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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. 18 (Supplemental Vol. 1) Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1600211h.html Language: English Date first posted: Feb 2016 Most recent update: Feb 2016 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy, Colin Choat Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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WHEN I am tired and weary of the world, there is one spot where I can find balm for the vexed spirit and rest for an overburdened mind. You would pass it day by day and year by year, never dreaming of the paradise that lies within the city walls. All the passer-by sees is a long blank wall facing the hot dusty street, and nothing to break its dreary monotony save an iron-studded door, like the entrance to a jail. How should you know that beyond it lies all that remains of an erstwhile flourishing monastery of the Dominicans, and that the half-effaced inscription over the grim door points to the fact that, at the suppression of the religious houses, 'the site was granted to John Le Marchant and Raphael Hutchinson, Esquires?' Also, that early in Elizabeth's reign, it belonged to the Fotheryngsbys of Fotheryngsby Court; and further, as every student of Welsh Border history can tell, it is known as the Fotheryngsby Hospital to this day; for in the year of grace 1614 one Sir Thomas Fotheryngsby erected within the walls a quadrangular building to contain 'ten servitors, a Corporal to be over them, and also for a chaplain for their souls' good; five of them to be such as have borne arms, and five such as have served their masters well and faithfully.' And furthermore, 'that each Hospitaller at his first admittance should have a fustian suit of ginger colour of a soldier-like fashion, seemly laced; a hat with a band of white, and red slippers; a soldier-like jerkin with half-sleeves, and a square shirt down half the thigh, with a moncado or Spanish cap; a soldier-like sword with a belt to wear as he goeth abroad; a cloak of red cloth lined with a baise of red, and reaching to the knee; and a seemly gown to be worn of red cloth reaching down to the ankle, lined likewise with red baise, to be worn in walks and journeys.' All of which, with the exception of the sword, has been studiously observed to this very day in the year of our Lord 1888.
Here is such a change from the dusty Widemarsh Street as will startle and delight you. Close the door behind and shut out the workaday world, for, in the historic words of the Quaker, it hath no business here. There is a dim passage opening out suddenly into a quadrangle, formed of twelve houses, four a side; and on the other the ancient chapel, where the chaplain, who is no longer an inmate, officiates; a wonderfully quaint building, containing on the reading-desk a veritable chain-Bible. The houses are small, but neat and clean; and round each doorway, far into the flagged court, are a profusion of flowering plants in pots, making the quiet spot a veritable garden. We have stepped back into the past. There are clean old men and women clad in the 'cloak of red cloth lined with a baise of red;' and for the latter pensioners, the 'seemly gown,' also of ruddy hue. Beyond, there is another passage leading to the gardens, filled with peas and beans, and such produce as the owners care to cultivate; and then, when you have noted and admired the Arcadian neatness, you will have another surprise; for exactly opposite you there stands the ivy-mantled ruin of the old monastery, its roofless walls showing the bright blue sky beyond, with a peep of the same boundless heaven through an open chimney, where now the swallows and sparrows build. Where once the rushes were strewn underfoot, lies a carpet of emerald turf; great heads of foxglove rear themselves on the open hearthstone; the very preaching-cross where vast multitudes were wont to assemble to hear exhortations in time of war, or prayer in the hour of disaster, still remains in the midst of this silent silvan beauty, presided over by the invisible spirit of Peace.
Every inch of this ground is teeming with historic interest. For a small honorarium the Corporal will shake his white head, and pour out his store of antiquarian lore for the stranger's behoof, embellishing his history with certain scraps of information, easy to one long versed in the art of concocting historical fiction, yet at the same time believing every word that falls so solemnly from his own lips.
One bright August morning, some two years since, or it may be more, for time stands still in Fotheryngsby Hospital, two of its inmates sat under the shady side of the refectory wall, facing the gardens. One was an old man, so old that his clean shaven face was one mass of wrinkles; the other, somewhat more robust and hearty, who listened politely to his senior's amiable chatter with some show of interest, for the discussion was warlike, not to say bloodthirsty, to the last degree. Their gray heads were close together, contrasting not inharmoniously with the scarlet coats; on the breasts of each gleamed more than one silver medal with its parti-coloured clasp.
'It's in the blood, Jacob,' said the younger man, reflectively sucking his pipe. 'There was that lad of mine just the same. He might have been the old Squire's body-servant, and a good place too; but nothing would do but soldiering. He fell at Balaklava, in the charge. He was a good lad, was Jim.'
'They was like we, Ben. There's a mort of trouble in bein' a father, not as I ever had time to think much of that sort of thing. When I was a boy, it was a sore time for wives and sweethearts. I'm ninety-five, Mr Choppin—ninety-five next Sunday, and I fought under the Duke at Waterloo——'
'It was in Balaklava harbour,' returned Mr Choppin, not to be outdone, 'as I see my most active service—A.B. on the old Ajax. It was there as Master Frank got killed——'
'And he never smiled again,' interrupted Mr Jacob Dawson, in the tone of one who repeats a well-learnt lesson or an oft-repeated story. 'I've heerd the tale afore, Benjamin, though as sad a one as I ever heerd tell.'
Ben Choppin looked into space meditatively, perfectly unconscious, as was the last speaker, of the irony underlying his words. It was a hot still morning, with the gentlest of breezes ruffling the ivy mantle of the ruin—a time for rest and retrospection.
'He never smiled again, Jacob,' Choppin resumed approvingly; 'leastwise, not till Miss Sylvia was born, and that was twelve years afterwards. There was three besides her and Master Frank, all of 'em dyin' of infantcy'—as if childhood was some fell disease—'the rest was Turkish Bonds, I'm told.'
Mr Dawson nodded his head approvingly, somewhat hazy in his mind, as well he might be, as to whether the bonds in question represented another and more virulent complaint peculiar to children of tender years.
'There was a lad for you,' continued the narrator, with rising enthusiasm—'a gentleman and a Goldsworthy every inch of him. And, mind you, though he was a midshipman aboard his father's own ship, there was no favour for him.—Well, we was just laughing together—for he always had a pleasant word for everybody—when plump comes a ball and cuts him right down.'
'And then he said, faintlike: "Ben, old fellow, never mind me, but fetch the dear old gov'nor,"' Jacob Dawson exclaimed parenthetically. 'Then you lifts him—all, all white from the pain as he pretends he can't feel. That's what I calls being something like an Englishman.'
'Jacob,' asked Choppin suspiciously, 'where did you get that last bit from?'
'That bit,' Dawson returned, with some show of pride, 'is my own. Still, I won't make a pint on it, Ben, if you do object.'
But Ben was so overcome that he could find no words to reprimand the Corporal for his unparalleled audacity in spoiling the symmetry of his best story.
Interruptions, so far as they were quotations from the original text, were permitted, and indeed accepted as a compliment; but never before, in the course of fourteen years' friendship, had Mr Dawson ventured to interpolate ideas of his own into the story-teller's polished narrative.
It was, after all, a commonplace tale enough. Captain Goldsworthy, the last of a good old Downshire family, had commanded the Ajax in the Black Sea squadron during the Crimean War; and Ben Choppin, a Downshire man, had been boatswain's mate on board that gallant ship. It was to the death of Captain Goldsworthy's only son that the threadbare story related; but how the Captain came to be a pensioner in the same Hospital as his humble follower was one of those points which Choppin was somewhat hazy upon.
But this was an old story, likewise the history of an honest single-minded gentleman, who refused to accept his pension on the ground that he had sufficient for his own wants without drawing an income he might not earn. We hear the rest of the sorry details often enough; the simple individuals who listen to the voice of the charmer, and fondly imagine that every financial genius who floats a bogus company risks his time and money with the philanthropic intention of finding the public a safe investment for spare capital at the rate of twenty per cent.
Goldsworthy asked for nothing when the crash came save a roof, other than that of the poor-house, to cover his gray hairs. Proud to the last degree, nothing savouring of charity would he accept; and so it came to pass that, when he was jestingly offered a shelter in the Blackfriars Hospital, he surprised the patron by accepting the offer. He had no encumbrances, no one depending upon him but his daughter Sylvia, a girl now in her twentieth year. The townspeople who knew him and his story wondered that he should care to have the girl with him in company with decayed soldiers and servants; but even in the midst of these poor surroundings there was a certain innate refinement in the pair that caused their fellow-inmates to look up to and respect them.
But Sylvia Goldsworthy, lady bred and born to her dainty finger-tips, was no idle heroine of fiction, bewailing her hard lot, and waiting for the handsome lover to carry her off to his ancestral castle. There was work to be done in Castleford, music-lessons to be given to more or less refractory pupils, and painting lessons at the Ladies' College. A girl who can support herself two years in London studying at the Royal Academy and College of Music, does not fear to face the ordeal of country-town drudgery.
'I wonder,' the Captain would say, nodding his gray head with the air of a connoisseur over some pretty landscape, or listening to some brilliant piece of music, for the Hospital home boasted a piano—'I wonder you did not stay in London, Sylvia. Think what a future was before you!'
'And what was to become of you? Why will you persist in thinking me to be a genius? Oh, I assure you there are hundreds in London far more clever than I who can scarcely get a living. Besides, it was so lonely, and I am far happier here.'
Such conversations were by no means rare in the cottage. Then the Captain would nod disapprovingly, as he contemplated this modesty of true genius. 'I sometimes think, I don't know why, that you had some reason more powerful than loneliness for leaving your work in town.'
Sylvia said nothing, but bent her head closer over the canvas upon which she was engaged. There was a little brighter colour in her cheeks, though her eyes were dimmer than before. 'At any rate, I did my duty,' she replied; and some instinct warned the Captain that he had best seek no further information. There was that perfect confidence between them that exists so rarely between parent and child, yet without the vulgar curiosity which impels some fathers to probe into every secret thought and fancy.
But Ben Choppin, smoking his pipe in the peaceful sunshine, with his bosom-friend the Corporal, knew nothing of this, except that he would have cheerfully laid down his life for his young mistress, as he would persist in calling her. Not a single bit of drudgery was there in the Captain's cottage but owed something of its cleanliness to the activity of the erstwhile boatswain. Even at the moment of his perturbation at Jacob Dawson's audacity, the sight of a large tin basin of unshelled peas attracted his attention, and in the labour of shelling these, his late ill-humour vanished with every cracking hull.
'I heard last night,' he continued, in the pauses of this somewhat unmanly occupation, 'as the Hospital had been sold, Jacob.'
'We shan't have to turn out, Benjamin?' asked the Corporal, startled out of his philosophic calm. 'That don't mean as the place is to be pulled down?'
'They couldn't do it if they wanted to, 'cause Blackfriars is endowed. You see, it's just this way: one of the kings of England granted the Fotheryngsby estates on condition that they always kept up this place for such as we. The new gentleman at Fotheryngsby Court will be our new patron, that's all.'
'I hope he won't forget the Christmas 'bacca and plum-pudding, and beer,' Dawson returned practically. 'We must give him a 'int of that 'ere, Ben.'
'I don't think he's likely to forget that, because he's a soldier—a young one, it's true, but still a soldier; and they say he's very rich, far richer than Sir Reginald Fotheryngsby, our present patron.'
'Who is richer than our patron?' asked a voice at this moment, as another Hospitaller stole upon the old men unawares. Choppin looked up, and touched the brim of his cap to his fellow-resident, Captain Goldsworthy.
He was somewhat younger than the others, though his hair was white; and his blue eyes burned with all the fire and brilliancy of youth. His face, tanned by long exposure to tropical suns and ocean gales, bore a kindly, gentle expression, totally unsoured by misfortune; yet the face, and the slim upright figure, clad in a somewhat faded uniform of a Commander in Her Majesty's navy, bore the unmistakable hallmark of gentleman; the same as he did when on Sundays, in his 'seemly coat of red,' he attended with the rest in the Hospital chapel. Mr Choppin touched his cap again, and unfolded his budget of news at much greater length than before.
'It will not affect us, as you say, Dawson,' remarked the Captain with a smile; 'but I am truly sorry for Sir Reginald all the same. Why, he and I were boys together, gracious me! half a century ago; and now he is forced to sell his very house, and I——' He broke off abruptly, and commenced to pace the narrow strip of turf in front of the two old men, as if it had been the Ajax quarter-deck, striding so many measured paces backwards and forwards, with his eyes fixed upon the soft August sky. Memory, finding us with mental food as we grow older, was busy among the faded rose-leaves of the past 'He was a sailor, too, like all his race. He joined me in '45 on the Bloodhound; or was it the Ocean Hawk?—I forget which.'
'The Greyhound, Captain,' Choppin struck in, suspending his occupation for the moment; 'Captain Seymour, afterwards Admiral Sir Guyer Seymour, Commander. It was on that very voyage that your honour got mastheaded for——'
'It's a great piece of presumption on your part to insinuate such a thing,' the Captain replied gravely, a merry twinkle in his eye, nevertheless. 'Dear me! how time changes us all, and to think—— Who is to be our new patron, Ben?'
'Mr, at least, Lieutenant Debenham, of Leckington Hall. Your honour will be sure to remember old Squire Debenham.'
'Ay; I remember him well enough,' Goldsworthy replied with a sternness of face and manner which fairly startled the boatswain.—'Can this news be true?'
'Well, sir, if his steward—who used to be an honest man, and a good blacksmith to boot, before he became rich at other people's expense, and is own brother-in-law to myself—is any judge, it is sure to be.'
But the Captain caught but faintly the drift of this complicated and not too complimentary explanation. So perturbed did he seem, that the Corporal, who had remained silent through the interview, ventured to heal this anxiety by the information that the Hospitallers might still look forward with tolerable equanimity to their usual good cheer at the festive season.
'Do you imagine that is all we think of?' asked the Captain sternly. 'Pah! man, I know one who would rather starve than taste his hospitality;' and saying these words, the speaker turned abruptly towards his cottage, leaving the unhappy Corporal on the verge of tears.
In the tiny cottage parlour, gay with flowers, and bright as the hands of a refined woman could render it, Sylvia sat at her easel painting, with the shadows cast by the chapel walls throwing her face in the shade. A sweet girlish face, a more beautiful copy of the Captain's, looked up at him from a frame of deep chestnut-hued hair, and as her eyes encountered his and she saw the unhappiness there, she laid her brush aside and placed one hand lovingly upon his shoulder. 'What is it, dear?' she asked simply.
'The Hospital is sold; and to whom, do you think? None other than the son of my friend, Crichton Debenham, the scoundrel who induced me to place my all where he declared his money was—the wretch who persuaded me to buy into a concern so that he might come out unscathed.—Sylvia, we must say good-bye to Blackfriars.'
'But, father, the son should not be answerable for the father. He may not be such another; nay, I am convinced he is not. Hugh Debenham I know to be one of the noblest and best of men.' Sylvia spoke quickly, almost passionately, her eyes bright and glittering, though her cheeks were pale and her hands trembled.
The Captain, hard and stern, changed and quivered strangely as he caught the light in his daughter's eyes and read its meaning. 'You—you know him?' he asked. 'And yet you never told me.'
Sylvia bowed her head under the gentleness of this reproach. 'It was in London,' she faltered, 'months ago, and we used to meet where I was a teacher. I—I will tell you all presently. Then one day he—he asked me to be his wife.'
'And you refused him.—Ah, I am glad of that.'
'I did not, I dared not. I was cowardly enough to run away. You see, if we had been in the same station in life, I might have thought——' She could say no more, another word would have choked her.
The Captain drew her closer to his side and kissed her gently. 'This is a pleasant finding,' said he, with a jocularity he was far from feeling. 'What hypocrites you women are! I should like to know, very much like to know, how this thing is going to end?'
'The very thing,' said Sylvia, smiling through her tears, 'that gives me so much anxiety.'
MANY of the old mansions of the Welsh Borders bear to this day the sign and symbol of a bygone martial age. Most of the castles, such as Goodrich and Raglan, have long since become nothing but historical and romantic ruins; but where some of the great houses have remained in prosperous hands, the feudal character in many instances still obtains.
And perhaps one of the most perfect specimens along the whole length of Offa's Dyke is Fotheryngsby Court. Built originally of some dark stone, almost impervious to the onslaught of time, and repaired at frequent periods by succeeding Fotheryngsbys, the house, or rather castle, presents to this day perhaps the most perfect specimen of a border fortress. It stands upon a gentle eminence, commanding a wide and beautiful stretch of country, protected by a moat, which is crossed by a drawbridge, bounded by a green courtyard, now devoted to nothing more warlike than the exercising of horses; and beyond this again lies the Court, flanked by a forest of gigantic elms, where a colony of herons have formed their noisy republic. The moat, no longer a blank watery ditch, is clear and deep, with feathery ash and alder shading the water-lilies, a smooth tarn filled with many kinds of fish. The house itself, with a central tower and widely spreading battlements seems to have lost its frown, as it looks down upon the sloping lawns and trim parterres all ablaze with scarlet geranium and lobelia, rioting in the huge stone vases on the terrace. Where once the vassals gathered together at the sound of horn, or the warning fires burning on the battlements, long stretches of greensward bear thin white lines, denoting a gentler pastime; the great quadrangle is now a rose-garden, with grassy paths between, the gray walls sheltering the delicate cream and yellow and crimson blooms, so that the winds of heaven may not visit their sweetness too roughly.
Inside, the old medieval character is still maintained, with so much of modern art and culture as lends an air of comfort to the place. The house, with its dusky oak and chain-armour and stained glass, had no appearance of ruin or disaster, nothing to show that the last of the Fotheryngsbys was gone and that an alien reigned in his stead, master of his very house, proprietor of every stick and stone within the Court.
But the fortunate young owner of all this majestic beauty was occupied with other thoughts as he sat in his library, where no work literary or otherwise had yet been done, save when a harassed Fotheryngsby indicted epistles to hungry creditors. Hugh Debenham was thinking nothing of this as he sat with a blank sheet of note-paper before him and an unlighted cigar between his teeth. Seated opposite to him, and watching his moody countenance with ill-disguised anxiety, was a lady, a haughty-looking dame, whose flashing black eyes and dark hair proclaimed the fact, as a glance at the young man would show, that their relationship was a close one.
Hugh Debenham looked up and laughed uneasily. 'I daresay I am very much to blame,' said he, with some traces of sarcasm underlying the words; 'still, you know, it was not my fault I was born with a heart. If you only saw——'
'There; spare me the gushing details. If you were five years younger I should know how to deal with you; but as it is—— Still, I am only wasting words, as we both very well know. Really, Hugh, I cannot understand your going through the solemn farce of consulting me in the matter.'
'No? I have a fancy to ask my mother's opinion upon these questions—another proof of my being old-fashioned and out of date. We won't quarrel, however; because there is small probability of your being deposed from your high state at present. A man can't very well marry a girl who hides herself away from him, as Sylvia has done.'
Mrs Debenham looked around her with a sigh of satisfaction. The idea of any one but a damsel of the bluest blood presiding over the destinies of the house of Debenham was utterly repugnant to her patrician soul. Still at the same time it seemed a strange thing that any girl, and especially one of lowly station, should have the audacity to scorn the handsome and gallant owner of such a place as Fotheryngsby.
'I cannot help respecting her,' returned the lady more cheerfully. 'She displayed a most lady-like feeling in doing as she has done.'
'But, my dear mother, she is a lady. There is no doubt of that.'
'There are ladies and ladies,' Mrs Debenham continued smoothly. 'For instance, Mrs Clayton, your solicitor's wife, is a lady; so equally is our neighbour the Countess De la Barre; yet you could not place them on the same level.'
'I haven't made a study of these nice distinctions,' said Hugh dryly. 'And though Miss Goldsworthy did hold an inferior position—isn't that the correct phrase?—I must confess to seeing little difference between mistress and servant. Besides, we are not entirely free from the taint, if it is a taint, which I very much doubt, of being connected with business.'
'That is by no means a just view to take,' said the listener severely. 'It is true that your father speculated with a view to mending his fortunes, as many gentlemen do now. It would be absurd to rank him with an ordinary business man working solely for gain.'
'We won't go into the ethics of aristocratic commerce at present, because I have an engagement in Castleford this morning. I am about to pay my new possession there a visit.—Is it really true that old Captain Goldsworthy is actually an inmate of Blackfriars?'
Mrs Debenham did not speak for a moment. When she did so, there was a certain hardness in her voice that would have struck an observant listener as being akin to something like terror. For a moment her face lost its haughty expression; her eyes seemed to be contemplating some long-forgotten but unpleasant mental picture.
'He is there—yes. I never thought of that. There was some—some unpleasantness between your father and him when Captain Goldsworthy lost his money. I know there were some terrible things said between them.'
Hugh, playing listlessly with a pen and scattering the ink recklessly, heard nothing of this, for a new light had suddenly illuminated the darkness of his mind. It seemed as if the clue for which he had been so long groping in the dark was at length in his hands. 'I wonder,' said he, speaking partially to himself, 'if my Miss Goldsworthy and the Captain are related? Strange that such an idea did not occur to me before.'
'It is possible,' Mrs Debenham returned, with well-simulated carelessness. 'I never saw much of him, though he and your father were such great friends. I fancy this daughter went to London in some capacity.'
'It might be she,' said Hugh musingly, 'it might.—What nonsense am I talking! Do not give yourself any unnecessary anxiety, mother. In all probability it will be my fate to wed a Clara Vere de Vere yet.'
As his mother stood and watched him drive away in the direction of Castleford, the pained expression on her face deepened, and certain uncomfortable forebodings troubled the watcher, as the memory of an old crime is touched by some unconscious hand. 'Was it a crime,' she murmured to herself, 'or only an act of prudence?' She turned away, and approaching a distant corner of the room, unlocked a small ebony cabinet, ornamented by heavy brass fittings. Inside lay a heap of papers, faded letters tied up with a piece of faint blue riband, from which there arose that sickly smell peculiar to old documents. Hastily turning over the various bundles, she arrived at length at the packet she was in search of—a small parcel of documents folded in brown paper, and bearing the written inscription, 'Goldsworthy.'
Most of the letters were merely tissues—that is, business epistles indited in an old-fashioned letter-book of the carbon paper and stylus type, dry communications of a purely commercial nature, mostly relating to stocks and shares, the jargon of which would be unintelligible to the average reader. One of them, folded away by itself, ran as follows:
Dear Goldsworthy.—I cannot see you to-day, being confined to the house with a broken arm, as you probably know. This anxiety is fearful. But you must not suffer for me, as, after all, I can stand the crash best. Go to town immediately and dispose of every share, and warn all your friends. Think only of yourself, and nothing of the unhappy individual who has placed you in such imminent financial peril. I have wired my broker to do the best he can.
H. Crichton Debenham.
P.S.—If you have time, give me ten minutes before you start.>
'If he had known,' murmured Mrs Debenham, 'we should have been ruined. As it was, there was barely time to save ourselves. And yet I could almost wish that I had never seen this fatal letter.'
Meanwhile, all unconscious of this nameless, shapeless dishonour, Hugh Debenham drove into Castleford, looking forward with almost boyish pleasure to visiting his new and strange possession. A thousand charitable schemes engaged his mind, little plans for the increased comfort of his pensioners, who, sooth to say, had been somewhat neglected by the last of the Fotheryngsbys. There was some little business to be transacted, first principally a visit to a decorator and artist who had taken no slight part in the adornment of Fotheryngsby Court. It was in the direction of this individual's house that Debenham first directed his steps upon reaching Castleford.
There are few towns of any size without one inhabitant of more than ordinary mental powers, and Harold Abelwhite, the crippled artist, represented most of the artistic talent of Castleford. Born of the humblest parentage, and often being acquainted with the actual want of food, there was yet something indomitable in that white face and feeble body. He lived alone in one of the small cottages on the outskirts of Castleford, attending to his own wants, and painting such pictures as one day will make him famous. Unaided, untaught, weighed down by stress of circumstance, the painter had yet succeeded in educating himself, and, what is harder still, in keeping himself by the proceeds of his brush and pencil.
It was a pretty little cottage, with a small garden, filled with old-fashioned flowers; and as Debenham approached, he found the painter tying up some sweet-peas to a trellis-work behind which lay the house. There were but two rooms down-stairs, each meanly furnished, and devoted to the requirements of eating and sleeping. It was only when the stairs were mounted that the owner's artistic tastes were fully disclosed.
The whole floor, turned into one room, and lighted by a large latticed window, had been converted into a studio. There was a curiously-woven Persian carpet on the floor, contrasting harmoniously with the draped hangings on the walls, out of which peeped here and there a finished picture, or a marble statue standing boldly out against the sombre background; or, again, a suit of Milanese armour towering above a perfect forest of palms and ferns, with which the studio was profusely ornamented; while the only flowers there were huge nosegays of deep yellow roses, thrown carelessly, as it seemed, into china bowls. In the centre of the floor stood a picture on an easel, carefully covered with a white cloth, and this, together with an open paint-box, was the sole evidence of there being any particular work on hand.
'What a beautiful room!' Debenham cried admiringly. 'There is certainly nothing conventional in its treatment, and that is something nowadays.'
'Every one can enjoy art at home now,' replied the cripple, his sensitive face flushing at the compliment, 'if he only has the taste. I could make every home in England artistic, with no outlay to speak of.'
Hugh nodded slightly, but said nothing in return. He was fascinated by the quiet beauty of the place, and not a little interested in the earnestness of his companion. There was something contagious in the enthusiasm of the handsome cripple, with face aflame and dark eyes burning, as he touched upon his favourite theme—the artistic education of the people. At length Hugh asked, 'How about the cabinet?'
'The difficulty is solved; the damaged marqueterie has been repaired, even better than I thought possible. Look there.' The speaker pointed to an exquisite specimen of an inlaid cabinet, so perfect that Debenham could scarcely believe it to be the same damaged work of art he had seen it to be only a week previously.
'I always thought you were a genius,' he said admiringly. 'It was a pet piece of furniture of my father's—the receptacle for his business papers, in fact. May I see the picture you have veiled so closely?'
The artist flushed again, but this time in a bashful kind of way, as a lover might when displaying his lady's picture. With a certain lingering tenderness he put the white cloth aside.
It was a simple subject enough, treated without any meretricious attempt at display—a simple cottage interior, with the window filled with geraniums and creeping plants; and in the dim light filtering through the leaves was the figure of a girl, clad all in white, reading from a book upon the table. Close by her side was another figure, that of a man clad in a naval uniform, his hands crossed before him in an attitude of attention; while the group was made up by a third, a somewhat older man, clad in a scarlet coat, his eyes fixed devotedly upon the reader's face. The colouring, soft and subdued, served only to throw up the vivid naturalness of the painting.
Artist and spectator stood a moment, the one regarding the work intently, the painter with his gaze fixed almost sternly upon his companion's face, and as he did so he saw a strange glad light flash into Debenham's eyes—a look of pleased recognition illuminating every feature.
'That is no effort of imagination,' he cried; 'you know all those characters?'
'Yes, I know them,' said the artist quietly. 'How did you discover that?'
'Because I happen to be acquainted with that lady. Will you so far favour me as to give me her address?'
'Ah!' said the cripple, 'I am a solitary man, with few pleasures and few friends. To me the study of expression is a necessity of my art. And as you examined that picture I watched you. In that brief moment I learnt your secret—I read the joy in your face. Forgive me if I speak plainly. What is Sylvia Goldsworthy to you?'
'That question you have no right to ask,' Hugh replied gently. 'I am not angry with you, because I feel that you mean well.'
But Abelwhite scarcely caught the purport of these words. Every nerve in his body quivered with restless agitation, though his keen earnest gaze never turned from his visitor's face. For a moment he hesitated, like one who complies against his will; then he simply said, 'Come with me.'
They passed out together through the streets of Castleford, the handsome aristocrat and crippled artist walking side by side in silence, till at length the Widemarsh Street was reached. Here, before the long blank wall bounding the Blackfriars' Hospital, Abelwhite paused, and turning down a side-lane, opened a door in the wall and bade his companion enter.
The gardens lay still and quiet in the peaceful sunshine. The ancient ruin, with its mantle of ivy rustling in the breeze, gave a quaint bygone air to the place. It seemed to Hugh as if he had shaken off the world, and left every feeling, save that of rapture, far behind.
'What a beautiful old place!' he cried. 'What do you call it?'
'We call it the Blackfriars' Hospital—your property now.—Mr Debenham, you will find it to be a great responsibility. It is in your power to make the lives of these worthy men happy. Come and see them occasionally, and note what a little it takes to make people joyful and light-hearted.'
'They shall not complain,' Hugh replied mechanically. 'Can I see the cottages?'
There were cool shadows in the quadrangle, a pleasant smell of homely flowers—wallflowers, mignonette, and Brompton stock, and over all a dead silence, save for the voice of a woman reading behind one of the open doors. Hugh felt himself drawn towards the cottage, and, looking in, beheld a copy of Abelwhite's picture, only the figures were real and lifelike. There was the Captain, seated in his chair; and opposite him Ben Choppin, listening reverently to the words falling from the reader's lips, the sound of a sweet womanly voice, the tones of which caused the watcher's heart to beat a little faster and the colour to deepen on his cheek. For some momenta he stood, till the even tones ceased at length and the book was laid aside.
'May we enter?' Hugh asked eagerly. 'Would they mind?'
'Why not?' Abelwhite asked. 'They should be pleased enough to welcome you, and I am a constant visitor; and'—here the speaker lowered his voice till his words were scarcely audible—'may it be that I have done right; but I am not without misgivings.'
IF the mornings within the Hospital walls passed quietly and smoothly, the evenings were far more redolent of brooding peacefulness. When the doors were closed upon the busy city, shutting out all the world except a merry shout of children at play in the meadows beyond, the pensioners in their best red coats sat under the monastery walls, or worked in their garden patches among their vegetables and flowers. Ben Choppin, smoking his evening pipe with his friend and ally the Corporal, watched a pair of figures promenading the path round the preaching-cross—Sylvia Goldsworthy and the painter, Harold Abelwhite, in earnest converse.
'It came upon me like a thunderclap,' said the sailor, as if resuming the broken thread of a story. 'Miss Sylvia, she had just finished the Battle o' the Nile, when our new gov'nor walks in with the picture-chap yonder. "You are our new patron?" says the Captain.—"I have the honour to be so," says Mr Debenham.—"Then," says the Captain, "allow me to inform you that my cottage is at your disposal; I can accept no favour from a Debenham."—I was that astonished you might ha' knocked me down with the butt-end of a musket.'
'I daresay,' Mr Dawson replied meditatively, 'I did hear, when the Captain first came here, as he had had words along with the young gentleman's father. I only hope as it won't make any difference at Christmas.'
Sir Choppin hastened to assure his friend that such a dread consummation was not likely to happen in consequence of the Captain's indiscretion. That the new patron and his chief pensioner had come to high words was common property in the Hospital, and had been warmly discussed amongst the inhabitants from a more or less personal point of view.
But Sylvia and her companion, walking in the gloaming beneath the shadow of the ancient preaching-cross, were likewise speaking of the scene that morning. The artist listened sympathetically to the girl, who spoke in a low voice, that trembled with emotion from time to time. Her features were pale, and on her cheeks were signs of recent tears.
'It is not for me to blame my father,' she said after a pause. 'I do not think he cared for the loss of his money; it was the treacherous action on the part of his friend that makes him so hard.—But it is not just; it is not like him to visit the sins of one upon another innocent head.'
'And such a handsome head!' replied the artist somewhat bitterly. 'I have not heard the whole story. Would you mind enlightening me?'
'It is simple enough. When my father gave up his profession, he had quite sufficient for his wants; indeed, he would to this day, had he not been persuaded by his friend Mr Debenham to speculate. There was a lot of money invested in certain bonds; and when they were repudiated—whatever that may mean—all our money was lost. But my father found out afterwards that Mr Debenham had sold out the week before. If it was done deliberately, it was a cruel, heartless thing to do.'
'But how could this Debenham benefit by your ruin?'
'I have no head for business,' said Sylvia wearily. 'But I understand if my father's share had been placed suddenly in the market it would have seriously jeopardised Mr Debenham's chance of disposing of his. Can you understand? To me it is simply hopeless confusion.'
Abelwhite listened to this explanation thoughtfully, though with the reputation of Debenham, father or son, he felt but little impetus to show a partisan spirit. Gradually there had grown up in his imagination a picture, painted coldly at first by the cynical sarcasm with which those bodily afflicted treat their own physical infirmities; but gradually the picture grew in glowing colours, and as yet the painter refused to own that the pigments mixed by the hand of love himself had turned to the blackness of despair.
'We have always been friends,' Sylvia continued after a pause. 'Mr Abelwhite, can't you find some way to help me now?'
'I would lay down my life to make you happy. Tell me, if this quarrel is explained away, will you be any happier then?'
'Surely. Why, then, if he should say to me——'
She stopped, and Abelwhite was grateful, for every word falling from her lips was torture to his proud and sensitive soul. There was a wild passion in his affection for the girl, an adoration such as poets tell us of; and as he looked into her serious eyes, his madness alternately cooled and burned, despair and love mingled in a breath. He paused a moment, intending to refuse, a negative that he could not have uttered if he would.
'There are some men,' said he, 'who are born to have no wish, no ambition ungratified. They have riches and health and beauty, everything that makes life happy, and yet, should they but covet the only jewel of a poor man's heart, it is theirs.'
'Fie!' said Sylvia archly. 'Surely you envy no one.'
'And no one envies me, which is considerate under the circumstances.—Now, what if I were to tell you that I—I, Harold Abelwhite, the cripple, can resolve this mystery, and show you that it is all a misunderstanding, and that for Captain Goldsworthy's misfortune his friend was not to blame?'
'Do you know that?' Sylvia cried, her cheeks aflame. 'If you only can do this, I shall be grateful all the days of my life.'
'"And gratitude is a lively sense of favours to come,"' Abelwhite quoted. 'I do not say I can; it is merely a hypothetical case I am putting.'
The light in Sylvia's eyes died out; a gentle sigh betrayed the deepness of her disappointment.
The painter, watching these signs of alternate hope and despair, felt his conscience tax him for this cruel levity. But the keen torture of his own feeling was too poignant as yet to spare a little room for the noblest of all virtues, self-sacrifice. Seeing that his feelings were somewhat akin to her own, Sylvia touched him gently on the arm.
His pale face blazed with excitement as he started back. 'Don't!' he cried, almost roughly. 'Do you think I have no feelings? that because I am not like other men—— But I frighten you—you, whom I would not injure for the world. Bear with me only a little longer.'
He was past all power of acting now; there was in his emotional nature no vein of stoicism, no worldly training such as enables us to disguise grief and sorrow under the mask of simulated gaiety. He seated himself upon the steps of the old preaching-cross, and hid his face in his hands. 'I have been happy here, far too happy. Do not chide me for my folly, Sylvia. I had hoped—fool that I am—to see some day, when I became rich and famous. But that is only the dream of a poor crippled painter.'
'Oh! surely not,' Sylvia cried, in deep distress. 'We shall live to see it yet.'
'One part, perhaps,' said the artist with a mournful smile; 'the other, never. There is something in this place that causes one to weave Arcadian dreams, an air that makes me feel on an equality with all men; and I was mad enough to think that you might, after many days—— But I will not distress you. I think I can assist you, and I will.'
Sylvia murmured her thanks and held out her hand. He took it, and carried it to his lips with a gentle reverence, for all the fire and passion had burnt itself away, leaving nothing but the dead ashes behind.
'In two days I will come to you again. I am going to take a bold step, and one that may cost me much; but I shall not fail. It is strange that you should come to me; but sometimes the mouse in the fable is acted in real life. And now, I shall say good-night.'
'But you must come in, if only for a few minutes,' said Sylvia.
'Not to-night,' the artist persisted. 'I could not. Say good-night here, and let me go through the side-door. Do not lose heart, but wait and hope.'
With these parting words of advice, Abelwhite turned abruptly away, and disappeared into the gathering darkness of the street beyond. There was no gleam of recognition in his face for passers-by, as he walked slowly, painfully along; but by degrees his pace increased, till at length the cottage was reached, and the owner sat himself down in his studio to think.
There was not a soul in the house to disturb these painful meditations, yet every article of furniture or ornament conjured up some unhappy memory. There was the chair where Sylvia had sat for her portrait, the very book represented in the picture lying upon a side-table. Here it was that the dream of happiness had been commenced, and raised story by story, till every airy detail was complete. And even now it was not too late. The Captain would lie in his grave before he would give his child to the son of his dishonoured friend; Sylvia would never disregard her father's word, though it cost her all her happiness. Then Hugh Debenham would go away, and forget; another and fresher beauty would charm his eye, and then—— But then the thoughts grew darker and more troubled; for the painter knew that, juggle with his conscience as he would, it was in his power to solve the mystery and bring the lovers within each other's reach.
He had the power to do this thing; that was the worst of all. There stood the innocent-looking cabinet, the workmanship and restoration of which, by Abelwhite, Hugh Debenham had so much admired; and there, concealed within its artistic depths, lay confirmation strong as proof of holy writ. A little curiosity, a glance, and finally a somewhat closer search, had brought to light the fact that the Captain's anger was in vain, and that his erstwhile friend had done his best to save him from ruin.
'What a temptation!' he cried; 'what a hideous trial of this poor body! Yet there should be no hesitation. I am—so I tell myself—by education and instinct, if not by birth, a gentleman; still, I am deliberately contemplating the act of a scoundrel. If I do right, I shall lose every hope of her; if I do wrong, she will be no nearer to me than now. And yet—and yet——'
But the good angel of the man had so far triumphed with the morning, that Abelwhite resolved that there was only one honourable course before him. Not that the task was an easy one, embracing as it did certain painful disclosures, and an interview from which the sensitive nature of the artist recoiled, as some natures shrink from physical pain. It was easy enough to prove that Debenham's father had been entirely innocent of treachery towards his old friends; but this, simple as it seemed, could not be accomplished without certain disgraceful disclosures affecting the happiness of more than one of the parties most directly concerned. No man possessed of the ordinary feelings of humanity cares to bring home disgrace to his fellow-creatures, especially if they are of the gentler sex.
Abelwhite walked the entire distance from Castleford to Fotheryngsby Court, a somewhat toilsome journey for one so bodily afflicted, without arriving at any satisfactory solution of the difficulty before him. He had racked his brain in vain to devise some scheme whereby the truth should be exposed without violating the confidence which he had so unwittingly gleaned from the contents of the old cabinet. In the first place, he had no earthly right to read the papers; and having done so, under ordinary circumstances, it was his duty to preserve an inviolate silence upon the matter. But after all—and there lay the difficulty—it was not an ordinary occasion, but one deeply affecting the happiness of two people. He who sows the wind must expect to reap the whirlwind; but the repetition of this homely philosophy brought no grain of comfort to the troubled breast of Harold Abelwhite.
He passed under the frowning portcullis, across the blazing parterres of flowers glowing on the lawns, and walked up the steps to the great hall door. A supercilious footman, contemplating his misshapen figure with a glance of undisguised contempt, vouchsafed the information that Mrs Debenham was at home, though whether she would condescend to receive visitors at so unusual an hour was quite another thing.
'I don't suppose she'll see you, and that's a fact, young man,' said the superlative footman affably. 'Any message you may leave——'
'I shall leave no message,' Abelwhite replied firmly. 'My business is important and urgent. Take in my card, and inform your mistress that I can wait to suit her convenience, but see her I must.'
The servant disappeared, leaving Abelwhite standing in the hall, and returned in a few moments with a visible change of manner, and the information that Mrs Debenham would spare him a few moments if he would kindly walk into the library.
The artist braced his nerves for the coming fray. He had no anticipation of an easy victory, knowing that his case would have to be fully proved, and that nothing short of the most convincing evidence would suffice. And as Mrs Debenham, calm, haughty, and condescending, swept into the room, Abelwhite gave one swift glance into her face, and realised for the first time the extreme delicacy of the task before him.
'You wished to see me?' asked the lady. 'What can I do for you?'
'I came,' said Abelwhite, clearing his throat, 'not on my own behalf. It is for my friend Captain Goldsworthy that I wish to speak.'
The listener, still haughty and listless, drew herself up with an air of proud surprise, though her lips trembled slightly, but not so slightly that Abelwhite saw and noticed the ominous change.
'Of course I will attend to anything you have to say, Mr Abelwhite,' replied the lady, a little more graciously. 'I am rather surprised to receive any communication from Captain Goldsworthy, that is all. You will pardon me if I ask if you are well acquainted with his affairs?'
The artist bent his head. 'So far as any man knows,' said he.
'Then of course you are aware that some years ago my husband and Captain Goldsworthy were great friends. They were in the habit of doing business together, until a certain unfortunate quarrel—a quarrel in which the Captain was pleased to accuse my husband of something like dishonesty.'
'Wholly false,' returned Abelwhite laconically. 'I know that.'
The glib graciousness of Mrs Debenham's manner vanished before this plain and somewhat strongly-marked observation. She was simply talking to gain time, and her visitor was perfectly alive to the fact.
'I thank you for having cleared the ground for me,' he continued. 'It was on that very point that I wished to consult you. Knowing, as we both do, certain details, I will not go into them, but simply point out that unless Captain Goldsworthy was warned by the late Mr Debenham of the financial condition of the company in which the former's money was invested, there was treachery. Now, what we wish to know is this, what became of the letter written by Mr Debenham to the Captain, warning him to sell out at once?'
'Indeed, I have no head for business,' said the mistress of Fotheryngsby, white to the lips. 'It would have been utterly unintelligible to me.'
'A view by no means shared by your husband,' returned Abelwhite dryly. A well-deserved compliment is never unwelcome. 'Please favour me with your attention for a moment while I read this letter.' So saying, the speaker drew from his pocket a few sheets of flimsy paper, book-copies of letters written with a stylus on the old carbon-paper principle. The rustling of the thin leaves and the unhappy listener's laboured breathing were the only sounds to break the oppressive silence.
'First a letter from your husband to Captain Goldsworthy, warning him to lose no time in disposing of his shares—a letter never received. The next is far more interesting, dated a month later—after the crash—and evidently written in reply to an indignant outburst from Captain Goldsworthy, denouncing the shameful treatment he had received. Shall I read it aloud?'
Mrs Debenham bowed. She could not have spoken for the mines of Golconda.
My Dear Goldsworthy,
I am utterly amazed at your note. On my honour, I wrote you nearly a month ago, when I had no means of personal communication, imploring you to lose no time in disposing of your shares without regard to me. I deemed that letter so important that I specially charged my wife, who is an excellent business woman, to see you received it. For the sake of our old friendship, call upon me, for I am still too ill to see you at your house, and all shall be explained. That I did write you, warning you, my letter-book will show.
H. Crichton Debenham.
'There are three others, all bearing upon the same question. There is no necessity to read them?'
Abelwhite paused, looking keenly at his antagonist. Her face was very pale, but all the iron self-possession had not yet forsaken her. 'You need not,' she replied; and the artist felt grateful that she had inquired no further into his questionable possession of this evidence. 'I think we understand each other.—Name your price.'
'You are quite mistaken, madam; it is no mere question of money. I have no such purpose to serve—far from it. I hold out no promises, and make no threats. Go to Captain Goldsworthy and tell him the whole truth; then these proofs are yours. For his sake and that of his daughter, I have taken this painful course. The issue is entirely in your hands.'
'And if I do this, if I clear up this mystery, and make things pleasant for Captain Goldsworthy and his daughter—for that this has something to do with her I am convinced—what do I gain?'
'Really, I had not considered you in the matter at all,' Abelwhite replied candidly. 'You are quite right in assuming that Miss Goldsworthy's happiness is a powerful inducement, and in this view I should certainly be borne out by Mr Hugh Debenham.'
'Ah!' cried the unhappy woman, now genuinely moved, 'if he must know——'
'He will never know. Madam, there is something more powerful than human schemes and devices, and that is Fate. Your sin has found you out—the time for expiation has arrived. Do as I ask you, and I pledge you my word that your son shall never know.'
There was a long pause between them before Mrs Debenham found sufficient courage to reply. 'I will take you at your word,' she at length said. 'If you fail me, I shall not blame you. But there is something in your face that tells me I shall not be betrayed. Anything, so long as he remains in ignorance.'
'Your secret will be safe in Captain Goldsworthy's hands; not even by look will he reproach you; for——' and here the speaker lowered his voice reverently—'the loss of a little wealth matters nothing to one who has found the peace that passeth all understanding.'
IT is hard enough to own one's self in the wrong, and to admit the mistake makes the matter very little pleasanter; but to confess a fault in cold blood is perhaps the most painful test to which a proud nature can be put. Still, Harold Abelwhite's estimate of George Goldsworthy's character was not very wide of the mark when he assured the mistress of Fotheryngsby that her confession would be met in the most forbearing spirit.
On the morning on which Mrs Debenham had succeeded in screwing up her courage to the sticking-point, Ben Choppin, in an unusual fit of contrariness, had deemed it his duty to take his late commander to task touching the latter's reception of Hugh Debenham upon the occasion of his initial visit to the Hospital. Sylvia being absent upon some scholastic duty, it devolved upon the Captain to read the matutinal allowance of 'British Battles.' He had donned his spectacles and cleared his throat, usually the signal for rapt attention upon the boatswain's part; but instead of assuming an attitude of deep admiration, Ben laid his pipe on one side and made a sign that he wished to speak.
'Captain,' he commenced oracularly, 'heave-to and drop your anchor for a moment. I've got something on my mind; and that bein' so, it's got to come out. Let's discuss this matter without violence.'
'What do you mean?' asked the Captain mildly.
'You know what I mean well enough. You calls yourself a Christian man. I don't believe you're anything of the sort—so there.'
Choppin hurled this defiance at his antagonist as Betsy Prig denounced the apocryphal Mrs Harris, only the effect was not so theatrical as upon that historic occasion. The Captain's spectacles beamed with benign astonishment.
'There is all kinds o' pride,' pursued the speaker, 'some proper, and some not. Pride brought you here, and pride 'll carry you away. But I didn't owt to see the gentleman as I have looked up to for nigh upon thirty years, go and insult another gentleman as never done him any harm.'
'You think I was wrong?' asked Goldsworthy meekly. 'You cannot understand some things, Ben, and this is one of them. Our young patron's father once did me a grievous injury. I cannot accept any favour from his hands.'
Ben Choppin described a few circles, indicative of contempt, with his pipe-stem. 'He come here affable and friendly enough—as nice a mannered young man as I could wish to see. And what do you do? Why, insult him in your own house. That's because his father had done something or other he shouldn't. Not that I believe it, mind, for the gentleman I remember on the Greyhound, him as was so thick with you, couldn't ha' done it.——I tell you what it is,' continued Choppin, waxing warm, 'if you leaves Blackfriars, my name's Walker.'
'But my decision need not influence you,' replied the Captain, somewhat touched by this evidence of his old friend's fidelity. 'You must not think of such a thing, Ben. What could you do?'
'Ay, and what could you do, either? I could put up with the workhouse, as many a better man has done; but I don't stop here without you, sir. I'm a lonely old man, with few to care for a worn-out old sailor. There's Miss Sylvia, God bless her! with always a word and a smile for me.—Captain, I'd lay down my life for her happiness!'
'I believe you would, Ben,' replied the Captain huskily, as he wiped his spectacles, which had somehow become misty. 'I believe you would, Ben. I believe we all would.'
'And a nice way you've got of showin' it There's a model parent for you! All along of pride, he's goin' to give up a comfortable house, and live upon his daughter's little earnings. What do you think of that? Pride! It's nothin' but wickedness and tomfoolery; it's——'
'Ben, be quiet,' cried the listener. 'How—how dare you say such things? Why, if I had you on the quarter-deck at this moment, I would—— My old friend, pray, do not say such terrible things.'
But Mr Choppin for the time being was adamant to the piteous plea. Always tenacious of his point, he was not slow to see the advantage he had gained, and, like a good general, resolved to follow up his first impression. 'Fair words butter no parsnips,' he rejoined sententiously; 'and you can't hurt me by cutting off your nose to spite your face. Just say as you didn't mean it, and I shall be the first to let bygones be bygones.'
The Captain melted visibly, being considerably softened by Ben Choppin's rugged, but no less forcible, arguments. There was, too, a certain rough tenderness in this dog-like fidelity, a quality for which Goldsworthy had the highest admiration; and, moreover, every word was replete with truth.
'You are right, and I am wrong,' he said. 'Don't reproach me with my weakness, Ben. You do not know how I have been tried.' Here he paused for a moment. 'Let us say no more.—And now to our "Battles."'
'The battle of Trafalgar, commencing—"At this point the Victory"—chapter 10, page 374,' said Ben cheerfully. 'Ah! it makes me feel young again.'
But the stirring history of that memorable victory was not destined to enlighten Mr Choppin on this particular occasion, for scarcely had the place been found, when the Corporal, in a state of somewhat agitated dignity, appeared, followed in the distance by a dapper footman, clad in the claret and silver livery of the house of Debenham.
'Mrs Debenham would like to see Captain Goldsworthy for a few moments, if he is not particularly engaged,' Mr Dawson announced, with the air of one repeating a lesson, at which the footman in the background nodded approvingly. 'And please, Captain, may she come inside?'
'Certainly,' replied Goldsworthy calmly, 'if she cares to come this way.'
Dawson shuffled away in company with the gorgeous footman, while the Captain and Ben Choppin regarded each other in speechless astonishment.
'There's going to be a reconciliation,' said the latter solemnly, first to find his tongue. 'You mark my words. I think you're to be trusted this time, Captain. And whatever you do,' continued the speaker confidentially, 'no insults—nothing about the late Mr D., because ladies ain't fond o' hearing their belongings abused.'
This valuable counsel was scarcely imparted before the lady in question appeared, preceded by the agitated Corporal. Her own servant she dismissed with a gesture, Choppin and his fidus Achates retiring to their favourite retreat to discuss this event, at once so portentous and unexpected.
Captain Goldsworthy rising, bowed, and motioned his visitor to a chair. 'Pray, be seated,' he said, 'I am sorry the accommodation is so limited.'
Mrs Debenham took the proffered chair. There was an awkward silence for a moment as each scanned the others features. There had been little ravage wrought by the hand of time upon the one, rich, prosperous, and free from the carking cares of life; while the other, save that his hair was whiter, his figure not quite so straight as it had been, carried his troubles well and manfully.
'This is an honour I had not anticipated,' said the Captain, all the easy courtesy natural to a gentleman recurring in the presence of an equal. 'Will you be good enough to explain the occasion for your visit?'
There was something in this simplicity that immediately set the visitor at her ease, not that the confession she had to make came to her tongue any the more readily. But a woman of the world, troubled by no excess of awkwardness, the training stood her in good stead now.
'What I have to say,' she commenced, 'will be painful to you, but infinitely more distressing to me. In the first place, Captain Goldsworthy, I will ask you to remember the time when my husband and yourself were friends.'
The Captain inclined his head gently. Up to a certain point the recollection of that time was pleasant enough.
'Then something came between you—something you were pleased to call, and not without some show of reason, I admit—treachery. In the first place, I must tell you that my husband was true enough to you. There was treachery, but not on his part; that was left to another.'
'I should like to believe that,' cried the Captain eagerly. 'It would be very pleasant to know that my old friend Debenham was innocent of deception. Madam, the loss of that money for its own sake I never deplored; it was the loss of my friend that I most regretted.'
'I believe you, Captain Goldsworthy; I do indeed,' said the lady warmly. 'Your faith has not been misplaced. I am to blame.'
'An accident,' replied Goldsworthy, somewhat incredulously. 'Is it possible?'
The moment for confession had arrived, and, strangely enough, it seemed far easier than it had done an hour since. Without the slightest hesitation or faltering, Mrs Debenham told her tale.
'You will remember that my husband was, owing to an accident, unable to attend to his duties. From time to time I had helped him, till at length I grew to be interested in business affairs, and, for a woman, knew a great deal respecting stocks and shares. I do not want to revive painful recollections; but the warning you declared you never received was written in my presence, and handed me as an important document to post myself. That letter I deliberately suppressed.'
Still, not a word or sign of astonishment from the listener. For a moment there was a look of mingled reproach and astonishment in his blue eyes, but so gentle that the penitent took fresh heart of grace to proceed.
'My reason, as you can guess, was this: My husband was unable to travel and see to his own interests. Had he been badly crippled over that one speculation, ruin would have followed. On the other hand, you could have been in London the same day the sinister rumours arrived. You might have sold out, and saved your money. But what would have followed? Twenty thousand pounds sold out in one day, and our chance of getting out would not have been worth the trouble of a journey. That is all I have to say. And from the bottom of my heart I thank you for making this humiliating confession of mine less degrading than I expected it to be.'
'Dear, dear,' said the Captain regretfully, 'and my old friend was true to me, after all. It serves me right. What business had I to doubt him?'
Not a single word of reproach, nothing that tended to embarrass the now thoroughly penitent speaker. Her face was flushed to a deep crimson; there were heavy tears in her eyes and rolling down her cheeks.
'You are a good man,' she said brokenly. 'How can I thank you!'
'I want no thanks,' replied the Captain gravely. 'To find that my trust was not misplaced is sufficient happiness for me. Will you oblige me by saying no more? Let us be thankful it has been no worse.—Nay, do not ask it. Your secret is perfectly safe in my hands.'
It was with a heart singularly light that Mrs Debenham turned her face homewards, so light, indeed, that, rapt in her pleasant reverie, she drove past Hugh in the Widemarsh Street without the slightest recognition. She had stayed long enough to see Sylvia, and signify approval of her refined beauty and singular charm of manner. After all, she thought, there was money enough, and the Goldsworthys were as old a family as, nay, older than the Debenhams. It was the pleased expression engendered by this train of thought that Harold Abelwhite, walking towards the Hospital with Hugh, caught and interpreted as a happy omen. The latter had heard, not without astonishment, of his mother's determination to visit the obdurate Captain; but that her mission would be successful he had not for a moment anticipated.
'It is safe,' said the artist, half jestingly, half sadly. 'Come, sir; I shall have much pleasure in presenting you to the genuine Captain Goldsworthy, a gentleman without equal in all this broad county. Mr Debenham, the gods must love you passing well.'
'It will be an acceptable change,' said Hugh dryly. 'I suppose I must ask no questions. Only, I cannot stand a repetition of last week.'
But there was nothing frosty in Captain Goldsworthy's manner as he came to the door of his cottage to meet the new patron. That Hugh intended to pay the Hospital another visit in the course of the day, he had gathered from a parting observation of Mrs Debenham. In honour of the occasion he had donned his best uniform, a decided breach of the rules, but, under the circumstances, perfectly excusable.
'I hope you have forgiven me?' he said in his most courtly manner. 'There had been a grievous mistake, for which I am altogether to blame.'
In spite of himself, Abelwhite was forced to turn away to disguise a smile. Like Uncle Toby, the Captain's perversion of the truth must have been ignored by the recording angel.
'I have heard of some misunderstanding,' Hugh replied as easily. 'But I have been out of England so long, that really——'
'It is best forgotten. We old servants of Her Majesty are apt to be hasty in our judgments sometimes. Your father and I were old shipmates, and bosom friends many years ago. If you are half as good a man, you will fill his place worthily.'
There was nothing more for it but to shake hands, which they did with more than usual heartiness. Then Hugh looked round, as if he had missed something, an action by no means thrown away upon the observant painter.
'Your family circle is not complete, Captain Goldsworthy,' he observed. 'Mr Debenham is wondering what has become of Miss Sylvia.'
'I must plead guilty to the impeachment,' Hugh admitted unblushingly.—'Come, Captain, in common fairness to me, you must remove the very unfavourable impression created the other afternoon.'
'Nay; you must do that yourself, lad,' cried the Captain, in great good-humour. 'If you have as winning a tongue as your appearance is pleasing, there is no likelihood of failure on your part. If you care to walk round your new possessions, you will probably find her in the ruins.'
Hugh, eager as he was, hesitated a moment; but reading the unmistakable 'Yes' in Abelwhite's eyes, tarried no longer. The latter watched his retreating figure with a curious mixture of pain and pleasure at his heart. It is hard for a man to destroy the fabric of his happiness to form the material upon which to build up the felicity of a rival.
The shadows had already commenced to lengthen across the lawn; there was only the faintest of breezes stirring the green ivy round the ruined monastery. From the street beyond there came the muffled roar of traffic, here soft and subdued to something like drowsy music. A little rain had fallen in the morning, freshening the borders of mignonette and tenweek stock. There was not a 'seemly coat of red' to be seen, no figure save that of a girl standing before the preaching-cross, her eyes fixed upon the worn lettering round the base.
Hugh stepped across the strip of lawn, his feet deadened by the elastic turf, and stood by her side. As she turned, half-startled, and her eyes met his, there was something there more eloquent of welcome than any words could be. He took her hand in his and held it for a moment. 'I have been talking to your father,' he said.
'Yes? I am glad you came, for I should not like you to misjudge him. Your mother was here this morning, and explained the miserable misunderstanding. It was very good of her to come.'
'Why did you leave London?' asked Hugh. He had heard but vaguely the preceding remark. 'I have been looking for you everywhere.'
'Have you? I thought you knew that—that—who I was. I knew you were the son of my father's old friend. I thought I could be happier here than there. It is a beautiful place, and I have got to love it.'
They had moved towards the ruin, and with no fixed intent on either side, presently stood within the naked walls, alone and unperceived, shut out as it were from the outer world. Hugh waited patiently till she had ceased to speak, then drew a pace closer to her side.
'I have heard most of the story,' he said. 'Of course there is no one to blame; still, I feel that I and mine owe you and yours a great deal. And yet, selfish that I am, I want to go deeper into your debt. If I had spoken to you a week ago it would have been useless; now, I hope differently.'
'Say on,' said Sylvia gaily, though there was a slight break in her voice. 'I am so happy to-day that I could not refuse any favour. Anything that there is in my power to grant shall be yours.'
'Many thanks,' said Hugh, calmly appropriating the hands Sylvia had held out to him half jestingly. 'Then I want this.—Now, be silent. I am the governor of this place, and its inmates are subject to my supreme command.—Sylvia, I command you to say "Yes."'
'But really,' Sylvia ejaculated, laughing and crying in a breath, her blue eyes tilled with tears; 'it is so sudden——'
'But not unexpected. Oh! you sweet hypocrite! you deceitful Sylvia! And this is how soon you have forgotten that morning in Kensington Gardens, but five months ago, that you promised to——'
'I didn't,' Sylvia cried indignantly—'I didn't promise to marry you.'
'No; but you promised, if you didn't marry me, you wouldn't marry any one else,' Hugh retorted coolly. 'See, I am waiting.'
'You are very patient,' Sylvia murmured; 'and I am a happy, happy girl. Oh! how much more do you want me to say than that?'
Mr Corporal Dawson, wandering towards his accustomed seat, heard the voices, and peeped in. There Ben Choppin discovered him ten minutes later, a rigid statue of astonishment at the unaccustomed spectacle of a beautiful girl with her lover's arm round her and her head upon his shoulder. Ben, taking in the situation at a glance, led his friend kindly, but none the less firmly, to the accustomed seat, where he eyed him for some moments in silent scorn and loathing.
'Jacob Dawson,' said he in a judicial whisper, 'ain't you ashamed of yourself?'
But the Corporal's energetic and far-seeing mind was busy discounting the future. 'If so be as that be the case,' he replied meditatively, 'it ought to mean summut hexter at Christmas'—a low practical remark, accepted by Ben Choppin with the contempt it unquestionably deserved.
In accordance with the Corporal's anticipations, there was a wedding a little later, of so romantic a description that the élite of Castleford and neighbourhood had conversational matter enough to last through at least a dozen dinner-parties and such-like festivities. The idea of being married from an almshouse was unconventional enough in all conscience; but then a Goldsworthy of Lugwardine, as every woman in the west of England knows, can trace descent from Llewellyn himself. Under the old ruin, roofed over for the occasion, Hugh and his bride cut the wedding cake; and the Corporal and Ben Choppin, the breach being healed, drank so many toasts that they became exceedingly vain-glorious and inflated with pride, thus engendering a sore feeling with the rest of the Hospitallers for some days afterwards.
There was but one notable absence from the marriage-feast—that of Harold Abelwhite. He sent the bride a present, the picture Hugh had so greatly admired; and the same day Mrs Debenham received a present likewise—three sheets of tissue-paper enclosed in an envelope. A week later an enclosure, containing bank-notes to the value of five hundred pounds, found its way to the artist's cottage; a little tribute of admiration, said the sender, of Mr Abelwhite's genius, and to enable him to complete a course of study he had long contemplated. Had he been able to regard the gift as a genuine tribute to his abilities, he might have retained it; but it looked too much like bribing him to silence, hence he returned it. His pictures are yearly increasing his reputation; but in his London studio he has as yet found no time or inclination to design another castle in the air.
Chambers's Journal often published stories and other contributions without attribution to an author. This was the case with "A Message from the Flood." However on page 57 of Indexes to Fiction in Chambers's Journal..., compiled by Sue Thomas, Victorian Fiction Research Unit, Department of English, University of Queensland, 1989, the story is attributed to "White, F.M." with a reference ([341/370]) to a note on page 10 of the Indexes stating "Notebook giving details of work published in the Journal and payments made for it, 1871-1879," from which it may be assumed that Fred M. White received payment for this story.
IT was a curious sight to Portside eyes, such a sight as the younger generation had never seen before. Three miles below lay Portside itself, the cathedral tower looming misty through the hazy January afternoon, while black cold night crept up from the stern frosty east. For five weeks the earth had lain under a canopy of snow; for five weeks work had been at a standstill; and now the river Swirle had frozen over, and for three miles a solid sheet of ice stretched away, and the ring of steel blades echoed in the bare woods. For thirty-seven years the Swirl had defied the grip of King Frost, and even in the terrible winter of 1854 there had only been some few hundred yards of firm ice; whilst now the river seemed to be frozen solid. Where the current ran a little more freely, the ice had been tested at fourteen inches, so that the thousands of skaters passed over the swift flood in perfect safety. The darkness commenced to fall, and the moon grew brighter in the clear sky, while on either bank, lights began to flash in the windows of the cloth-mills along the valley; there was some little work in progress, though even the vale folks were feeling the terrible weather. For ten miles the Swirle Valley was a curious mixture of town and country, rural enough but for the clusters of workmen's cottages, and the smoke from tall chimneys drifting over the cornfields.
Watching the skaters, now fast disappearing in the misty gloom, like jovial demons skimming noiselessly along the frozen stretch, were two countrymen, Swirle Valleymen, as their slow speech and broad keen faces denoted. They were both comfortably clad, and each after the manner of his kind smoked his pipe with the solid grave silence often observed between old friends, when lack of speech does not necessarily mean embarrassment from lack of ideas.
'I mind no such sight as this, and, man and boy, I've worked in Swirle Valley for nigh on fifty year,' remarked the elder at length. 'Fifty-four was pretty hard, but then the ice only bore from Portside Stone Bridge up to the old boat-house. That was half a mile as near as no matter. And when the flood came down, it carried part of the bridge away. A sudden thaw now, with all that snow on the hills, would sweep all the bridges away as if they were made of cardboard.'
Jacob Strahan nodded solemnly. All the cottages and the mills whereat Jacob and his companion, Benjamin Attwood, acted as foremen, were situated far above range of any flood, and the notion of disaster for those below was not without a comfortable sense of personal satisfaction.
'I went up last week as far as Maindee,' Strahan replied deliberately; 'and there's ice, ice, nothing but ice, 'ceptin' on the streams, for close on thirty mile. If Portside Stone Bridge should stand the break-up, there'11 be a flood along the upper valley such as no man ever see before.'
Like the one I mind my grandfather speak of in '97,' said Attwood. 'The ice formed a dam at Portside, and the water burst the embankment at Wareham close by Foljambe's mill, and made a new course down the valley. Right behind us it ran in a stream bigger 'n the Swirle is now, as you can see by looking behind you at these ruined cottages.'
The speaker indicated the course of the disastrous flood, the memory of which still lives in the Portside district. A few hundred yards above them the Swirle turned suddenly to the right, the bank being strengthened artificially; and below this bank was a broad ravine, running for some miles in the direction of Portside, the roadway from that place to Maindee traversing the gorge half-way up its side. It was a wild and desolate spot, filled with bracken and brambles and large boulder-stones washed up by that terrible flood; while at the head of it stood Foljambe's factory, almost within rifle-shot of the house of the great manufacturer in question. Very few people passed that way at night, since it was a place of evil repute, though Attwood traversed it frequently, as the ravine was a shortcut from the factory to his own house on the other side of the dip.
We should be safe enough, if anything was to happen,' Strahan remarked with the same comfortable assurance. 'I never liked that valley, Ben, especially this time of year when the snow lies so deep in places. I don't know why I should think so, but I feel main certain that when the frost goes, we shall find your old master somewhere in the ravine.'
'I wish we could find him,' Attwood replied with an impatient sigh. 'He left my house that night just as it was coming on thick, and laughed at me when I warned him against crossing the gorge. When morning came, he was nowhere to be found, and the snow lying twenty feet deep in some places down there. And when he is found, my George's name will be cleared.'
'Let's hope so,' Strahan replied more cheerfully. 'He's a good lad; and though appearances are against him, I firmly believe he'll come out right yet.—And now, unless we're going to stay here all night, it's time to think about a cup of tea. Another hard frost, I see.'
The two old men turned away together, parting finally on the brow of the bill. With the confidence of one who knows his locality, Attwood crossed the ravine, and slowly climbed upwards to the summit, where the cheerful lights shone out from his own comfortable cottage. A weird feeling came upon him as he carefully skirted the great heaps of snow, below one of which, for all he knew, lay the body of his missing employer, Godfrey Foljambe, concerning whose disappearance every Portside individual was still talking, though the mysterious event was five weeks old.
If there was trouble at the great house on the hill, there were equally sore hearts in the foreman's more humble abode. The missing manufacturer was a just and kind employer, with a keen eye for merit; and that keen eye had looked favourably upon young George Attwood, with the result that six years with Foljambe & Co. saw him cashier to the firm. At this time, however, certain strange defalcations had taken place; there had been a series of investigations, with the result that the younger Attwood had lost his situation. It was a keen blow to employer and employed alike; but the evidence was terribly clear, and the manufacturer had no alternative, though he declined to prosecute.
So things had drifted on till the night before the great snow, when Mr Foljambe had presented himself at Attwood's cottage in a state of great excitement. George was away from home; hearing which, his late employer refused to disclose his, business, contenting himself with leaving a message for his quondam cashier to call upon him on urgent business the following morning. It was dark, with a heavy snow falling, as he departed homewards, laughing to scorn the advice tendered by his foreman as to avoiding the treacherous ravine. By morning the snow lay to the depth of three feet; while, in the gorge below, the white wrack had drifted into huge banks and valleys till even the ruined cottages had disappeared. But worst of all, Mr Foljambe was missing. The last person to see him was George Attwood, who, returning home along the road, was cheerfully accosted by his late employer with the information that good news awaited him on the morrow, with which he plunged into the darkness, to be seen no more of men.
'A bitter night,' Attwood cried, as he stamped across the flagged kitchen and warmed his numbed hands at the grateful blaze. 'A night as makes us thankful to know as we've a roof over our heads.—Come, lass, let us have some tea, for I've been standing by the mere till I'm nigh frozen.'
An extremely pretty girl, seated knitting in the ingle nook, rose from her seat and placed a metal teapot on the white tablecloth. Rose Attwood was, after George, the apple of her father's eye—a cottage Venus, clear-eyed and ruddy of complexion, as most of the hands in the valley knew, to the confusion of their peace of mind. But Rose was no coquette; and, moreover, the handsome, taciturn head-clerk at Foljambe's appeared to have monopolised the belle of the district, though, be it said, the course of true love had not hitherto run with the smoothness Rupert Vaughan could have wished.
He rose up from the other side of the fireplace, where he had been contemplating Rose in his usually moody fashion, and joined the party at their evening meal. Latterly, his presence seemed to be an understood thing, though a grim watchful silence, his natural manner, seemed to check all attempts at cheerfulness. Who he was and whence he came were mysteries to the Swirle. Valley people, who resented his cool dogged appropriation of the prettiest and most popular of their maidens.
It was a more than usually silent party as George Attwood sat moodily in the most secluded corner, and Vaughan was more watchful and cat-like than usual. Rose, demurely knitting, listened to her father's well-meant attempts at conversation, interpolating a few remarks now and then.
'Heard nothing of Mr Foljambe, I suppose?' He addressed Vaughan. 'I hear that the Portside Chronicle says something about foul-play.'
'Just like those newspaper fellows,' Vaughan sneered. 'Never mind what lies you invent so long as you sell your papers, is their motto.'
George Attwood looked up with sudden interest, and with far more attention than he had hitherto paid to the desultory conversation. 'I don't know so much about that,' said' he. 'The night before Mr Foljambe disappeared, he came here specially to see me. And what did he tell me when I met him afterwards I That he had some good news for me in the morning; and the only good news I could hear was that my name was cleared. Suppose the real culprit had discovered that his crime had come out, and followed my employer across the ravine. He was an old man and feeble. I don't suggest anything, but the task would have been easy.'
'Why not have done it yourself!' Vaughan returned, with a deeper scowl. 'You were the last man, on your own confession, who saw him alive; you met him in a lonely spot; and, for all we know to the contrary, he might have come here that night with fresh proofs against you. Goodness knows, I believe you innocent; but the theory of foul-play is a dangerous one—for you.'
'How rapidly you draw your deductions,' George replied, striving in vain to speak calmly. 'It would be equally sensible to point to you as the murderer. You have the place I held, the place you coveted. Before Smithson went to America, you and he laid your heads together to convict me. By some means or other, Mr Foljambe discovers the truth, and, by some means also, you know that he has done so. Then you follow him, and—Well, the rest is easy. Circumstances soon multiply themselves, suspicion once aroused. Here is one ready made: Why did you miss coming here for the first time in three months on the very night that my late employer had disappeared?'
'This is a poor jest,' Vaughan said hoarsely. 'I did come.'
'Yes, close on eleven o'clock. Still, I do but jest, though you take it so seriously. Still, you insulted me first, and'—
With an authoritative wave of his pipe-stem, Benjamin Attwood put an end to the argument. 'It is a sore subject, and gains nothing by discussion,' he observed sententiously. 'You are both talking nonsense, and dangerous nonsense, too. Change the subject.'
But with this expiring effort, the flickering conversation went out altogether. Vaughan rose, and taking up his hat, wished his friends an early good-night as he passed out, Rose rising to open the door for his departure. In his own masterly way he took her by the shoulder and led her out into the moonlight. 'You will forget all that,' he said fiercely. 'This pain I get at my heart makes me almost mad at times.—Rose, how much longer are you going to keep me waiting I' He bent down as if to kiss her; but the girl drew hastily away. A thin haze crossed the moon, and a puff of wind from the west brushed her cheek. It was as well that she did not see the lurid light in her companion's eyes.
'Very well,' he said. 'Good-night; and remember that the time will come when I shall make you love me.'
Rose felt an almost wild sense of relief as her impetuous lover disappeared. She did not care for him; her heart told her that, though she shrank from giving pain by a direct refusal. She lingered a moment in the open, conscious of a milder breath in the air, and listening to the sough of the wind in the woods. Presently, as the clouds seemed to thicken, she felt the rain-spray on her cheeks.
'There is heavy weather on the hills,' Attwood said, as he drew his chair nearer to the wood-fire. 'I thought it seemed warmer.—Bless me, is that rain?' A burst of wind dashed the sheeted water against the casement, and caused the feathery ashes to dance and swirl on the hearthstone. 'A sudden change,' the old man continued. 'There will be no skating on the Swirle to-morrow. A night of rain with all this snow, and before morning we shall see a flood the like of which Portside people have never witnessed before.'
As the cottage lay still and silent, with the heavy downpour roaring on the roof, the groaning and creaking ice on the river rose higher and higher. Morning was still struggling with night as a crash louder than the rest roused Benjamin Attwood, who hastily assumed his clothes, and wrapping himself in a heavy mackintosh, walked towards the river. The vast sheet of ice like a thing of life trembled and vibrated, and then, with a report like the roar of artillery, broke into a million pieces. Suddenly released, the rushing flood-water rose with marvellous speed, creeping up the banks, till within the hour the erstwhile solid plain was a creamy seething mass of green foam and floating ice-floes.
'Eight feet in an hour,' exclaimed Strahan, who had also come out to watch the wonderful sight, and thirty miles of ice to come down yet. No chance of that getting through the Portside Stone Bridge. What with the rain in the night and the snow on the Black Mountains, there'll be twenty feet of flood-water, not reckoning the ice at all.'
As the day went on, it seemed probable that Strahan's prophecy would be fulfilled. With alarming rapidity it rose, bearing great fields of ice, until, almost imperceptibly at first, the current began to slacken, while the water itself rose with still more alarming rapidity. The most sinister prophecies had been fulfilled, and the ice had jammed about Portside Bridge.
Along the embankment by Foljambe's factory the immense mass began to collect, pressing in an inclined plane against the bank, over which presently the water commenced to flow into the ravine below. Almost instantly the serried masses moved with irresistible force against the crumbling embankment; and before the astonished eyes of the spectators, it seemed to meet and disappear as, a few moments later, the swollen waters of the Swirle were thundering down the new channel of the ravine.
'Thank Heaven there are no houses there!' Attwood said fervently, his
voice utterly drowned in the fearsome din. 'The flood will just waste itself
on the broad meadows below Portside without doing much harm. Surely it is a
wonderful eight, if a terrible one.'
The sullen waters rolled away, and by the end of three days a few huge boulders and uprooted trees only remained as evidence of the great flood. The sandy floor of the ravine was firm and hard when Attwood and Strahan, under the direction of Frank Foljambe, commenced to thoroughly search that wave-washed region for the missing manufacturer. The whole face of the gorge was changed; the brambles and bracken had disappeared; while the huge rocky boulders alone remained. The great stones were piled up in fantastic confusion, forming pyramids and caverns into which half-a-dozen men could creep. Vaughan, looking moodily on at the work, seemed uneasy as Strahan turned over the sand under an overhanging rock where some soft substance occupied his attention.
'Why waste your time' he asked impatiently. 'I tell you there is nothing here.'
Strahan did not reply, as he hurriedly scraped the sand away under the ledge with his spade. There was something yielding there—a scrap of sodden cloth, the toe of a boot, and presently the cold clammy semblance of a human hand came in view. An exclamation of horror and surprise broke from him, hearing which, the rest of the search-party turned to the spot, and carefully assisted the old man in his melancholy task.
The corpse was that of Mr Foljambe, without a doubt. Preserved by the frost and snow, and protected from the violence of the beating waters by the great rock, the body was singularly free from marks of violence, save that there was a livid mark on the neck, and the hands were clenched as if in a convulsion of pain.
'There has been something more than misadventure here,' the dead man's son said with a shuddering respiration. 'And I thought my father was without an enemy in the world.—See, some of you, what is clasped in the right hand, for I dare not look.'
With some difficulty, Attwood opened the stiff fingers, and drew from their clasp a fragment of torn silk. The pattern was dull and faded, but as the searcher laid it on his open palm, he gave a cry of astonishment.
'Great heavens, this is Vaughan's!' he cried. 'He was wearing a scarf of similar pattern when he came to my house on the evening of my poor master's disappearance. It was all pulled-up and disarranged, and Vaughan was always ridiculously neat in his dress. I remember Rose asking him how it happened, and he made some excuse, I forget what.'
All eyes were turned in search of Vaughan, but he had disappeared. There was an ominous silence as the little group bore the body away up to the great house on the hill, where they found the police inspector for the district waiting to hear the result of their search. Another body had been found far down the ravine, and the police had come over for the sake of identification. With a curt gesture of dismissal, the inspector signified that lie would be alone with Mr Foljambe, and with a few stern words as to the necessity of perfect silence, the searchers gradually dispersed.
The afternoon wore on slowly, and the factory clock gave out the hour of three before Rupert Vaughan found himself standing in Mr Frank Foljambe's office, confronting that gentleman, who was supported by the police inspector and the two Attwoods. There was, despite the young employer's marked distress, a stern expression of features, which seemed to paralyse the newcomer's faculties, and to set his heart beating with alarming palpitations.
'I have sent for you,' Foljambe said distinctly, 'on a very painful errand. You are aware perhaps that the body of my unhappy father has been found. That he died by violence there is no possible reason to doubt. We are not without a clue to the murderer, since, in the right hand of the body, we found a fragment of a scarf which has been identified as yours.'
Vaughan suddenly raised his hand to his throat with a choking cry.
'We have discovered in your rooms the missing article to which the torn fragment fits exactly. In my father's pocket-book we have also discovered a letter from America, in the handwriting of your accomplice Smithson, in which he confesses the plot between you, whereby your defalcations and robberies were artfully traced to young Mr Attwood. This information he was probably conveying to the injured young man, who, unfortunately, was not at home, when he met you in the ravine or near it and taxed you with your crime. The letter from America only arrived by the afternoon post, or probably you might have heard of it earlier. We do not ask you to say anything in reply, only I thought it right that you should know of what you are accused.'
'And of what am I accused?' Vaughan asked unsteadily.
'Of the murder of Mr Foljambe on the night of December 28th last,' the inspector put in quietly. 'You will consider yourself my prisoner.'
Vaughan bowed helplessly; he saw no hope in the ring of faces, felt no consciousness save the fluttering pain at his heart. A strange sensation of coming death was strong upon him; he knew too well the terrible consequences to a hopelessly diseased heart likely to arise from the excitement of such a moment. 'I did it,' he said in a faint low voice—'yes, I killed him. I followed him up to Attwood's house, and directly I heard him speak, I knew what he had heard. But I did not care for myself. I might have been beyond arrest before morning, had it not been for my love for that old man's daughter. I am half a Spaniard, and only they know what love means. Blind and mad, I followed my employer. I heard his conversation with George Attwood; and I—I killed him. I strangled him in the ravine, and hid the body under a great flat stone, piling others upon it till the snow drove me away. I dared not keep away from Attwood's, though I had forgotten my torn scarf, which has betrayed me. I did not intend to wrong George here; but we—Smithson and I—had been speculating, and some one had to suffer.—Bah! you are wondering why I am so foolish as to make such a full confession. I know, because'—He paused, as a horrible pain, keen as a knife, shot through his heart. Presently, with white ashy face and pallid lips, he continued painfully: 'I am not afraid. I shall never leave this room alive. I have been solemnly warned against any sudden shock, and this has overpowered me. I killed Foljambe; ay, I would have killed him twenty times, and suffered all the agony I have gone through a hundred times, rather than lose the love on which I had set my life. And when you think you have me in your grasp I cheat you—thus.' With a gesture of despair and defiance, he threw up his hands, falling prostrate upon the floor with a resounding crash.
Forgetful of his wrongs, Benjamin Attwood raised the motionless form, so still and silent. 'He has fainted,' he said. 'The excitement has been too much.'
'He is dead,' said the inspector solemnly, as he laid his hand upon the pulseless wrist. 'The prisoner has gone before a higher tribunal than ours.'
There is a new partner in the house of Foljambe & Co. now, whose name is Attwood; and a new resident in the great house on the hill, whose name is Rose. Society and her equals were disposed at first to envy the social promotion of the valley beauty; but as she bears her honours so meekly and sweetly, the sore feeling is rapidly subsiding. But however long they remain there, four actors in the drama are never likely to forget the great flood and its dramatic sequel. For had it not been so ordained, the secret of Godfrey Foljambe's disappearance might have remained a mystery to the end of time.
A DECOROUS hush fell upon the auction-room. The excitement of the virtuoso is usually of a mildly genteel type; but there are exceptional moments, and the brief period preceding the fall of the hammer on the sale of the 'Santa Anna' was one of them.
By degrees the bidding had advanced, the stream of golden promise went on until a timid millionaire modestly perspiring in the background suggested ten thousand guineas. Mr Forrest looked up with gentle approbation.
'Ladies and gentlemen,' he murmured, 'the picture is now on sale.'
To the uninitiated this meant that the reserve-price had been reached. A little man with a remarkably dirty face bobbed up, snapped out' ten thousand five hundred,' and immediately fell to chewing his catalogue again. In a less sacred assembly they would have laughed at the seedy man with real estate secured in the lines of his features, but Mr Forrest bowed his thanks. The Semitic unit had come from Vienna on purpose to buy the 'Santa Anna,' and Forrest could have honoured his draft for half a million on sight—appearances go for so little where the virtuosi are concerned.
A well-known dealer advanced five hundred, and then the biddings dropped. Mr Forrest dropped into forensic art. The 'Santa Anna' had been propped up on a table before him—a canvas about six feet by four, and full of glowing colour. Mr Forrest tapped the frame with decorous familiarity.
'Need I enlarge upon this famous, this unique work?' he said. 'Need I recall to your recollection the fact that the purification of the saint was a subject specially selected for the brush of Leonardo da Vinci by Francis I. himself, and designed to hang in the palace of Chambord? It has been established clearly enough that immediately after showing this picture to his royal patron, the great artist expired suddenly in the king's arms. I think my last bid was eleven thousand.'
The millionaire hesitated. He regretted that his knowledge of pictures was so much less than his acquaintance with contangoes and futures. You can 'corner' diamonds and petroleum, but a picture trust is another thing. The Viennese dealer bobbed up again, suggested eleven thousand five hundred with the air of one who answers a conundrum, and ate another octavo page of his catalogue. As to the wealthy amateurs, they had dropped out of the hunt long ago.
Roscoe, of Hunt & Roscoe, the eminent dealers, edged a little nearer the rostrum—a slight, clean-shaven man, who looked more like a Chancery barrister than a buyer of pictures and armour. Both Hunt and Roscoe were young men, but both enjoyed excellent reputations. They were bold and successful. The Vienna gentleman scowled as he spotted a dangerous rival.
'Twelve thousand,' said Roscoe. The seedy one put a thousand on to that. Nineteen thousand was bid, and then Roscoe added one thousand more. His mien was calm and resolute, a crumpled telegram crushed in his hand gave him courage. With a patient sigh, Rosenthal of Vienna rose and went out. Like the philosopher he was, he swallowed his disappointment, and fell to counting up what his expenses would come to.
A ripple of applause followed, subdued applause as befitted the sacred place, and then the hammer came down with a snap. The 'Santa Anna' had been the last lot, and the audience filed out. They had something to talk of for some time to come, as such a red-letter day did not happen very frequently.
Quite coolly Roscoe pushed his way up to Forrest's desk. The latter nodded as one does to a familiar figure.
'You gave quite enough for it,' said Forrest. 'Still, I dare say an advertisement of that kind is worth a good bit.'
'Well, yes. It is certain to go the round of the papers, and I confidently look forward to seeing a few leading articles thereon to-morrow. All the same, I didn't buy the picture quite as a speculation.'
'Got a customer for it, eh?'
'I think so. But one never can be quite sure. That's the worst of our business. We want all our big profits if we have a thing like this on our hands for a year or so. Every week that canvas hangs up in our shop I calculate it costs us twenty pounds.'
Roscoe departed a little later with his treasure. A short time after the same was reposing on an easel in the private office of the two partners behind the handsome premises in Piccadilly.
Hunt stood contemplating the new purchase with an admixture of fright and pleasure. He was a nervous man with bold ideas, which were no sooner carried out than they filled him with dread.
'It's a heap of money,' he murmured.
'Can't be helped,' Roscoe replied. 'It was a game of brag with Rosenthal, and for once in a way I got the better of him. Besides, we shall have all the kudos of the purchase, and make a good profit into the bargain.'
'And if the South African doesn't come up to the scratch?'
'What a fellow you are!' Roscoe exclaimed with some pardonable irritation. 'Haven't I got the telegram in my pocket?'
Hunt was fain to admit this comforting evidence. That was the worst of having a partner with a sluggish liver, Roscoe thought.
'It would have been absolutely criminal to have lost such a glorious chance,' the latter continued. 'Read the thing again.'
So saying, the speaker took from his pocket the pink paper upon which post-office telegrams are transcribed, and flattened out the crumpled sheet. It bore the Southampton mark and ran thus:
'JUST LANDED FROM CARY CASTLE. SEEN ADVERTISEMENT OF FORREST'S SALE. CAN'T GET UP TO-DAY. BUY SANTA ANNA FOR ME. OPEN COMMISSION.— BARON BRANTANO.'
The telegram was addressed to one Moss, a picture-dealer in a small way who occupied a sandwich of a shop next to the palatial establishment of Hunt & Roscoe—indeed the latter emporium had once formed part of their premises. A careless telegraph-boy had placed the message in the hands of Roscoe himself and had hurried out whistling. Without noting the address, Roscoe had torn open the envelope and mastered the contents.
Then he saw that the message was intended for Moss. Nevertheless he did not immediately deliver the same. He stood pondering, and the longer he pondered, the brighter did the scheme for the aggrandisement of the firm glitter before him.
There would be a row, of course. But the telegraph-boy would assuredly be prepared to swear if necessary that the message had been delivered at the proper address. He would do this for his own sake, and would be doing Hunt & Roscoe a good turn at the same time.
The commission on the purchase of the 'Santa Anna' would be a small affair. To buy it out and out, and sell the same to the South African magnate would be quite another matter. Hunt shared this opinion.
'Nobody can touch us,' he said. 'If that pinchbeck Baron requires the picture he will have to pay through the nose for it. Only we had better be careful that we are going to deal with the genuine Simon Pure. Let's send round to Lloyds for a list of passengers on the Cary Castle.
Information from Lloyds proved to be quite satisfactory, and again this was confirmed by a paragraph in the Standard, to the effect that amongst the passengers landed from the Cary Castle was Baron Brantano.
It is needless to remark that the Baron had loomed large on the public eye of late. Some day a book will be written upon the materialisation of the modern millionaire. He comes, like the Baron, mistily and vaguely, then suddenly he becomes a being crystallised in newspaper paragraphs. He has gold and silver mines, he has 'cornered' all the diamonds in the universe; he has given £100,000 for a picture. Then he fades away, and a new plutocrat occupies his place. But when and where he comes, he always finds a place in the public confidence.
Thus Baron Brantano. So far as any one could tell, he was an adventurous Englishman who had served the king of the Belgians on the Congo, hence the title. After that he had devoted himself to the millionaire business with distinct success—perhaps because it is the only profession not overcrowded.
'Good,' Roscoe exclaimed, 'we shall make £5000 out of this. You notice that Moss was to have had an open commission. Nobody will have the least suspicion of us. Therefore we buy the picture at any cost, and then we can offer it privately to the Baron. Of course his game is to make a present of the same to the National Gallery with a view to establishing a position in society. What a slice of luck!'
The millionaire came ostentatiously to the 'Hôtel Métropole' a day or two later, and the evening papers fell down and worshipped him. A few days passed, but no sign came from the Baron, and Moss appeared to be as friendly as usual. Could it be possible that the Baron had changed his mind?
'Hadn't you better go and see him?' Hunt suggested.
'Don't be an ass,' snapped Roscoe. 'How can I go and see him? I couldn't show him Moss's telegram, could I?'
'I don't see why you shouldn't,' Hunt replied. 'I have been making a few inquiries, and I find that Brantano has been buying pictures. Why not call upon him, and ask him to come and look at the Santa Anna?'
Roscoe pondered a moment. Something would have to be done shortly. After all, there could be nothing suspicious in carrying out Hunt's suggestion. If the Baron had forgotten the incident it might recall the same to his memory. Perhaps Moss might have faded from his mind. Then, when he knew where the picture was, he would naturally trouble no more about Moss, who thus might never even know that a telegram had been sent him.
'On the whole, I think I'll go,' said Roscoe.
Without further delay he proceeded to put his intention into effect. Roscoe was fortunately enabled to see the millionaire after a wait of not more than half-an-hour, which, under the circumstances, was quite cordial.
Brantano was English beyond a doubt. He was quite a young man, stout of figure and guileless of air. He was almost clean shaven, with a prominent thin nose and a firm yet receding chin. The hair on the temples was somewhat thin and grizzled, and there were countless wrinkles round the keen, beady eyes. The Baron's hand was slightly shaky; he was quick and nervous.
'I don't remember your name, Mr Roscoe,' he said. 'But if your business is pressing, I can spare you ten minutes or so.'
Roscoe plunged at once into the subject. He noted with satisfaction that the Baron smiled when the 'Santa Anna' was mentioned. Clearly there was no mistake about the matter.
'It is a magnificent picture,' Roscoe concluded.
'A magnificent picture truly,' echoed the capitalist. 'I am no great judge, but I fell in love with it directly.'
'You have seen it before, then?'
'Never till I landed in England this week.'
'But there must be some mistake here,' Roscoe suggested. 'Did you not land from the Cary Castle on Monday week?'
'Certainly I did. And I remained in Southampton till Wednesday.'
Roscoe looked puzzled, as well he might.
'Then I fail to understand how you could have seen the picture,' he said, 'considering that on the Tuesday we purchased the picture from Forrest's people, and that it has not been out of our possession ever since. The telegram'——
Roscoe checked himself. He had been on the point of making a dangerous admission. The Baron smiled in an indulgent manner.
'Then there must be two "Santa Annas,"' he said. 'Mine came from Lord Maplehurst.'
'And ours came from Lord Maplehurst as well,' Roscoe burst in. 'There is some extraordinary mistake here. Perhaps I had better hear your story, Baron.'
'With pleasure. As you may not be aware, I am a Roman Catholic. It has always been a great idea of mine to send the Pope a fitting present on his birthday. By chance I heard the history of the "Santa Anna" from Lord Maplehurst's brother, Mr James Maplehurst, whom I know very well in Kimberley. I offered £20,000 for the picture, and it was refused. Lord Maplehurst called upon me on the morning following my arrival in England, much to my surprise, with the picture. It had been offered for sale the day before, and fetched just the sum I had offered, at which price it was bought in. Would I give another £1000? I would and did, in Bank of Bechuanaland notes, and the picture was mine. Moreover, as his lordship was going abroad, he offered to see the picture safe to the Vatican for me, and I consented. These things always come to those who know how to wait, Mr Roscoe.'
A cold perspiration stiffened Roscoe's spine. Could it be possible that he had been made the victim of a heartless swindle? Could Forrest'——but that was absurd. That the Baron was telling the truth from his point of view was patent. But still the picture which had been offered for sale remained in Roscoe's possession.
'Then you did not commission any one to buy the picture for you by telegram or otherwise?' Roscoe gasped.
'Certainly not. And I have neither written a letter nor despatched a telegram since I have been here. Perhaps it would be as well, Mr Roscoe, if you were to describe your picture.'
Roscoe proceeded to do so. The Baron followed with fluttering interest.
'Beyond question one of these pictures is a forgery,' he said. 'All the same, as I got mine direct from the owner, I feel safe. If you like I will treat this interview as private, so as to give you an opportunity of consulting the police. Depend upon it, secrecy will be all in your favour.'
'The very thing I was about to suggest,' Roscoe cried, 'and I beg to thank you for your kind consideration. I will lay the matter before the authorities at once, and take their opinion upon it.'
Roscoe departed for Piccadilly in a state of mind easier imagined than described. Some instinct told him that theirs was the copy of the 'Santa Anna.' The pecuniary loss could be tided over, but the loss of prestige and reputation would be a most serious one from a business point of view.
Hunt took the matter far better than his colleague had expected. Men who suffer with a liver are apt to see trouble looming everywhere, but when it does come they understand how to take it with philosophic resignation.
'It's no use beating about the bush,' he said. 'Some of us are the victims of a vile conspiracy. The fact that the Baron sent no telegram on that clay proves it. We simply can't go and make any fuss with the police at present, for the simple reason that we shall be bound to admit using a telegram belonging to somebody else.'
'Do you suppose it was a bona fide telegram?' Roscoe suggested.
'That's a very good idea of yours,' said Hunt. 'We will suppose that the telegram was a clever forgery, and that the lad who delivered it had been dressed for the part by the actual swindler. You'd know the boy again?'
'Certainly I should. He was a very smart lad, I noticed.'
'And he came from the Circus office. Go there and lodge a bogus complaint against one of the boys, and ask to see them all.'
Roscoe departed at once. The business took a long time; but finally he returned with the information that every messenger employed in the Circus office had been brought before him, and that not one of them tallied in any way with the lad who had delivered the fatal missive.
'That is exactly what I expected,' Hunt said. 'We may make up our minds now that the telegram was a forgery, a fact we can easily prove by submitting it to an expert. Let's have the big magnifying-glass on the flimsy.'
A minute examination of the telegram disclosed the fact that an old message had been soaked out by acids, and a new one substituted.
'You can't read anything,' said Hunt, 'but under the word "open" in the forgery, the heavy pencil of the operator has scored "cash" in the original. The rascals could take out the letters, but not the lines of the word "cash" cut into the flimsy. You may depend upon it this trap has been deliberately laid for us, the wire being addressed to Moss being most ingenious. The pseudo telegraph boy would never have made the mistake of going to the wrong shop.'
Roscoe was bound to admit the lucidity of this argument.
'The next thing,' he replied, 'is to make quite sure that we have been duped. Let us get the picture from the safe. Once we are sure of our ground we will proceed to unravel the mystery—if we can.'
The 'Santa Anna' was anxiously examined. A forgery it might have been; but it was a desperately clever one. At the end of half-an-hour the two critics were still as undecided as ever.
'I can't tell what to make of it,' Roscoe remarked. 'Everything points to a forgery, and yet with that wonderful colouring before my eyes, I am bound to doubt it. Such pigments don't exist nowadays. What shall we do?'
Hunt squinted at a splash of vivid vermilion and coquetted with a smear of azure artistically applied, and said:
'What we ought to have done before. Send for Manders.'
Manders came in due course: a handsome man, a fair Van Dyck, so to speak; a Charles I. with a tendency towards whisky and unholy hours. But for these weaknesses and an ingrained contempt for popular taste, a man capable of being head of the profession. Too lazy to originate, and too proud for order work, he had become a prince of copyists.
'Well, what's the matter?' he asked. 'Can I teach you anything?'
This is not the way for artists to address dealers of repute; but as the dealers allowed it to pass, the reader may. Roscoe explained partially. He also incidentally observed that the colours in the picture were wonderful.
'Can't be done nowadays,' he concluded oracularly.
'Can't it?' said Manders; 'much you know about it. I've been studying colours for years. And I've got back the old trick of the pigments. I could do you a Raphael or an Angelo that could deceive the artist himself. Why, only a few months ago I made a copy of this same "Santa Anna," and Maplehurst couldn't tell the difference. Not a bad idea when you are hard up, keep your picture and pawn it at the same time.'
The partners exchanged glances. Here was a discovery, here was the outstart, so to speak, of another-aristocratic scandal.
Hunt was the first to recover himself. He led Manders gently to the spot where the cause of all the strife stood in a good light. Manders nodded at it as one does to an old acquaintance.
'Is this the picture you bought at Forrest's?' he asked.
'The same,' Roscoe gasped. 'Is it the genuine picture or a'——
He could get no further. Manders coolly rolled a cigarette and lighted it before he replied, not without malice.
'The copy,' he said. 'I'll prove it to you if you like.'
AS the red tide of conquest streamed over France, another foe, born of the north-east wind, followed. A winding-sheet of snow lay like a pall upon a country stricken to the death. The thin air smote upon the cheek like a lash. Day by day the white powder grew to the crispness of diamond dust; along the whitened fields in the valley of the Moselle the birds lay dead, as if they too had fought their fight and perished. Here and there a few Prussian troops straggled forward There were wounds in the sides of the horses, dull red spots where the congealed blood had frozen.
Along the road into the dim heart of the evening came a train of waggons, each drawn by two horses. At the head of the procession was the Red Cross of the Geneva Convention, at the rear the Union Jack hung sullenly. The carts conveyed stores—some tons of stores in all—for Versailles. From first to last the route was not more than a thousand miles; and yet, aided by money and stout horses, the journey occupied a whole month. And on one of the adventures of this convoy on the way I propose to dwell.
The hour was getting late, the air nipped more shrewdly. Major Eustace scanned the white horizon anxiously; then he turned to his comrade, Captain Huddlestone, who had dozed under the tilt of the cart
"Surely we must be close to Marny now," he said.
"I hope so," Huddlestone responded. "And I also devoutly hope that we shall cross the Moselle by the bridge at Fontnoy by daybreak. If that bridge has gone, our chance of success becomes hopeless."
Eustace was perfectly well aware of the fact. The blowing up of these river bridges had become a serious matter. It was all very well for the Prussians to boast full sway of the roads, but those ubiquitous Francs-tireurs seemed to spring armed and snarling from the ground; a bridge was blown up, a convoy cut off, and they had vanished into the frosty rime.
"They are bound to keep the bridge at Fontnoy," said Huddlestone. "They know quite well that General Moritz lies over yonder with his army corps. Until they are cut off and destroyed, Moritz' force is a serious menace to the line of communication up to Paris. And Von Stein's force behind us would be absolutely useless if the bridge were to go. It would amount to a calamity."
Eustace agreed. All the same, the French could not be blind to the fact: they would make every effort to destroy the bridge at Fontnoy. Still, with the fatal blindness that stigmatised the French all through that disastrous campaign, General Moritz was probably ignorant that Von Stein, with a superior force, was pressing on to Fontnoy to destroy him. As a matter of fact, Moritz did not know of this.
How he learnt the news this story will tell.
Night had already fallen, and the moon rose redly over the belt of snow as the convoy waggons rumbled into the village of Tour. Not more than a score of houses remained, and these were in the hands of half a troop of Uhlans. All the same, an old campaigner like Eustace had no difficulty in finding food and shelter in the village. The Red Cross of the Geneva Convention carried with it a fine moral force.
In a large barn littered with straw and indifferently warmed by a brazier of charcoal, Eustace and Huddlestone lay down with the waggons and the horses. The drivers of the carts had found shelter elsewhere. By ten o'clock the whole village was wrapped in slumber.
The Englishmen crouched closer under the straw. The glow of the brazier filled the barn with red tremulous shadows. It seemed presently to the sleepy eyes of Eustace that something was moving yonder. An icy blast rustled amongst the straw, as if the door had been opened and closed again. Eustace struggled to a sitting position. There were some tons of provisions amongst his stores, and hunger ere now, he knew, had stirred simple peasants to desperate things.
It was no fancy. A human form was creeping along between the horses. Then it seemed to Eustace that there were two of them.
"Who are you, and what are you after?" he demanded.
A human figure shot up, outlined by the glow of the brazier. Then another man rose promptly. Something glittered in the hand of the foremost intruder.
"Do you want me to shoot you?" he said hoarsely.
Huddlestone still slept soundly. He was drunk with tiredness, sodden with fatigue. Eustace could see the humour as well as the danger of the situation.
"Not unless you can do so without inconvenience to me," he said.
The other man frowned. He advanced close to the brazier in order to warm his frozen hands. As he did so his great-coat fell away and disclosed, to Eustace's surprise, the uniform of a French general officer.
"Surely you are rash to venture here!" he cried.
The other man smiled bitterly. His thin lean face grew stern, his ragged moustache drooped over the corners of a sullen mouth. A settled melancholy lay upon him, as on a man who finds fate too strong for him.
"What matters it?" he said. "I am General Moray."
Major Eustace fairly started. The Frenchman announced his name as if he had no doubt it would be recognised. He spoke defiantly.
"The traitor of Metz?" Eustace cried.
He would have given much to recall the words the next moment, for they had escaped him in an unguarded phrase. Moray did not appear to resent the speech.
"Time was when I should have shot a man for that," he said. "Still, why should I blame you for saying what France thinks? Bazaine was the traitor, not I. When I think of the disaster at Metz, I could dash my brains out. There was a man to lead an army for you! Incompetent, careless—why, the man was not known by half the troops in the fortress. A better judge of pâté de-foie-gras than an army corps was he. And when I found him out, and would have exposed the charlatan who sold us as a sheep is sold in the market, he laid the blame on my shoulders. Nobody waited to hear my defence. Then I would have died with my back to the wall, had it not seemed better to me that I should live. But I see you know the story, Major Eustace."
"As well as you appear to know my name," Eustace replied.
The Major spoke truly. Moray had been the intermediary between Bazaine and the Germans prior to that shameful capitulation. There were some who held that Moray had been a scapegoat in the matter; that Bazaine had trumped up a charge against Moray, backed up by his tools, in order to save himself from the disaster which eventually followed. But France as a whole saw in Moray the typical traitor.
"What is your view of the matter?" the latter asked.
"I have no view on the matter," Eustace said evasively. "With a non-combatant like myself passing indifferently between French and German lines 'views' are apt to be dangerous things. The safe delivery of my stores is all that concerns me."
Moray smiled sourly. He had been answered much as he had expected. "You are going to Versailles, I understand?" he said.
"Yes. I hope to be over the bridge at Fontnoy to-morrow."
"Ah! there you are quite wrong, my friend," said Moray grimly. "Before daybreak there will be no bridge over the Moselle at Fontnoy."
"You mean to say—"
"Precisely. General Moritz is in absolute ignorance of the fate that awaits him. At great risk to myself, and after many privations and dangers, I passed successfully through Von Stein's lines this evening. Then I heard of you and came here. For the present I am too exhausted to proceed farther. Therefore I have come to borrow a cart and pair of horses from you."
"To enable you to blow up the bridge, General Moray?"
"Allow me to compliment you on the quickness of your perceptions."
"All the same, what you ask is impossible," said Eustace quietly. "I cannot allow anything to stand between myself and my duty. I am pledged to deliver my stores at Versailles as quickly as possible. The destruction of the Fontnoy bridge would delay me for many, many weeks. Your aims and ambitions are as nothing to me. Not only must I decline to help you, but it becomes my positive duty to put every obstacle in your way."
Moray strode across to the place where Eustace was seated. He stooped down and with grim playfulness laid the barrel of his revolver to Eustace's forehead. The iron was so cold it actually seemed to blister the skin.
"You are a brave man, and I have no wish to blow your brains out," he whispered, "but if you show any signs of mischief I shall not hesitate. My companion here is armed with a rifle. Like myself, he is absolutely reckless of consequences. Whilst I am trespassing on your hospitality, he will remain here to see that you remain passive. If either of you move he is to shoot you both. And, speaking from knowledge of the man, he will assuredly do it."
Eustace choked down his rising anger. Like a brave man who knows his own limits, Eustace bowed to the inevitable.
It was a terrible nuisance, and it represented the loss of much valuable time. Eustace could but admire the pluck and resource and daring of the man who had risked so much to do so much single-handed. To some folks the scheme would have savoured of madness. But Eustace knew better. Given a resolute man and a barrel of gunpowder, and he would have been a bold speculator who ventured to insure the bridge of Fontnoy.
"They call me a traitor," Moray whispered huskily. "Am I acting like one now? Should I have incurred all these dangers when I might have been revelling in German gold? Is the project I have before me now the act of a renegade? Look here!"
Moray pointed to his Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour.
"It is dishonoured, they say," he continued. "I am going to show them their mistake. And I am going to prove my right to retain it. But enough of this. My friend, I beg of you not to move. It is dangerous for you."
Eustace could only smile grimly. From under the straw Huddlestone was snoring peacefully. In a short space of time Moray had emptied one of the carts, and dexterously proceeded to attach a pair of horses thereto. Then, with as much politeness as the circumstances would allow, he requested the favour of an interchange of great-coats with Eustace.
"Your mad scheme will fail," said the latter, as he grudgingly complied. "It will be strange to me if the Uhlan guard permits you to leave the village."
"There is no guard," said Moray. "Eh, Pierre?"
The other silent form saluted and nodded grimly. Evidently Moray had been thorough in his plans. And Eustace did not inquire more closely into the fate of the Uhlans who had guarded the road to Fontnoy.
The doors were thrown back, and the cart was led into the snowy road. A brilliant moonlight streamed over the whole camp. From out of the shadow Eustace could see Moray lift something and place it in the cart. He had no need to be told this was a keg of powder.
Then the big doors closed and all was still again. Out on the hard snow the cart rolled and tumbled until the sounds died out in the distance. A quarter of an hour passed, and no further noise was heard. Had Moray got clear through, and was he fairly on his journey of six miles lying between the village and the bridge?
Eustace lunged out with his feet and kicked Huddlestone sharply.
THE operation was repeated with great heartiness ere Huddlestone struggled back to his senses. He rose sleepily, to see a pair of dark eyes gleaming at him along the shining barrel of a rifle.
"Now what's the matter?" he asked with grumbling somnolence. "No peace for the wicked."
Eustace explained as curtly as possible. It was easy to speak freely in the presence of the sentry, seeing that he had absolutely no knowledge of the Saxon tongue.
"Moray is no traitor," said Huddlestone: "Bazaine's cat's-paw, if you like. Before I joined you I was at Metz, remember."
"This is no time for quixotic sentiment, though," Eustace replied. "In the name of common humanity it is our duty to save the bridge. Our duty is clearly defined, whatever happens."
"That's very pretty; but what do you propose to do? Our sombre friend there is evidently an enthusiast. He hath a murderous eye."
By way of reply Eustace kicked out his foot and turned over the brazier of livid charcoal into the straw. A dozen points of crocus flame shot up. With a malediction upon Eustace's clumsiness, the Frenchman commenced to stamp out the hissing, purple flame. Anything like an alarm of fire would be fatal to his master's plans. With feverish energy he beat down the flames. But his preoccupation gave Eustace just the opportunity he required. Like a flash he was on the Frenchman and had him by the throat. Down they fell, writhing and struggling in the sullen smoulder of the straw until Huddlestone dashed in and caught up the chassepot. Pierre yielded to the inevitable with a careless shrug. Constant misfortune had developed the salient points of his philosophy; and there was balm in the reflection of Moray's fifteen minutes' start.
Eustace flung open the door and plunged blindly into the snow. A hard diamond-faced moon rose high in the heavens, it was bright enough to show the dead birds lying on the frozen fields. A piercing wind swept over the valley, filling the air with crystals. At the inn down the village street a window glared redly. Eustace thundered on the door with both fists and called aloud for help. The affair had resolved itself into a mere matter of moments.
A sleepy-looking lieutenant of Uhlans, with points untrussed and eyes aflame with cold, stumbled to the door.
"Ah, Major," he muttered, "and what the devil does this mean?"
Eustace explained briefly. A minute later a bugle note cut the rarefied air and went echoing sullenly across the arctic plain. A score or so of Uhlans came straggling up, cursing the cause of this confusion. In an astonishingly short time the horses were saddled and the troops ready to proceed.
"A two miles start, and six odd miles to the bridge," Lieutenant Troop muttered. "But then the fellow has a waggon, and our horses are fairly fresh. I doubt not that we shall overtake our man yet. You will come, Major!"
The request was in the form of a command. All the same Eustace and Huddlestone had no desire to refuse. Sleep was now out of the question; and, moreover, the adventure promised to be an exciting one. Besides, the destruction of the Fontnoy bridge would be a serious matter for them.
Lieutenant Troop was equally alive to the gravity of the situation. To protect the line of communication up to Paris the bridge must remain intact, else how would Von Stein cross over and fall upon the army corps of General Moritz—at present a veritable thorn in the side of the Prussians? Moritz was utterly unconscious of the foe bearing down upon him. The destruction of the bridge would frustrate all this. Once Moray had accomplished his purpose, he would doubtless push on and acquaint Moritz with his danger. The Lieutenant muttered strange things in his beard.
"How did that fool of a sentry come to let the fellow pass?" he growled.
"You will find the sentry has a good excuse," said Eustace significantly.
He had indeed. In a little hollow at the bend of the road leading from the village was a black mass inert on the frozen snow. A dead horse and man lay there. A heavy metal-tipped helmet had rolled a little distance away, like a football. The horse, hamstrung, had fallen, and doubtless had perished of the cold, for the night was exceedingly bitter.
They turned the man over. The face was white and bloodless, the front of his great-coat shone with a crimson breastplate hard as steel. The poor fellow's life-blood had flowed over the cloth and stiffened into a grim and hideous surtout of mail. His throat had been cut from ear to ear.
"This is murder," Troop said hoarsely. "Forward!"
There was no attempt made at discipline or order. It was a headlong race for the bridge over the frozen road. The brilliant rays of the sunshine and the heavy traffic caused by artillery and the like had beaten the way down to iron when bound up once more with the black night frosts.
But there was no thought of this, no picking of the way. They raced forward as men follow the hounds across fair English meadows. 'Twas light as day, and as the clattering clump of Uhlans breasted a hill, far ahead of them they could see a little black speck creeping westward.
A loud yell of triumph followed the viewing of the quarry. All the same Moray was two good miles ahead, and, despite the noise and clatter, the rate of progression was of necessity slow.
Ever and anon a horse would come crashing to the ground, there would be a dissolving view of man and beast, a wild, harsh jingling of brass and steel, followed by a guttural anathema.
But Troop stopped for nothing. A man or two more or less made little difference. The others could find their way back to the village again. And so the midnight chase went on. Troop's heart glowed as he recognised the fact that they were gradually gaining on Moray.
"We shall have him yet," he cried exultingly. "At any rate, should he reach the bridge before us, we shall be near enough to render his purpose impossible. You need have no further anxiety, Major."
"I don't see it quite in the same light," said Eustace, as he bumped along by the lieutenant's side. "Bar accidents, Moray is certain to cross the bridge before we get there, and Moritz is lying at Beray yonder, not more than four miles from the bridge."
"That is so," Troop muttered.
"Very well. The outposts cannot be very far away. And where a body of Francs-tireurs may be, one can never tell. If Moray succeeds in giving the alarm, the bridge will be held long before you can bring up enough men to do anything. And Moray knows what General Von Stein's plans are. If we fail to actually capture Moray, you can say good-bye to that bridge before the day breaks."
"By heavens! you are right," Troop cried. "Fool that I was not to see this before! Here you, Junker, Herzell, ride back to Plassy without delay. Explain to the Colonel what has happened, and beg him to send me a field battery and a troop of cavalry. Away with you at once!"
The troopers saluted, and slewed their horses round, not without chagrin. By this time the sides of the road had begun to trend down, the highway taking the form of a railway embankment; and so it continued for at least three miles right up to the bridge at Fontnoy.
In piping times of peace this fine piece of roadmaking had been fenced off on either side, for the fall both ways was sheer, and in the dark night had formed an element of considerable danger. But the posts and rails had long since been torn up by a predatory invader for firewood. The snow had caked and frozen till the road was positively hog-backed, the glassy slopes into the valley were fairly sheer.
To proceed along this portion of the road when frost-bound as at present was a thing of more or less danger even on foot. To race along it now at full speed on a maddened horse was positive insanity. Anything like a slip meant a plunge down a cliff of some forty feet on to a field hard as granite.
"Festina lente," Eustace muttered. "I don't like this much. It looks like an emphatic case of more haste less speed."
But Troop would have none of caution. His blood was fairly up by this time, and his quarry was a bare half-mile in front. How Moray, driving a cart and a pair of half-broken horses, continued to keep to the highway was a thing that seemed almost in the light of a miracle.
"He must come to grief," said Troop. "It is impossible.... ah!" There was a clang as of a hammer on an anvil, a violent concussion of man and beast upon the roadway, and then a trooper and his steed slid like lightning down the side of the road and shot headlong into the valley. A sickening crash was followed by a faint cry, and all was still.
Troop ground his teeth and groaned inwardly. He did not fail to notice that the chilling catastrophe had, perhaps unconsciously, slackened the speed of his men. Fiercely he dug spurs into his own horse.
"Forward!" he cried. "Forward! The like of that will not come again. And, see, we are even now gaining upon our man. Nortgen, try a shot at him."
A bullet sped harmlessly on its way. A moment later, and from the fugitive there came back a faint yell of defiance. But the echo of the exultant ring had hardly died away when Moray's cart suddenly heeled over to the right, there was a clatter and ring of struggling hoofs, and as if by magic the whole thing, man, horses, conveyance, disappeared from view. Moray had failed with victory almost in his grasp, and the Fontnoy bridge was saved!
"There goes a brave man and two of the best horses I ever had," Eustace groaned. "You won't require your supports now, Lieutenant."
Troop nodded exultingly. His eyes glittered with triumph. He pressed on to the scene of the catastrophe, but more cautiously now. He could afford to move slowly. When they reached the spot they could see the horses kicking and plunging, but no sign of Moray could they discern.
"We can't get down there," said Huddlestone. "Lieutenant, get your men to put a bullet or two into those poor beasts."
One or two rifle shots rang out, and the picture grew still. From the edge of the river came a piping scream of defiance. Troop rubbed his eyes. By the edge of the black water stood a thin figure. Moray had escaped after all. Doubtless he had taken the shots as fruitless essays in his own direction.
"He can't escape us how," Troop cried.
But he was mistaken. In the moonlight they saw two arms go up, there was a splash in the sullen flood, and almost before the Uhlans could take in what had happened something like a big black fly was seen crawling up the steep bank on the other side of the icy Moselle.
"What a man!" Troop muttered with involuntary admiration. "All the same, there is no time for sentiment, and he must not be allowed to escape. Come along. It is only a question of minutes."
Moray meanwhile had passed into a little hollow beyond the crest of the steep opposite bank. The small German force could hear him calling as he ran. Then, apparently out of the snow like midges on sunny mornings, a host of dark figures appeared. As the Uhlans crowded over the bridge there came a dozen or so of quick flashes, and with bewildering quickness a trio of German saddles were empty.
Something sharp and short came from Troop's lips. It seemed as if the pear had been snatched ripe and juicy from his hands.
"Sound the retreat!" he cried. "To press forward now would be madness. A malediction on the French in general and those cursed Francs-tireurs in particular!"
MEANWHILE Moray had got clear away behind the scarp of the hill on the far side of the Moselle. The icy coldness of the water struck to his heart like a knife; a man less grimly set upon his task would have gone down and perished in the chill stream.
Not so Moray: it mattered nothing to him whether he lived or died. He was actually courting Death. From the fatalist's point of view there was nothing further left to live for. He could clear his tarnished honour and die for France.
Men in his desperate case rarely perish. So it was with Moray. He knew no fear: for the time being he was possessed with one idea, like the madman that he was—to destroy the bridge and save General Moritz.
He ran on and on, hardly heeding his way and barely conscious of the fact that his wet garments were freezing to his body. Then as he slid down into the hollow he saw a building, a cottage, before him. A red glow shone out from one of the latticed windows.
"Halt, or I fire!" a stern voice rang out crisply. Moray gave a cry of joy. The challenge came from a Franc-tireur.
"Heaven be praised!" Moray exclaimed. "I may be in time yet. My friend, you must take me to your captain without delay."
The captain proved to be a second lieutenant, a beardless stripling hardened by events to a sternness beyond his years. A score or so of men lounged and smoked and slept in the cottage. A wood fire roared on the hearth.
"I am General Moray," said the intruder, half defiantly. An ominous growl followed. Eyes were turned up insolently.
"There is no time to explain now," said Moray. "When history comes to be written, France shall have no cause to blush for me. But enough of that. Know that at great danger and privation to myself I have passed through the lines of Von Stein's army. They lie not two leagues across the Moselle."
An incredulous snort followed. Moray's eyes flashed. "I speak the truth," his voice rang out. "You knew nothing of this. General Moritz knows nothing of the destruction that awaits him. It is the same fatal ignorance that has strangled France. It is a marvellous chance that brings me here to-night Even now I have had to swim the Moselle to escape from Von Stein's Uhlans. See!"
Moray pointed to his clothes, now glistening in the light of the fire. The young officer's heart softened; the stress of war had not crushed all the oil from the kernel.
"We must find you a change between us," he said. "Surely we can procure spare garments. General, what shall we do?"
"Turn out your men and defend the bridge," Moray said promptly. "You have a slight advantage in the point of numbers. Then send post haste along the road to Fleury for supports from General Moritz' main body."
"But they are a good eight miles away, General."
"And Von Stein is not more than six miles. If those Uhlans yonder get over first, the bridge will stand. If the bridge stands, Von Stein will be upon General Moritz in four-and-twenty hours. My aim is to blow up the bridge. For this I have risked everything. I may think of a plan yet. Away with you."
All this had been a mere matter of seconds. Leaving Moray to put off his icy garments, the lieutenant hurried out, followed by his men. They were only just in time, for the first of the Uhlans was already breasting the brickwork of the bridge. The foot soldiers certainly had the advantage, for they presented a much fainter mark, they were better armed, and they took full advantage of their chassepots.
At the first hurried discharge two of Troop's men pitched out of their saddles and lay out without a groan. As the rifles continued to creak and sputter, Troop, loth to do so, ordered his men to retire.
"There's absolutely no help for it," he said. "They have us at a terrible disadvantage. I dare not try and force that narrow bridge. Such a thing would be to play into their hands. So long as we can save the bridge I shall be satisfied. General Von Stein cannot be far behind."
Eustace was by no means so sanguine.
"That is all very well," he pointed out "If General Von Stein is close at hand, so also is General Moritz. This is a case of first come first served."
"Ah, you are thinking of your stores, Major."
"Yes, Lieutenant. They are my wife and family for the time being. It is a point of honour with me to get to Versailles as soon as possible. If this bridge goes, goodness knows when we shall get there."
Troop laughed under the collar of his big coat.
"Pity you did not bring them along," he said.
Eustace and Huddlestone heartily endorsed. Under the Red Cross, the passage of the stores over the bridge had been an easy matter. Meanwhile there was nothing to do but wait and wait on either side, like two terriers standing over a bone.
Neither side cared to fight, fearing the issue. No doubt by this time a trooper had posted away in the direction of General Moritz' force. Ere long there would be a big battle for the possession of the bridge of Fontnoy.
"They can't destroy it, which is a comfort," said Troop, as he dismounted and stamped his chilly feet on the gritty snow. "Meanwhile, we shall both play the waiting game. And a cold game it is, on my honour."
It was—a bitterly cold game. As the moon commenced to slide down the polished face of the heavens the air nipped still more shrewdly. Backwards and forwards tramped the Uhlans, holding their horses by the bridles and involuntarily keeping a sharp eye on the bridge in case of strategy.
Thus things continued for the longest hour Eustace ever remembered. The cold seemed to get into the brains of the Germans and freeze them. Still with dogged tenacity they held on, since a retreat was impossible.
Suddenly Troop halted in his walk.
"What are those men doing yonder?"
Four of the Frenchmen had crept on to the bridge. The last two were carrying some heavy object between them; another bore a coil of rope. At the first shot from a Uhlan carbine they scattered and concealed themselves behind the pillars of masonry dotted along the bridge.
Troop would have charged forward, but from the crest beyond the river a dozen sharpshooters were keeping the approaches open with a galling fire. The whole troop of Uhlans fell back along the road. The sharp trend of it enabled them to get almost out of carbine range a half-profile view of the bridge and its piers.
"They are trying it on," Troop said between his teeth.
As he spoke something long and sinuous shot out and struck the water. After that the figure of a man swaying and twisting went slowly downwards until he rested securely on the central pier of the bridge. A carbine shot splintered the stonework about his head. As he turned the white moonbeams fell on the fierce haggardness of Moray's face. With a gesture of defiance he stepped behind a flange of the pier.
Troop fairly danced with impotent fury. Moray had not stepped down that rope unburdened. A small round object was dimly outlined, a tiny spark like a glow-worm could be seen in an archway under the foot of the pier.
A score of carbines rang out, the bullets flattening against the stonework. But Moray seemed to bear a charmed life. Once he was positively hit, and staggered to his fall; then he recovered himself, and his voice rang out with a hoarse defiant scream. There were two glow-worms now, each increasing in brilliancy.
"Fools!" said Troop. "Is there not one of you who can shoot straight?"
It was easy to talk but difficult to execute, with that galling fire from the far side of the bridge. More than one of the Uhlans had ceased to take any further interest in mundane affairs. And as the moments sped on, Moray seemed to grow more and more reckless.
Something suddenly floated out like a white cloud from the pier. An instant later and Moray threw up his hands as he plunged for a second time that night into the icy stream. The water was smooth and inky black between the snowy fields, and when Moray came up again a steely ripple betrayed his whereabouts.
A chance shot hurriedly fired found its billet. A bubbling scream came from the throat of the Frenchman as he went down.
He came up once more. His defiant cry rang out clearly.
"A bas!" he said, "A bas—" something seemed to choke him. "Vive la France! Vive—"
Then he sank to be seen no more. As the water closed over the grey head there came a spurt of flame from the centre pier of the bridge; the fuse was kindled with the force of the concussion. Then, like a house of cards, the bridge of Fontnoy collapsed into the Moselle. A wild cheer of defiance came from the other side, and all was still.
"What a man!" was all that Troop could say. "What a man!"
They found him two days later, did a party of Moritz' chasseurs, lying upon a spit of sand, calm and placid, with a smile upon his face. They carried the body in silence back to the camp, and there they discovered rigidly clasped in his right hand his cross of the Legion of Honour. General Moritz gazed for a time upon that placid face till he turned away with quivering lips.
"They say he was a traitor," he said huskily. "Would to Heaven that France had a thousand such, for she needs them sorely now!"
MR. JOHN MORLEY—ironically termed "Honest John" in the profession of which he was so distinguished an ornament—crept round the house in the December darkness. He did not wish to intrude, his most sincere desire was to remain anonymous. At the same time the exigencies of business rendered it necessary for him to get into the house without disturbing the party at dinner.
John Morley was not alone. He was accompanied by a delicate-looking lad of some seven years, a boy with a handsome face and a pair of dark eyes that seemed to be haunted by some constant terror. Even the tyro in matters of heredity could have refused to believe that any relationship existed between the two.
"Now, look 'ere," Morley remarked in the husky voice peculiar to his class, "you sty where you be. See the window with the loight in it. That's where I'm gain'! Up the ladder, too, sty just there, and if there's anything to be seen, give me the office. Or you'll get your (adjective) head broke."
The lad shivered with something more than cold. He stood trembling, and on the alert whilst his elder produced a ladder from a belt of shrubs and laid the same against an upstairs window. A minute or two later Morley came tumbling down the ladder again. Like the victim of the Heathen Chinee, his language was "painful and frequent and free."
"I've been betrayed," he said, with honest emotion, "reglar betrayed. The sparklers is there, for I see the box, but there's iron bars to the (adjective) windows. These kind of suspicions hurts the feelings. Ten quid and a fortnight's work clean chucked awy. It's disgustin'."
"Then we are to go away?" the lad asked eagerly.
"No, we ain't there," Morley responded savagely, and with a brutal blow that caused the boy to moan with pain. "I'll knock that pride out of yer. I'll spoil that pretty honesty of yourn. We ain't going away. That ain't the kind of man John Morley is. We're goin' to stay till they all go to roost, and then the band is going to ply. And if any a 'ens gives trouble, why——"
Morley preferred to leave the sentence unfinished. He had no time to waste in idle speculation. It was bitterly cold out there, and Morley was considering if he could find shelter till the psychological moment.
"I'll try it," he muttered; "blest if I don't. They'll never dream as a cracksman's doin' a doss in the conservatory."
As yet the drawing-room of the Fastnets was empty, the house party being still under the shaded lamps in the dining-room. Morley skirted along to the half-glass door of the conservatory leading into the garden. To this skilled workman a lock like that was a mere pastime. A dexterous turn or two with a piece of peculiarly-bent wire and the door opened. A grateful whiff of warmth and fragrance gushed out. Morley gave a luxurious shudder as he closed the door and laid himself at length on a bed of dry moss behind a wall of tender green.
"Now you toddle off to sleep," he said to the boy. "There's plenty of time."
The advice was hardly needed. The youngster was tired by want of rest. The grateful warmth of the place filled him with a sense of languid comfort. His eyes closed, for the time at least care touched him with gentle fingers.
Not so Morley. The senses were at their highest tension. Anon he heard the murmur of staccato voices, the ripple of well-bred laughter. A woman with a beautiful voice sang a touching melody which brought the tears to Morley's eyes. He had ever been of a sentimental nature.
It was all new and strange and pleasing to him. Also he felt grateful for the relief from tedium thus afforded. But the best was yet to come. Voices came nearer still, a man's flexible baritone, and the trainante limpid note of a woman. By common consent they took a seat. By arranging the fern fronds, Morley could see the couple quite plainly.
The man was a model in his way, the better military model. The woman was rarely beautiful, not quite in the first blush of youth, but still, so far as Morley could judge, on the sunny side of thirty.
"Loras," Morley muttered, "spoons for a million. Strike me pink if it ain't as good as a ply, with nothing to py."
The burglar composed himself to listen. Like most of his class, he was a connoisseur in the purer emotions. From his place in the "Surrey" gallery he could howl at vice and applaud virtue triumphant with the best of them.
"Beatrice," said the hero, "I am going away to-morrow."
"I am aware of the fact, Major Lester," came the low response.
The man made a gesture of impatience.
"How cold you are," he said, "and what a short memory they have. Anyone would think that there had been no happy days in the time before you met and married Frank Walton. But for that rascal you and I would never have been robbed of eight precious years."
"He was my husband, and he is dead, George."
"If he were still alive, should I be here? When I heard that you were coming down to stay I lost no time in getting here. Better had I remained away. And you used to love me once, Beatrice."
Beatrice Walton regarded the Major almost defiantly.
"I love you still," she said, the words forced to her lips. "My husband deceived both of us. I was foolish enough to believe the evidence he produced. You were too proud to explain, and in a fit of pique I married Frank."
"Only to bitterly regret it afterwards?"
"Yes. The agony and misery of that time, God only knows. When my money was gone my husband stood out in his true colours. I did not think it possible for a man to fall so low in three years. He suffered imprisonment, as you know, and when my friends found me a home and I refused to see him again, he struck a blow at me, the effects of which I feel yet."
"You are alluding to your boy."
"I am. You cannot understand a mother's feelings. Frank was my salvation. But for him I must have lost my senses. Then my husband stole my bonny lad from me, and I have never seen him since. My husband is dead now, but my boy lives. But where? Herding with the vilest criminals, being brought up as one of them. The police can do nothing for me. And yet you wonder why I cannot settle down to a life of peace and happiness."
"But if you had the lad, Beatrice?"
"Ah, if! What a difference that would make, George, there is no more miserable woman on God's earth. I love you, and yet I cannot marry you. If I had my boy by my side—but it is no use to think of that."
"Why not, Beatrice? Why should you not give yourself to me all the same? We could look for the little chap, money can do almost anything. I could lay down my life to promote your happiness."
Beatrice shook her head tearfully. Behind the delicate green tracery of the ferns Morley was enjoying himself immensely.
"Prime!" he muttered, "Spiffin! That chap could knock spots off Wilson Barrett. I hope she'll take him. I allus likes to see these things end 'appy. But then women are always such bloomin' fools."
Beatrice rose and paced the floor in her agitation.
"Would you be content with a share of my heart?" she murmured.
Lester caught her hand eagerly.
"Only try me," he whispered. "There is room in your heart for two of us. You need not be afraid that you will forget. Your mission in life shall be mine. I must have your answer to-night, Bea.; because I shall be off so early to-morrow, if you say me nay, and goodness knows when meet again."
Beatrice hesitated. A great struggle was evidently going on in her mind. Morley felt half inclined to enter into the controversy, but a sense of modesty restrained him. And then the golden opportunity was lost.
On the scene there appeared a vivacious-looking maiden, who regarded the main actors in the drama with some reproach.
"Ah, here you are!" she said. "I've been looking for you everywhere. We are going to have some trick cycling in the gallery. Come along."
The vivacious one caught the others up as if in a whirlwind and carried them away.
Beatrice's lips formed one word, "Presently," and with that Major Lester was fain to be content. Morley felt that he, too, had a grievance.
"Pore bloke!" he muttered. "I'll bet a quid that other one tumbled to the game, and it's even money she wants the Major herself. Very near gettin' done on the post, though. I put my spondulix on the widow."
After this, things became slow for Morley. He could hear shouts and yells of laughter from the corridor, but the drawing-room was deserted, and Morley did not belong to the class who have resources in themselves. With ordinary luck he could have had those jewels, and been well on his way to town by now.
"I think I'll get forty winks," he muttered.
The forty winks were unduly expanded, for when Morley came to himself again he found the conservatory in darkness; the whole house had lapsed into a profound silence. After waiting a little while Morley lighted his lantern and looked at his watch—a valuable repeater.
"A quarter past one," he muttered. "Time I got to work. Wish I'd brought my full kit with me. Guess I'll manage to get into the drorin'-room."
But, unfortunately, with the limited means at disposal, this proved to be impossible. The inner door was coated with iron, and there were stout bolts on what Cæsar called the thither side.
"No go!" quoth the burglar. "I'll have to try one of the outside windows. One of 'em safe to be unfastened. Wake up, Ned."
He shook the boy roughly. He sat up fresh from green fields and the happy memories that blessed sleep brings. Half drunk with slumber still, he stumbled into the open air with his brutal companion. The intense cold seemed to strike him to the marrow of his bones.
He stood there shivering until the raucous voice of his companion called him.
"Look 'ere," came the hoarse voice. "We're got to get into the 'ouse. That narrer window up there is in the 'all. I'll push the catch back, and then you'll step in and unfasten the front door. Twig?"
"I—I can't do it," the boy stammered. "I'm afraid."
A sounding smack on the side of the poor lad's head sufficed to bring him to his senses and the moral obligation of things. With a thin-bladed knife, Morley pushed the catch back, and softly raised the sash. Visions of jewels galore chastened him to a feeling of savage pleasure, which was his nearest approach to amiability.
"Now, up you go, young 'un," he muttered. "I might be able to squeeze through there myself, but a close fit like that 'ud be dyngerus. The lights ain't quite out, and you can easily find your wy to the front door. Jist pull back the bolts and chynes, and there yer are."
In an agony of shivering terror Ned complied. He had never actually taken part in crimes like that before. He dropped into the hall, and stood there for a moment absolutely dazed. A lurid curse brought him to his senses. He started forward on the run, darting along in blind, headlong fashion. He crashed into a stand of armour that gave out a frightful clang. But he contrived to reach the door at length.
"Dear by," Morley muttered between his teeth. "Gentle creature, what a time you'll 'ave when I get my fist into your neck agen."
Ned fumbled with the bolts and chains. He was sobbing violently with fear and excitement. What a time it took. And if anybody came.
"My child, what are you doing there?"
Ned turned round to encounter standing in the dining-room door what his native fancy took to be an angel. As a matter of fact it was Beatrice. She had slipped down into the dining-room to leave a note where the Major would be sure to find it in the morning, because no opportunity of giving Lester an answer had presented itself before retiring.
A second before Ned's great fear had been lest somebody should come. And now when someone had come he did not feel in the least afraid. For the angel in the white and the golden hair had the sweetest face and the softest smile.
"Save me," he said, "oh, please, please to save me."
He clung to the diaphanous robes of the pitying white angel. Dirty and grimed as he was Beatrice took him up and kissed him.
"My child, who are you afraid of?" she asked.
"Him," was the reply. "He put me through the window. We were to rob the house."
As Beatrice's eyes met those of Morley a shrill cry went up from her lips. It rang through the house like a clarion cry. If not heroic the measure was effective. Doors were heard to open, and the first man who came down the stairs was the Major. He took in the whole situation at a glance. So did Morley, who deemed discretion to be the better part of valour and disappeared.
"The kid must look to himself," he muttered, "I don't want to see him any more."
"Beatrice," said the Major, "what is the matter?"
But Beatrice seemed incapable of speech. On her knees, with her arms about the little waif and stray, she was laughing and crying in a breath. There were others there, by this time looking on in silent wonder.
"Don't you see what has happened?" Beatrice cried. "It is my boy—my own boy whom I have not seen for three years. And God has sent him back to me. Ned, my Ned; is not your name Ned Walton?"
"They used to call me that," said Ned. "Are you my mother?"
"Oh, yes, yes. And you will stay with me always. Oh, George, to think that he should come back to me like this! What shall I do?"
The Major was honestly moved, and his heart was sorry for the boy who stood there looking at him with his mother's eyes.
"I could make the same suggestion," he said, "that Mr. Dick did concerning David Copperfield, under somewhat similar circumstances. Wash him!"
The tension was relieved, and everybody laughed. There seemed to be a struggle amongst the women-kind as to who should make the most of Ned. And as his mother finally recovered him and carried him off in triumph she turned to the Major. Her eyes were shining with love and happiness.
"George," she whispered, "George, you will not go away to-morrow?"
"No, my darling," responded the Major.
THE spirit of spring was in the air; a thrush piped with full-throated melody from a swinging blackthorn. Over beyond the water-meadows a ridge of larches gleamed with the tenderest green, save where their crests flamed into the sunset. A March evening full of light, a sky wind-swept and saffron to the zenith, crisp and cold, and yet it had been the sort of day when Nature turns in her sleep. There was a jingle of harness somewhere, the bleat of lambs; a long thread of noisy rooks melted into the flaming-red furnace of the west.
A quaintly hammered pair of iron gates (Quentin Matsys gates, Walter Whitworth felt certain) opened upon a winding drive, carpeted on either side by primroses and violets. It was Whitworth's destination, but he hesitated. He was not quite filled with the beauty of it yet. The silence was a little oppressive, for the din and roar of the train was in his ears still.
And he was an artist to his finger-tips. A day or two ago he had been a poor and struggling student, with nothing but genius and a fine ambition behind him. The turn of a day had changed all that He was heir to Grey Gables and a matter of some six hundred pounds a year besides. Miss Mary Bentley's prim letter testified to the fact.
It was all very dreamy as yet. Walter had not yet grasped the full measure of his happiness. Here was a young man who pined for the country. In his dull bed-sitting-room, under the tiles of a Bloomsbury lodging-house, he had drawn glowing pictures against the background of fog. He would have a country residence like Sir John Pettifer, R.A., in whose studio he worked. He thought of the dewy lawns in the sweet June twilight, of the cool splash of the sea against the moonlit rocks, of heathery uplands, and the music of the rippling waters where the ferns grew. He didn't know that he was breaking his heart for it, but he was.
And then came that advertisement, the visit to a dingy solicitor in an equally dingy office, and the production of the last will and testament of Colin Whitworth of Grey Gables, in the county of Norfolk, the uncle of whom Walter had only heard casually. For the best part of a year the family lawyer had been advertising for Walter Whitworth. The cast-iron manner of the man of enactments was in fine contrast to Walter's feelings.
'There are a few formalities, of course,' Mr Benn had said; 'but there is no reason why you should not take possession of your property. There is a distant relative of my late client's there, and a Miss Bentley who has been your uncle's housekeeper for many years. I am afraid it will be a wrench for them—um—because attached to the place, and so forth. If you can see your way to giving them a considerable latitude in the way of—er—um—'
Walter smiled. So there was a heart somewhere even in that flinty bosom....
'They shall stay as long as they like,' Walter said. 'I dare say they won't mind looking after my comfort: the plainest food, and a room to paint in. Seeing that my father is still abroad—'
'Oh, your father is still abroad, eh,' Mr Benn asked dryly. 'In his younger days I knew your father well. To put it mildly, he was a source of some anxiety to his friends. Your uncle Colin was a long way off being my ideal of a wise man, but he showed a fine discrimination when he passed over your father in favour of you. Is he likely to be away long?'
Walter muttered something to the effect that, in his capacity of a mining engineer, his father might be in Spain for months; but, on the other hand, he might be at home next week. He was vaguely impressed with the fact that Mr Benn regarded his father as a mauvais sujet. Walter would have called him a Bohemian. In all the young man's struggles he had not had the least paternal support. Jim Whitworth was proud of his son's genius; he was prodigal of good advice; but there it ended. Walter felt vaguely conscious that there was some mystery here. Mr Benn looked significantly at his watch.
'Go down to Grey Gables,' he said, 'and do your best to please Aunt Mary—I mean Miss Bentley. Good-day.'
And now Walter was at the gate of his terrestrial paradise with Miss Mary Bentley's passport in his pocket. He felt a little nervous and uneasy, for the letter had been terribly stiff and formal. There was a suggestion of chill disappointment about it, too. Walter's quick, artistic temperament had not failed to see that.
He passed up between the shining belt of primroses, past a lawn edged with old-fashioned rose-trees of the standard variety, and under an Elizabethan porch shielding a monastic door. Walter drew a breath of pure delight. He had read about these kind of things; he had studied them lovingly. In his dreams he had pictured a home of this kind when he should have grown rich and famous. There was a blurred mist before his eyes, so that the quaint brass knocker loomed large. Of course there must be an old-fashioned bell-pull somewhere—one of the hanging sort, wrought in bronze. There it was.
A bell clanged somewhere in the distance, and presently an ancient servitor appeared: an old woman amazingly clean; an old woman with white hair, and cheeks red and hard as the sunny side of an apple, and as glowing. She had on a lilac cotton-print dress and a cap of quaint design. It was almost an extinct type, the old-fashioned servant who spends all her life in one family.
'My respects to you, sir,' she said; 'you are Master Walter. And how like your father you be! But a better face, thank God—a better face!'
The last words came involuntarily, like an anxious thought put into words. There was the same strange feeling again, the feeling that his father somehow was at the bottom of some disgraceful family secret. Mr Benn had hinted as much, and old Martha was confirming it. And yet Walter knew that his father was a popular man.
'Miss Bentley is expecting me?' he asked.
'Oh dear, yes,' Martha replied. 'And you just try and be gentle with Miss Mary. The parlour isn't quite ready just yet. Here is the dining-room.'
Walter drew a deep breath. Old oak on the floors; old oak on the walls. A low ceiling that suggested Pugin, a great black settle, a Cromwellian dresser with a marvellous old willow-pattern dinner-service, some carved chests, a deep seated-window or two, a suggestion of stained glass. There snored a grandfather's clock with a date 1694 Wonderful! wonderful!
It was the same in the drawing-room. The great John Pettifer, R.A., would have raved over those fluted-backed chairs. Some cunning hand had arranged blue plates and dishes with a hawthorn pattern along the picture-rail. Spode! Walter had seen collectors tumbling over one another for worse specimens at Christie's. Had he been commercial-minded he would have appraised his surroundings highly. But he was only excited and uplifted by the atmosphere of the place. It was Tennyson's haunt of ancient peace. Some rooks were cawing somewhere. The glow of the March evening filled the room.
That was a portrait by Hoppner in the corner, of course; and there was a Lely and a Romney, also a Gainsborough, and two more portraits by Reynolds: a small collection of pictures, but all of the best The spirit of rest and refinement breathed upon everything like some magic varnish. All this belonged to the young man who had merely dreamt of such things a week ago.
Everything else was as it had been for two centuries. Behind the brass lattice of the bookcase atop of the Dutch bow-fronted bureau were old editions, the one modern volume being Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy. A Shakespeare in leather, a worn edition of Bacon, Beaumont and Fletcher, Ben Jonson, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and a long row of manuscript music-scores. Colin Whitworth had been a fine musician. There was an organ in the house built by Father Prout himself.
Tea was laid out on the oval oak table: a fine service of Chelsea, a fluted teapot circa William and Mary; six candles ready for lighting sprang from candelabra of old English Sheffield plate. The fair white cloth had a faint suggestion of lavender about it Wonderful! wonderful!
Somebody was speaking to Walter, who stood there in a waking dream. He was conscious that a timid hand was touching his shoulder. He came suddenly to earth again; the golden light was fading from the room.
'Martha told me you were here, sir,' the prim voice said. 'I have the honour to be Miss Mary Bentley, at your service, sir.'
WALTER bowed and held out his hand. The prim little figure before him took no notice. The young man's face flushed. He had come down here actuated by the kindliest thoughts and feelings. But, after all, he must make allowances.
He saw before him a slight little lady who might have been any age between thirty and fifty. Her complexion was pure and brilliant, the skin without a wrinkle. The mouth was gentle and sensitive, though now it was drawn tight with a droll attempt at sternness. The hair, piled high on the erect little head, was quite white; and the spare, dignified figure was clad in stiff gray silk; at the throat and neck was lace so beautiful that Walter was quite fascinated by it. He was a little chilled and disappointed, but the man had to be born yet who could be angry long with Miss Bentley. Despite her frosty dignity and the hauteur of her manner, she carried an atmosphere of kindness about her. The small white hands, covered with glittering gems, trembled slightly.
Walter smiled despite himself. It was such a quaint yet pleading picture! He could easily imagine that slight figure at a bedside; those slim hands were made to render hot pillows soft and cool; those dark-gray eyes——
'Aunt Mary,' Walter said with a sudden impulse, 'indeed, indeed I do want to be friends. Won't you shake hands with me?'
The sensitive mouth shook, with the ghost of a smile upon it. Two trembling little hands went out, and Walter caught them heartily. The dark-gray eyes had a yearning look in them, a touch of retrospection. They were reading Walter. He wondered why they filled with tears so swiftly.
'You are very like your mother,' Miss Bentley said. 'The same handsome features; the same fearless eyes. And yet—well, you have your mother's soul and expression. I am glad of that—ah, I am glad of that!'
'I have often heard my father speak about you,' Walter said. 'Of course I knew there was some bitter quarrel, and that the two brothers had not met for years. They called you Aunt Mary when you were quite a little girl, didn't they?'
Miss Bentley nodded with her hand pressed to her side as if some sharp pain racked her. Just for a moment the prim gray figure drew up swiftly.
'Won't you take a seat?' she asked politely.
'Certainly not!' Walter smiled. 'At least, not yet. Aunt Mary, won't you forgive me? It wasn't my fault that Uncle Colin left me this property. I never expected it. Won't you give me a kiss?'
'So like his father!' Miss Bentley murmured. 'So very like his father! And yet different.'
Her face was broken up with smiles and tears, a young face now smiling and rosy. Only the eyes were a little sad and retrospective. 'I am a silly, selfish old woman,' she cried. 'There! That is the first time a man has kissed me since—Well, never mind, sir. I told Kathleen exactly how I was going to treat you, and she laughed. I am afraid my dignity is not a robust plant But Colin Whitworth had no business to leave the property to you, sir.'
'I never expected it for a moment,' Waiter replied.
'Oh, I quite believe you. Did your father ever tell you why he and his brother Colin quarrelled so bitterly and finally?'
Walter shook his head. The little figure in the gray silk lay half-buried in a deep arm-chair, the fitful light of the log-fire touching up her pretty, thoughtful face. The crocus flames were reflected from the blue Dutch tiles of the hearth, with their presentment of the story of Ruth.
'Your father was always a popular man,' Miss Bentley said. 'There was a fascination about him. And he was so handsome, but always careless and charmingly selfish and inconsiderate for the feelings of others. Your uncle Colin was worth a score of him. Colin was engaged to your mother, and Jim—I mean James, your father—to—to somebody else. Then he ran away with your mother and married her. It was a dreadful time for—for all of us. And that's why your uncle and father never met again.'
'I am very sorry,' Walter said humbly. 'It was not a—eh, well, you know what I mean.'
'I understand, my dear boy. Then I came here to keep house, and little Kathleen followed. On the whole, we have had much to be thankful for: years and years of peace and quiet happiness. Your father's name was never once mentioned till three years ago, when he behaved so nobly over that mining business in the north of Spain. It was in all the papers. It was just the kind of reckless, magnificent bravery that your father always revelled in. And he was always so passionately fond of children!'
'Extraordinarily so,' Walter hastened to say.
'Colin Whitworth thought a great deal about it. He told me he should leave the place and the money to your father in trust for you till you came of age. After all, Kathleen was no blood-relation of his. It wasn't at all just; but it was a case where I could say nothing. So the will was made. A little over a year ago Colin told me he had changed his mind. He had heard good accounts of you. He said it would be best for an ambitious young man to make his own way. And Kathleen was ill—'
'I hope she is better now,' Walter said politely.
'Kathleen will never be better. She is dying.'
There was a ring in the little speech, a suggestion of the bitterness of death that is past. A flame leaping from the blue tiles touched the hopeless sadness of Miss Bentley's face. A new world was opening to Walter.
'You will see her presently,' Miss Bentley said. 'Kathleen is dying of consumption. We have to take the greatest care with her. A sudden chill, a cold air, and——You will see her presently. And that is why I am sore and angry with you. By all moral rights this place should be Kathleen's. Colin promised me he would revoke that will; but he put it off till it was too late. And when I heard that they had found you at last, and that you were coming down here, I was hard——'
'Aunt Mary, you were nothing of the kind. You couldn't be.'
'Well, I tried to be. I pictured you as being easy and charming and selfish, as Jim—I mean your father—used to be. You would be very polite and very fascinating; but, all the same, you were going to turn us out of the house'
'Aunt Mary, I swear to you that I never meant anything of the kind,' Walter cried. 'My father has so often spoken of you that I was quite sure from the first we should be friends.'
A blue flame seemed to give a red glow to Aunt Mary's cheeks.
'I am an artist. I have often dreamt of a home like this. Only I never expected to find anything half so perfect. Here I can follow my own bent, and do just the class of romantic picture that my soul loves. I had planned it all out as I came along. You were to look after my comfort, and find me a big room for a studio. And, on the other hand, you were to do me the favour of stopping here, and we were to be as happy as the day is long, Aunt Mary.'
Miss Bentley made no reply. She was crying softly into a cambric handkerchief. Hers was the rare kind of woman's face that looks none the worse for tears.
'Aunt Mary,' Walter said pleadingly, 'you won't go away?'
Aunt Mary dabbed her eyes with fierce little pats.
'I am a very foolish old woman,' she replied. 'Go and get ready for our high tea. Your room is the first door to the right. I am going to do the silliest thing of my life—I'm going to stay here. Goodness knows the complications and troubles there will be; but I stay. Kiss me again, my bonny boy; you are very like your—mother.'
It was quiet and still in the hall; beyond a door at the end of a passage somebody was playing the organ. Walter's artistic soul expanded to the music. He crept down the passage and opened the door.
Here was a lofty room, oak panelled and lighted by two long windows. The very place for a studio! Between the long windows the reeds of an organ upraised. A figure sat before the worn, yellow keys that gleamed in the light of two wax candles in silver sconces. The atmosphere of the place was intolerably warm by reason of a tortoise stove, the one modern innovation in the house.
The room was flooded with the glorious melody. A girl with fair shining hair and a white, purely cut face was playing, with her heart in the music. She turned suddenly; her fingers dropped on the keys; the wailing melody stole into the shadows. There was a hush of silence in the room.
Walter spoke very softly; but his words were plain to the player's ears.
'Kitty,' he said, 'what a day it has been! Oh, Kitty, Kitty!'
NO reply came from the slim figure by the organ. Her lips were parted as if she were worn by some physical struggle. The light from the high window was still on her face.
It was a fine face: white, almost transparent, with a broad forehead from which the fair hair was pushed back; a sweet, refined, noble face rather than a strictly beautiful one. The features were marked with a high intelligence; the small mouth suggested ambition.
'So you have found me out?' she said presently. Walter came forward; he noticed the clear whiteness of her hands, the fragile figure, the pure brilliancy of the complexion. His mind had not taken it all in yet. This was the girl who was dying, the Kathleen to whom Aunt Mary had alluded. The Kitty of Walter's dreams and Kathleen Evershed were one and the same.
'I ought to have told you,' the girl said without moving.
'You knew who I was all the time?' Walter asked.
'Yes. I discovered that the first time we met in Mrs Pettifer's drawing-room. You see, I had heard a great deal about your father——'
'Not all to his advantage, I expect.'
'No. But I—I liked you. We both had ambition; we were both full of enthusiasm. You were to make your fortune as a painter, and I as a musician. It was your uncle who first fired my ambition in that way. He played the organ like a master; you shall hear some of his compositions.'
Kitty Evershed spoke rapidly, nervously. She seemed to have some difficulty with her breathing. Walter watched her with shining eyes.
'But why did you run away from me?' he asked.
'But I didn't; at least not in the way you mean. I never went to the Pettifers' again because I was afraid of meeting you. But you found me out, and we met elsewhere. They were happy days for me, Walter. But I was frightened because I feared what they would say at home.'
'There was no reason why we should not have loved one another, Kitty.'
'Perhaps not,' Kitty said doubtfully. 'I don't know. But as I was going to be a great composer and you a great painter, it didn't seem to matter. Then I had to come down here because I was ill. Soon after that Dr Evans told me I was dying of consumption. He gave me a year to live. I don't think that anybody quite realises what a sentence like that means. And that is why I never gave you a sign or a word. Your pride would be wounded; you would try and forget me. It would save you much pain and suffering.'
'You knew that I should never forget you.'
'Perhaps I hoped that you wouldn't. I tried to arrange it so that you shouldn't find me. It was only for a year, and then it would be all over. And so it comes about that Uncle Colin is dead, and I linger on waiting for the end. But you couldn't be found, and that gave me a cold kind of comfort And then your letter came, and I dared not tell Aunt Mary after all that time. Oh! I did it all for the best.'
Her voice shook; she could say no more. Walter caught up the slim hand still resting on the keys. The golden glory beyond the long windows was fading to a pale-gray like the dim light on Kitty's face.
'I am not going to believe it,' Walter cried. 'Kitty, I have never kissed you yet. But I am going to kiss you now, because you belong to me. We are going to fight this thing together. Just now I thought I had found everything that my heart wanted. But if I am going to lose you, the rest matters nothing.'
He took the girl in his arms and kissed her. A page of music fluttered to the floor. It was the piece that had attracted Walter to the room.
'This is your own?' he asked.
'Yes,' Kitty said hopelessly. 'It is part of a short oratorio. People say that it will live, that I have a fine future. As if they knew! But I shall never see it; I shall never see the day when——Walter, suppose you were suddenly blind! Try to imagine yourself blind, and then you may understand.'
Walter could feel the slender frame shaking passionately. Words seemed cold things to pour on a sorrow like this. Kitty dried her eyes, and a smile shone on her face.
'I have finished,' she said almost gaily. 'I have never broken down like this before, even to Aunt Mary. Was she very frigid to you, Walter?'
'She tried to be,' Walter laughed. 'The regal dignity of five-feet-one! But her eyes betrayed her, and when I called her Aunt Mary and asked for a kiss, she yielded like the dear old soul she is. She's quite in love with me now.'
'Can't you understand why that should be?'
Walter responded that he could see nothing to account for the change beyond his own merits and virtues. But his humour was subdued.
'Did Aunt Mary say anything about your father?' Kitty asked.
'Little to his credit,' Walter admitted. 'Personally, I am fond of my father, though I don't see him much. But he seemed to have behaved badly by stealing the affections of my uncle Colin's choice, and deserting somebody else who——'
'But surely you can guess who that somebody else was?'
'Aunt Mary?', Walter cried. 'Of course! I might have seen that by the way she looked at me. And she said I was very like my mother. Kitty, I believe she is the dearest little woman in the world.'
In the hall a chiming gong made music. Kitty threw a shawl over her head.
'I must make a dive for tea,' she said. 'I have to avoid all draughts and cold airs. It seems superfluous, but these are the doctor's orders.'
Walter followed thoughtfully. It was hard to believe that that bright young life was so near an end. It could not be; it must not be. Walter set his teeth together and choked down a sob. Aunt Mary stood smiling behind the big tea-urn. She was glad, she said, that the young people had found each other out. Why, they might have known each other for years!
'So we have,' Walter said coolly. 'Aunt Mary, a great surprise awaits you. I am going to tell you a love-story—Kitty's and mine.'
'Well, I never did!' Aunt Mary exclaimed.—'Kitty, I am ashamed of you. I don't know when I have been so angry.'
'You never were angry in your life,' Kitty said sweetly. 'You don't know what it means.'
'Well, perhaps not,' Aunt Mary said, setting her cap severely.—'Tell me all about it, Walter. I made those fish-cakes especially for you.'
It was a pleasant meal, despite the dark shadows that had lain over Grey Gables for the past few months. Walter told his story simply, Aunt Mary following with a smile on her face and the tears in her eyes. Then she drew Walter on to speak of his hopes and ambitions: how he meant to travel all over the cities for himself; how Rome the desirable, the unattainable, was now in his hands.
'I'm sure you can't grudge Walter the property after that,' Kitty said. 'It would have been useless to me—to Walter it means everything. And now let us have some more music. Aunt Mary, do have another look in the old Dutch bureau for that fugue of Uncle Colin's. I know it's amongst the manuscript music somewhere.'
Aunt Mary made up her accounts, solemnly debated the next day's domestic programme with Martha, and folded up her work-basket with mathematical precision. Then she donned a huge cotton apron and proceeded to take down a dozen volumes of manuscript music, most of it original compositions of the late Colin Whitworth.
One volume after another was disposed of, but the missing fugue was nowhere to be found. Perhaps Aunt Mary's search was not a very careful one, for her eyes were dim to-night, and her mind was full of bitter-sweet imaginings.
The little love-story, with its inevitable sad ending, touched her. And yet it was far better as it was. Kitty was dying. The property would have been no use to her. And to Walter it had meant everything. What a nice boy he was; how clever and ambitious! Colin Whitworth had always intended to change that impulsive will made after Jim's gallant exploit in Spain, and leave the property to Kitty. Here was a letter from Mr Benn urging him to do so. Mary had remembered that letter. She turned it over idly. A reply in Colin Whitworth's handwriting was duly set out on the other side. Aunt Mary fumbled for her spectacles. She read the letter; then she sat down with her limbs shaking.
'Shall I?' she murmured. 'I recollect my father telling me that a document like that—Yesterday I should not have hesitated. To-day it would be wicked folly. And he is so like his—mother.'
She dropped the letter back, and restored the volume to its place. Then she blew out the candles as if she had done something that needed the shelter of the darkness.
THE big music-room had been transformed almost beyond recognition. In the centre stood a huge easel with a partially finished picture upon it. Walter's two sets of old armour had been imported from London; a carpet had been laid on the floor; there were pictures on the walls and old furniture scattered here and there. Kitty's taste had provided the flowers and their settings.
'It's grand!' Walter exclaimed, with swelling pride. 'I used to envy Pettifer his studio, and wonder when I should have one like it And now look at this!'
'Sir Walter Whitworth, P.R.A.,' Kitty laughed, 'as seen at home in the pages of the illustrated weekly papers. Here is the celebrated Flemish buffet, yonder the Lady Erskine by Hoppner. You are a lucky man, sir.'
Kitty coughed and dropped into a chair. She was looking terribly white and fragile. There was a dull, echoing pain at Walter's heart. Sometimes that dreadful trouble was forgotten; at others Walter fought against it with passionate rebellion. The atmosphere of the studio oppressed him; it was like a greenhouse.
'I am,' Walter sighed dubiously; 'I suppose I am. And if I were to say——Hullo!'
The studio door opened breezily, and a big man in a large-pattern tweed suit stood in the doorway. He was bronzed and bearded; he had a reckless, easy air, and a large cigar in his mouth. He looked just a little disturbed as he noticed Walter's companion.
'Why,' Walter cried, 'it's my father!—I thought you were in Mexico.'
'Just back,' James Whitworth said, with the contempt for distance of the seasoned traveller. 'Finished the job there; back in England looking for another. Pettifer told me of your good fortune, so I thought I'd run down and see you. As you're of age now, my authority over you ceases; but, unless I am mistaken, I am still more or less guardian to this young lady here.'
He held out his hand with a frank smile that most people found so taking. With his bright, breezy selfishness, James Whitworth was not an easy person to snub.
'I am sorry Miss Bentley is not here to receive you,' Kitty said coldly.
'I declare I had forgotten all about her,' Whitworth cried, as if the circumstance was one of the most natural in the world. 'To be perfectly candid, I expected to find Walter in bachelor quarters here. Otherwise—well, I treated Mary Bentley shamefully years ago, and, with all my faults, I'm not blackguard enough to—you understand. My dear young lady, you know all about the story, or the expression of your face belies you. Upon my word, I really am most dreadfully sorry.'
In a vague kind of way, Kitty seemed to feel that James Whitworth was more sorry for himself than anybody else. Yet he was a brave man and loyal to his friends, and he had a perfect passion for little children. Kitty had heard that often. Instability and a desire for change were the alloys that had spoilt his character.
Kitty slipped away, leaving father and son together. Whitworth roamed restlessly about, puffing furiously at his cigar.
'What's the matter with that girl?' he asked. Walter explained. He had a sympathetic listener.
It was a chord that touched Whitworth. He would have parted with his coat to help anybody in sorrow or trouble. The romantic vein in his nature was tapped. Kitty was wonderfully beautiful, and Walter loved her.
'Never heard anything so sad, so pathetic,' Whitworth said huskily. 'That girl must be saved; she must go away. Change is everything in this matter.'
'Change requires money,' Walter said coldly.
'I see. And the poor girl hasn't got any. Also, you are quite sure that neither she nor Aunt Mary would hear of touching yours. Who's the doctor?'
'Mr Evans of Morton Cross.'
'What! that old ass? Biggest old humbug in the profession. Why, he was pretty well past his work when I left home. What's the course of treatment?'
'Perfect seclusion from draughts, a high temperature, and all—'
'I knew it. My dear chap, that poor girl is being slowly murdered. That old-fashioned way of dealing with consumption is as dead as Queen Anne. I'll go and see Partridge. He's got a place at Ambermouth yonder where he comes every weekend. I once saved Partridge's life on the Mosquito Coast years ago, and he'll do anything for me. We'll have that girl of yours about in no time. Fresh air—lots of it—bedroom window open all night all the year round, and, when she's up to it, a trip to St Moritz. Got a cycle of any sort about the place?'
The big man spoke in sanguine, strident tones; in his mind the desired end was already accomplished. It was the buoyant spirit that had lifted him beyond the reach of many a peril. Walter caught a little of the infection.
'Dr Evans will permit no interference,' he said doubtfully.
'Won't he?' Whitworth said, with a resolute air. 'I'll see Evans presently. I'll open his eyes for him. Do you think I am going to stand by and see a lovely creature like that done to death? If you've got as much feeling as I have——'
He paused with just a touch of colour on his bronzed cheeks. A slight gray figure stood silently in the doorway. Her lips were parted; her hands were pressed to her side. Otherwise she gave no sign whatever.
'I did not think it possible,' she began, 'that—'
'I didn't do it on purpose,' Whitworth said. He stood there downcast and ashamed; all his buoyant manner had vanished. 'I swear I had no notion you were here, Mary. If I didn't know that you had forgiven me—-'
'I forgave you long ago, James.'
There was a strange contrast between the two figures, the one so small and gray, so upright; the other big and loud, and yet bent as if caught in some shameful practice.
'I'll go away,' Whitworth said, with loud meekness. 'I'll take my blackguardly self off. I never cared much for any one, so I can't expect any one to care much for me. But I didn't know; upon my word, I didn't know.'
'I believe that,' Miss Bentley said in a low voice; 'I believe that—'
'I was never half good enough for you, Mary.'
'I knew that too. I always knew that you were not the man to make any woman happy for long. But that didn't prevent my loving you, Jim.'
There was no reproach in the speech, no anger or resentment, nothing but sorrow. The humiliation of the man was so complete that Walter was fain to come to the rescue.
'My father is greatly distressed by what I have told him about Kitty,' he said; 'and he is quite convinced that Dr Evans's treatment is all wrong. The modern cure is practically an open-air one.'
Miss Bentley stiffened visibly. She had all the prejudices of the old school to her finger-tips. She and the recreant Evans had not been doctoring the whole parish all these years for nothing. Aunt Mary's essences and herb-teas were famous. There was one noted cure of a stubborn rheumatism where even a great London doctor had failed.
'Nothing has been left undone,' she said. A little red spot glowed on either cheek. 'Dr Evans is very sound. The modern "cure" is murder. Expose my dear child to all kinds of weather; expose those delicate lungs to air! My dear Walter, I would sooner cut off my right hand. Kitty would be dead in a week. In this respect you will find me firm—quite firm.'
She drew herself up; her little foot tapped the floor imperiously. A great principle was at stake. Walter poured oil on troubled waters.
'But, aunt, 'he urged, 'there have been some wonderful cures. The most famous physicians in the world are adopting the open-air cure. And Kitty is dying. Even your friend Evans gives her but a few months to live. We won't hurt his feelings, but we will get him to call Partridge in. It is our duty to try it.'
He spoke pleadingly, and Miss Bentley obviously faltered for a moment. Then she drew herself up resolutely again.
'I cannot discuss the matter further,' she said. 'I came to tell you that luncheon was ready. I am going to give James Whitworth the tulip-panelled bedroom.'
She swept out of the room with her head high in the air, the gray silks rustling. But the offender had been forgiven; the pregnant information as to the tulip-panelled bedroom proved that.
'The best and kindest and dearest little creature in the world,' Whitworth cried, with a little click in his throat, 'but as absolutely obstinate as a loving woman can be. But I'm going to have my own way over this, Wat.'
'Indeed, sir; and how do you propose to get it?'
'Oh, I've thought out a way. Under my brother's will, I am guardian to Kitty until she comes of age. If necessary, I am going to enforce that authority. I don't often do a wise thing, but I 'in pretty sure I'm about to do one now. Old Evans is going to have a lovely afternoon.'
DR ROBERT EVANS partook of his breakfast with the meek and contrite air of a man who knows that he thoroughly deserves the lecture to which he is being subjected. Usually the doctor was accounted rather a terrible person, except to his housekeeper. The rest of the world he rather bullied. He was a small, round, bald man, exceedingly neat and clean-shaven and old-fashioned. His knowledge of archaeology and entomology was international; beyond that, his fellow-practitioners whispered that Evans was an old woman, and he was darkly suspected of such exploded practices as cupping and bleeding.
The doctor had personally attended a call in the middle of the night, a thing absolutely forbidden by the housekeeper, Mrs Allnutt. In vain the little man pleaded that his assistant was quite tired out, and that it was an urgent case.
'Don't tell me,' Mrs Allnutt replied vigorously. 'If you ain't wise at seventy-one, when do you expect to be? And, of course, to make matters worse, you must go off without your flannel waistcoat!'
'Bless my soul! so I did,' the doctor said meekly. 'I'm very sorry.'
'Yes; and it's still sorrier you'll be when you 're lying in your grave with pneumonia,' the housekeeper went or relentlessly. 'Here's Miss Bentley coming up the drive to ask your advice about something or another. She'd get a deal more sense if she consulted my scullery-maid, I'm thinking.'
With which parting shot Mrs Allnutt went out and Miss Bentley came in. Dr Evans wiped his heated face hurriedly. The mingled distress and relief of his features conjured the ghost of a smile to Aunt Mary's lips.
'Mrs Allnutt is in a militant mood to-day?' she suggested.
'A most excellent woman,' Evans said hurriedly, 'and absolutely devoted to my interests. The fact is, I was called out last night and I forgot to put on my—er—um. There's a meeting of the Field Club at Ambermouth this afternoon, and Mrs Allnutt insists—I mean suggests—that I should not go. But there! How is the patient?'
'The patient is no better and no worse. Dr Evans, my dear old friend, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but isn't it just possible that you have made a mistake in your treatment of the case?'
'Bless my soul! no,' Evans said. 'Why?'
Miss Bentley gazed absently round the room. Her eyes were turned from a large case of butterflies to the cleanly pink of Evans's cheeks.
'James Whitworth is absolutely certain of it,' she said.
'James Whitworth! My dear Mary! You don't say—you don't really say—that fellow is at Grey Gables?'
'Indeed he is, Dr Evans.'
'And knowing that you were in the house all the time?'
'He was ignorant of that He was quite distressed about it And, with all his faults, I never knew him to tell a lie.'
'Urn!' Evans muttered, with plentiful lack of enthusiasm. 'You were very angry with him, of course. You informed him that it was impossible for both of you to stay under the same roof. After that he withdrew, with many apologies. Of course that is exactly what happened.'
'Dr Evans, if you are going to be sarcastic I shall ring the bell for Mrs Allnutt'
'Don't; please don't. There was another alternative. It was to make Jim Whitworth welcome, and give him the tulip-panelled bedroom.'
'That's exactly what I did do,' said Aunt Mary, pinkly defiant
Dr Evans replied, with shameless change of port, that he should have been frankly disappointed if Aunt Mary had acted otherwise. She was the kindest and dearest woman in the world; also, Walter Whitworth was a fine young fellow.
'But I am quite right as regards Kitty,' he said firmly. 'I stick to my guns there.'
'And I entirely agree with you,' Miss Bentley replied. 'There must be no change, though James Whitworth insists upon it'
'Oh, he insists upon it!' Evans said blankly. 'Why?'
'Because he says your treatment is all wrong. He declares you to be old-fashioned and hopelessly out of date. He wants to have all the doors and windows open. Kitty is to have a bedroom in the corridor.'
'And he'll get his own way, too,' Evans growled. 'He always did have his own way—confound him!—ever since he was a boy. Does he want to murder the girl? Not that he cares a scrap about that so long as he gets his own way. I tell you that open-air cure is a dangerous fad. I never saw anybody who benefited by it. Didn't we cure Lucy Stiles exactly as I am trying to cure Kitty?'
'James says the Stiles family merely have weak lungs.'
'Much he knows about it! But I am firm; I am resolute. Once roused, and James Whitworth will find me a difficult man to deal with'
'And he wants you to call Dr Partridge into consultation.'
Dr Evans's jaw dropped. If he was a man of iron will and resolution, his looks very much belied him. Dr Partridge belonged to the modern neck-or-nothing school that Evans heartily despised; but then more than one poor body clad in the purple had passed through the hands of that eminent specialist with magnificent results. It was all very well to pooh-pooh the methods of the great surgeon who made Ambermouth his holiday-resort.
'It appears that James once saved Dr Partridge's life,' Mary went on; 'but that has nothing to do with it. I want you to stand firm'
'To the last ditch, my dear Mary.'
'James is coming to see you. You have only to be resolute.'
'Oh, he is coming to see me? And I have only to be resolute? My dear Mary, if you had put your foot down firmly at first you might have saved me—I mean after that there would have been no more to be said.'
'My dear doctor, James Whitworth is not shaken off so easily. You know his ways.'
Evans nodded. He did know those ways by painful experience; and however elaborately he might lay his plans, Whitworth was certain to carry his idea into effect.
'I shall convince him that he is mistaken,' he said.
Miss Bentley sincerely hoped so. All the old-fashioned prejudices in the little gray body were aroused. It was easy to see that she belonged to a bygone generation. Change, reform of any kind, was absolutely painful to her; and she was sincerely impressed with the idea that any alteration in the treatment of Kitty would only hasten the end.
'I'll do all I can for you,' Evans concluded,' if you'll send that impetuous fellow here—'
'Mr James Whitworth to see you,' Mrs Allnutt said as she entered the room with no suggestion of ceremony. 'He is in the consulting-parlour, and he's just as good-looking and impertinent as ever he was.'
The woman's face glowed with pleasure; she might have been a mother who had announced the return of a favourite son.
'Now, what do you think of that?' Evans cried indignantly. 'That woman in my hearing scores of times has vowed and declared that if ever Jim Whitworth came this way again she'd throw a bucket of dirty water over him. And she's as pleased as Punch.'
'I'm afraid it will be a trying interview,' Aunt Mary said, gathering up her skirts for flight
'Oh, it will,' Evans said with pathetic melancholy. 'I will be firm—firm!'
THE wind had gone round to the west; there had been rain during the night, so that the beds of hyacinths gave out a subtle perfume. The jonquils were nodding in the borders; under a lichen-strewn apple-tree was a carpet of yellow daffodils. It was so mild and warm after tea that Kitty had begged for a little turn outside.
She was walking up and down now, leaning on Walter's arm. In the strong flush of sunshine she looked terribly white and fragile. She had to walk slowly, to pause every now and then with her hand on her heart. The exertion of breathing parted her lips and showed the little white teeth within. Just for a moment Walter looked across to the wide sweep of landscape beyond the garden, but he could see nothing but a blurred gray mist. It seemed so-hard, such a useless mockery without Kitty.
'You are not so well to-night,' Walter said gently.
'I don't know,' Kitty replied. 'I fluctuate so terribly. This morning I felt splendid, as if new life came to me. I was going to have a long day at the organ, my mind was full of lovely melodies, my oratorio was to grow apace, and your father actually found me two of the fugues that Uncle Colin left unfinished. Then the room seemed to grow suddenly oppressive, and I could only lie down all the morning.'
Walter nodded in sympathy. He had worked all the morning in an atmosphere that seemed to take the life out of him. For Kitty's sake he had endured it And if old Dr Evans proved to be wrong after all!
But Walter did not dare to think of that; the mere suggestion set his heart beating painfully. No; he must brace himself up for the inevitable. Kitty would be with him for a few months longer; then she would pass away into a beautiful, tender memory. He would work, and forget the past in his labour. Yet he would cheerfully have forfeited everything and started again with nothing but hope and ambition to know that the girl by his side would be with him always.
The little gray figure of Aunt Mary came into the porch presently, and gently reproached Kitty for her imprudence. She begged for one more turn round the garden, for the evening was mild and balmy, and the air eased the pressure on her lungs. A big figure in a loud check loomed over the little shadow in the gray silk; there was a smell of a cigar on the air.
'If you would keep this poor child out in the fresh air for a month right away,' James Whitworth said in his strong, confident voice, 'she would be well on the way to recovery. If something isn't done I shan't be able to stay here.'
'We are not disposed to hamper you,' Aunt Mary said coldly.
She stepped out on to the gravel with her head in the air. Whitworth walked mildly by her side, whistling softly to himself. Presently the small gray figure shrank a little and the clear face began to flush.
'I am sure I beg your pardon,' Miss Bentley said. 'I am very, very sorry. I can't imagine how I came to say such a thing.'
'Never was there a woman like you in the world before!' Whitworth cried. 'And what a blackguard I have been! It would have been less cruel to knock me down out of hand. But I should never have made you happy, Mary.'
'I don't think you would, James. But a woman in love rarely thinks of those things; and the past is buried.'
'And flowers grow on its grave, planted and lovingly tended there by you, Mary. I hurt your feelings just now, and I'm sorry for it; but I honestly meant what I said. I am a man of action. I simply can't sit down here and see that poor girl die without doing something to avert the tragedy.'
'Everything possible has been done. If loving care counts for anything—'
'Then Kitty would be the strongest girl alive; but everything possible has not been done. I say that Evans's treatment is entirely and utterly wrong. With the very best intentions, the poor child is being slowly done to death. My dear Mary, I have seen cases of that kind cured.'
'Not similar cases to Kitty's,' Miss Bentley said with gentle obstinacy.
'There you are! You won't be convinced. I have known men in South Africa who have come out as a last resource to see what open air will do for them. They came with death written on their faces. A few months later and—well, you should see them!'
'Tom and Albert Cotton went to Canada for the same reason, and they were both dead before they had been there a month.'
'Because they waited too long. You can't expect Nature to perform miracles. Kitty has not gone too far. If so, she wouldn't possess so much nervous energy. That fine spirit of ambition would have been quenched long ago. I love that girl as I love my boy. It is only since I came down here that I have realised how shamefully I have neglected Walter. I met two big painter fellows in London the other day, and they were loud in praise of my boy. Now that he has money behind him his fortune is made. I've nothing of my own, but I shall not touch a penny of his. And I thank God for giving my boy the great and glorious chance. By every moral right the money ought to have gone to Kitty. Up to a certain point my brother intended her to have it'
'He never really changed his mind,' Aunt Mary said quietly.
'I suppose not. It was that affair in Spain. It was nothing wonderful either.'
Whitworth put this aside with contempt His sanguine nature was full of Walter's future. It seemed to dominate all his ideas, to rob him of all the selfishness that had ever been his besetting sin. And he was going to save Kitty. Walter's good fortune would be as nothing unless he had Kitty by his side. He did not care a jot for the opinion of a thousand of the Evans type. He had seen Evans that morning, and he had very soon put that individual in his place.
'All the same, I shall not allow it,' Miss Bentley said. 'I cannot. If Kitty came to premature harm I should feel like a murderess.'
'Well, it's going to be done,' Whitworth said coolly, 'and the sooner you make up your mind to it the better. Those young people have gone in, I see. Come along—I promised Kitty to overhaul some more of that old music for her.'
But Miss Bentley elected to remain outside. She was anxious and disturbed. She was going to fight for her old tenets to the last gasp. At the same time she fully realised the strong mind that was bending her. In her heart of hearts she knew that sooner or later she would have to yield. But when the little woman in gray felt that she had right on her side she could go far.
Still, she was troubled and uneasy. All that James Whitworth had said came back to her now: his sanguine hopes, his new-found pride in his boy, his breathless, eager interest in Walter's career. And he had spoken with tears in his eyes of Kitty. Aunt Mary's love for James Whitworth was dead and decently buried years before. She had forgiven him as she had forgiven everybody, but she had never respected the man quite as much as she did to-day.
The mellow notes of the old organ stole into the garden. Walter was singing. Out of the mists a rotund figure absurdly wrapped up loomed largely by the side of the little lady in gray.
'Dr Evans!' Miss Bentley cried. 'Why, what does—'
'Had to,' Evans said with resignation. 'Mrs Allnutt insisted upon it. Otherwise she would have assuredly spoilt my dinner.'
'And so you braved her wrath to come and see me. That was very good of you.'
'Not at all; not at all,' Evans gasped. 'Do you think anybody could see from the road if I took this muffler off? I was anxious in my mind. I had a most exhausting interview with Whitworth to-day.'
'I was afraid of it Still, so long as you were firm—'
'But, my dear lady, I wasn't. To begin with, I was dignified. I sheltered myself behind my superior medical knowledge. I said I was quite prepared to answer any questions, but I could not—I really could not—open a discussion upon my treatment of the case with a mere layman.'
'And what did he say to that?'
'He laughed, simply laughed in my face. He implied that I was a greater ass than he had taken me for. My views on butterflies and on old Gothic architecture he respected. And then he bullied me. He actually called in Mrs Allnutt to back him up. Oh, it was a dreadful time!'
Dr Evans wiped his heated face from a fine perspiration not entirely due to the closeness of the evening. Aunt Mary was duly sympathetic.
'So long as the argument was general it didn't matter,' she said.
'But, my dear Mary, the argument was not general,' Evans cried. 'That man has been reading up his facts. He quoted cases against me. He seemed to know all about what the new school call the consumptive bacillus. Then I really had to stand upon my dignity, and ask him by what right he interfered on behalf of Miss Evershed.'
Miss Bentley drew her breath quickly. A more observant man than the doctor would have noticed her trembling agitation.
'And what did he say to that?' she murmured.
'Why, as her guardian. Under the will of Colin Whitworth, you know. Of course he had me there, and he was not slow to see his advantage. Never was there such a man before. I never meant to yield; I was going to be quite firm. And yet, before I knew what I was doing, I had actually promised about Partridge.'
'Oh, indeed,' Miss Bentley murmured. 'And, pray, what was the promise you made?'
'Why, to see him in consultation, of course. Naturally, I shall have to be exceedingly firm with Partridge. It will be my duty to point out to him that, with all his great skill and with all his wonderful cures, there are cases where humble men have made a critical study of patients.'
Miss Bentley cut this tirade short coldly.
'You have made a great mistake,' she said. 'Dr Partridge may come—indeed it is inevitable now; but nothing shall induce me to follow a different course of treatment And if it comes to the worst, I shall be able to prove that——But I am talking nonsense. Good-night, Dr Evans.'
She turned on her heel and walked slowly and thoughtfully towards the house.
THE family party at Grey Gables bad assembled in the studio. James Whitworth could smoke his strong cigars there without let or hindrance. He was the kind of man who liked plenty of space. The candles were lighted on the organ; a large shaded lamp stood in one of the high window recesses; another one glowed on a big oak table. There were flowers everywhere. The artistic beauty of it all—the mellowed oak, the pictures, the carved rafters, the slender figure before the organ—appealed to Whitworth with a strange new force. For the first time in his life he realised what home meant.
And the life and light of it was Kitty. It would all be as the earth without the sun when she was gone. She looked so bright and well this evening! It seemed hard to realise that the red of her cheeks was the flag of death. James Whitworth swallowed a hard lump down.
The soft melody died away in the carved rafters. Miss Bentley declared aloud that Kitty had played enough.
'But I feel so particularly well and strong tonight,' the girl pleaded.—'Uncle Jim, where is that fugue you promised to find for me?'
'My dear child, I am one of the finest promisers in the world,' Whitworth cried. 'I'll go and look at once.'
He went off in his bustling, imperious way. A solitary lamp glowed in the dining-room. Colin Whitworth's musical library lay dully behind the brass trellis-work of the bookcase over the Dutch bureau. With characteristic energy Whitworth tumbled a score of the bound manuscripts on the table. It was also characteristic of the man that he found what he desired. As he bundled the volumes back again a paper slipped out of one of them, a letter in the neat handwriting of his dead brother.
There were words here and there that he could not fail to see. Whitworth's face was very grave as he read. Then he carefully placed the letter where he had found it, and made a mental note of the volume. He puffed mechanically at his cigar, utterly unconscious that it was extinguished.
'Well, here's a pretty discovery!' he said, addressing a stately Romney on the opposite wall. 'Here's a puzzle for a Puritan! Well, the truth must be told, cruel blow as it will be to poor Walter. Still, that lad is certain to make his way in the world. And if I tell the truth? Stop.'
He frowned hard at the serenely unconscious Romney.
'Stop. If ever there was a case of the end justifying the means, it is here. If I speak now, I lose my grip on Mary and Kitty. The dear little gray lady will be in a position to defy me. And Kitty? Well, Kitty must be saved. Yes, I'm pretty sure I'm on the side of the angels in this business.'
He sauntered back to the studio, dangling the faded manuscript in his hand. He did not look in the least like a dark conspirator. With a pleased little smile Kitty began to play. Aunt Mary, by the light of one of the big lamps, was knitting industriously. Whitworth drew up a chair to her side.
'Why are you looking so preternaturally grave?' he said.
Aunt Mary's lips moved for a moment. She was counting her stitches. Whitworth had to repeat the question before he got any reply.
'I am in great trouble,' she said. 'Dr Evans came up just before dinner. I find that you have been bullying him unmercifully.'
'Nothing of the kind. I went to his house to-day, as I told you I should, and gave him a piece of my mind about Kitty. He was disposed to be obstinate, but I soon knocked that nonsense out of him.'
'You found him very firm?' Aunt Mary asked, with a slight smile.
'I found him very pig-headed. But, of course, he hadn't a ghost of a chance with me from the very first. He consented to a consultation with Partridge. I've written to Partridge to come over here to-morrow afternoon, being Saturday. By this time to-morrow we shall have started the new treatment.'
Whitworth spoke as if the whole thing was settled. He might have been the head of the universe. The little gray lady's lips grew rigid.
'I think not,' she said. 'Of course, I shall be deeply interested in hearing what Dr Partridge has to say. But I go no further. From the bottom of my heart, I firmly believe that the best possible means for prolonging Kitty's life are being taken. To make a change now would be nothing but murder. James, I am forced to forbid it entirely.'
'Then you push me to extremes,' Whitworth replied. 'The happiness of two people is at stake. I don't want to be brutal; I don't want to remind you that our little Kitty is doomed to die, because you already know it. The whole thing is in the nature of a delicate and dangerous operation on an expiring patient. If it is successful, she lives; if not, then she dies in any case.'
'You are too strong and wise for me, James.
But I object If God wills it——'
'Well, the retort to that is obvious to any one besides an illogical woman. Now, listen to me, Mary. A few years ago my brother made his will. For the moment his heart was soft to me because he was pleased to consider that I had done a creditable action. He left everything to Walter, and I was to be his trustee till he came of age. He is of age now, and his own master. But Colin also left me guardian to his dear young relative Kathleen Evershed. That puts you out of the count, Aunt Mary.'
Miss Bentley gasped. The smooth melody of the organ softened the voices. The cruel power of the man was gradually unfolding itself.
'You can't do it,' she said. 'There is no reason why. I can prove to you by—James, James, you are never going to use this cruel advantage?'
'Indeed I am. Call me a brute if you like. It is the only way possible to save the life of that dear little girl opposite. It seems a brutal thing to do after you have so carefully tended her all these years; but I must be firm.'
'I am quite certain that Dr Evans——'
'Will throw you over. Indeed, he has practically done so already. Partridge will turn him inside-out in ten minutes. Try and discount your disappointment, Mary. When that conference comes to an end to-morrow, Evans will be against you. He may be pompous, but he will be plastic.'
Aunt Mary urged her case no further. She knew the resolute nature of her opponent Her lips were tightly pressed together; she had all the aspect of one who is conquered. And yet her lips were tightly pressed together to guard the secret that struggled for words and freedom behind them.
She was not quite sure yet whether she ought to speak or not. She could not fight off the impression that James Whitworth was acting for the best. There was a terrible element of doubt as to whether he was right and she criminally wrong. But the old-world prejudices of the little gray lady were not to be swept aside like that. And she had a terrible weapon behind her.
Should she unmask her battery? The silver-throated organ had ceased; Walter was talking to Kitty, who looked up radiantly into his animated face. He was speaking of Rome and the wonderful things he was going to do there.
A few words and Aunt Mary could have stripped the happiness from that glowing young animated face, she could have tumbled down the house of cards. But for what end? Merely to bolster up what might prove to be a stupid prejudice. And before long Kitty would be no more. Aunt Mary's lips closed together; the secret was conquered.
'Really, it is dreadfully late,' Kitty cried. 'I can only justify myself by saying that I feel so well this evening, I am afraid that when Dr Partridge comes to-morrow he will decline to regard me as an invalid.'
'So you have heard all about that?' Aunt Mary asked blankly.
'Walter told me. I promised him I would not get excited. But, all the same, it has given me hope. If you only knew how I want to live, what a pleasant world I find it now——' She stopped and smiled unsteadily.
James Whitworth huskily proclaimed the fact that he must have caught a cold somewhere. Walter looked steadily at a picture that he could not for the moment see.
'Go to bed,' Aunt Mary said with amiable ferocity. 'Don't you see it's nearly eleven? We are all silly people together, and I am the silliest of the lot' She took her candle from the old chest in the hall and marched stiffly upstairs. The silent tears were running down her cheeks. She was beaten and baffled, and yet she was not in the least angry. Nobody could possibly have believed it, but Aunt Mary looked as if she had been doing something to be ashamed of.
PLUNGING horse in a high dogcart cut up the gravel in front of Grey Gables, and a jolly-looking, well-built man clad in tweeds stepped out He looked more like a prosperous gentleman-farmer than anything else, only there was something about the keen eyes and clean-shaven lips that suggested a successful barrister. But he had a very pleasant mouth, and the gray eyes had a twinkle in them. Dr Partridge brought an air of cheery confidence with him; he was a good doctor to have in the house. Day in and day out he grappled with death, but ever with a smile on his face and a serene confidence in the future.
'Well, Whitworth?' he said breezily.—'Miss Bentley, this is a pleasure I have tried to anticipate for a long time. Do you know, that fellow Whitworth once saved my life.—Dr Evans, I am very glad to meet you. I am taking up entomology. Would you mind imparting some of your learning to a willing pupil?'
Evans went over to the enemy at once under the eyes of Aunt Mary. James Whitworth caught her suggestion of disdain, and winked openly. For the next hour or more the local practitioner did no more than look wise, throwing in an occasional 'Um' and 'Ha!' as dignity required. Walter and his father paced up and down outside for the best part of the hour. It was a trying time, but it came to an end at last.
In the dining-room Partridge was telling a professional story. Kitty was laughing merrily at it with not the slightest sign of the fluttering fear that had poisoned her a while ago. The thick silk scarf had gone from her neck; the three latticed windows were wide open.
'Got a good report?' Whitworth asked with a fine assumption of indifference.
'Of course we have,' Partridge cried. 'Part of one lung is gone, and the other is badly affected; but that's nothing, bless you!—nothing at all. Still, I'm glad that my friend Dr Evans decided to call me in. He quite agrees with me that there must be a change of treatment. Before the summer is over Miss Evershed will be a different girl. I'll pledge my professional reputation on that.'
'Dr Partridge is right,' Evans murmured—'absolutely right.'
'The great thing is plenty of fresh air. Wet or dry, rain or shine, Miss Evershed must be out in it all. She must always be in a room with the windows open; night and day this must not be neglected. Late in the autumn she must go to St Moritz and stay there till the spring. And if she doesn't come back then absolutely cured, why——Well, I'm quite sure she will.'
'We are absolutely convinced of that,' Evans said crisply.
Partridge bowed himself out cheerfully, taking the plastic Evans along with him. The little man was none too loath to escape the cold, displeased eye of Aunt Mary. Never had an ally so basely deserted his consort before. From the very first he had made no show, no kind of fight at all.
'It was absolutely disgraceful!' Aunt Mary cried.
'It was amusing,' Kitty laughed. 'Dr Evans's dignity was splendid at first. Then that subtle stroke about the butterflies finished him completely.'
The girl laughed unsteadily. Her eyes were gleaming with unshed tears. Outside, the sun was shining gloriously; there was a cool touch in the air. The reprieve had come, and their hearts were overflowing with gladness. Walter would have said something to Kitty, but she put him aside.
'Not yet,' she whispered. 'I cannot grasp it all yet. Go into the garden and wait for me. To think that I shall always be able to breathe the air in future! I must be alone in my room for a time, Walter. I am going to have a good cry. And then—then I am going down on my knees——'
She turned and was gone. Walter fumbled his way into the garden, across the neat geranium-beds, without the least idea where he was going. Aunt Mary watched quite unmoved the desecration that at any other time would have stirred her to the depths. With an assumption of indifference, Whitworth was trying to light a cigar. It was a long time before either of them spoke.
'Dr Evans——' Whitworth began. 'I fancy that Dr Evans——'
'James,' Miss Bentley said formally, 'I beg you not to mention that man's name again. In future he and I must be as strangers.'
Whitworth smiled, a slow, exasperating, irritating smile.
'At least, I am very angry with him, James. He was either right or wrong. And the way he deserted me was simply abominable.'
'My dear Aunt Mary, are you sorry or glad that he has deserted you?'
'James, may God send the day when I shall be glad! Fate has taken the matter out of my hands; though, if I had been perfectly honest, I might——Still, they say Dr Partridge is a great man. It will be an anxious time for me. But that St Moritz trip is out of the question.'
'Why? When Walter and Kitty are man and wife——'
'They will not be so until Kitty is pronounced absolutely cured. And this St Moritz business is part and parcel of the cure. I am absolutely poor, and Kitty is poorer still.'
Whitworth was laughing quietly to himself.
'I shall find a way,' he said. 'When you discover the part that I have been playing in this business you will cut me off with a shilling. At the same time I am going to show you how this trip can be accomplished without loss of dignity to any one. My dear Mary, you would be the happier for the loss of your stiff-necked prejudices.'
Aunt Mary made no demur. She was crying softly to herself. She had been baffled and defeated in all directions; but there was a warm feeling at her heart to which she had long been a stranger.
'I am going to my room,' she said. 'I am not quite myself.'
'Ditto to that,' Whitworth murmured as he looked dubiously at the cigar that he had tried to light in the middle. 'I fancy that a five-and-twenty-mile walk would be about the best cure for my distracted feelings.'
Kitty came down into the garden presently. Her eyes were red and swollen; her cheeks were flushed with the marks of recent tears; but the dark shadow was no longer there. She was going to live and be happy, to be strong and well and buoyant like others of her years; the whole shining world lay before her.
A great weight seemed to have rolled from her shoulders. She had something more than hope to carry her forward. In the kitchen-garden, where the apple-blossoms glowed pink and tender, Walter was patiently awaiting her.
* * * * *
The days were running their smooth course along. June had come and gone, and the first virgin green of the trees had departed. And as the days passed, so had the white, wan shadows fallen from Kitty's face; the languor had departed from her limbs; there was a healthy flush on her cheeks.
The new cure was progressing splendidly. Long before the summer was over Kitty was walking with the best of them; she could sit at the organ now without the slightest sense of fatigue. She slept peacefully as a child; the distressing cough was no more than a painful memory.
Autumn had come at last with a touch of frost, followed by warm weather. And still Kitty was going back from the shadows in the valley. Dr Evans openly plumed himself upon the success of the experiment, much to the indignation of Aunt Mary, who had long ago made her peace.
'It's positively shameless of Dr Evans!' she said. 'To hear him talk, any one would imagine that he and not Dr Partridge was responsible for the change.'
'All the same, Kitty is not quite so well today,' Whitworth replied. 'I am afraid she is feeling the fog. A year hence it won't matter at all. I telegraphed to Partridge to-day asking his advice.'
Aunt Mary waited anxiously for the reply. It came at last:
'No cause whatever for alarm. In present state of case, dry air essential Take patient to St Moritz at once, and stay there till April.'
Aunt Mary frowned at the offending telegram, and dropped it amidst the confused artistic litter of the dinner-table.
'It is out of the question,' she said. 'There are no funds. I know what you are going to say, James; but I can't hear of it'
She swept majestically out of the room towards the studio, where the young people had preceded her. With a slow smile, Whitworth crossed over to the music library above the Dutch bureau.
'Now to explode my little mine!' he murmured. 'It will come in quite dramatically at this point. Now, where did I put that letter? I'm certain it was in Fugue 45 of this volume. I'm sure——'
He paused, and dropped the ubiquitous cigar from his lips.
'Gone!' he cried. 'Stolen! Is it possible that——No, she could not do such a thing!'
'HERE,' said Whitworth, 'is a most abusive letter from Partridge. He wants to know why Kitty is not at St Moritz.'
There was just a faint suggestion of malice in the speaker's tone; but Aunt Mary quite overlooked that. She had appeared dreadfully troubled and worried the last few days. Kitty had not been nearly so well, either.
'I cannot see my way to it,' she cried. 'It will be dreadfully expensive. If it were somewhere in the direction of Cornwall, for instance.'
'St Moritz is not Cornwall,' Whitworth said sapiently.
'But, James, it will cost quite two hundred pounds. Where is the money to come from?'
'You don't want any money. You must both go to St Moritz as Walter's guests. I shan't be there, because I'm off to Brazil in a day or two. And a good thing, too, seeing that I am down to my last few pounds.'
Aunt Mary protested that the idea was indelicate. She believed that such things were done in modern society. She had heard of dreadful cases where poor brides owed their trousseaux to wealthy husbands.
If Walter and Kitty were married it would be altogether a different matter.
Miss Bentley spoke slowly and with disdain for modern innovation. Whitworth was half-amused, half-inclined to respect her prejudices. But something would have to be done, and he said so bluntly.
'I fancy I have found a way,' Miss Bentley said presently. A pink spot burned on either cheek. 'I am going to Ambermouth presently, and when I return I shall be able to speak more definitely.'
She went off presently in her best gray silk and her sable cloak that had come down from a bygone generation, and wearing a black bonnet of the severest Puritan style. It was no shock to her pride that she travelled to Ambermouth in the carrier's cart, which she graced as if it had been a barouche-and-pair.
A little later James Whitworth swung into Ambermouth with his long, free stride and his easy air, and made his way without the slightest regard for appearances in the direction of the side-door of a jeweller's shop over which hung the familiar trident of brass balls.
He swaggered into one of the dark little closets of the pawnbroking department as if he had visited his bank for the purpose of drawing a large deposit.
'Diamond ring,' he said, 'repeater watch, chain. I've had eighty pounds on the ring alone lots of times. I want a hundred and fifty pounds altogether. Look sharp.'
The keen-eyed man behind the counter gave a searching glance at the valuables. Then he nodded cheerfully. An assistant was attending to a customer in the next box. He came along to the manager with a diamond-and-ruby frame inside of which was an exquisite miniature.
'Lady wants a couple of hundred on this,' he whispered hoarsely.
Whitworth fairly gasped. The miniature in the lovely setting was quite familiar to him. The manager of the establishment shook his head.
'Not worth it,' he said. 'Probably fetch more money at Christie's; but too risky for us to advance more than a hundred upon.——Your name, sir? James Whitworth? Will you have the money in notes or gold?'
Whitworth elected for notes, which he carelessly stuffed in his pocket He strode into the street and waited with confidence for the coming of the person he expected to see. A moment later and Miss Bentley emerged with a face of crimson and eyes full of tears. What an effort it had cost her to enter a pawnbroker's she alone knew.
'What were you doing in there?' she asked indignantly. 'Such a disgrace for Walter! Just think if anybody had seen you!'
She had quite forgotten herself; she was always thinking of other people.
'So I have found you out!' Whitworth said coolly. 'There's pride for you! My word, if anybody had recognised you coming from that place! Mary Bentley in a pawnbroker's! The mind reels at the mere suggestion. Mary, I think you are the best and dearest little woman in the world.'
'Don't!' Miss Bentley faltered. 'If you only knew what I have endured! But I was shocked to recognise your voice.'
'Were you? My dear girl, I am quite used to it Nobody has more ups and downs than a mining-engineer. My last job was a short one, and I had been out of collar for months before this. Now that I am off to Brazil I need money. Now, which is best—to go sponging on friends who may never be repaid, or raise money honestly on your own property? I am glad of the accommodation; the pawnbroker has done an excellent stroke of business. There is nothing to be ashamed of.'
Aunt Mary shook her head sadly. The pawnbroker represented to her the last signpost on the broad road to ruin. She little realised how often the prosperous of to-day have availed themselves of that friendly aid.
'The miniature was worth the amount you asked,' Whitworth said dryly. 'You may flush and tremble, my dear Mary, but I never admired you quite so much as I do at this moment It must have been a dreadful thing for you to violate your feelings in the way you have. But I'm glad you didn't part with the miniature of Marie Stuart, because there is another way out of the difficulty.'
'What do you mean by that?' Aunt Mary asked, trembling violently.
'Never mind for the present. When we come to have an explanation presently, we shall both have something to confess. And yet I am sure that the recording angel will drop a tear on our indiscretion as he did on that of Uncle Toby.'
There was a suggestion of fear in the eye that Miss Bentley turned on Whitworth. He was whistling, with his hands stuck deep in his pockets, whilst his companion fairly trotted along by his side.
'I'm walking too fast for you,' he said. 'We'll have a cab home.'
'Always so fearfully extravagant,' Aunt Mary gasped.
'Not a bit of it. Pocket full of money and a good appointment before me. You have to-day seen an object-lesson in thriftiness. I don't care a rap for a gold watch, and diamond rings for men I abhor. But in a moment of prudence I bought both. What is the consequence? I am in a position to raise a large loan on strict business lines without being under an obligation to any one. I 've got to send off a telegram to Partridge saying that you start for St Moritz on Saturday.'
'But, my dear James, so far as I can see—Eh, what an impulsive man he is!'
'Well, that's done,' Whitworth said cheerfully as he came down the steps of the post-office. 'You think you are not going on Saturday? My dear Mary, unless something entirely unforeseen occurs, the journey is inevitable. Oh! you designing, wicked woman, I have found you out at last.'
'I have done nothing to be ashamed of, James.'
'Of course you haven't You have acted magnificently. At the same time, a judge would say some severe things to you if he knew as much as I do. Here's our cab.—Grey Gables, Anscombe, driver.—Mary, will you answer me a question?'
'Certainly, if the answer is not too difficult'
'Nothing of the kind,' Whitworth said. He bent forward with a mischievous look in his eyes. 'All I want to know is what yon have done with that letter yon found in the third volume of Colin's manuscript music compositions.'
KITTY and Walter were seated with their heads close together by the organ. Whitworth had just airily proclaimed the fact that he would be off in the morning, and that it was rather a good thing, seeing that the others were leaving for St Moritz on Saturday.
'That is, if Aunt Mary can get ready,' he concluded.
'I shall be quite ready,' Miss Bentley said, as if the words hurt her.
'Then come along with me,' Whitworth cried. 'Well go into the dining-room and work out the whole thing. A seasoned traveller like myself can put you up to all the tips. Come along, and leave these young people to themselves.'
Miss Bentley followed slowly. Her face was pale and her eyes heavy with tears. Whitworth carefully closed the dining-room door.
'Now, where is that letter?' he asked curtly.
Very slowly Aunt Mary took a letter from her pocket Her face flamed scarlet
'James,' she whispered, 'I did it for the best.'
'God bless the woman! I know yon did,' Whitworth burst out. 'I suppose you found out quite by accident, and decided that it was best to keep the secret. And yet you knew perfectly well that it would have ousted Walter from here.'
'Yes, I knew that. When my father was going blind I did all the work of his office for him. I am more than half a lawyer myself. If I had mentioned this letter—'
'—Walter would never have come here at all.'
'Oh yes, he would, James. You see, I never found the letter until after Walter came here. I meant to be cold and polite to him, but he won my heart from the first. And when he called me "Aunt Mary" and kissed me I was conquered. I said he was like his mother. But that wasn't the truth. The reason why I took to him was because he so reminded me of you when you were his age.'
Whitworth rubbed his right eye violently. He took Miss Bentley's hand and carried it to his lips. His voice was just a little unsteady. 'Always the best and dearest of women!' he murmured. 'Always.'
'James, don't be foolish,' Aunt Mary said, crying softly. 'The boy went straight to my heart Then, when I was looking for some music for Kitty, I found the letter. It was from Colin to Mr Benn, but when written I can't say. Perhaps it was written before the will was made—the will in Walter's favour, I mean—in which case—'
'It was written after the will in Walter's favour, as I shall prove to you presently. Now, will you read the letter aloud?'
It was a letter written on a sheet of business paper and headed 'Grey Gables, Wednesday,' without further heading and minus a date:
'My dear Benn,—I have given your letter my careful consideration, and I have at length come to the conclusion that you are right and I am wrong. When I made my will two years ago, leaving everything to my brother James in trust for his son Walter on the latter attaining his majority, I am prepared to admit now that I was carried away by the glamour of my brother's bravery in Spain. Acting on that impulse, I allowed myself to commit a gross act of injustice against my adopted daughter Kathleen Evershed.
'My brother I have long since forgiven for the great wrong he did me. He is capable of looking after himself. His son, I hear, is a genius, and would perhaps be spoilt by too much prosperity. Let him make his way in the world.
'This, then, is my will in little. I instruct you to draw up a new testament, leaving everything to my adopted daughter, Kathleen Evershed, with a legacy of one thousand pounds to my nephew Walter. Return the will so that I can sign without delay.—Yours very faithfully, Colin Whitworth.'
'Now, why did you suppress that letter?' Whitworth asked.
'I am coming to that,' Miss Bentley explained. 'It is not dated. It might have referred to one of the last half-dozen previous wills made by your brother Colin.'
'Turn it over,' Whitworth suggested. 'It is written on the back of a letter from Benn asking how much longer the recipient is going to prolong an act of injustice. That letter of Benn's was dated 17th September 1900, two years after the will was signed. Now, if that letter came before a judge, and he was assured of the soundness of mind of my brother at the time he wrote it, it is pretty certain that the will of September 1900 would be set aside and that letter ordered to stand in its place.'
'Really!' Miss Bentley cried, aghast 'I—I never thought of that.'
'And yet I am merely stating a fact That letter is absolutely signed by the would-be testator, setting out his ultimatum deliberately. Why, the draft of a will in the handwriting of a mere lawyer's clerk has been allowed to stand before now. And yet you knew of this—you knew that if you only produced that document Walter would have stood aside and Kitty would have taken his place.'
'Stop!' Miss Bentley cried. 'I did know of this. I found the letter before you did, and in the same way—looking for music for Kitty. It was a great shock to me; but after careful consideration I decided to do nothing. And why? Because I was absolutely and sincerely convinced that Kitty's days were numbered. Again, that letter is not a will in the strict sense of the word. Otherwise I would never have behaved as I have done. Kitty was dying. No harm could possibly be done by holding my tongue. Kitty was dying. The rest mattered nothing. And here was Walter, the boy who so strongly reminded me of you, on the threshold of his career. If you could only have seen his pure delight in the beauties of the old place! All his dreams were realised. And you were so proud of him. I was proud of him. I had not the heart to dispel those dreams. And so I held my peace.'
Again Whitworth kissed the speaker's hand. 'But Kitty,' he urged. 'Kitty came back from the grave. Surely, you should have spoken then. The money was morally all her own.'
'Too late, James. My prejudices were too strong for me. And I always had the miniature in the diamond setting to fall back upon. All this time I had not the slightest idea that you knew of the letter; and James, James—'
Mary Bentley's face lighted up suddenly; she smiled behind her tears. Whitworth smiled too, in an unsteady fashion.
'It's coming,' he said. 'My turn was bound to come. Go on.'
'James, you are worse than I am,' Aunt Mary cried. 'I am an angel of purity compared with you.'
'Well, everybody knows that,' Whitworth said coolly. 'Pray, proceed.'
'You found the letter as well as myself. You knew that Kitty
was morally entitled to everything here. And yet you kept the secret. You
allowed my foolish prejudice to stand in the way of Dr Partridge's cure, when
a word from you would have
made everything quite smooth. Was it for your boy that—'
'No, I'm hanged if it was,' Whitworth cried. 'It was for Kitty's sake. Oh, I am quite as guilty as you are, perhaps more so. But you refused to see Partridge; you declared that all that could be done had been done, and that Kitty must die in the orthodox fashion. Then I played my strong card. As Kitty's legal guardian, I insisted upon having my own way, and you had to yield. That's why I said nothing about the letter. If I had mentioned it you could have defied me, and—'
'And Kitty would have died,' Aunt Mary whispered.
'I'm afraid she would. It seemed to me that here was the typical case where the end justified the means. Mary, let us forgive one another.'
Their hands met across the table, and they smiled. They would be firm friends to the finish now, but nothing more. The old romance was dead and buried, but the fragrance of it lingered, and would sweeten their lives to the end.
'It is best as it is,' Mary said softly, and this was the requiem. They were sitting very quietly when the young people came in.
'Your father leaves us to-morrow,' Aunt Mary said in the same quiet fashion; 'and on Saturday we start on our journey. You smile, Walter. Well, my prejudices have vanished. Sit down, you two, and I will tell you a story.'
She told the tale in her own simple way. She passed the letter from one to the other.
'This is not really a will?' Kitty asked. 'No. And it makes little difference whether the property belongs to Walter or me. Mine is thine, and thine is mine. And now we can settle all disputes like this.'
She rolled up the letter quickly and dropped it into the glowing heart of the wood-fire. The quick spurt of blaze fell on the Romneys and Lelys, who seemed to smile down approvingly. Aunt Mary raised a mittened hand in protest.
'I feel so well to-night,' Kitty said; 'so strong and happy. Aunt Mary, you are the sweetest and dearest woman in the world. And I am going to get well for the sake of those who love me'
'Amen to that!' cried Whitworth. 'Amen to both, say I.'
KITTY Foster looked just a little guilty as she met the eye of her cousin. As a rule, she was a girl who did not allow herself to be carried away with any gushes of feminine enthusiasm. But, then, Count Boris Stephanoff was an exceedingly handsome man, and there was something in his melancholy air and dark eyes which made him popular wherever he went. For the rest, he moved in very good society. He was supposed to be exceedingly wealthy, and he certainly posed as a patriot. It was only during the last week or two that he appeared to have singled out Kitty Foster for especial favour, so that people began to ask themselves questions, and Kitty was in a fair way to have her pretty head turned. After all said and done, there is something alluring to the spectacle of a handsome man, who is supposed to have left his country at the dictates of his conscience. There were certain people, on the other hand, who proclaimed the man to be no better than a brilliant adventurer, who, on the strength of an elegant manner and some dubiously acquired wealth, had skilfully managed to engineer his way into society. But society, in its easy-going way, showed no signs of asking questions, and so long as the count choose to inhabit a suite of expensive rooms at the Carlton, and gave the most excellent dinners, what did the rest matter? If he liked to play at Socialism, there was no reason why he should not indulge his vanity, and if he had an occasional weakness for addressing anarchist meetings down Peckham Rye, that was his lookout.
It was astonishing in how short a time this handsome, persuasive Russian had made a distinct niche for himself in the fabric of society. He was always so terribly in earnest, too, so that he began to gather around himself certain disciples who deemed it to be the thing to join in the social movement. Chief amongst these satellites was Kitty Foster, to the great disapproval of her cousin, Gerald Forsyth, a distinguished ornament of the British Corps Diplomatique at Vienna. There was something cynical about his smile now, something that aroused Kitty's anger, as he strolled to her side just as Count Stephanoff turned away. Kitty nodded coolly enough, though it was fully six months since she had last met her cousin; indeed, she had not the remotest idea till the last moment or two that he was back in England.
"Let us get out of this crush and chat awhile," Forsyth suggested. "I don't suppose you want to dance any more this evening. And, besides, I presume you have given up all those frivolities since you have joined the followers of that fellow, Stephanoff."
"You know nothing about him," Kitty retorted.
"My dear girl, that is a point distinctly in his disfavour," Forsyth said, coolly. "I haven't been knocking about the courts of Europe all these years for nothing. If I don't know a cosmopolitan like that, you may be sure he isn't worth knowing. And there are scores of people here to-night, who are equally ignorant."
"The man is a great patriot," Kitty said, warmly.
"Really! Now, wasn't it Dr. Johnson who said that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel? Frankly, my dear child, I don't like it at all. I am sure the less you see of that man the better. Oh, I don't know anything, but my instinct rarely plays me false in such matters. Now, look here, Kitty, we have been pretty good friends, and we have had few secrets from one another. Now, tell me honestly—isn't that man making use of you for some purpose?"
Kitty Foster was too honest to deny the truth. In some strange way her cousin had hit upon the correct solution of the problem.
"I won't deny it," she said; "in fact, I don't want to deny it. What I am going to tell you now is distinctly a point in the count's favour. You would think a man like that would have taken care of his money, seeing that before he was exiled from Russia all his estates were confiscated. He had barely time to get away with certain articles of personal property, such as family jewels, and the like. I understand that the Stephanoff stones are very fine indeed; in fact, if they were properly sold they would realise a fortune. And yet, Count Stephanoff is so deeply in earnest that he is trying to sell those jewels now wholly and solely to provide means for furthering the cause that he has so deeply at heart."
"He told you all this?" Forsyth asked, quietly.
"Certainly he did," Kitty went on. "I don't believe anybody else knows a word about it."
"But why did he tell you?" Forsyth persisted. "You can't buy these precious heirlooms, you know."
Kitty laughed and shook her head. "Of course not," she exclaimed. "But then, you see, I might be in a position to find a purchaser. There are scores of women in society to-day who would give their ears to possess those diamonds, and that, between ourselves, is the suggestion the count has made to me. He shirks with horror at the idea of exposing these things for sale in a public auction room. He says he would never cease to regret it if he had reason to believe that those historic gems were destined to grace the neck of some pork millionaire's wife from Chicago. What he would like to do is to dispose of these gems by private contract to somebody of real position, or, at any rate, to somebody who has the cause of freedom generally at heart."
"You seem to have learnt your lesson pretty thoroughly," Forsyth said, thoughtfully. "One might actually hear you quoting the very words of our distinguished patriot. And so, after all, to put it plainly, you are about to join the ranks of the honest brokers in society. I suppose you will have a commission if you bring off what the count considers to be a satisfactory deal?"
"You are absolutely horrid," Kitty said, indignantly. "The thing has never been mentioned. I don't suppose I should even have given it a second thought if the name of Mrs. Hammersleigh had not flashed into my mind."
"Which Hammersleigh is that?" Forsyth asked. "Do you mean the lady who is building herself a house in Park lane—wife of that ironmonger fellow who made such a pile out in America, by sweating his workmen, and then wormed his way into society afterwards by certain glaring acts of what he called philanthropy? I suppose a woman like that would think nothing of a hundred thousand or two."
"That is the Mrs. Hammersleigh I was thinking about," Kitty explained. "Of course, she is vulgar and ostentatious, but, really she is not a bad sort, and I know that she would very much like to possess a collection of jewels having a history attached to them. We should be doing Mrs. Hammersleigh a kindness, and getting a great deal more money for the gems at the same time. At any rate I have spoken to Mrs. Hammersleigh about it, and I am going to dine there the day after to-morrow, to discuss the thing thoroughly. Count Stephanoff has been asked to join us, and he has promised to bring his family gems with him. You need not be in the least alarmed, my dear cousin, I am acting on the dictates of friendship alone; indeed, I think it very flattering of the count to take me into his confidence."
Forsyth made no reply for a moment or two. He was apparently thinking deeply. There was a queer, dry twinkle in his eye which Kitty did not appear to notice.
"We won't say any more about it," he remarked. "By the way, where is Mrs. Hammersleigh living till her house is finished? I suppose I shall have to give her a call, though we haven't met for such a long time. Don't be at all surprised if I drop into dinner the evening after to-morrow. You see, if I have a weakness, it is for old historic diamonds."
THE elaborate dinner was drawing to a close now. The cigarettes were on the table, and Count Boris Stephanoff bowed gracefully at an intimation from his hostess that he might smoke. The handsome Russian was absolutely in his element now. He had dined wisely and well; indeed, for a passionate patriot, whose whole heart and soul was in the future of his beloved country, he had a very nice discrimination in food and the choice of his wines. He sipped his liquor luxuriously. He was pleased to approve of the flavour of Mrs. Hammersleigh's cigarettes.
During the whole of the meal nothing whatever had been said in connection with the diamonds. That matter could be discussed in the drawing-room later on.
Meanwhile, Stephanoff sat there smoking and chatting as if he had not a single care in the world. There was something in his low, sympathetic voice which appealed to his companion.
Mrs. Hammersleigh rose at length, the fair embodiment of good-natured middle-age, blessed with a fair digestion, and absolutely unlimited means. For a woman who had began life in the deeper depths she possessed a deal of inherent good taste; indeed, she was a born expert, as most of the West End dealers knew. She liked her money's worth, and usually contrived to get it, though, on the present occasion, she was prepared to stretch in the amount of the cheque she was disposed to write for the Stephanoff diamonds. Of historic gems she possessed very few, and here was an opportunity of obtaining a large collection with a minimum of trouble. Suspicious of most people and most things, Mrs. Hammersleigh took absolutely for granted everybody whom she met in society, if a man or woman happened to be there, then their claims to be considered persons of importance were to be taken as a matter of course. Just for the moment, Count Stephanoff stood on a very high pedestal in her estimation indeed. She smiled upon him sweetly.
"You will come up as soon as you are ready," she murmured; "then we will have a look at those wonderful stones."
It was quite half an hour later before the Russian lounged up the stairs, and found a seat in the drawing-room. He fell to talking, in his usual easy fashion, on a score of topics, not one of which bore the least relationship to the business in hand. Mrs. Hammersleigh began to fidget in her chair uneasily.
"Don't you think we had better get to business?" she suggested.
"Positively I had forgotten all about it," Stephanoff smiled. "Let me play the part of a conjurer."
From various inside pockets he proceeded to produce half a dozen shabby looking flat cases, which he opened one by one and laid on the table by the side of his hostess. The shaded electric lights played on the streams of livid fire, sparkling in all the colours of the rainbow—purple, and green, and gold. Stephanoff had by no means exaggerated the beauty of his gems. They danced and sparkled there like things of life. Mrs. Hammersleigh swooped upon them as a hungry hawk might have pounced upon a pigeon. For once in her life she forgot to bargain. For once she was given over to whole hearted admiration. Stephanoff stood there, pulling carelessly at his moustache, as if utterly indifferent to the impression which his diamonds had made.
"That is all," he said. "Of course, as you are aware, the great amount of value goes in a small space. Apart from the artistic beauty of the gems, it seems to me that their price is absurdly exaggerated. It is almost incredible to imagine that anybody would be glad to give a hundred and fifty thousand pounds for a few stones like those."
Stephanoff dropped the remark quite casually. And yet there was a finality about the sum he mentioned which admitted of no argument and no compromise. With perfect good breeding he was informing Mrs. Hammersleigh what he wanted for his treasures. And the lady was not disposed to believe that he was putting an exaggerated value on the stones. She was still gazing at them when with deepest admiration when the door opened and a footman came in.
"Mr. Gerald Forsyth," he announced.
Forsyth strolled into the room quite coolly and casually, as if his appearance there had been the most natural thing in the world. He nodded coolly enough to Kitty, then he held out his hand warmly to his hostess.
"I seem to have come just at the right time," he said. "Perhaps you will be good enough to introduce me to Count Stephanoff."
The Russian murmured something as to the meeting being a pleasure. Yet, at the same time, he appeared to be somewhat ill-at-ease, and disposed to shuffle somewhat over the business which had brought him there this evening. In the most casual way he bent down and began to close the covers of the various cases, Mrs. Hammersleigh held out a fat, protesting hand.
"No, no," she cried; "it is a sin and a shame to hide those beautiful gems away, and, besides, there is no reason why Mr. Forsyth should not know what we are doing. The count is desirous of disposing of his family jewels, and I have almost agreed to buy them; in fact, I don't think I could possibly part with them now. Are they not altogether magnificent?"
Forsyth examined the cases coolly through his eyeglass. "Stupendous," he said. "And yet it seems to me that I have seen something very like them before. But I recollect that when I last had the pleasure of handling these things there was also a necklace with three large black pearls in it. Probably the count has forgotten to take it from his pocket. The mistake is quite a natural one amongst such an embarrassing show of riches as this, or perhaps the necklace has been forgotten. Are you quite sure, count, that you haven't got it in your pocket?"
There was a distinct challenge in the question, a steady gleam in Forsyth's eyes which was not lost upon Kitty Foster. With a sudden strange apprehension that something was about to happen, the girl turned swiftly to the count. She saw that his face had grown pale, and that his lips were trembling. In a way which was almost mechanical, he passed his hand behind his back, and produced another case from a pocket in the tail of his coat.
"Most extraordinary thing on my part," he said, with an uneasy grin. "Just for the moment I really—er—had actually forgotten the necklace. I hope Mrs. Hammersleigh will forgive me. I hope she will not think I am guilty of keeping anything back."
"She wouldn't," Forsyth said, airily. "Anybody can see from the expression of your face that the thing was a pure oversight. And now, if you will excuse me, I should like——"
What Forsyth might have said was cut short by the entrance of the footman, bearing on a silver salver a card on which a few words were hastily scribbled in pencil. This card the footman handed over to the Russian.
"A gentleman downstairs to see you, sir," he said, "on most important business. He said he is very sorry to trouble you at this time of the evening, but he will not detain you more than five minutes. Shall I say you are coming?"
The Russian cast a hasty eye over the pencil message, and crushed the card in his hand. He pitched it with apparent carelessness into the fireplace, where it fell short, and lay there unnoticed.
"If you will excuse me one moment," he said to his hostess, "I will leave these things in your hands for a minute or two."
The minutes passed on. There was the sound presently of the closing of the front door, and Forsyth turned to his companions with a genial smile.
"He isn't coming back again," he said. "My dear Kitty, you have seen your passionate patriot for the last time."
"BUT what does it all mean?" Mrs. Hammersleigh protested.
"It means that that man is found out," Forsyth said, coolly. "It means that those gems are no more his than they are mine. As a matter of fact, they are all Lady Courtfield's. Oh, I don't say that Stephanoff is altogether an impostor. I understand he is well born, and all that kind of thing, but the fellow is an impudent thief, and has been so for years. I have to thank my cousin here for putting me on the track the first time. For when she told me the romantic story of the disinterested patriot and his family gems, I began to prick up my ears. You see, it is about six months now since Lady Courtfield lost her jewels. I am one of the few people who know anything about it, because, you see, Lord Courtfield is my chief at Vienna. Lady Courtfield came to England for a long visit, and she brought her gems with her. She didn't keep them in the house, but, whenever she needed the stones for wear, she always sent a trusted messenger to the bank with a letter or fetched the things herself. After she had been in England some little time she had occasion to return to Vienna in a hurry, and, of course, she could not come away without her diamonds. Judge to her surprise when she went down to the bank to get them to find that they had altogether vanished."
"Stolen!" Mrs. Hammersleigh cried.
"Well, that is what it came to," Forsyth went on. "They had been taken away the day before. The whole thing appears to have been planned in the most careful and thorough manner, and it was worked like this. The day of the robbery happened to be very thick and foggy. About half-past 11 o'clock in the morning a brougham, with a pair of horses drove up to the bank, and a footman went into the establishment with a letter to the client that Lady Courtfield had called for her gems. No great surprise was occasioned by the fact that her ladyship was disinclined to leave her brougham, as the day was so wet and foggy. But even then no precautions were neglected, although the footman was wearing the Courtfield livery, and there seemed to be no doubt as to the identity of Lady Courtfield's handwriting as set out in the letter which the footman had carried into the bank. One of the chief cashiers obtained the jewels from the strongroom, and actually carried them himself into the street. There was no mistaking the Courtfield brougham, to say nothing of the black horses, each with a white blaze on his face and white fetlock. It was almost too dark to distinguish the features of Lady Courtfield, though the cashier professed to recognise her voice as she looked through the window. He says he gave the jewels into the lady's own hands and asked for a receipt. Lady Courtfield pointed out the fact that he had the receipt already and that it took the form of the letter which the footman had carried into the hank. At any rate, no suspicion whatever was aroused, and the thieves got off with the jewels to say nothing of 24 hours' start into the bargain.
"Now, a good many people would have made an instant fuss and outcry, but not so Lady Courtfield. She naturally laid an account of her loss before the police and they advised her to keep the matter entirely to herself. She was quite ready to fall in with the suggestion, because, you see, nothing whatever could be gained by publicity, and there was just the chance that the policy of silence would put the thieves off their guard, and render them more careless in their dealings with the stolen property. So the days went by, and the public got no hint of what had taken place; and, doubtless, by degrees, the thieves began to imagine that Lady Courtfield had gone back to Vienna without taking her jewels with her, and that, down to the present moment, neither she nor the bank had the least idea of the true state of affairs. As it so happens the policy has paid, because you see, at the present moment, I have Lady Courtfield's jewels in my possession, and our clever Russian friend has had all his scheming for his pains."
"But how did, you know?" Kitty burst out.
"Oh, the purest accident in the world," Forsyth explained. "The count has been suspected for some time, for various rumours from the continent have reached us from different quarters. Of course, it was quite natural, feeling so very secure, that the thieves should try and dispose of their property to the best advantage. They felt absolutely certain that Lady Courtfield had not discovered her loss, and here was a chance of making about three times as much as if the gems had been disposed of through the ordinary legitimate channel. And when my cousin here told me about her patriot and the sacrifices he was making for the benefit of his struggling country, then I was suspicious enough to have my own views on the subject. That is why I invited myself here to-night, and why I came just in the nick of time."
"But that card?" Mrs. Hammersleigh asked. "How did the man manage to get warned and slip away just at the moment——"
"Oh, I did that myself," Forsyth said, coolly. "Unless I am greatly mistaken the card is lying in the fender still. I bribed your footman to bring it up in ten minutes' time, because, you see, I didn't want to have a fuss here. I know my class of man pretty well. I felt convinced that directly he read my message on the card he would throw up the sponge without the slightest hesitation. If you look at the card you will see that I merely volunteered to take the custody of Lady Courtfield's diamonds off his hands, and invited him to take himself out of England without delay."
"It should never have been allowed," Mrs. Hammersleigh protested hotly. Perhaps she was regretting the loss of the diamonds to a much greater extent than she was regretting the unfortunate occurrence. "I cannot understand why you should choose to let that man off in such an easy fashion. In my place——"
"In your place, my dear lady," Forsyth said, as he dropped his card into the fire, "I am quite certain that you would have acted in a precisely similar fashion. The count has high connections in the Russian court, and—well, after all said and done, the thing has ended favourably enough. But I don't think that my cousin here will be taking much stock in patriots for the future."
"That, indeed, I shan't," Kitty laughed unsteadily. "And now, if you please, let me try and forget all about it."
THE lamp under the red shade was beginning to burn low. The clock on the mantelpiece struck one. Winifred Darrell laid aside wearily the book she was reading and pressed her hand to her aching eyes. They were very beautiful, blue eyes, and none the less attractive because of the pathetic look in them. It was a winsome face, too, tender and sympathetic, though a close observer would have noticed the firm set of the lips and the rounded curve of the chin. Mrs. Darrell had been married for two years now, and up to quite lately there had been no great call for firmness and determination on her part. But the time seemed to be at hand at length.
Why should she go on like this? she asked herself. Why endure all this unhappiness and misery? As far as she could see, the end was inevitable. She had tried at first to close her eyes to her husband's shortcomings, but she recognised the weakness of such a course now. Not that she cared for him any the less, but that she was wavering in her allegiance to Richard Darrell, but the curse had fallen upon him. Day by day its blighting influence was casting a greater cloud over the little household in Dulwich.
Richard Darrell was a confirmed gambler. At one time it had been a mere amusement to him. Now it was more or less the passion of his life. He neglected his literary work for it. He appeared to think of nothing else. It was useless to point out to him that certain tradesmen were clamouring for their money, and that the landlord intimated his intention of exercising his powers if the rent was not paid in the course of a few days.
Winifred had put her foot down at last. She had spoken to her husband as she had never dared to speak before, and he had taken it all in good part. Winifred knew how good and kind a heart it was that lay behind the husk of greed and selfishness which was fast becoming part of Darrell's nature.
He promised to give it all up. He had gone out late in the afternoon to try and collect a sum of money due to him which would be sufficient, at any rate, to get rid of the importunate landlord. He had faithfully promised to be back in time for dinner, and Winifred had gone about her work with a lighter heart than she had known for some time. And now it was past one in the morning, and Darrell had not yet put in an appearance.
There was no reason for Winifred to ask herself what had detained her husband.
The lamp was burning still lower, when presently there was the rattle of a key in the door, and Darrell came in. His face was white, his eyes gloomy, and despairing. How many times had Winifred seen him like this before? She asked herself. Would he ever give up this degrading habit? There was only one hope for him, as far as the girl could see—Darrell was an exceedingly moderate man. To all practical purposes he was a teetotaller.
"I am sorry to be so late," he said.
"You promised to come home to dinner." Winifred said in a voice she tried in vain to keep steady. "Oh, Dick can't you understand how much more you owe to me than you do to those friends of yours? And you gave me your word of honour you would come back by seven o'clock. You promised you would not go near the club."
Darrell flung himself wearily into a chair and sat there with downcast head. He was blaming himself bitterly now. He was more penitent than Winifred knew. She hardly dared to ask the question which was trembling on her lips. It meant so much to her.
"Did you see Mr. Horley?" she asked.
"I did," Darrell admitted. The temptation to deceive his wife was strong, but he resisted it. "He gave me a cheque. But the money is all gone. I lost every penny of it, Winifred. I swear I never intended to touch a card to-night. I don't know how it happened. I believe it is a kind of madness with me. I won't say I am sorry."
Darrell broke off, and hid his face in his hands. He was shaking from head to foot now in a very anguish of remorse.
"You know what is going to happen now," Winifred said quietly. "We were told definitely enough that unless the rent was paid on Saturday we should be turned out into the street. Everything here will be sold by auction, and provided the landlord gets his money, he will not trouble about us. Our pretty home will be destroyed. Things that we value will be given away. Then we shall be forced to go into dreary lodgings in some back street. People will point to me and pity me for a gambler's wife. If you still cared for me as you once did——"
"I do still, I swear it!" Darrell cried. "If I could only get this cursed madness out of my veins. I would prove to you—but what is the good of my talking like this? I'll get up early in the morning and finish that story for the 'People's Magazine.' I can get the money for it as soon as it is finished, and it will be quite sufficient to pay our landlord his rent."
Winifred said no more. She knew by bitter experience what a promise like this was worth, though, for the time being her husband meant everything that he said. Just now Winifred's mind was full of the scheme which had lately come into her head. Such an idea could have only occurred to the artistic imagination. The expedient was a desperate one, but it was just possible that it might succeed.
"It is the only chance," Winifred murmured to herself. "For once in a way I must play the part of gambler, too."
DARRELL was quite as good as his word. He was up shortly after daybreak, and by lunch time had finished his story. He sat opposite his wife, making his plans for the afternoon.
"I'll go into the city this afternoon," he said, "and get that money. I may be a trifle late, because I am not quite sure whether Winterscale is back from his holiday or not. I know he is coming some time to-day, and if he doesn't happen to be at the office, I'll run down to Wimbledon Park and see him. If I tell him I want the money badly he will probably give me his own cheque."
Once her husband had departed, Winifred set about to put her project into execution. The first thing to do was to make an excuse for getting rid of the one servant. It was an easy matter for Winifred to tell the domestic that she was going up to London for two or three days, and that the house would be locked up during her absence. Once this was done and the maid out of the way, Winifred proceeded to her room and unlocked her desk. In it she had carefully placed aside a little heap of gold coins which she was keeping with a view to some desperate emergency. Winifred was trembling with excitement and eagerness now. There was an unsteady smile upon her face as she passed from one room to another. Here were all the artistic objects which she and Dick had got together. Never had the little house appeared so dainty and refined. But there was something else to do besides standing there and admiring the household goods. Winifred put the money in her pocket and turned resolutely towards the street. At the end of an hour's time, she was back again, but she did not come alone; she was accompanied by two men who listened respectfully enough to the instructions which she gave them. The work was done at length.
The summer light was beginning to fade, the gloaming was giving place to darkness as Darrell came up the garden path with the rose bushes on either side. He stopped for a moment, wondering if he had not made some mistake. But here was the number on the gate. There were the roses on each side of the path just as he had left them that morning. There was one particularly fine cluster of ramblers which he had specially admired. But where were the roses and creepers in tubs which Winifred had so skilfully trained over the veranda? The place looked hideously bare now. Even the mat and the scraper had vanished. There was no light in the hall. And in the place of the lace fringed curtains in the downstairs windows, dingy sheets appeared to have been pinned. As to the upstairs windows, they were perfectly blank, like great, reproachful eyes smiling down on the gambler. With a strange misgiving in his mind, Darrell put his key into the lock, and strode into the hall. The place was empty. The drawing-room was absolutely devoid of furniture. In the dining-room was a small deal table with a chair on either side. There was no cloth on the table, no softly shaded lamp, nothing but another blatant tallow candle showing some kitchen earthenware and black-handled knives and forks. A pat of butter stood on a plate flanked by a loaf of bread without a tray. On another plate was a piece of tinned meat, the ordinary cruet had vanished, and its place was taken by so many teacups.
On one of the chairs Winifred was seated. Her face was pale; her eyes gleamed like stars. She did not speak as Darrell entered, she merely looked at him. Her glance told its own story.
"What is the meaning of this?" Darrell stammered.
"Surely it speaks for itself," Winifred murmured. "This is the gambler's home that I prophesied last night. I didn't foresee that it was quite so close, but here it is. Practically all the money you have earned the last six months has been wasted upon your dissolute companions. You have not given your own obligations a single thought. Oh, I am not reproaching you—I am leaving these bare walls and dilapidated house to do that. The day of reckoning is come, and even though we owe the landlord nothing, there are others who are clamouring for their money. But come and sit down. Let us make the best of it. This is your doing, Dick. I hope you have brought a good appetite with you."
"I couldn't touch a mouthful," Darrell groaned. "Why don't you say something harsh to me, Winnie? Why don't you reproach me? Why don't you chastise me with your tears? God, to think that I should have brought my wife and myself down to this!"
"Reproaches are useless," Winifred said. "The thing is done and past all mending. You are the gambler, and I am the gambler's wife."
There was no reply from Darrell. He could only sit there dazed and stunned, full of bitter self-reproaches, full of the deepest remorse and humiliation. And there was no gainsaying every word that Winifred had said. Wilfully, with his eyes wide open, he had brought this upon himself.
His haggard eye scanned the bare walls and the naked floor. It was only now that he realised to the full everything that they had lost. He turned his back upon the untidy table, and walked up and down the room for an hour, or more. From under her long eye lashes Winifred watched him.
"I want you to go to bed," he said presently. "I want to be alone and fight this thing out. I will make no promises, Winifred. But in the future, if I have any manhood left——"
The dawn was breaking before Darrell extinguished the tallow candle and crept thoughtfully up the stairs. He had fought with himself through those still dark hours. He knew now that he had emerged victorious. Never again would he touch a card. Never more would they have the slightest fascination for him. The strengthening light was shining in on his face, and tears of joy and thankfulness came into Winifred's eyes as she saw the look here. She advanced towards her husband and held out her hand.
"Oh, you need not tell me," she murmured. "I know. Ah, I can understand the struggle you have had since I left you last night Dick, you will never touch a card again?"
"No," said Darrell simply. "I never shall. My dearest girl, we must get away from here and start the new life somewhere else. And if I live and keep my strength I will give you another home——"
"I think this will be quite sufficient for me," Winifred said. "Come this way and I'll show you something. We have to go as far as the big garret at the top of the house.... What do you think of that? I suppose you recognise what it is?"
"All the furniture of the house," Darrell said in a dazed voice. "My dear child, what does it mean?"
"It was a little plot of mine," Winifred said unsteadily. "You wanted an object lesson. You wanted something which would appeal to your imagination. And when I saw your face last night, I did not regret my inspiration. Oh, I know what you have been through the last few hours. I know, I feel in my heart that your cure is a permanent one. And now, don't you think that before people are about we had better set to work and restore things to their proper places again? The neighbours? Oh, it doesn't matter what the neighbours, think. And besides, there is always the excuse of house-cleaning. Dick, it seems a long time since last night."
"Indeed it does," Darrell said with a long-drawn breath. "Time enough for a gambler to grow into an honest man."
JAKE PATERSON scanned the narrow valley with a grim smile on his rugged features. In his own words he was up against it good and hard. To all practical purposes he had come to the end of his quest. And for this he had tracked across half the American continent. And there was nobody else besides his dog to share in the danger and fight the spectre of death. He filled his pipe carefully and gazed calmly around him.
"Brasso, my boy," he said to the dog. "I guess we've got to pull the curtain down here. This is our sarcophagus and don't you forget it. We can't get up the valley because of the snow, and we can't go down the valley because of the water. A frost may save us, but there ain't going to be any frost. On the contrary it's going to rain. And as soon as it does rain, down comes that doggoned avalanche and we're either buried under it or, swept into the valley. Once in the valley we're drowned mariners. And it's all my fault, Brasso!"
The dog whimpered something that sounded like dissent. The big wolfhound seemed to scent danger. And the danger was there sure enough. They had reached the little valley the night before, dead beat, and ready to drop with physical exhaustion. There was food and tobacco and tea and whisky on the sledge drawn by Brasso, to say nothing of fuel, but a night trapped in the snow was sufficient for a man drunk with fatigue and obsessed with sleep. Even then Paterson had grasped the peril of the situation. If the sudden thaw came the valley below would be a raging sea if the snow that blocked the head of the valley like a rampart gave way; death would be swift and merciful. And Paterson had deliberately risked it.
He came to his senses to find a glorious morning with the balmy breath of spring in the air, to see the little channels of water breaking from the great buttresses of snow, to see in the valley below a whirling waste of waters. The man was absolutely trapped, and the reflection was none the less bitter because he had walked into the trap with his eyes open.
"Last night nothing seemed to matter," he reflected. "There was only one thing necessary in the world and that was sleep. Well I got it. Now I am going to have a monopoly of the same article for the balance that lies between this and eternity. This is the end of the quest."
It had been a very long and arduous quest, too. The search had taken two years, ever since Kate Paterson had disappeared, leaving no trace behind. Why she had vanished in that mysterious way, Jake had not the remotest idea. She had left not a word or sign behind her—she had disappeared out of his life as if she had never existed.
It had been a staggering blow to Jake. Like most silent men he had a spring of deep feeling in him, and he had loved the little fair-haired woman deeper than he had words to express. And, so far as he could judge the affection was as pure and holy on her side. She had made his homely hut on the side of the hills a perfect paradise for him; she seemed to have no thought for anybody else. He had been away for the best part of a month looking after his traps, and then he had turned his face homewards. The mere suggestion of home set his nerves tingling. On the whole that was the most successful season he had ever had. He had saved money, too. The time had come when he could abandon the lonely cabin on the hillside and turn his face towards the east. The life was too hard and strenuous for a fragile little woman like Kate. And it was terribly lonely for her at times. Well, there was going to be an end of all that now.
He had bent beneath the blow, and for a week he had sat with the dog's head on his knees thinking the matter over. Then he ate and slept, and when the morning came his mind was made up.
Neighbour he had none in the ordinary sense of the word. Even if he had, he would never have asked one of them a question. The suggestion was that his wife had gone east for a holiday and he was to follow her as soon as convenient. So far as the hillside was concerned that was all. To judge from Jake's face nobody would have imagined that he was sitting amongst the ruins of his own life.
There was only one logical explanation of all this, of course, but Jake refused to recognise it. By some means or other Kate had been decoyed away from him, or some sudden trouble had come upon her, and further than this Jake declined to go. He had the most childlike and implicit faith in the certainty of finding Kate again, and his whole life was devoted to the search.
He had realised everything, and had invested his money through a trusted friend in New York. It came quite as a surprise to him at the end of a year to find that he was worth sixty thousand dollars. When he found Kate again he would take her to Florida and start the fruit farm there they had always talked about. Oh, he was going to find her all right.
He stumbled on more than one clue, every one of which ended in a blind alley. But he never lost patience, he never worried or displayed temper. The last time it seemed to him that he had all the threads in his hands, he had pushed on with Brasso till the night before, when they had both dropped off half dead with fatigue. The rate of progress had been terribly slow, for the snow was soft and wet and the enervating atmosphere of spring was in the air.
And so this was the end of it. Next summer his bones and those of Brasso would be found and perhaps incontinently buried, and there would be a full stop for evermore. It was characteristic of Jake that he wasted no sympathy on himself in his awkward predicament. The pity of it was that he would see Kate no more. He looked death fully in the face knowing that at any moment the end might come. Over his head the great snow precipice curled and hung like a bow. Little flakes detached every now and then, presently there would be a bigger breakaway, and the whole valley would be filled. The valley was in a kind of shelf, and below the shelf the mountain stream, fed by the melted snow, had swollen to a great yellow seething lake. There were islands here and there in the lake crowned with trees, and if one of them could be reached!
But no swimmer ever born of woman could have breasted that seething whirlpool for five minutes. Obviously there was no escape that way. As Jake measured the distance with his eyes one great cornice of the avalanche broke away and carried a white flood to his knees. With it came a great pine chopped off above the root like a carrot. The tree rolled over till it filled the narrow gorge of the valley just above the flood of yellow water. A fighting light crept into Jake's eyes. He ran back to the sledge and took the harness in his hands. A moment later Brasso was attached to the tree; Jake pulled him encouragingly.
"Now, my lord," he said. "You just pull as you never pulled before. We've got to play this card for all we are worth, my boy. Now then—with a will."
Slowly the tree moved, slowly it turned over. The small branches snapped and cracked, then the mass plunged down into the stream. Jake made a flying leap for the trunk, the dog rose and scrambled up on the broad black bark. Above the roar of the water came the hoarse rumbling of the avalanche as it rushed down, filling the valley high as the surrounding trees.
"A mighty close shave that," Jake said between his teeth. "But I always said I should find her. Well, there's nothing left now, Brasso, besides the clothes I stand up in. But we're through."
The dark was falling when they fetched up against one of the little islands in the roaring lake. It seemed to Jake that he could make out a hut amongst the trees. It was a hut surely enough with a stove burning brightly inside.
"The luck's in again, Brasso," Jake said cheerfully. "Guess this place is only an island at certain times of year. Nobody appears to be at home. If this chap here has a boat I guess he's all right. Let's make ourselves at home, old boy, and get those wet clothes dry."
The clothes were dry at length, a meal dispatched, tobacco and pipe duly exploited. It was not till then that Jake turned to regard his surroundings. There were pictures on the walls, a photograph or two, some letters in a little heap on a writing table close by.
"Civilised sort of chap this," Jake mused. "Evidently keeps up a correspondence. Some of his friends, those photographs, I expect. Good heavens, it's—it's she!"
He grabbed one of the photographs in a shaking hand. A similar picture on an oilskin case lay close to Jake's heart. Oh, yes, he was on the track at last. He had found Kate!
Somebody addressed him by name three times before he became conscious that he was no longer alone. He came back to earth again with a start. A man tall and well proportioned stood glaring at him, demanding to know what he was doing there, snatching for the photograph in his hand. A bright red stained the newcomer's cheeks, he burst into a spasm of coughing.
"Want to know who I am?" Jake demanded. "Well, you can guess. I'm Jake Paterson. And this picture in my hand is my wife's. Where is she? Tell me. And if you don't, though I am your debtor for food and lodging, one of us will never leave this hut alive!"
The stranger's head dropped to one side. He fell into a chair and coughed again till his lips grew bloodless.
"It's Providence," he gasped. "Nothing else. Ever heard of Ned Carson?"
"Never in my natural," said Jake solemnly.
"Well, I knew Kate before you did. Knew her in town where she was born and loved her from the time she was no higher'n my knee. Always meant to marry her, I did. And when I was away in Canada that year you came along and took her. Many's the time I've had my gun levelled on you, only somehow I couldn't. And I couldn't live without her. . . That time you were away, I told her you were dead. Oh, it was a pretty lie altogether, and she believed me. I took her away, and I hoped that perhaps at the end of a year she might—But she didn't. Faithful to death, never anybody but Jake. Still I didn't give up until the doctor told me my time was come. They gave me a year to live if I moved into these parts. And the time's nearly up. Another month will see the end of me. I was a long time getting the necessary courage, but I wrote and told Kate at last. And on the table you will find a letter from her forgiving me such a letter."
"It would be," Jake said in a choked voice.
"It is. And there is her address on the letter. She thinks I know where to find you. She thinks that I am looking for you still. Don't tell her I didn't. And don't you go thanking me for anything. But for what the doctor told me I should never have told her, never. Don't you think there is any sort of death repentance about me. I wanted Kate too badly for that. Now then!"
The speaker glared defiantly, but no expression of anger came from Jake.
"I guess I understand," he said. "It was hard on you, mate. I've no more to say. Only you just give me that address and row me across to the mainland. I'll get a sledge train at Maryport and by to-morrow I'll be at Fort Joseph."
"And next day you will see Kate," the other man murmured. "Well, some men get all the luck. Better go or I might get up in the night and kill you. Like to go now?"
"Right away," Jake said curtly. He strode off presently, his face to the setting sun, the letter in his hand, and the other watched chokingly till he was out of sight and the dark was falling.
I DON'T suppose the thing would have happened at all if it hadn't been for the governors of the school. What do they do when a new headmaster is wanted for a school like Manby? Why, appoint a man because he had been a wrangler, or a first class classic, or something of that kind. And that's just what they did when poor old Rasford died three years ago.
Most of the old under-masters drifted away, as they generally do when a new "head" comes, and old Chesterton naturally filled their places with rowing men, because he had been bow of the Cambridge boat himself for three years. The next two years we lost the Sanger School match, and M.C.C. beat us in an innings both times. I share the same study with Sutton, who is our captain, and we came to the conclusion that something would have to be done. Mind you, there was nothing the mater with our "pro." Garland, but then Garland couldn't do everything. We always played him against M.C.C.—which is a twelve a-side match, and, though he bowled well and made twenty-five in pretty good form, he got stale very soon the season I'm speaking of, from having too much do. There wasn't a single master who was any good except Hunt, of the lower fourth, and he fancies himself tremendously. Thinks he can bat, too; but then we don't want bats amongst the masters, and, what we yearned for was a tricky bowler, who could vary his pace and sling them in half a day without tiring.
But it was no use wishing and hoping. We lost matches on three following Saturdays, and the chaps were getting out of heart altogether. Misfortunes never come singly, so when old Garland, the "pro.," strained a muscle in his thigh, owing to a slip on a wet wicket, we began to regard the matter as hopeless. Garland would not be able to bowl again for weeks, so the doctor said, and Garland almost cried about it. On his own account he went and interviewed the "head," with the suggestion that another man should be engaged at once; but the "head" didn't see it at all.
But Garland wasn't to be beaten like that. He wrote a letter to Lord Beringford, who used to be at Manby years ago and who is now captain of a crack county, and Beringford wrote back that he was sending down a young fellow who was a fine all-round cricketer, and that the man was coming down entirely at his expense. The "head" could say nothing after that.
Scott—for that was the new man's name—turned up one day after second lesson. We found him on the Redan, where the nets are, quite as much at home as if he had been there for years. His flannels were better cut than Richmond's, who is the masher of the eleven, he had a silk shirt like Ranji's, and his manners were just a little free, I thought.
"Put the pads on and bustle him about a bit," Sutton said to me. "Lay on the wood."
I can hit a bit, and I meant to make Scott go all the way. But somehow the programme didn't seem to work out quite as Sutton and I had arranged it. I couldn't get the new man away, and when he had clean bowled me twice in about four overs I gave Sutton a chance. But it was just the same with Sutton, who is going to make a class bat, mind you. Scott stuck him up over and over again, and as to the rest of the eleven he simply made lead soldiers of them. Garland came and looked on as pleased as if he had made a century for the Players. So pleased he was that he kept on calling Scott "sir" all the time.
"I shan't be sticking them up like this in a month's time," Scott said pleasantly. "There's some real good stuff here to work upon, Garland."
It might have been one of the masters speaking for the deferential way that Garland took it, only he didn't wink at us, as he does when the masters' backs are turned.
You never saw a lot of chaps come on like we did in the next fortnight, and you never saw a "pro." who put his heart into it like Scott either. He was always at it, morning, noon, and night, always giving us fresh tips and wrinkles, and nobody was more delighted than he when we began to gain confidence and hit him. But no slogging, mind. If you began that game Scott simply ordered you from the wickets.
And you went, too! He'd look at you with those clear grey eyes of his, and it made you feel like you do when the "head" sends for a chap. Sutton said it was quite right. The next Saturday we took on the Elland Wanderers—mostly 'Varsity bats—and beat them by 117 runs. I got 54—my best that season.
Of course, there was a fly in the ointment. It was Hunt, of the lower fourth. He had done most of the cricket coaching, such as it was, and he didn't like playing second fiddle to Scott. Of course he must have recognised that he had met his master, but he wouldn't admit it. He'd stand by the nets and criticise Scott's bowling till Scott fairly invited him to put on the pads.
We'd never seen Scott really bowl till then. It was a bit of a revelation to all of us. Hunt stood it until he saw all of us grinning at him, and then he threw down the bat and declared that Scott's bowling was not bowling at all, but palpably shying.
"Rot, my good fellow," says Scott, as cool as you please. "You leave the boys to me and stick to your pons asinorum, or your De Bello Gallico, or whatever is the branch that you shine in. Don't come here making a nuisance of yourself any more."
Hunt turned as red as his own hair, and flicked Scott pretty sharply across the face with his batting-glove. The next minute he was on his back—the result of a pretty undercut on which Scott didn't seem to waste any energy. It was all over before we could really realise what had happened, and Hunt was half-way across towards the school with his handkerchief to his mouth.
"I'm exceedingly sorry, boys," Scott said as cool as you please, though he was white as my pads. "I very much regret losing my temper, but this is not the first time that Mr. Hunt has insulted me. I might have waited till after the M.C.C. match."
Of course we all knew what that meant. Scott would have to go. Hunt was no gentleman, but he was a master, and the substitute had assaulted him. Still, all our sympathies were on the side of Scott. What to do we didn't know.
"I'll tell you," said Sutton. "I'll see Mason after third lesson and tell him everything. If old Mason can help us out I'm sure he will."
Mason takes the fifth form and is the most popular master in the school. Not the slightest use at cricket, of course, but then, strictly speaking, I suppose cricket isn't quite the only thing.
Mason looked precious grave when Sutton told him everything, but he was bound to admit that there was a good deal to be said for Scott. Fortunately the "head" was away till late that evening, so that there was no chance of immediate action. We were all at the nets again after tea, when I saw Mason and Hunt, talking very earnestly together just in front of the chapel. It was a pretty long confab. Presently Hunt went away, and Mason came back to us and watched for a time.
"I should like you to come round to my house after supper," he said to Scott. "I have a few words to say to you."
"Very well, sir," Scott said quietly. "I shall be very pleased."
It was getting late that night when Long, one of the monitors, asked me to take some work of his over to Mason's. As it happened, Mason and Scott were talking on the door-step. They were laughing and chatting together as if they had been friends all their lives.
"So you think it will be all right?" I heard Scott say.
"Of course it will, my dear chap," said Mason. "If you had asked me an hour ago I should have said no. But since you have told me everything I can promise you that it will be settled. Strictly between ourselves, Hunt is not a gentleman. And what is more in your favor, he is a fearful snob."
I had long suspected it myself, but I was glad to hear Mason confirm me. I waited till the two shook hands—shook hands, mind you—and then I came forward with my work.
"Do you really think it is all right, sir?" I couldn't help asking; "I mean about Mr. Hunt and Scott? We have got a real chance of winning the M.C.C. match this year, and if we do that it will buck us up wonderfully for the Sanger match."
Mason laughed in that pleasant way of his, and quietly kicked me off the door-step.
"Go along, you inconsequent young gladiator," he said. "How dare you try and establish a diplomatic relationship with so sacred a personage as a master. Nothing will stand in the way of your winning both of those matches. But tell a boy like you anything, certainly not."
But there, you could see that he was laughing all the time, and so I laughed too. Good old sort is Mason.
SUTTON agreed with me that it was a queer thing, but all the same we decided to say nothing to the other fellows in the eleven about it. Besides, Mason had told us pretty plainly that Scott would play in the M.C.C. match and when Mason tells you anything you can rely upon it coming out all right. It was a "half" next day, and Scott came down to the nets as usual, looking more like the "I.Z." than a common or garden professional. He was a bit grim and quiet as Hunt came up, and Hunt looked pretty sheepish I can tell you.
"I'm exceedingly sorry, sir, for what happened yesterday," Scott said, taking off his cap. "I hope you will accept my most sincere apologies."
Hunt muttered something in his sour way but he didn't seem to have the best of it. He said something to the effect that it was best in these degenerate days to be a cricket professional than a mere schoolmaster, and, upon my word, when I come to think of it, Hunt wasn't very far wrong. I wouldn't mind being Rhodes or Hayward myself.
The eventful Thursday came at last and with it the M.C.C. match. It was a two days' fixture, and the weather on the first day left nothing to be desired, as the newspaper reporters say. They won the toss and elected to bat on a perfect wicket. That was a bit of bad luck to begin with.
Scott didn't come out until just as we were taking the field. The M.C.C. captain was standing by the pavilion as our "pro." appeared. He first looked at Scott and whistled.
"Ho, ho!" he said. "My dear chap, what is the meaning of——"
"For goodness sake, dry up," I heard Scott say. "I'll tell you presently. But if you give me away, Broadbent—not that you are likely to do anything of the kind."
Well it was no business of mine. We had all our work cut out, for the M.C.C. were a pretty warm lot, and there were some slashing bats amongst them—Brownlow and Parkinson, for instance, and Black, who is good for a century any time. Leslie bowled at the one end and Scott at the other, whilst Parkinson and Black defended. Sounds like a newspaper report, doesn't it?
The batsmen scored pretty freely off Leslie, but they could do very little with Scott. Still, the score mounted slowly, and 80 was on the board as the result of an hour and a quarter's play. At this point Scott crossed over and asked Sutton to put him on at the other end. There was a bit of a spot there, he said, that was likely to suit him. Four overs did Scott send down from the garden end, and he had Black in difficulties all the time. Then he gave him a fast straight yorker that laid his off stump low, and the fellows yelled. Black's was a cheap wicket for 37. By luncheon-time five men were out for 144. The innings closed for 192, which was a pretty poor score considering the wicket. But it was more than we got, anyway. By half-past six we were all out for 168, Scott failing to score. Sutton ran him out very foolishly, I think, calling for a run and then stopping. I was going to say something to Scott, but he dodged me and sneaked round to the back of the pavilion, as if he had been ashamed of something.
"The 'head', wants you in the pavilion," I said. "He's talking to Sir James Seabright——"
"Say I've gone," Scott whispered. "It's all right, my dear boy. After to-morrow it won't matter, but I particularly desire not to see Sir James," and he ran off the field.
Well, I couldn't say anything after that. It was nearly tea-time before we got those chaps out again, and this time they made 244, Scott getting seven pickets for 90 runs, in all fifteen wickets for 177, which you will admit is pretty fair on a wicket that is all in favour of the batsmen. This left us 269 to get to win, and about two and a half hours to do it in. There was just a chance, of course, and in the pavilion Sir James Seabright, who is a big swell in our neighborhood, and takes the keenest interest in school cricket, promised us all sorts of things if we brought it off. Awful quick, passionate-tempered old chap, got a touch of something out in India, so the fellows said. But that isn't the M.C.C. match. I went in first with Scott, and as I was leaving the pavilion I saw the old baronet put up his glasses and glare at Scott as he walked to the wicket.
"Bless my soul," he exclaimed. "Who's that crossing over to the wicket? Upon my word."
I explained that it was a new "pro.," who was taking the place of the old one.
"He was the one who bowled so well," I said.
"A most remarkable likeness," Sir James muttered. "I didn't notice it yesterday. I never saw such a likeness in my life. But it's my fancy. Never knew myself to give way to fancies before."
Well, I wasn't wondering much about the old gentleman at that moment, as you may imagine. I had my innings to think of, and nervous work it was. I managed to smother the first over or two, more by good luck than anything else, and then I began to see the ball clearly. Marchant was bowling at one end and Dixon at the other—first one with a big break, and the other one very fast with no break at all. But they were dead on the wicket. I could hear a muffled cheer now and then, and a perfect roar as Scott lifted the last ball of Dixson's third over clean to the boundary. Then I got in a drive and a late cut, both to the boundary, and I began to feel that cricket is one of the things worth living for. It was a fairly steady game for the next 20 minutes, and I was never more surprised in my life when I looked at the telegraph-board and saw that 50 was up—Scott, 33.
They took Dixon off then and put on Henderson. I saw him grinning in a queer sort of way, and then came an answering grin on the face of Scott. That those two fellows knew one another I felt certain. There was some subtle joke between them. I began to see the joke, too, when Scott off-drove and cut Henderson's first three balls for 4 each. The fourth ball he drove clean over the bowler's head out of the ground, then came a 4 in the slips and a leg-glance for a like number. Twenty-six off the bat in one over! Henderson said something I didn't catch, and Scott yelled out "Waterloo!" At the same time the hundred went up, and it got into my head somehow. For the life of me I couldn't help hitting. I got two fours, and then I jumped for a long hop and saw the ball go sailing out of the ground. Scott yelled to me to be steady, and the advice came in good time, for I just managed to smother the next ball. Scott was hitting all over the field, and I must have done pretty well for the next time I had a look at the board I had made 57. A big yell followed a huge drive from Scott, and I saw that he had got his century—162 and no wicket down. We hadn't done a thing like that against M.C.C. not since our famous eleven of 1870 that supplied seven men to the Oxford team. Oh, it was a grand day!
Well, we plodded on pretty steadily till the second hundred went up on the board. It was all over now, bar the shouting; we had taken the sting out of the bowling, and Scott looked like getting all the runs off his own bat. It came down to 40 to win, and then Scott slowed down. I had made 87 by this time, and was trying hard not to think of my century and wondering why Scott didn't score as he had done at first. He ran singles when he could easily have got twos, and then it burst upon me he was giving me all the bowling so that I could get my century. I got two fours, which made me 95, then a single, and for a long time after that I couldn't get a ball. I could hear my heart hitting my ribs when Dixon, who had come on again, faced me. Then I got in a slog that long-on could not quite reach, and there was a roar as the ball went to the boundary. A single followed, and Scott finished off with four successive fours. There was no walking back to the pavilion for either of us, for we were carried shoulder-high right up the steps into the big room at the back, where the "head" and Sir James were. The latter looked very queer—sort of proud and yet stern at the same time. Scott stood there as if he had done something to be ashamed of.
"I should like to know what is the meaning, of this?" Sir James demanded.
"I am afraid that I must make my apologies to the 'head' first," Scott said. "You see, sir, Sir James is my uncle. He was good enough to make me his heir, only he did not desire me to work. I wanted to get into the Indian Civil Service, and Sir James let me try, feeling sure that I should fail. But I didn't fail, and that is the cause of all the mischief. I promised my father I would never be an idle man, and that promise I mean to keep. Sir James cut me off with the proverbial shilling, and pending my departure for India I was penniless. I couldn't think what to do, and when I heard of this chance I jumped at it. There was some risk, but I had to take that; you see, I thought Sir James was not at home. On the whole I have had a very pleasant time here."
"Did anybody else know of this?" the "head" asked.
"Well, I had to tell Mr. Mason," Scott admitted. "He will tell you why. But I'm glad I came, and I'm quite sure that the boys are glad, too."
Well, I should say so. It had spread like wildfire, so the chaps clapped me and cheered Scott till they were hoarse. And then if old Sir James didn't cheer, too, and made a special speech afterwards, in which he invited us all over to the Priory for a good day of it. When he had wiped his face and the row had subsided, he turned to Scott and held out his hand.
"Well, it's been your day," he said, "and I'm not going to say I'm sorry. Now come along, my dear boy, or we shall be precious late for dinner."
"And my work?" Scott stammered. "India, you know."
"Oh, that will be all right," Sir James said heartily.—"The Sunday Strand."
SEBASTIAN BLIGH sat on a Saratoga trunk in the hall smoking a meditative cigarette. A village child in a pink bonnet looked in at the open door with a primitive curiosity that had nothing of offence about it. The survey was largely critical. A herd of red cows came slowly along, carrying that faint suggestive perfume of cowslips with them. Bligh felt all these things rather than saw them. He had the dual faculty of the novelist for thinking and feeling at the same time. He would have described all this with a vivid slash or two of his pen. One of the great charms of his work had been its atmosphere.
Had been! And he was only thirty-four! It was because of the "had been" that he was down here at Marborough pledged to a year in the heart of the country, under a vow to early nights and the simple life in the open air. It was practically a sentence of twelve months' imprisonment to him, but it was either that or a more dread punishment—the scourge of insanity. It was the old story of brilliant work done at express speed, contracts hurried on for the sake of the money that Bligh wasted so needlessly in the gay society where he had his reputation for a wit to live up to. There had been sleepless nights, of course; the growing insomnia and the insidious drug prescribed by a fashionable physician. It was the kind of thing that Sebastian Bligh did not care to think about.
It was his wife who had insisted upon him going to see Moore in Harley Street. And the famous nerve specialist had spoken very freely indeed.
"Get out of it at once," he said. "Go into the country for a year. If you don't, you will be in a lunatic asylum in six months. There is no more to be said."
"What really is the matter with me, doctor?" Bligh asked.
"Well, mainly conceit," the great man said coolly. "You are too ambitious to shine. You are not content to do so through your books, much as they take it out of you. You have an ambition to be regarded as a brilliant talker; you like to be asked to big houses, to shine in your orbit. The consequence is that you are making a mess of everything. Go into the country with your wife. I suppose you never realised that she is far too good for you—far wiser and more sensible than you arc. Go away, and at the end of a year give us your best. No reputation could stand another story like your last. And you know it."
Bligh did know it. He had vainly tried to blind himself to the faults of that last volume of his. And now he had something far more serious to think of. He was to go away and do nothing for a time. He was to take a house in the heart of the country, to lead the simple life.
He had no money, as usual. He was not fit to attempt a further contract. He poured all this truth out on his wife—the first time he had confided in her for two years. He had to stand there before Nell and confess himself a failure. That she had suffered all this time in solitude and neglect had not occurred to him. All he knew now was that he was leaning on her sympathy, he had told his troubles at the club, and the men had said it was "hard lines." They yawned in his face. Sebastian was a "back number"; he was "played out." In imagination he could hear them saying this after he had gone. And yet Nell's smile was sweet and tender, her blue eyes were dewy with sympathy and love. She seemed to be glad. Resentfully, Bligh asked the reason.
"I'll not tell you now," Nell smiled. "You are not in what you call a receptive condition. Later on, perhaps, when we have been in the country six months."
"How are we going to get there, Childie? I can't work, and I have no money."
Nell's face flushed. It was a long time since Sebastian had called her by that pet name. He was coming back to her now in his troubles as a child comes back to its mother.
"I have thought of all that," she said. "Dr. Moore told me last week what he was going to order you. The Saintons are going to Australia for a year. Their cottage at Marborough was going to be shut up, and I more or less asked for it. Mrs. Sainton wants to sell the place now that they have come into that Australian money. She gave me the option of it as it stands for £1,000 furnished. Sebastian, it is the most lovely place! I was down there one day last summer. We can have it for £1 a week. And we can let this flat for £4 a week for a year easily. The Marshalls would jump at it. I went to your lawyers to-day and asked them to lend me £300 on our furniture. They arc ready to do that. By living quietly we shall be able to give you the year's holiday you so sorely need."
Bligh let it go at that. Really, he had no idea that Ellen was so capable! She thought of everything, managed everything, saved him from all worry and anxiety. The men at the club hoped that it would be "all right." Meanwhile, they found the prospects of the forthcoming Australian cricket team more interesting. In a dim way, Bligh began to sec what a fool he had been!
All the same, he dreaded the prospect of the change. His nerves were shaken. He could not rest. Would it be possible for him to put up with the dull monotony of the country? He would find the people impossible, of course: there would be no intellectual intercourse. The cottage would stink of paraffin in crazy lamps, the bath would be a thing of penny numbers. Still—
He sat in the hall of Barn House smoking his cigarette. Two neat maids in black and white were bustling about the place cheerfully under the direction of his wife. The cab which had met them at the station a mile and a half away had been provided with rubber tyres! In a recess was a window of old stained glass, blue and purple and orange, with the mellow flood of the April sunshine pouring through it. The pallid rays lay across a polished oak floor. There was warmth, refinement, atmosphere! And here, too, on a shelf was one of the latest things in the way of a telephone! By the side of it was a framed card with the names and numbers of the local shopkeepers. One of them was the library. With a sudden whimsical humour Bligh called up the bookseller. There were two volumes of poetry and a novel that he was anxious to sec. Could he have them sent to Barn House? What subscription—"
"Paid by Mrs. Sainton to the end of the year, sir," a pleasant voice said. "Mr. Dobson's new work we will send round this evening. Mr. Seaman's book has just gone out. The new novel of Mr. Wells comes with our papers this evening. To-morrow, sir? Certainly, with the morning papers. Will you kindly say what paper you require, sir? Oh, yes, the papers are delivered by breakfast time, sir."
Bligh smiled as he put the receiver back on the telephone. He was curious to see the village in the heart of the country where the last books were received the day after publication. He did not know what a rich resident population the place boasted. The country was all very well for poets and descriptive writers, but he had never properly appreciated it. Still, as a boy—
What had he done eventually with that collection of birds' eggs? And what was that bird outside in the hedgerow singing with a deep contralto note clear as a bell? He had known at one time. . . . The old oak hall was full of wistful shadows: Rembrandt would have loved to paint it. Really, there was a charm about the cottage, after all. Bligh hoped that lamps would not spoil it. He wondered where he could wash his hands. Nell was busy with the two maids upstairs. He could hear her singing as blithely as the blackbird outside. Some people liked this kind of thing. Here was a long passage with irregular steps. There were some nice prints on the panelled walls, an oak chest or two, some quaint blue china. Really the house was well furnished—not extravagantly, but in perfect taste and keeping with the age and flavour of it. Bligh opened a door at the end of the passage. Here was a bath-room with white tiles, a bath of porcelain with hot and cold water, a lavatory basin—everything absolute and complete! By the side of the looking glass was a gas-bracket in hammered copper. Bligh put a match to it, and the inverted mantle flamed white and clear. Then it came to him presently that there was gas all over the house. The water was clean and sparkling and evidently had been taken off from the main. What manner of place was Marborough?
The mellow note of a gong floated through the house, and Bligh found his way down to the drawing-room. Here were the same panelled walls, with a few good pictures on them. In one corner was an upright grand piano with the last model of an Angelus attached. The bread-and-butter looked inviting. There were two brown eggs in a little silver stand.
"It seems rather absurd," Nell laughed; "but I fancied an egg. I only had an apology for a lunch, and this air is so invigorating. Would you like to try one?"
Bligh thought not. He wandered across to the window and looked out. The beauty of the prospect almost staggered him. He had all the artistic temperament, all the glad eye for beauty in any form that goes with the creative faculty. He was looking over miles of undulating country to the calm silent line of the downs beyond. There was something singularly wistful and peaceful in those purple hills. Right away from the window the trees were one mass of living, trembling green. The feathery tracery of the birches, the tasselled emerald jewellery of the larches, appealed to him and touched him.
He stood there for a long time in silence.
"That's grand," he said. "Grand. I wish that I had—"
He broke off suddenly. Nell Bligh watched him with a touch of moisture in her eyes. Surely the charm she had hoped for was beginning to work already.
"Upon my word," Bligh said, with a half laugh, "I fancy I could tackle one of those eggs. We never see them with that ivory creaminess in London. And look at that butter!"
He ate his egg. The trim maid came with more bread-and-butter. Outside the choir invisible sang to the glory of the setting sun. There was a fragrance of violets somewhere. In some vague way they reminded Bligh of Piccadilly. He had seen Piccadilly the other day hard and glaring and dusty under the cold gleam of the sun and an east wind. Why did people shut themselves up in London just when—But this was a traitorous thought, and Bligh promptly suppressed it. "We must be very high above the sea here," he said.
"Nine hundred feet," Nell explained. "Where the hills slope down to the south is Beachy Head. You can see the sea from here sometimes, they tell me. Now isn't it a charming place? And isn't it a dear little house? I think I could be very happy here."
"I believe that you are happy now," Bligh smiled.
"Oh, I am. I love the country so. I wonder if you have forgotten that I was brought up in it? Of course, I don't want to hurt your feelings, dear, but—"
"I dare say I shall get used to it in time," Bligh said magnanimously. "I'll put up with it for your sake, Nell. I've thought a good deal too much about myself. I can see now that I have been neglecting you, dear. And when this trouble came upon me there was nobody else who cared. When I told them at the club they yawned in my face. Perhaps—but we shall sec. What is the garden like? Funny thing that I should be interested in a garden."
"The garden is a dream," Nell cried enthusiastically. "I should need the eloquence of Claude Melnotte to describe it to you. Only it is a very different garden from the one pictured to Pauline. But come and see it for yourself. I wonder if there is ever a month so lovely anywhere as a genial April in England?"
Bligh passed along a flagged passage, through a greenhouse filled with ferns, on to a terrace one mass of brilliant rock plants in full sheets of white and blue and mauve blossoms. The garden sloped away down with great masses of daffodils and narcissus on either side. The arabis and alyssum were in yellow and white glory that was all their own. Here were the wide herbaceous borders showing their first spikes of green, and beyond this the currant trees bursting into flower. Behind these again were the apples and pears—ivory white and pink-tinged pyramids of bloom.
"It is certainly very beautiful," Bligh said after a long pause.
"It brings the tears to your eyes," Nell said, with a catch in her voice. "I always think that you feel much nearer God in the country. You seem to see His band in everything. . . . But come a bit further this way, Sebastian. Now look at that Isn't it exquisite?"
She indicated a small orchard with a hand that shook a little. Here were fruit trees all a tender whisper of trembling green, flushed with white and pink like carmine embroidery, and in the grass between were daffodils and narcissus growing by the hundred. There were wide beds dotted about here and there that would be a mass of lupins later on. The whole was enclosed by a high formal yew hedge that gave to the picture the one quiet touch, the suggestion of medievalism that it needed.
"You ought to appreciate all this," Nell said. "A man like you, who thinks so highly of Austin Dobson, should simply revel in it."
"Upon my word, I believe I do," Bligh laughed. "I suppose that is the kitchen garden beyond the yew hedge? There ought to be old-fashioned flowers in the borders and an avenue of filbert trees down the centre. And so there is, . . . This is one of Dobson's gardens. Dendy Sadler should come here, and Marcus Stone. Upon my word, I begin to feel glad that we came, Nell."
Bligh had forgotten all about himself for the moment. The raw edge of his nerves was toning down. There were a thousand things here to see and admire. Here was a summer-house, thatched with heather, where he had made up his mind to work later on. The windows were framed with roses; a blackbird on the summit was singing his hymn to the setting sun. Already in his mind Bligh was beginning to frame a story with the place for a setting. The inspiration of it was thrilling him to his very finger-tips. Not for years had he felt like that in London. There latterly he had had to thrash his brain, to force himself to it. Now the plot was unrolling itself like a panorama. He talked it over with Nell logically and eagerly. He had never given her his literary confidence before. She hung on his arm lovingly; there was a happy flush on her face.
"Wait a bit." she suggested. "Give yourself time, my dear boy."
"Oh. I am going to." Bligh exclaimed. "No breathless haste for me. For the whole year that we are down here I I am not going to send a single line to a magazine or a publisher. I shall do everything that I have to do carefully and conscientiously, and put it aside till the year is up. Then I shall be able to read it calmly and critically. My best shall go and the rest shall be destroyed. Those fellows in the club shall see what I can do when I take my time."
"If you act in that way." Nell said, with a happy little laugh, "at the end of the year you will not mind what the club says. But you will let me see it, won't you?"
Bligh magnanimously conceded the point. He was mildly surprised to find how wise and far-seeing his wife was. He had the grace to be just a little ashamed of himself. But Nell appeared to heed none of these things. She talked on happily and contentedly. She was going, just for a special treat, to give Bligh a salmon steak for dinner. Oh. yes, all those luxuries could be found in the village. The shops were quite good, There were so many great houses in the neighbourhood; a rich colony had settled here since the era of the motor had dawned. And did not Sebastian think that this was a delightful cottage? If they could only buy it, if only for the summer residence and the occasional week-ends? The price was ridiculously cheap.
Bligh pondered over this till he fell asleep. Usually he sat up till past one. To-night before eleven he was strangely sleepy—not heavy and restless, but delightfully drowsy. He might possibly get a good night's rest for once. He closed his eyes. A bird outside was piping with clear notes like running water. Sebastian wondered if it was a nightingale, or possibly—possibly—
When he awoke again it was nearly seven in the morning. His head was singularly clear. He was conscious of a marvellous elasticity in his limbs. Outside the sun was shining brilliantly, and the birds were in full song.
Bligh splashed about in his bath whistling. He came back to breakfast ravenously hungry, and full of the fact that he had found a cuckoo's egg in a sparrow's nest.
"I've been all round by the golf links." he explained. "Talk about a view! This is lovely, but it isn't in it with the prospect from the terrace of the golf house! And such greens they've got! I've seen nothing like them since I was at Sandwich and Deal five years ago. I think I'll take up golf again, Nell. If I can get my energy back, I'll certainly do so."
Nell smiled happily. It needed no far vision to sec that everything was coming her way. She was going to get her husband back again. The old happiness that she had planned and schemed for was returning. Sebastian wandered off presently with his pipe after a breakfast that had been in itself a source of wonder. He returned a little later on to inquire if there was a mowing machine anywhere. The tennis court needed cutting. He worked hard till every inch of grass was cut; his eye was clear, his forehead wet with moisture. He boasted presently, like a boy that he was not in the least tired. All the evening he passed with deepest interest over one of Sutton's seed catalogues. He would make those borders still more gay with flowers, he was going to have the finest peas and potatoes in Marborough. But the next day he had an inspiration, and he shut himself up in the heather-thatched summer-house and wrote. From that time, on all through the summer, he wrote steadily for three hours a day.
He was loyal to his vow. He wrote his long or short stories and corrected them, after which he put them away in a drawer and absolutely refused to look at them again. But he allowed Nell to read them, and was surprised at the astuteness of her criticism. They were not the showy criticisms of the club either; they were deeper than that. They sat together sometimes in the summer evenings and talked of books. Nell's prayers were being answered at last.
There was plenty to do in the garden. The roses had more than answered expectations; the dahlias were a delight, the tall phloxes were coming on now, the daisies were in their prime; and there was not a gardener in the place who could show a better collection of vegetables than Bligh. During the whole of the time he had never been near London. He spoke with contempt of the fools who chained themselves to town when they might be in the country. Nell laughed.
"Oh, I know what you mean." he said, with a slight flush on his face. "My dear, you arc far wiser than I. I came here because my doctor ordered me to come. You came because you knew that it was the right thing. And I am another man. I am a happy man, too. And I owe it all to you."
Nell thrilled. There was no mistaking the ring of sincerity in her husband's voice.
"I was a fool," he went on, "a fool! I came down here hating the place and the thought of coming. It seemed to me that Moore was sending me into penal servitude. And look at the result! Childie, I've got to love this place. The house has become part of myself. If I had the money I would buy it to-morrow, and be quite content to spend the rest of my life here. But I have no money, and I dare say, when the Saintons come back, they will sell the place over our heads. I should like—Botheration! I quite forgot to trench up the celery bed! Is there time before dinner?"
It was small wonder, then, that Nell smiled happily as she went about the house, and that she could listen contentedly enough to Sebastian when he talked about the progress of his golf. He was never tired or discontented now. Nothing seemed to trouble him, except the wasted years, and the knowledge that he had not the necessary money to buy Barn House. Perhaps, at the end of the year, when he came to look through the work that he had done, he might make a valuation and place the same in the hands of his agent. But to realise would take time, and before the money began to come in the place might be gone. Sebastian sowed his seeds and made his beds as if he were here for years to come. Naturally, he had the sanguine temperament.
The nights were drawing in now, chill and cold. The chrysanthemums were coming into bloom. But there was plenty to do in the greenhouse, and the golf was progressing satisfactorily. There were misty days and days of rain and fog, and when these came Nell trembled for the success of her scheme. Sebastian was a man of mood and temperament; at any time he might say that he could not stand it any longer. He did not complain, however; he made his own pleasures. He would not listen to the suggestion of a few days in London in the flat which was now empty for the moment.
"I'd much rather not, Nell." he said. "The fact is, I'm giving fiction a rest, and I'm on a series of papers after the style of Richard Jcfferies. I shall publish them later on in book form. You know that Richard Jeffcries lived here for some years. I have been over all the ground that is described in his books. It's wonderful what secrets Nature has for you, even at this time of the year, if only you study her carefully. December is a most interesting month here, if you take it the right way. By the way, have those sea-kale pots come yet?"
All this was honey of Hybla to Nell. The critical time was past now, and the heart of a man had been born again. The spring of the year came, and presently the aconite began to peep through the ground, and the snowdrops to nod in the shady borders. Then the buds on the trees began to swell again, and the daffodils in the orchard showed bloom. Sebastian contemplated this with a sigh. They were his children, so to speak.
"Another month and we shall part company, I suppose." he said. "It seems very hard after the way we have worked in the garden. And what a lovely April it has been again this year! I suppose we shall have to look for some other place close by. But it won't be the same as Barn House. I dare say it is only a sentiment, but then the world is governed by sentiment! Nell, do you think that you could persuade the Saintons to let us go on for another year? They ought to be back in London any time now."
"Would you feel leaving the place so much?" Nell asked.
"Childie, I feel that I was born here," Sebastian said. "I was born here in a way. If I could only buy the place! What a perfect evening it is, to be sure!"
"Would you really like to have the house?" Nell asked.
"Would I?" Bligh drew a deep breath. "I would prefer it to any place in the world. I have come into being here. I am a man again. And I believe that I have been doing better work lately than I have ever done before. To-morrow we have been here a year. Heavens! what a difference it has made to me. Everything here appears to be mine. At least, all the flowers do. I wanted to sec how that new rock garden was going to turn out. I wonder what they would say at the club if they heard me talk like this? And when we first had to come here I was angry because you were glad. Now I can sec how wise you arc and how foolish am I! Still, I dare say there are other places."
"Come outside and sec the sunset." Nell said. "Come and admire those wonderful new daffodils of ours. I have something to say to you. I have a confession to make."
It was wonderfully still and peaceful there; the pears and apples were flushed with bloom. The promise of a fair summer lay before them.
"What is it?" Sebastian asked. "What have you been doing, Nell?"
"Well, I have been robbing you," Nell said with an unsteady laugh. "You told me six months ago that my literary judgment was as good as anybody's that you knew. After that I went to that old chest where you keep your papers and read your stories again. For six months I have been picking them out, the long and short ones as they come. And they arc all just as good as they were in the old early days. I sent them to your agent, and they arc all sold. I could keep my secret because you never see a magazine or a review—you said that you would not look at anything of the kind for a whole year. I read all your letters, and kept back those I did not want you to see. And all this time the money has been accumulating at the bank—over £2,000 altogether. The other day, when I was in London, I saw Mrs. Sainton's agent, and I made him an offer for this house as it stands. He had been advised as to the promise the Saintons made, and he had power to close. So I bought it. The deeds will be signed this week, and all you have to do is to write a cheque for £1,000. Of course, all this is was wrong on my part, but I couldn't help it. The idea appealed to me so much that it was not to be resisted. You arc annoyed with me, of course."
Sebastian was silent for a long time. Nell waited anxiously for him to speak.
"Say it again." he asked. "Tell the story once more! Did ever a man have a wife like you since the world began? And I used to neglect you, to treat you as a plaything! I have written and said some hard things about women in the past. Never again, Nell, never again. And so you have done the thing for me. My work—"
"Is better than ever. All the editors say so. Your agent says so. They are asking for more. You could not help doing good work here."
Sebastian took his wife on his arm and kissed her. This was the hour of her triumph. The hour she had dreamed of a year ago. And it had all come true. Her husband, with his strong, brown, handsome face, was true; his kisses were true; the tender green on the trees was true. And all this was theirs till the end came. The tears came in her eyes.
"I am so glad that you arc not angry," she whispered.
"Angry!" Sebastian laughed. "Angry! Oh, my dear, my dear!"
A blackbird sang on the swaying branch of white lilac, the sun was on the daffodils. And the song of the bird was like the music that was in the hearts of both of them.
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