"There!" he said, "that is better than going down to the plank. Now, young man, you must run home again as fast as you can, or you will catch cold."
"I am very much obliged to you," said the young lady, looking at him, as he thought, rather earnestly, but without a smile. "Jack, you know, is Sir John Pynsent's eldest son."
"So I divined. I think he would get home more quickly if I took one of his hands and you took the other, and we hurried him up the hill; don't you think so?"
He had no interest at all in Jack, but he wanted to talk with this dark-eyed violin-playing damsel. Sydney had indulged in a good deal of flirtation in his time, and he had no objection to whiling away an hour in the company of any pretty girl; and yet there was some sort of dignity about this girl's manner which warned him to be a little upon his guard.
"You are member for Vanebury," she said, rather abruptly, when they had dragged little Jack some distance up the grassy slope.
"I have that honor."
"I hope," she said, with a mixture of gentleness and decision which took him by surprise, "that you mean to pay some attention to the condition of the working-classes in Vanebury?"
"Well, I don't know; is there any special reason?"
"They are badly paid, badly housed, over-worked and under-educated," she said, succinctly; "and if the member for Vanebury would bestir himself in their cause, I think that something might be done."
"Even a member is not omnipotent, I'm afraid."
"No, but he has influence. You are bound to use it for good," she returned.
Sydney raised his eyebrows. He was not used to being lectured on his duties, and this young lady's remarks struck him as slightly impertinent. He glanced at her almost as if he would have told her so; but she looked so very pretty and so very young that he could no more check her than he could have checked a child.
"You have very pretty scenery about here," he said, by way of changing the conversation.
The girl's face drooped at once; she did not answer.
"What an odd young woman she is," said Sydney to himself. "What an odd governess for the children!"
Suddenly she looked up, with a very sweet bright look. "I am afraid I offended you," she said, deprecatingly. "I did not mean to say anything wrong. I am so much interested in the Vanebury working people, although we are here some miles distant from them, that when I heard you were coming I made up my mind at once that I would speak to you."
"You have—friends, perhaps, in that district?" said Sydney.
"N—no—not exactly," she said, hesitating. "But I know a good deal about Vanebury."
"Nan goes there very often, don't you, Nan?" said little Jack, suddenly interposing. "And papa says you do more harm than good."
"Nan" colored high. "You should not repeat what papa says," she answered, severely. "You have often been told that it is naughty."
"But it's true," Jack murmured, doggedly. And Sydney could not help smiling at the discomfited expression on "Nan's" face.
However, he was—or thought he was—quite equal to the occasion. He changed the subject, and began talking adroitly about her tastes and occupations. Nan soon became at ease with him and answered his questions cheerfully, although she seemed puzzled now and then by the strain of compliment into which he had a tendency to fall. The house was reached at last; and Jack snatched his hands from those of his companions, and ran indoors. Nan halted at a side-door, and now spoke with the sweet earnestness that impressed Sydney even more than her lovely face.
"You have been very kind to us, Mr. Campion. I don't know how to thank you."
It was on the tip of Sydney's tongue to use some badinage such as he would have done, in his light and easy fashion, to a servant-maid or shop-girl. But something in her look caused him, luckily, to refrain. He went as near as he dared to the confines of love-making.
"Give me the flower you wear," he said, leaning a little towards her. "Then I shall at least have a remembrance of you."
His tone and his look were warmer than he knew. She shrank back, visibly surprised, and rather offended. Before he could add a word she had quietly taken the rosebud from her dress, handed it to him, and disappeared into the house, closing the door behind her in a somewhat uncompromising way. Sydney was left alone on the gravelled path, with a half-withered rosebud in his hand, and a consciousness of having made himself ridiculous.
"She seems to be rather a little vixen," he said to himself, as he strolled up to his rooms to make some change in his clothes, which were damper than he liked. "What business has a pretty little governess to take that tone? Deuced out of place, I call it. I wonder if she'll be down to breakfast. She has very fetching eyes."
But she was not down to breakfast, and nothing was said about her, so Sydney concluded that her meals were taken in the schoolroom with the children.
"Such a pity—poor dear Nan has a headache," he heard Lady Pynsent saying by and by. "I hoped that she would come down and give us some music this evening, but she says she won't be able for it."
Sydney consoled himself with pretty Mrs. Murray.
"The fair violinist is out of tune, it seems," he said, in the course of an afternoon stroll with the new charmer.
"Who? Oh, Nan Pynsent."
"Pynsent? No. At least, I don't mean the pianiste: I mean the young lady who played the violin last night."
"Yes, Nan Pynsent, Sir John's half-sister. The heiress—and some people say the beauty of the county. Why do you look so stupefied, Mr. Campion?"
"I did not know her, that was all. I thought—who, then, is the lady who played the piano?"
"Mary Pynsent, a cousin. You surely did not think that she was the heiress?"
"Why did not Sir John's sister come down to dinner?" said Sydney, waxing angry.
"She has a craze about the children. Their governess is away, and she insists on looking after them. She is rather quixotic, you know; full of grand schemes for the future, and what she will do when she comes of age. Her property is all in Vanebury, by the bye: you must let her talk to you about the miners if you want to win her favor. She will be of age in a few months."
"I shall not try to win her favor."
"Dear me, how black you look, Mr. Campion. Are you vexed that you have not made her acquaintance?"
"Not at all," said Sydney, clearing his brow. "How could I have looked at her when you were there?"
The banal compliment pleased Mrs. Murray, and she began to talk of trivial matters in her usual trivial strain. Sydney scarcely listened: for once he was disconcerted, and angry with himself. He knew that he would have talked in a very different strain if he had imagined for one moment that Jack's companion was Miss Pynsent. He had not, perhaps, definitely said anything that he could regret; but he was sorry for the whole tone of his conversation. Would Miss Pynsent repeat his observations, he wondered, to her sister-in-law? Sydney did not often put himself in a false position, but he felt that his tact had failed him now. He returned to the house in an unusually disturbed state of mind; and a sentence which he overheard in the afternoon did not add to his tranquillity.
He was passing along a corridor that led, as he thought, to his own room; but the multiplicity of turnings had bewildered him, and he was obliged to retrace his steps. While doing so, he passed Lady Pynsent's boudoir. Although he was unconscious of this fact, his attention was attracted by the sound of a voice from within. Nan Pynsent's voice was not loud, but it had a peculiarly penetrating quality; and her words followed Sydney down the corridor with disagreeable distinctness.
"Selina," she was saying—Selina was Lady Pynsent's name—"I thought you said that Mr. Campion was a gentleman!"
"Well, dear——" Lady Pynsent was beginning; but Sydney, quickening his steps, heard no more. He was now in a rage, and disposed to vote Miss Pynsent the most unpleasant, conceited young person of his acquaintance. That anybody should doubt his "gentilhood" was an offence not to be lightly borne. He was glad to remember that he was leaving Culverley next day, and he determined that he would rather avoid the female Pynsents than otherwise when they came to town. He could not yet do without Sir John, and he was vexed to think that these women should have any handle—however trifling—against him. He thanked his stars that he had not actually made love to Miss Anna Pynsent; and he hurried back to town next morning by the earliest train, without setting eyes on her again. In town, amidst the bustle of political and social duties, he soon forgot the unpleasant impression that this little episode of his visit to Culverly had left upon his mind.
He went to Maple Cottage on the very day of his return to London, to hear what his mother and sister had to say about his success. And he took an opportunity also of telling Milly Harrington something of the glories which he had achieved, and the privilege which he enjoyed in being able to absent himself from his native country for two or three months at a stretch.
About the end of August, Lettice had to look out for a new maid. Milly went away, saying that she had heard of a better place. She had obtained it without applying to her mistress for a character. She had not been so attentive to her duties of late as to make Lettice greatly regret her departure; but remembering old Mrs. Harrington's fears for her grand-daughter, Lettice made many inquiries of Milly as to her new place. She received, as she thought, very satisfactory replies, although she noticed that the girl changed color strangely, and looked confused and anxious when she was questioned. And when the time came for her to go, Milly wept bitterly, and was heard to express a wish that she had resolved to stay with Miss Lettice after all.
SOME UNEXPECTED MEETINGS.
Two or three months had passed since Alan's wife came back to him.
He had arranged, with the aid of a lawyer, to allow her a certain regular income—with the consequence to himself that he had been obliged to give up his floor in Montagu Place and settle down in the humbler and dingier refuge of Alfred Place. Meanwhile, he had taken steps to collect sufficient evidence for a divorce. He had not yet entered his suit, and he felt pretty certain that when he did so, and Cora was made aware of it in the usual manner, she would find some way of turning round and biting him.
But the desire to be free from his trammels had taken possession of him with irresistible force, and he was prepared to risk the worst that she could do to him in order to accomplish it. Even as it was, he had reason to think that she was not true to her undertaking not to slander or molest him so long as she received her allowance. He had twice received offensive post-cards, and though there was nothing to prove from whom they came, he could have very little doubt that they had been posted by her in moments when jealous rage or intoxication had got the better of her prudence.
The scandal which began to fasten upon his name after Sydney Campion had heard Brooke Dalton's story in the smoking-room of the Oligarchy was almost forgotten again, though it lurked in the memory of many a thoughtless retailer of gossip, ready to revive on the slightest provocation.
More for Lettice's sake than his own, he lived in complete retirement, and scarcely ever left his lodgings except to spend a few hours in the Museum Reading Room. In this way he avoided the chance of meeting her, as well as the chance of encountering his wretched wife, concerning whose mode of life he had only too trustworthy evidence from the lawyer to whom he had committed his interests.
Then there came a day when he could not deny himself the pleasure of attending a conversazione for which tickets had been sent him by an old friend. The subject to be discussed in the course of the evening was one in which he was specially interested, and his main object in going was that he might be made to forget for a few hours the misery of his present existence, which the last of Cora's post-cards had painfully impressed upon him.
He had not been there more than half-an-hour, when, moving with the crowd from one room to another, he suddenly came face to face with Lettice and the Grahams. All of them were taken by surprise, and there was a little constraint in their greeting. Perhaps Lettice was the least disturbed of the four—for the rest of them thought chiefly of her, whilst she thought of Alan's possible embarrassment, which she did her best to overcome, with the ready tact of an unselfish woman.
Alan had grown doubly sensitive of late, and his one idea had been that Lettice must be preserved from all danger of annoyance, whether by the abandoned woman who had so amply proved the shrewdness of her malice, or by himself—who had no less amply proved his weakness. In pure generosity of mind he would have contented himself with a few grave words, and passed on. But it seemed to her as if he had not the courage to remain, taking for granted her resentment at his unfortunate letter. To her pure mind there was not enough, even in that letter, to cause complete estrangement between them. At any rate, it was not in her to impose the estrangement by any display of anger or unkindness. The sublime courage of innocence was upon her as she spoke.
"See," she said, "the professor is going to begin. The people are taking their seats, and if we do not follow their example all the chairs will be filled, and we shall have to stand for an hour. Let us sit down."
She just glanced at Alan, so that he could regard himself as included in the invitation; and, nothing loth, he sat down beside her. The lecturer did not start for another ten minutes, and Lettice occupied the interval by comparing notes with Clara Graham: for these two dearly loved a gossip in which they could dissect the characters of the men they knew, and the appearance of the women they did not know. It was a perfectly harmless practice as indulged in by them, for their criticism was not malicious. The men, after one or two commonplaces, relapsed into silence, and Alan was able to collect his thoughts, and at the same time to realize how much happiness the world might yet have in store for him, since this one woman, who knew the worst of him, did not think it necessary to keep him at a distance.
Then the professor began to speak. He was a small and feeble man, wheezy in his delivery, and, it must be confessed, rather confused in his ideas. He had been invited to make plain to an audience, presumably well read and instructed, the historical bearings of certain recent discoveries in Egypt; and the task was somewhat difficult for him. There were seven theories, all more or less plausible, which had been started by as many learned Egyptologists; and this worthy old gentleman, though quite as competent to give an opinion, and stick to it, as any of the rest, was so modest and self-depreciatory that he would not go further than to state and advocate each theory in turn, praising its author, and defending him against the other six. After doing this, he was bold to confess that he did not altogether agree with any of the seven. He was on the point of launching his own hypothesis, which would have been incompatible with all the rest, when his heart failed him. He therefore ended by inviting discussion, and sat down, blushing unseen beneath his yellow skin, exactly as he used to blush half a century ago when he was called up to construe a piece of Homer. Three of the seven Egyptologists were present, and they now rose, one after another, beginning with the oldest. Each of them stated his own theory, showing much deference to the lecturer as "the greatest living authority" on this particular subject; and then, after politely referring to the opinions of the two rival savants whom he saw in the audience, became humorous and sarcastic at the expense of the absent four.
But, as the absent are always wrong in comparison with the present, so youth is always wrong in comparison with age. The youngest Egyptologist—being in truth a somewhat bumptious man, fresh from Oxford by way of Cairo and Alexandria—had presumed to make a little feint of sword-play with one of the lecturer's diffident remarks. This brought up the other two who had already spoken; and they withered that young man with infinite satisfaction to themselves and the male part of the audience.
The victim, however, was not young and Oxford-bred for nothing. He rose to deprecate their wrath. He was not, he said, contesting the opinion of the lecturer, whose decision on any detail of the matter under consideration he would take as absolutely final. But he pointed out that the opinion he had ventured to examine was expressed by his friend, Dr. A., in a paper read before the Diatribical Society, six weeks before, and it was manifestly at variance with the canon laid down by his friend, Dr. B., as a fundamental test of knowledge and common-sense in the domain of Egyptology.
Thus discord was sown between Dr. A. and Dr. B., and the seed instantly sprang up, and put an end to all that was useful or amicable in that evening's discussion.
Yet everyone agreed that it had been a most interesting conference, and the audience dispersed in high good humor.
It took nearly a quarter of an hour to clear the crowded rooms, and as Alan had offered his arm to Lettice, in order to guide her through the crush, he had an opportunity of speaking to her, which he turned to good account.
"I am glad to see that your brother is in Parliament," he said.
"Yes; of course we were pleased."
"He will make his mark—has made it already, indeed. He is very eloquent; I have heard him speak more than once. He is a most skillful advocate; if I were ever in trouble I would rather have him on my side than against me."
He was speaking lightly, thinking it must please her to hear her brother praised. But she did not answer his last remark.
"I hope Mrs. Campion is well?"
"Not very well, unfortunately. I am afraid she grows much weaker, and her sight is beginning to fail."
"That must be very trying. I know what that means to an old lady who has not many ways of occupying herself. I was making the same observation at home this morning."
"With regard to your mother?"
"Oh, no. My mother died when I was little more than a boy. But I have an aunt living with me, who must be nearly seventy years old, and she was telling me to-day that she could scarcely see to read."
"Oh," said Lettice, with a rush of blood to her face, "is Mrs. Bundlecombe your aunt?"
"Yes," he said, looking rather surprised, "you spoke as if you knew her. Did you ever see Mrs. Bundlecombe?"
"I—I had heard her name."
"At Angleford? Or Thorley?"
"Of course, I heard of Mr. Bundlecombe there."
"Is it not strange," Alan said, after a short pause, "that I never knew you came from Angleford until that morning when I brought you one of your father's books? Then I asked my aunt all about you. I was never at Angleford in my life, and if I had heard the rector's name as a boy I did not recollect it."
"Yes, it is strange. One is too quick at coming to conclusions. I have to beg your pardon, Mr. Walcott, for I really did think that—that Mrs. Bundlecombe was your mother, and that——"
"That I was not going under my own name? That I was the son of a bookseller, and ashamed of it?"
He could not help showing a trace of bitterness in his tone. At any rate, she thought there was bitterness. She looked at him humbly—for Lettice was destitute of the pride which smaller natures use in self-defence when they are proved to be in the wrong—and said,
"Yes, I am afraid I thought so at the moment."
"At what moment?"
"Do not ask me! I am very sorry."
"And glad to find that you were mistaken?"
"I am very glad."
He tried to meet her eyes, but she did not look at him again.
"It was my own fault," he said. "I was going to mention my connection with your father's bookseller that morning; but—you know—my feelings ran away with me. I told you things more to my discredit, did I not?"
"I remember nothing to your discredit. Certainly what you have told me now is not to your discredit."
"If you had met my aunt in London, of course you would have known. But she does not visit or entertain anyone. You knew she was in London?"
"But you never saw her?"
"Oh, I did not know that. When?"
"A long time ago. It was quite a casual and unimportant meeting. Oh, Mr. Walcott, who is that terrible woman?"
They were out of the building by this time, standing on the pavement. Graham had called a cab, and whilst they were waiting for it to draw up Lettice had become aware of a strikingly-dressed woman, with painted face and bold eyes, who was planting herself in front of them, and staring at her with a mocking laugh.
Alan was horrified to see that it was his wife who stood before them, with the mad demoniac look in her eyes which he knew too well.
"Alan, my dear Alan," she cried in a shrill voice, causing everyone to look round at the group, "tell her this terrible woman's name! Tell her that I am your wife, the wife that you have plunged into misery and starvation——"
"For heaven's sake!" said Alan, turning to Graham, "where is your cab? Take them away quickly!"
"Tell her," the virago screamed, "that I am the woman whom you tried to murder, in order that you might be free——"
Here the harangue was cut short by a policeman, who knew the orator very well by sight, and who deftly interposed his arm at the moment when Cora was reaching the climax of her rage. At the same instant the cab drew up, and Lettice was driven away with her friends, not, however, before she had forced Alan to take her hand, and had wished him good-night.
"That must have been his wife," said Clara, whose face was white, and who was trembling violently.
"Yes, confound her!" said her husband, much annoyed by what had happened.
"Could you not stay to see what happens? You might be of some use to Mr. Walcott."
"What good can I do? I wish we had not met him. I have a horror of these scenes; some people, apparently, take them more coolly."
He was out of temper with Lettice, first for sitting by Alan at the conversazione, and then for ostentatiously shaking hands with him on the pavement. Her instinct told her what he was thinking.
"I am sorry it happened," she said; "but when a man is unfortunate one need not take the opportunity of punishing him. It was far worse for him than for us."
"I don't see that," said Graham. "And everyone has to bear his own troubles. Besides, why should a man with such a frightful infliction attach himself to ladies in a public place, and subject them to insult, without so much as warning them what they might expect to meet with?"
"Were you unwarned?"
"I was not thinking of myself. You were not warned."
"I beg your pardon, I was."
"You knew his wife was alive—and—what she is?"
"I must say I cannot understand it."
"You would not have me kind to a man who, as you say, is frightfully afflicted? It was for that very reason I thought we ought to be kind to him to-night."
"My sense of duty does not lead me quite so far; and I do not wish that Clara's should, either!"
"I am sorry," said Lettice, again.
Then there was silence in the cab; but the undutiful Clara was squeezing her friend's hand in the dark, whilst her lord and master fumed for five minutes in his corner. After that, he pulled the check-string.
"What are you going to do?" said Clara.
"Going back again," he said. "You women understand some things better than we do. All the same, I don't know what would happen if you always let your hearts lead you, and if you had no men to look after you. I shall take a hansom and follow on."
He was too late, however, to do any good. The stream of life had swept over the place where Alan and his wife had met, as it sweeps over all the great city's joys and sorrows, glories and disgrace, leaving not a vestige behind.
CONCEIVED IN SORROW.
Two days later, as Lettice was hard at work in her study on a romance which she had begun in June, at the suggestion of a friendly publisher, she was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was a feeble knock, as of one who was half afraid, and the voice, which she heard inquiring for her immediately afterwards was a feeble voice, which she did not recognize.
Nor did she at first remember the face of Mrs. Bundlecombe, when that lady was brought into her room, so much had she changed since her last visit to Maple Cottage. She looked ten years older than when she transferred to her pocket the twenty pounds which Lettice had paid her, though that was barely twelve months ago.
Lettice was better pleased to see her this time; but there was a sinking at her heart as she thought from whom the old lady had come, and wondered what her coming might mean.
Mrs. Bundlecombe produced from her bag a little roll of paper, and laid it on the table with trembling hands.
"There, Miss Campion," she said, taking the chair which Lettice had put for her, "now I feel better already, and I can answer your kind inquiries. I cannot say that I am very well, but there is nothing you can do for me, except take the money back that I came and asked you for a year ago. Don't say anything against it, my dear, for my Alan says it must be done, and there is no use in trying to turn him. It is the right method for peace of conscience, as the good Mr. Baxter said, and that must be my apology, though I am sure you will not think it was nothing but sinful self-seeking that made me come to you before."
"I don't understand, Mrs. Bundlecombe! I simply paid you a debt, did I not? If it was right for my father to pay (as he would have done if he had lived), it was right for me to pay; and as it was right for me to pay, it was right for you to ask. And it gave me pleasure, as I told you at the time, so that I object to taking the money back again."
"That is what I said to Alan, but he would not listen to me. 'Miss Campion was not bound to pay her father's debt,' he said, 'any more than Mr. Campion, and therefore it was wrong for you to ask either of them. But to go to a woman,' he said, 'was more than wrong, it was mean; and I can never look in her face again if you do not take it back and beg her pardon.' He can be very stern, my dear, when he is not pleased, and just now I could not disobey him if he was to tell me to go on my knees through London town."
"How did he know that I had paid you?"
"Well, it was yesterday; we had been in great trouble"—and here Mrs. Bundlecombe broke down, having been very near doing it from the moment when she entered the room. Lettice comforted her as well as she could, and made her drink a glass of wine; and so she gradually recovered her voice.
"Well, as I was saying, my dear, in the evening, when we were quiet by ourselves, he said to me, 'Aunt Bessy, I met Miss Campion last night, and I gather from what she told me that you had seen one another in London. You never mentioned that to me. When was it?' I did not want to make a clean breast of it, but he has such a way of cross-questioning one that I could not keep it back; and that is how it all came out. So you must put up with it, for my sake. I dare not touch the money again, was it ever so."
"Then I must speak to Mr. Walcott about it myself, the next time I see him, for I think he has not been just to you."
"Oh yes, my dear, he has! He is always so just, poor boy!" There was an ominous quaver here. "And it is not as if we wanted money. I had three or four hundred from selling the business, and Alan has nearly that every year—but now he gives two pounds a week——"
Then there was another collapse, and Lettice thought it best to let the old woman have her cry out. Only she went over and sat by her side, and took one of the thin hands between her own, and cried just a little to keep her company.
"Oh, my dear," said Mrs. Bundlecombe at last, "it is such a comfort to have a woman to talk to. I have not had a good talk to one of my own sex since I came up to London, unless it is the landlady in Montagu Place, and she is a poor old antiquity like myself, with none of your soft and gentle ways. It would do me good to tell you all we have gone through since that bad creature found us out, but I have no right to make you miserable with other people's sorrows. No—I will go away before I begin to be foolish again; and my boy will be waiting for me."
"If you think Mr. Walcott would not object to your telling me, and if it will be any relief to you, do! Indeed, I think I would rather hear it."
So Mrs. Bundlecombe poured out her tale to sympathetic ears, and gave Lettice an account of Alan's married life so far as she knew it, and of the return of the runaway, and of the compact which Alan had made with her, and of the post-cards, and the slandering and the threats.
"And the night before last he came home in a terrible rage—that would be after seeing you, my dearie—and he walked about the room for ever so long before he would tell me a word. And then he said,
"'I have seen her again, Aunt Bessy, and she has molested me horribly out in the street, when I was with——'
"And there he stopped short, and fell on the sofa, and cried—yes, dear, he cried like a woman, as if his heart would break; and I guessed why it was, though he did not mention your name. For you know," said Mrs. Bundlecombe, looking at Lettice with mournful eyes, "or leastways you don't know, how he worships the ground——"
"Don't," said Lettice, "don't tell me more than he would like. I—I cannot bear to hear it all!"
"Maybe I have said too much; but you must forgive me if I have. And so, when he was a bit better he said that he should go next morning and tell the lawyer that she had broken her compact, and he would not pay her any more money, but give her notice of the divorce.
"'All the heart and all the mercy is crushed out of me,' he said; 'she has turned her venom on her, and she shall suffer for it.'
"So in the morning he went to his lawyer. And it was the day when she used to call for her money, and she must have called for it and been refused, for early in the afternoon she came round to our lodgings, and went on like a mad woman in the street, shrieking and howling, and saying the most horrible things you can imagine. I could not tell you half she said, about—about us all. Oh dear, oh dear! I had heard what one of those Frenchwomen could be, but I never saw anything like it before, and I hope I never may again!"
"Was he there?"
"Yes, he was there. And he said to me, 'If I give her in charge, it will have to go into the police court, and anything is better than that!' But then she mentioned—she began to say other things, and he said, 'My God, if this is not stopped, I shall do her an injury!' So I went out, and fetched a policeman, and that put an end to it for the time.
"You can fancy that my poor Alan is nearly out of his mind, not knowing what she may be up to next. One thing he is afraid of more than anything: and to be sure I don't think he cares for anything else. Ever since I let out your name on that first night he has been dreading what might happen to you through her spite and malice!"
Lettice was deeply moved by Mrs. Bundlecombe's story, and as the old woman finished she kissed her on the cheek.
"Tell him," she said, "that I have heard what he has suffered—that I asked you, and you told me. Tell him not to think of me because I am forewarned, and am not afraid of anything she can do. And tell him that he should not think of punishing her, for the punishment she has brought upon herself is enough."
"I will repeat it word for word, my dearie, and it will comfort him to have a message from you. But I doubt he will not spare her now, for she is more than flesh and blood can bear."
Then Lettice took her visitor to her mother's room, and made tea for her, and left the two to compare notes with each other for half an hour. Thus Mrs. Bundlecombe went away comforted, and took some comfort back with her to the dingy room in Alfred Place.
It was hard for Lettice to turn to her work again, as though nothing had happened since she last laid down her pen. The story to which she had listened, and the picture which it brought so vividly before her mind of the lonely, persecuted man who pined for her love when she had no right to give it, nor he to ask for it, compelled her to realize what she had hitherto fought away and kept in the background. She could no longer cheat herself with the assurance that her heart was in her own keeping, and that her feeling for Alan was one of mere womanly pity.
She loved him; and she would not go on lying to her own heart by saying that she did not.
Her character was not by any means perfect; but, as with all of us, a mixture of good and ill—the evil and the good often springing out of the same inborn qualities of her nature. She had a keen sense of enjoyment in hearing and seeing new things, in broaching new ideas and entering upon fresh fields of thought; and her appetite in these respects was all the stronger for the gloom and seclusion in which the earlier years of her womanhood had been spent. She was lavish in generosity to her friends, and did not count the cost when she wanted to be kind. But as the desire for enjoyment may be carried to the length of self-indulgence, so there is often a selfishness in giving and a recklessness in being over kind. Lettice, moreover, was extravagant in the further sense that she did not look much beyond the present month or present year of existence. She thought her sun would always shine.
Her blemishes were quite compatible with her virtues, with the general right-mindedness and brave performance of duty which had hitherto marked her life. She was neither bad nor perhaps very good, but just such a woman as Nature selects to be the instrument of her most mysterious workings.
If Lettice admitted to herself the defeat which she had sustained in one quarter, she was all the less disposed to accept a check elsewhere. Her will to resist a hopeless love was broken down, but that only increased the strength of her determination to conceal the weakness from every eye, to continue the struggle of life as though there were no flaw in her armor, and to work indefatigably for the independence of thought and feeling and action which she valued above all other possessions.
So she chained herself to her desk, and finished her romance, which in its later chapters gained intensity of pathos and dramatic insight from the constant immolation of her own heart as she imagined the martyrdoms and sacrifices of others.
The story which was to make her famous had been conceived in sorrow, and it became associated with the greatest sufferings of her life. She had scarcely sent it off to the publisher, in the month of October, when her mother, who had been gradually failing both in body and in mind, quietly passed away in her sleep. No death could have been easier. The heart had done its work, and ceased to beat; but though Lettice was spared the grief which she would have felt if her mother had lingered long on a painful death-bed, the shock was still very severe. For a time she was entirely prostrated by it. The manifold strain upon her mind had tried her too much, and for several weeks after the funeral Clara Graham was nursing her through a dangerous illness.
"TO THY CHAMBER WINDOW, SWEET!"
The message which had been sent by Lettice to Alan, by the mouth of Mrs. Bundlecombe, had not lost much in its transit.
"Tell him," she had said, "that I have heard what he has suffered. Tell him not to trouble for me because I am forewarned, and am not afraid of anything she can do. And tell him that he should not think of punishing her, for the punishment she has brought on herself is enough."
It had consoled him greatly to have this assurance of her sympathy. He did not presume too far on the mere fact of her having sent him a message, and the words themselves did not amount to very much. But if she had cared nothing at all, she would have said nothing at all; and perhaps the description which his aunt gave him of Lettice's kindness to her, and of her interest in the story which she had heard, did more to appease his heart than anything else.
It was his full intention to do all that was possible to deliver himself from the bondage of his unhappy marriage, and in the meantime he would take every precaution to prevent Lettice from being annoyed by this termagant of a woman. But he rejoiced to think that Lettice herself was in some manner prepared for what might happen to her, and was on her guard against the danger.
There was a certain sweetness in the thought that they shared this danger between them, that his enemy was hers also, and that she had voluntarily ranged herself by his side. A feeling of satisfaction flashed through his mind at this community of interests with the woman whom he loved, but it was merged at once in the conviction that he could not be content for one single moment to leave her exposed to the possibility of insult from Cora.
She had commanded him not to punish his wife. It was very difficult for him to obey. This bitterness against the degraded wretch was roused to its highest pitch by her last outbreak. If she would only die out of his life—die in any sense, so that he might hear and see her no more—he would not ask for her punishment. If she would cease to be his wife, and enable him to stand beside the pure and steadfast woman whose gentle influence had transformed his soul, he would forgive her. There was no way in which this could be done except by exposing her before the world, and depriving her of all right to look to him for support, and in the doing of this he knew full well there would be no room for weak pity and misgiving.
He could not forgive her if that was to mean that he should keep her as his wife, and go on trying to buy her silence. He did not want to inflict pain upon her out of mere resentment, and if he could have his way in the matter of the divorce he was quite willing that she should have some of his money. He would be so rich without her that he would gladly go out into the street then and there, stripped of everything that he possessed, if in that way he could shake off the galling fetters that weighed upon him.
To-morrow he would tell his lawyer that she was to have her weekly money again, on condition of her solemnly renewing her engagement not to molest him in any way, and not to interfere with any of his friends. She would probably regard the offer as a sign of weakness, but at any rate it would put her on her good behavior for a time. He would do this for Lettice's sake, if not for his own.
He knew with whom he had to deal, and of what this raving woman was capable. If she had been English, or German, and had gone utterly to the bad, she might by this time have been lethargically besotted, and would have given him very little trouble so long as she received her two pounds a week. But Cora was Latin, and belonged to the same race as the poet who drew the harpies, and the Gorgons, and mad Dido, and frenzied Camilla, who had painted in a hundred forms the unrestrained fury of his countrywomen, when the grace and tenderness of their sex had deserted them. She also was besotted at times, but whenever she was not besotted her mind was full of vivacity, and her anger was as a whirlwind, and neither fear nor prudence could hold her in check. Alan knew her only too well, even before she had tried to kill him in France, and he had no doubt that the outbreak of the last few days was only the beginning of a persecution which she would maintain so long as she had the power to injure him.
For himself he had already resolved what to do. Even his aunt must not be subject to these annoyances, and he bade her pack up her things and go to an old friend of hers in the country. He would leave his present lodging and get housed somewhere out of her reach. Why should he remain at her mercy, when it did not matter to any one where he lived, and when certainly no householder would endure a lodger who was liable to be visited by a madwoman?
But Lettice? How could she be defended from attack? It was clear that Cora was jealous of her, or at all events maliciously set against her. It had required very little to produce that effect. Heaven knew that Lettice had done nothing to excite jealousy even in the mind of a blameless wife, entitled to the most punctilious respect and consideration of her husband. If only Lettice could be placed in safety, carried away from London to some happy haven where no enemy could follow and torment her, and where he might guard her goings and comings, he would be content to play the part of a watch-dog, if by that means he could be near her and serve her!
Something impelled him to get up and leave the house. It was dark by this time, and he wandered aimlessly through the streets; but by and by, without any conscious intention, he found himself walking rapidly in the direction of Hammersmith.
Eight o'clock had struck when he left his lodgings in Alfred Place, and it was after nine when he stood at the corner where the main-road passes by the entrance to Brook Green. He had never once looked behind him; and, even if he had, he would scarcely have detected in the darkness the figure which dogged his steps with obstinate persistence.
He hesitated for a minute or more at the corner, and then walked slowly round the Green. Opposite to Maple Cottage there was a large tree, and underneath it, barely visible from the pavement, a low wooden seat. Here he sat down, and watched the dimly-lighted windows.
Why had he come there? What was in his mind when he turned his face to Lettice's cottage, and sat patiently looking out of the darkness? He could not have answered the questions if they had been put to him. But he felt a sense of comfort in knowing that she was so near, and pleased himself with the thought that even for these few minutes he was guarding her from unseen dangers.
He may have been sitting there for half-an-hour—a hundred images chasing each other through his disordered brain—when suddenly a blind in the cottage was drawn up. For a moment he saw the form of Lettice as she stood at the window, with a lamp in her hand, framed like a picture by the ivy which covered the wall. Then the shutters closed, and he was left alone in the darkness. Alone, as he thought: but he was not alone. He had started to his feet when her face appeared at the window, and stood with his arms extended, as though he would reach through space to touch her. Then, as she disappeared, he softly murmured her name.
"Lettice! My Lettice!"
A harsh laugh grated on his ears. It came from the other side of the tree, and Alan sprang in the direction of the sound. He need not have hastened, for his wife had no desire to conceal her presence. She was coming forward to meet him; and there, in the middle of the Green, shrouded in almost complete darkness, the two stood face to face.
"Tiens, mon ami; te voila!"
She was in her mocking mood—certain to be quiet for a few minutes, as Alan told himself the moment he recognized her. What was she doing here? He had thought that she did not know where Lettice lived; how had she discovered the place? It did not occur to him that his own folly had betrayed the secret; on the contrary, he blessed the instinct which had brought him to the spot just when he was wanted. "A spirit in my feet hath led me to thy chamber window, sweet!" All this passed through his mind in a couple of seconds.
"Yes, I am here. And you! How came you here?"
"Nothing more simple. I came on my feet. But you walked quick, my dear; I could hardly keep up with you at times."
"You followed me!"
"Yes, I followed you—all the way from Alfred Place. I wanted so much to know where she lived, and I said, 'He shall show me. He, who would not for worlds that I should know—he will be my sign-post.' Pouf! you men are stupid creatures. I must be cunning with you, my good husband who would leave me to starve—who would divorce me, and marry this woman, and cut the hated Cora out of your life. But no, my poor child, it shall not be. So long as we live, we two, Cora will never desert you. It is my only consolation, that I shall be able to follow every step of your existence as I followed you to-night, without your knowing where I am, or at what moment I may stand before you."
"Let us walk," said Alan, "and talk things over. Why stand here?"
"You are afraid that I shall make another scandal, and rouse the virtuous Lettice from her pillow, with the sound of her name screamed out in the night? Ha, ha! How the poor coward trembles! Have no fear! Twice in a week your brutal police have seized me, and I do not love their kind attentions. Now and then I may defy them, when I need an excitement of that kind; but not to-night. To-night I mean to be clever, and show you how I can twist a cold-blooded Englishman round my finger. If you go, then I will scream—it is a woman's bludgeon, my child, as her tongue is her dagger. Bah! be quiet and listen to me. You shall not divorce me, for if you try I will accuse you of all sorts of things—basenesses that will blast your name for ever."
"I am not afraid of you," said Alan. "For anything I know, you have a pistol under your cloak—shoot me. I took you to love and cherish, and you have made my life a hell. What good is it? Shoot!"
"No; that makes a noise. In Paris I would shoot you, for it is you who have destroyed my life. But in London you do not understand these things, so that I must act differently. Listen! If you try to divorce me, and do not pay me my money, I have one or two little pistol-shots a l'anglaise which will suit you perfectly. Shall I tell you what I would say, to anyone who would listen to me—in court, in the street, anywhere?"
"As you please."
"First, that you fired at me at Culoz, and that I can bring forward witnesses of the attempted assassination."
"That is pure nonsense; I am not to be frightened by such child's play."
"Second, so far as the divorce is concerned, that whatever my offence may have been, you have condoned it. Do you not understand, my friend? Did I not find shelter in your rooms in Montagu Place? I would have a good lawyer, who would know how to make the most of that."
"Have you nothing stronger to rely on?"
"Listen; you shall tell me. My third pistol-shot is this—that you were wont to make private assignations with Miss Lettice Campion, and that you had been seen dropping from her window, here in Brook Green, at midnight. What do you think of that, for example?"
"Vile wretch!" said Alan. "Your malice has robbed you of your senses. Who would believe you?"
"Do not be a child. Are you English, and do you ask who would believe a woman telling these tales of a man? Do you not know that men are ruined every day in England by the lies of women? The better the man, the more abandoned the woman, the more incredible her lies, so much the more certain is his condemnation. Bah, you know it! I should not hesitate about the lies, and, if I made them sufficiently repulsive, your noble countrymen would not hesitate to believe them. Do you doubt it? What think you of my plan?"
He made no answer; he was trying to command himself.
"Now, tell me! Shall I have my money as usual?"
"Before I left the house," he said, "I had resolved that the money ought to be paid to you. So long as you are my wife, you ought not to starve."
"Good! It is an annuity for life!"
"No. I would give a hand or an eye to be free from you."
"They would be useless to me, my dear. Would you give the fair fame of Lettice? It will cost no less."
"Let that pass!"
"Yes, we will let that pass. Then, I receive my money as usual?"
"Go to Mr. Larmer to-morrow; he will pay it."
"I hate this Mr. Larmer—he is an animal without manners. But no matter. I am glad you are reasonable, my friend. You buy a respite for a few weeks. I shall forget you with all my heart—until I have a migraine, and suddenly remember you again. But it is too cheap; I cannot live decently on this paltry sum. Good-bye, my child—and gare aux-migraines!"
She was gone, and Alan was left alone. He had dug his nails into the palms of his hands, in the effort to restrain himself, until the blood came; and long after the mocking fiend had departed he sat silent on the bench, half-stupefied with rage and despair.
Was he really the coward that he felt himself, to listen to her shameless threats, and tremble at the thought of her machinations? Lettice had told him that she was not afraid; but ought he not to be afraid for her, and do all that was possible to avert a danger from her which he would not fear on his own account?
Ah, if he could only take counsel with her, how wise and brave she would be; how he would be encouraged by her advice and strengthened by her sympathy! But he knew that it was impossible to call to his aid the woman whom it was his first duty to protect from annoyance. She should never know the torture he was enduring until it had came to an end, and he could tell it with his own lips as an indifferent story of the past.
A SLEEPY NOOK.
Three miles from Angleford, on the other side of the river, and hidden away by trees on every side, sleeps the lazy little village of Birchmead. So lazy is the place—so undisturbed have been its slumbers, from generation to generation, that it might puzzle the most curious to think why a village should be built there at all. There is no ford through the river, and, though a leaky ferryboat makes occasional journeys from one side to the other, the path which leads to the bank is too precipitous for any horse to tread. The only route by which a cart can enter Birchmead branches off from the Dorminster Road, across a quarter of a mile of meadows: and when the gate of the first meadow is closed, the village is completely shut in on every side. The world scarcely knows it, and it does not know the world—its life is "but a sleep and a forgetting."
The place has a history of its own, which can be told in a couple of sentences. Two hundred years ago an eccentric member of the family to which the country-side belonged had chosen to set up here a little community on his own account, shaped on a model which, universally applied would doubtless regenerate the world. He built, out of stone, a farmhouse and barns, and a score of cottages for his working-men, and there he spent his life and his money, nursing for some thirty years his dream of hard work and perfect satisfaction. Then he died, and a farmer without his faith and wealth succeeded him, and the hamlet lost its originality, and became as much like other hamlets as its love of sleep and pride of birth would allow.
One thing saves it from desertion and extinction. It has a reputation, over half a county, for being one of the most healthy and life-prolonging spots in England. It certainly contains a remarkable number of old men and women, some of whom have come from the neighboring towns to end their lives in the weather-proof stone cottages and fertile allotments which remain at this day precisely as they were built and measured out by the philanthropic squire in the seventeenth century. Other cottages have been run up in the meantime, and a few villas of a more pretentious character; but there is always a brisk competition for the substantial domiciles, as snug and sound as any almshouse, which encircle the village green of Birchmead.
In one of these cottages Mrs. Bundlecombe found a refuge when Alan sent her away from London. It was in the occupation of an old friend with whom she had been on intimate terms at Thorley—a widow like herself, blessed by Heaven with a perennial love of flowers and vegetables, and recognized by all her neighbors as the best gardener and neatest housewife in the community. With Mrs. Chigwin, Alan's aunt was happier than she had ever hoped to be again, and the only drawback to her felicity was the thought of her nephew's troubles and solitude.
The next cottage to Mrs. Chigwin's was inhabited by old Mrs. Harrington, the grandmother of Lettice's first maid. There had been no love lost between Mrs. Bundlecombe and Mrs. Harrington, when they once lived in the same town. The grudge had arisen out of a very small matter. The bookseller's' wife had sold a Bible to Mrs. Harrington, in the absence of her husband, for twopence more than Mr. Bundlecombe had demanded for the same book, from some common acquaintance of both parties to the bargain, on the previous day; and this common acquaintance having seen the book and depreciated it a few weeks later, the purchaser had an abiding sense of having been outrageously duped and cheated. She had come to the shop and expressed herself to this effect, in no moderate terms; and Mrs. Bundlecombe, whilst returning the twopence, had made some disparaging remarks on the other lady's manners, meanness, dress, age, and general inferiority. The affront had never been quite forgotten on either side, and it was not without much ruffling of their mental plumage that the two old bodies found themselves established within a few yards of each other.
The squire's cottages at Birchmead were detached, but their ample gardens had only a low wall between them, so that the neighboring occupiers could not well avoid an occasional display of their mutual disposition, whether good or bad. It was close upon winter when Mrs. Bundlecombe arrived in the village, and very wet weather, so that there was no immediate clashing of souls across the garden wall; but in November there came a series of fine warm days, when no one who had a garden could find any excuse for staying indoors. Accordingly, one morning Mrs. Chigwin, who knew what was amiss between her friends, seeing Mrs. Harrington pacing the walk on the other side of the wall, determined to bring about a meeting, and, if possible, a reconciliation.
"Elizabeth, my dear, that gravel looks perfectly dry. You must come out in the sun, and see the last of my poor flowers."
"Martha Chigwin," said her visitor, with a solemn face; "do you see that woman?"
"Yes, I see her. What then?"
"I do not nurse wrath, my love, but I cannot abide her."
"Are not six years long enough to remember a little thing of that sort? Come along, Elizabeth; you will find that she has grown quite civil and pleasant-spoken since you used to know her."
So they went out into the garden, and the two ancient foes sniffed and bridled at each other as they approached through the transparent screen of tall yellow chrysanthemums which lined Mrs. Chigwin's side of the wall.
"Mrs. Harrington," said the peacemaker, "there is no need for me to introduce you to my old friend, Elizabeth Bundlecombe, who has come to pay me a nice long visit. We shall be her neighbors and close friends, I hope, and if you will do me the favor to come in this afternoon and drink a cup of tea with us, we shall be very glad to see you."
"Thank you kindly, Mrs. Chigwin. Good-morning to you, Mrs. Bundlecombe. I hear you have been living in London, ma'am, quite grand, as the saying is!"
"No, Mrs. Harrington, not grand at all, ma'am. Don't say so. I have known what trouble is since my poor dear husband died, and I shall never feel like being grand again."
"Never again, ma'am? Well, I am sure that Mrs. Bundlecombe knows how to bear her fortune, whether good or bad. Did you say never again, ma'am?"
The old lady seemed to take this phrase as a kind of comprehensive and dignified apology for the past, which ought to be met in a conciliatory manner.
"Well, well, Mrs. Bundlecombe, bygones is bygones, and there's no more to be said about it. Not but what principle is principle, be it twopence or twenty pounds."
"Allowance must be made, Mrs. Harrington, for the feelings of the moment."
"On both sides, ma'am," said Mrs. Harrington.
"Like reasonable parties," said Mrs. Bundlecombe.
Then they nodded at each other with much vigor, and shook hands across the top of the wall through the branches of the chrysanthemums. Thus vaguely, but with a clear understanding on the part of both combatants, peace was made, and good relations were established. Mrs. Chigwin was delighted at the easy way in which the difficulty had been overcome, and in the afternoon she treated her friends in such a genuinely hospitable and considerate fashion that they were soon perfectly at their ease. Indeed, the three old people became very intimate, and spent their Christmas together in peace and charity.
Alan came over one day early in February to see his aunt, and make sure that she was as comfortable as she professed to be. It was a characteristic proceeding on his part. Mrs. Bundlecombe, as the reader may have observed, was not very poetic in her taste, and not so refined in manners as most of the women with whom Alan now associated. But he always thought of her as the sister of his mother, to whom he had been romantically attached; and he had good reason, moreover, to appreciate her devotion to himself during the last year or so. He found her fairly happy, and said nothing which might disturb her peace of mind. Lettice Campion, he told her, had recovered from a serious illness, and had gone on the Continent for a few weeks with Mrs. Hartley. He was bent on obtaining a divorce, and expected the case to come on shortly. This he treated as a matter for unmixed rejoicing; and he casually declared that he had not seen "the Frenchwoman" for eight or ten weeks; which was true enough, but only because he was carefully keeping out of her way. And it was a poor equivocation, as the reader will presently see.
So Mrs. Bundlecome flattered herself that things were going fairly well with her nephew, and she possessed her soul in patience.
Now as Alan sat talking to his aunt in Mrs. Chigwin's best room, looking out upon the garden on Mrs. Harrington's side, he suddenly started, and stopped short in what he was saying.
"Why, Aunt Bessy, who on earth is living next door to you?"
Mrs. Bundlecombe looked where he pointed, and was almost as much surprised as himself to see Lettice's former maid, Milly, walking in the garden with all the airs and graces of a grand lady. She had on a fur cloak, and a little cap to match, and she looked so handsome and well-dressed that it would not have been surprising if Alan had not recognized her. But Milly's pretty face, once seen, was not easily forgotten; and, as she was associated with Lettice in Alan's mind, he had all the more reason for recalling her features.
"That is the first I have seen of her in these parts," said Mrs. Bundlecombe. "You remember that Miss Campion had a Thorley girl at Maple Cottage, who left her five or six months ago?"
"I remember your telling me so—Milly, she used to be called?"
"Yes, Emily Harrington. That is the girl, without a doubt. Her grandmother lives over yonder; but I never knew that she was expecting a visit from this fine lady. Only last week she was telling me that she had not heard from Milly for several months. There was a letter from her before Christmas, to say that she was married and traveling abroad."
Mrs. Bundlecombe shook her head dubiously from side to side, and continued the motion for some time. She was thinking how much money it would have taken to buy that sealskin cloak; but, however far her doubts may have carried her, she did not give utterance to them in words.
"She is certainly very nice-looking," said Alan. "And she seems to be getting on in the world. Perhaps she has made a good marriage; I should not at all wonder."
"Well, it is charitable to hope so," said Aunt Bessy, with an expression in her face that was anything but hopeful. "I can't forgive her for leaving Miss Campion in such a hurry. I suppose she wanted to better herself, as those minxes always say. As if anyone could be better off than living with her!"
Alan turned round to the window again, and looked out. His aunt's words touched a chord in his heart, which vibrated strongly. To live with her, in any capacity whatever—assuredly that would be the highest attainable good. To draw from her gentle presence that bliss of absolute rest and ease which he had never known until he came to know her—to talk and listen without a shadow of reserve, forgetting self, unashamed of any inferiority which his mind might show in comparison with hers, unafraid of giving offense to that sweet and well-poised nature—to look upon her face, almost infantile in its ingenuous expression, yet with indomitable strength in the clear grey eyes which revealed the soul within—to live with her would indeed be perfect happiness!
And the more he felt this, the less hopeful he was of realizing his aspiration. She had been ill, at the point of death, and he could not be near her. He had inquired of her progress at the Grahams' house, but always in fear lest he should bring sorrow to her, or annoyance to them. The creature whom he had made his wife was never absent from his thoughts. In his most despondent moments he ceased to believe that he would ever be able to shake her off. She haunted him, asleep or awake, at his meals and at his books, in his quiet lodging or when he stole out for a solitary walk. He tried to persuade himself that he exaggerated his trouble, and that there were plenty of men under similar circumstances who would not allow their peace of mind to be disturbed. But if he was weaker than others, that did not make his pain less bitter. He feared her, and dreaded the fulfilment of her threats; yet not so much on his own account as because they were directed against Lettice.
It was no consolation to him to think that the law would punish her—that the police would remove her as a drunken brawler—that the courts could give him his divorce, or perhaps shut her up as a madwoman. What good would even a divorce be to him if she had slandered Lettice, blackened his character, alienated all whom he loved, and remained alive to be the curse and poison of his existence?
As he pondered these things in his heart, the trouble which he had fought off when he came down into the country that morning returned upon him with renewed force. He had fled from town to escape from the agony of shame and disgust which she had once more inflicted on him, and he groaned aloud as he thought of what had happened in the last few days.
"I think I must have a touch of the gout," he said, turning round to where his aunt was sitting, with a pleasant smile on his face. "It catches me sometimes with such a sudden twinge that I cannot help crying out like that."
Aunt Bessy looked hard at him, and shook her head; but she said nothing.
Soon after that, Alan went away; and he had not been gone half-an-hour, when there came a gentle rap at the cottage door.
Mrs. Bundlecombe opened it at once, and found, as she had expected, that the visitor was none other than our old friend Milly. Aunt Bessy had had a few minutes to prepare herself for this scene, and was therefore able to comport herself, as she imagined, with proper dignity. Affecting not to see the pretty hand which was held out to her, she started back, looked inquisitively into the other's face, and then cried out, as she turned her head round upon her shoulders, "Well, Martha! Martha Chigwin! Here is an old acquaintance come to see us. Emily Harrington, love, Mrs. Harrington's grand-daughter, who went to live with Miss Campion in London. Well, you did surprise me!" she said in a more quiet voice. "Come in and sit down, Emily Harrington!"
"Granny told me you were here," said Milly, a little taken aback by this reception, "so I thought I must come in and see how you were."
"We are very well, thank you kindly, Milly. And how are you? But there is no need to ask you, for you look a picture of health, and spirits, and—and good luck, Milly Harrington!"
"Oh yes, I am very well. You don't know that I have been married since you saw me last. My name is Mrs. Beadon now."
She drew off her glove as she spoke, and let her long hand fall upon her lap, so that the old ladies might see her wedding-ring and keeper.
"Well, my dear," said Mrs. Bundlecombe, in a mollified voice, "if you are married to a good man, I am very glad, indeed. And I hope he is well to-do, and makes you happy. You are nicely dressed, Milly, but nice clothes are not everything, are they?"
"No, indeed, they are not. Oh, yes, Mr. Beadon is good to me in every way, so you need not trouble yourself on my account."
After that preliminary sparring, they became friendly enough. Milly was quite at her ease when her position as a wife was established, and she amused her hearers by a lively account of her recent fortunes and adventures—some of them, perhaps, slightly fictitious in character, others exaggerated and glorified. Her husband, she told them, was a great traveler, and was sometimes out of England for six months or a year at a time. He had just gone abroad again, and she had taken the opportunity of coming to see her grandmother—and even of living with her for awhile, if she found Birchmead supportable. They were not rich, but Mr. Beadon allowed her quite enough to live comfortably upon.
So she played the grand lady in the hamlet, to her own infinite satisfaction. But now and again she had business to transact in London, and then she would send to Thorley for a cab, and take the afternoon train to Liverpool Street, and return in about twenty-four hours, generally with some little present in her bag for her grandmother, or grandmother's friends.
None the less did poor Milly find that time hung heavy on her hands. She had not yet clipped the wings of her ambition, and she still pined for a wider sphere in which to satisfy her vague and restless longings. However she might brave it out to others, she was very far from being happy; and now and then she took herself to task, and admitted that all she had, and all she hoped for, would be but a small price to give if she could purchase once more the freedom of her girlhood.
SIR JOHN'S GLOXINIAS.
Whatever may have been the intention of Nature when she produced Sir John Pynsent, there was no doubt as to his own conception of the part which he was fitted to play in the world.
He considered himself, and indeed he was, above all things, a manipulator of men. His talents in this direction had been displayed at school and at college, and when he settled down to political life in London, and impulsively began to suggest, to persuade, to contrive, and to organize, everyone with whom he came in contact acknowledged a superior mind, or, at any rate, a more ingenious and fertile mind. He had refused to bind himself down to an office, as his friends wanted him to do, or to take part in the direction of a "Central Association" for dealing with men in the lump. It was absurd to think of tying Sir John to a place, or a routine, or a pledge of any kind. His art was to be ubiquitous; he aspired to be the great permeator of the Conservative party; and by sheer force of activity he soon became the best known and most popular of the younger generation of Tories.
His triumphs as a manager of men were not confined to public life. He was one of a numerous family, and he managed them all. Every Pynsent deferred to Sir John's opinion, not merely because he was the head of the house, but because he had assumed the command, and justified the assumption by his shrewdness and common-sense.
The one person in the family who gave most anxiety was his half-sister, Anna. Sir John's father had married a second time, when his son was a youth at Eton, and Anna, the fruit of this union, inherited, not only her mother's jointure of twenty thousand pounds, but a considerable fortune from her mother's elder brother, who had been a manufacturer in Vanebury. This fortune had been allowed to accumulate for the last eighteen years, as her father, and after him, her brother, had provided her with a home, and disdained to touch "Nan's money." Sir John was a very good brother to her, and it was even rumored that he had married early chiefly for the purpose of providing Nan with an efficient chaperon. Whether this was true or not, he had certainly married a woman who suited him admirably; Lady Pynsent sympathized in all his tastes and ambitions, gave excellent dinner parties, and periodically brought a handsome boy into the world to inherit the family name and embarrass the family resources. At present there were five of these boys, but as the family resources were exceedingly large, and Sir John was a most affectionate parent, the advent of each had been hailed with increasing satisfaction.
It was a great relief to Sir John's mind to find that his wife and his sister were such good friends. He might be a manipulator of man, but he was not—he acknowledged to himself—always successful in his manipulation of women. If Selina had found Nan in the way, or if Nan had been jealous of Selina and Selina's babies, Sir John felt that he would have been placed on the horns of a dilemma. But this had not been the case. Nan was in the schoolroom when Lady Pynsent first arrived at Culverley, and the child had been treated with kindness and discretion. Nan repaid the kindness by an extravagant fondness for her little nephews, who treated her abominably, and the discretion by an absolute surrender of her will to Lady Pynsent's as far as her intercourse with the outer world was concerned. With her inner life, she considered that Lady Pynsent had not much to do, and it was in its manifestation that Sir John observed the signs which made him anxious.
Nan, he said to himself, was a handsome girl, and one whom many men were sure to admire. Also, she had sixty thousand pounds of her own, of which she would be absolute mistress when she was twenty-one. It was a sum which was sure to attract fortune-hunters; and how could he tell whether Nan would not accept her first offer, and then stick to an unsuitable engagement with all the obstinacy which she was capable of displaying? Nan sometimes made odd friends, and would not give them up at anybody's bidding. How about the man she married? She would have her own way in that matter—Sir John was sure of it—and, after refusing all the eligible young men within reach, would (he told his wife repeatedly) end by taking up with a crooked stick at last.
"I don't think she'll do that," said Lady Pynsent when her husband appealed in this way to her. "Nan is very difficile. She is more likely to remain unmarried than marry an unsuitable man."
"Unmarried!" Sir John threw up his hands. "She must marry! Why, if she doesn't marry, she is just the girl to take up a thousand fads—to make herself the laughing-stock of the county!"
"She will not do that; she has too much good taste."
"Good taste won't avail her! You know what her plans are already, to live in Vanebury as soon as she is twenty-one, and devote herself to the welfare of the working-people! Don't you call that a fad? Won't she make a laughing stock of herself and of us too? Why, it's worse than Radicalism—it's pure Socialism and Quixotry," said poor Sir John, who was proud of his Toryism.
His wife only shook her head, and said, drily, that she would not undertake to prophesy.
"Prophesy? My dear Selina, I merely want you to exert common caution and foresight. There is but one thing to do with Anna. We must get her married as soon as ever we can, before she is twenty-one, if possible. She must marry a man on our own side, some years older than herself—a man of the world, who will look after her property and teach her common-sense—a man who can restrain her, and guide her, and make her happy. I would give a thousand pounds to find such a man."
But in his own heart the baronet believed that he had found him, for he thought of his friend, Sydney Campion.
Campion had small private means, if any; he knew that; but then he seemed likely to be one of the foremost men of the day, and if he could achieve his present position at his age, what would he not be in ten years' time? Quite a match for Anna Pynsent, in spite of her beauty and her sixty thousand pounds. If Nan had been a little more commonplace, Sir John would have aspired higher for her. But there was a strain of "quixotry," as he called it, in her nature, which made him always uncertain as to her next action. And he felt that it would be a relief to him to have her safely married to a friend of his own, and one whom he could influence, if necessary, in the right direction, like Sydney Campion.
Campion was a handsome fellow, too, and popular, Sir John believed, with the ladies. It was all the more odd and unaccountable that Nan seemed to have taken a dislike to him. She would not talk about his doings; she would go out if she thought that he was likely to call. Sir John could not understand it. And Campion seemed shy of coming to the house in Eaton Square when the Pynsents returned to town; he was pleasant enough with Sir John at the Club, but he did not appear to wish for much social intercourse with Sir John's wife and sister. The worthy baronet would have been a little huffed, but for the preoccupation of his mind with other matters, chiefly political.
But this was in November and December; and he knew that Campion's mother had lately died, and that he was anxious about that clever sister of his, who had lately written a good novel, and then been ill, and had gone to Italy. There was that Walcott affair, too, which had lately come to Sir John's ears, a very awkward affair for Campion to have his sister's name mixed up in. Probably that was the reason why he was holding back. Very nice of Campion, very nice. And Sir John became doubly cordial in his manner, and pressed Sydney to dine with him next week.
With some reluctance, Sydney accepted the invitation. He had been perilously near making a fool of himself with Miss Pynsent, and he knew that she had found it out. It was quite enough to make him feel angry and resentful, and to wish to avoid her. At the same time, he was conscious of a feeling of regret that he had muddled matters so completely—for Miss Pynsent was a lovely girl, her violin-playing was delicious, she had sixty thousand pounds, and Sir John was his friend.
Sydney lost himself for a moment in a reverie.
"Not very likely," he said, waking up with a rather uneasy laugh. "At the best of times, I should never have had much chance. There are a good many reasons against it now." And it was with a slight shade upon his brow that he dismissed the matter from his mind and applied himself to business.
He need not have troubled himself. When he went to dine in Eaton Square, Miss Pynsent was absent. She had gone to spend the evening with a friend. Evidently, thought Sydney, with an odd feeling of discomfiture, because she wanted to avoid him. How ridiculous it was! What a self-conscious little fool she must be to take offense at a compliment, even if it were rather obvious, and not in the best possible taste! He began to feel angry with Miss Pynsent. It did not occur to him for some time that he was expending a great deal of unusual warmth and irritation on a very trifling matter. What were Miss Pynsent and her opinions to him? Other women admired him, if she did not; other women were ready enough to accept his flattery. But just because there was one thing out of his reach, one woman who showed a positive distaste for his society, Sydney, like the spoiled child of the world that he was, was possessed by a secret hankering for that one thing, for the good opinion of the woman who would have none of him. Vanity was chiefly to blame for this condition of things; but Sydney's vanity was a plant of very long and steady growth.
He saw nothing more of the Pynsents, however, until February, when, on the day of the first drawing-room, he ran up against Sir John in Piccadilly.
"Come along," said Sir John instantly, "I want you to come to my wife's. I'm late, and she won't scold me if you are with me. I shall use you as a buffer."
Sydney laughed and shook his head. "Very sorry, too busy, I'm afraid," he began.
But Sir John would not be baffled. He had put his hand within Sydney's arm and was walking him rapidly down —— Street.
"My dear fellow, we've not seen you for an age. You may just as well look in this afternoon. Nan's been presented to-day, and there's a drawing-room tea going on—a function of adoration to the dresses, I believe. The women will take it as a personal compliment if you come and admire them."
Mentally, Sydney shrugged his shoulders. He had had enough of paying compliments to Miss Pynsent. But he saw that there was no help for it. Sir John would be offended if he did not go, and really he had no engagement. And he rather wondered how Miss Pynsent would look in Court attire. She had worn a plain cotton and a flapping straw hat when he saw her last.
Lady Pynsent's drawing-room was crowded, but she greeted her husband and Mr. Campion with great cordiality. She was wearing an elaborate costume of blue velvet and blush-rose satin, and bore an indescribable resemblance to a cockatoo. A dowager in black satin and two debutantes in white, who belonged to some country place and were resting at Lady Pynsent's house before going home in the evening, were also present; but at first Sydney did not see Nan Pynsent. She had entered a little morning-room, with two or three friends of her own age, who wanted to inspect her dress more narrowly; and it was not until Sydney had been in the room for five or ten minutes that she reappeared.
Was this stately and beautiful woman Nan Pynsent indeed? Sydney was not learned in the art of dress, or he might have appraised more exactly the effect produced by the exquisite lace, the soft white ostrich feathers, the milk-white pearls, that Nan was wearing on this memorable occasion. He was well accustomed by this time to the sight of pretty girls and pretty dresses; but there was something in Miss Pynsent's face and figure which struck him with a new and almost reluctant sort of admiration.
He was looking at her, without knowing how intent his gaze had become, when she glanced round and caught his eye. She bowed and colored slightly; then, after saying a word to Lady Pynsent, she came towards him. Sydney was uncomfortably conscious that her evident intention to speak to him made her a little nervous.
She held out her long, slim hand, and favored him with the pleasantest of smiles.
"How do you do, Mr. Campion? I have not met you for a long time, I think. How good of you to come to-day! Lady Pynsent is so pleased."
There was nothing for Sydney to do but to respond in the same gracious strain; but he was certainly more reserved than usual in his speech, and behaved with an almost exaggerated amount of respect and formality. After the first two or three sentences he noticed that her eyes began to look abstractedly away from him, and that she answered one of his remarks at random. And while he was wondering, with some irritation, what this change might mean, she drew back into a bow window, and motioned to him almost imperceptibly to follow her. A heavy window curtain half hid them from curious eyes, and a bank of flowers in the window gave them an ostensible pretext for their withdrawal.
"Look at John's gloxinias," said Nan. "They came from Culverley, you know. Oh, Mr. Campion, I want to tell you—I'm sorry that I was so rude to you at Culverley last summer."
This proceeding was so undignified and so unexpected that Sydney was stricken dumb with amaze.
"Perhaps you have forgotten it," said Nan, coloring hotly; "but I have not. It all came from you not knowing who I was, I suppose—Mrs. Murray told me that she believes you thought I was the governess; and if I had been, how odd it must have seemed to you that I should talk about your duties to the Vanebury laborers! You know I have some property there, and so——"
"Oh, it was perfectly natural, and I never thought of it again," said Sydney lamely. But she went on unheeding—
"And then I felt vexed, and when you asked me for a flower"—how innocently it was said!—"I know I banged the door in your face. Selina said I must have been very rude to you. And so I was."
But Selina had not meant that she should acknowledge her "rudeness" to Mr. Campion, nor had Nan told her of the bold admiration that she had read in Sydney's eyes.
"Will you forgive me, Mr. Campion? You are such a friend of John's that I should not like to think I had offended you."
"You never offended me, Miss Pynsent. In fact, I'm afraid—I—was very dense." He really did not know what to say; Miss Pynsent's naivete almost alarmed him.
"Then you are not angry with me?"
How lovely were the eyes that looked so pleadingly into his face! Was she a coquette? But he could only answer as in duty bound—
"Not angry in the very least, Miss Pynsent."
"I am so glad. Because I want to talk to you about Vanebury one day. But I must not stop now, for there are all these people to talk to, you know."
"I may ask you to forgive the stupidity of my mistake, then?" said Sydney quickly.
"It was not stupid: how could you know who I was?——There, John, I have been showing Mr. Campion your gloxinias. Don't you think them lovely, Mr. Campion?"
And she glided away with the sweetest smile, and Sydney, after a few words with Sir John, took his departure, with a feeling of mingled gratification and amusement which he found rather pleasant. So she had not thought him impertinent, after all? She did not seem to have noticed the compliment that he had tried to pay her, and which he now acknowledged to himself would have suited for Milly Harrington better than Sir John Pynsent's sister. Was she really as childlike as she seemed, or was she a designing coquette?
The question was not a very important one, but it led Sydney to make a good many visits to Sir John's house during the next few weeks, in order to determine the answer. Miss Pynsent's character interested him, he said to himself; and then she wanted to discuss the state of the working-classes in Vanebury. He did not care very much for the state of the working-classes, but he liked to hear her talk to him about them. It was a pity that he sometimes forgot to listen to what she was saying; but the play of expression on her lovely face was so varied, the lights and shadows in her beautiful eyes succeeded each other so rapidly, that he was a little apt to look at her instead of attending to the subject that she had in hand.
This was quite a new experience to Sydney, and for some time his mind was so much occupied by it that the season was half over before he actually faced the facts of the situation, and discovered that if he wanted to pluck this fair flower, and wear it as his own, Sir John Pynsent was not the man to say him nay.
"Wer nie sein Brod mit Thraenen ass, Wer nie die kummervollen Naechte Auf seinen Bette weinend sass, Er kennt Euch nicht, ihr himmlische Maechte!"