I waited at 'attention' there, Thinks I, 'There'll soon be more.' The colonel's phaeton and pair Came grinding to the door. She gave him such a sugary smile, (Old men is very vain!) 'It's you I looked for all the while,' Says Twisting Jane,
'I've done with you for good,' I cried, 'You're never on the square; Fight which you please on either side, But hang it, lass, fight fair! I won't be last—I can't be first— So look for me in vain When next you're out "upon the burst," Miss Twisting Jane!— When next you're out "upon the burst," Miss Twisting Jane!'
"A jolly good song," cried the affable young gentleman who had instigated the effort, adding, with a quaint glance at the grizzled visage and towering proportions of the singer, "You're very much improved, old chap—not so shy, more power, more volume. If you mind your music, I'll get you a place as a chorister-boy in the Chapel Royal, after all. You're just the size, and your manner's the very thing!"
"Wait till I get you in the school with that new charger," answered the other, laughing. "I think, gentlemen, it's my call. I'll ask our adjutant here to give us 'Boots and Saddles,' you all like that game."
Tumblers were arrested in mid-air, cigars taken from smooth or hairy lips, while all eyes were turned towards the adjutant, a soldier down to his spurs, who "tuned up," as universally requested, without delay.
BOOTS AND SADDLES.
The ring of a bridle, the stamp of a hoof, Stars above, and a wind in the tree,— A bush for a billet,—a rock for a roof,— Outpost duty's the duty for me! Listen. A stir in the valley below— The valley below is with riflemen crammed, Covering the column and watching the foe— Trumpet-major!—Sound and be d——d! Stand to your horses!—It's time to begin— Boots and Saddles! The Pickets are in!
Though our bivouac-fire has smouldered away, Yet a bit of good 'baccy shall comfort us well; When you sleep in your cloak there's no lodging to pay, And where we shall breakfast the devil can tell! But the horses were fed, ere the daylight had gone, There's a slice in the embers—a drop in the can— Take a suck of it, comrade! and so pass it on, For a ration of brandy puts heart in a man. Good liquor is scarce, and to waste it a sin,— Boots and Saddles! The Pickets are in!
Hark! there's a shot from the crest of the hill! Look! there's a rocket leaps high in the air. By the beat of his gallop, that's nearing us still, That runaway horse has no rider, I'll swear!
There's a jolly light-infantry post on the right, I hear their bugles—they sound the 'Advance.' They will tip us a tune that shall wake up the night, And we're hardly the lads to leave out of the dance. They're at it already, I'm sure, by the din,— Boots and Saddles! The Pickets are in!
They don't give us long our divisions to prove— Short, sharp, and distinct, comes the word of command. 'Have your men in the saddle—-Be ready to move— Keep the squadron together—the horses in hand—' While a whisper's caught up in the ranks as they form— A whisper that fain would break out in a cheer— How the foe is in force, how the work will be warm. But, steady! the chief gallops up from the rear. With old 'Death-or-Glory' to fight is to win, And the Colonel means mischief, I see by his grin.— Boots and Saddles! The Pickets are in!— Boots and Saddles! The Pickets are in!
"And it must be 'Boots and Saddles' with us," said Lord Bearwarden to his guests as the applause subsided and he made a move towards the door, "otherwise we shall be the 'lads to leave out of the dance'; and I fancy that would suit none of us to-night."
MRS. STANMORE AT HOME.
Amongst all the magnificent toilettes composed to do honour to the lady whose card of invitation heads this chapter, none appeared more variegated in colour, more startling in effect, than that of Miss Puckers the maid.
True, circumstances compelled her to wear a high dress, but even this modest style of costume in the hands of a real artist admits of marvellous combinations and extraordinary breadth of treatment. Miss Puckers had disposed about her person as much ribbon, tulle, and cheap jewelry as might have fitted out a fancy fair. Presiding in a little breakfast-room off the hall, pinning tickets on short red cloaks, shaking out skirts of wondrous fabrication, and otherwise assisting those beautiful guests who constituted the entertainment, she afforded a sight only equalled by her after-performances in the tea-room, where, assuming the leadership of a body of handmaidens almost as smart as herself, she formed, for several waggish and irreverent young gentlemen, a principal attraction in that favourite place of resort.
A ball is so far like a run with fox-hounds that it is difficult to specify the precise moment at which the sport begins. Its votaries gather by twos and threes attired for pursuit; there is a certain amount of refitting practised, as regards dress and appointments, while some of the keenest in the chase are nevertheless the latest arrivals at the place of meeting. Presently are heard a note or two, a faint flourish, a suggestive prelude. Three or four couples get cautiously to work, the music swells, the pace increases, ere long the excitement extends to all within sight or hearing, and a performance of exceeding speed, spirit, and severity is the result.
Puckers, with her mouth full of pins, is rearranging the dress of a young lady in her first season, to whom, as to the inexperienced hunter, that burst of music is simply maddening. She is a well-bred young lady, however, and keeps her raptures to herself, but is slightly indignant at the very small notice taken of her by Dick Stanmore, who rushes into the tiring-room, drops a flurried little bow, and hurries Puckers off into a corner, totally regardless of the displeasure with which a calm, cold-looking chaperon regards this unusual proceeding.
"Did it come in time?" says Dick in a loud agitated whisper. "Did you run up with it directly? Was she pleased? Did she say anything? Has she got them on now?"
"Lor, Mr. Stanmore!" exclaims Puckers; "whatever do you mean?"
"Miss Bruce—the diamonds," explains Dick, in a voice that causes two dandies, recently arrived, to pause in astonishment on the staircase.
"O, the diamonds!" answers Puckers. "Only think, now. Was it you, sir? Well, I never. Why, sir, when Miss Bruce opens the packet, not half-an-hour ago, the tears comes into her eyes, and she says, 'Well, this is kind'—them was her very words—'this is kind,' says she, and pops'em on that moment; for I'd done her hair and all. Go up-stairs, Mr. Stanmore, and see how she looks in them. I'll wager she's waiting for Somebody to dance with her this very minute!"
Though it is too often of sadly short duration, every man has his "good time" for a few blissful seconds during life. Let him not complain they are so brief. It is something to have at least tasted the cup, and perhaps it is better to turn with writhing lips from the bitter drop near the brim than, drinking it fairly out, to find its sweets pall on the palate, its essence cease to warm the heart and stimulate the brain.
Dick, hurrying past his mother into the soft, mellow, yet brilliant radiance of her crowded ball-room, felt for that moment the happiest man in London.
Miss Bruce was not waiting to dance with him, according to her maid's prediction, but was performing a waltz in exceeding gravity, assisted, as Dick could not help observing, with a certain satisfaction, by the ugliest man in the room. The look she gave him when their eyes met at last sent this shortsighted young gentleman up to the seventh heaven. It seemed well worth all the hunters in Leicestershire, all the diamonds in Golconda! He did the honours of his step-mother's house, and thanked his own friends for coming, but all with the vague consciousness of a man in a dream. Presently the "round" dance came to an end, much to the relief of the ugly man, who cared, indeed, for ladies as little as ladies cared for him; and Dick hastened to secure Miss Bruce as a partner for the approaching "square." She was engaged, of course, six deep, but she put off all her claimants and took Mr. Stanmore's arm. "He's my cousin, you know," said she, with her rare smile, "and cousins don't count; so you're all merely put back one. If you don't like it, you needn't come for it—c'est tout simple!"
Then they took their places, and the dark eyes looked full into his own. Dick felt he was winning in a canter.
Miss Bruce put her hand on the collar of diamonds round her neck. "I'm glad you're not my cousin," she said; "I'm glad you're not really a relation. You're far dearer as it is. You're the best friend and truest gentleman I ever met in my life. Now I sha'n't thank you any more. Mind your dancing, and set to that gawky woman opposite. Isn't she badly dressed?"
How could Dick tell? He didn't even know he had a vis-a-vis, and the "gawky woman," as Miss Bruce most unjustly called her, only wondered anybody could make such blunders in so simple a figure as the Ete. His head was in a whirl. A certain chivalrous instinct warned him that this was no time, while his idol lay under a heavy obligation, to press his suit. Yet he could not, for the life of him, help venturing a word.
"I look at nobody but you," he answered, turning pale as men do when they are in sad earnest. "I should never wish to see any other face than yours for the rest of my life."
"How tired you'd get of it," said she, with a bright smile; but she timed her reply so as to embark immediately afterwards on the Chaine des Dames, a measure exceedingly ill calculated for sustained conversation, and changed the subject directly she returned to his side.
"Where did you dine?" she asked saucily. "With those wild young men at the barracks, I suppose. I knew you would: and you did all sorts of horrid things, drank and smoked—I'm sure you smoked." She put her laced hand-kerchief laughingly to her nose.
"I dined with Bearwarden," answered honest Dick, "and he's coming on here directly with a lot of them. My mother will be so pleased—it's going to be a capital ball."
"I thought Lord Bearwarden never went to balls," replied the young lady carelessly; but her heart swelled with gratified vanity to think of the attraction that drew him now to every place where he could hear her voice and look upon her beauty.
"There he is," was her partner's comment, as his lordship's head appeared in the doorway. "We'll have one more dance, Miss Bruce—Maud—before the night is over?"
"As many as you please," was her answer, and still Dick felt he had the race in hand and was winning in a canter.
People go to balls for pleasure, no doubt, but it must be admitted, nevertheless, that the pleasure they seek there is of a delusive kind and lasts but for a few minutes at a time.
Mr. Stanmore's whole happiness was centred in Miss Bruce, yet it was impossible for him to neglect all his step-mother's guests because of his infatuation for one, nor would the usages of society's Draconic laws, that are not to be broken, permit him to haunt that one presence, which turned to magic a scene otherwise only ludicrous for an hour or so, and simply wearisome as it went on.
So Dick plunged into the thick of it, and did his duty manfully, diving at partners right and left, yet, with a certain characteristic loyalty, selecting the least attractive amongst the ladies for his attentions. Thus it happened that as the rooms became crowded, and half the smartest people in London surged and swayed upon the staircase, he lost sight of the face he loved for a considerable period, and was able to devote much real energy to the success of his step-mother's ball, uninfluenced by the distraction of Miss Brace's presence.
This young lady's movements, however, were not unobserved. Puckers, from her position behind the cups and saucers, enjoyed great reconnoitring opportunities, which she did not suffer to escape unimproved—the tea-room, she was aware, held an important place in the working machinery of society, as a sort of neutral territory, between the cold civilities of the ball-room and the warmer interests fostered by juxtaposition in the boudoir, not to mention a wicked little alcove beyond, with low red velvet seats, and a subdued light suggestive of whispers and provoking question rather than reply.
Puckers was not easily surprised. In the housekeeper's room she often thanked her stars for this desirable immunity, and indeed on the present occasion had furnished a loving couple with tea, whose united ages would have come hard upon a century, without moving a muscle of her countenance, albeit there was something ludicrous to general society in the affectation of concealment with which this long-recognised attachment had to be carried on. The gentleman was bald and corpulent. The lady—well, the lady had been a beauty thirty years ago, and dressed the character still. There was nothing to prevent their seeing each other every day and all day long, if they chose, yet they preferred scheming for invitation to the same places, that they might meet en evidence before the public; and dearly loved, as now, a retirement into the tea-room, where they could enact their role of turtle-doves, uninterrupted, yet not entirely unobserved. Perhaps, after all, this imaginary restraint afforded the little spice of romance that preserved their attachment from decay.
Puckers, I say, marvelled at these not at all, but she did marvel, and admitted it, when Miss Bruce, entering the tea-room, was seen to be attended, not by Mr. Stanmore, but by Lord Bearwarden.
Her dark eyes glittered, and there was an exceedingly becoming flush on the girl's fair face, usually so pale. Her maid thought she had never seen Maud look so beautiful, and to judge by the expression of his countenance, it would appear Lord Bearwarden thought so too. They had been dancing together, and he seemed to be urging her to dance with him again. His lordship's manner was more eager than common, and in his eyes came an anxious expression that only one woman, the one woman it was so difficult to forget, had ever been able to call into them before.
"Look odd!" he repeated, while he set down her cup and gave her back the fan he had been holding. "I thought you were above all that, Miss Bruce, and did what you liked, without respect to the fools who stare and can't understand."
She drew up her head with a proud gesture peculiar to her. "How do you know I do like it?" said she haughtily.
He looked hurt, and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Forgive me," he said, "I have no right to suppose it. I have been presumptuous, and you are entitled to be unkind. I have monopolised you too much, and you're—you're bored with me. It's my own fault."
"I never said so," she answered in the same tone; "who is unkind now?" Then the dark eyes were raised for one moment to look full in his, and it was all over with Lord Bearwarden.
"You will dance with me again before I go," said he, recovering his former position with an alacrity that denoted some previous practice. "I shall ask nobody else—why should I? You know I only came here to see you. One waltz, Miss Bruce—promise?"
"I promise," she answered, and again came into her eyes that smile which so fascinated her admirers to their cost. "I shall get into horrid disgrace for it, and so I shall for sitting here so long now. I'm always doing wrong. However, I'll risk it if you will."
Her manner was playful, almost tender; and Puckers, adding another large infusion of tea, wondered to see her look so soft and kind.
A crowded waltz was in course of performance, and the tea-room, but for this preoccupied couple, would have been empty. Two men looked in as they passed the door, the one hurried on in search of his partner, the other started, scowled, and turned back amongst the crowd. Puckers, the lynx-eyed, observing and recognising both, had sufficient skill in physiognomy to pity Mr. Stanmore and much mistrust Tom Ryfe.
The former, indeed, felt a sharp, keen pang, when he saw the face that so haunted him in close proximity to another face belonging to one who, if he should enter for the prize, could not but prove a dangerous rival. Nevertheless, the man's generous instincts stifled and kept down so unworthy a suspicion, forcing himself to argue against his own conviction that, at this very moment, the happiness of his life was hanging by a thread. He resolved to ignore everything of the kind. Jealousy was a bad beginning for a lover, and after all, if he should allow himself to be jealous of every man who admired and danced with Maud, life would be unbearable. How despicable, besides, would she hold such a sentiment! With her disposition, how would she resent anything like espionage or surveillance! How unworthy it seemed both of herself and of him! In two minutes he was heartily ashamed of his momentary discomfiture, and plunged energetically once more into the duties of the ball-room. Nevertheless, from that moment, the whole happiness of the evening had faded out for Dick.
There is a light irradiating all such gatherings which is totally irrespective of gas or wax-candles. It can shed a mellow lustre on dingy rooms, frayed carpets, and shabby furniture; nay, I have seen its tender rays impart a rare and spiritual beauty to an old, worn, long-loved face; but on the other hand, when this magic light is quenched, or even temporarily shaded, not all the illuminations of a royal birthday are brilliant enough to dispel the gloom its absence leaves about the heart.
Mr. Stanmore, though whirling a very handsome young lady through a waltz, began to think it was not such a good ball after all.
Tom Ryfe, on the other hand, congratulated himself on his tactics in having obtained an invitation, not without considerable pressure put upon Miss Bruce, for a gathering of which his social standing hardly entitled him to form a part. He was now, so to speak, on the very ground occupied by the enemy, and though he saw defeat imminent, could at least make his own effort to avert it. After all his misgivings as regarded Stanmore, it seemed that he had been mistaken, and that Lord Bearwarden was the rival he ought to dread. In any case but his own, Mr. Ryfe was a man of the world, quite shrewd enough to have reasoned that in this duality of admirers there was encouragement and hope. But Tom had lost his heart, such as it was; and his head, though of much better material, had naturally gone with it. Like other gamblers, he determined to follow his ill-luck to the utmost, bring matters to a crisis, and so know the worst. In all graver affairs of life, it is doubtless good sense to look a difficulty in the face; but in the amusements of love and play practised hands leave a considerable margin for that uncertainty which constitutes the very essence of both pastimes; and this is why, perhaps, the man in earnest has the worst chance of winning at either game.
So Tom Ryfe turned back into the crowd, and waited his opportunity for a few minutes' conversation with Miss Bruce.
It came at last. She had danced through several engagements, the night was waning, and a few carriages had already been called up. Maud occupied the extreme end of a bench, from which a party of ladies had just risen to go away: she had declined to dance, and for the moment was alone. Tom slipped into the vacant seat by her side, and thus cut her off from the whole surrounding world. A waltz requiring much terrific accompaniment of brass instruments pealed out its deafening strains within ten feet of them, and in no desert island could there have been less likelihood that their conversation would be overheard.
Miss Bruce looked very happy, and in thorough good-humour. Tom Ryfe opened the trenches quietly enough.
"You haven't danced with me the whole evening," said he, with only rather a bitter inflection of voice.
"You never asked me," was the natural rejoinder.
"And I'm not going to ask you, now," proceeded Mr. Ryfe; "you and I, Miss Bruce, have something more than a mere dancing acquaintance, I think."
An impatient movement, a slight curl of the lip, was the only answer.
"You may drop an acquaintance when you are tired of him, or a friend when he gets troublesome. It's done every day. It's very easy, Miss Bruce."
He spoke in a tone of irony that roused her.
"Not so easy," she answered, with tightening lips, "when people have no tact—when they are not gentlemen."
The taunt went home. The beauty of Mr. Ryfe's face was at no time in its expression—certainly not now. Miss Bruce, too, seemed well disposed to fight it out. Obviously it must be war to the knife!
"Did you get my letter?" said he, in low, distinct syllables. "Do you believe I mean what I say? Do you believe I mean what I write?"
She smiled scornfully. A panting couple who stopped just in front of them imagined they were interrupting a flirtation, and, doing as they would be done by, twirled on.
"I treat all begging-letters alike," answered Maud, "and make yours no exception, because they contain threats and abuse into the bargain. You have chosen the wrong person to try and frighten, Mr. Ryfe. It only shows how little you understand my character."
He would have caught at a straw even then. "How little chance I have had of studying it!" he exclaimed. "It is not my fault. Heaven knows I have been kept in ignorance, uncertainty, suspense, till it almost drove me mad. Miss Bruce, you have known the worst of me; only the worst of me, indeed, as yet."
The man was pleading for his life, you see. Was it pitiable, or only ludicrous, that his voice and manner had to be toned down to the staid pitch of general conversation, that a fat and happy German was puffing at a cornet-a-piston within arm's length of him? But for a quiver of his lip, any bystander might have supposed he was asking Miss Bruce if he should bring her an ice.
"I have seen enough!" she replied, very resolutely, "and I am determined to see no more. Mr. Ryfe, if you have no pleasanter subjects of conversation than yourself and your arrangements, I will ask you to move for an instant that I may pass and find Mrs. Stanmore."
Lord Bearwarden was at the other end of the room, looking about apparently for some object of unusual interest. Perhaps Miss Bruce saw him—as ladies do see people without turning their eyes—and the sight fortified her resolution.
"Then you defy me!" whispered Tom, in the low suppressed notes that denote rage, concentrated and intensified for being kept down. "By heaven, Miss Bruce, you shall repent it! I'll show you up! I'll expose you! I'll have neither pity nor remorse! You think you've won a heavy stake, do you? Hooked a big fish, and need only pull him ashore? He sha'n't be deceived! He shall know you for what you are! He shall, by——!"
The adjuration with which Mr. Ryfe concluded this little ebullition was fortunately drowned to all ears but those for which it was intended by a startling flourish on the cornet-a-piston. Miss Bruce accepted the challenge readily. "Do your worst!" said she, rising with a scornful bow, and taking Lord Bearwarden's arm, much to that gentleman's delight, walked haughtily away.
Perhaps this declaration of open war may have decided her subsequent conduct; perhaps it was only the result of those circumstances which form the meshes of a certain web we call Fate. Howbeit, Miss Bruce was too tired to dance. Miss Bruce would like to sit down in a cool place. Miss Bruce would not be bored with Lord Bearwarden's companionship, not for an hour, not for a week—no, not for a lifetime!
Dick Stanmore, taking a lady down to her carriage, saw them sitting alone in the tea-room, now deserted by Puckers and her assistants. His honest heart turned very sick and cold. Half-an-hour after, passing the same spot, they were there still; and then, I think, he knew that he was overtaken by the first misfortune of his life.
Later, when the ball was over, and he had wished Mrs. Stanmore good-night, he went up to Maud with a grave, kind face.
"We never had our waltz, Miss Bruce," said he; "and—and—there's a reason, isn't there?"
He was white to his very lips. Through all her triumph, she felt a twinge, far keener than she expected, of compunction and remorse.
"O, Dick!" she said, "I couldn't help it! Lord Bearwarden proposed to me in that room."
"And you accepted him?" said Dick, trying to steady his voice, wondering why he felt half suffocated all the time.
"And I accepted him."
"Age about thirty. Height five feet nine inches and a half—fair complexion—light-grey eyes—small reddish-brown whiskers, close-trimmed—short dark hair. Speaks fast, in a high key, and has a habit of drawing out his shirt-sleeves from beneath his cuffs. When last seen, was dressed in a dark surtout, fancy necktie, black-cloth waist-coat, Oxford-mixture trousers, and Balmoral boots. Wore a black hat with maker's name inside—Block and Co., 401 Regent Street. Whoever will give such information to the authorities as may lead to the discovery of the above, shall receive—A Reward!"
Such was the placard that afforded a few minutes' speculation for the few people who had leisure to read it, one fine morning about a week after Mrs. Stanmore's eventful ball, and towards the close of the London season; eliciting at the same time criticism not altogether favourable on the style of composition affected by our excellent police. The man was missing no doubt, and had been missing for some days before anxiety, created by his absence, growing into alarm for his safety, had produced the foregoing advertisement, prompted by certain affectionate misgivings of Mr. Bargrave, since the lost sheep was none other than his nephew Tom Ryfe. The old man felt, indeed, seriously discomposed by the prolonged absence of this the only member of his family. It was unjustifiable, as he remarked twenty times a day, unfeeling, unheard-of, unaccountable. He rang for the servants at his private residence every quarter of an hour or so to learn if the truant had returned. He questioned the boy at the office sharply and repeatedly as to orders left with him by Mr. Ryfe before he went away, only to gather from the answers of this urchin, who would, indeed, have forgotten any number of such directions, that he looked on the present period of anxiety in the light of a holiday and festival, devoutly praying that his taskmaster might never come back again. Finally in despair poor Bargrave cast himself on the sympathy of Dorothea, who listened to his bewailings with stolid indifference when sober, and replied to them by surmises of the wildest improbability when drunk.
Alas, in common with so many others of her class, the charwoman took refuge from care in constant inebriety. Her imagination thus stimulated, pointed, like that of some old Castilian adventurer, steadily to the west.
"Lor, Mr. Bargrave," she would say, staring helplessly in his face, and yielding to the genial hiccough which refused to be kept down, "he be gone to 'Merriky, poor dear, to better hisself, I make no doubt. Don't ye take on so. It's a weary world, it is; and that's where he be gone, for sure!"
Yet she knew quite well where he was hidden all the time; and, inasmuch as she had some regard for her kind old employer, the knowledge almost drove her mad. Therefore it was that Dorothea, harassed by conflicting feelings, drowned her sorrows perseveringly in the bowl.
For a considerable period this poor woman had suffered a mental torture, the severest, perhaps, to which her sex can be subjected. She had seen the man she loved—and, though she was only a drudge, and not by any means a tidy one, she could love very dearly—she had seen, I say, the man she loved gradually learning to despise her affection, and to estrange himself from her society. She was a good deal afraid of "Gentleman Jim"—perhaps she liked him none the less for that—and dared neither tax him with falsehood nor try to worm out of him the assurance that she had or had not a rival. Nevertheless, she was determined to ascertain the cause of her lover's indifference to herself, and his changed conduct in other relations of life.
Jim had always been somewhat given to the adornment of his person, affecting that flash and gaudy style of decoration so much in favour with dog-stealers and men of like dubious professions. Of late, however, he had adopted, with different tastes and habits, a totally different costume—when "off duty," as he called it—meaning thereby release from the fulfilment of some business engagement subject to penalties affixed by our criminal code. He now draped himself in white linen, dark-coloured clothes, a tall hat, and such outward marks of respectability, if not station, going even so far as to invest in kid gloves and an "umbrellier," as he called that instrument. At first sight, but for his boots, Jim might almost have been mistaken for a real gentleman. About this period, too, he left off vulgar liquors, and shamefully abandoned a short black pipe that had stuck by him through many ups and downs, substituting for these stimulants a great deal of brown sherry and certain sad-coloured cigars, demanding strong lungs and a strong stomach as well. These changes did the forlorn Dorothea note with increasing anxiety, and, because every woman becomes keen-sighted and quick-witted where her heart is concerned, drew from them an augury fatal to her future happiness. After a while, when the suspense grew intolerable, she resolved on putting a stop to it by personal inquiry, and with that view, as a preliminary, kept herself tolerably sober for twenty-four hours, during which probationary period she instituted a grand "clean up" of his premises; and so, as she mentally expressed it, "with a cool head and a clean house and a clear conscience," confronted her employer on the stairs.
Old Bargrave had of late become very nervous and uneasy. The full meals, the daily bottle of port, the life of self-indulgence, though imparting an air of portliness and comfort while everything went well, had unfitted him sadly for a contest with difficulty or reverse. Like the fat troop-horse that looks so sightly on parade, a week's campaigning reduced him to a miserable object—flabby, shrunk, dispirited, and with a sinking heart at least, if not a sore back.
Dorothea's person blocked up the staircase before him, or he would have slipped by and locked himself unnoticed in his chambers.
"Can I speak with you, sir?" said the charwoman. "Now, sir, if you please—himmediate."
Old Bargrave trembled.
"Certainly, Dorothea, certainly. What is it, my good girl? You've heard something. They've traced him—they've found him. One minute, my good girl—one minute, if you please."
He had preceded her through the office to his own inner room, and now, shaking all over, sat down in his easy-chair, pressing both hands hard on its arms to steady himself. Dorothea, staring helplessly at the wall over his head, made a muff of her apron, and curtsied; nothing more.
"Speak!" gasped the old gentleman convulsively.
"It's my haunt, if you please, sir," said Dorothea, with another curtsey.
"D——n your aunt!" vociferated Bargrave. "It's my nephew! Have you heard nothing? I'm hasty, my good girl; I'm anxious. I—I haven't another relation in the world. Have they told you anything more?"
Dorothea began to cry.
"He be gone to 'Meriker, for sure," she whimpered, trying back on the old consolatory suggestion; "to better hisself, no doubt. It's me, sir; that's my haunt. She's wuss this turn. An' if so be as you could spare me for the day—I've been and cleaned up everythink, and I'd wipe over that there table and shake the dust out o' them curtains in five minutes, and——"
"That will do—that will do!" exclaimed the old gentleman, aghast, as well he might be, at the proposal, since none of the furniture in question had been subjected to such a process for years, and immediate suffocation, with intolerable confusion of papers, must have been the result. "If you want to go and see your aunt, my girl, go, in heaven's name. I can spare you as long as you like. But you mustn't tidy up here. No; that would never do. And, Dorothea, if you should hear anything, come and tell me that instant. Never mind the expense. I'd give a great deal to know he was safe. Ah, I'd give all I have in the world to see him back again."
She curtsied and hurried out, leaving Bargrave to immerse himself in law-papers and correspondence. From sheer force of habit he took refuge in his daily work at this hour of anxiety and sad distress. In such sorrows it is well for a man to have disciplined his mind till it obeys him instinctively, like a managed steed bearing its rider at will out of the crowd of assailants by whom he is beset.
Dorothea, scrubbing her face with yellow soap till it shone again, proceeded to array herself in raiment of many colours, and, when got up to her own satisfaction, scuttled off to a distant part of London, making use of more than one omnibus in her journey; and so, returning almost upon her tracks, confronted Gentleman Jim as he emerged from his usual house of call in the narrow street out of Holborn.
He started, and his face lengthened with obvious disgust.
"What's up now, lass?" said he. "I've business tonight. D'ye mind? Blessed if my mouth isn't as dry as a cinder-heap. You go home, like a good gal, and I'll take ye to the theaytre, perhaps, to-morrow. I haven't a minnit to stop. I didn't ought to be here now."
The promised treat, the hurried manner, above all the affected kindness of tone, roused her suspicions to the utmost; and Dorothea was woman enough to feel for the moment that she dared match her wits against those of her betrayer.
"It's lucky," she answered coolly; "for I've got to be home afore dark, and they're lighting the lamps now. I've been down to see arter him, Jim, an' I thought I'd just step round and let you know. I footed it all the way back, that's why I'm so late now."
She paused and looked steadily in his face.
"Well?" said Jim, turning very pale, while his eyes glared in hers with a wild horrible meaning.
She answered his look rather than his exclamation.
"He's a trifle better since morning. He don't know nothing yet, nor he won't neither, not for a while to come. But he ain't a-goin' to die, Jim—not this turn."
His colour came back, and he laughed brutally. "Blast him! d'ye think I care?" said he, with a wild flourish of his arm; but added in a quieter voice, "Perhaps it's as well, lass. Cold meat isn't very handy to hide, and he's worth more alive than dead. I couldn't hardly keep from laffin' this mornin' when I saw them bills. I'll stand ye a drop, lass, if you're dry, but I mustn't stop with ye to drink it."
Dorothea declined this liberal offer.
"Good-night, Jim," said she, and turned coldly away. She had no heart for a more affectionate farewell; and could their positions have been reversed he must have detected something strange in this unusual lack of cordiality. But men are seldom close observers in such matters, and Jim was full of his own interests, his own projects, his own wild senseless infatuation.
He watched her round her homeward turn, and then started off at a quick pace in an opposite direction. With all his cunning he would never have suspected that Dorothea, whose intellect he considered little better than an idiot's, could presume to dog his footsteps; and the contempt he entertained for her—of which she was beginning to be uncomfortably conscious—no doubt facilitated this unhappy creature's operations.
Overhead the sky was dark and lowering, the air thick as before thunder; and though the gaslights streamed on every street in London, it was an evening well suited to watch an unsuspecting person unobserved.
Dorothea, returning on her footsteps, kept Jim carefully in sight, walking from twenty to fifty yards behind him, and as much as possible on the other side of the street. There was no danger of her losing him. She could have followed that figure—to her the type of comeliness and manhood—all over the world; but she dreaded, with a fear that was almost paralysing, the possibility of his turning back and detecting that he was tracked. "He'd murder me, for sure," thought Dorothea, trembling in every limb. Nevertheless, the love that is strong as death, the jealousy that is cruel as the grave, goaded her to persevere; and so she flitted in his wake with a noiseless step, wonderfully gliding and ghostlike considering the solidity of her proportions.
Jim turned out of Oxford Street to stop at an ill-looking dirty little house, the door of which seemed to open to him of its own accord. She spied a small grocer's shop nearly opposite not yet shut up. To dodge rapidly in and sit down for a few minutes while she cheapened a couple of ounces of tea, afforded Dorothea an excellent chance of watching his further movements unseen.
He emerged again almost immediately with a false beard and a pair of spectacles, carrying a large parcel carefully wrapped in oiled silk; then, after looking warily up and down the street, turned into the main thoroughfare for the chase to begin once more.
"He must be dreadful hot, poor Jim!" thought Dorothea, pitying him in spite of herself for his false beard and heavy parcel, while she wiped away the drops already beginning to pour off her own forehead.
The night was indeed close and sultry. A light warm air, reeking like the steam from a cook-shop, breathed in her face, while a low roll of thunder, nearly lost in the noise of wheels, growled and rumbled among the distant Surrey hills.
She followed him perseveringly through the more fashionable streets and squares of London, tolerably silent and deserted now in the interval between dinner and concert, ball or drum. Here and there through open windows might be seen a few gentlemen at their wine, or a lady in evening dress coming out for a gasp of fresh air on the balcony overhead; but on the pavement below, a policeman under a lamp or a lady's-maid hurrying on an errand were the only occupants, and these took no heed of the bearded man with his parcel, nor of the dirty gaudily-dressed woman who followed like his shadow. So they turned down Grosvenor Place and through Belgrave Square into one of the adjoining streets. Here Jim, slackening pace, took his hat off and wiped his brow. Dorothea, with all her faculties on the stretch, slipped into a portico at the very moment when he glanced round on every side to make sure he was not watched. From this hiding-place she observed him, to her great astonishment, ring boldly at the door of a large handsome house. That astonishment was increased to see him admitted without demur by an irreproachable footman, powder, plush, and all complete. Large drops of rain began to fall, and outside London, beyond the limits of our several gas companies, it lightened all round the horizon.
Dorothea crept nearer the house where Jim had disappeared. On the ground floor, in a dining-room of which the windows stood open for the heat, she saw his figure within a few yards of her. He was unpacking his bundle and arranging its contents on the table, where a servant had placed a lamp when he admitted this unusual visitor. The rain fell now in good earnest, and not a living creature remained in the street. Dorothea cowered down by the area railings and watched.
Not for long. The dining-room door opened, and into the lamplight, like a vision from some world of which poor Dorothea could scarcely form the vaguest conception, came a pale haughty woman, beautiful exceedingly, before whom Jim, her own Jim, usually so defiant, seemed to cower and tremble like a dog. Even in that moment of bewilderment Dorothea's eye, woman-like, marked the mode in which Miss Bruce's long black hair was twisted, and missed neither the cut nor texture of her garments.
Jim spread his goods out for inspection. It was obvious that he had gained admission to the house under the guise of a dealer in rare silks and Eastern brocades. We, who know everything, know that Mrs. Stanmore was dozing over her coffee up-stairs, and that this scheme, too, originated in the fertile brain and determined character of her niece.
"I'll take that shawl, if you please," said Maud, in her cool authoritative way. "I dare say it's better than it looks. Put it aside for me. And—you were to ask your own price."
Dorothea, drenched to the skin, felt nevertheless a fire burning within; for, raising her face to peer above the area railings, she marked a mute worship in Jim's adoring eyes; she marked the working of his features, pale, as it seemed, with some new and overpowering emotion. Could this be Gentleman Jim? She had seen him asleep and awake, pleased and angry, drunk and sober, but she had never seen that face before. Through all its agony there rose in her heart a feeling of anger at such transparent folly—almost of contempt for such weakness in a man.
His voice came hoarse and thick while he answered—
"Never name it, miss, never name it. I done as you desired, an' a precious awkward job it were! He'll tell no tales now!"
She started. The hand in which she held a small embroidered note-case trembled visibly; but her voice, though low, was perfectly firm and clear.
"If you exceeded my order," said she, "you have nothing to hope from my forbearance. I shall be the first to have you punished. I told you so."
He could scarcely contain his admiration.
"What a plucked 'un!" he muttered; "what a plucked 'un! No, miss," he added, "you needn't fear. Fear, says I! You never feared nothink in your life. You needn't think of that 'ere. Me and another party we worked it off as neat as wax, without noise and without violence. We've a-trapped him safe, miss, and you've got nothink to do but just you lift up your hand, and we'll put him back, not a ha'porth the wuss, on the very spot as we took him from."
She drew a great breath of relief, but suffered not a muscle of her countenance to betray her feelings.
"It is better so," she observed quietly. "Remember, once for all, when I give orders they must be obeyed to the letter. I am satisfied with you, Jim—I think your name is Jim?"
There was just the least possible inflection of kindness in her voice, and this ruffian's heart leaped to meet it, while the tears came to his eyes. He dashed them savagely away, and took a letter from his breast-pocket.
"That's all we found on him, miss," said he, "that an' a couple o' cigars. He hadn't no watch, no blunt, no latch-key, no nothink. I kep' this here careful to bring it you. Bless ye, I can read, I can, well, but I've not read that there. I couldn't even smoke of his cigars. No, I guv 'em to a pal. This here job warn't done for money, miss! It were done for—for—well—for you!"
She took the letter with as little emotion as if it had been an ordinary tradesman's bill for a few shillings; yet had she once pawned a good many hundred pounds' worth of diamonds only on the chance of recovering its contents.
"At least, I must pay you for the shawl," said she, pulling the notes out of their case.
"For the shawl, miss? Yes," answered Jim. "Ten pounds will buy that, an' leave a fair profit for my pal as owns it. Not a shilling more, miss—no—no. D'ye mind the first time as ever I see you? D'ye mind what I said then? There's one chap, miss, in this world, as belongs of you, body and soul. He's a poor chap, he is, and a rough chap, but he asks no better than to sarve of you, be the job what it may—ay, if he swings for it! Now it's out!"
Over her pale haughty face swept a flash of mingled triumph, malice, and even amusement, while she listened to this desperate man's avowal of fidelity and belief. But she only vouchsafed him a cold condescending smile, observing, as she selected a ten-pound note—
"Is there nothing I can do to mark my satisfaction and approval?"
He fidgeted, glanced at the note-case, and began packing up his goods.
"If you're pleased, miss, that's enough. But if so be as you could do without that there empty bit of silk, and spare it me for a keepsake—well, miss, I'd never part with it—no, not if the rope was rove, and the nightcap drawed over my blessed face!"
She put the empty note-case in his hand.
"You're a fool," she said, ringing the bell for a servant to show him out; "but you're a stanch one, and I wish there were more like you."
"Blast me, I am!" he muttered; adding, as he turned into the wet street, and walked on through the rain like a man in a dream, "if there was more such gals as you, maybe there'd be more fools like me. It would be a rum world then, blessed if it wouldn't! And now it will be a whole week afore I shall see her again!"
Dorothea, clinging to the area railings, even in the imminence of discovery had not the heart to leave them as he went out. Stupefied, bewildered, benumbed, she could scarcely believe in the reality of the scene she had witnessed. She felt it explained much that had lately puzzled her exceedingly; but at present she was unequal to the task of arranging her ideas so as to understand the mystery that enveloped her.
Gradually the thunderstorm rolled away, the rain cleared off, the moon shone out, and Dorothea reached her squalid home, drenched, cold, weary, and sick at heart.
We must go back a few days to watch with Dick Stanmore through the sad sorrowing hours that succeeded his step-mother's ball. I trust I have not so described this gentleman as to leave an impression that he was what young ladies call a romantic person. Romance, like port wine, after-dinner slumbers, flannel next the skin, and such self-indulgences, should be reserved as a luxury for after-life; under no circumstances must it be permitted to impair the efficiency of manhood in its prime. Dick Stanmore took his punishment with true British pluck and pertinacity. It was a "facer." As it could not possibly be returned, his instincts prompted him to "grin and bear it." He had sustained a severe fall. His first impulse was to get up again. None the less did nerves thrill and brain spin with the force and agony of the blow. Perhaps the very nature that most resists, suffers also the most severely from such shocks, as a granite wall cracks and splinters to the round shot, while an earth-work accepts that rushing missile with a stolid harmless thud.
Dick's composition was at least not earthy enough to let him go to bed after this recent downfall of his hopes. Restless, hurt, sorrowful, angry with himself, not her—for his nature could be gallantly loyal under defeat—sleep was as impossible as any other occupation requiring quietude and self-control. No. The only thing to be done was to smoke, of course! and then to pack up everything he could lay hands on, without delay, so as to leave London that very morning, for any part of England, Europe, or the habitable world. All places would be alike to him now, only the farther from Belgrave Square the better. Therefore it was, perhaps, that, after shamming to breakfast, and enduring considerable pain in a state of enforced inactivity, while his servant completed their travelling arrangements, he drove through this very Square, though it lay by no means in a direct line for the railway station to which he was bound. Those who believe in ghosts affirm that a disembodied spirit haunts the place it best loved on earth; and what are we but the ghosts of our former selves, when all that constituted the pith and colouring and vitality of our lives has passed away? Ah! Lady Macbeth's are not the only white hands from which that cruel stain can never be removed. There are soft eyes and sweet smiles and gentle whispers, enough in the world guilty of moral manslaughter (I believe the culprits themselves call it "justifiable homicide"), not entirely divested of that malice prepense which constitutes the crime of murder! Happy the victims in whom life is not completely extinguished, who recover their feet, bind up their wounds, and undeterred by a ghastly experience, hazard in more encounters a fresh assassination of the heart. Such fortitude would have afforded a remedy to Dick Stanmore. "Wanted—a lady!" should have been the motto emblazoned on his banner if ever he turned back into the battle once more. Homoeopathy, no doubt, is the treatment for a malady like that which prostrated this hapless sufferer,—homoeopathy, at first distrusted, ridiculed, accepted only under protest, and in accordance with the force of circumstances, the exigences of the position; gradually found to soothe, to revive, to ameliorate, till at last it effects a perfect and triumphant cure, nay, even shows itself powerful enough to produce a second attack of the same nature, fierce and virulent as the first. But, meanwhile, Dick Stanmore followed the ghost's example, and drove sadly through Belgrave Square, as he told himself, for the last—last time! Had he been an hour later, just one hour, he might have taken away with him a subject for considerable speculation, during his proposed travels in search of distraction. This is what he would have seen.
A good-looking bad-looking man, with dark eyes and hair, sweeping a crossing very inefficiently, while he watched the adjacent street with an air of eager anxiety, foreign to an occupation which indeed seems to demand unusual philosophy and composure of mind. Presently, Maud Bruce, tripping daintily across the path he had swept clean, let herself into the Square gardens, dropping her glove in the muddy street as she took a pass-key from her pocket. The crossing-sweeper pounced at it like a hawk, stuck his broom against a lamp-post, and hurried round to the other side of the Square.
Here Maud appeared at the gate, while "Gentleman Jim," for it was none other, returned her glove without a word through the iron bars.
"I hardly expected you so soon," said Miss Bruce. "My letter could only have been posted at five this morning."
"You might ha' made sure I'd come that instant, miss," answered Jim, his face brightening with excitement and delight. "I knowed who 'twas from, well enough, though 'twas but a line as a man might say. I ain't had it an hour, an' here I am, ready and willing for your job, be it what it may!"
"You're a bold fellow, I know," said Maud, "but it's a desperate undertaking. If you don't like it, say so."
Jim swore a horrible oath, and then drew his hand across his lips as though to wipe away its traces.
"Look'ee here, miss," he muttered in a hoarse thick whisper. "If you says to me, Jim, says you, go and rob that there church—see, now, I'd have the wards of the big key in wax, ah! this weary arternoon. If you says to me, says you, Jim, go and cut that there parson's throat, I've got a old knife in my pocket as I wouldn't want to sharpen afore the job was done, and the parson too, for good an' all!"
There was a peculiar grace in the setting on of Maud's head, especially in the firm lines of her mouth and chin. Though she looked even paler than usual, her rare beauty, always somewhat resolute and defiant in character, never showed to greater advantage than now.
"I won't speak of reward to you," she said, very clearly and distinctly, "though you shall name your own price, and be paid at your own time. Listen—I have an enemy—a bitter enemy who threatened me—actually dared to threaten me last night—who would hesitate at nothing to do me an injury."
"Blast him!" muttered Jim ferociously. "Leave 'un to me, miss, leave 'un to me!"
She took no heed of his interruption.
"That enemy," she continued, "must be got out of my way."
The sweat stood on her listener's brow.
"I understand you, miss," he gasped in a broken voice. "It shall be done."
Over the face this ruffian thought too beautiful to be mortal came a stern proud smile.
"I forbid that" she replied, "forbid it distinctly, and I will be obeyed to the very letter. If you were to kill this man, I should be the first to hand you over to justice. Listen. He must be kept quiet and out of the way for something less than three weeks. After that, he can harm me no more. I bear him no grudge, I wish him no evil; but he must be taken away this very afternoon. Every hour might make it too late. Can you do this?"
Jim pondered. He was an experienced criminal. A man with certain qualities which, in the honest paths of life, might have made him successful, even remarkable. In a few seconds he had run over his chances, his resources, his risk of detection, all the pros and cons of the undertaking. He looked cheerfully in her face.
"I can, miss," said he confidently. "I don't go for to say as it's a job to be done right off, like easy shavin', or taking a dozen of hiseters. But it's to be worked. I'll engage for that, and I'm the chap as can work it. You couldn't give me no longer than to-day, could ye now?"
"If it's not done at once, you must let it alone," was the answer.
"Now that's business," replied Jim, growing cooler and more self-possessed as he reviewed the difficulties of his enterprise. "The party being in town, miss, o' course. You may depend on my makin' of him safe before nine o'clock to-night. Shall I trouble you for the name and address, or will you give me a description in full, that will do as well?"
"You have seen him," she observed quietly. "On this very spot where I am standing now. I walked with him in these gardens the first morning you swept our crossing. A gentleman in a frock coat with a bunch of flowers at his buttonhole. Do you remember?"
Did he remember? Why the man's figure, features, every detail of his dress was photographed on Jim's heart.
"No need to tell me his name, miss," was the answer. "I knows him as well as I knows these here old shoes o' mine. I've had my eye on him ever since. I can tell you when he goes out, when he comes in, where he takes his meals. I could lay my hand on him in any part of this here town at two hours' notice. Make yourself easy, miss. Your job's as good as done, and some day you'll see me again, miss, won't you? And—and you'll thank me kindly, perhaps, when it's off your mind for good and all!"
"You shall come and tell me the particulars," answered Miss Bruce, with a gracious smile that seemed to flood him in sunshine, "when the thing is finished. And now I ought to be at home again; but before I go, understand plainly, to-morrow will be too late!"
Jim was deep in thought.
"The bird might be shy, miss," said he after a pause. "Some on 'em's easy scared, and this doesn't seem like a green one, not a bit of it. Supposin' as he won't be 'ticed, miss; there's only one way, then!"
For a moment she felt a keen stab of compunction, but, remembering the stake she ventured, nerved herself to resist the pang. This was no time for child's play, for a morbid sensitiveness, for weak indulgence of the feelings.
"Tell him you have a message from me, from Miss Bruce," she replied firmly. "It will lead him anywhere."
Jim looked as if he would rather set about the business in any other way; nevertheless, he was keenly alive to the efficiency of so tempting a bait, reflecting at the same time with a kind of awe on Mr. Ryfe's temerity in affronting such a character as this.
Another hurried sentence. A light in Jim's eyes like that with which a dog receives directions from its master, a gesture such as dismisses the same dog imperiously to its kennel, and Miss Bruce walked quietly home to her music and her embroidery, while the crossing-sweeper, recovering his broom, hurried off in another direction to commence operations against the unsuspecting Tom Ryfe.
That gentleman's feelings, as he sat in his uncle's office the morning after Mrs. Stanmore's ball, were of no enviable nature. Malice, hatred, and all uncharitableness might indeed sufficiently describe the frame of mind in which he went about his daily business, unfortunately on the present occasion an affair of such mere routine as in no way to distract his attention from his sorrows and his wrongs.
"She has dared me," thought he, poring over a deed he knew by heart, and of which his eye only took in the form and outward semblance, "challenged me to do my worst, and herself declared it is to be war to the knife. O Maud, Maud, how could you, how could you! Was it not enough to have wound yourself round my heart, to have identified yourself with my hopes, my ambition, my manhood, my very existence, and then with one turn of your hand to have destroyed them, each and all, but you must add insult to injury—must scorn and trample on me as well? Some men may stand this sort of treatment—I won't. I have a pull over you. Ah! I'm not such a fool, after all, perhaps, as you thought. I have it, and hang me, but I'll make use of it! You have blasted my life, and thought it good fun, no doubt. I'll see if I can't give tit-for-tat and spoil your little game, my haughty lady, with your white face and your cursed high-handed airs. Yet, how I loved them—how I loved them! Must I never see a woman again without that queenly beauty coming between me and my share of happiness? What right had you to destroy my whole future? And I would have been so different if you had cared for me; I might have made a better gentleman than any of them. As for that emptyheaded cousin (to be sure you've thrown him over, too, and I hope he feels it to his marrow), and that swaggering lord, can they care for you like I did? Would they have worked as hard to please you, and sat up night after night, as I have done, poring over papers to see you righted? and why am I to be sacrificed to such men as these? I won't be sacrificed; no, by heavens! I've done my best for you hitherto, Miss Bruce, and you've dared me now to do my worst. I shall rather astonish you, I think, when you learn what that worst is. Curse you; I'll have no mercy! If I am to suffer, I'll take care not to suffer meekly and alone. It's my turn now, my lady, as, before twelve hours are out, you shall know to your cost."
Mr. Ryfe, you see, was sadly wanting in that first element of chivalry which establishes the maxim that "a woman can do no wrong." This principle, when acted up to in its fullest sense, is convenient, no doubt, and beneficial to us all. It involves free trade on the broadest basis, sweeping away much of the selfishness and morbid sentimentality that constitute the superstition we call Love. She has a perfect right to change her mind, bless her! why shouldn't she? And so, no doubt, have you! Ring for fresh cards, cut again for partners, and so sit merrily down to another rubber. Thus, too, you will learn to play the game cautiously and with counters, saving both your temper and your gold. It may be you will miss the excitement of real gambling, finding the pastime so wearisome that you are fain to leave off and go to bed. Whatever you do, retire with a good grace. It is but a choice of evils. Perhaps you had better be bored than miserable, and, if less exciting, it is surely less painful to stifle listless yawns, than to crush down the cry of a wilful wounded heart.
Mr. Ryfe, however, I consider perfectly inexcusable in the course he chose to adopt. Self-sacrifice is, of all others, the quality by which, in questions of feeling, the true gold is to be distinguished from the false. But Tom had no idea of such generous immolation—not he.
Hour after hour, poring over the deeds of which he never read a line, he raged and chafed and came to a determination at last.
He had thought of writing to Lord Bearwarden, in his own name, warning him as a true friend of the lady's antecedents who was about to become his lordship's bride, enclosing at the same time a copy of her promise to himself; for, with professional caution, he reflected that the original had better not pass out of his hands. Then, he argued, if his lordship could only see with his own eyes the treasured lines in her well-known handwriting, by which Miss Bruce had bound herself in all honour to the lawyer's clerk, that nobleman must readily, and of necessity, hold himself absolved from any engagement he might have contracted with her, and perceive at once the folly and impropriety of making such a woman his wife. Yes, Lord Bearwarden should read the letter itself; he would obtain a personal interview that very evening, when the latter dressed for dinner. There would thus be no necessity for trusting the important document out of his own possession, while at the same time he could himself adopt a tone of candour and high feeling, calculated to make a strong impression on such a true gentleman as his friend.
He took Miss Bruce's promise from the safe in which he kept it locked up, and hid it carefully in his breast-pocket. Then, looking at his watch, and finding it was time to leave his office for the West-End, heaped his papers together, bundled them into the safe, and prepared to depart.
Walking moodily down-stairs he was waylaid by Dorothea, who, sluicing the steps with dirty water under pretence of cleaning them, thus held, as it were, the key of the position, and so had him at command. It surprised him not a little that she should desist from her occupation to request an interview.
"Can I speak to you for a moment, Mr. Thomas?" said she. "It's private, and it's particular."
The amount of pressure put on Dorothea ere she consented to the job now in hand it is not for me to estimate. Her Jim was a man of unscrupulous habits and desperate resources. It is probable that she had been subjected to the influences of affection, sentiment, and intimidation, perhaps even physical force. I cannot tell, my business is only with results.
There was no escaping, even had Mr. Ryfe been so inclined, for Dorothea's person, pail, and scrubbing-brushes defended the whole width of the staircase.
"It's strange, Mr. Thomas," she continued, pushing the hair off her face. "Lor! I was that frightened and that surprised, as you might have 'eard my 'eart beatin' like carpets. Who she may be, an' wot she may be, I know no more than the dead. But her words was these—I'm tellin' you her werry words—If you can make sure of seeing Mr. Ryfe, says she,—that's you, Mr. Thomas,—any time afore to-night, says she, tell him, as I must have a word with him in priwate atween him and me this werry evening, or it would have been better for both of us, poor things, says she, if we'd 'a never been born!"
Tom Ryfe stared.
"What do you mean?" he said. "Am I to understand that the—the lady who spoke to you was desirous of an interview with me here in chambers, or where?"
"An' a born lady she is an' were!" answered Dorothea, incoherent, and therefore in the acute lawyer's opinion more likely to be telling the truth. "A beautiful lady, too—tall and pale, 'aughty and 'andsome—(Tom started)—dressed in 'alf-mourning, with a black-and-white parasol in her 'and. It's to see you priwate, Mr. Thomas, as she bade me to warn of you. To-night at height in the Birdcage Walk, without fail, says she, for it's life and death as is the matter, or marriage, says she, which is sometimes wuss nor both."
Dorothea then removed herself, her pail, and her scrubbing-brushes to one side, as though inviting him to follow out his assignation without delay.
"I ask yer pardon," said she, "Mr. Thomas, if I done wrong. But the young lady she seemed so anxious and aggrawated-like. No offence, sir, I 'umbly 'ope, and she guv' me 'alf-a-sovereign."
"And I'll give you another," exclaimed Tom, placing a coin of that value in Dorothea's damp hot hand. "The Birdcage Walk, at eight. And it's past six now. Thank you, Dorothea. I've no doubt it's all right. I'll start at once."
Leaving Gray's Inn, the warm tears filled his eyes to think he had so misjudged her. Evidently she was in some difficulty, some complication; she had no opportunity of confiding to him, and hence her apparent heartlessness, the inconsistency of her conduct which he had been unable to understand. Obviously she loved him still, and the conviction filled him with rapture, all the more thrilling and intense for his late misgivings.
He pulled her written promise from his pocket, and kissed it passionately, reading it over and over again in the fading light. A prayer rose from heart to lip for the woman he loved, while he looked up to the crimson glories of the western sky. Do such prayers fall back in the form of curses on the heads of those who betray, haunting them in their sorrows—at their need—worst of all in their supreme moments of happiness and joy? God forbid! Rather let us believe that, true to their heaven-born nature, they are blessings for those who give and those who receive.
Some two hours later, Tom Ryfe found himself pacing to and fro under the trees in the Birdcage Walk, with a happier heart, though it beat so fast, than had been within his waistcoat for weeks.
It was getting very dark, and even beneath the gas-lamps it was difficult to distinguish the figure of man or woman, flitting through the deep shadows cast by trees still thick with their summer foliage. Tom, peering anxiously into the obscure, could make out nothing but a policeman, a foot-guardsman with a clothes-basket, and a drunken slattern carrying her baby upside-down.
He was growing anxious. Big Ben's booming tones had already warned him it was a quarter past eight, when, suddenly, so close to him he could almost touch it, loomed the figure of a woman.
"Miss Bruce," he exclaimed—"Maud—is it you?"
Turning his own body, so as to take advantage of a dim ray from the nearest gaslight, he was aware that the woman, shorter and stouter than Miss Bruce, had muffled herself in a cloak, and was closely veiled.
"You have a letter—a message," he continued in a whisper. "It's all right. I'm the party you expected to meet—here—at eight—under the trees."
"And wot the—are you at with my missus under the trees?" growled a brutal voice over his shoulder, while Tom felt he was helplessly pinioned by a pair of strong arms from behind, that crushed and bruised him like iron. Ere he could twist his hands free to show fight, which he meant to do pretty fiercely, he found himself baffled, blinded, suffocated, by a handkerchief thrust into his face, while a strong, pungent, yet not altogether unpleasant flavour of ether filled eyes, mouth, and nostrils, till it permeated to his very lungs. Then with every pulsation of the blood Big Ben seemed to be striking inside his brain till something gave way with a great whizz! like the mainspring of a watch, and Tom Ryfe was perfectly quiet and comfortable henceforth.
Five minutes afterwards a belated bricklayer lounging home with his mate observed two persons, man and woman, supporting between them a limp helpless figure, obviously incapable of sense or motion. Said the bricklayer, "That's a stiff-'un, Bill, to all appearance."
"Stiff-'un be d——d!" retorted Bill; "he's only jolly drunk. I wish I was too!"
The bricklayer seemed a man of reflection; for half-a-mile or so he held his peace, then, with a backward nod of the head, to indicate his meaning, observed solemnly—
"I wouldn't take that chap's head-ache when he comes to, no, not to be as jolly drunk as he is this minnit—I wouldn't!"
"THE COMING QUEEN"
"And whenever she comes she will find me waiting To do her homage—my queen—my queen!"
How many an aspiring heart has breathed the high chivalrous sentiment, never before so touchingly expressed, as in the words of this beautiful song! How many a gallant generous nature has desired with unspeakable longing to lay its wealth of loyalty and devotion at her feet who is to prove the coming queen of its affections, the ladye of its love! And for how many is the unwavering worship, the unfailing faith, the venture of wealth and honour, the risk of life and limb, right royally rewarded according to its merits and its claim! I am not sure that implicit belief, unquestioning obedience, are the qualities most esteemed by those illustrious personages on whom they are lavished; and I think that the rebel who sends in his adhesion on his own terms is sometimes treated with more courtesy and consideration than the stanch vassal whose fidelity remains unaffected by coldness, ingratitude, or neglect.
Dick Stanmore, reading in the Morning Post an eloquent account of Viscount Bearwarden's marriage to Miss Bruce, with the festivities consequent thereon, felt that he had sadly wasted his loyalty, if indeed this lady were the real sovereign to whom the homage of his heart was due. He began now to entertain certain misgivings on that score. What if he had over-estimated his own admiration and the force of her attractions? Perhaps his real queen had not come to him after all. It might be she was advancing even now in her maiden majesty, as yet unseen, but shedding before her a soft and mellow radiance, a tender quiver of light and warmth, like that which flushes the horizon at the break of a summer's day.
His dark hour had been cold and dismal enough. There is nothing to be ashamed of in the confession. Dick suffered severely, as every manly nature must suffer when deceived by a woman. He did not blame the woman—why should he?—but he felt that a calamity had befallen him, the heaviest of his young experience, and he bore it as best he might.
"Caelum non animum" is a very old proverb: his first impulse, no doubt, was to change the scene, and seek under other skies an altered frame of mind, in defiance of Horace and his worldly wisdom, so rarely at fault. In these days a code of behaviour has been established by society to meet every eventuality of life. When your fortunes are impaired you winter at Rome; when your liver is affected you travel in Germany; when your heart is broke you start at once for India. There is something unspeakably soothing, I imagine, in the swing of an elephant as he crashes through jungle, beating it out for tigers; something consolatory to wounded feelings in the grin of a heavy old tusker, lumbering along, half sulky, half defiant, winking a little blood-red eye at the pig-sticker, pushing his Arab to speed with a loose rein ere he delivers the meditated thrust that shall win first spear. Snipe, too, killed by the despairing lover while standing in a paddy-field up to his knees in water, with a tropical sun beating on his head, to be eaten afterwards in military society, not undiluted by pale ale and brandy-pawnee, afford a relief to the finer feelings of his nature as delightful as it is unaccountable; while those more adventurous spirits who, penetrating far into the mountainous regions of the north-west frontier, persecute the wild sheep or the eland, and even make acquaintance with the lordly ibex "rocketing" down from crag to crag, breaking the force and impetus of his leap by alighting on horns and forehead, would seem to gain in their life of hardship and adventure an immunity from the "common evil" which lasts them well into middle age.
Dick Stanmore's first impulse, therefore, was to secure a berth in the P. and O. steamer at once. Then he reflected that it would not be a bad plan to stop at Constantinople—one of the Egean islands, Messina—or, indeed, why go farther than Marseilles? If you come to that, Paris was the very place for a short visit. A man might spend a fortnight there pleasantly enough, even in the hot weather, and it would be a complete change, the eventual result of these deliberations being a resolve to go down and look after his landed property in the west of England. I believe that in this determination Mr. Stanmore showed more wisdom than his friends had hitherto given him credit for possessing. At his own place he had his own affairs to interest him, a good deal of business to attend to, above all, constant opportunities of doing good. This it is, I fancy, which constitutes the real pith and enjoyment of a country gentleman's life—which imparts zest and flavour to the marking of trees, the setting of trimmers, the shooting of partridges, nay, even to the joyous excitement of fox-hunting itself.
This, too, is a wondrous salve for such wounds as those under which Dick Stanmore was now smarting. The very comparison of our own sorrows with those of others has a tendency to decrease their proportions and diminish their importance. How can I prate of my cut finger in presence of your broken leg? And how utterly ridiculous would have seemed Mr. Stanmore's sentimental sorrows to one of his own labourers keeping a wife and half-a-dozen children on eleven shillings a week?
In the whole moral physic-shop there is no anodyne like duty, sweetened with a little charity towards your neighbours. Amusement and dissipation simply aggravate the evil. Personal danger, while its excitement braces nerve and intellect for the time, is an over-powerful stimulant for the imagination, and leaves a reaction sadly softening to the heart. Successful ambition, gratified vanity, what are these with none to share the triumph? But put the sufferer through a steady course of daily duties, engrossing in their nature, stupefying in the monotony of their routine, and insensibly, while his attention is distracted from self and selfish feelings, he gathers strength, day by day, till at last he is able to look his sorrow in the face, and fight it fairly, as he would any other honourable foe. The worst is over then, and victory a mere question of time.
So Dick Stanmore, setting to work with a will, found sleep and appetite and bodily strength come back rapidly enough. He had moments of pain, no doubt, particularly when he woke in the morning. Also at intervals during the day, when the breeze sighed through his woods, or the sweetbrier's fragrance stole on his senses more heavily than usual. Once, when a gipsy-girl blessed his handsome face, adding, in the fervour of her gratitude, a thousand good wishes for "the lass he loved, as must love him dear, sure-lie!" but for very shame he could have cried like a child.
Such relapses, however, were of rarer occurrence every week. It was not long before he told himself that he had been through the worst of his ordeal and could meet Lady Bearwarden now without looking like a fool. In this more rational frame of mind Mr. Stanmore arrived in London in business at that period of settled weather and comparative stagnation called by tradesmen the "dead time of year," and found his late-acquired philosophy put somewhat unexpectedly to the proof.
He was staring at a shop-window in Oxford Street—studying, indeed, the print of a patent mowing-machine, but thinking, I fear, more of past scenes in certain well-lit rooms, on slippery floors, than of the velvet lawns at home—when a barouche drew up to the kerb-stone with such trampling of hoofs, such pulling about of horses' mouths, such a jerk and vibration of the whole concern, as denoted a smart carriage with considerable pretension, a body-coachman of no ordinary calibre. Dick turned sharply round, and there, not five yards off, was the pale face, proud, dreamy, and beautiful as of old. Had she seen him? He hardly knew, for he was sick at heart, growing white to his very lips—he, a strong healthy man, with as much courage as his neighbours. Horribly ashamed of himself he felt. And well he might be! But with more wisdom than he had hitherto shown, he made a snatch at his hat, and took refuge in immediate retreat. It was his only chance. How, indeed, could he have met her manfully and with dignity, while every nerve and fibre quivered at her presence? how endure the shame of betraying in his manner that he loved her very dearly still? It gave him, indeed, a sharp and cruel pang to think that it had come to this—that the face he had so worshipped he must now fly from like a culprit—that for his own sake, in sheer self-defence, he must avoid her presence, as if he had committed against her some deadly injury—against her, for whom, even now, he would willingly have laid down his life! Poor Dick! He little knew, but it was the last pang he was destined to feel from his untoward attachment, and it punished him far more severely than he deserved.
Blundering hastily up a by-street, he ran into the very arms of a gentleman who had turned aside to apply a latch-key at the door of a rambling unfurnished-looking house, sadly in want of paint, whitewash, and general repair. The gentleman, with an exclamation of delight, put both hands on Mr. Stanmore's shoulders.
"This is a piece of luck!" exclaimed the latter. "Why, it's 'old Sir Simon the King'!"
His mind reverted insensibly to the pleasant Oxford days, and he used a nickname universally bestowed on his friend by the men of his college.
"And what can you be doing here at this time of year?" asked Simon. "In the first place, how came you to be in London? In the second, how did you ever get so far along Oxford Street? In the third, being here, won't you come up to the painting-room? I'll show you my sketches; I'll give you some 'baccy—I haven't forgot Iffley Lock and your vile habit of stopping to drink. I can even supply you with beer! We'll have a smoke, and a talk over old times."
"Willingly," answered Dick, declining the beer, however, on the plea that such potations only went well with boating or cricket, and followed the painter up-stairs into an exceedingly uncomfortable room, of which the principal object of furniture seemed to be an easel, bearing a sketch, apparently to be transferred hereafter into some unfinished picture.
Dick was in no frame of mind to converse upon his own affairs; accepting the proffered cigar, and taking the only seat in the place, he preferred listening to his friend, who got to work at once, and talked disjointedly while he painted.
"I can't complain," said Simon, in answer to the other's questions concerning his prosperity and success. "I was always a plodding sort of fellow, as you remember. Not a genius—I don't think I've the divine gift. Sometimes I hope it may come. I've worked hard, I grant you—very hard; but I've had extraordinary luck—marvellous! What do you think of that imp's tail?—Isn't it a trifle too long?"
"I'm no judge of imps," answered Dick. "He's horribly ugly. Go on about yourself."
"Well, as I was saying," continued Simon, foreshortening his imp the while, "my luck has been wonderful. It all began with you. If you hadn't gone fishing there, I should never have seen Norway. If I hadn't seen it, I couldn't have painted it."
"I'm not sure that follows," interrupted Dick.
"Well, I shouldn't have painted it, then," resumed the artist. "And the credit I got for those Norway sketches was perfectly absurd. I see their faults now. They're cold and crude, and one or two are quite contrary to the first principles of art. I should like to paint them all over again. But still, if I hadn't been to Norway, I shouldn't be here now."
"No more should I," observed Dick, puffing out a volume of smoke. "I should have been 'marry-ed to a mermy-ed' by this time, if you had shown a proper devotion to your art, and the customary indifference to your friend."
"O, that was nothing!" said the painter, blushing. "Any other fellow could have pulled you out just as well. I say, Stanmore, how jolly it was over there! Those were happy days. And yet I don't wish to have them back again—do you?"
Dick sighed and held his peace. For him it seemed that the light heart and joyous carelessness of that bright youthful time was gone, never to come again.
"I have learned so much since then," continued Simon, putting a little grey into his imp's muzzle, "and unlearned so much, too, which is better still. Mannerism, Stanmore—mannerism is the great enemy of art. Now, I'll explain what I mean in two words. In the first place, you observe the light from that chink streaming down on my imp's back; well, in the picture, you know—"
"Where is the picture?" exclaimed Dick, whose cigar was finished, and who had no scruples in thus unceremoniously interrupting a professional lecture which previous experience told him might be wearisome. "Let's see it. Let's see all the pictures. Illustration's better than argument, and I can't understand anything unless it's set before me in bright colours, under my very nose."
Good-natured Simon desisted from his occupation at once, and began lifting picture after picture, as they stood in layers against the wall, to place them in a favourable light for the inspection of his friend. Many and discursive were his criticisms on these, the progressive results of eye, and hand, and brain, improving every day. Here the drawing was faulty, there the tints were coarse. This betrayed mannerism, that lacked power, and in a very ambitious landscape, enriched with wood, water, and mountain, a patchy sky spoiled the effect of the whole.
Nevertheless it seemed that he was himself not entirely dissatisfied with his work, and whenever his friend ventured on the diffident criticism of an amateur, Simon demonstrated at great length that each fault, as he pointed it out, was in truth a singular merit and beauty in the picture.
Presently, with a face of increased importance, he moved a large oblong canvas from its hiding-place, to prop it artistically at such an angle as showed the lights and shades of its finished portion to the best advantage. Then he fell back a couple of paces, contemplating it in silence with his head on one side, and so waited for his friend's opinion.
But Dick was mute. Something in this picture woke up the pain of a recent wound festering in his heart, and yet through all the smart and tingling came a strange sensation of relief, like that with which a styptic salves a sore.
"What do you think of it?" asked the artist. "I want your candid opinion, Stanmore—impartial—unprejudiced, I tell you. I hope great things from it. I believe it far and away the best I've painted yet. Look into the work. O, it will stand inspection. You might examine it with a microscope. Then, the conception, eh? And the drawing's not amiss. A little more this way—you catch the outline of his eyebrow, with the turn of the Rhymer's head."
"Hang the Rhymer's head!" replied Dick, "I don't care about it. I won't look at it. I can't look at it, man, with such a woman as that in the picture. Old boy, you've won immortality at last!"
But Simon's face fell.
"That's a great fault," he answered gravely. "The details, though kept down as accessories to the whole, should yet be worked out so carefully as to possess individual merit of their own. I see, though; I see how to remedy the defect you have suggested. I can easily bring him out by darkening the shadows of the background. Then, this fairy at his elbow is paltry, and too near him besides. I shall paint her out altogether. She takes the eye off my principal figures, and breaks that grand line of light pouring in from the morning sky. Don't you think so?"
But Dick gave no answer. With feverish thirst and longing, he was drinking in the beauty of the Fairy Queen; and had not Simon Perkins been the dullest of observers, and the least conceited of painters, he must have felt intensely flattered by the effect of his work.
"So you like her," said he, after a pause, during which, in truth, he had been considering whether he should not paint out the intrusive fairy that very afternoon.
"Like her!" replied the other. "It's the image of the most beautiful face I ever saw in my life; only it's softer and even more beautiful. I'll tell you what, old fellow, put a price on that picture and I'll have it, cost what it may! Only you must give me a little time," added Dick somewhat ruefully, reflecting that he had spent a good deal of money lately, and rent-day was still a long way off.
"I wonder what you'd think of the original," said he, "the model who sits to me for my Fairy Queen! I can tell you that face on the canvas is no more to be compared to hers than I am to Velasquez. And yet Velasquez must have been a beginner once."
"I don't believe there's such a woman—two such women—in London," replied his friend, correcting himself. "I can hardly imagine such eyes, such an expression. It's what the fellows who write poetry call 'the beauty of a dream,' and I'll never say poetry is nonsense again. No, that's neither more nor less than an imaginary angel, Simon. Simply an impossible duck!"
"Would you like to see her?" asked the painter, laughing. "She'll be here in five minutes. I do believe that's her step on the stairs now."
A strange wild hope thrilled through Dick Stanmore's heart. Could it be possible that Lady Bearwarden had employed his friend to paint her likeness in this fancy picture, perhaps under a feigned name, and was she coming to take her sitting now?
All his stoicism, all his philosophy, vanished on the instant. He would remain where he was though he should die for it. O, to see her, to be in the same room with her, to look in her eyes, and hear her voice once more!
A gown rustled, a light step was heard, the door opened, and a sweet laughing voice rung out its greeting to the painter from the threshold.
"So late, Simon! Shameful, isn't it? But I've got all they wanted. Such bargains! I suppose nobody ever did so much shopping in so short a—"
She caught sight of Dick, stopped, blushed, and made a very fascinating little curtsey, as they were formally introduced; but next time she spoke the merriment had gone out of her voice. It had become more staid, more formal, and its deeper, fuller tones reminded him painfully of Maud.
Yes. Had he not known Lady Bearwarden so well, he thought it would have been quite possible for him to have mistaken this beautiful young lady for that faithless peeress. The likeness was extraordinary, ridiculous. Not that he felt the least inclined to laugh. The features were absolutely the same, and a certain backward gesture of the head, a certain trick of the mouth and chin were identical with the manner of Lady Bearwarden, in those merry days that seemed so long ago now, when she had been Maud Bruce. Only Miss Algernon's face had a softness, a kindly trustful expression he never remembered on the other, and her large pleading eyes seemed as if they could neither kindle with anger nor harden to freezing glances of scorn.
As for the Fairy Queen, he looked from the picture to its original, and felt constrained to admit that, wondrously beautiful as he had thought its likeness on canvas, the face before him was infinitely superior to the painter's fairest and most cherished work.
Dick went away of course almost immediately, though sorely against his will. Contrary to her wont, Miss Algernon, who was rather a mimic and full of fun, neither imitated the gestures nor ridiculed the bearing of this chance visitor. "She had not observed him much," she said, when taxed by Simon with this unusual forbearance. This was false. But "she might know him again, perhaps, if they met." This, I imagine, was true.
And Dick, wending his way back to his hotel buried in thought, passed without recognising it the spot where he met Lady Bearwarden one short hour ago. He was pondering, no doubt, on the face he had just seen—on its truth, its purity, its fresh innocent mirth, its dazzling beauty, more, perhaps, than on its extraordinary likeness to hers who had brought him the one great misfortune of his life.
It is not to be supposed that any gentleman can see a lady in the streets of London and remain himself unseen. In the human as in meaner races the female organ of perception is quicker, keener, and more accurate than the male. Therefore it is that a man bowing in Pall Mall or Piccadilly to some divinity in an open carriage, and failing to receive any return for his salute, sinks at once into a false position of awkwardness and discomfiture, il a manque son coup, and his face assumes incontinently the expression of one who has missed a woodcock in the open, and has no second barrel with which to redeem his shot. As Dick saw Lady Bearwarden in Oxford Street, we may be sure that Lady Bearwarden also saw Dick. Nor was her ladyship best pleased with the activity he displayed in avoiding her carriage and escaping from her society. If Mr. Stanmore had been the most successful Lovelace who ever devoted himself to the least remunerative of pursuits, instead of a loyal, kindhearted, unassuming gentleman, he could hardly have chosen a line of conduct so calculated to keep alive some spark of interest in Maud's breast as that which he unconsciously adopted. It is one thing to dismiss a lover because suited with a superior article (as some ladies send away five-foot-ten of footman when six-foot comes to look after the place), and another to lose a vassal for good, like an unreclaimed hawk, heedless of the lure, clear of the jesses, and checking, perhaps, at every kind of prey in wilful wanton flight, down-wind towards the sea.
There is but one chance for a man worsted in these duels a l'outrance, which are fought out with such merciless animosity. It is to bind up his wounds as best he may, and take himself off to die or get well in secret. Presently the conqueror finds that a battle only has been won, and not a territory gained. After the flush of combat comes a reaction. The triumph seems somewhat tame, ungraced by presence of the captive. Curiosity wakes up, pity puts in its pleading word, a certain jealous instinct of appropriation is aroused. Where is he? What has become of him? I wonder if he ever thinks of me now! Poor fellow! I shouldn't wish to be forgotten altogether, as if we had never met; and though I didn't want him to like me, I never meant that he was to care for anybody else. Such are the thoughts that chase each other through the female heart when deprived of sovereignty in the remotest particular; and it was very much in this way that Lady Bearwarden, sitting alone in her boudoir, speculated on the present doings and sentiments of the man who had loved her so well and had given her up so unwillingly, yet with never a word of reproach, never a look nor action that could add to her remorse or make her task more painful.
Alas, she was not happy; even now, when she had gained all she most wished and schemed for in the world. She felt she was not happy, and she felt, too, that for Dick to know of her unhappiness would be the bitterest drop in the bitter cup he had been compelled to drain.
As she looked round her beautiful boudoir, with its blue-satin hangings, its numerous mirrors, its redundancy of coronets surmounting her own cipher, twisted and twined into a far more graceful decoration than the grim heraldic bruin which formed her husband's cognisance, she said to herself that something was yet required to constitute a woman's happiness beyond the utmost efforts of the upholder's art—that even carriages, horses, tall footmen, quantities of flowers, unlimited credit, and whole packs of cards left on the hall table every day were mere accessories and superfluities, not the real pith and substance of that for which she pined.
Lady Bearwarden, more than most women, had, since her marriage, found the worldly ball at her foot. She needed but to kick it where she would. As Miss Bruce, with nothing to depend on but her own good looks and conquering manners, she had wrested a large share of admiration from an unwilling public; now, as a peeress, and a rich one, the same public of both sexes courted, toadied, and flattered her, till she grew tired of hearing herself praised. The men—at least those of high position and great prospects—had no scruple in offering a married woman that homage which might have entailed their own domestic subjugation if laid at a spinster's feet; and the women—all except the very smartest ladies (who liked her for her utter fearlessness and sang-froid as well as for her own sake)—thought it a fine thing to be on intimate terms with "Maud Bearwarden," as they loved to call her, and being much afraid of her, made up to her with the sweet facility and sincerity of their sex.
Yet in defiance of ciphers, coronets, visiting-cards, blue hangings, the homage of lords, and the vassalage of ladies, there was something amiss. She caught herself continually looking back to the old days at Ecclesfield Manor, to the soft lawns and shady avenues, the fond father, who thought his darling the perfection of humanity, and whose face lit up so joyfully whenever she came into the room; the sweet delicate mother from whom she could never remember an unkind look nor an angry word; the hills, the river, the cottages, the tenants, the flower-garden, the ponies, and the old retriever that died licking her hand. She felt kindly towards Mrs. Stanmore, and wondered whether she had behaved quite as well to that lady as she ought, recalling many a little act of triumphant malice and overt resistance which afforded keen gratification to the rebel at the time. By an easy transition, she glided on to Dick Stanmore's honest and respectful admiration, his courtesy, his kindness, his unfailing forbearance and good humour. Bearwarden was not always good-humoured—she had found that out already. But as for Dick, she remembered how no mishap nor annoyance of his own ever irritated him in the slightest degree; how his first consideration always seemed to be her comfort and her happiness; how even in his deep sorrow, deceived, humiliated, cut to the heart, he had never so much as spoken one bitter word. How nobly had he trusted her about those diamonds! How well he had behaved to her throughout, and how fondly would he have loved and cherished her had she confided her future to his care! He must be strangely altered now, to avoid her like this. She was sure he recognised her, for she saw his face fall, saw him wince—that at least was a comfort—but never to shake hands, never even to stop and speak! Well, she had treated him cruelly, and perhaps he was right.
But this was not the actual grievance, after all. She felt she would do precisely the same over again. It was less repentance that pained her, than retribution. Maud, for the first time in her life, was beginning to feel really in love, and with her own husband. Such an infatuation, rare as it is admirable, ought to have been satisfactory and prosperous enough. When ladies do so far condescend, it is usually a gratifying domestic arrangement for themselves and their lords; but in the present instance the wife's increasing affection afforded neither happiness to herself nor comfort to her husband. There was a "Something" always between them, a shadow, not of suspicion nor mistrust, for Bearwarden was frank and loyal by nature, but of coldness. She had a secret from him, and she was a bad dissembler; his finer instincts told him that he did not possess her full confidence, and he was too proud to ask it. So they lived together a few short weeks after marriage, on outward terms of courtesy and cordiality, but with this little rift of dissatisfaction gradually yet surely widening into a fissure that should rend each of these proud unbending hearts in twain.
"What would I give to be like other wives," thought Maud, looking at a half-length of her husband in uniform, which occupied the place of honour in her boudoir. "What is it? Why is it? I would love him so, if he would let me. How I wish I could be good—really good, like mamma was. I suppose it's impossible now. I wonder if it's too late to try." And with the laudable intention of beginning amendment at once, Lady Bearwarden rang sharply to tell her servants she was "not at home to anybody till Lord Bearwarden came in, except"—and here she turned away from her own footman, that he might not see the colour rising in her face—"except a man should call with some silks and brocades, in which case he was to be shown up-stairs at once."
The door had scarcely closed ere the paper-cutter in Maud's fingers broke short off at the handle. Her grasp tightened on it insensibly, while she ground and gnashed her small white teeth, to think that she, with her proud nature, in her high position, should not be free to admit or deny what visitors she pleased. So dandies of various patterns, afoot, in tea-carts, and on hacks more or less deserving in shape and action, discharged themselves of their visiting-cards at Lady Bearwarden's door, and passed on in peace to fulfil the same rite elsewhere.
Two only betrayed an unseemly emotion when informed "her ladyship was not at home": the one, a cheerful youth, bound for a water-party at Skindle's, and fearful of missing his train, thanked Providence audibly for what he called "an unexpected let off"; the other, an older, graver, and far handsomer man, suffered an expression of palpable discomfiture to overspread his comely face, and, regardless of observation, walked away from the door with the heavy step that denotes a heavy heart. Not that he had fallen in love with Lady Bearwarden—far from it. But there was a Somebody—that Somebody an adverse fate had decreed he must neither meet to-day nor to-morrow, and the interval seemed to both of them wearisome, and even painful. But Maud was Somebody's dear friend. Maud either had seen her or would see her that very afternoon. Maud would let him talk about her, praise her, perhaps would even give her a message—nay, it was just possible she might arrive to pay a morning visit while he was there. No wonder he looked so sad to forego this series of chances; and all the while, if he had only known it, Fate, having veered round at luncheon-time, would have permitted him to call at Somebody's house, to find her at home, enchanted to see him, and to sit with her as long as he liked in the well-known room, with its flowers and sun-shades and globes of gold-fish, and the picture over the chimney-piece, and its dear original by his side. But it is a game at cross-purposes all through this dangerous pastime; and perhaps its very contretemps are what make it so interesting to the players, so amusing to the lookers-on.
Lady Bearwarden grew fidgety after a while. It is needless to say that "the man with some silks and brocades" to be admitted by her servants was none other than "Gentleman Jim," who, finding the disguise of a "travelling merchant" that in which he excited least suspicion in his interviews with her ladyship, had resolved to risk detection yet once more, and had given her notice of his intention.