If the first sight of the Wall was wonderful to the Roman soldiers, so must have been the first sight of the wide Tyne. I know it was so to me, as we flashed upon it at the first important twist of the straight Roman road, and crossed it on a noble bridge.
Of course, Newcastle has a castle; and it was "new" when William the Conqueror was new to his kingdom. Now that I've seen this great, rich, gay, busy city, ancient and modern, I realize how stupid I was to associate it with mere coal, as strangers have a way of doing, because of the trite remark about "taking coals to Newcastle." Why, the very names of the streets in the old part chime bell-like with the romance of history! And I like the people of Northumberland—those I have met; the shrewd, kindly townsfolk, and the country folk living in gray villages, who love old, old ways, and emit quaint wit with a strong, rough "burr."
They have the look in their eyes that Northern people have, all the world over; a look that can be hard, yet can be kinder than the soft look of more melting Southern eyes. Sir Lionel is of the South—born in Cornwall; yet his eyes have this Northern glint in them—as if he knew and understood mountains. Just now they are terribly wintry, and when they rest coldly on me I feel as if I were lost in a snowstorm without hat or coat. But no matter!
Now, what shall I say to you of Bamborough Castle, which is the crown of our whole tour?
I wish I were clever enough to make the splendour of it burst upon you, as it did upon me.
Imagine us motoring over from Cragside (a very beautiful and famous modern house, with marvellous gardens and enchanting views) which belongs to these kind, delightful friends of Sir Lionel's who own Bamborough Castle. There was a house-party at Cragside, and there were twelve or fifteen of us who left there in a drove of automobiles.
Down the beautiful winding avenue; then out upon a hump-backed, switchback road, a dozen miles and more, past great Alnwick, on, on, until suddenly a vast, dark shape loomed against the sky; a stone silhouette, not of a giant's profile, but of a whole vast family of giants grouped together, to face the sea.
To own a Thing like that must feel like owning Niagara Falls, or the marble range of the Sierra Nevada, or biting off a whole end of England and digesting it. Yet these charming people take their ownership quite calmly; and by filling the huge castle from keep to farthest tower with their beautiful possessions, seem to have tamed the splendid monster, making it legitimately theirs.
I thought Alnwick grand, as we passed, but its position is insignificant compared with Bamborough, which has the wide North Sea for a background. On a craggy platform of black rock like a petrified cushion for a royal crown, it rises above the sea, a few low foothills of golden sand drifting toward it ahead of the tide. The grandeur of the vast pile is almost overwhelming to one who, like me, has never until now seen any of these mighty fortress-castles of the North; but a great historian says that the site of Bamborough surpasses the sites of all other Northumbrian castles in ancient and abiding historic interest; so even if I had been introduced to dozens, my impression must remain the same. "Round Bamborough, and its founder, Ida (the Flame-Bearer), all Northumbrian history gathers"; and it is "one of the great cradles of national life."
Bamborough village, close by, was once the royal city of Bernicia, and the "Laidly Worm" was there to give it fame, even if there had never been a Grizel Cochrane or Grace Darling; but the history of the hamlet that once was great, and the castle that will always be great, are virtually one. I shall bring you Besant's "Dorothy Foster," and lots of fascinating photographs which our hostess has given me. (I don't think I need leave them for Ellaline, as she wouldn't care.) But you know the story of the Laidly Worm, because Dad used to tell it to me when I was small. The wicked stepmother who turned her beautiful stepdaughter into the fearsome Worm used to live at the bottom of a deep, deep well that opens in the stone floor of the castle keep; and there, in the rock-depths, a hundred and fifty feet below, she still lurks, in the form of a gigantic toad. I have been allowed to peep down, and I'm sure I caught the jewelled sparkle of her wicked eye in the gloom. But even if she'd turned me into a Laidly Worm, I couldn't be more repulsive than I probably am at present to Sir Lionel; besides, I could crawl away into a neighbouring cave with modern improvements, and console myself with a good cry—which I can't do now, for fear of getting a red nose. I should hate that, because Mrs. Senter's nose is so magnolia-white, and the background of a magnificent feudal castle sets off her golden hair and brown eyes so passing well.
There might be volumes of history, as well as romances, written about Bamborough Castle—as Sir Walter Scott, and Harrison Ainsworth, and Sir Walter Besant knew. Why, the thrill of unwritten stories and untold legends is in the air! From the moment I passed through the jaws of outer and inner gateways, I seemed to hear whispers from lips that had laughed or cursed in the days of barbaric grandeur, when Bamborough was the king of all Northumbrian castles. There are queer echoes everywhere, in the vast rooms whose outer walls are twelve feet thick; but more deliciously "creepy" than any other place is the keep, I think—even more thrilling than the dungeons. Yet the castle, as it is now, is far from gloomy, I can tell you. Not only are there banqueting-halls and ball-rooms, and drawing-rooms and vast galleries which royalties might covet, but there are quantities of charming bedrooms, gay and bright enough for debutante princesses. My bedroom, where I am writing, is in a turret; quaintly furnished, with tapestry on the wall which might have suggested to Browning his "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came."
It's very late, but I don't like to go to bed, partly because I can't keep jumping up and down to look out of my window at wild crags and moonlit sea when I'm asleep; partly because I have such silly, miserable dreams about Sir Lionel hating me, that I wake up snivelling; and to write to you when I'm a tiny bit triste is always like warming my hands at a rainbow-tinted fire of ship's logs.
To-morrow afternoon we are going back to Newcastle, where we will "lie" one night, as old books say, and then make a very matinal start to do our great day in Yorkshire, passing first through Durham, with just a glance at the great cathedral. Once upon a time we would have given more than a glance. But, as I told you, Sir Lionel seems to have lost heart for the "long trail."
I never saw him so interested in Mrs. Senter as he has appeared to be these last two nights at Cragside and here. Certainly she is looking her very, very best; and in her manner with him there is a gentleness and womanliness only just developed. One would fancy that a sympathetic understanding had established itself between them, as it might if she told him some piteous story about herself which roused all his chivalry.
Well, if she has told him any such story, I'm sure it is a "story" in every sense of the word. And I don't know how I should bear it if she cajoled him into believing her an injured innocent who needed the shelter of a (rich and titled) man's arm.
Perhaps it is a little sad wind that cries at my window like a baby begging to come in; perhaps it is just foolishness; but I have a presentiment that something will happen here to make me remember Bamborough Castle forever, not for itself alone.
Afternoon of next day
It has happened. Best One, I don't quite know what is going to become of me. There has been the most awful row. It was with Dick, and Sir Lionel doesn't know about it yet, and we are supposed to be going away in a few minutes; but maybe Dick is talking to Sir Lionel now, and if he is, I don't suppose I shall be allowed to proceed in the company of virtuous Emily and (comparatively) innocent Gwendolen. I shall probably be given a third-class ticket back to Paris, and ordered to "git."
It's rather hard that, having sacrificed so much, large chunks of self-respect among other things, it should all come to nothing in the end. Ellaline will want to kill me, for I have thrown her to the lions. It won't be my fault if they don't eat her up.
Oh, darling, I do feel horribly about it, and really and truly, without exaggeration, I would have died sooner than repay her kindness to me by giving her away like this. An ancestress of yours in the Revolution ran up the steps of the guillotine laughing and kissing her hands to the friends she left in the tumbril, and I could have been almost half as brave if by so doing I might have avoided this dreadful abandoning of Ellaline's interests, trusted to me. But what can you do between two evils? Isn't it a law of nature, or something, to choose the lesser?
Dick went just the one step too far, and pulled the chain too tight. He had begun to think he could make me do anything.
A little while ago, I was alone in the armoury, absorbed in looking at a wonderful engraving of the tragic last Earl of Derwentwater, when suddenly Dick came up behind me. I wanted to go, and made excuses to escape, but he wouldn't let me; and rather than have a scene—in case anyone might come—I let him walk me about, and point out strange old weapons on the wall. That was only a blind, however. He had something particular to say, and said it. There was another thing I must do for him: find a way of informing Sir Lionel, prettily and nicely, that Mrs. Senter cared for him, and was very unhappy.
I flew out in an instant, and said that I'd do no such thing.
"You must," said he.
"I won't," said I. "Nobody can make me."
"Oh, can't they?" said he. "I can, then, and I mean to. If you refuse to do it, I shall believe you're in love with Sir Lionel yourself."
"I don't care what you believe," I flung at him. "There's no shame in saying I like Sir Lionel too well and respect him too much to have any hand in making him miserable all the rest of his life."
"Do you insinuate that marrying my aunt would make him miserable?" Dick wanted to know.
"I don't insinuate. I assert," said I. And by that time I was in such a temper, and my nerves had so gone to bits that I didn't know, and cared less, what I was saying. I went on and told Dick exactly what I thought of Mrs. Senter, and that for a loyal, true sort of man like Sir Lionel it would be better to die at once than have her for his wife—for that would be death, too, only slow and lingering. Dick was white with fury, but I hardly noticed then, for I was seeing red.
"If you call her deceitful, what are you?" he sputtered.
"I'm neither here nor there," said I.
"Certainly you won't be here long, or where Pendragon is," said he. "I wouldn't marry you now, if you'd have me. You're nothing more or less than an adventuress."
"And you're a blackmailer," I mentioned, because I'd gone back to primitive passions, like Eve's, or a Brittany fishwife's.
"That's a lie," he answered politely, "because blackmailers only threaten; I'm going to perform. It's all up with you."
"I don't care for myself," said I. But, as you know, that was only partly true.
Then for a minute Dick seemed to repent. "No good losing our tempers like this," he said. "Take back your insults to my aunt, who is the best pal I ever had—though that's not saying much—and speak a good word for her to Sir Lionel, whom she really loves, and I'll let you off."
"I'd have my tongue cut out first," I answered.
"Is that your last word?" he persisted.
"Yes," said I.
"Very well, then," said he, "you'll be sorrier for this than you ever were for anything in your life." And he stamped away, leaving me alone.
I flew up to my room, because I wasn't going to run the risk of his bringing Sir Lionel in and telling him everything before me. So here I am, and that's all; except that Emily has come to my door to say her brother wants to know if I can be ready to start in twenty minutes.
We're back in our rooms at the County Hotel, and I am dazed with the mystery of what is going on. I was ready in twenty minutes; and all the automobiles that brought us yesterday were waiting to take us away again. When I came down, Mrs. Norton and Mrs. Senter were in our car; Sir Lionel, cool but polite, prepared to help me in, standing by. He has great control over his features, but I didn't think, if he had heard Dick's story, and intended to shed me at the nearest railway station (not to make a scandal at Bamborough), he could be looking as unmoved as that.
No Dick was in sight. Naturally, I didn't ask for him, but perhaps my eye moved wildly round, for Mrs. Senter read its question, and answered it in a voice like insufficiently sweetened lemonade:
"Your Dick, dear child, has had another urgent summons to his mother's side, and won't be with us to-day. His last words were that you would understand, so I suppose he explained more to you than to me. But you are privileged."
I could have boxed her ears, hard.
Emily went on, in her fussy way, to make things clear to my intellect by adding that our host had kindly sent Mr. Burden to the nearest railway station in his own fastest motor, as it seemed he had just time to catch a train leaving almost immediately.
I didn't know what to make of it all, and don't now. Whether a telegram from the invalid mother did really come in the nick of time to save me, like Abraham's ram that caught in the bushes at the last minute; or whether this sudden dash to Scotland is a deep-dyed plot; or whether he isn't going, really, but means to stop and spy on me disguised as a chauffeur or a performing bear—or what, I can't guess.
All I do know is that, so far, Sir Lionel's manner is unchanged. Perhaps Dick left a note with Mrs. Senter, which she is to put into Sir L.'s hand at an appropriate moment? He may seem altered at dinner, to which I must go down soon; or he may send for me and have it out during the evening. I'll add a line before we get off to-morrow morning.
September 10th. 8.45 A.M.
We're just going. He seems the same as ever. I'm lost in it! I'll post this downstairs. Please write at once to Graylees; for if I am sent away before, I'll ask to have letters forwarded to my own address.
MRS. SENTER TO HER NEPHEW, DICK BURDEN, AT GLEN LACHLAN, N. B.
Newcastle, September 10th 8 A.M.
You might have told me what was up. Is your mother really ill? Am anxious and puzzled. Don't think you play fair. Wire, Midland Hotel, Bradford.
DICK BURDEN TO HIS AUNT, MRS. SENTER, MIDLAND HOTEL, BRADFORD
Glenlachlan, September 10th 8 P.M.
Mother not ill. You will know everything to-morrow or day after.
AUDRIE BRENDON TO HER MOTHER
Midland Hotel, Bradford, September 11th
Beloved One: Situation unchanged. I know now how you felt when you had nervous prostration. However, I'm not going to have it, so don't worry.
If I had been in a state of mind to enjoy it fully, this would have been a wonderful day. But I don't suppose Damocles enjoyed himself much, even if they brought him delicious things to eat and drink, and rich jewels, and the kind of cigarettes he'd always longed for, yet never could afford to buy—knowing that any instant it might be the hair's time to break.
I don't believe he could have done justice to beautiful Durham Cathedral and the famous bridge; or splendid Richmond Castle on its height above the Swale; or the exhilarating North Road; or charming Ripon; or even the exquisite, almost heart-breaking beauty of ruined Fountains Abbey, by the little river that sings its dirge in music sweeter than harp or violin. No, he couldn't have put his soul into his eyes for them, and I didn't. I was almost sorry that we were to go on and see Harrogate and the Strid and Bolton Abbey, because in my restlessness I didn't feel intelligent enough to appreciate anything. I could only be dully thankful that the sword hadn't pierced me yet; but I wanted to be alone, and shut my eyes, and not have to talk, especially to Mrs. Norton.
Dimly I realized that Harrogate seemed a very pretty place, where it might be amusing to stay, and take baths and nice walks, and listen to music; and my bodily eyes saw well enough how lovely was the way through Niddersdale and Ilkley to Pately Bridge, where we had to get out and walk through enchanted woods to the foaming cauldron of the Strid. The water, swollen by rain, raced over its rocks below the crags of the tragic jump, like a white horse running away, mad with unreasoning terror. Nevertheless, my bodily eyes were only glass windows which my spirit had deserted. It left them blank still, at Bolton Abbey, which is poetically beautiful (though not as lovable as Fountains), on, up the great brown hill of Barden Moor, through Skipton, where, in the castle, legend says Fair Rosamond lived; until—Haworth. There—before we came to the steep, straight hill leading up to the bleak and huddled townlet bitten out of the moor, my spirit rushed to the windows. The voices of Charlotte Bronte and her sister Emily called it back, and it obeyed at a word, though all the beauty of wooded hills and fleeting streams had vanished, as if frightened by the cold, relentless winds of the high moorland.
Rain had begun to fall. The sky was leaden, the sharp hill muddy; everything seemed to combine in giving an effect of grimness, as the car forged steadily up, up toward the poor home the Brontes loved.
Isn't it a beautiful miracle, the banishing of black darkness by the clear light of genius? It was that light which had lured us away from all the charms of nature to a region of ugliness, even of squalor. The Brontes had lived there. They had pined for Haworth when away. Emily had written about the "spot 'mid barren hills, where winter howls, and driving rain." They had thought there, worked there, the wondrous sisters; they had illuminated the mean place, and made it a lodestar for the world.
When we reached the top of the hill (which was almost like reaching a ceiling after climbing the side of a hideous brown-painted wall), I forgot my own troubles in thinking of the Brontes' tragedy of poverty, disappointment, and death.
We were in a poor street of a peculiarly depressing village, and could not even see the moor that had given the Bronte girls inspiration, though we knew it must stretch beyond. Even in bright sunshine there could be no beauty in Haworth; but under that leaden sky, in the thick mist of rain, the poor stone houses lining the way, the sordid, unattractive shops were positively repellent. All that was not so dark a gray as to look black was dull brown; and not a single window-pane had a gleam of intelligence for the unwelcome strangers. I could imagine no merriment in Haworth, nor any sound of laughter; yet the Brontes were happy when they were children—at least, they thought they were; but it would be too tragic if children didn't think themselves happy.
There was the Black Bull Inn, where wretched Bramwell Bronte used to carouse. Poor, weak vain-glorious fellow! I never pitied him till I saw that gloomy stone box which meant "seeing life" to him. There was the museum where the Bronte relics are kept—but we delayed going in that we might see the old parsonage first, the shrine where the preserved relics had once made "home." Oh, mother, the sadness of it, tucked away among the crowding tombstones, all gray-brown together, among weeds and early falling leaves! Here already it was autumn; and though I could fancy a pale, frosty spring, and a white, ice-bound winter, my imagination could conjure up no richness of summer.
The gravestones crowding the gray old house in the churchyard, pushing it back toward the moor, were thick as an army on parade—a sad, starved army, where dying soldiers lean on each other for support; and the parsonage, shadowed by dripping trees, was plain and uncompromising as a sermon that warns you not to love the world or you will spend eternity in hell. But behind—just beyond the wall—billowed the moor, monotonous yet majestic, the scene that called to Emily and Charlotte Bronte's hearts, always, when they were far away.
My heart contracted as I thought of them there; and when we'd walked back to the village street, and been admitted to the museum, I was on the point of crying—not for myself, but with the choked grief one might have on opening a box of old letters from a loved, dead friend. It is the most intimate, touching little jumble of pathetic souvenirs you ever saw in a museum; more like treasures guarded by near relations than a collection for public eyes to see; but that makes the poignant charm of it. I could have sobbed on a pink print frock with a cape, such as Jane Eyre might have worn at Thornfield, and on bits of unfinished needlework, simple lace collars, and water-colour sketches with which Charlotte tried to brighten the walls of her austere home. There was the poor dear's wedding shawl, and a little checked silk dress of which I'm sure she was innocently proud; a few fantastic drawings of Bramwell's; a letter or two from the sisters; and a picture of the Reverend Carus Wilson, who was supposed to be Mr. Brocklehurst; just the rather handsome, well-fed, self-satisfied man you would expect him to be.
I think, dear, that Haworth has done me good, and helped me to be brave. Again and again I turned, when we'd left, to look back at the church tower, and try to gather some of the Bronte courage before we slipped away down many a dark hill toward Bradford, as night gathered us in.
I may need all the courage that I have borrowed and cashed in advance, because suspense is worse than the pain of any blow.
We leave here early to-morrow morning for Graylees Castle in Warwickshire—and the tour is at an end.
Your Audrie, who loves and longs for you.
AUDRIE BRENDON TO HER MOTHER
Graylees Castle, Night of September 12th
Dearest and Wisest: I remember the first letter I wrote you (on July Fourth) about the Ellaline business began with expressions something like this: "Fireworks! Roman Candles!! Rockets!!!"
Well, my last letter about the Ellaline business begins with explosions, too. A whole gunpowder plot has exploded: Dick's plot.
We got here in the afternoon; an uneventful run, for Sir Lionel was always the same; cool but kind. I couldn't believe Dick had told him anything.
Graylees is a place to be proud of, and you would never know there had been a fire in the castle—but no injury was done to the oldest part. Mrs. Norton says Graylees is called the "miniature Warwick," but it doesn't look a miniature anything: it seems enormous. There's a great hall, with suits of armour scattered about, and weapons of all periods arranged in intricate patterns on the stone wall; and a minstrels' gallery, and quantities of grand old Tudor and Stuart furniture; there's a haunted picture-gallery where a murdered bride walks each Christmas Eve, beautifully dressed; there's a suite of rooms in which kings and queens have occasionally slept since the time when Henry Seventh reigned; there's a priest's "hidie hole," and secret dungeons under the big dining-hall where people used to revel while their prisoners writhed; and—but I haven't seen nearly all yet.
The room allotted to me looks down from its high tower on to a mossy moat choked with pink and white water lilies; on a stone terrace this side of a sunken garden, a peacock plays sentinel, with his tail spread like a jewelled shield; and against the sky dark, horizontal branches of Lebanon cedars stretch, like arms of black-clad priests pronouncing a blessing. May the blessing rest upon this house forever!
I hardly saw the country through which we came, though it was George Eliot's country; and I half expected something to happen as soon as we arrived; Sir Lionel perhaps turning on me at last, and saying icily: "I know everything, but don't want a scandal. Go quietly, at once."
Nothing of the sort came to pass, however. We had tea in the great hall, brought by an old butler who had known Sir Lionel when he visited the uncle who left Graylees to him. Afterward, Mrs. Norton showed me "my room," where already a maid engaged for "Miss Lethbridge" had unpacked most of my things, the big luggage having arrived before us. My heart gave a jump when I saw the drawers, and big cedar-lined wardrobes full of finery; but settled down again when I remembered that almost everything belonged to Ellaline, and that my legitimate possessions could be packed again in about five minutes.
Before the change of friendship's weather at Chester, I think Sir Lionel would have wanted to take me round his domain, indoors and out, but no such suggestion was made. I was in my room, and there I stayed; but I felt too restless to settle down and write to you. I kept waiting for something, as you do for a clock to strike, when you know it is bound to strike soon.
By and by it was time to dress for dinner. I couldn't bear to wear one of the grand Ellaline dresses, so I put on the old black. I did look a frump in it, in such a place as Graylees Castle, where everything ought to be beautiful and rich, but I did my hair as nicely as I could, and from the top of my head to my shoulders I wasn't so bad.
I went downstairs at eight o'clock, and Mrs. Senter was already in the great hall, standing in front of the splendid stone fireplace, watching her rings sparkle in the light of the wood fire, and resting one pretty foot on a paw of the left-hand carved stone wolf that supports a ledge of the mantelpiece—just as if it belonged to her and she had tamed it. She glanced up when I appeared, and smiled vaguely, but didn't speak. She seemed thoughtful.
After awhile, Emily came, swishing silkily. Mrs. Senter began to talk to her, praising the place; and then, just before the quarter past—dinner-time—Sir Lionel joined us, looking nice, but tired. Mrs. Senter gave him a sweet smile, and he smiled back, absent-mindedly. He gave her his arm in to dinner, and she did clever things with her eyelashes, which made her seem to blush. She wore a white dress I'd not seen yet, a simple string of pearls round her neck, and quite a maidenly or bridal look. I couldn't wonder at Sir Lionel if he admired her! At the dinner-table (which was beautiful with flowers, lots of silver, and old crystal—a picture against the dark oak panelling) Mrs. Senter was on his right hand, I on his left, his sister playing hostess. This was as usual; but as it was the first time in his own house, somehow it made Mrs. Senter seem of more importance. He and she talked together a good deal, and she said some witty things, but spent herself mostly in drawing him out. He didn't speak to me, except to deign a question about my room, or ask whether I would have a certain thing to eat. I felt a dreadful lump, and worth about "thirty cents," as Dad used to say.
After dinner, when Emily took us to a charming drawing-room, all white, with an old spinet in one corner, Sir Lionel stopped away for a few minutes; but when he came Mrs. Senter grabbed him immediately. She wouldn't let him hear, when Emily inquired if I could sing, accompanying myself on the spinet, but began asking him eagerly about the library, which it seems is rather famous.
"You shall see it to-morrow, if you like," said he.
"Oh, mayn't I have a peep to-night?" she begged, prettily. "Do take me. Just one peep."
So he took her, of course, and the peep prolonged itself indefinitely. I had a sinking presentiment that my dreadful flare-up with Dick had been in vain, and that after all she would inveigle him into proposing to her this very night. Since I refused to tell him that her damask cheek was being preyed upon by love of him, she would probably intimate as much herself, and bury her head between her hands, looking incredibly sad and lovable. Sir Lionel wouldn't be the man to fight such tactics as those! I knew he didn't, wouldn't, and couldn't love her one little bit, but he would be sorry for her, and sacrifice himself rather than she should suffer for his sake, when he might make her happy.
Emily chatted to me pleasantly about the church, and the vicar at Graylees, and family tombs, and such cheerful things, to which I said "Yes" and "No" whenever she stopped; but a cold perspiration was coming out on my forehead. I was just as sure as that I was alive, that Mrs. Senter didn't mean to leave the library until Sir Lionel had made her a present of himself, his books, and his castle. Probably my sub-conscious self or astral body was there, hearing every word they said. Anyhow, I knew. And I could do nothing. A thumb-screw or a rack would have been a pleasant relief.
Suddenly we heard the sound of a carriage driving quickly up to the house.
"Who can that be?" wondered Mrs. Norton. "It's after half-past nine."
"Very likely it's Mr. Burden," said I; the first moderately intelligent remark I'd made since we were left together.
She agreed with me that this was probable; but when fifteen, twenty, forty minutes passed by the clock, and Dick did not appear, she changed her mind. It must have been someone to see Sir Lionel, she thought, on business that wouldn't wait. I was not convinced of this, and longed for her to ring and ask a footman who had come; but I couldn't very well suggest it.
The house did sound so silent, that my ears rang, as they do when one listens to a shell!
Ten; ten-fifteen; ten-thirty; a Louis Quatorze clock chimed. Hardly had it got the last two strokes out of its mouth, when Sir Lionel opened the door. He was pale, in that frightening way that tanned skins do turn pale, and he didn't seem to see his sister. He looked straight past her at me, and his eyes shone.
"I want very much to speak to you," he said. His voice shook ever so slightly, as if he were going into a battle where he knew he would be killed, and felt solemn about it, but otherwise was rather pleased than not.
Then I knew my time had come. I almost looked for the steps of the guillotine, but I was suddenly too blind to see them if they had been under my nose.
"Very well," I said, and got up from my chair.
"Oh," exclaimed Emily, "don't go. If you have anything to say to Ellaline, which you'd like to say to her alone, let me go. I am getting sleepy, and was just thinking about bed. Perhaps I might say good-night to you both?"
"Good-night, dear," answered Sir Lionel. I had never heard him call her that before.
"Say good-night to Mrs. Senter for me," went on Emily to us both.
"Yes," said Sir Lionel. But I don't think he had heard.
Mrs. Norton swished silkily out. The door shut. I braced myself, and looked up at him. His eyes were on my face, and they were full of light. I supposed it must be righteous anger; but it was a beautiful look—too good to waste on such a passion, even a righteous form of it.
"You poor child," he said in a low voice, standing quite near me. "You have gone through a great deal."
I started as if he had shot me—that way of beginning was so different from anything I had expected.
"Wh-what do you mean?" I stammered.
"That I always knew you were brave, but that you're a hundred times braver than I thought you. Dick has come back. He has brought with him a girl and a man from Scotland—bride and groom."
All the strength went out of me. I felt as if my body had turned to liquid and left only my brain burning, and my heart throbbing. But I didn't fall. I fancy I caught the back of a tall chair, and held on for dear life.
"Ellaline," I murmured.
"Yes, Ellaline," he said. "Thank God, you are not Ellaline."
"Thank God?" I echoed in weak wonder.
"I thank God, yes, because it was killing me to believe that you were Ellaline—to believe you false, and frivolous, and a flirt, just because of the blood I thought you had in your veins. And I exaggerated everything you did, till I made a mountain out of each fancied fault. That fellow Burden brought Ellaline here—just married to her Frenchman to-day—because he wanted to ruin you. He told me with pride how he'd ferretted out the whole secret—traced you to your address in Versailles, learned your real name—told everything, in fact, except that he'd been blackmailing you, forcing you for your friend's sake to actions you hated. He didn't tell me that part, naturally, but there was no need, because I guessed——"
"What—what have you done to him?" The words came limping, because of the look in his eyes, which shot forth a sword.
"Oh, unluckily it's under my own roof, so I could do no more than bid him clear out if he didn't want to be kicked out!"
"Gone!" I whispered.
"Yes, gone. And as Mrs. Senter's very loyal to her nephew, she prefers to leave with him, though she has had nothing to do with his plottings—didn't even know, and I asked her to stay. She insists on going to-night when he does. I'm sorry. But it can't be helped. I cannot think of her now."
"Ellaline——" I began faintly; but he cut me short, with a kind of generous impatience. "Yes, yes, you shall see her. She wants to see you, now that she understands, but——"
"Why, you see, that little beast, Dick Burden—whose mother's staying near where Ellaline was in Scotland—went there straight from Bamborough, and put the girl up to believe you'd been playing her false—prejudicing me against her interests, trying to keep for yourself things that ought to be hers; so apparently she worked herself into a hysterical state—must have, or she wouldn't have believed him against you; and the instant she was married to her Frenchman, who'd come to claim her, all three dashed off here to 'confront' you, as that cad Burden explained to me. I couldn't understand what they were all driving at just at first, but I saw that the girl was the living image of her mother, consequently the thing didn't need as much explaining in any way as it might otherwise."
"She was horribly afraid you wouldn't let her marry him," I broke in, getting breath and voice back at last.
"So she said. Oh, when she knew Burden had lied to her about you, she repented her disloyalty, and told me how you hated the whole thing. I don't wonder she thought me a brute, never writing, never seeming to care whether she was alive or dead; I see now I was a brute; but it's you who've shown me that, not she. However, she will reap the benefit. I daresay three months ago I should have growled over such a marriage, felt inclined to wash my hands of the girl, perhaps, but now—now I'm delighted to have her married and—off my hands. That sounds callous, but I can't help it. It's true. The Frenchman seems a gentleman, and fond of her—trust Ellaline de Nesville's daughter to make men fall in love!—and I wish them both joy."
"But—but if he's poor?" I dared to question.
"Oh, that'll be all right. I'm so thankful for the way everything has turned out, I'd give her half my fortune. That would be asinine, of course; but I shall settle a thousand a year on her for life, and give her a wedding present of a cheque for twenty thousand, I think. Should you say that would be enough to satisfy them?"
"They ought to be distracted with joy," I said (though deep in my heart I knew that Ellaline is never likely to be satisfied with anything done for her. She always feels it might have been a little more). "But," I went on, "maybe it's selfish to think of myself now—but I can't help it for a moment. I have been so ashamed—so humiliated, I could hardly bear—and yet I know you won't, you can't, see that there's any excuse——"
"Didn't I tell you that I thought you very brave?" he asked, looking at me more kindly than I deserved.
"Yes. And I was brave." I took credit to myself. "But brave people can be wicked. I have hated myself, knowing how you'd hate me when——"
"I don't hate you," he said. "The question is—do you hate me?"
I gasped—because I was so far from hating him; and suddenly I was afraid he might suspect exactly how far. "No," said I. "But then, that is different. I never had any reason to hate you."
"Didn't Ellaline warn you I was a regular dragon?"
I couldn't help laughing, because that had been our very name for him. "Oh, well, she——" I began to apologize.
"You needn't be afraid to confess," said he. "In the exuberance of her relief at finding all well, and not only being forgiven, but petted, she told me what a different man I was from the murderous image in her mind; and that she saw now you were right about me. Is it possible you defended me to her?"
"But of course," I said.
"In spite of all the injustice I did you—and showed that I did you?"
"I always felt myself to blame, and yet—yet it hurt me when I saw you disapproved of me. Since Chester——"
"It was that ring stuck in my throat," said he.
"You knew?" I stammered, turning red.
"Saw it in a shop window. And now I know why you did it—why you did everything, I think. Heavens, what good it would have done me to kick that little beast Burden all around the park!"
"There wouldn't have been anything left of him, if you had," I giggled, beginning to feel hysterical. "Oh, I am glad he's gone, though. I shall be going myself to-morrow, of course, but——"
"No," he said. "No, that must not be. I—Ellaline wants you."
"Hadn't I better see her now?" I asked meekly.
"Not yet. Tell me—did that cad try you too far at Bamborough, and did you defy him?"
I nodded Yes.
"What did he do?"
"He didn't do anything. He wanted me to promise something."
"To marry him at once?" Sir Lionel was looking dangerous.
"No-o. It wasn't anything about me. I can't tell you, because it concerns someone else. Please don't ask me."
"I won't. If it concerns someone else, not yourself, I don't care. Yes, I do, though. Did it concern me? Can you answer me that?"
"I can answer so far, if you don't press me further. It did concern you. I would not sacrifice you to—but I don't want to go on, please!"
"You shan't. That's enough. You sacrificed yourself rather than sacrifice me. You——"
"I'd sinned enough against you."
"You gave me back my youth."
"Don't you know I love you—worship you—adore you?"
Yes, he said that, mother. His lips said it, and his dear, dear eyes. I looked up to them, and mine overflowed, and he needed no other answer, for he took me in his arms. I didn't know people could be so happy. I could have died in that moment, only I would much, much rather live.
In a few minutes we told each other heaps of things about the way we felt, and the way we had felt, and compared notes; and it was heavenly. He'd bought back the darling ring in Chester, and now he put it on my finger again; and I'm sure, dearest, that you won't mind our being engaged?
He says he has adored me ever since the first day, and will to the last, then on into the next world, because there can't be a next world that won't be full of his love for me. And I adore him, ah, how I adore him—and you will come here to live with us in this beautiful old castle, where, like the Prince and Princess of the fairy stories, we will be happy ever after.
I have seen Ellaline, and she is well and hugged me a great deal. Her Honore is really very handsome; but I can't write about them now, though they have been so important in my life; and without them there would have been no life worth speaking of.
Emily and Lionel (I am to call him that now) will take me to you, and everything shall be arranged as you wish.
Dear little, wise mother, I wonder if you ever thought it might end like this? I didn't. But he is the most glorious man who ever happened. Only, he didn't happen. All the rest of the world—not counting you—happened. He just had to be.
Your loving, perfectly happy