by E. Phillips Oppenheim
BOOK I Chapter
I. A Society Scandal II. Outside the Pale III. A Student of Character IV. A Delicate Mission V. The Gospel of Hate VI. "Hast Thou Found Me, O Mine Enemy?" VII. Lord of the Manor VIII. The Heart of a Child IX. The Sword of Damocles X. A Forlorn Hope XI. Professor Sinclair's Dancing Academy XII. Mephistopheles on a Steamer XIII. A Cockney Conspirator XIV. The Moth and the Candle XV. "Devil Take the Hindmost" XVI. The Hidden Hand
I. "Mr. Wingrave, From America" II. The Shadow of a Fear III. Juliet Asks Questions IV. Lady Ruth's Last Card V. Guardian and Ward VI. Ghosts of Dead Things. VII. Spreading the Net VIII. In the Toils IX. The Indiscretion of the Marchioness X. "I am Misanthropos, and Hate Mankind" XI. Juliet Gains Experience XII. Nemesis at Work XIII. Richardson Tries Again XIV. "It Was an Accident" XV. Aynesworth Plans a Love Story XVI. A Deed of Gift XVII. For Pity's Sake XVIII. A Dream of Paradise XIX. The Awakening XX. Revenge is—Bitter XXI. The Way of Peace XXII. "Love Shall Make all Things New"
A SOCIETY SCANDAL
Tall and burly, with features and skin hardened by exposure to the sun and winds of many climates, he looked like a man ready to face all hardships, equal to any emergency. Already one seemed to see the clothes and habits of civilization falling away from him, the former to be replaced by the stern, unlovely outfit of the war correspondent who plays the game. They crowded round him in the club smoking room, for these were his last few minutes. They had dined him, toasted him, and the club loving cup had been drained to his success and his safe return. For Lovell was a popular member of this very Bohemian gathering, and he was going to the Far East, at a few hours' notice, to represent one of the greatest of English dailies.
A pale, slight young man, who stood at this right hand, was speaking. His name was Walter Aynesworth, and he was a writer of short stories—a novelist in embryo.
"What I envy you most, Lovell," he declared, "is your escape from the deadly routine of our day by day life. Here in London it seems to me that we live the life of automatons. We lunch, we dine, we amuse or we bore ourselves, and we sleep—and all the rest of the world does the same. Passion we have outgrown, emotion we have destroyed by analysis. The storms which shake humanity break over other countries. What is there left to us of life? Civilization ministers too easily to our needs, existence has become a habit. No wonder that we are a tired race."
"Life is the same, the world over," another man remarked. "With every forward step in civilization, life must become more mechanical. London is no worse than Paris, or Paris than Tokyo."
Aynesworth shook his head. "I don't agree with you," he replied. "It is the same, more or less, with all European countries, but the Saxon temperament, with its mixture of philosophy and philistinism, more than any other, gravitates towards the life mechanical. Existence here has become fossilized. We wear a mask upon our faces; we carry a gauge for our emotions. Lovell is going where the one great force of primitive life remains. He is going to see war. He is going to breathe an atmosphere hot with naked passion; he is going to rub shoulders with men who walk hand in hand with death. That's the sort of tonic we all want, to remind us that we are human beings with blood in our veins, and not sawdust-stuffed dolls."
Then Lovell broke silence. He took his pipe from his mouth, and he addressed Aynesworth.
"Walter," he said, "you are talking rot. There is nothing very complex or stimulating about the passion of war, when men kill one another unseen; where you feel the sting in your heart which comes from God knows where, and you crumple up, with never a chance to have a go at the chap who has potted you from the trenches, or behind a rock, a thousand yards off. Mine is going to be, except from a spectacular point of view, a very barren sort of year, compared with what yours might be if the fire once touched your eyes. I go where life is cruder and fiercer, perhaps, but you remain in the very city of tragedies."
Aynesworth laughed, as he lit a fresh cigarette.
"City of tragedies!" he exclaimed. "It sounds all right, but it's bunkum all the same. Show me where they lie, Lovell, old chap. Tell me where to stir the waters."
Several of those who were watching him noticed a sudden change in Lovell's face. The good humor and bonhomie called up by this last evening amongst his old friends had disappeared. His face had fallen into graver lines, his eyes seemed fixed with a curious introspective steadiness on a huge calendar which hung from the wall. When at last he turned towards Aynesworth, his tone was almost solemn.
"Some of them don't lie so very far from the surface, Walter," he said. "There is one"—he took out his watch—"there is one which, if you like, I will tell you about. I have just ten minutes."
"Go ahead, Lovell, old chap!"
"Have a drink first!"
He held out his hand. They were all silent. He stood up amongst them, by far the tallest man there, with his back to the chimney piece, and his eyes still lingering about that calendar.
"Thirteen years ago," he said, "two young men—call them by their Christian names, Wingrave and Lumley—shared a somewhat extensive hunting box in Leicestershire. They were both of good family, well off, and fairly popular, Lumley the more so perhaps. He represented the ordinary type of young Englishman, with a stronger dash than usual of selfishness. Wingrave stood for other things. He was reticent and impenetrable. People called him mysterious."
Lovell paused for a moment to refill his pipe. The sudden light upon his face, as he struck a match, seemed to bring into vivid prominence something there, indescribable in words, yet which affected his hearers equally with the low gravity of his speech. The man himself was feeling the tragedy of the story he told.
"They seemed," he continued, "always to get on well together, until they fell in love with the same woman. Her name we will say was Ruth. She was the wife of the Master of Hounds with whom they hunted. If I had the story-writing gifts of Aynesworth here, I would try to describe her. As I haven't, I will simply give you a crude idea of what she seemed like to me.
"She was neither dark nor fair, short nor tall; amongst a crowd of other women, she seemed undistinguishable by any special gifts; yet when you had realized her there was no other woman in the room. She had the eyes of an angel, only they were generally veiled; she had the figure of a miniature Venus, soft and with delicate curves, which seemed somehow to be always subtly asserting themselves, although she affected in her dress an almost puritanical simplicity. Her presence in a room was always felt at once. There are some women, beautiful or plain, whose sex one scarcely recognizes. She was not one of these! She seemed to carry with her the concentrated essence of femininity. Her quiet movements, the almost noiseless rustling of her clothes, the quaint, undistinguishable perfumes which she used, her soft, even voice, were all things which seemed individual to her. She was like a study in undernotes, and yet"—Lovell paused a moment—"and yet no Spanish dancing woman, whose dark eyes and voluptuous figure have won her the crown of the demi-monde, ever possessed that innate and mystic gift of kindling passion like that woman. I told you I couldn't describe her! I can't! I can only speak of effects. If my story interests you, you must build up your own idea of her."
"Becky Sharpe!" Aynesworth murmured.
"Perhaps," he admitted, "only Ruth was a lady. To go on with my story. A hunting coterie, as you fellows know, means lots of liberty, and a general free-and-easiness amongst the sexes, which naturally leads to flirtations more or less serious. Ruth's little affairs were either too cleverly arranged, or too harmless for gossip. Amongst the other women of the hunt, she seemed outwardly almost demure. But one day—there was a row!"
Lovell paused, and took a drink from a glass by his side.
"I hope you fellows won't think that I'm spinning this out," he said. "It is, after all, in itself only a commonplace story, but I've carried it locked up in my memory for years, and now that I've let it loose, it unwinds itself slowly. This is how the row came about. Lumley one afternoon missed Wingrave and Ruth from the hunting field. Someone most unfortunately happened to tell him that they had left the run together, and had been seen riding together towards White Lodge, which was the name of the house where these two young men lived. Lumley followed them. He rode into the stable yard, and found there Ruth's mare and Wingrave's covert hack, from which he had not changed when they had left the field. Both animals had evidently been ridden hard, and there was something ominous in the smile with which the head groom told him that Lady Ruth and Wingrave were in the house.
"The two men had separate dens. Wingrave's was much the better furnished, as he was a young man of considerable taste, and he had also fitted it with sporting trophies collected from many countries. This room was at the back of the house, and Lumley deliberately crossed the lawn and looked in at the window."
Lovell paused for a moment or two to relight his pipe.
"Remember," he continued, "that I have to put this story together, partly from facts which came to my knowledge afterwards, and partly from reasonable deductions. I may say at once that I do not know what Lumley saw when he played the spy. The housekeeper had just taken tea in, and it is possible that Wingrave may have been holding his guest's hand, or that something in their faces or attitude convinced him that his jealousy was well founded. Anyhow, it is certain that Lumley was half beside himself with rage when he strode away from that window. Then in the avenue he must have heard the soft patter of hounds coming along the lane, or perhaps seen the pink coats of the huntsmen through the hedge. This much is certain. He hurried down the drive, and returned with Ruth's husband."
Lovell took another drink. No one spoke. No one even made a remark. The little circle of listeners had caught something of his own gravity. The story was an ordinary one enough, but something in Lovell's manner of telling it seemed somehow to bring into their consciousness the apprehension of the tangled web of passions which burned underneath its sordid details.
"Ruth's husband—Sir William I will call him—stood side by side with Lumley before the window. What they saw I cannot tell you. They entered the room. The true story of what happened there I doubt if anyone will ever know. The evidence of servants spoke of raised voices and the sound of a heavy fall. When they were summoned, Sir William lay on the floor unconscious. Lady Ruth had fainted; Lumley and Wingrave were both bending over the former. On the floor were fragments of paper, which were afterwards put together, and found to be the remains of a check for a large amount, payable to Lady Ruth, and signed by Wingrave.
"The sequel is very soon told. Sir William died in a few days, and Wingrave, on the evidence of Lumley and Ruth, was committed for manslaughter, and sent to prison for fifteen years!"
Lovell paused. A murmur went round the little group of listeners. The story, after all, except for Lovell's manner of telling it, was an ordinary one. Everyone felt that there was something else behind.
So they asked no questions whilst Lovell drank his whisky and soda, and refilled his pipe. Again his eyes seemed to wander to the calendar.
"According to Lady Ruth's evidence," he said thoughtfully, "her husband entered the room at the exact moment when she was rejecting Wingrave's advances, and indignantly refusing a check which he was endeavoring to persuade her to accept. A struggle followed between the two men, with fatal results for Sir William. That," he added slowly, "is the story which the whole world read, and which most of it believes. Here, however, are a few corrections of my own, and a suggestion or two for you, Aynesworth, and those of you who like to consider yourselves truth seekers. First, then, Lady Ruth was a self-invited guest at White Lodge. She had asked Wingrave to return with her, and as they sat together in his room, she confessed that she was worried, and asked for his advice. She was in some money trouble, ingeniously explained, no doubt. Wingrave, with the utmost delicacy, offered his assistance, which was of course accepted. It was exactly what she was there for. She was in the act of taking the check, when she saw her husband and Lumley. Her reputation was at stake. Her subsequent course of action and evidence becomes obvious. The check unexplained was ruin. She explained it!
"Of the struggle, and of the exact means by which Sir William received his injuries, I know nothing. There is the evidence! It may or may not be true. The most serious part of the case, so far as Lady Ruth was concerned, lay in the facts as to her husband's removal from the White Lodge. In an unconscious state he was driven almost twelve miles at a walking pace. No stimulants were administered, and though they passed two doctors' houses no stop was made. A doctor was not sent for until half an hour after they reached home, and even then they seemed to have chosen the one who lived furthest away. The conclusion is obvious enough to anyone who knows the facts of the case. Sir William was not meant to live!
"Wingrave's trial was a famous one. He had no friends and few sympathizers, and he insisted upon defending himself. His cross examination of the man who had been his friend created something like a sensation. Amongst other things, he elicited the fact that Lumley, after first seeing the two together, had gone and fetched Sir William. It was a terrible half hour for Lumley, and when he left the box, amongst the averted faces of his friends, the sweat was pouring down his face. I can seem him now, as though it were yesterday. Then Lady Ruth followed. She was quietly dressed; the effect she produced was excellent. She told her story. She hinted at the insult. She spoke of the check. She had imagined no harm in accepting Wingrave's invitation to tea. Men and women of the hunt, who were on friendly terms, treated one another as comrades. She spoke of the blow. She had seen it delivered, and so on. And all the time, I sat within a few feet of Wingrave, and I knew that in the black box before him were burning love letters from this woman, to the man whose code of honor would ever have protected her husband from disgrace; and I knew that I was listening to the thing which you, Aynesworth, and many of your fellow story writers, have so wisely and so ignorantly dilated upon—the vengeance of a woman denied. Only I heard the words themselves, cold, earnest words, fall one by one from her lips like a sentence of doom—and there was life in the thing, life and death! When she had finished, the whole court was in a state of tension. Everyone was leaning forward. It would be the most piquant, the most wonderful cross examination every heard—the woman lying to save her honor and to achieve her vengeance; the man on trial for his life. Wingrave stood up. Lady Ruth raised her veil, and looked at him from the witness box. There was the most intense silence I ever realized. Who could tell the things which flashed from one to the other across the dark well of the court; who could measure the fierce, silent scorn which seemed to blaze from his eyes, as he held her there—his slave until he chose to give the signal for release? At last he looked away towards the judge, and the woman fell forward in the box gasping, a crumpled up, nerveless heap of humanity.
"'My lord,' he said, 'I have no questions to ask this witness!'
"Everyone staggered. Wingrave's few friends were horrified. After that there was, of course, no hope for him. He got fifteen years' penal servitude."
Like an echo from that pent-up murmur of feeling which had rippled through the crowded court many years ago, his little group of auditors almost gasped as Lovell left his place and strolled down the room. Aynesworth laid his hand upon his shoulder.
"All the time," he said, "you were looking at that calendar! Why?"
Lovell once more faced them. He was standing with his back to a round table, strewn with papers and magazines.
"It was the date," he said, "and the fact that I must leave England within a few hours, which forced this story from me. Tomorrow Wingrave will be free! Listen, Aynesworth," he continued, turning towards him, "and the rest of you who fancy that it is I who am leaving a humdrum city for the world of tragedies! I leave you the legacy of a greater one than all Asia will yield to me! Lady Ruth is married to Lumley, and they hold today in London a very distinguished social position. Tomorrow Wingrave takes a hand in the game. He was once my friend; I was in court when he was tried; I was intimately acquainted with the lawyer's clerk who had the arrangement of his papers. I know what no one else breathing knows. He is a man who never forgives; a man who was brutally deceived, and who for years has had no other occupation than to brood upon his wrongs. He is very wealthy indeed, still young, he has marvelous tenacity of purpose, and he has brains. Tomorrow he will be free!"
Aynesworth drew a little breath.
"I wonder," he murmured, "if anything will happen."
Lovell shrugged his shoulders.
"Where I go," he said, "the cruder passions may rage, and life and death be reckoned things of little account. But you who remain—who can tell?—you may look into the face of mightier things."
OUTSIDE THE PALE
Three men were together in a large and handsomely furnished sitting room of the Clarence Hotel, in Piccadilly. One, pale, quiet, and unobtrusive, dressed in sober black, the typical lawyer's clerk, was busy gathering up a collection of papers and documents from the table, over which they had been strewn. His employer, who had more the appearance of a country gentleman than the junior partner in the well-known firm of Rocke and Son, solicitors, had risen to his feet, and was drawing on his gloves. At the head of the table was the client.
"I trust, Sir Wingrave, that you are satisfied with this account of our stewardship," the solicitor said, as his clerk left the room. "We have felt it a great responsibility at times, but everything seems to have turned out very well. The investments, of course, are all above suspicion."
"Perfectly satisfied, I thank you," was the quiet reply. "You seem to have studied my interests in a very satisfactory manner."
Mr. Rocke had other things to say, but his client's manner seemed designed to create a barrier of formality between them. He hesitated, unwilling to leave, yet finding it exceedingly difficult to say the things which were in his mind. He temporized by referring back to matters already discussed, solely for the purpose of prolonging the interview.
"You have quite made up your mind, then, to put the Tredowen property on the market," he remarked. "You will excuse my reminding you of the fact that you have large accumulated funds in hand, and nearly a hundred thousand pounds worth of easily realizable securities. Tredowen has been in your mother's family for a good many years, and I should doubt whether it will be easily disposed of."
The man at the head of the table raised his head. He looked steadily at the lawyer, who began to wish that he had left the room with his clerk. Decidedly, Sir Wingrave Seton was not an easy man to get on with.
"My mind is quite made up, thank you, on this and all other matters concerning which I have given you instructions," was the calm reply. "I have had plenty of time for consideration," he added drily.
The lawyer had his opening at last, and he plunged.
"Sir Wingrave," he said, "we were at college together, and our connection is an old one. You must forgive me if I say how glad I am to see you here, and to know that your bad time is over. I can assure you that you have had my deepest sympathy. Nothing ever upset me so much as that unfortunate affair. I sincerely trust that you will do your best now to make up for lost time. You are still young, and you are rich. Let us leave business alone now, for the moment. What can I do for you as a friend, if you will allow me to call you so?"
Wingrave turned slightly in his chair. In his altered position, a ray of sunshine fell for the first time upon his gaunt but striking face. Lined and hardened, as though by exposure and want of personal care, there was also a lack of sensibility, an almost animal callousness, on the coldly lit eyes and unflinching mouth, which readily suggested some terrible and recent experience—something potent enough to have dried up the human nature out of the man and left him soulless. His clothes had the impress of the ready-made, although he wore them with a distinction which was obviously inherent; and notwithstanding the fact that he seemed to have been writing, he wore gloves.
"I am much obliged to you, Rocke," he said. "Let me repeat your question. What is there that you can do for me?"
Mr. Rocke was apparently a little nonplussed. The absolute imperturbability of the man who had once been his friend was disconcerting.
"Well," he said, "the governor sent me instead of coming himself, because he thought that I might be more useful to you. London changes so quickly—you would hardly know your way about now. I should like you to come and dine with me tonight, and I'll take you round anywhere you care to go; and then if you don't want to go back to your old tradespeople, I could take you to my tailor and bookmaker."
"Is that all?" Wingrave asked calmly.
Rocke was again taken aback.
"Certainly not," he answered. "There must be many ways in which I could be useful to you, but I can't think of them all at once. I am here to serve you professionally or as a friend, to the best of my ability. Can you suggest anything yourself? What do you want?"
"That is the question," Wingrave said, "which I have been asking myself. Unfortunately, up to now, I have not been able to answer it. Regarding myself, however, from the point of view of a third party, I should say that the thing I was most in need of was the society of my fellow creatures."
"Exactly," Rocke declared. "That is what I thought you would say! It won't take us long to arrange something of the sort for you."
"Can you put me up," Wingrave asked, "at your club, and introduce me to your friends there?"
Rocke flinched before the steady gaze of those cold enquiring eyes, in which he fancied, too, that a gleam of malice shone. The color mounted to his cheeks. It was a most embarrassing situation.
"I can introduce you to some decent fellows, of course, and to some very charming ladies," he said hesitatingly, "but as to the club—I—well, don't you think yourself that it would scarcely be wise to—"
"Exactly," Wingrave interrupted. "And these ladies that you spoke of—"
"Oh! There's no difficulty about that," Rocke declared with an air of relief. "I can make up a little dinner party for tonight, if you like. There's an awfully smart American woman over here, with the Fanciful Fan Company—I'm sure you'd like her, and she'd come like a shot. Then I'd get Daisy Vane—she's all right. They don't know anything, and wouldn't care if they did. Besides, you could call yourself what you liked."
"Thank you," Wingrave said. "I am afraid I did not make myself quite clear. I was not thinking of play fellows. I was thinking of the men and women of my own order. Shall I put the matter quite clearly? Can I take my place in society under my own name, renew my old friendships and build up new ones? Can I do this even at the risk of a few difficulties at first? I am not a sensitive man. I am prepared for the usual number of disagreeable incidents. But can I win my way through?"
With his back against the wall, Rocke displayed more courage. Besides, what was the use of mincing matters with a man who had all the appearance of a human automaton, who never flinched or changed color, and whose passions seemed dried up and withered things?
"I am afraid not, Sir Wingrave," he said. "I should not recommend you to try, at any rate for the present."
"Give me your reasons," was the cool response.
"I will do so with pleasure," Rocke answered. "About the time of the trial and immediately afterwards, there was a certain amount of sympathy for you. People felt that you must have received a good deal of provocation, and there were several unexplained incidents which told in your favor. Today, I should think that the feeling amongst those who remember the affair at all is rather the other way. You heard, I believe, that Lady Ruth married Lumley Barrington?"
"Barrington has been very successful at the Bar, and they say that he is certain of a judgeship before long. His wife has backed him up well, they have entertained lavishly, and today I should think that she is one of the most popular hostesses in London. In her earlier days, I used to hear that she was one of the very fast hunting set—that was the time when you knew her. I can assure you that if ever that was true, she is a completely altered woman today. She is patroness of half a dozen great charitable schemes, she writes very clever articles in the Reviews on the Betterment of the Poor Question, and royalty itself visits at her house."
"I see," Wingrave said drily. "I was not aware of these changes."
"If ever," Mr. Rocke continued, "people were inclined to look a little askance at her, that has all gone by. Today she is one of the last women in the world of whom people would be likely to believe ill."
Wingrave nodded slowly.
"I am very much obliged to you," he said, "for this information. You seem to have come here today, Mr. Rocke, with good intentions towards me. Let me ask you to put yourself in my place. I am barely forty years old, and I am rich. I want to make the most of my life—under the somewhat peculiar circumstances. How and where should you live?"
"It depends a little upon your tastes, of course," Rocke answered. "You are a sportsman, are you not?"
"I am fond of sport," Wingrave answered. "At least I was. At present I am not conscious of having any positive tastes."
"I think," Rocke continued, "that I should first of all change my name. Then, without making any effort to come into touch with your old friends, I should seek acquaintance amongst the Bohemian world of London and Paris. There I might myself, perhaps, be able to help you. For sport, you might fish in Norway or Iceland, or shoot in Hungary; you could run to a yacht if you cared about it, and if you fancy big game, why, there's all Africa before you."
Wingrave listened, without changing a muscle of his face.
"Your programme," he remarked, "presupposes that I have no ambitions beyond the pursuit of pleasure."
Rocke shrugged his shoulders. He was becoming more at his ease. He felt that his advice was sound, that he was showing a most comprehensive grasp of the situation.
"I am afraid," he said, "that none of what we call the careers are open to you. You could not enter Parliament, and you are too old for the professions. The services, of course, are impossible. You might write, if your tastes ran that way. Nowadays, it seems to be the fashion to record one's experiences in print, if—if they should happen to be in any way exceptional. I can think of nothing else!"
"I am very much obliged to you," Wingrave said. "Your suggestions are eminently practical. I will think them over. Don't let me keep you any longer!"
"About this evening," Rocke remarked. "Shall I fix up that little dinner party? You have only to say the word!"
"I am very much obliged to you, but I think not," answered Wingrave. "I will dine with you alone some evening, with pleasure! Not just as present!"
Rocke looked, as he felt, puzzled. He honestly wished to be of service to this man, but he was at a loss to know what further suggestion he could make. There was something impenetrable about his client, something which he could not arrive at, behind the hard, grim face and measured words. He could not even guess as to what the man's hopes or intentions were. Eventually, although with some reluctance, he took up his hat.
"Well, Sir Wingrave," he said, "if there is really nothing I can do for you, I will go. If you should change your mind, you have only to telephone. You can command me at any time. I am only anxious to be of service to you."
"You have already been of service to me," Wingrave answered quietly. "You have spoken the truth! You have helped me to realize my position more exactly. Will you give your father my compliments and thanks, and say that I am entirely satisfied with the firm's conduct of affairs during my—absence?"
"Certainly," he said. "That will please the governor! I must be off now. I hope you'll soon be feeling quite yourself again, Sir Wingrave! It must seem a bit odd at first, I suppose, but it will wear off all right. What you want, after all, is society. Much better let me arrange that little dinner for tonight!"
Wingrave shook his head.
"Later on, perhaps," he answered. "Good morning!"
A STUDENT OF CHARACTER
Left alone, Wingrave walked for several minutes up and down the room, his hands behind him, his head bent. He walked, not restlessly, but with measured footsteps. His mind was fixed steadfastly upon the one immediate problem of his own future. His interview with Rocke had unsettled—to a certain extent unnerved—him. Was this freedom for which he had longed so passionately, this return into civilized life, to mean simply the exchange of an iron-barred cell for a palace whose outer gates were as hopelessly locked, even though the key was of gold! Freedom! Was it after all an illusion? Was his to be the hog's paradise of empty delights; were the other worlds indeed forbidden? He moved abruptly to the window and threw it open. Below was Piccadilly, brilliant with May sunshine, surging with life. Motors and carriages, omnibuses and hansoms, were all jostled together in a block; the pavements were thronged with a motley and ever-hurrying crowd. It seemed to him, accustomed to the callous and hopeless appearance of a less happy tribe, that the faces of these people were all aflame with the joy of the springtime. The perfume from the great clusters of yellow daffodils and violets floated up from the flower sellers' baskets below; the fresh, warm air seemed to bring him poignant memories of crocus-starred lawns, of trim beds of hyacinths, of the song of birds, of the perfume of drooping lilac. Grim and motionless, as a figure of fate, Wingrave looked down from his window, with cold, yet discerning eyes. He was still an alien, a denizen in another world from that which flowed so smoothly and pleasantly below. It was something to which he did not belong, which he doubted, indeed, if ever again he could enter. He had no part in it, no share in that vigorous life, whose throbbings he could dimly feel, though his own heart was beating to a slower and a very different tune. They were his fellows in name only. Between him and them stood the judgment of—Rocke!
The evil chances of the world are many! It was whilst his thoughts traveled in this fashion that the electric landaulette of Lady Ruth Barrington glided round the corner from St. James' Street, and joined in the throng of vehicles slowly making their way down Piccadilly. His attention was attracted first by the white and spotless liveries of the servants—the form of locomotion itself was almost new to him. Then he saw the woman who leaned back amongst the cushions. She was elegantly dressed; she wore no veil; she did not look a day more than thirty. She was attractive, from the tips of her patent shoes, to the white bow which floated on the top of her lace parasol; a perfectly dressed, perfectly turned out woman. She had, too, the lazy confident air of a woman sure of herself and her friends. She knew nothing of the look which flashed down upon her from the window overhead.
Wingrave turned away with a little gasp; a half-stifled exclamation had crept out from between his teeth. His cheeks seemed paler than ever, and his eyes unnaturally bright. Nevertheless, he was completely master of himself. On the table was a large deed box of papers, which Rocke had left for his inspection. From its recesses he drew out a smaller box, unlocked it with a key from his chain, and emptied its sole contents—a small packet of letters—upon the table. He counted them one by one. They were all there—and on top a photograph. A breath of half-forgotten perfume stole out into the room. He opened one of the letters, and its few passionate words came back to his memory, linked with a hundred other recollections, the desire of her eyes, of her lips raised for his, the caressing touch of her fingers. He found himself wondering, in an impersonal sort of way, that these things should so little affect him. His blood ran no less coldly, nor did his pulses beat the faster, for this backward glance into things finished.
There was a knock at the door. He raised his head.
A slim, fair young man obeyed the summons, and advanced into the room. Wingrave eyed him with immovable face. Nevertheless, his manner somehow suggested a displeased surprise.
"Sir Wingrave Seton, I believe?" the intruder said cheerfully.
"That is my name," Wingrave admitted; "but my orders below have evidently been disobeyed. I am not disposed to receive visitors today."
The intruder was not in the least abashed. He laid his hat upon the table, and felt in his pocket.
"I am very sorry," he said. "They did try to keep me out, but I told them that my business was urgent. I have been a journalist, you see, and am used to these little maneuvers."
Wingrave looked at him steadily, with close-drawn eyebrows.
"Am I to understand," he said "that you are in here in your journalistic capacity?"
The newcomer shook his head.
"Pray do not think," he said, "that I should be guilty of such an impertinence. My name is Aynesworth. Walter Aynesworth. I have a letter for you from Lovell. You remember him, I daresay. Here it is!"
He produced it from his breast coat pocket, and handed it over.
"Where is Lovell?" Wingrave asked.
"He left for the East early this morning," Aynesworth answered. "He had to go almost at an hour's notice."
Wingrave broke the seal, and read the letter through. Afterwards he tore it into small pieces and threw them into the grate.
"What do you want with me, Mr. Aynesworth?" he asked.
"I want to be your secretary," Aynesworth answered.
"My secretary," Wingrave repeated. "I am much obliged to you, but I am not requiring anyone in that capacity."
"Pardon me," Aynesworth answered, "but I think you are. You may not have realized it yet, but if you will consider the matter carefully, I think you will agree with me that a secretary, or companion of some sort, is exactly what you do need."
"Out of curiosity," Wingrave remarked, "I should be glad to know why you think so."
"Certainly," Aynesworth answered. "In the first place, I know the story of your life, and the unfortunate incident which has kept you out of society for the last ten years."
"From Lovell, I presume," Wingrave interrupted.
"Precisely," Aynesworth admitted. "Ten years' absence from English life today means that you return to it an absolute and complete stranger. You would be like a Cook's tourist abroad, without a guide or a Baedeker, if you attempted to rely upon yourself. Now I am rather a Bohemian sort of person, but I have just the sort of all-round knowledge which would be most useful to you. I have gone a little way into society, and I know something about politics. I can bring you up-to-date on both these matters. I know where to dine well in town, and where to be amused. I can tell you where to get your clothes, and the best place for all the etceteras. If you want to travel, I can speak French and German; and I consider myself a bit of a sportsman."
"I am sure," Wingrave answered, "I congratulate you upon your versatility. I am quite convinced! I shall advertise at once for a secretary!"
"Why advertise?" Aynesworth asked. "I am here!"
Wingrave shook his head.
"You would not suit me at all," he answered.
"Why not?" Aynesworth asked. "I forget whether I mentioned all my accomplishments. I am an Oxford man with a degree, and I can write tolerable English. I've a fair head for figures, and I don't require too large a salary."
"Exactly," Wingrave answered drily. "You are altogether too desirable? I should not require an Admirable Crichton for my purpose."
Aynesworth remained unruffled.
"All right," he said. "You know best, of course! Suppose you tell me what sort of a man would satisfy you!"
"Why should I?" Wingrave asked coldly.
"It would amuse me," Aynesworth answered, "and I've come a mile or so out of my way, and given up a whole morning to come and see you. Go on! It won't take long!"
Wingrave shrugged his shoulders.
"I will not remind you," he said, "that you came on your own initiative. I owe you the idea, however, so I will tell you the sort of person I shall look out for. In the first place, I do not require him to be a gentleman."
"I can be a shocking bounder at times," Aynesworth murmured.
"He must be more a sort of an upper servant," Wingrave continued. "I should require him to obey me implicitly, whatever I told him to do. You have a conscience, I presume?"
"Very little," Aynesworth answered. "I have been a journalist."
"You have the remnants of one, at all events," Wingrave said, "quite sufficient, no doubt, to interfere with your possible usefulness to me. I must have someone who is poor—too poor to question my will, or to dispute my orders, whatever they might be."
"I have never," Aynesworth declared, "possessed a superfluous half-crown in my life."
"You probably possess what is called a sense of honor," Wingrave continued. "You would certainly disapprove of some of my proceedings, and you would probably disobey my orders."
"Sense of honor!" Aynesworth repeated. "You have too flattering an opinion of me. I don't know what it is. I always cheat at cards if I get the chance."
Wingrave turned away.
"You are a fool," he said, "and you won't suit me."
"When can I come?" Aynesworth asked.
"You can stay now," Wingrave answered. "Your salary will be four hundred a year. You will live at my expense. The day you disobey an order of mine, you go! No notice, mind!"
"Agreed," Aynesworth answered. "What should I do first? Send you a tailor, I should think."
"I will give the afternoon to that sort of people," he said. "Here is a list of the tradesmen I used to deal with. Kindly avoid them."
Aynesworth glanced at the slip of paper, and nodded.
"All out-of-date now," he remarked. "I'll be back to lunch."
A DELICATE MISSION
Aynesworth was back in less than an hour. He carried under his arm a brown paper parcel, the strings of which he commenced at once to untie. Wingrave, who had been engrossed in the contents of his deed box, watched him with immovable face.
"The tailor will be here at two-thirty," he announced, "and the other fellows will follow on at half an hour's interval. The manicurist and the barber are coming at six o'clock."
"What have you there?" he asked, pointing to the parcel.
"Cigars and cigarettes, and jolly good ones, too," Aynesworth answered, opening a flat tin box, and smelling the contents appreciatively. "Try one of these! The finest Turkish tobacco grown!"
"I don't smoke," Wingrave answered.
"Oh! You've got out of it, but you must pick it up again," Aynesworth declared. "Best thing out for the nerves—sort of humanizes one, you know!"
"Humanizes one, does it?" Wingrave remarked softly. "Well, I'll try!"
He took a cigarette from the box, curtly inviting Aynesworth to do the same.
"What about lunch?" the latter asked. "Would you care to come round with me to the Cannibal Club? Rather a Bohemian set, but there are always some good fellows there."
"I am much obliged," Wingrave answered. "If you will ask me again in a few days' time, I shall be very pleased. I do not wish to leave the hotel just at present."
"Do you want me?" Aynesworth asked.
"Not until five o'clock," Wingrave answered. "I should be glad if you would leave me now, and return at that hour. In the meantime, I have a commission for you."
"Good!" Aynesworth declared. "What is it?"
"You will go," Wingrave directed, "to No. 13, Cadogan Street, and you will enquire for Lady Ruth Barrington. If she should be out, ascertain the time of her return, and wait for her."
"If she is out of town?"
"She is in London," Wingrave answered. "I have seen her from the window this morning. You will give her a message. Say that you come from me, and that I desire to see her tomorrow. The time and place she can fix, but I should prefer not to go to her house."
Aynesworth stooped down to relight his cigarette. He felt that Wingrave was watching him, and he wished to keep his face hidden.
"I am unknown to Lady Ruth," he remarked. "Supposing she should refuse to see me?"
Wingrave looked at him coldly.
"I have told you what I wish done," he said. "The task does not seem to be a difficult one. Please see to it that I have an answer by five o'clock——-"
Aynesworth lunched with a few of his particular friends at the club. They heard of his new adventure with somewhat doubtful approbation.
"You'll never stand the routine, old chap!"
"And what about your own work!"
"What will the Daily Scribbler people say?"
Aynesworth shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't imagine it will last very long," he answered, "and I shall get a fair amount of time to myself. The work I do on the Daily Scribbler doesn't amount to anything. It was a chance I simply couldn't refuse."
The editor of a well-known London paper leaned back in his chair, and pinched a cigar carefully.
"You'll probably find the whole thing a sell," he remarked. "The story, as Lovell told it, sounded dramatic enough, and if the man were to come back to life again, fresh and vigorous, things might happen, provided, of course, that Lovell was right in his suppositions. But ten or twelve years' solitary confinement, although it mayn't sound much on paper, is enough to crush all the life and energy out of a man."
Aynesworth shook his head.
"You haven't seen him," he said. "I have!"
"What's he like, Walter?" another man asked.
"I can't describe him," Aynesworth answered. "I shouldn't like to try. I'll bring him here some day. You fellows shall see him for yourselves. I find him interesting enough."
"The whole thing," the editor declared, "will fizzle out. You see if it doesn't? A man who's just spent ten or twelve years in prison isn't likely to run any risk of going there again. There will be no tragedy; more likely reconciliation."
"Perhaps," Aynesworth said imperturbably. "But it wasn't only the possibility of anything of that sort happening, you know, which attracted me. It was the tragedy of the man himself, with his numbed, helpless life, set down here in the midst of us, with a great, blank chasm between him and his past. What is there left to drive the wheels? The events of one day are simple and monotonous enough to us, because they lean up against the events of yesterday, and the yesterdays before! How do they seem, I wonder, to a man whose yesterday was more than a decade of years ago!"
The editor nodded.
"It must be a grim sensation," he admitted, "but I am afraid with you, my dear Walter, it is an affair of shop. You wish to cull from your interesting employer the material for that every-becoming novel of yours. Let's go upstairs! I've time for one pool."
"I haven't," Aynesworth answered. "I've a commission to do."
He left the club and walked westwards, humming softly to himself, but thinking all the time intently. His errand disturbed him. He was to be the means of bringing together again these two people who had played the principal parts in Lovell's drama—his new employer and the woman who had ruined his life. What was the object of it? What manner of vengeance did he mean to deal out to her? Lovell's words of premonition returned to him just then with curious insistence—he was so certain that Wingrave's reappearance would lead to tragical happenings. Aynesworth himself never doubted it. His brief interview with the man into whose service he had almost forced himself had impressed him wonderfully. Yet, what weapon was there, save the crude one of physical force, with which Wingrave could strike?
He rang the bell at No. 13, Cadogan Street, and sent in his card by the footman. The man accepted it doubtfully.
"Her ladyship has only just got up from luncheon, sir, and she is not receiving this afternoon," he announced.
Aynesworth took back his card, and scribbled upon it the name of the newspaper for which he still occasionally worked.
"Her ladyship will perhaps see me," he said, handing the card back to the man. "It is a matter of business. I will not detain her for more than a few minutes."
The man returned presently, and ushered him into a small sitting room.
"Her ladyship will be quite half an hour before she can see you, sir," he said.
"I will wait," Aynesworth answered, taking up a paper.
The time passed slowly. At last, the door was opened. A woman, in a plain but exquisitely fitting black gown, entered. From Lovell's description, Aynesworth recognized her at once, and yet, for a moment, he hesitated to believe that this was the woman whom he had come to see. The years had indeed left her untouched. Her figure was slight, almost girlish; her complexion as smooth, and her coloring, faint though it was, as delicate and natural as a child's. Her eyes were unusually large, and the lashes which shielded them heavy. It was when she looked at him that Aynesworth began to understand.
She carried his card in her hand, and glanced at it as he bowed.
"You are the Daily Scribbler," she said. "You want me to tell you about my bazaar, I suppose."
"I am attached to the Daily Scribbler, Lady Ruth Barrington," Aynesworth answered; "but my business this afternoon has nothing to do with the paper. I have called with a message from—an old friend of yours."
She raised her eyebrows ever so slightly. The graciousness of her manner was perceptibly abated.
"Indeed! I scarcely understand you, Mr.—Aynesworth."
"My message," Aynesworth said, "is from Sir Wingrave Seton."
The look of enquiry, half impatient, half interrogative, faded slowly from her face. She stood quite still; her impassive features seemed like a plaster cast, from which all life and feeling were drawn out. Her eyes began slowly to dilate, and she shivered as though with cold. Then the man who was watching her and wondering, knew that this was fear—fear undiluted and naked.
He stepped forward, and placed a chair for her. She felt for the back of it with trembling fingers and sat down.
"Is—Sir Wingrave Seton—out of prison?" she asked in a strange, dry tone. One would have thought that she had been choking.
"Since yesterday," Aynesworth answered.
"But his time—is not up yet?"
"There is always a reduction," Aynesworth reminded her, "for what is called good conduct."
She was silent for several moments. Then she raised her head. She was a brave woman, and she was rapidly recovering her self-possession.
"Well," she asked, "what does he want?"
"To see you," Aynesworth answered, "tomorrow afternoon, either here or at his apartments in the Clarence Hotel. He would prefer not to come here!"
"Are you his friend?" she asked.
"I am his secretary," Aynesworth answered.
"You are in his confidence?"
"I only entered his service this morning," he said.
"How much do you know," she persisted, "of the unfortunate affair which led—to his imprisonment?"
"I have been told the whole story," Aynesworth answered.
Her eyes rested thoughtfully upon his. It seemed as though she were trying to read in his face exactly what he meant by "the whole story."
"Then," she said, "do you think that anything but pain and unpleasantness can come of a meeting between us?"
"Lady Ruth," Aynesworth answered, "it is not for me to form an opinion. I am Sir Wingrave Seton's secretary."
"What is he going to do?" she asked.
"I have no idea," he answered.
"Is he going abroad?"
"I know nothing of his plans," Aynesworth declared. "What answer shall I take back to him?"
She looked at him earnestly. Gradually her face was softening. The frozen look was passing away. The expression was coming back to her eyes. She leaned a little towards him. Her voice, although it was raised above a whisper, was full of feeling.
"Mr. Aynesworth," she murmured, "I am afraid of Sir Wingrave Seton!"
Aynesworth said nothing.
"I was always a little afraid of him," she continued, "even in the days when we were friendly. He was so hard and unforgiving. I know he thinks that he has a grievance against me. He will have been brooding about it all these years. I dare not see him! I—I am terrified!"
"If that is your answer," Aynesworth said, "I will convey it to him!"
Her beautiful eyes were full of reproach.
"Mr. Aynesworth," she said, in a low tone, "for a young man you are very unsympathetic."
"My position," Aynesworth answered, "does not allow me the luxury of considering my personal feelings."
She looked hurt.
"I forgot," she said, looking for a moment upon the floor; "you have probably been prejudiced against me. You have heard only one story. Listen"—she raised her eyes suddenly, and leaned a little forward in her chair—"some day, if you will come and see me when I am alone and we have time to spare, I will tell you the whole truth. I will tell you exactly what happened! You shall judge for yourself!"
"In the meantime?"
Her eyes filled slowly with tears. Aynesworth looked away. He was miserably uncomfortable.
"You cannot be quite so hard-hearted as you try to seem, Mr. Aynesworth," she said quietly. "I want to ask you a question. You must answer it? You don't know how much it means to me. You are Sir Wingrave Seton's secretary; you have access to all his papers. Have you seen any letters of mine? Do you know if he still has any in his possession?"
"My answer to both questions is 'No!'" Aynesworth said a little stiffly. "I only entered the service of Sir Wingrave Seton this morning, and I know nothing at all, as yet, of his private affairs. And, Lady Ruth, you must forgive my reminding you that, in any case, I could not discuss such matters with you," he added.
She looked at him with a faint, strange smile. Afterwards, when he tried to do so, Aynesworth found it impossible to describe the expression which flitted across her face. He only knew that it left him with the impression of having received a challenge.
"Incorruptible!" she murmured. "Sir Wingrave Seton is indeed a fortunate man."
There was a lingering sweetness in her tone which still had a note of mockery in it. Her silence left Aynesworth conscious of a vague sense of uneasiness. He felt that her eyes were raised to his, and for some reason, which he could not translate even into a definite thought, he wished to avoid them. The silence was prolonged. For long afterwards he remembered those few minutes. There was a sort of volcanic intensity in the atmosphere. He was acutely conscious of small extraneous things, of the perfume of a great bowl of hyacinths, the ticking of a tiny French clock, the restless drumming of her finger tips upon the arm of her chair. All the time he seemed actually to feel her eyes, commanding, impelling, beseeching him to turn round. He did so at last, and looked her full in the face.
"Lady Ruth," he said, "will you favor me with an answer to my message?"
"Certainly," she answered, smiling quite naturally. "I will come and see Sir Wingrave Seton at four o'clock tomorrow afternoon. You can tell him that I think it rather an extraordinary request, but under the circumstances I will do as he suggests. He is staying at the Clarence, I presume, under his own name? I shall have no difficulty in finding him?"
"He is staying there under his own name," Aynesworth answered, "and I will see that you have no difficulty."
"So kind of you," she murmured, holding out her hand. And again there was something mysterious in her eyes as she raised them to him, as though there existed between them already some understanding which mocked the conventionality of her words. Aynesworth left the house, and lit a cigarette upon the pavement outside with a little sigh of relief. He felt somehow humiliated. Did she fancy, he wondered, that he was a callow boy to dance to any tune of her piping—that he had never before seen a beautiful woman who wanted her own way?
THE GOSPEL OF HATE
"And what," Wingrave asked his secretary as they sat at dinner that night, "did you think of Lady Ruth?"
"In plain words, I should not like to tell you," Aynesworth answered. "I only hope that you will not send me to see her again."
"Lady Ruth," Aynesworth answered deliberately, "is a very beautiful woman, with all the most dangerous gifts of Eve when she wanted her own way. She did me the scanty honor of appraising me as an easy victim, and she asked questions."
"She wanted me to tell her if you still had in your possession certain letters of hers," Aynesworth said.
"Good! What did you say?"
"I told her, of course," Aynesworth continued, "that having been in your service for a few hours only, I was scarcely in a position to know. I ventured further to remind her that such questions, addressed from her to me, were, to say the least of it, improper."
Wingrave's lips parted in what should have been a smile, but the spirit of mirth was lacking.
"There was nothing else," Aynesworth answered. "She simply dismissed me."
"I can see," Wingrave remarked, "your grievance. You are annoyed because she regarded you as too easy a victim."
"Perhaps," Aynesworth admitted.
"There was some excuse for her, after all," Wingrave continued coolly. "She possesses powers which you yourself have already admitted, and you, I should say, are a fairly impressionable person, so far as her sex is concerned. Confess now, that she did not leave you altogether indifferent."
"Perhaps not," Aynesworth admitted reluctantly. He did not care to say more.
"In case you should feel any curiosity on the subject," Wingrave remarked, "I may tell you that I have those letters which she was so anxious to know about, and I shall keep them safe—even from you! You can amuse yourself with her if you like. You will never be able to tell her more than I care for her to know."
Aynesworth continued his dinner in silence. After all, he was beginning to fear that he had made a mistake. Lovell had somehow contrived to impart a subtly tragic note to his story, but the outcome of it all seemed to assume a more sordid aspect. These two would meet, there would be recriminations, a tragic appeal for forgiveness, possibly some melodramatic attempt at vengeance. The glamour of the affair seemed to him to be fading away, now that he had come into actual contact with it. It was not until he began to study his companion during a somewhat prolonged silence that he felt the reaction. It was then that he began to see new things, that he felt the enthusiasm kindled by Lovell's strangely told story begin to revive. It was not the watching for events more or less commonplace which would repay him for the step he had taken; it was the study of this man, placed in so strange a position,—a man come back to life, after years of absolute isolation. He had broken away from the chain which links together men of similar tastes and occupations, and which goes to the creation of type. He was in a unique position! He was in the world, but not of it. He was groping about amongst familiar scenes, over which time had thrown the pall of unfamiliarity. What manner of place would he find—what manner of place did he desire to find? It was here that the real interest of the situation culminated. At least, so Aynesworth thought then.
They were dining at a restaurant in the Strand, which Aynesworth had selected as representing one, the more wealthy, type of Bohemian life. The dinner and wine had been of his choosing. Wingrave had stipulated only for the best. Wingrave himself had eaten very little, the bottle of wine stood half empty between them. The atmosphere of the place, the effect of the wine, the delicate food, and the music, were visible to a greater or less degree, according to temperament, amongst all the other little groups of men and women by whom they were surrounded. Wingrave alone remained unaffected. He was carefully and correctly dressed in clothes borrowed from his new tailor, and he showed not the slightest signs of strangeness or gaucherie amongst his unfamiliar surroundings. He looked about him always, with the cold, easy nonchalance of the man of the world. Of being recognized he had not the slightest fear. His frame and bearing, and the brightness of his deep, strong eyes, still belonged to early middle age, but his face itself, worn and hardened, was the face of an elderly man. The more Aynesworth watched him, the more puzzled he felt.
"I am afraid," he remarked, "that you are disappointed in this place."
"Not at all," Wingrave answered. "It is typical of a class, I suppose. It is the sort of place I wished to visit."
In a corner of the room Aynesworth had recognized a friend and fellow clubman, who was acting at a neighboring theater. He was dining with some young ladies of his company, and beckoned to Aynesworth to come over and join them. He pointed them out to Wingrave.
"Would you care to be introduced?" he asked. "Holiwell is a very good fellow, and the girls might interest you. Two of them are Americans, and they are very popular."
Wingrave shook his head.
"Thank you, no!" he said. "I should be glad to meet your friend some time when he is alone."
It was the first intimation which Aynesworth had received of his companion's sentiments as regards the other sex. Years afterwards, when his attitude towards them was often quoted as being one of the extraordinary features of an extraordinary personality, he remembered his perseverance on this occasion.
"You have not spoken to a woman for so many years," he persisted. "Why not renew the experience? Nothing so humanizing, you know—not even cigarettes."
Wingrave's face fell, if possible into sterner lines. His tone was cold and hard.
"My scheme of life," he said, "may be reconstructed more than once before I am satisfied. But I can assure you of this! There will be no serious place in it for women!"
Aynesworth shrugged his shoulders. He never doubted but that in a month of two his vis-a-vis would talk differently.
"Your scheme of life," he repeated thoughtfully. "That sounds interesting! Have you any objection, I wonder, to telling me what manner of life you propose to lead?"
It was several moments before Wingrave answered him. He was smoking a cigar in a mechanical sort of way, but he obviously derived no pleasure from it. Yet Aynesworth noticed that some instinct had led him to choose the finest brand.
"Perhaps," he said, letting his eyes rest coldly upon his questioner, "if I told you all that was in my mind you would waive your month's salary and get back to your journalism!"
Aynesworth shrugged his shoulders.
"Why should you suppose that?" he asked. "I am not a moralist myself, nor am I the keeper of your conscience. I don't think that you could frighten me off just yet."
"Nevertheless," Wingrave admitted, "there are times when I fear that we shall not get on together. I begin to suspect that you have a conscience."
"You are the first," Aynesworth assured him, "who has ever flattered me to that extent."
"It may be elastic, of course," Wingrave continued, "but I suspect its existence. I warn you that association with me will try it hard."
"I accept the challenge," Aynesworth answered lightly.
"You are rasher than you imagine," Wingrave declared. "For instance, I have admitted to you, have I not, that I am interested in my fellow creatures, that I want to mix with them and watch them at their daily lives. Let me assure you that that interest is not a benevolent one."
"I never fancied that you were a budding philanthropist," Aynesworth remarked, lighting a fresh cigarette.
"I find myself," Wingrave continued thoughtfully, "in a somewhat unique position. I am one of the ordinary human beings with whom the world is peopled, but I am not conscious of any of the usual weaknesses of sentiment or morality. For instance, if that gentleman with the red face, who has obviously eaten and drunk too much, were to have an apoplectic fit at the moment, and die in his chair, it would not shock or distress me in the least. On the contrary, I should be disposed to welcome his removal from a world which he obviously does nothing to adorn."
Aynesworth glanced at the person in question. He was a theatrical agent and financier of stock companies, whom he knew very well by sight.
"I suppose," Wingrave continued, "that I was born with the usual moral sentiments, and the usual feelings of kinship towards my fellow creatures. Circumstances, however, have wholly destroyed them. To me, men have become the puppets and women the dancing dolls of life. My interest in them, if it exists at all, is malevolent. I should like to see them all suffer exactly as I have suffered. It would interest me exceedingly."
Still Aynesworth remained silent. He was anxious to hear all that was in the other's mind, and he feared lest any interruption might divert him.
"There are men in the world," Wingrave continued, "called philanthropists, amiable, obese creatures as a rule, whose professed aim in life it is to do as much good as possible. I take my stand upon the other pole. It is my desire to encourage and to work as much evil as possible. I wish to bring all the suffering I can upon those who come within the sphere of my influence."
"You are likely," Aynesworth remarked, "to achieve popularity."
Wingrave regarded him steadfastly.
"Your speech," he said, "is flippant, but you yourself do not realize how near it comes to the truth. Human beings are like dogs—they are always ready to lick the hand that flogs them. I mean to use the scourge whenever I can seize the opportunity, but you will find the jackals at my heels, nevertheless, whenever I choose to whistle."
Aynesworth helped himself to a liqueur. He felt that he needed it.
"One weakness alone distresses me," Wingrave continued. "In all ordinary matters of sentiment I am simply a negation. There is one antipathy, however, which I find it hard to overcome. The very sight of a woman, or the sound of her voice, distresses me. This is the more unfortunate," he continued, "because it is upon the shoulders of her sex that the greater portion of my debt to my fellow creatures rests. However, time may help me!"
Aynesworth leaned back in his chair, and contemplated his companion for the next few moments in thoughtful silence. It was hard, he felt, to take a man who talked like this seriously. His manner was convincing, his speech deliberate and assured. There was not the slightest doubt but that he meant what he said, yet it seemed to Aynesworth equally certain that the time would come, and come quickly, when the unnatural hardness of the man would yield to the genial influence of friendship, of pleasure, of the subtle joys of freedom. Those past days of hideous monotony, of profitless, debasing toil, the long, sleepless nights, the very nightmare of life to a man of Wingrave's culture and habits, might well have poisoned his soul, have filled him with ideas such as these. But everything was different now! The history of the world could show no epoch when pleasures so many and various were there for the man who carries the golden key. Today he was a looker-on, and the ice of his years of bitterness had not melted. Tomorrow, at any moment, he might catch a whiff of the fragrance of life, and the blood in his veins would move to a different tune. This was how it seemed to Aynesworth, as he studied his companion through the faint blue mist of tobacco smoke.
"This expression of your sentiments," he remarked at last, "is interesting so far as it goes. I am, however, a practical person, and my connection with you is of a practical order. You don't propose, I presume, to promenade the streets with a cat-o-nine-tails?"
"Your curiosity," Wingrave remarked, "is reasonable. Tomorrow I may gratify some portion of it after my interview with Lady Ruth. In the meantime, I might remark that to the observant person who has wits and money, the opportunities for doing evil present themselves, I think, with reasonable frequency. I do not propose, however, to leave things altogether to chance."
"A definite scheme of ill-doing," Aynesworth ventured to suggest, "would be more satisfactory?"
"Exactly," he admitted.
He called for the bill, and his eyes wandered once more around the room as the waiter counted out the change. The band were playing the "Valse Amoureuse"; the air was grown heavy with the odor of tobacco and the mingled perfumes of flowers and scents. A refrain of soft laughter followed the music. An after-dinner air pervaded the place. Wingrave's lip curled.
"My lack of kinship with my fellows," he remarked, "is exceedingly well defined just now. I agree with the one philosopher who declared that 'eating and drinking are functions which are better performed in private.'"
The two men went on to a theater. The play was a society trifle—a thing of the moment. Wingrave listened gravely, without a smile or any particular sign of interest. At the end of the second act, he turned towards his companion.
"The lady in the box opposite," he remarked, "desires to attract your attention."
Aynesworth looked up and recognized Lady Ruth. She was fanning herself languidly, but her eyes were fixed upon the two men. She leaned a little forward, and her gesture was unmistakable.
Aynesworth rose to his feet a little doubtfully.
"You had better go," Wingrave said. "Present my compliments and excuses. I feel that a meeting now would amount to an anti-climax."
Aynesworth made his way upstairs. Lady Ruth was alone, and he noticed that she had withdrawn to a chair where she was invisible to the house. Even Aynesworth himself could not see her face clearly at first, for she had chosen the darkest corner of the box. He gathered an impression of a gleaming white neck and bosom rising and falling rather more quickly than was natural, eyes which shone softly through the gloom, and the perfume of white roses, a great cluster of which lay upon the box ledge. Her voice was scarcely raised above a whisper.
"That is—Sir Wingrave with you?"
"Yes!" Aynesworth answered. "It was he who saw you first!"
She seemed to catch her breath. Her voice was still tremulous.
"He is changed," she said. "I should not have recognized him."
"They were the best ten years of his life," Aynesworth answered. "Think of how and in what surroundings he has been compelled to live. No wonder that he has had the humanity hammered out of him."
She shivered a little.
"Is he always like this?" she asked. "I have watched him. He never smiles. He looks as hard as fate itself."
"I have known him only a few hours," Aynesworth reminded her.
"I dare not come tomorrow," she whispered; "I am afraid of him."
"Do you wish me to tell him so?" he asked.
"I don't know," she answered. "You are very unfeeling, Mr. Aynesworth."
"I hope not," he answered, and looked away towards the orchestra. He did not wish to meet her eyes.
"You are!" she murmured. "I have no one to whom I dare speak—of this. I dare not mention his name to my husband. It was my evidence which convicted him, and I can see, I know, that he is vindictive. And he has those letters! Oh! If I could only get them back?"
Her voice trembled with an appeal whispered but passionate. It was wonderful how musical and yet how softly spoken her words were. They were like live things, and the few feet of darkened space through which they had passed seemed charged with magnetic influence.
He turned and faced her.
"Can't you help me?"
"I cannot, Lady Ruth."
The electric bell rang softly from outside, and the orchestra commenced to play. Lady Ruth rose and looked at herself in the mirror. Then she turned and smiled at her visitor. The pallor of her face was no longer unnatural. She was a wonderful woman.
"I shall come tomorrow," she said. "Shall I see you?"
"That," he answered, "depends upon Sir Wingrave."
She made a little grimace as she dismissed him. Wingrave did not speak to his companion for some time after he had resumed his seat. Then he inclined his head towards him.
"Have you come to terms with her ladyship?" he asked drily.
"Not yet!" Aynesworth answered.
"You can name your own price," he continued. "She will pay! Don't be afraid of making her bid up. She has a good deal at stake!"
Aynesworth made no reply. He was thinking how easy it would be to hate this man!
"HAST THOU FOUND ME, O MINE ENEMY?"
Aynesworth was waiting in the hall on the following afternoon when Lady Ruth arrived. He had half expected that she would drive up to the side door in a hansom, would wear a thick veil, and adopt the other appurtenances of a clandestine meeting. But Lady Ruth was much too clever a woman for anything of the sort. She descended at the great front entrance from her own electric coupe, and swept into the hotel followed by her maid. She stopped to speak to the manager of the hotel, who knew her from her visits to the world-famous restaurant, and she asked at once for Sir Wingrave Seton. Then she saw Aynesworth, and crossed the hall with outstretched hand.
"How nice of you to be here," she murmured. "Can you take me to Sir Wingrave at once? I have such a busy afternoon that I was afraid at the last moment that I should be unable to come!"
Aynesworth led her towards the lift.
"Sir Wingrave is in his sitting room," he remarked. "It is only on the first floor."
She directed her maid where to wait, and followed him. On the way down the corridor, he stole a glance at her. She was a little pale, and he could see that she had nerved herself to this interview with a great effort. As he knocked at the door, her great eyes were raised for a moment to his, and they were like the eyes of a frightened child.
"I am afraid!" she murmured.
There was no time for more. They were in the room, and Wingrave had risen to meet them. Lady Ruth did not hesitate for a moment. She crossed the room towards him with outstretched hands. Aynesworth, who was standing a little on one side, watched their meeting with intense, though covert interest. She had pushed back her veil, her head was a little upraised in a mute gesture of appeal.
She was pale to the lips, but her eyes were soft with hidden tears. Wingrave stood stonily silent, like a figure of fate. His hands remained by his sides. Her welcome found no response from him. She came to a standstill, and, swaying a little, stretched out her hand and steadied herself by grasping the back of a chair.
"Wingrave," she murmured, and her voice was full of musical reproach.
Aynesworth turned to leave the room, but Wingrave, looking over her head, addressed him.
"You will remain here, Aynesworth," he said. "There are some papers at that desk which require sorting."
Aynesworth hesitated. He had caught the look on Lady Ruth's face.
"If you could excuse me for half an hour, Sir Wingrave," he began.
"I cannot spare you at present," Wingrave interrupted. "Kindly remain!"
Aynesworth had no alternative but to obey. Wingrave handed a chair to Lady Ruth. He was looking at her steadfastly. There were no signs of any sort of emotion in his face. Whatever their relations in the past might have been, it was hard to believe, from his present demeanor, that he felt any.
"Wingrave," she said softly, "are you going to be unkind to me—you, whom I have always thought of in my dreams as the most generous of men! I have looked forward so much to seeing you again—to knowing that you were free! Don't disappoint me!"
Wingrave laughed shortly, and Aynesworth bent closer over his work, with a gathering frown upon his forehead. A mirthless laugh is never a pleasant sound.
"Disappoint you!" he repeated calmly. "No! I must try and avoid that! You have been looking forward with so much joy to this meeting then? I am flattered."
She shivered a little.
"I have looked forward to it," she answered, and her voice was dull and lifeless with pain. "But you are not glad to see me," she continued. "There is no welcome in your face! You are changed—altogether! Why did you send for me?"
There was a moment's silence. Wingrave was standing upon the hearthrug, cold, passionless, Sphinx-like. Lady Ruth was seated a few feet away, but her face was hidden.
"You owe me something!" he said.
"Owe—you something?" she repeated vaguely.
"Do you deny it?" he said.
"Oh, no, no!" she declared with emotion. "Not for a moment."
"I want," he said, "to give you an opportunity of repaying some portion of that debt!"
She raised her eyes to his. Her whispered words came so softly that they were almost inaudible.
"I am waiting," she said. "Tell me what I can do!"
He commenced to speak at some length, very impassively, very deliberately.
"You will doubtless appreciate the fact," he said, "that my position, today, is a somewhat peculiar one. I have had enough of solitude. I am rich! I desire to mix once more on equal terms amongst my fellows. And against that, I have the misfortune to be a convicted felon, who has spent the last ten or a dozen years amongst the scum of the earth, engaged in degrading tasks, and with no identity save a number. The position, as you will doubtless observe, is a difficult one."
Her eyes fell from his. Once more she shivered, as though with physical pain. Something that was like a smile, only that it was cold and lifeless, flitted across his lips.
"I have no desire," he continued, "to live in foreign countries. On the contrary, I have plans which necessitate my living in England. The difficulties by this time are, without doubt, fully apparent to you."
She said nothing. Her eyes were once more watching his face.
"My looking glass," he continued, "shows me that I am changed beyond any reasonable chance of recognition. I do not believe that the Wingrave Seton of today would readily be recognized as the Wingrave Seton of twelve years ago. But I propose to make assurance doubly sure. I am leaving this country for several years, at once. I shall go to America, and I shall return as Mr. Wingrave, millionaire—and I propose, by the way, to make money there. I desire, under that identity, to take my place once more amongst my fellows. I shall bring letters of introduction—to you."
There was a long and somewhat ominous silence! Lady Ruth's eyes were fixed upon the floor. She was thinking, and thinking rapidly, but there were no signs of it in her pale drawn face. At last she looked up.
"There is my husband," she said. "He would recognize you, if no one else did."
"You are a clever woman," he answered. "I leave it to you to deal with your husband as seems best to you."
"Other people," she faltered, "would recognize you!"
"Do me the favor," he begged her, "to look at me carefully for several moments. You doubtless have some imperfect recollection of what I was. Compare it with my present appearance! I venture to think that you will agree with me. Recognition is barely possible."
Again there was silence. Lady Ruth seemed to have no words, but there was the look of a frightened child upon her face.
"I am sorry," he continued, "that the idea does not appeal to you! I can understand that my presence may serve to recall a period which you and your husband would doubtless prefer to forget—"
A little staccato cry of pain; a cry which seemed to spring into life from a tortured heart, broke from her lips. Aynesworth heard it, and, at that moment, he hated his employer. Wingrave paused for a moment politely, and then continued.
"But after all," he said, "I can assure you that you will find very little in the Mr. Wingrave of New York to remind you of the past. I shall do my utmost to win for myself a place in your esteem, which will help you to forget the other relationship, which, if my memory serves me, used once to exist between us!"
She raised her head. Either she realized that, for the present, the man was immune against all sentiment, or his calm brutality had had a correspondingly hardening effect upon her.
"If I agree," she said, "will you give me back my letters?"
"No!" he answered.
"What are you going to do with them?"
"It depends," he said, "upon you. I enter into no engagement. I make no promises. I simply remind you that it would be equally possible for me to take my place in the world as a rehabilitated Wingrave Seton. Ten years ago I yielded to sentiment. Today I have outlived it."
"Ten years ago," she murmured, "you were a hero. God knows what you are now!"
"Exactly!" he answered smoothly. "I am free to admit that I am a puzzle to myself. I find myself, in fact, a most interesting study."
"I consent," she said, with a little shudder. "I am going now."
"You are a sensible woman," he answered. "Aynesworth, show Lady Ruth to her carriage."
She rose to her feet. Hung from her neck by a chain of fine gold, was a large Chinchilla muff. She stood before him, and her hands had sought its shelter. Timidly she withdrew one.
"Will you shake hands with me, Wingrave?" she asked timidly.
He shook his head.
"Forgive me," he said; "I may better my manners in America, but a present I cannot."
She passed out of the room. Aynesworth followed, closing the door behind them. In the corridor she stumbled, and caught at his arm for support.
"Don't speak to me," she gasped. "Take me where I can sit down."
He found her a quiet corner in the drawing room. She sat perfectly still for nearly five minutes, with her eyes closed. Then she opened them, and looked at her companion.
"Mr. Aynesworth," she said, "are you so poor that you must serve a man like that?"
He shook his head.
"It is not poverty," he answered. "I knew his history, and I am interested in him!"
"You write novels, don't you?" she asked.
"I try," he answered. "His story fascinated me. He stands today in a unique position to life. I want to see how he will come out of it."
"You knew his story—the truth?"
"Everything," he answered. "I heard it from a journalist who was in court, his only friend, the only man who knew."
"Where is he now?"
"On his way to Japan."
She drew a little breath between her teeth.
"There were rumors," she said. "It was hard for me at first, but I lived them down. I was very young then. I ought not to have accepted his sacrifice. I wish to heaven I had not. I wish that I had faced the scandal then. It is worse to be in the power of a man like this today! Mr. Aynesworth!"
"Do you think that he has the right to keep those letters?"
"I cannot answer that question."
"Will you be my friend?"
"So far as I can—in accordance with my obligations to my employer!"
She tried him no further then, but rose and walked slowly out of the room. He found her maid, and saw them to their carriage. Then he returned to the sitting room. Wingrave was smoking a cigarette.
"I am trying the humanizing influence," he remarked. "Got rid of her ladyship?"
"Lady Ruth has just gone," Aynesworth answered.
"Have you promised to steal the letters yet?" he inquired.
"Her dainty ladyship has not bid high enough, I suppose," he continued. "Don't be afraid to open your mouth. There's another woman there besides the Lady Ruth Barrington, who opens bazaars, and patronizes charity, and entertains Royalty. Ask what you want and she'll pay!"
"What a brute you are!" Aynesworth exclaimed involuntarily.
"Of course I am," he admitted. "I know that. But whose fault is it? It isn't mine. I've lived the life of a brute creature for ten years. You don't abuse a one-legged man, poor devil. I've had other things amputated. I was like you once. It seemed all right to me to go under to save a woman's honor. You never have. Therefore, I say you've no right to call me a brute. Personally, I don't object. It is simply a matter of equity."
"I admit it," Aynesworth declared. "You are acting like a brute."
"Precisely. I didn't make myself what I am. Prison did it. Go and try ten years yourself, and you'll find you will have to grope about for your fine emotions. Are you coming to America with me?"
"I suppose so," Aynesworth answered. "When do we start?"
"Sport west, or civilization east?"
"Both," Wingrave answered. "Here is a list of the kit which we shall require. Add yourself the things which I have forgotten. I pay for both!"
"Very good of you," Aynesworth answered.
"Not at all. I don't suppose you'd come without. Can you shoot?"
"A bit," he admitted.
"Be particular about the rifles. I can take you to a little corner in Canada where the bears don't stand on ceremony. Put everything in hand, and be ready to come down to Cornwall with me on Monday."