MRS. WILFRID WARD
Author of "One Poor Scruple," "Out of Due Time," etc.
G. P. Putnam's Sons New York and London The Knickerbocker Press 1909 Copyright, 1909 by G. P. Putnam's Sons The Knickerbocker Press, New York
I. THE AMAZING WILL 1
II. IN THE EVENING 13
III. "AS YOU HOPE TO BE FORGIVEN" 21
IV. THE WICKED WOMAN IN FLORENCE 32
V. "YOUR MOTHER'S DAUGHTER" 42
VI. MOLLY COMES OF AGE 55
VII. EDMUND GROSSE CONTINUES TO INTERFERE 68
VIII. AT GROOMBRIDGE CASTLE 78
IX. A LITTLE MORE THAN KIND 91
X. THE PET VICE 98
XI. THE THIN END OF A CLUE 109
XII. MOLLY'S NIGHT-WATCH 120
XIII. SIR DAVID'S MEMORY 126
XIV. MOLLY IN THE SEASON 136
XV. A POOR MAN'S DEATH 151
XVI. MOLLY'S LETTER TO HER MOTHER 165
XVII. THE BLIND CANON 173
XVIII. MADAME DANTERRE'S ANSWER 180
XIX. LADY ROSE'S SCRUPLE 187
XX. THE HEIRESS OF MADAME DANTERRE 194
XXI. AN INTERLUDE OF HAPPINESS 213
XXII. SOMETHING LIKE EVIDENCE 220
XXIII. THE USES OF DELIRIUM 231
XXIV. MRS. DELAPORT GREEN IN THE ASCENDANT 238
XXV. MOLLY AT COURT 243
XXVI. EDMUND IS NO LONGER BORED 249
XXVII. MOLLY'S APPEAL 256
XXVIII. DINNER AT TWO SHILLINGS 266
XXIX. THE RELIEF OF SPEECH 272
XXX. THE BIRTH OF A SLANDER 280
XXXI. THE NURSING OF A SLANDER 285
XXXII. ROSE SUMMONED TO LONDON 294
XXXIII. BROWN HOLLAND COVERS 304
XXXIV. THE WRATH OF A FRIEND 312
XXXV. THE CONDEMNATION OF MARK 322
XXXVI. MENE THEKEL PHARES 330
XXXVII. MARK ENTERS INTO TEMPTATION 339
XXXVIII. NO SHADOW OF A CLOUD 350
XXXIX. "WITHOUT CONDITION OR COMPROMISE" 357
THE AMAZING WILL
The memorial service for Sir David Bright was largely attended. Perhaps he was fortunate in the moment of his death, for other men, whose military reputations had been as high as his, were to go on with the struggle while the world wondered at their blunders. It was only the second of those memorial services for prominent men which were to become so terribly usual as the winter wore on. Great was the sympathy felt for the young widow at the loss of one so brave, so kindly, so popular among all classes.
Lady Rose Bright was quite young and very fair. She did not put on a widow's distinctive garments because Sir David had told her that he hated weeds. But she wore a plain, heavy cloak, and a long veil fell into the folds made by her skirts. The raiment of a gothic angel, an angel like those in the portico at Rheims, has these same straight, stern lines. "Black is sometimes as suggestive of white," was the reflection of one member of the congregation, "as white may be suggestive of mourning." Sir Edmund Grosse, who had known Rose from her childhood, felt some new revelation in her movements; there was a fuller development of womanhood in her walk, and there was a reserve, too, as of one consecrated and set apart. He heaved a deep sigh as she passed near him going down the church, and their eyes met. She had no shrinking in her bearing; her reserves were too deep for her to avoid an open meeting with other human eyes. She looked at Sir Edmund for a moment as if giving, rather than demanding, sympathy; and indeed, there was more trouble in his eyes than in hers.
The service had gone perilously near to Roman practices. It was among the first of those uncontrollable instinctive expressions of faith in prayer for the departed which were a marked note of English feeling during the Boer war. Questions as to their legality were asked in Parliament, but little heeded, for the heart of the nation, "for her children mourning," sought comfort in the prayers used by the rest of the Christian world.
Rose's mother went home with her and they talked, very simply and in sympathy, of the tributes to the soldier's memory. Then, when luncheon came and the servants were present, they spoke quietly of the work to be done for soldiers' wives and of a meeting the mother was to attend that afternoon. Lady Charlton was the mother one would expect Rose to have—indeed, such complete grace of courtliness and kindness points to an education. Afterwards, while they were alone, Lady Charlton, in broken sentences, sketched the future. She supposed Rose would stay on although the house was too big. Much good might be done in it. There could be no doubt as to how money must be spent this winter; and there were the services they both loved in the Church of the Fathers of St. Paul near at hand. Lady Charlton saw life in pictures and so did Rose. Neither of them broke through any reserve; neither of them was curious. It did not occur to Rose to wonder how her mother had lived and felt in her first days as a widow. Lady Charlton did not wonder how Rose felt now. Rose, she thought, was wonderful; life was full of mercies; there was so much to be thankful for; and could not those who had suffered be of great consolation to others in sorrow?
They arranged to meet at Evensong in St. Paul's Chapel, and then Lady Charlton would come back and stay the night. On the next day she was due at the house of her youngest married daughter.
Rose was presently left alone, and she cried quite simply. For a moment she thought of Edmund Grosse and the sadness in his eyes. Why had he not volunteered for the war? What a contrast!
A large photograph of Sir David in his general's uniform stood on the writing-table in the study downstairs. There were also a picture and a miniature in the drawing-room, but Rose thought she would like to look at the photograph again. It was the last that had been taken. Then too she would look over some of his things. She wanted little presents for his special friends; nothing for its own value, but because the hero had used them. And she would like to bring the big photograph upstairs.
The study, usually cold and deserted since the master had gone away, was bright with a large fire. Rose did not know that it was an expression of sympathy from the under-housemaid, whose lover was at the war. But when she stood opposite the big photograph of the fine manly face and figure, and the large open eyes looked so straight into hers, she shrank a little. Something in the room made her shrink into herself. Her eyes rested on the Victoria Cross in the photograph, on the medals that had covered his breast. "I shall have them all," she said, and then she faltered a little. She had faltered in that room before now; she had often shrunk into herself when the intensely courteous voice had asked her as she came into his study what she wanted. She blamed herself gently now, and for two opposite reasons: she blamed herself because she had wanted what she had not got, and she blamed herself because she had not done more to get it. "He was always so gentle, so courteous. I ought to have been quite, quite happy. And why didn't I break through our reserve, and then we might——" Dimly she felt, but she did not want to own it to herself, that she had married him as a hero-worshipper. She had reverenced him more than she loved him. "I ought not to have done it," she thought, "but I meant what was right, and I could have loved him—— Oh, I did love him afterwards—only I never could tell him, and——" Further thoughts led the way to irreverence, even to something worse. They were wrong thoughts, thoughts against faith and truth and right; there was no place for such thoughts in Rose's heart. She moved now, and opened drawers and dusted and put together a few things—paper-knives, match-boxes, a writing-case, a silver sealing-wax holder, and so on; the occupation interested and soothed her. She had the born mystic's love of little kind actions, little presents, things treasured as symbols of the union of spirits, all the more because of their slight material value. Then, too, the child element, which is in every good woman, gave a zest to the occupation and made it restful.
Lady Rose had put several small relics in a row on the edge of the lower part of the big mahogany bookcase, and was counting on her fingers the names of the friends for whom they were intended. Her grief was sufficiently real to make her, perhaps, overestimate the number of those to whom such relics would be precious. A tender smile was on her lips at the recollection of an old soldier servant of Sir David's who had been with him in Egypt. She hesitated a moment between two objects—one, a good silver-mounted leather purse, and the other an inkstand of brass and marble. These two things were the recipients of her unjust aversion for long after that moment.
Simmonds, the butler, opened the door, quite certain that the visitor he announced must be admitted, and conscious of the fitness of the big study for his reception. It was Sir David's solicitor. But the butler was disappointed at the manner of his entrance. He did not analyse the disappointment. He was half conscious of the fact that the role of the family lawyer on the occasion was so simple and easy. He would himself have assumed a degree of pomp, of sympathy, of respect, carrying a subdued implication that he brought solid consolation in his very presence. Simmonds grieved truly for Sir David, but he felt, too, the blank caused by the absence of all funeral arrangements in a death at the war. He had been butler in more than one house of mourning before, and he knew all his duties in that capacity. After this he would know how to be butler in the event of death in battle. But now, when the memorial service had taken, in a poor sort of way, the place of the funeral, of course the solicitor ought to come, and past deficiencies could be overlooked. Why, then, should the man prove totally unequal to his task? Mr. Murray, Junior, had usually a much better manner than to-day. Perhaps he was startled at being shown at once into the widow's presence. Probably he might have expected to wait a few moments in the big study, while Simmonds went to seek his mistress.
But there was Lady Rose turning round from the bookcase as they came in. Mr. Murray stooped to-day, and his large head was bent downwards, making it the more evident that the drops of perspiration stood out upon his brow. He cast a look almost of fear at the fair face with its gentle, benignant expression. He had seen Rose once or twice before, and he knew the old-fashioned type of great lady when he met it. Was it of Rose's gentle, subtle dignity that he was afraid?
Rose drew up a chair on one side of the big square writing-table, and signed to him to take the leather arm-chair where he had last seen Sir David Bright seated. Mr. Murray plunged into his subject with an abruptness proportioned to the immense time he had taken during the morning in preparing a diplomatic opening.
"May I ask, first of all," he said, "whether you have found any will, or any document looking like a will, besides the one I have with me?"
"No," said Lady Rose in surprise, "there are no papers of any importance here, I believe; there is nothing in the house under lock and key. Sir David gave me a few rings and studs to put away, but he never cared for jewellery, and there is nothing of value."
"And do you think he can have executed any other will or written a letter that might be of use to us now?"
Rose looked still more surprised. Mr. Murray held some papers in his hand that shook as if the wintry wind outside were trying to blow them away. Rose tried not to watch them, and it teased her that she could not help doing so. The hand that held them was not visible above the table. Mr. Murray struggled to keep to the most absolutely business-like and unemotional side of his professional manner, but his obviously extreme discomfort was infectious, and Rose's calm of manner was already disturbed.
"I cannot but think, Lady Rose, that some papers may be forwarded to you through the War Office." He hesitated. "You had no marriage settlements?" he then asked abruptly.
"No, there were no settlements," said Rose. She spoke quickly and nervously. "We did not think them necessary. Sir David offered to make them, but just then he was ordered abroad and there was very little time, and my mother and I did not think it of enough importance to make us delay the wedding. It was shortly after my father's death." She paused a moment, and then went on, as if speech were a relief.
"You know that, when we married, Sir David had no reason to expect that he would ever be a rich man. We hardly knew the Steele cousins, and only had a vague idea that Mr. John Steele had been making money on the Stock Exchange. When he left his fortune to Sir David, who was his first cousin, and, in fact, his nearest relation, my mother did ask me if my husband intended to make his will. More than once after that she tried to persuade me to speak to him about it, but I disliked the subject too much."
Mr. Murray looked as if he wished that Lady Rose would go on talking; he seemed to expect more from her, but, as nothing more came, he made a great effort and plunged into the subject.
"The will I have here"—he held up the papers as he spoke—"was, in fact, made a few months after Sir David inherited Mr. John Steele's large fortune, and there was no subsequent alteration to it, but this time last year we were directed to make a codicil to this will, and I was away at the time. My brother, who is my senior partner, ventured to urge Sir David to make a new will altogether, but he declined."
There was silence in the room for some moments. Mr. Murray leant over the writing-table now, and both hands were occupied in smoothing out the papers before him.
"It is the worst will I have ever come across," he said quite suddenly, the professional manner gone and the vehemence of a strong mind in distress breaking through all conventionality. Rose drew herself up and looked at him coldly. In that moment she completely regained her self-possession.
"It is absolutely inexplicable," he went on, with a great effort at self-control. "Sir David Bright leaves this house and L800 a year to you, Lady Rose, for your lifetime, and a few gifts to friends and small legacies to old servants." He paused. Rose, with slightly heightened colour, spoke very quietly.
"Then the fortune was much smaller than was supposed?"
"It was larger, far larger than any one knew; but it is all left away."
Rose was disturbed and frankly sorry, but not by any means miserable. She knew life, and did not dislike wealth, and had had dreams of much good that might be done with it.
"To whom is it left?" she asked.
"After the small legacies I mentioned are paid off, the bulk of the fortune goes"—the lawyer's voice became more and more business-like in tone—"to Madame Danterre, a lady living in Florence."
"And unless anything is sent to me from South Africa, this will is law?"
Rose covered her face with her hands; she did not move for several moments. It would not have surprised Mr. Murray to know that she was praying. Presently she raised her face and looked at him with troubled eyes, but absolute dignity of bearing.
"And the codicil?"
"The codicil directs that if you continue to live in this house——"
Rose made a little sound of surprised protest.
"——the ground rent, all rates, and all taxes are to be paid. A sum much larger than can be required is left for this purpose, and it can also be spent on decorating or furnishing, or in any way be used for the house and garden. It is an elaborate affair, going into every detail."
"Should I be able to let the house?"
"For a period of four months, not longer. But should you refuse to live in this house, this sum will go with the bulk of the fortune. We had immediate application on behalf of Madame Danterre from a lawyer in Florence as soon as the news of the death reached us. It seems that she has a copy of the will."
"Has she"—Rose hesitated, and then repeated, "Has Madame Danterre any children?"
"I do not know," said Mr. Murray. "Beyond paying considerable sums to this lawyer from time to time for her benefit, we have known nothing about her. There has been also a large annual allowance since the year when Sir David came into his cousin's fortune." There was another silence, and then Mr. Murray spoke in a more natural way, though it was impossible to conceal all the sympathy that was filling his heart with an almost murderous wrath.
"After all, the General had plenty of time before starting for the war to arrange his affairs; he was not a man who would neglect business. I came here with a faint hope—or I tried to think it was a hope—that you might have another will in the house. I'm afraid this—document represents Sir David Bright's last wishes." There was a ring of indignant scorn in his voice.
Rose looked through the window on to the thin black London turf outside, and her eyes were blank from the intensity of concentration. She had no thought for the lawyer; if he had been sympathetic even to impertinence she would not have noticed it.
She was questioning her own instincts, her perceptions. No, it was almost more as if she were emptying her mind of any conscious action that her whole power of instinctive perception might have play. When the blow had fallen, her only surprise had been to find that she was not surprised, not astonished. It seemed as if she had known this all the time, for the thing had been alongside of her for years, she had lived too close to it for any surprise when it raised its head and found a name. Her reasoning powers indeed asked with astonishment why she was not surprised. She could not explain, the symptoms of the thing that had haunted her had been too subtle, too elusive, too minute to be brought forward now as witnesses. But while the lawyer looked at the open face and the large eyes, and the frank bearing of the figure in the photograph, and felt that outer man to have been the disguise of a villain, Rose, the victim, knew better. It was a supreme proof of the clear vision of her soul that she was not surprised, and that, even while she seemed to be flayed morally and exposed to things evil and of shame, she did not judge with blind indignation. He had not been wholly bad, he had not been callous in his cruelty; what he had been there would be time to understand—time for the delicacies, almost for the luxuries of forgiveness. What she was feeling after now was a point of view above passion and pain from which to judge this final opinion of the lawyer's, from which to know whether Sir David had left another will.
"There has been another will," she said very gently, "but, of course, it is more than likely that it will never be found. I am convinced"—she looked at the black and green turf all the time, and obviously spoke to herself, not to Mr. Murray—"that he did not intend to leave me to open shame"—the words were gently but very distinctly pronounced—"or to leave a scandal round his own memory. Perhaps he carried another will about with him, and if so it may be sent to me. Somehow I don't think this will happen. I think the will you have in your hand is the only one I shall ever see, but I do not therefore judge him of having faced death with the intention of spoiling my life. I shall live in this house and I shall honour his memory; he died for his country, and I am his widow."
That was all she could say on the subject then, and she could only just ask Mr. Murray if he could see her again any time the next morning. After answering that question the lawyer went silently away.
Rose stood by the table where he had sat a moment before, looking long and steadfastly at the photograph. She looked at the open face, she looked at the military bearing, she looked at the Victoria Cross,—it had been the amazing courage shown in that story that had really won her,—she looked, too, at the many medals. She had been with him once in a moment of peril in a fire and had seen the unconscious pride with which he always answered to the call of danger. She had, too, seen him bear acute pain as if that had been his talent, the thing he knew how to do.
"Ah, poor David!" she said softly. "What did she do to frighten you? Poor, poor David, you were always a coward!"
IN THE EVENING
But this was a trial to search out every part of Rose's nature. She had too much faith for sickness, death, or even terrible physical pain, to be to her in any sense a poisoned wound. There are women like Rose whose inner life can only be in peril from the pain and shame of the sin of others. To them it is an intolerable agony to be troubled in their faith in man.
Lady Charlton, swept out of the calm belonging to years of gentle actions and ideal thoughts into a storm of indignation and horror, might have lost all dignity and discretion if she had not been checked by reverence for the dumb anguish and misery of her favourite daughter. She had some notion of the thoughts that must pass in Rose's mind, now dull and heavy, now alert and inflicting sudden deep incisions into the quivering soul. Marriage had been to them both very sacred. They hated, beyond most good women, anything that seemed to materialise or lower the ideal. If there can be imagined a scale of standards for the relations of men and women, of which Zola had not touched the extremity at one end, the first place at the other extremity might be assigned to such Englishwomen as Rose and her mother. The most subtle and amazingly high motives had been assigned to Lord Charlton's most ordinary actions, and happily he had been so ordinary a person that no impossible shock had been given to the ideal built up about him. And it had not been difficult or insincere to carry on something of the same illusion with regard to the man who had won the Victoria Cross and had been very popular with Tommy Atkins. David Bright's very reserves, the closed doors in his domestic life, did not prevent, and indeed in some ways helped, the process. The mother had known in the depth of her heart that Rose was lonely, but then she was childless. Rose had never, even in moments when the nameless mystery that was in her home oppressed her most in its dull, voiceless way, tried to tell her mother what she did not herself understand. Sir David had been courteous, gentle, attentive, but never happy. Rose knew now that he had always been guiltily afraid.
Lady Charlton had had a few moments' warning of disaster, for she was horrified at the change in Rose's face when she met her at the door of the church after Evensong. She herself had been utterly soothed and rested by the beauty of the service. There was so much that fitted in with all her ideals in mourning the great soldier. Little phrases about him and about Rose flitted through her mind. Widows were widows indeed to Lady Charlton. Rose would live now chiefly for Heaven and to soothe the sorrows of earth. She did not say to herself that Rose would not be broken-hearted and crushed, nor did she take long views. If years hence Rose were to marry again her mother could make another picture in which Sir David would recede into the background. Now he was her hero whom Rose mourned, and whose loss had consecrated her more entirely to Heaven; then he would unconsciously become in her mother's eyes a much older man whom Rose had married almost as a child. There would be nothing necessarily to mar the new picture if all else were fitting.
But the peace of gentle sorrow had left Rose's face, and it wore a look her mother had never seen on it before. The breath of evil was close upon her; it had penetrated very near, so near that she seemed evil to herself as it embraced her. She was too dazed, too confused to remember that Divine purity had been enclosed in that embrace. What terrified her most was the thought that had suddenly come that possibly the unknown woman in Florence had been the real lawful wife, and that her own marriage had been a sin, a vile pretence and horror. For the first time in her life the grandest words of confidence that have expressed and interpreted the clinging faith of humanity seemed an unreality. Rose had never known the faintest temptation to doubt Providence before this miserable evening. She resented with her whole being the idea that possibly she had been the cause of the grossest wrong to an injured wife. And there was ground in reason for such a fear, for it seemed difficult to believe that any claim short of that of a wife could have frightened Sir David into such a course. The other and more common view, that it was because he had loved his mistress throughout, did not appeal to her. Vice had for her few recognisable features; she had no map for the country of passion, no precedents to refer to. It seemed to Rose most probable that Sir David had believed his first wife to be dead when he married her; that, on finding he was mistaken, his courage had failed, and that he had carried on a gigantic scheme of bribery to prevent her coming forward. This view was in one sense a degree less painful, as it would make him innocent of the first great deception, the huge lie of making love to her as if he were a free man. The depths and extent of her misery could be measured by the strange sense of a bitter gladness invading the very recesses of her maternal instinct, and replacing what had been the heartfelt sorrow of six years. "It is a mercy I have no child!" she cried, and the cry seemed to herself almost blasphemous.
When she came out of the church it was raining, and the wind blowing. It was only a short walk to her own house, and she and her mother had made a rule not to take out servants and the carriage for their devotions. She would have walked on in total silence, but her mother could not bear the suspense.
"Rose, what is it?" she cried, in a tone of authority and intense anxiety. After all it might be easier to answer now as they battled with the rain.
"I don't know how to tell you, mother. Mr. Murray has been with me and shown me the will. There was some one all the time who had some claim on him. She may have been his real wife—I know nothing except that since we have had John Steele's fortune David has always paid her an income and now has left her a very great deal and me very little. That would not matter—God knows it is not the poverty that hurts—but the thing itself, the horror, the shame, the publicity. I mind it all, everything, more than I ought. I——" She stopped, not a word more would come.
Lady Charlton could only make broken sounds of incredulous horror. When they crossed the brilliantly lighted hall the mother suddenly seemed much older, and Rose, for the first time, bore all the traces of a great, an overpowering sorrow.
"It wasn't natural to be so calm," thought the maid, who had been with her since her girlhood, as she helped her to take off her cloak. "She didn't understand at first. It's coming over her now, poor dear, and indeed he was a real gentleman, and such a husband! Never a harsh word—not one—that I ever heard, at least."
It was some time before Lady Charlton could be brought to believe it all, and then at first she was overwhelmed with self-blame. Her mind fastened chiefly on the fact that she had allowed the marriage without settlements. Then the next thought was the horror of the publicity, the way in which this dreadful woman must be heard of and talked about. Lady Charlton's broken sentences had almost the feebleness of extreme old age that cannot accept as true what it cannot understand. "It seems impossible, quite impossible," she said. She was very tired, and Rose wished it had been practicable to keep this knowledge from her till later. She knew that her mother was one of those highly-strung women whose nerve power is at its best quite late at night. As it was, Lady Charlton had to dress for dinner and sit as upright as usual through the meal, and to talk a little before the servants. Rose appeared the more dazed of the two then, though her mind had been quite clear before. There was nothing said as soon as they were alone, but, as if with one accord, both glanced at each of the many letters brought by the last post, and, if it were one of condolence, laid it aside unread. The butler had placed on a small table two evening papers, which had notices of the memorial service for Sir David Bright, and one had some lines "In Memoriam" from a poet of considerable repute. Rose, finding the papers at her elbow, got up and changed her chair. It was not till they had gone up to their rooms and parted that Lady Charlton felt speech to be possible. She wrapped her purple dressing-gown round her and went into Rose's room. She found her sitting in a low chair by the fire leaning forward, her elbows pressed on her knees, her face buried in her hands. Then, very quietly and impersonally, they discussed the situation. With a rare self-command the mother never used one expression of reprobation; if she had done so, Rose could not have spoken again. It seemed more and more, as they spoke in the two gentle voices, so much alike in tone and accent, in a half pathetic, half musical intonation; it seemed as they sat so quietly without tears, almost without gestures, as if they discussed the story of another woman and another man. There were some differences in their views, and the mother's was ever the hardest on the dead man. For instance, Rose believed through all that another will existed, although she was convinced that she should never see it. Her mother's judgment coincided with the lawyer's; the soldier would have made the change, if it were made at all, before starting for the war. No, the whole thing had been too recently gone into; it was so short a time since the codicil had been added. Of that codicil, too, Lady Charlton's view was quite clear. She thought the object of adding it had been to save appearances. "As long as you live in this house, furnished as well as possible, people will forget the wording of the will, or they will think that money was given to you in his lifetime to escape the death duties."
Like many idealists and even mystics, both mother and daughter took sensible views on money matters. They did not undervalue the fortune that had gone; they were both honestly sorry it had gone, and would have taken any reasonable means to get it back again. Only Rose allowed that possibly there might have been some claim in justice on the woman's part; she could not frame her lips to use the words again. Without "legal wife" or any such terms passing between them, they were really arguing the point. Lady Charlton had not the faintest shadow of a doubt "the woman was a wicked woman, and the wicked woman, as wicked women do, had entrapped a" (the adjective was conspicuous by its absence) "a man." Such a woman was to be forgiven, even—a bitter sigh could not be suppressed—to be prayed for; but it was not necessary to try to take a falsely charitable view of her, or invent unlikely circumstances in her defence. It was a relief to the darkest of all dark thoughts in Rose's mind, the doubt of the validity of her own marriage, to hear her mother settling this question as she had settled so many questions years ago, by the weight of personal authority.
At last the clock on the stairs below told them that it was two in the morning, and Lady Charlton had to leave London by an early train. She was torn between the claim of her youngest married daughter, who was laid up in a lonely country house in Scotland, and that of Rose in this new and miserable trouble.
"I could telegraph to Bertha that I can't come," she said suddenly. "But I am afraid she would miss me."
"No, no," murmured Rose firmly, "Bertha needs you most now; you must go," and then, fearing her mother might think she did not want her quite, quite enough, "I shall look forward to your coming back soon, very soon."
"Could you—could you come and sleep in my room, Rose?" They were standing up by the fireplace now.
"If you like mother, only it will be worse for me to-morrow night." They both looked away from the fire round the room—the room that had been hers since the first days after the honeymoon.
Then at the same moment Lady Charlton opened her arms and Rose drew within them, and leant her fair head on her mother's shoulder. So they stood for a few moments in absolute stillness.
"God bless you, my child," and Rose was left, as she wished, alone.
"AS YOU HOPE TO BE FORGIVEN"
Two months passed, and at last the War Office received a parcel for Lady Rose Bright. It had been sent to headquarters by the next officer in command under Sir David, who had met his own fate a few weeks later. Rose received the parcel at tea-time, brought to her by a mounted messenger from the War Office.
A great calm had settled in Rose's soul during these weeks. She had met her trouble alone and standing. At first, all had been utter darkness and bitter questioning. Then the questioning had ceased. Even the wish to have things clear to her mind and to know why she should have this particular trial was silenced, and in the completeness of submission she had come back to life and to peace. Nothing was solved, nothing made clear, but she was again in the daylight. But when she received the little parcel in its thick envelope she trembled excessively. It was addressed in a handwriting she had never seen before. She could not for some moments force herself to open it. When she did she drew out a faded photograph, a diamond ring, and a sheet of paper with writing in ink. The photograph was of Sir David as quite a young man—she had never seen it before; the ring had one very fine diamond, and that she had never seen before. On the paper was written in his own hand.—
"This will be brought to you if I die in battle. Forgive me, as you too hope to be forgiven. Justice had to be done. I have tried to make it as little painful as I could."
That was all. There was nothing else in the envelope. She took up the photograph, she took up the ring, and examined them in turn. It was so strange, this very remarkable diamond, which she had never seen before, sent to her as if it were a matter of course. He had never worn much jewellery, and he had left in her care the few seals and rings he possessed. Then the photograph of her husband as a young man, so much younger than when she had known him. Why send it to her now? What had she to do with this remote past? But the paper was the most astonishing of all. She had been standing when she undid the things; she left the ring and the photograph on the table, and she sank into a chair near the fire holding the bit of paper. The tone of it astonished and confused her. It was more the stern moralist asking to be forgiven for doing right than the guilty husband asking for mercy in her thoughts of him.
"Yes," thought Rose at length, "that is because she was his wife, and when he came to face death it was the great wrong of infidelity to her that haunted him. I must have seemed almost a partner in the wrong."
Again the confused sense of guilt seized her, the horrible possibility of having been a wife only in name. She did not weigh the matter calmly enough to feel quite as distinctly as she ought to have done that she could not be touched or denied in the faintest degree by a sin that was not her sin. Still she raised her head as she could not have done some weeks before; for the most acute phase of her trial had been faced and had been passed. Now in her moments of most bitter pain in the very depths of her soul was peace. As she became calmer she tried again to connect together those three parts of the message from the battle-field, the ring, the photograph, and the letter; but she could not do so. At last she put them away in the drawer of her bureau, and then wrote to tell her mother and the lawyer that Sir David had sent her a photograph, a ring, and a few private lines—that was all. There was no will.
Still everything had not been brought back. There had been portmanteaux sent down to Capetown, and there might yet be discovered a small despatch box, or a writing case, something or other that might hold a will. But the limit of time was reached at last; the portmanteaux and a despatch box were recovered, but they held no will.
The solicitor delayed to the last possible moment, and then the will was proved. It was published in the papers at a moment when a lull in the war gave leisure for private gossip, and the gossip accordingly raged hotly. All the sweetness, gentleness, and kindness that made Rose deservedly popular did not prevent there being two currents of opinion. There are wits so active that they cannot share the views of all right-minded people. While the majority sympathised deeply with Rose, there were a few who insinuated that she must be to some degree to blame for what had happened.
"Well, don't you know, I never could understand why she married a man so much older than herself. Of course she had not a penny and he was awfully rich, and people don't look too close into a man's character in such cases. It is rather convenient for some women to be very innocent."
Sir Edmund Grosse, to whom the remark was addressed at a small country house party, turned his back for a moment on the speaker in order to pick up a paper, and then said in a low, indifferent voice: "David Bright came into his cousin's fortune unexpectedly a year after he married Lady Rose."
The subject was dropped that time, but he met it again in somewhat the same terms in London. There seemed a sort of vague impression that Lady Rose had married for the sake of the wealth she had lost. Also at his club there was talk he did not like, not against Rose indeed, but dwelling on the other side of the story, and he hated to hear Rose's name connected with it. People forgot his relationship, and after all he was only a second cousin.
Edmund Grosse was at this time just over forty. He was a tall, loosely built man, with rather a colourless face, with an expression negative in repose, and faintly humorous when speaking. He was rich and supposed to be lazy; he knew his world and had lived it in and for it systematically. Some one had said that he took all the frivolous things of life seriously and all the serious things frivolously. He could advise on the choice of a hotel or a motor-car with intense earnestness, and he had healed more than one matrimonial breach that threatened to become tragic by appealing to the sense of humour in both parties. He never took for granted that anybody was very good or very bad. The best women possible liked him, and looked sorry and incredulous when they were informed by his enemies that he had no morals. He had never told any one that he was sad and bored. Nor had he ever thought it worth while to mention that he had indifferent health and knew what it was to suffer pain. If such personal points were ever approached by his friends they found that he did not dwell upon them. He had the air of not being much interested in himself.
For a long time he had felt no acute sensations of any kind; he had believed them to belong to youth and that was past. But that matter of David Bright's will had stirred him to the very depths. He spent solitary hours in cursing the departed hero, and people found him tiresome and taciturn in company.
At last he determined to meddle in Rose's concerns, and he went to see Mr. Murray, Junior, at his office. There ensued some pretty plain speaking as to the late hero between the two men. Edmund Grosse half drawled out far the worst comments of the two; he liked the lawyer and let himself speak freely. And although the visit was apparently wholly unproductive of other results, it was a decided relief to his feelings. Then he heard that Rose had come back to London, and he went to see her. It was about nine months since she had become a widow. She was alone in the big beautifully furnished drawing-room, which was just as of old. Except that a neat maid had opened the door, instead of a butler, he saw no change.
Rose looked a little nervous for a moment, and then frankly pleased to see him. Edmund always had a talent for seeming to be as natural in any house as if he were the husband or the brother or part of the furniture. Somehow, as Rose gave him tea and they settled into a chat, she felt as if he had been there very often lately, whereas in fact she had not seen him since David died, except at the memorial service. He began to tell her what visits he had paid, whom he had seen, the little gossip he expressed so well in his gentle, sleepy voice; and then he drew her on as to her own interests, her charities, her work for the soldiers' wives. He said nothing more that day, but he dropped in again soon, and then again.
At last one evening he observed quite quietly, in a pause in their talk: "So you live here on L800 a year?"
Rose did not feel annoyed, though she did not know why she was not angry.
"Yes, I can manage," she said simply.
"You can't tell yet; it's too soon." He got up out of his low chair near the fireplace, now filled with plants, and stood with his back against the chimney. "You know it's absurd," he said. Rose moved uneasily and was silent.
"It's absurd," he repeated, "there's another will somewhere. David would never have done that." He struck that note at the start, and cursed David all the deeper in the depths of his diplomatic soul. Rose looked at him gratefully, kindly.
"I think there is another will somewhere," she said, "but I am sure it will never be found. It's no use to think or talk of it, Edmund."
He fidgeted for a moment with the china on the chimney-piece.
"For 'auld lang syne,' Rose," he said in a very low voice, "and because you might possibly, just possibly, have made something of me if you had chosen, let me know a little more about it. I want to see what was in his last letter."
Rose flushed deeply. It was difficult to say why she yielded except that most people did yield to Grosse if he got them alone. She drew off the third finger of her left hand a very remarkable diamond ring and gave it to him. Then she took out of a drawer a faded photograph of a young, commonplace, open-faced officer, now framed in an exquisite stamped leather case, and handed that to him also. He saw that she hesitated.
"May I have the rest," he said very gently. Even her mother had never seen the piece of paper. No, she could not show that. Edmund did not insist further, and a moment later he seemed to have forgotten that she had not given him what he asked for.
"Did he often wear this ring?"
"Never. I never saw it till now, and I had never seen the photograph."
"It was taken in India," he commented, "and the ring has a date twenty years ago."
"I never noticed that," said Rose. She was feeling half consciously soothed and relieved as a child might feel comforted who had found a companion in a room that was haunted.
"Things from such a remote past," he murmured abstractedly. "Did he explain in writing why he sent those things?"
"No, he said nothing about them, he only——" she paused. Edmund did not move, and in a few moments she gave him the paper. He ground his teeth as he read it, he grew white about the lips, but he said nothing. He was horribly disappointed—the scoundrel asked for forgiveness. Then he had not made another will. Edmund did not look round at Rose, but she was acutely present to his consciousness—the woman's beauty, the child's innocence, the suffering and the strength in her face. "As you would be forgiven!" That was a further insult, it seemed to him. To talk of Rose wanting forgiveness. Then a strange kind of sarcasm took hold of him. So it was; she had not been able to believe in himself; he, Edmund, had not been ideal in any sense. Therefore she had passed him by, and then a hero had come whom she had worshipped, and this was the end of it. Every word in the paper burnt into him. "Justice"—how dared he? "Made it as little painful as he could"—it was insufferable, and the coward was beyond reach, had taken refuge whither human vengeance could not follow him.
He succeeded in leaving Rose's house without betraying his feelings, but he felt that no good had come of this attempt, so far at any rate. That night he slept badly, which he did pretty often, but he experienced an unusual sensation on waking. He felt as if he had been working hard and in vain all night at a problem, and he suddenly said to himself, "The ring, the photograph, and the paper were of course meant for the other woman, and she has got whatever was meant for Rose. Now if the thing that was meant for Rose was the will, Madame Danterre has got it now unless she has had the nerve to destroy it." He felt as if he had been an ass till this moment. Then he went to see Mr. Murray, Junior, who listened with profound attention until he had finished what he had to tell him.
"Lady Rose has allowed you to see the paper, then?" he said at last. "She has not even shown it to Lady Charlton. He asked her pardon," he mused, half to himself, "and said justice must be done. I am afraid, Sir Edmund, that that points in the same direction as our worst fears—that Madame Danterre was his wife."
"But he would not have written such a letter as that to Rose; it is impossible. 'Forgive as you too hope to be forgiven.' That sentence in connection with Lady Rose is positively grotesque, whereas it would be most fitting when addressed elsewhere."
Mr. Murray could not see the case in the same light as Edmund. He allowed the possibility of the scrap of paper and the ring having been sent to Rose by mistake, but he was not inclined to indulge in what seemed to him to be guesswork as to what conceivably had been intended to be sent to her in place of them.
"There is, too," he argued, "a quite possible interpretation of the words of that scrap of paper. It is possible that he was full of remorse for his treatment of Madame Danterre. Sometimes a man is haunted by wrong-doing in the past until it prevents his understanding the point of view of anybody but the victim of the old haunting sin. Remorse is very exclusive, Sir Edmund. In such a state of mind he would hardly think of Lady Rose enough to realise the bearing of his words. 'Forgive as you too hope to be forgiven' would be an appeal wrung out from him by sheer suffering. It is a possible cry from any human being to another. Then as to the ring and the photograph, we have no proof that he put them in the envelope. They may have been found on him and put into the envelope by the same hand that addressed it. I quite grant you that those few words are extraordinary, but they can be explained. But even if it were obvious that they were intended for somebody else, you cannot deduce from that, that another letter, intended for Lady Rose and containing a will, was sent elsewhere."
But Sir Edmund was obstinate. The piece of paper had been intended for Madame Danterre, together with the ring and the photograph—things belonging to Sir David's early life, to the days when he most probably loved this other woman; he even went so far as to maintain that the lady in Florence had given Sir David the ring.
"After all," said Mr. Murray, "what can you do? You could only raise hopes that won't be fulfilled."
"I think myself that my explanation would calm my cousin's mind; the possibility that she was not Sir David's wife is, I am convinced, the most painful part of the trial to her. I shall write it to her, but I shall also tell her that there is no hope whatever of proving what I believe to be the truth."
"None at all; do impress that upon her, Sir Edmund. We have nothing to begin upon. The officer who sent the paper to headquarters is dead; Sir David's own servant is dead; Sir David's will in favour of Madame Danterre has been published without even a protest."
"Lady Rose will not be inclined to raise the question."
"No, I believe that is true," said the lawyer; "Lady Rose Bright is a wise woman."
But Mr. Murray was annoyed to find that Edmund Grosse was far less wise, and that whatever he might promise to say to Rose he would not really be content to leave things alone. He intended to go to Florence and to get into touch with Madame Danterre. Such interference could do no good, and it might do harm.
"I won't alarm her," said Edmund, "believe me, she will have no reason to suppose that I am in Florence on her account. I am, in any case, going to the Italian lakes this autumn, and I have often been offered the loan of a flat overlooking the Arno. If the offer is still open I shall accept it. I have long wished to know that fascinating town a little better."
When Rose received the letter from Edmund it had the effect he had expected. It was simply calming, not exciting. Rose was even more anxious than the lawyer that nothing should be attempted in order to follow up her cousin's suggestion. But she could now let her imagination be comforted by Edmund's solution of the mystery, and let her fancy rest in the thought of a very different letter intended for herself. The words on that scrap of paper no longer burnt with such agony into her soul, and she no longer felt it a dreadful duty to wear the ring with its glorious stone so full of light, an object that was to her intensely repugnant. She would put it away, and with it all dark and morbid thoughts. She had a life to lead, thoughts to think, actions to do, and all that was in her own control must escape from the shadow of the past into a working daylight.
THE WICKED WOMAN IN FLORENCE
Edmund Grosse's friend was delighted to put the flat in the Palazzo at his disposal. The weather was unusually warm for the autumn when Edmund arrived in Florence. He was glad to get there, and glad to get away from the gay group he had left in a beautiful villa on Lake Como; and probably they were glad to see him go.
Edmund had indeed only stayed with them long enough to leave a very marked impression of low spirits and irritation. "What's come to Grosse?" was asked by more than one guest of the hostess.
"I don't know, but he really is impossible. It's partly because of Billy—but I won't condescend to explain that Billy proposed himself and I could not well refuse."
Billy is the only one of this gay, quarrelsome little group that need be named here. It was really partly on his account that Edmund so quickly left them to their gossip alternating with happy phrases of joy in the beauty of mountains and lakes, and to their quarrels alternating with moments of love-making, so avowedly brief that only an artist could believe in its exquisite enjoyment. Neither Edmund nor Billy were really habitues of this Bohemian circle. They both belonged to a more conventional social atmosphere; they were at once above and below the rest of the party. The cause of antipathy to Billy on Sir Edmund's part was a certain likeness in their lives—contrasting with a most marked dissimilarity of character.
Sir Edmund could not say that Billy was a fool or a snob, because Billy did nothing but lead a perfectly useless life as expensively as possible; and he did the same himself. He could not even say that Billy lived among fools and snobs, because many of Billy's friends were his own friends too. He could not say that Billy had been a coward because he had not volunteered to fight in the Boer war, because Sir Edmund had not volunteered himself. He could not say that Billy employed the wrong tailor; it would show only gross ignorance or temper to say so. But just the things in which he felt himself superior, utterly different in fact from Billy, were the stupid, priggish things that no one boasts of. He read a good deal; he thought a good deal; he knew he might have had a future, and the bitterness of his heart lay in the fact that at fifteen years later in life than Billy he was still so completely a slave to all that Billy loved. Every detail of their lives seemed to add to the irritation. It was only the day he left London that he had discovered that Billy's new motor was from the same maker as his own; in fact, except in colour, the motors were twins. This was the latest, and not even the least, cause of annoyance. For it betrayed what he was always trying to conceal from himself, that there appeared to be an actual rivalry between him and Billy, a petty, social, silly rivalry. Billy, of simpler make, a fresher, younger, more contented animal, thought little of all this, and was irritated by Sir Edmund's assumption of superiority.
But he had never found Grosse so bearish and difficult before this visit to Como. As a rule Edmund was suavity itself, but this time even his gift of gently, almost imperceptibly, making every woman feel him to be her admirer was failing. How often he had been the life of any party in any class of society, and that not by starting amusements, not by any power of initiation, but by a gift for making others feel pleased, first with themselves, and consequently with life. He could bring the gift to good use on a royal yacht, at a Bohemian supper party, at a schoolroom tea, or at a parish mothers' meeting. But now—and he owned that his liver was out of order—he was suffering from a general disgust with things. When still a young man in the Foreign Office he had succeeded to a large fortune, and it had seemed then thoroughly worth while to employ it for social ends and social joys. Long ago he had attained those ends, and long ago he had become bored with those joys; and yet he could not shake himself free from any of the habits of body or mind he had got into during those years. He could not be indifferent to any shades of failure or success. He watched the temperature of his popularity as acutely as many men watch their bodily symptoms. Even during those days at Como, though despising his company, he knew that he felt a distinct irritation in a preference for Billy on the part of a lady whom he had at one time honoured with his notice. In arriving where he was in the English social world, he had increased, not only the need for luxury of body, but the sensitiveness and acuteness of certain perceptions as to his fellow creatures, and these perceptions were not likely to slumber again.
Edmund was oppressed by several unpleasant thoughts as well as by the heat of the night on which he arrived in Florence. He decided to sleep out in the wide brick loggia of the flat, which was nearly at the top of the great building. There was nothing to distract his gloomy thoughts from himself, not even a defect in the dinner or in the broad couch of a bed from which he could look up between the brick pillars of the loggia at the naked stars. If he had been younger he would, in his sleepless hours, have owned to himself that he was suffering from "what men call love," but he could not believe easily that Edmund Grosse at forty was as silly as any boy of twenty. He pished and pshawed at the absurdity. He could not accept anything so simple and goody as his own story. That ever since Rose married he had put her out of his thought from very love and reverence for her seemed an absurd thing to say of a man of his record. Yet it was true; and all the more in consequence did the thought of Rose as a free woman derange his whole inner life now, while the thought of Rose insulted by the dead hand of the man she had married was gall and wormwood. What must Rose think of men? She had been so anxious to find a great and good man; and she had found David Bright, whose mistress was now enjoying his great wealth somewhere below in the old Tuscan capital. And how could Edmund venture to be the next man offered to her?—Edmund who had done nothing all these years, who had sunk with the opportunity of wealth; whose talents had been lost or misused. He seemed to see Rose kneeling at her prayers—the golden head bowed, the girlish figure bent. He could think of nothing in himself to distract her back to earth, poor beautiful child! Yet he had not nursed or petted or even welcomed the old passion of his boyhood. He wanted to be without it and its discomforting reproaches. It was too late to change anything or anybody. At forty how could he have a career, and what good would come of it? Yet his love for Rose was insistent on the necessity of making Rose's lover into a different man from the present Edmund Grosse. It was absurd and medieval to suppose that if he did some great or even moderately great work he could win her by doing it. It might be absurd, yet contrariwise he felt convinced that she would never take him as he was now.
So he wearied as he turned on the couch that became less and less comfortable, till he rose and, with a rug thrown over him, leant on the brick balustrade of the loggia. He stood looking at the stars in the dimness, not wholly unlike the figure of some old Roman noble in his toga, nor perhaps wholly unlike the figure of the unconverted Augustine, weary of himself and of all things.
But this remark only shows how the stars and the deep blue openings into the heavens, and the manifold suggestions of the towers of Dante's city, and the neighbourhood of Savonarola's cell, affect the imagination and call up comparisons by far too mighty. Edmund Grosse's weariness of evil is nothing but a sickly shadow of the weariness of the great imprisoned soul to whom an angel cried to take up and read aright the book of life. Grosse is in fact only a middle-aged man in pajamas with a travelling rug about his shoulders, with a sallow face, a sickly body, and a rather shallow soul. He will not go quite straight even in his love quest, and he cannot bring himself to believe how strongly that love has hold of him. He is cynical about the best part of himself and to-night only wishes that it would trouble him less.
"Damn it," he muttered at last, "I wish I had slept indoors—I am bored to death by those stars!"
Next day Grosse set about the work for which he had come to Florence. He called on two men whom he knew slightly, and found them at home, but neither of them had ever heard of Madame Danterre. Dawkins, his much-travelled servant, of course, was more successful, and by the evening was able to take Edmund in a carriage to see some fine old iron gates, and to drive round some enormous brick walls—enormous in height and in thickness.
The Villa was in a magnificent position, and the gardens, Dawkins told his master, were said to be beautiful. Madame Danterre had only just moved into it from a much smaller house in the same quarter.
Edmund next drove to the nearest chemist, and there found out that Dr. Larrone was the name of Madame Danterre's medical man. He already knew the name of her lawyer from Mr. Murray, who had been in perfunctory communication with him during the years in which Sir David had paid a large allowance to Madame Danterre. But he knew that any direct attempt to see these men would probably be worse than useless. What he wished to do was to come across Madame Danterre socially, and with all the appearance of an accidental meeting. His two friends in Florence did their best for him, but they were before long driven to recommend Pietrino, a well-known detective, as the only person who could find out for Grosse in what houses it might be possible to meet Madame Danterre.
Grosse soon recognised the remarkable gifts of the Italian detective, and confided to him the whole case in all its apparent hopelessness. There was, indeed, a touch of kindred feeling between them, for both men had a certain pleasure in dealing with human beings—humanity was the material they loved to work upon. The detective was too wise to let his zeal for the wealthy Englishman outrun discretion. He did very little in the case, and brought back a distinct opinion that Grosse could, at present, do nothing but mischief by interference. Madame Danterre had always lived a very retired life, and was either a real invalid or a valetudinarian. Her great, her enormous accession of wealth had only been used apparently in the sacred cause of bodily health. She saw at most six people, including two doctors and her lawyer; and on rare occasions, some elderly man visiting Florence—a Frenchman maybe, or an Englishman—would seek her out. She never paid any visits, although she kept a splendid stable and took long drives almost daily. The detective was depressed, for he had really been fired by Grosse's view as to the will, and he had come to so favourable an opinion of Grosse's ability that he had wished greatly for an interview between the latter and Madame Danterre to come off.
Edmund was loth to leave Florence until one evening when he despaired, for the first time, of doing any good. It was the evening on which he succeeded in seeing Madame Danterre without the knowledge of that lady. The garden of the villa into which he so much wished to penetrate was walled about with those amazing masses of brickwork which point to a date when labour was cheap indeed. Edmund had more than once dawdled under the deep shadow of these shapeless masses of wall at the hour of the general siesta.
He felt more alert while most of the world was asleep, and he could study the defences of Madame Danterre undisturbed. A lost joy of boyhood was in his heart when he discovered a corner where the brickwork was partly crumbled away, and partly, evidently, broken by use. It looked as if a tiny loophole in the wall some fifteen feet from the ground had been used as an entrance to the forbidden garden by some small human body. That evening, an hour before sunset, he came back and looked longingly at the wall. The narrow road was as empty as it had been earlier in the day. Twice he tried in vain to climb as far as the loophole, but the third time, with trousers ruined and one hand bleeding, he succeeded in crawling on to the ledge below the opening so that he could look inside. He almost laughed aloud at the absurdity of his own pleasure in doing so. Some rich, heavy scent met him as he looked down, but, fresh from the gardens of Como, this garden looked to him both heavy and desolate—heavy in its great hedges broken by statuary in alcoves cut in the green, and desolate in its burnt turf and its trailing rose trees loaded with dead roses. His first glance had been downwards, then his look went further afield, and he knew why Madame Danterre had chosen the villa, for the view of Florence was superb. He had not enjoyed it for half a moment when he heard a slight noise in the garden. Yes, down the alley opposite to him there were approaching a lady and two men servants. He held his breath with surprise. Was this Madame Danterre? the rival of Rose, the real love of David Bright? What he saw was an incredibly wizened old woman who yet held herself with considerable grace and walked with quick, long steps on the burnt grass a little ahead of the attendants, one of whom carried a deck chair, while the other was laden with cushions and books. It was evident to the onlooker at the installation of Madame Danterre in the shady, open space where three alleys met, that everything to do with her person was carried out with the care and reverence befitting a religious ceremony; and there was almost a ludicrous degree of pride in her bearing and gestures. Edmund felt how amazingly some women have the power of making others accept them as a higher product of creation, until their most minute bodily wants seem to themselves and those about them to have a sacred importance. At last, when chair and mat and cushions and books had been carefully adjusted after much consideration, she was left alone.
For a few moments she read a paper-covered volume, and Edmund determined to creep away at once, when she suddenly got up and began walking again with long, quick steps, her train sweeping the grass as she came towards the great wall; and he drew back a little, although it was almost impossible that she should see him. Her gown, of a dark dove colour, floated softly; it had much lace about the throat on which shone a string of enormous pearls; and she wore long, grey gloves. Edmund, who was an authority on the subject, thought her exquisitely dressed, as a woman who feels herself of great importance will dress even when there is no one to see her. In the midst of the extraordinarily wizened face were great dark eyes full of expression, with a fierce brightness in them. It was as if an internal fire were burning up the dried and wizened features, and could only find an outlet through the eyes. Rapidly she had passed up and down, and sometimes as she came nearer the wall Edmund saw her flash angry glances, and sometimes sarcastic glances, while her lips moved rapidly, and her very small gloved hand clenched and unclenched.
At last a noise in the deserted road behind him, the growing rumbling of a cart, made him think it safer to move, even at the risk of a little sound in doing so. He reached the ground safely before he could be seen, and proceeded to brush the brick-dust off the torn knees of his grey trousers.
He walked down the hill into the town with an air of finality, for he had determined to go back to England. He could not have analysed his impressions; he could not have accounted for his sense of impotence and defeat, but so it was. He had come across the personality of Madame Danterre, and he thereupon left her in possession of the field. But at the same time, before leaving Florence, he gave largely of the sinews of war to that able spy, the Italian detective, Pietrino.
"YOUR MOTHER'S DAUGHTER"
The surprising disposal of Sir David Bright's fortune was to have very important consequences in a quiet household among the Malcot hills, of the existence of which Sir Edmund Grosse and Lady Rose Bright were entirely unaware.
In a small wind-swept wood that appeared to be seeking shelter in the hollow under the great massive curve of a green hill, there stood one of those English country houses that must have been planned, built, and finished with the sole object of obtaining coolness and shade. The principal living rooms looked north, and the staircase and a minute study were the only spots that ever received any direct rays of the sun. All the rooms except this favoured little study had windows opening to the ground, and immediately outside grew the rich mossy turf that indicates a clay soil. The mistress of the house was not easily daunted by her surroundings, and she had impressed her cheerful, comfortable, and fairly cultured mind on all the rooms. Mrs. Carteret was the widow of a Colonel Carteret, who had retired from the army to farm his own acres, and take his place in local politics. It is needless to say that, while the politics had gained from the help of an upright and chivalrous, if narrow, mind, the acres had profited little from his attentions. When he died he left all he possessed absolutely to his widow, who was not prepared to find how very little that all had become. Mrs. Carteret took up the burden of the acres, dairy, gardens, and stable, with a sense of sanctified duty none the less heroic in sensation because she was doing all these things for her own profit. Her neighbours held her in proportionate respect; and, as she had a fine person, pleasant manners, and good connections, she kept, without the aid of wealth, a comfortable corner in the society of the county.
It was not long after Colonel Carteret's death, and some thirteen years before the death of Sir David Bright, that the immediate neighbourhood became gradually conscious of the fact that Mrs. Carteret had adopted a little niece, the child of a soldier brother who had died in India. This child, from the first, made as little effect on her surroundings as it was possible for a child to do. Molly Dexter was small, thin, and sallow; her dark hair did not curl; and her grey eyes had a curious look that is not common, yet not very rare, in childhood. It is the look of one who waits for other circumstances and other people than those now present. I know nothing so discouraging in a child friend—or rather in a child acquaintance, for friendship is warned off by such eyes—as this particular look. Mrs. Carteret took her niece cheerfully in hand, commended the quiet of her ways, and gave credit to herself and open windows for a perceptible increase in the covering of flesh on the little bones, and a certain promise of firmness in the calves of the small legs. As to the rest: "Of course it was difficult at first," she said, "but now Molly is perfectly at home with me. Nurses never do understand children, and Mary used to excite her until she had fits of passion. But that is all past. She is quite a healthy and normal child now."
Molly was growing healthy, but whether she was normal or not is another point. It does not tend to make a child normal to change everything in life at the age of seven. Not one person, hardly one thing was the same to Molly since her father's death. The language of her ayah had until then been more familiar to her than any other language. The ayah's thoughts had been her thoughts. The East had had in charge the first years of Molly's dawning intelligence, and there seemed impressed, even on her tiny figure, something that told of patience, scorn, and reserve. And yet Mrs. Carteret was quite satisfied.
Once, indeed, the widow was puzzled. Molly had strayed away by herself, and could not be found for nearly two hours. Provided with two figs and several bits of biscuit, a half-crown and a shilling, she had started to walk through the deep, heavy lanes between the great hills, with the firm intention of taking ship to France. Mrs. Carteret treated the escapade kindly and firmly; not making too much of it, but giving such sufficient punishment as to prevent anything so silly happening again. But she had no suspicion of what really had happened. Molly had, in fact, started with the intention of finding her mother. It was two years since she had come to live with Mrs. Carteret, and, if the child had spoken her secret thought, she would have told you that throughout those two years she had been meaning to run away and find her mother. In that she would have fallen into an exaggeration not uncommon with some grown-up people. It had been only at moments far apart, or occasionally for quite a succession of nights in bed, that she had spent a brief space before falling asleep in dreaming of going to seek her mother. But whole months had passed without any such thought; and during these long interludes the healthy country scenes about her, and the common causes for smiles and tears in a child's life, filled her consciousness. Still, the undercurrent of the deeper life was there, and very small incidents were strong enough to bring it to the surface. Molly had short daily lessons from the clergyman's daughter, a young lady who also took a cheerful, airy view of the child, and said she would grow out of her little faults in time. In one of these lessons Molly learnt with surprising eagerness how to find France for herself on the map. That France was much nearer to England than to India, and how it was usual to cross the Channel were facts easily acquired. Molly was amazingly backward in her lessons, or she must have learnt these things before. When lessons were over and she went out into the garden, instead of running as usual she walked so slowly that Mrs. Carteret, while talking to the gardener, actually wondered what was in that child's mind. Molly was living through again the parting with the ayah. She could feel the intensely familiar touch of the soft, dark hand; she could see the adoring love of the dark eyes with their passionate anger at the separation. The woman had to be revenged on her enemies who were tearing the child from her. "They deceive you," she said. "The beautiful mother is not dead; she lives in France, not England; they will try to keep you from her, but the faithful child will find a way."
Molly unconsciously in her own mind had already begun to put these words into English, whereas a year before she would have kept to the ayah's own language. But in either language those words came to her as the last message from that other life of warmth and love and colour in which she had once been a queen. Indeed, every English child brought home from India is a sovereign dethroned. And the repetition of the ayah's last words gave utterance to a sense of wrong that Molly nourished against her present rulers and against the world in which she was not understood.
That same day Mrs. Carteret spoke sharply and with indignation because Molly had trodden purely by accident on the pug; and her aunt said that the one thing with which she had no patience was cruelty to animals—whereas the child was passionately fond of animals. Again, on that same day, Molly fell into a very particularly dirty little pond near the cowshed at the farm. Mary, the nurse, no doubt was the sufferer, and she said that she did not suppose that black nurses minded being covered with muck—how should they?—and she supposed she must be treated as if she were a negro herself, but time would show whether she were a black slave or an Englishwoman with a house of her own which she could have now if she liked for the asking. While Mary spoke she pushed and pulled, and, in general treated Molly's small person as something unpleasant, and to be kept at a distance. Once clean and dressed again, Molly sat down quite quietly to consider the ways and means of getting to France, with the result already told.
Several years passed after that, in which Mrs. Carteret did by Molly, as by every one else, all the duties that were quite obviously evident to her, and did not go about seeking for any fanciful ones. And Molly grew up, sometimes happy, and sometimes not, saying sometimes the things she really meant when she was in a temper, and acquiescing in Mrs. Carteret's explanation that she had not meant them when she had regained her self-control.
Until Molly was between fifteen and sixteen, Mrs. Carteret was able to keep to her optimism as to their mutual relations.
"The child is, of course, very backward. I tried to think it was want of education, but I've come to see it's of no use to expect to make Molly an interesting or agreeable woman; and very plain, of course, she must be. But, you know, plenty of plain, uninteresting women have very fairly happy lives, and under the circumstances"—but there Mrs. Carteret stopped, and her guest, the wife of the vicar, knew no more of the circumstances than did the world at large.
But when Molly was about the age of fifteen she began to display more troublesome qualities, and a certain faculty for doing quite the wrong thing under a perverse appearance of attempting good works. There is nothing annoys a woman of Mrs. Carteret's stamp so much as good done in the wrong way. She had known for so many years exactly how to do good to the labourer, his family, and his widow, or to the vagrant passing by. It was really very tiresome to find that Molly, while walking in one of the lanes, had slipped off a new flannel petticoat in order to wrap up a gypsy's baby. And it might be allowed to be trying that when believing an old man of rather doubtful antecedents to be dying from exhaustion, Molly had herself sought whisky from the nearest inn. She had bought a whole bottle of whisky, though indeed, being seized with qualms, she had poured half the contents of the bottle into a ditch before going back to the cottage. And it was undoubtedly Mrs. Carteret's duty to protest when she found that Molly had held a baby with diphtheria folded closely in her arms while the mother fetched the doctor.
Can any one blame Mrs. Carteret for finding these doings a little trying? And it showed how freakish and contradictory Molly was in all her ways that she would never join nicely in school feasts, or harvest homes, or anything pleasant or cheerful. Nor did she make friends even with those she had worried over in times of sickness. She would risk some serious infection, or meddle, with her odd notions, day after day in a cottage; and then she would hardly nod to the convalescent boy or girl when she met them again in the lanes.
There was no one to tell her aunt what new, strange instincts and aspirations were struggling to the light in Molly. A passionate pity for pain would seize on her and hold her in a grip until she had done some definite act to relieve it. But pity was either not akin to love in Molly, or her affections had been too starved to take root after the immediate impulse of mercy was passed. The girl was not popular in the village, although, unlike Mrs. Carteret, her poorer neighbours had a great idea of Molly's cleverness. Needless to say that when, after some unmeasured effort at relieving suffering, Molly would come home with a sense of joy she rarely knew after any other act, it hurt her to the quick and roused her deepest anger to find herself treated like a naughty, inconsiderate child. The storms between Mrs. Carteret and Molly were increasing in number and intensity, with outspoken wrath on one side, and a white heat of dumb, indignant resistance on the other. Then, happily, there came a change. Molly's education had been of the very slightest until she was nearly sixteen, when Mrs. Carteret told her to expect the arrival of a finishing governess. She also announced that a music master from the cathedral town would, in future, come over twice a week to give her lessons.
"It's not my doing," said Mrs. Carteret,—and meaning only to be candid she sounded very ungracious; and although she did not pay for these things, it was due to her urgent representations of their need that they had been provided. Molly supposed that all such financial arrangements were made for her by her father's lawyer, of whom she had heard Mrs. Carteret speak.
Throughout these years it had never occurred to Mrs. Carteret to doubt that Molly believed her mother to be dead, and she never for a moment supposed the child's silence on the subject to be ominous. Such silence did not show any special power of reserve; many children brought up like Molly will carefully conceal knowledge which they believe that those in authority over them suppose them not to possess. Perhaps in Molly's case there was an instinctive shrinking from exposing an ideal to scorn. Perhaps there was a wholly unconscious want of faith in the ideal itself, an ideal which had been built up upon one phrase. Yet the notion of the beautiful, exiled mother, so cruelly concealed from her child, was very precious, however insecurely founded. It must be concealed from other eyes by mists of incense, and honoured in the silence of the sanctuary.
The new governess, Miss Carew, was a very fair teacher, and she soon recognised the quality of her pupil's mind. Mrs. Carteret was possibly a little disappointed on finding that Miss Carew considered Molly to be very clever, as well as very ignorant. The widow was herself accustomed to feel superior to her own circle in literary attainments,—a sensation which she justified by an occasional reading of French memoirs and by always getting through at least two articles in each Nineteenth Century. It was a detail that she had never cared for poetry; Sir James Stephen, she knew, had also never cared to have ideas expressed in verse. But she felt a little dull when Miss Carew and Molly discussed Browning and Tennyson and De Musset. Miss Carew fired Molly with new thoughts and new ambitions in matters intellectual, but also in more mundane affairs. If it is possible to be in the world and not of it we have all of us also known people who are of the world though not in it; and Miss Carew was undoubtedly one of the latter. Her tongue babbled of beauties and courts, of manners, of wealth, and of chiffons, with the free idealism of an amateur, and this without intending to do more than enliven the dull daily walks through Malcot lanes.
Two years of this companionship rapidly developed Molly. She did not now merely condemn her aunt and her friends from pure ignorant dislike; she knew from other testimony that they were rather stupid, ignorant, badly-dressed, and provincial. But the chief change in her state of mind lay in her hopes for her own future. Miss Carew had pointed out that, if such a very large salary could be given for the governess, there must surely be plenty of money for Molly's disposal later on. Why should not Molly have a splendid and delightful life before her? And then poor Miss Carew would suppress a sigh at her own prospects in which the pupil never showed the least interest. It was before Miss Carew's second year of teaching had come to an end, and while Molly was rapidly enlarging her mental horizon, that the girl came to a very serious crisis in her life.
Occupied with her first joy in knowledge, and with dreams of future delights in the great world, she had not broken out into any very freakish act of benevolence for a long time. One night, when Mrs. Carteret and Miss Carew met at dinner time, they continued to wait in vain for Molly. The servants hunted for her, Mrs. Carteret called up the front stairs, and Miss Carew went as far as the little carpenter's shop opening from the greenhouse to find her. It was a dark night, and there was nothing that could have taken her out of doors, but that she was out could not be doubted. The gardener and coachman were sent for, and before ten o'clock the policeman in the village joined in the search, and yet nothing was heard of Molly. Mrs. Carteret became really frightened, and Miss Carew was surprised to see her betray so much feeling as almost to lose her self-control. She kept walking up and down, while odd spasmodic little sentences escaped from her every few minutes.
"How could I answer for it to John if his girl came to any harm?" she repeated several times.
She kept moving from room to room with a really scared expression. Once the governess overheard her exclaim with an intensely bitter accent, "Even her wretched mother would have taken more care of her!"
At that moment the door opened; Molly came quietly in, looking at them both with bright, defiant eyes. From her hat to the edge of her skirt she appeared to be one mass of light, brown mud; her right cheek was bleeding from a scratch, and the sleeve of her coat was torn open.
"Where have you been to?" demanded Mrs. Carteret, in a voice that trembled from the reaction of fear to anger.
"I went for a walk, and I found a man lying half in the water in Brown-rushes pond; he had evidently fallen in drunk. I got him out after nearly falling in myself, and then I had to get some one to look after him. They took him in at Brown-rushes farm, and I found out who he was and went to tell his wife, who is ill, that he was quite safe. I stayed a little while with her, and then I came home. I have walked about twenty miles, and, as you can see, I have had several tumbles, and I am very tired."
Molly's voice had been very quiet, but very distinct, and her look and bearing were full of an unspoken defiance.
"And you never thought whether I should be frightened meanwhile?" said Mrs. Carteret.
"Frightened about me?" said Molly in astonishment.
"You had no thought for my anxiety—the strain on my nerves," her aunt went on.
"I thought you might be angry, but I never for a moment thought you would be frightened."
Miss Carew looked from one to the other in alarm and perplexity. She felt for them both, for the woman who had been startled by the extent of her fears, and was the more angry in consequence, and for Molly, who betrayed her utter want of belief in any kind of feeling on Mrs. Carteret's part.
"If you do not care for my feelings, or, indeed, believe in them, I wish you would have some care for your own good name." A moment's pause followed these words, and then in a low voice, but quite distinct, came the conclusion, "You must remember that your mother's daughter must be more careful than other girls."
Molly's cheeks, just now bright from the battle with the autumn wind, became as white as marble. There was no concealment possible; both women saw that the child realised the full import of the words, and that she knew they could read what was written on her face. There could be no possibility of keeping up appearances after such a moment. But Miss Carew moved forward, and flung her arms round Molly with a gesture of simple but complete womanliness. "You must have a hot bath at once," she cried, "or you will catch your death of cold."
"Perhaps it would be better if I did," cried Molly in a voice fearful to her hearers in its stony hardness and hopelessness. "What does it matter?"
Miss Carew would have been less unhappy if the child had burst into any reproaches, however angry or unseemly; she wanted to hear her say that something was a lie, that some one was a liar, but what was so awful to the ordinary little woman was to realise that Molly believed what had been said, or rather the awful implication of what had been said. The real horror was that Molly should come to such knowledge in such a way.
The girl made no effort to shake her off, and not the least response to her caress. With perfect dignity she went quietly up-stairs. With perfect dignity she let the governess and the housemaid do to her whatever they liked. They bathed Molly, rubbed her with lotions, poulticed her with mustard, gave her a hot drink, and all the time Miss Carew's heart ached at the impossibility of helping her in the very least.
"Can I leave the door open between our rooms, in case you want anything in the night?" she faltered.
"Oh, yes; certainly."
"May I kiss you?"
"Yes, of course."
MOLLY COMES OF AGE
For some time after that terrible night Molly never spoke to Mrs. Carteret unless it were absolutely necessary. It may be difficult to believe that no explanation was sought or given and after a time things seemed to be much as before. The silence of a brooding nature is a terrible thing; and it is more common in narrow, dull lives than in any other. Uneducated men and women in villages, or servants cramped together in one house, I have known to brood over some injury in an awful silence for twenty or thirty years. If Molly's future life had been in Mrs. Carteret's hands, the sense of wrong would have burrowed deeper and been even better hidden, but Molly, aided by Miss Carew, had convinced herself that liberty would come, without any fight for it, at twenty-one; so her view of the present was that it was a tiresome but inevitable waiting for real life.
Miss Carew, watching her anxiously, could never find out what she had thought since the night of the alarm; and if she had seen into her mind at any one moment alone, she would have been misled. For Molly's imagination flew from one extreme to another. At first, indeed, that sentence, "Your mother's daughter ought to be more careful than other girls," had seemed simply a revelation of evil of which she could not doubt the truth. She saw in a flash why her mother had gone out of her life although still living. The whole possibility of shame and horror appeared to fit in with the facts of her secluded life with Mrs. Carteret. A morbid fear as to her own birth seized on the poor child's mind, and might have destroyed the healthier aspect of life for her entirely; but happily Mrs. Carteret and the governess did think of this danger, and showed some skill in laying the phantom. Some photographs of John Dexter as a young man were brought out and shown to the governess in Molly's presence, and her comments on the likeness to Molly were true and sounded spontaneous. Relieved of this horror the girl's mind reacted to the hope that Mrs. Carteret had only spoken in temper and spite, grossly exaggerating some grievance against Molly's mother. Then was the ideal restored to its pedestal, and expiatory offerings of sentiment of the most elaborate kind hung round the image of the ill-used and misunderstood, the beautiful, unattainable mother. If Miss Carew had seen into the reveries of her pupil at such a moment, she would hardly have believed how they alternated with the coldest fits of doubt and scepticism. Molly was dealing with a self-made ideal that she needed to satisfy the hunger of her nature for love and worship. But it had no foundations, no support, and it was apt to vanish with a terrible completeness. Then she would feel quite alone and horribly ashamed; she would at moments think of herself as something degraded and to be shunned. Some natures would have simply sunk into a nervous state of depression, but Molly had great vitality and natural ambition. In her ideal moments she thought of devoting her life to her mother; and the ayah's words were still a text, "The faithful child will find a way." But in darker hours she defied the world that was against her.
Molly, having decided to make no effort at any change in her life until the emancipating age of twenty-one, determined to prepare herself as fully as possible for the future. Mrs. Carteret was quite willing to keep Miss Carew until her niece was nearly twenty, and by that time the girl had read a surprising amount, while her mind was not to be despised. She had also "come out" as far as a very sleepy neighbourhood made it possible for her to see any society. She had been to three balls, and a good many garden parties. No one found her very attractive in her manners, though her appearance had in it now something that arrested attention. She took her position in the small Carteret circle in virtue of a certain energy and force of will. Molly danced, and played tennis, and rode as well as any girl in those parts, but she did not hide a silent and, at present, rather childish scorn which was in her nature. Miss Carew left her with regret and with more affection than Molly gave her back, for the governess was proud of her, and felt in watching her the pleasures of professional success. Perhaps she put down too much of this success to her own skill, but it was true that, without Miss Carew, Molly would have been a very undeveloped young person. There was still one year after this parting before Molly would be free, and it seemed longer and slower as each day passed. One interest helped to make it endurable. A trained hospital nurse had been provided for the village, and Molly spent a great deal of time learning her craft. The nursing instinct was exceedingly strong and not easily put down, and, if Molly must interfere with sick people, it was as well, in Mrs. Carteret's opinion, that she should learn how to do it properly.