Credit and thanks for making this work available to RGL go to Gary Meller, Florida, who donated the scanned images of his print edition of "The Amazing Judgment" used to produce this e-book.
A WHITE-WINGED ship sailed out on the sunlit ocean into a dense sheet of drifting mist The world of sunshine and blue sky and murmuring waters seemed to have faded into chaos. In a very few moments the decks were wet and slimy, and a damp chilliness hung about the air. The pleasant warmth of the afternoon was gone. Gay voices were sunk into whispers. A sailor who had been polishing some brasswork to the tune of "Nancy Lee" whistled no more. The thick twilight seemed to have fallen upon them like a mantle of silence. It was a metamorphosis so sudden and complete as to possess for one of the little company at least a significance almost allegorical.
A woman who was lying in a low deck-chair under a canvas awning, clad in the lightest and daintiest of summer gowns, began to shiver. She looked around her and back again into her host's face with a slight uplifting of the eyebrows.
"This is one of the delights of yachting, I suppose, Hildyard?" she remarked. "Have you any idea how long it is going to last? I am getting chilly."
He stooped down, and drew the rug, which had fallen away from her feet, up to her throat.
"Only a few minutes," he answered. "It is really on a heat mist, and we should pass through it directly. Seems pretty thick, though: would you like to go down? It isn't exactly pleasant, I must admit."
She shook her head slightly. She was so well wrapped up that there was little else of her to be seen now.
"Not for worlds! I am quite comfortable with this rug around me."
"It is almost like a London fog," he said disconsolately. "Our view has gone altogether."
"I am not sure that I regret it—for a moment or two. To see nothing at all is rather a relief after seeing so much day by day."
He looked at her doubtfully. Presently she continued,
"An ocean view is too expansive for my tastes. It suggests infinity, and infinity—no end of disagreeable things. On the whole, I prefer Bond Street. It is wearisome to be made to think. Don't you think so? But then you are rather a dreamer, aren't you? You like to lose yourself—I don't."
"I am afraid that this cruise has bored you," he said quietly.
"No; I think not," she answered deliberately. "I have great hopes of being able to say that I have enjoyed it—so far as my capacity for enjoyment goes, of course!"
"There is nothing—?"
"No; there is nothing else in the world which you could have done," she interrupted thoughtfully. "You have been very good indeed. The only thing is, that I am afraid I am not a very satisfactory person to be good to. I do not enjoy things as I ought. I suppose it is my unfortunate disposition. How dreary it looks up on the bridge; and why doesn't Captain Henderson put on his oilskins? He will be soaked. Aren't you glad that you are not there instead?"
He glanced upwards. His captain, a stalwart, middle-aged man, was standing like a carved figure, his hands grasping the rail in front of him, and his eyes fastened upon the vessel's bows. Two extra men had been sent forward, and the throb of the machinery had slackened. They were going at half speed. Oscillation seemed to be completely suspended. The sea was as smooth as glass.
"Yes; I think it is just as well that Henderson is there," he answered; "especially as we are rather out of the beaten track. Nothing but fishing smacks ever come into these waters."
"And how far are we from land?"
"There should be some uninhabited islands close about here. Henderson is on the lookout for them now. See, it is lifting a little already. It will be all over in a minute or two. Do have another peach."
She shook her head. A somewhat elaborate tea equipage was by her side, and several silver bowls filled with fruit. A steward was waiting a few yards away.
"Nothing more, thank you. Yes, I think it is getting lighter. How quiet everyone is! It is like the silence before—shall I make you nervous, if I say— disaster?"
He did not answer her. He had moved a few steps forward, and was gazing steadfastly across the vessel's bows. Suddenly the stillness was broken by a hoarse shout from one of the look-out men, echoed promptly by the other.
"Land on the starboard bow! Land to starboard!"
"Land on the starboard bow it is."
A brief order was thundered from the bridge. Then the captain looked down.
"It's the outside island of the group, my lord!" he cried, with his hand to his hat. "We're clear by half a mile."
The yacht had altered her course slightly, and was going now at full speed. Everyone was standing up. The woman, for whose sake this cruise and many other things had been planned, threw aside her rug, and leaned over the white railing. With an involuntary movement, she suffered her hand to rest upon her companion's arm. They stood there watching together.
Suddenly the mist lifted. The veil of grey, floating shadows melted into thin air. Before them was a glassy, waveless stretch of sunlit ocean whose lack of colour was atoned for by phosphorescent streaks of multicoloured light. Exactly opposite was the land.
It was an island rising high out of the sea, and shaped something like a sugar-loaf. Its cliffs and summit were fringed with stunted pines and firs. Here and there only was a patch of green standing out with a peculiar vividness of bright colour from amongst the darker background of trees and rocks. There were no cattle, nor indeed was there any sign of life, or any dwelling-house. To all appearance the place was uninhabited, and uncultivated. The little strip of beach was piled up with mighty masses of rocks of huge size and terrible shapes. Amongst them, the sea-gulls in countless numbers screamed and circled, darting in and out of the drifting mist which lay behind them, like phantom birds. At one moment their wings flashed like little streaks of silver lightening, as they flew round and round in the sunlight; then they vanished into chaos, only to reappear again and again crossing the broad path of the sun's rays, and catching once more upon their slowly-flapping wings the glory of the sudden, white light. Their hoarse cries struck a weird, almost unearthly note in the deep silence.
"What a desolation of desolations!" she exclaimed, with a little shiver. "Almost lonely enough for you, my friend, when you have the blues, and cultivate misanthropy. What do you say? Would you like to try it? It would be a pleasant little retreat for you, and I almost think that you would be undisturbed!"
Her companion did not answer. It was rude of him, but he was evidently deeply preoccupied. He was standing motionless by her side, his arms folded upon the rail, and his eyes full of a curious expression, steadfastly fixed upon the island. She tightened her grasp upon his arm. She looked into his face, and she was full of wonder.
"My dear Hildyard, what is the matter with you?" she exclaimed. "You look positively tragic! One would think that you were face to face with the modern ghost—the ghost of our sins, you know. If there is anything of that sort walking upon the waters, I am going down. Whatever are you looking at?"
He did not even glance towards her. There was a distinct shade of pallor creeping through the bronze sunburn of his cheeks. He did not answer her, but stretched out his right hand towards the island. She followed his shaking finger, and uttered a little cry.
They had passed a promontory jutting out into the sea from the northern end of the island, and before them, on the sheer edge of a great, bare rock, a large cross of fire flared up into the clear sky. For a moment every one seemed to be dumb with the wonder of it. The faint ripple of conversation from behind them had ceased. Even the sailors stood still at their work. Then there was a little murmur. The woman drew a deep breath of relief, and laughed softly.
"What an illusion!" she exclaimed. "It was the sun, of course. For a moment I thought that we had found another wonder of the world!"
He looked over her shoulder half doubtfully. The long, slanting rays of the dying sun lay across the ocean like broad bars of red gold stretching to the feet of the piled-up rocks, and touching with fire the sea-stained stone. Even while they watched, the light died out. Slowly the sun sank down into a bed of angry clouds. Cold and grey the cross stretched out its naked arms against the colourless background of sky and air. The woman, looking up at her companion, wondered at his unchanged expression.
"Hildyard!" she repeated, with a note of impatience in her soft, languid tones. "What on earth is the matter with you? Why don't you talk to me? You stand there as though you had been transformed into—something wooden. You are very stupid, and you don't amuse me at all. I shall go and ask Mr. Pearmain to tell me a story."
"I will tell you a better one myself directly; he answered lightly. "please forgive me, and don't go. Besides, Pearmain wouldn't thank you to be interrupted. He is telling Lady Bergamot the plot of his next novel. Just a moment!"
He drew a silver whistle from his pocket, and blew it. The chief mate was by his side in a moment.
"Johnson, do you know anything about that island?" he asked. "Nothing, my lord," the man answered doubtfully. "The group is down in the chart as barren and uninhabited."
"You don't know how that cross got there, then?"
"No, my lord—no more do any of the others on board. We've been passing the question round. I should say myself, that it was a natural cross. There's a terrible sea running upon that beach, and I've seen rocks twisted into some queer shapes."
The captain looked down from the bridge. "Yes, my lord."
"Johnson seems to think that that might be a natural cross over on the rocks there. What is your opinion?"
"Very like it is, my lord. It would be an odd thing if anyone had troubled to build on such a desolate spot, and no shipwreck or anything that I ever heard of, to call for it. I should call it a natural cross myself"
The captain resumed his walk upon the bridge, and the chief mate departed about his duties. The man and the woman were alone again. She went back to her seat, and he drew a camp stool to her side. She was still watching him curiously.
"Hildyard," she said, "I am prepared to hear something thrilling. You have a look in your eyes as though you had seen more than we saw upon that island. Perhaps you are one of those favoured individuals who possess—what is it they call it?—second sight. Tell me about it. I insist!"
He hesitated, and then he obeyed her. He generally obeyed her. It had become a habit with him.
"Well, it is rather a coincidence," he said deliberately, choosing a cigarette from his case, and lighting it. "Pardon me. You won't smoke before dinner, I know. Always gives me an appetite."
"I don't want to hear about your appetite, Hildyard, I want to hear about the island. You needn't be afraid. I'm not going to laugh at you. I'm immensely impressed!"
"Quite sure? Well, here goes!"
He blew the smoke away from his cigarette, and became suddenly serious. His eyes were fixed upon the dim, white line where sea and sky seemed to touch. His voice was sunk almost to a whisper. He had the air of a man talking to himself
"Last night I had a dream. I saw myself upon the rocky beach of just such an island as that. I was alone amidst the roar of the surf, and the crying of the sea birds. I was another man, and yet I was the same man. I felt, and I suffered! I was searching ever for something which I could not find. We are always doing that every day of our lives; only instead of being in Piccadilly— I was there. My hands were stretched out toward the ocean. I am not sure that I was not praying—but if so, it was in an unknown tongue, and to an unknown God!"
"Hildyard, are you serious? You are raving!"
"I am perfectly well aware of it. Please let me finish, though. I want to photograph my impressions—verbally, of course. Some day I am going to write another novel, and weave this in. It is excellent material. Last night, as I was saying, I saw it all! The cross was there, the island was there, I was there! Centuries ago, Pauline, there was an ancestor of mine who fought in the Crusades. He joined the Saracens for the love of an infidel woman, and he spat upon the Cross. It was bad form, especially in those days, but he did it. I think he was hung up by his heels afterwards, or crucfied—I am not sure which, but it is immaterial. The point of the thing is this, that since then, for generation after generation, the cross has been a token of woe to all my family. Whenever it has appeared—in any exceptional way, of course—some great change has followed, generally a death, or disaster of some sort. Please don't look so incredulous. That is the worst of you modern women! You will believe nothing! I don't think I will go on!"
"You will go on at once!" she commanded. "Don't you see that I am deeply interested?"
He looked at her lazily, and flicked the ash off his cigarette.
"Well, I was going to give you a few proofs," he continued. "These things are in the family archives, and they must not be doubted. Sir Hugh, who fought at Cressy, saw a golden cross in the sky, and fell with a French sword cleaving his heart. A century or so later Sir Francis was riding out to join Monmouth, when he saw a cross—some of his followers declared that it was a gallows—on the top of Dunkerry Beacon, and like a wise man he rode home again, and saved his neck. My great grandfather, who broke his neck in an Irish steeplechase, sobbed out with his last breath, that the winning post had turned into a cross. There are many others. Last night I saw them all. One by one they flitted into my cabin, and when I stretched out my hand—quite in a friendly way—they vanished through the port-hole. It was tremendously aggravating. And then I saw myself upon the rock, always searching, waiting, with the cross before my face. It was my warning."
"Your warning. From what?"
"I could not tell. Only I seemed to see the story of my life written across the sky in letters of fire, and it was like the lives of all other men—it was evil. I looked in vain for a single deed that was not selfish, a single impulse that was not vicious. Pauline, I think that we men of to-day have fallen upon evil times. We have no duties, we have no scope to develop even such stuff as sent our forefathers to Palestine. We are, as Pearmain would say, an 'effete and scentless blossom upon the tree of Life!' That dinner bell is a distinct interposition of fate. In a few moments I should have been preaching. We must hurry."
"Hildyard, I believe that you are half in earnest."
He looked down at her, and laughed.
"You are always right!" he said.
DINNER was a rather long affair on board the Sea King but it was drawing toward a close at last. The softly-shaded electric lights flashed upon silver and cut-glass bowls of hot-house fruits and delicately fashioned vases of wonderful flowers. The wine in the glasses had become red. The light through the portholes was growing dim.
The woman who sat on her host's right hand leaned over and whispered in his ear.
"Hildyard, why cannot you always be so light-hearted? To-night you are charming. You make me think of days when we were both younger."
He laughed gaily, and, lifting his glass to his lips, bowed to her.
"I have not always you on my right hand," he answered. "Lady Bergamot, don't go, please," he added, looking further down the table, "I have ordered coffee to be served here to-night. It is cold on deck, and the flavour of the cigarettes is lost."
Lady Bergamot, who had half risen, sat down again readily.
"By all means, dear host," she said. "For my part, I think you are all too anxious to rush up on deck. I am quite comfortable here. What do you say, Mr. Pearmain?"
"I am more than comfortable, I am happy," remarked the man who sat by her side. "At the same time, one must be reminded occasionally that we are not in London! Hildyard has brought his cuisine, his cellar, his servants, and all the luxuries of Esholt House. If we did not see the sea now and then, we should find it hard to realize that we are supposed to be roughing it upon a yachting cruise. At the same time, I prefer getting through what measure of exercise is necessary during the morning. There seems to me something crude in leaving such an atmosphere as this for the dark draughtiness of the open deck. Parker! a glass of Benedictine."
"You are a sybarite, sir," laughed Lady Bergamot, with a shrug of her shapely shoulders. "You know quite well that you would never have left Pall Mall if there had been the least chance of your having to rough it."
"A sybarite," he repeated musingly. "I do not quite know what you mean to imply, but the word sounds pleasant enough. I will plead guilty. If sybaritism is a sin, I have a very charming partner."
There was a little lurch. Morton Pearmain, the man who had been talking, bent forward and looked through the porthole.
"I do not know much about navigation," he remarked, "but it seems to me that we are altering our course. The engines are slacking, aren't they, Hildyard?"
"I have not the least idea," his host answered carelessly. "Henderson is like me—a saving man! Perhaps he is running a sail up. The breeze seems to have freshened since we came down."
Pearmain shrugged his shoulders.
"I should have said that we had altered our course altogether," he declared. "Shows how much I know about it! As we are now," he added, dropping his voice, "I am willing to sail the Antarctic Ocean. There go the engines again."
"Never mind the engines," laughed Hildyard, filling his glass, "and, whatever you do, don't go bothering Henderson with questions. He doesn't like it. Tell Lady Bergamot that story you told me this afternoon about Fanny Dussein and old Catherall."
Pearmain put up his eyeglass, and twisted his thin, black moustache doubtfully.
"Isn't it—just a little—? That was in confidence, you know! I don't fancy that I ought to repeat it."
"Tell me at once!" Lady Bergamot ordered firmly.
IT was very late indeed before everyone went on deck. When at last they left the saloon, and the women had gone for their wraps, Hildyard made his way alone into the captain's room.
"Have you managed it?" he asked.
Captain Henderson rose from his chair and set down his pipe.
"Yes, my lord! We have swung right round, and we're within three miles of the island again now. She's away on the lee bow yonder. I'm giving her all the berth I can, and running half speed, but I shall have to bring her to within half an hour."
Hildyard looked thoughtfully away into the darkness.
"I daresay that will do," he answered. "The boat will be ready at midnight, I suppose?"
"The boat is ready now, my lord."
"And you understand that, if possible, I don't want a soul to know that I have left the ship."
"No one will know, my lord, unless your guests discover it for themselves."
He nodded, and stepped back on to the deck. Through the shadows came the little group of laughing men and women, the red tips of their cigarettes glowing like fireflies in the darkness. Pauline came to him, and took his arm. The others passed on.
They stood together looking over the side. A bank of low, thick clouds obscured the moon. The white-topped waves rose and fell upon a sea as black as ink. They watched the eddies go swirling by the side, and the phosphorescent light gleam upon the water.
"May I consider myself a more privileged person than Mr. Pearmain?" she asked abruptly.
"I want to ask you a question, then. Is it true that our course has been changed?"
"Who says so?"
"No one. I only asked. I am curious."
There was a moment's pause. He was annoyed that she should have suspected what he had studiously endeavoured to keep secret.
"Yes, we have come round a little," he admitted reluctantly.
She tried to peer through the darkness. Her eyes were very bright and very steady, but she could not see anything.
"How far are we from the island?"
"Only a mile or two," he answered. "There it is."
He pointed over the ship's side, glancing round first to be sure that they were alone. Once more she tried to see through the floating shadows. She gazed until her eyes ached with the strain, but she could see nothing.
"Listen!" she said softly. She held her breath. From far away behind that wall of darkness, there came a dull, threatening roar.
"It is the surf on the beach," he whispered. "I am afraid that the others will hear it."
She glanced for a moment over her shoulder. Her lips were parted in a fine disdain.
"Oh, they will not notice it," she answered. "Lady Bergamot is too absorbed in Mr. Pearmain's stories. Hildyard, why are those people here? What made you bring them?"
He looked at her in genuine surprise.
"The inconsequence of woman!" he exclaimed lightly. "Why, you yourself told me whom to ask. I think you added that a six weeks' cruise alone with me would be insupportable."
"I was a fool," she said quietly. "I did not know what I wanted. We are like that sometimes, you know: We say things that we do not mean, and we suffer for it."
"I am sorry," he began awkwardly. "I—"
"Never mind. It was my own fault. I was a fool. It was exactly from those people and their associations I desired to escape for a little while. I fancy that I am beginning to find the air of the demi-monde a little enervating."
He looked at her curiously. This was a new phase to him.
"Not exactly that, is it?" he said quietly. "Lady Bergamot is quite respectable."
Their eyes met for a moment. He looked away.
"Because she has not been found out," she answered drily. He ignored her little speech.
"Besides, you occupy a place by yourself," he reminded her. "You have attained a special immortality, you are the most beautiful woman in England."
"Many men have told me so, and a few newspapers," she answered quietly. "There is nothing in the world I am more weary of hearing. It makes me feel like a—pagan."
"We are all pagans," he murmured.
"Not altogether. Lately I have been subject to fits—of what do you think?— of morality. I am beginning to wonder whether it might not have been better for me to have been a little less beautiful, and a little more honest! But never mind. I do not want to talk of that, to-night. I want to ask you something."
"Are you going on that island?"
"As soon as you people have gone to your cabins."
"I really have not the remotest idea. I have an inclination to go, and it is so long now since I had an inclination to do anything in particular, that I am going to gratify it."
"It is only a barren island. There is nothing to see there. I would rather that you did not go. I do not want you to leave the ship. please, don't."
He looked at her in amazement. Her soft, brilliant eyes were raised to his.
She was in earnest. He had known her only as a brilliant woman of the world, a creature at once imperious and capricious. She offered herself to him at that moment in a new light.
"My dear Pauline!" he exclaimed. "You bewilder me. If I feel like going—why on earth not? I am actually experiencing the luxury of a genuine, unadulterated curiosity. It would be a sin not to indulge it."
"Then, for my sake, please sin."
"I must have a reason," he declared. "The luxury is too rare a one to be parted with lightly. Besides, it is so easily gratified. There is not the faintest shadow of danger or difficulty in any way. Why do you wish me to give it up?"
"I have no reason," she answered. "Perhaps I have a superstition. I only know that I do not want you to go upon that island."
His face changed. His manner was no longer artificial. He was suddenly very serious.
"I do not think that I have refused you many things, Pauline," he said, "but this is not a matter of choice with me at all. I cannot hope to make you understand quite how I feel about it, but I am forced to go. I must go. I should not care to make that confession to anyone else in the world, but you have it."
"Nothing could keep you way, then—nothing?" she whispered in his ear.
"Nothing upon the earth, or under the earth," he answered gravely. "If you really wish to do me a kindness, you will go to the others, and try and get them below early. The sooner I can leave, the quicker I shall be back again. I should like to be here to breakfast with you."
They were behind one of the boats, and she lifted her face to his. "Kiss me, Hildyard."
He bent down and obeyed her, stretching out his arm to draw her closer to him. But she was gone. In the distance he heard her slow; musical voice mingling with the others. Then all sound died gradually away. They had gone below.
THE night passed. Through the glimmering air stole the wan, grey light of the coming day. Afar in the east the dun-coloured clouds grew gorgeous, stained with the splendour of the unrisen sun. On the horizon the glass-like water caught the earliest beams, and glistened and gleamed like a belt of silver. Now the light came travelling over the water, and a soft breeze stole rippling over its surface. The mists, which had been riding upon the ocean, faded away into thin air. A deep blue stole into the sky. The morning had come.
With the first breaking of the clouds Pauline had come on deck. She had heard the boat put away from the yacht's side soon after midnight, and ever since then she had sat in her cabin, waiting and listening. Hour by hour the long night had stolen away. The boat had not returned.
She had changed her evening gown for a plain serge suit, and bareheaded she stood out in the bows, watching. There was no longer any attempt at concealment as to their whereabouts. The engines had stopped, and they were riding at anchor. Barely a mile away, the little island, with its pine-topped hill, and cloud of seagulls, rose out of the blue sea. She leaned over the rail heedless of the wind which swept through her glorious hair, or of the curious but covert glances of the seamen as they passed to and fro. She was waiting for the return of the yacht's boat with an admixture of sensations which would have defied any attempt at analysis.
At last it came, a mere speck upon the waters, gradually taking to itself shape as the long regular strokes of the rowers brought it nearer and nearer. There was a glass in her hand. Three times she raised it, three times she laid it down again. Soon the time for its use had gone by. She could see distinctly without it. The cushioned seat was vacant.
She half closed her eyes, and for a moment she felt faint. A curious premonition had suggested this thing to her from the first. Yet, now that it had happened, it was none the less a shock. She had the reputation of being a woman without heart. For the first time she doubted it. She had doubted it since last night.
She was an actress, and her art came to her aid. She received the note the first mate brought her, with just the proper amount of surprise. He held one in his hand for each of the other guests, and one for the captain.
She stood apart behind a boat, and tore open the envelope. It was written on heavy cream note paper without crest or monogram, and apparently with a quill pen:—
"Pauline, I am not going to inflict upon you all the conventional lies which I am compelled to invent for Lady Bergamot and Pearmain. The bald fact is that I am going to stay here for a little while, and you must go. I was right after all! I have found another phase of life here, and it interests me.
"This world is a very odd place, Pauline, for those who look upon it as you and I do. Since last night I have undergone a metamorphosis. In a sense I am a changed man. I am possessed of a new range of sensations, a new field of ideas, a new personality. I have gained a new experience! You will think that I am mad. I am sure of it! Farewell!
"If I should miss the first night of the new play—success. Adieu. We shall meet again in London. There is no fear of my turning anchorite. My madness is only of the midsummer order. London is like a great magnet to its parasites and wanderers. It will draw me back again. But for a while, adieu.
"I have written to Ayres. He will attend to any business matters for you during my absence. Henderson will land you wherever you like. Afterwards he will return for me. I do not expect to be here longer than a week."
She crushed the letter up in her hand, and turned her sightless eyes to the little island. She stood there without movement—almost without realization. Her sensations were numbed. The throb of the engines recommencing their deep steady action, the hurtling of the waters rushing away from the bows, and the clanking of ropes and staples, filled the quiet morning air. The spray leaped up into her face. The outline of the island grew fainter and fainter. Soon it was only a dim blue haze.
A murmur of voices brought her to herself. She set her teeth together.
The rustle of skirts and the faint odour of violet powder were in the air.
"My dear Pauline, whatever do you think of this?" cried Lady Bergamot, waving her letter in her hand. "Most outrageous, I call it. The man must be altogether out of his senses."
Pauline shrugged her shoulders, and laughed lightly.
"Hildyard was always peculiar," she answered. "I suppose he has discovered a colony of Communists, or smugglers, or something, and is going to join them. For a man who professes to be so weary of life, he always struck me as being remarkably anxious to try it all round!"
"But to leave us without a word, without any more explanation than this!" exclaimed Lady Bergamot, gazing at her brief note. "I never heard of such conduct. It is outrageous!"
"At any rate, we have the yacht," remarked Pauline. "We ought to be grateful that he did not insist on our staying there with him. Let us talk it over at breakfast."
They crossed the deck—Pauline, graceful, self-possessed, and smiling.
Lady Bergamot, who was disappointed, touched Morton Pearmain on the arm.
"How well she bears it," she whispered.
"She is an actress," he remarked drily.
SOON after midnight, the heavy banks of clouds which had darkened the sky, rolled slowly away. The air became clear, and the moonlight lay upon the earth like a cloth of gold. Hildyard, standing upon the summit of the pine-topped hill in the centre of the little island, could see every stone that lay upon it.
He paused to take breath, for he had found no footpath, and the way had been a difficult and a rough one. Far below him, shapely, like a beautiful, living creature upon the moonlit sea, rode his yacht, tugging gently at her anchor. Nearer in, the men who had brought him here were sitting on the side of the boat, which they had dragged into a sheltered little cove, smoking and talking softly to themselves. Between him and them was a patch of open country, a mass of thick undergrowth, and a steep rugged pile of rocks, up which he had clambered. He looked at all these things lingeringly. As yet he had not even glanced downwards to see what lay upon the other side of the island. He was even conscious of a certain reluctance to do so. But, by-and-by, when he had regained his breath, he moved slowly away from the tree against which he had been leaning, and turning round, walked a few steps forward.
His heart gave a quick, unaccustomed beat, and he set his teeth close together. He had quite made up his mind that the island was inhabited. He told himself he had known it from the very first. Yet, now that the proof was here, it came almost as a shock, for there was no longer any doubt about it. The sloping land before him was cultivated, and cattle were browsing in a meadow to his left. A little distance down there was a long building covered with some sort of creeping shrubs. In an inlet of the sea were anchored several boats and a small sailing yacht.
Steadily he made his way downwards. In a few minutes he found himself before a wicket gate. It opened at his touch, and he found himself in a trimly kept garden.
The house was now directly in front of him. It was only one story high, and so embosomed with flowing shrubs, that it was impossible to tell whether it was of wood or stone. He kept steadily on. Another gate by the side of the house opened at his touch, and he found himself in front of the place.
Here, for the first time, he paused. Before him was a smooth lawn starred with clumps of creamy-hued rhododendrons, and beds of blossoming flowers. About twenty yards ahead a plantation of pine trees ran down sheer to the water's edge. Through the red trunks he could catch glimpses of the gleaming moonlit sea. By his side was the house with windows opening on to the lawn from every room.
A curious instinct of drowsiness stole into his senses. The perfume of many sweet flowers hung heavily upon the bosom of the pine-scented night wind. He walked quietly along by the side of the yew hedge, and after a moment's hesitation flung himself down upon the short turf in the shadow of the plantation. Then he laughed softly, and brought out his cigarette case.
"I think that I must be a little mad," he said, carefully extinguishing the match with his heel. "I feel as though I am on the eve of an adventure—a real adventure—something psychological and supernatural. I remember I felt like it once before—when Pauline—Bah!"
He broke off abruptly. He looked away from the house, along the path by which he had come, to the top of the hill and beyond. His face darkened. A flood of half-formed thoughts rushed into his brain. He swept them away. They belonged to what had gone before. To-night was to make history for him. The past was inevitable, the future was his own. The present was sufficiently absorbing. If indeed there were in store for him anything akin to a new sensation, he would enter upon it untrammelled by any sense of obligation to what lay behind. The moral status of the man, naturally robust, had become enervated and vitiated by the hot-house culture of his environment. He recognized only the paramount necessity for novelty and experience.
Presently he took up the thread of his musings again.
"After all, I am a fool," he murmured. "Probably a dog will bark soon, or someone will see me from the windows—it is quite light enough, and I shall get kicked out, which, by the bye, is exactly what I deserve. It is an odd place, though. I should rather like to know who lives here."
Raising himself upon his elbow, he gazed at the long, low outline of the house now directly in front of him. All the windows save one were dark. From that one came a faint gleam of light as though a heavily shaded lamp were burning in the room. He watched it steadily and yet, strange to say, with very little actual curiosity. A sense of dreamy yet pleasurable anticipation had crept over him, associated somehow with the delicate colouring of his surroundings, and the aromatic perfume of the still night air. He was so far an epicurean that danger of all sort seemed lessened to him, almost annihilated by an environment so exquisite. In such a mood as this he was content to die—at any rate, he did not fear death. The superstitious awe of that gloomy cross, and its possible message to him, which had penetrated for the moment the armour of his habitual nonchalance, had passed away.
He lay there steeped in a sort of nirvana of sensuous repose. From far below came the murmuring of the softly breaking waves upon the shore. Now and then, a breath of the night wind rustled amongst the pines above him. From the house there came no sound.
Suddenly his lethargy passed away. Bewildered, yet delighted, he rose to his feet, and gazed around him astonished. The very air seemed quivering and throbbing with strains of the most entrancing music—music that thrilled every sense of the man, and found its way into his heart. He held his breath and listened, drawing himself back amongst the shadows. It was coming towards him, nearer, and nearer, and nearer. Ah! it was no spirit after all, then.
A girl tall and slim, and with a stream of black hair floating over her shoulders, stood for a moment on the threshold of the lamplit room, and then came slowly toward him. She was playing the violin as she walked, bending over it so that he could scarcely see her face, and playing as he had never heard it played before. A loose white robe hung from her shoulders and trailed behind her on the grass, and her footsteps were so light and so exquisitely graceful, that she seemed to be gliding over the lawn into his arms. But before she reached him she stopped.
Her music came to an end with a weird little burst of melody—like the end of an elfin chorus. She raised her head, and glanced cautiously towards the house. There was no movement nor any sign of life. Reassured, she stooped and gathered up her skirts in the hand which held the violin. Bending down, she drew her bow across it again. The note of the music was changed. It was a dance she was playing, weird and quaint, sometimes plaintive, sometimes gay. After the first few bars she leaned back, and her body commenced to sway to and fro. With a deliciously graceful undulation, she stooped forward and glided away. Round and round amongst the trees she went, playing all the time and moving as she played, sometimes with the dainty Watteau-like grace of an old minuet, sometimes with all the abandon of a nautch girl dancing to the minor key of a copper instrument. And all the time her movements matched the music. She held herself one moment with all the stateliness of a duchess, at another with the bold, almost lecherous, seductiveness of a Turkish dancing girl. As he followed her, he felt his breath grow thick, and his heart beat in quick, fast throbs. He could scarcely persuade himself that she was human. She was more like one of the syrens of mythology.
With a little crash of strange minor chords, the dance and the music came suddenly to an end. After all, her wild, wanton movements seemed to have had some definite destination. She was standing in a little clear space enclosed by thickly growing pine trees except on the seaward side. The green turf was covered with a thin layer of pine needles. A rough garden seat faced the opening which seemed to look sheer down upon the sea. She shook her skirts for a moment vigorously and then sat down.
For the first time, Hildyard, who stood back a few yards amongst the shadows, saw her face clearly. She was bending forward looking down at the sea, and her features were sharply outlined against the background of moonlit space. He stood and watched her like a man turned to stone.
There was a picture by a famous French artist in a certain Bond Street gallery, which he had visited again and again with a curious persistency. The same nameless fascination which had led him to that picture some time after time, was upon him now. "A daughter of the Pharaohs!" it was called, a glorious type of dusky and regal Egyptian beauty. This girl might have been the study for it. Her clear, olive face with the mobile mouth and the dark, dreamy eyes, half closed now as though in meditation; the thick, soft coils of black hair floating loosely over her shoulders; the limbs, as lissome and shapely as the limbs of a goddess, and asserting themselves at every curve and angle of her body; the matchless grace which made repose as beautiful as movement,—they were all typified in this girl who sat gazing out upon the sea. As though to complete the picture, she twined her white hands behind her head, and leaned back, with a faint, slow smile at the corners of her lips.
The man who was watching her, after a desperate and futile attempt to persuade himself that he was dreaming, or that he had become the victim of some new hypnotic trance, abandoned all attempt to govern his sensations or to behave in any way like a rational human being. All his days he had affected cynicism and despised romance. To-night the little tenets of his life seemed all upside down. His sense of the ludicrous unreality, the impossibility of the situation, was completely overborne by the fascination which had thrilled through his nerves and pulses from the moment she had issued from her room to the accompaniment of that strange music. It was ridiculous, but it was a fact. His eyes were unnaturally bright, and his heart was beating with quick, sharp throbs. He was full of a burning desire to rush out of his ambush, to fall at her feet, to take her hands, to persuade himself by means of her living touch and the caress of her white fingers, that she was a creature of flesh and blood, a denizen of the same world as his, a woman to be loved and won. He would have gone to her without a second's hesitation, but he could not. There were weights upon his feet. His limbs were chained as though by a nightmare. He was tormented by sudden icy fear—a fear lest at his touch, at the sound of his voice, she should mock him and catch up her skirts, and float away into thin air to the sound of elfin music. So he lingered, and while he stood there came a footstep on his right. Someone was coming! She, too, heard, and turned slightly round with a smile of welcome. His heart grew thick with rage. She was waiting for someone. It might be a lover!
The footsteps passed him close at hand; footsteps as light as a woman's and yet with a sort of childish, at any rate unfeminine, shuffle. A shape stepped out into the moonlight. His brain reeled; he nearly cried out. At first it seemed something altogether inhuman. He had found his way into a world of ghouls and ghosts, where the souls of men and women took strange shapes of beauty and horrible ugliness. No! he was awake! He was alive! The thing was human. The face was the face of a man, but the body—Oh God! Now he could see it plainly. He drew a little breath of relief which hissed through his teeth, and died away. The shape was human. It was horrible, but it was human!
WITH an unconsciousness which was in itself a fine element in the dramatic completeness of the little scene, the figures of the two, the woman and the creature, stood out clearly and sharply outlined in the still, moonlit air. He was a humpback. Underneath the little cloak he wore, the unnatural protuberance which was the stamp of his deformity showed itself plainly, defying all and any attempt at concealment. He had taken a corner seat on the rude wooden bench, and he turned a delicate, oval face towards her. She was standing a few feet away from him, humming softly to herself and looking across the sea. The man, who remained like an image behind the rhododendron shrub, held his breath. One of them would speak soon—if, indeed, it were not all a dream—if they were, as they scarcely seemed, human flesh and blood. So he held his breath and listened.
It was the creature who spoke first. The sound of so beautiful and flute-like a voice coming from him amazed the man who listened. It was scarcely raised above a whisper, and yet every syllable was clear and distinct.
"Mia Cara, your audience is ready. The curtain has rung up. What is it to be tonight?"
She looked away from the sea and laughed. It was the laugh of a woman of some southern race. Her voice, too, had a peculiar intonation in it.
"To-night I am like a wild woman!" she cried softly. "I am like the tree-tops in a storm. I am bent and tossed and restless. To-night I will be Carmen!"
She plucked a great scarlet blossom from a tree close at hand, and thrust it into her hair. The low, minor chorus of the last act floated from her lips. She caught up her skirts, and threw herself back in an attitude of complete, voluptuous abandonment.
"Play, Andrew, play!" she cried. "I am going to dance and sing. I am a gipsy, the Queen of the Gipsies! Ah!"
He snatched up the violin, and drew his bow across it fiercely. A flood of strange weird discords leaped out into the air. She dropped her skirts and covered her ears wither her hands.
"You know that I loathe Carmen," he muttered, looking at her with his coal-black eyes afire, and his thin lips quivering.
She escaped back into her former strange personality as if by magic. She shrugged her shoulders, and taking the flowers from her hair, commenced to pluck them in pieces, throwing the petals at him one by one.
"Very well! Very well! I will be anything else, anyone else. Will you be Faust to my Marguerite? or shall I be Cleopatra and cry to the sea to bring my Antony? Say Cleopatra, Andrew; if you love me. 'The wit and dalliance of Egypt,' are in my blood to-night. I feel them bubbling up. Music, Andrew; music! 'Give me some music, moody food of us that trade in love.'"
She was almost opposite the man who formed the little audience in this mock drama. Her face was turned towards the sea. Her arms were outstretched, and the broad, loose sleeves of her gown falling back left them bare. The moonlight flashed upon a dull gold band upon her wrist.
"Give me to drink mandatory,
That I might sleep out this great gap of time,
My Anthony is away!"
He laid down the violin. His face was dark and sullen. She continued,—
"Antony! Antony! Lord of lords!
Oh, infinite virtue! Comest thou smiling from
The great world's snare, uncaught?"
She dropped her arms, and looked round at the creature. His dejection was written out in his frowning brows and moody, downcast face. She shrugged her shoulders with a gesture which was almost pettish.
"Andrew; you are very hard to please," she declared slowly. "Carmen annoys you—I may not be Cleopatra, What would you have? Shall I dance to you—sing, play, weep? I must do something. The blood in my veins is like quicksilver. It will not let me be quiet! Sometimes I think that it is only by night that I live. The daylight oppresses me. I am not gay then. I am one of Cynthia's children. I am a daughter of the night."
"You are a daughter of—Satan!"
She made him a sweeping courtesy.
"I am gratified," she said, with a mocking smile. "I did not know that I was of royal descent. I only suspected it. I am going now. You do not amuse me. Besides, you are rude."
He caught at a portion of her skirt as it floated past him, and held it in his hand. The anger was gone from his pale, dark face. His tone was full of supplication. She listened.
"Bertha, you will not go! Stay, and you shall be whom you like, what you like! Only have a little mercy on me. Remember—remember—"
She swept round upon him. His eyes drooped, and his face flushed painfully. The man who was watching stirred a little from his cramped position, and a dry twig snapped under his feet. They both heard it, and started round. They looked at one another in terror.
"He has followed us," she whispered. "He, must be in the shrubs, listening. Hurry away, Andrew! He is in one of his moods to-day, and he may be rough with you. Leave me to face him. I can humour him. Quick!"
Hildyard heard all. The time for concealment was over. He stepped out from his hiding-place, and stood, bareheaded, upon the edge of the little green plot. In the moonlight, with his tall shapely figure outlined against the empty air, he was very comely. From the moment of his discovery his usual savoir faire returned. He was quite at his ease.
"I am the guilty trespasser!" he said, bowing low. "I scarcely dare to offer you my apologies. I came here a wanderer, and I remained—because I was powerless to go away."
She looked at him with a curious mixture of coquetry and fear. But the creature who was with her had no mixed feelings. He raised his puny arms above his head, and with a little hoarse cry he went shambling along the zig-zag path toward the house. She seemed at first half inclined to follow him. Curiosity struggled for a moment with her alarm. With her skirts gathered up in her hand ready to run, she paused and stole another glance over her shoulder at the intruder. He was very handsome, far more handsome than any man she had ever seen, and perfectly respectful. She gave a little sigh, and—she remained.
"I do not understand where you come from," she exclaimed doubtfully. "How did you land here on the island, and why have you come?"
"I came in a yacht," he answered. "It is anchored on the other side of the island. As to why I came—well, I am afraid that I can scarcely answer that question myself. At first I think that it was curiosity—the place looked so picturesque from a distance, and I wanted to see if anyone lived here. I am inclined to think now that it may be—fate!"
Through the respectful constraint of his tone there flashed a sudden wildness. The dramatic strangeness of the scene upon which he had wandered, and the beauty of the girl who stood there gazing at him like a marvellous picture, with that background of glittering sea and framework of purple and cream-coloured rhododendrons, had thrilled his whole sensuous being. He began to wonder whether he were quite sane; to have doubts as to his actual and material existence. It was some exquisite yet diseased phase ofliving, some strange night-world into which sleep or illness had borne him. Yet the warm blood flowed in his veins, and his heart was beating with a quickened throb. A subtle glow of pleasure, a new delight in being, was upon him. If there were indeed the waters of Lethe, let him float down them. He was very well content.
"Fate!" she repeated, still holding her skirts in one hand, and with the other idly plucking to pieces a great mass of scarlet blossoms which drooped over her dark head. "That is what our guardian is always talking about. I do not understand you. What is fate, and what had it to do with bringing you here?"
He shook his head slowly.
"I cannot tell you!" he answered slowly. "Fate is the one thing in the world which no one understands. We admit it, and we bow before it—but we do not understand it. Tell me, who are you, and where am I? What island is this? Who lives here?"
She moved her head slowly toward the house.
"He calls it the island of Maros. I do not think that you people who live out in the world have any name for it at all. It is so small, and this is the only house upon it."
"Who is he?" "Our guardian."
"Our guardian!" he repeated. The information sounded to him a little vague.
She looked along the silent, moonlit path along which the creature had fled.
"His, and mine."
"And you have lived here for long?"
"Ever since I can remember anything at all. Ever since I was a very little girl. So long that every week has seemed a month, and every month a year. One gets very weary," she added with a sigh. "It is my guardian and Andrew, and Andrew and my guardian, every day. Andrew is good to me in his way, but he is savage and wayward sometimes. He is not an inspiring companion. Some day it will become unendurable, and then I shall run away."
"But your education. Have you never been away to school?" he asked. "My guardian taught me everything."
"Even your music?"
"He and Andrew. Andrew plays wonderfully upon the violin."
"But don't you ever have visitors?" he asked. "Do you mean to say that you never leave the island at all?"
She shook her head. "Never. Do you know what a misanthrope is? Well, my guardian is a misanthrope, and they are not pleasant people to live with."
He left off questioning her. Every word she uttered only added to his bewilderment.
"Tell me your name?" she asked.
"Is that all?"
"It is what I should like you to call me," he answered.
She raised her dark, brilliant eyes, and looked at him frankly. "Hildyard," she repeated, her soft speech giving a sort of caressing intonation to the name. "Yes, I like that. What are you going to do here, Hildyard? How long are you going to stay?"
"As long as I am allowed," he answered readily. "Until you bid me go."
"You had better not be rash," she said with soft playfulness. "You might find yourself a prisoner here. I might never tell you to go away."
"You are lonely?"
"I think that there is no one in the world so lonely as I am. Andrew is often savage and fretful. He has seen and he knows so much more than I—and yet—he will not often talk to me of the books we read—or of the world, the great outside world of men and women and art. It is not living, here. It is dreaming. I wonder is it very wrong for me to want to live?"
"And your guardian?"
"Sometimes he is kind," she answered. "Sometimes I am almost afraid of him. He has not always lived like this, but he will not let me question him. I think that he has had great troubles. So you will stay, really, if he will let you?"
"Yes, I shall stay," he answered dreamily. "When I came I felt that I was going to stay. I—"
She was leaning forward with her hand upraised, and her dark eyes full of fear. She had turned suddenly pale.
"He is coming!" she whispered.
He turned round, following her rapt gaze. Only a few yards away from them a man was coming down the zig-zag path. There was no time for any speech between them. The new-comer was already by their side. He did not even glance at the girl; his eyes were fixed upon her companion. Hildyard took a step forward to meet him.
"I fear that I am a flagrant trespasser," he said, acutely conscious all the while of the incongruity of this or any such conventional form of speech with the nature of his surroundings. "The island attracted me, and I landed without knowing that it was inhabited. I have already had the misfortune to alarm your ward. I am really very sorry."
The man who stood before him bowed slightly. His features were almost invisible beneath his broad-brimmed felt hat.
"You had always the reputation of doing odd things, Hildyard," he remarked drily. "I see that you still live up to it. I watched your yacht for an hour this afternoon, but I scarcely anticipated the pleasure of a visit from you. You do not appear to recognize me."
He removed his hat as he spoke, and stood bareheaded in the moonlight, a faint smile hovering round the corners of his lips. Hildyard took a quick step backwards, and a little cry escaped him. He no longer doubted but that he had stepped out of his life into a little enchanted world. He was face to face with the impossible!
They stood for a minute motionless on the little plot of turf, clear and distinct figures in the moonlit air. The wan pallor of the new-comer's face, intensified in that white clear light, was almost corpse-like. His speech was human and natural enough.
"You are surprised to see me, of course," he said, quietly. "Quite a dramatic meeting, is it not? Come, won't you shake hands?"
Hildyard drew a deep breath, and held out his hand. He was already beginning to feel annoyed at this sudden desertion of his self-possession. The man's face had changed; it was wasted and worn almost to a shadow, but it was certainly the face of a living man. Hildyard recovered himself rapidly.
"Owston! by all that is amazing!" he exclaimed. "I thought that you were in South America, naturalizing. Ringwood said that he had heard that you were there, and I saw it in the paper only a few weeks ago. This is most extraordinary!"
The new-comer shrugged his shoulders.
"So far as the newspapers and the few hundreds of people we call the 'world' are concerned, I am in South America," he answered, grimly. "As a matter of fact, I am, as you see, here. But what brought you into this quarter of the globe?"
"Merely a desire to escape a little way out of the beaten track. I was just cruising about. I landed out of mere curiosity. My God!"
The interjection leaped from him with the sudden crispness of a pistol shot. A horrible idea—an idea filled with madness—came flashing into his brain. It was as though the little strip of soft, green turf had yawned at his feet, and disclosed a horrible precipice. Scarcely a mile of sea separated his yacht and his guests from this man. Supposing they were to miss him, were to follow him here! It was quite possible. He was a brave man, but an icy fear was at his heart. And all the while those cold, grey eyes were watching him mercilessly, as though striving to read his thoughts.
"Your nerves are not quite what they were when you kept wicket for the Varsity, Hildyard," he remarked quietly.
Hildyard shrugged his shoulders. After all, he could return by daylight or soon after. The burden rolled away. But it had been a shock.
"Our modern life scarcely admits the necessity of nerves," he answered.
"The wonder to me is that we preserve any at all!"
"It is a truth which almost reconciles me to my isolation," Owston answered. "You are the first figure linked with my past whom chance has brought here. Can you give me a day or two? I can put you up after a fashion, and there is some good duck-shooting on the other side of the island."
Hildyard hesitated. Unconsciously he glanced to the place where the girl had been standing. It was empty. She had glided noiselessly away, but at that moment there floated out from somewhere amongst the shrubs a low, passionate strain of music. He listened for a moment, and the die was cast. Here was such a chance of escaping from himself and his environment for a while as might never present itself again. Already the weariness of life seemed to have passed away. It was folly to hesitate.
"Willingly, if you are sure that you would like to have me," he answered. "I have some guests on my yacht, but I am very weary of them-as weary as I daresay they are of me. Let me write some notes and send them away."
"As you like. Come and see the home I have made for myself,"
He turned, and Hildyard followed him along the zig-zag path, through the pine grove, and across the lawn to the front of the long, low dwelling- house. The front door stood open. Inside was a square hall hung with prints and curios very much after the fashion of an old English house. Owston turned the handle of the door on the left-hand side, and ushered in his guest.
He turned up the lamp, and Hildyard looked around him with curiosity.
On three sides of the room there were books from the floor to the ceiling. On the fourth, high French windows opened out on the lawn. The ceiling was low, and the pine rafters had been left uncovered. A table in the centre of the room was covered with papers and volumes. The suggestions of the place were distinctly scholarly.
"This is my library," Owston said. "It is here that I am living, or attempting to live, my second life. Every one of those bookcases I made myself I cut down the trees and sawed the planks, and fitted them together. It is the same with everything in the house, and indeed with the house itself. I have tried civilization, and it did not agree with me. I am endeavouring now to return to the primitive state of man."
"But you had some help, of course?" Hildyard interposed.
"Some manual help from my own servants. Butlin and his wife—you would remember Butlin—live in the house. Then there are three men, one to manage my little boat and the fishing, and two for the land and garden. They live down on the beach on the other side of the island. You will find paper and envelopes upon that table. Write your notes."
Hildyard sat down and wrote. His curiosity as to his surroundings had been short lived. It had passed away like a flash before the crisis with which he was standing face to face. The growth and evolution of his sen- sations during the last half an hour comprised a notable epoch in his life. Conscious of only one strong, vehement desire, he wrote his notes swiftly and without hesitation. By his side like a shadow stood Owston, with a curious smile upon his calm face.
Hildyard stood up, holding the sealed letters in his hand.
"I will take them down to the boat myself," he said. "I know the way. It is just on the other side of the hill."
"We will go together," Owston answered. "I shall not sleep again. We shall see the sun rise as we come back. It is one of the charms of untrammelled life that the clock has no meaning for us. Often we sleep by day and walk and work and dine by moonlight. You were surprised, perhaps, to meet my ward wandering about at long past midnight. It is nothing. The night loses its significance here. We have no restrictions. There is no need of any. Come."
They left the house together. As they passed the window from which the girl had issued a glad strain of triumphant music came dancing out through the shuttered blinds. Hildyard felt that those notes were for him, but he only set his teeth hard. A fear more terrible than the fear of death was upon him.
In single file they left the garden and climbed the hill. From its summit they could see the yacht riding at anchor, and through the twilight they could hear the voices of the sailors as they clambered about the rocks.
Hildyard paused. He spoke with precision, almost with indifference. Yet there was a good deal at stake.
"If you do not care about having your whereabouts known, you had better not come down to the boat," he suggested. "One or two of the men are Devon men, and Jones is there—the fellow from Cowes who took us for that cruise many years ago. He is my first mate now. Even if the others did not, he would probably recognize you, and sailors are great hands at gossip."
Owston nodded. "I will wait for you here," he said. "Do not hurry."
He leaned against the trunk of a pine tree, and Hildyard hastened down the steep slope. As soon as he was alone, Owston took a small folding telescope from his pocket, and looked through it long and steadily at the graceful yacht, which was gently rising and falling on the bosom of the incoming tide. No one was moving on board her. It was scarcely possible to distinguish more than her shape. The deep, shadowy twilight of the hour before dawn lay like a curtain upon land and sea. The moon's full light had gone. In the east there was a lightening of the clouds, and a faint grey shade stealing into the horizon, but as yet it travelled slowly. Owston shut up his glass with a little snap, and leaning once more against the tree, set his face seaward with a faint introspeptive smile upon his lips.
"Scarcely twenty minutes' swim," he said to himself, measuring the distance between the shore and the yacht with his eyes. "Perhaps half an hour with the tide coming in. Imagine me, wet and dripping, suddenly presenting myself on board, finding my way down into her cabin, and standing over her while she slept, waiting till her eyes should open and fall upon me. She would sit up; I know exactly how she would sit up, and then the terror would flash into her face, and she would cower down. And I—what should I do? Gods knows! Strangle her, most likely! What a situation for the modern drama! A trifle too realistic, perhaps, but thrilling—distinctly thrilling. I wonder how long my young friend is going to be?"
He lit a cigarette, and yawned several times. Soon Hildyard came back.
The dawn was brightening the sky as he clambered up the hill.
"Well, is it done?" Owston inquired.
"It is done," Hildyard answered. "I am on your hands for a week. I hope you haven't begun to repent."
Owston smiled absently. He was taking a last glance at the Sea King.
"No, I have not repented," he said. "I am not likely to. By the by, your men are coming back with some of your things, I suppose?" he added, as they began to descend the hill.
Hildyard shook his head.
"No. I have relied altogether upon your hospitality," he answered. "I did think of it, but I was afraid that if the boat had to return some of my guests might insist upon gratifying their curiosity by coming with it, and I take it that you did not want any more trespassers upon your seclusion. I have sent word to the captain to run them straight back into the port we had arranged to land at, and then return for me. It will take them about a week."
"I am afraid that I am breaking up a pleasant party," Owston remarked, calmly.
Hildyard shrugged his shoulders. "They will enjoy it better without me," he remarked. "I have a bad habit of being easily bored, and showing it. I am like that famous Roman emperor we used to read about together. I am pining for a new experience."
"There is nothing new upon this island, or in my life here," Owston said. "I do not believe that there is anything new upon the world. If there is, civilization has made us too effete to discover it."
"I agree with you," Hildyard said. "Civilization has emasculated us. We are a nerveless race."
"You will not find anything new here," Owston repeated. "My life is sim- ply a study in negations. I am at war with the complex. That is the text of my solitude. You will find nothing new here, but you will miss many of the things which make our modern life a species of slavery. I have no excitements, but, on the other hand, I have no enervating reactions. I am the slave of no one, not even time. I make my own days and my own nights. Worry and turmoil and emotion pass me by. As to art, I do not need it; I am face to face with nature."
"And this life contents you?" Hildyard said.
"I did not say so," Owston answered, sternly. "See how quickly the sun is breaking through the clouds."
They turned their faces eastward. The first dim shaft of morning sunlight fell upon the stone cross below, flashing along its sea-stained arms with soft brilliancy. Hildyard laid his hand upon his companion's arm, and pointed downward.
"Is that nature's work?" he asked.
"So far as I know," Owston answered. "Men's hands could scarcely have fashioned it It was there when I came. It has all the appearance of having been there for a thousand years."
Hildyard was silent. He looked away, and they moved on. Soon his companion's clear voice sounded again in his ears.
"I am going to ask you a question, Hildyard."
"Ask me as many as you will."
"Well, I am curious to know why you have accepted my invitation. Why did you accept it without a moment's hesitation? I am a man in the eyes of your world, I suppose, dishonoured. I do not think that we ever passed beyond the ordinary terms of our relative positions into anything like intimacy. What you have heard of me since we parted can scarcely have seemed creditable to you. Therefore I am curious! If we had met in London, I should have expected to have been ignored. Yet chance brings us together here, and on my first word of invitation you desert your friends, abandon your yachting cruise, and are content to spend a lonely week upon a small island with a rabid misanthrope. You do it without hesitation, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Is it compassion? If not, what is it?"
Hildyard glanced across the sea. The small rowing-boat was approaching the yacht's side now. For the first time he realized how completely he was cut off from the world.
"No, it is not compassion," he answered. "I am not good-natured enough for that. To be frank, it was more the offspring of a diseased craving for novelty. You offer me an asylum from my friends, of whom I am a little weary; you offer me a blank page of life under new conditions. If you lived in the London of to-day, where life is fashioned out of worn-out types and men die more of ennui than of heart disease, you would understand my prompt acceptance. I can assure you that I never hesitated."
They were descending the hill now by the same path which Hildyard had followed alone only a few hours ago. Freed from the sudden burden of intolerable anxiety which had sat heavily upon his shoulders for a while, the fascination of that strange little scene in the moonlit garden reasserted itself. He seemed to hear again the low, thrilling music, to see the wonderful light of her dark eyes gleaming from her olive face, to hear the rustle of her gown as she floated through space with the matchless, effortless grace which had seemed so wonderful to him. As they drew nearer to the garden he looked eagerly forward. She was there, in a plain cream-coloured gown, moving across the lawn to meet them, with both hands full of the yellow and purple blossoms she had been plucking. Owston watched him keenly.
"Do you admire my ward?" he asked.
"Admire her! She is wonderful!" Hildyard answered. "She is a new type. I never saw anything like it, even in the streets of Cairo."
"You seem to have divined her nationality," Owston remarked. "Her father was a French officer, but her mother, who came from Cyprus, was a pure Egyptian of ancient family, descended in a direct line, poor Mallalieu used to tell me, from the Pharaohs. Mallalieu was her father, and, at one time, my friend."
Hildyard glanced toward the house.
"And—and the boy?" he asked.
"He is not a boy; he is a man," Owston answered. "He is my cousin, and almost my only relative. I will tell you more about both of them later on. See, Bertha is waving to us."
"Look!" she cried, waving her hand full of drooping yellow blossoms. "The smoke! The smoke!"
They followed her gesture. A thick line of smoke lay across the sky.
"It is the yacht," she cried. "You have sent her away, then. She has taken up her anchor. She is off."
Hildyard shaded his eyes and looked. She had swung round, and was standing out to sea. Through the deep morning stillness they could even hear the thud of her engines.
"Yes, she is off right enough," Hildyard remarked, with a little sigh of relief, "I'm on your hands for a week. By the by, Owston, if you are introducing me to your ward, call me Mr. Hildyard. I want the change to be complete. I am weary of being a lord."
The girl had joined them now. In the sunlight her strange Oriental beauty was as potent, though less fantastic, than it had seemed to him a few hours ago. Owston spoke a few words of introduction; then he left them for a moment and entered the house.
She raised her dark eyes to him. There was a gleam of trouble in them.
"So you are going to stay," she said, softly.
"Yes, I am going to stay," he answered. "You do not look glad. I hope that you do not mind having me?"
She glanced toward the window through which Owston had vanished, and back again into his face.
"For myself," she said, slowly, "it is a happiness—it will be a great happiness. Need I tell you that? For you—I do not know I wonder! You are the first stranger who has set foot upon this island within my recollection. I do not understand it. Why did he ask you?"
"We knew one another years ago," he answered. "We have had many friends in common. There is a past in which we are both interested."
"You knew one another years ago," she repeated. "Tell me, were you great friends? He must have been much older than you."
He hesitated. There was no harm in telling her the bare facts, at any rate. "We were at college together," he told her. "Afterwards he was my tutor. We travelled and lived together for several years."
She took one of the blossoms from her hands and thrust it into his button- hole.
"I am fanciful, perhaps," she said. "I thought that he looked at you once as he might have looked at a man whom he hated. It must have been a fancy."
"I am sure it was," he told her.
"I am too happy to have forebodings," she murmured, looking up at him with a brilliant smile. "Come, and I will show you our flower garden."
ON the summit of the southern slope which ran down to the sea skilful hands had planned and fashioned a wonderful flower garden. As Hildyard followed his guide through the iron gate, a little cry of surprise escaped him. It was so different from what he had expected.
The text of the gardener had been colour—colour, brilliant and univeral. Great beds of crimson and yellow carnations filled the air with their sweet fragrance. A hedge of roses bordered the little enclosure on either side. Below, it was open to the sea; above, a great bank of flowering rhododendrons rose sheer over the hill side. There were no box-lined walks or artificial beds, nor apparently any method whatever in the reckless and luxurious distribution of the blossoming plants. Flowers had been planted apparently with the sole intent of forming one huge wave of colour. Gold- dusted snapdragon and tall hollyhocks grew up out of the beds of many-hued stocks. A sea of azure blue-bells waved their drooping heads in the morning breeze. In the far corner was a row of pink and white blossoming chestnut trees. The whole air was faint with perfume.
The last few hours had witnessed a curious evolution in Hildyard's whole sensuous nature. He gazed across the sea of colour to where the thin, black line of his yacht's smoke touched the skies. To him, her departure was typical of many things, besides being in itself an inexplicable relief There were bonds there which he had broken—perhaps forever. Even then he was content.
"It is a little corner of Paradise!" he declared, dreamily. "Tell me, are there lotus flowers in your garden?"
She shook her head. She was gazing seawards with her hand shading her eyes. The yacht now was no more than a speck upon the horizon.
"I wonder—will you ever regret that?" she said, with her eyes fixed upon the smoke.
"Never!" he answered.
"You would rather be here?"
"Ten thousand times! Let me sit down!"
There was a shelving bank of green turf close at hand. She moved towards it, and he threw himself on the grass by her feet, clasping his hands behind his head. She looked back towards the house, and dropped her voice.
"I wish I knew exactly why he asked you to stay here. You are quite sure that you never had any quarrel with him?"
"Absolutely! I do not see anything to wonder at in his asking me. Considering that I was here, it would have been rather inhospitable if he had not!"
Her dark eyes were troubled; there was a nameless fear in her face.
"I do not understand!" she said, slowly. "He shuts himself up, and is nervous and angry if a boat does but approach the island. Yet you come and you stay. It is by accident you come—at least, you say so, and it seems so. Yet for days he has watched from the hill yonder with his face toward the sea. Was it for you?"
. He shook his head. "He could not have known that I was coming!" he answered her. "I did not know myself. It was by the merest chance that we came in sight of the island at all!"
"He knows many things!" she answered, slowly. "He knows many strange things. Yet you are here, and I am very glad. Only—"
Again she looked along the path towards the house. There was no one in sight. She listened. There was no sound save the far-off falling of the rippling waves upon the beach.
"Only be very careful!" she added, looking up at him wistfully. "You and he are as unlike as that sea as it is now and when the north winds blow and the great clouds fly across the sky. Strange things there have been in his life—strange things and sad. He does not forget them! He never will forget them. He lives here alone, and he broods upon them. Some day those who have wronged him will reap a bitter harvest. Hush, do not speak! Be careful! The flowers are of many years' growth. We have added to them year by year as we have been able. The carnations which you admire so much—"
At once he understood the sudden change in her expression and tone.
He knew, too, that her sudden languor was assumed with all the graceful facility of a woman of fashion, and he was moved to wonder. Where had she learned it? A deep, quiet voice came from behind them.
This time she turned round, barely repressing a little shiver as she did.
The man who saw it was perplexed. The voice was quiet and gentle, yet she certainly shivered.
The new-comer said something to her—only a word or two, but in a language altogether strange to Hildyard. She made no answer, but she rose slowly to her feet, and he heard the rustle of her gown as she disappeared. He muttered a little word between his teeth. So there was to be espionage. Then he too rose up and joined his host.
"So you have found your way, or rather, my ward has shown you our little paradise!" he remarked, quietly. "This is where I sometimes find even the summer days too short!"
"I can well believe it!" Hildyard answered, absently. But he was not thinking of the garden.
"It is here that I come when I want to be perfectly sure that I do not regret Pall Mall and Piccadilly!" Owston continued. "This is the only place In the world where I have been able to read Horace and Keats with perfect satisfaction!"
"It is a poet's dreaming place!" Hildyard murmured. "I think there must be a spice of magic in the air. The languor of the lotus-eater is in my veins!"
Owston turned, and swung open again the little gate.
"Come," he said. "The odour of flowers is sweet, but it is not satisfying. There is some breakfast waiting for us. Come and see whether our Arcadian fare will tempt your appetite."
THEY strolled back to the house. On the lawn just outside the open window a small round table was spread in a tempting fashion. A silver coffee urn and a great jug of claret flashing purple in the sunlight stood side by side on a cloth of dazzling whiteness. There was an omelette, a dish of boiled eggs, brown bread, pats of deep yellow butter, and a glass bowl of honey. A vase of lilac, and a glass bowl of hothouse fruit upon which the bloom still lingered, gave almost an epicurean tone to the little repast; the eyes and the palate were alike to be ministered to. But Hildyard's first impulse was one of disappointment. The table was laid for two only. There was no sign of Bertha. It was evident that she was not to be present.
Nevertheless he breakfasted, and breakfasted well. With the satisfying too of so purely a physical desire as hunger, something of the glamour of his surroundings commenced to pass away. It was no enchanted island which boasted an excellent cook, an attentive though elderly man-servant, and a small dairy farm. The memory of that moonlit scene upon the lawn amongst the flowering rhododendron shrubs would always be touched by a little halo of romance, but the curious sense of unreality about it was passing away. That strange revival of an old superstition which had been kindled in him, of all men, by the sight of that lone cross with its flaming arms set against the dark background of sea-stained rocks, was already growing faint. After all, it was only a mass of twisted stone; its symbolism was an accident. It could have no meaning for him. The fact that it was indirectly responsible for his visit was already half forgotten. It was not the first time by many that he and his host had breakfasted together. So long as he could keep his thoughts from straying into one particular channel, there seemed to be nothing at all unnatural in this return to their old com- panionship. The bar which had come between them he had steadily ignored. There was a sort of dramatic piquancy in the situation which was in some measure fascinating. The darker side to it he set his face against. The psychological potentialities of their intercourse was curious and imminent. But for the present his thoughts were running in another groove.
The soft morning air seemed full of the murmuring of a low voice. More than once during the meal he pictured her to himself as he had first seen her, floating across the shadowy lawn with supple and marvellous grace, seeming something scarcely human in the weird half lights and shadows amongst which she moved. She was very beautiful, very unlike any other woman in the world. What did he mean to do with her? Hildyard wondered, gazing across the table into his host's cold, impassive face. He could not be seriously thinking of keeping her apart from the world all her days. The thing was absurd—it was a crime. A life of cold negations for such a woman as this was a thing hideous and unnatural. In the world there was an empire before her! Yet—Hildyard looked from his host's face across the sea. It was such an empire as hers might be which had driven this man into premature middle age and rigorous exile. He was her guardian. Was he likely to send her out into the world to sow the seed of which he had reaped so bitter a harvest? The sunlight seemed suddenly dimmed—the morning breeze had become enervating. Hildyard's face was clouded.
They had finished breakfast, and were leaning back in low basket chairs with a tin box of cigarettes and a tiny flask of liqueur upon the table between them. Owston, who had hitherto preserved an almost singular silence, waved the curling blue smoke from around him, and leaning forward with his keen eyes, fixed upon his guest's face.
"It is a strange chance which has brought you here, Hildyard!" he said, quietly. "You are one of the last men I should have expected to penetrate my exile. It is like what we used to call sometimes when we dabbled in fatalism, the writing of destiny."
"I am afraid that my coming here must have looked very much like taking you by storm," Hildyard remarked. "You had very little choice as to my entertainment. Tell me candidly," he continued, "would you rather have been left alone? Am I here on sufferance, or are you really content to have your seclusion broken in upon? You have only to say the word, you know, and two can play the hermit! Let me choose half a dozen books from your library, and give me a box of these cigarettes, and I can make myself perfectly happy amongst the pine trees."
Owston shook his head. "There is not the slightest need for anything of that sort," he declared. "I am honestly glad to see someone whom I can call a fellow-creature again, and I am looking forward to the week which you have promised me. Do not think that I am attempting to discount my hospitality, however, if I venture to ask you a favour...
Hildyard nodded, and watched the ash of his cigarette grow white between his fingers. There did not seem to be any need for him to say anything.
"There is a certain lady occupying a somewhat notorious position in English society—Mrs. Stanley Owston, I believe she still does me the honor to call herself. You are a man of the world, and are doubtless acquainted with her- -directly or indirectly."
Hildyard emitted a volume of cigarette smoke in a thin blue line from between his compressed lips, and watched it steal upwards in the clear sunlit air. His expression was entirely nonchalant, but the faint tinge of colour had left his cheeks, and the fingers of his hand, which rested on the side of the basket chair, shook so, that he locked them in the open canes.
"Yes, I am acquainted with her," he answered, slowly.
"Exactly! Before you leave I have a question to ask concerning her. I shall not ask you, or allude to this matter again, until the eve of your departure. May I beg that until that time you eliminate from your mind the existence of that lady so far as I and my past life are concerned. I have lifted a little corner of a very dark and a very heavy curtain. Now it is dropped again. I am afraid that I have expressed myself in a somewhat roundabout fashion. You will doubtless understand me, though."
"Yes, I understand," Hildyard answered, gravely. "Until you yourself choose to open the subject, it shall be a sealed one to me. I would very much rather that you did not allude to it again. I should infinitely prefer that you ask me no questions concerning that lady."
Owston's face was turned toward the sea, and his expression was inscrutable.
"Let that pass. The time has not come yet. And now I have another thing to ask you. Many years ago I shook the dust of the world from off my feet. I made a vow, and retired with all formality. My intention was to lead an absolutely solitary life, to indulge my oId delights for dreaming in beautiful places, to cultivate philosophy, to dominate sensation, to acquire indifference, to mend a broken heart. So I bought this little island and came here with my books, and my one faithful servant, Butlin, and his wife, prepared to play the hermit. But after all we are the puppets of fate, and she seems to take a malicious pleasure in thwarting our most cherished schemes. It was written that my hermithood should be but partial. By a combination of unfortunate events, I became the only possible protector of a deformed lad and a girl in pinafores."
He paused, and looked over his shoulder toward the house. Hildyard leaned forward and helped himself to another cigarette. There was no sign of life anywhere around them. In a moment or two Owston continued. A certain restraint had fallen from his tone. He was very much in earnest.
"That lad has become a man, and the girl a woman. I have brought them up in the way which seemed best to me. They are the voluntary companions of my isolation, and they are endurable to me and answer my purpose simply because their world is bounded by the seas which girt my little island. You understand me, Hildyard, I am sure! The presence of a stranger, and such a stranger as you are, must be richly suggestive to both of them of a world of which they are not denizens. I do not want their minds to dwell upon this world. I am bound to ask you therefore to hold as little converse with them as possible. I accepted my guardianship in both instances with distaste and anger, but having accepted it, I do not wish to lose them. Such as they are, they are mine. They are of my moulding—they are the fruit of my labours. They represent to me humanity. I cannot spare a single disturbing emotion of discontent or unsettlement from either of them. Their connection with myself, I repeat, both in the present and the future, is my concern only."
The eyes of the two men met for a moment. The same thought was at the heart of both of them.
"The girl—Bertha, I think you call her—is beautiful!" Hildyard said, slowly. "You cannot intend to keep her here all her life. It would be unnatural. She is made for a place in the world."
A thundercloud darkened Owston's face. He removed his cigarette from his mouth, and leaning over, answered slowly, but with a peculiar impressiveness.
"Whilst I remain here, she remains here. Where I go, she goes. Her sex, in the person of one woman, owes me a good deal. She shall repay it."
This time it was not fancy—a clear, gay voice rang suddenly out on the breathless air. Both men looked up. Bertha, with her hands clasped behind her head, was crossing the lawn towards the cliff. As she walked she sang. Hildyard, who was but an indifferent linguist, could only guess at the meaning of the words which floated from her lips so mockingly, yet so seductively. As she moved, her feet kept time with the music—she was half dancing and half walking. A deeper shade stole over Owston's face. His brows were, knitted, and he seemed annoyed at her inopportune presence. Hildyard leaned forward, watching her with rapt intentness, until she was out of Sight.
"She is marvellous," he exclaimed. "I never saw anyone like her in my life. She is the incarnation of orientalism. She is like the daughter of a hundred Pharaohs!"
Owston did not answer. His eyes were fixed upon the furtherest corner of the lawn, and the dark shade upon his face had deepened. Hildyard followed his gaze. Amongst the bushes the creature of last night was standing, still in his black coat and slouched hat, with his pale face turned toward the spot where the girl had disappeared. For a moment or two he remained there perfectly silent. Then with a little, gurgling cry which sounded oddly enough in the ears of the two men, he plunged into the shrubbery, taking a path in the same direction as that by which she had vanished. The bushes closed behind him. In the distance they could still hear the faint refrain of the girl's song.
THE long summer day passed like a dream, and it was night again upon the island. Hildyard had been shown over the place, had sailed for an hour or two in a tiny skiff to the leeward of the rock, and had shared with his host an incomparable little dinner in the room which looked out upon the sea. Afterwards they had sat out upon the lawn smoking and talking until the stars had crept into the sky, and the evening breeze had swept in from the ocean. The conversation had been desultory at first, but in its course Hildyard had answered many questions about many people, and he had listened to a good deal of pent-up bitterness of spirit. They had peopled the twilight around them with the ghosts of forgotten days and faces only dimly remembered across the gulf of years. Hildyard was not in the least deceived by his host's somewhat strained attempt to pose as a cynical yet contented misanthrope. The restlessness of the man was only too readily apparent, and every now and then there flashed forth in the turn of a sentence or in the inflexion of his voice the dark lightenings of an infinite bitterness which seemed to have poisoned his very soul. All day long Hildyard had borne him company with a curious mixture of sensations. There could be no pleasure for him in this revival of an intimacy which he had grown to look upon as a thing wholly and completely passed. Yet the psychological possibilities of their renewed intercourse appealed strongly to his love of the unusual. It was in itself a little drama.
Somewhat abruptly Owston had bidden his guest good-night, and had gone off to his room at the rear of the building. Hildyard was lounging in a low chair before the open windows of his apartments. As his host's footsteps died away in the distance he gave a sigh of relief. The situation had not been without its embarrassments. It was something to be alone.
He took a cigarette from the tin box on the shelf, and lighting it, looked around with more interest than he had yet been able to bestow upon his immediate surroundings. The room which had been allotted to him was large and somewhat bare. The floor was covered with a coarsely-woven Japanese matting, and the walls, innocent of any pictures, were painted a bright creamy yellow. There was a piano in one corner and a couple of music stands. On the side remote from the door there was a camp bedstead, and a dressing case laid ready for his use. An india-rubber bath had been dragged out and placed against the wall. The room was obviously no bedroom. It had probably been extemporized into one for his use.
He pushed both windows wide open, and let in a little stream of the cool air. Then he sat down, his hands clasped behind his head, and looked thoughtfully out into the shadowy night.
The day had been a long one, full of experiences which had been novel and sensations which were a little bewildering. Life, which in the world's capital had seemed a very simple and somewhat flavourless affair, presented to him suddenly in this lonely island a complex and a difficult side. There was a certain pungent but unwholesome humour in the paradox with which he was confronted.
He blew his cigarette smoke out into the darkness and pondered. By degrees the abstract side of the question paled before the real issue. Why was he subjecting himself to this moral dilemma? Why had he chosen to become the guest of a man between whom and himself such relations were grotesquely out of place? Or, to put the matter more plainly still, why was he so feverishly anxious to remain upon the island? Why was he sitting there with a heart which beat the faster for every rustling of the breeze in the pines, and with eyes so steadfastly fixed upon a certain part of the lawn, that they had already grown accustomed to the darkness, and able to penetrate it?
He answered his own question bluntly. The spell of his last night's delight was upon him. He was waiting to see whether she would come again, listening keenly all the while for the faint throbbings of that wonderful music. All day long he had been expecting to see her—and he had been disappointed. Owston, after this morning's conversation, had not even alluded to her. There could be very little doubt that whilst he was upon the island, she was to be, in a measure, banished.
The fault was his own. It was the result of his too evident admiration. He frowned, muttered a word or two of mild blasphemy, and lit another cigarette.
Then, at a moment when he was least expecting it, came what he had been longing for. There was the sound of a cautiously opened window to the left of his, and the soft trailing of a woman's gown upon the grass. He sprang to his feet, and looked out into the night. It was Bertha!
She was crossing the lawn, a dim, shadowy figure in a flowing grey cloak, and whilst he stood there for a moment motionless, the music from the violin in her hands stole like some sweet magic through the darkness to his ears. He hesitated no longer. The memory of Owston's menacing words faded away. He was no hero, and he was utterly unaccustomed to any form of self-restraint. His sense of obligation to the man who had become his temporary host was swept away in the flood of his desire. He stepped lightly outside, and followed her across the grass.
"Bertha!" he cried softly.
She flashed a sidelong glance at him, but she did not stop playing. He walked close behind her to the rhododendron shrubbery. She did not speak to him or take any notice of him whatsoever. On the little grass plateau she paused and leaned with her back against a young fir tree, playing still, although the music grew fainter and slower every moment. He stood and watched her, fascinated against his will. Her eyes looked into his steadfastly, yet with a far-away gleam in them which puzzled him. Slower and slower grew the music, dying away at last with a quivering pathos which was almost a sob. Her white shapely fingers ceased to flash through the darkness. The hand which held the bow hung down by her side. There was silence.
"Tell me," she asked, leaning towards him with the dreamlight lingering in her eyes. "Is it like that?"
"Is what?—I do not understand," he answered, bewildered. "It is very beautiful music. I do not know anything else like it."
Her face clouded slightly. She sighed.
"I forgot. Andrew understands all that I play to him. I want to know about life—human life. Is it like that?"
He shook his head. "It is not so sad. Sometimes it is as beautiful, but then it is more joyous. Life is a symphony in a major key."
There was a brief, nervous silence, then he spoke again.
"Life is beautiful when one is young. When you come into the world, for some day you must come, you will find it all out for yourself The world is made for the young and the beautiful. Nothing else save those two things, youth and beauty, is of any account. You have them both. You have a right to make use of them. It is barbarous to keep you cooped up on this wretched island."
"If he hears you talk to me like that-if he comes and finds you here, he will kill you," she said simply.
He smiled. He had the full measure of a man's contempt for physical fear.
She regarded his attitude with silent admiration.
"I am only telling you what is right and natural. Everyone would say the same. I shall tell him so myself when I leave."
"When you leave. Ah!"
"You will be sorry?"
She covered her face for a moment with her hands. Then she looked up at him.
"Why should I not be?" she said softly. "It would be strange if I were not sorry. Your coming has been like a breath from some promised land. You know where my promised land is. It is across the seas. It is where the world throbs. It is where one lives!"
"You will find your way there," he said. "You were not made to see your youth ebb away in a barren solitude. There is the fire of life in you. Some day you too will live. It is written!"
She caught a spark from the deep enthusiasm of his tone. Her eyes flashed. The light of hope was in her face.
"'It is written.' That is what I will tell myself," she repeated softly. "When the winter comes, and the sea and the sky are grey, I will say to myself, and I will believe it. Now, tell me. This morning I was wondering why he asked you to stop here. Tell me now why you consented to. There was your yacht, and you had guests—had you not? What made you send them away? It was strange that he should ask you, but it is strange too that you should want to."
A shade stole across his face. He looked across the dark sea on whose bosom the white-topped waves were rising and falling, swelling and breaking. He could almost fancy that he heard the same question in the deep, monotonous ebb and flow of the rushing tide. Why had he stayed at Stanley Owston's bidding? A phrase of that incipient fatalism which had hung like a faint cloud over his younger and more studious days, floated again into his brain. To such a question he felt that there was no definite answer. He thought of the cross, of his dream, without flippancy—almost with awe. Was it indeed possible that some force other than his own caprice had brought him here? What would be the result? He was drifting down a broad avenue—soon he would see the end. He would stand upon the high road-before him the branching of the roads, behind him the precipice. He looked into her dark, beautiful face as she leaned back against the red-barked tree, with the lines of her supple, graceful figure faintly defined under the folds of her thinly-woven gown, and he felt his heart beat the quicker. She was glorious-incomparable! The Egyptian woman of Bond Street with her queenly yet seductive beauty seemed almost vulgar in comparison. Then a little shiver stole through his frame. Perhaps it was a premonition of the tragedy which waited upon his coming.
"Why did I stay?" he repeated. "I do not know It was an instinct. Call it an inspiration."
She leaned forward towards him till her eyes gleamed like stars through the dusky twilight.
"It was I who brought you," she murmured. "I stood upon the rocks below by the great stone cross, and I played, and I played, and I played with my face to the sea, and my heart was lonely and sad, and the strings of my violin sobbed. I was playing for you, I think. I was very lonely."
She bent her head, and her white fingers flashed once more before his eyes. A low strain of music floated out upon the heavy air—music full of strange chords, and with a weird perpetual refrain. By degrees it grew louder and yet sweeter. It dawned upon him that the music was for him— she was speaking to him, calling him to her-every quivering note was charged with words. What was she saying? His heart was throbbing, the blood in his veins began to tingle, his eyes were bright. He tried to move towards her, but his feet were like lead. Dimly he began to wonder whether this girl with her great, dark eyes, and music which seemed to leap into burning, passionate life at her touch, had inherited any of the occult powers of her Egyptian ancestors. Well, if she were a sorceress, he was content to be bewitched. He was a very willing victim. The charm was in his blood.
Suddenly the music came to an abrupt end. There was a sharp screaming discord, a wild sob like the cry of a dying spirit. The violin slipped from her nerveless grasp. A string had broken in two. She buried her face in her hands and shivered. Hildyard, too, involuntarily stepped backwards. The ordinary mishap to the instrument seemed to have become transformed into something emblematic and significant. And almost at the same time a white, gleaming object, like a flash of silent lightning, passed before his dazzled eyes. He followed its downward course with fascinated horror. Only a few feet away from him a long knife was quivering in the turf! He raised his hand to his forehead, and looked at his fingers. They were covered with blood. From the bushes close by came a low, crooning cry, familiar to him since the morning, and the sound of heavy, shuffling footsteps rapidly growing fainter.
She, too, had seen it all—had seen the knife graze his forehead, and the blood upon his fingers. With a single movement of swift but effortless grace she stood before him. Her face was blanched and her eyes were dilated with horror. Stooping down, she tore a handful of soft lace from her skirt, and pressed it to his forehead, and looked at his fingers.
"Are you hurt?" she whispered.
"Not in the least," he answered, his voice trembling with a new sensation. "You broke a string, and the music came to such a strange ending, that I sprang back. It was nothing. The knife only grazed me."
Once again that low, weird cry came floating through the perfumed darkness to their ears. The girl heard it and shivered from head to foot. But he heard nothing. She was in his arms!
THEY were sitting before a small, round table drawn up close to the cedars upon the lawn. The dying sunlight flashed upon the crystal wine-glasses and the silver dishes of fruit spread upon the white tablecloth. A thin blue cloud of smoke had risen over their heads from the cigars which they had just lit.
Hildyard had wheeled his chair round, and was gazing seaward. Owston, on the contrary, was interested in nothing save his guest's face. Through half closed eyes he watched it with curious and steadfast intentness.
Below, riding at anchor about half a mile out, was the Sea King. Early in the afternoon they had watched her bearing down upon the island, growing larger and larger from a mere white speck upon the horizon. Just before the evening meal had been served, she had swung round and prepared to lower a boat. Hildyard, who had been steeped to the lips with the pleasure of having ceased for a week to be an integral unit in the civilized world, thought of the pile ofletters which were even now on their way to him, and shivered. He thought too of the wonderful sweetness of these few days of perfect naturalness, of the host of new sensations to which they had given birth, of the falling away of the old lassitude and melancholy. All these things, bewildering in themselves, seemed yet insignificant beside the internal metamorphosis in his own nature. The effeteness and languor of the palled citizen of the world had gone. The intolerable sense of age, so surely the reward of the man who hammers ceaselessly at the doors of the temple of pleasure, had taken to itself wings and flown away. More than anything, he reminded himself of one of those old Roman pilgrims who had dragged their weary limbs up to the hospital of Aesculapius, high up amongst the hills of Etruria, and in the clear, sweet air and temperateness of living, have felt the fever pass from their blood, and the wholesome vigour of youth take root once more in their limbs. It was like this with him. He had not enough of cynicism left to mock at himself
The two men had talked very little during dinner. Hildyard, face to face with the crisis which was before him, had been abstracted and thoughtful, and Owston had humoured his guest's mood. Butlin, the factotum of the household, who waited upon them, had filled their glasses often, and the wine had been good. But their tongues had not been loosened.
It was Owston who broke through their silence at last. He leaned over the table, softly waving away the cloud of tobacco smoke from between them, and fixed his eyes steadily upon his companion.
Hildyard started. His title had become unfamiliar to him. He looked away from the sea into Owston's pale set face, and a sense of coming trouble loomed up before him.
"I have a thing to ask you, Lord Hildyard!"
Hildyard nodded. The fewer words the better so far as he was concerned.
"I have a thing to ask you," Owston repeated slowly. "I have put it off from day to day. Now that you are going I must put it off no longer. It is about the lady who was once my wife-who still, I believe, does me the honour to call herself by my name!"
Hildyard started. He had been nerving himself to meet a question on another matter. But this was serious enough.
"I gather from such papers as come within my reach," Owston continued, "that she has become a personage. She was always very beautiful. I have seen society papers which have gone so far as to call her the most beautiful woman in England. A royal prince, they say, has shared in her favours. What a compliment to my poor judgment!"
Hildyard kept his eyes fixed steadfastly upon the ground. He would have given a considerable portion of his worldly goods for an interruption of any sort. But none came. None was like to come!
"The latest news I have of her," Owston continued, deliberately knocking the ash off his cigar, "is of her success upon the stage. I learn from a prominent society paper that she has become the lessee of a London theatre, and unless the critics lie, that she really does act. You have seen her, doubtless. May I ask you for your candid opinion? I am curious."
"There is no question as to her genius," Hildyard said, in a low tone. "She is a great actress." .
"You amaze me! I should have thought that she wanted nerve. But you are a judge. You must know Pauline a great actress! How strange! And that reminds me—I have come to my question. I do not ask you to betray any confidences. The thing is perfectly well known in London. I want to know the name of the nobleman who took the 'Novelty' theatre for her, and under whose protection she is living?"
There was a dead silence. The breathless air seemed full of the dying sunlight. There was no sound to be heard on all the island. Hildyard re-lit his cigar, which had gone out, with fingers which visibly trembled. There were two beads of perspiration upon his forehead.
"I am not asking you to divulge any confidences," Owston continued calmly. "I believe the little arrangement I allude to is perfectly understood in London. Nor am I asking for a list of my wife's infidelities. I simply want the name of this one man. It is a matter of some interest to me."
There was another short silence. Then Hildyard turned slowly round, and looked his host in the face.
"Why do you want to know this?" he asked. "He is not the man who took your wife away from you. He may not have known even of your existence. Your wife's reputation, pardon me—as a professional beauty, was before the world long before his connection with her. It was he—or someone else—"
"These matters do not interest me," Owston said slowly. "I want an answer to my question! I want that man's name!"
The sangfroid of his order and training came back to Hildyard. He answered firmly and yet with a certain indifference.
"I am sorry, but I do not feel justified in telling you this man's name. I don't like disobliging you, but the thing is impossible!"
"All I want is the name of the joint lessee of the 'Novelty' theatre."
Owston repeated slowly. "Nothing more!"
"I cannot tell you!" Hildyard repeated. "As you say, you have no difficulty in finding it out. But not from me."
Owston threw his cigar away, and taking a cigarette from the tin box at his elbow, lit it. He appeared to be neither surprised nor annoyed at Hildyard's refusal to answer his question. On the contrary, the set lines about his mouth relaxed into a faint forbidding smile.
"I must say that your refusal to answer such a simple question seems to me a little ungracious, Hildyard," he remarked quietly. "I am only asking you to save me a letter to London. Any twopenny-halfpenny little society paper would furnish me with the information in its 'answers to corre- spondents.' I am simply asking you to spare me the humiliation of writing. You will probably change your mind before you leave the island."
Hildyard looked at him fixedly with raised eyebrows. Whatever else he may have been, he was no coward.
"I think not," he said stiffly. "I am not in the habit of changing my mind. You may—"
He broke off in his sentence. After all, an interruption had come—a most unlooked-for interruption. The garden gate had been thrown open, and was swinging upon its hinges. The deep twilight stillness was suddenly broken by the sound of alien voices. Both men looked round, and then their eyes met for a moment across the table. Hildyard was white to the lips.
"Is that a planned thing?" Owston whispered hoarsely.
"By God! No!" Hildyard answered with broken fervour.
There were no more words between them. It was the silence before the storm!
A CURIOUS little group came strolling across the lawn towards the two men. There was Lady Bergamot, with her too golden hair very much in evidence, holding her skirts in one hand, and peering out of a lorgnette which she held in the other. By her side was Morton Pearmain, tall, thin, and sallow; and a little to the right of them—the most beautiful woman in England, her eyes fixed upon Hildyard, and a wonderful smile breaking across her face.
Pale still, but with a wonderful self-possession, Hildyard rose to greet them. Owston took a single step backwards. He was now standing in the shadow of the cedars, and his features were obscured.
"Is that really you, Hildyard?" she cried gaily, but with a certain note of relief in her tone. "Why, we expected to find your bleached bones, or to discover you sitting on a rock half starved, and here you are in the very lap of luxury You didn't mind us coming back in the yacht? We—why what is the matter?"
Hildyard did not answer. The situation was a little beyond him. And then came Stanley Owston's deep bass voice as he stepped out from the shadows.
"Will you not present me to your friends?" he asked quietly
There was a deep silence. The eyes of the man and woman were fixed upon one another. Everyone else seemed to sink into the background. A little low cry burst from Pauline's lips. The colour faded from her cheeks, and her eyes were dilated with horror. Her outstretched hand fell slowly to her side. Morton Pearmain dropped his eyeglass, and his lips unconsciously curved themselves into a whistle. Lady Bergamot, who also understood, was silent and shaken. Outwardly, Owston was the least disturbed of the party.
"This is very kind of you, Pauline!" he said, bowing to the little group. "I am delighted to see you. Won't you introduce me to your friends? Lady Bergamot, I believe, I have already the pleasure of knowing."
Lady Bergamot bowed stiffly
"Mr. Owston—Morton Pearmain," she murmured. "Be civil," she added under her breath. "We're in a jolly row!"
Mr. Morton with difficulty repressed an audible whistle. Mr. Owston!
The idea of there being a Mr. Owston. He was at once deeply interested in the situation.
"You are very welcome," Mr. Owston continued. "By the by, have you dined? I have only a hermit's fare to offer you, but such as it is, it can be got ready in a very short time. John!"
The man stepped out from the study window, and crossed the lawn. But by this time Lady Bergamot was herself again.
"Please do not order anything at all for us, Mr. Owston," she begged. "We dined on board the yacht, just before we came."
"On board the yacht!" He glanced over his shoulder as he repeated the words. The coloured lamps were hanging out from the rigging and masthead, but the yacht itself was still visible through the gathering darkness.
"How curious!" he remarked softly "You are all together, then? I don't remember hearing you say that you were entertaining such an interesting party, Hildyardl"
Hildyard pulled himself together. It was no good being unnerved.
"I am an unconscious host," he remarked, with an attempt at lightness. "I thought my guests had landed."
No one spoke.
What was there to be said, or rather how could they say it? They had come back for Pauline's sake. It was she who had proposed and almost insisted upon their return. She had had a stupid presentiment about Hildyard's safety, which by some means or other, she had contrived to communicate to them. So they had all come back together, and this was what they had found—her husband and her lover of to-day dining together under a cedar tree. It was distinctly an awkward situation. There was humour in it, no doubt, but just at that time the humour seemed strained. Morton Pearmain, who had written a cynical novel, and professed to be a disciple of Ibsen, was the only one who found it endurable.
"Well, if you won't dine with me, you must try my grapes," Owston continued. "John, some grapes, and a couple of bottles of claret—the yellow seal. Lady Bergamot, there is a chair behind you—permit me. Mrs. Owston, I know, prefers a low seat. There, you will find that comfortable!"
The man seemed to have gained a sort of unholy mastery over the little party. He who should have been the chief sufferer, became the chief torturer. From sheer inability to do anything else, they all obeyed him.
"You have quite an Arcadian home, Mr. Owston," Morton Pearmain remarked, looking around him.
Owston shrugged his shoulders.
"It is rather like a scene from Arcadia, is it not? The place is well enough. I am quite a hermit, you know, and it suits me. Lord Hildyard's visit has been a great event. We have talked over old days and old friends, until I became almost homesick. I have heard all the news about everybody, all the latest gossip, and all the scandal. I am beginning to feel quite up to date. It has been a wonderful week for me. In a sense I think Lord Hildyard has found it wonderful too."
Ghoul-like he leaned forward and laughed at his wife through the twilight. She shivered.
"I am afraid you are a little cold," he observed. "let me fetch you a wrap. The evenings are always a little chilly."
He glided from his chair with a word of excuse. They could see him crossing the lawn.
"Hildyard," she whispered, bending over towards him, "for God's sake, let us go. Whatever made you stay here—with him? Are you ready? Let us get away from the hateful place."
He drew apart with a frown upon his forehead.
"No, I cannot slink away like that," he answered. "I had a reason for staying. Of course I had not the least idea that you people—"
"We ought not to have come," she faltered.
He shrugged his shoulders, and was silent, brutally silent. Owston was with them again. He had come across the lawn Swiftly and noiselessly in the twilight, with a shawl upon his arm. John followed closely behind with a great bowl of grapes.
"The cigarettes are at your elbow, Mr. Pearmain," he remarked. "I am sorry that you won't try my grapes. John, the grapes to Lady Bergamot."
Most of them took something—all except one woman who sat there with white, strained face, nervously clasping and unclasping her hands in the darkness. Morton Pearmain made a little conversation, the others were silent. Even Lady Bergamot, who was very much a woman of the world, found the situation beyond her.
Suddenly the soft, dreamy silence was broken. Hildyard, who knew what it meant, was galvanized at once into a state of eager and nervous unrest. The others looked around them, wondering. From behind the rhododendron shrubbery came the sound of strange, sweet music, more weird than ever to- night, striking a deep thrilling note of sorrow in the night stillness. Owston leaned back in his chair, watching his guests' faces through half closed eyes.
Gradually that single strain of minor music grew fainter and fainter. Finally it died away. The silence seemed deeper and blacker after the last sob of those few lingering chords. Everyone was a little nervous—even Morton Pearmain had let his cigarette out. Then suddenly the music came floating out again on the faintly stirring breeze, only this time in a different vein and key. It was at once seductive and sparkling, voluptuous and dreamy. Pauline alone seemed unmoved by it. She sat upright, listening with pallid lips, and eyes fixed upon Hildyard. Aware of her gaze, he yet could not keep his seat. He knew quite well that the music was for him. It was his summons—he was being called. He forgot that anyone was watching him, forgot that a woman's eyes were trying to read his soul. He rose from his chair, and unchallenged he stole away into the darkness.
Soon the music ended abruptly. For the first time Pauline addressed her husband.
"Who is it?" she asked slowly.
He shrugged his shoulders. "A poor deformed little creature," he answered. "A faithful companion of mine, though, and, by the by, my ward. You shall see her."
The light of a sudden and great relief flashed into her face. She drew a quick little breath.
"I should like to see her. She plays wonderfully."
He rose and motioned her to follow him. They crossed the smooth, dark lawn, threading their way amongst the lilac bushes and the clustering laurels, until they reached a hedge of rhododendrons. With noiseless fingers he drew back the screening bushes. Then he glanced at her face with a smile at the corners of his lips.
Bertha was leaning against her favourite tree, with the back of her head against the trunk, and her white fingers flashing as she slowly drew the bow across her violin. Her yellow gown and the exquisite grace of her pose were thrown into strong relief against the background of the dark pines. The faint light of the rising moon gleamed in her dark eyes, and touched her face with a strange beauty. She was playing to him, and he was at her feet.
"It is the last scene in a modern comedy—a seven days' comedy," he whispered. "See, the curtain has fallen." He let go the bushes. "let us go back."
They crossed the lawn in the glimmering darkness. He looked into her face and laughed softly. Suddenly her fingers gripped his arm.
"Stanley, who is that? Tell me. Who is she?"
He laughed lightly. There was something diabolical about his appearance just then.
"The comedy is certainly a French one," he declared. "It even has a savour of that Norwegian with the impossible name. You really ought to make something of it for the 'Novelty.' Thrilling situations are so scarce, and this one is unique. A mother who does not know—her own child."
She stood quite still. She was trembling from head to foot.
"It is not true. It is not true," she moaned. "That—that girl is not Milnot my daughter!"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Considering that you have left her to me for twelve years—a little more than twelve years, I believe, you might at least accept my word as to her identity," he remarked suavely. "She has altered, it is true—but then girls do alter between six and eighteen. Won't you take my arm? You seem a little upset."
There was a circular seat around the trunk of a cedar tree close by. She sank down upon it, and covered her face with her hands. The deep, soft stillness of the night was all around them.
"Does he know?" she asked suddenly, looking up at him.
He had lit a cigarette, and was stooping down to look at a glow-worm.
At the sound of her sharp, sobbing speech he strolled up to her side.
"Well, no," he answered. "He is not particularly squeamish, but I scarcely think that he would be—where he is—if he knew that the girl was the daughter of his mistress. No! I have kept it back for a pleasant little surprise. If you like, you may tell him. I really think that he ought to know, especially as he has been using all his powers of persuasion to induce her to try a little sea air with him on board his yacht. You see, your coming back is just a trifle awkward for Hildyard. In the event of his succeeding with the girl, I am afraid you may find yourself de trop. Better make up your mind to stay here, and spend a week or two with me."
She gave a little gasp, and her head fell back. She had fainted. Owston watched her for a moment with a changing face. All the bitter hardness, the brutal mockery, of which he had spared her nothing, fell away from him. There was a lump in his throat, a mist before his eyes. She looked very beautiful and strangely young in the dim moonlight, some faint gleam of which had found its way through the thick, dark branches. He stooped and kissed her forehead passionately. For a moment he forgot. He was living in the past! She was the first and the only woman he had ever loved. God forgive her! God forgive them both!
The faint murmur of voices came floating out from amongst the rhododendrons. The music had ceased. It seemed to Owston that he had fallen from dreamland, from one of those bright stars, perhaps, on to the solid, pernicious earth. The wave of tenderness passed on. She was the woman who had taken his life into her hands to rend it asunder. She. had borne his name and disgraced it. She had come here not for him but for her lover. A storm of sudden anger shook him. He even raised his clenched hand—his hot breath fell upon her pallid cheek. But his hand fell nerveless to his side. Her punishment was written out large in fiery letters across the pages of the future.
He set his heel into the ground, and his pale face hardened. Then he strolled away to find Lady Bergamot.
IT was night once more upon the island, and night upon the sea. On the hill-top a slim, grey figure was standing with her face turned seawards. The salt wind blew in her tear-stained face, and her hair streamed behind her shoulders. Afar, out in the centre of the black gulf below was a red light—the steady throb of a steamer came faintly to her ears.
"What did he mean?" she asked herself piteously. "What did he mean?" The echo of his words was in the air. She repeated them to herself.
"Bertha, I have forged for myself a chain, and I must wear it for a while. Trust me, and I will come to you again! Only trust me, dear!"
Then he had gone—gone with that woman whose pale, wonderful beauty had seemed to her like a dream. She had only seen her for a moment moving across the lawn in the faint moonlight. What did it all mean? Who were these people? What had they to do with Hildyard? Her heart was hot and sad.
A cloud rolled away from the moon. The sea became dotted with millions of scintillating beams of light. By straining her eyes she could even faintly distinguish the shape of the yacht. There was a little black speck moving toward the land. She watched it eagerly. Her heart leaped. It was a boat. In a moment she heard the grating of its keel upon the beach below. A man sprang out and commenced to climb the rocks. She waved her hand to him gladly. It was Hildyard!
He sprang up to her side, and took her into his arms. His face was pale.
The shadow was already upon him.
"You have come!" she whispered. "Oh! I am so thankful. I had a terrible fear when I heard the engines. I was afraid that you had forgotten."
He took her hands and held her at arm's length.
"Bertha, listen to me! You said only yesterday that you would love me if I were poor, even if I were wicked. Did you mean it?"
She looked at him with wide open eyes. "You know I did."
"Dearest, I am wicked! Yet I hold you to your word. I have forged for myself a chain, and I must wear it a little longer. But from this night my life and love are yours! From this night I will have nothing to reproach myself with. I have a duty before me, and I must do it. It calls me away from you—it may keep me away for months, perhaps for years. But I will come back. I will find you out wherever he takes you. Will you swear to love me, to wait for me, and to believe nothing you may hear about me until I myself tell you the whole truth?"
"You have my word," she answered softly. "I shall trust you and wait for you!"
He caught her in his arms. Her face was bright again. She believed him implicitly.
"My love! Farewell!"
In a moment he tore himself away. As he sprang down the hillside the moonlight flashed upon the towering cross below. The reflection lay stretched out upon the dark waters beneath him. He looked at it and laughed.
IT was the brightest, smartest week of the London season, the week of the "Derby" and the "Oaks." A dull, grey morning had suddenly given place to an afternoon of brilliant sunshine, and the Park was literally crammed. The great rhododendron beds were laden with blossoms, the toilettes of the women were brilliant almost to audacity; even the servants' liveries seemed to speak of a season noted for life and colour. Under the full green-leafed trees the rows of chairs were every one filled. The broad walk was packed. An old man and a girl, curiously at variance with their surroundings, looked about in vain for a seat.
Both carried violin cases. Both were dressed in sober and somewhat shabby black. Their boots were dusty, and their clothes had seen much service. They moved along with the throng, the man quick-eyed and restless, with a faint satirical smile at the comers of his mouth, as though appreciating and even enjoying the anomaly of their appearance there; the girl, erect as a dart, proud yet intensely curious, entirely unconscious of it.
At last fortune favoured them. Some people rose as they passed, and left two chairs vacant. The old man secured them quickly, and sank back with a little sigh of relief, carefully stowing his violin case between his legs.
"This is shocking extravagance," he said softly, "shocking! One penny for a few minutes' rest on a cane-bottomed chair! What imprudence!"
She was looking about her eagerly, scanning the faces of all the passers- by, as though in search of some one.
His remark fell upon deaf ears.
"It is wonderful," she said. "I could never have imagined anything like it."
"Ay! it is wonderful," he answered, with a faint touch of satire in his tone. "After all, we have not wasted our substance. One penny to gaze upon the greatest show in the world. Who shall say that we have not value for our money? There they go, child, jumbled up together like the prizes and blanks in a lucky bag, and with nothing to tell the one from the other—the gold from the tinsel. There they go, princes and stock-jobbers, peers and soap- makers, bishops and music-hall caperers. And the women too. Look at them—look at them well. There is not such another medley on the earth. Peeresses and actresses, ladies of high degree and ladies of the ballet, shoulder to shoulder, and cheek to cheek. Lord! what a pandemonium!"
She looked at him, faintly puzzled. His rhapsody was not altogether intelligible to her. There was a frown upon her high, clear forehead.
"Do you know the names of the people?"
"Of a few," he answered. "Not many. See!"
He rose to his feet half reluctantly, and bared his head. All the men round them had done the same, only with more alacrity. There was a little hush, and the flood of carriages had suddenly drawn up. A victoria plainly appointed, but with a matchless pair of dark bay horses, drove wiftly down. The girl caught a glimpse of a woman bowing.
"Who is it?" she asked breathlessly.
"The Princess," he answered. "She is the leader of English society—and here comes, by the by, a leader of a different type."
A victoria drawn by a single horse drew up almost opposite them. Bertha looked at the woman who leaned back amongst the cushions, toying with a lace sunshade, and started.
"Who is that?" she asked quickly.
"That is supposed to be the most beautiful woman in England," he answered. "Her name is Mrs. Stanley Owston. She is an actress."
Half a dozen men were at her side, hat in hand, the moment the carriage came to a standstill. The girl and her companion sat and watched them from the shadow of the tree, the man with a half cynical, half amused interest, the girl with indrawn lips, and a new light in her dark eyes.
Presently the man chanced to look at the girl. The intentness of her gaze surprised him.
"You seem interested. Have you ever seen her before?"
"Seen her before!" The girl drew a quick breath, but she did not immediately reply. The murmur of low voices and soft laughter and the brilliancy of her surroundings had passed for a moment away from the range of her sensations. In its place she saw a dark, moonlit lawn, and the low swell of the distant sea was in her ears. She saw a woman glide out of the shadows of a deep cedar tree, and raise her passionate face to his. She was pleading and he was listening. There were other voices and other figures close at hand, but unseen. Those two, the man and the woman, had seemed like the priest and the priestess of her fate. Even now that cry of appeal rang in her ears:
"Take me away, Hildyard! Take me away!"
The white, pleading face had not seemed very beautiful to her then. She had hated it. She hated it now—hated it all the more for the beauty which was beyond denial. Her unwilling eyes took in every detail of the woman's toilette, simple, but elegant and costly. She looked at the carriage with its soft cushions, and the smart men-servants, and back again at the woman's soft, cool dress, with its folds of creamy lace. Then she glanced down at her own rusty black gown. She smiled a little bitterly, and rose to her feet. The old man looked at her.
"What are you going to do?" he exclaimed. "Sit down! You will lose your seat!"
She did not answer. She did not appear to hear him. She stood with her eyes fixed upon the gay little throng before her, and the colour coming and going in her cheeks. The old man tugged at her sleeve.
"Bertha, sit down! Are you mad, child?"
Two of the men were leaving. They stepped back from the rail, and arm in arm strolled away. A third hurried after them. There was only one now left, and Mrs. Owston smilingly dismissed him, and leaned on one side as though to speak to the coachman. Bertha stepped swiftly forward, and the eyes of the two women met. The order to drive on remained unspoken. With parted lips and white cheeks, the woman in the carriage sat quite still. She was an actress, and after that first convulsive start her face gave no sign.
The girl stepped quickly to the rail. She stood there, a sufficiently curious figure in her plain black gown and home-made hat, clenching the rail with both hands, and leaning a little forward.
For a moment her courage almost failed her. The other woman was so different. She was leaning back amongst the cushions now, with her parasol gently tilted over her hat, perfectly self-possessed and cool, with her eyebrows faintly raised. All the minor details of her toilette were faultless and exquisite. Bertha had never seen anyone quite like this. She looked at her, and wondered.
"You remember me!" she said. "It was on the island! May I speak to you? I want-to ask you something!"
The woman in the carriage bent her head—a slow and unassenting gesture.
There was a moment's silence. The girl was fighting with her thoughts. It had seemed so natural to her to ask, yet she was finding it very difficult. A crowd oflaughing men and women went by. The air all around seemed full of gay voices and laughter and sun-light. Only the girl in black stood there pale and nervous, a pathetic, almost a dramatic, figure in such a scene. She was like a Cassandra with a background of roses.
"You were on the island. He left with you. I want to know how to find him—where he lives? Tell me, please!"
The woman in the carriage leaned a little forward. There was a faint rustle of silken draperies as she moved.
"Why do you want to know? What is he to you?"
The girl hesitated. The words were calmly spoken, but a woman's instinct is swift and true. She felt that she had made her little effort in vain; that of all the women in the world, this one was the least likely to help her.
Her heart sank, yet she continued,—
"He promised—he said that he should return. I want him to know that I am here, that I am not going back to the island. That is all."
"I am afraid that I cannot help you," Mrs. Stanley Owston said quietly. "I can only give you some advice."
"Oh, it is no matter," the girl said wearily. "I saw you, and I thought that you might have told me. I can wait."
Mrs. Owston put out an exquisitely-gloved hand, and resting it lightly upon the side of the carriage, leaned a little forward. Her voice continued nonchalant and slow, but there was a gleam in her eyes.
"I would tell you if I thought that any good could possibly come of it," she said, "but I do not think so. Are you in London alone?"
"Your—your guardian is not with you?"
"With whom are you living, then? What are you doing?"
"I am studying music. I am living alone. If you will not tell me what I want to know, I will go away. I am sorry I troubled you."
She made a backward movement. The woman in the carriage motioned
with her parasol imperiously. Bertha hesitated.
"You say that you are living alone. Do you mean quite alone?"
Mrs. Owston half closed her eyes. The sun and dust were a little trying.
She began to be aware of a headache.
"Quite alone!" she repeated slowly. "Then you are much better off without that address. If he were—a man of your own station in life, I would give it you. As it is, I shall not!"
"What do you mean—of my own station?" the girl asked proudly. "He is a worker too. He told me so. He writes books."
The woman looked at her steadfastly from underneath the drooping lace of her parasol.
"Did he not tell you on the island who he was?" she asked slowly. "Do you mean to say that you know nothing more of him than that?"
The girl shook her head. The eyes of the two met. The woman knew that this pale-faced girl was telling the truth.
"Will you come and see me if I give you my address?" the woman asked. "I have something to say to you. It is scarcely the place to talk much here, and I see some people coming who will want to speak to me. See, there is my address. will you come?"
The girl did not hesitate. She leaned over and took the card. "Yes, I shall come," she said. "I shall be sure to come!"
She stepped back swiftly, and joined her companion. A woman with several men took her place, and chatted for a minute or two, then the carriage drove off. Mrs. Owston did not glance toward her again. She was leaning back languidly amongst the cushions, with half-closed eyes as though fatigued.
Bertha watched from her seat with stony eyes. She followed the carriage until it was out of sight. Then she turned round and met her companion's steady, inquiring gaze.
"How did you know that woman?" he asked.
"I do not know her. I have only seen her once. She came to the island!"
He stooped for his violin case with a little gesture of irritation.
"You looked at one another as though you were old enemies. And, child, remember this. It is not well for you to have friends like Mrs. Stanley Owston. She is a great lady, but she is not of your world—thank God! You must not be seen with her. Later on, when you are famous, it might do you harm!"
The girl looked at him. "Is she a wicked woman?" she asked quietly.
"I do not judge her," he answered. "But at any rate, she has a reputation."
She got up and they moved off together. As they waited with a little crowd to cross at Hyde Park Corner, Mrs. Owston's victoria passed amongst the stream of carriages. She looked curiously upon the old man and the girl. Herr Dowe returned her gaze keenly from underneath his shaggy eyebrows.
"They say that she has ruined the Marquis of Esholt," he remarked. "What fools men are!"
"How old is he?" she asked.
Herr Dowe shook his head. "I have no idea. He can't be very old though. See, there is our 'bus, nearly empty. Garden seats too. What luck! Hurry, child."
"I think that he is very foolish-t-hat Marquis," she said softly, "for she does not love him."
He looked at her sharply. "How do you know?"
She moved her violin case to her other hand. It was heavy, and they were walking fast.
"I know that she loves another man!" she answered wearily.
"HILDYARD, by all that is amazing—by all that is delightful! How like a man this is."
Sunburnt and travel-stained, he stood up in her dainty little boudoir, holding out his hands. She had come over to his side expecting a warmer greeting, but something in his face had stopped her. The light died out of her eyes. A little hysterical laugh and a suspicious catching of the breath warned him of what lay behind.
"I am afraid that you have thought me unkind," he said. "Really, I am ashamed of myself, I ought to have written."
"Never mind. Sit down and tell me where you have been, what you have been doing, and all about it. It has seemed odd to get my only news of you from the papers. You have been in the Mediterranean, haven't you?"
"Some of the time," he answered. "I have had a long cruise. I wanted to make the most of it. I shall probably never get another."
"Come and tell me all about it."
He drew off his gloves and laid them on the little table by his side. Then he sat down upon the nearest lounge, and looked at her thoughtfully. He had a great deal to say, and he was wondering how to commence.
"The fact is, Pauline," he said, "I have spent a great deal of money. When we returned from our last cruise, I had an interview with Webster, my lawyer, which was—well, mutually unpleasant. My agent, Clareson, had died suddenly, and everything was in an awful muddle. We looked into affairs as well as we could, and what we saw was very bad. I made up my mind then to get to the bottom of things. Webster said it would take six months to do it, and I decided suddenly to clear right out for a time. I hated hanging about in suspense. That is why I went away without a word to anyone—and with only that hurried line to you. I found a letter at Gibraltar a week ago from Webster to say that he was ready for me, and here I am. It sounds dreadfully lame, doesn't it? I can't quite explain the mood I was in when I went away. I was horribly inconsiderate, I know, but Webster had been pelting me with figures until I was half mad."
She got up, shaking out the folds of her deep orange tea-gown, and came over to him.
"Poor boy," she said lightly, bending over him, and touching his forehead with her lips. "You might have come and told me."
"It was brutal of me," he admitted frankly. "I can't explain how I felt. I can't excuse myself. It was inexcusable."
She sat down by his side.
"I am very sorry," she said, "that I have been so extravagant. Perhaps I can atone a little for it now. We are doing remarkably well at the 'Novelty,' you know; and Maddison tells me that everything is booked for months. The new play has been a wonderful success. To think that you have not seen it yet!"
There was a measure of reproach in her tone, and he felt that it was deserved. Yet in the face of what was to come the thing seemed small. He brushed it away.
"I shall see it one night this week," he said. "I am glad that it is a success.
I gathered that from the papers. The lease is all right, at any rate. It was taken out in your name. I wish it could bring you in more. I must talk to Maddison. I am afraid that he is rather too liberal in his ideas to make a thoroughly successful manager."
"Is it very bad?" she asked softly. "I am so sorry."
"It is the end," he answered, with a touch of unusual gravity in his tone.
"I have come to have a serious talk with you, Pauline—and to say—good- bye."
"Good-bye!" she repeated vaguely. "Are you going away again, then? Good- bye!"
He took her hands in his, and held them.
"I need not beat about the bush, Pauline," he said. "As I told you, I have just come from my lawyer. I gave him a clear six months to get to the bottom of my affairs. He has done it, and the bottom is bad. The long and short of it is that I am ruined. I am just able to pay my debts, and that is all. And you know what that must mean for us, don't you?"
"It must mean good-bye, of course. I have done all that I can for you, but I am afraid that it is not much. This house is yours, and the six thousand pounds settled upon you last October—no one can touch that, or the lease of the 'Novelty.' That belongs to you for five years, either to let or use yourself. I hope that you will use it yourself . You have got over the uphill work now. You have made your public, and they are beginning to understand that the fact of your being a very beautiful woman does not prevent your being also an artist. I should keep the lease up if I were you."
"I don't want to think about that just now;" she said quietly. "I want to know about you—about us."
He looked doubtful. He began to see that she would not understand easily.
"Well, there is not much to tell. We have been spending a good deal of money it seems—one way and another, and I have dropped a lot, racing—a beastly lot when you add it all up. The rents have gone down twenty-five per cent, and even then the tenants don't pay. The coal mines on the Damon estate have had to be closed—they have been worked at a loss for years. The fact is, when we come to look into it, Webster has shown me that I have been spending about sixty thousand a year on an income of a little over ten. It has come to an end. That is all. I shall have to sell my Hoton estates and all my horses, and raise money by mortgaging Esholt. For five years I shall have virtually no income at all. So you see it has to come. While it has lasted life has been pleasant, has it not? Now it is over. It is inevitable. We must say good-bye!"
She drew her hands from his, folding them before her and looking at him steadily. Her face was very pale.
"I do not understand you," she said slowly. "You come to tell me such news as this, and you do not seem even sorry. One would think that the loss of all your money was the loss of some evil thing. One would think," she added deliberately, "that to lose me—to give me up, was a relief to you."
He laughed a little bitterly, but not without a note of self-consciousness.
The mingled perfumes of the little chamber, the bowl of violets, the pot- pourri, and the odour of scented wood, seemed suddenly stifling. He longed to open the window. He rose abruptly to his feet and walked up and down.
"Pauline," he said, "I have lived in the constant dread of this for two years. Like all other calamities, its embrace is not so bad as the shadows which it casts before. After all, I am a man. I am young, and I am strong. I think that there is some instinct of the democracy in me. I have a desire to meet the world on even terms. In a certain way I have always felt it. Now that the time is come, I am ready. I—"
She held up her hand. He stopped at once.
"And how about me?"
He hesitated. He had feared that there might be trouble. Underlying her reserve, he could trace the portents of the coming storm. The lace handkerchief in her hand was twisted up into a crumpled ball. Beneath the loose folds of her gown her bosom was heaving.
"About you!" he repeated vaguely. "I have done all that I could! 1—"
He stopped short. She had taken a sudden step towards him—her eyes were alight with a strange fire. A white hand flashed out from amidst the yellow lace of her broad, drooping sleeve. He did not flinch. He watched it raised to strike him. Physical pain would have been a positive relief. But the blow did not come. With a little convulsive twitching her hand fell to her side. So they looked at one another in deep, breathless silence till the storm passed by. She found her voice at last.
"I know now that the Bible is true. God made the beast first, and then man."
She sank into a chair some distance away from him, and buried her face in her hands. He stood apart, looking at her. There was nothing for him to say He was deeply moved, and in a manner altogether unexpected, but he had wit enough to know that silence alone was possible for him. Between him and her there was suddenly fixed a deep, impassable gulf No word that he could have spoken, no pleading, no appeal, could have found its way into her heart. And with it all, he knew that it was she who was pure and he who had sinned. She had loved; he had not. Her justification had now become her misery. He could do nothing. He was utterly and completely powerless. Her past only deepened the outrage so far as he was concerned. He stood on the great plain of brutal self-indulgence side by side with millions of his fellow-men, with his face turned upwards to the hills. But whither she had gone he had no power to follow. It was like a stain from that wonderful Indian plant which no herb or any chemist's mixture can make less black; and the stain was on his soul, not hers.
She recovered herself presently, and looked up at him. Then he saw what suffering had done for her. It was the face of another woman.
"Forgive me," she said, quietly "You see, I am not used to this sort of thing. It is my first dismissal. No! don't interrupt me. It is all over now. I am beginning to feel already that it happened—quite a long time ago. You see, I am getting over it very easily. Now I want you to tell me just what you are going to do."
He felt that he owed her implicit obedience. He answered without hesitation.
"I am going to lay aside my name and position altogether for five years. I have no fancy for being a pauper marquis. I am going to give my solicitor power of attorney to attend to all minor matters for me, and I am going to call myself and be called Mr. Hildyard. I shall take simple lodgings in some unfashionable part, and I shall live on a hundred a year and what I can make by literature. I have already had a desire to do this, even when the necessity was very far away A man of my position and my order does not get a chance, as a rule. I want to stand on my own feet—a man and a worker like other men—and see how it feels. I have a fancy that I shall find life a larger thing. The richer a man and the older the name he bears here, the more tenacious and the higher are the walls of his environment. I want to break down my walls. I want to get outside and breathe the fresh air."
"You will be disappointed!" she said, calmly "The world is an ugly place. You do not like ugliness."
"I am beginning to wonder whether I know what ugliness really is—the truth about it!" he answered. "At any rate, I am nauseated with the beauty which is born simply of elegant surroundings, and living in beautiful places. I want to get beauty from the plain things of life-from what the world calls ugliness."
"You will fall in love with your landlady's daughter!" she said, calmly
"If I do, I shall certainly marry her!" he answered. "I shall not be prejudiced against my landlady's daughter or her kind in any way. I am going to constitute myself a unit of the democracy."
"Well, I shall envy you," she said. "You are going to escape from your own personality. You are a man, and you can do it."
Her tone was careless, but the light in her eyes fascinated him.
"You look as though you meant what you say!" he exclaimed.
She got up from the chair into which she had flung herself, and came quite close to him. Surely this was a different woman. It was hard to believe in her identity. He would have taken her hand in his, but she calmly ignored his motion.
"Hildyard," she said, "there are some things which you do understand, no doubt, but you do not understand women. Do you imagine that whilst you men sometimes grow weary of the monotony of life, of the dead level of our existence, and try to escape from it-do you imagine that what you feel a woman does not feel? Sometimes, just now and then, a man like you tires of his surroundings, however perfect, aesthetically, they may be. He wants to penetrate further into life, to weep with its sufferers, and rejoice with its happy children. He wants to taste sensations which have not become stale by habit, and pleasures which are not sensuous. Well, let me tell you that for one man who feels that way, there are a hundred women; for one man who suffers, a hundred women are stretched upon the rack. Oh! you are very blind! You and I have lived together for a little while. I have hidden no part of myself from you; yet you—-have the brutal, the unspeakable effrontery to suggest that I have so little soul as to be content with my life and my pleasures and my courtezanship!"
The word stung him. He held out his hand, but she ignored his interruption and his gesture.
"If you only knew," she continued. "Hildyard, I would rather, I would very much rather be that landlady's daughter of yours. If—if you had only cared for me, the change in our lives would have been nothing. I would have welcomed it, for it would have drawn us closer together. Poverty and homespun gowns would have been a delight; even the suburbanism at which you used to sneer would have been happiness. But you never loved me. You do not understand. You are blind, as all your sex are. You made me your mistress—you have made me hate myself and you. Oh, go away! please go away! I cannot bear it any more!"
"No, don't touch me! Don't dare to touch me! Don't come near me! Go!"
His hands dropped to his side, and he went out with bowed head. He was judged with a new judgment, and it seemed to him that the righteous disdain of all her sex had been thundered against him from the pale lips of the woman whom he had left there to her misery. She was right. He had not understood. His new-born enthusiasm had suddenly received a check. It seemed to him then as he walked out into the crowded streets that he would never altogether escape from the memory of that afternoon.
IF Hildyard had not walked along Piccadilly with unseeing eyes and stunned senses, if that bitter cry had not been ringing in his ears, and that white, stricken face hovering in the air by his side, he would have probably noticed something familiar in the figure of the girl who passed him at the corner of the street, closely veiled and plainly dressed though she was. And if Bertha had been a little less nervous and absorbed in the contemplation of the visit she was about to pay, she too might have looked into his face, and that visit would never have been paid. They passed one another so closely on the pavement that her garments brushed against his, and went their own way—Hildyard to take the first steps towards his emancipation; Bertha to stand upon the steps of the little house in Mayfair which he had that moment quitted.
Mrs. Stanley Owston was at home, but she was not receiving anyone.
Struck, however, by something unusual in this visitor's aspect, the man volunteered to take her name. A few minutes later she was standing face to face with the woman whom she had come to see.
Bertha's lodging in London was a humble one, and this first glimpse of luxury, toned down into elegance by the mastery of perfect taste, was like a glimpse of a new world. The little perfumed room with its inexpressible daintiness was a revelation—the toilette of the woman, too, who rose to greet her with a certain languor of expression and mien not in any way assumed, was unlike anything she had ever seen before. She looked into the white, beautiful face wearing once more its mask of studied indifference, and her heart grew faint. Yet the voice which welcomed her was not unkind.
"You have come, then. Won't you sit down?"
Bertha shook her head.
"I have not come to stay," she said. "You know what I want. will you tell me?"
"Sit down first!"
Bertha obeyed her. The voice was like music, but the gesture was imperative.
"I am glad you have come. I want to have a little talk with you. First of all, tell me, is it true that you have lived upon that little island all of your life—that you have had no friends your own age, no schoolfellows—that you know nothing whatever of the world?"
"It is true."
"And now you have come away without your guardian's knowledge. You came to London, of all places in the world, alone—and friendless. Isn't that so?"
"Won't you tell me how you succeeded in finding a home here, and what you are doing?" Bertha looked up. She did not recognize the still tone of the woman. There was an indefinable change. Something electrical and sympathetic passed between them.
"I was weary of my life on the island, and my guardian said things to me which nearly broke my heart. I got away on a fishing smack, and came to London. At Charing Cross I took a cab, and told the man to go to Chelsea. I had heard Andrew speak of artists living at Chelsea, and I knew nowhere else. I found lodgings there at the house of a German, Herr Dowe! He is a musician, and he has been very good to me. I earn a little money. That is all."
There was the rustle of soft silk upon the floor. Bertha looked up quickly Mrs. Owston was sitting on a low ottoman by her side. Surely it was not the same woman.
"My little girl," she said, softly, "you have done a very brave but a very foolish thing. Now I want to speak to you about what you asked me yesterday A certain person came to stay upon the island with your guardian. You want to know his address? You want to find him out?"
"He said that he should come back to the island," Bertha whispered, with her eyes fixed upon the floor. "He will keep his promise. He will go there and I shall have left. I want him to know."
"Is he—very much to you, then?"
The woman looked away and sighed. The bitterness of this thing seemed somehow suspended. Afterwards would come for her the shame, the humiliation, the sorrow. What of that? For her there was no future. But for the girl—her—
She covered her face with her hands, yet no tears came. There was a horror in her heart, all around her, which no tears could lighten. To concentrate her mind upon it was impossible. Had ever sin brought so bitter a harvest?
"My child," she said, softly, "I am an old woman to you. You are living in a world of which you know nothing, and amidst dangers of which you never dream. If you had—if you had—a mother—to tell you all about these things, you would see life differently"
"I do not want to see life differently!" Bertha said softly. "It is beautiful as it is—at least, it might so easily be beautiful."
A hand was laid softly upon hers. She felt suddenly weak. She hated the woman no longer. She was not afraid of her any more.
"My little girl, if you plucked a handful of beautiful berries and raised them to your lips, would you not thank the voice which whispered 'poison'? Sometimes this world is a very beautiful place—sometimes what looks so beautiful is poison and death. Those who have eaten can at least warn others while the poison is in their veins. And, child—don't move away from me—I have eaten them. I have sinned."
There was sudden silence in the little shaded room. The sounds of the streets below came to their ears like the muffled undernote, a background to the intense stillness. Then the girl turned quickly round and laid her arms upon the other's neck.
"I will listen to whatever you wish to tell me," she whispered.
BERTHA walked homeward in the dusk with flushed cheeks and bright eyes, and a new seriousness in her gait. But more than once a faint smile played around her lips.
"She does not know him," she said, softly "He is not like that. She cannot know him, really"
And back in that little boudoir, whose soft luxury and delicate sensuousness were in themselves so suggestive of the worshippers of Mammon, a woman was on her knees, praying. Her white, passionate face looked up through the twilight to the faintly clear sky—the murmur of the great city fell no longer upon her ears.
"Lord," she prayed, "I am a sinner, and for myself I seek no pardon. But for her—if she be indeed my child—save her. Grant that if the berries come within her reach, she may never pluck them. For she has no mother..."
HILDYARD'S new-born enthusiasms were not easily damped. They survived alike the grave expostulations of his man of business and the ridicule of his friends. They survived too that terrible hour in Mayfair when for a time all life had seemed black, and a certain note of conscience-stricken sadness had become woven into all his thoughts of the future. Yet in a way it was the memory of that phase in his life which had nerved his hand to cut away all the old ties and work out his complete emancipation. There should be no more of that sort of thing. His sense of the moral degradation of it was curiously potent. He judged himself with a hard and severe judgment. His new life was to be free of all this. Only when he had satisfied himself by the rigid penance of a year's or even two years' hard work and poverty, would he permit himself to look beyond—to definitely place before him a certain hope with regard to the future.
He found some lodgings in Bute Street, Chelsea. They were in a back street, dark, and rather smelly. There was an arrangement of stuffed birds under a glass shade on the sideboard, and the furniture was padded with slippery horsehair, very hard and shiny. The young person who waited on him had a large black fringe, and wore a red stuff dress, and a hat with a feather in it on Sundays. On the whole, there was a distinctly democratic air about the place, and Hildyard was satisfied. He brought a ready made blue serge suit and a deerstalker hat, and ostentatiously smoked a pipe in the streets. Then he called upon the editor of a small weekly journal to which he had been an occasional but anonymous subscriber, and as "Mr. Hildyard, of Bute Street, Chelsea," secured some work to do. There was not in reality any hurry about it, but he took it straight back to his rooms, ordered a pot of strong tea, trimmed his lamp, and with his pipe in his mouth, set to work with an air of unusual satisfaction. This, after all, was the real thing.
He had been writing for about an hour, when the pen suddenly slipped from his fingers and rolled unregarded down the sloping front of his desk on to the floor. He caught at the sides of the table as though he were falling, and for a moment or two there was a loud humming in his ears, and the horsehair chairs seemed to be chasing one another around the room. Then he recovered himself, and began to mutter that he was a fool. The unspoken words died away upon his lips. He heard it again distinctly. It was the wailing of a violin.
He sat quite still, absorbed in a concentrated effort at listening. The walls of his parlour faded away, and he looked out upon a little stretch of smooth green turf, bordered by flowering rhododendron shrubs and darker pines. The soft murmuring of the sea crept like a deep under-note to the lighter music to his ears. A faint breeze touched his pale cold cheeks—she was there, leaning against the tree, with her dark eyes lifted to his, her lips parted in that wonderful smile. So she had played him to her side across grey seas which girt her island home. But here—in this dreary London lodging-house—oh, the thing was absurd. He ground his heel into the thin carpet, and asked himself what had become of his common sense.
Presently he became calm. The music had ceased, and there was no sound in the house. He got up and stood in the middle of the little room.
"This is fate," he said to himself. "I shall find her."
He went out on to the landing, and after a moment's hesitation climbed the stairs, and knocked at the door of the room immediately above his own. There was no answer. He turned the handle and walked in.
The room was empty, but it showed signs of recent occupation. It was furnished even more barely than his, but there was a vase of homely flowers upon the table, and the crochet antimacassars had been removed from the worn furniture. There was some music on the side-board, and a tea tray. Whoever had been there had recently gone out.
He staggered downstairs again, and threw himself back in his easy-chair. The bell was within his reach. He stretched out his hand and pulled it furiously.
The young person came in. She was a little annoyed, for she had been flirting with the milkman, and the ring had disturbed her. Besides, she was beginning to look upon this first-floor lodger as a flat. He had a habit of not appearing to see her when she was in the room.
"What is it, please," she asked, sharply.
He roused himself. "Some one was playing the violin just now," he said. "Can you tell me who it was?"
Her face expressed the disgust she felt at having been summoned on such an errand. She answered him brusquely.
"Young lady on the second floor above yourn. She don't play much, but, of course, if you object, mother'll speak to her."
"Object! I never dreamed of objecting," he answered, emphatically. "Can you tell me her name?"
She regarded him suspiciously. "Miss Mallalieu, she calls herself. She plays in the orchestra at some theatre. She won't be back now till half-past eleven. Was that all you rang for?" she added, impudently.
He hesitated. No, he could not ask this young woman. He would find out the truth for himself.
"That is all, thanks," he answered. "I am sorry to have troubled you."
She closed the door and departed without a word. Hildyard was left alone.
He never knew how he spent the evening. At eleven o'clock he opened his door. At half-past he stood there, pale and despairing. At a quarter to twelve there was a light step, and a rustle of a woman's dress upon the stairs. She must pass his door. He opened it wide, and stood in the door-way.
She was almost past him when she glanced up, and he caught a glimpse of a pale, thin face, and a pair of sad, lustreless eyes. Then her violin case slipped from her fingers, and fell with a crash upon the floor. She gave a little breathless cry, and the old fire flashed into her eyes.
Hildyard knew then that he had attained a new sensation. He took her into his arms, and closed the door of the sitting-room.
SHE was faint and trembling, but very happy in a disjointed sort of way.
Her face seemed suddenly to have lost its thinness and pallor, and her eyes were very soft and bright. He led her gently to his easy-chair, and knelt down by her side.
She glanced around the room. It was like her own, only a little better furnished. Then she looked up at him. He was wearing the blue serge suit, and appearing to be very much at home.
"It isn't really true, then?" she exclaimed, with a little sigh of relief. "She told me that you were someone very rich and very great. She seemed to think that you could not possibly care for me."
"She lied, then!" he answered, sternly. "who was it?"
"It was the woman who took you away from me. I saw her in the park. She told me that. But she has been very kind to me. She meant it all kindly."
"I do not understand," he said. "When did you see her?"
"I went to her house; she asked me to. She made me tell her all about myself"
"You have been to her house! She was kind to you!" he repeated, bewildered.
"Very. I shall never forget it. And she is very unhappy herself too. Yet she did not speak of that. She was afraid for me—because I was living alone. She spoke of you, too."
He looked away from her.
"She spoke to you of me?" he said, huskily.
"Yes, she advised me not to think of you, not to try and find you. I wanted to see you—to tell you that I was here. She seemed to think that you were a very dangerous person to know. But then she didn't understand, did she?"
She smiled up at him faintly. His hands closed upon hers.
"No, she did not," he answered, quietly. "She did not tell you anything else about me, then?"
He released her hands and went and stood by the window. Pauline had spared him, and he had not deserved to be spared. There was a curious dimness before his eyes. The girl's voice seemed to come from a long distance.
"After you left the island, it was miserable. I cannot tell you how miserable it was. He had one of his worst fits—for days he would not speak to me, and when he did speak he was cruel. So at last I ran away; I could not help it. You brought the light into my life, and when you went away I could not live there. The solitude was killing me. And then, poor Andrew!"
"What of him?"
"He is dead. He died soon after you left the island. He was dying all the time. I never knew it."
"And you—what have you been doing?" he asked.
"I had a little money, and an old man who is the husband of the landlady here was very good to me. He got me an engagement in the orchestra at the theatre where he plays. In the evenings I have gone there, and in the daytime I have spent a good many hours looking for you," she said, naively. "I was afraid that you might go back to the island and find me gone. They gave me a directory at the British Museum, and I looked out all the Hildyards. But there were so many, and I did not know exactly how it was spelt. And, after all, did you want me to go looking for you? When I thought of it I was ashamed. And then," she said, gravely, "there was that other woman. You seemed somehow to belong to her. Tell me. Do you love her? She is very beautiful."
He shook his head.
"No, I do not love her," he said. "I never have loved her. But she was my guest then, Bertha, and she was in a very terrible position. You know that her name is Owston, but you would not know that she was your guardian's wife."
"Yes; they parted long ago, and when she came with the others for me, she did not expect to see him. It was a terrible meeting for her. She implored me to take her away at once, and I was bound to do so. I owed her that much, at any rate." .
She put his hands calmly away from her. A sudden presentiment told him what was coming. His heart sank.
"You and she have been great friends?"
"We have been friends for many years."
She looked at him fixedly. "Hildyard," she said, "I am very ignorant. All that I know of men and women is from books. When you were on the island—just now too—you kissed me. Have you ever kissed that woman?"
She rose from her chair and picked up her violin case. Once more her face was white and strained. The delicate flush had died away. Her lips were trembling.
"Bertha," he pleaded, "forgive me. Since I was on the island I have scarcely spoken to her. Only a few days ago we parted. It was because of you. I have sinned, but when you know more of the world you will see things differently. Forgive me! I love you!"
He would have taken her into his arms, but a flash from her eyes stopped him.
"Don't touch me, please! I do forgive you! I will believe that the world judges those things leniently. But don't touch me! Let me go away."
She was at the door before he could speak. On the way her gown brushed against him. She drew it away with a little shudder. The gesture hurt him like a knife.
"You will not be so cruel," he cried, passionately. "I love you, Bertha— you only. I have never loved anyone else."
"Then you have been a hypocrite," she said, coldly.
The door opened and closed. He covered his face with his hands. He was alone!
EARLY in the morning a note was brought to Bertha by the young person with a fringe. She read it over her apology for a breakfast.
"Bertha, I am going away. Before I leave I must see you. I shall say nothing to offend you, or do anything. But I must see you! Say when I shall come."
The young person had brought the note with a sniff. She removed the breakfast things with a good deal of unnecessary clatter. Bertha did not notice anything. With the letter crumpled up in her hand, she sat looking out of the window-out on to a wilderness of slate roofs and a panorama of chimneys. The depression of it all sent a shudder through her. It was like her life, from which all sunshine seemed suddenly blotted out.
"Any answer to that note, miss?" the young person asked. She had finished clearing away things that had not been used, and was standing at the door, waiting to depart.
Bertha wrote a few rapid words.
"I am going for a short walk at eleven o'clock. If you wish to, you can come with me."
The young person watched them depart from behind the area railing with stern disdain. She did not approve of such goings on, or such sudden familiarities. She watched them until they disappeared, and then, shaking the dust from her mat viciously, went in and shut the door. The action was metaphorical. She resigned all interest in the new lodger.
Hildyard meanwhile was carefully acting up to an idea which had come to him in the middle of a sleepless night. He greeted his companion cordially, but with no trace in his manner of what had passed between them. He walked with her along the Embankment, pointing out the different places of interest, talking very much as he would have done to a compar ative stranger. Then, finding that she had not seen Westminster, he called a hansom and insisted upon a drive. Despite herself, she enjoyed it. The emotion was new to her; London, touched by the warm spring sunshine, seemed altogether a different place as they were bowled smoothly along the wooden pavements, in and out amongst the crowd of vehicles. He had judged rightly that much of the indignation of the night before would have passed away. So long as he was careful to keep from his voice and manner any note of affection, she was content to be with him. As the morning passed on his heart grew lighter, He was winning a footing. It was all that he desired.
They drove past Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament into Trafalgar Square, where Hildyard paid the cabman and sent him away. All the while he had been exerting himself to interest her, and had succeeded very easily. As a matter of fact, it was her first glimpse of the picturesque side of London. She could not help being amused. The time had passed like magic. Two o'clock was booming out from St. Martin's Church as they crossed the square.
"Where are we going to now?" she asked.
"To luncheon, of course!" he answered, with a little laugh. "Do you think that I want to starve you?"
He felt in his pocket and found he had a five-pound note. They walked down Pall Mall, and from a side street entered a little restaurant famous for its luncheons. With the me menu in his hand, Hildyard gave an order which imbued the waiter with a respect not always paid to the wearer of a blue serge suit and a bowler hat in a fashionable part of London. It was served faultlessly. Bertha, to her surprise, found that she was hungry for the first time since she had been in London. Her meals in the little lodging- house had been a horror to her. Apart from the novelty of it, which in itself was charming, the luncheon was a great success.
Afterwards Hildyard turned westwards, overcoming with scarcely an effort the natural objection to being seen amongst his old haunts in his new character. The acquaintances whom he met he either ignored or greeted with a stern reserve which forbade any overtures on their part. Bertha, pale and with an innate distinction which made people, men especially, forget that her clothes were homely and plain, remained altogether unconscious of the fact that they were both the subject of much comment. Hildyard was equally indifferent to it. They spent an hour in a Bond Street picture-gallery, which was to her an hour of perfect happiness. Afterwards they had tea at a famous French confectioner's, where Bertha amused herself by watching the toilettes of the women. Then he called a hansom, and on the way home spoke to her seriously for the first time.
"Bertha," he said, "don't be afraid that I am going to transgress. I have done wrong, and like all wrong-doers I must bear my punishment. But I want you to understand this. Since you played me to you across the water, and I came to your island of Maros, there has been no other woman save yourself in my thoughts. I drew a line there in my life. I rooted up my past and tried to bury it. In a sense I have buried it. I am not going to make love to you. Don't be afraid. What I propose is this. Let us be friends. Let us remain as we have been to-day. I do not want to go away and leave you all alone."
She had retired into herself. Her manner was visibly colder, yet she answered as he desired.
"I am quite willing that we should be friends," she said. "I shall trust to what you say. It is to be as it has been to-day."
He assented, carefully concealing his inward exultation.
"There is one thing," he added. "I wish to be perfectly honest with you. Friends we are to be, and friends we will be—for the present. Until you yourself give me leave, I will not touch your hand or speak to you on any other subject. But I shall never cease to hope. There are three great things in the world, sin, repentance, and forgiveness. I have sinned, and I have repented. Some day I shall hope to be forgiven. I am prepared to wait, if it is necessary, for years, but it will always be there in my heart. I love you, and only you. There can never be anybody else. It is only right to tell you this."
He looked at her and sighed. She had turned very pale again, and her eyes were wet with tears, but they were not tears of yielding.
"I do not think that the old days can ever come again," she said slowly. "It is like a hideous nightmare. You seem to think that when I know more of life I shall judge differently. It is not my judgment at all—it is my feelings. Nothing can ever change those. You could not belong to me at all; you belong to her. When I think—that you have kissed me—I hate myself and I hate you. You had no right to. It was shameful. You ought to go back to her. Even if it was wrong of you to be with her, it was worse to leave her."
He set his teeth hard.
"I have buried the past," he said firmly. "There can be no resurrection. It is you—or no one. Now let it go. Turn over the page. We are friends. Who in the name of wonder is calling at our diggings?"
A victoria and pair, smart and immaculate, were drawn up opposite their shabby little abode. Hildyard frowned as he helped his companion out and dismissed the cabman. He did not doubt but that some of his friends had found him out and were intruding upon his seclusion. But at the door the young person met them with some agitation in her face.
'There's a lady here for you, miss—been here an hour or more. She's waiting in your room."
"What is her name?" asked Hildyard.
The girl produced a square of cardboard, on one corner of which was the impression of a dirty finger-mark. Hildyard took it from her and read,— "Mrs. Herbert Mallalieu."
FOR Hildyard the half-hour which followed was an intensely uncomfortable one. Bertha's name was Mallalieu—no doubt, this was some relation of hers who had found her out He stood by his window looking gloomily into the street. An hour ago he had felt certain of her. Now everything was different. She would be taken away, introduced into a world which could not fail to be fascinating to a girl of her age and humour. All that he had meant to do himself would be done by others. Her attention would be distracted, she would be meeting other men every day. His great opportunity was slipping by. It was execrable ill fortune.
At last came the sound for which he had been listening. They were coming downstairs—both of them. At his door the footsteps halted. There was a knock. He threw it open. Bertha was there, dressed for the street, and by her side a woman, tall, slim, and elderly. She surveyed him calmly through a single eyeglass. Hildyard was thankful that he had not lit his lamp.
"I have come to say good-bye, Mr. Hildyard!" Bertha said, holding out her hand. "This is my aunt! She has come to fetch me. Mr. Owston sent over to her. I am going to stay with her for a little time."
Hildyard bowed to the woman, who was still steadily surveying him.
"This is rather a surprise," he said quietly. "I did not know that you had any relations in London."
The Honourable Mrs. Mallalieu closed her eyeglasses with a sudden snap.
"Miss Mallalieu was scarcely herself aware of it," she remarked coldly. "There were unfortunate differences between my late husband and Colonel Mallalieu. They do not, of course, influence me in the slightest. I am only too thankful to have found my niece."
Hildyard looked away into Bertha's face. What he saw made his heart leap for joy. There were tears in her eyes. Her lips were trembling.
"You have been very kind to me," she said softly. "I shall miss you. You will come and see me, won't you?"
"I shall hope to be allowed to do so," he answered, glancing at Mrs. Mallalieu.
She hesitated for a moment.
"My address is No. 15, Park lane," she said. "I am at home on Sundays and Wednesdays. Come, Bertha, we must be going. Mr. Hildyard will excuse us, I know."
"You will be sure to come and see me," she said, looking at him, with a shade of entreaty in her face. After all, she was going amongst strangers.
She was very lonely. So her eyes grew soft as they challenged his.
"I shall come-to-morrow," he answered.
He stood at his window and watched them drive off—watched her whirled away into that new world from which he had come. Then he flung himself into an easy-chair with a little laugh. The flavour of the democracy had suddenly palled upon his palate. He looked around his little room and he hated it. Even the work which he had started with so much zeal had lost its savour. It would not bring her any nearer to him now. Life had seldom seemed to him an emptier thing.
Nevertheless, that night and most of the next day he spent writing. On the following afternoon, after leaving his bundle of manuscript in Fleet Street, he called at Park Lane. The ladies were not at home. He tried the next day with the same result. Yet as he was turning away he saw Mrs. Mallalieu and Bertha leaving the house and drive towards the Park.
For three days Hildyard sulked. On the fourth he called upon his favourite sister, the Duchess of Newark. She held up her hands in amazement when he was shown into the room.
"My dear Hildyard," she exclaimed, "I am delighted to see you. Where on earth have you dropped from? I have heard the most extraordinary tales about you. Sit down and let me give you some tea, at once. It is my not-at- home day, fortunately. Excuse me, but how oddly you are dressed."
Hildyard looked down at his blue serge suit and laughed.
"I have had an attack of democracy," he said. "I dare say that it would have developed, but I have fallen in love."
"My dear Hildyard!"
"It is perfectly true. Do you know Mrs. Mallalieu?"
"Oh, no, I am not in love with her. The young lady is her niece."
"Oh, indeed! I have heard of her. A beauty, is she not, and an heiress?"
"I know nothing about her money, but she certainly is a beauty. will you send them a card for your next crush?"
The Duchess hesitated.
"I must know all about it before I formally aid and abet you," she said. "Come, finish your tea and light a cigarette. I want to know everything."
He told her, if not everything, a good deal. Before he left the cards were sent.
Hildyard walked back to his rooms in better spirits. Perhaps, after all, democracy could get on without him. At any rate it would have to try.
THE Duchess of Newark's receptions were the most popular in London, and Hildyard, who arrived a little late, wandered about the rooms for nearly half an hour without seeing anything of Mrs. Mallalieu or Bertha. Then fortune suddenly favoured him. He came face to face with Bertha talking to his brother-in-law.
At first she evidently did not know him. He had abandoned the garments of Chelsea, and all his old fastidiousness had reasserted itself. He was probably the best dressed man in the room—certainly one of the handsomest, and when he came to a standstill before her, Bertha uttered a little exclamation.
The Duke, hearing his brother-in-law's Christian name, raised his eye-brows and moved off smiling. Hildyard, knowing the house well, led her into a little anteroom.
"Fancy you're being here!" she exclaimed, laughing. "How odd! And how well you look!"
He took her hands into his and looked in her face.
"Bertha, I have a confession to make."
Instantly her face changed, she tried to withdraw her hands, but he held them firmly.
"It is nothing to be ashamed of," he added quickly. "Only I have not been quite honest. I want you to know now. It is about my name. The Duchess of Newark is my sister."
"I guessed that," she answered quietly. "Still I am glad that you told me."
He dropped her hands and looked at her amazed.
"You guessed it?"
Her face had darkened. The shadows of a certain dark memory had closed in upon her.
"I guessed it since you told me—about Mrs. Owston. One day a man told me that she had ruined—the Marquis of Esholt. I did not think then that it was you."
"It was a cruel thing to say," he exclaimed. "It was not true. I alone—my own folly, my own recklessness were to blame. But, Bertha, I am not altogether ruined. For a few years I am poor, but things will come round. I have been an idiot, blind, foolish, wicked, but it is over. I want to start a new life—and you know what else I want. I want you to share it."
She looked sadly into his eyes. Her lips were quivering.
"I cannot," she said. "You know I cannot."
"I know nothing of the sort," he answered fiercely "What do you think men are, Bertha? They are not saints; you know nothing of life. I have sinned, but who is there without sin?"
"You could not belong to me," she cried. "There is another woman who has a greater claim. You gave it her yourself. You cannot take it away"
"It is madness. I do not love her."
"You have loved her. If I did not believe that you had, I would not speak to you—I would not let you dare to speak to me. She loves you still. You belong to her. If your love has grown weak, hers has not."
"I have bidden her farewell. We have parted. Nothing shall drag me back to her."
For a moment there was silence between them. A sound of distant music, blending with the low notes of hushed conversation and the clatter of teacups, floated into their retreat. Bertha shivered, and drew a little further back into the room. A sudden passion mastered him. He drew her, only feebly resisting, into his arms and kissed her lips. She began to cry softly
"Don't, don't," she moaned, "you are hurting me."
He let her go, but still held her hand. He was pale to the lips. His voice shook.
"She will have other lovers, Bertha," he whispered. "Sooner than touch her hand again I would die. Don't you know that I love you? Don't you know what love is? You--"
She dried her eyes. The white despair of her face maddened him.
"You do not know You have not read the papers. She is very ill. It is because you have left her. She loved you, she loves you still. You belong to her. And I love you. I love you."
He dropped her hand and stood with dogged face and folded arms.
"She is nothing to me now," he said. "I will not go back to her. If you send me away, I will go away for ever. But I will not go to her. I am sick with shame when I think of what has been; there shall be no more of it."
She clasped her hands and looked steadily upon the floor.
"I may be wrong," she said softly "I know nothing of life. But if it was sin to love her, it seems to me to be still greater sin to desert her. Nothing can alter how I feel about it."
Then there was a long silence. When she looked up, she was alone.
IN less than an hour after Hildyard had left the house in Mayfair and had set his face towards Chelsea, Pauline Owston left it too. She came down plainly dressed and followed by her maid, who carried a small hand-bag. In the hall she called the butler and gave him two notes.
"Take a hansom, Groves," she said, "and deliver these two notes immediately. One is to Mr. Ayres, Lord Esholt's solicitor, in Bedford place, and the other is for Mr. Maddison, at the Novelty Theatre. You had better take that one first, and deliver it into his own hands."
"And call me a hansom, please."
Groves whistled for a cab, and she stepped into it, followed by her maid.
"Where to, madam?" Groves inquired from the pavement.
She hesitated. As a matter of fact she had not the least idea. In her haste to be out of the house she had not even considered the question of where she should go to. It made so little difference.
"Tell him to drive on slowly," she directed. "I will speak to him again."
In time they arrived at Bloomsbury She found some cheap lodgings, in a side street, and took them. Then she turned to her astonished maid.
"Celeste," she said, "I am sorry to lose you, but I shall not require you any more. You must leave me here."
"But, madam," Celeste exclaimed with uplifted hands, "you require to be dressed. It is time to start for the theatre. There is no one who can arrange your hair save myself."
"I am not going to the theatre to-night," Pauline answered. "I am not going there any more. You must not ask me anything about it. I cannot tell you. Here are three months' wages. I only ask one thing of you: if anyone inquires of you concerning me or my whereabouts, you know nothing. You understand. You know nothing."
"Good-bye, Celeste; not another word."
The girl went. Pauline was accustomed to being obeyed.
THE sudden withdrawl of Mrs. Stanley Owston from the stage created something akin to a sensation. The truth only leaked out piecemeal. For several days the papers were full of her alarming illness. Then hints began to appear, wild rumours were floated about as to her reasons for this abrupt retirement in the midst of her brilliant and wholly unexpected success.
It began to be understood that this retirement was a fact accomplished. The Novelty Theatre closed its doors. Mrs. Owston's settlement, her jewels, and the lease of the theatre were handed over to Mr. Ayres on behalf of his client the Marquis of Esholt. Hildyard received this information on his return from the reception at Newark House, and tore the letter into fragments. Meanwhile a Mrs. Harrison, who had taken rooms in a retired street near Bloomsbury Square, and went about very closely veiled, paid a visit to several respectable chemists in the vicinity, and then feigning a slight indisposition, shut herself up in her room.
On the night after her flight she took out her purse and counted her money. She had a little over five and twenty pounds. A twenty-pound note she put aside for a certain purpose, addressed to her landlady. The remaining five pounds, allowing for a liberal fee to the servant who waited upon her, would pay her bill for fourteen days. She paid it in advance, and locked up some little grey powders, collected from the chemists, in a drawer.
One by one the days went by. She never went out, she scarcely left her room. Often she sat for hours together without moving, looking absently out of the window, and thinking very childish thoughts. Once or twice she found her eyes wet. This made her impatient.
The last day came. Towards evening she called for a pen and paper, and wrote:
"My friend," she wrote. "When you have read these lines, burn them. I had meant to leave the world without adieux, and without remark. I changed my mind, not for my own sake, but for yours. I write to you lest you should at any time blame yourself, or think that you were in any way the cause of my—what shall I call it?—removal. That is not so. It would have come to this in any case. I am too utterly and miserably weary of life to continue in it any longer.
"When I left my husband the thing began. I lost hold of my self-respect, and the love which I had expected to be all-sufficing flitted away like a moonlight dream. I made a discovery which your set and mine would laugh to hear—that after all there is something in virtue. The flashes of happiness which I have had during these last seven years, have been followed by periods of corresponding depression. With you I was almost happy. Consequently, now that we are parted I am more miserable than ever. I was very near loving you, Hildyard; and if you had cared for me, if this love had come, the shame and darkness in which my soul seemed to dwell would have passed away. But without that love the stain grew blacker and blacker. Ah, I could never make you understand. I will not try. Remember you are not to blame. All that you promised you gave, only you did not understand me, and when you, too, treated me like a paid mistress whose time of hiring had expired, my heart broke. We all have to die, only, the process is a lingering one, I am going to hasten it a little. And so farewell, my friend. There is a little wine-glass before me in which I will not drink your health. But all good things I wish you and—farewell."
Her pen stopped. She took an envelope and addressed it. Then she leaned back in her chair.
It was five minutes to eight. She would take it at the first stroke of the hour. She drew the wine-glass nearer to her. How swiftly the long hand was travelling. She could almost see it move. Then her eyes grew dim. She ould not see distinctly. The room seemed suddenly full of phantoms.
There was her husband, leaning over her tenderly—looking into her face as no other man had ever looked—and by his side a little girl. Ah, it was Pauline, with her hair wildly tumbled and her cheeks flushed with running, holding up her lips to be kissed.
A little dry sob nearly choked her. This was torture. Would the hour never come? Ah! there was the click. Desperately her hand clasped the thin stem of the wine-glass. She raised it. Was that a knock? No matter, the hour was striking. She threw her head back and the glass touched her lips. But it did not move. She was paralyzed.
Before her she saw a phantom, that was no phantom—the incarnation of her most poignant memory. The door was wide open—a man stood upon the threshold gazing at her. It was her husband. There was a look upon his face—what did it mean? She must be going mad. The wine-glass slipped from her nerveless fingers and fell with a crash upon the floor. On the carpet was a deep stain.
HE closed the door and came into the room. She stood quite still, her hands locked in one another, and her eyes fastened upon him. When he spoke his voice sounded like the echo of dead days. She began dimly to wonder whether this was a rehearsal of a new comedy. Was she acting, or was she playing a real part in a scene from her own life? Or had she swal- lowed the poison, and was this hell?
"I have found you then, Pauline," he said. "Don't look at me like that. I am not here to hurt you."
As soon as he had spoken she recovered herself She could understand his coming: he probably coveted the pleasure of reviling her. What she could not understand was his tone, and the look on his face.
He came quite close to her and spoke again.
"Pauline," he said, "on the island I lied to you. There was a girl there. I told you that she was your daughter. It was false."
She felt a little faint. The floor rose up beneath her feet—the ceiling was spinning. Only his face was steadfast before her eyes. She clutched at the table and leaned over towards him.
"Not my daughter—not Pauline? Who was she, then?"
"She was the daughter of my old friend, Colonel Mallalieu. He died at war with all his kin, and left me his executor and her guardian."
"Why did you tell me that it was Paul—my daughter?"
"It was a sudden, devilish impulse. When I saw that he was with her, the idea flashed into my brain. I judged that it would torture you."
"You were right."
He pushed the thick black hair from his forehead. She could see that he was pale and travel-stained.
"I should like," she said slowly, "to ask you a question. You may say that I have no right to ask it—and I have no right. But to-night you looked merciful. Perhaps you will tell me. My daughter Pauline—is she alive?"
"She is alive," he answered. "She is well. I have come to-night from her to you."
An unconquerable agitation mastered her. She shook all over. Her eye-balls were burning, but they were dry. She could not speak. He was standing opposite to her with one hand resting upon the table. There was a purpose in his set face. She listened to him fascinated.
"Pauline has been at school in France," he continued. "I went to see her recently—and I had a shock, I admit itl I had grown into the belief that our past—yours and mine—was dead, that the grave of it was sealed with an everlasting seal, that there could be no resurrection. But I looked into her eyes—they are your eyes—and a strange, new feeling came to me. The burden of these intolerable years seemed to grow lighter. She asked for her mother, and when I was tired of evading her questions, I asked myself, Why should she be for ever motherless? I have come to ask you that, Pauline."
"Stanley! Great God, what is it that you are saying?"
He held up his hand.
"I mean it. She put her arms around my neck and asked for her mother; and I remembered the day when we stood together in the old Rectory garden, hand in hand, and I asked myself, of those dark things that lay between us, whose was the greater fault?"
He was leaning over towards her, pale, but inspired by his own earnestness. She was trembling from head to foot.
"Stanley, you forget—you forget," she moaned. "I—"
He stopped her with a gesture full of dignity.
"I forget nothing," he declared solemnly. "You have sinned. Well, I too have sinned, and my sin was the cause of yours. You came to me as pure as one of God's angels. I was not fit to touch your fingers. That cursed doctrine which makes one law for the man and another for the woman, numbered me also amongst its disciples. The day came when you learned the truth, when you looked into my eyes with an unutterable disgust, and knew me for what I was. You were hard upon me, Pauline, but I should have made allowances. How were you, the motherless daughter of a country clergyman, to look with large eyes and merciful heart upon what must have seemed to you then such mortal sin? You had ideals, and I blasted them. With my own hands I drew aside the veil and showed you what the worst part of a man was like. Even now I can hear the echo of your hard little laugh, as I finished my explanations and excuses. The memory of it has lived with me all these years. It was I, Pauline, who brought the poison into your life. In my heart I know you to be still a pure woman. Give me your hand to-night, and let me take you to our daughter. If you will do this, I have no fear as to the future."
"But—but the world?"
"Imagine the triumph." He laughed with a touch of his old cynicism. "We shall give the world a new sensation, and—you have no idea how like Pauline is to you."
Her face shone. She fell into his arms. Then a horrible fear blanched her cheeks. He divined it.
"She shall never know," he whispered. "As I am a man, I swear it."
The door was suddenly opened. A girl, tall and slender, with fair, expectant face, stood on the threshold. She gave one glance into Pauline's face and flew into her outstretched arms.
"Mother! mother!" she cried. "Forgive me, but I could not wait any longer."
Stanley Owston thrust his hands into his pockets and tried to feel like a cynic. On the contrary, he felt like a young man. A weight of years had rolled away. This was happiness.
HILDYARD, with a "Bradshaw" in his hand, labouring amidst a roomful of packing-cases, saw a familiar name on the upturned sheet of a society paper, and paused. He read the little notice through with bland amazement.
"Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Owston are leaving England on Saturday by the P. and O. Elba for a tour in the East. We learn with pleasure that Mrs. Stanley Owston has completely recovered from her recent illness, although she has no intention of returning to the stage. Mr. Owston, who is a naturalist of distinction, has been entrusted by the Royal Geographical Society with the task of editing their forthcoming treatises on the Flora of Japan and South America, and proposes to spend some considerable time in both of those countries. He will be accompanied by both his wife and daughter."
Hildyard threw away his "Bradshaw" and jumped into a hansom. In ten minutes he was in Mrs. Mallalieu's drawing-room, the paper in his hand. Bertha came to him at once, and without a word he showed her the paragraph. She looked away out of the window.
"I know all about it," she said softly, "I have seen them both."
"It makes—a difference," he faltered.
She flashed a brilliant smile upon him.
"I think—perhaps—it does."