It was after this that Laura's first aversion to the great grey city fast disappeared, and she saw it in a kindlier aspect.
Soon it was impossible to deny that Curtis Jadwin—"J" as he was called in business—was in love with her. The business man, accustomed to deal with situations with unswerving directness, was not in the least afraid of Laura. He was aggressive, assertive, and his addresses had all the persistence and vehemence of veritable attack. He contrived to meet her everywhere, and even had the Cresslers and Laura over to his mission Sunday-school for the Easter festival, an occasion of which Laura carried away a confused recollection of enormous canvas mottoes, sheaves of lilies, imitation bells of tinfoil, revival hymns vociferated from seven hundred distended mouths, and through it all the smell of poverty, the odour of uncleanliness, that mingled strangely with the perfume of the lilies.
Somehow Laura found that with Jadwin all the serious, all the sincere, earnest side of her character was apt to come to the front.
Yet for a long time Laura could not make up her mind that she loved him, but "J" refused to be dismissed.
"I told him I did not love him. Only last week I told him so," Laura explained to Mrs. Cressler.
"Well, then, why did you promise to marry him?"
"My goodness! You don't realise what it's been. Do you suppose you can say 'no' to that man?"
"Of course not—of course not!" declared Mrs. Cressler joyfully. "That's 'J' all over. I might have known he'd have you if he set out to do it."
They were married on the last day of June of that summer in the Episcopalian church. Immediately after the wedding the couple took the train for Geneva Lake, where Jadwin had built a house for his bride.
II.—A Corner in Wheat
The months passed. Soon three years had gone by since the ceremony in St. James's Church, and all that time the price of wheat had been steadily going down. Heavy crops the world over had helped the decline.
Jadwin had been drawn into the troubled waters of the Pit, and was by now "blooded to the game." It was in April that he decided that better times and higher prices were coming for wheat, and announced his intentions to Sam Gretry, his broker.
"Sam," he said, "the time is come for a great big chance. We've been hammering wheat down and down and down till we've got it below the cost of production, and now she won't go any further with all the hammering in the world. The other fellows, the rest of the bear crowd, don't seem to see it; but I see it. Before fall we're going to have higher prices. Wheat is going up, and when it does I mean to be right there. I'm going to buy. I'm going to buy September wheat, and I'm going to buy it to-morrow—500,000 bushels of it; and if the market goes as I think it will later on, I'm going to buy more. I'm going to boost this market right through till the last bell rings, and from now on Curtis Jadwin spells b-u-double l—bull."
"They'll slaughter you," said Gretry; "slaughter you in cold blood. You're just one man against a gang—a gang of cut-throats. Those bears have got millions and millions back of them. 'J,' you are either Napoleonic, or—or a colossal idiot!"
All through the three years that had passed Jadwin had grown continually richer. His real estate appreciated in value; rents went up. Every time he speculated in wheat it was upon a larger scale, and every time he won. Hitherto he had been a bear; now, after the talk with Gretry, he had secretly "turned bull" with the suddenness of a strategist.
A marvellous golden luck followed Jadwin all that summer. The crops were poor, the yield moderate.
Jadwin sold out in September, having made a fortune, and then, in a single vast clutch, bought 3,000,000 bushels of the December option.
Never before had he ventured so deeply into the Pit.
One morning in November, at breakfast, Laura said to her husband, "Curtis, dear, when is it all going to end—your speculating? You never used to be this way. It seems as though, nowadays, I never had you to myself. Even when you are not going over papers and reports, or talking by the hour to Mr. Gretry in the library, your mind seems to be away from me. I—I am lonesome, dearest, sometimes. And, Curtis, what is the use? We're so rich now we can't spend our money."
"Oh, it's not the money!" he answered. "It's the fun of the thing—the excitement."
That very week Jadwin made 500,000 dollars.
"I don't own a grain of wheat now," he assured his wife. "I've got to be out of it."
But try as he would, the echoes of the rumbling of the Pit reached Jadwin at every hour of the day and night. He stayed at home over Christmas. Inactive, he sat there idle, while the clamour of the Pit swelled daily louder, and the price of wheat went up.
Jadwin chafed and fretted at his inaction and his impatience harried him like a gadfly. Would no one step into the place of high command.
Very soon the papers began to speak of an unknown "bull" clique who were rapidly coming into control of the market, and it was no longer a secret to Laura that her husband had gone back to the market, and that, too, with such an impetuosity that his rush had carried him to the very heart of the turmoil.
He was now deeply involved; his influence began to be felt. Not an important move on the part of the "unknown bull," the nameless, mysterious stranger, that was not noted and discussed.
It was very late in the afternoon of a lugubrious March day when Jadwin and Gretry, in the broker's private room, sat studying the latest Government reports as to the supply of wheat, and Jadwin observed, "Why, Sam, there's less than 100,000,000 bushels in the farmers' hands. That's awfully small."
"It ain't, as you might say, colossal," admitted Gretry.
"Sam," said Jadwin again, "the shipments have been about 5,000,000 a week; 20,000,000 a month, and it's four months before a new crop. Europe will take 80,000,000 out of the country. I own 10,000,000 now. Why, there ain't going to be any wheat left in Chicago by May! If I get in now, and buy a long line of cash wheat, where are all these fellows going to get it to deliver to me? Say, where are they going to get it? Come on, now, tell me, where are they going to get it?"
Gretry laid down his pencil, and stared at Jadwin.
"'J,'" he faltered, "'J,' I'm blest if I know."
And then, all in the same moment, the two men were on their feet.
Jadwin sprang forward, gripping the broker by the shoulder.
"Sam," he shouted, "do you know——Great God! Do you know what this means? Sam, we can corner the market!"
III.—The Corner Breaks
The high prices meant a great increase of wheat acreage. In June the preliminary returns showed 4,000,000 more acres under wheat in the two states of Dakota alone, and in spite of all Gretry's remonstrances, Jadwin still held on, determined to keep up prices to July.
But now it had become vitally necessary for Jadwin to sell out his holdings. His "long line" was a fearful expense; insurance and storage charges were eating rapidly into the profits. He must get rid of the load he was carrying little by little.
A month ago, and the foreign demand was a thing almost insensate. There was no question as to the price. It was, "Give us the wheat, at whatever figure, at whatever expense."
At home in Chicago Jadwin was completely master of the market. His wealth increased with such rapidity that at no time was he able even to approximate the gains that accrued to him because of his corner. It was more than twenty million, and less than fifty million. That was all he knew.
It was then that he told Gretry he was going to buy in the July crops.
"' J,' listen to me," said Gretry. "Wheat is worth a dollar and a half to-day, and not one cent more. If you run it up to two dollars—"
"It will go there of itself, I tell you."
"If you run it up to two dollars it will be that top-heavy that the littlest kick in the world will knock it over. Be satisfied now with what you've, got. Suppose the price does break a little, you'd still make your pile. But swing this deal over into July, and it's ruin. The farmers all over the country are planting wheat as they've never planted it before. Great Scott, 'J,' you're fighting against the earth itself."
"Well, we'll fight it then."
"Here's another point," went on Gretry. "You ought to be in bed this very minute. You haven't got any nerves left at all. You acknowledge you don't sleep. You ought to see a doctor."
"Fiddlesticks!" exclaimed Jadwin. "I'm all right. Haven't time to see a doctor."
So the month of May drew to its close, and as Jadwin beheld more and more the broken speculators, with their abject humility, a vast contempt for human nature grew within him. The business hardened his heart, and he took his profits as if by right of birth.
His wife he saw but seldom. Occasionally they breakfasted together; more often they met at dinner. But that was all.
And now by June 11 the position was critical.
"The price broke to a dollar and twenty yesterday," said Gretry. "Just think, we were at a dollar and a half a little while ago."
"And we'll be at two dollars in another ten days, I tell you."
"Do you know how we stand, 'J'?" said the broker gravely. "Do you know how we stand financially? It's taken pretty nearly every cent of our ready money to support this July market. Oh, we can figure out our paper profits into the millions. We've got thirty, forty, fifty million bushels of wheat that's worth over a dollar a bushel; but if we can't sell it we're none the better off—and that wheat is costing us six thousand dollars a day. Where's the money going to come from, old man? You don't seem to realise that we are in a precarious condition. The moment we can't give our boys buying orders, the moment we admit that we can't buy all the wheat that's offered, there's the moment we bust."
"Well, we'll buy it," cried Jadwin. "I'll show those brutes. I'll mortgage all my real estate, and I'll run up wheat so high before the next two days that the Bank of England can't pull it down; then I'll sell our long line, and with the profits of that I'll run it up again. Two dollars! Why, it will be two-fifty before you know how it happened."
That day Jadwin placed as heavy a mortgage as the place would stand upon every piece of real estate that he owned. He floated a number of promissory notes, and taxed his credit to its farthest stretch. But sure as he was of winning, Jadwin could, not bring himself to involve his wife's money in the hazard, though his entire personal fortune swung in the balance.
Jadwin knew the danger. The new harvest was coming in—the new harvest of wheat—huge beyond all possibility of control; so vast that no money could buy it. And from Liverpool and Paris cables had come in to Gretry declining to buy wheat, though he had offered it cheaper than he had ever done before.
* * * * *
On the morning of June 13, Gretry gave his orders to young Landry Court and his other agents in the Pit, to do their best to keep the market up. "You can buy each of you up to half a million bushels apiece. If that don't keep the price up—well, I'll let you know what to do. Look here, keep your heads cool. I guess to-day will decide things."
In the Pit roar succeeded roar. It seemed that a support long thought to be secure was giving way. Not a man knew what he or his neighbour was doing. The bids leaped to and fro, and the price of July wheat could not so much as be approximated.
Landry caught one of the Gretry traders by the arm.
"What shall we do?" he shouted. "I've bought up to my limit. No more orders have come in. What's to be done?"
"I don't know," the other shouted back—"I don't know! Looks like a smash; something's gone wrong."
In Gretry's office Jadwin stood hatless and pale. Around him were one of the heads of a great banking house and a couple of other men, confidential agents, who had helped to manipulate the great corner.
"It's the end of the game," Gretry exclaimed, "you've got no more money! Not another order goes up to that floor."
"It's a lie!" Jadwin cried, "keep on buying, I tell you! Take all they'll offer. I tell you we'll touch the two dollar mark before noon."
"It's useless, Mr. Jadwin," said the banker quietly, "You were practically beaten two days ago."
But Jadwin was beyond all appeal. He threw off Gretry's hand.
"Get out of my way!" he shouted. "Do you hear? I'll play my hand alone from now on."
"'J,' old man—why, see here!" Gretry implored, still holding him by the arm. "Here, where are you going?"
Jadwin's voice rang like a trumpet-call:
"Into the Pit! If you won't execute my orders I'll act myself. I'm going into the Pit, I tell you!"
"'J,' you're mad, old fellow! You're ruined—don't you understand?—you're ruined!"
"Then God curse you, Sam Gretry, for the man who failed me in a crisis!" And, as he spoke, Curtis Jadwin struck the broker full in the face.
Gretry staggered back from the blow. His pale face flashed to crimson for an instant, his fists clenched; then his hands fell to his sides.
"No," he said; "let him go—let him go. The man is merely mad!"
Jadwin thrust the men who tried to hold him to one side, and rushed from the room.
"It's the end," Gretry said simply. He wrote a couple of lines, and handed the note to the senior clerk. "Take that to the secretary of the board at once."
Straight into the turmoil and confusion of the Pit, into the scene of so many of his victories, came the "Great Bull." The news went flashing and flying from lip to lip. The wheat Pit, torn and tossed and rent asunder, stood dismayed, so great had been his power. What was about to happen? Jadwin himself, the great man, in the Pit! Had his enemies been too premature in their hope of his defeat? For a second they hesitated, then moved by a common impulse, feeling the push of the wonderful new harvest behind them, gathered themselves together for the final assault, and again offered the wheat for sale—offered it by thousands upon thousands of bushels.
Blind and insensate, Jadwin strove against the torrent of the wheat. Under the stress and violence of the hour, something snapped in his brain; but he stood erect there in the middle of the Pit, iron to the end, proclaiming over the din of his enemies, like a bugle sounding to the charge of a forlorn hope.
"Give a dollar for July—give a dollar for July!"
Then little by little the tumult of the Pit subsided. There were sudden lapses in the shouting, and again the clamour would break out.
All at once the Pit, the entire floor of the Board of Trade, was struck dumb. In the midst of the profound silence the secretary announced. "All trades with Gretry & Co. must be closed at once!"
The words were greeted with a wild yell of exultation. Beaten—beaten at last, the Great Bull! Smashed! The great corner smashed! Jadwin busted! Cheer followed cheer, hats went into the air. Men danced and leaped in a frenzy of delight.
Young Landry Court, who had stood by Jadwin in the Pit, led his defeated captain out. Jadwin was in a daze—he saw nothing, heard nothing, but submitted to Landry's guidance.
From the Pit came the sound of dying cheers.
"They can cheer now all they want. They didn't do it," said a man at the door. "It was the wheat itself that beat him; no combination of men could have done it."
IV.—A Fresh Start
The evening had closed in wet and misty, and when Laura Jadwin came down to the dismantled library a heavy rain was falling.
"There, dear," Laura said, "now sit down on the packing-box there. You had better put your hat on. It is full of draughts now that the furniture and curtains are out. You've had a pretty bad siege of it, you know, and this is only the first week you've been up."
"I've had too good a nurse," he answered, stroking her hand, "not to be as fit as a fiddle by now. You must be tired yourself, Laura. Why, for whole days there—and nights, too, they tell me—you never left the room."
Laura shook her head, and said:
"I wonder what the West will be like. Do you know I think I am going to like it, Curtis?"
"It will be starting in all over again, old girl. Pretty hard at first, I'm afraid."
"Hard—now?" She took his hand and laid it to her cheek.
"By all the rules you ought to hate me," he began. "What have I done for you but hurt you, and at last bring you to——"
But she shut her gloved-hand over his mouth.
"The world is all before us where to choose, now, isn't it?" she answered. "And this big house and all the life we have led in it was just an incident in our lives—an incident that is closed."
"We're starting all over again, honey.... Well, there's the carriage, I guess."
They rose, gathering up their valises.
"Ho!" said Jadwin. "No servants now, Laura, to carry our things down for us and open the door; and it's a hack, old girl, instead of the victoria."
"What if it is?" she cried. "What do servants, money, and all amount to now?"
As Jadwin laid his hand upon the knob of the front door, he all at once put down his valise and put his arm about his wife. She caught him about the neck, and looked deep into his eyes a long moment, and then, without speaking, they kissed each other.
* * * * *
Georges Ohnet, one of the most prolific and popular of French novelists and playwrights, was born in Paris on April 3, 1848. His father was an architect, and, after a period devoted to the study of law, Georges Ohnet adopted a journalistic career. He first came into prominence as the part-author of the drama "Regina Sarpi," in 1875. "The Ironmaster, or Love and Pride," was originally conceived as a play, and as such was submitted in vain to the theatrical managers of Paris. It was entitled "Marrying for Money" ("Les Mariages d'Argent") and on its rejection he laid it aside and directed his attention to the novel, "Serge Panine." This was immediately successful, and was crowned with honour by the French Academy. Its author adapted it as a play, and then, in 1883, did the opposite with "Les Manages d'Argent," calling it "Le Maitre de Forges." As a novel, "The Ironmaster," with its dramatic plot and strong, moving story, attracted universal attention, and has been translated into several European languages.
I.—The Faithless Lover
The Chateau de Beaulieu, in the Louis XIII. style, is built of white stone with red brick dressings. A broad terrace more than five hundred yards long, with a balustrade in red granite, and decked with parterres of flowers, becomes a delightful walk in autumn. M. Derblay's ironworks may have somewhat spoilt the beauty of the landscape, but Beaulieu remains a highly covetable estate.
Madame de Beaulieu sat in the drawing-room knitting woollen hoods for the children in the village, while her daughter Claire contemplated, without seeing it, the admirable horizon before her. At last, turning her beautiful, sad face to her mother, she asked, "How long is it since we have had any letters from St. Petersburg?"
"Come," said the marchioness, taking hold of Claire's hands—"come, why do you always think about that, and torture your mind so?"
"What can I think of," answered Claire bitterly, "but of my betrothed? And how can I avoid torturing my mind as you say, in trying to divine the reason of his silence?"
"I own it is difficult to explain," rejoined the marchioness. "After spending a week with us last year, my nephew, the Duc de Bligny, started off promising to return to Paris during the winter. He next began by writing that political complications detained him at his post. Summer came, but not the duke. Here now is autumn, and Gaston no longer even favours us with pretences. He does not even trouble to write."
"But supposing he were ill?" Claire ventured to say.
"That is out of the question," replied the marchioness pitilessly. "The embassy would have informed us. You may be sure he is in perfect health, and that he led the cotillon all last winter in the ball-rooms of St. Petersburg."
Claire, forcing herself to smile, said, "It must be confessed, mother, he is not jealous, and yet I have been courted wherever I have gone, and am scarcely allowed to remain in peace, even in this desert of Beaulieu. It would seem I have attracted the attention of our neighbour the ironmaster."
"Yes, mother; but his homage is respectful, and I have no cause to complain of him. I only mentioned him as an example—as one of many. The duke stays away, and I remain here alone, patient and—"
"And you act very wrongly!" exclaimed the marchioness.
The opportunity of easing her mind was not to be lost, and she told Claire that if the marriage ever did take place she feared there would be cause for regret. But her daughter's violent emotion made her realise more forcibly than ever how deeply and firmly Claire was attached to the Due de Bligny. So she assured her she had heard nothing fresh about him, and hoped they might have news from the De Prefonts, who were to arrive that day from Paris.
"Ah!" interrupted Mdlle. de Beaulieu, "here is Octave coming with Monsieur Bachelin, the notary." And she went to meet them, looking the living incarnation of youth in all its grace and vigour.
"You have had good sport, it seems," she said, waylaying her brother, and feeling the weight of his game-bag.
"Oh, I'll be modest. This game was not killed by me," answered the marquis; and explained that he had lost his way on the Pont Avesnes land, and had been rather haughtily accosted by another sportsman, who, however, as soon as he heard his name, became very polite, and forced him to accept the contents of his own bag.
Maitre Bachelin immediately informed them that this must have been the ironmaster himself, whom he had been to see that morning, and all questions at issue about the boundaries of the estates were as good as settled.
"For," said he, "my worthy friend accepts whatever conditions you may lay down. The only point now is to sign the preliminaries, and with this object Monsieur Derblay proposes to call at Beaulieu with his sister, Mile. Suzanne; that is, if you are pleased to authorise him, Madame la Marquise."
"Oh, certainly. Let him come by all means. I shall be glad to see this Cyclops, who is blackening all the valley. But come, you have, no doubt, brought me some fresh documents in reference to our English lawsuit."
"Yes, Madame la Marquise, yes," rejoined Bachelin, with an appealing look. "We will talk business if you desire it."
Without asking any questions, Claire and the marquise gave their mother a smile, and left the drawing-room.
"Well, Bachelin, have the English courts decided? Is the action lost?"
The notary lacked courage to reply in words, but his gesture was sufficient. The marchioness bit her lips, and a tear glittered for a moment.
"Ah!" said the notary. "It is a terrible blow for the house of Beaulieu."
"Terrible indeed," said the marchioness; "for it implies my son's and my daughter's ruin. Misfortunes seldom come singly," she resumed. "I suppose you have some other bad news for me, Bachelin. Tell me everything. You have news of the Duc de Bligny?"
"For the last six weeks M. le Duc de Bligny has been in Paris."
"He is aware of the misfortune that has overtaken us?"
"He knew of it one of the first, Madame la Marquise."
The marchioness was grieved more cruelly by this than by the money loss; and the notary was thus emboldened to tell her that a gallant friend of his, M. Derblay, whose father had been kind enough to call Maitre Bachelin his friend, had fallen passionately in love with Mdlle. de Beaulieu, and would be the happiest man in the world if he were even allowed to hope. He advised the marchioness not to say anything at present to her daughter. Maybe the duke would return to more honourable feelings, and it would always be time enough for Mdlle. Claire to suffer."
"You are right; but, at all events, I must inform my son of this blow that strikes him."
Octave was not surprised, but affectionately taking his mother's hand, said, "My only concern was for my sister, whose dowry was at stake. You must leave her the part of your fortune you were reserving for me. Don't you think, mother, that our cousin De Bligny's silence has some connection with the loss of this lawsuit?"
"You are mistaken, child," cried the marchioness eagerly. "For the duke——"
"Oh, fear nothing, mother," said Octave. "If Gaston hesitates now that Mdlle. de Beaulieu no longer comes to him with a million in either hand, we are not, I fancy, the sort of folk to seize him by the collar and compel him to keep his promises."
"Well said, my son," cried the marchioness.
Bachelin took respectful leave of his noble clients, and hurried off to Pont Avesnes as fast as his legs could carry him.
II.—M. Derblay's Passion
It was really M. Derblay whom the Marquis de Beaulieu had met in the woods of Pont Avesnes. Letting Octave call after him as loud as he liked, he hurried on through the woods. Chance had brought him nearer to the woman he adored from afar, in a dream as it were, and his heart was full of joy. He, Philippe, might approach her—he would be able to speak to her. But at the thought of the Duc de Bligny, a feeling of deep sadness overcame him, and his strength waned.
He recalled to mind all the exploits of his life, and asked himself if, in virtue of the task he had accomplished, he were not really deserving of happiness. After very brilliant studies, he had left the polytechnic school with first honours, and had chosen the state mining service when the Franco-German war had broken out. He was then two-and-twenty, and had just obtained an appointment, but at once enlisted as a volunteer. He served with distinction, and when at last he started for home he wore on his breast the ribbon of the Legion of Honour. He found the house in mourning. His mother had just died, and his little sister, Suzanne, just seven years old, clung to him with convulsive tenderness. Within six months his father also died, leaving his affairs in a most confused state.
Philippe renounced the brilliant career as an engineer already chalked out before him, and that his sister might not be dowerless, became a manufacturer. In seven years he had liquidated the paternal inheritance; his property was really his own, and he felt capable of greatly extending his enterprises. Popular in the district, he might come forward at the elections to be returned as a deputy. Who knew? Hope revived in Philippe Derblay's heart.
After a long talk with Maitre Bachelin, he, on considering the situation, felt it was not unfavourable to his hopes. When he presented himself at Beaulieu, the marchioness received him kindly, and, touching Suzanne's fair hair with her lips, "There is peace signed on this child's forehead," said she. "All your sins are forgiven you, neighbour. And now come and let me introduce you to the family."
A burning flush suffused Philippe's face, and he bowed low before the girl he adored.
"Why, he's a gentleman, dear!" whispered the baroness to Claire. "And think, I pictured him with a leather apron! Why, he's decorated, and the baron isn't! He's really very good-looking, and his eyes are superb!"
Claire looked at him almost sternly. The contrast was complete between him and Bligny, far away. Philippe was relieved to find the Baron de Prefont present; he had read a treatise of his, which delighted the baron, who at once became very friendly, and insisted on visiting the ironworks. Only Claire remained frigid and indifferent, and this on his second visit, instead of disconcerting the ironmaster, only irritated him; and the more she pretended to ignore him the more determined he became to compel her to notice him. They were all on the terrace when Monsieur and Mademoiselle Monlinet were announced.
"What can these people want?" said Madame de Beaulieu.
Monsieur Monlinet was a wealthy tradesman, who had just bought the Chateau de la Varenne, near by. His daughter had been at school with Claire and the Baroness de Prefont, and a bitter warfare was waged incessantly between the juvenile aristocrats and the monied damsels without handles to their names. All recollections of Athenais had faded from Claire's mind, but hatred was still rife in Mlle. Monlinet's heart; and when her father, in view of her marriage, bought La Varenne for her, the chateau was a threatening fortress, whence she might pounce down on her enemy.
Now she advanced towards Mlle, de Beaulieu when she entered the drawing-room at Beaulieu and threw her arms round her neck, and boldly exclaimed, "Ah, my beautiful Claire! How happy am I to see you!"
This young person had wonderfully improved, had become very pretty, and now paralysed her adversaries by her audacity. She soon contrived to leave the others, and when alone with Claire informed her she had come to beg for advice respecting her marriage.
Mlle, de Beaulieu instantly divined what her relatives had been hiding so carefully, and though she became very pale while Athenais looked at her in fiendish delight, she determined to die rather than own her love for Gaston, and exerted all her will to master herself. The noise of a furious gallop resounded, and the Duc de Bligny dashed into the courtyard on a horse white with foam. He would have entered the drawing-room, but the baron hindered him, while Maitre Bachelin went to ask if he might be received.
Claire wore a frightful expression of anger.
"Be kind enough"—she turned to Bachelin—"to ask the duke to go round to the terrace and wait a moment. Don't bring him in till I make you a sign from the window; but, in the meantime, send M. Derblay to me."
The marchioness and the baroness immediately improvided a mise-en-scene, so that when the duke entered, he perceived the marchioness seated as usual in her easy chair, the baroness standing near the chimney-piece, and Claire with her back to the light. He bowed low before the noble woman who had been his second mother.
"Madame la Marquise," he said, "my dear aunt, you see my emotion—my grief! Claire, I cannot leave this room till you have forgiven me!"
"But you owe me no explanation, duke," Claire said, with amazing serenity; "and you need no forgiveness. I have been told you intend to marry. You had the right to do so, it seems to me. Were you not as free as myself?"
Thereupon, approaching the doorway, she made a sign to Philippe. Athenais boldly followed the ironmaster.
"I must introduce you to one another, gentlemen. Monsieur le Duc de Bligny—my cousin." Then, turning towards her faithless lover, and defying him, as it were, with her proud gaze, she added, "Duke, Monsieur Derblay, my future husband."
III.—The Ironmaster's Disappointment
Touched by the disinterested delicacy of M. Derblay, the marchioness sanctioned her daughter's sudden determination without anxiety. In her mother's presence, Claire showed every outward sign of happiness, but her heart became bitter and her mind disturbed, and nought remained of the noble, tender-hearted Claire.
Her only object now was to avenge herself on Athenais and humiliate the duke; and the preparations for the wedding were carried on with incredible speed. Left ignorant of the ironmaster's generous intentions, she attributed his ready deference to all her wishes to his ambition to become her husband, and even felt contempt for the readiness with which he had enacted his part in the humiliating comedy played before the duke, so thoroughly did she misjudge passionate, generous-hearted Philippe, whose only dream was to restore her happiness.
Mlle, de Beaulieu arrived at two decisions which stupefied everybody. She wished the wedding to take place at midnight, without the least pomp, and only the members of the two families to be present. The marchioness raised her hands to heaven, and the marquis asked his sister if she were going mad, but Philippe declared these wishes seemed very proper to him, and so they were carried out.
The marriage contract was signed on the eve of the great day. Claire remained ignorant of the fact that she was ruined, and signed quite unsuspectingly the act which endowed her with half M. Derblay's fortune.
The service was performed with the same simplicity as would have been observed at a pauper's wedding. The dreary music troubled the duke, and reminded him of his father's funeral, when his aunt and cousins wept with him. He was now alone. Separated for ever from the dear ones who had been so kind to him, he compared Philippe's conduct with his own, and, turning his eyes to Claire, divined that she wept. A light broke on him; he realised the ironmaster's true position, and decided he might revenge himself very sweetly.
"She weeps," he said to himself. "She hates that man, and still loves me."
After the service he looked in vain for traces of tears. She was calm and smiling, and spoke in perfect self-possession.
But when she was left alone, all on a sudden she found herself face to face with the cruel reality. She held herself and Philippe in horror. She must have been mad, and he had acted most unworthily in lending himself to her plans. When he at last ventured to come to her, her harsh expression astonished him. She managed to convey to him her wish to remain alone, and he showed himself so proud and magnanimous, she asked herself if it would be possible for her to live apart from him. How could she for ever repel such a loyal, generous man without showing herself unjust and cruel?
Her husband approached her. His lips touched her forehead. "Till to-morrow," he said. But as he touched her he was seized with a mad, passionate longing. He caught her in his arms in an irresistible transport. "Oh, if you only knew how much I love you!"
Surprised at first, Claire turned livid.
"Leave me!" she cried in an angry voice.
Philippe drew back. "What!" he said, in a troubled voice. "You repel me with horror! Do you hate me, then? And why? Ah, that man who forsook you so cowardly—that man, do you still happen to love him?"
"Ah, have you not perceived that I have been mad?" cried Claire, ceasing to restrain herself. "I have deserved your anger and contempt, no doubt. Come, take everything belonging to me except myself! My fortune is yours. I give it you. Let it be the ransom of my liberty."
Philippe was on the point of revealing the truth, which he had hitherto hidden with such delicacy and care, but he cast the idea aside. "Do you really take me for a man who sells himself?" he asked coldly. "I, who came here but a little while ago, palpitating and trembling to tell my love! Wasn't I more than mad, more than grotesque? For, after all, I have your fortune. I'm paid. I have no right to complain."
Philippe burst into a bitter laugh, and falling on the sofa, hid his face in his hands.
"Monsieur," said Claire haughtily, "let us finish this. Spare me useless raillery——"
Philippe showed his face, down which tears were streaming. "I am not railing, madame; I am weeping—mourning my happiness, for ever lost. But this is enough weakness. You wished to purchase your liberty. I give it you for nothing. You will realise one day that you have been even more unjust than cruel, and you may then think of trying to undo what you have done. But it will be useless. If I saw you on your knees begging my forgiveness, I should not have a word of pity for you. Adieu, madame. We shall live as you have willed it."
Claire simply bent her head in assent. Philippe gave her a last glance, hoping for some softening; but she remained inert and frigid. He slowly opened the door, and closed it, pausing again to listen if a cry or a sigh would give him—wounded as he was—a pretext for returning and offering to forgive. But all was silent.
"Proud creature," said he. "You refuse to bend, but I will break you."
The next morning Claire was found insensible, and for months she lay ill, nursed by Philippe with silent devotion. From that time forth his manner did not change. Gentle and most attentive to Claire in the presence of strangers, he was cold, grave, and strictly polite when they were alone.
IV.—The Lover's Reward
In the first expansion of her return to life she had decided she would be amiable, and frankly grant her friendship to Philippe, but saw, to her mortification, she was disposed to grant more than was asked of her. When he handed her "the income of her fortune, for six months," she became in a moment the proud Claire of other times, and refused to take it. Their eyes met; she relapsed, conquered. He it was she loved now. She constantly looked at him, and did whatever she thought would please him. She learnt with surprise that her husband was on the high road to becoming one of the princes of industry—that great power of the century. And when she learnt, accidentally from her brother, that she herself had had no dowry, she said, "I must win him back, or I shall die!"
The Duc and Duchess de Bligny arrived at La Varenne. La Varenne became the scene of numerous fetes, but Claire excused herself from attending on the ground that she was not yet well enough to sit up late. Athenais' anticipated pleasure was all lost, since she could not crush her rival with her magnificence. In her jealous rage she began to devote particular attention to Monsieur Derblay. At last, Claire judged the cup was full, and on her fete day, encouraged for the first time by her husband's glances, called Athenais aside and entreated her to stay away from their home for a time, at least. Athenais, pale with rage, replied insultingly, and Claire summoned the duke to take his wife away if he did not wish her to be turned out in presence of everyone.
With perfect composure Bligny asked Philippe if he approved of what Madame Derblay had done. In a grave voice, the ironmaster answered, "Monsieur le Duc, whatever Madame Derblay may do, whatever reason she may have for doing it, I consider everything she does as well done."
* * * * *
Claire saw two pistols lowered. With a shriek, she bounded forward and clapped her hand on the muzzle of Bligny's pistol!
* * * * *
An hour had elapsed without her regaining consciousness. The ironmaster was leaning over her. Suddenly her eyes opened, and she threw her arms round his neck. An acute pain passed through her hand, and she remembered everything—her despair, her anguish, and her sacrifice.
"One word?" she asked. "Tell me, do you love me?"
Philippe showed her a radiant face.
"Yes, I love you," he replied.
A cry escaped Claire. She clung frantically to Philippe; their eyes met, and in inexpressible ecstasy they exchanged their first kiss of love.
* * * * *
OUIDA (LOUISE DE LA RAMEE)
Under Two Flags
There are few women writers who have created more stir by their works than Louise de la Ramee, the lady who wrote under the pen name of Ouida. Born of English and French parentage at Bury St. Edmund, England, in 1840, she began to turn to account her undoubted literary talents at the age of twenty, when she contributed to the "New Monthly" and "Bentley's Magazine." In the same year appeared her first long story, "Granville de Vigne," which was afterwards renamed and republished as "Held in Bondage." From that time an amazing output of romances fell in rapid succession from her pen, the most picturesque of them, perhaps, being "Under Two Flags" (1867) and "Moths." With respect to the former, although on occasions it exhibits a tendency towards inaccurate observation, the story is told with rare dramatic force and descriptive power. From 1874, Mlle. Ramee made her home in Italy, where, at Lucca, in spite of her reputation as a novelist, she died in straightened circumstances Jan. 25, 1908.
I.—An Officer of the Guards
A Guardsman at home is always luxuriously accommodated, and the Hon. Bertie Cecil, second son of Viscount Royallieu, was never behind his fellows in anything; besides, he was one of the crack officers of the 1st Life Guards, and ladies sent him pretty things enough to fill the Palais Royal.
Then Hon. Bertie was known generally in the brigade as "Beauty," and the appellative, gained at Eton, was in no way undeserved. His face, with as much delicacy and brilliancy as a woman's, was at once handsome, thoroughbred, languid, nonchalant with a certain latent recklessness, under the impassive calm of habit.
Life petted him and pampered him; lodged him like a prince, dined him like a king, and had never let him feel the want of all that is bought by money. How could he understand that he was not as rich a man as his oldest and closest comrade, Lord Rockingham, a Colossus, known as "the Seraph," the eldest son of the Duke of Lyonesse?
A quarrel with his father (whom he always alluded to as "Royal") reminded him that he was ruined; that he would get no help from the old lord, or from his elder brother, the heir. He was hopelessly in debt; nothing but the will of his creditors stood between him and the fatal hour when he must "send in his papers to sell," and be "nowhere" in the great race of life.
An appeal for money from his young brother, Berkeley, whom he really loved, forced Cecil to look, for the first time, blankly in the face of ruin that awaited him.
Berkeley, a boy of twenty, had been gambling, and came to Cecil, as he had come often enough before, with his tale of needs. It was L300 Berkeley wanted, and he had already borrowed L100 from a friend—a shameless piece of degradation in Cecil's code.
"It is no use to give you false hopes, young one," said Cecil gently. "I can do nothing. If the money were mine it should be yours at a word. But I am all downhill, and my bills may be called in at any moment."
"You are such chums with Rockingham, and he's as rich as all the Jews put together. What harm could there be if you asked him to lend you some money for me?"
Cecil's face darkened.
"You will bring some disgrace on us before you die, Berkeley," he said. "Have you no common knowledge of honour? If I did such a thing I should deserve to be hounded out of the Guards to-morrow. The only thing for you to do is to go down and tell Royal, he will sell every stick and stone for your sake."
"I would rather cut my throat," said the boy. "I have had so much from him lately."
But in the end he promised to go.
It was hard for Bertie to get it into his brain that he really was at the end of his resources. There still seemed one chance open to him. He was a fearless rider, and his horse, Forest King, was famous for its powers. He entered him for a great race at Baden, and piled on all he could, determined to be sunk or saved by the race. If he won he might be able to set things right for a time, and then family influence ought to procure him an advance in the Guards.
Forest King had never failed its master hitherto, and Bertie would have been saved by his faithful steed, but for the fact that a blackguardly turf welcher doctored the horse's mouth, and Forest King was beaten, and couldn't finish the course.
"Something ails King," said Cecil calmly, "he is fairly knocked off his legs. Some vet must look to him; ridden a yard further he will fall."
II "A Mystery—An Error"
Cecil knew that with the failure of Forest King had gone the last plank that saved him from ruin, perhaps the last chance that stood between him and dishonour. He had never looked on it as within the possibilities of hazard that the horse could be defeated, and the blow fell with crushing force; the fiercer because his indolence had persisted in ignoring his danger, and his whole character was so accustomed to ease and to enjoyment.
He got away from his companions, and wandered out alone into the gardens in the evening sunlight, throwing himself on a bench beneath a mountain-ash.
Here the little Lady Venetia, the eight-year-old sister of the colossal Seraph, found him, and Cecil roused himself, and smiled at her.
"They say you have lost all your money," said the child, "and I want you to take mine. It is my very own. Papa gives it to me to do just what I like with it. Please do take it."
Twenty bright Napoleons fell in a glittering shower on the grass.
"Petite reine," Cecil murmured gently, "how some man will love you one day. I cannot take your money, and you will understand why when you are older. But I will take this if you will give it me," and he picked up a little enamelled sweetmeat box, and slipped it into his waistcoat pocket. It was only a child's gift, but he kept it through many a dark day and wild night.
At that moment as he stood there, with the child beside him, one of the men of the gardens brought him an English letter, marked "instant." Cecil took it wearily, broke the envelope, and read a scrawled, miserable letter, blotted with hot tears, and scored out in impulsive misery. The Lady Venetia went slowly away and when next they met it was under the burning sun of Africa.
Alone, Cecil's head sank down upon his hands.
"Oh, God!" he thought. "If it were anything—anything except disgrace!"
An hour later and the Seraph's servant brought him a message, asking him to come to Lord Rockingham's rooms immediately.
Cecil went, and the Seraph crossed the room with his hand held out; not for his life in that moment would he have omitted that gesture of friendship. There was a third person in the room, a Jew, M. Baroni, who held a folded paper, with the forged signature of Rockingham on it, and another signature, the name of the forger in whose favour the bill was drawn; that other signature was—Bertie Cecil.
"Cecil, my dear fellow," said the Seraph, "I'm ashamed to send for you on such a blackguard errand! Here, M. Baroni, make your statement. Later on, Mr. Cecil can avenge it."
"My statement is easily made," said the Jew. "I simply charge the Hon. Bertie Cecil with having negotiated a bill with my firm for L750 month, drawn in his own favour, and accepted at two months' date by your lordship. Your signature you, my lord marquis, admit to be a forgery. With that forgery I charge your friend!"
Cecil stood silent, with a strange anguish on his face.
"I am not guilty," he said quietly.
"Beauty—Beauty! Never say that to me!" said the Seraph. "Do you think I can ever doubt you?"
"It is a matter of course," replied Baroni, "that Mr. Cecil denies the accusation. It is very wise. But I must arrest Mr. Cecil! Were you alone, my lord, you could prosecute or not, as you please; but ours is the money obtained by that forgery. If Mr. Cecil will accompany me unresistingly, I will not summon legal force."
"Cecil, tell me what is to be done?" said the Seraph hoarsely. "I will send for the duke—"
"Send for no one. I will go with this man. He is right as far as he knows. The whole is a—a mystery—an error."
Cecil hesitated a moment; then he stretched out his hand. "Will you take it—still?"
"Take it! Before all the world, always, come what will!"
The Seraph's voice rang clear as the ring of silver. Another moment, and the door had closed. Cecil went slowly out beside his accuser, not blaming the Jew in anything.
Once out in the air, the Hebrew laid his hand on his arm. Presently, in a side-street, three figures loomed in the shadow of the houses—a German official, the commissary of police, and an English detective. The Hebrew had betrayed him, and arrested him in the open street.
In an instant all the pride and blood of his race was up. He wrenched his wrists free and with his left arm felled the detective to earth with a crushing blow. The German—-a powerful and firmly-built man—was on him at once, but Cecil's science was the finer. For a second the two rocked in close embrace, and then the German fell heavily.
The cries of Baroni drew a crowd at once, but Cecil dashed, with the swiftness of the deer, forward into the gathering night.
Flight! The craven's refuge—the criminal's resource! Flight! He wished in the moment's agony that they would send a bullet through his brain.
Soon the pursuers were far behind. But Cecil knew that he had but the few remaining hours of night left to save those for whom he had elected to sacrifice his life.
III.—Under Another Flag
Cigarette was the pet of the army of Africa, and was as lawless as most of her patrons. She was the Friend of the Flag. Soldiers had been about her from her cradle. They had been her books, her teachers, her guardians, and, later on, her lovers, all the days of her life. She had no sense of duty taught her, except to face fire boldly, never to betray a comrade, and to worship but two deities—"la Gloire" and "la France." Her own sex would have seen no good in her, but her comrades-in-arms could, and did. A certain chasseur d'Afrique in this army at Algiers puzzled her. He treated her with a grave courtesy, that made her wish, with impatient scorn for the wish, that she knew how to read, and had not her hair cut short like a boy's—a weakness the little vivandiere had never been visited with before.
"You are too fine for us, mon brave," she said pettishly once to this chasseur. "They say you are English, but I don't believe it. Say what you are, then?"
"A soldier of France. Can you wish me more?"
"True," she said simply. "But you were not always a soldier of France? You joined, they say, twelve years ago. What were you before then?"
"Before?" he answered slowly. "Well—a fool"
"You belonged to the majority, then!" said Cigarette. "But why did you come into the service? You were born in the noblesse—bah, I know an aristocrat at a glance! What ruined you, Monsieur l'Aristocrat?"
"Aristocrat? I am none. I am Louis Victor, a corporal of the chasseurs."
"You are dull, mon brave."
Cigarette left him, and made her way to the officers' quarters. High or low, they were all the same to Cigarette, and she would have talked to the emperor himself as coolly as she did to any private.
She praised the good looks of the corporal of chasseurs, and his colonel, M. le Marquis de Chateauroy, answered, with a curse, "I wish my corporal were shot! One can never hear the last of him!"
Meanwhile, the corporal of chasseurs sat alone among the stones of a ruined mosque. He was a dashing cavalry soldier, who had a dozen wounds cut over his body by the Bedouin swords in many and hot skirmishes; who had waited through sultry African nights for the lion's tread; and who had served well in fierce, arduous work in trying campaigns and in close discipline.
From the extremes of luxury and indolence Cecil came to the extremes of hardship and toil. He had borne the change mutely, and without a murmur, though the first years were years of intense misery. His comrades had grown to love him, seeing his courage and his willingness to help them, with a rough, dog-like love.
Twelve years ago in England it was accepted that Bertie Cecil and his servant Rake had been killed in a railway accident in France.
And the solitary corporal of chasseurs read in the "Galignani" of the death of his father, Viscount Royallieu, and of his elder brother. The title and estate that should have been his had gone to his younger brother.
IV.—From Death to Life
The Seraph, now Duke of Lyonesse, and his sister Venetia, Princess Corona, came on a visit to the French camp, and with them Berkeley, Viscount Royallieu. Corporal Louis Victor saw them, and, safe from recognition himself, knew them. But Cecil was not to go down to the grave unreleased. First, his brother Berkeley coming upon him alone in the solitude of a desert camp, made concealment impossible.
"Have you lived stainlessly since?" were Cecil's only words, stern as the demand of a judge.
"God is my witness, yes! But you—they said you were dead. That was my first disgrace, and my last; you bore the weight of my shame. What can I say? Such nobility, such sacrifice—"
It was for himself that Berkeley trembled.
"I have kept your secret twelve years; I will keep it still," said Cecil gravely. "Only leave Algeria at once."
A slight incident revealed the corporal's identity to the Princess Corona. By his bearing he had attracted the attention of the visitors to the camp, and on being admitted to the villa of the princess to restore a gold chain dropped carelessly in the road, he disclosed the little enamelled box, marked "Venetia," the gift of the child in the garden at Baden.
"That box is mine!" cried the princess. "I gave it! And you? You are my brother's friend? You are Bertie Cecil?"
"Petite reine!" he murmured.
Then he acknowledged who he was, not even for his brother's sake could he have lied to her; but he implored her to say nothing to the Seraph. "I was innocent, but in honour I can never give you or any living thing proof that this crime was not mine."
"He is either a madman or a martyr," she mused, when Cecil had left her. That he loved her was plain, and the time was not far distant when she should love him, and be willing to share any sacrifice love and honour might demand.
The hatred of Colonel Chateauroy for his corporal brought matters to a climax. Meeting Cecil returning from his visit to Venetia, Chateauroy could not refrain from saying insulting things concerning the princess.
"You lie!" cried Cecil; "and you know that you lie! Breathe her name once more, and, as we are both living men, I will have your life for your outrage!"
And as he spoke Cecil smote him on the lips.
Chateauroy summoned the guard, the corporal was placed under arrest, and brought to court-martial.
In three days' time Corporal Louis Victor would be shot by order of the court-martial.
Cigarette, and Cigarette alone, prevented the sentence being carried out, and that at the cost of her life.
She was away from the camp at the time in a Moorish town when the news came to her; and she stumbled on Berkeley Cecil, and, knowing him for an Englishman, worked on his feelings, and gave him no rest till he had acknowledged the condemned man for his elder brother and the lawful Viscount Royallieu, peer of England.
With this document, signed and sealed by Berkeley, Cigarette galloped off to the fortress where the marshal of France, who was Viceroy of Africa, had arrived. The marshal knew Cigarette; he had decorated her with the cross for her valour in battle, and with the whole army of Africa he loved and admired her.
Cigarette gave him the document, and told him all she knew of the corporal's heroism. And the marshal promised the sentence should be deferred until he had found out the whole truth of the matter.
With the order of release in her bosom Cigarette once more vaulted into the saddle, to ride hard through the day and night—for at sunrise on the morrow will the sentence be executed.
And now it is sunrise, and the prisoner has been brought out to the slope of earth out of sight of the camp.
At the last the Seraph appeared, and found in the condemned man the friend of his youth. It was only with great difficulty that Rockingham was overpowered, for he swore Cecil should not be killed, and a dozen soldiers were required to get him away.
Then Cecil raised his hand, and gave the signal for his own death-shot.
The levelled carbines covered him; ere they could fire a shrill cry pierced the air: "Wait! In the name of France!"
Dismounted and breathless, Cigarette was by the side of Cecil, and had flung herself on his breast.
Her cry came too late; the volley was fired, and while the prisoner stood erect, grazed only by some of the balls, Cigarette fell, pierced and broken by the fire. She died in Cecil's arms, with the comrades she had loved around her.
* * * * *
It is spring. Cecil is Lord of Royallieu, the Lady Venetia is his bride.
"It was worth banishment to return," he murmured to her. "It was worth the trials that I bore to learn the love that I have known."
And the memories of both went back to a place in a desert land where the folds of the tricolour drooped over one little grave—a grave where the troops saluted as they passed it, because on the white stone there was carved a name that spoke to every heart:
CIGARETTE ENFANT DE L'ARMEE, SOLDAT DE LA FRANCE.
* * * * *
Lost Sir Massingberd
James Payn, one of the most prolific literary workers of the second half of the nineteenth century, was born at Cheltenham, England, Feb. 28, 1830, and died March 23, 1898. After a false start in education for the army, he went to Cambridge University, where he was president of the Union, and published some poems. The acceptance of his contributions by "Household Words" turned him to his true vocation. After writing some years for "Chambers's Journal" he became its editor from 1850 till 1874. His first work of fiction, "The Foster Brothers," a story founded on his college life, appeared in 1859, but it was not until five years later that Payn's name was established as a novelist. This was on the publication of "Lost Sir Massingberd, a Romance of Real Life." The story first appeared in "Chambers's Journal," and is marked by all his good qualities—ingenious construction, dramatic situations, and a skilful arrangement of incidents. Altogether, Payn wrote about sixty volumes of novels and short stories.
I.—Neither Fearing God Nor Regarding Man
In a Midland county, not as yet scarred by factories, there stands a village called Fairburn, which at the time I knew it first had for its squire, its lord, its despot, one Sir Massingberd Heath. Its rector, at that date, was the Rev. Matthew Long, into whose wardship I, Peter Meredith, an Anglo-Indian lad, was placed by my parents. I loved Mr. Long, although he was my tutor; and oh, how I feared and hated Mr. Massingberd! It was not, however, my boyhood alone that caused me to hold this man as a monster of iniquity; it was the opinion which the whole county entertained of him, more or less. Like the unjust judge, he neither feared God nor regarded man.
He had been a fast, very fast friend of the regent; but they were no longer on speaking terms. Sir Massingberd had left the gay, wicked world for good, and was obliged to live at his beautiful country seat in spite of himself. He was irretrievably ruined, and house and land being entailed upon his nephew Marmaduke, he had nothing but a life interest in anything.
Marmaduke Heath was Mr. Long's pupil as well as myself, and he resided with his uncle at the Hall. He dreaded his relative beyond measure. All the pretended frankness with which the old man sometimes treated the lad was unable to hide the hate with which Sir Massingberd really regarded him; but for this heir-presumptive to the entail, the baronet might raise money to any extent, and once more take his rightful station in the world.
Abject terror obscured the young existence of Marmaduke Heath. The shadow of Sir Massingberd cast itself over him alike when he went out from his hated presence and when he returned to it.
Soon after my first meeting with Marmaduke, Sir Massingberd unexpectedly appeared before me. He was a man of Herculean proportions, dressed like an under-gamekeeper, but with the face of one who was used to command. On his forehead was a curious indented frown like the letter V, and his lips curled contemptuously upward in the same shape. These two together gave him a weird, demoniacal look, which his white beard, although long and flowing, had not enough of dignity to do away with. He ordered his nephew to go home, and the boy instantly obeyed, as though he almost dreaded a blow from his uncle. Then the baronet strode away, and his laugh echoed again and again, for it was joy to know that he was feared.
Mr. Long determined to buy a horse for me, and upon my suggestion that I wished Marmaduke Heath to spend more time in my company, he and I went up to the Hall to ask Sir Massingberd if he were willing. The squire received us curtly, and upon hearing of my tutor's intention, declared that he himself would select a horse for Marmaduke. Then, since he wished to talk with Mr. Long concerning Mr. Chint, the family lawyer, he bade me go to his nephew's room, calling upon Grimjaw, a loathsome old dog, to act as my guide. This beast preceded me up the old oak staircase to a chamber door, before which it sat and whined. Marmaduke opened this and admitted me, and we sat talking together.
My tutor found us together, and knowing the house better than the heir did, offered to play cicerone and show me over. In the state bed-room, a great room facing the north, he disclosed to us a secret stairway that opened behind a full-length portrait. Marmaduke, who had been unaware of its existence, grew ghastly pale.
"The foot of the stairway is in the third bookcase on the left of the library door," said Mr. Long. "I dare say that nobody has moved the picture for twenty years."
"Yes, yes!" said Marmaduke passionately. "My uncle has moved it. When I was ill, upon my coming to Fairburn, I slept here, and I had terrible visions. I see it all now. He wanted to frighten me to death, or to make me mad. He would come and stand by my bedside and stare at me. Cruel— cruel coward!"
Then he begged us to go away. "My uncle will wonder at your long delay. He will suspect something," he said.
"Peter," observed my tutor gravely, as we went homeward, "whatever you may think of what has passed to-day, say nothing. I am not so ignorant of the wrongs of that poor boy as I appear, but there is nothing for it but patience."
II.—A Gypsy's Curse
In a few days I was in possession of an excellent horse, and Marmaduke had the like fortune. My tutor examined the steed Sir Massingberd had bought with great attention, and after commenting on the tightness of the curb, declared that he would accompany us on our first ride. After we had left the village, he expressed a wish to change mounts with Marmaduke, and certainly if he had been a horsebreaker he could not have taken more pains with the animal. In the end he expressed himself highly satisfied. Some days afterwards, however, Panther, for so we called the horse, behaved in a strange and incomprehensible fashion, and at last became positively fiendish. Shying at a gypsy encampment, he rushed at headlong speed down a zigzagged chalk road, and at last pitched head-first over a declivity. When I found Marmaduke blood was at his mouth, blood at his ears, blood everywhere.
"Marmaduke, Marmaduke!" I cried. "Speak! Speak, if it be but a single word! Great heaven, he is dead!"
"Dead! No, not he," answered a hoarse, cracked voice at my ear. "The devil would never suffer a Heath of Fairburn to die at his age!"
"Woman," cried I, for it was an old gypsy, who had somehow transported herself to the spot, "for God's sake go for help! There is a house yonder amongst the trees."
"And why should I stir a foot," replied she fiercely, "for the child of a race that has ever treated me and mine as dogs?"
Then she cursed Sir Massingberd as the oppressor of her kith and kin, concluding with the terrible words, "May he perish, inch by inch, within reach of the aid that shall never come, ere the God of the poor take him into His hand!"
"If you hate Sir Massingberd Heath," said I despairingly, "and want to do him the worst service that lies in your power, flee, flee to that house, and bid them save this boy's life, which alone stands between his beggared uncle and unknown riches!"
Revenge accomplished what pity had failed to work. She knelt at his side, from a pocket produced a spirit-flask in a leathern case, and applied it to his lips. After a painful attempt to swallow, he succeeded; his eyelids began tremulously to move, and the colour to return to his pallid cheeks. She disappeared; during her absence I noted that the tarnished silver top of the flask bore upon it a facsimile of one of the identical griffins which guarded each side of the broad steps that led to Fairburn Hall.
After a short interval, a young and lovely girl appeared, accompanied by a groom and butler, who bore between them a small sofa, on which Marmaduke was lifted and gently carried to the house. The master came in soon, accompanied by the local doctor, who at last delivered the verdict that my friend "would live to be a baronet."
He said, moreover, that the youth must be kept perfectly quiet, and not moved thence on any consideration—it might be for weeks. Harvey Gerard, a noble-looking gentleman, refused to admit Sir Massingberd under his roof.
The baronet, however, did appear towards twilight, and forced his way into the house, where Harvey Gerard met him with great severity. Soon hatred took the place of all other expressions on the baronet's face, and he swore that he would see his nephew.
"That you shall not do, Sir Massingberd," said the gentleman. "If you attempt to do so, my servants will put you out of the house by force."
"Before night, then, I shall send for him, and he shall be carried back to Fairburn, to be nursed in his proper home."
"Nursed!" repeated Harvey Gerard hoarsely. "Nursed by the gravedigger!"
Sir Massingberd turned livid.
"To hear you talk one would think that I had tried to murder the boy," he said.
"I know you did!" cried Harvey Gerard solemnly. "To-day you sent your nephew forth upon that devil with a snaffle-bridle instead of a curb! See, I track your thoughts like slime. Base ruffian, begone from beneath this roof, false coward!"
Sir Massingberd started up like one stung by an adder.
"Yes, I say coward!" continued Harvey Gerard. "Heavens, that this creature should still feel touch of shame! Be off, be off; molest not anyone within this house at peril of your life! Murderer!"
For once Sir Massingberd had met his match—and more. He seized his hat, and hurried from the room.
III.—A Wife Undesired
When Marmaduke recovered consciousness, twelve hours after his terrible fall, he told me that he had been given a sign of his approaching demise.
"I have seen a vision in the night," he said, "far too sweet and fair not to have been sent from heaven itself. They say the Heaths have always ghastly warnings when their hour is come; but this was surely a gentle messenger."
"Your angel is Lucy Gerard," replied I quietly, "and we are at this moment in her father's house."
He was silent for a time, with features as pale as the pillow on which he lay; then he repeated her name as though it were a prayer.
"It would indeed be bitter for me to die now," he said.
I myself was stricken with love for Lucy Gerard, and would have laid down my life to kiss her finger-tips. Nearly half a century has passed over my head since the time of which I write, and yet, I swear to you, my old heart glows again, and on my withered cheeks there comes a blush as I call to mind the time when I first met that pure and lovely girl. But from the moment that Marmaduke Heath spoke to me as he did, upon his bed of sickness, of our host's daughter, I determined within myself not only to stand aside, and let him win if he could, but to help him by all the means within my power. And so it came about that later I told Lucy that his recovery depended upon her kindness, and won her to look upon him with compassion and with tenderness.
Mr. Clint, the lawyer, came from London, and arrangements were made for Marmaduke to continue in Harvey Gerard's care, and when Marmaduke was convalescent the Gerards removed him to their residence in Harley street. After I had bidden them farewell, I rode slowly towards Fairburn, but was stopped at some distance by a young gypsy boy, who summoned me to the encampment to converse with the aged woman whom I had seen on the occasion of the accident. She bade me sit down beside her, and after a time produced the silver-mounted flask, concerning whose history I felt great curiosity. I asked her how it came into her possession, and she herself asked a question in turn.
"Has it never struck you why Sir Massingberd has not long ago taken to himself a young wife, and begotten an heir for the lands of Fairburn, in despite of his nephew?"
"If that be so," said I, "why does not Sir Massingberd marry?"
Thereupon she told me that many years ago he had joined their company, and shared their wandering fortune. Her sister Sinnamenta, a beautiful girl beloved by the handsome Stanley Carew, had fascinated him, and he would have married her according to gypsy rites; but since her father did not believe that he meant to stay with the tribe longer than it suited him, he peremptorily refused his request. Sir Massingberd left them; they struck tent at once, and travelled to Kirk Yetholm, in Roxburghshire, a mile from the frontier of Northumberland. There the wretch followed her, and again proposed to go through the Cingari ceremony, and this time the father consented. It was on the wedding-day that he gave my informant the shooting-flask as a remembrance, just before he and his wife went away southward. Long months afterwards Sinnamenta returned heart-stricken, woebegone, about to become a mother, with nothing but wretchedness in the future, and even her happy past a dream dispelled.
The gypsies were at Fairburn again, and Sinnamenta's father sent for Sir Massingberd, and he was told that the marriage was legal, Kirk Yetholm being over the border. An awful silence succeeded this disclosure. Sir Massingberd turned livid, and twice in vain essayed to speak; he was well-nigh strangled with passion. At last he caught Sinnamenta's Wrist with fingers of steel.
"What man shall stop me from doing what I will with my own?" he cried. "Come along with me, my pretty one!"
Stanley Carew flung himself upon him, knife in hand; but the others plucked him backward, and Sir Massingberd signed to his wife to followed him, and she obeyed. That night Stanley Carew was arrested on a false charge of horse-stealing, and lying witnesses soon afterwards brought him to the gallows.
"I know not what she suffered immediately after she was taken from us," concluded the old woman. "But this I have heard, that when he told her of the death of Stanley Carew, she fell down like one dead, and presently, being delivered of a son, the infant died after a few hours. Yonder," she looked menacingly towards Fairburn Hall, "the mother lives—a maniac. What else could keep me here in a place that tortures me with memories of my youth, and of loving faces that have crumbled into dust? What else but the hope of one day seeing my little sister yet, and the vengeance of Heaven upon him who has worked her ruin? If Massingberd Heath escape some awful end, there is no Avenger on high. I am old, but I shall see it yet, I shall see it before I die."
IV.—The Curse Fulfilled
I returned to Fairburn, and soon Sir Massingberd, finding that all correspondence with his nephew was interrupted by Harvey Gerard, began to pay small attentions to my tutor and myself. At last he appeared at the rectory, and desired me to forward a letter to Marmaduke. This—finding nothing objectionable in the contents—I agreed to do, and he departed, after inviting me to make use of his grounds whenever I pleased. On the morrow I yielded to curiosity, and after wandering to and fro in the park, came near a small stone house with unglazed, iron-grated windows. A short, sharp shriek clove the humid air, and approaching, I looked into a sitting-room, where an ancient female sat eating a chicken without knife or fork. Her hair was scanty and white as snow, but hung almost to the ground.
"Permit me to introduce myself," she said. "I am Sinnamenta, Lady Heath. You are not Stanley Carew, are you? They told me that he was hung, but I know better than that. To be hung for nothing must be a terrible thing; but how much worse to be hung for love! It is not customary to watch a lady when she is partaking of refreshment."
Then the poor mad creature turned her back, and I withdrew from the sad scene. A day or two afterwards the post carried misfortune from me to Harley Street. The wily baronet had fooled me, and had substituted a terrible letter for that which he had persuaded me to enclose to his nephew.
"Return hither, sir, at once," he had written. "It is far worse than idle to attempt to cross my will. I give you twenty-four hours to arrive after the receipt of this letter. I shall consider your absence to be equivalent to a contumacious refusal. However well it may seem with you, it will not be well. Whenever you think yourself safest, you will be most in danger. There is, indeed, but one place of safety for you; come you home."
Very soon afterwards, and before we knew of this villainy, word reached us that the baronet was lost, and could not be found. He had started on his usual nocturnal rounds in the preserves, and nobody had seen him since midnight. Old Grimjaw, the dog, had been found on the doorstep, nigh frozen to death.
The news spread like wild-fire through Fairburn village. I myself joined the searchers, but soon separated from them, and passing the home spinney, near by which was the famous Wolsey oak, a tree of great age. I heard a sound that set my heart beating, and fluttering like the wings of a prisoned bird against its cage. Was it a strangled cry for "Help!" repeated once, twice, thrice, or was it the cold wind clanging and grinding the naked branches of the spinney? But nought living was to be seen; a bright wintry sun completely penetrated the leafless woodland. At last I came upon the warm but lifeless body of Grimjaw lying on the grass, and I hurried madly from the accursed place to where the men were dragging the lake.
No clue was found, and my tutor began to fear that the gypsies had made away with their enemy. Word came that they had passed through the turnpike with a covered cart, and we rode out to interview them. The old woman met us, and conducted us to the vehicle, when we found Sinnamenta, Lady Heath, weaving rushes into crowns.
"My little sister is not beaten now," said the beldam. "May God's curse have found Sir Massingberd! I would that I had his fleshless bones to show you. Where he may be we know not; we only hope that in some hateful spot he may be suffering unimagined pains!"
By the next post I received bitter news from Harley Street. A copy of the menacing epistle reached me from Harvey Gerard. In a postscript Lucy added that Marmaduke was too ill to write. An hour later Mr. Long and I set off to town, where we found the lad in a less morbid state than we had expected. He had asked, and gained, Harvey Gerard's permission to marry his daughter, and the beautiful girl was supporting him with all her strength.
The services of Townsend, the great Bow street runner, were called for; but in spite of his endeavours, no solution was discovered to the mystery of Sir Massingberd's disappearance. Fairburn Hall remained without a master, occupied only by the servants.
At last Marmaduke came of age, and as he and Lucy were now man and wife, it was decreed that they must return to the old home. Art changed that sombre house into a comfortable and splendid mansion, and when Lucy brought forth a son, the place seemed under a blessing, and no longer under a curse. But it was not until the christening feast of the young heir was celebrated with due honour that the secret of Sir Massingberd's disappearance was discovered.
Some young boys, playing at hide-and-seek, were using the Wolsey oak for "home," and, whilst waiting there, dug a hole with their knives, and came upon a life-preserver that the baronet had always carried. Then a keeper climbed the tree, and cried out that it was hollow, and there was a skeleton inside.
"It's my belief," said the man, "that Sir Massingberd must have climbed up into the fork to look about him for poachers, and that the wood gave way beneath him, and let him down feet foremost into the trunk."
Later, as I looked upon the ghastly relics of humanity, the old gypsy's curse recurred to my mind with dreadful distinctness. "May he perish, inch by inch, within reach of the aid that shall never come, ere the God of the poor take him into His hand."