"YOUR DEVOTED MOTHER.
"P.S.—There is no need to answer the question as to Sir Edmund Grosse."
Molly was so intensely disgusted with the miserable old woman's letter that her first inclination was to burn it at once. She was kneeling before the fire with that intention when Sir Edmund Grosse was announced. She thrust the paper into her pocket, and realised in a flash how astonishing it was that Sir Edmund should have tried to see Madame Danterre. The only explanation that occurred to her at the moment was that he had tried to see her mother because of his interest in herself. She did not know that he had not been in Florence since he had known her. But what could have started him in the notion that Miss Dexter was Madame Danterre's child? And did he know it for certain now? That was what she would like to find out.
Molly had on a pale green tea-gown, which fell into a succession of almost classic folds with each rapid characteristic movement. The charm of her face was enormously increased by its greater softness of expression. Although she could not help wishing to please him, even in a moment full of other emotion, she did not know how much there was to make her successful to-day. She did not realise her own physical and moral development during the past months.
Edmund's manner was unconsciously caressing. He had come, he told himself—and it was the third time he had called at the flat,—simply because he wanted to keep in touch, to get any information he could. And he had heard rumours from Florence that Madame Danterre was becoming steadily weaker and more unable to make any effort.
"A man told me the other day that this was the best-furnished flat in London, and, by Jove! I rather think he was right."
"I never believe in the man who told you things, he is far too apposite; I think his name is Harris."
Edmund smiled at the fire.
"Who was the attractive little priest I met here the other day?" he asked.
"Little! He is as tall as you are."
"Still, one thinks of him as un bon petit pretre, doesn't one? But who is he?"
"Not Groombridge's cousin?"
"Yes, the same."
"I wonder if he repents of his folly now? I didn't think he looked particularly cheerful!"
"Didn't you?" said Molly. "Well, I think he is the happiest person I know! But we never do agree about people, do we?"
"About a few we do, but it's much more amusing to talk about ourselves, isn't it?"
"Much more. What do you want me to tell you about myself this time?"
Edmund looked at her with sleepy eyes and perceived that something had changed. "I should like to know what you think about me?" he said gently.
"No, you wouldn't," said Molly, and she gave a tiny sigh. "No, for some reason or other you want to know something which I have settled to tell you."
Her manner alarmed and excited him. As a matter of honourable dealing he felt that he ought to give her pause. "Are you sure you are wise?" he said.
"I'm not sure, but that's my own affair, and it will be a relief. I would rather you knew what you want to know, though why you want to know"—her eyes were searching him—"I can't tell."
Sir Edmund Grosse almost told her that he did not want to know.
"You want to know for certain that my mother is living in Florence under the name of Madame Danterre—the Madame Danterre you have tried to see there. And further, you want to know how much I have ever seen of her."
"Oh, please!" cried Edmund, "I don't indeed wish you to tell me all this."
"You do, and so I shall answer the questions. I have never seen her in my life. But these last few weeks I have thought I ought to try, so I wrote and offered to go to her, and I have this evening had the first letter she has ever written to me. In this letter"—she drew it half out of her pocket—"she declines to see me, and she exhorts me to a vegetable diet."
There was a moment in which her face looked the embodiment of sarcasm, then something gentler came athwart it. He had never come so near to liking her before. He could no longer think of her as all the more dangerous on account of her attractions; she was a suffering, cruelly-treated woman. It is dangerous to see too much of one's enemies: Edmund was growing much softer.
"But why," she went on with quiet dignity, "did you try so hard to break through her seclusion?"
It was a dreadful question—a question impossible to answer. He was silent; then he said—
"Dear lady, I told you I did not want you to satisfy what you supposed to be my wish for knowledge, and I am very sorry that now, at least, I cannot tell you why I wished to see Madame Danterre."
Naturally, it never struck him for a moment that Molly might think it was for her sake that he had tried to see her mother, as he had not known of her existence when he was in Florence. But his reticence made her incline much more to that idea. She almost blushed in the firelight. Edmund was feeling baffled and sorry. If there were another will—and he still maintained that there was another—certainly Miss Dexter knew nothing about it. He had wronged her; and after all what reasonable grounds had there been for his suspicions as to her guilt?
"I suppose," he thought, "Rose is right, and will-hunting is demoralising, or 'not healthy,' as she calls it."
But he had been too long silent.
"It is very hard on you to get such a letter," he said, with a ring of true sympathy in his voice and more expression than usual in his face. "I wish I had not come in and disturbed you; I wish you had a woman friend here instead."
"I don't," said Molly quickly. "Don't go yet. I can say as little as I like with you, and then I'm going to church to hear the bon petit pretre preach."
"He will lure you to Rome."
"Well, I think there's a good deal to be said for Rome."
"Don't you mind people joining it?" she asked, a little eagerly.
"No, I like it better than Ritualism."
"But Lady Rose is a Ritualist."
"I believe you will find angels few and far between in any religion."
"It must be nice to be an angel," mused Molly.
He had risen to go; he thought he might still find Rose at home and he wanted to speak to her, yet he was in no hurry to be gone.
"Don't give me an excuse for compliments; I warn you, you will repent it if you do," he said warmly; and then, after a little hesitation which might well have been mistaken for an effort at self-command in a moment of emotion, he added in a low voice—
"May I come and see you again very soon?"
As Molly gave him her hand he looked at her with wistful apology for having wronged her in his thoughts, for having intruded into her secrets. There was more pity in his eyes than he knew at the moment. He bent his head after that, and with the foreign fashion he sometimes fell into, and which Molly had known before, gently kissed her hand. The quick kindly action was the expression of his wish to make amends.
Molly stood quite still after he had gone away, as motionless as a living figure could stand, her grey eyes dilated and full of light. Would he could have seen her! But if he had, would he have understood what love meant in a heart that had never before been opened by any great human affection? No love of father, mother, sister, or brother had ever laid a claim on Molly. The whole kingdom of her affections had been standing empty and ready, and now the hour of fulfilment was near.
"He will come again very soon," she whispered to herself. And then she put her hand to her lips and kissed it where it had been kissed a moment before, but with a devotion and reverence and gentleness that made the last kiss a tragic contrast.
Presently, happier than she had ever been in her life before, Molly went out to hear Mark Molyneux preach on sanctifying our common actions.
"No position is so hard" he said in his peroration, "no circumstances are so difficult, no duties so conflicting, no temptations so mighty, as not to be the means to lead us to God if we seek to do His will."
But the words seemed in no way appropriate to Molly's mind, which was wholly occupied in a wordless song of thanksgiving.
LADY ROSE'S SCRUPLE
As Edmund Grosse was shown up-stairs to Lady Rose Bright, he passed a young clergyman coming down. He found Rose standing with a worried look in the middle of the room.
"Edmund! how nice," she said gently.
"What has that fellow been worrying you about?"
"It isn't his fault, poor man," said Rose, "only it's so sad. He has had at last to close his little orphanage. You see, we used to give him L100 a year, and after David died I had to write and tell him that I couldn't go on, and it has been a hard struggle for him since that. I don't think he meant it, but when he came and saw this house"—she waved her hands round the very striking furniture of the room—"I think he wondered, or perhaps it was my fancy. You see, Edmund, I don't know how it is, but I've overdrawn again. What do you think it can be? The housekeeping comes to so little; I have only four servants, and——"
She paused, and there were tears in her eyes. She was wondering where the orphans would go to. It was not like Rose to give way like this and to have out her troubles at once. The fact was that she was finding how much harder it is to help in good works without money than with. If she had started without money it would have been different, but to try to work with people who used to find her large subscriptions a very great help and now had to do without them, was depressing. She had to make constant efforts to believe that they were all just the same to her as they had been in the past.
"How much did you give that youth instead of the L100?"
"Only ten, Edmund." There was a note of pleading in her voice.
"And you will have dinner up here on a tray as there is no fire in the dining-room?"
"Well, what does it matter?"
"And how much will there be to eat on the tray?"
"Oh! much more than I can possibly eat."
"Because it will be some nasty warmed-up stuff washed down by tea. It's of no use trying to deceive me: I've heard that the cook is seventeen, and an orphan herself."
"But what will those other orphans have for dinner?"
"Now, Rose, will you listen to common sense. How many orphans has that sandy-faced cleric on his hands?"
"There were only four left."
"Then I'll get those four disposed of somehow, if you will do something I want you to do."
"What is it? But, Edmund, you know you have done too much for my poor works already; I can't let you."
"Never mind, if you will do what I want."
"What is it?"
"Come right away in the yacht, you and your mother, and we'll go wherever you like."
Joy sprang into her face, but then he saw doubt, and he knew with a deep pang what the doubt meant. He wished to move, oh! so carefully now, or he would lose all the ground he had lately gained.
"What scruples have you now?" he asked laughing. "What a genius you have for them! Look here, Rose, it's common sense; you want a change, you can let the house up to Easter. Besides, you know what it would do for your mother; see what she thinks."
"It's all so quick," gasped Rose, laughing.
"Well, then, don't settle at once if you like; but not one penny for those poor dear little orphans if you don't come. And now, I want to say something else quick, because the tray with the chops and the cheese and the tea will all be getting greasy if I don't get out of the way. Do you know I think I was very hard on that Miss Dexter. I remember I solemnly warned you not to have to do with her. You were quite right: it is not healthy to think so much of that will; it poisons the mind. I am quite sure that poor thing is not to blame."
His tone was curiously eager, it seemed to Rose; and then he began discussing Miss Dexter, and said he thought that at moments she was beautiful. Presently he remembered the tray that was coming, and saw that the hour was half-past seven, and hurried away. She fancied that she missed in his "Good-night" the sort of gentle affectionateness he had shown her so freely of late.
She went up to her room to prepare for the meal he had disparaged so much, looking tired. She smiled rather sadly when she had to own to herself that the tray of supper was almost exactly what Edmund had foretold. She dismissed it as soon as she could, and then drew a chair up to the fire and took up a book. But it soon dropped on to her knee. She had been trying not to give way to depression all that day. But it was very difficult. There seemed to be so little object in life. She felt as if everything had got into a fog; there was no one at home to whom her going and coming mattered any more than the meals mattered. And, meanwhile, she was being sucked into a world of committees and sub-committees. She had thought that, as she could no longer give money, she would give her time and her work; so, when asked, she had joined many things just because she was asked, and she was a little hazy as to the objects of some of them. Having been afraid that she would not have enough to do, she found now that she had already more than she could manage. And everything seemed so difficult. During the past week she had twice taken the wrong bus, and come home very wet and tired. Another day she had taken the wrong train when coming back from South London, and had found herself at Baker Street instead of Sloane Square. These things tried her beyond reason with the sense of loneliness, of incapacity, of uncertainty. Then she had thought that, with very quiet black clothes, she could go anywhere, but her mother had discovered that she sometimes came back from the Girls' Club in Bermondsey as late as ten o'clock at night, and there had been a fuss. Rose had forgotten the fact that she was very fair and very good to look at; she found, half-consciously, that her beauty had its drawbacks. There did not seem to be any reason why she should spare her strength in any way. So, a little wan and tremulous, she appeared at the early morning service, and then, after walking back in any weather, there was a dull little breakfast, and soon after that she got to work. Every post brought begging letters in crowds, and these hurt her dreadfully. It was her wish to live for God and the poor, and every day she had to write: "Lady Rose Bright much regrets that she is quite unable," etc., etc. Then, after those, she would begin another trial—begging letters to her rich friends to help her poor ones, or letters trying to get interest and influence. The difficulties and the confusion of life in the modern Babylon weighed on Rose in something of the same way that they tried Mark Molyneux. It seemed to her that it must be safe and right to be doing so many disagreeable things and to be very tired, too tired to enjoy pleasures when they came her way. Constantly, one person was trying to throw pleasures in her way; one person reminded old friends that Rose was in town; one person suggested that Rose Bright, although she did not go to parties, might come in to hear some great musician at a friend's house; one person wanted to know her opinion on the last book; one person tried to find out when he could take her anywhere in his motor. And this very morning Rose had asked herself if this one friend ought to be allowed to do all these things? Was she sure that she was quite fair to Edmund Grosse?
It had been a day of fears and scruples. She had been unnerved when the clergyman had called just to let her realise that the withdrawal of her subscription had, in the end, meant the collapse of his little orphanage; and when she was breaking down under this, Edmund had come in, and how soothed and comforted she had felt by his presence! And then the joy of his proposal as to the yacht! Her pulses beat with delight; she felt a positive hunger for blue skies, blue water, blue shores; a longing to get away from cares and muddles and badly-done jobs and being misunderstood. Was it not horribly selfish, horribly cowardly? Was it not the longing to stifle the sounds of pain, to shut her eyes to the gloom of the misery about her, to shut her mind to the effort to understand what was of practical good, and what was merely quack in the remedies offered? Still, she realised to-night that she must get some sort of rest; that part of all this gloom was physical. She would understand and feel things more rightly if she went away for a bit.
But could she, ought she, to go away on Edmund's yacht?
Could Rose honestly feel quite sure that all his kindness meant nothing more? She had never since she was eighteen, and wearing her first long skirt, heard from him any word that need mean more than cousinly affection. He had contrived after that Easter visit to Groombridge to make her feel that she had been foolish and self-conscious in trying not to be alone with him. For many months now she had felt absolutely at her ease in his company. It seemed to be only to-day that this thought had come back to trouble her. She did not want to be disturbed with such notions; they would spoil their friendship. And he could not be feeling like that; he was always so cool, so untroubled. Why to-night, just as he was waiting to know if she would come on the yacht or not, he had talked much more warmly of Miss Dexter than seemed quite natural! Faintly she felt that it might be good for him if they went on the yacht, she and her mother. They would be better for Edmund than some of the people he might otherwise ask; he was not always wise as to his lady friends. And it would be so good for Lady Charlton, and so good, too, for those four orphans. And where should they go? It did not matter much where they went if they only gained light and colour and rest. The artist was strong in Rose at that moment. She looked at one or two old guide-books till it was bed-time. Then, the last thing at night, a strange gust of thought came upon her just after her prayers.
Could she, would she, ever marry again? She knelt on at the priedieu with her fair head bowed, and then there came over her a strong sense of the impossibility of it. The shock she had had was too great, too lasting in its effects. She did not know it was that, she did not tell herself that once humiliated, once misled, she could not trust again. She did not say that the past married life which she had made so full of duty, so full of reverence as almost to deceive herself while she lived it, had been desecrated, polluted and had made her shrink unutterably from another married life.
A young widow, sometimes, when drawing near to a second marriage, suddenly realises it to be impossible because the past asserts its tyrannous claim upon her heart. What had appeared to be a dead past is found to be both alive and powerful. But with Rose it was not simply her heart; it was her nature as a woman that refused. That nature had been hurt to the very quick, humbled and brought low once. Surely it was enough!
THE HEIRESS OF MADAME DANTERRE
For about a week after the evening on which she had received her mother's letter and Edmund Grosse had been to see her, Molly Dexter stayed at home from four o'clock till seven o'clock and wore beautiful tea-gowns. She had a very small list of people to whom she was always at home written on a slate, but one by one they had been reduced in number. Now there were five—Father Molyneux, who never came except by appointment; Sir Edmund Grosse; and three ladies who happened to be abroad for the winter.
The week was from a Friday to a Thursday, and on the Thursday several things happened to Molly. It was a brilliant day, and although those evenings from four till seven when nobody came were sorely trying, she was in very good spirits. A friend coming out of church the day before had told her that she had met Sir Edmund Grosse at a country house.
"He said such pretty things about you," purred the speaker, a nice newly "come out" girl who admired Molly very much.
But the main point to Molly had been the fact that Edmund had been away from London. Surely he would come directly now! She seemed to hear, constantly ringing in her ears, the voice in which he had asked if he might "come again very soon."
Thursday had been a good day altogether, for Molly had skated at Prince's and come home with a beautiful complexion to be "At Home" to the privileged from four till seven. She got out of her motor, and was walking to the lift when it came whizzing down from above, and the little friend who had said the nice things yesterday stepped out of it, looking very bright.
"Oh, Miss Dexter," she said, "may I come up again and tell you my good news?" Molly took her kindly by the arm and drew her into the lift again, and they went up. But she hoped the girl would not stay. She wanted to be quite alone, so that if anybody came who mattered very much they would not be disturbed.
"Well, what's the good news?"
Molly looked brilliant as she stood smiling in the middle of the room.
"Well, it isn't a bit settled yet, but I met Sir Edmund Grosse at luncheon, and he asked me if mother would let me go on his yacht to Cairo. Lady Rose Bright is going and Lady Charlton, and he said they all wanted something very young indeed to go with them, so they thought I'd better come, and his nephew Jimmy, too. Wasn't it awfully kind of him?"
Molly turned and poked the fire.
"When do they go?" she asked.
"Sir Edmund starts to-morrow, but Lady Rose and Lady Charlton will follow in about ten days. They will join the yacht at Marseilles, and I should go with them. Do you think mother will let me go, Miss Dexter?"
Miss Dexter looked down.
"Why should your mother object?" she said.
"But it's so sudden."
"Yes, it's very sudden," said Molly, in a low voice.
"I can hardly keep quiet; I don't know how to get through the time till six o'clock, and mother can't be at home till then."
Molly turned back into the room; her face was very white. There were white dents in her nostrils, and there was a bitter smile on her lips. Whatever she might have said was stopped in the utterance. The parlourmaid had come into the room, and now, coming up to Molly, said in a low voice:
"There is a gentleman asking if Miss Dexter will see him on important business; he says he is a doctor, and that he has come from Italy."
"What is his name?"
"It sounded like Laccaroni, ma'am."
"Show him up."
"Well, I'm off," said the young visitor, and, still entirely absorbed in her own affairs, she took Molly's limp hand and left the room.
A spare man with a pale face and rather good eyes was announced as "Dr. Laccaroni." "Larrone," he corrected gently. He carried a small old tin despatch box, and looked extremely dusty.
"I am the bearer of sad tidings," he said in English, with a fair accent, in a dry staccato voice. "It was better not to telegraph, as I was to come at once."
"You attended my mother?"
"Yes, until two nights ago. That was the end."
"Did she suffer?"
"For a few hours, yes; and there was also some brain excitement—delirium. In an interval that appeared to be lucid (but I was not quite sure) she told me to come to you, mademoiselle, quite as soon as she was dead, and she gave me money and this little box to bring to you. She said more than once, 'It shall be her own affair.' The key is in this sealed envelope. Afterwards twice she spoke to me: 'Don't forget,' and then the rest was raving. But the last two hours were peace."
"And where is my mother to be buried?"
"Madame will be cremated, and her ashes placed in an urn in the garden, mademoiselle, in a fine mausoleum, with just her name, 'Justine,' and the dates—no more. Madame told me that these were her wishes."
"Do you know what is in this box?"
"Not at all, and I incline to think there may be nothing: the mind was quite confused. And yet I could only calm her by promising to come at once, and so I came, and if mademoiselle will permit I should like to retire to my hotel."
"Can I be of any use to you?"
"Not at all: the money for the journey was more than enough."
Molly was left alone, and she gave orders that no one, without exception, was to be admitted. Then she walked up and down the room in a condition of semi-conscious pain.
At first it seemed as if Dr. Larrone's intelligence had not reached her brain at all. The only clear thing in her mind at that moment was the thought that Edmund was going away at once with Lady Rose Bright. The disappointment was in proportion to the wild hopes of the last week, only Molly had not quite owned to herself how intensely she had looked forward to his next coming. It was true he might still come and see her before he started, but if he came it could not be what she had meant it to be. If he had meant what Molly dreamed of, could he have gone off suddenly on this yachting expedition? She knew the yachting was not thought of when she had seen him, for he told her then that he meant to stay in London for some weeks. But as her thoughts grew clearer, what was most horrible to Molly was a gradual dawning of common daylight into the romance she had been living in for months. For, looking back now, she could not feel sure that any of her views of Edmund's feelings towards herself had been true. It was a tearing at her heart's most precious feelings to be forced to common sense, to see the past in the matter-of-fact way in which it might appear to other people. And yet, Adela Delaport Green had expected him to propose even in the season, but then, what might not the Adela Delaport Greens of life suspect and expect without the slightest foundation? Could Molly herself say firmly and without delusion that Edmund had treated her badly? How she wished she could! She would rather think that he had been charmed away by hostile influence, or even that he had deliberately played with her than feel it all to have been her own vain fancy! It was agony to her to feel that she had without any excuse, set up an idol in her sacred places, and woven about him all the dreams and loves of her youth. It must be remembered not only that it was the first time that Molly had loved in the ordinary sense of the word, but it was absolutely the first time that she had ever felt any deep affection for any human being whatever. And now a great sense of abandonment was on her; the old feeling of isolation, of being cast out, that she had had all her life, was frightfully strong. Edmund had left her; he had deceived her, played with her, she told herself, deluded her; and now her mother's death brought home all the horror, the disgrace, which that mother's life had been for Molly. An outcast whom no one cared for, no one loved, no one wanted. The new gentleness of the past weeks, the new softness, all the high and sacred thoughts that had seemed to have taken possession of her inner life, were gone at this moment. Her feeling now was that, if she were made to suffer, she could at least make others suffer too.
She had thrown off her furs in walking up and down, and they had fallen on to the box which Dr. Larrone had brought. Presently they slipped to the floor, and showed the small, black tin despatch box.
Molly broke the seal of the envelope, took out the key, and opened the box, half mechanically and half as seeking a distraction.
Inside she found two or three packets of old yellow letters, a few faded photographs, and a tiny gold watch and chain; and underneath these things a large registered envelope addressed to Madame Danterre.
Molly was not acutely excited about this box. She knew that her mother's will would be at the lawyer's. She had no anxiety on this point, but there is always a strange thrill in touching such things as the dead have kept secret. Even if they have bid us do it, it seems too bold.
Molly shrank from what that box might contain, what history of the past it might have to tell, but she did not think it would touch her own life. Therefore, thinking more of her own sorrow than anything else, Molly drew two papers out of the registered envelope, and then shrank back helplessly in her chair. She had just seen that the larger of the two enclosures was a long letter beginning: "Dearest Rose." She hesitated, but only for a moment, and then went on reading.
"I trust and hope that if I die in to-morrow's battle this will reach you safely. I have really no fear whatever of the battle, and after it is over I shall have a good opportunity of putting this paper into a lawyer's hands at Capetown."
Then she hastily dropped the letter and took up a small paper that had been in the same envelope. A glance at this showed that it was the "last will and testament of Sir David Bright."
It was evidently not drawn up by a lawyer, but it seemed complete and had the two signatures of witnesses; Lord Groombridge and Sir Edmund Grosse were named as executors. It was dated on board ship only a few weeks before Sir David Bright died.
At first Molly was simply bewildered. She read, as if stupefied, the perfectly simple language in which Sir David had bequeathed all and everything he possessed to his wife, Lady Rose Bright, subject to an annual allowance of L1000 to Madame Danterre during her life-time. It was so brief and simple that, if Molly had not known how simple a will could be, she might have half doubted its legality. As it was she was not aware of the special facilities in the matter of will-making that are allowed to soldiers and sailors when on active service. The absolutely amazing thing was that the paper should have been in Madame Danterre's possession.
Molly turned to the letter, and read it with absorbed attention.
The General wrote on the eve of the battle, without the least anxiety as to the next day. But he already surmised the vast proportions that the war might assume, and he intended to send the enclosed will with this letter to the care of a lawyer in Capetown for fear of eventualities. Then, next day, as Molly knew, he had been killed.
But Molly did not know that to the brother officer who had been with him in his last moments Sir David had confided two plain envelopes, and had told him to send the first—a blue one—to his wife, and the second—a white one—to Madame Danterre, faintly murmuring the names and addresses in his dying voice. The same officer was himself killed a week later. If he had lived and had learned the disposal of Sir David's fortune, it might possibly have occurred to him that he had put the addresses on the wrong letters. But he was sure at the time that Sir David's last words had been: "Remember, the white one for my wife." And perhaps he was right, for it is not uncommon for a man even in the full possession of all his faculties (which Sir David was not) to make a mistake just because of his intense anxiety to avoid making it. As it was, knowing nothing whatever of the circumstances, the will and the letter seemed to Molly to come out of a mysterious void.
To any one with an unbiassed mind who was able to study it as a human document, the letter would have been pathetic enough. It was the revelation, the outpouring of what a man had suffered in silence for many long years. It seemed at moments hardly rational. The sort of unreasonable nervous terror in it was extraordinary. Molly read most of the real story in the letter, but not quite all. There had been a terrible sense of a spoilt life and of a horrible weakness always coming between him and happiness. The shadow of Madame Danterre had darkened his youth; a time of folly—and so little pleasure in that folly, he moaned—had been succeeded by an actual tyranny. The claim that she was his wife had begun early after her divorce from Mr. Dexter, and it seemed extraordinary that he had not denied it at once. David Bright had been taken ill with acute fever in Mrs. Dexter's house almost immediately after that event. Mrs. Dexter declared that he had gone through the form of marriage with her before witnesses, and she declared also that she had in her possession the certificate of marriage. The date she gave for the marriage was during the days when he had been down with the fever, and he never could remember what had happened.
"God knows," he wrote, "how I searched my memory hour by hour, day by day, but the blank was absolute. I don't to this hour know what passed during those days."
While still feeble from illness he had given her all the money he could spare, and for years the blackmail had continued. Then, at last, after he had been a year in England, the worm had turned.
"I dared her to do her worst. I declared, what I am absolutely convinced to have been the case, that the marriage certificate she had shown me was a forgery, and I concluded that if she proved the marriage by forgery and perjury, I should institute proceedings for divorce on the grounds of her subsequent life. I got no answer, and for three years there was total silence. Then came a letter from a friend saying that Madame Danterre, who had taken her maiden name, was dying and wished me to know that she forgave me." With this note had been sent to him a diamond ring he had given her in the first days of her influence over him. He sent it back, but months later he got it again, returned by the Post Office authorities, as no one of the name he had written to could be found.
Then came a solemn declaration that he had never doubted of Madame Danterre's death.
"I thought that to have spoilt my youth was enough; but she was yet to destroy my best years. Ah! Rose," he wrote, "if I had loved you less it would have been more bearable. I met you; I worshipped you; won you. Then, after a brief dream of joy, the cloud came down, and my evil genius was upon me. I don't think you were in love with me, my beloved, but it would have come even after you had found out what a commonplace fellow it was whom you thought a hero; it would have come. You must have loved me out of the full flow of your own nature if I had not been driven to cowardice and deception."
Evidently Madame Danterre had had a kind of almost uncanny power of terrifying the soldier. He had been a good man when she first met him, and he had been a good man after that short time of mad infatuation. He was by nature and training almost passionately respectable; he was at length happily married; but this horror of an evil incident in the past had got such a hold on his nerves that when he met Madame Danterre (whom he had believed to be dead) coming out of a theatre in London, the hero of the Victoria Cross, of three other campaigns, perhaps the bravest man in England, fainted when he saw her. Without doubt it was the publication of Mr. John Steele's will leaving his enormous fortune to Sir David Bright that had resuscitated Madame Danterre.
From the moment of that shock David Bright had probably never been entirely sane on the subject. The resurrection of Madame Danterre had seemed to him preternatural and fateful. The woman had become to him something more or something less than human, something impervious to attack that could not be dealt with in any ordinary way.
From that time there had grown up an invisible barrier between him and his wife. He found himself making silly excuses for being out at quite natural times. He found himself getting afraid of her, and building up defences, growing reserved and absurdly dignified, trying to cling to the pedestal of the elderly soldier as he could not be a companion.
Madame Danterre had gone back to Florence, fat with blackmail, and then had begun a steady course of persecution.
Step by step he had sunk lower down, knowing that he was weakening his own case most miserably if it should ever become public. Nothing satisfied her, although she received two thousand a year regularly, until the will was drawn up, which left everything to her except an allowance of L800 a year to Rose.
Once a year for three years Madame Danterre had visited London, and had generally contrived that Sir David should be conscious of the look in her astonishing eyes, which Sir Edmund had likened to extinct volcanoes, at some theatre, or in the park, once at least every season. Evidently that look had never failed. It touched the exposed nerve in his mind—exposed ever since the time of illness and strain when he was young and helpless in India. It was evident that he had felt that any agony was bearable to shield Rose from the suffering of a public scandal. If he could only have brought himself to consult one of the Murrays something might have been done. As it was, he had recourse to subterfuge. He assured Madame Danterre annually, in answer to her insisting on the point, that no other will had ever been signed by him, but he always carried a will with him ready to be signed. There was much of self-pity perhaps in the letter, there was the plaint of a wrecked life, but there was still more of real delicate feeling for Rose, of intense anxiety to shield her, of poignant regret for "what might have been" in their home life. The man had been of a wholesome nature; his great physical courage was part of a good fellow's construction. But he had been taught to worship a good name, an unsullied reputation, and to love things of good repute too much, perhaps, for the sake of their repute, as he could not venture to risk the shadow for the reality. The effect of reading Sir David's last letter to Rose on an unbiassed reader of a humane turn of mind would have been an intensity of pity, and a sigh at the sadness of life on this planet.
Molly was passionately biassed, and as much of Sir David's story as reached her through the letter was to her simply a sickening revelation from a cowardly traitor of his own treason through life, and even up to the hour of death. Her mother had been basely deceived; for his sake she had been divorced, and he had denied the marriage that followed. Of course, it was a marriage, or he would never have been so frightened. Then her mother, thus deserted, young and weak, had gone astray, and he had defended himself by threatening divorce if she proclaimed herself his wife. Every word of the history was interpreted on the same lines. And then, last of all, this will was sent to her mother. Was it a tardy repentance? Had he, perhaps when too weak for more, asked some one to send it to Madame Danterre that she might destroy it? If so, why had she not destroyed it? Why, if it might honourably have been destroyed, send to Molly now a will that, if proved, would make her an absolute pauper? In plain figures Molly's fortune could not be less than L20,000 a year if that paper did not exist, and would be under L80 a year if it were valid.
Molly next seized on one of the old packets of letters in trembling hope of some further light being thrown on the situation, but in them was evidence impossible to deny that her mother had invented the whole story of the marriage. Why Madame Danterre had not destroyed these letters was a further mystery, except that, time after time, it has been proved that people have carefully preserved evidence of their own crimes. Fighting against it, almost crying out in agonised protest, Molly was forced to realise the slow persevering cunning and unflinching cruelty with which her mother had pursued her victim. It was an ugly story for any girl to read if the woman had had no connection with her. It seemed to cut away from Molly all shreds of self-respect as she read it. She felt that the daughter of such a woman must have a heritage of evil in her nature.
The packet of old letters finished, there was yet something more to find. Next came a packet of prescriptions and some receipts from shops. Under these were the faded photographs of several men and women of whom she knew nothing. Lastly, there was half a letter written to Molly dated in August and left unfinished and without a signature:
"I am far from well, but I believe Dr. Larrone has found out the cause and will soon put things right again. If you ever hear anything about me from Dr. Larrone you can put entire confidence in him. I have found out now why Sir Edmund Grosse has tried to see me. He is possessed with the absurd idea that I have no right to Sir David Bright's fortune, although he does not venture to call in question the validity of the will which left that fortune to me. Dr. Larrone has certain proof that Grosse employs a detective here to watch this house. I have also heard that he is in love with poor David's widow, and hence I suppose this trop de zele on her behalf. As he cannot get at me he is likely to try to become intimate with you, so I warn you to avoid him now and in future."
That was all.
Molly sat staring vacantly in front of her, almost unconscious of her surroundings from the intensity of pain. Each item in the horror of the situation told on her separately, but in no sequence—with no coherence. Shame, "hopes early blighted, love scorned," kindness proved treason, the prospect of complete and dishonourable poverty, a poverty which would enrich her foes. And all this was mixed in her mind with the dreadful words from the old letters that seemed to be shouted at her.
Miss Carew, coming in at dinner-time, was horror-struck by what she saw. Molly was sitting on the floor surrounded by letters and papers, moaning and biting her hand. The gong sounded, the parlourmaid announced dinner, and Molly gathered up her papers, locked them in the box, fastened the key on to her chain—all in complete silence—and got up from the floor. She then walked straight into the dining-room in her large hat and outdoor clothes without speaking.
And without a word the terrified Miss Carew went with her, and tried to eat her dinner.
Molly ate a very little of each thing that was offered to her, taking a few mouthfuls voraciously, and then quite suddenly, as she was offered a dish of forced asparagus, she went into peal after peal of ringing, resounding laughter. "I should like you to have asparagus at every meal," she said, and then again came peal after peal—each a quite distinct sound. It was dreadful to hear, and Miss Carew and the servant were terrified. It was the laughter, not of a maniac, not of pure unreasoning hysteria, not quite of a lost soul. It suggested these elements, perhaps, but it was chiefly a nervous convulsion at an overpowering perception of the irony in the heart of things.
The hysterical fit lasted long enough for Miss Carew to insist on a doctor, and Molly did not resist. When he came she implored him to give her a strong sleeping-draught. She kept Miss Carew and the maid fussing about her, in a terror of being alone, until the draught was at last sent in by a dilatory chemist. She then hurried them away, drank the medicine, and set herself to go to sleep. The draught acted soon, as Miss Carew learnt by listening at the door and hearing the deep, regular breathing. But the effects passed off, and Molly sat up absolutely awake at one o'clock in the morning. She lay down again and tried to force herself to sleep by sheer will power, but she soon realised the awful impotence of desire in forcing sleep.
At last, horror of her own intensely alert faculties, blinded by darkness, made her turn up the light. Instantly the sight of the familiar room seemed unbearable, and she turned it down again. But again the darkness was quite intolerable, and seemed to have a hideous life of its own which held in it presences of evil. At one moment she breathed in the air of the winter's night, shivering with cold; at the next she was stifled for want of breath. So the light by the bed was turned on again, and to get a little further from it Molly got up and slowly and carefully put on her stockings and fur slippers, then opened a cupboard and took out a magnificent fur cloak and wrapped herself in it. Then suddenly one aspect of the position became concrete to her imagination. She knew that the cloak was bought with ill-gotten money. Her enormous allowance after she came of age, even the expenses of her education—Miss Carew's salary among other things—had been won by fraud. And now, oh! why, why had not her miserable mother spoken the truth when she got the will, or why had she not destroyed it? Why had she left it to Molly to put right all this long, long imposture, and to reveal to the world the story of her mother's crime? It seemed to Molly as if she were looking on at some other girl's life, and as if she were considering it from an external point of view. The sleeping-draught had, no doubt, excited still further the terrible agitation of her nerves, and ideas came to her as if they had no connection with her own personality.
Wicked old woman, dying in Florence! How cruel those words were: "Let it be her own affair"! Her last act to send those papers to the poor girl she had deserted as a baby, and refused even to see as a woman. "Let it be her own affair." Her own affair to choose actual poverty and a terrible publicity as to the past instead of a great fortune and silence as to her mother's guilt. "Let it be her own affair" to enrich her enemies, to give a fortune to the woman who would scorn her! Would the man who had pretended to be her friend, and who had been pursuing her mother with detectives all the time, would he some day talk pityingly of her with his wife, and say she "had really behaved very well, poor thing"?
Suddenly Molly stopped, full of horror at a new thought. Oh! she must make things safe and sure, or—good God!—what might not her mother's daughter be tempted to do? A deep blush spread over her face and neck. She moved hastily to the door, and in a moment she was in Miss Carew's room.
"I want to speak to you; I want to tell you something," said Molly, turning up the electric light as she spoke.
Miss Carew was startled out of a sweet sleep, and her first thought was the one which haunted her whenever she was awakened at an untimely hour. Her carefully-curled fringe was lying in the dressing-table drawer, and Molly had never seen her without it!
"Yes, yes; in one moment," she answered fussily. "I will come to your room in one minute."
Molly felt checked, and there had been something strange and unfamiliar in Miss Carew's face. Suddenly she felt what it would be to tell Miss Carew the truth—Miss Carew, who was now her dependent, receiving from her L100 a year, would be shocked and startled out of her senses, and might not take these horrible revelations at all kindly. It would, anyhow, be such a reversal of their mutual positions as Molly could not face. And by the time the chestnut hair tinged with grey had been pinned a little crooked on Miss Carew's head, and she had knocked timidly at Molly's door, she was startled and offended by the impatient, overbearing tone of the voice that asked her to "go back to bed and not to bother; it was nothing that mattered."
The night had got on further than Molly knew by that time, and she was relieved to hear it strike four o'clock. She was astonished at noticing that, while she had been walking up and down, up and down her room, she had never heard the clock strike two or three. The fact of having spoken to Miss Carew had brought her for the moment out of the inferno of the last few hours, and the time from four o'clock to six was less utterly miserable because worse had gone before it.
At six she called the housemaid, and kept her fussing about the room, lighting the fire, and getting tea, so as not to be alone again. At eight o'clock she sent for coffee and eggs, and the coffee had to be made twice before she was satisfied with it. Then she suddenly said she felt much better, and, having dressed much more quickly than usual, she went out.
Molly had determined to confide the position to Father Molyneux. When she got to the church in Kensington it was only to find that Father Molyneux had gone away for some days.
That evening the doctor was again summoned, and told Miss Carew that he had now no doubt that Miss Dexter was suffering from influenza, with acute cerebral excitement, and the case was decidedly anxious.
"He might have found out that it was influenza last night," said Miss Carew indignantly, "and I even told him the housemaid had just had influenza! Molly simply caught it from her, as I always thought she would."
AN INTERLUDE OF HAPPINESS
An interlude of happiness, six weeks of almost uninterrupted enjoyment, followed for Rose after she went on board Sir Edmund's yacht.
Edmund Grosse had most distinctly made up his mind that during those weeks he would not betray any ulterior motive whatever. They were all to be amused and to be happy. There is no knowing when an interlude of happiness will come in life; it is not enough to make out perfect plans, the best fail us. But sometimes, quite unforeseen, when all the weather signs are contrary, there come intervals of sunshine in our hearts, in spite of any circumstances and the most uninteresting surroundings. Harmony is proclaimed for a little while, and we wonder why things were black before, and have to remember that they will be black again. But when such a truce to pain falls in the happiest setting, and the most glorious scenery, then rejoice and be glad, it is a real truce of God. So did Rose night by night rejoice without trembling. It wanted much skill on Edmund's part to ward off any scruples, any moments of consciousness. He showed great self-command, surprising self-discipline in carrying out his tactics. There were moments when their talk had slid into great intimacy, when they were close together in heart and in mind, and he slipped back into the commonplace only just in time. There were moments, especially on the return journey, when he could hardly hide his sense of how gracious and delicious was her presence, how acute her instincts, how quaintly and attractively simple her mind, how big her spiritual outlook. But before she could have more than a suspicion of his thoughts Edmund would make any consciousness seem absurd by a comment on the doings of the very young people on board.
"The child does look happy," he said in his laziest voice one evening when he knew his look had been bent for a rashly long moment on Rose. "Happy and pretty," he murmured to himself, and he watched his youngest guest with earnestness. Then he sat down near Rose on a low deck-chair, and put away the glasses he held in his pocket. "I'm not sure I don't get as much pleasure out of the hazy world I see about me as you long-sighted people do; the colours are marvellous." Rose looked at him in surprise.
"But Edmund, don't you see more than haze?"
"Oh, yes, I can see a foreground, and then the rest melts away. I don't know what is meant by a middle distance—that's why I can't shoot."
Rose sat up with an eager look on her face. "I never knew that; I only thought you did not care for shooting."
There was a silence of several minutes, and neither looked at the other. At last Edmund rose and went to the side of the boat and looked over at the water, and then, turning half-way towards her, said: "Why does it startle you so much?"
"Oh, I don't know."
"But you do know perfectly well."
"Indeed, Edmund." Her face was flushed and her voice a little tremulous.
"You shall tell me." He spoke more imperiously than he knew.
"I can't, indeed I can't."
"No," he said; "it would be a difficult thing to say, I admit."
"Couldn't we read something?" said Rose.
"No, no use at all. I am going to tell you why you are so glad I am short-sighted."
"But I am not glad."
"I repeat that you are, and this is the reason why."
"You shall not say it," said Rose, now more and more distressed and embarrassed.
"It's because you never knew before why I did not volunteer for the war, that is why you are so glad." "Yes," he thought in anger, "she has had this thing against me all the time; it is one of the defences she has set up." But he was hurt all the same—hurt and angry; he wanted to punish her. "So all the time you have thought this of me?"
"No, indeed, indeed, Edmund, it wasn't that. I never meant that; I knew you were never that, do believe me."
"Well, if I do believe you so far, what did you think?"
Rose let her book lie on her knee and leant over it with her hands clasped. "I thought that perhaps," she faltered, "you had been too long in the habit of doing nothing much, and that you had grown a little lazy—at least, I didn't really think so, but that idea has struck me."
She came and stood by him. "Oh, Edmund, why do you make me say things when I don't want to, when I hate saying them, when they are not really true at all." She was deeply moved, and he felt that in one sense she was in his power. He gave a bitter sigh.
"Can I make you say whatever I like?" Her face flushed and a different look, one of fear he thought, came into her troubled eyes. "Then say after me, 'I am very sorry I did not understand by intuition that you were too blind to shoot the Boers, and that I was so silly as to think for a moment that you had ever wasted your time or been the least little bit lazy.'"
"No, I won't say anything at all"—she held out both hands to him—"except what the children say, 'let us just go on with the game and pretend that that part never happened.'"
And though Rose was still embarrassed, still inclined to fear she had hurt him, what might have been a little cloud was pierced by sunshine. "How ridiculously glad she is that I'm not a coward!" He, too, in spite of annoyance, felt more hopeful than he had been for a long time.
At Genoa they got long delayed letters and papers. In one of these a short paragraph announced the death of Madame Danterre. "It is believed," were the concluding words, "that she has left her large fortune to her daughter, Miss Mary Dexter." That was the first reminder to Rose that the interlude of mere enjoyment was almost over. She was not going to repine; it had been very good. Coming on board after reading this with a quiet patient look, a look habitual to her during the last two years, but which had faded under the sunshine of happy days, Rose saw Edmund Grosse standing alone in the stern of the boat with a number of letters in his left hand pressed against his leg, looking fixedly at the water. The yacht was already standing out to sea, but Edmund had not glanced a farewell at beautiful and yet prosperous Genoa, a city that no modern materialism can degrade. Like a young bride of the sea, she is decked by things old and things new, and her marble palaces do not appear to be insulted by the jostling of modern commerce. All things are kept fresh and pure on that wonderful coast. Something had happened, of that Rose was sure; but what?
Edmund did not look puzzled; he was deciding no knotty question at this moment. Nor did he look simply unhappy: she knew his expression when in sorrow and when in physical pain or mere disgust. He looked intensely preoccupied and very firm. Perhaps, she fancied, he too had a deep sense of that passing of life, of something akin in the swift movement of the water passing the yacht and the swift movement of life passing by the individual man. Was he, perhaps, feeling how life was going for him and for Rose, and by the simple fact of its passing on while they were standing passive their lives would be fixed apart?—passing, apart from what might have been of joy, of peace, of company along the road? There are moments when, even without the stimulus of passion, human beings have a sort of guess at the possibilities of helping one another, of giving strength, and gaining sweetness, that are slipping by. There are many degrees of regret, between that of ships that pass in the night, and that of those who have voyaged long together. There are passages of pleasure sympathy, and passages of sympathy in fight, and passages of mutual succour, and passages of intercourse when incapacity to help has in itself revealed the intensity of good-will in the watcher. But whenever the heart has been fuller than its words, and the will has been deeper than its actions, there is this beauty of regret. There has been a wealth of love greater than could be given or received—not the love of passion, but the love of the little children of the human race for one another. This regret is too grave to belong to comedy, and too happy to belong to tragedy. Rose's heart was full with this sorrow, if it be a real sorrow. These are the sorrows of hearts that are too great for the occasions of life, whereas the pain is far more common of the hearts that are not big enough for what life gives them of opportunity.
Rose was oppressed by feelings she could not analyse, a sense of possibilities of what might have been after these perfect weeks together. But her feelings were dreamy; she had no sense of concrete alternative; she did not now—he had been too skilful—expect Edmund to ask her, nor did she wish him to ask her, to draw quite close to him. She only felt at the end of this interlude they had spent together a suspicion of the infinite reach of the soul, and the soul not rebelling against its bonds, but conscious of them while awaiting freedom.
"Only I discern infinite passion and the pain Of finite hearts that yearn."
Such were the moments when a man might be pardoned if he called Rose's beauty angelic—angelic of the type of Perugino's pictured angels, a figure just treading on the earth enough to keep up appearances, but whose very skirts float buoyantly in the fresh atmosphere of eternity. They stood a few paces apart, Rose with her look bent vaguely towards the shore, Edmund, still reading his letters, apparently unaware of her presence. He was thus able to take a long exposure sun-picture of the white figure on a sensitive memory that would prove but too retentive of the impression.
But he had to speak at last. "Is it you?"
Edmund thought he spoke as usual, but there was a depth of pain and of tenderness revealed in the face that usually betrayed so little. He held out his hand unconsciously and then drew it back half closed, and looked again at the flowing water. It was a moment of temptation, when love was fighting against itself. Then, with the same half movement of the hand towards her:
"I have had a bolt from the blue, Rose. That man, Hewitt, whom I trusted as I would myself, has absconded. It is thought he has been playing wildly with my money, and that this crisis in South America has been the last blow. I shan't know yet if I am ruined completely or not."
"Oh, Edmund, how dreadful!"
"Don't pity me, dear, it's not worth while. It only means that one of the unemployed will get to work at last. That is, if he can find a job. But I must hurry home at once and leave you to follow. If I put back into Genoa now I can leave by the night express. And you and your mother had better go on to Marseilles in the yacht after you have dropped me."
SOMETHING LIKE EVIDENCE
Mr. Murray Junior's step sounded heavy, and his head was a little more bent than usual, as he passed down the passage into his sanctum. The snow, turning to rain and then reasserting itself and insisting that it would be snow, was dreary enough already when the fog set in firmly and without compromise. There was a good fire in the sanctum; the electric light was on, and the clean sheet of blotting-paper, fresh every morning, lay on the table.
But Mr. Murray, Junior, was struggling for a few moments to realize where he was, for his mind was in such different surroundings. In his thoughts it was June—not June sweltering in London, but June gone mad with roses in a tiny Surrey garden; and with true realism his memory chose just one rose-tree out of them all, which best implied the glory of the others. And one branch of this tree was bent down by a girl's hand; her arm, from which a cotton sleeve had fallen back, was wonderfully white, and the roses wonderfully red.
And the office boy, slowly pulling off one damp, well-made boot and then the other over the gouty toes, was the only person who noticed that "the governor" was awfully down in the mouth.
But no one knew that in Mr. Murray Junior's pocket was a letter from a great specialist, who had seen Mr. Murray Junior's wife the day before,—and what that letter said has nothing to do with this story.
Sir Edmund called about mid-day, and noticed nothing unusual in the heavy face; only it struck him that Murray was looking old, and he wondered on which side of seventy the lawyer might be.
Grosse's visit was the first real distraction the older man had that day. It was impossible for the solicitor not to be interested in the probability that Edmund Grosse had lost a great fortune. The affair teemed with professional interest, and then he liked the man himself. He had a taste for the type, for the man who knows how to cut a figure in the great world without being vulgar or ostentatious. He liked Edmund's manner, his tact, his gift for putting people at their ease. Rumour said that the baronet had shown pluck since the news had come, and had behaved handsomely to underlings. Most men become agitated, irritable, and even cruel when driven into such a position.
It never entered into Murray's imagination to appear to know that Edmund had any cause for care: he was not his solicitor, and he knew that his visitor had not come about his own affairs. But he could not conceal an added degree of respect, and liking even, under the impenetrable manner which hid his own aching sense of close personal suffering. Grosse answered the firm hand-grip with a kindly smile.
"I only heard of Madame Danterre's death when I got to Genoa on our return journey."
"And she died just before you left London," said Murray.
"Yes; I must have overlooked the paper in which it was announced, although I thought I read up all arrears of news whenever we went into port. I wonder no one mentioned it in Cairo; there were several people there who seemed posted up in Lady Rose's affairs. What do you know about Madame Danterre's will?"
"Very little but rumour; nothing is published. Miss Dexter was too ill to attend to business until about two weeks ago; she only saw her lawyer at the end of January. Anyhow, Madame Danterre having died abroad makes delays in this sort of business. But I have been wanting to see you," he said.
Something in his manner made Grosse ask him if he had news.
"Nothing very definite, but things are moving in your direction; and something small, but solid, is the fact that old Akers's son, and the other private, Stock, who witnessed some deed or other for Sir David, are coming home. The regiment is on its way back in the Jumna."
Edmund, watching the strong, heavy face, could see that this interested him less than something else as yet unexpressed.
Murray leant back in the round office chair, and crossed his legs in the well of the massive table before him. Edmund bent forward, his face sunburnt and healthy after the weeks on the yacht, but the eyes seemed tired.
"I don't know that it comes to much," Murray went on slowly, "but three days after Madame Danterre's death a foreigner asked to see me who refused to give his name to my clerk. I had him shown in, and thought him a superior man—not, perhaps, a gentleman, but a man with brains. He asked in rather queer English whether I would object to giving him all the information I could, without betraying confidence, as to Sir David Bright and his wife. I thought for a moment that he was your Florentine detective, but then I reflected that the detective would have no object in disguising himself from me as he knew that you trusted me entirely. I told my visitor that he might ask me any questions he liked, and I can assure you he placed his shots with great skill. He wanted first to know if there had been any scandal connected with their married life, in order, of course, to find out why Sir David had not left his money to Lady Rose; and whether no one had been disposed to dispute the will. I let him see that the affair had been a nine days' wonder here, and I gave him some notion of my own opinion of Madame Danterre. He did not give himself away, and I thought he had some honest reason for anxiety in the matter. Well! he left without letting me know his name or address, but there is no doubt that he is Dr. Larrone. I wrote at once to your detective, Pietrino, in Florence, and a letter from him crossed mine saying that Dr. Larrone had left Florence within a few hours of Madame Danterre's death, and that, by her desire, he had taken a small box to Miss Dexter. There was evidently a certain sense of mystery and excitement among the nurses and servants as to the box and the sudden journey. It seems that Madame Larrone was angry at his taking this sudden journey, and said to a friend that she only 'hoped he wouldn't get his fingers burnt by meddling in other people's affairs.'
"Then Pietrino, in answering my letter, said that my description was certainly the description of Larrone. He says the doctor is exceedingly upright and sensitive as to his professional honour, and has been known to refuse a legacy from a patient because he thought it ought not to have been left out of the family. Since that, Pietrino has written that Larrone is taking a long holiday, and that people are wondering if he will have any scruples as to the large legacy that is said to have been left to him by Madame Danterre. So it is pretty clear who my reticent visitor was. Now, I don't know that we gain much from that so far, but I think it may mean that Larrone could, if he would, tell some interesting details. I will give you all Pietrino's letters, but I should just like to run on with my own impressions from them first. It seems that, since Madame Danterre's death, there has been a good deal of wild talk against her in Florence, which was kept down by self-interest as long as she was living and an excellent paying-machine. You will see, when you read the gossip, that very little is to the point. But, on the other hand, Pietrino has valuable information from one of the nurses. She is a young woman who is disappointed, as she has had no legacy; evidently Madame Danterre intended to add her name in the last codicil, but somehow failed to do so. This woman is sure that Madame Danterre had an evil conscience as to her wealth. She also said that she was always morbidly anxious as to a small box. Once, when the nurse had reassured her by showing her the box, which was kept in a little bureau by the bed, she said, with an odd smile: 'If I believed in the devil I should be very glad that I can pay him back all he lent me when I don't want it any more.' At another time she asked for the box and took out some papers, and told the nurse to light a candle close to her as she was going to burn some old letters. Then she began to read a long, long letter, and as she read, she became more and more angry until she had a sudden attack of the heart. The nurse swept the papers into the box and locked it up, knowing that she could do nothing to soothe the patient while they were lying about. That night the doctors thought Madame Danterre would die, but she rallied. She did not speak of the papers again until some days later. The nurse described how, one evening, when she thought her sleeping, she was surprised to find her great eyes fixed on the candle in a sconce near the bed. 'The candle was burnt half way down, but the paper was not burnt at all,' the nurse heard her whisper; 'I shall not do it now. I cannot be expected to settle such questions while I am ill. After all, I have always given her a full share; she can destroy it herself if she likes, or she can give it all up to that woman—it shall be her own affair.'
"She did not seem to know that she had been speaking aloud, and she muttered a little more to herself and then slept.
"The nurse heard no further allusion to the box for weeks. She said the old woman was using all her fine vitality and her iron will in fighting death. Then came the last change, and her torpid calm turned into violent excitement. While she thought herself alone with Dr. Larrone she implored him to take the box to England the moment she died, and put it into her daughter's hands. 'No one knows it matters,' she said more than once. But when she found that he did not wish to go, and said it was impossible for him to go at once, her entreaties were terrible. 'She had always had her own way, and she had it to the end,' was the nurse's comment.
"Dr Larrone, coming out of the room, realised that the nurse must have known what passed, and told her he was glad she was there. He put a box on a table with a little bang of impatience.
"'It's delirium, delusion, madness!' he said, 'but I've given my word. I never hated a job more; she wouldn't have the morphia till I had taken my oath I would go as soon as she was dead.'"
Grosse was absorbed by the pictures feebly conveyed through the nurse's words, through the detective's letters, through the English lawyer's translation and summary. He could supply what was missing. He had seen Madame Danterre. He could so well imagine the frightful force of the woman, a tyrant to the very last moment. He could guess, too, at the reaction of those about her when once she was dead, and they were quite out of her reach. There is always a reaction when feebler personalities have to fill the space left by a tyrant. He could realise the buzz of gossip, and the sense of courage with which servants and tradesmen would make wild, impossible stories of her wicked life. He came back from these thoughts with a certain shock when he found Murray saying:
"I can't say there is anything approaching to proof. But supposing, just for the sake of supposing, that you were right in your wild guess as to the will, then we should next go on to suppose that the real will was in the box conveyed by Dr. Larrone to Miss Dexter."
Edmund's face was very dark, but he did not speak for some moments.
"No," he said, "she is incapable of such a crime. She would have given it up at once."
"At once?" Murray said. "Miss Dexter was too ill to do anything at once. She was down with influenza, of which she very nearly died, but she pulled through, and then went away for a month. She only got back to London two weeks ago. Her affairs are in the hands of a very respectable firm. We know them, and they began this business with her a very short time before she came up. Now Sir Edmund, think it well over. You may be right in your opinion of this young lady, but just fancy the position. There is a fortune of at least L20,000 a year on the one hand, and on the other, absolute poverty. For do you suppose that, if it were in the last will which Akers and Stock witnessed on board ship, and there were any provision in it for Madame Danterre, Sir David Bright would have left capital absolutely in her possession? No: the probability is—I am, of course, always supposing your original notion to be true—that the girl has this choice of immense wealth practically unquestioned by the world which has settled down to the fact that Sir David left his money to Madame Danterre; or, on the other hand, extreme poverty (she inherited some L2,000 from her father) and public disgrace. Mind you, she would have to announce that her mother was a criminal, and she would, in this just and high-minded world of ours, pass under a cloud herself. A few, only a very few, would in the least appreciate her conduct."
Sir Edmund was miserably uncomfortable, intensely averse to the results of what he had done. In drawing his mesh of righteous intrigue round the mother he had never realised this situation. For the moment he wished himself well out of it all.
"There is one other point," he said. "Are we quite sure that Dr. Larrone did not know what was in the box? Is it not just possible that something was taken out of it before it was given to Miss Dexter? He must have known there was a large legacy to himself; it was against his interests that Madame Danterre's will should be set aside. Also, it would not be a very comfortable situation for him if it turned out that he had been the intimate friend and highly-paid physician of a criminal."
"That last motive fits the character of the man, according to Pietrino, better than the first," said Mr. Murray. "Well, we must see; we must wait and see whether he accepts his legacy. But before that must come the publication of Madame Danterre's will."
Edmund drove back from the city absorbed in the thought of Molly, in comparing his different impressions of her at different stages of their acquaintance. He had spoken so firmly and undoubtingly to Murray. His first thought had been one of simple indignation, and yet—But no! he remembered her simplicity in speaking of her mother's letter; he could see her now with the gentle, pathetic look on her face as she told him of her offering to go out to the wicked old woman, and how her poor little advance had been rejected.
Edmund had thought it one of the advantages of the expedition on the yacht that it would make it impossible for many weeks to call again at Molly's flat. He had often before felt uncomfortable and annoyed with himself when he had been too friendly with Molly. Not that he felt her attraction to be a temptation to disloyalty to Rose. He knew he was incurable in his devotion to his love. But he did feel it mean to enjoy this pleasant, philosopher-and-guide attitude, towards the daughter of Madame Danterre. That Molly could hold any delusion about his feelings had never dawned on his imagination as a possibility until the night when she confided in him her forlorn attempt at doing a daughter's duty. He had never liked her so well; never so entirely dissociated her from her mother, and from all possibilities of evil.
And now the situation was changed; now there was this hazy mass of suspicion revealed in Florence, and this most detestable story of Larrone and the box.
How differently things looked when it was a question of suspecting of a crime the woman he had seen in the Florentine garden, and of that same suspicion regarding poor little graceful, original, Molly Dexter!
Within two or three days Edmund became still more immersed in business. He began to realise his own ignorance as to his own affairs, and he went through the slow torture of understanding how blindly he had left everything in his solicitor's hands. He was beginning to face actual poverty as inevitable, when he heard from Mr. Murray that Madame Danterre's will was proved in London, and that her daughter was her sole heir.
"The income cannot be less than L20,000 a year, and the whole fortune is entirely at Miss Dexter's disposal," wrote Mr. Murray without any comment whatever.
Edmund was not sorry that Rose and her mother were staying on in Paris. They would escape the first outburst of gossip as to the further history of Sir David Bright's fortune. Nor was he sorry that they should also miss the growing rumours as to the disappearance of the fortune of Sir Edmund Grosse. Of Rose herself he dared not let himself think; but every evil conclusion which he had to face as to his own future, every undoubted loss that was discovered in the inquiry which was being carried on, seemed as a heavy door shut between him and the hopes of those last days on the yacht.
THE USES OF DELIRIUM
"Don't you think I might get up and sit by the window and look at the sea, Carey?"
Miss Carew hesitated, and then summoned the nurse.
"Miss Dexter was to have one whole day in bed after the journey."
The nurse, looking into Molly's eager eyes, compromised for one half hour, in which Miss Dexter might lie on the sofa in a fur cloak.
It was a big sofa befitting the largest bedroom in the hotel, and Molly lay back on its cushions with the peculiar physical satisfaction of weakness, resting after very slight efforts. Yesterday she had been too exhausted for enjoyment, but this afternoon her sensations were delightful.
The short afternoon light was ruddy on the glorious brown sails of the fishing-boats, and drew out all their magnificent contrast to the blue water. But the sun still sparkled garishly on the crest of the waves, and the milder glow of the sunset had not begun.
Weakness was sheltered and at rest within, while without was the immense movement of wind and water, and the passing smile of the sun on the great, unshackled forces of winter. Molly's rest was like a child's security in the arms of a kindly giant. Her mind had been absorbed by illness—an illness that had had her completely in grip, the first serious illness she had ever known. There had been a struggle in the depths of her life's forces such as she had never imagined; but now life had conquered, and she was at rest. In that time there had been awful delirium: horrible things, guilty and hideous, had clung about her, all round her. One wicked presence especially had taken a strange form, a face without a body, and yet it had hands—it must have had hands because the horror of it was that it constantly opened the doors of the different cupboards, but most often the door of the big wardrobe, and looked out, and that although Molly had had the wardrobe locked and the key put under her pillow. And this face was very like Molly's, and the question she had to settle was whether this face was her mother's or her own. At times she reasoned—and the logical process was so deadly tiring—that it must be her mother, for she could not be Molly herself being so unkind to herself; whereas, if the face had had any pity for her it might have been herself looking at herself. But was that not nonsense? There was surely a touch of hysteria in that. Did the face really come out of her own brain? And if so, from what part of her brain? She felt sure there was a sort of empty attic, a large one, in the top part of her right brain, it felt hollow, quite terribly hollow. Probably the face came out of that. But then, how did it get inside the wardrobe? and once inside the wardrobe, how did it get out again when Molly really had the key?
She longed to speak to Miss Carew about this, but Miss Carew never could follow a chain of reasoning. The nurse was more sensible, but she thought that reasoning was too tiring for Molly—so silly! If only she could be allowed to explain it all quietly and reasonably! And oh! why did they leave her alone? She hated to be left alone, and she was sure she told them so; and yet they went away. And then she began to work her brain again as soon as the was alone, and she would be happy for a few minutes with a new plan for shutting the face into the large empty attic in her right brain and locking the door, when quite suddenly the face opened the door of the wardrobe with its loose hands and looked out again and jeered at her.
Even now, lying resting, and looking at the sun, Molly was glad that there was no hanging wardrobe in the room; only one full of shelves. She would certainly not use the same room when she went back to London. She would only be in that flat for a short time, as she must now take a big house.
As her eyes rested on the sails and the water, and were filled with the joy of colour, she had a sort of delicious idea of her new house. It should be very beautiful, most exquisite, quite unlike anybody else's house; it should be Molly's own special triumph. It must have the glamour of an old London house, its dignity, its sense of a past. It should have for decoration gloriously subdued gilding and colour, and old pictures, which Molly could afford to buy.
"And"—she smiled to herself—"as long as it is a house in the air it shall have a great outlook on the sea and the sunset." The fancy that had been so cruel in her sickness was a sycophant now that life was victorious; it flattered and caressed and soothed her now.
Within a few days two theories were growing in the background of her consciousness, not acknowledged or questioned while they took possession. They took turns to make themselves gradually, very gradually, and imperceptibly familiar to her. The first was founded on the idea that she had been very ill a little sooner than was supposed, and that she had imagined a great deal that was torturing and absurd as to her mother's papers. She had been delirious that evening, and, what was still more important, she was actually very hazy now as to what she had seen and read of the contents of that box.
"I can't remember if that's true," she could honestly say to herself when some fact of the horrible story came forward and claimed attention. Once she caught herself thinking how very common it was for people to forget entirely what had happened just before or during an illness. For instance, Sir David Bright had never been able to remember what happened on the day on which Madame Danterre declared he had married her. But how did Molly know that? And suddenly she said to herself that she could not remember; perhaps she had fancied that, too.
At another time she began almost to think that she had imagined the black box altogether. Was it square or oblong? and how shallow was it? Sometimes while she was ill she had seen a black box as big as a house; sometimes it was a little tiny cash box.
Meanwhile, under cover of so many uncertainties, the other theory was getting a firm footing. It was simply that the fact of the will being sent to her mother was undoubted proof of Sir David's having repented of having made it. If Sir David had not sent her this will, who had? It was absurd and romantic to suppose that her mother had carried on an intrigue in South Africa in order to get possession of this will. That might have done in a chapter of Dumas, or have been imagined in delirium, but it was not possible in real life. The only puzzle was—and the theory must be able to meet all the facts of the case—why had he not destroyed the will himself? The probability was that he had not been able to do so at the last moment. When dying he must have repented of the last will just too late to destroy it. She could quite imagine his asking a friend, almost with his last words, to send Madame Danterre the papers. It would look more natural than his asking the friend to destroy them. And then the officer would have addressed the papers, of course not reading them. And thus the theory comfortably wrapped up another fact, namely, that the registered envelope had not been addressed by the hand that had written its contents. Finally, all that the theory did for the will, it did also for the letter to Rose, for the two things evidently stood or fell together. So the theories grew and prospered without interfering with each other as Molly's health and strength returned, except that the delirium theory insisted at times on the other theory being purely hypothetical; as, for instance, it had to be "Even supposing I was not delirious, and the will had been there, it is still evident that——"
Molly's recovery did not get on without a drawback, and the day on which the lawyer came down to see her she was genuinely very unwell. She seemed hardly able to understand business. She was ready to leave all responsibility to him in a way that certainly saved much trouble, but he hardly liked to see her quite so passive.
After he left, Miss Carew found her looking faint and ill.
"He must think me a fool," she said, in a weak voice. "I have left everything on his shoulders, poor man. I'm afraid if he is asked about me, as he's a Scotchman he will say I am 'just an innocent'! I really ought not to have seen him to-day."
But in a few days she was better, and the house agent found her quite business-like. The said house agent had come down with one secret object in his heart. It was now nine months since the bankruptcy of a too well-known nobleman had thrown a splendid old house on the market. It had been in the hands of all the chief agents in London, and they had hardly had a bite for it. Even millionaires were shy of it so far, the fact being that the house was more beautiful than comfortable, the bedrooms having been thought of less importance than the effectiveness of the first floor. Then, perhaps, it was a little gloomy, though artists maintained that its share of gloom only enhanced its charm.
After mentioning several uninteresting mansions, the agent observed that, of course, there was Westmoreland House still going, and Molly's eyes flashed. She had been at the great sale at Westmoreland House; she had been absolutely fascinated by the great well staircase and by the music-room, by the square reception-rooms, and above all by the gallery with its perfection of light moulding, a room of glass and gold, but so spiritualised, so subdued and reticent and dignified, that ghosts might live there undisturbed.
Molly trembled with eagerness as she asked the vital questions of cost, of repairs, of rates and taxes. Yes, it was possible—undoubtedly possible. There was a very large sum of money in a bank in Florence which possibly Madame Danterre had accumulated there with a view to a sudden emergency. Molly's lawyer had not been certain of the amount, but he had mentioned a sum larger than the price of Westmoreland House.
By the time Molly was fit to go back to London, and while the theories just described were still in possession of her mind, Westmoreland House was bought. Molly said it was a great relief to get it settled.
"One feels more settled altogether," she said to Miss Carew, "when a big question like that is done with."
She strolled with Miss Carew on the smooth sand by the water's edge on the last evening before leaving, and looked up at the white cliffs growing bright in the light of the sunset.
"It has been very restful," she said. "I am almost sorry to go."
"Then why not stay a little longer, my dear?"
"Oh, no, Carey! it would soon become quite intolerable; it isn't real life, only a pause; and now, Carey, I am going to live!"
The sun presently set lower and more grey than they had expected; the wind felt sharper, and Molly shivered. Nature was unbearable without its gilding.
MRS. DELAPORT GREEN IN THE ASCENDANT
Mrs. Delaport Green had been to Egypt for the winter, and came back, refreshed as a giant, for life in London. She was really glad to see Tim, who was unfeignedly pleased to see her, and they spent quite an hour in the pleasantest chat. Of course he had not much news to give of his wife's acquaintances as he did not live among them, but one item of information interested her extremely.
"Miss Dexter has bought Westmoreland House in Park Lane!"
Mrs. Delaport Green's eyes sparkled with excitement and the green light of envy, and she determined to call on Molly at once. Happily there had been no open quarrel, which only showed how wise it was to forget injuries, for certainly the girl had been most disgracefully rude.
Molly's new abode stood back from the street, and had usually an immensely dignified air of quiet, but there was a good deal of noise and bustle going on when Adela reached the door. Several large pieces of furniture, a picture, and a heavy clock, might have been obstacles enough to keep out most visitors, but Adela persevered, and the dusty and worried porter said that Molly was at home before he had a moment for reflection.
Adela advanced with outstretched hands to greet her "dear friend" as she was shown into a large drawing-room on the first floor.
Molly was standing in the middle of the room with an immense hat on, and a long cloak that woke instant enthusiasm in the soul of her visitor. There was perhaps, even to Adela something too emphatic, too striking, too splendid altogether in the total effect of the tall, slim figure. She had never thought that Molly would turn out half so handsome, but she saw now that she had only needed a little making-up. While thinking these things she was chattering eagerly.
"How are you? I was so sorry to hear you had been ill, but now you look simply splendid! I have had a wonderful winter. I feel as if I had laid in quite a stock of calm and rest from the desert, as if no little thing could worry me after my long draught—of the desert, you know! Well! one must get into harness again." She gave a little sigh. "But to think of your having Westmoreland House! How everybody wondered last season what was to become of it! and what furniture, oh! what an exquisite cabinet! You certainly have wonderful taste." Molly did not interrupt her visitor to explain that the said cabinet had belonged to Madame Danterre. "I adore that style; I do so wish Tim would give me a cabinet like that for my birthday. I really think he might."
She was so accustomed to Molly's silences that it was some time before she realised that this one was ominous. She might have seen that that young lady was looking over her head, or out of the window, or anywhere but at her. Suddenly it struck her that not a sound interrupted her own voice, and she began to perceive the absurd airs that Molly was giving herself. Prompted by the devil she, therefore, instantly proceeded to say:
"When we were at Cairo Sir Edmund Grosse came for a few days with Lady Rose Bright."
"From the yacht?" said Molly, speaking for the first time.
"Yes; they said in Cairo that the engagement would be announced as soon as they got back to England. And really my dear, everyone agreed that without grudging you her money, one can't help being glad that that dear woman should be rich again!"
It was about as sharp a two-edged thrust as could have been delivered, and Molly's distrait air and undue magnificence melted under it.
"No one could be more glad than I am," she said, with a quiet reserve of manner; and after that she was quite friendly, and took Adela all over the house, and pressed her to stay to tea, and that little lady felt instinctively that Molly was afraid of her, and smacked her rosy lips with the foretaste of the amusements she intended to enjoy in this magnificent house.
While they were having tea, Molly, leaning back, said quietly:
"I see from what you said before we went over the house that you have not heard that Sir Edmund Grosse is ruined?"
Mrs. Delaport Green gave a little shriek of excitement.
"He trusted all his affairs to a scoundrel, and this is the result." Molly's tone was still negative.
"Well, that does seem a shame!"
"I don't know; if a man will neglect his affairs he must take the consequence."
"Oh! but I do think it is hard; he used his money so well."
"Did he?" Molly raised her eyebrows.
"Well, he was a perfect host, and was so awfully good-natured, don't you know?"
In the real interest in the news, Adela had, for the moment, forgotten that Molly might be especially interested in anything concerning Edmund Grosse. She was reminded by the low, thundery voice in which Molly began to speak quite suddenly, as if her patience had been tried too far.
"You are just like all the others! It's enough to make one a radical to listen to it. After all, what good has Sir Edmund Grosse done with his money? He gave dinners that ruined people's livers—I suppose that was good for the doctors! He gave diamonds to actresses, and I suppose that was for the good of art. He has never done a stroke of work; he has wallowed in luxury, and now his friends almost cry out against Providence because he will have to earn his bread. Probably several hundreds a year will be left, and many men would be thankful for that. Then other people say it is such a pity that now he cannot marry Lady Rose Bright. They have the effrontery to say that to me, as if L800 a year were not enough for them to marry on if they cared for each other!"
All this tirade seemed to Adela the very natural outpouring of jealousy, and, as she fully intended to be an intimate friend of Molly's she sympathised and agreed, and agreed and sympathised till she fairly, roused Molly's sense of the ludicrous.
"I don't mean," Molly said, half angry and half amused, "that I shall spend my money so very much better;—I quite mean to have my fling. Only I do so hate all this cant."