed; he quite appreciated the satire. 'There is another evidence of my father's simplicity of character,' he said. 'When he came to see me at the store where I was engaged, he used to abase himself before the assistants there. I tell you there was not one of them fit to black his boots; and yet, like myself, he is no respecter of persons as persons.'
'Then you have no admiration for the class to which you belong?'
'My experience of them does not warrant reverence,' David said dryly. 'I met a good many scions of nobility down under, most of whom were patriots.'
'Patriots!' Vera replied with a puzzled expression. 'Is that colonial slang?'
'Indeed, no,' said David. 'They all recalled the lines:
True patriots we, for, be it understood,
We left our country for our country's good.
For instance, there was a cab-driver who was a member of the Upper House. We had a Baronet in the stores, who ran errands. You couldn't, by any stretch of imagination, call him a gentleman, you know. Then there was the younger son of a well-known Viscount, who marked in a billiard saloon. No; on the whole I did not form a high opinion of the aristocracy.'
Vera was silent, full of new ideas. It came as a revelation to her that race and rank could fall so low. Presently they came to the end of the corridor, where the mellowed sunlight flashed on the yellow keys of the old organ. Vera's fingers touched it lovingly. 'Ah,' she said with a little sigh, 'I shall miss the delightful instrument of Father Smith.'
'But why should you?' David asked eagerly. 'You have made up your minds not to stay here, and we must bow to your wishes. But surely treasures like these are not to be counted as houses and land. Take your organ.'
'No, no,' Vera said coldly. 'It is part of the house. See! it is built into the wall, and every mistress of Deepdene has played upon it since the maker first tuned these dingy pipes. No; I will come and play upon it, if you like, sometimes—that is, if I may. I should as soon think of taking Don del Roso's casket as the organ.' Vera pointed to the oaken chest, on the top of which the dust gleamed blue and saffron in the sunlight. Then, for David's benefit, she read the old inscription and told the simple old story.
'I must look into that some day,' David said with interest. 'Anything old, like that, has a wonderful fascination for me. It points to the fact that within that casket lies the secret and mandragora for the cure of trouble.—Do you understand the hidden meaning that lies under these words?'
'There is popularly supposed to be one; but the parable is beyond me,' Vera replied, a note of incredulity in her voice. 'There has been no direct break in the male line since Del Roso wrote that doggerel. Perhaps you are the prophet from a far country who is to solve it.'
The time came ere long when those words recurred with terrible force. Meanwhile, the sun shone; the drowsy hum of bees floated in through the window; a starling chattered on one of the limes outside, and, like a snake in the grass, there peered in the face of Joshua Swayne. He nodded familiarly to Dene de Ros; his manner to Ambrose was servile.
A flush mounted to Ambrose's face, his blue eyes were cloudy. 'Man,' he said sternly, 'where are your manners? When I want you, I will send for you. Now, go.'
Dene de Ros could have done it no better. There was the dignity of the born aristocrat in every gesture. Swayne crept away.
'Cousin,' said Ambrose, 'I am no judge of men and manners; but it seems to me that that man is a scoundrel.'
Swayne passed over the rustic bridge; he heard not the chatter of the starling, for his heart was full of bitterness and malice. 'Ah!' he muttered, 'if they only knew! But there is time enough for that.'
THE new order of things appeared to come about at Deepdene in the most natural manner possible. There was a little flutter of excitement at first, a disposition on everybody's part to see the new owner, and then everything settled down in the old groove—the machine went on as usual; nothing appeared to be disturbed, save that one or two of the servants accompanied De Ros and his daughter to the Dyke, which was situated just beyond the park gates. Dene de Ros took his deposition grandly. The old order changes, giving place to new; but nothing can debase the good and just man struggling with adversity. Dene de Ros owned defeat, but he could not fall.
For a year now the new owner had reigned in his stead; and, if a little heresy may be permitted, the estate was no worse for the change. Ambrose was unspeakably human; he was approachable; unlike his stern, unbending relation, he could feel for the misery which he had experienced. The cottages on the estate were improved, long-standing grievances alleviated, nothing neglected. And the county took kindly to Ambrose. He lacked the outward gloss and polish; but he had a native dignity and refinement of his own which fenced him round with the same dignity that doth hedge a king. He was a clever man, too; he started to educate himself with the fervour of a young man. Before twelve months had elapsed, he could read and write well. The books he read were a revelation to him. With early advantages behind him, Ambrose would have died a great man. And yet, despite the breadth of his ideas, despite his admiration for Adam Smith and Mill, nothing was altered at Deepdene. He regarded the oaken panels and gleaming armour, the storied device on the windows, with solemn and respectful awe.
'It's a big responsibility to follow those who are gone,' he said a score of times. 'They made the family what it was; they helped to make history too; and I've got to keep up their traditions.—David, lad, it's a very solemn undertaking that's put upon me.'
David was wont to listen respectfully. It was impossible for any one to carry out the burden laid upon his shoulders better than his father did. 'People say things are more satisfactory than they were,' he said. 'I am certain that no one is any worse for the change.'
'I hope not,' Ambrose said with simple solemnity. 'This is a trust which I hold under Providence. Out there, where I was for weeks at a time without seeing a single human soul, I used to wonder and dream what I should do if I had a lot of money left me. I said that mankind should be the better for it; and they are, though perhaps I shouldn't say so. The labourers are better paid, they've got decent cottages to live in.'
'Things will be better still,' David replied, 'when you get rid of Swayne.'
It was the one sore point between father and son. To a certain extent, Swayne had assumed his old position, and many were the private acts of tyranny perpetrated by him that never came to the ears of his employer.
'I owe all I have to him,' Ambrose said slowly. 'It was he who found me out, and placed me in my present position; and I don't see that he benefited much by all the trouble that he took.'
'He is steward of the estate at a good salary,' David said parenthetically.
'And a good servant, mind. I know nothing against him,' Ambrose went on, as he lowered his voice impressively, 'except that there was something wrong, a few years ago, when he held his present position before. He told me all about that honestly and honourably, and that's why I gave him another chance.—David, lad, when a man makes one false step, a cruel world is again' givin' him another chance; and that's how criminals is made.'
In his earnestness, Ambrose dropped into the old vernacular. It was not often that David heard it now, and it was not displeasing to him. It brought vividly before him the recollection of the simple-hearted shepherd who deprived himself of everything for the sake of his boy.
'And yet I don't trust Swayne,' David answered.
'I don't myself,' was the somewhat startling reply. 'Mind you, I can lay my hand upon nothing; he does his work well; and yet, when his voice is in my ears, and his face before me, there's something here near my heart that keeps on whisperin', "He's a scoundrel—he's a scoundrel." But I don't listen to it, because I argue that it's nothing more than sinful prejudice. But the voice is never silent.'
David changed the subject. There were other things to think of, of much more importance than Swayne. The younger man sighed impatiently as he looked round the library and then out across the lawn. He had everything that makes life worth living—good health, good looks, and the reversion of a fine estate—and yet there lay across his couch not a crumpled rose-leaf, but a trail of thorns. He was like the little boy crying for the moon.
It was not the moon he wanted so much as one bright particular star—Vera de Ros. It was impossible to be in her company long without being attracted to her—to be attracted and repelled at the same time. And David felt that unless he could win Vera for himself, all the rest was weariness of the flesh.
And she would have none of him; she repelled him gently and coldly, leaving him with an uneasy feeling that she cared for him all the time. Perhaps she did; but the demon of pride stood in her way. She liked David better than any man she had ever met; her respect and esteem for Ambrose was great, and yet they had between them deprived her of her inheritance. Hers, too, was the passionate pride of race; the blood in her veins was of the blue azure, whilst that of David was but a muddy stream. His mother had been a daughter of the soil, as was her mother before her; and birth was part of Vera's religion.
And yet she liked David. It was in her hands to say whether she should return to Deepdene and reign as its mistress again. She knew that she had only to unlock the floodgates of her passion and abandon herself to an affection which, with all her resolution, she could not stifle. And here the element of pity came in. David only wooed her from a sense of justice. Could she accept as a lordly gift that which was morally her own?
Of course David knew nothing of this. He wandered out upon the shaven lawn, where the peacocks were sunning their Argus-eyed fans, flashing a purple and golden sheen; he watched the deer browsing in the hollow. From the quaint pigeon-house, the doves fluttered down to his feet. He stood there chewing the cud of sweet and bitter fancy. The sky was clear overhead; but up from the sea came bands of trailing purple. The breeze blew on his face with fitful puffs. Far up in the empyrean, the gulls wheeled and circled, uttering plaintive cries.
'We shall have a storm before the morn, sir,' remarked one of the gardeners with a tug at his forelock. 'The gulls came in from the Clef Rock quite early. Ah, you should see this coast in a gale!'
'I haven't seen one yet, though I have been here a year,' David laughed; 'and I must say I don't see any signs of a storm at present.'
The rugged old countryman shook his head knowingly as he passed on. At the same moment, a figure crossed the rustic bridge and came rapidly towards the house. It was Dene de Ros, his features stern and contracted. He did not appear to see David for a brief space.
'You look as if something had happened,' the latter remarked.
'I did not notice you, David,' Dene de Ros replied.—'Yes, something very unpleasant indeed has happened, not that it concerns me personally, only your father ought to know at once. Where is he?'
By way of reply, David led the way through the dim cool hall to the library, where they found Ambrose struggling with a mass of accounts which Swayne had just left for his inspection. He looked up with a smile, which evaporated as he noted the thundercloud on his visitor's brow. 'What is it?' he asked quietly. 'I see there is something wrong, cousin.'
'It is that scoundrel Swayne,' Dene replied, keeping his passion down with difficulty. 'I always warned you that you were dealing with a rascal, and that you were foolish to give him another chance. He has gone upon a new tack this time altogether, since there is no longer any chance of robbing the estate upon a large scale.'
'He wanted money badly,' Ambrose interposed. 'He made a little fortune out there in land, which he invested in the New Tasmania Bank. He came to me in great distress yesterday with the news of its failure.—Don't be too hard upon the poor fellow, Dene.'
'I declare you are the most exasperatingly lovable man I ever met,' Dene exclaimed, smiling in spite of himself. 'Because a rascal loses money, which he probably obtained by questionable means, I am to be sorry for him. That man robbed me of hundreds of pounds; I discharged him without a character; and by the fortune of war, he discovered you. That was his revenge, as he thought; but there he was utterly mistaken. It caused me no great pain to do what was right.'
'You are a good man,' Ambrose said huskily—'one of the best of men.'
Dene de Ros waved the compliment aside impatiently. His face flushed, as if he were ashamed of that generous praise.
'But,' he went on, 'when your exaggerated gratitude caused you to bring that man home, and keep him about you, I was annoyed. Do you suppose he would have troubled about you, had it not been for striking a blow at me? The first intimation I had of your existence was a letter from Joshua Swayne saying he had discovered the son of Leslie de Ros, and asking ten thousand pounds for his silence.'
'Why wasn't I told this before?' Ambrose demanded quietly. His mouth had grown harder, his blue eyes flashed. 'I ought to have known. Forgive a man once, I say, give him a chance; and if he fails in his duty again'——
'But you were set upon him. Besides, I always had a comfortable conviction that if you gave the rascal rope enough, he'd be sure to hang himself. And I don't suppose you will care to look over the last escapade, because it concerns the poor.'
'Ah!' There was a world of meaning in the exclamation. 'Go on.'
'Well, I happened to be riding past one of the new cottages by the church yesterday, when I heard Swayne threatening one of the women there. Certain words which came to my ear roused my suspicions, and I returned presently. After a little persuasion on my part, the whole thing came out. It appears that the tenant's name is Meakin, one of the new labourers from Surrey.'
'A superior man for his class,' Ambrose observed. 'Very independent; but a good workman, and a firm believer in trades-unionism.—Never mind what your opinion of that is; please to go on with the story.'
'Well, the woman was angry. It appears that the cottage was let for half-a-crown per week; whilst, as a matter of fact, it is honestly worth five shillings. In collecting the rent, Swayne, it appears, always demands four shillings, and gets it too, for these people know when they are well off, and fear of Swayne getting them out of their holdings seals their mouths.'
'Oh! Then Swayne pockets every week something like forty sums of eighteen-pence—that is, if he does the same everywhere.
'Which he does,' Dene de Ros went on, with a little malicious delight in the discomfiture of his successor. 'I called at several more of the cottages, and had it out with the wives. Of course, I assured them that no harm could come to them; after which they spoke freely. I find all the labourers on the home-farm are paid twenty-two shillings. There are about forty of them; and Swayne, under threat of dismissal if they complain, gives them a pound each. It is by no means a bad way of adding nearly five pounds a week to one's income.—But you can test this for yourself.'
Ambrose de Ros rose to his feet, his lips trembling, and his hands tightly clenched. His gentle, innocent mind recoiled with loathing. Bad enough to plunder the rich; but when it came to the poor and lowly, he was filled with righteous indignation. He looked like the incarnation of an avenging Providence.
'This must be seen to at once,' he said. 'Will you come with me? I have to meet Swayne at Meakin's cottage presently; and if what you say proves to be true, then you will see that I can be just.'
As the two strode along in the direction of the village, a silence lay upon them. They reached the labourer's cottage at length. It was past one o'clock, and Meakin was at home, a powerful, burly-looking man, with a clear eye, and a manner somewhat independent. Swayne, looking mean and cunning as usual, was conversing with him.
The steward's face fell a little as he saw the angry gleam in the eye of his employer. He would have spoken, but Ambrose put him aside.
'Meakin,' he said slowly and distinctly, 'I have found you honest and straightforward, and I want a truthful reply to my question. Why, when the rent of your cottage is half-a-crown weekly, do you pay Swayne four shillings? And why do you take a sovereign on Saturday, when you know that you are entitled to two shillings more?'
Swayne gasped; his cunning face grew white and ghastly. He signed swiftly to his victim; but the latter smiled in reply. The man saw his advantage; something told him that the day of tyranny was past.
'Because I was bound to, sir,' he replied bluntly.—'Ah, I know what a steward can do when a man offends him. They can ruin a man. And because, even as things are now, I'm forty per cent, better off than I was before I came here, I kept my tongue between my teeth. I have not wronged you, sir, only myself. And if you knew what it was to starve, you'd know how that takes all the pluck out of a man.'
'I do know,' Ambrose said quietly. 'I don't blame you, Meakin, or any of you; I blame myself for trusting to a villain. Do not be afraid to speak, for he shall rob you no more. Tell me if you are the only one, or does he treat you all the same?'
'There's no favour shown,' Meakin replied with grim humour. 'Mr Swayne's kind enough to treat us all alike. Go down the cottages, sir, and see if I'm not tellin' you gospel truth.'
Ambrose turned away, all his anger gone. In its place there welled up a feeling of bitter disappointment. He had trusted this man; he had put aside his prejudices; he had been deceived.
'The way of the world is beyond me,' he murmured. 'I would not have had this happen for anything.—I would have found you what money you required. Come to me in an hour's time. By then, I shall know what to say.'
The speaker felt too upset to pursue his investigations further; he sat on the edge of the old stone drinking fountain which stood under the shadow of the church, whilst the others finished the unsavoury task. Ambrose felt quite as dejected and cast down as Swayne himself. The latter had reckoned upon the simple-mindedness of his employer. The labourers and cottagers were under his thumb; not one of them would dare to charge him with his malpractices. And now it has all come out, and ruin stared him in the face.
There was no fear of prosecuting, of course; Ambrose de Ros would have cut off his right hand first. There was strength and comfort in the reflection as Swayne crept into the library an hour later, and found himself face to face with the man he had wronged. And yet he felt no remorse; he only burned for vengeance against Dene de Ros, who had brought all this about. The latter appeared to have scored a triumph at every turn. There was one other card that Swayne had to play, his final effort. He knew all the secrets of the house, every nook and cranny; he had been a privileged and trusted servant for years. His eyes gleamed; there was a sullen flush on his face as he scraped his leathery jaws with a rasping, unstable forefinger. But he could not face the white-haired, sweet-faced giant who stood before him.
'I'm not going to bandy words with you,' Ambrose said slowly. 'You had a good chance, and you lost it. I trusted you, and you have betrayed my confidence by robbing the poor, God's poor. You are no longer a servant of mine, Joshua Swayne; you can go.'
But Swayne was not quite easy in his mind; he wanted to be absolutely certain as to the remoteness of a criminal prosecution; yet he simulated no remorse before the most credulous of men. 'You will not take any stops against me?' he asked sullenly.
'Unto seventy times seven, I could forgive; but it doesn't follow that I'm going to find employment as well,' Ambrose replied with a quaint admixture of humour and solemnity. 'I couldn't have believed it, Swayne.'
'We never do till we find a man out,' Swayne muttered. 'Mr Dene de Ros was angry and scornful; he is a gentleman, of course; he wouldn't demean himself by a dirty action. He's a man of honour, like that Brutus chap in a play that I once saw, and he behaved like an aristocrat when he heard of you, didn't he? And yet he's as bad as me.'
Ambrose crossed over to the door and locked it. The words apparently were innocent enough, but they seemed to inflame De Ros to madness. His blue eyes blazed as he laid his hands upon Swayne, and shook him to and fro as an ash-tree is shaken by the wind. 'Explain,' he said between his teeth; 'come, your meaning.'
'Don't you strike me,' Swayne said fearfully. 'I suppose you can read?'
The sneer went harmlessly over the head of Ambrose de Ros. 'Yes,' he said simply; 'I can now, as well as you. But don't keep me waiting. I'm slow to anger, but beware how you rouse my passion. Speak, man.'
'Very well, I will,' Swayne burst out, his venom giving him courage. 'You're curious as to that casket of Del Roso's; therefore, look into it, and read carefully all you find there. I'll say no more, if I die for it. But search and read, and tell me what you think of Dene de Ros then.'
The look of expectation, dread, almost fear, died out of Ambrose's eyes. He unlocked the door and pointed to the hall. 'You are too late,' he said. 'I knew all that the casket has to tell long ago. Yes; I mete out to all men the latitude I gave to you. And if you ever dare to trade upon the secret which you have stolen, it will be the worse for you. For, of all enemies that a man can choose, the worst is the honest being whose trust he has so shamefully betrayed. Now go, and never let me see you again.'
Swayne crept away humiliated, almost ashamed. He had fired his mine; it had exploded harmlessly into the air.
Ambrose remained behind. He looked up to the wild gray sky, changed since morning; he saw the oaks on the hill tossed by the forefront of the gale. 'He must never know,' he murmured. 'That one great sin shall be forgiven.'
VERA stood in the shadow of the porch before the Dyke, a porch like a lychgate, with heavy doors, held up by hammered hinges fantastically embossed. There were red tiles on the roof; but they were shot with an emerald shade, caused by the moss and house-green thereon. Down in the hollow there the air was curiously still. A feathery acacia on the lawn trembled as the meadows do in the summer haze; yet, on the hill above, the giant oaks were tossing and moaning as the gale swept by. The storm had gathered force in the night, and a hurricane blew in from the sea; and a vessel had come ashore in the gray of the dawn.
They were all down on the shingle, probably every one in the village save Vera, and Dene de Ros, who was from home. A mackintosh was buttoned down to her feet, the hood drawn over her head. Now and again the sun shot out from behind the rushing cloud-rack. There was a sting of salt in the air like particles of dusty rain. Vera could taste the brine on her lips as she toiled up the red road passing over the hill like a parting in a head of tawny hair. It was not quite a safe passage, for the way was strewn with branches; a drift of leaves tossed hither and thither; but at last the crest was reached, and Vera looked down at the sea on the other side. For a moment she bent down to regain her breath. The blast caught her on the face like a blow. There was no heaving, tossing expanse of blue there, nothing but a seething caldron of white ragged spray. It was not more than half-tide; but the waves washed up to the cliff. Down below there, a group of men were standing knee-deep in the white lather, conspicuous amongst them being the form of Ambrose de Ros. David was not far away, directing the movements of the boatmen.
A bowshot away, a brig was astride the rocks; the cruel black teeth had pricked her side whilst she rocked to and fro, trembling like a thing of life as every heavy sea struck her. Fortunately, the mast and running gear had not gone by the board, and there the crew were, lashed, patient, waiting resolutely for the end. It was impossible to reach them; and fairly warm as it was, the weary hours of exposure had told upon the hapless crew. Twice a life-line had crossed the deck from the crazy old rocket apparatus on the shore; but it was evident that the crew of the Lucy Ann were past making any effort on their own behalf. Yet those on the shore did not despair. Boldly and fearlessly, Vera pushed her way down to the shingle; the white scud washed over her feet, but she heeded it not. She accosted David impatiently. 'What are you waiting for?' she asked. 'Can't you do anything?'
'We are trying,' David answered, his face flushing a little. 'There is great danger for us with the tide flowing so rapidly. And those poor fellows appear to be utterly exhausted, unable to assist at all.'
Vera sighed rebelliously; she blamed the men standing idly there, although she could suggest nothing practical. And she knew how impossible it was for any one to swim out to the wreck with a line.
Ambrose de Ros turned to her with a look of sadness on his face. 'I never felt so helpless before,' he said. 'I tried swimming; but I had to come back. I used to pride myself on my strength; but I was like a child out there.'
That he had attempted anything daring to the verge of rashness never appeared to occur to him for a moment. He had deliberately risked his life for others, and the failure had filled him with honest shame.
Vera felt a twinge of self-reproach as David turned and touched his father's arm. 'I have an idea,' he said. 'We must try another rocket with a weighted line. If it holds, I might get along it to the vessel. You see?'
Ambrose waited to hear no more. The rocket apparatus was again brought into position, and a weight attached to the end of the stout line, consisting of two drags armed with triangles. Three times did the screaming force of the gale cast back the line in a tossing tangle; then, at the fourth attempt, the cord fell full across the slanting deck. Strong hands pulled on it with a will; it held stoutly. A moment later, David had cast off his oilskins and heavy boots.
'You would not try it?' Vera faltered. 'If the hooks give way, you will be literally crushed upon the rocks over by the bar. You must not go.' She tried to speak imperiously; but her voice snapped and broke as the string of a harp gives way suddenly.
There was a wistful smile on David's face as he replied: 'It would not matter—to you. And if I do fail, you will get back your own again. Perhaps, then, you may forgive me.'
Vera fell back, shrinking before a force greater even than the onslaught of the gale. She had never cared for David quite so much as she did at that moment, and there came over her the impression that she was about to lose something precious. She felt a passionate self-reproach, a bitter regret that she should have deliberately impressed him with such an idea. 'You are right,' she murmured. 'Forgive me. And if you do not return, I—I shall be the most miserable woman in England.'
The last words fell so low that David failed to hear them. He grasped the rope in his hands and set off on his perilous journey. There was a breathless term of suspense on the shore as David fought his way on inch by inch. At one moment he rode high above the waves; another, and he was lost to sight again. Two hundred yards of that seething flood of death seemed like an endless distance; and if once the rope gave way——
But Vera dared not think of it. In a dreamy, dazed way, she saw David working his way up the side of the wreck and stand clinging to an iron stanchion; then she saw his hand go up in triumph. There was a wild yell of exultation from the shore, save from Ambrose. He stood by Vera's side, and, with tine instinct, seemed to read her thoughts.
'That is my boy,' he said with simple pathos. 'My dear, I wish you would be kinder to him in future, for he is very fond of you.—No; he never told me so; but I am not blind, my dear. If you could only get to care for him, I should be satisfied at last. And I ask your pardon if I've said too much.'
Vera made no reply, for the simple reason that she was incapable of an answer; but the words sank deep in her heart, and found a responsive echo there. With strained eyes she watched David's movements; she saw the second line drawn on and firmly lashed to the bulwarks; she saw the life-buoy dancing out from the shore. And presently, one of the crew of the ill-fated vessel reached land in safety.
But all danger was not over yet; the rising tide caused the wreck to toss and heel ominously; still, the timbers clung together mercifully until the last man had been rescued, and only David remained.
'Why does he tarry?' Vera asked in an agony of apprehension, as the barque reeled over and then recovered with a shudder like some thing of life. 'Oh, he is foolish; it will be too late.'
Ambrose de Ros laid his hand upon Vera's shoulder. Even in that moment of terrible danger, she noticed that the fingers were steady, their grasp even. His face was calm and set, showing no sign of fear. 'My boy is in the hands of God,' he said simply. 'Were I to lose him, I lose everything. Deepdene is nothing in comparison. Go up to the house at once, and bid the servants bring blankets and brandy down to the cottages here directly. It is no time for selfish considerations.'
Vera turned to obey, marvelling at herself the while. The simple old shepherd, without education or training, was born to be a leader of men. There was a ring of command in his voice that there was no resisting.
'He is a good man,' Vera said to herself, her breath coming with little gasps as she ascended the cliff. 'A man to be loved and honoured; and I am a blind, proud fool. I am glad I know him, despite the price we paid.'
There was a lull in the wind for a moment; the giant oaks ceased to toss and moan; a silence fell over everything—a silence so intense that Vera could hear the singing of blood in her ears. As she looked down again, she could dimly distinguish David's figure creeping along by the rope; she saw Ambrose dash out breast-deep in the spume and draw him to land. A mute prayer of thankfulness rose to Vera's quivering lips. The wild scream of cheers was carried upwards to her ears, and then the phalanx of the gale bore down again with savage fury. It seemed like the cry of the elements baffled of their prey.
But beyond it all, the blast seemed to beat a triumphant song in Vera's brain now, like a Gloria closely allied to martial music, David was safe; the sea had given him back again; the trees crashed above her, the yellow leaves dashed in her face, but she heeded them not.
Down in the hollow where the house lay, everything was quiet. Vera burst into the hall and smote upon the gong until the place echoed with the metallic roar, and the frightened servants trooped in to discover the meaning of the disturbance.
'Is there anything wrong, miss?' asked the agitated butler, who always would regard Vera as his mistress. 'We thought'——
'It is no time to think,' Vera cried, a note of triumph ringing in her voice. 'I want you to do as you are told without delay. There has been a wreck in the bay, and your master is down there.'
'He can't do anything,' the butler murmured as Vera paused for breath. 'We thought we heard the guns a while ago.'
'The crew are all rescued; Mr David saved them,' Vera continued, her face flushed, the triumphant note still dominant. 'He is a hero, I tell you. Take all the blankets you can find, and as much brandy as possible, and get down there at once. These are my orders for you.'
They hurried off to obey the command; and speedily they all returned laden—not one of them remained behind. Vera noted the quickness of the operation, and acknowledged it with a grateful smile of thanks. 'Ah! you seem to understand,' she said. 'And now, away, every one of you, and render what assistance you can. I will look after the house.'
Vera stripped off her dripping covering and applied a match to the huge log-fire which was always ready for lighting in the hall. After the din and hurry of rushing footsteps, the place sounded strangely quiet. The glow from the blazing logs only served to form a small halo of light, leaving the rest of the echoing space in deeper gloom, save for the few weird flashing points where a casque or glove of mail caught the reflecting glow. Vera drew a beehive chair close up to the open flags where the fire rested, and placed her feet before the cheerful blaze. She was absolutely alone in gloomy Deepdene, but she knew no fear. It was the home of her ancestors; every nook and cranny was familiar to her; every noise and creak she could account for.
To any one coming into the hall, the place looked quite empty, so close was the bee-hive chair to the fire; and presently, when Vera came out of her dreamy reverie, it seemed to her that some one was crossing the hall in the direction of the stairs. Vera did not move; a servant perhaps, she thought. But, again, the tread was too cautious and stealthy for that. The intruder, whoever it was, shuffled along, getting bolder as he advanced, until he reached the stairs, which were at such an angle that Vera could see without being observed. A lancet window, all purple and amber tinted, lighted up the new-comer's features, disclosing the restless, cunning face of Joshua Swayne. There was wrong-doing in every motion of his crouching, writhing body.
Vera caught her breath sharply, but with anger more than fear. What was that man after? she wondered. Naturally, she had heard the story of the previous afternoon's discovery; she knew that Ambrose de Bos would never more tolerate the presence of the dishonest steward again; and yet he had ventured to intrude himself at Deepdene at a time when he imagined the house to be deserted. Doubtless he had met the servants on their way to the shore, and availed himself of the golden opportunity thus presented.
But robbery could scarcely have been his object, since, as Swayne very well knew, no article of any value was to be found save on the ground floor. And there was secretness and suggestive dishonesty in every sway of his body as he crept along, looking furtively around him from time to time. Presently the intruder disappeared from sight, and in the intense stillness of the place, Vera could hear him stealing along the gallery overhead until his footsteps ceased by the organ. There was a creaking sound, as if something was being opened—the casket of Del Roso, no doubt.
What could Swayne want there? Vera asked herself. She was not conscious of a single particle of fear; she smiled to herself as she thought of the thief all unaware that he had been discovered. And something had to be done: it would never do to allow Swayne to rob the house; and, for all Vera knew to the contrary, Del Roso's casket might contain articles of value. With a sudden impulse she slipped off her boots and followed. There, sure enough, was Swayne on his knees before the oak chest. He had scattered papers and parchments broadcast in his hurry, till very little remained therein. So engrossed was he with his task, that Vera drew nigh and touched him on the shoulder. She could see the cunning leer on his face as he clasped a packet of papers in his lean, yellow claw. Then the smile disappeared; the face became drawn and hard, the thin lips faltered. Swayne scrambled to his feet, breathing heavily. But he still clasped the packet in his hands, as if afraid to relinquish it.
For a few seconds Vera regarded him steadily. Swayne shuffled uneasily before her gaze; he looked towards the end of the gallery, as if contemplating flight. But Vera resolutely barred the way. 'What is the meaning of this intrusion?' she demanded.
'Finishing up my work,' Swayne answered sullenly. 'In any case, it doesn't matter to you what I'm after; I've finished now. Please, don't interrupt me, because I've got plenty of other things to do.'
The speaker bent down, and hurriedly commenced to replace the parchments in the casket. But he only employed one hand, Vera noticed, clutching the parcel of papers in the other meantime. Then he rose, and would have bustled out with a vast show of commercial importance.
'Does Mr de Ros know you are here?' Vera went on quietly, without evincing any disposition to let Swayne pass. 'Did he send you here?'
'Of course. You don't suppose I should have come without, do you?'
'There is no occasion for you to be insolent,' Vera said in the same serene tone. 'I do not believe you. You thought all the servants were out; you met them some time ago, and that was your opportunity. You did not know that I should be alone in the house.'
Vera paused as she noticed the quick flash in Swayne's eyes. She stood face to face with a desperate man, who, did she but know it, held in his hand the assurance of future comfort, almost prosperity. And between him and safety was nothing but this slim, weak girl.
'Do not molest me,' he said hoarsely as he advanced with a gleam in his eyes that meant mischief. 'I tell you I am here on business'——
''Tis false!' Vera interrupted. 'I was sitting in the hall as you came through, and I followed every movement. Do honest men, honestly engaged, crawl into a house like a thief in the night? No; you came to steal something, and you have it in your hand. I thought I was not mistaken; your face betrays you.'
Swayne came still a step nearer, his eyes glowing sullenly. 'Have it as you will,' he said hoarsely. 'I am a desperate man. I have played my last card, and I am not going to forfeit the trick at the bidding of a mere girl. I have suffered enough at your hands; beware how you force me to retaliate. We are alone in this house together; remember that; and stand out of my way, or'——
The speaker paused significantly; but Vera made no movement. Her eyes flashed scornfully, but the threat disturbed her not.
'Miserable coward!' she said; 'give me those papers.'
Swayne laughed insolently; yet there was a minor chord in it eloquent of respect. 'You will hear of these letters in time, for I mean to use them,' he said. 'I am a disgraced and ruined man, and these letters represent food and clothing, and lodging and drink to me. Do you understand?'
'Yes,' Vera returned curtly. 'You have stolen some family secret, and intend to trade upon it. But you have not reckoned with me yet.'
'You have guessed it,' Swayne replied, heedless of the interruption. 'I found it out years ago in going over the documents there in search of a missing lease; but it was useless to me then, and I left it till there was occasion to use it. But fate was a little too strong for me, and I nearly lost my opportunity, not expecting to be found out so soon. You see I am quite candid.'
'You are. And now give the papers up before other means are tried.'
Swayne laughed harshly. He thrust Vera on one side with such violence that she fell against the panel of the wall. She saved herself from falling by clutching at a rapier suspended across another; her grasp pulled it down. The blue, snake-like blade fell from the embossed leather scabbard with a clang upon the floor. With all her blood on fire, Vera clutched the lethal weapon and made a thrust at her enemy. He staggered back alarmed.
'Once for all, will you give me those papers?' she cried. 'I warn you that unless you do so, I shall try to kill you. Give them up, I say.'
The coward came uppermost. Swayne gave a yell of terror as the flashing blade descended flat on his arm; the packet fell from his hand. Quick as thought, Vera stepped forward and placed her foot upon it. 'And now,' she cried again, 'try and recover them at your peril.'
Swayne collapsed altogether. His face was white, his hands shook, yet the look of hatred and baffled passion still gleamed in his eyes. 'Take them and read them, for they concern you as well as others,' he said. 'I shall not be entirely deprived of vengeance even now.' He turned and hurried from the gallery.
Vera heard his footsteps speeding across the hall, then her eyes fell upon the superscription on the fateful packet which she held in her hand. A deadly faintness overcame her, a sense of horror and shame. In a dreamy kind of way she turned over those letters; the great stable clock chimed two hours, and then it seemed that Ambrose de Ros was standing close by. His face looked kindly sympathy, but his eyes were full of pain.
'You have found that,' he said gently. 'Oh, the pity of it, the pity of it!'
VERA was conscious of only one feeling for the moment, a feeling of intense gladness that she was alone to grapple with the trouble which had come upon her. The discovery of an heir to Deepdene other than Dene de Ros had been like a bolt from the blue; but the latter revelation came like a dash of lightning out of a winter sky. It was worse than misfortune; it was disgrace. Vera had dropped the packet, and wrenched herself free from Ambrose de Ros' detaining grasp, fleeing homeward like Atalanta across the dewy lawn. Not until she reached her own room was she conscious that her stockinged feet were torn and bruised—no thorn by the wayside had troubled her.
The shadow of disgrace hung over her; and Ambrose de Ros knew it, had evidently been aware of it for a long time; and yet he had never swerved in his friendship, never so much as shown by one single sign that he had discovered how cruelly the late owner of Deepdene had deceived him.
Remember, that Vera's life had hitherto been apart from the world; she had lofty ideals of her own, and the rude touch of modern life had not taken the gilt from any idol, showing the feet of clay. Her pride in all her possessions had been great; she had regarded her father as a prince amongst men. How passionately she had admired him when misfortune had come upon them, and he gave way to the intruder without a murmur, and as a dethroned monarch would abdicate his crown. And, in her inmost heart, Vera had despised the degenerate offshoot of the race who had deposed the reigning sovereign. She would not admit that he could have risen to the sublime height attained by her father. And yet, all these years she had worshipped a trickster and a charlatan, an impostor who masqueraded in the armour of a gentle knight of high degree.
It was a harsh judgment for a negative crime committed in a moment of the fiercest temptation; but youth is prone to be hard in its judgments, and it is always those who have known no ungratified desire who are the hardest upon the weaknesses of poor human nature.
It was all over now, Vera told herself; the pleasant days had come to an end; she could never show her face at Deepdene again. The organ would remain unplayed; she would tell her father of her discovery on her return, and then she would go away, never more to be seen by those who knew her story.
She was thankful that Ambrose had not followed her. All the afternoon she half expected him, but he came not. She never imagined that he was waiting until she could wrestle with and fight down her sorrow before he approached her. And, later on, when she was partaking of tea in solitary state, he arrived, and, unannounced, came into the drawing-room. Vera's back was to the light, which was softened and subdued by the palms in the long narrow windows, and he could not see the look of misery in her eyes.
Apparently, he was not in the least embarrassed; indeed, when you came to consider it, there was no reason why he should be. He sat down by the little gypsy table on which stood the quaint service of silver, and begged for a cup of tea. The smile on his handsome, simple face was pleasant to see.
'Well,' he said cheerfully, 'we did better than I expected with those poor fellows. None of them seem to be the worse for their adventure.'
Vera was conscious of a little pang of conscience. For some hours now, she had not given the shipwrecked mariners a single thought. 'I am glad to hear it,' she said in a strangled voice. 'How pleased David must have been. He behaved like a hero.'
'He did his duty,' Ambrose remarked; 'my boy would always do that. And they all turned out and cheered him afterwards till the tears came in my eyes. Pity you weren't there as well, because David would have liked it.'
'David does not know everything,' Vera said bitterly, conscious of a little tinge of reproach in the speaker's voice. 'If he did, he would hate me.'
Ambrose made no reply for a moment; he appeared to be raptly contemplating a sportive satyr depicted on the frescoed ceiling. Then a goat-hoofed Pan seemed to engage his earnest and critical attention. 'David does know everything,' he said quietly, without moving his eyes. 'In fact, it was David who first let me into the secret. You see, some two months ago I happened to be turning out the contents of old Del Roso's casket, when I came upon a bundle of letters—you know the ones I mean.—By the way, my dear, how did you come to discover them? You left me so hurriedly this morning, that I hadn't time to ask you any questions.'
Vera explained. So long as she was generalising upon an abstract bundle of papers, the words came glibly enough. She saw how the lines of the listener's mouth tightened as she proceeded with her story.
'Then Swayne knew all about these letters?' he asked curtly.
'Yes; he had found them there years ago, and had left them for safety. He did not know when they would be useful. There was no opportunity of abstracting them before my father dismissed him; but no doubt Swayne had taken notes of addresses. No wonder that he found you so easily in Australia. Then he tried to blackmail my father, as you know, without success. Again the letters were useless. But when you dismissed this man as well, he saw his way to—to——' Vera's voice died away to a murmur; she could say no more.
Ambrose took up the broken thread for her; his face was grave, yet his eyes kindly. 'And you read those letters,' he said. 'My child, if what I say seems cruel, remember it is my earnest desire to be kind. You read those letters from my father to yours, telling the latter everything. Yes; I have read them myself. Leslie de Ros wrote to his kinsman here from time to time; but he never told my mother and myself that he had done so—we knew nothing. It was his desire that the succession which he had forfeited should remain in the present hands. He asks your father to preserve that secret. My father dies, and the secret with him. And then Dene de Ros is left absolutely master of Deepdene.' Ambrose concluded with the triumphant air of a man who had absolutely proved his case.
But Vera declined to see it in the same light 'You have forced me to speak, and I must,' she replied slowly. 'It was wrong. You know it was wrong. My father traded on your ignorance of your proper position to enjoy the property here for twenty years. He assumed to be an honourable man, whereas he was an impostor.—Oh! to think I should feel the bitter shame of saying so much of my own father. It was his duty to disregard that foolish wish. We should have found you out and restored you to your own.—You shake your head. What would you have done under the same circumstances?' Vera bent forward with fierce eagerness to catch the reply.
For once in his life, Ambrose de Ros was tempted to prevaricate. He looked up helplessly at the goat-hoofed Pan, but den veil no inspiration therefrom.
'Your silence is an eloquent reply,' Vera continued. 'You could not have done such a thing.—Oh, I have watched you for this year past I was prepared to dislike and despise you; but my prejudices have turned to something like affection, because you are a good man and do good things. And when I was getting reconciled to everything, this trouble comes upon me. How can I ever look the world in the face again?'
There were tears in Vera's voice as Ambrose de Ros rose and laid his hands upon her shoulders. When he spoke, his voice was soft and sweet as a woman's. 'My dear,' he said, 'this is your first trouble, and you find it hard to bear. But if we forgive and forget, why should not you? You are not injured at all. There is no one amongst us, man or woman, who has not yielded to some temptations. There is none amongst us without sin to cast the first stone. Your father's temptation was great; he was only obeying the injunction of a dying man. And again, do you think he did not consider you? And then, did he not act honourably when I came forward and claimed my own? He could have bribed Swayne into silence; but his nature abhorred such a deed. My dear, he is your father.'
Vera made no reply for a moment, and yet it seemed as if the great weight about her heart was melting like snow in the genial sunshine.
'We ought to have destroyed these letters,' Ambrose de Ros went on. 'But I did not care to do so, because they were written by the husband of my mother. That is why we put them back in the old casket, thinking they would be safe there. It was a kindly providence that placed them in your hands.'
'A providence destructive of my happiness,' Vera murmured.
'You are wrong,' Ambrose replied. His voice was not devoid of severity. 'It is a lesson from which you will profit. Pride, my dear, is your besetting sin; it hides the perfect, generous woman; it keep you away from the rest, as if you were a different clay, a thing apart. My dear, that wonderful poet of yours, whose works I am just beginning to understand, tells us that "Kind hearts are more than coronets, And simple faith than Norman blood." Ah! when you come to mix with the world more, you will understand what that means. I am not like you; I lack your advantages.'
'No; you are not like me,' Vera burst out impetuously. 'You are a thousand times better, and I thank you for your kindness.—Oh! you dear, kind, generous, simple-hearted man, what a lesson you have given me! I am glad that you came here; I am glad the estates are yours, because you are much more worthy to control them than we are. And the people here are happier and more contented; I can see it in their faces.' Vera covered her face in her hands, and burst into tears.
Ambrose waited until the sun shone out from behind the clouds before he spoke again. 'Now you begin to be yourself,' he said. 'You will forgive your father?'
'Yes, if you wish it,' Vera said with a new sweet humility, 'I will.'
'I have done so long ago, remember. You will meet him as if nothing had happened; and this matter shall never be mentioned between us again. Those letters have been returned to the old casket, because it is my fancy that you should take them out and destroy them with your own hand. The secret belongs to three of us—Swayne we shall never see again—and it shall be laid aside for ever. You must come up to-morrow.'
Vera nodded; her lip was quivering, and two diamond drops trembled on her long lashes. The tears, so rare with her, seemed to have washed all her pride away. As Ambrose rose, she came to her feet, and taking a single yellow rose and maidenhair from a glass, pinned it on his coat 'These are my colours, and you shall be my knight,' she said almost gaily. Her voice was still unsteady, but thrilling with happiness. 'You have won your way into my heart against my will; but you cannot say that my capitulation is not graceful. "Sans peur et sans reproche." That is you, sir.'
'I don't know what that means,' Ambrose said simply. 'But if it signifies that you look a thousand times handsomer and sweeter, now you are your natural self, I'm not going to argue the point.'
'And I feel it too,' Vera confessed.—'Yes, you may kiss me.'
The storm had died away along the deep; the oaks on the crest looked like sentinels; the waves rolled lazily in to the shore. Only the wreck lay on the granite spar, evidence of the tempest of yesterday. Already most of the wrecked sailors had departed for the nearest port of Hull; the wild feeling of excitement had subsided into quietness, for loss of life along that coast was, alas! no novelty.
Vera toiled along up the slope in the bright sunshine. She was on her way to the shore, before calling at Deepdene on the errand which Ambrose de Ros had placed in her hands. As a matter of fact, Vera wanted to view again the scene of David's exploit, to pore upon it sentimentally. Not that she admitted this to herself; she would have been angry had any one suggested it. She had no idea that this indignation would have been a direct evidence of love. But then Vera had no acquaintance with psychological analysis, since her knowledge of the works of Messrs W. D. Howells and Henry James was nil.
It was hard to realise the vivid scene of yesterday in the blue placidness of to-day. A little ridge of white bearded the shore, gray gulls floated idly on the water, a shag was gravely fishing off the wreck. Vera smiled at the contrast; her laugh rippled out on the air, and presently brought some one from behind a rock to listen. It was David, grave and courteous as usual.
'You here!' Vera faltered. 'I—I thought that I should be alone.'
She coloured at the boldness of the speech and the impression it conveyed. But David did not appear to notice anything calculated to wound. He only saw that Vera was wonderfully sweet and fair, and that there was a gentle light in her eyes that had never shone so meekly there before.
'I daresay,' he replied mildly. 'I'm looking for a knife I lost yesterday.'
Vera's laugh rang out loud and sweet. The anti-climax was too ridiculous. But it seemed to remove the feeling of restraint between them. 'Strange,' Vera said, with a little mocking note, 'that a man who is so reckless with his life should think so much of a pocket-knife.'
'It was given to me by a man who is dead,' David explained with a simple directness that reminded Vera of his father. 'Besides, it matters little to any one what becomes of my life.'
'For shame!' Vera cried indignantly. 'Think of your father.'
David laughed gently. By this time they had turned by mutual consent, and were climbing the cliff side by side. 'I do think of my father,' he answered. 'I have nobody else to think of. And yet, from your loftier standpoint, he is nothing but a poor, uneducated man, who occupies a position to which he is not entitled.'
Vera paused a moment, and laid her hand upon David's arm. Her lips were quivering, her eyes luminous with tears. All the pride seemed to have gone out of her face, leaving it more beautiful than ever, and infinitely more sweet and womanly. 'You are wrong,' she said in a low voice. 'That was my opinion at first; but I have changed my mind. I regard your father as one of the best and noblest of men; and, were he ever so nearly related to me, I could not love him more; and I care not who hears me say so.'
'I am glad to hear you say that,' David replied. 'I always told you what a splendid man he is; and you recognise it at last.'
'I recognised it from the very first,' Vera replied, determined to make her confession full and absolute. 'I recognised it at once; but my foolish pride would not permit me to own it. And my feelings were the same towards you.'
But David refused to be quite pacified. Latterly, he had schooled himself to think nothing further of Vera save in a brotherly way. By this time they were passing through the woods trending down to Deepdene; the flaming torch of autumn blazed on the leaves, casting a red glow on Vera's cheeks. But the scarlet flush there was not all forged by the gleam of nature's furnace.
'That is kind of you,' David said, a little bitterly. 'But you are a thing apart from me. I am not mate for the caste of Vere de Vere.'
Vera made no reply. David cast no look at her as they entered the hall at Deepdene together. He knew why she was there, but he made no effort to accompany her when she turned towards the staircase. He stood before the burning logs on the hearth, his feet upon the hammered iron rail. It seemed to Vera that her pride had gone out and entered his soul.
She hesitated for a moment. A strange timidity had taken possession of her. She pronounced David's name softly, the first time she had ever done so, and he turned swiftly to her, his face aflame, expectant. The purple and amber light flashing from the storied device in the lancet window fell full upon her. There was supplication in her eyes, a warm look of invitation far more eloquent than any words could be. 'David,' she whispered again, 'come along with me; I want you.'
There was no occasion for her to repeat the command; he was by her side directly. He saw that the hand resting on the rail was trembling. Without a word spoken on either side, they passed into the gallery and along the dimly lighted place till they reached the casket of Del Roso. Vera opened the lid and fell on her knees before it. 'Help me,' she said, 'since you know what I require.'
Presently Vera had the fateful papers in her hand. She clasped them close until David had replaced the parchments; then she broke the string that bound them and dropped them in a fluttering heap on the hearth of the wide capacious grate. As if it were some solemn ordinance, David struck a match and applied it to the yellow pile. Gravely and quietly the twain watched until the sobbing points of flame died down sullenly, and nothing but a pinch of gray feathery ashes remained.
'It is gone, forgotten,' David murmured. 'Let it not be mentioned again.'
'But it must be,' Vera said with glowing eyes. 'David, do you know that I am glad I found those letters? Is not that a strange thing to say?'
'Well, rather,' David confessed. 'I should like to know your reason.'
Vera's face was turned upwards; her eyes were glowing with a luminous light. 'Because they killed my pride,' she murmured. 'They showed me how poor and mean I was; how noble and high-minded you. Forgive me, David; you would not have me say any more?' She held out her white hands to him, her face full of supplication.
David took the fluttering fingers in his own and held them firmly. 'There can be no half-measures between us,' he said almost sternly. 'I must have all or nothing. Vera, do you mean that you are mistaken—that you can care enough for me to be my wife?'
'Yes; I ask no greater honour; I covet no dearer happiness.' The eyes were clear and steadfast, the eyes full and true.
Very tenderly David took her in his arms and kissed her quivering lips.
Then, with a sudden impulse, Vera burst from him, and, crossing to the organ, played a wild 'Gloria in excelsis,' full of rich triumphant chords. 'It is the "Te Deum" for a soul that is free,' she explained reverently. 'The shadow of the past is uplifted, the morning of content is here. David, I have solved the enigma of Del Roso's poesy. Read it aloud, please.'
'Thys was my arke of safetie,
here I found the Englyshe shore;
Thys is my home, and here withyn
Is troubil gone and o'er'—
David quoted slowly. 'I think I can see your meaning, dearest.'
Vera laughed as she laid her head upon her lover's shoulder. 'Yes, this is my home in very sooth,' she said; 'and there, better, I discovered that which caused my trouble to be "gone and o'er."—And now, let us tell your father.'
They passed down the stairs hand clasped in hand; the light, filtered through the device of De Ros, fell upon Vera's face and made it glorious.
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