He hardly dared to hope that so lame and transparent a device would succeed with her; but, as he had previously found, there was a certain spice of credulity and simplicity in her nature, which made it possible to impose upon her occasionally.
"It may be so," she said. "I overawe thee, perchance?"
"Very much so," said he, promptly. "You don't intend it, I know; but it's a fact."
"I will leave you to meditate upon the charms so faintly shadowed in this image, remembering that whatever of loveliness you find herein will be multiplied ten thousand-fold in the actual Aphrodite! Remain, then; ponder and gaze—and love!"
He waited for a little while after the statue was silent, and then took up the sacking left for him by Braddle; twice he attempted to throw it over the marble, and twice he recoiled. "It's no use," he said, "I can't do it; they must do it themselves!"
He carefully unfastened the window at the back of his saloon, and, placing the statue in the centre of the floor, turned out the gas, and with a beating heart stole upstairs to his bedroom, where (with his door bolted) he waited anxiously for the arrival of his dreaded deliverers.
He scarcely knew how long he had been there, for a kind of waking dream had come upon him, in which he was providing the statue with light refreshment in the shape of fancy pebbles and liquid cement, when the long, low whistle, faintly heard from the back of the house, brought him back to his full senses.
The burglars had come! He unbolted the door and stole out to the top of the crazy staircase, intending to rush back and bolt himself in if he heard steps ascending; and for some minutes he strained his ears, without being able to catch a sound.
At last he heard the muffled creak of the window, as it was thrown up. They were coming in! Would they, or would they not, be inhuman enough to force him to assist them in the removal?
They were still in the saloon; he heard them trampling about, moving the furniture with unnecessary violence, and addressing one another in tones that were not caressing. Now they were carrying the statue to the window; he heard their labouring breath and groans of exertion under the burden.
Another pause. He stole lower down the staircase, until he was outside his sitting-room, and could hear better. There! that was the thud as they leapt out on the flagged yard. A second and heavier thud—the goddess! How would they get her over the wall? Had they brought steps, ropes, or what? No matter; they knew their own business, and were not likely to have forgotten anything. But how long they were about it! Suppose a constable were to come by and see the cart!
There were sounds at last; they were scaling the wall—floundering, apparently; and no wonder, with such a weight to hoist after them! More thuds; and then the steps of men staggering slowly, painfully away. The steps echoed louder from under the archway, and then died away in silence.
Could they be really gone? He dared not hope so, and remained shivering in his sitting-room for some minutes; until, gaining courage, he determined to go down and shut the window, to avoid any suspicion. Although now that the burglars were safely off with their prize, even their capture could not implicate him. He rather hoped they would be caught!
He took a lighted candle, and descended. As he entered the saloon, a gust from the open window blew out the light. He stood there in the dark and an icy draught; and, beginning to grope about in the dark for the matches, he brushed against something which was soft and had a cloth-like texture. "It's Braddle!" he thought, and his blood ran cold; "or else the Count!" And he called them both respectfully. There was no reply; no sound of breathing, even.
Ha! here was a box of matches at last! He struck a light in feverish haste, and lit the nearest gas-bracket. For an instant he could see nothing, in the sudden glare; but the next moment he fell back against the wall with a cry of horror and despair.
For there, in the centre of the disordered room, stood—not the Count, not Braddle—but the statue, the mantle thrown back from her arms, and those arms, and the folds of the marble drapery, spotted here and there with stains of dark crimson!
DAMOCLES DINES OUT
"To feed were best at home."—Macbeth.
As soon as Leander had recovered from the first shock of horror and disappointment, he set himself to efface the stains with which the statue and the oilcloth were liberally bespattered; he was burning to find out what had happened to make such desperadoes abandon their design at the point of completion.
They both seemed to have bled freely. Had they quarrelled, or what? He went out into the yard with a hand-lamp, trembling lest he should come upon one or more corpses; but the place was bare, and he then remembered having heard them stumble and flounder over the wall.
He came back in utter bewilderment; the statue, standing calm and lifeless as he had himself placed it, could tell him nothing, and he went back to his bedroom full of the vaguest fears.
The next day was a Saturday, and he passed it in the state of continual apprehension which was becoming his normal condition. He expected every moment to see or hear from the baffled ruffians, who would, no doubt, consider him responsible for their failure; but no word nor sign came from them, and the uncertainty drove him very near distraction.
As the night approached, he almost welcomed it, as a time when the goddess herself would enlighten part of his ignorance; and he waited more impatiently than ever for her return.
He was made to wait long that evening, until he almost began to think that the marble was deserted altogether; but at length, as he watched, the statue gave a long, shuddering sigh, and seemed to gaze round the saloon with vacant eyes.
"Where am I?" she murmured. "Ah! I remember. Leander, while you slumbered, impious hands were laid upon this image!"
"Dear me, mum; you don't say so!" exclaimed Leander.
"It is the truth! From afar I felt the indignity that was purposed, and hastened to protect my image, to find it in the coarse grasp of godless outlaws. Leander, they were about to drag me away by force—away from thee!"
"I'm very sorry you should have been disturbed," said Leander; and he certainly was. "So you came back and caught them at it, did you? And wh—what did you do to 'em, if I may inquire?"
"I know not," she said simply. "I caused them to be filled with mad fury, and they fell upon one another blindly, and fought like wild beasts around my image until strength failed them, and they sank to the ground; and when they were able, they fled from my presence, and I saw them no more."
"You—you didn't kill them outright, then?" said Leander, not feeling quite sure whether he would be glad or not to hear that they had forfeited their lives.
"They were unworthy of such a death," she said; "so I let them crawl away. Henceforth they will respect our images."
"I should say they would, most likely, madam," agreed Leander. "I do assure you, I'm almost glad of it myself—I am; it served them both right."
"Almost glad! And do you not rejoice from your heart that I yet remain to you?"
"Why," said Leander, "it is, in course, a most satisfactory and agreeable termination, I'm sure."
"Who knows whether, if this my image had once been removed from you, I could have found it in my power to return?" she said; "for, I ween, the power that is left me has limits. I might never have appeared to you again. Think of it, Leander."
"I was thinking of it," he replied. "It quite upsets me to think how near it was."
"You are moved. You love me well, do you not, Leander?"
"Oh! I suppose I do," he said—"well enough."
"Well enough to abandon this gross existence, and fly with me where none can separate us?"
"I never said nothing about that," he answered.
"But yesternight and you confessed that you were yielding—that ere long I should prevail."
"So I am," he said; "but it will take me some time to yield thoroughly. You wouldn't believe how slow I yield; why, I haven't hardly begun yet!"
"And how long a time will pass before you are fully prepared?"
"I'm afraid I can't say, not exactly; it may be a month, or it might only be a week, or again, it may be a year. I'm so dependent upon the weather. So, if you're in any kind of a hurry, I couldn't advise you, as a honest man, to wait for me."
"I will not wait a year!" she said fiercely. "You mock me with such words. I tell you again that my forbearance will last but little longer. More of this laggard love, and I will shame you before your fellow-men as an ingrate and a dastard! I will; by my zone, I will!"
"Now, mum, you're allowing yourself to get excited," said Leander, soothingly. "I wouldn't talk about it no more this evening; we shall do no good. I can't arrange to go with you just yet, and there's an end of it."
"You will find that that is not the end of it, clod-witted slave that you are!"
"Now, don't call names; it's beneath you."
"Ay, indeed! for are not you beneath me? But for very shame I will not abandon what is justly mine; nor shall you, wily and persuasive hairdresser though you be, withstand my sovereign will with impunity!"
"So you say, mum!" said Leander, with a touch of his native impertinence.
"As I say, I shall act; but no more of this, or you will anger me before the time. Let me depart."
"I'm not hindering you," he said; but she did not remain long enough to resent his words. He sat down with a groan. "Whatever will become of me?" he soliloquized dismally. "She gets more pressing every evening, and she's been taking to threatening dreadful of late.... If the Count and that Braddle ever come back now, it won't be to take her off my hands; it'll more likely be to have my life for letting them into such a trap. They'll think it was some trick of mine, I shouldn't wonder.... And to-morrow's Sunday, and I've got to dine with aunt, and meet Matilda and her ma. A pretty state of mind I'm in for going out to dinner, after the awful week I've had of it! But there'll be some comfort in seeing my darling Tillie again; she ain't a statue, bless her!"
"As for you, mum," he said to the unconscious statue, "I'm going to lock you up in your old quarters, where you can't get out and do mischief. I do think I'm entitled to have my Sunday quiet."
After which he contrived to toil upstairs with the image, not without considerable labour and frequent halts to recover his breath; for although, as we have already noted, the marble, after being infused with life, seemed to lose something of its normal weight, it was no light burden, even then, to be undertaken single-handed.
He slept long and late that Sunday morning; for he had been too preoccupied for the last few days to make any arrangements for attending chapel with his Matilda, and he was in sore need of repose besides. So he rose just in time to swallow his coffee and array himself carefully for his aunt's early dinner, leaving his two Sunday papers—the theatrical and the general organs—unread on his table.
It was a foggy, dull day, and Millman Street, never a cheerful thoroughfare, looked gloomier than ever as he turned into it. But one of those dingy fronts held Matilda—a circumstance which irradiated the entire district for him.
He had scarcely time to knock before the door was opened by Matilda in person. She looked more charming than ever, in a neat dark dress, with a little white collar and cuffs. Her hair was arranged in a new fashion, being banded by a neat braided tress across the crown; and her grey eyes, usually serene and cold, were bright and eager.
The hairdresser felt his heart swell with love at the sight of her. What a lucky man he was, after all, to have such a girl as this to care for him! If he could keep her—ah, if he could only keep her!
"I told your aunt I was going to open the door to you," she said. "I wanted——Oh, Leander, you've not brought it, after all!"
"Meaning what, Tillie, my darling?" said Leander.
"Oh, you know—my cloak!"
He had had so much to think about that he had really forgotten the cloak of late.
"Well, no, I've not brought that—not the cloak, Tillie," he said slowly.
"What a time they are about it!" complained Matilda.
"You see," explained the poor man, "when a cloak like that is damaged, it has to be sent back to the manufacturers to be done, and they've so many things on their hands. I couldn't promise that you'll have that cloak—well, not this side of Christmas, at least."
"You must have been very rough with it, then, Leander," she remarked.
"I was," he said. "I don't know how I came to be so rough. You see, I was trying to tear it off——" But here he stopped.
"Trying to tear it off what?"
"Trying to tear it off nothink, but trying to tear the wrapper off it. It was so involved," he added, "with string and paper and that; and I'm a clumsy, unlucky sort of chap, sweet one; and I'm uncommon sorry about it, that I am!"
"Well, we won't say any more about it," said Matilda, softened by his contrition. "And I'm keeping you out in the passage all this time. Come in, and be introduced to mamma; she's in the front parlour, waiting to make your acquaintance."
Mrs. Collum was a stout lady, with a thin voice. She struck a nameless fear into Leander's soul as he was led up to where she sat. He thought that she contained all the promise of a very terrible mother-in-law.
"This is Leander, mamma dear," said Matilda, shyly and yet proudly.
Her mother inspected him for a moment, and then half closed her eyes. "My daughter tells me that you carry on the occupation of a hairdresser," she said.
"Quite correct, madam," said Leander; "I do."
"Ah! well," she said, with an unconcealed sigh, "I could have wished to look higher than hairdressing for my Matilda; but there are opportunities of doing good even as a hairdresser. I trust you are sensible of that."
"I try to do as little 'arm as I can," he said feebly.
"If you do not do good, you must do harm," she said uncompromisingly. "You have it in your means to be an awakening influence. No one knows the power that a single serious hairdresser might effect with worldly customers. Have you never thought of that?"
"Well, I can't say I have exactly," he said; "and I don't see how."
"There are cheap and appropriate illuminated texts," she said, "to be had at so much a dozen; you could hang them on your walls. There are tracts you procure by the hundred; you could put them in the lining of hats as you hang them up; you could wrap them round your—your bottles and pomatum-pots. You could drop a word in season in your customer's ear as you bent over him. And you tell me you don't see how; you will not see, I fear, Mr. Tweddle."
"I'm afraid, mum," he replied, "my customers would consider I was taking liberties."
"And what of that, so long as you save them?"
"Well, you see, I shouldn't—I should lose 'em! And it's not done in our profession; and, to tell you the honest truth, I'm not given that way myself—not to the extent of tracks and suchlike, that is."
Matilda's mother groaned; it was hard to find a son-in-law with whom she had nothing in common, and who was a hairdresser into the bargain.
"Well, well," she said, "we must expect crosses in this life; though for my own daughter to lay this one upon me is—is——But I will not repine."
"I'm sorry you regard me in the light of a cross," said Leander; "but, whether I'm a cross or a naught, I'm a respectable man, and I love your daughter, mum, and I'm in a position to maintain her."
Leander hated to have to appear under false pretences, of which he had had more than enough of late. He was glad now to speak out plainly, particularly as he had no reason to fear this old woman.
"Hush, Leander! Mamma didn't mean to be unkind; did you, mamma?" said Matilda.
"I said what I felt," she said. "We will not discuss it further. If, in time, I see reason for bestowing my blessing upon a choice which at present——But no matter. If I see reason in time, I will not withhold it. I can hardly be expected to approve at present."
"You shall take your own time, mum; I won't hurry you," said Leander. "Tillie is blessing enough for me—not but what I shall be glad to be on a pleasant footing with you, I'm sure, if you can bring yourself to it."
Before Mrs. Collum could reply, Miss Louisa Tweddle made an opportune appearance, to the relief of Matilda, in whom her mother's attitude was causing some uneasiness.
Miss Tweddle was a well-preserved little woman, with short curly iron-grey hair and sharp features. In manner she was brisk, not to say chirpy, but she secreted sentiment in large quantities. She was very far from the traditional landlady, and where she lost lodgers occasionally she retained friends. She regarded Mrs. Collum with something like reverence, as an acquaintance of her youth who had always occupied a superior social position, and she was proud, though somewhat guiltily so, that her favourite nephew should have succeeded in captivating the daughter of a dentist.
She kissed Leander on both cheeks. "He's done the best of all my nephews, Mrs. Collum, ma'am," she explained, "and he's never caused me a moment's anxiety since I first had the care of him, when he was first apprenticed to Catchpole's in Holborn, and paid me for his board."
"Well, well," said Mrs. Collum, "I hope he never may cause anxiety to you, or to any one."
"I'll answer for it, he won't," said his aunt. "I wish you could see him dress a head of hair."
Mrs. Collum shut her eyes again. "If at his age he has not acquired the necessary skill for his line in life," she observed, "it would be a very melancholy thing to reflect upon."
"Yes, wouldn't it?" agreed Miss Tweddle; "you say very truly, Mrs. Collum. But he's got ideas and notions beyond what you'd expect in a hairdresser—haven't you, Leandy? Tell Miss Collum's dear ma about the new machines you've invented for altering people's hands and eyes and features."
"I don't care to be told," the lady struck in. "To my mind, it's nothing less than sheer impiety to go improving the features we've been endowed with. We ought to be content as we are, and be thankful we've been sent into the world with any features at all. Those are my opinions!"
"Ah," said the politic Leander, "but some people are saved having resort to Art for improvement, and we oughtn't to blame them as are less favoured for trying to render themselves more agreeable as spectacles, ought we?"
"And if every one thought with you," added his aunt, with distinctly inferior tact, "where would your poor dear 'usband have been, Mrs. Collum, ma'am?"
"My dear husband was not on the same level—he was a medical man; and, besides, though he replaced Nature in one of her departments, he had too much principle to imitate her. Had he been (or had I allowed him to be) less conscientious, his practice would have been largely extended; but I can truthfully declare that not a single one of his false teeth was capable of deceiving for an instant. I hope," she added to Leander, "you, in your own different way, are as scrupulous."
"Why, the fact is," said Leander, whose professional susceptibilities were now aroused, "I am essentially an artist. When I look around, I see that Nature out of its bounty has supplied me with a choice selection of patterns to follow, and I reproduce them as faithful as lies within my abilities. You may call it a fine thing to take a blank canvas, and represent the luxurious tresses and the blooming hue of 'ealth upon it, and so do I; but I call it a still higher and nobler act to produce a similar effect upon a human 'ed!"
"Isn't that a pretty speech for a young man like him—only twenty-seven—Mrs. Collum?" exclaimed his admiring aunt.
"You see, mamma dear," pleaded Matilda, who saw that her parent remained unaffected, "it isn't as if Leander was in poor papa's profession."
"I hope, Matilda," said the lady sharply, "you are not going to pain me again by mentioning this young man and your departed father in the same breath, because I cannot bear it."
"The old lady," reflected Leander here, "don't seem to take to me!"
"I'm sure," said Miss Tweddle, "Leandy quite feels what an honour it is to him to look forward to such a connection as yours is. When I first heard of it, I said at once, 'Leandy, you can't never mean it; she won't look at you; it's no use your asking her,' I said. And I quite scolded myself for ever bringing them together!"
Mrs. Collum seemed inclined to follow suit, but she restrained herself. "Ah! well," she observed, "my daughter has chosen to take her own way, without consulting my prejudices. All I hope is, that she may never repent it!"
"Very handsomely said, ma'am," chimed in Miss Tweddle; "and, if I know my nephew, repent it she never will!"
Leander was looking rather miserable; but Matilda put out her hand to him behind his aunt's back, and their eyes and hands met, and he was happy again.
"You must be wanting your dinner, Mrs. Collum," his aunt proceeded; "and we are only waiting for another lady and gentleman to make up the party. I don't know what's made them so behindhand, I'm sure. He's a very pleasant young man, and punctual to the second when he lodged with me. I happened to run across him up by Chancery Lane the other evening, and he said to me, in his funny way, 'I've been and gone and done it, Miss Tweddle, since I saw you. I'm a happy man; and I'm thinking of bringing my young lady soon to introduce to you.' So I asked them to come and take a bit of dinner with me to-day, and I told him two o'clock sharp, I'm sure. Ah, there they are at last! That's Mr. Jauncy's knock, among a thousand."
Leander started. "Aunt!" he cried, "you haven't asked Jauncy here to-day?"
"Yes, I did, Leandy. I knew you used to be friends when you were together here, and I thought how nice it would be for both your young ladies to make each other's acquaintance; but I didn't tell him anything. I meant it for a surprise."
And she bustled out to receive her guests, leaving Leander speechless. What if the new-comers were to make some incautious reference to that pleasure-party on Saturday week? Could he drop them a warning hint?
"Don't you like this Mr. Jauncy, Leander?" whispered Matilda, who had observed his ghastly expression.
"I like him well enough," he returned, with an effort; "but I'd rather we had no third parties, I must say."
Here Mr. Jauncy came in alone, Miss Tweddle having retired to assist the lady to take off her bonnet.
Leander went to meet him. "James," he said in an agitated whisper, "have you brought Bella?"
Jauncy nodded. "We were talking of you as we came along," he said in the same tone, "and I advise you to look out—she's got her quills up, old chap!"
"What about?" murmured Leander.
Mr. Jauncy's grin was wider and more appreciative than ever as he replied, mysteriously, "Rosherwich!"
Leander would have liked to ask in what respect Miss Parkinson considered herself injured by the expedition to Rosherwich; but, before he could do so, his aunt returned with the young lady in question.
Bella was gorgeously dressed, and made her entrance with the stiffest possible dignity. "Miss Parkinson, my dear," said her hostess, "you mustn't be made a stranger of. That lady sitting there on the sofa is Mrs. Collum, and this gentleman is a friend of your gentleman's, and my nephew, Leandy."
"Oh, thank you," said Bella, "but I've no occasion to be told Mr. Tweddle's name; we have met before—haven't we, Mr. Tweddle?"
He looked at her, and saw her brows clouded, and her nose and mouth with a pinched look about them. She was annoyed with him evidently—but why?
"We have," was all he could reply.
"Why, how nice that is, to be sure!" exclaimed his aunt. "I might have thought of it, too, Mr. Jauncy, and you being such friends and all. And p'r'aps you know this lady, too—Miss Collum—as Leandy is keeping company along with?"
Bella's expression changed to something blacker still. "No," she said, fixing her eyes on the still unconscious Leander; "I made sure that Mr. Tweddle was courting a young lady, but—but—well, this is a surprise, Mr. Tweddle! You never told us of this when last we met. I shall have news for somebody!"
"Oh, but it's only been arranged within the last month or two!" said Miss Tweddle.
"Considering we met so lately, he might have done us the compliment of mentioning it, I must say!" said Bella.
"I—I thought you knew," stammered the hairdresser; "I told——"
"No, you didn't, excuse me; oh no, you didn't, or some things would have happened differently. It was the place and all that made you forget it, very likely."
"When did you meet one another, and where was it, Miss Parkinson?" inquired Matilda, rather to include herself in the conversation than from any devouring curiosity.
Leander struck in hoarsely. "We met," he explained, "some time since, quite casual."
Bella's eyes lit up with triumphant malice. "What!" she said, "do you call yesterday week such a long while? What a compliment that is, though! And so he's not even mentioned it to you, Miss Collum? Dear me, I wonder what reasons he had for that, now!"
"There's nothing to wonder at," said Leander; "my memory does play me tricks of that sort."
"Ah, if it was only you it played tricks on! There's Miss Collum dying to know what it's all about, I can see."
"Indeed, Miss Parkinson, I'm nothing of the sort," retorted Matilda, proudly. Privately her reflection was: "She's got a lovely gown on, but she's a common girl, for all that; and she's trying to set me against Leander for some reason, and she shan't do it."
"Well," said Bella, "you're a fortunate man, Mr. Tweddle, that you are, in every way. I'm afraid I shouldn't be so easy with my James."
"There's no need for being afraid about it," her James put in; "you aren't!"
"I hope you haven't as much cause, though," she retorted.
Leander listened to her malicious innuendo with a bewildered agony. Why on earth was she making this dead set at him? She was amiable enough on Saturday week. It never occurred to him that his conduct to her sister could account for it, for had he not told Ada straightforwardly how he was situated?
Fortunately dinner was announced to be ready just then, and Bella was silenced for the moment in the general movement to the next room.
Leander took in Matilda's mamma, who had been studiously abstracting herself from all surrounding objects for the last few minutes. "That Bella is a downright basilisk," he thought dismally, as he led the way. "Lord, how I do wish dinner was done!"
"There's a new foot on the floor, my friend; And a new face at the door, my friend; A new face at the door."
Leander sat at the head of the table as carver, having Mrs. Collum and Bella on his left, and James and Matilda opposite to them.
James was the first to open conversation, by the remark to Mrs. Collum, across the table, that they were "having another dull Sunday."
"That," rejoined the uncompromising lady, "seems to me a highly improper remark, sir."
"My friend Jauncy," explained Leander, in defence of his abashed companion, "was not alluding to present company, I'm sure. He meant the dulness outside—the fog, and so on."
"I knew it," she said; "and I repeat that it is improper and irreverent to speak of a dull Sunday in that tone of complaint. Haven't we all the week to be lively in?"
"And I'm sure, ma'am," said Jauncy, recovering himself, "you make the most of your time. Talking of fog, Tweddle, did you see those lines on it in to-day's Umpire? Very smart, I call them; regular witty."
"And do you both read a paper on Sunday mornings with 'smart' and 'witty' lines in it?" demanded Mrs. Collum.
"I—I hadn't time this morning," said the unregenerate Leander; "but I do occasionally cast an eye over it before I get up."
Mrs. Collum groaned, and looked at her daughter reproachfully.
"I see by the Weekly News," said Jauncy, "you've had a burglary in your neighbourhood."
Leander let the carving-knife slip. "A burglary! What! in my neighbourhood? When?"
"Well, p'r'aps not a burglary; but a capture of two that were 'wanted' for it. It's all in to-day's News."
"I—I haven't seen a paper for the last two days," said Leander, his heart beating with hope. "Tell us about it!"
"Why, it isn't much to tell; but it seems that last Friday night, or early on Saturday morning, the constable on duty came upon two suspicious-looking chaps, propped up insensible against the railings in Queen Square, covered with blood, and unable to account for themselves. Whether they'd been trying to break in somewhere and been beaten off, or had quarrelled, or met with some accident, doesn't seem to be known for certain. But, anyway, they were arrested for loitering at night with housebreaking things about them; and, when they were got to the station, recognized as the men 'wanted' for shooting a policeman down at Camberwell some time back, and if it is proved against them they'll be hung, for certain."
"What were they called? Did it say?" asked Leander, eagerly.
"I forget one—something like Bradawl, I believe; the other had a lot of aliases, but he was best known as the 'Count,' from having lived a good deal abroad, and speaking broken English like a native."
Leander's spirits rose, in spite of his present anxieties. He had been going in fear and dread of the revenge of these ruffians, and they were safely locked up; they could trouble him no more. Small wonder, then, that his security in this respect made him better able to cope with minor dangers; and Bella's animosity seemed lulled, too—at least, she had not opened her mouth, except for food, since she sat down.
In his expansion, he gave himself the airs of a host. "I hope," he said, "I've served you all to your likings? Miss Parkinson, you're not getting on; allow me to offer you a little more pork."
"Thank you, Mr. Tweddle," said the implacable Bella, "but I won't trouble you. I haven't an appetite to-day—like I had at those gardens."
There was a challenge in this answer—not only to him, but to general curiosity—which, to her evident disappointment, was not taken up.
Leander turned to Jauncy. "I—I suppose you had no trouble in finding your way here?" he said.
"No," said Jauncy, "not more than usual; the streets were pretty full, and that makes it harder to get along."
"We met such quantities of soldiers," put in Bella. "Do you remember those two soldiers at Rosherwich, Mr. Tweddle? How funny they did look, dancing; didn't they? But I suppose I mustn't say anything about the dancing here, must I?"
"Since," said the poor badgered man, "you put it to me, Miss Parkinson, I must say that, considering the day, you know——"
"Yes," continued Mrs. Collum, severely; "surely there are better topics for the Sabbath than—than a dancing soldier!"
"Mr. Tweddle knows why I stopped myself," said Bella. "But there, I won't tell of you—not now, at all events; so don't look like that at me!"
"There, Bella, that'll do," said her fiance, suddenly awakening to the fact that she was trying to make herself disagreeable, and perhaps feeling slightly ashamed of her.
"James! I know what to say and what to leave unsaid, without tellings from you; thanks all the same. You needn't fear my saying a word about Mr. Tweddle and Ada—la, now, if I haven't gone and said it! What a stupid I am to run on so!"
"Drop it, Bella! Do you hear? That's enough," growled Jauncy.
Leander sat silent; he did not attempt again to turn the conversation: he knew better. Matilda seemed perfectly calm, and certainly showed no surface curiosity; but he feared that her mother intended to require explanations.
Miss Tweddle came in here with the original remark that winter had begun now in good earnest.
"Yes," said Bella. "Why, as we came along, there wasn't hardly a leaf on the trees in the squares; and yet only yesterday week, at the gardens, the trees hadn't begun to shed. Had they, Mr. Tweddle? Oh, but I forgot; you were so taken up with paying attention to Ada——(Well, James! I suppose I can make a remark!)"
"I'll never take you out again, if you don't hold that tongue," he whispered savagely.
Mrs. Collum fixed her eyes on Leander, as he sat cowering on her right. "Leander Tweddle," she said, in a hissing whisper, "what is that young person talking about? Who—who is this 'Ada'? I insist upon being told."
"If you want to know, ask her," he retorted desperately.
All this by-play passed unnoticed by Miss Tweddle, who was probably too full of the cares of a hostess to pay attention to it; and, accordingly, she judged the pause that followed the fitting opportunity for a little speech.
"Mrs. Collum, ma'am," she began; "and my dearest Miss Matilda, the flower of all my lady lodgers; and you, Leandy; and Mr. Jauncy; and, though last mentioned, not intentionally so, I assure you, Miss Parkinson, my dear—I couldn't tell you how honoured I feel to see you all sitting, so friendly and cheerful, round my humble table. I hope this will be only the beginning of many more so; and I wish you all your very good healths!"
"Which, if I may answer for self and present company," said Mr. Jauncy, nobody else being able to utter a word, "we drink and reciprocate."
Leander was saved for the moment, and the dinner passed without further incident. But his aunt's vein of sentiment had been opened, and could not be staunched all at once; for when the cloth was removed, and the decanters and dishes of oranges placed upon the table, she gave a little preparatory cough and began again.
"I'm sure it isn't my wish to be ceremonial," she said; "but we're all among friends—for I should like to look upon you as a friend, if you'll let me," she added rather dubiously, to Bella. "And I don't really think there could be a better occasion for a sort of little ceremony that I've quite set my heart on. Leandy, you know what I mean; and you've got it with you, I know, because you were told to bring it with you."
"Miss Tweddle," interrupted Matilda, hurriedly, "not now. I—I don't think Vidler has sent it back yet. I told you, you know——"
"That's all you know about it, young lady," she said, archly; "for I stepped in there yesterday and asked him about it, to make sure, and he told me it was delivered over the very Saturday afternoon before. So, Leandy, oblige me for once, and put it on the dear girl's finger before us all; you needn't be bashful with us, I'm sure, either of you."
"What is all this?" asked Mrs. Collum.
"Why, it's a ring, Mrs. Collum, ma'am, that belonged to my own dear aunt, though she never wore it; and her grandfather had the posy engraved on the inside of it. And I remember her telling me, before she was taken, that she'd left it to me in her will, but I wasn't to let it go out of the family. So I gave it to Leandy, to be his engagement ring; but it's had to be altered, because it was ever so much too large as it was."
"I always thought," said Mrs. Collum, "that it was the gentleman's duty to provide the ring."
"So Leandy wanted to; but I said, 'You can pay for the altering; but I'm fanciful about this, and I want to see dearest Miss Collum with my aunt's ring on.'"
"Oh, but, Miss Tweddle, can't you see?" said Matilda. "He's forgotten it; don't—don't tease him about it.... It must be for some other time, that's all!"
"Matilda, I'm surprised at you," said her mother. "To forget such a thing as that would be unpardonable in any young man. Leander Tweddle, you cannot have forgotten it."
"No," he said, "I've not forgotten it; but—but I haven't it about me, and I don't know as I could lay my hand on it, just at present, and that's the truth."
"Part of the truth," said Bella. "Oh, what deceitful things you men are! Leave me alone, James; I will speak. I won't sit by and hear poor dear Miss Collum deceived in this way. Miss Collum, ask him if that is all he knows about it. Ask him, and see what he says."
"I'm quite satisfied with what he has chosen to say already, Miss Parkinson; thank you," said Matilda.
"Then permit me to say, Miss Collum, that I'm truly sorry for you," said Bella.
"If you think so, Miss Parkinson, I suppose you must say so."
"I do say it," said Bella; "for it's a sorrowful sight to see meekness all run to poorness of spirit. You have a right to an explanation from Mr. Tweddle there; and you would insist on it, if you wasn't afraid (and with good reason) of the answer you'd get!"
At the beginning of this short colloquy Miss Tweddle, after growing very red and restless for some moments, had slipped out of the room, and came in now, trembling and out of breath, with a bonnet in her hand and a cloak over her arm.
"Miss Parkinson," she said, speaking very rapidly, "when I asked you to come here with my good friend and former lodger, I little thought that anything but friendship would come of it; and sorry I am that it has turned out otherwise. And my feelings to Mr. Jauncy are the same as ever; but—this is your bonnet, Miss Parkinson, and your cloak. And this is my house; and I shall be obliged if you'll kindly put on the ones, and walk out of the other at once!"
Bella burst into tears, and demanded from Mr. Jauncy why he had brought her there to be insulted.
"You brought it all on yourself," he said, gloomily; "you should have behaved!"
"What have I done," cried Bella, "to be told to go, as if I wasn't fit to stay?"
"I'll tell you what you've done," said Miss Tweddle. "You were asked here with Mr. Jauncy to meet my dear Leandy and his young lady, and get all four of you to know one another, and lay foundations for Friendship's flowery bonds. And from the moment you came in, though I paid no attention to it at first, you've done nothing but insinuate and hint, and try all you could to set my dear Miss Collum and her ma against my poor unoffending nephew; and I won't sit by any longer and hear it. Put on your bonnet and cloak, Miss Parkinson, and Mr. Jauncy (who knows I don't bear him any ill-feeling, whatever happens) will go home with you."
"I've said nothing," repeated Bella, "but what I'd a right to say, and what I'll stand to."
"If you don't put on those things," said Jauncy, "I shall go away myself, and leave you to follow as best you can."
"I'm putting them on," said Bella; and her hands were unsteady with passion as she tied her bonnet-strings. "Don't bully me, James, because I won't bear it! Mr. Tweddle, if you're a man, will you sit there and tell me you don't know that that ring is on a certain person's finger? Will you do that?"
The miserable man concluded that Ada had disregarded his entreaties, and told her sister all about the ring and the accursed statue. He could not see why the story should have so inflamed Bella; but her temper was always uncertain.
Everybody was looking at him, and he was expected to say something. His main idea was, that he would see how much Bella knew before committing himself.
"What have I ever done to offend you," he asked, "that you turn on me in this downright vixenish manner? I scorn to reply to your insinuations!"
"Do you want me to speak out plain? James, stand away, if you please. You may all think what you choose of me. I don't care! Perhaps if you were to come in and find the man who, only a week ago, had offered marriage to your youngest sister, figuring away as engaged to quite another lady, you wouldn't be all milk and honey, either. I'm doing right to expose him. The man who'd deceive one would deceive many, and so you'll find, Miss Collum, little as you think it."
"That's enough," said Miss Tweddle. "It's all a mistake, I'm sure, and you'll be sorry some day for having made it. Now go, Miss Parkinson, and make no more mischief!"
A light had burst in upon Leander's perturbed mind. Ada had not broken faith with him, after all. He remembered Bella's conduct during the return from Rosherwich, and understood at last to what a mistake her present wrath was due.
Here, at all events, was an accusation he could repel with dignity, with truth. Foolish and unlucky he had been—and how unlucky he still hoped Matilda might never learn—but false he was not; and she should not be allowed to believe it.
"Miss Parkinson," he said, "I've been badgered long enough. What is it you're trying to bring up against me about your sister Ada? Speak it out, and I'm ready to answer you."
"Leander," said Matilda, "I don't want to hear it from her. Only you tell me that you've been true to me, and that is quite enough."
"Matilda, you're a foolish girl, and don't know what you're talking about," said her mother. "It is not enough for me; so I beg, young woman, if you've anything to accuse the man who's to be my son-in-law of, you'll say it now, in my presence, and let him contradict it afterwards if he can."
"Will he contradict his knowing my sister Ada, who's one of the ladies at Madame Chenille's, in the Edgware Road, more than a twelvemonth since, and paying her attentions?" asked Bella.
"I don't deny," said Leander, "meeting her several times, and being considerably struck, in a quiet way. But that was before I met Matilda."
"You had met Matilda before last Saturday, I suppose?" sneered Bella, spitefully—"when you laid your plans to join our party to Rosherwich, and trouble my poor sister, who'd given up thinking of you."
"There you go, Bella!" said her fiance. "What do you know about his plans? He'd no idea as Ada and you was to be there; and when I told him, as we were driving down, it was all I could do to prevent him jumping out of the cab."
"I'm highly flattered to hear it," said Bella. "But he didn't seem to be so afraid of Ada when they did meet; and you best know, Mr. Tweddle, the things you said to that poor trusting girl all the time you were walking and dancing and talking foolishness to her."
"I never said a word that couldn't have been spoke from the top of St. Paul's," protested Leander. "I did dance with her, I own, not to seem uncivil; but we only waltzed round twice."
"Then why did you give her a ring—an engagement ring too?" insisted Bella.
"Who saw me give her a ring?" he demanded hotly. "Do you dare to say you did? Did she ever tell you I gave her any ring? You know she didn't!"
"If I can't trust my own ears," said Bella, "I should like to know what I can trust. I heard you myself, in that railway carriage, ask my sister Ada not to tell any one about some ring, and I tried to get out of Ada afterwards what the secret was; but she wouldn't treat me as a sister, and be open with me. But any one with eyes in their head could guess what was between you, and all the time you an engaged man!"
"See there, now!" cried the injured hairdresser; "there's a thing to go and make all this mischief about! Matilda, Mrs. Collum, aunt, I declare to you I told the—the other young woman everything about my having formed new ties and that. I was very particular not to give rise to hopes which were only doomed to be disappointed. As to what Miss Parkinson says she overheard, why, it's very likely I may have asked her sister to say nothing about a ring, and I won't deny it was the very same ring that I was to have brought here to-day; for the fact was, I had the misfortune to lose it in those very gardens, and naturally did not wish it talked about: and that's the truth, as I stand here. As for giving it away, I swear I never parted with it to no mortal woman!"
"After that, Bella," observed Mr. Jauncy, "you'd better say you're sorry you spoke, and come home with me—that's what you'd better do."
"I shall say nothing of the sort," she asserted. "I'm too much of a lady to stay where my company is not desired, and I'm ready to go as soon as you please. But if he was to talk his head off, he would never persuade me (whatever he may do other parties) that he's not been playing double; and if Ada were here you would soon see whether he would have the face to deny it. So good-night, Miss Tweddle, and sooner or later you'll find yourself undeceived in your precious nephew, take my word for it. Good-night, Miss Collum, and I'm only sorry you haven't more spirit than to put up with such treatment. James, are you going to keep me waiting any longer?"
Mr. Jauncy, with confused apologies to the company generally, hurried his betrothed off, in no very amiable mood, and showed his sense of her indiscretions by indulging in some very plain speaking on their homeward way.
As the street door shut behind them, Leander gave a deep sigh of relief.
"Matilda, my own dearest girl," he said, "now that that cockatrice has departed, tell me, you don't doubt your Leander, do you?"
"No," said Matilda, judicially, "I don't doubt you, Leander, only I do wish you'd been a little more open with me; you might have told me you had gone to those gardens and lost the ring, instead of leaving me to hear it from that girl."
"So I might, darling," he owned; "but I thought you'd disapprove."
"And if she's my daughter," observed Mrs. Collum, "she will disapprove."
But it was evident from Matilda's manner that the inference was incorrect; the relief of finding Leander guiltless on the main count had blinded her to all minor shortcomings, and he had the happiness of knowing himself fully and freely forgiven.
If this could only have been the end! But, while he was still throbbing with bliss, he heard a sound, at which his "bedded hair" started up and stood on end—the ill-omened sound of a slow and heavy footfall.
"Leandy," cried his aunt, "how strange you're looking!"
"There's some one in the passage," he said, hoarsely. "I'll go and see her. Don't any of you come out."
"Why, it's only our Jane," said his aunt; "she always treads heavy."
The steps were heard going up the stairs; then they seemed to pause halfway, and descend again. "I'll be bound she's forgot something," said Miss Tweddle. "I never knew such a head as that girl's;" and Leander began to be almost reassured.
The steps were heard in the adjoining room, which was shut off by folding doors from the one they were occupying.
"Leander," cried Matilda, "what can there be to look so frightened of?" and as she spoke there came a sounding solemn blow upon the folding-doors.
"I never saw the lady before in all my life!" moaned the guilty man, before the doors had time to swing back; for he knew too well who stood behind them.
And his foreboding was justified to the full. The doors yielded to the blow, and, opening wide, revealed the tall and commanding figure of the goddess; her face, thanks to Leander's pigments, glowing lifelike under her hood, and the gold ring gleaming on her outstretched hand.
"Leander," said the goddess, in her low musical accents, "come away."
"Upon my word!" cried Mrs. Collum. "Who is this person?"
He could not speak. There seemed to be a hammer beating on his brain, reducing it to a pulp.
"Perhaps," said Miss Tweddle—"perhaps, young lady, you'll explain what you've come for?"
The statue slowly pointed to Leander. "I come for him," she said calmly. "He has vowed himself to me; he is mine!"
Matilda, after staring, incredulous, for some moments at the intruder, sank with a wild scream upon the sofa, and hid her face.
Leander flew to her side. "Matilda, my own," he implored, "don't be alarmed. She won't touch you; it's me she's come after."
Matilda rose and repulsed him with a sudden energy. "How dare you!" she cried, hysterically. "I see it all now: the ring, the—the cloak; she has had them all the time!.... Fool that I was—silly, trusting fool!" And she broke out into violent hysterics.
"Go away at once, hypocrite!" enjoined her mother, addressing the distracted hairdresser, as he stood, dumb and impotent, before her. "Do you want to kill my poor child? Take yourself off!"
"For goodness' sake, go, Leandy," added his aunt. "I can't bear the sight of you!"
"Leander, I wait," said the statue. "Come!"
He stood there a moment longer, looking blankly at the two elder women as they bustled about the prostrate girl, and then he gave a bitter, defiant laugh.
His fate was too strong for him. No one was in the mood to listen to any explanation; it was all over! "I'm coming," he said to the goddess. "I may as well; I'm not wanted here."
And, with a smothered curse, he dashed blindly from the room, and out into the foggy street.
"If you did know to whom I gave the ring, If you did know for whom I gave the ring, And how unwillingly I left the ring, You would abate the strength of your displeasure."
Merchant of Venice.
Leander strode down the street in a whirl of conflicting emotions. At the very moment when he seemed to have prevailed over Miss Parkinson's machinations, his evil fate had stepped in and undone him for ever! What would become of him without Matilda? As he was thinking of his gloomy prospects, he noticed, for the first time, that the statue was keeping step by his side, and he turned on her with smothered rage. "Well," he began, "I hope you're satisfied?"
"Quite, Leander, quite satisfied; for have I not found you?"
"Oh, you've found me right enough," he replied, with a groan—"trust you for that! What I should like to know is, how the dickens you did it?"
"Thus," she replied: "I awoke, and it was dark, and you were not there, and I needed you; and I went forth, and called you by your name. And you, now that you have hearkened to my call, you are happy, are you not?"
"Me?" said Leander, grimly. "Oh, I'm regular jolly, I am! Haven't I reason?"
"Your sisters seemed alarmed at my coming," she said. "Why?"
"Well," said Leander, "they aren't used to having marble goddesses dropping in on them promiscuously."
"The youngest wept: was it because I took you from her side?"
"I shouldn't wonder," he returned gruffly. "Don't bother me!"
When they were both safely within the little upper room again, he opened the cupboard door wide. "Now, marm," he said, in a voice which trembled with repressed rage, "you must be tired with the exercise you've took this evening, and I'll trouble you to walk in here."
"There are many things on which I would speak with you," she said.
"You must keep them for next time," he answered roughly. "If you can see anything, you can see that just now I'm not in a temper for to stand it, whatever I may be another evening."
"Why do I suffer this language from you?" she demanded indignantly—"why?"
"If you don't go in, you'll hear language you'll like still less, goddess or no goddess!" he said, foaming. "I mean it. I've been worked up past all bearing, and I advise you to let me alone just now, or you'll repent it!"
"Enough!" she said haughtily, and stalked proudly into the lonely niche, which he closed instantly. As he did so, he noticed his Sunday papers lying still folded on his table, and seized one eagerly.
"It may have something in it about what Jauncy was telling me of," he said; and his search was rewarded by the following paragraph:—
"DARING CAPTURE OF BURGLARS IN BLOOMSBURY.—On the night of Friday, the —th, Police-constable Yorke, B 954, while on duty, in the course of one of his rounds, discovered two men, in a fainting condition and covered with blood, which was apparently flowing from sundry wounds upon their persons, lying against the railings of Queen Square. Being unable to give any coherent account of themselves, and housebreaking implements being found in their possession, they were at once removed to the Bow Street Station, where, the charge having been entered against them, they were recognized by a member of the force as two notorious housebreakers who have long been 'wanted' in connection with the Camberwell burglary, in which, as will be remembered, an officer lost his life."
The paragraph went on to give their names and sundry other details, and concluded with a sentence which plunged Leander into fresh torments:—
"In spite of the usual caution, both prisoners insisted upon volunteering a statement, the exact nature of which has not yet transpired, but which is believed to have reference to another equally mysterious outrage—the theft of the famous Venus from the Wricklesmarsh Collection—and is understood to divert suspicion into a hitherto unsuspected channel."
What could this mean, if not that those villains, smarting under their second failure, had denounced him in revenge? He tried to persuade himself that the passage would bear any other construction, but not very successfully. "If they have brought me in," he thought, and it was his only gleam of consolation, "I should have heard of it before this."
And even this gleam vanished as a sharp knocking was heard below; and, descending to open the door, he found his visitor to be Inspector Bilbow.
"Evening, Tweddle," said the Inspector, quietly. "I've come to have another little talk with you."
Leander thought he would play his part till it became quite hopeless. "Proud to see you, Mr. Inspector," he said. "Will you walk into my saloon? and I'll light the gas for you."
"No, don't you trouble yourself," said the terrible man. "I'll walk upstairs where you're sitting yourself, if you've no objections."
Leander dared not make any, and he ushered the detective upstairs accordingly.
"Ha!" said the latter, throwing a quick eye round the little room. "Nice little crib you've got here. Keep everything you want on the premises, eh? Find those cupboards very convenient, I dare say?"
"Very," said Leander (like the innocent Joseph Surface that he was); "oh, very convenient, sir." He tried to keep his eyes from resting too consciously upon the fatal door that held his secret.
"Keep your coal and your wine and spirits there?" said the detective. (Was he watching his countenance, or not?)
"Y—yes," said Leander; "leastways, in one of them. Will you take anything, sir?"
"Thank 'ee, Tweddle; I don't mind if I do. And what do you keep in the other one, now?"
"The other?" said the poor man. "Oh, odd things!" (He certainly had one odd thing in it.)
After the officer had chosen and mixed his spirits and water, he began: "Now, you know what's brought me here, don't you?"
("If he was sure, he wouldn't try to pump me," argued Leander. "I won't throw up just yet.")
"I suppose it's the ring," he replied innocently. "You don't mean to say you've got it back for me, Mr. Inspector? Well, I am glad."
"I thought you set no particular value on the ring when I met you last?" said the other.
"Why," said Leander, "I may have said so out of politeness, not wanting to trouble you; but, as you said it was the statue you were after chiefly, why, I don't mind admitting that I shall be thankful indeed to get that ring back. And so you've brought it, have you, sir?"
He said this so naturally, having called in all his powers of dissimulation to help him in his extremity, that the detective was favourably impressed. He had already felt a suspicion that he had been sent here on a fool's errand, and no one could have looked less like a daring criminal, and the trusted confederate of still more daring ruffians, than did Leander at that moment.
"Heard anything of Potter lately?" he asked, wishing to try the effect of a sudden coup.
"I don't know the gentleman," said Leander, firmly; for, after all, he did not.
"Now, take care. He's been seen to frequent this house. We know more than you think, young man."
"Oh! if he bluffs, I can bluff too," passed through Leander's mind. "Inspector Bilbow," he said, "I give you my sacred honour, I've never set eyes on him. He can't have been here, not with my knowledge. It's my belief you're trying to make out something against me. If you're a friend, Inspector, you'll tell me straight out."
"That's not our way of doing business; and yet, hang it, I ought to know an honest man by this time! Tweddle, I'll drop the investigator, and speak as man to man. You've been reported to me (never mind by whom) as the receiver of the stolen Venus—a pal of this very Potter—that's what I've against you, my man!"
"I know who told you that," said Leander; "it was that Count and his precious friend Braddle!"
"Oh, you know them, do you? That's an odd guess for an innocent man, Tweddle!"
"They found me out from inquiries at the gardens," said Leander; "and as for guessing, it's in this very paper. So it's me they've gone and implicated, have they? All right. I suppose they're men whose word you'd go by, wouldn't you, sir—truthful, reliable kind of parties, eh?"
"None of that, Tweddle," said the Inspector, rather uneasily. "We officers are bound to follow up any clue, no matter where it comes from. I was informed that that Venus is concealed somewhere about these premises. It may be, or it may not be; but it's my duty to make the proper investigations. If you were a prince of the blood, it would be all the same."
"Well, all I can say is, that I'm as innocent as my own toilet preparations. Ask yourself if it is likely. What could I do with a stolen statue—not to mention that I'm a respectable tradesman, with a reputation to maintain? Excuse me, but I'm afraid those burglars have been 'aving a lark with you, sir."
He went just a little too far here, for the detective was visibly irritated.
"Don't chatter to me," he said. "If you're innocent, so much the better for you; if that statue is found here after this, it will ruin you. If you know anything, be it ever so little, about it, the best thing you can do is to speak out while there's time."
"I can only say, once more, I'm as innocent as the drivelling snow," repeated Leander. "Why can't you believe my word against those blackguards?"
"Perhaps I do," said the other; "but I must make a formal look round, to ease my conscience."
Leander's composure nearly failed him. "By all means," he said at length. "Come and ease your conscience all over the house, sir, do; I can show you over."
"Softly," said the detective. "I'll begin here, and work gradually up, and then down again."
"Here?" said Leander, aghast. "Why, you've seen all there is there!"
"Now, Tweddle, I shall conduct this my own way, if you please. I've been following your eyes, Tweddle, and they've told me tales. I'll trouble you to open that cupboard you keep looking at so."
"This cupboard?" cried Leander. "Why, you don't suppose I've got the Venus in there, sir!"
"If it's anywhere, it's there! There's no taking me in, I tell you. Open it!"
"Oh!" said Leander, "it is hard to be the object of these cruel suspicions. Mr. Inspector, listen to me. I can't open that cupboard, and I'll tell you why.... You—you've been young yourself.... Think how you'd feel in my situation ... and consider her! As a gentleman, you won't press it, I'm sure!"
"If I'm making any mistake, I shall know how to apologise," said the Inspector. "If you don't open that cupboard, I shall."
"Never!" exclaimed Leander. "I'll die first!" and he threw himself upon the handle.
The other caught him by the shoulders, and sent him twirling into the opposite corner; and then, taking a key from his own pocket, he opened the door himself.
"I—I never encouraged her!" whimpered Leander, as he saw that all was lost.
The officer had stepped back in silence from the cupboard; then he faced Leander, with a changed expression. "I suppose you think yourself devilish sharp?" he said savagely; and Leander discovered that the cupboard was as bare as Mother Hubbard's!
He was not precisely surprised, except at first. "She's keeping out of the way; she wouldn't be the goddess she is if she couldn't do a trifling thing like that!" was all he thought of the phenomenon. He forced himself to laugh a little.
"Excuse me," he said, "but you did seem so set on detecting something wrong, that I couldn't help humouring you!"
Inspector Bilbow was considerably out of humour, and gave Leander to understand that he would laugh in a certain obscure region, known as "the other side of his face," by-and-by. "You take care, that's my advice to you, young man. I've a deuced good mind to arrest you on suspicion as it is!" he said hotly.
"Lor', sir!" said Leander, "what for—for not having anything in that cupboard?"
"It's my belief you know more than you choose to tell. Be that as it may, I shall not take you into custody for the present; but you pay attention to what I'm going to tell you next. Don't you attempt to leave this house, or to remove anything from it, till you see me again, and that'll be some time to-morrow evening. If you do attempt it, you'll be apprehended at once, for you're being watched. I tell you that for your own sake, Tweddle; for I've no wish to get you into trouble if you act fairly by me. But mind you stay where you are for the next twenty-four hours."
"And what's to happen then?" said Leander.
"I mean to have the whole house thoroughly searched and you must be ready to give us every assistance—that's what's to happen. I might make a secret of it; but where's the use? If you're not a fool, you'll see that it won't do to play any tricks. You'd far better stand by me than Potter."
"I tell you I don't know Potter. Blow Potter!" said Leander, warmly.
"We shall see," was all the detective deigned to reply; "and just be ready for my men to-morrow evening, or take the consequences. Those are my last words to you!"
And with this he took his leave. He was by no means the most brilliant officer in the Department, and he felt uncomfortably aware that he did not see his way clear as yet. He could not even make up his mind on so elementary a point as Leander's guilt or innocence.
But he meant to take the course he had announced, and his frankness in giving previous notice was not without calculation. He argued thus: If Tweddle was free from all complicity, nothing was lost by delaying the search for a day; if he were guilty, he would be more than mortal if he did not attempt, after such a warning, either to hide his booty more securely, and probably leave traces which would betray him, or else to escape when his guilt would be manifest.
Unfortunately, there were circumstances in the case which he could not be expected to know, and which made his logic inapplicable.
After he had gone, Leander thrust his hands deep into his pockets, and began to whistle forlornly. "A little while ago it was burglars—now it's police!" he reflected aloud. "I'm going it, I am! And then there's Matilda and that there Venus—one predickyment on top of another!" (But here a sudden hope lightened his burden.) "Suppose she's took herself off for good?" He was prevented from indulging this any further by a long, low laugh, which came from the closed cupboard.
"No such luck—she's back again!" he groaned. "Oh, come out if you want to. Don't stay larfin' at me in there!"
The goddess stepped out, with a smile of subdued mirth upon her lips. "Leander," she said, "did it surprise you just now that I had vanished?"
"Oh," he said wearily, "I don't know—yes, I suppose so. You found some way of getting through at the back, I dare say?"
"Do you think that even now I cannot break through the petty restraints of matter?"
"Well, however it was managed, it was cleverly done. I must say that. I didn't hardly expect it of you. But you must do the same to-morrow night, mind you!"
"Must I, indeed?" she said.
"Yes, unless you want to ruin me altogether, you must. They're going to search the premises for you!"
"I have heard all," she said. "But give yourself no anxiety: by that time you and I will be beyond human reach."
"Not me," he corrected. "If you think I'm going to let myself be wafted over to Cyprus (which is British soil now, let me tell you), you're under a entire delusion. I've never been wafted anywhere yet, and I don't mean to try it!"
All her pent-up wrath broke forth and descended upon him with crushing force.
"Meanest and most contemptible of mortal men, you shall recognize me as the goddess I am! I have borne with you too long; it shall end this night. Shallow fool that you have been, to match your puny intellect against a goddess famed for her wiles as for her beauty! You have thought me simple and guileless; you have never feared to treat me with disrespect; you have even dared to suppose that you could keep me—an immortal—pent within these wretched walls! I humoured you; I let you fool yourself with the notion that your will was free—your soul your own. Now that is over! Consider the perils which encircle you. Everything has been aiding to drive you into these arms. My hour of triumph is at hand—yield, then! Cast yourself at my feet, and grovel for pardon—for mercy—or assuredly I will spare you not!"
Leander went down on all fours on the hearthrug. "Mercy!" he cried, feebly. "I've meant no offence. Only tell me what you want of me."
"Why should I tell you again? I demand the words from you which place you within my power: speak them at once!"
("Ah," thought Leander, "I am not in her power as it is, then.") "If I was to tell you once more that I couldn't undertake to say any such words?" he asked aloud.
"Then," she said, "my patience would be at an end, and I would scatter your vile frame to the four winds of heaven!"
"Lady Venus," said Leander, getting up with a white and desperate face, "don't drive me into a corner. I can't go off, not at a moment's notice—in either way! I—I must have a day—only a day—to make my arrangements in. Give me a day, Lady Venus; I ask it as a partickler favour!"
"Be it so," she said. "One day I give you in which to take leave of such as may be dear to you; but, after that, I will listen to no further pleadings. You are mine, and, all unworthy as you are, I shall hold you to your pledge!"
Leander was left with this terrible warning ringing in his ears: the goddess would hold him to his involuntary pledge. Even he could see that it was pride, and not affection, which rendered her so determined; and he trembled at the thought of placing himself irrevocably in her power.
But what was he to do? The alternative was too awful; and then, in either case, he must lose Matilda. Here the recollection of how he had left her came over him with a vivid force. What must she be thinking of him at that moment? And who would ever tell her the truth, when he had been spirited away for ever?
"Oh, Matilda!" he cried, "if you only knew the hidgeous position I'm in—if you could only advise me what to do—I could bear it better!"
And then he resolved that he would ask that advice without delay, and decide nothing until she replied. There was no reason for any further concealment: she had seen the statue herself, and must know the worst. What she could not know was his perfect innocence of any real unfaithfulness to her, and that he must explain.
He sat up all night composing a letter that should touch her to the heart, with the following result:—
"MY OWN DEAREST GIRL,
"If such you will still allow me to qualify you, I write to you in a state of mind that I really 'ardly know what I am about, but I cannot indure making no effort to clear up the gaping abiss which the events of the past fatal afternoon has raised betwixt us.
"In spite of all I could do, you have now seen, and been justly alarmed at, the Person with whom I allowed myself to become involved in such a unhappy and unprecedented manner, and having done so, you can think for yourself whether that Art of Stone was able for to supplant yours for a single moment, though the way in which such a hidgeous Event transpired I can not trust my pen to describe except in the remark that it was purely axidental. It all appened on that ill-ominous Saturday when we went down to those Gardens where my Doom was saving up to lay in wait for me, and I scorn to deny that Bella's sister Ada was one of the party. But as to anything serous in that quarter, oh Tilly the ole time I was contrasting you with her and thinking how truly superior, and never did I swerve not what could be termed a swerve for a instant. I did dance arf a walz with her—but why? Because she asked me to it and as a Gentleman I was bound to oblige! And that was afterwards too, when I had put that ring on which is the sauce of all my recent aggony. All the while I was dancing my thoughts were elsewhere—on how I could get the ring back again, for so I still hoped I could, though when I came to have a try, oh my dear girl no one couldn't persuade her she's that obstinate, and yet unless I do it is all over with me, and soon too!
"And now if it's the last time I shall ever write words with a mortal pen, I must request your support in this dilemmer which is sounding its dread orns at my very door!
"You know what she is and who she is, and you cannot doubt but what she's a goddess loath as you must feel to admit such a thing, and I ask you if it would be downright wicked in me to do what she tells me I must do. Indeed I wont do it, being no less than flying with her immediate to a distant climb, and you know how repugnant I am to such a action—not if you advise me against it or even if you was but to assure me your affections were unchanged in spite of all! But you know we parted under pigulier circs, and I cannot disgise from myself that you may be thinking wuss of me than what Matilda I can honestly say I deserve!
"Now I tell you solimly that if this is the fact, and you've been thinking of your proper pride and your womanly dignity and things like that—there's no time for to do it in Matilda, if you don't want to break with me for all Eternity!
"For she's pressing me to carry out the pledge, as she calls it, and I must decide before this time to-morrow, and I want to feel you are not lost to me before I can support my trial, and what with countless perplexities and burglars threatening, and giving false informations, and police searching, there's no saying what I may do nor what I mayn't do if I'm left to myself, for indeed I am very unappy Matilda, and if ever a man was made a Victim through acting without intentions, or if with, of the best—I am that Party! O Matilda don't, don't desert me, unless you have seased to care for me, and in that contingency I can look upon my Fate whatever it be with a apathy that will supply the courage which will not even winch at its approach, but if I am still of value, come, and come precious soon, or it will be too late to the Asistance of
"Your truly penitent and unfortunate
"P.S.—You will see the condition of my feelings from my spelling—I haven't the hart to spell."
Dawn was breaking as he put the final touches to this appeal, and read it over with a gloomy approbation. He had always cherished the conviction that he could "write a good letter when he was put to it," and felt now that he had more than risen to the occasion.
"William shall take it down to Bayswater the first thing to-morrow—no, to-day, I mean," he said, rubbing his hot eyes. "I fancy it will do my business!"
And it did.
THE LAST STRAW
"Thou in justice, If from the height of majesty we can Look down upon thy lowness and embrace it, Art bound with fervour to look up to me."
MASSINGER, Roman Actor.
Haggard and distraught was Leander as he went about his business that morning, so mechanically that one customer, who had requested to have his luxuriant locks "trimmed," found himself reduced to a state of penal bullet-headedness before he could protest, and another sacrificed his whiskers and part of one ear to the hairdresser's uninspired scissors. For Leander's eyes were constantly turning to the front part of his shop, where his apprentice might come in at any moment with the answer to his appeal.
At last the moment came when the bell fixed at the door sounded sharply, and he saw the sleek head and chubby red face he had been so anxiously expecting. He was busy with a customer; but that could not detain him then, and he rushed quickly into the outer shop. "Well, William," he said, breathlessly, "a nice time you've been over that message! I gave you the money for your 'bus."
"Yusser, but it was this way: you said a green 'bus, and I took a green 'bus with 'Bayswater' on it, and I didn't know nothing was wrong, and when it stopped I sez to the conductor, 'This ain't Kensington Gardings;' and he sez, 'No, it's Archer Street;' and I sez——"
"Never mind that now; you got to the shop, didn't you?"
"Yes, I got to the shop, sir, and I see the lady; but I sez to that conductor, 'You should ha' told me,' I sez——"
"Did she give you anything for me?" interrupted Leander, impatiently.
"Yessur," said the boy.
"Then where the dooce is it?"
"'Ere!" said William, and brought out an envelope, which his master tore open with joy. It contained his own letter!
"William," he said unsteadily, "is this all?"
"Ain't it enough, sir?" said the young scoundrel, who had guessed the state of affairs, and felt an impish satisfaction at his employer's rejection.
"None of that, William; d'ye hear me?" said Leander. "William, I ain't been a bad master to you. Tell me, how did she take it?"
"Well, she didn't seem to want to take it nohow at first," said the boy. "I went up to the desk where she was a-sittin' and gave it her, and by-and-by she opened it with the tips of her fingers, as if it would bite, and read it all through very careful, and I could see her nose going up gradual, and her colour coming, and then she sez to me, 'You may go now, boy; there's no answer.' And I sez to her, 'If you please, miss, master said as I was not to go away without a answer.' So she sez, uncommon short and stiff, 'In that case he shall have it!'—like that, she says, as proud as a queen, and she scribbles a line or two on it, and throws it to me, and goes on casting up figgers."
"A line or two! where?" cried Leander, and caught up the letter again. Yes, there on the last page was Matilda's delicate commercial handwriting, and the poor man read the cruel words, "I have nothing to advise; I give you up to your 'goddess'!"
"Very well, William," he said, with a deadly calm; "that's all. You young devil! what are you a-sniggering at?" he added, with a sudden outburst.
"On'y something I 'eard a boy say in the street, sir, going along, sir; nothing to do with you, sir."
"Oh, youth, youth!" muttered the poor broken man; "boys don't grow feelings, any more than they grow whiskers!"
And he went back to his saloon, where he was instantly hailed with reproaches from the abandoned customer.
"Look here, sir! what do you mean by this? I told you I wanted to be shaved, and you've soaped the top of my head and left it to cool! What"—and he made use of expletives here—"what are you about?"
Leander apologized on the ground of business of a pressing nature, but the customer was not pacified.
"Business, sir! your business is here: I'm your business! And I come to be shaved, and you soap the top of my head, and leave me all alone to dry! It's scandalous! it's——"
"Look here, sir," interrupted Leander, gloomily; "I've a good deal of private trouble to put up with just now, without having you going on at me; so I must ask you not to 'arris me like this, or I don't know what I might do, with a razor so 'andy!"
"That'll do!" said the customer, hastily. "I—I don't care about being shaved this morning. Wipe my head, and let me go; no, I'll wipe it myself,—don't you trouble!" and he made for the door. "It's my belief," he said, pausing on the threshold for an instant, "that you're a dangerous lunatic, sir; you ought to be shut up!"
"I dessay I shall have a mad doctor down on me after this," thought Leander; "but I shan't wait for him. No, it is all over now; the die is fixed! Cruel Tillie! you have spoke the mandrake; you have thrust me into the stony harms of that 'eathen goddess—always supposing the police don't nip in fust, and get the start of her."
No more customers came that day, which was fortunate, perhaps, for them. The afternoon passed, and dusk approached, but the hairdresser sat on, motionless, in his darkening saloon, without the energy to light a single gas-jet.
At last he roused himself sufficiently to go to the head of the stairs leading to his "labatry," and call for William, who, it appeared, was composing an egg-wash, after one of his employer's formulae, and came up, wondering to find the place in darkness.
"Come here, William," said Leander, solemnly. "I just want a few words with you, and then you can go. I can do the shutting-up myself. William, we can none of us foretell the future; and it may so 'appen that you are looking on my face for the last time. If it should so be, William, remember the words I am now about to speak, and lay them to 'art!... This world is full of pitfalls; and some of us walk circumspect and keep out of 'em, and some of us, William—some of us don't. If there's any places more abounding in pitfalls than what others are, it is the noxious localities known under the deceitful appellation of 'pleasure' gardens. And you may take that as the voice of one calling to you from the bottom of about as deep a 'ole as a mortal man ever plumped into. And if ever you find a taste for statuary growing on you, William, keep it down, wrastle with it, and don't encourage it. Farewell, William! Be here at the usual time to-morrow, though whether you will find me here is more than I can say."
The boy went away, much impressed by so elaborate and formal a parting, which seemed to him a sign that, in his parlance, "the guv'nor was going to make a bolt of it."
Leander busied himself in some melancholy preparations for his impending departure, dissolution, or incarceration; he was not very clear which it might be.
He went down and put his "labatry" in order. There he had worked with all the fiery zeal of an inventor at the discoveries which were to confer perpetual youth, in various sized bottles, upon a grateful world. He must leave them all, with his work scarcely begun! Another would step in and perfect what he had left incomplete!
He came up again, with a heavy heart, and examined his till. There was not much; enough, however, for William's wages and any small debts. He made a list of these, and left it there with the coin. "They must settle it among themselves," he thought, wearily; "I can't be bothered with business now."
He was thinking whether it was worth while to shut the shop up or not; when a clear voice sounded from above—
"Leander, where art thou? Come hither!"
And he started as if he had been shot. "I'm coming, madam," he called up, obsequiously. "I'll be with you in one minute!"
"Now for it," he thought, as he went up to his sitting-room. "I wish I wasn't all of a twitter. I wish I knew what was coming next!"
The room was dark, but when he got a light he saw the statue standing in the centre of the room, her hood thrown back, and the fur-lined mantle hanging loosely about her; the face looked stern and terrible under its brilliant tint.
"Have you made your choice?" she demanded.
"Choice!" he said. "I haven't any choice left me!"
"It is true," she said triumphantly. "Your friends have deserted you; mortals are banded together to seize and disgrace you: you have no refuge but with me. But time is short. Come, then, place yourself within the shelter of these arms, and, while they enfold you tight in their marble embrace, repeat after me the words which complete my power."
"There's no partickler hurry," he objected. "I will directly. I—I only want to know what will happen when I've done it. You can't have any objection to a natural curiosity like that."
"You will lose consciousness, to recover it in balmy Cyprus, with Aphrodite (no longer cold marble, but the actual goddess, warm and living), by your side! Ah! impervious one, can you linger still? Do you not tremble with haste to feel my breath fanning your cheek, my soft arm around your neck? Are not your eyes already dazzled by the gleam of my golden tresses?"
"Well, I can't say they are; not at present," said Leander. "And, you see, it's all very well; but, as I asked you once before, how are you going to get me there? It's a long way, and I'm ten stone, if I'm an ounce!"
"Heavy-witted youth, it is not your body that will taste perennial bliss."
"And what's to become of that, then?" he asked, anxiously.
"That will be left here, clasped to this stone, itself as cold and lifeless."
"Oh!" said Leander, "I didn't bargain for that, and I don't like it."
"You will know nothing of it; you will be with me, in dreamy grottoes strewn with fragrant rushes and the new-stript leaves of the vine, where the warm air woos to repose with its languorous softness, and the water as it wells murmurs its liquid laughter. Ah! no Greek would have hesitated thus."
"Well, I ain't a Greek; and, as a business man, you can't be surprised if I want to make sure it's a genuine thing, and worth the risk, before I commit myself. I think I understand that it's the gold ring which is to bind us two together?"
"It is," she said; "by that pure and noble metal are we united."
"Well," said Leander, "that being so, I should wish to have it tested, else there might be a hitch somewhere or other."
"Tested!" she cried; "what is that?"
"Trying it, to see if it's real gold or not," he said. "We can easily have it done."
"It is needless," she replied, haughtily. "I will not suffer my power to be thus doubted, nor that of the pure and precious metal through which I have obtained it!"
Leander might have objected to this as an example of that obscure feat, "begging the question;" for, whether the metal was pure and precious, was precisely the point he desired to ascertain. And this desire was quite genuine; for, though he saw no other course before him but that upon which the goddess insisted, he did wish to take every reasonable precaution.
"For all I know," he reasoned in his own mind, "if there's anything wrong with that ring, I may be left 'igh and dry, halfway to Cyprus; or she may get tired of me, and turn me out of those grottoes of hers! If I must go with her, I should like to make things as safe as I could."
"It won't take long," he pleaded; "and if I find the ring's real gold, I promise I won't hold out any longer."
"There is no time," she said, "to indulge this whim. Would you mock me, Leander? Ha! did I not say so? Listen!"
The private bell was ringing loudly. Leander rushed to the window, but saw no one. Then he heard the clang of the shop bell, as if the person or persons had discovered that an entrance was possible there.
"The guards!" said the statue. "Will you wait for them, Leander?"
"No!" he cried. "Never mind what I said about the ring; I'll risk that. Only—only, don't go away without me.... Tell me what to say, and I'll say it, and chance the consequences!"
"Say, 'Aphrodite, daughter of Olympian Zeus, I yield; I fulfil the pledge; I am thine!'"
"Well," he thought, "here goes. Oh, Matilda, you're responsible for this!" And he advanced towards the white extended arms of the goddess. There were hasty steps outside; another moment and the door would be burst open.
"Aphrodite, daughter of——" he began, and recoiled suddenly; for he heard his name called from without in a voice familiar and once dear to him.
"Leander, where are you? It's all dark! Speak to me; tell me you've done nothing rash! Oh, Leander, it's Matilda!"
That voice, which a short while back he would have given the world to hear once more, appalled him now. For if she came in, the goddess would discover who she was, and then—he shuddered to think what might happen then!
Matilda's hand was actually on the door. "Stop where you are!" he shouted, in despair; "for mercy's sake, don't come in!"
"Ah! you are there, and alive!" she cried. "I am not too late; and I will come in!"
And in another instant she burst into the room, and stood there, her tear-stained face convulsed with the horror of finding him in such company.
THE THIRTEENTH TRUMP
"Your adversary having thus secured the lead with the last trump, you will be powerless to prevent the bringing-in of the long suit."
ROUGH'S Guide to Whist.
"What! thinkest thou that utterly in vain Jove is my sire, and in despite my will That thou canst mock me with thy beauty still?"
Story of Cupid and Psyche.
Leander, when he wrote his distracted appeal to Matilda, took it for granted that she had recognized the statue for something of a supernatural order, and this, combined with his perplexed state of mind, caused him to be less explicit than he might have been in referring to the goddess's ill-timed appearance.
But, unfortunately, as will probably have been already anticipated, the only result of this reticence was, that Matilda saw in his letter an abject entreaty for her consent to his marriage with Ada Parkinson, to avoid legal proceedings, and, under this misapprehension, she wrote the line that abandoned all claims upon him, and then went on with her accounts, which were not so neatly kept that day as usual.
What she felt most keenly in Leander's conduct was, that he should have placed the ring, which to all intent was her own, upon the finger of another. She could not bear to think of so unfeeling an act, and yet she thought of it all through the long day, as she sat, outwardly serene, at her high desk, while her attendants at her side made up sprays for dances and wreaths for funerals from the same flowers.
And at last she felt herself urged to a course which, in her ordinary mind, she would have shrunk from as a lowering of her personal dignity: she would go and see her rival, and insist that this particular humiliation should be spared her. The ring was not Leander's to dispose of—at least, to dispose of thus; it was not right that any but herself should wear it; and, though the token could never now be devoted to its rightful use, she wanted to save it from what, in her eyes, was a kind of profanation.
She would not own it to herself, but there was a motive stronger than all this—the desire to relieve her breast of some of the indignation which was choking her, and of which her pride forbade any betrayal to Leander himself.
This other woman had supplanted her; but she should be made to feel the wrong she had done, and her triumphs should be tempered with shame, if she were capable of such a sensation. Matilda knew very well that the ring was not hers, and she wanted it no longer; but, then, it was Miss Tweddle's, and she would claim it in her name.
She easily obtained permission to leave somewhat earlier that evening, as she did not often ask such favours, and soon found herself at Madame Chenille's establishment, where she remembered to have heard from Bella that her sister was employed.
She asked for the forewoman, and begged to be allowed to speak to Miss Parkinson in private for a very few minutes; but the forewoman referred her to the proprietress, who made objections: such a thing was never permitted during business hours, the shop would close in an hour, till then Miss Parkinson was engaged in the showroom, and so on.
But Matilda carried her point at last, and was shown to a room in the basement, where the assistants took their meals, there to wait until Miss Parkinson could be spared from her duties.
Matilda waited in the low, dingy room, where the tea-things were still littering the table, and as she paced restlessly about, trying to feel an interest in the long-discarded fashion-plates which adorned the walls, her anger began to cool, and give place to something very like nervousness.
She wished she had not come. What, after all, was she to say to this girl when they met? And what was Leander—base and unworthy as he had shown himself—to her any longer? Why should she care what he chose to do with the ring? And he would be told of her visit, and think——No! that was intolerable: she would not gratify his vanity and humble herself in this way. She would slip quietly out, and leave her rival to enjoy her victory!
But, just as she was going to carry out this intention, the door opened, and a short, dark young woman appeared. "I'm told there was a young person asking to speak to me," she said; "I'm Ada Parkinson."
At the name, Matilda's heart swelled again with the sense of her injuries; and yet she was unprepared for the face that met her eyes. Surely her rival had both looked and spoken differently the night before? And yet, she had been so agitated that very likely her recollections were not to be depended upon.
"I—I did want to see you," she said, and her voice shook, as much from timidity as righteous indignation. "When I tell you who I am, perhaps you will guess why. I am Matilda Collum."
Miss Parkinson showed no symptoms of remorse. "What!" she cried, "the young lady that Mr. Tweddle is courting? Fancy!"
"After what happened last night," said Matilda, trembling exceedingly, "you know that that is all over. I didn't come to talk about that. If you knew—and I think you must have known—all that Mr. Tweddle was to me, you have—you have not behaved very well; but he is nothing to me any more, and it is not worth while to be angry. Only, I don't think you ought to keep the ring—not that ring!"
"Goodness gracious me!" cried Ada. "What in the world is all this about? What ring oughtn't I to keep?"
"You know!" retorted Matilda. "How can you pretend like that? The ring he gave you that night at Rosherwich!"
"The girl's mad!" exclaimed the other. "He never gave me a ring in all his life! I wouldn't have taken it, if he'd asked me ever so. Mr. Tweddle indeed!"
"Why do you say that?" said Matilda. "He has not got it himself, and your sister said he gave it to you, and—and I saw it with my own eyes on your hand!"
"Oh, dear me!" said Ada, petulantly, holding out her hand, "look there—is that it?—is this? Well, these are all that I have, whether you believe me or not; one belonged to my poor mother, and the other was a present, only last Friday, from the gentleman that's their head traveller, next door, and is going to be my husband. Is it likely that I should be wearing any other now?—ask yourself!"
"You wouldn't wish to deceive me, I hope," said Matilda; "and oh, Miss Parkinson, you might be open with me, for I'm so very miserable! I don't know what to think. Tell me just this: did you—wasn't it you who came last night to Miss Tweddle's?"
"No!" returned Ada, impatiently—"no, as many times as you please! And if Bella likes to say I did, she may; and she always was a mischief-making thing! How could I, when I didn't know there was any Miss Tweddle to come to? And what do you suppose I should go running about after Mr. Tweddle for? I wonder you're not ashamed to say such things!"
"But," faltered Matilda, "you did go to those gardens with him, didn't you? And—and I know he gave the ring to somebody!"
Ada began to laugh. "You're quite correct, Miss Collum," she said; "so he did. Don't you want to know who he gave it to?"
"Yes," said Matilda, "and you will tell me. I have a right to be told. I was engaged to him, and the ring was given to him for me—not for any one else. You will tell me, Miss Parkinson, I am sure you will?"
"Well," said Ada, still laughing, "I'll tell you this much—she's a foreign lady, very stiff and stuck-up and cold. She's got it, if any one has. I saw him put it on myself!"
"Tell me her name, if you know it."
"I see you won't be easy till you know all about it. Her name's Afriddity, or Froddity, or something outlandish like that. She lives at Rosherwich, a good deal in the open air, and—there, don't be ridiculous—it's only a statue! There's a pretty thing to be jealous of!"
"Only a statue!" echoed Matilda. "Oh! Heaven be with us both, if—if that was It!"
Certain sentences in the letter she had returned came to her mind with a new and dreadful significance. The appearance of the visitor last night—Leander's terror—all seemed to point to some unsuspected mystery.
"It can't be—no, it can't! Miss Parkinson, you were there: tell me all that happened, quick! You don't know what may depend on it!"
"What! not satisfied even now?" cried Ada. "Well, Miss Collum, talk about jealousy! But, there, I'll tell you all I know myself."
And she gave the whole account of the episode with the statue, so far as she knew it, even to the conversation which led to the production of the ring.
"You see," she concluded, "that it was all on your account that he tried it on at all, and I'm sure he talked enough about you all the evening. I really was a little surprised when I found you were his Miss Collum. (You won't mind my saying so?) If I was you, I should go and tell him I forgave him, now. I do think he deserves it, poor little man!"
"Yes, yes!" cried Matilda; "I'll go—I'll go at once! Thank you, Miss Parkinson, for telling me what you have!" And then, as she remembered some dark hints in Leander's letter: "Oh, I must make haste! He may be going to do something desperate—he may have done it already!"
And, leaving Miss Parkinson to speculate as she pleased concerning her eccentricity, she went out into the broad street again; and, unaccustomed as she was to such expenditure, hailed a hansom; for there was no time to be lost.
She had told the man to drive to the Southampton Row Passage at first, but, as she drew nearer, she changed her purpose; she did not like to go alone, for who knew what she might see there? It was out of the question to expect her mother to accompany her, but her friend and landlady would not refuse to do so; and she drove to Millman Street, and prevailed on Miss Tweddle to come with her without a moment's delay.
The two women found the shop dark, but unshuttered; there was a light in the upper room. "You stay down here, please," said Matilda; "if—if anything is wrong, I will call you." And Miss Tweddle, without very well understanding what it was all about, and feeling fluttered and out of breath, was willing enough to sit down in the saloon and recover herself.
And so it came to pass that Matilda burst into the room just as the hairdresser was preparing to pronounce the inevitable words that would complete the goddess's power. He stood there, pale and dishevelled, with eyes that were wild and bordered with red. Opposite to him was the being she had once mistaken for a fellow-creature.
Too well she saw now that the tall and queenly form, with the fixed eyes and cold tinted mask, was inspired by nothing human; and her heart died within her as she gazed, spellbound, upon her formidable rival.
"Leander," she murmured, supporting herself against the frame of the door, "what are you going to do?"
"Keep back, Matilda!" he cried desperately; "go away—it's too late now!"
A moment before, and, deserted as he believed himself to be by love and fortune alike, he had been almost resigned to the strange and shadowy future which lay before him; but now—now that he saw Matilda there in his room, no longer scornful or indifferent, but pale and concerned, her pretty grey eyes dark and wide with anguish and fear for him—he felt all he was giving up; he had a sudden revulsion, a violent repugnance to his doom.
She loved him still! She had repented for some reason. Oh! why had she not done so before? What could he do now? For her own sake he must steel himself to tell her to leave him to his fate; for he knew well that if the goddess were to discover Matilda's real relations to him, it might cost his innocent darling her life!
For the moment he rose above his ordinary level. He lost all thought of self. Let Aphrodite take him if she would, but Matilda must be saved. "Go away!" he repeated; and his voice was cracked and harsh, under the strain of doing such violence to his feelings. "Can't you see you're—you're not wanted? Oh, do go away—while you can!"
Matilda closed the door behind her. "Do you think," she said, catching her breath painfully, "that I shall go away and leave you with That!"