"I think I must speak to Miss Lesley, ma'am; my mistress said I must," said Sarah, primly. Then, forgetting her loyalty to her employers in her desire to be communicative, she went on—"Maybe you haven't heard what's happened, ma'am. Mr. Brooke's been taken up on the charge of murder——"
This was not strictly true, but it was the way in which Sarah read the facts.
"And Miss Brooke says Miss Lesley must come home, as it is not proper for her to stay."
The horror depicted on Mrs. Durant's face was quite as great as Sarah had anticipated, and even more so. For Mrs. Durant, a conventional and narrow-minded woman, did not know enough of Caspar Brooke's character to feel any indignation at the accusation: indeed, she was the sort of woman who was likely to put a vulgar construction upon his motives, and regard it as probable that he had quarreled with Oliver for not wishing to marry Lesley instead of Ethel Kenyon. And she at once grasped the situation. Under the circumstances—if Caspar Brooke had killed Ethel's lover—it was most improper that Caspar Brooke's daughter should be staying in the house.
"Of course!" she said, with a shocked face. "Miss Lesley Brooke must go at once—naturally. How very terrible! I am much obliged to Miss Brooke for sending—as Ethel's chaperon I couldn't undertake——I'll go upstairs and send her down to you."
Sarah was left in the hall, while Mrs. Durant went upstairs. But after a time the lady came down with a troubled air.
"I can't get her to come," she said. "You must go up yourself, Sarah, and speak to her. She will come into the dressing-room, she says, for a minute, but she cannot leave Miss Kenyon for a longer time. You must tell her quietly what has happened, and then she will no doubt see the advisability of going away."
Sarah went upstairs, therefore, and entered the dressing-room, where the old aunt was still busy; and in a minute or two Lesley appeared.
"What is it?" she said, briefly.
"Your aunt sent me to say you must come home at once, miss."
"I cannot come just yet: Miss Kenyon wishes me to stay with her," said Lesley, with dignity.
"You'd better come, Miss Lesley. I don't want to tell you the dreadful news just now: you'd better hear it at home. Then you'll be glad you came. It's your pa, miss."
"My father! Oh, Sarah, what do you mean? Is he ill? is he dead? What is it?"
"He's been arrested, miss, for killing Mr. Trent."
Sarah spoke in a whisper, but it seemed to her hearers as if she had shouted the words at the top of her voice. Mrs. Durant pressed her hands together and uttered a little scream. Lesley turned deadly white, and laid one hand on the back of a chair, as if for support. And the old aunt immediately ran into the inner room, and burst into tears over Ethel's almost inanimate form, bewailing her, and calling her a poor, injured, heartbroken girl, until Ethel opened her great dark eyes, and fixed them upon the aged, distorted face with a questioning look.
"Lesley!" she breathed. "I want Lesley."
"Oh, my dearest child, you must do without Lesley now. It is not fit that she should come to you."
But Ethel's lips again formed the same sounds: "I want Lesley." And the old lady continued—
"She must not come, dear: you cannot see Lesley Brooke again. It is her father who has done this terrible thing—blighted your life—destroyed your happiness——"
And so she would have babbled on had not Ethel all at once raised herself in her bed, with white face and flaming eyes, and called in tones as clear and resonant as ever—
"Lesley! Lesley! come back!"
And then the old aunt was silent: silent and amazed.
From the next room Lesley came, softly and swiftly as was her wont. Her face was pale, but her eyes and lips were steady. She went straight to Ethel; was at once encircled by the girl's arms, and drew Ethel's head down upon her shoulder.
"Shall I go?" she whispered in Ethel's ear.
"No, no; don't leave me."
"You know what they say? Can you trust my father?"
"I trust you both. Stay with me."
Lesley raised her head and looked back at the little group of meddlesome women who had tried to tear her from her friend's side. At the look they disappeared. They dared not say another word after meeting the rebuke conveyed in Lesley's pale, set face and resolute eyes. They closed the door behind them, and left the two girls alone.
For a long time neither spoke. Ethel seemed to have relapsed once more into a semi-unconscious state. Lesley sat motionless, pillowing her friend's head against her shoulder, and stroking one of her hands with her own. Now and then hot tears welled over and dropped upon Ethel's dark, curly head, but Lesley did not try to wipe them away. She scarcely knew that she was crying: she was only aware of a great weight of trouble that had come upon her—trouble that seemed to include in its effects all that she held most dear. Trouble not only to her friend, but to her father, her mother, her lover. Not a shadow of doubt as to her father's innocence rested upon her mind: there was no perplexity, no shame—only sorrow and anxiety. Not many women could have borne the strain of utter silence with such a burden laid on them to bear. But to Lesley, even in that hour, Ethel's trouble was greater than her own.
An hour must have passed away before Ethel murmured,
"Lesley—are you there?"
"Yes, I am with you, darling: I am here."
"You are crying."
"I am crying for you, Ethel, dear."
For the first time, Ethel's hand answered to her pressure. After a little silence, she spoke again—
"I wish I could die—too."
"My poor little Ethel."
"I suppose there is no chance of that. People—like me—don't die. They only suffer—and suffer—and break their hearts—and live till they are eighty. Oh, if you were kind to me, you would give me something to make me die."
She shuddered, and crept a little closer to Lesley's bosom. "Oh, why must he go—without me—without me?" she cried. And then she burst out suddenly into bitter weeping, and with Lesley's arms about her she wept away some of the "perilous stuff" of misery which had seemed likely to destroy the balance of her brain. When those tears came her reason was saved, and Lesley was wise enough to be reassured and not alarmed by them.
She was very much exhausted when the burst of tears was over, and Lesley was allowed to feed her with strong soup, which she took submissively from her friend. "You won't go?" she whispered, when the meal was done. And Lesley whispered back: "I will not go, darling, so long as you want me here."
"I want you—always." Then with a gleam of returning strength and memory: "What was it they said about your father?"
"Never mind, Ethel, dear," she said.
"But—I know—I remember. That he was—a—oh, I can't say the word. But that is not true."
"I know it is not true. It is a foolish, cruel mistake."
"It could not be true," Ethel murmured. "He was always kind and good. Tell him—from me—that I don't believe it, Lesley. And don't let them take you away from me."
Holding Lesley's hand in hers, at last she fell asleep; and sleep was the very thing that was likely to restore her. The doctor came and went, forbidding the household to disturb the quiet of the sick-room; and after a time, Lesley, exhausted by the excitements and anxieties of the day, laid her head on the pillow and also slept. It was late in the afternoon when Maurice Kenyon, stealing softly into the room, found the two heads close together on one pillow, the arms interlaced, the slumber of one as deep as of the other. His eyes filled with tears as he looked at the sleeping figures. "Poor girls!" he muttered to himself. "Well for them if they can sleep; but I fear that theirs will be a sad awakening."
Suddenly Lesley opened her eyes. The color rushed to her pale cheeks as she saw who was regarding her, but she had sufficient self-control not to start or move too hastily. Ethel altered her position at that moment, and left Lesley free to rise, then sank back to slumber. And, obeying a silent motion of Maurice Kenyon's hand, Lesley followed him noiselessly into the dressing-room.
"She ought not to be left alone: I promised not to leave her," said Lesley in a low tone.
"I have brought a nurse with me. She can go in and sit by the bed until you are ready to return," said Maurice, quietly. "Call us, nurse, if my sister wakes and asks for us; but be very careful not to disturb her unnecessarily."
The nurse, whose face Lesley scanned with involuntary interest, was gentle and sensible-looking, with kindly eyes and a strong, well-shaped mouth. She looked like a woman to be trusted; and Lesley was therefore not sorry to see her pass into Ethel's room. She had felt very conscious of her own ignorance of nursing during the past few hours, and had not much confidence in the sense or judgment of any woman in the house. Maurice made her sit down, and then stood looking at her for a moment.
"You are terribly pale," he said at last. "Will you come downstairs and let me give you something to eat and drink?"
"Oh, no, thank you. I want nothing. And Ethel may need me: I cannot bear to be far away."
"Have you had nothing all day? It is after five o'clock."
She shook her head.
"Then you must eat before I talk to you. I have several things to say, and you must have strength to listen. Sit still: I will be back directly."
He went away, and Lesley leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She was very weary, but even in her trouble there was some sweetness for her in the knowledge that Maurice was attending to her needs. When he returned with wine and food, she roused herself to accept both, knowing very well that he would not tell her what she wanted to hear until she had done his bidding. The door between bed and dressing room was closed; the house was very quiet, and the light was dim. Maurice spoke at last, in grave, low tones.
"I have just come from your father," he said. Lesley started and clasped her hands. "Is he at home again?"
"No. They would not let him go. But take heart—we, who know him, will stand by him until he is a free man."
"Then you believe—as I believe?" she asked, tremulously.
"Would it be possible for me to do otherwise? Hasn't he been my friend for many a year? You have surely no need to ask!"
Lesley, looking up at him, stretched out her hand in silence. He took it in both his own and kissed it tenderly. Seeing her grief, and seeing also her sympathy for another woman who grieved, had, for the time being, cured him of his anger against her. He had cherished some bitter feeling towards her for a while; but he forgot it now.
"I am as sure," he said, fervently, "that Caspar Brooke could not commit murder as I am sure that you could not. It is an absurdity to think of it."
"Then what has made people think of it?" asked Lesley. "How has it come about?"
Maurice paused. "There is a mystery somewhere," he said slowly, "which is a little difficult to fathom. Can you bear to hear the details? Your father told me to tell them to you—as gently as I could."
"Tell me all—all, please."
"Poor Oliver Trent was found dead early this morning on the stair of a lodging-house in Whitechapel. I have been to the place myself: it is now under the care of the police. He had been beaten about the head ... it was very horrible ... with a thick oaken staff or walking stick ... the stick lay beside him, covered with blood, where he was found. The stick was—was your father's, unfortunately: it must have been stolen by some ruffian for the purpose—and—and——"
He stopped short, as if the story were too hard to tell. Lesley sat watching his face, which was as pale as her own.
"Go on," she said, quickly. "What else?"
"A pocket-book—with gilt letters on the back: C. B. distinctly marked. That was also found on the stairs, as if it had dropped from the pocket of some man as he went down. And it is proved—indeed, your father tells me so—that he went to that house last night and did not leave it until nearly midnight."
"But why was he there?"
"He went to see the man and woman who lived in the top room of that lodging-house. I think you know the woman. She was once your maid——"
"Mary Kingston? She came to our house that very afternoon. She must have asked my father to go to see her—he spoke kindly of her to me. But why did Mr. Trent go there too?"
"There have been secrets kept from us which have now come to light," said Maurice, sadly. "Oliver went there to see his brother Francis, who was ill in bed; and his brother's wife was no other than the woman who acted as your maid, Mary Kingston—or rather Mary Trent. Kingston left your house on Saturday, it seems, because she had caught sight of her husband in the street: he had been very ill, and she felt herself obliged to go home with him and put him to bed. He has been in bed, unable to rise, she tells me, ever since."
"But she—she," said Lesley eagerly, "can explain the whole matter. She must have heard the fight—the scuffle—whatever it was—upon the stairs. She ought to be able to tell when father left the house—and when Mr. Trent left the house. They did not go together, did they?" there was a touch of scorn in her voice.
"No, they did not go together. But what Mrs. Trent alleges is, that your father waited for Oliver on the stairs, and attacked him there. It is a malicious, wicked lie—I am sure of that. But it is what she says she is willing to swear."
"Mrs. Trent!" Lesley repeated vaguely. "Mrs. Trent! Do you mean—Kingston? Kingston swears that my father lay in wait for Oliver Trent upon the stairs? It is impossible!"
"Yes, Kingston," Maurice answered, in a low, level voice. "It is Kingston who has accused your father of the crime."
Lesley covered her face with her hands, and for a moment or two did not speak. "It is too terrible," she said at last, not very steadily. "I do not know how to believe it. I always trusted her. Is there nobody worth trusting in the world? Is there no truth and faith anywhere at all?"
The tears were raining down her cheeks as she spoke. Maurice looked at her with wistful tenderness.
"Can you ask that question when you have such a father?" he asked. "And I—have I done anything to deserve your want of trust?"
She could only sob out incoherent words by way of answer. "Not you—not my father—I was thinking—of others—others I have trusted and been deceived in."
"Oliver Trent," he said—not as a question so much as by way of sad assertion. She drew her handkerchief away from her eyes immediately, and gazed at him through her tears, with flushed cheeks and panting breath. What did he mean? He did not leave her long in doubt.
"Kingston—Mrs. Trent—has told a strange story," he said. "She avers that Oliver was false—false to my poor little sister who believed in him so entirely—false to himself and false to us. They say you knew of this. She says that he—he made love to you, that he asked you to marry him—to run away with him indeed—so late as last Saturday. She had hidden herself between the folding-doors in order to hear what went on. Lesley, is this true?"
She was white enough now. She cast one appealing glance at his face, and then said, almost inaudibly—
"Don't tell Ethel."
"Then it was true?"
"Oh, my God!" cried Maurice, involuntarily. He did not use the words with any profane intention: they escaped his lips as a sort of cry of agony, of protest, almost of entreaty. He had hoped until this moment that Lesley would be able to deny this charge. When she acknowledged its truth, the conviction of Oliver's falsity, the suspicion of Lesley's faith, smote him like a blow. He drew back from her a little and looked at her steadfastly. Lesley raised her candid, innocent eyes to his, and, after a moment's silence, made her defence.
"I could not help it. If Kingston speaks the truth, she will tell you that. He locked the door so that I could not get out, and then ... I said I would never speak to him again. I was never so angry—so ashamed—in all my life. You must not think that I—I too—was false to Ethel. She is my friend, and I never dreamed of taking him away from her. I never cared—in that way—for him, and even if I had——"
"You never cared? Did you not love him, too?"
"No! no, indeed! I hated him. If Kingston says so she is lying about me, as she is lying about my father. You say that you do not believe her when she speaks against him: surely you won't believe her when she speaks against me? Can't you trust my father's daughter, as well as my father?"
The voice was almost passionate in its pleading: the lovely eyes were eloquent of reproach. Maurice felt his whole being quiver: he was shaken to the very depths. Why should she plead to him in this way if she had no love at all for him? Why should she be so anxious that he should trust her? And did he not? He could not look into her face and think for one moment that she lied.
"I do trust—your father's daughter," he said, hoarsely. "I trust her above all women living!—God knows that I do. You did not love Oliver? It was not to him that you made some promise you spoke of—some promise against engaging yourself?"
"It was to my mother," said Lesley, simply. "I am sorry that I did not make you understand."
He took a quick step nearer. "May I say more?"
She shook her head.
"Not now," she answered, softly. But a very faint and tremulous smile quivered for one moment on her lips. "It is very wrong to talk of ourselves just now. Go on with your story—tell me about my dear, dearest father."
"I will," said Maurice. "I will do exactly what you wish—just now"—with a great accent on the last two words. "We will talk about that promise at a more fitting time, Lesley—I may call you Lesley, may I not? There is no harm in that, for you are like a sister to my poor Ethel, and you may as well let me be a brother to you, dear, just now. Well, Lesley"—how he lingered over the name!—"Mrs. Trent says that she returned to your house on Monday afternoon in order to warn your father of what was going, on——"
"Oh! Did she really?"
"Yes, for your father tells me she did so. She also told him various stories of Oliver's baseness, which he felt it his duty to inquire into, and in order that, he might have an interview with Oliver, she arranged with him to come that night to the house in Whitechapel, where she and her husband were living. There she was to confront him with Oliver, and she said that in her presence he would not dare to deny that her tales were true."
"But why did father agree to that? Why did he want to find out?"
"For Ethel's sake. He wanted to protect her. If Mrs. Trent could prove her stories, he meant to expose Oliver to Ethel and myself, if it were but an hour before her marriage——"
"And why didn't he?" demanded Lesley, breathlessly.
"Because—here comes in your father's evidence—your father assures me that when he reached the house that night and confronted Oliver, the woman took back every word that she had uttered, and declared that it was all a lie. And Oliver, of course, persisted that he had done nothing amiss. Your father says he was so much tempted to strike Oliver to the ground—for he did not believe in Kingston's retractation—that he flung his stick out upon the landing lest he should use it too effectually. He forgot to pick it up, and came away without it. The pocket-book must of course have fallen out of his pocket as he left the house."
"Then he could not convict Mr. Trent of anything?"
"No, and so he did not feel justified in meddling. But he wishes that he had gone to Ethel at once—or that I had been at home and that he had come to me. He is reproaching himself terribly for his silence now."
"As I have been reproaching myself for mine," said Lesley.
"You have no need. Ethel would never have believed the stories—and as Mrs. Trent denied them again, I think that Oliver would have carried the day. But let her deny them as she will, I believe that they were true, and that Oliver was a villain. Our poor Ethel may live to bless the day when she was delivered from him."
"I am afraid she will never believe us, or forgive us if she does," sighed Lesley. "But what else happened?"
"Your father left the building, after a long and angry conversation, about midnight. Oliver remained behind. Of course your father knows nothing more. But Mrs. Trent says that Oliver went away ten minutes later, and that she then heard loud words and the sound of a struggle upon the stairs. Fights are too common in that neighborhood to excite much remark. She, however, feeling anxious, stole down the upper flight of stairs, and distinctly saw Mr. Brooke and her brother-in-law struggling together. She maintains that Mr. Brooke's stick was in his hand."
"How wickedly false! Why did she not scream if she saw such a sight?"
"She was afraid. And she says that she did not think it would come to—murder. She crept back to her room again, and in a few minutes everything was quiet. Only—in the early morning the dead body of Oliver Trent was found upon the stairs, and then she gave information as to what she had seen and heard."
There was a short silence. Then Lesley said, very tremulously—"It sounds like a plot—a plot against my dear father's good name!"
"And a very cleverly concocted plot too," thought Maurice to himself in silent rage; but he dared not say so much aloud. He only answered, tenderly—
"Such a plot can never come to good, Lesley. You and I together—we will unravel it—we will clear your father, and bring him back to the world again."
"He is not coming home just yet, then?"
"I am afraid—dear, do not tremble so—he will have to take his trial. But he will be acquitted, you will see."
She let him press her fingers to his lips again, and made no outward sign; but the two looked into each other's eyes, and each was conscious of the presence of a deadly fear.
A VAIN APPEAL.
Lesley went home to sleep, and learned from her aunt the details of her father's arrest. "But he will be back in a few hours," said Miss Brooke, obstinately. "They will be obliged to let him ago. They will accept bail, of course. Mr. Kenyon thinks they will."
"Has Mr. Kenyon been here?"
"Oh, yes; he brought me a message from Caspar. What a horrible thing it is! But the ridiculous—absurd—part of it is that your father should be accused. Why, your father was very friendly with Oliver Trent—at least he used to be!" Then Miss Brooke paused, and fired an unexpected question at her niece. "Have you any reason to think he was not?"
Lesley winced and hesitated. "I don't think he liked Mr. Trent very much," she said, at last; "but that is a different thing——"
"From killing him? I should think so!" said Doctor Sophy, in a high tone of voice. She was in her dressing-gown, and sitting before the fire that had been lighted in her own little sanctum upstairs; but she was not smoking as she was usually at that hour. The occasion was too serious for cigarettes: Doctor Sophy was denying herself. Perhaps that was the reason why she looked so haggard and so angry, as she turned suddenly and spoke to her niece in a somewhat excited way.
"What made him unfriendly? Do you not know? It was because you flirted with Oliver Trent! I really think you did, Lesley. And I know your father thought so too."
"Then he ought to have been vexed with me, not with Oliver," said Lesley, standing her ground, but turning very pale.
"Yes, yes, but you are a girl, and he did not like to blame you. He spoke rather strongly about Oliver Trent to me. However, it is no use saying so now. We had better keep that phase of the matter as quiet as we can."
"Aunt Sophy," said Lesley, in a tremulous tone, "you don't mean—you don't think—that my—my flirting, as you call it, with Mr. Trent will be spoken of and tend to hurt my father—my father's good name?"
Aunt Sophy stared at her. "Of course it would hurt your father's chances if it were talked about," she said, rather, sharply. "I don't see how it could do otherwise. People would say that he might have quarrelled with Oliver about you, you know. But we must try to keep the matter as quiet as we can. I'm prepared to swear that they were bosom-friends, and that I never heard Caspar say a word against him; and you had better follow my example."
"But, Aunt Sophy—if I can't——"
"If you want to come the Jeanie Deans' business, my dear," said Miss Brooke, "you had better reflect that personal application to the Queen for a pardon will not help you very much now-a-days. I must confess that, although I admire Jeanie Deans very much, I don't intend to emulate her. It's my opinion too that most women will tell lies for the sake of men they love, but not for the sake of women."
"Oh, Aunt Sophy!"
"It is no good making exclamations," said Aunt Sophy, with unusual irritability. "If you are different from all other women, I can't help it. I once thought that I was different myself, but I find I am as great a fool as any of them. There, go to bed, child! Things will turn out all right by and by. Nobody could be so absurd as to believe ill of your father."
"You think it will be all right?" said Lesley, wistfully.
"Don't ask me to believe in a God in heaven, if things go badly with Caspar," said Miss Brooke, curtly. "Haven't I lived ten years in the house with the man, and don't I know that he would not hurt a fly? He's the gentlest soul alive, although he looks so big and strong: the gentlest, softest-hearted, most generous——But I suppose it is no good saying all that to your mother's daughter?"—and Miss Brooke picked up a paper-covered volume that had fallen to her feet, and began to read.
"I am my father's daughter too," said Lesley, with rather tremulous dignity, as she turned away. She was too indignant with Miss Brooke to wish her good-night, and meant to leave the room without another word. But Miss Brooke, dropping her book on her red flannel lap, and looking uneasily over her shoulder at her niece's retreating figure, would not let her go.
"Come, Lesley, don't be angry," she said. "I am so upset that I hardly know what I am saying. Come here and kiss me, child, I did not mean to vex you."
And Lesley came back and kissed her aunt, but in silence, for her heart was sore within her. Was it perhaps true—or partially true—that she had been the cause of the misery that had come upon them all? Indirectly and partially, unintentionally and without consciousness of wrong-doing—and yet she could not altogether acquit herself of blame. Had she been more reserved, more guarded in her behavior, Oliver Trent would never have fallen in love with her. Would this have mended matters? If, as she gathered, the sole reason of her father's visit to the Trents had been to assure himself of the true nature of her relations with Oliver—her cheeks burned as she put the matter in that light, even to herself—why, then, she could not possibly divest herself of responsibility. Of course she could not for one moment imagine that her father had lifted his hand against Oliver; but his visit to the house shortly before the murder gave a certain air of plausibility to the tale: and for this Lesley felt herself to blame.
She went to her own room and lay down, but she could not sleep. There was a hidden joy at the bottom of her heart—a joy of which she was half ashamed. The relief of finding that Maurice was still her friend—it was so that she phrased it to herself—was indeed very great. And there was a strange and beautiful hope for the future, which she dared not look at yet. For it seemed to her as if it would be a sort of treason to dream of love and joy and hope for herself when those that she loved best—and she herself also—were involved in one common downfall, one common misfortune of so terrible a kind. The thought of her father—detained, she knew not where: she had a childish vision of a felon's cell, very different indeed from the reality of the plain but fairly comfortable room with which Mr. Caspar Brooke had been accommodated, and she shuddered at the thought of the days before him, of the public examinations, of the doubt and shame and mystery in which poor Oliver Trent's death was enwrapped. She thought of Ethel, now under the influence of a strong narcotic, from which she would not awake until the morning; and she shrank in imagination from that awakening to despair. And she thought of others who were more or less concerned in the tragedy; of Mary Kingston—though she could not remember her without a shudder—of Mrs. Romaine, who had loved her brother so tenderly; and of Lady Alice, the woman whose husband was in prison for a crime of which Lesley was willing to swear that he was innocent.
When her thoughts once reached her mother, they stayed and would not be diverted. She could not sleep: she could think of nothing but the mother and the father whom she loved. And she wept over the failure of her schemes for their reunion. All hope of that was at an end. It was impossible that Lady Alice should not believe him guilty. She had always judged him harshly, and taken the worst possible view of his behavior. Lesley remembered that she had not—in common parlance—"had a good word to say for him," when she spoke of him in the convent parlor. What would she say now, and how could Lesley make her see the truth?
The fruit of her reflections became evident at breakfast-time next morning. Lesley came downstairs with her hat on and a mantle over her arm.
"Where are you going?" Miss Brooke asked. "Not to poor Ethel, I hope? I am very sorry for her, but really, Lesley——"
"I am going to mamma," said Lesley.
"Going to——Well, upon my word! Lesley, I did think you had a little more feeling for your father! Going——Well, I shall not countenance it. I shall not let your boxes go out of the house. It is simply disgraceful."
"But I don't want my boxes," said Lesley, rather forlornly helping herself to a cup of coffee. "What have my boxes to do with it, Aunt Sophy? I shall be back in an hour. Mr. Kenyon said we should be able to see father to-day, and I do not want to be away when he comes."
"Then—then you don't mean to stay with your mamma?" gasped Aunt Sophy.
Lesley could not help a little laugh, but the tears came into her brown eyes as she laughed. "Would you mind very much if I did, Aunt Sophy?" she asked, setting down her cup of coffee.
"I should mind for this reason," said Miss Brooke, stoutly, "that if you ran away from your father's house now, people would say that you thought him guilty. It would go against him terribly. Sooner than that, I would lock you into your own room and prevent your going by main force."
"I believe you would," said Lesley, "and so would I, in your place, Aunt Sophy. But you need not be afraid. I am as proud of my father and as full of faith in him as even you can be; and if I go to see my mother, it is only that I may tell her so, and let her understand that she has no cause to be afraid for him." The color came to her face as she spoke, and she lifted her head so proudly that Aunt Sophy felt—for a moment or two—slightly abashed.
"I will be back in an hour," Lesley went on, firmly, "and I hope that Mr. Kenyon will wait for me if he comes before I return."
"Am I to tell him where you have gone?" asked Miss Brooke, with a slight touch of sharpness in her voice.
And Lesley replied, "Certainly. And my father, too, if you see him before I do. I am not doing anything wrong."
Greatly to her surprise, Miss Brooke got up and kissed her. "My dear," she said, "you are very like your father, and I am sure you won't do anything to hurt his feelings; but are you quite sure that you need go to Lady Alice just at present?"
"Quite sure, Aunt Sophy." And then Miss Brooke sighed, shook her head, and let her go, with the air of one who sees a person undertake a hopeless quest. For she fancied that Lesley was going to make an attempt to reconcile the husband and wife who had been so long separated, and she did not believe that any such attempt was likely to succeed. But she had not fathomed Lesley's plan aright.
The girl took a hansom and drove at once to her mother's house. She knew well where it was situated, but she had never visited it before. It was a small house, but in a good position, close to the Green Park, and at any other moment Lesley would have been struck by the air of distinction that it had already achieved. It was painted differently from the neighboring houses: the curtains and flower-boxes in the windows were remarkably fresh and dainty, the neat maid who opened the front door was neater and smarter than other people's maids. Lesley was informed that her ladyship was not up yet; and the servant seemed to think that she had better go away on receiving this information.
"I will come in," said Lesley, quietly. "I am Miss Brooke. You can take my name up to her first, if you like, but I want to see her at once."
The maid looked doubtful, but at this moment Mrs. Dayman was seen crossing the hall, and her exclamation of mingled pleasure and dismay caused Lesley to be admitted without further parley.
Lady Alice was up, but not fully dressed; she was breakfasting in a dressing-room or boudoir, which opened out of her own sleeping apartment. As soon as Lesley entered she started up; and the girl noticed at the first glance that her mother was looking ill, but perhaps the richly-tinted plush morning-gown, that fell round her slender figure in long straight folds, made her look taller and thinner than usual. Certainly her face was worn, and her eyelids were reddened as if from weeping or sleeplessness.
"Lesley! my darling! have you come back to me?"
She folded the girl in her arms and pressed her lips to the soft cheek, a little sob breaking from her as she spoke.
"Only for half an hour, mamma. Just to speak to you for a few minutes about him."
"Him! Your father! Oh, Lesley, what does it all mean?"
"Poor mamma! it must have been a great shock to you. Sit down, and I will tell you all that I know."
And gently pressing Lady Alice back into a seat, Lesley took a footstool at her mother's knee and told her the story. Lady Alice listened in silence. With one hand she stroked Lesley's hair; with the other she held Lesley's fingers, and Lesley noticed that it twitched from time to time as if in nervous agitation. Otherwise, however, she was very calm.
"And so," she said, at last, "you came to tell me the story as you know it.... But, my child, you have told me very little that I did not know already. Even in last night's papers the relationship between Oliver Trent and these people in Whitechapel was commented on. And your own name, my darling—that did not escape. Did you think I should misunderstand you?"
"Oh, no, mamma—not misunderstand me, but I was afraid lest you might misunderstand some one else."
Lady Alice was silent.
"I was afraid," said Lesley, softly, "lest the years that have gone by should have made you forget his gentleness and nobleness of soul—lest for one moment you should think him capable of a mean or vile action. I came to tell you, dearest mother, how impossible it was for us—who know him—to credit for one moment an accusation of this kind. If all the world said that he was guilty, you and I, mamma, would know that he was not."
"My child, my darling, you must speak for yourself. Do not try to speak for me!"
"Mother, won't you give me a message for him?"
"Are you going to see him, Lesley?"
"I hope so. Mr. Kenyon said he would take me."
There was a short silence, and then Lesley lifted her eyes to her mother's face. She was not encouraged by what she saw there. It was pale, sad, immobile, and, as it seemed to Lesley, very cold.
"Mother, I must go. Won't you send him a message?"
"I have no message, Lesley."
"Not one little word?"
"Not one." And then, as if trying to excuse herself Lady Alice added, hurriedly, "there is nothing that I can say which would please him. He would not care for any message from me."
"He would care to hear that you trusted him!"
"I do not think so," said Lady Alice, with a little shake of her head.
Lesley rose to her feet, silenced for the moment, but not altogether vanquished. She put her arms round her mother's neck.
"But you do trust him, mamma? Tell me that, at any rate."
For almost the first time within Lesley's memory Lady Alice made a gesture of impatience.
"I cannot be catechised; Lesley. Let me alone. You do not understand."
And Lesley was obliged to go away, feeling sorrowfully that she had failed in her mission. Perhaps, however, she had succeeded better than she knew.
"AT YOUR SIDE."
Caspar Brooke was not as yet debarred the privilege of seeing his friends, and on the morning after his arrest he had a great many visitors, including, of course, Maurice Kenyon and his lawyer. Maurice was busying himself earnestly on his friend's behalf; and, considering the position that Brooke held, the esteem felt for him in high places, and the amount of interest that was being brought to bear on the authorities, there was little doubt but that he would be let out on bail in a day or two, even if the proceedings were not quashed altogether. Some delay, however, there was sure to be owing to the pertinacity of Mary Trent's assertion that she saw him struggling with Oliver on the stairs, but in the meantime his detention was allowed to press as lightly upon him as possible.
It was noon before Lesley saw him, and when she sprang to his side and threw her arms around his neck, with a new demonstrativeness of manner, she noticed that his brows lifted a little, and that he smiled with a look of positive pleasure and relief.
"So you have come?" he said, holding her to him as if he did not like to let her go. "I began to wonder if you had deserted me!"
"Oh, father! Why, I have been waiting ever so long for Mr. Grierson to go."
"And before that——?" he asked, in rather a peculiar tone.
"Before that—I went to see mamma." And Lesley looked bravely up into his face.
"That was an infringement of contract, as I suppose you know," said Caspar, smiling persistently. "But it does not matter very much. What did 'mamma' say to you?"
"I—don't—know," murmured Lesley, confused by the question. "Nothing very much."
"Nothing. Ah, I know what that means." He turned away from her, and, sitting down, leaned his elbows upon a table, and played with his beard. "It was useless, Lesley," he said, quietly, after a few minutes' silence. "Your mother is the last person whose sympathies will be enlisted on my side."
Lesley tried to speak but suddenly felt her voice fail her; so instead of speaking she knelt down by her father, leaned her head upon his shoulder, and burst into very heartfelt tears.
"Little one," said Caspar, "I'm afraid we have both got ourselves into a mess."
It did not sound comforting, but Lesley stayed her tears to listen.
"I have been talking to Grierson," her father continued, "and we have agreed that there must be no suppression of the truth. My dislike to Oliver Trent has been commented on already, and I must give a reason for it. Lesley, my dear, you will have to contribute your own evidence as to the reason."
Lesley looked up with terrified, wide-open eyes. "Do you mean that I shall have to say——"
"You will have to go into the witness-box and tell what you know, or rather answer the questions that are asked you."
"But will that be—best—for you?" She put the question with some difficulty.
"That is not the point. What we have to do is to tell the truth, and leave the result to others."
"—To God?" Lesley interposed, almost involuntarily. Caspar Brooke's lip moved with a grave smile.
"Well, yes, to God if you will have it so—we use different terms, but perhaps we have the same meaning. We must at any rate leave the result to the working of various laws which we cannot control, and to fight against these laws of nature is wrong-doing—or sin. Therefore, Lesley, you will have to tell the truth, whether it may seem to be for my good or my harm."
She glanced at him rather piteously, and her eyes filled with tears. Aunt Sophy's words recurred to her mind; but they seemed feeble and futile in the light of his courage and steadfastness. Aunt Sophy had been wrong—so much was clear to Lesley; and truth was best under all possible circumstances.
"It is for Ethel I am sorry," she murmured.
"Yes, poor Ethel. It is true then—what that woman said—that Oliver Trent was in love with you?"
"I could not help it, father. I don't think it was my fault. I did not know till it was too late."
"I am not blaming you, my dear. When I came into the drawing-room that day—do you remember?—what had happened then? Can you bear to tell me?"
She hid her face on his shoulder as she answered, "He was speaking foolishly. I think he wanted to—to kiss me.... I was very glad that you came in."
"Was that the first time?"
"Yes, the first. And I did not even see him again until that Saturday night, when he found me in the study—and——"
"And asked you to run away with him?"
"Yes. Indeed, I had not led him to think that I would do any such thing, father. I told him never to speak to me again. If it had not been for Ethel's sake, I think I should have called someone—but I did not like to make a disturbance."
"No, dear, no. And you—yourself—you did not care for him?"
"Oh no, no, no!"
"It has been a terrible tangle—and the knot has been cut very rudely," said Mr. Brooke, in a musing tone. "Of one thing I am quite certain, we were not fit to have the care of you, Lesley—your aunt and I. You would never have been in this position, my poor child, if we had looked after you."
"It isn't that which troubles me," said Lesley, trying to steady her voice. "It is—that you have to bear the brunt of it all. If it had not been for me you would never have been here. It has been my fault!"
"Not your fault, child," said her father. "The fault did not lie with you, but with that unfortunate young man, for whom I am truly sorry. Don't be morbid, Lesley; look things straight in the face, and don't blame yourself unless you are perfectly sure that you deserve to be blamed."
And there the conference ended, for Miss Brooke arrived at that moment, and Lesley thought it advisable to leave the choice of a subject of conversation in her hands. Caspar had many visitors that day, and many letters of advice and condolence, for few men were blessed—or cursed—with as many friends as he. Among the letters that reached him was a note without signature, which he read hastily, and as hastily concealed when he had read it. This note was written in uneven, crooked characters, as if the writer's hand had shaken as she wrote, and ran as follows:—
"I ought not to write, but how can I keep silence? There is nothing that I am not capable of bearing for my friends. If you will but confide in me—I am ready to do, to bear, to suffer anything—to forgive anything. Let me see you: I can then speak more freely. If you should be set at liberty in a day or two, I shall hear. You can then come to me: if not, I will come to you. But you need have no fear for me: I shall take means to prevent recognition."
The envelope was plain and of common texture; but the note-paper was hand-made; with a faint, fine odor as of some sweet-smelling Eastern wood, and bore in one corner the letters "R. R.," intertwined in deep blue tints. There was no doubt in Caspar's mind as to the person from whom it came.
He received it about three o'clock in the afternoon. If he wished to decline the proposed interview, he knew that he must write at once. In his heart he knew also that it would be better for him and better for her that the interview should be declined. What had he to do with Rosalind Romaine? He was accused of murdering her brother: it was not seemly that she should see him—even although the world were not to know of the visit. The world would know sooner or later—that was the worst of it: ultimately, the world knows everything. But why should she wish to see him? Had she information to impart? If she had, it would be foolish, from merely conventional reasons, to refuse her admittance, supposing that she really wished to come. And in a day or two at most he would certainly be able to go, if necessary, to her.
But the fact was, he did not believe that she had any information to impart. She did not say so. Probably she only wished to express her faith in him, and to assure him of her friendship. Rosalind had been his friend through many a long year. She had always shown herself kind and sympathetic—in spite of one or two interludes of coldness and general oddity which Caspar had never felt able to understand. It would be pleasant enough to hear her say that she trusted him—he could not help feeling that. For, although he had passed the matter off very lightly when talking to Lesley, he was secretly hurt at the absence of any message from his wife. He could almost have worked himself into a rage at the thought of it. "Does she, too, think me guilty?" he asked himself. "She ought to know me better, although she does not love me! She ought to know. And she does know, but she is too cold and too proud to say so. Poor, warm-hearted Lesley has tried to win her sympathy for me and failed. Well, I never expected otherwise: she never gave me what I wanted—sympathy, understanding, or love! And how can she blame me"—the thought stole unawares into his mind—"if I turn for sympathy to one who offers it?"
Yes, Rosalind would sympathize, and there would be no harm in listening to her gentle words. He had the pen in his hand, paper and ink before him: a word would be enough, if he wished to stay her visit. But he would not write it: if she liked to come, she might come—he would be glad to see her. Besides, her letter wanted explanation: for what had she to forgive?
He pushed the writing materials away from him, and went to the fireplace, where a small fire was burning very dimly. The day was cloudy, and the afternoon was drawing in. He crushed the coal with the heel of his boot in order to make a flame leap up; then leaned his elbow on the narrow mantelpiece and gazed down into the glowing embers.
The door opened and closed again behind him, but at first he did not look up. He thought that the attendant had come to light the gas or bring him some tea. But when he heard no further sound, he suddenly stirred and looked up; and in the dim light he saw beside him the figure of a woman, cloaked and veiled.
Was it Rosalind? No, it was too tall for Rosalind Romaine. Not Lesley?—though it had a look of her! And then his heart gave a tremendous leap (although no one would have suspected it, for his massive form and bearded face remained as motionless and calm as ever), for it dawned upon him that the visitor was none other than Lesley's mother, his wife, Alice Brooke, who had quitted him in anger twelve years before.
"I beg your pardon," he said, courteously. "I did not see—I had no idea who it was. Will you not sit down?"
He handed her a chair, with a bow as formal as that of a complete stranger. Perhaps the formality was inevitable. Lady Alice put her hand on the back of the chair, and felt that she was trembling.
"I hope I am not intruding," she said, in a voice as formal as his own.
"Not at all. It was most kind of you to come. Pray sit down."
She seated herself in silence, and then put up her veil. He remained standing, and for a moment or two the husband and wife looked each other steadily in the face, with a sort of curiosity and with a sort of wonder too. The years had not dealt unkindly with either of them. Lady Alice had kept her slender grace of figure and her gentleness of expression, but the traces of sorrow and anxiety were so visible upon her delicate face that Caspar felt a sudden impulse of pity towards the woman who had suffered in her loneliness more than he had perhaps thought possible. As she sat and looked at him, a certain pathetic quality showing itself with more than usual vividness in her soft eyes and drooping mouth, he was conscious of a desire to take her in his arms and console her for all the past. But he caught back the impulse with an inward laugh of scorn. She had no doubt come to run needles into him, as she used to do in those unlucky days of poverty and struggle. She had a knack of looking pretty and sweet while she was doing it, he remembered. It would not do to show any weakness now.
And she—what did she think of him? She was less absorbed with the consideration of any change in him than with what she intended to say. What impressed her most were the inflections of his quiet, musical voice—a voice as unroughened and as gentle as when it wooed her in her father's Northern Castle years before! She had forgotten its power, but it made her tremble now from head to foot with a sort of terror that was not without charm. It was so cold a voice—so cold and calm! She felt that if it once grew tender and caressing her strength would fail her altogether. But there was not much fear of tenderness from him—to her.
After that involuntary and rather awkward pause, Lady Alice recollected herself; and spoke first.
"You must be very much surprised to see me?"
"I am delighted, of course. I could wish"—with a slight smile—"that the apartment was more worthy of you, and that the circumstances were less disagreeable; but I am unfortunately not able to alter these details."
"And it is exactly to these details that you owe my visit," said Lady Alice, with unexpected calmness.
"Then I ought to be grateful them, no doubt."
She moved uneasily, as if the studied conventionality of his tone jarred on her a little; and then she said, with an effort that made her words sound brusque,
"I mean that under ordinary circumstances I should not have come to see you. But these are so strange—so extraordinary—that you will perhaps pardon the intrusion. I felt—on reflection—that it was only right for me to come—to express——"
She faltered, and he took advantage of her hesitation to say, with a quiet smile—
"I am very much obliged to you. But you should not have taken all this trouble. A note would have answered the purpose just as well. I suppose you wish to express your indignation at the little care I seem to have taken of Lesley. You cannot blame me more severely than I blame myself. If she had been under your care I have no doubt we should not be in our present dilemma; but it is no use fretting over what is past—or inevitable. I can only say that I am exceedingly sorry. Will you not loosen your cloak? This room is rather warm. I can't very well ring for tea, I am afraid. You should call on me at Woburn Place, if you want tea."
She loosened her cloak a little at the throat as he suggested. She had taken off her gloves, and he could see that her slender white hands were trembling. Somehow it occurred to him that he had spoken unkindly—but he did not know how or why. His words were commonplace enough. But it was his tone that had been cruel.
"I did not come to make any reproaches or complaints," she said at last, in a low voice.
"No. That was very good of you. I have to thank you, then, for your forbearance."
There was still coldness, still something perilously like scorn, in his tone. It was unbearable to Lady Alice.
"Why do you talk in that way?" she broke out, suddenly. "I came to say something quite different; and you speak as if you wanted to taunt me—to insult me—to hurt me in every possible way? I do not understand what you mean."
"You never did," said Caspar. The scorn had gone now, and the voice had grown stern. "It is useless for us to talk together at all. You have made intercourse impossible. I have no desire to hurt or taunt or insult you, as you phrase it; but, if I am to speak the truth, I must say that I feel very strongly that it is to you and your behavior that we owe the greater part of this trouble. If you had been at my side, if Lesley had been under a mother's wing, sheltered as only a mother could shelter her, there never would have been an opportunity for that man Trent's clandestine approaches, which will put a stigma on that poor child for the rest of her life, and may—for aught I know—endanger my own neck! I could put up with the loss and harm to myself; but once and for all let me say to you, Alice, that you have neglected your duty as a mother as much as I have neglected mine as a father; and that if you had been in your proper place all this ruin and disgrace and misery might never have come about."
The broken and vehement tones of his voice showed that his feelings were powerfully affected. Lady Alice listened in perfect silence, and kept silence for some minutes after the conclusion of his speech. Caspar, leaning with one shoulder against the mantelpiece, looked frowningly before him, as if he were unconscious of the fact that she had taken her handkerchief out of her muff, and was pressing it to her cheeks and eyes. But in reality he was painfully alive to every one of her movements, and expected a plaintive rejoinder to his accusations. But none came. The silence irritated him, as it had formerly irritated him with Lesley. He was obliged at last to ask a question.
"Since you say you did not come to reproach me, may I ask the motive of your visit?" he asked.
"I scarcely think that it is of any use to tell you now," said his wife, quietly. She had got rid of her tears now, and had put her handkerchief away. "I had a sort of fancy that you might like me to tell you with my own lips something that I felt rather strongly, but you would probably resent it—and it is only a trifle after all."
She rose from her chair and drew her fur-lined cloak closely round her, as if preparing to depart.
"I should like to hear it—if I am not troubling you too much," said Caspar.
She averted her eyes and began slowly to draw on her gloves. "It is really nothing—I came on a momentary impulse. I have not seen you for a good many years, and we parted with very angry words on our lips, did we not?—but I wanted to say that—although you were sometimes angry—I never knew you do a cruel thing—you were always kind—kindest of all to creatures that were weak (except, perhaps to me); and I am quite sure—sure as that I stand here—that you never did the thing of which they are accusing you. There!"—and she looked straight into his face—"it is a little thing, no doubt: you have hosts of friends to say the same thing to you: but my tribute is worth having, perhaps, because, after all, I am your wife—and in some ways I do understand!"
Caspar's face worked strangely: he bit his lip hard as he looked at her.
"You are generous, Alice," he said, in a low voice, after a pause that seemed eternal to her.
"Oh, no. Why should you call it generous? I only wanted to say this—and also—that if I can be of any use to you now, I am ready. A little thing sometimes turns the course of public opinion. If I were to go to Woburn Place—to stay with Lesley, for instance—so that all the world could see that I believed in you——"
"But—I shall be at Woburn Place myself in a day or two, on bail; and then——"
"I could stay," said Lady Alice, again looking at him. Then her eyes dropped and the color mounted to her forehead. He made a sudden step towards her.
"Alice—is it possible—after all these years——"
"No, it is not possible," she said, with a little laugh which yet had something in it of a sob, "and I don't think we should ever get on together—and I don't love you at all, except for Lesley's sake—but just until this horrible affair is over, if I might show everybody that I have all possible faith in you, and that I know you to be good and upright and honorable—just till then, Caspar, I should like to be at your side."
But whether Caspar heard the whole of this speech must remain for ever doubtful, as, long before its close, he had taken her in his arms and was sealing the past between them with a long kiss which might verily be called the kiss of peace.
"OUT ON BAIL."
Miss Brooke was electrified. Such a thing had never occurred to her as possible. After years of separation, of dispute, of ill-feeling on either side, here was Lady Alice appearing in her husband's house, and expressing a desire to remain in it. She came to Woburn Place on the evening after her interview with Caspar, and at once made known her wishes to Doctor Sophy.
It was a curious interview. Miss Brooke sat bolt upright on a sofa, with an air of repressed indignation which was exceedingly striking: Lady Alice, half enveloped in soft black furs, was leaning back in the lowest and most luxurious chair the room afforded, with rather more the air of the grande dame than she actually wished to convey. In reality her heart was very soft, and there was moisture in her eyes; but it was difficult for her to shake off an appearance of cold indifference to all the world when Miss Sophia Brooke, M. D., was in her society. She had never understood Doctor Sophy, and Miss Brooke had always detested her.
"Am I to understand, Lady Alice," said the spinster, in her stiffest voice, "that my brother wishes you to take up your abode in this house during his absence?"
"Yes, I think so," said Lady Alice, equably. "He has wished me to take up my abode here for some time past."
The note of incredulity in her voice angered Caspar's wife.
"I think you hardly understand," she said with some quiet dignity, "that I have been to see Mr. Brooke this afternoon. Strange circumstances demand new treatment, Miss Brooke. I consulted with my husband as to what we had better do, and he agreed with me that it would be better for Lesley if I came here—at any rate for the present."
"Better for Lesley!" Miss Brooke was evidently offended. "I do not think that you need put yourself to any inconvenience—even for Lesley's sake. I will take care of her."
"But I happen to be her mother," said Lady Alice, with a touch of amusement. It struck her as odd that Miss Brooke only amused her now, and did not make her angry at all. "And we have the world to think of, besides."
"I scarcely thought you troubled yourself very much about what the world said," remarked Aunt Sophy, severely. "It has said a good deal during the last ten or twelve years."
"At least it shall not say," responded Lady Alice, "that I believe my husband guilty of murder. I have come back to prevent that."
Miss Brooke looked at her doubtfully. She was not a person of very quick perceptions.
"You mean," she said at last, "that you have come back—because——"
"Because he was accused of murder," said Lady Alice, clearly, "and I choose to show the world that I do not believe it."
And Lesley, entering from the library, heard the words, and stood transfixed for a moment with pure delight. Then she sprang forward, fell on her knees before her mother, and embraced her with such fervor that Miss Brooke put up her eye-glasses and gazed in surprise.
"Mother! my own dearest mother! You do believe in him, then! and you have come to show us that you do! Oh! how delighted he will be when he knows!"
A little color showed itself in Lady Alice's delicate face. "He does know," she whispered, almost with the coyness of a girl.
"And he was delighted, was he not? It would be such a comfort to him—just now when he wants every kind of comfort. Oh, mamma, it is so good of you, and I am so glad. Aunty Sophy, aren't you glad, too?"
Lady Alice tried to stifle this naive utterance, but it would not be repressed, and Aunt Sophy had to rise to the occasion as best she could, with rather a grim face, she rose from her seat upon the sofa and advanced towards her brother's wife, holding out a very reluctant hand.
"I appreciate your motives, Lady Alice, and I see that your conduct may be of service to my brother." Then she relapsed into a more colloquial tone. "But how on earth you mean to live in this part of London, I'm sure I can't imagine. No doubt it seems rather smoky and grimy to you after Mayfair and Belgravia."
"London is generally a little smoky," said Lady Alice, smiling in spite of herself. "Thank you, Sophy: I thought you would do me justice."
And the hands of the two women met in a friendlier grasp than ever in the days of yore.
"I must see about your room," said Miss Brooke, practically. It was her way of holding out the olive branch. "You would like to be near Lesley, I suppose. We shall try to make you comfortable, but, of course, you won't expect the luxuries of your own home here."
"I shall be very comfortable, I am sure," said Lady Alice.
"What, does she mean by talking in that tone?" cried Lesley, hotly when Doctor Sophy had left the room. "It was almost insulting!"
"No, my darling, no. It is only a memory of old times when I was—exacting and dissatisfied. Yes, I see that I must have seemed so, then. I had not had much experience in those days; and then your father was not a man of substance as he seems to be now," said Lady Alice, inspecting the room, with a half-smile. The smile died quickly away, however, and was succeeded by a sad look, and a sigh. "Ah, poor Caspar!"
"He will be home in a day or two. Everybody says so."
"I trust so, dearest. And I will stay with—you till he comes home."
"Oh, but now that you have come, mamma you will never be allowed to go away again."
"I never said that, Lesley. I have come to maintain a principle, that is all. A wife ought to show that she trusts her husband, if he is falsely accused."
And then Lady Alice lowered her eyes and changed the subject, for it suddenly occurred to her that she had not been very ready, in her younger years, to give the trust that now seemed to be her husband's due.
But she settled down quite naturally in her husband's home during the next few days. Lesley, remembering the discomfort of her own first few weeks, expected her to say that the house was hideous and the neighborhood detestable. But Lady Alice said nothing of the kind. She thought it a fine old house—well-built and roomy—far preferable, she said, to the places she had often occupied in the West End. With different furniture and a little good taste it might be made absolutely charming. And when she got as far as "absolutely charming," uttered with her chin pillowed on one hand, and her eyes roving meditatively over the drawing-room mantelpiece, Lesley smiled to herself, and gave up all fear that she would ever go away again. Lady Alice had evidently come to the conclusion that it was her duty to see that Caspar's house was thoroughly redecorated from top to bottom.
But she did not come to this conclusion all at once. There were days when the minds of mother and daughter were too full of sorrow and anxiety to occupy themselves with upholstery and bric-a-brac. And the day of the adjourned inquest, when Caspar Brooke was allowed to go to his own house on bail, was one of the worst of all.
He came home quietly that afternoon in company with Maurice Kenyon, greeted his family affectionately but with something of a melancholy air, then went at once to his study, where he shut himself up and began to write and read letters. The cloud was hanging over him still. He knew well enough that if he had been a poor man, of no account in the world, he would at that moment have been occupying a prison cell instead of his own comfortable study. For presumption was strong against him; and it had taken a great deal of influence and extraordinarily high bail to secure his release. At present he stood committed to take his trial for manslaughter within a very short space of time. And nobody had succeeded, or seemed likely to succeed, in throwing any doubt on the testimony of Mary Trent. He was certainly in a very awkward position: it might be a very terrible position by-and-bye.
He was aroused from the reverie into which he had fallen by the entry of a servant with a note. He opened it, read the contents slowly, and then put it into the fire. He stood frowning a little as he watched it burn.
After a few moments of this hesitation he rang the bell, told Sarah that he was going out, and left the house. The three women in the drawing-room upstairs, already nervous and overstrained from long suspense, all started when the reverberation of that closing door made itself heard. Lesley felt her mother's hand close on hers with a quick, convulsive pressure. She looked up.
"He has gone out!" Lady Alice murmured, so that Lesley alone could hear. "He does not come—to us!"
Lesley did not know what to say. She was surprised to find that her mother expected him to come. But then she was only Caspar Brooke's daughter and not his wife.
Lady Alice lay back in her chair, closed her eyes and waited. She had once been a jealous woman: there were the seeds of jealousy in her still. She sat and wondered whether Caspar had gone for sympathy and comfort to any other woman. And after wondering this for half an hour it suddenly occurred to her mind with the vividness of a lightning flash that if things were so—if her husband had found sympathy elsewhere—it was her own fault. She had no right to accuse him, or to blame him, when she had left him for a dozen years.
"I have no right to blame him, perhaps, but I have still a right to know," she said to herself. And then, disengaging her hand from Lesley's clinging fingers, she rose and went downstairs—down to the study which she had so seldom visited. She seated herself in Caspar's arm-chair, and prepared to wait there for his return. Surely he would not be long!—and then she would speak to him, and things should be made clear.
Caspar's note had been written by Mrs. Romaine. It was quite formal, and merely contained a request that he would call on her at his earliest convenience. And he complied at once, as she had surmised that he would do. Her confidential maid opened the door to him, and conducted him to the drawing-room. It was dusk, and the blinds were drawn down. Oliver Trent's funeral had taken place the day before.
Mr. Brooke did not sit down. He knew that the interview which was about to take place was likely to be a painful one, but he could not guess in the least what kind of turn it would take. Did Rosalind believe in his guilt? Did she know what manner of man her brother Oliver had been? Was she going to reproach or to condole? She had done a strange thing in asking him to the house at all, and at another time he might have thought it wiser not to accede to her request; but he was in the mood in which the most extraordinary incidents seem possible, and scarcely anything could have seemed to him too bizarre to happen. He felt curiously impatient of the ordinary conventionalities of civilized life. Since this miraculous thing had come to pass—that he, Caspar Brooke, a respectable, sane, healthy-minded man of middle-age, could be accused of killing a miserable young scamp like Oliver Trent in a moment of passion—the world had certainly seemed somewhat crazy and out of joint. It was not worth while to stand very much on ceremony at such a conjuncture; and if Rosalind Romaine wanted to talk to him about her dead brother, he was willing to go and hear her talk. And yet as he stood in her dainty little drawing-room, it came over him very strongly that he ought not to be there.
He was still musing when the door opened, and Rosalind stole into the room. He did not hear her until she was close upon him, and then he turned with a sudden start. She looked different—she was changed. Her face was very pale: her eyelids were reddened: she was dressed in the deepest black, and over her head she had flung a black lace veil, which gave her—perhaps unintentionally—a tragic look. She held the folds together with her right hand, and spoke to him quietly.
"It was kind of you to come," she said.
"You summoned me. I should not have come without that," he answered, quickly.
"No, I suppose not. And of course—in the ordinary course of things—I ought not to have summoned you. The world would say that I was wrong. But we have been old friends for many years now, have we not?"
"I always thought so," he answered, gravely. "But now—I fear——"
"You mean"—with a strange vibration in her voice—"you mean that we must never be friends again—because—because of Oliver——"
"This accusation must naturally tend to separate the families," he said, in a very calm, grave voice. "Even when it is disproved, we shall not find it easy to resume old relations. I am very sorry for it, Rosalind, just as I need not tell you how sorry I am for the cause——"
She interrupted him hurriedly. "Yes, yes, I know all that; but you speak of disproving the charge. Can you do that?"
He was silent for a moment. "I shall do my best," he said at length, with some emotion in his voice.
"And if it is not disproved—what then?" she asked. "Suppose they call it murder?"
Caspar drew himself up: a certain displeasure began to mark itself upon his features.
"Need you ask me?"
"Yes, I need. I want you to consider the answer that you would give. I have a reason."
Her eager eyes, hot and burning in a face that was strangely white, pled for her. Caspar relented a little, but bent his brows as he replied—
"The extreme penalty of the law, I suppose. It is absurd—but, of course, it is possible. It is not a case in which I should expect penal servitude for life to be substituted, supposing that I were found guilty. But I fail to see your motive for asking what must be to me a rather painful question."
"Oh, you are strong! You can bear it!" she said, dropping her face upon her hands. Caspar gazed at her in amazement. He began to wonder whether she were going out of her mind. But before he could find any word of calming or consoling tendency, she flung down her hands and spoke again. "I want you to fix your mind on it for a moment, even although it hurts you," she said. "You are a strong man—you do not shrink from a thing because, it is a little painful. Think what it would mean for yourself, and not for yourself only; for your friends, for those who love you! A perpetual disgrace—a misery!"
"You seem anxious to assume that I shall be convicted," he said, still with displeasure.
"I tell you I am doing so on purpose. I want you to think of it. You know—you know as well as I do—that the chances are against you!"
"And if they are?"
"If they are—why do you incur such a risk!"
"Mrs. Romaine," said Caspar, gently, but with a steady coldness of tone, of which she did not at first feel the import, "I think you hardly know the force of what you are saying. I do not incur any risk unnecessarily or wantonly: I only wish the truth to be made known. What can I do more—or less?"
"You could go away," she said, almost in a whisper.
If the room had been lighter, she might, perhaps, have seen the frown that was gathering on his brow, the wrath that darkened his eyes as he spoke: but his face was in shadow, and for a moment anger made him speechless. She went on eagerly, breathlessly, without waiting for a reply.
"You might get off quite easily to—to Spain, perhaps, or some place where there was no extradition treaty. You are out on bail, I know; but your friends could not complain. Surely it is a natural enough thing for a man, situated as you are, to wish to escape: nobody would blame you in the long run—they would only say that you were wise. And if you stay, everything is against you. You had so much better take your present chance!"
Caspar muttered something inarticulate, then seemed to choke back further utterance, and kept silence for a minute. When he spoke it was in a curiously tranquil tone.
"You do not seem to have heard of the quality that men call their honor?"
"Oh, honor! I have heard enough about honor," she answered with a nervous, rasping laugh. "And you—you to talk about honor—after—after what you have done!"
Caspar Brooke fell back a step or two and surveyed her curiously. "Good God!" The exclamation broke from him, as if against his will. "You speak as though you thought I was guilty—as though I had—murdered Oliver!"
And she, looking at him as intently as he looked at her, said only, in the simplest possible way—
"And did you not?"
LOVE OR TRUST.
Caspar turned away. For a moment he felt mortally sick, as if from a pang of acute physical pain. Distrust from an old friend is always a hard thing to bear. And so, for a moment or two, he did not speak.
"I was not surprised," said Mrs. Romaine, quickly. "I had been looking for something of the kind. I won't say that you were not justified—in a certain sense. Oliver acted abominably, I know. He told me what he was going to do beforehand."
"Told you what he was going to do?"
"Yes—to make Lesley fall in love with him. He did not mean to marry her. He meant to gain her affections and then to—to—leave her, to break her heart. I suppose that is what you found out. I do not wonder that you were surprised."
"No doubt you have good authority for what you are saying," said Mr. Brooke, very coldly, "but your account does not tally with what I have gathered from other sources."
"From Lesley herself?"
Caspar bowed his head. He was conscious of a violent dislike to bringing Lesley's name into the discussion. Mrs. Romaine went on rapidly.
"As to Lesley, of course I cannot say. I don't know whether he failed or succeeded. Oliver very seldom failed with women when he tried. But, of course, he was going to marry Ethel; and that meant that if he had succeeded Lesley had been thrown over. It is not like me to put things so baldly, is it? I see that I disgust you. But I do not know that I need apologize. You are man of the world enough to understand that at certain crises we are obliged to speak our minds, to face the truth boldly and see what it means. Is it not so?"
"It may be so, but I am not aware that the present crisis demands such plain speaking."
"Then you must be blind," said his hearer, with a burst of indignation, "blind—blind—blind! Or mad? is that it? What sort of crisis do you expect? What can be worse than the present state of things? Are not your life and her character at stake? Why do you not take your present opportunity and save her and yourself? Look the matter in the face and decide?"
"I would rather not discuss it," said Caspar. "The course you indicate is not one that could be taken by any honorable man. It is—it is—absurd." The last word was evidently the substitute for a much stronger one in his mind. "I see no use in talking about the matter. We are only giving ourselves useless pain."
There was a short silence. Mrs. Romaine drew her veil more tightly round her face, and seemed to deliberate. Caspar threw a longing glance—which she intercepted—towards the door.
"Men are such cowards," she said at last, in a low and bitter tone. "I have proved that in every way: I ought to be prepared for cowardice—even from you. They want to slip out of every unpleasant position, and leave some woman to bear the brunt of it. You, for instance, want to go now, this minute, because I have said one or two things that pain you. You don't care enough for what I think to make you wish to alter my opinion—to fight it out and conquer me; you only want to get away and leave me to 'cool down,' as you would call it. You are mistaken. I am not speaking from any momentary irritation: what I say to you to-day is the result of long thought, long consideration, long patience. It would be better for you to have the courage and the manliness to listen to me."
"You talk in a very extraordinary way, Rosalind,", said Caspar. "I do not understand it, and I fail to see its justice towards me. I have never refused to listen to you, have I? As for cowardice—it seemed to me that you were trying to persuade me to do a very cowardly thing just now; but perhaps I was mistaken. I will hear all that you have to say: if I was anxious to go, it was only that I might save you from tiring or hurting yourself."
"It matters so much whether I am tired or hurt, does it not?" she said, with the faintest possible flicker of a smile on her white lips. "That is what you all think of—whether one suffers—suffers physically. It is my soul that is hurt, my heart that is tired—but you don't concern yourself with that sort of thing."
"I assure you that I am very sorry——," he began, and then he stopped short. She had made it very difficult for him to say anything so commonplace, and yet so true.
"If you are sorry," she said, in a softer tone, "and if you want to make me happier—save yourself."
"No," said Caspar, roughly—almost violently—"by Heaven, I won't do that."
"You don't wish to save yourself?"
"Not at that price—the price of my honor."
"Listen to me," she said, drawing nearer to him and speaking very softly. "I have made it my business during the last day or two—when I gathered that you would be let out on bail—to collect all the information that might be useful to you. You could get away to-morrow or next day by a vessel that leaves Southampton at the time I have marked on this paper. It is not an ordinary steamer—not a passenger-ship at all—and no one will know that you are on board. It would take you to Oporto. You would be safe enough in the interior—a friend of mine who went there once told me that there were charming palaces and half-ruined castles to let, where one could live as in paradise, amidst the loveliest gardens, full of fountains and birds and flowers."
Her voice took on a caressing tone, as if she were dreaming of perfect happiness. "How like a woman," thought Caspar to himself, "to think only of the material side of life?" Then he corrected himself: "Like some women: not like all, thank-God!"
"So you would condemn me to exile and loneliness as well as to dishonor?" he said. It was as much as he could do not to laugh outright at the chimerical idea.
"It is no exile to a cosmopolitan like yourself to live out of England," she answered, scornfully. "As to dishonor—what will you not have to suffer if you stay in England? Where is your reputation now? And as to loneliness—don't you know—do you not see—that you need not go—alone?"
She put her left hand gently on his arm, and for a moment there was silence in the room. Her heart beat so loudly that she was afraid of his hearing it. But she need not have feared; his mind was far too much occupied with more important matters to be able to take cognizance of such a detail as the state of Mrs. Romaine's pulse.
His first impulse was one of intense indignation and anger. His second was one of pity. These feelings alternated in him when at last he forced himself to speak. Which of the two predominated he hardly knew. Perhaps pity: because it drove him, almost as a matter of self-respect, to make a pretence of not knowing what she meant.
"Anything is exile to a man who leaves his home," he said sternly. "To a man who leaves his wife and daughter—do you understand? As for the dishonor of such a course, it seems as if you could not comprehend that: my feelings on the subject are evidently beyond your ken. But you can understand this—first, that I should go nowhere into no exile, into no new home, without my wife; and, secondly, that she, at least, trusts me—she knows that I have not your brother's blood upon my hands."
Rosalind's fingers had slipped from his arm when he began to speak: she knew that if she had not removed them then they would have been shaken off. He could see them amongst the folds of black lace at her breast—clutching, tearing, as if she had not room to breathe.
"Your wife!" she said, with a gasp. "I did not know.... She has been beforehand with me, then! And it is she—she—that you will take—to Spain?"
"There is no question of Spain. I mean to stay here in England and fight the matter out. My wife would be the first person to tell me so. I cannot imagine her speaking to me again if I were coward enough to run away."
"She would not do for you what I have done!" cried the unhappy woman, now, as it seemed, beside herself. "If she believes you innocent, so much the easier for her! But I—I—believe you guilty—yes, Caspar Brooke, I believe that you killed my brother—and I do not care! I loved him, yes; but I love you—you—a thousand times more!"
"You do not know what you are saying. You are mad. Be silent, Rosalind," said Caspar Brooke, in a deep tone of anger. But she raved on.
"Have I not been silent for years? And who is as faithful to you as I have been? It is easy to love a man who is innocent; but not a man who is guilty! Guilty or not—I do not care. It is you that I care for—and you may have as many sins as you please upon your soul—but they are nothing to me. I am past anything now but speaking the truth. Have you no pity for a woman to whom you are dearer than her own soul?"
She would have thrown herself at his feet, if he had not prevented her. He was touched a little by her suffering, but he was also immeasurably angered and disgusted. An exhibition of uncontrolled feeling was not the way to charm him. His one desire now became the desire to escape.
"I should have no pity," he said, gravely, "for my own selfishness and cowardice, if I took advantage of this moment of weakness on your part. It is weakness, I hope—I will not call it by any other name. You will recover from it when the stress of this painful time is over, and you will be glad to forget it as I shall do. Believe me, I will not think of it again. It shall be in my mind as though you had not said it; and, though it will be impossible for us to continue on our former terms of friendship, I shall always wish for your welfare, and hope that time will bring you happiness and peace."
She made no answer. She lay where he had placed her, her head buried amongst the cushions, crushed to the very earth. She would not look at him, would not make semblance to have heard. And he, without hesitation, went deliberately to the door and let himself out. He gained the street without being intercepted, and drew a long breath of relief when he felt the soft night air playing on his heated brow. The moralist would have said that he came off victor; but he had a sense, as he went out along the pavement, of being only a defeated and degraded man. There was not even the excitement of gratified vanity, for an offered love which did not include perfect trust in his honor was an insult in itself. And Caspar Brooke's integrity of soul was dear to him.
It was perhaps impossible for him—a mere man—to estimate the extent of suffering to which his scorn had subjected the woman that he left behind. Rosalind remained as he had seen her, crouching on the ground, with her head on the sofa cushions, for full two hours or more. When she rose she went to her own room and lay upon her bed, refusing for many hours either to eat or to speak. She did not sleep: she lay broad awake all night, recalling every tone of Caspar's voice, and every passing expression of his face. She was bitterly humiliated and ashamed. But she was not ashamed in the sense of shame for wrong-doing: she was only ashamed because he had rebuffed her. She was sick with mortification. She had offered him everything in her power—peace, safety, love: she had offered him herself even, and been rejected with scorn. Nothing crushes a woman like this humiliation. And in some women's natures such an experience will produce dire results; for loss of self-respect is resented as the worst injury that man can inflict, and is followed by deadly hatred to the man who has inflicted it. It may be argued by the more logical male that the woman has brought it all upon herself; but no affronted, humiliated, shame-stricken woman will ever allow this to be the fact. The sacrifice she conceives to have been all her own; but the pain has come from him.
This was the way in which Rosalind looked at the matter. And mistaken as she was in her view of the moralities and proprieties of the situation, she suffered an amount of pain which may well arouse in us more pity than Caspar Brooke felt for her. The burning, stinging sense of shame seemed to make her whole soul an open wound. It was intolerable. The only way out of it, she said to herself at first, is to die. There was an old song that rang in her ears continually, as if somebody were repeating it over and over again. She could not remember it all—only a line here and there. "When lovely woman stoops to folly," it began, what art can wash her tears and stains and shame away? And the answer was what Rosalind herself had already given: the only way "to rouse his pity" was "to die!" She almost laughed at herself for repeating the well-worn, hackneyed, century-old ditty. People did not die now-a-days, either of broken hearts or of chloral, when their lovers deserted them. And Caspar Brooke had never been her lover. No, he had only given her pain; and she wished that she could make him suffer, too. "Revenge" was too high-flown a word; but if she could see him heartbroken, ruined, disgraced, she would be—not satisfied, but she would feel her pain allayed.
Caspar Brooke walked for an hour before he was calm enough to remember that he ought to go home. When this idea once occurred to him, he felt a pang of shame for his own forgetfulness. What would Alice think of him? And this was the first day that she had been with him in his house for so many years. He must go home and make his apologies. Not that she would expect very much attention from him. Had she not said that she was only trying to do her duty? Probably she disliked him still.
He let himself in with his latch-key, and walked straight into the study. A shaded lamp had been lighted, and but faintly illuminated the corners of the room. But there was light enough for him to see that Lady Alice was sitting in his chair. He came up to the table, and looked at her without speaking. There was a strange tumult of feeling in his heart. He wished that he could tell her how gratified he was by her trust in him, how much he prized the very things that had once irritated him against her—her reserve, her fine perception, her excellent fastidiousness of taste, even that little air of coldness that became her so well. To come into her presence was like entering a fragrant English garden, after stifling for an hour in a conservatory where the air was heavy with the perfume of stephanotis.
She rose, as he continued silent, and stood on the rug, almost face to face with him. She did not find it easy to speak, and there was something in his air which frightened her a little. She made a trivial remark at last, but with great difficulty.
"You have been away a long time," she said.
She was not prepared for the answer. He put out his hand and drew her close to him. "You were away a great deal longer," he said, looking down at her fair, serious face. She could not reply. "Twelve years, is it not?" he went on. "That's a long time out of one's life, Alice. I feel myself an old man now."
"No, no, Caspar!" she said, tremulously.
"What was it all about, Alice? You know I never really understood it. Can't you make me understand? Was it that I was simply unbearable? too disagreeable to be put up with any longer."
"No, it was not that. I will speak the truth now, Caspar. I was jealous—I thought you cared for Rosalind Romaine."
"But you know now—surely—that that was not true?"
"Could you swear it?" she asked, suddenly and sharply, with a quick look into his face.
For a moment he was annoyed. Then his brow cleared, and he answered, very gravely—
"I can and will, if you like. But I thought—having trusted me so far—that you could trust me without an oath. Alice, I never loved any woman but one: and that one was yourself. Have you been as true to me as I have been to you?"
"I don't think I ever knew that I loved you until now," said Alice, laying her head with a deep sigh upon her husband's breast.
"Love is not enough, though it is a great deal: do you trust me?"
"Implicitly—now that I have looked at you again."
Caspar gave a little laugh.
"Then I must never let you go away from me, or you will begin to disbelieve in me," he said.
TWELVE SILVER SPOONS.
Lady Alice was not long in finding out that Maurice Kenyon, her husband's chief friend, was the man of whom Lesley had spoken in her letters, and also the doctor who had interested her at the hospital. She did not speak to Lesley about him: she took a little time to accustom herself to her husband's circle before she made any remarks upon its members. But she was shrewd enough to see very quickly that Mr. Kenyon took even more interest in her daughter than in her husband, and from Lesley's shy looks she fancied that the interest was reciprocated. She had a twinge of regret for her favorite, Harry Duchesne, and then consoled herself by saying that after all Lesley was too young to know her own mind, and that probably she would change before she was twenty-one.
She did not come particularly into contact with Maurice, however, until the Sunday after she had taken up her abode in Woburn Place. And then she saw a good deal of him. For Lesley went to sit with Ethel as was her wont, and Maurice came to dine at Mr. Brooke's. After the early dinner, Lady Alice noticed that there was some parleying between the guest and his host.
"I am going," said Maurice in an urgent undertone. To which Caspar returned a cheerful answer.
"All right, old man; but I am going too." And then Mr. Kenyon knitted his brows and looked vexed.
Caspar at once noted his wife's glance of inquiry. "Has Lesley told you nothing about our Sunday meetings at the Club? We generally betake ourselves to North London on a Sunday afternoon. Mr. Kenyon thinks I had better stay with you, and—I don't."
From Maurice's uncomfortable looks, Lady Alice gathered that there was something doubtful in the proceeding. "Will you let me go with you?" she said, by way of experiment.
There was an exchange of astonished and rather embarrassed looks all round. Caspar elevated his eyebrows and clutched his beard: Miss Brooke made a curious sound, something like a snort; and Maurice flushed a deep and dusky red; indications which all annoyed Lady Alice, although she did not quite know what they signified. She rose from her chair and took the matter into her own hands; but all without the slightest change in the manner of graceful indifference which had grown natural to her of late years.
"That is the place where Lesley used to go," she said. "She tells me she sings to the people sometimes. I cannot sing, but I can play the piano a little, if that is any good. Sophy is going, is she not? And I should like to go too."
"There is no reason why you should not," said Mr. Brooke rather abruptly. But the gleam in his eye told of pleasure. "There are some very rough characters at the club sometimes, you know. And perhaps the reception they give me to-day will not be of the pleasantest."