"One would hardly choose the East End for a permanent residence, certainly," Digby said, in some perplexity; "but everyone to their taste."
"It wasn't a question of 'taste,'" Peg said dryly; "it was more like Hobson's choice. I had to be where the bread and cheese was, and it happened to be in Poplar—that's all."
There was a little silence. Digby was beginning to see that he was on delicate ground.
"I think we ought to be turning back," Forrester said.
They retraced their steps silently.
"Shall we change places going home?" Faith asked, as she slipped into her big coat when they reached the car again. She looked at Peg. "Perhaps you would rather sit in the front for a change," she said hesitatingly.
Peg looked at the Beggar Man, and he answered for her readily:
"We were quite comfortable as we were, I think, Miss Fraser?"
"Quite," said Peg.
Faith took a hurried step towards Digby.
"Oh, very well. I would really prefer to sit in the front; I only thought it would look rather selfish."
There was a note of uncertainty in her voice, and Peg's blue eyes gleamed with a vixenish light as she settled herself comfortably beside Forrester.
They were rather silent on the way home, but beneath her gaudy veil Peg's quick brain was hard at work.
She knew that Faith was faintly resentful, if not actively jealous, and a sense of triumph warmed her heart.
She had read in one of her favourite novelettes of a heroine who had never appreciated the goodness and worth of the man to whom she was married until another woman—a "syren" she had been called in the story—had stolen him from her, and with a wild flight of sentimental imagination she already saw herself nicely fitted with the part.
She stole a little glance at Forrester, and a sigh shook her. What happiness to be loved by such a man! Nothing that she had ever come across in fiction could yield half such exquisite bliss.
To be his wife! To be with him always!... She lost herself in a world of dreams.
Never once did she think now of his wealth, nor the advantages to be gained from it. The man himself filled the picture of her thoughts. She could have been equally happy with him in the dreary streets of Poplar as in the luxury of the house at Hampstead.
How she had hated him at first! How she had sneered at Faith and tried to set her against him, and now the scales had tipped the other way and left her kneeling at his feet.
She was humble enough to know herself far below him, shrewd enough to realize that, though she might find it heaven to be with him, his happiness could never lie with her. She knew that she jarred on him in a thousand ways, though lately she had recognized that he had subtly changed towards her, was kinder, more tolerant, and for one wild moment she allowed her thoughts to soar up into the blue skies of impossibility.
King Cophetua had loved the Beggar Maid and been happy with her. Why should the day of such miracles be at an end? She looked again at the man beside her, and saw that his eyes were fixed on his wife with such a look of sadness in them that she felt the tears rising to her own.
He loved Faith. Whatever he might say or pretend, Peg knew that he loved her, and she gripped her hands beneath the cover of the rug. What a fool Faith was! What a blind little fool, that she could laugh and be merry with a man like Digby when this king amongst men was waiting for her to look his way.
And the pendulum of Peg's emotions swung back again. After all, what was her own happiness compared with his? And her thoughts flew to the latest and as yet unfinished novelette lying on her bed at home in which the Lady Gwendoline Maltravers had just dropped gracefully on to her aristocratic knees to plead for her lover's honour with the brutal squire who had sworn to ruin him.
"Take me! Body and soul I will be yours, if only you will spare him! Spare the man I love, and give him his happiness!"
Peg thought it a noble and lofty sentiment, and a curious feeling of sympathy and kinship with the Lady Gwendoline swept through her heart.
She, too, if the occasion arose could sacrifice everything—body and soul—in order that the man she loved might be happy.
When Peg went to Faith's room that night for their usual gossip, she found the door locked against her.
She rattled the handle impatiently and called:
There was no answer, and she rapped on the panel, a vague feeling of surprise in her heart.
"Faith! It's only me—let me in."
There was an answer then.
"I've gone to bed—I'm tired."
"Tired!" Peg echoed the word with disdainful incredulity. She did not see how Faith could be tired after a day of such ease. She herself was as fresh and wide awake as a lark.
"You can't be tired," she said emphatically, and rattled the handle once more. "Faith, let me come in. Does your head ache?"
"Of course not, but I want to go to sleep. Good-night."
There was such finality in the voice that the colour rose to Peg's handsome face. It was the first time she had ever been shut out from Faith's confidence, and she searched her mind wildly for some reason that would explain things.
What had she done? How had she offended?
As she stood there, her fingers on the handle of the locked door, the Beggar Man came up the stairs.
He had heard Peg's rather loud, insistent voice from the smoking-room below, and had momentarily left his friend to see if anything was the matter.
Peg blushed fiery red when she saw him. Her black hair was unbound and streaming down over her shoulders. She wore a brilliant cherry-coloured dressing-gown, and her feet were thrust into gaudy Oriental slippers.
"Oh, my gracious!" she said with a gasp.
Forrester's eyes met hers indifferently, though he would have been less than human had he been blind to the picture she made as she stood there in the half-light.
The brilliant gown she wore, her dark hair, and the bright, confused colour in her cheeks accentuated her beauty, for Peg was a beauty, even if it was of a crude, rather vulgar type, and unconsciously Forrester's eyes grew admiring as he asked: "Is anything the matter? I thought you called."
Peg laughed nervously.
"Faith won't open the door, that's all. She says she's tired. There's nothing the matter." Then she giggled, and swung her long hair back from her shoulders. "I didn't think you'd come up," she apologized.
The Beggar Man coloured a little.
"I thought perhaps something might be the matter," he said awkwardly, and turned to go downstairs again, when quite suddenly Faith's door opened and she came out.
There was a moment of embarrassed silence. Then Peg laughed.
"It's like a bit out of a novelette, isn't it?" she said shrilly, driven by her sheer and unaccountable nervousness to say the wrong thing. "Heroine opens her door and finds her best friend talking to her husband—tete-a-tete, as it were."
She pronounced the French words quite incorrectly, and she struck a melodramatic pose, one hand flung out towards Forrester and the other pressed hard over her heart.
The Beggar Man looked at his wife.
"I heard Miss Fraser calling to you," he said stiffly, "and I thought perhaps something might be the matter. That is all." He waited a moment, his eyes seeking Faith's wistfully.
The two girls made a strong contrast. One so small and pale and fair and the other so tall, with her dark, gipsy-like beauty.
But Faith did not even glance his way, and with a half-sigh Forrester went on down the stairs, and they heard the shutting of the smoking-room door.
Faith turned to close her own again, but Peg was too quick for her. She was past her and inside the room instantly. She sat down on the side of the bed and looked at the younger girl with challenging eyes.
"Well—out with it," she said defiantly. "What have I done?"
Faith did not answer. There was a look in her blue eyes that Peg had never seen there before—an aloofness in her manner that was almost painfully eloquent—and after a second of utter astonishment Peg sprang to her feet and caught Faith roughly by the arm, peering down to look into her face.
"What are you thinking?" she demanded.
Faith tried to free herself, but she was a child in Peg's muscular grasp, until with a little contemptuous exclamation Peg released her and turned away.
"Jealous! Is that it?" she asked crudely. "Jealous! Because the man you won't look at yourself happened to see me with my hair loose and this gown on."
She walked over to the long glass in Faith's dressing-table and regarded her gaudy reflection with fiery eyes.
"I do look rather a picture, don't I?" she said deliberately. "It only wants a cigarette in my mouth or a red rose in my hair to make me look like one of those dancing girls—the French ones, I mean. What do you call them—apache or something." She pronounced that word wrongly also.
Faith did not answer, and Peg laughed.
"I'd never be such a dog in the manger," she said mockingly.
Her heart was beating fast with a sudden wild hope.
Was there any cause for Faith to be jealous? Had Forrester at last ceased to be indifferent to her? She recalled the slow look of admiration in his eyes, and her pulses leapt.
Well, Faith would have none of him! Could she be surprised if, after all that had happened.... But before the thought was complete in her mind she was ashamed of it. She turned away from the mirror, and looked at Faith with angry eyes.
"You little idiot!" she said, with good-natured irritation. "Do you think he'd look at me if ...?" Then once again she stopped.
Supposing unconsciously she had begun to teach Faith a lesson. Supposing by allowing her to be jealous it might be the means of making her care for Forrester—at last!
She caught her breath with a little exultant sound. She had so longed to make him happy, and if the only way to do so was by giving him his wife at the sacrifice of her own love, well—who was she to complain?
He had done everything for her. He had taken her from the sordid surroundings where she had passed all the days of her life. He had done his best to make a lady of her. He had trusted her, treated her as a friend. Was there any sacrifice too great to make in return?
Peg was not one to hesitate once an idea had taken shape in her mind, and even as Faith looked at her she saw the dark, handsome face harden and grow defiant as she turned with a shrug of her shoulders and opened the closed door.
"Well, I've been in pleasanter company, I must say!" she said in her old nonchalant tone. "So I'll leave you to yourself. Good-night, fair Lady Elaine, and pleasant dreams!"
She swept Faith a low, mocking curtsy, the folds of her cherry-coloured gown sweeping the floor all around her, then she laughed and went off to her own room.
Faith ran to the door and shut and locked it. Her throat was throbbing with suppressed sobs and her lips shook.
She had been so fond of Peg. She had looked up to her and admired her, but to-night she could find it in her heart to hate her for her handsome beauty and insolence.
She, too, had seen the look of admiration in Forrester's eyes, and a little sick suspicion rose above the angry tumult of her heart.
Supposing he really did like Peg? Supposing he more than liked her? She was handsome enough to take any man's fancy, and Faith knew how badly Forrester had suffered over the disappointment of his marriage.
A hundred little incidents came crowding back to her mind, cruelly magnified. The way he invariably chose to talk to Peg in preference to herself. The way he had elected to sit with her at the back of the car that afternoon, though she had offered to change places. The way he had overruled her objections with regard to Peg's gaudy choice of decoration when first they came to the house.
"What does it matter if it pleases her?" he had said, in his careless way. "I like to see her happy."
She had thought nothing of it at the time, but it seemed a great matter now. And at the memory of Peg's crude accusation the blood rushed stingingly to Faith's pale cheeks.
"I'm not jealous! How dare she say so? I hate her—I hate her!"
She spoke the words in a whisper through the silent room and the bitter sound of them frightened her.
Hate Peg! Oh, no, she did not mean that. Peg had been a good friend to her—Peg had never failed.
Faith tried hard to recover her composure and look at things more sensibly.
After all, what had happened? Little enough, she knew, but she could not forget the picture Peg had made during those moments on the landing or the look of admiration in the Beggar Man's eyes.
She had felt herself colourless and insignificant beside Peg, and her soul writhed as she recalled the mocking, nervous words that the elder girl had spoken.
"It's like a bit out of a novelette, isn't it?... Heroine opens her door and finds her best friend talking to her husband, tete-a-tete, as it were."
Though she knew that Peg had meant no harm, and though she had heard her say similar things scores of times before, to-night somehow the words grated deeply on Faith's sensitiveness.
It was as if someone had held up a scorching light in front of her friend, showing just how rough and unrefined she really was and could be.
Faith remembered how, not so long ago, Forrester had told her that he wished her friendship with Peg to cease. Did he wish it still?
She lay awake for hours, turning things over in her mind, torturing herself with doubts and perplexities.
It was not that she cared for him at all, so she told herself again and again. It was just that it was so horrible to think that perhaps he and Peg ... and then once more her better nature came uppermost. How could she think such base things? How dared she? Peg was her best friend, had proved herself in a thousand ways, and Forrester—when had he ever been anything but kind and considerate?
She was bound to admit that last truth now, though for weeks she had tried to hate him, and had blamed him for the death of both her parents.
She turned the pillow over and tried to sleep.
"I don't care. I wish I could be free. I don't care," she told herself, but when at last she fell asleep it was to dream of her husband as he had been during the first days of their acquaintance; to dream of the kindliness of his eyes and the clasp of his hand, and her own feeling of warmth and gratitude towards him.
She woke in the morning unrefreshed, and with a bad headache. She dreaded meeting Peg, but she need not have done, for Peg greeted her as if nothing had happened, with a kiss and her usual cheery, "Hullo, Faith! Had a bad night? You look pale enough."
"I had a very good night," Faith answered emphatically. "And I'm ever so hungry."
But at breakfast she ate nothing, and Digby watched her with concerned eyes.
"We've rushed you about too much lately," he said. "You're not strong like Miss Fraser."
"Me! Oh, I'm as strong as a horse," Peg said cheerfully. "Nothing ever tires me!"
Forrester looked across at her and laughed, and Faith clenched her hands in her lap.
There seemed such a spirit of comradeship between these two, she wondered why she had never noticed it before.
When breakfast was over she followed her husband into the hall. As a rule, she avoided him, and he looked up in surprise as she stood beside him while he brushed his coat and hat.
"Have you got to go to the City to-day?" she asked at last with an effort.
He echoed her words blankly:
"Have I got to go? What do you mean?"
"Only that"—she hesitated nervously—"only—it's so fine, I thought perhaps you might stay at home."
Forrester flushed a little, but he only said dryly, "Oh, I see," and got into his coat.
Faith watched him with timid eyes, that yet held a dawning resolution. Yesterday he had gone motoring with them to please Peg, and because Peg had asked him. Would he stay at home this morning to please her, if she could find the courage to ask him?
"I've a great deal to see to to-day," he went on lightly. "There's been trouble down at Heeler's, you know."
Faith knew, but it had not interested her. She never wished to think of Heeler's any more. It was like another part of her life—a part she only wanted to forget.
The Beggar Man had turned to the door.
"Well, good-bye," he said constrainedly.
Another moment and he would be gone, she knew, and, in desperation, Faith took a quick step towards him....
"Nicholas ... will you ... I want you to stay at home."
She was crimson, and she could not meet his eyes; but she knew his were upon her, and her heart seemed to stop beating while she waited for his answer.
It was a long time coming. Then the Beggar Man said, very gently:
"I am sorry. I am afraid it is quite impossible, Faith."
She drew back at once.
"Oh ... very well!" she said blankly, and the next moment he had gone....
Faith stood for some seconds staring at the closed door. She felt as if someone had struck her across the face.
It was the first time she had ever definitely asked a favour of him, and he had refused!
Peg, coming into the hall, noticed her pallor.
"What's the matter, little 'un?" she asked in concern, but Faith would not answer. She went upstairs to her room, and after a moment Peg followed.
"What's up?" she asked again. "Anything I can do?"
There was a momentary silence, then Faith said, in a queer, cold little voice:
"Yes. Come in; I want to speak to you."
Peg obeyed. There was an amused smile hovering round the corners of her mouth. "I'm all attention," she said. "Fire away."
Faith's hands were trembling and she clasped them together to hide the humiliating fact.
"I've been thinking," she said, with an effort. "I've been thinking that—that though you've been very kind, I...." She could not go on.
Peg looked up, a gleam of fire in her eyes. She knew without further words what it was that Faith was trying to tell her.
"You mean you want me to clear out?" she said bluntly.
Faith wavered for a moment; then she thought of the way in which Forrester had refused her request five minutes ago, though yesterday he had been so easily persuaded by Peg. "You need not put it like that," she said hoarsely, "but ... yes, that is what I mean."
The crimson blood swept Peg's face and died away again, leaving her as white as marble. It was the last thing of which she had ever dreamed that this child—this baby—would ever turn her out of the house!
Her loyal heart felt as if it must burst with shame and pain, but she shrugged her shoulders with a brave display of indifference.
"Well, I'll see what Mr. Forrester says," she answered coolly. "If he wants me to go—well.... He's master of the house, isn't he? I came here because he asked me to, and so I guess I'll take my marching orders from him."
But in spite of her defiance, Peg was desperately unhappy. Her cheeks burned as she walked out of the room, her head high in the air.
She was torn between her love for Forrester and her desire to secure his happiness and her loyalty to her friend. She knew quite well what Faith must be thinking, and while she was rejoiced that at last she had succeeded in rousing her jealousy, she was bitterly ashamed of the part she had set herself to play.
She went up to her gaudy room and shut the door, standing for a moment leaning against it, her hands in her favourite position, on her hips.
What was she to do now? Would Forrester refuse to have her so summarily turned out of his house? She did not see how he could very well go against his wife's wishes.
For the first time the gaudiness of the room irritated her. It seemed a vivid reminder of the vast difference that lay between her life and Faith's. She caught up one of the peacock green cushions from an armchair and flung it at a particularly offensive looking bird in the wall-paper.
The violent action made her feel better. She opened the window wide and cooled her hot cheeks with the September breeze.
It was still quite early in the morning, and she wondered how she could occupy her time till Forrester came home. That Faith would not speak to her she was sure. She was not at all surprised to hear presently from one of the maids that Faith had gone out with Digby and was not returning to lunch.
Peg made a little grimace. This was throwing down the glove with a vengeance, but she only laughed as she turned away.
"I shan't be in either," she said, though she had no more idea than the dead what she meant to do. But she put on her hat and coat and went out.
It was a lovely morning, sunny and with just a touch of crispness in the air, as if during the night winter had passed that way and breathed on the world.
Peg wandered round the West End staring vacantly into shop windows, but her thoughts were far away. It was only when, towards one o'clock, she began to feel hungry the sudden idea came to her that she would go home.
She had only visited her own people twice since she left them at Forrester's request. There was a tingling of excitement in her veins as she climbed on to a city omnibus.
What would they say to her, she wondered. Not that she cared.
Peg had never got on with her mother, who had married again, her second husband being a man named Johnson, employed at Heeler's factory.
There were two small step-brothers, rough, red-haired little boys, too like their father for Peg to care about them. But nevertheless the house in the mean street was the only home she had known, and there was a faintly pleasurable warmth in her heart as she climbed off the bus at the corner of the street and walked the remaining few yards.
The street looked more squalid than usual to-day, she thought, not realizing that the change lay in herself. The door of the house was open, and down the narrow passage she could hear her mother's scolding voice and the sound of a well-administered box on the ears, followed by a prolonged howl from one of the boys.
Peg shivered as she walked down the passage and pushed open the kitchen door. Had she ever really been happy and contented to live in such surroundings? And fear went through her heart as she realized that before long she might have to return to them again.
The kitchen seemed full of people, though at first she could only distinguish her mother through the mist of steam that was rising from a wash-tub.
"Hullo!" Peg said laconically. She looked round for a chair, but they were all occupied, so she leaned against the door, hands on hips.
The red-haired boy who had had his ears boxed stopped howling to stare at her. Mrs. Johnson deserted the wash-tub and came forward, wiping soapy arms on a not over-clean apron.
"Well, who'd have thought of seeing you?" she said blankly.
Peg nodded carelessly to her stepfather, who had risen awkwardly to offer her a chair.
"Thanks, no—I'll stand; I only looked in for a minute." Then her face changed a little as she recognized a second man who had been lolling in the background against a crowded dresser.
"Hullo, Ben!" she said, and the colour deepened in her cheeks.
She and Ben Travers had once been very good friends. There had been a time when she had seriously contemplated taking him on trial as a sweetheart, but her friendship with Faith had put an end to it all, though Ben had never forgiven her, and Peg knew it well enough.
The last time she had seen him had been the day when Forrester came to admit his defeat and to ask her to live at his flat, and she realized with a faint sense of discomfort that she and he had grown many miles apart since then.
But he only nodded and said, "Hullo, Peg," quite unconcernedly.
There was an awkward silence, broken by Peg's mother.
"Well, you look a fine enough lady now," she said, a shade of envy in her voice. "How long's it going to last?"
"As long as I like," said Peg coolly. She was not going to tell them that already the end of her happiness was in sight.
Mrs. Johnson looked at her daughter uncomfortably.
"You'd best come in the parlour," she said. "You'll get all messed up if you stay here."
But Peg declined to move. She looked at Ben again.
"Why aren't you at Heeler's?" she asked.
He laughed sheepishly, and exchanged glances with her stepfather.
"Because we ain't, that's why," he said, significantly.
Peg's mother broke in fretfully:
"A lazy, ungrateful lot—that's what I say they are! Never satisfied! What's the use of being out of work for a few extra shillings a week and letting us all starve.... No; I shan't shut up!" she added, as her husband tried to check her flow of eloquence. "It's true, what I'm saying. You've always been treated fair at Heeler's, and never no complaints till that new manager came, but now ... nothing right! Something always wrong." She turned to Peg. "They think they've got a grudge against Mr. Heeler," she explained. "Think! They don't know, mind you! None of 'em!"
Peg's eyes dilated a little.
"There is no Mr. Heeler," she said, quickly.
Ben Travers laughed.
"She means Scammel," he explained, "or Forrester, as I dare say you call him now he's spending his money on you!" His face flushed with dull anger as he looked at her. "Fine feathers make fine birds, all right," he said laconically. "But it won't last as long as you think it will, my girl, you mark my words...." He moved away from the dresser and hitched at his collar. "Well, I'm off," he said.
Peg followed him out of the kitchen and caught his arm.
"What are you hinting at?" she asked quietly, though her heart was racing with apprehension.
She knew Ben very well—knew just how reckless and unjust he would be if anybody managed to persuade him that he really had a grievance. He tried to shake her off, but she clung to him.
"You mind your own business," he said roughly. "You threw me over for that...." He bit back an ugly word. "Well, that's your look out!"
"Ben, you're not going to do anything ... foolish!" There was a throb of fear in her voice, and he smiled grimly, "Promise me you're not going to do anything—wicked," she urged.
He turned and looked into her face.
"What's it got to do with you, eh?" he asked brutally. Then suddenly the hot blood surged in a crimson wave to the roots of his hair as he read the passionate anxiety of her eyes.
"Oh, so that's it, is it?" he asked thickly. He dragged himself free of her, his savage eyes wandering over her expensive clothes. "Well, I might have known," he said. "Women are all the same. It's always the chap with the money—no matter if he's a wrong 'un or not."
He went off down the road, deaf to her when she called his name, and Peg went back to her mother with a trembling heart.
There was some plot afoot to injure Forrester, she was sure. She questioned her stepfather, but he would admit nothing, and her mother was evidently too afraid to say anything, even if she had the knowledge.
Peg went back to Hampstead, sick with fear, though she tried hard to conquer it.
Ben would never be so foolish. She knew he was wild, but even he would surely hesitate at violence. It seemed an eternity until she heard Forrester's key in the door that evening.
He was home earlier than he had expected, he said, as she went to meet him. He looked round—"Where is Faith?"
"She went out with Mr. Digby to lunch. They haven't come back yet."
She saw the little frown that crossed Forrester's face, but he made no comment as he turned towards his study.
Peg followed. He did not want her company, she knew, but she had made up her mind to tell him of her suspicions, and nothing in the world would have prevented her.
Forrester looked round, hearing her step behind him. "I'm busy," he said. "I've a lot of writing to do. If you want to speak to me would you mind putting it off until later?"
"I must speak now," said Peg, breathlessly. She rushed at once to her point. "I went home this morning. I saw my stepfather and Ben Travers. You don't know him, but he works at Heeler's." She stopped, breathless. "Is there any trouble round there?" she asked tensely.
Forrester did not answer at once, then he said evasively:
"There has been a little discontent, but nothing serious. Travers was sacked with several others. I know the man quite well. He's an insolent young cub."
Peg flushed darkly.
"He hates you!" she said, falling into her favourite melodrama. "He would like to do you an injury—if he dared!"
"I don't think there is any cause for alarm," he said cynically. "I am certainly not afraid of Travers."
There was an impatient dismissal in his voice, and Peg could see that he thought she was making a fuss about nothing. She wished she could think the same, but her heart was full of apprehension.
She knew the class of men her stepfather and Travers were, even better than Forrester knew, and she was about to renew her pleading when the door opened and Faith came in.
There was a little silence, then Peg laughed.
"You've got back, then," she said.
Faith did not answer, and Peg shrugged her shoulders and walked past her out of the room.
Faith shut the door and looked at her husband.
"I suppose she told you," she said breathlessly.
The Beggar Man raised his brows.
"Told me? What has she told me?"
"That I have asked her to go."
"Asked her to go?" He echoed her words with blank incredulity.
"Yes." Faith looked at him with burning eyes. Was he really surprised, or was this an arranged thing between them, she wondered.
"Yes, I ... I think I would rather live here alone," she said unsteadily.
Forrester's eyes never left her face.
"But, surely, after all Miss Fraser has done for you," he began in perplexity.
Faith flushed hotly.
"I know, but—all the same—I want her to go." He shrugged his shoulders.
"Very well—tell her so."
"I have told her," said Faith tersely.
"She said that she came here because you asked her. She said that you were master of the house and she would only go if you said you wished it."
She stopped, her breath coming fast. What was he going to say?
Her strained eyes saw the wave of colour that rushed to his face, and her heart contracted with bitter jealousy.
"I am sorry," Forrester said gently. "But it is quite impossible. After all that has happened, I could never ask Miss Fraser to leave the house ... even if I wished it."
"You mean that you don't wish it?" He was amazed at the intensity of her question. He could not understand the situation at all, but something in it vaguely irritated him.
"Certainly I do not wish her to go," he said.
Faith turned to the door. Her childish face was hard and determined.
Forrester rose to his feet vaguely uneasy.
"Faith, come here."
She stopped, but did not turn.
"Come here, I said, Faith."
"Well?" She faced him now.
"Do you want me to understand that you really wish Peg to go?" he asked deliberately.
It was the first time since Peg had lived with them that she had ever heard him speak of her friend by her Christian name, and Faith winced as if he had hurt her, but she answered clearly.
"Why?" His critical eyes searched her face.
She flushed and stammered.
"Why? Oh, well ... you see...."
He made an impatient gesture.
"If you have no real reason it's absurd to expect me to ask her to leave the house. If there is a reason...." He paused. "Faith, tell me the reason."
But she would not. How could she tell him that it was jealousy that was driving her? She would rather have died than admit to him that it hurt her intolerably to know that little by little Peg was taking the place she herself had once held in his heart.
She raised her dainty head with dignity.
"There is no reason," she said proudly. "Let her stay."
He went back to his papers.
"Very well. Then there is nothing more to be said."
Faith left him without another word. She was blind with passion as she went up to her room. She would never have believed it possible for jealousy to get such a grip of her emotions. She had believed that she hated Forrester, and it crushed her to the earth with shame to realize that now he no longer wanted her she loved him with all her heart and soul.
Later, down in the drawing-room, she slipped a note into Digby's hand as they went in to dinner.
He had no chance to read it then, but later when the two girls had left him to smoke with Forrester he found a moment.
There were only two hurriedly scribbled lines.
"I said no this afternoon when you asked me to come away with you. I have changed my mind; if you still want me I will come.—FAITH."
Peter Digby crushed the little note in his hand and looked guiltily across at his friend. But Forrester had noticed nothing; he seemed absorbed in his own thoughts, and Digby rose to his feet with a little sigh of relief.
"Well, shall we join the ladies?" he asked.
Forrester raised his eyes.
"By all means, you go. I must go out again." He looked at his watch.
"Go out?" Digby echoed. "My dear chap, at this time of night?"
But he was unutterably relieved. Forrester's absence would make things so much more simple.
"Yes, I must go down to Heeler's again. I'm afraid there's going to be serious trouble there. I don't like the look of things at all."
"Why don't you cut the whole show?" he asked. "With your money you don't want to waste time bothering about a business like that. Sell it and clear out. I should, if I were in your place."
"No, you wouldn't; and I'm not going to, anyway. If they think they can scare me into running away they're mistaken. A handful of loafers!" The Beggar Man looked almost ugly in his obstinacy and contempt, and Digby shrugged his shoulders and turned towards the door.
"Well, you know your own business best, of course," he said. "But if I were you I'd cut the worry and start enjoying myself."
Forrester did not answer; there was a strange look in his eyes as he watched his friend leave the room.
He knew well enough what was going on beneath his very eyes. He had known before that afternoon when Peg tried to warn him, and he was amazed because he cared so little.
In a way, it was almost a relief to know that perhaps before long the strain of the past weeks would be lifted. Even the violence of a final snap would be preferable to the constant nerve racking uncertainty he had been suffering.
Disappointment and bitterness had set a wall about his heart, and he told himself as he looked after Digby's retreating figure that he did not care what happened.
Faith would go if she wanted to. Well, let her! He would not lift a finger to detain her.
He turned back to his papers, and Digby crossed the hall to the drawing-room where the two girls were sitting together in constrained silence.
Peg had been trying to read one of her favourite novelettes, a particularly exciting one of its kind, in which the hero had just been confronted at the altar steps with a previous wife. But she could not keep her thoughts on what she was reading. She was restless and unhappy. Her nerves seemed tightly strung, as if she were waiting for something unknown to happen.
When the door opened to admit Digby she started up with a little exclamation, laughing nervously to hide her agitation.
"Oh, it's you? You made me jump."
Digby looked past her to where Faith sat on a low stool by the fire. He wished there was some way of getting rid of Peg. He had never liked her, and he knew that she disliked him as heartily.
His entrance was followed almost immediately by a knock on the door, and Peg started up again.
"Oh, come in! Gracious! I'm all nerves to-night."
But it was only one of the maids. She looked round the room apologetically. "I thought the master was here," she said.
"He's in the study." It was Digby who answered, and the door closed again, only to re-open almost immediately.
"The master has gone out, ma'am." The girl looked at Faith. "And it's Mr. Farrow, from the factory, to see him; most urgent he says it is." Faith turned her face away.
"I don't know where he has gone," she said, in a cold little voice. "Tell Mr. Farrow."
The maid was leaving the room when Peg sprang up. She brushed past the astonished girl unceremoniously, and went straight to where Farrow, the manager of Heeler's, stood in the hall, nervously twisting his hat.
"What's the matter?" she asked, in her usual direct fashion.
Farrow knew Peg well, and had always had a queer sort of respect for her, in spite of the odd things which he knew had been said of her from time to time.
He answered without hesitating that there was trouble brewing down at the works, and that he had come to warn Mr. Forrester to stay at home that evening.
"I've warned him before," he added, in distress. "But I might as well have spoken to the wall."
Peg caught her breath with a little hard sound.
"Who is it, Ben Travers and his gang?" she asked.
"Yes. Ben had too much drink in the Green Man public-house, close by Heeler's, last night, and he talked, and I know that if Mr. Forrester's wise he will stay at home to-night."
"But he's gone already!" The words burst from Peg's lips in despair.
For a moment she stood staring at him, her handsome face quite colourless. Then she turned suddenly and rushed upstairs.
She caught up the first coat she could find, and, hatless as she was, rushed down again and out through the front door, running to overtake Farrow, who had already left the house.
She caught him up at the end of the street, breathless and panting.
"Get a taxi! Oh, how slow you are!" she broke out passionately.
She dashed out into the road, nearly getting run over in her excitement, and pulled up a slowly passing taxicab.
Farrow had recovered himself and hurriedly followed.
"It may be all bluff," he said, rather shamefacedly, as they drove away; "but I don't like the look of things, and that's a fact. And I thought it my duty to warn the guv'nor." Man-like, he hated to feel that he had made an unnecessary fuss.
Peg did not answer. Her eyes were fixed on the dark night, and her hands hard clasped in her lap. Every second seemed an eternity. The speeding cab seemed to crawl.
Presently she broke out hoarsely:
"You are sure—sure that's where he has gone—to Heeler's?"
"He told me he should go. He told me to meet him there," Farrow answered.
Peg bit her lip till the blood came.
"And you think—do you think ... they are ... waiting for him?"
"That was what it sounded like from the talk."
"Who told you?"
"The landlord of the Green Man overheard and sent for me."
Peg groaned. Her love for Forrester exaggerated the possible danger a thousandfold. She suffered tortures as they drove through the dark streets; and when at last the cab stopped close to the closed gates of Heeler's factory she flung herself from it headlong.
But the whole building was in darkness, and when she shook the padlocked gates with frantic hands they yielded nothing.
The cabman was staring at her curiously, and Peg came back to consciousness of her surroundings with a little gasping laugh.
She looked at Farrow.
"He can't have come, after all," she said faintly. Farrow shrugged his shoulders. He was beginning to feel rather foolish.
Peg spoke to him sharply.
"Pay the man, and tell him to go. What's he think he's staring at?"
She was angry and shaken; she leaned against the closed yard gates, trembling from head to foot. Suddenly she laughed.
"Well—we've had a wild-goose chase," she said dryly. "Come on, we may as well go home. I daresay Mr. Forrester went to his club after all. Come on, I say," she added angrily as Farrow did not move. "What are you waiting for?"
But she knew before he answered, for at that moment Forrester's tall figure suddenly grew out of the darkness beside them.
He was making for the smaller gate, of which Peg knew he kept a duplicate key, and which led to the offices, and with sudden impulse she darted forward and caught his arm.
The Beggar Man turned sharply and peered down at her white face.
"You! Good heavens! is anything the matter.... Faith?" His mind flew with swift apprehension to his wife.
Peg laughed bitterly.
"Oh, no, she's safe and sound enough. It's you."
"Me!" His eyes went beyond her to where Farrow stood. "Good heavens! What's the meaning of it all?" he demanded angrily. "Farrow, if you've been down to Hampstead frightening my wife...."
He turned on the man threateningly as a shrill warning scream broke from Peg, and the next instant Forrester felt himself seized violently from behind and flung backwards.
The darkness was filled with voices and shouting, and the street seemed suddenly to have grown alive with men.
It all happened so quickly that afterwards Forrester could remember no details, but, above all the din and tumult, he could hear Peg's voice raised in a wild scream of entreaty.
"Ben—Ben—for God's sake!"
The scuffle was all about him as he stood with his back to the locked gates trying to see what was happening, and to free himself of her encumbering body, but her arms were round his neck, and as by main force he tried to unclasp them and throw her aside a terrific blow fell somewhere from out of the darkness—not on him, but on the girl who clung to him so frantically; and suddenly she sagged against him and would have fallen but for his upholding arms.
There were running steps in the street, and the shrill blast of a police whistle rose above the discord as the crowd of hooligans broke and scattered in all directions, panic-stricken.
Forrester laid Peg on the pavement, still keeping his arms about her. He felt confused and dazed; he could not realize what had happened.
One of the police who had come upon the scene turned the light of his lantern on Peg's face; the blow that had struck her had torn her hair down, and it lay in a tangled mass about her white face, but her eyes were open and fixed on the Beggar Man.
"Peg! Peg!" he said hoarsely.
It was the first time he had ever called her by her Christian name, and a little smile wavered across her face.
"I—I saved your life, anyway——" she whispered weakly, and then more softly still, "It's like a novelette!" said Peg, and closed her eyes.
It was midnight when Forrester got back home; he let himself into the dark house mechanically. He felt drunk with shock and the horror of all that had happened. He groped blindly along the wall and found the switch, flooding the hall with light, and as he did so he heard a little sound close to him on the stairs and a smothered cry.
He wheeled round sharply, and came face to face with his wife. She was at the foot of the stairs, dressed for travelling, and she clutched a small dressing-case in one shaking hand.
Forrester stared at her stupidly for a moment, and then his eyes turned to the clock. It was on the stroke of midnight! So late—and Faith going out! He tried to think, to understand, but his brain worked slowly, like machinery that wanted oiling through long disuse. Then suddenly he seemed to understand.
The blood rushed to his face in a passionate flood. He took a step forward and gripped her arm.
"Where are you going? Answer me."
She hardly knew his voice, and his eyes were like a stranger's, as she shrank back from him with a low cry of fear.
"Where are you going?" But there was no need for her to answer; he knew without a word being spoken.
He stood back from her, his hand falling from her arm as if it had grown nerveless, and for a moment there was absolute silence. Then the Beggar Man laughed, such a mirthless, heart-broken laugh that Faith cried out. She dropped the little suitcase she carried and ran to him.
"Nicholas ... Nicholas ... Oh, don't look at me like that!" She laid her hand on his sleeve, but he struck it down in blind fury. At that moment he was beside himself with rage and bitterness and sorrow for the tragedy that had come into his life.
And she seemed to realize that his thoughts were not only of her and the irrevocable step she had planned to take, and her frightened face whitened as she instinctively gasped her friend's name.
"Peg!"... Forrester turned away. He put his hand over his eyes for a moment, trying desperately to control himself, but his voice was thick as he answered mechanically:
"She died—in hospital—half an hour ago."
There was a tragic silence, then Faith stumbled backwards, catching at the balusters to save herself from falling. Her face was frozen with horror. She stared at her husband with fascinated eyes.
Then he seemed to awaken again to the desperate situation still confronting him; he caught her by both shoulders, shaking her savagely in his rage and despair.
"You were going—with Digby.... My God! I'll kill him—I'll——"
He broke off as the silence of the night outside was pierced by the shrill sound of a man's whistle.
For an instant neither of them moved. Then slowly, as if with difficulty, Forrester released her and turned towards the door.
Faith felt as if she were turned to stone. Then suddenly she rushed after him; she fell on her knees, catching at his hand.
"No—no ... I beg you ... no ... no.... Oh, if you ever loved me...."
He looked down at her upturned face, and his own writhed in desperate pain.
"If—I—ever—loved—you!" he echoed. Then he stooped, wrenched himself free of her, flung open the door and was gone out into the night.
* * * * *
Faith never knew how the hours of that dreadful night passed away. When daylight came she found herself in her own room, sitting on the side of the bed, staring down at the floor.
She felt incapable of thought or action; mind and body seemed frozen with a great horror.
Last night seemed like some terrible madness. She was sure she must have been mad.
Forrester had not come home, she knew, for her ears had been strained all night for the sound of his step.
When the maid brought early tea she cried out when she saw Faith.
"Oh, ma'am! What has happened? Miss Fraser's not in her room, nor the master...."
Faith tried to answer, but no words would come, and, touched by the white suffering of her face, the maid tried to persuade her to lie down.
But Faith only said, "Leave me alone ... leave me alone," till at last she was taken at her word, and the girl went downstairs to whisper and tremble with the other maids in the kitchen.
Forrester came in about eleven o'clock. He brought Mr. Shawyer with him, and went straight to his study and shut the door.
Faith's room was immediately above it, and she could hear their voices for some time—talking, talking.
Presently the maid came tapping at her door.
"Can Mr. Shawyer speak to you, please, ma'am?"
Faith rose mechanically and went downstairs and into the study.
Forrester was not there, but the lawyer rose from his seat at the table as she entered. His face was cold and stern, but it softened a little as he looked at her, and he held out his hand.
"Come and sit down." He spoke gently, as if to a child, but Faith shook her head.
"What do you want me for?"
He did not answer at once, and she asked dully:
"Is it true that Peg—Peg is ... dead? Or—or did I dream it?"
"It is quite true," Mr. Shawyer said.
Her brown eyes searched his face.
"She died saving your husband's life, Mrs. Forrester. He was waylaid by a gang of roughs, and...."
Faith made a little silencing gesture. The blood had rushed back to her white face; she did not want to hear any more. Peg had saved the Beggar Man's life. It gave her a stab of bitterest jealousy.
"Well ... well, what do you want me for?" she asked again presently.
Mr. Shawyer hated the task that had been entrusted to him.
"Your husband asked me to see you," he said reluctantly. "He wished me to tell you that he is ... going abroad as soon as he can arrange it—within the next few days possibly. He has settled a very generous income on you and your little sisters for life! A most generous income, which, he asked me to say, he hopes will in some measure make amends for your—your ... unfortunate marriage, for which he blames himself entirely."
Faith listened, but the words sounded like so much foolishness, and after waiting a moment Mr. Shawyer went on again, not looking at her.
"He also asked me to say that as soon as it is possible he will set you free, without annoyance or unpleasantness to yourself."
He stopped again and raised his eyes apologetically.
The girl's face was pathetic in its shocked pallor, and she broke out with wild incoherence, unconsciously using the very same words which the Beggar Man had once spoken to her.
"But ... but it's not possible to stop being married, like that, for no reason!"
Mr. Shawyer smiled cynically.
"No reason," he echoed. "Well...." and he shrugged his shoulders.
There was a long silence; then Faith asked with stiff lips:
"And is that—all?"
"I think so, unless there is anything you would suggest, any request you have to make."
"No." She stood there, twisting her hands together childishly, trying to understand the thing that had fallen upon her; then suddenly she broke out passionately:
"The twins don't want me.... They're quite happy. They don't want me any more. Where can I go?"
Mr. Shawyer did not answer. Against his better judgment he was conscious of a most unwilling pity for this girl. He knew the whole story now, had heard it that morning from Forrester's lips, so perhaps it was not altogether without intention that presently he said quietly:
"My dear child, there is ... Mr. Digby!"
Faith flushed scarlet from her throat to her hair. Such an expression of revolt and fear crossed her face that for a moment she no longer looked a child, but a woman who has lived a lifetime of bitter experience.
"If you knew—how I ... hate him," she said, and quite suddenly she broke down, hiding her face in her hands, her slender body shaken with passionate sobbing.
Mr. Shawyer rose. He made her sit down, and stood beside her, keeping a hand on her shoulder.
"My dear," he said, "I am an old man, and you are only a child! Is it too late for me to try and put things right between you and your husband?"
Faith shook her head.
"He hates me ... he'll never forgive me ... last night ... oh, I shall never forget his eyes!"
Mr. Shawyer walked a step or two away from her, then came back resolutely.
"Perhaps I shall be doing no good by my interference," he said gently. "But at least I can do no harm, when I tell you that my belief is that your husband has never ceased to care for you! No, no—he has said nothing to me——" he hastened to add, as Faith raised a face flushed with eager hope. "But I pride myself that I know him very well, and therefore I believe that he still has a great regard for you. When he came to me this morning he was utterly broken down—he had lost everything at one blow—his wife, his friend, and that brave girl Peg."
"Peg!" said Faith with a little shiver.
"The best friend either of you ever had," Mr. Shawyer insisted gently. "The most loyal friend!"
"Oh, I know, I know!" said Faith weeping; she could not bear to remember in what manner she and Peg had parted.
Mr. Shawyer went on steadily.
"Think what a shock her death has been to your husband, without his friend's treachery, and...." he stopped, feeling her shrink beneath his hand, and for a moment there was silence before he went on sadly:
"I have always looked upon Nicholas as a hard man of the world, perhaps incapable of deep feeling, but this morning he was just a broken-hearted boy when he came to tell me what had happened, and that is why I dare to ask you if you will not go to him, and beg for his forgiveness."
He took his hand from her shoulder.
"Then I am afraid he will go away, and that you will never see him again."
Faith checked her sobbing. She sat with her hands clasped in her lap, staring before her with haggard eyes.
With every passing moment now it came home to her afresh how much she had lost, how much she had thrown away in her wilfulness and blindness.
She had been jealous of Peg, and now that Peg was dead, it would not help her at all. Forrester had done with her. She had seen it in his eyes last night, heard it in his voice.
Mr. Shawyer came back from the window and looked down at her very kindly.
"Surely it is worth sacrificing a little pride to win a great happiness," he said.
He waited a moment, but she did not speak, and he went away and left her.
A great many people seemed to come to the house. The door-bell was always ringing, and strange men were shut up in the study with Forrester, asking questions and making notes.
It was about Peg, Faith knew—Peg, who had died to save the Beggar Man's life, Peg whom she would never see again.
Later, driven by an irresistible impulse and her own terrible loneliness, she went up to Peg's empty bedroom and stood in the doorway.
Its gaudiness no longer offended her, though the bright sunlight flooded the room and shone glaringly on the brilliant green cushions and horrible wall-paper.
Peg's Oriental slippers stood at the foot of the bed and her gay dressing-gown hung limply across a chair.
It seemed impossible that Peg would never come back any more.
She had always been so alive! Oh, it could not be really true that she was dead.
A half-finished pink-backed novelette lay on the bed where Peg had flung it down unfinished last night when she went out, and Faith took it up with reverent fingers.
She opened it at the page Peg had been reading, and of which she had turned down the corner, and her eyes fell on the words:
"But the beautiful girl had died with a smile on her rosy red lips. She had given her life for love, and for love's dear sake, and was content...."
Faith shivered. Peg had died the death she would have chosen, had the choice been given to her, she knew, and yet....
"If I could only see her again!" The thought rushed through Faith's heart with passionate longing.
Peg had been such a true friend. A thousand little memories came crowding back to her as she stood there in the rainbow room which Peg had so adored.
Just to see her for a moment, just to say she was sorry, to ask her pardon, to thank her for all she had done.
But it was too late. The most passionate prayer in all the world can never put back the hand of time even for one second.
The day dragged away, and the house quieted down. It was like a tomb, Faith thought, as she wandered restlessly about through the empty rooms.
She felt as if she would go mad in her loneliness. She would have given her soul for someone in whom she could confide.
The maids came to try and coax her to eat, but she shook her head.
"I can't. Oh, please leave me alone!"
Later in the evening she crept downstairs and stood outside her husband's closed door. He was alone there she knew! She wondered what he was thinking—if his thoughts were of Peg—and suddenly Mr. Shawyer's words came back to her.
"Surely it is worth sacrificing a little pride to win a great happiness."
Was it still hers to win? She had no real hope, but her feet unconsciously moved a little nearer to that shut door.
Twice, three times, she raised her hand to knock, and let it fall again to her side.
She had no courage. She feared him as she had never feared anyone in her life, and yet ... once he had been all that was good and kind! Her aching mind recalled the first days of their acquaintance, his gentleness and generosity, and with a fresh spurt of courage she lifted her hand and tapped timidly on the door.
"Come in!" It was her husband's voice, but now again her courage failed her, and she stood shaking from head to foot, incapable of action.
She heard his step across the room, and then the door opened and he stood looking at her.
"You! What do you want?" His voice was not unkind, in spite of the bluntness of the words, and in desperation she raised her eyes.
"I want to speak to you."
There was a little silence. She could read refusal in his face, but after a moment he opened the door wide, and stood aside for her to enter, closing it again after her.
"Well?" He went back to the table at which he had been writing, and looked at her across it with hard eyes.
He was so ill, so worn! Faith stood looking at him in dumb pain, and he asked again impatiently:
"What do you want?"
"I want you to forgive me."
She was not conscious of having spoken the words, and was terrified when she heard them echo through the silent room. She felt as if she must fall. She put her hand on a chair back to steady herself, not daring to raise her eyes.
Then the Beggar Man gave a dry little laugh.
"Why?" he asked.
"Why?—why?" She echoed the word stammeringly, and he went on ruthlessly:
"Because you are afraid of being left? Is that it? You need not be. Digby will marry you as soon as I have set you free. I have not hurt him—yet! I have told him that I am waiting to see first how he treats you."
"I don't want him!" The words were a heartbroken cry. "Oh, I never, never did want him."
There were lines of pain in the Beggar Man's face as he looked at her. His lips moved twice before he could frame any words.
"Who or what do you want then?" he asked hoarsely.
"You!" She answered him in passionate desperation. It was her last throw for happiness.
She counted the flying seconds before he spoke, with her thudding heartbeats, and they seemed to stop when he laughed.
"You can hardly expect me to believe that," he said.
She found her voice with a great effort.
"I know ... but it's the truth—all the same."
She was fighting for something greater than life—happiness! And though with each moment since she came into the room it seemed to be more surely eluding her, she went on, hardly knowing what she said:
"I know you don't believe me—but it's true.... I never cared for—for Mr. Digby ... but ... but I was jealous ... of Peg!" Her voice faltered over the little name, and it was with an effort that she forced herself to continue. "You seemed to like her ... better than me ... and—and ... I was jealous...." She spoke the words again passionately, conscious of their unconvincing sound, their parrot-like repetition.
Forrester came towards her till but a step divided them.
"You expect me to believe that?" he asked hoarsely. "When I've been waiting all these weeks, all these months for you to give me one look ... one smallest hope ... when I've been a beggar at your feet, hoping against hope that some day you'd throw me a smile...." He swung round from her with a passionate gesture of disbelief.
She had pleaded to him in vain, and she knew it. She had humbled herself unavailingly. The room swam giddily before her eyes as she looked at Forrester. Such a man for a woman to love, and yet she, blind as she had been, had not seen until too late, all that she was throwing away.
She made a little inarticulate sound of despair and Forrester turned.
He stepped past her and opened the door.
"I am leaving here early in the morning," he said. "I shall not trouble you again. Good-bye."
Something seemed to snap in Faith's heart. She stumbled towards him and would have fallen at his feet but for his upholding hand. She broke into wild, incoherent words, clinging to him desperately.
"Don't leave me ... I can't bear it.... I love you. Forgive me. I've nobody in all the world ... oh, forgive me ... forgive me...."
"Faith!" The Beggar Man spoke her name with a great cry. For a moment he held her from him, looking into her face with eyes of passionate hope and disbelief. Then he caught her to his heart.
She clung to him like a lost child that has suddenly found its home again; the dread of the future without him found its reaction in a storm of tearless sobbing.
"Don't leave me—oh, don't leave me," was all she could say again and again.
He took her up in his arms and carried her over to the big chair by the fire, as if she had been a child; he spoke to her gently, soothing her, comforting her, forgetting his own troubles in his infinite pity for her, till she lay quiet at last, her face hidden against him, her hands clinging to his coat as if even now she feared that he might leave her.
Above her head the Beggar Man looked out into the silent room with sad eyes; he had got his happiness at last, but at what a cost!
He knew that he owed everything to Peg, and for a moment he lost himself in the past, with a vivid memory of her, her bold, defiant beauty, and swinging gipsy earrings.
That she had cared for him, he knew well enough; the light in her eyes had told him that at the last, if never before.
But Peg was dead, and the past gone forever....
He looked down at Faith, and found her eyes upon him with a new wistfulness and humility in their brown depths that awoke all the old love and protective tenderness he had once known for her; and the vivid memory of Peg paled and faded away as he bent to kiss his wife with passionate thankfulness—a Beggar Man at her feet no longer, but a King, come proudly to his Throne.