Philip leaned back against the trunk of the tree under which they were sitting, and laughed.
"You may be right, Thelma,—I dare say you are. There's certainly too much beer represented in the House—I admit that. But, after all, trade is the great moving-spring of national prosperity,—and it would hardly be fair to refuse seats to the very men who help to keep the country going."
"I do not see that," said Thelma gravely,—"if those men are ignorant, why should they have a share in so important a thing as Government? They may know all about beer, and wool, and iron,—but perhaps they can only judge what is good for themselves, not what is best for the whole country, with all its rich and poor. I do think that only the wisest scholars and most intelligent persons should be allowed to help in the ruling of a great nation."
"But the people choose their own rulers," remarked Errington reflectively.
"Ah, the poor people!" sighed Thelma. "They know so very little,—and they are taught so badly! I think they never do quite understand what they do want,—they are the same in all histories,—like little children, they get bewildered and frightened in any trouble, and the wisest heads are needed to think for them. It is, indeed, most cruel to make them puzzle out all difficulty for themselves!"
"What a little sage you are, my pet!" laughed Philip, taking her hand on which the marriage-ring and its accompanying diamond circlet, glistened brilliantly in the warm sunlight. "Do you mean to go in for politics?"
She shook her head. "No, indeed! That is not woman's work at all. The only way in which I think about such things, is that I feel the people cannot all be wise,—and that it seems a pity the wisest and greatest in the land should not be chosen to lead them rightly."
"And so under the circumstances, you think it's no use my trying to pose as a Cicero?" asked her husband amusedly. She laughed—with a very tender cadence in her laughter.
"It would not be worth your while, my boy," she said "You know I have often told you that I do not see any great distinction in being a member of Parliament at all. What will you do? You will talk to the fat brewer perhaps, and he will contradict you—then other people will get up and talk and contradict each other,—and so it will go on for days and days—meanwhile the country remains exactly as it was, neither better nor worse,—and all the talking does no good! It is better to be out of it,—here together, as we are to-day."
And she raised her dreamy blue eyes to the sheltering canopy of green leaves that overhung them—leaves thick-clustered and dewy, through which the dazzling sky peeped in radiant patches. Philip looked at her,—the rapt expression of her upward gaze,—the calm, untroubled sweetness of her fair face,—were such as might well have suited one of Raffaelle's divinest angels. His heart beat quickly—he drew closer to her, and put his arm round her.
"Your eyes are looking at the sky, Thelma," he whispered. "Do you know what that is? Heaven looking into heaven! And do you know which of the two heavens I prefer?" She smiled, and turning, met his ardent gaze with one of equal passion and tenderness.
"Ah, you do know!" he went on, softly kissing the side of her slim white throat. "I thought you couldn't possibly make a mistake!" He rested his head against her shoulder, and after a minute or two of lazy comfort, he resumed. "You are not ambitious, my Thelma! You don't seem to care whether your husband distinguishes himself in the 'Ouse,' as our friend the brewer calls it, or not. In fact, I don't believe you care for anything save—love! Am I not right, my wife?"
A wave of rosy color flushed her transparent skin, and her eyes filled with an earnest, almost pathetic languor.
"Surely of all things in the world," she said in a low tone,—"Love is best?"
To this he made prompt answer, though not in words—his lips conversed with hers, in that strange, sweet language which, though unwritten, is everywhere comprehensible,—and then they left their shady resting-place and sauntered homeward hand in hand through the warm fields fragrant with wild thyme and clover.
Many happy days passed thus with these lovers—for lovers they still were. Marriage had for once fulfilled its real and sacred meaning—it had set Love free from restraint, and had opened all the gateways of the only earthly paradise human hearts shall ever know,—the paradise of perfect union and absolute sympathy with the one thing beloved on this side eternity.
The golden hours fled by all too rapidly,—and towards the close of August there came an interruption to their felicity. Courtesy had compelled Bruce-Errington and his wife to invite a few friends down to visit them at the Manor before the glory of the summer-time was past,—and first among the guests came Lord and Lady Winsleigh and their bright boy, Ernest. Her ladyship's maid, Louise Renaud, of course, accompanied her ladyship,—and Briggs was also to the fore in the capacity of Lord Winsleigh's personal attendant. After these, George Lorimer arrived—he had avoided the Erringtons all the season,—but he could not very well refuse the pressing invitation now given him without seeming churlish,—then came Beau Lovelace, for a few days only, as with the commencement of September he would be off as usual to his villa on the Lago di Como. Sir Francis Lennox, too, made his appearance frequently in a casual sort of way—he "ran down," to use his own expression, now and then, and made himself very agreeable, especially to men, by whom he was well liked for his invariable good-humor and extraordinary proficiency in all sports and games of skill. Another welcome visitor was Pierre Duprez, lively and sparkling as ever,—he came from Paris to pass a fortnight with his "cher Phil-eep," and make merriment for the whole party. His old admiration for Britta had by no means decreased,—he was fond of waylaying that demure little maiden on her various household errands, and giving her small posies of jessamine and other sweet-scented blossoms to wear just above the left-hand corner of her apron-bib, close to the place where the heart is supposed to be. Olaf Gueldmar had been invited to the Manor at this period,—Errington wrote many urgent letters, and so did Thelma, entreating him to come,—for nothing would have pleased Sir Philip more than to have introduced the fine old Odin worshipper among his fashionable friends, and to have heard him bluntly and forcibly holding his own among them, putting their feint and languid ways of life to shame by his manly, honest, and vigorous utterance. But Gueldmar had only just returned to the Altenfjord after nearly a year's absence, and his hands were too full of work for him to accept his son-in-law's invitation.
"The farm lands have a waste and dreary look," he wrote, "though I let them to a man who should verily have known how to till the soil trodden by his fathers—and as for the farmhouse, 'twas like a hollow shell that has lain long on the shore and become brown and brittle—for thou knowest no human creature has entered there since we departed. However, Valdemar Svensen and I, for sake of company, have resolved to dwell together in it, and truly we have nearly settled down to the peaceful contemplation of our past days,—so Philip, and thou, my child Thelma, trouble not concerning me. I am hale and hearty, the gods be thanked,—and may live on in hope to see you both next spring or summer-tide. Your happiness keeps this old man young—so grudge me not the news of your delights wherein I am myself delighted."
One familiar figure was missing from the Manor household,—that of Edward Neville. Since the night at the Brilliant, when he had left the theatre so suddenly, and gone home on the plea of illness, he had never been quite the same man. He looked years older—he was strangely nervous and timid—and he shrank away from Thelma as though he were some guilty or tainted creature. Surprised at this, she spoke to her husband about it,—but he, hurriedly, and with some embarrassment, advised her to "let him alone"—his "nerves were shaken"—his "health was feeble"—and that it would be kind on her part to refrain from noticing him or asking him questions. So she refrained—but Neville's behavior puzzled her all the same. When they left town, he implored, almost piteously, to be allowed to remain behind,—he could attend to Sir Philip's business so much better in London, he declared, and he had his way. Errington, usually fond of Neville's society, made no attempt whatever to persuade him against his will,—so he stayed in the half-shut-up house in Prince's Gate through all the summer heat, poring over parliamentary documents and pamphlets,—and Philip came up from the country once a fortnight to visit him, and transact any business that might require his personal attention.
On one of the last and hottest days in August, a grand garden-party was given at the Manor. All the county people were invited, and they came eagerly, though, before Thelma's social successes in London, they had been reluctant to meet her. Now, they put on their best clothes, and precipitated themselves into the Manor grounds like a flock of sheep seeking land on which to graze,—all wearing their sweetest propitiatory smirk—all gushing forth their admiration of "that darling Lady Errington"—all behaving themselves in the exceptionally funny manner that county people affect,—people who are considered somebodies in the small villages their big houses dominate,—but who, when brought to reside in London, become less than the minnows in a vast ocean. These good folks were not only anxious to see Lady Errington—they wanted to say they had seen her,—and that she had spoken to them, so that they might, in talking to their neighbors, mention it in quite an easy, casual way, such as—"Oh, I was at Errington Manor the other day, and Lady Errington said to me—." Or—"Sir Philip is such a charming man! I was talking to his lovely wife, and he asked me—" etc., etc. Or—"You've no idea what large strawberries they grow at the Manor! Lady Errington showed me some that were just ripening—magnificent!" And so on. For in truth this is "a mad world, my masters,"—and there is no accounting for the inexpressibly small follies and mean toadyisms of the people in it.
Moreover, all the London guests who were visiting Thelma came in for a share of the county magnates' servile admiration. They found the Winsleighs "so distingue"—Master Ernest instantly became "that dear boy!"—Beau Lovelace was "so dreadfully clever, you know!"—and Pierre Duprez "quite too delightful!"
The grounds looked very brilliant—pink-and-white marquees were dotted here and there on the smooth velvet lawns—bright flags waved from different quarters of the gardens, signals of tennis, archery, and dancing,—and the voluptuous waltz-music of a fine Hungarian band rose up and swayed in the air with the downward floating songs of the birds and the dash of fountains in full play. Girls in pretty light summer costumes made picturesque groups under the stately oaks and beeches,—gay laughter echoed from the leafy shrubberies, and stray couples were seen sauntering meditatively through the rose-gardens, treading on the fallen scented petals, and apparently too much absorbed in each other to notice anything that was going on around them. Most of these were lovers, of course—intending lovers, if not declared ones,—in fact, Eros was very busy that day among the roses, and shot forth a great many arrows, aptly aimed, out of his exhaustless quiver.
Two persons there were, however,—man and woman,—who, walking in that same rose-avenue, did not seem, from their manner, to have much to do with the fair Greek god,—they were Lady Winsleigh and Sir Francis Lennox. Her ladyship looked exceedingly beautiful in her clinging dress of Madras lace, with a bunch of scarlet poppies at her breast, and a wreath of the same vivid flowers in her picturesque Leghorn hat. She held a scarlet-lined parasol over her head, and from under the protecting shadow of this silken pavilion, her dark, lustrous eyes flashed disdainfully as she regarded her companion. He was biting an end of his brown moustache, and looked annoyed, yet lazily amused too.
"Upon my life, Clara," he observed, "you are really awfully down on a fellow, you know! One would think you never cared two-pence about me!"
"Too high a figure!" retorted Lady Winsleigh, with a hard little laugh. "I never cared a brass farthing!"
He stopped short in his walk and stared at her.
"By Jove! you are cool!" he ejaculated. "Then what did you mean all the time?"
"What did you mean?" she asked defiantly.
He was silent. After a slight, uncomfortable pause, he shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"Don't let us have a scene!" he observed in a bantering tone. "Anything but that!"
"Scene!" she exclaimed indignantly. "Pray when have you had to complain of me on that score?"
"Well, don't let me have to complain now," he said coolly.
She surveyed him in silent scorn for a moment, and her full, crimson lips curled contemptuously.
"What a brute you are!" she muttered suddenly between her set pearly teeth.
"Thanks, awfully!" he answered, taking out a cigarette and lighting it leisurely. "You are really charmingly candid, Clara! Almost as frank as Lady Errington, only less polite!"
"I shall not learn politeness from you, at any rate," she said,—then altering her tone to one of studied indifference, she continued coldly, "What do you want of me? We've done with each other, as you know. I believe you wish to become gentleman-lacquey to Bruce-Errington's wife, and that you find it difficult to obtain the situation. Shall I give you a character?"
He flushed darkly, and his eyes glittered with an evil lustre.
"Gently, Clara! Draw it mild!" he said languidly. "Don't irritate me, or I may turn crusty! You know, if I chose, I could open Bruce-Errington's eyes rather more widely than you'd like with respect to the devoted affection you entertain for his beautiful wife." She winced a little at this observation—he saw it and laughed,—then resumed: "At present I'm really in the best of humors. The reason I wanted to speak to you alone for a minute or two was, that I'd something to say which might possibly please you. But perhaps you'd rather not hear it?"
She was silent. So was he. He watched her closely for a little—noting with complacency the indignant heaving of her breast and the flush on her cheeks,—signs of the strong repression she was putting upon her rising temper.
"Come, Clara, you may as well be amiable," he said. "I'm sure you'll be glad to know that the virtuous Philip is not immaculate after all. Won't it comfort you to think that he's nothing but a mortal man like the rest of us? . . . and that with a little patience your charms will most probably prevail with him as easily as they once did with me? Isn't that worth hearing?"
"I don't understand you," she replied curtly.
"Then you are very dense, my dear girl," he remarked smilingly. "Pardon me for saying so! But I'll put it plainly and in as few words as possible. The moral Bruce-Errington, like a great many other 'moral' men I know, has gone in for Violet Vere,—and I dare say you understand what that means. In the simplest language, it means that he's tired of his domestic bliss and wants a change."
Lady Winsleigh stopped in her slow pacing along the gravel-walk, and raised her eyes steadily to her companion's face.
"Are you sure of this?" she asked.
"Positive!" replied Sir Francis, flicking the light ash off his cigarette delicately with his little finger. "When you wrote me that note about the Vere, I confess I had my suspicions. Since then they've been confirmed. I know for a fact that Errington has had several private interviews with Vi, and has also written her a good many letters. Some of the fellows in the green-room tease her about her new conquest, and she grins and admits it. Oh, the whole thing's plain enough! Only last week, when he went up to town to see his man Neville on business he called on Vi at her own apartments in Arundel Street, Strand. She told me so herself—we're rather intimate, you know,—though of course she refused to mention the object of his visit. Honor among thieves!" and he smiled half mockingly.
Lady Winsleigh seemed absorbed, and walked on like one in a dream. Just then, a bend in the avenue brought them in full view of the broad terrace in front of the Manor, where Thelma's graceful figure, in a close-fitting robe of white silk crepe, was outlined clearly against the dazzling blue of the sky. Several people were grouped near her,—she seemed to be in animated conversation with some of them, and her face was radiant with smiles. Lady Winsleigh looked at her,—then said suddenly in a low voice—
"It will break her heart!"
Sir Francis assumed an air of polite surprise. "Pardon! Whose heart?"
She pointed slightly to the white figure on the terrace.
"Hers! Surely you must know that?"
He smiled. "Well—isn't that precisely what you desire Clara? Though, for my part, I don't believe in the brittleness of hearts—they seem to me to be made of exceptionally tough material. However, if the fair Thelma's heart cracks ever so widely, I think I can undertake to mend it!"
Clara shrugged her shoulders. "You!" she exclaimed contemptuously.
He stroked his moustache with feline care and nicety.
"Yes—I! If not, I've studied women all my life for nothing!"
She broke into a low peal of mocking laughter—turned, and was about to leave him, when he detained her by a slight touch on her arm.
"Stop a bit!" he said in an impressive sotto-voce. "A bargain's a bargain all the world over. If I undertake to keep you cognizant of Bruce-Errington's little goings-on in London,—information which, I dare say, you can turn to good account,—you must do something for me. I ask very little. Speak of me to Lady Errington—make her think well of me,—flatter me as much as you used to do when we fancied ourselves terrifically in love with each other—(a good joke, wasn't it!)—and, above all, make her trust me! Do you understand?"
"As Red Riding-Hood trusted the Wolf and was eaten up for her innocence," observed Lady Winsleigh. "Very well! I'll do my best. As I said before, you want a character. I'm sure I hope you'll obtain the situation you so much desire! I can state that you made yourself fairly useful in your last place, and that you left because your wages were not high enough!"
And with another sarcastic laugh, she moved forward towards the terrace where Thelma stood. Sir Francis followed at some little distance with no very pleasant expression on his features. A stealthy step approaching him front behind made him start nervously—it was Louise Renaud, who, carrying a silver tray on which soda-water bottles and glasses made an agreeable clinking, tripped demurely past him without raising her eyes. She came directly out of the rose-garden,—and, as she overtook her mistress on the lawn, that lady seemed surprised, and asked—
"Where have you been, Louise?"
"Miladi was willing that I should assist in the attendance to-day," replied Louise discreetly. "I have waited upon Milord Winsleigh, and other gentlemen in the summer-house at the end of the rose-garden."
And with one furtive glance of her black, bead-like eyes at Lady Winsleigh's face, she made a respectful sort of half-curtsy and went her way.
Later on in the afternoon, when it was nearing sunset, and all other amusements had given way to the delight of dancing on the springy green turf to the swinging music of the band,—Briggs, released for a time from the duties of assisting the waiters at the splendid refreshment-table (duties which were pleasantly lightened by the drinking of a bottle of champagne which he was careful to reserve for his own consumption), sauntered leisurely through the winding alleys and fragrant shrubberies which led to the most unromantic portion of the Manor grounds,—namely, the vegetable-garden. Here none of the butterflies of fashion found their way,—the suggestions offered by growing cabbages, turnips, beans, and plump, yellow-skinned marrows were too prosaic for society bantams who require refined surroundings in which to crow their assertive platitudes. Yet it was a peaceful nook—and there were household odors of mint and thyme and sweet marjoram, which were pleasant to the soul of Briggs, and reminded him of roast goose on Christmas Day, with all its attendant succulent delicacies. He paced the path slowly,—the light of the sinking sun blazing gloriously on his plush breeches, silver cordons and tassels,—for he was in full-dress livery in honor of the fete, and looked exceedingly imposing. Now and then he glanced down at his calves with mild approval,—his silk stockings fitted them well, and they had a very neat and shapely appearance.
"I've developed," he murmured to himself. "There ain't a doubt about it! One week of Country air, and I'm a different man;—the effecks of overwork 'ave disappeared. Flopsie won't know these legs of mine when I get back,—they've improved surprisingly." He stopped to survey a bed of carrots. "Plenty of Cressy there," he mused. "Cressy's a noble soup, and Flopsie makes it well,—a man might do wuss than marry Flopsie. She's a widder, and a leetle old—just a leetle old for me—but—" Here he sniffed delicately at a sprig of thyme he had gathered, and smiled consciously. Presently he perceived a small, plump, pretty figure approaching him, no other than Britta, looking particularly charming in a very smart cap, adorned with pink-ribbon bows, and a very elaborately frilled muslin apron. Briggs at once assumed his most elegant and conquering air, straightened himself to his full height and kissed his hand to her with much condescension. She laughed as she came up to him, and the dimples in her round cheeks appeared in full force.
"Well, Mr. Briggs," she said, "are you enjoying yourself?"
Briggs smiled down upon her benevolently. "I am!" he responded graciously. "I find the hair refreshing. And you, Miss Britta?"
"Oh, I'm very comfortable, thank you!" responded Britta demurely, edging a little away from his arm, which showed an unmistakable tendency to encircle her waist,—then glancing at a basket she held full of grapes, just cut from the hot house, she continued, "These are for the supper-table. I must be quick, and take them to Mrs. Parton."
"Must you?" and Briggs asked this question with quite an unnecessary amount of tenderness, then resuming his dignity, he observed, "Mrs. Parton is a very worthy woman—an excellent 'ousekeeper. But she'll no doubt excuse you for lingering a little, Miss Britta—especially in my company."
Britta laughed again, showing her pretty little white teeth to the best advantage. "Do you think she will?" she said merrily. "Then I'll stop a minute, and if she scolds me I'll put the blame on you!"
Briggs played with his silver tassels and, leaning gracefully against a plum-tree, surveyed her with a critical eye.
"I was not able," he observed, "to see much of you in town. Our people were always a' visitin' each other, and yet our meetings were, as the poet says, 'few and far between.'"
Britta nodded indifferently, and perceiving a particularly ripe gooseberry on one of the bushes close to her, gathered it quickly and popped it between her rosy lips. Seeing another equally ripe, she offered it to Briggs, who accepted it and ate it slowly, though he had a misgiving that by so doing he was seriously compromising his dignity. He resumed his conversation.
"Since I've been down 'ere, I've 'ad more opportunity to observe you. I 'ope you will allow me to say I think very highly of you." He waved his hand with the elegance of a Sir Charles Grandison. "Very 'ighly indeed! Your youth is most becoming to you! If you only 'ad a little more chick, there'd be nothing left to desire!"
"A little more—what?" asked Britta, opening her blue eyes very wide in puzzled amusement.
"Chick!" replied Briggs, with persistent persuasiveness. "Chick, Miss Britta, is a French word much used by the aristocracy. Coming from Norway, an 'avin' perhaps a very limited experience, you mayn't 'ave 'erd it—but eddicated people 'ere find it very convenient and expressive. Chick means style,—the thing, the go, the fashion. For example, everything your lady wears is chick!"
"Really!" said Britta, with a wandering and innocent air. "How funny! It doesn't sound like French, at all, Mr. Briggs,—it's more like English."
"Perhaps the Paris accent isn't familiar to you yet," remarked Briggs majestically. "Your stay in the gay metropolis was probably short. Now, I 'ave been there many times—ah, Paris, Paris!" he paused in a sort of ecstacy, then, with a side leer, continued—"You'd 'ardly believe 'ow wicked I am in Paris, Miss Britta! I am, indeed! It is something in the hair of the Bollyvards, I suppose! And the caffy life excites my nerves."
"Then you shouldn't go there," said Britta gravely, though her eyes twinkled with repressed fun. "It can't be good for you. And, oh! I'm so sorry, Mr. Briggs, to think that you are ever wicked!" And she laughed.
"It's not for long," explained Briggs, with a comically satisfied, yet penitent, look. "It is only a sort of breaking out,—a fit of 'igh spirits. Hall men are so at times! It's chick to run a little wild in Paris. But Miss Britta, if you were with me I should never run wild!" Here his arm made another attempt to get round her waist—and again she skillfully, and with some show of anger, avoided it.
"Ah, you're very 'ard upon me," he then observed, "Very, very, 'ard! But I won't complain, my—my dear gal—one day you'll know me better!" He stopped and looked at her very intently. "Miss Britta," he said abruptly, "you've a great affection for your lady, 'aven't you?"
Instantly Britta's face flushed, and she was all attention.
"Yes, indeed!" she answered quickly. "Why do you ask, Mr. Briggs?"
Briggs rubbed his nose perplexedly. "It is not easy to explain," he said. "To run down my own employers wouldn't be in my line. But I've an idea that Clara—by which name I allude to my Lord Winsleigh's lady,—is up to mischief. She 'ates your lady, Miss Britta—'ates 'er like poison!"
"Hates her!" cried Britta in astonishment. "Oh, you must be mistaken, Mr. Briggs! She is as fond of her as she can be—almost like a sister to her!"
"Clara's a fine actress," murmured Briggs, more to himself than to his companion. "She'd beat Violet Vere on 'er own ground." Raising his voice a little, he turned gallantly to Britta and relieved her of the basket she held.
"Hallow me!" he said. "We'll walk to the 'ouse together. On the way I'll explain—and you'll judge for yourself. The words of the immortal bard, whose county we are in, occur to me as aprerpo,—'There are more things in 'evin and 'erth, 'Oratio,—than even the most devoted domestic can sometimes be aweer of.'"
And gently sauntering by Britta's side, Briggs began to converse in low and confidential tones,—she listened with strained and eager attention,—and she was soon receiving information that startled her and set her on the alert.
Talk of private detectives and secret service! Do private detectives ever discover so much as the servants of a man's own household?—servants who are aware of the smallest trifles,—who know the name and position of every visitor that comes and goes,—who easily learn to recognize the handwriting on every letter that arrives—who laugh and talk in their kitchens over things that their credulous masters and mistresses imagine are unknown to all the world save themselves,—who will judge the morals of a Duke, and tear the reputation of a Duchess to shreds, for the least, the most trifling error of conduct! If you can stand well with your servants, you can stand well with the whole world—if not—carry yourself as haughtily as you may—your pride will not last long, depend upon it!
Meanwhile, as Briggs and Britta strolled in the side paths of the shrubbery, the gay guests of the Manor were dancing on the lawn. Thelma did not dance,—she reclined in a low basket-chair, fanning herself. George Lorimer lay stretched in lazy length at her feet, and near her stood her husband, together with Beau Lovelace and Lord Winsleigh. At a little distance, under the shadow of a noble beech, sat Mrs. Rush-Marvelle and Mrs. Van Clupp in earnest conversation. It was to Mrs. Marvelle that the Van Clupps owed their invitation for this one day down to Errington Manor,—for Thelma herself was not partial to them. But she did not like to refuse Mrs. Marvelle's earnest entreaty that they should be asked,—and that good-natured, scheming lady having gained her point, straightway said to Marcia Van Clupp somewhat severely—
"Now, Marcia, this is your last chance. If you don't hook Masherville at the Carringten fete, you'll lose him! You mark my words!"
Marcia had dutifully promised to do her best, and she was not having what she herself called "a good hard time of it." Lord Algy was in one of his most provokingly vacillating moods—moreover, he had a headache, and felt bilious. Therefore he would not dance—he would not play tennis—he did not understand archery—he was disinclined to sit in romantic shrubberies or summer-houses, as he had a nervous dread of spiders—so he rambled aimlessly about the grounds with his hands in his pockets, and perforce Marcia was compelled to ramble too. Once she tried what effect an opposite flirtation would have on his mind, so she coquetted desperately with a young country squire, whose breed of pigs was considered the finest in England—but Masherville did not seem to mind it in the least. Nay, he looked rather relieved than otherwise, and Marcia, seeing this, grew more resolute than ever.
"I guess I'll pay him out for this!" she thought as she watched him feebly drinking soda-water for his headache. "He's a man that wants ruling, and ruled he shall be!"
And Mrs. Rush-Marvelle and Mrs. Van Clupp observed her manoeuvres with maternal interest, while the cunning-faced, white-headed Van Clupp conversed condescendingly with Mr. Rush-Marvelle, as being a nonentity of a man whom he could safely patronize.
As the glory of the sunset paled, and the delicate, warm hues of the summer twilight softened the landscape, the merriment of the brilliant assembly seemed to increase. As soon as it was dark, the grounds were to be illuminated by electricity, and dancing was to be continued indoors—the fine old picture-gallery being the place chosen for the purpose. Nothing that could add to the utmost entertainment of the guests had been forgotten, and Thelma, the fair mistress of these pleasant revels, noting with quiet eyes the evident enjoyment of all present, felt very happy and tranquil. She had exerted herself a good deal, and was now a little tired. Her eyes had a dreamy, far-off look, and she found her thoughts wandering, now and then, away to the Altenfjord—she almost fancied she could hear the sigh of the pines and the dash of the waves mingling in unison as they used to do when she sat at the old farm-house window and span, little dreaming then how her life would change—how all those familiar things would be swept away as though they had never been. She roused herself from this momentary reverie, and glancing down at the recumbent gentleman at her feet, touched his shoulder lightly with the edge of her fan.
"Why do you not dance, you very lazy Mr. Lorimer?" she asked, with a smile.
He turned up his fair, half-boyish face to hers and laughed.
"Dance! I! Good gracious! Such an exertion would kill me, Lady Errington—don't you know that? I am of a Sultan-like disposition—I shouldn't mind having slaves to dance for me if they did it well—but I should look on from the throne whereon I sat cross-legged,—and smoke my pipe in peace."
"Always the same!" she said lightly. "Are you never serious?"
His eyes darkened suddenly. "Sometimes. Awfully so! And in that condition I become a burden to myself and my friends."
"Never be serious!" interposed Beau Lovelace, "it really isn't worth while! Cultivate the humor of a Socrates, and reduce everything by means of close argument to its smallest standpoint, and the world, life, and time are no more than a pinch of snuff for some great Titantic god to please his giant nose withal!"
"Your fame isn't worth much then, Beau, if we're to go by that line of argument," remarked Errington, with a laugh.
"Fame! By Jove! You don't suppose I'm such an arrant donkey as to set any store by fame!" cried Lovelace, a broad smile lighting up his face and eyes. "Why, because a few people read my books and are amused thereby,—and because the Press pats me graciously on the back, and says metaphorically, 'Well done, little 'un!' or words to that effect, am I to go crowing about the world as if I were the only literary chanticleer? My dear friend, have you read 'Esdras'? You will find there that a certain king of Persia wrote to one 'Rathumus, a story-writer.' No doubt he was famous in his day, but,—to travesty hamlet, 'where be his stories now?' Learn, from the deep oblivion into which poor Rathumus's literary efforts have fallen, the utter mockery and uselessness of so-called fame!"
"But there must be a certain pleasure in it while you're alive to enjoy it," said Lord Winsleigh. "Surely you derive some little satisfaction from your celebrity, Mr. Lovelace?"
Beau broke into a laugh, mellow, musical, and hearty.
"A satisfaction shared with murderers, thieves, divorced women, dynamiters, and other notorious people in general," he said. "They're all talked about—so am I. They all get written about—so do I. My biography is always being carefully compiled by newspaper authorities, to the delight of the reading public. Only the other day I learned for the first time that my father was a greengrocer, who went in for selling coals by the half-hundred and thereby made his fortune—my mother was an unsuccessful oyster-woman who failed ignominiously at Margate—moreover, I've a great many brothers and sisters of tender age whom I absolutely refuse to assist. I've got a wife somewhere, whom my literary success causes me to despise—and I have deserted children. I'm charmed with, the accuracy of the newspapers—and I wouldn't contradict them for the world,—I find my biographies so original! They are the result of that celebrity which Winsleigh thinks enjoyable."
"But assertions of that kind are libels," said Errington, "You could prosecute."
"Too much trouble!" declared Beau. "Besides, five journals have disclosed the name of the town where I was born, and as they all contradict each other, and none of them are right, any contradiction on my part would be superfluous!"
They laughed,—and at that moment Lady Winsleigh joined them.
"Are you not catching cold, Thelma?" she inquired sweetly. "Sir Philip, you ought to make her put on something warm,—I find the air growing chilly."
At that moment the ever-ready Sir Francis Lennox approached with a light woolen wrap he had found in the hall.
"Permit me!" he said gently, at the same time adroitly throwing it over Thelma's shoulders.
She colored a little,—she did not care for his attention, but she could not very well ignore it without seeming to be discourteous. So she murmured, "Thank you!" and, rising from her chair, addressed Lady Winsleigh.
"If you feel cold, Clara, you will like some tea," she said. "Shall we go indoors, where it is ready?"
Lady Winsleigh assented with some eagerness,—and the two, beautiful women—the one dark, the other fair—walked side by side across the lawn into the house, their arms round each other's waists as they went.
"Two queens—and yet not rivals?" half queried Lovelace, as he watched them disappearing.
"Their thrones are secure!" returned Sir Philip gaily.
The others were silent. Lord Winsleigh's thoughts, whatever they were, deepened the lines of gravity on his face; and George Lorimer, as he got up from his couch on the grass, caught a fleeting expression in the brown eyes of Sir Francis Lennox that struck him with a sense of unpleasantness. But he quickly dismissed the impression from his mind, and went to have a quiet smoke in the shrubbery.
"La rose du jardin, comme tu sais, dure peu, et la saison des roses est bien vite ecoulee!"—SAADI.
Thelma took her friend Lady Winsleigh to her own boudoir, a room which had been the particular pride of Sir Philip's mother. The walls were decorated with panels of blue silk in which were woven flowers of gold and silver thread,—and the furniture, bought from an old palace in Milan, was of elaborately carved wood inlaid with ivory and silver. Here a tete-a-tete tea was served for the two ladies, both of whom were somewhat fatigued by the pleasures of the day. Lady Winsleigh declared she must have some rest, or she would be quite unequal to the gaieties of the approaching evening, and Thelma herself was not sorry to escape for a little from her duties as hostess,—so the two remained together for some time in earnest conversations and Lady Winsleigh then and there confided to Thelma what she had heard reported concerning Sir Philip's intimate acquaintance with the burlesque actress, Violet Vere. And they were both so long absent that, after a while, Errington began to miss his wife, and, growing impatient, went in search of her. He entered the boudoir, and, to his surprise, found Lady Winsleigh there quite alone.
"Where is Thelma?" he demanded.
"She seems not very well—a slight headache or something of that sort—and has gone to lie down," replied Lady Winsleigh, with a faint trace of embarrassment in her manner. "I think the heat has been too much for her."
"I'll go and see after her,"—and he turned promptly to leave the room.
"Sir Philip!" called Lady Winsleigh. He paused and looked back.
"Stay one moment," continued her ladyship softly. "I have been for a long time so very anxious to say something to you in private. Please let me speak now. You—you know"—here she cast down her lustrous eyes—"before you went to Norway I—I was very foolish—"
"Pray do not recall it," he said with kindly gravity "I have forgotten it."
"That is so good of you!" and a flush of color warmed her delicate cheeks. "For if you have forgotten, you have also forgiven?"
"Entirely!" answered Errington,—and touched by her plaintive, self-reproachful manner and trembling voice, he went up to her and took her hands in his own. "Don't think of the past, Clara! Perhaps I also was to blame a little—I'm quite willing to think I was. Flirtation's a dangerous amusement at best." He paused as he saw two bright tears on her long, silky lashes, and in his heart felt a sort of remorse that he had ever permitted himself to think badly of her. "We are the best of friends now, Clara," he continued cheerfully, "and I hope we may always remain so. You can't imagine how glad I am that you love my Thelma!"
"Who would not love her!" sighed Lady Winsleigh gently, as Sir Philip released her hands from his warm clasp,—then raising her tearful eyes to his she added wistfully, "You must take great care of her, Philip—she is so sensitive,—I always fancy an unkind word would kill her."
"She'll never hear one from me!" he returned, with so tender and earnest a look on his face, that Lady Winsleigh's heart ached for jealousy. "I must really go and see how she is. She's been exerting herself too much to-day. Excuse me!" and with a courteous smile and bow he left the room with a hurried and eager step.
Alone, Lady Winsleigh smiled bitterly. "Men are all alike!" she said half aloud. "Who would think he was such a hypocrite? Fancy his dividing his affection between two such contrasts as Thelma and Violet Vere! However, there's no accounting for tastes. As for man's fidelity, I wouldn't give a straw for it—and for his morality—!" She finished the sentence with a scornful laugh, and left the boudoir to return to the rest of the company.
Errington, meanwhile, knocked softly at the door of his wife's bedroom—and receiving no answer, turned the handle noiselessly and went in. Thelma lay on the bed, dressed as she was, her cheek resting on her hand, and her face partially hidden. Her husband approached on tiptoe, and lightly kissed her forehead. She did not stir,—she appeared to sleep profoundly.
"Poor girl!" he thought, "she's tired out, and no wonder, with all the bustle and racket of these people! A good thing if she can rest a little before the evening closes in."
And he stole quietly out of the room, and meeting Britta on the stairs told her on no account to let her mistress be disturbed till it was time for the illumination of the grounds. Britta promised,—Britta's eyes were red—one would almost have fancied she had been crying. But Thelma was not asleep—she had felt her husband's kiss,—her heart had beat as quickly as the wing of a caged wild bird at his warm touch,—and now he had gone she turned and pressed her lips passionately on the pillow where his hand had leaned. Then she rose languidly from the bed, and, walking slowly to the door, locked it against all comers. Presently she began to pace the room up and down,—up and down,—her face was very white and weary, and every now and then a shuddering sigh broke from her lips.
"Can I believe it? Oh no!—I cannot—I will not!" she murmured. "There must be some mistake—Clara has heard wrongly." She sighed again. "Yet—if it is so,—he is not to blame—it is I—I who have failed to please him. Where—how have I failed?"
A pained, puzzled look filled her grave blue eyes, and she stopped in her walk to and fro.
"It cannot be true!" she said half aloud,—"it is altogether unlike him. Though Clara says—and she has known him so long!—Clara says he loved her once—long before he saw me—my poor Philip!—he must have suffered by that love!—perhaps that is why he thought life so wearisome when he first came to the Altenfjord—ah! the Altenfjord!"
A choking sob rose in her throat—but she repressed it. "I must try not to weary him," she continued softly—"I must have done so in some way, or he would not be tired. But as for what I have heard,—it is not for me to ask him questions. I would not have him think that I mistrust him. No—there is some fault in me—something he does not like, or he would never go to—" She broke off and stretched out her hands with a sort of wild appeal. "Oh, Philip! my darling!" she exclaimed in a sobbing whisper. "I always knew I was not worthy of you—but I thought,—I hoped my love would make amends for all my shortcomings!"
Tears rushed into her eyes, and she turned to a little arched recess, shaded by velvet curtains—her oratory—where stood an exquisite white marble statuette of the Virgin and Child. There she knelt for some minutes, her face hidden in her hands, and when she rose she was quite calm, though very pale. She freshened her face with cold water, rearranged her disordered hair,—and then went downstairs, thereby running into the arms of her husband who was coming up again to look, as he said, at his "Sleeping Beauty."
"And here she is!" he exclaimed joyously. "Have you rested enough, my pet?"
"Indeed, yes!" she answered gently. "I am ashamed so be so lazy. Have you wanted me, Philip?"
"I always want you," he declared. "I am never happy without you."
She smiled and sighed. "You say that to please me," she said half wistfully.
"I say it because it is true!" he asserted proudly, putting his arm round her waist and escorting her in this manner down the great staircase. "And you know it, you sweet witch! You're just in time to see the lighting up of the grounds. There'll be a good view from the picture-gallery—lots of the people have gone in there—you'd better come too, for it's chilly outside."
She followed him obediently, and her reappearance among her guests was hailed with enthusiasm,—Lady Winsleigh being particular effusive, almost too much so.
"Your headache has quite gone, dearest, hasn't it?" she inquired sweetly.
Thelma eyed her gravely. "I did not suffer from the headache, Clara," she said. "I was a little tired, but I am quite rested now."
Lady Winsleigh bit her lips rather vexedly, but said no more, and at that moment exclamations of delight broke from all assembled at the brilliant scene that suddenly flashed upon their eyes. Electricity, that radiant sprite whose magic wand has lately been bent to the service of man, had in less than a minute played such dazzling pranks in the gardens that they resembled the fabled treasure-houses discovered by Aladdin. Every tree glittered with sparkling clusters of red, blue, and green light—every flower-bed was bordered with lines and circles of harmless flame, and the fountains tossed up tall columns of amber rose, and amethyst spray against the soft blue darkness of the sky, in which a lustrous golden moon had just risen. The brilliancy of the illuminations showed up several dark figures strolling in couples about the grounds—romantic persons evidently, who were not to be persuaded to come indoors, even for the music of the band, which just then burst forth invitingly through the open windows of the picture-gallery.
Two of these pensive wanderers were Marcia Van Clupp and Lord Algernon Masherville,—and Lord Algy was in a curiously sentimental frame of mind, and weak withal, "comme une petite queue d'agneau afflige" He had taken a good deal of soda and brandy for his bilious headache, and, physically, he was much better,—but mentally he was not quite his ordinary self. By this it must not be understood that he was at all unsteadied by the potency of his medicinal tipple—he was simply in a bland humor—that peculiar sort of humor which finds strange and mystic beauty in everything, and contemplates the meanest trifles with emotions of large benevolence. He was conversational too, and inclined to quote poetry—this sort of susceptibleness often affects gentlemen after they have had an excellent dinner flavored with the finest Burgundy. Lord Algy was as mild, as tame, and as flabby as a sleeping jelly-fish,—and in this inoffensive, almost tender mood of his, Marcia pounced upon him. She looked ravishingly pretty in the moonlight, with a white wrap thrown carelessly round her head and shoulders, and her bold, bird-like eyes sparkling with excitement (for who that knows the pleasure of sports, is not excited when the fox is nearly run to earth?), and she stood with him beside one of the smaller illuminated fountains, raising her small white hand every now and then to catch some of the rainbow drops, and then with a laugh she would shake them off her little pearly nails into the air again. Poor Masherville could not help gazing at her with a lack-lustre admiration in his pale eyes,—and Marcia, calculating every move in her own shrewd mind, saw it. She turned her head away with a petulant yet coquettish movement.
"My patience!" she exclaimed; "yew kin stare! Yew'll know me again when yew see me,—say?"
"I should know you anywhere," declared Masherville, nervously fumbling with the string of his eye-glass. "It's impossible to forget your face, Miss Marcia!"
She was silent,—and kept that face turned from him so long that the gentle little lord was surprised. He approached her more closely and took her hand—the hand that had played with the drops in the fountain. It was such an astonishingly small hand.—so very fragile-looking and tiny, that he was almost for putting up his eye-glass to survey it, as if it were a separate object in a museum. But the faintest pressure of the delicate fingers he held startled him, and sent the most curious thrill through his body—and when he spoke he was in such a flutter that he scarcely knew what he was saying.
"Miss—Miss Marcia!" he stammered, "have—have I said—anything to—to offend you?"
Very slowly, and with seeming reluctance, she turned her head towards him, and—oh, thou mischievous Puck, that sometimes takest upon thee the semblance of Eros, what skill is thine! . . . there were tears in her eyes—real tears—bright, large tears that welled up and fell through her long lashes in the most beautiful, touching, and becoming manner! "And," thought Marcia to herself, "if I don't fetch him now, I never will!" Lord Algy was quite frightened—his poor brain grew more and more bewildered.
"Why—Miss Marcia! I say! Look here!" he mumbled in his extremity, squeezing her little hand tighter and tighter. "What—what have I done! Good gracious! You—you really mustn't cry, you know—I say—look here! Marcia! I wouldn't vex you for the world!"
"Yew bet yew wouldn't!" said Marcia, with slow and nasal plaintiveness. "I like that! That's the way yew English talk. But yew kin hang round a girl a whole season and make all her folks think badly of her—and—and—break her heart—yes—that's so!" Here she dried her eyes with a filmy lace handkerchief. "But don't yew mind me! I kin bear it. I kin worry through!" And she drew herself up with dignified resignation—while Lord Algy stared wildly at her, his feeble mind in a whirl. Presently she smiled most seductively, and looked up with her dark, tear-wet eyes to the moon.
"I guess it's a good night for lovers!" she said, sinking her ordinary tone to an almost sweet cadence. "But we're not of that sort, are we?"
The die was cast! She looked so charming—so irresistible, that Masherville lost all hold over his wits. Scarcely knowing what he did, he put his arm round her waist. Oh, what a warm, yielding waist! He drew her close to his breast, at the risk of breaking his most valuable eyeglass,—and felt his poor weak soul in a quiver of excitement at this novel and delicious sensation.
"We are—we are of that sort!" he declared courageously. "Why should you doubt it, Marcia?"
"I believe yew if yew say so," responded Marcia. "But I guess yew're only fooling me!"
"Fooling you!" Lord Algy was so surprised that he released her quite suddenly from his embrace—so suddenly that she was a little frightened. Was she to lose him, after all?
"Marcia," he continued mildly, yet with a certain manliness that did not ill become him. "I—I hope I am too much of—of a gentleman to—to 'fool' any woman, least of all you, after I have, as you say, compromised you in society by my—my attentions. I—I have very little to offer you—but such as it is, is yours. In—in short, Marcia, I—I will try to make you happy if you can—can care for me enough to—to—marry me!"
Eureka! The game was won! A vision of Masherville Park, Yorkshire, that "well-timbered and highly desirable residence," as the auctioneers would describe it, flitted before Marcia's eyes,—and, filled with triumph, she went straight into her lordly wooer's arms, and kissed him with thorough transatlantic frankness. She was really grateful to him. Ever since she had come to England, she had plotted and schemed to become "my lady" with all the vigor of a purely republican soul,—and now at last, after hard fighting, she had won the prize for which her soul had yearned. She would in future belong to the English aristocracy—that aristocracy which her relatives in New York pretended to despise, yet openly flattered,—and with her arms round the trapped Masherville's neck, she foresaw the delight she would have in being toadied by them as far as toadyism could be made to go.
She is by no means presented to the reader as a favorable type of her nation—for, of course, every one knows there are plenty of sweet, unselfish, guileless American girls, who are absolutely incapable of such unblushing marriage-scheming as hers,—but what else could be expected from Marcia? Her grandfather, the navvy, had but recently become endowed with Pilgrim-Father Ancestry,—and her maternal uncle was a boastful pork-dealer in Cincinnati. It was her bounden duty to ennoble the family somehow,—surely, if any one had a right to be ambitious, she was that one! And wild proud dreams of her future passed through her brain, little Lord Algy quivered meekly under her kiss, and returned it with all the enthusiasm of which he was capable. One or two faint misgivings troubled him as to whether he had not been just a little too hasty in making a serious bona fide offer of marriage to the young lady by whose Pilgrim progenitors he was not deceived. He knew well enough what her antecedents were, and a faint shudder crossed him as he thought of the pork-dealing uncle, who would, by marriage, become his uncle also. He had long been proud of the fact that the house of Masherville had never, through the course of centuries, been associated, even in the remotest manner with trade—and now!—
"Yet, after all," he mused, "the Marquis of Londonderry openly advertises himself as a coal-merchant, and the brothers-in-law of the Princess Louise are in the wine trade and stock-broking business,—and all the old knightly blood of England is mingling itself by choice with that of the lowest commoners—what's the use of my remaining aloof, and refusing to go with the spirit of the age? Besides, Marcia loves me, and it's pleasant to be loved!"
Poor Lord Algy. He certainly thought there could be no question about Marcia's affection for him. He little dreamed that it was to his title and position she had become so deeply attached,—he could not guess that after he had married her there would be no more Lord Masherville worth mentioning—that that individual, once independent, would be entirely swallowed up and lost in the dashing personality of Lady Masherville, who would rule her husband as with a rod of iron.
He was happily ignorant of his future, and he walked in the gardens for some time with his arm round Marcia's waist, in a very placid and romantic frame of mind. By-and-by he escorted her into the house, where the dancing was in full swing—and she, with a sweet smile, bidding him wait for her in the refreshment-room, sought for and found her mother, who as usual, was seated in a quiet corner with Mrs. Rush-Marvelle, talking scandal.
"Well?" exclaimed these two ladies, simultaneously and breathlessly.
Marcia's eyes twinkled. "Guess he came in as gently as a lamb!" she said.
They understood her. Mrs. Rush-Marvelle rose from her chair in her usual stately and expensive manner.
"I congratulate you, my dear!" kissing Marcia affectionately on both cheeks. "Bruce Errington would have been a better match,—but, under the circumstances, Masherville is really about the best thing you could do. You'll find him quite easy to manage!" This with an air as though she were recommending a quiet pony.
"That's so!" said Marcia carelessly, "I guess we'll pull together somehow. Mar-ma," to her mother—"yew kin turn on the news to all the folks yew meet—the more talk the better! I'm not partial to secrets!" And with a laugh, she turned away.
Then Mrs. Van Clupp laid her plump, diamond-ringed hand on that of her dear friend, Mrs. Marvelle.
"You have managed the whole thing beautifully," she said, with a grateful heave of her ample bosom. "Such a clever creature as you are!" She dropped her voice to a mysterious whisper. "You shall have that cheque to-morrow, my love!"
Mrs. Rush-Marvelle pressed her fingers cordially.
"Don't hurry yourself about it!"—she returned in the same confidential tone. "I dare say you'll want me to arrange the wedding and the 'crush' afterwards. I can wait till then."
"No, no! that's a separate affair," declared Mrs. Van Clupp. "I must insist on your taking the promised two hundred. You've been really so very energetic!"
"Well, I have worked rather hard," said Mrs. Marvelle, with modest self-consciousness. "You see nowadays it's so difficult to secure suitable husbands for the girls who ought to have them. Men are such slippery creatures!"
She sighed—and Mrs. Van Clupp echoed the sigh,—and then these two ladies,—the nature of whose intimacy may now be understood by the discriminating reader,—went together to search out those of their friends and acquaintances who were among the guests that night, and to announce to them (in the strictest confidence, of course!) the delightful news of "dear Marcia's engagement." Thelma heard of it, and went at once to proffer her congratulations to Marcia in person.
"I hope you will be very, very happy!" she said simply, yet with such grave earnestness in her look and voice that the "Yankee gel" was touched to a certain softness and seriousness not at all usual with her, and became so winning and gentle to Lord Algy that he felt in the seventh heaven of delight with his new position as affianced lover to so charming a creature.
Meanwhile George Lorimer and Pierre Duprez were chatting together in the library. It was very quiet there,—the goodly rows of books, the busts of poets and philosophers,—the large, placid features of the Pallas Athene crowning an antique pedestal,—the golden pipes of the organ gleaming through the shadows,—all these gave a solemn, almost sacred aspect to the room. The noise of the dancing and festivity in the distant picture-gallery did not penetrate here, and Lorimer sat at the organ, drawing out a few plaintive strains from its keys as he talked.
"It's your fancy, Pierre," he said slowly. "Thelma may be a little tired to-day, perhaps—but I know she's perfectly happy."
"I think not so," returned Duprez. "She has not the brightness—the angel look—les yeux d'enfant,—that we beheld in her at that far Norwegian Fjord. Britta is anxious for her."
Lorimer looked up, and smiled a little.
"Britta? It's always Britta with you, mon cher! One would think—" he paused and laughed.
"Think what you please!" exclaimed Duprez, with a defiant snap of his fingers. "I would not give that little person for all the grandes dames here to-day! She is charming—and she is true!—Ma foi! to be true to any one is a virtue in this age! I tell you, my good boy, there is something sorrowful—heavy—on la belle Thelma's mind—and Britta, who sees her always, feels it—but she cannot speak. One thing I will tell you—it is a pity she is so fond of Miladi Winsleigh."
"Why?" asked Lorimer, with some eagerness.
"Because—" he stopped abruptly as a white figure suddenly appeared at the doorway, and a musical voice addressed them—
"Why, what are you both doing here, away from everybody?" and Thelma smiled as she approached. "You are hermits, or you are lazy! People are going in to supper. Will you not come also?"
"Ma foi!" exclaimed Duprez; "I had forgotten! I have promised your most charming mother, cher Lorimer, to take her in to this same supper. I must fly upon the wings of chivalry!"
And with a laugh, he hurried off, leaving Thelma and Lorimer alone together. She sank rather wearily into a chair near the organ, and looked at him.
"Play me something!" she said softly.
A strange thrill quivered through him as he met her eyes—the sweet, deep, earnest eyes of the woman he loved. For it was no use attempting to disguise it from himself—he loved her passionately, wildly, hopelessly; as he had loved her from the first.
Obedient to her wish, his fingers wandered over the organ-keys in a strain of solemn, weird, yet tender melancholy—the grand, rich notes pealed forth sobbingly—and she listened, her hands clasped idly in her lap. Presently he changed the theme to one of more heart-appealing passion—and a strange wild minor air, like the rushing of the wind across the mountains, began to make itself heard through the subdued rippling murmur of his improvised accompaniment. To his surprise and fear, she started up, pressing her hands against her ears.
"Not that—not that song, my friend!" she cried, almost imploringly. "Oh, it will break my heart! Oh, the Altenfjord!" And she gave way to a passion of weeping.
"Thelma! Thelma!" and poor Lorimer, rising from the organ, stood gazing at her in piteous dismay,—every nerve in his body wrung to anguish by the sound of her sobbing. A mad longing seized him to catch her in his arms,—to gather her and her sorrows, whatever they were, to his heart!—and he had much ado to restrain himself.
"Thelma," he presently said, in a gentle voice that trembled just a little, "Thelma, what is troubling you? You call me your brother—give me a brother's right to your confidence." He bent over her and took her hand. "I—I can't bear to see you cry like this! Tell me—what's the matter? Let me fetch Philip."
She looked up with wild wet eyes and quivering lips.
"Oh no—no!" she murmured, in a tone of entreaty and alarm. "Do not,—Philip must not know—I do wish him always to see me bright and cheerful—and—it is nothing! It is that I heard something which grieved me—"
"What was it?" asked Lorimer, remembering Duprez's recent remarks.
"Oh, I would not tell you!" she said eagerly, drying her eyes and endeavoring to smile, "because I am sure it was a mistake, and all wrong—and I was foolish to fancy that such a thing could be, even for a moment. But when one does not know the world, it seems cruel—"
"Thelma, what do you mean?" and George surveyed her in some perplexity. "If any one's been bothering or vexing you, just you tell Phil all about it. Don't have any secrets from him,—he'll soon put everything straight, whatever it is."
She shook her head slightly. "Ah, you do not understand!" she said pathetically, "how should you? Because you have not given your life away to any one, and it is all different with you. But when you do love—if you are at all like me,—you will be so anxious to always seem worthy of love—and you will hide all your griefs away from your beloved,—so that your constant presence shall not seem tiresome. And I would not for all the world trouble Philip with my silly fancies—because then he might grow more weary still—"
"Weary!" interrupted Lorimer, in an accent of emphatic surprise. "Why, you don't suppose Phil's tired of you, Thelma? That is nonsense indeed! He worships you! Who's been putting such notions into your head?"
She rose from her chair quite calm and very pale, and laid her two trembling hands in his.
"Ah, you also will mistake me," she said, with touching sweetness, "like so many others who think me strange in my speech and manner. I am sorry I am not like other women,—but I cannot help it. What I do wish you to understand is that I never suppose anything against my Philip—he is the noblest and best of men! And you must promise not to tell him that I was so foolish as to cry just now because you played that old song I sang to you both so often in Norway—it was because I felt a little sad—but it was only a fancy,—and I would not have him troubled with such things. Will you promise?"
"But what has made you sad?" persisted Lorimer, still puzzled.
"Nothing—nothing indeed," she answered, with almost feverish earnestness. "You yourself are sometimes sad, and can you tell why?"
Lorimer certainly could have told why,—but he remained silent, and gently kissed the little hands he held.
"Then I mustn't tell Philip of your sadness?" he asked softly, at last. "But will you tell him yourself, Thelma? Depend upon it, it's much better to have no secrets from him. The least grief of yours would affect him more than the downfall of a kingdom. You know how dearly he loves you!"
"Yes—I know!" she answered, and her eyes brightened slowly. "And that is why I wish him always to see me happy!" She paused, and then added in a lower tone, "I would rather die, my friend, than vex him for one hour!"
George still held her hands and looked wistfully in her face. He was about to speak again, when a cold, courteous voice interrupted them.
"Lady Errington, may I have the honor of taking you in to supper?"
It was Sir Francis Lennox. He had entered quite noiselessly—his footsteps making no sound on the thick velvet-pile carpet, and he stood quite close to Lorimer, who dropped Thelma's hands hastily and darted a suspicious glance at the intruder. But Sir Francis was the very picture of unconcerned and bland politeness, and offered Thelma his arm with the graceful ease of an accomplished courtier. She was, perforce, compelled to accept it—and she was slightly confused, though she could not have told why.
"Sir Philip has been looking everywhere for you," continued Sir Francis amicably. "And for you also," he added, turning slightly to Lorimer. "I trust I've not abruptly broken off a pleasant tete-a-tete?"
Lorimer colored hotly. "Not at all," he said rather brusquely. "I've been strumming on the organ, and Lady Errington has been good enough to listen to me."
"You do not strum" said Thelma, with gentle reproach. "You play very beautifully."
"Ah! a charming accomplishment!" observed Sir Francis, with his under-glance and covert smile, as they all three wended their way out of the library. "I regret I have never had time to devote myself to acquiring some knowledge of the arts. In music I am a positive ignoramus! I can hold my own best in the field."
"Yes, you're a great adept at hunting, Lennox," remarked Lorimer suddenly, with something sarcastic in his tone. "I suppose the quarry never escapes you?"
"Seldom!" returned Sir Francis coolly. "Indeed, I think I may say, never!"
And with that, he passed into the supper-room, elbowing a way for Thelma, till he succeeded in placing her near the head of the table, where she was soon busily occupied in entertaining her guests and listening to their chatter; and Lorimer, looking at her once or twice, saw, to his great relief, that all traces of her former agitation had disappeared, leaving her face fair and radiant as a spring morning.
"A generous fierceness dwells with innocence, And conscious virtue is allowed some pride." DRYDEN.
The melancholy days of autumn came on apace, and by-and-by the Manor was deserted. The Bruce-Errington establishment removed again to town, where business, connected with his intending membership for Parliament, occupied Sir Philip from morning till night. The old insidious feeling of depression returned and hovered over Thelma's mind like a black bird of ill omen, and though she did her best to shake it off she could not succeed. People began to notice her deepening seriousness and the wistful melancholy of her blue eyes, and made their remarks thereon when they saw her at Marcia Van Clupp's wedding, an event which came off brilliantly at the commencement of November, and which was almost entirely presided over by Mrs. Rush-Marvelle. That far-seeing matron had indeed urged on the wedding by every delicate expedient possible.
"Long engagements are a great mistake," she told Marcia,—then, in a warning undertone she added, "Men are capricious nowadays,—they're all so much in demand,—better take Masherville while he's in the humor."
Marcia accepted this hint and took him,—and Mrs. Rush-Marvelle heaved a sigh of relief when she saw the twain safely married, and off to the Continent on their honeymoon-trip,—Marcia all sparkling and triumphant,—Lord Algy tremulous and feebly ecstatic.
"Thank Heaven that's over!" she said to her polite and servile husband. "I never had such a troublesome business in my life! That girl's been nearly two seasons on my hands, and I think five hundred guineas not a bit too much for all I've done."
"Not a bit—not a bit!" agreed Mr. Marvelle warmly. "Have they—have they—" here he put on a most benevolent side-look—"quite settled with you, my dear?"
"Every penny," replied Mrs. Marvelle calmly. "Old Van Clupp paid me the last hundred this morning. And poor Mrs. Van Clupp is so very grateful!" She sighed placidly, and appeared to meditate. Then she smiled sweetly and, approaching Mr. Marvelle, patted his shoulder caressingly. "I think we'll do the Italian lakes, dear—what do you say?"
"Charming—charming!" declared, not her lord and master, but her slave and vassal. "Nothing could be more delightful!"
And to the Italian lakes accordingly they went. A great many people were out of town,—all who had leisure and money enough to liberate themselves from the approaching evils of an English winter, had departed or were departing,—Beau Lovelace had gone to Como,—George Lorimer had returned with Duprez to Paris, and Thelma had very few visitors except Lady Winsleigh, who was more often with her now than ever. In fact, her ladyship was more like one of the Errington household than anything else,—she came so frequently and stayed so long. She seemed sincerely attached to Thelma,—and Thelma herself, too single-hearted and simple to imagine that such affection could be feigned, gave her in return, what Lady Winsleigh had never succeeded in winning from any woman,—a pure, trusting, and utterly unsuspecting love, such as she would have lavished on a twin-born sister. But there was one person who was not deceived by Lady Winsleigh's charm of manner, and grace of speech. This was Britta. Her keen eyes flashed a sort of unuttered defiance into her ladyship's beautiful, dark languishing ones—she distrusted her, and viewed the intimacy between her and the "Froeken" with entire disfavor. Once she ventured to express something of her feeling on the matter to Thelma—but Thelma had looked so gently wondering and reproachful that Britta had not courage to go on.
"I am so sorry, Britta," said her mistress, "that you do not like Lady Winsleigh—because I am very fond of her. You must try to like her for my sake."
But Britta pursed her lips and shook her head obstinately. However, she said no more at the time, and decided within herself to wait and watch the course of events. And in the meantime she became very intimate with Lady Winsleigh's maid, Louise Renaud, and Briggs, and learned from these two domestic authorities many things which greatly tormented and puzzled her little brain,—things over which she pondered deeply without arriving at any satisfactory conclusion.
On her return to town, Thelma had been inexpressibly shocked at the changed appearance of her husband's secretary, Edward Neville. At first she scarcely knew him, he had altered so greatly. Always inclined to stoop, his shoulders were now bent as by the added weight of twenty years—his hair, once only grizzled, was now quite grey—his face was deeply sunken and pale, and his eyes by contrast looked large and wild, as though some haunting thought were driving him to madness. He shrank so nervously from her gaze, that she began to fancy he must have taken some dislike to her,—and though she delicately refrained from pressing questions upon him personally, she spoke to her husband about him, with real solicitude. "Is Mr. Neville working too hard?" she asked one day. "He looks very ill."
Her remark seemed to embarrass Philip,—he colored and seemed confused.
"Does he? Oh, I suppose he sleeps badly. Yes, I remember, he told me so. You see, the loss of his wife has always preyed on his mind—he never loses hope of—of—that is—he is always trying to—you know!—to get her back again."
"But do you think he will ever find her?" asked Thelma. "I thought you said it was a hopeless case?"
"Well—I think so, certainly—but, you see, it's no good dashing his hopes—one never knows—she might turn up any day—it's a sort of chance!"
"I wish I could help him to search for her," she said compassionately. "His eyes do look so full of sorrow," she paused and added musingly, "almost like Sigurd's eyes sometimes."
"Oh, he's not losing his wits," said Philip hastily, "he's quite patient, and—and all that sort of thing. Don't bother about him, Thelma, he's all right!"
And he fumbled hastily with some papers, and began to talk of something else. His embarrassed manner caused her to wonder a little at the time as to the reason of it,—but she had many other things to think about, and she soon forgot a conversation that might have proved a small guiding-link in the chain of events that were soon about to follow quickly one upon another, shaking her life to its very foundation. Lady Winsleigh found it almost impossible to get her on the subject of the burlesque actress, Violet Vere, and Sir Philip's supposed admiration for that notorious stage-siren.
"I do not believe it," she said firmly, "and you—you must not believe it either, Clara. For wherever you heard it, it is wrong. We should dishonor Philip by such a thought—you are his friend, and I am his wife—we are not the ones to believe anything against him, even if it could be proved—and there are no proofs."
"My dear," responded her ladyship easily. "You can get proofs for yourself if you like. For instance, ask Sir Philip how often he has seen Miss Vere lately,—and hear what he says."
Thelma colored deeply. "I would not question my husband on such a subject," she said proudly.
"Oh well! if you are so fastidious!" And Lady Winsleigh shrugged her shoulders.
"I am not fastidious," returned Thelma, "only I do wish to be worthy of his love,—and I should not be so if I doubted him. No, Clara, I will trust him to the end."
Clara Winsleigh drew nearer to her, and took her hand.
"Even if he were unfaithful to you?" she asked in a low, impressive tone.
"Unfaithful!" Thelma uttered the word with a little cry. "Clara, dear Clara, you must not say such a word! Unfaithful! That means that my husband would love some one more than me!—ah! that is impossible!"
"Suppose it were possible?" persisted Lady Winsleigh, with a cruel light in her dark eyes. "Such things have been!"
Thelma stood motionless, a deeply mournful expression on her fair, pale face. She seemed to think for a moment, then she spoke.
"I would never believe it!" she said solemnly. "Never, unless I heard it from his own lips, or saw it in his own writing, that he was weary of me, and wanted me no more."
"Then"—she drew a quick breath—"I should know what to do. But, Clara, you must understand me well, even if this were so, I should never blame him—no—not once!"
"Not blame him?" cried Lady Winsleigh impatiently. "Not blame him for infidelity?"
A deep blush swept over her face at the hated word "infidelity," but she answered steadily—
"No. Because, you see, it would be my fault, not his. When you hold a flower in your hand for a long time, till all its fragrance has gone, and you drop it because it no longer smells sweetly—you are not to blame—it is natural you should wish to have something fresh and fragrant,—it is the flower's fault because it could not keep its scent long enough to please you. Now, if Philip were to love me no longer, I should be like that flower, and how would HE be to blame? He would be good as ever, but I—I should have ceased to seem pleasant to him—that is all!"
She put this strange view of the case quite calmly, as if it were the only solution to the question. Lady Winsleigh heard her, half in contemptuous amusement, half in dismay. "What can I do with such a woman as this," she thought. "And fancy Lennie imagining for a moment that HE could have any power over her!" Aloud, she said—
"Thelma, you're the oddest creature going—a regular heathen child from Norway! You've set up your husband as an idol, and you're always on your knees before him. It's awfully sweet of you, but it's quite absurd, all the same. Angelic wives always get the worst of it, and so you'll see! Haven't you heard that?"
"Yes, I have heard it," she answered, smiling a little. "But only since I came to London. In Norway, it is taught to women that to be patient and obedient is best for every one. It is not so here. But I am not an angelic wife, Clara, and so the 'worst of it' will not apply to me. Indeed, I do not know of any 'worst' that I would not bear for Philip's sake."
Lady Winsleigh studied the lovely face, eloquent with love and truth, for some moments in silence;—a kind of compunction pricked her conscience. Why destroy all that beautiful faith? Why wound that grandly trusting nature? The feeling was but momentary.
"Philip does run after the Vere," she said to herself—"it's true, there's no mistake about it, and she ought to know of it. But she won't believe without proofs—what proofs can I get, I wonder?" And her scheming brain set to work to solve this problem.
In justice to her, it must be admitted, she had a good deal of seeming truth on her side. Sir Philip's name had somehow got connected with that of the leading actress at the Brilliant, and more people than Lady Winsleigh began to make jocose whispering comments on his stage "amour"—comments behind his back, which he was totally unaware of. Nobody knew quite how the rumor had first been started. Sir Francis Lennox seemed to know a good deal about it, and he was an "intimate" of the "Vere" magic circle of attraction. And though they talked, no one ventured to say anything to Sir Philip himself;—the only two among his friends who would have spoken out honestly were Beau Lovelace and Lorimer, and these were absent.
One evening, contrary to his usual custom, Sir Philip went out after the late dinner. Before leaving, he kissed his wife tenderly, and told her on no account to sit up for him—he and Neville were going to attend to a little matter of business which might detain them longer than they could calculate. After they had gone, Thelma resigned herself to a lonely evening, and, stirring the fire in the drawing-room to a cheerful blaze, she sat down beside it. First, she amused herself by reading over some letters recently received from her father,—and then, yielding to a sudden fancy, she drew her spinning-wheel from the corner where it always stood, and set it in motion. She had little time for spinning now, but she never quite gave it up, and as the low, familiar whirring sound hummed pleasantly on her ears, she smiled, thinking how quaint and almost incongruous her simple implement of industry looked among all the luxurious furniture, and costly nick-nacks by which she was surrounded.
"I ought to have one of my old gowns on," she half murmured, glancing down at the pale-blue silk robe she wore, "I am too fine to spin!"
And she almost laughed as the wheel flew round swiftly under her graceful manipulations. Listening to its whirr, whirr, whirr, she scarcely heard a sudden knock at the street-door, and was quite startled when the servant, Morris, announced—"Sir Francis Lennox!"
Surprised, she rose from her seat at the spinning-wheel with a slight air of hauteur. Sir Francis, who had never in his life seen a lady of title and fashion in London engaged in the primitive occupation of spinning, was entirely delighted with the picture before him,—the tall, lovely woman with her gold hair and shimmering blue draperies, standing with such stateliness beside the simple wooden wheel, the antique emblem of household industry. Instinctively he thought of Marguerite;—but Marguerite as a crowned queen, superior to all temptations of either man or fiend.
"Sir Philip is out," she said, as she suffered him to take her hand.
"So I was aware!" returned Lennox easily. "I saw him a little while ago at the door of the Brilliant Theatre."
She turned very pale,—then controlling the rapid beating of her heart by a strong effort, she forced a careless smile, and said bravely—
"Did you? I am very glad—for he will have some amusement there, perhaps, and that will do him good. He has been working so hard!"
She paused. He said nothing, and she went on more cheerfully still—
"Is it not a very dismal, wet evening! Yes!—and you must be cold. Will you have some tea?"
"Tha-anks!" drawled Sir Francis, staring at her admiringly. "If it's not too much trouble—"
"Oh no!" said Thelma. "Why should it be?" And she rang the bell and gave the order. Sir Francis sank lazily back in an easy chair, and stroked his moustache slowly. He knew that his random hit about the theatre had struck home,—but she allowed the arrow to pierce and possibly wound her heart without showing any outward sign of discomposure. "A plucky woman!" he considered, and wondered how he should make his next move. She, meanwhile, smiled at him frankly, and gave a light twirl to her spinning-wheel.
"You see!" she said, "I was amusing myself this evening by imagining that I was once more at home in Norway."
"Pray don't let me interrupt the amusement," he responded, with a sleepy look of satisfaction shooting from beneath his eyelids. "Go on spinning, Lady Errington! . . . I've never seen any one spin before."
At that moment Morris appeared with the tea, and handed it to Sir Francis,—Thelma took none, and as the servant retired, she quietly resumed her occupation. There was a short silence, only broken by the hum of the wheel. Sir Francis sipped his tea with a meditative air, and studied the fair woman before him as critically as he would have studied a picture.
"I hope I'm not in your way?" he asked suddenly. She looked up surprised.
"Oh no—only I am sorry Philip is not here to talk to you. It would be so much pleasanter."
"Would it?" he murmured rather dubiously and smiling. "Well—I shall be quite contented if you will talk to me, Lady Errington!"
"Ah, but I am not at all clever in conversation," responded Thelma quite seriously. "I am sure you, as well as many others, must have noticed that. I never do seem to say exactly the right thing to please everybody. Is it not very unfortunate?"
He laughed a little. "I have yet to learn in what way you do not please everybody," he said, dropping his voice to a low, caressing cadence. "Who, that sees you, does not admire—and—and love you?"
She met his languorous gaze without embarrassment,—while the childlike openness of her regard confused and slightly shamed him.
"Admire me? Oh yes!" she said somewhat plaintively. "It is that of which I am so weary! Because God has made one pleasant in form and face,—to be stared at and whispered about, and have all one's dresses copied!—all that is so small and common and mean, and does vex me so much!"
"It is the penalty you pay for being beautiful," said Sir Francis slowly, wondering within himself at the extraordinary incongruity of a feminine creature who was actually tired of admiration.
She made no reply—the wheel went round faster than before. Presently Lennox set aside his emptied cup, and drawing his chair a little closer to hers, asked—
"When does Errington return?"
"I cannot tell you," she answered. "He said that he might be late. Mr. Neville is with him."
There was another silence. "Lady Errington," said Sir Francis abruptly—"pray excuse me—I speak as a friend, and in your interests,—how long is this to last?"
The wheel stopped. She raised her eyes,—they were grave and steady.
"I do not understand you," she returned quietly. "What is it that you mean?"
He hesitated—then went on, with lowered eyelids and a half-smile.
"I mean—what all our set's talking about—Errington's queer fancy for that actress at the Brilliant."
Thelma still gazed at him fixedly. "It is a mistake," she said resolutely, "altogether a mistake. And as you are his friend, Sir Francis, you will please contradict this report—which is wrong, and may do Philip harm. It has no truth in it at all—"
"No truth!" exclaimed Lennox. "It's true as Gospel! Lady Errington, I'm sorry for it—but your husband is deceiving you most shamefully!"
"How dare you say such a thing!" she cried, springing upright and facing him,—then she stopped and grew very pale—but she kept her eyes upon him. How bright they were! What a chilling pride glittered in their sea-blue depths!
"You are in error," she said coldly. "If it is wrong to visit this theatre you speak of, why are you so often seen there—and why is not some harm said of you? It is not your place to speak against my husband. It is shameful and treacherous! You do forget yourself most wickedly!"
And she moved to leave the room. But Sir Francis interposed.
"Lady Errington," he said very gently, "don't be hard upon me—pray forgive me! Of course I've no business to speak—but how can I help it? When I hear every one at the clubs discussing you, and pitying you, it's impossible to listen quite unmoved! I'm the least among your friends, I know,—but I can't bear this sort of thing to go on,—the whole affair will be dished up in the society papers next!"
And he paced the room half impatiently,—a very well-feigned expression of friendly concern and sympathy on his features. Thelma stood motionless, a little bewildered—her head throbbed achingly, and there was a sick sensation of numbness creeping about her.
"I tell you it is all wrong!" she repeated with an effort. "I do not understand why these people at the clubs should talk of me, or pity me. I do not need any pity! My husband is all goodness and truth,"—she stopped and gathered courage as she went on. "Yes! he is better, braver, nobler than all other men in the world, it seems to me! He gives me all the joy of my life—each day and night I thank God for the blessing of his love!"
She paused again. Sir Francis turned and looked at her steadily. A sudden thought seemed to strike her, for she advanced eagerly, a sweet color flushing the pallor of her skin.
"You can do so much for me if you will!" she said, laying her hand on his arm. "You can tell all these people who talk so foolishly that they are wrong,—tell them how happy I am! And that my Philip has never deceived me in any matter, great or small!"
"Never?" he asked with a slight sneer. "You are sure?"
"Sure!" she answered bravely. "He would keep nothing from me that it was necessary or good for me to know. And I—oh! I might pass all my life in striving to please him, and yet I should never, never be worthy of all his tenderness and goodness! And that he goes many times to a theatre without me—what is it? A mere nothing—a trifle to laugh at! It is not needful to tell me of such a small circumstance!"
As she spoke she smiled—her form seemed to dilate with a sort of inner confidence and rapture.
Sir Francis stared at her half shamed,—half savage. The beautiful, appealing face, bright with simple trust, roused him to no sort of manly respect or forbearance,—the very touch of the blossom-white hand she had laid so innocently on his arm, stung his passion as with a lash—as he had said, he was fond of hunting—he had chased the unconscious deer all through the summer, and now that it had turned to bay with such pitiful mildness and sweet pleading, why not draw the knife across its slim throat without mercy?
"Really, Lady Errington!" he said at last sarcastically, "your wifely enthusiasm and confidence are indeed charming! But, unfortunately, the proofs are all against you. Truth is truth, however much you may wish to blind your eyes to its manifestations. I sincerely wish Sir Philip were present to hear your eloquent praises of him, instead of being where he most undoubtedly is,—in the arms of Violet Vere!"
As he said these words she started away from him and put her hands to her ears as though to shut out some discordant sound—her eyes glowed feverishly. A cold shiver shook her from head to foot.
"That is false—false!" she muttered in a low, choked voice. "How can you—how dare you?"
She ceased, and with a swaying, bewildered movement, as though she were blind, she fell senseless at his feet.
In one second he was kneeling beside her. He raised her head on his arm,—he gazed eagerly on her fair, still features. A dark contraction of his brows showed that his thoughts were not altogether righteous ones. Suddenly he laid her down again gently, and, springing to the door, locked it. Returning, he once more lifted her in a half-reclining position, and encircling her with his arms, drew her close to his breast and kissed her. He was in no hurry for her to recover—she looked very beautiful—she was helpless—she was in his power. The silvery ting-ling of the clock on the mantel-piece striking eleven startled him a little—he listened painfully—he thought he heard some one trying the handle of the door he had locked. Again—again he kissed those pale, unconscious lips! Presently, a slight shiver ran through her frame—she sighed, and a little moan escaped her. Gradually, as warmth and sensation returned to her, she felt the pressure of his embrace, and murmured—
"Philip! Darling,—you have come back earlier,—I thought—"
Here she opened her eyes and met those of Sir Francis, who was eagerly bending over her. She uttered an exclamation of alarm, and strove to rise. He held her still more closely.
"Thelma—dear, dearest Thelma! Let me comfort you,—let me tell you how much I love you!"
And before she could divine his intent, he pressed his lips passionately on her pale cheek. With a cry she tore herself violently from his arms and sprang to her feet, trembling in every limb.
"What—what is this?" she exclaimed wrathfully. "Are you mad?"
And still weak and confused from her recent attack of faintness, she pushed back her hair from her brows and regarded him with a sort of puzzled horror.
He flushed deeply, and set his lips hard.
"I dare say I am," he answered, with a bitter laugh; "in fact, I know I am! You see, I've betrayed my miserable secret. Will you forgive me, Lady Errington—Thelma?" He drew nearer to her, and his eyes darkened with restrained passion. "Matchless beauty!—adorable woman, as you are!—will you not pardon my crime, if crime it be—the crime of loving you? For I do love you!—Heaven only knows how utterly and desperately!"
She stood mute, white, almost rigid, with that strange look of horror frozen, as it were, upon her features. Emboldened by her silence, he approached and caught her hand,—she wrenched it from his grasp and motioned him from her with a gesture of such royal contempt that he quailed before her. All suddenly the flood-gates of her speech were loosened,—the rising tide of burning indignation that in its very force had held her dumb and motionless, now broke forth unrestrainedly.
"O God!" she cried impetuously, a magnificent glory of disdain flashing in her jewel-like eyes, "what thing is this that calls itself a man?—this thief of honor,—this pretended friend? What have I done, sir, that you should put such deep disgrace as your so-called love upon me?—what have I seemed, that you thus dare to outrage me by the pollution of your touch? I,—the wife of the noblest gentleman in the land! Ah!" and she drew a long breath—"and it is you who speak against my husband—you!" She smiled scornfully,—then with more calmness continued—"You will leave my house, sir, at once! . . . and never presume to enter it again!"