It was his absence that, as the evening wore on, made the color slip from Lesley's cheeks and robbed her eyes of their first brightness. A certain listlessness came over her. And Oliver, watching from his corner, exulted in his heart, for he thought to himself—
"It is for me she is looking sad; and if she will but yield her will to mine, I will win and wear her yet, in spite of all who would say me nay."
It was a veritable love-madness, such as had not come upon him since the days of his youth. He had had a fairly wide experience of love-making; but never had he been so completely mastered by his passion as he was now. The consideration that had once been so potent with him—love of ease, money, and position—seemed all to have vanished away. What mattered it that to abandon Ethel Kenyon at the last moment would mean disgrace and perhaps even beggary? He had no care left for thoughts like these. If Lesley would acknowledge her love for him, he was ready to throw all other considerations to the winds.
"Sing something, Lesley," her father said to her when the evening was well advanced. "You have your music here?"
Oh, yes, Lesley had her music here. But she glanced a little nervously in Oliver's direction. "I wonder if Ethel would accompany me," she said. She shrank nervously from the thought of Oliver's accompaniments.
But Oliver was too quick for her. He moved forward to the piano as soon as he saw Caspar Brooke's eye upon it. And with his hand on the key-board, he addressed himself suavely to Lesley.
"You are going to sing, I hope? May I not have the pleasure of accompanying you?"
Lesley could not say him nay, but she also could not help a glance, half of alarm, half of appeal, towards her father. Mr. Brooke's face wore an expression which was not often seen upon it at a social gathering. It was distinctly stormy—there was a frown upon the brow, and an ominous setting of the lips which more than one person in the room remarked. "How savage Brooke looks!" one guest murmured into another's ear. "Isn't he friendly with Trent?" And the words were remembered in after days.
But nothing could be said or done to hinder Oliver from taking his place at the piano, for Lesley did not openly object, and her father could not interfere between her and his own guest. So Lesley sang, and did not sing so well as usual, for her heart failed her a little, partly through vexation and partly through disappointment at Maurice Kenyon's disappearance, but she gave pleasure to her hearers, in spite of what seemed to herself a comparative failure, and when she had finished her song, she was besieged by requests that she would sing once more.
"Sing 'Thine is my heart,'" Oliver's soft voice murmured in her ear.
"I have not that song here," said Lesley, quietly. She was not very much discomposed now, but she did not want to encourage his attention. She rose from the music-stool. "My music is downstairs," she said. "I must go and fetch it—I have a new song that Ethel has promised to play for me."
Oliver bit his lips and stood back as Lesley escaped by the door of the front drawing-room. Mr. Brooke's eye was upon him, and he could not therefore follow her; but he made his way into the library through the folding doors, and there a new mode of attack became visible to him. By the library door he gained the landing; and then he softly descended the stairs, which were now almost deserted, for the guests had crowded into the drawing-room, first to hear Lesley's song and then to listen to a recitation by Ethel Kenyon. But where had Lesley gone?
A subtle instinct told him that she had hidden herself for a moment—and told him also where to find her. The lights were burning low in her father's study, which had been set to rights a little, in order to serve as a room where people could lounge and talk if they wanted to escape the din of conversation in the larger rooms. He looked in, and at first thought it empty. But the movement of a curtain revealed some one's presence; and as his eyes became accustomed to the dimmer light, he saw that it was Lesley. She was standing between the fireplace and curtained window, and her hand was on the mantelpiece.
She started when she saw him in the doorway. It was her start that betrayed her. He came forward and shut the door behind him—Lesley fancied that she heard the click of the key in the lock. She tried to carry matters with a high hand.
"I am afraid I cannot find my music here," she said, "so please do not shut the door, Mr. Trent. There is little enough light as it is."
She walked forward, but he had planted himself squarely between her and the door. She could not pass.
"Mr. Trent——" she began.
"Wait! don't speak," he said, in a voice so hoarse and stifled that she could hardly recognize it as his own. "I must have a word with you—forgive me—I won't detain you long——"
"Excuse me, I must go back to the drawing-room."
Lesley spoke civilly but coldly, though some sort of fear of him passed shiveringly through her frame.
"You shall not go yet: you shall listen to what I have to say."
"Yes, it is all very well to exclaim! You know what I mean, and what I want. I had not time to speak the other night; but I will speak now. Lesley, I love you!——"
"Mr. Trent, Ethel is upstairs. Have you forgotten her? Let me pass."
"I have not forgotten her: I remember her only too well. She is the burden, the incubus of my life. Oh, I know all that you can tell me about her: I know her beauty, her gifts, her virtues; but all that does not charm me. You, you and no other, are the woman that I love; and, beside you, Ethel is nothing to me at all."
"You might at least remember your duty to her," said Lesley, with severity. "You have won her heart, and you are about to vow to make her happy. I cannot understand how you can be so false to her."
"If I am false to her," said Oliver, pleadingly, "I am true to the dictates of my own heart. Hear me, Lesley—pity me! I have promised to marry a woman whom I do not love. I acknowledge it frankly. I shall never make her happy—strive as I may, her nature will never assimilate with mine. She will go through life a disappointed woman; while, if I set her free, she will find some man whom she loves and will be happy with him. You may as well confess that this is true. You may as well acknowledge that her nature is too light, too trivial to be rent asunder by any falsity of mine. Ethel will never break her heart; but you might break yours, Lesley—and I—I also—have a heart to break."
Lesley smiled scornfully. "Yours will not break very easily," she said, "and I can answer for mine."
"You are strong," he said, using the formula by which men know how to soften women's hearts, "stronger than I am. Be merciful, Lesley! I am very weak, I know; but weakness means suffering. Can you not pity me, when you think that my weakness and my suffering come from love of you?"
"I am very sorry, Mr. Trent, but I really cannot help it. It is your own fault—not mine," said Lesley, a little hotly. "I never thought of such a thing."
"No, you were as innocent and as good as you always are," he broke in, "and you did not know what you were doing when you led me on with those sweet looks and sweet words of yours. I can believe that. But you did the mischief, Lesley, without meaning it; and you must not refuse to make amends. You made me think you loved me."
"Oh, no, no," said Lesley, her face aflame with outraged modesty. "I never made you think so! You were mistaken—that is all!"
"You made me think you loved me," Oliver repeated, doggedly, "and you owe me amends. To say the very least, you have given me great pain: you have made me the most miserable of men, and wrecked all chance of happiness between Ethel and myself—have you no heart that you can refuse to repair a little of the harm that you have done? You are a cruel woman—I could almost say a wicked woman: hard, false, and cowardly; and I wish my words could blight your life as your coquetry has blighted mine."
Lesley trembled. No woman could listen to such words unmoved, when her armor of incredulity fell from her as Lesley's armor had fallen. Hitherto she had felt a scornful disbelief in the reality of Oliver's love for her. But now that disbelief had gone. There was a ring of passionate feeling in Oliver's tones which could not be simulated. The coldness, the artificiality of the man had disappeared: his passion for Lesley had taken possession of him, and stirred his nature to the very depths.
"Listen, Lesley," he said, in a low, strained voice, which shook and vibrated with the intensity of his emotion, "don't let me feel this. Don't let me feel that you have merely played with me, and are ready to cast me off like an old shoe when you are tired. Other women do that sort of thing, but not you, my darling!—not you—don't let me think it of you. Forgive me the harsh things I said, and help me—help me—to forget them."
He had grasped the back of a chair with both hands, and was kneeling with one knee on the seat. He now stretched out his hands to her, and came forward as if to take her in his arms. But Lesley drew back.
"I am very sorry," she said, "but I cannot help it. I did not mean to be unkind."
"If you are really sorry for me," he said, still in the deep-shaken voice which moved her to so uneasy a sense of pain and wrong-doing, "you will do all you can for me. You will help me to begin a new life. I love you so much that I am sure I could teach you to love me. I am certain of it, Lesley—dearest—let me try!"
Did she falter for a moment? There flashed over her the remembrance of Maurice's anger, of his continued absence, of the probability that he would never come back to her; and the dream of a tender love that could envelop the rest of her lonely life assailed her like a temptation. She hesitated, and in that moment's pause Oliver drew nearer to her side.
"Kiss me, Lesley!" he whispered, and his head bent over hers, his lips almost touched her own.
Then came the reaction—the awakening.
"Oh, no, no! Do not touch me. Do not come near me. I do not love you. And if I did"—said Lesley, almost violently—"if I loved you more than all the world, do you think that I would betray Ethel, my friend? that I would be so false to her—and to myself?"
"Then you do love me?" he murmured, undisturbed by her vehemence, which he did not think boded ill for his chances, after all.
"No, I do not."
"You are mistaken. Kiss me once, Lesley, and you will know. You will feel your love then."
"You insult me, Mr. Trent. Love you? Come one step nearer and I shall hate you. Oh!" she said, recoiling, as a gleam from the lamp revealed to her the wild expression in his eyes, the tension of his white lips and nostrils, the strange transformation in those usually impassive features which revealed the brutal nature below the polished surface of the man, "I hate you now!"
She was close to the wall, and her head came in sudden contact with the old-fashioned bell-rope. She seized it firmly.
"Open the door," she said, "or I shall ring this bell and send for my father. He will know what to do."
Oliver gazed at her for a minute or two, then, with a smothered oath upon his lips, he turned slowly to the door and opened it. Before leaving the room, however, he said, in a voice half-stifled by impotent passion—
"Is this really your last word?"
"The last I shall ever speak to you," said Lesley, resolutely.
Then he went out, seizing his hat as he passed through the hall and made his way into the street. He did not notice, as he retired, that a woman's figure was only half-concealed behind the curtains that screened a door in the study, and that his interview with Lesley must therefore have had an unseen auditor. He forgot that Ethel and Rosalind waited for him above. He was mad with rage; deaf to all voices saving those of passion: blind to all sights save the visions that floated maddeningly before his eyes.
Mad, blind, deaf to reason as he was, he was obliged to come back to earth and its realities before very long. For he was stopped in the streets by rough hands: a hoarse, passionate voice uttered threats and curses in his ear; and he found himself face to face with his long-vanished and half-forgotten brother, Francis Trent.
"What do you want with me?" said Oliver trying to shake off the rude grasp.
"I want you—you," gasped the man. He was evidently much excited, and his breath came in hard, quick pants. "Have you forgotten your own brother?"
The two paused for an instant under a gas lamp. Oliver looked into Francis Trent's drawn, livid face—into the wild, bloodshot eyes, and for an instant recoiled. It struck him that the face was that of a madman. But it was, nevertheless, the face of his brother, and after that momentary pause he recovered himself and laughed slightly.
"Forgotten you? I'm not very likely to forget you, my boy. Well, what do you want?"
"I want that two thousand pounds."
His hand still clutched Oliver's arm, and the grasp was becoming unpleasant.
"Can you not take your hand off my arm?" said the younger man, coolly. "I'm not going to run away. Apropos, what have you been doing with yourself all these weeks! I thought you had given us the slip altogether."
"I want my money," said Francis, doggedly.
Oliver looked at him curiously. What did this persistence mean? What money was he thinking about?
"Your money?" he repeated.
"Yes, my money—the money you ought to have given me by this time—where is it?"
"You mean the sum I promised you on my wedding-day?"
Francis nodded, with a rather confused look upon his face.
"My wedding-day has not occurred yet," said Oliver, lightly. "Upon my word, I doubt whether it ever will occur. Don't alarm yourself, Francis. I shall get the money for you before long—I've not forgotten it."
"I want it now. Two thousand pounds," said Francis, thickly.
"Are you drunk, man! Do you think I carry two thousand pounds about with me in my pocket? Go home—I'll see you again when you are sober."
"I have touched nothing but water to-day," said his brother. "I swear it—so help me, God! I know what I'm about. And I know you. I know you for the vilest cheat and trickster that ever walked the earth. I've been in hospital—I don't know how long. I know that you would cheat me if you could. You were to pay me within six months—and it's over six months now."
"I tell you I'm not married. I was to pay you on my wedding-day."
"You were to pay me within six months. Have you opened a bank account for me and paid in the two thousand pounds?"
"Are you mad, Francis?"
"Mad?—I may well be mad after all you have made me suffer. I tell you I want money—money—money—I want two thousand pounds."
His voice rose almost to a shriek, and the sound reverberated along the quiet street with startling effect. Oliver shrank into himself a little, and gave a hurried glance around him. They were still in Upper Woburn Place, and he was afraid that the noise should excite remark. It was plain to him that Francis was either drunk or out of his mind, and he therefore concentrated his attention on getting quietly away from him, or leading him to some more secluded spot.
"Look here," he said, in a conciliatory tone. "You shall have your money if you'll be quiet and come away with me. Come to my house and I'll explain things to you. You've not seen Rosalind for a long time, have you? Come in and talk things over."
"Oh, you want to trap me, do you?" said Francis, sullenly. "No, I'll not come to your house. Go in and fetch the money out to me, or I'll make you repent it."
Oliver was almost at his wit's end.
"All right," he said, soothingly. "I will fetch it. I can give you a cheque, you know. But don't you want a little loose change to go on with? Take these."
He held out a handful of gold and silver. Francis looked at it with covetous eyes for a minute or two, then thrust his brother's hand aside with a jerk which almost sent the coins into the road.
"I want justice, not charity," he said. "I want the money you promised me."
Oliver shrugged his shoulders, and slowly returned the money to his pocket.
"I am more than ever convinced that you are either mad or drunk, my boy," he said. "You should never refuse ten pounds when you can get it, and it's not a thing that I should fancy you have often done before. However, as you choose."
He walked onward, and Francis walked, heavily and unsteadily, at his side, muttering to himself as he went. Oliver glanced curiously at him from time to time.
"I wonder what has happened to him," he said to himself. "It's not safe to question, but I should like to know. Is it drink? or is it brain disease? One thing or the other it must be. He does not look as if he would live to spend the two thousand pounds—if ever he gets it. I wonder if I could contrive to stave off the payment——"
And then he fell into a gloomy calculation of ways and means, possibilities and chances, which lasted until the house in Russell Square was reached. Here the brothers paused, and Oliver looked keenly into his companion's face, noting that a somewhat remarkable change had passed over it. Instead of being flushed and swollen, as if from drinking, it had become very pale. His eyes seemed on the point of closing, and he wavered unsteadily in his walk. Oliver had to put out his hand to save him from falling, and to help him to the steps, where he collapsed into a sitting posture, with his head against the railings. He seemed to be stupefied, if not asleep.
"Dead drunk," said Oliver to himself. "The danger's over for to-night, at any rate. Now, what shall I do with him? I can't get him into the house and lock him into a room—that would make talk. I think I had better leave him to the tender mercies of the next policeman; if he gets run in for being drunk and incapable, so much the better for me."
He took out his latch key and let himself into the house, closing the door softly behind him, so as not to awaken the half-sleeping wretch upon the steps. Then he ascended the stairs—still softly, as if he thought that he was not yet out of danger of awaking him—and locked himself into his own room. Then he drew a long breath, and stood motionless for a moment, with bent brows and downcast eyes. "There will be no end to this," he said to himself, "until Francis is shipped off to America or landed safely in a madhouse. One seems to me about as likely as another. I wonder whether he was drunk to-night, or insane? Drunk, I think: insanity"—with a sinister smile—"would be too great a stroke of luck for me!"
But it was perfectly true, as Francis had said, that no drop of intoxicating liquor had passed his lips that day. He was suffering from brain disease, as Oliver had half suspected, although not to such an extent that he could actually be called insane. A certain form of mania was gradually taking possession of his mind. He was convinced that he had been robbed by his brother of much that was his due; and that Oliver was even now withholding money that was his. This fancy had its foundation in fact, for Oliver had wronged him more than once, and was ready to wrong him again should a suitable opportunity occur; but the notion that at present occupied his mind, respecting the payment of the two thousand pounds, was largely a figment of his disordered brain. Oliver had certainly questioned within himself whether he should be called upon to pay this sum, and as Francis seemed to have completely disappeared, he began to think that he might evade his promise to do so; but he had not as yet sought to free himself from the necessity of paying it. Francis' own words and demeanor suggested this idea for the first time to his mind. Was it possible, he asked himself, to prove that Francis was insane—clap him into a lunatic asylum—get rid of him forever without hush-money? True, there was his wife, Mary, to be silenced; but she had no influence and no friends. "Power is always in the hands of those who have most money," Oliver said to himself, as he reviewed the situation, after leaving Francis on the door step. "I have more money than Francis, certainly: I ought to be able to control his fate a little—and my own."
But Oliver, astute as he thought himself, was occasionally mistaken in his conclusions. Francis Trent, as we have said, was not intoxicated; and when he had dozed quietly for a few moments on the door-step, he came somewhat to himself, as he usually did after these fits of frenzy. He felt dazed and bewildered, but he was no longer furious. He could not remember very well what he had said to Oliver, or what Oliver had said to him. But he knew where he was, and that in this region—between Russell Square and St. Pancras Church—he should find his truest friends and perhaps also his bitterest foes.
He roused himself, stretched his cramped limbs, and turned back to wander towards Upper Woburn Place, hardly knowing, however, why he bent his steps in that direction. Instinct, not memory or reflection, guided him, and when he halted, he leaned against the railings of the house from which he had seen Oliver come forth, without realizing for one moment that it was the house in which his faithful and half-forgotten Mary was to be found.
The door opened, as he waited, and some of the guests came out. Two or three carriages drove up: there was a call for a hansom, a whistle, and an answering shout. Francis Trent watched the proceedings with a sort of stupid attention. They reminded him of the previous night when he had seen Ethel Kenyon coming out of the theatre after her farewell performance. But on that occasion he had passed unnoticed and unrecognized. This was not now to be the case.
Suddenly a woman on the threshold of Mr. Brooke's house caught sight of the weary, shabby figure leaning against the railings. Francis heard a little gasp, a little cry, and felt a hand upon his own. "Francis! is it you? have you really come back?" It was Mary Kingston who looked him in the face.
He returned the gaze with lack-lustre, unseeing eyes. When the fever-fit of rage left him, he was still subject to odd lapses of memory. One of these had assailed him now. He did not recognize his wife in the very least.
"I—I don't know you," he said. "Go away, woman. I'm not doing any harm."
There is nothing so piteous as the absence of recognition of the patient's best friends in cases of brain-disease. Francis Trent's condition sent a stab of pain to Mary's innermost heart. She forgot where she was—she forgot her duties as doorkeeper; she remembered only that she loved this man, and that he had forgotten her. She cried aloud——
"Francis, I am your wife."
"I have no wife," said the distraught man, looking listlessly beyond her. "I am here to see Oliver—he is to give me some money."
"Don't you remember Mary, Francis? Look at me—look at me."
"Mary?" he said, doubtfully. "Oh, yes, I remember Mary. But you are not Mary, are you?"
"Yes, indeed I am. Where have you been all this time? Oh, my poor dear, you can't tell me! You are ill, Francis. Let me take care of you. Can you tell me where you live?"
But he could not reply. His head drooped upon his breast: he looked as if he neither saw nor heard. What was she to do?
Of one thing Mary was certain. Now that she had found her husband, she was not going to lose sight of him again.
She would go with him whithersoever he went, unless he repelled her by force. She gave one regretful thought to her young mistress, and to a certain project which she had determined to put into effect that night, and then she thought of the Brookes no more. She must leave them, and follow her husband's fortunes. There was no other way for her.
Fortunately she had money in her pocket. She had also thrown a shawl across her arm before she came to the door. The shawl belonged to Miss Brooke, and had been offered to one of the guests as a loan; but Mary had forgotten all about the guests, and appropriated the shawl, with the cool resolution which characterized her in cases of emergency. Necessity—especially the necessity entailed by love—knows no law. At that moment she knew no law but that of her repressed and stunted, but always abiding, affection for the husband who had burdened her life for many weary years with toil and anxiety and care. For him she would do anything—throw up all friendships, sacrifice her future, her character, and, if need be, her life.
She wrapped the shawl round her head, and put her arm through her husband's, without once looking back.
"Come, Francis," she said, quietly, "show me where you live now. We will go home."
She led him unresistingly away. For a little while he walked as if in a dream; but by and by his movements became more assured, and he turned so decidedly in one direction that she saw he knew his way and was pursuing it. She said nothing, but kept close to his side, with her hand resting lightly on his arm. She was not mistaken in her expectations. Francis went straight to the wretched lodging in which he had slept for the past few nights, and Mary at once assumed the management of his affairs.
She was rewarded—as she thought, poor soul!—for her efforts. When she had lighted a fire and a candle, and prepared some sort of frugal meal for the man she loved, he lifted up his face and looked at her with a gleam of returning memory and intelligence in his haggard eyes.
"Mary," he said, in a bewildered tone, "Mary—my wife? How did you come here, Mary? How did you find me out?"
"Are you glad to see me, dear?" said Mary.
"Yes—yes, I am. Everything will be right now. You'll manage things for me."
It was an acknowledgment of the power of her affection which more than recompensed her for the trouble of the last few months.
MRS. TRENT'S STORY.
"I never heard of such an extraordinary thing," said Lesley.
"Then that shows how little you know of the world," said Doctor Sophy, amicably. "I've heard of a hundred cases of the kind."
"Well, there are some elements of oddity in this case," remarked Caspar Brooke, striking in with unexpected readiness to defend his daughter's views. "Kingston was not a giddy young girl, who would go off with any man who made love to her. Indeed, I can't quite fancy any man making love to her at all. She was remarkably plain, poor woman."
"She had beautiful eyes," said Lesley. "And she was so nice and quiet and kind. And I really thought that she was—fond of me." She paused before she uttered the last three words, being a little afraid that they would be thought sentimental. And indeed Miss Brooke did give a contemptuous snort, but Caspar smiled kindly, and patted his daughter's hand.
"Don't take it to heart," he said. "'Fondness' is a very indeterminate term, and one that you must not scrutinize too closely. This little black beast, for instance"—caressing, as he spoke, the head of the ebony-hued cat which sat upon the arm of his chair—"which I picked up half-starving in the street when it was a kitten, is fond of me because I feed it: but suppose that I were too poor to give it milk and chicken-bones, do you think it would retain any affection for me? A sublimated cupboard-love is all that we can expect now-a-days from cats—and servants."
"When you can write as you do about love," said Lesley, who was coming to know her father well enough to tease him now and then, "I wonder that you dare venture to express yourself in this cold-blooded way in our hearing!"
"Ah, but, my dear, I was not talking about love," said Caspar, lightly. "I was talking about 'fondness,' which is a very different matter. You did not say that your maid, Kingston, loved you—I suppose she was hardly likely to go that length—you said that she was fond of you. Very probably. But fondness has its limits."
Lesley smiled in reply, and did not utter the thought that occurred to her. What she really believed was that Kingston was not only "fond" of her, after the instinctive fashion of a dumb creature that one feeds, but loved her, as one woman loves another. Although her democratic feelings came to her through her father's teaching, or by inheritance from him, she did not quite like to say this to him: he might think it foolish to believe that a servant whom she had not known for very many weeks actually loved her; and yet she had the conviction that Kingston's attachment was deeper and more sincere than that of many a woman who claimed to be her friend. And she was both grieved and puzzled by Kingston's disappearance.
For this was on Monday morning, and the woman had not come back to Mr. Brooke's. Great had been the astonishment of every one in the house when it was found that the quiet, well-spoken, well-behaved Mary Kingston, who had hitherto proved herself so trustworthy and so conscientious, had gone away—disappeared utterly and entirely, without leaving a word of explanation behind. She had last been seen on the pavement, shortly before midnight, assisting a lady to get into a hansom. Nobody had seen her re-enter the house. It seemed as if she had been spirited away. She had gone without a bonnet or shawl, in her plain black dress and white cap and apron, as if she meant to return in a minute or two, and she had not appeared again. The shawl that she had taken with her was not missed, for Miss Brooke continued for some time under the impression that it had been lent to one of the visitors.
The conversation recorded above took place at Mr. Brooke's luncheon-table. It was not often that he was present at this meal, but on this occasion he had joined his sister and daughter, and questioned them with considerable interest about Kingston. After lunch, he put his hand gently on Lesley's arm, just as she was leaving the dining-room, and said, in a tone where sympathy was veiled with banter—
"Never mind, my dear. We will get you another maid, who will be less fond of you, and then perhaps she will stay."
"I don't want another maid, thank you, papa. And, indeed, I do think Kingston was fond of me," said Lesley earnestly.
Mr. Brooke shrugged his shoulders. "Verily," he said, "the credulity of some women——"
"But it isn't credulity," said Lesley, with something between a smile and a sigh, "it is faith. And I can't altogether disbelieve in poor Kingston—even now."
Mr. Brooke shook his head, but made no rejoinder. Privately he thought Lesley foolishly mistaken, but believed that time would do its usual office in correcting the mistakes of the young.
His own incredulity received a considerable shock somewhat later in the day. About four o'clock a knock came to his study, and the knock was followed by the appearance of the sour-visaged Sarah.
"If you please, sir, there's that woman herself wants to see you."
"What woman, Sarah?" said Caspar, carelessly. He was writing and smoking, and did not look up from his work.
"The woman, Kingston, that ran away," said Sarah, indignantly. "I nearly shut the door in her face, sir, I did."
"That wouldn't have been legal," said Mr. Brooke. "Why doesn't she see Miss Brooke or Miss Lesley? I am busy."
"I expect she thinks she can get round you more easy," said Sarah, who was a very old servant, and occasionally took liberties with her master and mistress.
"She won't do that, Sarah," said Caspar, laughing a little in spite of himself. "Show her in."
He laid down his pen and his pipe with a rather weary air. Really, he was becoming involved in no end of domestic worries, and with few compensations for his trouble! Such was his silent thought. Lesley would, shortly leave him: Alice had refused to come back to his house. Well, it would be but for a short time. He had almost made up his mind that when Lesley was gone he would give up a house altogether, establish his sister in a flat, throw journalism to the winds, and go abroad. The life that he had led so long, the life of London offices and streets, of the study and the committee-room, had become distasteful to him. As he thrust away from him the manuscript at which he had been busy, his lips were, half unconsciously, murmuring a very well-worn quotation—
"For I will see before I die, The palms and temples of the South."
And from this passing day-dream he was roused by the entrance of a woman whom he knew only as his daughter's maid.
He was struck at once by some indefinable change that had passed over her since he had seen her last. He had noticed her, as he noticed everybody that came within his ken; and he had remarked the mechanical precision of her demeanor, the dull sadness of her lifeless eyes. There was a light in her face now, a tremulous quiver of her lips, a slight color in her thin cheeks. She looked like a creature who could feel and think: not an automaton, worked by ingenious machinery.
He noted the change, but did not estimate it at its true worth. He thought she was simply excited by the consciousness of her misdemeanor, and by the prospect of an interview with him. He put on his most magisterial manner as he spoke to her.
"Well, Kingston," he said, "I hope you have come to explain the cause of the great inconvenience you have brought upon Miss Brooke and my daughter."
"That is exactly what I have come to do, sir," said Kingston, looking him full in the face, and speaking in clear, decided tones, such as he had never heard from her before. She generally spoke in a muffled sort of way, as though she did not care to exert herself—as though she did not want her true voice to be heard.
"Sit down," said Mr. Brooke, more kindly. He had the true gentleman's instinct; he could not bear to see a woman stand while he was seated, although she was only his daughter's maid, and—presumably—a culprit awaiting condemnation. "Now tell me all about it."
"Thank you, sir, I'd prefer to stand," said Kingston, quietly. "At any rate, until I've told you one or two things about myself. To begin with: my name was Kingston before my marriage, but it's not Kingston now."
"Do you mean that you have got married since Saturday?" asked Caspar, quietly.
The woman uttered a short, gasping sort of laugh. "Since Saturday? Oh, no, sir. I've been married for the last six years, or more. I am Francis Trent's wife—Francis the brother of Mr. Oliver Trent, who was here last Saturday night."
And then, overcome with her confession, or with the look of mute astonishment—which he could not repress—on Caspar Brooke's countenance, she dropped into the chair that he had offered her, covered her face with her hands and sobbed aloud. It took her hearer some seconds before he could adjust his mind to this new revelation.
"Do you mean," he said at last, "that brother of Mr. Trent's"—he had nearly said "of Mrs. Romaine's"—"who—who——" He paused, feeling unable to put into words the question that was in his mind.
"That got into trouble some years ago, you mean," said Mrs. Trent, lifting her face from her hands, and trying to control her trembling voice. "Yes, I mean him. I know all about the story. He got into trouble, and he's gone from bad to worse ever since. I've done my best for him, but it doesn't seem as if I could do much more now."
"He's been ill—I think he's had an accident—but I don't rightly know what's been the matter with him. Mr. Brooke, sir, I hope you'll believe me in what I say. When I came here first I didn't know that you were friends with his sister and his brother, or I wouldn't have come near the place. And when I found it out I'd got fond of Miss Lesley, and thought it would be no harm to stay."
"But what—what on earth—made you take a situation as ladies'-maid at all?" cried Caspar, pulling his beard in his perplexity, as he listened to her story.
"I wanted to earn money. He could not work—and I could not bear to see him want."
"Could not work? Was it not a matter of the will? He could have worked if he had wished to work," said Mr. Brooke, rather sternly. "That Francis Trent should let his wife go out as——"
"Oh, well, it was work I was used to," said Francis Trent's wife, patiently. "I'd been in service when I was a girl, and knew something about it. And it was honest work. There's plenty of ways of earning money which are worse than being a servant in your house, and to Miss Lesley, too."
Lesley's words came back to Caspar's mind. She had had "faith" in Kingston's attachment, and her faith seemed now to be justified. Women's instincts, as Caspar acknowledged to himself, are in some ways certainly juster than those of men.
"Is he not strong? Is there no sort of work that he can do?" he demanded, with asperity. "If you had come to me at the beginning and told me who you were, I might have found something for him. It is not right that his wife should be waiting upon my daughter. Tell me what he can do."
"I don't think he can do much now," was Mary Trent's answer. "He's very much broken down. I daresay you wouldn't know him if you saw him. I don't think he could do a day's work, so there's all the more reason that I should work for both."
She spoke truly enough as regarded the present; but, by a suppression of the truth which was almost heroic she concealed the fact that for many years Francis had been able but unwilling to work. Now, certainly, he was incapacitated, and she spoke as if he had been an invalid for years. Thus Caspar Brooke understood her, and his next words were uttered in a gentler tone.
"I am very sorry that you should have been brought into these straits, Mrs. Trent. Will you give me your address, and let me think over the matter? Mrs. Romaine or Mr. Oliver Trent——"
"I'd rather not have anything to do with them," said Mrs. Trent, quietly, but with an involuntary lifting of her head. "Mrs. Romaine knows I am his wife, but she won't speak to me or see me." Caspar moved uneasily in his chair. This account of Rosalind's behavior did not coincide with his own idea of her softness and gentleness. "And Oliver Trent is the man who has brought more misery on me than any other man in the world."
"But if I promise—as I will do—not to give your address to Mrs. Romaine or Mr. Trent, will you not let me know where you live?" said Caspar, with the gentle intonation that had often won him his way in spite of greater obstacles than poor Mary Trent's obstinate will.
She gave him her address, after a little hesitation. It was in a Whitechapel slum. Then, seeing in his face that he would have liked to ask more questions, she went on hurriedly—
"But I have not come here to take up your time. I only wanted to explain to you why I left your house on Saturday—which I'm very sorry to have been obliged to do. And one other thing—but I'll tell you that afterwards."
"Well? Why did you go on Saturday, Mrs. Trent?" said Mr. Brooke, more curious than he would have liked to allow. But she did not reply as directly to his question as he wanted her to do.
"I was only a poor girl when Francis married me," she said, "but I loved him as true as any one could have loved, and I would have worked my fingers to the bone for him. And he was good to me, in his way. He got to depend upon me and trust to me; and I used to feel—especially when he'd had a little more than he ought to have—as if he was more of a child to me than a husband. It was to provide for him that I came here. And then—one day when I'd been here a little while—I went to his lodgings to give him some money I'd been saving up for him—and I found him gone—gone—without a word—without a message—disappeared, so to speak, and me left behind to be miserable."
Caspar ejaculated "Scoundrel!" behind his hand, but Mrs. Trent heard and caught up the word.
"No, you're wrong, sir, he was no scoundrel," she said calmly. "He'd met with an accident and been taken to an hospital. He was there for weeks and weeks, not able to give an account of himself, or, as far as I can make out, even to give his name. He came out last week, and made his way, by sort of instinct, to your house, where he knew I was living. I came out on the steps and saw him there—my husband that I'd given up for lost. I ran up to him—you'd have done the same in my place—and went with him without thinking of anybody else."
"I see. But why did you not leave a word of explanation behind."
"I daren't quit hold of him for a moment, sir. He was so dazed and stupid, he didn't even know me at the first. That was why I say it was instinct, not knowledge, that guided him to the place. If I had left him to speak to any one in the house, he might have gone off, and I never seen him again. That was why I felt obliged to go sir, and am very sorry for the inconvenience I know I must have caused."
Caspar nodded gravely. "I see," he said. "Of course it was inconvenient, and we were anxious—there's no denying that. But I can see the matter from your point of view. Would you like to see Miss Lesley and explain it to her?"
"I'd rather leave it in your hands, sir," said Mary Trent. "Because there's one thing more I've got to mention before I go. And Miss Lesley may not thank me for mentioning it, although I do it to save her—poor lamb—and to save you too, sir, from a great trouble and sorrow and disgrace that hangs over you all just now."
Caspar flushed. "Disgrace?" he said, almost angrily.
And Mrs. Trent looked at him full in the face and nodded gravely, as she answered—
"Yes, sir, disgrace."
"A FAIRLY GOOD REASON."
Caspar Brooke's attitude stiffened. His features and limbs became suddenly rigid.
"I must confess, Mrs. Trent," he said, "that I am unable to conceive the possibility of disgrace hanging over me or mine."
"That is because you are a man, and therefore blind to what goes on around you," said Mary Trent, with sudden bitterness; "and I am a woman, and can use my eyes and ears. There, I'd better tell you my tale at once, and you can make what you like of it. Miss Lesley——"
"If you have anything to say about Miss Lesley, it had better be said in her hearing," returned Caspar, in hot displeasure. He rose and laid his hand upon the bell. "I want no tales about her behind her back."
"For mercy's sake, sir, stop," said the woman, eagerly. "It is only to spare her that I ask it! It isn't that she is to blame—no, no, I don't mean that; but she is in more danger than she knows."
Caspar's hand fell from the bell rope. His face had turned a trifle pale, and his brows looked very stern.
"Tell me exactly what you mean. I do not wish to listen to anything that Miss Lesley has not intended me to hear. I have perfect faith in her."
"Faith in her! She's one of the sweetest and truest-hearted ladies I ever came across," said Mary Trent, indignantly; "but she may be on the brink of a precipice without knowing it. Sir, what I mean is this. Mr. Oliver Trent is in love with Miss Lesley, and is doing his best to get her to run off with him. Yes, I know what you want to say—that she would never do such a thing—but one cannot always say what a girl will do under pressure; and, believe me or not as you please, Oliver Trent is ready to throw over Miss Kenyon at any moment for the sake of your daughter, Mr. Brooke."
"Do you know what you are saying?" thundered Caspar, now white to the lips. "Do you know what an aspersion you are casting on my daughter's character? Are you aware that Miss Kenyon's marriage with Mr. Trent is to take place to-morrow morning? Your remarks are perfectly unjustifiable—unless you are in ignorance of the facts of the case."
"I know all, and yet I warn you," said Mrs. Trent, perfectly unmoved by this burst of anger. "I tell you what I have seen and heard for myself. And I know Oliver Trent only too well. It was Oliver Trent who betrayed my only sister, and brought her to a miserable death. She was a good girl until she met him. He ruined her, and he had no scruples. He will have more outward respect to Miss Lesley and Miss Kenyon, but he is no more scrupulous about using his power, when he has any, than he was then."
"After making this accusation you must not be surprised if I ask what grounds you have for it," said Mr. Brooke.
He was calm enough to all appearance now, but even Mrs. Trent, not very observant by nature, could tell that he was very much disturbed. For answer, she proceeded to describe the scene that had taken place in the very room in which they now stood, on the preceding Saturday night.
"I saw him follow Miss Lesley into this room," she explained. "And I'd seen enough to make me fearful of what he was going to do or say. You know there are folding-doors between this room and the next—screened by curtains. The doors had been partly opened, and I slipped into the space between them. I was covered by the curtain, and I could not hear all that was said, because I had sounds from the other room in my ears as well; but I heard a great deal, and I made up my mind to tell you there and then. If I had not seen my husband that night you would have heard my story before you slept."
Caspar Brooke's next question took her by surprise. He swung round on one heel, so that his back was almost turned to her, and flung the words over his shoulder with savage bitterness.
"What business had you to listen to my daughter's conversation with her friends?"
This was a distinctly ungrateful speech, and Mrs. Trent felt it so. But she replied, quietly—
"Miss Lesley's been kinder to me than any one I ever knew. And I had suffered a good deal from Oliver Trent's wicked falseness. He is my brother-in-law, as the law puts it, and I don't want to have any quarrel with him: but he shall do no more harm than I can help."
By the time she had finished her speech Caspar had recovered himself a little.
"You are quite right," he said, "and you have done me a service for which I thank you. I don't for a moment suppose that my daughter is not capable of taking care of herself. But other people are interested beside Lesley. Miss Kenyon's brother is one of my closest friends, and I should be very treacherous if I allowed her to marry this man, Oliver Trent, after all that I have heard about him to-night—if it be true. I don't want to throw doubt on your testimony, Mrs. Trent, but I suppose I must have some further proof."
"Miss Lesley could tell you——"
"I shall not ask Miss Lesley, unless I am obliged. Did you not yourself beg me to spare her? This other story of his heartless conduct to your sister is quite enough to damn him in every right-minded woman's eyes. I shall speak to him myself—I will have the truth from his own lips if I have to wring it out by main force," said Caspar speaking more to himself than to Mary Trent, and quite unaware how truculent an appearance he presented at that moment to that quiet woman's eyes.
She smiled stealthily to herself. She had a great faith in Caspar Brooke's powers for good or evil. To have him upon her side made her support with equanimity the thought that she and Francis might suffer if Oliver did not marry a rich wife. He would see that they did not want. And she should behold the darling wish of her heart gratified at last. For had she not ardently desired, ever since the day of Alice's betrayal and Alice's death, to see that false betrayer punished? Caspar Brooke would punish him, and she should be the instrument through which his punishment had come about.
"I should like to thrash the scoundrel within an inch of his life," said Mr. Brooke.
"There is very little time before the wedding, if you mean to do anything before then," said Mrs. Trent, softly.
Caspar started. "Yes, that is true. I must see him to-night. H'm"—he stopped short, oppressed by the difficulties of the situation. Had he not better speak to Maurice Kenyon at once? But, as he recollected, Maurice had gone out of town, and would not be back until half an hour or so before the hour fixed for his sister's wedding. The ceremony was to be performed at an unusually early hour—ten o'clock in the morning—for divers reasons: one being that Ethel wanted to begin her journey to Paris in very good time. She had never been anxious for a fashionable wedding, and had decided to have no formal wedding breakfast, and there was no reason for delaying the proceedings until a later hour. But, as Mr. Brooke reflected, unless he went to Ethel Kenyon herself there was little time in which to take action. Indeed, it seemed to him for a moment almost better to let the past sink into oblivion, and to hope that Oliver would be kind and faithful to the beautiful and gifted girl who was, apparently, the choice of his heart.
But it was not to Mrs. Trent's interest that this mood should last. "Poor Miss Kenyon!" she said, in quietly regretful tones. "I'm sorry for her, poor young lady. No mother or father to look after her, and no friend even who dares to tell her the truth!"
The words stung Caspar. He thought of his own daughter Lesley, placed in Ethel's position, and he felt that he could not let Ethel go unwarned. And yet—could he believe Oliver Trent to be such a scoundrel on the mere strength of this woman's story! It might be all a baseless slander, fabricated for the sake of obtaining money. And there was so little time before poor Ethel's wedding!
While he hesitated, Mary Trent saw her opportunity, and seized it.
"If you want to see Oliver Trent," she said, "he is coming to our lodgings this very night. I have been to Mrs. Romaine's house to ask him to come to my husband who wants a few words with him. If you'll undertake to come there, I'll let you see what sort of a man Mr. Oliver Trent is, and then you can judge for yourself whether or no he is a fit husband for Miss Kenyon, or a fit lover for Miss Lesley Brooke."
Caspar raised his hand hastily as if to entreat silence. "Tell me where you live," he said shortly, "and the hour when he will be there."
"Half-past nine o'clock this evening, sir. The place—oh, you know the place well enough: it is in Whitechapel."
She gave him the address. He cast a keen, sharp glance at her face as he took it down. "Not a pleasant neighborhood," he said gravely. "May I ask why you have taken a room in that locality?"
She shook her head. "I did not take it," she said. "My husband took it before I found him, and I was obliged to stay. Francis is ill—I cannot get him away."
"Can I do anything to help——" Caspar was beginning but she interrupted him with almost surprising vehemence.
"Oh, no, no. I would not take anything from you. I did not come for that. I came to see if I could save Miss Lesley and Miss Kenyon from misery, not to beg—either for myself or him."
The earnestness of her tone took from Mr. Brooke a certain uneasy suspicion which had begun to steal over him: a suspicion that she was using him as a tool for her own ends, that her real motives had been concealed from him. Even when she had gone—and she went without making any attempt to see Lesley or Miss Brooke—he could not rid himself altogether of this suggestion; for with her sad voice no longer echoing in his ears, with her deep-set eyes looking no longer into his face, he found it easier to doubt and to suspect than to place implicit faith in the story that she had told him.
Lesley had heard of Kingston's reappearance, and was very much surprised to find that she was not called upon to interview her runaway attendant. Still more was she surprised when at last she heard the front door shut, and learned from Sarah that the woman had gone without a word. So much amazed was she, that shortly before dinner she stole into her father's study and attempted to cross-examine him, though with small result.
"Father, Sarah says that Kingston has been to see you."
"Yes, she has," said Caspar, briefly. He was writing away as if for dear life, with his left hand grasping his beard, and his pipe lying unfilled upon the table—two signs of dire haste, as Lesley had by this time learned to know. She remained silent, therefore, feeling herself an intruder.
"What do you want to know, my dear?" said her father at last, in a quiet, business-like tone. He went on writing all the time.
"Is she coming back to us?"
"Why did she go away?"
"I cannot tell you just now. She had a—a—fairly good reason."
"I thought she must have had that," said Lesley, brightening. "And did she come here to explain?"
"But why not to us?"
Caspar laid down his pen suddenly, and laughed. "Oh, the insatiable curiosity of women! I thought you were wiser than most, Lesley, but you have all the characteristics of your sex. I can't satisfy your curiosity, to-day, but I will, if I can, in a short time. Will that do?"
Lesley seemed rather hurt. "I don't think I asked questions out of mere curiosity," she said. "I always liked Kingston."
"And she likes you, my dear—so far you were perfectly right," said her father, rising, and patting her on the arm. "To use your feminine parlance, she is quite as 'fond' of you as you can reasonably desire."
"I don't like to hear so much about 'feminine' ways and characteristics," said Lesley, smiling, and recovering her spirits. "I always fancy somebody has vexed you when you talk in that cynical manner."
"That remark is creditable to your penetration," said Mr. Brooke, in his accustomed tone of gentle raillery, "and, you cannot say that it is not a very harmless way of letting off steam."
"Who has vexed you then?" said Lesley, looking keenly into his face. It was a bold question, but her father did not look displeased.
"Suppose I said—you yourself?" he queried, with a certain real gravity which she was not slow to discover.
The color rushed into her face. She thought of Maurice Kenyon, and the mistake that he had made. She had long been conscious of her father's disappointment, but had not expected him to speak of it. She made an effort to be equal to the situation.
"If you are vexed with me, it would be kinder to tell me of it than to sneer at all womankind in general," she said, with spirit.
"Right you are, my girl. Well—why have you refused Kenyon?"
Her eyes drooped. "I would rather you did not ask me that, father."
"Nonsense, Lesley. A plain answer to a plain question is easy to give. Are you in love with any one else?"
"No, indeed," she answered, vehemently; "I am not——"
And then, for some inexplicable reason, she stopped short.
"'Not in love with any one' was what she was going to say," said Caspar to himself, as he watched with keen eyes the changes of color and expression in her face. "And she does not dare to say it after all. What does that mean?" But he did not say this aloud.
"You don't care for Maurice, then?" he asked her.
She drew herself away from him and colored hotly, but made no other reply.
"My dear," said Caspar, half jestingly, half warningly, "you must let me remind you that silence is usually taken to mean consent."
And even then she did not speak.
"Really, of all incomprehensible creatures, women are the worst. Well, well! Tell me this, at any rate, Lesley: you have not given your heart to Oliver Trent?"
"Father! how can you ask?"
"Have you anything to complain of with respect to him? Has he always behaved to you with courtesy and consideration?"
"I would rather not say," Lesley answered, bravely. "He—spoke as I did not like—once—or twice; but it is his wedding-day to-morrow, and I mean to forget it all."
"Once or twice! When was the last time, child? On Saturday? Here in this room? Ah, I see the truth in your face. Never mind how I know it. I want to know nothing more. Now you can go: I am busy, and shall probably have to be out late to-night."
With these words he led the girl gently out of the room, kissed her on the forehead before he shut the door, and then returned to his work. He did not dine with his sister and daughter, but sent a message of excuse. Later in the evening, Sarah reported to Miss Brooke that "Master had gone out, looking very much upset about something or other; and he'd taken his overcoat and his big stick, which showed, she supposed, that he was off to the slums he was so fond of." Sarah did not approve of slums.
ETHEL KENYON'S WEDDING-DAY.
The morning of Ethel Kenyon's wedding-day was as bright and sunny as any wedding day had need to be. The weather was unusually warm, and the trees were already showing the thin veil of green which is one of spring's first heralds in smoky London town. The window-boxes in the Square were gay with hyacinth and crocus-blossom. The flower-girls' baskets were brilliant with "market bunches" of wall-flowers and daffodils—these being the signs by which the dwellers in the streets know that the winter is over, that the time of the singing of birds has come, and that the voice of the turtle is heard in the land. The soft breezes blew a fragrance of violets and lilac-blossom from the gardens and the parks. London scarcely looked like itself, with the veil of smoke lifted away, and a fair blue sky, flecked with light silvery cloud, showing above the chimney-tops.
Ethel was up at seven o'clock, busying herself with the last touches to her packing and the consideration of her toilet; for she was much too active-minded to care for the seclusion in which brides sometimes preserve themselves upon their wedding-mornings. Some people might have thought that it would not be a very festive day, for her brother was the only near relative who remained to her, and an ancient uncle and aunt who had been, as Ethel herself phrased it, "routed out" for the occasion, were not likely to add much to the gaiety of nations by their presence. Mrs. Durant, lately Ethel's companion, was to remain in the house as Maurice's housekeeper, and she had nominally the control of everything; but Ethel was still the veritable manager of the day's arrangements. She had insisted on having her own way in all respects, and Oliver was not the man to say her nay—just then.
Mrs. Romaine had offered to stay the night with her, and help her to dress; but Ethel had smilingly refused the companionship of her future sister-in-law. "Thanks very much," she had said, in the light and airy way which took the sting out of words that might otherwise have hurt their hearer; "but I don't think there's anything in which I want help, and Lesley Brooke is going to act as my maid on the eventful morn itself."
"Lesley Brooke?" said Mrs. Romaine. She could not altogether keep the astonishment out of her voice.
"Yes, why not?" asked Ethel, with just so much defiance in her voice as to put Mrs. Romaine considerably on her guard. "Have you any objection?"
"Dear Ethel, how can you ask such a thing? When you know how fond I am of Lesley."
"Are you?" asked Miss Kenyon lightly. "Do you know I should never have thought it, somehow. I am exceedingly fond of Lesley, and so"—with a little more color in her face than usual—"so is Oliver."
Bravely as she spoke, there was something in the accent which told of effort and repression. Mrs. Romaine admired her for that little piece of acting more than she had ever admired her upon the stage. She was too anxious for her brother's prosperity to say a word to disturb Ethel's serenity, whether it was real or assumed.
"I am so glad, dear," she said, sweetly. "Lesley is a dear girl, and thoroughly good and loving. I am quite sure you could not have a better friend, and she will be delighted to do anything she can for you."
"I don't know about that," said Ethel, with a little pout. "I had a great deal of trouble to get her to promise to come. She made all sorts of excuses—one would have thought that she did not want to see me married at all."
Which, Rosalind thought, might be very true. She had so strong a faith in the power of her brother's fascinations that she could not believe that he had actually "made love," as he had threatened, to Lesley Brooke without success.
Ethel spoke truly when she said that she had had great difficulty in persuading Lesley to come. After what had passed between herself and Oliver, Lesley felt herself a traitress in Ethel's presence. It seemed to her at first impossible to talk to Ethel about her pretty wedding gifts, her trousseau and her wedding tour, or to listen while she swore fidelity to Oliver Trent, when she knew what she did know concerning the bridegroom's faith and honor. On the Sunday after the Brookes' evening party she had a very severe headache, and sent word to Ethel that she could not possibly come to her on the morrow. But Ethel immediately came over to see her, and poured forth questions, consolations, and laments in such profusion that Lesley, half blind and dazed, was fain to get rid of her by promising again that nothing should keep her away. And on Monday the headache had gone, and she had no excuse. It was not in Lesley's nature to simulate: she could not pretend that she had an illness when she was perfectly well. There was absolutely no reason that she could give either to the Kenyons or to Miss Brooke for not keeping her promise to sleep at Ethel's house on the Monday night, and be present at her wedding on Tuesday morning.
So she wound herself up to make the best it. It seemed to her that no girl had ever been placed in so painful a position before. We, who have more experience of life than Lesley had, know better than that. Lesley's position was painful indeed, but it might in many ways have been worse. But she, ignorant of real life, more ignorant even than most girls, because she knew so few of the pictures of real life that are to be found in the best kind of novels, had nothing but her native instincts of truth and courage to fall back upon, together with the strong will and power of judgment that she inherited from her father. These qualities, however, stood her in good stead that day. "It is no use to be weak," she said to herself. "What good shall I do to Ethel if I give her cause to suspect Oliver Trent's truth to her? The only question is—ought I to tell her—to put her on her guard? Oh, I think not—I hope not. If he marries her, he cannot help loving her; and it would break her heart—now—if I told her that he was not faithful. I must be brave and go to her, and be as sympathetic as usual—take pleasure in her pleasure, and try to forget the past! but I wish she were going to marry a man that one could trust, like my father, or like—Maurice."
She always called him Maurice when she thought about him now.
It took all the strength that she possessed, however, to go through the ordeal of those hours with Ethel. She managed to keep away until nearly nine o'clock on Monday night, and then—just after her father had gone out—she received a peremptory little note from Ethel. "Why don't you come? You said you would come almost directly after dinner, and it is ever so late now. Oliver has just left me: he has business in the city, so I shall not see him again until to-morrow. Do come at once, or I shall begin to feel lonely."
So Lesley went.
She had to look at the wedding-cake, the wedding-gown, the simple little breakfast table. She sat up with Ethel until two in the morning, helping her to pack up her things, and listening to her praises of Oliver. That was the worst of it. Ethel would talk of Oliver, would descant on his perfections, and, above all, on his love for her. It was very natural talk on Ethel's part, but it was indescribably painful and humiliating to Lesley. Every moment of silence seemed to her like an implicit lie, and yet she could not bring herself to destroy the fine edifice of her friend's hopes, although she knew she could bring it down to the ground with a touch—a word.
"And I am so glad there is not to be a fuss," Ethel said at last, when St. Pancras' clock was striking two: "for I always thought that a fussy wedding would be horrid. You see, Lesley, I have dressed up so often in white satin and lace, as a bride, or a girl in a ballroom, or some other character not my own, that I feel now as if there would be no reality for me in a wedding if I did not wear rather every-day clothes. In a bride's conventional dress, I should only fancy myself on the stage again."
"You don't call the dress you are to wear to-morrow 'every-day clothes,' do you?" said Lesley, with a smiling glance towards the lovely gown in which Ethel had elected to be married, and then to wear during the first part of her wedding-journey.
"I call it just a nice, pretty frock—nothing else," said Ethel, complacently, "one that I can pay calls in afterwards. But I could not refuse the lovely lace Maurice insisted on giving me: so I shall wear a veil instead of a bonnet—it is the only concession I make to conventionality."
"I wish you would go to sleep, Ethel: you will look very pale under your veil to-morrow."
"Well, I will try; but I don't feel like it. I hope Maurice will be back in good time. It was very tiresome of that patient of his to send for him in such a hurry."
Then there was a silence, for both girls were growing sleepy; and it was with a yawn that Ethel at last inquired—
"Lesley, why won't your father come to my wedding?"
"Won't he?" said Lesley, with a little start.
"Not he: I asked him again on Saturday, and he refused."
"Perhaps," said Lesley, not very steadily, "it gives him pain to be present at a wedding: he speaks sometimes—as if he did not like to hear of them."
"Oh, you poor, dear thing, I had forgotten all that trouble," said Ethel, giving her friend a hug which nearly strangled her; "but won't it come right in the end? Captain Duchesne says that she is so sweet, so charming—and your father is just delightful."
"I think I can't talk about it," said Lesley, very quietly.
"Then we won't. Did you know I had asked Captain Duchesne to the breakfast?"
"Oh, Ethel, how heartless of you!" Lesley said, laughing in spite of herself. For Captain Duchesne's devotion was patent to all the world.
At last they slept in each other's arms; but at seven o'clock Ethel was skimming about the room like a busy fairy, and it was Lesley, sleeping heavily after two or three wakeful nights, who had to be aroused by the little bride-elect, and Ethel laughed merrily to see her friend's start of surprise.
"Ethel! Ethel! People should be waiting on you and here you are bringing me tea and bread and butter. This is too bad!"
"It's a new departure," Ethel laughed. "There is no law against a bride's making herself useful as well as ornamental, is there? You will have to hurry up, all the same, Lesley: we are dreadfully late already. And it is the loveliest morning you ever saw—and the bouquets have just come from the florist—and everything is charming! I feel as if I could dance."
But Ethel's mirth did not communicate itself to Lesley. There was nothing forced or unnatural in the young bride's happiness, but Lesley felt as if some cloud, some shadow, were in the air. Perhaps she had had bad dreams. She would not damp Ethel's spirits by a word of warning, but the old aunt from the country who came to inspect her niece as soon as she was dressed for church was not so considerate.
"You are letting your spirits run away with you, my dear," she said, reprovingly. "Even on a wedding-day there should not be too much laughter. Tears before night, when there has been laughter before breakfast, remember the proverb says."
"Oh, what a cheerful old lady!" said Ethel, brimming over with saucy laughter once more, as soon as the old dame's back was turned. "I don't care: I don't mean to be anything but a smiling bride—Oliver says that he hates tears at a wedding, and I don't mean him to see any."
Maurice arrived just in time to dress and to escort his sister to the church. It was not he, but Mrs. Durant, the companion and house-keeper, who first received a word of warning that things were not altogether as they should be. Others beside Lesley were scenting calamity in the air. Mrs. Romaine was to form one of the wedding-party. She made her appearance at a quarter to ten, beautifully dressed, but white to the very lips, and with a haggard look about her eyes. As soon as she entered the house she drew Mrs. Durant aside.
"Has Oliver been sleeping here?" she asked.
"Here!" Mrs. Durant's indignant accent was sufficient answer.
"He has not been home all night," Mrs. Romaine whispered.
"Not at home!"
"I suppose he is sleeping at his club and will come on from there," Mrs. Romaine answered, trying to reassure herself now that she had given the alarm to another. "Everything has been ordered—my bouquet came from him, at least from the florist's this morning—and I suppose we shall find him at the church. But I have been dreadfully anxious about him—quite foolishly, I daresay. Don't say anything to any body else."
Mrs. Durant did not mean to say anything, but—without exactly stating facts—she had managed in about three minutes to convey her own and Mrs. Romaine's feeling of discomfort, to the whole party. The only exceptions were Maurice and Ethel, who, of course, heard nothing. A gloom fell upon the guests even while the carriages were standing at the door.
Lesley and Mrs. Romaine happened to be placed in the same carriage, facing one another. They looked at one another in silence, but with a mutual understanding that they had never felt before. Each read her own fear in the other's face. But the fear came from different sources. Lesley was afraid that Oliver had felt himself unable to fulfil his engagement to Ethel, and had therefore severed his connection with her by flight: Rosalind feared that he had been taken ill or met with some untoward accident. Only in Rosalind's mind there was always another fear in the background where her brothers were concerned—that one or other of them would be bringing himself and her to disaster and disgrace. She had no faith in them, and not much faith in herself.
There was no bridegroom in waiting at St. Pancras' Church. Mrs. Romaine held a hurried consultation with a friend, and a messenger was despatched to Oliver's club, where he sometimes slept, and also to the rooms which he called his "chambers" in the city. A little silence overspread the group of guests from the Kenyons' house. Other visitors, of whom there were not many, looked blithe enough; but gloom was plainly visible on the faces of the bride's friends. And a little whisper soon ran from group to group—"The bridegroom has not come."
If only he would appear before the bride! There was yet time. The carriage containing Ethel and her brother had not started from the door. But the distance was short, and speedily traversed: still Oliver did not come. And there at last was the wedding-chariot with its white silk linings and the white favors on the horses—and there was the pretty, smiling bride herself upon her brother's arm. How sweet she looked as she mounted the broad grey steps, with cheeks a little rosy, eyes downcast, and her smiles half concealed by the costly lace in which she had veiled herself! There was never a prettier bride than Ethel Kenyon, although she had not attired herself in all the bridal finery that many women covet.
Something in the expression of the faces that met her at the church door startled her a little when she first looked up: she changed color, and glanced wonderingly from one to another. Some one spoke in Maurice Kenyon's ear.
"What is it?" she asked, quickly. "Is anything wrong?"
"Oliver is late, dear, that is all. Just wait a minute—here by the door: he will be here presently."
"Late!" re-echoed the girl, turning suddenly pale. "Oh Maurice, what do you mean? We were late too—it is a quarter past ten."
"Hush, my darling, he will be here directly, and more distressed than any of us, no doubt."
"I should think so," said Ethel, trying to laugh. "Poor Oliver! what a state he will be in!"
But the hand with which she had suddenly clutched Lesley's arm trembled, and her lips were very white.
For a minute, for five, for ten minutes, the bridal party waited, but Oliver did not come. A messenger came back to say that he had not been at the club since the previous day. And then Maurice's hot temper blazed up. He left his sister and spoke to his old friend, Miss Brooke.
"Do not let Ethel make herself a laughing-stock," he said. "The man insults us by being late, and shall account to me for it, but she must be got out of this somehow. Can't you take her away?"
"Let her go to the vestry," said Miss Brooke. "You had better not take her away just yet—look at the crowd outside. I will get Lesley to persuade her."
Ethel made no opposition. She went quietly into the vestry and sat down on a seat that was offered to her, waiting in silence, asking no questions. Then there was a short period of whispered consultation, of terrible suspense. She herself did not know whether the time was short or long. She could not bear even Lesley's arm about her, or the support of Maurice's brotherly hand. Harry Duchesne's dark face in the background seemed in some inexplicable sort of way the worst of all. For she knew that he loved and admired her, and she was shamed by a recreant lover before his very eyes.
After a time Maurice was called out. A policeman in plain clothes wanted to speak to him. They had five minutes' conversation together, and then the young doctor returned to the room where Ethel was still sitting. His face was as white as that of his sister now, and she was the first to remark the change.
"You have heard something," she said, springing to her feet and fixing her great dark eyes upon his face.
"Yes, Ethel, my poor darling, yes. Come home with me."
"Not till you tell me the truth."
"Not here, my darling—wait till we get home. Come at once."
"I must know, Maurice: I cannot bear to wait. Is he—is he—dead?"
He would gladly have refused to answer, but his pallid lips spoke for him. And from another group a shriek rang out from the lips of Rosalind Romaine—a shriek that told her all.
"Dead? Murdered? Oh, no, no—it cannot be?" cried Oliver's sister. "Not dead! not dead!"
She fell back in violent hysterics, but Ethel neither wept nor cried aloud. She stood erect, her head a little higher than usual, a smile that might almost be called proud curving her soft lips.
"You see," she said, unsteadily, but very clearly; "you see—it was not his fault. He would have come—if he had been—alive."
And, then, still smiling, she gave her hand to her brother and let him lead her away. But before she had crossed the threshold of the room, he was obliged to take her in his arms to save her from falling, and it was in his arms that she was carried back to the carriage which she had left so smilingly.
But for those who were left behind there was more bad news to hear. In London no secret can be kept even from the ears of those whose heart it breaks to hear it. Before noon the newsboys were crying in the streets—
"Brutal murder of a gentleman on his wedding-day. Arrest of a well-known journalist."
And everywhere the name bandied from pillar to post was that of Mr. Caspar Brooke, who had been arrested on suspicion of having caused the death of Oliver Trent.
IN ETHEL'S ROOM.
To those who knew Caspar Brooke best, it seemed ridiculously impossible that he should have been accused of any act of violence. But the accusation was made with so much circumstantial detail that no course seemed open to the police but to arrest him with as little delay as possible. And before the ill-fated wedding party had been dispersed, before Miss Brooke could hurry home, and long before Lesley suspected the blow that was in store for her, he had been taken by two policemen in plain clothes to the Bow Street Police station.
The full extent of the misfortune did not burst upon Doctor Sophy all at once. When she left the church the accusation was not publicly known, and as she walked home she reflected on the account that she must give to her brother of the extraordinary events of the day. She wished he had been present, and wondered why he had shirked the invitation which had been sent him by Ethel. He was not usually out of bed at this hour, but she resolved to go to his room and tell him the story at once, for, though he had never cared much for poor Oliver Trent, he had always been fond of Ethel. Lesley had gone to the Kenyons' house at Maurice's earnest request, and might not be back for some time.
She opened the door with her latch-key, and, to her great surprise, was confronted at once by Sarah, her face swollen, and her eyes red with weeping.
"Sarah! why—have you heard the dreadful news already?" said Miss Brooke.
"Have you heard it, is more the question, I'm thinking?" said Sarah, grimly.
"Of course you mean—about poor Mr. Trent?"
"More than that, ma'am. However, here's a letter from master to you, and that'll tell you more than I can do." And Sarah, handed a note to her mistress, and retired to the back of the hall, sniffing audibly.
Miss Brooke walked into the dining-room and opened the note. Caspar had gone out, she gathered from the fact of his having written to her at all: perhaps he had heard of Oliver Trent's death, and had gone to offer his services to Maurice, or to assist in discovering the murderer. So she thought to herself; and then she began to read the note.
In another minute Sarah heard a strange, muffled cry; and running into the room found that Miss Brooke had sunk down on the sofa, and was trembling in every limb. Her brother's letter was crushed within her hand.
"What does it mean, Sarah?—what does it mean?" she stammered, with a face so white and eyes so terror-stricken that Sarah took her to task at once.
"It means a great, big lie, ma'am, that's all it means. Why, you ain't going to be put about by that, I hope, when master himself says—as he said to me—that he'd be home afore night! I'm ashamed of you, looking as pale as you do, and you a doctor and all!"
"Did he say to you he would be home before night?" said Miss Brooke collecting herself a little, but still looking very white.
Sarah took a step nearer to her, and spoke in a low voice. "Nobody else in the house knows where he's gone," she said, "but I know, for master called me himself, and told me what they wanted him for. It was two men in plain clothes, and there was a cab outside and a p'liceman on the box. 'Of course it's all a mistake, Sarah,' he said to me, as light-hearted as you please, 'and don't let Miss Lesley or your Missus be anxious. I dare say I shall be back in an hour or two.' And then he asked the men if he might write a note, and they let him, though they read it as he wrote, the nasty wretches!"—and Sarah snorted contemptuously, while she wiped away a tear from her left eye with her apron.
"But it is so extraordinary—so ridiculous!" said Miss Brooke. And then, with a little more color in her face, she read her brother's letter over again.
It consisted only of these words—
"DEAR SOPHY,—Don't worry yourself. The police have got it into their wise heads that I had something to do with poor Trent's tragic end. I dare say I shall be back soon, but I must go and hear what they've got to say. Take care of Lesley—C. B."
"Take care of Lesley! As if she wanted taking care of!" said Miss Brooke, with sudden energy. "Sarah, go over at once to Mr. Kenyon's, and tell Miss Lesley to come home. She can't stay there while this is going on. It isn't decent."
Sarah was rather glad to execute this order. She was of opinion that Miss Lesley needed to be taken down a bit, and that this was the way in which the Lord saw fit to do it. And it never occurred to Miss Brooke to caution the woman against startling Lesley or hurting her feelings. She had been startled certainly, and almost overcome; but she belonged to that class of middle-aged women who think that their emotions must necessarily be stronger than those of young people, because they are older and understand what sorrow means, whereas the reverse is usually the case. Besides, Miss Brooke quite underrated the warmth of Lesley's attachment to her father, and was not prepared to see her experience anything but shallow and commonplace regret.
So Sarah went to the house opposite and knocked at the door. She had to knock twice before the door was opened, for the whole household was out of joint. The maids were desperately clearing away all signs of festivity—flowers, wedding-cake, the charming little breakfast that had been prepared for the guests—everything that told of wedding preparation, and had now such a ghastly look. Under Mrs. Durant's direction the servants were endeavoring to restore to the rooms their wonted appearance. Ethel's trunks had been piled into an empty room: she would not want her trousseau now, poor child. The uncle from the country was pacing up and down the deserted drawing-room; the aunt was fussing about Ethel's dressing-room, nervously folding up articles of clothing and putting away trifles. All the blinds were down, as if for a funeral. And in Ethel's own room, the girl lay on her bed, white and rigid as a corpse, with half-shut eyes that did not seem to see, and fingers so tightly closed that the nails almost ran into her soft palms. Since she had been laid there she had not spoken; no one could quite tell whether she were conscious or not; but Lesley, who sat beside her, and sometimes laid her cheek softly against the desolate young bride's cold face, or kissed the ashen-grey lips, divined by instinct that she was not unconscious although stunned by the force of the blow—that she was thinking, thinking, thinking all the time—thinking of her lost lover, of her lost happiness, and beating herself passionately against the wall of darkness which had arisen between her and the future that she had planned for herself and Oliver.
Sarah asked at once for Miss Lesley Brooke, and Mrs. Durant came out of the dining-room to speak to the messenger.
"Is Miss Brooke wanted very particularly?" she asked. "Miss Kenyon will not have anyone else with her."