"I'm not bored, but I'm very sick and sorry for myself," said Luce. "One always is when one has been a fool."
"My dear girl, you did it for the best."
"That always seems to me such a futile, and altogether ineffectual, consolation," said Luce; "and people never offer it to you unless you have absolutely made a fool of yourself."
"But I think, and everybody thinks with me, that you acted very wisely under the circumstances. He could not expect you to marry a poor man. Good heavens! fancy Luce and poverty! The combination is not to be imagined for a moment! It is not your fault that circumstances are altered, and that if you had only waited——"
Lady Luce made a little impatient movement with her hand.
"If I had only waited!" she said, with a mixture of irritation and regret. "It was just my luck that I should meet him when I did."
There was a pause. It need scarcely be said that Nell was extremely uncomfortable. These two were discussing a matter of the most private character, and she was playing the unwelcome part of listener. Had she been a woman of the world, it would have been easy for her to have emerged from her hiding place, and to have swept past them slowly, as if she had seen and heard nothing, as if she were quite unconscious of their presence. But Nell was not a woman of the world; she was just Nell of Shorne Mills, a girl at her first ball, and her first introduction to society. She could not move—could only long for them to become either silent or to go away and leave her free to escape.
"I suppose he was very much cut up?" remarked Lady Chesney.
"That goes without saying," replied Luce. "Of course. He was very fond of me; or, why should he have asked me to marry him? You wouldn't ask the question if you had seen him the day I broke with him. I never saw a man so cut up. It made me quite ill."
"Then the love was not altogether on one side, dear?" said Lady Chesney.
Lady Luce shrugged her white shoulders in eloquent silence.
"Where did the dramatic parting take place?" asked Lady Chesney.
"Here," said Lady Luce.
"Well, near here. At a little port—fishing place, called—I forget the name—something Mills."
"Oh! you mean Shorne Mills."
Nell's discomfort increased, and yet a keen interest reluctantly awoke in her. It seemed so strange to be listening to what seemed to her a life's drama, the scene of which was pitched in Shorne Mills.
"The yacht put in quite unexpectedly," continued Luce. "I didn't want to land at all, but Archie worried me into doing so. We climbed a miserable kind of steep place. I refused to go any farther. They went on, and I turned into a kind of recess to rest—and found Drake there."
For a moment the name did not strike with its full significance upon Nell's mind, and the soft voice had continued for a sentence or two before she realized that the man of whom this woman was speaking, the lover whose loss she was regretting, bore the same name as Drake. She had no suspicion that the men were the same; it only seemed strange and almost incredible that there should be two Drakes at Shorne Mills.
"I can imagine the scene," said Lady Chesney; "and I can quite understand how you feel about it. But, Luce, is it altogether hopeless?"
Lady Luce laughed bitterly.
"You don't know Drake," she said. There was a pause. "And yet"—she hesitated, and her tone became thoughtful and speculative—"sometimes I think that I could get him back. He is very fond of me; it must have nearly broken his heart. Yes; sometimes I feel sure that if I could have him to myself for, say, ten minutes, it would all come right."
"Don't you know where he is?"
"No. There was a row royal between his uncle and him, and he disappeared. No one knows where he is. It is just possible that he has gone abroad."
"There is danger in that," said Lady Chesney gravely. "One never knows what a man may do in a moment of pique. They are strange animals."
"You mean that he might be caught on the rebound, and marry some 'dusky bride' or ruddy-cheeked dairymaid?" said Lady Luce, with a little laugh of scorn. "You don't know Drake. He's the last man to marry beneath him. If I were not afraid of seeming egotistical, dear, I would say that he has known me too long and loved me too well——But there! don't let us talk any more about it. The gods may send him to my side again. If they do, I shall avail myself of their gracious favor and get him back; if not——" She sighed, and shrugged her shoulders. "Heavens! how I wish I had a cigarette!"
"My dear, you shall have one," said Lady Chesney, with a laugh. "I know where the smoking room is. I'll go and get you one, you poor, dear soul!"
She went in, and Nell rose from her seat. She could not remain a moment longer, even if she had to tell this lady she had overheard their conversation, and beg her pardon for having played, most reluctantly, the eavesdropper. But as she stood fighting with her nervousness, a man came out through the window. Her heart leaped with relief and thanksgiving, for it was Drake.
"Is that you?" he said, as he saw the figure against the coping.
Lady Luce turned; the light streamed full upon her face, and he stopped dead short and stared at her.
"Luce!" he exclaimed, in a low voice.
She stood for a moment as motionless as one of the statues. Another woman would have started, would probably have shrunk back, with a cry of amazement or of joy; but she stood for just that instant, motionless and silent, and looking at him with her eyes dilating with surprise and delight. Then, holding out both hands, she moved toward him, murmuring:
"Drake! Thank God!"
Lady Luce came forward to him with both hands extended; and the "Drake, thank God!" was perhaps as genuinely a devout an expression as she had ever uttered. For it seemed to her that Providence had especially intervened in her behalf and sent him to her side. We all of us have an idea that Providence is more interested in us than in other persons.
Drake stood and looked at her for an instant with the same surprise which had assailed him when he recognized her; then he took the small, exquisitely gloved hands. How could he refuse them? As he had said, the members of their set could not be strangers, though two of them had been lovers and one had been jilted. They had to meet as friends or acquaintances, as individuals of a community, which, living for pleasure, could not be bored by quarrels and estrangements.
In the "smart" set a man lives not for himself alone, but for the other men with whom he plays and shoots and jokes and drinks; for the women with whom he drives and rides and dances. He must sink personal feeling, likes and dislikes, or the social ship which he joins as one of the crew, the ship which can sail only on smooth and sunlit waves, will founder. So Drake took her hands and smiled a greeting at her.
"Why! To find you here! What are you doing here, Drake?" she said.
She had no right to call him "Drake"; she had lost that right the day she had jilted him; but she called him "Drake," and the name left her lips softly and meltingly.
"I might ask the same of you, Luce," he replied gravely, and unconscious in the stress of the moment that he, too, had used the Christian name.
But, alas! Nell had heard it! She had, half mechanically, shrunk behind the pedestal; she shrank still farther behind it as Drake spoke, and she put up her hand on the cold marble as if for support. For she was trembling in every limb, and a sensation as of approaching death was creeping over her. The terrace and the two figures grew misty and indistinct, the music of the band sounded like a blurred discord in her ears, and the blood rushed through her veins like fire one moment and like ice the next.
She would have rushed out of her hiding place and into the house, but she could not move. Was she going to die? or was this awful, sickening weakness only a warning that she was going to faint? She pressed her forehead against the marble, and the icy coldness of the unsympathetic stone revived her. She found that she could hear every word, though the two had moved to the stone rail.
"It is quite a shock!" said Lady Luce. She put her handkerchief to her lips, her eyes, and then looked up at him with the smile, the confession of weakness, which is one of woman's most irresistible weapons.
"I—I am staying at the Chesneys'—you know the Chesneys? No? There is a small party—some of us came over to-night to this dance—they are old friends of the Maltbys. Drake, I can scarcely believe it is you!"
He stood beside her patiently, and yet impatiently. He was thinking of Nell even at that moment; wondering where she was, how soon he could get away from Lady Luce and find Nell.
"You are staying here?" she asked, meaning at the Maltbys'.
He nodded, thinking it well to leave her misconception uncorrected.
"How strange! Drake, it—it is like Fate!" she murmured; and, indeed, she felt that it was.
"Like Fate?" he asked.
"Yes—that—that we should meet here, in this out-of-the way place, so soon. Oh, Drake, if you knew how glad I am!"
She put out her hand and touched his arm with the timid touch, the suggestion of a caress, which women can convey so significantly.
Drake glanced toward the open window apprehensively. Nell—any one—might come out any moment, and——
"Shall we walk to the end of the terrace?" he said. "You will catch cold——"
As he spoke he looked down at her. There was only a man's inquiry, and consideration for a woman's bare shoulders, in the look; but to Nell, whose eyes were fixed upon him with an agonized intentness, it seemed that the look was eloquent of tenderness and passion.
"Yes, yes," assented Lady Luce quickly. "Some one may come, and—and—we have so much to say, haven't we, Drake?"
He drew her arm within his mechanically, as he would have drawn it if he had been leading her to a dance, or in to dinner, and they moved beyond Nell's hearing.
Drake bit his lip, and glanced sideways toward the house. What could she have to say to him? and what did this sudden tenderness, this humility, of hers mean?
Suddenly it occurred to him that she had seen his uncle, and heard of the old man's offer. Ten thousand a year was not a large income for one in Lady Lucille Turfleigh's position; but—well, she might have been tempted by it. His face hardened with an expression of cold cynicism which Nell had never seen.
"What have we to say, Luce?" he asked. "I thought you and I had exhausted all topics of absorbing interest when we parted the other day."
She winced, and looked up at him reproachfully.
"Oh, how cruel of you, Drake!" she murmured, "As if I hadn't suffered enough!"
He smiled down at her, with something as nearly approaching a sneer as Drake Selbie could bring himself to bestow upon a woman.
"Yes. Drake, did you think I was quite heartless? that—I—I—did what I did without suffering? Ah, no, you couldn't think that; you know me too well."
Her audacity brought a smile to his lips, and he found it difficult to restrain a laugh of amusement. It was because he had learned to know her so well that he himself had not suffered a pang at their broken engagement—at least, no pang since he had learned to know and love Nell.
Where was she? How could he get away from this woman, whose face was upturned to him with passionate pleading on it?
"Have you seen my uncle lately?" he asked grimly, but with a kind of suddenness.
"No," she replied, and the lie came "like truth"—so like truth that Drake felt ashamed of his suspicion of her motive.
She had not, then, heard of his uncle's offer? Then—then why was she moved at sight of him? Why were her eyes moist with unshed tears, the pressure of her hand on his arm tremulous and beseeching?
"No," she said; "I—I have been scarcely anywhere. I have—not been well. I came down here to the Chesneys' to bury myself—just to bury myself. I have been so wretched, so miserable, Drake."
"I'm sorry," he said gravely. "But why?"
She looked up at him reproachfully.
"Don't you—know? Ah, Drake, can't you guess? Don't—don't look at me like that and smile. It is not like you to be so—so hard."
"We men are hard or soft as you women make us, Luce," he said quietly. "Remember that I have been through the mill. I was not hard or cruel—once."
It was an unwise thing to say. Never, if you have done with a woman, or she has done with you, talk sentiment, says Rousseau. It was unwise, for it let Luce in.
"I know! Yes, it was all my fault. Drake, do you think I don't know that? Do you think that I don't tell myself so every hour of the day, every hour at night, when I lay awake thinking of—of the past?"
"The past is buried, Luce," he said, with a short laugh. "Don't let us dig it up again. After all, you acted wisely——"
"No; I acted like a fool!" she broke in; and she meant it. "If I had only listened to the cry of my own heart—if I had only refused to obey father, and—and stuck to you! But, Drake, though you think me heartless, and—and sneer——"
"I didn't mean to sneer, Luce," he said. "Forgive me if I did so unintentionally. I quite understood your difficulty, and, as I told you the day we parted, I—well, I made allowances for you. You did what most women of our set would have done."
"Would they? But perhaps they really are heartless, while I——Drake, you can't tell what I have suffered; how—how terribly I have missed you! I—yes, I will tell you the truth. Do you know, Drake, that I had made a vow that whenever we met, whether it was soon, or not for years, I would tell you all. Yes—though, like a man, you should despise me for it!"
"I'm not likely to despise you for it, Luce," he said. As he spoke, Lady Chesney came out onto the terrace. She looked up and down, saw the two figures standing together, and, with a smile, returned to the house.
"No; you are too generous for that, Drake; even if I—I confess that I have not spent one happy—oh, the word is a mockery!—that I have been wretched since the hour I—I left you."
His face grew grave, almost stern.
"I'm sorry," he said simply. "Candidly, I didn't think——"
"No, I know! You thought that I only cared for you because——You told me that I was heartless and mercenary, you remember, Drake. But, ah; it wasn't true! Yes, I've been brought up at a bad school. I've been taught that it's a sacred duty for every girl, as poor as I am, to make a good match; and I thought—see how frank I am!—that I could part from you, oh, not easily, but without breaking my heart. But I—I was mistaken! I miss you so dreadfully! There is not another man in the world I can care for, or even dream of caring for."
"Hush!" he said sternly.
There was always something impressive about Drake, a touch of the manliness which is somewhat rare nowadays, the manliness which women are so quick to acknowledge and bow to; and Lady Luce shrank a little; but her hand tightened on his arm, and her brown, velvety eyes dimmed with genuine tears—for she was more than anxious, and more than half in love with him—looked up at him penitently, imploringly.
"Drake—you believe me?" she whispered. "Don't—don't punish me too badly! See, I am at your feet—a woman—Drake"—her voice sank to a whisper, became almost inaudible, and her head drooped forward until it nearly rested on his breast. "Drake—forgive—me and——"
Her voice broke suddenly.
He was moved to something like pity. Is there any man alive who can resist the prayer, the touch of a beautiful woman, especially if she is the woman he has once loved? If such a man there be, his name is not Drake Selbie.
"Hush!" he said again, but in a gentler voice. "God knows, I loved you, Luce——"
She uttered a faint cry. It was no louder than the sough of the night breeze.
"Drake—Drake! ah, Drake!" she breathed, her face lifted to his, her other hand touching his breast. "Say it again! It's the sweetest music I've heard since—since——Say it again, Drake. I won't ask for any more——"
"Don't!" he said hoarsely. The caress of her hand made him miserable; it had no power to thrill him now. "I want to tell you, Luce——"
"No—no," she said quickly, eagerly. "Don't scold me to-night. I am so happy now. It is as if I had come back to life. Say it once more, Drake. Just 'I forgive you'!"
"I forgive you; but, listen, Luce," he added quickly.
She slid her white arm round his neck, and drew his head down and kissed him. The next moment, before he could say a word, she drew away from him quickly.
"Go in—I will come presently," she said. "There is some one—there is a door."
Confused, almost hating her for the kiss she had stolen—with Nell flashing on his mind—he turned and entered the house by the door to which she had pointed.
She stood for a moment, then she went toward Lady Chesney. Her face was pale, but there was a smile on her lips, a glow of triumph in her brown eyes, as she paused in the light from the open window.
Lady Chesney looked at her, then laughed.
"My dear, you look transformed. Was that—but of course it was! Well? But one need not ask any questions. Your face tells its own tale."
Luce laughed, and touched her lips with her handkerchief.
"Yes, it was Drake," she said. "What luck! what luck! And they say there is no Providence!"
"And—and it is all right?" asked Lady Chesney, anxiously.
Lady Luce laughed softly.
"Oh, yes! Didn't I tell you that if I could have him to myself for ten minutes——And we have been longer, haven't we? You see, he was fond of me, and——Oh! have you brought a cigarette? I am simply dying for one now!"
Lady Chesney held one out to her.
"Here it is. But hadn't you better go in? They will miss you——"
Lady Luce shrugged her shoulders as she struck a match from the gold box Drake had given her.
"What does it matter what these people think?" she retorted. "Nothing matters now. I have got Drake back, and——All the same, we will get out of sight of the window, lest we shock these simple folk. Yes, I am a lucky young woman."
They passed along the terrace, and Nell, as if released from a spell, fell into the seat and covered her face with her hands.
Presently she let them fall slowly and looked vacantly with her brows drawn—as if waiting for the return of some sharp pain—in the direction of Shorne Mills. The lights had gone out; so also had died the light of her young life.
She tried to realize what this was that had happened to her; but it was so difficult—so difficult! Only a little while ago she had been happy in the possession of Drake's love. He had been hers—was her sweetheart, her very own; he was to have been her husband; she was to have been his wife.
And now—what had happened? Was she dead—had she done some evil thing which had turned his love for her to hate and driven him from her?
Slowly the numbed sensation, the feeling of stupor passed, and the truth, as she thought of it, came upon her with a rush and made her press her hand to her heart as if a knife had stabbed it.
Drake loved her no longer. He had never loved her. The woman he had loved was the most beautiful of God's creatures, and Drake had only turned to her—Nell—in a moment of pique. And this woman with the perfect face, and soft, lingering voice; this woman whose every movement was grace itself, who carried herself like an empress—an empress in the first flush of her beauty and power—had changed her mind and called him back to her. And he had gone.
The fact caused such intense misery as to leave no room for resentment. At that moment there was not one spark of anger, one drop of bitterness in Nell's emotion; only misery so acute, so agonizing, as to be like a physical pain.
It seemed to her so natural, so reasonable, that he should desert her when this siren with the melting eyes, the caressing laugh, should beckon him; for who could have resisted her? Not any man who had once loved her.
Nell's head moved slowly from side to side, like that of an animal stricken to death. Her throat had grown tight, her eyes were hot and burning, the sound, as of the plash of waves, sang in her ears; but she could not cry. It seemed to her that she would never be able to cry again. She looked vaguely at the other women as they walked at the far end of the terrace, and she shivered as if with bodily fear. There was something terrible, Circe-like, to her in the face, the movements, the very voice of this woman who had taken Drake from her.
Presently the two exquisitely dressed figures passed into the house, and Nell rose, steadying herself by the pedestal. As she did so, she looked up. A streak of light shot right across the statue, and the cruel face with its leering eyes seemed to smile down upon her mockingly, jeeringly, and she actually shrank, as if she dreaded to hear the satyr lips shoot some evil gibe at her.
And all the while the music, a waltz of Waldteufel's, soft and ravishing and seductive, floated out to her, and mocked her with the memory of the happiness that had been hers but an hour—half an hour ago. She staggered to the edge of the terrace and leaned her head on her hands, and, closing her eyes, tried hard to persuade herself that it was only a dream; just a dream, from which she should wake shuddering at the unreal misery one moment, then laughing at its unreality the next.
But it was true. The dream had been the happiness of the last few weeks, and this was the awakening.
Before her mental vision passed, like a panorama, the days which the gods had given her—that they might punish her all the more cruelly for daring to be so happy.
Yes; how often had she asked herself what right she, Nell of Shorne Mills, had to so much joy? What had she done to deserve it?
She remembered now how, sometimes, she had been terrified by the intensity of her joy. That day Drake had told her that he loved her; the morning he had taken her in his arms and kissed her; the night he had looked down into her eyes and sworn that no man in all the world loved any woman as he loved her. She had not deserved it, had no right to it, and God had punished her for her presumption in daring to be so happy.
But now what was she to do?
She asked the question with a kind of despair.
It never for one moment occurred to her that she should accuse Drake of his faithlessness, much less that she should upbraid him. Indeed, what would be the use? Could she—she, an ignorant, half-taught girl, just Nell of Shorne Mills—contend against such a woman as this Lady Luce?
Luce! Luce! She remembered—for the first time that night, strangely enough—how he had murmured the name in his delirium. She had forgotten that, she had not thought of it, and had not asked who the woman was whose visage haunted him in his fever.
If she had only done so! He would have told her—yes, for Drake was honest; he would have told her—and she would not have allowed herself to fall in love with him. Even as it was, she had fought against it; but her struggle had been of no avail. She had loved him almost from the first moment.
And now she had lost him forever!
"Drake, Drake, Drake!" her heart called to him, though her lips were mute.
What should she do?
No; she would not upbraid him. There should be no "scene." She knew instinctively how much he would loathe a scene. She would just tell him—what? That—that—it had all been a mistake; that—she did not love him, and—and ask him to give her back her freedom.
That was all. Not one word of Lady Luce would she say. He would go—go without a word; she knew that.
And now she must go back to the ballroom, and try and look and behave as if nothing had happened.
Was she very white? she wondered dully. She felt as if she had died, and was buried out of reach of any pain, beyond all possibility of further joy. Her life was indeed at an end. That kiss of Drake's—to her it had appeared as if indeed it had been his, and not Luce's only, stolen from him unawares—that kiss had killed her.
Let Ibsen be a great poet and dramatist, or a literary fraud, there are one or two things which he says which strike men with the force of a revelation; and when he speaks of the love-life which is given to every man and woman, and calls him and her a murderer who kills it, he speaks truly, and as one inspired.
Nell's love-life lay dead at her feet, and Drake, though all unconsciously, had slain it.
She wiped her lips, though they were dry and parched, and with trembling hands smoothed her hair—the lips and the hair Drake had kissed so often, with such rapture—and slowly, fighting for strength and self-possession, passed into the ballroom.
The brilliant light, the music, the dancers, acted upon her overstrained nerves as a dash of cold water upon a swooning man. For the first time since the blow had fallen pride awoke in her. She had lost Drake forever; but she would make no moan; other women before her had lost their lovers and their husbands by death, and they had to bear their bereavements; she must learn to bear hers.
A young fellow hurried up to her with a mingled expression of relief and complaint.
"Oh, Miss Lorton; this is ours!" he said. "I have been looking for you everywhere, everywhere, on my honor, and I was nearly distracted!"
Nell moistened her lips and forced a smile.
"I have been out on the terrace; it—it was hot."
"And—you didn't feel faint? You look rather pale now!" he said apprehensively. "Would you rather not dance?"
"No, no; I would rather dance!" she replied, with a kind of feverish impatience. "I—I think I am cold." She shivered a little. "I shall be all the better for a dance!"
She went round like one moving in a dream; her eyes looking straight before her in a fixed gaze, her lips curved with a forced smile. After a moment or two she grew warmer; the blood began to circulate, a hectic flush started out on her cheeks.
Any one seeing her would have thought she was enjoying herself amazingly; would not have suspected that her heart was racked by agony; that the music was beating upon her brain, inflicting pain with every stroke; that she longed, with an aching longing, to be in the dark, in her own room, alone with her unspeakable misery.
One talks glibly enough of women's sufferings; but not one of us ever comes near gauging them, for the gods who have denied them some things have granted to the least of them the great power of enduring in silence, of smiling while they suffer, of murmuring commonplaces while the iron is cutting deeper and deeper into their souls. The nobler the woman the greater this power of hers; and there was much that was noble in poor Nell. And as she danced, those who looked at her were full of admiration or envy. She was so young; her loveliness was so untainted by the world; the delicate droop of the pure lips was so childlike, while it hinted of the deeper nature of the woman, that many who regarded her and then glanced at the professional beauty, mentally accorded Nell the palm.
And among them was Drake. He had gone straight to the smoking room, had lit a cigarette, and, pacing up and down, had, with stern lips and frowning brows, revolved the problem which fate had set him.
He swore under his breath, after the manner of men, as he went over the scene with Luce. What devil of ill chance had sent her down there? And why—why had she changed her mind? Was it really true that she—cared for, him still? He could scarcely believe it; and yet the caress of her hand, the look in her eyes, the—the—kiss——He flung the cigarette away—for he had bitten it in two—and fumed mentally. And what did she mean, think? Was it possible that she thought he could go back to her?
He laughed grimly, in mockery of the idea. Why, even if there had been no Nell, he could not have gone back to Luce. And there was Nell! Yes, thank God! there was Nell, his dear, sweet, beautiful Nell! His girl love, the girl who was like a pure star shining in God's heaven compared with a flame from—yes, from the nethermost pit. Love! He, who now knew what love meant, laughed scornfully at the idea in connection with Lady Luce. Passion it might be—but love! And she had left him with a kiss, as if she were convinced that she had recovered him! Oh, it was damnable, damnable!
Why—why, she might even behave in the ballroom as if—as if she had a right to claim him! She might even tell the Chesneys that—that——
He strode out of the smoking room in time to see the Chesney party taking their departure. As Lady Luce shook hands with the hostess and murmured her thanks for "a delightful evening"—and for once they were genuine and no idle formula—he saw her glance round the room as if in search of some one; but he drew back out of sight.
Then, when they had gone, he reentered the ballroom and his eyes sought Nell. She met them, and he smiled, but rather anxiously, with a feeling of disquietude; for there was——Was there something strange in the expression of her face? But as she smiled back—can one imagine what that smile cost Nell?—he drew a breath of relief, found a partner, and joined in the dance.
By this time the party had reached the after-supper stage, and the waltzes had grown faster. A set of lancers had been danced with so much spirit and enjoyment that it had been encored. Some of the men were talking and laughing just a little loudly, and the women's faces were flushed with the one glass of champagne which is generally all they permit themselves, the spell of the music, and the excitement of rapid and rhythmical movement. Couples found their way into the anterooms and recesses, or sat very close together in corners of the great, broad staircase.
Some of the men had boldly deserted the ballroom and retreated to the smoking room, where they could play whist and drink and smoke: "Must wait for my womenfolk, you know."
Dick, at this, his first dance, was enjoying himself amazingly. He had gone steadily through the program, and as steadily through most of the dishes at supper, and he was now flirting, with all a boy's ardor, with a plump little girl, the niece of Lady Maltby.
She was "just out," and Dick had danced three dances in succession with her before she remembered that she was committing a breach of etiquette.
"Dance again with you? Oh, I couldn't!" she said, when Dick, with inward tremors but an outward boldness, begged for the fourth. "I mustn't—I really mustn't!"
"Why not?" demanded Dick innocently.
"If you weren't such a boy you wouldn't ask," she retorted severely, but with a smile lurking in her bright young eyes.
"I bet I'm as old as you are," he said.
"Are you? I don't think you are. You look as if you'd just come from school. I'm——No, I won't tell you. It was just a trick to learn my age. But if you must know why I won't dance again with you, it is because no lady ought to dance three times in succession with a man."
"But I'm only a boy, which makes all the difference, don't you see?" said Dick naively. "Nobody cares what a boy does, you know. Come along."
She pretended to eye him severely.
"No; I won't 'come along.' And I think it's very rude of you not to take an answer."
"All right," he said cheerfully. "Then will you come and have some supper?"
"Why, it isn't half an hour ago since we had some."
"Then come and see me eat some more," he suggested.
"Thank you; but I am never very fond of seeing animals fed, even at the Zoo!"
"That was rather good," he said, with a grin. "My sister, Nell couldn't have put that one in more neatly."
"Your sister Nell? That's the girl over there, dancing with Captain White? How pretty she is!"
"Think so? Yes, she is, now you mention it. We are considered very much alike."
The girlish laughter, which he had been waiting for, rang out, and, taking advantage of it, Dick coaxed her into a corner on the stairs, where they could flirt to their hearts' content.
"I wonder whether you'd be offended if I told you that you were the jolliest—I mean nicest—girl I've met?" said the young vagabond, with an assumption of innocence and humility which robbed the remark of any offense—at any rate, for his hearer, whose eyes sparkled.
"Not at all. And I wonder whether you'd mind if I told you that I think you are the rudest and most—most audacious boy I ever met?"
"Not the least in the world, because it's no news—I mean that I'm—what was it—the rudest and most audacious? I have a sister, you know, and she deals in candor, candor in solid blocks. But what a mission my condition opens up before you, Miss Angel!"
"A mission?" she asked reluctantly, young enough to know that she was going to be caught somehow.
"Yes," he said, with demure gravity. "The mission of my reformation. If you think me so bad to-night, I don't know, I really don't, what you would have thought of me yesterday, before I had had the advantage of your elevating society. Now, Miss Angel, here is a chance for you—the great chance of your life! Continue your elevating influence. Your cousin has asked me to a rabbit shoot to-morrow."
"You'll shoot somebody. They really ought not to allow boys to carry guns——"
"Who's rude now?" he asked, with a grin. "I was going to say, when you interrupted me, that if you came out with the luncheon party, I should have the opportunity of a lesson in—in deportment and manners. See?"
"I shouldn't think of coming," she declared promptly.
"Oh, yes, you will," he said teasingly, and with an air of conviction. "Women always do what they wouldn't think of doing."
"Really!" she retorted, with mock indignation. "There is only one thing I can do, and it is my duty. I shall tell your sister——Oh, look!" she broke off suddenly, and with something like dismay in her voice, as she pointed downward.
Dick leaned over, and saw Nell, sitting on an old oak bench just below them. She was leaning back; her eyes were closed, and her face white.
"Oh, go to her; she is not well. I am so sorry! Go to her at once!"
Dick ran down the stairs, and the girl followed a step or two, then stood watching them timidly.
"Hallo, Nell! What's the matter?" asked Dick.
She opened her eyes and rose instantly, struggling with all a woman's courage beating in her heart to renew the fight, to play her part to the end of that never—never-ending night.
"Nothing, nothing. I am just a little tired, I think."
At this moment Drake came up.
"This is my dance, Nell," he said. His face, his voice were grave, for his soul was still disquieted within him. "I have been looking for you——"
He stopped suddenly and put out his hand, for her face had grown white again. She had raised her eyes to his for a moment with the look of a dumb animal in pain; but she lowered them instantly and bent aside to take up her dress.
"I am tired," she said, forcing a smile. "The heat—could we not go home? I—I mean, Dick and I—there is no need for you——"
"Yes, yes; at once; this instant!" he said. "Wait while I get you some water—wait——"
He went off quickly, and Nell turned to Dick.
"Will you order the fly, Dick?" she said, in a tone that was quite new to him.
It was, though the boy did not know it, the voice of the woman who has just parted with her girlhood.
"Don't wait, please. I shall be all right."
Dick left her, and Miss Angel came down to her timidly.
"Is there anything I can do—I know what it is. You feel faint——"
"God grant you may never know what it is," she thought, looking up at the girl's face, and feeling years and years older than she.
"Perhaps it is," she said. "But I shall be all right the moment I get into the air."
Miss Angel whipped off her shawl, which Dick had insisted upon her wearing.
"Come with me—you can wait just outside the hall. I know what it is; you want to get outside at once—at once!"
Nell went out with her, and as she felt the cool, fresh air, she drew a breath of relief; then she turned to the girl.
"I am all right now; you must not wait. I have your wrap——"
Dick came up with the fly, and Drake appeared with her cloak and a glass of wine. He had got his hat and coat as he came along. She drank some of the wine, and turned to hold out her hand to the girl and wish her good night and thank her.
"I am quite, quite right now!" Drake heard her say; and his fears—for to a man a woman's fainting fit is a terrible thing—were somewhat dispelled.
They got into the fly, and it drove off. Nell, instead of sinking into the corner, sat bolt upright and forced a smile.
"What a jolly evening!" said Dick, with a deep sigh. "Don't wonder you girls are so fond of parties."
"Yes," she said, with a brightness which deceived both of them, "it has been very jolly. What a pretty girl that is with whom you were sitting out, Dick!"
"I always thought you had great taste," he said approvingly. "She was the nicest girl there—as I ventured to tell her."
Nell laughed—surely the hollowness of the laugh must strike them, she thought—but neither of the two noticed its insincerity, and Dick rattled on, suspecting nothing.
Drake sat almost silent. To be near her, to have her so close to him, was all the sweeter after the hateful scene with Luce. Heaven! how different was this love of his to that other woman from whom he had escaped! It was a terrible word, but it was the only fitting one to his mind.
He would tell Nell in the morning. Yes, he would tell Nell who he was, and—and—of his engagement to Luce. It would be an unpleasant, hateful story, but he would tell it. There had been too much concealment, too much deceit; he had been a fool to yield to the temptation to hide his identity; he would make a clean breast of it to-morrow. Once he stretched out his hand in the direction of hers, but Nell, though her eyes were not turned in his direction, saw the movement, and quickly removed her hand beyond his reach.
The fly drew up at The Cottage, and Dick jumped out and opened the door with his key, and purposely went straight into the house. As Drake helped Nell out, she drew her hand away to gather up her dress, and went quickly into the little hall, and he followed her.
Her heart beat fast and painfully. She felt as if she could not lift her eyes; as if she were the guilty one. Would he—would he attempt to kiss her? Oh, surely, surely not! He could not be so false. She held out her hand.
"I am so sleepy," she said. "Good night!"
He looked at her as he held her hand, and at that moment the kiss which Luce had taken burned like fire upon his lips. He shrank from touching the pure lips of the girl he loved while the other woman's kiss still lingered on his consciousness. It would be desecration.
"You are all right now—not faint?" he said; and there was a troubled expression in his face and voice.
Nell thought she could read his mind, and knew the reason of his hesitation. A few hours ago he would have lost no time in catching her to his heart. But now—he loved her, no longer.
Her face went white, though she strove to keep the color in it.
"Yes, oh, yes!" she said. "I am only tired and—sleepy."
"Then I won't keep you," he said gravely. "Good night."
He had turned; but even as he turned, the longing in his heart grew too fierce for restraint. He swung round suddenly and caught her to him, drew her head upon his breast, and kissed her with passionate love—and remorse.
Nell strove for strength to repulse him, to free herself from his arms; but the strength would not come. For a moment she lay motionless, her lips upturned to his, her eyes seeking his, with an expression in them which haunted Drake for many a long year afterward.
"Nell," he said hoarsely, "I—I have something to tell you to-morrow. I—I have to ask your forgiveness. I would tell you to-night, but—I haven't courage. To-morrow!"
The words broke the spell. The flush of a hot, unbearable shame burned in her veins and shone redly in her face. With an effort, she drew herself from his arms and blindly escaped into the sitting room.
Drake raised his head and looked after her, biting his lip.
"Why not tell her to-night?" he asked himself. There was no guardian angel to whisper, "The man who hesitates is lost!" and thinking, "Not to-night; she is too tired—to-morrow!" he left the house.
Nell stood in the center of the room, her face white, her hands shaking; and Dick, as he peeled off what remained of his gloves, surveyed her critically.
"If I were you, young person, I'd have a stiff glass of grog before I tumbled into my little bed. Look here, if you like to go up now, I'll have a smoke, and bring you some up presently. You look—well, you look as if you were going to have the measles, my child."
Nell laughed discordantly.
"Do I?" she said, pushing the hair from her forehead with both hands, and staring before her vacantly. "Perhaps I am."
"Measles—or influenza," he said, with a pursing of the lips. "Get up to bed, Nell."
"I'm going," she said.
She came round the table, and, leaning both hands on his shoulders, bent her lovely head and kissed him.
"Dick, you—you care for me still?" she asked, in a strained voice.
He stared at her, as, brother like, he wiped the kiss from his lips.
"Care for you? What——Look here, Nell, you're behaving like a second-class idiot. And your lips are like fire. I'm dashed if I don't think you are going to have something."
She laughed and shook her head, and went upstairs. How long the few stairs seemed! Or was it that her legs seemed to have become like lead?
As she passed Mrs. Lorton's room, that lady's voice called to her. Nell opened the door, leaning against it.
"Is that you, Eleanor?" said Mrs. Lorton. "What a noise you made coming in! Really, I think you might have shown some consideration. You know how lightly I sleep. I've the news for you." There was a touch of self-satisfaction in her voice. "A letter has come. Here it is. You had better read it and think over it."
Nell crossed the room unsteadily in the dim flicker of the night light, and took the letter held out to her—took it mechanically—wished Mrs. Lorton good night, and went to her own room.
Before she had got there she had forgotten the letter, and it fell from her hand as she dropped on her knees beside the bed, her arms flung wide over the white counterpane, her whole frame shaking.
"Drake, Drake, Drake!" rose from her quivering lips. "Oh, God! pity me—pity me! I cannot bear it—I cannot bear it!"
Nell woke with that sickening sense of loss which all of us have experienced—that is, all of us who have gone to bed with sorrow lying heavily upon our hearts. The autumnal sun was pouring in through the windows, the birds were singing; some of them waiting on the tree outside for the crumbs which Nell had been in the habit, ever since she was a child, of throwing to them. Even in her misery of last night she had not forgotten the birds; in the misery of her awakening she remembered them, and went unsteadily to the lattice window.
The keen air, as it blew upon her face, brought the full consciousness of the sorrow that had befallen her.
Yesterday morning she was the happiest girl in all the world; this morning she was the most wretched.
She put her hands to her face, as if some one had struck her, and she called all her woman's courage to meet and combat her trouble. The bright world seemed pressing down upon her heavily, the shrill notes of the birds clamoring their gratitude as they greedily fought for the crumbs, pierced through her head. She swayed to and fro, as if she were about to fall; for, in the young, mental anguish produces an absolute physical pain, and her head as well as her heart was aching.
She would have liked to have thrown herself upon the bed, but Dick would be clamoring for his breakfast presently, and Mrs. Lorton would want her chocolate. Life is a big wheel, and one has to push it round, though its edges are set with spikes of steel, and our hands are torn in the effort to keep it moving.
As she dressed herself with trembling hands, she kept saying to herself—her lips quivering with the unspoken words:
"I have lost Drake—I have lost Drake; I have got to bear it!"
He would be here presently—or, perhaps, he would not come. Perhaps he would write to her. And yet, no; that would not be like him; he was no coward; he would come and tell her the truth, would ask her to forgive him.
And what should she say? Yes; she would forgive him; she would make no "scene" with him; she would not utter one word of reproach, but just tell him that he was free. She would even smile, if she could; would assure him that she was not going to break her heart because the woman he had loved before he had met her—Nell—had won him back. After all, he was not to blame. How could any man resist such a woman as Lady Luce? She—Nell—was just an interlude in his life's story; he had thought himself in love with her; and, perhaps, if this beautiful creature, before whom all hearts seemed to go down, had not desired to lure him back, he would have remained faithful to the "little girl" whom he had chanced to meet at that "out-of-the-way place in Devonshire, don't you know." Nell could almost hear Lady Luce referring to the episode in these terms, if ever it should come to her ears.
No; there should be no scene. She would give him both her hands, would say "good-by" quite calmly, and would then take her broken heart to the solitude of her own room, and try to begin to repair it.
Dick shouted for his breakfast, and she went downstairs. He was busy reading a letter, and his face was full of eagerness, his eyes sparkling with excitement.
"I say, Nell, what a good chap Drake is!" he exclaimed. "He never said a word to me about it; but he's been worrying Bardsley & Bardsley for weeks past, and they've written to say that they think they can take me on. Just think of it! Bardsley & Bardsley! The biggest firm in the engineering line! Drake must have a great deal of influence; and I don't know how on earth he managed it. I didn't know he knew any one connected with the profession. It's a most splendid chance, you know!"
Nell went round beside him, and laid her hand upon his shoulder.
"I am very glad, Dick," she said.
Something in her voice must have struck him, for he looked up at her quickly, and with surprise.
"Why, what's the matter, Nell?" he asked.
"Nothing," she said. "I have a headache."
"Just so. 'After the opera is over,' you know. That's the penalty one pays for one's first dance. And you were queer last night, too, weren't you? Why didn't you lie in bed?"
"Never mind me," said Nell. "Tell me about this letter. When are you going, Dick?"
A fresh pang smote her. Was she going to lose the boy as well?
"Oh, they don't say," he replied. "They're going to let me know. They may send me abroad; you can't tell. What a good chap Drake is, and what a lot we owe him? Upon my word, Nell, you're a lucky girl to have got hold of such a fellow for your young man."
Nell turned away with a sickening pain about her heart. No; she would not tell the boy at this moment. She wouldn't spoil his happiness with the wet blanket of her own misery. She must even, when she came to tell him, make light of the broken engagement, take the blame upon herself, and prevent any rupture of the friendship between Drake and Dick.
He was almost too excited to eat any breakfast; certainly too excited to notice Nell's untouched cup and plate.
"I must see Drake about this at once," he said. "I think I'll go down and meet him. He's sure to be coming up here, isn't he?" he added, with a bantering smile; and Nell actually tried to smile back at him.
As she took the chocolate up to Mrs. Lorton, she tried to put her own trouble out of her head, and to think only of Dick's good fortune. How she had longed for some such chance as this to come to the boy, and now it had come. But who had sent it? Drake! Well, all the more reason that she should forgive him, and utter no word of reproach or bitterness.
"You are ten minutes late, Eleanor!" said Mrs. Lorton peevishly. "And, good heavens! what a sight you look! If one late night has this effect upon you, what would half a dozen have? I am quite sure that I never looked half as haggard and colorless as you do, even when I'd been through a whole season." For a moment the good lady was quite convinced that she had been a fashionable belle. "I should advise you to keep out of Drake's sight for an hour or two; at any rate, until you have got some color in your face, and your eyes have ceased to look like boiled gooseberries."
The mention of Drake brought the color to Nell's face quickly enough, but for an instant only. It was white again, as she resolved to tell Mrs. Lorton that the engagement was broken off.
"It doesn't matter, mamma," she said; and she tried to smile.
Mrs. Lorton stared at her over the chocolate.
"Doesn't matter?" she echoed. "You think he's so madly in love with you that it doesn't matter how you look, I suppose? Don't lay that flattering unction to your soul, Eleanor. I've known many an engagement broken off in consequence of the man coming suddenly upon the girl when she had a bad cold and had got a red nose and eyes."
"Perhaps I've had a bad cold without knowing it, mamma, and Drake must have come upon me when my nose and eyes were appallingly red, for our engagement—is—broken—off."
Mrs. Lorton nearly dropped the cup of chocolate, and stared and gasped like a fish out of water.
"Broken off!" she exclaimed. "Take this cup away! Give me the sal volatile. Open the window! No, don't open the window! What are you talking about? Are you out of your mind?"
Nell took the cup, got the sal volatile, and soothed the flustered woman in a mechanical fashion.
"Hush, hush, mamma!" she said. "I don't want Dick to know yet."
"But why—how——What have you been doing?" demanded Mrs. Lorton; and Nell could have laughed.
"Nothing very bad, mamma," she said.
"But you must have," insisted Mrs. Lorton. "Of course it's your fault."
"Is it absolutely necessary that there should be any fault?" said Nell wearily. "But let us say that it is my fault. Perhaps it is!" She laughed unconsciously, and with a touch of bitterness. "What does it matter whose fault it is? The reason isn't of any consequence at all; the fact is the only important thing, and it is a fact that our engagement is broken. It was broken last night, and I tell you at once, mamma; and I want to beg you not to ask me any questions. Drake—Mr. Vernon—will no doubt go away to-day, and we shan't see him any more." She went to the window to arrange the blind, and Mrs. Lorton didn't see the twitching of the white lips which spoke so calmly. "And I want to forget him; I want you, too, to try and forget him, and not to remind me of him by a single word. It was very foolish, my thinking that he cared for me——Oh, I can't say another word——"
She stopped suddenly, her hands writhing together.
Mrs. Lorton stared at the counterpane with a half-sly, half-speculative expression in her faded eyes.
"After all," she said meditatively, "it was not such a particularly good match. One knows nothing about him or his people, and—and I suppose you've not felt quite satisfied. Yes, perhaps you might do better. You may have some chances now. You've read the letter, and made up your mind, of course?"
"The letter?" echoed Nell stupidly.
Mrs. Lorton stared at her angrily, and with a flush of resentment on her peevish face.
"The letter I gave you last night, of course," she said. "Do you mean to tell me that you haven't read it? The most important letter I have ever received! At least, it is of the greatest importance to you. It is from my cousin, Lord Wolfer. What have you done with it, Eleanor?"
Nell put her hand to her head.
"I must have left it in my room," she said. "I will go and fetch it."
Mrs. Lorton snorted.
"Such gross carelessness and indifference is really shameful!" she flung after Nell.
Nell found the letter beside the bed, and returned with it to Mrs. Lorton's room.
"Why, it's all crumpled up, as if you had been playing shuttlecock with it!" exclaimed Mrs. Lorton indignantly. "It is absolutely disrespectful of you, not to say ungrateful. Read it, if you please, and slowly; I could not bear to have my cousin's letter gabbled over. I, at least, know what is due to a Wolfer."
It was a moment or two before Nell's burning eyes could accomplish the task of deciphering the lines of handwriting which seemed to have been formed by a paralytic spider that had fallen into the ink and scrambled spasmodically across the paper. There was no need to tell her to read slowly, and she stumbled over every other word of the letter, which ran thus:
"MY DEAR SOPHIA: You will doubtless be surprised at hearing from me, and, indeed, I should not have written, for, as you are aware, my time is fully occupied with public affairs, and I rarely write private letters; but I have promised Lady Wolfer to communicate with you directly, as, for obvious reasons, which you will presently see, she does not desire my secretary to know of the proposal which I am about to make you; as, in the event of your declining the proposition, there would be no need for the fact of its having been made to become the common knowledge of my household and the servants' hall. As you are doubtless aware, by reading the public prints, Lady Wolfer takes a great interest and a prominent part in the movement which is being made toward the amelioration of the position of woman; indeed, I may say, with pardonable pride, that she is one of the great leaders in this social revolution, which, we trust, will place woman upon the throne from which man has hitherto thrust her.
"This being so, Lady Wolfer's time is, as you will readily understand, much absorbed; so completely, indeed, that she is unable to pay any attention to those smaller and meaner; household cares to which women less highly gifted very properly devote so much of their time. Having no daughter of our own, it occurred to us that it might, perhaps, be a beneficial arrangement for your stepdaughter, Miss Lorton, if she would come to us and render Lady Wolfer such assistance as is afforded by the ordinary housekeeper. You will say: Why not engage a duly qualified person for the post? I reply: We have done so, and do not find the ordinary person, though apparently duly qualified, satisfactory. Lady Wolfer is of an extremely sensitive and delicate organization, and it is absolutely necessary that the person with whom she would be brought in daily contact should be young and docile.
"I have referred to the photograph of Miss Lorton which you were good enough to send me some months ago, and you will be pleased to hear that Lady Wolfer approves of the young lady's personal appearance. I take it for granted—you, her guardian, being a Wolfer—that she has been properly trained; and if she should be willing to come to us on what is termed a month's trial, we shall be very pleased to receive her. She may come at any moment, and without any notice beyond a mere telegram. I will not speak of the advantages accruing from such a position as that which she would hold, for I am quite sure you will be duly sensible of them, and will point them out to her.
"I trust that you are in good health, and with best wishes for your prosperity and happiness,
"I remain, dear Sophia, yours very truly,
"P. S.—I omitted to say that I should be pleased to pay Miss Lorton an honorarium of fifty guineas per annum."
At another time Nell would have found it difficult to refrain from laughing at the stilted phraseology of the letter, at the pomposity with which the proposal was made, and the meanness which strove to hide itself in a postscript; but a Punch and Judy show would have seemed a funereal performance at that moment, and she stared as blankly at the letter when she had finished it as if she had been reading some language which had no meaning for her.
Mrs. Lorton emitted a cough of self-satisfaction.
"It is extremely kind and thoughtful of my Cousin Wolfer," she said; "and I must say that I think you are an extremely fortunate girl, Eleanor, to have had such an offer made you. Of course, if you had been still engaged to Mr. Vernon, you would have been obliged to have sent a refusal to Lord Wolfer; but, as it is, I presume you will not hesitate for a moment, but will jump at such an opportunity."
Nell looked before her blankly, and remained silent.
"It will be a chance such as few girls of your position ever meet with; for, of course, when my cousin speaks of a housekeeper, he does not wish us to infer that you would be expected to take the position of a menial. No; he will not forget that though you are not my daughter, I married your father, and that you are, therefore, connected with the family. Of course, you will go into society, you will meet the elite and the creme de la creme, and will, therefore, enjoy advantages similar to those which I enjoyed, but which I, alas! threw away. Really, when one comes to consider it, this breach of your engagement with this Mr. Vernon is quite providential, as it removes the only obstacle to your accepting my cousin's noble offer."
Nell woke with a start when the stream of self-complacent comment had ceased, and realized that she was being asked to decide. What should she do? To leave Shorne Mills, to go into the world among strangers, to enter a big house as a poor relation—she shrank from the prospect for a moment, then she nerved herself to face it. After all, she could never be happy at Shorne Mills again. Every tree, every rock, every human being would remind her of Drake, of the lover she had lost. With Dick gone, there would be nothing for her to do, nothing to distract her mind from the perpetual brooding over the few past weeks of happiness, and the long, gray life before her. With these people there would be sure to be some work for her, something that would save her from spending every hour in futile regret and hopeless longing.
"Well, Eleanor?" demanded Mrs. Lorton impatiently.
"I have made up my mind; I will go," said Nell.
Mrs. Lorton flushed eagerly.
"Of course you will," she said. "It would be wicked and ungrateful to neglect such a chance. When will you go? Fortunately, you have some new clothes, and you will get what else you want in London. There are one or two things I should like you to get for me. You could pick them up at some of the sales; they are all on now, and things are sold ridiculously cheap. And, Eleanor, be sure and send me a full description of Lady Wolfer's dresses. You might snip off a pattern, perhaps. And I shall want to hear all about the people who go to the house, and the dinner parties and entertainments. I should say that it is not at all unlikely that Lady Wolfer may ask me to go and stay there. Of course, she will be curious to know what I am like—have I mentioned that we have never met?—and you will tell her that I—I—have been accustomed to the society in which she moves; and you might say that you are sure the change will do me good. Write often, and be sure and tell me about the dresses."
"But I shall leave you all alone, mamma," said Eleanor. "Are you sure you won't be lonely?"
Mrs. Lorton drew a long sigh, and assumed the air of a martyr.
"You know me too well to think that I should allow my selfish comfort to stand in the way of your advancement, Eleanor. Of course, I shall miss you. But do not think of that. Let us think only of your welfare. I shall have Molly, and must be content."
Nell checked a sigh at the evident affectation of the profession. It was not in Mrs. Lorton to miss any human being so long as her own small comforts were assured.
"Then I think I will go at once—to-night," said Nell. "Why should I not? They want me—some one—at once, and——"
"Certainly," assented Mrs. Lorton eagerly. "I should go at once. You will write immediately, and tell me what the house is like, and the dresses."
Nell went downstairs, feeling rather confused and bewildered by the sudden change in her life. She was to have been Drake's wife; she was now to be—what was it, companion, housekeeper?—to Lady Wolfer!
Dick met her at the bottom of the stairs.
"I can't find Drake," he said, of course, with an injured air. "They say he left the cottage early this morning—they thought he was coming up here, as usual; but he hasn't been, has he?"
Nell shook her head.
"See, Dick, I've some news for you," she said. "I am going to London."
She gave him the letter to read, and he read it, with a running commentary of indignant and scoffing exclamations.
"Of all the pompous, stuck-up letters, it's the worst I ever imagined! And you say you're going? Oh, but look here! What will Drake say?"
Nell turned away.
"I don't think he will object," she said, almost inaudibly.
Dick stared at her.
"Look here, young party, what is up between you two? Is there anything wrong? Oh, dash it! don't look as if I'd said there was a ghost behind you! What is it?"
"Drake—Drake and I are not going to be married," she said, trying to smile, but breaking down in the attempt. "We—we have agreed—to—to part!"
Dick uttered a low whistle, and gazed at her, aghast.
"All off!" he said. "Phew! Why—when—how?"
She began to collect some of her small belongings—a tiny workbasket, some books, and such like, and answered as she moved to and fro, studiously keeping her face turned away from him:
"I can't tell you; don't ask me, Dick. Don't—don't ask him. It—it is all right. It is all for the best, as mamma would say; and—and——" She went behind him and laid her hand on his shoulder, her favorite attitude when she was serious or pleading. "And mind, Dick, it is to make no difference between you—and Drake. It—is—yes, it is all my fault. I—I was foolish and——"
She could bear no more; and, with a quick movement of her hand to her throat, hastened from the room.
Dick looked after her ruefully for a moment or two, then his face cleared, and he winked to himself.
"What an ass I am to be upset by a lovers' quarrel. Of course, it's all in the game. The other business would pall after a time if there wasn't a little of this kind of thing chucked in for a change. I wonder whether that jolly girl, Miss Angel, will come down to the lunch? Now, there's a girl no chap could have even a lovers' quarrel with. Poor old Drake! Bet I shall find 'em billing and cooing as usual when I come back," And Dick grinned as he marched off with his gun.
Drake rode over to the Grange for breakfast, according to his promise. He was glad of the ride, glad of an hour or two in which he could think over the dramatic events of the preceding night, and, so to speak, clear his brain of the unpleasant glamour which Lady Luce's words and behavior had produced.
Not for a moment did he swerve from his allegiance to Nell; never for a moment did the splendor of Luce's beauty, the trick of her soft voice, her passionate caress, eclipse the starlike purity of Nell's nature and personality. If it were possible, he loved Nell better and more devotedly, longed for her more ardently, since his meeting with Luce, than he had done before.
All the way to the Grange he rehearsed what he would say to Nell when he rode back to The Cottage. He would tell her everything; would beg her to forgive him for his deception, his concealment of his full name and title, and—yes, he would admit that he had once loved, or thought that he had loved, Lady Luce; but that now——Well, there was only one woman in the world for him, and that was Nell.
He found Sir William standing on the lawn, dressed in riding cords of the good old kind, loose in fit and yellow in color, and surrounded by dogs of divers shapes and various breeds. He was as ruddy-cheeked and bright-eyed as if he had been to bed last night at ten o'clock, and he scanned the well-set-up Drake as he rode up, with a nod of approval.
"Up to time, Mr. Vernon—got your name right at last, eh? None the worse for the hop last night, I suppose? Don't look any, anyway. That's a good nag you're riding. Bred him yourself, eh? Gad! It's the best way, if it's the dearest."
He called for a groom to take the horse, and bade Drake come in to breakfast.
"You'll find nobody down, and we shall have it all to ourselves. That's the worst of women: keep 'em up half an hour later than usual, or upset their nerves with a bit of a row or anything of that kind, and, by George! they've got to lie abed the next morning! Now, help yourself to anything you see—have anything else cooked if you don't fancy what's here. I always toy with half a pound of steak, just to lay a foundation; been my breakfast, man and boy, for longer than I can remember."
Drake ate his breakfast and listened to the genial old man—not very attentively, it is to be feared, for he was thinking of Nell most of the time—and when the baronet had demolished his steak, they went to the farm, followed by the motley collection of dogs which had waited outside with more or less patience for the reappearance of their master, and welcomed him with a series of yappings and barkings which might have been heard a mile off.
The farm was a good one, and Drake gradually got interested in the really splendid cattle which Sir William exhibited with the enthusiasm of a breeder. The morning slipped away, but though Drake glanced at his watch significantly now and again, Sir William would not let him go; and at last he said:
"What's your hurry, Vernon? Why not ride to Shallop with me? You could look around the town while I'm on the bench—unless you care to step into court and see how we administer justice—hah! hah! it's only a few 'drunk and disorderlies' or a case of assault that we get nowadays; or perhaps a petty larceny—anyway, you will ride into the town with me, and we will have a bit of lunch together at the Crown and Scepter. No, I won't take any refusal! To tell you the truth, I want to have a chat with you about that last bull I showed you."
Drake, thinking that it would be quicker to consent—that is to say, to ride into Shallop and cut across the country to Shorne Mills, yielded; the horses were brought round, and after Sir William had disposed of a tankard of ale, by way of a good, old-fashioned stirrup cup, the two men started.
Sir William talked and joked as they rode along, and Drake pretended to listen, while in reality he continued his rehearsal of all he would say to Nell when presently he should be by her side, with his arms round her and her head on his breast.
It was market day at Shallop, and the usual crowd of pigs and sheep and cattle, with their attendant drovers and farmers, blocked the streets. Sir William pulled up occasionally, throwing a word to one and another, but the two men reached the Town Hall at last, and Drake was just on the point of remarking that he would be off, when he saw Sir William grow very red in the face and very bulgy about the eyes, while at the same time his big hand went in a helpless kind of fashion to his old-fashioned neck stock.
Drake could not imagine what was the matter, and was still in the first throes of amazement when Sir William suddenly swayed to and fro in the saddle, and then fell across his horse's neck to the ground.
Drake was off his horse in a moment, and had raised the old man's head as quickly. A crowd collected almost as rapidly as if the place had been London, and cries of "Dear, dear! it's Sir William! it's a fit! Fetch a doctor!" rose from all sides.
A doctor presently pushed his way through the gaping mob of farmers and tradesmen, and knelt beside Drake.
"Apoplexy," he said, pursing his lips and shaking his head. "Always thought it would happen. Let us get him to the hotel."
Between them they carried the stricken man to the Crown and Scepter, at which—irony of fate!—Sir William would have lunched, and got him to bed.
"I've warned him once or twice," said the doctor, with a shrug of the shoulders. "But what's the use! You tell a man to cut tobacco and spirits, or they will kill him, or to refrain from rump steak and old ale for breakfast, and he obeys you—until the next time!"
"Is he going to die?" asked Drake sadly, for he had taken a fancy to the old man.
"No-o; I don't think so. Not this time. We shall have to keep him quiet. Lady Maltby ought to know—ought to be here. And we mustn't frighten her. Would you mind riding over for her—bringing her, I mean? She'll want some one with her who can keep a cool head, and I fancy you can do that, sir."
"That's all right," said Drake at once; "of course I'll go."
So it happened that, instead of riding to Shorne Mills and seeing Nell, and telling her the truth, the whole truth, which would have turned her misery to happiness, he was going as fast as his horse could carry him back to the Grange.
It was not the first time he had broken bad news—he had seen men fall in the hunting field, and on the race course, and had had more than once to carry the tidings to the bereaved—and he fulfilled his sad task with all the tact of which he was capable. So well, indeed, that even if he had intended permitting Lady Maltby to proceed to Shallop without him, she would not have let him go. The poor woman clung to him, as women in their hour of need always cling to the strong man near them.
They found Sir William coming back to consciousness—a condition which, though fortunate for him, was unfortunate for Drake; for the sick man seemed to cling to him and to rely upon him just as Lady Maltby had done. He implored Drake not to leave him, and Drake sat on one side of the bed, with the frightened wife on the other, until Sir William fell into a more or less refreshing slumber.
It was just four when he mounted his horse and rode to Shorne Mills. The performance of a good deed always brings a certain amount of satisfaction with it, and, as he rode along, Drake felt more at ease than he had done since the scene with Lady Luce. Indeed, last night seemed very far away, and the incident on the terrace of very little consequence. Death, or the warning of death, is so solemn a thing that other matters dwarf beside it. But his resolution to tell Nell everything had not weakened, and he urged his rather tired horse along the steep and switchbacky road.
At a place called Short's Cross he caught sight of the Shorne Mills carrier on his way to the station. But Drake did not guess that Nell was sitting under the tilt cover, that by just turning his horse and riding hard for a minute or two he could be beside her. He glanced at the cart, thought of the day he had first seen it, and of all that had happened since, and, gently touching his horse with his whip, rode on.
The sun was sinking as he crossed the moor, and the cliffs were dyed a fiery red as he came in sight of them and The Cottage on the brow of the hill. His heart beat fast during the few minutes spent in reaching the garden gate. What would she say? Would she be much startled when she learned that he was "Lord Selbie"? Would she understand that he had never really loved Luce; that it was she—Nell—whom he wanted for his wife, had wanted almost from the first day of his seeing her?
At the sound of the horse's hoofs Dick came out of The Cottage, and down to the gate.
"Hallo!" he exclaimed. "Why, where on earth have you been?"
Drake explained as he got off the horse.
"I breakfasted at the Grange. I don't think I mentioned it last night, did I? Then I rode into Shallop with Sir William, and he had a fit of some sort—apoplexy, I fancy—and I had to come back and fetch Lady Maltby. Then the poor old chap came to, and—well, he felt like wanting company, and I couldn't leave him until he fell asleep."
"Poor old chap! I haven't heard a word of it," said Dick. "I say, come in! Mamma will be delighted to hear news of that kind—no, no; I don't mean—you know what I mean. Something exciting like that is like a bottle of champagne to her."
"I'll take the horse in; he's had rather a hard day of it," said Drake. "I've bucketed him up hill and down dale; obliged to, you know."
As he spoke, he looked beyond Dick and toward the open door of The Cottage wistfully. Why didn't Nell come out? As a rule, it was she who first heard the sound of his footsteps or his horse's.
"I'll take it. Oh, I say, Drake, how awfully kind of you to—to——Bardsley & Bardsley, you know! Upon my word, I don't know how to thank you! I don't, indeed!"
"That's all right," said Drake. "Hope it's what you want, Dick. If it isn't, we must find something else. Anyway, you can try it."
"What I want! Rather! I should think so! As I told Nell——"
"Where is Nell, by the way?" cut in Drake, with all a lover's impatience.
Dick looked rather taken aback.
"Oh—ah—that is—I say, you know, what's this shindy between you and Nell?" he said, with a somewhat uneasy grin.
"Shindy? What do you mean?" demanded Drake.
Dick began to look uncomfortable.
"I don't know anything about it," he said hesitatingly, "only what she told me. She was awfully upset this morning; red-eyed and white about the gills, and all I could understand was that it was 'all over' between you." He grinned again, but more uncomfortably. "Of course, I knew it was only a lovers' tiff—'make it up and kiss again,' don't you know."
His voice and the grin died away under the change in Drake's expressive countenance.
"What is the matter, anyway?" he demanded. "Is there a real quarrel?"
"I don't know what you are talking about," said Drake, speaking as a man speaks when a cold fear is beginning to creep about his heart.
"Well, I don't know myself," said Dick desperately. "Oh, I've got a letter for you somewhere—perhaps that will explain. Now, what did I do with it? Oh, I know! Wait a moment!"
He ran into the house, and Drake waited, mechanically stroking his horse's sweating neck.
Dick came out and held out a letter.
"She gave me this for you."
Drake opened the letter, and read:
"DEAR DRAKE: I may call you so for the last time. I am writing to tell you that our engagement must come to an end. I have found that I have, that we both have, made a mistake. You, who are so quick to understand, will know, even as you read this, that I have discovered all that you have kept secret from me, and that, now I know it all, it is impossible, quite impossible, that I should——" Here a line was hastily scratched through. "I want you to believe that I don't blame you in the least; it is quite impossible that I could care for you any longer, or that I could consent to remain your promised wife; indeed, I am sorry, very, very sorry, that we should have met. If I had known all that I know now, I would rather have died than have let you speak a word of love to me.
"So it is 'good-by' forever. Please do not make it harder for me by writing to me or attempting to see me—but I know that you have cared, perhaps still care enough for me not to do so. Nothing would induce me to renew our engagement, though I shall always think kindly of you, and wish you well. I return the ring you gave me. You will let me keep the silver pencil as a souvenir of one who will always remain as, but can never be more than, a friend.
"Yours, ELEANOR LORTON."
Men take the blows of Fate in various fashions. Drake's way was to take his punishment with as little fuss as possible. His face went very white, and his nostrils contracted, just as they would have done if he had come an ugly cropper over a piece of timber.
"Where—where is Nell?" he asked, in so changed and strained a voice that Dick started, and gaped at him, aghast.
"She's——Didn't I tell you? Didn't she tell you? She's gone——"
"Gone!" repeated Drake dully.
"Yes; she's gone to London, to some relations of ours—that is, mamma's, you know!"
Drake didn't know where she had gone, but he thought he understood why she had gone. She meant to abide by her resolution to break with him. Her love had changed to distrust, perhaps—God knew!—to actual dislike.
He turned to the horse and mechanically arranged the bridle.
"It—it doesn't matter," he said. "I'll take the horse down. Oh, by the way, Dick, I may have to go to London to-night."
"What, you, too!" said Dick. "I say, there's nothing serious the matter, is there? It's only a lovers' tiff, isn't it?"
"I'm afraid not," said Drake, as calmly as he could. "See here, Dick, we won't talk about it; I can't. Your—your sister has broken our engagement——Hold on! there's no use discussing it. She's quite right. Do you hear? She's quite right," he repeated, with a sudden fierceness. "Everything she says is right. I—I admit it. I am to blame."
"Why, that's what she said!" exclaimed the mystified and somewhat exasperated Dick.
"What she has said is true—too true," continued Drake; "and there's no more to be said. When you write—if you see her, tell her that—that—I obey her—it's the least I can do—and that I won't—won't worry her. Her word, her wish, is law to me. And—and you may say I deserve it all. You may say, too, that——"
He broke off, and slowly, with the heaviness of a man become suddenly tired, got on his horse.
"No; say nothing, excepting that I obey her, and that I won't worry her. Good-by, Dick."
He held out his hand, and Dick, with an anxious face and bewildered eyes, clung to it.
"Here, I say, Drake; this is awful! You don't mean to say it's 'good-by'! I don't understand."
"I'm afraid it is," said Drake, pulling himself together, and forcing a smile. "I'm sorry to leave you, Dick; you and I have been good friends; but—well, the best of friends must part. I shall have gone to-night. I can catch the train. Look up Bardsley & Bardsley."
With a nod—the nod which we give nowadays when we are saying farewell with a broken heart—he turned the horse down the hill and rode away.
He tossed his things into a portmanteau, got the one available trap to carry them to the station, and caught the night mail. At Salisbury he changed for Southampton, and reached that flourishing port the next morning.
The sailing master of the Seagull happened to be on board when the owner of that well-known yacht was rowed alongside, and he hastened to the side and touched his hat as Drake climbed the ladder.
"Did you wire, my lord?" he asked. "I haven't had anything."
"No; I came rather unexpectedly," said Drake quietly. "Is everything ready?"
"Quite, my lord, or nearly so. I think we could sail, say, in half a dozen hours."
"If my cabin is ready, I'll go below and change," he said. "We'll sail as soon as possible."
"Certainly, my lord. Where are we bound for?" asked Mr. Murphy, in as casual a manner as he could manage; for, though he was used to short notice, this, to quote his expression to the mate later on, "took the cake."
Drake looked absently at the sky line.
"Oh, the Mediterranean, I suppose," he said listlessly. He stood for a moment with his hand upon the rail of the saloon steps, and Mr. Murphy ventured to inquire:
"Quite well, I hope, my lord?" for there was a pallor on his lordship's face which caused the worthy skipper a vague uneasiness. He had seen his master under various and peculiar circumstances, but had never seen him look quite like this.
"Perfectly well and fit, thanks, captain," said Drake. "Will you have a cigar? Wind will just suit us, will it not?"
* * * * *
About the same time Nell's cab arrived at Wolfer House, Egerton Square. There were several other cabs and carriages standing in a line opposite the house, and Nell's cab had to wait some little time before it could set her down; but at last she was able to alight, and a footman escorted her and her box into a large and rather gloomy hall. He seemed somewhat surprised by her box, and eyed her doubtfully as she inquired for Lady Wolfer.
"Lady Wolfer? Yes, miss. Her ladyship is in the dining room. The meeting is now on. Perhaps you had better walk in."
Sharing the man's hesitation, Nell followed him to the door. As he opened it, the sound of a woman's voice, thin, yet insistent and rasping, came out to meet her. She saw that the room was crowded. Nearly all who were present were women—women of various ages, but all with some peculiarity of manner or dress which struck Nell at the very first moment. But there were some men present—men with fat and rather flabby faces, men small and feeble in appearance, men long-haired and smooth-shaven.
At the end of the room, behind a small table, stood a woman, still young, dressed in a tailor-made suit of masculine pattern and cut. Her hair was pretty in color and texture, but it was cut almost close, and just touched the collar of her covert coat. She wore a bowler hat, her gloves were on the table in front of her—thick, dogskin gloves, like a man's. She held a roll of paper in her hand, which was bare of rings, though feminine enough in size and shape. A pince-nez was balanced on her nose, and her chin—really a pretty chin—was held high in an aggressive manner.
Nell had an idea that this was Lady Wolfer, and she edged as close to the wall as she could, and watched and listened to the speaker with a natural curiosity and anxiety.
"To conclude," the orator was saying, with a wave of the roll of paper and a jerk of the chin, "to conclude, we are banded together to wage a war against our old tyrant—a war of equity and right. Oh, my sisters, do not let us falter, do not let us return the sword to the scabbard until we have cleaved our way to that goal toward which the eyes of suffering womanhood have been drawn since the gospel of equal rights for both sexes sounded its first evangel!"
It was evidently the close, the peroration, of the speech; there was a burst of applause, much clapping of hands, and immediately afterward a kind of stampede to some tables, behind which a couple of footmen were preparing to dispense light refreshments.
Nell, much mystified, and rather shy and frightened, remained where she was; and she was just upon the point of inquiring for Lady Wolfer, when the recent speaker came down the room, talking with one and another of the presumably less hungry mob, and catching sight of Nell's slight and rather shrinking figure, advanced toward her.
"This is a new disciple, I suppose," she said, smiling through her eyeglasses.
"I—I wish to see Lady Wolfer," said Nell, trying not to blush.
"I am Lady Wolfer," said the youngish lady with the short hair and mannish suit; and she spoke in a gentler voice than Nell would have been inclined to credit her with.
"I am—I am Nell Lorton."
Lady Wolfer looked puzzled for a moment; then she laughed and held out her hand.
"Really? Why, how young and——" She was going to say "pretty," but stopped in time. "Did you wire? But of course you did. I must have forgotten. I have such a mass of correspondence!" She laughed again. "I thought you were a new disciple! Come with me!"
And, with what struck Nell as scant courtesy, her ladyship left the other ladies, took her by the hand, and led her out of the room.
Lady Wolfer led Nell to her ladyship's own room. It was as unlike a boudoir as it well could be; for the furniture was of the simplest kind, and in place of the elegant trifles with which the fair sex usually delight to surround themselves, the tables, the couch, and even the chairs were littered with solid-looking volumes, blue books, pamphlets, and sheets of manuscript paper.
There was a piano, it is true; but its top was loaded with handbills and posters announcing meetings, and the dust lay thick on its lid. The writing table was better suited to an office than a lady's "own room," and it was strewn with the prevailing litter.
Lady Wolfer cleared a chair by sweeping the books from it, and gently pushed Nell into it.
"Now, you sit down for a moment while I ring for a maid to take you to your room. Heaven only knows where it is, or in what condition you will find it! You see, I quite forgot you were coming. Candid, isn't it? But I'm always candid, and I begin at once with you. By the way, oughtn't you to have come earlier—or later?"
Nell explained that she had had her breakfast at the station, and spent an hour in the waiting room, so as not to present herself too early.
"How thoughtful of you!" said Lady Wolfer. "You don't look—you look so young and—girlish."
"I'm not very old," remarked Nell, with a smile. "Perhaps I'm not old enough to fill the position."
"Oh, for goodness' sake, don't throw a doubt upon your staying!" said her ladyship quickly. "I'm so tired of old, or what I call old, people, and I am sure you will do beautifully. For, though you are so young, you look as if you could manage; and that is what I can't do—I mean manage a house. I can talk—I can talk the hind leg off a donkey, as Archie says"—she stopped, looking slightly embarrassed for a moment, and Nell supposed that her ladyship alluded to Lord Wolfer—"but when it comes to details, fortunately there is always somebody else."
While she had been speaking, Lady Wolfer had taken off her hat and jacket, and flung them onto the book-and-paper-strewn couch.
"I'm just come in from a breakfast meeting to attend this one at home," she explained. "And I've got to go out again directly to a committee—the Employment of Women Bureau. Have you ever heard of it?"
Nell shook her head.
"No? I'm half inclined to envy you. No, I'm not! If it weren't for my work, I should go out of my mind."
She put her hand to her head, and for an instant a wearied, melancholy expression flitted across her face, as if some hidden trouble had reared its head and grinned at her.
The door opened, and a maid appeared.
"Burden, this is Miss Lorton," said Lady Wolfer. "Is her room ready?"
Burden looked exceedingly doubtful.
"I expected it! Please have it got ready at once; and send some wine and biscuits, please."
A footman brought them, and Lady Wolfer poured some wine out for Nell.
"Oh, but you must! Heaven knows when we shall have lunch; they'll very likely consider that scramble downstairs as sufficient. But you'll see to all that for the future, won't you?"
"You must tell me, Lady Wolfer——" began Nell, but her ladyship, with a grimace, stopped her.
"My dear girl, I can't tell you anything, excepting that Lord Wolfer takes his breakfast early—not later than nine—is seldom in to lunch, and still less frequently at home to dinner; but when he does dine here, he dines at eight. The cook, who is, I believe, rather a decent sort of man, knows what Lord Wolfer likes, and you can't go very far wrong, I fancy, if you have a joint of roast beef or a leg of mutton on the menu; the rest doesn't matter."
Nell began to feel daunted. There was just a little too much carte blanche about it.
"And as to the other servants, why, there's an old person named Hubbard—Old Mother Hubbard, I call her—who is supposed to look after them."
Nell could not help smiling.
"I don't quite see where I come in," she remarked.
Lady Wolfer laughed.
"Oh, don't you?" she replied, as if she had been explaining most fully. "You are the figurehead, the goddess of the machine. You will see that all goes right, and give Lord Wolfer his breakfast, and preside at the dinner when I'm out on the stump——"
"On the what?" asked the mystified Nell.
"Out speaking at meetings or serving on committees," said Lady Wolfer. "And you will arrange about the dinner parties and—and all that kind of thing, you know—the stupid things that I'm expected to do, but which I really haven't any time for. Do you quite see now?"
"I will do all I can," Nell said, and she laughed.
Lady Wolfer glanced at her rather curiously.
"How pretty you look when you laugh—quite different. You struck me as looking rather sad and sobered when I first saw you; but when you laugh——I should advise you not to laugh when you first see Lord Wolfer, or he'll think you too absurdly young and girlish for the post. Do take your hat and jacket off! It will be some time before your room is ready. Let me help you."
Nell got her outdoor things off quickly, and Lady Wolfer looked at her still more approvingly.
"You really are quite a child, my dear!" she said, and for some reason or other she sighed. "Why didn't Wolfer tell me about you before, I wonder? I wish he had; I should like to have had you come and stay with us. But he is so reserved——" she sighed again. "But never mind; you are here now. And how tired you must be! You are looking a little pale now. Why don't you drink that wine? When you are rested—quite rested—to-night, after dinner, perhaps—let me see, am I going anywhere?"
She consulted a large engagement slate of white porcelain which stood erect on the crowded table.
"Hem! yes, I have to speak at the Sisters of State Society. Never mind; to-morrow, after lunch—if I'm at home. Yes, I can see that we shall be great friends, and that is what I wanted. The others—I mean your predecessors—were such terrible old frumps, without any idea above cutlets and clean sheets, that they only bored and worried me; but you will be quite different——"
"Perhaps I shan't be able to rise to the cutlet and clean sheets," suggested Nell diffidently; but her ladyship laughed.
"Oh, yes, you will!" she declared. "I am an excellent judge of character—it's one of my qualifications for the work I'm engaged in—and I can see that you are an admirable manager. I suppose you ran the house at home?"
"'Home' meant quite a small cottage," she said. "This is a mansion."
"Same thing," commented Lady Wolfer encouragingly. "It's all a question of system. I haven't any; you have; therefore you'll succeed where I fail. You've got that quiet, mousy little way which indicates strength of character——What beautiful hair you have, by the way."
"It's no prettier than yours. Why do you wear it so short, Lady Wolfer?"
Lady Wolfer laughed—just a little wearily, so it struck Nell.
"Why? Oh, I don't know. All we advanced women get our hair cut. I imagine we have a right to do so, and that by going cropped we assert that right."
"I see," said Nell. "But isn't it—a pity?"
Lady Wolfer looked at her curiously, with an expression which Nell did not understand at that early period of their acquaintance.
"Does it matter?" she said. "We women have been dolls too long——"
"But there are short-haired dolls," said Nell, with her native shrewdness.
Lady Wolfer did not seem offended.
"That was rather smart," she remarked. "Take care, or we shall have you on a public platform before long, my dear."
"Oh, I hope not! I mean—I beg your pardon."
"Not at all," said Lady Wolfer, with no abatement of her good humor. "There's no danger—fortunately, for you. No, my dear; I can see that yours is a very different metier. Your role is the 'angel of the house'—to be loved and loving." She turned to the desk as she spoke, and did not see the flush that rose for an instant to poor Nell's pale face. "You will always be the woman in chains—the slave of man. I hope the chain will be of roses, my dear."
She stifled a sigh as she finished the pretty little sentence; and Nell, watching her, saw the expression of unrest and melancholy on her ladyship's face again. Nell wondered what was the matter, and was still wondering when there came a knock at the door.
"Come in!" said Lady Wolfer; and a gentleman entered. He was young and good-looking, his tall figure clad in the regulation frock coat, in the buttonhole of which was a delicate orchid. The hat which he carried in his lavender-gloved hands shone as if it had just left the manufacturer's hands, and his small feet were clad in the brightest of patent-leather boots.
"I beg pardon!" he began, in the slow drawl which fashion had of late ordained. "Didn't know you weren't alone. Sorry!"
At the sound of his voice a faint flush rose to Lady Wolfer's rather pretty face.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" she said, nodding familiarly. "I thought it was Burden."
"I've come to take you to the meetin'," said the beautifully dressed gentleman, clipping off his "g" in the manner approved by the smart set.
"Thanks. This is Sir Archie Walbrooke," said Lady Wolfer, introducing him; "and this is my cousin—we are cousins, you know, my dear—Miss Lorton."
Sir Archie bowed, and stared meditatively at Nell.
"Goin' to the meetin', too?" he asked. "Hope so, I'm sure. Great fun, these meetin's."
"No; oh, no," explained Lady Wolfer. "Miss Lorton has come to set us all straight, and keep us so, I hope."
"Trust I'm included; want it," said Sir Archie—"want it badly."
"Oh, you're incorrigible—incorrigibly stupid, I mean," retorted Lady Wolfer. "She has come to take care of us—Wolfer and me."
"Run the show—I see," he said gravely. "If it isn't a rude question, I should like to ask: 'Who's goin' to take care of Miss Norton?'"
"Lorton, Lorton," corrected Lady Wolfer. "And it is a rude question, to which you won't get an answer. Go downstairs and smoke a cigarette. I'll be ready presently."
"All right—delighted; but time's up, you know," he said; and, with a bow to Nell, sauntered out.
Lady Wolfer sat down at the desk, and wrote rapidly for a moment; then she said casually—a little too casually, it would have struck a woman of the world:
"That is a great friend of mine—and Lord Wolfer's," she added quickly. "He is an awfully nice man, and—and very useful. He is a kind of tame cat here, runs in and out as he likes, and plays escort when I'm slumming or attending meetings. I hope you'll like him. He's not such a fool as he looks, and though he does clip his 'Gees'—sounds like a pun, doesn't it?—and cuts his sentences short, he—he is very good-natured and obliging."
"He seems so," said Nell, a little puzzled to understand why Lady Wolfer did not take her maid or one of her lady friends to her meetings, instead of being taken by Sir Archie Walbrooke.
Burden knocked at the door at this moment, and announced that Miss Lorton's room was ready.
"Very well," said Lady Wolfer, as if relieved. "Be sure that Miss Lorton has everything she wants. And, oh, Burden, please understand that all Miss Lorton's orders are to be obeyed—I mean, obeyed without hesitation or question. She is absolutely in command here."
"Yes, my lady," responded Burden respectfully.
Nell followed her to a corridor on the next floor, and into a large and handsomely furnished room with which the bedchamber communicated. Her box had been unpacked, and its modest contents arranged in a wardrobe and drawers. The rooms looked as if they had been got ready hurriedly, but they were handsome and richly furnished, and Burden apologized for their lack of homeliness.
"I'll get some flowers, miss," she said. "There's a big box of them comes up from the country place every morning. And if you think it's cold, I'll light a fire——"
"Oh, no, no," said Nell, as brightly as she could.
"And can I help you change, miss? I'm your maid, if you please."
Nell shook her head, still smiling.
"It is all very nice," she said, "and I shall only be a few minutes. I should like to go over the house," she asked, rather timidly.
"If you ring that bell, miss, I will come at once; and I will tell Mrs. Hubbard that you want to go round with her," said Burden.
Nell, after the ardently desired "wash and change," sat down by the window and looked onto the grimy London square, whose trees and grass were burned brown, and tried to convince herself that she really was Nell of Shorne Mills; that she really was housekeeper to Lady Wolfer; that this really was life, and not a fantastic dream. But it was difficult to do so. Back her mind would travel to Shorne Mills and to—to Drake.