The Haunted Chamber
BY "THE DUCHESS"
The sun has "dropped down," and the "day is dead." The silence and calm of coming night are over everything. The shadowy twilight lies softly on sleeping flowers and swaying boughs, on quiet fountains—the marble basins of which gleam snow-white in the uncertain light—on the glimpse of the distant ocean seen through the giant elms. A floating mist hangs in the still warm air, making heaven and earth mingle in one sweet confusion.
The ivy creeping up the ancient walls of the castle is rustling and whispering as the evening breeze sweeps over it. High up the tendrils climb, past mullioned windows and quaint devices, until they reach even to the old tower, and twine lovingly round it, and push through the long apertures in the masonry of the walls of the haunted chamber.
It is here that the shadows cast their heaviest gloom. All this corner of the old tower is wrapped in darkness, as though to obscure the scene of terrible crimes of past centuries.
Ghosts of dead-and-gone lords and ladies seem to peer out mysteriously from the openings in this quaint chamber, wherein no servant, male or female, of the castle has ever yet been known to set foot. It is full of dire horrors to them, and replete with legends of by-gone days and grewsome sights ghastly enough to make the stoutest heart quail.
In the days of the Stuarts an old earl had hanged himself in that room, rather than face the world with dishonor attached to his name; and earlier still a beauteous dame, fair but frail, had been incarcerated there, and slowly starved to death by her relentless lord. There was even in the last century a baronet—the earldom had been lost to the Dynecourts during the Commonwealth—who, having quarreled with his friend over a reigning belle, had smitten him across the cheek with his glove, and then challenged him to mortal combat. The duel had been fought in the luckless chamber, and had only ended with the death of both combatants; the blood stains upon the flooring were large and deep, and to this day the boards bear silent witness to the sanguinary character of that secret fight.
Just now, standing outside the castle in the warmth and softness of the dying daylight, one can hardly think of by-gone horrors, or aught that is sad and sinful.
There is an air of bustle and expectancy within-doors that betokens coming guests; the servants are moving to and fro noiselessly but busily, and now and then the stately housekeeper passes from room to room uttering commands and injunctions to the maids as she goes. No less occupied and anxious is the butler, as he surveys the work of the footmen. It is so long since the old place has had a resident master, and so much longer still since guests have been invited to it, that the household are more than ordinarily excited at the change now about to take place.
Sir Adrian Dynecourt, after a prolonged tour on the Continent and lingering visits to the East, has at last come home with the avowed intention of becoming a staid country gentleman, and of settling down to the cultivation of turnips, the breeding of prize oxen, and the determination to be the M.F.H. when old Lord Dartree shall have fulfilled his declared intention of retiring in his favor. He is a tall young man, lithe and active. His skin, though naturally fair, is bronzed by foreign travel. His hair is a light brown, cut very close to his head. His eyes are large, clear, and honest, and of a peculiarly dark violet; they are beautiful eyes, winning and sweet, and steady in their glance. His mouth, shaded by a drooping fair mustache, is large and firm, yet very prone to laughter.
It is quite the end of the London season, and Sir Adrian has hurried down from town to give directions for the reception of some people whom he has invited to stay with him during the slaughter of the partridges.
Now all is complete, and the last train from London being due half an hour ago Sir Adrian is standing on the steps of his hall-door anxiously awaiting some of his guests.
There is even a touch of genuine impatience in his manner, which could hardly be attributed to the ordinary longing of a young man to see a few of his friends. Sir Adrian's anxiety is open and undisguised, and there is a little frown upon his brow. Presently his face brightens as be hears the roll of carriage-wheels. When the carriage turns the corner of the drive, and the horses are pulled up at the hall door, Sir Adrian sees a fair face at the window that puts to flight all the fears he has been harboring for the last half hour.
"You have come?" he says delightedly, running down the steps and opening the carriage door himself. "I am so glad! I began to think the train had run away with you, or that the horses had bolted."
"Such a journey as it has been!" exclaims a voice not belonging to the face that had looked from the carriage at Sir Adrian. "It has been tiresome to the last degree. I really don't know when I felt so fatigued!"
A little woman, small and fair, steps languidly to the ground as she says this, and glances pathetically at her host. She is beautifully "got up," both in dress and complexion, and at a first glance appears almost girlish. Laying her hand in Sir Adrian's, she lets it rest there, as though glad to be at her journey's end, conveying at the same time by a gentle pressure of her taper fingers the fact that she is even more glad that the end of her journey has brought her to him. She looks up at him with her red lips drooping as if tired, and with a bewildered expression in her pretty blue eyes that adds to the charm of her face.
"It's an awful distance from town!" says Sir Adrian, as if apologizing for the spot on which his grand old castle has been built. "And it was more than good of you to come to me. I can only try to make up to you for the discomfort you have experienced to-day by throwing all possible chances of amusement in your way whilst you stay here."
By this time she has withdrawn her hand, and so he is free to go up to his other guest and bid her welcome. He says nothing to her, strange to say, but it is his hand that seeks to retain hers this time, and it is his eyes that look longingly into the face before him.
"You are tired, too?" he says at length. "Come into the house and rest awhile before dinner. You will like to go to your rooms at once, perhaps?" he adds, turning to his two visitors.
"Thank you—yes. If you will have our tea sent upstairs," replies Mrs. Talbot plaintively, "it will be such a comfort!" she always speaks in a somewhat pouting tone, and with heavy emphasis.
"Tea—nonsense!" responds Sir Adrian. "There's nothing like champagne as a pick-me-up. I'll send you tea also; but, take my advice, and try the champagne."
"Oh, thank you, I shall so much prefer my tea!" Mrs. Talbot declares, with a graceful little shrug of her shoulders, at which her friend Miss Delmaine laughs aloud.
"I accept your advice, Sir Adrian," she says, casting a mischievous glance at him from under her long lashes. "And—yes, Dora will take champagne too—when it comes."
"Naughty girl!" exclaims Mrs. Talbot, with a little flickering smile. Dora Talbot seldom smiles, having learned by experience that her delicate face looks prettier in repose. "Come, then, Sir Adrian," she adds, "let us enter your enchanted castle."
The servants by this time have taken in all their luggage—that is, as much as they have been able to bring in the carriage; and now the two ladies walk up the steps and enter the hall, their host beside them.
Mrs. Talbot, who has recovered her spirits a little, is chattering gayly, and monopolizing Sir Adrian to the best of her ability, whilst Miss Delmaine is strangely silent, and seems lost in a kind of pleased wonder as she gazes upon all her charming surroundings.
The last rays of light are streaming in through the stained-glass windows, rendering the old hall full of mysterious beauty. The grim warriors in their coats of mail seem, to the entranced gaze of Florence Delmaine, to be making ready to spring from the niches which hold them.
Waking from her dream as she reaches the foot of the stone staircase, she says abruptly, but with a lovely smile playing round her mouth—
"Surely, Sir Adrian, you have a ghost in this beautiful old place, or a secret staircase, or at least a bogy of some sort? Do not spoil the romantic look of it by telling me you have no tale of terror to impart, no history of a ghostly visitant who walks these halls at the dead of night."
"We have no ghost here, I am sorry to say," answers Sir Adrian, laughing. "For the first time I feel distressed and ashamed that it should be so. We can only boast a haunted chamber; but there are certain legends about it, I am proud to say, the bare narration of which would make even the stoutest quail."
"Good gracious—how distinctly unpleasant!" exclaims Mrs. Talbot, with a nervous and very effective shudder.
"How distinctly delicious, you mean!" puts in Miss Delmaine. "Sir Adrian, is this chamber anywhere near where I shall sleep?"
"Oh, no; you need not be afraid of that!" answers Dynecourt hastily.
"I am not afraid," declares the girl saucily. "I have all my life been seeking an adventure of some sort. I am tired of my prosaic existence. I want to know what dwellers in the shadowy realms of ghost-land are like."
"Dear Sir Adrian, do urge her not to talk like that; it is positively wicked," pleads Dora Talbot, glancing at him beseechingly.
"Miss Delmaine, you will drive Mrs. Talbot from my house if you persist in your evil courses," says Sir Adrian, laughing again. "Desist, I pray you!"
"Are you afraid, Dora?" asks Florence merrily. "Then keep close to me. I can defy all evil spirits, I have spells and charms."
"You have indeed!" puts in Sir Adrian, in a tone so low that only she can hear it. "And, knowing this, you should be merciful."
Though she can not hear what he says, yet Mrs. Talbot can see he is addressing Florence, and marks with some uneasiness the glance that passes from his eyes to hers. Breaking quickly into the conversation, she says timidly, laying her hand on her host's arm—
"This shocking room you speak of will not be near mine?"
"In another wing altogether," Sir Adrian replies reassuringly. "Indeed it is so far from this part of the castle that one might be safely incarcerated there and slowly starved to death without any one of the household being a bit the wiser. It is in the north wing in the old tower, a portion of the building that has not been in use for over fifty years."
"I breathe again," says Dora Talbot affectedly.
"I shall traverse every inch of that old tower—haunted room and all—before I am a week older," declares Florence defiantly. After which she smiles at Adrian again, and follows the maid up the broad staircase to her room.
By the end of the week many other visitors have been made welcome at the castle; but none perhaps give so much pleasure to the young baronet as Mrs. Talbot and her cousin.
Miss Delmaine, the only daughter and heiress of an Indian nabob, had taken London by storm this past season; and not only the modern Babylon, but the heart of Adrian Dynecourt as well. She had come home to England on the death of her father about two years ago; and, having no nearer relatives alive, had been kindly received by her cousin, the Hon. Mrs. Talbot, who was then living with her husband in a pretty house in Mayfair.
Six months after Florence Delmaine's arrival, George Talbot had succumbed to a virulent fever; and his widow, upon whom a handsome jointure had been settled, when the funeral and the necessary law worries had come to an end, had intimated to her young cousin that she intended to travel for a year upon the Continent, and that she would be glad, that is—with an elaborate sigh—she would be a degree less miserable, if she, Florence, would accompany her. This delighted Florence. She was wearied with attendance on the sick, having done most of the nursing of the Hon. George, while his wife lamented and slept; and, besides, she was still sore at heart for the loss of her father. The year abroad had passed swiftly; the end of it brought them to Paris once more, where, feeling that her time of mourning might be decently terminated, Mrs. Talbot had discarded her somber robes, and had put herself into the hands of the most fashionable dress-maker she could find.
Florence too discarded mourning for the first time, although her father had been almost two years in his quiet grave amongst the Hills; and, with her cousin, who was now indeed her only friend, if slightly uncongenial, decided to return to London forthwith.
It was early in May, and, with a sensation of extreme and most natural pleasure, the girl looked forward to a few months passed amongst the best of those whom she had learned under her cousin's auspices to regard as "society."
Dora Talbot herself was not by any means dead to the thought that it would be to her advantage to introduce into society a girl, well-born and possessed of an almost fabulous fortune. Stray crumbs must surely fall to her share in a connection of this kind, and such crumbs she was prepared to gather with a thankful heart.
But unhappily she set her affection upon Sir Adrian Dynecourt, with his grand old castle and his princely rent-roll—a "crumb" the magnitude and worth of which she was not slow to appreciate. At first she had not deemed it possible that Florence would seriously regard a mere baronet as a suitor, when her unbounded wealth would almost entitle her to a duke. But "love," as she discovered later, to her discomfiture, will always "find the way." And one day, quite unexpectedly, it dawned upon her that there might—if circumstances favored them—grow up a feeling between Florence and Sir Adrian that might lead to mutual devotion.
Yet, strong in the belief of her own charms, Mrs. Talbot accepted the invitation given by Sir Adrian, and at the close of the season she and Florence Delmaine find themselves the first of a batch of guests come to spend a month or two at the old castle at Dynecourt.
Mrs. Talbot is still young, and, in her style, very pretty; her eyes are languishing and blue as gentian, her hair a soft nut-brown; her lips perhaps are not altogether faultless, being too fine and too closely drawn, but then her mouth is small. She looks considerably younger than she really is, and does not forget to make the most of this comfortable fact. Indeed, to a casual observer, her cousin looks scarcely her junior.
Miss Delmaine is tall, slender, posee more or less, while Mrs. Talbot is prettily rounded, petite in every point, and nervously ambitious of winning the regard of the male sex.
During the past week private theatricals have been suggested. Every one is tired of dancing and music. The season has given them more than a surfeit of both, and so they have fallen back upon theatricals.
The play on which they have decided is Goldsmith's famous production, "She Stoops to Conquer."
Miss Villiers, a pretty girl with yellow hair and charming eyes, is to be Constantia Neville; Miss Delmaine, Kate Hardcastle; Lady Gertrude Vining, though rather young for the part, has consented to play Mrs. Hardcastle, under the impression that she looks well in a cap and powdered hair. An impossible Tony Lumpkin has been discovered in a nervous young man with a hesitation in his speech and a difficulty about the letter "S"—a young man who wofully misunderstands Tony, and brings him out in a hitherto unknown character; a suitable Hastings has been found in the person of Captain Ringwood, a gallant young officer, and one of the "curled darlings" of society.
But who is to play Marlow? Who is to be the happy man, so blessed—even though in these fictitious circumstances—as to be allowed to make love to the reigning beauty of the past season? Nearly every man in the house has thrown out a hint as to his fitness for the part, but as yet no arrangement has been arrived at.
Sir Adrian of course is the one toward whom all eyes—and some very jealous ones—are directed. But his duties as host compel him, sorely against his will, to draw back a little from the proffered honor, and to consult the wishes of his guests rather than his own. Miss Delmaine herself has laughingly declined to make any choice of a stage lover, so that, up to the present moment, matters are still in such a state of confusion and uncertainty that they have been unable to name any date for the production of their play.
It is four o'clock, and they are all standing or sitting in the library, intent as usual in discussing the difficulty. They are all talking together, and, in the excitement that prevails, no one hears the door open, or the footman's calm, introduction of a gentleman, who now comes leisurely up to where Sir Adrian is standing, leaning over Florence Delmaine's chair.
He is a tall man of about thirty-five, with a dark face and dark eyes, and, withal, a slight resemblance to Sir Adrian.
"Ah, Arthur, is it you!" says Sir Adrian, in a surprised tone that has certainly no cordiality in it, but, just as certainly, the tone is not repellent.
"Yes," replies the stranger, with a languid smile, and without confusion. "Yesterday I suddenly recollected the general invitation you gave me a month ago to come to you at any time that suited me best. This time suits me, and so I have come."
He still smiles as he says this, and looks expectantly at Sir Adrian, who, as in duty bound, instantly tells him he is very glad to see him, and that he is a good fellow to have come without waiting for a more formal repetition of his invitation. Then he takes him over to old Lady FitzAlmont, the mother of Lady Gertrude Vining, and introduces him to her as "my cousin Mr. Dynecourt."
The same ceremony is gone through with some of the others, but, when he brings him to Mrs. Talbot, that pretty widow interrupts his mode of introduction.
"Mr. Dynecourt and I are old friends," she says, giving her hand to the new-comer. Then, turning to her cousin, she adds, "Florence, is it not a fatality our meeting him so often?"
"Have we met so often?" asks Florence quietly, but with a touch of hauteur and dislike in her tone. Then she too gives a cold little hand to Mr. Dynecourt, who lingers over it until she disdainfully draws it away, after which he turns from her abruptly and devotes himself to Dora Talbot.
The widow is glad of his attentions. He is handsome and well-bred, and for the last half hour she has been feeling slightly bored; so eager has been the discussion about the Marlow matter, that she has been little sought after by the opposite sex. And now, once again, the subject is being examined in all its bearings, and the discussion waxes fast and furious.
"What is it all about?" asks Arthur Dynecourt presently, glancing at the animated group in the middle of the room. And Sir Adrian, hearing his question, explains it to him.
"Ah, indeed!" he says. And then, after a scarcely perceptible pause—"Who is to be Kate Hardcastle?"
"Miss Delmaine," answers Sir Adrian, who is still leaning over that young lady's chair.
"In what does the difficulty consist?" inquires Arthur Dynecourt, with apparent indifference.
"Well," replies Sir Adrian, laughing; "I believe mere fear holds us back. Miss Delmaine, as we all know, is a finished actress, and we dread spoiling her performance by faults on our side. None of us have attempted the character before; this is why we hesitate."
"A very sensible hesitation, I think," says his cousin coolly. "You should thank me then for coming to your relief this afternoon; I have played the part several times, and shall be delighted to undertake it again, and help you out of your difficulty."
At this Miss Delmaine flushes angrily, and opens her lips as if she would say something, but, after a second's reflection, restrains herself. She sinks back into her chair with a proud languor, and closes her mouth resolutely.
Sir Adrian is confounded. All along he had secretly hoped that, in the end, this part would fall to his lot; but now—what is to be done? How can he refuse to let his cousin take his place, especially as he has declared himself familiar with the part.
Arthur, observing his cousin's hesitation, laughs aloud. His is not a pleasant laugh, but has rather a sneering ring in it, and at the present moment it jars upon the ears of the listeners.
"If I have been indiscreet," he says, with a slight glance at Florence's proud face, "pray pardon me. I only meant to render you a little assistance. I thought I understood from you that you were rather in a dilemma. Do not dwell upon my offer another moment. I am afraid I have made myself somewhat officious—unintentionally, believe me."
"My dear fellow, not at all," declares Sir Adrian hastily, shocked at his own apparent want of courtesy. "I assure you, you mistake. It is all so much to the contrary, that I gratefully accept your offer, and beg you will be Marlow."
"But really—" begins Arthur Dynecourt.
"Not a word!" interrupts Sir Adrian; and indeed by this time Arthur Dynecourt has brought his cousin to believe he is about to confer upon him a great favor. "Look here, you fellows," Sir Adrian goes on, walking toward the other men, who are still arguing and disputing over the vexed question, "I've settled it all for you. Here is my cousin; he will take the difficulty off your hands, and be a first-class Marlow at the same time."
A suppressed consternation follows this announcement. Many and dark are the glances cast upon the new-comer, who receives them all with his usual imperturbable smile. Rising, Arthur approaches one of the astonished group who is known to him, and says something upon the subject with a slight shrug of his shoulders. As he is Sir Adrian's cousin, every one feels that it will be impossible to offer any objection to his taking the much-coveted part.
"Well, I have sacrificed myself for you; I have renounced a very dear desire all to please you," says Sir Adrian softly, bending down to Florence. "Have I succeeded?"
"You have succeeded in displeasing me more than I can say," she returns coldly. Then, seeing his amazed expression, she goes on hastily, "Forgive me, but I had hoped for another Marlow."
She blushes prettily as she says this, and an expression arises in her dark eyes that moves him deeply. Stooping over her hand, he imprints a kiss upon it. Dora Talbot, whose head is turned aside, sees nothing of this, but Arthur Dynecourt has observed the silent caress, and a dark frown gathers on his brow.
Every day and all day long there is nothing but rehearsing. In every corner two or more may be seen studying together the parts they have to play. Florence Delmaine alone refuses to rehearse her part except in full company, though Mr. Dynecourt has made many attempts to induce her to favor him with a private reading of those scenes in which he and she must act together. He has even appealed to Dora Talbot to help him in this matter, which she is only too willing to do, as she is secretly desirous of flinging the girl as much in his way as possible. Indeed anything that would keep Florence out of Sir Adrian's sight would be welcome to her; so that she listens kindly to Arthur Dynecourt when he solicits her assistance.
"She evidently shuns me," he says in an aggrieved tone to her one evening, sinking into the seat beside hers. "Except a devotion to her that is singularly sincere, I know of nothing about me that can be regarded by her as an offense. Yet it appears to me that she dislikes me."
"There I am sure you are wrong," declares the widow, tapping his arm lightly with her fan. "She is but a girl—she hardly knows her own mind."
"She seems to know it pretty well when Adrian addresses her," he says, with a sullen glance.
At this Mrs. Talbot can not repress a start; she grows a little pale, and then tries to hide her confusion by a smile. But the smile is forced, and Arthur Dynecourt, watching her, reads her heart as easily as if it were an open book.
"I don't suppose Adrian cares for her," he goes on quietly. "At least"—here he drops his eyes—"I believe, with a little judicious management, his thoughts might be easily diverted into another channel."
"You think so?" asks Mrs. Talbot faintly, trifling with her fan. "I can not say I have noticed that his attentions to her have been in any way particular."
"Not as yet," agrees Dynecourt, studying her attentively; "and if I might be open with you," he adds, breaking off abruptly and assuming an air of anxiety—"we might perhaps mutually help each other."
"Help each other?"
"Dear Mrs. Talbot," says Dynecourt softly, "has it never occurred to you how safe a thing it would be for my cousin Sir Adrian to marry a sensible woman—a woman who understands the world and its ways—a woman young and beautiful certainly, but yet conversant with the convenances of society? Such a woman would rescue Adrian from the shoals and quicksands that surround him in the form of mercenary friends and scheming mothers. Such a woman might surely be found. Nay, I think I myself could put my hand upon her, if I dared, at this moment."
Mrs. Talbot trembles slightly, and blushes a good deal, but says nothing.
"He is my nearest of kin," goes on Dynecourt, in the same low impassive voice. "Naturally I am interested in him, and my interest on this point is surely without motive; as, were he never to marry, were he to leave no heir, were he to die some sudden death"—here a remarkable change overspreads his features—"I should inherit all the land you see around you, and the title besides."
Mrs. Talbot is still silent. She merely bows her head in assent.
"Then, you see, I mean kindly toward him when I suggest that he should marry some one calculated to sustain his rank in the world," continues Dynecourt. "As I have said before, I know one who would fill the position charmingly, if she would deign to do so."
"And who?" falters Dora Talbot nervously.
"May I say to whom I allude?" he murmurs. "Mrs. Talbot, pardon me if I have been impertinent in thinking of you as that woman."
A little flickering smile adorns Dora's lips for a moment, then, suddenly remembering that smiles do not become her, she relapses into her former calm.
"You flatter me," she says sweetly.
"I never flatter," he responds, with telling emphasis. "But, I can see you are not angry, and so I am emboldened to say plainly, I would gladly see you my cousin's wife. Is the idea not altogether abhorrent to you?"
"No. Oh, no!"
"It is perhaps—pardon me if I go too far—even agreeable to you?"
"Mr. Dynecourt," says Mrs. Talbot, suddenly glancing at him and laying her jeweled fingers lightly on his arm, "I will confess to you that I am tired of being alone—dependent on myself, as it were—thrown on my own judgment for the answering of every question that arises. I would gladly acknowledge a superior head. I would have some one to help me now and then with a word of advice; in short, I would have a husband. And,"—here she lays her fan against her lips and glances archly at him—"I confess too that I like Sir Adrian as—well—as well as any man I know."
"He is a very fortunate man"—gravely. "I would he knew his happiness."
"Not for worlds," says Mrs. Talbot, with well-feigned alarm. "You would not even hint to him such a thing as—as—" She stops, confused.
"I shall hint nothing—do nothing, except what you wish. Ah, Mrs. Talbot"—with a heavy sigh—"you are supremely happy! I envy you! With your fascinations and"—insinuatingly—"a word in season from me, I see no reason why you should not claim as your own the man whom you—well, let us say, like; while I—"
"If I can befriend you in any way," interrupts Dora quickly, "command me."
She is indeed quite dazzled by the picture he has painted before her eyes. Can it be—is it—possible, that Sir Adrian may some day be hers? Apart from his wealth, she regards him with very tender feelings, and of late she has been rendered at times absolutely miserable by the thought that he has fallen a victim to the charms of Florence.
Now if, by means of this man, her rival can be kept out of Adrian's way, all may yet be well, and her host may be brought to her feet before her visit comes to an end.
Of Arthur Dynecourt's infatuation for Florence she is fully aware, and is right in deeming that part of his admiration for the beautiful girl has grown out of his knowledge of her money-bags. Still, she argues to herself, his love is true and faithful, despite his knowledge of her dot, and he will in all probability make her as good a husband as she is likely to find.
"May I command you?" asks Arthur, in his softest tones. "You know my secret, I believe. Ever since that last meeting at Brighton, when my heart overcame me and made me show my sentiments openly and in your presence, you have been aware of the hopeless passion that is consuming me. I may be mad, but I still think that, with opportunities and time, I might make myself at least tolerated by Miss Delmaine. Will you help me in this matter? Will you give me the chance of pleading my cause with her alone? By so doing"—with a meaning smile—"you will also give my cousin the happy chance of seeing you alone."
Dora only too well understands his insinuation. Latterly Sir Adrian and Florence have been almost inseparable. To now meet with one whose interest it is to keep them asunder is very pleasant to her.
"I will help you," she says in a low tone.
"Then try to induce Miss Delmaine to give me a private rehearsal to-morrow in the north gallery," he whispers hurriedly, seeing Captain Ringwood and Miss Villiers approaching. "Hush! Not another word! I rely upon you. Above all things, remember that what has occurred is only between you and me. It is our little plot," he says, with a curious smile that somehow strikes a chill to Mrs. Talbot's heart.
She is faithful to her word nevertheless, and late that night, when all have gone to their rooms, she puts on her dressing-gown, dismisses her maid, and crossing the corridor, taps lightly at the door of Florence's apartment.
Hearing some one cry "Come in," she opens the door, and, having fastened it again, goes over to where Florence is sitting while her maid is brushing her long soft hair that reaches almost to the ground as she sits.
"Let me brush your hair to-night, Flo," she says gayly. "Let me be your maid for once. Remember how I used to do it for you sometimes when we were in Switzerland last year."
"Very well—you may," acquiesces Florence, laughing. "Good-night, Parkins. Mrs. Talbot has won you your release."
Parkins having gladly withdrawn, Dora takes up the ivory-handled brush and gently begins to brush her cousin's hair.
After some preliminary conversation leading up to the subject she has in hand, she says carelessly—
"By the bye, Flo, you are rather uncivil to Arthur Dynecourt, don't you think?"
"Well—yes. That is the word for your behavior toward him, I think. Do you know, I am afraid Sir Adrian has noticed it, and aren't you afraid he will think it rather odd of you—rude, I mean—considering he is his cousin?"
"Not a very favorite cousin, I fancy."
"For all that, people don't like seeing their relations slighted. I once knew a man who used to abuse his brother all day long, but, if any one else happened to say one disparaging word of him in his presence, it put him in a pretty rage. And, after all, poor Arthur has done nothing to deserve actual ill-treatment at your hands."
"I detest him. And, besides, it is a distinct impertinence to follow any one about from place to place as he has followed me. I will not submit to it calmly. It is a positive persecution."
"My dear, you must not blame him if he has lost his head about you. That is rather a compliment, if anything."
"I shall always resent such compliments."
"He is certainly very gentlemanly in all other ways, and I must say devoted to you. He is handsome too, is he not; and has quite the air of one accustomed to command in society?"
"Has he paid you to sing his praises?" asks Florence, with a little laugh; but her words so nearly hit the mark that Dora blushes painfully.
"I mean," she explains at last, in a rather hurried way, "that I do not think it is good form to single out any one in a household where one is a guest to show him pointed rudeness. You give all the others acting in this play ample opportunities of rehearsing alone with you. It has been remarked to me by two or three that you purposely slight and avoid Mr. Dynecourt."
"So I do," Florence admits calmly; adding, "Your two or three have great perspicacity."
"They even hinted to me," Dora goes on deliberately, "that your dislike to him arose from the fact that you were piqued at his being your stage lover, instead of—Sir Adrian!"
It costs her an effort to utter these words, but the effect produced by them is worth the effort.
Florence, growing deadly pale, releases her hair from her cousin's grasp, and rises quickly to her feet.
"I don't know who your gossips may be," she says slowly; "but they are wrong—quite wrong—do you hear? My dislike to Mr. Dynecourt arises from very different feelings. He is distasteful to me in many ways; but, as I am undesirous that my manner should give occasion for surmises such as you have just mentioned to me, I will give him an opportunity of reciting his part to me, alone, as soon as ever he wishes."
"I think you are right, dearest," responds Mrs. Talbot sweetly. She is a little afraid of her cousin, but still maintains her position bravely. "It is always a mark of folly to defy public opinion. Do not wait for him to ask you again to go through your play with him alone, but tell him yourself to-morrow that you will meet him for that purpose in the north gallery some time during the day."
"Very well," says Florence; but her face still betrays dislike and disinclination to the course recommended. "And, Dora, I don't think I want my hair brushed any more, thanks; my head is aching so dreadfully."
This is a hint that she will be glad of Mrs. Talbot's speedy departure; and, that lady taking the hint, Florence is soon left to her own thoughts.
The next morning, directly after breakfast, she finds an opportunity to tell Mr. Dynecourt that she will give him half an hour in the north gallery to try over his part with her, as she considers it will be better, and more conducive to the smoothness of the piece, to learn any little mannerisms that may belong to either of them.
To this speech Dynecourt makes a suitable reply, and names a particular hour for them to meet. Miss Delmaine, having given a grave assent to this arrangement, moves away, as though glad to be rid of her companion.
A few minutes afterward Dynecourt, meeting Mrs. Talbot in the hall, gives her an expressive glance, and tells her in a low voice that he considers himself deeply in her debt.
"You are late," says Arthur Dynecourt in a low tone. There is no anger in it; there is indeed only a desire to show how tedious have been the moments spent apart from her.
"Have you brought your book, or do you mean to go through your part without it?" Florence asks, disdaining to notice his words, or to betray interest in anything except the business that has brought them together.
"I know my part by heart," he responds, in a strange voice.
"Then begin," she commands somewhat imperiously; the very insolence of her air only gives an additional touch to her extreme beauty and fires his ardor.
"You desire me to begin?" he asks unsteadily.
"If you wish it."
"Do you wish it?"
"I desire nothing more intensely than to get this rehearsal over," she replies impatiently.
"You take no pains indeed to hide your scorn of me," says Dynecourt bitterly.
"I regret it, if I have at any time treated you with incivility," returns Florence, with averted eyes and with increasing coldness. "Yet I must always think that, for whatever has happened, you have only yourself to blame."
"Is it a crime to love you?" he demands boldly.
"Sir," she exclaims indignantly, and raising her beautiful eyes to his for a moment, "I must request you will never speak to me of love. There is neither sympathy nor common friendliness between us. You are well aware with what sentiments I regard you."
"But, why am I alone to be treated with contempt?" he asks, with sudden passion. "All other men of your acquaintance are graciously received by you, are met with smiles and kindly words. Upon me alone your eyes rest, when they deign to glance in my direction, with marked disfavor. All the world can see it. I am signaled out from the others as one to be slighted and spurned."
"Your forget yourself," says Florence contemptuously. "I have met you here to-day to rehearse our parts for next Tuesday evening, not to listen to any insolent words you may wish to address to me. Let us begin"—opening her book. "If you know your part, go on."
"I know my part only too well; it is to worship you madly, hopelessly. Your very cruelty only serves to heighten my passion. Florence, hear me!"
"I will not," she says, her eyes flashing. She waves him back from her as he endeavors to take her hand. "Is it not enough that I have been persecuted by your attentions—attentions most hateful to me—for the past year, but you must now obtrude them upon me here? You compel me to tell you in plain words what my manner must have shown you only too clearly—that you are distasteful to me in every way, that your very presence troubles me, that your touch is abhorrent to me!"
"Ah," he says, stepping back as she hurls these words at him, and regarding her with a face distorted by passion, "if I were the master here, instead of the poor cousin—if I were Sir Adrian—your treatment of me would be very different!"
At the mention of Sir Adrian's name the color dies out of her face and she grows deadly pale. Her lips quiver, but her eyes do not droop.
"I do not understand you," she says proudly.
"Then you shall," responds Dynecourt. "Do you think I am blind, that I can not see how you have given your proud heart to my cousin, that he has conquered where other men have failed; that, even before he has declared any love for you, you have, in spite of your pride, given all your affection to him?"
"You insult me," cries Florence, with quivering lips. She looks faint, and is trembling visibly. If this man has read her heart aright, may not all the guests have read it too? May not even Adrian himself have discovered her secret passion, and perhaps despised her for it, as being unwomanly?
"And more," goes on Dynecourt, exulting in the torture he can see he is inflicting; "though you thrust from you an honorable love for one that lives only in your imagination, I will tell you that Sir Adrian has other views, other intentions. I have reason to know that, when he marries, the name of his bride will not be Florence Delmaine."
"Leave me, sir," cries Florence, rousing herself from her momentary weakness, and speaking with all her old fire, "and never presume to address me again. Go!"
She points with extended hand to the door at the lower end of the gallery. So standing, with her eyes strangely bright, and her perfect figure drawn up to its fullest height, she looks superb in her disdainful beauty.
Dynecourt, losing his self-possession as he gazes upon her, suddenly flings himself at her feet and catches her dress in his hands to detain her.
"Have pity on me," he cries imploringly; "it is my unhappy love for you that has driven me to speak thus! Why is Adrian to have all, and I nothing? He has title, lands, position—above and beyond everything, the priceless treasure of your love, whilst I am bankrupt in all. Show me some mercy—some kindness!"
They are both so agitated that they fail to hear the sound of approaching footsteps.
"Release me, sir," cries Florence imperiously.
"Nay; first answer me one question," entreats Dynecourt. "Do you love my cousin?"
"I care nothing for Sir Adrian!" replies Florence distinctly, and in a somewhat raised tone, her self-pride being touched to the quick.
Two figures who have entered the gallery by the second door at the upper end of it, hearing these words uttered in an emphatic tone, start and glance at the tableau presented to their view lower down. They hesitate, and, even as they do so, they can see Arthur Dynecourt seize Florence Delmaine's hand, and, apparently unrebuked, kiss it passionately.
"Then I shall hope still," he says in a low but impressive voice, at which the two who have just entered turn and beat a precipitate retreat, fearing that they may be seen. One is Sir Adrian, the other Mrs. Talbot.
"Dear me," stammers Dora, in pretty confusion, "who would have thought it? I was never so amazed in my life."
Sir Adrian, who has turned very pale, and is looking greatly distressed, makes no reply. He is repeating over and over again to himself the words he has just heard, as though unable or unwilling to comprehend them. "I care nothing for Sir Adrian!" They strike like a knell upon his ears—a death-knell to all his dearest hopes. And that fellow on his knees before her, kissing her hand, and telling her he will still hope! Hope for what? Alas, he tells himself, he knows only too well—her love!
"I am so glad they have made it up," Dora goes on, looking up sympathetically at Sir Adrian.
"Made it up? I had no idea they were more than ordinary and very new acquaintances."
"It is quite a year since we first met Arthur in Switzerland," responds Dora demurely, calling Dynecourt by his Christian name, a thing she has never done before, because she knows it will give Sir Adrian the impression that they are on very intimate terms with his cousin. "He has been our shadow ever since. I wonder you did not notice his devotion in town."
"I noticed nothing," says Sir Adrian, miserably; "or, if I did, it was only to form wrong impressions. I firmly believed, seeing Miss Delmaine and Arthur together here, that she betrayed nothing but a rooted dislike to him."
"They had not been good friends of late," explains Dora hastily; "that we all could see. And Florence is very peculiar, you know; she is quite the dearest girl in the world, and I adore her; but I will confess to you"—with another upward and bewitching glance from the charming blue eyes—"that she has her little tempers. Not very naughty ones, you know"—shaking her head archly—"but just enough to make one a bit afraid of her at times; so I never ventured to ask her why she treated poor Arthur, who really is her slave, so cruelly."
"And you think now that—" Sir Adrian breaks off without finishing the sentence.
"That she has forgiven him whatever offense he committed? Yes, after what we have just seen—quite a sentimental little episode, was it not?—I can not help cherishing the hope that all is again right between them. It could not have been a very grave quarrel, as Arthur is incapable of a rudeness; but then dearest Florence is so capricious!"
"Ill-tempered and capricious!" Can the girl he loves so ardently be guilty of these faults? It seems incredible to Sir Adrian, as he remembers her sunny smile and gentle manner. But then, is it not her dearest friend who is speaking of her—tender-hearted little Dora Talbot, who seems to think well of every one, and who murmurs such pretty speeches even about Arthur, who, if the truth be told, is not exactly "dear" in the sight of Sir Adrian.
"You think there is, or was, an engagement between Arthur and Miss Delmaine?" he begins, with his eyes fixed upon the ground.
"I think nothing, you silly man," says the widow playfully, "until I am told it. But I am glad Florence is once more friendly with poor Arthur; he is positively wrapped up in her. Now, has that interesting tableau we so nearly interrupted given you a distaste for all other pictures? Shall we try the smaller gallery?"
"Just as you will."
"Of course"—with a girlish laugh—"it would be imprudent to venture again into the one we have just quitted. By this time, doubtless, they are quite reconciled—and—"
"Yes—yes," interrupts Sir Adrian hastily, trying in vain to blot out the picture she has raised before his eyes of Florence in her lover's arms. "What you have just told me has quite taken me by surprise," he goes on nervously. "I should never have guessed it from Miss Delmaine's manner; it quite misled me."
"Well, between you and me," says Dora, raising herself on tiptoe, as though to whisper in his ear, and so coming very close to him, "I am afraid my dearest Florence is a little sly! Yes, really; you wouldn't think it, would you? The dear girl has such a sweet ingenuous face—quite the loveliest face on earth, I think, though some pronounce it too cold. But she is very self-contained; and to-day, you see, she has given you an insight into this slight fault in her character. Now, has she not appeared to you to avoid Arthur almost pointedly?"
"She has indeed," agrees Sir Adrian, with a smothered groan.
"Well"—triumphantly—"and yet, here we find her granting him a private audience, when she believed we were all safely out of the way; and in the north gallery too, which, as a rule, is deserted."
"She didn't know we were thinking of driving to the hills," says Sir Adrian, making a feeble effort to find a flaw in his companion's statement.
"Oh, yes, she did!" declares the widow lightly. "I told her myself, about two hours ago, that I intended asking you to make a party to go there, as I dote on lovely scenery; and I dare say"—coquettishly—"she knew—I mean thought—you would not refuse so small a request of mine. But for poor Lady FitzAlmont's headache we should be there now."
"It is true," admits Sir Adrian, feeling that the last straw has descended.
"And now that I think of it," the widow goes on, even more vivaciously, "the reason she assigned for not coming with us must have been a feigned one. Ah, slyboots that she is!" laughs Mrs. Talbot merrily. "Of course, she wanted the course clear to have an explanation with Arthur. Well, after all, that was only natural. But she might have trusted me, whom she knows to be her true friend."
Ill-tempered—capricious—sly! And all these faults are attributed to Florence by "her true friend!" A quotation assigned to Marechal Villars when taking leave of Louis XIV. occurs to him—"Defend me from my friends." The words return to him persistently; but then he looks down on Dora Talbot, and stares straight into her liquid blue eyes, so apparently guileless and pure, and tells himself that he wrongs her. Yes, it is a pity Florence had not put greater faith in this kind little woman, a pity for all of them, as then many heart-breaks might have been prevented.
It is the evening of the theatricals; and in one of the larger drawing-rooms at the castle, where the stage has been erected, and also in another room behind connected with it by folding-doors, everybody of note in the county is already assembled. Fans are fluttering—so are many hearts behind the scenes—and a low buzz of conversation is being carried on among the company.
Then the curtain rises; the fans stop rustling, the conversation ceases, and all faces turn curiously to the small but perfect stage that the London workmen have erected.
Every one is very anxious to see what his or her neighbor is going to do when brought before a critical audience. Nobody, of course, hopes openly for a break-down, but secretly there are a few who would be glad to see such-and-such a one's pride lowered.
No mischance, however, occurs. The insipid Tony speaks his lines perfectly, if he fails to grasp the idea that a little acting thrown in would be an improvement; a very charming Cousin Con is made out of Miss Villiers; a rather stilted but strictly correct old lady out of Lady Gertrude Vining. But Florence Delmaine, as Kate Hardcastle, leaves nothing to be desired, and many are the complimentary speeches uttered from time to time by the audience. Arthur Dynecourt too had not overpraised his own powers. It is palpable to every one that he has often trod the boards, and the pathos he throws into his performance astonishes the audience. Is it only acting in the final scene when he makes love to Miss Hardcastle, or is there some real sentiment in it?
This question arises in many breasts. They note how his color changes as he takes her hand, how his voice trembles; they notice too how she grows cold, in spite of her desire to carry out her part to the end, as he grows warmer, and how instinctively she shrinks from his touch. Then it is all over, and the curtain falls amidst loud applause. Florence comes before the curtain in response to frequent calls, gracefully, half reluctantly, with a soft warm blush upon her cheeks and a light in her eyes that renders her remarkable loveliness only more apparent. Sir Adrian, watching her with a heart faint and cold with grief and disappointment, acknowledges sadly to himself that never has he seen her look so beautiful. She advances and bows to the audience, and only loses her self-possession a very little when a bouquet directed at her feet by an enthusiastic young man alights upon her shoulder instead.
Arthur Dynecourt, who has accompanied her to the footlights, and who joins in her triumph, picks up the bouquet and presents it to her.
As he does so the audience again become aware that she receives it from him in a spirit that suggests detestation of the one that hands it, and that her smile withers as she does so, and her great eyes lose their happy light of a moment before.
Sir Adrian sees all this too, but persuades himself that she is now acting another part—the part shown him by Mrs. Talbot. His eyes are blinded by jealousy; he can not see the purity and truth reflected in hers; he misconstrues the pained expression that of late has saddened her face.
For the last few days, ever since her momentous interview with Arthur Dynecourt in the gallery, she has been timid and reserved with Sir Adrian, and has endeavored to avoid his society. She is oppressed with the thought that he has read her secret love for him, and seeks, by an assumed coldness of demeanor and a studied avoidance of him, to induce him to believe himself mistaken.
But Sir Adrian is only rendered more miserable by this avoidance, in the thought that probably Mrs. Talbot has told Florence of his discovery of her attachment to Arthur, and that she dreads his taxing her with her duplicity, and so makes strenuous efforts to keep herself apart from him. They have already drifted so far apart that to-night, when the play has come to an end, and Florence has retired from the dressing-room, Sir Adrian does not dream of approaching her to offer the congratulations on her success that he would have showered upon her in a happier hour.
Florence, feeling lonely and depressed, having listlessly submitted to her maid's guidance and changed her stage gown for a pale blue ball-dress of satin and pearls—as dancing is to succeed the earlier amusement of the evening—goes silently down-stairs, but, instead of pursuing her way to the ball-room, where dancing has already commenced, she turns aside, and, entering a small, dimly lighted antechamber, sinks wearily upon a satin-covered lounge.
From a distance the sweet strains of a German waltz come softly to her ears. There is deep sadness and melancholy in the music that attunes itself to her own sorrowful reflections. Presently the tears steal down her cheeks. She feels lonely and neglected, and, burying her head in the cushions of the lounge, sobs aloud.
She does not hear the hasty approach of footsteps until they stop close beside her, and a voice that makes her pulses throb madly says, in deep agitation—
"Florence—Miss Delmaine—what has happened? What has occurred to distress you?"
Sir Adrian is bending over her, evidently in deep distress himself. As she starts, he places his arm round her and raises her to a sitting posture; this he does so gently that, as she remembers all she has heard, and his cousin's assurance that he has almost pledged himself to another, her tears flow afresh. By a supreme effort, however, she controls herself, and says, in a faint voice—
"I am very foolish; it was the heat, I suppose, or the nervousness of acting before so many strangers, that has upset me. It is over now. I beg you will not remember it, Sir Adrian, or speak of it to any one."
All this time she has not allowed herself to glance even in his direction, so fearful is she of further betraying the mental agony she is enduring.
"Is it likely I should speak of it!" returns Sir Adrian reproachfully. "No; anything connected with you shall be sacred to me. But—pardon me—I still think you are in grief, and, believe me, in spite of everything, I would deem it a privilege to be allowed to befriend you in any way."
"It is impossible," murmurs Florence, in a stifled tone.
"You mean you will not accept my help"—sadly. "So be it then. I have no right, I know, to establish myself as your champion. There are others, no doubt, whose happiness lies in the fact that they may render you a service when it is in their power. I do not complain, however. Nay, I would even ask you to look upon me at least as a friend."
"I shall always regard you as a friend," Florence responds in a low voice. "It would be impossible to me to look upon you in any other light."
"Thank you for that," says Adrian quickly. "Though our lives must of necessity be much apart, it will still be a comfort to me to know that at least, wherever you may be, you will think of me as a friend."
"Ah," thinks Florence, with a bitter pang, "he is now trying to let me know how absurd was my former idea that he might perhaps learn to love me!" This thought is almost insupportable. Her pride rising in arms, she subdues all remaining traces of her late emotion, and, turning suddenly, confronts him. Her face is quite colorless, but she can not altogether hide from him the sadness that still desolates her eyes.
"You are right," she agrees. "In the future our lives will indeed be far distant from each other, so far apart that the very tie of friendship will readily be forgotten by us both."
"Florence, do not say that!" he entreats, believing in his turn that she alludes to her coming marriage with his cousin. "And—and—do not be angry with me; but I would ask you to consider long and earnestly before taking the step you have in view. Remember it is a bond that once sealed can never be canceled."
"A bond! I do not follow you," exclaims Florence, bewildered.
"Ah, you will not trust me; you will not confide in me!"
"I have nothing to confide," persists Florence, still deeply puzzled.
"Well, let it rest so," returns Adrian, now greatly wounded at her determined reserve, as he deems it. He calls to mind all Mrs. Talbot had said about her slyness, and feels disheartened. At least he has not deserved distrust at her hands. "Promise me," he entreats at last, "that, if ever you are in danger, you will accept my help."
"I promise," she replies faintly. Then, trying to rally her drooping spirits, she continues, with an attempt at a smile, "Tell me that you too will accept mine should you be in any danger. Remember, the mouse once rescued the lion!"—and she smiles again, and glances at him with a touch of her old archness.
"It is a bargain. And now, will you rest here awhile until you feel quite restored to calmness?"
"But you must not remain with me," Florence urges hurriedly. "Your guests are awaiting you. Probably"—with a faint smile—"your partner for this waltz is impatiently wondering what has become of you."
"I think not," says Adrian, returning her smile. "Fortunately I have no one's name on my card for this waltz. I say fortunately, because I think"—glancing at her tenderly—"I have been able to bring back the smiles to your face sooner than would have been the case had you been left here alone to brood over your trouble, whatever it may be."
"There is no trouble," declares Florence, in a somewhat distressed fashion, turning her head restlessly to one side. "I wish you would dispossess yourself of that idea. And, do not stay here, they—every one, will accuse you of discourtesy if you absent yourself from the ball-room any longer."
"Then, come with me," says Adrian. "See, this waltz is only just beginning: give it to me."
Carried away by his manner, she lays her hand upon his arm, and goes with him to the ball-room. There he passes his arm round her waist, and presently they are lost among the throng of whirling dancers, and both give themselves up for the time being to the mere delight of knowing that they are together.
Two people, seeing them enter thus together, on apparently friendly terms, regard them with hostile glances. Dora Talbot, who is coquetting sweetly with a gaunt man of middle age, who is evidently overpowered by her attentions, letting her eyes rest upon Florence as she waltzes past her with Sir Adrian, colors warmly, and, biting her lip, forgets the honeyed speech she was about to bestow upon her companion, who is the owner of a considerable property, and lapses into silence, for which the gaunt man is devoutly grateful, as it gives him a moment in which to reflect on the safest means of getting rid of her without delay.
Dora's fair brow grows darker and darker as she watches Florence, and notes the smile that lights her beautiful face as she makes some answer to one of Sir Adrian's sallies. Where is Dynecourt, that he has not been on the spot to prevent this dance, she wonders. She grows angry, and would have stamped her little foot with impatient wrath at this moment, but for the fear of displaying her vexation.
As she is inwardly anathematizing Arthur, he emerges from the throng, and, the dance being at an end, reminds Miss Delmaine that the next is his.
Florence unwillingly removes her hand from Sir Adrian's arm, and lays it upon Arthur's. Most disdainfully she moves away with him, and suffers him to lead her to another part of the room. And when she dances with him it is with evident reluctance, as he knows by the fact that she visibly shrinks from him when he encircles her waist with his arm.
Sir Adrian, who has noticed none of these symptoms, going up to Dora, solicits her hand for this dance.
"You are not engaged, I hope?" he says anxiously. It is a kind of wretched comfort to him to be near Florence's true friend. If not the rose, she has at least some connection with it.
"I am afraid I am," Dora responds, raising her limpid eyes to his. "Naughty man, why did you not come sooner? I thought you had forgotten me altogether, and so got tired of keeping barren spots upon my card for you."
"I couldn't help it—I was engaged. A man in his own house has always a bad time of it looking after the impossible people," says Adrian evasively.
"Poor Florence! Is she so very impossible?" asks Dora, laughing, but pretending to reproach him.
"I was not speaking of Miss Delmaine," says Adrian, flushing hotly. "She is the least impossible person I ever met. It is a privilege to pass one's time with her."
"Yet it is with her you have passed the last hour that you hint has been devoted to bores," returns Dora quietly. This is a mere feeler, but she throws it out with such an air of certainty that Sir Adrian is completely deceived, and believes her acquainted with his tete-a-tete with Florence in the dimly lit anteroom.
"Well," he admits, coloring again, "your cousin was rather upset by the acting, I think, and I just stayed with her until she felt equal to joining us all again."
"Ah!" exclaims Dora, who now knows all she had wanted to know.
"But you must not tell me you have no dances left for me," says Adrian gayly. "Come, let me see your card." He looks at it, and finds it indeed full. "I am an unfortunate," he adds.
"I think," says Dora, with the prettiest hesitation, "if you are sure it would not be an unkind thing to do, I could scratch out this name"—pointing to her partner's for the coming dance.
"I am not sure at all," responds Sir Adrian, laughing. "I am positive it will be awfully unkind of you to deprive any fellow of your society; but be unkind, and scratch him out for my sake."
He speaks lightly, but her heart beats high with hope.
"For your sake," she repeats softly drawing her pencil across the name written on her programme and substituting his.
"But you will give me more than this one dance?" queries Adrian. "Is there nobody else you can condemn to misery out of all that list?"
"You are insatiable," she returns, blushing, and growing confused. "But you shall have it all your own way. Here"—giving him her card—"take what waltzes you will." She waltzes to perfection, and she knows it.
"Then this, and this, and this," says Adrian, striking out three names on her card, after which they move away together and mingle with the other dancers.
In the meantime, Florence growing fatigued, or disinclined to dance longer with Dynecourt, stops abruptly near the door of a conservatory, and, leaning against the framework, gazes with listless interest at the busy scene around.
"You are tired. Will you rest for awhile?" asks Arthur politely; and, as she bends her head in cold consent, he leads her to a cushioned seat that is placed almost opposite to the door-way, and from which the ball-room and what is passing within it are distinctly visible.
Sinking down amongst the blue-satin cushions of the seat he has pointed out to her, Florence sighs softly, and lets her thoughts run, half sadly, half gladly, upon her late interview with Sir Adrian. At least, if he has guessed her secret, she knows now that he does not despise her. There was no trace of contempt in the gentleness, the tenderness of his manner. And how kindly he had told her of the intended change in his life! "Their paths would lie far asunder for the future," he had said, or something tantamount to that. He spoke no doubt of his coming marriage.
Then she begins to speculate dreamily upon the sort of woman who would be happy enough to be his wife. She is still idly ruminating on this point when her companion's voice brings her back to the present. She had so far forgotten his existence in her day-dreaming that his words come to her like a whisper from some other world, and occasion her an actual shock.
"Your thoughtfulness renders me sad," he is saying impressively. "It carries you to regions where I can not follow you."
To this she makes no reply, regarding him only with a calm questioning glance that might well have daunted a better man. It only nerves him however to even bolder words.
"The journey your thoughts have taken—has it been a pleasant one?" he asks, smiling.
"I have come here for rest, not for conversation." There is undisguised dislike in her tones. Still he is untouched by her scorn. He even grows more defiant, as though determined to let her see that even her avowed hatred can not subdue him.
"If you only knew," he goes on, with slow meaning, regarding her as he speaks with critical admiration, "how surpassingly beautiful you look to-night, you would perhaps understand in a degree the power you possess over your fellow-creatures. In that altitude, with that slight touch of scorn upon your lips, you seem a meet partner for a monarch."
She laughs a low contemptuous laugh, that even makes his blood run hotly in his veins.
"And yet you have the boldness to offer yourself as an aspirant to my favor?" she says. "In truth, sir, you value yourself highly!"
"Love will find the way!" he quotes quickly, though plainly disconcerted by her merriment. "And in time I trust I shall have my reward."
"In time, I trust you will," she returns, in a tone impossible to misconstrue.
At this point he deems it wise to change the subject; and, as he halts rather lamely in his conversation, at a loss to find some topic that may interest her or advance his cause, Sir Adrian and Dora pass by the door of the conservatory.
Sir Adrian is smiling gayly at some little speech of Dora's, and Dora is looking up at him with a bright expression in her blue eyes that tells of the happiness she feels.
"Ah, I can not help thinking Adrian is doing very wisely," observes Arthur Dynecourt, some evil genius at his elbow urging him to lie.
"Doing—what?" asks his companion, roused suddenly into full life and interest.
"You pretend ignorance, no doubt"—smiling. "But one can see. Adrian's marriage with Mrs. Talbot has been talked about for some time amongst his intimates."
A clasp like ice seems to seize upon Miss Delmaine's heart as these words drop from his lips. She restrains her emotion bravely, but his lynx-eye reads her through and through.
"They seem to be more together to-night than is even usual with them," goes on Arthur blandly. "Before you honored the room with your presence, he had danced twice with her, and now again. It is very marked, his attention to-night."
As a matter of fact Adrian had not danced with Mrs. Talbot all the evening until now, but Florence, not having been present at the opening of the ball, is not in a position to refute this, as he well knows.
"If there were anything in her friendship with Sir Adrian, I feel sure Dora would tell me of it," she says slowly, and with difficulty.
"And she hasn't?" asks Arthur, with so much surprise and incredulity in his manner as goes far to convince her that there is some truth in his statement. "Well, well," he adds, "one can not blame her. She would doubtless be sure of his affection before speaking even to her dearest friend."
Florence winces, and sinks back upon the seat as though unable to sustain an upright position any longer. Every word of his is as gall and wormwood to her, each sentence a reminder—a reproach. Only the other day this man now beside her had accused her of making sure of Sir Adrian's affection before she had any right so to do. Her proud spirit shrinks beneath the cruel taunt he hurls at her.
"You look unusually 'done up,'" he goes on, in a tone of assumed commiseration. "This evening has been too much for you. Acting a part at any time is extremely trying and laborious."
She shrinks still further from him. Acting a part! Is not all her life becoming one dreary drama, in which she acts a part from morning until night? Is there to be no rest for her? Oh, to escape from this man at any price! She rises to her feet.
"Our dance is almost at an end," she says; "and the heat is terrible. I can remain here no longer."
"You are ill," he exclaims eagerly, going to her side. He would have supported her, but by a gesture she repels him.
"If I am, it is you who have made me so," she retorts, with quick passion, for which she despises herself an instant later.
"Nay, not I," he rejoins, "but what my words have unconsciously conveyed to you. Do not blame me. I thought you, as well as every one else here, knew of Adrian's sentiments with regard to Mrs. Talbot."
This is too much for her. Drawing herself up to her full height, Florence casts a glance of anger and defiance in his direction, and, sweeping past him in her most imperious fashion, appears no more that night.
It is an early party, all things considered, and Dora Talbot, going to her room about two o'clock, stops before Florence's door and knocks softly thereon.
"Come in," calls Florence gently.
"I have just stopped for a moment to express the hope that you are not ill, dearest," says smooth-tongued Dora, advancing toward her. "How early you left us! I shouldn't have known how early only that Mr. Dynecourt told me. Are you sure you are not ill?"
"Not in the least, only a little fatigued," replied Florence calmly.
"Ah, no wonder, with your exertions before the dancing commenced, and your unqualified success! You reigned over everybody, darling. Nobody could hope even to divide the honors of the evening with you. Your acting was simply superb."
"Thank you," says Florence, who is not in bed, but is sitting in a chair drawn near the window, through which the moonbeams are flinging their pale rays. She is clad in a clinging white dressing-gown that makes her beauty saint-like, and has all her long hair falling loosely round her shoulders.
"What a charming evening it has been!" exclaims Dora ecstatically, clasping her hands, and leaning her arms on the back of a chair. "I hardly know when I have felt so thoroughly happy." Florence shudders visibly. "You enjoyed yourself, of course?" continues Dora. "Everyone raved about you. You made at least a dozen conquests; one or half a one—" with a careful hesitation in her manner intended to impress her listener—"is as much as poor little insignificant me can expect."
Florence looks at her questioningly.
"I think one really honest lover is worth a dozen others," she says, her voice trembling. "Do you mean me to understand, Dora, that you have gained one to-night?"
Florence's whole soul seems to hang on her cousin's answer. Dora simpers, and tries to blush, but in reality grows a shade paler. She is playing for a high stake, and fears to risk a throw lest it may be ventured too soon.
"Oh, you must not ask too much!" she replies, shaking her blonde head. "A lover—no! How can you be so absurd! And yet I think—I hope—"
"I see!" interrupts Florence sadly. "Well, I will be as discreet as you wish; but at least, if what I imagine be true, I can congratulate you with all my heart, because I know—I know you will be happy."
Going over to Mrs. Talbot, she lays her arms round her neck and kisses her softly. As she does so, a tear falls from her eyes upon Dora's cheek. There is so much sweetness and abandonment of self in this action that Dora for the moment is touched by it. She puts up her hand, and, wiping away the tear from her cheek as though it burns her, says lightly—
"But indeed, my dearest Flo, you must not imagine anything. All is vague. I myself hardly know what it is to which I am alluding. 'Trifles light as air' float through my brain, and gladden me in spite of my common sense, which whispers that they may mean nothing. Do not build castles for me that may have their existence only en Espagne."
"They seem very bright castles," observes Florence wistfully.
"A bad omen. 'All that's bright must fade,' sings the poet. And now to speak of yourself. You enjoyed yourself?"
"Of course—" mechanically.
"Ah, yes; I was glad to see you had made it up with poor Arthur Dynecourt!"
"How?" demands Florence, turning upon her quickly.
"I saw you dancing with him, dearest; I was with Sir Adrian at the time, and from something he said, I think he would be rather pleased if you could bring yourself to reward poor Arthur's long devotion."
"Sir Arthur said that? He discussed me with you?"
"Just in passing, you understand. He told me too that you were somewhat unhappy in the earlier part of the evening, and that he had to stay a considerable time with you to restore you to calmness. He is always so kind, dear Adrian!"
"He spoke of that?" demands Florence, in a tone of anguish. If he had made her emotion a subject of common talk with Mrs. Talbot, all indeed is at an end between them, even that sweet visionary offer of friendship he had made to her. No; she could not submit to be talked about by him, and the woman he loves! Oh, the bitter pang it costs her to say these words to herself! That he now loves Dora seems to her mind beyond dispute. Is she not his confidante, the one in whom he chooses to repose all his secret thoughts and surmises?
Dora regards her cousin keenly. Florence's evident agitation makes her fear that there was more in that tete-a-tete with Sir Adrian than she had at first imagined.
"Yes; why should he not speak of it?" Dora goes on coldly. "I think by his manner your want of self-control shocked him. You should have a greater command over yourself. It is not good form to betray one's feelings to every chance passer-by. Yes; I think Sir Adrian was both surprised and astonished."
"There was nothing to cause him either surprise or astonishment," says Florence haughtily; "and I could well have wished him out of the way!"
"Perhaps I misunderstood him," rejoins Dora artfully. "But certainly he spoke to me of being unpleasantly delayed by—by impossible people—those were his very words; and really altogether—I may be wrong—I believed he alluded to you. Of course, I would not follow the matter up, because, much as I like Sir Adrian, I could not listen to him speaking lightly of you!"
"Of me—you forget yourself, Dora!" cries Florence, with pale lips, but head erect. "Speaking lightly of me!" she repeats.
"Young men are often careless in their language," explains Dora hurriedly, feeling that she has gone too far. "He meant nothing unkind, you may be sure!"
"I am quite sure"—firmly.
"Then no harm is done"—smiling brightly. "And now, good-night, dearest; go to bed instead of sitting there looking like a ghost in those mystical moonbeams."
"Good-night," says Florence icily.
There is something about her that causes Mrs. Talbot to feel almost afraid to approach and kiss her as usual.
"Want of rest will spoil your lovely eyes," adds the widow airily; "and your complexion, faultless as it always is, will not be up to the mark to-morrow. So sleep, foolish child, and gather roses from your slumbers."
So saying, she kisses her hand gayly to the unresponsive Florence, and trips lightly from the room.
Florence, after Dora has left her, sits motionless at her window. She has thrown open the casement, and now—the sleeves of her dressing-gown falling back from her bare rounded arms—leans out so that the descending night-dews fall like a benison upon her burning brow.
She is wrapped in melancholy; her whole soul is burdened with thoughts and regrets almost too heavy for her to support. She is harassed and perplexed on all sides, and her heart is sore for the loss of the love she once had deemed her own.
The moonbeams cling like a halo round her lovely head, her hair falls in a luxuriant shower about her shoulders; her plaintive face is raised from earth, her eyes look heavenward, as though seeking hope and comfort there.
The night is still, almost to oppressiveness. The birds have long since ceased their song; the wind hardly stirs the foliage of the stately trees. The perfume wafted upward from the sleeping garden floats past her and mingles with her scented tresses. No sound comes to mar the serenity of the night, all is calm and silent as the grave.
Yet, hark, what is this? A footstep on the gravel path below arouses her attention. For the first time since Dora's departure she moves, and, turning her head, glances in the direction of the sound.
Bareheaded, and walking with his hands clasped behind him as though absorbed in deep thought, Sir Adrian comes slowly over the sward until he stands beneath her window. Here he pauses, as though almost unconsciously his spirit has led him thither, and brought him to a standstill where he would most desire to be.
The moon, spreading its brilliance on all around, permits Florence to see that his face is grave and thoughtful, and—yes, as she gazes even closer, she can see that it is full of pain and vain longing.
What is rendering him unhappy on this night of all others, when the woman she believes he loves has been his willing companion for so many hours, when doubtless she has given him proofs of her preference for him above all men?
Suddenly lifting his head, Sir Adrian becomes conscious of the face in the window above, and a thrill rushes through him as he recognizes the form of the woman he loves.
The scene is so calm, so hallowed, so full of romance, that both their hearts beat madly for awhile. They are alone; any one still awake within the house is far distant.
Never has she appeared so spiritual, so true and tender; so full of sweetness that is almost unearthly. All pride seems gone from her, and in its place only a gentle melancholy reigns; she looks so far removed from him, sitting there in the purity of her white robes, that, at first, he hesitates to address her. To his excited imagination, she is like an angel resting on its way to the realms above.
At last, however, his heart compelling him, he speaks aloud.
"Florence, you still awake, when all the world is sleeping?"
Her name falling from his lips touches a chord in her breast, and wakes her to passionate life.
"You too," she says in a whisper that reaches his strained ears. There seems to her a subtle joy in the thought that they two of all the household are awake, are here talking together alone in the pale light of the moon.
Yet she is wrong in imagining that no others are up in the house, as his next words tell her.
"It is not a matter of wonder in my case," he responds; "a few fellows are still in the smoking-room. It is early, you know—not yet three. But you—why are you keeping a lonely vigil like this?"
"The moon tempted me to the window," answers Florence. "See how calm she looks riding majestically up there. See"—stretching out her bare white arm until the beams fall full upon it, and seem to change it to purest marble—"does it not make one feel as if all the world were being bathed in its subdued glow?"
A pale tremulous smile widens her lips. Sir Adrian, plucking a tall pale lily growing near him, flings it upward with such an eager aim that it alights upon her window-sill. She sees it. Her fingers close upon it.
"Fit emblem of its possessor," says Adrian softly, and rather unsteadily. "Do you know of what you remind me, sitting there in your white robes? A medieval saint cut in stone—a pure angel, too good, too far above all earthly passion to enter into it, or understand it, and the grief that must ever attend upon it."
He speaks bitterly. It seems to him that she is indeed cold not to have guessed before this the intensity of his love for her. However much she may have given her affection to another, it still seems to him inexpressibly hard that she can have no pity for his suffering. He gazes at her intently. Do the mystic moonbeams deceive him, or are there tears in her great dark eyes? His heart beats quickly. Once again he remembers her emotion of the past evening. He hears again her passionate sobs. Is she unhappy? Are there thorns in her path that are difficult to remove?
"Florence, once again I entreat you to confide in me," he says, after a pause.
"I can not," she returns, sadly but firmly. "But there is one thing I must say to you—think of me as you may for saying it—I am not cold as you seemed to imply a moment since; I am not made of stone; and, alas, the grief you think me incapable of understanding is mine already! You have wronged me in your thoughts. I have here," she exclaims with some vehemence, laying the hand in which she still holds the drooping lily upon her breast, "what I would gladly be without—a heart."
"Nay," says Adrian hastily; "you forget. It is no longer yours, you have given it away."
For an instant she glances at him keenly, while her breath comes and goes with painful quickness.
"You have no right to say so," she murmurs at last.
"No, of course not; I beg your pardon," he says apologetically. "It is your own secret."
"There is no secret," she declares nervously. "None."
"I have offended you. I should not have said that. You will forgive me?" he entreats, with agitation.
"You are quite forgiven;" and, as a token of the truth of her words, she leans a little further out of the window, and looks down at him with a face pale indeed, but full of an unutterable sweetness.
Her beauty conquers all his resolutions.
"Oh, Florence," he whispers in an impassioned tone, "if I only dare to tell you what—"
She starts and lays a finger on her lips, as though to enforce silence.
"Hush!" she says, in trembling accents. "You forget! The hour, the surroundings, have momentarily led you astray. I ought not to have spoken with you. Go! There is nothing you dare to tell me—there is nothing I would wish to hear. Remember your duty to another—and—good-night."
"Stay, I implore you, for one moment," he cries; but she is firm, and presently the curtains are drawn close and he is alone.
Slowly he walks back toward the smoking-room, her last words ringing in his ears—"Remember your duty to another." What other? He is puzzled, but, reaching the window of the room, he dismisses these thoughts from his mind, and determines to get rid of his guests without delay, so as to be able to enjoy a little quiet and calm for reflection.
They are all noisily discussing a suicide that had recently taken place in a neighboring county, and which had, from its peculiar circumstances, caused more than usual interest.
One of the guests to-night is an army-surgeon, and he is giving them an explanation as to how the fatal wound had been inflicted. It appeared at the inquest that the unfortunate man had shot himself in such a peculiar manner as to cause considerable doubt as to whether he had been murdered or had died by his own hand. Evidence, however, of a most convincing nature had confirmed the latter theory.
Captain Ringwood, with a revolver in his hand, is endeavoring to show that the man could not have shot himself, just as Adrian re-enters.
"Be careful with that revolver," he exclaims hastily; "it is loaded!"
"All right, old fellow, I know it," returns Ringwood. "Look here, doctor, if he held it so, how could he make a wound here?"
"Why not? Sir Adrian, take the revolver for a moment, will you?" says the surgeon, anxious to demonstrate his theory beyond the possibility of doubt. "I want to convince Ringwood. Now stand so, and hold the weapon so"—placing it with the muzzle presented in a rather awkward position almost over his heart.
"I thought fellows always put the muzzles of their revolvers in their mouths and blew their brains out when they committed suicide," Ringwood remarks lightly.
"This fellow evidently did not," says the surgeon calmly. "Now, Sir Adrian, you see, by holding it thus, you could quite easily blow yourself to—"
Before he can finish the sentence, there is a sudden confusion of bodies, a jostling as it were, for Arthur Dynecourt, who had been looking on attentively with one foot on a footstool close to Sir Adrian's elbow, had slipped from the stool at this inopportune moment, and had fallen heavily against his cousin.
There is a shout from somebody, and then a silence. The revolver in the scuffle had gone off! Through the house the sharp crack of a bullet rings loudly, rousing many from their slumbers.
Lights can be seen in the passages; terrified faces peep out from half-opened doors. Dora Talbot, coming into the corridor in a pale pink cashmere dressing-gown trimmed with swan's-down, in which she looks the very personification of innocence and youth, screams loudly, and demands hysterically to be informed as to the cause of the unusual noise.
The servants have rushed from their quarters in alarm. Ethel Villiers, with a pale scared face, runs to Florence Delmaine's room, and throws her arms round that young lady as she comes out, pale but composed, to ask in a clear tone what has happened.
As nobody knows, and as Florence in her heart is more frightened than she cares to confess, being aware through Adrian that some of the men are still up in the smoking-room, and fearing that a quarrel had arisen among them, she proposes that they should go to the smoking-room in a body and make inquiries.
Old Lady FitzAlmont, with Lady Gertrude sobbing on her arm, seconds this proposal, and, being a veteran of much distinction, takes the lead. Those following close behind, are glad of this, and hopeful because of it, her appearance being calculated to rout any enemy. The awful character of her dressing-gown and the severity of the nightcap that crowns her martial head would strike terror to the hearts of any midnight marauders. They all move off in a body, and, guided unconsciously by Florence, approach the smoking-room.
Voices loud in conversation can be heard as they draw near; the door is slightly ajar. Florence drawing back as they come quite up to it, the old lady waves her aside, and advances boldly to the front. Flinging wide open the door, she bursts upon the astonished company within.
"Where is he?" she asks, with a dignity that only heightens the attractions of the cap and gown. "Have you secured him? Sir Adrian, where is the constable? Have you sent for him?"
Sir Adrian, whose gaze is fixed upon the fair vision in the trailing white gown standing timidly in the door-way, forgets to answer his interrogator, and the others, taken by surprise, maintain a solemn silence.
"Why this mystery?" demands Lady FitzAlmont sternly. "Where is the miscreant? Where is the man that fired that murderous shot?"
"Here, madame," replies the surgeon dryly, indicating Arthur Dynecourt by a motion of the hand.
"He—who? Mr. Dynecourt?" ejaculates her ladyship in a disappointed tone. "It was all a mistake, then? I must say, Mr. Dynecourt," continues the old lady in an indignant tone, "that I think you might find a more suitable time in which to play off your jokes, or to practice target-shooting, than in the middle of the night, when every respectable household ought to be wrapped in slumber."
"I assure you," begins Arthur Dynecourt, who is strangely pale and discomposed, "it was all an accident—an—"
"Accident! Nonsense, sir; I don't believe there was any accident whatsoever!"
As these words pass the lips of the irascible old lady, several men in the room exchange significant glances. Is it that old Lady FitzAlmont has just put their own thoughts into words?
"Let me explain to your ladyship," says Sir Adrian courteously. "We were just talking about that unfortunate affair of the Stewarts, and Maitland was showing us how it might have occurred. I had the revolver in my hand so"—pointing the weapon toward himself.
"Put down that abominable weapon at once, sir!" commands Lady FitzAlmont, in a menacing tone, largely mingled with abject fear. As she speaks she retreats precipitately behind Florence, thus pushing that young lady to the fore.
"When my cousin unhappily stumbled against me, and the revolver went off," goes on Sir Adrian. "I'm deeply grieved, Lady FitzAlmont, that this should have occurred to disturb the household; but, really, it was a pure accident."
"A pure accident," repeats Arthur, from between his colorless lips.
He looks far more distressed by this occurrence than Sir Adrian, who had narrowly escaped being wounded. This only showed his tenderness and proper feeling, as almost all the women present mutually agreed. Almost all, but not quite. Dora Talbot, for example, grows deadly pale as she listens to the explanation and watches Arthur's ghastly face. What is it like? The face of a murderer?
"Oh, no, no," she gasps inwardly; "surely not that!"
"It was the purest accident, I assure you," protests Arthur again, as though anxious to impress this conviction upon his own mind.
"It might have been a very serious one," says the surgeon gravely, regarding him with a keen glance. "It might have meant death to Sir Adrian!"
Florence changes color and glances at her host with parted lips. Dora Talbot, pressing her way through the group in the door-way, goes straight up to him as if impulsively, and takes his hand in both hers.
"Dear Sir Adrian, how can we be thankful enough for your escape?" she says sweetly, tears standing in her bright blue eyes. She presses his hand warmly, and even raises it to her lips in a transport of emotion. Standing there in the pretty pink dressing-gown that shows off her complexion to perfection, Dora Talbot looks lovely.
"You are very good—very kind," returns Sir Adrian, really touched by her concern, but still with eyes only for the white vision in the door-way; "but you make too much of nothing. I am only sorry I have been the unhappy cause of rousing you from your rosy dreams; you will not thank me to-morrow when there will be only lilies in your cheeks."
The word lily brings back to him his last interview with Florence. He glances hurriedly at her right hand; yes, the same lily is clasped in her fingers. Has she sat ever since with his gift before her, in her silent chamber? Alone—in grief perhaps. But why has she kept his flower? What can it all mean?
"We shall mind nothing, now you are safe," Dora assures him tremulously.
"I think I might be shown some consideration," puts in Arthur, trying by a violent effort to assert himself, and to speak lightly. "Had anything happened, surely I should have been the one to be pitied. It would have been my fault, and, Mrs. Talbot, I think you might show some pity for me." He holds out his hand, and mechanically Dora lays her own in it.
But it is only for an instant, and she shudders violently as his touch meets hers. Her eyes are on the ground, and she can not bring herself to look at him. Drawing her fingers hurriedly from his, she goes to the door and disappears from view.
In the meantime, Sir Adrian, having made his way to Florence, points to the lily.
"You have held it ever since?" he asks, in a low tone. "I hardly hoped for so much. But you have not congratulated me, you alone have said nothing."
"Why need I speak? I have seen you with my own eyes. You are safe. Believe me, Sir Adrian, I congratulate you most sincerely upon your escape."
Her words are cold, her eyes downcast. She is deeply annoyed with herself for having carried the lily into his presence here. The very fact of his having noticed it and spoken to her about it has shown her how much importance he has attached to her doing so. What will he think of her. He will doubtless picture her to himself sitting weeping and brooding over a flower given to her by a man who loves her not, and to whom she has given her love unsolicited.
Her marked coldness so oppresses him that he steps back, and does not venture to address her again. It occurs to him that she is reserved because of Arthur's presence.
Presently, Lady FitzAlmont, marshaling her forces anew, carries them all away to their rooms, soundly rating the sobbing Lady Gertrude for her want of self-control.
The men too, shortly afterward disperse, and one by one drift away to their rooms. Captain Ringwood and Maitland the surgeon being the last to go.
"Who is the next heir to the castle?" asks the latter musingly, drumming his fingers idly on a table near him.
"Dynecourt, the fellow who nearly did for Sir Adrian this evening!" replies Ringwood quietly.
"It would have meant a very good thing for Arthur if the shot had taken effect," says Ringwood, eying his companion curiously.
"It would have meant murder, sir!" rejoins the surgeon shortly.
"Dear Sir Adrian," says Dora Talbot, laying down her bat upon a garden-chair, and forsaking the game of tennis then proceeding to go forward and greet her host, "where have you been? We have missed you so much. Florence"—turning to her cousin—"will you take my bat, dearest? I am quite tired of trying to defeat Lord Lisle."
Lord Lisle, a middle-aged gentleman of sunburned appearance, looks unmistakably delighted at the prospect of a change in the game. He is married; has a large family of promising young Lisles, and a fervent passion for tennis. Mrs. Talbot having proved a very contemptible adversary, he is charmed at this chance of getting rid of her.
So Florence, vice Dora retired, joins the game, and the play continues with unabated vigor. When however Lord Lisle has scored a grand victory, and all the players declare themselves thoroughly exhausted and in need of refreshment, Sir Adrian comes forward, and walks straight up to Miss Delmaine, to Dora's intense chagrin and the secret rage of Arthur Dynecourt.
"You have often asked to see the 'haunted chamber,'" he says; "why not come and visit it now? It isn't much to see, you know; but still, in a ghostly sense, it is, I suppose, interesting."
"Let us make a party and go together," suggests Dora, enthusiastically clasping her hands—her favorite method of showing false emotion of any kind. She is determined to have her part in the programme, and is equally determined that Florence shall go nowhere alone with Sir Adrian.
"What a capital idea!" puts in Arthur Dynecourt, coming up to Miss Delmaine, and specially addressing her with all the air of a rightful owner.
"Charming," murmurs a young lady standing by; and so the question is settled.
"It will be rather a fatiguing journey, you know," says Captain Ringwood, confidentially, to Ethel Villiers. "It's an awful lot of stairs; I've been there, so I know all about it—it's worse than the treadmill."
"Have you been there too?" demands Miss Ethel saucily, glancing at him from under her long lashes.
"Not yet," answers the captain, with a little grin. "But, I say, don't go—will you?"
"I must; I'm dying to see it," replies Ethel. "You needn't come, you know; I dare say I shall be able to get on without you for half an hour or so."
"I dare say you could get on uncommonly well without me forever," retorts the captain rather gloomily. To himself he confesses moodily that this girl with the auburn hair and the blue eyes has the power of taking the "curl out of him" whensoever she wishes.
"I believe you are afraid of the bogies hidden in this secret chamber, and so don't care to come," says Miss Villiers tauntingly.
"I know something else I'm a great deal more afraid of," responds the gallant captain meaningly.
"Me?" she asks innocently, but certainly coquettishly. "Oh, Captain Ringwood"—in a tone of mock injury—"what an unkind speech! Now I know you look upon me in the light of an ogress, or a witch, or something equally dreadful. Well, as I have the name of it, I may as well have the gain of it, and so—I command you to attend me to the 'haunted chamber.'"
"You order—I obey," says the captain. "'Call and I follow—I follow, though I die!'" After which quotation he accompanies her toward the house in the wake of Dora and Sir Adrian, who has been pressed by the clever widow into her service.
Florence and Arthur Dynecourt follow them, Arthur talking gayly, as though determined to ignore the fact that he is thoroughly unwelcome to his companion; Florence, with head erect and haughty footsteps and eyes carefully averted.