A TERRIBLE SECRET.
MAY AGNES FLEMING,
"VALERIE AYLMER," ETC.,
TOKEN OF ADMIRATION AND ESTEEM,
STORY IS DEDICATED.
MAY AGNES FLEMING.
I.—Bride and Bridegroom Elect II.—Wife and Heir III.—How Lady Catheron came Home IV.—"I'll not Believe but Desdemona's Honest" V.—In the Twilight VI.—In the Moonlight VII.—In the Nursery VIII.—In the Darkness IX.—From the "Chesholm Courier" X.—From the "Chesholm Courier"—Continued XI.—"Ring out your Bells! Let Mourning Shows be Spread!" XII.—The first Ending of the Tragedy
I.—Miss Darrell II.—A Night in the Snow III.—Trixy's Party IV.—"Under the Gaslight" V.—Old Copies of the "Courier" VI.—One Moonlight Night VII.—Short and Sentimental VIII.—In Two Boats IX.—Alas for Trix X.—How Trix took it XI.—How Lady Helena took it XII.—On St. Partridge Day XIII.—How Charley took it XIV.—To-morrow XV.—Lady Helena's Ball XVI.—"O My Cousin Shallow-hearted!" XVII.—"Forever and Ever" XVIII.—The Summons XIX.—At Poplar Lodge XX.—How the Wedding-day Began XXI.—How the Wedding-day Ended XXII.—The Day After XXIII.—The Second Ending of the Tragedy
I.—At Madame Mirebeau's, Oxford Street II.—Edith III.—How they Met IV.—How they Parted V.—The Telling of the Secret VI.—The last Ending of the Tragedy VII.—Two Years After VIII.—Forgiven or—Forgotten? IX.—Saying Good-by X.—The Second Bridal XI.—The Night XII.—The Morning
BRIDE AND BRIDEGROOM ELECT.
Firelight falling on soft velvet carpet, where white lily buds trail along azure ground, on chairs of white-polished wood that glitters like ivory, with puffy of seats of blue satin; on blue and gilt panelled walls; on a wonderfully carved oaken ceiling; on sweeping draperies of blue satin and white lace; on half a dozen lovely pictures; on an open piano; and last of all, on the handsome, angry face of a girl who stands before it—Inez Catheron.
The month is August—the day the 29th—Miss Catheron has good reason to remember it to the last day of her life. But, whether the August sun blazes, or the January winds howl, the great rooms of Catheron Royals are ever chilly. So on the white-tiled hearth of the blue drawing-room this summer evening a coal fire flickers and falls, and the mistress of Catheron Royals stands before it, an angry flush burning deep red on either dusk cheek, an angry frown contracting her straight black brows.
The mistress of Catheron Royals,—the biggest, oldest, queerest, grandest place in all sunny Cheshire,—this slim, dark girl of nineteen, for three years past the bride-elect of Sir Victor Catheron, baronet, the last of his Saxon race and name, the lord of all these sunny acres, this noble Norman pile, the smiling village of Catheron below. The master of a stately park in Devon, a moor and "bothy" in the highlands, a villa on the Arno, a gem of a cottage in the Isle of Wight. "A darling of the gods," young, handsome, healthy; and best of all, with twenty thousand a year.
She is his bride-elect. In her dark way she is very handsome. She is to be married to Sir Victor early in the next month, and she is as much in love with him as it is at all possible to be. A fair fate surely. And yet while the August night shuts down, while the wind whistles in the trees, while the long fingers of the elm, just outside the window, tap in a ghostly way on the pane, she stands here, flushed, angry, impatient, and sullen, her handsome lips set in a tight, rigid line.
She is very dark at all times. Her cousin Victor tells her, laughingly, she is an absolute nigger when in one of her silent rages. She has jet-black hair, and big, brilliant, Spanish eyes. She is Spanish. Her dead mother was a Castilian, and that mother has left her her Spanish name, her beautiful, passionate Spanish eyes, her hot, passionate Spanish heart. In Old Castile Inez was born; and when in her tenth year her English father followed his wife to the grave, Inez came home to Catheron Royals, to reign there, a little, imperious, hot-tempered Morisco princess ever since.
She did not come alone. A big boy of twelve, with a shock head of blue-black hair, two wild, glittering black eyes, and a diabolically handsome face, came with her. It was her only brother Juan, an imp incarnate from his cradle. He did not remain long. To the unspeakable relief of the neighborhood for miles around, he had vanished as suddenly as he had come, and for years was seen no more.
A Moorish Princess! It is her cousin and lover's favorite name for her, and it fits well. There is a certain barbaric splendor about her as she stands here in the firelight, in her trailing purple silk, in the cross of rubies and fine gold that burns on her bosom, in the yellow, perfumy rose in her hair, looking stately, and beautiful, and dreadfully out of temper.
The big, lonesome house is as still as a tomb. Outside the wind is rising, and the heavy patter, patter, of the rain-beats on the glass. That, and the light fall of the cinders in the polished grate, are the only sounds to be heard.
A clock on the mantel strikes seven. She has not stirred for nearly an hour, but she looks up now, her black eyes full of passionate anger, passionate impatience.
"Seven!" she says, in a suppressed sort of voice; "and he should have been here at six. What if he should defy me?—what if he does not come after all?"
She can remain still no longer. She walks across the room, and she walks as only Spanish women do. She draws back one of the window-curtains, and leans out into the night. The crushed sweetness of the rain-beaten roses floats up to her in the wet darkness. Nothing to be seen but the vague tossing of the trees, nothing to be heard but the soughing of the wind, nothing to be felt but the fast and still faster falling of the rain.
She lets the curtain fall, and returns to the fire.
"Will he dare defy me?" she whispers to herself. "Will he dare stay away?"
There are two pictures hanging over the mantel—she looks up at them as she asks the question. One is the sweet, patient face of a woman of thirty; the other, the smiling face of a fair-haired, blue-eyed, good-looking lad. It is a very pleasant face; the blue eyes look at you so brightly, so frankly; the boyish mouth is so sweet-tempered and laughing that you smile back and fall in love with him at sight. It is Sir Victor Catheron and his late mother.
Miss Inez Catheron is in many respects an extraordinary young lady—Cheshire society has long ago decided that. They would have been more convinced of it than ever, could they have seen her turn now to Lady Catheron's portrait and appeal to it aloud in impassioned words:
"On his knees, by your dying bed, by your dying command, he vowed to love and cherish me always—as he did then. Let him take care how he trifles with that vow—let him take care!"
She lifts one hand (on which rubies and diamonds flash) menacingly, then stops. Over the sweep of the storm, the rush of the rain, comes another sound—a sound she has been listening for, longing for, praying for—the rapid roll of carriage wheels up the drive. There can be but one visitor to Catheron Royals to-night, at this hour and in this storm—its master.
She stands still as a stone, white as a statue, waiting. She loves him; she has hungered and thirsted for the sound of his voice, the sight of his face, the clasp of his hand, all these weary, lonely months. In some way it is her life or death she is to take from his hands to-night. And now he is here.
She hears the great hall-door open and close with a clang; she hears the step of the master in the hall—a quick, assured tread she would know among a thousand; she hears a voice—a hearty, pleasant, manly, English voice; a cheery laugh she remembers well.
"The Chief of Lara has returned again."
The quick, excitable blood leaps up from her heart to her face in a rosy rush that makes her lovely. The eyes light, the lips part—she takes a step forward, all anger, all fear, all neglect forgotten—a girl in love going to meet her lover. The door is flung wide by an impetuous hand, and wet and splashed, and tall and smiling, Sir Victor Catheron stands before her.
"My dearest Inez!"
He comes forward, puts his arm around her, and touches his blonde mustache to her flushed cheek.
"My dearest coz, I'm awfully glad to see you again, and looking so uncommonly well too." He puts up his eye-glass to make sure of this fact, then drops it "Uncommonly well," he repeats; "give you my word I never saw you looking half a quarter so handsome before in my life. Ah! why can't we all be Moorish princesses, and wear purple silks and yellow roses?"
He flings himself into an easy-chair before the fire, throws back his blonde head, and stretches forth his boots to the blaze.
"An hour after time, am I not? But blame the railway people—don't blame me. Beastly sort of weather for the last week of August—cold as Iceland and raining cats and dogs; the very dickens of a storm, I can tell you."
He give the fire a poke, the light leaps up and illumines his handsome face. He is very like his picture—a little older—a little worn-looking, and with man's "crowning glory," a mustache. The girl has moved a little away from him, the flush of "beauty's bright transcient glow" has died out of her face, the hard, angry look has come back. That careless kiss, that easy, cousinly embrace, have told their story. A moment ago her heart beat high with hope—to the day of her death it never beat like that again.
He doesn't look at her; he gazes at the fire instead, and talks with the hurry of a nervous man. The handsome face is a very effeminate face, and not even the light, carefully trained, carefully waxed mustache can hide the weak, irresolute mouth, the delicate, characterless chin. While he talks carelessly and quickly, while his slim white fingers loop and unloop his watch-chain, in the blue eyes fixed upon the fire there is an uneasy look of nervous fear. And into the keeping of this man the girl with the dark powerful face has given her heart, her fate!
"It seems no end good to be at home again," Sir Victor Catheron says, as if afraid of that brief pause. "You've no idea, Inez, how uncommonly familiar and jolly this blue room, this red fire, looked a moment ago, as I stepped out of the darkness and rain. It brings back the old times—this used to be her favorite morning-room," he glanced at the mother's picture, "and summer and winter a fire always burned here, as now. And you, Inez, cara mia, with your gypsy face, most familiar of all."
She moves over to the mantel. It is very low; she leans one arm upon it, looks steadily at him, and speaks at last.
"I am glad Sir Victor Catheron can remember the old times, can still recall his mother, has a slight regard left for Catheron Royals, and am humbly grateful for his recollection of his gypsy cousin. From his conduct of late it was hardly to have been expected."
"It is coming," thinks Sir Victor, with an inward groan; "and, O Lord! what a row it is going to be. When Inez shuts her lips up in that tight line, and snaps her black eyes in that unpleasant way, I know to my cost, it means 'war to the knife.' I'll be routed with dreadful slaughter, and Inez's motto is ever, 'Woe to the conqueror!' Well, here goes!"
He looks up at her, a good-humored smile on his good-looking face.
"Humbly grateful for my recollection of you! My dear Inez, I don't know what you mean. As for my absence—"
"As for your absence," she interrupts, "you were to have been here, if your memory will serve you, on the first of June. It is now the close of August. Every day of that absence has been an added insult to me. Even now you would not have been here if I had not written you a letter you dare not neglect—sent a command you dare not disobey. You are here to-night because you dare not stay away."
Some of the bold blood of the stern old Saxon race from which he sprung is in his veins still. He looks at her full, still smiling.
"Dare not!" he repeats. "You use strong language, Inez. But then you have an excitable sort of nature, and were ever inclined to hyperbole; and it is a lady's privilege to talk."
"And a man's to act. But I begin to think Sir Victor Catheron is something less than a man. The Catheron blood has bred many an outlaw, many bitter, bad men, but to-day I begin to think it has bred something infinitely worse—a traitor and a coward!"
He half springs up, his eyes flashing, then falls back, looks at the fire again, and laughs.
"Strong language once more—you assert your prerogative royally, my handsome cousin. From whom did you inherit that two-edged tongue of yours, Inez, I wonder? Your Castilian mother, surely; the women of our house were never shrews. And even you, my dear, may go a little too far. Will you drop vituperation and explain? How have I been traitor and coward? It is well we should understand each other fully."
He has grown pale, though he speaks quietly, and his blue eyes gleam dangerously. He is always quiet when most angry.
"It is. And we shall understand each other fully before we part—be very sure of that. You shall learn what I have inherited from my Castilian mother. You shall learn whether you are to play fast and loose with me at your sovereign will. Does your excellent memory still serve you, or must I tell you what day the twenty-third of September is to be?"
He looks up at her, still pale, that smile on his lips, that gleam in his eyes.
"My memory serves me perfectly," he answers coolly; "it was to have been our wedding-day."
Was to have been. As he speaks the words coldly, almost cruelly, as she looks in his face, the last trace of color leaves her own. The hot fire dies out of her eyes, an awful terror comes in its place. With all her heart, all her strength, she loves the man she so bitterly reproaches. It seems to her she can look back upon no time in which her love for him is not.
And now, it was to have been!
She turns so ghastly that he springs to his feet in alarm.
"Good Heaven, Inez! you're not going to faint, are you? Don't! Here, take my chair, and for pity's sake don't look like that. I'm a wretch, a brute—what was it I said? Do sit down."
He has taken her in his arms. In the days that are gone he has been very fond, and a little afraid of his gipsy cousin. He is afraid still—horribly afraid, if the truth must be told, now that his momentary anger is gone.
All the scorn, all the defiance has died out of her voice when she speaks again. The great, solemn eyes transfix him with a look he cannot meet.
"Was to have been," she repeats, in a sort of whisper; "was to have been. Victor, does that mean it never is to be?"
He turns away, shame, remorse, fear in his averted face. He holds the back of the chair with one hand, she clings to the other as though it held her last hope in life.
"Take time," she says, in the same slow, whispering way. "I can wait. I have waited so long, what does a few minutes more matter now? But think well before you speak—there is more at stake than you know of. My whole future life hangs on your words. A woman's life. Have you ever thought what that implies? 'Was to have been,' you said. Does that mean it never is to be?"
Still no reply. He holds the back of the chair, his face averted, a criminal before his judge.
"And while you think," she goes on, in that slow, sweet voice, "let me recall the past. Do you remember, Victor, the day when I and Juan came here from Spain? Do you remember me? I recall you as plainly at this moment as though it were but yesterday—a little, flaxen-haired, blue-eyed boy in violet velvet, unlike any child I had ever seen before. I saw a woman with a face like an angel, who took me in her arms, and kissed me, and cried over me, for my father's sake. We grew up together, Victor, you and I, such happy, happy years, and I was sixteen, you twenty. And all that time you had my whole heart. Then came our first great sorrow, your mother's death."
She pauses a moment. Still he stands silent, but his left hand has gone up and covers his face.
"You remember that last night, Victor—the night she died. No need to ask you; whatever you may forget, you are not likely to forget that. We knelt together by her bedside. It was as this is a stormy summer night. Outside, the rain beat and the wind blew; inside, the stillness of death was everywhere. We knelt alone in the dimly-lit room, side by side, to receive her last blessing—her dying wish. Victor, my cousin, do you recall what that wish was?"
She holds out her arms to him, all her heart breaking forth in the cry. But he will neither look nor stir.
"With her dying hands she joined ours, her dying eyes looking at you. With her dying lips she spoke to you: 'Inez is dearer to me than all the world, Victor, except you. She must never face the world alone. My son, you love her—promise me you will cherish and protect her always. She loves you as no one else ever will. Promise me, Victor, that in three years from to-night you will make her your wife.' These were her words. And you took her hand, covered it with tears and kisses, and promised.
"We buried her," Inez went on, "and we parted. You went up to Oxford; I went over to a Paris pensionnat. In the hour of our parting we went up together hand in hand to her room. We kissed the pillow where her dying head had lain; we knelt by her bedside as we had done that other night. You placed this ring upon my finger; sleeping or waking it has never left it since, and you repeated your vow, that that night three years, on the twenty-third of September, I should be your wife."
She lifts the betrothal ring to her lips, and kisses it. "Dear little ring," she says softly, "it has been my one comfort all these years. Though all your coldness, all your neglect for the last year and a half, I have looked at it, and known you would never break your plighted word to the living and the dead.
"I came home from school a year ago. You were not here to meet and welcome me. You never came. You fixed the first of June for your coming, and you broke your word. Do I tire you with all these details, Victor? But I must speak to-night. It will be for the last time—you will never give me cause again. Of the whispered slanders that have reached me I do not speak; I do not believe them. Weak you may be, fickle you may be, but you are a gentleman of loyal race and blood; you will keep your plighted troth. Oh, forgive me, Victor! Why do you make me say such things to you? I hate myself for them, but your neglect has driven me nearly wild. What have I done?" Again she stretches forth her hands in eloquent appeal. "See! I love you. What more can I say? I forgive all the past; I ask no questions. I believe nothing of the horrible stories they try to tell me. Only come back to me. If I lose you I shall die."
Her face is transfigured as she speaks—her hands still stretched out.
"O Victor, come!" she says; "let the past be dead and forgotten. My darling, come back!"
But he shrinks away as those soft hands touch him, and pushes her off.
"Let me go!" he cries; "don't touch me, Inez! It can never be. You don't know what you ask!"
He stands confronting her now, pale as herself, with eyes alight. She recoils like one who has received a blow.
"Can never be?" she repeats.
"Can never be!" he answers. "I am what you have called me, Inez, a traitor and a coward. I stand here perjured before God, and you, and my dead mother. It can never be. I can never marry you. I am married already!"
The blow has fallen—the horrible, brutal blow. She stands looking at him—she hardly seems to comprehend. There is a pause—the firelight flickers, they hear the rain lashing the windows, the soughing of the gale in the trees. Then Victor Catheron bursts forth:
"I don't ask you to forgive me—it is past all that. I make no excuse; the deed is done. I met her, and I loved her. She has been my wife for sixteen months, and—there is a son. Inez, don't look at me like that! I am a scoundrel, I know, but—"
He breaks down—the sight of her face unmans him. He turns away, his heart beating horribly thick. How long the ghastly pause that follows lasts he never knows—a century, counting by what he undergoes. Once, during that pause, he sees her fixed eyes turn slowly to his mother's picture—he hears low, strange-sounding words drop from her lips:
"He swore by your dying bed, and see how he keeps his oath!"
Then the life that seems to have died from her face flames back. Without speaking to him, without looking at him, she turns to leave the room. On the threshold she pauses and looks back.
"A wife and a son," she says, slowly and distinctly. "Sir Victor Catheron, fetch them home; I shall be glad to see them."
WIFE AND HEIR.
In a very genteel lodging-house, in the very genteel neighborhood of Russell Square, early in the afternoon of a September day, a young girl stands impatiently awaiting the return of Sir Victor Catheron. This girl is his wife.
It is a bright, sunny day—as sunny, at least, as a London day ever can make up its mind to be—and as the yellow, slanting rays pour in through the muslin curtains full on face and figure, you may search and find no flaw in either. It is a very lovely face, a very graceful, though petite figure. She is a blonde of the blondest type: her hair is like spun gold, and, wonderful to relate, no Yellow Wash: no Golden Fluid, has ever touched its shining abundance. Her eyes are bluer than the September sky over the Russell Square chimney-pots; her nose is neither aquiline nor Grecian, but it is very nice; her forehead is low, her mouth and chin "morsels for the gods." The little figure is deliciously rounded and ripe; in twenty years from now she may be a heavy British matron, with a yard and a half wide waist—at eighteen years old she is, in one word, perfection.
Her dress is perfection also. She wears a white India muslin, a marvel of delicate embroidery and exquisite texture, and a great deal of Valenciennes trimming. She has a pearl and turquoise star fastening her lace collar, pearl and turquoise drops in her ears, and a half dozen diamond rings on her plump, boneless fingers. A blue ribbon knots up the loose yellow hair, and you may search the big city from end to end, and find nothing fairer, fresher, sweeter than Ethel, Lady Catheron.
If ever a gentleman and a baronet had a fair and sufficient excuse for the folly of a low marriage, surely Sir Victor Catheron has it in this fairy wife—for it is a "low marriage" of the most heinous type. Just seventeen months ago, sauntering idly along the summer sands, looking listlessly at the summer sea, thinking drearily that this time next year his freedom would be over, and his Cousin Inez his lawful owner and possessor, his eyes had fallen on that lovely blonde face—that wealth of shining hair, and for all time—aye, for eternity—his fate was fixed. The dark image of Inez as his wife faded out of his mind, never to return more.
The earthly name of this dazzling divinity in yellow ringlets and pink muslin was Ethel Margaretta—Dobb!
Dobb! It might have disenchanted a less rapturous adorer—it fell powerless on Sir Victor Catheron's infatuated ear.
It was at Margate this meeting took place—that most popular and most vulgar of all English watering-places; and the Cheshire baronet had looked just once at the peach-bloom face, the blue eyes of laughing light, the blushing, dimpling, seventeen-year-old face, and fallen in love at once and forever.
He was a very impetuous young man, a very selfish and unstable young man, with whom, all his life, to wish was to have. He had been spoiled by a doting mother from his cradle, spoiled by obsequious servants, spoiled by Inez Catheron's boundless worship. And he wished for this "rose of the rose-bud garden of girls" as he had never wished for anything in his two-and-twenty years of life. As a man in a dream he went through that magic ceremony, "Miss Dobb, allow me to present my friend, Sir Victor Catheron," and they were free to look at each other, talk to each other, fall in love with each other as much as they pleased. As in a dream he lingered by her side three golden hours, as in a dream he said, "Good afternoon," and walked back to his hotel smoking a cigar, the world glorified above and about him. As in a dream they told him she was the only daughter and heiress of a well-to-do London soap-boiler, and he did not wake.
She was the daughter of a soap-boiler. The paternal manufactory was in the grimiest part of the grimy metropolis; but, remarkable to say, she had as much innate pride, self-respect, and delicacy as though "all the blood of all the Howards" flowed in those blue veins.
He wasn't a bad sort of young fellow, as young fellows go, and frantically in love. There was but one question to ask, just eight days after this—"Will you be my wife?"—but one answer, of course—"Yes."
But one answer, of course! How would it be possible for a soap-boiler's daughter to refuse a baronet? And yet his heart had beaten with a fear that turned him dizzy and sick as he asked it; for she had shrunk away for one instant, frightened by his fiery wooing, and the sweet face had grown suddenly and startlingly pale. Is it not the rule that all maidens shall blush when their lovers ask the question of questions?
The rosy brightness, the smiles, the dimples, all faded out of this face, and a white look of sudden fear crossed it. The startled eyes had shrank from his eager, flushed face and looked over the wide sea. For fully five minutes she never spoke or stirred. To his dying day that hour was with him—his passionate love, his sick, horrible fear, his dizzy rapture, when she spoke at last, only one word—"yes." To his dying day he saw her as he saw her then, in her summery muslin dress, her gipsy hat, the pale, troubled look chasing the color from the drooping face.
But the answer was "yes." Was he not a baronet? Was she not a well-trained English girl? And the ecstasy of pride, of joy, of that city soap-boiler's family, who shall paint? "Awake my muse" and—but, no! it passeth all telling. They bowed down before him (figuratively), this good British tradesman and his fat wife, and worshipped him. They burned incense at his shrine; they adored the ground he walked on; they snubbed their neighbors, and held their chins at an altitude never attained by the family of Dobb before. And in six weeks Miss Ethel Dobb became Lady Catheron.
It was the quietest, the dullest, the most secret of weddings—not a soul present except Papa and Mamma Dobb, a military swell in the grenadier guards—Pythias, at present, to Sir Victor's Damon—the parson, and the pew-opener. He was madly in love, but he was ashamed of the family soap-boiling, and he was afraid of his cousin Inez.
He told them a vague story enough of family matters, etc., that rendered secrecy for the present necessary, and nobody cross-questioned the baronet. That the parson was a parson, the marriage bona fide, his daughter "my lady," and himself the prospective grandfather of many baronets, was enough for the honest soap-boiler.
For the bride herself, she said little, in a shy, faltering little way. She was very fond of her dashing, high-born, impulsive lover, and very well content not to come into the full blaze and dazzle of high life just yet. If any other romance had ever figured in her simple life, the story was finished and done with, the book read and put away.
He took her to Switzerland, to Germany, to Southern France, keeping well out of the way of other tourists, and ten months followed—ten months of such exquisite, unalloyed bliss, as rarely falls to mortal man. Unalloyed, did I say? Well, not quite, since earth and heaven are two different places. In the dead of pale Southern nights, with the shine of the moon on his wife's lovely sleeping face; in the hot, brilliant noontide; in the sweet, green gloaming—Inez Catheron's black eyes came menacingly before him—the one bitter drop in his cup. All his life he had been a little afraid of her. He was something more than a little afraid of her now.
They returned. The commodious lodgings in Russell Square awaited him, and Sir Victor "went in" for domestic felicity in the parish of Bloomsbury, "on the quiet." Very much "on the quiet" no theatre going, no opera, no visitors, and big Captain Jack Erroll, of the Second Grenadiers, his only guest. Four months of this sort of thing, and then—and then there was a son.
Lying in her lace-draped, satin-covered bed, looking at baby's fat little, funny little face, Ethel, Lady Catheron, began to think. She had time to think in her quiet and solitude. Monthly nurses and husbands being in the very nature of things antagonistic, and nurse being reigning potentate at present, the husband was banished. And Lady Catheron grew hot and indignant that the heir of Catheron Royals should have to be born in London lodgings, and the mistress of Catheron Royals live shut up like a nun, or a fair Rosamond in a bower.
"You have no relations living but your cousin, Victor," she said to him, more coldly than she had ever spoken in her life. "Are you master in your own house, or is she? Are you afraid of this Miss Catheron, who writes you such long letters (which I never see), that you dare not take your wife home?"
He had told her something of that other story necessarily—his former engagement to his cousin, Inez. Only something—not the bare ugly truth of his own treachery. The soap-boiler's daughter was more noble of soul than the baronet. Gentle as she was, she would have despised him thoroughly had she known the truth.
"This secrecy has lasted long enough," Lady Catheron said, a resolute-looking expression crossing her pretty, soft-cut mouth. "The time has come when you must speak. Don't make me think you are ashamed of me, or afraid of her. Take me home—it is my right; acknowledge your son—it is his. When there was only I, it did not so much matter—it is different now."
She lifted one of baby's dots of hands, and kissed it. And Sir Victor, his face hidden in the shadow of the curtains, his voice husky, made answer:
"You are right, Ethel—you always are. As soon as you both can travel, my wife and child shall come home with me to Catheron Royals."
Just three weeks later, as the August days were ending, came that last letter from Inez, commanding his return. His hour had come. He took the next morning train, and went forth to meet the woman he feared and had wronged.
* * * * *
The afternoon sun drops lower. If Sir Victor returns from Cheshire to-day, Lady Catheron knows he will be here in a few minutes. She looked at her watch a little wearily. The days are very long and lonely without him. Looks up again, her eyes alight. A hansom has dashed up to the door, and it is her husband who leaps out. Half a minute and he is in the room, and she is clasped in his arms.
"My darling!" he exclaims, and you need only hear the two words to tell how rapturously he loves his wife. "Let me look at you. Oh! as pale as ever, I see. Never mind! Cheshire air, sunshine, green fields, and new milk shall bring back your roses. And your son and heir, my lady, how is he?"
He bends over the pretty bassinet, with that absurd paternal look all very new fathers regard the first blessing, and his mustache tickles baby's innocent nose.
A flush comes into her face. She looks at him eagerly.
"At last! Oh, Victor, when do we go?"
"To-morrow, if you are able. The sooner the better."
He says it with rather a forced laugh. Her face clouds a little.
"And your cousin? Was she very angry!" she asked, wistfully; "very much surprised?"
"Well—yes—naturally, I am afraid she was both. We must make the best of that, however. To tell the truth, I had only one interview with her, and that of so particularly unpleasant a nature, that I left next morning. So then we start to-morrow? I'll just drop a line to Erroll to apprise him."
He catches hold of his wife's writing-table to wheel it near. By some clumsiness his foot catches in one of its spidery claws, and with a crash it topples over. Away goes the writing case, flying open and scattering the contents far and wide. The crash shocks baby's nerves, baby begins to cry, and the new-made mamma flies to her angel's side.
"I say!" Sir Victor cries. "Look here! Awkward thing of me to do, eh, Ethel? Writing case broken too. Never mind, I'll pick 'em up."
He goes down on his knees boyishly, and begins gathering them up. Letters, envelopes, wax, seals, pens and pencils. He flings all in a heap in the broken case. Lady Catheron cooing to baby, looks smilingly on. Suddenly he comes to a full stop.
Comes to a full stop, and holds something before him as though it were a snake. A very harmless snake apparently—the photograph of a young and handsome man. For fully a minute he gazes at it utterly aghast. "Good Heaven!" his wife hears him say.
Holding baby in her arms she glances at him. The back of the picture is toward her, but she recognizes it. Her face turns ashen gray—she moves round and bends it over baby.
"Ethel!" Sir Victor says, his voice stern, "what does this mean?"
"What does what mean? Hush-h-h baby, darling. Not so loud, Victor, please. I want to get babe asleep."
"How comes Juan Catheron's picture here?"
She catches her breath—the tone, in which Sir Victor speaks, is a tone not pleasant to hear. She is a thoroughly good little thing, but the best of little things (being women) are ergo dissemblers. For a second she dares not face him; then she comes bravely up to time and looks at him over her shoulder.
"Juan Catheron! Oh, to be sure. Is that picture here yet?" with a little laugh. "I thought I had lost it centuries ago." "Good Heaven!" she exclaims inwardly; "how could I have been such a fool!"
Sir Victor rises to his feet—a curious passing likeness to his dark cousin, Inez, on his fair blonde face. "Then you know Juan Catheron. You! And you never told me."
"My dear Sir Victor," with a little pout, "don't be unreasonable. I should have something to do, if I put you au courant of all my acquaintances. I knew Mr. Catheron—slightly," with a gasp. "Is there any crime in that?"
"Yes!" Sir Victor answers, in a voice that makes his wife jump and his son cry. "Yes—there is. I wouldn't own a dog—if Juan Catheron had owned him before me. To look at him, is pollution enough—to know him—disgrace!"
"Disgrace, Ethel! He is one of the vilest, most profligate, most lost wretches that ever disgraced a good name. Ethel, I command you to tell me—was this man ever anything to you—friend—lover—what?"
"And if he has been—what then?" She rises and faces him proudly. "Am I to answer for his sins?"
"Yes—we all must answer more or less for those who are our friends. How come you to have his picture? What has he been to you? Not your lover—for Heaven's sake, Ethel, never that!"
"And why not? Mind!" she says, still facing him, her blue eyes aglitter, "I don't say that he was, but if he was—what then?"
"What then?" He is white to the lips with jealous rage and fear. "This then—you should never again be wife of mine!"
"Victor!" she puts out her hands as if to ward off a blow, "don't say that—oh, don't say that! And—and it isn't true—he never was a lover of mine—never, never!"
She bursts out with the denial in passionate fear and trembling. In all her wedded life she has never seen him look, heard him speak like this, though she has seen him jealous—needlessly—often.
"He never was your lover? You are telling me the truth?"
"No, no—never! never, Victor—don't look like that! Oh, what brought that wretched picture here! I knew him slightly—only that—and he did give me his photograph. How could I tell he was the wretch you say he is—how could I think there would be any harm in taking a picture? He seemed nice, Victor. What did he ever do?"
"He seemed nice!" Sir Victor repeated, bitterly; "and what did he ever do? What has he left undone you had better ask. He has broken every command of the decalogue—every law human and divine. He is dead to us all—his sister included, and has been these many years. Ethel, can I believe—"
"I have told you, Sir Victor. You will believe as you please," his wife answers, a little sullenly, turning away from him.
She understands him. His very jealousy and anger are born of his passionate love for her. To grieve her is torture to him, yet he grieves her often.
For a tradesman's daughter to marry a baronet may be but one remove from paradise; still it is a remove. And the serpent in Lady Catheron's Eden is the ugliest and most vicious of all serpents—jealousy. He has never shown his green eyes and obnoxious claws so palpably before, and as Sir Victor looks at her bending over her baby, his fierce paroxysm of jealousy gives way to a fierce paroxysm of love.
"Oh, Ethel, forgive me!" he says; "I did not mean to wound you, but the thought of that man—faugh! But I am a fool to be jealous of you, my white lily. Kiss me—forgive me—we'll throw this snake in the grass out of the window and forget it. Only—I had rather you had told me."
He tears up the wretched little mischief-making picture, and flings it out of the window with a look of disgust. Then they "kiss and make up," but the stab has been given, and will rankle. The folly of her past is doing its work, as all our follies past and present are pretty sure to do.
HOW LADY CATHERON CAME HOME.
Late in the afternoon of a September day Sir Victor Catheron, of Catheron Royals, brought home his wife and son.
His wife and son! The county stood astounded. And it had been a dead secret. Dreadful! And Inez Catheron was jilted? Shocking! And she was a soap-boiler's daughter? Horrible! And now when this wretched, misguided young man could keep his folly a secret no longer, he was bringing his wife and child home.
The resident gentry sat thunderstruck. Did he expect they could call? (This was the gentler sex.) Plutocracy might jostle aristocracy into the background, but the line must be drawn somewhere, and the daughter of a London soap-boiler they would not receive. Who was to be positive there had been a marriage at all. And poor Inez Catheron! Ah it was very sad—very sad. There was a well-known, well-hidden taint of insanity in the Catheron family. It must be that latent insanity cropping up. The young man must simply be mad.
Nevertheless bells rung and bonfires blazed, tenantry cheered, and all the old servants (with Mrs. Marsh, the housekeeper, and Mr. Hooper, the butler, at their head) were drawn up in formidable array to receive them. And if both husband and wife were very pale, very silent, and very nervous, who is to blame them? Sir Victor had set society at defiance; it was society's turn now, and then—there was Inez!
For Lady Catheron, the dark, menacing figure of her husband's cousin haunted her, too. As the big, turreted, towered, ivied pile of stone and mortar called Catheron Royals, with its great bell booming, its Union Jack waving, reared up before the soap-boiler's daughter—she absolutely cowered with a dread that had no name.
"I am afraid!" she said. "Oh, Victor, I am afraid!"
He laughed—not quite naturally, though. If the painful truth must be told of a baronet and a Catheron, Sir Victor was afraid, too.
"Afraid?" he laughed; "of what, Ethel? The ghost of the Gray Lady, who walks twice in every year in Rupert's Tower? Like all fine old families, we have our fine old family ghost, and would not part with it for the world. I'll tell you the legend some day; at present 'screw your courage to the sticking place,' for here we are."
He descended from the carriage, and walked into the grand manorial hall, vast enough to have lodged a hundred men, his wife on his arm, his head very high, his face very pale. She clung to him, poor child! and yet she battled hard for her dignity, too. Hat in hand, smiling right and left in the old pleasant way, he shook hands with Mrs. Marsh and Mr. Hooper, presented them to my lady, and bravely inquired for Miss Inez. Miss Inez was well, and awaiting him in the Cedar drawing-room.
They ascended to the Cedar drawing-room, one of the grandest rooms in the house, all gilding and ormolu, and magnificent upholstery—Master Baby following in the arms of his nurse. The sweet face and soft eyes of Lady Catheron had done their work already in the ranks of the servants—she would be an easier mistress to serve than Miss Inez.
"If she ever is mistress in her own house," thought Mrs. Marsh, who was "companion" to Miss Catheron as well as housekeeper; "and mistress she never will be while Miss Catheron is at the Royals."
The drawing-room was brilliantly lit, and standing in the full glare of the lamps—Inez. She was gorgeous this evening in maize silk, that was like woven sunshine; she had a white camelia in her hair, a diamond cross on her breast, scented laces about her, diamonds on her arms and in her ears. So she stood—a resplendent vision—so Sir Victor beheld her again.
He put up his hand for an instant like one who is dazzled—then he led forward his wife, as men have led on a forlorn hope.
"My cousin," he said, "my wife; Inez, this is Ethel."
There was a certain pathos in the simplicity of the words, in the tone of his voice, in the look of his eyes. And as some very uplifted young empress might bow to the lowliest of her handmaidens, Miss Catheron bowed to Lady Catheron.
"Ethel," she repeated, a smile on her lips, "a pretty name, and a pretty face. I congratulate you on your taste, Victor. And this is the baby—I must look at him."
There was an insufferable insolence in the smile, an insufferable sneer in the compliment. Ethel had half extended a timid hand—Victor had wholly extended a pleading one. She took not the slightest notice of either. She lifted the white veil, and looked down at the sleeping baby.
"The heir of Catheron Royals," she said, "and a fine baby no doubt, as babies go. I don't pretend to be a judge. He is very bald and very flabby, and very fat just at present. Whom does he resemble? Not you, Victor. O, no doubt the distaff side of the house. What do you call him, nurse? Not christened yet? But of course the heir of the house is always christened at Catheron Royals. Victor, no doubt you'll follow the habit of your ancestors, and give him his mother's family name. Your mother was the daughter of a marquis, and you are Victor St. Albans Catheron. Good customs should not be dropped—let your son's name be Victor Dobb Catheron."
She laughed as she dropped the veil, a laugh that made all the blood in Sir Victor's body tingle in his face. But he stood silent. And it was Ethel who, to the surprise of every one, her husband included, turned upon Miss Catheron with flashing eyes and flushing cheeks.
"And suppose, he is christened Victor Dobb Catheron, what then? It is an honest English name, of which none of my family have ever had reason to feel ashamed. My husband's mother may have been the daughter of a marquis—my son's mother is the daughter of a tradesman—the name that has been good enough for me will be good enough for him. I have yet to learn there is any disgrace in honest trade."
Miss Catheron smiled once more, a smile more stinging than words.
"No doubt. You have many things yet to learn, I am quite sure. Victor, tell your wife that, however dulcet her voice may be, it would sound sweeter if not raised so very high. Of course, it is to be expected—I make every allowance, poor child, for the failings of her—class. The dressing-bell is ringing, dinner in an hour, until then—au revoir."
Still with that most insolent smile she bows low once more, and in her gold silk, her Spanish laces, her diamonds and splendor, Miss Catheron swept out of the room.
And this was Ethel's welcome home.
* * * * *
Just two hours later, a young man came walking briskly up the long avenue leading to the great portico entrance of Catheron Royals. The night was dark, except for the chill white stars—here under the arching oaks and elms not even the starlight shone. But neither for the darkness nor loneliness cared this young man. With his hands in his pockets he went along at a swinging pace, whistling cheerily. He was very tall; he walked with a swagger. You could make out no more in the darkness.
The great house loomed up before him, huge, black, grand, a row of lights all along the first floor. The young man stopped his whistling, and looked up with a smile not pleasant to see.
"Four years ago," he said, between his teeth, "you flung me from your door like a dog, most noble baronet, and you swore to lodge me in Chesholm jail if I ever presumed to come back. And I swore to pay you off if I ever had a chance. To-night the chance has come, thanks to the girl who jilted me. You're a young man of uncommonly high stomach, my baronet, proud as the deuce and jealous as the devil. I'll give your pride and your jealousy a chance to show themselves to-night."
He lifted the massive brass knocker, and brought it down with a clang that echoed through the house. Then he began whistling again, watching those lighted, lace-draped windows.
"And to think," he was saying inwardly, "to think of our little Ethel being mistress here. On my word it's a lift in life for the soap-boiler's pretty daughter. I wonder what they're all about up there now, and how Inez takes it. I should think there must have been the dickens to pay when she heard it first."
The heavy door swung back, and a dignified elderly gentleman, in black broadcloth and silk stockings, stood gazing at the intruder. The young man stepped from the outer darkness into the lighted vestibule, and the elderly gentleman fell back with a cry.
"Mister Juan, Hooper, if you please—Mister Juan. William, my old cockalorum, my last rose of summer, how goes it?"
He grasped the family butler's hand with a jolly laugh, and gave it a shake that brought tears of torture to its owner's eyes. In the blaze of the hall chandelier he stood revealed, a big fellow, with eyes and hair raven black, and a bold, bronzed face.
"What, William! friend of my childhood's days, 'none knew thee but to love thee, none named thee but to praise'—not a word of welcome? Stricken dumb at sight of the prodigal son! I say! Where's the rest? The baronet, you know, and my sister, and the new wife and kid? In the dining-room?"
"In the dining-room," Mr. Hooper is but just able to gasp, as with horror pictured on his face he falls back.
"All right, then. Don't fatigue your venerable shanks preceding me. I know the way. Bless you, William, bless you, and be happy!"
He bounces up the stairs, this lively young man, and the next instant, hat in hand, stands in the large, handsome, brilliantly lit dining-room. They are still lingering over the dessert, and with a simultaneous cry, and as if by one impulse, the three start to their feet and stand confounded. The young man strikes a tragic theatrical attitude.
"Scene—dining-room of the reprobate 'Don Giovanni'—tremulo music, lights half down—enter statue of virtuous Don Pedro." He breaks into a rollicking laugh and changes his tone for that of every-day life. "Didn't expect me, did you?" he says, addressing everybody. "Joyful surprise, isn't it? Inez, how do? Baronet, your humble servant. Sorry to intrude, but I've been told my wife is here, and I've come after her, naturally. And here she is. Ethel, my darling, who'd have thought of seeing you at Catheron Royals, an honored guest? Give us a kiss, my angel, and say you're glad to see your scrapegrace husband back."
He strides forward and has her in his arms before any one can speak. He stoops his black-bearded face to kiss her, just as with a gasping sob, her golden head falls on his shoulder and she faints dead away.
"I'LL NOT BELIEVE BUT DESDEMONA'S HONEST."
With a cry that is like nothing human, Sir Victor Catheron leaps forward and tears his fainting wife out of the grasp of the black-bronzed, bearded, piratical-looking young man.
"You villain!" he shouts, hoarse with amaze and fury; "stand back, or by the living Lord I'll have your life! You scoundrel, how dare you lay hands on my wife!"
"Your wife! Yours! Come now, I like that! It's against the law of this narrow-minded country for a woman to have two husbands. You're a magistrate and ought to know. Don't call names, and do keep your temper—violent language is unbecoming a gentleman and a baronet. Inez, what does he mean by calling Ethel his wife?"
"She is his wife," Inez answers, her black eyes glittering.
"Oh, but I'll be hanged if she is. She's mine—mine hard and fast, by jingo. There's some little misunderstanding here. Keep your temper, baronet, and let us clear it up. I married Miss Ethel Dobb in Glasgow, on the thirteenth of May, two years ago. Now, Sir Victor Catheron, when did you marry her."
Sir Victor made no answer; his face, as he stood supporting his wife, was ghastly with rage and fear. Ethel lay like one dead; Juan Catheron, still eminently good-humored and self-possessed, turned to his sister:
"Look here, Inez, this is how it stands: Miss Dobb was only fifteen when I met her first. It was in Scotland. We fell in love with each other; it was the suddenest case of spoons you ever saw. We exchanged pictures, we vowed vows, we did the 'meet me by moonlight alone' business—you know the programme yourself. The time came to part—Ethel to return to school, I to sail for the China Sea—and the day we left Scotland we went into church and were married. There! I don't deny we parted at the church door, and have never met since, but she's my wife; mine, baronet, by Jove! since the first marriage is the legal one. Come, now! You don't mean to say that you've been and married another fellow's wife. 'Pon my word, you know I shouldn't have believed it of Ethel."
"She is reviving," Inez said.
She spoke quietly, but her eyes were shining like black stars. She knew her brother for a liar of old, but what if this were true? what if her vengeance were here so soon? She held a glass of iced champagne to the white lips.
"Drink!" she said, authoritatively, and Ethel mechanically drank. Then the blue eyes opened, and she stood erect in Sir Victor's arms.
"Oh, what is it?" she said. "What has happened?"
Her eyes fell upon the dark intruder, and with a cry of fear, a shudder of repulsion, her hands flew up and covered her face.
"Don't be afraid, my darling," Sir Victor said, holding her close, and looking with flashing, defiant eyes at his enemy; "this coward has told a monstrous falsehood. Deny it, my love. I ask no more, and my servants shall kick him out."
"Oh, shall they!" said Mr. Catheron; "well, we'll see. Now, Ethel, look here. I don't understand this business, you know. What does Sir Victor mean by calling you his wife? It isn't possible you've gone and committed bigamy—there must be a mistake. You are my wife, and as such I claim you."
"Ethel, you hear that," Sir Victor cried in a voice of agony; "for Heaven's sake speak! The sight of this fellow—the sound of his voice is driving me mad. Speak and deny this horrible charge."
"She can't," said Juan Catheron!
"I can! I do!" exclaimed Ethel, starting up with flushing face and kindling eyes; "It is a monstrous lie. Victor! O, Victor, send him away! It isn't true—it isn't, it isn't!"
"Hold on, Sir Victor," Mr. Catheron, interposed, "let me ask this young lady a question or two. Ethel, do you remember May, two years ago in Scotland? Look at this picture; it's yours, isn't it? Look at this ring on my little finger; you gave it to me, didn't you? Think of the little Glasgow presbytery where we went through the ceremony, and deny that I'm your husband, if you can."
But her blood was up—gentle, yielding, timid, she had yet a spirit of her own, and her share of British "pluck."
She faced her accuser like a small, fair-haired lioness, her eyes flashing blue fire.
"I do deny it! You wretch, how dare you come here with such a lie!" She turned her back upon him with a scorn under which even he winced. "Victor!" she cried, lifting her clasped hands to her husband, "hear me and forgive me if you can. I have done wrong—wrong—but I—I was afraid, and I thought he was drowned. I wanted to tell you all—I did, indeed, but papa and mamma were afraid—afraid of losing you, Victor. I told you a falsehood about the photograph—he, that wretch, did give it to me, and—" her face drooped with a bitter sob—"he was my lover then, years ago, in Scotland."
"Ah!" quoted Mr. Catheron, "truth is mighty and will prevail! Tell it, Ethel; the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."
"Silence, sir!" Lady Catheron cried, "and don't dare call me Ethel. I was only fifteen, Victor—think of it, a child of fifteen, spending my holidays in Glasgow when I met him. And he dared to make love to me. It amused him for the time—representing himself as a sort of banished prince, a nobleman in disguise. He took my silly, girlish fancy for the time. What did I at fifteen know of love? The day I was to return home, we exchanged pictures and rings, and he took me out for a last walk. He led me into a solitary chapel, and made me join hands, and pledge myself to be his wife. There was not a soul in the place but ourselves. As we left it we met papa. We shook hands and parted, and until this hour I have never since set eyes on his face. Victor, don't blame me too much—think what a child I was—remember I was afraid of him. The instant he was out of my sight I disliked him. He wrote to me—I never answered his letters, except once, and then it was to return his, and tell him to trouble me no more. That is all. O Victor! don't look like that! I am sorry—I am sorry. Forgive me or I shall die."
He was ashen white, but there was a dignity about him that awed into silence even the easy assurance of Juan Catheron. He stooped and kissed the tear-wet, passionate, pleading face.
"I believe you," he said; "your only fault was in not telling me long ago. Don't cry, and sit down."
He placed her in a chair, walked over, and confronted his cousin.
"Juan Catheron," he said, "you are a slanderer and a scoundrel, as you always were. Leave this house, and never, whilst I live, set your foot across its threshold. Five years ago you committed a forgery of my name for three thousand pounds. I turned you out of Catheron Royals and let you go. I hold that forged check yet. Enter this house again, repeat your infamous lie, and you shall rot in Chesholm jail! I spared you then for your sister's sake—for the name you bear and disgrace—but come here again and defame my wife, and I'll transport you though you were my brother. Now go, and never come back."
He walked to the door and flung it wide. Juan Catheron stood and looked at him, his admirable good-humor unruffled, something like genuine admiration in his face.
"By Jupiter!" he exclaimed, "who'd have thought it! Such a milk-sop as he used to be! Well, baronet, I don't deny you got the upper hand of me in that unpleasant little affair of the forgery, and Portland Island with a chain on my leg and hard labor for twenty years I don't particularly crave. Of course, if Ethel won't come, she won't, but I say again it's deuced shabby treatment. Because, baronet, that sort of thing is a marriage in Scotland, say what you like. I suppose it's natural she should prefer the owner of Catheron Royals and twenty thousand per annum, to a poor devil of a sailor like me; but all the same it's hard lines. Good-by, Inez—be sisterly, can't you, and come and see a fellow. I'm stopping at the 'Ring o' Bells,' in Chesholm. Good-by, Ethel. 'Thou hast learned to love another, thou hast broken every vow,' but you might shake hands for the sake of old times. You won't—well, then, good-by without. The next time I marry I'll make sure of my wife."
He swaggered out of the room, giving Sir Victor a friendly and forgiving nod, flung his wide awake on his black curls, clattered down the stairs and out of the house.
"By-by, William," he said to the butler. "I'm off again, you see. Most inhospitable lot I ever saw—never so much as offered me a glass of wine. Good-night, my daisy. Oh river! as they say in French. Oh river!"
The door closed upon him. He looked back at the lighted windows and laughed.
"I've given them a rare fright if nothing else. She went off stiff at sight of me, and he—egad! the little fair-haired baronet's plucky after all—such a molly-coddle as he used to be. Of course her being my wife's all bosh, but the scare was good fun. And it won't end here—my word for it. He's as jealous as the Grand Turk. I hope Inez will come to see me and give me some money. If she doesn't I must go and see her, that's all."
He was gone—and for a moment silence reigned. Lights burned, flowers bloomed, crystal and silver shone, rare wines and rich fruits glowed. But a skeleton sat at the feast. Juan Catheron had done many evil deeds in his lifetime, but never a more dastardly deed than to-night.
There was a flash of intolerable triumph in the dark eyes of Inez. She detested her brother, but she could have kissed him now. She had lost all, wealth, position, and the man she loved—this girl with the tangled yellow hair and pink and white face had taken all from her, but even her path was not to be altogether a path of roses.
Ashen pale and with eyes averted, Sir Victor walked back and resumed his seat at the table. Ashen pale, trembling and frightened, Ethel sat where he had placed her. And no one spoke—what was there to be said?
It was a fortunate thing that just at this juncture baby should see fit to wake and set up a dismal cry, so shrill as to penetrate even to the distant dinner-room. Lady Catheron rose to her feet, uttered a hasty and incoherent apology, and ran from the room.
She did not return. Peace reigned, the infant heir of the Catherons was soothed, but his mamma went downstairs no more that night. She lingered in the nursery for over an hour. Somehow by her baby's side she felt a sense of peace and safety. She dreaded to meet her husband. What must he think of her? She had stooped to concealment, to falsehood—would he ever love her or trust her again?
She went at last to her rooms. On the dressing-table waxlights burned, but the bedroom was unlit. She seated herself by the window and looked out at the starlit sky, at the darkly-waving trees of the park. "And this is my welcome home," she thought, "to find in my husband's house my rival and enemy, whose first look, whose first words are insults. She is mistress here, not I. And that fatal folly of my childhood come back. That horrible man!" She shuddered as she sat alone. "Ah, why did I not tell, why did mamma beg me to hide it from him? She was so afraid he would have gone—so afraid her daughter would miss a baronet, and I—I was weak and a coward. No, it is all over—he will never care for me, never trust me again."
He came in as she sat there, mournful and alone. In the dusk of the chamber the little half-hidden white figure caught his eye, the golden hair glimmering through the dusk.
"Ethel," he said, "is that window open? Come away immediately—you will take cold in the draught."
He spoke gently but very coldly as he had never spoken to her before. She turned to him with a great sob.
"Oh, Victor, forgive me!" she said.
He was silent for a moment. He loved her with a great and passionate love; to see her weep was torture, to see her suffer, misery. She had never been dearer than in this hour. Still he stood aloof, torn by doubt, racked by jealousy.
"Ethel," he cried out, "why did you deceive me? I thought—I could have sworn you were all truth and innocence, stainless as a lily, white as an angel. And to think that another man—and of all men Juan Catheron. No. I can't even think of it—it is enough to drive me mad!"
She fell down on her knees before him and held up her clasped hands.
There was a little sob, and her head lay on his shoulder.
"I tried to once or twice—I did indeed, but you know what a coward I am. And mamma forbade my telling—that is the truth. She said I had been a little fool—that was all over and done with—no need to be a great fool, telling my own folly. And after we were married, and I saw you jealous of every man I looked at—you know you were, sir!—I was more scared than ever. I thought Juan Catheron was dead. I never wrote to him. I had returned all his letters. I thought I had destroyed his picture; I never knew that I had done so very wrong in knowing him at all, until that day in Russell Square. But Victor—husband—only forgive me this once, and I'll never, never have a secret from you again as long as I live."
She was little better than a child still—this pretty youthful matron and mother. And with the sweet, pleading face uplifted, the big blue eyes swimming in tears, the quivering lips, the pathetic voice, he did what you, sir, would have done in his place—kissed and forgave her.
IN THE TWILIGHT.
"No words can be strong enough to reprehend your conduct, Victor. You have acted disgracefully; you are listening, sir,—disgracefully, I say, to your cousin Inez. And you are the first of your line who has blurred the family escutcheon. Dukes' daughters have entered Catheron Royals as brides. It was left for you to wed a soap-boiler's daughter!"
Thus Lady Helena Powyss, of Powyss Place, to her nephew, Sir Victor Catheron, just one fortnight after that memorable night of his wife and heir's coming home. The young man stood listening in sullen anger, the red blood mounting to his very temples. His Cousin Inez had managed during the past two weeks to make his existence as thoroughly uncomfortable as a thoroughly jealous and spiteful woman can. He had flown at last to his aunt for comfort, and this is how he got it.
"Lady Helena," he burst forth, "this is too much! Not even from you will I bear it. A soap-boiler's daughter my wife may be—it is the only charge that can be brought against her. I have married to please myself, and it does please me enormously. Inez, confound her! badgers me enough. I didn't expect, Aunt Helena, to be badgered by you."
"I have no wish to badger you. I bring no charge against your wife. I have seen her but once, and personally I like her excessively. I believe her to be as good as she is pretty. But again your conduct I do and will protest. You have cruelly, shamefully wronged your cousin—humiliated her beyond all telling. I can only wonder—yes, Victor, wonder—that with her fiery nature she takes it as quietly as she does."
"As quietly as she does! Good Heavens!" burst forth this "badgered" baronet. "You should live in the same house with her to find out how quietly she takes it. Women understand how to torture—they should have been grand inquisitors of a Spanish inquisition, if such a thing ever existed. I am afraid to face her. She stabs my wife in fifty different ways fifty times a day, and I—my guilty conscience won't let me silence her. Ethel has not known a happy hour since she entered Catheron Royals, and all through her infernal serpent tongue. Let her take care—if she were ten times my cousin, even she may go one step too far."
"Does that mean, Victor, you will turn her from Catheron Royals?"
"It means that, if you like. Inez is my cousin, Ethel is my wife. You are her friend, Aunt Helena; you will be doing a friendly action if you drop her a hint. I wish you good-morning."
He took his hat and turned to go, his handsome blonde face sullen and set.
"Very well," Lady Helena answered; "I will. You are to blame—not that poor fair-haired child. I will speak to Inez; and, Victor, I will try to forgive you for your mother's sake. Though you broke her heart she would have forgiven you. I will try to do as she would have done—and I like the little thing. You will not fail me on Thursday next? If I take up your wife all the neighborhood will, you may depend."
"We are not likely to fail. The invitation is like your kindness, Aunt Helena. Thanks very much!"
His short-lived anger died away; he gave his hand frankly to his aunt. She was his wife's friend—the only one who had taken the slightest notice of her since her arrival. For the resident gentry had decided that they couldn't—really couldn't—call upon the soap-boiler's daughter.
Sir Victor Catheron had shocked and scandalized his order as it had not been shocked and scandalized for half a century. A banker's daughter, a brewer's daughter, they were prepared to accept—banking and brewing are genteel sort of things. But a soap-boiler!—and married in secret!—and a baby born in lodgings!—and Miss Catheron jilted in cold blood!—Oh it was shameful!—shameful! No, they could not call upon the new Lady Catheron—well, at least until they saw whether the Lady Helena Powyss meant to take her up.
Lady Helena was the only sister of the young baronet's late mother, with no children of her own, and very strongly attached to both Sir Victor and Inez. His mother's dying desire had been that he should marry his cousin. He had promised, and Lady Helena's strongest hope in life had been to see that promise fulfilled. The news of his low marriage fell upon her like a thunderbolt. She was the proudest of dowagers—when had a Catheron made a mesalliance before? No; she could not forgive him—could never receive his wife.
But when he came to her, pale, sad, appealing for pardon, she relented. It was a very tender and womanly heart, despite its pride of birth, that beat in Lady Helena's bosom; and jolly Squire Powyss, who had seen the little wife at the Royals, took sides with his nephew.
"It's done, and can't be undone, my dear," the squire said, philosophically; "and it's always wise to make the best of a bad bargain; and 'pon my life, my love, it's the sweetest little face the sun ever shone on! Gad! I'd have done it myself. Forgive him, my dear—boys will be boys—and go and see his wife."
Lady Helena yielded—love for her boy stronger than pride or anger. She went; and there came into one of the dusk drawing-rooms of the Royals, a little white vision, with fair, floating hair, and pathetic blue eyes—a little creature, so like a child, that the tender, motherly heart of the great lady went out to her at once.
"You pretty little thing!" she said, taking her in her arms and kissing her as though she had been eight rather than eighteen. "You're nothing but a baby yourself and you have got a baby they tell me. Take me to see him, my dear."
They were friends from that hour. Ethel, with grateful tears in her eyes, led her up to the dainty berceaunette where the heir of Catheron Royals slept, and as she kissed his velvet cheek and looked pityingly from babe to mother, the last remains of anger died out of her heart. Lady Helena Powyss would "take Lady Catheron up."
"She's pretty, and gentle, and good, and a lady if ever I saw one," she said to Inez Catheron; "and she doesn't look too happy. Don't be too hard on her, my dear—it isn't her fault. Victor is to blame. No one feels that more than I. But not that blue-eyed child—try to forgive her Inez, my love. A little kindness will go a long way there."
Inez Catheron sitting in the sunlit window of her own luxurious room, turned her face from the rosy sunset sky full upon her aunt.
"I know what I owe my cousin Victor and his wife," she answered steadily, "and one day I shall pay my debt."
The large, lustrous Spanish eyes turned once more to the crimson light in the western sky. Some of that lurid splendor lit her dark, colorless face with a vivid glow. Lady Helena looked at her uneasily—there was a depth here she could not fathom. Was Inez "taking it quietly" after all?
"I—I don't ask you to forgive him, my dear," she said, nervously—"at least, just yet. I don't think I could do it myself. And of course you can't be expected to feel very kindly to her who has usurped your place. But I would let her alone if I were you. Victor is master here, and his wife must be mistress, and naturally he doesn't like it. You might go too far, and then—"
"He might turn me out of Catheron Royals—is that what you are trying to say, Aunt Helena?"
"Well, my dear—"
"Victor was to see you yesterday. Did he tell you this? No need to distress yourself—I see he did. And so I am to be turned from Catheron Royals for the soap-boiler's daughter, if I don't stand aside and let her reign. It is well to be warned—I shall not forget it."
Lady Helena was at a loss. What could she say? What could she do? Something in the set, intense face of the girl frightened her—absolutely frightened her. She rose hurriedly to go.
"Will you come to Powyss Place on Thursday next?" she asked. "I hardly like to press you, Inez, under the circumstances. For poor Victor's sake I want to make the best of it. I give a dinner party, as you know; invite all our friends, and present Lady Catheron. There is no help for it. If I take her up, all the country will; but if you had rather not appear, Inez—"
There was a sharp, quick, warning flash from the black eyes.
"Why should I not appear? Victor may be a coward—I am not. I will go. I will face our whole visiting list, and defy them to pity me. Take up the soap-boiler's heiress by all means, but, powerful as you are, I doubt if even you will be able to keep her afloat. Try the experiment—give the dinner party—I will be there."
"It's a very fine thing for a tradesman's daughter to marry a rich baronet, no doubt," commented Lady Helena, as she was driven home; "but, with Inez for my rival, I shouldn't care to risk it. I only hope, for my sake at least, she will let the poor thing alone next Thursday."
The "poor thing" indeed! If Sir Victor's life had been badgered during the past fortnight, his wife's life had been rendered nearly unendurable. Inez knew so well how to stab, and she never spared a thrust. It was wonderful, the bitterest, stinging things she could say over and over again, in her slow, legato tones. She never spared. Her tongue was a two-edged sword, and the black deriding eyes looked pitilessly on her victim's writhes and quivers. And Ethel bore it. She loved her husband—he feared his cousin—for his sake she endured. Only once, after some trebly cruel stab, she had cried aloud in her passionate pain:
"I can't endure it, Victor—I cannot! She will kill me. Take me back to London, to Russell Square, anywhere away from your dreadful cousin!"
He had soothed her as best he might, and riding over to Powyss Place, had given his aunt that warning.
"It will seem a horribly cruel and inhuman thing to turn her from the home where she has reigned mistress so long," he said to himself. "I will never be able to hold up my head in the county after—but she must let Ethel alone. By fair means or foul she must."
The day of Lady Helena Powyss' party came—a terrible ordeal for Ethel. She had grown miserably nervous under the life she had led the past two weeks—the ceaseless mockery of Miss Catheron's soft, scornful tones, the silent contempt and derision of her hard black eyes. What should she wear? how should she act? What if she made some absurd blunder, betraying her plebeian birth and breeding? What if she mortified her thin-skinned husband? Oh! why was it necessary to go at all?
"My dear child," her husband said, kissing her good-humoredly, "it isn't worth that despairing face. Just put on one of your pretty dinner-dresses, a flower in your hair, and your pearls. Be your own simple, natural, dear little self, and there will not be a lady at Aunt Helena's able to shine you down."
And when an hour after, she descended, in a sweeping robe of silvery blue, white lilies in her yellow hair, and pale pearls clasping her slim throat, she looked fair as a dream.
Inez's black eyes flashed angrily as they fell upon her. Soap-boiler's daughter she might be, with the blood of many Dobbs in her veins, but no young peeress, born to the purple, ever looked more graceful, more refined.
For Miss Catheron herself, she was quite bewildering in a dress of dead white silk, soft laces and dashes of crimson about her as usual, and rubies flashing here and there. She swept on to the carriage with head held haughtily erect, a contemptuous smile on her lips, like anything on earth but a jilted maiden.
Lady Helena's rooms were filled when they entered; not one invitation had been declined. Society had mustered in fullest force to see Sir Victor Catheron's low-born wife, to see how Miss Catheron bore her humiliation. How would the one bear their scrutiny, the other their pity? But Miss Catheron, handsome, smiling, brilliant, came in among them with eyes that said: "Pity me if you dare!" And upon Sir Victor's arm there followed the small, graceful figure, the sweet, fair face of a girl who did not look one day more than sixteen—by all odds the prettiest girl in the rooms.
Lady Helena—who, when she did that sort of thing, did do it—took the little wife under her wing at once. People by the score, it seemed to the bewildered Ethel, were presented, and the stereotyped compliments of society were poured into her ear. Sir Victor was congratulated, sincerely by the men, with an under-current of pity and mockery by the women. Then they were all at dinner—the bride in the place of honor—running the gauntlet of all those eyes on the alert for any solecism of good manners.
She went through it all, her cheeks flushing, her eyes kindling with excitement growing prettier every moment. Her spirits rose—she would let these peoples and Inez Catheron see, she was their equal in all things save birth. She talked, she laughed, she took captive half the male hearts, and when the ladies at length sailed away to the drawing-room, Lady Helena stooped and kissed her, almost with motherly pride.
"My dear," she whispered, "let me congratulate you. Nothing could be a greater success. All the men are in love with you—all the women jealous. A most excellent beginning indeed!"
She laughed pleasantly, this kindly dowager, and passed on. It was, an unspeakable relief to her to see her nephew's low-born wife face society so bravely and well. And better still, Inez had not launched one single poisoned dart. But the evening was not ended yet. Inez's time was to come. Enter the gentlemen presently, and flirtations are resumed, tete-a-tetes in quiet comers recommenced, conversation becomes general. There is music. A certain Lord Verriker, the youngest man present, and the greatest in social status, monopolizes Lady Catheron. He leads her to the piano, and she sings. She is on trial still, and does her best, and her best is very good—a sweet Scotch ballad. There is quite a murmur of applause as she rises, and through it there breaks Miss Catheron's soft, sarcastic laugh. The flush deepens in Ethel's cheek—the laugh is at her performance she feels.
And now the hour of Inez's vengeance comes. Young Captain Varden is leaning over her chair; he is in love with Miss Catheron, and hovers about her unceasingly. He talks a great deal, though not very brilliantly. He is telling her in an audible undertone how Jack Singleton of "Ours" has lately made an object of himself before gods and men, and irretrievably ruined himself for life by marrying the youngest Miss Potter, of Potter's Park.
"Indeed!" Miss Catheron responds, with her light laugh, and her low, clear voice perfectly distinct to all; "the youngest Miss Potter. Ah, yes! I've heard of them. The paternal Potter kept a shop in Chester, didn't he—a grocer, or something of the sort, and having made money enough behind the counter, has retired. And poor Lieutenant Singleton has married the youngest Miss Potter! 'Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.' A very charming girl no doubt, as sweet as the paternal treacle, and as melting as her father's butter. It's an old custom in some families—my own for instance—to quarter the arms of the bride on the family shield. Now what do you suppose the arms of the Potter family may be—a white apron and a pair of scales?"
And then, all through the room, there is a horrible suppressed laugh. The blood rushes in a fiery tide to the face of Sir Victor, and Lady Helena outglows her crimson velvet gown. Ethel, with the youthful Lord Verriker still hovering around her, has but one wild instinct, that of flight. Oh! to be away, from these merciless people—from that bitter, dagger-tongued Inez Catheron! She looks wildly at her husband. Must she bear this? But his back is to her—he is wilfully blind and deaf. The courage to take up the gauntlet for his wife, to make a scene, to silence his cousin, is a courage he does not possess.
Under the midnight stars Lady Helena's guests drive home. In the carriage of Sir Victor Catheron there is dead silence. Ethel, shrinking from her husband almost as much as from his cousin, lies back in a corner, pale and mute. Inez Catheron's dauntless black eyes look up at the white, countless stars as she softly hums a tune. Sir Victor sits with his eyes shut, but he is not asleep. He is in a rage with himself, he hates his cousin, he is afraid to look at his wife. One way or other he feels there must be an immediate end of this.
The first estrangement that has parted him and Ethel has come. He hardly knows her to-night—her cold, brief words, her averted face, her palpable shrinking as he approaches. She despises him, and with reason, a man who has not the courage to protect his wife from insult.
Next day Lady Catheron declines to appear at either breakfast or luncheon, and when, five minutes before dinner, Sir Victor and Miss Catheron meet in the dining-room, she is absent still. He rings the bell angrily and demands where she is.
"My lady has gone out," the footman answers. "She went half an hour ago. She had a book with her, and she went in the direction of the laurel walk."
"I will go in search of her," Sir Victor says, taking his hat; "let dinner wait until our return."
Ethel has gone, because she cannot meet Inez Catheron again, never again break bread at the same board with her pitiless enemy. She cried herself quietly to sleep last night; her head aches with a dull, sickening pain to-day. To be home once more—to be back in the cosy, common-place Russell square lodgings! If it were not for baby she feels as though she would like to run away, from Sir Victor and all, anywhere that Inez Catheron's black eyes and derisive smile could never come.
The September twilight, sparkling with frosty-looking stars, is settling down over the trees. The great house looms up, big, sombre, stately, a home to be proud of, yet Ethel shudders as she looks at it. The only miserable days of her life have been spent beneath its roof; she will hate it before long. Her very love for her husband seems to die out in bitter contempt, as she thinks of last night, when he stood by and heard his cousin's sneering insult. The gloaming is chilly, she draws her shawl closer around her, and walks slowly up and down. Slow, miserable tears trickle down her cheeks as she walks. She feels so utterly alone, so utterly forlorn, so utterly at the mercy of this merciless woman.
"Oh!" she says, with a passionate sob, and unconsciously aloud, "why did I ever marry him?"
"If you mean Sir Victor Catheron," answers a voice, "I think I can tell you. You married Sir Victor Catheron because he was Sir Victor Catheron. But it isn't a marriage, my dear—you know that. A young lady can't have two husbands, and I'm your legal, lawful-wedded spouse."
She utters a cry—she recoils with a face of terror, for there in the twilight before her, tall, black, sinister, stands Juan Catheron.
"You!" she gasps.
"I, my dear—I, in the flesh. Did you think I had gone? My dear Ethel, so I would have gone, if Inez had come down in the sisterly way she should. But she hasn't. I give you my word of honor her conduct has been shabby in the extreme. A few hundreds—I asked no more—and she wouldn't. What was a miserly fifty pun' note to a man like me, with expensive tastes, and who has not set foot on British soil for two years? Not a jewel would she part with—all Sir Victor's presents, forsooth! And she's in love with Sir Victor, you know. Perhaps you don't know, though. 'Pon my life, she is, Ethel, and means to have him yet, too. That's what she says, and she is a girl to do as she says, is Inez. That's why I'm here to-night, my dear. I can't go to Sir Victor, you understand—motives of delicacy, and all that—so I waited my chance, and have come to you. You may be fickle, but I don't think you're stingy. And something is due to my outraged feelings, blighted affections, and all that. Give me five hundred pounds, Ethel, and let us call it square."
He came nearer, his big, brown hand outstretched. She shrank away, hatred and repulsion in her face.
"Stand back!" she said. "Don't come near me, Juan Catheron! How dare you intrude here! How dare you speak to me!"
"How dare I? Oh, come now, I say, I like that. If a man may not speak to his own wife, to whom may he speak? If it comes to that, how dare you throw me over, and commit bigamy, and marry Sir Victor Catheron? It's of no use your riding the high horse with me, Ethel; you had better give me the five hundred—I'm sure I'm moderate enough—and let me go."
"I will not give you a farthing; and if you do not leave this place instantly, I will call my husband. Oh!" she burst forth, frantically, "between you and your sister you will drive me mad!"
"Will you give me the money?" asked Juan Catheron, folding his arms and turning sullen.
"I have not got it. What money have I?—and if I had, I say I would not give you a farthing. Begone! or—"
"You have diamonds." He pointed to her hands. "They will do—easily convertible in London. Hand them here, or, by all the gods, I'll blow the story of your bigamy all over England!"
"You will not!" she cried, her eyes flashing in the twilight—"you coward! you dare not! Sir Victor has you in his power, and he will keep his threat. Speak one word of that vile lie, and your tongue will be silenced in Chesholm jail. Leave me, I say!"—she stamped her foot passionately—"I am not afraid of you, Juan Catheron!"
"And you will not give me the jewels?"
"Not one—not to keep you from spreading your slander from end to end of England! Do your worst!—you cannot make me more wretched than I am. And go, or I will call for help, and see whether my husband has not courage to keep his word."
"You will not give me the rings?"
"Not to save your life! Hark! some one is coming! Now you will see which of us is afraid of the other!"
He stood looking at her, a dangerous gleam in his black eyes.
"Very well!" he said; "so be it! Don't trouble yourself to call your hero of a husband—I'm going. You're a plucky little thing after all, Ethel. I don't know but that I rather admire your spirit. Adieu, my dear, until we meet again."
He swung round, and vanished among the trees. He was actually singing as he went,
"To-day for me. To-morrow for thee— But will that to-morrow ever be?"
The last rustle of the laurels died away; all was still; the twilight was closing darkness, and, with a shudder, Ethel turned to go.
"But will that to-morrow ever be?"—the refrain of the doggerel rung in her ears. "Am I never to be free from this brother and sister?" she cried to herself, desperately, as she advanced to the house. "Am I never to be free from this bondage?"
As the last flutter of her white dress disappeared, Sir Victor Catheron emerged from the shadow of the trees, and the face, on which the rising moon shone, was white as the face of death.
IN THE MOONLIGHT.
He had not overheard a word, he had not tried to overhear; but he had seen them together—that was enough. He had reached the spot only a moment before their parting, and had stood confounded at sight of his wife alone here in the dusk with Juan Catheron.
He saw them part—saw him dash through the woodland, singing as he went—saw her turn away and walk rapidly to the house. She had come here to meet him, then, her former lover. He had not left Chesholm; he was lurking in the neighborhood of the Royals, and she knew it. She knew it. How many times had they met before—his wife and the man he abhorred—the man who claimed her as his wife. What if she were his wife? What if that plight pledged in the Scotch kirk were binding? She had loved Juan Catheron then. What if she loved him still? She had hidden it from him, until it could be hidden no longer—she had deceived him in the past, she was deceiving him in the present. So fair and so false, so innocent to all outward seeming. Yet so lost to all truth and honor.
He turned sick and giddy; he leaned against a tree, feeling as though he could never look upon her false face again. Yet the next moment he started passionately up.
"I will go to her," he thought; "I will hear what she has to say. If she voluntarily tells me, I must, I will believe her. If she is silent, I will take it as proof of her guilt."
He strode away to the house. As he entered, his man Edwards met him, and presented him a note.
"Brought by a groom from Powyss Place, Sir Victor," he said. "Squire Powyss has had a stroke."
The baronet tore it open—it was an impetuous summons from Lady Helena.
"The squire has had an attack of apoplexy. For Heaven's sake come at once."
He crushed it in his hand, and went into the dining-room. His wife was not there. He turned to the nursery; he was pretty sure of always finding her there.
She was there, bending over her baby, looking fair and sweet as the babe itself. Fair and sweet surely. Yet why, if innocent, that nervous start at sight of him—that frightened look in the blue eyes. The nurse stood at a distance, but he did not heed her.
"A summons from Powyss Place," he said; "the poor old squire has had a fit of apoplexy. This is the second within the year, and may prove fatal. I must go at once. It is not likely I shall return to-night."
She looked at him, startled by his deadly paleness; but then, perhaps, the summons accounted for that. She murmured her regrets, then bent again over her baby.
"You have nothing to say to me, Ethel, before I go?" he said, looking at her steadily.
She half-lifted her head, the words half-rose to her lips. She glanced at the distant nurse, who was still busy in the room, glanced at her husband's pale set face, and they died away again. Why detain him now in his haste and trouble? Why rouse his rage against Juan Catheron at this inopportune time? No, she would wait until to-morrow—nothing could be done now; then she would reveal that intrusion in the grounds.
"I have nothing to say, except good-by. I hope poor Mr. Powyss may not be so ill as you fear."
He turned away—a tumult of jealous rage within him. A deliberate lie he thought it; there could be no doubt of her guilt now. And yet, insanely inconsistent as it seems, he had never loved her more passionately than in that hour.
He turned to go without a word. He had reached the door. All at once he turned back, caught her in his arms almost fiercely, and kissed her again and again.