"It will be penal servitude for life this time for—Stephens," said Charles.
"Yes," said Raymond, thoughtfully. "It's playing deuced high. I knew that at the time, but I thought it was worth it. It was a beautiful thing, and there was a mint of money in it if it had gone straight—a mint of money;" and he shook his head regretfully. "But the luck is bound to change in the end," he went on, after a moment of mournful retrospection. "You'll see, I shall make my pile yet, Danvers. One can't go on turning up tails all the time."
"You will turn them up once too often," said Charles, "and get your affairs wound up for you some day in a way you won't like. But I suppose it's no earthly use my saying anything."
"Not much," replied the other. "I guess I've heard it all before. Don't you remember how you held forth that night in the wood? You came out too strong. I felt as if I were in church; but you forked out handsomely at the collection afterwards. I will say that for you."
"And what are you going to do now you've got here?" interrupted Charles, sharply.
"Perhaps a week, perhaps ten days. Can't say."
"And after that?"
"After that, some one, I don't say who, but some one will have to provide me with the 'ready' to nip across to France. I have friends in Paris where I can manage to scratch along for a bit till things have blown over."
Charles considered for a few moments, and then said:
"Are you going to dun your sister for money again, or give her another fright by lying in wait for her? Of course, if you broke your word about coming back, you might break it about trying to get money out of her."
"I might," assented Raymond; "in fact, I was on the point of making my presence known to her, and suggesting a pecuniary advance, when you came up. I don't know at present what I shall do, as I let that opportunity slip. It just depends."
Charles considered again.
"It's a pity to trouble her, isn't it?" said Raymond, his shrewd eyes watching him; "and women are best out of money-matters. Besides, if she has promised you she won't pay up without advice, she'll stick to it. Nothing will turn her when she once settles on anything, if she is at all like what she used to be. She has got dollars of her own. You had better settle with me, and pay yourself back when you are married. Dear me! There's no occasion to look so murderous. I suppose I'm at liberty to draw my own conclusions."
"You had better draw them a little more carefully in future," said Charles, savagely. "Your sister is engaged to be married to a man without a sixpence."
"By George," said Raymond, "that won't suit my book at all. I'd rather"—with another glance at Charles—"I'd rather she'd marry a man with money."
If Charles was of the same opinion he did not express it. He remained silent for a few minutes to give weight to his last remark, and then said, slowly:
"So you see you won't get anything more from that quarter. You had better make the most you can out of me."
"The most you will get, in fact, I may say all you will get from me, is enough ready money to carry you to Paris, and a check for twenty pounds to follow, when I hear you have arrived there."
"It's mean," said Raymond; "it's cursed mean; and from a man like you, too, whom I feel for as a brother. I'd rather try my luck with Ruth. She's not married yet, anyway."
"You will do as you like," said Charles, getting up. "If I find you have been trying your luck with her, as you call it, you won't get a farthing from me afterwards. And you may remember, she can't help you without consulting her friends. And your complaint is one that requires absolute quiet, or I'm very much mistaken."
Raymond bit his finger, and looked irresolute.
"To-day is Wednesday," said Charles; "on Saturday I shall come back here in the afternoon, and if you have come to my terms by that time you can cough after I do. I shall have the money on me. If you make any attempt to write or speak to your sister, I shall take care to hear of it, and you need not expect me on Saturday. That is the last remark I have to make, so good-afternoon;" and, without waiting for a reply, Charles walked away, conscious that Raymond would not dare either to call or run after him.
He walked slowly along the grass-grown road that led into the carriage-drive, and was about to let himself out of the grounds by a crazy gate, which rather took away from the usefulness of the large iron locked ones at the lodge, when he perceived an old man with a pail of water fumbling at it. He did not turn as Charles drew near, and even when the latter came up with him, and said "Good-afternoon," he made no sign. Charles watched him groping for the hasp, and, when he had got the gate open, feel about for the pail of water, which when he found he struck against the gate-post as he carried it through. Charles looked after the old man as he shambled off in the direction of the lodge.
"Blind and deaf! He'll tell no tales, at any rate," he said to himself. "Raymond is in luck there."
It had turned very cold; and, suddenly remembering that his absence might be noticed, he set off through the woods to Slumberleigh at a good pace. His nearest way took him through the church-yard and across the adjoining high-road, on the farther side of which stood the little red-faced lodge, which belonged to the great new red-faced seat of the Thursbys at a short distance. He came rapidly round the corner of the old church tower, and was already swinging down the worn sandstone steps which led into the road, when he saw below him at the foot of the steps a little group of people standing talking. It was Mr. Alwynn and Ruth and Dare, who had evidently met them on his return from shooting, and who, standing at ease with one elegantly gaitered leg on the lowest step, and a cartridge-bag slung over his shoulders in a way that had aroused Charles's indignation earlier in the day, was recounting to them, with vivid action of the hands on an imaginary gun, his own performances to right and left at some particularly hot corner.
Mr. Alwynn was listening with a benignant smile. Charles saw that Ruth was leaning heavily against the low stone-wall. Before he had time to turn back, Mr. Alwynn had seen him, and had gone forward a step to meet him, holding out a welcoming hand. Charles was obliged to stop a moment while his hand was inquired after, and a new treatment, which Mr. Alwynn had found useful on a similar occasion, was enjoined upon him. As they stood together on the church steps a fly, heavily laden with luggage, came slowly up the road towards them.
"What," said Mr. Alwynn, "more visitors! I thought all the Slumberleigh party arrived yesterday."
The fly plodded past the Slumberleigh lodge, however, and as it reached the steps a shrill voice suddenly called to the driver to stop. As it came grinding to a stand-still, the glass was hastily put down, and a little woman with a very bold pair of black eyes, and a somewhat laced-in figure, got out and came towards them.
"Well, Mr. Dare!" she said, in a high distinct voice, with a strong American accent. "I guess you did not expect to see me riding up this way, or you'd have sent the carriage to bring your wife up from the station. But I'm not one to bear malice; so if you want a lift home to—what's the name of your fine new place?—you can get in, and ride up along with me."
Dare looked straight in front of him. No one spoke. Her quick eye glanced from one to another of the little group, and she gave a short constrained laugh.
"Well," she said, "if you ain't coming, you can stop with your friends. I've had a deal of travelling one way and another, and I'll go on without you." And, turning quickly away, she told the driver in the same distinct high key to go on to Vandon, and got into the fly again.
The grinning man chucked at the horse's bridle, and the fly rattled heavily away.
No one spoke as it drove away. Charles glanced once at Ruth; but her set white face told him nothing. As the fly disappeared up the road, Dare moved a step forward. His face under his brown skin was ashen gray. He took off his cap, and extending it at arm's-length, not towards the sky, but, like a good churchman, towards the church, outside of which, as he knew, his Maker was not to be found, he said, solemnly, "I swear before God what she says is one—great—lie!"
If conformity to type is indeed the one great mark towards which humanity should press, Mrs. Thursby may honestly be said to have attained to it. Everything she said or did had been said or done before, or she would never have thought of saying or doing it. Her whole life was a feeble imitation of the imitative lives of others; in short, it was the life of the ordinary country gentlewoman, who lives on her husband's property, and who, as Augustus Hare says, "has never looked over the garden-wall."
We do not mean to insinuate for a moment that the utmost energy and culture are not occasionally to be met with in the female portion of that interesting mass of our fellow-creatures who swell the large volumes of the "Landed Gentry." Among their ranks are those who come boldly forward into the full glare of public life; and, conscious of a genius for enterprise, to which an unmarried condition perhaps affords ampler scope, and which a local paper is ready to immortalize, become secretaries of ladies' societies, patronesses of flower shows, breeders of choice poultry, or even associates of floral leagues of the highest political importance. That such women should and do exist among us, the conscious salt-cellars of otherwise flavorless communities, is a fact for which we cannot be too thankful; and if Mrs. Thursby was not one of these aspiring spirits, with a yearning after "the mystical better things," which one of the above pursuits alone can adequately satisfy, it was her misfortune and not her fault.
It was her nature, as we have said, servilely to copy others. Her conversation was all that she could remember of what she had heard from others, her present dinner-party, as regards food, was a cross between the two last dinner-parties she had been to. The dessert, however, conspicuous by its absence, conformed strictly to a type which she had seen in a London house in June.
Her dinner-party gave her complete satisfaction, which was fortunate, for to the greater number of the eighteen or twenty people who had been indiscriminately herded together to form it, it was (with the exception of Mrs. Alwynn) a dreary or at best an uninteresting ordeal; while to four people among the number, the four who had met last on the church steps, it was a period of slow torture, endured with varying degrees of patience by each, from the two soups in the beginning, to the peaches and grapes at the long-delayed and bitter end.
Ruth, whose self-possession never wholly deserted her, had reached a depth of exhausted stupor, in which the mind is perfectly oblivious of the impression it is producing on others. By an unceasing effort she listened and answered and smiled at intervals, and looked exceedingly distinguished in the pale red gown which she had put on to please her aunt; but the color of which only intensified the unnatural pallor of her complexion. The two men whom she sat between found her a disappointing companion, cold and formal in manner. At any other time she would have been humiliated and astonished to hear herself make such cut-and-dried remarks, such little trite observations. She was sitting opposite Charles, and she vaguely wondered once or twice, when she saw him making others laugh, and heard snatches of the flippant talk which was with him, as she knew now, a sort of defensive armor, how he could manage to produce it; while Charles, half wild with a mad surging hope that would not be kept down by any word of Dare's, looked across at her as often as he dared, and wondered in his turn at the tranquil dignity, the quiet ordered smile of the face which a few hours ago he had seen shaken with emotion.
Her eyes met his for a moment. Were they the same eyes that but now had met his, half blind with tears? He felt still the touch of those tears upon his hand. He hastily looked away again, and plunged headlong into an answer to something Mabel was saying to him on her favorite subject of evolution. All well-brought-up young ladies have a subject nowadays, which makes their conversation the delightful thing it is; and Mabel, of course, was not behind the fashion.
"Yes," Ruth heard Charles reply, "I believe with you we go through many lives, each being a higher state than the last, and nearer perfection. So a man passes gradually through all the various grades of the nobility, soaring from the lowly honorable upward into the duke, and thence by an easy transition into an angel. Courtesy titles, of course, present a difficulty to the more thoughtful; but, as I am sure you will have found, to be thoughtful always implies difficulty of some kind."
"It does, indeed," said Mabel, puzzled but not a little flattered. "I sometimes think one reads too much; one longs so for deep books—Korans, and things. I must confess,"—with a sigh—"I can't interest myself in the usual young lady's library that other girls read."
"Can't you?" replied Charles. "Now, I can. I study that department of literature whenever I have the chance, and I have generally found that the most interesting part of a young lady's library is to be found in that portion of the book-shelf which lies between the rows of books and the wall. Don't you think so, Lady Carmian?" (to the lady on his other side). "I assure you I have made the most delightful discoveries of this description. Cheap editions of Ouida, Balzac's works, yellow backs of the most advanced order, will, as a rule, reward the inquirer, who otherwise might have had to content himself with 'The Heir of Redclyffe,' the Lily Series, and Miss Strickland's 'Queens of England.'"
Charles's last speech had been made in a momentary silence, and directly it was finished every woman, old and young, except Lady Carmian and Ruth, simultaneously raised a disclaiming voice, which by its vehemence at once showed what an unfounded assertion Charles had made. Lady Carmian, a handsome young married woman, only smiled languidly, and, turning the bracelet on her arm, told Charles he was a cynic, and that for her own part, when in robust health, she liked what little she read "strong;" but in illness, or when Lord Carmian had been unusually trying, she always fell back on a milk-and-water diet. Mrs. Thursby, however, felt that Charles had struck a blow at the sanctity of home life, and (for she was one of those persons whose single talent is that of giving a personal turn to any remark) began a long monotonous recital of the books she allowed her own daughters to read, and how they were kept, which proved the extensive range of her library, not in book-shelves, but in a sliding book-stand, which contracted or expanded at will.
Long before she had finished, however, the conversation at the other end of the table had drifted away to the topic of the season among sporting men, namely the poachers, who, since their raid on Dare's property, had kept fairly quiet, but who were sure to start afresh now that the pheasant shooting had begun; and from thence to the recent forgery case in America, which was exciting every day greater attention in England, especially since one of the accomplices had been arrested the day before in Birmingham station, and the principal offender, though still at large, was, according to the papers, being traced "by means of a clew in the possession of the police."
Charles knew how little that sentence meant, but he found that it required an effort to listen unmoved to the various conjectures as to the whereabouts of Stephens, in which Ruth, as the conversation became general, also joined, volunteering a suggestion that perhaps he might be lurking somewhere in Slumberleigh woods, which were certainly very lonely in places, and where, as she said, she had been very much alarmed by a tramp in the summer.
Mrs. Thursby, like an echo, began from the other end of the table something vague about girls being allowed to walk alone, her own daughters, etc., and so the long dinner wore itself out. Dare was the only one of the little party who had met on the church steps who succumbed entirely. Mr. Alwynn, who looked at him and Ruth with pathetic interest from time to time, made laudable efforts, but Dare made none. He had taken in to dinner the younger Thursby girl, a meek creature, without form and void, not yet out, but trembling in a high muslin, on the verge, who kept her large and burning hands clutched together under the table-cloth, and whose conversation was upon bees. Dare pleaded a gun headache, and hardly spoke. His eyes constantly wandered to the other end of the table, where, far away on the opposite side, half hidden by ferns and flowers, he could catch a glimpse of Ruth. After dinner he did not come into the drawing-room, but went off to the smoking-room, where he paced by himself up and down, up and down, writhing under the torment of a horrible suspense.
Outside the moon shone clear and high, making a long picturesque shadow of the great prosaic house upon the wide gravel drive. Dare leaned against the window-sill and looked out. "Would she give him up?" he asked himself. Would she believe this vile calumny? Would she give him up? And as he stood the Alwynns' brougham came with two gleaming eyes along the drive and drew up before the door. He resolved to learn his fate at once. There had been no possibility of a word with Ruth on the church steps. Before he had known where he was, he and Charles had been walking up to the Hall together, Charles discoursing lengthily on the impropriety of wire fencing in a hunting country. But now he must and would see her. He rushed down-stairs into the hall, where young Thursby was wrapping Ruth in her white furs, while Mr. Thursby senior was encasing Mrs. Alwynn in a species of glorified ulster of red plush which she had lately acquired. Dare hastily drew Mr. Alwynn aside and spoke a few words to him. Mr. Alwynn turned to his wife, after one rueful glance at his thin shoes, and said:
"I will walk up. It is a fine night, and quite dry underfoot."
"And a very pleasant party it has been," said Mrs. Alwynn, as she and Ruth drove away together, "though Mrs. Thursby has not such a knack with her table as some. Not that I did not think the chrysanthemums and white china swans were nice, very nice; but, you see, as I told her, I had just been to Stoke Moreton, where things were very different. And you looked very well, my dear, though not so bright and chatty as Mabel; and Mrs. Thursby said she only hoped your waist was natural. The idea! And I saw Lady Carmian notice your gown particularly, and I heard her ask who you were, and Mrs. Thursby said—so like her—you were their clergyman's niece. And so, my dear, I was not going to have you spoken of like that, and a little later on I just went and sat down by Lady Carmian, just went across the room, you know, as if I wanted to be nearer the music, and we got talking, and she was rather silent at first, but presently, when I began to tell her all about you, and who you were, she became quite interested, and asked such funny questions, and laughed, and we had quite a nice talk."
And so Mrs. Alwynn chatted on, and Ruth, happily hearing nothing, leaned back in her corner and wondered whether the evening were ever going to end. Even when she had bidden her aunt "Good-night," and, having previously told her maid not to sit up for her, found herself alone in her own room at last—even then it seemed that this interminable day was not quite over. She was standing by the dim fire, trying to gather up sufficient energy to undress, when a quiet step came cautiously along the passage, followed by a low tap at her door. She opened it noiselessly, and found Mr. Alwynn standing without.
"Ruth," he said, "Dare has walked up with me. He is in the most dreadful state. I am sure I don't know what to think. He has said nothing further to me, but he is bent on seeing you for a moment. It's very late, but still—could you? He's in the drawing-room now. My poor child, how ill you look! Shall I tell him you are too tired to-night to see any one?"
"I would rather see him," said Ruth, her voice trembling a little; and they went down-stairs together. In the hall she hesitated a moment. She was going to learn her fate. Had her release come? Had it come at the eleventh hour? Her uncle looked at her with kind, compassionate eyes, and hers fell before his as she thought how different her suspense was to what he imagined. Suddenly—and such demonstrations were very rare with her—she put her arms round his neck and pressed her cheek against his.
"Oh, Uncle John! Uncle John!" she gasped, "it is not what you think."
"I pray God it may not be what I suppose," he said, sadly, stroking her head. "One is too ready to think evil, I know. God forgive me if I have judged him harshly. But go in, my dear;" and he pushed her gently towards the drawing-room.
She went in and closed the door quietly behind her.
Dare was leaning against the mantle-piece, which was draped in Mrs. Alwynn's best manner, with Oriental hangings having bits of glass woven in them. He was looking into the curtained fire, and did not turn when she entered. Even at that moment she noticed, as she went towards him, that his elbow had displaced the little family of china hares on a plush stand which Mrs. Alwynn had lately added to her other treasures.
"I think you wished to see me," she said, as calmly as she could.
He faced suddenly round, his eyes wild, his face quivering, and coming close up to her, caught her hand and grasped it so tightly that the pain was almost more than she could bear.
"Are you going to give me up?" he asked, hoarsely.
"I don't know," she said; "it depends on yourself, on what you are, and what you have been. You say she is not your wife?"
"I swear it."
"You need not do so. Your word is enough."
"I swear she is not my wife."
"One question remains," said Ruth, firmly, a flame of color mounting to her neck and face. "You say she is not your wife. Ought you to make her so?"
"No," said Dare, passionately; "I owe her nothing. She has no claim upon me. I swear—"
"Don't swear. I said your word was enough."
But Dare preferred to embellish his speech with divers weighty expressions, feeling that a simple affirmation would never carry so much conviction to his own mind, or, consequently, to another, as an oath.
A momentary silence followed.
"You believe what I say, Ruth?"
"Yes," with an effort.
"And you won't give me up because evil is spoken against me?"
"And all is the same as before between us?"
Dare burst into a torrent of gratitude, but she broke suddenly away from him, and went swiftly up-stairs again to her own room.
The release had not come. She laid her head down upon the table, and Hope, which had ventured back to her for one moment, took her lamp and went quite away, leaving the world very dark.
There are turning-points in life when a natural instinct is a surer guide than noble motive or high aspiration, and consequently the more thoughtful and introspective nature will sometimes fall just where a commonplace one would have passed in safety. Ruth had acted for the best. When for the first time in her life she had been brought into close contact with a life spent for others, its beauty had appealed to her with irresistible force, and she had willingly sacrificed herself to an ideal life of devotion to others.
"But we are punished for our purest deeds, And chasten'd for our holiest thoughts."
And she saw now that if she had obeyed that simple law of human nature which forbids a marriage in which love is not the primary consideration, if she had followed that simple humble path, she would never have reached the arid wilderness towards which her own guidance had led her.
For her wilful self-sacrifice had suddenly paled and dwindled down before her eyes into a hideous mistake—a mistake which yet had its roots so firmly knit into the past that it was hopeless to think of pulling it up now. To abide by a mistake is sometimes all that an impetuous youth leaves an honorable middle age to do. Poor middle age, with its clear vision, that might do and be so much if it were not for the heavy burdens, grievous to be borne, which youth has bound upon its shoulders.
And worse than the dreary weight of personal unhappiness, harder to bear than the pang of disappointed love, was the aching sense of failure, of having misunderstood God's intention, and broken the purpose of her life. For some natures the cup of life holds no bitterer drop than this.
Ruth dimly saw the future, the future which she had chosen, stretching out waste and barren before her. The dry air of the desert was on her face. Her feet were already on its sandy verge. And the iron of a great despair entered into her soul.
Dare left Slumberleigh Hall early the following morning, and drove up to the rectory on his way to Vandon. After being closeted with Mr. Alwynn in the study for a short time, they both came out and drove away together. Ruth, invisible in her own room with a headache, her only means of defence against Mrs. Alwynn's society, heard the coming and the going, and was not far wrong in her surmise that Dare had come to beg Mr. Alwynn to accompany him to Vandon—being afraid to face alone the mysterious enemy intrenched there.
No conversation was possible in the dog-cart, with the groom on the back seat thirsting to hear any particulars of the news which had spread like wildfire from Vandon throughout the whole village the previous afternoon, and which was already miraculously flying from house to house in Slumberleigh this morning, as things discreditable do fly among a Christian population, which perhaps "thinks no evil," but repeats it nevertheless.
There was not a servant in Dare's modest establishment who was not on the lookout for him on his return. The gardener happened to be tying up a plant near the front door; the house-maids were watching unobserved from an upper casement; the portly form of Mrs. Smith, the house-keeper, was seen to glide from one of the unused bedroom windows; the butler must have been waiting in the hall, so prompt was his appearance when the dog-cart drew up before the door.
Another pair of keen black eyes was watching too, peering out through the chinks between the lowered Venetian blinds in the drawing-room; was observing Dare intently as he got out, and then resting anxiously on his companion. Then the owner of the eyes slipped away from the window, and went back noiselessly to the fire.
Dare ordered the dog-cart to remain at the door, flung down his hat on the hall-table, and, turning to the servant who was busying himself in folding his coat, said, sharply, "Where is the—the person who arrived here yesterday?"
The man replied that "she" was in the drawing-room. The drawing-room opened into the hall. Dare led the way, suppressed fury in his face, looking back to see whether Mr. Alwynn was following him. The two men went in together and shut the door.
The enemy was intrenched and prepared for action.
Mrs. Dare, as we must perforce call her for lack of any other designation rather than for any right of hers to the title, was seated on a yellow brocade ottoman, drawn up beside a roaring fire, her two smart little feet resting on the edge of the low brass fender, and a small work-table at her side, on which an elaborate medley of silks and wools was displayed. Her attitude was that of a person at home, aggressively at home. She was in the act of threading a needle when Dare and Mr. Alwynn came in, and she put down her work at once, carefully replacing the needle in safety, as she rose to receive them, and held out her hand, with a manner the assurance of which, if both men had not been too much frightened to notice it, was a little overdone.
Dare disregarded her gesture of welcome, and she sat down again, and returned to her work, with a laugh that was also a little overdone.
"What do you mean by coming here?" he said, his voice hoarse with a furious anger, which the sight of her seemed to have increased a hundred-fold.
"Because it is my proper place," she replied, tossing her head, and drawing out a long thread of green silk; "because I have a right to come."
"You lie!" said Dare, fiercely, showing his teeth.
"Lord, Alfred!" said Mrs. Dare, contemptuously, "don't make a scene before strangers. We've had our tiffs before now, and shall have again, I suppose. It's the natur' of married people to fall out; but there's no call to carry on before friends. Push up that lounge nearer the fire. Won't the other gentleman," turning to Mr. Alwynn, "come and warm himself? I'm sure it's cold enough."
Mr. Alwynn, who was a man of peace, devoutly wished he were at home again in his own study.
"It is a cold morning," he said; "but we are not here to discuss the weather."
He stopped short. He had been hurried here so much against his will, and so entirely without an explanation, that he was not quite sure what he had come to discuss, or how he could best support his friend.
"What do you want?" said Dare, in the same suppressed voice, without looking at her.
"My rights," she said, incisively; "and, what's more, I mean to have 'em. I've not come over from America for nothing, I can tell you that; and I've not come on a visit neither. I've come to stay."
"What are these rights you talk of?" asked Mr. Alwynn, signing to Dare to restrain himself.
"As his wife, sir. I am his wife, as I can prove. I didn't come without my lines to show. I didn't come on a speculation, to see if he'd a fancy to have me back. No, afore I set my foot down anywheres I look to see as it's solid walking."
"Show your proof," said Mr. Alwynn.
The woman ostentatiously got out a red morocco letter case, and produced a paper which she handed to Mr. Alwynn.
It was an authorized copy of a marriage register, drawn out in the usual manner, between Alfred Dare, bachelor, English subject, and Ellen, widow of the late Jaspar Carroll, of Neosho City, Kansas, U.S.A. The marriage was dated seven years back.
The names of Dare and Carroll swam before Mr. Alwynn's eyes. He glanced at the paper, but he could not read it.
"Is this a forgery, Dare?" he asked, holding it towards him.
"No," said Dare, without looking at it; "it is right. But that is not all. Now," turning to the woman, who was watching him triumphantly, "show the other paper—the divorce."
"I made inquiries about that," she replied, composedly. "I wasn't going to be fooled by that 'ere, so I made inquiries from one as knows. The divorce is all very well in America; but it don't count in England."
Dare's face turned livid. Mr. Alwynn's flushed a deep red. He sat with his eyes on the ground, the paper in his hand trembling a little. Indignation against Dare, pity for him, anxiety not to judge him harshly, struggled for precedence in his kind heart, still beating tumultuously with the shock of Dare's first admission. He felt rather than saw him take the paper out of his hand.
"I shall keep this," Dare said, putting it in his pocket-book; and then, turning to the woman again, he said, with an oath, "Will you go, or will you wait till you are turned out?"
"I'll wait," she replied, undauntedly. "I like the place well enough."
She laughed and took up her work, and, after looking at her for a moment, he flung out of the room, followed by Mr. Alwynn.
The defeat was complete; nay, it was a rout.
The dog-cart was still standing at the door. The butler was talking to the groom; the gardener was training some new shoots of ivy against the stone balustrade.
Dare caught up his hat and gloves, and ordered that his portmanteau, which had been taken into the hall, should be put back into the dog-cart. As it was being carried down he looked at his watch.
"I can catch the mid-day express for London," he said. "I can do it easily."
Mr. Alwynn made no reply.
"Get in," continued Dare, feverishly; "the portmanteau is in."
"I think I will walk home," said Mr. Alwynn, slowly. It gave him excruciating pain to say anything so severe as this; but he got out the words nevertheless.
Dare looked at him in astonishment.
"Get in," he said again, quickly. "I must speak to you. I will drive you home. I have something to say."
Mr. Alwynn never refused to hear what any one had to say. He went slowly down the steps, and got into the cart, looking straight in front of him, as his custom was when disturbed in mind. Dare followed.
"I shall not want you, James," he said to the groom, his foot on the step.
At this moment the form of Mrs. Smith, the house-keeper, appeared through the hall door, clothed in all the awful majesty of an upper servant whose dignity has been outraged.
"Sir," she said, in a clear not to say a high voice, "asking your pardon, sir, but am I, or am I not, to take my orders from—"
Goaded to frenzy, Dare poured forth a volley of horrible oaths French and English, and, seizing up the reins, drove off at a furious rate.
The servants remained standing about the steps, watching the dog-cart whirl rapidly away.
"He's been to church with her," said the gardener, at last. "I said all along she'd never have come, unless she had her lines to show. I ha'n't cut them white grapes she ordered yet; but I may as well go and do it."
"Well," said Mrs. Smith, "grapes or no grapes, I'll never give up the keys of the linen cupboards to the likes of her, and I'm not going to have any one poking about among my china. I've not been here twenty years to be asked for my lists in that way, and the winter curtains ordered out unbeknownst to me;" and Mrs. Smith retreated to the fastnesses of the house-keeper's room, whither even the audacious enemy had not yet ventured to follow her.
Meanwhile, Mr. Alwynn and Dare drove at moderated speed along the road to Slumberleigh. For some time neither spoke.
"I beg your pardon," said Dare at last. "I lost my head. I became enraged. Before a clergyman and a lady, I know well, it is not permitted to swear."
"I can overlook that," said Mr. Alwynn; "but," turning very red again, "other things I can't."
Dare began to flourish his whip, and become excited again.
"I will tell you all," he said with effusion—"every word. You have a kind heart. I will confide in you."
"I don't want confidences," said Mr. Alwynn. "I want straight-forward answers to a few simple questions."
"I will give them, these answers. I keep nothing back from a friend."
"Then, first. Did you marry that woman?"
"Yes," said Dare, shrugging his shoulders. "I married her, and often afterwards, almost at once, I regretted it; but que voulez-vous, I was young. I had no experience. I was but twenty-one."
Mr. Alwynn stared at him in astonishment at the ease with which the admission was made.
"How long afterwards was it that you were divorced from her?"
"Two years. Two long years."
"For what reason?"
"Temper. Ah! what a temper. Also because I left her for one year. It was in Kansas, and in Kansas it is very easy to marry, and also to be divorced."
"It is a disgraceful story," said Mr. Alwynn, in great indignation.
"Disgraceful!" echoed Dare, excitedly. "It is more than disgraceful. It is abominable. You do not know all yet. I will tell you. I was young; I was but a boy. I go to America when I am twenty-one, to travel, to see the world. I make acquaintances. I get into a bad set, what you call undesirable. I fall in love. I walk into a net. She was pretty, a pretty widow, all love, all soul; without friends. I protect her. I marry her. I have a little money. I have five thousand pounds. She knew that. She spent it. I was a fool. In a year it was gone." Dare's face had become white with rage. "And then she told me why she married me. I became enraged. There was a quarrel, and I left her. I had no more money. She left me alone, and a year after we are divorced. I never see her or hear of her again. I return to Europe. I live by my voice in Paris. It is five years ago. I have bought my experience. I put it from my mind. And now"—his hands trembled with anger—"now that she thinks I have money again, now, when in some way she hears how I have come to Vandon, she dares to came back and say she is my wife."
"Dare," said Mr. Alwynn, sternly, "what excuse have you for never mentioning this before—before you became engaged to Ruth?"
"What!" burst out Dare, "tell Ruth! Tell her! Quelle idee. I would never speak to her of what might give her pain. I would keep all from her that would cause her one moment's grief. Besides," he added, conclusively, "it is not always well to talk of what has gone before. It is not for her happiness or mine. She has been, one sees it well, brought up since a young child very strictly. About some things she has fixed ideas. If I had told her of these things which are passed away and gone, she might not,"—and Dare looked gravely at Mr. Alwynn—"she might not think so well of me."
This view of the case was quite a new one to Mr. Alwynn. He looked back at Dare with hopeless perplexity in his pained eyes. To one who throughout life has regarded the supremacy of certain truths and principles of actions as fixed, and recognized as a matter of course by all the world, however imperfectly obeyed by individuals, the discovery comes as a shock, which is at the moment overwhelming, when these same truths and principles are seen to be entirely set aside, and their very existence ignored by others.
Where there is no common ground on which to meet, speech is unavailing and mere waste of time. It is like shouting to a person at a distance whom it is impossible to approach. If he notices anything it will only be that, for some reasons of your own, you are making a disagreeable noise.
As Mr. Alwynn looked back at Dare his anger died away within him, and a dull pain of deep disappointment and sense of sudden loneliness took its place. Dare and he seemed many miles apart. He felt that it would be of no use to say anything; and so, being a man, he held his peace.
Dare continued talking volubly of how he would get a lawyer's opinion at once in London; of his certainty that the American wife had no claim upon him; of how he would go over to America, if necessary, to establish the validity of his divorce; but Mr. Alwynn heard little or nothing of what he said. He was thinking of Ruth with distress and self-upbraiding. He had been much to blame, of course.
Dare's mention of her name recalled his attention.
"She is all goodness," he was saying. "She believes in me. She has promised again that she will marry me—since yesterday. I trust her as myself; but it is a grief which as little as possible must trouble her. You will not say anything to her till I come back, till I return with proof that I am free, as I told her? You will say nothing?"
Dare had pulled up at the bottom of the drive to the rectory.
"Very well," said Mr. Alwynn, absently, getting slowly out. He seemed much shaken.
"I will be back perhaps to-night, perhaps to-morrow morning," called Dare after him.
But Mr. Alwynn did not answer.
* * * * *
Dare's business took him a shorter time than he expected, and the same night found him hurrying back by the last train to Slumberleigh. It was a wild night. He had watched the evening close in lurid and stormy across the chimneyed wastes of the black country, until the darkness covered all the land, and wiped out even the last memory of the dead day from the western sky.
Who, travelling alone at night, has not watched the glimmer of light through cottage windows as he hurries past; has not followed with keenest interest for one brief second the shadow of one who moves within, and imagination picturing a mysterious universal happiness gathered round these twinkling points of light, has not experienced a strange feeling of homelessness and loneliness?
Dare sat very still in the solitude of the empty railway carriage, and watched the little fleeting, mocking lights with a heavy heart. They meant homes, and he should never have a home now. Once he saw a door open in a squalid line of low houses, and the figure of a man with a child in his arms stand outlined in the door-way against the ruddy light within. Dare felt an unreasoning interest in that man. He found himself thinking of him as the train hurried on, wondering whether his wife was there waiting for him, and whether he had other children besides the one he was carrying. And all the time, through his idle musings, he could hear one sentence ringing in his ears, the last that his lawyer had said to him after the long consultation of the afternoon.
"I am sorry to tell you that you are incontestably a married man."
Everything repeated it. The hoofs of the cab-horse that took him to the station had hammered it out remorselessly all the way. The engine had caught it up, and repeated it with unvarying, endless iteration. The newspapers were full of it. When Dare turned to them in desperation he saw it written in large letters across the sham columns. There was nothing but that anywhere. It was the news of the day. Sick at heart, and giddy from want of food, he sat crouched up in the corner of his empty carriage, and vaguely wished the train would journey on for ever and ever, nervously dreading the time when he should have to get out and collect his wandering faculties once more.
The old lawyer had been very kind to the agitated, incoherent young man whose settlements he was already engaged in drawing up. At first, indeed, it had seemed that the marriage would not be legally binding—the marriage and divorce having both taken place in Kansas, where the marriage laws are particularly lax—and he seemed inclined to be hopeful; but as he informed himself about the particulars of the divorce his face became grave and graver. When at last Dare produced the copy of the marriage register, he shook his head.
"'Alfred Dare, bachelor and English subject,'" he said. "That 'English subject' makes a difficulty to start with. You had never, I believe, any intention of acquiring what in law we call an American domicil? and, although the technicalities of this subject are somewhat complicated, I am afraid that in your case there is little, if any, doubt. The English courts are very jealous of any interference by foreigners with the status of an Englishman; and though a divorce legally granted by a competent tribunal for an adequate cause might—I will not say would—be held binding everywhere, there can be no doubt that where in the eyes of our law the cause is not adequate, our courts would refuse to recognize it. Have you a copy of the register of divorce as well?"
"It is unfortunate; but no doubt you can remember the grounds on which it was granted."
"Incompatibility of temper, and she said I had deserted her. I had left her the year before. We both agreed to separate."
The lawyer shook his head.
"What's incompatibility?" he said. "What's a year's absence? Nothing in the eyes of an Englishman. Nothing in the law of this country."
"But the divorce was granted. It was legal. There was no question," said Dare, eagerly. "I was divorced in the same State as where I married. I had lived there more than a year, which was all that was necessary. No difficulty was made at the time."
"No. Marriage is slipped into and slipped out of again with gratifying facility in America, and Kansas is notorious for the laxity prevailing there as regards marriage and divorce. It will be advisable to take the opinion of counsel on the matter, but I can hold out very little hope that your divorce would hold good, even in America. You see, you are entered as a British subject on the marriage register, and I imagine these words must have been omitted in the divorce proceedings, or some difficulty would have been raised at the time, unless your residence in Kansas made it unnecessary. But, even supposing by American law you are free, that will be of no avail in England, for by the law of England, which alone concerns you, I regret to be obliged to tell you that you are incontestably a married man."
And in spite of frantic reiterations, of wild protests on the part of Dare, as if the compassionate old man represented the English law, and could mould it at his pleasure, the lawyer's last word remained in substance the same, though repeated many times.
"Whether you are at liberty or not to marry again in America, I am hardly prepared to say. I will look into the subject and let you know; but in England I regret to repeat that you are a married man."
Dare groaned in body and in spirit as the words came back to him; and his thoughts, shrinking from the despair and misery at home, wandered aimlessly away, anywhere, hither and thither, afraid to go back, afraid to face again the desolation that sat so grim and stern in solitary possession.
The train arrived at Slumberleigh at last, and he got out, and shivered as the driving wind swept across the platform. It surprised him that there was a wind, although at every station down the line he had seen people straining against it. He gave up his ticket mechanically, and walked aimlessly away into the darkness, turning with momentary curiosity to watch the train hurry on again, a pillar of fire by night, as it had been a pillar of smoke by day.
He passed the blinking station inn, forgetting that he had put up his dog-cart there to await his return, and, hardly knowing what he did, took from long habit the turn for Vandon.
It was a wild night. The wind was driving the clouds across the moon at a tremendous rate, and sweeping at each gust flights of spectre leaves from the swaying trees. It caught him in the open of the bare high-road, and would not let him go. It opposed him, and buffeted him at every turn; but he held listlessly on his way. His feet took him, and he let them take him whither they would. They led him stumbling along the dim road, the dust of which was just visible like a gray mist before him, until he reached the bridge by the mill. There his feet stopped of their own accord, and he went and leaned against the low stone-wall, looking down at the sudden glimpses of pale hurried water and trembling reed.
The moon came out full and strong in temporary victory, and made black shadows behind the idle millwheel and open mill-race, and black shadows, black as death, under the bridge itself. Dare leaned over the wall to watch the mysterious water and shadow run beneath. As he looked, he saw the reflection of a man in the water watching him. He shook his fist savagely at it, and it shook its fist amid a wavering of broken light and shadow back at him. But it did not go away; it remained watching him. There was something strange and unfamiliar about the river to-night. It had a voice, too, which allured and repelled him—a voice at the sound of which the grim despair within him stirred ominously at first, and then began slowly to rise up gaunt and terrible; began to move stealthily, but with ever-increasing swiftness through the deserted chambers of his heart.
No strong abiding principle was there to do battle with the enemy. The minor feelings, sensibilities, emotions, amiable impulses, those courtiers of our prosperous days, had all forsaken him and fled. Dare's house in his hour of need was left unto him desolate.
And the river spoke in a guilty whisper, which yet the quarrel of the wind and the trees could not drown, of deep places farther down, where the people were never found, people who—But there were shallows, too, he remembered, shallow places among the stones where the trout were. If anybody were drowned, Dare thought, gazing down at the pale shifting moon in the water, he would be found there, perhaps, or at any rate, his hat—he took his hat off, and held it tightly clinched in both his hands—his hat would tell the tale.
Charles left Slumberleigh Hall a few hours later than Dare had done, but only to go back to Atherstone. He could not leave the neighborhood. This burning fever of suspense would be unbearable at any other place, and in any case he must return by Saturday, the day on which he had promised to meet Raymond. His hand was really slightly injured, and he made the most of it. He kept it bound up, telegraphed to put off his next shooting engagement on the strength of it, and returned to Atherstone, even though he was aware that Lady Mary had arrived there the day before, on her way home to her house in London.
Ralph and Evelyn were accustomed to sudden and erratic movements on the part of Charles, and to Molly he was a sort of archangel, who might arrive out of space at any moment, untrammelled by such details as distance, trains, time, or tide. But to Lady Mary his arrival was a significant fact, and his impatient refusal to have his hand investigated was another. Her cold gray eyes watched him narrowly, and, conscious that they did so, he kept out of her way as much as possible, and devoted himself to Molly more than ever.
He was sailing a mixed fleet of tin ducks and fishes across the tank by the tool shed, under her supervision, on the afternoon of the day he had arrived, when Ralph came to find him in great excitement. His keeper had just received private notice from the Thursbys' keeper that a raid on the part of a large gang of poachers was expected that night in the parts of the Slumberleigh coverts that had not yet been shot over, and which adjoined Ralph's own land.
"Whereabout will that be?" said Charles, inattentively, drawing his magnet slowly in front of the fleet.
"Where?" said Ralph, excitedly, "why, round by the old house, round by Arleigh, of course. Thursby and I have turned down hundreds of pheasants there. Don't you remember the hot corner by the coppice last year, below the house, where we got forty at one place, and how the wind took them as they came over?"
"Near Arleigh?" repeated Charles, with sudden interest.
"Uncle Charles," interposed Molly, reproachfully, "don't let all the ducks stick onto the magnet like that. I told you not before. Make it go on in front."
But Charles's attention had wandered from the ducks.
"Yes," continued Ralph, "near Arleigh. There was a gang of poachers there last year, and the keepers dared not attack them they were so strong, though they were shooting right and left. But we'll be even with them this year. My men are going, and I shall go with them. You had better come too, and join the fun. The more the better."
"Why should I go?" said Charles, listlessly. "Am I my brother's keeper, or even his underkeeper? Molly, don't splash your uncle's wardrobe. Besides, I expect it is a false alarm or a blind."
"False alarm!" retorted Ralph. "I tell you Thursby's head keeper, Shaw—you know Shaw—saw a man himself only last night in the Arleigh coverts; came upon him suddenly, reconnoitring, of course; for to-night, and would have collared him too if the moon had not gone in, and when it came out again he was gone."
"Of course, and he will warn off the rest to-night."
"Not a bit of it. He never saw Shaw. Shaw takes his oath he didn't see him. I'll lay any odds they will beat those coverts to-night, and, by George! we'll nail some of them, if we have an ounce of luck."
Ralph's sporting instinct, to which even the fleeting vision of a chance weasel never appealed in vain, was now thoroughly aroused, and even Charles shared somewhat in his excitement.
How could he warn Raymond to lie close? The more he thought of it the more impossible it seemed. It was already late in the afternoon. He could not, for Raymond's sake, risk being seen hanging about in the woods near Arleigh for no apparent reason, and Raymond was not expecting to see him in any case for two days to come, and would probably be impossible to find. He could do nothing but wait till the evening came, when he might have some opportunity, if the night were only dark enough, of helping or warning him.
The night was dark enough when it came; but it was unreliable. A tearing autumn wind drove armies of clouds across the moon, only to sweep them away again at a moment's notice. The wind itself rose and fell, dropped and struggled up again like a furious wounded animal.
"It will drop at midnight," said Ralph to Charles below his breath, as they walked in the darkness along the road towards Slumberleigh; "and the moon will come out when the wind goes. I have told Evans and Brooks to go by the fields, and meet us at the cross-roads in the low woods. It is a good night for us. We don't want light yet a while; and the more row the wind kicks up till we are in our places ready for them the better."
They walked on in silence, nearly missing in the dark the turn for Slumberleigh, where the road branched off to Vandon.
"We must be close upon the river by this time," said Ralph; "but I can't hear it for the wind."
The moon came out suddenly, and showed close on their right the mill blocking out the sky, and the dark sweep of the river below, between pale wastes of flooded meadow. Upon the bridge, leaning over the wall, stood the figure of a man, bareheaded, with his hat in his hands.
He could not see his face, but something in his attitude struck Charles with a sudden chill.
"By ——," he said, below his breath, plucking Ralph's arm, "there's mischief going on there!"
Ralph did not hear, and in another moment Charles was thankful he had not done so.
The man raised himself a little, and the light fell full on his white desperate face. He was feeling up and down the edge of the stone-parapet with his hands. As he moved, Charles recognized him, and drew in his breath sharply.
"Who is that?" said Ralph, his obtuser faculties perceiving the man for the first time.
Charles made no answer, but began to whistle loudly one of the tunes of the day. He saw Dare give a guilty start, and, catching at the wall for support, lean heavily against it as he looked wildly down the road, where the shadow of the trees had so far served to screen the approach of Charles and Ralph, who now emerged into the light, or at least would have done so, if the moonlight had not been snatched away at that moment.
"Holloa, Dare!" said Ralph, cheerfully, through the darkness, "I saw you. What are you up to standing on the bridge at midnight, with the clock striking the hour, and all that sort of thing; and what have you done with your hat—dropped it into the water?"
Dare muttered something unintelligible, and peered suspiciously through the darkness at Charles.
The moon made a feint at coming out again, which came to nothing, but which gave Charles a moment's glimpse of Dare's convulsed face. And the grave penetrating glance that met his own so fixedly told Dare in that moment that Charles had guessed his business on the bridge. Both men were glad of the returning darkness, and of the presence of Ralph.
"Come along with us," the latter was saying to Dare, explaining the errand on which they were bound; and Dare, stupefied with past emotion, and careless of what he did or where he went, agreed.
It was less trouble to agree than to find a reason for refusing. He mechanically put on his hat, which he had unconsciously crushed together a few minutes before, in a dreadful dream from which even now he had not thoroughly awaked. And, still walking like a man in a dream, he set off with the other two.
"There was suicide in his face," thought Charles, as he swung along beside his brother. "He would have done it if we had not come up. Good God! can it be that it is all over between him and Ruth?" The blood rushed to his head, and his heart began to beat wildly. He walked on in silence, seeing nothing, hearing nothing. Raymond and the poachers were alike forgotten.
It was not until a couple of men joined them silently in the woods, and others presently rose up out of the darkness, to whisper directions and sink down again, that Charles came to himself with a start, and pulled himself together.
The party had halted. It was pitch-dark, and he was conscious of something towering up above him, black and lowering. It was the ruined house of Arleigh.
"You and Brooks wait here, and keep well under the lea of the house," said Ralph, in a whisper. "If the moon comes out, get into the shadow of the wall. Don't shout till you're sure of them. Shaw is down by the stables. Dare and Evans you both come on with me. Shaw's got two men at the end of the glade, but it's the nearest coverts he is keenest on, because they can get a horse and cart up close to take the game, and get off sharp if they are surprised. They did last year. Don't stir if you hear wheels. Wait for them." And with this parting injunction Ralph disappeared noiselessly with Dare and the other keeper in the direction of the stables.
Ralph had been right. The wind was dropping. It came and went fitfully, returning as if from great distances, and hurrying past weak and impotent, leaving sudden silences behind. Charles and his companion, a strapping young underkeeper, evidently anxious to distinguish himself, waited, listening intently in the intervals of silence. The ivy on the old house shivered and whispered over their heads, and against one of the shuttered windows near the ground some climbing plant, torn loose by the wind, tapped incessantly, as if calling to the ghosts within. Charles glanced ever and anon at the sky. It showed no trace of clearing—as yet. He was getting cramped with standing. He wished he had gone on to the stables. His anxiety for Raymond was sharpened by this long inaction. He seemed to have been standing for ages. What were the others doing? Not a sound reached him between the lengthening pauses of the wind. His companion stood drawn up motionless beside him; and so they waited, straining eye and ear into the darkness, conscious that others were waiting and listening also.
At last in the distance came a faint sound of wheels. Charles and Brooks instinctively drew a long breath; and Charles for the first time believed the alarm of poachers had not been a false one after all. It was the faintest possible sound of wheels. It would hardly have been heard at all but for some newly broken stones over which it passed. Then, without coming nearer, it stopped.
Charles listened intently. The wind had dropped down dead at last, and in the stillness he felt as if he could have heard a mouse stir miles away. But all was quiet. There was no sound but the tremulous whisper of the ivy. The spray near the window had ceased its tapping against the shutter, and was listening too. Slowly the moon came out, and looked on.
And then suddenly, from the direction of the stables, came a roar of men's voices, a sound of bursting and crashing through the under-wood, a thundering of heavy feet, followed by a whirring of frightened birds into the air. Brooks leaned forward breathing hard, and tightening his newly moistened grip on his heavy knotted stick.
Another moment and a man's figure darted across the open, followed by a chorus of shouts, and Charles's heart turned sick within him. It was Raymond.
"Cut him off at the gate, Charles," roared Ralph from behind; "down to the left."
There was not a second for reflection. As Brooks rushed headlong forward, Charles hurriedly interposed his stick between his legs, and leaving him to flounder, started off in pursuit.
"Down to your left," cried a chorus of voices from behind, as he shot out of the shadow of the house; for Charles was some way ahead of the rest owing to his position.
He could hear Raymond crashing in front; then he saw him again for a moment in a strip of open, running as a man does who runs for his life, with a furious recklessness of all obstacles. Charles saw he was making for the rocky thickets below the house, where the uneven ground and the bracken would give him a better chance. Did he remember the deep sunken wall which, broken down in places, still separated the wilderness of the garden from the wilderness outside? Charles was lean and active, and he soon out-distanced the other pursuers, but a man is hard to overtake who has such reasons for not being overtaken as Raymond, and do what he would he could not get near him. He bore down to the left, but Raymond seemed to know it, and, edging away again, held for the woods a little higher up. Charles tacked, and then as he ran he saw that Raymond was making with headlong blindness through the shrubbery direct for the deep sunk wall which bounded the Arleigh grounds. Would he see it in the uncertain light? He must be close upon it now. He was running like a madman. As Charles looked he saw him pitch suddenly forward out of sight and heard a heavy fall. If Charles ever ran in his life, it was then. As he swiftly let himself drop over the wall, lower than Raymond had taken it, he saw Ralph and Dare, followed by the others, come streaming down the slope in the moonlight, spreading as they came. It was now or never. He rushed up the fosse under cover of the wall, and almost stumbled over a prostrate figure, which was helplessly trying to raise itself on its hands and knees.
"Danvers, it's me," gasped Raymond, turning a white tortured face feebly towards him. "Don't let those devils get me."
"Keep still," panted Charles, pushing him down among the bracken. "Lie close under the wall, and make for the house again when it's quiet;" And darting back under cover of the wall, to the place where he had dropped over it, he found Dare almost upon him, and rushed headlong down the steep rocky descent, roaring at the top of his voice, and calling wildly to the others. The pursuit swept away through the wood, down the hill, and up the sandy ascent on the other side; swept almost over the top of Charles, who had flung himself down, dead-beat and gasping for breath, at the bottom of the gully.
He heard the last of the heavy lumbering feet crash past him, and heard the shouting die away before he stiffly dragged himself up again, and began to struggle painfully back up the slippery hill-side, down which he had rushed with a whole regiment of loose and hopping stones ten minutes before. He regained the wall at last, and crept back to the place where he had left Raymond. It was with a sigh of relief that he found that he was gone. No doubt he had got into safety somewhere, perhaps in the cottage itself, where no one would dream of looking for him. He stumbled along among the loose stones by the wall till he came to the place by the gate where it was broken down, and clambering up, for the gate was locked, made his way back through the shrubberies, and desolate remains of garden, towards the point near the house where Raymond had first broken cover. As he came round a clump of bushes his heart gave a great leap, and then sank within him.
Three men were standing in the middle of the lawn in the moonlight, gathered round something on the ground. Seized by a horrible misgiving, he hurried towards them. At a little distance a dog-cart was being slowly led over the grass-grown drive towards the house.
"What is it? Any one hurt?" he asked, hoarsely, joining the little group; but as he looked he needed no answer. One glance told him that the prostrate, unconscious figure on the ground, with blood slowly oozing from the open mouth, was Raymond Deyncourt.
"Great God! the man's dying," he said, dropping on his knees beside him.
"He's all right, sir; he'll come to," said a little brisk man, in a complacent, peremptory tone. "It's only the young chap,"—pointing to the bashful but gratified Brooks—"as crocked him over the head a bit sharper than needful. Here, Esp,"—to the grinning Slumberleigh policeman, whom Charles now recognized, "tell the lad to bring up the 'orse and trap over the grass. We shall have a business to shift him as it is."
"Is he a poacher?" asked Charles. "He doesn't look like it."
"Lord! no, sir," replied the little man, and Charles's heart went straight down into his boots and stayed there. "I'm come down from Birmingham after him. He's no poacher. The police have wanted him very special for some time for the Francisco forgery case."
Charles watched the detective and the policeman hoist Raymond into the dog-cart and drive away, supporting him between them. No doubt it had been the wheels of that dog-cart which they had heard in the distance. Then he turned to Brooks.
"How is it you remained behind?" he asked, sharply.
Brooks's face fell, and he explained that just as he was starting in the pursuit he had caught his legs on "Sir Chawles sir's" stick, and "barked hisself."
"I remember," said Charles. "You got in my way. You should look out where you are going. You may as well go and find my stick."
The poor victim of duplicity departed rather crestfallen, and at this moment Dare came up.
"We have lost him," he said, wiping his forehead. "I don't know what has become of him."
"He doubled back here," said Charles. "I followed, but you all went on. The police have got him. He was not a poacher after all, so they said."
"Ah!" said Dare. "They have him? I regret it. He ran well. I could wish he had escaped. I was in the door-way of a stable watching a long time, and all in a moment he rushed past me out of the door. The policeman was seeking within when he came out, but though he touched me I could not stop him. And now," with sudden weariness as his excitement evaporated, "all is, then, over for the night? And the others? Where are they? Do we wait for them here?"
"We should wait some time if we did," replied Charles. "Ralph is certain to go on to the other coverts. He has poachers on the brain. Probably the rumor that they were coming here was only a blind, and they are doing a good business somewhere else. I am going home. I have had enough enjoyment for one evening. I should advise you to do the same."
Dare winced, and did not answer, and Charles suddenly remembered that there were circumstances which might make it difficult for him to go back to Vandon.
They walked away together in silence. Dare, who had been wildly excited, was beginning to feel the reaction. He was becoming giddy and faint with exhaustion and want of food. He had eaten nothing all day. They had not gone far when Charles saw that he stumbled at every other step.
"Look out," he said once, as Dare stumbled more heavily than usual, "you'll twist your ankle on these loose stones if you're not more careful."
"It is so dark," said Dare, faintly.
The moon was shining brightly at the moment, and as Charles turned to look at him in surprise, Dare staggered forward, and would have collapsed altogether if he had not caught him by the arm.
"Sit down," he said, authoritatively. "Here, not on me, man, on the bank. Always sit down when you can't stand. You have had too much excitement. I felt the same after my first Christmas-tree. You will be better directly."
Charles spoke lightly, but he knew from what he had seen that Dare must have passed a miserable day. He had never liked him. It was impossible that he should have done so. But even his more active dislike of the last few months gave way to pity for him now, and he felt almost ashamed at the thought that his own happiness was only to be built on the ruin of poor Dare's.
He made him swallow the contents of his flask, and as Dare choked and gasped himself back into the fuller possession of his faculties, and experienced the benign influences of whiskey, entertained at first unawares, his heart, always easily touched, warmed to the owner of the silver flask, and of the strong arm that was supporting him with an unwillingness he little dreamed of. His momentary jealousy of Charles in the summer had long since been forgotten. He felt towards him now, as Charles helped him up, and he proceeded slowly on his arm, as a friend and a brother.
Charles, entirely unconscious of the noble sentiments which he and his flask had inspired, looked narrowly at his companion, as they neared the turn for Atherstone, and said with some anxiety:
"Where are you going to-night?"
Dare made no answer. He had no idea where he was going.
Charles hesitated. He could not let him walk back alone to Vandon—over the bridge. It was long past midnight. Dare's evident inability to think where to turn touched him.
"Can I be of any use to you?" he said, earnestly. "Is there anything I can do? Perhaps, at present, you would rather not go to Vandon."
"No, no," said Dare, shuddering; "I will not go there."
Charles felt more certain than ever that it would not be safe to leave him to his own devices, and his anxiety not to lose sight of him in his present state gave a kindness to his manner of which he was hardly aware.
"Come back to Atherstone with me," he said, "I will explain it to Ralph when he comes in. It will be all right."
Dare accepted the proposition with gratitude. It relieved him for the moment from coming to any decision. He thanked Charles with effusion, and then—his natural impulsiveness quickened by the quantity of raw spirits he had swallowed, by this mark of sympathy, by the moonlight, by Heaven knows what that loosens the facile tongue of unreticence—then suddenly, without a moment's preparation, he began to pour forth his troubles into Charles's astonished and reluctant ears. It was vain to try to stop him, and, after the first moment of instinctive recoil, Charles was seized by a burning curiosity to know all where he already knew so much, to put an end to this racking suspense.
"And that is not the worst," said Dare, when he had recounted how the woman he had seen on the church steps was in very deed the wife she claimed to be. "That is not the worst. I love another. We are affianced. We are as one. I bring sorrow upon her I love."
"She knows, then?" asked Charles, hoarsely, hating himself for being such a hypocrite, but unable to refrain from putting a leading question.
"She knows that some one—a person—is at Vandon," replied Dare, "who calls herself my wife, but I tell her it is not true and she, all goodness, all heavenly calm, she trusts me, and once again she promises to marry me if I am free, as I tell her, as I swear to her."
Charles listened in astonishment. He saw Dare was speaking the truth, but that Ruth could have given such a promise was difficult to believe. He did not know, what Dare even had not at all realized, that she had given it in the belief that Dare, from his answers to her questions, had never been married to the woman at all, in the belief that she was a mere adventuress seeking to make money out of him by threatening a scandalous libel, and without the faintest suspicion that she was his divorced wife, whether legally or illegally divorced.
Dare had understood the promise to depend on the legality or illegality of that divorce, and told Charles so in all good faith. With an extraordinary effort of reticence he withheld the name of his affianced, and pressing Charles's arm, begged him to ask no more. And Charles, half-sorry, half-contemptuous, wholly ashamed of having allowed such a confidence to be forced upon him, marched on in silence, now divided between mortal anxiety for Raymond and pity for Dare, now striving to keep down a certain climbing rapturous emotion which would not be suppressed.
One of the servants had waited up for their return, and, after getting Dare something to eat, Charles took him up to the room which had been prepared for himself, and then, feeling he had done his duty by him, and that he was safe for the present, went back to smoke by the smoking-room fire till Ralph came in, which was not till several hours later. When he did at last return it was in triumph. He was dead-beat, voiceless, and foot-sore; but a sense of glory sustained him. Four poachers had been taken red-handed in the coverts farthest from Arleigh. The rumor about Arleigh had, of course, been a blind; but he, Ralph, thank Heaven, was not to be taken in in such a hurry as all that! He could look after his interests as well as most men. In short, he was full of glorification to the brim, and it was only after hearing a hoarse and full account of the whole transaction several times over that Charles was able in a pause for breath to tell him that he had offered Dare a bed, as he was quite tired out, and was some distance from Vandon.
"All right. Quite right," said Ralph, unheeding; "but you and he missed the best part of the whole thing. Great Scot! when I saw them come dodging round under the Black Rock and—" He was off again; and Charles doubted afterwards, as he fell asleep in his arm-chair by the fire, whether Ralph, already slumbering peacefully opposite him, had paid the least attention to what he had told him, and would not have entirely forgotten it in the morning. And, in fact, he did, and it was not until Evelyn desired, with dignity, on the morrow, that another time unsuitable persons should not be brought at midnight to her house, that he remembered what had happened.
Charles, who was present, immediately took the blame upon himself, but Evelyn was not to be appeased. By this time the whole neighborhood was ringing with the news of the arrival of a foreign wife at Vandon, and Evelyn felt that Dare's presence in her blue bedroom, with crockery and crewel-work curtains to match, compromised that apartment and herself, and that he must incontinently depart out of it. It was in vain that Ralph and even Charles expostulated. She remained unmoved. It was not, she said, as if she had been unwilling to receive him, in the first instance, as a possible Roman Catholic, though many might have blamed her for that, and perhaps she had been to blame; but she had never, no, never, had any one to stay that anybody could say anything about. (This was a solemn fact which it was impossible to deny.) Ralph might remember her own cousin, Willie Best, and she had always liked Willie, had never been asked again after that time—Ralph chuckled—that time he knew of. She was very sorry, and she quite understood all Charles meant, and she quite saw the force of what he said; but she could not allow people to stay in the house who had foreign wives that had been kept secret. What was poor Willie, who had only—Ralph need not laugh; there was nothing to laugh at—what was Willie to this? She must be consistent. She could see Charles was very angry with her, but she could not encourage what was wrong, even if he was angry. In short, Dare must go.
But, when it came to the point, it was found that Dare could not go. Nothing short of force would have turned the unwelcome guest out of the bed in the blue bedroom, from which he made no attempt to rise, and on which he lay worn-out and feverish, in a stupor of sheer mental and physical exhaustion.
Charles and Ralph went and looked at him rather ruefully, with masculine helplessness, and the end of it was that Evelyn, in nowise softened, for she was a good woman, had to give way, and a doctor was sent for.
"Send for the man in D——. Don't have the Slumberleigh man," said Charles; "it will only make more talk;" and the doctor from D—— was accordingly sent for.
He did not arrive till the afternoon, and after he had seen Dare, and given him a sleeping draught, and had talked reassuringly of a mental shock and a feverish temperament he apologized for his delay in coming. He had been kept, he said, drawing on his gloves as he spoke, by a very serious case in the police-station at D——. A man had been arrested on suspicion the previous night, and he seemed to have sustained some fatal internal injury. He ought to have been taken to the infirmary at once; but it had been thought he was only shamming when first arrested, and once in the police-station he could not be moved, and—the doctor took up his hat—he would probably hardly outlive the day.
"By-the-way," he added, turning at the door, "he asked over and over again, while I was with him, to see you or Mr. Danvers. I'm sure I forget which, but I promised him I would mention it. Nearly slipped my memory, all the same. He said one of you had known him in his better days, at—Oxford, was it?"
"What name?" asked Charles.
"Stephens," replied the doctor. "He seemed to think you would remember him."
"Stephens," said Charles, reflectively. "Stephens! I once had a valet of that name, and a very good one he was, who left my service rather abruptly, taking with him numerous portable memorials of myself, including a set of diamond studs. I endeavored at the time to keep up my acquaintance with him; but he took measures effectually to close it. In fact, I have never heard of him from that day to this."
"That's the man, no doubt," replied the doctor. "He has—er—a sort of look about him as if he might have been in a gentleman's service once; seen-better-days-sort of look, you know."
Charles said he should be at D—— in the course of the afternoon, and would make a point of looking in at the police-station; and a quarter of an hour later he was driving as hard as he could tear in Ralph's high dog-cart along the road to D——. It was a six-mile drive, and he slackened as he reached the straggling suburbs of the little town, lying before him in a dim mist of fine rain and smoke.
Arrived at the dismal building which he knew to be the police-station, he was shown into a small room hung round with papers, where the warden was writing, and desired, with an authority so evidently accustomed to obedience that it invariably insured it, to see the prisoner. The prisoner, he said, at whose arrest he had been present, had expressed a wish to see him through the doctor; and as the warden demurred for the space of one second, Charles mentioned that he was a magistrate and justice of the peace, and sternly desired the confused official to show him the way at once. That functionary, awed by the stately manner which none knew better than Charles when to assume, led the way down a narrow stone passage, past numerous doors behind one of which a banging sound, accompanied by alcoholic oaths, suggested the presence of a freeborn Briton chafing under restraint.
"I had him put up-stairs, sir," said the warden, humbly. "We didn't know when he came in as it was a case for the infirmary; but seeing he was wanted for a big thing, and poorly in his 'ealth, I giv' him one of the superior cells, with a mattress and piller complete."
The man was evidently afraid that Charles had come as a magistrate to give him a reprimand of some kind, for, as he led the way up a narrow stone staircase, he continued to expatiate on the luxury of the "mattress and piller," on the superiority of the cell, and how a nurse had been sent for at once from the infirmary, when, owing to his own shrewdness, the prisoner was found to be "a hospital case."
"The doctor wouldn't have him moved," he said, opening a closed door in a long passage full of doors, the rest of which stood open. "It's not reg'lar to have him in here, sir, I know; but the doctor wouldn't have him moved."
Charles passed through the door, and found himself in a narrow whitewashed cell, with a bed at one side, over which an old woman in the dress of a hospital nurse was bending.
"You can come out, Martha," said the warden. "The gentleman's come to see 'im."
As the old woman disappeared, courtesying, he lingered to say, in a whisper, "Do you know him, sir?"
"Yes," said Charles, looking fixedly at the figure on the bed. "I remember him. I knew him years ago, in his better days. I dare say he will have something to tell me."
"If it should be anything as requires a witness," continued the man—"he's said a deal already, and it's all down in proper form—but if there's anything more——"
"I will let you know," said Charles, looking towards the door, and the warden took the hint and went out of it, closing it quietly.
Charles crossed the little room, and, sitting down in the crazy chair beside the bed, laid his hand gently on the listless hand lying palm upward on the rough gray counterpane.
"Raymond," he said; "it is I, Danvers."
The hand trembled a little, and made a faint attempt to clasp his. Charles took the cold, lifeless hand, and held it in his strong gentle grasp.
"It is Danvers," he said again.
The sick man turned his head slowly on the pillow, and looked fixedly at him. Death's own color, which imitation can never imitate, nor ignorance mistake, was stamped upon that rigid face.
"I'm done for," he said with a faint smile, which touched the lips but did not reach the solemn far-reaching eyes.
Charles could not speak.
"You said I should turn up tails once too often," continued Raymond, with slow halting utterance, "and I've done it. I knew it was all up when I pitched over that d——d wall onto the stones. I felt I'd killed myself."
"How did they get you?" said Charles.
"I don't know," replied Raymond, closing his eyes wearily, as if the subject had ceased to interest him. "I think I tried to creep along under the wall towards the place where it is broken down, when I fancy some one came over long after the others and knocked me on the head."
Charles reflected with sudden wrath that Brooks, no doubt, had been the man, and how much worse than useless his manoeuvre with the stick had been.
"I did my best," he said, humbly.
"Yes," replied the other; "and I would not have forgotten it, either, if—if there had been any time to remember it in; but there won't be. I've owned up," he continued, in a labored whisper. "Stephens has made a full confession. You'll have it in all the papers to-morrow. And while I was at it I piled on some more I never did, which will get friends over the water out of trouble. Tom Flavell did me a good turn once, and he's been in hiding these two years for—well, it don't much matter what, but I've shoved that in with the rest, though it was never in my line—never. He'll be able to go home now."
"Have not you confessed under your own name?"
"No," replied Raymond, with a curious remnant of that pride of race at which it is the undisputed privilege of low birth and a plebeian temperament to sneer. "I won't have my own name dragged in. I dropped it years ago. I've confessed as Stephens, and I'll die and be buried as Stephens. I'm not going to disgrace the family."
There was a constrained silence of some minutes.
"Would you like to see your sister?" asked Charles; but Raymond shook his head with feeble decision.
"That man!" he said, suddenly, after a long pause. "That man in the door-way! How did he come there?"
"There is no man in the door-way," said Charles, reassuringly. "There is no one here but me."
"Last night," continued Raymond, "last night in the stables. I watched him stand in the door-way."
Charles remembered how Dare had said Raymond had bolted out past him.
"That was Dare," he said; "the man who was to have been your brother-in-law."
"Ah!" said Raymond with evident unconcern. "I thought I'd seen him before. But he's altered. He's grown into a man. So he is to marry Ruth, is he?"
"Not now. He was to have done, but a divorced wife from America has turned up. She arrived at Vandon the day before yesterday. It seems the divorce in America does not hold in England."
"The old fox," he said, with feeble energy. "Tracked him out, has she? We used to call them fox and goose when she married him. By ——, she squeezed every dollar out of him before she let him go, and now she's got him again, has she? She always was a cool hand. The old fox," he continued, with contempt and admiration in his voice. "She's playing a bold game, and the luck is on her side, but she's no more his wife than I am, and she knows that perfectly well."
"Do you mean that the divorce was——"
"Divorce, bosh!" said Raymond, working himself up into a state of feeble excitement frightful to see. "I tell you she was never married to him legally. She called herself a widow when she married Dare, but she had a husband living, Jasper Carroll, serving his time at Baton Rouge Jail, down South, all the time. He died there a year afterwards, but hardly a soul knows it to this day; and those that do don't care about bringing themselves into public notice. They'll prefer hush-money, if they find out what she's up to now. The prison register would prove it directly. But Dare will never find it out. How should he?"
Raymond sank back speechless and panting. A strong shudder passed over him, and his breath seemed to fail.
"It's coming," he whispered, hoarsely. "That lying doctor said I had several hours, and I feel it coming already."
"Danvers," he continued, hurriedly, "are you still there?" Then, as Charles bent over him, "Closer; bend down. I want to see your face. Keep your own counsel about Dare. There's no one to tell if you don't. He's not fit for Ruth. You can marry her now. I saw what I saw. She'll take you. And some day—some day, when you have been married a long time, tell her I'm dead; and tell her—about Flavell, and how I owned to it—but that I did not do it. I never sank so low as that." His voice had dropped to a whisper which died imperceptibly away.
"I will tell her," said Charles; and Raymond turned his face to the wall, and spoke no more.
The struggle had passed, and for the moment death held aloof; but his shadow was there, lying heavy on the deepening twilight, and darkening all the little room. Raymond seemed to have sunk into a stupor, and at last Charles rose silently and went out.
He was dimly conscious of meeting some one in the passage, of answering some question in the negative, and then he found himself gathering up the reins, and driving through the narrow lighted streets of D—— in the dusk, and so away down the long flat high-road to Atherstone.
A white mist had risen up to meet the darkness, and had shrouded all the land. In sweeps and curves along the fields a gleaming pallor lay of heavy dew upon the grass, and on the road the long lines of dim water in the ruts reflected the dim sky.
Carts lumbered past him in the darkness once or twice, the men in them peering back at his reckless driving; and once a carriage with lamps came swiftly up the road towards him, and passed him with a flash, grazing his wheel. But he took no heed. Drive as quickly as he would through mist and darkness, a voice followed him, the voice of a pursuing devil close at his ear, whispering in the halting, feeble utterance of a dying man:
"Keep your own counsel about Dare. There is no one to tell if you don't."
Charles shivered and set his teeth. High on the hill among the trees the distant lights of Slumberleigh shone like glowworms through the mist. He looked at them with wild eyes. She was there, the woman who loved him, and whom he passionately loved. He could stretch forth his hand to take her if he would. His breath came hard and thick. A hand seemed clutching and tearing at his heart. And close at his ear the whisper came:
"There is no one to tell if you don't."
It was close on dressing-time when Charles came into the drawing-room, where Evelyn and Molly were building castles on the hearth-rug in the ruddy firelight. After changing his damp clothes, he had gone to the smoking-room, but he had found Dare sitting there in a vast dressing-gown of Ralph's, in a state of such utter dejection, with his head in his hands, that he had silently retreated again before he had been perceived. He did not want to see Dare just now. He wished he were not in the house.
Quite oblivious of the fact that he was not in Evelyn's good graces, he went and sat by the drawing-room fire, and absently watched Molly playing with her bricks. Presently, when the dressing-bell rang, Evelyn went away to dress, and Molly, tired of her castles, suggested that she might sit on his knee.
He let her climb up and wriggle and finally settle herself as it seemed good to her, but he did not speak; and so they sat in the firelight together, Molly's hand lovingly stroking his black velvet coat. But her talents lay in conversation, not in silence, and she soon broke it.
"You do look beautiful to-night, Uncle Charles."
"Do I?" without elation.
"Do you know, Uncle Charles, Ninny's sister with the wart on her cheek has been to tea? She's in the nursery now. Ninny says she's to have a bite of supper before she goes."
"You don't say so?"
"And we had buttered toast to tea, and she said you were the most splendid gentleman she ever saw."
Charles did not answer. He did not even seem to have heard this interesting tribute to his personal appearance. Molly felt that something must be gravely amiss, and, laying her soft cheek against his, she whispered, confidentially:
"Uncle Charles, are you uncomferable inside?"
There was a long pause.
"Yes, Molly," at last, pressing her to him.
"Is it there?" said Molly, sympathetically, laying her hand on the front portion of her amber sash.
"No, Molly; I only wish it were."
"It's not the little green pears, then," said Molly, with the sigh of experience, "because it's always just there, always, with them. It was again yesterday. They're nasty little pears,"—with a touch of personal resentment.
Uncle Charles smiled at last, but it was not quite his usual smile.
"Miss Molly," said a voice from the door, "your mamma has sent for you."
"It's not bedtime yet."
"Your mamma says you are to come at once," was the reply.
Molly, knowing from experience that an appeal to Charles was useless on these occasions, wriggled down from her perch rather reluctantly, and bade her uncle "Good-night."
"Perhaps it will be better to-morrow," she said, consolingly.
"Perhaps," he said, nodding at her; and he took her little head between his hands, and kissed her. She rubbed his kiss off again, and walked gravely away. She could not be merry and ride in triumph up-stairs on kind curvetting Sarah's willing back, while her friend was "uncomferable inside." There was no galloping down the passage that night, no pleasantries with the sponge in Molly's tub, no last caperings in light attire. Molly went silently to bed, and as on a previous occasion when in great anxiety about Vic, who had thoughtlessly gone out in the twilight for a stroll, and had forgotten the lapse of time, she added a whispered clause to her little petitions which the ear of "Ninny" failed to catch.
Charles recognized, in the way Evelyn had taken Molly from him, that she was not yet appeased. It should be remembered, in order to do her justice, that a good woman's means of showing a proper resentment are so straitened and circumscribed by her conscience that she is obliged, from actual want of material, to resort occasionally to little acts of domestic tyranny, small in themselves as midge bites, but, fortunately for the cause of virtue, equally exasperating. Indeed, it is improbable that any really good woman would ever so far forget herself as to lose her temper, if she were once thoroughly aware how much more irritating in the long-run a judicious course of those small persecutions may be made, which the tenderest conscience need not scruple to inflict.
Charles was unreasonably annoyed at having Molly taken from him. As he sat by the fire alone, tired in mind and body, a hovering sense of cold, and an intense weariness of life took him; and a great longing came over him like a thirst—a longing for a little of the personal happiness which seemed to be the common lot of so many round him; for a home where he had now only a house; for love and warmth and companionship, and possibly some day a little Molly of his own, who would not be taken from him at the caprice of another.
The only barrier to the fulfilment of such a dream had been a conscientious scruple of Ruth's, to which at the time he had urged upon her that she did wrong to yield. That barrier was now broken down; but it ought never to have existed. Ruth and he belonged to each other by divine law, and she had no right to give herself to any one else to satisfy her own conscience. And now—all would be well. She was absolved from her promise. She had been wrong to persist in keeping it, in his opinion; but at any rate she was honorably released from it now. And she would marry him.
And that second promise, which she had made to Dare, that she would still marry him if he were free to marry?
Charles moved impatiently in his chair. From what exaggerated sense of duty she had made that promise he knew not; but he would save her from the effects of her own perverted judgment. He knew what Ruth's word meant, since he had tried to make her break it. He knew that she had promised to marry Dare if he were free. He knew that, having made that promise, she would keep it.
It would be mere sentimental folly on his part to say the word that would set Dare free. Even if the American woman were not his wife in the eye of the law, she had a moral claim upon him. The possibility of Ruth's still marrying Dare was too hideous to be thought of. If her judgment was so entirely perverted by a morbid conscientious fear of following her own inclination that she could actually give Dare that promise, directly after the arrival of the adventuress, Charles would take the decision out of her hands. As she could not judge fairly for herself, he would judge for her, and save her from herself.
For her sake as much as for his own he resolved to say nothing. He had only to keep silence.
"There's no one to tell if you don't."
The door opened, and Charles gave a start as Dare came into the room. He was taken aback by the sudden rush of jealous hatred that surged up within him at his appearance. It angered and shamed him, and Dare, much shattered but feebly cordial, found him very irresponsive and silent for the few minutes that remained before the dinner-bell rang, and the others came down.
It was not a pleasant meal. If Dare had been a shade less ill, he must have noticed the marked coldness of Evelyn's manner, and how Ralph good-naturedly endeavored to make up for it by double helpings of soup and fish, which he was quite unable to eat. Charles and Lady Mary were never congenial spirits at the best of times, and to-night was not the best. That lady, after feebly provoking the attack, as usual, sustained some crushing defeats, mainly couched in the language of Scripture, which was, as she felt with Christian indignation, turning her own favorite weapon against herself, as possibly Charles thought she deserved, for putting such a weapon to so despicable a use.
"I really don't know," she said, tremulously, afterwards in the drawing-room, "what Charles will come to if he goes on like this. I don't mind"—venomously—"his tone towards myself. That I do not regard; but his entire want of reverence for the Church and apostolic succession; his profane remarks about vestments; in short, his entire attitude towards religion gives me the gravest anxiety."
In the dining-room the conversation flagged, and Charles was beginning to wonder whether he could make some excuse and bolt, when a servant came in with a note for him. It was from the doctor in D——, and ran as follows:
"I have just seen (6.30 P.M.) Stephens again. I found him in a state of the wildest excitement, and he implored me to send you word that he wanted to see you again. He seemed so sure that you would go if you knew he wished it, that I have commissioned Sergeant Brown's boy to take this. He wished me to say 'there was something more.' If there is any further confession he desires to make, he has not much time to do it in. I did not expect he would have lasted till now. As it is, he is going fast. Indeed, I hardly think you will be in time to see him; but I promised to give you this message.
Yours faithfully, R. WHITE."
"I must go," Charles said, throwing the note across to Ralph. "Give the boy half a crown, will you? I suppose I may take Othello?" and before Ralph had mastered the contents of the note, and begun to fumble for a half-crown, Charles was saddling Othello himself, without waiting for the groom, and in a few minutes was clattering over the stones out of the yard.
There was just light enough to ride by, and he rode hard. What was it—what could it be that Raymond had still to tell him? He felt certain it had something to do with Ruth, and probably Dare. Should he arrive in time to hear it? There at last were the lights of D—— in front of him. Should he arrive in time? As he pulled up his steaming horse before the police-station his heart misgave him.
"Am I too late?" he asked of the man who came to the door.
He looked bewildered.
"Stephens! Is he dead?"
The man shook his head.
"They say he's a'most gone."
Charles threw the rein to him, and hurried in-doors. He met some one coming out, the doctor probably, he thought afterwards, who took him up-stairs, and sent away the old woman who was in attendance.
"I can't do anything more," he said, opening the door for him. "Wanted elsewhere. Very good of you, I'm sure. Not much use, I'm afraid. Good-night. I'll tell the old woman to be about."
A dim lamp was burning on the little corner cupboard near the door, and, as Charles bent over the bed, he saw in a moment, even by that pale light, that he was too late.
Life was still there, if that feeble tossing could be called life; but all else was gone. Raymond's feet were already on the boundary of the land where all things are forgotten; and, at the sight of that dim country, memory, affrighted, had slipped away and left him.
Was it possible to recall him to himself even yet?
"Raymond," he said, in a low distinct voice, "what is it you wish to say? Tell me quickly what it is."
But the long agony of farewell between body and soul had begun, and the eyes that seemed to meet his with momentary recognition only looked at him in anguish, seeking help and finding none, and wandered away again, vainly searching for that which was not to be found.
Charles could do nothing, but he had not the heart to leave him to struggle with death entirely alone, and so, in awed and helpless compassion, he sat by him through one long hour after another, waiting for the end which still delayed, his eyes wandering ever and anon from the bed to the high grated window, or idly spelling out the different names and disparaging remarks that previous occupants had scratched and scrawled over the whitewashed walls.