Witness to the Deed, by George Manville Fenn.
This is indeed rather an extraordinary book, in many ways not in the usual style of Fenn, yet in others in a style that few but Fenn could rise to.
One of the problems with this book is that, at least in the early chapters, there are flashbacks in the text, most unusual in the nineteenth century, though regrettably an oft-used device in the writing of today. This does make it difficult to follow the story, but you just have to push on with the work, and you will be rewarded in the end.
A young girl, the daughter of an admiral, had previously married a man who turned out to be a forger, and who was believed to have died. The hero of the book was due that day to marry her, and was very much in love with her. Just as he is departing for the church, a visitor appears, and states that, far from being dead, he is the girl's husband. He demands money: there is a fight; two pistol-shots are fired; the bridegroom-to-be does not turn up at the wedding; several people are seriously upset, and remain so throughout the book. Matters do not clear up until the very end of the book.
You could probably call this a psychological novel, and, as such, it is not really suitable for children, as most of Fenn's novels are. It is quite a long book, longer than most others by Fenn, and it demands great concentration throughout. If you are reading it for the second or third time, you could listen to an audio version of it, but we would advise reading it from the screen when first you read this book.
The type used was very clear, and the book was easily digitised, but unfortunately there were numerous type-setting errors, which all had to be sought out and corrected. Hopefully there are very few left. Be a brave soul and try this book, taking your time over it.
WITNESS TO THE DEED, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
IN BENCHERS' INN.
"My darling! Mine at last!" Ting-tang; ting-tang; ting-tang.
Malcolm Stratton, F.Z.S., naturalist, a handsome, dark-complexioned man of eight-and-twenty, started and flushed like a girl as he hurriedly thrust the photograph he had been apostrophising into his breast pocket, and ran to the deep, dingy window of his chambers to look at the clock over the old hall of Bencher's Inn, E.C. It was an unnecessary piece of business, for there was a black marble clock on the old carved oak chimney-piece nestling among Grinling Gibbons' wooden flowers and pippins, and he had been dragging his watch from his pocket every ten minutes since he had risen at seven, taken his bath, and dressed; but he had forgotten the hour the next minute, and gone on making his preparations, haunted by the great dread lest he should be too late.
"Quarter to ten yet," he muttered. "How slowly the time goes!" As he spoke he sniffed slightly and smiled, for a peculiar aromatic incense-like odour had crept into the room through the chinks in a door.
He stepped back to where a new-looking portmanteau lay upon the Turkey carpet, and stood contemplating it for a few moments.
"Now, have I forgotten anything?"
This question was followed by a slow look round the quaint, handsomely furnished old oak-panelled room, one of several suites let out to bachelors who could pay well, and who affected the grim old inn with its plane trees, basin of water, and refreshing quiet, just out of the roar of the busy city street. And as Malcolm Stratton looked round his eyes rested on his cases of valuable books and busts of famous naturalists, and a couple of family portraits, both of which seemed to smile at him pleasantly; and then on and over natural history specimens, curious stuffed birds, a cabinet of osteological preparations, and over and around the heavy looking carvings and mouldings about the four doorways, and continued from the fireplace up to the low ceiling. But, look where he would, he could see nothing but a beautiful face with large, pensive eyes, gazing with loving trust in his as he had seen them only a few hours before when he had said "good-night."
"Bah! I shall never be ready," he cried, with an impatient laugh, and crossing to one of the doorways—all exactly alike—he disappeared for a moment or two, to return from his bedroom with a black bag, which he hastily strapped, set down, paused to think for a moment, and then taking out his keys opened the table-drawer, took out a cheque book, and sat down to write.
"May as well have enough," he said merrily. "I've waited long enough for this trip, and a man does not get married every day. One—fifty. Signature. Bah! Don't cross it, stupid!"
He tore out the cheque, threw back the book, and locked the drawer, before going to a door on the right-hand side of the fireplace, bending forward and listening.
"Wonder he has not been in," he muttered. "Now let's see. Anything else? How absurd! Haven't finished my coffee."
He took the cup from the table, drained it, and, after another look round, turned to the left side of the fireplace, where he opened a door corresponding to the one at which he had listened, went in, and returned directly with an ice axe and an alpenstock.
"May as well take them," he said. "Myra can use you."
He gave the alpenstock a rub with the table napkin before placing it and his old mountaineering companion against the bag. Then, bending down, he was busily strapping the portmanteau and forcing the tongue of the last buckle into its proper hole when there was a knock at the door behind him, and he started to his feet.
The answer was a second knock, and with an impatient ejaculation the occupant of the chambers threw open the fourth door.
"I forgot the bolt was fastened, Mrs Brade," he said, as he drew back to admit a plump looking, neatly dressed woman in cap and apron, one corner of which she took up to begin rolling between her fingers as she stood smiling at the edge of the carpet.
"Yes, sir," she said, "if I might make so bold, and I don't wonder at it. Oh, my dear—I mean Mr Stratton, sir—how handsome you do look this morning!"
"Why, you silly old woman!" he cried, half laughing, half annoyed.
"Oh, no, excuse me, sir, not a bit. Handsome is as handsome does, they say, and you is and does too, sir, and happiness and joy go with you, sir, and your dear, sweet lady too, sir."
"Oh, thank you, thank you, Mrs Brade, but—"
"I always thought as you would marry some day, sir, as was only natural, but I never thought as a widow would be your lot."
"Mrs Brade!" cried Stratton impatiently, and with his brows contracting a little. "I am very busy—not a moment to spare."
"Of course, sir, and no wonder; but I do wish it hadn't been such a dull morning."
"Dull?" cried Stratton, rushing to the window; "I thought it was all sunshine."
"Of course you did, sir; so did I; and well I remember it, though it's forty years ago."
"Mrs Brade, I told you I was busy. I thank you for your congratulations, and I gave you all your instructions yesterday, so pray what do you want?"
Mrs Brade, wife of the inn porter, lifted the corner of her apron to her mouth, and made a sound like the stifling of a laugh.
"I beg your pardon, sir, I'm sure, and of course it's natural at such a time. I came because you sent word by the waiter that I was to—"
"Of course, yes: about ten. I'm so busy, I forgot," cried Stratton hastily. "Look here, Mrs Brade, I want you to go over to the bank; it will be open by the time you get across. Cash this cheque for me; bring all notes—tens and fives."
"A hundred and fifty pounds, sir?"
"Yes; take a hand bag with you. Don't get robbed."
"Oh, no, sir. I know too much of the ways of London town."
"That's right. Excuse my being hurried with you."
"Of course, sir; I know well what your feelings must be. (Sniff, sniff.) Why, you can smell Mr Brettison a-smoking his ubble-bubble with that strange tobacco right in here."
As the woman spoke she went straight across to the door on the left of the fireplace.
"Here! where are you going?" cried Stratton.
"Back directly, sir," came in smothered tones, accompanied by the pulling of a bath chain, the gurgling of water, and the sound of shutting down a heavy lid.
"Lor', how strong Mr Brettison do smell, sir. It's my memory's got that bad, sir," said the woman, reappearing and carefully shutting the door, "that I'm obliged to do things when I see them want doing, else I forgets. It was only yesterday that Mr Brettison—"
"Mrs Brade, the cheque, please."
"Of course, sir," said the woman hastily just as there was a little rat-tat at the brass knocker of the outer door, which she opened.
"Here is Mr Brettison, sir," and she drew back to admit a spare looking, grey man, dressed in dark tweed, who removed his soft felt hat and threw it, with a botanist's vasculum and a heavy oaken stick, upon an easy-chair, as he watched the departure of the porter's wife before turning quickly and, with tears in his eyes, grasping Stratton's hands and shaking them warmly.
"My dear boy," he said, in a voice full of emotion, "God bless you! Happiness to you! God bless you both!"
"My dear old friend!" cried Stratton. "Thank you; for Myra, too. But come, you've repented. You will join the wedding party after all?"
"I? Oh, no, no, my boy. I'm no wedding guest. Why, Malcolm, I should be a regular ancient mariner without the glittering eye."
"I am sorry. I should have liked you to be present," said Stratton warmly.
"I know it, my boy, I know it; but no; don't press me. I couldn't bear it. I was to have been married, my dear boy. I was young, if not as handsome as you. But,"—there was a pause—"she died," he added in a whisper. "I could not bear to come."
"There," cried the visitor with forced gaiety, "just what I said. No, my dear Malcolm. No, no, my boy. I'm better away."
Stratton was silent, and his neighbour went on hastily:
"I heard you packing, and knocking about, but I wouldn't disturb you, my dear boy. I'm off, too: a week's collecting in the New Forest. Write to me very soon, and my dear love to your sweet wife—an angel, Malcolm—a blessing to you, my boy. Tell her to let you gather a few of the mountain flowers to send me. Ask her to pick a few herself and I'll kiss them as coming from her."
"I'll tell her, sir."
"That's right; and, Malcolm, my boy, I'm quite alone in the world, where I should not have been now if you had not broken in my door and came and nursed me back to life, dying as I was from that deadly fever."
"My dear Mr Brettison, if ever you mention that trifle of neighbourly service again we are no longer friends," cried Stratton.
"Trifle of neighbourly service!" said the old man, laying his hands affectionately upon the other's shoulders. "You risked your life, boy, to save that of one who would fain have died. But Heaven knows best, Malcolm, and I've been a happier man since, for it has seemed to me as if I had a son. Now, one word more and I am going. I've a train to catch. Tell your dear young wife that Edward Brettison has watched your career—that the man who was poor and struggled so hard to place himself in a position to win her will never be poor again: for I have made you my heir, Malcolm, and God bless you, my boy. Good-bye; write soon."
"Mr Brettison!" cried Stratton, in amaze.
The door opened, and Mrs Brade reappeared with a black reticule in one hand and a ruddy telegram envelope in the other.
"I see, wanted already," said the old man, hastily catching up hat, stick, and collecting box, and hurrying out without another word.
"Telegram, sir; and there's the change, sir."
"Eh! The notes? Thank you, Mrs Brade," said Stratton hurriedly, and taking the packet he laid them on the table and placed a bronze letter weight to keep them down. "That will do, thank you, Mrs Brade. Tell your husband to fetch my luggage, and meet me at Charing Cross. He'll take a cab, of course."
"I shall be there, too, sir, never you fear," said the porter's wife, with a smile, as she left the room, Stratton hurriedly tearing open the envelope the while, and reading as the door closed:
No bride's bouquet. What a shame! See to it at once.
"Confound!" ejaculated Stratton; "and after all their promises. Here, Mrs Brade, quick. Gone!"
He threw open the door to call the woman back, but before he could open his lips she had returned.
"A gen—gentleman to see you, sir, on business."
"Engaged. Cannot see anyone. Look here, Mrs Brade."
"Mr Malcolm Stratton, I presume," said a heavily built man with a florid face, greyish hair, and closely cut foreign looking hair.
"My name, sir, but I am particularly engaged this morning. If you have business with me you must write."
This at the doorway, with Mrs Brade standing a little back on the stone landing.
"No time for writing," said the stranger sternly. "Business too important. Needn't wait, Mrs what's-your-name," he continued, turning upon the woman so sharply that she began to hurry down the stairs.
"I don't care how important your mission is, sir," cried Stratton; "I cannot give you an interview this morning. If you have anything to say you must write. My business—"
"I know," said the man coolly: "going to be married."
Stratton took a step back, and his visitor one forward into the room, turned, closed the outer door, and, before Stratton could recover from his surprise, the inner door, and pointed to a chair.
"Sit down," said the man, and he took another chair and sat back in it.
"Well of all the audacious—!" began Stratton, with a half laugh; but he was interrupted.
"Don't waste words, sir; no time. The lady will be waiting."
As he spoke Stratton saw the man's eyes rest for a moment on the banknotes beneath the letter weight, and an undefined sensation of uneasiness attacked him. He mastered it in an instant, ignoring the last remark.
"Now, sir; you say you have business with me. Let me hear it, since I must—at once."
"Ah, that's businesslike. We shall be able to deal."
"Say what you have to say."
"When you sit down."
Stratton let himself fall back into a chair.
"Now then. Quick!"
"You propose being married this morning."
"I do," said Stratton, with a sort of dread lest even then there should be some obstacle in the way.
"Well, then, you can't; that's all."
"What!" cried Stratton fiercely. "Who says so?"
"I do. But keep cool, young man. This is business."
"Yes; I'll be cool," said Stratton, mastering himself again, and adopting his visitor's cynical manner. "So let me ask you, sir, who you may be, and what is your object in coming?"
The man did not answer for a moment, but let his eyes rest again upon the notes.
"I say, who are you, sir?"
"I? Oh, nobody of any importance," said the man, with an insolent laugh.
Stratton sprang up, and the visitor thrust his hand behind him.
"No nonsense, Mr Malcolm. I tell you this is business. Without my consent you cannot marry Myra Barron, formerly Myra Jerrold, this morning."
"I say, who are you, sir?" cried Stratton furiously.
"James Barron, my dear sir—the lady's husband."
TWO SHOTS FROM A REVOLVER.
Malcolm Stratton started back with his eyes wild and his face ghastly, just as there was the faint sound of steps on the stone stairs, and directly after someone gave a long-continued double knock on the outer door.
"Company, eh?" said the man, rising. "Get rid of him. I've a lot to say. I'll go in here."
He went straight to the doorway on the right of the fireplace.
"No, no," cried Stratton harshly; "that is a false door."
"False door?" said the man; "is this?"
He laid his hand upon the other on the left of the fireplace, and opened it.
"All right. Bath room. I'll go in here."
As the man shut himself in Stratton reeled as if he would have fallen, but a second rat-tat upon the little brass knocker brought him to himself, and, after a glance at the closet door, he opened that of the entry, and then the outer door, to admit a good looking, fair-haired young fellow of about five-and-twenty, most scrupulously dressed, a creamy rose in his buttonhole, and a look of vexation in his merry face as he stood looking at his white kid gloves.
"I say, old chap," he cried, "I shall kill your housekeeper. She must have black-leaded that knocker. Morning. How are you. Pretty well ready?"
"Ready?" said Stratton hurriedly. "No, not yet. I'm sure I—"
"Why, hullo, old chap; what's the matter?"
"Matter? Nothing, nothing."
"Well, you look precious seedy. White about the gills. Why, hang it, Malcolm, don't take it like that. Fancy you being nervous. What about? Packed up, I see."
"Wish it was my turn," continued the newcomer. "Might as well have been two couples: Mr and Mrs Malcolm Stratton; Mr and Mrs Percy Guest. Why, I say, old chap, you are ill."
"No, no," cried Stratton hurriedly; and a sudden thought struck him.
Catching up the telegram from the table, he handed it to his friend.
"Hullo! Nothing serious? Poof! What a molehill mountain. You shouldn't let a thing like this agitate your noble nerves. Bless the dear little woman. I'll run on to Common Garden, Central Avenue, as we say in some suckles, bully the beggar for not sending it, start him, and be back for you in a jiffy."
"No, no," cried Stratton excitedly, "don't trust them. Get the bouquet, and take it yourself. Don't come back. I'll meet you at the church."
"All right, old chap. Your slave obeys. Only, I say, I would have a duet—S. and B.—before I started. Screw up, and don't come with a face like that."
The speaker went to the door, opened it, and looking round laughingly: "Precious dull; I'll tell 'em to turn on the sun," he said, and hurried out.
As the outer door closed Stratton darted to the inner and shut it, while, as he turned, his unwelcome visitor stepped out of the bath room—evidently formerly a passage leading into the next chamber—and returned to his chair, "Best man—bouquets—carriages waiting—church— wedding breakfast," he said laughingly. "By Jove! I could drink a tumbler of champagne."
By this time Stratton had grown firmer, and, pointing to the door, he cried:
"Look here, sir; I'll have no more of this. You are an impostor. I don't know where you obtained your information, but if you have come to levy blackmail on the strength of such a mad tale, you have failed; so go."
"To my wife?"
"To the police-station if you dare to threaten me. Look here: James Barron, otherwise James Dale, died two years ago."
"Then he has come to life again, that's all," said the man coolly. "Now, look here, you; I've not come to quarrel. I call on you, and of course it must be just dampening at such a time, but, you see, I had no option. It wasn't likely that—be cool, will you? Let that poker rest!"
He spoke savagely, and took a revolver from a hip pocket.
"I say it wasn't likely that you would be pleased to see me, and I'm not surprised at your crying impostor, because, as I well enough know, the papers said I was dead, and for the past two years my beautiful little wife has worn her widow's weeds."
Stratton made a gesture to start forward, but the man sat back in his chair and raised the pistol.
"I'm a very good shot," he said coolly. "Be quiet and listen. I'm an impostor, am I? I was not married to Myra Jerrold, I suppose, directly after the old man had taken her for a continental tour with pretty, merry little Edie Perrin. Bless her—sweet little girl! I'd rather have had her if she had possessed Myra's money. It's all right, my dear sir. I can give you chapter and verse, and commas and full stops, too, if you want satisfying. But you do not; you know it's all true. Why don't I put in my claims? Well, there is that little unpleasantness with the police, and that is why," he continued as he toyed with the revolver. "I object to your calling them in to interfere. No, Mr Malcolm Stratton, I shall not let you call them in for more reasons than one. Ah! you begin to believe me. Let me see now, can I give you a little corroborative evidence? You don't want it, but I will. Did the admiral ever tell you what an excellent player I was at piquet?"
"Yes, I see he did. And how I used to sing 'La ci darem' with Myra, and played the accompaniment myself? Yes, he told you that, too. My dear sir, I have a hundred little facts of this kind to tell you, including my race after Myra's horse when it took fright and she was thrown. By the way, has the tiny little red scar faded from her white temple yet?"
Stratton's face was ghastly now.
"I see I need say no more, sir. You are convinced Myra is my wife. There has been no divorce, you see, so you are at my mercy."
"But she is not at yours," cried Stratton fiercely. "You go back to your cell, sir, and she will never be polluted by the touch of such a scoundrel again."
"Polluted? Strong language, young man, and you are losing your temper. Once more, be cool. You see I have this, and I am not a man to be trifled with. I do not intend to go back to my cell: I had enough of that yonder, but mean to take my ease for the future. These chambers are secluded; a noise here is not likely to be heard, and I should proceed to extremities if you forced me."
"You dare to threaten me?"
"Yes, I dare to threaten you, my dear sir. But keep cool, I tell you. I didn't come here to quarrel, but to do a little business. Did you expect me? I see you have the money ready."
He pointed to the notes—notes to defray a blissful honeymoon trip—and Stratton had hard work to suppress a groan.
"There, I'm very sorry for you, my dear sir," continued the scoundrel, "and I want to be friendly, both to you and poor little Myra—good little soul! She thought me dead; you thought me dead; and I dare say you love each other like pigeons. Next thing, I admired her, but she never cared a sou for me. Well, suppose I say that I'll be dead to oblige you both. What do you say to that?"
Malcolm was silent.
"I never wanted the poor little lass. Frankly, I wanted her money, and the admiral's too—hang the old rascal, he won about fifty pounds of me. But to continue. Now, Mr Malcolm Stratton, time is flying, and the lady will soon be at the church, where you must be first. I tell you that I will consent to keep under the tombstone where the law and society have placed me, for a handsome consideration. What do you propose?"
"To hand you over to the police," said Stratton firmly, but with despair in his tone.
"No, you do not. You propose to give me the money on the table there, to sign an agreement to pay me three hundred a year as long as I keep dead, and then to go and wed your pretty widow, and be off to the continent or elsewhere."
Bigamy—blackmailed by a scoundrel who would make his life a hell— through constant threats to claim his wife—a score of such thoughts flashed through Stratton's brain as he stood there before the cool, calculating villain watching him so keenly. Money was no object to him. Mr Brettison would let him have any amount, but it was madness to think of such a course. There was only one other—to free the innocent, pure woman he idolised from the persecution of such a wretch, and the law would enable him to do that.
Malcolm Stratton's mind was made up, and he stood there gazing full in his visitor's eyes.
"Well," said the man coolly, "time is on the wing, as I said before. How much is there under that letter weight?"
"One hundred and fifty pounds," said Stratton quietly.
"Write me a cheque for three hundred and fifty pounds then, and the bargain is closed."
"Not for a penny," said Stratton quietly.
"You will. The lady is waiting."
"So are the police."
"What!" cried the man, rising slowly and with a menacing look in his countenance. "No fooling, sir. You see this, and you know I shall not be trifled with. Once more let me remind you that a noise here would hardly be heard outside. But you are not serious. The prize for you is too great. Police? How could you marry the lady then? Do you think my proud, prudish little Myra would take you, knowing me to be alive? Stop, will you?" he cried with a savage growl like that of a wild beast, "or, by all that's holy—Here, what are you going to do, fool?"
"Summon the police," cried Stratton, who was half-way to the door, as the man sprang at him with the activity of a panther.
For the next minute there was a desperate struggle, as the men wrestled here and there, both moved by one object—the possession of the deadly weapon.
Then one arm was freed, there was the sharp report of a pistol, and a puff of ill smelling smoke partially hid the struggling pair.
Another shot with the smoke more dense.
A heavy fall.
Then silence—deathlike and strange.
Outside, on the staircase a floor higher, a door was opened; there were steps on the stone landing, and a voice shouted down the well: "Anything the matter?" After a moment another voice was heard: "Nonsense— nothing. Someone banged his oak." There was the sound of people going back into the room above, and in the silence which followed, broken only by the faintly heard strain of some street music at a distance, the door below, on the first floor landing, was opened a little way, the fingers of a hand appearing round the edge, and a portion of a man's head came slowly out, as if its owner was listening.
The door was closed once more as softly as it was opened, and the sun, which had been hidden all the morning by leaden clouds, sent a bright sheaf of golden rays through the dust-incrusted staircase window, straight on to the drab-painted outer door, with the occupant's name thereon in black letters:
Mr Malcolm Stratton.
A BAD QUARTER OF AN HOUR.
"You rang, sir."
"No, confound you! I did not ring."
"Beg pardon, sir, I'm sure, sir. Electric bell's a little out of order, sir. Tell-tales show wrong numbers, sir."
"I engaged a suite of private rooms in this hotel, and there's not a bit of privacy."
"Very sorry, sir, indeed."
"And look here, waiter."
"When you address me it is customary to say Sir Mark."
"Of course, Sir Mark; my mistake, Sir Mark. I'll mind in future."
"Has the carriage arrived?"
"Not yet, Sir Mark."
"Thank you; that will do. No; a moment. The wedding breakfast. Everything is quite ready, I hope?"
"The head waiter has it in 'and, Sir Mark, and the table looks lovely."
"Thanks. Ahem! a trifle now. I shall remember you when I leave. I spoke a little testily just this minute. A little out of order, waiter. Touch of my old fever, caught in the East."
The waiter smiled and bowed as he pocketed a new five-shilling piece, and looked with fresh interest at the fine looking, florid, elderly man who kept pacing the room with a newspaper in his hand as he talked.
"Anything more I can do, Sir Mark, before I leave the room?"
"Hang it all, no, sir," cried the old officer, flashing out once more irritably. "This is not a public dinner, and I have given you a vail."
"Of course, Sir Mark; and I didn't mean—"
"Then why did you use that confounded old stereotyped waiter's expression? I wonder you did not hand me a toothpick."
"I beg your pardon, Sir Mark, I'm sure."
"Go and read 'Peter Simple,' and take Chuck's, the boatswain's, words to heart."
"Certainly, Sir Mark," and the waiter hurried to the door, leaving Admiral Sir Mark Jerrold muttering, and in time to admit a charmingly dressed, fair-haired bridesmaid in palest blue, and wearing a handsome diamond locket at her throat, and a few bright pearls on her cheeks, living pearls, just escaped from her pretty, red-rimmed eyes.
"'Trencher scraping—shilling seeking—napkin carrying.' Ah, Edie, my darling—all ready?"
"Yes, uncle, dear; but, oh, you do look cross!"
She clung to his arm and put up her lips to kiss the old man, whose face softened at her touch.
"No, no, my dear, not cross; only worried and irritable. Hang it, Edie, my pet, it's a horrible wrench to lose her. No hope of that scoundrel Stratton breaking his neck, or repenting, or anything, is there?"
"Oh, uncle dear, don't. Myra is so happy. She does love him so."
"And her poor old father's nobody now."
"You don't think so, uncle," said the girl, smiling through her tears, as she rearranged the old officer's tie, and gave a dainty touch to the stephanotis in the buttonhole of his blue frock coat. "And you know you want to see her happily married to the man she loves, and who loves her with all his heart."
"Heigho! I suppose so."
"And I've come down to ask if you'd like to see her. They're just putting the last finishing touches."
"So we may," cried Sir Mark eagerly. "Does she look nice?"
"Lovely, uncle; all but—"
The girl ceased speaking, and looked conscious.
"Eh? All but what?"
"You will see, uncle, directly. I will not say any more about it. She would have her own way."
"Here, I'll come at once."
"No, no, uncle dear; I'll go and fetch her down."
"And make a parade of her all through this confounded caravanserai of an hotel!" cried the old man testily. "I can't think why she persisted in having it away from home."
"Yes, you can, uncle dear," said the girl soothingly. "It was very, very natural. But do, do be gentle with her. She is so ready to burst into tears, and I want her to go off as happy as the day."
"Of course, Edie, my dear; of course. I'll bottle it all up, and then you and your old fool of an uncle can have a good cry together all to ourselves, eh? But I say, little one, no hitches this time in the anchorage."
"There very nearly was one, uncle."
"What!" roared the old man, flushing.
"But I set it right with a telegram."
"What—what was it? Stratton going to shuffle?"
"Oh, uncle, absurd! The bouquet for the bride had not come."
"Pooh! A woman can be married without a bouquet."
"No, no, uncle! But I sent off a message, and Mr Guest brought it himself."
"Then he has been again."
"Uncle! Why, he's Malcolm Stratton's best man."
"He's the worst man I know. I loathe him."
"You don't, uncle."
"Yes, I do, and I'm not blind. Do you suppose I want to be left to a desolate old age. Isn't it bad enough to lose Myra without—"
"Oh, uncle!" cried the girl, whose cheeks were crimson, "there isn't a moment to lose;" and she darted to the door, leaving the admiral chuckling.
"A wicked little pirate! How soon she showed the red flag aloft. Ah, well, it's nature—nature, and one mustn't be selfish. Not much chance. I don't know what we're born for, unless it's to be slaves to other people."
He turned over his newspaper, and began running down the list of marriages.
"Here they are," he muttered, "all going the same way," and he stood musing sadly upon the question of the young women's quitting the old hives, till the door was opened again and Edie Perrin ushered in her cousin, tall, graceful, and with that indescribable look of love and happiness seen in a bride's eyes on her wedding morn.
"Here she is, uncle," cried Edie, who then uttered a sob, and rushed away with a rustling noise to hide the tears she could not restrain.
"My darling!" cried the old man huskily as he drew his child to his breast; "and am I to feel that it is quite right, and that you are happy?"
"Oh, so happy, father; so content at last—at last," she whispered as she clung to him lovingly. "Only there is one thing."
"Eh? What—what?" cried the admiral excitedly.
"Leaving home and you."
The old man drew a deep breath full of relief.
"Oh, pooh, pooh, nonsense, my pet," he cried, looking at her beautiful pensive face proudly; "don't mind that; I'm glad of it."
"No, no, not to lose you, my darling, but for you to go away with the man you love and who loves you. I hate him for taking you, but he is a splendid fellow, Myra. What a sailor he would have made!"
"If they had not spoiled him by getting all that natural history stuff in his head. But I say, my darling," he continued as he held his child at arm's length, admiring her, but pushing up his hand.
"Isn't this a little too—too punctilious? Very lovely, dear; you look all that a man could wish for, but it's a wedding, my pet, and you—you do not quite look like a bride."
"What do the looks matter?" she said with a dreamy look in her large eyes.
"Well, I don't know. Woman ought to please her husband, and isn't it a mistake to dress—well, to parade that nonsense about your being a widow."
"Nonsense, dear?" said Myra, smiling sadly. "It was no nonsense. Whatever that man may have been I swore at the altar to be his faithful wife."
"Till death did you part, eh? Yes, yes, yes," said the admiral testily, "but he's dead and gone and forgotten; there is no need to dig him up again."
"Well, I mean by going to what will be a real wedding in half mourning."
"Malcolm agreed that I was right, dear."
"Oh, then I'm wrong. Only, if I had known, I should have put my foot down—hard. Why, even Edie was hinting at it just now."
"Let the past rest, dear," said Myra gently.
"After this morning—yes, my darling. But I always feel as if I ought to apologise to you, Myra."
"No, no, dear."
"But I say yes. The clever, plausible scoundrel dazzled me, and I thought your opposition only maidenly shrinking. Yes, dazzled me, with his wit and cheery manners, knowledge of the world, and such a game, too, as he played at piquet. It was ashore, you see, and he was too much for me. If I'd had him at sea it would have been different. I was to blame all through—but you forgive me all the misery I caused you?"
"My dear father!"
"Ah, there I am crushing your dress again. Stratton's a lucky dog, and we'll think it was all for the best."
"Of course, dear."
"Showed what a good true-hearted fellow he was—sort of probationer, eh?"
Myra turned her head. She could not speak—only clung to the parent she was so soon to leave.
"Then good-bye to James Barron, alias Dale, and all his works, Myra. Oh, dear me! In a very short time it will be Mrs Malcolm Stratton, and I shall be all alone."
"No, you will not, uncle," said Edie, who had entered unobserved after letting off a fusillade of sobs outside the door, and her pretty grey eyes a little redder, "and you are not to talk like that to Myra; she wants comforting. Uncle will not be alone, dear, for I shall do all I can to make him happy."
"Bah! A jade, a cheat, my dear. Don't believe her," cried the admiral merrily; "she has a strange Guest in her eye—Hotspur—Percy. Look at her."
"Don't, Myra dear. Kiss uncle and come back to your room," and after a loving embrace between father and daughter the bridesmaid carried off the bride to the room where the travelling trunks lay ready packed, the bridal veil on a chair; and after the last touches had been given to the bride's toilet, the cousins were left alone.
"Now, Myra darling, any more commands for me about uncle? We may not have another chance."
"No, dear," said the bride thoughtfully. "I could say nothing you will not think of for yourself. Don't let him miss me, dear."
"You know I will not. Bless you, pet; you happy darling, you've won the best husband in the world. But how funny it seems to have to go through all this again."
"Hush, dear. Don't—pray don't talk about it."
"I can't help it, Myra; my tongue will talk this morning. Oh, I am so glad that it will be all right this time."
Myra's brow contracted a little, but her cousin rattled on.
"It has always seemed to me such stuff to talk of you as a widow. Oh, Myra, don't look like that. What a stupid, thoughtless thing I am."
She flung her arms about her cousin, and was again bursting into tears when there was a tap at the door, and she shrank away.
One of the lady's maids appeared.
"Sir Mark says, ma'am, that the carriages are waiting, and Miss Jerrold will not come up."
Myra took her bouquet and turned calmly to her cousin as the maid burst out with:
"God bless you, Miss Myra—I mean madame. May you be very happy."
The second maid was at hand to second the wish, and the pair performed a duet in sobs as the cousins swept down the broad staircase to the admiral's room.
"Time, my dear, time," cried Sir Mark jovially. "Come, Edie, aunt will be furious if you keep her any longer."
Edie took his arm, but dropped it again to run and kiss her cousin once again. Then tripping to the old man's side he led her down the broad staircase and across the hall, now pretty well thronged with visitors, and the servants in the background to see the departure.
A carriage was in waiting, with a tall, stern looking, grey lady inside.
"Late, Mark," she said sharply. "Come Edie, my child, and let's get it over."
"You're all alike," said the admiral, as the bridesmaid took her place, the carriage started, and with head erect the old sailor strode back, seeing nobody, and went up to his room, to return soon after, amid a buzz of whispering, proudly leading down the bride.
"And only one bridesmaid," whispered a lady visitor at the hotel.
"Young widow—very private affair—by the lady's wish," was whispered back loudly enough for Myra and her father to hear as they passed down the steps.
"Let them chatter," said the old man to himself. "They haven't seen such a bride for years."
Quite a little crowd followed to the hotel door, there was a general waving of handkerchiefs, and one lady threw a bouquet of white roses as the carriage door was shut with a bang, the servant sprang up, and the next moment the admiral's handsome pair of bays dashed off toward the great West End church.
THE SCENE OF SHAME.
"Poor old chap!" said Percy Guest, with a laugh. "Married? Looked as if he was going to be hanged. Wonder whether I shall be as nervous and upset if—if—I ought to say when—it comes off? No, not likely, bless her. Might be all in a fidget to get it over for fear of a slip, but I don't think I should look like that."
He was approaching the church as these ideas ran through his head, and a glance at the clock showed him that he was half an hour too soon, consequent upon being hurried off by his friend.
"What shall I do?" he thought. "No time to go anywhere else; I'll drop in and hang about in the church as if I did not belong to the party."
Easier said than done. Already there was a little crowd collecting, attracted by the carpet laid up the steps—a little gathering of the people who always do attend weddings—those who wait till the bride arrives and then hurry in to see the service, and those who, being in charge of perambulators, keep entirely outside and block up pavement and porch. Then, too, there were the customary maiden ladies, the officials of the church, the bell ringers, the woman from the crossing at the corner of the square in a clean apron, the butchers', bakers', and fishmongers' boys, and the children—especially those in a top-heavy condition from carrying other children, nearly as big as themselves.
Percy Guest was conscious of a whisper and a buzzing sound as he walked through the gates in what he intended to be a nonchalant fashion, but which proved to be very conscious, and then most conscious as a boy cried:
"'Ere he is, Bill!"
Fortunately the church door was close at hand, but before he entered he was aware that the turncock had joined the throng with three bright instruments over his shoulder, as if his services were likely to be wanted toward the end.
Percy Guest breathed more freely as he stepped into the gloom of the silent church, but was again disconcerted by the beadle in his best gold-braided coat, holding open a green baize door and two pew openers stepping forward apparently bent upon showing him the way up to the chancel.
"Thanks: I'll just look round," he said carelessly; but the words did not convey his meaning, and as he walked slowly into one of the side aisles to study tablets and monuments, he could not read a word for thinking that the two pew openers had seen through him.
"What a fool I am!" he muttered. "Of course they know. Even smell me. Wish I hadn't used that scent."
An archaeologist could not have taken more apparent interest than he in that tablet covered with lines of all lengths, setting forth the good qualities of Robert Smith, "late of this parish," but the study was accompanied by furtive glances at a watch during the longest quarter of an hour the young man ever remembered to have spent.
But it ended at last.
"He'll soon be here now," he said to himself as, carrying his new hat behind him, he made for another tablet nearer the chancel, while divers whispers behind him told of pews being filled by those who wished to have good places, and so another five minutes passed.
"Time he was here," thought the early arrival; and summoning his fortitude ready for being stared at and commented upon, he walked quietly toward the chancel, faced round, and waited, staring blankly at the three or four score of faces watching him eagerly.
"Pleasant!" he said to himself. "Must be some of the friends here, but how confoundedly awkward I do feel. I hate these quiet weddings. Company's good, even if you're going to be hanged. Why isn't Stratton here?"
There were fresh arrivals every minute, and Guest gazed anxiously now toward the door, but the arrivals were all female; and save that the clerk or verger was arranging cushions and books up by the communion table, he was alone, and the centre upon which all eyes were fixed.
"I've done wrong," muttered Guest as he mastered a strong desire to look at his watch, which he knew must now be within five minutes of the time. "I ought to have gone back and brought him on. It's too bad to leave me here like this."
If he could have taken out his handkerchief to have wiped the gathering drops away from his temples he would not have cared so much, for they produced a terrible itching sensation. But no; he must seem cool and collected.
He was conscious now of talking somewhere behind him, in the vestry evidently, a deep utterance suggestive of intoning a service, and a harsh, sharp voice.
The clergyman and just then the clerk came down, passed close by, looked at him, went and opened a pew door, and returned to approach him again with a deprecative cough, as if he were about to speak, but he passed on again, and went back into the vestry.
"Took me for the bridegroom," muttered Guest to himself. "Stratton, you scoundrel, why don't you come? Oh! I'll pay you out for this."
At last! For a figure appeared at the other end of the church. No; it turned into a pew half-way down the centre aisle, and Guest became cold with apprehension as the organ began to peal forth its softest notes to a hushed, shuddering bass, while Guest looked wildly down the church, where, to his horror, there stood a figure in company with a tall, sedate, grey-haired lady dressed in grey; and as these figures approached he for a few moments forgot his agony in a long, rapt contemplation of the bridesmaid's face.
Then he could bear it no longer, and he was about to rush out and go in search of Stratton when he felt that it was too late, for already the admiral was at the door with the bride, and Edie and Miss Jerrold were at his side.
He gave Edie one quick glance full of agony, and then in a hurried whisper to the admiral's sister:
"Miss Jerrold, for goodness' sake ask Sir Mark to step into the vestry. Stratton has not come."
Too late—too late! The organ was still giving forth its introductory strain; the two clergymen moved out of the vestry, and took their places; Sir Mark and Myra were close up, and the clerk came forward and signed to Guest to stand in the bridegroom's place.
Before he could think, the admiral's lips were close to his ear, and the sharp whisper thrilled him as if it had been a roar.
"I—he was to meet me—I—I'll go and see."
The words were stammered forth in a whisper, and no one better than he felt how tame and paltry they sounded, while as, hat in hand, he hurried down the aisle, running the gauntlet of a couple of hundred eyes, it seemed as if they stung him, that the looks were more mocking than wondering, while, raging with annoyance, the few yards felt lengthened out into a mile.
Through the baize doors, and under the portico, but no sign of the brougham with the pair of greys that was to bring the bridegroom.
What to do; jump into a hansom and bid the man gallop to Benchers' Inn?
It would take best part of an hour, and Stratton must be there directly. He would wait and see, even if everyone in the crowd was staring at him wonderingly, while the cold sweat stood out in big drops upon his face.
"What is the meaning of this?" said a stern voice at his elbow, and Guest turned to face the admiral, whose florid countenance was mottled with white.
A few words of explanation followed and then:
"I'll take a hansom and gallop off to his chambers."
"No," said Sir Mark in a low, hoarse voice. "An insult to my child! It is atrocious!"
The old man turned and strode back, while, hardly knowing what he did, Guest followed him between the two rows of curious faces to where Myra stood, perfectly firm and self-contained, while Edie was trembling visibly, and clinging to Miss Jerrold's arm.
As Sir Mark reached his daughter there was a loud whispering in the church, which was suppressed by several hushes! as one of the clergymen approached the wedding party, all present being eager to catch his words as the contretemps was now grasped.
"Will you step into the vestry for a few minutes? Some trifling mishap, perhaps—to the carriage or one of the horses. Perhaps an error about the time."
"No, no," said the admiral sternly. "We will wait here, sir. No; Myra, take my arm; you shall not submit to this."
She was deadly pale, but she made no movement to obey.
"Not yet," she said in a low voice. "We must wait."
"It is impossible, I tell you!" cried the admiral loudly, for his rage and mortification would have their way. "My dear girl! Hold up your head; the shame is not yours. Guest, take my sister and niece to the other carriage." Then, snatching Myra's hand, he led her back to the door, his grey beard and moustache seeming to bristle as his eyes flashed rage and defiance from side to side, till they reached the portico, where a man stepped forward.
"The bells, sir?" he whispered deferentially; "the ringers are all here?"
That was the last straw—a brazen one.
With an angry snort the admiral caught the man by the shoulder and swung him out of the way, signalling directly after for his carriage, which, as the coachman and footman had not expected to be wanted for some time yet, stood right away, with the servants chatting by the horses' heads.
Not above a minute before the carriage was drawn up, but it was like an age to those who listened to the whispering and giggling going on.
For the words "No bridegroom!" had reached the little crowd outside as soon as the retiring wedding party; and as Guest heard a remark or two made, there was a singing in his ears, and an insane desire to rush at some staring idiot and thrash him within an inch of his life.
But he glanced at Myra as he pressed Edie's hand against his side, and saw that the bride's head was erect and that she stepped proudly into the carriage. Then the admiral took his seat by her side and said firmly:
"To the hotel, sir?" said the footman.
"Home!" roared Sir Mark.
The footman sprang up to his seat, the carriage was driven off, and with the crowd increasing Miss Jerrold's took its place.
"Quick, Mr Guest," whispered the admiral's sister. "She is fainting."
He had felt Edie's hand pressing more and more upon his arm, but in his excitement this had not struck him as extraordinary; but now, as his attention was drawn to her, she dropped her bouquet, and in his effort to save her from sinking to the pavement the beautiful bunch of flowers was crushed under foot.
The next minute he had lifted the poor girl into the carriage, and handed the admiral's stern looking sister to her side.
Darting a look of agony at Edie's white face and the wreath and veil fallen aside, Guest drew back for the door to be closed, but Miss Jerrold made an imperious sign.
"No, no; come with us," she said hoarsely. "You must help me; and explain. I dare not face my brother alone."
Guest sprang into the carriage, the door was shut quickly, and the footman leaped to his place as the horses started forward with a loud trampling of hoofs, but not quickly enough to take them beyond the hearing of a derisive cheer.
A BRAVE DEFENCE.
"The hotel! The idiot! To want to take us back there to face the half-hidden mockery and jokes of all those strangers. Oh, it's maddening!"
Sir Mark leaned forward, lowered the front window, and shouted to the coachman to drive faster.
"I saw them," he continued as he flung himself back in his seat, "the whole mob in the church sniggling with delight. Curse them! And that fellow, Stratton! If ever we stand face to face again I'll—Oh, I hope he will never have the audacity to come near me, for his own sake."
Myra had been sitting perfectly upright, looking as if suffering from some cataleptic seizure; but at the mention of Stratton she turned and laid her hand upon her father's arm.
"Oh, yes, of course!" he raged, with a mocking laugh. "Womanlike; a hundred excuses ready for him: cut himself in shaving—wedding clothes not home in time—sprained his ankle—a bad headache. Oh, you women, you women! If ever there were a pack of fools—"
That one word only, but full of so much agony that he turned and caught her to his breast.
"Brute! Senseless brute!" he literally growled. "Thinking of myself, of my own feelings, and not of you, my own."
Then raging again, with his countenance purple, and the veins of his temples starting:
"But you! To insult you, my child, and after that other horrible affair. How a man—who professed to worship you—could subject you to such an outrage—to such infamy! I tell you it is maddening."
"Father!" once more in a piteous tone.
"No; you shall not plead for him, my darling. You have behaved nobly. Like a true, self-respecting English lady. No acting, no silly girlish fainting, but like my daughter. You must go on, though. This scoundrel must be shown that he cannot insult you with impunity."
"Listen, father," she whispered after a desperate effort to restrain the hysterical burst of agony striving for exit.
"I will not. There is no excuse, Myra. A telegram—a messenger—his friend and best man. Nothing done. The man is—no; he is no man. I'll—my lawyer shall—no; I'll go myself. He shall see that—Silence! Be firm. Don't move a muscle. Take my arm when I hand you out, and not a word till we are in the drawing room."
For the carriage had stopped, after a rapid course, at Sir Mark's house in Bourne Square, where they had to wait some minutes before, in response to several draggings at the bell, the door was opened by an elderly housemaid.
"Why was not this door answered? Where is Andrews?" thundered the admiral as the footman came in, looking startled, and closed the door behind which the housemaid stood, looking speechless at her master's unexpected return.
"Shall the carriage wait, Sir Mark?" interposed the footman.
"No! Stop; don't open that door. I said, why was this door not answered?"
"I'm very sorry, Sir Mark," faltered the woman, who was trembling visibly. "I was upstairs cleaning myself."
"Bah! Where is Andrews? Where are the other servants?"
"They all went to the wedding, Sir Mark."
"Father—upstairs—I can bear no more," whispered Myra.
Brought back to his child's suffering, the admiral hurried her up to the drawing room and let her sink back on a couch. Then, turning to the bell, he was about to ring for help, but Myra rose.
"No; don't ring," she said in a hoarse whisper. "I'm better now."
At that moment Miss Jerrold's carriage stopped at the door, and directly after Sir Mark's sister appeared with Edie, who, looking white and scared, ran at once to her cousin and clung to her, uttering violent sobs.
"Silence, Edie!" thundered the admiral. "Look at your cousin. You must be a woman now. Ah, here you are, then!" he continued fiercely as Percy Guest entered.
"Yes; I came up for a moment before I go on there."
"I'm glad you've come," cried the old man furiously, and leaping at someone upon whom he could vent his rage. "Now, then, explain, you dog. What does that villain—that scoundrel—mean by insulting me—my child, like this? Damn him! I'll—"
"Stop, Sir Mark!" cried Guest firmly. "You don't know what you are saying."
"And I will not stand here and have my dear old friend and schoolfellow insulted by such words."
"Insulted!" cried Sir Mark, with a harsh laugh; "insulted?"
"Yes, sir. Malcolm Stratton is the soul of honour—a gentleman who would have laid down his life sooner than cause pain to the lady he loves with all his heart."
"God bless you for that, Mr Guest!" cried Myra—catching the young man's hand as she spoke—in a broken voice, which she fought hard to render calm.
"Bah! Heroics! Come away, Myra. Of course he'll talk big for his friend. But where is he? Why has he insulted us all like this?"
"Heaven only knows, sir," said Guest solemnly. "Forgive me for speaking as I do before you, Mrs Barron, but at the cost of alarming you I must take Malcolm's part. I saw him this morning at his chambers, ready almost to come on. He placed Miss Perrin's telegram in my hands—about the bouquet—and begged me to see to it at once—to take the flowers to the hotel, and meet him at the church."
"Yes—yes!" cried Myra eagerly, and her large, dark eyes were dilated strangely.
"I did not pay any heed to it then, for I attributed it to anxiety and nervous excitement."
"What, Mr Guest?" cried Myra piteously.
"His appearance, Mrs Barron. There was a peculiar wild look in his eyes, and his manner was strange and excited. Some seizure must have been coming on."
"Yes, yes; it is that," said Myra hoarsely, and she hurriedly tore off gloves, veil, and ornaments.
"He was quite well last night," said the admiral scornfully. "It was a trick to get rid of you. I'll never believe but what it is all some deeply laid plan."
"You do not know what you are saying, Sir Mark, or I would resent your words. Mrs Barron, I will come back directly I obtain tidings of my poor friend. You know him better than to think ill of him."
"Yes, yes," cried Myra, speaking firmly now, but in a low, hurried murmur. "But stop, Mr Guest; stop!"
He turned sharply, for he was already at the door.
"Wait for me—only a few minutes. Edie—quick; help."
Her cousin flew to her side.
"Myra!" cried the admiral fiercely; "what are you going to do?"
"Change my dress," she said with unnatural calmness. "Go to him."
"Where should I be but at his side?"
"Impossible, girl! You shall not degrade yourself like this!" cried the admiral; and Miss Jerrold caught her niece's hands.
"There would be no degradation, Sir Mark," said Guest firmly; "but, Mrs Barron, you cannot go. For years Malcolm has been like my brother. He had no secrets from me, and I can tell you from my heart that there is but one reason for his absence—a sudden seizure. Don't keep me, though, pray. Stay here and wait my return. Unless,"—he added quickly, with a deprecating glance at Sir Mark.
"What! I—go with you to hunt up the man and beg him to come? Pshaw!"
"Mark, it is your duty to go," said his sister sternly. "I don't believe Mr Stratton would insult us like this."
"Then for once in my life, madam, I will not do my duty!" cried the admiral furiously. "It is not the only occasion upon which a man has gained the confidence of his friends. It is not the first time I have been so cruelly deceived. I can see it plainly. Either, like a pusillanimous coward, he turned tail, or there is some disgraceful entanglement which holds him back!"
"Father, it is not true!" cried Myra angrily. "How dare you insult me like that?"
"Yes, in the person of the man I love—my husband, but for this terrible mischance. You do not mean it; you are mad with anger, but you will go with Mr Guest at once."
"Never!" roared the admiral.
"For my sake," she cried as she flung her arms about his neck and clung to him. "I give up—I will not attempt to go there myself—you are quite right; but," she murmured now, so that her words were almost inaudible to all but him for whom they were intended, "I love him, dear, and he is in pain and suffering. Go to him; I cannot bear it. Bring him to me, or I shall die."
The admiral kissed her hastily, and she clung to him for a moment or two longer as he drew a long, deep breath.
"My own dearest father," she whispered, and she would have sunk at his feet, but he gently placed her in a lounge chair and turned to Guest.
"Now, sir," he said, as if he were delivering an order from the quarter-deck, "I am at your service."
Myra sprang from her chair and caught her aunt's arm, looking wildly in her eyes; and the meaning of the look was grasped.
"Stop a moment, Mark," she said. "My carriage is waiting. You may want a woman there; I'll come with you."
"You?" cried her brother. "Absurd!"
"Not at all," said the lady firmly. "Mr Guest, take me down to my carriage; I shall come."
Sir Mark frowned, but said no more; he merely glanced back as Myra now gave up and sank in her cousin's arms, while, as Miss Jerrold went down, her lips tightened, and she looked wonderfully like her brother, as she said to herself:
"Thank goodness! No man ever wanted to marry me."
"Benchers' Inn," said Guest sharply as the footman closed the carriage door, and the trio sat in silence, each forming a mental picture of that which they were going to see.
GUEST THINKS THE WORST.
"Myra! My own darling!" sobbed Edie.
"Hush! No, I must talk. If I think in silence I shall go mad."
"O Myra, Myra, are you never to be really married after all?"
The bride made a hurried motion with her hands, then pressed them to her temples and thrust back her hair.
"It makes me think of two years ago, dear," whispered Edie, "and all the horrors of that day."
"Yes; is it fate?" said Myra hoarsely as she sat gazing at vacancy.
"But I'll never believe that Malcolm Stratton could do wrong," whispered Edie, caressing and trying to soothe the sufferer as she clung to her side. "It couldn't have been that this time, or else Percy would not be such friends."
Myra bent forward with her eyes dilated as if she were gazing at something across the room.
"Your poor hands are so cold and damp, and your forehead burning hot. O Myra, Myra! I did not think that two such terrible days could come in one poor girl's life."
"Edie," said Myra in a husky whisper, "you saw Malcolm last night?"
"Yes, dear, of course."
"You did not see anything strange in his manner?"
"No; only that he was half-mad with joy, and when he kissed me and said good-night—you remember?"
"He said he was the happiest man alive."
"Yes; I remember the exact words."
"And he hoped that soon—"
Edie stopped with a faint flush in her cheeks.
Myra nodded quickly, but without ceasing to gaze straight away into vacancy.
"But there was nothing strange—he was quite well—he said nothing else to you?"
"No, dear; nothing that I can recall."
"Are you sure he dropped no hint? Nothing that could make you think he did not wish to marry me?"
"No, no, no, dear. He was longing to call you his very own. He said so—to me. But don't look like that, darling; you frighten me. What are you thinking?"
Myra was silent, and her aspect was so strange that Edie shook her excitedly.
"Myra, darling—don't!" she cried.
"I was thinking was it possible that, after all, he could repent," said Myra in low, measured tones. "Whether, knowing all, he shrank from me at the moment when a few words would have made it irrevocable."
"But why—why, darling?" cried Edie in alarm.
"You cannot grasp it as he would. I—married, and under such circumstances. Love is blind, Edie, and he, poor fellow, may have been blinded in his love—his old love for me. But what if the veil dropped away from his eyes at last, and he could not, he dared not face it—the sacrifice for him! Edie, it was that, and I forgive him, for I loved him with all my heart."
Startled by her cousin's looks and words, Edie now caught her hands and stood over her, speaking impetuously, almost angrily.
"For shame!" she cried. "Malcolm Stratton would never have acted like that. O Myra; how could you think it of him? So manly and open and frank in everything. Oh, no, no, no; it could not be that."
Myra turned to her quickly and clung to the hands which grasped hers, as if sinking in her despair, and clutching at one more chance for life.
"Say—say that again," she whispered huskily.
"I'll say it a hundred times, but there is no need. Malcolm could not treat you like this of his own freewill. He must be—he is ill, and that is all."
"If I could only think so," said Myra as if to herself. "If I could only believe it was that; but no, no," she wailed now, breaking down utterly, and snatching away her hands to cover her convulsed face; "the truth has been too strong at last, and he has gone."
"Myra!" cried Edie. "Hush! You shall not give way like this. How can you be so weak? It is madness. If he had treated you so shamefully, and turned away, you could not—you should not, take it to heart. Where is your woman's pride? To give way, believing such an infamy, is dreadful. But I tell you it isn't—it can't be true. There, there, be calm, my darling. Be patient till they come back. He has studied too hard lately—that's it. I've noticed how pale and worried he looked at times, and with this excitement—you heard what Percy said—he has broken down. There, that's the truth. He's ill, and will soon be better, and all will come right, Myra! my darling coz. Don't turn like that. Oh—help! help! help!"
She thrust her cousin back so that her head rested on the lounge, for a deathly look had come over the beautiful face, the eyes were half-closed, sending a chill of horror through the startled girl, who now tore frantically at the bell.
"A doctor—they must fetch a doctor. No; Percy must come back to tell her the simple truth, for I am right: Malcolm Stratton could not treat her as she thinks."
And Percy Guest was on the way to put it to the test.
For some little distance not a word was spoken in the carriage, each of its occupants being full of his or her own thoughts.
Miss Jerrold was the first to break the silence. For, as she sat there stern and uncompromising, thinking of the duty she had voluntarily undertaken in answer to the appeal in her niece's eyes, which plainly asked that she would stand between father and lover in any encounter which might take place, she noted that she was still holding the bouquet of exotics she had borne to the church.
A look of annoyance and disgust crossed her face.
"Here, Mr Guest," she said sharply; "let down the window and throw these stupid flowers away."
Guest started, and hesitated about taking the bouquet, but it was pressed into his hand, and he was about to lower the window when the lady interposed.
"No; it would be waste," she cried. "Wait till we see some poor flower girl, and give it to her."
The window on her right was let down sharply; then the flowers were snatched from her hand, and thrown out into the road by Sir Mark, who dragged the window up again with an angry frown.
"As you please, Mark," said the lady quietly; "but the flowers might have been worth shillings to some poor soul."
Silence reigned once more as the wheels spun round. Oxford Street was reached and crossed, the coachman turning down into and across Grosvenor Square, and then in and out, avoiding the main streets, till the last, when the busy thoroughfare was reached near its eastern end, and the carriage was drawn up at the narrow, court-like entrance to the quiet, secluded inn.
Heads were turned directly, among those whose attention was taken being a barrister in wig and gown, just on his way to the court, where Mr Justice Blank was giving his attention to a divorce case.
Miss Jerrold saw the legal gentleman's smile, and guessed its meaning.
"How stupid!" she muttered. Then, as the footman came to the door: "Edward," she whispered hurriedly, "take that stupid satin bow from your breast. Tell Johnson, too."
The favour disappeared as the door was thrown open, and Sir Mark sprang out to go straight on toward the inn; then, recollecting himself, he turned to help his sister alight.
But he was too late. Percy Guest had performed that duty, and the lady took his arm and followed the admiral on into the calm silence of the old inn, past the porter's lodge, unnoticed by its occupant; then on across the square, under its shady plane trees, toward the fine old red brick mansion in the corner, with its iron lamp support and curious old link extinguishers on either side.
The place was utterly deserted, and so still that the creaking of the admiral's new boots sounded loud and strange, while as they mounted the worn steps and entered the gloomy hall of the old place it struck chilly and damp, while the great stone staircase had a look that seemed forbidding and strange.
"You have brought us here," said Sir Mark, stopping short at the foot of the stairs. "Go first."
He gave place to Guest, who led Miss Jerrold on and up the two flights to the broad landing, upon which the doors of Brettison's and Stratton's chambers opened.
"One moment while I get my breath," panted Miss Jerrold; "I'm not so young as I used to be, Mr Guest."
The admiral frowned, and stood scowling at the legend on the door, but it seemed cold and blank now, for there was no ray of sunshine to make the letters stand out clear. All looked murky and grim, and the utter silence of the place was impressive as that of a tomb.
As they stood there on the landing Guest hesitated for a moment or two, an undefinable feeling of dread having attacked him; there was a curious ringing in the ears, and his heart beat with a heavy throb.
He was brought back to his duty by the cold, stern voice of the admiral.
"Well, Mr Guest," he said again with a cold formality of tone, "you have brought us here,"—and he waved his hand toward the door.
Guest sprang forward, knocked sharply, and stood back to wait, while Miss Jerrold drew a long, hissing breath, perfectly audible in the silence.
There was no response, and the chirping of the inn sparrows came painfully loud through an open window somewhere above.
"What a dismal place for a man to choose," muttered Miss Jerrold. "Had you not better knock again?"
Guest repeated the summons, and the admiral leaned forward, listening attentively.
Still there was no reply; and, growing agitated now, Guest once more knocked loudly, with the repetition of the knocker, telling plainly of the trembling hand of him who raised it and let it fall.
He drew back, to stand listening intently till Miss Jerrold spoke.
"He must be out," said the lady quietly. "Knock again, Mr Guest."
The knocker once more raised the echoes of the weird-looking old staircase, and then died out above with a peculiar whisper, while Guest's heart sank within his breast as a dozen fancies now took possession of him, and horror prevailed.
"We cannot stay here," said Miss Jerrold. "Mr Guest, will you see me to my carriage again? Mr Stratton must be out. Gone to Bourne Square, and we have passed him on the way."
"No!" thundered the admiral; "he is within there, hiding, like the cur he is, and afraid to face me!"
Guest turned upon him angrily.
"Come away, sister," growled the old man; "I am right."
"No, sir; I swear you are wrong," cried Guest.
"What? Why, I saw the change in your face, man, when I heard a rustling noise in there. You heard it too. Deny it if you can."
Guest was silent for a moment, and he stood with his eyes fixed upon the letter-box, as if expecting to see the cover of the slit move.
"I am not going to deny it, sir; I did hear a sound," he said. "If he is here he shall come out and face you, and tell the truth and reason of his absence. It is illness, I am sure."
As he spoke he once more seized the knocker and beat out a heavy roulade.
But still there was no reply, and, taking his sister's hand, the admiral drew it through his arm.
"Illness?" he said in a low growl. "Yes, the shivering fit of a coward or a cur."
"It is not true!" cried Guest excitedly as a thought flashed across his brain. "I remember now: he had a heavy sum of money on the table when I was here, and—Great Heavens! is it that?"
His manner was contagious, and his face conveyed his terrible thoughts to his companions.
Miss Jerrold clung to her brother, and turned ghastly pale, while a look of horror contracted the old man's face.
"You—you don't think—" he stammered.
"I think the worst, or my poor friend would have been with us."
"Man—for God's sake don't say that," gasped the admiral, as Guest stepped back to the full extent of the landing.
"There is some mystery here."
"Stop! What are you going to do?" cried Sir Mark, catching at his arm.
"Stand aside, sir; I am going to burst open that door."
TWO YEARS BEFORE.
Blue sky, the bluest of blue water, margined with green and gold; gloriously rugged, steeply sloping pasture alps, dotted with picturesquely carved chalets, weatherworn by sun and rain to a rich, warm brown; higher up, the sehn hutte—the summer farmsteads of the peasants, round and about which graze gentle, soft-faced cows, each bearing its sweet-toned, musical bell. Again, higher still, grey crag and lightning-blasted granite, bare, repellant, and strange; upward still, and in nook and cranny patches of a dingy white, like the sweepings up of a great hailstorm; another thousand feet up, and the aching eyes dazzled by peak, fold, cushion, and plain of white—the eternal ice; and, above all, the glorious sun beaming down, melting from the snows a million tiny rivers, which whisper and sing as they carve channels for their courses and meet and coalesce to flow amicably down, or quarrel and rage and rush together, till, with a mighty, echoing roar, they plunge headlong down the rift in some mighty glacier, flow on for miles, and reappear at the foot turbid, milky, and laden with stone, to hurry headlong to their purification in the lovely lake below.
Two hundred feet above that lake, on a broad shelf, stood the Hotel des Cerfs, a magnified chalet, and in the wooden balcony, leaning upon the carved rail, and gazing at the wondrous view across lake and meadow, up and away to the snow-covered mountains till they blended with the fleecy clouds, stood Myra Jerrold and Edie Perrin—cousins by birth, sisters by habit—revelling in their first visit to the land of ice peak, valley, and lake.
"I could stand here, I think, forever, and never tire of drinking in the beauties of such a scene, Edie. It makes me so happy; and yet there are moments when the tears come into my eyes, and I feel sad."
"Yes, I know, dear," replied Edie. "That's when you want your lunch or dinner. One feels faint."
"How can you be so absurd?" cried Myra half reproachfully.
"Then it's indigestion, from eating old goat."
"It is, dear," said the merry, fair-haired girl, swinging her straw hat by one string over the balcony. "I'm sure they save up the goats when they're too old to give any milk, to cook up for the visitors, and then they call it chamois. I wish Aunt Jerrold had been here to have some of that dish last night. I say, she wants to know when we are coming back to Bourne Square."
"I don't know," said Myra thoughtfully. "I am in no hurry. It is very beautiful here."
"Hum, yes. You like it—as well as Saint Malo, the boating, and that quaint Breton woman where we lodged?"
"Of course. The flowers and the pine woods—it is one glorious garden. Papa liked the yachting, though."
"Yes; but after three months out here I shall be glad to see smoky old London again."
"Yes," said Myra meaningly, "I suppose so."
Edie glanced at her sidewise in a quick, sharp way, but was silent for a few minutes. When her cousin spoke:
"Let's go and coax papa out for a good ramble till dinner—I mean supper—time."
"No good; he would not come. Piquet, coffee, and cigars. Do you like this Mr Barron, Myra?"
"Oh, yes, well enough. He is very clever and well informed. He can talk pleasantly about anything, especially about yachting and the sea, and of course papa likes that."
"Talks too much, I think. I'd rather sit and listen to quiet, thoughtful Mr Stratton."
"I suppose so," said Myra rather dryly; and then hastened to add, "and Mr Guest."
"Yes, and to Mr Guest," said her cousin, again looking at her sharply, and as if the words had stung.
Myra met her glance, and hurriedly changed the conversation.
"Look, what a change there is on the lake, dear," she said. "How glowing the water is."
"Yes, and yet some people prefer playing cards to studying nature."
"Papa is no longer young. He has enjoyed scenery all over the world and likes rest now, and a game of cards."
"I was not talking about uncle, dear."
"About Mr Barron, then? Dear me, what a sagacious nod. Edie dear, don't think out romances. Let's enjoy the matter of fact and real. Ready for a walk?"
Edie held up her hat by one string, and put it on ready to descend with her cousin to a lower balcony, on another frontage of the house, where, seated at a table, with coffee, cigars, and a pack of cards, was the admiral, and, facing him, a rather heavily built man, with some pretensions to being handsome. He was plainly and well dressed, of the easy manners of one accustomed to all kinds of society, and apparently rather proud of his white, carefully tended hands.
As he turned a little more to the light in bending to remove the ash from his cigar, streaks of grey showed in his closely cut beard and crisp, dark hair. In addition there was a suggestion of wrinkling about the corners and beneath his eyes, the work more of an arduous life than age.
As he rose to replace the cigar between his lips he smiled carelessly.
"Luck's with you to-day, admiral," he said; and he was in the act of shuffling his cards when he caught sight of his companion's daughter and niece.
In an instant the cards were thrown down, and the cigar jerked out of the window.
"What's the matter?" said the admiral. "Ah, girls!"
"We're come to ask you to go for a walk with us, papa, but if—"
Myra's eyes rested for a moment on the admiral's companion, and then dropped to the cards.
"Our game?" said the younger man quickly. "Oh, that's nothing; we can play any time, Miss Jerrold, and the weather is lovely now. Why not accompany the ladies, sir?"
"No, thanks; I get more walking than I care for. Don't go far, girls; the mountains are full of goblins and dragons, which devour pretty maidens. Be back soon, and I'll go and sit down with you by the lake. Now, Barron, your deal."
The gentleman addressed looked at the ladies, and shrugged his shoulders slightly as much as to say. "You see I have no alternative."
"Then you will not come, papa?" said Myra as she rested her hands on his shoulders.
"No, my dear; too tired. Don't spoil my luck by stopping; run along."
"Uncle talks to us as if we were two little tots of things, Myry," said Edie as they crossed the hotel garden.
"Well, why should we not always be to him like the girls he loves and pets?"
James Barron thought the same as Edie as he dealt the cards, and he added to himself: "She resents it; I could see her brow wrinkle. That settles it; I'll chance the throw."
"Ha! Now we can be at peace again," cried the admiral as he settled himself to his hand, which he played out, and ended by winning the game.
James Barron took up the pack again nervously, threw it down, thrust his hand into his pocket, and then passed a couple of louis across the table.
"Cut," said the admiral.
His vis-a-vis shook his head, took out a case, and carefully selected a cigar, which he proceeded to cut and light.
"Oh, nonsense, man! The luck will change; my turn to-day, your's to-morrow."
"Pooh! It isn't that, Sir Mark," said Barron, throwing himself back in his chair. "I can afford to lose a few louis. I'm a bit hipped—out of sorts."
"No, sir; brain. There, I'll speak plainly, even at the risk of your laughing at me, for we have been friends now at several places during the last three months—since I met you at Saint Malo."
"Pleasant acquaintances, sir," said the admiral, metaphorically drawing himself beneath the shell of his English reserve. "Mutual tastes— yachting. Acquaintances, sir."
"I beg your pardon; acquaintances, then."
There was a pause, during which the admiral also lit a fresh cigar, and his brows twitched a little.
"Sir Mark, I'm a plain man, and I think by this time you pretty well know my history. I ought to be over in Trinidad superintending the cocoa estate my poor father left me, but I detest the West Indies, and I love European life. It is my misfortune to be too well off. Not rich, but I have a comfortable, modest income. Naturally idle, I suppose."
"Nonsense, sir!" said the admiral gruffly. "One of the most active men I ever met."
"Thank you. Well, idle, according to the accepted ideas of some of the Americans we meet abroad. Dollars—making dollars—their whole conversation chinks of the confounded coin, and their ladies' dresses rustle with greenbacks. I hate money-making, but I like money for my slave, which bears me into good society and among the beauties of nature. Yes, I am an idler—full, perhaps, of dilettantism."
"Rather a long preface, Mr Barron," said Sir Mark gruffly. "Make headway, please. What is it you wish to say?"
"I think you know, sir," said the other warmly. "I lived to thirty-seven, hardly giving a thought to the other sex, save as agreeable companions. I met you and your niece and daughter over yonder at Macugnaga, and the whole world was changed."
"I am not a boy, sir. I speak to you as a man of the world, and I tell you plainly that I love her as a strong man only can love."
"Don't trifle with me, sir!" cried Barron, bringing his hand down heavily upon the table, and gazing almost fiercely in the old sailor's eyes.
"Humph! my daughter, then. And you have told her all this?"
"Sir Mark Jerrold! Have I ever given you cause to think I was other than a gentleman?"
"No, no," said the admiral hastily. "I beg your pardon. But this is all very sudden; we are such new acquaintances."
"You might call it friends," said Barron reproachfully.
"No; acquaintances—yet," said the old sailor sturdily.
"Then you do give me some hope?" cried Barron excitedly.
"No, I did not, sir. I'm out of soundings here. No; hang it, I meant to say, sir, in shoal water. Hang it, man, I don't want the child to think about such things for years."
"Sir Mark, your daughter must be twenty."
"Eh? Twenty? Humph! Well, I suppose she is."
"There is no hurry, sir. Let matters go on as they are, only let it be an understood thing that you do, say in a latent may, encourage my suit."
"No, sir; I'll bind myself to nothing; I—Oh, hang it all, man, why did you spoil a pleasant trip like this?"
"Spoil it, Sir Mark? Have some compassion for the natural feelings of a man thrown into the society of so sweet a girl as—"
"That will do, sir; that will do," cried the admiral, frowning. "There; I'm not going to quarrel with you, Mr Barron. I was young once myself. I was a good sailor, I'm told, but this sort of thing is out of my latitude. If my poor wife had lived—Phew! it's growing hot, isn't it? Thunderstorm, I suppose."
"I'm very sorry, Sir Mark."
"So am I, sir," said the admiral. "There's an end to our trip."
"Sir Mark! Don't talk like that. I'll leave the hotel to-morrow. I would not on any consideration—"
"That will do, Mr Barron; that will do. I'm a man of few words, and what I say I mean. This can go no further here."
"You don't mean that you will go away?"
"Back to England, sir, and home as fast as I can."
"But my proposal, sir?"
"I have a sister there, sir, my counsellor in all matters concerning my two girls."
"But you will give me leave to call—in England?"
"Tchah, man! You'll forget it all in a month."
"You will give me leave to call at your house?"
"As a gentleman, sir, I can hardly refuse that."
Barron smiled and bowed.
"I see, sir. I have been too hasty, Admiral Jerrold. I ask you as a favour, if you do carry out your hasty decision, to make some inquiries respecting Mr Barron of Trinidad."
"I shall, sir, of course," said the admiral. "You'll excuse me now; I'm going to join my niece and daughter."
He left the veranda gallery, puffing heavily at his cigar, while Barron stood watching him.
"Hit or miss?" he muttered. "Hit, I think, and game worth bringing down. She's cold. Well, naturally, I don't think I managed it so badly, after all."
"Oh, here's uncle," said Edie half an hour later as she saw the big, burly figure of the old sailor approaching. "Oh, you dear, good old uncle. Come and sit down here, and you can see the colour changing on the ice peaks."
"No, no, no. Come back, girls, and pack up. We're off by the first train to-morrow."
"Where to now, papa?"
"Bourne Square, W., my dear, as soon as we can get there. Come along!"
"Myry—Mr Barron passed as we came into the hotel, and only raised his hat."
"Have papa and he had some misunderstanding over the cards?"
"Perhaps: over the hearts."
"Edie!" cried Myra, colouring. "What do you mean?"
"He has been proposing for you, and uncle said no; and now he is going to carry us off home to be safe."
"Proposed for me," said Myra thoughtfully, and in the most unruffled way, as her eyes assumed a dreamy, wondering look.
"Of course, and you love him dearly, don't you?"
"I? Oh, no," said Myra calmly.
"What a strange girl she is!" thought Edith that night as she went to bed.
And Myra said to herself again calmly and thoughtfully: "Proposed for me. Perhaps Edie is right. But how strange!"
"Yes, sir, it's done," said Mrs Brade, looking sadly in at the doorway on the left side of the fire; "and I hope it will turn out all right, but my experience of pipes is that they always busties in the winter, and drowns all your neighbours out on the next floor."
"Well, I hope this will be an exception," said Stratton, laughing.
"I hope so, too, sir, but it's no laughing matter, and for my part— though, of course, gentlemen have a right to do as they like—I think there is nothing like a big, flat, zinc bath painted oak out, and white in, set on a piece of oilcloth in a gentleman's bedroom. Then you've your big sponge, and a can of water. No trouble about them getting out of order."
"But the trouble, Mrs Brade," said Stratton. "No filling; no anything."
"No, sir, of course not; but you're always at the mercy of the plumbers; and if these men don't always leave their work so that it'll make another job before long, I'm not a Christian woman."
"Oh, you object to it because it's new-fashioned," said Stratton merrily.
"Which, begging your pardon, I don't, sir. What I do object to is your taking up a beautiful closet to make into a bath room; and out of your sitting room, and none too much cupboard room before. If it had been a cupboard in your bedroom I shouldn't have said a word."
"But there was no cupboard there, Mrs Brade, and that closet fitted exactly, so say no more about it."
"Certainly not, sir, if you don't wish it; and only too glad am I to have got rid of the workmen; though as I lay in bed last night I said to my husband, 'Mark my word, John, if Mr Brettison don't go having a bath made in his room, for there's the fellow-closet as matches Mr Stratton's exactly.'"
"To be sure, I never thought of that," said Stratton merrily. "I'll give him a hint."
"Mr Stratton, sir, if you've any respect for me and my rheumatism, don't. The place smells horrid as it is of paint, and French polish, and plumbers, without counting the mess they made, and if you'll be guided by me you'll buy a sixpenny box of pastilles and let me burn one every day till the smell of workmen's gone."
"Oh, I don't mind the smell, Mrs Brade. By George, yes, Mr Brettison ought to have a bath put in his."
"Mr Stratton, sir, don't, please. He's sure to if you say a word; and if the workmen come again we shall be having the whole place tumbling about our ears."
"I hope not. Oh, the old place is strong enough."
"I don't know, sir," said the porter's wife, shaking her head; "it's a very old and tumble-down sort of place, and I've heard noises, and crackings, and rappings, sometimes, as have made my flesh creep. They do say the place is haunted."
"Worse, sir. Oh, I'm told there were strange goings on here in the old times, when a Lord Morran lived here. I've heard that your cupboard—"
"Well, sir, bath room, was once a passage into Mr Brettison's chambers, and his closet was a passage into yours, and they used to have dinners, and feasts, and dancing, and masked balls, at which they used to play dominoes. The gambling and goings on was shameful. But please, sir, don't say a word to Mr Brettison. I've trouble enough with him now. There never was such a gentleman for objecting to being dusted, and the way those big books of his that he presses his bits of chickweed and groundsel in do hold the dust is awful. If you wished to do him some kindness you'd get him away for a bit, so that I could turn his rooms inside out. Postman, sir."
Mrs Brade hurried to the outer door and fetched a letter just dropped into the box, and upon this being eagerly taken, and opened, she saw that there was no further chance of being allowed to gossip, and saying "Good-morning, sir," she went out, and down to the porter's lodge.
Malcolm Stratton's hands trembled as he turned the letter over and hesitated to open it.
"What a manly hand the old lady writes, and how fond she is of sporting their arms," he continued, as he held up the great blot of red wax carefully sealed over the adhesive flap of the envelope.
Then tearing it open he read:
Westbourne Terrace, Thursday.
My Dear Mr Stratton:
Thank you for your note and its news. Accept my congratulations. You certainly deserved to gain the post; the work will be most congenial, and it will give you an opportunity for carrying on your studies, besides placing you in the independent position for which you have worked so long and hard. I wish my dear old friend and schoolfellow, your mother, had lived to see her boy's success. You must go on now with renewed confidence, and double that success.
Very sincerely yours, Rebecca Jerrold.
Malcolm Stratton, Esquire.
P.S.—I shall be at home to-morrow evening. Come and see me, and bring your friend. Nobody will be here but the girls, who are going to give me a little music, as my brother dines out.
Stratton's face flushed warmly, and he stood staring before him at the window.
"I could not go there now," he muttered, "without seeing the old man first. It would not be honourable. I meant to wait, but—I must speak at once."
He re-read the letter, and his eyes sparkled with pleasure.
"And I asked her point blank, and she does not even refer to it. Then it was her doing. God bless her! She has been using her interest and working for me. It's her work, and she must approve of it."
He hurriedly thrust the letter into his breast as a double rap came at his door, and, upon opening it, Percy Guest came in.
"Got your wire, old chap, and came on at once. Something the matter?"
"Yes; something serious."
"My dear old man, I'm so sorry. Want help—money? Don't keep me in suspense."
"No, old fellow," cried Stratton proudly; "the news came this morning, and I telegraphed to you directly."
"Yes, I am the successor of poor old Professor Raymond—the new curator of the Headley Museum."
"Hurray!" cried Guest, snatching up a great bird-skin by the beak and waving it round his head till he wrung its neck right off. "Oh, bother! Three cheers for Professor Stratton! Bravo! Why, you'll be an awful scientific swell. Malcolm, old chap, I am glad," he continued, flinging the choice and valuable specimen up on to a bookcase, and grasping his friend's hand. "You shall dine with me to-night, and we'll pour out champagne libations to the gods."
"Sit down and be quiet," said Stratton gravely. "No, old fellow, I can't dine with you to-night; I've something particular to do."
"Come and have a big lunch, then; we must go mad somehow. Why, its glorious, old man! They've had big, scientific, bald-headed old buffers there before—regular old dry-as-dusts. Come on; you can't and I can't work to-day."
"Sit down, I tell you, and be serious. I want to talk to you."
"All right—I may smoke?"
"But are you sure you can't come?" said Guest, taking out a pipe.
"Quite. I have made up my mind to go to Bourne Square to-night."
"To the admiral's?" cried Guest, starting, and changing colour a little.
"Yes; there is an invitation just come for me to go to Miss Jerrold's to-morrow night and take you."
"Indeed!" said Guest eagerly.
"She says in a postscript that the ladies will be there."
"Well?" said Guest uneasily, and beginning to smoke very hard.
"Don't you understand?"
"Then I must speak plainly, old fellow. For a year before they went out to Switzerland we were there a great deal, and met them after."
Guest nodded and his pipe did not seem to draw.
"We have met them often during these three months that they have been back."
Guest laughed and struck a match. His pipe was out.
"Well, have you not seen anything?"
"Yes," said Guest huskily.
"I felt that you must have seen it, old fellow. I have no secrets from you. I have loved her from the first time I saw her at Miss Jerrold's, and it has gone on growing till at times I have been almost in despair. For how could I speak, poor and hard up as I was—just a student, earning two or three hundred a year?"
"Always seemed attentive enough," said Guest, looking away as his friend paced the room with growing excitement.
"Perhaps; but I have schooled myself to hide it all, and to act as a gentleman should toward Sir Mark. It would have been dishonourable to act otherwise than as an ordinary friend of the family."
"I suppose so," said Guest dismally. "And now?"
"My position is changed. Poverty does not bar the way, and, feeling this, I cannot trust myself. I cannot go and meet her to-morrow evening at her aunt's without seeing the admiral first, and speaking out to him like a man."
"And—and—you really—care for her so much, old fellow?" said Guest hoarsely, and still in trouble with his pipe, which refused to draw.
"Care for her—so much!" exclaimed Stratton, flushing.
"How can I tell? I can only hope. I think she—no, it sounds presumptuous, but I must tempt my fate."
"And if the lady—"
"Refuses me—the admiral does not approve?"
"Yes. What then?"
"I must try and bear it like a man."
There was a few minutes' silence, though it only seemed a moment, when Guest spoke again in a curiously changed tone of voice.
"But about that Mr Barron, Stratton?"
"Yes; what about him?"
"He is a good deal at Sir Mark's, isn't he?"
"Yes; a friend the old gentleman picked up abroad—yachting, I think."
"You don't think that he has any intentions?"
"That Mr Barron? No; such an idea never crossed my mind. Absurd! He is quite a middle-aged man, I hear; I've not seen him. He is no favourite either of old Miss Jerrold. But what's the matter? Going?"
"Eh? Yes, I'm going now. You won't come out, old fellow, and I thought we'd put off the congratulatory dinner till another day."
"Yes, we will. I'm awfully sorry, Percy; don't take it ill of me."
"No, no; of course not."
"And—and I'll communicate with you about to-morrow night. Though, if I don't go, that is no reason why you should not."
"No, of course—that is—," faltered Guest, looking at his friend strangely. "Good-bye, old fellow. You are going to the admiral's to-night?"
"No, I'll go this afternoon. He may be off out to dinner. Wish me luck, old fellow."
"Yes," said Guest slowly, "I wish you luck. I was afraid so," he said slowly, as he descended the stairs, looking careworn and wretched. "I ought to have known better. They were always together, and she likes him. Oh! I could break his neck. No, I couldn't. I'm only a fool, I suppose, for liking him. I've always been as if I was her dog. One's own and only friend to come between. Oh, what a crooked world it is! Round? Bosh! It's no shape at all, or it would have been evenly balanced and fair. Good-bye, little Edie; you'll jump at him, of course. He's worth half a dozen of such poor, weak-minded beggars as I am; but I loved you very dearly indeed, indeed. I shan't go and make a hole in the water, little one, all the same. I wonder, though, whether an enterprising young barrister would have any chance in Fiji or the Caroline Isles? I'll ask someone who knows."
Percy Guest went back to his chambers in Grey's Inn, and about half-past three a cab set down Malcolm Stratton at the admiral's door.
"Sir Mark at home, Andrews?" said Stratton as the door was opened by the butler.
"Yes, sir. Mr Barron's with him, but of course he'll see you. Will you step up in the drawing room? Only the young ladies there."
"No, thanks," said Stratton hurriedly. "Ask Sir Mark if he will see me or make some appointment. Where is he?"
"In the library, sir."
"Mr Barron with him," thought Stratton as the butler showed him into the dining room and closed the door. "Wonder what he is like. Oh! impossible. How easily a man can be jealous."
As he stood looking up at the portrait of a lady—Myra's mother—he fancied he heard steps in the hall, and directly after the butler entered.
"Sir Mark will see you, sir," said the butler.
"But Mr Barron is there?"
"No, sir, just gone up to join the ladies."
Stratton winced, and the next moment was shown into the library.
"Ah, Malcolm Stratton," cried the admiral bluntly. "Come in, my dear boy. How are you? Glad you've called. My friend Mr Barron was here. I wanted to introduce you two. Travelled much, but he's chary of making new friends. You'll like him, though, I'm sure. Wonderful fellow at the management of a yacht, and a magnificent swimmer. Why, I believe that man, sir, could swim for miles."
"Indeed, Sir Mark."
"Oh, yes; but sit down, Stratton; you are quite a stranger. Want to see me on business?"
But before he could get any further the admiral, who seemed in high spirits, interrupted him.
"Pity you were not ten minutes sooner. Barron was telling me a most amusing story of slave life in Trinidad in the old days. Wonderful fund of anecdote. But you said business or an appointment, my dear boy. Bad man to come to unless it's about the sea. What is it?"
Stratton made no answer for a few moments. The difficulty was how to begin. It was not that he was strange with the admiral, for, consequent upon the friendship formerly existing between Miss Jerrold and his mother, Sir Mark's house had been open to him times enough. Seeing his hesitation the old sailor smiled encouragement.
"Come, my lad," he said, "out with it. Is something wrong? Want help?"
"Yes, sir, yours," said Stratton, making his plunge, and now speaking quickly. "The fact is, Sir Mark, I have had news this morning—glorious news for me."
"Glad of it, my dear boy. But you looked just now as if you were going to court-martial for running your ship aground."
"I suppose it was natural, sir. Yesterday I was a poor struggling man, to-day I have had the letter announcing my appointment to the Headley Museum, and it is not only the stipend—a liberal one—but the position that is so valuable for one who is fighting to make his way in the scientific ranks."
The admiral stretched out his hand, and shook Stratton's warmly.
"Glad of it, my dear boy. My congratulations on your promotion. I shall see you an admiral among the scientific bigwigs yet. To be sure; of course. I have been so taken up with other things—being abroad—and so much worried and occupied since I came back, that I had forgotten all about it. But my sister told me she was moving heaven and earth, and going down on her knees to all kinds of great guns to beg them to salute you."