But the slow months rolled by at length, and the last year of bondage was finished.
The sun did its best to congratulate Molly on her twenty-first birthday. It shone in full glory on the great, green hills, and the blue shadows in the hollows were transparent with reflected gold. The sunlight trembled in the bare branches of the beeches and turned their grey trunks to silver.
Standing in the little study, Molly's whole figure seemed to expand in the sunshine. Her eyes sparkled, her lips parted, and she at once drank in and gave forth her delight.
Some people might still agree with Mrs. Carteret that Molly was not beautiful. Still, it was an appearance that would always provoke discussion. Molly could not be overlooked, and when her mind and feelings were excited, then she gave a strange impression of intense vitality—not the pleasant overflow of animal spirits, but a suppressed, yet untamed, vitality of a more mental, more dangerous kind. Her movements were usually sudden, swift, and abrupt, yet there was in them all a singular amount of expression, and, if Molly's keen grey eyes and sensitive mouth did not convey the impression of a simple, or even of a kindly nature, they gave suggestions of light and longing, hunger and resolution.
To-day, the twenty-first birthday, was to be the first day of freedom, the last of shackles and dulness and commonplace. It was to be a day of speech and a day of revenge.
Molly was waiting now for Mrs. Carteret to come in and stand before her and hear all she meant to say about the long, unholy deception that had been put upon her. She was going to say good-bye now and be free. Molly's money would now be her own, she could take it away and share it with the deserted, misjudged mother. Nothing in all this was melodramatic; it would have been but natural if the facts had been as she supposed, only Molly made the little mistake of treating as facts her carefully built-up fancies, her long, childish story of her own life.
She was so absorbed that she hardly saw Mrs. Carteret come in and sit down in her square, substantial way in a large arm-chair. Molly, standing by the window knocking the tassel of the blind to and fro, was breathing quickly. The older woman looked through some papers in her hand, put some notes of orders for groceries on a table by her side, and flattened out a long letter on foreign paper on her knee. She looked at Molly a little nervously, with cold blue eyes over gold-rimmed spectacles reposing on her well-shaped nose, and began:
"Now that you are of age I must——"
But Molly interrupted her. In a very low voice, speaking quickly with little gasps of impatience at any hesitation in her own utterance,—
"Before you talk to me about the arrangements, I want to tell you that I have made up my mind to leave here at once. I know it will be a relief to you as well as to me. Any promise you made to my father is satisfied now, and you cannot wish to keep me here. You have always been ashamed of me, you have always disliked me, and you have always deceived me. I knew all this time that my mother was alive, and you never spoke of her except once and then it was to insult me as deeply as a girl can be insulted. If what you said were true—and I don't believe it"—her voice shook as she spoke—"there would be all the more reason why I should go to my poor mother. I want you to know, therefore, that with whatever money comes to me from my father, I shall go to my mother and try to make amends to her."
Mrs. Carteret stared over her spectacles at Molly in absolute amazement. After fourteen years of very kind treatment, which had involved a great deal of trouble, this uninteresting, silent niece had revealed herself at last! Fourteen years devoted to the idealisation of the mother who had deserted her, and to positive hatred of the relation who had mothered her! Tears rose in the hard, blue eyes. Subtleties of feeling Anne Carteret did not know, but some affection for those who are near in blood and who live under the same roof had been a matter of course to her, and Molly had hurt her to the quick. However, it was natural that common-sense and justice should quickly assert themselves to show this idiotic girl the criminal absurdity of what she said. Mrs. Carteret was unconsciously hitting back as hard as she could as she answered in a tone of cheerful common-sense:
"As a matter of fact, the money you will receive will not be your own, but an allowance from your mother—a large allowance given on the condition that you do not live with her. Happily, it is so large that there will not be any necessity for you to live here."
Mrs. Carteret held up the letter of thin foreign paper in a trembling hand, but she spoke in a perfectly calm voice:
"I was myself always against this mystery as to your mother, but I felt obliged to act by her wish in the matter. She insists that she still wishes it to be thought by the world at large that she is dead, but she agrees at last that you should know something about her. I told her that I could not allow you to come of age here and have a great deal of money at your disposal without your knowing that from your father you have only been left a fortune of two thousand pounds——"
Mrs. Carteret paused, and then, with a little snort, added, half to herself:
"The rest was all squandered away, and certainly not by his own doing."
Then she resumed her business tone:
"More than this, I obtained from your mother leave to tell you that this very large allowance comes out of a fortune left to her quite recently by Sir David Bright. I have acted by the wishes of both your parents as far as I possibly could. As to my disliking you or being ashamed of you, such notions could only come out of a morbid imagination. In spite of your feelings towards me, I still wish to be your friend. I want your father's daughter to stand well with the world. So that I am left to live here in peace undisturbed, I shall be glad to help you at any time."
Mrs. Carteret's feelings were concentrated on Molly's conduct towards herself, but Molly's consciousness was filled with the greatness of the blow that had just fallen. It seemed to her that she had only now for the first time lost her mother—her only ideal, the object of all her better thoughts. That her enemy was justified was, indeed, just then of little importance. She turned a dazed face towards her aunt:
"I ought to beg your pardon: I am sorry."
"Oh, pray don't take the trouble."
Mrs. Carteret got out of the chair with emphatic dignity, and held out some papers.
"You had better read these. I will speak to you about them afterwards."
She left the room absolutely satisfied with her own conduct. But, coming to a pause in the drawing-room, she remembered that she had made one mistake.
"How stupid of me to have left Jane Dawning's letter among those papers."
But she did not go back to fetch the letter from her cousin Lady Dawning; and she did not own to herself that that apparent negligence was her real revenge. Yet from that moment her feelings of self-satisfaction were uncomfortably disturbed.
Meanwhile, Molly was kneeling by the window in the study in floods of tears. Everything in her mind had lost its balance; and baffled, disheartened, and ashamed, she wept tears that brought no softness. She did not know it, but while to herself it seemed as if she were absorbed in weeping over her disillusionment, she was in fact deciding that, as her ideal had failed her, she would in future live only for herself, and get everything out of life that she could for her own satisfaction.
No one in the world cared for her, but she would not be defeated or crushed or forlorn. With an effort she sprang to her feet with one agile movement, and pushed her heavy hair back from her forehead with her long, thin fingers.
The colour had gone from her clear, dark skin for the moment, and her breathing was fast and uneven, but her face still showed her to be very young and very healthy. How differently the troubles of the mind are written in our faces when age has undermined the foundations and all momentary failure is a presage of a sure defeat. Molly showed her determination to be brave and calm by immediately setting herself to read the papers left for her by Mrs. Carteret.
One was in French, a long letter from a lawyer in Florence communicating Madame Danterre's wishes to Mrs. Carteret. It stated that, owing to the painful circumstances of the case, his client chose to remain under her maiden name, and to reside in Florence. Mrs. Carteret was at liberty to inform Miss Dexter of this, but she did not wish it known to anybody else. Madame Danterre further asked Mrs. Carteret to make such arrangements as she thought fit for her daughter to see something of the world, either in London or by travelling, but she did not wish her to come to Florence. Otherwise the world was before her, and L3000 a year was at her disposal. Molly could hardly, it was implied, ask for more from a mother from whom she had been torn unjustly when she was an infant. The rest of the letter was entirely about business, giving all details as to how the quarterly allowance would be paid. In conclusion was an enigmatic sentence to the effect that, by a tardy act of repentance, Sir David Bright had left Madame Danterre his fortune, and she wished her daughter to know that the large allowance she was able to make her was in consequence of this act of justice. Molly would have had no inkling of the meaning of this sentence if Mrs. Carteret had come back to claim the letter from Lady Dawning which she had unintentionally left among the lawyer's papers. But this last, a closely-written large sheet of note-paper, lay between the letter from the lawyer in Florence, and other papers from the family lawyer in London, anent the will of the late Colonel Dexter and its taking effect on his daughter's coming of age.
Molly turned carelessly from the question of L2000 and its interest at three and a half per cent. to the letter surmounted by a black initial and a coronet.
"My DEAR ANNE,—
"I am not coming to stay in your neighbourhood as I had hoped. I should have been very glad to have had a talk with you about Molly, if it had been possible, for her dear father's sake. Indeed, I think you are far from exaggerating the difficulties of the case. You are very reluctant to take a house in London, and you say that if you did take one and gave up all your home duties you would not now have a circle of friends there who could be of any use to a girl of her age. I feel that very likely you would be glad if my daughter would undertake her, and you are quite right in thinking that she would like a girl to take into the world. But I must be frank with you, as I want to save you from pitfalls which I may be more able to foresee than you can in your secluded home. My dear, I know that dear old John died without a penny: why if he had had any fortune as a young man—but, alas! he had none—is it possible that, in a soldier's life, with, for a few years, a madly extravagant wife to help him, he could conceivably have saved a capital that can produce L3000 a year!
"No, my dear Anne, the money is from her mother, and I must tell you that I've often wondered if that estimable lady is really dead at all. Then, you know, that I always kept up with John, and that I knew something about Sir David Bright. To conclude, Rose Bright is my cousin by marriage, and we are all dumbfounded at finding that she has been left L800 a year instead of twice as many thousands, and that the fortune has gone to a lady named Madame Danterre. It is so old a story that I don't think any one has read the conclusion aright except myself, and parole d'honneur, no one shall if I can help it. I am too fond of poor John's memory to want to hurt his child, only for the child's own sake I would not advise you to bring her up to London. I should keep her quietly with you, and trust to a man appearing on the scene—it's a thing you can trust to, where there is L3000 a year. I daresay I could send some one your way quite quietly. But don't bring John's girl to London, at any rate, just yet.
"I hope we may come within reach of you in the autumn. I should love to have a quiet day with you and to see Molly.
"Ever yours affectionately,
"P.S.—By the way, is the L3000 sure to go on? If it is not, might it not be as well to put a good bit of it away?"
Thus in one short hour, Molly had been told that her mother was living but did not want her child; that the ideal of motherly love had in her own case been a complete fiction; that the mother of her imagination had never existed, and, immediately afterwards, she had been given a glimpse of the world's view of her own position as a young person best concealed, or, at least, not brought too much forward.
Lastly, with the news of the money that at least meant freedom, she had gained, by a rapid intuition, a faint but unmistakable sense of discomfort as to the money itself.
It was not any scrupulous fear that it could be her duty to inquire whether Sir David Bright ought to have left his fortune to his widow! Probably Lady Rose had quite as much as many dowagers have to live on. But she had been forced to know that other people disapproved of Sir David's will. It was not a fortune entered into with head erect and eyes proudly facing a friendly world. Still, Molly was not daunted: the combat with life was harder and quite different from what she had foreseen, but she had always looked on her future as a fight.
Presently she let the "letter from Jane" fall close to the chair in which her aunt had been sitting, and moved the chair till the paper was half hidden by the chintz frill of the cover. She meant Mrs. Carteret to think that she had not read it.
She then went out for a long walk and met her aunt at luncheon with a quietly respectful manner, a little more respectful than it had ever been before.
Later in the day Molly wrote to the family lawyer, and consulted him as to how to find a suitable lady with whom to stay in London. Mrs. Carteret read and passed the letter. Seeing that Molly was determined to go to London, she was anxious to help her as much as possible, without calling down upon herself such letters of advice as the one from Lady Dawning. It proved as difficult to find just the right thing in chaperones as it is usually difficult to find exactly the right thing in any form of humanity, and December and January passed in the search. But in the end all that was to be wished for seemed to be secured in the person of Mrs. Delaport Green, who was known to a former pupil of Miss Carew's, and at length Molly went out of the rooms with the northern aspect, and drove through the wood that sheltered under the shoulder of the great green hill, with nothing about her to recall the child who had come in there for the first time fourteen years ago, except that she still had the look of one who waits for other circumstances and other people.
EDMUND GROSSE CONTINUES TO INTERFERE
Mr. Murray had had no belief in Sir Edmund Grosse's doings, and he indulged in the provoking air of "I told you so," when the latter, who had not been in London for several months, appeared at the office, and owned to the futility of his visit to Florence. Meanwhile, Mr. Murray had also carried on a fruitless enquiry in a different direction.
"The General's two most intimate friends were killed about two months after his death, and his servant died in the same action—probably before Sir David himself. I have tried to find out if he had any talk on his own affairs with friends on board ship going out, but it seems not. I can show you the list of those who went out with him."
Sir Edmund knew something of most people and after studying the list he went to look up an old soldier friend at the Army and Navy Club. Indeed, for some weeks he was often to be seen there, and he was as attentive to Generals as an anxious parent seeking advancement in the Army for an only son. He soon became discouraged as to obtaining any information regarding David's later years, but some gossip on his younger days he did glean. Nothing could have been better than David's record; he seemed to have been a paragon of virtue.
"That's what made it all the more strange that he should have fallen into the hands of Mrs. Johnny Dexter," mused an old Colonel as he puffed at one of Grosse's most admirable cigars. "Poor old David; he was wax in her hands for a few weeks, then he got fever and recovered from her and from it at the same time—he went home soon after. He'd have done anything for her at one moment."
This Colonel might well have been flattered by Edmund's attentions; but he gave little in return for them except what he said that day.
"Mrs. Johnny Dexter! Why, I'm sure I have known Dexters," thought Edmund, as he strolled down Pall Mall after this conversation. He stopped to think, regardless of public observation. "Why, of course, that old bore Lady Dawning was a Miss Dexter. I'll go and see her this very day."
Lady Dawning was gratified at Sir Edmund's visit, and was nearly as much surprised at seeing him as he was at finding himself in the handsome, heavily-furnished room in Princes Gate. Stout, over fifty, and clumsily wigged, it rarely enough happened to Lady Dawning to find not only a sympathetic listener but an eager inquirer into those romantic days when love's young dream for her cousin Johnny Dexter was stifled by parental authority: "And it all ended in my becoming Lady Dawning." A sigh of satisfaction concluded the episode of romance, and led the way back to the present day.
When Lady Dawning had advised Mrs. Carteret to keep poor dear Johnny's girl quietly in the country, she had by no means intended to let any of her friends know anything about Molly. She had looked important and mysterious when people spoke of Sir David Bright's amazing will, but she made a real sacrifice to Johnny's memory by not divulging her knowledge of facts or her own conclusions from those facts. But the enjoyment of talking of her own romantic youth to Edmund had had a softening effect.
Sir Edmund appeared to be so very wise and safe.
"Of course, it is only to you," came first; and then, "It would be a relief to me to get the opinion of a man of the world; poor dear Anne Carteret consults me, and I really don't know what to advise. Fancy! that woman allows the girl L3000 a year, and Anne Carteret would probably have acted on my advice and kept her quiet so that no one need know anything of the wretched story, but the girl won't be quiet, and will come up to London, and it seems so unsafe, don't you know? They are looking for a chaperone, as nothing will make Anne come herself. And if it all comes out it will be so unpleasant for poor dear Rose Bright to meet this girl all dressed up with her money; don't you think so?"
Lady Dawning was now quite screaming with excitement, and very red in nose and chin. It would be a long time before she could be quite dull again. But Edmund was far too deeply interested to notice details.
They parted very cordially, and Lady Dawning promised to let him know if she heard from Anne Carteret, and, if possible, to pass on the name of the chaperone woman who was to take Molly into society.
"And so your protegee is to arrive to-night?" said Edmund Grosse.
"Yes, and I am so frightened;" and with a little laugh appreciative of herself in general, Mrs. Delaport Green held up a cup of China tea in a pretty little white hand belonging to an arm that curved and thickened from the wrist to the elbow in perfect lines.
Sir Edmund gave the arm the faintest glance of appreciation before it retreated into lace frills within its brown sleeve. Those lace frills were the only apparent extravagance in the simple frock in question, and simplicity was the chief note in this lady's charming appearance.
"I don't believe you are frightened, but probably she is frightened enough."
"I know nothing whatever about her," sighed the little woman, "and we are only doing it because we are so dreadfully hard up; my maid says that I shall soon not have a stitch to my back, and that would be so fearfully improper. At least"—she hesitated—"I am doing it because times are bad. Tim really knows nothing about it; I mean that he does not know that Miss Dexter is a 'paying guest', and it does sound horribly lower middle-class, doesn't it? But I'm so afraid Tim won't be able to go to Homburg this year, and he is eating and drinking so much already, and it's only the beginning of April. What will happen if he can't drink water and take exercise all this summer?"
"But I suppose you know her name?"
"I believe it is Molly Dexter. And do you think I should say 'Molly' at once—to-night, I mean?"
Sir Edmund did not answer this question.
"I used to know some Dexters years ago."
"Yes, it is quite a good name, and Molly is of good family: she is a cousin of Lady Dawning, but she is an orphan. I think I must call her Molly at once," and the little round eyes looked wistful and kindly.
Sir Edmund was able from this to conclude rightly that Mrs. Delaport Green was not aware of the existence of Madame Danterre, and would have no suspicions as to the sources of the fortune that supplied Molly's large allowance. It had, in fact, been thought wiser not to offer explanations which had not been called for.
"It will be very tiresome for you," said Grosse. "You will have to amuse her, you know, and is she worth while?"
"Quite; she will pay—let me see—she will pay for the new motor, and she will go to my dressmaker and keep her in a good temper. But, of course, I shall have to make sacrifices and find her partners. I must try and not let my poor people miss me. They would miss me dreadfully, though I know you don't think so."
"And you don't even know what she is like?"
"Oh, yes, I do; I have seen her once, and she is oh! so interesting: olive skin, black, or almost black, hair, almond-shaped grey eyes—no, I don't mean almond-shaped, but really very curiously-shaped eyes, full of—let me see if I can tell you what they are full of—something that, in fact, makes you shiver and feel quite excited. But, do you know, she hardly speaks, and then in such a low voice. I'll tell you now, I'll tell you exactly what she reminds me of: do you know a picture in a very big gallery in Florence of a woman who committed some crime? It's by one of the pupils of one of the great masters; just try and think if you don't know what I mean. Oh, must you go? But won't you come again, and see how we get on, and how I bear up?"
When Molly did arrive, her dainty little hostess petted and patted her and called her "Molly" because she "could not help it."
"Oh, we will do the most delightful things, now that you have come; we must, of course, do balls and plays, and then we will have quite a quiet day in the country in the new motor, and we will take some very nice men with us. And then you won't mind sometimes coming to see people who are ill or poor or old?"
The little voice rose higher and higher in a sort of wail.
"It does cheer them up so to look in and out with a few flowers, and it need not take long."
"I don't mind people when they are really ill," said Molly, in her low voice, "but I like them best unconscious."
Mrs. Delaport Green stared for a moment; then she jumped up and ran forward with extended hands to greet a lady in a plain coat and skirt and an uncompromising hat.
"Oh, how kind of you to come, and how are you getting on? Molly dear, this is the lady who lives in horrid Hoxton taking care of my poor people I told you about. Do tell her what you really mean about liking people best when they are unconscious, and you will both forgive me if I write one tiny little note meanwhile?"
Molly gave some tea to the newcomer as if she had lived in the house for years, and drew her into a talk which soon allayed her rising fears as to whether her own time would have to be devoted to horrid Hoxton. By calm and tranquil questions she elicited the fact that Mrs. Delaport Green had visited the settlement once during the winter.
"She comes as a sunbeam," said the resident with obviously genuine admiration, "and, of course, with all the claims on her time, and her anxiety as to her husband's health, we don't wish her to come often. She is just the inspiration we want."
The hostess having meanwhile asked four people to dinner, came rustling back, and, sitting on a low stool opposite the lady of the settlement, held one of her visitor's large hands in both her own and patted it and asked questions about a number of poor people by name, and made love to her in many ways, until the latter, cheered and refreshed by the sunbeam, went out to seek the first of a series of 'busses between Chelsea and Hoxton.
Mrs. Delaport Green gave a little sigh.
"I must order the motor. The dear thing needn't have come your very first night, need she? It makes me miserable to leave you, but I was engaged to this dinner before I knew that you existed even! Isn't it odd to think of that?" Her voice was full of feeling.
"And you must be longing to go to your room. You won't have to dine with Tim, because he is dining at his club. Promise me that you won't let Tim bore you: he likes horrid fat people, so I don't think he will; and are you sure you have got everything you want?"
Molly's impressions of her new surroundings were written a few weeks later in a letter to Miss Carew.
"MY DEAR CAREY,—
"I have been here for three weeks, but I doubt if I shall stay three months.
"I am living with a very clever woman, and I am learning life fairly quickly and getting to know a number of people. But I am not sure if either of us thinks our bargain quite worth while, though we are too wise to decide in a hurry. There are great attractions: the house, the clothes, the food, the servants, are absolutely perfect; the only thing not quite up to the mark in taste is the husband. But she sees him very little, and I hardly exchange two words with him in the day, and his attitude towards us is that of a busy father towards his nursery. But I rather suspect that he gets his own way when he chooses. The servants work hard, and, I believe, honestly like her. The clergyman of the parish, a really striking person, is enthusiastic; so is her husband's doctor, so are one religious duchess and two mundane countesses. I believe that it is impossible to enumerate the number and variety of the men who like her. There are just one or two people who pose her, and Sir Edmund Grosse is one. He snubs her, and so she makes up to him hard. I must tell you that I have got quite intimate with Sir Edmund. He is of a different school from most of the men I have seen. He pays absurd compliments very naturally and cleverly, rather my idea of a Frenchman, but he is much more candid all the time. I shock people here if I simply say I don't like any one. If you want to say anything against anybody you must begin by saying—'Of course, he means awfully well,' and after that you may imply that he is the greatest scoundrel unhung. Sir Edmund is not at all ill-natured, and he can discuss people quite simply—not as if he wished to defend his own reputation for charity all the time. He won't allow that Adela Delaport Green is a humbug: he says she is simply a happy combination of extraordinary cleverness and stupidity, of simplicity and art. 'I believe she hardly ever has a consciously disingenuous moment,' he said to me last night. 'She likes clergymen and she likes great ladies, and she likes to make people like her. Of course, she is always designing; but she never stops to think, so that she doesn't know she is designing. She is an amazing mimic. Something in this room to-night made me think of Dorset House directly I came in, and I remembered that, of course, she was at the party there last night. She must have put the sofa and the palms in the middle of the room to-day. At dinner to-night she suddenly told me that she wished she had been born a Roman Catholic, and I could not think why until I remembered that a Princess had just become a Papist. She could never have liked the Inquisition, but she thought the Pope had such a dear, kind face. Now she will probably tremble on the verge of Rome until several Anglican bishops have asked their influential lady friends to keep her out of danger.'
"'And you don't call her a humbug?'
"'No; she is a child of nature, indulging her instincts without reflection. And please mark one thing, young lady; her models are all good women—very good women—and that's not a point to be overlooked.'
"I told him—I could not help it—how funny she had been yesterday, talking of going to early church. 'I do love the little birds quite early,' she said, 'and one can see the changes of the season even in London, going every day, you know, and one feels so full of hope walking in the early morning fasting, and hope is next to charity, isn't it?—though, of course, not so great.'
"And she has been out in the shut motor exactly once in the early morning since I came up, and she knew that I knew it.
"However, Sir Edmund maintained that, at the moment, Adela quite believed she went out early every day, and I am not sure he is not right. But then, you see, Carey, that with her power of believing what she likes, and of intriguing without knowing it, I am not quite sure that she will last very well. She might get tired of me—quite believe I had done something which I had not done at all! And then the innocent little intrigues might become less amusing to me than to other people. However, I believe I am useful for the present, and the life here suits me on the whole. But I will report again soon if the symptoms become more unfavourable, and ask your opinion as to my plans for the season if the Delaport Green alliance breaks down before then.
AT GROOMBRIDGE CASTLE
Mrs. Delaport Green counted it as a large asset in Molly's favour that Sir Edmund Grosse was so attentive. Adela did not seriously mind Sir Edmund's indifference to herself if he were only a constant visitor at her house, but she was far from understanding the motives that drew him there to see Molly. In fact, having decided, on the basis of his own theory of the conduct of Madame Danterre, that Molly had no right to any of the luxuries she enjoyed, he had been prepared to think of her as an unscrupulous and designing young woman. Somehow, from the moment he first saw her he felt all his prejudices to be confirmed. There was something in Molly which appeared to him to be a guilty consciousness that the wealth she enjoyed was ill-gotten. Miss Dexter, he thought, had by no means the bearing of a fresh ingenuous child who was innocently benefiting by the wickedness of another. The poor girl was, in fact, constantly wondering whether the people she met were hot partisans of Lady Rose Bright, or whether they knew of Madame Danterre's existence, and if so, whether they had the further knowledge that Miss Molly Dexter was that lady's daughter. They might, for either of these reasons, have some secret objection to herself. But she was skilful enough to hide the symptoms of these fears and suspicions from the men and women she usually came across in society, who only thought her reserve pride, and her occasional hesitations a little mysterious. From Sir Edmund she concealed less because she liked him much more, and he kindly interpreted her feelings of anxiety and discomfort to be those of guilt in a girl too young to be happy in criminal deceit. With his experience of life, and with his usually just perceptions, he ought to have known better; but there is some quality in a few men or women, intangible and yet unmistakable, which makes us instinctively suspect present, or foretell future, moral evil; and poor Molly was one of these. What it was, on the other hand, which made her trust Sir Edmund and drew her to him, it would need a subtle analysis of natural affinities to decide. No doubt it was greatly because he sought her that Molly liked him, but it was not only on that account. Nor was this only because Edmund was worldly wise, successful, and very gentle. There was a quality in the attraction that drew Molly to Edmund that cannot be put into words. It is the quality without which there has never been real tragedy in the relations of a woman to a man. In the first weeks in London this attraction hardly reached beyond the merest liking, and was a pleasant, sunny thing of innocent appearance.
Mrs. Delaport Green was, for a short time, of opinion that the problem of whether to prolong Molly's visit or not would be settled for her by a quite new development. Then she doubted, and watched, and was puzzled.
Why, she thought, should such a great person as Sir Edmund Grosse, who was certainly in no need of fortune-hunting, be so attentive to Molly if he did not really like her? At times she had a notion that he did not like her at all, but at other times surely he liked her more than he knew himself. He said that she was graceful, clever, and interesting; and the acute little onlooker had not the shadow of a doubt that he held these opinions, but why did she at moments think that he disliked Molly? Certainly the dislike, if dislike it were, did not prevent him from very constantly seeking her society. It was the only intimacy that Molly had formed since she had come up to London.
As Lent was drawing to a close, Mrs. Delaport Green became much occupied at the thought of how many services she wished to attend. "One does so wish one could be in several churches at once," she murmured to a devout lady at an evening party. But, finding one of these churches to be excessively crowded on Palm Sunday, she had gone for a turn in the country in her motor with a friend, "as, after all, green fields, and a few early primroses make one realise, more than anything else in the world, the things one wishes one could think about quietly at such seasons."
For Easter there were the happiest prospects, as she and Molly had been invited to stay at a delightful house "far from the madding crowd"—Groombridge Castle—with a group of dear friends.
Molly, knowing that "dear friends" with her hostess meant new and most desirable acquaintances, bought hats adorned with spring flowers and garments appropriate to the season with great satisfaction.
Their luggage, their bags, and their maid looked perfect on the day of departure, and Tim had gone off to Brighton in an excellent temper. Mrs. Delaport Green trod on air in pretty buckled shoes, and patted the toy terrier under her arm and felt as if all the society papers on the bookstall knew that they would soon have to tell whither she was going.
"I saw Sir Edmund Grosse's servant just now," she said to Molly with great satisfaction. "Very likely Sir Edmund is coming to Groombridge. Why does one always think that everybody going by the same train is coming with one? Did you tell him where we were going?"
"No, I don't think so; I have hardly seen him for a week, and I thought he was going abroad for Easter."
When the three hours' journey was ended and the friends emerged on the platform, they were both glad to see Sir Edmund's servant again and the luggage with his master's name. There was a crowd of Easter holiday visitors, and Mrs. Delaport Green and Molly were some moments in making their way out of the station. When they were seated in the carriage that was to take them to the Castle, Mrs. Delaport Green turned expectantly to the footman.
"Are we to wait for any one else?"
"No, ma'am; Lady Rose Bright and the two gentlemen have started in the other carriage."
They drove off.
"I am so glad it is Lady Rose Bright." Molly hardly heard the words.
"I have so wished to know her," Adela went on joyfully, "and she has had such an interesting story and so extraordinary."
"Can I get away—can I go back?" thought Molly, and she leant forward and drew off her cloak as if she felt suffocated. "To meet her is just the one thing I can't do. Oh, it is hard, it is horrible!"
"You see," Adela continued, "she married Sir David Bright, who was three times her age, because he was very rich, and also, of course, because she loved him for having won the Victoria Cross, and then he died, and they found he had left all the money to some one he had liked better all the time. So there is a horrid woman with forty thousand a-year somewhere or other, and Rose Bright is almost starving and can't afford to buy decent boots, and every one is devoted to her. I am rather surprised that she should come to Groombridge for a party, she has shut herself up so much; but it must be a year and a half at least since that wicked old General was killed, and he certainly didn't deserve much mourning at her hands."
As Adela's little staccato voice went on, Molly stiffened and straightened and starched herself morally, not unaided by this facile description of the story in which she was so much involved. She would fight it out here and now; nothing should make her flinch; she would come up to time as calm and cool as if she were quite happy. And, after all, Sir Edmund Grosse would be there to help her.
It was not until the first of the two heavy handsome old-fashioned carriages, drawn by fine, sleek horses, was beginning to crawl up a very steep hill that its occupants began to take an interest in those who were following.
"Who is in the carriage behind us?" asked Sir Edmund of the young man usually called Billy, who was sitting opposite him, and whom he was never glad to meet.
"Mrs. Delaport Green and a girl I don't know—very dark and thin."
Edmund growled and fidgeted.
"Horrid vulgar little woman," he muttered between his teeth, "pushes herself in everywhere, and I suppose she has got the heiress with her."
"Don't be so cross, Edmund," said Lady Rose. "Who is the heiress?"
"Oh! a Miss Dickson—not Dickson—what is it? The money was all made in beer"—which was really quite a futile little lie. "But that isn't the name: the name is Dexter. The girl is handsome and untruthful and clever; let her alone."
Rose perceived that he was seriously annoyed, and waited with a little curiosity to see the ladies in question.
As the two carriages crawled slowly up the zigzag road, climbing the long and steep hill, the occupants of both gazed at the towers of the Castle whenever they came in sight at a turn of the road, or at an opening in the mighty horse-chestnuts and beeches, but they spoke little about them. Those in the first carriage were too familiar with Groombridge and its history and the others were too ignorant of both to have much to say. Edmund Grosse gave expression to Rose's thought at the sight of the familiar towers when he said:
"Poor old Groombridge! it is hard not to have a son or even a nephew to leave it all to."
"He likes the cousin very much," said Rose.
"But isn't Mark Molyneux going to be a priest?" said the young man, Billy, to Lady Rose. "I heard the other day that he is in one of the Roman seminaries—went there soon after he left Oxford."
Edmund answered him.
"Groombridge told me he thought he would give that up. He said he believed it was a fancy that would not last."
"He did very well at Oxford," said Rose, "and the Groombridges are devoted to him. It is so good of them with all their old-world notions not to mind more his being a Roman Catholic."
The talk was interrupted by the two men getting out to ease the horses on a steep part of the drive.
Rose's own point of view that a young and earnest priest, even although, unfortunately, not an Anglican, might do much good in such a position as that of the master of Groombridge Castle, would certainly not have been understood by her two companions.
Meanwhile, in the second carriage, Molly was becoming more and more distracted from painful thoughts by the glory of the summer's evening, and the historic interest of the Castle. She felt at first disinclined to disturb the unusual silence of the lady beside her. Certainly the principal tower of the Castle, in its dark red stone, looked uncommonly fine and commanding, and about it flew the martlets that "most breed and haunt" where the air is delicate.
The horse-chestnut leaves were breaking through their silver sheaths in points of delicate green, and daffodils and wild violets were thick in grass and ground ivy, while rabbits started away from within a few feet of the road.
But, although reluctant to break the silence, at last interest in the scene made Molly ask:
"Do you know the date?"
"Oh, Norman undoubtedly," said Mrs. Delaport Green; "the round towers, you know. Round towers go back to almost any date."
Molly was dissatisfied. "You don't know what reign it was built in?"
"Some time soon after the Conqueror; I think Tim did tell me all about it. He looked it up in some book last night."
As a matter of fact, the present Castle had been built under George III., and the towers would have betrayed the fact to more educated observers; while even Molly could see when they came close to the great mass of building that the windows and, indeed, all the decoration was of an inferior type of revived Gothic. But, however an architect might shake his head at Groombridge, it was really a striking building, massive and very well disposed, and in an astonishingly fine position, commanding an immense view of a great plain on nearly three sides, while to the east was stretched the rest of the range of splendidly-wooded hills on the westerly point of which it was situated. In the sweet, soft air many delicate trees and shrubs were developed as well as if they had been in quite a sheltered place.
Lady Groombridge was giving tea to the first arrivals when Mrs. Delaport Green and Molly were shown into the big hall of the Castle.
"Let us come for a walk; we can slip out through this window," murmured Sir Edmund, as he took her empty tea-cup from his cousin.
Rose began to move, but Lady Groombridge claimed her attention before she could escape.
"Do you know Mrs. Delaport Green and Miss Dexter?"
Rose, as she heard Molly's name, found herself looking quite directly into very unexpected and very remarkable grey eyes with dark lashes. Her gentle but reserved greeting would have been particularly negative after Edmund's warning as to both ladies, but she did not quite control a look of surprise and interest. There was a great light in Molly's face as she saw the young and beautiful woman whom she had dreaded intensely to meet.
Rose was evidently unconscious of a certain gentle pride of bearing, but was fully conscious of a wish to be kindly and loving. In neither of these aspects—and they were revealed in a glance to Molly—did Rose attract her. But Molly's look, which puzzled Rose, was as a flame of feeling, burning visibly through the features of the dark, healthy face, and finding its full expression in the eyes. The glory of the landscape she had just passed through, and the excitement of finding herself in such a building, added fuel to Molly's feelings, and seemed to give a historic background to her meeting with her enemy. Some subtle and curious sympathy lit Rose's face for a moment, and then she shrank a little as if she recoiled from a slight shock, and turning with a smile to Sir Edmund Grosse, she followed him down the great hall and out into a passage beyond. He had given Molly an intimate but rather careless nod before he turned away.
Edmund was quite silent as he walked out on the terrace, and seemed as absorbed as Rose in the view that lay below them. But it was with the scene he had just witnessed inside the Castle that his mind was filled. There had been something curiously dramatic in the meeting which he would have done a great deal to prevent. But, annoyed as he was, he could not help dwelling for a moment on the picture of the two with a certain artistic satisfaction. Rose, in her plain, almost poor, clinging black clothes was, as always, amazingly graceful; he felt, not for the first time, as if her every movement were music.
"But that girl is handsome. How she looked into Rose's face, the amazing little devil!—she is plucky."
Then he caught himself up abruptly; it was no use to talk nonsense to himself. The point was how to keep these two apart and how short Mrs. Delaport Green's visit might be made.
"Unluckily Monday is a Bank holiday, but they shall not be asked to stay one hour after the 10.30 train on Tuesday if I have to take them away myself," he murmured. Meanwhile, it was a beautiful evening; there was a wonderful view, and Rose was here, and, for the moment, alone with him. She ran her fingers into the fair hair that was falling over her forehead, and pushed it back and her hat with it, so that the fresh spring air "may get right into my brain," she said, "and turn out London blacks."
"The blacks don't penetrate in your case," said Edmund.
"I'm afraid they do," she murmured, "but now I won't think of them. Easter Eve and this place are enough to banish worries."
"Our hostess contrives to have some worries here."
"Ah! dear Mary, I know; she can't help it; she has always been so very prosperous."
"Oh, it's prosperity, is it?" asked Edmund. He had turned from the view to look more directly at Rose.
"Yes, I know it does not have that effect on you, because you have a happier temperament."
"But am I so very prosperous?" The tone was sad and slightly sarcastic.
"It is quite glorious: one seems to breathe in everything, don't you know, and the smell of primroses; and it is so sweet to think that it is Easter Eve."
Mrs. Delaport Green was coming forth on the terrace, preceded by these words in her clear staccato voice.
"Do you think," said Rose very gently to Edmund, "that we might go down into the wood?"
Presently Molly fell behind Lady Groombridge and Mrs. Delaport Green as they walked along the terrace, and leant on the wall and looked at the view by herself.
The Castle stood on the last spur of a range of hills, and there was an abrupt descent between it and the next rounded hill-top. Covered with trees, the sharp little valley was full of shadow and mystery; and then beyond the great billowy tree-tops rose and fell for miles, until the brilliant early green of the larches and the dark hues of the many leafless branches, already ruddy with buds, became blue and at length purple in the distance.
This joy and glory of her mother earth nobody could grudge Molly, surely? But the very beauty of it all made her more weak; and tears rose in her eyes as she looked at the healing green.
"I am tired," she thought; "and, after all, what harm can it do me to meet Lady Rose Bright? And if Sir Edmund Grosse was annoyed to see me here, what does it matter?"
Presently Lady Groombridge and her admiring guest came back to where Molly was standing. In the excitement of arrival and of meeting Lady Rose, and the little shock of Sir Edmund's greeting, Molly had hardly taken stock of the mistress of the Castle. Lady Groombridge was verging on old age, but ruddy and vigorous. She wore short skirts and thick boots, and tapped the gravel noisily with her stick. She had almost forgotten that she had ever been young and a beauty, and her conversation was usually in the tone of a harassed housekeeper, only that the range of subjects that worried her extended beyond servants and linen and jam into politics and the Church and the souls of men within a certain number of miles of Groombridge Castle.
She stood talking between Molly and Mrs. Delaport Green in a voice of some impatience as she scanned the landscape in search of Rose.
"Dear me, where has Rose gone to? and she knew how much I wanted to have a talk with her before dinner. And I wanted to tell her not to let our clergyman speak about incense and candles. He was more tiresome than usual after Rose was here last time."
Mrs. Delaport Green tried to interject some civil remarks, but Lady Groombridge paid not the slightest attention. The only visitors who interested her in the least were Rose and Edmund Grosse. She could hardly remember why she had invited Mrs. Delaport Green and Molly when she met them in London, and Billy was always Lord Groombridge's guest.
"Well, if Rose won't come out of the wood, I suppose we may as well come in, and perhaps you would like to see your room;" and, with an air of resignation, she led the way.
She stood in the middle of a gorgeously-upholstered room of the date of George IV., and looked fretfully round.
"Of course it is hideous, but I think if you have a good thing even of the worst date it is best to leave it alone;" and then, with a gleam of humour in her eye, she turned to Molly, "and whenever you feel your taste vitiated (or whatever they call it nowadays) in your room next door, you can always look out of the window, you know." And then, speaking to Mrs. Delaport Green:
"We have no light of any sort or kind, and no bathrooms, but there are plenty of candles, and I can't see why, with large hip baths and plenty of water, people can't keep clean. Yes, dinner is at 8.15 sharp; I hope you have everything you want; there is no bell into your maid's room, but the housemaid can always fetch your maid."
Then she ushered Molly into the next room and, after briefly pointing out its principal defects, she left her to rest her body and tire her mind on a hard but gorgeously-upholstered couch until it should be time to dress for dinner.
A LITTLE MORE THAN KIND
Edmund Grosse felt more tolerant of Billy at Groombridge Castle than elsewhere. At Groombridge he was looked upon as a kindly weakness of Lord Groombridge's, who consulted him about the stables and enjoyed his jokes. This position certainly made him more attractive to Edmund, but he was not sorry that Billy, who seldom troubled a church, went there on Easter Sunday morning and left him in undisturbed possession of the terrace.
The sun was just strong enough to be delightful, and, with an interesting book and an admirable cigar, it ought to have been a goodly hour for Grosse. But the fact was that he had wished to walk to church with Rose, and he had quite hoped that if it were only for his soul's sake she would betray some wish for him to come. But if she didn't, he wouldn't. He knew quite well that she would be pleased if he went, but if she were so silly and self-conscious as to be afraid of appearing to want his company—well and good; she should do without it.
He had been disappointed and annoyed with Rose during their walk on the evening before. The simple, matter-of-fact way in which they had been jogging along in London was changed. At first, indeed, she had been natural enough, but then she had become silent for some moments, and afterwards had veered away from personal topics with a tiresome persistency. He half suspected the truth, that this was due to a careless word of his own which had betrayed how suddenly he had given up his intention to spend Easter on the Riviera. If she had jumped to the conclusion that this change was because Edmund had learnt at the eleventh hour that Rose would be at Groombridge, she had no right to be so quick-sighted. It was almost "Missish" of Rose, he told himself, to be so ready to think his heart in danger, and to be so unnecessarily tender of his feelings. She might wait for him to begin the attack before she began to build up fortifications.
He was at the height of his irritation against Rose, when the three other ladies came out on the terrace. Lady Groombridge instantly told Mrs. Delaport Green that she knew she wished to visit the dairy, and hustled her off through the garden. Edmund rose and smiled, with his peculiar, paternal admiration, at Molly, whose dark looks were at their very best set in the complete whiteness of her hat and dress. Then he glanced after the figures that were disappearing among the rose-bushes.
"The party is not in the least what your chaperone expected; indeed, we can hardly be dignified by the name of a party at all, but you see how happy she is. She even enjoyed dear old Groombridge's prosing last night, and she has been very happy in church, and now she is going to see the dairy. The only thing that troubles her is that Lady Groombridge has not allowed her to change her gown, and a well-regulated mind cannot enjoy her prayers and a visit to cows in the same gown. Now suppose," he looked at Molly with a lazy, friendly smile, "you put on a short skirt and come for a walk."
A little later they were walking through the woods on the hills beyond the Castle. Perhaps he intended that Rose, who had stayed to speak to the vicar, should find that he had not been waiting about for her return.
"I would give a good deal to possess the cheerful philosophy of Mrs. Delaport Green," he said, as, looking down through an opening in the trees, they could see that little woman with her skirts gracefully held up standing by while Lady Groombridge discoursed to the keeper of cows, who looked sleek and prosperous and a little sulky the while.
"You would be wise to learn some of it from her," Edmund went on. "Isn't this nice? Let us sit upon the ground, as it is dry, and feel how good everything is. You like this sort of thing, don't you?"
Molly murmured "Yes," and sat down on a mossy bank and looked up into the glorious blue sky and then at a tuft of large, pale primroses in the midst of dark ground ivy, then far down to the fields where a group of brown cows, rich in colour, stood lazily content by a blue stream that sparkled in the sunlight. Edmund was not hard-hearted, and Molly looked very young, and a pathetic trouble underlay the sense of pleasure in her face. There was no peace in Molly's eyes, only the quick alternations of acute enjoyment and the revolt against pain and a child's resentment at supposed blame.
Pleasure was uppermost at this moment, for so many slight, easy, human pleasures were new to her. She sat curved on the ground, with the ease and suppleness of a greyhound ready to spring, whereas Sir Edmund was forty and a little more stiff than his age warranted.
"But when you do enjoy yourself I imagine it's worth a good many hours of our friend's sunny existence. Oh, dear, dear!" For at that moment the dairy was a scene of some confusion; two enormous dogs from the Castle had bounded up to Lady Groombridge, barking outrageously, and one of them had covered her companion with mud.
"She is saying that it does not matter in the least, and that the gown is an old rag, but I'm sure it's new on to-day, and it's impossible to say how much has not been paid for it."
Molly laughed; she felt as sure that Sir Edmund was right as if she could hear every word the little woman was saying.
"Well, that you will allow is humbug!"
"Yes, I think I will this time, and I believe, too, that the philosophy has collapsed. I'm sure she's a mass of ruffled feathers, and her mind is full of things that she will hurl at the devoted head of her maid when she gets in. You can only really wound that type of woman to the quick by touching her clothes. There now, is that severe enough?"
"Why do we always talk of Mrs. Delaport Green?" asked Molly.
"Because she is on trial in your mind and you are not quite sure whether she suits."
"I might go further and fare worse," said Molly.
"Is there no one you would naturally go to?" asked Edmund.
"There is the aunt who brought me up, Mrs. Carteret, and I'd rather—" She paused. "There is nothing in this world I would not rather do than go back to her."
Molly's face was completely overcast; it was threatening and angry.
"Poor child!" said Edmund gently.
"I wonder," said Molly, "if anybody used to say 'poor child' when I was small. There must have been some one who pitied an orphan, even in the cheerful, open-air system of Aunt Anne's house, where no one ever thought of feelings, or fancies, or frights at night, or loneliness."
Edmund looked at her with a sympathy that tried to conceal his curiosity.
"Was it possible," he wondered, "that she really thought she was an orphan?"
"It's dreadful to think of a very lonely child," he said.
"But some people have to be lonely all their lives," said Molly.
Sir Edmund was touched. She had raised her head and looked at him with a pleading confidence. Then, with one swift movement, she was suddenly kneeling and tearing to pieces two or three primroses in succession.
"Some people have to say things that can never be really said, or else keep everything shut up."
"Don't you think they may make a mistake, and that the things can be said—" He hesitated; he did not want to press her unfairly into confidence; "to the right person?" he concluded rather lamely.
"Who is to find the right person?" said Molly bitterly; "the right person is easy to find for people who have just ordinary cares and difficulties, but the people who are in real difficulties don't easily find the right person. I doubt if he or she exists myself!"
She turned to find Edmund Grosse looking at her with far too much meaning in his face; there was a degree and intensity of interest in his look that might be read in more than one way.
Molly blushed with the simplicity suited to seventeen rather than to twenty-one. She was very near to the first outpouring in her life, the torrent of her pent-up thoughts and feelings was pressing against the flood-gates. It seemed to her that she had never known true and real sympathy before she felt that look. She held out her hands towards him with a little unconscious gesture of appeal.
"I have had a strange life," she said; "I am in very strange circumstances now."
But Edmund suddenly got up, and before she could speak again a slight sound on the path showed her that some one was coming.
Rose, finding every one dispersed, had taken a walk by herself in the wood. She was glad to be alone; she felt the presence of God in the woods as very near and intimate. Her mind had one of those moments of complete rest and feeding on beautiful things which come to those who have known great mental suffering in their lives, and to whom the world is not giving its gaudy preoccupations. So, walking amidst the glory of spring lit by a spiritual sunshine, Rose came round a little stunted yew-tree to find Molly kneeling on the ground ivy, and Edmund standing by her. Molly rose in one movement to her full height, as if her legs possessed no jointed impediments, and a fiercely negative expression filled the grey eyes. Rose's kind hand had unwittingly slammed the flood-gates in the moment they had opened; and Edmund, seeing that look, and feeling the air electric, suddenly reverted to a belief in Molly's sense of guilt towards Rose.
For the fraction of a second Rose looked helplessly at Edmund, and then held out a little bunch of violets to Molly.
"Won't you have these? There; they suit so well with your gown."
With a quick and very gentle touch she put the violets into Molly's belt, and smiled at her with the sunshine that was all about them.
Molly looked a little dazed, and the "Thank you" of her clear low voice was mechanical.
"I was just coming for a few minutes' walk in the wood."
Rose's voice was very rich in inflection, and now it sounded like a caress.
"But I wonder if it is late? I think I have forgotten the time, it is all so beautiful."
She laid her hand for a moment on Molly's arm.
"It is very late," said Edmund with decision, but without consulting his watch on the point.
They all moved quickly, and while making their way back to the Castle Rose and Edmund talked of Lord and Lady Groombridge, and Molly walked silently beside them.
THE PET VICE
"May I come in?"
At the same moment the door was half opened, and Lady Groombridge, in a heavy, dark-coloured gown, made her way in, with the swish of a long, silk train. She half opened the door with an air of mystery, and she closed it softly while she held her flat silver candlestick in her hand as if she wished she could conceal it, yet the oil lamps were still burning in the gallery behind her. The appearance of the wish for concealment was merely the unconscious expression of her mental condition at the moment.
Two women looked up in surprise as she made this unconsciously dramatic entrance into her guest's bedroom. Lady Rose was sitting in front of the uncurtained window in a loose, white dressing-gown, lifting a mass of her golden hair with her hair brush. She had been talking eagerly, but vaguely, before her hostess came in, in order to conceal the fact that she wished intensely to be allowed to go to bed.
Lady Rose made many such minor sacrifices on the altar of charity, and she was sorry for the tall, thin, mysterious girl who, at first almost impossibly stiff and cold, had volunteered a visit to her room to-night. It was only a very few who were ever asked to come into Rose's room, and she had hastily covered the miniature of her dead husband in his uniform with her small fan before she admitted Molly.
By some strange impulse, Molly had attached herself to Rose during the rest of that Easter Sunday. Curiosity, admiration, or jealousy might have accounted for Molly's doing this. To herself it seemed merely part of her determination to face the position without fear or fancies. If Lady Rose found out later with whom she had spent those hours, at least she should not think that Molly had been embarrassed. Perhaps, too, Sir Edmund's efforts to keep them apart made her more anxious to be with her.
Having been kindly welcomed to Rose's room, Molly found herself slightly embarrassed; they seemed to have used up all common topics during the day, and Molly was certainly not prepared to be confidential.
The entrance of the hostess came as a relief. That lady, without glancing at Rose or Molly as she came into the middle of the room, banged the candlestick down on a small table, and then threw herself into an arm-chair, which gave a creak of sympathy in response to her loud sigh.
"It is perfectly disgraceful!" she said, "and now I don't really know what has happened. On Easter Sunday night, too!"
Molly had been standing by the window, looking out on the moonlit park. She now leaned further across the wide window-seat, so that her slight, sea-green silk-clad figure might not be obtrusive, and the dark keen face was turned away for the same purpose.
"That woman has actually," Lady Groombridge went on, "been playing cards in the smoking-room on Easter Sunday night with Billy and those two boys. What Groombridge will say, I can't conceive; it is perfectly disgraceful!"
"Have they been playing for much?"
"Oh, for anything, I suppose; and Edmund Grosse says that the boy from the Parsonage has lost any amount to Billy. They have fleeced him in the most disgraceful way."
There was a long silence. Rose looked utterly distressed.
"If he had only refused to play," she said at last, as if she wished to return in imagination to a happier state of things.
"It's no use saying that now," said Lady Groombridge, with an air of ineffable wisdom.
Molly Dexter bit her tiny evening handkerchief, and her grey eyes laughed at the moonlight.
"Well, Rose, I can't say you are much comfort to me," the hostess went on presently, with a dawn of humour on her countenance as she crossed one leg over the other.
"But, my dear, what can I say?"
The tall, white figure, brush in hand, rose and stood over the elderly woman in the chair. Rose had had the healthy development of a girlhood in the country, but her regular features were more deeply marked now and there were dark lines under her clear, blue eyes.
"Do you think," said the hostess in a brooding way, "that Mrs. What's-her-name Green would tell you how much he lost, Rose, if you went to her room? Of course, I can't possibly ask her."
"Oh no; she thinks me a goody-goody old frump."
At the same moment another brush at the splendid hair betrayed a half-consciousness of the grace of her own movements.
"She wouldn't say a word to me—she is much more likely to tell one of the men. Perhaps she will tell Edmund Grosse to-morrow; he is so easy to talk to."
"But that's no use for to-night, and Groombridge will be simply furious if I ask him to interfere without telling him how much it comes to. Billy won't say a word."
"I think," said Rose very slowly, "that if we all go to bed now, we shall have some bright idea in the morning."
Before this master-stroke of suggestion had reached Lady Groombridge's brain, a very low voice came from the window.
"Would you like me to go and ask her?"
The hostess started; she had forgotten Miss Molly Dexter. A little dull blush rose to her forehead.
"Oh dear, I had forgotten you were there; but, after all, she is no relation of yours, and it isn't your fault, you know. Could you—would you really not mind asking her?"
"I don't mind at all. Might I take your candle?"
"Of course," said Lady Groombridge, "you won't, don't you know——"
"Say that you sent me?" The low, detached voice betrayed no sarcasm. She knew perfectly well that Lady Groombridge disliked being beholden to her at that moment. It was rather amusing to make her so.
For fifteen minutes after that the travelling clock by Lady Rose's bed ticked loudly, and drowned the faint murmur of her prayers while she knelt at the prie-dieu.
Lady Groombridge knew Rose too well to be surprised. But she did not, like the young widow, pass the time in prayer; she was worried—even deeply so. She was of an anxious temperament, and she was really shocked at what had happened.
Molly did not come back with any air of mystery, but with a curiously negative look.
"Thirty-five pounds," she said very quietly.
Lady Groombridge sat up, very wide awake.
"More than half his allowance for a whole year," she said with conviction.
"Oh dear, dear," said Lady Rose, rising as gracefully as a guardian angel from her prie-dieu.
Molly made no comment, although in her heart she was very angry with Mrs. Delaport Green. Her quick "Good-night" was very cordially returned by the other two.
"Now tell me something more about Miss Molly Dexter," said Rose, sinking on to a tiny footstool at Lady Groombridge's feet as soon as they were alone.
"I am ashamed to say that I know very little about her; I am simply furious with myself for having asked them at all. I don't often yield to kind-hearted impulses, and I'm sure I'm punished enough this time."
Lady Groombridge gave a snort.
"But who is she? Is she one of the Malcot Dexters?"
"Yes; I can tell you that much. She is the daughter of a John Dexter I used to know a little. He died many years ago, not very long after divorcing his wife, and this poor girl was brought up by an aunt, and Sir Edmund says she had a bad time of it. Then she made one of those odd arrangements people make nowadays, to be taken about by this Mrs. Delaport Green, and I met them at Aunt Emily's, and, of course, I thought they were all right and asked them to come here. After that I heard a little more about the girl from some one in London; I can't remember who it was now."
"Poor thing," said Rose; "she looks as if she had had a sad childhood. But what curious eyes; I find her looking through and through me."
"Yes; you have evidently got a marked attraction for her."
"Repulsion, I should have called it," said Rose, with her gentle laugh.
Lady Groombridge laughed too, and got up to go to bed.
"And what became of the mother?"
"She is living—" said the other; then she caught her sleeve in the table very clumsily, and was a moment or two disengaging the lace. "She is living," she then said rather slowly, "in Paris, I think it is, but this girl has never seen her."
"Yes. Good-night, Rose; do get to bed quickly,—a wise remark when it is I who have been keeping you up!"
Lady Groombridge, when she got to her own room, murmured to herself:
"I only stopped just in time. I nearly said Florence, and that is where the other wicked woman lives. It's odd they should both live in Florence. But—how absurd, I'm half asleep—it would be much odder if there were not two wicked women in Florence."
Sir Edmund was aware as soon as he took his seat by Molly at the breakfast-table that she knew why Lady Groombridge was pouring out tea with a dark countenance. He put a plate of omelette in his own place, and then asked if Molly needed anything. As she answered in the negative he murmured as he sat down:
"Mrs. Delaport Green is not down?"
"She has a furious toothache."
Molly's look answered his.
"I suppose there is no such thing as a dentist left in London on Easter Monday?"
No more was safe just then; but by common consent they moved out on to the terrace as soon as they had finished breakfast.
"It is too tiresome, too silly, too wrong," said Molly.
"Yes; the pet vice should be left at home," said Edmund. "Many of them do it because it's fashionable, but this one must have it in the blood. I saw her begin to play, and she was a different creature when she touched the cards. What sort of repentence is there?"
"I found her crying last night like a child, but this morning I see she is going to brazen it out. But she wants to quarrel with me at once, so I don't get much confidence."
"But you don't mind that?"
"Not in the least, only—" Molly sighed, but intimate as their tone was, she did not now feel any inclination to reveal her greater troubles.
"I don't want to end up badly with my first venture, and I have nowhere else to go. For to-day I think she will talk of going to see the dentist until she finds out how she is treated here."
"Oh! that will be all right for to-day," said Edmund. "There are no possible trains on Bank holiday, and no motor. Let her get off early to-morrow."
Molly had evidently sought his opinion as decisive, and she turned as if to go and repeat it to Mrs. Delaport Green.
"But what will you do yourself?" he asked very gently.
"I shall go away with her, and then—I wonder—" She hesitated, and looked full into his face. "Would you be shocked if I took a flat by myself? I don't want to hunt for another Mrs. Delaport Green just now."
Sir Edmund paused. It struck him for a moment as very tiresome that he should be falling into the position of counsellor and guide to this girl, while he had anything but her prosperity at heart. He looked at her, and there was in her attitude a pathetic confidence in his judgment.
"I don't want," she went on, holding her head very straight and looking away to the wooded hills, "I don't want to do anything unconventional."
A deep blush overspread the dark face—a blush of shame and hesitation, for the words, "your mother's daughter ought to be more careful than other girls," so often in poor Molly's mind, were repeated there now.
"If there were an old governess, or some one of that sort," suggested Sir Edmund, with hesitation.
"Oh yes, yes!" cried Molly eagerly; "there is one, if I could only get her. Oh, thank you, yes! I wonder I did not think of that before." And she gave a happy, youthful laugh at this solution.
"Is it some one you really care for?" asked Edmund, with growing interest.
"I don't know about really caring"—Molly looked puzzled—"but she would do. There is one thing more I wanted to ask you. About the silly boy last night: whom does he owe the money to? I know nothing about bridge."
"He owes it to Billy."
Molly looked sorry.
"I thought, if it were to Mrs. Delaport Green——"
"You might have paid the money?" Edmund smiled kindly at her. "No, no, Miss Dexter, that will be all right."
She turned from him, laughing, and went indoors to Mrs. Delaport Green's room.
She found that lady writing letters, and the floor was scattered with them, six deep round the table. She put her hand to her face as Molly came in.
"There are no possible trains," said Molly, "so I'm afraid you must bear it. Sir Edmund advises us to go by an early train to-morrow: he thinks to-day you would be better here, as there won't be a dentist left in London."
"I am very brave at bearing pain, fortunately," was the answer, "and I am trying, even now, to get on with my letters. I think I shall go to Eastbourne to-morrow; there are always good dentists in those places. I love the churches there, and the air will brace my nerves. I might have gone to Brighton only Tim is there. Will you"—she paused a moment—"will you come to Eastbourne too?"
Mrs. Delaport Green was not disposed to have Molly with her. She was exceedingly annoyed at the debacle of her visit to Groombridge—a visit which she was describing in glowing terms in her letters to all her particular friends. It would be unpleasant to have Molly's critical eyes upon her; she liked, and was accustomed to, people with a very different expression.
Molly, however, ignoring very patent hints with great calmness and firmness, told her that she intended to stay with her for just as long as it was necessary before finding some one to live with in a little flat in London. She felt the possibility, at first, of Mrs. Delaport Green's becoming insolent, but she was presently convinced that she had mastered the situation. They agreed to go to Eastbourne together next day, and then to look for a flat for Molly in London. The suggestion that Mrs. Delaport Green might help Molly to choose the furniture proved very soothing indeed.
Molly went down-stairs again to let Sir Edmund know they were not going to leave till next morning, and to find out if he had succeeded in speaking to Lady Groombridge.
As she passed through the hall, she saw that he was sitting with Lady Rose by a window opening on to the terrace. She was passing on, being anxious not to interrupt them, but Rose held out her hand.
"I've hardly seen you this morning. Do come and sit with us." And then, as Molly rather shyly sat down by her side on a low sofa, Lady Rose went on:
"I was just telling Sir Edmund a very beautiful thing that has happened, only it is very sad for dear Lord Groombridge and for her. They have only had the news this morning, but it is not a secret, and it is very wonderful. You know that this place was to go to a cousin, quite a young man, and they liked him very much. They did mind his being a Roman Catholic, but they were very good about it, and now he has written that he has actually been ordained a priest, and that he will not have the property or the Castle as he is going to be just an ordinary parish priest working amongst the poor. It is wonderful, isn't it? They say the next brother is a very ordinary young man—not like this wonderful one—and so they are very much upset to-day, poor dears. They knew he was studying for the priesthood, but they did not realise that the time for his Ordination had really come."
Molly murmured shyly something that sounded sympathetic, and then, looking at Sir Edmund, ventured to say:
"Mrs. Delaport Green would like to stay till the early train to-morrow. But have you seen Lady Groombridge?"
"Yes; it's all right—or rather, it's all wrong—but she won't tell Groombridge to-day, and she will be quite fairly civil, I think."
"And this news," said Rose gently, "will make them both think less of that unfortunate affair last night."
Molly rose and moved off with an unusually genial smile.
THE THIN END OF A CLUE
Edmund Grosse later on in the morning strolled down to the stables. He had been there the day before, but he had still something to say to the stud-groom, an old friend of his, who had the highest respect for the baronet's judgment.
Edmund loved a really well-kept stable, where hardly a straw escapes beyond the plaited edges, where the paint is renewed and washed to the highest possible pitch of cleanliness, and where a perpetual whish of water and clanking of pails testify to a constant cleaning of cobblestone yard and flagged pavement.
In the middle of Groombridge Castle stable-yard there was an oval of perfect turf, and that was surrounded by soft, red gravel; then came alternate squares of pavement and cobble-stones, on to which opened the wide doors of coach-houses and stables and harness-rooms, and the back gate of the stud-groom's house.
An old, white-haired, ruddy-faced man standing on the red gravel smiled heartily when Sir Edmund appeared. The man was in plain clothes, with a very upright collar and a pearl horseshoe-pin in his tie; his figure was well-built, but showed unmistakably that his knees had been fixed in their present shape by constant riding.
He touched his hat.
"How's the mare to-day, Akers?" asked Sir Edmund.
"Nicely, nicely; it's a splendid mash that, Sir Edmund. Old Hartley gave me the recipe for that. He was stud-groom here longer than I have been, in the old lord's day. He had hoped to have had his son to follow him, but the lad got wild, and it couldn't be."
The old man sighed, and changed the conversation. "Will you come round again, sir?"
"Yes," said Edmund; "I don't mind if I do. But you've got a son of your own about the stable, haven't you?" he asked, as they turned towards the other side of the yard.
"I had two, Sir Edmund," was the brief and melancholy answer. "Jimmy's here, but the lad I thought most on, he went and enlisted in the war, and he couldn't settle down again after that. Jimmy, he'll never rise to my place—it would not be fair, and I wouldn't let his lordship give it a thought—but the other one might have done it."
Sir Edmund felt some sympathy for the stay-at-home, whom he knew. "He seems a cheerful, steady fellow."
"He's steady enough, and he's cheerful enough," said his father, in a tone of great contempt; "but the other lad had talent—he had talent."
Both men had paused in the interest of their talk.
"My eldest son, Thomas, of whom I'm speaking, went to the war in the same ship as General Sir David Bright, and there's a thing I'd like to tell you about that, Sir Edmund. It never came into my head how curious a thing it was till yesterday—last night, I may say. Lady Rose Bright's lady's-maid come in with Lady Groombridge's lady's-maid to see my wife, and you'll excuse me if I do repeat some woman's gossip when you see why I do it. Well, the long and short of it was that it seems Lady Rose Bright has been left rather close as to fortune for a lady in her position, and the money's all gone off elsewhere. Then the maid said, Sir Edmund—whether truly or not I don't know, naturally—that there had been hopes that another will might be sent home from South Africa, but that nothing came of it. I felt, so to speak, puzzled while I was listening, and afterwards my wife says to me while we were alone, she says, 'Wasn't it our Thomas when he was on board ship wrote that he had put his name to a paper for Sir David Bright?'—witnessing, you'll understand she meant by that, sir—'and what's become of that paper I should like to know,' says she. So she up and went to her room and took out all Thomas's letters, and sure enough it was true."
Akers paused, and then very slowly extracted a fat pocket-book from his tight-fitting coat, and pulled out a letter beautifully written on thin paper. He held it with evident respect, and then, after a preparatory cough, he began to read:
"'I was sent for to-day, and taken up with another of our regiment to the state cabins by Sir David Bright's servant, and asked to put my name to a paper as witness to Sir David Bright's signature, and so I did.'"
Akers stopped, and looked across his glasses at Sir Edmund.
"I don't know if you will remember Sir David's servant, Sir Edmund; he was killed in the same battle as Sir David was, poor fellow. A big man with red hair—a Scotchman—you'd have known that as soon as he opened his mouth. He'd have chosen my boy from having known him here, in all probability."
"Yes, yes," said Grosse impatiently; "but how do you know that what he witnessed was a will?"
"Well, of course, I don't know, Sir Edmund, and of course the boy didn't know what was in the paper he witnessed; but the missus will have it that that paper was a will, and there'll be no getting it out of her head that the right will has been lost. I was wondering about it when I see you come into the yard, and I thought I'd just let you see the lad's letter. It could do no harm, and it might do good."
Edmund had been absolutely silent during this narrative, with his eyes fixed on the stud-groom's face.
"And where is Thomas now?" he asked, in a low voice.
"He's in North India somewhere, Sir Edmund, but that is his poor mother's trouble; we've not had a line from him these three months."
"Oh, I'll find him for you," said Edmund, and he was just going to ask what regiment Thomas was in when they were disturbed by the appearance of Billy emerging from the hunters' stable, and Edmund Grosse felt an unwarrantable contempt for a young man who dawdles away half the morning in the stable.
"Should I find you at six o'clock this evening?" he asked, in a low voice, of the stud-groom; and having been satisfied on that point, he strolled off and left Billy to talk of the horses.
Edmund Grosse felt for the moment as if the missing will were in his grasp, and he was quite sure now that he had never doubted its existence. What he had just heard was the very first thing approaching to evidence in favour of his own theory, which he had hitherto built up entirely on guess-work. Of course, the paper might have been some ordinary deed, some bit of business the General had forgotten to transact before starting. But, if so, he felt sure that it must have been business unknown to the brothers Murray, as they had discussed with Grosse every detail of Sir Edmund's affairs. One thing was certain: it would be quite as difficult after this to drive out of Edmund Grosse's head the belief that this paper was a will as it would be to drive it out of the head of Mrs. Akers.
Edmund was in excellent spirits at luncheon. In the afternoon he drove with Lady Groombridge and Rose and Molly to see a famous garden some eight miles off, the owners of which were away in the South. The original house to which the gardens belonged had been replaced by a modern one in Italian style at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was not interesting, and Lady Groombridge gave a sniff of contempt as she turned her back on it and her attention, and that of her friends, to the far more striking green walls beyond the wide terraced walk on the south side of the building.
In the midst of ordinary English country scenery, these gardens had been set by a great Frenchman who had caught the strange secret of the romance of utterly formal hedges. He could make of them a fitting framework for the glories of a court, or for sylvan life in Merrie England. There were miles of hedges; not yew, hornbeam had been chosen for this green, tranquil country. At one spot many avenues of hedges met together as if by accident, or by some rhythmic movement; it was a minuet of Nature's dancing, grown into formal lines but not petrified—every detail, in fact, alive with green leaves. If you stood in the midst of this meeting of the ways, the country round outside, seen in vistas between the hedges, was curiously glorified, more especially on one side where the avenues were shortened. There one saw larger glimpses of fields and woods and bits of common-land that seemed wonderfully eloquent of freedom and simplicity, nature and husbandry. But if you had not seen those glimpses through the lines of strange, stately, regal dignity—the lines of those mighty hedges—you would not have been so startled by their charm. That was the triumph of the genius of Lenotre: he had seen that, framed in the sternest symbols of rule and order, one could get the freshest joy in the pictures of Nature's untouched handiwork. On the west side the avenues of hedges disappeared into distant vistas of wood, one only ending in a piece of most formal ornamental water. I don't know how it was, but it was difficult not to be infected by a curious sense of orgy, of human beings up to their tricks—love tricks, drinking and eating—perhaps murdering tricks—all done in some impish fantastic way, between those long hedges or behind them. If there were not something going on down one avenue you looked into, it was happening in another.
Somewhat of all this Edmund said to Molly as they strolled between the hedges which reached far above his head, but she felt that he was absent-minded while he did so. He had planned for himself a walk and a talk with Rose, but he had reckoned without his hostess, who had shown so unmistakably that she intended him to amuse Molly that it would have been discourteous to have done anything else. He had felt rather cross as he saw Lady Groombridge and Rose turn down one of the longest walks, one that seemed indeed to have no ending at all, with an air of finality, as if their tete-a-tete were to be as long as the path before them, and as secret as the hedges could keep it. He would never have come out driving with three women if he had not hoped to get a talk alone with Rose. He told himself that Rose's avoidance of him was becoming quite an affectation, and after all, he asked himself, what had he done to be treated like this?
"Why, if I were trying to make love to her she could not be more absurd! The only time after our first walk here that we have been alone she made Miss Dexter join us, and as the girl would not stay Rose found she must write letters."
As soon as he had made up his mind that he would show Rose what nonsense it all was, he could and did—not without the zest of pique—turn his attention to Molly.
"Lady Groombridge doesn't frame well here, does she?" he said, smiling. "Rather a shock at that date—the tweed skirt and the nailed boots and the felt hat."
"Yes; but Lady Rose floats down between the hedges as if she had a long train, only she hasn't," laughed Molly. "The hem of her garment never touches the earth, as a matter of fact. I wonder how it is done."
"You are right," said Edmund; "and, do you know another thing about Rose?—whatever she wears she seems to be in white."
"I know," answered Molly. "I see what you mean."
"It may be," said Edmund, "because she always wore white as a young girl. I remember the day when David Bright first saw her she was in white." Edmund had for a moment forgotten entirely why he should not have mentioned David Bright. If Molly could have read his mind at the next moment she would have seen that he was expressing a most fervent wish that he had never met her. How little he had gained, or was likely to gain, from her, and how stupid and tiresome, if not worse, was this appearance of friendship. He felt this much more strongly on account of the morning's discovery, and he was determined to keep on neutral ground.
"Have you ever seen Versailles?" he asked.
"No; I have seen absolutely nothing out of England except India, when I was a small child."
There it was again! He could not let her give him any confidences about India or anything else.
"Well, the hedges at Versailles don't impress me half as much as these do, and yet these are not half so well known. There's more of nature here, and they are not so self-contained. At Versailles the Court and its gardens were the world, and nature a tapestry hanging out for a horizon; here it is amazing how the frame leads one's eyes to the great, beautiful world outside. I never saw meadows and woods look fairer than from here."
They were silent; and in the silence Grosse heard shouting and then saw a huge dog dragging a chain, rushing along the avenue towards them, while louder shouts came from the opposite direction.
"We must run," he said very quietly, "there's something wrong with it;" and two men, still calling and waving their arms, appeared at the end nearest the house. Edmund took Molly by the arm, and they ran to meet the men.
"Get the lady over the kitchen-garden wall!" shouted one who held a gun, and as they came to the end of the hedge on their left they saw a wall at right angles to it about five feet high. Molly looked for any sort of footing in the bricks for one second, and then she felt Grosse lift her in his arms, and deposit her on the top of the wall. She rolled over on the other side into a strawberry bed in blossom. She heard a gun fired as she jumped to her feet, and a second shot followed.
"He's dead, sir," she heard a voice say. "I'll open the gate for the lady."
And then a garden gate a few yards off was opened inward, and Molly walked to meet the man whom she supposed to be a head gardener. She thanked him and went through the gate, to find Edmund, with a very white face, leaning back on a stone bench built into the wall.