THE MOVING FINGER
E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM
AUTHOR OF "THE LOST AMBASSADOR," "THE ILLUSTRIOUS PRINCE," "JEANNE OF THE MARSHES," ETC.
With Illustrations by J. V. McFALL
BOSTON LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY 1911
Copyright, 1910, 1911, BY LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY.
All rights reserved.
Published, May, 1911.
Printed by THE COLONIAL PRESS C. H. Simonds & Co., Boston, U. S. A.
"The Moving Finger writes; and having writ, Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it."
PROLOGUE—THE DREAMER 1 I. A LETTER PROVES USEFUL 11 II. OLD ACQUAINTANCES 17 III. "WHO IS MR. SATON?" 23 IV. A QUESTION OF OBLIGATION 32 V. A MORNING WALK 46 VI. PAULINE MARRABEL 54 VII. AN UNWELCOME VISITOR 61 VIII. AN INSTANCE OF OCCULTISM 67 IX. A SENTIMENTAL TALK 74 X. THE SCENE CHANGES 80 XI. A BUSY EVENING 86 XII. A CALL ON LADY MARRABEL 97 XIII. LADY MARY'S DILEMMA 105 XIV. PETTY WORRIES 114 XV. ROCHESTER IS INDIGNANT 124 XVI. PLAIN SPEAKING 133 XVII. THE GREAT NAUDHEIM 141 XVIII. ROCHESTER'S ULTIMATUM 150 XIX. TROUBLE BREWING 158 XX. FIRST BLOOD 165 XXI. AFRAID! 172 XXII. SATON REASSERTS HIMSELF 178 XXIII. AN UNPLEASANT ENCOUNTER 186 XXIV. LOIS IS OBEDIENT 194 XXV. A LAST WARNING 202 XXVI. THE DUCHESS'S DINNER PARTY 209 XXVII. THE ANSWER TO A RIDDLE 215 XXVIII. SPOKEN FROM THE HEART 224 XXIX. THE COURAGE OF DESPERATION 232 XXX. A SURPRISING REQUEST 239 XXXI. BETWEEN LOVE AND DUTY 248 XXXII. AT THE EDGE OF THE PRECIPICE 255 XXXIII. "YOU DO NOT BELIEVE IN ME!" 261 XXXIV. A WOMAN'S TONGUE 269 XXXV. ON LOIS' BIRTHDAY 278 XXXVI. THE CHARLATAN UNMASKED 284 EPILOGUE—THE MAN 294
"Sit still," he whispered. "Don't say anything. There is someone coming" Frontispiece
He came to a standstill by the side of the boy Page 2
"Some water quick, and brandy," Rochester cried " 73
She swayed for a moment, and fell over on her side " 222
THE MOVING FINGER
The boy sat with his back to a rock, his knees drawn up and clasped within fingers nervously interlocked. His eyes were fixed upon the great stretch of landscape below, shadowy now, and indistinct, like a rolling plain of patchwork woven by mysterious fingers. Gray mists were floating over the meadows and low-lying lands. Away in the distance they marked the circuitous course of the river, which only an hour ago had shone like a belt of silver in the light of the setting sun. Twilight had fallen with unexpected swiftness. Here and there a light flashed from the isolated farmhouses. On the darkening horizon, a warm glow was reflected in the clouds from the distant town.
The boy, when he had settled down to his vigil, had been alone. From over the brow of the hill, however, had come a few minutes ago a man, dressed in loose shooting clothes, and with a gun under his arm. He came to a standstill by the side of the boy, and stood there watching him for several moments, with a certain faintly amused curiosity shining out of his somewhat supercilious gray eyes. The newcomer was obviously a person of breeding and culture—the sort of person who assumes without question the title of "Gentleman." The boy wore ready-made clothes and hobnailed boots. They remained within a few feet of one another for several moments, without speech.
"My young friend," the newcomer said at last, "you will be late for your tea, or whatever name is given to your evening meal. Did you not hear the bell? It rang nearly half-an-hour ago."
The boy moved his head slightly, but made no attempt to rise.
"It does not matter. I am not hungry."
The newcomer leaned his gun against the rock, and drawing a pipe from the pocket of his shooting-coat, commenced leisurely to fill it. Every now and then he glanced at the boy, who seemed once more to have become unconscious of his presence. He struck a match and lit the tobacco, stooping down for a moment to escape the slight evening breeze. Then he threw the match away, and lounged against the lichen-covered fragment of stone.
"I wonder," he remarked, "why, when you have the whole day in which to come and look at this magnificent view, you should choose to come just at the hour when it has practically been swallowed up."
The boy lifted his head for the first time. His face was a little long, his features irregular but not displeasing, his deep-set eyes seemed unnaturally bright. His cheeks were sunken, his forehead unusually prominent. The whole effect of his personality was a little curious. If he had no claims to be considered good-looking, his face was at least a striking one.
"I come at this hour," he said slowly, "because the view does not attract me so much at any other time. It is only when the twilight falls that one can see—properly."
The newcomer took his pipe from his mouth.
"You must have marvelous eyesight, my young friend," he remarked. "To me everything seems blurred and uncertain."
"You don't understand!" said the boy impatiently. "I do not come here to see the things that anyone can see at any hour of the day. There is nothing satisfying in that. I come here to look down and see the things which do not really exist. It is easy enough when one is alone," he added, a little pointedly.
The newcomer laughed softly—there was more banter than humor in his mirth.
"So my company displeases you," he remarked. "Do you know that I have the right to tell you to get up, and never to pass through that gate again?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders.
"One place is as good as another," he said.
The man smoked in silence for several moments. Then he withdrew the pipe from his teeth and sighed gently.
"These are indeed democratic days," he said. "You do not know, my young friend, that I am Henry Prestgate Rochester, Esquire, if you please, High Sheriff of this county, Magistrate and Member of Parliament, owner, by the bye, of that rock against which you are leaning, and of most of that country below, which you can or cannot see."
"Really!" the boy answered slowly. "My name is Bertrand Saton, and I am staying at the Convalescent Home down there, a luxury which is costing me exactly eight shillings a week."
"So I concluded," his companion remarked. "May I ask what your occupation is, when in health?"
"It's of no consequence," the boy answered, a little impatiently. "Perhaps I haven't one at all. Whatever it is, as you may imagine, it has not brought me any great success. If you wish me to go——"
"Not at all," Rochester interrupted, with a little protesting gesture.
"I do not wish to remain here on sufferance," the boy continued. "I understood that we were allowed to spend our time upon the hills here."
"That is quite true, I believe," Rochester admitted. "My bailiff sees to those things, and if it amuses you to sit here all night, you are perfectly welcome."
"I shall probably do so."
Rochester watched him curiously for a few seconds.
"Look here," he said, "I will make a bargain with you. You shall have the free run of all my lands for as long as you like, and in return you shall just answer me one question."
The boy turned his head slightly.
"The question?" he asked.
"You shall tell me the things which you see down there," Rochester declared, holding his hand straight out in front of him, pointing downward toward the half-hidden panorama.
The boy shook his head.
"For other people they would not count," he said. "They are for myself only. What I see would be invisible to you."
"A matter of eyesight?" Rochester asked, with raised eyebrows.
"Of imagination," the boy answered. "There is no necessity for you to look outside your own immediate surroundings to see beautiful things, unless you choose deliberately to make your life an ugly thing. With us it is different—with us who work for a living, who dwell in the cities, and who have no power to push back the wheels of life. If we are presumptuous enough to wish to take into our lives anything of the beautiful, anything to help us fight our daily battle against the commonplace, we have to create it for ourselves. That is why I am here just now, and why I was regretting, when I heard your footstep, that one finds it so hard to be alone."
"So I am to be ordered off?" Rochester remarked, smiling.
The boy did not answer. The man did not move. The minutes went by, and the silence remained unbroken. Below, the twilight seemed to be passing into night with unusual rapidity. It was a shapeless world now, a world of black and gray. More lights flashed out every few seconds.
It was the boy who broke the silence at last. He seemed, in some awkward way, to be trying to atone for his former unsociability.
"This is my last night at the Convalescent Home," he said, a little abruptly. "I am cured. To-morrow I am going back to my work in Mechester. For many days I shall see nothing except actual things. I shall know nothing of life except its dreary and material side. That is why I came here with the twilight. That is why I am going to sit here till the night comes—perhaps, even, I shall wait until the dawn. I want one last long rest. I want to carry away with me some absolute impression of life as I would have it. Down there," he added, moving his head slowly, "down there I can see the things I want—the things which, if I could, I would take into my life. I am going to look at them, and think of them, and long for them, until they seem real. I am going to create a concrete memory, and take it away with me."
Rochester looked more than a little puzzled. The boy's speech seemed in no way in keeping with his attire, and the fact of his presence in a charitable home.
"Might one inquire once more," he asked, "what your occupation in Mechester is?"
"It is of no consequence," the boy answered shortly. "It is an occupation that does not count. It does not make for anything in life. One must do something to earn one's daily bread."
"You find my questioning rather a nuisance, I am afraid," Rochester remarked, politely.
"I will not deny it," the boy answered. "I will admit that I wish to be alone. I am hoping that very soon you will be going."
"On the contrary," Rochester replied, smiling, "I am much too interested in your amiable conversation. You see," he added, knocking the ashes from his pipe, and leaning carelessly back against the rock, "I live in a world, every member of which is more or less satisfied. I will be frank with you, and I will admit that I find satisfaction in either man or woman a most reprehensible state. I find a certain relief, therefore, in talking to a person who wants something he hasn't got, or who wants to be something that he isn't."
"Then you can find all the satisfaction you want in talking to me," the boy declared, gloomily. "I am at the opposite pole of life, you see, to those friends of yours. I want everything I haven't got. I am content with nothing that I have."
"For instance?" Rochester asked, suggestively.
"I want freedom from the life of a slave," the boy said. "I want money, the money that gives power. I want the right to shape my own life in my own way, and to my own ends, instead of being forced to remain a miserable, ineffective part of a useless scheme of existence."
"Your desires are perfectly reasonable," Rochester remarked, calmly. "Imagine, if you please—you seem to have plenty of imaginative force—that I am a fairy godfather. I may not look the part, but at least I can live up to it. I will provide the key for your escape. I will set you down in the world you are thirsting to enter. You shall take your place with the others, and run your race."
The boy suddenly abandoned his huddled-up position, and rose to his feet. Against the background of empty air, and in the gathering darkness, he seemed thinner than ever, and smaller.
"I am going," he said shortly. "It may seem amusing to you to make fun of me. I will not stay——"
"Don't be a fool!" Rochester interrupted. "Haven't you heard that I am more than half a madman? I am going to justify my character for eccentricity. You see my house down there—Beauleys, they call it? At twelve o'clock to-morrow, if you come to me, I will give you a sum of money sufficient to keep you for several years. I do not specify the amount at this moment, I shall think it over before you come."
The boy had no words. He simply stared at his chance companion in blank astonishment.
"My offer seems to surprise you," Rochester remarked, pleasantly. "It need not. You can go and tell the whole world of it, if you like, although, as a reputation for sanity is quite a valuable asset, nowadays, I should suggest that you keep your mouth closed. Still, if you do speak of it, no one will be in the least surprised. My friends—I haven't many—call me the most eccentric man in Christendom. My enemies wonder how it is that I keep out of the asylum. Personally, I consider myself a perfectly reasonable mortal. I have whims, and I am not afraid to indulge them. I give you this money on one—or perhaps we had better say two conditions. The first is that you make a bona fide use of it. When I say that, I mean that you leave immediately your present employment, whatever it may be, and go out into the world with the steadfast purpose of finding for yourself the things which you saw a few minutes ago down in the valley there. You may not find them, but still I pledge you to the search. The second condition is that some day or other you find your way back into this part of the country, and tell me how my experiment has fared."
The boy realized with a little gasp.
"Am I to thank you?" he asked.
"It would be usual but foolish," Rochester answered. "I need no thanks, I deserve none. I yield to a whim, nothing else. I do this thing for my own pleasure. The sum of money which I propose to put into your hands will probably represent to me what a five-shilling piece might to you. This may sound vulgar, but it is true. I think that I need not warn you never to come to me for more. You need not look so horrified. I am quite sure that you would not do that. And there is one thing further."
"Yes?" the boy asked. "Another condition?"
Rochester shook his head.
"No!" he said. "It is not a condition. It is just a little advice. The way through life hasn't been made clear for everyone. You may find yourself brought up in the thorny paths. Take my advice. Don't be content with anything less than success. If you fail, strip off your clothes, and swim out to sea on a sunny day, swim out until your strength fails and you must sink. It is the pleasantest form of oblivion I know of. Don't live on. You are only a nuisance to yourself, and a bad influence to the rest of the world. Succeed, or make your little bow, my young friend. It is the best advice I can give you. Remember that the men who have failed, and who live on, are creatures of the gutter."
"You are right!" the boy muttered. "I have read that somewhere, and it comes home to me. Failure is the one unforgivable sin. If I have to commit every other crime in the decalogue, I will at least avoid that one!"
Rochester shouldered his gun, and prepared to stroll off.
"At twelve o'clock to-morrow, then," he said. "I wouldn't hurry away now, if I were you. Sit down in your old place, and see if there isn't a thread of gold down there in the valley."
The boy obeyed almost mechanically. His heart was beating fast. His back was pressed against the cold rock. The fingers of both hands were nervously buried in the soft turf. Once more his eyes were riveted upon this land of shifting shadows. The whole panorama of life seemed suddenly unveiled before his eyes. More real, more brilliant now were the things upon which he looked. The thread of gold was indeed there!
A LETTER PROVES USEFUL
Bertrand Saton leaned against the stone coping of the bridge, and looked downwards, as though watching the seagulls circling round and round, waiting for their usual feast of scraps. The gulls, however, were only his excuse. He stood there, looking hard at the gray, muddy water beneath, trying to make up his mind to this final and inevitable act of despair. He had walked the last hundred yards almost eagerly. He had told himself that he was absolutely and entirely prepared for death. Yet the first sight of that gray, cold-looking river, had chilled him. He felt a new and unaccountable reluctance to quit the world which certainly seemed to have made up its mind that it had no need of him. His thoughts rushed backwards. "Swim out to sea on a sunny day," he repeated to himself slowly. Yes, but this! It was a different thing, this! The longer he looked below, the more he shrank from such a death!
He stood upright with a little shiver, and began—it was not for the first time that day—a searching investigation into the contents of his pocket. The result was uninspiring. There was not an article there which would have fetched the price of a dose of poison. Then his fingers strayed into a breast-pocket which he seldom used, and brought out a letter, unopened, all grimy, and showing signs of having been there for some considerable time. He held it between his fingers, doubtful at first from where it had come. Then suddenly he remembered. He remembered the runaway horses in the Bois, and the strange-looking old woman who had sat in the carriage with grim, drawn lips and pallid face. He remembered the dash into the roadway, the brief, maddening race by the side of the horses, his clutch at the reins, the sense of being dragged along the dusty road. It was, perhaps, the one physically courageous action of his life. The horses were stopped, and the woman's life was saved. He looked at the letter in his hand.
"Why not?" he asked himself softly.
He hesitated, and glanced downward once more toward the river. The sight seemed to decide him. He turned his weary footsteps again westward.
Walking with visible effort, and resting whenever he had a chance, he reached at last the Oxford Street end of Bond Street. Holding the letter in his hand, he made his way, slowly and more painfully than ever, down the right-hand side. People stared at him a little curiously. He was a strange figure, passing through the crowds of well-dressed, sauntering men and women. He was unnaturally thin—the pallor of his cheeks and the gleam in his eyes spoke of starvation. His clothes had been well-cut, but they were almost in rags. His cap had cost him a few pence at a second-hand store.
He made his way toward his destination, looking neither to the right nor to the left. The days had gone when he found it interesting to study the faces of the passers-by, looking out always for adventures, amusing himself with shrewd speculations as to the character and occupation of those who seemed worthy of notice. This was his last quest now—the quest of life or death.
He stopped in front of a certain number, and comparing it with the tattered envelope which he held in his hand, finally entered. The lift-boy, who was lounging in the little hall, looked at him in surprise.
"I want to find Madame Helga," the young man said shortly. "This is number 38, isn't it?"
The boy looked at him doubtfully, and led the way to the lift.
"Third floor," he said. "I'll take you up."
The lift stopped, and Bertrand Saton found in front of him a door upon which was a small brass plate, engraved simply with the name of Helga. He knocked twice, and received no answer. Then, turning the handle, he entered, and stood looking about him with some curiosity.
It was a small room, luxuriously but sombrely furnished. Heavy curtains were drawn more than half-way across the windows, and the room was so dark that at first he was not sure whether it was indeed empty. On a small black oak table in the middle of the rich green carpet, stood a crystal ball. There was nothing else unusual about the apartment, except the absence of any pictures upon the walls, and a faint aromatic odor, as though somewhere dried weeds were being burned.
Some curtains opposite him were suddenly thrust aside. A woman stood there looking at him. She was of middle height, fair, with a complexion which even in that indistinct light he could see owed little of its smoothness to nature. She wore a loose gown which seemed to hang from her shoulders, of some soft green material, drawn around her waist with a girdle. Her eyes were deep-set and penetrating.
"You wish to see me?" she asked.
He held out the note.
"If you are Madame Helga," he answered.
She came a little further into the room, looking at him with a slight frown contracting her pencilled eyebrows. He had no appearance of being a client.
"You have brought a letter, then?" she asked.
"My name is Bertrand Saton," he explained. "This letter was given to me in Paris more than a year ago, by an elderly lady. I have carried it with me all that time. At first it did not seem likely that I should ever need to use it. Unfortunately," he added, a little bitterly, "things have changed."
She took the letter, and tore open the envelope. Its contents consisted only of a few lines, which she read with some appearance of surprise. Then she turned once more to the young man.
"You are the Mr. Bertrand Saton of whom the writer of this letter speaks?" she asked.
"I am," he answered.
She looked him over from head to foot. There was scarcely an inch of his person which did not speak of poverty and starvation.
"You have had trouble," she remarked.
"I have," he admitted.
"The lady who wrote that letter," she said, "is at present in Spain."
He turned to go.
"I am not surprised," he answered. "My star is not exactly in the ascendant just now."
"Don't be too sure," she said. "And whatever you do, don't go away. Sit down if you are tired. You don't seem strong."
"I am not," he admitted. "Would you like," he added, "to know what is the matter with me?"
"It is nothing serious, I hope?"
"I am starving," he declared, simply. "I have eaten nothing for twenty-four hours."
She looked at him for a moment as though doubting his words. Then she moved rapidly to a desk which stood in a corner of the room.
"You are a very foolish person," she said, "to allow yourself to get into such a state, when all the time you had this letter in your pocket. But I forgot," she added, unlocking the desk. "You had not read it. You had better have some money to buy yourself food and clothes, and come here again."
"Food and clothes!" he repeated, vaguely. "I do not understand."
She touched the letter with her forefinger.
"You have a very powerful friend here," she said. "I am told to give you whatever you may be in need of, and to telegraph to her, in whatever part of the world she may be, if ever you should present this letter."
Saton began to laugh softly.
"It is the turn of the wheel," he said. "I am too weak to hear any more. Give me some money, and I will come back. I must eat or I shall faint."
She gave him some notes, and watched him curiously as he staggered out of the room. He forgot the lift, and descended by the stairs, unsteadily, like a drunken person, reeling from the banisters to the wall, and back again. Out in the street, people looked at him curiously as he turned northward toward Oxford Street. His eyes searched the shop-windows. He hurried along like a man feverishly anxious to make use of his last stint of strength. He was in search of food!
Rochester was walking slowly along the country lane which led from the main road to Beauleys, when the hoot of a motor overtaking him caused him to slacken his pace and draw in close to the hedge-side. The great car swung by, with a covered top upon which was luggage, a chauffeur, immaculate in dark green livery, and inside, two people. Rochester caught a glimpse of them as they passed by—the woman, heavily muffled up notwithstanding the warm afternoon, old and withered; the man, young, with dark, sallow complexion, and thoughtful eyes. They were gone like a flash. Yet Rochester stood for a moment in the road looking after them, before he turned into a field to escape the cloud of dust. The man's face was peculiar, and strangely enough it was familiar. He racked his brains in vain for some clue to its identity—searched every corner of his memory without success. Finally, with a little shrug of his shoulders, he dismissed the subject.
He was soon to be reminded of it, though, for when he reached home, he was told at once that a gentleman was waiting to see him in the study. Then Rochester, with a little gasp of surprise, recalled that likeness which had puzzled him so much. He knew who his visitor was! He walked toward the study, filled with a curious—perhaps, even, an ominous sense of excitement!...
They were face to face in a few seconds. The man was unchanged. The boy alone was altered. Rochester's hair was a little grayer, perhaps, but his face was still smooth. His out-of-door life and that wonderful mouth of his, with its half humorous, half cynical curve, still kept his face young. To the boy had come a change much more marked and evident. He was a boy no longer—not even a youth. He carried himself with the assured bearing of a man of the world. His thick black hair was carefully parted. His clothes bore the stamp of Saville Row. His face was puzzling. His eyes were still the eyes of a dreamer, the eyes of a man who is content to be rather than to do. Yet the rest of his face seemed somehow to have suffered. His cheeks had filled out. His mouth and expression were no longer easy to read. There were things in his face which would have puzzled a physiognomist.
Rochester had entered the library and closed the door behind him. He nodded toward the man who rose slowly to greet him, but ignored his outstretched hand.
"I am sure that I cannot be mistaken," he said. "It is my young friend of the hillside."
"It is he," Saton answered. "I scarcely expected to be remembered."
"One sees so few fresh faces," Rochester murmured. "You have kept the condition, then? I must confess that I am glad to see you. I shall hope that you will have a great deal that is interesting to tell me. At any rate, it is a good sign that you have kept the condition."
"I have kept the condition," Saton answered. "I was never likely to break it. I have wandered up and down the world a good deal during the past five years, and I have met many strange sorts of people, but I have never yet met with philanthropy on such a unique scale as yours."
"Not philanthropy, my young friend," Rochester murmured. "I had but one motive in making you that little gift—curiosity pure and simple."
"Forgive me," Saton remarked. "We will call it a loan, if you do not mind. I am not going to offer you any interest. The five hundred pounds are here."
He handed a little packet across to Rochester, who slipped it carelessly into his pocket.
"This is romance indeed!" he declared, with something of the old banter in his tone. "You are worse than the industrious apprentice. Have I, by chance, the pleasure of speaking to one of the world's masters—a millionaire?"
The young man laughed. His laugh, at any rate, was not unpleasant.
"No!" he said. "I don't suppose that I am even wealthy, as the world reckons wealth. I have succeeded to a certain extent, although I came very, very near to disaster. I have made a little money, and I can make more when it is necessary."
"Your commercial instincts," Rochester remarked, "have not been thoroughly aroused, then?"
The young man smiled.
"Do I need to tell you," he asked, "that great wealth was not among the things I saw that night?"
"That was a marvelous motor-car in which you passed me," remarked the other.
"It belongs to the lady," Saton said, "who brought me down from London."
"It will be interesting to me," he remarked, "later on, to hear something of your adventures. To judge by your appearance, and your repayment of that small amount of money, you have prospered."
"One hates the word," Saton murmured, with a sudden frown upon his forehead. "I suppose I must admit that I have been fortunate to some extent. I am able to repay my debt to you."
"That," Rochester interrupted, "is a trifle. It was not worth considering. In fact I am rather disappointed that you have paid me back."
"I was forced to do it," Saton answered. "One cannot accept alms."
Rochester eyed his visitor a little thoughtfully.
"A platitude merely," he said. "One accepts alms every day, every moment of the day. One goes about the world giving and receiving. It is a small point of view which reckons gold as the only means of exchange."
The young man bowed.
"I am corrected," he said. "Yet you must admit that there is something different in the obligation which is created by money."
"Mine, I fear," Rochester answered, "is not an analytic mind. A blunt regard to truth has always been one of my characteristics. Therefore, at the risk of indelicacy, I am going on to ask you a question. I found you on the hillside, a discontented, miserable youth, and I did for you something which very few sane people would have been inclined even to consider. Years afterwards—it must be nearly seven, isn't it?—you return me my money, and we exchange a few polite platitudes. I notice—or is it that I only seem to notice—on your part an entire lack of gratitude for that eccentric action of mine. The discontented boy has become, presumably, a prosperous citizen of the world. The two are so far apart, perhaps——"
Saton threw out his hands. For the first time, there flashed into his face something of the boy, some trace of that more primitive, more passionate hold upon life. He abandoned his measured tones, his calm, almost studied bearing.
"Gratitude!" he interrupted. "I am not sure that I feel any! In those days I had at least dreams. I am not sure that it was not a devilish experiment of yours to send me out to grope my way amongst the mirages. You were a man of the world then. You knew and understood. You knew how bitter a thing life is, how for one who climbs, a thousand must fall. I am not sure," he repeated, with a little catch in his throat, "that I feel any gratitude."
Rochester nodded thoughtfully. He was not in the least annoyed.
"You interest me," he murmured. "From what you say, I gather that your material prosperity has been somewhat dearly bought."
"There isn't much to be wrung from life," Saton answered bitterly, "that one doesn't pay for."
"A little later on," Rochester said, "it will give me very much pleasure to hear something of your adventures. At present, I fear that I must deny myself that pleasure. My wife has done me the honor to make me one of her somewhat rare visits, and my house is consequently full of guests."
"I will not intrude," the young man answered, rising. "I shall stay in the village for a few days. We may perhaps meet again."
Rochester hesitated for a moment. Then the corners of his mouth twitched. There was humor in this situation, after all, and in the thing which he proposed to himself.
"You must not hurry way," he said. "Come and be introduced to some of my friends."
If Rochester expected any hesitation on the part of his visitor, he was disappointed. The young man seemed to accept the suggestion as the most natural in the world.
"I shall be very glad," he said calmly. "I shall be interested, too, to meet your wife. At the time when I had the pleasure of seeing you before, you were, I believe, unmarried."
Rochester opened the door, and led the way out into the hall without a word.
"WHO IS MR. SATON?"
"Really, Henry," Lady Mary Rochester said to her husband, a few minutes before the dinner-gong sounded, "for once you have been positively useful. A new young man is such a godsend, and Charlie Peyton threw us over most abominably. So mean of him, too, after the number of times I had him to dine in Grosvenor Square."
"He's gone to Ostend, I suppose."
Lady Mary nodded.
"So foolish!" she declared. "He hasn't a shilling in the world, and he never wins anything. He might just as well have come down here and made himself agreeable to Lois."
"Matchmaking again?" Rochester asked.
She shook her head.
"What nonsense! Charlie is one of my favorite young men. I am not at all sure that I could spare him, even to Lois. But the poor boy must marry someone! I don't see how else he is to live. By the bye, who is your protege?"
Rochester, who was lounging in a low chair in his wife's dressing-room, looked thoughtfully at the tip of his patent shoe.
"I haven't the faintest idea," he declared.
His wife frowned, a little impatiently.
"You are so extreme," she protested. "Of course you know something about him. What am I to tell people? They will be sure to ask."
"Make them all happy," Rochester suggested. "Tell Lady Blanche that he is a millionaire from New York, and Lois that he is the latest thing in Spring poets. They probably won't compare notes until to-morrow, so it really doesn't matter."
"I wish you could be serious for five minutes," Lady Mary said. "You really are a trial, Henry. You seem to see everything from some quaint point of view of your own, and to forget all the time that there are a few other people in the world whose eyesight is not so distorted. Sometimes I can't help realizing how fortunate it is that we see so little of one another."
"I can scarcely be expected to agree with you," Rochester answered, with an ironical bow. "I must try and mend my ways, however. To return to the actual subject under discussion, then, I can really tell you very little about this young man."
"You can tell me where he comes from, at any rate," Lady Mary remarked.
Rochester shook his head.
"He comes from the land of mysteries," he declared. "I really am ashamed to be so disappointing, but I only met him once before in my life."
Lady Mary sighed gently.
"It is almost a relief," she said, "to hear you admit that you have seen him before at all. Please tell me where it was that you met," she added, studying the effect of a tiara upon her splendidly coiffured hair.
"I met him," Rochester answered, "sitting with his back to a rock on the top of one of my hills."
"What, you mean here at Beauleys?" Lady Mary asked.
"On Beacon Hill," her husband assented. "It was seven years ago, and as you can gather from his present appearance, he was little more than a boy. He sat there in the twilight, seeing things down in the valley which did not and never had existed—seeing things that never were born, you know—things for which you stretch out your arms, only to find them float away. He was quite young, of course."
Lady Mary turned around.
"Henry!" she exclaimed.
"You are absolutely the most irritating person I ever attempted to live with!"
"And I have tried so hard to make myself agreeable," he sighed.
"You are one of those uncomfortable people," she declared, "who loathe what they call the obvious, and adore riddles. You would commit any sort of mental gymnastic rather than answer a plain question in a straightforward manner."
"It is perfectly true," he admitted. "You have such insight, my dear Mary."
"I am to take it, then," she continued, "that you know absolutely nothing about your protege? You know nothing, for instance, about his family, or his means?"
"Absolutely nothing," he admitted. "He has an uncommon name, but I believe that I gathered from him once that his parentage was not particularly exalted."
"At least," she said, with a little sigh, "he is quite presentable. I call him, in fact, remarkably good-looking, and his manners leave nothing to be desired. He has lived abroad, I should think."
"He may have lived anywhere," Rochester admitted.
"Well, I'll have him next me at dinner," she declared. "I daresay I shall find out all about him pretty soon. Come, Henry, I am quite sure that everyone is down. You and I play host and hostess so seldom that we have forgotten our manners."
They descended to the drawing-room, and Lady Mary murmured her apologies. Everyone, however, seemed too absorbed to hear them. They were listening to Saton, who was standing, the centre of a little group, telling stories.
"It was in Buenos Ayres," Rochester heard him conclude, amidst a ripple of laughter. "I can assure you that I saw the incident with my own eyes."
Lois Champneyes—an heiress, pretty, and Rochester's ward—came floating across the room to them. She wore a plain muslin gown, of simpler cut than was usually seen at Lady Mary's house-parties, and her complexion showed no signs whatever of town life. Her hair—it was bright chestnut color, merging in places to golden—was twisted simply in one large coil on the top of her head. She wore no jewelry, and she had very much the appearance of a child just escaped from the schoolroom.
"Mary," she exclaimed, drawing her hostess on one side, "you must send me in with Mr. Saton! He is perfectly charming, and isn't it a lovely name? Do tell me who he is, and whether I may fall in love with him."
Lady Mary nodded.
"My dear child," she said, "I shall do nothing of the sort. You are not nearly old enough to take care of yourself, and we know nothing about this young man at all. Besides, I want him for myself."
"You are the most selfish hostess I ever stayed with," Lois declared, turning away with a little pout. "Never mind! I'll make him talk to me after dinner."
"Is your friend in the diplomatic service?" Lord Penarvon asked Rochester. "He is a most amusing fellow."
"Not at present, at any rate," Rochester answered. "I really forget what he used to do when I met him first. As a matter of fact, I have seen very little of him lately."
A servant announced dinner, and they all trooped across the hall a little informally. It was only a small party, and Lady Mary was a hostess whose ideas were distinctly modern. Conversation at first was nearly altogether general. Saton, without in any way asserting himself, bore at least his part in it. He spoke modestly enough, and yet everything he said seemed to tell. From the first, the dinner was a success.
Rochester found himself listening with a curiosity for which he could not wholly account, to this young man, seated only a few feet away. His presence was so decidedly piquant. It appealed immensely to his sense of humor. Saton's appearance was in every respect irreproachable. His tie was perfectly tied, his collar of the latest shape. His general appearance was that of an exceedingly smart young man about town. The only sign of eccentricity which he displayed was an unobtrusive eyeglass, suspended from his neck by a narrow black ribbon, and which he had only used to study the menu.
Rochester looked at him across the white tablecloth, with its glittering load of silver and glass, its perfumed banks of pink blossoms, and told himself that one at least of his somewhat eccentric experiments had borne strange fruit. He thought of that night upon the hillside, the boy's passionate words, his almost wild desire to realize, to turn into actual life, the fantasies which were then only the creation of his fancy. How far had he realized them, he wondered? What did this alteration in his exterior denote? From a few casual and half-forgotten inquiries, Rochester knew that he was the son, or rather the orphan of working-people in the neighboring town. There was nothing in his blood to make him in any way the social equal of these men and women amongst whom he now sat with such perfect self-possession. Rochester found himself watching for some traces of inferior breeding, some lapse of speech, some signs of an innate lack of refinement. The absence of any of these things puzzled him. Saton was assured, without being over-confident. He spoke of himself only seldom. It was marvelous how often he seemed to avoid the use of the first person. He seemed, too, modestly unconscious of the fact that his conversation was in any way more interesting than the speech of those by whom he was surrounded.
"You seem to have lived," his hostess said to him once, "in so many countries, Mr. Saton. Are you really only as old as you look?"
"How can I answer that," he asked, smiling, "except by telling you that I am twenty-five."
"You must have commenced to live in your perambulator," she declared.
"I have lived nowhere," he answered. "I have visited many places, and travelled through many lands, but life with me has been a search."
"A search?" she murmured, dropping her voice a little, and intimating by the slight movement of her head towards him, that their conversation was to become a tete-a-tete. "Well," she continued, "I suppose that life is that with all of us, only you see with us poor frivolous people, a search means nearly always the same thing—a search for amusement or distraction, whichever you choose to call it."
Saton shrugged his shoulders slightly.
"Different things amuse different people," he remarked. "My search, I will admit, was of a different order."
"It is finished?" she asked.
"It will never be finished," he answered. "The man who finds what he seeks," he added, raising his dark eyes to hers, "as a rule has fixed his ambitions too low."
"Speaking of ambitions, Mr. Saton," Lord Penarvon asked across the table, "are you interested in politics?"
"Not in the least," Saton answered frankly. "There seem to me to be so many other things in life better worth doing than making fugitive laws for a dissatisfied country."
"Tell me," his hostess asked, "what do you yourself consider the things better worth doing?"
Saton hesitated. For the first time, he seemed scarcely at his ease. He glanced across at Rochester, and down at his plate.
"The sciences," he answered, quietly. "There are many torches lit which need strong hands to carry them forward."
Lois leaned across the table. As yet she had scarcely spoken, but she had listened intently to his every word.
"Which of the sciences, Mr. Saton?" she asked, a little breathlessly.
He smiled at her, and hesitated a moment before answering.
"There are so many," he said, "which are equally fascinating, but I think that it is always the least known which is the most attractive. When I spoke, I was really thinking of one which many people would scarcely reckon amongst the orthodox list. I mean occultism."
There was a little murmur of interest. Saton himself, however, deliberately turned the conversation. He reverted to a diplomatic incident which had come to his notice when in Brazil, and asked Lord Penarvon's opinion concerning it.
"By the bye," the latter asked, as their conversation drew toward a close, "how long did you say that you had been in England, Mr. Saton?"
"A very short time," Saton answered, with a faint smile. "I have been something of a wanderer for years."
"And you came from?" Rochester asked, leaning a little forward.
Saton smiled as his eyes met his host's. He hesitated perceptibly.
"I came from the land where the impossible sometimes happens," he answered, lightly, "the land where one dreams in the evening, and is never sure when one wakes in the morning that one's dreams have not become solid things."
Lady Mary sighed.
"Can one get a Cook's ticket?" she asked.
"Can one get there by motor-car, or even flying-machine?" Lois demanded. "I would risk my bones to find my way there."
"Unfortunately," he said, "there is a different path for every one of us, and there are no signposts."
Lady Mary sighed as she rose to her feet. She nodded a friendly little farewell to her interesting neighbor.
"Then we may as well go and have some really good bridge," she said, "until you men take it into your heads to come and disturb us."
A QUESTION OF OBLIGATION
Afternoon tea was being served in the hall at Beauleys on the day after Saton's arrival. Saton himself was sitting with Lois Champneyes in a retired corner.
"I was going to ask you," he remarked, as he handed her some cakes, "about Mr. Rochester's marriage. He was a bachelor when I—first met him."
"Were you very intimate in those days?" she asked.
"Not in the least," he answered, with a faint reminiscent smile.
"Then you never heard about the romance of his life?" she asked.
Saton shook his head.
"Never," he declared. "Nor should I ever have associated the word with Mr. Rochester."
She sighed gently.
"I daresay he was very different in those days," she said. "Before the Beauleys property came to him, he was quite poor, and he was very much in love with the dearest woman—Pauline Hambledon. It was impossible for them to marry—her people wouldn't hear of it—so he went abroad, and she married Sir Walter Marrabel! Such a pig! Everyone hated him. Then old Mr. Stephen Rochester died suddenly, without a will, and all this property came to Henry!"
"And then he married, I suppose?" Saton remarked.
"I was going to tell you about that," Lois continued. "Mary was a niece of Stephen Rochester, and a daughter of the Marquis of Haselton, who was absolutely bankrupt when he died. Stephen Rochester adopted her, and then died without leaving her a farthing! So there she was, poor dear, penniless, and Henry had everything. Of course, he had to marry her."
"Why not?" Saton remarked. "She is quite charming."
"Yes! But this is the tantalizing part of it," Lois continued. "They hadn't been married a year when Sir Walter Marrabel died. Pauline is a widow now. She is coming here in a few days. I do hope you will meet her."
"This is quite interesting," Saton murmured. "How do Lady Mary and her husband get on?"
Lois made a little grimace.
"They go different ways most of the time," she answered. "I suppose they're only what people call modern. Isn't that a motor horn?" she cried out, springing to her feet. "I wonder if it's Guerdie!"
"For a man who has been a great lawyer," Lord Penarvon declared, "Guerdon is the most uncertain and unpunctual of men. One never knows when to expect him."
"He was to have arrived yesterday," Lady Mary remarked. "We sent to the station twice."
"I suppose," Rochester said, "that even to gratify the impatience of an expectant house-party, it is not possible to quicken the slow process of the law. If you look at the morning papers, you will see that he was at the Central Criminal Court, trying some case or other, all day yesterday. The man who pleads 'Not Guilty,' and who pays for his defence, expects to be heard out to the bitter end. It is really only natural."
Saton, who had been left alone in his corner, rose suddenly to his feet and came into the circle. He handed his cup to his hostess, and turned toward Rochester.
"You were speaking of judges?" he remarked.
"In a few moments," he said, "you will probably meet the cleverest one we have upon the English bench. Without his robe and wig, some people find him insignificant. Personally, I must confess that I never feel his eyes upon me without a shiver. They say that he never loses sight of a fact or forgets a face."
"And what is the name of this wonderful person?" Saton asked.
"Lord Guerdon," Rochester answered. "Even though you have spent so little time in England of late years, you must have heard of him."
The curtains were suddenly thrown aside, and a footman entered announcing the newly-arrived guest. From the hall beyond came the sound of a departing motor, and the clatter of luggage being brought in. The footman stood on one side.
"Lord Guerdon!" he announced.
Lady Mary held out her hands across the tea-tray. Rochester came a few steps forward. Everyone ceased their conversation to look at the small, spare figure of the man who, clad in a suit of travelling clothes of gray tweed, and cut after a somewhat ancient pattern, insignificant-looking in figure and even in bearing, yet carried something in his clean-shaven, wrinkled face at once impressive and commanding. Everyone seemed to lean forward with a little air of interest, prepared to exchange greetings with him as soon as he had spoken to his host and hostess. Only Saton stood quite still, still as a figure turned suddenly into stone. No one appeared to notice him, to notice the twitching of his fingers, the almost ashen gray of his cheeks—no one except the girl with whom he had been talking, and whose eyes had scarcely left his. He recovered himself quickly. When Rochester turned towards him, a moment or so later, he was almost at his ease.
"You find us all old friends, Guerdon," he said, "except that I have to present to you my friend Mr. Saton. Saton, this is Lord Guerdon, whose caricature you have doubtless admired in many papers, comic and otherwise, and who I am happy to assure you is not nearly so terrible a person as he might seem from behind that ominous iron bar."
Saton held out his hand, but almost immediately withdrawing it, contented himself with a murmured word, and a somewhat low bow. For a second the judge's eyebrows were upraised, his keen eyes seemed to narrow. He made no movement to shake hands.
"I am very glad to meet Mr. Saton," he said slowly. "By the bye," he continued, after a second's pause, "is this our first meeting? I seem to have an idea—your face is somehow familiar to me."
There were few men who could have faced the piercing gaze of those bright brown eyes, set deep in the withered face, without any sign of embarrassment. Yet Saton smiled back pleasantly enough. He was completely at his ease. His face showed only a reasonable amount of pleasure at this encounter with the famous man.
"I am afraid, Lord Guerdon," he said, "that I cannot claim the privilege of any previous acquaintance. Although I am an Englishman, my own country has seen little of me during the last few years."
"Come and have some tea at once," Lady Mary insisted, looking up at the judge. "I want to hear all about this wonderful Clancorry case. Oh, I know you're not supposed to talk about it, but that really doesn't matter down here. You shall have a comfortable chair by my side, and some hot muffins."
Saton went back to his seat by the side of Lois Champneyes, carrying his refilled teacup in his hand. She looked at him a little curiously.
"Tell me," she said, "have you really never met Lord Guerdon before?"
"Never in my life," he answered.
"Did he remind you of anyone?" she asked.
"It is curious that you should ask that," Saton remarked. "In a way he did."
"I thought so," she declared, with a little breath of relief. "That was it, of course. Do you know how you looked when you first heard his name—when he came into the room?"
"I have no idea," he answered. "I only know that when I saw him enter, it gave me almost a shock. He reminded me most strangely of a man who has been dead for many years. I could scarcely take my eyes off him at first."
"I will tell you," she said, "what your look reminded me of. Many years before I was out—in my mother's time—there was a man named Mallory who was tried for murder, the murder of a friend, who everyone knew was his rival. Well, he got off, but only after a long trial, and only by a little weakness in the chain of evidence, which even his friends at the time thought providential. He went abroad for a long time. Then he came into a title and returned to England. He was obliged to take up his position, and people were willing enough to forget the past. He opened his London house, and accepted every invitation which came. At the very first party he went to, he came face to face with the judge who had tried him. My mother was there. I remember she told me how he looked. It was foolish of me, but I thought of it when I saw you just then."
Saton smiled sympathetically.
"And the end of the story?" he asked.
"The man had such a shock," she continued, "that he shut up his house, gave up all his schemes for re-entering life, left England, and never set foot in the country again."
Saton rose to his feet.
"I see that my host is beckoning me," he said. "Will you excuse me for a moment?"
Rochester passed his arm through the younger man's.
"Come into the gun-room for a few minutes," he said. "I want to show you the salmon flies I was speaking of."
Saton smiled a little curiously, and followed his host across the hall and down the long stone passage which led to the back quarters of the house. The gun-room was deserted and empty. Rochester closed the door.
"My young friend," he said, "if you do not object, I should like to have a few minutes of plain speaking with you."
"I should be delighted," Saton answered, seating himself deliberately in a battered old easy-chair.
"Seven years ago," Rochester continued, leaning his elbow against the mantelpiece, "we made a bargain. I sent you out into the world, an egotistical Don Quixote, and I provided you with the means with which you were to turn the windmills into castles. I made one condition—two, in fact. One that you came back. Well, you have kept that. The other was that you told me what it was like to build the castles of bricks and mortar, which in the days when I knew you, you built in fancy only."
"Aren't you a little allegorical?" Saton asked, calmly.
"I admit it," Rochester answered. "I was very nearly, in fact, out of my depth. Tell me, in plain words, what have you done with yourself these seven years?"
"You want me," Saton remarked, "to give an account of my stewardship."
"Put it any way you please," Rochester answered. "The fact remains that though you are a guest in my house, you are a complete stranger to me."
"You might have thought of that," he said, "before you asked me here."
Rochester shrugged his shoulders.
"Perhaps," he said, "I preferred to keep up my reputation as an eccentric person. At any rate, you must remember that it was open to me at any moment to ask you the question I have asked you now."
Saton sat perfectly still in his chair, his eyes apparently fixed upon the ground. All the time Rochester was watching him. Was it seven years ago, seven years only, since he had stood by the side of that boy, whose longing eyes had been fixed with almost passionate intensity upon that world of shadows and unseen things? This was a different person. With the swiftness of inspiration itself, he recognised something of the change which had taken place. Saton had fought his battle twice over. He might esteem himself a winner. He might even say that he had proved it. Yet there was another side. This young man with the lined face, and the almost unnatural restraint of manner, might well have taken up the thread of life which the boy had laid down. But there was a difference. The thread might be the same, but it was no longer of gold.
Then Saton raised his eyes, and Rochester, who was watching him intensely, realized with a sudden convincing thrill something which he had felt from the moment when he had stepped into the library and welcomed this unexpected visitor. There was nothing left of gratitude or even kindly feeling in the heart of this young man. There was something else which looked out from his eyes, something else which he did not even trouble to conceal. Rochester knew, from that moment, that he had an enemy.
"There are just two things," Saton said quietly, "of which I should like to remind you. The first is that from the day I left this house with five hundred pounds in bank-notes buttoned up in my pocket, I regarded that sum as a loan. I have always regarded it as a loan, and I have repaid it."
"I do not consider your obligation to me lessened," Rochester remarked coldly. "If it was a loan, it was a loan such as no sane man would have made. You had not a penny in the world, and I did not even know your name. The chances were fifty to one against my ever seeing a penny of my money again."
"I admit that," Saton answered. "Yet I will remind you of your own words—five hundred pounds were no more to you than a crown piece to me. You gave me the money. You gave me little else. You gave me no encouragement, no word of kindly advice. Go back that seven years, and remember what you said to me when you stood by my side, toying with your gun, and looking at me superciliously, as though I were some sort of curiosity which it amused you to turn inside out.—The one unforgivable thing in life, you said, was failure. Do you remember telling me that if I failed I was to swim out on a sunny day—to swim and swim until the end came? Do you remember telling me that death was sometimes a pleasant thing, but that life after failure was Hell itself?"
"I always had such a clear insight into life," he murmured. "I was perfectly right."
"From your point of view you doubtless were," Saton answered. "You were a cynic and a pessimist, and I find you now unchanged. I went away with your words ringing in my brain. It was the first poisonous thought which had ever entered there, and I never lost it. I said to myself that whatever price I paid for success, success of some sort I would gain. When things went against me, I seemed to hear always those bitter, supercilious words. I could even see the curl of your lips as you looked down upon me, and figured to yourself the only possible result of trusting me, an unfledged, imaginative boy, with the means to carve his way a little further into the world. Failure! I wrote the word out of the dictionary of my life. Sin, crime, ill-doing of any sort if they became necessary—I kept them there. But failure—no! And this was your doing. Now you come to ask me questions. You want to know if I am a fit and proper person to receive in your house. Perhaps I have sinned. Perhaps I have robbed. Perhaps I have proved myself a master in every form of ill-doing. But I have not failed! I have paid you back your five hundred pounds."
"The question of ethics," Rochester remarked, "interests me very little if at all. The only point is that whereas on the hillside you were simply a stray unit of humanity, and the things which we said to one another concerned ourselves only, here matters are a little different. In a thoughtless moment, I asked you to become a guest under my roof. It was, I frankly admit, a mistake. I trust that I need not say more."
"If you will have my things removed to the Inn," Saton said slowly—
"No such extreme measures are necessary," Rochester answered. "You will stay with us until to-morrow morning. After luncheon you will probably find it convenient to terminate your visit as soon as possible."
"I shall be gone," Saton answered, "before any of your guests are up. In case I do not see you again alone, let me ask you a question, or rather a favor."
Rochester bowed slightly.
"There is a house below the Convalescent Home—Blackbird's Nest, they call it," Saton said. "It is empty now—too large for your keepers, too small for a country seat. Will you let it to me?"
Rochester looked at him with uplifted eyebrows.
"Let it to you?" he repeated. "Do you mean to say that after an adventurous career such as I imagine you have had, you think of settling down, at your age, in a neighborhood like this?"
"Scarcely that," Saton answered. "I shall be here only for a few days at a time, at different periods in the year. The one taste which I share in common with the boy whom you knew, is a love for the country, especially this part of it."
"You wish to live there alone?" Rochester asked.
"There is one—other person," Saton answered with some hesitation.
Rochester sighed gently.
"Alas!" he said. "Instinct tells me that that person will turn out to be of the other sex. If only you knew, my young friend, what the morals of this neighborhood are, you would understand how fatal your proposal is."
Something that was almost malign gleamed for a moment in Saton's eyes.
"It is true," he said, "that the person I spoke of is a woman, but as she is at least sixty years old, and can only walk with the help of a stick, I do not think that she would be apt to disturb the moral prejudices of your friends."
"What has she to do with you?" Rochester asked, a little shortly. "Have you found relatives out in the world, or are you married?"
"I am not married," he answered, "and as the lady in question is a foreigner, there is no question of any relationship between us. I am, as a matter of fact, her adopted son."
"You can go and see my agent," Rochester answered. "Personally, I shall not interfere. I am to take it for granted, then, I presume, that you have nothing more to tell me concerning yourself?"
"At present, nothing," Saton answered. "Some day, perhaps," he added, rising, "I may tell you everything. You see," he added, "I feel that my life, such as it is, is in some respects dedicated to you, and that you therefore have a certain right to know something of it. But that time has not come yet."
Once more there was a short and somewhat inexplicable pause, and once more Rochester knew that he was in the presence of an enemy. He shrugged his shoulders and turned toward the door.
"Well," he said, "we had better be getting off. Guerdon is a decent fellow, but he always needs looking after. If he is bored for five minutes, he gets sulky. If he is bored for a quarter of an hour, he goes home. You never met Lord Guerdon before, I suppose?" he asked, as he threw open the door.
They were men of nerve, both of them. Neither flinched. Rochester's question had been asked in an absolutely matter-of-fact tone, and Saton's reply was entirely casual. Yet he knew very well that it was only since the coming of the great judge that Rochester had suddenly realized that amongst the guests staying in his house, there was one who might have been any sort of criminal.
"I have seen him in court," Saton remarked, with a slight smile, "and of course I have seen pictures of him everywhere. Do not let me keep you, please. I have some letters to write in my room."
Rochester went back to his guests. His brows were knitted. He was unusually thoughtful. His wife, who was watching him, called him across to the bridge table, where she was dummy.
"Well?" she asked. "What is it?"
Rochester looked down at her. The corners of his mouth slowly unbent.
"Have you ever heard," he whispered in her ear, "of the legend of the Frankenstein?"
A MORNING WALK
"My dear Henry," Lady Mary said, a few days later, swinging round in her chair from the writing-table, "whatever in this world induced you to encourage that extraordinary person Bertrand Saton to settle down in this part of the world?"
Rochester continued for a moment to gaze out of the window across the Park, with expressionless face.
"My dear Mary," he said, "I did not encourage him to do anything of the sort."
"You let him Blackbird's Nest," she reminded him.
"I had scarcely a reasonable excuse for refusing to let it," Rochester answered. "I did not suggest that he should take it. I merely referred him to my agents. He went to see old Bland the very next morning, and the thing was arranged."
"I think," Lady Mary said deliberately, "that it is one of those cases where you should have exercised a little more discrimination. This is a small neighborhood, and I find it irritating to be continually running up against people whom I dislike."
"You dislike Saton?" Rochester remarked, nonchalantly.
"Dislike is perhaps a strong word," his wife answered. "I distrust him. I disbelieve in him. And I dislike exceedingly the friendship between him and Lois."
Rochester shrugged his shoulders.
"Does it amount to a friendship?" he asked.
"What else?" his wife answered. "It was obvious that she was interested in him when he was staying here, and twice since I have met them walking together. I hate mysterious people. They tell me that he has made Blackbird's Nest look like a museum inside, and there is the most awful old woman, with white hair and black eyes, who never leaves his side, they say, when he is at home."
"She is," Rochester remarked, "I presume, of an age to disarm scandal?"
"She looks as old as Methuselah," his wife answered, "but what does the man want with such a creature at all?"
"She may be an elderly relative," Rochester suggested.
"Relative? Why, she calls herself the Comtesse somebody!" Lady Mary declared. "I do wish you would tell me, Henry, exactly what you know and what you do not know about this young man."
"What I do know is simple enough," he answered. "What I do not know would, I begin to believe, fill a volume."
"Then you had better go and see him, and readjust matters," she declared, a little sharply. "I want Lois to marry well, and she mustn't have her head turned by this young man."
Rochester strolled through the open French-window into the flower-garden. He pulled a low basket chair out into the sun, close to a bed of pink and white hyacinths. A man-servant, seeing him, brought out the morning papers, which had just arrived, but Rochester waved them away.
"Fancy reading the newspapers on a morning like this!" he murmured, half to himself. "The person who would welcome the intrusion of a world of vulgar facts into an aesthetically perfect half-hour, deserves—well, deserves to be the sort of person he must be. Take the papers away, Groves," he added, as the man stood by, a little embarrassed. "Take them to Lord Penarvon or Mr. Hinckley."
The man bowed and withdrew. Rochester half closed his eyes, but opened them again almost immediately. A white clad figure was passing down the path on the other side of the lawn. He roused himself to a sitting posture.
"Lois!" he called out. "Lois!"
She waved her hand, but did not stop. He rose to his feet and called again. She paused with a reluctance which was indifferently concealed.
"I am going down to the village," she said.
He crossed the lawn towards her.
"I will be a model host," he said, "and come with you. It is always the function of the model host, is it not, to neglect the whole of the rest of the guests, and attach himself to the one most charming?"
She shook her head at him.
"I dare not risk being so unpopular," she declared. "Really, don't bother to come. It is such a very short distance."
"That decides me," he answered, falling into step with her. "A short walk is exactly what I want. For the last few days I have been oppressed with a horrible fear. I am afraid of growing fat!"
She looked at his long slim figure, and laughed derisively.
"You will have to find another reason for this sudden desire for exercise," she remarked.
"Do I need to find one?" he answered, laughing down into her pretty face.
She shook her head.
"This is all very well," she said, "but I quite understand that it is my last morning. I know what will happen this afternoon, and I really do not think that I shall allow you to come past that gate."
"Why not?" he asked earnestly.
"You know very well that Pauline is coming," she answered.
The change in his face was too slight for her to notice it, but there was a change. His lips moved as though he were repeating the name to himself.
"And why should Pauline's coming affect the situation?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"You say nice things to me," she declared, looking at him reproachfully, "but only when Pauline isn't here. We all know that directly she comes we are no longer any of us human beings. I wish I were intelligent."
"Don't!" he begged. "Don't wish anything so foolish. Intelligence is the greatest curse of the day. Few people possess it, it is true, but those few spend most of their time wishing they were fools."
"Am I a fool?" she asked.
"Of course," he answered. "All pretty and charming people are fools."
"And Pauline?" she asked.
"Pauline, unfortunately, is amongst the cursed," he answered.
"That, I suppose," she remarked, "is what brings you so close together."
"It is a bond of common suffering," he declared. "By the bye, who is this ferocious-looking person?"
It was Saton who had suddenly turned the corner, and whose expression had certainly darkened for a moment as he came face to face with the two. He was correctly enough dressed in gray tweeds and thick walking boots, but somehow or other his sallow face and dark, plentiful hair, seemed to go oddly with his country clothes.
Rochester glanced at his companion, and he distinctly saw a little grimace. Saton would have passed on, for Rochester's nod was of the slightest, but Lois insisted upon stopping.
"Mr. Saton," she said, "I have been hearing all sorts of wonderful things about your house. When are you going to ask us all to tea to see your curiosities?"
Saton looked into Rochester's immovable face.
"Whenever you choose to come," he answered calmly. "I am nearly always at home in the afternoon, or rather I shall be after next Thursday," he added, as an afterthought. "I am going to town this evening."
"Going away?" she asked, a little blankly.
"I have to go up to London," he answered, "but it is only for two days."
There was a short, uneasy silence. Rochester purposely avoided speech. He understood the situation exactly. They had something to say to one another, and wished him away.
"You won't be able to send me that book, then?" she asked.
"I will leave it at the house this afternoon, if I may," he answered, half looking toward Rochester.
Rochester made no sign. Saton raised his cap and passed on.
"Wonderful syringa bush, that," Rochester remarked, pointing with his stick.
"Wonderful!" Lois answered.
"Quite an ideal village, mine," he continued. "You see there are crocuses growing out even in the roadway."
"Very pretty!" she answered.
"You are not by any chance annoyed with me?"
"I did not think you were very civil to that poor young man."
"Naturally," he answered. "I didn't mean to be civil. I am one of those simple folk who are always annoyed by the incomprehensible. I do not understand Mr. Bertrand Saton. I do not quite understand, either, why you should find him an interesting companion for your morning walks."
"You are a hateful person!" she declared, as he held open the gate which led back to the Park.
"I intend to remain so," he answered drily.
The sound of footsteps coming along the path which they had just quitted, attracted his attention momentarily. He turned round. Lois, too, hesitated.
"I beg your pardon, sir," the newcomer said, "but can you tell me whereabouts in this neighborhood I can find a house called Blackbird's Nest? A Mr. Bertrand Saton lives there, I believe."
Rochester hesitated for a few seconds. He looked at the woman, summing her up with swift comprehension. Lois, by his side, stared at her in surprise. She was inclined to be stout, and her face was flushed with walking, notwithstanding an obviously recent use of the powder-puff. A mass of copper-colored hair was untidily arranged underneath a large black hat. Her clothes were fashionable in cut, but cheap in quality. She wore openwork stockings and high-heeled shoes, which had already suffered from walking along the dusty roads. While she waited for an answer to her question, she drew a handkerchief from her pocket, and the perfume of the violet scented hedge by the side of which they stood, was no longer a thing apparent.
Rochester, whose hatred of perfumes was one of his few weaknesses, drew back a step involuntarily.
"If you pass through the village," he said, "Blackbird's Nest is the second house upon the right-hand side. It lies a little way back from the road, but you cannot miss it."
"I am sure I am very much obliged," the lady answered. "If I had known it was as far as this, I'd have waited till I could have found a carriage. The porter at the station told me that it was just a step."
Rochester raised his cap and turned away. Lois walked soberly by his side for several moments.
"I wonder," she said softly, "what a person like that could want with Mr. Saton."
Rochester shrugged his shoulders.
"We know nothing of Saton or his life," he answered. "He has wandered up and down the world, and I daresay he has made some queer acquaintances."
"But his taste," Lois persisted, "is so perfect. I cannot understand his permitting a creature like that to even come near him."
"One does strange things under compulsion," he remarked. "I see that they have been rolling the putting greens. Shall we go and challenge Penarvon and Mrs. Hinckley to a round at golf?"
She glanced once more over her shoulder toward the village—perhaps beyond.
"If you like," she answered, resignedly.
The words which passed between Pauline Marrabel and her host at the railway station were words which the whole world might have heard and remained unedified. The first part of their drive homeward, even, passed in complete silence. Yet if their faces told the story, Rochester was with the woman he loved. He had driven a small pony-cart to the station. There was no room, even, for a groom behind. They sat side by side, jogging on through the green country lanes, until they came to the long hill which led to the higher country. The luggage cart and the omnibus, with her maid and the groom who had driven down with Rochester, passed them soon after they had left the station. They were alone in the country lane, alone behind a fat pony, who had ideas of his own as to what was the proper pace to travel on a warm spring afternoon.
More than once he looked at her. Her oval face was almost devoid of color. There were rings underneath her large soft eyes. Her dark hair was brushed simply back from her forehead. Her travelling clothes were of the plainest. Yet she was always beautiful—more so than ever just now, perhaps, when the slight hardness had gone from her mouth, and the strain had passed from her features.
Rochester, too, was curiously altered by the change in the curve of his lips. There was a new smile there, a new light in his eyes as they jogged on between the honeysuckle-wreathed hedges. Their silence was even curiously protracted, but underneath the holland apron his left hand was clasping hers.
"How are things with you?" she asked softly.
"About the same," he answered. "We make the best of it, you know. Mary amuses herself easily enough. She has what she wanted—a home, and I have someone to entertain my guests. I believe that we are considered quite a model couple."
"Henry," she said, "it is beautiful to be here, to be here with you. The days will not seem long enough."
Rochester, so apt of speech, seemed curiously tongue-tied. His fingers pressed hers. He made no answer. She leaned a little forward and looked into his face.
"Wonderful person!" she declared. "Never a line or a wrinkle!"
"I live quietly," he said. "I am out of doors all day. Excitement of any sort has not touched my life for many years. Sometimes I feel that this perfect health is a torture. Sometimes I am afraid of never growing old."
She laughed very softly—a dear, familiar sound it was to him. He turned his head to watch the curve of the lips that he loved, the faint contraction of her eyebrows as the smile spread.
"You dear man!" she murmured. "To look at you makes me feel quite passee."
"The Daily Telegraph should reassure you," he answered. "I read this morning that the most beautiful woman at the Opera last night was Lady Marrabel."
"The Daily Telegraph man is such a delightful creature," she answered. "I do not like reporters, but I fancy that I must once have been civil to this one by mistake. Henry, you have had the road shortened. I am perfectly certain of it. We cannot be there."
"I am afraid it is the sad truth," he answered. "You see they are all having tea upon the lawn."
He touched the pony with his whip, and turning off the main avenue, drew up at the bottom of one of the lawns, before a sunk fence. A servant came hurrying down to the pony's head, and together Pauline and he made their way across the short green turf to where Lady Mary was dispensing tea. Rochester's face suddenly darkened. Seated next to his wife, with Lois on the other side of him, was Saton!
Lady Mary rose to welcome her guest, and Rochester exchanged greetings with some callers who had just arrived. To Saton he merely nodded, but when a little later Lois rose, and announced that she was going to show Mr. Saton the orchid houses, he intervened lazily.
"We will all go," he said. "Lady Penarvon is interested in orchids, and I am sure that Pauline would like to see the houses."
"I am interested in everything belonging to this delightful place," she declared, rising.
Lois frowned slightly. Saton's face remained inscrutable. In the general exodus Rochester found himself for a moment behind with his wife.
"Did you encourage that young man to stay to tea?" he asked. "I thought you disliked him so much."
Lady Mary sighed. She was a gentle, fluffy little creature, who had a new whim every few minutes.
"I am so changeable," she declared. "I detested him yesterday. He wore such an ugly tie, and he would monopolize Lois. This afternoon I found him most interesting. I believe he knows all about the future, if one could only get him to tell us things."
"Really!" Rochester remarked politely.
"He has been talking in a most interesting fashion," continued Lady Mary.
"Has he been telling you all your fortunes?"
"You put it so crudely, my dear Henry," his wife declared. "Of course he doesn't tell fortunes! Only he's the sort of person that if one really wanted to know anything, I believe his advice would be better than most peoples'. Perhaps he will talk to us about it after dinner."
"What, is he dining here?" Rochester asked.
"I have asked him to," Lady Mary answered, complacently. "We are short of young men, as you know, and really this afternoon he quite fascinated us all. The dear Duchess is so difficult and heavy to entertain, but she quite woke up when he began to talk. Lady Penarvon just told me that she thought he was wonderful."
"He seems to have the knack of interesting women," Rochester remarked.
"And therefore, I suppose," Lady Mary said, "you men will all hate him. Never mind, I have changed my opinion entirely. I think that he is going to be an acquisition to the neighborhood, and I am going to study occultism."
Rochester turned away with a barely concealed grimace. He went up to Lois, calmly usurping Saton's place.
"My dear Lois," he said, as they fell behind a few paces, "so your latest young man has been charming everybody."
"He is nice, isn't he?" she answered, turning to him a little impulsively.
"Marvelously!" Rochester answered. "Hatefully so! Has he told you anything, by the bye, about himself?"
She shook her head.
"Nothing that I can remember," she answered. "He is so clever," she added, enthusiastically, "and he has explained all sorts of wonderful things to me. If one had only brains," she continued, with a little sigh, "there is so much to learn."
Rochester picked a great red rose and handed it to her.
"My dear child," he said, "there is nothing in knowledge so beautiful as that flower. By the bye," he added, raising his voice to Saton, who was just ahead, "I thought you were going to London to-day."
"I have put off my visit until to-morrow," Saton answered. "Your wife has been kind enough to ask me to dine."
Rochester nodded. He carefully avoided endorsing the invitation.
"By the bye," he remarked, "we had the pleasure of directing a lady in distress to your house this morning."
Saton paused for a moment before he answered.
"I am very much obliged to you," he said.
He offered no explanation. Rochester, with a little shrug of the shoulders, rejoined Pauline. Lady Mary was called away to receive some visitors, and for the first time Lois and Saton were alone.
"Mr. Rochester has taken a dislike to me," he said quietly.
Lois was distressed.
"I wonder why," she said. "As a rule he is so indifferent to people."
Saton shook his head a little sadly.
"I cannot tell," he answered. "Certainly I cannot think of anything I have done to offend him. But I am nearly always unfortunate. The people whom I would like to have care about me, as a rule don't."
"There are exceptions," she murmured.
She met his eyes, and looked away. He smiled softly to himself. Women had looked away from him before like that!
"Fortunately," he continued, "Lady Mary seems to be a little more gracious. It was very kind of her to ask me to dine to-night."
"She is always so interested," Lois said, "in things which she does not understand. You talked so well this afternoon, Mr. Saton. I am afraid I could not follow you, but it sounded very brilliant and very wonderful."
"One speaks convincingly," he said, "when one really feels. Some day, remember," he continued, "we are going to have a long, long talk. We are going to begin at the beginning, and you are going to let me help you to understand how many wonderful things there are in life which scarcely any of us ever even think about. I wonder——"
"Well?" she asked, looking up at him.
"Will they let me take you down to dinner?"
She shook her head doubtfully.
"I am afraid not," she said. "I am almost certain to go in with Captain Vandermere."
"After all," he said, "perhaps I had better have taken that train to town."
AN UNWELCOME VISITOR
Saton was only a few minutes being whirled down the avenue of Beauleys and up along the narrow country lane, wreathed with honeysuckle and wild roses, to Blackbird's Nest. He leaned back in the great car, his unseeing eyes travelling over the quiet landscape. There was something out of keeping, a little uncanny, even, in the flight of the motor-car with its solitary passenger along the country lane, past the hay carts, and the villagers resting after their long day's toil. The man who leaned back amongst the cushions, with his pale, drawn face, and dark, melancholy eyes, seemed to them like a creature from another world, even as the vehicle in which he travelled, so swift and luxurious, filled them with wonder. Saton heard nothing of their respectful good-nights. He saw nothing of their doffed hats and curious, wondering glances. He was thinking with a considerable amount of uneasiness of the interview which probably lay before him.
The car turned in at the rude gates, and climbed the rough road which led to Saton's temporary abode. A servant met him at the door as he descended, a gray-haired, elderly man, irreproachably attired, whose manner denoted at once the well-trained servant.
"There is a lady here, sir," he said—"she arrived some hours ago—who has been waiting to see you. You will find her in the morning-room."
Saton took off his hat, and moved slowly down the little hall.
"I trust that I did not make a mistake, sir, in allowing her to wait?" the man asked. "She assured me that she was intimately known to you."
"You were quite right, Parkins," Saton answered. "I think I know who she is, but I was scarcely expecting her to-day."
He opened the door of the morning-room and closed it quickly. The woman rose up from the couch, where she had apparently been asleep, and looked at him.
"At last!" she exclaimed. "Bertrand, do you know that I have been here since the morning?"
"How was I to know?" he answered. "You sent no word that you were coming. I certainly did not expect you."
"Are you glad?" she asked, a little abruptly.
"I am always glad to see you, Violet," he said, putting his arm around her waist and kissing her. "All the same, I am not sure that your coming here is altogether wise."
"I waited as long as I could," she answered. "You didn't come to me. You scarcely even answered my letters. I couldn't bear it any longer. I had to come and see you. Bertrand, you haven't forgotten? Tell me that you haven't forgotten."