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Nell, of Shorne Mills - or, One Heart's Burden
by Charles Garvice
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What had he done and said when he had got her letter? Ah, well, he would understand; yes, he would understand, and would take it as final. He would go away, to Lady Luce. They would be married. She would not think.

Providence had sent her work—work to divert her mind and save her from despair, and she would not look back, would not dwell upon the past. But how her tender, loving heart ached and throbbed with the memory of those happy weeks, with the never-to-be-forgotten kisses of the man who had won her heart, whose face and voice haunted her every moment of the day.

She sprang to her feet and rang the bell, and Burden came in and led her along the broad corridors and across the main hall. A middle-aged woman in a stiff, black dress stood waiting for her, and gave her a stately bow.

"I am Mrs. Hubbard, miss," she began, rather searchingly; but Nell's sweet face and smile melted her at once. "I shall be pleased to take you hover, miss," she commenced, a little less grumpily. "It's a big 'ouse, and not a heasy one to manage; but per'aps, your ladyship—I beg your pardon, miss—per'aps you have been used to a big 'ouse?"

"No, indeed," said Nell, whose native shrewdness told her that this was a woman who had to be conciliated. "I have never lived in anything bigger than a cottage, and I shall need all your help, Mrs. Hubbard. You will have to be very patient with me."

Mrs. Hubbard had been prepared to fight, or, at any rate, to display a haughty stand-offishness; but she went down before the sweet face and girlish voice, and, if the truth must be told, by a certain something in Nell's eyes, which shone there when the Annie Laurie was beating before a contrary wind; a directness of gaze which indicated a spirit, not easily quelled, lurking behind the dark-gray eyes.

Mrs. Hubbard instantly realized that this beautiful girl, young as she was, was compounded of different material to the "old frumps" who had preceded her, and whom Mrs. Hubbard had easily vanquished, and the old lady changed her tactics with rather startling promptitude.

She conducted Nell over the large place; the footmen and maidservants stood up, questionably at first, but respectfully in the end, and Nell tried to grasp the extent of the responsibility which she had undertaken.

"I think it all rests with you, Mrs. Hubbard," she said, as she sat in the housekeeper's room, Mrs. Hubbard standing respectfully—respectfully!—in front of her. "I am too young and inexperienced to run so large a place without your help; but I think—I only think—I can do it, if you stand by me. Will you do so? Yes, I think you will."

She looked up with the smile which had made slaves of all Shorne Mills in her gray eyes, and Mrs. Hubbard was utterly vanquished.

"If you come to me every morning after breakfast, we can talk matters over," said Nell, "and can decide between us what is to be done, and what not to be done; but you must never forget, please, that I know so little about anything."

And Mrs. Hubbard went back to the servants' hall with her mouth and her eyes set firmly.

"Now, mind," she said, with an imperial dignity to the curious and expectant servants, "there's to be no more goings-on from this time forth. No more coming in by the area gate after eleven, and no more parties in the servants' 'all when 'is lordship and ladyship is dining out! An' I'll 'ave the bells answered the first time, an' no waitin' till they're rung twice or three times, mind! An' if you want to see the policeman, Mary Jane, you can slip out for five minutes; he don't come into the house, you understan'!"

Little dreaming of the domestic reformation she had brought about, Nell went back to her room, and resumed her endeavor to persuade herself that she was not moving in a dream.

Presently a gong sounded, and, guessing that it rang for lunch, she went down to the smaller dining room, in which Mrs. Hubbard had told her that meal was usually served.

The butler and footman were in attendance, but, though covers were laid for three, there was no one present but herself.

She looked round the richly decorated and handsomely furnished room, and felt rather lonely and helpless, but it occurred to her that either Lord or Lady Wolfer might come in, and that it was her place to be there; so she sat at the head of the table—where the butler had drawn back her chair for her—and began her lunch.

By this time, she was feeling hungry—for she had eaten nothing since her very early breakfast, excepting the biscuit in Lady Wolfer's room; and she was in the middle of her soup when the footman went in a leisurely manner to the door and opened it, and a gentleman entered.

Now, Nell, from Mrs. Lorton's talk of him, and his letter, had imagined Lord Wolfer as, if not an old man, one well past middle age; she was, therefore, rather startled when she saw that the gentleman who went straight to the bottom of the table, thus proving himself to be Lord Wolfer, was anything but old; indeed, still young, as age is reckoned nowadays. He was tall and thin, and very grave in manner and expression; and Nell, as with a blush she rose and eyed him, noticed, even in that first moment, that—strangely enough—his rather handsome face wore the half-sad, half-wistful expression which she had seen cross Lady Wolfer's pretty countenance.

He had not noticed her until he had gained his chair, then he started slightly, as if aroused from a reverie, and came toward her.

"You are—er—Miss Lorton?" he said, with an intense gravity in his voice and eyes.

"Yes," said Nell. "And you are—Lord Wolfer?"

"Your cousin—I am afraid very much removed," he responded. "When did you arrive? I hope you had a pleasant journey?" he replied and asked as he sank into his seat.

Nell made a suitable response.

"You will take some soup? Oh, you have some. Yes; it was a long journey. Have you seen my wife—Lady Wolfer? Yes? I'm glad she was in. She is very seldom at home." He did not sigh, by any means; but his voice had a chilled and melancholy note in it. "And Sophia—Mrs. Lorton—is, I hope, well? It is very kind of you to put in an appearance so soon. I'm afraid you ought to be in bed and resting."

Nell laughed softly, and he looked as if the laugh had startled him, and surveyed her through his eyeglasses with a more lengthened and critical scrutiny than he had hitherto ventured on. The fresh, young loveliness of her face, the light that shone in her dark-gray eyes, seemed to impress him, and he was almost guilty of a common stare; but he remembered himself in time, and bent over his plate.

"I am not at all tired, Lord Wolfer," said Nell. "I am not used to traveling—this is the first long journey I have made—but I am accustomed to riding"—she winced inwardly as she thought of the rides with Drake—"and—and—sailing and yachting."

The earl nodded.

"Put the—the cutlets, or whatever they are, on the table, and you may go," he said to the butler; and when the servants had left the room he said to Nell:

"I seldom lunch at home, and I like to do so alone."

Nell smiled. Grave as he looked, she did not feel at all afraid of him.

"I did not mean that," he said, with an answering smile. "I meant without the servants. And so you have come to our assistance, Miss Lorton?"

"I don't know whether that is the way to put it," said Nell, with her usual frankness. "I'm afraid that I shall be of very little use; but I am going to try."

His lordship nodded.

"And I think you will succeed—let me hand you a cutlet. Our great trouble has been—may I trouble you for the salt? Perhaps you would prefer to have the servants in the room?"

"No, oh, no!" replied Nell, quickly, as, reaching to her fullest extent, she pushed the salt. "It is much nicer without them—I mean that I am not used to so many servants."

He inclined his head.

"As you please," he said courteously. "Our great trouble has been that my wife's public duties have prevented her from taking any share in domestic matters. She is—er—I presume she is not coming in to lunch?" he asked, with a quick glance at Nell, and an instant return to his plate.

"N-o; I think not," replied Nell. "Lady Wolfer has gone to a meeting—I'm sorry to say I forget what it is. Some—some Sisters—no, I can't remember. It is very stupid of me," she wound up penitently.

"It is of no consequence. Lady Wolfer is greatly in request; there is no movement of the advanced kind with which she is not connected," said his lordship; and though he spoke in a tone of pride, he wound up with a stifled sigh which reminded Nell of the sigh which she had heard Lady Wolfer breathe. "She is—er—an admirable speaker," he continued, "quite admirable. Did she go alone?"

The question came so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and apparently so irrelevantly, that Nell was almost startled.

"No," she replied. "A gentleman went with her."

The earl laid down his knife and fork suddenly, then picked them up again, and made a great fuss with the remains of his cutlet.

"Oh! Did you—er—did you hear who it was?"

"Yes," said Nell, "but I can't remember his name. It has quite gone for the moment;" and she knit her brows.

The earl stared straight at the epergne.

"Was it—Sir Archie Walbrooke?" he said, in a dry, expressionless voice.

Nell laughed, as one laughs at the sudden return of a treacherous memory.

"Of course, yes! That was the name," she said brightly. "How stupid of me!"

But Lord Wolfer did not laugh. He bent still lower over the cutlet, and worried the bone a minute or two in silence; then he consulted his watch, and rose.

"I beg you will excuse me," he said. "I have an appointment—a meeting——"

He mumbled himself out of the room, and Nell sat and gazed at the door which had closed behind him.

She was too innocent, too ignorant of the world, to have even the faintest idea of the trouble which lowered over the house which she had entered; but a vague dread of something intangible took possession of her.



CHAPTER XXI.

If Nell wanted work that would prevent her dwelling upon her heart's loss, she had certainly found it at Egerton House. Before a week had passed she had slipped into her position of presiding genius; and, marvelous to relate, seeing how young and inexperienced she was, she filled it very well.

At first she was considerably worried by the condition of domestic affairs. Meals were prepared for persons who might or might not be present to eat them. Sometimes she would sit down alone to a lunch sufficient for half a dozen persons; at others, Lady Wolfer would come down at the last moment and say:

"Oh, Nell, dear"—it had very quickly come to "Nell"—"ever so many women are coming to lunch—nine or ten, I forget which. I ought to have told you, oughtn't I? And I really meant to, but somehow it slipped out of my head. And they are mostly people with good appetites. Is there anything in the house? But, there! I know you will manage somehow, won't you, dear?"

And Nell would summon the long-suffering Mrs. Hubbard, and additions would hastily be made to the small menu, and Nell would come in looking as cool and composed as if the guests had run no risk of starvation.

The dinner hour, as Lady Wolfer had said, was eight, but it was often nine or half-past before she and Lord Wolfer put in an appearance; and more than once during the week the earl had been accompanied by persons whom he had brought from the House or some meeting, and expected to have them provided for.

The cook never knew how many guests to expect; the coachman never knew when the horses and carriages would be wanted; the footmen were called upon to leave their proper duties and wait upon a mob of "advanced women" collected for a meeting—and a scramble feed—in the dining room, when perhaps a proper lunch should have been in preparation for an ordinary party.

There was no rest, no cessation of the stir and turmoil in the great house, and amid it all Nell moved like a kind of good fairy, contriving to just keep the whole thing from smashing up in chaotic confusion.

Presently everybody began to rely upon her, and came to her for assistance; and the earl himself was uneasy and dissatisfied if she were not at the head of the breakfast table, at which he and she very often made a duet. He seemed to see Lady Wolfer very seldom, and gradually got into the habit of communicating with her through Nell. It would be:

"May I trouble you so far, Miss Lorton, as to ask Lady Wolfer if she intends going to the Wrexhold reception to-night?" Or: "Lady Wolfer wishes for a check for these bills. May I ask you to give it to her? Thank you very much. I am afraid I am giving you a great deal of trouble."

Sometimes Nell would say: "Lady Wolfer is in her room. Shall I tell her you are here?" and he would make haste to reply:

"Oh, no; not at all necessary. She may be very much engaged. Besides, I am just going out."

Grave and reserved, not to say grim, though he was, Nell got to like him. His pomposity was on the surface, and his stiffness and hauteur were but the mannerisms with which some men are cursed. At the end of the week he startled her by alluding to the salary which he had offered her in his letter.

"I am afraid you thought it a very small sum, Miss Lorton," he said. "I myself considered it inadequate; but I asked a friend what he paid in a similar case, and I was, quite wrongly, I see, guided by him."

"It is quite enough," said Nell, blushing. "I think it would have been fairer if you had not paid me anything—at any rate, to start with."

"We will, if you please, increase it to one hundred pounds," he said, ignoring her protest. "I beg you will not refuse; in fact, I shall regard your acceptance as a favor."

He rose to leave the room before Nell could reply, and Lady Wolfer, entering with her usual rapidity, nearly ran against him. He begged her pardon with extreme courtesy, and was passing out, when she stopped him with a:

"Oh, I'm glad I've seen you. Will the twenty-fourth do for the dinner party? Are you engaged for that night? I'm not, I think."

The earl's grave eyes rested on her pretty, piquant face as she consulted her ivory tablets, but his gaze was lowered instantly as she looked up at him again.

"No," he said. "Is it a large party?"

She shrugged her shoulders.

"I'm afraid so. I'm going over the list with Nell, here. Oh, for goodness' sake, don't run away, dear!" she broke off, as Nell, thinking herself rather de trop, moved toward an opposite door; and Nell, of course, remained.

"She's the most awful girl to get hold of!" said her ladyship. "If ever you want to speak to her, to have a nice, quiet chat with her, she has always got to go and 'see to something.'"

"I can understand that Miss Lorton's time must be much occupied," said the earl, with a courteous little inclination of the head to Nell.

"Yes, I know; but she might occupy it with me sometimes," remarked her ladyship.

"I can give you just five minutes," said Nell, laughing. "This is just my busiest hour."

The earl waited for a minute, waited as if under compulsion and to see if Lady Wolfer had anything more to say to him, then passed out. On his way across the hall he met Sir Archie Walbrooke.

"Mornin', Wolfer," said the young man, in his slow, self-possessed way. "Lady Wolfer at home? Got to see her about—'pon my honor, forget what it was now!"

The earl smiled gravely.

"You will find her in the library, Walbrooke," he said, and went on his way.

Sir Archie was shown into the room where Lady Wolfer and Nell were conferring over the dinner party, and Lady Wolfer looked up with an easy:

"Oh, it's you, is it? What brings you here? Oh, never mind, if you can't remember; I dare say I shall presently. Meanwhile, you can help us make out this list."

"Always glad to make myself useful," he drawled, seating himself on the settee beside Lady Wolfer, and taking hold of one side of the piece of paper which she held.

They were soon so deeply engaged that Nell, eager to get to Mrs. Hubbard, left them for a while.

When she came in again, the list was lying on the floor, Lady Wolfer was leaning forward, with her hands clasped tightly in her lap, her pretty face lined and eloquent of some deep emotion, and Sir Archie was talking in a low, and, for him, eager tone.

As Nell entered, Lady Wolfer rose quickly, and Sir Archie, fumbling at his eyeglass, looked for the moment somewhat disconcerted.

"If we're goin' to this place, hadn't we better go?" he said, with his usual drawl; and Lady Wolfer, murmuring an assent, left the room. Nell, following her to her room to ask a question about the dinner party, was surprised and rather alarmed at finding her pale and trembling.

"Oh, what is the matter?" Nell asked. "Are you ill?"

"No, oh, no! It is nothing," Lady Wolfer replied hastily. "Where is my hat? No, don't ring for my maid. Help me—you help me——"

She let her hand rest for a moment on Nell's arm, and looked into her grave eyes wistfully.

"Were you—were you ever in trouble, Nell?" she asked. "I mean a great trouble, which threatened to overshadow your life—not a death; that is hard enough to fight, but—how foolishly I am talking! And how white you have gone! Why, child, you can't know anything of such trouble as I mean! What is it?" she broke off, as the maid knocked at the door and entered.

"The phaeton is ready, my lady; and Sir Archie says are you going to drive, or is he? because, if so, he will change his gloves, so as not to keep your ladyship waiting."

"I don't care—oh, he can drive," said Lady Wolfer. She spoke as if the message, acting as a kind of reminder, had helped her to recover her usual half-careless, half-defiant mood. "About this dinner, Nell; will you ask Lord Wolfer if there is any one he would like asked, and add them to the list? Where did I leave it? Oh, it's in the library."

Nell went down for it, and, as she opened the door, Sir Archie came forward with an eager and anxious expression on his handsome face—an expression which changed to one of slight embarrassment as he saw that it was Nell.

"The list? Ah, yes; here it is. I'm afraid it's not fully made out; but there's plenty of time. Is Lady Wolfer nearly ready?"

Nell went away with a vague feeling of uneasiness. Had Lady Wolfer been telling Sir Archie of her "trouble"? If so, why did she not tell her husband? But perhaps she had.

Nell had no time to dwell upon Lady Wolfer's incoherent speech, for the coming dinner party provided her with plenty to think about. She had hoped that she herself would not be expected to be present, but when on the following evening she expressed this hope, Lady Wolfer had laughed at her.

"My dear child," she said, "don't expect that you are going to be let off. Of course, you don't want to be present; neither do I, nor any of the guests. Everybody hates and loathes dinner parties; but so they do the influenza and taxes; but most of us have to have the influenza and pay the taxes, all the same."

"But I haven't a dress," said Nell.

"Then get one made. Send to Cerise and tell her that I say she is to build you one immediately. Anyway, dress or no dress, you will have to be present. Why, I shouldn't be at all surprised if my husband refused to eat his dinner if you were not."

Nell laughed.

"And I know that Lord Wolfer would not notice my presence or my absence," she said.

Lady Wolfer looked at her rather curiously, certainly not jealously, but gravely and wistfully.

"My dear Nell, don't you know that he thinks very highly of you, and that he considers you a marvel of wisdom and cleverness?"

"I should be a marvel of conceit and vanity if I were foolish enough to believe that you meant some of the pretty things you say to me," remarked Nell. "And have I got the complete list of all the guests? I asked Lord Wolfer, and he said that he should like Lord and Lady Angleford invited."

Lady Wolfer nodded.

"All right. You will find their address in the Court Guide. But I think he has the gout, and Lady Angleford never goes anywhere without him. Did—did my husband say anything more about the party—or—anything?" she asked, bending over the proofs of a speech she was correcting.

"No," said Nell. "Only that he left everything to you, of course."

"Of course," said her ladyship. "He is, as usual, utterly indifferent about everything concerning me. Don't look so scared, my child," she added, with a bitter little laugh. "That is the usual attitude of the husband, especially when he is a public man, and needs a figure to sit at the head of his table and ride in his carriages instead of a wife! There! you are going to run away, I see. And you look as if I had talked high treason. My dear Nell, when you know as much of the world as you know of your prayer book——Bah! why should I open those innocent eyes of yours? Run away—and play, I was going to say; but I'm afraid you don't get much play. Archie was saying only yesterday that we were working you too hard, and that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves."

Nell flushed rather resentfully.

"I am much obliged to Sir Archie's expression of sympathy," she began.

"Yes! You sound like it!" said Lady Wolfer, laughing. "My dear, why don't you get angry oftener? It suits you. Your face just wants that dash of color; and I'd no idea your eyes were so violety! You can give me a kiss if you like—mind the ink! Ah, Nell, some day some man will go mad over that same face and eyes of yours. Well, don't marry a politician, or a man who thinks it undignified to care for his wife! There, do go!"

As Nell went away, puzzled by Lady Wolfer's words and manner, her ladyship let her head fall upon her hand, and, sighing deeply, gazed at the "proof" as if she had forgotten it.

Nell did not send for Madame Cerise, but purchased a skirt of black lace, and set to work to make up the bodice. She was engaged on this one evening two nights before the dinner, when Burden came in with:

"A gentleman to see you, miss. He's in the library. It's Mr. Lorton, your brother, I think——"

Nell was on the stairs before the maid had finished, and running into the library, had got Dick in her arms—and his brand-new hat on the floor.

"Dick! Oh, Dick! Is it really you?"

"Yes; but there won't be much left of me if you continue garroting me; and would you mind my picking up my hat? It is the only one I've got, and we don't grow 'em at Shorne Mills! Why, Nell, how—yes, how thin you've got! And, I say, what a swagger house! I'd always looked upon mamma's swell relations as a kind of 'Mrs. Harrises,' until now."

He nodded, as he endeavored to smooth the roughened silk of his hat.

"Mamma—tell me; she is all right, Dick?"

"Oh, yes. I've got no end of messages. She's had your letters, all of 'em; and she hopes that you are taking advantage of your splendid position. Is it a splendid position, Nell? They seemed to think me of some consequence when I mentioned, dissembling my pride in the connection, that I was your brother."

Nell nodded.

"Yes, yes; it is all right, and I am quite—happy. And Shorne Mills, Dick, are they all well?"

"And kicking. I've got a hundred messages which you can sum up in 'love from all.' And, Nell, I've only time to say how are you, for I'm going to catch the Irish mail. Fact! Bardsley & Bardsley are sending me to some engineering work there. How's that for high? Ah, would you!" gingerly whisking his hat behind him. "Keep off; and, Nell, how's Drake?"

The abrupt question sent the blood rushing through Nell's face, and then as suddenly from it, leaving it stone white.

"Drake—Mr. Vernon?" she said, almost inaudibly. "I—I do not know. I—I have not seen—heard."

"No? That's rum! I should have thought that tiff was over by this time. Can't make it out! What have you been doing, Miss Lorton?"

Nell bravely tried to smile.

"You—you have seen him? You never wrote and told me, Dick! You—you gave him my note?"

Dick nodded rather gravely.

"Yes."

"And—and——" She could not speak.

"Oh, yes; I gave it him, and he said——Well, he looked broken up over it; quite broken up. He said—let me see; I didn't pay very much attention because I thought he'd write to you and see you. They generally wind up that way, after a quarrel, don't they?"

"It does not matter. No, I have not seen or heard," said Nell.

"Well, he said: 'Tell her that it's quite true.' Dashed if I know what he meant! And that he wouldn't worry you, but would obey you and not write or see you. I think that was all."

It was enough. If the faintest spark of hope had been left to glow in Nell's bosom, Drake's message extinguished it.

Her head dropped for a moment, then she looked up bravely.

"It was what I expected, Dick. It—was like him. No, no; don't speak; don't say any more about it. And you'll stay, Dick? Lady Wolfer will be glad to see you. They are all so kind to me, and——"

"I'm so glad to hear that," said Dick; "because if they hadn't been I should have insisted upon your going home. But I suppose they really are kind, and don't starve you, though you are so thin."

"It's the London air, or want of air," said Nell. "And mamma, does she"—she faltered wistfully—"miss me?"

"We all miss you—especially the butcher and the baker," replied Dick diplomatically. "And now I'm off. And, Nell—oh, do mind my hat!—if you know Drake's address, I should like to write to him."

She shook her head.

"Strange," said Dick. "I wrote to the address in London to which I posted the letters when he was ill, and it came back 'Not known.' I—I think he must have gone abroad. Well, there, I won't say any more; but—'he was werry good to me,' as poor Joe says in the novel, you know, Nell."

Yes, it was well for Nell that she had no time to dwell upon her heart's loss; and yet she found some minutes for that "Sorrow's crown of sorrow," the remembrance of happier days, as she leaned over her black lace bodice that night when the great house was silent, and the quiet room was filled with visions of Shorne Mills—visions in which Drake, the lover who had left her for Lady Luce, was the principal figure.

On the night of the big dinner party, she, having had the last consultation with Mrs. Hubbard and the butler, went downstairs. The vast drawing-room was empty, and she was standing by the fire and looking at the clock rather anxiously—for it was quite on the cards that Lady Wolfer would be late, and that some of the guests would arrive before the hostess was ready to receive them—when the door opened and her ladyship entered. She was handsomely dressed, and wore the family diamonds, and Nell, who had not before seen her so richly attired and bejeweled, was about to express her admiration, when Lady Wolfer stopped short and surveyed the slim figure of her "housekeeper companion" with widely opened eyes and a smile of surprise and friendly approval.

"My dear child, how—how——Ahem! no, it's no use; I must speak my mind! My dear Nell, if I were as vain as some women, and, like most, had a strong objection to being cut out in my own house by my own cousin, I should send you to bed! Where did you get that dress, and who made it?"

Nell laughed and blushed.

"I bought it in Regent Street—half of it—and made the rest; and please don't pretend that you like it."

"I won't," said Lady Wolfer succinctly. "My dear, you are too pretty for anything, and the dress is charming! Oh, mine! Mine is commonplace compared beside it, and smacks the modiste and the Louvre; while yours——Archie is right; you have more taste than Cerise herself——" She broke off as the earl entered. "Don't you admire Nell's dress?" she said, but with her eyes fixed on one of her bracelets, which appeared to have come unfastened.

The earl looked at Nell—blushing furiously now—with grave attention.

"I always admire Miss Lorton's dresses," he said, with a little bow. Then his eyes wandered to the white arm and the open bracelet, and he made a step toward his wife; then he hesitated, and, before he could make up his mind to fasten it, she had snapped to the clasp.

"I tell her she will cause a sensation to-night," she said, moving away.

He looked at his wife gravely.

"Indeed, yes," he said absently. "Is it not time some of them arrived?"

As he spoke, the footman announced Lady Angleford.

She came forward, her train sweeping behind her, a pleasant smile on her mignonne face.

"Am I the first, Lady Wolfer? That is the punishment for American punctuality!"

"So good of you!" murmured Lady Wolfer. "And where is Lord Angleford?"

"I'm sorry, but he has the gout!"

Lady Wolfer expressed her regret.

"And Lord Selbie?" she asked. "Shall we see him?"

"Did you ask him?" asked Lady Angleford, her brow wrinkling eagerly. "Is he in England? Have you heard that he has returned?"

Another woman would have been embarrassed, but Lady Wolfer was too accustomed to getting into scrapes of this kind not to find a way out of them.

"Isn't that like me? Nell, dear—this is my cousin and our guardian angel, Miss Lorton—Lady Angleford! Did we ask Lord Selbie?"

Nell smiled and shook her head.

"N-o," she said; "his name was not on the list, I think."

Lady Angleford, who had been looking at her with interest, went up to her.

"It wouldn't have been any use," she said. "He is abroad—somewhere."

She stifled a sigh as she spoke.

"Then there is no need for us to feel overwhelmed with guilt, Nell," said Lady Wolfer. "Come and warm yourself, my dear. Oh, that gout! No wonder you won't join the 'Advance Movement!' You've quite enough to try you. Nell, come and tell Lady Angleford how hard I work."

Nell came forward to join in the conversation; but all the time they were talking she was wondering where she had heard Lord Selbie's name!



CHAPTER XXII.

Lord Selbie?—Lord Selbie? Nell worried her memory in vain. She had read extracts from the Fashion Gazette so often, the aristocratic names had passed out of her mind almost before she had pronounced them, and it was not surprising that she should fail to recall this Lord Selbie's.

She had not much time or opportunity for reflection, for the other guests were arriving, and the party was almost complete. As she stood a little apart, she noticed the dresses, and smiled as she felt how incapable she would be of describing their magnificence to mamma. It was her first big dinner party, and she was amused and interested in watching the brilliant groups, and in listening to the small talk.

Lady Wolfer's clear voice could be heard distinctly; but though she talked and laughed with apparent ease and freedom, Nell fancied that her ladyship was not quite at her ease, that there was something forced in her gayety, and that her laugh now and again rang false. Nell saw, too, that Lady Wolfer's glance wandered from time to time to the door, as if she were waiting for some one.

The earl came up to Nell.

"Are we all here? It is late," he said, in his grave way, and glancing at the clock.

Nell looked around and counted.

"One more," she said, in as low a tone. As she spoke, the door opened, and Sir Archie Walbrooke entered.

Nell heard Lady Wolfer hesitate in the middle of a sentence, and saw her turn away, with her back to the door.

Sir Archie came across the room in his usual deliberate fashion, as self-possessed and impassive as if he were quite ignorant that he had kept a roomful of people waiting.

Lady Wolfer gave him her hand without breaking off her conversation with the prime minister, who was chatting and laughing with the carelessness of a boy, and as if he had never even heard of a ministerial crisis.

"Afraid I'm late," said Sir Archie, in slow and even tones. "Cab horse fell down—nearly always does when I'm behind one. Strange."

"I will hand your excuse to the cook," said Lady Wolfer. "I hope he will believe it. None of us do, I assure you."

The butler announced dinner, and the party coupled and filed in, the earl taking a dowager duchess, a good-natured lady with an obvious wig and cheeks which blushed—with rouge—like unto those of a dairymaid. Nell fell to the lot of an undersecretary for the colonies, who was so great a favorite of the prime minister's that no one dreamed of asking the great man without sending an invitation to his friend, who was generally known as "Sir Charles." Like most clever men, he was simplicity itself, and he watched Nell through his pince-nez as she surveyed the brilliant line of guests round the long, oblong table, with an interest in her interest.

"How well Lady Wolfer is looking to-night," he said, staring at the hostess at the head of the table. Her eyes were bright, a faint flush on her cheeks, and her soft hair, which her maid had arranged as advantageously as short hair can be dressed, shone in the subdued light of the shaded candles. "One is so accustomed to seeing her in—well," and he smiled, "strictly business garb, that full war paint strikes one with the revelation of her prettiness."

"Yes; isn't she pretty?" said Nell eagerly. "But I always think she is; though, of course, I like her best in evening dress."

He smiled at the promptitude of her ingenious admiration.

"If I had my way, your sex should always wear one of two costumes: a riding habit or dinner dress."

"That would be rather inconvenient," said Nell. "Imagine walking out on a wet day in a habit or a ball frock!"

"I know," he said. "But I don't think you ought to walk out on a wet day."

"You ought to live in Turkey," said Nell, with a laugh.

"That is rather neat," he said approvingly; "but pray, don't repeat my speech to Lady Wolfer; she would think me exceedingly frivolous, and I spend my time in the endeavor to convince her of my gravity and discretion."

"Are all politicians supposed to be grave?" asked Nell, glancing at the prime minister, who had just related an anecdote in his own inimitable manner, and was laughing as heartily as if he had not a care in the world.

Sir Charles followed her eyes and smiled.

"Judging by Mr. Gresham, one would answer with an emphatic negative," he said. "But he is an exception to the rule. He is only grave when he is in the House—and not always then. I have known him crack a joke—and laugh at it—at the very moment the fate of his ministry swung in the balance. Some men are born boys, and remain so all their lives, and some——" He stopped and involuntarily looked at his host, who sat at the end of the table, his tall, thin figure bolt upright, his face with a kind of courteous gravity. He had heard the anecdote and paid it the tribute of a smile, but the smile had passed quickly, and his countenance had resumed its wonted seriousness in a moment.

"I always regard Lord Wolfer as a model of what a statesman should seem," said Sir Charles. "I mean that he, more than any man I know, comes up to the popular idea of a great statesman—that is, in manner and bearing."

Nell remained silent. It was not befitting that she should discuss her host and employer; and she wondered whether the clever undersecretary beside her knew who she was and the position she held in the house. She did not know enough of the world to be aware that nowadays one discusses one's friends—even at their own tables—with a freedom which would have shocked an earlier generation.

"I often think," he continued, "that Lord Wolfer would have served the moralists as an instance of the vanity of human wishes."

"Why?" Nell could not help asking.

"Think of it!" he said, with a slight laugh. "He is the bearer of an old and honored title, he is passing rich, he is a cabinet minister, he is married to an extremely clever and charming lady—we agreed that she is pretty, too, didn't we?—and——" He paused a moment. "Should you say that Lord Wolfer is a happy man?"

As he put this significant question, which explained his remark about the vanity of human wishes, Nell looked at the earl. He was apparently listening to the duchess by his side; but his eyes, under their straight, dark brows, were fixed upon his wife, who, leaning forward slightly, was listening with downcast eyes and a smile to Sir Archie, a few chairs from her.

Nell flushed.

"N-o, I don't know," she said, rather confusedly. "Lord Wolfer has so much on his mind—politics, and——He is nearly always at work; he is often in his study writing until early morning."

Sir Charles looked at her quickly.

"You know them very well. You are staying here?" he asked.

"I live here," said Nell simply. "I am what Sir Archie Walbrooke calls 'general utility.' Lady Wolfer has so much to do, and I help her keep house, or try and persuade myself that I do."

Sir Charles was too much a man of the world to be discomfited; but he laughed a little ruefully as he said:

"That serves me right for discussing people with a lady with whom I haven't the honor and pleasure of an acquaintance. It reminds me of that very old story of the man at the evening party, which you no doubt remember."

"No; I've heard so few stories, old or new," said Nell, smiling. "Please tell it me."

"I will if you'll tell me your name in exchange; mine is Fletcher, but I am usually called Sir Charles because Mr. Gresham honors me with his close friendship. 'Charles, his friend,' as they used to put it in the old play books, you know."

"I see; and my name is Lorton, Eleanor Lorton, commonly called Nell Lorton—because I have a brother. And the story?"

Sir Charles laughed.

"Oh, it's too old; but, old as it is, I had forgotten to take its moral to heart. A man was leaning against the wall, yawning, at an evening party. He was fearfully bored, for he knew scarcely any one there, and had been brought at the last moment by a friend. As he was making up his mind to cut it, another man came and leaned against the wall beside him and yawned, also. Said the first: 'Awful slow, isn't it?' 'Yes,' replied Number Two, 'frightful crush and beastly hot.' 'Dreadful. I could stand it a little longer if that woman at the piano would leave off squalling. Come round to my club, and let us get a drink and a smoke.' 'Nothing would give me more pleasure! Wish I could!' replied Number Two. 'But you see, unfortunately for me, this is my house, and the lady at the piano is my wife.'"

Nell laughed.

"It is a good story," she said. "The first man must have felt very foolish."

"Yes," assented Sir Charles; "I know exactly how he felt. I hope you forgive me, Miss Lorton? Can I make amends in any way for my stupidity?"

"You might tell me who some of the people are," said Nell. "I only know them by name—and scarcely as much as that. I have not been here very long, and this is my first dinner party."

"How I envy you!" he said, with a sigh. "Dear me! I seem fated to put my foot into it to-night! But you know what I mean, or you would if you dined out as often as I—and Mr. Gresham do. Whom would you like me to tell you about? I think I know everybody here. One moment! Mr. Gresham is going to tell the story of his losing himself in London; it was in one of the new streets, for the making of which he had been a strong advocate."

They waited until the story was told, and the prime minister had enjoyed the laughter, and then Nell said:

"That little lady with the diamond tiara and the three big rubies on her neck is Lady Angleford—I know her name because I was introduced to her before dinner. I like the look of her so much; and she has so pleasant a voice and smile. Please tell me something about her."

"An easy task," said Sir Charles. "She is Lord Angleford's young wife—an American heiress. I like her very much. In fact, though I have not known her very long, I am honored with her friendship. And yet I ought not to like her," he added, almost to himself.

Nell opened her eyes upon him.

"Why not?" she asked.

Sir Charles was silent for a moment; then he said, as if he were weighing his words, and choosing suitable ones for his auditor:

"Lord Angleford has a nephew who is a great, a very great friend of mine—Lord Selbie. He was Lord Angleford's heir; but—well, his uncle's marriage may make all the difference to him."

Nell knit her brows and made another call on her memory.

"Of course!" she exclaimed, in a tone of triumph, which rather surprised Sir Charles. "I remember reading about it. Lord Selbie! Yes—oh, yes; I recollect."

Her voice grew sad and absent, as she recalled the afternoon when Mrs. Lorton had insisted upon her reading the stupid society paper to Drake. How long ago it seemed! How unreal!

"I dare say," said Sir Charles. "It's one of those things which the world chatters about, and the newspapers paragraph. Poor Selbie!"

"Was he a very great friend of yours?" asked Nell, rather mechanically, her eyes wandering from one face to another.

"Yes, very great," replied the undersecretary, with a warmth which one does not look for in a professional politician. "We were at Eton together, and we saw a great deal of each other afterward, though he went into the army, and I, for my sins, fell into politics. He is one of the best of fellows, an Admirable Crichton, at once the envy and the despair of his companions. There is scarcely anything that Selbie doesn't do, and he does all things well—the best shot, the best rider, the best fencer, the best dancer of his set, and the best-hearted. Poor old chap!"

It was evident that he had, in his enthusiasm, almost forgotten his auditor.

"Where is he now?" asked Nell. "I heard Lady Angleford say that he is abroad."

"Yes. No one knows where he is. He has disappeared. It sounds a strong word, but it is the only one that will meet the case. And perhaps it was the best thing he could do. When a man's prospects are blighted, and his ladylove has jilted him——"

Nell turned quickly. She had tried to remember the whole of the paragraph she had read to Drake, but she could not.

"What was the name of the lady who—who jilted him?" she asked.

Sir Charles was about to reply, and if he had spoken, Nell would have learned Drake's identity; but at that moment there came a lull in the conversation, and before it had recommenced, the prime minister leaned forward and asked a question of his friend. The answer led to a general discussion, and at its close Lady Wolfer smiled and raised her eyebrows at the duchess, received a responsive nod, and the ladies rose.

Sir Archie was the gentleman nearest the door, and he opened it for them. As Lady Wolfer was passing through, a flower fell from the bosom of her dress. He picked it up and held it out to her, with a bow and a smile; but she had turned to say something to the lady behind her, and he drew his hand back and concealed the flower in it.

Nell, who chanced to be looking at him, was, perhaps, the only one who saw the action, and she thought little of it. He could scarcely interrupt Lady Wolfer by a too-insistent restoration of the blossom.

With the flower in his hand, Sir Archie went back to the table. The other men had closed up near the earl, but Sir Archie retained his seat. He allowed the butler to fill his glass and raised it to his lips with his right hand; then, after a moment or two, he took the flower from his left and fixed it in the buttonhole of his coat.

It was a daring thing to do; but he had been—well, not too sparing of the wine, and his usually pale and impassive face was flushed, and indicative of a kind of suppressed excitement.

Perhaps he thought that no one would recognize the flower, and probably no one did—no one, that is, but the earl. His eyes, as they glanced down the row of men, saw the blossom in its conspicuous place in Sir Archie's coat, and the earl's face went white, and his thin lips twitched.

"Have you any wine, Walbrooke?" he asked.

The butler had left the room.

Sir Archie started, as if his thoughts had been wandering.

"Eh? Oh—ah! thanks!" he said.

He took the decanter from the man next him, and filled his glass. The earl's eyes rested grimly upon the flower for a moment, then, as if with an effort, he turned to Mr. Gresham and got into talk with him. No man in the whole world was more ready to talk than the prime minister. The other men joined in the conversation, which was anything but political—all but Sir Archie. He sat silent and preoccupied, filling his glass whenever the decanter was near him, and drinking in a mechanical way, as if he were scarcely conscious of what he was doing. Now and then he glanced at the flower in his coat, deeming the glance unnoticed; but the earl saw it, and every time he detected the downward droop of the eyes, his own grew sterner and more troubled.

Meanwhile, in the drawing-room, the ladies were sipping their coffee and conversing in the perfunctory fashion which prevails while they are awaiting the arrival of the gentlemen.

Lady Wolfer, who had, up to the present, borne her part in the entertainment extremely well, suddenly appeared to have lost all interest and all desire to continue it. She seated herself beside the fire and next the easy-chair into which the duchess had sunk, and gazed dreamily over the screen which she held in her hand. Some of the ladies gathered in little groups, others turned to the books and albums, one or two yawned almost openly. A kind of blight seemed falling upon them. Nell, who was unused to the phenomena of dinner parties, looked round, aghast. Were they all going to sleep? Suddenly she realized that it was at just such a moment as this that she was supposed to come in. She went up to Lady Wolfer and bent down to her.

"Won't somebody play or sing?" she asked. "They all seem as if they were going to sleep."

"Let them!" retorted Lady Wolfer, almost loudly enough for those near to hear. "I don't care. Ask some one to sing, if you like."

Nell went up to a young girl who stood, half yawning, before a picture of Burne-Jones'.

"Will you play or sing?" she asked.

The girl looked at her with languid good humor.

"I'd sing; but I can't. I have no parlor tricks," she said. "Besides, what's the use? Nobody wants it," and she smiled with appalling candor.

Nell turned from her in despair, and met Lady Angleford's eyes bent upon her with smiling and friendly interest. Nell went up to her appealingly.

"I want some one to sing or play—or do something, Lady Angleford," she said.

Lady Angleford laughed, the comprehensive, American laugh which conveys so much.

"And they won't? I know. It isn't worth while till the gentlemen come in," she said. "I know that—now. It used to puzzle me at first; but I know now. You English are so—funny! In America a girl is quite content to sing to her lady friends; but here—well, only men count as audience. They will all wake up when the men appear. I have learned that. Or perhaps you will play or sing?"

Lady Wolfer was near enough to hear.

"Yes, Nell, sing," she said, with a forced smile.

Nell looked round shyly, then went to the piano.

"That's the sweetest girl I've seen in England," said Lady Angleford to her neighbor, who happened to be the dowager duchess. Her grace put up her eyeglasses, with their long holder, and surveyed the slim, girlish figure on its way to the grand piano.

"Yes? She's awfully pretty. And very young, too. A connection of the Wolfers', isn't she? Rather sad face."

"A face with a history," said Lady Angleford, more to herself than the duchess. "Do you know anything about her, duchess?"

Her grace shrugged her fat shoulders sleepily.

"Nothing at all. She's here as a kind of lady companion, or something of the sort. Yes, she's pretty, decidedly. Are you going on to the Meridues' reception?"

Nell sat down and played her prelude rather nervously; then she sang one of the songs which she had sung in The Cottage at Shorne Mills—one of the songs to which Drake had never seemed tired of listening. There was a lull in the lifeless, perfunctory conversation, and one or two of the sleepy women murmured: "Thank you! Thank you very much!"

"Bravo! Sing us something else, Nell!" said Lady Wolfer.

Nell was in the middle of the second song when the men filed in. Some of them came straight into the room and sought the women they wanted, others hung about the doors, and, hiding their yawns, glanced quite openly at their watches.

The earl made his way to his wife where she was sitting by the fire, her eyes fixed on the flames, which she could just see over the top of her hand screen.

"I have to go on to the Meridues' when these have gone," he said. "Are you coming, Ada?"

She glanced up at him. His eyes were fixed on the bosom of her dress, on the spot where the white blossom had shone conspicuously, but shone no longer; and there was a wistful, yearning expression on his grave face.

She did not raise her eyes.

"I don't know. I may be tired. Perhaps I may follow you."

He bowed, almost as he would have bowed to a stranger; then, as he was turning away, he said casually, but with a faint tremor in his voice:

"You have lost your flower!"

She raised her eyes and looked at him coldly.

"My flower? Ah, yes. My maid must have put it in insecurely."

The earl said nothing, but his grave eyes slowly left her face and wandered to Sir Archie and the flower in his buttonhole.

"I will wait for you until twelve," he said, with cold courtesy.

Lady Wolfer rose and went toward Lady Angleford.

"I wish you'd join us, my dear," she said. "Why, the woman movement sprang from America. You ought to sympathize with us."

"Oh, but I'm English now," said Lady Angleford, "and, being a convert, I'm more English than the English. What a charming specimen of your country you have in Miss Lorton! I don't want to rob you of her, but do you think you could spare her to come to us at Anglemere? We are going there almost directly."

Lady Wolfer replied absently:

"Yes, certainly; ask her. It will not matter to me."

"Not matter!" said Lady Angleford. "Why, I should have thought you would have suffered pangs at the mere thought of parting with her. She is an angel! Did you hear her sing just now? I don't know much about your English larks, but I was comparing her with them——"

Lady Wolfer fanned herself vigorously.

"Ask her, by all means," she said. "Oh, yes; of course I shall miss her."

As she spoke, Sir Archie came toward her. A faint flush rose to her face. Her eyes fell upon the white flower in his buttonhole.

"Why—how——Is that my flower?" she said, in a low voice.

"Yes," he replied. "It is yours. You dropped it, and I picked it up. Has any one a better right to it?"

She looked up at him half defiantly, half pleadingly.

"You have no right to it," she said, in a low voice, which she tried in vain to keep steady. "You—you are attracting attention——"

She glanced at the women near her, some of whom were eying the pair with sideway looks of curiosity.

"I am desperate," he said; "I can bear it no longer. I told you the other day that I had come to the end of my power of endurance. You—you are cold—and cruel. I want your decision; I must have it. I cannot bear——"

"Hush!" she said warningly, the screen in her hand shaking. "I will speak to you later—after—after some of them have gone. No; not to-night. Do not remain here any longer."

"As you please," he said, with a sullen resentment; and he crossed the room to Nell, and began to talk to her. As a rule, he talked very little; but the wine had loosened his tongue, and he launched out into a cynical and amusing diatribe against society and all its follies.

Nell listened with surprise at first; then she began to feel amused, and laughed.

He drew a chair near her and bent toward her, lowering his voice and speaking in an impressive tone quite unusual with him. To the casual observer it might well have seemed that they were carrying on a desperate flirtation; but every now and then he paused absently, and presently he rose almost abruptly and went into an anteroom.

An antique table with writing materials stood in a recess. He wrote something rapidly on a half sheet of note paper, and placing it inside a book, laid the volume on the pedestal of a Sevres vase standing near the table.

When he left Nell, Lady Wolfer crossed over to her.

"Sir Archie has been amusing you, dear?" she said, casually enough; but the smile which accompanied the remark did not harmonize with the unsmiling and anxious eyes.

"Oh, yes," said Nell, laughing. "He has been talking the most utter nonsense."

"He—he is very strange to-night," said Lady Wolfer, biting her lip softly. Not to innocent Nell could she even hint that Sir Archie had taken more wine than was good for him. "He has been talking utter nonsense to me. Did you notice the flower in his coat?"

"No," said Nell, with some surprise. "Why?"

Lady Wolfer laughed unnaturally.

"Nothing. Yes! Nell, I want you to get that flower from him. It—is a bet."

"I—get it from him?" said Nell, opening her gray eyes.

Lady Wolfer flushed for a moment.

"It is only a piece of folly," she said. "But—but I want you to get it. Ask him for it—he cannot refuse. Oh, I can't explain! I will, perhaps; but get it!"

She moved away as Sir Archie reappeared in the doorway. He came straight up to Nell.

"I think I'll be off," he said. "Some of the others have gone already."

He went toward Lady Wolfer as if to say "Good night," but, with the skill which every woman can display on occasion, Lady Wolfer turned from him as if she did not see him, and joined in the conversation which was being carried on by the duchess and Lady Angleford.

"I've come to say good night, Lady Wolfer," he said.

She met his gaze for a moment.

"Good night," she said, in the conventional tone. He bowed over her hand, looked at her with an intense and questioning gaze for an instant, then left her and came back to Nell.

"Oh, I've forgotten!" he exclaimed, half turning as if to rejoin the group he had left; then he hesitated, and added: "Will you be so kind as to give Lady Wolfer a message for me?"

"Yes, certainly," said Nell, rather absently; for she was wondering how she could ask for the flower, on which her eyes were unconsciously fixed.

"Thanks! You are always so kind. Will you tell her, please, that the book she wants is on the Sevres pedestal, just behind the vase. She will want it to-night."

Nell nodded.

"I won't forget," she said. "Are you going to take that poor flower into the cold, Sir Archie?"

She blushed as she asked the question; but he was too absorbed in the fatal game of passion to notice her embarrassment.

"The flower?" he said unthinkingly. "It is nearly faded already; too poor an offering to make you, Miss Lorton; but if you will accept it——"

He had expected her to refuse laughingly, but she replied simply:

"Thank you; yes, I should like to have it," and in his surprise he took it from his coat, and, with a bow, handed it to her, wished her good night, and left her. At the door he paused and looked in the direction of Lady Wolfer, met her eyes for an instant, then went out.

Nell was about to place the flower on the table, but, quite unthinkingly, stuck it in the bosom of her dress. As she was crossing the room to some people who were taking their departure, the earl came up to her.

"I am going to the library presently, and may not see Lady Wolfer before I leave. Will you please tell her that I hope she will not go out to-night? I think she is looking tired—and—and overstrained. Do you not think so?"

His tone was so full of anxiety, there was so sad and strained an expression in his grave face, as he looked toward his young wife, who was talking rather loudly and laughing in a way women will when there is anything but laughter in their hearts, that Nell's sympathy went out to him. It was as if suddenly she understood how much he cared for the woman who was wife to him in little more than the name.

"Yes, yes! I will tell her," she said. "I am sure she will not go if you do not wish it."

He smiled bitterly, and, for once dropping the cold reserve which usually masked him, said, with sad bitterness:

"You think she considers my wishes so closely?"

Nell looked up at him, half frightened by the intensity of his expression.

"Why—yes!" she faltered.

He smiled as bitterly as he had spoken; then his manner changed suddenly, and his eyes became fixed on the flower in her dress.

"Where did you get that flower? Who——" he asked, almost sternly.

Nell's face flamed; then, ashamed of the uncalled-for blush, she laughed.

"Sir Archie Walbrooke gave it me," she said.

The earl looked at her with surprise, which gradually changed to a keen scrutiny, under which Nell felt her blush rising again. But she said nothing, and, after a moment during which he seemed to be considering deeply, he passed on, his hands clasped behind his tall figure, his head bent.

Immediately the last guest had gone, Lady Wolfer went to her own apartments. Nell stood in the center of the vast and now empty room, and looked round her absently, and with that sense of some pending calamity which we call presentiment.

Innocent of the world and its intrigues, as she was, she could not fail to have seen that neither the earl nor the countess was happy; and that the endless work and excitement in which they endeavored to absorb themselves only left them dissatisfied and wretched.

She liked them both; indeed, she had grown very fond of Lady Wolfer, and her heart ached for the woman who had striven to hide her unhappiness behind the mask of a forced gayety and recklessness. For a moment, a single moment, as she caught sight of the flower, a vague suspicion of the danger which threatened the countess arose in Nell's mind; but she put the suspicion from her with a shudder, for it was too dreadful to be entertained.

Sometimes she went to Lady Wolfer's room after she had retired, and, remembering the earl's message, she went now upstairs and knocked at the countess' door.

A low voice bade her come in, and Nell entered and found Lady Wolfer sitting on a low chair before the fire. She was alone, and the figure crouching before the blaze, as if she were cold, aroused Nell's pity. She crossed the room and bent over her.

"Are you ill, dear, or only tired?" she asked gently.

Lady Wolfer started and looked up at her, and Nell saw that her face was white and drawn.

"Is it you?" she said. "I thought it was Wardell"—Wardell was her maid. "Yes, I am tired."

"Lord Wolfer has asked me to beg you not to go out to-night. He saw that you looked tired," she said.

Lady Wolfer gazed in the fire, and her lips curled sarcastically.

"He is very considerate," she said. "Extraordinarily so! One would think he cared whether I was tired or not, wouldn't one, eh, dear?"

"Why do you say that, and so bitterly?" Nell said, in a low voice. "Of course he cares. He is always kind and thoughtful."

Lady Wolfer rose abruptly and, with a short, hard laugh, began to pace up and down the room.

"He does not care in the least!" she said, in a harsh, strained voice. "Why did you come in to-night? I wish you hadn't! I—I wanted to be alone. No, do not go! Stay, now you are here," for Nell had moved to the door. She went back and laid her hand on the unhappy woman's arm.

"Won't you tell me what is the matter?" she said.

Lady Wolfer stopped and sank into the chair again.

"I'm almost tempted to!" she said, with a reckless laugh. "It might be useful to you—as a 'frightful example,' as the temperance people say. Oh, don't you know? You are young and innocent, Nell, but—but you cannot fail to have seen how wretched I am! Nell, you are not only young and innocent, but beautiful. You have all your life before you—you, too, will have to choose your fate—for we do choose it! Don't wreck your life as I have wrecked mine; don't, don't marry a man who does not love you—as I did!"

"Hush!" said Nell, startled and shocked. "You are wrong, quite wrong!"

Lady Wolfer laughed bitterly.

"I've said too much; I may as well tell you all," she said, with a shrug of her white shoulders. "It was a marriage of convenience. We—my people—were poor, and it was a great match for me. There was no talk of love—love!" She laughed again, and the laugh made Nell wince. "It was just a bargain. Such bargains are made every day in this vile marriage market of ours. I was as innocent as you, Nell. The glitter of the thing—the title, the big house, the position—dazzled me. I thought I should be more contented and satisfied. Other girls have done the same thing, and they seemed happy enough. But I suppose I am different. I wearied of the whole thing—the title, the big house, the diamonds, everything—before the first month. I wanted something else; I scarcely knew what——Ah, yes, I did! I did! I wanted love—the thing they all laugh and sneer at! I had sold myself for gold and place and power, and when I had gotten them they all turned to Dead Sea fruit, dust and ashes, on my lips!"

She gripped her hands tightly, and bent lower over the fire, and Nell sank on her knees beside her, pale herself, and incapable of speech.

"For a time I tried to bear it, to live the weary, dragging life; then, when I was nearly mad—I tried to find relief in the world outside my own home. I was supposed to be clever—clever! I could write and talk. I took up this woman's rights business!" She laughed again. "All the time they were lauding me to the skies and flattering and fooling me, I knew how stupid the whole thing was. But it seemed the only chance for me, the only way of forgetting myself and—and my slavery. At any rate, it served as an excuse for getting out of the house, for not inflicting my presence upon the man who had bought me, and who regarded me simply as the figurehead for his table, the person to receive his guests and play the necessary part in his public life."

"No, no! You're wrong, wrong!" said Nell earnestly.

Lady Wolfer seemed scarcely to have heard her.

"I ought to have known that it would not help me long. It has come to an end. I am going to end it. I cannot bear this life any longer—I cannot, I cannot! I will not! I have only one life—that I know of——"

"Oh, hush, hush!" Nell implored. "You are all wrong! I know it, I am sure of it! You think he does not care for you. He does, he does! If you had seen his face to-night—had heard his voice!"

Lady Wolfer looked at her with a half-startled glance; then she shook her head and smiled bitterly.

"No, I am not wrong," she said. "I know what love is—at last! It beckons me—I have resisted—God knows I have struggled with and fought against it—have kept it from me with both hands—but my strength has failed me at last, and——"

Nell caught her arm and clung to it.

"Oh, what do you mean?" she asked, in vague terror.

Lady Wolfer started, and slowly unclasped Nell's hands.

"I have said too much," she said, panting and moistening her parched lips. "I did not mean to tell you—no, I will not say another word. I don't know why I am so unnerved, why I take it so much to heart I think—Nell, I am fond of you; you know it?"

Nell made a gesture of assent, and touched the countess' clasped hands lovingly, tenderly.

"I—I think it is your presence here that—that has made me hesitate—has made me realize the gravity of what I am going to do. I—I never look at you, hear you speak, but I am reminded that I was once, and not so long ago, as innocent as you. But I can hesitate no longer. I have to decide, and I have decided!"

She rose and stood with her hands before her face for the moment; then she let them fall with a sigh, and forced a smile.

"Go now, dear!" she said. "I—I wish I had not spoken so freely; but that tender, loving heart of yours is hard to resist."

"What is it you have decided to do?" Nell asked, scarcely above her breath.

A deep red rose slowly to the countess' face, then slowly faded, leaving it pale and wan, and set with determination.

"I cannot tell you, Nell," she said. "You—you will know soon enough. And when you know, I want you—I want you to think not too badly of me, to remember how much I have suffered, how hard and cruel my life has been—how I have hungered and thirsted for one word, one look of love; that I have struggled and striven against my fate, and have yielded only when I could endure no longer. Oh, go now, dear!"

"Let me stay with you to-night! I can sleep on this couch—on this chair—beside you, if you like," pleaded Nell, confused and frightened, but aching with pity and sympathy. "I know that it is all wrong, that you are mistaken. If I could only convince you! If I could only tell you what I saw in Lord Wolfer's eyes as he looked at you to-night!"

The countess shook her head.

"It is you who are mistaken," she said, "and it is too late. No, you shall not stay. I have done wrong to say so much. Try—try and forget it. But yet—no, don't forget it, Nell. Remember me and my wretchedness, and let it be a warning to you, if ever you are tempted to marry a man who does not love you, whom you do not love. Ah, but you must go, Nell! I am worn out!"

Nell went to her and put her arm round her neck, and drew her face down that she might kiss her, but the countess gently put Nell's arm from her, and drew back from the proffered kiss.

"No; you shall not kiss me!" she said, in a low voice. "You will be glad that you did not—presently! Stay—give me that flower!" she said, holding out her hand, but looking away.

Nell started, and drew the flower from her bosom as if it had been something poisonous, and flung it in the fire.

The countess shrugged her shoulders with an air of indifference, and turned to watch the flower withering and consuming in the fire, and Nell, with something like a sob, left her.

What should she do? She understood that her friend stood on the verge of a precipice; but how could she—Nell—with all her desire to save her, drag her back?

As she was going to her room she heard a step in the hall, and, looking over the balustrade, saw the earl pass from the library to the drawing-room. For an instant she was half resolved to go down to him, to—what? How could she tell him? She dared not!

Lord Wolfer wandered into the drawing-room and stood before the fire, looking into it moodily, as he leaned against the great mantelpiece of carved marble.

He was thinking of the flower which he had seen first in his wife's possession, then in Sir Archie's, and lastly in Nell's; and of her blush and confusion when he had asked her how she came by it. He knew Sir Archie, knew him better and more of his life than Sir Archie suspected. The man was a perfect type of the modern lover; incapable of a fixed passion, as fickle as the wind. Could it be that he had transferred, what he would have called his "devotion," from the countess to Nell? It seemed at first sight too improbable; but Wolfer knew his world and the ethics of the smart set of which Sir Archie Walbrooke was a conspicuous member too well to scout the idea as impossible. The fact that Sir Archie had spent the last three months flirting with one woman would be no hindrance to his transferring his attentions to a younger and prettier one.

The harassed man turned away with a weary sigh, wandered purposelessly into the anteroom, and, in a mechanical fashion, fingered the various articles on the writing table. His eye fell on the book on the pedestal, and he took up the volume absently, intending to restore it to its place in the bookcase. On his way he opened the book, and a half sheet of note paper fell from it and fluttered to his feet. He picked it up, read what was written on it, and stood for a moment motionless, his eyes fixed on the carpet, his lips writhing.

How long he stood there he did not know, but presently he was aroused by the sound of footsteps. He listened. Some one—the rustling of a dress—was approaching the room. He slipped the note into the book and replaced the volume on the pedestal, and quickly stepped behind the portiere curtains.

He expected his wife. Should he come forward and confront her? His stern face grew red with shame—for her, for himself. Then, with a sudden leap of the heart, with a sensation of relief which was absolutely painful in its intensity, he saw Nell enter the room and go straight to the pedestal. Her face was pale and troubled, and she looked round with what seemed to him a guilty expression in the gray eyes. Then she opened the book as he had done, but, as if she expected to find something, took out the note, and after a moment of hesitation read it. He saw her face flush hotly, then grow white, and her hand go out to the pedestal as if for support. For a moment she stood as motionless as he had done, then she thrust the note into her pocket, dropped the book from her hand—it fell on the floor unregarded by her—and slowly left the room.

Wolfer passed his hand over his brow with a bewildered air, then, as if obeying an irresistible impulse, he followed her up the stairs.

Quietly but slowly. He knew that she had not seen him, did not know that he was following her, and he waited at the end of the corridor, watching her with a heart throbbing with an agony of anxiety. Was she going to carry the note to his wife? But she did not even hesitate at the door of Lady Wolfer's room, but went straight to her own, and he heard the key turn as she locked it.

The sweat was standing in great drops upon his forehead, and he put up a trembling hand and wiped them away as he looked toward his wife's door. Should he go in and question her? Should he ask her straightly whether the note was intended for her or Nell? It seemed too horrible to suspect the girl who had seemed innocence and purity itself, and yet had he not seen her go straight for the book, as if she had known that it was there waiting for her?

Like a man in a dream he went down to the library, and, locking the door, flung himself into a chair, and buried his face in his hands. What was he to think?



CHAPTER XXIII.

Nell stood in the middle of the room with the note which she had found in the book in her hand. She had read it half mechanically and unsuspectingly, as one reads a scrap of paper found in a volume, or in some unexpected place; and, trembling a little, she went to the electric light and read the note again. It ran thus—and with every word Nell's face grew pale:

"I can wait no longer. You cannot say I have been impatient—that I haven't endured the suspense as well as a man could. If you love me, if you are really willing to trust yourself to me, come away with me to-morrow. God knows I will try and make you happy, and that you can never be under this roof with a man who doesn't care for you. I will come for you at seven to-morrow morning—we can cross by the morning boat. Don't trouble about luggage; everything we want we can get on the other side. For Heaven's sake, don't hesitate! Be ready and waiting for me as the clock strikes. Don't hesitate! The happiness of both our lives lies in your hands. ARCHIE."

Nell sank into a chair and stared at the wall, trying to think; but for a moment or two the horror and shame of the thing overwhelmed her. She had read of such incidents as these, for now and again one of the new school of novels reached The Cottage; but there is a lot of difference between reading, say, of a murder, and watching the committal of one. She was almost as much ashamed and shocked as if the note had been intended for herself.

She was not ashamed of having read it—though the mere touch of the paper was hateful to her—for she felt that Providence had ordained it that she should stand between Lady Wolfer and the ruin to which Sir Archie was beckoning her.

But what should she do? Should she take the letter to Lady Wolfer and implore her to send Sir Archie a refusal? This was, of course, Nell's first impulse, but she dared not follow it; dared not run the risk of letting Lady Wolfer see the note. The unhappy woman's face haunted Nell, and her reckless words, and her tone of desperation, still rang in Nell's ears. No; she dared not let Lady Wolfer know that this man would be waiting for her. Few women in the position of the countess could resist such a note as this, such an appeal from the man who, she thought, loved her. But if she did not take the note to the countess, what was she to do?

Sir Archie would be, then, in the library at seven o'clock; he would ask for the countess; she would go to him, and—Nell shuddered, and walked up and down. If there were any one to whom she could go for advice! But there was no one. At all costs, the truth must be kept from the earl; his wife must be saved.

It was a terrible position for a young and inexperienced girl; but, despite her youth and inexperience, the note could scarcely have fallen into better hands than Nell's; for she possessed courage, and was not afraid for herself. Most girls, keenly though they might desire to save their friend, would have destroyed the note and left the rest to Providence; but Nell's spirit had been trained in the bracing air of Shorne Mills, and her views tempered by many a tussle with tide and wind in the Annie Laurie; and the pluck which lay dormant in the slight figure rose now to the struggle for her friend's safety. She had grown to love the woman who had confided her heart's sorrow to her that night, and she meant to save her. But how? Sir Archie would be there at seven, and Lady Wolfer must be kept in ignorance of his presence; and he must be sent away convinced of the hopelessness of his passion.

Nell walked up and down, unconscious of weariness, ignorant that in his own room the earl was listening to her footsteps, and putting his own construction upon her agitation. Now and again she thought of Drake and her own love affair. Were all men alike? Were there no good men in the world? Were they all selfish and unscrupulous in the quest of their own interest and amusements? Love! The word sounded like a mockery, a delusion, a snare. Drake had loved, or thought he loved her, until Lady Luce had beckoned him back to her; and this other man, Sir Archie—how long would he continue to love the unhappy woman if she yielded to him?

The silver clock on the mantelshelf struck five, and Nell, worn out at last, and still apparently far away from any solution of the problem which she had set herself, flung herself on the bed. She had scarcely closed her eyes before a way of helping Lady Wolfer presented itself to her.

Her face crimsoned, and she winced and closed her eyes with a slight shudder; but though she shrank from the ordeal, she resolved to make it. Lady Wolfer had been kind to her, had won her love, and, more than all else, had confided in her, and she—Nell—would save her at any cost.

A little before seven she rose, and changed her dinner dress for a plain traveling one, and, putting on her hat and jacket, went down to the library slowly and almost stealthily. A maidservant was sweeping the hall, and she looked up at Nell, clad in her outdoor things, with some surprise.

"I expect Sir Archie Walbrooke at seven o'clock," said Nell. "I am in the library, please."

She spoke quite calmly and casually, buttoning her glove in a leisurely fashion as she passed on her way; and the maid responded unsuspiciously, for the coming and going at Wolfer House were always somewhat erratic.

Nell went into the library, and, closing the door, turned up the electric light a little—for the maids had not yet been to the room, and the shutters were still closed. The morning was a wet and chilly one, and Nell shuddered slightly as she sat and watched the second hand of the clock, which at one moment seemed to move slowly and at the next appeared to fly. She had not decided upon the words she would use; she would be guided by those which Sir Archie might speak; but she was resolved to fight as long as possible, to hide every tremor which, at these moments of waiting and suspense, quivered through her.

Then she heard his voice, his slow step—no quicker than usual this morning—crossing the hall; the door opened, and he was in the room. Nell rose, and stood with her back to the light; and, closing the door, he came toward her with a faint cry of satisfaction and relief.

"Ada!" he said. "You have come——"

Nell raised her veil, but, before she had done so, he had seen that she was not the countess; and he stopped short and stared at her.

"Miss Lorton!" he exclaimed, under his breath, so taken aback that the shock of his disappointment was revealed in his face and voice. "I—I thought—expected—to see Lady Wolfer. Is—is she up? Does she know that I am here? You have a message for me?"

He tried to speak casually, and forced a smile, as if the appointment was quite an ordinary one; but Nell saw that the hand that held his hat shook, and that his color, which had risen as he entered the room and greeted her, had slowly left his face, and her courage rose.

"Yes, I have a message for you, Sir Archie," she said, keeping her voice as steady as she could, and saying to herself: "It is to save her—save her!"

"Yes?" he said, with suppressed eagerness and anxiety. "What is it? I—I am rather pressed for time." He glanced at his watch. "Won't she see me? If you would go up and ask her. I shan't detain her more than a minute."

"No; she cannot see you," said Nell. "I am to ask you to go—where you are going—without seeing her."

He looked at her steadily, gnawing his lip softly.

"I—I don't understand," he said, still trying to smile. "She—told you that I am going—abroad?"

Nell inclined her head gravely.

"Yes? But didn't she tell you that—that I must see her before I go? That—that it is important?"

"She cannot see you," said Nell, her heart beating fast. "She wishes you to go, and—and to remain abroad——"

His face crimsoned, then went pale.

"You know—she has told you why—why I have come this morning?" he said, in a low voice.

"Yes, I know," assented Nell, the shame, for him, dyeing her face.

He stared at her for a moment in silence; then he said, half defiantly, half sullenly:

"Very well, then. If you know why I am here, you must know that I cannot take such a message, that I cannot go—without her. For Heaven's sake, Miss Lorton, go and fetch her! There is no time to lose. Her—my happiness is at stake. I beg your pardon; I'm afraid I'm brusque; but——For Heaven's sake, bring her! If I could see her, speak to her for a moment——"

Nell shook her head.

"I cannot," she said. "It would be of no use. Lady Wolfer would not go with you."

He came nearer to her and lowered his voice, almost speaking through his teeth.

"See here, Miss Lorton, you—you have no right to be in this business—to interfere with it. You—you are too young to understand——"

Nell crimsoned.

"No," she said, almost inaudibly. "I understand. I—I have seen your letter." Her calm, almost her courage, broke down, and, clasping her hands, she pleaded to him. "Oh, yes, I do understand! Sir Archie, go; do, do go! It is cruel of you to stay. If—if you really love her, you will go and never come back."

His face went white and his eyes flashed.

"No, you don't understand, although you think you do. You say that I am cruel. I should be cruel if I did what she asks me, what you wish me to do, to leave her in this house, to the old life of misery. I love her; I want to take her away with me from the man who doesn't care an atom for her, whom she does not love."

"It isn't true!" said Nell, with a sudden burst of indignation, and with a sudden insight as inexplicable as it was sudden. "He loves her, and she, though she does not know it, cares for him. They would have discovered the truth if you had not come between them and made them hard and cold to each other. Yes, you are cruel, cruel and wicked! But—but perhaps it has not been all your fault—and—I'm sorry if—if I have spoken too harshly."

He scarcely seemed to have heard her concluding words, but repeated to himself: "She cares for him. She cares for Wolfer—her husband!"

"Yes, yes!" said Nell eagerly, anxiously. "I know it; I have seen her when she was most unhappy. I have heard the truth in her voice—I remember little things—the way she has behaved to him, spoken to him, when she was off her guard. Yes, it is true she cares for him as much as he cares for her; but they have hidden it from each other—and you—you have made it harder for them to show their love! But you know the truth now, and—and you will go, will you not?"

In her anxiety she laid her hand on his arm imploringly, and looked up at him with eyes moist with tears.

He looked at her, his brows knit, his lips set closely.

"By Heaven, if I thought you were right!" broke from him; then his tone changed, and his eyes grew hard with resentment. "No; you are wrong, quite wrong! And it is you who have come between us, and will rob us of our happiness! I—I—beg your pardon!" he faltered, for this slave of passion was, after all, a gentleman. "I beg your pardon! If you knew what I am suffering, what she must be suffering at this moment! Miss Lorton, you are her friend—you have no reason to bear me any ill will—I honor you for—for your motives in all this—but I implore you to stand aside. If you will go and bring her, I will wait here, and you shall hear from her own lips that you are wrong in supposing that any affection exists between her and him. I will wait here. Go, I beg of you! There is no time to lose!"

"I will not!" said Nell, her slight figure erect, her eyes more eloquent than the tone of her resolution to save her friend.

"Then I will ring and ask her to come," he said, and he went toward the bell.

Nell sprang in front of it.

"No," she said, in a low voice. "It is I who will ring, and it is the earl who shall come."

Sir Archie stood, his hand outstretched to push her aside. Men of his class and character dislike a scene. He was not physically afraid of Lord Wolfer, but—a scene and a scandal which would leave Lady Wolfer at Wolfer House, while he was turned out, was a contretemps to be avoided, if possible.

"You must be mad!" he said, between his teeth. "Worse; you are laboring under a hideous mistake. She loves me, and you know it—she has never cared for Lord Wolfer. Please stand aside."

He put out his hand to gently remove her from before the bell, and at his touch the strain which Nell was undergoing became too tense for endurance. The color left her face and left it deathly white. With a faint moan she put her hand to her throat as if she were choking, and swayed to and fro as if she were giddy.

Sir Archie caught her just in time.

"Good heavens, don't faint!" he exclaimed, in a horrified whisper.

At the sound of his voice, at his touch, Nell recovered her full consciousness.

"Let me go! Don't touch me!" she breathed, with a shudder; but, before she could free herself from his hold, the door opened, and the earl entered.

With an oath, Sir Archie turned and glared at him, and Nell sank against the mantelshelf, and leaned there, faint and trembling.

The two men stood quite still and looked at each other. In these days we have taught ourselves to take the most critical moments of our lives quietly. There is no loud declamation, no melodramatic denunciation, no springing at each other's throats, or flashing of swords. We carry our wrongs to the law courts, and an aged gentleman in an ermine tippet, and a more or less grimy wig, avenges us—with costs and damages.

The earl was pale enough, and his eyes wore a stern expression as they rested upon his "friend"; but yet there was something in his face which seemed to indicate relief; and, presently, after a moment which seemed an age to Nell, his gaze left the other man's face and fixed itself on her.

"Were you going out with Sir Archie Walbrooke, Miss Lorton?" he asked coldly.

Sir Archie started slightly, and would have spoken, but Nell looked at him quickly, a look which smote him to silence. She, too, remained silent, her hands clasped, her eyes fixed on the ground.

"Is my inference a correct one?" said the earl, still more coldly. "I find you here—at this unusual hour—and dressed for traveling. And he is here—by appointment, I presume? Ah, do not deny it! It is too obvious."

Sir Archie opened his lips, but once more Nell looked at him, and once more her eyes commanded, rather than asked, his silence. He suppressed an oath, and stood with clenched hands, waiting in helpless irresolution. What was this girl going to do? Was she—was it possible that she was going to screen Lady Wolfer at the cost of her own reputation! The man was not altogether bad, and the remnant of honor which still glowed in his breast rose against the idea of such a sacrifice. And yet—it was for the woman he loved!

The perspiration broke out on his pale face, and he looked from the stern eyes of the earl to Nell's downcast ones.

"I can't stand this!" broke from his lips. "Look here, Wolfer!"

The earl raised his head.

"I have nothing to say to you. I decline to hear you," he said grimly. "I am addressing Miss Lorton. I have asked her a question; but it is not necessary to inflict the pain of an answer. I am aware that I have no legal right to interfere in Miss Lorton's movements, but she is under my roof, she is a connection"—his voice grew a shade less stern—"I am, indeed, almost in the position of her guardian. Therefore, I deem it my duty to acquaint her with the character of the man with whom she proposes to—elope."

Nell raised her head, the crimson staining her whole face; and it seemed to Sir Archie as if her endurance had broken down; but she checked the indignant denial which had sprung to her lips, and, closing her lips tightly, sank back into her former attitude—an attitude which convinced Lord Wolfer of her guilt.

"Are you aware that this gentleman, who has honored you by an invitation to fly with him, is already a married man, Miss Lorton?"

Nell made no sign, but Sir Archie started and ground his teeth.

"He has carefully concealed the fact; but—well, I happen to know it, and I think he will not venture to deny it."

He paused, but Sir Archie remained silent.

"Were you ignorant of it?" asked the earl.

Nell opened her lips, and they formed the word "Yes."

"I expected as much," said the earl. "And now that you know the truth, are you still desirous of accompanying him?"

Nell, with her eyes fixed on the ground, shook her head.

"No!" she whispered.

Sir Archie swore under his breath.

"I can't stand this!" he said desperately. "Look here, Wolfer, you are making a damnable mistake. Miss Lorton——"

The earl turned to him, but looked above his head.

"Excuse me," he said, "I have no desire to hear any explanation of your conduct—it would be impossible for you to defend it. But, having received Miss Lorton's reply to my question, I have the right to ask you to quit my house—and I do so!"

Sir Archie went up to Nell and looked at her straight in the face.

"Do you—do you wish me to remain silent?" he said hoarsely. "Think before you speak! Do you?"

Nell looked up instantly.

"Yes!" she replied, in a low voice. "If you will go—forever!"

Sir Archie gazed at her as if he had suddenly become unconscious of the earl's presence.

"My God!" he breathed. "You—you are treatin' me better than I deserve. Yes, I am goin'," he said, turning fiercely to the earl, who had made a slight movement of impatience. "But I want to say this. I want"—he moistened his lips, as if speech were difficult—"to tell you—and—and her—that—that what has taken place will never be spoken of by me while I live. I am goin'—abroad. I shall not return for some time."

The earl made a gesture of indifference.

"Your movements can be of no interest to me," he said, "and I trust that they may be of as little importance to this unhappy girl, now that she knows the character of the man whom she was about to trust."

Sir Archie laughed—a laugh that sounded hideously grotesque at such a moment; then he took up his hat and gloves; but he laid them down again.

"Will you give me a minute—three—with Miss Lorton, alone?" he asked, biting his lip.

The earl hesitated for a moment, and glanced at Nell searchingly; then, as if satisfied, he said:

"Yes, I will do so, on condition that you leave this house at the expiration of that time. I will rejoin you when he has gone."

As he left the room, Sir Archie turned to Nell.

"Do you know what you have done?" he asked hoarsely, and almost inaudibly. "Do you know what this means: that you have sacrificed yourself for—for her?"

Nell had sunk into a chair, and she looked up at him, and then away from him; but in that momentary glance he had read the light of an inflexible resolution, an undaunted courage in the gray eyes.

"Yes, I know," she said. "He—he thinks, will always think, that it was I——" She broke off with an irrepressible shudder.

Sir Archie's hand went to his mustache to cover the quiver of his lips.

"My God! it's the noblest thing! But—have you counted the cost—the consequences?"

"Yes," she said. "But it does not matter. I—I am nobody—only a girl, with no husband, no one who loves, cares for me; while she——Yes, I know what I have done; but I am not sorry—I don't regret. I have your promise?" she looked up at his strained face solemnly. "You will keep it?—you will not break your word? You will go away and—and leave her?"

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