And she stepped towards the bell. He looked at her with an evil leer.
"Stop a moment!" he said coolly. "Just one moment before you ring. Pray consider! The servant cannot possibly enter, as the door is locked."
"You dared to lock the door!" she exclaimed, a sudden fear chilling her heart as she remembered similar manoeuvres on the part of the Reverend Mr. Dyceworthy—then another thought crossed her mind, and she began to retreat towards a large painted panel of "Venus" disporting among cupids and dolphins in the sea. Sir Francis sprang to her side, and caught her arm in an iron grip—his face was aflame with baffled spite and vindictiveness.
"Yes, I dared!" he muttered with triumphant malice. "And I dared do more than that! You lay unconscious in my arms,—you beautiful, bewitching Thelma, and I kissed you—ay! fifty times! You can never undo those kisses! You can never forget that my lips, as well as your husband's, have rested on yours—I have had that much joy that shall never be taken away from me! And if I choose, even now,"—and he gripped her more closely—"yes, even now I will kiss you, in spite of you!—who is to prevent me? I will force you to love me, Thelma—"
Driven to bay, she struck him with all her force in the face, across the eyes.
"Traitor!—liar!—coward!" she gasped breathlessly. "Let me go!"
Smarting with the pain of the blow, he unconsciously loosened his grasp—she rushed to the "Venus" panel, and to his utter discomfiture and amazement he saw it open and close behind her. She disappeared suddenly and noiselessly as if by magic. With a fierce exclamation, he threw his whole weight against that secret sliding door—it resisted all his efforts. He searched for the spring by which it must have opened,—the whole panel was perfectly smooth and apparently solid, and the painted "Venus" reclining on her dolphin's back seemed as though she smiled mockingly at his rage and disappointment.
While he was examining it, he heard the sudden, sharp, and continuous ringing of an electric bell somewhere in the house, and with a guilty flush on his face he sprang to the drawing-room door and unlocked it. He was just in time, for scarcely had he turned the key, when Morris made his appearance. That venerable servitor looked round the room in evident surprise.
"Did her ladyship ring?" he inquired, his eyes roving everywhere in search of his mistress. Sir Francis collected his wits, and forced himself to seem composed.
"No," he said coolly. "I rang." He adopted this falsehood as a means of exit. "Call a hansom, will you?"
And he sauntered easily into the hall, and got on his hat and great-coat. Morris was rather bewildered,—but, obedient to the command, blew the summoning cab-whistle, which was promptly answered. Sir Francis tossed him half a crown, and entered the vehicle, which clattered away with him in the direction of Cromwell Road. Stopping at a particular house in a side street leading from thence, he bade the cabman wait,—and, ascending the steps, busied himself for some moments in scribbling something rapidly in pencil on a leaf of his note-book by the light of the hanging-lamp in the doorway. He then gave a loud knock, and inquired of the servant who answered it—
"Is Mr. Snawley-Grubbs in?"
"Yes, sir,"—the reply came rather hesitatingly—"but he's having a party to-night."
And, in fact, the scraping of violins and the shuffle of dancing feet were distinctly audible overhead.
"Oh, well, just mention my name—Sir Francis Lennox. Say I will not detain him more than five minutes."
He entered, and was ushered into a small ante-room while the maid went to deliver her message. He caught sight of his own reflection in a round mirror over the mantel-piece, and his face darkened as he saw a dull red ridge across his forehead—the mark of Thelma's well-directed blow,—the sign-manual of her scorn. A few minutes passed, and then there came in to him a large man in an expensive dress-suit,—a man with a puffy, red, Silenus-like countenance—no other than Mr. Snawley-Grubbs, who hailed him with effusive cordiality.
"My dear, Sir Francis!" he said in a rich, thick, uncomfortable voice. "This is an unexpected pleasure! Won't you come upstairs? My girls are having a little informal dance—just among themselves and their own young friends—quite simple,—in fact an unpretentious little affair!" And he rubbed his fat hands, on which twinkled two or three large diamond rings. "But we shall be charmed if you will join us!"
"Thanks, not this evening," returned Sir Francis. "It's rather too late. I should not have intruded upon you at this hour—but I thought you might possibly like this paragraph for the Snake."
And he held out with a careless air the paper on which he had scribbled but a few minutes previously. Mr. Snawley-Grubbs smiled,—and fixed a pair of elegant gold-rimmed eye-glasses on his inflamed crimson nose.
"I must tell you, though," he observed, before reading, "that it is too late for this week, at any rate. We've gone to press already."
"Never mind!" returned Sir Francis indifferently. "Next week will do as well."
And he furtively watched Mr. Snawley-Grubbs while he perused the pencilled scrawl. That gentleman, however, as Editor and Proprietor of the Snake—a new, but highly successful weekly "society" journal, was far too dignified and self-important to allow his countenance to betray his feelings. He merely remarked, as he folded up the little slip very carefully.
"Very smart! very smart, indeed! Authentic, of course?"
Sir Francis drew himself up haughtily. "You doubt my word?"
"Oh dear, no!" declared Mr. Snawley-Grubbs hastily, venturing to lay a soothing hand on Sir Francis's shoulder. "Your position, and all that sort of thing—Naturally you must be able to secure correct information. You can't help it! I assure you the Snake is infinitely obliged to you for a great many well-written and socially exciting paragraphs. Only, you see, I myself should never have thought that so extreme a follower of the exploded old doctrine of noblesse oblige, as Sir Philip Bruce-Errington, would have started on such a new line of action at all. But, of course, we are all mortal!" And he shook his round thick head with leering sagacity. "Well!" he continued after a pause. "This shall go in without fail next week, I promise you."
"You can send me a hundred copies of the issue," said Sir Francis, taking up his hat to go. "I suppose you're not afraid of an action for libel?"
Mr. Snawley-Grubbs laughed—nay, he roared,—the idea seemed so exquisitely suited to his sense of humor.
"Afraid? My dear fellow, there's nothing I should like better! It would establish the Snake, and make my fortune! I would even go to prison with pleasure. Prison, for a first-class misdemeanant, as I should most probably be termed, is perfectly endurable." He laughed again, and escorted Sir Francis to the street-door, where he shook hands heartily. "You are sure you won't come upstairs and join us? No? Ah, I see you have a cab waiting. Good-night, good-night!"
And the Snawley-Grubbs door being closed upon him, Sir Francis re-entered his cab, and was driven straight to his bachelor lodgings in Piccadilly. He was in a better humor with himself now,—though he was still angrily conscious of a smart throbbing across the eyes, where Thelma's ringed hand had struck him. He found a brief note from Lady Winsleigh awaiting him. It ran as follows:—
"You're playing a losing game this time,—she will believe nothing without proofs—and even then it will be difficult. You had better drop the pursuit, I fancy. For once a woman's reputation will escape you!"
He smiled bitterly as he read these last words.
"Not while a society paper exists!" he said to himself. "As long as there are editors willing to accept the word of a responsible man of position, for any report, the chastest Diana that ever lived shall not escape calumny! She wants proofs, does she? She shall have them—by Jove! she shall!"
And instead of going to bed, he went off to a bijou villa in St. John's Wood,—an elegantly appointed little place, which he rented and maintained,—and where the popular personage known as Violet Vere, basked in the very lap of luxury.
Meanwhile, Thelma paced up and down her own boudoir, into which she had escaped through the sliding panel which had baffled her admirer. Her whole frame trembled as she thought of the indignity to which she had been subjected during her brief unconsciousness,—her face burned with bitter shame,—she felt as if she were somehow poisonously infected by those hateful kisses of Lennox,—all her womanly and wifely instincts were outraged. Her first impulse was to tell her husband everything the instant he returned. It was she who had rung the bell which had startled Sir Francis, and she was surprised that her summons was not answered. She rang again, and Britta appeared.
"I wanted Morris," said Thelma quickly.
"He thought it was the drawing-room bell," responded Britta meekly, for her "Froeken" looked very angry. "I saw him in the hall just now, letting out Sir Francis Lennox."
"Has he gone?" demanded Thelma eagerly.
Britta's wonder increased. "Yes, Froeken!"
Thelma caught her arm. "Tell Morris never, never to let him inside the house again—never!" and her blue eyes flashed wrathfully. "He is a wicked man, Britta! You do not know how wicked he is!"
"Oh yes, I do!" and Britta regarded her mistress very steadfastly. "I know quite well! But, then, I must not speak! If I dared, I could tell you some strange things, dear Froeken—but you will not hear me. You know you do not wish me to talk about your grand new friends, Froeken, but—" she paused timidly.
"Oh, Britta, dear!" said Thelma affectionately taking her hand. "You know they are not so much my friends as the friends of Sir Philip,—and for this reason I must never listen to anything against them. Do you not see? Of course their ways seem strange to us—but, then, life in London is so different to life in Norway,—and we cannot all at once understand—" she broke off, sighing a little. Then she resumed—"Now you will give Morris my message, Britta—and then come to me in my bedroom—I am tired, and Philip said I was not to wait up for him."
Britta departed, and Thelma went rather slowly up-stairs. It was now nearly midnight, and she felt languid and weary. Her reflections began to take a new turn. Suppose she told her husband all that had occurred, he would most certainly go to Sir Francis and punish him in some way—there might then be a quarrel in which Philip might suffer—and all sorts of evil consequences would perhaps result from her want of reticence. If, on the other hand, she said nothing, and simply refused to receive Lennox, would not her husband think such conduct on her part strange? She puzzled over these questions till her head ached—and finally resolved to keep her own counsel for the present,—after what had happened. Sir Francis would most probably not intrude himself again into her presence. "I will ask Mrs. Lorimer what is best to do," she thought. "She is old and wise, and she will know."
That night, as she laid her head on her pillow, and Britta threw the warm eidredon over her, she shivered a little and asked—
"Is it not very cold, Britta?"
"Very!" responded her little maid. "And it is beginning to snow."
Thelma looked wistful. "It is all snow and darkness now at the Altenfjord," she said.
Britta smiled. "Yes, indeed, Froeken! We are better off here than there."
"Perhaps!" replied Thelma a little musingly, and then she settled herself as though to sleep.
Britta kissed her hand, and retired noiselessly. When she had gone, Thelma opened her eyes and lay broad awake looking at the flicker of rosy light flung on the ceiling from the little suspended lamp in her oratory. All snow and darkness at the Altenfjord! How strange the picture seemed! She thought of her mother's sepulchre,—how cold and dreary it must be,—she could see in fancy the long pendent icicles fringing the entrance to the sea-king's tomb,—the spot where she and Philip had first met,—she could almost hear the slow, sullen plash of the black Fjord against the shore. Her maiden life in Norway—her school days at Arles,—these were now like dreams,—dreams that had passed away long, long ago. The whole tenor of her existence had changed,—she was a wife,—she was soon to be a mother,—and with this near future of new and sacred joy before her, why did she to-night so persistently look backward to the past?
As she lay quiet, watching the glimmering light upon the wall, it seemed as though her room were suddenly filled with shadowy forms,—she saw her mother's sweet, sad, suffering face,—then her father's sturdy figure and fine, frank features,—then came the flitting shape of the hapless Sigurd, whose plaintive voice she almost imagined she could hear,—and feeling that she was growing foolishly nervous, she closed her eyes, and tried to sleep. In vain,—her mind began to work on a far more unpleasing train of thought. Why did not Philip return? Where was he? As though some mocking devil had answered her, the words, "In the arms of Violet Vere!" as uttered by Sir Francis Lennox, recurred to her. Overcome by her restlessness, she started up,—she determined to get out of bed, and put on her dressing-gown and read,—when her quick ears caught the sound of steps coming up the stair-case. She recognized her husband's firm tread, and understood that he was followed by Neville, whose sleeping-apartment was on the floor above. She listened attentively—they were talking together in low tones on the landing outside her door.
"I think it would be much better to make a clean breast of it," said Sir Philip. "She will have to know some day."
"Your wife? For God's sake, don't tell her!" Neville's voice replied. "Such a disgraceful—" Here his words sank to a whisper, and Thelma could not distinguish them. Another minute, and her husband entered with soft precaution, fearing to awake her—she stretched out her arms to welcome him, and he hastened to her with an exclamation of tenderness and pleasure.
"My darling! Not asleep yet?"
She smiled,—but there was something very piteous in her smile, had the dim light enabled him to perceive it.
"No, not yet, Philip! And yet I think I have been dreaming of—the Altenfjord."
"Ah! it must be cold there now," he answered lightly. "It's cold enough here, in all conscience. To-night there is a bitter east wind, and snow is falling."
She heard this account of the weather with almost morbid interest. Her thoughts instantly betook themselves again to Norway, and dwelt there. To the last,—before her aching eyes closed in the slumber she so sorely needed,—she seemed to be carried away in fancy to a weird stretch of gloom-enveloped landscape where she stood entirely alone, vaguely wondering at the dreary scene. "How strange it seems!" she murmured almost aloud. "All snow and darkness at the Altenfjord!"
"Le temps ou nous nous sommes aimes n'a guere dure, jeune fille; il a passe comme un coup de vent!" Old Breton Ballad.
The next morning dawned, cold and dismal. A dense yellow fog hung over the metropolis like a pall—the street lamps were lighted, but their flare scarcely illumined the thoroughfares, and the chill of the snow-burdened air penetrated into the warmest rooms, and made itself felt even by the side of the brightest fires. Sir Philip woke with an uncomfortable sense of headache and depression, and grumbled,—as surely every Englishman has a right to grumble, at the uncompromising wretchedness of his country's winter climate. His humor was not improved when a telegram arrived before breakfast, summoning him in haste to a dull town in one of the Midland counties, on pressing business connected with his candidature for Parliament.
"What a bore!" he exclaimed, showing the missive to his wife. "I must go,—and I shan't be able to get back tonight. You'll be all alone, Thelma. I wish you'd go to the Winsleighs!"
"Why?" said Thelma quietly. "I shall much prefer to be here. I do not mind, Philip. I am accustomed to be alone."
Something in her tone struck him as particularly sad, and he looked at her intently.
"Now, my darling," he said suddenly, "if this Parliamentary bother is making you feel worried or vexed in any way, I'll throw it all up—by Jove, I will!" And he drew her into his warm embrace. "After all" he added, with a laugh, "what does it matter! The country can get on without me!"
Thelma smiled a little.
"You must not talk so foolishly, Philip," she said tenderly. "It is wrong to begin a thing of importance, and not go through with it. And I am not worried or vexed at all. What would people say of me if I, your wife, were, for my own selfish comfort and pleasure of having you always with me, to prevent you from taking a good place among the men of your nation? Indeed, I should deserve much blame! And so, though it is a gloomy day for you, poor boy,—you must go to this place where you are wanted, and I shall think of you all the time you are gone, and shall be so happy to welcome you home to-morrow!"
And she kissed and clung to him for a moment in silence. All that day Philip was haunted by the remembrance of the lingering tenderness of her farewell embrace. By ten o'clock he was gone, taking Neville with him; and after her household duties were over, Thelma prepared herself to go and lunch with old Mrs. Lorimer, and see what she would advise concerning the affair of Sir Francis Lennox. But, at the same time, she resolved that nothing should make her speak of the reports that were afloat about her husband and Violet Vere.
"I know it is all false," she said to herself over and over again. "And the people here are as silly as the peasants in Bosekop, ready to believe any untruth so long as it gives them something to talk about. But they may chatter as they please—I shall not say one word, not even to Philip—for it would seem as if I mistrusted him."
Thus she put away all the morbid fancies that threatened to oppress her, and became almost cheerful.
And while she made her simple plans for pleasantly passing the long, dull day of her husband's enforced absence, her friend, Lady Winsleigh, was making arrangements of a very different nature. Her ladyship had received a telegram from Sir Francis Lennox that morning. The pink missive had apparently put her in an excellent humor, though, after reading it, she crumpled it up and threw it in the waste-paper basket, from which receptacle, Louise Renaud, her astute attendant, half an hour later extracted it, secreting it in her own pocket for private perusal at leisure. She ordered her brougham, saying she was going out on business,—and before departing, she took from her dressing-case certain bank-notes and crammed them hastily into her purse—a purse which, in all good faith, she handed to her maid to put in her sealskin muff-bag. Of course, Louise managed to make herself aware of its contents,—but when her ladyship at last entered her carriage her unexpected order, "To the Brilliant Theatre, Strand," was sufficient to startle Briggs, and cause him to exchange surprise signals with "Mamzelle," who merely smiled a prim, incomprehensible smile.
"Where did your la'ship say?" asked Briggs dubiously.
"Are you getting deaf, Briggs?" responded his mistress pleasantly. "To the Brilliant Theatre!" She raised her voice, and spoke with distinct emphasis. There was no mistaking her. Briggs touched his hat,—in the same instant he winked at Louise, and then the carriage rolled away.
At night, the Brilliant Theatre is a pretty little place,—comfortable, cosy, bright, and deserving of its name;—in broad day, it is none of these things. A squalid dreariness seems to have settled upon it—it has a peculiar atmosphere of its own—an atmosphere dark, heavy, and strangely flavored with odors of escaping gas and crushed orange-peel. Behind the scenes, these odors mingle with a chronic, all-pervading smell of beer—beer, which the stranger's sensitive nose detects directly, in spite of the choking clouds of dust which arise from the boards at the smallest movement of any part of the painted scenery. The Brilliant had gone through much ill-fortune—its proprietors never realized any financial profit till they secured Violet Vere. With her came prosperity. Her utter absence of all reserve—the frankness with which she threw modesty to the winds,—the vigor with which she danced a regular "break-down,"—roaring a comic song of the lowest type, by way of accompaniment,—the energetic manner in which, metaphorically speaking, she kicked at the public with her shapely legs,—all this overflow of genius on her part drew crowds to the Brilliant nightly, and the grateful and happy managers paid her a handsome salary, humored all her caprices, and stinted and snubbed for her sake, all the rest of the company. She was immensely popular—the "golden youth" of London raved about her dyed hair, painted eyes, and carmined lips—even her voice, as coarse as that of a dustman, was applauded to the echo, and her dancing excited the wildest enthusiasm. Dukes sent her presents of diamond ornaments—gifts of value which they would have possibly refused to their own wives and daughters,—Royal Highnesses thought it no shame to be seen lounging near her stage dressing-room door,—in short, she was in the zenith of her career, and, being thoroughly unprincipled, audaciously insolent, and wholly without a conscience,—she enjoyed herself immensely.
At the very time when Lady Winsleigh's carriage was nearing the Strand, the grand morning rehearsal of a new burlesque was "on" at the Brilliant—and Violet's harsh tones, raised to a sort of rough masculine roar, were heard all over the theatre, as she issued commands or made complaints according to her changeful humors. She sat in an elevated position above the stage on a jutting beam of wood painted to resemble the gnarled branch of a tree,—swinging her legs to and fro and clinking the heels of her shoes together in time to the mild scraping of a violin, the player whereof was "trying over" the first few bars of the new "jig" in which she was ere long to distinguish herself. She was a handsome woman, with a fine, fair skin, and large, full, dark eyes—she had a wide mouth, which, nearly always on the grin, displayed to the full her strong white teeth,—her figure was inclined to excessive embonpoint, but this rather endeared her to her admirers than otherwise,—many of these gentlemen being prone to describe her fleshly charms by the epithet "Prime!" as though she were a fatting pig or other animal getting ready for killing.
"Tommy! Tommy!" she screeched presently. "Are you going to sleep? Do you expect me to dance to a dirge, you lazy devil!"
Tommy, the player of the violin, paused in his efforts, and looked up drearily. He was an old man, with a lean, long body and pinched features—his lips had a curious way, too, of trembling when he spoke, as if he were ready to cry.
"I can't help it," he said slowly. "I don't know it yet. I must practice it a bit at home. My sight's not so good as it used to be—"
"Such a pair of optics, love, you've never, never seen— One my mother blacked last night, the other it is green!"
sang Violet, to the infinite delight of all the unwashed-looking supernumeraries and ballet-girls, who were scattered about the stage, talking and laughing.
"Shut up, Tommy!" she continued. "You're always talking about your eyesight. I warn you, if you say too much about it you'll lose your place. We don't want blind fiddlers in the Brilliant. Put down you catgut screamer, and fetch me a pint. Ask for the Vere's own tipple—they'll twig!"
Tommy obeyed, and shuffled off on his errand. As he departed,—a little man with a very red face, wearing a stove-pipe hat very much on one side, bounced on the stage as if some one had thrown him there like a ball.
"Now, ladies, ladies!" he shouted warningly. "Attention! Once again, please! The last figure once again!" The straggling groups scrambled hastily into something like order, and the little man continued—"One, two, three! Advance—retreat—left, right! Very well, indeed! Arms up a little more, Miss Jenkins—so! toes well pointed—curtsy—retire! One, two, three! swift slide to the left wing—forward! Round—take hands—all smile, please!" This general smile was apparently not quite satisfactory, for he repeated persuasively—"All smile, please! So! Round again—more quickly—now break the circle in a centre—enter Miss Vere—" he paused, growing still redder in the face, and demanded, "Where is Miss Vere?"
He was standing just beneath the painted bough of the sham tree, and in one second his hat was dexterously kicked off, and two heels met with a click round his neck.
"Here I am, pickaninny!" retorted Miss Vere holding him fast in this novel embrace, amid the laughter of the supers. "You're getting as blind as Tommy! Steady, steady now, donkey!—steady—woa!" And in a thrice she stood upright, one foot planted firmly on each of his shoulders.
"No weight, am I, darling?" she went on jeeringly, and with an inimitably derisive air she put up an eye-glass and surveyed the top of his head. "You want a wig, my dear—you do, indeed! Come with me to-morrow, and I'll buy you one to suit your complexion. Your wife won't know you!"
And with a vigorous jump she sprang down from her position, managing to give him a smart hit on the nose as she did so—and leaping to the centre of the stage, she posed herself to commence her dance—when Tommy came creeping back in his slow and dismal fashion, bearing something in a pewter pot.
"That's the ticket!" she cried as she perceived him. "I'm as dry as a whole desert! Give it here!" And she snatched the mug from the feeble hand of her messenger and began drinking eagerly.
The little red-faced man interposed. "Now, Miss Vi," he said, "is that brandy?"
"Rather so!" returned the Vere, with a knowing wink, "and a good many things besides. It's a mixture. The 'Vere's Own!' Ha, ha! Might be the name of a regiment!"
And she buried her mouth and nose again in the tankard.
"Look here," said the little man again. "Why not wait till after the dance? It's bad for you before."
"Oh, is it, indeed!" screamed Violet, raising her face, which became suddenly and violently flushed. "O good Lord! Are you a temperance preacher? Teach your granny! Bad for me? Say another word, and I'll box your ears for you! You braying jackass!—you snivelling idiot! Who makes the Brilliant draw? You or I? Tell me that, you staring old—"
Here Tommy, who had for some minutes been vainly endeavoring to attract her attention, raised his weak voice to a feeble shout.
"I say, Miss Vere! I've been trying to tell you, but you won't listen! There's a lady waiting to see you!"
"A what?" she asked.
"A lady!" continued Tommy, in loud tones. "A lady of title! Wants to see you in private! Won't detain you long!"
Violet Vere raised her pewter mug once more, and drained off its contents.
"Lord, ain't I honored!" she said, smacking her lips with a grin. "A lady of title to see me! Let her wait! Now then!" and snapping her fingers, she began her dance, and went through it to the end, with her usual vigor and frankness. When she had finished, she turned to the red-faced man who had watched her evolutions with much delight in spite of the abuse she had heaped upon him, and said with an affected, smirking drawl—
"Show the lady of title into my dressing-room! I shall be ready for her in ten minutes. Be sure to mention that I am very shy,—and unaccustomed to company!"
And, giggling gently like an awkward school-girl, she held down her head with feigned bashfulness, and stepped mincingly across the stage with such a ludicrous air of prim propriety, that all her associates burst out laughing, and applauded her vociferously. She turned and curtsied to them demurely—then suddenly raising one leg in a horizontal position, she twirled it rapidly in their faces,—then she gave a little shocked cough behind her hand, grinned, and vanished.
When, in the stipulated ten minutes, she was ready to receive her unknown visitor, she was quite transformed. She had arrayed herself in a trailing gown of rich black velvet, fastened at the side with jet clasps—a cluster of natural, innocent, white violets nestled in the fall of Spanish lace at her throat—her face was pale with pearl-powder,—and she had eaten a couple of scented bon-bons to drown the smell of her recent brandy-tipple. She reclined gracefully in an easy chair, pretending to read, and she rose with an admirably acted air of startled surprise, as one of the errand boys belonging to the Brilliant tapped at her door, and in answer to her "Come in!" announced, "Lady Winsleigh!"
A faint, sweet, questioning smile played on the Vere's wide mouth.
"I am not aware that I have the honor of—" she began, modulating her voice to the requirements of fashionable society, and wondering within herself "what the d——l" this woman in the silk and sable-fur costume wanted.
Lady Winsleigh in the meantime stared at her with cold, critical eyes.
"She is positively rather handsome," she thought. "I can quite imagine a certain class of men losing their heads about her." Aloud she said—
"I must apologize for this intrusion, Miss Vere! I dare say you have never heard my name—I am not fortunate enough to be famous,—as you are." This with a killing satire in her smile. "May I sit down? Thanks! I have called upon you in the hope that you may perhaps be able to give me a little information in a private matter—a matter concerning the happiness of a very dear friend of mine." She paused—Violet Vere sat silent. After a minute or two, her ladyship continued in a somewhat embarrassed manner—
"I believe you know a gentleman with whom I am also acquainted—Sir Philip Bruce-Errington."
Miss Vere raised her eyes with charming languor and a slow smile.
"He visits you, doesn't he?"
"I'm afraid you'll think me rude and inquisitive," continued Lady Winsleigh, with a coaxing air, "but—but may I ask—"
"Anything in the world," interrupted Violet coolly. "Ask away! But I'm not bound to answer."
Lady Winsleigh reddened with indignation. "What an insulting creature!" she thought. But, after all, she had put herself in her present position, and she could not very well complain if she met with a rebuff. She made another effort.
"Sir Francis Lennox told me—" she began.
The Vere interrupted her with a cheerful laugh.
"Oh, you come from him, do you? Now, why didn't you tell me that at first? It's all right! You're a great friend of Lennie's, aren't you?"
Lady Winsleigh sat erect and haughty, a deadly chill of disgust and fear at her heart. This creature called her quondam lover, "Lennie"—even as she herself had done,—and she, the proud, vain woman of society and fashion shuddered at the idea that there should be even this similarity between herself and the "thing" called Violet Vere. She replied stiffly—
"I have known him a long time."
"He's a nice fellow," went on Miss Vere easily—"a leetle stingy sometimes, but never mind that! You want to know about Sir Philip Errington, and I'll tell you. He's chosen to mix himself up with some affairs of mine—"
"What affairs?" asked Lady Winsleigh rather eagerly.
"They don't concern you," returned Miss Vere calmly, "and we needn't talk about them! But they concern Sir Philip,—or he thinks they do, and insists on seeing me about them, and holding long conversations, which bore me excessively!"
She yawned slightly, smothering her yawn in a dainty lace handkerchief, and then went on—
"He's a moral young man, don't you know—and I never could endure moral men! I can't get on with them at all!"
"Then you don't like him?" questioned Lady Winsleigh in rather a disappointed tone.
"No, I don't!" said the Vere candidly. "He's not my sort. But, Lord bless you! I know how he's getting talked about because he comes here—and serve him right too! He shouldn't meddle with my business." She paused suddenly and drew a letter from her pocket,—laughed and tossed it across the table.
"You can read that, if you like," she said indifferently. "He wrote it, and sent it round to me last night."
Lady Winsleigh's eyes glistened eagerly,—she recognized Errington's bold, clear hand at once,—and as she read, an expression of triumph played on her features. She looked up presently and said—
"Have you any further use for this letter, Miss Vere? Or—will you allow me to keep it?"
The Vere seemed slightly suspicious of this proposal, but looked amused too.
"Why, what do you want it for?" she inquired bluntly. "To tease him about me?"
Lady Winsleigh forced a smile. "Well—perhaps!" she admitted, then with an air of gentleness and simplicity she continued, "I think, Miss Vere, with you, that it is very wrong of Sir Philip,—very absurd of him, in fact—to interfere with your affairs, whatever they may be,—and as it is very likely annoying to you—"
"It is," interrupted Violet decidedly.
"Then, with the help of this letter—which, really—really—excuse me for saying it!—quite compromises him," and her ladyship looked amiably concerned about it, "I might perhaps persuade him not to—to—intrude upon you—you understand? But if you object to part with the letter, never mind! If I did not fear to offend you, I should ask you to exchange it for—for something more—well! let us say, something more substantial—"
"Don't beat about the bush!" said Violet, with a sudden oblivion of her company manners. "You mean money?"
Lady Winsleigh smiled. "As you put it so frankly, Miss Vere—" she began.
"Of course! I'm always frank," returned the Vere, with a loud laugh. "Besides, what's the good of pretending? Money's the only thing worth having—it pays your butcher, baker, and dressmaker—and how are you to get along if you can't pay them, I'd like to know! Lord! if all the letters I've got from fools were paying stock instead of waste-paper, I'd shut up shop, and leave the Brilliant to look out for itself!"
Lady Winsleigh felt she had gained her object, and she could now afford to be gracious.
"That would be a great loss to the world," she remarked sweetly. "An immense loss! London could scarcely get on without Violet Vere!" Here she opened her purse and took out some bank-notes, which she folded and slipped inside an envelope. "Then I may have the letter?" she continued.
"You may and welcome!" returned Violet.
Lady Winsleigh instantly held out the envelope, which she as instantly clutched. "Especially if you'll tell Sir Philip Errington to mind his own business!" She paused, and a dark flush mounted to her brow—one of those sudden flushes that purpled rather than crimsoned her face. "Yes," she repeated, "as he's a friend of yours, just tell him I said he was to mind his own business! Lord! what does he want to come here and preach at me for! I don't want his sermons! Moral!" here she laughed rather hoarsely, "I'm as moral as any one on the stage! Who says I'm not! Take 'em all round—there's not a soul behind the footlights more open and above-board than I am!"
And her eyes flashed defiantly.
"She's been drinking?" thought Lady Winsleigh disgustedly. In fact, the "Vere's Own" tipple had begun to take its usual effect, which was to make the Vere herself both blatant and boisterous.
"I'm sure," said her ladyship with frigid politeness, "that you are everything that is quite charming, Miss Vere! I have a great respect for the—the ornaments of the English stage. Society has quite thrown down its former barriers, you know!—the members of your profession are received in the very best circles—"
"I ain't!" said Violet, with ungrammatical candor. "Your Irvings and your Terrys, your Mary Andersons and your Langtrys,—they're good enough for your fine drawing-rooms, and get more invitations out than they can accept. And none of them have got half my talent, I tell you! Lord bless my soul! if they're respectable enough for you,—so am I!"
And she struck her hand emphatically on the table, Lady Winsleigh looked at her with a slight smile.
"I must really say good-bye!" she said, rising and gathering her furs about her. "I could talk with you all the morning, Miss Vere, but I have so many engagements! Besides I mustn't detain you! I'm so much obliged to you for your kind reception of me!"
"Don't mention, it!" and Violet glanced her over with a kind of sullen sarcasm. "I'm bound to please Lennie when I can, you know!"
Again Lady Winsleigh shivered a little, but forced herself to shake hands with the notorious stage-Jezebel.
"I shall come and see you in the new piece," she said graciously. "I always take a box on first nights? And your dancing is so exquisite! The very poetry of motion! So pleased to have met you! Good-bye!"
And with a few more vague compliments and remarks about the weather, Lady Winsleigh took her departure. Left alone, the actress threw herself back in her chair and laughed.
"That woman's up to some mischief," she exclaimed sotto voce, "and so is Lennie! I wonder what's their little game? I don't care, as long as they'll keep the high-and-mighty Errington in his place. I'm tired of him! Why does he meddle with my affairs?" Her brows knitted into a frown. "As if he or anybody else could persuade me to go back to—," she paused, and bit her lips angrily. Then she opened the envelope Lady Winsleigh had left with her, and pulled out the bank-notes inside. "Let me see—five, ten, fifteen, twenty! Not bad pay, on the whole! It'll just cover the bill for my plush mantle. Hullo! Who's there?"
Some one knocked at her door.
"Come in!" she cried.
The feeble Tommy presented himself. His weak mouth trembled more than ever, and he was apparently conscious of this, for he passed his hand nervously across it two or three times.
"Well, what's up?" inquired the "star" of the Brilliant, fingering her bank-notes as she spoke.
"Miss Vere," stammered Tommy, "I venture to ask you a favor,—could you kindly, very kindly lend me ten shillings till to-morrow night? I am so pressed just now—and my wife is ill in bed—and—" he stopped, and his eyes sought her face hopefully, yet timidly.
"You shouldn't have a wife, Tommy!" averred Violet with blunt frankness. "Wives are expensive articles. Besides, I never lend. I never give—except to public charities where one's name gets mentioned in the papers. I'm obliged to do that, you know, by way of advertisement. Ten shillings! Why, I can't afford ten pence! My bills would frighten you, Tommy! There go along, and don't cry, for goodness sake! Let your fiddle cry for you!"
"Oh, Miss Vere," once more pleaded Tommy, "if you knew how my wife suffers—"
The actress rose and stamped her foot impatiently.
"Bother your wife!" she cried angrily, "and you too! Look out! or I tell the manager we've got a beggar at the Brilliant. Don't stare at me like that! Go to the d——l with you!"
Tommy slunk off abashed and trembling, and the Vere began to sing, or rather croak, a low comic song, while she threw over her shoulders a rich mantle glittering with embroidered trimmings, and poised a coquettish Paris model hat on her thick untwisted coils of hair. Thus attired, she passed out of her dressing-room, locking the door behind her, and after a brief conversation with the jocose acting manager, whom she met on her way out, she left the theatre, and took a cab to the Criterion, where the young Duke of Moorlands, her latest conquest, had invited her to a sumptuous luncheon with himself and friends, all men of fashion, who were running through what money they had as fast as they could go.
Lady Winsleigh, on her way home, was tormented by sundry uncomfortable thoughts and sharp pricks of conscience. Her interview with Violet Vere had instinctively convinced her that Sir Philip was innocent of the intrigue imputed to him, and yet,—the letter she had now in her possession seemed to prove him guilty. And though she felt herself to be playing a vile part, she could not resist the temptation of trying what the effect would be of this compromising document on Thelma's trusting mind. It was undoubtedly a very incriminating epistle—any lawyer would have said as much, while blandly pocketing his fee for saying it. It was written off in evident haste, and ran as follows:—
"Let me see you once more on the subject you know of. Why will you not accept the honorable position offered to you? There shall be no stint of money—all the promises I have made I am quite ready to fulfill—you shall lose nothing by being gentle. Surely you cannot continue to seem so destitute of all womanly feeling and pity? I will not believe that you would so deliberately condemn to death a man who has loved, and who loves you still so faithfully, and who, without you, is utterly weary of life and broken-hearted! Think once more—and let my words carry more weight with you!"
This was all, but more than enough!
"I wonder what he means," thought Lady Winsleigh. "It looks as if he were in love with the Vere and she refused to reciprocate. It must be that. And yet that doesn't accord with what the creature herself said about his 'preaching at her.' He wouldn't do that if he were in love."
She studied every word of the letter again and again, and finally folded it up carefully and placed it in her pocket-book.
"Innocent or guilty, Thelma must see it," she decided. "I wonder how she'll take it! If she wants a proof—it's one she'll scarcely deny. Some women would fret themselves to death over it—but I shouldn't wonder if she sat down under it quite calmly without a word of complaint." She frowned a little. "Why must she always be superior to others of her sex! How I detest that still solemn smile of hers and those big baby-blue eyes! I think if Philip had married any other woman than she—a woman more like the rest of us who'd have gone with her time,—I could have forgiven him more easily. But to pick up a Norwegian peasant and set her up as a sort of moral finger-post to society—and then to go and compromise himself with Violet Vere—that's a kind of thing I can't stand! I'd rather be anything in the world than a humbug!"
Many people desire to be something they are not, and her ladyship quite unconsciously echoed this rather general sentiment. She was, without knowing it, such an adept in society humbug, that she even humbugged herself. She betrayed herself as she betrayed others, and told little soothing lies to her own conscience as she told them to her friends. There are plenty of women like her,—women of pleasant courtesy and fashion, to whom truth is mere coarseness,—and with whom polite lying passes for perfect breeding. She was not aware, as she was driven along Park Lane to her own residence, that she carried with her on the box of her brougham a private detective in the person of Briggs. Perched stiffly on his seat, with arms tightly folded, this respectable retainer was quite absorbed in meditation, so much so that he exchanged not a word with his friend, the coachman, beside him. He had his own notions of propriety,—he considered that his mistress had no business whatever to call on an actress of Violet Vere's repute,—and he resolved that whether he were reproved for over-officiousness or not, nothing should prevent him from casually mentioning to Lord Winsleigh the object of her ladyship's drive that morning.
"For," mused Briggs gravely, "a lady 'as responsibilities, and 'owever she forgets 'erself, appearances 'as to be kep' up."
With the afternoon, the fog which had hung over the city all day, deepened and darkened. Thelma had lunched with Mrs. Lorimer, and had enjoyed much pleasant chat with that kindly, cheerful old lady. She had confided to her, part of the story of Sir Francis Lennox's conduct, carefully avoiding every mention of the circumstance which had given rise to it,—namely, the discussion about Violet Vere. She merely explained that she had suddenly fainted, in which condition Sir Francis had taken advantage of her helplessness to insult her.
Mrs. Lorimer was highly indignant. "Tell your husband all about it, my dear!" she advised. "He's big enough, and strong enough, to give that little snob a good trouncing! My patience! I wish George were in London—he'd lend a hand and welcome!"
And the old lady nodded her head violently over the sock she was knitting,—the making of socks for her beloved son was her principal occupation and amusement.
"But I hear," said Thelma, "that it is against the law to strike any one, no matter how you have been insulted. If so,—then Philip would be punished for attacking Sir Francis, and that would not be fair."
"You didn't think of that, child, when you struck Lennox yourself," returned Mrs. Lorimer, laughing. "And I guarantee you gave him a good hard blow,—and serve him right! Never mind what comes of it, my dearie—just tell your husband as soon as ever he comes home, and let him take the matter into his own hands. He's a fine man—he'll know how to defend the pretty wife he loves so well!" And she smiled, while her shining knitting-needles clicked faster than ever.
Thelma's face saddened a little. "I think I am not worthy of his love," she said sorrowfully.
Mrs. Lorimer looked at her with some inquisitiveness.
"What makes you say that, my dear?"
"Because I feel it so much," she replied. "Dear Mrs. Lorimer, you cannot, perhaps, understand—but when he married me, it seemed as if the old story of the king and the beggar-maid were being repeated over again. I sought nothing but his love—his love was, and is my life! These riches—these jewels and beautiful things he surrounds me with—I do not care for them at all, except for the reason that he wishes me to have them. I scarcely understand their value, for I have been poor all my life, and yet I have wanted nothing. I do not think wealth is needful to make one happy. But love—ah! I could not live without it—and now—now—" She paused, and her eyes filled with sudden tears.
"Now what?" asked Mrs. Lorimer gently.
"Now," continued the girl in a low voice, "my heart is always afraid! Yes! I am afraid of losing my husband's love. Ah, do not laugh at me, dear Mrs. Lorimer! You know people who are much together sometimes get tired,—tired of seeing the same face always,—the same form—"
"Are you tired, dearie?" asked the old lady meaningly.
"I? Tired of Philip? I am only happy when he is with me!" And her eyes deepened with passionate tenderness. "I would wish to live and die beside him, and I should not care if I never saw another human face than his!"
"Well, and don't you think he has the same feelings for you?"
"Men are different, I think," returned Thelma musingly. "Now, love is everything to me—but it may not be everything to Philip. I do believe that love is only part of a man's life, while it is all a woman's. Clara told me once that most husbands wearied of their wives, though they would not always confess it—"
"Clara Winsleigh's modern social doctrines are false, my dear!" interrupted Mrs. Lorimer quickly. "She isn't satisfied with her own marriage, and she thinks everybody must be as discontented as herself. Now, my husband and I lived always together for five and twenty years,—and we were lovers to the last day, when my darling died with his hand in mine—and—and—if it hadn't been for my boy,—I should have died too!"
And two bright tears fell glittering on the old lady's knitting.
Thelma took her hand and kissed it fondly. "I can understand that," she said softly; "but still,—still I do believe it is difficult to keep love when you have won it! It is, perhaps, easy to win—but I am sure it is hard to keep!"
Mrs. Lorimer looked at her earnestly.
"My dear child, don't let that frivolous Winsleigh woman put nonsense into your pretty head. You are too sensible to take such a morbid view of things,—and you mustn't allow your wholesome fresh nature to be contaminated by the petulant, wrong-headed notions that cloud the brains of idle, fashionable, useless women. Believe me, good men don't tire of their wives—and Sir Philip is a good man. Good wives never weary their husbands—and you are a good wife—and you will be a good, sweet mother. Think of that new delight so soon coming for you,—and leave all the modern, crazy, one-sided notions of human life to the French and Russian novelists. Tut-tut!" continued the old lady tenderly. "A nice little ladyship you are,—worrying yourself about nothing! Send Philip to me when he comes home—I'll scold him for leaving his bird to mope in her London cage!"
"I do not mope," declared Thelma. "And you must not scold him, please! Poor boy! he is working so very hard, and has so much to attend to. He wants to distinguish himself for—for my sake!"
"That looks very much as if he were tired of you!" laughed Mrs. Lorimer. "Though I dare say you'd like him to stay at home and make love to you all day! Silly girl! You want the world to be a sort of Arcadia, with you as Phyllis, and Sir Philip as Corydon! My dear, we're living in the nineteenth century, and the days of fond shepherds and languishing shepherdesses are past!"
Thelma laughed too, and felt soon ashamed of her depression. The figure of Violet Vere now and then danced before her like a mocking will-o'-the-wisp—but her pride forbade her to mention this,—the actual source of all her vague troubles.
She left Mrs. Lorimer's house, which was near Holland Park, about four o'clock, and as she was passing Church Street, Kensington, she bade her coachman drive up to the Carmelite Church there, familiarly known as the "Carms." She entered the sacred edifice, where the service of Benediction was in progress; and, kneeling down, she listened to the exquisite strains of the solemn music that pealed through those dim and shadowy aisles, and a sense of the most perfect peace settled soothingly on her soul. Clasping her gentle hands, she prayed with innocent and heart-felt earnestness—not for herself,—never for herself,—but always, always for that dear, most dear one, for whom every beat of her true heart was a fresh vow of undying and devoted affection.
"Dear God!" she whispered, "if I love him too much, forgive me! Thou who art all Love, wilt pardon me this excess of love! Bless my darling always, and teach me how to be more worthy of Thy goodness and his tenderness!"
And when she left the church, she was happier and more light-hearted than she had been for many a long day. She drove home, heedless of the fog and cold, dismal aspect of the weather, and resolved to go and visit Lady Winsleigh in the evening, so that when Philip came back on the morrow, she might be able to tell him that she had amused herself, and had not been lonely.
But when she arrived at her own door, Morris, who opened it, informed her that Lady Winsleigh was waiting in the drawing-room to see her, and had been waiting some time. Thelma hastened thither immediately, and held out her hands joyously to her friend.
"I am so sorry you have had to wait, Clara!" she began. "Why did you not send word and say you were coming? Philip is away and will not be back to-night, and I have been lunching with Mrs. Lorimer, and—why, what makes you look so grave?"
Lady Winsleigh regarded her fixedly. How radiantly lovely the young wife looked!—her cheeks had never been more delicately rosy, or her eyes more brilliant. The dark fur cloak she wore with its rich sable trimmings, and the little black velvet toque that rested on her fair curls, set off the beauty of her clear skin to perfection, and her rival, who stood gazing at her with such close scrutiny, envied her more than ever as she was once again reluctantly forced to admit to herself the matchless loveliness of the innocent creature whose happiness she now sought to destroy.
"Do I look grave, Thelma?" she said with a slight smile. "Well, perhaps I've a reason for my gravity. And so your husband is away?"
"Yes. He went quite early this morning,—a telegram summoned him and he was obliged to go." Here she drew up a chair to the fire, and began to loosen her wraps. "Sit down, Clara! I will ring for tea."
"No, don't ring," said Lady Winsleigh. "Not yet! I want to talk to you privately." She sank languidly on a velvet lounge and looked Thelma straight in the eyes.
"Dear Thelma," she continued in a sweetly tremulous, compassionate voice. "Can you bear to hear something very painful and shocking, something that I'm afraid will grieve you very much?"
The color fled from the girl's fair face—her eyes grew startled.
"What do you mean, Clara? Is it anything about—about Philip?"
Lady Winsleigh bent her head in assent, but remained silent.
"If," continued Thelma, with a little return of the rosy hue to her cheeks. "If it is something else about that—that person at the theatre, Clara, I would rather not hear it! I think I have been wrong in listening to any such stories—it is so seldom that gossip of any kind is true. It is not a wife's duty to receive scandals about her husband. And suppose he does see Miss Vere, how do I know that it may not be on business for some friend of his?—because I do know that on that night when he went behind the scenes at the Brilliant, he said it was on business. Mr. Lovelace used often to go and see Miss Mary Anderson, all to persuade her to take a play written by a friend of his—and Philip, who is always kind-hearted, may perhaps be doing something of the same sort. I feel I have been wicked to have even a small doubt of my husband's love,—so, Clara, do not let us talk any more on a subject which only displeases me."
"You must choose your own way of life, of course," said Lady Winsleigh coldly. "But you draw rather foolish comparisons, Thelma. There is a wide difference between Mary Anderson and Violet Vere. Besides, Mr. Lovelace is a bachelor,—he can do as he likes and go where he likes without exciting comment. However, whether you are angry with me or not, I feel I should not be your true friend if I did not show you—this. You know your husband's writing!"
And she drew out the fatal letter, and continued, watching her victim as she spoke, "This was sent by Sir Philip to Violet Vere last night,—she gave it to me herself this morning."
Thelma's hand trembled as she took the paper.
"Why should I read it?" she faltered mechanically.
Lady Winsleigh raised her eyebrows and frowned impatiently.
"Why—why? Because it is your duty to do so! Have you no pride? Will you allow your husband to write such a letter as that to another woman,—and such a woman too! without one word of remonstrance? You owe it to yourself—to your own sense of honor—to resent and resist such treatment on his part! Surely the deepest love cannot pardon deliberate injury and insult."
"My love can pardon anything," answered the girl in a low voice, and then slowly, very slowly, she opened the folded sheet—slowly she read every word it contained,—words that stamped themselves one by one on her bewildered brain and sent it reeling into darkness and vacancy. She felt sick and cold—she stared fixedly at her husband's familiar handwriting. "A man who has loved and who loves you still, and who without you is utterly weary and broken-hearted!"
Thus he wrote of himself to—to Violet Vere! It seemed incredible—yet it was true! She heard a rushing sound in her ears—the room swung round dizzily before her eyes—yet she sat, still, calm and cold, holding the letter and speaking no word.
Lady Winsleigh watched her, irritated at her passionless demeanor.
"Well!" she exclaimed at last. "Have you nothing to say?"
Thelma looked up, her eyes burning with an intense feverish light.
"Nothing!" she replied.
"Nothing?" repeated her ladyship with emphatic astonishment.
"Nothing against Philip," continued the girl steadily. "For the blame is not his, but mine! That he is weary and broken-hearted must be my fault—though I cannot yet understand what I have done. But it must be something, because if I were all that he wished he would not have grown so tired." She paused and her pale lips quivered. "I am sorry," she went on with dreamy pathos, "sorrier for him than for myself, because now I see I am in the way of his happiness." A quiver of agony passed over her face,—she fixed her large bright eyes on Lady Winsleigh, who instinctively shrank from the solemn speechless despair of that penetrating gaze.
"Who gave you this letter, Clara?" she asked calmly.
"I told you before,—Miss Vere herself."
"Why did she give it to you?" continued Thelma in a dull, sad voice.
Lady Winsleigh hesitated and stammered a little. "Well, because—because I asked her if the stories about Sir Philip were true. And she begged me to ask him not to visit her so often." Then, with an additional thought of malice, she said softly. "She doesn't wish to wrong you, Thelma,—of course, she's not a very good woman, but I think she feels sorry for you!"
The girl uttered a smothered cry of anguish, as though she had been stabbed to the heart. She!—to be actually pitied by Violet Vere, because she had been unable to keep her husband's love! This idea tortured her very soul,—but she was silent.
"I thought you were my friend, Clara?" she said suddenly, with a strange wistfulness.
"So I am, Thelma," murmured Lady Winsleigh, a guilty flush coloring her cheeks.
"You have made me very miserable," went on Thelma gravely, and with pathetic simplicity, "and I am sorry indeed that we ever met. I was so happy till I knew you!—and yet I was very fond of you! I am sure you mean everything for the best, but I cannot think it is so. And it is all so dark and desolate now—why have you taken such pains to make me sad? Why have you so often tried to make me doubt my husband's love?—why have you come to-day so quickly to tell me I have lost it? But for you, I might never have known this sorrow,—I might have died soon, in happy ignorance, believing in my darling's truth as I believe in God!"
Her voice broke, and a hard sob choked her utterance. For once Lady Winsleigh's conscience smote her—for once she felt ashamed, and dared not offer consolation to the innocent soul she had so wantonly stricken. For a minute or two there was silence—broken only by the monotonous ticking of the clock and the crackling of the fire.
Presently Thelma spoke again. "I will ask you to go away now and leave me, Clara," she said simply. "When the heart is sorrowful, it is best to be alone. Good-bye!" And she gently held out her hand.
"Poor Thelma!" said Lady Winsleigh, taking it with an affectation of tenderness. "What will you do?"
Thelma did not answer; she sat mute and rigid.
"You are thinking unkindly of me just now," continued Clara softly; "but I felt it was my duty to tell you the worst at once. It's no good living in a delusion! I'm very, very sorry for you, Thelma!"
Thelma remained perfectly silent. Lady Winsleigh moved towards the door, and as she opened it looked back at her. The girl might have been a lifeless figure for any movement that could be perceived about her. Her face was white as marble—her eyes were fixed on the sparkling fire—her very hands looked stiff and pallid as wax, as they lay clasped in her lap—the letter—the cruel letter,—had fallen at her feet. She seemed as one in a trance of misery—and so Lady Winsleigh left her.
"O my lord, O Love, I have laid my life at thy feet; Have thy will thereof For what shall please thee is sweet!" SWINBURNE.
She roused herself at last. Unclasping her hands, she pushed back her hair from her brows and sighed heavily. Shivering as with intense cold, she rose from the chair she had so long occupied, and stood upright, mechanically gathering around her the long fur mantle that she had not as yet taken off. Catching sight of the letter where it lay, a gleaming speck of white on the rich dark hues of the carpet, she picked it up and read it through again calmly and comprehensively,—then folded it up carefully as though it were something of inestimable value. Her thoughts were a little confused,—she could only realize clearly two distinct things,—first, that Philip was unhappy,—secondly, that she was in the way of his happiness. She did not pause to consider how this change in him had been effected,—moreover, she never imagined that the letter he had written could refer to any one but himself. Hers was a nature that accepted facts as they appeared—she never sought for ulterior motives or disguised meanings. True, she could not understand her husband's admiration for Violet Vere, "But then"—she thought—"many other men admire her too. And so it is certain there must be something about her that wins love,—something I cannot see!"
And presently she put aside all other considerations, and only pondered on one thing,—how should she remove herself from the path of her husband's pleasure? For she had no doubt but that she was an obstacle to his enjoyment. He had made promises to Violet Vere which he was "ready to fulfill,"—he offered her "an honorable position,"—he desired her "not to condemn him to death,"—he besought her to let his words "carry more weight with her."
"It is because I am here," thought Thelma wearily. "She would listen to him if I were gone!" She had the strangest notions of wifely duty—odd minglings of the stern Norse customs with the gentler teachings of Christianity,—yet in both cases the lines of woman's life were clearly defined in one word—obedience. Most women, receiving an apparent proof of a husband's infidelity, would have made what is termed a "scene,"—would have confronted him with rage and tears, and personal abuse,—but Thelma was too gentle for this,—too gentle to resist what seemed to be Philip's wish and will, and far too proud to stay where it appeared evident she was not wanted. Moreover she could not bear the idea of speaking to him on, such a subject as his connection with Violet Vere,—the hot color flushed her cheeks with a sort of shame as she thought of it.
Of course, she was weak—of course, she was foolish,—we will grant that she was anything the reader chooses to call her. It is much better for a woman nowadays to be defiant rather than yielding,—aggressive, not submissive,—violent, not meek. We all know that! To abuse a husband well all round, is the modern method of managing him! But poor, foolish, loving, sensitive Thelma had nothing of the magnificent strength of mind possessed by most wives of to-day,—she could only realize that Philip—her Philip—was "utterly weary and broken-hearted"—for the sake of another woman—and that other woman actually pitied her! She pitied herself too, a little vaguely—her brows ached and throbbed violently—there was a choking sensation in her throat, but she could not weep. Tears would have relieved her tired brain, but no tears fell. She strove to decide on some immediate plan of action,—Philip would be home to-morrow,—she recoiled at the thought of meeting him, knowing what she knew. Glancing dreamily at her own figure, reflected by the lamplight in the long mirror opposite, she recognized that she was fully attired in outdoor costume—all save her hat, which she had taken off after her first greeting of Lady Winsleigh, and which was still on the table at her side. She looked at the clock,—it was five minutes to seven. Eight o'clock was her dinner-hour, and thinking of this, she suddenly rang the bell. Morris immediately answered it.
"I shall not dine at home," she said in her usual gentle voice; "I am going to see some friend this evening. I may not be back till—till late."
"Very well, my lady," and Morris retired without seeing anything remarkable in his mistress's announcement. Thelma drew a long breath of relief as he disappeared, and, steadying her nerves by a strong effort, passed into her own boudoir,—the little sanctum specially endeared to her by Philip's frequent presence there. How cosy and comfortable a home-nest it looked!—a small fire glowed warmly in the grate, and Britta, whose duty it was to keep this particular room in order, had lit the lamp,—a rosy globe supported by a laughing cupid,—and had drawn the velvet curtains close at the window to keep out the fog and chilly air—there were fragrant flowers on the table,—Thelma's own favorite lounge was drawn up to the fender in readiness for her,—opposite to it stood the deep, old-fashioned easy chair in which Philip always sat. She looked round upon all these familiar things with a dreary sense of strangeness and desolation, and the curves of her sweet mouth trembled a little and drooped piteously. But her resolve was taken, and she did not hesitate or weep. She sat down to her desk and wrote a few brief lines to her father—this letter she addressed and stamped ready for posting.
Then for a while she remained apparently lost in painful musings, playing with the pen she held, and uncertain what to do. Presently she drew a sheet of note-paper toward her, and began, "My darling boy." As these words appeared under her hand on the white page, her forced calm nearly gave way,—a low cry of intense agony escaped from her lips, and, dropping the pen, she rose and paced the room restlessly, one hand pressed against her heart as though that action could still its rapid beatings. Once more she essayed the hard task she had set herself to fulfill—the task of bidding farewell to the husband in whom her life was centred. Piteous, passionate words came quickly from her overcharged and almost breaking heart—words, tender, touching,—full of love, and absolutely free from all reproach. Little did she guess as she wrote that parting letter, what desperate misery it would cause to the receiver!—
When she had finished it, she felt quieted—even more composed than before. She folded and sealed it—then put it out of sight and rang for Britta. That little maiden soon appeared, and seemed surprised to see her mistress still in walking costume.
"Have you only just come in, Froeken?" she ventured to inquire.
"No, I came home some time ago," returned Thelma gently. "But I was talking to Lady Winsleigh in the drawing-room,—and as I am going out again this evening I shall not require to change my dress. I want you to post this letter for me, Britta."
And she held out the one addressed to her father, Olaf Gueldmar. Britta took it, but her mind still revolved the question of her mistress's attire.
"If you are going to spend the evening with friends," she suggested, "would it not be better to change?"
"I have on a velvet gown," said Thelma, with a rather wearied patience. "It is quite dressy enough for where I am going." She paused abruptly, and Britta looked at her inquiringly.
"Are you tired, Froeken Thelma?" she asked. "You are so pale!"
"I have a slight headache," Thelma answered. "It is nothing,—it will soon pass. I wish you to post that letter at once, Britta."
"Very well, Froeken." Britta still hesitated. "Will you be out all the evening?" was her next query.
"Then perhaps you will not mind if I go and see Louise, and take supper with her? She has asked me, and Mr. Briggs"—here Britta laughed—"is coming to see if I can go. He will escort me, he says!" And she laughed again.
Thelma forced herself to smile. "You can go, by all means, Britta! But I thought you did not like Lady Winsleigh's French maid?"
"I don't like her much," Britta admitted—"still, she means to be kind and agreeable, I think. And"—here she eyed Thelma with a mysterious and important air—"I want to ask her a question about something very particular."
"Then, go and stay as long as you like, dear," said Thelma, a sudden impulse of affection causing her to caress softly her little maid's ruffled brown curls, "I shall not be back till—till quite late. And when you return from the post, I shall be gone—so—good-bye!"
"Good-bye!" exclaimed Britta wonderingly. "Why, where are you going? One would think you were starting on a long journey. You speak so strangely, Froeken!"
"Do I?" and Thelma smiled kindly. "It is because my head aches, I suppose. But it is not strange to say good-bye, Britta!"
Britta caught her hand. "Where are you going?" she persisted.
"To see some friends," responded Thelma quietly. "Now do not ask any more questions, Britta, but go and post my letter. I want father to get it as soon as possible, and you will lose the post if you are not very quick."
Thus reminded, Britta hastened off, determining to run all the way, in order to get back before her mistress left the house. Thelma, however, was too quick for her. As soon as Britta had gone, she took the letter she had written to Philip, and slipped it within the pages of a small volume of poems he had lately been reading. It was a new book entitled "Gladys the Singer," and its leading motif was the old, never-exhausted subject of a woman's too faithful love, betrayal, and despair. As she opened it, her eyes fell by chance on a few lines of hopeless yet musical melancholy, which, like a sad song heard suddenly, made her throat swell with rising yet restrained tears. They ran thus:—
"Oh! I can drown, or, like a broken lyre, Be thrown to earth, or cast upon a fire,— I can be made to feel the pangs of death, And yet be constant to the quest of breath,— Our poor pale trick of living through the lies We name Existence when that 'something' dies Which we call Honor. Many and many a way Can I be struck or fretted night or day In some new fashion,—or condemn'd the while To take for food the semblance of a smile,— The left-off rapture of a slain caress,—"
Ah!—she caught her breath sobbingly, "The left-off rapture of a slain caress!" Yes,—that would be her portion now if—if she stayed to receive it. But she would not stay! She turned over the volume abstractedly, scarcely conscious of the action,—and suddenly, as if the poet-writer of it had been present to probe her soul and make her inmost thoughts public, she read:—
"Because I am unlov'd of thee to-day, And undesired as sea-weeds in the sea!"
Yes!—that was the "because" of everything that swayed her sorrowful spirit,—"because" she was "unlov'd and undesired."
She hesitated no longer, but shut the book with her farewell letter inside it, and put it back in its former place on the little table beside Philip's arm-chair. Then she considered how she should distinguish it by some mark that should attract her husband's attention toward it,—and loosening from her neck a thin gold chain on which was suspended a small diamond cross with the names "Philip" and "Thelma" engraved at the back, she twisted it round the little book, and left it so that the sparkle of the jewels should be seen distinctly on the cover. Now was there anything more to be done? She divested herself of all her valuable ornaments, keeping only her wedding-ring and its companion circlet of brilliants,—she emptied her purse of all money save that which was absolutely necessary for her journey—then she put on her hat, and began to fasten her long cloak slowly, for her fingers were icy cold and trembled very strangely. Stay,—there was her husband's portrait,—she might take that, she thought, with a sort of touching timidity. It was a miniature on ivory—and had been painted expressly for her,—she placed it inside her dress, against her bosom.
"He has been too good to me," she murmured; "and I have been too happy,—happier than I deserved to be. Excess of happiness must always end in sorrow."
She looked dreamily at Philip's empty chair—in fancy she could see his familiar figure seated there, and she sighed as she thought of the face she loved so well,—the passion of his eyes,—the tenderness of his smile. Softly she kissed the place where his head had rested,—then turned resolutely away.
She was giving up everything, she thought, to another woman,—but then—that other woman, however incredible it seemed, was the one Philip loved best,—his own written words were a proof of this. There was no choice therefore,—his pleasure was her first consideration,—everything must yield to that, so she imagined,—her own life was nothing, in her estimation, compared to his desire. Such devotion as hers was of course absurd—it amounted to weak self-immolation, and would certainly be accounted as supremely foolish by most women who have husbands, and who, when they swear to "obey," mean to break the vow at every convenient opportunity—but Thelma could not alter her strange nature, and, with her, obedience meant the extreme letter of the law of utter submission. Leaving the room she had so lately called her own, she passed into the entrance-hall. Morris was not there, and she did not summon him,—she opened the street-door for herself, and shutting it quietly behind her, she stood alone in the cold street, where the fog had now grown so dense that the lamp-posts were scarcely visible. She walked on for a few paces rather bewildered and chilled by the piercing bitterness of the air,—then, rallying her forces, she hailed a passing cab, and told the man to take her to Charing Cross Station. She was not familiar with London—and Charing Cross was the only great railway terminus she could just then think of.
Arrived there, the glare of the electric light, the jostling passengers rushing to and from the trains, the shouts and wrangling of porters and cabmen, confused her not a little,—and the bold looks of admiration bestowed on her freely by the male loungers sauntering near the doors of the restaurant and hotel, made her shrink and tremble for shame. She had never travelled entirely alone before—and she began to be frightened at the pandemonium of sights and noises that surged around her. Yet she never once thought of returning,—she never dreamed of going to any of her London friends, lest on hearing of her trouble they might reproach Philip—and this Thelma would not have endured. For the same reason, she had said nothing to Britta.
In her then condition, it seemed to her that only one course lay open for her to follow,—and that was to go quietly home,—home to the Altenfjord. No one would be to blame for her departure but herself, she thought,—and Philip would be free. Thus she reasoned,—if, indeed, she reasoned at all. But there was such a frozen stillness in her soul—her senses were so numbed with pain, that as yet she scarcely realized either what had happened or what she herself was doing. She was as one walking in sleep—the awakening, bitter as death, was still to come.
Presently a great rush of people began to stream towards her from one of the platforms, and trucks of luggage, heralded by shouts of, "Out of the way, there!" and "By'r leave!" came trundling rapidly along—the tidal train from the Continent had just arrived.
Dismayed at the increasing confusion and uproar, Thelma addressed herself to an official with a gold band round his hat.
"Can you tell me," she asked timidly, "where I shall take a ticket for Hull?"
The man glanced at the fair, anxious face, and smiled good-humoredly.
"You've come to the wrong station, miss," he said. "You want the Midland line."
"The Midland?" Thelma felt more bewildered than ever.
"Yes,—the Midland," he repeated rather testily. "It's a good way from here—you'd better take a cab."
She moved away,—but started and drew herself back into a shadowed corner, coloring deeply as the sound of a rich, mellifluous voice, which she instantly recognized, smote suddenly on her ears.
"And as I before remarked, my good fellow," the voice was saying, "I am not a disciple of the semi-obscure. If a man has a thought which is worth declaring, let him declare it with a free and noble utterance—don't let him wrap it up in multifarious parcels of dreary verbosity! There's too much of that kind of thing going on nowadays—in England, at least. There's a kind of imitation of art which isn't art at all,—a morbid, bilious, bad imitation. You only get close to the real goddess in Italy. I wish I could persuade you to come and pass the winter with me there?"
It was Beau Lovelace who spoke, and he was talking to George Lorimer. The two had met in Paris,—Lovelace was on his way to London, where a matter of business summoned him for a few days, and Lorimer, somewhat tired of the French capital, decided to return with him. And here they were,—just arrived at Charing Cross,—and they walked across the station arm in arm, little imagining who watched them from behind the shelter of one of the waiting-room doors, with a yearning sorrow in her grave blue eyes. They stopped almost opposite to her to light their cigars,—she saw Lorimer's face quite distinctly, and heard his answer to Lovelace.
"Well, I'll see what I can do about it, Beau! You know my mother always likes to get away from London in winter—but whether we ought to inflict ourselves upon you,—you being a literary man too—"
"Nonsense, you won't interfere in the least with the flow of inky inspiration," laughed Beau. "And as for your mother, I'm in love with her, as you are aware! I admire her almost as much as I do Lady Bruce-Errington—and that's saying a great deal! By-the-by, if Phil can get through his share of this country's business, he might do worse than bring his beautiful Thelma to the Lake of Como for a while. I'll ask him!"
And having lit their Havannas successfully, they walked on and soon disappeared. For one instant Thelma felt strongly inclined to run after them, like a little forlorn child that had lost its way,—and, unburdening herself of all her miseries to the sympathetic George, entreat, with tears, to be taken back to that husband who did not want her any more. But she soon overcame this emotion,—and calling to mind the instructions of the official personage whose advice she had sought, she hurried out of the huge, brilliantly lit station, and taking a hansom, was driven, as she requested, to the Midland. Here the rather gloomy aspect of the place oppressed her as much as the garish bustle of Charing Cross had bewildered her,—but she was somewhat relieved when she learned that a train for Hull would start in ten minutes. Hurrying to the ticket-office she found there before her a kindly faced woman with a baby in her arms, who was just taking a third-class ticket to Hull, and as she felt lonely and timid, Thelma at once decided to travel third-class also, and if possible in the same compartment with this cheerful matron, who, as soon as she had secured her ticket, walked away to the train, hushing her infant in her arms as she went. Thelma followed her at a little distance—and as soon as she saw her enter a third-class carriage, she hastened her steps and entered also, quite thankful to have secured some companionship for the long cold journey. The woman glanced at her a little curiously—it was strange to see so lovely and young a creature travelling all alone at night,—and she asked kindly—
"Be you goin' fur, miss?"
Thelma smiled—it was pleasant to be spoken to, she thought.
"Yes," she answered. "All the way to Hull."
"'Tis a cold night for a journey," continued her companion.
"Yes, indeed," answered Thelma. "It must be cold for your little baby."
And unconsciously her voice softened and her eyes grew sad as she looked across at the sleeping infant.
"Oh, he's as warm as toast!" laughed the mother cheerily. "He gets the best of everything, he do. It's yourself that's looking cold, my dear in spite of your warm cloak. Will ye have this shawl?"
And she offered Thelma a homely gray woollen wrap with much kindly earnestness of manner.
"I am quite warm, thank you," said Thelma gently, accepting the shawl, however, to please her fellow-traveller. "It is a headache I have which makes me look pale. And, I am very, very tired!"
Her voice trembled a little,—she sighed and closed her eyes. She felt strangely weak and giddy,—she seemed to be slipping away from herself and from all the comprehension of life,—she wondered vaguely who and what she was. Had her marriage with Philip been all a dream?—perhaps she had never left the Altenfjord after all! Perhaps she would wake up presently and see the old farm-house quite unchanged, with the doves flying about the roof, and Sigurd wandering under the pines as was his custom. Ah, dear Sigurd! Poor Sigurd! he had loved her, she thought—nay, he loved her still,—he could not be dead! Oh, yes,—she must have been dreaming,—she felt certain she was lying on her own little white bed at home, asleep;—she would by-and-by open her eyes and get up and look through her little latticed window, and see the sun sparkling on the water, and the Eulalie at the anchor in the Fjord—and her father would ask Sir Philip and his friends to spend the afternoon at the farm-house—and Philip would come and stroll with her through the garden and down to the shore, and would talk to her in that low, caressing voice of his,—and though she loved him dearly, she must never, never let him know of it, because she was not worthy! . . . She woke from these musings with a violent start and a sick shiver running through all her frame,—and looking wildly about her, saw that she was reclining on some one's shoulder,—some one was dabbing a wet handkerchief on her forehead—her hat was off and her cloak was loosened.
"There, my dear, you're better now!" said a kindly voice in her ear. "Lor! I thought you was dead—that I did! 'Twas a bad faint indeed. And with the train jolting along like this too! It was lucky I had a flask of cold water with me. Raise your head a little—that's it! Poor thing,—you're as white as a sheet! You're not fit to travel, my dear—you're not indeed."
Thelma raised herself slowly, and with a sudden impulse kissed the good woman's honest, rosy face, to her intense astonishment and pleasure.
"You are very kind to me!" she said tremulously. "I am so sorry to have troubled you. I do feel ill—but it will soon pass."
And she smoothed her ruffled hair, and sitting up erect, endeavored to smile. Her companion eyed her pale face compassionately, and taking up her sleeping baby from the shawl on which she had laid it while ministering to Thelma's needs, began to rock it slowly to and fro. Thelma, meanwhile, became sensible of the rapid movement of the train.
"We have left London?" she asked with an air of surprise.
"Nearly half an hour ago, my dear." Then, after a pause, during which she had watched Thelma very closely, she said—
"I think you're married, aren't you, dearie?"
"Yes." Thelma answered, a slight tinge of color warming her fair pale cheeks.
"Your husband, maybe, will meet you at Hull?"
"No,—he is in London," said Thelma simply. "I am going to see my father."
This answer satisfied her humble friend, who, noticing her extreme fatigue and the effort it cost her to speak, forbore to ask any more questions, but good-naturedly recommended her to try and sleep. She slept soundly herself for the greater part of the journey; but Thelma was now feverishly wide awake, and her eyeballs ached and burned as though there were fire behind them.
Gradually her nerves began to be wound up to an extreme tension of excitement—she forgot all her troubles in listening with painful intentness to the rush and roar of the train through the darkness. The lights of passing stations and signal-posts gleamed like scattered and flying stars—there was the frequent shriek of the engine-whistle,—the serpent-hiss of escaping steam. She peered through the window—all was blackness; there seemed to be no earth, no sky,—only a sable chaos, through which the train flew like a flame-mouthed demon. Always that rush and roar! She began to feel as if she could stand it no longer. She must escape from that continuous, confusing sound—it maddened her brain. Nothing was easier; she would open the carriage-door and get out! Surely she could manage to jump off the step, even though the train was in motion!
Danger! She smiled at that idea,—there was no danger; and, if there was, it did not much matter. Nothing mattered now,—now that she had lost her husband's love. She glanced at the woman opposite, who slept profoundly—the baby had slipped a little from its mother's arms, and lay with its tiny face turned towards Thelma. It was a pretty creature, with soft cheeks and a sweet little mouth,—she looked at it with a vague, wild smile. Again, again that rush and roar surged like a storm in her ears and distracted her mind! She rose suddenly and seized the handle of the carriage door. Another instant, and she would have sprang to certain death,—when suddenly the sleeping baby woke, and, opening its mild blue eyes, gazed at her.
She met its glance as one fascinated,—almost unconsciously her fingers dropped from the door-handle,—the little baby still looked at her in dreamlike, meditative fashion,—its mother slept profoundly. She bent lower and lower over the child. With a beating heart she ventured to touch the small, pink hand that lay outside its wrappings like a softly curved rose-leaf. With a sort of elf-like confidence and contentment the feeble, wee fingers closed and curled round hers,—and held her fast! Weak as a silken thread, yet stronger in its persuasive force than a grasp of iron, that soft, light pressure controlled and restrained her, . . . very gradually the mists of her mind cleared,—the rattling, thunderous dash of the train grew less dreadful, less monotonous, less painful to her sense of hearing,—her bosom heaved convulsively, and all suddenly her eyes filled with tears—merciful tears, which at first welled up slowly, and were hot as fire, but which soon began to fall faster and faster in large, bright drops down her pale cheeks. Seeing that its mother still slept, she took the baby gently into her own fair arms,—and rocked it to and fro with many a sobbing murmur of tenderness;—the little thing smiled drowsily and soon fell asleep again, all unconscious that its timely look and innocent touch had saved poor Thelma's life and reason.
She, meanwhile, wept on softly, till her tired brain and heart were somewhat relieved of their heavy burden,—the entanglement of her thoughts became unravelled,—and, though keenly aware of the blank desolation of her life, she was able to raise herself in spirit to the Giver of all Love and Consolation, and to pray humbly for that patience and resignation which now alone could serve her needs. And she communed with herself and God in silence, as the train rushed on northwards. Her fellow-traveller woke up as they were nearing their destination, and, seeing her holding the baby, was profuse in her thanks for this kindness. And when they at last reached Hull, about half an hour after midnight, the good woman was exceedingly anxious to know if she could be of any service,—but Thelma gently, yet firmly, refused all her offers of assistance.
They parted in the most friendly manner,—Thelma kissing the child, through whose unconscious means, as she now owned to herself, she had escaped a terrible death,—and then she went directly to a quiet hotel she knew of, which was kept by a native of Christiania, a man who had formerly been acquainted with her father. At first, when this worthy individual saw a lady arrive, alone, young, richly dressed, and without luggage, he was inclined to be suspicious,—but as soon as she addressed him in Norwegian, and told him who she was, he greeted her with the utmost deference and humility.
"The daughter of Jarl Gueldmar," he said, continuing to speak in his own tongue, "honors my house by entering it!"
Thelma smiled a little. "The days of the great Jarls are past, Friedhof," she replied somewhat sadly, "and my father is content to be what he is,—a simple bonde."
Friedhof shook his head quite obstinately. "A Jarl is always a Jarl," he declared. "Nothing can alter a man's birth and nature. And the last time I saw Valdemar Svensen,—he who lives with your father now,—he was careful always to speak of the Jarl, and seldom or never did he mention him in any other fashion. And now, noble Froeken, in what manner can I serve you?"
Thelma told him briefly that she was going to see her father on business, and that she was desirous of starting for Norway the next day as early as possible.
Friedhof held up his hands in amazement. "Ah! most surely you forget," he exclaimed, using the picturesque expressions of his native speech, "that this is the sleeping time of the sun! Even at the Hardanger Fjord it is dark and silent,—the falling streams freeze with cold on their way; and if it is so at the Hardanger, what will it be at the Alten? And there is no passenger ship going to Christiania or Bergen for a fortnight!"
Thelma clasped her hands in dismay. "But I must go!" she cried impatiently; "I must, indeed, good Friedhof! I cannot stay here! Surely, surely there is some vessel that would take me,—some fishing boat,—what does it matter how I travel, so long as I get away?"
The landlord looked at her rather wonderingly. "Nay, if it is indeed so urgent, noble Froeken," he replied, "do not trouble, for there is a means of making the journey. But for you, and in such bitter weather, it seems a cruelty to speak of it. A steam cargo-boat leaves here for Hammerfest and the North Cape to-morrow—it will pass the Altenfjord. No doubt you could go with that, if you so choose,—but there will be no warmth or comfort, and there are heavy storms on the North Sea. I know the captain; and 'tis true he takes his wife with him, so there would be a woman on board,—yet—"
Thelma interrupted him. She pressed two sovereigns into his hand.
"Say no more, Friedhof," she said eagerly. "You will take me to see this captain—you will tell him I must go with him. My father will thank you for this kindness to me, even better than I can."
"It does not seem to me a kindness at all," returned Friedhof with frank bluntness. "I would be loth to sail the seas myself in such weather. And I thought you were so grandly married, Froeken Gueldmar,—though I forget your wedded name,—how comes it that your husband is not with you?"