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Sir Tom
by Mrs. Oliphant
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"Lady Randolph," said Mr. Chervil, in dismay, "have you any idea of the sum you are—throwing away?"

"I have no idea of any sum," said Lucy, gently, "except just the money I spend, so much in my purse. But you have taught me how to calculate, and that so much would—make people comfortable. Is not that what you said? Well, if it was not you, it was—I do not remember. When I first got the charge of this into my hands——"

"Lady Randolph, you cannot surely think what you are doing. At the worst," said the distressed trustee, "this was meant to be a fund for—beneficence all your life: not to be squandered away, thousands and thousands in a day——"

"Is it squandered when it gives comfort—perhaps even happiness? And how do you know how long my life may last? It may be over—in a day——"

"You are ill," said the lawyer. "I thought so the moment I saw you. I felt sure you were not up to business to-day."

"I don't think I am ill," said Lucy; "a little tired, for I was late last night—did not you know we had a ball, a very pretty ball?" she added, with a curious smile, half of gratification, half of mockery. "It was a strange thing to have, perhaps, just—at this moment."

"A very natural thing," said Mr. Chervil. "I am glad to know it; you are so young, Lady Randolph, pardon me for saying so."

"It was not for me," said Lucy; "it was for a young lady—my husband's——"

Was she going out of her senses? What was she about to say?

"A relation?" said Mr. Chervil. "Perhaps the young lady for whom you interested yourself so much in a more important way? They are fortunate, Lady Randolph, who have you for a friend."

"Do you think so? I don't know that any one thinks so." She recovered herself a little and pointed to the papers. "You will carry that out, please. I may be going away. I am not quite sure of my movements. As soon as you can you will carry this out."

"Going away—at the beginning of the season!"

"Oh, there is nothing settled; and besides you know life—life is very insecure."

"At your age it is very seldom one thinks so," said the lawyer, at which she smiled only, then rose up, and without any further remark went away. He saw her to her carriage, not now with any recollection of the pleasant show and the exhibition of so fine a client to the admiration of his neighbours. He had a heart after all, and daughters of his own; and he was troubled more than he could say. He stood bare-headed and saw her drive away, with a look of anxiety upon his face. Was it the same bee in her bonnet which old Trevor had shown so conspicuously? was it eccentricity verging upon madness? He went back to his office and wrote to Sir Tom, enclosing a copy of Lucy's list. "I must ask your advice in the matter instead of offering you mine," he wrote. "Lady Randolph has a right, of course, if she chooses to press matters to an extremity, but I can't fancy that this is right."

Lucy went home still in the same strange excitement of mind. All had been executed that was in her programme. She had gone through it without flinching. The ball—that strange, frivolous-tragic effort of despair—it was over, thank heaven! and Bice had got full justice in her—was it in her—father's house? She could not have been introduced to greater advantage, Lucy thought, with a certain forlorn, simple pride, had she been Sir Tom's acknowledged daughter. Oh, not to so much advantage! for the Contessa, her guardian, her——was far more skilful than Lucy ever could have been. Bice had got her triumph; nothing had been neglected. And the other business was in train—the disposing of the money. She had made her wishes fully known, and even taken great trouble, calculating and transcribing to prevent any possibility of a mistake. And now, now the moment had come, the crisis of life when she must tell her husband what she had heard, and say to him that this existence could not go on any longer. A man could not have two lives. She did not mean to upbraid him. What good would it do to upbraid? none, none at all; that would not make things as they were again, or return to her him whom she had lost. She had not a word to say to him, except that it was impossible—that it could not go on any more.

To think that she should have this to say to him made everything dark about her as Lucy went home. She felt as if the world must come to an end to-night. All was straightforward, now that the need of self-restraint was over. She contemplated no delay or withdrawal from her position. She went in to accomplish this dark and miserable necessity like a martyr going to the cross. She would go and see baby first, who was his boy as well as hers. Sir Tom no doubt would be in his library, and would come out for luncheon after a while, but not until she had spoken. But first she would go, just for a little needful strength, and kiss her boy.

Fletcher met her at the head of the stairs.

"Oh, if you please, my lady—not to hurry you or frighten you—but nurse says please would you step in and look at baby."

Suddenly, in a moment, Lucy's whole being changed. She forgot everything. Her languor disappeared and her fatigue. She sprang up to where the woman was standing. "What is it? is he ill? Is it the old——" She hurried along towards the nursery as she spoke.

"No, my lady, nothing he has had before; but nurse thinks he looks—oh, my lady, there will be nothing to be frightened about—we have sent for the doctor."

Lucy was in the room where little Tom was, before Fletcher had finished what she was saying. The child was seated on his nurse's knee. His eyes were heavy, yet blazing with fever. He was plucking with his little hot hands at the woman's dress, flinging himself about her, from one arm, from one side to the other. When he saw his mother he stretched out towards her. Just eighteen months old; not able to express a thought; not much, you will say, perhaps, to change to a woman the aspect of heaven and earth. She took him into her arms without a word, and laid her cheek—which was so cool, fresh with the morning air, though her heart was so fevered and sick—against the little cheek, which burned and glowed. "What is it? Can you tell what it is?" she said in a whisper of awe. Was it God Himself who had stepped in—who had come to interfere?

Then the baby began to wail with that cry of inarticulate suffering which is the most pitiful of all the utterances of humanity. He could not tell what ailed him. He looked with his great dazed eyes pitifully from one to another as if asking them to help him.

"It is the fever, my lady," said the nurse. "We have sent for the doctor. It may not be a bad attack."

Lucy sat down, her limbs failing her, her heart failing her still more, her bonnet and out-door dress cumbering her movements, the child tossing and restless in her arms. This was not the form his ailments had ever taken before. "Do you know what is to be done? Tell me what to do for him," she said.

There was a kind of hush over all the house. The servants would not admit that anything was wrong until their mistress should come home. As soon as she was in the nursery and fully aware of the state of affairs, they left off their precautions. The maids appeared on the staircases clandestinely as they ought not to have done. Mrs. Freshwater herself abandoned her cosy closet, and declared in an impressive voice that no bell must be rung for luncheon—nor anything done that could possibly disturb the blessed baby, she said as she gave the order. And Williams desired to know what was preparing for Mr. Randolph's dinner, and announced his intention of taking it up himself. The other meal, the lunch, in the dining-room, was of no importance to any one. If he could take his beef-tea it would do him good, they all said.

It seemed as if a long time passed before the doctor came; from Sir Tom to the youngest kitchen-wench, the scullery-maid, all were in suspense. There was but one breath, long drawn and stifled, when he came into the house. He was a long time in the nursery, and when he came out he went on talking to those who accompanied him. "You had better shut off this part of the house altogether," he was saying, "hang a sheet over this doorway, and let it be always kept wet. I will send in a person I can rely upon to take the night. You must not let Lady Randolph sit up." He repeated the same caution to Sir Tom, who came out with a bewildered air to hear what he had said. Sir Tom was the only one who had taken no fright. "Highly infectious," the Doctor said. "I advise you to send away every one who is not wanted. If Lady Randolph could be kept out of the room so much the better, but I don't suppose that is possible; anyhow, don't let her sit up. She is just in the condition to take it. It would be better if you did not go near the child yourself; but, of course, I understand how difficult that is. Parents are a nuisance in such cases," the Doctor said, with a smile which Sir Tom thought heartless, though it was intended to cheer him. "It is far better to give the little patient over to scientific unemotional care."

"But you don't mean to say that there is danger, Doctor," cried Sir Tom. "Why, the little beggar was as jolly as possible only this morning."

"Oh, we'll pull him through, we'll pull him through," the good-natured Doctor said. He preferred to talk all the time, not to be asked questions, for what could he say? Nurse looked very awful as she went upstairs, charged with private information almost too important for any woman to contain. She stopped at the head of the stairs to whisper to Fletcher, shaking her head the while, and Fletcher, too, shook her head and whispered to Mrs. Freshwater that the doctor had a very bad opinion of the case. Poor little Tom had got to be "the case" all in a moment. And "no constitution" they said to each other under their breath.

Thus the door closed upon Lucy and all her trouble. She forgot it clean, as if it never had existed. Everything in the world in one moment became utterly unimportant to her, except the fever in those heavy eyes. She reflected dimly, with an awful sense of having forestalled fate, that she had made a pretence that he was ill to shield herself that night, the first night after their arrival. She had said he was ill when all was well. And lo! sudden punishment scathing and terrible had come to her out of the angry skies.



CHAPTER XLIX.

THE EXPERIENCES OF BICE.

Sir Tom was concerned and anxious, but not alarmed like the women. After all it was a complaint of which children recovered every day. It had nothing to do with the child's lungs, which had been enfeebled by his former illness. He had as good a chance as any other in the present malady. Sir Tom was much depressed for an hour or two, but when everything was done that could be done, and an experienced woman arrived to whom the "case," though "anxious," as she said, did not appear immediately alarming, he forced his mind to check that depression, and to return to the cares which, if less grave, harassed and worried him more. Lucy was invisible all day. She spoke to him through the closed door from behind the curtain, but in a voice which he could scarcely hear and which had no tone of individuality in it, but only a faint human sound of distress. "He is no better. They say we cannot expect him to be better," she said. "Come down, dear, and have some dinner," said the round and large voice of Sir Tom, which even into that stillness brought a certain cheer. But as it sounded into the shut-up room, where nobody ventured to speak above their breath, it was like a bell pealing or a discharge of artillery, something that broke up the quiet, and made, or so the poor mother thought, the little patient start in his uneasy bed. Dinner! oh how could he ask it, how could he think of it? Sir Tom went away with a sigh of mingled uneasiness and impatience. He had always thought Lucy a happy exception to the caprices and vagaries of womankind. He had hoped that she was without nerves, as she had certainly been without those whims that amuse a man in other people's wives, but disgust him in his own. Was she going to turn out just like the rest, with extravagant terrors, humours, fancies—like all of them? Why should not she come to dinner, and why speak to him only from behind the closed door? He was annoyed and almost angry with Lucy. There had been something the matter, he reflected, for some time. She had taken offence at something; but surely the appearance of a real trouble might, at least, have made an end of that. He felt vexed and impatient as he sat down with Jock alone. "You will have to get out of this, my boy," he said, "or they won't let you go back to school; don't you know it's catching?" To have infection in one's house, and to be considered dangerous by one's friends, is always irritating. Sir Tom spoke with a laugh, but it was a laugh of offence. "I ought to have thought of it sooner," he said; "you can't go straight to school, you know, from a house with fever in it. You must pack up and get off at once."

"I am not afraid," cried Jock. "Do you think I am such a cad as to leave Lucy when she's in trouble? or—or—the little one either?" Jock added, in a husky voice.

"We are all cads in that respect nowadays," said Sir Tom. "It is the right thing. It is high principle. Men will elbow off and keep me at a distance, and not a soul will come near Lucy. Well, I suppose, it's all right. But there is some reason in it, so far as you are concerned. Come, you must be off to-night. Get hold of MTutor, he's still in town, and ask him what you must do."

After dinner Sir Tom strolled forth. He did not mean to go out, but the house was intolerable, and he was very uneasy on the subject of Bice. It felt, indeed, something like a treason to Lucy, shut up in the child's sick-room, to go to the house which somehow or other was felt to be in opposition, and dimly suspected as the occasion of her changed looks and ways. He did not even say to himself that he meant to go there. And it was not any charm in the Contessa that drew him. It was that uneasy sense of a possibility which involved responsibility, and which, probably, he would never either make sure of or get rid of. The little house in Mayfair was lighted from garret to basement. If the lights were dim inside they looked bright without. It had the air of a house overflowing with life, every room with its sign of occupation. When he got in, the first sight he saw was Montjoie striding across the doorway of the small dining-room. Montjoie was very much at home, puffing his cigarette at the new comer. "Hallo, St. John!" he cried, then added with a tone of disappointment, "Oh! it's you."

"It is I, I'm sorry to say, as you don't seem to like it," said Sir Tom.

The young fellow looked a little abashed. "I expected another fellow. That's not to say I ain't glad to see you. Come in and have a glass of wine."

"Thank you," said Sir Tom. "I suppose as you are smoking the ladies are upstairs."

"Oh, they don't mind," said Montjoie; "at least the Contessa, don't you know? She's up to a cigarette herself. I shouldn't stand it," he added, after a moment, "in—Mademoiselle. Oh, perhaps you haven't heard. She and I—have fixed it all up, don't you know?"

"Fixed it all up?"

"Engaged, and that sort of thing. I'm a kind of boss in this house now. I thought, perhaps, that was why you were coming, to hear all about it, don't you know?"

"Engaged!" cried Sir Tom, with a surprise in which there was no qualification. He felt disposed to catch the young fellow by the throat and pitch him out of doors.

"You don't seem over and above pleased," said Montjoie, throwing away his cigarette, and confronting Sir Tom with a flush of defiance. They stood looking at each other for a moment, while Antonio, in the background, watched at the foot of the stairs, not without hopes of a disturbance.

"I don't suppose that my pleasure or displeasure matters much: but you will pardon me if I pass, for my visit was to the Contessa," Sir Tom said, going on quickly. He was in an irritable state of mind to begin with. He thought he ought to have been consulted, even as an old friend, much more as—— And the young ass was offensive. If it turned out that Sir Tom had anything to do with it Montjoie should find that to be the best parti of the season was not a thing that would infallibly recommend him to a father at least. The Contessa had risen from her chair at the sound of the voices. She came forward to Sir Tom with both her hands extended as he entered the drawing-room. "Dear old friend! congratulate me. I have accomplished all I wished," she said.

"That was Montjoie," said Sir Tom. He laughed, but not with his usual laugh. "No great ambition, I am afraid. But," he said, pressing those delicate hands not as they were used to be pressed, with a hard seriousness and imperativeness, "you must tell me! I must have an explanation. There can be no delay or quibbling longer."

"You hurt me, sir," she said with a little cry, and looked at her hands, "body and mind," she added, with one of her smiles. "Quibbling—that is one of your English words a woman cannot be expected to understand. Come then with me, barbarian, into my boudoir."

Bice sat alone somewhat pensively with one of those favourite Tauchnitz volumes from which she had obtained her knowledge of English life in her hand. It was contraband, which made it all the dearer to her. She was not reading, but leaning her chin against it lost in thought. She was not pining for the presence of Montjoie, but rather glad after a long afternoon of him that he should prefer a cigarette to her company. She felt that this was precisely her own case, the cigarette being represented by the book or any other expedient that answered to cover the process of thought.

Bice was not used to these processes. Keen observation of the ways of mankind in all the strange exhibitions of them which she had seen in her life had been the chief exercise of her lively intelligence. To Mr. Derwentwater, perhaps, may be given the credit of having roused the girl's mind, not indeed to sympathy with himself, but into a kind of perturbation and general commotion of spirit. Events were crowding quickly upon her. She had accepted one suitor and refused another within the course of a few hours. Such incidents develop the being; not, perhaps, the first in any great degree—but the second was not in the programme, and it had perplexed and roused her. There had come into her mind glimmerings, reflections, she could not tell what. Montjoie was occupied in something of the same manner downstairs, thinking it all over with his cigarette, wondering what Society and what his uncle would say, for whom he had a certain respect. He said to himself on the whole that he did not care that for Society! She suited him down to the ground. She was the jolliest girl he had ever met, besides being so awfully handsome. It was worth while going out riding with her just to see how the fellows stared and the women grew green with envy; or coming into a room with her, Jove! what a sensation she would make, and how everybody would open their eyes when she appeared blazing in the Montjoie diamonds! His satisfaction went a little deeper than this, to do him justice. He was, in his way, very much in love with the beautiful creature whom he had made up his mind to secure from the first moment he saw her. But, perhaps, if it had not been for the triumph of her appearance at Park Lane, and the hum of admiration and wonder that rose around her, he would not have so early fixed his fate; and the shadow of the uncle now and then came like a cloud over his glee. After the sudden gravity with which he remembered this, there suddenly gleamed upon him a vision of all his plain cousins gathering round his bride to scowl her down, and blast her with criticism and disapproval, which made him burst into a fit of laughter. Bice would hold her own; she would give as good as she got. She was not one to be cowed or put down, wasn't Bee! He felt himself clapping his hands and urging her on to the combat, and celebrated in advance with a shout of laughter the discomfiture of all those young ladies. But she should have nothing more to do with the Forno-Populo. No; his wife should have none of that sort about her. What did old Randolph mean always hanging about that old woman, and all the rest of the old fogeys? It was fun enough so long as you had nothing to do with them, but, by Jove, not for Lady Montjoie. Then he rushed upstairs to shower a few rough caresses upon Bice and take his leave of her, for he had an evening engagement formed before he was aware of the change which was coming in his life. He had been about her all the afternoon, and Bice, disturbed in her musings by this onslaught and somewhat impatient of the caresses, beheld his departure with satisfaction. It was the first evening since their arrival in town, which the ladies had planned to spend alone.

And then she recommenced these thinkings which were not so easy as those of her lover: but she was soon subject to another inroad of a very different kind. Jock, who had never before come in the evening, appeared suddenly unannounced at the door of the room with a pale and heavy countenance. Though Bice had objected to be disturbed by her lover, she did not object to Jock; he harmonised with the state of her mind, which Montjoie did not. It seemed even to relieve her of the necessity of thinking when he appeared—he who did thinking enough, she felt, with half-conscious humour, for any number of people. He came in with a sort of eagerness, yet weariness, and explained that he had come to say good-bye, for he was going off—at once.

"Going off! but it is not time yet," Bice said.

"Because of the fever. But that is not altogether why I have come either," he said, looking at her from under his curved eyebrows. "I have got something to say."

"What fever?" she said, sitting upright in her chair.

Jock took no notice of the question; his mind was full of his own purpose. "Look here," he said huskily, "I know you'll never speak to me again. But there's something I want to say. We've been friends——"

"Oh yes," she said, raising her head with a gleam of frank and cordial pleasure, "good friends—camarades—and I shall always, always speak to you. You were my first friend."

"That is" said Jock, taking no notice, "you were—friends. I can't tell what I was. I don't know. It's something very droll. You would laugh, I suppose. But that's not to the purpose either. You wouldn't have Derwentwater to-day."

Bice looked up with a half laugh. She began to consider him closely with her clear-sighted penetrating eyes, and the agitation under which Jock was labouring impressed the girl's quick mind. She watched every change of his face with a surprised interest, but she did not make any reply.

"I never expected you would. I could have told him so. I did tell him you liked the other best. They say that's common with women," Jock said with a little awe, "when they have the choice offered, that it is always the worst they take."

But still Bice did not reply. It was a sort of carrying out without any responsibility of hers, the vague wonder and questionings of her own mind. She had no responsibility in what Jock said. She could even question and combat it cheerfully now that it was presented to her from outside, but for the moment she said nothing to help him on, and he did not seem to require it, though he paused from time to time.

"This is what I've got to say," Jock went on almost fiercely. "If you take Montjoie it's a mistake. He looks good-natured and all that; he looks easy to get on with. You hear me out, and then I'll go away and never trouble you again. He is not—a nice fellow. If you were to go and do such a thing as—marry him, and then find it out! I want you to know. Perhaps you think it's mean of me to say so, like sneaking, and perhaps it is. But, look here, I can't help it. Of course you would laugh at me—any one would. I'm a boy at school. I know that as well as you do——" Something got into Jock's voice so that he paused, and made a gulp before he could go on. "But, Bice, don't have that fellow. There are such lots; don't have him. I don't think I could stand it," Jock cried. "And look here, if it's because the Contessa wants money, I have some myself. What do I want with money? When I am older I shall work. There it is for you, if you like. But don't—have that fellow. Have a good fellow, there are plenty—there are fellows like Sir Tom. He is a good man. I should not," said Jock, with a sort of sob, which came in spite of himself, and which he did not remark even, so strong was the passion in him. "I should not—mind. I could put up with it then. So would Derwentwater. But, Bice——"

She had risen up, and so had he. They were neither of them aware of it. Jock had lost consciousness, perception, all thought of anything but her and this that he was urging upon her. While as for Bice the tide had gone too high over her head. She felt giddy in the presence of something so much more powerful than any feeling she had ever known, and yet gazed at him half alarmed, half troubled as she was, with a perception that could not be anything but humorous of the boy's voice sounding so bass and deep, sometimes bursting into childish, womanish treble, and the boy's aspect which contrasted so strongly with the passion in which he spoke. When Sir Tom's voice made itself audible, coming from the boudoir in conversation with the Contessa, the effect upon the two thus standing in a sort of mortal encounter was extraordinary. Bice straining up to the mark which he was setting before her, bewildered with the flood on which she was rising, sank into ease again and a mastery of the situation, while Jock, worn out and with a sense that all was over, sat down abruptly, and left, as it were, the stage clear.

"The poor little man is rather bad, I fear," said Sir Tom, coming through the dim room. There was something in his voice, an easier tone, a sound of relief. How had the Contessa succeeded in cheering him? "And what is worse (for he will do well I hope) is the scattering of all her friends from about Lucy. I am kept out of it, and it does not matter, you see; but she, poor little woman,"—his voice softened as he named her with a tone of tenderness—"nobody will go near her," he said.

The Contessa gave a little shiver, and drew about her the loose shawl she wore. "What can we say in such a case? It is not for us, it is for those around us. It is a risk for so many——"

"My aunt," said Sir Tom, "would be her natural ally; but I know Lady Randolph too well to think of that. And there is Jock, whom we are compelled to send away. We shall be like two crows all alone in the house."

"Is it this you told me of, fever?" cried Bice, turning to Jock. "But it is I that will go—oh, this moment! It is no tr-rouble. I can sit up. I never am sleepy. I am so strong nothing hurts me. I will go directly, now."

"You!" they all cried, but the Contessa's tones were most high. She made a protest full of indignant virtue.

"Do you think," she said, "if I had but myself to think of that I would not fly to her? But, child in your position! fiancee only to-day—with all to do, all to think of, how could I leave you? Oh, it is impossible; my good Lucy, who is never unreasonable, she will know it, she will understand. Besides, to what use, my Bice? She has nurses for day and night. She has her dear husband, her good husband, to be with her. What does a woman want more? You would be de trop. You would be out of place. It would be a trouble to them. It would be a blame to me. And you would take it, and bring it back and spread it, Bice—and perhaps Lord Montjoie——"

Bice looked round her bewildered from one to another.

"Should I be de trop?" she said, turning to Sir Tom with anxious eyes.

Sir Tom looked at her with an air of singular emotion. He laid his hand caressingly on her shoulder: "De trop? no; never in my house. But that is not the question. Lucy will be cheered when she knows that you wanted to come. But what the Contessa says is true; there are plenty of nurses—and my wife—has me, if I am any good; and we would not have you run any risk——"

"In her position!" cried the Contessa; "fiancee only to-day. She owes herself already to Lord Montjoie, who would never consent, never; it is against every rule. Speak to her, mon ami, speak to her; she is a girl who is capable of all. Tell her that now it is thought criminal, that one does not risk one's self and others. She might bring it here, if not to herself, to me, Montjoie, the domestics." The Contessa sank into a chair and began fanning herself; then got up again and went towards the girl clasping her hands. "My sweetest," she cried, "you will not be entetee, and risk everything. We shall have news, good news, every morning, three, four times a day."

"And Milady," said Bice, "who has done everything, will be alone and in tr-rouble. Sir Tom, he must leave her, he must attend to his affairs. He is a man; he must take the air; he must go out in the world. And she—she will be alone: when we have lived with her, when she has been more good, more good than any one could deserve. Risk! The doctor does not take it, who is everywhere, who will, perhaps, come to you next, Madama; and the nurses do not take it. It is a shame," cried the girl, throwing up her fine head, "if Love is not as good as the servants, if to have gratitude in your heart is nothing! And the risk, what is it? An illness, a fever. I have had a fever——"

"Bice, you might bring—what is dreadful to think of," cried the Contessa, with a shiver. "You might die."

"Die!" the girl cried, in a voice like a silver trumpet with a keen sweetness of scorn and tenderness combined. "Apres?" she said, throwing back her head. She was not capable of those questions which Mr. Derwentwater and his pupil had set before her. But here she was upon different ground.

"Oh, she is capable of all! she is a girl that is capable of all," cried the Contessa, sinking once more into a chair.



CHAPTER L.

THE EVE OF SORROW.

Sir Tom stepped out into the night some time after, holding Jock by the arm. The boy had a sort of thrill and tremble in him as if he had been reading poetry or witnessing some great tragic scene, which the elder man partially understood without being at all aware that Jock had himself been an actor in this drama. He himself had been dismissed out of it, so to speak. His mind was relieved, and yet he was not so satisfied as he expected to be. It had been proved to him that he had no responsibility for Bice, and his anxiety relieved on that subject; relieved, oh yes: and yet was he a little disappointed too. It would have been endless embarrassment, and Lucy would not have liked it. Still he had been accustoming himself to the idea, and, now that it was broken clean off, he was not so much pleased as he had expected. Poor little Bice! her little burst of generous gratitude and affection had gone to his heart. If that little thing who (it appeared) had died in Florence so many years ago had survived and grown a woman, as an hour ago he had believed her to have done, that is how he should have liked her to feel and to express herself. Such a sense of approval and admiration was in him that he felt the disappointment the more. Yes, he supposed it was a disappointment. He had begun to get used to the idea, and he had always liked the girl; but of course it was a relief—the greatest relief—to have no explanation to make to Lucy, instead of the painful one which perhaps she would only partially believe. He had felt that it would be most difficult to make her understand that, though this was so, he had not been in any plot, and had not known of it any more than she did when Bice was brought to his house. This would have been the difficult point in the matter, and now, heaven be praised! all that was over, and there was no mystery, nothing to explain. But so strange is human sentiment that the world felt quite impoverished to Sir Tom, though he was much relieved. Life became for the moment a more commonplace affair altogether. He was free from the annoyance. It mattered nothing to him now who she married—the best parti in society, or Jock's tutor, or anybody the girl pleased. If it had not been for that exhibition of feeling Sir Tom would probably have said to himself, satirically, that there could be little doubt which the Contessa's ward and pupil would choose. But after that little scene he came out very much shaken, touched to the heart, thinking that perhaps life would have been more full and sweet had his apprehensions been true. She had been overcome by the united pressure of himself and the Contessa, and for the moment subdued, though the fire in her eye and swelling of her young bosom seemed to say that the victory was very incomplete. He would have liked the little one that died to have looked like that, and felt like that, had she lived to grow a woman like Bice. Great heaven, the little one that died! The words as they went through his mind sent a chill to Sir Tom's breast. Might it be that they would be said again—once more—and that far-back sin bring thus a punishment all the more bitter for being so long delayed. Human nature will never get to believe that God is not lying in wait somewhere to exact payment of every account.

"She understands that," said Jock suddenly. "She don't know the meaning of other things."

"What may be the other things?" said Sir Tom, feeling a half jealousy of anything that could be said to Bice's disadvantage. "I don't think she is wanting in understanding. Ah, I see. You don't know how any one could resist the influence of MTutor, Jock."

Through the darkness under the feeble lamp Jock shot a glance at his elder of that immeasurable contempt which youth feels for the absence of all penetration shown by its seniors, and their limited powers of observation. But he said nothing. Perhaps he could not trust himself to speak.

"Don't think I'm a scoffer, my boy," said Sir Tom. "MTutor's a very decent fellow. Let us go and look him up. He would be better, to my thinking, if he were not quite so fine, you know. But that's a trifle, and I'm an old fogey. You are not going back to Park Lane to-night."

"After what you heard her say? Do you think I've got no heart either? If I could have it instead of him!"

"But you can't, my boy," Sir Tom said with a pressure of Jock's arm. "And you must not make Lucy more wretched by hanging about. There's the mystery," he broke out suddenly. "You can't—none of us can. What might be nothing to you or me may be death to that little thing, but it is he that has to go through with it; life is a horrible sort of pleasure, Jock."

"Is it a pleasure?" the boy said under his breath. Life in him at that moment was one big heavy throbbing through all his being, full of mysterious powers unknown, of which Death was the least—yet, coming as he did a great shadow upon the feeblest, a terrible and awe-striking power beyond the strength of man to understand.

After this night, so full of emotion, there came certain days which passed without sign or mark in the dim great house looking out upon all the lively sights and sounds of the great park. The sun rose and reddened the windows, the noon blazed, the gray twilight touched everything into colour. In the chamber which was the centre of all interest no one knew or cared how the hours went, and whether it was morning or noon or night. Instead of these common ways of reckoning, they counted by the hours when the doctor came, when the child must have his medicine, when it was time to refresh the little cot with cool clean linen, or sponge the little hot hands. The other attendants took their turns and rested, but Lucy was capable of no rest. She dozed sometimes with her eyes half opened, hearing every movement and little cry. Perhaps as the time went on and the watch continued her faculties were a little blunted by this, so that she was scarcely full awake at any time, since she never slept. She moved mechanically about, and was conscious of nothing but a dazed and confused misery, without anticipation or recollection. Something there was in her mind besides, which perhaps made it worse; she could not tell. Could anything make it worse? The heart, like any other vessel, can hold but what it is capable of, and no more.

It is not easy to estimate what is the greatest sorrow of human life. It is that which has us in its grip, whatever it may be. Bereavement is terrible until there comes to you a pang more bitter from living than from dying: and one grief is supreme until another tops it, and the sea comes on and on in mountain waves. But perhaps of all the endurances of nature there is none which the general consent would agree upon as the greatest, like that of a mother watching death approach, with noiseless, awful step, to the bed of her only child. If humanity can approach more near the infinite in capacity of suffering, it is hard to know how. We must all bow down before this extremity of anguish, humbly begging the pardon of that sufferer, that in our lesser griefs, we dare to bemoan ourselves in her presence. And whether it is the dear companion—man or woman grown—or the infant out of her clasping arms, would seem to matter very little. According as it happens, so is the blow the most terrible. To Lucy, enveloped by that woe, there could have been no change that would not have lightened something (or so she felt) of her intolerable burden. Could he have breathed his fever and pain into words, could he have told what ailed him, could he have said to her only one little phrase of love, to be laid up in her heart! But the pitiful looks of those baby eyes, now bright with fever, now dull as dead violets, the little inarticulate murmurings, the appeals that could not be comprehended, added such a misery as was almost too much for flesh and blood to bear. This terrible ordeal was what Lucy had to go through. The child, though he had, as the maids said, no constitution, and though he had been enfeebled by illness for half his little lifetime, fought on hour after hour and day after day. Sometimes there was a look in his little face as of a conscious intelligence fighting a brave battle for life. His young mother beside him rose and fell with his breath, lived only in him, knew nothing but the vicissitudes of the sick room, taking her momentary broken rest when he slept, only to start up when, with a louder breath, a little cry, the struggle was resumed. The nurses could not, it would be unreasonable to expect it, be as entirely absorbed in their charge as was his mother. They got to talk at last, not minding her presence, quite freely in half whispers about other "cases," of patients and circumstances they had known. Stories of children who had died, and of some who had been miraculously raised from the brink of the grave, and of families swept away and houses desolated, seemed to get into the air of the room and float about Lucy, catching her confused ear, which was always on the watch for other sounds. Three or four times a day Sir Tom came to the door for news, but was not admitted, as the doctor's orders were stringent. There was no one admitted except the doctor; no cheer or comfort from without came into the sick room. Sir Tom did his best to speak a cheerful word, and would fain have persuaded Lucy to come out into the corridor, or to breathe the fresh air from a balcony. But Lucy, had she been capable of leaving the child, had a dim recollection in her mind that there was something, she could not tell what, interposing between her and her husband, and turned away from him with a sinking at her heart. She remembered vaguely that he had something else—some other possessions to comfort him—not this child alone as she had. He had something that he could perhaps love as well—but she had nothing; and she turned away from him with an instinctive sense of the difference, feeling it to be a wrong to her boy. But for this they might have comforted each other, and consulted each other over the fever and its symptoms. And she might have stolen a few moments from her child's bed and thrown herself on her husband's bosom and been consoled. But after all what did it matter? Could anything have made it more easy to bear? When sorrow and pain occupy the whole being, what room is there for consolation, what importance in the lessening by an infinitesimal shred of sorrow!

This had gone on for—Lucy could not tell how many days (though not in reality for very many), when there came one afternoon in which everything seemed to draw towards the close. It is the time when the heart fails most easily and the tide of being runs most low. The light was beginning to wane in those dim rooms, though a great golden sunset was being enacted in purple and flame on the other side of the house. The child's eyes were dull and glazed; they seemed to turn inward with that awful blank which is like the soul's withdrawal; its little powers seemed all exhausted. The little moan, the struggle, had fallen into quiet. The little lips were parched and dry. Those pathetic looks that seemed to plead for help and understanding came no more. The baby was too much worn out for such painful indications of life. The women had drawn aside, all their talk hushed, only a faint whisper now and then of directions from the most experienced of the two to the subordinates aiding the solemn watch. Lucy sat by the side of the little bed on the floor, sometimes raising herself on her knees to see better. She had fallen into the chill and apathy of despair.

At this time a door opened, not loudly or with any breach of the decorum of such a crisis, but with a distinct soft sound, which denoted some one not bound by the habits of a sick room. A step equally distinct, though soft, not the noiseless step of a watcher, came in through the outer room and to the bed. The women, who were standing a little apart, gave a low, involuntary cry. It looked like health and youthful vigour embodied which came sweeping into the dim room to the bedside of the dying child. It was Bice, who had asked no leave, who fell on her knees beside Lucy and stooped down her beautiful head, and kissed the hand which lay on the baby's coverlet. "Oh, pardon me," she said, "I could not keep away any longer. They kept me by force, or I would have come long, long since. I have come to stay, that you may have some rest, for I can nurse him—oh, with all my heart!"

She had said all this hurriedly in a breath before she looked at the child. Now she turned her head to the little bed. Her countenance underwent a sudden change. The colour forsook her cheeks, her lips dropped apart. She turned round to the nurse with a low cry, with a terrified question in her eyes.

"You see," said Lucy, speaking with a gasp as if in answer to some previous argument, "she thinks so, too——" Then there was a terrible pause. There seemed to come another "change," as the women said, over the little face, out of which life ebbed at every breath. Lucy started to her feet; she seized Bice's arm and raised her, which would have been impossible in a less terrible crisis. "Go," she said; "Go, Bice, to your father, and tell him to come, for my boy is dying Go—go!"



CHAPTER LI.

THE LAST CRISIS.

"Go to your father." Bice did not know what Lucy meant. The words bewildered her beyond description, but she did not hesitate what to do. She went downstairs to Sir Tom, who sat with his door opened and his heart sinking in his bosom waiting to hear. There was no need for any words. He followed her at once, almost as softly and as noiselessly as she had come. And when they entered the dim room, where by this time there was scarcely light enough for unaccustomed eyes to see, he went up to Lucy and put his arms round her as she stood leaning on the little bed. "My love," he said, "my love; we must be all in all to each other now." His voice was choked and broken, but it did not reach Lucy's heart. She put him away from her with an almost imperceptible movement. "You have others," she said hoarsely; "I have nothing, nothing but him." Just then the child stirred faintly in his bed, and first extending her arms to put them all away from her, Lucy bent over him and lifted him to her bosom. The nurse made a step forward to interfere, but then stepped back again wringing her hands. The mother had risen into a sort of sublimity, irresponsible in her great woe—if she had killed him to forestall her agony a little, as is the instinct of desperation, they could not have interfered. She sat down, and gathered the child close, close in her embrace, his head upon her breast, holding him as if to communicate life to him with the contact of hers. Her breath, her arms, her whole being enveloped the little dying creature with a fulness of passionate existence expanded to its highest. It was like taking back the half-extinguished germ into the very bosom and core of life. They stood round her with an awe of her, which would permit no intrusion either of word or act. Even the experienced nurse who believed that the little spark of life would be shaken out by this movement, only wrung her hands and said nothing. The rest were but as spectators, gathering round to see the tragedy accomplished and the woman's heart shattered before their eyes.

Which was unjust too—for the husband who stood behind was as great a sufferer. He was struck in everything a man can feel most, the instincts of paternal love awakened late, the pride a man has in his heir, all were crushed in him by a blow that seemed to wring his very heart out of his breast; but neither did any one think of him, nor did he think of himself. The mother that bare him!—that mysterious tie that goes beyond and before all, was acknowledged by them all without a word. It was hers to do as she pleased. The moments are long at such a time. They seemed to stand still on that strange scene. The light remained the same; the darkness seemed arrested, perhaps because it had come on too early on account of clouds overhead; perhaps because time was standing still to witness the easy parting of a soul not yet accustomed to this earth; the far more terrible rending of the woman's heart.

Presently a sensation of great calm fell, no one could tell how, into the room. The terror seemed to leave the hearts of the watchers. Was it the angel who had arrived and shed a soothing from his very presence though he had come to accomplish the end?

Another little change, almost imperceptible, Lucy beginning to rock her child softly, as if lulling him to sleep. No one moved, or even breathed, it seemed, for how long? some minutes, half a lifetime. Then another sound. Oh, God in heaven! had she gone distracted, the innocent creature, the young mother, in her anguish? She began to sing—a few low notes, a little lullaby, in a voice ineffable, indescribable, not like any mortal voice. One of the women burst out into a wail—it was the child's nurse—and tried to take him from the mother's arms. The other took her by the shoulders and turned her away. "What does it matter, a few minutes more or less; she'll come to herself soon enough, poor dear," said the attendant with a sob. Thus the group was diminished. Sir Tom stood with one hand on his wife's chair, his face covered with the other, and in his heart the bitterness of death; Bice had dropped down on her knees by the side of that pathetic group; and in the midst sat the mother bent over, almost enfolding the child, cradling him in her own life. Bice was herself not much more than a child; to her all things were possible—miracles, restorations from the dead. Her eyes were full of tears, but there was a smile upon her quivering mouth. It was at her Lucy looked, with eyes full of something like that "awful rose of dawn" of which the poet speaks. They were dilated to twice their natural size. She made a slight movement, opening to Bice the little face upon her bosom, bidding her look as at a breathless secret to be kept from all else. Was it a reflection or a faint glow of warmth upon the little worn cheek? The eyes were no longer open, showing the white, but closed, with the eyelashes shadowing against the cheek. There came into Lucy's eyes a sort of warning look to keep the secret, and the wonderful spectacle was, as it were, closed again, hidden with her arms and bending head. And the soft coo of the lullaby went on.

Presently the women stole back, awed and silenced, but full of a reviving thrill of curiosity. The elder one, who was from the hospital and prepared for everything, drew nearer, and regarded with a scientific, but not unsympathetic eye, the mother and the child. She withdrew a little the shawl in which the infant was wrapped, and put her too-experienced, instructed hands upon his little limbs, without taking any notice of Lucy, who remained passive through this examination. "He's beautiful and warm," said the woman, in a wondering tone. Then Bice rose to her feet with a quick sudden movement, and went to Sir Tom and drew his hand from his face. "He is not dying, he is sleeping," she said. "And I think, miss, you're right. He has taken a turn for the better," said the experienced woman from the hospital. "Don't move, my lady, don't move; we'll prop you with cushions—we'll pull him through still, please God," the nurse said, with a few genuine tears.

When the doctor came some time after, instead of watching the child's last moments, he had only to confirm their certainty of this favourable change, and give his sanction to it; and the cloud that had seemed to hang over it all day lifted from the house. The servants began to move about again and bustle. The lamps were lighted. The household resumed their occupations, and Williams himself in token of sympathy carried up Mr. Randolph's beef-tea. When Lucy, after a long interval, was liberated from her confined attitude and the child restored to his bed, the improvement was so evident that she allowed herself to be persuaded to lie down and rest. "Milady," said Bice, "I am not good for anything, but I love him. I will not interfere, but neither will I ever take away my eyes from him till you are again here." There was no use in this, but it was something to the young mother. She lay down and slept, for the first time since the illness began; slept not in broken, painful dozings, but a real sleep. She was not in a condition to think; but there was a vague feeling in her mind that here was some one, not as others were, to whom little Tom was something more than to the rest. Consciously she ought to have shrunk from Bice's presence; unconsciously it soothed her and warmed her heart.

Sir Tom went back to his room, shaken as with a long illness, but feeling that the world had begun again, and life was once more liveable. He sat down and thought over every incident, and thanked God with such tears as men too, like women, are often fain to indulge in, though they do it chiefly in private. Then, as the effect of this great crisis began to go off a little, and the common round to come back, there recurred to his mind Lucy's strange speech, "You have others——" What others was he supposed to have? She had drawn herself away from him. She had made no appeal to his sympathy. "You have—others. I have nothing but him." What did Lucy mean? And then he remembered how little intercourse there had been of late between them, how she had kept aloof from him. They might have been separated and living in different houses for all the union there had been between them. "You have others——" What did Lucy mean?

He got up, moved by the uneasiness of this question, and began to pace about the floor. He had no others; never had a man been more devoted to his own house. She had not been exacting, nor he uxorious. He had lived a man's life in the world, and had not neglected his duties for his wife; but he reminded himself, with a sort of indignant satisfaction, that he had found Lucy far more interesting than he expected, and that her fresh curiosity, her interest in everything, and the just enough of receptive intelligence, which is more agreeable than cleverness, had made her the most pleasant companion he had ever known. It was not an exercise of self-denial, of virtue on his part, as the Dowager and indeed many other of his friends had attempted to make out, but a real pleasure in her society. He had liked to talk to her, to tell her his own past history (selections from it), to like, yet laugh at her simple comments. He never despised anything she said, though he had laughed at some of it with a genial and placid amusement. And that little beggar! about whom Sir Tom could not even think to-day without a rush of water to his eyes—could any man have considered the little fellow more, or been more proud of him or fond? He could not live in the nursery, it was true, like Lucy, but short of that—"Others." What could she mean? There were no others. He was content to live and die, if but they might be spared to him, with her and the boy. A sort of chill doubt that somebody might have breathed into her ear that suggestion about Bice's parentage did indeed cross his mind; but ever since he had ascertained that this fear was a delusion, it had seemed to him the most ridiculous idea in the world. It had not seemed so before; it had appeared probable enough, nay, with many coincidences in its favour. And he had even been conscious of something like disappointment to find that it was not true. But now it seemed to him too absurd for credence; and what creature in the world, except himself, could have known the circumstances that made it possible? No one but Williams, and Williams was true.

It was not till next morning that the ordinary habits of the household could be said to be in any measure resumed. On that day Bice came down to breakfast with Sir Tom with a smiling brightness which cheered his solitary heart. She had gone back out of all her finery to the simple black frock, which she told him had been the easiest thing to carry. This was in answer to his question, "How had she come? Had the Contessa sent her?" Bice clapped her hands with pleasure, and recounted how she had run away.

"The news were always bad, more bad; and Milady all alone. At length the time came when I could bear it no longer. I love him, my little Tom; and Milady has always been kind, so kind, more kind than any one. Nobody has been kind to me like her, and also you, Sir Tom; and baby that was my darling," the girl said.

"God bless you, my dear," said Sir Tom; "but," he added, "you should not have done it. You should have remembered the infection."

Bice made a little face of merry disdain and laughed aloud. "Do I care for infection? Love is more strong than a fever. And then," she added, "I had a purpose too."

Sir Tom was delighted with her girlish confidences about her frock and her purpose. "Something very grave, I should imagine, from those looks."

"Oh, it is very grave," said Bice, her countenance changing. "You know I am fiancee. There has been a good deal said to me of Lord Montjoie; sometimes that he was not wise, what you call silly, not clever, not good to have to do with. That he is not clever one can see; but what then? The clever they do not always please. Others say that he is a great parti, and all that is desirable. Myself," she added with an air of judicial impartiality, "I like him well enough; even when he does not please me, he amuses. The clever they are not always amusing. I am willing to marry him since it is wished, otherwise I do not care much. For there is, you know, plenty of time, and to marry so soon—it is a disappointment, it is no longer exciting. So it is not easy to know distinctly what to do. That is what you call a dilemma," Bice said.

"It is a serious dilemma," said Sir Tom, much amused and flattered too. "You want me then to give you my advice——"

"No," said Bice, which made his countenance suddenly blank, "not advice. I have thought of a way. All say that it is almost wicked, at least very wrong to come here (in the Tauchnitz it would be miserable to be afraid, and so I think), and that the fever is more than everything. Now for me it is not so. If Lord Montjoie is of my opinion, and if he thinks I am right to come, then I shall know that, though he is not clever—— Yes; that is my purpose. Do you think I shall be right?"

"I see," said Sir Tom, though he looked somewhat crestfallen. "You have come not so much for us, though you are kindly disposed towards us, but to put your future husband to the test. There is only this drawback, that he might be an excellent fellow and yet object to the step you have taken. Also that these sort of tests are very risky, and that it is scarcely worth while for this, to run the risk of a bad illness, perhaps of your life."

"That is unjust," said Bice with tears in her eyes. "I should have come to Milady had there been no Montjoie at all. It is first and above all for her sake. I will have a fever for her, oh willingly!" cried the girl. Then she added after a little pause: "Why did she bid me 'go to your father and tell him——?' What does that mean, go to my father? I have never had any father."

"Did she say that?" Sir Tom cried. "When? and why?"

"It was when all seemed without hope. She was kneeling by the bed, and he, my little boy, my little darling! Ah," cried Bice, with a shiver. "To think it should have been so near! when God put that into her mind to save him. She said 'Go to your father, and tell him my boy is dying.' What did she mean? I came to you; but you are not my father."

He had risen up in great agitation and was walking about the room. When she said these words he came up to her and laid his hand for a moment on her head. "No," he said, with a sense of loss which was painful; "No, the more's the pity, Bice. God bless you, my dear."

His voice was tremulous, his hand shook a little. The girl took it in her pretty way and kissed it. "You have been as good to me as if it were so. But tell me what Milady means? for at that moment she would say nothing but what was at the bottom of her heart."

"I cannot tell you, Bice," said Sir Tom, almost with tears. "If I have made her unhappy, my Lucy, who is better than any of us, what do I deserve? what should be done to me? And she has been unhappy, she has lost her faith in me. I see it all now."

Bice sat and looked at him with her eyes full of thought. She was not a novice in life though she was so young. She had heard many a tale not adapted for youthful ears. That a child might have a father whose name she did not bear and who had never been disclosed to her was not incomprehensible, as it would have been to an English girl. She looked him severely in the face, like a young Daniel come to judgment. Had she been indeed his child to what a terrible ordeal would Sir Tom have been exposed under the light of those steady eyes. "Is it true that you have made her unhappy?" she said, as if she had the power of death in her hands.

"No!" he said, with a sudden outburst of feeling. "No! there are things in my life that I would not have raked up; but since I have known her, nothing; there is no offence to her in any record of my life——"

Bice looked at him still unfaltering. "You forget us—the Contessa and me. You brought us, though she did not know. We are not like her, but you brought us to her house. Nevertheless," said the young judge gravely, "that might be unthoughtful, but not a wrong to her. Is it perhaps a mistake?"

"A mistake or a slander, or—some evil tongue," he cried.

Bice rose up from the chair which had been her bench of justice, and walked to the door with a stately step, befitting her office, full of thought. Then she paused again for a moment and looked back and waved her hand. "I think it is a pity," she said with great gravity. She recognised the visionary fitness as he had done. They would have suited each other, when it was thus suggested to them, for father and daughter; and that it was not so, by some spite of fate, was a pity. She found Lucy dressed and refreshed sitting by the bed of the child, who had already begun to smile faintly. "Milady," said Bice, "will you go downstairs? There is a long time that you have not spoken to Sir Tom. Is he afraid of your fever? No more than me! But his heart is breaking for you. Go to him, Milady, and I will stay with the boy."

It was not for some time that Lucy could be persuaded to go. He had—others. What was she to him but a portion of his life? and the child was all of hers: a small portion of his life only a few years, while the others had a far older and stronger claim. There was no anger in her mind, all hushed in the exhaustion of great suffering past, but a great reluctance to enter upon the question once more. Lucy wished only to be left in quiet. She went slowly, reluctantly, downstairs. Unhappy? No. He had not made her unhappy. Nothing could make her unhappy now that her child was saved. It seemed to Lucy that it was she who had been ill and was getting better, and she longed to be left alone. Sir Tom was standing against the window with his head upon his hand. He did not hear her light step till she was close to him. Then he turned round, but not with the eagerness for her which Bice had represented. He took her hand gently and drew it within his arm.

"All is going well?" he said, "and you have had a little rest, my dear? Bice has told me——"

She withdrew a little the hand which lay on his arm. "He is much better," she said; "more than one would have thought possible."

"Thank God!" Sir Tom cried; and they were silent for a moment, united in thanksgiving, yet so divided, with a sickening gulf between them. Lucy felt her heart begin to stir and ache that had been so quiet. "And you," he said, "have had a little rest? Thank God for that too. Anything that had happened to him would have been bad enough; but to you, Lucy——"

"Oh, hush, hush," she cried, "that is over; let us not speak of anything happening to him."

"But all is not over," he said. "Something has happened—to us. What did you mean when you spoke to me of others? 'You have others.' I scarcely noticed it at that dreadful moment; but now—— Who are those others, Lucy? Whom have I but him and you?"

She did not say anything, but withdrew her hand altogether from his arm, and looked at him. A look scarcely reproachful, wistful, sorrowful, saying, but not in words, in its steady gaze—You know.

He answered as if it had been speech.

"But I don't know. What is it, Lucy? Bice too has something she asked me to explain, and I cannot explain it. You said to her, 'Go to your father.' What is this? You must tell what you mean."

"Bice?" she said, faltering; "it was at a moment when I did not think what I was saying."

"No, when you spoke out that perilous stuff you have got in your heart. Oh, my Lucy, what is it, and who has put it there?"

"Tom," she said, trembling very much. "It is not Bice; she—that—is long ago—if her mother had been dead. But a man cannot have two lives. There cannot be two in the same place. It is not jealousy. I am not finding fault. It has been perhaps without intention; but it is not befitting—oh, not befitting. It cannot—oh, it is impossible! it must not be."

"What must not be? Of what in the name of heaven are you speaking?" he cried.

Once more she fixed on him that look, more reproachful this time, full of meaning and grieved surprise. She drew away a little from his side. "I did not want to speak," she said. "I was so thankful; I want to say nothing. You thought you had left that other life behind; perhaps you forgot altogether. They say that people do. And now it is here at your side, and on the other side my little boy and me. Ah! no, no, it is not befitting, it cannot be——"

"I understand dimly," he said; "they have told you Bice was my child. I wish it were so. I had a child, Lucy, it is true, who is dead in Florence long ago. The mother is dead too, long ago. It is so long past that, if you can believe it, I had—forgotten."

"Dead!" she said. And there came into her mild eyes a scared and frightened look. "And—the Contessa?"

"The Contessa!" he cried.

They were standing apart gazing at each other with something more like the heat of a passionate debate than had ever arisen between them, or indeed seemed possible to Lucy's tranquil nature, when the door was suddenly opened and the voice of Williams saying, "Sir Thomas is here, my lady," reduced them both in an instant to silence. Then there was a bustle and a movement, and of all wonderful sights to meet their eyes, the Contessa herself came with hesitation into the room. She had her handkerchief pressed against the lower part of her face, from above which her eyes looked out watchfully. She gave a little shriek at the sight of Lucy. "I thought," she said, "Sir Tom was alone. Lucy, my angel, my sweetest, do not come near me!" She recoiled to the door which Williams had just closed. "I will say what I have to say here. Dearest people, I love you, but you are charged with pestilence. My Lucy, how glad I am for your little boy—but every moment they tell me increases the danger. Where is Bice? Bice! I have come to bring her away."

"Contessa," said Sir Tom, "you have come at a fortunate moment. Tell Lady Randolph who Bice is. I think she has a right to know."

"Who Bice is? But what has that to do with it? She is fiancee, she belongs to more than herself. And there is the drawing-room in a week—imagine, only in a week!—and how can she go into the presence of the Queen full of infection? I acknowledge, I acknowledge," cried the Contessa, through her handkerchief, "you have been very kind—oh, more than kind. But why then now will you spoil all? It might make a revolution—it might convey to Majesty herself—— Ah! it might spoil all the child's prospects. Who is she? Why should you reproach me with my little mystery now? She is all that is most natural; Guido's child, whom you remember well enough, Sir Tom, who married my poor little sister, my little girl who followed me, who would do as I did. You know all this, for I have told you. They are all dead, all dead—how can you make me talk of them? And Bice perhaps with the fever in her veins, ready to communicate it—to Majesty herself, to me, to every one!"

The Contessa sank down on a chair by the door. She drew forth her fan, which hung by her side, and fanned away from her this air of pestilence. "The child must come back at once," she said, with little cries and sobs—an acces de nerfs, if these simple people had known—through her handkerchief. "Let her come at once, and we may conceal it still. She shall have baths. She shall be fumigated. I will not see her or let her be seen. She shall have a succession of headaches. This is what I have said to Montjoie. Imagine me out in the air, that is so bad for the complexion, at this hour! But I think of nothing in comparison with the interests of Bice. Send for her. Lucy, sweet one, you would not spoil her prospects. Send for her—before it is known." Then she laughed with a hysterical vehemence. "I see; some one has been telling her it was the poor little child whom you left with me, whom I watched over—yes, I was good to the little one. I am not a hard-hearted woman. Lucy: it was I who put this thought into your mind. I said—of English parentage. I meant you to believe so—that you might give something, when you were giving so much, to my poor Bice. What was wrong? I said you would be glad one day that you had helped her:—yes—and I allowed also my enemy the Dowager, to believe it."

"To believe that." Lucy stood out alone in the middle of the room, notwithstanding the shrinking back to the wall of the visitor, whose alarm was far more visible than any other emotion. "To believe that—that she was your child, and——"

Something stopped Lucy's mouth. She drew back, her pale face dyed with crimson, her whole form quivering with remorse and pain as of one who has given a cowardly and cruel blow.

The Contessa rose. She stood up against the wall. It did not seem to occur to her what kind of terrible accusation this was, but only that it was something strange, incomprehensible. She withdrew for a moment the handkerchief from her mouth. "My child? But I have never had a child!" she said.

"Lucy," cried Sir Tom in a terrible voice.

And then Lucy stood aghast between them, looking from one to another. The scales seemed to fall from her eyes. The perfectly innocent when they fall under the power of suspicion go farthest in that bitter way. They take no limit of possibility into their doubts and fears. They do not think of character or nature. Now, in a moment the scales fell from Lucy's eyes. Was her husband a man to treat her with such unimaginable insult? Was the Contessa, with all her triumphant designs, her mendacities, her mendicities, her thirst for pleasure, such a woman? Whoever said it, could this be true?

The Contessa perceived with a start that her hand had dropped from her mouth. She put back the handkerchief again with tremulous eagerness. "If I take it, all will go wrong—all will fall to pieces," she said pathetically. "Lucy, dear one, do not come near me, but send me Bice, if you love me," the Contessa cried. She smiled with her eyes, though her mouth was covered. She had not so much as understood, she, so experienced, so acquainted with the wicked world, so connaisseuse in evil tales—she had not even so much as divined what innocent Lucy meant to say.



CHAPTER LII.

THE END.

Bice was taken away in the cab, there being no reason why she should remain in a house where Lucy was no longer lonely or heartbroken—but not by her patroness, who was doubly her aunt, but did not love that old-fashioned title, and did love a mystery. The Contessa would not trust herself in the same vehicle with the girl who had come out of little Tom's nursery, and was no doubt charged with pestilence. She walked, marvel of marvels, with a thick veil over her face, and Sir Tom, in amused attendance, looking with some curiosity through the gauze at this wonder of a spring morning which she had not seen for years. Bice, for her part, was conveyed by the old woman who waited in the cab, the mother of one of the servants in the Mayfair house, to her humble home, where the girl was fumigated and disinfected to the Contessa's desire. She was presented a week after, the strictest secrecy being kept about these proceedings; and mercifully, as a matter of fact, did not convey infection either to the Contessa or to the still more distinguished ladies with whom she came in contact. What a day for Madame di Forno-Populo! There was nothing against her. The Duchess had spent an anxious week, inquiring everywhere. She had pledged herself in a weak hour; but though the men laughed, that was all. Not even in the clubs was there any story to be got hold of. The Duchess had a son-in-law who was clever in gossip. He said there was nothing, and the Lord Chamberlain made no objection. The Contessa di Forno-Populo had not indeed, she said loftily, ever desired to make her appearance before the Piedmontese; but she had the stamp upon her, though partially worn out, of the old Grand Ducal Court of Tuscany—which many people think more of—and these two stately Italian ladies made as great a sensation by their beauty and their stately air as had been made at any drawing-room in the present reign. The most august and discriminating of critics remarked them above all others. And a Lady, whose knowledge of family history is unrivalled, like her place in the world, condescended to remember that the Conte di Forno-Populo had married an English lady. Their dresses were specially described by Lady Anastasia in her favourite paper; and their portraits were almost recognisable in the Graphic, which gave a special (fancy) picture of the drawing-room in question. Triumph could not farther go.

It was not till after this event that Bice revealed the purpose which was one of her inducements for that visit to little Tom's sick bed. On the evening of that great day, just before going out in all her splendour to the Duchess's reception held on that occasion, she took her lover aside, whose pride in her magnificence and all the applause that had been lavished on her knew no bounds.

"Listen," she said, "I have something to tell you. Perhaps, when you hear it, all will be over. I have not allowed you to come near me nor touch me——"

"No, by Jove! It has been stand off, indeed! I don't know what you mean by it," cried Montjoie ruefully; "that wasn't what I bargained for, don't you know?"

"I am going to explain," said Bice. "You shall know, then, that when I had those headaches—you remember—and you could not see me, I had no headaches, mon ami. I was with Milady Randolph in Park Lane, in the middle of the fever, nursing the boy."

Montjoie gazed at her with round eyes. He recoiled a step, then rushing at his betrothed, notwithstanding her Court plumes and flounces, got Bice in his arms. "By Jove!" he cried, "and that was why! You thought I was frightened of the fever; that is the best joke I have heard for ages, don't you know? What a pluck you've got, Bee! And what a beauty you are, my pretty dear! I am going to pay myself all the arrears."

"Don't," said Bice, plaintively; the caresses were not much to her mind, but she endured them to a certain limit. "I wondered," she said with a faint sigh, "what you would say."

"It was awfully silly," said Montjoie. "I couldn't have believed you were so soft, Bee, with your training, don't you know? And how did you come over her to let you go? She was in a dead funk all the time. It was awfully silly; you might have caught it, or given it to me, or a hundred things, and lost all your fun; but it was awfully plucky," cried Montjoie, "by Jove! I knew you were a plucky one;" and he added, after a moment's reflection, in a softened tone, "a good little girl too."

It was thus that Bice's fate was sealed.

That afternoon Lucy received a note from Lady Randolph in the following words:—

"DEAREST LUCY—I am more glad than I can tell you to hear the good news of the dear boy. Probably he will be stronger now than he has ever been, having got over this so well.

"I want to tell you not to think any more of what I said that day. I hope it has not vexed you. I find that my informant was entirely mistaken, and acted upon a misconception all the time. I can't tell how sorry I am ever to have mentioned such a thing; but it seemed to be on the very best authority. I do hope it has not made any coolness between Tom and you.

"Don't take the trouble to answer this. There is nothing that carries infection like letters, and I inquire after the boy every day.—Your loving

M. RANDOLPH."

"It was not her fault," said Lucy, sobbing upon her husband's shoulder. "I should have known you better, Tom."

"I think so, my dear," he said quietly, "though I have been more foolish than a man of my age ought to be; but there is no harm in the Contessa, Lucy."

"No," Lucy said, yet with a grave face. "But Bice will be made a sacrifice: Bice, and——" she added with a guilty look, "I shall have thrown away that money, for it has not saved her."

"Here is a great deal of money," said Sir Tom, drawing a letter from his pocket, "which seems also in a fair way of being thrown away."

He took out the list which Lucy had given to her trustee, which Mr. Chervil had returned to her husband, and held it out before her. It was a very curious document, an experiment in the way of making poor people rich. The names were of people of whom Lucy knew very little personally; and yet it had not been done without thought. There was nobody there to whom such a gift might not mean deliverance from many cares. In the abstract it was not throwing anything away. Perhaps, had there been some public commission to reward with good incomes the struggling and honourable, these might not have been the chosen names; but yet it was all legitimate, honest, in the light of Lucy's exceptional position. The husband and wife stood and looked at it together in this moment of their reunion, when both had escaped from the deadliest perils that could threaten life—the loss of their child, the loss of their union. It was hard to tell which would have been the most mortal blow.

"He says I must prevent you; that you cannot have thought what you were doing; that it is madness, Lucy."

"I think I was nearly mad," said Lucy simply. "I thought to get rid of it whatever might happen to me—that was best."

"Let us look at it now in our full senses," said Sir Tom.

Lucy grasped his arm with both her hands. "Tom," she said in a hurried tone, "this is the only thing in which I ever set myself against you. It was the beginning of all our trouble; and I might have to do that again. What does it matter if perhaps we might do it more wisely now? All these people are poor, and there is the money to make them well off; that is what my father meant. He meant it to be scattered again, like seed given back to the reaper. He used to say so. Shall not we let it go as it is, and be done with it and avoid trouble any more?"

He stood holding her in his arms, looking over the paper. It was a great deal of money. To sacrifice a great deal of money does not affect a young woman who has never known any need of it in her life, but a man in middle age who knows all about it, that makes a great difference. Many thoughts passed through the mind of Sir Tom. It was a moment in which Lucy's heart was very soft. She was ready to do anything for the husband to whom, she thought, she had been unjust. And it was hard upon him to diminish his own importance and cut off at a stroke by such a sacrifice half the power and importance of the wealth which was his, though Lucy might be the source of it. Was he to consent to this loss, not even wisely, carefully arranged, but which might do little good to any one, and to him harm unquestionable? He stood silent for some time thinking, almost disposed to tear up the paper and throw it away. But then he began to reflect of other things more important than money; of unbroken peace and happiness; of Lucy's faithful, loyal spirit that would never be satisfied with less than the entire discharge of her trust, of the full accord, never so entirely comprehensive and understanding as now, that had been restored between them; and of the boy given back from the gates of hell, from the jaws of death. It was no small struggle. He had to conquer a hundred hesitations, the disapproval, the resistance of his own mind. It was with a hand that shook a little that he put it back. "That little beggar," he said, with his old laugh—though not his old laugh, for in this one there was a sound of tears—"will be a hundred thousand or so the poorer. Do you think he'd mind, if we were to ask him? Come, here is a kiss upon the bargain. The money shall go, and a good riddance, Lucy. There is now nothing between you and me."

Bice was married at the end of the season, in the most fashionable church, in the most correct way. Montjoie's plain cousins had asked—asked! without a sign of enmity!—to be bridesmaids, "as she had no sisters of her own, poor thing!" Montjoie declared that he was "ready to split" at their cheek in asking, and in calling Bice "poor thing," she who was the most fortunate girl in the world. The Contessa took the good the gods provided her, without grumbling at the fate which transferred to her the little fortune which had been given to Bice to keep her from a mercenary marriage. It was not a mercenary marriage, in the ordinary sense of the word. To Bice's mind it was simply fulfilling her natural career; and she had no dislike to Montjoie. She liked him well enough. He had answered well to her test. He was not clever, to be sure; but what then? She was well enough content, if not rapturous, when she walked out of the church Marchioness of Montjoie on her husband's arm. There was a large and fashionable assembly, it need not be said. Lucy, in a first place, looking very wistful, wondering if the girl was happy, and Sir Tom saying to himself it was very well that he had no more to do with it than as a friend. There were two other spectators who looked upon the ceremony with still more serious countenances, a man and a boy, restored to each other as dearest friends. They watched all the details of the service with unfailing interest, but when the beautiful bride came down the aisle on her husband's arm, they turned with one accord and looked at each other. They had been quite still until that point, making no remark. She passed them by, walking as if on air, as she always walked, though ballasted now for ever by that duller being at her side. She was not subdued under her falling veil, like so many brides, but saw everything, them among the rest, as she passed, and showed by a half smile her recognition of their presence. There was no mystic veil of sentiment about her; no consciousness of any mystery. She walked forth bravely, smiling, to meet life and the world. What was there in that beautiful, beaming creature to suggest a thought of future necessity, trouble, or the most distant occasion for help or succour? Perhaps it is a kind of revenge we take upon too great prosperity to say to ourselves: "There may come a time!"

These two spectators made their way out slowly among the crowd. They walked a long way towards their after destination without a word. Then Mr. Derwentwater spoke:

"If there should ever come a time when we can help her, or be of use to her, you and I—for the time must come when she will find out she has chosen evil instead of good——"

"Oh, humbug!" cried Jock roughly, with a sharpness in his tone which was its apology. "She has done what she always meant to do—and that is what she likes best."

"Nevertheless——" said MTutor with a sigh.

TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE:- The following printers spelling errors have been corrected:- Page 66 'direst' to 'divest' 'could not yet divest himself' Page 278 'down' to 'done' 'as a simple girl might have done' Page 397 'pyschological' to 'psychological' 'any attempt at psychological investigation' Page 470 'unforgetable' to 'unforgettable' 'almost forgotten, yet unforgettable' The following word has been changed on page 138:- 'uncle' to 'father' There is no previous mention of an uncle and the title 'father' makes more sense in the context of the story.

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