THE MAN AND THE MOMENT
AUTHOR OF "GUINEVERE'S LOVER," "HALCYONE," "THE REASON WHY," ETC.
Illustrated by R.F. James
NEW YORK D. APPLETON AND COMPANY 1914
Copyright, 1914, by D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
* * * * *
Copyright, 1914, by The Red Book Corporation
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"It all looked very intimate and lover-like" Frontispiece
"He bounded forward to meet her" 48
"His solitary table was near theirs in the restaurant" 64
"'He is often in some scrape—something must have culminated to-night'" 224
THE MAN AND THE MOMENT
Michael Arranstoun folded a letter which he had been reading for the seventh time, with a vicious intentness, and then jumping up from the big leather chair in which he had been buried, he said aloud, "Damn!"
When a young, rich and good-looking man says that particular word aloud with a fearful grind of the teeth, one may know that he is in the very devil of a temper!
Michael Arranstoun was!
And, to be sure, he had ample reason, as you, my friend, who may happen to have begun this tale, will presently see.
It is really most irritating to be suddenly confronted with the consequences of one's follies at any age, but at twenty-four, when otherwise the whole life is smiling for one, it seems quite too hard.
The frightful language this well-endowed young gentleman now indulged in, half aloud and half in thought, would be quite impossible to put on paper! It contained what almost amounted to curses for a certain lady whose appearance, could she have been seen at this moment, suggested that of a pious little saint.
"How the h—— can I keep from marrying her!" Mr. Arranstoun said more than aloud this time, and then kicking an innocent footstool across the room, he called his bulldog, put on his cap and stamped out on to the old stone balcony which opened from this apartment, and was soon stalking down the staircase and across the lawn to a little door in the great fortified wall, which led into the park.
He had hardly left the room when, from the wide arched doorway of his bed-chamber beyond, there entered Mr. Johnson, his superior valet, carrying some riding-boots and a silk shirt over his arm. You could see through the open door that it was a very big and comfortable bedroom, which had evidently been adapted to its present use from some much more stately beginning. A large, vaulted chamber it was, with three narrow windows looking on to the grim courtyard beneath.
Michael Arranstoun had selected this particular suite for himself when his father died ten years before, and his mother was left to spoil him, until she, too, departed from this world when he was sixteen.
What a splendid inheritance he had come into! This old border castle up in the north—and not a mortgage on the entire property! While, from his mother, a number of solid golden sovereigns flowed into his coffers every year—obtained by trade! That was a little disgusting for the Arranstouns—but extremely useful.
It might have been from this same strain that the fortunate young man had also inherited that common sense which made him fairly level-headed, and not given as a rule to any over-mad taste.
The Arranstouns had been at Arranstoun since the time of those tiresome Picts and Scots—and for generations they had raided their neighbors' castles and lands, and carried off their cattle and wives and daughters and what not! They had seized anything they fancied, and were a strong, ruthless, brutal race, not much vitiated by civilization. These instincts of seizing what they wanted had gone on in them throughout eleven hundred years and more, and were there until this day, when Michael, the sole representative of this branch of the family, said "Damn!" and kicked a footstool across the room into the grate.
Mr. Johnson was quite aware of the peculiarity of the family. Indeed, he was not surprised when Alexander Armstrong remarked upon it presently. Alexander Armstrong was the old retainer, who now enjoyed the position of guide to the Castle upon the two days a week when tourists were allowed to walk through the state rooms, and look at the splendid carvings and armor and pictures, and the collection of plate.
Johnson had had time to glance over his master's correspondence that morning, which, with characteristic recklessness, that gentleman had left upon his bed while he went to his bath, so his servant knew the cause of his bad temper, and had been prudent and kept a good deal out of the way. But the news was so interesting, he felt Alexander Armstrong really ought to share the thrill.
"Mrs. Hatfield's husband is dying," he announced, as Armstrong, very diffidently, peeped through the window from the balcony, and then, seeing no one but his friend the valet, entered the room.
Alexander Armstrong spoke in broad Scotch, but I shall not attempt to transcribe this barbaric language; sufficient to tell you that he made the excuse for his intrusion by saying that he had wanted to get some order from the master about the tourists.
"We shan't have any tourists when she's installed here as mistress!" Mr. Johnson remarked sepulchrally.
Armstrong was heard to murmur that he did not know what Mr. Johnson meant! This was too stupid!
"Why, I told you straight off Mrs. Hatfield's husband is dying," Johnson exclaimed, contemptuously. "She wrote one of her mauve billy doos this morning, telling the master so, and suggesting they'd soon be able to be married and happy—pretty cold-blooded, I call it, considering the poor man is not yet in his grave!"
Armstrong was almost knocked over by this statement; then he laughed—and what he said meant in plain English that Mr. Johnson need not worry himself, for no Arranstoun had ever been known to be coerced into any course of conduct which he did not desire himself—not being hampered by consideration for women, or by any consideration but his own will. For the matter of that, a headstrong, ruthless race all of them and, as Mr. Johnson must be very well aware, their own particular master was a true chip of the old block.
"See his bonny blue eye—" (I think he pronounced it "ee"), "see his mouth shut like a game spring. See his strong arms and his height! See him smash the boughs off trees when they get in his way! and then tell me a woman's going to get dominion over him. Go along, Mr. Johnson!"
But Johnson remained unconvinced and troubled; he had had several unpleasant proofs of woman's infernal cunning in his own sphere of life, and Mrs. Hatfield, he knew, was as well endowed with Eve's wit as any French maid.
"We'll ha' a bet about it if you like," Armstrong remarked, as he got up to go, the clock striking three. He knew the first batch of afternoon tourists would be clamoring at the gate.
Mr. Johnson looked at the riding-boots in his hand.
"He went straight off for his ride without tasting a bite of breakfast or seeing Mr. Fordyce, and he didn't return to lunch, and just now I find every article of clothing strewn upon the floor—when he came in and took another bath—he did not even ring for me—he must have galloped all the time; his temper would frighten a fighting cock."
Meanwhile, Michael Arranstoun was tramping his park with giant strides, and suddenly came upon his friend and guest, Henry Fordyce, whose very presence in his house he had forgotten, so turbulent had his thoughts been ever since the early post came in. Henry Fordyce was a leisurely creature, and had come out for a stroll on the exquisite June day upon his own account.
They exchanged a few remarks, and gradually got back to Michael's sitting-room again, and rang for drinks.
Mr. Fordyce had, by this time, become quite aware that an active volcano was going on in his friend, but had waited for the first indication of the cause. It came in the course of a conversation, after the footman had left the room and both men were reclining in big chairs with their iced whiskey and soda.
"It is a shame to stay indoors on such a day," Henry said lazily, looking out upon the balcony and the glittering sunshine.
"I never saw anyone enjoy a holiday like you do, Henry," Michael retorted, petulantly. "I can't enjoy anything lately. 'Pon my soul, it is worth going into Parliament to get such an amount of pleasure out of a week's freedom."
But Henry did not agree that it was freedom, when even here at Arranstoun he had been pestered to patronize the local bazaar.
"The penalty of greatness! I wonder when you will be prime minister. Lord, what a grind!"
Mr. Fordyce stretched himself in his chair and lit a cigar.
"It may be a grind," he said, meditatively, "but it is for some definite idea of good—even if I am a slave; whereas you!—you are tied and bound to a woman—and such a woman! You have not been able to call your soul your own since last October as it is—and before you know where you are, you will be attending the husband's funeral and your own wedding in the same week!"
Michael bounded from his chair with an oath. "I'll be shot if I do!" he said, and sat down again. Then his voice grew a little uncertain, and he went on:
"It is worrying me awfully, though, Henry. If poor old Maurice does puff out—I suppose I ought to marry her—I——"
Mr. Fordyce stiffened, and the sleepy look in his gray eyes altered to a flash of steel.
"Let us have a little plain speaking, Michael, old boy. It is not as though I do not know the whole circumstance of your affair with Violet Hatfield. I warned you about her in the beginning, when you met her at my sister Rose's, but, as usual, you would take your own course——"
Michael began to speak, but checked himself—and Henry Fordyce went on.
"I have had a letter from Rose this morning—as you of course know, Violet is staying for this Whitsuntide with them, having dragged her wretched husband, dying of consumption as he is, to this merry party. Well—Rose says poor Maurice is in a terrible state, caught a fresh cold on Saturday—and she adds, 'So I suppose we shall soon see Violet installed at Arranstoun as mistress.'"
"I know—I heard from Violet herself this morning," and Michael put his head down dejectedly.
"Ebbsworth is only thirty-five miles from here," Mr. Fordyce announced with meaning. "Violet can pop in on you at any moment, and she'll clinch the matter and bind you with her cobwebs before you can escape."
"You know you are dead sick of her, Michael—and you know that I am not the sort of man who would ever speak of a woman thus without grave reason; but she does not care for you any more than the half a dozen others who occupied your proud position before your day—it is only for money and the glory of having you tied to her apron strings. It was not any good hammering on while the passion was upon you; but I have watched you, and have seen that it is waning, so now's my time. With this danger in front of you, you have got to pull yourself together, old boy, and cut and run."
"That would be no use—" Then Michael stammered a little. "I say, Henry, I won't hear a word against her. You can thunder at me—but leave her out."
Mr. Fordyce smiled.
"Did she express deep grief at poor Maurice's condition in her letter?" he asked.
"I thought not—she probably suggested all sorts of joys with you when she is free!"
There was an ominous silence.
Mr. Fordyce's voice now took on that crisp tone which his adversaries in the House of Commons so well knew meant that they must look to their guns.
"Delightful woman! A spider, I tell you, a roaring hypocrite, too, bamboozling poor Rose into thinking her a virtuous, persecuted little darling, with a noble passion for you, and my sister is a downright person not easily fooled. At this moment, Violet is probably shedding tears on her shoulder over poor Maurice, while she is plotting how soon she can become mistress of Arranstoun. Good God! when I think of it—I would rather get in a girl from the village and go through the ceremony with her, and make myself safe, than have the prospect of Violet Hatfield as a wife. Michael, I tell you seriously, dear boy—you won't have the ghost of a chance if you are still unmarried when poor Maurice dies!"
Michael bounded from his chair once more. He was perfectly furious—furious with the situation—furious with the woman—furious with himself.
"Confound it, Henry, I—know it—but it does not mend matters your ranting there—and I am so sorry for the poor chap—Maurice, I mean—a very decent fellow, poor Maurice! Can't you suggest any way out?"
Mr. Fordyce mused a moment, while he deliberately puffed smoke, Michael's impatience increasing so that he ran his hands through his dark, smooth hair, whose shiny, immaculate brushing was usually his pride!
"Can't you suggest a way out?" he reiterated.
Mr. Fordyce did not reply—then after a moment: "You were always too much occupied with women, Michael—from your first scrape when you left Eton; and over this affair you have been a complete fool."
Michael was heard to swear again.
"You have been inconsistent, too, because you did not even employ your usual ruthless methods of doing what you pleased with them. You have simply drifted into allowing this vile creature's cobwebs to cling on to your whole existence until you are almost paralyzed, and it seems to me that an immediate marriage with someone else is your only way of escape. Such a waste of your life! Just analyze the position. You have everything in the world, this glorious place—an old name—money—prestige—and if your inclinations do run to the material side of things instead of the intellectual, they are still successful in their demonstration. No one has a better eye for a horse, or is a finer shot. The best at driven grouse for your age, my boy, I have ever seen. You are full of force, Michael, and ought to do some decent thing—instead of which you spoil the whole outlook by fooling after this infernal woman—and you have not now the pluck to cut the Gordian knot. She will drag you to the lowest depths——"
Then he laughed. "And only think of that voice in one's ears all day long! I would rather marry old Bessie at the South Lodge. She is eighty-four, she tells me, and would soon leave you a widower."
The first ray of hope shot into Michael's bright blue eyes—and he exclaimed with a kind of joy, as he seized Binko, his bulldog, by his fat, engaging throat:
"Bessie! Old Bessie—By Jove, what an idea!—the very thing. She'd do it for me like a shot, dear old body!"
Binko gurgled and slobbered in sympathy.
"She would be kind to you, too, Binko. She would not say she found your hairs on every chair, and that you dribbled on her dress! She would not tell your master that he left his cigarette-ash about, and she hated the smell of smoke! She would not want this room for her boudoir, she——"
Then he stopped his flow of words, suddenly catching sight of the whimsical, sardonic smile upon his friend's face.
"Oh, Lord!" he mumbled, contritely. "I had forgotten you were here, Henry. I am so jolly upset."
"This heartlessness about poor Maurice has finished you, eh?" Mr. Fordyce suggested. He felt he might be gaining his end.
Michael covered his face with his hands.
"It seems so ghastly to think of marriage with the poor chap not yet dead—I am fairly knocked over—it really is the last straw—but she will cry and make a scene—and she has certainly arguments—and it will make one feel such a cad to leave her."
"She wrote that—did she?—wrote of marriage and her husband's last attack of hemorrhage in the same paragraph, I suppose. Michael, it is revolting! My dear boy, you must break away from her—and then do try to occupy yourself with more important things than women. Believe me, they are all very well in their way and in their proper place—to be treated with the greatest courtesy and respect as wives and mothers—even loved, if you will, for a recreation—but as vital factors in a man's real life! My dear fellow, the idea is ridiculous—that life should be for his country and the development of his own soul——"
Michael Arranstoun laughed.
"Jolly old Mohammedan! You think women have none, I suppose!"
Henry Fordyce frowned, because it was rather true—but he denied the charge.
"Nothing of the sort. Merely, I see things at their proper balance and you cannot."
Michael leaned back in his chair; he was quieter for a moment.
"I only see what I want to see, Henry—and I am a savage—I cannot help it—we have always been so. When I fancy a woman, I must obtain her—when I want a horse, I must have it. It is always must—and we have not done so badly. We still possess our shoulders and chins and strength after eleven hundred years of it!" and he stretched out a splendid arm, with a force which could have felled an ox.
An undoubtedly fine specimen of British manhood he looked, sitting there in the June sunlight, which came in a shaft from the south mullioned window in the corner beyond the great fireplace, the space between occupied by a large picture of uncertain date, depicting the landing of Mary, Queen of Scots, in her northern kingdom.
His eyes roamed to this.
"One of my ancestors was among that party," he said, pointing to a figure. "He had just killed a Moreton and stolen his wife, that is why he looks so perky—the fellow in the blue doublet."
Mr. Fordyce rose from his chair and fired his last shot.
"And now a female spider is going to paralyze the last Arranstoun, and rule him for the rest of his days, sapping his vitality."
But Michael protested.
"By heaven, no!"
"Well, I'll leave you to think about it. I am going for another stroll on this lovely day." He had got to the window by this time, which looked into the courtyard on the opposite side to the balcony. "Goodness! what a party of tourists! It is a bore for you to have them all over the place like this! To own a castle with state rooms to be shown to the public has its disadvantages."
Michael looked at them, too, a large party of Americans, mostly of that class which compose the tourists of all countries, and which no nation feels proud to own. He had seen hundreds of such, and turned away indifferently.
"They only come here twice a week, and it has been allowed for such ages—they are generally quiet, and fortunately their perambulations close at the end of the gallery. They don't intrude upon my own suite. They get to the chapel by the outside door."
Henry crossed the room and went on to the balcony.
"Mrs. Hatfield will alter all that," he laughed, as he disappeared from view.
Michael flashed a rageful glance at his back, and then flung himself into his great armchair again, and pulled the wrinkled mass, which called itself a prize bulldog, on to his lap.
"I believe he's right and we are caught, Binko. If we fled to the Rocky Mountains, she would track us. If we stay and face it, she'll make an almighty scandal and force us to marry her. What in the devil's name are we to do——!"
Binko licked his master's hands, and made noises, so full of gurgling, slobbering sympathy, no heart could have remained uncomforted. Who knows! His canine common sense may have telepathically transmitted a thought, for Michael suddenly plopped him on the floor, and stalked toward the fireplace to ring the bell, while he exclaimed, as though answering a suggestion. "Yes, we'll send for old Bessie—that's the only way."
But before he could reach his goal, the picture of Mary, Queen of Scots, landing fell forward with a crash, and through the aperture of a secret door which it concealed, there tumbled a very young and pretty girl right into the room.
Mr. Arranstoun was extremely startled and annoyed, too, and before he took in the situation, he had exclaimed, while Binko gave an ominous growl of displeasure:
"Confound it—who is that! These are private rooms!" Then, seeing it was a girl on the floor, he said in another voice: "Quiet, Binko—" and the dog retired to his own basket under a distant table. "Oh, I beg your pardon—but——"
The creature on the floor blinked at Michael with large, round, violet eyes, but did not move, while she answered aggrievedly—with a very faint accent, whether a little French or a little American, or a little of both, he was not sure, only that it had something attractive about it.
"You may well say 'but'! I did not mean to intrude upon your private room—but I had to run away from Mr. Greenbank—he was so horrid—" here she gasped a little for breath—"and I happened to see something like a door ajar in the Gainsborough room, so I fled through it, and it fastened after me with a snap—I could not open it again—and it was pitch dark in that dreadful passage and not a scrap of air—I felt suffocated, and I pushed on anywhere—and something gave way and I fell in here—that's all——"
She rattled this out without a stop, and then stared at Michael with her big, childish eyes, but did not attempt to rise from the floor.
He walked toward her and held out his hand, and with ceremonious and ironical politeness, he began:
"May I not help you—I could offer you a chair——"
She interrupted him while she struggled up, refusing his proffered hand.
"I've knocked myself against your nasty table—why do you have it in that place!"
Michael sat down upon the edge of it, and went on in his ironical tone:
"Had I known I was to have the honor of this visit, I should certainly have had it moved."
"There is no use being sarcastic," the girl said, almost crying now. "It hurts very much, and—and—I want to go home."
Mr. Arranstoun pushed a comfortable monster seat toward her, and said more sympathetically:
"I am very sorry—but where is home?"
The girl sank into the chair, and smoothed out her pink cotton frock; the skimpy skirt (not as narrow as in these days, but still short and spare!) showed a perfect pair of feet and ankles.
"She's American, of course, then," Michael said to himself, observing these, "and quite pretty if that smudge of grime was off her face."
She was looking at him now with her large, innocent eyes, which contained no shadow of gene over the unusual situation, and then she answered quite simply:
"I haven't a home, you know—I'm just staying at the Inn with Uncle Mortimer and Aunt Jemima and—and—Mr. Greenbank—and we are tourists, I suppose, and were looking at the pictures—when—when I had to run away."
Michael felt a little piqued with curiosity; she was a diversion after his perplexing, irritating meditations.
"It would be so interesting to hear why you ran away—the whole story?" he suggested.
The girl turned her head and looked out of the window, showing a dear little baby profile, and masses of light brown hair rolled up anyhow at the back. She did not look older than seventeen at the outside, and was peculiarly childish and slender for that.
"But I should have to tell you from the beginning, and it is so long—and you are a stranger."
Michael drew another chair nearer to her, and sat down, while his manner took on a note of grave, elderly concern, which rather belied the twinkle of mischief in his eyes.
"Never mind that—I am sympathetic, and I am your host—and, by Jove!—won't you have some tea! You look awfully tired and—dusty," and he rang the bell, and then reseated himself. "See, to be quite orthodox, we will make our own introduction—I am Michael Arranstoun—and you are——?"
The girl rose and made him a polite bow. "I am Sabine Delburg," she announced. He bowed also—and then she went into a peal of silvery laughter that seemed to contain all the glad notes of spring and youth. "Oh, this is fun! and I—I should like some tea!" She caught sight of herself in an old mirror, which stood upon a commode. "Goodness, what a guy I look! Why didn't you tell me that my hat was crooked!" She settled it straight, and began searching for a handkerchief up her sleeve and in her belt, but none was to be found.
So Mr. Arranstoun handed her a clean one he chanced to have in his pocket. "I expect you want to wipe the smudge of dirt off your face," he hazarded.
She took it laughing, and showing an even row of beautiful teeth between red, full baby lips.
"You are the owner of this castle," she went on, as she gave firm rubs at the velvet pink cheeks. "That must be nice. You can do what you like, I suppose," and here a sigh of regret escaped and made her voice lower.
"I wish I could," Mr. Arranstoun answered feelingly.
"Well, if I were a man, I would!"
"What would you do?"
She turned and faced him, while she said, with extreme solemnity:
"I should never marry Mr. Greenbank."
"I don't suppose you would if you were a man!" At this moment, a footman answered the bell. "Bring tea, please," his master ordered, inwardly amused at the servant's astonished face, and then when they were alone again, he continued his sympathetic questioning.
"Who is Mr. Greenbank? You had to flee from him—you said he was horrid, I believe?"
Miss Delburg had removed her hat, and was trying to tidy her hair before readjusting it; she had the hat-pin in her mouth, but took it out to answer vehemently:
"So he is, a pig! And I went and got engaged to him this morning! You see," turning to the glass again, quite unembarrassed, "I can't get my money until I am married—and Uncle is so disagreeable, and Aunt Jemima nags all day long, and it was left in Papa's will that I was to live with them—and I don't come of age until I am twenty-one, but I can get the money directly if I marry—I was seventeen in May, and of course no one could stand it till twenty-one! Mr. Greenbank is the only person who has asked me, and Aunt Jemima says no one else ever will! I have been out of the Convent for a whole month, and I can't bear it."
Michael was beginning really to enjoy himself. She was something so fresh, so entirely different to anything he had ever seen in his life before. There was nothing of shyness or awkwardness in her manner, as any English girl would have shown. She was absolutely at ease, with a childish, confiding innocence which he saw plainly was real, and not put on for his benefit. It was almost incredible in these up-to-date days. A most engaging morsel of seventeen summers, he decided, as he answered with over-grave concern:
"What a hard fate!—but you have not told me yet why you ran away!"
The girl had finished her toilet by now, and reseated herself with a grown-up air in the big armchair.
"Oh! well, he was just—horrid—that was all," and then abruptly turning the conversation, "It is a nice place you have here, and it does feel lovely doing something wrong like this—having tea with you, I mean. You know, I have never spoken to a young man before. The Nuns always told us they were dreadful creatures—but you don't look so bad—" and she examined her host critically.
Michael accepted the implied appreciation.
"What is Mr. Greenbank, then?"
The silver laugh rang out again, while she jumped up and peeped from the window into the courtyard.
"Samuel—he's only a thing! Oh! Uncle and Aunt would be so angry if they could see me here! And I expect they are all in a fine fuss now to know what has happened to me! They never saw me go through the door, and I hope they think that I've committed suicide out of one of the windows. Look!" and she danced excitedly, "there is Uncle talking to the commissionaire. Oh, what fun!"
Mr. Arranstoun peeped, too—and saw a spare, elderly American of grim appearance in anxious confab with Alexander Armstrong.
The whole situation struck him as delightful, and he laughed gaily, while he suggested: "You are perhaps rather a difficult charge?"
Miss Delburg resented this at once.
"What an idea! How would you like to marry Mr. Greenbank, or stay with Aunt Jemima for four years!"
"Well, you see, I can't contemplate it, as I am not a girl!"
Again those white teeth showed, and the violet eyes were suffused with laughter.
"No! Of course not. How silly I am—but I mean, how would you care to be forced to do something you did not like?"
Michael thought of his own fate.
"By Jove! I should hate it!"
"Well—you can understand me!"
Then the door opened, and the butler and footman brought in the tea, eyeing their master's guest furtively, while they maintained that superbly aloof manner of well-bred English servants. The pause their entrance caused gave Mr. Arranstoun time to think, and an idea gradually began to unfold itself in his brain—and unconsciously he took out, and then replaced in his breast pocket, a mauve, closely-written letter, while a frown of deep cogitation crept over his face.
Miss Delburg, for her part, was only thrilled with the sight of the very agreeable tea, and after waiting a moment to see what her preoccupied host would do when the servants left the room, hunger forced her to fall to the temptation of a particularly appetizing chocolate cake, which she surreptitiously seized, and began munching with the frank joy of a child.
"I do love them!" she sighed, "and we never were allowed them, only once a month after Moravia Cloudwater got that awful toothache, and had to have a big grinder pulled out."
Michael was paying no attention to her; he had walked rapidly up and down the room once or twice, much to her astonishment.
At last he spoke.
"I have an idea—but first let me give you some tea—No—do help yourself," then he paused awkwardly, and she at once proceeded to fill her cup.
Binko had condescended to emerge from his basket under the table. Tea-time was an hour when he allowed himself to take an interest in human beings.
"Oh! you darling!" the girl cried, putting down her cup. "You fat, lovely, wrinkly darling!"
"He is a nice dog," his master admitted; his voice was actually nervous—and he pulled Binko to him by his solid, fleshy paws, while he sat down in his chair again.
Miss Delburg had got back into her seat, where she munched a cake and continued her tea. The chair was so deep and long that her little bits of feet did not nearly reach the ground, but dangled there.
"Mayn't I pour you out some, too?" she asked, getting forward again. "I do love to pour out—and do you take sugar—? I like lumps and lumps of it."
"Oh—er—yes," Michael agreed absently, and then he went on with the determined air of a person getting something off his chest. "I hardly know how to say what I am thinking of, it sounds so strange. Listen—I also must marry someone—anyone—to avert a fate I don't want—What do you say to marrying me?"
The teapot came down into the tray with a bump, while the round, childish eyes grew like saucers with astonishment.
"I dare say it does surprise you—" Michael then hastened to add. "I mean, we should only go through the ceremony, of course, and you could get your money and I my freedom."
The girl clasped her hands round her knees.
"And I should never have to see you again?" in a glad voice of comprehension.
Michael leaned forward nearer to her.
"Well—no—never, unless you wished."
Miss Delburg actually kicked her feet with delight.
"It is a perfectly splendid suggestion," she announced. "We could just oblige one another in this way, and need never see or speak to each other again. What made it come into your head? Do you really think we could do that—Oh! how rude of me—I've forgotten to pour out your tea!"
"Never mind, talking about—our marriage—is more interesting," and Mr. Arranstoun's blue eyes filled with mischievous appreciation of the situation, even beyond the seriousness of the discussion he meant to carry to an end. But this aspect did not so much concern Miss Delburg, as that she had let slip a particular pleasure for the moment, that of being allowed a teapot in her own hand, instead of being given a huge bowl of milk with a drop of weak coffee mixed in it, and watching a like fate fall upon her companions.
When this delightful business was accomplished to her satisfaction, her sweet little round face a model of serious responsibility the while, she handed Michael the cup and drew herself back once more into the depth of the giant chair.
"I can't behave nicely in this great creature," she said, patting the fat cushioned arms, "and the Mother Superior would be horribly shocked, but don't let's mind. Now, do tell me something about this plan. You see," gravely, "I really don't know the world very well yet—I have always been at the Convent near Tours until a month ago—even in the holidays, since I was seven—and the Sisters never told me anything about outside, except that it was a place of pitfalls and that men were dreadful creatures. I was very happy there, except I wanted to get out all the time, and when I did and found Uncle and Aunt more tiresome than the Sisters—there seemed no help for it—only Mr. Greenbank. So I accepted him this morning. But—" and this awful thought caused her whole countenance to change. "Now I come to think of it, the usual getting married means you would have to stay with the man—wouldn't you? And he wants—he wants to kiss—I mean," hurriedly, "you would be lovely to marry because I would never have to see you again!"
Michael Arranstoun put his head back and laughed; she was perfectly delicious—he began to dislike Mr. Greenbank.
His tea was quite forgotten.
"Er—of course not," he agreed. "Well, I could get a special license, if you could tell me exactly how you stand, and your whole name and your parents' names, and everything, and we could get their consent—but I conclude your father, at least, is no longer alive."
Miss Delburg had a very grown-up air now.
"No, my parents are both dead," she told him. "Papa three years ago, and Mamma for ages, and I never saw them much anyhow. They were always travelling about, and Mamma was a Frenchwoman and a Catholic. Her family did not speak to her because she married a Protestant and an American. And the worry it was for me being brought up in a convent! because Papa would have me a Protestant, so I do believe I have got a little religion of my own that is not like either!"
She continued her narrative in the intervals of the joy of munching another cake.
"Papa was very rich, and it's all mine—Only it appears he did not approve of the freedom of American women—and so tied it up so that I can't get it until I am an old maid of twenty-one—or get married. Is it not disgusting?"
Michael's thoughts were now concentrating upon the vital points.
"But have you not got a guardian or something?"
"Not exactly. Only an old lawyer person who is now in London. I have seen Papa's will, and I know I can marry when and whom I like if I get his consent—and he would give it in a minute, he is sick of me!"
"How fortunate!" Then restlessness seized him again, and he got up, gulped down his tea, and began his pacing.
"I do think it would be a good plan, and we must do it if we can get this person's leave—Yes, and do it quickly before we change our minds, or something interferes. Everyone would think we were perfectly mad, but as it suits us both, that is no one's business—Only—you are rather young—and er—I don't know Greenbank. You are sure he is horrid?"
The girl clasped her hands together with force.
"Sure! I should think so—He wears glasses, and has nasty, scrabbly bits of fur on his face, which he thinks is a beard, and he is pompous and he talks like this," and she imitated a precise Boston voice. "'My dear Sabine—have you considered,' and he is lanky—and Oh! I detest him, and I can't imagine why I ever said I would marry him—but if I don't, what am I to do with Aunt Jemima for four years! I should die of it."
Michael sat on the edge of the table and looked at her long and deeply. He took in the childish picture she made in the big chair. He had no definite appreciation then of her charm, his mind was too fixed upon what seemed a prospect of certain escape from Violet Hatfield and her cunning thirty years of experience. This young thing could not interfere with him, and divorces in Scotland were not impossible things—they would both gain what they wanted for the time, and it was a fair bargain. So he said, after a moment:
"I will go up to London to-morrow, and if it is as you say that you are free to marry whom and when you will, I will try to get this old lawyer's consent and a special license—But how about your Uncle? Has he not any legal right over you?"
Miss Delburg laughed contentedly.
"Not in the least—only that I have to live with him until I am married. Mr. Parsons—that's the lawyer's name—hates him, and he hates Mr. Parsons. So I know Mr. Parsons will be delighted to spite him by giving his consent, if you just say Uncle Mortimer is trying to force me into a marriage against my will with his nephew—Samuel Greenbank is his nephew, you know—no relation to me. It is Aunt Jemima who is Papa's sister."
All this seemed quite convincing. Michael felt relieved.
"I see," he said. "Well, it appears simple enough. I believe I could be back by Thursday, and I could have my chaplain and a friend of mine, and we could get the affair over in the chapel—and then you can go back to the Inn with your certificate—and I can go to Paris—free!" And his thoughts added, "And even if poor Maurice does die soon, I need fear nothing!"
Now that their two fates seemed settled, Miss Delburg got out of the chair and stood up in a dignified way; her soft cheeks were the color of a glowing pink rose, and her violet eyes shone with fun and excitement, her little, irregular features and perfect teeth seemed to add to the infantine aspect of the picture she made in her unfashionable pink cotton frock. Dress had been strongly discouraged at the Convent, and was looked upon by Aunt Jemima, a strict New Englander, as a snare of the devil, but even the garment, in the selecting of which she had had no hand, seemed to hang with grace upon the child's slim figure.
Not a doubt as to the future clouded her thoughts; it was all a glorious piece of fun, and of all the daring tricks she had perpetrated at the Convent to get chocolates, or climb a tree, or have a midnight orgy of cake and sirop, none had been so exciting as this—to go through the ceremony of marriage and be free for life!
Her education had been of the most elementary, and the whole aim of those placed over her had been to keep her as innocent and ignorant as a child of ten. Not a single problem of life had ever presented itself to her naturally intelligent mind. She had read no books, conversed with no grown-up people, played with no one but her companions, three American girls and a few French ones, and the simple Nuns. And since her emancipation, she had but wandered in the English lakes with her uncle and aunt and Samuel Greenbank, and so had come to Arranstoun like any other tourist to see this famous castle still inhabited after eleven hundred years.
In these days of women giving daily proof of their capability for irritating mischief, if not of their ability to rule nations, Sabine Delburg was a very unique being, and could not have existed but for a combination of rare circumstances, as she was half American and half French and had inherited the quick understanding of both nations. But from the age of seven, she had never seen the outside world. It is not my place, in any case, to explain what she was or was not. The creature, with all her faults and charms, is there to speak for herself—and if you, my friend, who are reading this tale on a summer's day do not feel you want to hear any more of what happened to these two young things, by all means put down the book and go your way!
So let us get back to Mr. Arranstoun's sitting-room and the June afternoon, and we shall hear Miss Delburg saying, in her childish voice of joy:
"Nothing could be better—I always did like doing mad things. It will be the greatest fun! Think of their faces when I prance in and say I am married! Then I will snap my fingers at them and go off and see the world."
Michael knelt upon a low old prie dieu which was near, and looked into her face—while he asked, whimsically:
"I do wonder where you will begin."
Miss Delburg now sat upon the edge of the table; this was a grave question and must be answered at leisure, though without indecision.
"Oh, I know," she announced. "There was my great friend, Moravia Cloudwater, at the Convent. She was older than me, and went to Paris with her father and married an Italian prince last year. I have heard from her since, and she has often wanted me to go and stay with her in Rome—and I shall now. Morri and I are the dearest friends—and her things did look lovely the day she came to see us at Tours—with the prince's coronet on them—" and then the first shadow came to her contentment. "That is the only pity about you—even with a castle, you haven't a coronet, I suppose?" regretfully. "I should have liked one on my handkerchiefs and note-paper."
Michael felt his shortcomings.
"The title was taken away when we followed Prince Charlie and we only got back the land by the skin of our teeth after an awful business so I am afraid I cannot do that for you—but perhaps," consolingly, "you will have better luck next time."
This brought some comfort.
"Why, of course! we can get a divorce—as soon as we want. Moravia had an aunt, who simply went to Sioux Falls and got one at once and married someone else, so it's not the least trouble. Oh, I am glad you have thought of this plan. It is clever of you!"
Mr. Arranstoun felt that he was becoming rather too interested in his—fiancee and time was passing. Her family might discover where she was—or Henry might return; he must clinch matters finally.
"I think we must come to business details now," he said. "Had you not better write a letter to Mr. Parsons that I could take, stating your wishes; and will you also write down upon another piece of paper all the details of your name, age—and so forth——"
He now showed her his writing-table and gave her paper and pens to choose from.
She sat down gravely, and put her hands to her head as one thinking hard. Then she began rapidly to write—while Mr. Arranstoun watched her from the hearth-rug, to where he had retired.
She evidently wrote out the statistics required first, and then began her letter. And at last she turned a rogue's face with a perplexed frown on it, while she bit her pen.
"How do you spell indigenous, please?"
He started forward.
"'Indigenous'?—what a grand word!—i-n-d-i-g-e-n-o-u-s."
"One has to be grand when writing business letters," she told him, condescendingly, and then finished her missive.
"There—that will do! Now listen!"
She got up and stood with the sheet in her hand, and read off the remarkable document without worrying much about stops or commas.
"Dear Mr. Parsons:
"Papa said I could marry who I wanted to provided that he was decent, so please give your written consent to the grand seigneur who brings this. His name is Arranstoun, and he is indigenous to this Castle, and really an aristocrat who papa and mamma would have approved of, although he unfortunately has no title——"
"I had to put in that, you see," and she looked up explainingly, "because it sounds so ordinary if he'd never heard of Arranstoun—we wouldn't have, only Uncle Mortimer was looking out for old ruins to visit—well," and she continued her recital, while Michael lowered his head to hide the smile in his eyes.
"We wish to get married on Thursday so please be quick about the consent, as Uncle Mortimer wants me to marry his nephew, Samuel Greenbank, who I hate. Agree, sir, the expression of my sentiments, the most distinguished
"P.S. I will want all my money, 50,000 dollars a year I believe it is, on Friday morning."
Then she looked up with pride.
"Don't you think that will do?"
Michael was overcome—his voice shook with enchanted mirth.
"Admirably," he assured her, with what solemnity he could.
Sabine seemed thoroughly satisfied with herself.
"That's all right, then. Now I must be off, or they will be coming to look for me, and that would be a bore."
"But we have not made all the arrangements for our wedding." The prospective bridegroom thought it prudent to remind her. "When can you come on Thursday? My train gets in about six."
"Thursday," and she contracted her dark eyebrows. "Let me see—Yes, we are staying until Saturday to see the remains of Elbank Monastery—but I don't know how I can slip away, unless—only it would be so late. I could say I had a headache and go to bed early without dinner, and get here about eight while they were having theirs. It is still quite light—I often had to pretend things at the Convent to get a moment's peace."
"Better not chance eight—as you say it is quite light then and they might see you. Slip out of the hotel at nine. The park gate is, as you know, right across the road. I will wait for you inside, and we can walk here in a few minutes—and come up these balcony steps—and the chapel is down that passage—through this door. See."
He went and opened the door, and she followed him—talking as she walked.
"Nine! Oh! that is late—I have never been out so late before—but it can't matter—just this once—can it? And here in the north it is so funny; it is light at nine, too! Perhaps it would be safest." Then, peering down the vaulted passage and drawing back, "It is a gloomy hole to get married in!"
"You won't say so when you see the chapel itself," he reassured her. "It is rather a beautiful place. Whenever any of my ancestors committed a particularly atrocious raid, and wanted to be absolved for their sins, they put in a window or a painting or carving. The family was Catholic until my grandfather's time, and then High Church, so the glories have remained untouched."
Sabine kept close to him as they walked, as a child afraid of the dark would have done. It seemed to her too like her recent experience of the secret passage, and then she exclaimed in a voice of frank awe and admiration, when he opened the nail-studded, iron-bound door at the end:
"Oh! how divine!"
And it was indeed. A gem of the finest period of early Gothic architecture, adorned with all trophies which love, fear and contrition could compel from the art of the ages. Glorious colored lights swept down in shafts from matchless stained glass, and the high altar was a blaze of richness, while beautiful paintings and tapestries covered the walls.
It was gorgeous and sumptuous, and unlike anything else in England or Scotland. It might have been the private chapel of a proud, voluptuous Cardinal in Rome's great days.
"Why is that one little window plain?" Sabine asked.
Then Michael answered with a cynical note in his voice:
"It is left for me—I, who am the last of them, to put up some expiatory offering, I expect. Rapine and violence are in the blood," and then he laughed lightly, and led her back through the gloom to his sitting-room. There was a strange, fierce light in his bright blue eyes, which the child-woman did not see, and which, if she had perceived, she would not have understood any more than he understood it himself—for no concrete thought had yet come to him about the future. Only, there underneath was that mighty force, relentless, inexorable, of heredity, causing the instinct which had dominated the Arranstouns for eleven hundred years.
He did not seek to detain his guest and promised bride—but, with great courtesy, he showed her the way down the stairs of the lawn, and so through the postern into the park, and he watched her slender form trip off towards the gate which was opposite the Inn, her last words ringing in his ears in answer to his final question.
"No, I shall not fail—I will leave the Crown at nine o'clock exactly on Thursday."
Then turning, he retraced his steps to his sitting-room, and there found Henry Fordyce returned.
"Well, old boy!" Mr. Fordyce greeted him with. "You should have been with me and had a good round of golf—but perhaps, though, you have made up your mind!"
Michael flung himself into his great chair.
"Yes—I have—and I have got a fiancee."
Mr. Fordyce was not disturbed; he did not even answer this absurd remark, he just puffed his cigar—cigarettes were beneath his notice.
"You don't seem very interested," his host ejaculated, rather aggrievedly.
"I tell you, it is true. I have got a fiancee."
"My dear fellow, you are mad!"
"No, I assure you I am quite sane—I have found a way out of the difficulty—an angel has dropped from the clouds to save me from Violet Hatfield."
Henry Fordyce was actually startled. Michael looked as though he were talking seriously.
"But where did she come from? What the—Oh! I have no patience with you, you old fool! You are playing some comedy upon me!"
"Henry, I give you my word, I'm not—I am going to marry a most presentable young person at nine o'clock on Thursday night in the chapel here—and you are going to stay and be best man." Then his excitement began to rise again, and he got up from his chair and paced up and down restlessly. "It is the very thing. She wants her money and I want my freedom. She gets hers by marriage, and I get mine. I don't care a rush for domestic bliss, it has never appealed to me; and the fellow in Australia who'll come after me has got a boy who will do all right, no doubt, for the old place by and by. I shall have a perfectly free time and no responsibilities—and, thank the Lord! no more women for me for the future. I have done with the snakes. I shall be happy and free for the first time for a whole year!"
Mr. Fordyce actually let his cigar go out. This incredible story was beginning to have an effect upon him.
"But where did she come from?" he asked blandly, as one speaks to a harmless imbecile. "I leave you here in an abject state of despair, ready almost to decide upon marrying old Bessie, and I return in an hour and you inform me everything is settled, and you are the fiance of another lady! You know, you surprise me, Michael—'Pon my word, you do!"
Michael laughed, it was really a huge joke.
"Yes, it is quite true. Well, just as I was going to ring and send James for Bessie to talk it over with her, there was no end of a smash—as you see—and a girl—a tourist—fell through the secret door. I haven't opened it for five years. She was running away from a horrid fellow she was engaged to, it seems, and fled into the passage, and the door shut after her and she could not get out, so she pushed on in here."
"It adds dramatic color to the story, the girl being engaged to someone else—pray go on."
Mr. Fordyce had now picked up his cigar again. This preposterous tale no longer interested him. He thought it even rather bad taste on the part of his friend.
"All right!" Michael explained. "You need not believe me if you don't like. I don't care, since I have done what I wanted to. Bar chaff, Henry, I am telling you the truth. The girl appears to be a young woman of decision. She explained at once her circumstances, and it struck us both that to go through the ceremony of marriage would smooth all our difficulties. We can easily get the bond annulled later on."
Henry Fordyce put down his cigar again.
"I am off to town to-night. You won't mind, will you?" Michael went on. "Just to see if everything is all right, and to get her guardian's consent and a special license, and I shall be back by the six o'clock train on Thursday in time to get the ceremony over that night; and then, by the early morning express, if you'll wait till then, we'll go South together, and so for Paris and freedom!"
Henry actually rose from his chair.
"And the bride?" he asked.
Michael laughed. "Oh, she may go to the moon, for all I care; she leaves directly after the ceremony with her certificate of marriage, which she means to brandish in the face of her relations, who are staying at the Inn, and so exit out of my life! It is only an affair of expediency."
"It is the affair of a madman."
Michael frowned, and his firm chin looked aggressive.
"It is nothing of the kind. You told me yourself that you would rather marry old Bessie—a woman of eighty-four—than Violet Hatfield; and now, when I have found a much more suitable person—a pretty little lady—you begin to talk. My mind is made up, and there is an end of it."
Mr. Fordyce interrupted.
"Bessie would have been much more suitable—a plain pretext; but you have no idea what complications you may be storing up for yourself by marrying a young girl—What is the sense in it?" he continued, a little excited now. "The younger and prettier she is makes her all the more unsuitable to be used merely as a tool in your game. Confound it, Michael!"
"And her game, too," his host reminded him. His eyes were flashing now, and that expression, which all his underlings knew meant he intended to have his own will at any cost, grew upon his face.
"You forget that in Scotland divorce is not an impossibility and—I am going to do it, Henry. Now, I had better write to old Fergusson, my chaplain, and tell him to be in readiness, and I suppose I ought to see my lawyers in Edinburgh, although, as there are no settlements and it is just between ourselves, perhaps it does not matter about them."
"How old is the girl?" Mr. Fordyce felt it prudent to ask. "It is a pretty serious thing you contemplate, you know."
"Oh! rot!—she is seventeen, I believe—and for that sort of a marriage and mere business arrangement, her age is no consequence."
Henry turned to the window and looked out for a moment, then he said gravely:
"Is it quite fair to her?"
Michael had gone to his writing-table, and was busily scribbling to his chaplain, but he looked over his shoulder startled, and then a gleam of blue fire came into his eyes, and his handsome mouth shut like a vise.
"Of course, it is quite fair. She wishes to be free as much as I do. She gets what she wants and I get what I want—a mere ceremony can be annulled at any time. She jumped at the idea, I tell you, Henry—I have not got time to go into the pros and cons of that side of the question, and I don't want to hear your views or any one else's on the matter. I mean to marry the girl on Thursday night—and you can quite well put off going South until Friday morning, and see me through it."
Mr. Fordyce prepared to go towards the door, and when there said, in a voice of ice:
"I shall do no such thing. I cannot prevent your doing this, I suppose—taking advantage of a young girl for your own ends, it seems to me—so I shall go now."
Michael's temper began to blaze with this, his oldest friend.
"As you please," he flashed. "But it is perfect rot, all this high palaver. The girl gains by it as well as I. I am not taking the least advantage of her. I shall have to get her guardian's consent, and I suppose he'll know what he is up to. I have never taken any one's advice, and I am not going to begin now, old boy—so we had better say good-bye if you won't stop."
He came over to the door, and then he smiled his radiant, irresistible smile so like a mischievous jolly boy's.
"Give me joy, Henry, old friend," he said, and held out his hand.
But Henry Fordyce looked grave as a judge as he took it.
"I can't do that, Michael. I am very angry with you. I have known you ever since you were born, and we have been real pals, although I am so much older than you—but I'm damned if I'll stay and see you through this folly. Good-bye." And without a word further he went out of the room, closing the door softly behind him.
Michael gave a sort of whoop to Binko, who sprang at him in love and excitement, while he cried:
"Very well! Get along, old saint!"
Then he rang the bell, and to the footman when he came he handed the note he had written to be taken to Mr. Fergusson, and sent orders for Johnson to pack for two nights, and for his motor to be ready to catch the 10:40 express at the junction for London town. Then he seized his cap and, calling Binko, he went off into the garden, and so on to the park and to the golf house, where, securing his professional, he played a vigorous round, and when he got back to the castle again, just before dinner, he was informed that Mr. Fordyce had left in his own motor for Edinburgh.
An opalescence of soft light and peace and beauty was over the park of Arranstoun on this June night of its master's wedding, and he walked among the giant trees to the South Lodge gate, only a few hundred yards from the postern, which he reached from his sitting-room. All had gone well in London. Mr. Parsons had raised no objection, being indeed greatly flattered at the proposed alliance—for who had not heard of the famous border Castle of Arranstoun and envied its possessor?
They had talked a long time and settled everything.
"Tie up the whole of Miss Delburg's money entirely upon herself," Mr. Arranstoun had said—"if it is not already done—then we need not bother about settlements. I understand that she is well provided for."
"And how about your future children?" Mr. Parsons asked.
Michael stiffened suddenly as he looked out of the office window.
"Oh—er, they will naturally have all I possess," he returned quickly.
And now as he neared the Lodge gate, and nine o'clock struck, a suppressed excitement was in his veins. For no matter how eventful your life may be, or how accustomed you are to chances and vivid amusements, to be facing a marriage ceremony with a practically unknown young woman has aspects of originality in it calculated to set the pulses in motion.
He had almost forgotten that side of the affair which meant freedom and safety for him from the claws of the Spider—although he had learned upon his return home from London that she had, as Henry Fordyce had predicted that she might, "popped in upon him," having motored over from Ebbsworth, and had left him a letter of surprised, intense displeasure at his unannounced absence.
When five minutes had passed, and there was as yet no sign of his promised bride crossing the road from the Inn, Mr. Arranstoun began to experience an unpleasant impatience. The quarter chimed—his temper rose—had she been playing a trick upon him and never intended at any time to come? He grew furious—and paced the fine turf behind the Lodge, swearing hotly as was his wont when enraged.
Then he saw a little figure wrapped in a gray dust cloak much too big for it advancing cautiously to the gate in the twilight, and he bounded forward to meet her and to open the narrow side-entrance before the Lodge-keeper, Old Bessie, could have time to see who was there.
"At last!" he cried, when they were safely inside and had gone a few paces along the avenue. "I was beginning to think you did not mean to keep your word! I am glad you have come!"
"Why, of course I meant to keep my word. I never break it," Sabine said astonished. "I am longing to be free just like you are, but I had an awful business to get away! I have never been so excited in my life! Their train was late—some breakdown on the branch line—they did not get in until half-past eight, and I dare not be all dressed, but had to pretend to be in bed, covered up, still with the awful headache, when Aunt Jemima bounced in." Then she laughed joyously at the recollection of her escape. "The moment she had gone off to her supper, tucking me up for the night, I jumped up and got on my dress and hat and her dust cloak and then I had to watch my moment, creep down those funny little stairs, and out of the side door—and so across here. You know it was far harder to manage than the last feast Moravia Cloudwater and I gave to the girls the night before she went to Paris! Isn't it fun! I do like having these adventures, don't you?"
"Yes," said Michael, and looked down into her face.
She was extremely pretty, he thought, in the soft dusk of this Northern evening. Her leghorn hat with its wreath of blue forget-me-nots was most becoming and her brown hair was ruffled a little by the hat's hasty donning.
"I needn't keep this old cloak on, need I?" she asked. "Nobody can see us here and it is so hot."
He helped her off with it and carried it for her. She looked prettier still now, the slender lines of her childish figure were so exquisite in their promise of beautiful womanhood later on, and the Sunday frock of white foulard was most sweet.
Michael was very silent; it almost made her nervous, but she prattled on.
"This is my best frock," she laughed, "because even though it is only a business arrangement, one couldn't get married in an old blouse, could one?"
"Of course not!" and he strode nearer to her. "I am in evening dress, you see—just like a French bridegroom for those wedding parties in the Bois! so we are both festive—but here we are at the postern door!"
He opened it with his key and they stole across the short lawn and up the balcony steps like two stealthy marauders. Then he turned and held out his hand to her in the blaze of electric light.
"Welcome! Oh! it is good of you to have come!"
She shook hands frankly—it seemed the right thing to do, she felt, since they were going to oblige one another and both gain their desires. Then it struck her for the first time that he was a very handsome young man—quite the Prince Charming of the girls' dreams. A thousand times finer than Moravia's Italian prince with whom for her part she had been horribly disappointed when she had seen his photograph. Only it was too silly to consider this one in that light, since he wasn't really going to be hers—only a means to an end. Oh! the pleasure to be free and rich and to do exactly what she pleased! She had been planning all these days what she would do. She would get back to the Inn not later than ten, and creep quietly up to her room through that side door which was always open into the yard. The weather was so beautiful it would be nothing, even if the Inn people did see her entering—she might have been out for a stroll in the twilight. Then at six in the morning she would creep out again and go to the station; there was a train which left for Edinburgh at half-past—and there she would get a fast express to London later on, after a good breakfast; and once in London a cab would take her to Mr. Parsons', and after that!—money and freedom!
She had planned it all. She would leave a letter for her Uncle and Aunt, saying she was married and had gone and they need not trouble themselves any more about her. Mr. Parsons would tell her where to stay and help her to get a good maid like Moravia had, and then she would go to Paris just as Moravia had done and buy all sorts of lovely clothes; it would take her perhaps a whole month, and then when she was a very grand, grown-up lady, she would write to her dear friend and say now she was ready to accept her invitation to go and stay with her! And what absolute joy to give Moravia such a surprise! to say she was married and free! and had quite as nice things as even that Princess! It was all a simply glorious picture—and but for this kind young man it could never have been hers—but her fate would have been—Samuel Greenbank or Aunt Jemima for four years! It was no wonder she felt grateful to him! and that her handshake was full of cordiality.
Michael pulled himself together rather sharply, the blood was now running very fast in his veins.
"Wait here," he said to her, "while I go into the chapel to see if Mr. Fergusson and the two witnesses are ready."
They were—Johnson and Alexander Armstrong—and the old chaplain who had been Michael's father's tutor and was now an almost doddering old nonentity also stood waiting in his white surplice at the altar rails.
The candles were all lit and great bunches of white lilies gave forth a heavy scent. A strange sense of intoxication rose to Michael's brain. When he returned to his sitting-room he found his bride-to-be arranging her hat at the old mirror which had reflected her before.
"Won't you take it off?" he suggested—"and see, I have got you some flowers——" and he brought her a great bunch of stephanotis which lay waiting upon a table near.
"There is no orange-blossom—because that is for real weddings—but won't you just put this bit of stephanotis in your hair?" and he broke off a few blooms.
She was delighted, she loved dressing up, and she fixed it most becomingly with dexterous fingers above her left ear.
"You do look sweet," he told her. "Now we must come——" and he gave her his arm. She took it with that grave look of a child acting in a very serious grown-up play. She was perfectly delicious with her blooming youth and freshness and dimples—her violet eyes shining like stars, and her red full lips pouting like appetizing ripe cherries. Michael trembled a little as he felt her small hand upon his arm.
They walked to the altar rails and the ceremony began.
But, with the first words of the old clergyman's voice, a new and unknown excitement came over Sabine. The night and the gorgeous chapel and the candles and the flowers all affected her deeply, just as the grand feast days used to do at the convent. A sudden realization of the mystery of things overcame her and frightened her, so that her voice was hardly audible as she repeated the clergyman's words.
What were these vows she was making before God? She dared not think—the whole thing was a maze, a dream. It was too late to run away—but it was terrible—she wanted to scream.
At last she felt her bridegroom place the ring upon her finger, now ice cold.
And then she was conscious that she was listening to these words:
"Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder."
After that she must have reeled a little, for she felt a strong arm encircle her waist for a moment.
Then she knew she was kneeling and that words of no meaning whatever were being buzzed over her head.
And lastly she was vividly awakened to burning consciousness by the first man's kiss which had ever touched her innocent lips.
So she was married—and this was her husband, this splendid, beautiful young man there beside her in his evening clothes—and it was over—and she was going away and would never see him again—and what had she done?—and would God be very angry?—since it was all really in a church!
Her hand trembled as she wrote her name, Sabine Delburg, for the last time, and she was shivering all over as she walked back with her newly-made husband to his sitting-room through the gloomy corridor. There it was all brilliant light again, the light of soft silk-shaded lamps—and the center table was cleared and supper for two and opened champagne awaited them. They were both very pale, and Sabine sat down in a chair.
"Mr. Fergusson will bring a copy of the certificate in a minute," Michael said to her, "and then we can have some supper—but now, come, we must drink each other's healths."
He poured out the wine into two glasses and handed her one. She had never tasted champagne before—but sipped it as she was bid. It did not seem to her a very nice drink—not to be compared to sirop aux fraises—but she knew at weddings people always had champagne.
Michael gulped down a bumper, and it steadied his nerves and the fresh, vigorously healthy color came back to his face. The whole situation had excited his every sense.
"Let me wish you all joy—Mrs.—Arranstoun!" he said.
The little bride laughed her rippling laugh. This brought her back to earth and the material, jolly side of things, it was so funny to hear herself thus called.
"Oh! that does sound odd!" she cried. "I shall never call myself that—why, people might know I must be something connected with this castle, and they would be questioning, and I couldn't have a scrap of fun! You have got another name—you said it just now, 'Michael Howard Arranstoun'—that will do. I shall be Mrs. Howard! It is quite ordinary—and shall I be a widow? I've never thought of all this yet. Oh! it will be fun."
Every second of the time her charm was further affecting Michael—he was not conscious of any definite intention—only to talk to her—to detain her as long as possible. She was like a breath of exquisite spring air after Violet Hatfield.
Mr. Fergusson here came in from the chapel with the certificate—and his presence seemed a great bore, and after thanking him for his services, Michael poured him out some wine to drink their healths, and then the butler announced that the brougham was waiting at the door to take the old gentleman home.
Sabine had stood up on his entrance and came forward to wish him good-bye; now that the certificate was there she intended to go herself by the balcony steps as soon as he should be safely off by the door.
"Good-bye, my dear young lady, I have known your husband since he was born, and with all his faults he is a splendid fellow; let me wish you every happiness and prosperity together and may you be blessed with many children and peace."
Sabine stiffened—she felt she ought to enlighten the benevolent old man, who evidently did not understand at all that she was going to trip off—not as he, just to her own home, but out of Mr. Arranstoun's life forever—but no suitable words would come, and Michael, afraid of what she might say, hurried his chaplain off without more ado and then returned to her and shut the door.
Now they were absolutely alone and the clock struck ten in the courtyard with measured strokes.
"Let us begin supper," he said, with what calmness he could.
"But I ought to go back at once," his bride protested; "the Inn may be shut and then what in the world should I do?"
"There is plenty of time, it certainly won't close its doors until eleven—have some soup—or a cold quail and some salad—and see, I have not forgotten the wedding-cake—you must cut that!"
Sabine was very hungry; she had had to pretend her head was aching too much to go with her elders to the ruins of Elbank and had retired to her room before they left, and had had no tea, and such dainties were not to be resisted, especially the cake! After all, it could not be any harm staying just this little while longer since no one would ever know, and people who got married always did cut their own cakes. So she sat down and began, he taking every care of her. They had the merriest supper, and even the champagne, more of which he gave her, did not taste so nasty after the first sip.
She had quail and salad and a wonderful ice—better than any, even on the day of the holiday for Moravia's wedding far away in Rome; and there were marrons glaces, too, and other divine bon-bons—and strawberries and cream!
She had never enjoyed herself so much in her whole life. Her perfectly innocent prattle enchanted Michael more and more with its touches of shrewd common sense. He drank a good deal of champagne, too—and finally, when it came to cutting the cake time, a wild thought began to enter his head.
The icing was rather hard, and he had to help her—and stood beside her, very near.
She looked up smilingly and saw something in his face. It caused her a sudden wild emotion of she knew not what—and then she felt very nervous and full of fear.
She moved abruptly away from him to the other side of the table, leaving the cake—and stood looking at him with great, troubled, violet eyes.
He followed her.
"You little, sweet darling!" he whispered, his voice very deep. "Why should you ever go away from me—I want to teach you to love me, Sabine. You belong to me, you know—you are mine. I shall not let you leave me! I shall keep you and hold you close!"
And he clasped her in his arms.
For he was a man, you see—and the moment had come!
FIVE YEARS AFTERWARDS
Mr. Elias Cloudwater came up the steps of the Savoy Hotel at Carlsbad, and called to the Arab who was waiting about:
"Has the Princess come in from her drive yet?"
He was informed that she had not, and he sat down in the verandah to wait. He was both an American gentleman and an American father, therefore he was accustomed to waiting for his women folk and did not fidget. He read the New York Herald, and when he had devoured the share list, he glanced at the society news and read that, among others who were expected at the Bohemian health resort that day, was Lord Fordyce, motoring, for a stay of three weeks for the cure.
He did not know this gentleman personally, and the fact would not have arrested his attention at all only that he chanced to be interested in English politics. He wondered vaguely if he would be an agreeable acquisition to the place, and then turned to more thrilling things. Presently a slender young woman came down the path through the woods and leisurely entered the gate. Mr. Cloudwater watched her, and a kindly smile lit his face. He thought how pretty she was, and how glad he was that she had joined Moravia and himself again this summer. The months when she went off by herself to her house in Brittany always seemed very long. He saw her coming from far enough to be able to take in every detail about her. Extreme slenderness and extreme grace were her distinctive marks. The face was childish and rounded in outline, but when you looked into the violet eyes there was some shadow of a story hidden there. She was about twenty-two years old, and was certainly not at Carlsbad for any reasons of cure, for her glowing complexion told a tale of radiant health.
Her white clothes were absolutely perfect in their simplicity, and so was her air of unconcern and indifference. "The enigma" her friends often called her. She seemed so frank and simple, and no one ever got beyond the wall of what she was really thinking—what did she do with her life? It seemed ridiculous that any one so rich and attractive and young should care to pass long periods of time at a wild spot near Finisterre, in an old chateau perched upon the rocks, completely alone but for an elderly female companion.
There was, of course, some hidden tragedy about her husband—who was a raging lunatic or an inebriate shut up somewhere—perhaps there! They had had to part at once—he had gone mad on the wedding journey, some believed, but others said this was not at all the case, and that she had married an Indian chief and then parted from him immediately in America—finding out the horror of being wedded to a savage. No one knew anything for a fact, only that when she did come into the civilized world, it was always with the Princess Torniloni and her father, who, if they knew the truth of Mrs. Howard's story, never gave it away. Men swarmed around her, but she appeared completely unconcerned and friendly with them all, and not even the most envious of the other Americans who were trying to climb into Princess Torniloni's exclusive society had ever been able to make up any scandals about her.
"I have had such an enchanting walk, Clowdy, dear," the slim young woman said as she sat down in a basket-chair near Mr. Cloudwater. "I am so glad we came here, aren't you?—and I am sure it will do Moravia no end of good. She passed me as I was coming from the Aberg on her way to Hans Heiling, so she will not be in yet. Let us have tea."
The Arab called the waiter, who brought it to them. One or two other little groups were having some, too, but Mr. Cloudwater's party were singularly ungregarious, and avoided making acquaintances in hotels. He and Mrs. Howard chatted alone together over theirs for about half an hour. Presently there was the noise of a motor arriving. It whirled into the gate and stopped where they usually do, a little at one side. It was very dusty and travel-stained, and beside the chauffeur there got out a tall, fair Englishman. The personnel of the hotel came forward to meet him with empressement, and as he passed where Mr. Cloudwater and Mrs. Howard were sitting, they heard him say:
"My servant brought the luggage by train this morning, so I suppose the rooms are ready."
"They are a wonderful race," Mr. Cloudwater remarked, "aren't they, Sabine. I never can understand why you should so persistently avoid them—they really have much more in common with ourselves than Latins."
"That is why perhaps—one likes contrasts—and French and Russians, or Germans, are far more intelligent. Every one to his taste!" and Mrs. Howard smiled.
The Englishman came out again in a few minutes, and sitting down lazily, as though he were alone upon the balcony terrace, he ordered some tea. Not the remotest scrap of interest in his surroundings or companions lit up his face. He might have been forty or forty-two, perhaps, but being so fair he looked a good deal younger, and had a peculiar distinction of his own.
"That is what I object to about them," Mrs. Howard remarked presently, "their abominable arrogance. Look at that man. It is just as though there was no one else on this balcony but himself—no one else exists for him!"
"Why, Sabine, you are severe! He looks to me to be a pretty considerably nice man—and he is only reading the paper as I have been doing myself," Mr. Cloudwater rejoined. "Perhaps he is the English nobleman who I read was expected to-day—Lord Fordyce, the paper said—and wasn't that the name of rather a prominent English politician who had to go into the Upper House last year when his father died—and it was considered he would be a loss to the Commons?"
"I really don't know. I don't take the slightest interest in them or their politics. Ah! here is Moravia——" and both rose to meet a very charming lady who drove up in a victoria and got out.
She had all the perfection of detail which characterizes the very best-dressed American woman—and she had every attraction except, perhaps, a voice—but even that she knew how to modulate and disguise, so that it was no wonder that the Princess Torniloni passed for one of the most beautiful women in Rome or Paris, or Cairo or New York, whenever she graced any of the cities with her presence. She was a widow, too, and very rich. The Prince, her husband, had been dead for nearly two years, and she was wearing grays and whites and mauves.
He had been a brute, too, but unlike her friend, Mrs. Howard's husband, he had had the good taste to be killed riding in a steeplechase, and so all went well, and the pretty Princess was free to wander the world over with her indulgent father.
"It is just too lovely for words up in those woods, papa," she said, "and I have had my tea in a dear little chalet restaurant. You did not wait for me, I hope?"
They assured her they had not done so, and she sat down in a comfortable chair. Her arrival caused a flutter among the other occupants of the terrace, and even the Englishman glanced up. This group had at last made some impression it would seem upon the retina of his eye, for he looked deliberately at them and realized that the two women were quite worthy of his scrutiny.
"But I hate Americans," he said to himself. "They are such actresses, you never know where you are with them—these two, though, appear some of the best."
Presently they went into the hotel, passing him very closely—and for a second his eyes met the violet ones of Sabine Howard, and he was conscious that he felt distinctly interested, much to his disgust.
But, after all, he was here for a cure and a rest, and he had always believed in women as recreations.
His solitary table was near theirs in the restaurant, and later he wrote to his friend, Michael Arranstoun, loitering at Ostende:
The hotel is quite decent—and after your long sojourn in the wilds, you will have an overdose of polo and expensive ladies and baccarat. You had much better join me here at the end of the week. There are two pretty women who would be quite your affair. They have the next table, and neither of them can be taking the cure.
But Mr. Arranstoun, when he received this missive, had other things to do. He had been out of England, and indeed Europe, for nearly five years—having, in the summer of 1907, joined a friend to explore the innermost borders of China and Tibet, and there the passion for this kind of thing had overtaken him, and his own home knew him no more.
Now, however, he had announced that he had returned for good, and intended to spend the rest of his days at Arranstoun as a model landlord.
He started this by playing polo at Ostende, where he had run across Henry Fordyce. They had cordially grasped each other's hands, their estrangement forgotten when face to face; and the only mention there had been of the circumstances which had caused their parting were in a few sentences.
"By Jove, Henry, it is five whole years since you thundered morals at me and shook the dust of Arranstoun from your feet!"
"You did behave abominably, Michael—but I am awfully glad to see you—and the scene at Ebbsworth, when Violet Hatfield read the notice in the Scotsman of your marriage, made me feel you had been almost justified in taking any course you could to make yourself safe. But how about your wife? Have you ever seen her again?"
"No. My lawyer tells me I can divorce her now for desertion. I should have to make some pretence of asking her to return to me, he says, which of course she would refuse to do—and then both can be free, but, for my part, I am not hankering after freedom much—I do very well as I am—and I always cherish a rather tender recollection of her."
"I have often pictured that wedding," he said, "and the little bride going off with her certificate and your name all alone. No family turned up awkwardly at the last moment to mar things; she left safely after the ceremony, eh?"
Michael looked away suddenly, and then answered with overdone unconcern:
"Yes—soon after the ceremony."
"I do wonder you had no curiosity to investigate her character further!"
"I had—but she did not appreciate my interest—and—after she had gone—I was rather in a bad temper, and I reasoned myself into believing she was probably right—also just then I wanted to join Latimer Berkeley's expedition to China. I remember, his letter about it came by the next morning's post—so I went—but do you know, Henry, I believe that little girl made some lasting impression upon me. I believe, if she had stayed, I should have been frantically in love with her—but she went, so there it is!"
"Why don't you try to find her?" Henry asked.
"Perhaps I mean to some day. I have thought of doing so often, but first China, and then one thing and another have stopped me—besides, she may have fancied some other fellow by this time—the whole thing was one of those colossal mistakes. If we could only have met ordinarily—and not married in a hurry and then parted—like that."
"Has it never struck you she was rather young to be left to drift by herself?"
"Yes, often—" Then Michael grew a little constrained. "I believe I behaved like the most impossible brute, Henry—in marrying her at all as you said—but I would like to make it up to her some day—and I suppose if, by chance, she has taken a fancy to someone else by this time and wants to be free of me, I ought to divorce her—but, by Heaven, I believe I should hate that!"
"You dog in the manger!"
"Yes, I am——"
And so the subject had ended.
And now Henry, third Lord Fordyce, was taking a mild cure at Carlsbad, and had decided that in his leisure moments he would begin to write a book—a project which had long simmered in his brain; but after two days of sitting by the American party at each meal, a very strong desire to converse with them—especially the one with the strange violet eyes—overcame him; and with deliberate intention he scraped acquaintance with Mr. Cloudwater in the exercise room of the Kaiserbad, who, with polite ceremony, presented him that evening to his daughter and her friend.
Sabine had been particularly silent and irritating, Moravia thought, and as they went up to bed she scolded her about it.
"He is a perfect darling, Sabine," she declared, "and will do splendidly to take walks with us and make the fourth. He is so lazy and English and phlegmatic—I'd like to make him crazy with love—but he looked at you, you little witch, not at me at all."
"You are welcome to him, Morri—I don't care for Englishmen. Good-night, pet," and Mrs. Howard kissed her friend, and going in to her room, she shut the door.
More than a week went by, and it seemed quite natural now to Lord Fordyce to shape his days according to the plans of the American party, and when they met at the Schlossbrunn in the morning at half-past seven, and he and Mr. Cloudwater and the Princess had drunk their tumblers of water together, their custom was to go on down to the town and there find Sabine, who had bought their slices of ham and their rolls, and awaited them at the end of the Alte Weise with the pink paper bags, and then the four proceeded to walk to the Kaiser Park to breakfast.