Project Gutenberg's When the Birds Begin to Sing, by Winifred Graham This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere 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 License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org Title: When the Birds Begin to Sing Author: Winifred Graham Illustrator: Harold Piffard Release Date: August 4, 2008 [EBook #26186] Language: English Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1 *** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK WHEN THE BIRDS BEGIN TO SING *** Produced by Al Haines
|I.||AND WHEN LOVE SPEAKS|
|II.||"IMPARADIS'D IN ONE ANOTHER'S ARMS."—Milton|
|III.||"GOD MADE THE WOMAN FOR THE MAN."—Tennyson|
|IV.||LIFE IS A JEST|
|V.||"THE FLY THAT SIPS TREACLE IS LOST IN THE SWEETS"|
LIKE ONE THAT ON A LONESOME ROAD
DOST WALK IN FEAR AND DREAD
|VII.||THE SHADOWS RISE AND FALL|
|VIII.||KIND HEARTS ARE MORE THAN CORONETS.|
|IX.||HEART SICK AND WEARY WITH THE JOURNEY'S FRET|
|X.||FALSER THAN ALL FANCY FATHOMS|
|XI.||IF WE ONLY KNOW! IF WE ONLY KNOW!|
|XII.||"TO-MORROW, AND TO-MORROW, AND TO-MORROW."—Shakespeare|
|XIII.||"IF NEED, TO DIE—NOT LIVE."—Charles Kingsley|
|XIV.||IN CLOUDS OF SILENCE FOLDED OUT OF SIGHT|
"AH, FOR SOME RETREAT
DEEP IN YONDER SHINING ORIENT."—Tennyson
|XVI.||OH, LOVE! IN SUCH A WILDERNESS AS THIS|
|XVII.||"WHERE THERE AIN'T NO TEN COMMANDMENTS."—Rudyard Kipling|
|XVIII.||LET US BE OPEN AS THE DAY|
|XIX.||THE IDEAL! DIM VANITIES OF DREAMS BY NIGHT|
|XX.||LIFE IS THORNY, AND YOUTH IS VAIN|
"BY A ROUTE OBSCURE AND LONELY,
HAUNTED BY ILL ANGELS ONLY."—E. A. Poe.
"NO FOOTSTEP STIRRED—THE HATED WORLD ALL SLEPT,
SAVE ONLY THEE AND ME. (OH, HEAVEN! OH, GOD!)"
"OH, I DEFY THEE, HELL, TO SHOW,
ON BEDS OF FIRE THAT BURN BELOW,
A DEEPER WOE."—E. A. Poe
She was certainly very pretty, and just then she looked prettier than usual, for the sharp run had brought a more vivid colour to the cheek, and an added sparkle to the eye. She was laughing, too—the rogue—as well she might, for had she not brought her right hand swiftly down upon his left ear when he had chased her, caught her, and deliberately and maliciously kissed her, and did he not now look red and foolish, and apparently repentant?
But let me start from the beginning, and tell you how it all came about.
Eleanor, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer, is as fresh and beautiful in the eyes of Philip Roche as the field flowers whose heads fall fading beneath his tread while he follows her through the long grass. He has watched her playing with the innocent school children—little more than a child herself—and then, with the calm assurance that to him is second nature, joins the merry throng unasked. The children greet him eagerly, after scrambling for a handful of silver from the stranger's pocket, for is it not the great, grand treat of all the year?
"Come and play wif us," lisps a little maiden of five summers, whom Philip tosses on his shoulder with good-natured ease. He has a way of winning the confidence of children.
"What is the game?"
"Kiss in the ring!" cries a small boyish voice at his elbow.
The stranger's eyes twinkle as he watches the lovely unknown Eleanor arranging a circle. Placing his tiny friend again on her feet, and taking her brother's grimy hand, Philip Roche joins the hilarious pastime.
Eleanor glances across the ring well-pleasedly, guessing that her dainty figure and deep-fringed eyes have attracted him thither.
A moment later she trips lightly round the chain of children, her heart beating higher as her feet approach the man's tall figure. Shall she? Shall she? No time to consider, as the handkerchief falls from her hand upon Philip's shoulder.
Quick as lightning she flies away—faster—faster—through the buttercups, while he pursues, nearer—nearer—and then the strong arms arrest her career, and the inevitable kiss occurs.
Eleanor, her cheeks aflame, frees herself from his audacious caress, and half laughing, half indignant, walks hastily away. But after their unconventional introduction Philip is not easily to be foiled.
"You are offended," he cries penitently. "It was only the game; won't you forgive me, Miss——?"
"Grebby," raising her eyes and pausing. "Eleanor Grebby," she continues with a prim little air that is quite unnatural, then laughing spontaneously:
"You see, I was rather taken aback at first, Mr.——"
"Roche—Philip Roche, at your service."
"So now we know each other," holding out her hand.
He grasps it eagerly—such a warm slim hand!
"It was rather a nice introduction, wasn't it?"
Philip thinks how amazingly pretty Eleanor is, as she assents with deepening colour.
"There! I knew it would come!" she cries, with a thought for her new poppy-bedizened hat.
"What?" asks Philip, still feasting his eyes on the girl's fair physique, and unobservant of the gathering darkness overhead.
"Why, the rain, of course. We shall get wet."
"Only a summer shower."
"Yes, but as disastrous in its effects as any other downpour. I shall make for that barn in the next field; the children have all mysteriously vanished."
"I am dreadfully afraid of the wet," declares Philip, pretending to shiver. "May I accompany you?"
He is still retaining her hand as they run together towards the haven of "shelter.
"How nice of it to rain!" he gasps, applauding the accommodating skies. "Let me make you comfortable," heaping together a pile of hay for her to sit upon. "Now tell me all about yourself."
Eleanor sinks down on the soft couch, looking somewhat wistfully through the open door of the barn.
"I am easily explained. I live here always. My father is a farmer, and I feed the chickens, dust the house, and teach in the Sunday-school. Only fancy what an exciting life, Mr. Roche. Doesn't it take your breath away?"
At the thought of her own humdrum existence Eleanor laughs again with a return of that superabundant vitality which is hers by nature.
"Then once or perhaps twice a year I am invited to tea at the Vicarage, and I sit up straight in a high-backed chair and say 'Yes' and 'No' when I am spoken to, and answer prettily—like a schoolgirl. The vicar's wife would have a fit if I lounged like this," flinging herself back with an air of abandon on the hay. "Once she asked me to sing (I play the harmonium in church). My cousin Joe had brought me a comic song from town, and I couldn't help, for the life of me, getting up and giving her a verse."
"Of course it was wrong, and she looked frightfully shocked. I have certainly never been invited to tea since. Oh, how I should like to sing at concerts and halls—I mean the sort of places where you have an eyeglass, and walk round with a hat and stick!"
Her face beamed as she delivered this sentence—involuntarily the little hands clasped themselves together in excitement.
"Be thankful that such an ambition is ungratified," declares Philip, speaking seriously for the first time. "You do not know the fate that you are coveting. Best contented, child, to remain your own sweet self. Your country life is ideal compared with—that!"
Eleanor shakes her head.
"It doesn't seem like it," she declares.
"No, I dare say not. Duty is sometimes heroism in its noblest form."
"Then are all the people wicked that go to London, and sing, act, and enjoy themselves?"
"Indeed I trust not. We should have a pretty bad time of it if they were. Yet I don't know that you're far wrong. Few are guileless. But why talk of it? Time enough to warn you of the pitfalls when you are on your road to the great city."
"What is your life?" asks Eleanor curiously, drawing the long ends of hay through her teeth with a meditative smile.
"Scarcely less monotonous than yours, Miss Grebby"—an amused look in his eyes. "Instead of feeding chickens I feed my friends—lunches, dinners, midnight suppers—all of which pall terribly after a time. Instead of dusting my house I leave it to accumulate dust, while I wander abroad. A home is a dull place for one man."
"You have no wife or mother?"
"But you must have lots of money. Why, only think of all the silver you threw to the children this afternoon! I do not believe they had ever seen so many shillings and sixpences before."
"Money will not buy a mother or——" He was going to say "a wife," but checked himself. Philip Roche was an accurate man.
"Poor Mr. Roche, it must be very lonely," says Eleanor, with genuine sympathy in her tone.
He smiles enigmatically. It is strange to him to be pitied by the little farmer's daughter when so many have envied his happy-go-lucky existence ere now.
"The rain clouds are dispersing," he murmurs, as a stray ray of sunlight wanders through the barn door to mingle its glory with Eleanor's hair. How gold those tender silken threads appear under its burnishing hand!
"What a pity! It has been such a refreshing shower!"
"I feel quite young again," he declares, "young enough to play with the children for hours. What do you say to kiss in the ring again?"
He presses her hand gently.
She lifts her eyes to his with a slow shake of her head.
"There is the vicar's wife to be considered."
"Good gracious!" he laughs. "You don't mean I should have to kiss her?"
Eleanor's face dimples all over in delightful smiles.
"What an absurd idea!" she gasps gleefully. "I should just like to see you!"
"I don't think it has quite stopped," murmurs Philip, holding up his hands to the sky, and pretending the drops from the barn are rain themselves.
"How silly you are!" cries Eleanor, mockingly, gathering up her skirts and revealing a well-turned ankle. "But, oh, isn't the grass soaking?" as Philip takes her arm and guides her to a narrow path. "The children will ruin their boots, and all go home with colds. Look, they are tearing about like mad things. How they will sleep to-night!"
"I wonder what will become of them all in the years to follow, and why they have any existence whatsoever beneath the glimpses of the moon?"
"One will reap," replies Eleanor, wisely, "and another will sow. Some may slay oxen and wring the fowls' necks, and perhaps for all we know murder each other. It is a horrible thought, isn't it? They look so thoroughly innocent, these country children. Do you see that little boy crying because he was knocked down in the three-legged steeplechase. His life race is only just beginning. His father is in gaol for theft, his mother incurable in a Samaritan infirmary, yet he is only crying because he grazed his knee and did not win a packet of bull's-eyes."
Eleanor's voice is low and expressive as her deep sapphire eyes—fascinating the man by their changeful beauty—one moment light and dancing like the sunbeams in the branches, the next overflowing with pity for a pauper child.
The little ones gather round, clinging to her skirts. She is tender and kind to all, though her gaze rests chiefly on the tall, sunburnt stranger making himself popular with the youngsters in her class.
"Look, teacher," cries the same wee maiden who is responsible for Philip's first appearance in their games. "I won 'er, 'opping along o' Margery in the big race," holding aloft a doll with great staring glass eyes and brilliantly rouged cheeks. "Ain't she beautiful?"
"What will you name her?" asks the Sunday-school teacher sweetly.
"Don't know," sighs the child perplexedly.
"Eleanor," suggests Philip.
"We 'ad a little sister named Eleanor, but she 'adn't got enough blood in her, so she died."
"Then you must call your doll by another name," says Miss Grebby decidedly.
But the small girl shakes her head, and announces with precision:
"I'll call 'er Eleanor!" and marches away well satisfied, to re-open a half-closed wound in her mother's breast.
"I hit on an unfortunate suggestion," whispers Philip, while the ever energetic Miss Grebby initiates him into the mysteries of "Nuts in May," "Poor Mary sits a-weeping," and "I have a little dog."
The soft twilight gradually creeps over this summer world, and the great red sun sinks down in its sea of fire behind the trees.
The birds chirp a good-night song, till their piping is drowned by the hearty cheers of the happy children ringing out stirringly on the still damp air.
"And now—home!" sighs Eleanor, with a little grimace, as Philip bends down to fasten a spray of wild honeysuckle in her belt.
"May I see you back?" he asks eagerly, noting the bright smile that flits across her lips at the suggestion.
"Could you walk a mile?" questions Eleanor in mock astonishment. "I thought London people always drove. The vicar's wife had some friends from South Kensington who were positively lame if they went any distance on foot. They said our country roads were a disgrace—no asphalte, no hansom cabs."
"Come along," murmurs Philip, whose long strides are not easy to keep pace with. They walk more slowly when out of sight. Oh, the delightful dawdle back through the vague shadows of evening in sweetly scented lanes! How merrily she prattles with charming ingenuousness, while he watches her expressive features, a new strange thrill at his heart.
What if on this summer holiday, among the clover and the daisies, he has discovered the one spotless soul of his life—a fresh, unsophisticated creature of Nature's noblest and purest art!
At last they are in sight of the old farmhouse which Eleanor calls home. It is a picturesque spot, and Philip stops admiringly to take in the beauty of the rural scene.
"So you live there in that quiet abode?" he said thoughtfully.
"Yes. I am sorry to-day is over. It has not only been a holiday for the children, but half the village. The labourers are to have a dinner to-night and——"
She paused. The labourers and the children are so far from her mind at this moment.
"I shall see you again," he whispers.
"Where and when?" asks Eleanor, feigning surprise.
"To-morrow in this cornfield on our left. I shall walk past."
"Like Boaz, and Ruth will be gleaning," she replies coyly.
"What will Boaz do?" he murmurs.
Eleanor lowers her eyes, and interlaces her fingers.
"I know," she replies confidently.
In the dim light Philip fancies that Eleanor is weaving some strange witchcraft. He is drawn involuntarily nearer and snatching her hand detains it a moment in both his. She is more beautiful than ever now in the dim solitude of the deserted road. The simplicity of her daily routine in the country farmhouse appeals to this man of the world, who yearns for something different, something better in his aimless, empty life—aimless because he has no one to work for, empty because there is no one to love.
Eleanor's gentle presence in the gathering gloom quickens his imagination. A picture wonderful and hitherto undreamed rises like a sudden mirage before Philip's eyes.
He seems lost in contemplation.
"I have found her at last," he says, speaking his thoughts aloud.
"Who?" asks Eleanor under her breath.
"The Ideal Woman!" he replies.
The girl looks perplexed—she does not understand the phrase. New Women and rational costumes have not yet penetrated to the depths of Copthorne, so their counter-poising ideal is to her an unknown quantity.
Eleanor's ignorance of modernity constitutes a special charm in his eyes. How sweet a privilege to build up this uncultured soul, to mould her impressionable spirit! Philip is enamoured of the idea, he sees such vast possibilities stretching out before him. Eleanor differed so widely from the women of his set. Perhaps the weaker sex are made variously that the mind of desultory man, studious of change, and pleased with novelty, may be indulged.
"How long have we known each other?" he asks.
"About three hours," she answers promptly.
"How deep can one go below the surface in one hundred and eighty minutes?"
Eleanor seems bewildered; she is at a loss for words.
"Have I only been with you so short a time?" he says incredulously. "Can it be possible?"
"Does it seem long?" she asks looking down shyly. "Have I wearied you, Mr. Roche?"
His smile reassures her.
"It does not seem long, only full to the brim. To every second a fresh thought, an inch deeper into the unknown."
"I have never met anyone before," she declares frankly, "who spoke to me like that."
Then with a swift "Good night" Eleanor breaks away and vanishes among the shadows.
"A wife," says Philip to himself, "is something between a hindrance and a help. Is this the turn of the tide?"
A nightingale broke into song. "Yes!" it cried; "yes—yes—yes!"
Eleanor is busy in the morning sunlight, brightening the pewter dinner service, the pride of the Grebby family, passed down from generation to generation, and priceless in her eyes. She can hear the preparations without for an early start to the neighbouring market. Her mother is loading a cart of vegetables, while her father "shoos" the cackling geese into wicker pens, and harnesses "Black Bess" the steady old mare, who is almost one of themselves. And Eleanor is glad that the market (a weekly centre of attraction to the old village) will leave her in peaceful solitude.
She breaks out into a glad song, which mingles with the twittering of birds:
"There was a jolly miller once,
Lived on the River Dee."
"Eleanor, Eleanor, give me a hand with these vegetables," cries her mother's voice. There is a thud, and a whole sack of potatoes fall pell-mell into the yard, still muddy from yesterday's rain.
Eleanor gathers them up, indulging the same tuneful mood:
"He worked and sang from morn till night.
No lark more blithe than he!"
She has a strong, sweet-toned voice, and "Black Bess" turns her head sleepily at the sound, whisking the tiresome flies with her tail. So often Eleanor's tread at the door of her shed has meant apples and carrots and sugar.
She wipes the potatoes clean with her apron, replacing them carefully at the back of the cart.
Mrs. Grebby takes the reins, while Mr. Grebby follows on foot, driving a few specially honoured sheep, who frequently serve him for conversation throughout an entire evening spent smoking with neighbouring farmers.
Eleanor watches them out of sight, her hand over her brow to shade the dazzling sunlight from her eyes. A group of chickens congregate around her with mute inquiry in their beaky faces. She fetches a handful of grain from the barn, flings it into their midst, and returns singing to her pewter polishing:
"And this the burden of his song
For ever used to be:
"How dull this soup tureen is, to be sure!" pausing in her verse to rub it with extra vigour:
"I care for nobody, no not I,
If no one cares for me!"
The delinquencies of the dimmed soup tureen are forgotten as these last words ring out in the quiet parlour. "Surely," thinks Eleanor, "there is hidden pathos in the Jolly Miller of Dee's reckless assertion! To care for nobody! What a horrible thought—a whole life's tragedy lies in the closing verse. If no one cares for me!"
Eleanor sighs and leans her chin on her hands, kneeling before the wooden table on which the dinner service is spread. What if nobody cared for her! How vast and miserable a wilderness this world would be! Why, even the dumb animals love her.
The little goat she called Nelly, who fell ill the week before, and gasped out its breath in her arms on a dry heap of hay, gave all the love of its disputed soul to Eleanor. Of course, it had a soul; she made up her mind long ago on this point. How can a creature with such mysteriously human eyes as Nelly possessed be less human than the great plodding, loose-mouthed ploughboy, who only gapes when he is spoken to, and contains what Mr. Grebby is pleased to call, "only half a intellec'!"
Eleanor glances at the old-fashioned clock in the corner, decorated by grotesque pottery dogs and four-legged creatures with horns, and faces resembling tigers or cats. She has been up since five, for besides market day it is churning morning, and she and her mother have worked for hours in the dairy.
"It is time," she says at last, washing her small hands under the scullery tap, and then reaching for a hat hanging on the kitchen dresser.
"I wish I had something pretty to wear," she sighs, glancing at her reflection in a cracked glass. "Laces and ribbons, beautiful blue ribbons with pink spots, like the Squire's nieces wore last Sunday. The tall girl was dreadfully plain, and I should have looked so well in her silk gown, with the shorter sister's chiffon fichu."
Eleanor's face brightens at the recollection of those costumes in the Manor House pew, which appeared so lovely in her eyes while she played the Magnificat. Dreams of dainty dresses are dear to her heart as the occasional thoughts of love which steal over her at times. "If the two could be combined," she thinks, "love and wealth."
It is amazing this new and sudden desire for something better, which all but stops the beating of Eleanor's heart.
"If he loved me," she gasps "if—" she staggers back against the half-closed door, her fingers clenched and pressed to her temples, throbbing with intense excitement. All the thoughts that crowd to her brain are offsprings of that improbable "if," each moment growing more dazzling!
She hastens with light footsteps to an old cupboard in which her mother has treasured some hand-made lace left in her aunt's will to the Grebbys of Copthorne Farm.
She turns down her collar to reveal a shapely throat, pearly white, and hidden usually from the sun's scorching power, round which the soft folds of lace fall entrancingly.
What would Eleanor's mother say could she see her precious heirloom donned hastily on this busy market morning, to adorn her daughter's neck for a stroll through the fields! It is sacrilege surely, but the prize!
The girl closes the cupboard noiselessly, creeping away like a criminal out into the glaring day. Her eyes dance, her cheeks are flushed, and her hair escaping (as if by accident) from its neat braids, waves in dainty tendrils round her ears.
"I am beautiful," she murmurs to herself, "why not? Stranger things have happened—Eleanor Roche, the wife of a rich man—oh!"
The last is a gasp of hitherto unexpressed surprise at the audacity of her day dreams.
Philip is waiting by the barley field, watching for her. As she sees him she slackens her steps, not wishing to appear over anxious for the rendezvous. He advances eagerly, grasps her hands, and devours her with his eyes.
"So we meet again, Eleanor," he whispers. "I must call you Eleanor; you don't mind?"
A bold answer that inwardly makes her tremble enters the girl's head. Why not place herself on an equality with him at once? She nerves herself to reply:
"Not if I may call you Philip?"
A look of amused surprise flits over Mr. Roche's features. What a naïve, childlike manner Eleanor possesses!
"Of course," he replies, pulling the small hand through his arm, and turning out of the public thoroughfare.
"I wonder what you think of me?" asks Eleanor unhesitatingly.
The great sparkling eyes are raised to his with genuine curiosity in their depths. She is not seeking a compliment; far from it, she really wants to know, and is waiting for the truth.
He looks from the blue eyes of the girl to the little blue bird's-eye growing on a bank of clover. She pauses while he stoops to gather the tiny flower.
"You see this," he says.
"It is only a field blossom blooming unnoticed in this sweet country atmosphere, yet to me a thousand times fairer than the exotics and hot-house plants which naturally demand admiration. I love this little flower," pressing the tender blue to his lips, "because it is wild and untrained. It appeals to me. It is like you, Eleanor!"
A flush of offence arises to her cheeks.
"Wild!" "Untrained!" the words sting Miss Grebby's pride.
"I did not think you would compare me to a weed!" she retorts, tossing her head proudly.
But Philip will not see he has offended, and continues in the same strain.
"Don't despise the weeds, Eleanor; they were placed in their uncultivated beds by Nature's hand, and have as much right to be called beautiful as any other creation."
He speaks to her authoritatively, and she looks at his strong, masterful expression with a gradual sense of awe.
"I should not have thought you would care for flowers."
"Why not? Does it seem childish in your eyes to soliloquise over a wayside 'weed,' as you call it?"
His questions perplex her. She is silent.
"You do not appreciate your beautiful country," he continues, "from living in it always. Wait till you have tasted the deadly dust of the town before you curl your lip at a blue bird's-eye, or pass judgment on the unbroken quiet of sinless Copthorne. Since I came here for rest and holiday leisure I seem to have grasped the whole history and charm of the place. It contains endless interest in its Godlike simplicity to the recluse or the reader. Look what fields for the naturalist or botanist! Think, too, of an artist here for the first time—what sketches to be made at sunrise and sunset! You may call your little world dull, monotonous, uneventful, since, reared in the green landscape with farmlands and woods around, you are bound through custom to neglect the pleasures of imagination, and see it only without observing."
"I am glad you are so enthusiastic over Copthorne," replies Eleanor, catching at the meadow-sweet, and crumbling it between her fingers. "I suppose you have been living a very different life in London?"
"It is a great change," he replies, "from the bustle of fashion to the unbroken quiet. But I must own I didn't enjoy so completely all the beauty of this glad country scene till you came, Eleanor, happy in the rich possession of youth and lightheartedness."
Now his conversation grows interesting, the perfect smile with which she is naturally blessed creeps through her lips to her eyes, illuminating her whole countenance. In the distance the regular click of a reaping machine falls on the breeze.
"You must see more of our life," she says impetuously. "Next week all our labourers will be reaping, and our barns are ready for the first loads of harvest. Do not go till it is gathered in!"
"Shall I promise? Would it give you pleasure?"
A pause, during which an old horse puts his nose over the gate of an adjacent field, regarding Philip and Eleanor complacently.
"Then it's a bargain! If you will be pleased, I will stay; but not unless."
A little gasp escapes her lips.
"Can you doubt it, Philip?" she murmurs.
He is satisfied by the earnest tone, gratified by her humility and undisguised devotion.
"Would you like to see my home?" she asks, for their steps are nearing the quaint farmhouse.
"Indeed, I should."
She takes him from the sloping cornfield, topped by a windmill, to where the path joins a kitchen garden—a perfect holiday ground for bees. The vegetables seem in perfect harmony with yellow marigolds and calceolaria. The house is divided from the road by palings richly covered by Virginia creepers, and as they approach Philip pauses to lean on the wicket gate and view the peaceful homestead silently. The drone of bees and busy presence of insect toil is soothing and melodious. He takes Eleanor's hand and kisses it in the full glare of the mid-day sun under the heavily laden fruit trees. Then they pass by the brilliant flower-beds to the rustic porch, through which is visible the Grebbys' twelve o'clock repast spread on a clean white linen cloth, a vase of wild flowers for simple decoration. There are bright-coloured texts on the walls, and an old Family Bible under a glass case.
"My mother will be back from the market directly," says Eleanor; "would you do us the honour of stopping to dinner?"
The tone became a supplication, mingled with smiles.
"You are too kind," declares Philip, touched by the unostentatious hospitality of his newly found friend. "I shall be most delighted."
"Come and let us watch for the return of Black Bess," she cries, leading the way out into the garden again. Philip thinks he has never spent a more delightful morning.
To have missed it would have been to lose one of the sweetest episodes of his life. The intense restfulness of Copthorne Farm, the fragrance of the air, the softness of the carpet beneath his feet, the cattle browsing in verdant pastures, and the murmur of those winged and drowsy honey-laden workers from the meadows, make a picture which will never pass from his mind. For the moment, while basking in the harvest sun, a scene which must some day be only a faded pleasure left to recollection, is Paradise!
Then the Grebbys' return from their marketing, to welcome the stranger whom Eleanor proudly introduces. Hospitality is a creed with them, and renewing their daughter's invitation, they place the choicest their home affords before the unexpected guest. Thus it is that Philip Roche finds himself in Eleanor's family circle, discussing the crops and weather with her father, a rubicund, hale old man, whose life is centred in bucolic pursuits.
The harvest is over, the wheat and barley are garnered, but still Philip lingers, chained by that mysterious agent the world calls—Love!
He sees the embodiment of all he most admires in Eleanor, the sweet domesticated country maiden, pure as the health-laden breezes sighing through the trees. His love ennobles his being, he is surprised at this inexplicable and unfathomable passion.
"Eleanor," he says, "I am going away—I want to take you with me. Will you be my wife?"
It is more a command than a question. He cannot do without her. She must consent.
The girl's breath comes and goes swiftly; for a moment he fears she will faint.
The future dances before her swimming brain, the alluring prospect of money, position, pleasure, whisper like fiends in Eleanor's ears. Love is forgotten; she only remembers the vague unsatisfied ambitions of her young dreams. She lets him kiss her lips again and again, she is clasped in his arms, yet feels them not; her mind fixed on the dazzling picture of "what is to be!"
"Your answer, Eleanor, darling—love!" he gasps, watching the glorious colour mount to her face, the marvellous radiance fill her eyes.
"Yes, Philip, your wife always!" Her head is on his shoulder, he has gathered her hands about his neck. The brief midday hours fly as she yields to the tender wooing.
"Soon," he whispers, "autumn's fingers of decay will creep over Copthorne, while leaves must fall damp and dead in the country lanes. Marry me, Eleanor, now the summer is here."
She starts back, a deadly fear knocking at her heart. She laughs, apparently frivolous and light-hearted.
"Yes, in the summer, sometime next year."
"Next year!" his face falling. "But when? Next year has three hundred and sixty-five long days!"
She smiles entrancingly, shrugging her shoulders.
"Oh! well—when the birds begin to sing."
"No," he cries, drawing her to him, "before they are silent, Eleanor, before the light of summer goes out of the heavens, and the blue sky fades to grey!"
Her eyes droop, her cheek is pale.
"Oh, do stop and take me to tea in that lovely confectioner's shop!" cries a pleading voice, while an eager hand flourishes a parasol which pokes the driver in the back. "Oh, I wish I could speak the horrid language."
"But, my dear," replies the man at her side, "you have only just had your coffee and unlimited bon-bons. I want to show you Brussels thoroughly. It is a most interesting town."
Eleanor Roche sighs. To her uncultivated mind the magnificent Hotel de Ville, the Roman Catholic Churches, galleries, picturesque towers, gables, and doorways of ancient buildings, hold but little charm.
She is madly excited about the bonnet and boot shops, the lace fans and collars, chocolates, and ice creams.
Philip is bent on enlarging his wife's mind, and hopes to awake in her his fervent love for art. Surely in time she will learn to appreciate it. At present she is decidedly slow of comprehension. Though looking lovelier than ever in her new Parisian toilettes, Eleanor disappoints him. She talks perpetually of her appearance, dresses three or four times a day, revels in admiring glances from male tourists, and displays strange apathy when sight-seeing.
"How ugly the foreign women are!" exclaims Eleanor, "so short, plump, and round. Why, even our miller's daughters could lick them into fits."
Her slang jars on him; but Eleanor is so sublimely unconscious of offence and childishly contented with herself, that he has not the heart to murmur.
Besides, even the touch of her small hand thrills him with the old pleasure.
She surveys her feet admiringly.
"Did you ever see such lovely shoes? The points are like needles. It would be wicked to walk in them. Oh, dear, where are we stopping now?"
"At the Church of St. Gudule. You must see it before we go. The pulpit is wonderful."
Eleanor gathers up her silken skirts and steps lightly to the pavement.
She thinks this part of the honeymoon very dry, when there are cafés, music, and shops at hand.
"Isn't the carving beautiful?" murmurs her husband, examining the pulpit with fresh interest, from the fact that Eleanor is visiting his favourite places.
"You see, dear," taking her arm, "it is supported on the Tree of Knowledge and of Life. Adam and Eve are being driven out of Paradise on one side by the Angel, while Death is gliding round with his dart."
"Ugh!" says Eleanor, shivering slightly, "what a nasty subject to choose. If you had been Adam at Copthorne, and thought you would gain anything by eating our apples, wouldn't you have devoured the lot?—that is to say, if I, as Eve, had been unselfish enough to leave any!"
She laughs at her own humour.
"It is scarcely a subject to jest upon," whispers Philip.
Eleanor's bright eyes sadden instinctively.
How has she displeased him?
"It is a marvellous piece of workmanship," he murmurs, as they move away.
He wonders if Eleanor, who has never even heard of "Rubens," feels her ignorance; but his thought is unconsciously answered by her careless, yet happy, air when he imparts his wisdom. Her great, expressive eyes seem to say: "I have no doubt it is very interesting to you, but I have so much else to think of."
Having escaped from the bewildering pulpit out into the fresh air, her spirits rise, while her fancy turns to the tempting pastry in the shop windows.
She catches sight of her face and form in a mirror as they pass to one of the small round tables, ordering coffee and cakes. Her heart kindles with love for her own beautiful being. It is not actual conceit, but genuine unbiassed admiration for Mother Nature's handiwork.
A young Englishman of insipid appearance is seated opposite, enjoying the mild pleasure of an ice à la panache. He puts up his eyeglass and stares at Eleanor. She returns the look frankly, taking in his narrow forehead, ginger hair, and elongated neck.
"Newly married," thinks the man, noting the fresh lustre of her jewellery.
"English," mentally ejaculates Eleanor, eyeing his scrupulously clean linen.
"A woman to be loved and hated in the same breath," so runs his masculine meditation. "Tantalising open eyes, without a blush in them, and a face like the bust of Clytie."
"What is engrossing your attention, dearest?" whispers Philip, seeing her pre-occupied.
"I am wondering if that young man's mother ever thought him handsome. The nose might have been promising once, before the last half inch grew, and his hair was gold when she first cut his ringlets."
Philip looks at the stranger's dissipated eyes, and despite the apparent innocence which the hallowing presence of a guileless ice-cream will temporarily shed over Lothario himself, sees the general demoralisation that has set in.
"He is young to be blunted and coarsened," thinks Philip. Annoyed by the impudent stare which possibly amuses rather than displeases his wife, he tells Eleanor she has had enough, and rises to signify departure. Lothario is still covering Clytie with his gaze. She pauses to caress a lean black cat with hungry eyes, that has crept in unobserved from the street. Hurriedly emptying a jug of cream in her saucer, Eleanor is about to present it to the plaintiff stranger. Tom, however, scents the cream, springs on his hind legs, and upsets the liquid over her Parisian skirt.
The insipid young man starts forward, for Philip is paying at the counter, and kneels at her feet to repair the damage with his handkerchief.
Mrs. Roche stands watching helplessly, her lips curving into smiles.
"You are very kind," she murmurs, as his eyeglass falls amongst her chiffons. "The cat was hungry, and now he won't get anything. Philip will not stay and——"
She breaks off shortly, for her husband has turned and discovered the youth on his knees before Eleanor, who, as he rises, slips his card into her hand.
"I will see the cat is fed," he whispers.
She gives him a grateful glance, and explaining the incident to Philip, hurries away, with the stranger's card hidden in her pale kid glove.
When she is back in the hotel, Eleanor looks at the name.
Junior Conservative Club.
"I don't suppose we shall ever meet again," she says to herself reflectively. "But he must so kindhearted, or he wouldn't have troubled about my dress or the cat."
Though Eleanor Roche is so in love with her own lustrous eyes, she does not yet realise how much goodwill they can win her. She has yet to learn that the dangerous gift of a subtle charm may make or mar its owner's life.
"We have only one more day here," says Philip, who had mapped out their tour, "and I want you to see 'Waterloo,' dearest."
"Is it amusing?" asks Eleanor.
"Well, interesting is more the word,"
"Then I probably shall not care for it. The places you call interesting are so dull!"
However, Philip carries out his plan, and takes her to the little straggling village of Brane l'Alleud. The churchyard full of English graves and monuments quite distresses Eleanor.
"To think of all these brave men dying nobly for their country, and then being buried in this out-of-the-way place!" she exclaims.
"I suppose it is all the same to them," replies Philip.
"But I don't like the idea, nor am I fond of the sight of graves, and the thought of death. Oh, Philip! what is that fat old man saying to you?"
"He wants to show us a grave over the Marquis of Anglesea's leg, and is the proud possessor of the house where it was amputated. It was buried in a polished coffin, and has a monument erected to its memory. But who are you eyeing so intently, Eleanor?" turning as he speaks. "Why! If it isn't that impudent young puppy again, who mopped up the milk!"
"Cream, Philip, cream."
"Well! don't look at him, darling," putting his arm through hers to draw her gently away. "We will escape from the voluble Belgian with the leg story. He wants to show us the boot that once cased the foot. Such a fuss about nothing!"
Eleanor returns to the carriage, but, as they drive to the huge mound with the Belgic Lion on the summit, she is conscious that Herbert Dallison is following.
For the rest of the day he always seems only a yard from her, as they examine the red walls pitted by bullets, and wander round the Museum. He has a party of friends with him—Eleanor can hear them chaffing the guide, and ridiculing everything. Their absurd remarks amuse her, from time to time she laughs for no apparent reason.
At last she owns to fatigue, and Philip leaves her, while he goes in search of their carriage.
"Would you like some relics?" says a voice at her elbow.
Eleanor knows who is speaking before she looks round. Herbert Dallison stands besides her, holding out a French forage cap, a bullet, and a rusty sword broken off in the middle.
She seizes them delightedly.
"Thank you, thank you, but please go away," as Philip's figure looms in sight.
She does not need to ask twice. Herbert Dallison seems to vanish into thin air.
"You silly child!" cries Philip laughingly, "to spend your money on those so-called 'relics' manufactured at Birmingham or Brussels to beguile innocent tourists. A fresh crop of bullets and swords, I'm told, is sown every year, that you may have the pleasure of seeing them turned up yourself."
Eleanor smiles a little nervously. She is beginning to wish she had not taken the presents. What would Philip say if he knew?
He helps her into the carriage with her spoil, the giver following with his party in the rear.
Eleanor becomes momentarily more conscience-stricken; the sight of the "relics" are hateful to her.
"I want to throw all this rubbish away," she cries at last. "It will only be a worry to me."
"Very true," replies her husband.
"I know," a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. "Let me shy them out on the road, and someone will think they have discovered real curiosities."
She stands up in childish glee, casting back a mocking smile at Herbert Dallison. One by one she flings his gifts from her, with an expressive look signifying second thoughts are best. He has taken his friends into his confidence, and is horrified at the hilarious laughter which breaks from them at Eleanor's act.
"Hang it all," he mutters, "it's beastly ungrateful; can't buy that sort of rot for nothing."
But he is too proud to stop and recover his property; so a bullet, a cap, and a sword are left by the wayside like the seed that was not good, to pass into strange hands.
"Moral," cries Bertie's pal, slapping him on the back, "don't interfere with honeymoon couples, they're abominably slow. Stick to widows, old man, for the future."
At the word "widow" Bertie actually blushes. There is more sting in this light chaff than his comrades suppose, for the vision of a villa at Richmond with its dark-haired divinity rises between the dust of the two carriages, soothing his ruffled feelings and drowning Eleanor's fair form in the seas of forgetfulness.
The honeymoon slips by pleasantly.
Mrs. Roche enjoys the long railway journeys above everything, which astonishes Philip, who thinks them the worst part of the trip.
"You see I so seldom go in trains," Eleanor says when he expresses surprise. "I love to listen to the whizz of the engine, and see the rushing, panting people on the stations worrying the grand officials in their smart uniforms. Then it is so nice to be first-class, and lean back on the cushions and cock up your feet if you wish. Besides, it is awfully jolly just now to look out of the window and think."
"What do you think of?" asks her husband.
"All the beautiful presents you have given me, and the lovely house on the terrace at Richmond where I am to live."
The pleasure she takes in little things is a daily marvel to Philip. In the train, for instance, every moment she opens her dressing-bag, to shake scent from a silver bottle over her hands or peep in a dainty glass at her complexion. Each time they stop something fresh must be bought—a bunch of grapes, a bag of red plums, flowers, and unwholesome-looking tarts.
She actually purchases a tumbler of lager beer, drinking it with relish, declaring it quite home-like and jolly.
Eleanor never worries about anything. Should the train be missed or the luggage stray, it is all the same to her. An hour's wait on a dull little platform is never grumbled at. "We'll just have to sit and whistle," she declares, and amuses herself mimicking the porters, which she succeeds in doing wonderfully well, while Philip, in spite of numerous eccentricities, forgives her everything, and worships her devotedly.
"Alas! that we have to return," he sighs, as they glide in a small boat on the Lake of Geneva. "I must be back in the city this week."
"And you will make me lots of money?" expanding her eyes and showing her beautiful teeth.
"Won't you be contented with a little?"
"Oh, no. I want to entertain. You must bring your friends from London, and the house you have so long neglected shall be packed with guests."
"We'll see about that," says Philip, not liking to damp her ardour. "YOU must remember, though, that I am not a walking gold mine, little wife."
"Can the boatman understand what we say?"
"He only knows a smattering of English. What a strong, steady stroke he pulls!"
Eleanor leans over the side, gazing down the clear depths. "I never saw such wonderful water," she says, "you can see ever so far below. How amusing it would be to drop pebbles in and watch them sink."
"Here is a stray one on the seat," said Philip, throwing it overboard. Eleanor watches the descent with sparkling eyes.
"It is still in sight," she cries, "whirling through the water! My word! how clear the lake is. I must see it again."
She glances round, but there are no more stones.
Before Philip has time to stop her she opens her purse and drops a coin over the side of the boat.
"Look! there it goes," laughing lightly. "Isn't it fascinating?"
The rower has stopped, and with eager, covetous eyes watches the wilful waste. Those coins would mean bread to him and his children, while she throws them to feed the deep! Another and yet another fall from her slim hands.
Philip has turned quite pale with auger.
"Stop! Eleanor," he says, sternly, "you do not realise what you are doing. It is wicked."
But she shrugs her shoulders and drops another.
"Do you hear what I say?" he mutters, grasping her wrist. "I'll have no more of this. Look at that poor fellow's eyes; why, he would like to murder you. It is enough to call down the judgment of Heaven upon us."
"Just one more, only five centimes, Philip, and the man shall have all that is left in my purse."
"No," he replies, still retaining her arm in an iron grip.
"Don't; you hurt me."
He removes his hand, and with a defiant look Eleanor flings the coin into the lake, watching it whirl below with redoubled interest.
"Gott!" mutters the boatman under his breath, "what tevilry."
Then, without a sign of shame, Eleanor passes a handful of money to the sunburnt fellow, casting a smile of ineffable sweetness upon him.
"For the little ones," she says.
But Philip's brow is still black.
"It was wicked," he repeats.
Eleanor only laughs.
"You deserve to want in the future."
"The future," she replies lightly, "who thinks of the future? It may be dark enough to frighten the very life out of you—a thing to make you scream——"
Philip shudders. Storm clouds are gathering overhead. This is the last day of his honeymoon.
A great red sun that is warm and kind sinks behind the golden trees, rich with autumnal tints, as Philip and Eleanor drive up to "Lyndhurst," on Richmond Terrace.
"So this is your home—my home?" she cries, her eyes sparkling with delight as they rest on her new abode. "Ring very loud and long, Philip; I am dying to be in!"
The door is almost immediately opened by a buxom maiden with rosy cheeks and a lenient smile, which alights on the youthful mistress. Eleanor bounds into the hall, and waves a feather boa joyfully over her head.
"Hurrah! Ancestors," she cries, saluting the old pictures on the wall with mock courtesy. "Real dead ancestors in wigs, and you never told me, Philip!"
She is standing, gazing on them joyfully as the luggage is brought in, pointing with her umbrella at a wrinkled judge.
"They have seldom received such admiration," he says gently. "Poor old things, they disfigure the walls sadly with their grim faces."
"The lady on the left is simpering; and, oh! here is a tiger rug," stumbling over a head on the ground. "I caught my heel on his nose," as Philip prevents her falling by seizing her elbow.
"Show me which is my room. I am longing to see it," she continues, taking two steps at a time in her eager ascent. "Sarah," calling to her maid, "bring those three hat boxes and my cloak, there's a good soul! Come on, Philip, I'll race you to the top."
He feels as if he is playing with a child, as he rushes over the house after Eleanor. The day of the school treat returns to his mind, he fancies he sees her still, running through the long grass.
"Everything is beautiful," she gasps, clasping her hands. "There's a room to be frivolous and lazy in, a study for book learning (I'm going to read no end) and, oh! if you want to sing——"
She draws a deep breath at the remembrance of the grand piano in the drawing-room. "It is ever so much bigger than the one at the vicarage, which was always out of tune. I'll get my cousin Joe to send me a list of songs, and we will buy a harmonium, too, Philip. I can play the harmonium splendidly."
"I am glad you are pleased, Eleanor," ha replies, kissing her upturned face.
"And now, I am going to dress, for I feel horrible after my journey. May I ring for Sarah?"
"Of course. What a question! Do exactly as you like with your own servants."
She finds Sarah in her room busily unpacking.
"Oh! there you are," cries Eleanor. "I forgot I had given you my keys. It is such a blessing to be able to talk in English, that foreign stuff was awful, I could not speak a word! Yes, I will wear my lovely pink tea-gown—did you ever see anything so pretty, Sarah? I must make you put it on some day, just to see how it looks on another person. You are a bit stouter than I am though, but perhaps you could pull in——"
And so Eleanor rattles on, just as if Sarah were one of the farm-servants at home, and she the same unaffected light-hearted Miss Grebby.
"Do you come from the country, Sarah?" she asks at last.
"Yes, ma'am. My father's a grocer, and mother keeps house for the doctor's children in our next village."
"Then they don't live together?"
"No, ma'am, it's father's temper. We none of us can't live at home, he is that hasty! It ain't safe, ma'am, it ain't really!"
"How dreadful," sighs Eleanor. "Doesn't it frighten you?"
"Lor! yes, ma'am. I have seen him grow purple round the eyes, and crimson in the cheeks, and throve a whole sack of flour through the window."
Eleanor receives the information with an expressive "Oh!" as she shakes down her hair, and tells Sarah to brush it.
"How many servants have I got?" gazing at her face in the mirror contentedly.
"Three, ma'am. There's me, and Judith, and cook."
"Do you like Richmond?"
"Well enough, ma'am, thank you, but Judith would have rather been in London, and cook has always set her face against the suburbs."
"Then why did they come?"
"Well, you see, ma'am, the gentleman engaged them, and he seemed that put about they hadn't the heart to refuse."
"Good gracious! whatever is that noise?"
"The dinner gong. Judith is very strong in the arms, and she do make it sound, ma'am!"
"Light a few more candles; I want to have a good look at myself."
Eleanor walks up and down before the glass, with spasmodic gasps of satisfaction, till Philip comes to the door to see if she is ready.
Eleanor is brimming over with conversation during the evening meal; she has something to say about everything, and her ideas seem to expand over each fresh course. At the soup she wants a pony cart, but over the fish decides on a brougham and victoria. The entrée introduces a pair of prancing chestnuts, and Philip is quite afraid that the arrival of the meat will suggest powdered footmen in silk stockings.
"You see, dear," he explains at dessert, when Sarah and Judith have left the room, "I have a very comfortable income to live in a fairly luxurious style without undue extravagance. We can easily keep one horse and man, which I have waited to choose with you."
"I see," replies Eleanor, peeling a banana. There is a pause, then she looks up and repeats uncertainly: "I see, Philip."
"You will try and make a good little housekeeper and manage everything splendidly. I often think of you, Eleanor, in your peaceful domesticity at Copthorne. How quiet it was, and——"
"How dull!" (sighing).
It all comes back with a rush—the pewter dinner service, and spotless parlour, smelling of lavender and soap, the cackle of hens and lowing of cows. Eleanor pushes aside the dish of bananas, "Let us go out in the moonlight," she says. "It is lovely in the garden, and you can smoke. Let me light your cigar?" striking a match on the sole of her velvet slipper, and narrowly escaping burning her pink silk train.
"You must not do that, dear, it is dangerous," remonstrates Philip.
"Oh, no! not if you put up your foot so," illustrating her meaning by striking another. "What is that pretty yellow stuff you are drinking?"
Eleanor kneels down by his side and sips out of his glass. "What queer tasting stuff, not half as nice as elderberry wine!"
"Don't you like it?"
"No; it's almost as nasty as the cowslip tea I used to make. But do come for a stroll; I like wandering about in this long silk gown, it feels so grand."
"What myriads of stars!" exclaims Philip, who is well versed in astronomy. "Don't they make you feel like a mere atom, Eleanor, when you think they are all worlds?"
"No, I never bother my head about stars. I like moonlight, it's so pretty, and the moonbeams look ghostly and fairylike. But isn't it cold in the garden? I only just realise that summer is over, and what an eventful summer it has been for me! The other girls at Copthorne were mad with jealousy at my wedding. They all want to marry gentlemen now, and come to London. Do you remember the schoolchildren, Philip? How they scattered flowers and crowded round to kiss me. I gave them my wedding cake (or rather what was left of it) when we went, and the three cheers for 'Teacher' is quite the nicest recollection." Eleanor's passionate love for children pleases her husband, it shows that her nature is good. He puts his arm lovingly round her as they return to the house.
"Are you happy, Eleanor?" he whispers. A soft brightness creeps into her eyes.
"Yes, Philip, there isn't a lighter heart in Richmond!"
"Oh! dear, more cards! I returned the doctors' wives' visits yesterday, three of them, Philip—each intent on her husband's business, I suppose. Two were at home, and I looked so aggravatingly healthy. I could not think what to talk about, having never done that sort of thing before. The first mercifully had a dog, which I admired for a quarter of an hour, the second showed me her pigeons. I knew all about them."
Philip looked at the latest cards which Eleanor handed him.
"Mrs. Mounteagle," he read, "why she is the lady next door. I don't want you to know her, Eleanor. She has not the best of names in Richmond; this place teems with scandal! I am acquainted with half-a-dozen people who positively cram it down your throat whenever you are unfortunate enough to meet them."
"And what have they against Mrs. Mounteagle?"
"Well, my dear, nothing alarmingly serious, only she is rather a fast widow, and not a nice companion for you. She has a queer set at her house, and is almost too 'up-to-date' even for Richmond society."
"But since she has called, Philip, and we live next door, what am I to do?"
"It is awkward, certainly. I should leave cards, and not ask if she is in. That is about the best hint if you don't desire her acquaintance."
"She will think me so horrid," sighs Eleanor, "but I will do as you wish."
The following afternoon Eleanor, card-case in hand, rings at Mrs. Mounteagle's, prepared to carry out her husband's suggestion.
A soft voice singing in the garden arrests her attention. It is the sweetest sound Eleanor has ever heard. Light footsteps crunch the gravel, and a slim, dark woman approaches with slumbrous eyes, which look at the visitor dreamily. A smile, like a fitful name, flickers over Mrs. Mounteagle's face, suddenly bursting into a bright expression of ill-concealed amusement at Eleanor's nervous demeanour.
"Mrs. Roche," she exclaims, holding out a welcoming hand. "You see, being such near neighbours, I know you already by sight. I am sure, if you are only just married, you must find first calls most boring and tedious. But I am very glad you selected this afternoon to return mine, for I am simply pining to talk to someone. The dead leaves and general decay out here give one the blues. Come in, and help me to appreciate my first fire."
Eleanor has utterly forgotten her husband's wishes, till she finds herself in a softly cushioned rocking chair, with her feet on Mrs. Mounteagle's brightly-polished fender. Then she remembers—and ignores.
Never has any woman fascinated her as the lovely widow she is asked not to know. What sparkling conversation! and, oh, what a dainty tea service and piping hot cakes the footman places between them as they talk.
The room is far prettier than Eleanor's boudoir which she has hitherto considered such a dream of beauty. More than once Mrs. Roche suggests going, but the widow intreats her to remain.
"It is so delightful to have you!" she declares, with exuberant cordiality. "I have done nothing all the afternoon but lie on this sofa and yawn over a novel. I could have written it better myself, and that foolish librarian at Mudie's recommended it. I drive to town nearly every afternoon—there is always something to buy or something to see. Are you fond of London, Mrs. Roche?"
"I hardly know, I have been there so little. I lived in the country before my marriage, and was positively buried."
"It is a mercy then that Mr. Roche found you, and dug you up."
"Yes. I like married life much better."
"Spinsterhood is a mistake," retorts Mrs. Mounteagle. "If you have the misfortune to be thrown back upon yourself—widowed in your prime—take my advice and marry again. We poor weak little women were not made to take care of ourselves. We want a stronger arm to lean on—someone who will think for us, anticipate our every wish, load us with all the good things of this earth, and kiss us to sleep when we die!"
Eleanor listens admiringly to this superior mind.
"I shall re-marry," continues Mrs. Mounteagle, "but not immediately. I am practically 'growing my husband.' He is still young in years, though old in frivolity, or vice, whichever you like to call it. He must have his fling before he settles down, or I shall only be binding a burden on my shoulders."
Eleanor attends with deepening interest.
"I married very young," continues Mrs. Mounteagle, "and my husband was nearly eighty. Yes," noting her visitor's surprise, "rather a difference in our ages, wasn't there?
"Love, my dear Mrs. Roche, is a science; you can learn it with careful study, and make it always accommodating, pleasant, and never vulgarly effusive. Do not imagine that the first bloom of youth gleans all the peaches, leaving only apples for after years. A clever woman seldom grows old. She erases Time with the same nimble fingers with which she creates her boudoir, and makes it appear part of her being. You admire my sanctum, and small wonder. It has cost me sleepless nights as long as the furniture bills. I invented it. These chairs for instance were not arranged, they occurred. The minutest detail has positively been prayed over. Look at my quaint treasures! If other hands had placed them they might appear ignoble, debased. You see the curve of this pillowed couch, the tint of the curtains, it is Art, Mrs. Roche, Art with a big A."
"I am dreadfully envious," cries Eleanor, "there is no artistic genius in me."
"It must be born in the blood, but if you like I will 'compose' you a room. It shall be like a melody (if you can grasp the comparison)—subtle, entrancing."
"You are wonderful!" says Eleanor solemnly. "It is all so like a fairy palace, and you are the fairy, Mrs. Mounteagle."
"Then, in the guise of a mysterious gnome, let me give you a word of warning. You are a stranger in Richmond; pray take care not to get into a clique. They are so numerous and unhealthy, so full of civil wars and petty strife, that existence becomes poisoned, and all the romance of life is swept aside, seared, wasted!"
"Thank you," replies Eleanor, rising reluctantly and giving Mrs. Mounteagle both her hands. "How good you have been to me to-day!"
"I hope we shall see a great deal of each other," answers the widow softly, "and be very great friends."
"It shan't be my fault if we are not," responds Mrs. Roche.
"Oh, ma'am! Master's been home an hour, and he's frightened to death about you."
Thus Sarah greets her on her return.
"I am tired of arguing the subject," declares Philip hotly, rising from his chair and pacing the room. "If you will disregard my wishes and go your own way, well——"
"Let me, that's all!" retorts Eleanor.
"No wonder you have hardly a single friend in Richmond, if your whole time is spent with Mrs. Mounteagle," he replied.
"I don't want other friends—I dislike them, Philip, and what is the good of pretending friendship for people you don't care a button about? There is not a woman in the place that can hold a candle to Giddy."
"Oh, it's 'Giddy' now, is it?"
"Why not? I have known her nearly three months."
"Yes; and every month has been one too many. Do you think I cannot see the harm she is doing you? We might have led a happy, contented life it she were not here to poison it. What did you think of your home—before you met her? Everything was perfect! What did you say of it after?"
"Dowdy—old-fashioned—run to seed. Look at the transformation! Isn't my drawing-room a poem? Has not 'Liberty' descended like the goddess of Beauty on our abode, and made it the envy of our neighbours? Giddy has practically built me up, Philip. I owe her my dress-maker, my tailor, my style, my hats, my——"
"Oh! spare me," he interrupts, "I have heard it so often."
"Dear old fellow, don't be angry," coaxes Eleanor, with her old cajoling manner. "It is very hard for a poor little woman to be left alone all day, while her better half is frivoling in the City with stocks and shares, and all sorts of nice amusing things. There really is no harm in Giddy, and she is so awfully clever and entertaining."
"But I do not approve of the people you meet at her house, nor your frequent visits to town together. I don't wish my wife to be constantly seen with a woman of doubtful reputation."
"Nonsense about her reputation, it's all bosh! People are jealous of her beauty that say nasty things. She told me so herself. Besides, we only do a little shopping, and it is so dull going all by oneself."
Eleanor has crept into his arms, and is soothing his ruffled feeling with caresses.
"It is only because I love you, Eleanor," he says, with more passionately, hungering devotion than of yore. "Her companionship is not good for you, and she is always taking you away from me. That sounds selfish, doesn't it?"
"Well, I forgive you," she whispers, "if you will be less ferocious in the future. I declare, when you walk up and down—like this," imitating his stride, "and show the whites of your eyes—so! I want to hide under the sofa, and scream."
"Oh! Eleanor, was I such a bear?"
"Much worse than a bear; he is in a cage, and cannot get out. You just stand and laugh at him, and please him with a biscuit, or tease him with a feather."
"I didn't want to quarrel before going, only you started the subject of Mrs. Mounteagle, and it is rather a red rag, you know, Eleanor, since I objected from the first."
"But I am so wickedly wilful," she sighs, peeping through her eyelashes coquettishly. She has caught the "eye-lash" trick from her next-door neighbour.
"I am sorry, dear, to have to stay in town to-night, but it is most important. You won't give up your party at Hillier's?"
"Oh! no. I shall go alone. It is only one of their deadly musical evenings, with about three second-rate professionals, and a sprinkling of local talent. The Misses Hillier play the harp and violin, with particularly red arms and bony elbows, their sister-in-law sings in a throaty contralto, and the ices run out before ten."
"Is Mrs. Mounteagle asked?"
"They don't know each other, and Giddy is so glad. It gives her nearly a fit to look at them."
"Ah! yes, I remember Mrs. Hillier telling me she had not called."
"Now you are beginning again. And just as we had made it up, too," putting her hand over Philip's mouth.
"Well, I'll say no more. At least, I shall have the satisfaction of knowing you won't be with her to-night."
"Poor Giddy!" sighs Eleanor as he leaves; "how she is misjudged!"
"Mrs. Mounteagle," announces Sarah.
"How do, dear?" cries the widow sweetly, pressing Eleanor's cheek.
Then, as the door closes: "I don't like that maid of yours, she shows one in as if one were a dressmaker or sister of mercy, and always looks at me as if my bonnet were crooked. You really ought to get a man, it gives such a much better appearance to the place."
"I do not believe Philip would have one."
"My dear, a man is the last subject I should ever think of consulting my husband on. By-the-way, Eleanor, my fiancé has turned up again. You know he went abroad to grow, and was not to come back for six months, but three seem to have nearly killed him. He has had typhoid fever in Antwerp, and then took a trip to New York, where he got jaundice. I must introduce you next Sunday, he is going to drive down."
"You never told me his name."
"Didn't I? Bertie—Herbert Dallison."
"Oh!" with an expressive intonation. "Is he fond of ices?"
"Yes. How did you know?"
"They are very unwholesome, and—and you said he had been ill."
"You are going to the Hilliers' to-night," Mrs. Mounteagle says, unfolding a parcel on her lap. "You intend wearing your white silk, I believe."
"Yes. It is good enough for them."
"I should think so, the cut of the skirt is lovely, but I am not altogether satisfied with the severe bodice. I want you to wear this fichu of mine, it is a perfect gem."
She holds out a cloud of spangled gauze.
"How lovely!" cries Eleanor, flinging her arms round the widow's neck.
"You're very welcome to it."
"Philip is deserting me to-night," continues Eleanor—"business in London."
"How dull you will be going and returning to your party alone. I know!" (her face lightening up as with some magic inspiration) "I'll come and stay the night with you, dear, see you dressed, and have a real good gossip up in your room about those stupid Hilliers afterwards."
Philip's words return to Eleanor: "At least you will not be together this evening." Yet what can she do? Besides it will be such fun to have Giddy.
So the plan is settled, and that evening Mrs. Mounteagle arrives in a flowing tea-gown, her maid unpacking a dainty dressing-bag with gold-topped ornaments, and hanging up a dress for the morning. Giddy sits in a low arm-chair watching Eleanor's toilette.
"Sarah is doing your hair abominably!" she exclaims. "You will look a fright. Here, let me show you, my good girl," addressing the maid in the superior drawl she adopts towards menials. "Twist the coil at the top—so, like a teapot handle, and let the side pieces wave loosely over the ears. You don't want to make a guy of your mistress, do you?"
Sarah resents the interference, but between them Eleanor's coiffure is eventually arranged.
"Now you are lovely; a sight for sore eyes," declares Giddy Mounteagle. "Yet what is the good after all in being beautiful for such a dowdy set? They will only hate you for it, as they hate me, the fools! We cannot help being well favoured."
"And she calls 'erself a lady!" says Sarah, scoffingly, to Judith later on. "She's as different to our young mistress as chalk to cheese."
"I don't like leaving you alone," declares Eleanor after dinner.
"Afraid I shall steal something?" asks Giddy, laughing. "Don't fret, my dear, I shall be quite happy in this glorious bookland. Mr. Roche has a most enviable collection. I have rather a headache, and shall go to bed early and read. I never sleep before two or three in the morning; so don't ring, but just throw a stone at my window. I should love to let you in."
"Just as you please, dear. It is all the same to me."
"You need not sit up for Mrs. Roche," says Mrs. Mounteagle, when she goes to her room, "and, Sarah! bring me coffee in the morning, my nerves will not stand tea."
Flinging open her window, Giddy lets the chilly night air mingle with the fumes of her cigarette, as she lies on a sofa before the fire.
In the meanwhile the beautiful Mrs. Roche is causing quite a sensation at the Hilliers', who are not so dowdy after all. The smartest Richmond girls arrive on this occasion, yet the men crowd round Eleanor, who, elated by success, converses in a most effervescing style.
She finds herself using Giddy's expressions, stealing Giddy's ideas, remembering her droll sayings, and repeating them second-hand.
They seem to go down, and amuse Eleanor as much as her listeners. She has just told a smart story (rather too smart for the occasion), when her glance falls on a man in the doorway. He is looking straight across at her with strangely magnetic eyes. He is tall, slim, handsome. She stops speaking. The stranger awakes a new interest; she forgets the others, she wants him.
He seeks out the youngest Miss Hillier, and asks for an introduction.
"Mrs. Roche—Mr. Quinton."
Two magic words make them friends. He takes the seat of honour by her side, monopolises the conversation, and eventually disperses her admiring circle.
Eleanor is glad. She is fascinated by the profound interest he displays when she speaks of herself. Besides, from what he tells her she gathers he is a man of genius, destroyed by pessimism, given to analyse human hearts and discover their misery, to look deeply into the lives of his fellow creatures, below the platitudes and conventionalities. He is richly endowed with the divine gift of sympathy, the supreme art of discrimination, yet occasionally reveals the witty spirits of the cynic, who is cynical to please.
He sees through Eleanor's society prattle, the guileless mind, the childish innocence. He recognises that as yet she is undeveloped—he mentally reviews her. She is absurd, improbable, and therefore fascinating. She is like a book with the best chapters torn out—you long to find them, and never rest till you succeed.
Palmists or clairvoyants would prophesy a future for her, simply through looking in her eyes; but whether notoriety is to be won by downfalling or uprising were better left unstated. Eleanor, he decides, is neither highly-strung nor excitable, but outspoken, fresh, and conscious of her beauty, without conceit. He thinks he loves her at first sight, the lukewarm love arising from admiration, which a man may feel towards a married woman, without blame, but at the close of the evening he is certain of it.
"What have we been talking about all to-night?" asks Eleanor, with a puzzled frown, and a smile which counteracts it. "So much was frivolous and foolish I cannot remember."
"Yet every word is hidden in some secret cell of your brain. Oh, that the secret cells could be opened and revealed to our nearest and dearest. What countless forgotten treasures might be restored."
"Or what ill-spoken words and evil quarrels revived," adds Eleanor wisely.
"Thus speaks a guilty conscience," he retorts. "I could sum up my life on a sheet of foolscap. 'Preface; apparent folly, covering intents and purposes. A boyhood of ambition, a manhood of misfortune.'"
"Yes, since I grew to realise facts, to see men and women as they are, not as they appear! Sometimes the bare word 'reality' fills me with such loathing for this paltry world, with its pigmy minds and soulless bodies, that I can hardly control my contempt. I pull myself together, and pray for a new set of nerves, a stronger heart, and a better flow of healthy blood to the brain."
"What a pity that nerves cannot be purchased like false teeth," says Eleanor laughing.
"Nerves are the finest satire on our human organisation, and our bodies, each a theatre of perpetual activity, the most confusing mystery of all. I believe in a dual nature existing in men and women, but the difficulties which bar our progress to perfect knowledge of each other cannot be overcome."
"Things that can't be understood are invariably irritating," sighs Eleanor.
"Some day we will think it out together," he whispers, waving her fan gently. "We shall meet again, Mrs. Roche"—speaking confidently—"for have we not a mutual friend in Mrs. Mounteagle, whom I regret is not here to-night?"
"Yes. It is strange that we should both know her."
Eleanor has risen, and is holding out her hand for the fan.
"You are not going?"
"Look at the hour! I shall be disgraced if I stay longer."
She leaves him, and bids her hostess good-night, but finds he is waiting in the hall for a last word.
"May I call your carriage?"
"I did not order it, as I only live three doors off."
"Then may I escort you?"
Eleanor glances at him confidently with her large innocent eyes.
"Yes; I mean you to."
Mr. Quinton smiles, and takes her arm as they step out into the darkness.
"I knew somebody would see me home," she says, the old, childish Eleanor breaking through the "Giddy" manner. "I thought it would be much more fun than driving this step."
"Then it was premeditated."
She laughs softly.
"I wish it were not so near," murmurs Mr. Quinton.
"Mrs. Mounteagle wanted to let me in—I believe out of simple curiosity. I am to throw stones at her window. Quite romantic, isn't it?"
"May I have a shot?" he asks. "Which is the pane of beauty's shrine?"
"There, on the left of my room," pointing upwards.
A handful of gravel flies through the air. Rattle, rattle on the glass.
Then Giddy appears in a white robe de chambre, her dark hair falling in waves about her shoulders.
"All right, I am coming down."
A moment later she stands before them, laughing and shaking hands with Carol Quinton, two small, bare feet peeping from under her airy garb, her hair still unfettered.
"It is a delightful surprise to see you, Carol," she cries. "I have sent all the servants to bed, Eleanor, but told them to leave out some aspic and champagne, as I know the Hilliers starve their guests. What do you say to an impromptu supper party? It would be so delightfully unconventional."
She has dragged Carol into the hall and closed the door.
"Yes, do come in," echoes Eleanor feebly, pleased and yet awed by Giddy's suggestion. She is looking somewhat blankly at those delicate pink toes, and the dark mane falling over the white gown.
"Shall I get you some shoes?" she whispers.
"No, dear; Nature is better than leather, and more négligé."
She speaks in a tone that silences Eleanor, who feels she has been dense and awkward.
"Come along," says Giddy, leading the way, and lighting the silver candelabra in the dining-room. "Do make Eleanor take off that heavy fur cloak, Carol. Oh! isn't this nice?" as he fills her glass with champagne. "Was there ever a jollier little trio?" leaning back in her chair and surveying the other two complacently. "Pass me a brown sandwich; I am hungry if you are not, and the stuff inside them gives you an appetite. What do you call it?—something beginning with an 'L.'"
The nectar of the gods puts a bright sparkle into Eleanor's eyes, their lustrous beauty gleams on Giddy and Carol Quinton in luxurious contentment. She permits her guests to smoke, and tries a whiff from Mrs. Mounteagle's cigarette, finally lighting one on her own behalf.
She dislikes smoking in reality, but considers it smart to imitate the widow.
"Have you really missed hearing Kitty Bell at the 'Frivolity'?" asks Mrs. Mounteagle, giving Carol a light from her cigarette. "My dear boy, she is perfectly charming, the most piquante little singer of the day. Why, the chorus of her last song has haunted me ever since—the tune, not the words. It went something like this, as far as I can remember:
"Poor little Flo,
How should she know?
A simple country maiden
From the wilds of Pimlico."
As Giddy Mounteagle sings the lines a latchkey turns in the hall lock, footsteps advance down the passage, the dining-room door opens, and Philip Roche stands before them!
Eleanor's blood runs cold at the sight of her husband. She knows well what he will think of this impromptu, supper-party. Giddy's feet for the moment are mercifully concealed by the table-cloth. She half rises, however, and stretches out her hand to Mr. Roche.
"Eleanor was just wishing you would come back," she murmurs sweetly.
"I returned quite by chance," he answers coldly, knowing her words to be untrue. "Brown could not put me up after all," turning to his wife, "so I drove down."
"Philip, this is Mr. Quinton; he kindly saw me home, and—and——"
"We persuaded him to come in," adds Giddy, as Carol, grasping the situation, says pleasantly:
"Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Roche."
But, though Philip is far too gentlemanly to show his disapproval, all the hilarity has gone from the evening. Perhaps it is due to Eleanor's sudden tranquillity, the pallor of her face, and nervous hesitating speech. She is no adept at concealing her emotions or "passing things off" like Giddy and Carol. She leaves the rest of the conversation to them, and while Philip is seeing Mr. Quinton out slips upstairs for Giddy's shoes and beseeches her to put them on.
"My husband will think it so odd," she whispers. "I saw him looking at your hair."
"Yes," replies Mrs. Mounteagle, "men always admire it. But don't be alarmed, dear; I am far too fond of you to care about making a friend of your husband." Then she saunters up to bed, with a glance at Eleanor's pretty, troubled face.
"I wonder if she'll have sense enough to hold her own," thinks Giddy. "Poor little fool, to be sat upon already!" She hears them come up, and creeping from her room steals on tip-toe to their door, with her ear to the keyhole.
There are high words within, and some unpleasant allusions to herself in distinctly masculine tones. Eleanor is heard crying, but her tears do not hasten a reconciliation. Giddy goes quietly back.
"Bah!" she exclaims, stretching out her hands to the fire. "What rot! As if there was any harm!"
She stirs up the blaze and laughs. "I shall breakfast in bed," she says to herself.
"He doesn't understand me. He wants me to be so good, so uninteresting, so domesticated! I believe he married me for that. Oh! oh! oh!"
Mrs. Roche is wringing her hands and sobbing on the sofa.
"Another quarrel?" sighs Giddy, stroking Eleanor's soft hair. "Come, come, this won't do. Pluck up your courage, go your own way, act as you like, and laugh at your husband. He can't scold you if you laugh! Tears will only gratify his vanity, besides they are disastrous to beauty. Once your eyes become swollen, and your nose red, you can no longer hold your own. Your sense of superiority is gone, you are undone!"
"How awful I look!" sighs Eleanor, rising and facing the glass. "I hope Sarah will say 'not at home' if anybody calls."
"I am not going to let you stay in and mope, just because Mr. Roche happened to leave in a lecturing mood this morning. I have arranged a little tea in town at my club."
"Your club? I did not know you had one."
"Oh! yes, and I am on the committee. Nearly all the artists and literary women have their clubs nowadays, so I and some friends started one for people who do absolutely nothing. It is very useful to members with jealous husbands. We call it the 'Butterflies' Club,' a land of cosy corners and rendezvous. You really will have to join it, Eleanor, if Philip goes on like this. I will put you up at our next meeting. It is rather an expensive luxury, ten guineas a year, and a Turkish bath attached."
Giddy places her arm affectionately through Eleanor's and leads her to the door.
"Come up and dress, dear; my carriage will be here in half an hour, and I don't intend going without you."
Eleanor cheers up at the prospect. She is like an April day.
Giddy fans her friend's flushed face, rubs some powder gently with her fingers round the swollen eyes, and showers eau-de-Cologne on the burning forehead.
"Do not throw yourself into any more fevers," she says; "life is too short, and sorrow too long."
Eleanor is soon attired in green velvet and fur, for Mrs. Mounteagle declares it is necessary to be smart at the Butterflies' Club.
They drive away together in the widow's snug little brougham.
Herbert Dallison is waiting outside the club door to receive them; he starts, colours, and stares at Eleanor as Giddy introduces him.
"Say 'how do you do?' prettily," she cries in a bantering tone, "and don't gape like an overgrown school-boy, if you love me, Bertie!"
Mr. Dallison holds out a limp hand in a grey glove, smiles feebly, and thinks of the "relics" and the cat!
"Why are you not at the Junior Conservative?" murmurs Eleanor, laughing softly, "instead of dangling round the 'Butterflies'?"
"Ah! you remember my card."
"Yes, I have it still. I hope you will make Giddy a good husband," speaking demurely.
"I ought to, after all I've gone through for her sake. It is a mercy I have come back alive after my illnesses, and the dangerous young people I met on the Continent."
"Let me introduce you to our coming member, the Butterfly that is to be," says Giddy, and Eleanor turns to face Carol Quinton.
Mrs. Mounteagle laughs merrily at her astonished look.
"I did not tell you he was coming, but now we are just a cosy quartette."
"I am afraid," murmurs Mr. Quinton, "that my visit to your charming home the other evening was ill-timed. Mr. Roche seemed somewhat taken aback by my presence."
"Yes," stammers Eleanor, growing red.
"I was so vexed you should be annoyed," he replies, "that I could not go home, but paced the pavement for an hour, watching the light in your window."
Eleanor's eyes expand. She has a way of looking "surprise" without saying it, and the look lasts quite a long while, during which an ordinary person would have expressed their feelings several times over. Then the wonderment fades like a magic-lantern slide, and she talks of something else.
"Have you ever seen the sun burst suddenly through a fog? It is like your smile," says Carol, gazing into Eleanor's face. "Why don't you always smile?"
"Because I am not always happy," she responds quietly.
A pained expression steals into the man's eyes, and Eleanor flushes rosy under his look. It is deep, searching, admiring; it confuses her. She wants to push it away like something oppressive, a funeral veil dark and heavy, or a chloroformed handkerchief, stifling breath!
The words break from him with bitter irony.
"You have youth, beauty, personal magnetism, the power to charm, eyes that might wreck a life every day in the year. You need not scheme for love nor demand it. It is yours by natural right. Why is not your life one of wildest exhilaration, conquests, pleasures? Who could deny you anything, Mrs. Roche?"
Eleanor knows well, but is too loyal to say. She would sooner bite out her tongue than answer "Philip!" Yet he would rob her of the companionship of her dearest friend, would deny her intercourse with Carol Quinton, could he hear these low-whispered words of adulation! As she thinks of it, her husband takes the form of some heartless monster, sapping her youth's freedom, fettering her down to his side like a dragon-fly on a pin, she can only flap her wings faintly and gasp in vain.
"Were you sorry to see me to-day?" asks Mr. Quinton, watching the firelight playing on Eleanor's figure.
"No, I was very miserable this afternoon; I had been crying. I like meeting you, it does me good."
As she speaks the electric light is turned up, and a little groan issues from Giddy.
"Just as we were all so comfortable in the gloaming!" pulling her hand from Bertie's with a pout.
"Butterflies should like light better than darkness," he drawls.
"I want to look round now," cries Eleanor, enthusiastically viewing the beautiful room. "Anyone could see that Giddy had something to do with this."
"Here is a pretty little writing-table behind a screen, with a rose-coloured lamp," says Carol. "When you are a member, Mrs. Roche, will you sometimes write to me?"
"What should I have to say?" she asks innocently, surprised at the suggestion.
"Tell me about yourself, if only in one line: 'I live—I breathe—I have my being.'"
"What an odd letter!"
"I like odd things, I like odd people; I hate conventionality, and scorn the commonplace. I know a girl who always speaks the truth, and everybody hates her. She glories in it."
"How splendid to be hated for such a cause!" declares Eleanor.
"She never will embrace a woman she dislikes, so many people think it is necessary, and the kiss of detestation is more fashionable in Society than that of real affection. For myself, I think a kiss is overrated. It should be looked on in the light of a hand-shake—harmless and agreeable, a mark of courtesy, endearment or respect."
"Then you would have to explain it," says Eleanor. "'I kiss you because I idolise you;' 'I kiss you because you are estimable;' 'I kiss you because you are rich and entertain me.' No, it would never answer."
She is fingering the delicate, scented writing paper.
"How nice this address is in gold, with a big butterfly in the corner. I have some invitations to answer, and I should like to do it here—it looks so well."
Eleanor seats herself, and draws the paper towards her. "Mrs. Roche regrets that, owing to no previous engagement, she is unable to accept Mrs. B's dull invitation for Thursday!"
"Have you an 'At home' on Thursday week?"
"Yes, but I shall decline it."
"Don't," he whispers. "Accept—let them expect you—and fail to turn up. Come and meet me instead."
Eleanor trembles suddenly and grows pale. She feels herself face to face with temptation.
"No," she replies faintly. "But I shall be in, and if you call——"
"'If'! there is no 'if' in the matter. I would come every day if you let me."
"Every day!" Oh! how alluring it sounds.
She twists her wedding ring round and round, looking down on the carpet. She remembers the pattern that night in her dreams, a red Maltese cross on a blue ground. The blue and red swim before her eyes now like the colours in a kaleidoscope. A solitary tear rises in her left eye and falls on the blotter.
"If only I might do as I like!" she murmurs.
"'Might' is a word you could blot from your vocabulary. Why not?"
"Oh! don't—don't—don't," as he lays his hand on hers, and the touch thrills her with bewildering emotion.
"Where is Giddy? Oh! Giddy, take me home; it is nearly half-past five, and Philip will be back."
Mrs. Mounteagle raises her eyebrows at Eleanor's agitated tones.
"You told me he would be late this evening."
"Did I?" easing on her gloves.
Carol is standing behind with her cloak. His hands linger a moment as they fall on her shoulder, and he turns up the warm fur collar about her ears.
"My mite of a brougham only holds two," says Giddy, "and Bertie is coming with me, so I dare say Mr. Quinton will see you home in a hansom."
The suggestion amazes Eleanor. Really Giddy has the most delightful ideas, and as to Philip's prejudices——well her thoughts on this subject are better not divulged.
One moment she is a panic-stricken girl, afraid as the very word "flirtation", the next, inconsistent, susceptible, a slave to Giddy's whims, easily led, easily beguiled.
She can hear her heart beating, as Carol helps her into the hansom. It is dark already, dark as the unknown future, while they whirl away in the gloom.
"It is cold," says Eleanor.
He wraps her furs closer round her.
"Cold?" with a tender glance.
There is a volume in the word.
Philip in the meanwhile is having tea with his cousin, Erminie Henderson.
She is a thoroughly staunch woman, with the warmest of hearts, sociable, bright, reliable, always ready with a helping hand where help is needed, yet human enough to err occasionally. Philip has known her from a child, has seen her weaknesses and excellences. The former overrule the latter. She is fond of him in a cousinly spirit, and delighted at his visit.
For some time they talk on ordinary subjects, till at last Erminie folds her arms, looks him searchingly up and down, and asks straight out:
"What's the matter, Phil?"
He starts, but returns her glance openly.
"To tell you the truth, I have come to confide in you—to ask you a favour."
"Good," replies Erminie, who has heard many a confidence in her day. "Go on."
"You know but little of my wife—she is young, quite a girl—very easily influenced."
His words come shortly. He breathes hard. "I would tell you what I could not say to any other creature. It is early days, and we have begun to quarrel. She has made great friends with a frivolous widow—a woman next door—whom I warned her against from the first. I have done all in my power to stop the intimacy, but protestations only appear to strengthen it. This woman has got Eleanor entirely under her thumb, she is like soft clay in her hands. I thought I could mould my wife, who was utterly unformed, a little country farm girl. But Giddy Mounteagle has proved stronger, cleverer than I. Perhaps her method is easier to follow, perhaps I have misunderstood Eleanor from the first. Day by day she drifts farther from me, and yet, if such a thing were possible, I love her more."
He rises and leans his head on his arms over the mantel-border.
"Help me, Erminie; you might do so much."
"Come and stay with us—use your influence with Eleanor."
Miss Henderson seems confused.
"I should be delighted. I would do anything for you, but——"
Philip looks up quickly, his eyebrows rise involuntarily.
He has never yet known a "but" from Erminie's lips, when asking her aid.
"The 'buts' of this world are its stumbling blocks."
"I am going to be married very shortly, I am in the midst of 'trousseauing'."
"Ah! I had forgotten," he replies, smothering his disappointment.
Erminie makes a resolve.
"I'll come, Phil," she says, holding out her hand.
"But it will be so inconvenient!"
"Never mind. I shall interest Eleanor in my things, and try to win her from the widow. Erminie Henderson versus Giddy Mounteagle. What is the betting, Phil?"
He grasps her hands, and wrings them heartily.
"You are the best little woman that ever lived!" he says.
"I am so sorry, Giddy, darling," Eleanor writes, "but I can't possibly go to town with you this afternoon, as Philip's cousin, Miss Henderson, has just arrived to stay, and her fiancé, Nelson, is coming too. She is quite jolly, and I thought she would be horrid. Many thanks for sending on that silly little note from Mr. Quinton. Why did he address it to your house? I suppose he forgot 'Lyndhurst' though I told him the name.
"Ever your devoted,
"Dense little idiot!" sighs Giddy. "She cannot understand poor Carol's passion, and yet he kissed her in the hansom. It was like Eleanor to tell me. She always gives herself away. I pity those refreshingly young people who can never keep anything to themselves." Giddy waves up to the windows of Lyndhurst as she drives by.
"Who is that little Jezebel?" asks Erminie.
"My great friend, Mrs. Mounteagle," replies Eleanor.
"Tell her to knock off blanc de perle," responds Miss Henderson, "she would be twice as good-looking."
"I quite miss Erminie and Nelson," says Eleanor, glancing at her husband across the tea-table, with a bright smile. "They were most delightful people certainly."
It is several weeks later, and Erminie and Nelson are honeymooning in foreign climes.
"Yes, dear, and I really think we have been happier since their visit. They were so peaceful, so loving together; perhaps it was the force of good example."
"I don't think there has been one cross word for a fortnight," says Eleanor, laughing. She piles up the silken pillows on the sofa beside her.
"Come and sit here close by me, and we will have a little flirtation, like in the old days. Only you must imagine these brocade flowers are real red field poppies, and this sofa is a haycock, just at the back of Copthorne Farm. I can almost hear the lazy hum of the bees, and smell the fresh mown grass. I am not in a silk tea jacket, but my old blue cotton frock with the tear in the elbow, you remember I caught it on a nail by the gate. Isn't it fun to make believe like children? We don't often play, do we Philip? You must take my hand very gently, under the hay," pulling the cushion over her wrist. "I draw it away, you see, rather shyly, looking deliciously coy, and say: 'Oh! you mustn't, Mr. Roche.'
"Then you are horribly audacious, and kiss me straight off, you know how you used to. We are silent for a few moments, just holding each others' hands in unspeakable content, the sort of ecstacy that comes before marriage.
"We listen to the birds singing—a thrush keeps repeating my name—they generally seem to say something. I remember one at home that used to sit outside my window and chirp: 'Think of it! think of it! think of it!' till I grow quite angry, always recalling an unpleasant incident. 'I don't want to think of it!' I would declare, stamping my foot. Oh! Philip, what a good actor you are! you look frightfully in love."
"I am," he murmurs tenderly, clasping her in his arms. Eleanor laughs incredulously, and lays her head on his shoulder.
"Listen," she says, disengaging herself from his embrace. "We must not shock Sarah!"
The door is flung open.
Eleanor rises slowly, her eyes flash with strange brilliancy; she trembles slightly, flushes, pales!
Her husband sees it in a moment—the rush of colour to her cheeks, and the pallor as her hand meets Carol's.
Philip mutters something inaudible under his breath. The chilly air of winter creeps through the hayfield behind Copthorne Farm—the voices of birds are dead—it is cold, cruel January once more!
A horrible presentiment steals over him, numbing his senses—paralysing his brain. This man seems their evil genius, the red firelight playing on his tall slim figure, transforms him in Philip's eyes to a crimson Mephistopheles. Eleanor pours out a fresh cup of tea, and hands it to Mr. Quinton smilingly, as she did a moment ago to her husband.
She moves the poppy-patterned pillows for the new comer; he is beside her now on the sofa.
Philip feels left out. A jealous pang shoots through him like the stab of a knife, or the burning of iron red-hot on his flesh. Yet Eleanor, unconscious of the evil feelings she arouses, takes but little notice of her husband, and hangs upon Carol's words with eager interest, agrees with all he says, prevents him leaving twice when he rises to go, and hopes he will "look in again" soon.
"You might have asked him to stay and dine, Philip," she declares, when they are again alone. "He is so chatty and amusing. Why, what are you looking so black about?"
"I can't bear the fellow," mutters Philip. "I should like to knock him down when he looks at you out of those loathsome eyes, and talks rot enough to make one sick. The worst of it is you like him. I shudder for your taste."
"You are prejudiced," replies Eleanor hotly, "you can't bear me to have a friend that is not of your own choosing! My taste wasn't a thing to be shuddered at when I married you, was it? A selfish, egotistical——"
"Hush, Eleanor," he says, laying his hands firmly but not unkindly on her shoulders. "Don't let us quarrel, you will be sorry afterwards."
"I don't care that" (with a snap of her fingers) "whether we quarrel or not. It is better, though, to speak out than bottle it up inside. There! now you have got your reproachful look again, like the day you said I was vulgar! Let me go," wriggling herself free.
She stifles a sob, bangs through the door, and runs upstairs whistling. The refrain of the "Miller's" song is wafted down to the hall in Eleanor's clear, rich voice:
I care for nobody, no, not I
If nobody cares for me.
Philip walks slowly back to the sofa, gazes a moment at the cushions, then buries his face in their midst, grinding his teeth.
Giddy Mounteagle's face is wreathed in smiles as she talks animatedly to Eleanor.
"Yes, my dear," she says triumphantly, "Lady MacDonald comes to me to-morrow. She is one of the smartest women in town and moves in the best circles. She will stay the night and be the belle of my 'At home' the following day. I long to introduce her to you. Such a stately, aristocratic-looking woman, a little 'difficult' sometimes, but usually charming. She takes offence if you introduce her to any one not quite up to the mark, and, since her marriage, is very particular whom she knows. I used to see a great deal of her before she was Lady MacDonald, but lately we have drifted apart."
"Is she stuck up?" asks Eleanor bluntly.
"No, that is hardly the word. 'Proud,' shall we say? 'dignified.'"
"Because she has married an old lord? How amusing! I shall like to see her."
"I will bring her to tea with you, Eleanor," replies Mrs. Mounteagle, feeling she is conferring an immense honour on Mrs. Roche. "Mind you use that duck of a service, and wear your heliotrope gown. You look so distingué in it, and dear Lady MacDonald notices clothes."
"Any more orders?" asks Eleanor, laughing.
Giddy's glance sweeps over the room.
"Yes. Remove that awful photograph, the one of the old people outside a farmhouse. It is not ornamental, and quite spoils the beauty of that corner. Lady MacDonald is so critical it might catch her eye."
"Then she will have to sit with her back to it or suffer," replies Eleanor staunchly. "It is my favourite picture, and I don't mean to take it down."
Giddy sighs, puts on a martyred expression, and kicks the footstool.
"Your taste is as terrible as ever," she declares sadly, shaking her head. "What would you have been, Eleanor, if I hadn't taken you in hand?"
"I don't know, dear," she cries, feeling she has been ungrateful. "You have done me no end of good turns! But I love that portrait, it is sentiment."
"An old nurse of yours and her husband?" asks Giddy.
Eleanor flushes rosy red.
She would like to say "my parents," but dreads Giddy's cynical smile. She could not bear to hear them scoffed at, even in their absence.
Instead she murmurs:
"That woman nursed me in her arms as a baby, tended me in childhood—loved me always."
Eleanor, on tiptoe, kisses the two faces in the photo.
"They are good," she says, "generous, kind-hearted; they might grace the grandest palace——"
"And smile at the claims of long descent," quotes the widow. "What a true little woman you are, Eleanor! Sometimes I half envy you, gaucheries and all!"
"I can't help being stupid, Giddy; I was not born wise, like you."
"Yet you really have developed marvellously under my training. The way you kept up the conversation at that dull luncheon party last week was admirable. I could not have done it better myself. As it was, a wretched sore throat condemned me to silence. How your badinage with Quinton astonished our hostess! She sat up so straight in her chair, I thought her fringe curls would reach the ceiling. She will never invite you there again, but it was simply splendid.
"'What do you think of Mrs. Roche?' I asked her afterwards, when Carol was bending over you in the window seat. She drew in her thin lips, and muttered: 'Most refreshing!' in a tone that meant something very different."
"What did it mean?" cries Eleanor, with a gasp.
"I am in too great a hurry now to interpret," answers Giddy, kissing her effusively. "Ta-ta, beloved—and mind you adopt your best Society airs for Lady MacDonald to-morrow. She will swallow any amount, and may be very useful to us in town. Comprenez-vous?"
Eleanor is quite in a flutter the following afternoon. Her room looks bright with flowers purchased that morning in the town, her Crown Derby tea-service is set out on a new and dainty cloth, which had been laid by for an occasion. The curtains are drawn to shut away the dreary fog, and fire-light mingles with the rosy rays from a tall lamp. Eleanor is still quite in a tremble lest the oil should smell, as Sarah frequently fails over the art of wick trimming.
"How does my heliotrope go with this chair?" she asks, settling her sleeves, and critically contrasting the yellow brocade furniture with the shade of her gown.
Sarah assures her the effect is most desirable, as she places a pink iced cake by the tray.
"Don't keep Lady MacDonald waiting on the doorstep; you might be in the hall ready to answer the bell."
"And if the fog gets denser light the gas outside."
Eleanor draws her chair to the fire, and pretends to read a Society paper, but her thoughts are far from the fashion article.
She is supremely contented with herself and her surroundings. Her hair has its prettiest wave to-day, she is wearing her smartest toilette, and a new pair of bronzed beaded shoes. Her only trial in life at this moment is the propensity shown by her diamond crescent to turn over in its bed of lace, and reveal the back, with a hairpin for a fastening. She fixes it in her fringe at night.
A little tremble of excitement rushes over Eleanor; the bell rings.
Sarah flings open the door, and Giddy Mounteagle sails into the room with Lady MacDonald. Mrs. Roche feels quite small and insignificant under the stranger's patronising smile.
Lady MacDonald raises her long-handled lorgnette to scrutinise her surroundings.
Giddy is conscious of the offending photograph. Eleanor draws forward the largest chair. Lady MacDonald sinks gracefully back among the cushions, her head poised on one side—she always holds it so. Some admirers once told her it was like a flower bending on its stem with the weight of its own beauty.
"Oh! the fog outside," she cries, with an affected little cough, first cousin to a sigh. "I suppose it rises from the river."
"Yes, and creeps into your soul, and clogs your brain," adds Giddy, "the yellow land of mist is not attractive."
"No one will turn up at your party to-morrow," says Eleanor, "if it doesn't lift."
"I never thought of that. The professionals will be stuck on the line, perhaps, and we shall have a songless, tuneless 'musical,' with only locals to eat our cakes."
"My husband has promised to fetch me to-morrow; I must be back in town by seven, for two or three evening engagements," says Lady MacDonald.
"Then I am glad mine is an afternoon," murmurs Giddy, "or I should not have secured you. It is delightful of dear Lord MacDonald to drive down."
"Oh! he always does what I tell him," she replies, with a superior smile.
She has a quantity of jingling golden ornaments hanging from a chatelaine at her waist, a gold crown on the handle of her lorgnette, and so many rings on her long pink fingers that they bulge over her knuckles. Her nails are manicured to appear almost crimson, her teeth are shining white under her curved lips, that look capable of bitter sayings and smiles of scorn.
"The fire is too hot," she says, laying one soft hand against a still softer cheek. Her complexion is a marvel. Eleanor hands her a painted screen.
"What a charming picture," continues Lady MacDonald. "I adore nymphs. Did you paint this, Mrs. Roche?"
"Yes," replied Giddy, "Eleanor is a perfect artist."
Eleanor raises her eyebrows, staring at Giddy in amazement, never having touched a brush in her life.
"Do you exhibit?"
Giddy again answers for Eleanor.
"Mr. Roche won't let her, he thinks any publicity infra dig. for a woman."
"Perhaps he is right," says Lady MacDonald; "I know Edward won't allow me to pen a line for the press, though I have quite a genius for scribbling. He is so cross because people get my picture sometimes for the Society papers. I have to hide them away from him. The last one caught his eye hung up on a bookstall, and he was nearly suffocated with wrath on the spot, and could not speak for three minutes."
"The penalty of beauty," cries Giddy gaily.
"Are you one of the types of English beauty?" asks Eleanor.
"Oh! no. Nothing so common. I leave that to Irish belles, and ladies of the ballet."
She raises her delicate chin, and rests her languid eyes on Mrs. Roche.
The door opens, and Sarah's voice announces:
"Mr. and Mrs. Grebby!"
Eleanor starts to her feet, and rashes forward.
There they stand. Mrs. Grebby in a black satin grown, a long gold chain suspended round her neck, a Paisley shawl crossed over her chest, and a close bonnet of quilted blue satin.
Mr. Grebby, with a sparse frill of grey hair growing right round his face, his chin and long upper lip guiltless of hirsute appendages. A gorgeous suit of a very baggy cut, flowered satin waistcoat, and a basket of apples and cooking pears in his hand, as a present to his daughter.
At his heels a shaggy dog, blind in one eye and toothless—one that in its puppyhood had leaped and played with Eleanor in the green fields of Copthorne Farm.
A cry of delight breaks from her, as she hugs her parents in turn, and catches sight of her old favourite.
"Rover—my darling!" she exclaims, sinking on her knees to fondle the dog.
He springs up with his muddy feet on the shoulders of her beautiful heliotrope dress. His claws catch in the lace, but she heeds them not, only laughs gleefully as he licks her face.
"We couldn't help bringing him," says Mr. Grebby, wiping his brow with a red handkerchief, which is shining and damp from excitement. "Poor follow, he did want to come! Black Bess will miss him, won't she?"
"We took it into our heads sudden like to visit London and surprise you, dearie," Mrs. Grebby vouchsafes.
"How lovely of you!" cries Eleanor, in her joy forgetting the guests by the fire, then she turns and faces them.
Giddy feels as if cold water is coursing down her back, the palms of her hands are icy cold. The feathers in her friend's hat seem dancing up and down before her eyes.
Lady MacDonald is positively glaring through her tortoiseshell glasses.
There is an air of offended dignity in her mien, as she looks the couple up and down freezingly.
"This is my father and mother," says Eleanor, an elated smile upon her lips, a merry sparkle in her eyes. What do these people matter, now that her parents have come to her new home? She longs to show them everything, and watch their wonder.
"Mr. and Mrs. Grebby, Lady MacDonald, Mrs. Mounteagle," she continues. "Now, Ma dear, you sit here," pulling up a chair between Giddy and Lady MacDonald. "Loosen your shawl, or you'll scorch, and I will give you some tea."
Mrs. Grebby gazes in awestruck wonder at the grandly dressed visitors, and her daughter's elaborate clothes.
Mr. Grebby stumps round the room, remarking on everything.
"Well, there! What do you say to that for a picture," addressing his wife. "Tell Ma to come here, Eleanor, I want 'er to see this 'orse, and the lady on the moon in the next frame. I wish you could paint pictures, my girl; but maybe Mr. Roche will 'ave you taught."
Giddy flushes scarlet. Lady MacDonald fans herself violently with the screen. Mrs. Grebby takes the tiny cup Eleanor hands her, and turns it round to examine it. Then her eyes fall on the slices of thin bread and butter, the dainty biscuits, and minute squares of buttered toast.
"Don't you get 'ungry, dearie?" she asks. "I thought you'd be sure to have a knife-and-fork tea, living in this style."
Her daughter laughs heartily. A wicked desire to shock Lady MacDonald, as Giddy has so often excited her to do on previous occasions, seizes Eleanor.
"Oh, no, Ma! We have big dinners at eight o'clock. Five courses and serviettes. You ask Lady MacDonald."
"I don't call this a cup," declares Mr. Grebby, grinning broadly as Eleanor hands him his tea. "It's more like an acorn!" He takes half a dozen slices of bread and butter and munches them hungrily.
"I'm a bit peckish, my girl," he says. "But then we've had a long day, and fastin' don't agree with me. We went to the Tower, Madame Tussaud's, and the Exhibition of Tortures in Leicester Square. We liked that best of all."
"But what did you do with Rover?" asks Eleanor, exciting the dog to jump on the sofa and patting his wet nose.
"We left him at Cousin Harriett's. We can stay the night here with you, and after that we are going to put up a bit at her lodging-house in Bloomsbury. Ma was set on bringing old Rover to see you, as we think he won't last long now."
"The dear fellow!" murmurs Eleanor, cutting the pink cake. "Some more tea, Lady MacDonald?"
"No, thank you," and the severity of the tone startles Eleanor.
She fears she has committed some deadly offence in offering this proud beauty a second cup. Never was there a more grotesque tea-party on the terrace than in Eleanor's boudoir that afternoon. Giddy with deepest shame, resentment and horror, raging in her heart. Lady MacDonald haughty and disdainful, eyeing the homely couple as she would the beasts at the Zoo. Mrs. Grebby, speechless in admiring silence, fingering the frills of the sofa cushions, and taking in the pattern of the wall-paper, her breast swelling with pride and gratification. Mr. Grebby, his large boots on the brightly polished fender, his red face wreathed in smiles, and slowly filling a short clay pipe, as bucolic a specimen of manhood as Copthorne could produce.
Lastly, Eleanor, looking perfectly fairy-like under the red lamp, caressing the old dog with her slim white hands, and talking first to one guest, then to the other, with supreme good nature, her father's basket of apples on her knee.
"I must send some of these pears in to you, Giddy," she says, "I can't spare the apples, but your cook may like to stew——"
She pauses, reading her friend's expression of disdain.
She stammers something unintelligible to hide her confusion, wondering what she has said to offend, and changing the subject, asks hesitatingly:
"Did—er did you put me up for the 'Butterflies?'"
Mrs. Mounteagle had only that morning requested Lady MacDonald to second Eleanor.
Now she grows crimson at the thought, for Lady MacDonald is her trump card in the club.
"Thinking it over," replies Giddy. "I am quite sure Mr. Roche won't approve of us poor little Butterflies. He will imagine that a club must necessarily be emancipated, that it will lead you into latchkey habits, and advance your ideas too rapidly. I should advise you to stay at home, my dear, and" (with a cynical little smile) "stew your pears."
Mrs. Grebby has drawn the parish magazine from the recesses of an enormous pocket in her petticoat, and hands it to her daughter.
"I thought you'd like to read the news," she says. "Mrs. King's baby was christened last Sunday, and the little Browns have spread the measles in the schools."
Lady MacDonald and Giddy exchange glances that palpably say: "Why don't we go?"
The fact is Mrs. Mounteagle has been rooted to the spot, paralysed as it were by a sense of shame and humiliation.
Lady MacDonald has watched the scene as at a play, a comedy in low-life, acted for the benefit of the stalls and boxes.
"We really must go," murmurs Giddy hastily, catching her breath as Mr. Grebby lights his pipe with a match he has rasped along his trousers. She rises, gathering up a long feather boa to wind round her neck.
Lady MacDonald follows her example, her jingling chatelaine clanks irritatingly, as if protesting at being found in such company.
She draws on a light kid glove, proffering Eleanor her finger-tips.
"Good-bye, Mrs. Roche," she drawls. "I have so enjoyed a peep at your little coterie to-day, but we really must not intrude ourselves upon you longer, you will have so many home topics to discuss."
Mrs. Mounteagle refrains from her customary caress, whereat Eleanor remarks:
"How pale you look, Giddy! Are you ill?"
"Yes," she replies, under her breath, "I have over-eaten myself—overdone with APPLES!"
"You must not go to-day," declares Eleanor emphatically, addressing her parents. "I want to take you to Mrs. Mounteagle's party this afternoon. I am sure she won't mind, we are such great friends, and two more will make no difference in a tea and coffee, four-to-seven squash."
"Is it a real grand party?" asks Mrs. Grebby.
"Oh, yes; no end of people have been invited, and Giddy's affairs are always so chic—that meaning stylish, smart—all sorts of grand dresses and bonnets."
Mrs. Grebby gasps in wonderment. "I will lend you two jewelled pins for your head gear, Ma—one of turquoise and another in the shape of an olive—that Philip bought abroad, and declares is only paste."
"Well, we shall be swells," says Mr. Grebby, grinning, "and my word, what a lot we'll have to talk about when we gets 'ome."
"There," says Eleanor, shutting down an envelope and ringing for Sarah, "I have written the note to Giddy."
She whistles Rover through the window, who is scratching up the lawn, with splendid energy.
He bounds in and leaps on the sofa. Eleanor proceeds to scratch his back comfortingly with a little ivory hand on the end of a long horn stick. Then she calls for a comb, which Sarah produces, and fluffs at his coarse hair, which is stiff, wiry, and grey.
"Mrs. Mounteagle has called to see you," says a voice in the doorway, when Rover's toilet (which has occupied a full half-hour) is eventually completed.
"Oh! show her in."
"But," with a glance at Mr. and Mrs. Grebby, "if you please, ma'am, she asked to speak to you alone."
Eleanor closes the folding doors between her boudoir and the library.
"You stay here, darlings," she says in a soft, cooing voice, "and I will see Giddy in the next room. Come on, Rover—down, old boy—your wet paws have done damage enough to my gown for one morning."
Still whistling, Eleanor saunters into Giddy's presence, her eyes as radiant as stars, her lips parted in joyous greeting.
"You dear thing," she cries, "to come and see me, when you must be so busy, pinning bits of drapery over your doors, and heaping flowers into enormous vases. Can I come in and help? I am splendid at decorations, you know," remembering Giddy's cynical remarks on her artistic efforts, and laughing merrily.
"No, dear, all is prepared," speaking in funeral tones. "But——"
Giddy's eyes shift uneasily. Then she speaks straight out: "I can't have your people! My dear child, it would be madness—positive madness, both to yourself and to me. There, there, don't look so blank; one would think I had suggested murdering good Mrs. Grebby and her dear fat husband. Can't you see it, Eleanor? You have a good position in Richmond, and you want to take it and fling it into the river, as it were. You want to flaunt your parentage at my party before everyone."
"Yes," says Eleanor firmly; "I am not ashamed of them, it is not in me to be ashamed. What is wrong with them?"
Giddy's mouth curves, her little foot taps impatiently on the floor at Eleanor's defiant attitude.
"You must see, or are you utterly blind—utterly imbecile? Now, child, take my warning—shunt the old people at once—trundle them off the London junction—send them puffing back in a slow train to the country—tell them never to enter Lyndhurst again—keep them out of Richmond. It was terrible yesterday—a scene I shall never forget. Lady MacDonald was so sweet over it, though I could see she was petrified."
"I don't understand you," mutters Eleanor, pale and trembling. "If you have come here to insult me——"
"Tut, tut! Don't be silly. But I am bitterly disappointed in you. I have taken so much pains over your social education. But you are like a girl in iron stays, the moment you remove the support (which is my guiding hand) you go flop! Now don't turn rusty, or cry," as tears of passion well into Eleanor's eyes. "I want you at my party—I want youth and beauty, for I have a reputation for producing lovely women, good-looking men, and distractingly sweet girls. Carol has promised to come early; now, for one, you would not like him to see your relations."
"Yes, I should," she replies. "He would not mind, he is a gentleman!"
"I cannot have them, anyhow," declares Giddy firmly. "You may be offended, for I have spoken plainly——"
"A great deal too plainly," retorts Eleanor fiercely. "You have not spared my feelings. You think yourself very grand, but my parents would not have hurt anyone as you have hurt me to-day! You sneer at them—hold them up to ridicule—while they are worth all the dressed-up Lady MacDonalds you toady to!"
Her voice has risen shrilly; she forgets the folding doors.
"Enough!" says Giddy, tossing her head. "I suffered at your hands yesterday. Pray spare me the effort of argument. Remember I have to entertain, and must reserve my strength. Besides, it is so vulgar to quarrel."
Eleanor walks haughtily to the door and flings it open.
"If I talk any more I shall stifle," she cries.
Giddy gives a low laugh.
"You will agree with me when you get over your temper," she declares, passing out.
Eleanor sinks on her knees, and buries her head on Rover's shaggy coat. She is alone, and the faint sound of buried sobs throbs upon the silence of the room.
The dog licks her hand and whines. Slowly the folding doors push open, and the old couple stand upon the threshold.
Mr. Grebby's round face is pale, Mrs. Grebby's cheeks wet with fast falling tears.
"Oh! dearie, dearie," she cries, folding Eleanor in her arms. "We ought not to 'ave come, we didn't know. But she was right, dearie, and we will go away, and you shall have your party and your friends. Oh! we was wrong, all wrong."
"Don't talk like that," moans Eleanor, realising they have overheard. "She is a wicked snob—a—a—"
"There, dearie, be calm, don't fret."
"I will never forgive her," Eleanor stammers. "I love you and I hate Giddy."
She kisses Mrs. Grebby's damp cheeks, talking between her sobs. "It was not true, not one word of it, she just said it all to be disagreeable. She likes me to be miserable; I don't believe she ever had any parents of her own—I mean, not what you call parents. Some say she was born in a workhouse, a caravan, or an East-end doss. Though how she managed to be what she is they can't explain. I thought she was nice, mammy. I called her my friend. I tried to be like her," shuddering at the recollection. "Oh! don't go away," taking them each by the hand.
"Thank you, my girl, thank you," murmurs Mr. Grebby, "but Ma and I are better at Copthorne. We are not fit for Society; some day you will come back to the old 'ome and see us, won't you? and we'll all be happy again together."
Eleanor and Mrs. Grebby dry their tears, while Mr. Grebby pats them both on the back cheerily. Rover fawns round, barking and wagging his tail.
Philip, who is staying late from town this morning in honour of his guests, enters the room. "What is the matter?" he asks, looking at Eleanor's wistful face.
"I am not going to Mrs. Mounteagle's party," she says.
"Well, never mind. You can send your frock round," he cries jokingly, "and ask her to put it on a chair with a label: 'This is what Mrs. Roche would have worn had she been here.'"
But his chaff was received in silence. Then he notices for the first time the red rims round her eyes.
"Why, little woman, you have been crying!"
"Yes," murmurs Eleanor, "I have quarrelled with Giddy."
Then between them the three explain as best they can what has happened.
Philip is deeply interested.
"It was all our mistake," whimpers Mrs. Grebby. "We are that sorry; we wouldn't 'ave come. We really didn't guess what an upset it would make—parting friends, and bringing trouble on our darling."
"Do not regret it," says Mr. Roche, taking her hand. "Such friends are not worth having, and Eleanor is well rid of them."
Secretly he blesses the Grebbys for their timely appearance, and resolves to write to Erminie and inform her of the fact.
"We are goin' back this morning," continues Mrs. Grebby. "Harriet expects us, and is reserving a front room in her lodging house. There, dearie," as Eleanor protests, "don't take on; we'd best go."
"Yes, Ma's right, my girl; Ma's always right," adds Mr. Grebby, with an admiring glance at his wife.
There are more tears before the final parting, when Eleanor watches them drive away with her husband, who has promised to escort them to town, and put them safely in a cab.
"Mind you see they go comfortably to Cousin Harriet's," she says before he leaves. "No wandering about seeking omnibuses, carrying bags, and leading Rover."
They wave farewell. Giddy sees them from her window driving down the terrace.
"My words have carried good weight," she thinks. "Eleanor has shunted those objectionable bumpkins after all."
When they were gone Eleanor puts on her hat and cloak, and sallies forth in the chill wintry air.
She enters the telegraph office, and addresses a form to Carol Quinton:
"Don't go to G.'s party this afternoon. Come to Lyndhurst instead.—E."
Then she walks back up the hill, a strange thrill of exhilaration rushing over her.
"Good-looking men at her parties," she says to herself. "Carol has promised to come early, has he? We shall see."
The house seems dull and depressing without the old people or Rover. Philip is sure to stay late in the City, having spent most of the morning at home, and since she has no engagement. Thus Eleanor eases her conscience and waits expectantly for Carol.
Her drawing-room with its bright log fire looks cosy in the extreme as Mr. Quinton enters it that afternoon.
Eleanor is curled up on the sofa, a little bundle of sad silk drapery. Her eyes are wistful, her tea-gown is black. The dim light reveals not the slight soupçon of powder paling her features. She barely rises to greet him, only moving to a sitting posture, her feet still tucked under her, holding out a trembling hand. As the door closes he grasps the pink fingers and presses them to his lips.
"Don't," a reproachful glance from under her long fringed lashes, "that is not kind."
"But they are such tempting fingers," he whispers apologetically.
"Come, draw up that chair and sit beside me like a doctor, only I want you to heal my sorrows. I have got such a horrid wound here," pressing her heart. "But first of all, was I wrong to telegraph? Are you angry, Mr. Quinton?"
"It was delightful of you," he murmurs, looking down on her with all his eyes. "Dear Mrs. Roche, I thank you from my soul. Only let me be your confidant—your friend!"
"Have you been to Giddy's?" she asks eagerly.
"No, what do you take me for? Was I not commanded to come here instead?"
"Giddy is no longer my friend; she has treated me abominably—snubbed and insulted me in my own house, simply because I wanted to bring my parents to her stupid party. They are the dearest old people from the country, not gifted with her false Society airs. I was only a farmer's daughter, you know. She taunted me with meeting you at her house and being ashamed of my parents. Bah! it sickens me."
She flung her head back with an air of offended dignity, her eyes flashing at the remembrance of Giddy's stinging phrases.
"The impudent little fiend!" mutters Quinton through his teeth. "How dare she?"
"Oh, she dares very well. I am in mortal terror of her tongue. We are utterly at the mercy of our friends; these people call themselves friends, though they deal us the bitterest cuts, the cruellest contumely."
"How dare she?" he repeats again, a fierce expression clouding his brow. "To attack a poor little thing like you, and for such a reason——"
"It is very hard—it made me cry," nodding her head and gazing earnestly upon him.
"How bewitching she looks in the slim black robe," he thinks. It clings round her elegant figure, and contrasts with her fair hair and delicate colouring.
"What can I do to comfort you?" he says, drawing nearer.
"Stay away from Giddy—take my part. Stand up for me when you hear her or Lady MacDonald laughing over Mrs. Roche's relatives."
"They would never dream of taking your name in vain while I was there to defend it!" he cries. "Don't you know I would do anything in the world for you? Can't you see how I would willingly be your slave? Will you accept me as such? Use me as you will! When in trouble, call me; I shall be always ready. No woman has ever exercised the influence over me that you have done. I would give my whole life to serve you for a moment—to tie the lace of your shoe—to sit at your feet—and adore——"
His lavish devotion pleases Eleanor. A flush of pleasure peeps through the white skin, her eyes droop, her breathing quickens.
"I think my life will be better, brighter, nobler, for the knowledge of such unselfish friendship. I can be but a poor friend to you, I am neither influential nor particularly attractive. Only a very simple little woman living very much in herself."
"Mr. Roche is a good deal away, isn't he?"
"Yes, especially in the day time. I am very lonely sometimes. But how dark it is growing. Shall I ring for a light?"
"No," with an imploring gesture, "this is the hour to dream, and to see more clearly into other natures, to reveal secrets that cannot be left unknown for ever."
He grasps her hands, and kneeling beside her buries his head in the folds of her long black sleeves.
"Oh! love—my love!" he gasps.
"What are you going to do to-day?" asks Philip, kissing Eleanor before he leaves.
"I must run up to town to have my dress fitted," she replies.
"What, more new frocks?"
"Only a very simple evening rag, dear," speaking nervously. "I am rather anxious about it, because it is the first I have had since my trousseau without Giddy's supervision. She always designs them, and does the talking."
"And pockets the commission," said Philip drily. "Do not regret that lost acquaintance, little one. If Mrs. Mounteagle opened your eyes, don't you allow her to shut them again."
"You will lose your train if you stand talking."
Philip drives away down the hill, and Eleanor thinks regretfully of the pleasant times she used to spend chatting with Giddy.
Now she must go to town alone. Eleanor is quite weary of her own society by the time she arrives at Madame Faustine's in Bond Street.
She wonders if Carol received the little note she penned in such trepidation yesterday, imploring him to spare her the passionate scenes in which he indulged the previous evening. She asked him in the most pathetic terms never to cross her path in life again, because she was only a weak little woman, and ended by saying she would be at 19, Bond Street, the next morning, and hoped not to run across that horrid Mrs. Mounteagle.
As she is bowed out by an elegant maiden in black satin, a hand is laid on her arm, a sense of exhilaration possesses her, while Mr. Quinton's melodious voice whispers "Eleanor" in her ear.
"I asked you not to," she says feebly, ill concealing her pleasurable surprise.
"But you laid temptation in my way, and it was strong." he answers.
She recalls his passionate words breathed in the firelight, the words that held her paralysed, and seemed in a single syllable to divorce her from her husband.
"What are we going to do?" asks Carol.
"We! I must return to Lyndhurst and boredom. An old lady at Twickenham Park has asked me to tea this afternoon, and I have to interview a kitchen-maid at half-past two."
Her voice is a little hard, there is a ring of sarcasm and rebellion in it that is strange to Eleanor.
"Have you ever been to the Savoy?"
"Let us lunch there, it is past one," urges Carol Quinton.
He hails a hansom, though Eleanor is reluctant.
"I really can't," she whispered.
"There is no harm, dear," he replies persuasively.
The cabman is watching her; she feels confused, uncertain.
Then his influence is too strong, and Eleanor succumbs.
Where is the harm? She is a married woman, she can go if she pleases.
He helps her into the hansom, and they spin away.
"Do you remember last time we drove together?" he asks.
"Yes, from the Butterflies' Club."
"It was dark then, Eleanor."
Her eyes droop, an embarrassed flush dyes her cheek.
"I am Mrs. Roche," she stammers.
"But 'Eleanor' is such a beautiful name, so queenly. You have poisoned all my happiness since the fatal night when I first saw you."
"I would willingly give it back, every shred of shattered joy, if I could."
"You could if you would."
"By being kind, by taking me back to favour, and forgiving me."
"It looks as if I had done that already."
"But only in a hesitating, half-hearted manner."
"It is far easier for me to forgive," says Eleanor, "than for you to accept my forgiveness and not err again."
There is silence between them for some moments.
"If I could think you cared for me just a little, Eleanor, I would be a better man."
"No," she said, biting her lips, and struggling with intense emotion; "you must reform without my aid—it will be harder, and therefore nobler. I do not 'care' for you."
He sees the efforts these words are costing her.
"I don't believe that, Eleanor."
"Then in disbelieving me you put me on a par with a common liar," she says hotly.
"Oh, no," he replies with his wan smile; "it is one of 'the social lies that warp us from the living truth.'"
They are turning into the Savoy courtyard.
Eleanor alights half pleased, half frightened at her daring.
She feels very strange as she enters the huge restaurant with Carol.
It is a full day, and he points her out several celebrities as they pass to their table.
"This is the one, sir," says the waiter, "for two," removing an engaged card on Eleanor's plate.
"How was the table reserved for us?" she asks Mr. Quinton. "We seemed expected."
"I wired for it this morning," he answered tenderly. "I knew you would be in town, and I meant you to come!"
"It is very wrong of me," she sighs, and her eyes glisten as if washed by still rains under her lashes. "Do you know, I have a calendar in my room, and every morning I pull off a leaf to read the motto. I have just remembered the quotation for to-day."
"What was it?" he asks.
Eleanor bends her head over her hors d'oeuvre.
"The stately flower of female fortitude—of perfect wifehood."
"Ah!" he sighs, "Tennyson."
"Yes," says Mrs. Roche.
Her eyes glance round the room.
How many bright eyes glisten over their champagne, and merry tongues joke and laugh away the hours!
"I like to look at people and make histories of them," says Eleanor.
"That girl with the flaxen hair, next to the dark man on your right, was a ballet girl before she married Sir Frederick Thurston. Everybody prophesied that her high kick would lift her into the aristocracy when she first gained favour. Her name was Poppy Poppleton, and people think she poisoned her husband and let another woman swing for it."
"Why do you tell me these horrible things?" murmurs Eleanor. "They are not conducive to appetite."
"Forgive me, but you started by being morbid, quoting at me in fact, and you look so distractingly lovely when you are shocked."
"To tell a woman she is lovely is to criticise her openly to her face. Please do not make such a careful perusal of my expression."
"Unfortunately I am endowed with the critical faculty."
The very intonation of Quinton's voice is a caress.
His eyes seem to reveal, as they gaze on her, their power of insight and analysis. Their look is appreciation, their sympathy with her every utterance boundless.
To him she is not only a character study, but a woman to love, to worship, for a day, an hour.
To her he is an object of fascination, an accomplished man of the world, one who can make himself utterly irresistible by reason of his tenderness, chivalry, courtesy, and devotion.
A magnetic attraction rises between them. Eleanor forgets her surroundings. She only remembers him.
At last her eyes fall on the door, and remain transfixed in that direction.
Giddy Mounteagle, in a costume of wide black and white stripes and leopard's skin cloak, followed by her youthful fiancé, enters the restaurant.
"Bad luck!" exclaims Eleanor, turning to Carol; "look!"
He re-echoes her deep sigh as Giddy advances.
"I hate her seeing me here with you," Mrs. Roche declares. "She is a bad enemy, and now that we are hardly on speaking terms I dare not think what horrible stories she may not spread against me."
"Why not make it up, for the sake of our friendship, Eleanor? She could often help us to meet, you know."
"Never, after the way she treated me!" declares Mrs. Roche, drawing herself up as Mrs. Mounteagle approaches.
"Hulloa! you here?" she cries in a rather bantering, insolent tone, and raising her finely pencilled eyebrows till they are lost to view under her fringe. She pats Carol playfully on the shoulder, pretending not to notice the stiffness of Eleanor's bow.
Bertie shakes hands with Mrs. Roche, and they seat themselves at the next table.
Eleanor turns her back, and becomes deeply interested in what Carol is telling her. They talk loudly on politics for Giddy's benefit.
"How spiteful she looked," whispers Eleanor at last.
"Oh, I don't know. You see you gave her the cold shoulder a bit."
"Do you think she noticed it?"
"Rather. She is as sharp as a needle."
"I think her hat is atrocious. It makes me tremble when I remember how I relied on her taste. Those enormous black and white feathers, pinned in crazy fashion with paste brooches, are horribly vulgar."
"Do you see that red-headed man just coming in?" says Carol.
"Yes. Who is he?"
"Eccott—a tremendously wealthy man, and a great financier. I expect your husband knows him."
"Eccott—why, of course! I have often heard Philip speak of him. The name is quite familiar to me, and now I come to think of it he is living here at the Savoy. Philip often dines with him."
"And lunches?" asks Quinton hastily.
Eccott is speaking to the head waiter, and evidently looking for a friend.
Eleanor can see down the long passage. Suddenly her heart sinks; the palms of her hands grow cold.
"Philip is there!" she says under her breath.
"What will you do?" whispers Quinton.
"I—I don't know."
"Tell Giddy," he urges; "make the quarrel up now, take her into your confidence, pretend you are together."
"Place myself in her hands? Oh, Carol, it would be too humiliating!"
Involuntarily she calls him by his Christian name.
"Self-justification is so embarrassing and unsatisfactory, and some excuse must be made for our appearing here together, unless you take my advice. He has not seen you yet, there is still time."
Thus Quinton urges the unwilling Eleanor to follow his suggestion.
"But I can't," she declares, half-crying. "What will Giddy think of me? What will she say?"
"Shall I speak to her for you?"
"Oh! if you only would."
Philip is still talking outside in the passage to Mr. Eccott. Carol rises, leans over the back of Mrs. Mounteagle's chair whispering hurriedly:
"Philip Roche is here. I don't want him to see his wife with me. Take her under your wing. I will make it worth your while."
Giddy takes the cue instantly. Such compromising situations are not new to her. She is a Machiavelli in petticoats.
"Here, Bertie," she says, "slip into Eleanor's chair, and stop at that table with Mr. Quinton."
She turns, smiles benignly upon Mrs. Roche, and motions her to take the empty seat.
"There, my dear," she murmurs, as Eleanor, confused and ashamed, obeys. "Let bygones be bygones, you are with me to-day. I brought you up to town."
"No, you met me by chance at Madame Faustine's, and we came on here together. Oh! Giddy, how good you are."
"A friend in need, eh? Finish Bertie's fruit salad. Good gracious, you are drinking whiskey and soda. Pass me his glass, it won't matter for me."
Eleanor hands it over with trembling fingers.
Philip is well in the room now, and any moment may see them.
"Would it not look well to attract his attention; sign to him. He is bound to spot you in a minute. Here is the waiter, we will send him. Waiter! go and ask that tall gentleman to come here. Say two ladies wish to speak to him."
Mr. Roche advances in surprise. He is vastly annoyed to find his wife again in company with Mrs. Mounteagle.
"You did not expect to see me, Philip," she says, assuming an air of gaiety to cover her confusion.
"I discovered your wife at our mutual costumier's in Bond Street," cries Giddy. "I know she always starves herself when shopping alone in town, so persuaded her to make a good lunch with me. I have known her to exist a whole day on prawns and ices, or Bath buns with lemonade. So you owe me a debt of gratitude, Mr. Roche. We are lucky in having ran across you, and two other friends," as Philip's eyes fall on Carol Quinton and the insipid Bertie. "We are simply gobbling our food whole, as we are going to the International Fur Store. I want to try and get a muff of leopard's skin to match my cape, for which, alas! I have still to write a cheque. But we are keeping you standing, and Mr. Eccott is waiting for his guest."
"Don't be late home, Eleanor," he says, "it gets very cold and foggy, and you still have a cough."
The two women watch him move away, then their eyes meet.
"You are a brick, Giddy," gasps Mrs. Roche, squeezing her hand under the table. "What makes you so splendidly loyal to me?"
"Life is so short, dear, it is well to be kind when we can. Besides, I am very fond of you though we did quarrel. I think it will draw us closer together."
"I shall never forget what you have done for me to-day."
As the four friends leave the restaurant Carol Quinton bends over Giddy, and says sincerely:
"Bravo! and thanks a thousand times. You acted to perfection."
"Glad you think so," she replies in an undertone; "and, my friend, you can go to the fur store now, and settle my little account."
She pointed to her cloak as she spoke, and added saucily:
"The muff can stand over until the next time."
"So you have made it up with the Mounteagle woman," says Philip that evening, pulling fiercely at his moustache.
"Well, you see, it was so difficult not to, meeting at the dressmaker's. I can't describe to you how awkwardly I was placed. I have felt more uncomfortable to-day than I have done for years. She practically took me by storm, and was so kind and nice it quite touched me. I have gone back to my old opinion of her. She may be a little hot-tempered, but means well."
"It is a thousand pities. I hoped you had done with her for good. I don't like you going to the Savoy with her dressed up in that gaudy fashion. She looks quite remarkable and unladylike. Besides that fellow Quinton is always at her heels, and I have heard some strange things about him. But then he is just the style of man people like the widow affect."
"What have you heard about Mr. Quinton?"
"Oh, never mind; nothing for your ears, my dear."
"Here is the post," says Eleanor with a sigh of relief. She is glad for the introduction of letters to turn the subject.
"Only one for me," turning the envelope over. "I really dare not open it."
"Why? Who is it from?"
"That insatiable Madame Faustine. It will be the bill for my black tea-gown and the blue silk blouse that you admired so much, Philip, dear. Now you may have this letter, and pay it yourself if you are awfully good," laughing merrily. "I will give you the number of sovereigns in kisses."
She looked so pretty as she handed it to him that he tore it open leniently, but no bill fell out.
The letter ran thus:
MADAME,—I am writing to ask you a personal favour, with regard to Mrs. Mounteagle, who kindly introduced me to you. I was prevented mentioning it to you to-day by the presence of my assistant. Could you induce Mrs. Mounteagle to remit me a portion, at least, of her long-outstanding account? She has not been lately to our establishment, and I cannot get my letters answered. I thought perhaps you might use your influence, and oblige very greatly.
"A thousand devils!" cried Philip, crushing the letter in his hand. "She lied to me—you lied to me!"
Eleanor's face is seared with weeping.
For the last three days Philip has hardly spoken to her.
She has stayed indoors and avoided Giddy, but now a message comes from the widow commenting on her non-appearance.
She pulls forward a sheet of paper, bites the end of her quill, and cries great drops of tears on the blotting-book. In a straggling hand she addresses an envelope to Mrs. Mounteagle, placing therein that unlucky letter from Madame Faustine.
In as few words as possible she relates the scene on paper to her friend.
"I am disheartened, dispirited, diseverythinged," she writes in conclusion. "As Dick in 'The Light that Failed' says; 'I am down and done for—broken—let me alone!'"
"Poor little wretch!" thinks Giddy, reading the sorrowful epistle. "I must tell Carol. He shall see this forlorn-looking scrawl." She sighs at the thought of some people's folly. "No sooner met, but they looked," she quotes to herself, apropos of Eleanor and Mr. Quinton. "No sooner looked, but they loved; no sooner loved, but they sighed. Ah! me, it's natural, very plain!"
Eleanor is not going out this afternoon, though the air is mild, the sun shines, and all the world smiles.
She has more than one call to return, which should have been done to-day, yet she sits alone in her pretty boudoir, neither reading, working, nor writing.
Her expression renders her face even more beautiful than usual in the subdued light. For a ray of winter sunshine, heralding the spring, has quite dazzled Eleanor's eyes, till she draws the blind, and settles in a cosy corner at the side of the fender.
In her hand is a letter, brief, yet to its owner teeming with news, so significant the simple wording seems:
"Why this silence? Stay at home to-day. I must see you."
It is neither commenced nor signed, but written in Carol Quinton's familiar hand.
Surely there is something imperative about that "Stay at home to-day." No "please," or "will you?" Merely the bare command. True the must is underlined, and the question savours of anxiety as to her reticence in writing or meeting him again.
"Well, he shall come, since this is to be the end."
Better face the matter out; it is dangerous dodging poisoned arrows. She will try how her shield works, that is to glance them aside.
Determination is in her heart, and courage in her eye. Eleanor is worked up into a fever of virtuous indignation at the remembrance of all she has allowed Quinton to do and say in the past. This is to be the turning point in her life. She will be loyal to her husband, and her first pure love, she will show him that she is capable of sacrifice, a woman to be trusted, looked up to, reverenced. Carol Quinton shall never enter her doors again after this call, never see her, hear from her, speak to her. She will fade from his life, as a shadow, a phantom! The sting of sorrow, the bitterness of thus casting a love she treasured to the wind, is subdued in a measure by a sense of exhilaration, at the thought of her good resolve.
Already "virtue's own reward" seems in her grasp, her heart is lighter, her spirit does not quail. She is tasting perhaps a shred of the martyrs' joy, when they suffered in the cause of right, she is battling down that weaker nature and gaining a victory in advance.
She is impatient for the moment to arrive when Carol shall stand before her to learn his fate, his isolation, from her lips. No pity, no glimpse of feeling, no suspicion of sentiment is to creep into this day's farewell. He will leave her for ever with the ordinary hand-shake of a casual acquaintance. Yes, she is nerved, strong, sure!
It has taken Eleanor three nights of sleepless vigil to overcome her love and stamp it out. She has not reached this point without a struggle.
She listens eagerly for him to come, longing for the interview to commence and end, while a spirit of heroism is upon her, laying her lower nature in the dust.
"Down! you shall never rise again," she cries. "Oh! why is he so long? I want him now. I could do it now. After to-day I shall have swept the temptation from my path, and made it impossible for Carol Quinton to be my friend."
The bell rings—the outer bell. She staggers to her feet.
The brown chrysanthemum in her belt falls to the ground and lies unheeded.
How she trembles! Her face, too, is deadly pale, revealed in the mirror opposite. She sways like a flower blown in a gale. There is a prayer on her lips, an angel knocking at her heart.
The door opens, and Sarah enters with the tea-tray.
Eleanor sinks on the sofa, the reaction leaving her faint and powerless to speak.
She watches the tea-table brought forward, the hot scones placed by the fire.
At last she regains her composure.
"Who was that at the front door, Sarah?"
"Mr. Quinton, ma'am."
"Mr. Quinton! Why did you not show him in?"
Eleanor leans forward breathlessly, looking Sarah up and down.
The maid crimsons, and replies:
"If you please, it was master's orders. He told me to say 'not at home' when Mr. Quinton called."
A moment's pause, during which Mrs. Roche struggles with her self-control.
Then in a calm voice she says:
"Very well, Sarah; that is all."
She raised the teapot with an effort, pouring out the brown fluid jerkily.
As the door closes, she covers her face with her hands, rocking to and fro.
"He does not trust me," she cries fiercely, all that is evil kindling to life within her. "He slights and insults me, lowers me before my own servants. He dares to shut his doors against my will, to the man who is my friend. He treats me like a captive, a slave. Oh! Philip, you do not know what you have done to-day? You do not guess how much this want of faith may cost you. I was so strong, till you threw me back, so sure, till you treated me like this!"
Eleanor realises how the shock of Philip's order has been the death-blow to her good resolves. A sudden hatred of her husband leaps into her heart and brain, choking her.
"A little confidence, a little love," she murmurs. "They are small things to ask at Philip's hands, yet he holds them from me in his cold reserve and suspicious dread."
Her eyes are dry and bright, her throat is parched, her forehead burns.
What will Carol think? Carol will be sorry, but not angry; Carol is always kind, considerate, forgiving. The dangerous fascination of imagination steals over her. Carol is at her side in a waking dream, but the scene is very different to the one she had contemplated. She fancies he is kneeling as once before by the same sofa, murmuring again those wild, impassioned words. She bends to grasp his hands and raise him from the grovelling adoration to her own level. They are just a man and woman—soul to soul, clay; ah! yes, of the earth earthly.
She breaks into a low laugh which ripples round the room, and seems to die away in something like a sob.
What is this rising tumult in her heart?
She cannot analyse her mood, it seems as if a certain knowledge has broken in like a flood of light upon her dim reason.
"Who can prevent me loving him, who can hold me back if I will it, if I choose?"
The door re-opens. Sarah enters with one of Mrs. Mounteagle's little scented notes upon a salver.
DEAREST ELEANOR,—If you are in, just toddle round to tea like a darling. I have some delicious toasted buns, and I want you to come and eat them. Don't put on gloves.
Your all impatient,
It is intolerable sitting in alone, fuming over her wrongs and acting a drama with her imagination. Philip detests Giddy. She will pay him out and go.
Glad of anything to divert the current of her thoughts, she snatches up a small fur cap in the hall, which rests becomingly on Eleanor's wealth of waving hair. Flinging a long red cloak around her, she slips out of the house, and rings at the widow's door.
"I hope she is alone. I don't feel in the mood to compass Bertie's inane conversation," thinks Mrs. Roche as the flaxen maid shows her in.
The twilight has gathered, but there is no lamp, as Giddy rustles forward in a lavender tea-gown to greet Eleanor.
"You are a very bad child," she says holding up her finger, "but we've found you out, and shown you up most shockingly. What right have you to break hearts, as if they were only bric-à-brac, and say 'Not at home' when you were probably gourmandising over the huge Buzzard cake we ordered in town?"
Eleanor cannot speak, for Carol Quinton rises, and looks reproachfully into her eyes. She feels like a hunted stag, and yet she is glad—relieved.
"There! now you are in a hole," continues Giddy, laughing, "with no time to invent a plausible excuse. But come and sit down and ask forgiveness. I dare say Carol will get over it."
As yet Eleanor has not spoken. She walks like one in a trance to the quaint old chair Mrs. Mounteagle draws forward. She sits down mechanically and gazes at the colours in the carpet, just as she did once before at the Butterflies' Club.
"What a poor little world it is!" she thinks, "just like a muddy, narrow lane, through which its puppets drive or run, with the dirt thrown up in their faces at every turn."
"Come! do not look so glum over it," coos Giddy, removing Eleanor's cloak. "Carol knows as well as I do what a row you have been in, and how rusty Mr. Roche has turned. We are both most terribly sorry for you. I am sure I don't know how you stand him. It does so remind me of my late husband, from whom I was separated by mutual agreement two years before his death. Our quarrels began much in the same way. I preferred a will of my own, and meant to have it. He would have treated me like the chickens cooped up in the yard—a useful addition to his table, only their part was the most enviable. I should not have minded being cooked and roasted, for there my sorrows would have ceased."
"Death must be very pleasant," says Eleanor slowly, her head turning lightly to the alluring charms of suicide.
"No doubt, when you are old and ugly. But at present life is what you have got to consider, my dear."
"Life and buttered buns," replies Eleanor drily, as Mrs. Mounteagle hands the dish. "No, thank you, Giddy. I don't want any tea."
Her voice trembles with agitation, as Carol, who has never taken his eyes off her, draws a little nearer.
"If you won't eat anything, dear," murmurs Giddy, "at least you must drink something just to settle your nerves. Suction is so much more romantic than mastication."
But Eleanor shakes her head.
"I am going to play peacemaker," declares Mrs. Mounteagle, "and leave you two to make it up. I have an important letter to write, which must catch the half-past five post. You owe Carol an apology, and that is always difficult in the presence of a third party."
Eleanor is about to demur, when she catches Mr. Quinton's expression, and his look withers the words on her tongue, and forces them back.
She only stammers, "Don't be long," and collapses into silence.
Giddy's important letter is addressed to the Fur Store. She orders the muff.
If things have been going badly at "Lyndhurst" before the day on which Philip makes his fatal error, they do not bear comparison with the bad times that follow.
Even Erminie's sweet influence cannot bring peace to the ill-conditioned home. True she does her best, coming frequently, and spending long days in Eleanor's society. But though Mrs. Roche entertains her charmingly, she refuses to discuss Philip, and flees from good advice with the clever tact that can conceal rudeness and yet repel in a breath.
"I don't know why," says Philip one day, in confidence to Erminie, "but though I do all in my power to win back my wife's love, it seems I have lost it for ever."
Erminie knows the reason, and so does he, only he dares not own it.
"She has tried me a good deal at times," he continues, "yet I love her just as madly, and that is what makes me seem to her fiendishly cruel occasionally, when the spirit of jealousy robs me of reason. I can't bear it, Erminie, to see her restless and dissatisfied in my presence, to feel her shudder from my kiss. An insurmountable barrier is rising between us. Can you guess what it is?"
Erminie's answer startles Philip.
"Then, you, too, have noticed—all the world sees it? That man who is trying to steal my wife from me is the curse, the foul fiend, the shadow, the shame. I met him in the City only yesterday. He tried to bow, but I looked him in the face and cut him dead. He paled and shrank away."
"Then, perhaps," suggests Erminie hopefully, "Eleanor has broken with him?"
"Not so long as she is in Giddy Mounteagle's clutches. For a while I let my business alone, I stayed at home day after day to guard and watch her. She divined the reason, and chafed against her cage, like a bird bereft of song, whose wings are cut. Things went badly for me on the Stock Exchange; I found I was losing hundreds, thousands, through my absence. Finally I returned, and Eleanor's face grew brighter—she had seen him again!"
"How do you know?"
"Don't ask me."
Philip turns away and wipes his brow. Erminie's true heart bleeds for him as she thinks of the perfect sympathy and confidence reigning between herself and Nelson.
"Your cloud may lift in time," she says, somewhat lamely seeking to console him.
"It may deepen," he answers lugubriously.
"Supposing you were able to persuade Eleanor to go home for a visit; it would be pleasant at Copthorne now the spring has come. Her parents are good, honest people, the country life a healthy one. It might strengthen her in body and mind, awaking memories of youth and innocence, your courtship, her marriage! There is no tonic for a diseased mind like fresh air and green fields. She said she longed to see the dear old farm again only yesterday. It would put her beyond the reach of Giddy Mounteagle, and you might run up and down several times in the week."
"I will suggest it," says Philip.
The idea delights Mrs. Roche beyond measure when later on her husband mentions it. She has frequently met Carol Quinton of late, and the ardour of his passion and her own overpowering love have frightened her at last.
The thought of escaping to the country to seek forgetfulness and avoid temptation appeals to her.
She puts her arms softly and half timidly round Philip's neck, resting her cheek against his, as she has not done for weeks.
He snatches her to his heart with a cry, smothering her face in kisses. "Eleanor, can't we be better friends?" he whispers.
The tears course down her cheeks, the guilty love she is trying to crush rises before her—jeering, taunting.
"I will try, Philip," she falters. "Only let me go home for a while, and see the old scenes, the familiar faces."
He still holds her to him, his pulses thrilling at her softened tone, as he answers, "Yes."
"I am really going back to the farm, Giddy," she says the following day, "to vegetate, and grow young again among the primroses and violets. The lawn will be yellow with crocus flowers, and I can almost smell the hyacinths. I promised them faithfully I would return when the birds began to sing!"
"You must give me your address," says Giddy. "I should like to write."
Eleanor looks at her shrewdly.
She has never quite forgotten the "Lady MacDonald" or "the party" episode. It is the recollection of this that makes her state, with a certain pride, the pleasure she feels in visiting her people.
"I will give it you on one condition," she replies.
"Promise me faithfully on no account to pass it on to Carol Quinton."
"Because I have gone too far, Giddy. I want to get away from his influence. You know he dogs my footsteps, tracks, and haunts me. I dare not trust myself. I am going away for a course of discipline, simple living, and country pursuits. I know, if you promise, I can trust you."
She holds out a paper on which her address is written, but keeps her palm over the letter until Giddy shall make the promise.
"I swear," says Mrs. Mounteagle.
Eleanor is superintending her packing, when Giddy Mounteagle enters her room.
"I called and ran straight up, dear," she says, "knowing you were busy. What! are you only taking so small a trunk into the country?"
"Yes, no finery, only two stuff dresses and a felt hat. I want to forget there is such a thing as Society or 'toilettes.' I am going to have a good time with all the farm people, and the school children, and be just as I was before I married. There are some of my clothes still hanging up in my old room, I shall put them on, and grub in the garden, rake, weed, and mow. Our poor machine was dreadfully cranky before I left; I should think it has fallen to pieces by now, but I mean to have a try. Mother's bit of front lawn is the pride of her heart. Black Bess will meet me at the station, and Rover—dear affectionate dog. I shall swing on the gate and whistle, and——"
But Eleanor's prattle breaks off shortly, for her throat feels strangled, and the misery that Giddy clearly sees beneath her smiles overmasters her.
"I think I have got a cold," she falters; "my eyes water so, and I have a little husk here when I speak."
But Giddy knows it is the coldness of desolation that brings the raindrops to shine on Eleanor's lashes.
"Do put in a few dainty gowns, dearest," she implores. "It would be such fun to show them off and astonish the natives. Say that hat from 'Louise,' in case you tea with the vicar's spouse, of whom I have often heard."
Eleanor is too weary to object, and lets Giddy order Sarah hither and thither till the room is in a litter and her head in a whirl.
"Go and fetch me Mrs. Roche's Roumanian jacket, the one from Liberty," says Giddy to Sarah. "I want to borrow it as a pattern. I am sure that nice little dressmaker at Twickenham could make me one exactly like it," turning to Eleanor, as Sarah quits the room. "You don't mind, dear?"
"Did I tell you I met Lady MacDonald yesterday, and she actually asked after you? I was quite surprised. She is in great trouble, poor thing, having lost her favourite maid—a regular right hand in the household. The woman had a very good figure, and has gone to the Empire, and gets £4 a week for standing in the front row of a ballet or chorus or something. Lady MacDonald feels sure she must have been in the trade before she entered her service. She gets that excellent pay because she just matches another girl, like a horse, you know. It must be vastly more entertaining than fastening Lady MacDonald's back hooks. The worst of it is she will tell all the other servants about it, and make them envious. The scullery maid, who is short and broad, and stout, is fired to go, and dreams of nothing else."
"I wonder the beautiful Lady MacDonald has time to trouble about the dreams of a menial," says Eleanor, with the touch of sarcasm that always accompanies any mention of Giddy's friend.
Sarah returns, and the subject drops.
"Is it not a pity Philip is dreadfully busy this week, or he was to have come with me to-day," continues Eleanor. "I doubt now if he will be able to get to Copthorne at all."
"How like a husband to be busy when you want him. I am sure you are much too young and pretty to travel alone."
"Shall we leave Sarah to finish the packing, and come down? I must have an early lunch."
Giddy follows her to the dining-room.
"I saw Carol Quinton yesterday," she says. "I told him you were going away, but was true to my word, and did not divulge the address."
"I wish you had said nothing about my movements," replies Eleanor uneasily, starting at the sound of Carol's name.
"I could not help it, he asked me all about you directly; he never talks of anything else, which seems rather absurd to another woman."
"Yes, you must grow horribly tired of the subject."
"You remember that dance at the 'Star and Garter' that you didn't go to? Well, I only heard the other day from those 'Bennett-Jones' girls that he asked them if you would be there, and they said 'yes,' just because they wanted him to make their party complete; they took three men and three girls. They knew really that you had a previous engagement, but kept buoying him up all the evening by expecting your momentary appearance. Later on, Addie, the eldest, broke it to him that you had never intended going. He was so offended he went straight home, and has not called on them since. It was rather mean you know to lure him there under false pretences."
"When did they tell you that?"
"Oh! the next day Addie called about ten in the morning, before I was down. She was really quite funny about it."
Eleanor bites her lips.
"It seems that my name is coupled with Mr. Quinton's," she mutters.
"Well, people will talk, whatever you do. Little Mrs. Hope saw you walking with him in the park one day, and she told Addie, and Addie told——"
"Oh! don't," cries Eleanor impatiently, putting her hands to her racking head, and stamping her foot impatiently. "I would rather not hear. It is all so petty, so stupid, so mean. What have I or Carol Quinton to do with them?"
"You have flirted with him, my dear, so openly at the Richmond parties, you can scarcely expect to escape observation."
"I hate the people here—I hate everybody!" declares Eleanor passionately. "I shall be thankful to get away. There are no gossiping fools to drive me crazy at Copthorne."
"How delightful! Fancy wandering about with a cow for your chaperon and the birds for critics, a rural pasture for your ball-room, a buttercup meadow for your lounge! How long shall you stay in 'Happy Arcadia'?"
"As long as I can," replies Eleanor. "I should like never to come back, and when I do I will take good care I am not seen with Mr. Quinton. It is all this silly girls' talk that eventually reaches Philip's ears, and makes our home unbearable."
"Yes, Eleanor. The breath of scandal permeates through the stolidest walls, or perhaps it comes in by the keyhole. It is a germ that is spread by chattering tongues, like some deadly disease. It nearly ruined my life when I was young."
"What a pity it cannot be taxed," sighs Eleanor. "By the way, the last thing I heard was that you had broken your engagement with Bertie. Of course, I did not believe it."
"Which was distinctly wrong of you under the circumstances. I am disappointed in him. We have decided to go our separate paths—apart."
"Oh! Giddy, I am so sorry. But why?"
"When I marry (which I shall do some day again), I want a rising man, clever, pushing, ambitious, like Lord MacDonald, in fact. Someone who will improve my position, lift me, instead of being a burden. Bertie's intellect was very weak, and I do hate a fool!"
"I should have thought that would be rather an advantage in a husband," remarks Eleanor.
"Really Bertie was too expensive, he wanted so much pocket money, I could not afford the luxury of a fiancé on his terms. Of course, he is broken-hearted, dear boy, and naturally I wept a few poetical tears, and said I should always think of him as a friend."
"The carriage is at the door," she replies, "they are getting the luggage down."
Eleanor and Giddy go into the hall together.
As Sarah carries the dressing bag out, it flies open, and something falls at Mrs. Mounteagle's feet.
She picks it up.
It is a photograph of Carol Quinton.
"You must have that lock secured," she says laughing, "or buy a strap."
Eleanor colours, and hides the photograph in her muff.
"Take care of yourself, my sweet," returning Eleanor's caress. "I have no doubt it will be very merry and jolly in the country," with a little grimace that means it won't.
But Mrs. Roche cares not to what corner of the globe she is travelling as the train bears her to Copthorne. She is too utterly miserable to notice places or seasons. She just sits by the window, and stares at the picture she has drawn from her muff, from which the eyes of Carol Quinton look pleadingly in hers.
"I wish I could bury myself," she thinks, her mind turning to Africa—America—Asia—any of the far-off worlds she has read of in geography books and fiction. "I wish I were someone else, or even the old Eleanor that Philip stole from Copthorne Farm. Why did he not leave me there? It would have been far better for us both!"
An elderly woman seated opposite glances at Eleanor over her paper, struck by the strange pallor of the young face, the nervous twitching of the mouth, and tear-dimmed eyes.
The stranger leans forward suddenly with an abrupt question:
"May I see that photograph?"
Eleanor starts in trepidation; her thoughts have been so far away that they are brought back to the present with an effort.
She sees before her a face lined more deeply with sorrow than time, a woman who might still have considerable beauty had she not dyed her hair in her youth and ruined her complexion with cosmetics.
The request does not offend Eleanor, for Mrs. Roche is easily won by a kind look or a smile.
She hands the photograph across, watching the stranger's expression.
"What a handsome face!" she exclaims, with a little gasp of admiration.
"Yes," sighs Eleanor.
"I never saw such mesmeric eyes, and yet they are soft, though powerful. I should say that man must have broken many a heart with those eyes."
She looks shrewdly at Mrs. Roche as she speaks.
"If he loves you," she continues, "he will be true."
Eleanor's head droops.
"You love him," said the stranger, reading the tell-tale blush. "Are you going to marry him, my dear?"
"No," falters Eleanor, "I wish I could."
"Ah! I thought so. Forgive me for my curiosity, but your face interested me, and I am not conventional. I always speak if I wish, though it offends some people. To me the fashion of introducing seems absurd. Here we are all jumbled up together in the same little world, yet everyone is a mass of reserve, a mind in armour, they never say what they mean, seldom speak from the heart. One is in the dust, and another on the throne, and they all die in like manner, to be buried most probably by a man they would not have dared address without an introduction, measured by an undertaker they could not have been seen walking with in the street, and to mix with thousands of spirits whose ancestors and pedigree are unknown."
Eleanor listens in surprise.
"Are you uncertain about your future?" the stranger asks.
"A little," falters Eleanor nervously.
"Then let me look at your hand, I may be able to help you. No, the left hand please," as Mrs. Roche tremblingly unbuttons her right glove. "Ah!" as the gold wedding-ring is revealed, "I was afraid so. I see it all now; this (pointing to the photograph) is not your husband."
Eleanor tries to speak, but her throat is parched, and dry. She only bends her head and gazes at the lines in her pink palm.
"You are going on a journey very soon," vouchsafes the stranger. "I wish it could be prevented, for it brings more pain than pleasure—misery, desolation."
Eleanor snatches away her hand.
"I don't want to know any more," she says, almost fiercely, pulling on her glove.
"I did not mean to frighten you," replies the woman penitently. "But I want to warn you. Whatever you do wrong in this world, my friend, is always repaid. There may be a heaven and a hell in the hereafter, I know not, I am not in a position to say, but of one thing I am certain, there is the hell here on earth, which measures out the allotted punishment to its victims."
"I don't understand you," exclaims Eleanor, "You talk to me as if I were a criminal."
"No," shaking her head sadly; "only as to a young and beautiful wife, who dreams and cries over another man's picture. You have the fatal, dangerous gift of fascination, Mrs. Roche."
"How did you know my name?"
"It is by me on the label of your bag."
Eleanor is silent. She waits for the stranger to continue.
"In my youth, Mrs. Roche, I was as fair as you—I was unhappily married. I looked lightly on the bonds that meant so much until they fettered me—held me down, as I then imagined. Between me and my husband the sentiment of camaraderie never existed. When I was not coquetting with him I was quarrelling. I tell you this because I shall never see you again. You do not know me—or care. I may be dead to-morrow—you would never hear. We are only just passing in life, and have paused to speak. The man I married was by necessity a preoccupied breadwinner, and during his daily absences in hot pursuit of the staff of life I met—well, we will say this man," taking up the photograph of Carol Quinton.
Eleanor snatches it from her.
"Ah! yes, just what I should have done then. I was hot-headed, and reckless, I had a good life in my hands and I ruined, spoiled, destroyed it! The cruel thongs of public opinion lashed my quivering flesh, the galling retribution broke my spirit, I cried to God, but He hid his face, I was an outcast, lost, I could only lie and moan for death which never came."
The stranger covers her face with her hands, and shudders visibly.
The wedding-ring to which she has no right is still on her wasted fingers, hot tears, forced from her eyes through recollection, pour down her drawn cheeks, making little rivulets through some coarse powder of the cheaper kind.
Eleanor's ever-ready pity rises up to crush the anger previously felt, for she sees now the effort that this brief confession has cost her fellow traveller. She knows, too, the reason for which these words were spoken, and horror stops the beating of her heart, it checks her throbbing pulses.
Mrs. Roche leans forward, and takes the stranger's hands.
"Thank you," she murmurs simply.
The woman clasps the little fingers gratefully.
"You understand?" she asks.
Eleanor whispers, "Yes."
"Do you know what I saw in your eyes?"
"Three long words that kept repeating themselves. All the same words, and the worst, the most heartbreaking. 'To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow!' They will drive a soul to perdition quicker than any in the English language. I am going to have them engraved on my tombstone, because I can only conquer them in death."
"You are right. I was looking on, living in fancy the worthless days and hours."
"Crush that tendency, Mrs. Roche. Think of me when your life seems worthless, and remember all that I have lost. Your face is so sweet, so pure, so beautiful, it was made for the good love that crowns spotless womanhood. But this is my station, and I shall never know what you do with your future."
"Shall I show you?" says Eleanor hastily, for she is easily swayed, and the stranger has worked upon her emotion.
"See!" and the soft, enticing eyes of Carol Quinton are torn asunder—the photograph is reduced to a handful of scraps scattered on the carriage cushion.
"You are a good woman," says the other, rising and looking down tenderly, lovingly at Eleanor.
Again they clasp hands, then a cloud of towzled hair under a black crape bonnet vanishes down the platform, and Mrs. Roche is left alone, with the pieces of torn cardboard and the scent of patchouli on the opposite seat.
"Have I changed, or has everything changed?" Eleanor asks herself, as the days slip by in the old farmhouse.
Mr. and Mrs. Grebby are just the same warm-hearted, genial couple as of yore; they crack the same jokes at their knife-and-fork tea, while Rover wags his tail as pleasantly as ever, and Black Bess trots to market.
The school children have not forgotten "Teacher," and, greet her in demonstrative fashion, flinging their small arms round her neck when she stoops to kiss them.
Yet Mrs. Roche finds that their mouths are sticky, and the little hands she clasps in hers hot and unpleasant to the touch.
She rises early, and on churning morning helps her mother even more industriously than in past days, yet her heart is heavy, and the old songs never pass her lips without a stifled sob. She tries to hum the "Miller of Dee," as for the sake of happy recollections she polishes afresh the pewter service on the parlour table, yet all the while her eyes are scrutinising the inartistic arrangement of the room. Why should the horsehair sofa be placed straight against the wall, and those ghastly wax flowers under glass covers adorn the stiff chimneypiece, which might be made so pretty? The memorial cards, that are framed and hung on the wall—how gruesome they appear in the spring sunshine! She longs to pull them down, and burn them, but to do so would be to violate poor Mrs. Grebby's most sacred feelings.
She looks in the old family Bible, standing in its accustomed place on a table by the window. There are the births, deaths, and marriages of the Grebby family for generations. Oh, if her marriage could be blotted out, and a date of death mark her name. She envies the twins that died in their infancy, when she—Eleanor—was only two years old.
The pewter pots tire her arm, unaccustomed, now to rubbing anything but diamond trinkets. The service she so admired once does not attract her now. She puts it away half clean, and longs for a novel.
Vegetating was not very soothing after all. The poisoned arrows had followed her even to Copthorne, and their wounds could not heal. The thoughts she struggled to suppress, here in the dead calm, proclaimed themselves more loudly, worked fiercer havoc. She longs, pines, sickens for a sight of one she must never see, for a voice it would be death to hear, the touch of a hand it were sin to clasp.
So she wanders about in her strange state of depression, pretending to enjoy the glorious green of the spring, and seeing only light and darkness, cold and desolation, in primrose banks and rippling streams.
Mr. Grebby is too preoccupied with his cattle and his land to notice the change in Eleanor, while Mrs. Grebby takes infinite pains to give her married daughter the best their house affords, and only remarks on her lack of appetite, at which she loudly laments.
"You ain't eatin' anything, dearie," she says one morning at breakfast. "Try a tumbler of new milk to put some strength into you. It's them towns as makes you pale and spiritless. I knows 'em. We was that done up after our visit to you and cousin Harriett it was quite surprisin'. But law, how Pa did make me walk in London. Up them Monument steps, and down again before I'd got my breath, with poor Rover in charge of a policeman below, and everyone a laughing 'cause I was puffing so."
Eleanor forces a smile. She was watching for the post.
The moment the man's tread is heard on the gravel she starts up and runs to the door, dreading every day that Giddy may divulge her address.
She longs to write to Carol Quinton, but dare not. She knows she is too weak to run the risk.
There are two letters for her, one from Philip, the other from Mrs. Mounteagle.
She reads Giddy's first.
It is amusing and frivolous as usual. The last half, however, amazes Eleanor.
"I am going to be married," it says in the middle of a description of a new bonnet. "My future husband is a wealthy man and a general. Congratulate me! It will not be a long engagement, as he is seventy-five to-morrow, but loves with the ardour of a seventeen year old! Talking of boys, I am asking Bertie to be best man. By this you will see all arrangements for the ceremony are being left entirely to my management. It will be costly and elaborate. My gown alone would have swallowed up dear Bertie's income. I have given him a splendid new watch to console him, as his was snatched last year at Epsom. I met my General at Lady MacDonald's. He moves in a very good set—gout permitting. Excuse my humour.—Your elated and strong-minded GIDDY.
"P.S.—Don't you think I am a noble woman? He is one eye short, which is rather a recommendation, but has been one of the handsomest men about town."
"How strange," thinks Eleanor. Then she throws the letter aside in disgust. "And very loathsome!" she adds, tearing open Philip's envelope.
She reads it slowly at the breakfast table.
"Philip is coming this evening," she says.
Mr. and Mrs. Grebby clap their hands.
"Well, now, I'm right glad," they exclaim together. "We could see 'ow you missed 'im, dearie."
Eleanor feels uncomfortably guilty. What if they knew that her every thought was wandering to another!
Already she has begun to try and piece the photograph together again, regretting her hasty action in the railway carriage. Before reaching Copthorne she had hidden the fragments safely in a corner of her dressing-bag. She hardly knew whether to be glad or sorry that Philip is coming. It will break the dull monotony of the day. At any rate she will get herself up to look as much like the old Eleanor as possible, though the thought of wandering with him through the haunts of past days is distasteful.
She knows it will please him, however; so, crushing her own feelings, she dons an old dress made by the village dressmaker, one which has hung in her wardrobe ever since she left home, then proceeds to search for the long disused sun bonnet.
The day is almost bright enough to excuse the picturesque headgear, eventually unearthed from the bottom of a tin trunk, and ironed by Eleanor's own hands.
She feels as if she were dressed up for amateur theatricals, and even denies herself the fashionable manner in which her hair is now arranged, going back to the simple style before she knew London or Giddy Mounteagle.
"It certainly is becoming," she says; "beauty unadorned," viewing her charms in this rustic guise before a cracked mirror. "Yet I wonder what the Richmond girls would think of me if I walked on the Terrace, Sunday morning after church, dressed like this?"
She looks so pretty that her heart sinks at the thought that it is Philip, not Carol, for whom she has prepared.
As she comes down the stairs Mrs. Grebby meets her pale and trembling.
"What is the matter, mammy?" asks Eleanor, seeing that her mother is trying to gain breath for speech.
Mrs. Grebby puts her hand to her heart.
"There, there, child!" she says, "don't be frightened," while her legs seem sinking under her, and she grasps Eleanor's arm for support. "But the man from the post-office, 'e—e's brought a telegram for you."
"Anything wrong at home?" asks Mrs. Roche.
"Not that I know of—yet," continues the shaking woman; "it hasn't been opened."
Eleanor bursts out laughing, and the amused peal reassures Mrs. Grebby.
"Why, Ma, I get them nearly every day at Richmond, there is nothing to be alarmed at in a wire. Philip was going to let me know his train. I thought I told you."
She opens the message, and as she scans it her face falls.
"He is not coming," she says. "Too busy, and won't be able to manage it now. How like Philip! To let you get all ready for him and then fail."
It is more the annoyance of having dressed herself in vain than disappointment at not seeing him which vexes Eleanor.
"I dislike people throwing you over at the last moment; it is very inconsiderate and unkind. But I suppose he can't help it, poor fellow," with a touch of regret for her petulance. "I am very extravagant, Ma. I spend no end on clothes, though you wouldn't think it to look at me now. Philip just trots off to the City and makes the money, so it does not matter a bit."
Mr. Grebby expresses lavish sorrow at Mr. Roche's non-appearance, while Eleanor wanders out down the budding lanes towards the station, just as if Philip were coming after all, only there is neither tumult of sorrow nor joy in her heart. She feels just indifferent to everything and everybody. The hedges are sprouting with young green. Surely the world is fair to all eyes but Eleanor's!
Her head is bent, she is gazing on the ground.
Suddenly a shadow crosses her path—the shadow of a man.
She looks up slowly, standing still, rooted to the spot.
A cold chill creeps through her veins, gradually changing to burning fire. She can neither speak nor move, the hedges seem to fly round, the trees spin, the twittering birds shriek!
The word breaks from her lips at last like a cry.
Why has Philip failed her, why is he not here to save?
Someone is holding her hand in a passionate clasp, someone presses her cheeks, her lips! Is it a dream or reality, life or death?
The spring bursts suddenly into smiles. Nature laughs loudly, all the world is one wide pleasure field, a place to love, to die in for joy!
"Why did you run away?" he whispers, still holding her in his arms. "Why did you hide yourself from me, shut out the light from my days? It was cruel, Eleanor. Surely you knew I would have gone to the end of the world to find you, and you thought to evade me here."
"Fate has willed it otherwise. How did you discover me?"
"Giddy Mounteagle gave me your address. I never gave her a moment's peace till she divulged it, poor woman."
A spark of anger flashes in Eleanor's love-laden eyes.
"The traitress!" she murmurs under her breath.
"Ah! do not say that. She is happy herself, and I was so miserable, you were so miserable."
"How do you know?"
"I have read your heart like a book—it is mine and no other's. I mean to take it—cherish it—keep it—always!"
"You stole it from Philip—you stole it from me!" she cries, her voice shaken by fear and dread. "You see me as I am—weak, defenceless—loving you to my shame—my destruction. I am in your power body and soul—you have got my will as well—it is yours—all yours. Think for a moment, Carol, before you keep these stolen goods—what they cost—you and me. Pity me in this hopeless moment of surrender—make it less hard to part. Are we to lose everything? Think of your soul—and my soul. I believe that we both have them now in the palms of our hands—to cast into Hell—to lift up to Heaven! You should be the stronger. Remember what it is to be a man!"
"What is your ideal of poor mankind?" he asks hoarsely.
"To give—not take," replies Eleanor, in the words of Charles Kingsley, which rise suddenly as an inspiration to her tortured mind. "To serve—not rule. To nourish—not devour. To help—not crush. If need, to die—not live!"
"Then I will rise to your standard," he said boldly. "Eleanor, I will kill myself."
"How?" she asks.
"I care not; but to-day—this same hour—you will have driven me to my death!"
"Oh, Carol, you are cruel!" she sighs.
Then the words well into her brain, with fierce, upbraiding, horrible reality: "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow." She sees the faded towzled hair of the woman in the train, the dusty crape of her bonnet, the red upon her lips.
A cry escapes her, and sinking on the green bank by the roadside, Eleanor buries her face in the grass and sobs in uncontrollable anguish.
Carol cannot bear to watch her misery. He stoops down and gathers the little figure in his arms, straining it to his heart. He kisses dry the liquid eyes, and soothes the low deep sobs.
"I have decided," he says.
"And your choice, our fate, the end?" she asks breathlessly.
"To take," he replies, holding her fast, "not give back that which is mine, now and for ever. To rule (if that is the harsh term you give my love), to devour, to crush, to live, Eleanor, not die."
The words sound like a shout of victory on the still air. They kindle a mad delight in the woman's stricken heart.
"We will leave this miserable country, where you are a captive to a man who cannot hold your love, yet calls himself 'husband.' We will go away, no matter where, since we shall be together. We have only our two selves to live for now. The world was created for us alone, we need remember nothing else, an Eden to love in and be happy. Oh! my darling, how bright I will make your life, as it never was before."
"You are right," says Eleanor slowly. "I have never known true happiness. I was very fond of Philip when I married him—the lukewarm affection that grows cold instantly in the chill air of disagreement or mistrust. The love which you have kindled in me is something I did not know or dream of. It is worth all else!"
Carol takes her wedding finger, holds it to his lips a moment, then places an embossed gold ring below the knuckle, with "Kismet" engraved upon it.
Eleanor gazes on the ring wistfully. The words are full of meaning to her just now.
"'Kismet,'" she murmurs. "Only a true Mahommedan should use that expression."
She draws a cat's eye stone, that Philip gave her, from her hand, and offers it to Carol.
This is the last, the supreme act of surrender—that, more than all else, renounces for ever and ever Philip, honour, wifehood, and lays her low in the dust.
They walk through the green fields hand in hand; they talk of things to be. The children coming home from school stare at Eleanor, and think how beautiful she is, wondering at the handsome stranger who gazes in her eyes, and whispers so low they cannot catch the words.
Yes, she looks just the same, as the evening tints fall with a rosy glow on her rich hair and simple sun-bonnet. How innocent she appears in the plain, homely attire, and that strange but glorious smile parting her lips. There are daisies under her feet, and blue sky over her head; love is in her heart, but hell is in her eyes.
Her eyes droop. The children cannot see—Hell!
While Eleanor is at Copthorne, Philip is staying in Trebovir Road with Mr. and Mrs. Lane.
"I cannot think why I have not heard from Eleanor," he says one morning to Erminie. "For three days not a word—no answer to my letters or the telegram."
"Really; it was a pity you were prevented from running down that afternoon. I expect she was disappointed."
"I am not so sure about that," thinks Philip.
"It is just possible she may have written to Lyndhurst. Did she know you were staying on with us?"
"I told her so, but perhaps she forgot, or did not take it in. I shall go there to-morrow and see."
Philip is uneasy about Eleanor. Her silence hurts him, for he still loves her passionately, in spite of their quarrels and her deceptions. All that day he thinks constantly of his wife, picturing her image at every turn, wondering how she passes her quiet days in the old farmhouse, and whether she is happy at Copthorne. He has sent her some books and papers she asked for, but they have not been acknowledged.
He is not angry, but pained at her inconsideration, and the galling thought that he no longer holds even a corner in her heart is bitterest grief to him.
His friends notice his depression in the City, and remark about it. The hours are long, and the spring sunshine seems laughing at him. He pines for the country, the fresh green, the old love—Eleanor!
That evening the Lanes take him to the theatre. The play bores him to distraction, though they say that it is good. He remembers reading some excellent notices on it in the leading papers, and planning to take Eleanor the night after she returns. He is one of a gay, light-hearted party, and goes on with them to sup at the Savoy, feeling like a spectre at the feast. They sit at the same table where he once found his wife with that smiling hypocrite, Mrs. Mounteagle, and the man he hates, loathes, fears.
These recollections render Philip but a poor companion.
Erminie, noticing his low spirits, planned the evening's entertainment to cheer him up.
She has a pretty little sister-in-law with her, who prattles merrily, and reminds Mr. Roche somewhat of Eleanor, in a tantalising manner, when she laughs and he catches her profile.
"I have never been to the celebrated Savoy before," she says. "Reggie declares it is a place where ladies go without their husbands when they want to be rakish and lively. It looks as if he were right, for I am certainly without my better half this evening. When I look at you and Nelson, and then think of Reggie and myself, I cannot imagine how it is all wives and husbands don't get on. I believe I have done a lot of harm since my wedding by advising everybody to marry, and throwing susceptible young people together in the most reckless manner."
"We have not given it a very long test," says Erminie, "but look at that startling beauty in yellow," changing the subject out of consideration for Philip.
"Oh! she is the leader of one of the fastest sets in town," Nelson vouchsafes, as Lady MacDonald, a mass of flashing diamonds and old gold brocade, enters into the restaurant.
The place sends Philip's flagging spirits down to zero, he is thankful to get home, and paces his room half that night thinking of Eleanor, and longing for the love of dear departed days.
"Perhaps when she comes back from Copthorne it will be different," he thinks. "I have been away too much in that miserable City, she has been dull, and thus fallen a prey to Mrs. Mounteagle's bad influence." He will give her more companions, keep his house full of guests, pleasant accommodating people who will not object to early breakfast, and dinner that invariably waits half-an-hour later than it should on account of his business.
He writes to Eleanor as the clock strikes two. His letter is full of promises for the future.
He paints a picture of delightful plans. They will have the house full until Easter, when he will take her abroad. She shall go wherever she pleases, and he will be her trusting, adoring slave. He will make it impossible for her not to love him.
For nearly an hour he pores over the sheet, telling Eleanor these good resolves.
"Dearest," he says in conclusion, "can't we begin our lives over again—love as we did in quiet Copthorne—before we drifted apart? I will try and be a better husband. Do come back to me soon, for I find I cannot get on without my little Eleanor. She is all the world to me."
Then he seals the envelope, and falls into a restless sleep, which is broken by haunting dreams of dimly suspected terrors.
Early in the morning Philip wakes, unrefreshed and heartsick. Still the question burns on his brain—Why has Eleanor not written?
He rises before the household is astir, and lets himself out into the mild air.
Hailing a hansom, he tells the man to drive him as quickly as possible to Richmond Terrace. Perhaps Erminie is right, and Eleanor has written to Lyndhurst after all.
Sarah starts as she sees Mr. Roche on the doorstep.
"Good-morning," he says, "are there any letters for me?"
He does not wait for the answer, but walks straight in, and takes up a pile of envelopes on the hall table.
A few circulars, a bill, and three letters addressed to Eleanor at Copthorne in his own handwriting, and forwarded back by Mrs. Grebby to Mrs. Roche at Lyndhurst.
He stares at them in mute amazement, as if in those white envelopes a horrible mystery lies unrolled.
He tears them slowly open one by one, reading what he knows so well already, the casual news, the fond farewells, penned only for Eleanor's eyes.
How is it she has never received them? How is it they have been sent back by Mrs. Grebby when Eleanor is there?
For the moment he is unnerved. Then he pulls himself together, places the letters in his pocket, picks up his stick, and turns to go.
"Are you coming home to-day, sir?" asks Sarah.
"Coming home!" The words grate on him.
"No," he replies, "I am going to Mrs. Roche, at Copthorne."
Then he dashes out of the house, and reaches Trebovir Road just as Erminie and Nelson are at breakfast.
"We could not think what had become of you," cries Mrs. Lane, running out to meet him. "Why did you go out, and where have you been?"
Then she sees how pale he is, and the questions die on her lips.
"Come in," she says gently. "I have got some hot coffee for you, and your favourite dish. What! you won't eat anything?"
"No thank you, dear, I haven't time. I only fled back to tell you I am off to Copthorne. I am a little anxious about Eleanor not having written you know. She was rather seedy and done up before she left, and those old people are bad correspondents."
"You think she is ill?"
"I fear something is wrong."
"But you must have something before you go, or you will be quite faint."
Philip is not in the mood to argue; he answers her abruptly, almost rudely, and guessing that something is wrong, she lets him go, watching him drive away with sorrowful compassionate eyes.
"I am afraid poor Phil is in some trouble again," she says to Nelson, mechanically cracking the shell of her boiled egg. "He has gone."
"Yes," shaking her head solemnly, "and without any breakfast."
"But you should not let him."
"I could not help it. He is going to see Eleanor."
"Has she been leading the poor fellow another dance? What a curse that woman is!"
"Don't talk like that! I am very fond of Eleanor, with all her faults—almost as fond as of Phil, and you know how I love him. I am not sure what it is about her, but you can't bring yourself not to care for her. It's that pretty little confiding way, I think, and those lovely wistful eyes. She is so easily led and swayed. It is a great pity."
"She will come to a bad end, depend upon it," replies Nelson, congratulating himself on the good woman who crowns his home.
Philip takes the morning train to Copthorne. Business goes to the wind. He thinks only of his wife, and the letters that have come back so strangely into his keeping.
The journey seems interminable. He flings a pile of papers unread on the opposite seat, puts a cigar between his teeth, and forgets to light it, closes his tired eyes, which only quickens and excites his overwrought imagination, till finally the train steams into the drowsy little station of Copthorne.
Philip walks at the fastest possible speed across the meadows. There is the gate on which Eleanor perched herself the night before their wedding, declaring she would dangle her feet whether she was to be Mrs. Roche or not.
Then the green lane, where she asked him to wait till the following spring. He remembers her words distinctly. She had said them so lightly in reference to their union: "When the birds begin to sing, then I will marry you, Philip."
But he had proved himself the stronger, and carried off his prize that same month.
Now the spring is here. The birds are singing—mocking, jeering. The old farmhouse is in sight—he pauses.
Oh, what a moment of suspense!
No Eleanor comes across the garden to greet him. It all looks dead—still.
He can hear Rover's feeble bark—the sound savours of decay.
Then Philip walks forward, and his shadow falls across the porch. The bell peals.
Mrs. Grebby starts at the ring, and brushes past the little farmhouse servant hurrying to the door.
"Why, it's never Mr. Roche!" she exclaims.
"Yes," he replies; "I have come for Eleanor. Where is she?"
Mrs. Grebby sinks on to the seat in the porch, and stares at him open-mouthed.
"What do yer mean?" she gasps at last. "There ain't no harm come to my dearie!"
She wrings her hands despairingly.
"Has Eleanor left you?" he asks in a voice so strangely unfamiliar that he hardly knows it for his own.
"Three days ago. She went 'ome, to be sure, as bright and as bonny as could be, looking that pretty, I says to my old man 'It's well she's not travellin' alone.'"
"Who was with her?" questions Philip intently, mastering his intense emotion.
"A friend what came the day you telegraphed. He said 'e'd see her back safe and sound. I packed 'er clothes with my own hands, I did, she never touched a thing, and we drove them both behind Black Bess to the station, with Rover following at the wheel."
A low hiss breaks from Philip's lips.
"And this man," he asks fiercely, impatiently, biting his lips. "What was he like?"
"Oh! 'e was a beautiful gentleman, so well dressed and handsome, Mr., let me see, Mr. Quinton I think she called him."
Philip has heard enough, he turns away with a groan.
Mrs. Grebby watches the dark despair creep over his features in blank amazement.
"What does it mean?" she asks, detaining him with a trembling hand.
"It means," replies Philip in a choking voice, "that Eleanor has left me."
A cry escapes Mrs. Grebby, she buries her face in her apron, rocking herself to and fro, moaning pitifully.
"We, as always kep' ourselves respectable, and never knew what it was to blush for any of our stock, and she 'as lifted the family, and married a good, real gentleman like yourself, sir, to bring disgrace and ruin on 'er 'appy 'ome. Oh! my, oh! my, the poor misguided lass!"
Philip, in his own agony, finds himself comforting the weeping woman, and praying her to bear up. Then, as she dries her streaming eyes, clasping his hand with a hoarse "God bless you, Mr. Roche," he hastens away with bent head and throbbing brow back over the green grass.
No curse rises to his silent lips; he is as one who has just heard of the sudden death of his dearest upon earth. Everything seems slipping from him. There is a long stretch of blank life before his bloodshot eyes.
He waits in a state of nervous prostration on a wooden bench at Copthorne Station till the return train to town appears.
Then he staggers forward into the first empty carriage, buries his face on the cushions, and sobs.
His strong frame shakes like a reed with the violence of his grief. He is weak, too, from having fasted since the previous night, and does not attempt to control his sorrow.
The maddening thought of Eleanor and Quinton together adds gall and wormwood to the desolation in the deserted husband's heart.
"With Quinton!" He repeats the words, grinding his teeth. Quinton, the low scoundrel, the fast, fascinating man of bad reputation, the villain who has betrayed his wife, his angel, and dragged her to the lowest depths of degradation! She is beyond Philip's help now, and he knows it—beyond redemption!
The Rubicon has been crossed. Eleanor is among the lost—on the other side!
Erminie is sitting under the pale light of a yellow lamp, deep in a novel.
The heroine is wavering on the verge of an irredeemable error, and Erminie's kind heart is thoroughly in the book. She is a sympathetic reader, and her eyes moisten as they scan the pages.
She is guilty of serious skipping, and as steps are heard in the hall below, glances at the finish.
A sigh of relief escapes her.
"Oh, I am glad she didn't! I am glad she is saved!" exclaims Mrs. Lane involuntarily, rising, as she thinks, to meet Nelson, since this is his hour to return.
Instead, Philip stands before her, white as a corpse. His haggard features are accentuated by the mellow lamp light, his figure sways, tottering till he steadies himself by grasping the back of a chair.
He has not tasted food that day, and she fancies he looks shrunken, marvelling at his altered appearance.
She dares not ask him what has happened, but just gazes with wondering sympathy into his miserable eyes.
"It has come," he gasps, passing one hand over his brow.
"What?" murmurs Erminie, under her breath.
"Eleanor and Quinton—they have gone together."
His voice vibrates through the room. A gasp of horror escapes Mrs. Lane. She staggers back.
"What shall you do?" she asks.
"What will I do?" echoes Philip, his eyes flashing, and the colour rushing back in a flood to his ashen cheeks. "Find her—track her to the end of the earth. Everything in life has closed to me this day. I shall only exist for one motive—one unswerving aim. She thinks she has escaped me, but the world is small, and while Eleanor and I are both in the same hemisphere——"
He pauses, for the room swims round.
A look that Erminie can never forget crosses his face—a look of sublime love, checked by an expression of devilish rage and hatred. The two seem battling a moment for pre-eminence.
Then he draws himself up to his full height, as if fighting for breath, and falls heavily upon the floor at Erminie's feet. Nelson's voice is heard calling her without.
She rushes to the door with a wild cry:
"Help—help! Philip is DEAD!"
"Have you ever heard anything more of that poor Mr. Roche, whose wife deserted him?" asks Erminie's sister-in-law.
"No," replies Mrs. Lane sadly. "We had one awful night when he came and told us the news, and fainted. I am so weak-minded, I thought he was dead immediately, and shrieked and tore my hair, and made quite a scene. I always jump at conclusions, it is so stupid of me. Nelson had a bad time of it that night. We sent for a doctor, but it was ages before we got him round, and then he seemed so strange and reticent that it frightened me still more. I thought he would lose his reason, he had just that look on his face. The following day he left us without a word. He just held both my hands very tightly, and said thank you with his eyes. Of course I made a fool of myself, and kissed him and cried over him like a child, which only made matters worse. I asked him what he intended doing, and he gasped 'Eleanor' under his breath, and rushed out of the house. We have never seen him since."
"How strange! Then he has entirely vanished out of your lives? I thought he seemed strangely depressed at the theatre, the evening we went to the Savoy."
"Ah! that was the night before."
"Yes, he disappointed me. I had heard so much of your charming cousin, but I suppose the poor fellow had some inkling of it then."
"I never expect to see him again. He was a very sensitive man, and the curious or condoling looks of acquaintances would have driven him mad. Nelson says he has left England, yet no one knows where he has gone. The nice home on Richmond Terrace is broken up, and I have practically lost a brother. It was a strange ending to his married career."
"That is what comes of marrying beneath you. These people with low minds——"
Erminie stops her sister-in-law with a deprecating gesture. She is staunch to Philip, and knows how it would pain him to hear these words.
"I was fond of her," she says simply. "Let us talk of something else."
"I wish we could go up to the source of the Irrawaddy River, where no white man has ever been," says Eleanor, laying her hand confidingly in Carol's. "I should not be afraid with you, dear—such a traveller, and knowing the country so well. How many years is it since you were last in India?"
"Over seven. How did I drag through them without you?" he replies tenderly.
"We had a glorious voyage, didn't we? and everybody was so nice to us. I remember, Carol, how frightened I felt when first you suggested this long journey, and promised to take me north of Burmah to this strange, uncivilised village, where I should have to eat nothing but rice, or shoot my own game. Of course you had been here before, and though it is so wild and out of the way, there are still some white people to remind us we are not all savages."
"My dear, you must not call them 'savages,'" he says smiling. "They are really very nice, though a trifle odd and original; but that is what you like, I believe."
"Oh! yes. I am quite in love with my black servants. I think they are ever so much more picturesque and pleasant than my Richmond acquaintances. They look on me as a white angel, which no one would have done at home," with a smile at her quiet humour.
Eleanor's feelings by now are blunted to a certain extent, and she frequently jests on the wholesome horror with which her English friends must now regard "that reckless Mrs. Roche!"
Yet there are times when the thought of her sin rises like a dark thundercloud over the sunshine of this life of love.
She is standing in the low verandah of her bamboo house, looking out over a network of gorges, rifts, and ravines, precipices in peaks, with villages crowning each crest. The houses are thatched with long grass, which grows over the hills, while below in the valley the rice is cultivated in terraces. The villages are stockaded with bamboo, and the water runs through them in troughs of split bamboo.
"The people are certainly very dirty," says Eleanor, watching an old woman with large amber earings, pounding rice, and talking to a dusky man in a blue turban.
"Yes. They wear their clothes till they fall off, and never wash except when it rains. That man below is a noted warrior in these parts."
"How do you know?"
"You see the sword slung over his shoulder, with a bamboo hoop? Well, the tiger's hoop is a sign of distinction."
"I wish the old woman would stop pounding. She makes my back ache to look at her. She has been making linen on a loom all day, and must be dreadfully tired."
"Did you notice the bell on it?"
"Yes. What was that for?"
"So that her lord and master may know when she stops working."
"There was a funeral to-day," says Eleanor; "the guns have been going since morning in the jungle, to keep the spirits off. What a misery it must be to believe in 'Nâts.'* That old woman there gave me a charm. I am always to wear it to keep the devils off. Do you think it will, Carol?" with a low laugh. "Or am I theirs already?"
"Don't, Eleanor," he cries, drawing her to him. "I cannot bear to hear you say such things."
She wriggles herself free, determined to tease him.
"But there are heaps of devils about," she declares, shaking her head; "or else why do they put up arches especially to keep them off—propitiate them, and prevent their entrance into the village? They have little bamboo huts like dolls' houses, and place food inside, that the devils may lodge and eat. It seems that the corpse to-day had a good time of it. They gave him a month's food, new gong and gun, a complete set of new clothes, and two or three gourds of Zoo—they are always drunk with that stuff. It is an awfully strong drink, though made from rice, which sounds innocent, doesn't it? Rice always reminds me of my bib-and-tucker days."
"It is rather like English cider, with the strength of whisky. But what a lot of information you pick up, little woman, while I am out shooting!"
"It terrifies me when you are away all day," she declares. "Then I feel lonely—deserted—afraid. Tigers and bears are such alarming things to picture you chasing, though you are accompanied by a troop of negroes."
Eleanor leans back in a low chair, gazing wistfully across the wild country. She can see the course of the Irrawaddy river, with its numerous rapids and picturesque cascades. It seems only the other day that she and Carol steamed up it, past Mandalay, Bhanio, and Myitkyina. She wishes they could travel on overland through the jade, amber, and ruby mines, but Carol fears for her, and prefers to stay in these more quasi-civilised regions.
A group of women and girls strikes her eye, carrying loads supported by a strap encircling their foreheads, after the curious fashion of Dundee fisherwomen.
The unmarried girls wear square-cut fringes and their hair hanging loosely at the sides to the shoulders, while the married women have it done up decorously on the head.
"I am glad I have not to carry loads like those poor creatures," says Eleanor softly; "yet perhaps an external load is better than an internal one. Sometimes, Carol, I remember that I once had a conscience. It just stirs and half wakes when I am quite alone. Often in the darkness I fancy I see Philip, or feel as if he were near me. I would sooner die a thousand deaths than meet his eye."
"Do not think of it, dearest; we have cut ourselves adrift from old associations for that purpose. There is nothing to remind you or trouble you."
"Nothing," replied Eleanor, "I am content, Carol. We have discovered an Eden—after the fall."
Eleanor is in a roving mood, and while Carol is engaged in the mild sport of pheasant shooting for a change, she wanders alone into the jungle to watch the children playing with large beans like marbles. Though she cannot understand what they say, she grasps the method of the game, watching it with amused interest. They are such queer little dusky creatures.
One boy among them especially attracts her attention. His face is strangely European, and his features noticeably different to those of his comrades. Yet his skin is dark and swarthy, there can be no mistaking the black blood in his veins.
Now and again Eleanor fancies she catches an English exclamation from his lips. She wishes she could join the children in their gambols, as in her girlhood at Copthorne. But they eye her suspiciously and sidle away when she approaches.
She wanders back disconsolately, wishing she knew more of the boy with the European face.
That very day her wish is satisfied. It is late in the afternoon, and Carol is still out. She is too blinded by love to resent his selfishness in leaving her so much alone, and wanders down to the river, singing from sheer lightness of heart.
She sees as she saunters along a trap set for a deer, and gives it a wide berth as she passes.
It consists of a noose fastened to the top of a pliant tree, which is bent down and pegged across a path leading down to the water. Thus it serves to entrap prey on the way to drink.
She has scarcely gone a hundred yards when a shriek rends the air, and turning simultaneously Eleanor sees a small boy trip over the noose, which, released from the peg, flies back with the full force of the tree, carrying him into the air with it.
She rushes up terror-stricken at the horrible sight. The screaming child is suspended far above her head, the cruel thongs cutting deeply into his flesh.
The sight puts energy and cat-like agility into her limbs. She climbs the tree with all the daring of her orchard days, tearing great rents in her dress, spurred on by the cries of the helpless victim. She creeps on hands and knees along the willowly bough, upon which he hangs till her weight combined with his brings the inevitable result. A crack, a crash, and the two fall together to the ground. Unharmed herself save for a few bruises and scratches, Eleanor releases the unfortunate child, raising his bleeding body tenderly in her arms, binding up the wounds with her handkerchief, and soothing his groans with kisses.
"Oh! dear," she says, "I wish I knew where you lived, you poor little darling."
To her intense surprise the boy replies:
"Up there," pointing feebly with an injured arm.
Then she sees for the first time he is the child with the European features.
"Will it hurt you if I carry you back?" asks Eleanor.
"Best try," answers the boy abruptly.
He is heavy for his age, but she staggers forward manfully, while the little aching head drops confidingly on her shoulder.
"You're awful pretty," he gasps at last, "and I am dropping no end of blood off my arm on your bodice. Oh! how my leg hurts. Guess I have broken it clean in two."
At every step Eleanor fears she must give in, the perspiration is standing out on her forehead, while her own wounds smart and ache.
"I am afraid I shake you terribly up this hill; would you like me to rest a moment?"
Eleanor hopes he will say yes, for her strength is giving out.
"Sit on that stone, I'm just dying," moans the little lad.
Eleanor eagerly assents, and moves him into a more comfortable position.
"My mother is white like you," he says at last, raising his head.
"Is she, dear? Are you better? Shall we go on?"
"Yes, please. We may meet father, he is ever so big and dark. I shall be big and dark too, all the good men are black."
"And the good women?" asks Eleanor, smiling in spite of her load.
"Oh! white of course, white all over like you and mother, hands, feet, everything."
Eleanor staggers on breathlessly up the hill, the boy seems to grow heavier at every step. She is nearly exhausted. He is like the weight of her sin, which increases with time.
One or twice she stumbles, the boy clutches her round the neck, fearing she will fall upon him, and his hands half choke her. She gasps for breath.
"Is it much farther?" she pants, turning sick and dizzy with the climb.
"No, there is my house, that hut ahead, see."
It has come in sight not a moment too soon, for Eleanor's arms are cramped and paralysed by supporting his body, her cheek pale with the heat, her heart fluttering spasmodically.
Only a few steps more, and she will have reached the haven of refuge. How foolish it would be to fail now.
Through sheer force of will she reaches the hut, and as the boy cries "Mother! mother!" she sinks exhausted in the entrance, still holding her suffering burden in her arms.
A woman rushes out, and takes her bleeding son from the stranger's embrace.
"He has been hurt," explains Eleanor faintly. "I carried him up the hill."
"Oh, you good soul!" cries the grateful mother, feeling her son's arms and legs; "and you're just as done up as can be. Come in, you poor young thing, and I'll give you a drink of Zoo to pull you round."
"No, thank you, I don't want anything. I am better now; but let me help you with the boy. We had better get his things off, and wash the wounds."
Together the two women tend the child. His leg is strained, not broken, and they put him to bed and watch him till he falls into a restless sleep.
Then their eyes meet, and the mother holds out her hand to Eleanor.
"God bless you!" she says; "if anything had happened to Tombo we should have broken our hearts. He is our only child."
Eleanor has recounted the history of the accident, leaving her share in the background, and making as light of it as possible.
She thinks, as she looks at the white woman, with her fair hair and sandy eyelashes, that something in the face brings an indistinct memory to her mind.
She glances curiously around the hut, adorned by the heads of animals.
"I must go," she says; "it is getting late."
"The boy is sleeping. I will walk home with you."
"No, stay by him. I shall be all right alone."
"They have shot a tiger, and will be all drunk in the village for a week. You are different to me. I must come."
"Thank you," says Eleanor. "I shall enjoy your companionship. May I ask your name?"
"Elizabeth Kachin. And yours?"
Mrs. Roche's eyes droop as she turns them away from the sleeping face of that innocent child.
Eleanor grows very fond of Elizabeth Kachin and her dusky son. Since she rescued him that day from the trap Tombo thinks there is no one like the beautiful Mrs. Quinton.
Big Tombo, his father, an educated man who has spent many years of his life in England, also looks upon Eleanor with the same reverence and admiration as little Tombo.
Carol makes fun of the sandy-haired woman wedded to a native, and laughs at Eleanor for being friends with her.
"I have not so many friends that I can afford to pick or choose," she says simply to Quinton, who is smoking in the verandah, his legs crossed, and a graceful air of abandon in his attitude.
She looks lovingly at his long, slim foot, remembering how it attracted her in old days.
"No, darling; I am afraid you must be getting bored to death in this beastly slow place."
A look of alarm steals over Eleanor's features. The distress in her voice is evident as she replies:
"Oh, no, Carol—are you?"
"I have plenty of sport," he says, watching the smoke wreath upwards; "it is different for me."
"And I have you," she answers tenderly; "that is all I want."
"Sweetest Eleanor," he drawls, letting her take his hand. "How easily you are satisfied!"
"I don't quite see that," she answers, puckering her forehead. "I have the only man I love here at my side, glorious scenery all round, I do just as I please, I come and go unquestioned, you have given me a horse to ride, and a house to inhabit, a heart to treasure——"
"Why do you put the heart last?"
She laughs at his question.
"Oh! merely by chance."
"Perhaps it is the least valuable," says Quinton, playing with her fingers.
"Don't be silly."
"I wish you were fond of sport, I would teach you to shoot."
"I cannot bear killing things. I really believe I should suffer as much as my victims."
"That would be very weak-minded of you."
"Perhaps, but I have a weak mind, you know. I told you that at Copthorne, when you swallowed up my will."
"That sounds as if I were a devouring monster, darling."
She is gazing before her and takes no notice of his remark.
"Copthorne!" she says at last. "What a long way off it seems."
"Yes," replies Quinton, "rather fortunate under the circumstances. Your good parents were eminently virtuous; I doubt if they would give me such a friendly welcome now. I say, Eleanor, don't you wish you had Giddy out here. She would wake us up. I should like to see her come in now, with that terrible purple hat, and the white cock's feathers all awry. How full she would be of gossip, and how funny!"
He laughs at the recollection of her odd sayings.
"But I don't want waking up," replies Eleanor. "It would be like a douche of cold water thrown rudely over you in a dream to see any face that reminded me of the past. I am sure we don't want Giddy in our paradise. It is far pleasanter without her!"
"You prefer Elizabeth Kachin and her black Tombo!" laughs Carol. "Do you know, Eleanor, you are the only white woman who would speak to her."
"I like them both; they do not bother me with questions."
"By the way, dear, I forgot to tell you Captain Stevenson and Major Short, two old pals of mine, are in these parts. They sent a mounted messenger to ask me to go and see them this afternoon. They don't know what I am doing here. Of course, I shall say 'sport,' that is only another word for 'love.'"
"The two make a bad combination, for some love is only sport to the fickle and untrue."
"How different to yours and mine, Eleanor," he murmurs tenderly. "I wish I could take you with me this afternoon, but it is a long, rough road, and—and——"
"You would rather your friends did not see me, Carol. Don't be afraid to say it. It is very natural. Besides," with a forced smile, "I am so wonderfully pretty, they might become madly enamoured, and kidnap me in these wilds."
There is no conceit in Eleanor's voice or manner as she speaks, but a spirit of cynicism which is new to her.
Quinton kisses her passionately.
"You are beautiful," he whispers.
"Yet you intend leaving me for several long hours! What are these men like?"
"Captain Stevenson is the dearest fellow on earth, and Major Short handsome enough to fascinate any woman. I assure you I am far too jealous to wish to introduce him. His eyes are soft and hazel, the sort that the feminine mind worships—adores! Hair dark and curling, with threads of grey. A smile that has worked destruction in the four quarters of the globe, and a heart so good and tender that he would not intentionally cause a fly a pang."
"I should like to meet him," sighs Eleanor.
"To quote your own sentiments, darling, it is pleasanter alone; we want no one in our paradise, neither Giddy Mounteagle, nor the handsome Major Short."
"Now you are vindictive and cross," she declares, as he draws her head down on his shoulder.
"There is my horse. Good-bye, little woman. I shall be back before nightfall."
She watches him ride away, waving from the verandah; he turns several times to kiss his hand.
Then she sinks back in a low chair, wondering how to kill time until he returns.
The sun sets when he is out of sight, and rises in all its glory at his presence. He is her idol. Her whole happiness and interest are absorbed in Quinton.
She sends her black servant Quamina to beg Mrs. Kachin to come and sit with her.
It will pass the afternoon to have someone to talk to.
Elizabeth gladly obeys the summons, for she thinks a great deal of her new white friend.
"How is young Tombo?" asks Eleanor, running out to meet Elizabeth, whom she caresses in her affectionately demonstrative manner.
"Oh; so well again, his arm is as good as ever, and he hardly runs stiff at all now."
"My husband has gone to visit two men from Burmah, and I felt terribly deserted and lonely. It is good of you to come, Mrs. Kachin."
"I am also glad of a companion," replies Elizabeth. "Big Tombo has gone to superintend the 'Jhooming' and the boy is with him."
"What is Jhooming?" asks Eleanor.
"Oh! don't you know, they cut down the trees once a year, and burn them when they are quite dry. Then plough the ground, ploughing in all the ash, and sow when the rain comes, scattering the seeds broadcast."
"What busy lives the natives lead! It makes me feel so idle," says Eleanor, stretching her arms. "Yet I love this beautiful country, and enjoy to sit and dream. My days are one long siesta; I am never really awake."
"Ah! you don't work in your home as I do. All this morning I was making clothing for little Tombo on my loom, yet I, too, am happy, Mrs. Quinton. Perhaps you wonder how it is that I married big Tombo. We met in England when I was quite a girl. He was the only honest man it had been my fate to know. I was an unfortunate child, nameless from my birth, yet loved honour and virtue more than anything on earth. My mother was always lenient and kind, but when I grew old enough to realise the wrong she had done me I abhorred her! My marriage released me from a hateful and unwholesome home. I was glad to leave the country in which I first learnt to despise the woman I called by the sacred name of 'mother.'"
Eleanor is pale to the lips, she trembles all over as she listens to Elizabeth.
"I sometimes hear from her now, but she knows my feelings towards her."
"Poor woman!" cries Eleanor, speaking suddenly as if compelled against her will. "You, in your quiet life, with big Tombo, cannot guess the temptations she may have faced. You judge her very harshly. She was kind to you, and it is your duty to love her. You prize virtue and honour, yet do not hesitate to hate and abhor your own flesh and blood."
"It is easy to dictate to others. But if you were to meet that woman, and knew her history, you would pull your skirts aside, for fear they might brush her in passing."
Eleanor shakes her head.
"Oh, no," she says sorrowfully. "I would take her by the hand, and call her 'Sister.'"
"Then you are the right sort of Christian," replies Elizabeth. "I cannot feel that way, because I suffered for her sin—Heaven only knows how bitterly!"
As Eleanor listens to Mrs. Kachin, she feels involuntarily drawn towards her by force of contrast. Their natures are so widely different, for Eleanor was ever lenient, kind-hearted, and forgiving, while Elizabeth is hard, determined, not easily swerved from a purpose.
"Where does your mother live?"
"I hardly know; she is a roving spirit, with no settled home. But her loveless old age is the penalty she must pay for a misused youth. Once she wrote and told me she had enough money laid by to come here if I would receive her."
"And you refused?"
"Oh! how could you!" cries Eleanor, her eyes flashing with indignation.
"I consider the way I have acted since I came to years of discretion is simply just retribution. There is a saying that justice begins next door. I have practised it on my nearest of kin."
"You must be very cruel."
Elizabeth smiles vaguely. Her smile is her only beauty. It lights up her stern face, and makes Eleanor forget that she has sandy eyelashes.
They talk together in the low verandah till long after Quinton should have been home.
"He promised not to stay more than an hour with his friends, and it is a two hours' ride," says Eleanor. "He left soon after one o'clock. It is nearly dark."
Elizabeth detects the anxiety in her tone.
"Oh! you know what men are, they are worse than women! The Major has probably a host of good stories, and the Captain is plying him with wine and some extra special cigars. Don't worry, my dear Mrs. Quinton, he is sure to be late."
She presses Eleanor's hand, and wishes her good-bye.
Then Mrs. Katchin hurries up the hill to her hut, where big Tombo is growling at her absence, and little Tombo getting into endless mischief, which only his mother's watchful eye can prevent.
Night has fallen, but still Eleanor waits on the verandah, with widely-opened eyes, staring along the zigzag path by which Carol rode away. She remembers he turned back to look at her three times, kissing his hand twice. What can have detained him? Surely he knows how nervous she is!
Eleanor rises and walks up and down distractedly, her face ashen pale, her figure trembling.
He has had an accident—she is certain of it. The road, he said was lonely and rough; it winds near a precipice, the loose stones and boulders roll down the slope of the hill and fall into the abyss.
Perhaps his horse has fallen a victim to disease upon the way, or he has been attacked by a savage troop and speared to death.
These thoughts are too horrible to be borne with equanimity; the stillness of night appals her, she can stand it no longer.
Summoning Quamina, she orders her horse to be saddled immediately, with the idea of flying to his aid. She loves him too well to fear the night, the dangers of that lone road, or her indifferent horsemanship! She would die sooner than sit at home when he might need assistance.
Her horse is the handsomest animal that Carol could buy. She has named him "Braye du Valle."
The black men stare wondrously as she mounts and rides out bravely into the night.
"Braye du Valle," she whispers, "we must find him if it costs our lives!"
In the meanwhile Quinton has bidden his friends good-bye, having stayed far later than he intended, talking over old times, and airing his favourite adventures.
It is dark, and he feels a pang of self-reproach at the thought of Eleanor.
Yet his heart is light, and he whistles as he turns his horse's head homewards.
He loses himself in thought, for Carol Quinton is an imaginative man. As far as his fancy is concerned, he is artist, author, poet, and actor. He creates pictures in his brain, dreams of immortal verse, invents a thousand thrilling anecdotes, and quaint love histories. His train of ideas is more that of a woman than a man.
The moon rises, and he watches it floating above him
Like one that had been led astray,
Through the heaven's wide pathless way.
But the soul of the poet, soaring in the high region of his fancies, is suddenly rudely shaken. His horse starts, throws up its head and snorts, then shies across the road, as a dark shadow blackens the white stretch of moonlit ground.
"Steady," murmurs Quinton, patting the animal's neck, which is damp with sudden terror.
A black figure comes out from the gloom as he speaks—a tall, masked man on horseback—and before Quinton realises his presence he is seized violently by the throat and dragged from his saddle. A hissing sound as of suppressed rage issues from the assassin's lips—he towers above Quinton, and is muscular and active. Carol is taken unawares, and therefore at a disadvantage. He is like a rat in the paws of a tiger, he can neither cry out nor speak, for the cruel fingers press with deadly force upon his windpipe, and he is flung backwards and forwards, shaken till his teeth rattle in his head and his eyes all but drop from their sockets.
The moon swims round in a sea of blood—he gasps, gargles, struggles.
The savage man in whose clutches he suddenly finds himself seems glorying in his power.
Quinton feels himself face to face with death: he is a child in the hands of this dark highwayman.
The thought rises suddenly to his fading senses:
"By night an Atheist half believes in God."
The terror of judgment is upon him—hell threatens. Through the black slits of the mask he faintly discerns the eyes of his tormentor, whose face is in such close proximity to his own that the hot breath of passion brushes his brow. They are the eyes of a devil, burning as coals of fire—glowing, scintillating. The broad white teeth of the man glisten as they press his lower lip; then he loosens his hold on Quinton's throat and gropes for his hand.
The two are fighting now like twin devils under the dark trees, through which the moonlight flits. They roll over in the dust, while Quinton breathes out curses, struggling for mastery. More than once he feels one finger of his left hand caught in the stranger's grasp, then, as with a cry of triumph which rends the air with hideous mirth, super-human strength seems to possess the masked man. He picks up Quinton in his sinewy arms, whirls him once wildly above his head, and drops him over a rock, down a bank—a fall of only a few feet, on to thick undergrowth below. Then leaping back into his saddle, he gallops at full speed towards the jungle, while Quinton lies gasping and shaking, cut and bleeding.
He rises dizzily—strange!—there are no bones broken, only the uncomfortable feeling of those hot fingers at his throat, and the giddy sensation from the violent shaking. He feels for his watch; it is still there. Some money fallen from his pocket lies loose on the wayside. Nothing apparently is stolen.
Then he looks down suddenly at his finger, the one twice captured in their struggle.
His cat's-eye ring has gone!
As Carol goes on through the night, fear is in his heart.
How easily the dark, vindictive, savage creature could have cast him wantonly into eternity, yet he stayed his hand. Evidently he had not desired Quinton's life, since he took nothing but a little band of gold, with a cat's-eye. Such a worthless prize—a woman's ring.
The scene is a puzzle to Carol Quinton, the mystery of it haunts him. In every shadow he sees a black mask, at the slightest sound his blood runs cold, the creaking of the boughs above are to him the echo of pursuing hoofs, and the cry of the parrot, that sinister yell which accompanied his fall. Even the stars are flashing eyes, the moon an enemy, and the stones devils.
Quinton is not a brave man; truth to tell, he is a coward. His whole system is suffering from the shock, while the long tramp he has taken in search of his horse, which strayed from the road, increased his nervous agitation.
His hands tremble as they hold the reins, his knees knock against his frightened horse, who in sympathy with his master, starts at every step, appearing to find his route peopled with spirits.
"What did it all mean—what could it mean?" he asks himself again and again.
The beating of his heart seems to Quinton as thunder on the air, which is heavy and oppressive, a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours!
Surely this can be no fancy—the slow tread of a sure-footed beast on the path before him. Carol quails and whitens to the lips. The moon passes behind the cloud—a second figure is at his side. He spurs his horse, and the frantic swish of his crop lays a deep weal on the animal's withers. It breaks into a gallop, throwing up the dust around and flying down a steep descent. He hears the hoofs following closely in the rear, someone is nearly upon him gaining inch by inch. His courage sinks—dies—he is white, perspiring, terrified, limp! His senses reel, he drops the reins, falling forward on his horse's neck. His fingers clutch the mane, while a woman's voice cries behind:
The horse recognises Eleanor's soft tones, and halts, just in time for Quinton to fall unharmed, swooning to the earth.
Eleanor springs off "Braye du Valle," sinking on her knees in terror by the helpless form. She sees the bleeding scratches on his face and hands, but feels his heart beat, knowing that he still lives.
"Oh, Carol," she murmurs, pillowing his head on her breast, "what is the matter?"
He stirs faintly, a convulsive shudder runs through his limbs.
"I am here, Carol," she continues tenderly; "I, Eleanor!"
He starts up, staring at her in the moonlight.
"But the man," he gasps, "the masked man who followed me only a moment since. What has happened? What has become of him?"
"I followed you down the slope. I came out to find you, fearing you had met with some accident on the road. Just as I was approaching and about to speak, you dashed past me, and then——"
"What then?" interpolates Carol impatiently.
"I suppose you fainted, for I saw you roll from your saddle as the horse drew up at the sound of my voice."
"You ought not to have come," says Carol, somewhat harshly, but Eleanor's blinded senses, dulled under the influence of her love, heed not his ill-temper.
He rises surlily, brushing some blood off his forehead.
He mounts Eleanor upon her horse without a word.
"Why are you so late?" she asks.
"I was attacked on the road by a madman, and half killed," he replies between his teeth.
"Oh, Carol!" she exclaims, her face blanching, "how terrible!"
"Yes, it was rather bad."
Then he describes the scene graphically as they ride on side by side, till Eleanor is shivering with horror.
"Strangely enough," he says, "the only thing I lost in the struggle was that cat's-eye ring you gave me. I think the man imagined it was something of value."
"Is that so?" replies Eleanor slowly, staring before her into the moonlight. "I would rather anything had gone but that."
"I am sorry, too; I shall miss it."
There is a pause.
"You are ill, exhausted!" murmurs Eleanor sympathetically.
"Oh, no; don't worry. But I wish I knew who the devil that man was."
"Captain Stevenson wants to give me an Irish terrier," says Carol, a few mornings later. "I think it will be well to have a dog about the place, especially after what happened the other night."
"Yes, indeed; I should accept it by all means."
"I will ride over and see him early, and get back by daylight."
Eleanor picks up a book, leaning back wearily. She is growing accustomed to his absences. The Eleanor who was so difficult to please with Philip Roche will stand anything from Carol Quinton.
Her one idea is to yield to his every whim, regard his every wish. To live only to please.
He bends over her. She is reading Shakespeare for the first time.
"What is honour?—a word," she quotes aloud. "What is that word, honour?—air."
He kisses the curling hair on her forehead.
"Good-bye, my love. You shall not be alarmed this time."
"Come back soon, Carol."
She does not rise to kiss her hand or wave as he rides away.
She is beginning to see with a woman's shrewd instinct that he treats her with more deference when she feigns indifference.
She is dreaming over her book, and her idle fingers turn the pages till they come to Macbeth. By chance her eyes fall on five familiar words, of whose origin she was ignorant.
"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow!"
A low laugh ripples from her lips, she rises and tosses the volume aside. They have no power to frighten her now, for the to-morrows mean Carol, life, love.
Here in this beautiful country she is passing a charmed existence. Nature in all its majesty now appeals to her senses, ravishes her eye, while she, lovely in her picturesque surroundings, feels a goddess of the east.
She hears the sounds of hoofs below, and leans over the balustrade, a bright smile parting her lips, the sunlight streaming on her hair, looking quite childlike in her soft white gown, which clings around her girlish figure.
Two men ride up: one tall, fair, and emaciated in appearance; the other dark, and indescribably handsome.
"Does Mr. Quinton live here?" asks the fair man, raising his hat.
"Yes," replies Eleanor, "but he is out now, won't you come in?"
The men hesitate and exchange glances.
"Are you Captain Stevenson and Major Short?" looking at them through her long lashes, with half-veiled curiosity.
They reply in the affirmative, and Eleanor informs them that Carol is already on his way to their encampment, at K——.
"But I am all alone, and very dull," says Eleanor plaintively. "Do rest and refresh yourselves."
She sends for a man to take their horses, and receives them in the verandah with a gracious air.
"May I ask to whom we have the pleasure of speaking?" murmurs Captain Stevenson.
"Oh! didn't I introduce myself?" says Eleanor with a slight flush. "How stupid of me! I am Mrs. Quinton, you know, or rather you don't know," laughing spontaneously. "The fact is, Carol and I made a runaway match against the wishes of my relations—very shocking, was it not? But I am not going to appal you with domestic details. A whisky and soda is more to the point. Is not this an ideal spot?"
The visitors hardly notice the surrounding scenery. They are looking at the lovely features of their blushing young hostess.
An Irish terrier has followed them hot and panting into the verandah.
"I have brought the dog I promised your husband," says Captain Stevenson. "He is a fine little fellow, and game for anything."
"It is extremely good of you," cries Eleanor, catching the dog up in her arms, and feeding him with biscuits.
She puts both the strangers at their ease at once. It is long since she has had anyone fresh to talk to, and the time flies, for they all three have much to say. Eleanor will not let them go.
"You must stay and lunch with me," she murmurs persuasively. "Carol will be so angry if I don't keep you, and the days are so long without him."
"I can't think how it was we did not meet if he rode our way," declares Major Short, when lunch is over, and Eleanor has begged them to smoke.
"Nor I; but he must be home early."
"Is that your guitar?" asks Major Short.
"Yes, but unfortunately I cannot play it. Carol has taught me a few chords, but I have no music."
"Short is the man to sing," Captain Stevenson vouchsafes.
Eleanor seizes the instrument, and holds it out to him with a winning smile.
"Do give us one little song!" she pleads.
He takes the guitar with a kind look from his exquisite brown eyes, and strokes the strings, it seems so gently, that they whisper like the wind in the trees.
"What will you have?"
Eleanor leans forward with her chin between her hands, gazing at him intently.
"Anything you like."
"This road," says Captain Stevenson, leaning over the verandah, "is the road to Mandalay. It seems impregnated with the spirit of Rudyard Kipling."
"That shall be the song," says Major Short.
Captain Stevenson half sits on the balustrade, with the terrier beside him gazing up wistfully into his eyes. Eleanor retains her intent attitude, as a voice more beautiful and mellow than any she has ever heard swells out on the hot air.
Eleanor is moved almost to tears by the magnetism of that wonderful sound, thrilling her very being, for she is highly emotional.
The tune is soft, and the well-known words to the familiar melody take pathos from their rough uncultured sentiment.
She remembers once hearing a man recite the words at a musical "At home."
People had cried then; they knew not why, save that his elocution was exquisite, and he breathed it in an undertone:
By the old Moulmein Pajoda lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burmah girl a-setting, and I know she thinks o' me,
For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldiers, come you back to Mandalay."
Eleanor and Captain Stevenson join in the chorus softly. It is sung slowly, like a low wail, Major Shore's clear notes rising above the rest:
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out er China, 'crost the bay.
As they sing, Carol rides up the hill, and the music falls on his astonished ear. Singing in their verandah—how can that be?
Eleanor is the first to catch sight of him, but does not speak or move, though Quinton's presence always quickens her pulses.
The chords of the guitar take up the refrain, and Captain Stevenson, turning, espies Carol.
"When the mist was on the rice fields, an' the sun was droppin' low,
continues the rich voice.
"Why, there's Quinton!" exclaims Captain Stevenson, breaking into the melody. "My dear fellow, how was it we missed on the road?"
"I can't imagine," he replies; "I suppose I took a different path." His eyes shift uneasily, a flush rises to his brow.
"Your wife has been most kind and hospitable," declares Major Short, laying down the guitar.
"I am delighted she kept you."
"We brought the dog. He has already attached himself to Mrs. Quinton. I assure you at lunch his preference for her was most marked; he wouldn't look at us."
"Cupboard love, eh? I suppose she fed him."
"Well, yes, I should rather think so, he will not require anything more for some time."
"I am afraid," says Quinton, "that I interrupted a concert. You all looked most Bohemian and enjoying the dolce far niente stage of existence."
"It was too bad to break off in the middle of your song, Major Short," Eleanor murmurs, seating herself beside him and taking up the guitar. "I wish you could teach me the accompaniment, for I do know a few notes vaguely, and though I have never learned to sing I can croon a little."
"It really is not difficult," Major Short assures her. "I will send you the song if you like."
"Thanks, but I cannot read music, only I have rather a good ear."
So he strikes the chords one by one very slowly, while Eleanor repeats them.
"I should never have picked it out by myself. Now I shall be able to sing to Carol in the evenings."
"Are they not delightful?" says Eleanor, as the two men ride away. "I have quite enjoyed to-day, Carol."
"I believe," muttered Major Short as they turned out of sight, "I believe that fellow Quinton lied to his wife. Do you think for a moment he went our way? There is only one road that is fit to ride on, that he could have gone by; besides, it was written on his face when he saw us."
"You are too sharp, Short, my boy," laughed the good-natured Captain Stevenson. "But there is something wrong with Quinton undeniably. I wonder who the little woman is, and where she came from?"
Major Short rides on in silence, he is thinking of the little woman's smile.
That night, as Quinton smokes in his low cane chair, Eleanor brings the guitar, running her lithe fingers over the strings.
"I say, Eleanor," he begins, "you need not have let out you could not read music. It was awfully gauche of you. You don't want to advertise your farm origin."
"I am so sorry, darling," she answers penitently.
Again she strikes the cords, this time hesitatingly, for her hand trembles.
The spicy garlic smells are wafted on the night air.
Eleanor breaks suddenly into song, as if inspired by the oriental atmosphere:
"When the mist was on the rice fields, an' the sun was droppin' low,
She gets her little banjo, an' she'd sing "Kullalo-lo.
With her arms upon my shoulder, an' 'er cheek agin my cheek,
We use ter watch the steamers, and the 'hathis "pilin'" teak.
Her voice travels far in the darkness; she feels as if singing to some unseen audience—perchance spirits peopling that road to Mandalay.
The dog at her feet starts up suddenly, bristling all over, growling, barking!
"Did you hear anything?" asks Carol nervously.
"I fancied a rustle came from the bushes."
"Perhaps danger is stalking abroad to-night," mutters Carol, throwing his cigar aside.
The dog refuses to be silenced, while Eleanor, holding him by the collar, tries to soothe his petulance.
But Carol goes indoors.
Eleanor notices after that night Carol becomes nervous and irritable.
His absences are more frequent, but whereever he goes he takes the dog with him for protection.
Though only a rough-haired terrier, it seems to guard him; yet the constant recurrence of apparently reasonless growls and barks startles and annoys him.
Eleanor often sits with Elizabeth Katchin when Quinton is out, and wonders what she would do without the companionship of this one white woman.
That day she is walking up the hill towards her friend's hut, when she meets young Tombo, who rushes up and seizes her skirts.
"Oh, do come!" he cries, dragging her along; "something awful bad is going on at home. There is a stranger at our door crying just dreadful; and mother's red in the face, sayin' no end of angry words, stampin', fumin', and wringing her hands. The stranger wanted to see me and speak; but mother just hustled me out at the back, and tells me to go and play beans in the jungle. But the boys are not there. Quartey M'Ba is takin' care of his father, who's dead drunk with Zoo, and little Rangusaw Mymoodelayer is workin' with his uncle. It's sure to be all right if you come, Mrs. Quinton. Mother 'll calm down when she sees who I've brought."
He runs eagerly before her, while Eleanor, utterly at a loss to comprehend the nature of the trouble, approaches Elizabeth's homestead in some trepidation.
"I'll have none of you," Mrs. Kachin's hard voice is heard exclaiming. "Did I not write it plain in black and white? Didn't I repeat it three times over on the same page, twice underlined? Am I not old enough to speak for myself, to know my own will? Begone, or I'll tell you some home truths which were best not uttered from my lips."
"Oh, little Beth, little Beth!" moans a pleading voice, "the child I nursed and loved. Can it be you that speaks so hard, that turns me from the door? Let me see the child before I go—the sturdy dark boy who was born to you. Beth, have some pity, some mercy on my misery! It has cost me nearly my little all to come out to you, for I thought your heart would soften when you saw your mother's face."
She breaks off into bitter sobbing and sinks on the step.
Eleanor stands like one paralysed listening to the quarrel, while Tombo hides behind her skirts, clinging to her fearfully.
Her face flushes with shame for Elizabeth, and pity for this stricken woman. Her eyes flash scorn on Mrs. Kachin, as she turns and raises the stranger from her attitude of humility and degradation.
"Your daughter's virtue and pride are things to be despised, accursed," she says, "when bound in such an armour of harshness and cruelty."
The weeping woman lifts her head, and her eyes meet Eleanor's.
The two start involuntarily. The scene of a railway carriage rushes suddenly before their vision, the fragments of a torn photograph, the name on the label of Eleanor's dressing bag.
"Mrs. Roche!" gasps the stranger.
That word here. It stuns, petrifies her! The very sound of it is as a blow.
A flock of four or five hornbills fly above their heads, making their noises like an express train through the air. As they fade from sight Eleanor fancies the train has stopped at the little platform of Copthorne.
The shrill cry of the jungle fowl, crowing like bantams on the old farmland at home, seem to repeat the word "Roche, Roche!"
"What can I do?" asks the woman wildly, grasping Eleanor's arm. "I am here, and Beth has cast me out, I have nowhere to lay my head."
"Come with me," says Eleanor slowly, deliberately, looking from the faded features of the withered woman to Mrs. Kachin's contracted mouth. "I will give you rest and shelter."
"You will regret it if you take her under your roof!" cries Elizabeth, slamming the door.
"May the good Samaritans of this world do the same for you, Mrs. Roche, when you are in trouble," says the weary wanderer, as Eleanor leads her faltering footsteps down the hill.
She is too excited by the strange coincidence of this, their second meeting, to wonder whether she is binding a burden on her back, or offering a refuge thoughtlessly without consulting Carol. She only looks pityingly at the towzled hair and drawn face of her guest, pressing her hand sympathetically as they enter the verandah together. "I am not Mrs. Roche here," falters Eleanor; "you must call me Mrs. Quinton."
The woman looks searchingly, sadly, into Eleanor's eyes.
"I see," she answers slowly.
"And your name?" asks Eleanor.
"Palfrey Blum. I am Mrs. Blum."
What an odd introduction, what a puzzling fate.
Carol is deeply annoyed at his return to discover the guest.
"What on earth you want to bring that hideous creature with a head of hay here for I can't imagine," he exclaims. "You must shunt her as soon as possible, Eleanor; I can't have you picking up waifs and strays, and turning our home into a sort of infirmary."
"I don't know what to do, it is a most pitiable story."
"Oh! dash the story!" interpolates Carol. "I shouldn't mind if she were not so confoundedly ugly."
"I could not help it, darling," says Eleanor tearfully. "I did not think you would object."
"Well, now she is here, what are you going to do with her?"
"I don't know."
Carol stalks up and down the room with his hands in his pockets.
Eleanor's spirits sink.
"I will see what I can do, dearest," she says at last.
Carol turns, seeing her beautiful eyes moist and sorrowful.
He gathers her into his arms and kisses her suddenly.
"Get rid of the old ghost," he whispers. "I can't endure to see a relic of faded beauty standing decayed before my eyes. A woman has no right to grow old, it is an unpardonable offence, and takes away one's appetite having to look at her at meals."
"How unchristian you are, Carol!" she says, smiling under his caress.
The following morning Mrs. Blum seems refreshed, and looks less careworn after her night's sleep.
"There is one thing I desire more than all else on earth," she confides to Eleanor, "and that is to hold my grandson in my arms, and kiss him once."
"I have been again to Elizabeth, but she will not listen to me. Perhaps I might get the boy to you without her knowledge, or big Tombo may possibly bring him. There were tears in his eyes to-day when I was pleading with Elizabeth."
"Ah! Big Tombo is not so bitter against me as his wife. He is a good man, and charitable."
So Eleanor watches for Mr. Kachin to pass down the path to the valley below, where the rice is cultivated.
When she sees him she runs out. He stops and bows. Eleanor gives him her hand.
"Ah, Mrs. Quinton," he says, "we are deeply indebted to you for your kindness to poor Mrs. Blum. Even my wife in her righteous indignation owns that. I should personally be very glad to do anything I could for her, only Elizabeth is so determined. Can you advise me?"
Eleanor thinks a moment.
"She must be sent back again, I suppose. She regrets bitterly having come."
"Has she any money?"
"Oh, yes, but hardly enough to take her home; she relied on living with you and Elizabeth. I shall help her all I can, and perhaps you will also."
Big Tombo works hard, and he has a good store of hoardings laid by. He is an intensely generous man, and but for his wife's watchfulness would give away all that he has to others.
Eleanor inspires him to make an offer.
"I will pay her fare to England," he says. "It will save Elizabeth the pain of coming in contact with her. After all, she is my mother-in-law. It is the least that I can do."
"You are most good and kind," replies Eleanor, "and she would be deeply grateful if you came in now and told her this yourself. She feels her daughter's slight acutely."
Big Tombo bows assent.
The beautiful Mrs. Quinton's word is law.
Mrs. Blum trembles with emotion as her eyes fall upon him. She listens to what he says with tears in her eyes and a blessing in her heart.
"You are a good son," she says, taking his great brown hands between her withered palms, and pressing them to her lips. "I love you for your care of Elizabeth—for the happy home in which she lives. When she speaks of me harshly tell her to think of me as one dead. We reverence the names of those who are underground, even though we despise them during their lives. I shall never forget what you have done for me."
Her voice is choked with emotion.
"If—if you don't mind," she falters, "I should like to look once on your child before I go."
Tombo bends his head. He has not the heart to refuse her.
That afternoon, he sends the boy, without Elizabeth's knowledge, to carry some bananas to Eleanor.
"Come in, my dear," she says kindly, as the little boy presents the fruit. "There is a lady who wishes to see you."
She takes his small hand and leads him into the room.
Mrs. Blum rushes forward with a cry, and flinging her arms round the child's neck, kisses him again and again.
Then perching him on her knee, she looks at him intently, murmuring: "Beth's boy! Beth's son!"
"You are the lady who got scolded," says Tombo gravely. "Why was my mother so angry with you?"
"It is not polite to ask questions," puts in Eleanor hastily.
"But she ought not to be cross," continues Tombo, "because you must be good, you're white, like Mrs. Quinton, and mother never rows her. Who are you?" placing his tiny fingers against her cheek, and stroking it gently.
"I am your granny, dear, and you will never see me again. But you must think of me sometimes, and remember that I loved you."
She strains him to her heart passionately.
"You're crying!" says Tombo. "That's naughty. Oh! don't cry," shaking her in a sudden frenzy of fear. "Granny, Granny!"
Children always dread to see their elders give way to any emotion, and the little fellow's terror brings back Mrs. Blum's composure.
"There, darling, see, I am smiling," she says, her faded eyes lighting up through a mist of tears.
"I think it is very nice to have a Granny, and I want to keep her always."
"That is impossible, dearest. You must be a good boy, and not ask mother questions."
Eleanor brings him sweets and cakes, which he readily devours, sharing them with the dog, who jumps up, startling Mrs. Blum, on whose knees young Tombo is seated.
"You must trot home soon," says Eleanor, glancing nervously at the time, and fearing every moment lest Elizabeth should sweep in like a tragedy queen, and snatch her offspring from Mrs. Blum's arms.
"Yes, soon," sighs his grandmother, holding him as if she will never let him go. She detaches a small gold locket from her chain, in which is a lock of Elizabeth's hair.
"You may keep this darling," she murmurs, "to remember Granny by."
She looks tenderly at the pale, flaxen lock of hair, which grew on little Beth's baby forehead.
"Don't lose it, Tombo, for it is very precious—one of Granny's dearest treasures. Mother will recognise it and know the hair inside. Tell her you must keep it always, because she played with it as a little girl."
The boy gazes in awe at the locket.
"Didn't it cost a lot of money?" he asks.
Mrs. Blum smiles at the remark.
"You are an odd child," she says, placing him on the ground.
"Have you nothing you can give Granny?" whispers Eleanor in his ear.
Tombo draws a small whistle from his pocket and carries it with an air of triumph to Mrs. Blum.
"This is for you, Granny. It is all my own, so don't be afraid. Quartey M'Ba gave it to me for a dead 'minah' I found in the jungle."
She takes the little whistle tremblingly.
"Granny will wear it on her chain," she says, "in the place of her locket, she will keep it quite as carefully."
Then she kisses the child, and pushes him from her, covering her face with her hands that she may not see him go.
Eleanor leads Tombo away, and watches him run down the hill—he is clasping the gold locket safely in both hands.
Mrs. Blum has departed blessing Eleanor, and pouring such overwhelming gratitude into her ears that solitude is a welcome relief.
"Poor soul," she thinks. "Shall I ever come to that?"
A step is heard on the verandah, the rustle of a dress, and Elizabeth Kachin stands before her.
She is paler than of yore, her eyes a trifle softer. The hard lips part in greeting, she takes Eleanor by both hands.
"You are a good woman," she says, with an admiring glance. "I cannot tell you how high your great charity has placed you in my esteem and regard. To think you actually laid aside all your natural feelings of repulsion and harboured such a woman out of charity."
"Merely an act of plain humanity," replies Eleanor.
"Nevertheless, I could not do it, even to my own mother. To be in contact with what is sinful is abhorrent to me. Still, I am not blind to your great kindness and self-sacrifice. Tombo and I both wish to thank you."
Eleanor's heart swells at the words—to be thought good, noble, charitable. What a blessed thing it is! She realises how deeply she still values public opinion, which she has cast to the winds in her reckless love for Carol. Elizabeth, by her words of praise, endears herself to Eleanor, in spite of her late behaviour to the poor outcast. It is well to be looked up to and to be believed in. Then the galling thought creeps into her elated brain:
"You have no right to this approbation. Elizabeth is a just woman, clothed in that pitiless virtue which tramples down the weak. You are deceiving her and accepting what is not your due. You may be foolish, wild, mistaken, Eleanor; you may have ruined your husband and yourself; but you are not a hypocrite."
She realises in a moment all it will cost her to lose her friend's respect, to see the look of scorn in Elizabeth's eye, and watch her turn away as from one polluted.
For the moment it seems too hard, but Eleanor pulls herself together and sets her teeth.
She walks across to the door with a steady step, her slim young figure drawn up to its full height, her head tossed back, her cheeks aflame.
Elizabeth watches in mute surprise. Then Eleanor breaks the silence, flings open the door, and cries with outstretched hand pointing to the hill:
"Go! I, too, am a wicked woman!"
From the moment those fatal words were uttered: "Go! I, too, am a wicked woman!" the scales fall from Elizabeth's eyes.
How natural it seems to her now, the so-called Mrs. Quinton's act of sympathy.
But what she does not know, nor can ever guess, is the supreme effort that confession costs Eleanor. It is wrung from her lips through sheer force of will, and as Mrs. Kachin obeys the command, and with head held proudly aloft, passes out into the blinding sunlight, Eleanor receives her first slight since leaving England.
The cup is bitter, it takes away her breath. She stands in the doorway gasping, blinded by the glaring light of day. A victim at the shrine of truth, self condemned, self accused.
It is thus that Carol finds her, gazing tragically at the departing figure of Elizabeth Kachin.
"What's up?" he asks, seeing her distress.
"I have told Elizabeth," she says slowly, "what I am."
Quinton bites his lips with annoyance.
"I should not have thought even you could have committed such an egregious act of folly!"
"I could not help myself. Elizabeth thought me so good, so different, and her words seared my conscience. Ah! you smile, no wonder. It ought to be dead by rights, long ago."
"You poor little thing," he murmurs tenderly. "But it was very silly, and another time do not let a few miserable scruples overrule your better judgment. After all, Elizabeth is no great loss, but it is always unwise and unnecessary to give yourself away. There! I have done my lecture, come and kiss me."
She flies into his arms.
"It is terrible when you are annoyed with me, Carol. I should like you to think everything I do or say perfection. But then we cannot have all we want in life, and especially such a delightful life as ours. Do you know, however deeply you love, however constant you may prove, you can never realise your ideal. It exists alone in the realms of fancy; it is as unsubstantial as a dream—in fact, it is a dream!"
"Have I disappointed you then?" he asks, with a wounded look.
"Oh, no," raising her eyebrows at the bare idea. "I meant it just the other way—that I have failed to please you in everything. An ideal has no fault, and I appear full of errors. An ideal is something good, holy, perfect. I am bad, unreasonable, foolish."
"You certainly have a way of making a fellow feel a cur without meaning it."
"Have I?" says Eleanor simply.
"Do you ever long to be back in London?" asks Quinton suddenly.
"No—a thousand times no! It is a city of destruction, a hell of iniquity, Satan and the Savoy, his satellites Giddy Mounteagle, and——"
"Carol," with deep reproach in her tone, "though my life here with you is one which the 'Elizabeths' of Society shun and condemn, I believe, in the peaceful atmosphere, the blessed quiet, and sweet unfretful days, I have been a better woman. When I think of the daily quarrels in Richmond, the frivolous worldly conversations of Giddy and her set, it soothes all suspicion of regret in my heart. Love is my only law, and this is described as chief among virtues."
"Then you are happy. I have brought some solace and light into your days, Eleanor? If I died to-morrow, or was lost from sight, you would look back and say: 'He gave me my dearest hours, my most treasured memories. He brought me from the slough of despond to the sunshine of the east.'"
"Yes," she murmurs, quoting her favourite song:
"If you've heard the East a-callin',
You won't never 'eed naught else."
She snatches up her guitar with the light laugh of a girl.
"No, you won't 'eed nothin' else, but them spicy garlic smells,
An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees, an' the tinkly temple bells."
"Come out for a ride," says Carol, "now it is cooler."
Eleanor's face brightens, her eyes glow. He goes so frequently alone, never even telling her the direction he has taken, and answering shortly when questioned. His suggestion meets with her highest approval.
"We will go by the jungle," she says. "You know my favourite road; not past Elizabeth's hut, since her doors will be closed to me henceforth. I shall miss her friendship when I am alone, but you must not leave me so often now, and we will ask that nice Major Short and Captain Stevenson to come and see us again."
"So you are fond of society still," says Quinton smiling, "though you denied it just now."
"Two congenial spirits are not 'society,'" she replies, "That word comprises people in a bulk. But here are the horses. Doesn't Braye du Valle look splendid? I hope if I died you would let him drag me to my grave."
"Don't be gruesome," says Carol.
"Oh! we must take the dog. Where is he? Do go and find him, dear."
"He is such a bothering little beast, we shall be better without him," protests Quinton. "Yesterday he nearly frightened my horse over a precipice, flying into the bushes and fighting with some wild animal. I don't know what it was, but he came out bitten and bleeding. He limped home, leaving a track behind him. Something big rushed away, I shot at it but did not hit it. I don't know how the dog escaped with his life."
"But he is all right to-day, and I want to take him, he is always so busy and amusing," Eleanor persists. "Besides, such a plucky little beggar ought not to be coddled. I think you will find him in my room."
Quinton goes unwillingly. The dog and its vagaries have got on his nerves, though he does not care to own it.
As Eleanor is waiting without she hears the sound of a horse behind, and, turning quickly, is surprised to see a stranger riding up the hill. A tall, handsome woman well developed, with portly shoulders and large hands. She is riding an immense charger, and whistling gaily. At a second glance Eleanor sees that this masculine young woman is strikingly attractive, her style distinctly original, her figure, though large, splendidly proportioned. She has shiningly white teeth under her curling lips—full, red, and smiling. Her eyes are large, dark, and brilliant, flashing like twin stars under a level brow, with black, almost bushy eyebrows.
Her complexion is rich and clear, her hair braided in masses under a man's hat. A gun slung over her shoulder gives her a sporting appearance.
She looks curiously at Eleanor's fragile beauty—the contrast between them is marked.
The whistle dies on the stranger's lips, she sets her mouth, averts her head, lashes her steed, and gallops by—never halting till out of sight of the slim woman on Braye du Valle.
"I wonder who she can be?" thinks Eleanor, watching the departing figure so intently that she never notices Carol return with the dog till he speaks:
"What are you looking at?"
His eyes follow the direction of her gaze, but discern only a cloud of dust in the distance.
"A stranger," cries Eleanor excitedly, "a white woman riding alone."
"Really! What was she like?"
"Big, and bold, and handsome. The sort of 'knock you down' woman who balances weights at music-halls in tights. Giddy and Bertie took me once to a box at the Empire; she reminded me of the strong lady in spangles. A magnificent creature, like a splendid animal."
"Oh!" ejaculates Quinton.
"Couldn't you find out who she is, Carol; I would love to know? She gave me such an odd look from her great brave eyes, then, to my astonishment, galloped madly away as if I were going to eat her. She was armed, too, so need not have been afraid, though I don't look much like a savage, do I?"
"I can't see that we need trouble about her."
"She raised my curiosity."
"Simply because of her good looks."
"She was the strangest woman I ever saw. I should like to know more of her."
Quinton jags his horse's mouth angrily, and, calling the dog, rides forward to stop the discussion.
"He has no thought for any woman but me," mentally ejaculates Eleanor, as she follows on Braye du Valle.
She is perfectly satisfied with her lot as she rides beside him, gazing at his handsome profile.
Some sombre-hued birds on the ground fly into the air as they approach. The transformation from dark feathers to brilliant yellow plumage as they spread their wings in flight is pleasing to the eye.
"I love the golden oriole," says Eleanor, "they look like a flash of sunlight. The Eastern birds are very beautiful."
As she speaks there is a low growl from behind.
Simultaneously Eleanor and Carol turn in their saddles, looking sharply at the dog, and then to the thick growth towards which he is stealing, his tail between his legs and his head down.
"I believe that dog is cracked," says Eleanor, calling him back sharply. "I always feel as if some evil spirit were near us when he behaves like that."
"I told you how it would be if we brought him."
"Let us see what he will do."
The dog has taken no heed of her call, but crouches nearer the bushes, bristling all over. Then suddenly he makes a dive into their midst, disappearing from view.
This is followed by a series of shrill barks—the sound as of a dog fighting for its life—a skirmish—a hideous yell—and then—silence.
"Something has killed him!" whispers Eleanor under her breath.
"We had better get on," replies Quinton; "it may be some dangerous beast."
"What! ride off, and perhaps leave the wretched dog mangled and maimed to crawl away and starve? Carol! what are you thinking of?"
She springs to the ground, flings him her reins, and before he realises what she is going to do, rushes into the bushes after her pet.
"Eleanor, are you mad?" he thunders, already picturing her devoured by some fierce beast.
It is a moment of horrible suspense. Then she emerges, her face scratched by the low boughs, bearing tenderly the limp body of the terrier, torn and bleeding.
"He is quite dead," she says sorrowfully, tears standing in her eyes. "I can see the marks of teeth on his throat."
"Poor little beggar! Do you know you too might be dead at this moment for the sake of recovering the lifeless body of a dog? You must be off your head, Eleanor, to do such an utterly insane thing. Whatever were you thinking of?"
"I was excited—my blood was up. I am like that," she answers apologetically.
They ride silently home.
"We shall miss him," sighs Eleanor at last.
"Who? The dog?"
"Yes. We must let Captain Stevenson know."
"I wonder what animal killed him?"
"I saw nothing; only I fancy I heard a rustle in the trees to my right, and the sound of a horse's hoofs scampering towards the jungle. It may have been only imagination, or perhaps the stalwart lady with the fine eyes was hovering near us."
Quinton's face blanches. He turns to her sharply:
"If you did imagine it, I wish you would not romance."
Eleanor is sorry she has told him, since he appears anxious and uncomfortable. He has never been quite the same since his wrestle with the masked man. He is easily startled and alarmed. She blames herself inwardly for want of discretion, and reassures him with a smile.
"Oh! it was nothing, dearest; if anyone had been riding I must have seen him—I mean—her."
Eleanor knows this is not the case, but seeing Carol's relief at the words, does not regret them.
"We must expect adventures now and again," she continues cheerfully, trying to throw off her depression.
"I shall never forget that night," says Carol, "when I rode away from you in the dark. I did wish I was on Charing Cross Station."
"It was too bad of me; I might have had the sense not to pursue you, sheer idiotcy on my part."
"Has it ever struck you, Eleanor, to wonder how long we shall go on living in this out-of-the way hole?"
She catches her breath.
"No, Carol. I am quite contented to be here, though I suppose in time you will weary of the place, and we shall move elsewhere. Yours is rather a roving spirit, I fear, never happy for long in one spot. I feel rooted to this restful retreat; but directly you tire of it, only say the word, and I will follow you to the end of the world. We have our home here, and there is plenty of sport for you, so I expect we shall jog along for a while!" with a feeble attempt at a laugh. Any signs of discontent on Carol's part fill her with vague dread and suspense.
"Would it not seem strange," he continues, "to go back to England and be respectable? Imagine yourself in a prim little village, posing as a good young widow, playing Lady Bountiful to the poor, and being called on by the county magnates, while I lived a virtuous bachelor life in the dreary precincts of Clifford's Inn."
"Apart! Us apart!" gasps Eleanor.
"My love, I was only 'supposing.' But isn't the idea ludicrous, quite too funny and absurd? You romanced first, I am only following your lead. I have heard respectability termed 'the curse of pleasure.' It kills enjoyment, breeds hypocrisy, fosters discontent, revolutionises Bohemia!"
Eleanor dislikes his flippancy. The picture he has drawn bewilders her. The thought of life without Carol is hideous, impossible. Her usual spirits flag.
"Why are you so dull and down, darling?"
"You make me so!"
"It seems, Eleanor, you can never take a joke."
All the glamour of her present happiness has faded under the saddening influence of Carol's "joke!" But she will not own it is that which distresses her.
"I do not see an animal I know and care for bitten to death every day, and that poor little dog was so attached to me. I wish I had given him the extra biscuit he begged for this morning. I told him he was greedy, and hid it away."
She goes sadly into the house and dresses for dinner in a dainty robe of white muslin cut low at the neck, for Quinton's benefit.
The sudden necessity for looking beautiful, and making herself pleasant and fascinating, comes over her like a nightmare. Her throat is parched. Her temples burn.
The gown is soft and clinging, the effect fairylike and picturesque. Quinton never sees her in this simple garb without an exclamation of approval.
She creeps behind him in the verandah, twining her bare arms round his neck.
He looks at her admiringly, as he would at a picture which gladdens the eye for a moment.
"How late it is," she whispers, kneeling beside him. "Cook is frantic, for all our dinner is spoiled, we were out a long while."
Quamina, who only talks a smattering of English, rushes into the verandah, wringing her hands. Her black lips tremble, her eyes start from her head.
"Oh! Sahib, Sahib!" she cries, "the big black devil that tracks the Sahib, he rode up the hill, there!" pointing with outstretched fingers.
Quinton starts to his feet.
"Where?" he asks, looking out but seeing nothing. "What do you mean?"
But Quamina continues to shake and cry, moaning "The devil, he has come for the Sahib!"
When Quamina can be quieted and her fears calmed, the truth is gradually drawn from her. She has seen a man in a black mask prowling on his hands and knees in the bushes round the house. She leant out of her window and screamed, whereupon he sprang on to a horse, and galloped up the hill like a madman.
Quamina cannot be persuaded it is not the devil himself haunting their domain, and is petrified with terror for the rest of the evening.
"I should feel inclined to put the masked man down to Quamina's vivid imagination," declares Eleanor, "if you had not personally encountered him, Carol. He is like a sort of 'troll,' one of Ibsen's 'helpers and servers.'"
Quinton has given Eleanor "The Master Builder" to read, himself being a believer in the strange theory of will power. He is much upset by Quamina's story, bewildered at the mystery shrouding this evil demon. His life is becoming a purgatory on earth; he goes in daily dread of some fresh disaster. He says little to Eleanor, but she notices he does not sit out in the verandah, preferring the shelter of four walls, as if in mortal fear of something.
"Does he picture a phantom shooting in the dark?" she wonders.
She offers to sing, but he silences her with a petulant movement and gruff word. He is not in the mood for music. The loaded revolver he always keeps in his room is brought down and laid beside him as he smokes and reads.
Eleanor is grieved to see him so unhinged. It is a pitiable thing when a man loses his pluck, and the woman must play the part of consoler and encourager.
The following morning, to her surprise, Quinton seems no less frightened than on the previous night. He refuses to go out, and sits in moody silence or paces the room—both equally trying to the patient Eleanor. At last the idea seizes her that, if she shows daring and goes out alone, leaving him to brood in solitude, it may spur Quinton to rouse himself and cast off his apprehensions. Surely he will not be outdone by a woman!
"I am going for a stroll," she announces calmly.
"Oh! Are you?"
His lips twitch nervously. He does not volunteer to accompany her.
She takes up a large shady hat, and winds a long white veil over her face.
"Won't you come, too?" she asks mildly.
"No, certainly not, and I think you are very foolhardy to go."
She stares at him in amazement.
"My dear boy, are we to stay in for ever because of old Quamina and her ugly sayings? If the devil is coming for me, he'll come in whether I hide or not; besides, I do not believe in devils!"
"No, but living assassins, modern highwaymen, who scout the country to shed blood, seeking whom they may devour. If you take my advice you will stay safely indoors."
But, for the sake of example, Eleanor shakes her head. If she gives in to him now their life will be one of cowering seclusion. There is something convincing in the light of day that drives from her heart all qualms and misgivings.
"I see no reason why we should not walk abroad just the same as Elizabeth or any other person. You were only attacked once, and that was at night. Look, for instance, at the white woman on the charger. She was alone. I don't think even a highwayman, though, would tackle her," with a low laugh. "She'd be a pretty good handful for anybody. I could imagine her mesmerising a lion with those eyes. I have no doubt she is a crack shot, too, from the bold way she carried her gun. She was a regular Amazon."
"You forget I have never seen the white stranger you allude to."
"Of course not. She passed when you were looking for the dog on that unfortunate day. Well, good-bye for the present, dear. Take care of yourself, and if you like to come and meet me I shall be delighted."
She leaves the house singing, hoping her bravado will have the effect of re-assuring Carol.
As she goes he flings his book on the ground, stretching out his arms like a caged bird beating its wings against the bars.
"It can't last much longer," he hisses between his teeth; "it won't last much longer. Thank goodness I can see the end."
Eleanor's mind is so full of thought that she does not heed the direction in which her steps turn. She walks like one in a dream, busy with her own thoughts. A thousand ideas flit through her brain. She lives over her miserable past. Even the early days at Copthorne return vividly. She is a merry child swinging on a gate; a lazy girl lolling on a hayrick; a frivolous wife, sporting her gay attire in the Brussels Bois; a weary woman sighing at her lot in the house on Richmond Terrace; and then the realisation of the present rushes over her, and she starts as if suddenly awaking from sleep.
There are steps at her side; she turns, remembering Carol's warning.
Elizabeth Kachin stands before her, they are face to face.
From sheer force of habit Eleanor stretches out her hand in greeting, but draws it back sharply, gathering her scattered wits together. There is a cold look in Elizabeth's eyes. Eleanor shivers though the sun scorches, for the frosts of sin are very bitter. Mrs. Kachin averts her head, and passes her without a word. Little Tombo, who is following in the rear, runs up and raises his face for a kiss, but his mother calls to him quickly, while Eleanor pushes him away. "Why is she angry with me?" he asks Elizabeth; "why doesn't she come and see us now?"
Eleanor hears the words. They cut deeper than an assassin's knife. Carol was right. Retribution is on the road, waiting to devour her body and soul. She paces on with bent head, the hot blood in her cheeks, and a lump in her throat.
A third shadow crosses her path, this time it is Big Tombo. Her eyes meet his fearlessly. He bares his head, bows low, and Eleanor smiles sadly.
"Men are kinder than women," she thinks, as she wanders on. "They judge less harshly. When their companions sin they do not cast them out to sink lower in the mire, they give them a hand, instead of a kick! But women take upon themselves to dash their sisters with cruel force upon the stones."
It was good to be alone with her sorrow, her shame.
She breathed a prayer from the depths of her soul—a wordless invocation. She is close to the jungle now, and the pleasant shade of the foliage cools her feverish brain.
She steps fearlessly into the thick undergrowth. Then pauses, for the sound of a horse attracts her attention. It is the heavy tread of the huge charger, on which that handsome white stranger, gun in hand, is seeking prey.
Eleanor watches the flash of those wonderful eyes, there is something unholy, devilish, in their unusual splendour. Her full red lips are drawn in and compressed.
She raises her gun, and before Eleanor can cry out the woman has fired!
The bullet whizzes past her head, for a moment her heart stops beating, the narrow escape fills her with horror!
She fancies the stranger saw her before she pulled the trigger, and let off her gun out of sheer devilment, to show her accuracy.
But scarcely has she recovered from the fright when a second report is heard from the bushes close by, and the great charger, on which this reckless sportswoman is seated, falls dead beneath her. She rolls off the saddle, and stands like a fury over the body.
"What villain has killed my horse?" she cries aloud, in a deep voice, which even in its anger sounds strangely fascinating, despite the masculine slang.
Eleanor rushes forward.
"The unseen hand!" she exclaims, hardly knowing what she says.
"How do you mean?" asks the tall woman.
"Someone shot from the bushes; didn't you see? First of all you nearly hit me, it was the closest shave I ever had, and immediately your horse fell——"
"I'll soon find out who has been making a target of me," muttered the stranger.
So saying, she fires recklessly into the bushes, but there is no sound, no cry.
Eleanor watches this wild creature curiously. Surely she will apologise for nearly killing her through inexcusable carelessness.
But she says no word, only watches the smoke rise, and anathematises the fate that has slain a useful beast.
Eleanor forgets her own grievance, and sympathises with the stranger's loss.
"It could not have been done intentionally," she declares.
"I don't believe in chance; it was a dead aim, depend upon it."
Eleanor's eyes expand at this remark.
"Who are you?" she asks. "What is your name?"
"I am a woman," replies the other, with a mocking smile; "my name is Paulina."
She shows no wish to be acquainted with Eleanor's identity.
"What will you do without your horse?"
"Get another, of course."
"Then you live in these parts? I hope in the future you will be more careful how you shoot at random. It would not have been very pleasant for either of us if you had hit me."
"What are you doing walking about by yourself?"
Eleanor looks up and laughs.
"Not risking other people's lives, at any rate."
"I wish I could unravel the mystery of my unknown assailant! Have you any idea who watches your movements and revenges himself on my carelessness?"
A new light flashes across Eleanor at these words. This weird adventure becomes more interesting and amazing at Paulina's suggestion.
"I don't understand you."
"All the better, perhaps."
The abrupt answer startles Eleanor, a puzzled look creeps over her face.
"Why can't you say what you mean?" she asks hotly, looking at Paulina with sudden dislike and repugnance.
The stranger laughs, shoulders her gun, and turns away.
"Where would you have been now," she cries in parting, "if I had shot you down by mistake like a jungle fowl?"
There is a taunting sneer in the words.
A hateful thought steals into Eleanor's mind. This woman, who swears and treats her with such abominable coolness, knows something of her past or present, possibly from Elizabeth, with whom she may be acquainted. This last remark is an insinuation of her unfitness to die, and that her soul is ripe for perdition. The implied slur gradually increases and exaggerates itself in Eleanor's brain, sensitive to a degree. She sees in it a deliberate insult, and following Paulina, she demands:
"Before you go, please apologise for your carelessness. I am not accustomed to be made a mark of, either for bullets or jests."
Paulina stops, and looks her up and down in a manner that makes Eleanor feel like a pigmy facing a giant.
She takes out a cigarette, places it between her teeth, and hands her case to Eleanor.
"Have one?" she asks, with insouciance. Eleanor is staggered. She does not know whether to take this as a fresh slight or a very lame apology.
Faint pulses of quivering sunbeams glance through the trees, playing round the dead body of Paulina's horse. The old oaks rear their heads to a sky of purest turquoise, but Eleanor has no heart to notice the beautiful aerial effects. She is wondering if the proffered cigarette is meant as an olive branch or otherwise.
She gazes in mute disgust.
"Have you never seen a weed before?" asks Paulina vivaciously. "You are the type of woman, I suppose, who sits at home and arranges flowers, very artistically, no doubt. You would pose in limp gowns of gauzy drapery, like a pictured saint, and expect your husband or your lovers to grovel and worship. But you are dangerously near to the borderland separating the sublime from the ridiculous. You expect me to apologise for a shot at random, which cost a valuable horse its life. Some savage black who worships your fair form at a distance, most likely paid it back with interest."
"You are a very vulgar woman," exclaimed Eleanor. "I hope I shall never see you again."
"Don't use that word 'vulgar,'" she replies, "it's so low class."
"You don't mind what you say to me because I am alone and unprotected," cries Eleanor with almost childish petulance, the tears glistening in her angry eyes. "If Carol was here, he would defend me."
"Carol," she laughs, "who is the staunch and gallant Carol?"
But Eleanor will not answer; she feels desperately affronted, and turns away.
The women walk in opposite directions; the day is dying.
"Well! you are back safely; any adventures?" asks Quinton, as she enters the house pale and weary.
Eleanor sinks into a chair, slowly unwinds her veil, and flings her hat impatiently upon the sofa. She is so seriously put out, that for the moment she dares not trust herself to speak.
"Anything the matter, eh?"
Eleanor clears her throat.
Quinton sits bolt upright from his lounging attitude.
"What?" he says, staring at her intently.
Then she recounts her scene with Paulina, word for word, while Quinton listens breathlessly.
"Her horse shot from under her?" he cries, as if that is of far more importance than Eleanor's narrow escape.
"Yes, dear, wasn't it awful? It might have been you or me! I do believe the masked man is on the warpath, only he went for her this time instead. It may be a lunatic, for every act seems so perfectly motiveless."
"I told you not to venture out," he says, his face reddening with annoyance. "You would go against my wishes, and suffered for it accordingly. The idea of getting into conversation, and actually deigning to quarrel with a stranger. It was most humiliating and lowering. Another time if you meet this 'Paulina,' as you call the white Amazon, kindly avoid her. This merely confirms me in the conviction which has grown upon me lately, that this place is no longer fit for us to dwell in. I, for one, am sick of it, and long for a taste of clubdom and life again."
"Oh! Carol!" she exclaims, and the words are wrung from her like a sharp cry.
"Don't look so absurdly miserable, my dear," he says hastily, dreading a scene with all the shrinking of his cowardly nature. "I won't say anything to vex you again. I was only cross; forgive me."
Eleanor's heart goes out to him with all the old yearning tenderness.
Forgive him! Why, she would forgive Carol anything—he is her all. She falls on her knees at his side, and draws down his face for a kiss.
As she does so, the sound of a loud, rich, stirring voice, swelling out on the evening air, reaches them. They exchange hurried glances, start to their feet, and look cautiously out.
It is "Paulina," swaggering down the hill with a devil-may-care mien, her gun still over her shoulder, her hands in her pockets.
They catch the words, which ring full and clear:
"And constancy lives in realms above,
And life is thorny and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we love
Doth work like madness in the brain."
"She is like a 'troll,'" murmurs Eleanor, "shrieking in the night."
"A magnificent creature," says Carol. "Quite a picture!"
His eyes are riveted on the retreating form!
Eleanor is taking her siesta, wrapt in dreams of Carol and love. No thought of evil disturbs her rest, for to-day the clouds seem to have blown over. Carol has been tender and adoring as of old, he speaks no more of the dreaded up-rooting, but is peaceful and content. Yet while she lies in fancy-land—asleep—she cannot see him in the room below, a look of excitement on his face while he writes with feverish haste on a large sheet of flimsy paper.
The words reel rapidly off his quill, he never pauses, and his eyes are aglow with the fire of energy.
Quamina, who has been in the verandah, enters with a tray of cooling drinks and places them by his elbow. She has never seen the Sahib writing before, she did not know he could hold a pen, and his engrossed attitude awakes her curiosity and suspicion. He does not hear her come in till she puts the glasses beside him, then he pushes them away and tells her to go.
Quamina steals across the room.
Why is the Sahib writing? It is not his way. His quill flies like a thing possessed across the paper, and when he pauses it is to wipe the drops of perspiration from his heated brow.
"This is the Sahib's hour for sleep," thinks Quamina. "It is a secret message that he writes at such a time, when his wife is absent, dreaming in the other room." She steals into the verandah and watches. A sudden idea comes to her ignorant mind, which, as she turns it over in her brain, amounts to a firm conviction.
"The Sahib is making a compact with the devil. He is frightened of that tall spirit in the black mask, and is coming to terms with him. Maybe he will offer his house and his servants, his wife even, to be himself released from the terror of that grim presence."
Quamina shakes from head to foot. Her white teeth rattle. Surely the Sahib's face is taking the likeness of the Evil one, as he sits alone, or why does a sinister smile flit across his lips, while he perpetually pauses to listen, and look nervously towards the door? Once he rises, opens it, standing a moment, looking towards Eleanor's room. But there is no sound, and he returns to his desk reassured.
Finally the letter ends. He folds it carefully, looking at the dashing signature with some pride. He takes up a red seal, strikes a light, and drops a huge round of burning wax upon the envelope.
"The deed is done," thinks trembling Quamina; "the devil has been written to. He will scan those hasty words in his unholy abode, and bargain with the Sahib, till an arrangement shall be made."
Her suspicions increase as Quinton, listening once more at the door, snatches up a hat with a guilty air, creeping out into the broiling sun.
Quamina by this time is wild with curiosity, and as Carol hastens down the hill, the letter in his hand, she follows stealthily at a discreet distance.
"Perhaps he will give it himself to the devil. Ah, the poor Sahib!" she mutters.
Quinton never pauses till he is out of sight of the bungalow; then turning to his right he places the sealed envelope in a crevice of a rock, hidden from sight.
Quamina watches wonderingly the post-box of the devil.
She marks the spot in her mind's eye, and fearing detection hurries back unobserved.
For the rest of the day she thinks of nothing but the Sahib's letter, and its strange hiding place. She pictures the "Nâts" surrounding the spot, and bearing it in triumph to their chief.
She watches her master curiously, but by no sign does he reveal that anything unusual has occurred, save that he laughs more frequently, and seems as light-hearted and high spirited as a boy.
"Maybe he has paid the devil off," Quamina surmises.
Captain Stevenson and Major Short ride over, much to Eleanor's delight, who enjoys a chat with the outer world as keenly as Carol.
She longs once again to hear Major Short's melodious voice, and bringing her guitar, begs for "Mandalay."
But he shakes his head.
"I shall tire you of the one song," he declares.
"Not when it is the favourite," she protests. "Only four lines, if you will, or a single bar of the tune. I love the sad refrain."
He follows her on to the verandah. Quinton and Capt. Stevenson are talking and smoking within.
They catch the words between the pauses in their conversation:
"Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain't no ten Commandments, and a man can raise a thirst.
For the temple bells are callin' and it's there that I would be,
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea."
"Dreadful morals!" laughs Captain Stevenson.
"Do you love the East?" asks Eleanor, as Major Short lays aside the guitar.
"Yes, well enough, but I get terribly homesick at times. I long to draw round a huge log fire in the old hall at home on a still winter's evening, with the shutters shut and the curtains drawn, and my feet on the fender. No one has any conception of the bliss of those long, luxurious hours over the flame and the coal. Those who have it don't appreciate it. Imagine yourself nipped by a biting frost coming suddenly in to such a scene of warmth and ease, to lose yourself in the depths of an enormous spring chair, and gaze in that wilderness of red, while the wood crackles, and blue flickers up like a phantom light in the blazing scarlet. It is many years since I passed a good old English Christmas, with plum pudding and bells chiming over the snow. Bah! I cannot endure to think of it—I get so green with envy."
"I am afraid I never cared for the winter. The sun is better than artificial warmth—the East is rosier than the fireside."
"But you must yearn sometimes to get home to your family and friends. Have you no mother you long to kiss—no father who is pining for a sight of his daughter's smile, and old chums waiting to greet you with a hearty handshake and a cheery welcome?"
Eleanor shakes her head mournfully—her large soft eyes look sad and wistful—she is no hypocrite—she never could pretend.
"No; England is all a blank. My whole interest in life is centred in my husband."
Involuntarily a pang of pity shoots through the man's heart. He hardly knows why, since she is so happy in Quinton's love.
He mistrusts him, for men are quicker in reading each other than a woman blinded by skin-deep fascination.
Many a trusting heart has been won by the pink light from a lamp falling on a handsome profile, by the faultless cut of a frock coat, or by a good seat on horseback.
Poor little Eleanor! Poor humanity!
"It is a mistake to rely too much on love," says Major Short. "It sometimes fails us, and then——"
He pauses, seeing the look of pain upon Eleanor's face.
"I was speaking of myself," he adds half apologetically. "Look for instance, at my parents, at home in the old country. What good is their affection now? What use am I to them, stuck here in India? True, we correspond, but letters give us no sight of the familiar face, no kiss from the lips that may be dead and cold before we meet again. But love, Mrs. Quinton, is over for ever in my life, it is a memory alone, a dream of the silent past."
Eleanor's eyes are deeply sympathetic; she is a woman to inspire confidence.
Major Short continues, though he is surprised at himself for so doing:
"Yes, I was in love once, it was the one sincere and overruling passion of my life." He lowers his voice as he speaks. "You brought it back to me when you said that all your interests were centred in your husband."
He holds out a little case to Eleanor.
"I always carry this about with me; it is her portrait. Look at it."
Eleanor opens the case reverently, and gazes with a certain awe at the beautiful face within. She fancies there is a mystery in the far-away expression of the woman's eyes. But, after all, it is only the mystery of death.
"That picture was taken after she knew she must die," he says. "They would not let me marry her then."
His eyes are lowered, Eleanor fancies they are moist.
"Fate is very cruel," she murmurs.
"Yes, when the poetry of existence turns to prose, all the light dies out. I can never love again. Sentiment to me now is as a shallow stream."
Quamina appears with the tray of drinks again. Her eyes look wild; she shambles along; her knees knock together.
"What is the matter with that woman?" asks Major Short, as she staggers away.
"She is frightfully superstitious, and some nights ago she thought the devil had come for Carol, and she has never been the same since. She crouches about like a creature demented. Sometimes I fancy she must be insane."
Major Short quotes from Pope with a dry smile:
'Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutored mind,
Sees God in clouds, or hears Him in the wind."
"But there is sense in that," Eleanor declares. "God is in all Nature; every blade of grass manifests Him."
Then she remembers that she is still clasping that small case, and looks down once more on the impressive features of the beautiful woman.
"Talking of death—and love," she says slowly, harping back to the old subject, "I often wonder what I should do if anything happened to Carol. Imagine me here, in a strange country, alone, friendless! What if he sickened with fever, or was wounded by an enemy, or if he died?" A shudder of apprehension runs over her.
"I hope you will never call yourself friendless while we—while I am within your reach. I have suffered myself; I know what sorrow is. Should you ever be in any trouble, Mrs. Quinton, or need a helping hand, remember you can rely on me."
Eleanor looks at him with that serious and admiring glance of hers, expressive of greater gratitude and deeper wonder than any words.
"You are very good," she says at length. "If all men were so kind, I think women would be better and place surer trust in them."
Two large trees in front of the verandah, with bending boughs, meet and make an archway of feathery foliage, in which the birds lodge. Eleanor's eyes turn to the drooping green, and then to the distant hills. She has a vague foreshadowing of coming evil. She sees the oxen yoked together dragging their loads; she wonders if they are happier after all than mortals like Major Short and herself. Two of these patient animals are drawing a Burmese public carriage, with a black boy looking out of the quaint covering, like a little house on two wheels. They pause to drink in the Irrawaddy; she sighs to think how sadly they need refreshment. In the thatched huts and tall palms, Eleanor pictures Copthorne—it rises as a mirage—till Major Short dispels it by some casual remark. He notices her listlessness, for she starts as she speaks.
"Forgive me," she says, smiling wanly, "but I was miles away."
"How interesting. May I not follow you? What did you see?"
"I conjured up a farm-house and green English lanes, gold cornfields, rustic reapers, and honest workers. They were getting in the harvest."
Captain Stevenson's cheery voice, and Quinton's musical laugh interrupts the conversation as they join Eleanor and Major Short.
"It is time we were making tracks. What do you say, Short?"
"I suppose so, but it is always hard to tear oneself away from pleasant companions."
"When shall we meet again?" asks Eleanor gaily. "Can't we arrange a day next week? Ride over in the cool of the morning to breakfast."
"Thanks—delighted. There is a peculiar fascination in your charming home and hearty welcome."
Quinton smiles enigmatically, as he watches them ride away.
Eleanor slips her hand in his.
"You seem very merry to-day," she says. "They quite enlivened us, didn't they, Carol?"
"Yes; it certainly makes a difference having somebody to speak to. Don't you notice it, dear?"
He looks down at her steadfastly, and for the moment Eleanor's expression turns the unscrupulous man dizzy with a vague sensation nearly approaching regret.
He sees in her eyes the overflowing of a heart; whose passionate adoration amounts to idolatry.
He is touched and softened. He presses her lips, though they no longer thrill him, and she in her mute worship cannot define the change.
Her love, he thinks, so freely given, so utterly beyond control, is after all a pitiable spectacle.
He scrutinises her fair face critically; it seems insipid to him now. Its pale spirituality, which once set his brain on fire, appears characterless. The classical features, exquisitely moulded, lack power. The sweet mouth has a wan droop, as if sighing for ungranted kisses.
"Sometimes, Carol," she says at last, "I fancy you are tiring of me." She only speaks for him to contradict.
"My darling, what an absurd notion to get into that pretty little head of yours! Occasionally it is a little slow here for us both."
"That is only since you grew nervous. Of course, the days are long if you will stay indoors doing nothing."
"Yes, you are quite right," he answers, somewhat to Eleanor's surprise. "It is foolish, and unnecessary. Now you won't grumble, my pet, if I go for a long day's sport to-morrow. It will do me all the good in the world, some excitement and exercise. I have been getting dreadfully grumpy and cross."
"How early shall you start?"
"Oh, first thing. I assure you, Eleanor, I am quite looking forward to it. I can't have been very well lately, and that accounts for my apparent prostration and uncalled-for nervousness. There is nothing really to fear, and you can make your mind quite easy about me."
These reassuring words delight Eleanor, for as long as Carol is happy and satisfied, her joy is intense.
As they talk Quamina is crouching under the broad steps that lead down from the verandah; her eyes gaze in the direction of that mysterious rock hidden from sight.
She wonders if the devil has yet come for the Sahib's message. Her soul is torn by curiosity and fear. She longs to know, and if the strange letter still lies in the crevice untouched, herself to break the seal and try to decipher the words.
It is a tremendous temptation; yet, as she rises with a bold resolve and creeps along the moonlit path, she suffers mortal dread, momentarily expecting to encounter some supernatural apparition. She turns out of sight of the bungalow, with its cheerful light, and reaches the rock, on which the moonbeams play. A ray of light lies across the crevice in which the Sahib deposited his epistle.
With set teeth, and frantically beating heart, Quamina forces her skinny arms into the hole, murmuring prayers as she gropes and fumbles, then staggers back with a low moan, and flees from the unholy spot. The devil has been! The letter is gone!
The following morning Eleanor, her face bright with smiles, kisses Carol as she bids him adieu.
"Shoot something nice for dinner, dear," she says, "and have a good day."
She waves her hand as he trots down the hill, his slim form erect, his eyes bright and lips parted.
"I hope you won't be dull, Eleanor," he cries with a gay laugh. "Keep house till I return, and take care of yourself."
As he fades from sight she turns singing into the bungalow.
There are several duties to be attended to. Her pink muslin gown needs rearranging, and the huge bunch of crimson flowers Quamina has gathered her must be put in the drawing-room. They are bright, and will please Carol's eye.
As she places them in tall, picturesque vases, Paulina's words return with aggressive force.
The sort of woman who stays at home tending flowers! They take the pleasure from her simple task. She leaves the fallen blossoms half on a couch, half on the ground, turning from them disgusted.
Perhaps Paulina was right! Carol would find her far more of a companion if she shouldered her gun and rode off with him to the jungle; but she hates killing things.
The chase is brutal! Sport is revolting! Thus she consoles herself, and sends Quamina for the muslin gown.
How tenderly Carol had kissed her when he said good-bye. How brilliant he seemed that morning!
She laughs again at the thought of his wit. Her Carol was always clever.
He has marked a passage of Spencer's in a novel Eleanor is reading; she picks it up and comes across it.
It is like a rude shock. Why has he pencilled such disagreeable lines?
Full little knowest thou that hast not tried.
What hell it is in suing long to bide;
To loose good dayes that might be better spent,
To waste long nights in pensive discontent.
Perhaps it struck him as so strangely different to their ideal existence.
The hours do not seem long, for a "light heart goes all the day," but as afternoon wanes she is filled with expectant delight, awaiting Carol's advent. He will be naturally tired, and she draws the couch near the window, piles luxurious pillows upon it, and perches herself at the end of it, placing in readiness a loose lounging coat of yellow Tussore silk. Carol, it is a pretty name, she thinks, taking up his portrait and pressing it to her lips. It is in the same attitude as the one she destroyed in the railway train, upon her first meeting with Elizabeth Kachin's mother.
The faint light slants across the verandah, and falls on the yellow cushions placed for Quinton.
It creeps into the room, and sheds a halo round the striking likeness she still holds in her hand.
Eleanor gazes at the Oriental splendour, the beauties of which no utterance is capable of expressing, and indulges in visions that are pleasant and soothing, marvelling at a scene she has admired a thousand times before, and recalling memories of sweet caresses and whispered words.
Filmy shadows fall from the trees without, gradually outlining themselves upon the walls of the room, and the steps from the verandah. The hot air rises from the valley.
Eleanor breathes the tropical atmosphere and sighs. She loosens her gown at the throat, and waves an enormous palm-leaf fan leisurely backwards and forwards. The air stirs the soft hair on her forehead, cooling her brow.
She raises her eyes to the clock and smiles.
"He will soon return," she thinks. "It is growing late, and he promised to be home before nightfall."
She goes out on to the verandah, gazing down the road which leads to Mandalay.
Two or three black children are resting by a wall at the foot of the hill, one squatting on the ground hugging his knees, the others standing in easy graceful attitudes, with round pitchers on their heads.
The well is beneath a huge palm. Eleanor has sometimes "wished" by it with Carol, pretending there is some mystic spell in the water.
He will pass that charmed spot as he returns, and she will stand on the steps to greet him.
Surely in all the world Carol could not have chosen a more romantic retreat in which to live and love!
The shadows deepen, they take forms, and glide from place to place as daylight dies.
She peers into the gloom, the children go home to bed. Carol is not in sight!
The red flowers of the morning lie withered up and brown on the floor where she has left them. Carol must not be greeted by the sight of her negligence. She stoops down, and gathers them together in both hands, sweeping the dust and fallen petals into her white palm. Crossing slowly to the door, Eleanor calls Quamina.
"Take these away," she says.
Quamina looks anxiously into her face, as she relieves her young mistress of the dead blossoms.
"The Sahib is long in returning," she volunteers, with a nervous leer.
"Yes. We shall soon need a light."
"The devil will not catch him this evening; the devil is well employed," Quamina assures her. "Have no fear, lady."
"What do you mean?" asks Eleanor, a shade of anger crossing her face.
Quamina looks up proudly, delightedly.
"I have placed food and drink in the rock away from the roadside," she replies chuckling. "He will be busy eating, and never see the Sahib riding up the path. Quamina loves the Sahib and his white lady; she will provide for the devil."
Eleanor shrugs her shoulders in sheer despair. She cannot bring this woman to reason. With a pitying smile she returns to the window, and buries her fingers in the soft silk of those yellow pillows with an almost frantic clutch. They are just like the sofa cushions at Lyndhurst. Philip, perhaps, is lounging on them now, or Erminie—he has given them to Mrs. Lane for her new drawing-room.
She kneels for a while on the lounge, and though there is no sound her lips move.
Thus she stays, directly opposite the open window, listening and looking, wondering and praying.
Can some evil have befallen him? She remembers his displeasure when she rode out to meet him that night—the man with the black mask.
There is a loud report in the room; she springs to her feet with a cry. It is only a string of her guitar which has broken, and she sinks back into the old attitude despairingly.
Quamina is pounding rice in the kitchen. Eleanor calls to her to stop. She fancies the sound may prevent her hearing the first fall of a horse's hoofs in the distance, for the moon has not risen yet, and she cannot see far.
So she remains perfectly still, waiting for the pale light to rise in the heavens, while crowds of unutterable fancies rush through her brain—a mad disorder of thought.
She stares outwards, as one in the fetters of an awful dream.
"Why does he not come to her?"
Some well-known words recur to her brain. "The eye, like a shattered mirror, multiplies the images of its sorrow, and sees, in innumerable far-off places, the woe which is close at hand."
There is a hot and heavy vapour in the air—it seems to poison Eleanor as she inhales it in her lungs. A settled apathy pervades her spirit. For some moments she feels nothing, has not a thought—only a strange ringing in her head. The landscape before her looks desolate and terrible, an unredeemed dreariness darkens her soul like a London fog—thick, stifling.
London! The word recalls Philip, the man whose home she shattered, whose life she ruined—for Carol's sake. It was easy to deal the blow, to forget the world, to forfeit her good name when love's overpowering fascination was the bait. She can annihilate that black past in the light of Carol's smile; but when he is absent, and night is on the earth and in her heart, then the spectre rises, points his deadly finger at her quivering soul, and she realises the hideous dropping off of the veil. Her mind is a chaos of ruins. She calls to Carol in vain; only the shrill cry of some night bird through the air, and the beating of her pulses, answer that he will not come!
The gaunt form of a four-footed beast steals across the shadows she has watched so long, that she almost doubts her senses. Can it be a tiger perchance come forth from the jungle to prowl around her home?
She looks again, a thrill of horror darting through her trembling body.
The beast creeps with a soft and stealthy tread up the verandah steps—it is long and yellow.
Eleanor stares in mesmeric terror at its fiery eyes.
Then she sees it is a dog—a huge sandy mastiff, with hanging jaws, wet with foam, a great square head, and broad noiseless feet. It shambles nearer, appearing so suddenly out of the gloom that it seems to materialise before her vision. It watches her as if about to spring; she cannot remember it is not a tiger after all.
Eleanor sickens with fear, a dizzy faintness numbs her nerves, the room swims round. Her breath comes in quick gasps from a throat parched, and dry as with desert sand.
She stares dumbly into its glistening eyes that look like coals of fire in the dark.
Those moments seem to be long hours; they are spells of invisible woe; this dog is perhaps a phantom, come to warn her of some ghastly peril into which Carol has fallen. Its fangs look ripe for human gore; it pants, and its breath is as the rush of a storm.
"Help!" says a low voice, calling the dog by name.
The animal turns at the sound of that word. "Help! come back." He crouches away disappointed; he would have liked to seize Eleanor by the throat if he dared.
At the sound of the man's call Eleanor does not move, nor even start, only the blood seems to dry up in her veins, her fingers twitch convulsively, her eyes roll back in her head. She can hear the heavy footfalls mounting the steps to the verandah one by one; she dares not look, for she knows, she understands!
Then a sudden idea seizes her. They are not yet face to face. If her paralysed limbs will let her she may yet escape through the room, and out behind. She can hide in the thick undergrowth, and watch her opportunity to creep down the road and warn Carol of the danger threatening their lives. He may even now be passing the well and riding up the hill to death!
She rushes blindly across the room, but that instant the heavy steps reach the verandah. Her aim is frustrated. She staggers against the wall, extending her arms aloft with a wild gesture.
The intruder stands in the open window, his dark figure framed, in the line between the verandah and the interior, his face illuminated by the moon which has burst like a ghostly lamp-man over the east. She feels like one dazed in the trammels of opium. She tries to cry out, to shriek for help, but only one word breaks hoarsely from her lips with a hollow groan:
The man enters the room silently, his garments are thick with dust, his coat torn as with jungle briars sharply thorned. He looks as if he had lived in the outer air, unkempt, dishevelled! Thick black hair has grown over the lower part of his face; but his eyes gleam as they meet hers while he advances, his gaze riveted on Eleanor. A fierce growl makes him turn, and his eyes fall on the lounging coat of Tussore silk lying upon yellow cushions.
"Help" has scented it, and springing with his huge paws towards the sofa, tears and rends it furiously in his heavy jaws with the savage air of a lion destroying prey.
The sight is strangely horrible to Eleanor. Her eyes start from their sockets, staring, bloodshot, fixed. Her lips are livid, her limbs stiff, she is still drawn up against the wall at bay; but for its support she would fall upon the ground.
Philip smiles. The action of the dog pleases him. He does not notice the photograph of Carol, which dropped from Eleanor's hands as she started across the room, but the heel of his dusty boot falls on the face, crushing it under the weight of his tread, scarring the features and cracking the card. He advances and stands passively before Eleanor, so close that his hot breath fans her cheek, looking at her and waiting.
The steady ticking of the clock resounds in the room; in that moment of extreme tension it deafens her.
The silence is horrible, unendurable; she struggles to break it, and her voice sounds to her own amazement perfectly natural.
"I know why you have come, Philip," she says calmly, and it seems that she has lived through this moment in some past existence, so painfully familiar are the ghastly occurrences of to-night. Perhaps it was in some shadowy dream which faded from her memory on awaking. "I know why you are here," she repeats throwing back her head against the bamboo panelling, and stretching out her arms in the attitude of a crucified victim. "I read it in your face. But I am too young to die, too sin-stained."
"You think I have come to kill you, Eleanor?"
His words are low and hollow; they seem strangely similar to the warning growl of his huge dog. She thinks he has grown to resemble the ferocious-looking beast, or "Help," in the moonlight, appears like his master—from perpetual companionship.
But even as she looks, something of the man creeps into Philip's eyes, humanising them. The brute nature fades.
She answers his question under her breath:
"Yes, you have hunted me down to take my life."
An expression of intense pain contracts his features; she has cut him to the quick.
With a woman's sharp instinct, intensified by dread, Eleanor sees that her doom is not yet; but the thought of another burns like fire in her brain. Her own miserable thread of life, what does it matter? She holds it as nought compared with the one she loves. She would die a thousand deaths if such a sacrifice would buy him safety.
"How little you understand me!" he says at last. "It was always so."
"Why have you come?" she asks, faintly tracing the shadows that fall around him in the pallid moonlight.
He turns, as if in answer, to the scattered rags of a silken coat, some of which still hang in the mastiff's jaws; then his gaze travels through the verandah, down the zig-zag path towards the jungle.
Eleanor interprets the look. With a swift movement she wrenches herself from the wall against which she has seemed to be held as if by a strong magnet, crosses the room with quick and noiseless tread, fastens the folding window doors together with a click, facing Philip in defiant silence.
"You have come for him," she hisses, the hatred in her eyes gleaming forth. "You would kill—Carol."
At the mention of his name from her lips Philip starts.
"Is it not so?" she cries wildly, raising her voice, which trembles with emotion, vibratos with dread.
For the moment Philip does not reply, only his face lights up as with the glory of revenge.
Eleanor's fingers tighten on the window fastening. She clings to it for support.
A strangled cry breaks from her lips, and the half incoherent words: "My God! My God!"
Philip pushes a chair forward as if to signify there is no need to guard the window.
The action excites Eleanor to passion.
"It is cowardly to kill," she cries through her clenched teeth.
"And if I did, what should I get in return for all he has stolen from me? Could he give me back your heart? Could he blot out the past with his blood? Should I regain the pure thing I lost, the wife I treasured, the woman I adored? Think how he shattered my life and wrecked my happiness, when he enticed you with the golden apple, that rots and decays, turning to wormwood between the lips! You were allured by the seductive cajolery, the damnable influence of a scoundrel."
Eleanor's breast heaves, she staggers forward in a frenzy.
"Stop! What you say is false. I was not 'enticed.' I went because I loved him body and soul; because existence without him was empty—impossible. If I had stayed with you, loving him, I should not have been true to myself; I should have played the traitor in my own home; the curse would have been on you and on your children. If such a thing were possible, here in this new land, my passion developed, increased, tenfold. The night and day, the light, the darkness, they hold nothing for me but this rapturous love, all that is precious, tender, sweet. I have fed on in this paradise till you came, like an image of death, to bring back all that is odious, hateful."
"Yes," he replies slowly, "I can believe you were happy, clinging to the prize you held so dear. Your words have not surprised me, I have listened to them so often in fancy, picturing this scene, when you and I alone should stand together and bare our souls. I expected to hear your short-lived rapture hurled at me as a shield, a fortification! I am ready to judge it, to weigh it if you will, in the scales of right and wrong. Will you not continue?"
His words wither Eleanor's defence; she shrinks back into herself.
"Surely you have something more to say," with an ironical laugh, that re-echoes discordantly round the room.
She shakes her head mournfully, and drops her hands to her sides.
"Perhaps," he continues, "I was to blame. I was not in harmony with you; I failed to please."
The words are a protest, wrung from the bottom of her soul.
"Or I did not place sufficient confidence in you; we had 'family jars,' 'vexed questions,' 'disagreements.'"
"Philip, for pity's sake——"
He runs his fingers through the grey hair, lying moist upon his sun-bronzed brow. The crow's feet of sorrow furrow the corners of his eyes, which are stern, but not angry. They have looked for the last time on the golden season of life, now they stare at Eleanor as if reading in her face the key of the everlasting twilight that has fallen on his days.
Instinctively she cowers back, hiding her burning face in her hands, red with a flush of deepest shame.
"Don't shrink from me," he says. "It is almost incomprehensible, Eleanor, but——"
She looks up quickly.
"Ever since you left me I have had no thought but you. In life's morning you were my love, my all. I could not tear you from my heart had I wished to. But I never tried."
"Is that possible?" she gasps incredulously. "You must indeed have loved me!"
"I may be mad, but it is so. I love you now in your degradation, and misery, in spite of all!"
The confession staggers her.
"And you show it by hunting me down to destroy my happiness. You must have sought long to find me here, and now that you are successful, now that I am run to earth, what will you do?"
"What do you think?"
His face becomes fiendish. She watches his sinister smile.
"I have told you what I believe you capable of—you will murder him. I know it. You have no pity! The love you boast of is swallowed up in hate."
An evil flame lights his mocking eyes.
"Yes, I might spring at his throat as he comes from the jungle, I might set 'Help' upon him in the dark. He is a weak man, easily unnerved. The very sight of this knife——"
Philip has drawn a sharp blade of steel from his coat and flashed it in the moonlight, with a bitter groan.
He replaces it at the sight of her terror, with something of regret in his hard smile.
"What false professions!" sneers Eleanor. "You dare to speak of loving mo, when you would rob me of the man in whom all my happiness lies!"
Philip winces as if suddenly recalled to facts.
"Yes, your whole future was controlled by him."
His words fill her with a vague misgiving, but she draws herself up proudly and replies:
"It is safe in Carol's keeping."
"You are sure of that?"
She bows a cold assent.
"Then listen, Eleanor." He speaks authoritatively. "Come here. Sit down."
He points to a chair, but she sinks on the edge of the sofa, too agitated to notice her proximity to the huge mastiff.
"There is need of explanation," Philip continues, never taking his eyes off her white, scared face. "It is time you understood me. You say I have 'run you to earth,' as if through this long period of separation I had been hunting you like a bloodhound, and suddenly found myself on your track. You imagine I have just discovered you."
Eleanor's lips part as if to speak, but the words are choked back in her throat. "Help" stirs his head, for the first time she sees he is at her feet.
"You recall," says Philip, "that small dog—a suspicious Irish terrier—you were given some time back?"
"What of him? How did you know?" turning her eyes wonderingly from "Help" to Philip.
"It was killed in some bushes by a wild beast, when you were riding one day with your lover."
The mastiff rises slowly, and stretches himself, as if wearied by his day's work.
Eleanor draws her skirts away from contact with his coarse hair.
She sees it all at last.
"Killed," she repeats, "and by your dog."
Her breath comes quicker, she turns and peers through the window, as if expecting something.
"There is still more," declares Philip. "That cat's-eye ring I gave you, Eleanor—where is it?"
His voice pulses with suppressed force.
"Carol was attacked in the jungle one night——"
"By a masked fiend, who tore him from his horse and shook him by the throat, like a cat with a mouse, then flung him aside as a scorpion too poisonous to touch—a foul thing, only fit to lie beneath a rock, hidden from the sight of man. When he rose up, his assailant had gone, like a silent ghost on that lonely road."
Philip holds his lean fingers before her eyes, and flashing on one of them gleams the greenish light of the cat's-eye gem.
Again Eleanor looks fearfully out into the night, she fancies she hears Carol on the steps below.
"While you have been basking in your 'paradise' dreaming your short-lived vision of love, I have watched and waited, prowling to and fro with 'Help,' a faithful servant, at my heels. Your dog scented me, he proclaimed my presence, so I let 'Help' silence him once and for all. Many a night when you sat together, there in that verandah, your hand linked in his ringless fingers, your eyes feasting on his false face, I crouched below, watching. Did you never feel my nearness? Ah, you shudder! It was strange—very strange. It maddened me that he should wear your ring—my ring—so I wrenched it from him."
She listens like one in the thralls of a hideous nightmare. If Carol comes now—he is lost!
"Why, when I had him by the throat," asks Philip, "did I not strangle the life from his body? Why did I stay my hand? How was it I watched your happiness with hungry eyes, and did not strike? I could have shot you dead in each other's arms scores of times. I inexorably determined on his death, but held the sword suspended, like Damocles, by a single hair."
She listens acutely to his every syllable.
"Why?" she stammers feebly, her mind groping in the dark.
"So long as he was faithful to you—so long as he valued what you flung at his feet, I would not wake you from your Elysium. By this I proved the love you discredit. My action should not plunge you into an abyss of woe; but now that he is false—false as Hell——"
"Liar!" breaks in Eleanor hotly; "your miserable accusation is unfounded."
"Wait. When he left you for long days of 'sport,' what do you think was the nature of that chase?"
Eleanor is silent, numbed by dread and despair.
"His game—was a woman, who knew from his lips your whole history. I have seen them together for hours at a time—heard them speak—jest at your expense. But, in spite of this, she was jealous of you, and, but for a bad shot, would have taken your life that day in the jungle, when I killed her horse under her. You see I was guarding you, Eleanor. He has been scheming to go away with her; to desert you as a toy that is broken—a flower which has lost its scent."
She leaps to her feet, and flings open the window.
"You are hoodwinking me with a trumped-up story; it is not true!"
"Hear me out. He is serving you as you treated me. It is retribution. You forfeited his respect and consideration. He gave you only the brief glamour of his passion, which has died, to re-live in the smiles of 'Paulina.'"
"Philip, these lies are dastardly—cruel! You do not know what you are saying."
"You cling hard to your faith!" he retorts savagely, her staunchness to Carol awaking a fever of indignation within him. "Did I ever in the old days deserve that hard term 'liar'?"
She shakes her head. "Oh, no!"
"You are waiting for him to-night, Eleanor. He had promised, I believe, to return?"
She gazes down the slanting road.
"Yes. He is late." Then, with a sudden cry: "And when he comes—oh! Philip, I had not realised it—your revenge! What can I do to save him? Anything—I care not what! I will go and leave him—I will kill myself here before your eyes, as a ransom! You are mistaken, he is not false to me; any moment he may arrive. Only spare his life, for the love of Heaven!"
She falls on her knees at Philip's feet, beating the air with her hands.
He raises her gently, but firmly.
"You need not look," he says, as her terrified eyes stare out at the moonlit scene, white and ghostly. "Yesterday he wrote to the woman Paulina, making all arrangements for their flight this night. She dropped the letter in the jungle, from a satchel full of shot. It is here."
He holds out the torn envelope, with its broken seal and deadly intelligence.
Eleanor takes it mechanically—as yet she cannot believe—while the sight of the familiar handwriting sends the hot blood coursing freely once more through her brain.
She draws the closely-worded sheet from its resting-place and crosses to the light to scan the text.
Philip watches her face as it bends over the letter. He has struck a match and holds it up to illuminate that fatal message.
Every vestige of life seems to fly from her features. The page swims before her tailing sight, the words become crossed and blurred. She has read enough!
Then she remembers Paulina's fingers have touched this paper, perhaps her lips, and it flutters from Eleanor's hands at the thought, falling silently between her and Philip.
"Now," he cries, "can you grasp my mission? Do you guess why I am here? There was no longer any cause for him to live." Philip throws back his coat, and she sees the shirt beneath it is splashed with blood.
He takes her icy hand and draws her towards the verandah.
"I killed him at sunset," he whispers, pointing outwards, "over there, on that far hill. When night came I bore him back to you. Now in the moonlight, down near the well, or to-morrow at dawn, you will find your lover. His set face is looking up from the long grass, his last word was 'Paulina!'"
Eleanor staggers to the rails, and points towards the well.
She seems struggling to speak, but there is only a low gurgle in her throat.
Philip stands on the steps. "'Help,'" he says abruptly, calling the dog. "Come."
Together the man and beast pass like visions into the night.
Eleanor crouches away to the far corner of the verandah, her limbs relax, and she huddles herself in a heap on the hard ground, without a cry; without a moan.
Another day breaks gloriously over the East; in the first rays of sunlight Eleanor stirs. With difficulty she rises from her cramped position, a shudder runs over her frame as she walks unsteadily down the steps, in the direction of the well.
The jungle fowl on tree and ground give forth their sharp shrill cries.
The bulbul whistles sweet notes like those of a thrush.
The golden oriole with its bright yellow plumage whirrs as a flash of sunlight through the trees, and the birds at home are singing.