"I see her once afore under them trees," he said, "with a gentleman. I see a many and I don't often take notice. But she's a rare sort, she is! and as good as she's good-looking. I wish you a good-evening, sir."
Then he retired into his cabin and ruminated on this "precious start," as he called it, during his tea.
Meantime, Maud took her charge home, and would fain have put her to bed. For this sanatory measure, however, Dorothea, who had recovered consciousness, seemed to entertain an unaccountable repugnance. She consented, indeed, to lie down for an hour or two, but could not conceal a wild, restless anxiety to depart as soon as possible. Something more than the obvious astonishment of the servants, something more than the incongruity of the situation, seemed prompting her to leave Lady Bearwarden's house without delay and fly from the presence of almost the first friend she had ever known in her life.
When the bustle and excitement consequent on this little adventure had subsided, her ladyship found herself once more face to face with her own sorrow, and the despondency she had shaken off during a time of action gathered again all the blacker and heavier round her heart. She was glad to find distraction in the arrival of a nameless visitor, announced by the most pompous of footmen as "a young person desirous of waiting on her ladyship."
"Show her up," said Lady Bearwarden; and for the first time in their lives the two sisters stood face to face.
Each started, as if she had come suddenly on her own reflection in a mirror. During a few seconds both looked stupefied, bewildered. Lady Bearwarden spoke first.
"You wish to see me, I believe. A sick person has just been brought into the house, and we are rather in confusion. I fear you have been kept waiting."
"I called while your ladyship was out," answered Nina. "So I walked about till I thought you must have come home again. You've never seen me before—I didn't even know where you lived—I found your address in the Court Guide—O! I can't say it properly, but I did so want to speak to you. I hope I haven't done anything rude or wrong."
There was no mistaking the refinement of Nina's voice and manner.
Lady Bearwarden recognised one of her own station at a glance. And this girl so like herself—how beautiful she was! How beautiful they both were!
"What can I do for you?" said her ladyship, very kindly. "Sit down; I am sure you must be tired."
But Nina had too much of her sister's character to feel tired when there was a purpose to carry out. The girl stood erect and looked full in her ladyship's face. All unconscious of their relationship, the likeness between them was at this moment so striking as to be ludicrous.
"I have come on a strange errand, Lady Bearwarden," said Nina, hardening her heart for the impending effort—"I have come to tell a truth and to put a question. I suppose, even now, you have some regard for your husband?"
Lady Bearwarden started. "What do you know about my husband?" she asked, turning very pale.
"That he is in danger," was the answer, in a voice of such preternatural fortitude as promised a speedy break-down. "That he is going to fight a duel—and it's about you—with—with Mr. Stanmore! O! Lady Bearwarden, how could you? You'd everything in the world, everything to make a woman good and happy, and now, see what you've done!"
Tears and choking sobs were coming thick, but she kept them back.
"What do you mean?" exclaimed Maud, trembling in every limb, for through the dark midnight of her misery she began to see gleams of a coming dawn.
"I mean this," answered Nina, steadying herself bravely. "Lord Bearwarden has found everything out. He has sent a challenge to Mr. Stanmore. I—I—care for Mr. Stanmore, Lady Bearwarden—at least, I did. I was engaged to him." (Here, notwithstanding the tumult of her feelings, a little twinge crossed Lady Bearwarden to learn how quickly Dick had consoled himself.) "I'm only a girl, but I know these things can be prevented, and that's why I'm here now. You've done the mischief; you are bound to repair it; and I have a right to come to you for help."
"But I haven't done anything!" pleaded Maud, in for humbler tones than she habitually used. "I love my husband very dearly, and I've not set eyes on Mr. Stanmore but once since I married, in Oxford Street, looking into a shop-window, and directly he caught sight of me, he got out of the way as if I had the plague! There's some mistake. Not a minute should be lost in setting it right. I wonder what we ought to do!"
"And—and you're not in love with Mr. Stanmore? and he isn't going to run away with you? Lady Bearwarden, are you quite sure? And I don't deserve to be so happy. I judged him so harshly, so unkindly. What will he think of me when he knows it? He'll never speak to me again."
Then the tears came in good earnest, and presently Miss Algernon grew more composed, giving her hostess an account of herself, her prospects, her Putney home, and the person she most depended on in the world to get them all out of their present difficulty, Simon Perkins, the painter. "I know he can stop it," pursued Nina eagerly, "and be will, too. He told the other man nothing should be done in a hurry. I heard him say so, for I listened, Lady Bearwarden, I did. And I would again if I had the same reason. Wouldn't you? I hope the other man will be hanged. He seemed to want them so to kill each other. Don't you think he can be punished? For it's murder, you know, really, after all."
Without entering into the vexed question of duelling—a practice for which each lady in her heart entertained a secret respect—the sisters consulted long and earnestly on the best method of preventing a conflict that should endanger the two lives now dearer to them than ever.
They drank tea over it, we may be sure, and in the course of that refreshment could not fail to observe how the gloves they laid aside were the same number (six and three-quarters, if you would like to know), how their hands were precisely similar in shape, how the turn of their arms and wrists corresponded as closely as the tone of their voices. Each thought she liked the other better than any one she had ever met of her own sex.
After a long debate it was decided that Nina should return at once to her Putney home, doubtless ere now much disturbed at her prolonged absence; that she should have full powers to inform Simon of all the confidences regarding her husband Lady Bearwarden had poured in her ear; should authorise him to seek his lordship out and tell him the whole truth on his wife's behalf; also, finally, for women rarely neglect the worship of Nemesis, that after a general reconciliation had been effected, measures should be taken for bringing to condign punishment the false friend who had been at such pains to foment hostilities between the men they both loved.
Lady Bearwarden had her hand on the bell to order the carriage for her visitor, but the latter would not hear of it.
"I can get a cab every twenty yards in this part of the town," said Nina. "I shall be home in three-quarters of an hour. It's hardly dark yet, and I'm quite used to going about by myself. I am not at all a coward, Lady Bearwarden, but my aunts would be horribly alarmed if one of your smart carriages drove up to the gate. Besides, I don't believe it could turn round in the lane. No; I won't even have a servant, thanks. I'll put my bonnet on and start at once, please. You've been very kind to me, and I'm so much obliged. Good-night!"
Lord Bearwarden's groom of the chambers, a person by no means deficient in self-confidence, owned that he was mystified. Amongst all the domestic dissensions with which his situation had made him familiar, he could recall nothing like his present experience. This bringing home of a shabby woman out of the street and ordering the best bedroom for her reception; this visit of a beautiful young person so exactly resembling his mistress that, but for the evidence of his own senses, when he brought in tea and found them together, he could have sworn it was her ladyship; this general confusion of household arrangements, and culpable indifference to the important ceremony of dinner, forced him to admit that he was in a position of which he had no preconceived idea, and from which he doubted whether he could extricate himself with the dignity essential to his office.
Returning to his own department, and glancing at the letter-box in the hall, he reflected with satisfaction how his professional duties had been scrupulously fulfilled, and how in accordance with his misconception of Lord Bearwarden's orders, every packet that reached the house had been forwarded to its master without delay.
Hence it came to pass, that the vexed and angry husband received in due course of post a letter which puzzled him exceedingly.
He had only just digested Tom Ryfe's unwelcome missive, announcing somewhat vaguely that the revenge for which he panted must be delayed two or three days at least, and had cursed, energetically enough, his own friend's mismanagement of the affair, with the scruples entertained by the other side, when a fresh budget was placed in his hands, and he opened the envelopes as people often do, without looking at their addresses: thus it fell out, that he read the anonymous letter directed to his wife, asking for a meeting that same night, in the vicinity of his own house.
"A cruel mystery has deprived you of your husband." What could it mean? He studied the brief communication very attentively, particularly that first line. And a vague hope rose in his loving, generous heart, that he might have judged her too harshly after all. It was but the faintest spark, yet he tried hard to kindle it into flame. The wariest rogue is never armed on all sides. He is sure to forget some trifling precaution, that, left unguarded, is like the chink in a shutter to let in the light of day. Lord Bearwarden recognised the same hand that had penned the anonymous letter he received on guard—this argued a plot of some sort. He resolved to sift the matter thoroughly, and instead of forwarding so mysterious a request to his wife, repair to the indicated spot in person, and there by threats, bribery, compulsion, any or all means in his power, arrive at a true solution of the mystery.
It was a welcome distraction, too, this new idea, with which to while away the weary interminable day. It seemed well perhaps, after all, that the duel had been postponed. He might learn something to-night that would change the whole current of his actions, if not, let Mr. Stanmore look to himself!
That gentleman, in the meantime, had completely forgotten Lord Bearwarden's existence—had forgotten Mr. Ryfe's visit the night before at his club, the unintelligible quarrel, the proposed meeting, everything but that Nina was lost. Lost! a stray lamb, helpless in the streets of London! His blood ran cold to think of it. He hastened down to Putney, and indeed only knew that he had made so sure of finding her there, by his disappointment to learn she had not returned home. It made his task no easier that Aunt Susannah was in the garden when he reached the house, and he had to dissemble his alarm in presence of that weak-minded and affectionate spinster. "He was passing by," he said, "on his way to town, and only looked in (he couldn't stay a moment) to know if they had any message to—to their nephew. He was going straight from here to the painting-room."
"How considerate!" said Aunt Susannah; not without reason, for it was but this morning they parted with Simon, and they expected him back to dinner. "We have a few autumn flowers left. I'll just run in, and get the scissors to make up a nosegay. It won't take ten minutes. O! nothing like ten minutes! You can give it to poor Simon with our dear love. He's so fond of flowers! and Nina too. But perhaps you know Nina's tastes as well as we do, and indeed I think they're very creditable to her, and she's not at all a bad judge!"
Then the good lady, shaking her grey curls, smiled and looked knowing, while Dick cursed her below his breath, for a grinning old idiot, and glared wildly about him, like a beast in a trap seeking some way of escape. It was provoking, no doubt, to be kept talking platitudes to a silly old woman in the garden, while every moment drifted his heart's treasure farther and farther into the uncertainty he scarcely dared to contemplate.
Some women are totally deficient in the essentially feminine quality of tact. Aunt Susannah, with a pocket-handkerchief tied round her head, might have stood drivelling nonsense to her visitor for an hour, and never found out he wanted to get away. Fortunately, she went indoors for her scissors, and Dick, regardless of the proprieties, made his escape forthwith, thus avoiding also the ignominy of carrying back to London a nosegay as big as a chimney-sweep's on May-day.
Hastening to the painting-room, his worst fears were realised. Nina had not returned. Simon, too, began to share his alarm, and not without considerable misgivings did the two men hold counsel on their future movements.
It occurred to them at this juncture, that the maid-of-all-work below-stairs might possibly impart some information as to the exact time when the young lady left the house. They rang for that domestic accordingly, and bewildered her with a variety of questions in vain.
Had she seen Miss Algernon during the morning? She was to think, and take time, and answer without being frightened.
"Miss Algernon! Lor! that was her as come here most days, along o' him," with a backward nod at Dick. "No—she hadn't a-seen her to-day, she was sure. Not particler, that was. Not more nor any other day."
"Had she seen her at all?"
"O, yes! she'd seen her at all. In course, you know, she couldn't be off of seeing her at all!"
"When did she see her?"
"When? O! last week, every day a'most. And the week afore that too! She wasn't a-goin' to tell a lie!"
"Then she hadn't seen her this morning?"
"Yes, she'd seen her this morning. When she come in, you know, along o' the other gentleman." Here a dive of the shock head at Simon, and symptoms of approaching emotion.
"Why you said you hadn't at first!" exclaimed Dick, perplexed and provoked.
Forthwith a burst of sobs and tears.
"Compose yourself, my good girl," said the painter kindly. "We don't want to hurry nor confuse you. We are in great distress ourselves. Miss Algernon went out, we believe, to take a walk. She has not returned here, nor gone home. It would help us very much if we knew the exact time at which she left the house, or could find anybody who saw her after she went away."
If you want a woman to help you, even a maid-of-all-work, tell her your whole story, and make no half-confidences: the drudge brightened up through her tears, and assumed a look of intelligence at once.
"Lor!" said she, "why didn't ye say so? In course I see the young lady, as I was a-fetchin' in the dinner beer. She'd a-got her bonnet on, I took notice, and was maybe goin' for a walk, or to get a few odds and ends, or such like."
Here a full stop with a curtsey. The men looked at each other and waited.
"She went into a shop round the corner, for I seen her myself. A stationer's shop it were. An' I come home then, with the beer, an' shut to the door, an' I couldn't tell you no more; no, not if you was to take and kill me dead this very minute!"
Stronger symptoms of agitation now appearing, Simon thought well to dismiss this incoherent witness, and proceed at once to the stationer's shop in quest of further intelligence. Its proprietor was ready to furnish all the information in his power.
"Had a lady answering their description been in his shop?" "Well, a great many ladies come backwards and forwards, you know. Trade wasn't very brisk just now, but there was always something doing in the fancy stationery line. It was a light business, and most of his customers were females. His 'missis' didn't take much notice, but he happened to be something of a physiognomist himself, and a face never escaped him. A very beautiful young lady, was it? Tall, pale, with dark eyes and hair. Certainly, no doubt, that must be the party. Stepped in about dinner-time; seemed anxious and in a hurry, as you might say; didn't take any order from her,—the young lady only asked as a favour to look into their Court Guide. There it lay, just as she left it. Singular enough, another party had come in afterwards to write a letter, and took the same address, he believed, right at the foot of the column; these were trifles, but it was his way to notice trifles. He was a scientific man, to a certain extent, and in science, as they probably knew, there were no such things as trifles. He remembered a curious story of Sir Isaac Newton. But perhaps the gentlemen were in a hurry."
The gentlemen were in a hurry. Dick Stanmore with characteristic impetuosity had plunged at the Court Guide, to scan the page at which it lay open with eager eyes. At the foot of the column, said this man of science. To be sure, there it was, Barsac, Barwise, Barzillai, Bearwarden—the very last name in the page. And yet what could Nina want at Lord Bearwarden's house? Of all places in London why should she go there? Nevertheless, in such a hopeless search, the vaguest hint was welcome, the faintest clue must be followed out. So the two men, standing in earnest colloquy, under the gas-lamps, resolved to hunt their trail as far as Lord Bearwarden's residence without further delay.
The more precious are the moments, the faster they seem to pass. An autumn day had long given place to night, ere they verified this last piece of intelligence, and acquired some definite aim for their exertions; but neither liked to compare notes with the other, nor express his own disheartening reflection that Nina might be wandering so late, bewildered, lonely, and unprotected, through the labyrinths of the great city.
In the meantime, Gentleman Jim and his confederate were fully occupied with the details necessary to carry their infamous plot into execution. The lawyer had drawn out from the bank all the ready money he could lay hands on, amounting to several hundred pounds. He had furnished Jim with ample funds to facilitate his share of the preparations, and he had still an hour or two on hand before the important moment arrived. That interval he devoted to his private affairs, and those of the office, so that his uncle should be inconvenienced as little as possible by an absence which he now hoped might be prolonged for a considerable time.
It had been dark for more than an hour ere the accomplices met again, equipped and ready for the work they had pledged themselves to undertake.
Jim, indeed, contrary to his wont, when "business," as he called it, was on hand, seemed scarcely sober; but to obtain the use of the vehicle he required without the company of its driver, he had found it necessary to ply the latter with liquor till he became insensible, although the drunken man's instincts of good-fellowship bade him insist that his generous entertainer should partake largely of the fluids consumed at his expense. To drink down a London cabman, on anything like fair terms, is an arduous task, even for a housebreaker, and Jim's passions were roused to their worst by alcohol long before he arrived with his four-wheeled cab at the appointed spot where he was to wait for Tom Ryfe.
How he laughed to himself while he felt the pliant life-preserver coiled in his great-coat pocket—the long, keen, murderous knife resting against his heart. A fiend had taken possession of the man. Already overleaping the intervening time, ignoring everything but the crime he meditated, his chief difficulty seemed how he should dispose of Tom's mutilated body ere he flew to reap the harvest of his guilt.
He chuckled and grinned with a fierce, savage sense of humour, while he recalled the imperious manner in which Mr. Ryfe had taken the initiative in their joint proceedings; as if they originated in his own invention, were ordered solely for his own convenience; and the tone of authority in which that gentleman had warned him not to be late.
"It's good! That is!" said Jim, sitting on the box of the cab, and peering into the darkness, through which a gas-lamp glimmered with dull, uncertain rays, blurred by the autumn fog. "You'd like to be master, you would, I dare say, all through the job, and for me to be man! You'd best look sharp about it. I'll have that blessed life of yours afore the sun's up to-morrow, and see who'll be master then. Ay, and missis too! Hooray! for the cruel eyes, and the touch-me-not airs. The proud, pale-faced devil! as thought Jim wasn't quite the equals of the dirt beneath her feet. Steady! Here he comes."
And looming through the fog, Mr. Ryfe approached with cautious, resolute step; carrying a revolver in his pocket, prepared to use it, too, on occasion, with the fearless energy of a desperate man.
"Is it all ready, Jim?" said he in a whisper. "You haven't forgot the gag? Nor the shawl to throw round her head? The least mistake upsets a job like this."
For answer, Jim descended heavily from his seat, and holding the cab-door open, pointed to the above-named articles lying folded on the front seat.
"You'll drive, master," said he, with a hoarse chuckle. "You knows the way. First turn to the left. I'll ride inside, like a lord, or a fashionable doctor, and keep my eye on the tackle."
"It's very dark," continued Tom uneasily. "But that's all in our favour, of course. You know her figure as well as I do. Don't forget, now. I'll drive close to the pavement, and the instant we stop, you must throw the shawl over her head, muffle her up, and whip her in. This beggar can gallop, I suppose."
"He's a thoroughbred 'un," answered Jim, with a sounding pat on the horse's bony ribs. "Leastways, so the chap as I borrowed him off swore solemn. He was so precious drunk, I'm blessed if I think he knowed what he meant. But howsoever, I make no doubt the critter can go when it's pushed."
Thus speaking, Jim helped the other to mount the box, and placed himself inside with the door open, ready to spring like a tiger when he should catch sight of his prey.
The streets of the great city are never so deserted as an hour or two after nightfall, and an hour or two before dawn. Not a single passenger did they meet, and only one policeman; while the cab with its desperate inmates rattled and jolted along on this nefarious enterprise.
It was stopped at last, close to the footway in a dimly-lighted street, within a hundred yards of Lord Bearwarden's house, which stood a few doors off round the corner.
A distant clock struck the hour. That heavy clang seemed to dwell on the gloomy stillness of the atmosphere, and both men felt their nerves strangely jarred by the dull, familiar sound.
Their hearts beat fast. Tom began to wish he had adopted some less unconventional means of attaining his object, and tried in vain to drive from his mind the punishments awarded to such offences as he meditated, by the severity of our criminal code.
Jim had but one feeling, with which heart and brain were saturated. In a few minutes he would see her again! In a new character, possibly—tearful, humbled, supplicating. No; his instincts told him that not even the last extremity of danger would force a tear from those proud eyes, nor bow that haughty head an inch. How this wild, fierce worship maddened him! So longing, yet so slavish—so reckless, so debased, yet all the while cursed with a certain leavening of the true faith, that drove him to despair. But come what might, in a few minutes he would see her again. Even at such a time, there was something of repose and happiness in the thought.
So the quasi-thoroughbred horse went to sleep and the men waited; waited, wondering how the lagging minutes could pass so slow.
Listen! a light footstep round the corner. The gentle rustle of a woman's dress. A tall, slight figure gliding yonder under the gas-lamp, coming down the street, even now, with head erect, and easy, undulating gait.
The blood rose to Jim's brain till it beat like strokes from a sledge-hammer. Tom shortened the reins, and tightened his grasp round the whip.
Nearer, nearer, she came on. The pure, calm face held high aloft, the pliant figure moving ever with the same smooth, graceful gestures. Fortune favoured them; she stopped when she reached the cab, and seemed about to engage it for her journey.
The men were quick to see their advantage. Jim, coiled for a spring, shrank into the darkest corner of the vehicle. Tom, enacting driver, jumped down, and held the door to help her in.
Catching sight of the dark figure on the front seat, she started back. The next moment, there rose a faint stifled shriek, the shawl was over her head. Jim's powerful arms wound themselves tight round her body, and Tom clambered in haste to the box.
But quick feet had already rained along that fifty yards of pavement. A powerful grasp was at the driver's throat, pulling him back between the wheels of the cab; and he found himself struggling for life with a strong, angry man, who swore desperately, while two more figures ran at speed up the street.
Tom's eyes were starting, his tongue was out.
"Jim, help me!" he managed to articulate. "I'm choking."
"You infernal scoundrel!" exclaimed his antagonist, whose fury seemed redoubled by the sound of that familiar voice: the grasp, closing round Tom's neck like iron, threatened death unless he could get free.
An instinct of self-preservation bade him pluck at his revolver. He got it out at the moment when Jim, setting his back to the door to secure his captive, dealt with the heavy life-preserver a blow at the assailant's head, which fortunately only reached his shoulder. The latter released Tom's throat to get possession of the pistol. In the struggle it went off. There was a hideous blasphemy, a groan, and a heavy fall between the wheels of the cab.
Ere the smoke cleared away two more auxiliaries appeared on the scene. With Simon Perkins's assistance, Lord Bearwarden had little difficulty in pinioning his late antagonist, while Dick Stanmore, having lifted the imprisoned lady out of the cab, over the housebreaker's prostrate body, held her tightly embraced, in a transport of affection intensified by alarm.
Lord Bearwarden, usually so collected, was now utterly stupefied and amazed. He looked from Tom Ryfe's white face, staring over the badge and great-coat of a London cabman, to the sinking form of his wife—as he believed—in the arms of her lover, clinging to him for protection, responding in utter shamelessness to his caresses and endearments.
"Mr. Stanmore!" he exclaimed, in a voice breathless from exertion, and choking with anger. "You and I have an account to settle that cannot be put off. Lady Bearwarden, I will see you home. Come with me this instant."
Dick seemed as if he thought his lordship had gone mad. Nina stared helplessly at the group. Another gasp and a fainter groan came from the body lying underneath the cab.
"We must look to this man; he is dying," said Simon Perkins, on his knees by the prostrate form, now motionless and insensible.
"My house is round the corner," answered Lord Bearwarden, stooping over the fallen ruffian. "Let us take him in. All the doctors in the world won't save him," he added, in a tone of grave pity. "He's bleeding to death inside."
Nina had been a good deal frightened, but recovered wonderfully in the reassuring presence of her lover. "His house?" she asked, in a sufficiently audible voice, considering her late agitation. "Who is he, Dick, and where does he live?"
Two of the police had now arrived, and were turning their lanterns on the party. The strong white light glared full on Miss Algernon's face and figure, so like Lady Bearwarden's but yet to the husband's bewildered senses so surely not his wife's.
He shook all over. His face, though flushed a moment ago, turned deadly pale. He clutched Dick's shoulder, and his voice came dry and husky, while he gasped—
"What is it, Stanmore? Speak, man, for the love of heaven. What does it all mean?"
Then came question and answer; clearer, fuller, more fluent with every sentence. And so the explanation went on: how some enemy had roused his worst suspicions; how Lord Bearwarden, deceived by the extraordinary likeness which he could not but acknowledge even now, had been satisfied he saw Dick Stanmore with Maud in a hansom cab; how he had left his home in consequence, and sent that hostile message to Dick, which had so puzzled that gallant, open-hearted gentleman; how a certain letter from Lady Bearwarden, addressed to Mr. Stanmore, and forwarded to her husband, had but confirmed his suspicions; and how, at last, an anonymous communication to the same lady, falling accidentally into his hands, had mystified him completely, and made him resolve to watch and follow her at the hour named, with a desperate hope that something might be revealed to alleviate his sufferings, to give him more certainty of action and future guidance.
"I was horribly cut up, I don't mind confessing it," said Lord Bearwarden, with his kindly grasp still on Dick's shoulder. "And I waited there, outside my own house, like some d——d poaching thief. It seemed so hard I couldn't go in and see her just once more! Presently, out she came, as I thought, and I followed, very craftily, and not too near for fear she should look round. She didn't, though, but walked straight on; and when I saw the cab waiting, and she stopped as if she meant to get in, I couldn't tell what to make of it at all."
"I was only just in time. I came that last few yards with a rush, I give you my word! And I made a grab at the driver, thinking the best chance was to stop the conveyance at once, or if I couldn't do that, take a free passage with the rest of them. She wasn't going of her own accord, I felt sure. That villain of a lawyer struggled hard. I didn't think he'd been so good a man. I wasn't at all sorry to see you fellows coming up. It was two to one, you know, and I do believe, if it hadn't been for the pistol, they might have got clear off. It shot the worst customer of the two, that poor fellow behind us, right through the body. Under my arm, I should think, for I got a very nasty one on the shoulder just as the smoke flew in my face. It has squared his accounts, I fancy. But here we are at my house. Let's get him in, and then you must introduce me properly to this young lady, whose acquaintance I have made in such an unusual manner."
The strange procession had, indeed, arrived at Lord Bearwarden's residence. It consisted of the proprietor himself, whose right arm was now completely disabled, but who gesticulated forcibly with his left; of Dick Stanmore and Nina, listening to his lordship with the utmost deference and attention; of Jim's senseless body, carried by Simon Perkins and one policeman, while Tom Ryfe, in close custody of the other, brought up the rear.
As they entered the hall, Lady Bearwarden's pale, astonished face was seen looking over the banisters. Dorothea, too, creeping down-stairs, with some vague idea of escaping from this friendly refuge, and finding her way back, perhaps, to the cool shining Serpentine, came full upon the group at the moment when Jim was laid tenderly down by his bearers, and the policeman whispered audibly to his comrade that, even if the doctor were in the next street now, he would come too late!
She ran forward with a wild, despairing cry. She flung herself down by the long, limp, helpless figure. She raised the drooping head with its matted locks, its fixed, white, rigid face, and pressed it hard against her bosom—hard to her wayward, ignorant, warped, but loving heart.
"Speak to me, Jim!" she moaned once more, rocking backwards and forwards in her fierce agony. "Speak to me, deary! You'll never speak again. O! why did they stop me to-day? It's cruel—cruel! Why did they stop me? We'd have been together before now!"
And the groom of the chambers, an unwilling witness of all these indecorous proceedings, resolved, for that one night, to do his duty stanchly by his employer, but give up his place with inflexible dignity on the morrow.
UNDER THE ACACIAS
"Out of drawing; flesh tints infamous; chiaroscuro grossly muddled; no breadth; not much story in it; badly composed; badly treated; badly painted altogether."
So said the reviews, laying down the infallible law of the writer, concerning Simon Perkins's great picture. The public followed the reviews, of course, in accordance with a generous instinct, urging it to believe that he who can write his own language, not, indeed, accurately, but with a certain force and rapidity, must therefore be conversant with all the subjects on which he chooses to declaim. Statesman, chemist, engineer, shipbuilder, soldier, above all, navigator, painter, plasterer, and statuary; like the hungry Greek adventurer of Juvenal, omnia novit: like Horace's wise man amongst the Stoics; be the subject boots, beauty, bullocks, or the beer-trade, he is universal instructor and referee.
"Et sutor bonus, et solus formosus, et est rex."
So reviewers abused the picture persistently, and Lord Bearwarden was furious, brandishing a weekly newspaper above his head, and striding about the little Putney lawn with an energy that threatened to immerse him in the river, forgetful of those narrow limits, suggesting the proverbial extent of a fisherman's walk on deck, "two steps and overboard."
His audience, though, were partial and indulgent. The old ladies in the drawing-room, overhearing an occasional sentence, devoutly believed their nephew was the first painter of his time, Lord Bearwarden the wisest critic that ever lived, the greatest nobleman, the bravest soldier, the kindest husband, always excepting, perhaps, that other husband smoking there under the acacia, interchanging with his lordship many a pleasant jest and smile, that argued the good understanding existing between them.
Dick Stanmore and Lord Bearwarden were now inseparable. Their alliance furnished a standing joke for their wives. "They have the same perverted tastes, my dear, and like the same sort of people," lighthearted Nina would observe to the sister whom she had not found till the close of her girlish life. "It's always fast friends, or, at least, men with a strong tendency to friendship, who are in love with the same woman, and I don't believe they hate each other half as much as we should, even for that!"
To which Maud would make no reply, gazing with her dark eyes out upon the river, and wondering whether Dick had ever told the wife he loved how fondly he once worshipped another face so like her own.
For my part, I don't think he had. I don't think he could realise the force of those past feelings, nor comprehend that he could ever have cared much for any one but the darling who now made the joy of his whole life. When first he fell in love with Nina, it was for her likeness to her sister. Now, though in his eyes the likeness was fading every day, that sister's face was chiefly dear to him because of its resemblance to his wife's.
Never was there a happier family party than these persons constituted. Lord and Lady Bearwarden, Mr. and Mrs. Stanmore, drove down from London many days in the week to the pretty Putney villa. Simon was truly rejoiced to see them, while the old ladies vibrated all over, caps, fronts, ribbons, lockets, and laces, with excitement and delight. The very flowers had a sweeter perfume, the laburnums a richer gold, the river a softer ripple, than in the experience of all previous springs.
"They may say what they like," continued Lord Bearwarden, still with the weekly paper in his hand. "I maintain the criterion of merit is success. I maintain that the Rhymer and the Fairy Queen is an extraordinary picture, and the general public the best judge. Why there was no getting near it at the Academy. The people crowded round as they do about a Cheap Jack at a fair. I'm not a little fellow, but I couldn't catch a glimpse of any part except the Fairy Queen's head. I think it's the most beautiful face I ever saw in my life!"
"Thank you, Lord Bearwarden," said Nina, laughing. "He'd such a subject, you know; it's no wonder he made a good picture of it."
No wonder, indeed! Did she ever think his brush was dipped in colours ground on the poor artist's heart?
"It's very like you and it's very like Maud," answered Lord Bearwarden. "Somehow you don't seem to me so like each other as you used to be. And yet how puzzled I was the second time I ever set eyes on you!"
"How cross you were! and how you scolded!" answered saucy Mrs. Stanmore. "I wouldn't have stood it from Dick. Do you ever speak to Maud like that?"
The look that passed between Lord and Lady Bearwarden was a sufficient reply. The crowning beauty had come to those dark eyes of hers, now that their pride was centred in another, their lustre deepened and softened with the light of love.
"It was lucky for you, dear, that he was angry," said her ladyship. "If he had hesitated a moment, it's frightful to think what would have become of you, at the mercy of those reckless, desperate men!"
"They were punished, at any rate," observed Nina gravely. "I shall never forget that dead fixed face in the hall. Nor the other man's look, the cowardly one, while he prayed to be forgiven. Forgiven, indeed! One ought to forgive a great deal, but not such an enormity as that!"
"I think he got off very cheap," interposed Dick Stanmore. "He deserved to be hanged, in my opinion, and they only transported him—not even for life!"
"Think of the temptation, Dick," replied Nina, with another saucy smile. "How would you like it yourself?"
"And you were in pursuit of the same object. You can't deny that, only he hit upon me first."
"I was more sorry for the other villain," said Lord Bearwarden, who had heard long ago the history of Gentleman Jim's persecution of her ladyship. "He was a daring, reckless scoundrel, and I should like to have killed him myself, but it did seem hard lines to be shot by his own confederate in the row!"
"I pity that poor woman most of all," observed Lady Bearwarden, with a sigh. "It is quite a mercy that she should have lost her senses. She suffered so dreadfully till her mind failed."
"How is she?" "Have you seen her?" came from the others in a breath.
"I was with her this morning," answered Maud. "She didn't know me. I don't think she knows anybody. They can't get her to read, nor do needlework, nor even walk out into the garden. She's never still, poor thing! but paces up and down the room mumbling over a bent halfcrown and a knot of ribbon," added Lady Bearwarden, with a meaning glance at her husband, "that they found on the dead man's body, and keeps pressing it against her breast while she mutters something about their wanting to take it away. It's a sad, sad sight! I can't get that wild vacant stare out of my head. It's the same expression that frightened me so on her face that day by the Serpentine. It has haunted me ever since. She seemed to be looking miles away across the water at something I couldn't see. I wonder what it was. I wonder what she looks at now!"
"She's never been in her right senses, has she, since that dreadful night?" asked Nina. "If she were a lady, and well dressed, and respectable, one would say it's quite a romance. Don't you think perhaps, after all, it's more touching as it is?" and Nina, who liked to make little heartless speeches she did not mean, looked lovingly on Dick, with her dark eyes full of tears, as she wondered what would become of her if anything happened to him!
"I can scarcely bear to think of it," answered Maud, laying her hand on her husband's shoulder. "Through all the happiness of that night—far, far the happiest of my whole life—this poor thing's utter misery comes back to me like a warning and a reproach. If I live to a hundred I shall never forget her when she looked up to heaven from the long rigid figure with its fixed white face, and tried to pray, and couldn't, and didn't know how! O! my darling!"—and here Maud's voice sank to a whisper, while the haughty head drooped lovingly and humbly towards her husband's arm,—"what have I done that I should be so blessed, while there is all this misery and disappointment and despair in the world?"
He made no attempt at explanation. The philosophy of our Household Cavalry, like the religion of Napoleon's "Old Guard," is adapted for action rather than casuistry. He did not tell her that in the journey of life for some the path is made smooth and easy, for others paved with flint and choked with thorns; but that a wise Director knows best the capabilities of the wayfarer, and the amount of toil required to fit him for his rest. So up and down, through rough and smooth, in storm and sunshine—all these devious tracks lead home at last. If Lord Bearwarden thought this, he could not put it into words, but his arm stole lovingly round the slender waist, and over his brave, manly face came a gentle look that seemed to say he asked no better than to lighten every load for that dear one through life, and bear her tenderly with him on the road to heaven.
"C'est l'amour!" laughed Nina, "that makes all the bother and complications of our artificial state of existence!"
"And all its sorrows!" said Lord Bearwarden.
"And all its sin!" said her ladyship.
"And all its beauty!" said Dick.
"And all its happiness!" added the painter, who had not yet spoken, from his seat under the acacia that grew by the water's edge.
"Well put!" exclaimed the others, "and you need not go out of this dear little garden in search of the proof."
But Simon made no answer. Once more he was looking wistfully on the river, thinking how it freshened and fertilised all about it as it passed by. Fulfilling its noble task—bearing riches, comforts, health, happiness, yet taking to deck its own bosom, not one of the humblest wildflowers that must droop and die but for its love. Consoler, sympathiser, benefactor, night and day. Gently, noiselessly, imperceptibly speeding its good work, making no pause, knowing no rest, till far away beyond that dim horizon, under the golden heaven, it merged into the sea.