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Title: The Silver Stream: An Idyl of the Wye Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402721h.html Language: English Date first posted: Oct 2014 Most recent update: Oct 2014 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat. 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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AS the shadows began to lengthen over Belmont—for the cathedral chimes floating along the bosom of the waters proclaimed the seventh hour—a long outrigged gig pair flashed round the point into the level stretch of dead pool reaching right away to the Wye Bridge. There was a pleasant smell of flowers lying upon the sweet August air, a lowing of cattle, a reflection of many boats in the track as the gig, propelled by four muscular arms, slid on towards the town. There were only two men in the narrow craft; and as they were double sculling, with long clean sweep, making a musical click of oars in the rowlocks, there was not much opportunity for conversation. The 'stroke,' a young fellow with clear gray eyes and pleasant face, was clad in a suit of plain white flannels; and perched upon the back of his head was a light-blue cap—the badge of distinction sacred to those only who have fought for the honour of the 'Varsity against their rivals from the twin seat of learning, Oxford. Egbert—or as his familiars called him—Bertie Trevor, the stroke in question, had rowed 'four' in that year's Cambridge boat, and now, with his friend Frederick Denton, was making a Wye boating tour from Hay to Chepstow. Denton, a somewhat older man, sported the light-blue and black of Caius College. He was not a blue, for two reasons: first, because the severe training was not to his taste; and secondly, a restless ambition and the result dependent upon a successful university career had left him no time for such a serious and practical business. A hard-working college tutor has no time for the toil of pleasure.
They pulled on with regular sweeping rhythm till they were almost within the bridge-shadows. An arrowy craft bearing a town four rushed by with clean sweep and swirl upstream, a little knot of admirers running along the bank in the wake of a flannel-clad youth who was bent upon exercising an extraordinary ingenuity for giving each of the unhappy crew the most apparently contradictory directions. As they sped swiftly by Denton paused in his stroke and looked over his shoulder at the thin line, like a gigantic spider, fading in the golden track.
'That is what some people call pleasure,' he observed—'sacrificing a perfect summer evening for the satisfaction of sitting in a confined space for two hours to be bullied by an implacable miscreant called a coach. Depend upon it if it was called work, they wouldn't get a man to turn out.'
'I like their stroke,' Trevor replied. 'Well marked and lively, and the last ounce pulled out.—What a grand stretch of water this is, Denton!—two miles without a curve, and room for at least five eights. If we only had such a river at Cambridge!'
A few more strokes and the landing stage was reached. A bronzed Waterman, with visage tanned to the colour of Spanish mahogany, awaited them on the barge: old 'Dick' Jordan, with his solitary keen eye and everlasting pipe, best of men and bravest of watermen, as every rowing man on the Wye can tell. He looked up into the fading blue sky and prophesied, after the manner of his kind, a fair day on the morrow.
'What time be you gentlemen going to start in the morning?' he asked, addressing Trevor, whose light-blue cap he had immediately spotted.
Trevor turned to his friend and asked what hour it was to be.
'It depends altogether upon Phil, you know. He may get here tonight, or not till to-morrow afternoon. We must leave it open, Dick. Only, you had better have everything ready by ten, o'clock.'
The two friends strolled together over the old> stone bridge, below which lay the cathedral and bishop's palace, with the trim cloister gardens sloping down to the water-side. The clean city lay very quiet in the evening. As they passed through the close, under an avenue of ancient elms, there was a clamour of rooks in the feathery branches, clear cut against the sky. Turning into Castle Street, Denton came to a house at length, the door of which he opened with a latchkey; for the twain had deemed it best to take a lodging, instead of availing themselves of the accommodation of the Green Dragon. In the hall were two small portmanteaus, bearing the monogram P. D. in neat black letters. Denton's face lighted with pleasure. In the joint sitting-room up-stairs there were the remains of a meal, as if some one had recently partaken of refreshment and on the table a card, upon which were written the words, 'Back in half an hour.'
But the appointed time went on, and the expected guest had not reappeared. Tea had been disposed of; the windows were thrown open, and our friends sat over their pipes, looking out upon the Castle Green, where the world of Hereford was taking its pleasure in the cool summer evening.
'I wonder what has become of Decie?' Trevor observed. 'It's nearly nine o'clock.'
'I hope he isn't going to make an ass of himself as he did in the Easter "Vac,"' Denton said practically. 'You never saw such a wet blanket; and a fellow who had just come into a clear three thousand a year, too! And twelve months ago there wasn't a cheerier, happier man in the 'Varsity.'
Trevor pulled at his pipe a few moments in reflective silence.
'I noticed the change when we were at Cookham together at the commencement of this "long" Colden had a houseboat there with a lot of people in the party; and when Dixon and I agreed to join, Phil cut it. After agreeing to join, too! Miss Rashleigh was one of them; and, between ourselves, Decie would have jumped at the chance of meeting her once.'
'Oh, Miss Rashleigh was there!' Denton replied reflectively. 'My dear Bertie, did it ever strike you that that was the very reason why Phil threw over Colden at the last moment? I daresay you won't believe me, but it is the fact nevertheless.'
'We used to think Phil would have married her.'
'We were not the only people who thought so: anyway, there was something between them. She is a nice girl; and I dare swear that if anything was wrong, it wasn't her fault. Phil was poor enough then; but she liked him better than any of us, all the same. Everything seemed to go smoothly enough, till that unpleasant affair over the diamond bracelet.'
'I never heard of it,' said Trevor. 'Where was that?'
'Well, perhaps I ought not to mention it; but I was under the impression you knew. It was during the May races last year—you didn't keep that term I recollect now. And they were all up there—Colonel Scobell and his family, with Miss Rashleigh, who is his niece, you know.—I was all the more put out because the affair happened in my rooms. The Scobells had been very kind to Decie the "long" before, and nothing would do but he must give them a lunch; and my rooms, being some of the best in the college, were borrowed for the purpose. Miss Rashleigh's diamond bracelet, the last thing her mother gave her before she died, was lost.'
'Seems strange to lose a thing like that in a man's rooms.'
'Precisely—that is the most unpleasant part of it. It was only laid down for a moment in an inner apartment; and when Miss Rashleigh went in, it was gone. No servant had been there—no one but Decie and Gerard Rashleigh, her brother, you know.—Anyway, it was never found.'
'What do you make of it?' Trevor asked cautiously. 'Valuable trinkets like that don't disappear without aid. Still, at the same time, it would be absurd to dream of Phil having a hand in it.'
Denton watched the smoke curling round his bead for a few minutes. His next words startled Bertie out of his philosophic calm: 'We shouldn't; but there is no doubt Miss Rashleigh did—and does.'
'My dear Fred, you rave! Philip Decie would cut off his right hand first. Besides, with all his money'—
'Now, see how rash youth rushes to conclusions.—How long is it since Philip's uncle died and left him a fortune?—Five months. And up to that time, if you had searched the university of Cambridge through, you would not have found a poorer undergraduate than Decie.'
'But surely you don't think'—
Of course I don't; and if you suggest such a thing, I shall assault and batter you in the first degree. But I know a little more about women than you; and, to put it harshly, I have a strong suspicion that Miss Rashleigh entertains the enlightened idea that Phil stole her bracelet.'
'Only shows the sagacity of some women,' returned the enlightened philosopher of twenty-three sapiently.—'Why, I would trust my life to old Phil.—Great Scott! Denton, fancy any one—any one being idiot enough to believe that Decie could do such a blackguardly thing!'
Bertie laid aside his pipe in disgust, and regarded Hereford's innocent citizens below as if they, with the rest of mankind, bad done him a personal and irretrievable injury. But any reply of Denton's was prevented by the entrance of the maligned hero in question. There was nothing in either air or manner to denote the blighted swain. Decie presented a picture of the typical Englishman of twenty-five as he appears under the advantages conferred upon most young men by a liberal education, and an acquaintance with the refinements and amenities of life in the upper middle classes. Like the others, he was clad in flannels and boating jacket, the distinguishing badge of a Trinity man. With the exception of a half-melancholy smile and a certain sombre light in the dark eyes, sorrow or care had laid a light hand upon him.
'I am sorry to have kept you waiting,' said he, after the first greeting; 'but the fact is I strolled into the Dragon billiard-room, and the first man I saw there was Du Maurier.'
Denton coughed dryly, a sternutation which might have meant anything, but which, as both Decie and Trevor were aware, simply denoted Denton's dislike of the individual in question.
'What brings that desirable youth in these parts?' he asked. 'I thought he usually spent his vacation at Monaco or Monte Carlo, where fools with more money than brains most do congregate.'
'Appears he is staying in the neighbourhood,' Decie answered briefly. 'Some friend who has taken a house down the river. The Frenchman is not communicative, and I didn't press him, you may be sure.'
'Well, it doesn't matter.—And now, anent to-morrow. I suppose there is no reason why we shouldn't start at nine o'clock?'
Phil nodded, without taking his pipe from his mouth. It was all one to him what time they started, for, sooth to say, his first enthusiasm in the trip had vanished, and he felt in no mood for discussing details which once upon a time would have been a source of interest and pleasure. Moreover, the meeting with Du Maurier—a fascinating Gaul, who had, for certain diplomatic reasons, deemed it advisable to become a Cambridge undergraduate—had aroused within him the rankling soreness of an old wound, which he flattered himself had long since entirely healed. In spite of Denton's brusqueness and apparent want of feeling, he was naturally of a tender sympathetic disposition, and refrained from rallying Phil upon his preoccupation, a want of attention for which the latter was truly grateful. So, upon the whole, the long-expected meeting could not be pronounced a brilliant success.
But when morning dawned, with a fair blue sky and a gentle breeze rippling in the immemorial elms, it was not in the elastic and buoyant nature of youth in the twenties to preserve the grave decorum of misanthropy. The gig, provided with a pair of long light oars, and short pole for stream-work, lay alongside the barge, her bows filled with multitudinous packages, and covered with a waterproof sheet calculated to afford a haven of shelter at nights. A few minutes past ten they swung round, shooting the pointed stone arches, floating past the palace and cloister gardens, down the rippling stream, with the fair meadows sloping towards the valley lying in the bosom of a ring of purple hills. Gradually they slid down in the beautiful morning, along by fair homesteads and quaint gabled farmhouses, through silent pools where the blue flash of the kingfishers darted in zigzag flight, or over broad rippling streams where the salmon nets hung drying on the willows. Decie and Trevor were rowing; Denton lounging in the sternsheets, smoking lazily, or making humorous remarks upon the fishermen as they passed.
'Every man has a vocation in life,' he observed sententiously, 'though fate so often ordains a round peg for a square hole. If I hadn't been a hard-working university coach, I should have made a perfect loafer.'
'To see you now, any one would think you were the idlest man under the sun,' Bertie returned between the strokes; 'and yet you profess to despise affectation. There isn't a more ambitious fellow in Cambridge than you.'
'I don't know about that, though. It runs in too many grooves. There is Barton, of Jesus, with a sole ambition to get his boat head of the river again; Moffat, my old tutor, who is wild to become Professor of some ology at Trinity; or young Rashleigh, the cleverest pupil I ever had, whose ambition seems to be to get to the dogs in the shortest possible space of time.—You remember him, Phil?'
Phil, pulling bow-oar, with his face hidden from the speaker, flushed with something more than the exertion he was undergoing, replied through his set teeth that he did. And, considering that the youth in question was only brother to the particular star of poor Phil's slighted devotion, it is only too palpable that he spoke the truth.
'I have not seen him for a long while,' he continued, fearful, with all the painful self-consciousness of a lover, that his silence would be read and misconstrued. We—we used to be rather thick, you know. I—I have rather fancied that for the last term or two he has fought shy of me.'
'He seemed to have drifted into a precious bad set,' said Bertie, with all an athlete's contempt for the venial sins of college life—'Everton and Leslie, and the card-playing, tandem-driving division. Of course, it is no business of mine; but knowing a little of Rashleigh's financial affairs, I don't see how it can last.'
'It won't last,' Denton returned. 'There will be a scandal some of these days, and exit Gerard Rashleigh and a few others who shall be nameless. And yet,' continued the speaker regretfully, 'it's a pity, a great pity—a lad like that with good feelings and generous instincts, only wanting a kind, firm guide to turn out a credit to himself and his college.'
'You are altogether mistaken, Denton. Young as he is, Rashleigh is a hardened, unscrupulous scoundrel.'
Denton propped himself upon his elbow so that he could get a better glance at the speaker's face. Phil's eyes were glowing with passion, every feature blazing with indignation. As his glance fell upon Denton's amazed countenance, he checked himself with a visible effort and bit his lip.
'Now, that is the sort of house I should like to call mine,' said the steersman, with an abrupt change in the conversation, as he indicated a noble-looking residence rising out of a belt of trees upon an abrupt eminence. If I have a weakness, it is for a half-timbered house. I could close my eyes and dream aesthetic dreams of future bliss, were I the owner of yon paradise.'
He closed his eyes as he spoke; while Trevor laughed at this simulated ecstasy. It was not a particularly brilliant or humorous remark, but anything was better than the awkward silence caused by Decie's impulsive words. But in reality the wily Denton was lost in no earthly paradise; he was racking his brains to discover the mystery underlying Phil's emphatic utterance. The spectacle presented at this point by an elderly gentleman in a tweed shooting-cap and waders wielding a salmon rod at the head of a broad stream was hailed by all three as a positive relief to the feeling of constraint which had fallen upon them.
'If I was a betting man,' Bertie cried with suppressed excitement, 'I should make a small wager that is Colonel Scobell.'
Decie turned his eyes in the direction of the fisherman. A few powerful strokes brought them nearer.
'It is the Colonel. What brings him here?' he said.
'Any sport, Colonel?' cried Trevor in his audacious style.—'How do they die?'
Colonel Scobell, in the act of making a cast, paused, and got his 'butcher' hopelessly entangled in the willows behind. Denton steered the boat to the side; and the old Crimean hero stood knee deep in the rushing stream, offering a sinewy brown hand to each of the watermen in turn.
'You are a nice lot of fellows to come into my neighbourhood without letting me know,' he exclaimed. 'Explain yourselves.'
'Now, mark the pride of the man!' said Denton oracularly. 'His neighbourhood! Think of it! And only last year he had the audacity to use the same expression, which—correct me if I am wrong—included the whole of the Thames valley.'
The Colonel explained that he had taken for the summer months the mansion which had so excited the last speaker's envy. It struck the kind-hearted warrior, directly he had heard the wanderers' plans, that it would be a good joke to take them all up to Pencraig, as the house was termed, and keep them there for a few days. And knowing from old experience that any argument with one of the grandest of nature's gentlemen would be so much wasted time, they accepted the offer with something akin to gratitude.
Without waiting for his rod, the Colonel led the way up the rocky path, leaving Phil to arrange some little matters connected with the boat. Ten minutes later, as he turned to follow, the bushes parted, and a figure with nether limbs clad in knickerbockers and a straw hat perched upon his head stood before him. The newcomer eyed Decie with a peculiar glance, in which fear and deference, defiance and mistrust, were strangely mingled. Phil recoiled as one does instinctively from a noxious animal, though the individual before him was neither unpleasant nor repulsive to the view.
'What, in the name of all that's evil, brings you here?' he cried.—'Look here, Rashleigh: I don't want to do anything unpleasant, for the sake'—
'Oh, drop that,' cried the other doggedly. 'The fact is I am staying here with Scobell; and when I met the other fellows, I thought I would run down and warn you I was here. You needn't make it unpleasant for Beatrice, if you do for me.'
'Beatrice! Is she here too?'
'That's just what I came to tell you. If you mind'—
'Of course I mind,' said Phil, with a deep sternness which would have astonished Denton had he but seen it. 'Do you think I would have come, had I known? If you had a spark of manliness, you could put a stop to all this misery and trouble.'
SOME men are naturally homely; others more prone to a wandering life, and Colonel Scobell was one of the latter. He had a great predilection for 'camping out,' to use his own term, which in his case invariably meant taking a cosy country-house for the summer months and immediately asking all of his acquaintances to fill it. As the Colonel's good-nature was only exceeded by his thoughtlessness, and that is saying a great deal, complications and confusions were by no means a rarity. But blessed with a good wife who understood his little weaknesses, these contretemps usually ended happily.
Pencraig was a beautiful old house, of semi-Elizabethan architecture, with plenty of large airy apartments, and an unknown quantity of bedrooms. As the three voyagers stood upon the terrace, they caught a glimpse of light draperies, and heard the ripple of girlish laughter from a shady tennis lawn. The Colonel led the way into a cool dim drawing-room, where they found Mrs Scobell deep in the delightful chronicles of Little Lord Fauntleroy.
'I have brought you some more visitors, Belle,' cried the Colonel. 'A most fortunate thing I was down on the Rock Cottage streams as they went by. Fancy not knowing we were in the neighbourhood!'
Mrs Scobell, a rosy plump little lady, who had been a beauty in her time, before a sturdy harum-scarum family had come to be the joint plague and joy of her life, shook hands heartily. And she was not the least less pleased to see her visitors, despite the fact that she hadn't the smallest idea how they were going to be accommodated.
'Thank goodness it is no worse,' she said. 'Oh, of course I don't mean that you know, only the Colonel is so inconsiderate. It is only last week that he went off fishing below Ross and brought back no fewer than five with him, not one of whom he had seen before. Of coarse, it seems very inhospitable, but I had to put two in the billiard-room.'
'That Scotch fellow could tie a fly, though,' the Colonel observed reflectively. 'He had a way of dressing "hackles" I never saw before.'
'And that covers a multitude of sins,' said Denton, with a laugh.—'But you can make yourself easy about that, Mrs Scobell. I need not ask if you have a houseful. Any one here we know?'
'I expect so. There is Miss Rashleigh and her brother; the Moffat girls—five of them; and in fact several others. We are very short of gentlemen.'
'Oh, come now,' the Colonel remonstrated. 'There are young Rashleigh and myself, with our three friends here, to say nothing of Du Maurier.'
Denton shot a significant glance at Bertie, who looked in his turn towards Decie. Beyond a quick flush of colour in his cheeks and a mechanical clenching of the right hand, he betrayed no sign. It was a relief to the awkward silence when the luncheon bell rang.
'We are in luck,' said Denton grimly, when the trio were changing in the privacy of their apartment—a large room with three beds set apart for bachelors and such erratic visitors. 'Rashleigh and Du Maurier! The Colonel isn't a gambling man, Phil, I apprehend?'
'About the last man in the world to amuse himself that way.—You are wondering what brings Du Maurier down here. No good, you may be certain.'
In the dining-room the ample table was laid for eighteen, though that unconventional, but none the less cosy meal, luncheon, as interpreted in a country house, was apparently anything but well patronised. The Colonel liked to see his young friends enjoying themselves, and so long as dinner was not delayed, they could drop in or out from luncheon as the spirit moved them. A group of merry maidens, clad in flannel tennis costumes and striped jackets, and carrying the warmth and excitement of the fascinating game in their flushed faces, stood chattering before the cool fern-decked fireplace as Denton with his gallant crew entered.
'My prayer has been answered,' cried the tallest of the group, a dark vivacious-looking girl, rejoicing in the name of Gwendolyn Moffat. 'I have prayed for some boating-men, and they have come.—Mr Trevor, I have been here more than a fortnight and never on the river once. And till I came here I was getting on splendidly with my sculling.'
'Let's have a look at your knuckles,' said Bertie; 'that will soon show.'
Miss Gwen held out a long white hand pure and stainless as marble. But the light blue 'four,' not being gifted with a sculptor's admiration of the beautiful, eyed the slim fingers critically and from a purely athletic point of view.
'Oh, we'll soon alter that,' he said cheerfully.—'Don't you remember what a state they were in last Easter after a fortnight's coaching?—Come with me after luncheon. We've got the old gig and a famous pair of sculls.'
Denton, cynic as he was, found himself in the toils of a sister siren ambitious of aquatic honours, and in a few moments was making arrangements for forming an amateur 'pair,' under the watchful eye of himself and Bertie Trevor, with all the eagerness of a schoolboy. So busily engaged were they, that no notice was taken of the advent of a new-comer, another girl in tennis costume. But Phil saw, and turned a little paler as his eyes encountered hers. She came towards the gay group almost reluctantly. Decie bowed low, to hide the flush of colour that would rise to his cheek. As she turned away, standing by one of the open windows, he crossed over to her.
Her fair sweet face was hidden from him, but she seemed to feel his presence.
'Why did you come?' she asked, still gazing fixedly at the landscape.
'I could not help myself.—No; do not misunderstand me. I am not paying you an idle compliment. The simple truth is that I did not know you were here. I will keep out of your sight as much as possible.'
Beatrice Rashleigh made no reply for a moment; her face was very white and set, had he but seen it; but Phil was not looking in her direction, for the simple reason that he was afraid to do so.
'There is room enough here for both of us,' she said. 'Still, it would be ridiculous to attract attention. Outwardly at least we can be friends. I hope I have made my meaning plain enough?'
The words were very cold, though Decie could not guess what a violent effort they cost the speaker. His mind was too full of bitterness and despair to comprehend the feelings of another.
'Perfectly plain,' he replied. 'You may rest assured that I shall not trouble you with my company. Still, we had better have a complete arrangement. If you can spare me a few moments presently, I shall be grateful.'
'It shall be as you wish; but only this once, understand.'
Miss Rashleigh quitted her position and took a seat at the table. There was a vacant chair by her side, into which a late corner presently glided. He was a young-old man, to coin an expression—young in air and manner, and in the lower part of his face, which was ornamented by an elaborately waxed moustache; though his narrow receding forehead was lined and wrinkled, and his densely black hair was growing somewhat thin—the only sign by which, said Denton, Horace Du Maurier showed his fast life and dissipated habits.
Decie experienced an inward spasm of relief, curiously mingled with pain, as Beatrice rose from her seat and disappeared. He did not, however, view with corresponding equanimity the speedy exit of the fascinating Horace, or the little smile of meaning telegraphed from face to face with that instinctive freemasonry, the secret of which is known only to the gentler sex.
'I don't like that man,' Edith Moffat murmured, for Phil's ear alone. She was the youngest of the family, only just out, and an old friend and favourite of Decie's. 'What can Beatrice be thinking about?'
'Oh, there is something between them, is there?' asked Phil coolly. 'They were quite alone by this time. Down the winding path towards the river, Denton and Trevor were just disappearing from view, accompanied by the fair crew, for a long lazy afternoon on the water. 'How long has it been going on?'
'Before we came here—when we were in town, I imagine. I can't think what has come to Beatrice. And I am certain Mr Du Manlier is not a gentleman. However, it has nothing to do with me—it is someone else's business.—When are you going to teach me that back-handed cut?'
Phil gave his solemn promise to lose no time in imparting the dark secret; and content with this assurance, and, sooth to say, finding her companion somewhat dull, Miss Edith departed.
It was half an hour later when, in crossing the terrace, he came full upon the versatile Frenchman, smoking a scented cigarette, and attired in a superb knickerbocker suit and velvet gaiters reaching almost to the knee. Had he been a Cockney snob instead of a Gallic cad, thought Phil bitterly, he would have found scant welcome at Pencraig.
'I am going to show Miss Rashleigh some of the neighbouring beauties,' he explained airily. 'It is a pleasure to point out to her the beautiful—she has the soul.'
'She has a nice little fortune of her own, too,' said Phil dryly.
Du Maurier shot a suspicious glance at the speaker out of his glittering eyes—a glance Deciere turned with a smile of contempt. The Frenchman flipped the ashes from his cigarette languidly.
'You English take an interest in these sordid, these prosaic details. We, on the other hand, ignore them. When we love, we love madly.'
'Yes—to command. A little money and a little love—an admirable mixture, which is a credit to your disinterested motives.'
'You speak in enigmas, mon ami,' Du Maurier returned coldly. 'And I like not your tone. In all politeness, I offer you the chance of explanation.'
Decie, though by no means phlegmatic in temperament, held his rival in such profound contempt that all anger was swallowed up in the prevailing emotion. As the Frenchman's valiant blood rose, so much the cooler did Phil become.
'Now, all this histrionic business is very taking, no doubt, with people who don't happen to know you. I do. And, without egotism on my part, you will gain nothing by a quarrel—from a physical point, that is. You have made up your mind that you love Miss Rashleigh—for her money. I won't have it.'
'He will not have it!' returned the Frenchman, addressing a gorgeous peacock sailing by in friendly rivalry. 'This dogmatic gentleman will not have it. Horace, mon cher, you will please take the back seat.'
'You will have to accept my terms all the same.'
'Ah! I shall have to accept your terms! And wherefore, M'sieu?'
'Because, unless you cease this—this impertinence, you will be under the painful necessity of depriving yourself of the pleasure of Colonel Scobell's hospitality.'
The immaculate Horace came within measurable distance of losing his studied calm altogether. Though a torrent of passion boiled in his veins, there was nothing to indicate a consuming rage beyond a pink spot burning upon his high cheekbones. But with the instinct of a true adventurer, he scented danger; and, like the hunter, braced his nerves for the fray.
'You take a high hand, my friend,' he lightly replied. 'Ma foi, you English have a strange way of doing things. I thank you for warning me. But as your proverb says, "At that game, two can play." And if I go to the excellent Colonel and say, "You have a thief in the house!"'
Phil laughed aloud, so loud, that Miss Edith, waiting upon the tennis lawn for the initiation into the mystery of the 'cut,' wondered what excellent joke the pair had discovered.
'You would obtain Miss Rashleigh's permission first. Pah! you are a shallower rogue than I took you for. I am certain you could know nothing of that unless you had a hand in it. Besides, Colonel Scobell would be much more likely to throw you out of the window than believe such a tale. Why can't you take a hint?'
'And if I refuse this peremptory request?'
'Then I must speak more plainly. I want no scandal here, the less that your name has become connected with Miss Rashleigh's. I am not speaking without book, understand. I am going to tax your excellent memory, which I have so often and fortunately seen displayed at games of skill—and chance.'
During this speech, the Frenchman had shifted his ground uneasily. The cool measured scorn in Phil's voice alarmed him more than any outburst of violence could have done, there was such a ring of assured certainty behind every word. He had betrayed himself once, a faux pas he had no intention of repeating.
'I will call your mind back to a year ago, when you did the university the honour of enrolling yourself as a member. There is a certain billiard-room in the High Street kept by a rascally Greek, and officiated over by an equally rascally marker, a Frenchman like yourself—in fact, your brother.' Phil uttered these words so quickly and simply, that Du Maurier for a moment failed to comprehend their import. His face was very white and set; he would have spoken, had not Decie waved him aside.
'Yes; I see you remember. You will also recollect young Selby of Trinity. As a source of income he was invaluable to you, I understand. It was one night in the May term I allude to, that, after making him extremely tipsy, you won from him something like fifteen hundred at billiards. He tells me he has no recollection of the event; but you say he gave you bills to that amount, which he does not dispute, and that they were left with you to discount. As Selby was a rich minor at that time, you had no difficulty in passing them. But, like most other knaves, you overreached yourself. A bill was presented by you the other day, and discounted. Selby, somewhat dubious about the signature, handed it to me. It was dated 5th March 1886, which was apparently correct. But upon reading the red stamp in the corner, I found the singular figures 18-1-87. To put it plainly, the thing is a forgery, for the bill stamp is younger than the bill I need not explain further to a man of your sagacity that this is why I do not consider you a fit companion to cicerone Miss Rashleigh or any other lady round the neighbourhood.'
Du Maurier moistened his dry lips and tried to swallow the choking lump that would rise into his throat. His face presented a singular appearance, like a dead white coal touched with low gleaming points of flame. All his savoir faire, his easy assurance, had disappeared; he looked what he was, a pitiful detected swindler face to face with his accuser.
'You will not say anything of this?' he gasped.
'As my friend Selby does not wish to be written down an ass, I shall say nothing. I owe you no malice. Only one stipulation I certainly make, and that is—you leave Pencraig by the first convenient train to-morrow.'
'I am in your hands,' the discomfited Horace replied. 'I must do as you ask. Only, my friend, if you ever come across me again, look to yourself.'
To this characteristic gasconade, Phil deigned no reply beyond a look of supreme disdain. He was perfectly satisfied with himself, and the way he had conducted the somewhat trying interview; for, say what you will, it is no pleasant matter to accuse any one of a mean and contemptible action, to say nothing of a crime.
The afternoon dragged on somewhat slowly till dinner-time arrived. It was not a full-dress affair, though most of the ladies were resplendent in shimmering draperies and shining arms. There was no lack of conversation, with the exception of Decie and his late antagonist, who were strangely silent—the latter, as Phil did not fail to notice, paying more attention to the champagne than thirst or the dictates of good breeding ordains.
'That class of fellow never can resist champagne' said Bertie sotto voce, as he called Phil's attention to the Frenchman's flushed cheeks and gleaming eyes. But Phil did not heed. He was listening with all his ears to a song floating out from the drawing-room, a song he well remembered, the refrain of which rang in his heart like a I sharp pain. As he turned in the direction of the salon, he encountered Beatrice Rashleigh walking towards the garden. With the courage of despair, he turned and took his place, by her side. They promenaded some distance in silence. A soft moon rode high in the blue arch, shining upon the swift flowing river and on the painful pallor of the girl's face.
'You had better say all you have to say,' she said. 'I did not seek this interview.'
'I think it is my right,' said Phil gently. 'It is more than a year ago since we parted with a tacit understanding. I loved you then—I always shall. Unless you had a little affection for me then, you must be the most selfish coquette that ever took delight in breaking a man's heart.'
'You do me scant justice, Mr Decie. My friends do not find me so.'
Beatrice stooped over a rose-tree, breaking off a fragrant golden bud, and carried it to her face. It was not a pleasant or soothing gesture, but her hands trembled so that she felt forced to give them some occupation. But all this was lost upon Phil, who read in it a callous coldness.
'I want you to tell me why you behaved so to me—indeed, I will know. There is something more in your manner than indifference—there is dislike, contempt. What have I done to merit this?'
'What have you done!' Beatrice cried passionately. 'You have bitterly deceived me. I liked and trusted you—nay, more, if you will hear the truth, I loved you until that day—you, you know of. Oh, Phil, Phil, why did you not come to me if you were in trouble or distress, and tell me everything! Do you think that I should have thought the less of you because such things do not come within the unwritten laws of society? I would not have minded; I would have helped you.'
'I daresay you would,' Phil returned forlornly, 'only I had no occasion to ask for your help. I understand what you mean. How can I help it? You think I—I stole your diamond bracelet!'
'How otherwise?' retorted Beatrice. She had recovered from her momentary fit of emotion, and looked him in the face with hard scornful eyes. 'You always made me your confidante—even that silly escapade of yours when you had to pawn your watch, I heard of from you. I have a good memory for trifles. Do you remember the assumed name you used on that occasion?'
'I am not so used to the inside of those places that I am likely to forget,' said Phil bitterly. 'To be correct, it was Philip Reid.'
Beatrice answered nothing, but taking from the bosom of her dress a square yellow ticket, handed it to her companion. It bore the name and address of a well-known Cambridge jeweller, and ran to the effect that a certain diamond bracelet with ruby medallion had been deposited with the person therein named, to secure the repayment of a loan of thirty pounds advanced to Philip Reid.
Phil gazed at the shabby little pasteboard like a man in a dream. The idea of his being guilty of such an act struck him dumb with amazement.
'Beatrice,' he said solemnly, as soon as he found voice to speak, 'on my word of honour, I know nothing of this. Still, the proof is strong—undeniably strong. Will you try and trust me once more?'
'What is it you want me to do?'
'Leave this in my hands for a little while. Will you?'
She turned away from him with a choking sob. All the harshness and coldness had melted from her heart; she was for the moment a gentle loving woman.
'Anything to clear this wretched mystery. If you can restore my broken faith, it will be the happiest day I have known for eighteen months.'
Without another word she turned away, leaving Phil to gaze after her in rapt astonishment.
ON the morning following, before Pencraig was awake, Colonel Scobell had fished his favourite stream, aided and abetted by the gardener's boy, a precocious youth, intended eventually for a naturalist or a poacher, as the gods decreed, and succeeded in catching three fish. The three shining monsters were carried up to the house in triumph, and laid on a stone in the dairy, where a well-attended levee was held till breakfast-time. So delighted was the Colonel with this unique accomplishment, that in the exuberance of his joy he proposed a picnic down the river in honour of the occasion. Mrs Scobell, always most happy when her spouse was pleased, fell in with this arrangement There was not a particularly large gathering at the early breakfast, consisting of the Moffat girls and our trio, concluding with Du Maurier, who had not yet broken the direful tidings of his premature departure. Miss Rashleigh did not put in an appearance.
'We will go to Ross by water,' Mrs Scobell explained. 'When we reach there, we will decide what further to do.—Mr Denton, I am told you are a capital hand at arranging these little matters. Will you help me?'
Denton laid down his knife and fork, and regarded his hostess with a look in which bewilderment and reproach were amusingly blended. With Malvolio, he felt he had greatness thrust upon him.
'My dear madam, some one has libelled me cruelly. Would you be surprised to hear that I never attended such a function in my life?'
'Oh, in that case we must go,' said the hostess good-naturedly. 'How many shall we be? There will be four of us—all you girls, with Mr Du Maurier—no fewer than seventeen altogether.'
'The invasion of Ross,' said Denton with a forlorn air. 'What a sensation we shall create! The army of Pencraig, under the command of Colonel Scobell.—Du Maurier, these knickerbockers of yours will cause a furor.'
The gallant Frenchman smiled, but without his usual airy assurance. He was by no means at ease, though he was somewhat grateful to Denton for the opportunity afforded.
'It is a great disappointment, no doubt,' he said; 'but I shall not be there. I have important business calling me to town, and I shall be compelled to go to Hereford to-day. My charming hostess will forgive this unavoidable termination to the pleasantest of visits; but, ah! the stern calls of business; I shall be forced to take my leave early tomorrow.'
Phil looked up at the speaker, whose eyes were fixed upon him in a questioning manner, and nodded shortly. So long as the fascinating Horace would not be present at the fête, it was a matter of little moment whether he remained at Pencraig another night or not. This decision was none the less satisfactory because Phil had no intention of going himself. He had a little work to do, and a great deal to think about. He also had a clue in his hands, which, skilfully handled, would put an end to the painful coldness between Beatrice and himself. As he sat upon the terrace smoking a matutinal cigarette, Denton with a face of woe joined him.
'The die is cast!' he said. 'We are to go into Ross; though what we are going to do there is a social problem beyond ordinary understanding. I believe there is a fine church there, where we shall spend the customary ten minutes. What follows, I shudder to contemplate.'
'What a humbug you are!' Phil retorted. 'Just as if you won't enjoy yourself as well as the rest of them. I know what the programme will be, well enough. You will go down to Ross, taking care that you and Bertie pull the gig pair with Gwen and Nellie Moffat.'
'Not a bad idea,' said Denton, as if such a plan had been furthest from his thoughts. 'We have only to drop a hint to some of the women that the gig is not quite safe, and the thing is done.—Now, as to yourself?'
'I shan't go—at least I don't think so. I—I have some particular work to do. Only leave me that little oak dingey for this afternoon. I dare-say I shall find time for a pull up to Hoarwithy and back.'
Denton whistled softly; he was too much a man of the world to inquire the reason for this unexpected determination.
'We shall be rather short of the nobler sex, in that case. Rashleigh cannot favour us with his desirable company; we shall mourn the absence of Horace the incomparable in silent despair.—What's to be done?'
But the unexpected arrival of three Oxford undergraduates, who had rushed over from Hereford owing to the collapse of a cricket match, satisfactorily solved the problem. The party resolved itself into a smaller one than had been at first anticipated, and as a matter of fact the limited number of floating craft rendered this imperative. It was past eleven before the three boats got under way and slid gradually Out of sight round the Lend. Phil stood upon the tiny wooden pier watching them, and smiling at the brilliant diplomacy of Denton's, which had been attended by triumphant success. He was not quite alone, for Miss Edith Moffat stood by his side, an unmistakable pout disfiguring her pretty lips.
'It is too bad!' she exclaimed, with tears in her voice. 'I am always left out.'
'Then why didn't you say you wanted to go?' asked Phil with scant sympathy. 'There was plenty of room in our boat.'
An April smile darted across Miss Edith's piquant little face, a saucy smile of meaning. 'There are four of them there, you know. And besides I heard Mr Trevor say the boat was not quite safe. Wasn't it brave of Nell and Gwen to risk such horrible danger?'
'Very,' said Phil dryly. 'You are naturally a courageous family. Still, if you can put up with such a commonplace cavalier as me, we will have a long pull this afternoon.'
'Delightful!—Only, there isn't a boat.'
'Oh, I took care of that. There is plenty of room in the little dingey, if you only sit still, and exactly in the centre. You and I will go as far as Hoarwithy directly after luncheon, and get back in time for dinner.'
Miss Edith looked up at the deep blue sky above the larch tassels, then down again to the swift running river, musical as it rushed over the brown pebbles. She gazed seriously out of her great eyes at her companion, as if she would read his thoughts.
'I wonder what you stayed behind for!' she asked abruptly.
'Now, I suppose that is what a woman would call gratitude.—My dear Edie, have you so soon forgotten the moral precepts of your schoolmistress? But seriously, I have something important to do this morning. Don't ask me any questions, there is a good child.'
'I am very sorry, Phil,' Miss Edith replied with humility. 'If you would only let me help you a little. I—I understand that you'—
'You are a good little girl, and I am very grateful.—No; you can't help me, little one. I hope everything will come right in a few days. When it does, you shall be the first to know.'
Philip Decie was not the kind of man to make a confidant of any one; but the quick warm-hearted sympathy had touched him more deeply than he cared to own. Moreover, it was not like confiding in a stranger, for the girl had been an especial favourite of his ever since he had first known her an imperious little beauty aged seven. There had always been something in the frank innocence of her great gray eyes that drew him towards her, child as she was, as one noble nature is attracted by another. After this little interchange of sympathy, it came almost like a shock to Phil when he encountered Du Maurier strutting along the terrace, smoking one of his everlasting scented cigarettes.
The Frenchman's colour rose as he saw Decie approaching. He bore the air and manner of one who conquers his pride to ask a favour of an unrelenting and implacable enemy.
'You will recollect our little conversation of last night?' he asked.
'Um! I don't think it is likely either of us will forget it. Still, your memory seems to have proved somewhat treacherous. I made a certain stipulation as regards the duration of your stay here.'
'Which is precisely what I am going to mention,' Du Maurier exclaimed. 'I found it was impossible.'
'Impossible?' Phil returned, his face darkening. 'As for that'—
'Nay; hear me out, my impetuous friend. It was impossible for me to go today, for the simple reason that I had not the means of taking myself away from here. Yesterday, I sent a telegram to a friend, who can and will refuse me nothing'—
'Blackmail, probably,' Phil interrupted.—'Go on.'
'It matters not to you,' continued the Frenchman, with a flash of his glittering eyes, 'so long as this remittance comes. I go into Hereford this afternoon to get my letter, which shall wait for me at the bureau. But to-morrow mid-day shall see me gone.'
'I do not wish to be hard upon you,' said Phil, with a slight feeling of compunction. 'Neither did I seek this information. Still, I am satisfied.'
Du Maurier watched his rival as he turned away. His long thin fingers were tightly clenched, the cigarette in his mouth was crushed between the even white teeth in silent impotent consuming rage.
'Ma foi, but it is a fine thing to be one of these English aristocrats,' he said with a deep respiration. 'So cool, so contemptuous! I would give all I possess to have my gentleman on a nice level strip of turf with twelve paces between us. Still, I have my little revenge. La belle Rashleigh is proud; her self-respect is wounded. If it is not Horace Du Maurier, it will never be M'sieu Decie.—Ah! if it had not been for those bills!'
The dark scowl upon the Frenchman's face gradually changed to a sour smile. He rejoiced in a cat-like nature, only capable of those petty meannesses which make up the summum bonum of some men's lives. He looked at his watch, and finding it close upon twelve, set out with apparent determination of purpose across the fields. As he came into the high-road at some distance beyond, there was another individual awaiting him—Gerard Rashleigh. From the expression of the young undergraduate's face, the interview was neither self-sought nor pleasing.
'Ah, I thought you would not keep me waiting,' said Du Maurier. 'One cannot be too careful in a house like Pencraig, where no place is sacred against intrusion.—In one word, have you the money?'
'Money? Where can I get it from? It was only yesterday morning that you promised me another month.'
'Possibly, dear boy; only, this is a case what you call Hobson's choice. Many things have happened since yesterday. Your friend Decie—to put it plainly—insists upon my leaving Pencraig to-morrow.'
'You don't mean that!' Rashleigh exclaimed, every vestige of colour gone from his cheeks. 'Under the circumstances he would not dare'—
'He has dared, all the same; and I shall have to obey. See how one suffers for the little indiscretions of youth. It's hard upon me.'
'What particular rascality has Decie got hold of?' Rashleigh asked bluntly.
'I do not like that word, sir, and I will ask you to be careful. Still, as the poet says, Arcades ambo'—
'Id est—blackguards both,' Rashleigh finished.—'Oh, why be nice about expressions, particularly when they are true! I wish to heaven I had never seen you. I wish—But what is the use of wishing? I am anxious to pay you this money; but I haven't got it, and that's the long and short of it. Some day, I shall make a clean breast of the whole thing.'
But Du Maurier was too familiar with these transient fits of repentance to be seriously alarmed; he merely laughed again and lighted another cigarette.
'It will be a black day for you when you defy me,' said he. 'You and I sink or swim together. If you wish to return to your buttercups and daisies, I shall not hinder you. Pay me four hundred pounds and you are free.'
'I haven't four hundred pence,' Rashleigh replied doggedly.
'Perhaps not; but I will show you how to get it. Let us take a long walk; it will soothe your nerves and clear your brain. And besides, I am going to show you the way to rid yourself of Horace Du Maurier, who, after all, is no greater scamp than you; only, he has the pluck, and you are a coward.'
The complacent hostess of Pencraig, who had not joined the Ross excursion, saw no objection to Decie's proposal for the afternoon. It was not often that the good lady had a long afternoon in peace, and the chronicles of the Little Lord Fauntleroy were of overpowering interest.
'My dear child, so long as you come home alive, you may do just what you please,' she said. 'Phil was always most trustworthy, even as a boy, and I am sure you will be safe with him.'
There was not a ripple on the water as the little craft left the landing-stage and took its way up-stream. Miss Edith sat with the crimson tiller-ropes over her shoulders, looking over the shining river before her from under the shade of a smart sailor hat with a truly nautical air. It was so quiet and pleasant there beneath the overhanging willows, and along through cool sombre shades cast by the trees in the sloping woods. There was just the rhythmic throb of sculls in the rowlocks, with tiny pools left by the sweeping blades.
'Now, don't you feel just as happy as if you had gone with the others?' asked Phil, when a mile or two had been covered. 'Probably by this time they are all hot and tired, and heartily wishing they had never met.'
'That is a slightly egotistical remark, Phil,' the fair coxswain observed; 'and I shall not pay you the compliment of replying. Besides, it is all very well to console yourself with sarcastic remarks, when you know that, under more favourable circumstances, I might have proved another Mariana of the Moated Grange for all you cared.'
'Um! A season in town hasn't improved you,' said Phil gravely. 'That's the worst of taking too much notice of very young ladies, they get so flippant.'
'Ah, but it isn't original,' said Edith serenely. 'I overheard much the same remark made in a London drawing-room one night; and the answer struck me as being so appropriate, that I remembered it—which is very creditable, and not a little risky, for I haven't the remotest notion who Mariana is.'
'Put it clown to Tennyson or Shakespeare; it's sure to be one or the other.—Pull the left-hand string; we shall be on the gravel in a minute.'
They had reached a broad bend in the river, where the stream widened, with low sloping meadows upon the one bank, and an eminence—upon which is situated the village of Hoarwithy—upon the other. At this point the stream takes a peculiar V shape, and is particularly puzzling to the amateur oarsman. Decie, pulling round sharply to miss the foreshore, struck the blade against a solid mass of rock and snapped it nearly off below the button.
'This is a pleasant thing,' he exclaimed ruefully.—'Will you get out and wait till the damage can be repaired, or stay here!'
Miss Edith treated this proposal with the scorn it merited.
'Get out? Certainly not.—There is at least four yards of mud between me and dry land.—No; you shall row me under that delightful shady alder, and fasten up. I don't suppose there will be any danger of my being spirited away till you return.'
Making the best of his broken implements, Decie succeeded at length in reaching the desired haven; and having fastened the dingey securely, scrambled up the bank with the fractured blade, though not without detriment to his spotless flannels, in search of the handy man, without which no village is complete. This individual, a bluff old fisherman in blue Guernsey frock and ducks, who combined the office of postman, publican, and carpenter to the village, expressed a cheery opinion of the damage.
'I can splice it as good as new in half an hour, your honour,' said he. 'You'd better step inside. And if you'll ask for the "strawberry Norman," you'll get as good a glass of cider as a man need wish to drink.'
As Phil knew both the man and his cider by reputation, he had no hesitation in taking the hint, though it is not always advisable to accept a west-countryman's dogmatic opinion upon this patriotic subject on every occasion. As Decie stood in the little bar alone, he was not a little astonished to hear from the room beyond, the door of which was only partially closed, the familiar voices of Du Maurier and Gerard Rashleigh. He was still more surprised to hear his own name so frequently mentioned.
'It's a blackguard thing to do,' Rashleigh exclaimed. 'I have done him harm enough already. I tell you I won't do it.'
'Not so loud: you don't want the whole parish to hear,' came the smooth seductive tones of the Frenchman. 'Surely, you would not scruple at such a little thing, after what you have already done.—Ah, that little yellow ticket was a masterpiece; a smooth touch so artful that it looked like nature itself. Now that Miss Rashleigh is convinced her lover is a thief'—
'Leave my sister out of it altogether,' Rashleigh exclaimed passionately. 'I tell you I won't have it. If it wasn't that I was afraid of you, I would tell Decie everything.—Why do you tempt me? It can do you no good.'
It will give me revenge. But you have your alternative. To use one of your sweet insular phrases, the borrower is always the servant of the lender. Pay me what money you owe me, and my power is gone.'
'Would to heaven I could! There would be no hesitation then.'
'Decie would be delighted to accommodate you,' sneered Du Maurier. 'The paltry hundreds would be cheerfully paid, if you only cared to exercise this new and interesting fit of honesty. Why not ask him?'
'Because I have done him too much harm already. Because, if you must know, I am in his debt now. That bracelet affair'—
Decie, conscious for the first time that he was playing the part of an eavesdropper, stayed to hear no more. His face was very stern and set as he paid for the repair of the blade, and passed down the garden path with a curt 'Good afternoon' to the village genius.
'Seems as if he was upset,' remarked that worthy, 'and him so affable and perlite at first. Maybe missis ha' given he the "red streak" by mistake.'
For some minutes the boat was propelled towards Pencraig in silence. Miss Edith regarded her companion demurely from the unclouded serenity of her gray eyes.
'You are looking very amiable,' she observed in the sweetest tones. 'You must have heard some particularly good news; that is, if your hurry to get back is any criterion.'
'Do I look amiable?' said Decie with an effort—'more amiable than usual? I have heard something; but whether it is good or bad, for the life of me I can't tell.'
And with this enigmatic remark Miss Edith was fain to be content.
THE picnic party returned in time for dinner, much to Mr Frederick Denton's outward and visible joy. Trevor, being younger, and as yet no admirer of the nil admirari school, expressed the opinion that they had had a particularly jolly day—a view fully endorsed by the sisters Moffat. There was sufficient time to change flannels and boating jackets for gray tweed and demi-toilet before the first warning of that 'tocsin of the soul, the dinner-bell,' though Horace Du Maurier made a point of appearing in all the glory of evening dress, with tiny diamond studs in his ample bosom, and moustache waxed to a pitch of perfection only acquired by long and constant practice.
During the progress of the meal, that prepossessing gentleman was unusually brilliant and vivacious. 'It is a fortunate thing that we do not dwell in the palace of truth,' Decie murmured under his breath, as he noted the many-sided facets of the Frenchman's nature. It would have considerably astonished the unsuspecting guests, had they known that under this dazzling display, this outward appearance of gaiety, Du Maurier was racking his versatile brain to discover some means of escape from the dilemma in which he was placed. Even the most wily adventurer cannot hope to keep up the necessary show without a certain amount of ready-money.
'What have you been doing all day?' asked the Colonel, addressing Decie during a pause in the conversation.—'Ah! you missed a treat, my boy. I never saw Symonds Yat looking more beautiful.'
Phil explained. He detailed the account of the accident, Rashleigh listening intently the while, wondering, with the tormenting conscience of a coward, if the speaker could possibly have overheard part of his conversation with Du Manlier. As he looked up, his glance encountered Decie's. There was something in the look that caused him to grow cold, and his glass to clink against his teeth with a sudden spasm of fear.
'Beautiful old church,' Denton struck in opportunely, 'especially interesting, as we are all such critical judges of architecture.—I assure you, Miss Rashleigh, I never saw anything more curious than that tree—an elm in full leaf, actually growing inside the church. A most peculiar sight.'
Any further discussion upon this uncommon but nevertheless visible phenomenon was cut short by the exit of the ladies. Colonel Scobell pushed a silver cigarette box round the table and rang the bell for more claret. In two of the Oxford' men, both fishing enthusiasts, he had discovered a pair of ready listeners, to whom he was detailing the account of a wonderful fish, caught by foul hooking a cast left in the salmon's gills by an angler, who had been broken by the same finny monster on the previous day.
'These fishermen beat any other sportsmen out of sight,' Trevor murmured.—'Did you hear that Phil? Come into the drawing-room.'
'Presently. Not that there is any particular reason why you should wait for me. I want to speak to Rashleigh a moment.'
Horace Du Maurier had disappeared. Rashleigh remained smoking feverishly, and paying more attention to the claret jug than was good for him or his nerves, as weak-minded men in the hour of trouble or anxiety will do. As Phil touched him suddenly on the shoulder, he started with something in his heart akin to terror.
'What do you want?' he asked a little defiantly, and instinctively upon his guard against some invisible though not unexpected danger.
'Come and play a game of billiards,' Decie replied. These signs of Rashleigh's perturbation were not lost upon him. 'We shall be sure to have the room to ourselves.'
Rashleigh obeyed reluctantly, and together they crossed the hall Once in the room, Decie closed the door; and turning up the lamps, chose himself a cue, and without further preamble, commenced the play. Rashleigh, though by no means an inferior player, was no match for Decie, though usually he was far the more scientific exponent of that fascinating game.
'You have something on your mind,' Decie observed, executing a brilliant cannon.—'Not a bad shot that. I'll tell you what I will do. Two to one in half-crowns I pot the red and tell you what you are thinking about.'
'You would lose,' Rashleigh laughed recklessly.—'Ah! missed the red.—The other shot of yours would be about as successful.'
'By no means. Let me finish. You are at your wits' end to know where to find that money you owe Du Maurier. And further, you would like to tell me something, if you only dared.'
'How on earth did you know I owed Du Manlier anything?' Rashleigh exclaimed, off his guard. 'He told me no one knew but ourselves.'
'I do know, and you can't deny it. I would rather be under an obligation to my bitterest enemy than to that man. What do you owe him? I am not asking out of idle curiosity.'
'What do I owe him? Well, really I cannot quite say, there are so many transactions. Perhaps eighty or ninety pounds altogether.'
Decie spotted the red which his antagonist had potted. He seemed to have forgotten his previous curiosity in his new and revived interest in the game. Still, there was a grim dryness in his voice and manner that puzzled Rashleigh, and for which he was utterly at a loss to account.
'I do not wish to pry into your affairs,' Decie remarked at length. 'But you might just as well own the truth. You owe Du Maurier four hundred—money he has swindled you out of at cards, I presume. What possessed you to take up with a common blackleg like that?'
'I don't know,' Rashleigh replied, his face aflame.—'I've been an awful fool, Decie.'
'If I don't make a mistake, you've been something worse,' Decie put in sotto voce.
'Well, I have. And now the murder is out. I daresay you know we are both members of The Lotos—the gambling club in H—— Street. I am quite in Du Manner's power. He has only got to carry out his threat and post me as a defaulter. I couldn't face Cambridge after that.—Decie, I am the most miserable wretch under the sun!'
The unhappy boy threw his cue aside, and falling across the table with his face buried in his hands, sobbed aloud. He was not naturally bad, only weak and easily led into temptation, like many another lad wandering amongst the traps and pitfalls of university life.
Phil laid a hand upon the other's shoulder, speaking not unkindly.
'I think I can help you,' he said. 'I don't want to force your confidence; only, at the same time I have not the smallest intention of paying Du Maurier any sum he chooses to demand. And I don't want him to know I have a hand in this. I haven't much money with me—not quite a hundred pounds—but I can make up that sum. Offer him that, and he will jump at it.'
'Not he,' Rashleigh returned mournfully. 'He holds my paper to the amount of four hundred. You don't know him as I do.'
'Fortunately, I don't. I know him a great deal better—or worse,' said Phil dryly. 'I have an idea he will take it. Make the offer as if you meant it, and be a man for once. You shall have the money now, if you like. By good luck, I happen to have so much with me. And one word in conclusion. If he turns restive, just remark that Selby is of opinion that he is uncommonly lucky to get that.'
Hope springing eternal in the human breast, gave Rashleigh a momentary feeling of elation. But he was too much under the Frenchman's sinister influence to shake off the bondage as a bolder spirit would have done. He stood, inspired alternately by joy and fear, till Decie returned. He had in his hand a crisp roll of banknotes, which he placed in Rashleigh's hand.
'There!' he exclaimed hurriedly. 'I have just seen Du Maurier, who is inquiring for you.—Now is your time. If you have any lingering traces of manliness, show a bold front, and the victory is yours.'
Decie had barely time to leave the room before Du Manlier entered. He seemed a trifle pale and agitated, now that he was alone with his fellow-conspirator and the mask had fallen from his face.
'I am fortunate in finding you here,' he said. 'We must forget our little difference this afternoon in face of the common danger.—See, my dear Gerard; the situation grows critical. I, even I, am puzzled. I must get away from here to-morrow; and how to raise the wind, as you call it, I do not know. I am reluctantly compelled to look to you, mom cher.'
'Supposing, by a lucky accident I am able to accommodate you. If I was to say to you: "Du Maurier, here is a hundred pounds in hard cash," what advantage am I to have in return?'
'Advantage! The boy is mad. It is not for you to make terms with me. I shall teach you to kick over the traces! Bah! why these theatricals?'
Rashleigh braced himself for the coming trial. The possession of money to silence his tormentor's tongue gave him a new and sweet sense of power.
'I will be perfectly candid with you,' he said. 'Give me my paper, and in return I will hand you a hundred pounds. It is a fair bargain. You are driven into a corner, and I can help you out. You know how those IOU's were obtained. I will not discuss that. Take my terms, or leave them.'
'Par dieu, I shall do nothing of the sort. You shall give me the money, and trust to my honour to give you further time to pay the balance.'
'Rather a frail reed to rest upon,' said Rashleigh with a reckless laugh. 'Nonsense, Du Maurier. It is I to make terms; and, honestly speaking, I don't owe you anything. I think I am dealing very liberally with you—an opinion shared by more than one; indeed, Selby—you remember Selby?—says you are uncommonly lucky to get that.'
During this interesting conversation, Decie had remained in the hall to watch the progress of events; not that he anticipated failure upon Rashleigh's part, but that he was genuinely anxious that the lad should himself throw off the fetters which bound him. Failure was impossible, as Phil very well knew, so long as he had the whip-hand of the versatile Du Maurier. Still, if Rashleigh could assert his own independence unaided, it would be a great step towards a speedy regeneration.
While Phil was still pacing the hall, turning over these thoughts in his mind, a light footstep descending the stairs attracted his attention; and though there was only a dim light burning, he was enabled to distinguish the face and figure of Beatrice Rashleigh. There was a restless, troubled look in her eyes; but the face grew a trifle colder as she recognised Decie.
'Why did you not come with us to-day?' she asked. 'Oh, surely you must have misunderstood me. I do not wish to make your visit unpleasant.'
'Please set your mind at rest upon that score. My excuse was really no idle one; and so far as regretting the day's pleasure, my decision promises to be one of the most fortunate things I ever did in my life.'
Beatrice looked up surprised at the quiet ring of triumph in the words. She felt an irresistible impulse to remain with him, yet at the same time, woman-like, she blamed herself for this weakness. Like the moth fluttering round the flame, she could not keep from the dangerous lure.
'I am glad to hear it,' said Beatrice with a little sigh. 'Would you mind telling me where Gerard is? I suppose I may go into the billiard-room?'
'Well, I—I think I would wait a moment. He is in there with Du Maurier, only I fancy they are talking over some private business.'
Beatrice laughed lightly, the first sign of mirth Phil had noticed since they met, and crossed over to the billiard-room with a determined step. Regardless of Decie's entreaties, which only served to increase her resolution, she threw open the door and took a step inside. One glance was quite enough. Du Maurier, his face flaming with passion, stood facing Rashleigh, the latter very white and agitated, but presenting a picture of quiet determination. So engrossed were they in their quarrel, that they were quite oblivious to the presence of the deeply interested spectators.
'Then what follows?' Du Maurier hissed through his clenched teeth. 'I go to M'sieu Decie and say to him I know who stole that bracelet. Can you guess?—No.—Then I will tell you. Rashleigh was the thief!'
'And what would he say?' Rashleigh returned unsteadily. 'He would simply tell you that he had known it all along. He has known it from the first.'
'Ah! you say so. And the little episode of the watch? The Philip Reid who raises money on his valuables'—
'Which was pledged for me. I was driven almost mad for the want of a little money. Decie was not the rich man then he is now. It was for me alone that money was obtained. It was to prevent my sister knowing what a miserable criminal I am, that caused Decie to sacrifice his happiness.—And now, do your worst.'
Decie, the first to recover himself, drew Beatrice back and closed the door unseen. Her face was white as marble, her limbs trembled under her; she would have fallen had he not put his arm round her. As their eyes met, hers soft, sorrowful, and pleading, his smiling tenderly, she found sufficient voice to speak:
'O Phil, what have I done to you? What a miserable girl I am! And to think that he—Gerard—Let me go. I cannot, dare not speak to you yet.'
With a fierce gesture of passionate abandon, she broke from the shelter of his arms and flew up-stairs with the speed of a hunted deer. Phil followed her with his eyes, shining with love and triumph, a feeling of wild exultation at his heart. Then, without further ceremony, he opened the billiard-room door and strode in with set determination of purpose.
'You need not go over that miserable business again,' he said, seeing that the Frenchman was about to speak. 'You seem to have lost your philosophic calm. I know everything you would say; but I think you will preserve that secret. Now listen to me. You will retire to your room without seeing any one tonight, and write a letter to Colonel Scobell saying that you are bound to leave by the 8.10 train to-morrow. You will also give Rashleigh the securities you hold. Nothing more need be said.'
'I have them already,' Rashleigh explained. 'As to the rest'—
'As to the rest, we shall meet again in Cambridge,' Du Maurier exclaimed. 'Then we shall see'—
'You will do nothing of the kind, for the simple reason that you will not return to that happy hunting-ground, where there are too many of your class already. You will take your name off the college books.'
'And if I refuse?'
'Refuse! You dare not!' Decie cried contemptuously. 'You have your money. Go, or I shall be tempted to give you the chastisement you deserve.'
With a gesture of impotent rage and one backward look of hatred, the baffled swindler left them. It was the last time either of them was ever to see Horace Du Maurier. When morning came, the gentlemanly chevalier had disappeared, leaving no trace and no regret behind.
Phil turned to Gerard Rashleigh, and held out his hand.
'I congratulate you heartily. You have done a wise thing, Gerard. It will be your own fault if you don't go straight from now. Let as say no more about it. The rest lies in your own hands.'
'There is one thing to be done,' Rashleigh returned, a new light in his eyes. 'Do not be too hard upon me, Phil. I will make the best atonement I can. Will you leave me for a moment to recover myself? I am quite unmanned.'
With a delicate innate sympathy, always so ready to measure the feeling of others, Decie left him, and passing through the open French window, stepped on to the tennis lawn. It was cool and quiet there under the cedars, bathed in the peaceful moonlight, the silence of night broken only by the occasional ripple of laughter from the drawing-room. Decie for the moment felt a need for silence and solitude, a peacefulness broken all too soon by the appearance of Rashleigh, and with him a figure that caused Phil's heart to give a quick leap and stop as if it were still.
'I have been telling her,' Rashleigh said abruptly.
Decie smiled and held out his hand. Beatrice stretched out both of hers with an impulse of mingled pity and sorrow. As Phil held the fluttering fingers in a firm grasp, he turned to hear what the penitent would say.
I will not make any excuses,' he continued in a faltering unsteady voice. 'I—I took the bracelet, and Phil saw me. On my life, I had no idea that he would be suspected, or I would have cut off my right hand first.—But even when yon were so foolish, Beatrice, he would not speak; he did not care for you to know how bad I was. Then Du Maurier got the whole thing out of me: the name I used, even the whole story how Phil pledged his watch to lend me money. Finally, he succeeded in obtaining the ticket. What use he made of it, you know better than I—You see I used the same name that Phil assumed, and so there was something suspicious about the whole thing.—Do not ask me to say any more—Forgive me if you can; to forget is impossible—'
'Nevertheless, we will try,' said Phil cheerfully. 'Only, do not elevate me to the rank of a guardian angel, when I have only been selfishly playing for my own hand. Yon presentiment is quite right. I overheard your conversation yesterday, or how should I have known?—But there; we will say no more about it. Shake hands, old fellow; and repay me, if you owe me anything, by doing the same for some one else in due season.'
Rashleigh put out his hand silently, for he could not trust himself to speak. Beatrice freed her fingers from Decie's warm grasp, and throwing her arms round her brother's neck, kissed him. He turned and walked away in the broad moonlight, slowly, thoughtfully; but there was a higher carriage of the head, a more elastic step, and a new warm feeling of unaccustomed lightness and freedom glowing in his breast.
'Phil, you have done a very noble thing!' Beatrice murmured at length. 'Will you crown it by forgiving me for my sinful folly?'
He passed his arm round her and drew her face close to his. For a time there was a long delicious silence as he looked into her troubled eyes. With all a woman's sweet hypocrisy, she asked for a favour she already had, but the sense of her self-humiliation was not the less precious for that knowledge.
'My darling, I am too happy to feel any soreness at present I have found you again; that is enough for me. I daresay I ought to have been stern and haughty; to have taken my revenge and left you. But I am only human, and I shall love you all the days of my life.'
By-and-by others of the party wandered out into the perfect evening, strolling in the moonlight in twos and threes; but, with a certain electric sympathy, they kept at a little distance from the lovers. Presently, Miss Edith, with a white boating cap perched upon her fair head, passed by, and leaving her companion for a moment, tripped lightly across the lawn.
'It was not bad news, then?' she asked demurely.
'No, indeed,' replied Phil gaily; 'the very best in the world. I said you should be the first to know; but mind, it is a profound secret for the present. Though how long it will remain so,' the speaker continued, 'is quite another thing. Anyway, it's nothing to be ashamed of.'
'Ashamed of!' Beatrice echoed indignantly.—'Phil, I believe I am the happiest girl in the world!'
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