[Transcriber's note: All typographical errors have been corrected. All other inconsistencies in the text, including an unfinished sentence, have been left as is.]
A MONK OF CRUTA
E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM,
Author of "The Peer and the Woman," "A Millionaire of Yesterday," Etc., Etc.
NEW YORK: J. S. OGILVIE PUBLISHING COMPANY, 57 ROSE STREET.
COPYRIGHT, 1894, BY F. TENNYSON NEELY.
A MONK OF CRUTA.
I. "THE BLACK-ROBED PHANTOM, 'DEATH'" 11
II. "THE NEW ART" 32
III. "THE DANCING GIRL" 39
IV. "ADREA'S DIARY" 47
V. "THE FAR-OFF MUTTERING OF THE STORM TO COME" 50
VI. "AN ASHEN GREY DELIGHT" 61
VII. "WHO ARE YOU, AND WHAT YOUR MISSION" 73
VIII. "I AM WEARY OF A HOPELESS LOVE" 80
IX. "AH! HOW FAIR MY WEAKNESS FINDS THEE" 91
X. "I AM BUT A SLAVE, AND YET I BID THEE COME" 104
XI. "ADREA'S DIARY" 114
XII. "WE ARE LIKE SHOOTING STARS, WHOSE MEETING IS THEIR RUIN" 122
XIII. "THE PATH THAT LEADS TO MADMEN'S KINGDOMS" 129
XIV. "THE POISON OF HONEY FLOWERS" 136
XV. "AND MOST OF ALL WOULD I FLY FROM THE CRUEL MADNESS OF LOVE" 144
XVI. "'TWIXT YOU AND ME A NOISOME SHADOW CAST" 154
XVII. "IF LOVE YOU CHOOSE, THEN LOVE SHALL BE YOUR RUIN" 159
XVIII. "SOFTLY GLIMMERING THROUGH THE LAURELS AT THE QUIET EVENFALL" 166
XIX. "BLOOD CALLS ALOUD FOR BLOOD AND NOT FOR HANDS ENTWINED" 174
XX. "THE NEW, STRONG WINE OF LOVE" 180
XXI. "ADREA'S DIARY" 185
XXII. "OH! HEART OF STONE, YET FLESH TO ALL SAVE ME" 195
XXIII. "MY LIPS ARE CHARGED WITH TRUTH, AND JUSTICE BIDS ME SPEAK" 206
XXIV. "THE SHATTERED VASE OF LOVE'S MOST HOLY VOWS" 218
XXV. "A BECKONING VOICE FROM OUT A SHADOWY LAND" 224
XXVI. "LATE THOU COMEST, CRUEL THOU HAST BEEN" 232
XXVII. "GRIM FIGURES TRACED BY SORROW'S FIERY HAND" 241
XXVIII. "ADREA'S DIARY" 249
XXIX. "ADREA'S DIARY" 263
XXX. "ADREA'S DIARY" 275
XXXI. "ADREA'S DIARY" 280
XXXII. "THE LORD OF CRUTA" 291
XXXIII. "THE DAWN OF A SHORT, SWEET LIFE" 298
XXXIV. "A VOICE AND FIGURE FROM THE DISTANT PAST" 308
XXXV. "FROM OUT LIFE'S THUNDERS TO A STRANGE, SWEET WORLD" 322
XXXVI. "LOVE THAN DEATH ITSELF MORE STRONG" 329
A MONK OF CRUTA.
"THE BLACK-ROBED PHANTOM 'DEATH'"
"I am here!"
"I saw the doctor talking with you aside! How long have I to live? He told you the truth! Repeat his words to me!"
The tall, gaunt young priest drew nearer to the bedside, and shook his head with a slow, pitying gesture.
"The time was short—short indeed. Yet, why should you fear? Your confession has been made! I myself have pronounced your absolution; the holy Church has granted to you her most holy sacrament."
"Fear! Bah! I have no fear! It is a matter of calculation. Shall I see morning break?"
"You may; but you will never see the mid-day sun."
The dying man raised himself with a slow, painful movement, and pointed to the window.
"Throw up the window."
He was obeyed. A servant who had been sitting quietly in the shadows of the vast apartment, with his head buried in his hands, rose and did his master's bidding.
"What hour is it?"
"Gomez, strain your eyes seaward. Is there no light on the horizon?"
"None! The storm has wrapped the earth in darkness. Listen!"
A torrent of rain was swept against the streaming window pane, and a gust of wind shook the frame in its sockets. The watcher turned away from the window with a mute gesture of despair. No eye could pierce that black chaos. He sank again into his seat, and looked around shuddering. The high, vaulted chamber was lit by a pair of candles only, leaving the greater part of it in gloom. Grim, fantastic shadows lurked in the corners, and lay across the bare floor. Even the tall figure of the priest, on his knees before a rude wooden crucifix, seemed weird and ghostly. The heavy, mildewed bed-hangings shook and trembled in the draughts which filled the room, and the candles flickered and burnt low in their sockets. Gomez watched them with a sort of anxious fascination. His master's life was burning out, minute for minute, with those candles. Twenty-five years of constant companionship would be ended in a few brief hours. Gomez was not disposed to trouble much at this; but he bethought himself of a snug little abode in Piccadilly, where the discomforts now surrounding them were quite unknown. Surely, to die there would be a luxury compared with this. He began to feel personally aggrieved that his master should have chosen such an out-of-the-way hole to end his days in. Then came a rush of thought, and he was grave. He knew why! Yes! he knew why!
The dying man lay quite still, almost as though his time were already come. Once he raised himself, and the feeble light flashed across a grey, haggard face and a pair of burning eyes. But his effort was only momentary. He sank back again, and lay there with his eyes half closed, and breathing softly. He was nursing his strength.
One, two, three, four, five! The harsh clanging of a brazen clock somewhere in the building had penetrated to the chamber, followed by a deep, resonant bell. The man on the bed lifted his head.
"How goes the storm?" he asked softly.
Gomez stood up and faced the window.
"The storm dies with the night, sir," he answered. "The wind has fallen."
"When does day break?"
Gomez looked at his watch.
"In one hour, sir."
"Stay by the window, Gomez, and let your eyes watch for the dawn."
The priest frowned. "Surely the time has come when you should quit your hold on earthly things," he said quietly. "What matters the dawn! soon you will lose yourself in an everlasting sleep, and the dawn for you will be eternity. Take this crucifix, and pray with me."
The dying man pushed it away with a gesture almost contemptuous.
"Is there no light on the sea yet, Gomez?" he asked anxiously.
Gomez leant forward till his face touched the window pane. He strained his eyes till they ached; but the darkness was impenetrable. Yet stay,—what was that? A feeble yellow light was glimmering far away in the heart of that great gulf of darkness. He held his breath, and watched it steadily. Then he turned round.
"There is a light in the far distance, sir," he said. "I cannot tell what it may be, but there is a light."
A wave of excitement passed over the strong, wasted features of the man upon the bed. He half raised himself, and his voice was almost firm.
"Push my bed to the window," he ordered.
The two men, priest and servant, bent all their strength to the task, and inch by inch they moved the great, creaking structure. When at last they had succeeded, and paused to take breath, the light in the distance had become stronger and more apparent. Together the three men watched it grow; master and servant, with breathless eagerness, the priest with a show of displeasure in his severe face. Suddenly Gomez gave a little cry.
"The dawn!" he exclaimed, pointing to the north of the light. "Morning is breaking."
Sure enough, a grey, pallid light was stealing down upon the water. The darkness was becoming a chaos of grey and black; of towering seas and low-lying clouds, with cold white streaks of light falling through them, and piercing the curtains of night. There was no vestige of colouring—nothing but cold grey and slate white. Yet the dawn moved on, and through it the yellow light in the distance gleamed larger and larger.
"Hold me up," ordered the man on the bed. "Prop me up with pillows!"
They did as he bade them, and for the first time his face was fully revealed in the straggling twilight. A flowing grey beard, still plentifully streaked with black, rested upon his chest; and the eyes, steadily fixed upon the window pane, were dark and undimmed. A long illness had wasted his fine features, but had detracted nothing from their strength and regularity of outline. His lips were closely set, and his expression, though painfully eager, was not otherwise displeasing. There was none of the fear of death there; nor was there anything of the passionless resignation of the man who has bidden farewell to life, and made his peace with God and man; nor, in those moments of watching, had his face any of the physical signs of approaching death.
They started at the sharp, almost triumphant exclamation which had escaped from his white lips, and followed his long, quivering finger. Above that glimmering light was a faint, dim line of smoke, fading on the horizon.
"It is a steamer, indeed," the priest said, with some interest. "She is making for the island."
"When is the supply boat due?" Gomez asked.
"Not for a fortnight," the priest answered; "it is not she, it is a stranger."
There was no other word spoken. Soon the dawn, moving across the great waste of waters, pierced the dark background behind the steamer's light. The long trail of white, curdling foam in her track gleamed like a silver cleft in a dark gulf. The dim shape of her sails stole slowly into sight, and they could see that she was carrying a great weight of canvas. Then into the grey air, a rocket shot up like a brilliant meteor, and the sound of a gun came booming over the waters.
"Can she make the bay?" Gomez asked suddenly. "Look at the surf."
They all removed their eyes from the steamer, and fixed them nearer home. The darkness had rolled away, and the outlook, though a little uncertain in the misty morning light, was still visible. Right before the window, a little to the left, a great rocky hill, many hundreds of feet high, ran sheer down into the sea, and facing it on the right, was a lower range of rocks running out from the mainland. Inside the natural harbour thus formed, the sea was quiet enough; but at the entrance, a line of white breakers and huge ocean waves were leaping up against the base of the promontory, and dashing over the lower range of rocks. Beyond, the sea was wild and rough, and the steamer was often almost lost to sight in the hollow of the Waves.
The faces of all three men underwent a sudden change. Three rockets, one after another, shot up into the sky from the top of the rocky hill, leaving a faint, violet glow overhead. The dying man set his teeth hard, and his eyes glistened.
"Three rockets," he muttered. "What is the meaning of that signal, Father?" he asked.
The priest looked downward, pityingly. "It is a warning that the entrance to the bay is unsafe," he answered. "Take comfort; it is the hand of God keeping from you those who would distract your dying thoughts from Heaven. Take comfort, and pray with me."
He seemed strangely deaf to the priest's words, and made no movement or sign in response. Only he kept his eyes the more steadfastly fixed upon the steamer, now plainly visible. His face showed no disappointment. It seemed almost as though he might have seen across the grey sea, and heard the stern orders thundered out from a slim, motionless figure on the captain's bridge. "Right ahead, helmsman! Never mind the signal. There's fifty pounds for every man of you if we make the bay. It's not so bad as it looks! Back me up like brave lads, and I'll remember it all your lives!"
Almost, too, he might have heard the answering cheer, for a faint smile parted his white lips as he saw the steamer ploughing her way heavily straight ahead, paying no heed to the warning signal.
On she came. The priest and the servant started as they saw her intention, and a sharp ejaculation of surprise escaped from the former. Side by side, they watched the labouring vessel with strained eyes. Her hull and shape were now visible in the dim morning twilight, as she rose and fell upon the waves. It was evident that she was a large, handsome pleasure yacht, daintily but strongly built.
Close up against the high, bare window the three watchers, unconsciously enough, formed a striking-looking group. The priest, tall, pale, and severe, stood in the shadow of the bed-curtains, an impressive and solemn figure in his dark, flowing robes, but with the impassibility of his features curiously disturbed. He, who had been preaching calm, was himself agitated. He had drawn a little on one side, so that the cold grey light should not fall upon his face and betray its twitching lips and quivering pallor; but if either of the men who shared his watch had thought to glance at him, the sickly candlelight would have shown at once what he was so anxious to conceal. It was little more than chance which had brought this man to die in his island monastery, and under his care; little more than chance which had revealed to him this wonderful secret. But the agony of those last few hours, and the gloomy words of the priest who leant over his bedside, had found their way in between the joints of the dying man's armour of secrecy. Word by word, the story had been wrested from him. In the cold and comfortless hour of death, the strong, worldly man felt his physical weakness loosen the iron bands of his will, and he became for a time almost like a child in the hands of the keen, swiftly-questioning priest. He had not found much comfort in the mumbled prayers and absolution, which were all he got in exchange for his life's secret,—and such a secret! He had not, indeed, noticed the fixed, far-away gaze in the priest's dark eyes as he knelt by the bedside; but his prayers, his faint words of comfort, had fallen like drops of ice upon his quickened desire to be brought a little nearer to that mysterious, shadowy essence of goodness which was all his mind could conceive of a God. It had seemed like a dead form of words, lifeless, hopeless, monotonous; and all that faint striving to attain to some knowledge of the truth—if indeed truth there was—had been crushed into ashes by it. As he had lived, so must he die, he told himself with some return of that philosophic quietude which had led him, stout-hearted and brave, through many dangers. And, at that moment when he had been striving to detach his thoughts from their vain task of conjuring up useless regrets, there had come what even now seemed to be the granting of his last passionate prayer. The man whom he had longed to see once more before his eyes were closed forever upon the world, with such a longing that his heart had grown sick and weary with the burden of it, had been brought as though by a miracle almost to his side. He knew as though by some strange instinct the measure of his strength. He had no fear of dying before his heart's dearest wish could be gratified. If only that fiercely labouring vessel succeeded in her brave struggle, he knew that there would be strength left to him to bear the shock of meeting, to bear even the shock of the tidings which could either sweeten his last few moments, or deepen the gloom of his passage into the unknown world. And so he lay there, with fixed, glazed eyes and shortened breath, watching and waiting.
The supreme moment came; the steamer had reached the dangerous point, and the waves were breaking over her with such fury that more than once she vanished altogether from sight, only to reappear in a moment or two, quivering and trembling from stern to hull like a living creature. After all, the struggle was a brief one, though it seemed long to the watchers at the window. In less than ten minutes it was over; she had passed the line of breakers, and was in the comparatively smooth water of the bay, heading fast for the shore under leeway of the great wall of towering rocks, at the foot of which she seemed dwarfed almost into the semblance of a boy's toy vessel. Within a quarter of a mile from the shore, she anchored, and a boat was let down from her side.
A new lease of life seemed to have come to the man on the bed. The morning sun had half emerged from a bank of angry purple-coloured clouds, and its faint slanting beams lay across the white coverlet of the bed, and upon his face. His eyes were bright and eager, and the death-like pallor seemed to have passed from his features. His voice, too, was firm and distinct.
"Place my despatch-box upon the table here, Gomez," he ordered.
Gomez left his seat by the window, and, opening a portmanteau, brought a small black box to the bedside. His master passed his hand over it, and drew it underneath the coverlet.
"I am prepared," he murmured, half to himself. "Father, according to the physician's reckoning, how long have I to live?"
"Barely an hour," answered the priest, without removing his eyes from the boat, whose progress he seemed to be scanning steadfastly. "Is your eternal future of so little moment to you," he went on in a tone of harsh severity, "that you can give your last thoughts, your last few moments, to affairs of this world? 'Tis an unholy death! Take this cross in your hands, and listen not to those whose coming will surely estrange you from heaven. Let the world take its own course, but lift your eyes and heart in prayer! Everlasting salvation, or everlasting doom, awaits you before yonder sun be set!"
"I have no fear, Father," was the quiet reply. "What is, is; a few frantic prayers now could alter nothing, and, besides, my work on earth is not yet over. Speak to me no more of the end! Nothing that you or I could do now would bring me one step nearer heaven. Gomez, your eyes are good! Whom do you see in the boat?"
Gomez answered without turning round from the window, "Mr. Paul is there, sir, steering!"
"There are others with him, sir!"
"Strangers to me, sir. There is a man, a gentleman by his dress and appearance, and a child—a girl, I think. Two sailors from the yacht are rowing."
The dying man knitted his brows, and his fingers convulsively clutched at the bed-clothes. He had lost something of that calm and effortless serenity which seemed to have fallen upon him since the safety of the steamer had been assured.
"The boat is quite close, Gomez! Can you not describe the stranger?"
"I can only see that he is thin, rather tall, and, I think, elderly, sir. He is very much wrapped up, as though he were an invalid."
"Lift me up so that I can see them. Father Adrian will help you."
The priest shook his head. "The effort would probably cost you your life," he said, "and it would be useless. Before you could see them the boat would be round the corner."
"So near! God grant me strength! Gomez, give me a tablespoonful of the brandy!"
Gomez moved silently to his side, and poured out the brandy. Afterwards his master closed his eyes, and there was an intense silence in the chamber—the deep, breathless silence of expectancy.
The monastery itself, a small and deserted one, tenanted only by a few half-starved monks of one of the lower orders of the Church, was wrapped in a profound gloom. There was no sound from the half-ruined chapel or the long, empty corridors. The storm had ceased, and the casements no longer rattled in the wind. To the man who lay there, nursing his fast-ebbing strength, it seemed indeed like the silence before the one last tragedy of death, looming so black and so grim before him.
It was broken at last. Away at the end of the corridor the faint sound of hurrying footsteps and subdued voices reached the ears of the three watchers. They came nearer and nearer, halting at last just outside the door. There was a knock, a quick, impetuous answer, and the visitors entered, ushered in by the priest, who had met them on the threshold.
Of the two men, one advanced hastily with outstretched hand and pitying face to the bedside; the other moved only a step or two further into the room, and stood looking intently, yet without any salutation or form of recognition, at the dying man. The former, when he reached the bed, sank on his knees and took the white hand which lay upon the coverlet between his.
"Father! My father! I would have given the world to have found you better. Tell me that it is not true what they say. You will pull round now that I have come!"
There was no answer. The dying man did not even look into the handsome young face so close to his. His eyes, bright and unnaturally large, were rivetted upon the figure at the foot of the bed. His breath came quickly, and he was shivering; an inarticulate sort of moan came from his lips.
"Father! you are agitated, and no wonder, to see him here. You had my letter preparing you; nothing that I could do would stop his coming."
It was Gomez who answered, advancing out of the gloom: "There has been no letter."
There was an instant's silence. Then the younger man rose up, pale as death. "God! what a fool I was to trust to mails in this out-of-the-way hole! Father! I shall never forgive myself. Blind idiot that I was, to bring him in like this."
It seemed as if no one save he possessed the power of speech. There was a dead silence. He looked from one to another of the figures in that silent drama in fast-growing despair. The face of the man whom he had brought there revealed little, although in a certain way its expression was remarkable. The lips were parted in a slow, quiet smile, not in itself sardonic or cruel, although under the circumstances it seemed so, for it was difficult to associate any idea of mirth with the scene which was passing in that grim, gloomy chamber. Something of the awe inseparable from this close approach of death was visible in the faces of all the other watchers. Not so in his! It was the contrast which seemed so strange. He stood there, with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his long travelling coat, returning the fixed, glazed stare of the dying man with a sort of indifferent good humour. Perhaps a very close observer might have detected a shade of mockery in those soft black eyes and faintly twitching lips, but the light in the room was too obscure for any one there to penetrate beneath the apparent indifference. It was he who broke that deep, tragic silence, and his voice, light and even gay, struck a strange note in that solemn chamber of death.
"So you are dying, Martin, mon ami? How odd! If any one had told me one short month ago that I should have been here to watch your last moments, and start you on your journey to hell, bah! how mad I should have thought them. 'Tis a pleasure I never anticipated."
His words seemed to dissolve the lethargy which his presence had cast over the dying man. He turned away towards the younger figure by his side.
"How came he here?" he asked feebly.
"Listen, and I will tell you," was the low reply. "I sought him first at Monaco, but he had not been heard of there for two years. Then I found traces of him at Algiers; and followed up the clue to Cairo, Athens, Syracuse, and Belgrade. It was at Constantinople I found him at last—an officer—actually an officer in the Turkish army; 'Monsieur le Captaine,' my interpreter called him," the young man added, with a fine scorn in his raised voice. "Imagine it! Well, I gave him your letter, delivered the messages, and awaited his pleasure. He kept me waiting for two days before he vouchsafed one word of answer. On the third day he announced his intention of accompanying me here. Nothing that I could say made any difference. 'His answer should be given to you in person, or not at all.' I wrote to you three days before we started; that letter you never had. Forgive me, father, for the shock! As for you," he continued, turning abruptly towards the motionless figure at the foot of the bed, "I have kept my word, and brought you here in safety, though no one in the world will ever know how near I came to breaking it, and throwing you into the Dardanelles. Ah! I was sorely tempted, I can tell you. Speak your answer, and go! This is no place for you to linger in."
"Upon my word, you are courteous, very! But, my dear friend Martin, as this is to be our farewell, I must really see you a little more distinctly."
For the first time, the man in the long overcoat changed his position, and came a little nearer to the bed. The movement showed him the priest, kneeling with closed eyes and uplifted hands before an iron crucifix.
"Ah! we are not quite alone then, Martin, cher ami! the gentleman in the long robe appears to be listening."
"He is as dead," answered the man on the bed slowly. "He is a monk; you can speak."
He raised himself slightly on the bed. One hand remained grasping his despatch-box under the bed-clothes; the other was held by the young man who knelt by his side. His face was curiously changed; all the effect of his unlooked-for visitor's arrival seemed to have passed away. His eyes were bright and eager. His white lips were closely set and firm.
"You can speak," he repeated.
His visitor was leaning over the foot of the bed now, and the smile had quite gone, leaving his face cold and white. He spoke a little quicker than before.
"Here is your answer, Martin de Vaux! You offer me a fortune, on condition that I give up to you on your deathbed the power by which I hold those whom you love, my slaves. Money is dear to me, as it is to most men, but I would die sooner than touch yours. Curse you, and your money, and your family! Not for all the gold that was ever coined would I yield up my power! My day will come, and may the evil spirit bring you tidings of it down into hell! Curse you, Martin de Vaux! Now you know my mind."
The dying man was strangely calm. From under the bed-clothes came the faint sound of the opening and shutting of the despatch-box.
"Yes, I know your mind," he repeated quietly. "You mean me to die with the torturing thought that I have left a poisonous reptile to suck the life and blood from those I love, and the honour from a grand old name. But I will not! We will take our next journey together, Victor."
A sudden change had crept into his tone before the last sentence; and before it had died away, the priest and the man by the bedside had leaped to their feet in horror. He whom they had thought too weak to stir was sitting bolt upright in bed, his eyes blazing and his hand extended. There was a line of fire, a loud report, and then a single cry of agony. The man who had leaned over the foot of the bed lay on the ground just as he had fallen, shot dead through the heart, and a child, dark-skinned and thin, who had rushed in at the sound of the report, was sobbing passionately with her arms wound around him. Across the bed, still grasping the pistol, but with his hands hanging helplessly down, lay the man who had fired the shot. The effort had killed him.
The priest was the first in the room to move. He slowly bent over both bodies, and then turned round to the other man.
"Dead?" he asked, with a dry, choking gasp.
The priest and his companion, shocked and unnerved, looked at one another in silence. The child's sobs grew louder, and the morning sunlight stole across the bare floor, and fell upon the white, still faces.
The tragedy was over, and the seeds of another sown.
"THE NEW ART"
A tall, fair young man stood in the small alcove of Lady Swindon's drawing-room, with his eyes fixed upon the door. He was accurately dressed in the afternoon garb of a London man about town, and carried in his hand, or rather in his hands, for they were crossed behind him, that hall-mark of Western civilization—a well-brushed, immaculate silk hat. Neither in his clothes nor personal appearance was there any striking difference between him and the crowd of other young men who thronged the rooms, except perhaps that he was a trifle better made, and pleasanter to look at than most of them, and that the air of boredom, so apparent on most of their faces and in their manners, was in his case perfectly natural. As a matter of fact, he hated afternoon receptions, and was only waiting for a favourable opportunity to make his exit unnoticed.
"Paul, my boy, you don't look happy," exclaimed a voice in his ear.
Paul de Vaux turned upon the new-comer sharply. "Not likely to, Arthur. You know I hate all this sort of thing, and, as far as I can see, it's just a repetition of the usual performance—stale speeches, lionizing, gossip, and weak tea. I consider you've brought me here under false pretences. Where's the startling novelty you promised me?"
"All in good time," was the cool reply. "You'll thank your stars you're here in a minute or two."
Paul de Vaux looked at his brother incredulously. "Some sell of yours, I suppose," he remarked. "At any rate, no one here whom I have spoken to seems to be expecting anything unusual."
Arthur—no one ever called him anything else—laughed, and beat an impatient tattoo upon the floor with his foot. He was several inches shorter than his brother, and altogether unlike him. Yet he, too, was good-looking, in a certain way.
"That's just the beauty of it," he said. "Lady Swindon has prepared a little surprise for her guests. She's just that sort of woman, you know. Denison told me about it at the club, a few minutes before you came in for lunch. I shouldn't have bothered you to come if I hadn't known there was something good on."
"I dislike surprises," his brother answered wearily. "Half the pleasure of a thing lies in anticipation, and surprises rob one of that. Let us go, Arthur; there are plenty here to enjoy this novelty, whatever it is. Come and have a weed at my rooms, and we'll talk over something for to-night."
Arthur shook his head and laid his hand upon Paul's coat-sleeve. "You don't know what's coming off, old fellow; I wouldn't miss it for anything. Great Scott! there's the bishop. Wonder how he'll like it? and there's Lady May over there, Paul. You're booked, old man, if she looks this way."
Paul leant forward with a faint show of interest, and looked in the direction indicated. "I thought that the Westovers went North yesterday," he remarked. "Lady May said that they expected it."
"Likely enough. 'Gad! the performance is going to commence," Arthur exclaimed, quickly. "Paul, you are going to have a new sensation. You are going to see the most beautiful woman in the world."
There was a little hush, and every one had turned towards the upper end of the room. Some heavy curtains had been rolled aside, disclosing a space, only a few yards square, which had been covered by a tightly stretched drugget. There was a little curious anticipation amongst the uninitiated. Then the comparative silence was broken by the strains of a waltz from a violin, somewhere in the background. No one had ever heard it before. There was a wilder, dreamier air with it, than anything Waldteufel had ever written. And, while every one was wondering whose music it could be, a woman glided out from behind a screen, and stood for a second swaying herself slightly in the centre of the drugget. Even that slight rhythmical motion of her body seemed to bring her into perfect sympathy with the curious melody which was filling the hushed room. And while the people watched her, already, in varying degrees, under the spell of that curious fascination which her personality and the exercise of her art seldom failed to excite, she commenced to dance.
Long afterwards Paul de Vaux tried to describe in words, that dance, and found that he could not, for there was indeed a charm beyond expression or portrayal in the slow, almost languid movements, full of infinite and inexpressible witchery. Every limb of her body and every feature of her face followed, with a sort of effortless grace, the movements of her feet. Yet the general effect of the whole was suggestive of a sweet and dainty repose, voluptuous yet refined, glowing with life, yet dreamily restful. In a certain sense her physical movements, even her body itself, seemed merged and lost in the artistic ideal created and born of her performance. And so it was that he carried away that day no vivid thought-portrait of her features, only a confused dream of a beautiful dusky face, rising above a cloud of amber draperies, the lips slightly parted in a wonderful smile, and a pair of heavily-lidded eyes, which, more than once, had rested upon him, soft, dark, and lustrous. After all, it was but a tangled web of memories, yet, such as it was, it became woven into the pattern of his life, wonderfully soft and brilliant beside some of those dark, gloomy threads which fate had spun for him.
The performance ended, as such performance should end, suddenly, and without repetition. Her disappearance was so swift and yet so graceful, that for a moment or two people scarcely realized that she was gone. It was wonderful what a difference her absence made to the room. The little stretch of drugget looked mean and bare. To Paul de Vaux it seemed as though some warm, beautiful light, omniscient and richly coloured, had suddenly burnt out, and left a damp chilliness in the air. The silence was gloomy enough after that wonderful music, but the babble of tongues which presently arose was a hundred times worse. He found himself chafing and angry at the commonplacisms which everywhere greeted his ear. Lady Swindon's afternoon entertainment had been a great success, and every one was telling her so, more or less volubly. There were some there, a handful of artists and a few thoughtful men, who were silent, or who spoke of it only amongst themselves in subdued voices. They recognised, in what had happened that afternoon, the dawn of a new art, or rather the regeneration of an old one, and they discussed in whispers its possible significance and influence. She was an artist, that woman. No one doubted it. But the woman was there as well as the artist. Who was she? Would she realize the sanctity of her mission, and keep herself fit and pure for its accomplishment? Had she character to sustain her, and imagination to idealize her calling? She was on a pinnacle now, but it was a pinnacle as dangerous as the feet of woman could press. If only she could keep herself unspotted from the world, which would do its best to drag her down, they all felt, painter, poet, and musician, that her influence with the age might rank with their own. But was it possible? A certain Diana-like coldness had been apparent to those who had the eyes to see it, even in her most voluptuous movements. They knew that it was not assumed for the sake of adding piquancy to her performance—it was there indeed. But side by side with it there were unprobed depths of passion in her soft, deep eyes; a slumbering passion even in the sinuous, graceful movements of every limb. Some day the struggle would come, even if it had not already commenced. The woman against the artist—the woman tempted and flattered by a thousand tongues, and dazzled with visions of all those things so naturally sweet to her, her own nature even, so keenly susceptible to love and sympathy, siding with the enemy. This, all against what? Only that inward worshipping of all things sweet and pure and lofty, which is the artist's second life. The odds were heavy indeed. No wonder that the select few who spoke of her that afternoon should shake their heads and look grave.
"THE DANCING GIRL"
"What do you think of it?"
Paul started. He had been standing, like a man in a dream, with folded arms, looking across the room with idle eyes, and unconsciously ignoring many salutations. His brother's tone sounded oddly in his ears, and he looked flushed and a little nervous.
"What did I think of it!" It was a difficult question to answer. He repeated it, and was glad when Arthur spared him the necessity of replying, by adding his own opinion.
"It was glorious, magnificent! I'm going to find out more about her!"
He strolled away, and joined one of the little groups of men who were discussing the performance. Paul, at first, had made a gesture as though to detain him, but on second thoughts he had changed his mind. Better let him go and find out what he could.
He himself watched carefully for his opportunity, and then left the room. He felt like a man who has received a silent shock. Something fresh had come into his life, noiselessly, insidiously, without effort. He pressed on his hat, and passed down the steps out into the street, scarcely conscious of what he was doing.
The rush of fresh air somewhat revived him, and he stood still for a moment to collect his thoughts. He felt the need of absolute solitude for a while, to help him to realize—or at any rate to understand—this thing which had happened, and with almost feverish haste he called a hansom from the other side of the road. The man whipped up the horse, but hesitated as he reached the pavement. Looking around, Paul saw the cause of his indecision. A woman, standing only a few yards behind, had called him at the same time, and was waiting also for his approach.
There was a gas-lamp between them, and as their eyes met, he recognised her. Even in that flickering light, and through her veil, there was no mistaking those wonderful eyes. As a rule, he was possessed of as much savoir faire as most men of his class, but at that moment it had deserted him. He stood there on the edge of the pavement, without moving or saying anything, simply looking at her, startled at her sudden appearance, and magnetised by her close presence. He had heard no footfall behind him, and the fact of her being alone seemed so strange to him, that he simply could not realize for a moment that it was indeed she who stood so close to him. The cabman, leaving them to decide who had the prior claim upon him, sat motionless, with his eyes discreetly fixed upon his horse's ears. It was an odd little tableau, insignificant enough to a spectator, save, perhaps, for the curious look in the woman's face and softly flashing eyes. Yet it left its mark for ever in the lives of the two principal figures.
The curious sensation which had kept Paul standing there dazed and tongue-tied, passed away. Yet it did not immediately occur to him to raise his hat and walk on, as in any ordinary case he would have done. He was conscious of the exact nature of the situation, but he felt a strong disinclination to leave the spot; nor, strangely enough, did she seem to expect it. Yet something had to be done.
He moved a step nearer her. He was no schoolboy, this tall, grave-looking young Englishman. The lines across his fair, smooth forehead, and by his close-set mouth spoke for themselves. He had seen life in many aspects, and in a certain Indian jungle village, there were natives and coolies who still spoke admiringly of the wonderful nerve and pluck of the English sahib during a terrible and unexpected tiger rush. But at that moment his nerve seemed to have deserted him. He could almost hear his heart beat as he took that step forward. He had intended to have made some trifling apology, and to have handed her into the cab, but the words would not come. Some instinct seemed to revolt at the thought of uttering any such commonplacism. She was standing on the edge of the pavement, close to the step, with her skirts in one hand, slightly raised. He held out his hand to her in silence.
She gave him hers; and yet she did not at once step into the cab. She seemed to be expecting that little speech from him which he found impossible to frame, and, seeing that it did not come, recognising, perhaps, his suppressed agitation behind that calm, almost cold, gravity of demeanour, she spoke to him.
"It is a shame to take your cab, and leave you in the rain! I am sorry."
Afterwards her admirers spoke of her voice as being one of her chief charms; to Paul it sounded like a soft strain of very sweet, throbbing music, reaching him from some far distant world. Yet, curiously enough, it went far to dissolve the spell which her presence seemed to have laid upon him. He was able to look at her steadily, and standing upon the wet pavement in the cold, grey light of that November afternoon, their eyes met in a long, searching gaze. He was able even to notice trifles. He saw the rich fur which lined her plain, black cloak, and he could even admire the absolute perfection with which it followed the lines of her slim, supple, figure. He saw the glowing eyes shining out from her dusky face, and the coils of brown hair, not very securely fastened under her turban hat. As she put out her foot to enter the cab, he could even catch a glimpse of the amber draperies concealed by her cloak. A dancer! A public dancer! His eyes swept over her again, taking in every detail of her simple but rich toilette, and he shivered slightly. Then he answered her, "It is of no consequence, thank you. I can walk."
"But you will get very wet! Let us make a compromise! You may come with me. I am going only a very little distance, and then you can take the cab on to your home, or wherever you want to go to."
She stepped in, taking it for granted that he would accept her offer, and he followed her at once. He was not in the least surprised. From the first he had not expected to leave her, and her invitation seemed perfectly natural to him. She gave the cabman her address through the trap-door, and they drove off together.
At the corner of the square, two men were standing together talking, and as the hansom passed within a yard or two of them both glanced idly in, and then started. Paul, who had been looking straight ahead of him, and seeing nothing, turned round, startled by a familiar exclamation, just in time to see his brother Arthur, and Leslie Horton, gazing after the cab. The incident troubled him, as much for her sake as his own. But, looking into her face, he could not see that she was in any way disturbed, although she must have seen the two men, and would probably have recognised them as having been present at Lady Swindon's reception. Her face was quite unmoved, but in a moment or two she asked a question.
"Who was the younger and better looking of those two men; the one with violets in his coat, like yours?"
"It was my brother," he answered simply. "I am afraid, too, that he recognised you."
"So far as I am concerned, that is of no consequence at all," she answered lightly.
He turned away with a sudden sinking of the heart. He knew, too well, that her carelessness was not assumed. How was he to interpret it?
Their drive was finished in silence, and they pulled up before a handsome, though somewhat sombre-looking house in a back street.
"My rooms are here," she remarked.
He stepped on to the pavement, and assisted her to alight. The thought of leaving her so abruptly was painful to him, and yet he dreaded to hear her invite him to go in with her; nevertheless, she did so.
"If you are not in a hurry, perhaps you will come in, and let me give you a cup of tea," she said, looking him full in the face.
His heart sank. What was he to think now? And yet he was absurdly glad that he was not to leave her.
"Do you mean it?" he asked.
"Of course! I should not have asked you else. Are you very much shocked?" she added, with a mocking gleam in her eyes. "It is not proper, is it! I confess I did not think of that. But do come," she added, with a sudden bewitching smile.
"I shall be delighted," he answered, gravely enough, but truthfully. He turned to pay the cabman, and followed her into the house.
"My rooms are upstairs," she remarked, leading the way. "The luxury of a first floor is at present beyond me."
Her words pleased him, but their effect died away when she opened a door on the first landing, and ushered him in. Such of the interior of the house as he had seen was handsomely furnished, but the room in which he stood was almost like a fairy chamber. Curtains divided it in the centre, and beyond he could see a table laid for dinner.
"That half I use for a dining-room," she remarked, pointing towards it with one of her gloves, which she had just taken off. "It makes this room small, but it is a convenient arrangement. Do sit down!"
He bowed, but remained standing, with his elbow resting upon the draped mantel-board. She took off her hat and coat, hanging them over the back of a chair, and advanced towards him.
She was in her dancing dress, a floating mass of yellow draperies, and the firelight gleamed strangely upon her dusky, perfect face, with its olive colouring, and soft, glowing eyes. She came so close to him that a faint odour from the handkerchief in her hand stole up to him.
He was playing with an ornament on the shelf, and his fingers tightened convulsively around it. It snapped in two in his hand; he did not notice it. He leaned forward towards her, and his strong voice vibrated with feeling.
"And it was for this then, Adrea Kiros, that you ran away from the convent St. Lucile! My God!"
To-day I have made my entrance in the first scene of the drama of life. To-day, therefore, I commence my memoirs. Everything before goes for nothing!
As I have removed myself altogether from all association with the humdrum existence which might have been mine, I am naturally friendless for the present. So far as the other sex is concerned, I fancy that that could be easily remedied. But no women are likely to care about making my acquaintance, and I am glad of it. I hate women—men, too, I think! At any rate, there will be no one of whom I shall make a confidant, so I have chosen you, my silent friend. I gave a guinea for you in Bond Street, and with your dainty morocco case and binding, I think you are well worth it. At any rate, you will be faithful so far as silence is concerned.
To-day has been an eventful one. I have made my debut as a dancer, and Paul de Vaux has been here, in this house, alone with me! That is hard to realize, but it is so! He has altered since he used to pay me periodical visits at the convent—and so have I, I imagine! Yet he recognised me! How pale and stern he looked when he stood up on the hearthrug and called me by my name! He is very handsome—handsomer now even than on that day when he stood by, in that chamber of death, and saw my father murdered, without lifting his hand. Ah! Paul de Vaux, Paul de Vaux! that was an evil day for you! Did you never think that that little brown girl, as you called her, would grow up some day; or did you think that she would forget! Bah! What fools men are!
He remembered me! How grave he looked, and yet how tender his voice sounded! He did not forget that he was my guardian, and I his ward. How bewildered and anxious he was! Was I living quite alone, had I no friends, did I think it wise to lay myself open to so much notice?
He had come close to my chair, and was leaning down, so that his head nearly touched mine. Really, when I looked up, I thought that he was going to take me into his arms. I looked up and laughed softly into his face.
He said no more. I invited him to dine with me, and promised to dance to him afterwards. I even let my hand rest for a moment upon his shoulder, and whispered—but n'importe! He behaved just as I would have had him behave! He took up his hat and walked straight out of the room! It was rude, but it was magnificent. Ah! Paul de Vaux! you may struggle as long as you like, but in the end you will be mine!
"THE FAR-OFF MUTTERING OF THE STORM TO COME"
Paul had walked unannounced into his mother's favourite little sitting-room at Vaux Court, tired and travel-stained. She rose to her feet and looked at him anxiously.
"Don't be alarmed, mother," he said, stooping down and kissing her. "There's nothing at all the matter."
"Arthur is well?"
"Quite well; I was with him yesterday afternoon. There's nothing the matter. London was boring me, that's all, and I thought I'd run down here and have a look at the old place, and perhaps a day's hunting."
Relieved of her anxiety, Mrs. de Vaux was unaffectedly pleased to see her eldest son. She was a fine, white-haired old lady, dignified and handsome, but with very few soft lines about her comely face.
"I am delighted to see you, of course, Paul! The meet is at Dytchley woods to-morrow! I hope you'll have a good day. Take your coat off. I have rung for some tea."
"Thanks! How bright and cheerful the fire seems. I walked from the station, and it was miserably cold."
"Of course it was. I wish I had known you were coming. We have so little work for the carriage horses."
"I did not make up my mind until half an hour before the train started," Paul answered. "Dick Carruthers wanted me to run over to Paris with him for a couple of days, and I was undecided which to do. I heard that it was cold and wet there, though; and there is always a charm about this old place which makes me glad to come back to it."
"There is not such another place in England," his mother remarked, pouring out the tea. "Although this is such an outlandish county, there have been a dozen people here this week, asking to be allowed to see over the Abbey. I always give permission when you are away, and there is no one stopping here."
Paul drank his tea, and stretched himself out in his low chair with an air of comfort.
"I am glad you let them see the place, mother," he said. "It is only right. What class of people do you have, as a rule? Clergymen and ecclesiastical architects, I suppose?"
"Chiefly. There are a good many Americans, though; and yesterday, or the day before, a Roman Catholic priest. He spent the day in the cloisters and wandering about the Abbey, I believe."
Paul looked up suddenly, and drew his chair back out of the firelight. For the first time, his mother noticed how pale and ghastly his face was.
"Paul, are you ill?" she asked anxiously. "What is the matter with you?"
"Nothing. I am only tired. It is a long journey, you know,—and the walk from the station. Indeed, it is nothing else. I am quite well."
His mother resumed her seat. She had risen in sudden alarm. Her son's face had frightened her.
"You look just as your poor father used to look sometimes," she said softly. "It always frightened me. It was as though you had a pain somewhere, or had suddenly seen a ghost. You are sure you are well?"
"Quite, mother! You need have no fear. Arthur and I have your constitution, I think."
His tone was deeper, almost hollow. He still kept his chair back amongst the shadows. Mrs. de Vaux was only partially satisfied.
"I am afraid you have been keeping too late hours, Paul, or reading too much. Lord Westover was saying the other day that you were in a very Bohemian set—journalists and artists, and those sort of people. I am afraid they keep awful hours."
"Lord Westover knows nothing about it," Paul answered wearily. "Ordinary London society would tire me to death in a fortnight. There is another class of people, though, whose headquarters are in London, far more cultured, and quite as exclusive, with whom association is a far greater distinction. I can go anywhere in the first set, because I am Paul de Vaux, of Vaux Abbey, and have forty thousand a year. I am permitted to enter the other only as the author of an unfashionable novel, which a few of them have thought leniently of. Which seem the worthier conditions?"
"I am answered, Paul. Of course, in a sense, you are right. I am an old woman, and the twaddle of a London drawing-room would fall strangely upon my ears now, but I had my share of it before Arthur was born. If I were a man, I should want variety,—a little sauce,—and you are right to seek for it. And now, won't you go and have a bath, and change your things. You still look pale, and I think it would refresh you. Shall I ring for Reynolds? I suppose you have not brought your own man?"
He stretched out his hand, and arrested her fingers upon the bell. "In a moment, mother. It is so comfortable here, and I really think it is my favourite room."
He looked round approvingly. It was a curious, hexagonal chamber, with an oak-beamed ceiling, curving into a dome. The walls were hung with a wonderful tapestry of a soft, rich colour, and every piece of furniture in the room was of the Louis Quinze period. There was scarcely a single anachronism. The Martin de Vaux of forty years ago had been an artist, and a man of taste; and when he had brought home his bride, a duke's daughter, he had spent a small fortune on this apartment. Since then it had always been her favourite, and she was always glad to hear any one praise it.
"I seldom sit in any other," she remarked complacently. "The blue drawing-room is open to-night, but that is because Lord and Lady Westover are dining here. I am afraid May will not be able to come; she has a cold or something of the sort. I wonder whether it is true, what they say, that she is delicate."
Paul did not appear much interested. He had a purpose in lingering here, and it had nothing to do with May Westover's health. There was a little information he wished to obtain without exciting his mother's curiosity. But it was not exactly an easy matter.
"I was interested in what you said about the visitors here," he remarked. "I daresay to Americans this place must be very interesting."
"You would think so if you saw some of them. They are a great deal too inquisitive and familiar for Reynolds. He detests them. It is far more interesting to think of that Catholic priest who was here the other day. He lingered about the place as though he had known it all his life, and loved it; and, Reynolds says, he prayed for two hours in the chapel."
"Did you see him yourself?"
"Yes, in the distance. I did not notice him particularly. I wished afterwards that I had. Reynolds' report of him pleased me so much. I daresay he was conjuring up pictures of the days when the old Abbey was full of grey-hooded monks, and the chapel was echoing day and night to their solemn chants and prayers. Sometimes, in the gloaming, I can almost fancy myself that I see them kneeling in long rows in those rich stalls, and hear the rustle of their gowns as they pass slowly down the aisles. I think he must have found it sad to linger about in that beautiful chapel, so cold, and empty, and bare. That is why I like Roman Catholics. They have such a strong reverential affection for their places of worship, and take such a delight in adorning them. It is almost like a personal love."
Paul moved uneasily in his chair and looked steadily into the fire. "Then you did not notice him particularly?"
"Notice him! Notice whom?"
"This priest, or whoever he was."
"I did not see his face, Paul, if that is what you mean. I only remember that he was tall. You seem very much interested in him. No doubt Reynolds could tell you anything you wish to know. Here he is; you had better ask him."
A grey-headed man-servant had entered, bearing a lamp. Mrs. de Vaux turned to him.
"Reynolds, Mr. Paul is interested in hearing about the priest who spent so much time looking over the Abbey yesterday. Can you describe him?"
Reynolds set down the lamp and turned respectfully around. "Not very well, I'm afraid, sir," he said doubtfully. "They all seem so much alike, you know, sir, in those long gowns. He was tall, rather thin, and no hair on his face at all. I can't say that I noticed anything else, except that he spoke in rather a foreign accent."
"You are sure he was a priest, I suppose," Paul asked carelessly. "We hear so much now of impostors, and of things being stolen from places of interest, that it makes one feel suspicious."
"I am quite sure he was no impostor, sir." Reynolds answered confidently. "He was too interested in the place for that. He knew its history better than any one who has ever been here in my day. If he had been one of those sneaking sort of fellows, looking about for what he could get, he would have offered me money, and tried to get rid of me for a time, I think, sir."
"That's true," Paul remarked. "Were you with him all the time, then?"
"Very nearly, sir. He did not like my leaving him at all. He was afraid of missing something worth seeing. Besides, he did not ask to come into the house at all, not even to see the pictures. He spent all his time in the ruins.
"That ends the matter, of course," Paul answered shortly. "There is nothing out there to attract pilferers. Sorry I said anything about it."
"He asked whether you spent much of your time here, and when you would be down again, sir," Reynolds remarked, as he turned to quit the room.
Paul looked up, and then stood quite still for a moment without speaking. A great fear had fallen upon him. Out of the shadows of the past, he seemed to see again that deathbed scene, and the tragedy which had brought down the curtain upon two lives. Almost he could fancy himself again upon his yacht, with the salt sea spray beating against his face, and the white breakers hissing and seething around him, as they made the dangerous passage towards that faint light, which flickered and gleamed in the distant monastery tower. They are safe! They reach the land; they are hurried into that great, gloomy bed-chamber, where chill draughts rustled ghost-like amongst the heavy, faded hangings, and the feeble candlelight left weird shadows moving across the floor and upon the walls. Again he heard the rattling of the window-panes, bare and exposed to every gust of wind; the far-off thunder of the sea, like a deep, continuous undernote; and, from an almost unseen corner of the chamber, the monotonous, broken rhythm of sad prayers for the dying, mumbled by that dark, curious-looking priest. And then, when the background of the picture had formed itself in his memory, he saw the deed itself. He saw the white, stricken face suddenly ablaze with that last effort of passionate life; he saw the outstretched arm, the line of fire, and the sudden change in the countenance of the man who stood at the foot of the bed. He saw the cool cynicism replaced by a spasm of ghastly fear, and he heard the low, gurgling cry dying away into a faint moan of terror, as the murdered man sank on to the floor, a crumpled heap. And, last of all, he saw that little brown girl, with her tumbled hair and tear-stained face, clasping the dead body and glaring at every one in the room, with a storm of hatred and impotent fury in her flashing eyes. And that last recollection brought him, like a flash, back to the present,—brought him swift, bewildering memories of Adrea, shaking his heart, and bringing the hot colour streaming into his face. He remembered where he was, and why he had left London. He remembered, too, that he was not alone, and with a little start he awoke to the present.
Reynolds had left the room, and his mother was watching him curiously. He found it hard to meet her steady, questioning gaze without flinching.
"Paul," she said slowly, "you are in trouble."
He shook his head. "It is nothing, mother—nothing at all. I ought to beg your pardon for letting my thoughts run away with me so."
She was too proud to ask him for his confidence, and at that moment the rumbling of a gong reached them from the distant hall. Mrs. de Vaux rose:—
"There are a few people dining here, Paul, so you will not be late."
"I will be down, mother. The usual time, I suppose."
"Yes, eight o'clock."
They left the room together, but parted in the hall. Mrs. de Vaux stayed to speak to the housekeeper for a moment, and Paul ascended the broad staircase alone. On the first corridor he paused, standing before the deep-cushioned sill of a high-arched window, and gazing at the ruined portion of the abbey. The air outside was frosty and clear, and though the moon as yet was only faintly yellow, every arch and cloister was clearly visible. Paul gazed down at them, as he had done all his life, with reverent eyes. There was something almost awesome in the graceful yet bold outline, and in the great age of those rugged, moss-grown pillars and arches, so ecclesiastical in their shape and suggestiveness,—as indeed they might well be, for they were practically the ruins of the old monastery chapel. But, as he looked, the expression in his eyes suddenly changed. A dark figure had passed slowly out from the shadow of the arches, and stood looking up towards the house, rigid, solemn, and motionless. Paul covered his face with his hands, and sank down upon the cushioned window-sill.
"AN ASHEN GREY DELIGHT"
"Mr. de Vaux!"
Paul turned quickly around in his saddle towards the young lady who had addressed him. He looked into a fair, thoughtful face, whose general amiability was discounted, just then, by a decided frown.
"I beg your pardon, Lady May! Didn't you say something just now?"
"Didn't I say something just now!" she repeated, with fine scorn. "Upon my word, Mr. de Vaux, I think that you must have left your wits in London! What is the matter with you?"
"The matter! Why, nothing! I'm sorry——"
"Oh! pray don't apologise!" she interrupted hastily. "I think I'll ride on and catch papa up."
He laid his hand upon her rein. "Please don't, Lady May," he begged. "I know I've been inattentive! I'm very sorry—really I am. Let me try and make up for it!"
She looked into his face, and she was mollified. He was evidently in earnest.
"Oh! very well," she said. "You mustn't think that I complained without due cause, though, for I spoke to you three times before you answered me. Oh, it's all right," she went on, as he commenced to frame another apology. "I don't mind now, but I really should like to know what is the matter with you. You have ridden all day like a man who valued neither his own life nor his horse's. Some of your jumps were simply reckless! I have heard other people say so, too! I like bold riding, but there is a limit; and though I've ridden two hounds since papa gave me my first pony, I've never seen any one try to jump Annisforth brook below the bridge, before,—and don't want to again," she added, with a little shudder. "I know you ride fine horses, but you are not generally foolhardy. I saw your dark bay mare being taken home at Colbourne Spinneys, and I don't think she'll be fit to ride again this season. Old Harrison had tears in his eyes when he saw her!"
"Harrison is an old woman about horses! I never touched Meg with the spurs. She was as fresh as paint, and there was no holding her."
"You can't deceive me or yourself," Lady May continued calmly. "You have been riding for a fall, all day, and you may think yourself pretty fortunate that you haven't a broken neck. It seemed as though you were trying for one. And now that you haven't succeeded, you have nearly ridden ten miles alone with me, and scarcely opened your mouth. You are very provoking, Mr. de Vaux. I wish I had ridden home with Captain Fellowes."
He was on the point of reminding her that the arrangement had not been of his making, but he checked himself. After all, Lady May had some grounds for her irritation. They had been friends since they had been children, and Paul knew that every one expected him, someday, to ask Lady May to become the mistress of Vaux Abbey. There had been a little more than intimacy even in their friendship up till twelve months ago; and Paul had certain recollections of their last interview, which had made him more than once a trifle uneasy. As a matter of fact, Lady May had quite made up her mind that Paul de Vaux would certainly ask her to marry him some time; and she had, on his account, refused two very eligible offers. Their people desired it, and, in her heart, Lady May was conscious that Paul was a little more to her than any other man could be. So she felt herself at first, aggrieved by his long silence during their ride home, which, to tell the truth, she had carefully planned for, and afterwards was just on the verge of being seriously offended.
"Don't be angry with me, please," he said quietly. "You are right; something is the matter. I am worried."
She was sympathetic and kindly at once. "I'm so sorry. Please forgive me for bothering you. You used to tell me your troubles once! Are we too old now?"
He shook his head. "I hope we never shall be," he said. "I can't tell you all, but one thing is this. I had a letter from a man in town to-day—a man whom I can trust—about Arthur. You know what an impressionable, sensitive boy he is. Anyone who once obtains an influence over him can do nearly what they like with him. He seems—so my correspondent tells me—to have become completely fascinated with a—a—dancer—Adrea Kiros I think she calls herself."
"I have heard of her," Lady May murmured. "She dances only at private houses, I think. Everyone says she is wonderful."
"She is—wonderful," Paul said slowly. He was about to say more, but he checked himself. Lady May was watching him, and he knew that he could not speak of Adrea Kiros unmoved. So he went on:—
"I am not complaining, for after all it is perfectly natural, but Arthur is certainly his mother's favorite son. You know how strict she is in some of her notions; so you can understand what a shock it would be to her if any rumors were to reach her ears. It would be a terrible blow to her. But, apart from that, the thing is serious in itself. Arthur was always delicate, and Cis—my friend—speaks of him as looking ghastly ill. The girl is probably only amusing herself, although she seems to have given him plenty of encouragement. But I know Ad—Adrea Kiros. She is no ordinary girl of her class. In the whole world I doubt if there breathes a more dangerous woman," he wound up, in a low tone.
Lady May was quite sympathetic now, but a little mystified. "I am so sorry," she said softly. "Ought you not to go to London, and try what your influence can do with him? That is disinterested advice, at any rate," she added, with a little laugh, "for I don't want you to go. But Arthur always seemed to look up to you so! You might be able to get him away. Don't you think it would be a good thing if you could get him down here? We would make it as lively as possible for him up at the Castle; and, I don't know how your preserves are, but ours have been scarcely touched yet. Between the two of us, at any rate, he could have as much shooting as he liked. And I would ask the Fergusson girls to come and stay," she went on, getting more and more in love with her plan. "He was so much taken with Amy, you know, when they were down here before. We could get up some theatricals, or something, and have quite a good time. What do you think of my plan?"
He was thankful for her long speech, for it had enabled him to get over the slight agitation which the thought of that unavoidable journey to London had called up in him. From the first he had felt that it was his duty to go. He had received this disquieting letter two days ago, and since then he had telegraphed twice and written to Arthur without getting any reply. Yes, he must go. And mingled with that reluctance and nameless apprehension which he felt at the thought of returning into her neighbourhood, he was acutely conscious, all the time, of a certain vague but sweet pleasure at the thought that fate had so ordained it. Perhaps it would be necessary for him to see her! A thrill of pleasure passed through him at the thought, followed almost immediately by a reaction of keen and bitter disgust with himself. He set his teeth, and quite unconsciously dug his spurs into his horse's sides, with the natural result that she reared up, almost unseating him, and then plunged forward. He had to gallop her along the road for a few hundred yards, and then turned round and rejoined Lady May. Fortunately she had not seen the commencement of the little episode.
"Whatever was the matter?" she asked.
"I fancy my spurs must have pricked her," he said apologetically. "I was riding quite carelessly."
"Well, please don't let it happen again," she begged, eyeing his mare's flanks suspiciously. "Dandy is very tired now, and is generally good tempered; but I don't think he would stand much of that sort of thing."
"I'm really very sorry," he said.
She nodded. "All right. And now, what do you think of my plan? Are you going to London?"
"I think your plan is a very good one indeed, and I shall run up to town to-morrow," he said. "It is very good of you to be so interested."
He looked down into her face, a fair, sweet face it was, and then glanced away over the bare moorland which stretched on one side of them. It was a late November afternoon, and a faint yellow light was lingering in the west, where the sun had just set, colouring the clouds which stretched across the sky in long, level streaks. A fresh, healthy breeze, strong with the perfume of the sea, blew in their teeth, and afar off they could hear the waves dashing against the iron-bound line of northern cliffs. Inland, the country was more cultivated, but hilly and broken up with masses of lichen-covered rock, and little clumps of thin fir trees. He knew the scenery so well. The rugged, barren country, with its great stretches of moorland and little patches of cultivated land, with its silent tarns, its desolation, and the ever-varying music of the sea, they all meant home to him, and he loved them. It had always been so, and yet he felt it at that moment as he had never felt it before. The prospect of that journey to London was suddenly loathsome to him. The clear, physical healthfulness of his North-country home was triumphant, for the moment, over that other passion, which seemed to him then weak and artificial. It seemed to him also, looking down into Lady May's fresh, thoughtful face, that she was somehow in accord with these surroundings,—that she was, indeed, the link, the safeguard which should bind him to them, the good influence which should keep him fit to breathe God's pure air, and to keep himself, as he had ever striven to, sans peur et sans reproche. Paul was no sentimentalist, in the idle and common sense of the word. In his attitude to every-day life, he was essentially practical, sometimes perhaps a little too practical. But he was capable of strong feeling, and it came then with a rush. He leant over towards Lady May, and laid his hand upon her saddle.
"You are very kind and sympathetic," he said softly. "You are always kind."
She looked up at him, pleased, and with a soft look in her deep grey eyes. "You do not give me very much opportunity," she said quietly. "At one time you used to tell me all your troubles; do you remember?"
"Yes! I remember," he answered, almost in a whisper, for they were riding up a grass-grown avenue,—a back way to the Abbey,—and their horses' hoofs sank noiselessly into the soft turf. "Sometimes I have dared to hope that those days may come again."
She was silent, and her head was turned away lest he might see the tears trembling in her eyes. So they rode on for a moment or two, walking their horses in the dim twilight; she in the shadow of the grey wall and the overhanging trees, and he very close to her, with his hand still upon her saddle and his reins loose in his hand.
"If ever they did, if ever I was so fortunate," he went on in a low tone, "you would find your office no sinecure. I have troubles, or rather, one trouble, and a great one, May."
She looked at him for a moment, her eyes full of sympathy. She dimly remembered the time when strange stories were current in the county of Martin de Vaux, and their echo had remained for years. It was not for her to inquire about them, and she never had done so. But that their burden should have fallen upon Paul; it was hard! Her heart was sore with the injustice of it. A woman is a swift and censorious judge of any one who brings trouble upon the man she loves.
He was a little closer to her still; and suddenly the hand which carried her small whip felt itself grasped in strong fingers and held tightly.
It was not his fault this time that his mare stood still, and then ran backwards, dislodging the topmost stones from the grey stone wall with her hind quarters, and then plunging violently. This time there was cause for her alarm. A tall, forbidding-looking figure stood in the middle of the avenue, grasping the rein of Lady May's terrified horse. He had come out of the twilight so suddenly, and his attire was so unusual, that Paul and Lady May were almost as surprised as the animals. Paul's first instinct was one of anger.
He stopped short. The man who had startled them so had quieted Lady May's horse with a few soothing words, and now stood out of the deep shade of the overhanging trees into the centre of the avenue. Even here his face was scarcely visible, but his figure and attire were sufficient. He wore the long robes and shovel hat of a Roman Catholic priest.
Paul broke off in the middle of his exclamation, and the arm which had been grasping his whip tightly sank nervelessly to his side. He was thankful for the twilight, which concealed the grey shade which had stolen into his face. Yet now that the blow had fallen, he was calmer than he had been in some of his anticipations of it. For it had indeed fallen! In the dusky twilight he had recognised the face of the priest, changed though it was. He rode up, and addressed him.
"Have you lost your way?" he asked quietly. "This is a private road, and the gate at the other end is locked."
The priest looked at him steadily for a moment, and then drew on one side, as though to let them pass.
"I am sorry that I startled your horses," he said, in a soft, pleasant voice, marked with a strong foreign accent; "I was standing with my back to you, waiting for the moon to rise behind the ruins there, and the soft ground made your approach noiseless. And, if I am trespassing, I am sorry. The steward at the Abbey yonder gave me permission to wander anywhere around the ruins. I have perhaps exceeded a little his bounds."
"It is of no consequence," Paul said. "You find the ruins interesting, then?"
"There are some pictures in the Abbey you might care to see—mostly modern, but there is a Rubens and two Giorgiones."
The priest removed his hat. "I thank you, but I am only interested in ecclesiastical art. These ruins are more to me than any pictures—save those which Rome alone possesses," he added. "I spend all my evenings here, and hope to be allowed to, for the short time that I remain in the neighbourhood."
"You have my permission to come and go as you please. I am Mr. de Vaux," Paul said, touching his horse with the whip. "Good-evening!"
"Good-evening, sir! Good-evening, madam! I thank you!"
They rode on down the avenue, Paul silent and absorbed, and making no attempt to pursue the conversation. At the bend of the lane he turned round in his saddle. The priest was standing with his back to them, motionless and silent as a figure of stone.
"WHO ARE YOU, AND WHAT YOUR MISSION?"
The winter moon, soft and bright and full, looked down upon the ruins of Vaux Abbey. A strange beauty lay upon the bare, rock-strewn hillside and desolate moor. Afar off a grey, brawling stream was touched by its light, and in its place a band of gold seemed coiled around the grey, sleeping hill. A black, reed-grown tarn at the foot of the Abbey gleamed and quivered like a fair silver shield. The dark pines which crowned their sandy slopes lost their forbidding frown in an unaccustomed softness, and every harsh line and broken pillar of the ruined chapel was toned down into a rich, sad softness. A human face, too, uplifted to the sky, so silent and motionless that it seemed almost set into the side of one of those groined arches, had lost all its harshness and worldliness in the glow of that falling light. It might have been the face of a saint, save for the vague unhappiness which shone in the clear, dark eyes; for at that moment, spirituality, wistfulness, and reverence seemed carved into the white, still features. But there was disquiet, too; and, after a while, as though some cloud had passed across the moon, a dark shade stole into the white face. The brows were contracted into a frown, and the eyes filled with restless doubt. Father Adrian moved away from the shadow of the pillar, and stood, tall and motionless, on the ruined chapel floor, with his eyes fixed upon the distant landscape. After a moment or two, his lips began to move and he commenced to speak aloud in a low, deep tone.
"Six nights has my voice gone up to God from amongst these silent ruins, six nights I have prayed in rain. These fair, still evenings mock me! Whose is their beauty, if it be not God's; and, if there be a God, and if the Blessed Virgin, our Holy Mother, indeed dwells amongst the stars, why are their faces turned from me? Oh! that man knew a little more or a little less—enough to pierce the mystery of yon star-crowned heavens, or so little as to gaze on them unmoved and unfeeling! What is our little knowledge? A mockery, a dreary, hopeless mockery! I had better have rotted in that miserable monastery, a soulless, lifeless being, than have stepped out to struggle with a world which is only a terrible riddle to me. I cannot reason with it; I cannot laugh or weep with it; I am in it, but not of it! Why was I sent? Oh I why was I sent?"
The snapping of a twig caused him to turn suddenly round. Paul de Vaux was advancing through the ruins, with a loose cloak thrown over his evening clothes.
Father Adrian turned round to meet him. The two men stood for a moment face to face without speaking. Both recognised that this interview was to be no ordinary one; and in a certain sense, each seemed to be measuring the other's strength. It was Paul who spoke first.
"We have met before, Father Adrian."
"You will scarcely wonder that I am surprised to see you here in England. Have you left the monastery at Cruta?"
"I left it a month after you did."
"But your vows,—were they not for life?" Paul asked.
Father Adrian smiled scornfully. "I was not bound to Cruta," he answered. "There had been complaints, and I was there to investigate them. The monastery was poverty and disease-stricken. It is closed now forever."
"Then you are no monk?"
Father Adrian shook his head. "I am, and I am not. In my youth I served my novitiate, but I never took the oaths. The cloisters are for holier men than I."
"Then who are you?"
"I am—Father Adrian, priest of the Roman Catholic Church, I can tell you no more."
The moonlight was falling full upon his dark, striking face. Paul, with bent brows, scanned every feature of it intently. Father Adrian bore the scrutiny without flinching and without discomposure. Only once the colour mounted a little into his cheeks as the eyes of the two men met.
"What brings you to Vaux Abbey, Father Adrian?" Paul asked at length.
"To see your home," was the quiet reply.
"What do you want with me? It must be something more than curiosity which has brought you all this way. What is it?"
Father Adrian was silent. Yet his silence was not one of confusion. He was looking down through the gaps in the ruined chapel walls at the dark Gothic front of the old Abbey. Paul waited for an answer, and it came at last.
"I wished to see the home of Martin de Vaux, the Englishman who died in my arms at the monastery of Cruta. For six nights I have prayed for his soul in Purgatory, amongst the ruins here. He died in grievous sin!"
"Have you come to remind me of it?" Paul asked bitterly. "Perhaps you have repented of your silence, and have come to break the widow's heart by telling her the story of his last moments. Perhaps—perhaps in those dark hours he told you his secret—told you why he had come to Cruta!"
"He did," said the priest gravely.
It was a great shock to Paul. Hitherto he had feared only one thing: that the story of his father's tragical death might come to light, and break his mother's heart. Now there was more to fear,—far more. He looked into Father Adrian's face with a new and keener interest. He recognised at once that everything dear to him in life might be at this man's mercy.
"You were intrusted with this secret by a dying man," Paul said, with a little hoarseness in his tone. "It is to you as the secrets of the confessional!"
The priest shook his head gently. "He refused to confess. He told me distinctly that it was as man to man he spoke to me."
Paul looked away into the night with white, stricken face, and cursed his father's weakness. Supposing that this priest had discovered that his conscience would not allow him to keep the secret! What more likely! Why else was he here,—why else did he disclaim the confessional? There was only one other alternative! Perhaps he desired to trade upon his secret. Yet how was that possible? Of what use could money be to him? What could he gain by it? Besides, his was not the face of an adventurer.
"I do not understand," Paul said at last. "Once more let me ask you, Father Adrian, why are you here?"
Father Adrian looked thoughtfully away. "You ask more than I can tell you," he said gravely. "The time has not yet come. We shall meet again. Farewell!"
The priest turned away, but Paul laid his hand on his shoulder.
"If there is anything which you ought or mean to tell me, tell me now," he demanded hoarsely. "I can bear everything but suspense. I know only—that there was a secret. No more. Proceed! Tell me more!"
The priest shook his robe free from Paul's restraining hand, and turned away.
"Not yet! Not yet! My mind is not yet clear. We shall meet again. Farewell!"
The priest had passed from the ruins, and was already out of sight in the gathering darkness.
"Come back, Father Adrian! One word more!"
The priest did not turn his head. Paul was left alone, gazing after him with stern, troubled face and anxious heart. It was a danger which he had always foreseen, always dreaded. Henceforth he must live like a man who paces, day by day, the brink of a volcano. At any moment the blow might fall.
"I AM WEARY OF A HOPELESS LOVE"
Paul and Arthur shared a bachelor residence in Mayfair; shared it, that is to say, insomuch as Paul had purchased it, and was the sole proprietor, and Arthur used it whenever he could get leave from his regiment. It was here Paul found his brother on the morning of his arrival in London.
They shook hands in silence; Paul did not wish to say anything for a moment. His brother's appearance had choked him. It was one o'clock, but he was still in his dressing-gown; with sunken, pale cheeks, save for one bright spot, and with faint, dark rims underneath his eyes. There were a pile of blue papers and some ominous-looking envelopes on the table before him, and Paul could not help noticing the intense pallor of the hand which rested upon them.
"I wish you would let a fellow know what time you were coming," Arthur said, rather peevishly, but with an attempt at a smile. "I didn't expect you till evening, so I was having a shack before dressing. I was late last night!"
Paul banished his gravity, as far as possible, and stood with his hands in his pockets, leaning against the mantel-piece. He heartily disliked the part of mentor, and he did not wish to play it, unless he were obliged.
"It was beastly early to get up," he said, "but the connection at Normanton is so much better. One has to wait two hours by the late train, and Normanton is such a hole. I don't know that I should have come up to town at all, just yet," he continued after a slight pause, "only that I'm on the committee at the club this term, you know, and I haven't attended a single meeting yet. Besides, I promised Westover to put him up this time, and the half-yearly meeting's to-morrow, you know. Got any engagement? If not, you might dine with me there. Always a full night election time, you know!"