Lady Alice looked at her husband with a mixture of wonder and admiration. The calm way in which he sometimes alluded to his present circumstances, without a trace of bitterness or fretfulness, amazed her. In old days she would have put it down to "good breeding—good manners," some superficial veneer of good society of which she thoroughly approved; but she had seen too much of the seamy side of "good society" now to be able to accept this explanation of his calmness. It was not want of sensitiveness, she was sure of that: he was by no means obtuse: it was simply that his large, strong nature rose above the pettiness of resentment and complaint. The suspicion under which he labored was a grave thing—a trouble, a blow; but it had not made him sour, nor borne him to the earth with a conviction of the injustice of mankind.
His wife looked and marveled, but recollected herself in time to say after only a minute's hesitation:
"I know a little more about rough characters than I once did. We saw a good many at the East End hospital, did we not, Mr. Kenyon?"
It was the first time that she had shown that she remembered Maurice's face. Caspar pricked up his ears.
"You at a hospital, Alice? Why, what were you doing there?"
"Visiting some of the patients," she answered, with a little blush.
"Visits which were much appreciated," put in Maurice, "although we found that Lady Alice was too generous."
"Until I was warned by one of the patients that the others abused my kindness and traded on it," said Lady Alice, laughing rather nervously, "and then I drew in a little."
"What patient was that?"
"The name I think was Smith—the man who lost his memory in that curious way."
"Ah yes, I remember." And then Maurice knitted his brows and became very thoughtful: he looked as if a thoroughly new idea had been suggested to him.
Miss Brooke remarked that it was almost time to set out if they were to go to the club that afternoon, and Lady Alice went to her room for her cloak. She was before the looking-glass, apparently studying the reflection of her own face, when a knock at the door, to which she absently said "Come in," was followed by Caspar's entrance. She, thinking that it was her maid, did not look round, and he came behind her without being perceived. The first token of his presence was received by her when his arm was slipped round her waist, and his voice said caressingly and almost playfully in her ear, "I don't know that I want my dainty piece of china carried down into the slums."
"Am I nothing more to you than that?" said Lady Alice reproachfully.
He made no answer, but as he looked at the fair face in the glass, and as their eyes met, she thought that she read a reply in his glance.
"I have been nothing more—I know," she said, with sudden humbleness, "but if it is not too late—if I can make up now for the time I have lost——"
The tears trembled in her eyes, but he kissed them away with new tenderness, saying in a soothing tone—
"We will see, my dear, we will see. I was only in jest."
And she felt that he was thinking not only of the lost years, but of the possible gulf before him—that horror of darkness and disgrace which they might yet have to face.
She went downstairs to the cab that was waiting, with a new and subduing sensation very present to her mind: a sense of something missed out of her own life, a sense of having failed in the duty that had once been given her to do. Hitherto she had been buoyed up by a certain confidence in her own conscientiousness and power of judgment, as most rather narrow-minded women are; but it now occurred to her that she might have been wrong—not only in a few details, as she had consented to admit—but wrong from beginning to end. She had marred not only her own life but the lives of her husband and her child.
This consciousness kept her very quiet during the drive to Macclesfield Buildings. But nobody spoke much, except Doctor Sophy, who made interjectional remarks, half lost in the rattling of the cab, by way of trying to keep up everybody's spirits. Caspar sitting opposite his wife, with his arms folded and his long legs carefully tucked out of the way, had an unusually serious and even anxious expression. Indeed it struck Lady Alice for the first time that he was looking haggard and ill. The burden was weighing upon him even more than he knew. Maurice, too, seemed absorbed in thought, so that the drive was not a particularly lively one.
They got out at the block of buildings which had once struck Lesley as so particularly ugly. Perhaps their ugliness did not impress Lady Alice so much. At any rate she made no remark upon it. Her fingers were lightly pressed upon Caspar's arm: her thoughts were occupied by him.
At the door of the block in which the club-rooms were situated, a little group of men were standing in somewhat aimless fashion, smoking and talking among themselves. Caspar recognized several of the club members in this group. "Ah," he said quietly to his wife, "they thought that I should not come." She made no answer: as a matter of fact she began to feel a trifle frightened. These rough-looking men, with their pipes, who nudged each other and laughed as she passed, were of a kind unknown to her. But Caspar walked through them easily, nodding here and there, with a cheery "Good-afternoon."
Lady Alice did not know it, but the room presented an unusual sight to her husband's eyes that afternoon. The fire was burning, and the gas was lighted, for the day was cold and damp: the comfortable red-seated chairs were as inviting as ever, and the magazines and newspapers lay in rows upon the scarlet table-cloth. There were flowers in the vases, and a piece of music on the open piano. Lady Alice exclaimed in her pleasure, "How pretty it is! how cosy!" and wondered at the gloom that sat upon her husband's brow.
The room was cosy and pretty enough—but it was empty.
Caspar looked round mutely, then glanced at his companions. Miss Brooke paused in the act of taking off one woollen glove, and opened her mouth and forgot to shut it again. Maurice stood frowning, twitching his brows and biting his lips in the effort to subdue a torrent of rage that was surging up in his heart. He would have sworn, he said afterwards, if Lady Alice had not been there—he did not mind Doctor Sophy so much. All that he did now, however, was to mutter "Ungrateful rascals," and make as if he would turn to flee.
But he was stopped by Caspar's clutch at his arm. Maurice saw that his purpose—that of haranguing the men outside—had been divined and arrested. He turned to his friend and saw for the first time on Caspar's face that the shaft had gone home. He had shown scarcely any sign of suffering before.
"I don't deserve this from them," said Brooke quietly, and Maurice could tell that he had gone rather white about the lips. Then in a still lower voice, "Don't let her know. You were right, Maurice; I had better not have come."
"I'll just go and look outside: I won't speak to them, don't be afraid—you talk to Lady Alice," said Maurice breaking from him. But when he got into the dark little entry, he did not look outside for anything or anybody: he only relieved himself by exclaiming. "Oh, d—n the fools!" and shaking his first in a very reprehensible way at some imaginary crowd of auditors. For Maurice was half an Irishman, and his blood was up, and on his friend's behalf he was, as he would just then have expressed it, "in a devil of a rage." While he was executing a sort of mad war-dance on the jute mat in the passage, relieving his mind by some wild gesticulation and still wilder objurgation of the world, Mr. Brooke had turned back to his wife with a pleasant word and smile.
"I must show you the photographs," he said. "We are very proud of them. There will be plenty of time, for the members seem to be a little late in getting together to-day. Possibly they thought I was not coming."
"It is scarcely time yet," said Miss Brooke heroically. She knew it was ten minutes past, but she was quite prepared to sacrifice truth for the maintenance of her brother's dignity.
"That's a good one of the Parthenon," said Caspar negligently, putting his hand within his wife's arm, and leading her from one picture to another. "The Coliseum you see: not quite so clear as it might be. These frames were made by one of the men in the buildings—given as a present to the club. Not bad taste, are they? And this statuette——".
He broke off suddenly. He had been going on hurriedly and feverishly, filling up the time as best he might, trying to forget the embarrassing situation into which he had brought his wife and himself, when the sound of heavy footsteps fell upon his ear. A sound of shuffling, the creak of men's boots, a little gruff whispering in the doorway—what was it all about? Were the men whom he had helped and guided going to turn against him openly—to give him in his wife's presence some other insult beside the tacit insult of their absence? He turned round sharply, with the feeling that if he was brought to bay the men would have a bad time of it. He certainly looked a formidable antagonist. The hair had fallen over his forehead, his brows were knotted, his eyes gleamed rather fiercely beneath them, his under lip was thrust out aggressively. "As fierce as a lion," said one of the observers, afterwards. But even while his eyes darted flame and fury at the men who had deserted them, his body kept its half-protecting, half-deferential pose with respect to Lady Alice; and the hand that held her arm was studiously gentle in its touch.
Lady Alice turned round, amazed. There was a little crowd in the passage: the room was already half full. Men and women too were there, and more crowded in from behind. There must have been nearly fifty, when all were seen, and there were more men than women. But they did not sit down: they stood, they leaned against the walls; one or two mounted on the benches at the back and stood where they could get a good view of the proceedings. Caspar's scowl remained fixed, but it was a scowl of astonishment. He looked round for Maurice, whom he presently saw beckoning to him to take his usual place near the piano. He said a word to his wife, and brought her round with him towards his sister and his friend. The men still stood, and crowded a little nearer to him as he reached his place. There was very little talking in the room, and the men's faces looked somewhat solemn: it was evidently a serious occasion.
"Is this—this—what usually goes on?" queried the puzzled Lady Alice.
"This? Oh no!" said Maurice, to whom she had addressed herself, with a sudden happy laugh, and a perfectly beaming face. "This is—a demonstration. Here, Caspar, old man, you've got to stand here. Now, Gregson."
Lady Alice accepted the chair offered to her, and Miss Brooke another. Caspar began to look utterly perplexed, but a little relieved also, for his eye, in straying over the crowd, had recognized two or three faces as those of intimate friends who seemed to be mingling with the men, and he felt sure that they had no inimical purpose towards him. All that he could do was to look down and grasp his beard, as usual, while Jim Gregson, the man who had once spoken to Lesley so warmly of her father, being pushed forward by the crowd as their spokesman, addressed himself to Caspar.
"Mr. Brooke—Sir: We have made bold to change the order of the proceedings for this 'ere afternoon. Instead of beginning with the music, we just want to say a few words; and that's why we've come in all at once, so as to show that we are all of one mind. We think, sir, that this is a very suitable opportunity for presenting you with a mark of our—our gratitude and esteem. We have always found you a true friend to us, and an upright man that would never allow the weak to be trampled on, nor the poor to be oppressed, and we wish to show that whatever the newspapers may say, sir, we have got heads on our shoulders and know a good man when we see him." This sentence was uttered with great emphasis, to an accompaniment of "Hear, hear," from the audience, and considerable stamping of feet, umbrellas and sticks. "What we wish to say, sir," and Mr. Gregson became more and more embarrassed as he came to this point, "is that we respect you as a man and as a gentleman, and that we take this opportunity of asking you to accept this small tribute of our feelings towards you, and we wish to say that there's not a member of the club as has not contributed his mite towards it, as well as many poor neighbors in the Buildings. It's a small thing to give, but that you will excuse on account of the shortness of the notice, so to speak: the suggestion having been made amongst ourselves and by ourselves only three days ago. We beg you'll accept it as a token of respect, sir, from the whole of the Macclesfield Buildings Working Men's Club, of which you was the founder, and which we hope you'll continue for many long years to be the president of." And with a resounding emphasis on the preposition, Mr. Gregson finished his speech. A tremendous salvo of applause followed his last word, and before it had died away a woman was hastily dragged to the front, with a child—a blue-eyed fairy of two or three years old—in her arms. The child held a brown paper parcel, and presented it with baby solemnity to Mr. Brooke, who kissed her as he took it from her hands. And then, under cover of more deafening applause, Mr. Brooke turned hurriedly to Maurice and said, in a very unheroic manner—
"I say, I can't stand much more of this. I shall make a fool of myself directly."
"Do: they'll like it, the beggars!" returned Maurice in high glee.
But he had more sympathy in his eyes than his words expressed, and the grip that he gave his friend's hand set the audience once more applauding enthusiastically. An audience of Londoners with whom a speaker is in touch, is one of the most sympathetic and enthusiastic in the world.
While they applauded, the parcel was opened. It contained a morocco case, lined with dark blue satin and velvet—an unromantic and prosaic expression of as truly high and noble feeling as ever found a vent in more poetic ways—and on the velvet cushion lay—twelve silver spoons!
There was an odd little touch of bathos about it, and an outsider might perhaps have smiled at the way in which the British workman and his wife had chosen to manifest their faith in the man who had been in their eyes wrongfully accused; but nobody present in the little assembly saw the humorous side of it at all, not even a young gentleman who was hastily making a sketch of it for the Graphic, for he blew his nose as vigorously as anybody else. And there was a good display of handkerchiefs and some rather troublesome coughing and choking in the course of the afternoon, which showed that the donors of the spoons did not look on the gift exactly in the light of a joke.
Mr. Brooke was a practised speaker; and when he opened his lips to reply, his sister dried her eyes and put down her handkerchief with a gratified smile as much as to say, "Now we shall have a treat." And she settled herself so that she could watch the effect of the speech on Lady Alice, who had forgotten to wipe her tears away, and sat with eyelashes wet and cheeks slightly flushed, looking astoundingly young and pretty in the excitement of the moment. But Miss Brooke was doomed to be disappointed. Caspar began once, twice, thrice—and broke down irrevocably. The only intelligible words he got out were, "My dear friends, I can't tell you how I thank you." And that was quite true: he couldn't.
But there was all the more applause, and all the more kindly feeling for that failure of his to make a speech; and then one or two other men spoke of the good that Mr. Brooke had done in that neighborhood, and of the help that he had given them all in founding the club, and of the brave and encouraging words that he had spoken to them, and so on; and the young artist for the Graphic sketched away faster and faster, and said to himself, "My eye, there'll be a precious row if they try to hang him after this, whatever he's done." But the sensation of the afternoon was yet to come.
"I can only say once more, my friends," said Caspar, as the hour wore away, "that I thank you for this expression of your confidence in me, and that I have never had a prouder moment in my life than this, in which you tell me of your own accord that you believe in my innocence of the crime attributed to me. Of that, however, I will not speak. I wish only, before we separate, to introduce you to my wife, who has never been here before, and whom I am sure you will welcome for my sake."
There was a moment of astonishment. Every one knew something of the story of Caspar's married life, and was taken aback by the appearance of his wife. But when Maurice Kenyon led the way by clapping his hands vigorously, someone took up the word, and cried, "Three cheers for Mrs. Brooke." And Lady Alice started at the new title, and thought that it sounded much better than the one by which she was usually known.
"Shall I say any more?" said Caspar, smiling as he stooped down to her. But suddenly she rose to her feet and put her hand within his arm. "No," she said, "I am going to do it myself."
The storm of clapping was renewed and died away when it was perceived that Lady Alice was about to speak. She was a little flushed, but perfectly self-possessed, and her clear silvery voice could be heard in every corner of the room.
"I wish to thank you, too," she said, "for your kindness to my husband and myself. I hope I shall know more of his work here by and by, and in the meantime I can only tell you that you are right to trust him and believe in him—as I trust him and believe in him with all my heart and soul!"
She turned to him a little as she spoke, her eyes shining, her face transfigured—the faith in her making itself manifest in feature and in gesture alike. There was not applause so much as a murmur of assent when she had done; and Caspar, laying hold of her hand, looked down at her with a new warmth of tenderness, and said half wonderingly,
"Do you think I could let them go without telling them what you are to me?" she said, with a kind of passion in her voice which reminded him of Lesley. But there was no time to say more, for every person in the room presented himself or herself to shake hands with Caspar and his wife, and to admire the spoons, which had been purchased only the night before.
"Very glad to see you amongst us, Mrs. Brooke, mum; and hope you'll come again," was heard so often that Lady Alice was quite amazed by the warmth of the greeting. "And the young lady too—where's she? she ought to have been here as well," said one woman; to which Maurice Kenyon responded in a pleased growl—
"Yes, confound your blundering, so she ought; and so she would have been, if you hadn't nearly made such a blessed mull of the whole affair."
He did not think that anybody heard him, and was rather taken aback when Lady Alice smiled at him over her shoulder. "What do you mean, Mr. Kenyon?" she said.
Maurice was on his good behavior immediately. "Oh, nothing, Lady Alice; only that Miss Brooke might have been here if we had only had a hint beforehand, and it is a pity she should have missed it."
"A great pity," said Lesley's mother; and she looked quite complacently at the twelve silver spoons, which she was guarding so jealously, as if she feared they would be taken away from her.
Outside the doors, when the assembly had reluctantly dispersed, after an improvised collation, given by Caspar, of hot drinks and plum cake, a little crowd of men and boys cheered the departing hero of the day so valiantly that Lady Alice was almost glad to find herself once more driving through the dusky London streets with her husband at her side. Miss Brooke and Maurice had elected to walk home.
"There's one thing," said Caspar, rather later in the day, as a history of these experiences was unfolded to Lesley; "we quite, forgot to tell the good folks your mother's name and title. She was applauded to the echo as 'Mrs. Brooke.'"
"Oh, you must never tell them," said Lady Alice, hastily. "I do not want to be anything else, please—now."
"I wish they had let one know beforehand," said Maurice, "they kept it a dead secret—even from me."
"All the greater surprise for us," said Mr. Brooke. Then he looked at Maurice for a moment, and smiled. But it was long before they mentioned to each other what both had thought and felt in that heart-breaking minute of suspense when they believed that Caspar was deserted in the hour of need.
"Well," said Caspar Brooke, at length, "whatever may happen now"—and he made a pause which was fraught with graver meaning than he would have cared to put into words—"I can feel at any rate that 'I have had my say.' And you, Alice—well, my dear, you will always have those silver spoons to look at! So we have not done badly after all."
Like Sir Thomas More, he would have joked when going to the scaffold; but jokes under such circumstances have rather a ghastly sound in the ears of his family.
Maurice Kenyon took an early opportunity of asking Lady Alice whether she would recognize the man Smith if she saw him again.
"I think so. Why do you ask? You know I talked to him a good deal."
"I have been very blind," said Maurice seriously. "I never thought until to-day of associating him in my mind with someone else—someone whom I have seen twice during the past week. May I speak freely to you? You know I am as anxious as anyone can possibly be that this mystery should be cleared up. I wish to speak of Francis Trent, the brother of Oliver Trent, and the husband of the woman who makes this accusation against Mr. Brooke."
Lady Alice recoiled. "You cannot mean that John Smith had anything to do with him?"
"I have a strong belief that John Smith and Francis Trent are one and the same. To my shame be it spoken, I did not recognize him either on Wednesday or Friday when I paid him a visit. Ethel wished me to go when she heard that he was ill." He said this in a deprecating tone.
"I quite understand. You saw this man—Francis Trent—then?"
"Yes, and could not imagine where I had seen him before. I think it is the man I used to see in hospital. Lady Alice—if you saw him yourself——"
"I, Mr. Kenyon? What! see the man and woman who accuse my husband of murder?"—There was genuine horror in her tone. "How could I speak to them?"
"It is just a chance," said Maurice, in a low voice. "If he knew that you were the wife of the man who was accused—perhaps something would come of it."
"What do you mean?"
"Lady Alice, pray do not build too much on what I am going to say. If Francis Trent and John Smith be the same, then my knowledge of John Smith's previous condition leads me to think it quite possible that it was Francis Trent who, in a fit of frenzy, committed the murder of which your husband is suspected."
Lady Alice looked at him in silence. "I don't see exactly," she said, "that I should be of much use."
"Nor I—exactly," said Maurice. "But I see a vague chance; and I ask you—for your husband's sake—to try it."
"Ah, you know I cannot refuse that," she said quickly. And then she arranged with him where they should meet on the following afternoon in order to drive to the lodgings now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Francis Trent. Whether this proceeding might not be stigmatized as "tampering with witnesses," Maurice and Lady Alice neither knew nor cared. If Maurice had a doubt, he stifled it by telling himself that they were not going to visit the "witness," Mary Trent, but the sick man, John Smith, in whom Lady Alice had been interested at the hospital. It was only as a precaution that he took with him young Mr. Grierson, junior partner of the firm of solicitors to whom Caspar's defence was entrusted. Young Grierson was a friend as well as a lawyer, and it was always as well to have a friend at hand. But really he hardly knew for what result he hoped.
The rooms in which Maurice himself, at Ethel's instance, had located Mr. and Mrs. Francis Trent were in Bernard Street. They were plain but apparently clean and comfortable. Maurice said a word to the servant, and unceremoniously put her aside, and walked straight into the room where he knew that Francis Trent was lying.
A thin, spare woman, with a deadly pale face and black sunken eyes, rose from a seat beside the bed as they entered. Lady Alice knew, as if by instinct, that this was Mary Trent. She averted her eyes from the woman who had falsely accused her husband: she could not bear to look at her. But Mary Trent scarcely took her eyes off Lady Alice's face.
"Will you look here, Lady Alice, if you please?" said Maurice in his most professional tone. She turned towards the bed, and saw—yes, it was the face of the man whom she had known in the hospital: thinner, yellower, more haggard than ever, but still the face of the patient who used to watch her as if her presence were a means of healing in itself.
"Yes," she said slowly, "that is—John Smith."
"His real name is Francis Trent," said Maurice. "Do you know this lady, Francis?"
The sick man nodded. There was a curiously vacant look upon his face, brightened only at times by gleams of vivid consciousness.
"Yes, yes, I know her. The lady that came to see me in hospital," he murmured feebly.
"Do you know who she is?"
"Why do you trouble him, sir?" said Mrs. Trent. "You see how ill he is, wouldn't it be better for him to be left in peace?"
She spoke with sedulous calmness; but there was a jar in her voice which did not sound quite natural. Maurice simply repeated his question, and Francis Trent shook his head.
"She is the wife of Caspar Brooke, the man who, you say, killed your brother Oliver."
The sick man's eyes dilated, and fixed themselves uneasily on his wife. "I did not say it," he answered, almost in a whisper. "Mary said it—not I."
"But you heard something, did you not?" said Maurice remorselessly.
"How should he hear anything," said Mary Trent, "and he asleep in his bed at the time? Or if not asleep, too ill and weak to notice anything. It's a shame to question him like that; and not legal, neither. You'll please to leave us to ourselves, sir; we ain't a show. We can but say what we saw and heard, whatever the consequences may be, but we need not be tortured for all that."
"That's enough, Mary," said the man speaking from the bed in a much more natural manner and in a stronger voice than he had yet used. "You're overdoing it—you always do. It's no good. This is the last stroke, and I give up. It has gone against the grain with me to get anybody into trouble," he said, looking attentively at Lady Alice, "and now that I know who this lady is, I don't feel inclined to keep up the farce any longer. I am much too ill to live to be hanged—Mr. Kenyon can tell you so at any minute—and I may as well give you the satisfaction of knowing that Caspar Brooke had nothing at all to do with Oliver's death: I was his murderer, and no one else: I swear it, so help me God!"
Lady Alice turned very faint. Someone put her in a chair and fanned her, and when she came to herself she heard Francis Trent's wife speaking.
"He's mad, I tell you. It's no good paying any attention to what he says, gentlemen. I saw him myself in his bed at the time, and——"
"Now, Mary, my dear good soul," said Francis with the old easy superiority which he had always assumed to her, "will you just hold your tongue, and let me tell my own tale? You have done your best for me, but you know I always told you I was not to be trusted to lie about it if anybody appealed to me to evidence. I really have not the strength to keep it up. I want at least to die like a gentleman."
"I am not at all sure that you are going to die," said Maurice quietly, with his finger on the sick man's pulse. Francis had put off the vacant expression, and his eyes had lighted up. He was evidently quite himself again.
"No?" he said easily. "Well, I would rather die, if it's all the same to you; because I fancy I shall have to be put under restraint if I do live. I don't always know what I am doing in the least. I know now, though. You can bear me out, doctor, isn't my brain in a very queer state?"
"I fear it is," said Maurice.
"Just so. I am subject to fits of rage in which I don't know what I am doing. And on that night when Oliver came to see me, after Brooke had gone away, I got into one of these frenzies and followed him downstairs, picking up Brooke's stick on the way and beating poor Oliver about the head with it.... You know well enough how he was found. I only came to myself when it was done. And then, my wife—with all a woman's ingenuity—bundled me into bed, swore that I had never left it, and that Caspar Brooke had done it. It was a lie—she told me so afterwards. Eh, Mary?—Forgive me, old girl: I've got you into trouble now; but that is better than letting an innocent man swing for what I have done, especially when that man is the husband of one who was so kind to me——"
"And the father of Lesley Brooke," said Maurice, looking steadfastly at Mary Trent.
A shudder ran through the woman's frame. Then she covered her face with her hands and flung herself down at her husband's side.
"Oh Francis, my dear, my dear!" she said. "I did it for you."
And then for an instant there was silence in the room, save for her heavy sobs. Francis lay still but patted her with his thin fingers, and looked at Caspar Brooke's wife with his large, unnaturally bright, dark eyes.
"She is a good soul in spite of it all," he said, addressing himself to Lady Alice. "And she did it out of love for me. You would have done as much for your husband, perhaps, if you loved him—but I have heard, that you don't."
"Oh, but you are wrong," said Lady Alice. "I love him with all my heart, and I thank you deeply—deeply—for saving him."
"That ought to be some payment," said Francis Trent, with his wan, wild smile. "And I don't suppose they'll be very hard on me, as I did not know what I was doing. You'll speak a word to that effect, won't you, doctor?"
"I will indeed. But it would have been better for you as well as for others if truth had been told from the beginning," said Kenyon.
"It can't be helped now. Is there anything else I can do? You must have my statement taken down. And Mary, my girl, you'll have to make your confession too."
"Oh, Francis, Francis!" she moaned. "Not against you, my dear—not against you!"
"Yes, against me," said Francis steadily. "And let us finish with the formalities as quickly as may be, doctor, as long as my head's clear. I killed my brother Oliver—that you must make known as soon as you can. Not for malice, poor chap, nor yet for money—though he had cheated me many a time—but because I was mad—mad. And I am mad now—mad though you do not know it—stark, staring mad!"
And his dark eyes glared at them so strangely that Lady Alice cried out and had to be led into another room, for it was the light of madness indeed that shone from beneath his sunken brows.
It was while she sat alone for a minute or two while the gentlemen were talking in another room, that Mary Trent came creeping to her, with folded hands and furtive mien.
"Oh, my lady, my lady, forgive me," she said, sobbing fretfully as she spoke. "I thought but of my own—I did not think of you. Nor of Miss Lesley, though I did love her—yes, I did, and tried my best to save her from that wicked man. Mr. Brooke will tell you what I mean, ma'am. And tell him, if you will be so good, that I was frightened into taking back the stories I had told him about Oliver—but they were all true. Everyone of 'em was true. And that I beg he'll forgive me; for a better and a kinder gentleman I never see, nor one that loved poor people more. And Miss Lesley was just like him—but it was my husband, and I thought he'd be hanged for it, and what could I do?"
And then, while Lady Alice still hesitated between pity and a feeling of revolt at pity for a woman who had sworn falsely against her dearly beloved husband, Caspar Brooke, a cry was heard from the bedroom, and Mary turned and fled back to the scene of her duties—sad and painful duties indeed, sometimes, when the madman became violent, and likely enough to be very speedily terminated by death.
* * * * *
"What can I say to you?" said Lady Alice to Maurice Kenyon, a day or two later. "It was your acuteness that brought the matter to light. Now that that poor wretched man is hopelessly insane, we might never have learnt the truth. Is there any way in which I can thank you? any way in which I can give you a reward?"
She looked steadily into his face, and saw that he changed color.
"There is only one way, Lady Alice," he stammered.
"You are not to call me Lady Alice: I like 'Mrs. Brooke' much better. Well?"
"I love your daughter," said Maurice bluntly, "and I believe she would love me if you would let her."
"Let her?" said Mrs. Brooke, with a smile.
"She made you some promises before she came to London——"
"Ah, not to become engaged before the year was out. Tell her that I absolve her from that promise, and—ask her again."
Maurice found that under these conditions Lesley's answer was all that could be desired.
"Now that Ethel has gone to the sea-side, I can have you to myself a little while," said Lady Alice to her daughter.
"Poor Ethel! But it is delightful to have you here, mamma: it is so home-like and comfortable."
"Ah, you will soon have to make a home for somebody else!"
Lesley grew red, but smiled. "We won't think of that yet," she said softly. "Mamma, I want to speak to you on a very serious subject."
"Well, my darling?"
"You won't be angry with me, will you? It is—about Mrs. Romaine."
Lady Alice's brow clouded a little. "Well, Lesley?" she said.
"Mamma, I can't bear Mrs. Romaine myself. Neither can you. Neither can papa. And it is very unchristian of all of us, to say the least. Because——"
"Neither can papa," repeated Lady Alice, with raised brows. "My dear child, Mrs. Romaine is a great friend of your father's. He told me only the other day that she used to come here very often—to see your Aunt Sophy and yourself."
"So she did," said Lesley, lightly. "But, of course, she can't very well come now—at least, it would be awkward. Still I am sure papa does not like her, for he looked quite pleased the other day when I told him that she was going to give up her house, and said in his short way—'So much the better.'"
"Very slight evidence," said Caspar Brooke's wife smiling.
"Well, never mind evidence, mammy dear. What I want to say is that I feel very sorry for Mrs. Romaine. You see she must be feeling very much alone in the world. Oliver, whom she really cared for, is dead, and Francis is out of his mind, and Francis' wife"—with a little shudder—"cannot be anything to her—and then, don't you think, mamma, that when there has been one case of insanity in the family, she must be afraid of herself too?"
"Not necessarily. Francis Trent's insanity was the result of an accident."
"Yes, but it is very saddening for her, all the same, and she must be terribly lonely in that house in Russell Square. I wanted to know if I might go and call upon her?"
"You, dear? I thought you did not like her."
"I don't," said Lesley, frankly, "but I am sorry for her. Ethel asked me why I did not go. She thought there must be something wrong, because Rosalind never came to see her after Oliver's death—never once. I believe she has scarcely been out of the house—not at all since the funeral, and that is a month ago. I have not heard that she was ill, so I suppose it is just that she is—miserable, poor thing."
Lady Alice stroked her daughter's hair in silence for a minute or two. "I think I had better go instead of you, Lesley. There is no reason why she should feel she cannot see us. She was not to blame for that accusation—though I heard that she believed it. But I will see her first, and you can go afterwards if she is able to receive visitors."
"That is very good of you, mamma—especially as you don't like her," said Lesley. "I can't help feeling thankful that Ethel will have nothing to do with that family now. And since Maurice told her a little more about poor Mr. Trent, I think she sees that she would not have been very happy." She was silent for a little while, and then went on, trying to give an indifferent sound to her words:—"Captain Duchesne's people live near Eastbourne, he told me; and Ethel has gone to Seaford."
"Not far off," said Lady Alice, smiling a little. "I hope that his sister Margaret will call on Ethel: I think they would like each other."
And no more was said, for it was as yet too early to wonder even whether Harry Duchesne's adoration for Ethel Kenyon was ultimately to meet with a return.
True to her new tastes, Lady Alice had had cards printed bearing the name "Mrs. Caspar Brooke." She desired, she said, to be identified with her husband as much as possible: it was a great mistake to retain a mere courtesy title, as if she had interests and station remote from those of her husband. Caspar had smilingly opposed this change, but Lady Alice had stood firm. Indeed, to her old friends she remained "Lady Alice" to the end of the chapter; but to the outer world she was henceforth known as Mrs. Brooke.
She sent up one of her new cards when she called upon Mrs. Romaine. She paid this visit with considerable shrinking of heart. She had bitter memories connected with Mrs. Romaine. Since the day on which she had been reconciled to her husband, she had cast from her all suspicion of his past—cast it from her in much the same arbitrary and unreasoning manner as she had first embraced it. For, like most women, she was governed far more by her feelings and instincts than by the laws of evidence. As Rosalind had once told her brother, Lady Alice had accidentally seen and intercepted a letter of hers to Caspar; and Lady Alice had then rushed to the conclusion that it was part of a long continued correspondence and not a single communication. And now—now——what did she think? She hardly knew; of one thing only was she certain that Caspar had never been untrue to her, had never cared for any woman but herself.
She was not at all sure that Mrs. Romaine would receive her: she knew that she had written to her in a tone that no woman, especially a woman like Mrs. Romaine, is likely to forgive; but time, she thought, blunts the memory of past injuries, and if Rosalind chose to forget the past, she would forget it too. It was with a soft and kindly feeling, therefore, that Lady Alice asked for admittance at Mrs. Romaine's door, and learned that Mrs. Romaine was at home and would see her.
Before she had been in the drawing-room five minutes, it dawned on Lady Alice's mind that there was something odd in her hostess' manner and even in her appearance. Of course she was prepared for a change; in the twelve years or more that had elapsed since they had met she herself must have also changed. But, as a matter of fact, Lady Alice's long, elegant figure, shining hair and delicate complexion showed the ravages of time far less distinctly than she imagined; while Mrs. Romaine was a mere wreck of what she had been in her youth. During the last few weeks, Rosalind had grown thin: her features were sharpened, her hands white and wasted: her eyes seemed too large for her face, and were surmounted by dark and heavy shadows. Lady Alice was reminded of another face that she had last seen relieved against the whiteness of a pillow, of eyes that had gleamed wildly as they looked at her, of a certain oddness of expression that in her own heart she called "a mad look." Yes, there was certainly a likeness between her and her brother Francis, and it was the sort of likeness that gave Lady Alice a shock.
For a few minutes the two women talked in platitudes of indifferent things. Lady Alice noticed that after every sentence or two Mrs. Romaine let the subject drop and sat looking at her furtively, as if she expected something that did not come. Was it sympathy that she wanted? It was with difficulty that Lady Alice could approach the subject. After a longer pause than usual, she said softly—
"You must let me tell you how sorry I am for the sorrow that has come upon you—upon us all."
Mrs. Romaine stared at her for a moment; an angry light showed itself in her eyes.
"You have come to tell me that?" she said, with chill disdain.
"I came to say so—yes," Lady Alice answered, in her surprise.
"I am very much obliged to you, I am sure." The tone was almost insolent, but the woman was herself again. The oddness, the awkwardness of manner had passed away, and her old grace of bearing had come back. Even her beauty returned with the flush of crimson to her face and the lustre of her eyes. The prospect of combat brought back the animation and the brilliancy that she had lost.
"There were other things I thought that you had perhaps come to say—repetitions of what you said to me years ago—before you left your husband."
Lady Alice rose at once. "I think you had better not touch on that subject," she said gently but with dignity. "I did not come here with any such intention. I hoped all that was forgotten by you—as it is by me."
"I have not forgotten," said Mrs. Romaine, rising also, and fixing her eyes on Lady Alice's face.
"I am sorry for it. You will allow me——"
"No, do not go: stay for a minute or two, I beg of you. I am not well—I said more than I meant—do not leave me just yet." She spoke now hurriedly and entreatingly.
These extraordinary changes of tone and manner impressed Lady Alice disagreeably. And yet she hesitated: she did not like to carry out her purpose of leaving the house at once, when she had been entreated to remain. Looking at her, Mrs. Romaine seemed to make a great effort over herself, and suddenly put on the air that she used most to affect—the air of a woman of the world, with peculiarly engaging manners.
"Don't hurry away," she said. "I really have something particular to say to you. Will you listen to me for two minutes?"
"Yes—if you wish it."
"I do wish it very much. You will stay? That is kind of you. And I will ring for tea."
"No, please do not," said Lady Alice shrinking instinctively from the thought of eating and drinking in Rosalind Romaine's drawing-room; "I really cannot stay long, and I do not drink tea so early."
Her hostess smiled and withdrew her hand from the bell-handle. "As you please," she said indifferently. "It is so long since I had visitors that I almost forget how to entertain them. You must excuse me if I have seemed distrait or—or peculiar. You see I have had a great deal to bear."
"I know it, and I am very sorry," said Lady Alice gently.
"You are very kind." Was there a touch of satire in the tone? "And—as you are here—why should we not speak of one or two matters that have troubled us sometimes? As two women of the world, we ought to be able to come to a sort of compact."
"I do not understand you, Mrs. Romaine."
Rosalind laughed a little wildly. "Of course you don't. But I do not mean to talk conventionalism or commonplace. Just for a minute or two, let us speak openly. You have come back to your husband—yes, I will speak, and you shall not interrupt!—and you hope no doubt to be happy with him. Don't you know that I could wreck your whole happiness if I chose?"
The color rose in Lady Alice's face, but she looked clearly into the other's face as she replied—
"My happiness with my husband is not dependent on anything that you may do or say. I really cannot discuss the subject with you, Mrs. Romaine, it is most unsuitable."
"You are very impatient," said Rosalind satirically. "I only want to make a bargain with you. If you will do something that I want, I promise you that I will go away from London and never speak to any of your family again." Lady Alice's alarm struggled for mastery with her pride and her sense of the becoming, both of which told her not to parley with this woman. But the temptation to a naturally exacting nature was very great. She hesitated for a moment, and Mrs. Romaine went rapidly on.
"I wrote a letter once." The hot color mounted to her cheeks and brow while she was speaking. "You wrote to me about it. But you did not send it back. You have that letter still."
Lady Alice continued to look at her steadily, but made no reply.
"That letter has been the curse of my life. I repented it as soon as it was sent—you may be sure of that: I could repeat it word for word even now. Oh, no doubt you made the most of it—jeered at it—laughed over it with him—but to me——"
"It is the last thing I should ever have mentioned to my husband," said Lady Alice, with grave disdain. "He never knew that you wrote it—never saw it—never will see or know it from me."
"Do you mean that you have kept it to yourself all these years?"
"I mean that I put it into the fire as soon as I had read it. Why are you so concerned about it? Was it worse than the others that you must have written—before that?"
"I never wrote to him before."
They faced each other with mutual suspicion in their eyes. Lady Alice had forgotten her proud reserve: she wanted to know the truth at last.
"I will acknowledge," she said, "that I believed that you had written other letters—of a somewhat similar kind—to Mr. Brooke. I was angry and disgusted: it was that which formed one of my reasons for leaving him years ago. But I have come to a better mind since then. I do not care what you wrote, what you said, or what you did: I believe that my husband is a good man and I love him. I have come back to him, and shall never leave him again. You can do me no harm now."
Mrs. Romaine laughed mockingly. "Can I not?" she said. "Do you know that he came to me within an hour after his release? Do you know that he asked me to go away with him to Spain, where we could be safe and happy together? What do you say to that?"
"I say this," cried Lady Alice, almost violently, "that I do not believe a word of it." She drew herself to her full height and turned to leave the room. Then she looked at Rosalind and spoke in a gentler tone. "I am sorry for you," she said. "But your suffering is partly your own fault. What right had you to think of winning my husband's heart away from me? You have not succeeded, although you have done your best to make us miserable. I have never spoken of you to him—never; but now, when I go home, I shall go straight to him and tell him all that you have said to me, and I shall know very well whether what you say is false or true."
She left the room proudly and firmly, unheeding of the mocking laugh that Rosalind sent after her. She let herself out into the street and walked straight back to her home. Caspar was out: she could not go to him immediately, as she had said that she would do. She went to her room and lay down upon the bed, feeling strangely tired and weak. In spite of her haughty rebuttal of the charge against her husband, she was wounded and oppressed by it. And as the time went on, she felt more and more the difficulty of telling him her story, of asking him to clear himself. How could she question him without seeming to doubt?
She fretted herself until a headache came on, and she was unable to go down to dinner. Lesley brought her up a cup of tea, but her mother refused her company. "I shall be better alone," she said. "Has your father come in yet? Isn't he very late?"
It was nearly ten o'clock when Mr. Brooke came in, and, hearing that he had been asked for, made his way to his wife's room. He bent over her tenderly, asking her how she felt; and she put one hand up to his rough cheek, without answering.
"What has made your head ache, my darling?" he asked.
"Caspar, I have been to see Mrs. Romaine."
She felt a sort of start or quiver go through him at the name. He put his lips softly to her forehead before he spoke. "Well!" he said, a little dryly.
"Did you—did she——"
Then she broke down, and sobbed a little with her face against her husband's breast. Caspar's breath grew shorter—a sign of excitement with him—but for a time he waited quietly and would not speak. He could not all at once make up his mind what to say.
"Alice," he said at last, "if you ask me questions I suppose I must answer them in one way or another. But—I think I had rather you did not." He felt that every nerve was strained in self-control as she listened to him. "Mrs. Romaine," he went on deliberately, "is not a woman that I like—or—respect. I would very much prefer not to talk about her."
"I must tell you just one thing," she whispered, "it was my feeling about her—my jealousy of her—that made me leave you—twelve years ago."
She had surprised him now. "Alice! Impossible," he said. "Why, my poor girl, there was not the slightest reason. I can most solemnly swear to you, Alice, that I never had any other feeling for Mrs. Romaine than that of ordinary friendship. My dear, will you never believe that you have always been the one woman in all the world for me?"
"Forgive me, Caspar," she murmured, "I do believe it now."
* * * * *
At the same hour, a haggard and despairing woman raised herself from the floor where she had lain for many weary hours, trying by passionate tears and cries and outbursts of unavailing lamentation to exhaust or stifle the anguish which seemed to have reached its most intolerable point. Her robes were soiled and crushed, her hair was dishevelled, her eyes were red with weeping; and, as she rose, she wrung her hands together and then raised them in appeal to the God whom she had so long forgotten and forsaken.
"Oh, my God," she cried, "how can I bear it? All that I do is useless. I may lie and cheat and plot as much as I like, but all my schemes are in vain. I cannot hurt her, as she said: I cannot punish him: I have no power left. No power, no beauty, no will! Am I losing my senses, too, like Francis?" She shuddered at the thought. "Perhaps I am going mad—they have driven me mad, Caspar Brooke and his wife, between them—mad, mad, mad!—Oh, God," she said, with a long shivering sigh, "Oh, God, avert that doom! Not that punishment of all others, for mercy's sake!"
She looked up and down her dimly lighted room with an expression upon her face of horror and unrest, which bore some resemblance to the look of one whose intellect was becoming unhinged. It seemed as if she were afraid that something might leap out upon her from the darkness, or as if goblin voices might at any moment mutter in her ear. For a long time she stood motionless in the middle of the room, her eyes staring, her hands hanging at her sides. Then she moved slowly to a writing-table, took a sheet of paper and a pen, and wrote a few lines. When she had finished she enclosed the sheet in an envelope, and addressed it to Lady Alice Brooke. And when that was done she rang the bell and sent the letter to the post. Then she nodded and smiled strangely to herself.
"Perhaps that will atone," she murmured vaguely. "And perhaps God will not take away my reason, after all."
And then she began to fumble among the things upon her dressing-table for the little bottle that contained her nightly sleeping draught.
* * * * *
Mrs. Romaine's letter was brought to Lady Alice before she rose next morning. It contained these words:—
"I told you what was not true to-day. Your husband never asked me to go away with him—he never cared for me. I loved him, that was all. His carelessness drove me mad—I tried to revenge myself on him by making you suffer. But you would not believe me, and you were right. Pity me if you can, and pray for me.
"Ah, poor soul!" thought Alice Brooke, her eyes filling with tears. "I do pity her—I do, with all my heart. God help her!"
And she said those words again—useless as they might be—when, by and by, a messenger came hurrying to the house with the news that Mrs. Romaine had been found dead that morning—dead, from an overdose of the chloral which she kept beside her for sleeplessness. And so the life of false aims and perverted longings came to its appointed end.
* * * * *
There was never a cloud on Alice Brooke's domestic happiness, never a shadow of distrust between her and her husband, after this. For some little time they changed their mode of life—giving up the house in Bloomsbury and spending long, blissful months in Italy and the Tyrol. It was like another honeymoon. And when they returned to London, Caspar took a house in a sunnier and pleasanter region than Upper Woburn Place, but not so far away as to prevent him from visiting the Macclesfield Club on Sundays, and having a chat with Jim Gregson and his other workman friends. These workmen and their wives came also in their turn to Mr. Brooke's abode, where there was not only a gentle and gracious lady to preside at the table (where twelve especially valued silver spoons always held a place of honor), but a very remarkable baby in the nursery; and it was Mr. Brooke's continual regret that he had not insisted on naming his son and heir Macclesfield, after the workmen's buildings, instead of the more commonplace Maurice, after Maurice Kenyon. But Maurice and Lesley returned the compliment by calling their eldest child Caspar, although Lesley did say saucily that she thought it a very ugly name.
Francis Trent was in a lunatic asylum, "at Her Majesty's pleasure." His wife was allowed to see him now and then; and on this account she would not leave England, as some of her friends urged her to do, but occupied herself with needlework and some kind of district visiting among the poor. The Brookes and the Kenyons were both exceedingly kind to her, and would have been kinder if she had felt it possible to accept "their kindness"; but, although she cherished in secret a strong affection for Lesley, she was too much ashamed of her past conduct ever to present herself to them again. She could but live and work in silence, until one of the two great healers, Time or Death, should soothe the bitterness of her heart away.
And Ethel?—Well, Mrs. Harry Duchesne knows more about Ethel than I do, and I shall be happy to refer you to her.
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3 PARK ST. AND 184 BOYLSTON ST., BOSTON.
48 NORTH PEARL ST., ALBANY.
Inconsistent hyphenation and italicization have been retained as-is within the text.
Here is a list of the minor typographical corrections made: - Comma replaced by period after "ETC" on the second page of advertisements. - Comma changed to a period after "cents" on the fourth page of advertisements (the second page of book listing). - Comma changed to a period after "25c" on Page 4. - "loose" changed to "lose" on Page 7. - "had" changed to "Had" on Page 8. - "a a" changed to "a" on Page 17. - Quote added after "mean——" on Page 20. - "show-white" changed to "snow-white" on Page 24. - "a a" changed to "a" on Page 42. - "occurrred" changed to "occurred" on Page 57. - "word" changed to "world" on Page 64. - "fasionably" changed to "fashionably" on Page 65. - "brink" changed to "drink" on Page 78. - Comma changed to period after "doubt" on Page 83. - Quote removed after "I?" on Page 84. - "demeannor" changed to "demeanor" on Page 90. - Period added after "aglow" on Page 90. - "pursued" changed to "pursed" on Page 91. - Quote added after "Club." on Page 114. - Single quote added before the final "t" in "'T'aint" on Page 123. - Comma changed to period after "Romaine" on Page 124. - Comma changed to period after "too" on Page 138. - Quote removed after "even——" on Page 145. - "sonething" changed to "something" on Page 148. - "got" changed to "get" on Page 148. - Quote removed before "Her" on Page 154. - "quitely" changed to "quietly" on Page 165. - "thing" changed to "think" on Page 166. - "Leslie" changed to "Lesley" on Page 180. - "vist" changed to "visit" on Page 181. - Single quote moved to before "prettiness" on Page 184. - Double quote added after "'art'" on Page 184. - Quotation mark removed after "feel." on Page 185. - Comma changed to period after "explanation" on Page 188. - "the the" changed to "the" on Page 191. - "commoness" changed to "commonness" on Page 193. - "Leslie" changed to "Lesley" on Page 199. - Exclamation mark changed to question mark after "Lesley" on Page 201. - Quote added after "dreams!" on Page 211. - "nan" changed to "man" on Page 218. - Quotation mark moved to follow "suppose," on Page 219. - "againt" changed to "against" on Page 221. - Removed quotation mark after "position," on Page 225. - "brough" changed to "brought" on Page 225. - Question mark changed to a period after "seat" and following letter capitalized on Page 232. - "then" changed to "them" on Page 242. - Quote added after "behind." on Page 247. - Quotation mark added after "then?" on Page 254. - Period added after "start" on Page 260. - "back ground" changed to "background" on Page 262. - Quote added after "Trent?" on Page 265. - "draw" changed to "drew" on Page 276. - Quotes removed after "Because" and before "your" on Page 278. - Question mark changed to period after "heard" on Page 279. - Comma changed to a period after "Lesley" on Page 280. - Question mark changed to comma after "accommodated" on Page 282. - Quote added after "him." on Page .284 - "night" changed to "night's" on Page 286. - "afaid" changed to "afraid" on Page 289. - Quote removed after "forgive?" on Page 292. - "God God" changed to "Good God" on Page 305. - "need need" changed to "need" on Page 308. - "nowa-days" (hyphenated line-break) changed to "now-a-days" on Page 311. - "sold" changed to "be sold" on Page 344. - ".00" changed to ".30" on Page 344. - "33" changed to "38" on Page 344. - "49" changed to "39" on Page 344. - "30" changed to "40" on Page 344. - "48" changed to "43" on Page 344. - "Barret" changed to "Barrett" on Page 346. - Period added after "Manufacturer" on Page 347.