"He is very busy in London," answered Thelma. "He knows where I am going. Do not be at all anxious, Friedhof,—I shall make the journey very well and I am not afraid of storm or wild seas."
Friedhof still looked dubious, but finally yielded to her entreaties and agreed to arrange her passage for her in the morning.
She stayed at his hotel that night, and with the very early dawn accompanied him on board the ship he had mentioned. It was a small, awkwardly built craft, with an ugly crooked black funnel out of which the steam was hissing and spitting with quite an unnecessary degree of violence—the decks were wet and dirty, and the whole vessel was pervaded with a sickening smell of whale-oil. The captain, a gruff red-faced fellow, looked rather surlily at his unexpected passenger—but was soon mollified by her gentle manner, and the readiness with which she paid the money he demanded for taking her.
"You won't be very warm," he said, eyeing her from head to foot—"but I can lend you a rug to sleep in."
Thelma smiled and thanked him. He called to his wife, a thin, overworked-looking creature, who put up her head from a window in the cabin, at his summons.
"Here's a lady going with us," he announced. "Look after her, will you?" The woman nodded. Then, once more addressing himself to Thelma, he said, "We shall have nasty weather and a wicked sea!"
"I do not mind!" she answered quietly, and turning to Friedhof who had come to see her off, she shook hands with him warmly and thanked him for the trouble he had taken in her behalf. The good landlord bade her farewell somewhat reluctantly,—he had a presentiment that there was something wrong with the beautiful, golden-haired daughter of the Jarl—and that perhaps he ought to have prevented her making this uncomfortable and possibly perilous voyage. But it was too late now,—and at a little before seven o'clock, the vessel,—which rejoiced in the name of the Black Polly,—left the harbor, and steamed fussily down the Humber in the teeth of a sudden storm of sleet and snow.
Her departure had no interest for any one save Friedhof, who stood watching her till she was no more than a speck on the turbid water. He kept his post, regardless of the piercing cold of the gusty, early morning air, till she had entirely disappeared, and then returned to his own house and his daily business in a rather depressed frame of mind. He was haunted by the pale face and serious eyes of Thelma—she looked very ill, he thought. He began to reproach himself,—why had he been such a fool as to let her go?—why had he not detained her?—or at any rate, persuaded her to rest a few days in Hull? He looked at the threatening sky and the falling flakes of snow with a shiver.
"What weather!" he muttered, "and there must be a darkness as of death at the Altenfjord!"
Meanwhile the Black Polly—unhandsome as she was in appearance, struggled gallantly with and overcame an army of furious waves that rose to greet her as she rounded Spurn Head, and long ere Thelma closed her weary eyes in an effort to sleep, was plunging, shivering, and fighting her slow way through shattering mountainous billows and a tempest of sleet, snow, and tossing foam across the wild North Sea.
"What of her glass without her? The blank grey There, where the pool is blind of the moon's face— Her dress without her? The tossed empty space Of cloud-rack whence the moon has passed away!" DANTE G. ROSSETTI.
"Good God!" cried Errington impatiently "What's the matter? Speak out!"
He had just arrived home. He had barely set foot within his own door, and full of lover-like ardor and eagerness was about to hasten to his wife's room,—when his old servant Morris stood in his way trembling and pale-faced,—looking helplessly from him to Neville,—who was as much astonished as Sir Philip, at the man's woe-begone appearance.
"Something has happened," he stammered faintly at last. "Her ladyship—"
Philip started—his heart beat quickly and then seemed to grow still with a horrible sensation of fear.
"What of her?" he demanded in low hoarse tones. "Is she ill?"
Morris threw up his hands with a gesture of despair.
"Sir Philip, my dear master!" cried the poor old man. "I do not know whether she is ill or well—I cannot guess! My lady went out last night at a little before eight o'clock,—and—and she has never come home at all! We cannot tell what has become of her! She has gone!"
And tears of distress and anxiety filled his eyes. Philip stood mute. He could not understand it. All color fled from his face—he seemed as though he had received a sudden blow on the head which had stunned him.
"Gone!" he said mechanically. "Thelma—my wife gone! Why should she go?"
And he stared fixedly at Neville, who laid one hand soothingly on his arm.
"Perhaps she is with friends," he suggested. "She may be at Lady Winsleigh's or Mrs. Lorimer's."
"No, no!" interrupted Morris. "Britta, who stayed up all night for her, has since been to every house that my lady visits and no one has seen or heard of her!"
"Where is Britta?" demanded Philip suddenly.
"She has gone again to Lady Winsleigh's," answered Morris, "she says it is there that mischief has been done,—I don't know what she means!"
Philip shook off his secretary's sympathetic touch, and strode through the rooms to Thelma's boudoir. He put aside the velvet curtains of the portiere with a noiseless hand—somehow he felt as if, in spite of all he had just heard, she must be there as usual to welcome him with that serene sweet smile which was the sunshine of his life. The empty desolate air of the room smote him with a sense of bitter pain,—only the plaintive warble of her pet thrush, who was singing to himself most mournfully in his gilded cage, broke the heavy silence. He looked about him vacantly. All sorts of dark forebodings crowded on his mind,—she must have met with some accident, he thought with a shudder,—for that she would depart from him in this sudden way of her own accord for no reason whatsoever seemed to him incredible—impossible.
"What have I done that she should leave me?" he asked half aloud and wonderingly. Everything that had seemed to him of worth a few hours ago became valueless in this moment of time. What cared he now for the business of Parliament—for distinction or honors among men? Nothing—less than nothing! Without her, the world was empty—its ambitions, its pride, its good, its evil, seemed but the dreariest and most foolish trifles!
"Not even a message?" he thought. "No hint of where she meant to go—no word of explanation for me? Surely I must be dreaming—my Thelma would never have deserted me!"
A sort of sob rose in his throat, and he pressed his hand strongly over his eyes to keep down the womanish drops that threatened to overflow them. After a minute or two, he went to her desk and opened it, thinking that there perhaps she might have left a note of farewell. There was nothing—nothing save a little heap of money and jewels. These Thelma had herself placed, before her sorrowful, silent departure, in the corner where he now found them.
More puzzled than ever, he glanced searchingly round the room—and his eyes were at once attracted by the sparkle of the diamond cross that lay uppermost on the cover of "Gladys the Singer," the book of poems which was in its usual place on his own reading table. In another second he seized it—he unwound the slight gold chain—he opened the little volume tremblingly. Yes!—there was a letter within its pages addressed to himself,—now, now he should know all! He tore it open with feverish haste—two folded sheets of paper fell out,—one was his own epistle to Violet Vere, and this, to his consternation, he perceived first. Full of a sudden misgiving he laid it aside, and began to read Thelma's parting words.
"My darling boy," she wrote—
"A friend of yours and mine brought me the enclosed letter and though, perhaps, it was wrong of me to read it, I hope you will forgive me for having done so. I do not quite understand it, and I cannot bear to think about it—but it seems that you are tired of your poor Thelma! I do not blame you, dearest, for I am sure that in some way or other the fault is mine, and it does grieve me so much to think you are unhappy! I know that I am very ignorant of many things, and that I am not suited to this London life—and I fear I shall never understand its ways. But one thing I can do, and that is to let you be free, my Philip—quite free! And so I am going back to the Altenfjord, where I will stay till you want me again, if you ever do. My heart is yours and I shall always love you till I die,— and though it seems to me just now better that we should part, to give you greater ease and pleasure, still you must always remember that I have no reproaches to make to you. I am only sorry to think my love has wearied you,—for you have been all goodness and tenderness to me. And so that people shall not talk about me or you, you will simply say to them that I have gone to see my father, and they will think nothing strange in that. Be kind to Britta,—I have told her nothing, as it would only make her miserable. Do not be angry that I go away—I cannot bear to stay here, knowing all. And so, good-bye, my love, my dearest one!—if you were to love many women more than me, I still should love you best—I still would gladly die to serve you. Remember this always,—that, however long we may be parted, and though all the world should come between us, I am, and ever shall be your faithful wife," "THELMA."
The ejaculation that broke from Errington's lips as he finished reading this letter was more powerful than reverent. Stinging tears darted to his eyes—he pressed his lips passionately on the fair writing.
"My darling—my darling!" he murmured. "What a miserable misunderstanding!"
Then without another moment's delay he rushed into Neville's study and cried abruptly—
"Look here! It's all your fault."
"My fault!" gasped the amazed secretary.
"Yes—your fault!" shouted Errington almost beside himself with grief and rage. "Your fault, and that of your accursed wife, Violet Vere!"
And he dashed the letter, the cause of all the mischief, furiously down on the table. Neville shrank and shivered,—his grey head drooped, he stretched out his hands appealingly.
"For God's sake, Sir Philip, tell me what I've done?" he exclaimed piteously.
Errington strode up and down the room in a perfect fever of impatience.
"By Heaven, it's enough to drive me mad!" he burst forth.
"Your wife!—your wife!—confound her! When you first discovered her in that shameless actress, didn't I want to tell Thelma all about it—that very night?—and didn't you beg me not to do so? Your silly scruples stood in the way of everything! I was a fool to listen to you—a fool to meddle in your affairs—and—and I wish to God I'd never seen or heard of you!"
Neville turned very white, but remained speechless.
"Read that letter!" went on Philip impetuously. "You've seen it before! It's the last one I wrote to your wife imploring her to see you and speak with you. Here it comes, the devil knows how, into Thelma's hands. She's quite in the dark about your secret, and fancies I wrote it on my own behalf! It looks like it too—looks exactly as if I were pleading for myself and breaking my heart over that detestible stage-fiend—by Jove! it's too horrible!" And he gave a gesture of loathing and contempt.
Neville heard him in utter bewilderment. "Not possible!" he muttered. "Not possible—it can't be!"
"Can't be? It is!" shouted Philip. "And if you'd let me tell Thelma everything from the first, all this wouldn't have happened. And you ask me what you've done! Done! You've parted me from the sweetest, dearest girl in the world!"
And throwing himself into a chair, he covered his face with his hand and a great uncontrollable sob broke from his lips.
Neville was in despair. Of course, it was his fault—he saw it all clearly. He painfully recalled all that had happened since that night at the Brilliant Theatre when with a sickening horror he had discovered Violet Vere to be no other than Violet Neville,—his own little violet! . . . as he had once called her—his wife that he had lost and mourned as though she were some pure dead woman lying sweetly at rest in a quiet grave. He remembered Thelma's shuddering repugnance at the sight of her,—a repugnance which he himself had shared—and which made him shrink with fastidious aversion, from the idea of confiding to any one but Sir Philip, the miserable secret of his connection with her. Sir Philip had humored him in this fancy, little imagining that any mischief would come of it—and the reward of his kindly sympathy was this,—his name was compromised, his home desolate, and his wife estranged from him!
In the first pangs of the remorse and sorrow that filled his heart, Neville could gladly have gone out and drowned himself. Presently he began to think,—was there not some one else beside himself who might possibly be to blame for all this misery? For instance, who could have brought or sent that letter to Lady Errington? In her high station, she, so lofty, so pure, so far above the rest of her sex, would have been the last person to make any inquiries about such a woman as Violet Vere. How had it all happened? He looked imploringly for some minutes at the dejected figure in the chair without daring to offer a word of consolation. Presently he ventured a remark—
"Sir Philip!" he stammered. "It will soon be all right,—her ladyship will come back immediately. I myself will explain—it's—it's only a misunderstanding . . ."
Errington moved in his chair impatiently, but said nothing. Only a misunderstanding! How many there are who can trace back broken friendships and severed loves to that one thing—"only a misunderstanding!" The tenderest relations are often the most delicate and subtle, and "trifles light as air" may scatter and utterly destroy the sensitive gossamer threads extending between one heart and another, as easily as a child's passing foot destroys the spider's web woven on the dewy grass in the early mornings of spring.
Presently Sir Philip started up—his lashes were wet and his face was flushed.
"It's no good sitting here," he said, rapidly buttoning on his overcoat. "I must go after her. Let all the business go to the devil! Write and say I won't stand for Middleborough—I resign in favor of the Liberal candidate. I'm off to Norway to-night."
"To Norway!" cried Neville. "Has she gone there? At this season—"
He broke off, for at that moment Britta entered, looking the picture of misery. Her face was pale and drawn—her eyelids red and swollen, and when she saw Sir Philip, she gave him a glance of the most despairing reproach and indignation. He sprang up to her.
"Any news?" he demanded.
Britta shook her head mournfully, the tears beginning to roll again down her cheeks.
"Oh, if I'd only thought!" she sobbed, "if I'd only known what the dear Froeken meant to do when she said good-bye to me last night, I could have prevented her going—I could—I would have told her all I know—and she would have stayed to see you! Oh, Sir Philip, if you had only been here, that wicked, wicked Lady Winsleigh couldn't have driven her away!"
At this name such a fury filled Philip's heart that he could barely control himself. He breathed quickly and heavily.
"What of her?" he demanded in a low, suffocated voice. "What has Lady Winsleigh to do with it, Britta?"
"Everything!" cried Britta, though, as she glanced at his set, stern face and paling lips, she began to feel a little frightened. "She has always hated the Froeken, and been jealous of her—always! Her own maid, Louise, will tell you so—Lord Winsleigh's man, Briggs, will tell you so! They've listened at the doors, and they know all about it!" Britta made this statement with the most childlike candor. "And they've heard all sorts of wicked things—Lady Winsleigh was always talking to Sir Francis Lennox about the Froeken,—and now they've made her believe you do not care for her any more—they've been trying to make her believe everything bad of you for ever so many months—" she paused, terrified at Sir Philip's increasing pallor.
"Go on, Britta," he said quietly, though his voice sounded strange to himself. Britta gathered up all her remaining stock of courage.
"Oh dear, oh dear!" she continued desperately, "I don't understand London people at all, and I never shall understand them. Everybody seems to want to be wicked! Briggs says that Lady Winsleigh was fond of you, Sir Philip,—then, that she was fond of Sir Francis Lennox,—and yet she has a husband of her own all the time! It is so very strange!" And the little maiden's perplexity appeared to border on distraction. "They would think such a woman quite mad in Norway! But what is worse than anything is that you—you, Sir Philip,—oh! I won't believe it," and she stamped her foot passionately, "I can't believe it! . . . and yet everybody says that you go to see a dreadful, painted dancing woman at the theatre, and that you like her better than the Froeken,—it isn't true, is it?" Here she peered anxiously at her master—but he was absolutely silent. Neville made as though he would speak, but a gesture from Sir Philip's hand restrained him. Britta went on rather dispiritedly, "Anyhow, Briggs has just told me that only yesterday Lady Winsleigh went all by herself to see this actress, and that she got some letter there which she brought to the Froeken—" she recoiled suddenly with a little scream. "Oh, Sir Philip!—where are you going?"
Errington's hand came down on her shoulder, as he twisted her lightly out of his path and strode to the door.
"Sir Philip—Sir Philip!" cried Neville anxiously, hastening after him. "Think for a moment; don't do anything rash!" Philip wrung his hand convulsively. "Rash! My good fellow, it's a woman who has slandered me—what can I do? Her sex protects her!" He gave a short, furious laugh. "But—by God!—were she a man I'd shoot her dead!"
And with these words, and his eyes blazing with wrath, he left the room. Neville and Britta confronted each other in vague alarm.
"Where will he go?" half whispered Britta.
"To Winsleigh House, I suppose," answered Neville in the same low tone.
Just then the hall door shut with a loud bang, that echoed through the silent house.
"He's gone!" and as Neville said this he sighed and looked dubiously at his companion. "How do you know all this about Lady Winsleigh, Britta? It may not be true—it's only servants' gossip."
"Only servants' gossip!" exclaimed Britta. "And is that nothing? Why, in these grand houses like Lord Winsleigh's, the servants know everything! Briggs makes it his business to listen at the doors—he says it's a part of his duty. And Louise opens all her mistress's letters—she says she owes it to her own respectability to know what sort of a lady it is she serves. And she's going to leave, because she says her ladyship isn't respectable! There! what do you think of that! And Sir Philip will find out a great deal more than even I have told him—but oh! I can't understand about that actress!" And she shook her head despairingly.
"Britta," said Neville suddenly, "That actress is my wife!"
Britta started,—and her round eyes opened wide.
"Your wife, Mr. Neville?" she exclaimed.
Neville took off his spectacles and polished them nervously.
"Yes, Britta—my wife!"
She looked at him in amazed silence. Neville went on rubbing his glasses, and continued in rather dreamy, tremulous accents—
"Yes—I lost her years ago—I thought she was dead. But I found her—on the stage of the Brilliant Theatre. I—I never expected—that! I would rather she had died!" He paused and went on softly, "When I married her, Britta, she was such a dear little girl,—so bright and pretty!—and I—I fancied she was fond of me! Yes, I did,—of course, I was foolish—I've always been foolish, I think. And when—when I saw her on that stage I felt as if some one had struck me a hard blow—it seems as if I'd been stunned ever since. And though she knows I'm in London, she won't see me, Britta,—she won't let me speak to her even for a moment! It's very hard! Sir Philip has tried his best to persuade her to see me—he has talked to her and written to her about me; and that's not all,—he has even tried to make her come back to me—but it's all no use—and—and that's how all the mischief has arisen—do you see?"
Britta gazed at him still, with sympathy written on every line of her face,—but a great load had been lifted from her mind by his words—she began to understand everything.
"I'm so sorry for you, Mr. Neville!" she said. "But why didn't you tell all this to the Froeken?"
"I couldn't!" murmured Neville desperately. "She was there that night at the Brilliant,—and if you had seen how she looked when she saw—my wife—appeared on the stage! So pained, so sorry, so ashamed! and she wanted to leave the theatre at once. Of course, I ought to have told her,—I wish I had—but—somehow, I never could." He paused again. "It's all my stupidity, of course, Sir Philip is quite blameless—he has been the kindest, the best of friends to me—" his voice trembled more and more, and he could not go on. There was a silence of some minutes, during which Britta appeared absorbed in meditation, and Neville furtively wiped his eyes.
Presently he spoke again more cheerfully. "It'll soon be all right again, Britta!" and he nodded encouragingly. "Sir Philip says her ladyship has gone home to Norway, and he means to follow her to-night."
Britta nodded gravely, but heaved a deep sigh.
"And I posted her letter to her father!" she half murmured. "Oh, if I had only thought or guessed why it was written!"
"Isn't it rather a bad time of the year for Norway?" pursued Neville. "Why, there must be snow and darkness—"
"Snow and darkness at the Altenfjord!" suddenly cried Britta, catching at his words. "That's exactly what she said to me the other evening! Oh dear! I never thought of it—I never remembered it was the dark season!" She clasped her hands in dismay. "There is no sun at the Altenfjord now—it is like night—and the cold is bitter. And she is not strong—not strong enough to travel—and there's the North Sea to cross—oh, Mr. Neville," and she broke out sobbing afresh. "The journey will kill her,—I know it will! my poor, poor darling! I must go after her—I'll go with Sir Philip—I won't be left behind!"
"Hush, hush, Britta!" said Neville kindly, patting her shoulder. "Don't cry—don't cry!"
But he was very near crying himself, poor man, so shaken was he by the events of the morning. And he could not help admitting to himself the possibility that so long and trying a journey for Thelma in her present condition of health meant little else than serious illness—perhaps death. The only comfort he could suggest to the disconsolate Britta was, that at that time of year it was very probable there would be no steamer running to Christiansund or Bergen, and in that case Thelma would be unable to leave England, and would, therefore, be overtaken by Sir Philip at Hull.
Meanwhile, Sir Philip himself, in a white heat of restrained anger, arrived at Winsleigh House, and asked to see Lord Winsleigh immediately. Briggs, who opened the door to him, was a little startled at his haggard face and blazing eyes, even though he knew, through Britta, all about the sorrow that had befallen him. Briggs was not surprised at Lady Errington's departure,—that portion of his "duty" which consisted in listening at doors, had greatly enlightened him on many points,—all, save one—the reported connection between Sir Philip and Violet Vere. This seemed to be really true according to all appearances.
"Which it puzzles me," soliloquized the owner of the shapely calves. "It do, indeed. Yet I feels very much for Sir Philip,—I said to Flopsie this morning—'Flopsie, I feels for 'im!' Yes,—I used them very words. Only, of course, he shouldn't 'ave gone with Vi. She's a fine woman certainly—but skittish—d—d skittish! I've allus made it a rule myself to avoid 'er on principle. Lor! if I'd kep' company with 'er and the likes of 'er I shouldn't be the man I am!" And he smiled complacently.
Lord Winsleigh, who was in his library as usual, occupied with his duties as tutor to his son Ernest, rose to receive Sir Philip with an air of more than his usual gravity.
"I was about to write to you, Errington," he began, and then stopped short, touched by the utter misery expressed in Philip's face. He addressed Ernest with a sort of nervous haste.
"Run away, my boy, to your own room. I'll send for you again presently."
Ernest obeyed. "Now," said Lord Winsleigh, as soon as the lad disappeared, "tell me everything, Errington. Is it true that your wife has left you?"
"Left me!" and Philip's eyes flashed with passionate anger. "No Winsleigh!—she's been driven away from me by the vilest and most heartless cruelty. She's been made to believe a scandalous and abominable lie against me—and she's gone! I—I—by Jove! I hardly like to say it to your face—but—"
"I understand!" a curious flicker of a smile shadowed rather than brightened Lord Winsleigh's stern features. "Pray speak quite plainly! Lady Winsleigh is to blame? I am not at all surprised!"
Errington gave him a rapid glance of wonder. He had always fancied Winsleigh to be a studious, rather dull sort of man, absorbed in books and the education of his son,—a man, more than half blind to everything that went on around him—and, moreover, one who deliberately shut his eyes to the frivolous coquetry of his wife,—and though he liked him fairly well, there had been a sort of vague contempt mingled with his liking. Now a new light was suddenly thrown on his character—there was something in his look, his manner, his very tone of voice,—which proved to Errington that there was a deep and forcible side to his nature of which his closest friends had never dreamed—and he was somewhat taken aback by the discovery. Seeing that he still hesitated, Winsleigh laid a hand encouragingly on his shoulder and said—
"I repeat—I'm not at all surprised! Nothing that Lady Winsleigh might do would cause me the slightest astonishment. She has long ceased to be my wife, except in name,—that she still bears that name and holds the position she has in the world is simply—for my son's sake! I do not wish,"—his voice quivered slightly—"I do not wish the boy to despise his mother. It's always a bad beginning for a young man's life. I want to avoid it for Ernest, if possible,—regardless of any personal sacrifice." He paused a moment—then resumed. "Now, speak out, Errington, and plainly,—for if mischief has been done and I can repair it in any way, you may be sure I will."
Thus persuaded, Sir Philip briefly related the whole story of the misunderstanding that had arisen concerning Neville's wife, Violet Vere—and concluded by saying—
"It is, of course, only through Britta that I've just heard about Lady Winsleigh's having anything to do with it. Her information may not be correct—I hope it isn't,—but—"
Lord Winsleigh interrupted him. "Come with me," he said composedly. "We'll resolve this difficulty AT once."
He led the way out of the library across the hall. Errington followed him in silence. He knocked at the door of his wife's room,—in response to her "Come in!" they both entered. She was alone, reclining on a sofa, reading,—she started up with a pettish exclamation at sight of her husband, but observing who it was that came with him, she stood mute, the color rushing to her cheeks with surprise and something of fear. Yet she endeavored to smile, and returned with her usual grace their somewhat formal salutations.
"Clara," then said Lord Winsleigh gravely, "I have to ask you a question on behalf of Sir Philip Errington here,—a question to which it is necessary for you to give the plain answer. Did you or did you not procure this letter from Violet Vere, of the Brilliant Theatre—and did you or did you not, give it yourself yesterday into the hands of Lady Bruce-Errington?" And he laid the letter in question, which Philip had handed to him, down upon the table before her.
She looked at it—then at him—then from him to Sir Philip, who uttered no word—and lightly shrugged her shoulders.
"I don't know what you are talking about," she said, carelessly.
Sir Philip turned upon her indignantly.
"Lady Winsleigh, you do know—"
She interrupted him with a stately gesture.
"Excuse me, Sir Philip! I am not accustomed to be spoken to in this extraordinary manner. You forget yourself—my husband, I think, also forgets himself! I know nothing whatever about Violet Vere—I am not fond of the society of actresses. Of course, I've heard about your admiration for her—that is common town-talk,—though my informant on this point was Sir Francis Lennox."
"Sir Francis Lennox!" cried Philip furiously. "Thank God! there's a man to deal with! By Heaven, I'll choke him with his own lie!"
Lady Winsleigh raised her eyebrows in well-bred surprise.
"Dear me! It is a lie, then? Now, I should have thought from all accounts that it was so very likely to be true!"
Philip turned white with passion. Her sarcastic smile,—her mocking glance,—irritated him almost beyond endurance.
"Permit me to ask you, Clara," continued Lord Winsleigh calmly, "if you,—as you say, know nothing about Violet Vere, why did you go to the Brilliant Theatre yesterday morning?"
She flashed an angry glance at him.
"Why? To secure a box for the new performance. Is there anything wonderful in that?"
Her husband remained unmoved. "May I see the voucher for this box?" he inquired.
"I've sent it to some friends," replied her ladyship haughtily. "Since when have you decided to become an inquisitor, my lord?"
"Lady Winsleigh," said Philip suddenly and eagerly, "will you swear to me that you have said or done nothing to make my Thelma leave me?"
"Oh, she has left you, has she?" and Lady Clara smiled maliciously. "I thought she would! Why don't you ask your dear friend, George Lorimer, about her? He is madly in love with her, as everybody knows,—she is probably the same with him!"
"Clara, Clara!" exclaimed Lord Winsleigh in accents of deep reproach. "Shame on you! Shame!"
Her ladyship laughed amusedly. "Please don't be tragic!" she said; "it's too ridiculous! Sir Philip has only himself to blame. Of course, Thelma knows about his frequent visits to the Brilliant Theatre. I told her all that Sir Francis said. Why should she be kept in the dark? I dare say she doesn't mind—she's very fond of Mr. Lorimer!"
Errington felt as though he must choke with fury. He forgot the presence of Lord Winsleigh—he forgot everything but his just indignation.
"My God!" he cried passionately. "You dare to speak so!—you!"
"Yes I!" she returned coolly, measuring him with a glance. "I dare! What have you to say against me?" She drew herself up imperiously.
Then turning to her husband, she said, "Have the goodness to take your excited friend away, my lord! I am going out—I have a great many engagements this morning—and I really cannot stop to discuss this absurd affair any longer! It isn't my fault that Sir Philip's excessive admiration for Miss Vere has become the subject of gossip—I don't blame him for it! He seems extremely ill-tempered about it; after all, 'ce n'est que la verite qui blesse!'"
And she smiled maliciously.
"For my mother's sake, For thine and hers, O Love! I pity take On all poor women. Jesu's will be done, Honor for all, and infamy for none, This side the borders of the burning lake." ERIC MACKAY'S Love-Letters of a Violinist.
Lord Winsleigh did not move. Sir Philip fixed his eyes upon her in silence. Some occult fascination forced her to meet his glance, and the utter scorn of it stung her proud heart to its centre. Not that she felt much compunction—her whole soul was up in arms against him, and had been so from the very day she was first told of his unexpected marriage. His evident contempt now irritated her—she was angrier with him than ever, and yet—she had a sort of strange triumph in the petty vengeance she had designed—she had destroyed his happiness for a time, at least. If she could but shake his belief in his wife! she thought, vindictively. To that end she had thrown out her evil hint respecting Thelma's affection for George Lorimer, but the shaft had been aimed uselessly. Errington knew too well the stainless purity of Thelma to wrong her by the smallest doubt, and he would have staked his life on the loyalty of his friend. Presently he controlled his anger sufficiently to be able to speak, and still eyeing her with that straight, keen look of immeasurable disdain, he said in cold, deliberate accents—
"Your ladyship is in error,—the actress in question is the wife of my secretary, Mr. Neville. For years they have been estranged—my visits to her were entirely on Neville's behalf—my letters to her were all on the same subject. Sir Francis Lennox must have known the truth all along,—Violet Vere has been his mistress for the past five years!"
He uttered the concluding words with intense bitterness. A strange, bewildered horror passed over Lady Winsleigh's face.
"I don't believe it," she said rather faintly.
"Believe it or not, it is true!" he replied curtly. "Ask the manager of the Brilliant, if you doubt me. Winsleigh, it's no use my stopping here any longer. As her ladyship refuses to give any explanation—"
"Wait a moment, Errington," interposed Lord Winsleigh in his coldest and most methodical manner. "Her ladyship refuses—but I do not refuse! Her ladyship will not speak—she allows her husband to speak for her. Therefore," and he smiled at his astonished wife somewhat sardonically, "I may tell you at once, that her ladyship admits to having purchased from Violet Vere for the sum of 20 pounds, the letter which she afterwards took with her own hands to your wife." Lady Winsleigh uttered an angry exclamation.
"Don't interrupt me, Clara, if you please," he said, with an icy smile. "We have so many sympathies in common that I'm sure I shall be able to explain your unspoken meanings quite clearly." He went on, addressing himself to Errington, who stood utterly amazed.
"Her ladyship desires me to assure you that her only excuse for her action in this matter is, that she fully believed the reports her friend, Sir Francis Lennox, gave her concerning your supposed intimacy with the actress in question,—and that, believing it, she made use of it as much as possible for the purpose of destroying your wife's peace of mind and confidence in you. Her object was most purely feminine—love of mischief, and the gratification of private spite! There's nothing like frankness!" and Lord Winsleigh's face was a positive study as he spoke. "You see,"—he made a slight gesture towards his wife, who stood speechless, and so pale that her very lips were colorless—"her ladyship is not in a position to deny what I have said. Excuse her silence!"
And again he smiled—that smile as glitteringly chilled as a gleam of light on the edge of a sword. Lady Winsleigh raised her head, and her eyes met his with a dark expression of the uttermost anger. "Spy!" she hissed between her teeth,—then without further word or gesture, she swept haughtily away into her dressing-room, which adjoined the boudoir, and closed the door of communication, thus leaving the two men alone together.
Errington felt himself to be in a most painful and awkward position. If there was anything he more than disliked, it was a scene—particularly of a domestic nature. And he had just had a glimpse into Lord and Lady Winsleigh's married life, which, to him, was decidedly unpleasant. He could not understand how Lord Winsleigh had become cognizant of all he had so frankly stated—and then, why had he not told him everything at first, without waiting to declare it in his wife's presence? Unless, indeed, he wished to shame her? There was evidently something in the man's disposition and character that he, Philip, could not as yet comprehend,—something that certainly puzzled him, and filled him with vague uneasiness.
"Winsleigh, I'm awfully sorry this has happened," he began hurriedly, holding out his hand.
Lord Winsleigh grasped it cordially. "My dear fellow, so am I! Heartily sorry! I have to be sorry for a good many things rather often. But I'm specially grieved to think that your beautiful and innocent young wife is the victim in this case. Unfortunately I was told nothing till this morning, otherwise I might possibly have prevented all your unhappiness. But I trust it won't be of long duration. Here's this letter," he returned it as he spoke, "which in more than one way has cost so large a price. Possibly her ladyship may now regret her ill-gotten purchase."
"Pardon me," said Errington curiously, "but how did you know—"
"The information was pressed upon me very much," replied Lord Winsleigh evasively, "and from such a source that up to the last moment I almost refused to believe it." He paused, and then went on with a forced smile, "Suppose we don't talk any more about it, Errington? The subject's rather painful to me. Only allow me to ask your pardon for my wife's share in the mischief!"
Something in his manner of speaking affected Sir Philip.
"Upon my soul, Winsleigh," he exclaimed with sudden fervor, "I fancy you're a man greatly wronged!"
Lord Winsleigh smiled slightly. "You only fancy?" he said quietly. "Well,—my good friend, we all have our troubles—I dare say mine are no greater than those of many better men." He stopped short, then asked abruptly, "I suppose you'll see Lennox?"
Errington set his teeth hard. "I shall,—at once!" he replied. "And I shall probably thrash him within an inch of his life!"
"That's right! I shan't be sorry!" and Lord Winsleigh's hand clenched almost unconsciously. "I hope you understand, Errington, that if it hadn't been for my son, I should have shot that fellow long ago. I dare say you wonder,—and some others too,—why I haven't done it. But Ernest—poor little chap! . . . he would have heard of it,—and the reason of it,—his young life is involved in mine—why should I bequeath him a dishonored mother's name? There—for heaven's sake, don't let me make a fool of myself!" and he fiercely dashed his hand across his eyes. "A duel or a divorce—or a horsewhipping—they all come to pretty much the same thing—all involve public scandal for the name of the woman who may be unhappily concerned—and scandal clings, like the stain on Lady Macbeth's hand. In your case you can act—your wife is above a shadow of suspicion—but I—oh, my God! how much women have to answer for in the miseries of this world!"
Errington said nothing. Pity and respect for the man before him held him silent. Here was one of the martyrs of modern social life—a man who evidently knew himself to be dishonored by his wife,—and who yet, for the sake of his son, submitted to be daily broken on the wheel of private torture rather than let the boy grow up to despise and slight his mother. Whether he were judged as wise or weak in his behavior there was surely something noble about him—something unselfish and heroic that deserved recognition. Presently Lord Winsleigh continued in calmer tones—
"I've been talking too much about myself, Errington, I fear—forgive it! Sometimes I've thought you misunderstood me—"
"I never shall again!" declared Philip earnestly.
Lord Winsleigh met his look of sympathy with one of gratitude.
"Thanks!" he said briefly,—and with this they shook hands again heartily, and parted. Lord Winsleigh saw his visitor to the door—and then at once returned to his wife's apartments. She was still absent from the boudoir—he therefore entered her dressing-room without ceremony.
There he found her,—alone, kneeling on the floor, her head buried in an arm-chair,—and her whole frame shaken with convulsive sobs. He looked down upon her with a strange wistful pain in his eyes,—pain mingled with compassion.
"Clara!" he said gently. She started and sprang up—confronting him with flushed cheeks and wet eyes.
"You here?" she exclaimed angrily. "I wonder you dare to—" she broke off, confused by his keen, direct glance.
"It is a matter for wonder," he said quietly. "It's the strangest thing in the world that I—your husband—should venture to intrude myself into your presence! Nothing could be more out of the common. But I have something to say to you—something which must be said sooner or later—and I may as well speak now."
He paused,—she was silent, looking at him in a sort of sudden fear.
"Sit down," he continued in the same even tones. "You must have a little patience with me—I'll endeavor to be as brief as possible."
Mechanically she obeyed him and sank into a low fauteuil. She began playing with the trinkets on her silver chatelaine, and endeavored to feign the most absolute unconcern, but her heart beat quickly—she could not imagine what was coming next—her husband's manner and tone were quite new to her.
"You accused me just now," he went on, "of being a spy. I have never condescended to act such a part toward you, Clara. When I first married you I trusted you with my life, my honor, and my name, and though you have betrayed all three"—she moved restlessly as his calm gaze remained fixed on her—"I repeat,—though you have betrayed all three,—I have deliberately shut my eyes to the ruin of my hopes, in a loyal endeavor to shield you from the world's calumny. Regarding the unhappiness you have caused the Erringtons,—your own maid Louise Renaud (who has given you notice of her intention to leave you) told me all she knew of your share in what I may call positive cruelty, towards a happy and innocent woman who has never injured you, and whose friend you declared yourself to be—"
"You believe the lies of a servant?" suddenly cried Lady Winsleigh wrathfully.
"Have not you believed the lies of Sir Francis Lennox, who is less honest than a servant?" asked her husband, his grave voice deepening with a thrill of passion. "And haven't you reported them everywhere as truths? But as regards your maid—I doubted her story altogether. She assured me she knew what money you took out with you yesterday, and what you returned with—and as the only place you visited in the morning was the Brilliant Theatre,—after having received a telegram from Lennox, which she saw,—it was easy for her to put two and two together, especially as she noticed you reading the letter you had purchased—moreover"—he paused—"she has heard certain conversations between you and Sir Francis, notably one that took place at the garden-party in the summer at Errington Manor. Spy? you say? your detective has been paid by you,—fed and kept about your own person,—to minister to your vanity and to flatter your pride—that she has turned informer against you is not surprising. Be thankful that her information has fallen into no more malignant hands than mine!"
Again he paused—she was still silent—but her lips trembled nervously.
"And yet I was loth to believe everything"—he resumed half sadly—"till Errington came and showed me that letter and told me the whole story of his misery. Even then I thought I would give you one more chance—that's why I brought him to you and asked you the question before him. One look at your face told me you were guilty, though you denied it. I should have been better pleased had you confessed it! But why talk about it any longer?—the mischief is done—I trust it is not irreparable. I certainly consider that before troubling that poor girl's happiness,—you should have taken the precaution to inquire a little further into the truth of the reports you heard from Sir Francis Lennox,—he is not a reliable authority on any question whatsoever. You may have thought him so—" he stopped short and regarded her with sorrowful sternness—"I say, Clara, you may have thought him so, once—but now? Are you proud to have shared his affections with—Violet Vere?"
She uttered a sharp cry and covered her face with her hands,—an action which appeared to smite her husband to the heart,—for his voice trembled with deep feeling when he next spoke.
"Ah, best hide it, Clara!" he said passionately. "Hide that fair face I loved so well—hide those eyes in which I dreamed of finding my life's sunshine! Clara, Clara! What can I say to you, fallen rose of womanhood? How can I—" he suddenly bent over her as though to caress her, then drew back with a quick agonized sigh. "You thought me blind, Clara! . . ." he went on in low tones, "blind to my own dishonor—blind to your faithlessness,—I tell you if you had taken my heart between your hands and wrung the blood out of it drop by drop, I could not have suffered more than I have done! Why have I been silent so long?—no matter why,—but now, now Clara,—this life of ours must end!"
She shuddered away from him.
"End it then!" she muttered in a choked voice. "You can do as you like,—you can divorce me."
"Yes," said Lord Winsleigh musingly. "I can divorce you! There will be no defense possible,—as you know. If witnesses are needed, they are to be had in the persons of our own domestics. The co-respondent in the case will not refute the charge against him,—and I, the plaintiff, must win my just cause. Do you realize it all, Clara? You, the well-known leader of a large social circle—you, the proud beauty and envied lady of rank and fashion,—you will be made a subject for the coarse jests of lawyers,—the very judge on the bench will probably play off his stale witticism at your expense,—your dearest friends will tear your name to shreds,—the newspapers will reek of your doings,—and honest housemaids reading of your fall from your high estate, will thank God that their souls and bodies are more chaste than yours! And last,—not least,—think when old age creeps on, and your beauty withers,—think of your son grown to manhood,—the sole heir to my name,—think of him as having but one thing to blush for—the memory of his dishonored mother!"
"Cruel—cruel!" she cried, endeavoring to check her sobs, and withdrawing her hands from her face. "Why do you say such things to me? Why did you marry me?"
He caught her hands and held them in a fast grip.
"Why? Because I loved you, Clara—loved you with all the tenderness of a strong man's heart! When I first saw you, you seemed to me the very incarnation of maiden purity and loveliness! The days of our courtship—the first few months of our marriage—what they were to you, I know not,—to me they were supreme happiness. When our boy was born, my adoration, my reverence for you increased—you were so sacred in my eyes, that I could have knelt and asked a benediction from these little hands"—here he gently loosened them from his clasp. "Then came the change—what changed you, I cannot imagine—it has always seemed to me unnatural, monstrous, incredible! There was no falling away in my affection, that I can swear! My curse upon the man who turned your heart from mine! So rightful and deep a curse is it that I feel it must some day strike home."
He paused and seemed to reflect. "Who is there more vile, more traitorous than he?" he went on. "Has he not tried to influence Errington's wife against her husband? For what base purpose? But Clara,—he is powerless against her purity and innocence;—what, in the name of God, gave him power over you?"
She drooped her head, and the hot blood rushed to her face.
"You've said enough!" she murmured sullenly. "If you have decided on a divorce, pray carry out your intention with the least possible delay. I cannot talk any more! I—I am tired!"
"Clara," said her husband solemnly, with a strange light in his eyes, "I would rather kill you than divorce you!"
There was something so terribly earnest in his tone that her heart beat fast with fear.
"Kill me?—kill me?" she gasped, with white lips.
"Yes!" he repeated, "kill you,—as a Frenchman or an Italian would,—and take the consequences. Yes—though an Englishman, I would rather do this than drag your frail poor womanhood through the mire of public scandal! I have, perhaps, a strange nature, but such as I am, I am. There are too many of our high-born families already, flaunting their immorality and low licentiousness in the face of the mocking, grinning populace,—I for one could never make up my mind to fling the honor of my son's mother to them, as though it were a bone for dogs to fight over. No—I have another proposition to make to you—"
He stopped short. She stared at him wonderingly. He resumed in methodical, unmoved, business-like tones.
"I propose, Clara, simply,—to leave you! I'll take the boy and absent myself from this country, so as to give you perfect freedom and save you all trouble. There'll be no possibility of scandal, for I will keep you cognizant of my movements,—and should you require my presence at any time for the sake of appearances,—or—to shield you from calumny,—you may rely on my returning to you at once,—without delay. Ernest will gain many advantages by travel,—his education is quite a sufficient motive for my departure, my interest in his young life being well known to all our circle. Moreover, with me—under my surveillance—he need never know anything against—against you. I have always taught him to honor and obey you in his heart."
Lord Winsleigh paused a moment—then went on, somewhat musingly;—"When he was quite little, he used to wonder why you didn't love him,—it was hard for me to hear him say that, sometimes. But I always told him that you did love him—but that you had so many visits to makes and so many friends to entertain, that you had no time to play with him. I don't think he quite understood,—but still—I did my best!"
He was silent. She had hidden her face again in her hands, and he heard a sound of smothered sobbing.
"I think," he continued calmly, "that he has a great reverence for you in his young heart—a feeling which partakes, perhaps, more of fear than love—still it is better than—disdain—or—or disrespect. I shall always teach him to esteem you highly,—but I think, as matters stand—if I relieve you of all your responsibilities to husband and son—you—Clara!—pray don't distress yourself—there's no occasion for this—Clara—"
For on a sudden impulse she had flung herself at his feet in an irrepressible storm of passionate weeping.
"Kill me, Harry!" she sobbed wildly, clinging to him. "Kill me! don't speak to me like this!—don't leave me! Oh, my God! don't, don't despise me so utterly! Hate me—curse me—strike me—do anything, but don't leave me as if I were some low thing, unfit for your touch,—I know I am, but oh, Harry! . . ." She clung to him more closely. "If you leave me I will not live,—I cannot! Have you no pity? Why would you throw me back alone—all, all alone, to die of your contempt and my shame!"
And she bowed her head in an agony of tears.
He looked down upon her a moment in silence.
"Your shame!" he murmured. "My wife—"
Then he raised her in his arms and drew her with a strange hesitation of touch, to his breast, as though she were some sick or wounded child, and watched her as she lay there weeping, her face hidden, her whole frame trembling in his embrace.
"Poor soul!" he whispered, more to himself than to her. "Poor frail woman! Hush, hush, Clara! The past is past! I'll make you no more reproaches. I—I can't hurt you, because I once so loved you—but now—now,—what is there left for me to do, but to leave you? You'll be happier so—you'll have perfect liberty—you needn't even think of me—unless, perhaps, as one dead and buried long ago—"
She raised herself in his arms and looked at him piteously.
"Won't you give me a chance?" she sobbed. "Not one? If I had but known you better—if I had understood oh, I've been vile, wicked, deceitful—but I'm not happy, Harry—I've never been happy since I wronged you! Won't you give me one little hope that I may win your love again,—no, not your love, but your pity? Oh, Harry, have I lost all—all—"
Her voice broke—she could say no more.
He stroked her hair gently. "You speak on impulse just now, Clara," he said gravely yet tenderly. "You can't know your own strength or weakness. God forbid that I should judge you harshly! As you wish it, I will not leave you yet. I'll wait. Whether we part or remain together, shall be decided by your own actions, your own looks, your own words. You understand, Clara? You know my feelings. I'm content for the present to place my fate in your hands." He smiled rather sadly. "But for love, Clara—I fear nothing can be done to warm to life this poor perished love of ours. We can, perhaps, take hands and watch its corpse patiently together and say how sorry we are it is dead—such penitence comes always too late!"
He sighed, and put her gently away from him.
She turned up her flushed, tear-stained face to his.
"Will you kiss me, Harry?" she asked tremblingly. He met her eyes, and an exclamation that was almost a groan broke from his lips. A shudder passed through his frame.
"I can't, Clara! I can't—God forgive me!—Not yet!" And with that he bowed his head and left her.
She listened to the echo of his firm footsteps dying away, and creeping guiltily to a side-door she opened it, and watched yearningly his retreating figure till it had disappeared.
"Why did I never love him till now?" she murmured sobbingly. "Now, when he despises me—when he will not even kiss me?—" She leaned against the half-open door in an attitude of utter dejection, not caring to move, listening intently with a vague hope of hearing her husband's returning tread. A lighter step than his, however, came suddenly along from the other side of the passage and startled her a little—it was Ernest, looking the picture of boyish health and beauty. He was just going out for his usual ride—he lifted his cap with a pretty courtesy as he saw her, and said—
She looked at him with new interest,—how handsome the lad was!—how fresh his face!—how joyously clear those bright blue eyes of his! He, on his part, was moved by a novel sensation too—his mother,—his proud, beautiful, careless mother had been crying—he saw that at a glance, and his young heart beat faster when she laid her white hand, sparkling all over with rings, on his arm and drew him closer to her.
"Are you going to the Park?" she asked gently.
"Yes." Then recollecting his training in politeness and obedience he added instantly—"Unless you want me."
She smiled faintly. "I never do want you—do I, Ernest?" she asked half sadly. "I never want my boy at all." Her voice quivered,—and Ernest grew more and more astonished.
"If you do, I'll stay," he said stoutly, filled with a chivalrous desire to console his so suddenly tender mother of his, whatever her griefs might be. Her eyes filled again, but she tried to laugh.
"No dear—not now,—run along and enjoy yourself. Come to me when you return. I shall be at home all day. And,—stop Ernest—won't you kiss me?"
The boy opened his eyes wide in respectful wonderment, and his cheeks flushed with surprise and pleasure.
"Why, mother—of course!" And his fresh, sweet lips closed on hers with frank and unaffected heartiness. She held him fast for a moment and looked at him earnestly.
"Tell your father you kissed me—will you?" she said. "Don't forget!"
And with that she waved her hand to him, and retreated again into her own apartment. The boy went on his way somewhat puzzled and bewildered—did his mother love him, after all? If so, he thought—how glad he was!—how very glad! and what a pity he had not known it before!
"I heed not custom, creed, nor law; I care for nothing that ever I saw— I terribly laugh with an oath and sneer, When I think that the hour of Death draws near!"
Errington's first idea, on leaving Winsleigh House, was to seek an interview with Sir Francis Lennox, and demand an explanation. He could not understand the man's motive for such detestable treachery and falsehood. His anger rose to a white heat as he thought of it, and he determined to "have it out" with him whatever the consequences might be. "No apology will serve his turn," he muttered. "The scoundrel! He has lied deliberately—and, by Jove, he shall pay for it!"
And he started off rapidly in the direction of Piccadilly, but on the way he suddenly remembered that he had no weapon with him, not even a cane wherewith to carry out his intention of thrashing Sir Francis, and calling to mind a certain heavy horsewhip, that hung over the mantel-piece in his own room, he hailed a hansom, and was driven back to his house in order to provide himself with that implement of castigation before proceeding further. On arriving at the door, to his surprise he found Lorimer who was just about to ring the bell.
"Why, I thought you were in Paris?" he exclaimed.
"I came back last night," George began, when Morris opened the door, and Errington, taking his friend by the arm hurried him into the house. In five minutes he had unburdened himself of all his troubles—and had explained the misunderstanding about Violet Vere and Thelma's consequent flight. Lorimer listened with a look of genuine pain and distress on his honest face.
"Phil, you have been a fool!" he said candidly. "A positive fool, if you'll pardon me for saying so. You ought to have told Thelma everything at first,—she's the very last woman in the world who ought to be kept in the dark about anything. Neville's feelings? Bother Neville's feelings! Depend upon it the poor girl has heard all manner of stories. She's been miserable for some time—Duprez noticed it." And he related in a few words the little scene that had taken place at Errington Manor on the night of the garden-party, when his playing on the organ had moved her to such unwonted emotion.
Philip heard him in moody silence,—how had it happened, he wondered, that others,—comparative strangers,—had observed that Thelma looked unhappy, while he, her husband, had been blind to it? He could not make this out,—and yet it is a thing that very commonly happens. Our nearest and dearest are often those who are most in the dark respecting our private and personal sufferings,—we do not wish to trouble them,—and they prefer to think that everything is right with us, even though the rest of the world can plainly perceive that everything is wrong. To the last moment they will refuse to see death in our faces, though the veriest stranger meeting us casually, clearly beholds the shadow of the dark Angel's hand.
"Apropos of Lennox," went on Lorimer, sympathetically watching his friend, "I came on purpose to speak to you about him. I've got some news for you. He's a regular sneak and scoundrel. You can thrash him to your heart's content for he has grossly insulted your wife."
"Insulted her?" cried Errington furiously. "How,—What—"
"Give me time to speak!" And George laid a restraining hand on his arm. "Thelma visited my mother yesterday and told her that on the night before, when you had gone out, Lennox took advantage of your absence to come here and make love to her,—and she actually had to struggle with him, and even to strike him, in order to release herself from his advances. My mother advised her to tell you about it—and she evidently then had no intention of flight, for she said she would inform you of everything as soon as you returned from the country. And if Lady Winsleigh hadn't interfered, it's very probable that—I say, where are you going?" This as Philip made a bound for the door.
"To get my horsewhip!" he answered.
"All right—I approve!" cried Lorimer. "But wait one instant, and see how clear the plot becomes. Thelma's beauty had maddened Lennox,—to gain her good opinion, as he thinks, he throws his mistress, Violet Vere, on your shoulders—(your ingenuous visits to the Brilliant Theatre gave him a capital pretext for this) and as for Lady Winsleigh's share in the mischief, it's nothing but mere feminine spite against you for marrying at all, and hatred of the woman whose life is such a contrast to her own, and who absorbs all your affection. Lennox has used her as his tool and the Vere also, I've no doubt. The thing's as clear as crystal. It's a sort of general misunderstanding all round—one of those eminently unpleasant trifles that very frequently upset the peace and comfort of the most quiet and inoffensive persons. But the fault lies with you, dear old boy!"
"With me!" exclaimed Philip.
"Certainly! Thelma's soul is as open as daylight—you shouldn't have had any secret from her, however trifling. She's not a woman 'on guard,'—she can't take life as the most of us do, in military fashion, with ears pricked for the approach of a spy, and prepared to expect betrayal from her most familiar friends. She accepts things as they appear, without any suspicion of mean ulterior designs. It's a pity, of course!—it's a pity she can't be worldly-wise, and scheme and plot and plan and lie like the rest of us! However, your course is plain—first interview Lennox and then follow Thelma. She can't have left Hull yet,—there are scarcely any boats running to Norway at this season. You'll overtake her I'm certain."
"By Jove, Lorimer!" said Errington suddenly. "Clara Winsleigh sticks at nothing—do you know she actually had the impudence to suggest that you,—you, of all people,—were in love with Thelma!"
Lorimer flushed up, but laughed lightly. "How awfully sweet of her! Much obliged to her, I'm sure! And how did you take it Phil?"
"Take it? I didn't take it at all," responded Philip warmly. "Of course, I knew it was only her spite—she'd say anything in one of her tempers."
Lorimer looked at him with a sudden tenderness in his blue eyes. Then he laughed again, a little forcedly, and said—
"Be off, old man, and get that whip of yours! We'll run Lennox to earth. Hullo! here's Britta!"
The little maid entered hurriedly at that moment,—she came to ask with quivering lips, whether she might accompany Sir Philip in his intended journey to Norway.
"For if you do not find the Froeken at Hull, you will want to reach the Altenfjord," said Britta, folding hands resolutely in front of her apron, "and you will not get on without me. You do not know what the country is like in the depth of winter when the sun is asleep. You must have the reindeer to help you—and no Englishman knows how to drive reindeer. And—and—" here Britta's eyes filled—"you have not thought, perhaps, that the journey may make the Froeken very ill—and that when we find her—she may be dying—" and Britta's strength gave way in a big sob that broke from the depths of her honest, affectionate heart.
"Don't—don't talk like that, Britta!" cried Philip passionately. "I can't bear it! Of course, you shall go with me! I wouldn't leave you behind for the world! Get everything ready—" and in a fever of heat and impatience he began rummaging among some books on a side-shelf, till he found the time-tables he sought. "Yes,—here we are,—there's a train leaving for Hull at five—we'll take that. Tell Morris to pack my portmanteau, and you bring it along with you to the Midland railway-station this afternoon. Do you understand?"
Britta nodded emphatically, and hurried off at once to busy herself with these preparations, while Philip, all excitement, dashed off to give a few parting injunctions to Neville, and to get his horsewhip.
Lorimer, left alone for a few minutes, seated himself in an easy chair and began absently turning over the newspapers on the table. But his thoughts were far away, and presently he covered his eyes with one hand as though the light hurt them. When he removed it, his lashes were wet.
"What a fool I am!" he muttered impatiently. "Oh Thelma, Thelma! my darling!—how I wish I could follow and find you and console you!—you poor, tender, resigned soul, going away like this because you thought you were not wanted—not wanted!—my God!—if you only knew how one man at least has wanted and yearned for you ever since he saw your sweet face!—Why can't I tear you out of my heart—why can't I love some one else? Ah Phil!—good, generous, kind old Phil!—he little guesses," he rose and paced the room up and down restlessly. "The fact is I oughtn't to be here at all—I ought to leave England altogether for a long time—till—till I get over it. The question is, shall I ever get over it? Sigurd was a wise boy—he found a short way out of all his troubles,—suppose I imitate his example? No,—for a man in his senses that would be rather cowardly—though it might be pleasant!" He stopped in his walk with a pondering expression on his face. "At any rate, I won't stop here to see her come back—I couldn't trust myself,—I should say something foolish—I know I should! I'll take my mother to Italy—she wants to go; and we'll stay with Lovelace. It'll be a change—and I'll have a good stand-up fight with myself, and see if I can't come off the conqueror somehow! It's all very well to kill an opponent in battle but the question is, can a man kill his inner, grumbling, discontented, selfish Self? If he can't, what's the good of him?"
As he was about to consider this point reflectively, Errington entered, equipped for travelling, and whip in hand. His imagination had been at work during the past few minutes, exaggerating all the horrors and difficulties of Thelma's journey to the Altenfjord, till he was in a perfect fever of irritable excitement.
"Come on Lorimer!" he cried. "There's no time to lose! Britta knows what to do—she'll meet me at the station. I can't breathe in this wretched house a moment longer—let's be off!"
Plunging out into the hall, he bade Morris summon a hansom,—and with a few last instructions to that faithful servitor, and an encouraging kind word and shake of the hand to Neville, who with a face of remorseful misery, stood at the door to watch his departure,—he was gone. The hansom containing him and Lorimer rattled rapidly towards the abode of Sir Francis Lennox, but on entering Piccadilly, the vehicle was compelled to go so slowly on account of the traffic, that Errington, who every moment grew more and more impatient, could not stand it.
"By Jove! this is like a walking funeral!" he muttered. "I say Lorimer, let's get out! We can do the rest on foot."
They stopped the cabman and paid him his fare—then hurried along rapidly, Errington every now and then giving a fiercer clench to the formidable horsewhip which was twisted together with his ordinary walking-stick in such a manner as not to attract special attention.
"Coward and liar!" he muttered, as he thought of the man he was about to punish. "He shall pay for his dastardly falsehood—by Jove he shall! It'll be a precious long time before he shows himself in society any more!"
Then he addressed Lorimer. "You may depend upon it he'll shout 'police! police!' and make for the door," he observed. "You keep your back against it, Lorimer! I don't care how many fines I've got to pay as long as I can thrash him soundly!"
"All right!" Lorimer answered, and they quickened their pace. As they neared the chambers which Sir Francis Lennox rented over a fashionable jeweller's shop, they became aware of a small procession coming straight towards them from the opposite direction. Something was being carried between four men who appeared to move with extreme care and gentleness,—this something was surrounded by a crowd of boys and men whose faces were full of morbid and frightened interest—the whole cortege was headed by a couple of solemn policemen. "You spoke of a walking funeral just now," said Lorimer suddenly. "This looks uncommonly like one."
Errington made no reply—he had only one idea in his mind,—the determination to chastise and thoroughly disgrace Sir Francis. "I'll hound him out of the clubs!" he thought indignantly. "His own set shall know what a liar he is—and if I can help it he shall never hold up his head again!"
Entirely occupied as he was with these reflections, he paid no heed to anything that was going on in the street, and he scarcely heard Lorimer's last observation. So that he was utterly surprised and taken aback, when he, with Lorimer, was compelled to come to a halt before the very door of the jeweller, Lennox's landlord, while the two policemen cleared a passage through the crowd, saying in low tones, "Stand aside, gentlemen, please!—stand aside," thus making gradual way for four bearers, who, as was now plainly to be seen, carried a common wooden stretcher covered with a cloth, under which lay what seemed, from its outline, to be a human figure.
"What's the matter here?" asked Lorimer, with a curious cold thrill running through him as he put the simple question.
One of the policemen answered readily enough.
"An accident, sir. Gentleman badly hurt. Down at Charing Cross Station—tried to jump into a train when it had started,—foot caught,—was thrown under the wheels and dragged along some distance—doctor says he can't live, sir."
"Who is he,—what's his name?"
"Lennox, sir—leastways, that's the name on his card—and this is the address. Sir Francis Lennox, I believe it is."
Errington uttered a sharp exclamation of horror,—at that moment the jeweller came out of the recesses of his shop with uplifted hands and bewildered countenance.
"An accident? Good Heavens!—Sir Francis! Up-stairs!—take him up-stairs!" Here he addressed the bearers. "You should have gone round to the private entrance—he mustn't be seen in the shop—frightening away all my customers—here, pass through!—pass through, as quick as you can!"
And they did pass through,—carrying their crushed burden tenderly along by the shining glass cases and polished counters, where glimmered and flashed jewels of every size and lustre for the adorning of the children of this world,—slowly and carefully, step by step, they reached the upper floor,—and there, in a luxurious apartment furnished with almost feminine elegance, they lifted the inanimate form from the stretcher and laid it down, still shrouded, on a velvet sofa, removing the last number of Truth, and two of Zola's novels, to make room for the heavy, unconscious head.
Errington and Lorimer stood at the doorway, completely overcome by the suddenness of the event—they had followed the bearers up-stairs almost mechanically,—exchanging no word or glance by the way,—and now they watched in almost breathless suspense while a surgeon who was present, gently turned back the cover that hid the injured man's features and exposed them to full view. Was that Sir Francis? that blood-smeared, mangled creature?—that the lascivious dandy,—the disciple of no-creed and self-worship? Errington shuddered and averted his gaze from that hideous face,—so horribly contorted,—yet otherwise deathlike in its rigid stillness. There was a grave hush. The surgeon still bent over him—touching here, probing there, with tenderness and skill,—but finally he drew back with a hopeless shake of his head.
"Nothing can be done," he whispered. "Absolutely nothing!"
At that moment Sir Francis stirred,—he groaned and opened his eyes;—what terrible eyes they were, filled with that look of intense anguish, and something worse than anguish,—fear—frantic fear—coward fear—fear that was almost more overpowering than his bodily suffering.
He stared wildly at the little group assembled—strange faces, so far as he could make them out, that regarded him with evident compassion,—what —what was all this—what did it mean? Death? No, no! he thought madly, while his brain reeled with the idea—death? What was death?—darkness, annihilation, blackness—all that was horrible—unimaginable! God! he would not die! God!—who was God? No matter—he would live;—he would struggle against this heaviness,—this coldness—this pillar of ice in which he was being slowly frozen—frozen—frozen!—inch by—inch! He made a furious effort to move, and uttered a scream of agony, stabbed through and through by torturing pain.
"Keep still!" said the surgeon pityingly.
Sir Francis heard him not. He wrestled with his bodily anguish till the perspiration stood in large drops on his forehead. He raised himself, gasping for breath, and glared about him like a trapped beast of prey.
"Give me brandy!" he muttered chokingly. "Quick—quick! Are you going to let me die like a dog?—damn you all!"
The effort to move,—to speak,—exhausted his sinking strength—his throat rattled,—he clenched his fists and made as though he would spring off his couch—when a fearful contortion convulsed his whole body,—his eyes rolled up and became fixed—he fell heavily back,—dead!
Quietly the surgeon covered again what was now nothing,—nothing but a mutilated corpse.
"It's all over!" he announce briefly.
Errington heard these words in sickened silence. All over! Was it possible? So soon? All over!—and he had come too late to punish the would-be ravisher of his wife's honor,—too late! He still held the whip in his hand with which he had meant to chastise that—that distorted, mangled lump of clay yonder, . . . pah! he could not bear to think of it, and he turned away, faint and dizzy. He felt,—rather than saw the staircase,—down which he dreamily went, followed by Lorimer.
The two policemen were in the hall scribbling the cut-and-dry particulars of the accident in their note-books, which having done, they marched off, attended by a wandering, bilious-looking penny-a-liner who was anxious to write a successful account of the "Shocking Fatality," as it was called in the next day's newspapers. Then the bearers departed cheerfully, carrying with them the empty stretcher. Then the jeweller, who seemed quite unmoved respecting the sudden death of his lodger, chatted amicably with the surgeon about the reputation and various demerits of the deceased,—and Errington and Lorimer, as they passed through the shop, heard him speaking of a person hitherto unheard of, namely, Lady Francis Lennox, who had been deserted by her husband for the past six years, and who was living uncomplainingly the life of an art-student in Germany with her married sister, maintaining, by the work of her own hands, her one little child, a boy of five.
"He never allowed her a farthing," said the conversational jeweller. "And she never asked him for one. Mr. Wiggins, his lawyer—firm of Wiggins & Whizzer, Furnival's Inn,—told me all about his affairs. Oh yes—he was a regular "masher"—tip-top! Not worth much, I should say. He must have spent over a thousand a year in keeping up that little place at St. John's Wood for Violet Vere. He owes me five hundred. However, Mr. Wiggins will see everything fair, I've no doubt. I've just wired to him, announcing the death. I don't suppose any one will regret him—except, perhaps, the woman at St. John's Wood. But I believe she's playing for a bigger stake just now." And, stimulated by this thought, he drew out from a handsome morocco case a superb pendant of emeralds and diamonds—a work of art, that glittered as he displayed it, like a star on a frosty night.
"Pretty thing, isn't it?" he said proudly. "Eight hundred pounds, and cheap, too! It was ordered for Miss Vere, two months ago, by the Duke of Moorlands. I see he sold his collection of pictures the other day. Luckily they fetched a tidy sum, so I'm pretty sure of the money for this. He'll sell everything he's got to please her. Queer? Oh, not at all! She's the rage just now,—I can't see anything in her myself,—but I'm not a duke, you see—I'm obliged to be respectable!"
He laughed as he returned the pendant to its nest of padded amber satin, and Errington,—sick at heart to hear such frivolous converse going on while that crushed and lifeless form lay in the very room above,—unwatched, uncared-for,—put his arm through Lorimer's and left the shop.
Once in the open street, with the keen, cold air blowing against their faces, they looked at each other blankly. Piccadilly was crowded; the hurrying people passed and re-passed,—there were the shouts of omnibus conductors and newsboys—the laughter of young men coming out of the St. James's Hall Restaurant; all was as usual,—as, indeed, why should it not? What matters the death of one man in a million? unless, indeed, it be a man whose life, like a torch, uplifted in darkness, has enlightened and cheered the world,—but the death of a mere fashionable "swell" whose chief talent has been a trick of lying gracefully—who cares for such a one? Society is instinctively relieved to hear that his place is empty, and shall know him more. But Errington could not immediately forget the scene he had witnessed. He was overcome by sensations of horror,—even of pity,—and he walked by his friend's side for some time in silence.
"I wish I could get rid of this thing!" he said suddenly, looking down at the horsewhip in his hand.
Lorimer made no answer. He understood his feeling, and realized the situation as sufficiently grim. To be armed with a weapon meant for the chastisement of a man whom Death had so suddenly claimed was, to say the least of it, unpleasant. Yet the horsewhip could scarcely be thrown away in Piccadilly—such an action might attract notice and comment. Presently Philip spoke again.
"He was actually married all the time!"
"So it seems;" and Lorimer's face expressed something very like contempt. "By Jove, Phil! he must have been an awful scoundrel!"
"Don't let's say any more about him—he's dead!" and Philip quickened his steps. "And what a horrible death!"
"Horrible enough, indeed!"
Again they were both silent. Mechanically they turned down towards Pall Mall.
"George," said Errington, with a strange awe in his tones, "it seems to me to-day as if there were death in the air. I don't believe in presentiments, but yet—yet I can-not help thinking—what if I should find my Thelma—dead?"
Lorimer turned very pale—a cold shiver ran through him, but he endeavored to smile.
"For God's sake, old fellow, don't think of anything so terrible! Look here, you're hipped—no wonder! and you've got a long journey before you. Come and have lunch. It's just two o'clock. Afterwards we'll go to the Garrick and have a chat with Beau Lovelace—he's a first-rate fellow for looking on the bright side of everything. Then I'll see you off this afternoon at the Midland—what do you say?"
Errington assented to this arrangement, and tried to shake off the depression that had settled upon him, though dark forebodings passed one after the other like clouds across his mind. He seemed to see the Altenguard hills stretching drearily, white with frozen snow, around the black Fjord; he pictured Thelma, broken-hearted, fancying herself deserted, returning through the cold and darkness to the lonely farm-house behind the now withered pines. Then he began to think of the shell-cave where that other Thelma lay hidden in her last deep sleep,—the wailing words of Sigurd came freshly back to his ears, when the poor crazed lad had likened Thelma's thoughts to his favorite flowers, the pansies—"One by one you will gather and play with her thoughts as though they were these blossoms; your burning hand will mar their color—they will wither and furl up and die,—and you—what will you care? Nothing! No man ever cares for a flower that is withered,—not even though his own hand slew it!"
Had he been to blame? he mused, with a sorrowful weight at his heart. Unintentionally, had he,—yes, he would put it plainly,—had he neglected her, just a little? Had he not, with all his true and passionate love for her, taken her beauty, her devotion, her obedience too much for granted—too much as his right? And in these latter months, when her health had made her weaker and more in need of his tenderness, had he not, in a sudden desire for political fame and worldly honor, left her too much alone, a prey to solitude and the often morbid musings which solitude engenders?
He began to blame himself heartily for the misunderstanding that had arisen out of his share in Neville's unhappy secret. Neville had been weak and timid,—he had shrunk nervously from avowing that the notorious Violet Vere was actually the woman he had so faithfully loved and mourned,—but he, Philip, ought not to have humored him in these fastidious scruples—he ought to have confided everything to Thelma. He remembered now that he had once or twice been uneasy lest rumors of his frequent visits to Miss Vere might possibly reach his wife's ears,—but, then, as his purpose was absolutely disinterested and harmless, he did not dwell on this idea, but dismissed it, and held his peace for Neville's sake, contenting himself with the thought that, "If Thelma did hear anything, she would never believe a word against me."
He could not quite see where his fault had been,—though a fault there was somewhere, as he uneasily felt—and he would no doubt have started indignantly had a small elf whispered in his ear the word "Conceit." Yet that was the name of his failing—that and no other. How many men, otherwise noble-hearted, are seriously, though often unconsciously, burdened with this large parcel of blown-out Nothing! Sir Philip did not appear to be conceited—he would have repelled the accusation with astonishment,—not knowing that in his very denial of the fault, the fault existed. He had never been truly humbled but twice in his life,—once as he knelt to receive his mother's dying benediction,—and again when he first loved Thelma, and was uncertain whether his love could be returned by so fair and pure a creature. With these two exceptions, all his experience had tended to give him an excellent opinion of himself,—and that he should possess one of the best and loveliest wives in the world, seemed to him quite in keeping with the usual course of things. The feeling that it was a sheer impossibility for her to ever believe a word against him, rose out of this inward self-satisfaction—this one flaw in his otherwise bright, honest, and lovable character—a flaw of which he himself was not aware. Now, when for the third time his fairy castle of perfect peace and pleasure seemed shaken to its foundations,—when he again realized the uncertainty of life or death, he felt bewildered and wretched. His chiefest pride was centred in Thelma, and she—was gone! Again he reverted to the miserable idea that, like a melancholy refrain, haunted him—"What if I should find her dead!"
Absorbed in painful reflections, he was a very silent companion for Lorimer during the luncheon which they took at a quiet little restaurant well known to the habitues of Pall Mall and Regent Street. Lorimer himself had his own reasons for being equally depressed and anxious,—for did he not love Thelma as much as even her husband could?—nay, perhaps more, knowing his love was hopeless. Not always does possession of the adored object strengthen the adoration,—the rapturous dreams of an ideal passion have often been known to surpass reality a thousandfold. So the two friends exchanged but few words,—though they tried to converse cheerfully on indifferent subjects, and failed in the attempt. They had nearly finished their light repast, when a familiar voice saluted them.
"It is Errington,—I thocht I couldna be mistaken! How are ye both?"
Sandy Macfarlane stood before them, unaltered, save that his scanty beard had grown somewhat longer. They had seen nothing of him since their trip to Norway, and they greeted him now with unaffected heartiness, glad of the distraction his appearance afforded them.
"Where do you hail from, Mac?" asked Lorimer, as he made the new-comer sit down at their table. "We haven't heard of you for an age."
"It is a goodish bit of time," assented Macfarlane, "but better late than never. I came up to London a week ago from Glasgie,—and my heed has been in a whirl ever since. Eh, mon! but it's an awful place!—maybe I'll get used to't after a wee whilie."
"Are you going to settle here, then?" inquired Errington, "I thought you intended to be a minister somewhere in Scotland?"
Macfarlane smiled, and his eyes twinkled.
"I hae altered ma opee-nions a bit," he said. "Ye see, ma aunt in Glasgie's deed—"
"I understand," laughed Lorimer. "You've come in for the old lady's money?"
"Puir body!" and Sandy shook his head gravely. "A few hours before she died she tore up her will in a screamin' fury o' Christian charity and forethought,—meanin' to mak anither in favor o' leavin' a' her warld's trash to the Fund for Distributin' Bible Knowledge among the Heathen—but she never had time to fulfill her intention. She went off like a lamb,—and there being no will, her money fell to me, as the nearest survivin' relative—eh! the puir thing!—if her dees-imbodied spirit is anywhere aboot, she must be in a sair plight to think I've got it, after a' her curses!"
"How much?" asked Lorimer amused.
"Oh, just a fair seventy thousand or so," answered Macfarlane carelessly.
"Well done, Mac!" said Errington, with a smile, endeavoring to appear interested. "You're quite rich, then? I congratulate you!"
"Riches are a snare," observed Macfarlane, sententiously, "a snare and a decoy to both soul and body!" He laughed and rubbed his hands,—then added with some eagerness, "I say, how is Lady Errington?"
"She's very well," answered Sir Philip hurriedly, exchanging a quick look with Lorimer, which the latter at once understood. "She's away on a visit just now. I'm going to join her this afternoon."
"I'm sorry she's away," said Sandy, and he looked very disappointed; "but I'll see her when she comes back. Will she be long absent?"
"No, not long—a few days only"—and as Errington said this an involuntary sigh escaped him.
A few days only!—God grant it! But what—what if he should find her dead?
Macfarlane noticed the sadness of his expression, but prudently forbore to make any remark upon it. He contented himself with saying—
"Weel, ye've got a wife worth having—as I dare say ye know. I shall be glad to pay my respects to her as soon as she returns. I've got your address, Errington—will ye take mine?"
And he handed him a small card on which was written in pencil the number of a house in one of the lowest streets in the East-end of London. Philip glanced at it with some surprise.
"Is this where you live?" he asked with emphatic amazement.
"Yes. It's just the cleanest tenement I could find in that neighborhood. And the woman that keeps it is fairly respectable."
"But with your money," remonstrated Lorimer, who also looked at the card, "I rather wonder at your choice of abode. Why, my dear fellow, do you know what sort of a place it is?"
A steadfast, earnest, thinking look came into Macfarlane's deep-set, grey eyes.
"Yes, I do know, pairfectly," he said in answer to the question. "It's a place where there's misery, starvation, and crime of all sorts,—and there I am in the very midst of it—just where I want to be. Ye see, I was meant to be a meenister—one of those douce, cannie, comfortable bodies that drone in the pulpit about predestination and original sin, and so forth a—sort, of palaver that does no good to ony resonable creature—an' if I had followed out this profession, I make nae doot that, with my aunt's seventy thousand, I should be a vera comfortable, respectable, selfish type of a man, who was decently embarked in an apparently important but really useless career—"
"Useless?" interrupted Lorimer archly. "I say, Mac, take care! A minister of the Lord, useless!"
"I'm thinkin' there are unco few meen-isters o' the Lord in this warld," said Macfarlane musingly. "Maist o' them meen-ister to themselves, an' care na a wheen mair for Christ than Buddha. I tell ye, I was an altered man after we'd been to Norway—the auld pagan set me thinkin' mony an' mony a time—for, ma certes! he's better worthy respect than mony a so-called Christian. And as for his daughter—the twa great blue eyes o' that lassie made me fair ashamed o' mysel'. Why? Because I felt that as a meen-ister o' the Established Kirk, I was bound to be a sort o' heep-ocrite,—ony thinkin', reasonable man wi' a conscience canna be otherwise wi' they folk,—and ye ken, Errington, there's something in your wife's look that maks a body hesitate before tellin' a lee. Weel—what wi' her face an' the auld bonde's talk, I reflectit that I couldna be a meen-ister as meen-isters go,—an' that I must e'en follow oot the Testament's teachings according to ma own way of thinkin'. First, I fancied I'd rough it abroad as a meesionary—then I remembered the savages at hame, an' decided to attend to them before onything else. Then my aunt's siller came in handy—in short, I'm just gaun to live on as wee a handfu' o' the filthy lucre as I can, an' lay oot the rest on the heathens o' London. An' it's as well to do't while I'm alive to see to't mysel'—for I've often observed that if ye leave your warld's gear to the poor when ye're deed, just for the gude reason that ye canna tak it to the grave wi' ye,—it'll melt in a wonderfu' way through the hands o' the 'secretaries' an' 'distributors' o' the fund, till there's naething left for those ye meant to benefit. Ye maunna think I'm gaun to do ony preachin' business down at East-end,—there's too much o' that an' tract-givin' already. The puir soul whose wee hoosie I've rented hadna tasted bit nor sup for three days—till I came an' startled her into a greetin' fit by takin' her rooms an' payin' her in advance—eh! mon, ye'd have thought I was a saint frae heaven if ye'd heard her blessin' me,—an' a gude curate had called on her just before and had given her a tract to dine on. Ye see, I maun mak mysel' a friend to the folk first, before I can do them gude—I maun get to the heart o' their troubles—an' troubles are plentiful in that quarter,—I maun live among them, an' be ane o' them. I wad mind ye that Christ Himsel' gave sympathy to begin with,—he did the preachin' afterwards."
"What a good fellow you are, Mac!" said Errington, suddenly seeing his raw Scotch friend with the perverse accent, in quite a new and heroic light.
Macfarlane actually blushed. "Nonsense, not a bit o't!" he declared quite nervously. "It's just pure selfishness, after a'—for I'm simply enjoyin' mysel' the hale day long. Last nicht, I found a wee cripple o' a laddie sittin' by himsel' in the gutter, munchin' a potato skin. I just took him,—he starin' an' blinkin' like an owl at me,—and carried him into my room. There I gave him a plate o' barley broth, an' finished him up wi' a hunk o' gingerbread. Ma certes! Ye should ha' seen the rascal laugh. 'Twas better than lookin' at a play from a ten-guinea box on the grand tier!"
"By Jove, Sandy, you're a brick!" cried Lorimer, laughing to hide a very different emotion—"I had no idea you were that sort of chap."
"Nor had I," said Macfarlane quite simply—"I never fashed mysel' wi' thinkin' o' ither folks troubles at a'—I never even took into conseederation the meanin' o' the Testament teachings till—I saw your leddy wife, Errington." He paused a moment, then added gravely—"Yes—and I've aften fancied she maun be a real live angel,—an' I've sought always to turn my hand to something useful and worth the doin',—ever since I met her."