HotFreeBooks.com
Red Pottage
by Mary Cholmondeley
1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Red Pottage

By

Mary Cholmondeley

AUTHOR OF

"THE DANVERS JEWELS"

"After the Red Pottage comes the exceeding bitter cry"

NEW YORK AND LONDON

HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS

1900



TO

VICTORIA

Good things have not kept aloof,

* * * * *

I have not lack'd thy mild reproof, Nor golden largesse of thy praise.



RED POTTAGE



CHAPTER I

In tragic life, God wot, No villain need be! Passions spin the plot: We are betray'd by what is false within. —GEORGE MEREDITH.

"I can't get out," said Sterne's starling, looking through the bars of his cage.

"I will get out," said Hugh Scarlett to himself, seeing no bars, but half conscious of a cage. "I will get out," he repeated, as his hansom took him swiftly from the house in Portman Square, where he had been dining, towards that other house in Carlton House Terrace, whither his thoughts had travelled on before him, out-distancing the trip-clip-clop, trip-clip-clop of the horse.

It was a hot night in June. Hugh had thrown back his overcoat, and the throng of passers-by in the street could see, if they cared to see, "the glass of fashion" in the shape of white waistcoat and shirt front, surmounted by the handsome, irritated face of their owner, leaning back with his hat tilted over his eyes.

Trip-clip-clop went the horse.

A great deal of thinking may be compressed into a quarter of an hour, especially if it has been long eluded.

"I will get out," he said again to himself with an impatient movement. It was beginning to weary him, this commonplace intrigue which had been so new and alluring a year ago. He did not own it to himself, but he was tired of it. Perhaps the reason why good resolutions have earned for themselves such an evil repute as paving-stones is because they are often the result, not of repentance, but of the restlessness that dogs an evaporating pleasure. This liaison had been alternately his pride and his shame for many months. But now it was becoming something more—which it had been all the time, only he had not noticed it till lately—a fetter, a clog, something irksome, to be cast off and pushed out of sight. Decidedly the moment for the good resolution had arrived.

"I will break it off," he said again. "Thank Heaven, not a soul has ever guessed it."

How could any one have guessed it?

He remembered the day when he had first met her a year ago, and had looked upon her as merely a pretty woman. He remembered other days, and the gradual building up between them of a fairy palace. He had added a stone here, she a stone there, until suddenly it became—a prison. Had he been tempter or tempted? He did not know. He did not care. He wanted only to be out of it. His better feelings and his conscience had been awakened by the first touch of weariness. His brief infatuation had run its course. His judgment had been whirled—he told himself it had been whirled, but it had really only been tweaked—from its centre, had performed its giddy orbit, and now the check-string had brought it back to the point from whence it had set out, namely, that she was merely a pretty woman.

"I will break with her gradually," he said, like the tyro he was, and he pictured to himself the wretched scenes in which she would abuse him, reproach him, probably compromise herself, the letters she would write to him. At any rate, he need not read them. Oh! how tired he was of the whole thing beforehand. Why had he been such a fool? He looked at the termination of the liaison as a bad sailor looks at an inevitable sea passage at the end of a journey. It must be gone through, but the prospect of undergoing it filled him with disgust.

A brougham passed him swiftly on noiseless wheels, and the woman in it caught a glimpse of the high-bred, clean-shaved face, half savage, half sullen, in the hansom.

"Anger, impatience, and remorse," she said to herself, and finished buttoning her gloves.

"Thank Heaven, not a soul has ever guessed it," repeated Hugh, fervently, as the hansom came suddenly to a stand-still.

In another moment he was taking Lady Newhaven's hand as she stood at the entrance of her amber drawing-room beside a grove of pink orchids.

He chatted a moment, greeted Lord Newhaven, and passed on into the crowded rooms. How could any one have guessed it? No breath of scandal had ever touched Lady Newhaven. She stood beside her pink orchids, near her fatigued-looking, gentle-mannered husband, a very pretty woman in white satin and diamonds. Perhaps her blond hair was a shade darker at the roots than in its waved coils; perhaps her blue eyes did not look quite in harmony with their blue-black lashes; but the whole effect had the delicate, conventional perfection of a cleverly touched-up chromo-lithograph. Of course, tastes differ. Some people like chromo-lithographs, others don't. But even those who do are apt to become estranged. They may inspire love, admiration, but never fidelity. Most of us have in our time hammered nails into our walls which, though they now decorously support the engravings and etchings of our maturer years, were nevertheless originally driven in to uphold the cherished, the long since discarded chromos of our foolish youth.

The diamond sun upon Lady Newhaven's breast quivered a little, a very little, as Hugh greeted her, and she turned to offer the same small smile and gloved hand to the next comer, whose name was leaping before him from one footman to another.

"Mr. Richard Vernon."

Lady Newhaven's wide blue eyes looked vague. Her hand hesitated. This strongly built, ill-dressed man, with his keen, brown, deeply scarred face and crooked mouth, was unknown to her.

Lord Newhaven darted forward.

"Dick!" he exclaimed, and Dick shot forth an immense mahogany hand and shook Lord Newhaven's warmly.

"Well," he said, after Lord Newhaven had introduced him to his wife, "I'm dashed if I knew who either of you were. But I found your invitation at my club when I landed yesterday, so I decided to come and have a look at you. And so it is only you, Cackles, after all"—(Lord Newhaven's habit of silence had earned for him the sobriquet of "Cackles")—"I quite thought I was going into—well, ahem!—into society. I did not know you had got a handle to your name. How did you find out I was in England?"

"My dear fellow, I didn't," said Lord Newhaven, gently drawing Dick aside, whose back was serenely blocking a stream of new arrivals. "I fancy—in fact, I'm simply delighted to see you. How is the wine getting on? But I suppose there must be other Dick Vernons on my wife's list. Have you the card with you?"

"Rather," said Dick; "always take the card with me since I was kicked out of a miner's hop at Broken Hill because I forgot it. 'No gentleman will be admitted in a paper shirt' was mentioned on it, I remember. A concertina, and candles in bottles. Ripping while it lasted. I wish you had been there."

"I wish I had." Lord Newhaven's tired, half-closed eye opened a little. "But the end seems to have been unfortunate."

"Not at all," said Dick, watching the new arrivals with his head thrown back. "Fine girl that; I'll take a look at the whole mob of them directly. They came round next day to say it had been a mistake, but there were four or five cripples who found that out the night before. Here is the card."

Lord Newhaven glanced at it attentively, and then laughed.

"It is four years old," he said; "I must have put you on my mother's list, not knowing you had left London. It is in her writing."

"I'm rather late," said Dick, composedly; "but I am here at last. Now, Cack—Newhaven, if that's your noble name—as I am here, trot out a few heiresses, would you? I want to take one or two back with me. I say, ought I to put my gloves on?"

"No, no. Clutch them in your great fist as you are doing now."

"Thanks. I suppose, old chap, I'm all right? Not had on an evening-coat for four years."

Dick's trousers were too short for him, and he had tied his white tie with a waist to it. Lord Newhaven had seen both details before he recognized him.

"Quite right," he said, hastily. "Now, who is to be the happy woman?"

Dick's hawk eye promenaded over the crowd in the second room, in the door-way of which he was standing.

"That one," he said; "the tall girl in the green gown talking to the Bishop."

"You have a wonderful eye for heiresses. You have picked out the greatest in London. That is Miss Rachel West. You say you want two."

"One at a time, thanks. I shall take her down to supper. I suppose—er—there is supper at this sort of thing, isn't there?"

"Of a kind. You need not be afraid of the claret; it isn't yours."

"Catch you giving your best at a crush," retorted Dick. "The Bishop's moving. Hurry up."



CHAPTER II

But as he groped against the wall, two hands upon him fell, The King behind his shoulder spake: "Dead man, thou dost not well." —RUDYARD KIPLING.

Hugh had gone through the first room, and, after a quarter of an hour, found himself in the door-way of the second. He had arrived late, and the rooms were already thinning.

A woman in a pale-green gown was standing near the open window, her white profile outlined against the framed darkness, as she listened with evident amusement to the tall, ill-dressed man beside her.

Hugh's eyes lost the veiled scorn with which it was their wont to look at society and the indulgent patronage which lurked in them for pretty women.

Rachel West slowly turned her face towards him without seeing him, and his heart leaped. She was not beautiful except with the beauty of health, and a certain dignity of carriage which is the outcome of a head and hands and body that are at unity with each other, and with a mind absolutely unconscious of self. She had not the long nose which so frequently usurps more than its share of the faces of the well-bred, nor had she, alas! the short upper lip which redeems everything. Her features were as insignificant as her coloring. People rarely noticed that Rachel's hair was brown, and that her deep-set eyes were gray. But upon her grave face the word "Helper" was plainly written—and something else. What was it?

Just as in the faces of seamen we trace the onslaught of storm and sun and brine, and the puckering of the skin round the eyes that comes of long watching in half-lights, so in some faces, calm and pure as Rachel's, on which the sun and rain have never beaten, there is an expression betokening strong resistance from within of the brunt of a whirlwind from without. The marks of conflict and endurance on a young face—who shall see them unmoved! The Mother of Jesus must have noticed a great difference in her Son when she first saw Him again after the temptation in the wilderness.

Rachel's grave, amused glance fell upon Hugh. Their eyes met, and he instantly perceived, to his astonishment, that she recognized him. But she did not bow, and a moment later left the nearly empty rooms with the man who was talking to her.

Hugh was excited out of recognition of his former half-scornful, half-blase self. That woman must be his wife. She would save him from himself, this cynical, restless self, which never remained in one stay. The half-acknowledged weakness in his nature unconsciously flung itself upon her strength, a strength which had been tried. She would love him, and uphold him. There would be no more yielding to circumstances if that pure, strong soul were close beside him. He would lean upon her, and the ugly by-paths of these last years would know him no more. Her presence would leaven his whole life. In the momentary insanity, which was perhaps, after all, only a prophetic intuition, he had no fears, no misgivings. He thought that with that face it was not possible that she could be so wicked as to refuse him.

"She will marry me," he said to himself. "She must."

Lady Newhaven touched him gently on the arm.

"I dared not speak to you before," she said. "Nearly every one has gone. Will you take me down to supper? I am tired out."

He stared at her, not recognizing her.

"Have I vexed you?" she faltered.

And with a sudden horrible revulsion of feeling he remembered. The poor chromo had fallen violently from its nail. But the nail remained—ready. He took her into the supper-room and got her a glass of champagne. She subsided on to a sofa beside another woman, vaguely suspecting trouble in the air. He felt thankful that Rachel had already gone. Dick, nearly the last, was putting on his coat, arranging to meet Lord Newhaven the following morning at his club. They had been in Australia together, and were evidently old friends.

Lord Newhaven's listless manner returned as Dick marched out. Hugh had got one arm in his coat. An instinct of flight possessed him, a vague horror of the woman in diamonds furtively watching him under her lowered eyelids through the open door.

"Oh, Scarlett!" said Lord Newhaven, detaining him languidly, "I want three minutes of your valuable time. Come into my study."

"Another cross-bow for Westhope Abbey?" said Hugh, trying to speak unconcernedly, as he followed his host to a back room on the ground floor. Lord Newhaven was collecting arms for the hall of his country-house.

"No; much simpler than those elaborate machines," said the older man, turning on the electric light. Hugh went in, and Lord Newhaven closed the door.

Over the mantel-shelf were hung a few old Japanese inlaid carbines, and beneath them an array of pistols.

"Useless now," said Lord Newhaven, touching them affectionately. "But," he added, with a shade more listlessness than before, "Society has become accustomed to do without them, and does ill without them, but we must conform to her." Hugh started slightly, and then remained motionless. "You observe these two paper lighters, Scarlett? One is an inch shorter than the other. They have been waiting on the mantel-shelf for the last month, till I had an opportunity of drawing your attention to them. I am sure we perfectly understand each other. No name need be mentioned. All scandal is avoided. I feel confident you will not hesitate to make me the only reparation one man can make another in the somewhat hackneyed circumstances in which we find ourselves."

Lord Newhaven took the lighters out of the glass. He glanced suddenly at Hugh's stunned face and went on:

"I am sorry the idea is not my own. I read it in a magazine. Though comparatively modern, it promises soon to become as customary as the much-to-be-regretted pistols for two and coffee for four. I hold the lighters thus, and you draw. Whoever draws or keeps the short one is pledged to leave this world within four months, or shall we say five, on account of the pheasant shooting? Five be it. Is it agreed? Just so! Will you draw?"

A swift spasm passed over Hugh's face, and a tiger glint leaped into Lord Newhaven's eyes, fixed intently upon him.

There was a brief second in which Hugh's mind wavered, as the flame of a candle wavers in a sudden draught. Lord Newhaven's eyes glittered. He advanced the lighters an inch nearer.

If he had not advanced them that inch Hugh thought afterwards that he would have refused to draw.

He backed against the mantel-piece, and then put out his hand suddenly and drew. It seemed the only way of escape.

The two men measured the lighters on the table under the electric light.

Lord Newhaven laughed.

Hugh stood a moment, and then went out.



CHAPTER III

"Is it well with thee? Is it well with thy husband?"

When Lady Newhaven slipped out of the supper-room after her husband and Hugh, and lingered at the door of the study, she did not follow them with the deliberate intention of eavesdropping, but from a vague impulse of suspicious anxiety. Yet she crouched in her white satin gown against the door listening intently.

Neither man moved within, only one spoke. There was no other sound to deaden her husband's distinct, low voice. The silence that followed his last words, "Will you draw?" was broken by his laugh, and she had barely time to throw herself back from the door into a dark recess under the staircase before Hugh came out. He almost touched her as he passed. He must have seen her, if he had been capable of seeing anything; but he went straight on unheeding. And as she stole a few steps to gaze after him, she saw him cross the hall and go out into the night without his hat and coat, the amazed servants staring after him.

She drew back to go up-stairs, and met her husband coming slowly out of the study. He looked steadily at her, as she clung trembling to the banisters. There was no alteration in his glance, and she suddenly perceived that what he knew now he had always known. She put her hand to her head.

"You look tired," he said, in the level voice to which she was accustomed. "You had better go to bed."

She stumbled swiftly up-stairs, catching at the banisters, and went into her own room.

Her maid was waiting for her by the dressing-table with its shaded electric lights. And she remembered that she had given a party, and that she had on her diamonds.

It would take a long time to unfasten them. She pulled at the diamond sun on her breast with a shaking hand. Her husband had given it to her when her eldest son was born. Her maid took the tiara gently out of her hair, and cut the threads that sewed the diamonds on her breast and shoulders. Would it never end? The lace of her gown, cautiously withdrawn through its hundred eyelet-holes, knotted itself.

"Cut it," she said, impatiently. "Cut it."

At last she was in her dressing-gown and alone. She flung herself face downwards on the sofa. Her attitude had the touch of artificiality which was natural to her.

The deluge had arrived, and unconsciously she met it, as she would have made a heroine meet it had she been a novelist, in a white dressing-gown and pink ribbons in a stereotyped attitude of despair on a divan.

Conscience is supposed to make cowards of us all, but it is a matter of common experience that the unimaginative are made cowards of only by being found out.

Had David qualms of conscience when Uriah fell before the besieged city? Surely if he had he would have winced at the obvious parallel of the prophet's story about the ewe lamb. But apparently he remained serenely obtuse till the indignant author's "Thou art the man" unexpectedly nailed him to the cross of his sin.

And so it was with Lady Newhaven. She had gone through the twenty-seven years of her life believing herself to be a religious and virtuous person. She was so accustomed to the idea that it had become a habit, and now the whole of her self-respect was in one wrench torn from her. The events of the last year had not worn it down to its last shred, had not even worn the nap off. It was dragged from her intact, and the shock left her faint and shuddering.

The thought that her husband knew, and had thought fit to conceal his knowledge, had never entered her mind, any more than the probability that she had been seen by some of the servants kneeling listening at a keyhole. The mistake which all unobservant people make is to assume that others are as unobservant as themselves.

By what frightful accident, she asked herself, had this catastrophe come about? She thought of all the obvious incidents which would have revealed the secret to herself—the dropped letter, the altered countenance, the badly arranged lie. No. She was convinced her secret had been guarded with minute, with scrupulous care. The only thing she had forgotten in her calculations was her husband's character, if, indeed, she could be said to have forgotten that which she had never known.

Lord Newhaven was in his wife's eyes a very quiet man of few words. That his few words did not represent the whole of him had never occurred to her. She had often told her friends that he walked through life with his eyes shut. He had a trick of half shutting his eyes which confirmed her in this opinion. When she came across persons who were after a time discovered to have affections and interests of which they had not spoken, she described them as "cunning." She had never thought Edward "cunning" till to-night. How had he, of all men, discovered this—this—? She, had no words ready to call her conduct by, though words would not have failed her had she been denouncing the same conduct in another wife and mother.

Gradually "the whole horror of her situation"—to borrow from her own vocabulary—forced itself upon her mind like damp through a gay wall-paper. What did it matter how the discovery had been made! It was made, and she was ruined. She repeated the words between little gasps for breath. Ruined! Her reputation lost! Hers—Violet Newhaven's. It was a sheer impossibility that such a thing could have happened to a woman like her. It was some vile slander which Edward must see to. He was good at that sort of thing. But no, Edward would not help her. She had committed—She flung out her hands, panic-stricken, as if to ward off a blow. The deed had brought with it no shame, but the word—the word wounded her like a sword.

Her feeble mind, momentarily stunned, pursued its groping way.

He would divorce her. It would be in the papers. But no. What was that he had said to Hugh—"No names to be mentioned; all scandal avoided."

She shivered and drew in her breath. It was to be settled some other way. Her mind became an entire blank. Another way! What way? She remembered now, and an inarticulate cry broke from her. They had drawn lots.

Which had drawn the short lighter?

Her husband had laughed. But then he laughed at everything. He was never really serious, always shallow and heartless. He would have laughed if he had drawn it himself. Perhaps he had. Yes, he certainly had drawn it. But Hugh? She saw again the white, set face as he passed her. No; it must be Hugh who had drawn it—Hugh, whom she loved. She wrung her hands and moaned, half aloud:

"Which? Which?"

There was a slight movement in the next room, the door was opened, and Lord Newhaven appeared in the door-way. He was still in evening dress.

"Did you call?" he said, quietly. "Are you ill?" He came and stood beside her.

"No," she said, hoarsely, and she sat up and gazed fixedly at him. Despair and suspense were in her eyes. There was no change in his, and she remembered that she had never seen him angry. Perhaps she had not known when he was angry.

He was turning away, but she stopped him. "Wait," she said, and he returned, his cold, attentive eye upon her. There was no contempt, no indignation in his bearing. If those feelings had shaken him, it must have been some time ago. If they had been met and vanquished in secret, that also must have been some time ago. He took up an Imitation of Christ, bound in the peculiar shade of lilac which at that moment prevailed, and turned it in his hand.

"You are overwrought," he said, after a moment's pause, "and I particularly dislike a scene."

She did not heed him.

"I listened at the door," she said, in a harsh, unnatural voice.

"I am perfectly aware of it."

A sort of horror seemed to have enveloped the familiar room. The very furniture looked like well-known words arranged suddenly in some new and dreadful meaning.

"You never loved me," she said.

He did not answer, but he looked gravely at her for a moment, and she was ashamed.

"Why don't you divorce me if you think me so wicked?"

"For the sake of the children," he said, with a slight change of voice.

Teddy, the eldest, had been born in this room. Did either remember that gray morning six years ago?

There was a silence that might be felt.

"Who drew the short lighter?" she whispered, before she knew that she had spoken.

"I am not here to answer questions," he replied. "And I have asked none. Neither, you will observe, have I blamed you. But I desire that you will never again allude to this subject, and that you will keep in mind that I do not intend to discuss it with you."

He laid down the Imitation and moved towards his own room.

With a sudden movement she flung herself upon her knees before him and caught his arm. The attitude suggested an amateur.

"Which drew the short lighter?" she gasped, her small upturned face white and convulsed.

"You will know in five months' time," he said. Then he extricated himself from her trembling clasp and left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.



CHAPTER IV

For the sin ye do by two and two ye must pay for one by one! —RUDYARD KIPLING.

When Hugh awoke the morning after Lady Newhaven's party the day was already far advanced. A hot day had succeeded to a hot night. For a few seconds he lay like one emerging from the influence of morphia, who feels his racked body still painlessly afloat on a sea of rest, but is conscious that it is drifting back to the bitter shores of pain, and who stirs neither hand nor foot for fear of hastening the touch of the encircling, aching sands on which he is so soon to be cast in agony once more.

His mind cleared a little. Rachel's grave face stood out against a dark background—a background darker surely than that of the summer night. He remembered with self-contempt the extravagant emotion which she had aroused in him.

"Absurd," Hugh said to himself, with the distrust of all sudden springs of pure emotion which those who have misused them rarely escape. And then another remembrance, which only a sleeping-draught had kept at bay, darted upon him like a panther on its prey.

He had drawn the short lighter.

He started violently, and then fell back trembling.

"Oh, my God!" he said, involuntarily.

He lay still, telling himself that this dreadful nightmare would pass, would fade in the light of common day.

His servant came in noiselessly with a cup of coffee and a little sheaf of letters.

He pretended to be asleep; but when the man had gone he put out his shaking hand for the coffee and drank it.

The mist before his mind gradually lifted. Gradually, too, the horror on his face whitened to despair, as a twilight meadow whitens beneath the evening frost. He had drawn the short lighter. Nothing in heaven or earth could alter that fact.

He did not stop to wonder how Lord Newhaven had become aware of his own dishonor, or at the strange weapon with which he had avenged himself. He went over every detail of his encounter with him in the study. His hand had been forced. He had been thrust into a vile position. He ought to have refused to draw. He did not agree to draw. Nevertheless, he had drawn. And Hugh knew that, if it had to be done again, he should again have been compelled to draw by the iron will before which his was as straw. He could not have met the scorn of those terrible half-closed eyes if he had refused.

"There was no help for it," said Hugh, half aloud. And yet to die by his own hand within five months! It was incredible. It was preposterous.

"I never agreed to it," he said, passionately.

Nevertheless, he had drawn. The remembrance ever returned to lay its cold hand upon his heart, and with it came the grim conviction that if Lord Newhaven had drawn the short lighter he would have carried out the agreement to the letter. Whether it was extravagant, unchristian, whatever might have been truly said of that unholy compact, Lord Newhaven would have stood by it.

"I suppose I must stand by it, too," said Hugh to himself, the cold sweat breaking out on his forehead. "I suppose I am bound in honor to stand by it, too."

He suffered his mind to regard the alternative.

To wrong a man as deeply as he had wronged Lord Newhaven; to tacitly accept. That was where his mistake had been. Another man, that mahogany-faced fellow with the colonial accent, would have refused to draw, and would have knocked Lord Newhaven down and half killed him, or would have been knocked down and half killed by him. But to tacitly accept a means by which the injured man risked his life to avenge his honor, and then afterwards to shirk the fate which a perfectly even chance had thrown upon him instead of on his antagonist! It was too mean, too despicable. Hugh's pale cheek burned.

"I am bound," he said slowly to himself over and over again. There was no way of escape.

Yesterday evening, with some intuition of coming peril, he had said, "I will get out." The way of retreat had been open behind him. Now, by one slight movement, he was cut off from it forever.

"I can't get out," said the starling, the feathers on its breast worn away with beating against the bars.

"I can't get out," said Hugh, coming for the first time in contact with the bars which he was to know so well—the bars of the prison that he had made with his own hands.

He looked into the future with blank eyes. He had no future now. He stared vacantly in front of him like a man who looks through his window at the wide expanse of meadow and waving wood and distant hill which has met his eye every morning of his life and finds it—gone. It was incredible. He turned giddy. His reeling mind, shrinking back from the abyss, struck against a fixed point, and, clutching it, came violently to a stand-still.

His mother!

His mother was a widow and he was her only son. If he died by his own hand it would break her heart. Hugh groaned, and thrust the thought from him. It was too sharp. He could not suffer it.

His sin, not worse than that of many another man, had found him out. He had done wrong. He admitted it, but this monstrous judgment on him was out of all proportion to his offence. And, like some malignant infectious disease, retribution would fall, not on him alone, but on those nearest him, on his innocent mother and sister. It was unjust, unjust, unjust!

A very bitter look came into his face. Hugh had never so far hated any one, but now something very like hatred welled up in his heart against Lady Newhaven. She had lured him to his destruction. She had tempted him. This was undoubtedly true, though not probably the view which her guardian angel would take of the matter.

Among the letters which the servant had brought him he suddenly recognized that the topmost was in Lady Newhaven's handwriting. Anger and repulsion seized him. No doubt it was the first of a series. "Why was he so altered? What had she done to offend him?" etc., etc. He knew the contents beforehand, or thought he knew them. He got up deliberately, threw the unopened note into the empty fireplace, and put a match to it. He watched it burn.

It was his first overt act of rebellion against her yoke, the first step along the nearest of the many well-worn paths that a man takes at random to leave a woman. It did not occur to him that Lady Newhaven might have written to him about his encounter with her husband. He knew Lord Newhaven well enough to be absolutely certain that he would mention the subject to no living creature, least of all to his wife.

"Neither will I," he said to himself; "and as for her, I will break with her from this day forward."

The little pink notes with the dashing, twirly handwriting persisted for a week or two and then ceased.

* * * * *

Hugh was a man of many social engagements. His first impulse, when later in the day he remembered them, was to throw them all up and leave London. But Lord Newhaven would hear of his departure, and would smile. He decided to remain and to go on as if nothing had happened. When the evening came he dressed with his usual care, verified the hour of his engagement, and went out to dine with the Loftuses.



CHAPTER V

What the Bandar-log think now the jungle will think later. —Maxim of the Bandar-log, RUDYARD KIPLING.

It was Sybell Loftus's first season in London since her second marriage with Mr. Doll Loftus. After a very brief sojourn in that city of frivolity she had the acumen to discover that London society was hopelessly worldly and mercenary; that people only met to eat and to abuse each other; that the law of cutlet for cutlet was universal; that young men, especially those in the Guards, were garrisoned by a full complement of devils; that London girls lived only for dress and the excitement of husband-hunting. In short, to use her own expression, she "turned London society inside out."

London bore the process with equanimity, and presently Sybell determined to raise the art of dinner-giving from the low estate to which she avowed it had fallen to a higher level. She was young, she was pretty, she was well-born, she was rich. All the social doors were open to her. But one discovery is often only the prelude to another. She soon made the further one that in order to raise the tone of social gatherings it is absolutely necessary to infuse into them a leaven of "clever people." Further light on this interesting subject showed her that most of the really "clever people" did not belong to her set. The discovery which all who love adulation quickly make—namely, that the truly appreciative and sympathetic and gifted are for the greater part to be found in a class below their own—was duly made and registered by Sybell. She avowed that class differences were nothing to her with the enthusiasm of all those who since the world began have preferred to be first in the society which they gather round them.

Fortunately for Sybell she was not troubled by doubts respecting the clearness of her own judgment. Eccentricity was in her eyes originality; a wholesale contradiction of established facts was a new view. She had not the horrid perception of difference between the real and the imitation which spoils the lives of many. She was equally delighted with both, and remained in blissful ignorance of the fact that her "deep" conversation was felt to be exhaustingly superficial if by chance she came across the real artist or thinker instead of his counterfeit.

Consequently to her house came the rate in all his most virulent developments; the "new woman" with stupendous lopsided opinions on difficult Old Testament subjects; the "lady authoress" with a mission to show up the vices of a society which she knew only by hearsay. Hither came, unwittingly, simple-minded Church dignitaries, who, Sybell hoped, might influence for his good the young agnostic poet who had written a sonnet on her muff-chain, a very daring sonnet, which Doll, who did not care for poetry, had not been shown. Hither, by mistake, thinking it was an ordinary dinner-party, came Hugh, whom Sybell said she had discovered, and who was not aware that he was in need of discovery. And hither also on this particular evening came Rachel West, whom Sybell had pronounced to be very intelligent a few days before, and who was serenely unconscious that she was present on her probation, and that if she did not say something striking she would never be asked again.

Doll Loftus, Sybell's husband, was standing by Rachel when Hugh came in. He felt drawn towards her because she was not "clever," as far as her appearance went. At any rate, she had not the touzled, ill-groomed hair which he had learned to associate with female genius.

"This sort of thing is beyond me," he said, mournfully, to Rachel, his eyes travelling over the assembly gathered round his wife, whose remarks were calling forth admiring laughter. "I don't understand half they say, and when I do I sometimes wish I didn't. But I suppose—" tentatively—"You go in for all this sort of thing?"

"I?" said Rachel, astonished. "I don't go in for anything. But what sort of thing do you mean?"

"There is Scarlett," said Doll, with relief, who hated definitions, and felt the conversation was on the slippery verge of becoming deep. "Do you know him? Looks as if he'd seen a ghost, doesn't he?"

Rachel's interest, never a heavy sleeper, was instantly awakened as she saw Sybell piloting Hugh towards her. She recognized him—the man she had seen last night in the hansom and afterwards at the Newhavens. A glance showed her that his trouble, whatever it might be, had pierced beyond the surface feelings of anger and impatience and had reached the quick of his heart. The young man, pallid and heavy-eyed, bore himself well, and Rachel respected him for his quiet demeanor and a certain dignity, which, for the moment, obliterated the slight indecision of his face, and gave his mouth the firmness which it lacked. It seemed to Rachel as if he had but now stood by a death-bed, and had brought with him into the crowded room the shadow of an inexorable fate.

The others only perceived that he had a headache. Hugh did not deny it. He complained of the great heat to Sybell, but not to Rachel. Something in her clear eyes told him, as they told many others, that small lies and petty deceits might be laid aside with impunity in dealing with her. He felt no surprise at seeing her, no return of the sudden violent emotion of the night before. He had never spoken to her till this moment, but yet he felt that her eyes were old friends, tried to the uttermost and found faithful in some forgotten past. Rachel's eyes had a certain calm fixity in them that comes not of natural temperament, but of past conflict, long waged, and barely but irrevocably won. A faint ray of comfort stole across the desolation of his mind as he looked at her. He did not notice whether she was handsome or ugly, any more than we do when we look at the dear familiar faces which were with us in their childhood and ours, which have grown up beside us under the same roof, which have rejoiced with us and wept with us, and without which heaven itself could never be a home.

In a few minutes he was taking her in to dinner. He had imagined that she was a woman of few words, but after a faint attempt at conversation he found that he had relapsed into silence, and that it was she who was talking. Presently the heavy cloud upon his brain lifted. His strained face relaxed. She glanced at him, and continued her little monologue. Her face had brightened.

He had dreaded this dinner-party, this first essay to preserve his balance in public with his frightful invisible burden; but he was getting through it better than he had expected.

"I have come back to what is called society," Rachel was saying, "after nearly seven years of an exile something like Nebuchadnezzar's, and there are two things which I find as difficult as Kipling's 'silly sailors' found their harps 'which they twanged unhandily.'"

"Is small talk one of them?" asked Hugh. "It has always been a difficulty to me."

"On the contrary," said Rachel. "I plume myself on that. Surely my present sample is not so much below the average that you need ask me that."

"I did not recognize that it was small talk," said Hugh, with a faint smile. "If it really is, I can only say I shall have brain fever if you pass on to what you might call conversation."

It was to him as if a miniature wavelet of a great ocean somewhere in the distance had crept up to laugh and break at his feet. He did not recognize that this tiniest runlet which fell back at once was of the same element as the tidal wave which had swept over him yesternight.

"But are you aware," said Rachel, dropping her voice a little, "it is beginning to dawn upon me that this evening's gathering is met together for exalted conversation, and perhaps we ought to be practising a little. I feel certain that after dinner you will be 'drawn through the clefts of confession' by Miss Barker, the woman in the high dinner gown with orange velvet sleeves. Mrs. Loftus introduced her to me when I arrived as the 'apostle of humanity.'"

"Why should you fix on that particular apostle for me?" said Hugh, looking resentfully at a large-faced woman who was talking in an "intense" manner to a slightly bewildered Bishop.

"It is a prophetic instinct, nothing more."

"I will have a prophetic instinct, too, then," said Hugh, helping himself at last to the dish which was presented to him, to Rachel's relief. "I shall give you the—" looking slowly down the table.

"The Bishop?"

"Certainly not, after your disposal of me."

"Well, then, the poet? I am sure he is a poet because his tie is uneven and his hair is so long. Why do literary men wear their hair long, and literary women wear it short. I should like the poet."

"You shall not have him," said Hugh, with decision. "I am hesitating between the bald young man with the fat hand and the immense ring and the old professor who is drawing plans on the table-cloth."

"The apostle told me with bated breath that the young man with the ring is Mr. Harvey, the author of Unashamed."

Hugh looked at his plate to conceal his disgust.

There was a pause in the buzz of conversation, and into it fell straightway the voice of the apostle like a brick through a skylight.

"The need of the present age is the realization of our brotherhood with sin and suffering and poverty. West London in satin and diamonds does not hear her sister East London in rags calling to her to deliver her. The voice of East London has been drowned in the dance-music of the West End."

Sybell gazed with awed admiration at the apostle.

"What a beautiful thought," she said.

"Miss Gresley's Idyll of East London," said Hugh, "is a voice which, at any rate, has been fully heard."

The apostle put up a pince-nez on a bone leg and looked at Hugh.

"I entirely disapprove of that little book," she said. "It is misleading and wilfully one-sided."

"Hester Gresley is a dear friend of mine," said Sybell, "and I must stand up for her. She is the sister of our clergyman, who is a very clever man. In fact, I am not sure he isn't the cleverest of the two. She and I have great talks. We have so much in common. How strange it seems that she who lives in the depths of the country should have written a story of the East End!"

"That is always so," said the author of Unashamed, in a sonorous voice. "The novel has of late been dwarfed to the scope of the young English girl"—he pronounced it gurl—"who writes from her imagination and not from her experience. What true art requires of us is a faithful rendering of a great experience."

He looked round, as if challenging the world to say that Unashamed was not a lurid personal reminiscence.

Sybell was charmed. She felt that none of her previous dinner-parties had reached such a high level as this one.

"A faithful rendering of a great experience," she repeated. "How I wish Hester were here to hear that. I often tell her she ought to see life, and cultivated society would do so much for her. I found her out a year ago, and I'm always begging people to read her book, and I simply long to introduce her to clever people and oblige the world to recognize her talent."

"I agree with you, it is not yet fully recognized," said Hugh, in a level voice; "but if The Idyll received only partial recognition, it was, at any rate, enthusiastic. And it is not forgotten."

Sybell felt vaguely uncomfortable, and conceived a faint dislike of Hugh as an uncongenial person.

The apostle and the poet began to speak simultaneously, but the female key was the highest, and prevailed.

"We all agree in admiring Miss Gresley's delicate piece of workmanship," said the apostle, both elbows on the table after the manner of her kind, "but it is a misfortune to the cause of suffering humanity—to our cause—when the books which pretend to set forth certain phases of its existence are written by persons entirely ignorant of the life they describe."

"How true!" said Sybell. "I have often thought it, but I never could put it into words as you do. Oh! how I agree with you and Mr. Harvey! As I often say to Hester, 'How can you describe anything if you don't go anywhere or see anything? I can't give you my experience. No one can.' I said that to her only a month ago, when she refused to come up to London with me."

Rachel's white face and neck had taken on them the pink transparent color that generally dwelt only in the curves of her small ears.

"Why do you think Miss Gresley is ignorant of the life she describes?" she said, addressing the apostle.

The author and the apostle both opened their mouths at the same moment, only to register a second triumph of the female tongue.

Miss Barker was in her element. The whole table was listening. She shrugged her orange-velvet shoulders.

"Those who have cast in their lot with the poor," she said, sententiously, "would recognize at once the impossibility of Miss Gresley's characters and situations."

"To me they seem real," said Rachel.

"Ah, my dear Miss West, you will excuse me, but a young lady like yourself, nursed in the lap of luxury, can hardly be expected to look at life with the same eyes as a poor waif like myself, who has penetrated to the very core of the city, and who has heard the stifled sigh of a vast perishing humanity."

"I lived in the midst of it for six years," said Rachel. "I did not cast in my lot with the poor, for I was one of them, and earned my bread among them. Miss Gresley's book may not be palatable in some respects, the district visitor and the woman missionary are certainly treated with harshness, but, as far as my experience goes, The Idyll is a true word from first to last."

There was in Rachel's voice a restrained force that vaguely stirred all the occupants of the room. Every one looked at her, and for a moment no one spoke. She became quite colorless.

"Very striking. Just what I should have said in her place," said Sybell to herself. "I will ask her again."

"I can hear it raining," said Doll's voice from the head of the table to the company in general. "If it will only go on for a week without stopping there may be some hope for the crops yet."

The conversation buzzed up again, and Rachel turned instantly to Hugh, before Mr. Harvey, leaning forward with his ring, had time to address her.

Hugh alone saw what a superhuman effort it had been to her to overcome her shrinking from mentioning, not her previous poverty, but her personal experience. She had sacrificed her natural reserve, which he could see was great; she had even set good taste at defiance to defend Hester Gresley's book. Hugh had shuddered as he heard her speak. He felt that he could not have obtruded himself on so mixed an assembly. Yet he saw that it had cost her more to do so than it would have cost him.

He began to remember having heard people speak of an iron-master's daughter, whose father had failed and died, and who, after several years of dire poverty, had lately inherited a vast fortune from her father's partner. It had been talked about at the time, a few months ago. This must be she.

"You have a great affection for Miss Gresley," he said, in a low voice.

"I have," said Rachel, her lip still quivering. "But if I disliked her I hope I should have said the same. Surely it is not necessary to love the writer in order to defend the book."

Hugh was silent. He looked at her, and wished that she might always be on his side.

"About two courses ago I was going to tell you," said Rachel, smiling, "of one of my chief difficulties on my return to the civilized world and 'Society.' But now you have had an example of it. I am trying to cure myself of the trick of becoming interested in conversation. I must learn to use words as counters, not as coins. I need not disbelieve what I say, but I must not speak of anything to which I attach value. I perceive that to do this is an art and a means of defence from invasion. But I, on the contrary, become interested, as you have just seen. I forget that I am only playing a game, and I rush into a subject like a bull into a china-shop, and knock about all the crockery until—as I am not opposed by my native pitchfork—I suddenly return to my senses, and discover that I have mistaken a game for real earnest."

"We were all in earnest five minutes ago," said Hugh; "at least, I was. I could not bear to hear Miss Gresley patronized by all these failures and amateurs. But, unless I am very much mistaken, you will find several pitchforks laid up for you in the drawing-room."

"I don't mean to smash any more china," said Rachel.

Another wavelet skimmed in and broke a little further up the sand. A sense of freshness, of expectation was in the air. The great gathered ocean was stirring itself in the distance. Hugh had forgotten his trouble.

He turned the conversation back to Hester Gresley and her writing. He spoke of her with sympathy and appreciation, and presently detected a softness in Rachel's eyes which made him jealous of Hester.

By the time the evening was over the imperceptible travelling of the summer sea had reached as far as the tidal wave.

Hugh left when Rachel did, accompanying her to her carriage. At the door were the darkness and the rain. At the door with them the horror and despair of the morning were in wait for him, and laid hold upon him. Hugh shuddered, and turned instinctively to Rachel.

She was holding out her hand to him. He took it and held it tightly in his sudden fear and desolation.

"When shall I meet you again?" he said, hoarsely.

A long look passed between them. Hugh's tortured soul, full of passionate entreaty, leaped to his eyes. Hers, sad and steadfast, met the appeal in his, and recognized it as a claim. There was no surprise in her quiet face.

"I ride early in the Row," she said. "You can join me there if you wish. Good-night."

She took her hand with great gentleness out of his and drove away.

And the darkness shut down again on Hugh's heart.



CHAPTER VI

Ici bas tous les hommes pleurent Leurs amities et leurs amours. —BOURGET.

Many sarcastic but true words have been said by man, and in no jealous spirit, concerning woman's friendship for woman. The passing judgment of the majority of men on such devotion might be summed up in the words, "Occupy till I come." It does occupy till they do come. And if they don't come the hastily improvised friendship may hold together for years, like an unseaworthy boat in a harbor, which looks like a boat but never goes out to sea.

But, nevertheless, here and there among its numberless counterfeits a friendship rises up between two women which sustains the life of both, which is still young when life is waning, which man's love and motherhood cannot displace nor death annihilate; a friendship which is not the solitary affection of an empty heart, nor the deepest affection of a full one, but which nevertheless lightens the burdens of this world and lays its pure hand upon the next.

Such a friendship, very deep, very tender, existed between Rachel West and Hester Gresley. It dated back from the nursery days, when Hester and Rachel solemnly eyed each other, and then made acquaintance in the dark gardens of Portman Square, into which Hester introduced a fortified castle with a captive princess in it, and a rescuing prince and a dragon, and several other ingredients of romance to the awed amazement of Rachel—stolid, solid, silent Rachel—who loved all two and four legged creatures, but who never made them talk to each other as Hester did. And Hester, in blue serge, told Rachel, in crimson velvet, as they walked hand in hand in front of their nursery-maids, what the London sparrows said to each other in the gutters, and how they considered the gravel path in the square was a deep river suitable to bathe in. And when the spring was coming, and the prince had rescued the princess so often from the dungeon in the laurel-bushes that Hester was tired of it, she told Rachel how the elms were always sighing because they were shut up in town, and how they went out every night with their roots into the green country to see their friends, and came back, oh! so early in the morning, before any one was awake to miss them. And Rachel's heart yearned after Hester, and she gave her her red horse and the tin duck and magnet, and Hester made stories about them all.

At last the day came when Rachel's mother, who had long viewed the intimacy with complacency, presented her compliments, in a note-sheet with two immense gilt crests on it, to Hester's aunt, and requested that her little niece might be allowed to come to tea with her little daughter. And Lady Susan Gresley, who had never met the rich iron-master's wife in this world, and would probably be equally exclusive in the next, was about to refuse, when Hester, who up to that moment had apparently taken no interest in the matter, suddenly cast herself on the floor in a paroxysm of despair and beat her head against the carpet. The tearful entreaties of her aunt gradually elicited the explanation, riddled by sobs, that Hester could never take an interest in life again, could never raise herself even to a sitting position, nor dry her eyes on her aunt's handkerchief, unless she were allowed to go to tea with Rachel and see her dormouse.

Lady Susan, much upset herself, and convinced that these outbursts were prejudicial to Hester's health, gave way at once, and a few days later Hester, pale, shy, in a white muffler, escorted by mademoiselle, went to tea in the magnificent house on the other side of the square, and saw Rachel's round head without a feathered hat on it, and both children were consumed by shyness until the two mademoiselles withdrew into another room, and Rachel showed Hester the dormouse which she had found in the woods in the country, and which ate out of her hand. And Hester made a little poem on it, beginning,

"There was a mouse in Portman Square";

and so, with many breaks, the friendship attained a surer footing, and the intimacy grew with their growth, in spite of the fact that Lady Susan had felt unable (notwithstanding the marked advances of Mrs. West, possibly because of them) to enlarge her visiting-list, in spite of many other difficulties which were only in the end surmounted by the simplicity of character which Rachel had not inherited from her parents.

And then, after both girls had danced through one London season in different ball-rooms, Rachel's parents died, her mother first, and then—by accident—her father, leaving behind him an avalanche of unsuspected money difficulties, in which even his vast fortune was engulfed.

Hard years followed for Rachel. She ate the bread of carefulness in the houses of poor relations not of high degree, with whom her parents had quarrelled when they had made their money and began to entertain social ambitions. She learned what it was to be the person of least importance in families of no importance. She essayed to teach, and failed. She had no real education. She made desperate struggles for independence, and learned how others failed besides herself. She left her relations and their bitter bread and came to London, and struggled with those who struggled, and saw how Temptation spreads her net for bleeding feet. Because she loved Hester she accepted from her half her slender pin-money. Hester had said, "If I were poor, Rachel, how would you bear it if I would not let you help me?" And Rachel had wept slow, difficult tears, and had given Hester the comfort of helping her. The greater generosity was with Rachel, and Hester knew it.

And as Rachel's fortunes sank, Hester's rose. Lady Susan Gresley had one talent, and she did not lay it up in a napkin. She had the art of attracting people to her house, that house to which Mrs. West had never forced an entrance. Hester was thrown from the first into a society which her clergyman brother, who had never seen it, pronounced to be frivolous, worldly, profane, but which no one has called dull. There were many facets in Hester's character, and Lady Susan had managed to place her where they caught the light. Was she witty? Was she attractive? Who shall say? Man is wisely averse to "cleverness" in a woman, but if he possesses any armor wherewith to steel himself against wit it is certain that he seldom puts it on. She refused several offers, one so brilliant that no woman ever believed that it was really made.

Lady Susan saw that her niece, without a fortune, with little beauty save that of high breeding, with weak health, was becoming a personage. "What will she become?" people said. And in the meanwhile Hester did nothing beyond dressing extremely well. And everything she saw and every person she met added fuel to an unlit fire in her soul.

At last Rachel was able to earn a meagre living by type-writing, and for four years, happy by contrast with those when despair and failure had confronted her, she lived by the work of her hands among those poor as herself. Gradually she had lost sight of all her acquaintances. She had been out of the school-room for too short a time to make friends. And, alas! in the set in which she had been launched poverty was a crime; no, perhaps not quite that, but as much a bar to intercourse as in another class a want of the letter h is found to be.

It was while Rachel was still struggling for a livelihood that the event happened which changed the bias of her character, as a geranium transplanted from the garden changes its attitude in a cottage window.

On one of the early days of her despair she met on the dreary stairs of the great rabbit-warren in which she had a room, a man with whom she had been acquainted in the short year of her social life before the collapse of her fortunes. He had paid her considerable attention, and she had thought once or twice, with momentary bitterness, that, like the rest, he had not cared to find out what had become of her. She greeted him with shy but evident pleasure. She took for granted he had come to see her, and he allowed her to remain under that delusion. In reality he had been hunting up an old model whom he wanted for his next picture, and who had silently left Museum Buildings some months before without leaving his address. He had genuinely admired her, though he had forgotten her, and he was unaffectedly delighted to see her again.

That one chance meeting was the first of many. Flowers came to Rachel's little room, and romance came with them. Rachel's proud, tender heart struggled, and then gave way before this radiant first love blossoming in the midst of her loneliness. At last, on a March afternoon, when the low sun caught the daffodils he had brought her, he told her he loved her.

Days followed, exquisite days, which have none like them in later life whatever later life may bring. That year the spring came early, and they went often together into the country. And that year when all the world was white with blossom the snow came and laid upon earth's bridal veil a white shroud. Every cup of May blossom, every petal of hawthorn, bent beneath its burden of snow. And so it was in the full spring-tide of Rachel's heart. The snow came down upon it. She discovered at last that though he loved her he did not wish to marry her; that even from the time of that first meeting he had never intended to marry her. That discovery was a shroud. She wrapped her dead love in it, and would fain have buried it out of her sight.

But only after a year of conflict was she suffered to bury it—after a year during which the ghost of her dead ever came back, and came back to importune her vainly with its love. Rachel's poor neighbors grew accustomed to see the tall, handsome, waiting figure which always returned and returned, but which at last, after one dreadful day, was seen no more in Museum Buildings. Rachel had laid the ghost at last. But the conflict remained graven in her face.

* * * * *

On a certain cold winter morning Hester darted across the wet pavement from the brougham to the untidy entrance of Museum Buildings where Rachel still lived. It was a miserable day. The streets and bare trees looked as if they had been drawn in in ink, and the whole carelessly blotted before it was dry. All the outlines were confused, blurred. The cold penetrated to the very bones of the shivering city.

Rachel had just come in, wet and tired, bringing with her a roll of manuscript to be transcribed. A woman waiting for her on the endless stone stairs had cursed her for taking the bread out of her mouth.

"He always employed me till you came," she shrieked, shaking her fist at her, "and now he gives it all to you because you're younger and better-looking."

She gave the woman as much as she dared spare, the calculation did not take long, and went on climbing the stairs.

Something in the poor creature's words, something vague but repulsive in her remembrance of the man who paid her for the work by which she could barely live, fell like lead into Rachel's heart. She looked out dumbly over the wilderness of roofs. The suffering of the world was eating into her soul; the suffering of this vast travailing East London, where people trod each other down to live.

"If any one had told me," she said to herself, "when I was rich, that I lived on the flesh and blood of my fellow-creatures, that my virtue and ease and pleasure were bought by their degradation and toil and pain, I should not have believed it, and I should have been angry. If I had been told that the clothes I wore, the food I ate, the pen I wrote with, the ink I used, the paper I wrote on—all these, and everything I touched, from my soap to my match-box, especially my match-box, was the result of sweated labor, I should not have believed it, I should have laughed. But yet it is so. If I had not been rich once myself I should think as all these people do, that the rich are devils incarnate to let such things go on. They have the power to help us. We have none to help ourselves. But they never use it. The rich grind the poor for their luxuries with their eyes shut, and we grind each other for our daily bread with our eyes open. I have got that woman's work. I have struggled hard enough to get it, but, though I did not realize it, I might have known that I had only got on to the raft by pushing some one else off it."

Rachel looked out across the miles of roofs which lay below her garret window. The sound was in her ears of that great whirlpool wherein youth and beauty and innocence go down quick day by day. The wilderness of leaden roofs turned suddenly before her eyes into a sullen furrowed sea of shame and crime which, awaiting no future day of judgment, daily gave up its awful dead.

Presently Hester came in, panting a little after the long ascent of worn stairs, and dragging with her a large parcel. It was a fur-lined cloak. Hester spread it mutely before her friend, and looked beseechingly at her. Then she kissed her, and the two girls clung together for a moment in silence.

"Dearest," said Rachel, "don't give me new things. It isn't that—you know I did take it when I was in need. But, oh, Hester, I know you can't afford it. I should not mind if you were rich, at least, I would try not, but—if you would only give me some of your old clothes instead. I should like them all the better because you had worn them." And Rachel kissed the lapel of Hester's coat.

"I can't," whispered Hester into Rachel's hair. "The best is only just good enough."

"Wouldn't it be kinder to me?"

Hester trembled, and then burst into tears.

"I will wear it, I will wear it," said Rachel, hurriedly. "Look, Hester! I have got it on. How deliciously warm! and—do look!—it has two little pockets in the fur lining."

But Hester wept passionately, and Rachel sat down by her on the floor in the new cloak till the paroxysm was over.

How does a subtle affinity find a foothold between natures which present an obvious, a violent contrast to each other? Why do the obvious and the subtle forget their life-long feud at intervals and suddenly appear for a moment in each other's society?

Rachel was physically strong. Hester was weak. The one was calm, patient, practical, equable, the other imaginative, unbalanced, excitable.

Life had not spoiled Rachel. Lady Susan Gresley had done her best to spoil Hester. The one had lived the unprotected life, and showed it in her bearing. The other had lived the sheltered life, and bore its mark upon her pure forehead and youthful face.

"I cannot bear it," said Hester at last. "I think and think, and I can't think of anything. I would give my life for you, and you will hardly let me give you L3 10s. 6d. That is all it cost. It is only frieze, that common red frieze, and the lining is only rabbit." A last tear fell at the word rabbit. "I wanted to get you a velvet one, just the same as my new one, lined with chinchilla, but I knew it would only make you miserable. I wish," looking vindictively at the cloak—"I wish rabbits had never been born."

Rachel laughed. Hester was evidently recovering.

"Mr. Scarlett was saying last night that no one can help any one," continued Hester, turning her white, exhausted face to her friend. "He said that we are always so placed that we can only look on. And I told him that could not be true, but, oh, in my heart, Rachel, I have felt it was true all these long, long five years since you have lived here."

Rachel came and stood beside her at the little window. There was just room for them between the type-writer and the bed.

Far below, Hester's brougham was pacing up and down.

"Then are love and sympathy nothing?" she said. "Those are the real gifts. If I were rich to-morrow I should look to you just as I do now for the things which money can't buy. And those are the things"—Rachel's voice shook—"which you have always given me, and which I can't do without. You feel my poverty more than I do myself. It crushed me at first when I could not support myself. Now that I can—and in everything except money I am very rich—I am comparatively happy."

There was a long silence.

"Perhaps," said Rachel at last, with difficulty, "if I had remained an heiress Mr. Tristram might have married me. I feel nearly sure he would have married me. In that case I lost my money only just in time to prevent a much greater misfortune, and I am glad I am as I am."

Rachel remembered that conversation often in after-years with a sense of thankfulness that for once she, who was so reticent, had let Hester see how dear she was to her.

The two girls stood long together cheek against cheek.

And as Hester leaned against Rachel the yearning of her soul towards her suddenly lit up something which had long lain colossal, but inapprehended, in the depths of her mind. Her paroxysm of despair at her own powerlessness was followed by a lightning flash of self-revelation. She saw, as in a dream, terrible, beautiful, inaccessible, but distinct, where her power lay, of which restless bewildering hints had so often mocked her. She had but to touch the houses and they would fall down. She held her hands tightly together lest she should do it. The strength as of an infinite ocean swept in beneath her weakness, and bore it upon its surface like a leaf.

"You must go home," said Rachel gently, remembering Lady Susan's punctual habits.

Hester kissed her absently and went out into the new world which had been pressing upon her all her life, the gate of which Love had opened for her. For Love has many keys besides that of her own dwelling. Some who know her slightly affirm that she can only open her own cheap patent padlock with a secret word on it that everybody knows. But some who know her better hold that hers is the master-key which will one day turn all the locks in all the world.

* * * * *

A year later Hester's first book, An Idyll of East London, was reaping its harvest of astonished indignation and admiration, and her acquaintances—not her friends—were still wondering how she came to know so much of a life of which they decided she could know nothing, when suddenly Lady Susan Gresley died, and Hester went to live in the country with her clergyman brother.

A few months later still, and on a mild April day, when the poor London trees had black buds on them, Rachel brushed and folded away in the little painted chest of drawers her few threadbare clothes, and put the boots—which the cobbler, whose wife she had nursed, had patched for her—under the shelf which held her few cups and plates and the faithful tin kettle, which had always been a cheerful boiler. And she washed her seven coarse handkerchiefs, and put them in the washhandstand drawer. And then she raked out the fire and cleaned the grate, and set the room in order. It was quickly done. She took up her hat, which lay beside a bundle on the bed. Her hands trembled as she put it on. She looked wistfully round her, and her face worked. The little room which had looked so alien when she came to it six years ago had become a home. She went to the window and kissed the pane through which she had learned to see so much. Then she seized up the bundle and went quickly out, locking the door behind her, and taking the key with her.

"I am going away for a time, but I shall come back," she said to the cobbler's wife on the same landing.

"No one comes back as once goes," said the woman, without raising her eyes from the cheap blouse which she was finishing, which kept so well the grim secret of how it came into being that no one was afraid of buying it.

"I am keeping on the room."

The woman smiled incredulously, giving one sharp glance at the bundle. She had seen many flittings. She should buy the kettle when Rachel's "sticks" were sold by the landlord in default of the rent.

"Well, you was a good neighbor," she said. "There's a-many as 'ull miss you. Good-bye, and good luck to ye. I sha'n't say as you've left."

"I shall come back," said Rachel, hoarsely, and she slipped down-stairs like a thief. She felt like a thief. For she was rich. The man who had led her father into the speculations which had ruined him had died childless, and had bequeathed to her a colossal fortune.



CHAPTER VII

Cure the drunkard, heal the insane, mollify the homicide, civilize the Pawnee, but what lessons can be devised for the debauchee of sentiment?—EMERSON.

A fortnight had passed since the drawing of lots, and Lady Newhaven remained in ignorance as to which of the two men had received his death-warrant. Few have found suspense easy to bear; but for the self-centred an intolerable element is added to it, which unselfish natures escape. From her early youth Lady Newhaven had been in the habit of viewing life in picturesque tableaux vivants of which she invariably formed the central figure. At her confirmation the Bishop, the white-robed clergy, and the other candidates had served but as a nebulous background against which her own white-clad, kneeling figure, bowed in reverent devotion, stood out in high relief.

When she married Lord Newhaven he took so slight a part, though a necessary one, in the wedding groups that their completeness had never been marred by misgivings as to his exact position in them. When, six years later, after one or two mild flirtations which only served as a stimulus to her love of dress—when at last she met, as she would have expressed it, "the one love of her life," her first fluctuations and final deviation from the path of honor were the result of new arrangements round the same centre.

The first groups in which Hugh took part had been prodigies of virtue. The young mother with the Madonna face—Lady Newhaven firmly believed that her face, with the crimped fringe drawn down to the eyebrows, resembled that of a Madonna—with her children round her, Lord Newhaven as usual somewhat out of focus in the background; and Hugh, young, handsome, devoted, heartbroken, and ennobled for life by the contemplation of such impregnable virtue.

"You accuse me of coldness," she had imagined herself saying in a later scene, when the children and the husband would have made too much of a crowd, and were consequently omitted. "I wish to Heaven I were as cold as I appear."

And she had really said it later on. Hugh never did accuse her of coldness, but that was a detail. Those words, conned over many times, had nevertheless actually proceeded out of her mouth. Few of us have the power of saying anything we intend to say. But Lady Newhaven had that power, and enjoyed also in consequence a profound belief in her prophetic instincts; while others, Hugh not excepted, detected a premeditated tone in her conversation, and a sense of incongruity between her remarks and the occasion which called them forth.

From an early date in their married life Lord Newhaven had been in the habit of discounting these remarks by making them in rapid rotation himself before proceeding to the matter in hand.

"Having noticed that a mother—I mean a young mother—is never really happy in the absence of her children, and that their affection makes up for the carelessness of their father, may I ask, Violet, what day you wish to return to Westhope?" he said one morning at breakfast.

"Any day," she replied. "I am as miserable in one place as in another."

"We will say Friday week, then," returned Lord Newhaven, ignoring, as he invariably did, any allusions to their relative position, and because he ignored them she made many. "The country," he added, hurriedly, "will be very refreshing after the glare and dust and empty worldly society of London."

She looked at him in anger. She did not understand the reason, but she had long vaguely felt that all conversation seemed to dry up in his presence. He mopped it all into his own sponge, so to speak, and left every subject exhausted.

She rose in silent dignity, and went to her boudoir and lay down there. The heat was very great, and another fire was burning within her, withering her round cheek, and making her small, plump hand look shrunk and thin. A fortnight had passed, and she had not heard from Hugh. She had written to him many times, at first only imploring him to meet her, but afterwards telling him she knew what had happened, and entreating him to put her out of suspense, to send her one line that his life was not endangered. She had received no answer to any of her letters. She came to the conclusion that they had been intercepted by Lord Newhaven, and that no doubt the same fate had befallen Hugh's letters to herself. For some time past, before the drawing of lots, she had noticed that Hugh's letters had become less frequent and shorter in length. She understood the reason now. Half of them had been intercepted. How that fact could account for the shortness of the remainder may not be immediately apparent to the prosaic mind, but it was obvious to Lady Newhaven. That Hugh had begun to weary of her could not force the narrow entrance to her mind. Such a possibility had never been even considered in the pictures of the future with which her imagination busied itself. But what would the future be? The road along which she was walking forked before her eyes, and her usual perspicacity was at fault. She knew not in which of those two diverging paths the future would lie.

Would she in eighteen months' time—she should certainly refuse to marry within the year—be standing at the altar in a "confection" of lilac and white with Hugh; or would she be a miserable wife, moving ghostlike about her house, in colored raiment, while a distant grave was always white with flowers sent by a nameless friend of the dead? "How some one must have loved him!" she imagined Hugh's aged mother saying. And once, as that bereaved mother came in the dusk to weep beside the grave, did she not see a shadowy figure start up, black-robed, from the flower-laden sod, and, hastily drawing a thick veil over a beautiful, despairing face, glide away among the trees? At this point Lady Newhaven always began to cry. It was too heart-rending. And her mind in violent recoil was caught once more, and broken on the same wheel. "Which? Which?"

A servant entered.

"Would her ladyship see Miss West for a few minutes?"

"Yes," said Lady Newhaven, glad to be delivered from herself, if only by the presence of an acquaintance.

"It is very charitable of you to see me," said Rachel. "Personally, I think morning calls ought to be a penal offence. But I came at the entreaty of a former servant of yours. I feel sure you will let me carry some message of forgiveness to her, as she is dying. Her name is Morgan. Do you remember her?"

"I once had a maid called Morgan," said Lady Newhaven. "She was drunken, and I had to part with her in the end; but I kept her as long as I could in spite of it. She had a genius for hair-dressing."

"She took your diamond heart pendant," continued Rachel. "She was never found out. She can't return it, for, of course, she sold it and spent the money. But now at last she feels she did wrong, and she says she will die easier for your forgiveness."

"Oh! I forgive her," said Lady Newhaven, indifferently. "I often wondered how I lost it. I never cared about it." She glanced at Rachel, and added tremulously, "My husband gave it me."

A sudden impulse was urging her to confide in this grave, gentle-eyed woman. The temptation was all the stronger because Rachel, who had only lately appeared in society, was not connected with any portion of her previous life. She was as much a chance acquaintance as a fellow-passenger in a railway carriage.

Rachel rose and held out her hand.

"Don't go," whispered Lady Newhaven, taking her outstretched hand and holding it.

"I think if I stay," said Rachel, "that you may say things you will regret later on when you are feeling stronger. You are evidently tired out now. Everything looks exaggerated when we are exhausted, as I see you are."

"I am worn out with misery," said Lady Newhaven. "I have not slept for a fortnight. I feel I must tell some one." And she burst into violent weeping.

Rachel sat down again, and waited patiently for the hysterical weeping to cease. Those in whom others confide early learn that their own engagements, their own pleasures and troubles, are liable to be set aside at any moment. Rachel was a punctual, exact person, but she missed many trains. Those who sought her seldom realized that her day was as full as, possibly fuller, than their own. Perhaps it was only a very small pleasure to which she had been on her way on this particular morning, and for which she had put on that ethereal gray gown for the first time. At any rate, she relinquished it without a second thought.

Presently Lady Newhaven dried her eyes and turned impulsively towards her.

The strata of impulsiveness and conventional feeling were always so mixed up after one of these emotional upheavals that it was difficult to guess which would come uppermost. Sometimes fragments of both appeared on the surface together.

"I loved you from the first moment I saw you," she said. "I don't take fancies to people, you know. I am not that kind of person. I am very difficult to please, and I never speak of what concerns myself. I am most reserved. I dare say you have noticed how reserved I am. I live in my shell. But directly I saw you I felt I could talk to you. I said to myself, 'I will make a friend of that girl.' Although I always feel a married woman is so differently placed from a girl. A girl only thinks of herself. I am not saying this the least unkindly, but, of course, it is so. Now a married woman has to consider her husband and family in all she says and does. How will it affect them? That is what I so often say to myself, and then my lips are sealed. But, of course, being unmarried, you would not understand that feeling."

Rachel did not answer. She was inured to this time-honored conversational opening.

"And the temptations of married life," continued Lady Newhaven—"a girl cannot enter into them."

"Then do not tell me about them," said Rachel, smiling, wondering if she might still escape. But Lady Newhaven had no intention of letting her go. She only wished to indicate to her her true position. And gradually, not without renewed outbursts of tears, not without traversing many layers of prepared conventional feelings, in which a few thin streaks of genuine emotion wore embedded, she told her story—the story of a young, high-minded, and neglected wife, and of a husband callous, indifferent, a scorner of religion, unsoftened even by the advent of the children—"such sweet children, such little darlings"—and the gradual estrangement. Then came the persistent siege to the lonely heart of one not pretty, perhaps, but fatally attractive to men; the lonely heart's unparalleled influence for good over the besieger.

"He would do anything," said Lady Newhaven, looking earnestly at Rachel. "My influence over him is simply boundless. If I said, as I sometimes did at balls, how sorry I was to see some plain girl standing out, he would go and dance with her. I have seen him do it."

"I suppose he did it to please you."

"That was just it, simply to please me."

Rachel was not so astonished as Lady Newhaven expected. She certainly was rather wooden, the latter reflected. The story went on. It became difficult to tell, and, according to the teller, more and more liable to misconstruction. Rachel's heart ached as bit by bit the inevitable development was finally reached in floods of tears.

"And you remember that night you were at an evening party here," sobbed Lady Newhaven, casting away all her mental notes and speaking extempore. "It is just a fortnight ago, and I have not slept since, and he was here, looking so miserable"—(Rachel started slightly)—"he sometimes did, if he thought I was hard upon him. And afterwards, when every one had gone, Edward took him to his study and told him he had found us out, and they drew lots which should kill himself within five months—and I listened at the door."

Lady Newhaven's voice rose half strangled, hardly human, in a shrill grotesque whimper above the sobs which were shaking her. There was no affectation about her now.

Rachel's heart went out to her the moment she was natural. She knelt down and put her strong arms round her. The poor thing clung to her, and, leaning her elaborate head against her, wept tears of real anguish upon her breast.

"And which drew the short lighter?" said Rachel at last.

"I don't know," almost shrieked Lady Newhaven. "It is that which is killing me. Sometimes I think it is Edward, and sometimes I think it is Hugh."

At the name of Hugh, Rachel winced. Lady Newhaven had mentioned no name in the earlier stages of her story while she had some vestige of self-command; but now at last the Christian name slipped out unawares.

Rachel strove to speak calmly. She told herself there were many Hughs in the world.

"Is Mr. Hugh Scarlett the man you mean?" she asked. If she had died for it, she must have asked that question.

"Yes," said Lady Newhaven.

A shadow fell on Rachel's face, as on the face of one who suddenly discovers, not for the first time, an old enemy advancing upon him under the flag of a new ally.

"I shall always love him," gasped Lady Newhaven, recovering herself sufficiently to recall a phrase which she had made up the night before. "I look upon it as a spiritual marriage."



CHAPTER VIII

A square-set man and honest. —TENNYSON.

"Dick," said Lord Newhaven, laying hold of that gentleman as he was leaving Tattersall's, "what mischief have you been up to for the last ten days?"

"I lay low till I got my clothes," said Dick, "and then I went to the Duke of ——. I've just been looking at a hack for him. He says he does not want one that takes a lot of sitting on. I met him the first night I landed. In fact, I stepped out of the train on to his royal toe travelling incog. I was just going to advise him to draw in his feelers a hit and give the Colonies a chance, when he turned round and I saw who it was. I knew him when I was A.D.C. at Melbourne before I took to the drink. He said he thought he'd know my foot anywhere, and asked me down for —— races."

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse