"Tell me where and when." "By chance," he said hesitating—"in the streets."
She wrung her hands.
"Have I not walked the streets," she moaned, "till my feet have been sore with blisters and my head dizzy! Yet I have never met him."
He stood with his hand upon his chin, thinking as well as he might. What did he owe to Douglas Guest, the friend of Emily de Reuss, successful where he had failed? Had he not seen their hands joined? He drew a breath which sounded like a hiss.
"I thought," he muttered, "that it had been a woman, yet—who knows? It may have been Douglas Guest—and Joan, there was truth in your thought. He lives. I cannot tell you where. I cannot help you find him, for I have another task. Yet he lives. I tell you that. Now let me go."
Her eyes flashed with something which was like joy. She had forgotten David's wandering words. All the time her instincts had been true.
"Let me go, Joan."
She laid her hands upon his shoulders.
"We are brother and sister," she said, "and what is mine is yours. Stay and share with me. Share the little we have, and let Cissy nurse you—ay, and share our vengeance."
She was flung on one side. Off her guard for a moment, he had pushed past her with unexpected strength.
"David!" she cried. "David!"
But she heard only his footsteps upon the stairs, swift and stealthy. In the hall he turned and looked up at her. She was leaning over the banisters.
"Take some money, at least," she said. "See, I have dropped my purse."
He watched it where it lay within a few feet of him, burst open with the drop, and with the gleam of gold showing from one of the compartments. He made no movement to pick it up. It seemed to her that as he passed out he shrank from it. From the window she watched him turn the corner of the street and vanish in the shadows.
DREXLEY FORESEES DANGER
It was house-dinner night at the club, and there was a larger gathering even than usual. Douglas was there, light-hearted and in capital spirits, taking his first holiday for a week. Things were going well enough with him now. His novel was nearly finished, and the last few articles he had written for the Courier had brought a special visit from Rawlinson, who had patted him on the back and raised his salary. He felt like a man who had buffeted his way through the rough waters into the smooth shelter of the harbour—already he had almost forgotten how near they had come to closing over his head. Spring was coming, and the love of life was once more hot in his veins. Westwards, the chestnuts were budding and the lilac was in blossom. London was beginning to raise herself with a great yawn, and to remember that at this season of the year, at least, she had a place amongst the beautiful cities of the world. Douglas, good-natured always, to-night particularly happy, saw Drexley standing alone as usual by the terrace window, and crossed over to his side.
"Play me a game of billiards, Drexley," he exclaimed. "I've only half an hour to spare."
Drexley turned his head only just sufficiently to see who it was that addressed him.
"Is that you, Jesson?" he said. "No thanks. I gave up billiards long ago."
Douglas remained by his side.
"They tell me," he remarked, "that two years ago you were the best player in the club. Why don't you keep it up?"
"Lost interest," was the brief reply. "You can't do things well that you don't care about, can you?"
Douglas forgot to answer. He was aware that his companion was watching some one—a shabby, wan figure leaning over the palisading which bordered the terrace below. His own heart gave a throb. He knew at once who it was.
"David!" he exclaimed.
Drexley turned upon him sharply.
"You know him?"
"Yes," he said. "It is David Strong. He is mad."
"You know that it was he—"
"Yes." Drexley drew a long breath.
"Look at him," he said, softly. "To-night he is safe—quite harmless. Some one has been giving him money. He is quite drunk. Thank God!"
Douglas stared at him—surprised.
"Drunk," Drexley explained, quietly, "he is safe. He will curl down in some odd corner somewhere soon and sleep till morning. There are other times when I have followed him about for hours, when I have seen the knife bulge in his pocket, and known that murder was in his heart. I have dogged him about the streets then till daylight—from her house to theatre steps, to concert rooms, restaurants, and private houses. Anywhere, where he imagined that she might be. I have seen him loiter about the pavements for hours, when the canvas archway and awning has been put out from one of the great West-end houses, just in the hope that she might be amongst the guests. So far he has been unlucky, but some day I feel that for all my watching they will meet, and then may God help her! You have influence over her, Jesson. I wish you would persuade her to have him put under restraint. She could identify him quite well as the man who shot at her on the terrace of her house, and so could you. Or if she will not do this, she might keep away from England for a few more months."
"Influence over her," Douglas repeated, with a sudden bitterness in his tone. "I have so much, that although I was with her on that terrible evening, and have written to her time after time, I have never had a line from her since she left England."
Drexley laughed oddly.
"You, too," he exclaimed. "Your day is over then. Well, it was a short and a merry one. You bear it well, my young friend."
Douglas shrugged his shoulders, but avoided Drexley's earnest gaze.
"Emily de Reuss was very kind to me," he said, "but she is not the only woman in the world." "For those who have known her," Drexley said, "none can come after."
"Then I must be one of those who have never known her," Douglas answered, with a lightness which sounded natural enough, "for I am going to take the most charming little girl in London to the theatre to-night."
Drexley pointed downwards. The slouching figure which they had been watching had half collapsed against the railings. He was obviously overpowered with drink.
"He was once like that," Drexley said, "as young and eager and confident as you. When she was first unkind, he laughed and tried a week in Paris. But he came back. Always there is the coming back. It was the same with young Morrison—with me—it will be the same with you. It creeps into the blood, and no man's will, nor any other woman's, can rid you of it."
Douglas had already repented of that instinct of good nature which had led him to address Drexley. A spectre which for months he had been doing his best to stifle was stalking once more by his side.
He turned away abruptly.
"Well," he said, "I think you're talking rot. I shall go down and see whether anything can be done for that poor wretch there."
Drexley turned and clutched him by the shoulder.
"Don't," he said. "At least, listen to me for a moment. Strong was in my office once. I knew him at his best, I watched his decline, I have known him always. He's absolutely beyond help from you or me, or any living person. Three times I have given him the money to emigrate, and he has pocketed it and laughed at me. He has no conscience nor any sense of honour. His life, or what is left of it, is a desire—a desire to kill. He would take your money and spend it in bribing servants or in procuring fresh weapons. In any case it would go towards helping him in his horrible purpose. Propose to kill him, if you like, and I am with you at all risks. But don't go near him, don't give him money."
Douglas lit a cigarette and turned his back to the window.
"Very well," he said. "I will forget him. You had better do the same."
Drexley nodded slowly.
"For to-night, perhaps," he said. "To-morrow it will begin again. I watch him all my spare time. Even then I scarcely dare open a morning paper."
Douglas looked at him suddenly, moved by the man's wonderful faithfulness. Of his own sufferings he seemed oblivious.
"What are you going to do to-night, Drexley?" he asked.
Drexley shrugged his shoulders.
"Sit about here," he answered. "Smoke and drink, I suppose, till eleven, and then go home. Not that I'm complaining. There's nothing else I care to do."
Douglas laid his hand upon his shoulder.
"Look here," he said. "I've an idea. I'm taking Miss Strong and a friend to the 'Gaiety.' We want a fourth, and I was just looking round for a man. Come with us."
Drexley laughed grimly.
"You're talking nonsense," he said. "Very good of you, of course," he added, "but you must please excuse me. That sort of thing's not in my way at all."
Douglas was persistent.
"There's no reason why it shouldn't be in your way," he said. "You know Miss Strong, and I'll look after the other girl. I've a fancy to have you come."
Drexley took up a paper.
"Go and pick up one of the young men," he said. "There are plenty of them who will be glad to spend the evening with Miss Strong. As for me, it's out of the question. I should only be a wet blanket."
"You or no one, Drexley," Douglas said, taking out his watch. "Look here. You've twenty minutes to change your clothes. The girls are calling here at eight o'clock. Hurry, please."
"I shall do nothing of the sort," Drexley snorted. "There's Molyneux. Ask him. I've an engagement later on."
Douglas took out his watch again.
"You've only eighteen minutes now," he said. "I know you'll keep them waiting."
* * * * *
For the first half an hour it was doubtful whether the evening was going to be a success. Drexley was gloomy, and had not altogether lost the air of having been forced to do something which bored him. He was polite, but monosyllabic and gloomy, and his interest in the play was obviously feigned. Douglas wisely left him to Cicely, and devoted himself to her little friend, and he soon had the pleasure of seeing Drexley thaw. Cicely only laughed at his momentary lapses, and she was far too charming a companion to be ignored. Before the first act was ended she had conquered. Drexley was watching her with a quiet smile upon his lips, amused at her eagerness, answering her many questions readily. In the corridor after the play was over he touched Douglas on the shoulder.
"You are all coming to the 'Milan' to supper with me," he said. "Miss Strong and I arranged it, after the second act, and I sent a commissionaire down for a table."
Cicely laughed up at him.
"Isn't it delightful?" she exclaimed. "Milly and I are so hungry, and we're dying to see the 'Milan.' Will you bring Milly in another hansom?"
Douglas nodded and lit a cigarette. He wondered whether, after all, this experiment was going to be such a brilliant success.
A SUPPER AT THE "MILAN," AND A MEETING
Drexley, a travelled man of fastidious tastes and with ample means to gratify them, proved a delightful host. In his earlier days he had been a constant diner-out; he understood the ordering of impromptu meals, and he had that decision and air which inspires respect even in a head-waiter. He marshalled his little party to the table reserved for them, waved away the table d'hote card, and ordered his dishes and wine with excellent judgment and consideration for the tastes of his guests. It was all most delightful—delightfully novel to Cicely and her friend, delightful to Drexley, who was amazed to find that the power of enjoyment still remained with him. The soft strains of music rose and fell from a small but perfectly chosen Hungarian band out on the balcony, the hum of conversation grew louder and merrier at every moment, the champagne flashed in their glasses, and a younger Drexley occupied the place of their kindly but taciturn host. Douglas, to whom fell the entertaining of Cicely's friend, was honestly delighted at the change. But in the midst of it came a crushing blow. Emily de Reuss walked into the room.
As usual she was marvellously dressed, a stately glittering figure in a gown of shimmering black which seemed at every moment on fire. Her beautiful neck and shoulders were uncovered and undecorated; she walked between a grey-headed man, who wore the orders of an ambassador and a blue sash on his evening clothes, and his wife. Every one turned to look at her, every one was watching when she stopped for a moment before Drexley's table, but every one did not see the flash in her eyes and the sudden tightening of her lips as she recognised the little party. Yet she was graciousness itself to them, and Douglas was the only one who noticed that first impulse of displeasure. She rested her fingers almost affectionately on Drexley's shoulder, and the new flush of colour in his cheeks faded into sallowness at her touch.
"Here are two at least of my friends who have proved faithless," she said, lightly. "I have been abroad for—ah! how long it seems—one, two, three months, and neither of you has bidden me welcome back to this wonderful city."
"We are not magicians," Douglas answered, "and as yet I am sure there is no paper which has chronicled your return. Only yesterday I was told that you were at Vienna."
"Never," she said, smiling into his face, "never under any circumstances believe anything anybody ever says about me. I have to tell that to my friends, in order that I may keep them. Tell me, have you begun the country letters yet for Mr. Anderson?"
"I send my first one away on Thursday," Douglas answered.
"You will send me a proof?"
"If I may, with pleasure."
She turned to Drexley.
"And you, my friend," she said, "how have things gone with you? The Ibex is as good as ever. I bought this month's at a kiosk in Buda. You must get Mr. Jesson to write you more stories as good as 'No Man's Land.'"
Drexley looked up at her with a grim smile twitching at the corners of his lips.
"Yes," he said, quietly. "It was a good story, although I am afraid we rather humbugged Jesson about it. I'm not at all sure that he'll trust us with another."
She returned Drexley's look with a stare of non-comprehension. It was the first sign of revolt from one in whom she had thought all along such a thing dead. Then with a pleasant nod to Douglas she passed on, threading her way slowly amongst the tables to where her friends were waiting. It was not until after she had gone that the two men realised how utterly she had ignored their two companions.
They took up the thread of their conversation—and it was the unexpected which intervened. Drexley relaxed still further; there was a quiet humour in everything he said; he took upon his shoulders the whole entertainment of the little party. The coming of Emily de Reuss might well have been a matter of indifference to him. With Douglas it was strangely different. To him she had never seemed more beautiful; the fascination of her near presence, her voice, her exquisite toilette crept into his blood. He was silent at first, a bright light gleamed in his eyes, he watched her continually. A sense of aloofness crept over him. He spoke and ate mechanically, scarcely noticing that he was drinking a good deal more wine than usual. Once he glanced quickly at Cicely; her cheeks were flushed, and she was looking her best—he saw only her imperfections. Her prettiness, after all, was ordinary; her simple evening gown, even to his inexperienced eyes, suggested the home dressmaker; that slight tenderness for her which only a few days ago had seemed such a pleasant thing seemed suddenly swept away in the broad flood of a passion against which unconsciously he had long been struggling. He forced himself after a while to share in their conversation, he joined in their laughter and listened to Drexley's stories, but all the time with a sense of inward excitement which he found it hard to conceal. Coffee and cigarettes were served at Drexley's suggestion out in the palm court attached to the restaurant. Afterwards, when the girls rose to leave, Douglas was conscious for the first time of a look of reproach in Cicely's dark eyes. He pretended to ignore it—he felt that any sort of response just then was impossible. The girls refused any escort home. They drove away in a hansom, and Drexley remained upon the pavement listening to the echo of their farewell speeches as to a very pleasant thing. He turned back with a rare smile upon his lips and laid his hand upon Douglas's shoulder.
"Your cousin is charming, Jesson," he said. "I'll never be able to thank you enough for this evening. For the first time I have felt that after all there may be a chance for me."
"I'm very glad," Douglas answered—"very glad indeed."
Drexley looked at him curiously.
"You're not quite yourself this evening, Jesson," he remarked.
"I'm all right. Which way are you going—to the club?"
Drexley shook his head.
"Back to my rooms," he answered. "I shall have a pipe and go to bed. I haven't slept well lately. To-night I think I shall."
They were parted by a stream of outcoming people, and Douglas took advantage of the opportunity to slip away. A little way along the street a small brougham, which was very familiar to him, was waiting.
"Twenty, Grosvenor Square," he said, hailing a hansom.
He was driven through the seething streets, along Piccadilly, all on fire with its streams of people, carriages, and brilliant lights, and, arriving at the corner of the Square, jumped out. He walked slowly up and down the pavement. He could feel his heart thumping with excitement; his cheeks were burning with an unusual colour. He cursed himself for coming, yet the sound of every carriage which turned the corner sent the blood leaping through his veins. He cursed himself for a fool, but waited with the eagerness of a boy, and when her brougham came into sight he was conscious of an acute thrill of excitement which turned him almost dizzy. Supposing—she were not alone? He forgot to draw back into the shadows, as at first had been his intention, but stood in the middle of the pavement, so that the footman, who jumped down to open the carriage door, looked at him curiously. She was within a few feet of him when she stepped out.
"Douglas!" she exclaimed. "Is that you?"
"May I come in, or is it too late?"
She looked into his face, and the ready assent died away upon her lips. He noticed her hesitation, but remained silent.
"Of course," she said, slowly. "What have you done with your friends?"
"They have gone home," he answered, shortly. "I came on here. I wanted to see you."
They passed into the house and to her little sitting-room, where a couch was drawn up before a tiny fire of cedar wood, and her maid was waiting. Emily dismissed her almost at once, and, throwing herself down, lighted a cigarette.
"Sit down, my friend, and smoke," she said. "I will tell you, if you like, about my travels, and then I must hear about the novel."
But Douglas came over and stood by her side. His eyes were burning with fire, and his voice was tremulous with emotion as he replied.
"Afterwards. I have something else to say to you first."
The cigarette dropped from her fingers; she sat up. Then he saw that she too was agitated. There was an unusual spot of colour in her cheeks, her breathing was certainly less regular. The variance from her habitual placidity encouraged him. He scarcely hesitated for a moment.
"You'll think I'm insane," he began. "I don't care. There's Drexley, heartbroken, that other poor wretch mad, and others that they have told me of. Do you know that these men are your victims, Emily de Reuss?"
"Ay. Now listen. I will absolve you from blame. I will say that the fault was theirs, that your kindness was meant for kindness and nothing else, a proof, if you will, of a generous nature. What does it matter? These men have poured out their lives upon the altar of your vanity. They have given you their love, and you have given them—nothing. I honestly believe nothing. I will believe that theirs was the fault, that you are not heartless nor vain nor indifferent. Only I am not going to be as these men, Emily. I love you—no one but you, you always, and you shall be mine, or I will leave your doors for ever, and crush down every thought of you. A curse upon friendship and such rubbish. You are a beautiful woman, far above me—but at least I am a man—and I love you—and I will have you for my own or no other woman."
He bent down, snatched hold of her hands and drew her face towards his. His heart leaped in quick, fierce beats. At least she was not indifferent. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes marvellously soft. She did not repulse him, nor did she yield herself at once to his embrace. She looked up at him with wet eyes and a curious smile.
"My friend," she said, "do you wish to take me by storm. What is all this you are saying—and why do you look so fierce?"
"Because I am desperate, dear," he answered. "Because I am alone with you, the woman I love, and because a single word from you can open the gates of Heaven for me. Don't think I am too rough. I will not hold you for a moment if you bid me let you go. See, you are free. Now you shall answer me or I will read your silence as I choose—and—"
His arms were around her waist. Her face was turned away, but he saw the glitter of a tear in her eyes, and he was very bold. He kissed it away.
"Emily," he cried, "you care for me—a little. You are not heartless. Dear, I will wait for you as long as you like."
She unclasped his hands and drew a little away from him. But he did not lose heart, for though her smile was a wistful one, her eyes were soft with unshed tears, and her face was the face of a woman.
"Douglas," she said, "will you listen to me for a moment? You spoke of those other men, you charged me with heartlessness. Perhaps you were right. What then?"
The brutal selfishness of love and of youth swept from his memory Strong's broken life and Drexley's despair.
"Nothing," he cried, "so long as you will care for me. I am not your judge. I want you—you, Emily, and your love. To-night I care for nothing else."
She laid her soft fingers upon his eager face, half caressingly, half in repulse.
"I never wished them harm," she said. "I was interested in their work, and to me they were merely units. So they called me heartless. I was only selfish. I let them come to me because I like clever people about me, and society requires just such an antidote. When they made love to me I sent them away or bade them remain as friends. But that does not necessarily mean that I am without a heart."
"I never want to think of them again," he murmured. "All that I want in this world is that you tell me that you care for me."
She looked into his face, eager, passionate, almost beautiful in its intensity, and smiled. Only the smile covered a sigh.
"If I tell you that, Douglas," she said, "will it be kindness, I wonder? I wonder!"
"Say it, and I will forget everything else in the world," he begged.
"Then I think that I do—care for you, Douglas, if—"
He stopped her words—she gave herself up for a moment to that long, passionate kiss. Then she withdrew herself. But for him the whole world was lit with happiness. He had heard the words which more than anything else he desired to hear. She could never take them back. Her melancholy was a miasma. He would laugh it away with her.
"Douglas," she said, "it was because I fancied that you were beginning to care for me and because I knew that I cared for you that I went away—not because I was afraid."
He looked puzzled. Then he spoke slowly.
"Emily, is it because I am poor and unknown? I am no fit husband for you, I know. Yet I love you, and, if you care, I will make you happy."
"It is not that," she answered.
He rose to his feet. A darker shade was upon his face and his eyes were lit with fire. A new look of resolution was in his face. His lower jaws were knit together with a sullen strength.
"Emily," he said, "there is nothing in this world which I will suffer to come between you and me. I have been lonely all my days—fatherless, motherless, friendless. Now I have found you, and I know how bitterly I must have suffered. If there are battles to fight I will fight them, if you would have me famous first, I will make myself famous, but no power in this world or any other shall take you away from me again. Tell me what it is you fear. Why do you hesitate? I am a man, and your lover, and I can bear to hear anything. But you belong to me. Remember that. I won't part with you. I won't be denied . . . and I love you so much, Emily."
She rose, too, and her arms went round his neck. She drew his lips to hers and kissed him.
"There," she murmured. "You talk as I love to hear a man talk . . . and—I too have been very lonely sometimes, Douglas."
"You have had so many friends, such a beautiful life," he answered.
She smiled at him.
"Dear," she said, "do you think any of these things are worth a moment's consideration to a woman against the love of the man she cares for? We are all the same, though some of us do not wear our hearts upon our sleeves. The longing for love is always there, and the women who go hungry for it through life are the women to be pitied. Douglas, I would change places with that simple, dark-eyed little girl you were with this evening if—if I could marry you to-morrow. Is that too bold?"
He started away. A sudden fear wrenched at his heartstrings. He looked at her wildly.
"Do you mean that you will not be my wife—that you care for me, but not enough to marry me?" he cried. She shook her head slowly.
"No, dear," she said, "for if I were a princess and you were a shopkeeper I would marry you, and be proud of my husband. Don't think so meanly of me as that. There is another—a more powerful reason."
"Tell it me," he begged; "don't keep me in suspense."
She thrust her arm through his and led him gently to the sofa.
"Douglas, won't you trust me? I want to keep my secret for a little while. Listen. It shall not keep us apart, but I cannot be your wife yet, dearly though I would love to be."
The old mistrust blazed up in the man. Drexley's cynicism, Strong's ravings came back to him. He, too, was to be fooled. Her love was a pretence. He was simply a puppet, to yield her amusement and to be thrown aside.
"The truth!" he cried, roughly. "Emily, remember that I have seen men made mad for love of you, have heard them curse your deceit and heartlessness. I'll forget it all, but you must trust me. Prove to me that you cannot marry me, and I'll wait, I'll be your slave, my life shall be yours to do what you will with. But I'll have the truth. I'll have no lonely nights when doubts of you creep like hideous phantoms about the room, and Drexley and Strong come mocking me. Oh, forgive me, but you don't know what solitude is. Be merciful, Emily. Trust me."
She had turned white. The hands she held out to him trembled.
"Douglas," she cried, "if you have any love for me at all you must have faith in me too. It shall not be for long. In less than a year you shall know everything, and until then you shall see me when you will, you shall be the dearest person in the world to me."
"I want the truth," he pleaded. "Emily, if you send me away you'll send me into hell. I daren't have any doubts. They'd drive me mad. Be merciful, tell me everything."
She was very white, very cold, yet her voice shook with passion.
"Douglas, you have called me heartless. You were nearer the truth than you thought, perhaps. You are the first man whom I have ever cared for, it is all new to me. Don't make me crush it. Don't destroy what seems like a beautiful dream. You can be patient for a little while, can you not? You shall be my dearest friend, my life shall be moulded as you will—listen, I will swear that no one in this world shall ever have a single word of love from me save you. Don't wreck our lives, dear, just from an impulse. Do you know you have saved me from a nightmare? I am older than you, Douglas, and I was beginning to wonder, to fear, whether I might not be one of those poor, unfortunate creatures to whom God has never given the power to love anything—and life sometimes was so cold and lonely. You could light it all for me, dear, with your love. You have shown me how different it could be. Don't go away.
"It is an easy thing I ask," he cried, hoarsely. "I have given you my whole love—my whole life. I want yours."
"You are the only man, dear," she answered, "whom I have ever loved, and I do love you."
"Your life too, every corner of it. I want it swept clear of shadows. You need have no fear. If you were a murderess, or if every day of it was black with sin, my love could never alter," he cried.
"Dearest," she whispered, "haven't I told you that you shall take my life into your keeping and do with it what you will?"
He unwound her arms.
"And the past?"
"Everything you shall know—there's nothing terrifying—save that one thing—and that before long."
"Is it like this," he cried, "that you have kept men in chains before—watched them go mad for sport? I'll not be your slave, Emily—shut out from your confidence—waiting day by day for God knows what."
She drew herself up. A storm of passion blazed in her face. The new tenderness which had so transfigured it, had passed away.
"Then go!" she ordered, pointing to the door. "You make a mockery of what you call love. I never wish to see you again, Douglas Jesson."
He stood facing her for a moment without movement. Then he turned and walked slowly out of the house.
THE WOOING OF CICELY
The completion of Douglas Jesson's novel was the principal event of the following week. There had come no word from Emily de Reuss, nor had Douglas himself sought her. Better, he told himself, to face his suffering like a man, grapple with it once and for all, than to become even as Drexley and those others, who had never found strength to resist. She was beautiful, magnetic, fascinating, and he loved her; on the other hand there was his self-respect and the strength of his manhood. He was young, he had courage and a career—surely the battle would go for him. But the days which followed were weary and the nights were pitiless.
He finished his novel, doggedly and conscientiously. The great publishing house who had been waiting for it had pledged themselves to produce it within a month, and Douglas was everywhere pursued with little bundles of proofs requiring immediate attention. These and his work at the Courier kept him fairly occupied during the day, but the night time was fast becoming a season of terror. He tried theatres, music halls, the club—all vainly. For there were always the silent hours before the dawn, when distraction was impossible—hours when he lay with hot, wide-open eyes and looked back upon that little scene—saw Emily with her hands outstretched towards him, and that new light upon her face, heard her changed tone, saw the wonderful light in her eyes, felt the thrilling touch of her lips. After all, was he not a fool—a quixote—he, to dare to make terms with her who offered him her love—he, unknown, poor, of humble birth—she an aristocrat to the finger-tips, rich, beautiful, famous. What a gulf between them. She had stretched out her hands to help him across, and he had lingered bargaining. He leaped from his couch and stood before his window. He would go to her at once—her love he would have on any terms until she was weary of him, and the measure of his life should be the measure of those days. He would have his day and die. Then the empty streets, the curling white mists, the chill vaporous breeze, and the far-off sickly lights gleaming down the riverside reminded him that many hours must come before he could see her. And with the later morning came fresh resolutions—the moment of weakness was gone.
One night he did an act of charity. He brought home to his rooms a homeless wanderer whom he had found discharged from a night in the cells, gave him his own bedroom and sent for a doctor and nurse. From them he learnt that so far as Emily de Reuss was concerned, there was nothing more to be feared from David Strong. His days were numbered at last, and the end was very near. So Douglas would hear nothing of a hospital, and spent weary nights at the dying man's side. For which, and his act of charity, he had soon an ample reward.
One morning a grinning youth invaded his sanctum at the Courier with the information that a lady wished to see him. The walls spun round and his heart leaped with delirious hope. But when he reached the waiting-room it was Cicely who rose smiling to greet him, Cicely in the smartest clothes she had ever worn, and a new hat, looking as dainty and pretty as a picture. But it was Cicely—not the woman for whose coming he would have given years of his life.
She herself was too happy to notice the sudden fall in his countenance. Her piquant little face was beaming. She held out a pearl-gloved hand to him.
"Douglas," she exclaimed. "I have come to take you out to lunch. It was a bargain, remember. I have just drawn a cheque from the Ibex for twenty pounds."
"Twenty pounds," he repeated, with mock reverence. "Heavens! what affluence. Will you walk round with me and wait while I change?"
"Why, yes. I came early in case you wanted to go to your rooms first. Do you know, I've been to the 'Milan' and chosen my table. There's a lovely band playing, and it's all quite a fairy tale, isn't it?"
He laughed, and they went out together into the street. She looked at him with sudden gravity. "You're not well, Douglas." "Never better," he assured her gaily. She shook her head. "You haven't been worrying about Joan?"
"Never think of her," he answered truthfully. She sighed.
"I wish I didn't. Douglas, I didn't mean to talk of this just now, for it's a horrid subject, and to-day is a fete day. But supposing Joan finds you out. Could she make them arrest you?"
"Not a doubt about it," he answered, "if she chose."
"Well, it wouldn't be pleasant," he admitted. "I think I should get out of it, but it might be awkward. And in getting out of it, I might perhaps bring more pain upon Joan than any she has suffered yet."
"Did any one kill Father, Douglas?"
"Do you know who did?"
"I'm afraid I can guess."
She was silent for a moment. Then they turned off into the side street where his rooms were, and she passed her arm through his.
"There, now I'm going to banish that and all unpleasant subjects," she declared. "Do you know, I feel ridiculously light-hearted to-day, Douglas. I warn you that I shall be a frivolous companion."
"You'll be a very welcome one," he answered. "There was never a time when I wanted you so much. I've finished my novel and I have a fit of the blues."
"It is your own fault," she said. "It is because you have not been to see me for a fortnight."
"And I wonder how much you have missed me all that fortnight. Tell me what you have been doing."
She looked at him sideways. He almost fancied that she was blushing.
"Tuesday night Mr. Drexley took me out to dinner, and we went to the Lyceum," she said.
He stopped short upon the pavement.
She looked up at him demurely.
"Why, you don't mind, do you, Douglas? Mr. Drexley is a friend of yours, isn't he? He has been so kind."
"The devil he has!" Douglas muttered, amazed. "And how many more times have you seen him during the fortnight, I wonder?"
"Well—once or twice," she admitted.
"Any more dinner parties?"
"We went to Richmond one afternoon. Mr. Drexley rows so nicely. He introduced me to his sister."
"Never knew he had one," Douglas muttered.
"Here we are. Come in and sit down while I change."
Douglas was not long over his toilet. When he returned he was inclined to be thoughtful. For no earthly reason he could think of, Cissy's friendship with Drexley irritated him. He did not understand it. He had looked upon Drexley as a man whose emancipation was an impossibility, for whom there was no hope of any further social life. Was it possible that he could be seriously attracted by Cicely? He watched her with this thought all through luncheon, and gradually there crept into his mind a fuller and more complete appreciation of her unmistakable charm. All the time she was chattering gaily to him, chasing away his gloom, forcing him to breathe the atmosphere of gaiety and light-heartedness which she seemed at once to create and to revel in. It occurred to him that if ever a girl in the world was created to save a man from despair, surely she was that one. Dainty, cheerful, unselfish, with a charming command of language and a piquant wit, Cicely had made vast strides in self-development since the days when they had sat together on the Feldwick Hills and talked of that future into which it seemed then so impossible that they should ever pass.
"Do you remember," he asked her, "what we used to call the pearl light, the soft crystalline glow before the sunrise, and how fresh and sweet the air was when we scrambled up the hill?"
She nodded thoughtfully.
"I think very often of those days, and the dreams we used to weave together. Sometimes I can scarcely believe how near we have come to realising them. What a wonderfully still, lonely country it was."
"We used to sit and watch the smoke curl upwards from the cottages one by one. The farm was always the first."
"Yes, Joan saw to that."
"And the nights. Do you remember how sweet the perfumes were—the heather and the wild thyme? Those long cool nights, Cissy, when we watched the lights flicker out one by one, and the corncrakes and the barn owl came and made music for us."
"It is like a beautiful picture, the memory," she murmured.
"Build a fence around and keep it," he said. "Life there was an abstraction, but a beautiful one. London has made man and woman of us, but are we any happier, I wonder?"
"I am," she answered simply.
"You are happy because you have not grasped at shadows," he said, bitterly. "You have taken the good which has come, and been thankful."
"And you," she replied, softly, "you are known already. In a few months' time you will be famous."
"Ay, but shall I be happy?" he asked himself, only half aloud.
"If you will," she answered. "If you have spent any of your time grasping at shadows, be thankful at least that you are man enough to realise it and put them from you. Life should be a full thing for you. Douglas, I think that you are wonderful. All that we dreamed of for you has come true."
He looked into her face with a sudden intensity—a pretty face enough, flushed and earnest.
"Cissy, help me to realise one at least of those dreams. Will you?"
She looked at him suddenly white, bewildered, a little doubtful.
"What do you mean, Douglas?"
"You were very dear to me in those days, Cissy," he said, leaning over and taking her fingers into his. "You have always been dear to me. Our plans for the future were always large enough for two. Take me into yours—come into mine. Can you care for me enough for that?"
She was silent; her face was averted. They were alone, and his fingers tightened upon hers.
"We never spoke of it in words, Cissy," he went on, "but I think we understood. Will you help me to leave the shadows alone? Will you be my wife?"
"You care—enough for that?" she asked, raising her eyes to his suddenly.
A moment's wild revolt—a seething flood of emotions sternly repressed. He met her eyes, and though there was no smile upon his lips, his tone was firm enough.
"I care—enough for that, Cissy," he answered.
THE NET OF JOAN'S VENGEANCE
Success—complete, overpowering, unquestioned. Douglas Jesson's novel was more than the book of the season—it became and still remains a classic. There is much talk nowadays by minor writers of the difficulty of making a name, of the inaccessibility of the public. As a matter of fact there never was a time when good work was so quickly recognised both by the press and the public, never a novel which sees the light of day but meets with appreciably more or less than its merits. There was never a second's hesitation about "The Destiny of Phillip Bourke." The critics praised and the public bought it. Edition followed edition. Douglas Jesson took his place without an effort amongst the foremost writers of the day.
And this same success brought him face to face with one of the great crises of his life. It brought Joan to him, successful at last in her long search. Their interview, which, if unexpected, must surely have savoured of the dramatic, was reduced more or less to the commonplace, from the fact that she came to him prepared, already assured of his identity, for who else could have immortalised so wonderfully the little hillside village where they had both been brought up? He walked into the waiting-room at the Courier equally prepared, for he had seen her pass the window. She turned and faced him as he entered, carefully closing the door behind him, with a grim smile of triumph about her thin, set lips.
"At last, then, Douglas Guest," she exclaimed, laying his book upon the table. "Are you not weary of skulking under a false name?"
"I chose it as much for your sake as mine, Joan," he gravely replied.
Her black eyes flashed hatred and disbelief upon him.
"You don't imagine that you can make me believe that," she answered, passionately. "You have fooled many people, but I think your turn has come at last. I did not come here to listen to any fairy tales."
"You will forgive me if I ask what you did come for, Joan. I would rather you had come as a friend, but I fear there is no chance of that."
She laughed mockingly.
"I have searched for you many days," she said, "and many nights. I have ransacked a city which was strange to me; I have walked many hundreds of miles over its pavements until I have grown sick with disappointments. And now that I have found you Douglas Guest, you are right when you say that I do not come as your friend."
"You had a motive, I presume?"
"Yes, I had a motive. I wanted to look into your face and tell you that the net of my vengeance is drawn close about you, and the cords are gathered in my hands. To-day you are flushed with triumph, to-morrow you will be pale with fear."
"Joan," he said, looking across the table into her face, distorted with passion, "you believe that I killed your father?"
"Believe? I know it!"
"Nevertheless I did not raise my hand against him. I took money because it was my own. I left him sound and well."
"There are others," she exclaimed scornfully, "who may believe that, but not many, I should think."
"Joan," he said earnestly, "you will be a happier woman all your life if you will listen to me now. Your father was killed that night and robbed, but not by me. I took twenty pounds, which was not a tithe of what belonged to me—not a penny more. It was after I had left—"
"Two in one night?" she interrupted. "It doesn't sound ingenious, Douglas Guest, though you are welcome, of course, to your own story."
"Ingenious or not, it is true," he answered. "You are very bitter against me, and some hard thoughts from you I have certainly deserved. But of what you think I am not guilty, and unless you want to do a thing of which you will repent until your dying day, you must put that thought away from you."
"Do you think that I am a child?" she asked scornfully. "Do you think that I am to be put off with such rubbish as that? I made all my arrangements long ago for when I found you. In less than an hour you will be in prison."
"Joan, you are very hard," he said.
"I loved my father, and I hate you," she returned, passionately.
"I misjudged you," he said reflectively. "I never gave you credit for such tenacity of purpose. I did not think that love or hate would ever burn their way into your life."
"Then you were a fool," she answered shortly. "You have never understood me. Perhaps when you have the rope about your neck you will read a woman's nature more truthfully."
"You are very vindictive, Joan."
"I want justice," she replied sharply, "and I hate you!"
"Listen," he said. "I am not going to make any attempt to escape. I will answer this charge of yours when the time comes. Meanwhile there is something which I want to show you. It will not take long and it may alter your purpose."
"Nothing could ever alter my purpose," she remarked emphatically.
"You cannot tell," he answered. "Now, I declare to you most solemnly that if you have me arrested before you do what I ask, you will never cease to repent it all your life."
"What do you want me to do?" she asked.
He took down his hat from a peg behind the door.
"It is something I have to show you. We must go to my rooms. They are only just the other side of the Strand."
In absolute silence they walked along together. Joan had but one fear—the fear which had made her grant his request—and that she put resolutely behind her. "God was just," she muttered to herself again and again, and He would not see her cheated of her vengeance. From behind her thick veil she looked at Douglas. He was pale and serious, but there was no look of fear in his face. Then he had always been brave. She remembered that from the old days. He would walk to the scaffold like that. She shuddered, yet without any thought of relenting. On the way he met acquaintances and greeted them. Crossing the Strand he held out his hand to steer her clear of a passing vehicle, but she shrank away with a little gesture of indignation. When at last they reached the street where his rooms were, and stopped in front of the tall, grimy building she addressed him for the first time.
"What place is this? What are you bringing me here for?"
"This is where I live," he answered. "There is something in my rooms which I must show you."
She stood still, moody and inclined to be suspicious.
"Why should I trust you? We are enemies, you and I. There may be evil inside this house for me."
He threw open the door.
"You are quite safe," he said curtly, "and you know it. It is for your good, not mine, that I have brought you here."
She entered and followed him upstairs. A vague sense of coming trouble was upon her. She started when Douglas ushered her into a dimly-lighted room, with a bed in one corner. A hospital nurse rose to meet them, and looked reproachfully at Douglas. A man was leaning back amongst the pillows, wild-eyed, and with flaring colour in his cheeks. When he saw Joan he called out to her.
"You've come, then," he cried. "You know, Joan, I never meant to do it; upon my soul, I didn't."
The nurse bent over him, but he thrust her aside.
"My sister!" he shouted. "My sister! I must talk with her. Listen, Joan. I struck only one blow. It was an accident. I shall swear that it was an accident. I had the money safe—I was ready to go. He was mad to interfere with me, for I was desperate. It was only one blow—I wanted to free myself, and down he went like a log. A hard man, too, and a powerful, but he went down like a log. I didn't want his life. I wanted money, for I was in rags and she wouldn't look at me. 'Come to me properly clothed,' she said. I, who had ruined myself for her. Joan, hist! Come here."
They were under the spell of his terrible excitement. The nurse fell back, Joan took her place at his pillow. He gripped her arm with claw-like fingers, but though he drew her down till his lips nearly touched her ear, his hoarse whispering was distinctly heard throughout the room.
"Two of us—father and son. Will you avenge us, eh? Listen, then. I will tell you her name. She played with my life and wrecked it, she took my time, my love, nay life, she gave me nothing. It was she who poisoned my blood with the lust for gold; it was she who sent me over the hills to Feldwick. Ay, it was she who nerved me to steal and to kill. Joan, will you not avenge me and him, for I must die, and it is she who has killed me—Emily de Reuss. Oh, may the gods, whoever they be—the gods of the heathen, and the God of the Christian, your God, Joan, and the God of Justice curse her! If I had lived I should have killed her. If my fingers—were upon her throat—I could die happy."
He fell back upon the pillows. Douglas led Joan from the room. She turned and faced him.
"Who is this woman?" she asked.
A SCENE AT THE CLUB
He made her sit down, for she was white and faint. For the moment he left her question unanswered.
"You have learnt the truth, Joan, from his own lips," he said. "I have a confession signed last week by him before the fever set in. You can read it if you like."
"There is no need," she answered. "I have heard enough. Who is this Emily de Reuss?"
"She is a very clever woman," he said, "with whom your brother became most unreasonably infatuated. She took an interest in him, as she has done in many young literary men. He fell in love with her without any encouragement, and gave way to his foolishness in a most unwarrantable manner. He neglected his work to follow her about, lost his position and his friends—eventually, as you see, his reason. I cannot tell you any more than that. She was perhaps unwise in her kindness, perhaps a little vain, inasmuch as she liked to pose as the literary inspirer of young talent, and to surround herself with worshippers. That is the extent of her fault. I do not believe that for a moment she deliberately encouraged him, or was in any way personally responsible for the wreck of his life."
"You perhaps know her."
"I think that I may say so."
"Then you can tell her this," she said. "Tell her that before long she will have a visit from David Strong's sister." Douglas shook his head. "It is not she who is to blame," he said. She pointed to the room which they had left.
"Men do not become like that," she said, "of their own will, or from their own fault alone. He is mad, and in madness is truth. Did you not hear him say that it was she who had destroyed him? Am I to lose father and brother, ay, and husband, Douglas, and sit meekly in my chimney-corner?"
"As to the last," he said, "you know that it was your father's doing. I was nothing to you. He ordered, and we obeyed in those days. He ruled us like a tyrant. One would not wish to speak evil of the dead, or else one would surely say that it was he who was responsible for the evil things which have come upon us.
"How do you know?" she demanded fiercely. "Were you not my promised husband?—and you stole away like a coward from the pestilence."
He was aghast, silent from sheer confusion. This was a point of view which had never once occurred to him.
"Am I not a woman?" she continued, with rising passion—"as other women? You were given to me, you were mine. Why should you steal away like a thief with never a word, and ignore me wholly as a creature of no worth? Come, answer me that. Were you not my promised husband?"
"I never spoke a word of love to you," he said "Your father forced it on us."
She leaned over the table towards him.
"You fool!" she cried. "Do you think life at Feldwick was any more bearable to me than to you and Cissy, because I wasn't always mooning about on the hills or reading poetry? You never took the trouble to find out. You looked upon me as a drudge because I did the work which was my duty. You were mine, and I wanted you. When you stole away I hated you. I have tried to hunt you down because I hated you. You have escaped me now, but I shall hate you always. Remember it, Douglas Guest. Some day you may yet have cause to."
She left him speechless, too amazed to think of making her any answer. It was Joan who had said these things to him, Joan the silent, with her hard, handsome face and her Lather's dogged silence. Never again would he believe that he understood anything whatsoever about women. He walked up and down for a while restlessly, then put on his hat and walked across to the club.
* * * * *
"Let me go, I tell you! By Heaven, there'll be mischief if you don't!"
Half a dozen of them were holding Drexley—a pitiable sight. His coat was torn, his eyes seemed starting from his sockets, his breath reeked of brandy and his face was pale with passion. Opposite him was Douglas, his cheek bleeding from the sudden blow which Drexley had struck him, gazing with blank surprise at his late assailant. Some one had told him that Drexley was there, had been drinking brandy all day and was already verging on madness, and he had gone at once into the little bar, hoping to be able to quieten him. But at his first words Drexley had sprung upon him like a wild animal—nothing but his own great personal strength and the prompt intervention of all the men who were present had saved the attack from being a murderous one. There had been no words—no sort of explanation. None came now—Drexley was furious but silent.
"I think you had better go away, Jesson," one of the members said. "We will take him home."
But Drexley heard and shook his head. He spoke then for the first time.
"I want a word with Jesson," he said. "I'm sorry I made a fool of myself. I'm all right now. You needn't hold me."
They stood away from him. He made no movement.
"I've a word or two to say to Jesson in private," he said. "No one need be afraid of me. You can tie my hands if you like, but it isn't necessary."
Cleavers, one of the members who had witnessed the assault, shook his head.
"I wouldn't trust myself with him if I were you, Jesson," he said. "He's half mad now, and for some reason or other he's got his knife into you. You slip off home quietly."
Jesson looked across the room to Drexley, who was leaning against the wall with folded arms.
"Give me your word of honour, Drexley," he said, "and I'll hear what you have to say."
"I give it. I swear that I will not lay a finger upon you."
"Come this way, then," Jesson added.
He left the room and entered a small committee chamber nearly opposite. Drexley closed the door but he showed no signs of excitement.
"Jesson," he began, "I hated you once because I was the poor slave of a woman who cared nothing for me or any who had gone before me, and who from the first looked upon you differently. I hated you from the day Emily de Reuss wrote me, and ordered me to delay your story and deny you work so that you might be driven to go to her for aid. Then I think I became apathetic. We drifted together, I tolerated you. The woman I had worshipped all my life forgot to dole out to me even those few crumbs of consolation to which I had become accustomed. It was then—I met—through you—Miss Strong."
Douglas was suddenly interested. What had Cissy to do with it all? He put his thought into words.
"What of that?" he asked. "I don't understand how I have injured you."
"Oh, you have not injured me," Drexley answered bitterly. "You have simply stood between me and salvation."
"You must speak more plainly if you want me to understand you," Douglas said.
"There was only one thing in the world which could have saved me from this—from myself," Drexley continued fiercely. "Call me what hard names you like. I'll accept them. I wasted half a lifetime only to find that my folly had been colossal. No other woman but your cousin has ever been kind to me—she held out her hand and I seemed to see the light—and then you must come and take her from me."
Douglas gazed at him in blank amazement.
"Do you mean to tell me that you care for my cousin—seriously—would have asked her to marry you?" he exclaimed. "Yes."
"She was kind to me. In time I should have won her. I am sure of it."
Douglas rose from his chair and walked restlessly up and down the room.
"Drexley," he said, "if only I could have guessed this—if only I could have had any idea of it!"
"You couldn't," Drexley answered shortly. "I couldn't myself. I'd have given the lie to anybody who had dared so much as to hint at it. It was like a thunderclap to me."
"You know that I have asked her to be my wife?" "Yes."
"Listen then," Douglas said, suddenly pausing in his restless walk and facing his companion. "I will tell you how it came about. You remember the night that we were at the 'Milan'?
"Emily de Reuss was there."
"For months I had been steadily trying to forget her. That night the work of months was undone. She had only to hold out her hands, to speak for a moment kindly, and the truth seemed to flare out in letters of fire. I cannot forget her. I never shall be able to forget her. I own myself, Drexley, one of the vanquished. I love her as I shall never love any other woman in this world."
Drexley's face was black with passion, but Douglas would not have him speak.
"Wait," he said. "Hear my story first. I left you that night abruptly—as you know. I went to her. I put aside all false modesty. I forgot that I was only a journalist with a possible future and no past—and that she was an aristocrat—my passion carried me away. I knew only that I was a man and she was the woman I loved. So I pleaded with her, and at first I thought that I had won."
"Ah. Others have thought that," Drexley scoffed.
"She answered me," Douglas continued, in a tone momentarily softened, "as I would have had her answer me, and for a time I thought that I was going to be the happiest man in the world. But—afterwards—Drexley, even at this moment I do not know whether I have not been the most consummate fool on God's earth."
"Go on. Speak plainly."
"I spoke of marriage—she evaded it. There was an obstacle. I begged for her whole confidence. She withheld it. Then, Drexley, all your damnable warnings, all that I had ever heard of—her vanity, her heartlessness, her self-worship, came like madness into my brain. I refused to trust to my own instincts, I refused to trust her, so she sent me away. And, Drexley, if she be a true woman then may God help me, for I need it."
"She sent you away?"
"Ay. I spent some miserable days. No word came from her. It was over. Then it chanced that Cicely came to me. She was sympathetic, bright, and cheerful. She made me forget for a little while my despair. I have always been fond of her, I think that she has always been fond of me. You know the rest."
"You are going to marry Cicely Strong," Drexley said, slowly. "But you love Emily de Reuss?"
"I am afraid—that you are right," he said.
"And have you told Miss Strong," Drexley continued, "that you are proposing to marry her, but that you love another woman?" ''
Douglas looked up frowning. Drexley's tone had become almost contemptuous.
"Do you think that you are behaving fairly to her?" he asked. "Remember that she is not the child with whom you used to talk sentiment in your little Cumberland village. She is a woman now, with keen susceptibilities—as little a woman to be trifled with in her way as Emily de Reuss herself."
The two men faced one another. Douglas was angry with Drexley, angry too with himself.
"I believe you're right, Drexley," he said, with an effort, "but I'm hanged if I see what business it is of yours."
"It is the business of any man at any time," Drexley answered softly, "to speak for the woman whom he loves."
CICELY MAKES HER CHOICE
Society, over whose borders Douglas had once before passed under the tutelage of Emily de Reuss, opened her doors to him now freely, and Douglas, convinced that here was a solitude which the four walls of his chambers in Adam Street, peopled as they were with memories, could never offer, passed willingly inside. For a week or two he accepted recklessly whatever hospitalities were offered him, always with an unacknowledged hope that chance might offer him at least a glimpse of the woman who was destined to be the one great influence of his life. He frequented the houses where the possibilities of meeting her seemed best, and he listened continually and with ill-suppressed eagerness for any mention of her name. It chanced, however, that even the latter faint consolation was denied to him, and he neither saw anything of her at the houses of her friends, nor came across her name in the papers which, as a rule, never failed to chronicle her doings. At the club they chaffed him mercilessly—a rabid tuft-hunter, or had he political ambitions? He chaffed back again and held his own as usual, but not a soul, save perhaps Drexley, understood him in those days. Then there came to him one day a sudden fear. She was surely ill—or she had disappeared. He caught up his hat and coat and walked swiftly to Grosvenor Square.
He reached the house and stopped short in front of it. It seemed to him to have a gloomy, almost an uninhabited appearance. For a few moments he struggled with himself—with his pride, a vague sense of alarm every moment growing stronger as the dismantled aspect of the house became more apparent to him. Then he walked up the steps and rang the bell.
A servant in plain clothes answered it after a delay which was in itself significant. He appeared surprised at Douglas's inquiry, knowing him well as a frequent visitor at the house. The Countess had left for abroad several days since—he believed for Russia, and for a considerable time. The servants were all discharged and the house "to let," he himself remained only as caretaker. Douglas walked back again into the streets with a heart like lead and a mist before his eyes. She had taken him at his word then—he had lost her. After all it was the inevitable.
Mechanically at first, and afterwards with a purpose, he turned southwards to the tiny fiat where Cicely had established herself. A trim little maid-servant showed him into her room, and she welcomed him with outstretched hands. Yet he saw in the dim lamplight that her cheeks were pale and there was some measure of restraint in her greeting.
"You have come at last, then," she said, gaily enough. "Now you must let me give you some tea and afterwards you must tell me what you think of my rooms. Of course, I haven't finished furnishing yet, but they're nice, aren't they?"
He looked round approvingly. Everything was very simple but dainty and comfortable. A vase of beautiful chrysanthemums stood upon her writing-table, amber and pink and drooping white, they seemed to diffuse an almost illuminating glow. A tiny tea-table was drawn up before a bright fire. As he sat down by her side there swept over him once more a desire, keen, passionate, to escape from the turmoil of the last few months. Here at least was rest. The very homeliness of the little scene awoke in him the domestic instinct—heritage of his middle-class ancestors. Cicely chattered gaily to him. She was very charming in her dark red dress, and she had so much to say about this sudden fame which had come to him—so well deserved, so brilliantly won. Her face was aglow with pleasure, a wave of tenderness swept over him. He felt that it would be very pleasant to take her into his arms, to forget, with her little hands in his, those days of madness when he had yielded himself up to wild and passionate dreams of things impossible. Better to bury them, to take such measure of happiness as would at least ensure content. Life would surely be a sweeter and an easier thing lived out to the light music of the violins, than played to the deep storm throbbings of the great orchestra. So he broke in upon her laughing congratulations and faced her gravely.
"You had my letter, Cicely?" Her face changed, her eyes sought his nervously. "Yes." "You have thought about it?" "Of nothing else," she answered. "Well?"
She leaned over towards him. "It made me at first very angry," she said. He glanced at her quickly. She held up her hand.
"Now I am going to explain," she said. "You see, Douglas, when you asked me to be your wife I believed that you cared for me, well—altogether—and that you wanted it very much indeed. If I had known then what your letter has since told me, what do you think that I should have said to you?"
"I do want it very much," he repeated softly, "and I have always cared for you."
"I believe that you have," she answered, "but in the same way that I have always cared for you. You do not care for me as you do for Emily de Reuss, nor do you want me so much as the woman whom you cannot have. I want to be honest, dear. Perhaps if I loved you and felt that there was no one else in this world whom I could care for, this might be enough. I might be content with the chance that the rest would come, although no woman, Douglas, likes to think herself a makeshift—to be offered anything less than the whole. You see it is for life, isn't it? When you asked me, I never dreamed but that so long as you wanted me at all, you wanted me more than any one else in the world. Now I know that this was not so. I am only an insignificant little thing, Douglas, and not fit to be your companion in many ways. But I could not marry you to think that there would be moments when you and I would stand apart, that there would be another woman living, whose coming might quicken your heart, and make the world a more beautiful place for you. Can you understand that, I wonder?"
"No," he answered fiercely. "I asked you then, I beg of you now, as an honest man. If you will have me I will pluck out from my heart every other memory by the roots—there shall not live in this world any other woman for me. Nay, it is done already. She has gone for ever."
"Douglas," she said gently, "there are some things which a woman knows more about than a man. Listen, and answer truthfully. If she and I stood before you here, both free, both with our hands stretched out towards you—ah, I need not go any further, need I? You think that you have lost her, and you want me to help you to forget. It is too dangerous an experiment, Douglas. We will leave it alone."
"I thought," he said slowly, "that you cared for me."
"As a very, very dear friend and comrade I do indeed," she answered. "As anything else I might have learnt to—but not now."
There was a short silence between them. It was not until then, that he realised how dear during these last few months her companionship had been to him. He looked into the fire with sad, listless eyes. After all, what was success worth? He had grasped at the shadow, and Cicely with her charming little ways, her glorious companionableness and her dainty prettiness, was lost to him for ever. He had too much self-restraint to indulge in anything in the nature of recrimination. In his heart he felt that Drexley had taken his place—and whose the fault save his own? A sense of intolerable weariness swept over him as he rose to bid her good-by. Yet he was man enough to show a brave front.
"I believe you are right, Cicely," he said. "What I wished for after all was selfish. Your friendship I know that I may keep."
"Always," she answered, giving him both her hands.
On the stairs he passed Drexley with a bunch of violets in his coat and a new light in his face. A. sudden impulse of anger seized him. The second cup on the teatray upstairs, the glowing chrysanthemums, the change in Cicely—here was the meaning of these things. But for him, she would have been content with what he had to give her.
"Damn you, Drexley," he muttered . . . but at the foot of the stairs he looked up. It was only a momentary impulse. It was not in his nature to grudge any man his salvation.
"Sorry, old chap," he called up. "Good luck to you."
He walked down the street with the echo of Drexley's cheerful reply still in his ears.
"SHE WAS A WOMAN: I WAS A COWARD!"
Again Douglas found himself face to face with a future emptied of all delight, only this time as a saner and an older man. The growth of his literary powers, an increased virility, following upon the greater freedom of his life, and the cessation of those haunting fears which had ever hung like a shadow over his earlier days in London, came to his aid. All that was best and strongest in his character was called into action. He faced his future like a brave man determined to make the most of his days—to make the best use of the powers which he undoubtedly possessed. He remodelled his manner of living to suit his altered circumstances, took rooms in Jermyn Street which he furnished quietly but comfortably, and although he never became a society man, he went out often and did not indulge in an excess of solitude. He had grown older and graver, but had lost none of his good looks, and was particularly careful never to pose as a man of disappointments. Of Emily de Reuss he saw or heard nothing. She seemed to have vanished completely from her place in society, and although he ventured to make a few careful inquiries he never chanced to come across any one who could tell him anything about her. It was astonishing how soon she was forgotten, even amongst those who had been her greatest admirers. He seldom heard her name mentioned, and although he never failed to believe that she would return some day to London, he set himself as deliberately as possible to forget her. On the whole, he believed that he was succeeding very well. He was a favourite amongst women, for he treated them charmingly, always with a ready and natural gallantry, but always with the most profound and unvarying respect. Only the very keenest observers fancied sometimes that they detected the shadow of a past in his far from cheerless demeanour. For Douglas held his head high, and met the world which had turned aside to welcome him with outstretched hands.
One evening, at a large and crowded reception, a man, whom he knew slightly, touched him on the shoulder.
"Guest," he said, "there is a lady with whom I have been talking who wishes to renew her acquaintance with you. May I take you to her?"
Douglas murmured a conventional acquiescence and bowed to the pleasant-faced, grey-headed old lady with a sense of pleasure.
"I am honoured that you should have remembered me, Duchess," he said. "It seems quite a long time since I have had the honour of meeting you."
She made room for him by her side.
"I am glad to see you again, Mr. Guest," she said pleasantly, "for your own sake of course, and also because you were a friend of Emily de Reuss."
Douglas looked steadily away for a moment. He had not yet come to that stage when he could speak of her lightly as a casual friend.
"You have not heard from her lately, I suppose?" the Duchess asked. "I hear that she writes to no one."
"I have not heard from her since before she left England," Douglas answered.
The Duchess sighed.
"Poor Emily," she said. "You know I am amongst those few who knew her well—you also, I think, were one of them. There was no one I was more fond of—no one whom I have missed so much."
Again Douglas was silent. Did this woman understand, he wondered.
"It is a pleasure to me," she continued, "to find some one with whom I can talk about her—some one who knew and appreciated her."
"Do you know," he asked, "where she is?"
It was amazing what effect the monosyllable had upon him. The mask which he carried always with him fell suddenly away. He turned upon her with an abruptness almost disconcerting. His eyes were lit with fire, and there was a strange flush upon his cheeks.
"Where," he demanded—"where is she?" The Duchess looked at him with sympathy. She was a kindly woman, and she had probed his secret long ago.
"She is in a little village some five hundred miles across the frontier, in Siberia. I had imagined that you might have known."
"Siberia!" He repeated the word in blank amazement. The Duchess nodded.
"Now I have told you something very interesting," she said, "and in return I am going to ask you something. You quarrelled with her, did you not?"
"Scarcely that. I asked her to marry me," he answered.
"Which of course was impossible."
She raised her eyebrows.
"Is it conceivable," she exclaimed, "that you do not know?"
"I knew of no other barrier save the difference in our social positions," he said gravely.
She was silent for a moment.
"You did not know, then—be calm, my friend—that Emily had a husband living?"
A sharp little cry, almost immediately smothered, broke from his lips. He looked at his companion aghast. A flood of new light seemed to be breaking in upon him.
"Married! Emily married!" he exclaimed. "And she never told me."
"She probably meant to in her own good time," the Duchess said. "Of course I do not know how matters were between you, only I fancied that some change had come to her during the last few months. I hoped that she was growing to care for somebody. She is too rare a woman to lead for ever a lonely life."
"But her husband?" he stammered.
"She will never do more," the Duchess said gravely, "than look upon his face through iron bars. He is a prisoner for life in one of the gloomiest and most impregnable of Siberian fortresses. Some day, if you like, I will tell you the story of her marriage. It was a most unhappy one."
"Tell me now," he begged breathlessly.
She hesitated. A foreign prince bowed before her, his breast glittering with orders. She looked up at him smiling.
"Prince," she said, "Mr. Guest and I are elaborating together the plot of his next novel, and it is wonderfully fascinating."
He bowed low and passed on. She turned again to Douglas.
"I can tell it you," she said, "sufficiently in half a dozen sentences. Emily was the orphan child of one of the richest and noblest Hungarian families—the man she married was half a Pole half a Hungarian, poor, but also of noble family. His life was a network of deceit, he himself was a conspirator of the lowest order. He married Emily for her money—that it might be used for what he called the Cause. When she declined to have anything to do with it he first ill-treated her shamefully, and afterwards deserted her. Twice he was graciously pardoned by the Czar, twice he broke his word of honour and plunged again into infamy. The third time it seemed that nothing could save him, for he was caught in the act of directing a shameful conspiracy against the man who had treated him so generously. He was sentenced to death, but Emily crossed Europe in a special train, and after terrible difficulties won his life from the Czar herself when every other means had failed. He was condemned to imprisonment for life, and she gave her word that she would never ask for any mitigation of that sentence. Think of the generosity of that action! Although the man had treated her vilely, and she was young and beautiful, yet she doomed herself to a perpetual widowhood in order to save his life. I happen to know, too, that her love for him was wholly dead."
"It was magnificent," he murmured with something that sounded like a sob.
"She came to live in London, where her story was little known. That was ten years ago. I think that I am almost the only person who knows the whole truth about her, and if you ask me why I have told you, well, I can only say that it was by instinct."
"Duchess," he said, "you have told me the story of a heroine—now let me tell you the story of a fool. I came to London a very short time ago, poor, friendless, and untried. She was the only person from whom I received any spontaneous kindness whatever. She visited me when I was ill, she asked me to her house, she encouraged me in my work, she showed me how exquisite a thing the intelligent sympathy of a cultivated woman can be to a man who is struggling for expression. And in return—listen. There were others whom she had befriended—like me. She had keen literary instincts, as you know, and it was her pleasure to help in any way young beginners. She was also a woman and beautiful. Some of them lost their heads; two especially. It was their fault—not hers. They were presumptuous, and she rebuked them. They whined like whipped curs, went wrong as it chanced afterwards, and were held up to me as warnings. It was her vanity, they declared, which prompted her kindness. We were all puppets to her—not men. She had no heart. When my turn came I should be served like the rest. I loved her, Duchess; who could help it? and the time came when we stood face to face, and I saw the woman shining out of her eyes, and the gates of Heaven were opened to me. Was there ever such transcendental folly as mine? I locked the gates myself and remained—outside."
He looked away, and there was a short silence. A woman's song died sweetly away in an ante-room beyond, the murmur of pleasant conversation floated once more all around them. The Duchess unfurled a fan of wavy white feathers and half sheltered him. She only saw the dimness in his eyes as he went on.
"Those few minutes," he said, "I cannot speak of. Then there came, by some hateful chance, a cloud over my happiness. I remembered the warnings with which I had been pestered; the fool in me spoke whilst the man was silent. I demanded a pledge from her. I asked her when she would marry me. She bade me be patient, hinted at an obstacle—some day I should know everything. The fool in me raved. I demanded her promise to marry me as a token of her sincerity. Then she answered me as I deserved. If I did not trust her I might go—and, God help me, I went."
Again the bitter silence, and again the feathers swelled and waved. The band was playing softly, waltz music now. The Duchess, who was a motherly woman, and loved young men, felt her own eyes grow dim.
"After all," she said, "you must not blame yourself too much. Emily had her faults like other women. She was a little vain, a little imperious, not always wise. She should have told you everything."
Douglas rose and made his adieux.
"She trusted me once, Duchess, when everything looked against me, and never even deigned to ask for an explanation. She was a woman. When my turn came I was a coward."
A JOURNEY—AND A WEDDING
A brilliant and scathing criticism of a successful society play, signed by Douglas in full, and admitted to the columns of a periodical whose standing was unique, followed close upon the issue of his novel. His articles to the Courier were as vivid and characteristic as ever—he had passed with scarcely an effort after his initial success into the front ranks of contemporary writers. Of his private sorrows the world knew nothing, and he carried himself always with an impenetrable front. Yet after that night he felt that a break in his life was imperative—was a necessary condition indeed of his sanity. The literary and society papers chronicled his retirement into the wilds of Devonshire, where he was reported to be studying the plot of his next novel. As a matter of fact he had embarked upon a longer journey.
From Paris, after hours of indecision, he wired to Emily de Reuss at Molchavano.
"May I come to you?—DOUGLAS."
For a week he waited restlessly, a week of weary sightseeing and abortive attempts at holiday making. No answer came. On the eighth day he moved on to Vienna and sent another telegram.
"I am coming to you.—DOUGLAS."
Still no reply. He waited for a day or two and then moved on to St. Petersburg. Here he took up his quarters at the Hotel de l'Europe, and began to make inquiries about the journey across Siberia. From here he sent another message out over the snowbound wastes.
"I leave for Molchavano in fourteen days.—DOUGLAS."
He made all the preparations for his journey, but on the twelfth day came word from her.
"I implore you not to come. Return to London and await my letter." He travelled back, and those who saw him on his return remarked that the air of Devonshire had been without its usual benefit so far as he was concerned. He shut himself up, wrote scarcely a line, waited only for his letter. It came sooner than he had expected. It contained more than he had dared to hope, less than he had prayed for. This is what he read—
"THE FORTRESS OF MOLCHAVANO,
"So, Douglas, you have learnt the truth. Well, I am glad of it. You believe in me now? You always may. Looking back upon our last interview my only regret is that I did not tell you the whole truth then.
"It was foolish of me to withhold it—foolish and inconsequent. Yet I believe that if I had told you I should not have been here now. So, after all, I have no regrets.
"I can hear you ask me then—jealous as ever—what is it that I have found here to reconcile me so easily to our separation, to an isolation which is indeed incredible and almost awful? Douglas, it is that I have found good to do. Everybody, you, I am afraid, included, has always looked upon me as a very selfish woman, and indeed I have been so most of the days of my life. Never mind, my chance has come. It was you who drove me here. Thank you, Douglas. Believe me that I shall bless you for it so long as I live.
"Would you care to know anything of my life, I wonder. No? For many reasons it were best not to tell you too much. The fortress in which I live—where the walls and floors are of stone, and without, the snow is deep upon the ground—is only a few yards from the prison where my husband is kept. I see him for five minutes every day through a window with iron bars—yet he tells me that the thought of that five minutes keeps him alive hour by hour, and I am beginning to believe it. For, Douglas, such monotony as this is a thing outside the imagination. From the hilltop on which the prison is built I can see for twenty miles, and there is not a tree, nor a building, not even a rise or fall in the ground to break the awful and dazzling loneliness of that great field of snow. Below me are the grim shafts of the mines, down which the prisoners here go ironed every day. Away on the horizon westwards is the black line of pine forests, in whose shadows is night everlasting. A wolf howls beneath my window every night, and for months I have seen no colour save in an occasionally lurid sunset with crimson afterglow. In the daytime I help in the hospital—at night I sit before a wood fire and look out beyond my whitewashed walls across the mighty forest, back to London, and then, dear, you may know that it is you of whom I am thinking.
"Your telegrams reached me together, or I would have stopped you on the way. I am glad, Douglas, that you know the truth; I am glad that you have wanted me. Be patient and brave. Life is opening for you through many avenues. Take what comes to you, and remember that your development is a holy duty to yourself and your fellows. We are like two stars, Douglas, who have passed one another in the darkness and floated away into a great sea of space. The future may be ours again, but the present is for other things than regrets. There are worlds to lighten ever, though our shining is a very small thing. Be true to yourself and to your destiny.
"I want to be honest with you, Douglas. For the first time in my life I am willingly suffering privations, I am neglecting my own amusement and happiness for the sake of others. Yet I am not of the stuff whereof saints and martyrs are fashioned. This life in time would drive me mad. You would ask me I know—how long? I answer that I stay here so long as I can bear it and my health serves. It may be for months, perhaps years. Yet I promise you this, if it is a promise which you care to have. When it is ended I will send you word.
"Until then, Douglas, if you care to have me sign myself so,
"Your faithful friend,
"EMILY DE REUSS."
Douglas drew paper and ink towards him, and wrote back with breathless haste—
"I will do your bidding, and whether it be for a year or twenty years, I will wait."
* * * * *
He carried her letter with him to Cicely's wedding, and they all noticed with pleasure a new buoyancy in his walk and bearing, a keener light in his eyes, and the old true ring in his voice. There was never a shadow of envy in his heart as he watched Drexley's happiness. Joan and he saw them off at Charing Cross for the Continent, and they walked back to her rooms together.