"Lady Amelie!" he said. "I felt sure that I was not mistaken—that it must be you."
There was no answering delight on her face; nothing but constraint, embarrassment and confusion.
"How do you do, Count Jules?" she said, coldly. "This is an unexpected surprise. I thought you had left London for some years."
"L'homme propose, Dieu dispose," said the count. "I only reached England last night, and have hurried to London."
"It is strange that I should meet you here," she said.
"My friend, Monsieur Le Blanc, has a picture here, and I have been criticising it for him."
Then Lady Amelie seemed to remember the laws of politeness, for she introduced the two gentlemen, who looked very unpleasantly at each other.
Basil did not like the count, although at first sight he was certainly a very handsome man, essentially French, with a quick, shrewd, handsome face and dark hair, eyes black as night, yet bright and eloquent. It was those very eyes that Basil disliked; they were not clear, true nor honest. In fact, a sudden hatred to the French count sprang up in his heart, he could not tell how or why. They exchanged a few words, and then, under pretense of drawing Lady Amelie's attention to a picture, Count Jules said to her:
"Can you not dismiss your young cavalier? I have come to London on purpose to see you—I must speak to you."
"I cannot dismiss him," she said, curtly. "He is not a footman to be sent away at my pleasure. Tell me in few words what you want."
"I want money!" he said, with a very dark frown; "and money, Amelie, I must have."
"I can give you none—you have no conscience. How much have you had already?"
"I have kept no account." he replied; "and really what I have had is not of the least consequence—it is what I have to get."
"That will be nothing from me," she replied. "I gave you a thousand pounds three months ago, and you promised you would ask for no more."
"I did not foresee the present necessity," he said. "Amelie, I must have money."
"Count Jules," said Lady Lisle, "you are a villain, who trades upon a woman's fears!"
"My charming lady shall call me anything she will, but I must have the money."
"I tell you," she replied, angrily, "that I have not got it, nor is it any use asking my lord for it; he was angry the last time, and I shall ask him no more."
"Then get it from some other source."
"There is no other source open to me," she replied.
The count's face darkened angrily.
"There need not be so many words about it, Lady Lisle. I must have the money."
"By what right do you incessantly demand money from me?" she asked.
"You promised, in those happier days, to be my friend always; and as a friend you have lent me money often. As a friend, I ask you for it again."
"And as a friend," she retorted, "I refuse."
"Then I shall be obliged to adopt the very unpleasant alternative of asking it from Lord Lisle."
"Lord Lisle would refuse it."
"He would give it to me as the means of purchasing my silence," he said. "You forget, Lady Amelie, what I have to show Lord Lisle, if he does refuse?"
"You mean my letters?" she said, indignantly. "You are coward enough to threaten me with showing my husband the letters I was so mistaken as to write to you?"
"I should be deeply grieved, indeed," he said, "but I have no other alternative."
"And I mistook you for a gentleman," she said, with calm scorn.
"You were very kind to me, Lady Amelie," he said, with a polite sneer.
"I do not believe you have those letters," she said.
"I have, indeed. I have locked them up with the only two family heirlooms I possess—a watch and a ring—in an ivory casket, and I go nowhere without it."
"You must do your worst!" said Lady Amelie.
"Nay," he said, "I do not wish to do that. My worst would be to bring the honored name of Lady Amelie Lisle into the divorce court, and that I should not like to do. Do not decide hastily. I cannot remain in England very long. Take a week to decide in and let me know when I am to have the money."
She turned from him with the scornful gesture of an outraged queen.
"We shall see," she muttered between her white teeth. "We shall see."
She spoke no other word to him, but went back to her seat. Count Jules bowed and quitted the room.
"You do not like that man, Lady Lisle?" said Basil, as he looked at her fair, flushed face. Before she had time to answer, they were joined by some ladies of his acquaintance, and were not able to exchange another word on the subject. As he was leaving, Lady Lisle looked out of the carriage.
"Mr. Carruthers!" she said. He was by her side in a moment. She was pale and agitated, not quite herself.
"You are my sworn knight," she said, laying her hand on his.
"Until death!" he replied.
"You promised to help me at any risk, in any difficulty, and now I am going to ask your aid."
"It is yours. My whole life is yours," he cried. She smiled, sadly.
"There are some things more valuable than life. Perhaps what I ask from you will cost you dear."
"I do not care in the least what it costs," he said.
"You are coming to dine with us; we do not dine this evening until eight. Come soon after six. I have a story to tell you."
"I will not fail," he replied. "Do not be anxious, Lady Lisle, you look distressed. Trust in me; far as human aid can go, mine is yours."
His clear blue eyes lingered on her perfect face, and again, for the second time in her life, the queen of coquettes felt something like pity for the man she was luring to his doom. She leaned back in the carriage after he was gone, with a most triumphant smile on her lips.
"What wonders a pretty face can work," she thought. "I feel quite safe, now that my troubles are to rest on his broad shoulders. How I should like to see that Jules trampled upon and crushed. My knight will save me."
She never remembered that he was the only son of his mother—a widow. She cared little that he was the head of a grand old race. She thought still less of his talents, his honest enthusiasm, his simplicity, except so far as it answered her purpose.
Ladie Amelia's Story.
A few hours later, and Lady Lisle was seated in her boudoir, exquisitely attired. She, who knew so well the effect of every fold in her dress, of every flower she wore or carried; she, who had studied the art of looking beautiful more completely than any other woman, had not neglected her most potent charm. She wore a dinner dress of white silk, with crimson flowers, that suited her dark, glowing beauty to perfection. An elegant toilet! No jewels, but a massive golden bracelet on one arm, and a golden chain of exquisite workmanship round her neck.
"I knew you would come," she said, looking up with a smile as Basil was shown into her boudoir; "I knew you would not fail me. We shall have time for a long conversation. Lord Lisle never reaches home until a quarter of an hour before dinner, and then he has to hurry. Our guests will not arrive until nearly eight, so we shall not be interrupted."
He looked round that little fairy nook, wondering at its elegance, wondering at the soft, rosy light, at the fragrance of the white daphnes, but more than all at the queenly loveliness of the beautiful woman before him.
She sat in the very heart of the crimson glow, her glistening silken dress sweeping in rich waves, and quite sure that her attitude, like everything else about her, was perfect. She held out her hand to him, with a smile that would have bewildered any man older and wiser than he.
"Sit down here," she said, pointing to a velvet fauteuil; "I am going to make you my judge. Ah, Basil, for this one night I may call you Basil; perhaps after you have heard what I have to say, you will never be my knight again; it may change you."
"I shall belong to you, and ask no greater happiness than to serve you until I die," he replied,
A fan lay on the table by her side, with jeweled handle, and made of white, soft feathers. She opened it and quietly stirred the warm, perfumed air.
"I could only tell my trouble to you," she began, in her soft, caressing voice. "You will understand me, because you know what it is to have wishes, hopes and aspirations that are never realized. You know what it is to be unworldly and unlike others.
"I was but a girl when I was married, Basil—an innocent, unsuspecting girl, just seventeen. I might plead, in excuse of what followed, that I was married without my own inclination being consulted—unwillingly sacrificed to money that never has done me any good, and never will. I might plead my youth, my unhappiness, the utter want of congeniality with the man I married; but I will not. You shall judge me without excuses. I must, however, tell you that at first, for the first two years of my married life, I was in despair. There seemed to me no hope, no respite—nothing but despair. Now I have grown accustomed to my misery, and can wear it with a smile; then it was otherwise. At that time I was first introduced to Count Jules Ste. Croix. I hate myself," she continued, passionately, "when I remember how that man duped me. I did not think him handsome, although other ladies raved of his beaux yeux and his classical face.
"But I liked him, Basil, because he had the art of expressing silent sympathy for me. He said nothing—if he had done so, my pride would have taken fire and I should have been saved—but all that other men say in passionate words, he conveyed to me in passionate looks. He was very kind to me; he used to visit us a great deal, and on several occasions he stood between me and Lord Lisle's fierce anger.
"He knew all my distress, my troubles, my misery, as well as I know them myself. Let me tell you briefly, Basil, that at this unhappy time I wrote to him three letters—only three. I was so miserable, so wretched, that, unless I had opened my heart to some one, I must have died. Now listen, Basil, and do not wonder if I have ceased to believe in men. He answered them, and then, after a time, presumed upon my having written to him. Oh, Basil, if I could but spare myself the shame of telling you! He made a compact of friendship with me that nothing was ever to break. I was but a frightened child, and I made it. He asked me to lend him money. Oh, Basil, I was but a frightened, terrified girl, and I lent it! Then he tried to make love to me—he flattered me; he followed me like my shadow. But there I was firm; he could, not frighten me into anything I thought wrong."
"Why, the man is a villain!" cried Basil; "an unprincipled, cowardly villain!"
"Wait," she said, laying her hand on his arm. "Wait; you have not heard all. He uses the three letters as a means of extorting money from me. Now he threatens that if I do not lend it to him, he will show them to my husband."
Basil sprang from his seat, with a hot flush on his handsome young face.
"I will shoot him!" he said. "Such a man is not fit to breathe the air of heaven."
"Hush!" she said again. "You cannot help me unless you are calm. My husband does not love me, Basil. The least whisper of this, and, innocent as I am, I should be separated from him and disgraced. It is from this I want you to save me. If I were married to a noble, generous man, I should go to him at once, and tell him the truth. If Lord Lisle knew it, he would use it as a pretext for separating himself from me. Basil, you are my knight—you must save me; you must get those letters."
"I will," he replied, "at any cost."
"I tremble to think how much money, I, in my cowardly fear, have lent him. He will want more and more, until he has drained a fortune, and I shall be no safer in the end. I will lend him no more money, Basil; but you, my only friend, shall get the letters."
"I will. How shall I do it! Oh, Lady Lisle, let me fight him—let me punish him as he deserves!"
"No," she said; "he is too cunning. If you were to offer to fight with him, he would know it was for my sake, and he would so place the letters as to fall into my husband's hands if anything happened to him."
But the hot flush did not fade from Basil's face.
"I must thrash him," he cried.
"No; for my sake, and because you would do me true service, you must not," she said.
"I will give him all my fortune for the letters," he said.
"That would not do—he would take your money first, then, holding the letters, would still want more. I will tell you the only plan by which you can help me. Go boldly into the room and bring the letters away."
"But that looks so much like stealing them," he said. "Let me fight him and take them because I win."
"No," she said, sadly. "If you will not help me, as I wish, I must forego all aid, and suffer on."
"You have but to command," he cried, "and I will obey."
"This is the count's address," she said. "Go into his rooms; you will find there an ivory casket; he keeps the letters there; he told me so."
"I will do it," he said, quietly.
A beautiful light came into her eyes.
"I knew you would save me, Basil," she said, tenderly. "When will you do it?"
"I will make my first essay tonight. I shall not rest again until it is done."
"Go to his rooms," she said; "ask for him; if they tell you he is not in, say you will wait for him; then, while you are in the room, open the casket, take out the letters, destroy them at once, and send word to me when it is done. Do not stop to think whether I am right, whether it is the better plan, but do it at once, because I have said so."
"I will do it," he replied. Then she saw a shadow fall over his face. "There is nothing really in them, I suppose, Lady Lisle?"
"Nothing," she said, "but the cry of a woman's breaking heart! Enough to ruin me, should my husband ever come to know it."
"That he never shall; they shall be destroyed. If I die for it, they shall be destroyed."
"Ah, me," she said; "had ever liege lady so true a knight? Basil, how shall I thank you?"
"The pleasure of serving you will be thanks enough," he replied.
"Ah, generous knight, noble knight, who shall say true chivalry is dead?" And she praised him, she flattered him, she thanked him until the slight doubt that had occurred to him died away and he was ashamed of it.
He thought of nothing but obeying her. It was sadly against his high English spirit to steal into a man's room and take from it; he would have preferred fighting until one or the other lay dead. But she had said nay, and it could not be. That very evening he called and was told the count was not in; the day following he repeated the call, and the servant, as he had said at the trial, was suspicious, not recognizing him as one of his master's friends.
He called another evening, and, owing to the fact of there being a new servant, he was admitted into the count's room. It was empty, although the gas was burning. He saw the little ivory casket, and with one stroke of his strong, young hand, opened it.
There lay the letters, underneath a watch and ring. He obeyed her; he did not lose one instant. He emptied the casket, carried the letters to the lighted gas, and burned them! Just as he had raised the watch and ring in his hand to replace them, the door opened and the count, with his servant, entered the room.
The Trap Closed.
The count did not utter one word. He saw at one glance what had been done. He recognized the young gentleman whom he had sneered at as Lady Amelie's victim. He understood at once what had been done.
"She had asked him to destroy the letters, and he has done it," he said to himself. In one moment he had formed his scheme of revenge. He would give the young man in charge for stealing his watch and ring. If he cleared himself at all, he must tell the truth. He must tell that he had not come there to steal a watch, but to destroy Lady Lisle's letters.
"If he confesses that," said the quick-witted count to himself, "she will be doubly disgraced; if he declines to confess, I am at least revenged upon him." So, until the entrance of the policeman, the two men stood and glared at each other.
"You can save yourself," said the count, "if you will confess what you came for, and if you will write that confession down."
Basil smiled contemptuously. "Of what do you charge me?" he said.
"I shall charge you with stealing my watch and ring," was the reply.
"Knowing I am innocent?"
"The alternative lies before you. Confess, as I have said, and Lady Amelie suffers; deny, and you go to prison for stealing."
It seemed to him far easier. "I will go to prison," he thought, "I can give a false name; no one will know me. There will be no fuss, no stir, nothing known, and she, my queen, will be saved."
Of course there was no common sense in such a proceeding, nothing but enthusiasm and romance. He certainly had not calculated upon the fact being known. He had really believed the false name would shield him. He found means through a heavy bribe to send one word to Lady Amelie; it was merely the word, "Destroyed.—B.C." But it gave the queen of coquettes a sense of security she had not enjoyed for long. While Basil still lay in prison, Count Jules sought her.
"You have baffled me, my lady," he said.
"Yes," was the calm reply, "I have checkmated you, count. You will extort no more money from me, nor will you threaten me again."
"Well," said the count, "I confess myself beaten, and I am not a good man, either, my Lady Amelie, but sooner than have blighted that young man's life, as you have done, I would have suffered anything."
"My dear count," said Lady Amelie, philosophically, "some men seem, by fate and by nature, destined to be used as a cat's-paw."
Count Jules was baffled; his only hold upon the rich and beautiful Lady Amelie was broken. What those letters contained was known only to the lady and himself. If simply the written expressions of her own unhappiness, he placed more value on them than they were worth. The chances are that they held more than that.
He was entirely defeated—they had been his last resources for long. He had never failed, by means of them, to extort money from Lady Lisle at pleasure. It was useless to threaten any more. She had but to dare him to bring forth his proofs, and he had not one word to say.
His only consolation was, that in revenge, he had completely blighted the young hero's life, for hero he was, although his heroism was of a mistaken kind.
And Lady Amelie—did she feel any regret for the young life tarnished? She missed a very pleasant companion, an enthusiastic adorer, but as fortune would have it, there came to England a young Roman prince, who was both artist and poet, handsome as a Greek god, and wealthy beyond compare. His appearance created a perfect furore in fashionable society, and he, as a matter of course, fell in love with Lady Amelie, so that she soon forgot the young knight who languished in prison. When the season was over, she persuaded her husband to go to Rome, and never left even a line or a message for the mistaken young man who had done so much for her.
She only did what suited her; she was the queen of coquettes, and she made him useful to her; nothing else mattered.
The lonely months wore on very slowly for Basil. At first the notion of heroism and the conviction that he was performing a most noble and chivalrous deed sustained him; but there was a fund of common sense in his character, and this common sense suggested to him that instead of being a hero, he had been the dupe of a wily coquette. Not at first did this idea strike him; not until long, dreary weeks had passed, and she had never sent him even one message of thanks or sympathy. He was very angry with the idea at first, thinking it quite a false one, but gradually he awakened to the conviction that it was true.
Then his fortitude forsook him, and it was some consolation to hear from Mr. Forster that what the kind-hearted lawyer called his misrepresentations had been effectual. People had almost forgotten that little paragraph that had one morning taken London by storm.
"I have denied it so constantly and emphatically," he said, "that my words have been believed. As soon as you get out of here, make haste abroad, then all may be well."
Even he could not help seeing how entirely the light and brightness had faded from the young face.
"I have never said anything to you," said Mr. Forster, one morning, "but I have a certain conviction, Mr, Carruthers, that there is some woman in this; you are here for a woman's sake and to screen her from blame; if so, it is useless asking you to tell the truth, I know, but make the best of it; get out of this as soon as you can."
He did so. When the six months were over, "John Smith" was discharged and did not linger many hours in London; he went at once to Paris, and there made out where Lady Amelie was.
"In Rome," replied the gentleman of whom he asked the question. "Her last caprice was a young Roman prince, and they are settled there for the winter." To Rome he resolved to go. He would see for himself whether she was all that his dreaming fancy had painted her, or whether she was what men said—a heartless coquette.
He went to Rome, and found her, as usual, queen of all that was most brilliant and gay.
It was at a soiree given by the Duchessa Sforza. He saw her again, beautiful, radiant and magnificent. By her side stood a young man, who was handsome as one of the grand old statutes that ornamented the galleries of Rome. He watched her, thinking bitterly of the time that had passed since be looked his last on that radiant face, and all the bitter shame that had been his portion since then.
He crossed the room and went over to her. Whatever dismay she may have felt, she showed none. She looked up with a bright, cold smile, as though they had parted but yesterday.
"Mr. Carruthers!" she said. "I hope you are well. I really believe that half of England is coming to Rome."
"Can you wonder," said the prince, "when England's fairest queen is here?"
Lady Amelie introduced the two gentlemen, and after a time the prince went away. Then she turned her lovely face to the young man she had duped so cleverly.
"How do you like Rome?" she asked,
"I cannot talk commonplace to you, Lady Lisle," he said; "I have come from England purposely to see you,"
She looked slightly impatient.
"Ah," she replied. "Of course I am very much obliged to you; but you must have been terribly imprudent. Could you not have managed without being discovered in that suspicious attitude? I was so grievously distressed. You are too quixotic—you seek needless dangers."
That was the extent of her gratitude to the man who had saved her reputation, character, and fair fame.
"I did not compromise you," he said. "I preferred imprisonment to that."
"Yes; but it was quixotic; there was no need for anything of the kind."
"I am very sorry to have erred from excess of zeal," he replied, sarcastically. "It is a comfort to me to think that I shall not so offend again."
"I hope," she said, more anxiously, "that it will not injure you—that no one will know about it. It was really too shocking. Prison for a young man of your position! It was absurd."
"I thought so myself, before I came out; it was absurd; but you will be comforted to know, Lady Amelie, that no one seems to have known of it but my mother, Lady Carruthers, and my lawyer, Mr. Forster. So far as the world is concerned, I am safe."
The prince returned, looking slightly jealous, and then Basil amused himself, after a bitter fashion. He watched Lady Amelie playing off all her airs, graces, and fascinations on the young prince, as she had played them upon him. He was cured. It was a bitter lesson, but it lasted him. He began to understand the difference between romance and reality—between dreaming and doing. It had been a hard, bitter, almost shameful, lesson, but he was thankful in after years that he had learned it.
He found, after a time, that the world was wiser than he thought.
"There is some story about Mr. Carruthers," people would say, but no one ever knew exactly what it was. He remained in Rome for a whole week. Before it was over he was quite cured of his liking for the queen of coquettes.
Then Basil Carruthers set himself busily to work to discover how he might best undo the effects of his folly. The duties he had thought so lightly of rose before him now.
"I will go down to Ulverston," he said to himself, "and with God's help I will be a wiser and a better man."
He saw what his mistaken notions of chivalry had done for him—how completely they had misled him—how near they had brought him to ruin and disgrace. The meeting between mother and son was not the most pleasant in the world. Lady Carruthers, stately, sensitive, and proud, could not forgive the dark disgrace under which her son had lain. He saw how deeply she felt it.
"Mother," he said, "you must judge me leniently. I own myself mistaken. I think, sometimes, I must have been mad, I cannot tell you precisely what took me to prison. Will you believe me that it was for a woman's sake?"
"I knew it!" she interrupted.
"It was to screen a woman's folly," he continued. "And, indeed, wrong as I was, I believed myself to be doing a most chivalrous deed."
"It is a great pity, Basil," said Lady Carruthers.
"Yes," he said, quietly; "but I was a woman's dupe, and I have suffered enough. It was one false step, but I shall spend my life in trying to redeem it."
He kept his word. In four years' time the name of Basil Carruthers rang through the land with a pleasant sound; he had, indeed, found something to do.
He was returned for the borough of Rutsford, and his fame as an able an eloquent orator spread over the country.
Then he studied to become a model landlord; he built large, airy cottages and schools; he paid the attention that every landlord ought to pay that the land be well drained, well cultivated. He was a friend to all his tenants, a benefactor to his dependants. In the course of time people forgot to whisper there had been some story about Mr. Carruthers; they only mentioned him in terms of praise. The very quality that his mother once thought would be against him now proved to be in his favor. If he was more romantic, more enthusiastic than other young men, he employed the superabundance of his gifts to excellent purpose.
After some years there was a grand wedding at Ulverston. Basil Carruthers won Marion Hautville for his wife. Before they were married he took her one afternoon for a long ramble in the green summer woods and told her this story. Marion was shocked at first; it seemed to her impossible that a man could be so foolish as to mistake a deed like that for chivalry.
"And what has become of your lovely Lady Amelie now?" she asked.
"She is still the queen of coquettes," replied Basil; "but, Marion, although it was a terrible mistake, and I suffered so bitterly for it, I cannot be altogether sorry that it happened. I should have been a useless dreamer until the day of my death if this had not taken place. It was a rude, rough, but sure awakening."
"I shall never call you my knight," said Marion. "Why, Basil, dear, a schoolboy would not have been taken in by such nonsense."
"But, Marion, I was not so wise as a schoolboy," he replied.
"She only used you for her own purposes. She simply made a cat's-paw of you, Basil."
"I can see it now, darling, I did not then. But you will forgive me, Marion?"
"Yes; because, after all, though you were so greatly mistaken, still the faults that led to your mistake were almost virtues."
Lady Carruthers was rendered very happy by her son's marriage. When Mrs. Carruthers went to London, she proved to be Lady Amelie's greatest rival. She was quite as beautiful, as witty, as clever, but in place of coquetry, she was gifted with honest simplicity, that men pronounced charming, while Lady Amelie, to her great chagrin, began to find her attractions on the wane. Men grew tired of her vanity and her cruelty. Women disliked her for her selfish disregard of everything but her own triumph.
Basil Carruthers bows his head in shame and contrition when he remembers this episode in his career. Then Marion, his wife, kisses him with a smile, and tells him he is not much the worse for having been once upon a time a coquette's victim.
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