"You ask me about Rose—what can I say? Alas, that my
talents should not be equal to your curiosity! My letters at best are feeble
productions, and when I have a deliberate request to answer I swear my pen
refuses its duty. 'Tell me about Rose,' you say. 'Our one meeting, two years
ago, remains in my mind.' And you would know more of the most charming person
you ever met—so I finish the sentence for you!
"And rightly, I am sure. But, again, what can I say? I know too much, and not enough.
"I have chosen a wet day to write to you and the afternoon hours when my duties are done, so that nothing interferes between us but my faltering pen. Aunt Agatha sits in the next room making knots. You see how I avoid the subject! And now how I valiantly strive faithfully to answer you.
"You say you have heard 'whispers and more than whispers in London.' You imply about Rose, and I cannot pretend not to understand.
"I, too, have been made aware (in what extraordinary fashion, more subtle than words, is scandal communicated!) of various rumours. Remember that I have not seen Rose since I was last in town, six months ago, and then only amid the distractions of a gay season. Laughter passed between us, little else. You will recall the charming laughter of Rose. My prayer is that its gaiety may never be quenched, as—ah!—I fear it may be. I must repeat—(here give me credit for a pause of earnest thought)—that I know nothing.
"If youth, beauty, race, talents, a fine name, the most winning manners, the sweetest temper, the lightest spirits are to be ruined by the common lures of the world, if ordinary vices are to tarnish a character so bright—
"But—no, I will not think it, nor must you. Remember Rose as all nobility, virtue, and discretion, the sweetest gentleman in England.
"Marius comes home to-night. His letters read full of a sparkling pleasure in the incidents of the tour. I fear he has not spared money; I dread the moment when he must be made aware how perilously near the limit of our fortunes we all live. Hideous subject! Even to you I shrink from putting the word on paper, but I anticipate that this lack of money will mean trouble for both Rose and Marius. The Lyndwoods were ever thriftless. I remember my sweet mother losing £300 at faro; the silk dress she wore, unpaid for, and my father having to sell the silver plate to pay her page and her carriage. I recall other scenes, but all taken with a smile on my mother's part—like Rose!
"Aunt Agatha says (as you must have heard her) that my mother's death alone saved my father from ruin, which seems to me a dreadful thing. Reflecting on it, I think of these two cousins of mine. Imagine Rose or Marius without money—impossible, is it not? Yet I know of mortgages, of encumbered estates.
"Still, I must not play the pedant; I am not the monitor of the Lyndwoods nor any wiser than they. And Marius comes home to-night. We had hoped Rose would be here to meet him; but, no. He comes to-morrow, full of eagerness, his note reads, to see us all again. Yet I fear they will both find Lyndwood dull, and it will be but a while before their poor cousin is waving them farewell again.
"I must tell you (perceive that this epistle alters with the current of my thoughts) that Marius visited Genoa and saw the Lyndwood property, which is of but little value, he writes, since the whole town has fallen into neglect and decay.
"I notice that Aunt Agatha is rising, and I must follow her to see that Marius's chamber is ready and the table set with flowers. So au revoir, my friend, and remember I await your letters with impatience.—Ever your faithful,
LYNDWOOD IN THE COUNTY OF KENT,
June 17, 1748."
The clear and gentle evening sunlight fell through the long open windows on the bright hair and face of the writer as she rose, slowly folding her letter. Mellow shadows rested in the spacious beautiful chamber; smooth dark walls, painted ceiling and polished floor, rich sombre paintings of fruit made a glowing background for the rounded figure of Miss Chressham as she stood looking thoughtfully at the exquisite vista of parkland that spread beyond the stone terrace on to which the windows gave.
Where the distant golden green elms quivered in the steady breeze a few faint white clouds rested in the pale blue sky; the glade formed by the nearer trees was crossed with bars of sunshine where slow sheep moved.
Along the terrace grew late spring flowers—tulips, striped, purple, and red; hyacinths, deep blue, and soft clusters of fragrant stocks. A swallow flew by, a great sound of birds came from the trees about the house. Miss Chressham turned from the window to open folding doors that revealed an inner room.
"Aunt Agatha," she said.
A lady emerged from the gloom of the other chamber. She held a number of knotted skeins of coloured silk.
"I thought I heard you moving," smiled Miss Chressham, "so I finished my letter and am now at your service." Her smile deepened prettily. "How charming it will be to see Marius again," she added.
Lady Lyndwood smoothed her silks out with delicate fingers.
"I wish Rose could have been here," she answered.
Miss Chressham was ready.
"Marius has been so uncertain as to the date of his arrival, and Rose wrote he was under an engagement for to-night that he could not contrive to avoid. He is coming to-morrow."
The elder lady replied with a certain languid impatience attractively in keeping with her slender dignified grace.
"Ah, my dear, I hope he will come to-morrow; not only because of Marius—for other reasons! And now you had better call for candles."
Miss Chressham pulled the bell.
"For other reasons?" she repeated.
Lady Lyndwood's answer came wearily through the twilight.
"The estate, you know," she complained. "I vow it worries me. Since Mr. Langham left us we have had no steward. I wrote to Rose he must come and see after it; he is aware from Mr. Langham when he gave up his accounts that the value of the land is decreasing, or whatever the term may be."
"And what does Rose say?"
"Rose laughed, of course, and Mr. Langham—"
"Oh—he," cried the girl impatiently, "I know that he sold Brenton Farm at half its value, and the crops, too, always!"
"Perhaps so," Lady Lyndwood laughed vaguely, "but one must have someone. Rose should come himself and put a person he can trust into the place, for really I cannot be worried."
"We understand so little about it," said Miss Chressham sadly, "and Rose tells us nothing."
"My dear!" the Countess protested. "Rose has managed his own affairs since he was eighteen. His fortune is his own concern, and it would be mightily ill-bred of him to trouble the ladies of his family with the buying and selling of horses and dogs."
The servant entered with a long taper and began to light the candles. Miss Chressham answered with restraint.
"You have no head for business, Aunt Agatha."
The Countess of Lyndwood was standing by the mantel-shelf. As the sconces either side were lit her delicate shoulders and pale lovely face were reflected in the dark depths of the mirror.
"No," she admitted; "after all, one can manage without it. I could never see it as a reproach, Susannah," she added.
Miss Chressham looked at her.
"Not if one is as pretty as you are," she answered, and smiled half sadly.
"Oh, fie, my dear! You must not flatter an old woman."
The Countess sank easily into a brocaded chair and her pearl-coloured satin dress gleamed in the candle-light. The lace over her faint blonde hair and over her shoulder seemed pearl-coloured too. She folded her silks away into a blue and silver bead-bag and when the servant had left the room she spoke again.
"You are so sensible, Susannah," she remarked in a tone of gentle helplessness; "such a comfort to me, my dear." She sighed, and rested her cheek on her long white fingers. "Rose is heedless, and I really know so little of what he does in London. Of course, I hear things"—she paused, and added placidly—"which, of course, are also no business of mine. But I do wish"—she gave Susannah an appealing look—"that he would come down and look after the place, and I wish he would marry."
"I dare swear he will do both," answered Miss Chressham cheerfully; "nay, it would be vastly strange if he did not."
The room was very pleasantly full of candle-light; it sparkled in the folds of Miss Chressham's red silk gown as she moved close to the Countess's chair; through the still open window terrace, trees and sky showed luminous and purple.
"I have heard the names of several ladies," remarked the Countess, "mentioned by Rose and other people, but not one he could or would marry."
"Why, when be meets her he will not speak of it," smiled Susannah.
Lady Lyndwood sighed.
"Well, I wish he would come. Marius will want to see him about his fortune."
"Is it in Rose's hands?" asked Miss Chressham, a faint look of surprise on her fair face.
"Ah—yes," the Countess spoke vaguely, "all the money went to Rose; but Marius has something when he comes of age, which was last October. I am sorry he should have been abroad, and now, I suppose, he will want to leave us again."
"I suppose so," assented Susannah absently.
"Nothing else is to be expected," returned Lady Lyndwood. "Rose cannot ask Marius to look after the estate, and really it is very dull here. I think we must all go to town this season."
Susannah was silent.
The Countess continued her gentle disconnected talk.
"Two years ago—how different Marius will be! I hope he will get on with Rose. And—la, my dear, 'tis near seven of the clock!" She rose, her grey eyes agitated and a flush in her cheeks. "Seven he is to be here!"
"Let us walk to the front and watch for him," said Miss Chressham.
The elder lady took her arm, and they went into the quiet hall, looked into the dining-room where early moss roses showed between the glass and silver on the table and the candles in their sconces sent flickerings on the portraits of fair gay Lyndwoods, past to the open door, and so on to the wide, shallow steps.
It was a most beautiful evening, a new moon floated in gauzy vapour above the soft dark lines of the trees; mysterious and beckoning the white road gleamed away into the twilight; the stone vases at the bottom of the steps were dimly visible; a faint sweetness rose from the early pinks they carried.
Jasmine and roses covered the front of Lyndwood Holt, and their tendrils, lightly stirring now and then, touched the dresses of the two ladies waiting in the dusk.
The village clock sounded faintly, then from the stable came the chimes of seven.
"He will be very tired," said the Countess.
Miss Chressham laughed.
"He will only have ridden from Maidstone, dear."
"Of course," answered Lady Lyndwood's sweet vague voice. "I always think of him as coming from Paris—as if he had come straight from there—" She laughed aimlessly. "I wish Rose had been here," she added. "I swear I feel quite nervous."
"Rose comes to-morrow," repeated the younger lady.
A little pause, then the Countess spoke again.
"The place looks very well, does it not? though perhaps after the gaieties of the Continent—"
"Here he is," interrupted Miss Chressham.
Down the dusky glimmer of road came the sound of a hurrying horse.
The Countess advanced impulsively down the steps. A rider galloped up through the twilight—a slender young man in a travelling cloak was kissing Lady Lyndwood, laughing and breathless, before Miss Chressham had freed her skirt from a long rose bough.
"Susannah!" He held out his hand as she joined them. "May I still kiss her?" he asked his mother.
"Yes, Marius," smiled Miss Chressham; "to-night, at least."
He saluted her cheek and her hands. The three came towards the house together.
"And you are well and safe? And your portmantles? And where is Mr. Hardinge? And—oh, Marius—I fear it will seem so dull!" cried the Countess in a breath.
Marius Lyndwood laughed an answer.
"Indeed, I am well, and the man is following with the trunks. I left Mr. Hardinge at Dover. And, now my turn. Where is Rose?"
"He is coming to-morrow," answered both the ladies, as they passed into the hall.
"Why, he wrote to me he would be here to-night," said Marius Lyndwood,
"He could not," replied Miss Chressham hastily. "His engagements."
The young man flung off his cloak and hat with a pleasant laugh.
"Rose is the fashion—a town rake. His brother must not hope to see him. Well, I cannot care to-night—"
He turned into the dining-room, looking about him. The ladies followed, and there, in the strong fair light of the candles, the three cast eager eyes on each other.
After the gay warmth and joy of their meeting this pause came almost like embarrassment, as if they found themselves, after all, strangers.
His mother was quick to see the change in the new arrival. At first she did not think this Marius as handsome as the boy who had left her two years ago. The next second she told herself that his powdered hair, his elegant clothes, his graceful bearing, had vastly improved him, and that he was very like his father.
He came round the table, took her hand and kissed it.
"How beautiful you are, mother," he said.
The Countess coloured. That, too, was like his father. Across this scene of the handsome room, with its pleasant appointments, with the figures of young man and woman, rose the picture of a tablet in the parish church. She felt suddenly very lonely.
"Susannah will show you your room," she said faintly, "and then we will have dinner."
"The same room?" smiled Marius.
"Oh, yes!" nodded Susannah.
"Then I can find it. I have not been away a hundred years, my lady, and I hear them with the portmantles. You must not move for me."
Laughing, he left the room. They heard his greetings to the servants in the hall, and the agreeable bustle of arrival filled the quiet house.
The Countess sat down at the head of the table; one of her fair hands lay among the glasses on the shining white cloth. The other drooped in her lap; she looked up at Susannah, and her eyes were wistful.
"Do you think he has changed?" she asked.
"Into a man—yes."
Lady Lyndwood sighed.
"He has the air—he was never as handsome as Rose."
Miss Chressham laughed shortly.
"He is handsome enough." She moved a silver bowl of roses further on to the table. "Rose, of course, is—" She suddenly broke off, and her manner had an air of distance. "You must be very proud of them. Aunt Agatha."
The Countess shook her delicate head.
"I feel a helpless old woman, my dear, and quite a stranger to both."
The window stood open on the June evening, a most exquisite perfume lingered round the chamber, a perfume of roses, violets, and indefinable things of the night; an almost imperceptible breeze caused the candle flames to tremble against their shining silver sconces and filled the room with a sense of life and movement.
In each of the glasses on the table a gem of light quivered, and the little gold labels hung round the necks of the dark wine bottles gave forth long shuddering rays. The white china was painted in pink, the hue of the half-opened moss roses; in the centre of the table two harts in ivory, each wearing a collar of turquoise, bore between their antlers a crystal dish filled with pale lilies.
Miss Chressham slipped to her seat, her brown hair and eyes, her rich complexion and bright dress made her catch the light in rivalry even of the sparkling crystal and silver. As she moved something fell from her dress. "My letter to Selina!" she laughed, picking it up, "and I have never addressed it—that was Marius."
"Selina Boyle?" questioned the Countess, listening for her son's step.
"Yes, my dearest friend, you know, though I so seldom see her; she is in Bristol with her family now," smiled Miss Chressham.
Lady Lyndwood turned her sweet face to the door.
"Of course, I remember her, my dear; she was here two seasons back—how long Marius is!"
"She sends her greeting to you," said Susannah, "and asks after Rose; she has heard so much of him, even in Bristol. I meant to tell you before."
She glanced at the Countess with a feeling almost of guilt, and two lines from Selina Boyle's letter—"tell me, I pray you, of your cousin the Earl, who I hear has all the graces and all the vices—the saddest rake in London!"—seemed to weigh on her as if her own.
But Lady Lyndwood smiled absently.
"Marius must be so fatigued—he is rather pale, do you not think? And I wish he had brought Mr. Hardinge."
Miss Chressham reminded her gently.
"Mr. Hardinge had to accompany Mr. Brereton's son to London, and I expect Marius would not have cared to travel through England with a tutor."
She was grateful her mention of Selina Boyle's letter (that she had been nerving herself to for three days past) had passed without comment.
To attain this end she had chosen a moment of abstraction; Lady Lyndwood, weary with leisure, would most probably have desired to see the letter.
And Miss Chressham did not wish to show it to her.
Now Marius re-entered, fresh and elegant in grey satin, his eyes wonderfully dark under his powdered hair, a knot of thick lace at his throat and a fine pink cameo clasping it—a more animated Marius, a more charming Marius than the slightly ungainly lad from college who had, on occasion, flouted his mother and teased his cousin two years ago.
"Mr. Hardinge has done wonders, I swear," sighed the Countess, still striving with that sense of loss.
And Marius, too young to admit he had ever been different from what he was, blushed, and for a moment was awkward.
"'Tis only two years," he said; then he caught his mother's yearning gaze and became conscious of his modish side curls and all the little fopperies of his dress so delightfully new, and the fresh colour deepened in his smooth cheeks.
"Twill seem very quiet here," remarked Susannah, coming delicately to the rescue, as he took his place opposite her; "look at the moon "—she pointed towards the violet night.
"She appears so different in Venice," cried Marius; "are you sure she is the same, Susannah?"
"Not at all," she answered. "And did you like Venice?"
"All of it—so much, but this is sweet, the sweetest of all, my lady," he bowed towards his mother.
"Ah, Marius," said the Countess wistfully, "I do not look to keep you long."
"Rose and I must talk of that," he answered youthfully, and joyously important. "I shall take you and Susannah to London, my lady. I have been thinking you must be over quiet here."
"We go to stay with Rose in the season," answered Lady Lyndwood; then she became rather abruptly silent, since what she had been about to add could not be said before the servants.
Miss Chressham, sensitive to the reason of the pause, covered it. She spoke of little home affairs, and drew out Marius to relate again those incidents of his travels that had so entertained them in his letters.
He talked with animation, with gaiety, his listeners were interested and loving; but whenever he touched on the future, on his bright plans, on his young unconscious hopes for it, Susannah Chressham winced.
After dinner they went into the great withdrawing-room that looked on to the hidden fragrance of the terrace and the park, and Marius sat beside the Countess on the long Spanish leather couch; his laughing voice made the old room ring with youth, and his mother's face flushed as she looked at him.
Miss Chressham moved to the writing-table and observed both of them; she felt curiously averse to speech to-night; in her heart she was sorry—sorry for all of them, and—afraid. Idly she picked a quill and stared at Marius.
His young English face, fair and bright, with rounded features, grey eyes, and rebellious brown hair under the powder, wore a proud air of distinction given by the beautiful mouth and arrogant cleft chin, common to the Lyndwoods; when he smiled, which was not seldom, he showed a charming dimple.
As Miss Chressham gazed at him, in a half-troubled manner, he looked round, and she glanced away and began addressing the letter she held in her hand.
Marius Lyndwood rose and crossed to her.
"How quiet you are, Susannah!"
She kept her face turned from him as she answered; lightly and hurriedly her quill glided over the smooth paper.
"I am finishing my letter to Selina—interrupted because of your return, Marius! You would not remember her, 'twas after you left that she was here."
He scrutinised her clear writing.
"Miss Selina Boyle!" he said. "Is she a friend of yours?"
Susannah's glittering brown hair was blown across her brow by the little breeze from the terrace as she turned to glance up at him.
"We were at school together—yes, a dear friend of mine; you do not know her?"
"I heard of her but now at Dover—Miss Selina Boyle—"
"Heard of her?"
"Mr. Hardinge met a friend who was lately from the Wells," he explained, "and Rose was mentioned; this gentleman had seen him at the Wells; he had a rake-helly reputation, he declared..."
"Marius!" protested the Countess, rising delicately; "that is not fair to Rose."
"But about Selina?" cried Miss Chressham, and her white brow was wrinkled.
"Oh, la, Susannah, I only heard that she was at the Wells, and what a name she had for a belle, and how Rose was paying her a deal of attention—you must know that!"
Miss Chressham was completely off her guard.
"No!" she cried; "and I cannot understand Selina—she writes from Bristol, and Rose is in London."
"Why, this was a month or so ago, maybe," answered Marius.
"Still, it is rather curious," remarked the Countess. "Rose never spoke of her—and their names coupled! my dear, it would be an impossible match."
Susannah Chressham put her letter into her pocket.
"After all, they met here, Aunt Agatha." She spoke slowly, looking the while at the moonlit park, "And why should Rose mention it? and as for the gossip, people will always gossip about anyone like Rose."
Lady Lyndwood fluttered open a delicate ivory fan.
"Last time it was Mrs. Fanshawe—and one always hears it so indirectly," she complained.
Marius glanced from her to his cousin.
"It seems I have thrown the apple of discord, my lady; I was foolish to repeat it, but I thought you would know!"
Susannah laughed, clearly and suddenly.
"How vastly foolish that we are all fallen grave over this! Now I am going down to the lodge to leave my letters for the night coach, it will be passing soon. Do you remember how we used to wait for it? Nay, you must not come with me; I shall be only a moment, a few moments."
She stepped out on to the terrace, her red gown showed a moment against the dark, then disappeared.
Marius Lyndwood was following her, when the Countess called him.
"Come and talk to me, Marius; Susannah is quite well alone."
He was beside her instantly; a slender eager figure he looked leaning against the wide mantelshelf with the golden candle-light over him.
Lady Lyndwood kept silent, but her eyes were busy with him; the lace had fallen from her blonde curls and lay shimmering about her shoulders, she moved her fan to and fro as if she did not know she had it there.
"Dear heart," she said softly, "you are wearing a miniature round your neck; may I see it?"
Marius became slowly pale and did not answer, but he loosened from his stock the black ribbon his mother had noticed, and held out the gold case.
The Countess opened it, gazed at the timid placid face of a girl it contained, and sighed and smiled.
"Where did you meet her, Marius?" she asked.
He answered, looking away.
"In Vienna—in Paris;" then he added, "she is coming to London this autumn, and then I may see her again."
Lady Lyndwood returned the locket.
"Is she very sweet?"
"Yes," said Marius Lyndwood stiffly; "I do not know her people—we met by chance—but I found her—sweet."
The Countess fell into silence again; she thought of Rose, who had never mentioned to her the name of any woman in this manner, and she looked at the ardent, innocent face of her younger son.
She spoke at last, tinder her breath.
"Thank you, Marius, and I hope you will present her to me—in the autumn. Now will you not show me what you brought me from Venice?"
Marius kissed her hand; he would have liked to have kissed her feet.
Susannah Chressham had walked steadily half-way to the lodge before she stopped and reminded herself that she had no object in going there, and that the letter she carried would never be sent.
However, she could not at once return; if only to give colour to the feint that had got her from the house, she must remain a few moments in the garden.
It was a warm evening, but she had nothing over her silk dress, and as she paused in the shade of the chestnut avenue she shivered.
Through the broad leaves of the trees showed the night sky, pale with moonlight and the sparkle of the stars.
Miss Chressham tore the letter addressed to Selina Boyle into fragments and suddenly hurried on, the scraps of paper crushed in her hand.
She turned from the drive and mounted some shallow stone steps to a temple set on a hillock; a little Grecian temple shaded by the tops of the trees that lined the road and grown about with violets; behind the bank sloped away to a stream crossed by a moss-covered bridge.
The moonlight was brilliant over it all, save where the chestnut leaves cast a moving shade on the white pillars.
Susannah Chressham stepped on to the bridge and listened for a while to the endless ripple of the water falling over the stones below; then she again tore the letter across and across, and cast the fragments down into the stream.
Lifting her eyes she could see the yellow lights in the windows of Lyndwood House, and for the second time she shivered.
Slowly she retraced her way past the temple and reached the head of the steps.
Beneath her the moonlight fell in bars across the road, fell between the chestnut trunks and glimmered on the hard white drive.
Susannah Chressham stood motionless. A man's figure stepped out of the shadows into one of the patches of moonlight; he wore a long cloak flung over one shoulder and walked towards the house; the little clang of his sword against his spurs was distinct in the great stillness.
Susannah uttered an exclamation; at that he stopped at the foot of the steps and looked up.
"Rose," she said; "Rose—is that you?"
"It is I," he answered; and at the tone of his voice she winced, as if, in a moment, all her unreasonable dreads faced her in tangible form. She did not speak.
Her cousin came slowly up the steps to her.
"It is late, why are you here, Susannah?"
"And you—you return unexpectedly. Rose."
He stood hat in hand, the moonlight on his shoulders and shining on the heavy hilt of his sword.
"Marius is here?"
"He came to-night—we thought you would follow tomorrow;" she spoke hurriedly half under her breath to get the better of the unsteadiness of her voice.
Rose Lyndwood glanced at the lights of the house sparkling through the trees.
"My lady is with Marius?"
"Then we will not disturb them yet, my dear—the meeting can well wait."
His cousin let go of her red silk skirt, and it rustled about her on the steps.
"Why do you speak in such fashion. Rose?" she cried.
"I do not bring the best of news—for Marius."
"It is as if I had known you were going to say that," answered Miss Chressham, shivering; "come into the temple."
He followed her under the Doric portico into the cool pillared interior; through the doorway the moonshine streamed, and the light perfume of violets seemed to emanate from the smooth polished columns.
The Earl crossed to one of the square windows and stared across his park; his bearing showed a man weary, indifferent, and reckless.
A marble seat ran round the wall; Susannah Chressham leant against it and turned her eyes on her cousin; but, owing to the thick shadows, she could only see the outline of his figure.
"Won't you tell me what this means, Rose?" she asked. "You used always to confide in me."
"Vastly unfair on you," he answered lightly, but without gaiety; "give me credit for outgrowing my selfishness—or some of it."
She seated herself and clasped her hands.
"Do not evade me—I might help you."
He turned to face her; now, with the moonlight behind him, she could not see his features at all.
"You cannot, my dear." His very pleasant soft voice was grave.
"It affects Marius?" asked Susannah.
"It is about money?"
"You were always a sensible lady," answered the Earl; "it is about money"—he gave the last word a curious little intonation of disdain.
"I have been waiting for this," said Susannah quietly.
"I give you credit for your observation, my cousin."
He moved slowly across the marble floor, and as his cloak fell back straining at the clasps, she saw the gleam of his blue and silver dress beneath.
"Tell me what has happened," she entreated.
He paused, then swung round and paced to the window again.
"Since you are not involved, Susannah, in my unfortunate affairs, I have the less reluctance."
Still she could not see his face, the moonlight dazzled her straining eyes.
"Not involved!" she murmured.
Lord Lyndwood pulled his gloves off slowly.
"I have come home to tell my lady and Marius that I am ruined."
She did not move nor speak.
"The estate hardly meets its own mortgage, and the land has been so neglected as to be almost valueless." He quoted his last steward's report, though she did not know it. "My lady does not realise this?" he questioned.
"She realises nothing—how should she? you have kept us in ignorance."
"By Gad, I only knew myself a few days ago," said the Earl. "When I was forced to look into the cursed business."
"But Marius has his money?" cried Susannah.
"Marius has not a penny! It will be pleasant telling him so, will it not?"
"I do not understand."
"Marius never had any money, my lord dying so suddenly without a will—Brereton was our guardian, and a careless one."
"Careless!" interrupted Susannah Chressham. "There has been fine carelessness here—"
"Damned carelessness," answered the Earl with a short laugh. "And when Brereton died and I took over my own affairs—I'm afraid I didn't improve on it. But Marius has not been stinted."
"No, and now you are going to tell him he is a pauper," said Susannah. "Now, when he is full of plans, of hopes—oh, Rose, Rose!"
A little silence fell; very strong was the perfume of the violets, very delicate too, insistent. Susannah spoke again.
"The lawyers must have warned you."
"I left their warnings behind me two years ago, when I first went to the Jews, my dear."
"Then—you are—in debt?"
She felt that he smiled.
"A good deal in debt."
"And my lady?"
"My lady has some money of her own, not much—the estate must go."
"Oh, Rose!" she gave a little gasp; "is there no way out—nothing to be done?"
The Earl appeared amused.
"Nothing, my dear. I have, naturally, tried—now we will go to the house."
She did not move.
"There must be something we can do?"
The misery of her voice touched him.
"It is good of you to care so, cousin—I might have expected reproaches."
"Since I am in no way involved," she quoted his sentence—"is that what you want to say, Rose?—but my whole life is involved," she added almost dreamily. "Lyndwood to go—you ruined, you and I to tell Marius and my lady so to-night?"
She looked over the quiet park and saw the peaceful lights in Lyndwood House, and she could not believe her own words.
"Ruin!" she repeated.
The Earl came towards her.
"Are you thinking of Marius?"
"No," said Susannah, "of you."
"I am the least to be considered," he answered.
"The most!" she cried. "Could you help what was in your blood?—I knew this must happen, though now I hardly credit it—I knew this must happen."
Rose Lyndwood sighed lightly.
"Let us go on to the house."
But she stood in the doorway.
"Tell me what you mean to do?"
"I do not know—it will be according to how they take it—my lady and Marius."
He fingered the ends of his long tie.
"For myself," he lifted his shoulders, "I could get the appointment at Venice, easily, and the place in Ireland would pay some of them | I do not know what Marius will expect."
"Poor Marius!" she echoed softly, "Remember he is only a boy, Rose."
She stepped into the open now; he following.
"A Lyndwood, too—there is the army, or I would give him the estate in Genoa."
"He says it is worth nothing," cried Miss Chressham, trembling—"and in Italy!"
Lord Lyndwood had no reply to that; he wrapped his cloak about him, and his cousin preceded him down the steps.
For a little while they went along the avenue in silence, she holding up her dress, he swinging his gloves.
"Will you tell them to-night?" she asked.
"I must get back to London as soon as may be;" he glanced up at the great chestnut leaves that hid the stars—"to-night? Gad, I suppose so."
After a moment he added:
"Neither my lady nor Marius will understand, and I cannot explain, so it is very quickly over—one word, after all."
"Ruin," said Susannah Chressham.
"It has been the Lyndwood way, has it not? It is twelve years to-morrow since they brought my father home—do you remember?"
"Yes," she answered.
"He tried to speak to me," said the Earl softly. "I knew what he meant—be generous to Marius. That occurred to me last night when I faced it, and that it would also be the easiest way for me—a duel in Hyde Park."
And Susannah Chressham was silent.
They turned the bend of the avenue and saw before them the straight front of Lyndwood House.
When they came to the foot of the steps Susannah held out her hand.
"Good-night, Rose; you will find them in the withdrawing-room—you do not want me—I shall go upstairs. Good-night."
He kissed her fingers.
"In the withdrawing-room? I will go round by the garden; good-night."
They parted; she to enter the house, he to make his way through the roses and laurels to the terrace at the back.
The long windows still stood open as Susannah had left them; the gleam of candle-light fell over the stone balustrade and the flowers, the hyacinths, pinks, and tulips.
Rose Lyndwood heard voices, light, laughing voices, and the rustle of silk; he stepped into the light and saw the Countess standing on the hearth.
In her fair hands she held a fine lace scarf that fell over her gleaming dress, and she was looking at Marius, who showed her an ivory framed mirror, wonderfully carved.
The Earl pushed the window a little wider open and entered the room.
"Rose!" cried his mother in a frightened voice.
Marius laid down the mirror and flushed; two years of change in each of them had sufficed to make his brother a stranger to him.
Lord Lyndwood swept off his hat and crossed the room to kiss his mother's hands.
She flushed and fluttered into her usual sweet aimless talk.
"La! you startled me. Rose; we expected you to-morrow—and have you walked?—and I protest you have not noticed Marius!"
"My horse fell lame and I left him at the lodge." The Earl turned to his brother—"Good evening, Marius."
They looked at each other, and the younger man was overawed and abashed; then he laughed awkwardly.
"I scarcely know you, my lord."
Rose Lyndwood smiled.
"Two years, Marius—you also have altered."
He unclasped his cloak and flung it over a chair.
The Countess glanced at him.
"Is anything the matter?" she asked suddenly.
"Can you see so much?" He was still smiling. "Yes, but I will not trouble you with it yet, my lady."
He crossed to the table.
"I must speak to Marius."
An expression of annoyance clouded Lady Lyndwood's fair face.
"This is a poor home-coming, Rose. I have not seen you for months—and 'tis the first evening I have had Marius."
The Earl seated himself at the table.
"I am sorry," he said.
At his elbow lay the ivory framed mirror his brother had put down; it reflected the glimmer of his blue sleeve.
"I am sorry," he repeated; "I had, however, better acquaint Marius—at once."
He leant back in his chair and glanced from one to the other; his long grey eyes were half closed, and his disdainful, cold expression chilled and annoyed my lady.
"Won't you acquaint me also, Rose?" she asked weakly. "I had better know."
She was vaguely aware that with any personal misfortune he would never have troubled them; this, therefore, must be something overwhelming.
The Earl looked at his brother, and Marius spoke.
"Give me leave, my lady; let me hear what Rose has to say."
His young face was serious and pale; the Countess clasped her hands and began to tremble.
"It is about the estates. Susannah always said Mr. Langham mismanaged everything—"
"Come into the library, Marius. We shall be back in half an hour."
Lady Lyndwood sank on the leather settee.
"There are no candles there. Rose, shall I ring?" Her anxious eyes appealed to him.
"No," he answered, "this will suffice."
He took one of the candles from the table and led the way from the room; Marius followed, very grave.
The Countess heard them enter the next room and the door close after them.
She glanced about her, at the scarf Marius had brought her, lying where she had let it slip, upon the hearth, at his mirror on the table, and beside it Rose's grey gloves and riding stock.
The chamber grew unnaturally quiet; she was afraid to move; cruel memories that came to her always in the silences made her blood go cold; a look of age and suffering settled in her delicate face, she fixed her eyes on the portrait of her husband over the mantelshelf and clasped her hands tightly in her lap.
The Earl set the candle on the mantelshelf, and its feeble rays dimly revealed the massive handsome chamber, the rows of books on carved shelves, the dark pictures, the heavy furniture.
Marius fingered his cravat, and was silent; he felt constrained and ill at ease—troubled, not so much by the threatened revelation of misfortune as by the presence of his magnificent brother, who was a more splendid gentleman than any he had seen.
"I wished to tell you first and alone," said Rose Lyndwood, "for I dare swear my lady will make a scene."
He leant against the wall by the fireplace, the candle-light full over him. His light brown hair was unpowdered and tied with a turquoise ribbon in his neck; he wore no jewels I the silk flowers, pink and red, on his waistcoat sparkled with threads of gold. His complexion was naturally pale; at the comer of his full lower lip a patch of black velvet cunningly cut into the shape of a bat showed in contrast with it. His delicate fair brows were slightly frowning, and his languid lids almost concealed his eyes. He did not seem to see Marius, shyly observing him.
"I have been looking into my affairs," he said. This remark meant nothing to Marius, and his brother saw it. "It's a damned unpleasant thing to say," he added, with a half-insolent smile, "but—it's ruin."
"What do you mean?" he cried.
Rose Lyndwood opened his eyes wide now and gave his brother a full glance.
"I mean I am as far in debt as I can go—that my credit is no longer good for—anything. That Lyndwood must go to pay its mortgage, that is what I mean."
"I don't understand," answered Marius stupidly.
"Have you never heard of a man being ruined before?" asked the Earl.
"Gad, it is not so rare!"
"But in such a fashion—so suddenly."
Rose Lyndwood shrugged his shoulders.
"Not so suddenly, only we ignored everything until now. The crash—who cared as long as the money came from somewhere? Neither I nor you, nor my lady."
Marius took a step towards his brother.
"And my fortune?" he said.
Lord Lyndwood gave him a kindly glance.
"For that I am sorry," he answered, "and blame myself that ye have ever been led to believe there was anything solely yours, for now that I can no longer pay your allowance ye stand there as poor as I."
Marius sat down by the desk against the wall.
"Nothing?" he muttered. "Nothing at all?" and his lips trembled.
"When they have sold me up," replied my lord slowly, "here and in London, I do not see that there will be a groat between us."
"I cannot credit it!" muttered Marius.
"Believe me, you may. I have told you the truth in the fewest words."
Marius took his head in his hands, resting his elbows on the desk.
"And I am a pauper!" he said—"a pauper!"
Lord Lyndwood crossed and stood beside him.
"What can I say, Marius? When my lord died he left all in confusion, and in confusion all has remained. While the money sufficed we shared it. I could never have done differently to what I did, not being by nature thrifty."
Marius was silent.
"My lady has a few hundreds of her own," continued the Earl. "Susannah's money, too, is safe, of course"—he glanced at his brother, whose face was concealed from him—"but as for us—"
Marius looked up now. His cheeks were red, his eyes suffused.
"Well, what for us?" he asked hoarsely.
Lord Lyndwood answered the abrupt question with another.
"Do you blame me, Marius?"
The younger man rose.
"Blame you—yes, I do blame you!" he cried. "You had no right, by God, you had no right!"
"So this is how you take it," remarked the Earl quietly. "Well, it will help neither of us."
He crossed to the fireplace, and his brother's fierce eyes followed him.
"You take it very easily, my lord, but I cannot be so patient. You have told me that I am penniless—penniless!"
Lord Lyndwood looked at him steadily.
"Yes," he said.
"Then," answered Marius, very pale, "I tell you that you have behaved bitterly to me, and that I can never forgive you!"
The Earl fingered the silver braid on his sleeve.
"Why, you are very fierce," he said.
His languid manner maddened Marius.
"Reflect on what you have done, my lord. You have brought me up as a gentleman to think nothing of money—to imagine it was there for me when I was a man. I have seen it spent on all sides, and now you dare face me with this tale of ruin."
"By Gad, it is not very pleasant for me," answered the Earl.
"You!" cried Marius, goaded. "A spendthrift, a prodigal! Oh, I have heard of your reputation! If you chose to squander a fortune on your pleasures you had no right, I say, no right to involve me in paying the price."
He sank into the chair beside the desk again. He was trembling from head to foot, clutching and unclutching his hands in the fine lace at his cuffs.
The Earl looked at him with narrowed eyes.
"Have you done?" he demanded.
"What is the use of speech?" cried Marius bitterly.
Rose Lyndwood faintly smiled.
"Railing easeth rage," he said. "Hear me a little longer, and I have done. There is the entailed property in Genoa; I will make that over to you—"
"Nay," interrupted Marius hotly, "that is poor charity, my lord. I will not be exiled in a dead city."
The Earl slightly flushed.
"I could get you a captaincy in the Guards."
"To starve on my pay!"
"Beyond that I can do nothing."
Marius pressed his hand to his forehead.
"You have wronged me bitterly," he said in a rough voice.
The Earl set his beautiful mouth sternly.
"These reproaches," he said, "do nought but display your ill-manners!"
Marius gave an ugly laugh.
"I am not a town rake, so I pray you excuse my behaviour. I have not yet learnt to disguise my vices and my passions."
"Enough of that!" said Lord Lyndwood shortly.
"Oh, I have heard things of you!" cried Marius, with gleaming eyes. "This fortune was not lost soberly."
"Ye speak like a boy," said Rose Lyndwood, "and there is no answer to what you say. What I have done, I have done, and to no one, Marius, will I justify myself."
"There is no justification of what you have done," answered his brother, gazing at him. "A pauper, a beggar! I think I hate you, my lord!"
The Earl moved slightly towards him.
"As you will," he said quickly, "but remember ye held no bond of mine for the fortune you imagined. All you had I gave you."
Marius rose; his face was pale and passionate. Since they had entered the room his expression had changed utterly.
"So ye would remind me that I have been living on your charity!" he cried. "That ye have educated me—"
Lord Lyndwood interrupted.
"I had not thought you would take it so hardly, Marius. I did the only thing there was to do—what my father would have desired me to do. While the money was there we spent it." He looked into his brother's angry eyes and his face hardened. "I can say no more."
Marius struck his hand on the lace at his breast.
"There will be much more to be said, much more," he answered. "You have spoilt my life for me"—he suddenly laughed—"and I suppose I take it damned ungracefully. Good night, my lord."
He went out of the room and closed the heavy door after him with a force that caused the candle flame to flicker and the window to shake.
Rose Lyndwood looked in front of him with an aimless gaze into the shadows of his drooping lids and his pallor gave him an expression of weariness.
The carved clock in the comer struck ten: as the last note quivered to stillness, my lady entered the library.
"Oh, Rose, Rose!" she said before she had closed the door. "Marius tells me, in one sentence, this—that we are ruined!"
"Yes," answered the Earl.
Lady Lyndwood dropped into the chair Marius had pulled out of place and clapped her shaking hands on the desk.
"Marius also?" she whispered.
"Yes," said my lord again. "He blames me—"
"Do you wonder?" cried the Countess bitterly. "Do you wonder, Rose?"
"It seems you too find me at fault," he answered. The candle-light only faintly revealed her, sitting by the massive desk, but fell bright over his tall restrained presence, over his grave tired face.
"What did you expect of me?" asked Lady Lyndwood; then added, with a kind of feeble energy, "Rose, it cannot happen—it must not, however entangled you are. It must not come to—to that—to selling the place."
"Not selling it," he corrected.
"I don't understand any of it," she answered, "but it is impossible for us to leave Lyndwood."
"It is impossible for us to keep it. Believe me, my lady, I have considered it all. If I had seen any means to help myself I should not be here to-night."
"But Marius!" cried the Countess miserably. "Marius to come home to this—Marius penniless!"
The Earl's lids flickered a little.
"There are chances for Marius."
The Countess rose with a movement of impatience.
"It is bitterly unfair on him. He has been brought up to wealth; he was as ignorant as I that the money you squandered was all we had."
Rose Lyndwood flushed.
"We have all been thriftless and careless, my lady," he said. "I the most of any, and if I could have done anything to avert this—"
"Oh, you talk!" she interrupted with a quivering voice. "And that is easy; but you have no right to stand there and tell me you are ruined. How is it with others? You had as fair chances as any."
"By Gad—no!" said the Earl softly. "I had no chance to do anything—but what I did."
My lady's anger could find no direct expression; she wavered from one charge to another.
"You could have married," she cried. "Most gentlemen strengthen their fortunes by a wealthy match. But you—who received your attentions? I forbear to name them! And now it is too late."
"Too late for a fine match—yes," said Rose Lyndwood. "I have not time to hunt an heiress before the bailiffs are in, and—"
"You would not if you could," interrupted the Countess.
"I would rather sell the estates than myself, madam."
"Your bearing is out of joint with your fortune," she returned. "Ye speak proudly. It had been a finer pride that had prevented ye coming to tell your mother ye had disgraced your name thus!"
The Earl looked away from her into the shadows at the far end of the room.
"Prudence was not in my inheritance," he said slowly. "If you take it as a disgrace that my fortune was not equal to my position—" He broke off. "In any case, my lady, 'tis tedious and painful to discuss the matter."
"You have no thought for me!" The Countess flung reproaches at him. "Oh, none at all! Nor what this means to me, or to Marius! Did you ever consider us when you wasted your father's heritage?"
"My father?" repeated the Earl. "I have lived as he lived, only 'tis my misfortune to have faced the consequences."
Lady Lyndwood very tightly clutched the back of the chair; the wavering candle-light sought out her face and showed it wild and sad beneath the loose blonde hair.
Rose Lyndwood suddenly turned his beautiful head and looked at her.
"Have you nothing but bitterness for me, my lady?" he asked.
"I think of Marius," she answered.
The Earl's face hardened again.
"Marius has the world before him."
"You have broken his heart—you! And to-night he came back to me so joyously! Listen! He met a lady abroad; he hoped to marry her."
"At one-and-twenty?" Rose Lyndwood half smiled. "How many marry their first loves, my lady?"
The Countess sank into the chair.
"I did," she murmured in an uncontrolled voice, "and I had nothing but happiness," And she began weeping for the twelve years dead.
"Marius was my lord's heir with you," said the Earl, "and I have brought you nothing but misfortune. Do not shed tears, my lady, and shame me, for maybe I can still sell myself to buy Marius his romance."
The Countess struggled with sick sobs; half under her breath she murmured incoherent railings and feeble complaints. The Earl became paler as he listened to her.
The candle was burning to the socket; the moonlight lay on the floor between them, in a shifting, widening patch.
"I am returning to London to-night," said Rose Lyndwood at last.
My lady got to her feet and supported herself against the side of the desk, holding her handkerchief to her eyes.
"Go when you will," she answered; "nay, go soon, for I have no desire to see you in the house—let me be alone with Marius." A sudden gleam of anger shone through her weak tears. "Nay, I doubt not you have companions in London in whose society ye can soon forget my unhappiness."
He made no answer, nor did he move, and without a look between them the Countess left the room.
As the door closed after her the candle guttered and went out in the gust of air.
For a moment or two the Earl walked up and down in the dark, crossing and recrossing the patch of moonlight.
Then he returned to the withdrawing-room.
It was empty, the window still stood open on to the terrace, and the air was full of the pimgent smell of the flowers without.
Rose Lyndwood seated himself at the table where Miss Chressham had written, earlier that evening, the letter whose fragments were now being swirled down the stream into the open country.
He picked up a pen and slowly mended it, pulled out a sheet of Susannah's gilt-edged paper, and paused.
What had happened since he had left London that morning—his meeting with his cousin, the fierce disappointment and anger of Marius, the foolish, bitter reproaches of the Countess—had hardly touched his real feelings, and, personally, moved him not at all.
He had endured these scenes, disdainful of them; he knew that neither his mother nor Marius had ever attempted to avert the ruin that so overwhelmed them, and that they knew nothing of his real position.
To both he was a stranger in all things save blood, and now as he sat alone, his thoughts were where they had been on the ride from London, with the people and things of his own world, though through all was the stinging recollection of his brother's sneers and his mother's tears.
Presently he began to write, slowly but without hesitation.
"Madam,—You will remember that I acquainted you with
the fact that my affairs approached a crisis, and that I considered accepting
the appointment at Venice as a retreat from a life my fortunes would no
longer support. You know what other hope I dared to cherish—believe
that I have ever held dear the assurances you once gave me, and that in
writing this I taste fully the bitterness of poverty.
"I cannot go to Venice, since both my lady and Marius, my brother, find me
at fault in this entanglement of my fortunes, and 'tis but decent that I
should strive to repair losses that affect them, since they demand it of
"More 'tis difficult to say on paper, yet I have no fear that you will not understand since we never found it hard to comprehend one another. When last you wrote you said that you were being pressed in the matter of your betrothal to your cousin Francis—he is one to whom I should have given my esteem in other circumstances, and one whom, even as it is, I cannot hate, though his fortune is more brilliant than mine—"
The Earl broke off and stared out at the night with darkening eyes, then he signed his name and the date.
Without reading the letter through he folded and addressed it to:
MISS SELINA BOYLE,
As he finished he looked round, for he heard the door softly open.
"Susannah," he said. His intonation held welcome; he half smiled.
Miss Chressham crossed the room; within a little distance of her cousin's chair she paused; he was again gazing out at the night, and she saw only his back, the blue ribbon at his neck, and the long smooth curls that hung beneath it.
"What have they said to you?" she asked.
"That which I might have expected."
He fingered his letter, still with his face from her; she came round his chair, her scarlet dress rippled out of the shadows with colour.
"Of course they cannot forgive," she said intensely.
Now he looked round at her suddenly, and his expression startled even her strained anticipation.
"What are they doing?" he demanded.
"My lady is weeping—and Marius—raving like the boy he is."
The Earl leant back.
"They blame me, Susannah—curse me, I think, make me the thief of their happiness, and—" he checked himself. "I am to blame, but I will repay."
"How?" she asked, and her voice was almost frightened.
Again he gave her his stormy grey eyes.
"Marius is in love," he smiled, not softly. "Principally my lady thinks of that—spendthrift, you, she says, ruining this romance—well, Marius must not be a pauper either for this love or the next, and so—"
"And so—what?" breathed Miss Chressham.
"I must mend my fortunes even as I ruined them—I must resort to an expedient not pleasant—but I keep you standing"—he rose, his glance sought the clock—"and it is late."
"I know what you mean to do," said Miss Chressham. "And if I had been one with any claim on you"—she checked herself for fear of the extravagant—"I cannot understand how they can force you," she finished.
"They do not think of me," answered Lord Lyndwood. "My lady considers Marius, and Marius himself—I have done nothing that they should think of me."
"But you take the obligation of their future upon you!" cried Susannah Chressham.
He answered her in the spirit of the words he had written to Miss Boyle.
"I am the elder—it is but decent; and, after all," he turned to her with a touch of his usual lightness, "'tis the fashion to marry for money."
That glimpse of his old self unnerved her utterly.
"Oh, Rose," she protested in trembling accents, "think what you are doing—why should you sell yourself because of Marius?"
The Earl was silent. Miss Chressham looked at him a little space, then moved towards the window.
"But as you say," she said in another and heavier tone, "everyone does it, and perhaps you do not care."
As she finished her glance fell on the letter lying on the little desk between them, and she saw the name on it.
"Ah!" she added swiftly. "Do you care?"
He answered the eager look in her hazel eyes.
"Enough not to wish to speak of it," he said quietly. "Enough to ask you to forget that I have said even that—"
"This for Marius!" she cried, hardly knowing what she did or what words she spoke.
"Nay, for myself," he answered recklessly, "that I may not hear their reproaches all my days—it had to be—by Gad, we cannot hope to end our lives in fairy tales."
He picked up the letter and put it in his pocket.
"Tell my lady to rest tranquil and Marius that he shall not starve—and for yourself—thank you, my sweet cousin."
She turned her head away.
"You will stay here to-night?"
"No, I do not need to sleep to-night."
"You have been riding all day—you cannot go back—like this."
She made an effort to look at him now; he was taking his hat and gloves from the chair where he had thrown them on his entry.
"I shall walk to Brenton and get a horse there; I must be in London as soon as may be."
He put on his cloak over his bright shining dress and fastened the heavy clasps.
"You will leave them, like this?" asked Miss Chressham.
"There is no more to say," he answered.
"You will think hardly of them," said Susannah; her voice, her eyes, her pose expressed intense excitement.
Rose Lyndwood smiled.
"Nay, I am the culprit;" he hesitated a moment, then his voice fell beautifully soft, "do not you think hardly of me?"
"I!" she smiled bravely; "I—I understand."
"I will write soon, to you and to my lady."
He moved towards the window, and the sweet breeze stirred the loose hair on his forehead.
Miss Chressham followed him.
"We shall see you again?" She bit her lip, and the colour rose under her eyes.
"Ah, soon." He took her hand and kissed it; she saw the white comer of the letter addressed to Miss Boyle showing from the glimmering brocade of his waistcoat, and her mouth tightened.
"My duty to my lady," said the Earl, "and—you will know what to tell them—good-night."
His tone, his smile were endearments J to her alone that evening had he shown anything of his usual manner; this his thanks for her patient sympathy.
"Good-night," she answered.
He stepped out on to the terrace; the moon was directly overhead and the trees mighty with black shadows; the white flowers looked as if carved out of silver, and the red tulips, half seen, seemed to pulse in the obscurity of the shade cast by the gleaming balustrade.
Rose Lyndwood looked up at the house; in his mother's room burnt a pale light; he glanced down again at Miss Chressham standing before the ruddy candle glow of the chamber he had just left; bright colour showed in her scarlet dress, in her heated cheeks and brilliant eyes; she had one hand on her bosom, and her slack fingers were soft and fair.
"Good-night," he said again, and turned away towards the shallow steps.
Miss Chressham watched him go; the stillness was, to her, rent with voices—Marius speaking in the hot bitterness of youth. Lady Lyndwood weeping complaining words, the soft tones of Selina Boyle and the sad laugh of Rose Lyndwood.
"Rose Lyndwood." She repeated the name to herself, then closed the window and drew the heavy curtain across the prospect of the stars.
The clear, kindly morning sun lay over the straight hand some houses in Bedford Row and dazzled in the white dust of the wide street.
From the stucco porticoes of the mansions slanting shadows were cast over the doors. A woman in a blue cap crying "Chairs to mend!" moved slowly along; a few passers-by were gathered, with an air of curiosity, about an elegant green curricle that waited outside a house in no way different from the others, save that the shutters were up in every window but those on the second floor.
This equipage excited attention, not only by the manifest splendour of the white horses, the sumptuous livery of the footman, and the gold-plated harness, but by the fact that the small crest on the body of the chariot was that of the famous Lord Lyndwood, a name they all knew as that of the most brilliant personage in that brilliant but vague world of fashion that sparkled somewhere beyond their vision.
At one of the unshuttered windows stood the owner of the green chariot, observing languidly the prospect of the wide sunny street, broken by the little knot of people about the curricle, and the slow-moving figure of the chair-mender, with her slender bundle of canes under her arm.
Rose Lyndwood saw these things as a bright, expressionless picture. Even the blue sky arching the houses had no meaning; but the thick dust that stirred in the slow breeze and whitened the dry aspect of the street conveyed a quiet dreariness.
The Earl moved away from the Window, and his half-veiled gaze dwelt on the details of the lofty chamber in which he waited.
Everything was very new, very magnificent. A cold, uncultured taste expressed itself in stiff, splendid furniture; in pictures selected for no reason, it seemed, but their bright colours and their massive frames, and in enormous mirrors that, rising from floor to ceiling, reflected their glories again and again after the manner of a public dancing-room.
The chairs and settees wore linen covers that concealed all but their shining gilt legs. There were no flowers in the painted vases nor any small or intimate object to disturb the stately expanses of the marble-topped tables and Japan cabinets; it appeared a room never often used and of late long shut up.
Rose Lyndwood walked softly up and down. He had his hat under his arm and his gloved hands clasped behind him; he wore an olive-green riding-coat, his hair unpowdered and plainly arranged.
He was utterly out of harmony with his surroundings. It might be that he was aware of this, for when he saw his image in the ostentatious mirrors he very slightly smiled, and not pleasantly.
The sunlight entered by the tall bare window and lay in a great square on the highly coloured carpet, dazzling in its passage on the flaunting gold of furniture and pictures.
Lord Lyndwood paced to and fro, glancing, when he reached the window, at the green chariot below, with its idle admirers, and at the empty street beyond, and when he reached the great glass the other end of the chamber at the reflection of his own superb person with that slight and sneering smile.
He was by the window when the heavy-carved door quickly opened, and a man stepped into the room.
Lord Lyndwood stood where he was.
"Good morning, Mr. Hilton," he said.
The new-comer advanced.
"I have kept you waiting, my lord," he said. "A domestic matter detained me."
He looked at the Earl gravely, yet intently, and came nearer. He was a middle-aged man, heavy in build, with a commonplace countenance imparted by ambitions satisfied and a prosperity hardly attained and keenly relished.
He was dressed in plum-coloured velvet. Across his waistcoat was a watch-chain set with rubies that he fingered with his coarse left hand, as if he could not forget it; he wore a large, old-fashioned peruke heavily powdered, that, flowing on to his shoulders, gave a touch of remote dignity to his person, belied by his shrewd, alert face.
"Your lordship must excuse the disorder of my house," he said. "We are but newly arrived in London."
"I observe no disorder," answered the Earl. His slow glance rested on the owner of the mansion. "It appears to me prodigious neat."
Mr. Hilton bowed.
"Will you be seated, my lord?"
Rose Lyndwood moved to one of the stiff, awkward-looking sofas, and seated himself there, with his back to the light.
"You received my letter?" he asked, placing his hat beside him.
"I had that honour, my lord."
Mr. Hilton placed himself in one of the covered chairs, sat erect in unconscious discomfort, and gazed at the Earl with narrowed eager eyes.
"Then there is the less for me to say," answered Rose Lyndwood.
He sat carelessly, and his voice was languid, as if it were no great matter that he discussed; but his face was pale above the black stock, and his lips had the look of disdain that came to them when against his will he forced himself to touch affairs he wished to spurn.
"If your lordship's object in this visit is what I imagine it to be," said Mr. Hilton, "there is not much for us to discuss."
Rose Lyndwood lifted his head; he did not look at the other man, but beyond him.
"A year ago, or nearly a year ago, Mr. Hilton, you and I met on a matter of business." The disdainful smile was now unmistakable. "You, as one of the gentlemen connected with my banking house, knew, and know, something of my affairs."
Mr. Hilton nodded, as if he heard what he had expected and was satisfied.
The Earl began to pull off his gloves slowly, loosening each finger first. He turned his eyes on Mr. Hilton, and they looked as dark as the velvet bat at the comer of his beautiful mouth.
"I was in difficulties then, you will remember, and you made a proposition to me that I rejected. How much of this need I recall to you?"
"I recollect it," said Mr. Hilton, "perfectly."
There was a hardly noticeable pause and a hardly noticeable effort on the part of the Earl before he spoke again.
"I am now an utterly ruined man."
Mr. Hilton nodded for the second time, as if he listened to something that he knew, and yet something that he was pleased to hear put into words.
"I shall not even be able to save Lyndwood or the property in the North. My credit is strained to the utmost, and it is only a matter of days before the brokers seize even my personal effects."
He smiled rather insolently and looked fixedly at his listener.
"Do you care to repeat what you said when last we met, Mr. Hilton?"
"The proposal I made you, my lord?"
Mr. Hilton clasped the arm of his chair with his right hand; his left fondled the ruby watch-chain, his lips were set firmly, and a little sparkle danced in his eyes.
"I repeat that proposal, my lord."
"You understand my position, Mr. Hilton—that I am a penniless man?"
"I understand, my lord, what a nobleman's ruin means. I will assume the worst—that your debts are immense, the Jews outrageous, the creditors flint, that you have obligations, hungry relations and the like, and still I make you the offer I made you a year ago."
Lord Lyndwood flushed faintly.
"I have come to accept it, Mr. Hilton."
The elder man rose abruptly.
"I thought," he said, in a soft tone, "that it could be only a question of time, my lord."
The Earl was now on his feet, too.
"Let us put this matter formally," he said, and his grey eyes were afire. "I request the honour of your daughter's hand in marriage. Now is it Yes?"
The colour had deepened in his face, and the knot of the black silk cravat on his breast rose and fell quickly; but for that he had the appearance of complete composure.
"It is Yes, my lord," answered Mr. Hilton. "From this moment Lavinia is your betrothed wife"—he uttered the words as if they gave him intense pleasure, and repeated them—"your betrothed wife."
The Earl stood silent, his right hand closed down on the hilt of his sword, his eyes on Mr. Hilton, who took a sharp turn about the room, then stopped before him.
"What are your debts?" he asked; and his fingers were busily caressing his watch-chain. "How much do you owe the Jews, and what is the mortgage on Lyndwood? But no matter, that is a business affair, we must see the lawyers," he smiled; "all shall be paid—every penny," his smile deepened, "it is good to have money, is it not, my lord?"
"It is necessary," said my lord, and he also smiled. "As I have found—"
Mr. Hilton moved slowly away and contemplated Rose Lyndwood out of wholly triumphant eyes.
The great chamber, the rich paintings, the gilt mirrors were his, bought with his money; this man, Rose Lyndwood, eighteenth Earl of Lyndwood, aristocrat and proud, the most famous beau in town, this man was his also, bought as surely as the gaudy furniture against which he stood. This was Mr. Hilton's crude thought, and the Earl read it.
"You are satisfied?" he asked in a tone that was an insult.
"I am satisfied, my lord, the debts within a week, the wedding within a month."
Rose Lyndwood picked up his gloves. Mr. Hilton waited for him to speak; when the words came they were unexpected.
"May I see Miss Hilton?" His voice was courteous again.
"She is in the house;" her father was instantly at the bell-rope—"yes, I should wish you to see her."
My lord pulled out his glass and dangled it by the ribbon; he had an air of complete abstraction, of aloofness from his surroundings.
"A year ago Lavinia was at school," said Mr. Hilton; "she has had the education of a noblewoman, my lord."
Rose Lyndwood was silent; he looked past the speaker towards the door; glass and ribbon swung from his fine idle hand.
The bell had been obviously a signal, for it was the lady herself who entered.
She came a little way into the room.
"Lord Lyndwood, Lavinia," muttered Mr. Hilton. He moved awkwardly from the hearth; embarrassment made him appear clumsy, even foolish; his daughter, too, stood dumb and fluttering, but the Earl was now perfectly at his ease.
He crossed to Miss Hilton and took her hand, she trembled a curtsey.
"I come as a suitor, madam," he said, as he kissed her finger tips—"would it mightily displease you to become Countess of Lyndwood?"
Then he looked at the girl; he found her fair, pale, very young; to him, at least, without charm or savour; her large eyes seemed to widen with fright, her lips quivered.
"I am honoured," she said, and glanced at her father, then down again at the floor.
"And I am grateful. Miss Hilton," smiled Lord Lyndwood, "that I have your consent—for it is a consent, is it not?"
"Yes, my lord," then she moved suddenly away from him. "Sir," she addressed her father, "will you permit me to retire?"
The eyes of the two men met for a second across her shrinking presence.
Miss Hilton had not come more than a few paces from the door; and now she retreated towards it, with lowered eyes.
"When may I wait on you, madam?" asked the Earl. "You must send me your command."
Again she looked towards her father, who was regarding her with a mixture of shame and pride extraordinary to see.
"Ask my father, sir," she answered, and showed such a piteous desire to be gone that he could not but open the door for her.
Mr. Hilton strode up and down the lengthening patch of sunlight.
"She is shy, my lord, you must forgive it; but a charming girl, for any situation, charming—and now for the lawyers; make your own appointment, my lord."
Rose Lyndwood came across the room eyeing him.
"A moment, Mr. Hilton; have you or I thought over what we are doing?"
Suspicion clouded the older man's face.
"What do you mean?" he asked sharply.
The young Earl flushed and his eyes darkened.
"I think of Miss Hilton—this—bargain concerns her, does it not?"
The merchant was cautious, as one dealing with qualities strange to him.
"Still I do not understand, my lord."
Rose Lyndwood answered on a quick scornful breath.
"You know my motive in this matter, Mr. Hilton, and your own—brutal words could not make it clearer between us than it is now—but what of your daughter, is it fair to her?"
The other fumbled for the meaning behind these words.
"This is a curious thing for you to say, Lord Lyndwood."
"I speak against my own advantage, Mr. Hilton, which lies in this match," he smiled bitterly, "and Gad, I know not why I do speak save that there is no one else to say to you—reflect."
Mr. Hilton frowned heavily.
"Do you seek to evade the contract pledged between us?"
The Earl's voice was stormy as he answered.
"This is a sordid enough business, sir; believe me I do not find it pleasant." He checked himself, then flashed out again, haughtily, "I have seen Miss Hilton, and I have seen she is reluctant to become my wife. God in Heaven! do you not understand? What can you offer her? I am not famous for the domestic virtues."
Mr. Hilton was quick now to think he saw the intention behind the words.
"I am not asking for your reformation, my lord," he answered. "I expect nothing but to see my daughter your wife."
"And I," said Rose Lyndwood, "was thinking not of you nor of myself, but of Miss Hilton; is it not possible for you to comprehend that?"
The expression of baited anger returned to Mr. Hilton's intent face.
"What does this mean?" he asked. "That ye seek to evade what ye have pledged yourself to, my lord?"
"Leave the matter, I pray you"—it was almost as if he addressed his servant—"I spoke from a passing impulse, a foolish one." He picked up his hat from the linen cover of the settee; his manner closed the subject.
Mr. Hilton, baffled but appeased, was silent, fondling his watch-chain.
"Monday will be convenient to me," said Lord Lyndwood. "I shall look to see you then, at my house, about twelve of the clock. My lawyer will be acquainted."
"And the betrothal shall be made public at once," assented Mr. Hilton.
He glanced up at Rose Lyndwood and was surprised into an exclamation.
"What is the matter?" asked the Earl quietly.
"You looked so pale, my lord; I thought you were ill."
The Earl's heavy lids almost concealed his eyes; he smiled, ignoring both the remark and the speaker.
"I shall await you on Monday; now I must no longer trespass on your time—au revoir." He bowed, not it seemed to Mr. Hilton, but to some intangible quality in the room, and turned to the door, swinging his gloves.
The older man was profuse and respectful in his leave-taking; my lord smiled beyond and above him, remote in an unnatural composure.
Mr. Hilton accompanied him down the stairs, not forgoing the moment on the doorstep when the idlers round the green chariot turned agape to see the Earl, to mark his companion and the intimate manner of their parting.
My lord was still noticeably pale when he mounted the curricle; as he gathered up the reins he shuddered.
The groom sprang to his place behind and the impatient white horses trampled the dust with joy.
My lord looked over his shoulder and saw Mr. Hilton lingering on the doorstep—he stood up and whispered to the horses.
As the chariot sped glittering down the street, one of the loiterers hailed a new-comer:
"There goes Lord Lyndwood—driving like the devil!"
Mrs. Beale stopped her chair and stepped out.
"Lord Lyndwood," she said softly, and beckoned him with her fan.
The shifting idle crowds of the Mall divided them, but if her voice was lost on the gay summer air (already so laden with whispers and laughter) he saw the gesture and came over to her.
Her languishing eyes were reproachful as he kissed her hand.
"La! I have seen so little of you! Will you walk on with me?"
"Is there need to ask, my dear?"
She tossed her head, her cheeks were suffused with colour. As they sauntered side by side under the lime trees her glance searched for rivals to witness and envy.
"I am to play Statira to-night."
"Who is Roxana?" He smiled down at her dark prettiness.
"Do you care?" she pouted.
"Not at all."
"'Tis Miss Fenton in an ugly red gown from Paris," she informed him; "a hoyden!"
Rose Lyndwood looked languidly before him. She touched his black velvet sleeve with scented fingers.
"Will you come?" she demanded, her regard full of fire and entreaty.
"I am not playing to-morrow."
"Then I will come to-night."
She flounced her white skirts out of the dust.
"Only come if it please you."
"Why, it pleases me," smiled Lord Lyndwood.
They were nearing St. James's Park. Very pleasantly the evening light glimmered in the fresh leaves of the limes and chestnuts and lay in flakes of gold on the lake, where the white ducks swam. Long pale shadows trailed over the gravel walks and close grass lawns; here and there the red and pink of the hawthorns starred the green.
For a little while the actress was silent. When they reached the edge of the water she looked up at her companion; her wide straw hat cast half her face into the shade and the red strings tied at her throat showed off the whiteness of her round chin.
"You are going to be married, I am told."
"The town knows it," he replied.
"At last!" laughed Frances Beale. "Well, I wish you happiness."
He turned a glance on her that checked her laughter.
"Thank you, my dear," he said.
They had paused at the margin of the lake; the gold ripples ran like a pathway from the toe of Mrs. Beale's little shoe to the tall poplars on the opposite bank, through the dark leaves of which the sun blazed, cloudless to its setting.
"You are very fortunate," said Mrs. Beale, gazing at the water. "The wealthy Miss Hilton. La, there has been a power of men after her swinging fortune!"
"That isn't amusing," answered Rose Lyndwood. "I think, my dear, that you had better leave the subject."
"Am I bound to be amusing?" she demanded.
He lifted his hat to a passing acquaintance.
"'Tis your profession," he replied lazily.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"You endeavour to put me off—you think me a fool, no doubt; but I know what every fool knows, that old Hilton has been playing for you for a year and more." Her accent was violent and slightly vulgar; she pulled tempestuously at some unhappy roses at her breast and scattered them on the ground. "That doll!" she cried. Then her tone softened. "Well, 'tis the way of the world," and she sighed.
One pale fair cloud hovered above the poplars opposite. Lord Lyndwood looked at it as he answered:
"There is no remark to be made about such a commonplace affair save this, that the lady is too good for me."
Mrs. Beale laughed.
"Too good—yes! You aren't seen with her much."
"Miss Hilton is indisposed," he answered. "And, by Gad, Fanny, I'll not have you speak in such fashion—of her or me!"
She wilted at once beneath the hint of his anger.
"Why, I meant no harm," she breathed quickly. "Forget about it, and come to see Statira to-night. You promised."
He rewarded her submission with a smile.
"I will be there from the rise of the curtain."
They sauntered on again. Mrs. Beale found consolation for much in the glances bestowed on her companion and by the reflection that half the town must have seen whom she walked with, yet this was only a passing pleasure merely softening deep and sad feeling.
"Come and tell Statira that she was better than Roxana, afterwards," she said. "We so seldom see you in the Fields now that I think ye must go to Drury Lane."
A sudden breeze arose, ruffling the water and blowing the ends of his powdered hair on to her shoulder.
"I have been occupied of late, in truth," he answered.
"With Miss Hilton?" she could not resist saying.
"With my approaching marriage—yes." Then he laughed sweetly. "Let Statira expect me to-night after the play."
"Statira will be proud." Her eyes glowed. "La, I shall act well to-night!"
"Ah, no!" she answered almost bitterly. "I cannot act. I can rant upon the boards, 'tis all. When most I wish to disguise my feelings, then do I find how poor an actress I am."
"Do you wish to act for my benefit, my dear?" asked Lord Lyndwood lightly.
She gave him a dark bright glance.
"Sometimes, maybe. Now the sun is setting, will you see me to my chair?"
They made slow way back through the thinning crowd.
Mrs. Beale was suddenly gay.
"What flowers will you bring me to-night? When last I played Statira, Lord Sandys sent me more yellow roses than I could wear in a month. The Fenton was furious; but you, nothing from you!"
"I was in Kent." His words were the merest excuse, but his eyes made amends. "I will redeem myself to-night."
Her lids drooped.
"Whatever you may send I will wear."
"What can London yield fair enough?"
"Anything you have chosen," she answered in a low voice. Then abruptly she looked up at him. "Don't you know it?"
"My hopes were, maybe, so presumptuous."
They reached her chair under the limes. The golden dust of evening hovered in the chilling air; overhead the sky was a fading blue, and the fragrant leaves shivered together.
The grey eyes of Rose Lyndwood laughed into the fair face of Frances Beale, and for a moment she forgot that there were many to mark it.
"Till to-night, au revoir," she said, and her lips quivered.
He had possession of her hand for some seconds. When at last she drew up the glass and her chair was borne away down the Mall, he sauntered idly in the opposite direction.
The long walks emptied as the sky filled with deep and pure gold and the encroaching shadows merged into one darkness over the park.
Rose Lyndwood leant against the posts that bordered the grass, and drew a letter from his pocket, the latter part of which he re-read in the waning afterglow:
"...Marius is staying with Mr. Brereton now;
I had his Confidences before he left. Had You heard You had pitied! He is
very much in Love. He does not, it seems, know her Name, though she has his.
He is awaiting her letter in an ardour Beautiful to behold.
"I tell You this to put a gloss upon his Selfishness. He is frankly Pleased at your Marriage and the prospect it unfolds for him. He desires you will write to him to let him know your Commands about his attendance at the Ceremony.
"My Lady has forgiven you; indeed, I think has forgotten that she Ever reproached you. She makes complaint of Miss Hilton's lack of Pedigree, but wishes her friendship. I think she is not Eager to go to London for the Wedding, which she desires to be very Private, so as not to make a show of a necessity; but this must be as you Wish.
"From what you say of Miss Hilton I think she must be Good and Sweet. Convey our duty to her; we shall be glad when you bring her to Lyndwood.
"We are very Quiet here now Marius has gone, and the white Roses that are Just coming to a bloom are become my best Companions.—Your dutiful cousin,
"POSTSCRIPTUM.—I have had no Letter for a long While from Mrs Boyle. Is she still in Bristol? I heard you had met her at The Wells. I would be Obliged if you would Tell me if she be in London and at what address.—S. C."
Rose Lyndwood folded up the letter, returned it to his pocket, and walked idly through the twilight streets to his mansion near Panton Square.
His solitary and splendid dinner over, he answered his cousin's letter in this manner, writing with a steady hand but showing a face which reflected emotions not to be forever repressed:
"My Cousin,—Accept my dear thanks, and this brief
answer, for your Epistle, which was pleasant to receive and to read.
"The marriage is for the 3rd of July in St. James's Church, Very few will be present. I shall not desire my Lady's attendance.
"Afterwards we go to Paris, and shall return to Lyndwood the beginning of August, when I shall desire Marius to be at home that I may Speak with him.
"I have seen but Little of Miss Hilton; at present she is indisposed and confined to her House.
"She sings and plays with a Charming air, but I think she hath a Melancholy disposition.
"Convey my Service to her Ladyship.—Your dutiful cousin,
"POSTSCRIPTUM.—I have not seen Miss Boyle since I was at the Wells. I believe she is still at Bristol.—L."
As the Earl sealed this letter he smiled with a sad disdain—not at what he had said, but at what lay unexpressed behind the bare sentences, and for a while he sat silent with dreaming eyes.
The theatre was crowded and the air close and heavy; a continual murmur of voices rose from the pit, laughter, snatches of song, and whispers.
Rose Lyndwood leant from his box, put up his glass and surveyed the house; behind him two young men yawned, and laughed, aimlessly, lounging against the side of the box.
The Earl was silent; they could not involve him in their jests or comments. He remained with face averted idly gazing at the faces below; nearly all turned towards him, he was commonly more stared at than the play.
"'Tis vastly warm here," complained one of his companions. "Why aren't they beginning?"
Rose Lyndwood suddenly swung about and lifted dark eyes to the speaker.
"Who is that opposite with Sandys?" he asked.
"The charmer in green?"
"Yes, do you know her?"
George Cochrane answered.
"'Tis Miss Lescelles; the dame in the huge toupee is her mother."
"She and Sandys are to be married in July," added the other.
"She is prodigious pretty," said my lord languidly, "and I never saw a countenance express more happiness."
Lord Cochrane smiled.
"She is quite enamoured of Sandys."
"Sandys! Good Gad!" yawned the other.
Rose Lyndwood gazed again at the lady opposite; rosy and smiling she was in her green gown with her swansdown cloak revealing the pearls on her white neck.
"Sandys is to be envied," he said, "in that he can make her look so happy."
George Cochrane, signalled by a group entering below, took his leave; his companion followed, and the Earl remained alone in the box.
Through the murmuring noises of the audience settling to their places sounded the light joyous laugh of Miss Lescelles, and as Rose Lyndwood glanced in her direction his eyes saddened.
At last the curtain stirred and parted; Miss Fenton stepped into the yellow artificial light and lisped the prologue.
She was gorgeous in a scarlet farthingale and a gold silk turban looped with diamonds; she ogled the boxes with good effect, and was apt in the management of her fan; the Earl approved her with a smile, and the pit was generous in applause.
She withdrew, reluctantly, from the public gaze, and the curtain was looped back before an Eastern scene.
It had been very handsomely done. Barry was playing, and Quin; the perukes were from Paris, and the management had been lavish in the matter of Turkish mail and jewelled scimitars.
When Statira appeared the house shouted welcome; she turned her eyes up at Rose Lyndwood as she curtsied.
She held his gaze through the scene that followed, and the knowledge of it made her acting splendid—Roxana was eclipsed, vanquished.
The Earl found the high emotions, the stormy expressions, the fierce gestures, the lights, the jewels suited to his mood; he was pleased as he had seldom been pleased at the play.
Statira was beautiful to look upon; she wore her purple with a regal air, as she moved to and fro gold gleamed round her slender waist, her black curls floated beneath her green turban, red lilies, his gift, heaved on her stormy bosom, and her dark eyes flashed to the box where Rose Lyndwood sat alone.
He was held by the passion she expressed, by her movements, her changing voice; the tempestuous play, the angry jealousy, the flash of arms, the glint of daggers, the sonorous eloquence of Quin, the languishing grace of Barry combined to captivate his senses; he did not move or once take his eyes from the scene till the curtain fell on the first act.
Statira, panting and flushed beneath her paint, swept a great curtsey to the acclaiming house.
My lord unfastened one of the white roses at his cravat and flung it at her feet. She carried it to her lips as she retired into the wings, and he kissed his hand.
The audience relaxed after their silence. The beaux stood up in the pit to show off their clothes, some of the ladies readjusted their masks; the porters went round snuffing the candles. Rose Lyndwood leant back in his box smiling to himself a little.
Then he chanced to lift his eyes and saw—her.
She sat alone, directly opposite, erect and smiling at him; their gaze met across the lights, the jests and laughter, that in an instant were utterly tawdry, and he got to his feet, breathing sharply.
Miss Selina Boyle still smiled. Her hands were folded in her lap, and she was wrapped in a soft grey mantle; against the shadows of the empty background her light hair showed like a wreath of faint flame about her head.
He descended into the theatre and passed through the noisy crowds, not knowing of them; he opened the door of her box.
"May I come in, madam?"
She looked at him, saying nothing, and he entered.
"I thought you were in Bristol."
"We came to London yesterday," said Miss Boyle. "Will you sit down, my lord?"
He took the chair behind her.
"Who is with you to-night, madam?"
"My father—he has gone to visit the room behind the scenes, he will not return till after this act."
"May I stay?" asked Rose Lyndwood gravely. "I wish to speak to you."
She gave him a full glance out of soft and rich eyes.
"I wondered," she said, below her breath, "if you would care to come—I have been watching you since we entered—just after the rising of the curtain, my lord."
Those past moments, wasted on Statira's noisy charms while she gazed at him, were too utterly dead, too smitten into extinction by her voice and her look to be even regretted.
"Do not think," he answered, "that I left this to chance, madam. I should have come to Bristol."
She moved half round so that she could see his face. They were both in shadow, only the yellow light from without touched his white silk cuff, and his hand resting on the back of the empty chair before him.
"I received your letter, my lord," she said. "Forgive me if I could not answer it."
"You understood?" asked Rose Lyndwood intently; "by what I said and what you have heard since, you understand?"
Her delicate and spiritual face quivered with a smile.
"Oh, yes," she replied. The folds of the grey silk wrap touched her chin, and the pale auburn curls loosely gathered on her proud head fell apart softly on her low brow. Looking at her my lord changed in voice, in mien, in expression, and a part of him that no other had ever seen was hers to gaze on.
"If my lady and your brother wished it," she added. "There was no other thing to do, and I would have desired you to act as you did, my lord."
"As I knew," he answered; "but I am selfish enough to wish you, madam, to know what it costs me "—he caught his breath and bent towards her—"no, not that, I wish to tell you—"
Miss Boyle interrupted him.
"Shall we not, for our own sakes, remember Miss Hilton? What you have not dared to say to me before you cannot say now," her tone sank to an exquisite tenderness; "this is farewell."
"And because it is farewell," said my lord in a tone low but swelling, "I must be bold enough to say some things to you—to tell you this at least, that you have given me the sweetest pain—that I would sooner have died on my own sword than do what I have to do."
"But that way is for boors," she flashed response; "gentlemen must live. Perhaps I also see no great joy ahead"—her eyes were like live gold in her shadowed face; "it has all been a pitiful matter, and I am sorry for Miss Hilton, but as for us—we may find some greatness in our way of meeting the future."
Her breath came hastily, and she lifted her fine fingers to her throat and loosened the grey wrap.
"What do you think I can do?" asked my lord, something wildly; he straightened himself and half withdrew into the shadow of the box. She heard the rattle of his sword, the shiver of his silks, and saw that he pressed his clenched hand to his brow. "Where am I to find my consolation?"
"Oh, sir!" cried Miss Boyle. "What can I say, or how judge for you? My philosophy is a woman's, and suited to a woman's needs."
Rose Lyndwood stared at her across the dusty shadows, and all that was noble in him lay bare in his gaze.
"It is not possible, madam," he said, "that you could care as I care. It is not possible!"
The spectators had returned to their seats. The curtain had risen upon the pageant of love and jealousy. These two did not heed it, save by lowering a little their already hushed voices. Miss Boyle had her back to the stage, and my lord did not notice what took place upon it. He did not know whether Roxana or Statira raved, or if Barry or Quin declaimed.
"You must not think that of me," answered Miss Boyle. "When first I had your letter I thought St. Mary's vaults the sweetest place to be—the sunshine was like a sword—but I strove to justify your—what you thought of me—by some fortitude, and then it came to me, like a bird might come to a flower, how little it mattered."
Rose Lyndwood sat motionless in the shadows of the box, only the lace round the raised hand that held his head trembling a little.
"My lord," continued Miss Boyle, in a voice mournfully sweet, "thus I reason it—that sure knowledge we both have is so great a thing that—ah, 'tis as if we had been together in some pure temple that none other knew of, and the memory of it were enough. Even if the portals are forever closed, none can steal the picture we have of what lies beyond the doors—but you will smile at me and my poor fancies."
His answer came unsteadily.
"You have lost so little—God knows how little—but I have lost—everything."
Her delicate breast heaved.
"Have I given you nothing, my lord—nothing that you may keep always?"
"You shame me," said Rose Lyndwood, "and I am too ignoble for these words you speak to me. I have been born and bred in folly, and in folly I must live and die, but I am not yet a patient fool to take this smilingly—"
The manifold colours of the stage flashed and glittered. Roxana shrieked, and Statira lost her fire staring at an empty box, but these two saw nothing.
The mantle slipped from Miss Boyle's shoulders, showing her pale, shining dress, and the tender curve of her chin and throat. The Earl spoke again:
"Because I thought of you I was false to you; because I had you always in my thoughts I put you out of my life; but this you must have known, and I but mar with words my meaning. 'Tis when we strive to interpret our silences that we misunderstand one another."
"About Marius?" breathed Miss Boyle. "Susannah wrote me somewhat—"
"Yes," answered the Earl. "Marius is my lady's heir. He hath inherited all her affection for my dead lord, and she in her grief reproached me that I had ruined him, for it seems he hath fallen in love in a fantastical sad fashion. A year ago I had laughed at it, but now it weighed greatly with me. What had I been, thought I, had I met and won her when I was twenty-one? What may it not mean to Marius to win or lose this lady? I did not dare it should be through me, Twas my happiness or his, and I had not the right."
"No," said Selina Boyle softly. "You had not the right; you are the elder of your house."
Leaning towards her, Rose Lyndwood answered:
"My life hath been amiss, as my lady reminded me, and Marius shall not be so shackled that his can be no better. If his romance is strong enough to save him from being the useless rake-helly fool I have been, somewhat hath been achieved; if not, at least I have tried to make amends, and he hath it in his own hands."
He paused a moment and pressed his handkerchief to his lips.
"Mine own deeds can I take on my own soul, but not the life of another man; so Marius is free."
Silence fell in the dark, narrow little box. Miss Boyle bent her head.
"You understand, madam?" asked the Earl, after a moment's agonised scrutiny of her averted face.
She gave a torn little sigh.
"My silly heart incommodes me. I strive to tell you, my lord, that you have done the best that could be—for Mr. Lyndwood and your honour."
Still she would not look at him, and he rose in his seat.
"If he is spared what I endure now," he said unsteadily, "through any act of mine, he hath cause to thank me."
Now she slowly turned her eyes on him.
"There is one we do not speak of," she whispered. "What of Miss Hilton?"
His pale face darkened.
"She knows why I seek her hand, and assents to the dictates of her ambition."
"Maybe of her father," said Miss Boyle. "She is very young."
"I cannot find it in me to pity her, madam, for this honour I do her. She will find me courteous, as I doubt not I shall find her obedient."
A sudden smile radiated Miss Boyle's ardent face.
"I do not commiserate her in that she will be your wife, my lord, but in that she hath no place in your affections. Your wife—ah, sir, the theatre grows something close, and my head throbs piteously."
The smile faded from her face, and her long lids drooped.
"Give me that flower from your lace," she whispered, "and go. You must go!"
She rested her head against the side of the box, and her lashes showed dark yet gleaming against her smooth pale cheeks.
"I cannot give you that," answered my lord, "for it hath touched one I degraded, lain next a fellow I treated carelessly."
She did not move, speak, or raise her eyes, but her whole slight body quivered and trembled with her breathing.
"This is for you," said Rose Lyndwood, under his breath, and faintly. "When I was a child I loved it; it seemed to me sacred. I—I did not understand it, and so I kept it hidden; it hath been secret all my life because of this. Will you take it?"
She looked, and her eyes were drenched with tears; it was a small white shell with a smooth pink lip that lay on my lord's palm. She did not put out her hand, and he placed it on the edge of the box.
Then she took it up.
"'Tis safe with me," she breathed, "for ever."
The act came to a tearing conclusion. These two looked at each other.
"It is better you should go now," whispered Miss Boyle.
He stooped in the darkness and took up the end of her scarf, laid it to his lips, and was gone.
A shaft of strong light fell across her face as he opened the door. As he softly closed it, and she was again concealed in soft darkness, she closed her eyes and smiled while the great tears quivered on her lashes.
Lord Lyndwood's box stood empty for the rest of the performance. Statira acted like a fury, and afterwards fell into hysterics in the green-room, to the triumph of Miss Fenton and the other ladies performing in The Rival Queens.
"I wish you would go and meet them at the lodge," said Susannah Chressham.
"'Tis near an hour before they are due," smiled Marius, looking at his watch. "How impatient you are!"
"To see her, yes." Miss Chressham unfurled her pink parasol. "I am quite agitated."
"Shall we return to the house?"
"No, it is very pleasant here; let us go to my rose garden, it will pass the time, and really some of the blooms are beautiful."
They took a path that led towards the lake across the cedar-shaded lawn; the sun was strong before its setting and cast a soft glow through the rosy silk of Miss Chressham's parasol on to her bare brown head and white dress; Marius Lyndwood was very exquisitely arrayed in dove-coloured satins; as he walked beside his cousin he played with the red tassels on his ivory-headed cane.
"Has Rose written to you of late?" asked Miss Chressham suddenly.
"I received a letter from him two days ago, as I was leaving Brereton's," answered Marius half shyly. "I spoke of it to my lady, but she did not encourage me to show it to her."
He switched at the thick daisies with his cane.
"Rose wrote from Calais—charmingly—he enclosed bills to a large amount, and said he had arranged a captaincy for me in the Blues—'twas all very sweetly worded."
"Rose has a chivalrous soul," said Miss Chressham.
"You, with him, make me out a selfish boor, maybe," and the crimson deepened in his cheeks. "I was passionate with my lord, but he hath given me no chance to put it aright."
They were now skirting the borders of the lake, and their bright dresses were reflected like painted shadows in the still water.
Susannah spoke firmly.
"What Rose has done he did because he was the head of the house and because you and my lady made it clear that you expected his duty of him—it was natural that you should—"
"Ye make me uneasy with this talk of his sacrifice," cried Marius.
"I said duty, not sacrifice," returned Miss Chressham; "this marriage hath saved the estates, the name, my lady and you."
It was at the irises growing at the water's edge that Marius struck now with his impetuous cane.
"But," he said as if in self-justification, "a man in my lord's position must marry, and 'tis usually an heiress; the thing is done every day; many might have expected Rose to do it sooner, before it came to openly making a bargain of it."
Susannah Chressham tilted her parasol and turned keen eyes on his half-ashamed face.
"Would you have cared to marry a stranger, Marius, because she had a hundred thousand pounds to her dowry, and her father had paid your debts?"
"I am not the Earl," said he, wincing.
"But had you been—"
"Had I been, Susannah, maybe I had not so wasted my fortunes that I had need to mend them in this way; take it as you will, my lord is a rake and a prodigal; why, Beau Lyndwood is the most conspicuous name in town."
"My lord," she answered warmly, "hath lived as his father before him, and ye have no cause to speak; your romance lies open to you—my lord has paid, and with the price he gets you can save yourself from my lord's sins."
Marius answered in a soft troubled voice.
"Do not blame me, cousin, 'tis not entirely for me that he does this—"
"Very largely for you, that you may have the chance to win this lady who may be all in all to you."
"I am grateful," said Marius simply. "For indeed I want little else but that same lady—we shall not trouble Rose."
They had turned away from the lake into a little grove of Eastern shrubs, myrtles, laurels and oleanders; Susannah's skirt trailing over the fallen fragrant leaves made a pleasant sound; she softly closed the parasol.
"Has she written to you, Marius?"
"No," he looked away, "but she said she would not be returning to London till September, and, of course, it does not matter whether she writes or no."
"You are so sure of her?" breathed Susannah.
"So sure," he smiled.
"Not even knowing her name!"
He lifted a bough of myrtles from the path.
"I called her in my fancy 'Aspasia' from Mr. Fletcher's play, 'twas enough; I only spoke to her twice; the first time we said so little! the second time I gave her my name and she gave me her picture. 'I will write to you,' she said—and so—and so—"
"You are very fortunate," answered Miss Chressham in a hushed way, "it must make you more tender with my lord."
She passed under the trellis arch that led into the garden, he followed, and they stood among the heavy roses looking at each other.
"What do you mean, cousin?" asked Marius.
She put her hand among the thorns and leaves and shook a huge crimson bloom free from wet.
"This—do not be over-righteous, Marius—when you have found her, and won her, and are as happy as you dreamed, remember my lord's unlovely marriage, and be a little sorry for him."
Her voice broke; she turned away, pressing against the rose bushes; Marius lifted her hand and kissed it in silence.
"I grow sentimental," she cried. "Come, which of these flowers do you think the new Countess would give the preference to?"
She shifted her parasol and her fingers fondled the ribbon on the handle.
"We must pick her some of my roses," she added. "I want to like her, Marius—my lady will be cold with fear, but she might have been sour or vain or common; Rose has always spoken of her as gentle and sweet."
"Her birth is well enough," answered Marius uneasily. "Her people have never been less than gentlefolk."
He did not care to think his brother had mated too utterly beneath him, and it seemed that Susannah was making too much of it—as the matter really only interested him obliquely he would have had it taken for granted and put aside; he would have preferred to relate how he first met Aspasia in the Luxembourg gardens in Paris I Susannah could be, when she chose, a perfect listener.
But she would not suffer the subject to change. "It must be difficult for her—at first," she said. "I am very curious to see her. Lavinia hath quite a pretty sound, hath it not? I wonder if she likes riding."
"Ye seem very desirous to please her," smiled Marius.
Susannah paused before an opulent bush bearing roses red almost to a purple tinge.
"I want her to like me," she repeated.
Marius looked at his cousin; certainly she was making too much of it; he could not find Rose's wife of such importance.
"Why?" he asked. "Why do you want her to like you?"
Miss Chressham answered with an ardent gravity.
"Because I am afraid of hating her," she said; "I wish to like her before I am lured into loathing her."
She pulled two roses from the stem, never heeding the thorns, and gazed intently at them.
"I think you take it over heavily," replied Marius with a judicial air. "Rose was bound to marry and to marry a fortune—he would scarcely have made a love match." Marius was boyishly pompous. "We hear the lady has qualities, is as desirable as another lady with a hundred thousand pounds, and I cannot think Rose would ever let his wife interfere with him."
Susannah's eyes flashed over the gorgeous blooms she held to her lips.
"And you will supply sentiment for two; well, no doubt I am foolishly romantical."
But the words were a mere dismissal of a subject she disdained to discuss with one who would not understand.
"I think we might go now," she added; "surely it is time?"
"The moments have been vastly swift!" He glanced at his watch. "Yes, they are due—shall I go straight to the lodge?"
"Had you not better? My lady awaits them in the withdrawing-room. She thinks of her own home-coming, I know—a triumphal arch, villagers lining the road with flowers—and regrets this for Rose, but his commands were stem."
Miss Chressham spoke rapidly. Her restless eyes and fluttering lashes showed agitation. As Marius parted from her by the lake she laughed nervously, and waved her hand to the careless youthful figure hurrying through the shrubbery.
She was very glad Marius was happy; it was as pleasant to watch his eager joy in life as to survey the content of a loving dog; and as sad to see him miserable as to behold an animal in distress.
Susannah had much the same faith in his Aspasia as he himself possessed. She considered him likely enough to come across his fate early—likely enough to love, to be loved, to satisfy, and be satisfied.
He was simple, she thought—no makings of a rake in him. Honest and brave he was, but no more to be compared with Rose.
She kept her thoughts from the Earl, and fell to, somewhat desperately, considering his wife. Miss Lavinia Hilton, daughter of merchant, child of a parvenu, Countess of Lyndwood now—the wife of Rose!
The thing was so monstrous that it must be taken without exclaim, naturally, or it became a horror unendurable, a wonder all credulity strained at. He, so fastidious, asking for wit as well as beauty, breed as well as grace, polish as well as youth—mated to a melancholy schoolgirl whose father had spent his life in the countinghouse!
To Susannah this was a picture to be ignored, not even glanced at—to contemplate it was to behold the cruel elements of tragedy.
Susannah dropped her skirt, closed her parasol, and looked at the two long-stemmed roses she carried, holding them up against the fading blue sky.
A little further and she came into view of the house; its brick front was warmed by the universal glow of the setting sun. On the terrace in front bloomed peonies and Turks' caps, the stone vases held trailing masses of geraniums, scarlet amid their bright leaves. All was peaceful, stately, and beautiful. "What a home for her to come to!" thought Susannah.
She went slowly to the front where the magnificent lawn, broken with one dark cedar-tree, reached to the fountains and the lake where the white swans glittered, and as she neared the wide steps, a coach and six, swinging on its leathers, came up the chestnut drive.
It drew up with a scramble of the horses' hoofs on the gravel. The first thing to strike Miss Chressham was that this equipage was not belonging to the new Countess. She had seen it last year in London. Her second thought was that he could never have kept it but for the Hilton money.
The postillions and footmen jumped down, but, quicker than they, Rose Lyndwood opened the door and sprang out.
"Ah, Susannah!" he said. His voice had a note of relief; he pulled off his glove and offered her his hand.
Miss Chressham glanced at his face, and her heart gave a sick swerve.
"Where is my lady?" asked the Earl.
Susannah forced herself.
"In the house. I sent Marius to the gate; he must have missed you."
Her eyes travelled anxiously to the coach door. My lord held it open and assisted a lady to alight.
"This is Lavinia," he said.
Susannah's first impression was that she was extremely young and quite pretty; her second that she did not know how to dress.
"My cousin Susannah!" said the Earl.
The Countess swept a nervous curtsey, and stared at Miss Chressham.
Her plain purple coat and wide Leghorn hat, with black ribbons, had the effect not of elegance, but of insignificance. Susannah thought it ostentatious, too.
"I am rejoiced to see you," said Miss Chressham; "but 'tis difficult to say so without a set speech, and I expect you are tired—may I call you Lavinia?"
A pair of brown eyes were gravely fixed on her from under the shade of the Leghorn hat.
"If you will, please," answered Lady Lyndwood, with never the flicker of a smile.
Another coach had arrived with the servants and the baggage. Rose was half-way up the steps. He did not look at his wife, nor she at him. Susannah, under cover of the confusion of arrival, took the Countess's arm.
"You look rather fatigued," she ventured, "the roads are rough."
"I am very fatigued."
They ascended the steps together. In the doorway stood the dowager Countess, radiant in lace and gold silk.
If Rose's wife had been of her own choice, she could not have been more gracious.
"My dear!" she took the new Countess prettily by the hands. "You are as sweet as Rose described you, and I cannot say more." She kissed her. "Forgive my lord's mother the impertinence of welcoming you to your own house."
Lavinia disengaged herself.
"I thank you, madam," she said.
"Where is Marius?" asked my lord.
"He went, as I said, to meet you," replied Susannah. "He must be back any moment."
Now Lady Lyndwood looked at her husband, only for a second; her baited glance turned with an expression of relief to Miss Chressham.
"Please, I am very tired—sick with the jolting of the coach; might I go to my room?"
Before Susannah had time to answer the elder Countess had swept her up the shining oak stairs, in a cloud of graceful speeches.
Rose did not look after them. He turned into the library and his cousin followed him. She still held the two red roses, and as he seated himself at the table she drew their stems through the lace at her breast.
The Earl rested his cheek on his hand and his elbow on the table. He had not removed his dark-green travelling coat. It set off the grace and fineness of his figure as the high black stock relieved the weary pallor of his face. At the comer of his lip was the familiar bat-shaped patch, and under the paste buckle in his hair the turquoise ribbon he affected.
Susannah looked at him. Her cousin, Rose Lyndwood, home again, in his old place!
And upstairs, his wife!
"I am sorry Marius missed you," she said.
He turned his grey eyes on her.
"'Tis no matter," he said, in a lifeless manner.
Then Miss Chressham threw aside restraint.
"Oh, Rose," she cried, coming up to the table. "What have you done? What is she like?"
"What makes you say that?" he demanded, raising his head.
"Your face—her face!" she answered. "Don't you suppose I can see what this is going to be?"
He made a movement with his hand on the table, as if his nerves were strained almost beyond bearing.
"It is well enough," he said, looking away. "What did I expect? I suppose my lady is pleased?"
"She takes it for granted. She never realised it."
The Earl rose and crossed to the fireplace.
"Marius is happy; you have that satisfaction."
Susannah's eyes were anxious and tender as she gazed at her cousin.
"That is, as you say, some satisfaction," said my lord. "Otherwise it was not worth it—by God, not worth it!"
His tone, his expression, startled her.
"Why did you do it?" she cried. "You were madly reckless."
He took his pipe from his pocket and filled it with a trembling hand.
"To have sold myself!" he muttered.
Again her heart gave the lurch it had done when she first saw his expression; but before she could speak he had made an effort with himself.
"But I do not know why I speak like this. You are too sympathetic, my dear "—he smiled—"and I suppose I am a little tired, too, of sitting still in a coach. Is Marius pleased with his commission under Willouby?"
"Marius is very well content," replied Susannah, but her mind was not on what she said.
The Countess Agatha entered.
"Rose! I have not spoken to you! What manner of journey had you? Lavinia seems exhausted. I have sent her woman to her, and she wishes to be excused coming down, poor thing! I fear she hath a sad headache."
It might have been her own daughter she spoke of, so naturally and gracefully did she refer to Rose's wife.
The Earl turned to the door.
"I will go find Marius," he said shortly, and left them.
"Rose is out of humour," remarked his mother.
"Yes," said Susannah abruptly.
The Countess looked absently at the reflection of her frail charming person in the mirror by the bookcase.
"And no wonder, my dear, all day shut up in a coach with that girl! And Rose of all men!" She laughed, half under her breath.
Miss Chressham glanced at her in a kind of shock.
"What do you think of her?" she asked.
"She is impossible!" answered the Countess at once. "Gauche, vapourish, no style, a little sullen, I think. Of course, quite pretty behind a bourgeois tea-table, but no manners! La, poor Rose! She seems afraid of him, too."
Susannah was silent. It was startling to find the shallow judgment of the Countess pronounce thus.
"But," added that lady sweetly, "what does it matter? Rose will get used to her."
"And there is the money," finished Miss Chressham bitterly.
"Of course, there is the money." The Countess raised her brows; she thought the remark not quite genteel.
"And Marius can have his romance unspoiled, his commission, and his happy future," continued Miss Chressham. "But what is before Rose?"
"Oh, my dear, I am no prophetess! I suppose Rose can manage his own affairs. He can certainly manage his own wife; he is so different from Marius." Then she gave the younger woman a sudden pleading look. "Do you think I am vastly selfish in being glad of Rose's marriage, and what it has meant to Marius?"
Susannah stooped and kissed her. She could not say anything, nor was it necessary. The Countess brightened at once under the caress.
"Did you see her dress?" cried Lady Lyndwood mischievously, with the pleasure even a good-natured coquette feels in seeing another woman make the least of herself. "La! She will never start a fashion! Which reminds me, I wonder if Rose brought those satins I asked of him!"
Miss Chressham roused herself from depths of different thoughts.
"Let us go after him. Aunt Agatha. I think he will be in the withdrawing-room."
The curious perfume of the lilies in the tall red pots was so strong that my lord opened the long windows on to the night.
"The moon is just rising," he said, and lingered a little, looking out.
He was alone with Marius in the beautiful room overlooking the terrace. Through the folding door standing open into the next chamber might be seen Miss Chressham seated at her harp and the dowager Lady Lyndwood lying back gracefully with an open book on her knee.
It was dificult for any of them to realise there was a new mistress of the house, a new Countess of Lyndwood under the very same roof. These four were so much the same as they had always been. The lazy luxury of Lyndwood Holt was unchanged yet but for this stranger they would have been scattered, and others in their places here.
The candle-light showed the rich fittings, the splendid furniture. The elegant melody of the harp sounded delicately in keeping with the fine chambers. Marius, listening to it, sighed, in sentimental mood.
My lord had spoken to him. Frankly and charmingly, Marius had asked his pardon and expressed his gratitude. They felt themselves, perhaps, better friends than they had been since they were boys. Rose was pleased that he had made his brother happy, secretly flattered and touched by being able to play the bountiful, and Marius was honestly grateful.
Presently my lord returned from the window. He was splendidly attired. The cloud that darkened his face on his arrival had lifted; he was a little flushed, and his eyes were dark, as if with excitement, otherwise he was composed and pleasant.
The Countess Lavinia had not appeared since she entered the house, nor had Rose mentioned her. Susannah and Marius had been silent about her, too, but my lady was able to bring her name naturally into their conversation.
The Earl leant against the mantelpiece; the pale-pink silk he wore caught the light and glimmered, the brightest thing in the room.
Marius, sitting at his ease in one of the great leather chairs, studied my lord's face, and wondered at it for its attraction and charm. He had never thought about his brother's looks, though a certain magnificence of bearing about the Earl had always held him in awe; but to-night, as he gazed up at the proud expressive countenance of Rose, he was almost startled by the extreme handsomeness of the blunt-featured, composed, slightly defiant face with the nostrils a little distended, the lips firmly set, and the large eyes very brilliant under the long lashes.
They call him Beau Lyndwood, thought the young man with a slight sense of distaste. Contemplation of his brother's splendour gave him an alien feeling. He turned away his eyes and stared across to the dark expanse of the window.
My lord spoke.
"When do you think of going to London?"
"That is as you please, sir."
"I told Willouby you would be coming to take up your commission soon. You had better write to him."
"I will, to-night."
Rose Lyndwood smiled.
"And the lady?" he said sweetly.
"She is coming to London in September," he answered manfully. Of all things he loathed speaking of this to his brother. "She has not written to me, but I hardly expected it." He pulled himself up short. "This seems sorry foolery to you, sir."
The Earl's charming smile deepened.
"What did you call her?"
"Aspasia," said Marius, staring in front of him.
"Aspasia! It hath melancholy associations! Well, September is not so far. You must commend me to her when you meet."
"I will write that letter in the library." He hesitated, then said awkwardly: "Give my duty to my lady your wife. I hope to meet her to-morrow."
My lord still smiled in a manner that seemed to put a measureless distance between them, and as Marius turned to leave the room he walked over to the two ladies in the inner chamber.
"A likeness to something—to someone," the Countess Agatha was saying. "I cannot think where."
"What gossip do ye broach?" asked the Earl.
Susannah bent over her harp, but his mother answered at once.
"We were speaking of your Lavinia," she said. "I could swear I had seen her face before."
"Her type," replied Rose Lyndwood, "is not uncommon. And now will you sing to me, Susannah?"
Marius had lights brought into the library, and seated himself at the great desk between the bookshelves, where my lady had sat that evening when her son had told her of his ruin.
After arranging his paper and sharpening a quill, Marius leant back in the comfortable chair and fell into a happy musing. The future was good to dwell on. The colour crept into his cheeks, and the fire into his eyes, and his boyishly handsome face softened into a dreamy expression.
The candles burning either side the desk showed a pleasant picture of him, elegant, young, wide-browed and fair, with fresh, untaught lips, one hand slackly holding the quill, the other hanging by his side, grey silk and soft lace adorning his slim figure, and his bright hair brushing the dark background of the carved seat.
Suddenly the door opened and shut.
Marius dropped the quill with a start.
"Is that you, my lord? I have not even begun the letter."
He looked over his shoulder and remained in that attitude, clasping the arm of the chair.
The Countess Lavinia stood inside the door. Her close purple gown was undone at the throat. Her complexion a ghastly colour; she wore no ornaments.
"Aspasia!" said Marius.
"Hush!" she answered. "Hush!"
He rose now, still staring at her.
"Aspasia!" he repeated, and blenched as if he beheld a spirit.
She came nearer.
"I am no ghost," she said, in a voice full of horror; "but your brother's wife." She put her hand to her forehead, and pushed back the damp dark hair. "I have been watching for this chance. I crept down; I saw you come in here. His cousin is singing to him."
Marius shuddered and straightened himself.
"Wait!" he said. "You are Aspasia—and Rose's wife?"
"It is new to you," she returned wildly, "but I have thought of nothing else for two months. I knew he was your brother. What did it avail? I wrote to you—to your hotel in Paris."
She stopped, gazing at him, and twisting her fingers together. He began to understand what she was saying, what her presence here, in his brother's house, meant, what this was that had happened to them.
"I never had your letter," he said stupidly. "You pledged yourself to me."
She answered in a feverish haste.
"I know. Had I refused my father he would have killed me—yes, killed me! He said he would send me to Bedlam." She dropped into the chair that stood stiffly against the opposite wall. "It seemed, too, that you must know—that you did not care."
Marius stumbled towards her, stooped and took her bare cold hands in his, as he had once held them, gloved and warm, under the spring trees in the garden of the Luxembourg.
"So you were Miss Lavinia Hilton, and now are Rose's wife?" he said, in a hollow voice. "I understand."
She turned up her face to his, and her slim bosom panted desperately under the dark gown.
"My father sent for me very soon after we parted. He was terrible—and now it is done." A look of hopelessness came over her countenance. She rose to her feet, their hands still clinging together.
"How I have dreaded this meeting! I feared it must be before them all. Oh, Marius! Marius!" She ended in a broken wail and drew her hands away and hid her face.
"You are different," said Marius in a foolish wonder. She seemed so much older, so much whiter and haggard, too. In a confused way he marvelled at it.
"Different," she echoed; then she laughed. "I am your brother's wife!"
Marius stepped back.
"My God!" he said in his throat, and mechanically laid hold of his sword hilt. "My God! What are we going to do?"
The Countess Lavinia cowered against the wall.
"You must go away. I followed you to ask you to leave the house at once—to go away. With you here I cannot bear it: do you hear me?"
The foolish quiescence into which the shock had at first stunned him began to give way to a rising passion that thawed his heart.
"His wife!" The blood rose to his face, his eyes. "How dared you become his wife—huckstered for your money—"
"Yes, for the money," she interrupted frantically. "He wanted the money, as my father wanted the title, and so he must take me, hating me as I hate him—and your brother!" She stood to her full height, pressing her hands on her bosom. "I think my soul was sold, too, for what is this but sin?"
"Where is Rose?" cried Marius thickly, and made for the door. But she was very quickly in his way.
"What are you doing?" she asked desperately. "He must not know—this must be between us—always. You must go, before anyone discovers." She lowered her voice and glanced furtively as if knowing herself in the house of strangers and enemies. "If you leave now," she continued hurriedly, "to-night, at once, we need not meet in public."
Marius did not gather the sense of what she said. This was not Aspasia of the Luxembourg gardens, with romantic eyes and shy of speech.
"I must find Rose," he repeated thickly.
The Countess leant across the door, grasping the handle. Her senses were on the alert. She knew Rose was only a few yards away, he and his two kinswomen; she divined it could only be a matter of moments before someone entered the library.
"What do you want to find him for?" she demanded. It was noticeable that she gave her husband neither his name nor his title. She beat the fingers of her left hand up and down on her breast. "Why do you stare like that? How slow you are!"
His eyes rested on her wedding-ring, the only ornament she wore.
"All is so changed," he said drearily. He sat down at the table. "How foolish we were." He could not avoid uttering what was his one thought—how foolish they had been. He had imagined that he had loved Aspasia, and it had been beautiful; now this woman said, "I am Aspasia," and the delicate fabric of the romance was shattered. Soft words with a fair stranger beneath the fluttering leaves was another matter to this scene with Rose's wife in Rose's house. The whole thing grew distasteful, almost ugly. He stared at the Countess, and it beat in his brain that she was a stranger to him; he did not know her in the least—only her face, her voice—
She, on her side, was sharply observing him.
"Perhaps you didn't care," she said, "after all. Well, you gave me reason to think so. We were to have been married in the autumn."
"I kept faith!" he cried. "But you—what have you made of it all?"
A frightened look settled in her intent eyes.
"I do not know; I feel I have done something terrible. It was not to be avoided—in any way escaped. I also kept faith in my heart. What had I for him but hate?"
It jarred on Marius that she put this into words.
"We must not blame Rose," he said, with pale lips. "He did not know. Had you told him—"
"I had no chance. Was he likely to have listened? He wanted the money."
That stung the Earl's brother.
"My lord wanted the money that he might help me. He heard of—our meeting. Oh, Heaven, he meant we should not be hampered for lack of this money! For himself I think he would have done otherwise; indeed, I believe there was another—"
Then, as the whole miserable confusion and tangle showed itself more clearly to his startled soul, he was dumb.
The Countess Lavinia caught up his broken sentence.
"Another! Ye do not need to tell me that. I am not so young nor such a fool, though maybe they thought so. But do not tell me it was not for himself. He was a ruined man."
"Do not fling that in my face!" cried Marius.
"In your face?"
"'Tis my brother," he answered with a great flush, "and the head of my house."
Her feverish eyes expressed scorn.
"I do not understand you. He hath the money, hath he not?"
"Curse the money!" exclaimed Marius. "I say it was for me and my visionary love affair he did this. Had ye told him!"
"Visionary love affair!" echoed the Countess hysterically. "Is that how ye phrase it? Well, it was more to me."
It had been more to him, and the knowledge of it—of how much it had been and how the last few moments had changed everything on heaven and earth, held him in a white silence.
"What are you going to do?" asked the Countess. There was a goading note in her voice that touched the unbearable. "Why do you not go?"
"I must see my lord," he answered hoarsely.
"You will not tell him?"
"I must," he muttered. "What else?"
"Cannot you keep silence? Cannot you leave us our secret? Will you not go away, as I have asked you?"
He raised his despairing young face.
"What of my lord's position?"
"Why do you consider—him?" She suddenly left the door and came lightly to the other side of the table. "Marius," she said eagerly, "think of me a little. What did you say to me once—ah, what did you say, Marius?"
She had not known his name when last they met; he did not care to hear her use it now.
"What do you want of me?" he said in a shamed voice.
"I have said go to London—away, anywhere. I cannot have you here, I am not schooled enough—yet." She paused a second, and he looked away from her, supporting his sick brow in his hand—"These women have sharp eyes, too," she added faintly.
Now he glanced at her. "These women!" So that was how she spoke of his mother and his cousin—she, a stranger in the house, Mr. Hilton's daughter; Aspasia should have loved my lady and Susannah.
"You may write to me," she went on quickly, "under cover of my father's house."
She had thought of that, then. It brought him to his feet.
"But you are the Countess of Lyndwood," he said.
Her slight frame trembled painfully, her large shadowed eyes widened.
"Does it make any difference to what you and I feel for each other?" she asked faintly.
"It makes a difference in the expression of that feeling," he answered fearfully. "It means that you are no longer Aspasia."
She held out a shaking hand towards him.
"Does it mean you no longer care?"
He made a movement as if he turned on her.
"Do you want me to say I do?"
"Perhaps so," she answered huskily. "Perhaps I find nothing else worth living for. Do you think it has been pleasant for me since I saw you last in the Luxembourg?"
Her words made no impression on him. He was thinking of those three a few yards away—of Susannah at her harp, of my lady with the open book on her knee, of my lord listening to the music, as they had so often done before. There were only two doors and a length of corridor between them.
"Why do you look at me so strangely?" asked the Countess. "Cannot you say good-bye and go?"
Every word she said expressed this desire—to have it all secret, hidden away, concealed, to deceive Rose and "these women."
Marius straightened himself.
"I will go, madam."
She was not satisfied.
"Like that?" she cried.
"In what manner?" he asked wildly. "In what manner should I take leave of you?"
She took an impatient turn about the room.
"Do you desire to madden me? Am I to tell you all you are to do? It did not use to be so."
"Why will you dwell on the past. You, not I, have made it different."
"You, not I," she retorted bitterly, "find it so different. Would to God ye had told me then it was a mere Maytime's amusement! It might have saved a broken heart!"
He came a desperate step towards her.
She turned swiftly at that.
"Oh, my dear," she cried in a shaking voice, "I am so lonely and so tired!"
He stood, neither advancing nor retreating, staring at her appealing presence with distracted eyes.
Before either spoke, Rose Lyndwood entered the room.
"Ye are a long time writing this letter," said the Earl, closing the door; then he saw his wife as she stood in the shadows of the bookcase, huddled together.
For a second there was complete silence; then my lord spoke.
"Why did you not come into the withdrawing-room, madam? I thought you upstairs."
She answered quickly.
"So I was—till this moment. I came to select a book to distract me, not knowing I was disturbing Mr. Lyndwood."
Her lie came too glibly, and the readiness of it made Marius wince.
The Earl crossed the room. He looked from his brother to his wife, and then down at the blank sheet of paper and the newly sharpened unstained quill upon the desk.
"What is the matter, Marius?" he asked, with a slight smile.
The Countess was rigid in her own defence, but Marius interrupted.
"Hush!" he said, almost sternly; then he turned to his brother.
"The Countess Lavinia was my Aspasia," he said manfully and simply. "You will remember, my lord—she hath come down here to ask me to leave her house. Old memories are ofttimes painful. I will go to London with the dawn."
The Countess sank heavily into the chair against the wall.
"You are a fool! Oh!" she cried stormily, twisting her fingers. "Oh, fool!"
My lord pressed his handkerchief to his beautiful mouth. He was silent, gazing with dark eyes on Marius, ignoring his wife.
The younger man forced himself into speech again.
"There is no one to blame, sir, is there?" He now smiled, and it maddened the Countess. She could have understood anything but that. Her husband had never been remotely within her reach, and now Marius stepped beyond it. That they should smile!
"I had an intuition of what had happened when I entered the room," said my lord. "Tragedy on the heels of the ludicrous! Certainly it is no one's fault, Marius."
The Countess rose with the fierce intent of dragging their emotions on to a level that she could understand, but for the second time Marius hushed her with a glance and a movement of his hand.
"I met my lady when she was Miss Hilton," he said firmly, looking at his brother, "and between us was some folly that might have been everything and was nothing—too small a matter to have been mentioned, my lord, had not—we—I—been surprised by this meeting."
The Earl's gaze was grave, but curiously tender too. He leant rather heavily against the mantelshelf, and there was a very faint smile on his lips.
"Do not suppose that I do not understand," he said, and his beautiful voice was soft.
It seemed to the Countess that they both ignored her, that they spoke a language she could not comprehend; that she stood an alien before them.
"Do you understand?" she directly addressed her husband. "Do you understand my position?"
She pushed back the dark hair from her face, and her long brown eyes were bright.
My lord gave her one glance.
"Yes, you are my wife," he said.
"Since a month ago "—a painful colour beat in her cheeks—"what of my feelings?"
Ardently, yet almost unconsciously, she desired to bring things to an issue, to force these two into action, to make a scene, to have a chance of expressing her own inarticulate passion; so had she wished to bring Marius to a pitch of she knew not what emotion when she came down to the library, knowing him there alone and unprepared.
"What of me?" she cried again.
"I' faith I know not," answered my lord. "What of you? 'Tis in your own hands."
She felt he slighted her as a creature of another world, and the quick red deepened beneath her eyes.
"Nothing to you, this!" She spoke with raised voice, as if she denounced him. "What do you care where my affections lie? What is it to you the name I hold in my heart?"
"My lady!" cried Marius. Then he turned to his brother. "Ye must a little longer listen to me, my lord. It cannot be left to seem that I go to London on the instant because once my lady thought too highly of me." He held his head proudly, though his lips trembled. "The Countess came to tell me how utterly she had forgotten one Miss Hilton once honoured with some slight acquaintance."
Lady Lyndwood listened, baffled, incredulous; the delicate gallantry of the speech had for her no meaning. She swept aside the fine words he used for her defence.
"I came to you to say I had not forgotten," she said passionately.
Still she did not get within the guard of either.
"'Tis hardly so long ago, madam," answered the Earl, "and I dare swear that you remember very well. It makes no difference to what Marius has said, and to what I can for myself see and understand."
The Countess came round the table.
"I think ye seek to put me off," she cried.
Rose Lyndwood straightened himself against the mantelshelf.
"And you, madam," he demanded, "what do you seek to make of this matter? You speak too late. This should have come some months ago, then you had not found me deaf." And he smiled bitterly.
The Countess twisted her hands together and pressed them on her bosom.
She felt that she had been cheated of everything—of her youth, her freedom, her lover, her husband, even of the right to complain.
"You can say that now," she answered hoarsely. "Now it is too late, as you say, too late." She loosened her hands and grasped the edge of the table. "But I think I had stood a poor chance. You wanted the money."
The Earl made a little movement, and the candle-light on his pink silk shimmered.
She spoke again, in a tone of rage and deliberate insult.
"'Tis easy now for you to ignore me, to preach at me, for you have the money—my father's money—your price."
Even as the words left her lips, she knew they were what he would never forgive, and through her wrath she felt a touch of fear. Half-shrinking, she glanced at Marius.
He uttered a sound under his breath, and turned his back on her, moving towards the window.
"Your father's money," said Lord Lyndwood quietly, looking at her with dangerous eyes, "bought what your father most desired, and what I thought you also desired, since ye did not protest. It is a thing done with."
"It is a thing but begun," she answered fiercely. "Bought! Do ye care to use that word?"
The Earl's breath came hurriedly. The passion she had longed to evoke was bared now in his face and voice.
"Mr. Hilton's daughter had not received my name as a gift," he said. "What should we wed for with you save our convenience?"
At the scorn in his gaze she shrank.
"We sink low enough when we barter with traders," continued my lord, "and when we mate with them. But it is not a degradation you can estimate, nor, by God, is there any obligation—even if your father's money had been ten times as much. You are my wife."
She hated him. But she could not answer. Her lips were dry, and her limbs trembled as she caught herself back against the bookcase.
Rose Lyndwood came forward, dominating the room.
"This is the last time, madam, we bandy words upon this or any other subject. I do not love dissension in my house. You will remember this. I am usually obeyed."
She looked at Marius, As she read it, here was his chance. He could turn on his brother now. Surely he would dignify her by a champion, redeem the scene by a challenge, a duel.
But he remained with his back to her, looking out into the darkness.
"Mr. Lyndwood!" she said unsteadily.
There was no answer. My lord crossed to the door and opened it.
"Will you leave us the chamber, madam? I desire to speak with my brother."
Slowly she took her gaze from Marius. She knew that she hated him also—ah, bitterly!—and that her heart sickened for vengeance on both of them.
But she was conquered. She dared no more open defiance.
"I have no wish to stay," she said, in a shaking voice. The Earl moved away from the door, and she passed him and went out.
He did not speak to her, nor look at her as she left the room. As he closed the heavy door he gave a half-shudder, and the colour faded from his cheeks.
"Marius!" he said, and his voice had changed again to softness. The younger man turned sharply round. "Forgive me, my lord," he said wildly. "Forgive me!"
"What have I to forgive?" answered the Earl sadly. "I am sorry for it, Marius. God knows that I am sorry for it—for you, I mean."
"But it could never have been," continued my lord. "She—it is not there, Marius."
He crossed wearily to the desk and seated himself before the blank sheet of paper and the new quill.
"I perceive it," whispered Marius.
The Earl moved the candle on the desk further away from him, as if the light troubled his eyes.
"You must not altogether blame me, Marius; I think in no case would your idyll have survived."
His back was towards his brother, who did not look in his direction but straightly out at the darkness beyond the window; they had never been intimate, nor had either often been in the other's thoughts, but now the kinship told, there was a sense of perfect understanding between them that required no words to make plain.
"You had better go to London as you proposed," said my lord. "There is nothing for you to do here, and Lord Willouby will be expecting to see you."
Marius came up to the desk.
"Yes, I will go, sir—only, this—"
He stopped; the Earl pushed back his chair and looked up.
Marius was flushed, his lips taut and his forehead strained to a frown; he appeared piteously young to have such an expression of gravity on his fair face.
"What would you say?" asked his brother gently.
"The money," said Marius huskily and bluntly. "I could not—Mr. Hilton's money—her money;" he seemed to choke over the word, then added desperately, "she taunted us with it."
"For the last time," answered my lord quietly, gazing with resolute grey eyes at the younger man's troubled countenance, "and she shamed herself, not us—what is she but a boarding-school Miss? and the money is mine, Marius, no gift, but something earned, by God, earned."
"I would it had not happened," answered Marius unsteadily. "I do not love to know things are like this—'tis as if I saw a mirror for the first time and saw myself there—a fool."
Rose Lyndwood was silent; he picked up the quill in his fine slack hand and toyed with it.
"My lord," continued Marius, breathing heavily, "it was not she—I never—I mean Aspasia."
The Earl lifted his gaze from the idle pen and gave one of his sweet, swift smiles.
"You will find Aspasia yet, my dear."
The painful colour deepened in his brother's face.
"That is not what I mean to say—last summer—you may have thought, might think, but she was never more than gracious—we only met by chance, that time. I—I never more than took her hand."
He turned away abruptly, and the Earl saw his shoulders heave,
"My lady was nothing but honoured by homage such as thine, Marius."
A little silence fell, the bronze clock struck nine, and the unsnuffed candles cast a strong fluttering light over the two quiet figures and sent faint curls of smoke towards the high dark ceiling.
Marius faced his brother again, containing himself by an extreme effort of his fierce young pride.
"Is there anything I can do?" he said gallantly. "Anything I ought to say?"
"Oh, Marius!" said my lord in his charming low voice, "'tis all as clear as glass!"
"'Tis all miserable and horrible!" burst out Marius. "I would not have it so," his eyes were passionate and his voice rough, with tears maybe.
Rose Lyndwood very faintly smiled, his lids had a weary droop, but under them his glance was keenly on his brother, who had begun to fumble in the ruffles at his breast.
"You must take this now," he said more quietly, and pulled out a locket on a blue ribbon, "her picture"—he unfastened the ribbon and laid the miniature on the desk; "not like her, though—but like enough."
"If you would care to keep it," said my lord, never lowering his eyes from the other's face.
"I do not care," answered Marius, "that vision is over," he made an obvious attempt to speak quietly; "will you tell them that I have gone to London—I do not wish to see our lady mother about it, no, nor yet Susannah."
The Earl rose.
"I will tell them, but say good-bye to my lady or I shall be sorely blamed."
He hesitated a moment, then with that modest, half-shy air with which he ever approached things, and which showed so pleasingly on his splendour, he half held out his hand.
"You will always come to me—for anything, Marius?" he said. "I have done no good to you or to any, God knows; but since there are only two of us in the world—well, all this will be forgotten a year hence, but do not forget I am always there."
He paled a little as he spoke, and a look of vast unhappiness troubled his deep eyes. Marius caught his hand and kissed it.
"My lord, believe me, though I cannot speak," he choked and turned away.
Rose Lyndwood leant against the back of the chair from which he had risen.
"Good-night," he said.
"Good-night, my lord; I shall not see you in the morning—there is no more to be said?"
"Good-night," this from the door.
"I shall see you in London, soon; till then fare ye well, Marius."
"Farewell, my lord."
The massive door opened and closed; the Earl was alone in the stately silent room with the ticking of the patient clock, the only sound beside his own movements to disturb the summer stillness.
He went to the window, opened it on the sweet mysterious dark and stood erect, looking out; he considered his wife, she had behaved as he had expected—it afforded him some bitter amusement to contrast her with Selina Boyle. How would she have acted in this wretched scene they had just brought to an end?—she, elusive, spiritual, delicate in manners, softest and proudest of women.
And it might as well have been, they might as well have left it altogether and found amid the dreamy luxury of Venice stately happiness.
My lord came back to the desk and picked up the miniature Marius had worn so many weeks next his heart.
The pure and steady breeze, entering like a welcome visitant through the open window, turned the candles into smoky torches and stirred the pomaded curls of Rose Lyndwood on his shoulders as he bent over the picture of his wife.
For a moment he was quite still and the emotion that took him was beyond thoughts as thoughts are beyond words; he made a quick movement of his hand to his heart, and any desperate thing seemed possible.
One of the candles blew out.
My lord gave a start and looked round; a sigh escaped him, then he bitterly smiled and quietly laid the picture down.
It was none of it great or heroic; as Marius had said, there was nothing to do but to go on. Meanwhile the Countess Agatha must be told.
He extinguished the other light and went in search of Susannah Chressham.
When the Countess Lavinia left the library she went instantly and stealthily to the foot of the great stairway.
"Honoria!" she called in a hushed yet insistent voice. "Honoria!"
A slight figure in a light dress and mob cap appeared on the first wide landing.
"Come down," said the Countess, glancing furtively behind her, and the maid noiselessly and carefully descended.
"What has happened, my lady?" she asked, peering into her mistress's face, her own sharp fair countenance alert and eager; she had an air of secret malice and quick, unpleasant eyes.
The Countess clutched her arm.
"Come into the garden, not another moment under his roof, not another moment!" she whispered feverishly.
The maid expressed no astonishment, nor did her mistress seem to expect it; they had the manner of adepts in quick confidences and whispered exchanges of dangerous talk.
With a light step that seemed that of taught secrecy, Honoria preceded her mistress down the passage, and softly opened the door.
The two came out on to the wide steps where the moonlight lay still and pure.
"Shut the door," whispered the Countess, and the maid obeyed, asking under her breath:
"What are you going to do, my lady?"
The Countess with a wild gesture tore her purple gown wider open at the throat.
"I don't know—I will leave the place, I cannot endure it—why should I endure it?"
"Hush! Hush!" whispered the maid.
Her mistress stifled a little hysterical sound and again caught her companion's arm.
Swift and noiseless they descended the steps and passed under the shadows of the high rustling trees; then Honoria stopped, holding back her mistress.
"You can't run away now," she said with an air of resolution, "whatever has happened, my lady; why, you have neither mantle, nor hat, nor money—and who is to shelter you till the coach goes, here in a strange place?"
The Countess pressed her open hand to her forehead.
"I will not stay to be scorned—I will not," she cried frantically. "I am going back to my father if I have to walk; he can but murder me, and that were to be preferred to life with these!"
And she tried to press on through the low sweet shrubs.
"You are in a frenzy," said Honoria quietly, not loosening her hold. "Return home! it is madness, my lady. Consider a little."
The Countess shuddered.
"What is there to consider? I am sick with hate!"
"What did they do?" questioned Honoria shrewdly. "They did not fight?"
"Would to God they had!" answered Rose's wife furiously. "But I am of too little account to bring gentlemen's swords to the crossing! 'What do we marry you for if not for our convenience?' he said, and sent me from the room. And Marius turned his back on me!"
She flung herself on the maid's bosom, clinging round her neck, choking with bitter weeping in her throat. In the darkness cast by the peaceful trees, alone in the free air with her one confidante, she let herself go utterly, the nameless passion that possessed her broke forth, tearing speech to tatters.
"How I have loved him! Bear witness how I have hated him, Honoria! Every time he looked at me 'twas as if he saw a smirch on his escutcheon. He never troubled to speak to me of any matter of his world, taking it for granted I could not understand; my people were not genteel; I should be waiting in my father's shop. But there was always Marius. Did he not follow me in Paris? Did he not wait beneath my window? Did he not colour when I spoke to him, as if I had been a princess, Honoria? Did he not?"
She freed herself from the maid's support, and leant heavily against the straight trunk behind her.
"My God! My God!" she cried violently. "He spoke to me after his brother's fashion, and I was scorned of both of them!"
Honoria looked at her curiously.
"I should not have thought it of Mr. Marius," she said; "but these great gentlemen are strange. But they are men," she added quickly, "and you are a woman, my lady. He was in love with you once, and might be again, I'll swear to it!"
The Countess Lavinia was silent, wearily struggling with tumultuous sobs that hurt her breast. She clasped her hands over her heart and looked on the ground.
The maid leant forward. A stray ray of moonlight pierced the gently waving foliage, and showed her delicate, sharp face and the curling locks of bright gold hair that escaped from under her white muslin cap.
"Think a little, my lady, of the position you have and the power it gives you over both of them. What good would you do by running away?"
"Disgrace him, at least," came heavily from the Countess Lavinia.
"And yourself more, my lady. What would they say—'who was she but a perked-up Miss that lost her head?' Great ladies do not run away. And how would Mr. Hilton receive you?"
"But for him I had never married this man," broke out the Countess desperately. "No, I vow it! But did he not threaten to shut me up in Bedlam? You heard him tell me my grandmother had died mad, and so his daughter should if she were not Lady Lyndwood!"
"And ye were resigned," returned the maid quickly.
"I was cowed, but I would have married Marius. Yes, last spring I would have married him, so great a fool was I, and let the money go. The money! What use is it to me? What pleasure have I in seeing it go to pay his debts, to procure luxuries for his mother, to keep up the estate he mocks me with, to minister to his extravagance? My money, my father's money! And my amusement must be to see it spent on foreign Delilahs and gipsy actresses who laugh at me!"
She stopped, gasping for breath. The maid eyed her keenly, and offered no reply.
"Let us walk on!" cried the Countess. "I cannot stand still."
She moved forward through the trees, and Honoria followed.
For a while there was no speech between them, and the snapping of branches and crushing back of leaves was distinctly heard. The Countess pushed back the damp dark curls from her brow and burst into words again.
"Am I not a good woman?" she exclaimed. "Am I not as fair and as witty as that cousin of his? Why should they turn their backs on me? I know that among the women he has courted were some not so well born as I."
"But he did not marry one of them," returned Honoria in her quiet, insinuating voice, "and that is your strength, my lady. You do not hold him by the bonds of fancy, or the bonds of liking, or bonds of fashion, but by the bonds of the law, and that is the most lasting thing, my lady."
They had come out on to a fair lawn that sloped to a lake, and the sky showed vast above them. Through the dark trees ran the constant tripping murmur of the wind, and the long grass bent towards the water when the breeze strengthened. The moon was almost overhead and floated in a faint golden haze.
The Countess turned and looked back at the house, impassive and fine in the veiled silver light.
"Could we not have bought such a place?" she said. "Ay, and finer, Honoria! Could we not have paid for them with pieces across the counter in our tradesmen's way, sooner than have made this bargain of scorn for hate, sooner than have given our all for this unendurable position?"
The misty moonshine fell over her close dark hair and slender figure. Her face was in shadow, and she supported herself by resting one frail white hand against the cold cedar trunk behind her.
"Listen to me." The maid spoke with gathered energy. "You are the Countess of Lyndwood, and that means you may do what you will, with all of them, my lady. Consider that."
"I have no power," answered her mistress, "to do anything."
"If a man's wife hath not the power to ruin him, one way or another, I know not who hath, my lady. They make nothing of you now, but in a year hence, in two years hence you might have your foot on all of them."
The Countess Lavinia slowly turned her head and fixed her distended eyes on the speaker.
"Be discreet," continued the little maid, "and who knows what you may put between my lord and his brother, and between these two proud ladies of his? There is always Mr. Hilton behind you with the money, and he will love you if you go on smoothly with my lord, and become a great lady of fashion."
She moved closer and gently touched her mistress's arm.
"Ye took comfort always in Mr. Marius. Well, ye may have him back, and all discreetly, only we must be cunning. It is fine manners, my lady, will avail you now. Do you not suppose that my lord would be pleased to see you in the sulks that he might shut you away here under his mother's espionage? Be wary, my lady, and gay and pleasant, and go with him to London. Hold your own."
"There is sense in what you say," answered the Countess, in a deep breath. "But Marius Lyndwood is going away."
"He will come back; and there are others."
The two women looked at one another.
"Oh, a great lady may do much!" cried Honoria, "and still be a great lady. My lord is the most famous rake in town. His wife will be allowed a fair margin."
The Countess Lavinia was familiar with tales of her husband—servants' tales. She had discussed them with Honoria every day since her marriage, taking a pleasure in anything that was to his discredit, as some set-off to his scorn of her. Much of what she heard was false, but she knew more of the truth about things than any save her maid guessed. Marius had thought her soft, simple, divine. Her father believed her ignorant of all save what the boarding-school had taught. My lord held her raw, knowing nothing of the world; and they were all of them deceived.
She was silent now, pondering, and her dark eyes were fixed blankly on the distant argent glimmer of the lake.
"I wonder if I care about him still?" she said suddenly. "I wonder? I would like to do him a hurt. Then I should know—yes, when I had done him a mischief, I should know what my feeling for him is. And as for my lord—" She paused, then added, passionately, "I think I should like vengeance on my lord."
"You may have that and all other things," answered Honoria. "But take your part now, and carry it through. Let him see he has not married a puppet. But be easy, courteous."
"Is there anyone he cares for?" demanded the Countess broodingly. "Something might be done that way. Which of them do you think of, Honoria? He fought a duel for Mrs. Armstrong last year—"
"I know not," answered Honoria. "But one might discover. He was spoken of with Miss Boyle at the Wells. You remember I found the paragraphs in the papers last season, and I think, as I have always told you, my lady, that he has a great regard for her."
"I know—I know," answered the Countess wearily. "He must be a fine lover, my lord! Well, we will see!" She shivered. "They have had everything from me, but maybe I can make them pay!"
"It is clouding over," said Honoria, "and we had best return. Now school yourself, my lady."
"I can act well enough," replied the Countess fiercely, "an I be so minded."
Her passion had not spent itself, but gathered cruelly in her heart, expelling peace and ease. She was calm because her body was weary, but surging malice rioted in her soul.
"There must be letters, meetings," said the Countess Lavinia, below her catching breath. "It were ill if you and I could not compass some knowledge which we could turn into weapons as sharp as those with which he to-night struck me—ay, and Marius Lyndwood, too—there must be means. Marius Lyndwood!" She repeated the name with a curious accent, as if, despite herself, she dwelt upon the words.
She put her fingers to her hot mouth and stared at the night clouds behind the house.
"We must hasten home, Honoria!" she cried, catching the girl by the arm. "Home!"
"Twill all be well, my lady," whispered the maid. "They have had their turn. Yours comes."
As they reached the steps a soft warm rain began to fall, and the moon was entirely obscured.
"Who is this?" asked the Countess, stopping.
The door opened; a glow of intimate yellow light was diffused over the jasmine and roses, and a woman's figure showed.
"Miss Chressham!" breathed Honoria, and slipped behind her mistress.
The Countess gave a quick catch of her breath and clenched her hands.
"Is that you, my lady?" The voice of Susannah Chressham came cold and pure.
"It is I," answered Mr. Hilton's daughter, "and I am coming home."
The last word was stressed with an accent of insult. The speaker came rapidly up the steps, and faced Miss Chressham in the light of the hall lamp.
"Come in," said Susannah, with pallid lips; "I think it is raining. I was going to look for you."
The Countess Lavinia passed into the house, after her the maid, discreetly.
"Go upstairs," commanded her mistress. "I shall not be long, Honoria."
Miss Chressham closed the door. The girl dropped a quick curtsey, and ran swiftly up the great stairway.
When she had gone Rose's wife, a slight, wild figure in her dark plain dress, turned sharply on the other woman.
"Has he been speaking of me to you?" she demanded.
Miss Chressham drew back against the door.
"My lord told me," she said, and her wide eyes dilated.
"I wonder what he told you," replied the Countess. "I wonder what name you gave to me, among yourselves?"
"None I would not use to your face," answered Susannah Chressham, breathing hard. "But why this tone to me, madam? What has happened must be borne by all of us."
"What do you think he has to bear?" asked the Countess.
Miss Chressham straightened herself.
"Do you speak of my lord and cousin, madam?"
"I speak of the Earl of Lyndwood, madam, my husband." She turned her large fierce eyes on Susannah, and passion sprang up in them like a flame. "My husband, and may God curse him and his house as I curse him and his!"
The blood rushed to Miss Chressham's face.
"You are mad!" she said furiously. "Take it so, if you will." The Countess's voice wavered and sank. "But remember it, we are not like to speak on this matter again."
She moved towards the stairs, Susannah staring after her with a full glance of horror. At the newel post she paused and looked over her shoulder.
"Mad? Strange you should use that word," she said huskily, "but I am very sane, madam."
Slowly she went up the wide stairs of Lyndwood Holt, and Rose's cousin watched her until the childish violet-clad figure disappeared in the shadows.
The Countess Agatha laid down her novel and looked across the beautiful room at her niece, who was drawing the white and gold curtains over the twilight prospect of the Haymarket.
"When is Marius going to wait on Rose?" asked the elder lady. "He has been home now two days."
Susannah Chressham turned quickly.
"Rose is so occupied—since he hath gone into the Ministry, he is seldom at home."
"It isn't always service in the Ministry keeps him abroad," remarked his mother lightly.
"Marius has been to his reception, you know," said Miss Chressham, "and will call privately to-morrow."
She came slowly down the centre of the room.
"It is nearly a year since Marius came home before," she said; she seated herself near the Countess and her pink striped dress rustled against the other lady's lavender muslins; the room was all white and pale colours, flowers were painted on the walls and Cupids smiled from the ceiling; the furniture was Aubusson, finely carved and of melting hues; the candles were scented and set in crystal sconces; in one comer stood an elegant spinet, and close by Susannah's gold harp; on a tulip-wood table rested a beau-pot of forget-me-nots, the most vivid thing in the chamber.
"A year ago," repeated the Countess vaguely; "yes, just before Rose married."
"I was thinking of Lavinia," said Miss Chressham quietly; "he has not seen her since."
The Countess Agatha laughed.
"I expect he has forgotten her, my dear, certainly she has forgotten him."
"I suppose so; but, just at first, it might be painful for them, and can one forget, like that?"
Miss Chressham took her musing face in her two fair hands and gazed absently at her own lovely reflection in the oval mirror opposite.
"Oh! my dear, you get too deep for me," the Countess smiled prettily; "it was vastly sad at the time, but now everything moves along quite properly, and Lavinia has behaved very well."
"She has acquired a manner," responded Miss Chressham, "and she has been discreet."
"Which is quite sufficient; but then you never liked her."
"How could I? No, I dislike her, and her maid."
"It is quite a pity," answered the Countess, "for really I can discern no fault in her; of course she was wild at first, and difficult; and, of course, she is only middle-class at heart now, but she is not in any way openly discreditable; indeed, she passes very well for a lady of fashion."
"That is not what I mean," said Miss Chressham. "I think there is mischief in her, and mischief in that Honoria Pryse; and I think it may be difficult, with Marius."
The Countess laughed; a habit with her that did not in the least imply that she was amused.
"I am sure you are wrong, Susannah," she replied languidly. "Lavinia is merely bent on enjoying herself."
"Well, I trust her not; she hath a quick sly way of questioning; the last time I saw her she was trying to discover from me what I knew of Selina Boyle."
"Can you blame her if she is sometimes jealous?" asked the Countess.
Miss Chressham's foot beat the delicate-hued carpet.
"But Rose has not seen Selina save in public since he married, and 'tis understood that it is to be a match between her and Sir Francis," she answered impatiently. "And I know not how she can be jealous of one whom she doth not even pretend a regard for."
"Well, you always thought Rose's marriage a mistake," remarked the elder lady placidly; she could not say she did, there was the money, and she had enjoyed it, was enjoying it, vastly.
Miss Chressham suddenly swerved from the subject.
"Selina and her father are coming to town; they have taken a house in Golden Square for the season. Sir Francis is delighted; I suppose they will be married this year."
The Countess raised her delicate head and looked at the silver-gilt clock.
"Where has Marius gone, my dear; isn't he late?"
Susannah was well used to reminding her aunt of things that lady knew perfectly well.
"He has gone to attend my Lord Willouby," she smiled. "And I think he will be back very soon."
"I recall it," said the Countess Agatha. "Do you think he will be ordered abroad again?"
"Not to Madrid, I hope; he seems wearied of it to the death, doth he not?"
"Yes," sighed his mother. "And I want to keep him at home; he spoke of an appointment in Paris, in the suite of my Lord Northcote; I trust he will not go."
Miss Chressham rose.
"The mantua-maker is coming at six, shall we not go upstairs?"
"Oh, la!" cried my lady, shaking her laces into place; "it should be very modish, should it not, that watered tabby—which minds me that all the best heads have ribbon in the lapels—I wish to order some of a precise red."
Susannah Chressham smiled, for the Countess Agatha spoke with more animation and decision than she had used when discussing her sons and their affairs.
The two ladies left the room; a few moments after their departure the timepiece struck six, and before the clear chimes had ceased Marius entered—Captain the Honourable Marius Lyndwood of the 2nd Buffs now, of a slightly weightier presence, a slightly quieter manner, otherwise not changed at all by his year in the train of the English ambassador in Spain.
He wore his buff and blue uniform, and his hair was powdered and rolled into stiff military side-curls; he moved with an air of precision that made him look older than he was. Finding the room empty he walked up and down idly a while, then stopped before the spinet and began turning over Susannah's fragrant music-sheets. One took his fancy, he had been fond of music and not unskilled; this was a piece of Scarlatti, showy, foreign.
He sat down before the keyboard, making a clatter with his sword, and began to play; he laughed to himself at his own mistakes, and commenced whistling the air.
The white door opened and Miss Chressham entered; Marius rose, flushing a little, and both smiled.
"I thought you must have returned," said Susannah, coming across the room. "Well, what of the Paris appointment?"
"The post has been offered me," he answered rather gravely. "But my lord says it is as I wish; it can easily be arranged that I stay in London."
"Are you going?" asked Miss Chressham.
He fixed his eyes on the keys.
"I think so."
She moved away to the table that held the forget-me-nots and bent over them; then he looked at her, at the long fair curls flowing between her shoulders over her gleaming pink gown, and the slender hand hanging by her side.
"I want to do something worth while, Susannah," he said quietly, "to make a position for myself—this has all been Rose, Rose's money."
"I think you had better go," she answered slowly, "though we miss you very much, Marius."
He went suddenly pale.
"I want to thank you for writing to me so often," he said abruptly. "If I go away will you still write to me?"
She faced him, smiling.
"Of course, Marius."
He sat silent; she noticed his pallor and his serious mouth, and faintly wondered; he had been rather moody since his return.
"Well," she said, "my lady sent me to see if you were here, that was all; we have the mantua-maker upstairs; but expect us at dinner!" she laughed.
"Can you not stay?" he demanded.
"Not now," a touch of surprise was in her tone; "indeed I must go."
Again he made no reply, and she smiled at him and left him.
Marius returned again to Scarlatti, swaying a little to the music, the long lace at his wrists sweeping the ivory keys; and again he was interrupted.
The servant opened the door.
"The Countess of Lyndwood."
His brother's wife stepped into the chamber and stood facing him; for a moment he did not know her; he received the impression of a slight dark lady, of a vivid personality, gorgeously dressed.
She wore black velvet, a large hat with black plumes, and a silver scarf; at her breast was a cluster of pink geranium; she appeared utterly out of harmony with the delicate taste of the chamber.
"Good evening, Captain Lyndwood," she said.
He had not seen her since the Earl had turned her from the library at Lyndwood Holt, nearly a year ago; he opened his lips, but nothing came, and she laughed, pointing his silence.
"Are my lady and Miss Chressham out?" she asked, coming forward.
"They are upstairs, madam," he answered, remaining standing by the spinet.
"Well, I can wait." She moved slowly, trailing her heavy dress and revealing the fragile grace of her figure effectively and obviously; her hat was well tilted off her face, in her powdered hair was a knot of pink ribbon, and on her left cheek a black patch.
"Am I much changed?" she asked, and her eyes were slightly insolent.
"Yes," said Marius in a troubled way. "I think you have changed, madam."
She sank lightly into the gold chair by Susannah's little work-table.
"Think! You know!" she cried; "but you are very much the same. Captain Lyndwood."
He coloured furiously, and looked sternly at the page of music lying before him on the spinet.
"You must excuse me, madam," he said formally, "that I have not yet waited on you. I am intending to visit Lyndwood House to-morrow."
The Countess smiled.
"I heard of your return, from the Gazette; why did you not write to me?"
"My lord knew of my home-coming, madam," he answered coldly.
"Do you imagine that I am in my lord's confidence? I say I learnt it from the Gazette."
There was no reply possible to her astonishing directness; her lately acquired manner of ease and presence but emphasised her graceless ignoring of the screen of words used by people of breed.
Marius looked at her; she was painted and powdered, beneath her gown showed her violet velvet shoe sparkling with a great diamond buckle; she leant forward a little, and gazed at him with eyes that were desperately unhappy; again she laughed.
"What were you playing?" she asked. "La! but I did not know that you were a player."
"Twas Scarlatti, madam," he answered.
Their eyes met and she rose.
"I will play you something," she said, and pulled off her grey gloves. "I am credited with some skill. Captain Lyndwood."
He moved away from the spinet, mistrusting her, uneasy, the colour still in his fair face; he kept his eyes on her, noting how different she was, admitting her slender elegance and flaunting grace.
She played a little prelude, not looking at the notes but at him; then she glanced down at her slim hands and began to sing:
"I hung a bird in a wicker cage
To catch the morning sun,
And saw below the people rage
And press, and shout, and run,
To see her walk, her guards between,
With her face to the Maytime sun."
Marius fingered his sword and walked up and down, but he was listening and she knew it.
"I was a clerk at a window, with learned books to write.
She was a Mary Martyr and sin in the Church's sight."
The Countess did not raise her eyes; she sang softly, and the words of the laboured incongruous song struck to the heart of her listener.
"The bird sang in his prison
To a captive daffodil,
That with the spring had risen,
In the pot on my window sill.
The sky was bright as a jewel
Through the trees on Tower Hill.
As her stainèd feet crept onward, I saw the people turn—
And I looked at the Mary Martyr whose body and soul must burn.
"Young was she and slender,
Lo! but a wondrous thing.
Her face was as full of splendour
As the primrose woods in spring,
When God bends through the branches,
To hear the mavis sing.
She was but a Mary Martyr, cursed for her heresy,
But her eyes were clear as water and troubled the heart in me."
The Countess rose swiftly.
"Are you glad to be in London?" she said; she came towards him, swinging her gloves; he was aware of the perfume of her garments, of the heavy soft sound of her moving velvet.
"I think I am leaving again for Paris, madam," he looked at her straightly. "Shall I not fetch Miss Chressham?"
"No," answered Lady Lyndwood. "I came to see you. I learned from the mantua-maker she would be here at this hour. I chanced finding you alone."
He thought her speech outrageous; his nostrils distended a little and his eyes darkened.
"You flatter me," he said shortly.
"And now I have seen you, and you have nothing to say."
"What should we have to say to one another, my lady?" His mouth set, and he frowned.
"Do not do that," said the Countess suddenly. "You look like your brother."
She moved to the work-table and picked up her gloves; he bit his lip and was silent.
The Countess spoke again.
"This is a beautiful room, is it not? This house cost my lord a vast sum—you Lyndwoods are very extravagant," she drew her gauntlets on slowly. "I doubt if even a wealthy match can save you—the fortune of a merchant's daughter has its limits—if the marriage were to last only as long as the money I were soon free."
Marius turned to gaze at her.
"Do you mean to insult us?" he said in a goaded way.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"What do you think I mean?" her dark eyes held an unfathomable expression, one that could not fail to stir his blood with excitement, with wonder and confusion; she held her head very high and her complexion flushed beneath the rouge; "when we are all damned together each shall know perhaps what the other meant, not before."
With an air of bright and deep passion she moved towards the door; it seemed that she would leave without another word, nor did he offer to detain her, though his curious gaze was eagerly on her; but abruptly she stopped and looked back.
"Are you not grown up yet, Marius?" she said wildly and softly.
He stood perfectly still and she held out her hand.
"Good-bye, Captain Lyndwood," she said quietly. "I will not ask you to see me to my carriage."
He began some hot reply, but was interrupted; Susannah Chressham entered.
"You, madam!" she said, sincerely surprised.
The Countess gave her a veiled glance.
"I am taking my departure, madam. I bad a fancy to come in, but it is too late to stay."
She lifted the heavy skirt off the twinkling paste on her shoes, certainly the most composed of the three.
"I sang to Captain Lyndwood!" actually she laughed; "and he never commended it! What are our gallants coming to? Good-night, madam; au revoir, sir."
She curtsied and was gone.
Miss Chressham stared at her cousin.
"What is this, Marius? She has not been here for months; and the hour and the manner of her leaving!"
"I do not know anything of it," said Marius shortly.
Miss Chressham crossed to the spinet.
"How dare she play my instrument!" the fair countenance was angry. "And come here in this manner to my lady's house?"
"I do not know," said Marius again, staring at the floor.
Susannah looked up at him sharply.
"I think you had better go to Paris," she said slowly.
The Countess Lavinia sat by the heavily curtained window, her hands idle in her lap; she wore a loose, slightly soiled white mob; her hair in front was twisted into paper curlers and hung straightly down her back behind, her bare feet were thrust into low blue slippers, and a fat little dog lay asleep on the edge of her striped petticoat.
It was nearly midday, and the glaring sunshine without beat on the yellow blind and cast a close dim light into the large dark chamber, which was handsomely furnished and luxuriously untidy; on the inlaid dressing-table beside the Countess a cup of cold chocolate and a plate of Naples cakes stood among curling-irons, pots of rouge, and bottles of Hungary water; a bunch of dead flowers lay on the floor and a broken fan; over the back of a painted chair hung silk and velvet garments, and a black mask dangled from them by its fall of lace.
The Countess yawned; her youthfulness had vanished before the life of a lady of fashion, she looked ten years older than her age, sallow without her powder and undistinguished without her splendid attire; her eyes were shadowed and wretched, her mouth dragged; she might be a beauty by candle-light, she was no longer a beauty in her own chamber.
She caught up a worn book in a paper cover and wearily fluttered the pages, but the stale romance could not hold her; she looked up eagerly when the door opened, and even faintly smiled as her maid entered.
Honoria Pryse crossed the room in her quick, delicate way; her shrewd, clear-cut face was slightly flushed.
"You have been a long time," said her mistress. "What have you been doing?"
Honoria put her hand to the muslin fichu crossed over her bosom.
"I have something to tell you, my lady."
The Countess sat up, jerking the dog off her dress.
"What?" she pitched the book across the room; it hit the leg of a chair, and fell on the floor, an untidy mass of twisted pages; the spaniel whined peevishly.
"Last night, when you were out, my lady, I went downstairs to hear what they were talking of."
"My lord, you mean?" asked the Countess sharply. "Why didn't you tell me before?"
"Have a little patience, my lady. Sir Thomas was here and Mr. Steyning; they came on from the Palace about twelve o'clock; they talked of politics in my lord's study; he seemed to be suggesting a position for Sir Francis Boyle, but I couldn't hear much when they shut the door; but afterwards when the gentlemen left my lord stayed on below, and I came down again to see what he was about. I went into the library, which was in darkness, and from the open folding doors saw my lord writing; there was a letter lying by his elbow, on a lady's paper, in a lady's hand."
The Countess made a little impatient movement.
"Be quick," she said.
Honoria was in no way put out.
"I thought of Miss Boyle; my lord's manner had been of a restrained desperation, and his speaking of Sir Francis—"
"Ye have been thinking of Selina Boyle for a year past," interrupted her mistress, "and it has come to nought."
"It has come to a great deal," replied Honoria Pryse. "I saw my lord looking at this letter as if he consulted it in what he wrote—a reply, then he folded it and placed it in the top drawer of the cabinet and turned suddenly towards the library—he passed me, so close, but I slipped behind the door, then into the study, opened the drawer and got the letter."
"Got the letter!" cried the Countess.
"I left by the other door into the passage—my lord had gone for his keys. I peeped through the crack and saw him lock the drawer, then he left the house. Fenton says he returned about four this morning."
The Countess held out her hand.
"Give me the letter—who is it from?—why did you not tell me before of this?"
"You were home so late, my lady, and slept so late," she took a package from the fichu of her gown; "here is the letter, and it is from Selina Boyle."
The Countess snatched it and stared eagerly at the fair Italian hand.
"Read it," said Honoria Pryse; "it was worth the pains."
Her mistress glanced down the epistle rapidly, then read it aloud as if she feared to lose even the sound of those words written in a sad sweet agony by a very different lady in a very different chamber.
June 2, 1749.
"My Lord,—I have your letter—you mind me that you have Only written to me once before, and that then I did Not Answer. I would I might refrain now from a Reply. In a Manner you have Broken the Bond of the sweet Reserve there was between us and unlocked a Heart of which you Only have the key. I am more unhappy than this Time a year Ago...the thought of your Discomfort and Passion Stirs in me a tumultuous discontent that I cannot easily overcome and of which it would be Weak to Write. As for what You ask of Me—be Assured that I shall never Marry—my Cousin Francis overvalues my poor Affections and seeks continuously to Persuade me—my Father also desires to see me Settled—but Nothing will Alter my Resolution. I would Rather have rested in Bristol, but in this matter had to follow my Father's wish.
"Let me know that You are content with me—but no more—I Fear it is Folly to exchange Regrets and Dangerous to dwell on a Forbidden Fondness, therefore be not Surprised if you Hear no more from
"POSTSCRIPTUM.—I saw the Countess at a Masquerade Last Week and Thought her a Lady a Noble might find himself Honoured to Own.
When the Countess finished the letter there was a silence; the maid watched her mistress quietly and made no further sign of interest nor any comment.
The Countess frowned, pushed the spaniel away from her with the toe of her shoe and put down the letter on her dressing-table.
"What is this to me?" she said sullenly. "Do I care to know that they are in love with each other? As well Miss Boyle as any other woman."
"Well, my lady, I thought you wished to show my lord you were no fool; how has he treated you?"
"Some day I am going to be avenged on them, Honoria," she said breathlessly.
"Why not now, my lady? here are the materials."
Lady Lyndwood waved her slight hand impatiently.
"I cannot deal with that woman—he never sees her—it is all in the clouds."
"You can bring it to earth," said Honoria Pryse.
"What of her father—what of Sir Francis. Just now there is nothing in it, you can make everything of it."
"Could I rouse my lord in that way?" demanded the Countess with a sudden gleam in her tired eyes.
"In what better," Honoria answered; "what does this letter mean?" she lightly touched it. "He must have written to her saying he could not bear to see her married, and she says, 'for your sake I remain unwed,' what more?"
The Countess Lavinia rose impatiently
"My life is Hell, Honoria, and some way I must alter it." She paced up and down, the loose gown flowing about her, an expression of utter wretchedness on her sallow face. "I saw Marius Lyndwood yesterday, the same as always—why was I never young like that? The regret of it, Honoria—the early spring last year in Paris; my God, why have I lost it all?" She spoke in a stifled voice and walked to and fro as if driven into movement by inward pain. "I would rather die to-morrow in the ruin of his house, than live like this; I cannot do it, Honoria."
"Ye have your wild moods, my lady," answered the maid calmly, "but life is well worth living and you have fairer prospects than others. What is there before my lord? He has changed since I have watched him."
"Never in his contempt of me."
"You have always Mr. Hilton and the money," continued Honoria unmoved, "but the Earl is slipping easily to ruin."
"He has been to my father for money," cried the Countess. "Again to my father, who has told me the Treasury could not supply the life we led; well, I shall be ruined also, and not, God knows, through pleasure; however, we talk wildly; if there is nought but the pistol or the Fleet for him, what is there but the river or Bedlam for me?"
Honoria Pryse sorted out the curling-irons
"Before then ye can make some stir, both with Miss Boyle and with Captain Lyndwood."
"I hate his mother and his cousin," said the Countess abruptly. "Is not this girl a friend of theirs? I would do something to sting them."
The maid looked over her shoulder.
"A notice in the Gazette—were like fire to straw—"
The Countess glanced at her.
"I will put it in; what is that she says of me? A sneer, I doubt not; they think I am a fool or indifferent; her refined love letters! She is like the others for all her quiet face; what is there in my lord for a little saint to adore?" She laughed bitterly. "I swear Sir Francis is the better man."
"He will prove himself so, or endeavour to," answered Honoria; "if we once bring them together over the matter of Selina Boyle."
"Ye think the Gazette the thing?"
"Yes, something carefully worded."
"Would they put it in?"
"Would they not, my lady!"
The Countess took a turn about the room.
"Bring me a paper, we will compose it," she said slowly. She paused a moment, then added, in a curious tone, "Marius Lyndwood is coming here to-day; I think had I married him we should have been very fond of each other, Honoria—fetch something to write on." She sank wearily into a chair.
"You write," said the Countess, frowning. "And afterwards we shall copy it out and disguise the hand—and what of Miss Boyle's letter?"
"We can never get it back," answered Honoria, balancing the writing-case on her knee. "We had best bum it."
A tap at the door interrupted her; she laid the case over Miss Boyle's letter, and went to answer it; there was a quick exchange of words at the door and she came back.
"Mr. Hilton, my lady."
The Countess lifted her shoulders sullenly.
"What now? let him come in, Honoria. I would it had been another hour."
She did not turn when her father entered nor give him any sign of welcome.
"This is a foolish time for you to choose," she said.
"'Tis a foolish time for you to still be in your chamber," he retorted sharply.
My lady jerked her shoulders peevishly.
"What are you here to say?"
Mr. Hilton glanced round the dishevelled room with an air of disgust; his shrewd, expressionless face hardened.
"You may call this living like a great lady, but I call it living like a slut," he remarked.
"I am neither one nor the other, but—your daughter," she answered insolently, "and if this is to prove a tirade on virtue—"
Mr. Hilton folded his hands behind him.
"It is to be a few words about money," he said briefly. "I came unexpectedly because that way I have a greater chance of finding you."
The Countess straightened herself.
"The subject is stale," she replied; "and is one to be taken to my lord. I know nothing of the money."
"You know something of the spending of it, Lavinia."
"My husband knows more."
"I have to speak of your husband, too."
"You ask me of the two things of which I know the least—my husband and my money."
"You must come to know more of both. I am not the rich man I was since the bank at Amsterdam failed, and your husband has had more money of me than would sound credible."
"More than we have had value for, eh?" asked the Countess. "This grand marriage of mine was a poor bargain, my father."
"Where is your effort to make it a good one?" he retorted. "We are of no more account than we ever were—you spend, spend, spend, and what do you get for it? Your husband is the talk of the town; he has entered the Ministry with our money, his mother lives like a princess, he is courted, flattered, and sought after; but who turns his head for you?"
"I have lived with my lord for a year without a scandal," she answered; "and that is something to my credit."
"I am not speaking of your credit," cried Mr. Hilton angrily. "You know what I mean well enough—did I spend a fortune on your upbringing for you to drop like a stone into this set I put you among—like a stone, to sink at once? You lose money at cards, no one remarks you; you hold no levees, you have no genteel friends—you have nothing of the great lady save the vices."
"Because I am a tradesman's daughter," said the Countess, "yet I ape the woman of rank very well, yet—also I do not choose to alter my life, so spare your words."
Mr. Hilton flushed.
"Sometimes I think you really are mad," he answered violently. "But it has to cease—"
She interrupted quickly.
"What has to cease?"
"This wild and useless expenditure, this idle indifference on your part."
She made a weary gesture with her hands.
"Do you think I care if you sell us up to-morrow?"
"You speak like a fool," he answered furiously; "is there no way to bring you to sense?"
She flashed bitterly out of her passive disgust.
"This marriage, was it of my seeking? Did I not entreat you not to force me? I had my own plans then—then I might have been happy, but you were possessed with your pride—you bought me a husband who laughs at both of us; who were you or I to manage a noble, he fooled us both;" she rose suddenly—"do not come to me now with reproaches, you flung me among people who despised me, tied me to a man I never had even a passing liking for. I am not going to endeavour to prevent him from spending your money. It was your bargain, you and he can settle it, my father."
With that she gave him a look of wild unhappy hatred that cowed his rising fury.
"Ye are certainly mad," he muttered.
"Perhaps I am," answered the Countess. "Look then I do not commit madness; I suppose ye would sooner have me indifferent, than desperate."
"What cause have ye to be desperate?" he demanded.
She smiled scornfully.
"I am unhappier than you have it in you to realise," she said; "but I am sick of this talk."
Mr. Hilton looked at her keenly.
"Where is the Earl?"
"I do not know." She sank into the chair before the dressing-table.
Honoria Pryse crept in timidly from the inner door.
"The hairdresser, my lady."
Mr. Hilton looked from one woman to another, set his lips, and left them in silence.
Mistress and maid exchanged a quick glance; the Countess snatched up the letter from Selina Boyle and concealed it in her bosom as the hairdresser bowed himself into the chamber.
With a curious sense of uneasiness, Marius Lyndwood, entering his brother's drawing-room, saw the Countess there, alone.
It was about five of the clock and the gorgeous chamber was full of sunshine. The Countess sat by the window teasing a crimson and green macaw that swung in an ebony ring; she wore a black and white striped dress and a muslin fichu edged with glittering silver ribbon.
She did not rise to greet him.
"Good afternoon. Captain Lyndwood," she said, and continued to busy herself with the parrot; he hesitated a moment, then crossed the room to kiss her hand still she did not look at him.
"My lord is abroad?" he asked.
The Countess lifted her shoulders.
"I suppose so."
Then she regarded him, covertly.
"You go to Paris, Captain Lyndwood?"
"I have not yet taken my resolution, madam."
She smiled and rose.
"You came to see my husband?"
The Countess moved towards the mantelpiece.
"Do you love your brother, sir?" she asked abruptly, and fixed her powerful dark eyes on him.
Marius Lyndwood made an effort to meet her on her own ground.
"What is your meaning in that question, madam?"
"This meaning," she answered, "that I do not think you know him—"
"My lord has ever done his duty by me," said Marius.
"There is the point," cried the Countess. "You do not guess how he has behaved to me."
"I cannot listen to this, madam," he interrupted in an agitated voice, but she would not be stopped.
"It is not long ago that you were kissing my shadow, Marius—are we now such strangers that I must conceal from you that my life is utter misery?"
"Indeed it can be no matter of mine," he answered, very pale.
The Countess clasped the edge of the chimney-piece.
"It is very much a matter of yours. My lord, ye say, does his duty by you; but what of me? Do you dare to have no pity? The money that gave you your career was the price of my degradation—"
"Enough of that," he exclaimed. "I have had very little from the Earl, and mean now to be free of him altogether."
"But I," she said, "can never be free."
She was silent a second, then added with a quiet force:
"Did you know him as I have to know him you would hate him "—her voice sank—"even as I do."
Marius Lyndwood shuddered.
"I must not hear this."
"You shall hear this. His bargain with my father cannot save him, my fortune has gone like sand through his fingers, and your noble House will come very surely to utter ruin."
"You speak as if I were to blame," said Marius sombrely. "I am not my lord's monitor; what would you have me do? I have not been over contented or very much at ease this last year."
He was angry with his brother though he would not admit so much, even to himself; he half disdained the Countess, but felt that truth and justice were on her side—he was attracted by her and repelled and troubled by her presence beyond the power of speech.
"Well," she spoke more quietly. "You will go abroad again, and I am sorry, for it will leave me more utterly lonely; well, well."
Marius moved silently to the window with a heavy step and looked out on the flat houses, the dusty sunshine, the barren blue sky.
He turned again at a slight exclamation from the Countess.
Rose Lyndwood had entered; he wore riding boots, and was wrapped in a pale pink mantle; he carried his white gauntlets and a short whip; he looked at his brother and an indescribable chill fell between them.
Marius bowed formally.
"Good even," said the Earl, and glanced at his wife; "it is unusual to find you at home at this hour, madam; Marius was fortunate."
"I met him yesterday in your mother's house, my lord, and heard of his intent to come here to-day; therefore I am at home."
With that she swept a curtsey and left them alone, save for that nameless discontent and coldness breathing like another presence between them.
"The Countess is seldom at my mother's house," said Rose, as the door closed on her; "strange you should have met there."
Marius did not answer; the level beams of the sun just sinking behind the houses on the other side of the square struck brilliantly on his bright uniform and flushed face.
"You have decided to go to Paris?" asked my lord.
"No," answered Marius in a constrained way, "I have decided to remain in London, sir."
"I think you are wrong," said the Earl. "There are few chances in London; but it is for you to choose your own way."
He seated himself on the couch, and Marius looked at him earnestly; my lord glanced up and their eyes met.
"Do you wish an appointment about the Court?" asked the Earl; his handsome eyes were weary and his face pallid in contrast with his bright unpowdered hair. Marius could not understand what had happened to make them such strangers, nor how in a year they could have drifted so far apart; a sensation of utter depression came over him.
"What is the matter with you, Marius?" asked Rose Lyndwood with a slight note of challenge in his voice.
His brother gazed out into the grey street from which the sun had disappeared.
"I do not wish to hang about the Court, my lord."
The Earl observed him sharply.
"What do you propose to do?"
Marius kept his face averted.
"I wish to go somewhere, to be quartered in some country town, where I can live on my pay," he answered reservedly.
"By Gad!" said my lord softly. "What whim is this?"
Marius turned swiftly.
"Isn't it an honest wish, my lord? Isn't it an honest wish to desire to take no more money from you?"
"Are we discussing honesty?" smiled the Earl. "You are in a strange mood, Marius."
The young soldier coloured, gloom overcame him again.
"Your lordship and I will never understand each other," he said hopelessly.
"Why not?" asked his brother kindly.
"I do not know." Marius spoke in a constrained way. "I suppose that we are in such different positions—of such different natures."
My lord gave his charming laugh.
"You go too deep for me, Marius; say what you wish and I will endeavour to comprehend it."
But Marius Lyndwood was silent.
"What is this between you and me?" continued the Earl lightly. "You have a look of judgment as one who would say, 'Faith, I am ashamed of this brother of mine.'"
"I do not like this life," answered Marius gloomily. "Nothing is as I thought it would be—matters seem very worthless."
Rose Lyndwood laughed.
"Your malady is plain, my dear: you are too young and too serious; a season in London will cure you."
Marius moved from the window.
"I might have known that you would sneer at me," he said, holding his head haughtily, "but scoff as you will, my lord, I have no zest for these follies that please you."
My lord laughed again; there was no change in his handsome face; under his air of lightness a melancholy indifference seemed habitual.
"My follies are my own affair, are they not?" he asked carelessly.
"I do not know," answered Marius, "but it seems to me 'tis an ignoble business, as you have handled it."
"As I have handled it?" questioned the Earl.
"You will reprove me for my impertinence if I speak further," said Marius, "and you are the head of the house yet perhaps those few years between us do not rob me of the right to say that your courses go far to dishonour us."
"Oh, Marius!" cried his brother, smiling, "thou art become a sad virtuous fellow; concern not thyself with me, thine own good qualities will save the name of Lyndwood."
"'Tis a thing not wholly in my keeping," replied Marius, kindling at the other's manner. "You are the elder—well, no more, but I will none of your money, my lord, and none of your influence to push me into some idle place at Court."
Rose Lyndwood loosened the pink mantle from his throat.
"You are a pragmatical fellow," he said calmly; "and must even do as you please. I shall expect to see you again when you are tired of virtue on a hundred a year."
"I do not put such a high value upon money," answered Marius hotly.
"Maybe," said my lord lazily; "but you have not yet tried to do without it." He rose suddenly. "I' God's name, Marius, let us have done with this prating; we each mean the same thing, I doubt not; why should we be discontented with one another? Stay in London and make the best of it; do what others do, 'tis the surest wisdom."
"What others do!" repeated his brother with quickened breath; "marry an heiress and gamble myself and her to ruin, take some woman for her fortune and make her life unendurable with my disdain while I spend her money on sordid pleasures; buy myself into a corrupt Ministry and fatten on the proceeds of Court intrigues. I have not the temper for these things, my lord."
The Earl laid his gloves and whip on the couch from which he had risen; he looked steadily at Marius.
"I shall begin to think that you came here to insult me," he said. "Now why, I wonder."
"I tell you that my way is not your way, my lord."
"You tell me more than that," answered Rose Lyndwood. "And I discern who has been prompting you."
At this allusion to the Countess, Marius flushed.
"I need no promptings to perceive the way you live, my lord, nor can I shut my ears to what I hear of your senseless extravagance."
The Earl interrupted.
"Oh, she gave me a rake-helly reputation, I doubt not—spare the repetition, and understand I'll have no more of it."
"No more of what, sir?"
Lord Lyndwood moved towards him.
"No more of these discussions with my lady—either in my house or out of it—she needs no champions."
"I cannot speak of this with you," answered Marius hotly. "All has gone amiss."
"Have done with this philosophy," interrupted my lord with darkening eyes, "and do not seek to play the monitor with my affairs—I'll not take it, Marius."
"There are things I will not take, my lord. I am at liberty to see what all the town sees, and to say what all the town says."
"Not to my face," said the Earl, "nor yet to my wife."
"Leave the Countess out of it, my lord—even if she should show her unhappiness; she has given no bond to be dumb as well as patient."
My lord unclasped his cloak and flung it over a chair.
"You are a fool, Marius," he said haughtily, "but you must keep your folly to yourself, nor become my lady's puppet defender; her unhappiness, and her patience, and her dumbness are not matters of yours."
"In a manner they are matters of mine," answered the other with a kind of fierce heaviness. "I have been to blame—we, both of us, have wronged her."
"This is intolerable!" cried my lord. "By Gad, you will anger me."
"And yet I only speak the truth."
"You speak dangerous foolishness."
"My lord, I speak the truth, and ye know it."
"Truth or no," said the Earl, "'tis what I will not listen to."
"On that we part, my lord."
Rose Lyndwood smiled and raised his shoulders scornfully.
"I' faith we cannot argue, Marius."
"Then, as I say, we part."
"Why, you must go your way."
Marius stepped aside and looked away, the room began to be full of creeping shadows; it was not easy for either, even with close scrutiny, to catch the changing expression of the other's face.
"It is curious," said the Earl, "that we should have parted understanding each other on this matter, and now we meet with this discontent between us. I perceive that what is on your mind refers to the same—the question, my lady's money—it is not one we can discuss."
"I think I know what you would say, my lord: that for my sake, and for the sake of my lady mother, you made this match."
"Nay, you would never hear that from me," rejoined Rose Lyndwood.
"But it crossed your mind—it is in Susannah's mind," said Marius gloomily and fiercely; "and it is not true; at first I thought it so, but it was not. Mr. Hilton's money was not bought for us but for yourself, to save yourself from ruin; you married his daughter for no noble consideration but to give you the means to continue this life of a man of fashion; as she said, you wanted the money."
"Do you speak to provoke me?" asked my lord breathlessly.
"I think I speak to make it all clear to myself," answered Marius slowly. "It sounds so mean put into words and so clear—there was no other way out for you save this marriage—it was not in you even to desire other than this life you led, and so you married your lady; she was forced into it and you allowed her to be forced."
Rose Lyndwood laughed, suddenly and unrestrainedly.
"My lady has made a rare convert!" he cried. "It is amusing to see you learning virtue at the Countess Lavinia's feet. I wonder what else she will teach you besides hate of me."
He picked up his cloak; there was a gleam of the pale pink colour as he flung it about him in the shadows.
"I am due at the St. James's coffee-house," he said. "Will you accompany me?"
"Is that how you dismiss it?" asked Marius unsteadily.
The Earl made a light gesture with his fine hand.
"What is there to dismiss? Are you coming with me?"
"No." Marius paused a moment, then added, "I take my leave; good-night, my lord."
They could no longer distinguish the other's face.
"Good even," said the Earl, and turned his back to gather up his gloves.
Marius, miserable, angry, hot at heart, turned from the room and closed the door fiercely after him.
There was a dim light in the hall and she was there, crouching against the panelling.
Even as he saw her the knowledge that she had been listening stabbed into his blood.
"Madam!" he said below his breath.
"Well?" she whispered defiantly. She had her teeth in her handkerchief, and was tearing it to rags; her thin cheeks were flushed carmine, her eyes excitedly bright. "I heard what passed; what do you think of him now?"
"I am sorry for you," he answered in a shamed voice, "that you—should—do this."
The Countess laid her hand on his sleeve.
"Ah! you spoke for me!" she said exultingly. "And I could kiss your feet for it; but, hush!—"
"He comes," interrupted Marius in an agony. "Shall he find us whispering behind his doors?"
She drew back.
"Come to Grafton's mask," she replied. "I will send you a note of my dress."
She turned swiftly and in a light noiselessness sped up the wide quiet stairs.
Marius stood still beneath the gentle glow of the silver lamp; so she took him for her champion—she bound him to her service—it had come to notes and appointments.
He grasped the handle of the door that concealed his brother; it was in his mind to return to him.
The red mounted to his cheeks, his brow; it was not so long ago since he had adored her, and she had been unfairly treated. Rose had laughed; what would Rose care?
He took up his hat and left the house. As he turned into the street he felt the evening air cold on his face, and looking up beheld a solitary star above the dark houses of Panton Square.
He thought of the Countess with pain and misgiving, and his young face was stormy, but she did not wholly occupy his mind; like a pleasant odour pervading everything was the remembrance of Susannah Chressham waiting his return in the soft-hued room in the Haymarket; he dwelt on the image of her and found it the image of gentleness and joy, soothing to consider.
He hastened his steps homewards, nor did it occur to him to look back at his brother's house, where the Countess leant from an upper window with the keen wind dishevelling her hair and watched him eagerly out of sight.
"My dear," said Miss Selina Boyle, "I am in some trouble, and must seek your advice even at the risk of a confession."
Her exquisite face was half concealed by the shadow of her large black hat, but over her round chin and throat, over the radiant hair that flowed in glittering little curls on to her muslin bodice, the afternoon sun, pouring through the long French window, rested brightly.
She had come upon Miss Chressham at tea; the delicate china was set out on the tulip-wood table, and Susannah, pale and fair in lavender, had laid aside her tapestry frame.
"A confession!" she smiled.
But her visitor's face remained grave.
"It may come to that," she said, and her sweet lips trembled.
Susannah Chressham looked at her, thinking of nothing but the frail and endearing beauty she saw. Selina had taken off her black lace pelisse, and from head to foot was in white, fine lawn, that billowed round the gilt chair. Her silk parasol, of the blue of a forget-me-not, rested against her knee, and at her breast was a cream-tinted rose.
"You are very serious," said Miss Chressham tenderly.
"I think I have a serious matter to deal with," breathed Miss Boyle.
There was a moment's pause. Susannah poured out the tea; the pleasant sound of the cups as they touched one another and the whispering of her silks filled the silence.
Then Miss Boyle spoke again, with an effort.
"My dear," she said pleadingly, "you must forgive me for coming to you. Had I had anyone else—But in town I know none, and I dare not go to my father or to—the persons concerned."
Miss Chressham set down the cup she held.
"Why, what is the matter?" she asked finally, startled at the other's tone.
Selina Boyle clasped her hands on her lap.
"What will you think of me?" she cried. "Do not let me entirely lose your good opinion; I am sufficiently distressed and humbled."
"I implore you to enlighten me," answered Miss Chressham. "You agitate me, Selina."
Miss Boyle opened her reticule and drew out a copy of the Gazette.
"This was found by my maid this morning. What am I to do? What am I to do, Susannah?" She unfolded the paper and pointed to a paragraph on the front page. "Read it," she said in a voice almost inaudible.
"This duel between Mr. Markham and Captain Galton?" asked Miss Chressham, staring at the closely printed sheet.
"No, no! Below—look below."
Susannah obeyed, and read the following sentences:
"The next item from the Beau Monde has been Communicated to us by a Lady of Fashion whose Authority is beyond Reproach. It concerns the Happy Advent of Miss S-l—a B—le of Bristol into Town. The Cause of her Coming, it seems, is not that She may be, as her Friends expected, united to her Cousin, Sir Fr—-is B—le. This Match has been Broken off, owing to the Lady's Affection for a Noble Lord who is well known for his Success in Affairs of the Heart. His Lordship being so far Infatuated as to Request Miss S-l—a B—le in a Passionate Letter not to Marry her Cousin, she in a Reply equally Warm, gave the Desired Pledge, though it might have been supposed that His Lordship would allow the Lady the Liberty he had taken to Himself in making a Marriage of Convenience. The Friends of Miss S-l—a B—le and the Admirers of the Earl of L—dw—d Await with interest a Further Development of this Romance, the Course of which we Hope to-be able to inform our Readers upon in a future Time."
Miss Chressham laid the paper down. Her eyes darkened and her cheeks blanched; she averted her glance from Selina Boyle.
"Well," she said unsteadily, "this is ugly malice; a pity you must notice it."
"But you understand that I cannot ignore it," breathe I Miss Boyle entreatingly.
The other lady turned slowly and faced her.
"I do not know quite how much you mean me to understand," she said quietly, "nor why you should not take this paper to your father or Sir Francis."
"I cannot take it to them," answered Miss Boyle in a still way, "because what is said there is true."
"Oh, my dear!" exclaimed Miss Chressham, touched to the heart.
"It is not an invention," continued Selina. "Whoever wrote that knows the truth." She bent forward until her hat concealed her drooping face and she clasped her slim hands tightly on her knees. "He wrote to me, as it says, and I answered, and—and that is the reason why I say no to my cousin."
"There is no need to tell me this," answered Susannah, trembling. "Why should you justify yourself to me, or speak to me of these things that are your own matter? I can believe you always right, Selina, without explanations."
"But I want you to hear," said Miss Boyle earnestly. "It has come to that point when someone must hear, and you are almost like his sister."
Miss Chressham winced and averted her eyes.
"It is near two years ago since I first met him," continued Miss Boyle in a low voice, "and from the very first we—he came to The Wells, and there spoke to me—" her words failed her; she pulled out her handkerchief and pressed it to her lips—"of the ruin that involved his fortunes."
"Why pain yourself to speak of this?" asked Miss Chressham. "Indeed, I have no right to know—hardly to listen."
Selina Boyle made an effort over her weakness.
"I entreat you, hear me! I deceived you, Susannah. I wrote to you, mentioning him lightly; I did not dare confide in you, and I was languishing for some word of him. We were then almost—secretly betrothed." She paused, struggling with her troubled breath. "He thought to go to Venice. Then he wrote to me about my lady and Mr. Lyndwood. I saw how hopeless and wrong it was. I—well, it was over."
Susannah regarded her with eyes of a startled tenderness.
"Some of this I guessed," she said; "but it was not for me to speak."
Miss Boyle looked up.
"You guessed!" she exclaimed. "What must you have thought of me?"
"I thought it was no wonder," she answered.
"You are too gentle with me." Miss Boyle raised her hand to an agitated bosom and pressed her heart. "But, indeed, I never wrote to him again nor saw him save in public"—her voice was piteously humble—"until he sent me this letter, which—ah, I should not have answered it! But I could not have married Francis, you must understand. I told him so. I had no right." She turned her head away sharply. "And now it is chalked up for all the world to see," she said in a muffled voice; "I shall be the talk of London—and, since it is true, what am I to do?"
"Rose or Sir Francis will see it, and the matter will be out of our hands, my dear."
"That is the least bearable thought," answered Miss Boyle, "that they should meet on my account—and over this."
Miss Chressham crossed to her chair.
"Do you then hope to conceal it?"
"If I could!"
"It is impossible," said Susannah firmly. "That was not put there to be overlooked; it will be repeated."
"If I could buy up the paper!" cried Selina frantically. "Who could be so wantonly cruel?"
"Do you not guess? Rose's wife."
"Who else? Only someone in his house could have this knowledge of his correspondence, and she is that manner of woman."
The outraged blood stormed Miss Boyle's cheeks.
"You mean—oh, Susannah, you cannot mean that she reads his letters!"
"I have no doubt at all," said Miss Chressham. "She and her maid spy on him, and on us, perpetually."
"You think she has read that letter of mine!" cried Selina faintly. "But it is not possible; he would never have left it about. What must she think of me? Oh, that I should come to tremble at what may be thought!"
"I see no cause to tremble," answered Susannah with resolution. "It is her shame, not yours. Who is she but an ill-bred spiteful woman?"
"Yet his wife," murmured Miss Boyle; "and I had no right—oh!"—with an accent of deep distress, "should I go to her, implore her not to think ill of me?"
Miss Chressham's eyes flashed.
"What are you thinking of, my dear? She would insult you."
"Indeed, I could not do it—discuss this—him—with his wife! This is terrible, and my fault!"
"It is Rose's fault," cried Susannah, with a heaving breast. "He had no right to do as he did. You and he considered it his duty; I never did. My lady was not penniless, and Marius could have taken his life in his own hands. Rose obeyed his own imprudence—his own recklessness—in marrying this woman; because of my lady's tears and the reproaches of Marius he sells himself on the instant to a tradesman's daughter, and brings into the family a creature that will surely ruin it!"
"Yet it was nobly done," murmured Selina.
"But wilful nobleness, and in any case a mistake," answered Miss Chressham; "a mistake we are all paying for in misery and bitterness. How dare he set this woman up as mistress of his house where she is in a position to work harm among all for whom he ever cared?"
"Maybe you are right, Susannah," she said faintly and wistfully, "but—ah, well, I know what they say of him, nor can I justify my heart to my reason. Yet, if it were certain sin, as it is certain pain, I could not forbear from caring."
"I am a fine one to preach," said Miss Chressham in a desperate way. "Do I not know that he is lovable?" She left her chair and hung over Selina. "Do not shed tears about it. We will find some way, indeed we will."
Miss Boyle turned and clung to her.
Susannah gathered the delicate fragrant loveliness into her arms and to her breast. She could feel the agitated heart beating close to hers and the wet cheek pressed on her shoulder.
"I wonder what she knows of him?" was her swift thought. "Perhaps it is better this way."
Selina sobbed like a child—in a helpless and stricken fashion, clinging tightly the while to Miss Chressham, desperately revolving some means of comfort and help.
But Miss Boyle was the first to speak.
"I want you to see him "—she steadied herself with an effort. "Will you?"
Susannah was silent. Miss Boyle withdrew from her embrace and mastered struggling sobs.
"I want you," she said humbly, pleading with wet eyes, "to show him—that," she pointed to the paper by the neglected tea-table, "before he sees it for himself, and to ask him—for—" She hesitated.
"For your sake," finished Miss Chressham, looking away. "Well?"
"To—to ignore it—to suppress it if he can; but to ignore it. Tell him that I am going away—if I can; but that I confide in him to make nothing of it. Oh, you know what to say!" She paused, then gathered strength again. "Will you do this, dear?"
"Yes," said Miss Chressham quietly. "I will send to him at once."
"Thank you," whispered Selina; her blurred eyes shone with gratitude. "You understand what I mean?"
"Yes, I understand." Susannah smiled sadly. "I am afraid it is rather a woman's way, dear, but I can conceive of no other course to take."
Miss Boyle fumbled among her voluminous skirts for her reticule, and pulled it open.
"He has only sent me three letters," she said breathlessly, "and you shall see them."
Susannah turned swiftly.
"What do you make me? Indeed, I will not look at them—and you have no right to show them."
Miss Boyle sat silent.
"I will do what I can," continued Susannah, "but I cannot answer for Rose, save that he must perceive for himself how any action of his would make the matter worse."
"Has he not possibly some influence with the gentleman who conducts the paper?" asked Selina.
"Ah, my dear, that was tried before in the Cathcart case, and was found useless! So there be but the thinnest veil over the names these papers may publish what they please."
Miss Boyle rose and wiped her eyes.
"I am ashamed to disturb you with my troubles," she murmured; "but the mere speaking of them has been a comfort."
"Do not thank me yet," said Susannah with a quick flush, "for though all I have and am is at your service, I am very helpless."
"But I have the greatest trust in you and him, and—and I must go before the candles come in." She caught Susannah by the shoulders and kissed her impulsively. "Oh, I shall cry again if I stay. I am a weak fool," she said in a breaking voice, "but—ah, well, good-bye!"
"Good-bye, dear," answered Miss Chressham. "I shall hope to send to you in the morning."
Miss Boyle caught up the blue parasol.
"I do not know what I am asking of you," she said in an agitated tone, "but I trust you, and if by any means you can persuade him—"
"What of Sir Francis?" asked Susannah suddenly.
"I think he is not likely to see the paper," replied Miss Boyle. She picked up the copy of the Gazette and thrust it into her bag. "Farewell again, and thank you—oh, thank you, Susannah!" They kissed again in the dusk that each was secretly so grateful for.
"Is your carriage below, dear?"
"It is waiting. Do not come down."
They parted; the door closed on the slight beauty of Selina Boyle, and Susannah crossed at once to the fireplace and pulled the bell-rope. Then she sank into a chair and pushed the fair locks back from her brow, and stared desperately into the twilight. She felt her cheeks becoming pale and her blood turning cold. A bitter exclamation left her lips, she beat her foot in anger at her own weakness, and when the servant entered rose and turned her back to the room.
One by one the delicate candle flames sprang from the taper and a soft light illumined the pale rich chamber.
"A letter, madam," said the servant.
"No; for Captain Lyndwood, madam."
Miss Chressham gave a careless glance at the letter he placed on the mantelshelf.
"In half an hour I shall have a message to be taken to Lyndwood House."
She was alone again, with the curtains shutting out the blue summer evening. She bit her lip and clenched her hands in her effort at control, then pulled open a drawer in the buhl cabinet and commenced to write to the Earl.
But words that would be sufficiently strong yet sufficiently cautious, phrases that should command yet appear careless were not easy to find, nor did her agitation allow her to search for the niceties of composition.
She flung down the pen and rose. As she paced distractedly across the room her eye was caught by the letter on the marble mantelshelf. It was in the Countess Lavinia's hand. Susannah stood still a second, then returned to the desk and sat down heavily.
The moment after, Marius entered. He noticed the untouched tea-table and his cousin's face as she turned to look at him.
"Is there anything the matter?" he asked, pausing inside the door.
"No," said Susannah, "no. There is a letter for you—from Lady Lyndwood." She marked the treacherous blood fly to his face and saw him turn from her gaze. "What does the Countess write to you about?" she asked.
Marius picked up the letter.
"How can I know," he answered, "before I have opened it?" His dark eyes challenged hers with a look at once defiant and pleading; the even pallor of her face did not change, nor did she lower her glance as he tore open the envelope. "A ticket for Grafton's mask tomorrow," he said, throwing it on a chair; the letter enclosing it he thrust back into the envelope carelessly.
"There was no need to obtain that from her," answered Susannah wearily and coldly.
"I shall not go," said Marius; "unless I might escort you there."
She faintly smiled.
"Did my lady send two tickets? No, I do not wish to go, Marius."
"Why will you not?" he demanded. "My lady will be going—and Rose, I doubt not."
"Indeed, I do not care for it."
"Ye take pleasure in evading my company and in refusing my requests!" said Marius fiercely, and, picking up the Countess's ticket and the Countess's letter, he left the room with an angry step.
Susannah Chressham remained in a reflective attitude. She was not thinking of Marius—indeed, she had hardly noticed the manner of his departure.
The St. James's coffee-house was nearly empty; the candles had burnt to their sockets and only a sickly lamplight revealed the three gentlemen who sat together at a table scattered with cards. They had finished playing. One who had lost rose up without a word and reached down his hat and coat from the shining wall. Rose Lyndwood, a second loser, lifted his eyes to glance at him.
A clock without struck three. A sleepy drawer was slowly clearing some of the other tables. The place, but a little while since so noisy, had an extraordinarily dreary look.
"Good-night," said Lord Sandys. He put on his hat and left the room with a firm step.
The Earl nodded. Cathcart, the winner, laughed.
"Sandys looks dashed," he remarked.
"Probably ruined," remarked my lord.
A fresh gust of air rushed in and stirred for a second the stale, smoke-laden atmosphere; then the door was closed again, and idle, heavy silence was unbroken.
The Earl pushed aside the backgammon board and the glasses, and leant his elbow on the table. He sat with his back to the door and opposite the shuttered window. He took his chin in his hand and stared at these blank shutters through half-closed eyes. He wore pearl-colour; at his throat was a large buckle of brilliants that sparkled with restless hues; his hair and his dress were tumbled, his face disfigured with a lazy expression of sneering distaste. At the comer of his mouth was the fantastic patch cut into the shape of a bat.
"You should have gone to Kensington to-night," said Cathcart, who was leaning back and smoking. "I'll wager you'll hear of it."
"Why should I have been there?" asked the Earl, without moving his eyes or changing his expression.
"You know, 'twas a Cabinet meeting, or some such foolery. But I am no agent of the Government."
"Why, then, 'tis no matter of yours," said Lord Lyndwood in the same tone.
"But something of yours," answered the other. "Lud, how you throw away your chances! Newcastle said you might have been Chancellor or a Secretary of State by now had you cared. Don't that fire you?" He laughed, then yawned.
"Why should I trouble about their soiled politics?" asked my lord indifferently. "What comes my way I'll see to. But what is this all about? A parcel of niggers on the coast of Coromandel—Coromandel! Good Lord!"
Cathcart laughed again.
"I see you have got in your man."
"Francis Boyle—to be Lord of the Bedchamber. I saw it to-day."
"I haven't looked at the Gazette," answered Rose Lyndwood. "I hope he will be pleased," he added with a sneer. "It cost me more damned trouble than it was worth. Newcastle resisted, of course, and Pelham don't like me."
"Why did you do it?" asked Sir Thomas abruptly.
The Earl turned and fixed his eyes on him.
"I wonder," he said languidly.
Cathcart returned his gaze curiously.
"So you haven't seen the Gazette?"
"No. What's in it now?"
"One of their paragraphs about you, my lord." Cathcart put down his pipe, stretched himself and yawned again.
"I do not find them amusing," smiled Rose Lyndwood.
Both fell on silence again. The door opened sharply, and a gentleman entered the coffee-house. My lord did not turn his head, but Sir Thomas looked with some surprise at the new-comer, who was not of a type common to taverns at this time of night.
He was a young man, alert, composed, graceful, with noticeable chestnut hair and eyes of the same hue; a peacock-blue mantle was wrapped about him. He took off his hat, spoke to the drawer and passed to the table behind the Earl, where the screen hid him from Cathcart's observation.
"Who is that spark?" asked my lord. "He has a business-like tread for three in the morning."
"I do not know him; 'tis no one I have seen here before." Sir Thomas called for his bill and shifted from one pocket to another the roll of paper and gold he had won from the Earl and Lord Sandys. "I'm going," he said, as he paid the drawer. "It is plaguy dull here, and late, too."
"I'm well enough," answered my lord, yawning. "Good-night."
Sir Thomas got into his cloak and swaggered off; the door banged after him. My lord yawned again, and called for a pint of wine. The sombre chimes struck half-past three. The Earl eyed under drooping lids the stained glasses and cards before him, the closed window, the flickering lamp. He drank his wine slowly, and with a brooding face propped on his hand fell into a gloomy silence of miserable thoughts.
A quick step roused him; he glanced up to see the gentleman in the peacock mantle coming round the screen. He sat up, and it was not pleasure that flushed his cheek. He saw, standing the other side of the dismantled table, the elegant figure, the fresh handsome face, the masterful eyes of a man he did not love.
"I had not thought to see you here," he said slowly
"I followed your lordship," answered Sir Francis Boyle.
"Followed me?" queried the Earl.
"I called at your house, my lord, and was advised that you were at Carlisle House. I waited there an hour or more, when one told me he had seen you here."
"Is your business with me of such importance?"
The Earl leant back in his chair and idly fingered the stem of his glass. His eyes were not idle, but excited and bright, though his attitude was slack and his chin rested on his tumbled cravat.
"I have to thank your lordship for the promotion I was gazetted with to-day, have I not?" said Sir Francis in a low voice.
"I used my influence on your behalf," answered Rose Lyndwood. "I think you know it. Sir Francis."
"I wished to be confirmed, sir. I could not flatter myself it was my own merits. I decline the place, my lord. I can be under no obligation to your lordship."
"And your motive in this?" asked the Earl slowly. He roused himself with an indolent air and looked up at the other.
"What was your motive in doing me this favour?" demanded Sir Francis, his red-brown eyes darkening.
"I do not care to endeavour to understand you," said Rose Lyndwood, frowning. "I do not know what you have against me, nor is it worth while to inquire." He yawned and his lids drooped. "The time is inconvenient—and the place—for these discussions," he added.
"I have not studied your convenience or my own in coming here," answered Sir Francis haughtily. "I am not fond of taverns. But the matter I have in hand is imperative. Has your lordship seen the Gazette today?"
"It seems to have been an interesting sheet," said the Earl languidly but with watchful eyes. "Ye are the second has asked me that. Well, what of it?"
Sir Francis threw back his mantle and drew from the pocket of it a copy of the paper.
"Will you read this?" he said. "Afterwards I shall have to ask your lordship two questions."
Rose Lyndwood took the small, closely printed sheet and sat up, leaning heavily on the table, to read it. Sir Francis stood erect, his hand on his hip, observing him. There was not the slightest change in the even pallor of my lord's weary face—not the least alteration in his indifferent attitude. He laid down the Gazette and looked up.
"What are the two questions?" he asked.
Sir Francis drew his breath sharply.
"First, is there any truth in that paragraph? Secondly, what are you going to do?"
The Earl lowered his gaze to his fine hand lying idly across the paper.
"For the first, I will give you neither yes nor no, Sir Francis. For the second, how can I say yet what I shall do?"
"I am not contented with that," answered Sir Francis. "If what is stated there be true, I must know it, and you must answer for having permitted it to become public. If it be false, you and I, my lord, must track down the malice that dictated it."
Rose Lyndwood pushed his chair back.
"It is false," he said with sudden recklessness. "What should that lady be writing to me for; or I to her? Oh, be assured that it is false, Sir Francis. Do these damned scribblers ever write the truth?"
Sir Francis eyed him keenly.
"I do not take your mood, my lord. This cannot be ignored."
The Earl lifted his shoulders.
"Oh, if you like to challenge every hack in Grub Street!"
"I do not think one of those wrote that, Lord Lyndwood."
"Who else? There is no one in town who has not been so written of. I am well used to it; and as to the lady—"
"As to the lady?" Sir Francis took him up with a strained voice and his eyes narrowed and grew fiery.
"Am I her protector?" asked my lord. "By Gad, it would give a colour to it if I interfered, would it not?"
His tone was unpleasantly mocking. Sir Francis coloured swiftly.
"I do not like the manner of your speech, my lord."
Rose Lyndwood laughed.
"Upon my honour, I do not know why you have come to me. Why do you not marry the lady out of hand and give them the lie that way?"
"I do not think you understand me," said Sir Francis breathlessly.
My lord opened wide, insolent eyes.
"Has she jilted you? Are you sore on that? Well, you must not blame me. I know nothing of it, whatever they say in the Gazette," he sneered.
"So you have answered my first question," said Sir Francis, keeping himself well in hand. "This"—he struck the paper lying before him—"is a malicious falsehood?"
"It is a paragraph in the Gazette," answered Rose Lyndwood, raising his eyebrows.
"I will have the name of the man who coined it and horsewhip him into an open confession!" exclaimed Sir Francis.
"Is it worth while?" smiled the Earl. "There are always the pamphlets and lampoons, and if you offend a penman they will kill you in a paper warfare."
"I have no care for that. I shall know how to act."
"Why did you come to me?" the Earl interrupted suddenly.
"To ask you if there were any truth in this libel."
"Which seems as if you suggest there might be, Sir Francis." His tone changed. "And had there been, do you think that you would have got it from me?" he laughed. "I suppose that you came here to force a meeting on me?"
"No," exclaimed Sir Francis, "no!"
"The matter is too delicate for speech," continued the Earl, "and one you and I can never cross swords over. What is the use of these words? We each know what we know." He glanced swiftly at the other. "Do what seems good to you. You need give no thought to me."
"Because I am helpless I came to you," answered Sir Francis in an agitated voice.
"And I can be no help."
"Will you not aid me to discover the writer of this?" Again he touched the paper.
"I have no clue to go upon," answered the Earl slowly, "and I think you make too much of it. What does any of it matter?"
His manner and his tone were devoid of meaning. Sir Francis Boyle, not knowing him, felt as if he dealt with a man of sand. Against his own conviction he believed the Earl was indifferent—to Miss Boyle, to everything; but he could not remain content.
They fell both into silence. The solitary drawer passed them in a noiseless weariness. Sir Francis picked up the paper and folded it mechanically, then he looked across the table at my lord. A sharp exclamation left his lips, for he seemed to be looking at a dead man.
Against the murky background the face of Rose Lyndwood showed white in between the tumbled grey curls. There was a fixed smile on his colourless lips and a lifeless droop in his weary pose. The brilliants under his chin sparkled in an incongruous fashion.
"What is the matter?" he asked.
Sir Francis moved.
"It startled me," he said. "It is the dawn."
The drawer had opened the shutter of the window behind him, and the first ghastly grey light entering had showed him the worn face and fickle eyes of Lord Lyndwood.
"Yes, the dawn," repeated my lord. "It is ugly, is it not?"
Sir Francis turned away heavily.
"Good-night, then, my lord." He glanced back again in a fascinated way at the Earl.
"Good-night," answered Rose Lyndwood. He looked so ill in the cold unmerciful light that Sir Francis hesitated.
"Good-night," repeated my lord, with a deepening of his unnatural smile. He half roused himself to pour out the wine he had ordered before he had been interrupted.
Bewilderment and contempt gathered on the fresh countenance of Sir Francis. He gave the drawer his money impatiently and impatiently flung on his hat. His firm, angry step echoed the length of the dreary coffeehouse and the heavy door fell to slowly behind him.
My lord did not turn his head nor in any way alter his attitude, though now there was no one to observe him save the man at the window, who yawned miserably at the eastern sky.
The Earl drank his wine; he also stared out at the grey gloom gathering strength above the hard dark line of the houses. The lamps burnt so palely in this new insistent light that they became mere yellow specks of misty radiance. The drawer shuffled to the other windows and opened the shutters with a cumbrous slipping of bolts. An ignoble and yet solemn stillness hung over the dreariness. The scattered cards, backgammon boards, the glasses and bottles on the tables, the chairs pushed awry—each of these details became more distinct as the sky glowed into a melancholy faint gold and the blank windows filled with a cold increasing light.
My lord finished his wine and leant forward across the table, supporting his head by a hand thrust into his pomaded hair. The splendid dress he wore and his bright ornaments glimmered softly in contrast with his lifeless face. Presently the hush was rudely disturbed by the rumble of the market carts coming in to Covent Garden—the sound of the wheels over the cobbles, the clatter of the harness.
Lord Lyndwood rose and stepped to the window. Slowly he set it open and looked out. A waggon laden with country flowers was going past, and the clear early air was fresh with the perfume of the masses of blooms that lay close pressed in the wicker baskets. My lord watched these carts go by until the sun was above the chimney-pots and shining down the narrow street.
"Where is Rose?" asked Miss Chressham anxiously.
"Ye are very impatient to find him," answered Marius. "And how may we know him in this throng?"
They stepped aside into an alcove set with card-tables, and Susannah gazed away from her companion and down the crowded ballroom.
"We came here to find him," she answered. "I told you that, Marius, when I desired you to bring me. You know that I must see him—that I endeavoured to gain speech with him last night. To-day—"
"But you have confided no further in me."
Miss Chressham replied sharply, almost angrily.
"Marius, you are quite unreasonable. You know that I want to speak with my lord on a matter not my own. I have a message for him, and one not easily put on paper."
"And you are unreasonable," retorted Marius gloomily, "to suppose we could ever find one in particular in this." He indicated the crowd that passed and repassed before them. Everyone was disguised in a fantastic, ridiculous, or gorgeous fashion, and everyone was masked. Of all the habits there he could only identify one—the scarlet and orange domino Lady Lyndwood had told him she would wear.
Miss Chressham sighed impatiently. She, like her cousin, wore a simple black cloak and mask.
"If I but knew what he was wearing," she said.
Marius blushed under his vizard. The Countess might know at least the colour of her husband's domino; but he would not admit to Miss Chressham that Lady Lyndwood had accompanied her invitation with a description of her dress, so he stood silent, staring resentfully at the yellow and red domino.
"I suppose they will unmask at midnight," continued Miss Chressham, "and if Rose be still here—"
From the musicians' gallery came the sound of fiddles. The great room slowly cleared; the precise and animating music of a gavotte came sharply across the laughter and talk. Four couples stood up to dance; the rest moved aside to watch them.
One of the dancers was the mask in red and yellow. It seemed to Marius that she looked straight across the ballroom at him, and that she knew him—at least, her head seemed always turned in his direction.
At the commencement of the second figure a lady in white detached herself from the spectators and approached towards the two by the empty card-tables. She passed Marius in a quick, agitated manner, and caught Miss Chressham by the hand.
"Susannah," she whispered, and pulled off her mask.
The mask was replaced. Both ladies checked themselves and looked at Marius.
"My cousin," murmured Susannah. "You remember him?"
Miss Boyle curtsied.
"I knew you both; you are very poorly disguised." She forced a laugh. "Are you not dancing. Captain Lyndwood?"
"I am not in much of a holiday mood, madam," he replied. He was so watchful of Susannah, so sensitive to every change in her tone and manner, that he was perfectly aware that she wished him to leave her alone with Miss Boyle. He made some excuse and moved away.
Selina Boyle sank on to one of the slender chairs by the card-table.
"You have not seen him?" she whispered.
"No; that is, therefore, why I am here to-night. Nothing has been done."
"Yet Francis knows > he affects to laugh, but I believe him furious. I fear he has come here to meet my lord." She paused, panting.
"I have done all that I could," answered Susannah. "I sent to Lyndwood House last night, but Rose was abroad. I sent again in the morning. He had returned, but was gone again. I was assured he would be at this masque. Marius had a ticket, and I took my lady's, who was weary."
"Ah, you are very good to me," murmured Miss Boyle. "If I were not so distracted—so agitated—I might make some shift to thank you. Had it not been for you I should have lost courage and fled from town."
"I entreat you," interrupted Susannah, "do not mock me, dear. And how are we to find Rose? I have no idea what he is wearing."
Selina looked desperately down the ballroom, and her glance fell on Marius.
"Does he not know," she asked—"Captain Lyndwood?"
"Oh, nothing, my dear. He never looks at the papers, and hardly sees anyone." Miss Chressham's eyes were bright through the holes of her mask. "He is drifting, I fear, like Rose—like all of them."
Miss Boyle hung her head and was silent.
The light and charming music of the gavotte repeated itself; the bright-hued dresses of the dancers formed graceful moving patterns on the polished floor; the glow of a thousand wax candles and the soft sound of laughing voices were diffused very pleasantly.
Marius glanced covertly at his cousin and Miss Boyle. They were conversing together in low, earnest tones, neither taking any heed of him. He moved still further away, so as not to appear to court their notice, and walked languidly down the ballroom.
The dance came to an end. The orange and red domino left her partner and came straight to Marius Lyndwood.
She held out her hand, and he could not pretend that he did not know her, but he gave her greeting of the coldest.
"I did not think to be here. Lady Lyndwood. Chance brought me."
"How eager you are to explain that!" she answered in her clear, scornful tone. "All the evening you have had that speech on your tongue: 'I did not come because you asked me, because you told me the colour of your dress, but—chance brought me!' Well, since you are here, it is much the same, is it not?"
"I came because Miss Chressham desired it," he answered stiffly, "and to see my lord. He is here?"
"Is it you or your cousin who wishes to see my lord?" asked the Countess. "Your cousin, of course." And she laughed.
"Is he here, my lady?" repeated Marius angrily.
"Oh yes, he is here—courting Miss Trefusis, who is quite the fashion now. But shall we not be remarked?" Her hand slipped under his domino and clung to his velvet sleeve. "Take me out of the ballroom."
She led him into an antechamber, a small place of mirrors and satin chairs, lit, not too brightly, with tall white candles.
"Why did you not come properly masked?" demanded the Countess, setting free his arm. "Anyone could know you."
"I had no object to serve in being disguised, madam."
"Oh, la!" cried Lady Lyndwood.
She flung herself along a pale-coloured settee, a mirror behind her, and loosened her domino, and took off her mask.
Her dress was purple, an enormous hoop ruched and frilled, a tight bodice cut low; her face showed an unnatural white, her lips an unshaded scarlet. On the cluster of violets at her bosom powder had fallen, whitening them; in her high-dressed hair were pearls.
Marius had never liked these bright colours that she wore, nor associated them with anything that was desirable in woman. He stared at her intently, thinking of muslins and a chip hat in the gardens of the Luxembourg, and brown curls blowing against fresh cheeks. He blamed Rose, something hotly, for this distortion of simple charm into attraction unnatural and fantastically, unhappily splendid; yet he himself found a fascination in her paint, her flaring colours, her scornful eyes. She did it very well, and he could not altogether ignore the fact that she had ransacked her armoury for his conquest. It was flattering, even if unworthy, that she should so well remember that childish romance.
He leant against the doorway and waited for her to speak. He was glad to keep on his own mask, and pleased she had removed hers.
"What does Miss Chressham want my lord for?" demanded the Countess.
"That is her own matter," he answered.
The fine dark eyebrows went up,
"So—she has not told you?"
He was no match for her, and knew it. He resorted to that directness she employed with such effect.
"What do you want to say to me, madam?"
She leant back, showing her high-heeled shoes under the purple frills. She opened her fan of black and gold, and held it over her mouth.
"What do you want me to say to you?"
Marius made an effort.
"I can think of nothing we have in common."
"No? Is that meant to be cruel?"
Her right arm lay along the top of the settee; her small hand was near to him; as he looked away from her face he saw it—the black velvet bracelet, the slack fine fingers. It was her right hand he had kissed once in Paris.
"I will tell you why Miss Chressham wants to see my lord," said the Countess.
He flushed quickly.
"It does not involve me, and if she does not herself inform me—"
Lady Lyndwood interrupted.
"But it involves me, and is hardly so private, since it is already in the Gazette."
"In the Gazette?"
"You have not seen it? I dare swear that you are the only one in town who has not."
Her keen eyes marked his ill-concealed agitation, and her mouth hardened.
"It is not about your cousin; she is only the ambassadress. It concerns her timid little friend, Selina Boyle."
"What have either to do with Rose?" demanded Marius.
"It is for me to ask that," she answered. "As for you, you must know something. He always admired her, did he not? He made her the toast at the Wells—before he married money. It is all very romantic. He asks her to keep single for his sake—he of all men!—and she refuses a good match, and it gets into the papers, this sentimental story."
With that my lady threw back her head and watched her darts take effect. He was openly restive under her scrutiny, uneasy too it seemed, and troubled.
"What has this to do with Miss Chressham?" he asked.
The Countess lifted her dead-white shoulders.
"She is the mediator—the friend of Miss Boyle. She hates me, of course. Why not?" A smile curled the thin vermilion lips. "And there is Sir Francis, a good youth, honestly in love. Is my lord too jaded to be goaded into a meeting? Perhaps not, so consultations, tears, and Susannah Chressham pledging herself to prevent bloodshed. Miss Boyle in despair, and the world laughing!"
Marius took a quick turn away from her, then back again. She sat forward, the flame-coloured domino falling apart over the purple dress, the black yet gleaming fan held across her knee like a weapon. The mirror behind reflected her heavy grey curls, the stiff bright roses in among the wreathed pearls and her bare white shoulders.
"Should I laugh, Marius?" she asked, and her luminous eyes were wild.
"I do not know why you tell me this," he answered slowly, as if reluctant to speak to her at all; yet he was incapable of silencing her, of escaping her, or even of taking his eyes from her face.
"I suppose it seems nothing to you," continued the Countess, "but I am not one of these people—your people—and to me it is something."
"What matter can idle scandal like this be to any of us?" said Marius desperately.
"It is true," answered Lady Lyndwood. "As you know—"
"What have I to do with my lord's affairs?"
"Nothing, perhaps, and something, too, perhaps. At least, you know this is true. Were not their names coupled before his marriage?"
Marius was silent. The curious impersonal way in which she referred to her husband vexed and galled him, yet he felt a prick of indignation against Rose and against Selina Boyle. The Countess was his brother's wife.
Marius Lyndwood had a strong sense of fairness, a keen instinct for justice and order.
"She hath been enamoured of him since they first met," said Lady Lyndwood, "and he, I suppose, is in love with her, or rather, I take it, he fancies an idyll as background to his amusements. Either way they scorn to think of me—Jack Hilton's daughter! The whole of the town knows now how they have exchanged their sentimentalities over my head."
"How did it get into the papers?" asked Marius heavily.
"I cannot tell." Her voice was contemptuous. "Some maid of hers not sufficiently bribed. What does it matter? I think it has been plain enough to everyone from the first."
"It will matter to Miss Boyle."
"Do you also think of her—not at all of me?"
He did not answer.
"She is a gentlewoman," said the Countess slowly. "But do you think she hath behaved honourably?"
"Why must I accuse her?" he asked, goaded.
"Because I think you are not like the others—or thought so once. Can you not look at it straightly? He married me for my money, not even troubling to disguise his contempt of me, his liking for another. For a year he exchanges regretful sighs with this other, and the money goes, and the hate increases, and she writes to him. Well—"
"The money!" said Marius quickly. "Is Rose in difficulties?"
"What do you imagine?" answered the Countess. "You see how he lives? I do not know how long my father can or will endure. My lady is not sparing of her demands."
"Do not speak like that," interrupted Marius hotly. "'Tis my family, madam."
"Have I no right to speak? I shall be a pauper also. Have I no right to say that I bought my title too dear?"
He admitted that she had; that she had been miserably wronged. He despised his brother and Miss Boyle together, but he would not say so much to her.
"Are you not a little sorry for me?" she asked, gazing at him intently.
"I am sorry for all of us," he answered bitterly.
The Countess rose, holding her opened fan against her chin.
"You cannot guess what my life is," she said slowly; "nor quite how I hate him."
"I think that you have brought a curse upon us all," he said, with a dreary laugh. "You could wish no greater vengeance than you have, madam, in seeing us worthy of your scorn."
The bright silk skirts of the Countess rustled as she moved a little away.
"You need not couple yourself with your brother, Marius. I do not hate you."
"Why should you, madam?" he asked.
She laughed to think he did not remember the very good cause she had to hate him, and caught the gaudy domino together across her breast.
"What do you mean to do in this business?" she said. "Drift—drift, like all your noble house?"
Then she was suddenly quiet, and Marius turned in the direction of her narrowed glance.
In the tall doorway stood the Earl, wrapped in a pink domino, with a mask in his hand.
"Is that you, Marius?" he asked, in a weary tone, and did not even glance at his wife, shrinking away from him.
Marius strode up to his brother.
"I have been searching for you. Susannah wishes to speak to you."
My lord lifted his grey eyes and smiled insolently.
"Where is she?"
"I will show you where I left her," answered Marius briefly.
They moved away in silence, two erect figures, much of a height, each with grey curls flowing under the knot of black velvet, and the graceful domino caught over the sword.
Neither had given her a word or a look as they left. She crouched against the wall and stared after them.
Hesitatingly came the first bars of the melody of a minuet.
"Who is the lady who has just left you?" asked the Earl as he greeted his cousin; and he glanced over his shoulder at the white domino disappearing in the throng.
Susannah found in this her cue.
"Miss Boyle," she said. "And it is about her that I wish to speak to you."
Lord Lyndwood stepped into the alcove; Marius had departed; they, although on the edge of a great crowd, enveloped by music and laughter, were alone and unnoticed.
"Did you not guess the subject on which I desired to see you?" questioned Susannah.
The Earl looked at her smilingly, and flung himself into a chair.
"Gad, but I'm tired," he said. "Well, I suppose you have seen the paragraph in the Gazette?"
Miss Chressham gave him a keen glance from behind her mask.
"Yes," she answered, "And Miss Boyle has seen it."
The faintest tinge of colour came into my lord's weary face.
"Also her fire-eating cousin; her father, too, I dare swear, and half London "—he kept his shadowed grey eyes on her face.
"Well, are you Miss Boyle's deputy, Susannah?"
"Yes," said Miss Chressham, sitting erect, with a hand clasped on a swiftly heaving breast. "I have been trying to gain a word with you since yesterday afternoon, when she, Selina, came to me—"
Lord Lyndwood interrupted.
"With what object?" he asked, and his foot lightly beat time to the measure of the minuet.
"Can you not imagine?" Susannah paused a moment striving with distaste for her task. "I am her close friend—she hath confided in me—"
Miss Chressham lowered her agitated voice.
"That the Gazette gives only the truth."
The Earl shrugged his shoulders.
"A rarity! truth in the Gazette! no one will suspect it, my dear; I think Miss Boyle frightens herself for nothing."
His languid eyes roved over the ballroom, his indolent handsome profile was towards his cousin, who flushed unseen under her mask, accusing him of lack of frankness and friendliness in thus dealing with her.
"You resent my interference," she said in a low tone, "and, of a surety, I put myself in an ungracious position, but do we not know each other well enough—and, and like each other well enough. Rose, for me to venture to speak to you as Miss Boyle's mouthpiece?"
"You do us both an honour," answered my lord. "Only, I cannot see that the affair calls for comment from anyone, even from Miss Boyle;" he slightly raised his fair brows. "Surely these things are better ignored?"
And still he looked at the ballroom, and still Miss Chressham had the sense that he was not with her, not moved or even interested by what she said; yet she must be mistaken; he was interested, vitally, and his seeming indifference was but the reserve he chose to show her, so she told herself; but either way, this manner of his made it difficult for her.
"I think you take it too lightly. Rose," she said. "If you could have seen Miss Boyle's distress."
Again that faint flush in his averted face; he tapped his mask against his knee.
"What was her actual message to me?"
"There was none, she is going away if she can; she trusted me to see you, her wish was to prevent a meeting between you and Sir Francis."
"I saw him last night."
"Last night? On this matter?"
The Earl looked at his cousin now; inscrutable still, however, the veiled expression of his beautiful eyes.
"Yes, he came to the St. James's to throw up his appointment because of this; he is a foolish romantical fellow; perhaps he wished to force a duel on me, I cannot tell."
Miss Chressham was silent. It seemed curious that Rose could speak in this fashion; folly, romance, and fire, were they all dead in his breast? He spoke of Sir Francis as an old man might of a boy, and he not much more than five-and-twenty himself.
"And for Miss Boyle's sake you refrained?" she asked.
"Why should I meet him?" he answered evasively. "I suppose she will marry him now; I think he is a good fellow."
"Oh, Rose!" cried Susannah impatiently. "Why do you seek to put me off? She told me what you had written to her—you know, as I know, that she will never marry him."
My lord was silent, and not all her sharp glances could discern from his immobile face what was passing in his mind.
"Sir Francis is impetuous," she continued; "but his situation is maddening, and he thinks, hopes, the thing is a lie."
The Earl smiled, half turning his face to her.
"Sir Francis stands excused, by me at least, though he flung back my favour at me like a fool, and so has given me some trouble for nothing."
Miss Chressham twisted her fine fingers together.
"We have not come to discuss Sir Francis. I think of Selina, and of the fact that she asked me to help her."
"How help her?" asked my lord slowly. "Have you not said Sir Francis believes the paragraph a lie?"
"There are those believe it true."
Rose Lyndwood shrugged his shoulders.
"There is not a lady of fashion in town, nor any who has had the name of a belle, who has not been flicked at in the Gazette."
Susannah answered impatiently.
"Oh, Rose, because ye are jaded with pamphleteers, and it is nothing to you what any say of you—cannot you understand her feelings?"
My lord pressed his handkerchief to his lips.
"I think you both, like women, make too much of it," he answered lightly, with a steady glance under drooping lids.
Miss Chressham felt herself colour angrily.
"Then I think you must take a woman's point of view of this matter, too. Rose; remember that she can blame you that the affair ever became public."
"In what way?" he asked.
Susannah, goaded into direct speech by what seemed to her his wilful slowness, answered with the blood still hotter in her cheeks.
"In this way: firstly, that you wrote to her at all; secondly, that you lost her letter."
The minuet had come to an end, the ballroom was emptying of all but a few couples who promenaded the shining floor; the tall distant windows were open on to gardens where the moonlight revealed the forms of trees and the lamps swung in their branches lit the revellers beneath; the Earl looked down the room, and made no answer to Miss Chressham's accusation, but she had a swift feeling that he was moved now, touched to the heart; as they had no longer music or laughter or the tumult of the throng to cover their speech, she lowered her voice and spoke in an added embarrassment.
"Ah, Rose, could you not have kept a better guard on it?"
He answered quietly.
"I' faith, it was there in the desk when I looked again, after Sir Francis spoke to me; I know not whom to accuse."
Susannah pulled off her mask, as if the fret of it was beyond bearing, and gave him a glowing look.
The Earl paled a little under her gaze.
"Can it be possible you do not guess?"
"A servant, of course."
Miss Chressham rose.
"The Countess, of course; she stole the letter, and she wrote that paragraph; it is horrible to even mention it, but it is true and best that you should know it."
He drew his breath sharply between his parted lips.
"By Gad!" he said softly. "So you think so? Well, I thought of it." He laughed, to Susannah's surprise, almost in an amused manner: "But I could not credit that my lady had enough affection or enough dislike to me to be at the trouble—"
"I am sorry that you should smile," she answered hotly, "to think what this woman you have married has brought on those you care for."
He straightened himself, and flung back the pink domino.
"What do you—what does she—want me to do?"
Susannah could not say; it did not seem to her that it mattered what he did, so long as it was of his own conception, decisive, swift, carried to a conclusion; of all things this was the last she desired, that he should ask her what his action was to be. Could not his love for Selina (a thing in which she could not remotely meddle) guide him? She pressed her hand to her brow, looked on the floor and was silent.
"Here is a woman's coil of gossip and slander!" cried my lord, and his tone was slightly mocking. "Neither you nor I can straighten it out, my dear"—he looked at her languidly; "take no heed of it, 'twill, by Gad, hurt no one."
But his eyes, dark and fiery, belied his speech and encouraged her to endeavour to penetrate the guard of his indifferent manner.
"You have no right to take this action of Lavinia's with a smile," she said.
"Have you any proof of it?" he asked curiously.
Susannah gave a short laugh.
"None, I know."
He gave her a flashing glance.
"So do I," he said quickly.
Susannah made a movement of despair and desperation.
"Your marriage was unforgivable. Rose," she cried bitterly. "You know always she was 'bourgeoise,' and worse—and now—what have you come to that you laugh at your wife—your wife doing this unspeakable thing?"
"What am I to do if I do not laugh?" asked my lord. "Again, what is your wish?"
"That you should decide for yourself," answered Susannah quickly. "In a manner I have been forced to interfere, I have also been forced to speak to you now, at this unseasonable time, in this foolish place, and I cannot say all that might come into my mind "—she paused and bit her lip; "as for her—that was all her message to you, Rose, that you should, for her sake, keep quiet. I do not know if she was right or not."
My lord considered her curiously.
"Would you have me provoke a duel, Susannah?"
Her expression suddenly and painfully changed.
"I would have you want to, Rose," she answered with subdued vehemence; "but my feelings are not in the question, only, perhaps, I know you better than she does, and I am sorry—"
"For me?" inquired the Earl, smiling.
Miss Chressham pushed the locks back from her forehead.
"For all of it"—she was very pale, her lips seemed to move stiffly; "and there is another question, which, since I get no other chance, I must ask in this half public manner: what of the money. Rose? My lady is very extravagant. I do what I can, but she has no thought for expense, and I hear Mr. Hilton's fortune hath been damaged."
The Earl gave his soft pleasant laugh.
"Mr. Hilton is insolent; is it already a matter of comment, my difficulties?"
"Then you are—entangled," said Susannah breathlessly. "Oh, no, I never heard any mention of it—who should to me?—but from my own observation."
Rose Lyndwood lifted his shoulders.
"Is it not inevitable?" He turned his face away. "After all," he said irrelevantly, "how can life be dull when one has always the thought of death?"
Susannah Chressham stood still, fingering her mask.
"You have resolved that you will not be frank with me, that I must not understand you, and I can scarcely plead with you to be plain; nor have I any right nor any power to be your monitor; you sacrificed yourself once, to Marius and my lady, and I think it was insane nobility; now, well, I must either unlock my heart and frighten you or be silent, so, I am silent."
She turned to leave the alcove, but my lord rose and put himself before her.
"One moment," he spoke softly. "You have mentioned Marius."
She looked up into his beautiful face, and caught her breath, hesitating, with her domino clasped together on her bosom with a trembling hand.
"What of him?" she asked, and shook back the heavy brown curls on to her shoulders.
"I think he had better go to Paris," said the Earl.
"Yes," answered Miss Chressham. "But he wall not. I have tried to persuade him."
"You must still endeavour to persuade him," said my lord; "for all our sakes."
She was agitated, frightened.
"What do you mean? I have no influence with Marius."
"He adores you," replied the Earl, bending his great eyes on her. "And are you not the guardian angel of our house?" He smiled in a light bitterness. "You are hard worked, I know, my dear, but I must ask you to save Marius."
"To save Marius? From whom?"
"From himself," said my lord; "from me."
Miss Chressham moved back against the wall.
"You think I have no right to speak," continued the Earl, smiling, "of anything—but, you said I was not frank with you, now I tell you openly. He plays at consoling the Countess. I shall not take that; cannot you find occasion to remind him of what he may not do?"
Miss Chressham moistened her lips.
"Marius is very young and romantical," she said in a low voice; "he is absolutely honourable, Rose."
"As honourable as the rest of us," replied my lord. "But I do not object to his morals, my dear, only let him go abroad for his amusements."
Susannah seemed to rouse herself from some shivering absorption in hastily projected visions of disaster.
"You take this heavily enough," she said. "I had liked it better if such had been your tone with regard to Miss Boyle."
He answered quickly.
"The Countess is my wife—that begins and ends it. If Marius is not a fool he will understand."
Susannah was hotly scornful.
"What did you expect of her? I do not take your view of it; better for her to coquette with Marius than to put that paragraph in the Gazette—that was the unforgivable thing."
My lord was silent, but his half-veiled eyes were mocking.
"He has not had the chance for more than a few words with her since his return," continued Susannah. "He is simple and she is heartless, but—"
"But you speak against your own convictions," interrupted the Earl. "You know, as I know, Susannah, what is happening, and there must be an end of it; if Marius and I meet behind Montague House—"
"He could rouse you to that," cried Susannah incredulously, "when you were cold before Sir Francis?"
"This concerns me more," said my lord. "Miss Boyle's name is not in my keeping—ah! God knows it is all very miserable," he made a disdainful gesture with his hand, "and paltry, too, but there are some things—tell Marius not to force it to an issue between us."
Miss Chressham looked at him keenly, but his tired, composed face, with the slightly amused smile on the beautiful lips, told her as much as his words and no more.
The music began again and the Earl glanced towards the ballroom.
"It is 'La Louvre'; have you a partner?"
"I am not dancing," she answered wearily.
"I am engaged to Miss Trefusis—"
"Oh, leave me," cried Susannah. "There is nothing more for either of us to say; I am going home."
He crossed to her side and kissed her hand affectionately.
"You are a great deal too good for any of us, my dear," he said feelingly.
She turned her glance aside, withdrew her hand and stepped back from his gorgeous presence.
My lord replaced his mask and flung the pink domino over his shoulder.
"Speak to Marius," he said, and stepped carelessly into the ballroom.
Susannah sank into the chair by the little card-table; the music of "La Louvre" broke gaily on the stillness, that and the delicate steps of the couples returning to the ball-room. She put her hand before her eyes; only by a miserable effort did she keep back the tears.
The heavy coach rolled cumbrously over the cobbled streets, and the fitful flame of the lamp that lit the handsome interior showed the wan, troubled face of Susannah Chressham, colourless between the folds of bright hair, and the clouded countenance of Captain Lyndwood who sat opposite to her, wrapped in what seemed a passionate and seething silence.
She, sitting up, and gathering her mantle together over her low blue dress with a mechanical gesture, was the first to speak.
"I regret I could not find Selina again," she said. "I was sorry to leave without speaking to her—" She broke off; Marius was not in her confidence, nor indeed much in her thoughts, and she paused, wondering what she should reveal and what keep back.
He half startled and half relieved her by his abrupt answer.
"It was concerning that paragraph in the Gazette you wished to see Rose, was it not?"
"How did you imagine it?" she queried faintly.
"The Countess informed me."
This remark brought Miss Chressham to glance at him closely and to notice that he was flushed and frowning, obviously ill of ease and striving for control.
"The Countess informed you!" she echoed.
He beat his foot impatiently on the floor of the coach.
"She had seen it, of course. She concluded you would wish to prevent a meeting between Rose and Sir Francis," He checked himself, then added in a lower tone, "She has no doubt it is true."
Miss Chressham coloured in sheer anger.
"She dared to put it so to you!" The sad grey eyes darkened with wrathful scorn. "Did she wish to enlist you as her champion?"
"Is it surprising that she was angry?" he answered defiantly. "If it be true—"
"It is true and she knows it," broke in Miss Chressham. "She hath good cause to know it. Selina wrote to my lord, and she—this woman—stole her letter and composed, from that and what she further knew or imagined, this paragraph in the Gazette."
"The Countess!" cried Marius. "The Countess—that paragraph! Susannah, I do not believe it!"
Miss Chressham answered with weary passion.
"Believe it or no, it is true, true—and it was an action of a meanness, a vulgarity—"
"I do not credit it," he interrupted vehemently. "After what she said to me."
Susannah gave him a swift look.
"She had no right to speak to you."
The dusky blood flooded his agitated, handsome face.
"Hath she no wrongs?" he asked desperately. "How have we behaved to her, any of us? And it has always been her money. Rose and Miss Boyle are in the wrong."
"I was well advised in not making you my confidant sooner, if this is how you take it," cried Miss Chressham angrily. "Oh, you understand none of it, none; but at least be silent, do not defend the Countess Lavinia to me."
"How you hate her," he answered, in a breathless way.
Susannah's fair white hand made a gesture as if she put aside the semblance of something hideous.
"I do not care to talk of her. This is the first time that my speech has meddled in my lord's affairs "—she drew herself together, as if her mental effort braced her body; "but it becomes no less than my duty now, Marius, to bid you take care."
Marius leant forward and caught hold of the red silk window blind.
"Of what?" he asked hoarsely.
His obvious unease and agitation did not reassure Susannah.
"Of the Countess Lavinia," she answered. "Do you think Rose will endure it? Whatever he is, he is not that manner of man." Her voice held an odd note of pride.
Marius moistened his lips.
"Has he said anything?"
"To me, this evening, he warned me. I think you had better leave for Paris."
"Because of the Countess Lavinia?" Marius spoke unsteadily.
Something in his troubled, distracted bearing touched her; a kinder look came into her passionate eyes.
"Oh, Marius, there was the old wretched mistake; Rose must remember it. You wooed her first, after all; well, when he sees you together—you must respect his pride."
Marius drew back against the leather cushions and unaccountably laughed.
"The Countess Lavinia," he said wildly, "I loathe her."
He clenched his hand and brought it down with vehement force on the seat beside him.
"Then you will go away?" Susannah spoke softly.
"No, I cannot do that." The lace and diamonds at his throat heaved with his unequal breathing, and his lips quivered.
"The Countess means to do us all a mischief," said Susannah, faint and shuddering with the effort of putting these things into words. "Cannot you see it, Marius, that she will find in this fashion her amusement and her revenge? Are you going to lend yourself to it? Go away."
He looked up with brilliant eyes.
"I shall stay," he answered passionately; "but not because of the Countess."
"Ah, you think yourself very strong and courageous," returned Miss Chressham wearily, "but she is, in her way, a clever woman."
"Do not talk of her," cried Marius roughly.
Susannah made no reply.
A little longer and the coach jolted to a standstill.
Miss Chressham sprang up with a nervous little exclamation; the heavy door was opened on to the dark silent street and the summer fragrance, that clung even about the Haymarket with a sweet suggestion of things stirring, growing, breathing, animals, flowers and men, beneath the rising moon.
They went into the house; the coach swung off up the street and the delicate stillness fell again.
Marius slowly closed the door, replaced the key in his pocket and flung off his domino. The wide hall was lit by one lamp that cast a pale glow and heavy shadows. Miss Chressham stood still a moment, gazing before her in an absorbed fashion.
"Can I speak to you a while?" asked Marius on a rebellious breath.
She forced herself to listen, to comprehend.
"Of course," she thrust aside her thoughts. "It must be still early—maybe my lady is up. Let us go into the withdrawing-room."
They discovered that it was not yet midnight, but the Countess Agatha was in bed, and Susannah's woman in charge. Miss Chressham ordered candles beyond the few left burning, and wine and cakes.
"I tasted nothing at the mask," she said, smiling to cover her distraction, "and I vow I am quite hungry."
Marius, struggling with some deep and tumultuous feeling, heeded nothing, but paced to and fro the gay and beautiful chamber until the servant had left them.
The window stood open on the mute city and winking stars, a beau-pot of white roses on the work-table gave forth a lingering and exquisite perfume; Miss Chressham, near as pale as they, and drooping, as if with fatigue, had seated herself on a low brocade settee; her rich and glittering hair rolled in full curls over her dark domino, rounded throat and turquoise gown; beside her lay her mask and her fan.
"What did you wish to say, Marius?" she asked.
He poured her out a glass of the delicate white wine; she thanked him with a smile and drank it. There was still that absent look in her deep eyes that showed her thoughts were not at all absorbed with Marius; but he did not notice it, being too completely engrossed in his own passions.
"You think that I have behaved unworthily," he said, moving towards the window.
Susannah roused herself with a half sigh; it was like Marius to take everything heavily. She looked at him kindly; he leant against the window frame and gazed out at the night; a persistent breeze ruffled the pomaded curls on his forehead and the lace at his throat.
"I had no right to speak to you, of anything," she answered. "Only Rose mentioned it and I ventured. Marius, the Countess is not to be trusted."
He answered in a muffled voice.
"Do you think Rose has been impeccable?"
Had he had her in view he could not have failed to mark the swift expression of anguish that passed over her face; but her settee had its back to the window, and though he had turned his head towards the room he could see only her bent neck and shining curls.
"My lord made this mad marriage for your sake," she said. "At the time you did not consider it strange or ignoble that he, as everyone, should marry money; 'twas only on discovering who the lady was—"
"Then I cared for her no more, that was dead on the instant;" he spoke vehemently, "From then onwards the whole thing was ugly, sordid. I think we behaved all of us in a miserable fashion, I, and she and Rose."
"What other than you did could you have done?" she asked, faintly surprised that he should refer to this with so much passion.
But Marius continued unheeding.
"We turned on her that night—well, we have been living on her money ever since. Rose is again on the verge of ruin, and what has her life been? He has behaved to her as to his servant."
Susannah straightened herself.
"I fear I can look at none of it from the Countess's point of view."
"She is indifferent to me," he struck in quickly. "But I have her on my conscience."
He moved forward suddenly and stood behind the settee.
"She was so different once—what have we made of her? I have no right to scorn her as I did, and now it seems that she appeals to me. Susannah, tell me what I ought to do."
Miss Chressham was startled by the tense note in his voice; she glanced up at him over her shoulder.
"Oh, Marius! why do you come to me?" she murmured weakly.
He leant his arms on the top of her seat and rested his head in his right hand; his frowning eyes gazed before him, and he spoke in a voice that she hardly knew for his.
"I want to be better than any of it, I should like to live differently from Rose—from any of them." As he jerked out the words the colour rose and receded in his earnest young face. "I started wrong, I never really cared for her, but I did not know. And then there was always the money. I thought I should never need for that; but things have changed so, in this last year. I—I want to get out of it, I want you to help me."
He came to an end, very pale, and Susannah sat silent. She felt with a sense of shock that he was making an effort to reveal his very soul to her; she saw his emotion, and wondered dimly that it did not touch her. She was angry with herself that her only desire was to silence him, to escape from the effort of striving to understand him; she was very tired, and her inner thoughts were far from Marius.
"When I was abroad," he continued, "I—I used to think of it and could find no way; but I must escape it. I—do you believe in Heaven and Hell, Susannah?"
"'Tis what we are taught," she answered; "what makes you speak in this fashion, Marius?"
His breath came passionately, he did not look at her.
"Ah, I want to do something worth while; I do not want to be damned through ignoble foolish vices. You know, you remember, in the ballads we used to read—" He broke off, then added huskily, "Do you not understand, Susannah?"
She was frightened.
"Oh, not to-night! do not speak of this to-night," she cried. "I am very weary."
"I must speak when I can. I am appealing to you, do not you see? You are the only person I would say this to. I speak very awkwardly. I am not worth—"
"Oh, Marius!" again weakly she tried to stop him.
His speech became almost incoherent; she caught only the burden of it, "Do you not understand?"
"Some day, if I tried with this before me, I might be in an honourable position; you cared a little to write to me, did you not? It might be all honest and worth while, and splendid, Susannah."
She rose, shuddering.
"I fear you have mistaken me, Marius. I—I can be no help to you."
He gripped the top of the settee.
"Do you mean that?" he leant towards her. "I speak like a fool, I know; but I am trying to tell you."
"Marius!" she entreated, overwhelmed, surprised, in no way moved with anything save pity. "Please do not say anything more now."
Again came his desperate passionate question. "Do you not understand me? I want you—some day when I am not penniless—to be my wife."
Susannah made an effort over herself; her own emotions were in no way touched, but she was desperately sorry and a great deal startled; always she had considered him as very young.
"I have never thought of this, Marius," she said simply, pale as was he, but composed. "And I am honoured that you should care; but ah! my dear, you do not quite mean what you say."
He coloured furiously.
"By Heaven, I love you,"
She looked away.
"I hope you do not mean that," she answered, "because—"
He half laughed.
"Because you do not care for me?"
"Not in that way, Marius," she said gently.
He put his hand to his brow in a dazed way.
"Then it is over, impossible?"
"Yes." Miss Chressham was still not looking at him. "And I am sorry, oh, very sorry!"
"Is there not a chance, some day?" His tone was piteously incredulous.
But Susannah, strengthened by an intense and hidden feeling, answered with a finality calm to cruelty.
"No, I could never, Marius; I beg of you not to speak of this again. If I have hurt you I am grieved; but it is impossible."
Silence followed, and now she ventured to look at him; he stood quite still, frowning, with downcast eyes; the fire and flash had died from his demeanour, which was that of a man utterly humiliated. Susannah sickened at herself for having had to repulse him, what he had offered was something she might have been proud to accept, and a sense of guilt stole into her heart.
Marius was speaking, quietly.
"Forgive me, it was all my fault, I had no right to presume."
Remorse flushed her face, since he was taking it so well.
"I would give anything it had not happened," she murmured.
"It shall not recur;" he straightened himself and moved from the settee. "I was a fool—when does a man meet such fortune as I hoped for? Forget it, and goodnight."
He smiled, giving her the sudden impression of someone older, and weightier, and turned towards the door.
Impulsively she held out her hand, then, seeing his instant flush, withdrew it.
"Good-night," she murmured.
He was gone, and she gave a great sigh of exhaustion and relief; she had not thought of this from him, and he was in earnest too; well, it eased her mind with regard to the Countess. He had appealed to her, she could have done anything with him had she responded—now. Why could she not have cared for him, he was a finer man than—ah, for whose sake was she refusing him?
She sank across the settee and hid her face in her hands.
The feeling that had been the background of her life ever since she could remember, strong, intense, always, but always under control and hidden, broke all restraint and shook her from head to foot; she clasped her moist hands tightly and pressed them against her brow with a shiver. She asked herself what would become of Marius, and answered herself—nothing.
He was drifting, like my lord, and she could put out no hand to save either, or did not. It seemed that no action was to redeem these last annals of their house. Marius would do nothing. Rose would do nothing, she would do nothing; the Countess wasted her malice, there was no fire to be struck out of the Lyndwoods.
Miss Chressham had seen the Earl with Miss Trefusis on his arm. Sir Francis was appeased. Selina, most fortunate of all of them, could wrap her heart in dreams and go about smiling; she did not know him, at least not as his cousin did.
There was Marius—poor Marius; his longings, his half-stifled aspirations had passed by her like the breeze that blew in from the dark town, but she knew that they had been real; even while she could not rouse herself to understand his mood she had hated herself that she must send him away bitter, unsatisfied.
She rose and put out the candles. The two churches, St. Martin's-in-the-Fields and St. James's, struck the chiming quarters, and then the hour—one.
Susannah, protected by the dark, made an uncontrollable movement of her locked hands to her bosom.
"Oh Rose, Rose!" she murmured; then, with a shudder crushed the name back into her heart, and went softly through the silent beautiful house to her chamber.
The contre-danse had come to an end. The Earl led Miss Trefusis back to her place, kissed her hand with a half-lazy glance into her languishing eyes, and turned slowly down the ballroom.
It was after supper, and everyone was unmasked. My lord, in no mood for the unrestrained gaieties of the crowd, stepped into the garden and heard the chimes of St. James's Church that Miss Chressham listened to in her darkened drawing-room. The garden was full of may trees and limes, brightly lit with coloured lamps and filled with the melody of violins that floated from the pavilion on the lake.
Rose Lyndwood, avoiding his acquaintances and choosing the less frequented paths, wandered down to the water's edge. He had no design nor intention in his mind, no one passion dominated his heart; but he was in the mood to meet anything that might arise. There was nothing reckless in his bearing. He walked quietly, slowly, his head bent and the pink domino falling from his shoulders. He held up his rapier that it might not catch in the laurels.
As he neared the water he paused to break from its stem a pale rose that fell across his path—a flower-like faint flame that seemed as if it had been created suddenly out of the darkness. When he looked up he saw Selina.
Boyle, standing a few feet away from him under a rosy lamp that cast a blushing radiance over her white dress. Beyond her the bushes falling apart revealed a lattice overgrown with jasmine, and a party of ladies and gentlemen laughing over a supper-table.
The Earl slipped the rose stem through the brooch in his cravat, and laughed.
Miss Boyle moved a little away; it seemed as if she would rejoin her companions without a word to him. Her delicate head was very erect above the folds of her fine scarf.
"What chance brought me here?" said the Earl softly. "Good luck or bad?"
She hesitated, stopped and looked at him as if she wished to speak but could not.
My lord's lids drooped. He had seen Sir Francis through the lattice of the summer-house. His hitherto meaningless humour lacked now no motive to spur it. He stepped quickly to Miss Boyle's side.
"I have seen Susannah," he said.
She moved out of the lamplight.
"Then you know that—we—cannot speak together," she said under her breath and faintly.
"Why?" asked my lord on a quick note of recklessness.
"Ah, you know!" she faltered. "And we shall be seen."
She walked on, but towards the water, not the supper-table. He came behind her, treading lightly. Her long gauzy scarf floated about her like a mist. The silver borders of it gleamed across her bosom and over her powdered curls.
"That malice in the paper has frightened you," said my lord. "I think there is no need to notice it."
She paused in her slow walk and stood, an elusive shape in white, against the dark laurels.
"This is an extraordinary thing for you to say," she breathed.
"Ah, you blame me, and I have no excuses to offer!"
"Mine was the fault," she spoke so low that he must bend closer to hear. "I should never have written to you."
Her skirt had fluttered back on a bough; he stooped and loosened it.
"Walk along here with me, Selina."
"Let me return. You should not have spoken to me. I am unnerved to-night."
"I should like to take you on the lake—away from these people. Could we find a boat?"
"My lord, I entreat you, let me return. I—I shall not be able to hold my head up!" she answered desperately and weakly.
"Do I prevent your return?" he smiled. "I am not detaining you, Selina."
"Oh, in many ways! You agitate me beyond bearing. If Sir Francis—"
"Well?" he laughed into her trembling sentences. "Are you afraid of Sir Francis?"
She gave him a bewildered piteous look.
"Afraid! Yes, I am afraid of them all. What do you want to say to me? Ah, there is nothing to be said!"
"Everything, I think," he answered. "Give me a chance to speak."
The dim confusing and shifting light of moon and lamp, falling brokenly through the stirring branches, only half revealed to her his face, turned towards her, pale between the pomaded curls.
"I cannot hear you, my lord."
He caught her little wrist lightly.
"You are not going to betroth yourself to Sir Francis?"
"I have assured you of that," she panted. "This is cruelty, my lord. Ah, release my hand!"
He did not. The lace at his cuff trembled on her bare arm. They stood very close together, she straining her head away from him so that her hair and scarf mingled floated out on the breeze and touched his breast.
"This is impossible," murmured Miss Boyle. "I must return." Suddenly she faced him. "Why are you doing this?"
He freed her hand.
"Read my actions by your own heart, Selina," he smiled. "You care for me, do you not? I cannot expect it put into words, but at least look at me."
"I think you must be heartless, or possessed, to-night, my lord."
She made a quick step back among the laurels, for as she spoke Sir Francis was upon them. He had come swiftly and silently, it seemed, down the path from the pavilion, and was within a step of them before they saw him.
"Miss Boyle—madam!" he cried, and looked from one to another in a breathless manner.
The Earl bowed with a slight air of mockery. He seemed pleased, elated, by this sudden incursion.
"Good even. Sir Francis!" he said.
Miss Boyle gathered herself together and took a step towards her cousin.
"Let us go back to the house, sir," she said.
Sir Francis flushed and hesitated. My lord observed him with narrowed eyes.
"We are engaged for this dance," said Miss Boyle desperately. "I think it hath begun." She laid her hand tremblingly on her cousin's arm, and he was turning in answer to the appeal that she breathed forth to her very finger-tips, when Rose Lyndwood spoke.
"I vow you are very fickle, Miss Boyle." His soft voice was pointedly reckless. "Had you not promised me your company upon the lake?"
There followed the pause of a second, while my lord flung his domino over his shoulder and fingered the rose under his chin.
"Is this true?" asked Sir Francis.
The Earl's eyes seemed to laugh.
"Call it a lie. Will it not equally serve?"
"My lord!" cried Miss Boyle.
"What is your meaning. Lord Lyndwood?" inquired Sir Francis softly.
"Not the same as you apprehended it last night," answered Rose Lyndwood, and laughed outright. "And, for the rest, is it ever worth while to ask my meaning?"
"Come away!" breathed Miss Boyle.
"No." Her cousin turned from her. "His lordship hath somewhat to answer to me."
"You think so," said my lord. "Well, you know where to find me, Sir Francis."
Miss Boyle broke into an agony of whispered words.
"What has happened? Take me away—for my sake, Francis—my lord!"
The Earl disregarded the entreaty of voice and eyes. He did not look at her, but at the man she stood beside.
"Yesterday you were too slow, as to-night you go too fast," cried Sir Francis, "and either humour is one not to be borne. So you shall hear from me, my lord."
"No!" exclaimed Miss Boyle, striking her hand on her bosom. "Take that back, sir. You know not what you say—what you do!" She clasped his hand, but the passion of her imploring eyes was all for Rose Lyndwood. "Grant me the right to ask this of you. Take that back."
But her cousin answered hotly.
"It is you who do not know what you ask, madam. Now let me take you to the ballroom."
She dropped his hand.
"My lord, to you—I speak to you. Will you allow this to happen?"
No change crossed my lord's pale smiling face.
"Sir Francis must act as he thinks fit, madam," he answered, and again touched the rose at his cravat. "Need it distress you?"
Francis Boyle spoke on a passionate exclamation.
"'Tis your presence distresses this lady, Lord Lyndwood. With the knowledge you have 'twas an insult that you sought to speak to her to-night, and that you stay is, my lord, insolence!"
The Earl turned at this slightly, with an air of utterly dismissing and despising the speaker. His eyes were wildly bright and daring in a face composed and colourless. He spoke directly to Miss Boyle, with no attempt to disguise the meaning in his voice.
"Will you speak for yourself, madam? Does not the gentleman pretend to overmuch? May not I see you back to the house?"
Sir Francis drew his breath sharply, but remained proudly waiting for her.
She shivered and gave a little groan. A sudden laugh sprang into my lord's beautiful eyes. He lifted the pale rose to his lips and threw back his head. Miss Boyle, all silver and white, took a step forward into the moonlight where it fell clear of the laurels.
"Sir Francis is my escort, sir," she answered, looking straightly at my lord. "My duty to the Countess, and adieu!" She curtsied, and Sir Francis made a little eager motion towards her. She laid her hand lightly on his arm.
The Earl smiled at both of them.
"Au revoir, shall we not say?" He turned away at once.
Miss Boyle stood with downcast eyes. She was so pale and quiet that Sir Francis was alarmed.
"I would I had come sooner."
She looked round now—not at him, but at the pink domino disappearing down the shadowed walk.
"You are not going to challenge him?" she asked under her breath.
"I am sorry that it should have happened in your presence, grieved that it troubles you."
She glanced at him in an absent way.
"What are you saying? Give me a moment."
"Will you not return to the house?"
"No, I could not; nor dance to-night." Her fingers quivered on his sleeve. "Besides, I must speak to you."
He flushed quickly.
"About this affair?"
"Give me a moment," repeated Miss Boyle faintly.
They walked on, neither saying a word, he waiting for her and she absorbed in some emotion that held her silent. They reached a little seat by the water's edge, and there she, leaving the support of his arm, sank down.
"Oh, heaven!" she cried suddenly. "You are not going to challenge him?"
"What else?" he answered reluctantly. "But there is no need to talk of it."
"It cannot—it must not happen!" said Miss Boyle desperately.
He glanced at her half doubtingly. The moonlight was elusive, treacherous; he could not guess what emotion it was that shook her.
"You laughed at the paragraph in the paper," she continued, "and now—"
He ended her sentence.
"I cannot laugh at his manner of taking it; that he should speak to you, in that tone—that he should dare. We could not take from any man, least of all from Lord Lyndwood."
"You have neither right nor excuse to interfere," she answered. "I do not ask you to champion me, Francis."
"The right of a member of your family, madam, the head of your family; your father would approve what I do."
"But you swore you wished to please me," she cried feverishly. "Well, please me this way."
"It is a way in which no man should please a lady," replied Sir Francis hotly. "Do not put me to the pain of a refusal, madam. My challenge goes to Lord Lyndwood."
"Ah, that is what it comes to! It is not for me you care, but for your pride."
"You will not be involved," he said quickly. "Can we not find a pretext for a quarrel?"
Miss Boyle rose, and the silver borders of her scarf rippled from her bosom to her feet.
"I am going to put myself at your mercy," she said in a quiet voice. "You must not take this quarrel upon you. You must understand."
He stood silent, staring at her oval face faintly seen between the folds of gauze.
"It is true, Francis—that statement in the paper. My lord wrote to me, and I to him, as it said. It was, I think, the Countess who found my letter and composed that paragraph." Her voice suddenly failed into a little sob.
"Is this a wile to put me off?" demanded Sir Francis passionately.
"On my honour, it is true," she answered. "' It was always so between us, before his marriage, since we first met, and because of that I could not give you or any my hand."
"This to my face!" exclaimed her cousin softly.
Miss Boyle replied proudly.
"I do you some honour. You have no claim on me. I might have put you off with Hes, it is not over easy to tell the truth—his truth to you."
"Would you had lied sooner than I had heard it!" he answered bitterly. "It is not, madam, pleasant news."
"You had to know. There must be no duel."
This flicked him into a passion as if it had been an insult or a blow.
"You cannot imagine, madam, that what you have told me can make any difference. By heaven, you do not dare to ask me to ignore this!"
"After what I have confessed!" she cried, bewildered, piteous.
Sir Francis gave a short laugh.
"You have confessed too much, madam. It has not increased my respect for Lord Lyndwood, nor altered my intentions."
She clasped her hands in an agony.
"I implore you, if you would not kill me, do not send that challenge."
"You are very tender of his safety," replied Sir Francis, moving back from her. "But take courage, madam; men like my lord are usually skilled with sword and pistol."
Miss Boyle shrank down on to the seat.
"You insult me, Francis—Francis!"
"What of me? Do you think me wood or stone? And what I say, I mean. Lord Lyndwood is a successful duellist."
"Can you think I want you hurt," she cried frantically, "and by him?"
"You would not, I think, grieve overmuch, madam," he answered bitterly. "I have been sorry fool enough to think I might one day win your regard, and you tell me this! It is very well. I will not distress you with my presence."
But she sprang up and crossed his path as he was leaving her.
"For God's sake, Francis, listen to me. Do not refuse to listen to me now. I have tried to be honest with you from the first." She suddenly slipped to her knees on the path and took his sword hand. "Have some pity, Francis," and she broke into wild tears.
He gave a great exclamation to see her at his feet, and raised her sharply.
"This should be to my Lord Lyndwood," he said wildly, "but you can have no cause to kneel to me."
She crouched away from him on the seat where he placed her and buried her face in her hands.
"You do not understand," she gasped. "I would not have believed this."
"Nor I, madam," he answered. "That a man like my lord should be your choice!"
She raised her distorted face and struggled with sobs, pressing her hands to her eyes. Sir Francis watched her for a moment.
"Shall I see you back to the house?" he asked in a restrained voice.
Miss Boyle shuddered into a sudden calm.
"I would thank you to leave me."
"Good-night, then, madam."
She looked at him with utter reproach and despair.
"God forgive you, Francis!"
He left her without a word or a backward look towards the seat where she sat dumbly weeping.
The Countess Lavinia sat alone by the light of a solitary candle in the great drawing-room of Lyndwood House; it was four in the morning, and she had been an hour back from the masquerade; over her chair hung the brilliant domino, and her dress, even in this light, glimmered with the sheen of a jewel.
She leant back in the heavily brocaded chair, her small hands resting on the arms, her head turned towards the open long windows where the dark silk curtains slightly stirred in the night breeze. On the gilt table beside her rested an open letter.
It was perfectly still in the high shadowed room; the sense of night, mystery, and loneliness was complete; the small heart-shaped flame of the candle revealed dimly the face and figure of my lady, the table, and the letter; for the rest shadows and fluttering glooms obscured the handsome furniture, the massive ceiling, the carved walls.
Suddenly the Countess moved her head and looked towards the door. A light footstep sounded without; she moistened her lips and her hands tightened on the chair, then, as my lord softly entered, she turned her face away again.
"I was waiting for you," she said, as he closed the door. "I could stay no longer at the masquerade. I found this letter when I reached home, and I thought I would wait up and speak to you."
The Earl wore his domino and carried his mask.
"I saw a light in here," he answered. "Why must you speak to me to-night? it is late."
There was no expression on her painted face.
"We do not see each other often, do we, my lord? And to-night I am in the mood—"
He flung cloak and vizard on to a chair.
"For what?" he asked.
She looked at him for the first time, and sat up, shrugging her shoulders.
"For anything," she said. She pulled her handkerchief out and pressed it to her brilliant lips; the roses, ribbons, and pearls in her high-piled grey curls shone in the flickering flame.
My lord drew off his gloves.
"What is the letter, madam?" He gave her a sideways look out of weary, reckless eyes.
"From my father." She took the handkerchief from her mouth and there was a stain of carmine on it. "He is just back from Holland, where he hath been to take up some monies due to him."
"I know," said the Earl. "I think this news can wait."
"It is no news, my lord; you are aware that my father's fortunes—"
"Will not bear the strain of my extravagance?" He placed his tasselled gauntlets down beside the silver candlestick and the letter. "Well, he has said so."
Her eyes narrowed.
"You are very cool; what do you propose to do?"
The Earl gave her a slow smile.
"How often people ask that," he remarked. "I propose, madam, nothing."
"I suppose you have said that before," answered the Countess, "but you have saved yourself nevertheless; that way is closed now, however, you cannot marry an heiress again."
He crossed to the mantelshelf and rested his elbow there, taking his cheek in his hand; the little pale light was yet enough to disclose the languid reckless beauty of his face.
"Why waste your bitterness on these obvious comments, madam?" he asked. "Whatever my affairs may be, you and I cannot better them by discussion."
"Your affairs!" she echoed. "Do they not also concern me? My father crippled himself to pay your debts a year ago, and hath spent a swinging fortune since."
"Doth he think me too dear?" smiled the Earl. "Well, it was his bargain."
"I am not talking of him, but of myself."
Her husband fixed his scornful grey eyes on the contained malice of her delicate face.
"You knew you were not marrying a prudent man, madam, my reputation was easy to come at; if we made a mistake it was an irrevocable one. Till now we have at least avoided the folly of telling each other so."
She returned his glance, straightly and keenly; her fine nostrils were distended, and against the pallor of her hollow cheeks the patches of rouge looked vivid and unnatural.
"It has been very easy for you," she said. "I have not touched your life at all, I merely stand for that vulgarity—money; but money is something that cannot always be ignored, and you must face it now, it and me, my lord."
The Earl spoke in a low voice.
"What does your father say?"
"He writes like a man possessed "—her slight hand touched the open letter. "The Dutch bank has failed, the East Indian ships are lost, he thinks his liabilities will be more than he can meet, unless he can negotiate some loan; but," she lifted her thin shoulders out of the glittering gown, "I have no doubt we are ruined. He curses me," she added, "and talks of Bedlam; he hath always dwelt on that matter of madness in our family."
Her brilliant wrathful eyes turned to the Earl's colourless face.
"What are our assets?" she asked. "Your post in the Ministry and Pelham on the verge of impeachment! Your impoverished estates, half entailed, the furniture, jewels, horses—worth a few thousands—not enough to satisfy a quarter of the creditors; what is before us?"
"You know as well as I," he answered. "And do not blame me wholly, madam; you have not lived like an anchorite."
"What you have lost on one night would furnish my needs for months; and there is your mother, your cousin."
A swift colour flew into my lord's face.
"Miss Chressham is in an independent position, madam."
"Is your brother. Captain Lyndwood?"
She tossed the name at him with an indescribable air of insolence and insult; he drew a deep breath.
"I think we will not speak of him."
"Why not? He has cost you somewhat, your marriage did him good service."
"The best service I ever rendered Marius," interrupted my lord, "was when I prevented him from making you his wife, madam."
The Countess quivered.
"That was an unconscious favour," she cried. "You married me for my money, for nothing else."
"For nothing else," he repeated, his attitude unchanged, his voice unaltered. "What other reason, madam, should I have had?"
She pressed her hands to her tight bodice.
"You glossed it with self-sacrifice, it was to save your brother, your mother, the estates—anything but for yourself, because you could not face life without money."
Again the uncontrollable colour betrayed my lord, suffusing his face painfully.
"Why are you saying this?"
"Oh, I have been longing to say it ever since we were married; I think I have my chance now "—her voice trembled with passion—"ever since you ordered me from the room. Do you remember—that night you brought me home, and your brother turned his back on me?"
"By God," cried the Earl, "this is intolerable; are we to exchange recriminations?" He moved towards her. "I have that on my mind makes you and your father and his damned money of no moment to me."
The Countess rose, sweeping the flame-coloured domino to the floor.
"Ah, Miss Boyle!" she said through her teeth. "She was at the ball to-night."
"I will not endure this from you, madam."
"That is monstrous amusing," cried the Countess, and her eyes flew wide. "Do you imagine that I do not know—"
"And I also—I know, who wrote the paragraph in the Gazette."
She was obviously startled, taken with a quick utter surprise; she stared at him as if she hoped to read some explanation of his words in his pale face.
"Did you imagine," continued my lord, "that I could live a year in the same house with you and not be aware that you read my letters and set your servant to spy on me?" He smiled in a fashion that made her colour with fury. "What other was there with both the knowledge and the vulgarity to send what you sent to the paper? You deceive yourself, madam, if you think I do not know you."
The Countess Lavinia stood silent; she had no words to meet the occasion. Only once before had she spoken directly with her husband, when he had brought her home to Lyndwood Holt, and then, as now, he had silenced her. Her dumb hatred of him rose and swelled in her heart to agony; she made a motion of her hand to her throat and then clutched at the pearls on her tight bodice.
The Earl glanced away from her as if he found her not worth his attention.
"It hath been too mean a thing to mention," he said; "but it was patent to me from the moment Sir Francis showed me the Gazette, It hath not done much mischief, madam, or caused any trouble I cannot right; Miss Boyle stands too high for malice to touch. Well, there is no more to say."
She found voice enough to ask harshly:
"Is this how you take it?"
Of all things she had never expected this. The contemplation of his certain fury had made a point to her days; again and again she had said to herself, "I shall have stung him beyond bearing at last," and she had nerved herself to bear the outburst of his rage for the pleasure of seeing him brought by her means to bitter wrath; she had not supposed that he would discover of himself that she was the author of the paragraph, but she had intended at the climax, when he was on the eve of a duel with Sir Francis and Miss Boyle had fled from London, to say to him, "I did this—I!"
The Earl moved again to the mantelshelf.
"How did you imagine I would take it?" he asked quietly. "I reap what I sowed when I married Mr. Hilton's daughter."
She gave a little gasp, and the string of pearls broke and came away in her hot hand.
"A noble way you vindicate your gentle blood, my lord," she said in a voice faltering with passion. "I have been your convenience and your scorn."
"And my wife," he interrupted, "before the world, my wife; which is what you, I think, desired, madam."
"Your wife!" she echoed wildly.
He answered her coldly.
"Your life has been as you have made it."
"My life hath been Hell," answered the Countess vehemently; she cast the pearls down on the table beside the flaring unsnuffed candle. "Ever since I met you I have lived in bitter unhappiness." She looked at the Earl with dangerous eyes. "Had I married your brother I might have been a contented woman, he is an honourable man."
Rose Lyndwood laughed.
"Cannot that rouse you!" she cried. "What are you become, my lord?"
"The utter folly of our discussing these matters!" he answered, smiling. "We waste our breath, madam, and I, for one, am weary of it."
The Countess caught up her father's letter.
"What have you to say to this?" she demanded.
"Nothing." He looked at his reflection in the mirror above the mantelshelf and yawned.
"What will you do to avert this ruin?" she asked, trembling.
"Still nothing." He looked at her now, over his shoulder, and the extreme handsomeness of his face was impressed on her suddenly, like an added insult.
"And about Selina Boyle, poor shadow of sentiment, you will do nothing?" she sneered. "And you will face the laughter, the comment, and still do nothing. Ah! you have no fire nor life left in you. Lord Lyndwood, you are become a worthless rake indeed."
Still she could not move him; he yawned again and thrust his hands into the embroidered pockets of his white velvet waistcoat.
"Do you think you care for her?" cried the Countess, furious. "It is a paltry pretence; if I died to-morrow you would marry another woman with money and whistle Selina Boyle down the wind."
"The candle requires snuffing," said Rose Lyndwood; "but I do not wish to burn my fingers nor can I see the snuffers." He smiled with his pale lips and his fickle grey eyes. "Good-night, madam."
The Countess took a step forward as he moved towards the door; it seemed she would have struck him, but he made a motion with his hand as if he brushed her aside, laughed in her face and left the room.
He did not close the door. The Countess, looking after him, saw in the dimly lit hall the figure of Honoria Pryse in a dark wrapper, moving back secretively as she was surprised by my lord's sudden appearance.
"I was coming for her ladyship," she said in a tone of covert defiance.
Rose Lyndwood glanced from maid to mistress, and both winced; then he passed slowly up the dark stairs.
Honoria Pryse came into the drawing-room and closed the door; her first action was to snuff the candle and set it further on the table.
The Countess sank down upon the sofa, and with a groan hid her face in the bend of her arm.
"He knows," said the maid, thrusting the loose gold hair back under her mob.
"He has always known," the Countess raised her face, "and it doth not touch him; he brushes it from him as a fly off his sleeve. I told him of my father's letter; what did he care?" She clenched her fragile hands in the dove-coloured cushions. "My God, I am sick with hate, or love."
Honoria Pryse observed her curiously. Lady Lyndwood's passionate loathing of her lord had always been beyond her understanding; to her own nature strong feeling was impossible.
"Did you see Captain Lyndwood to-night?" she asked,
"Yes, he is a fool and a virtuous fool, but I swear I think I love him. Oh, Honoria!" her eyes gleamed with an expression akin to insanity. "Do you not think I love him?"
"No," answered the maid, "not yet at least, but I think you hate my lord, and I wonder why; if ye had not felt this frenzy against him ye had been able to better hold your own."
The Countess did not seem to hear.
"How may one touch a man like that—hath he no soul beyond his easy pleasures?" she cried vehemently. "He will not cross swords for Selina Boyle, and he thinks he loves her. I cannot move him to any fury by talk of ruin, always his face hath one expression for me, and no way can I alter it; is there nothing in the world he cares for?"
Honoria shrugged her shoulders.
"His name, his dignity, I suppose; we have never affected that. You have been very discreet, my lady, and he knows you cannot be otherwise and keep the position you paid so highly for."
A curious look passed over the Countess's face.
"His name!" she repeated; then she laughed stupidly and shivered. "Well, we are ruined; what is before me?"
"You are far enough from ruin," answered the maid calmly. "Mr. Hilton stands firm enough, and my lord's position is not so easily overturned."
The Countess rose with sudden energy
"Get to bed, Honoria, I am tired to-night, and meant not what I said," but her passionate face and heated eyes belied her words.
"Will you not come also, my lady?"
"In a while, yes."
The maid had the policy sometimes to submit to the mistress she ruled; with the faintest of sneering smiles she left the room.
With quick steps the Countess hurried across the floor, picked up her father's letter and dashed out the candle.
Through the heavy curtains fell the first glimmer of the London dawn, but where my lady stood all was dark; she tore the letter to shreds, breathing heavily.
"His name," she muttered to herself; "my name also. An insignificant thing like me, my lord, might make you the laughing stock of the town."
She paused and peered round the dark mistrustfully. She moved unerringly to where the Earl had left his domino, found it, flung it on the ground and set her high-heeled shoe on it; then laughing and crying together hurried from the room.
"I think it is monstrous strange that Marius could not stay," remarked the Countess Agatha, gathering round her the swansdown and gold wrap. "There is room enough here, and I vow it is more comfortable than forlorn chambers in Westminster."
"He hath been considering this move for some time," answered Miss Chressham quietly. "He hath, I think, an idea of independence. It is a pity he will not go abroad again."
"To leave us so suddenly!" continued the Countess heedlessly. "But last night I thought he seemed to me strange when he took you to the masque."
"Perhaps, after all, it is better for him," said Susannah gently; and moved so that the candle-light did not fall over her face.
"I thought Rose might have come to-day," commented my lady, with the air of a grievance, "but I swear he has not been over-attentive of late."
Miss Chressham sighed. She could no more have confided in her aunt than in a child. My lord's troubles were not to be helped by his mother; yet one matter his cousin brought herself to mention, since it must be faced sooner or later.
"Rose is too extravagant. I think it begins to weigh with him."
The Countess Agatha was drawing on her fine silk gloves.
"Well, my dear," she smiled sweetly, "what did he marry that woman for? Not to stint himself."
"Stint himself!" Miss Chressham smiled too, but sadly. "His entertainments cost thousands, and his losses at cards—I do not care to think of them. No fortune could stand it, and Mr. Hilton, I hear, has lost money in Holland."
"And what of Selina Boyle?" asked the Countess Agatha, with her trick of changing the subject at random, as if she never listened to what was said to her. "And that odious stuff in the Gazette? I hope you told her that it was too foolish to be noticed, and that I laughed at it; but, of course, I have no doubt it is true, nor that that impossible Lavinia wrote it."
"I suppose it can be lived down," answered Susannah. "But Sir Francis and Mr. Boyle are furious."
"Do you think 'twill come to a duel with Rose?" asked the Countess vaguely.
"No—oh, no." Miss Chressham was positive.
"But His infatuation for her?"
"And she?" The Countess Agatha's soft eyes were sympathetic.
Miss Chressham gave a painful little laugh.
"I am afraid that she—is in love."
"And that wretched creature comes between them!" sighed the elder lady. "It is too provoking Selina could not have had the money. She is quite charming, and I always liked her. But are you sure of Rose?" she asked suddenly. "There have been so many!"
Miss Chressham coloured.
"What are we talking of? It is all very foolish, and I vow you will be late. Aunt Agatha."
The Countess glanced at the clock.
"You are certain you will not accompany me, Susannah?"
"Indeed, I am too tired. And now my lord is waiting."
"Marius may come this evening. There are many of his things here. Do you see him, then say I blame him for this desertion."
With that the Countess kissed her niece and left the room in a flutter of golden embroideries. She was as gay, in her delicate lady's way, as Rose, and as extravagant. Susannah sometimes wondered what the dowager Lady Lyndwood would do if the money failed, and she thought she could guess. The Countess had the light way of taking things that would allow her to marry again, and still remain true to the one passion and tragedy of her life—the love and death of the Earl.
Miss Chressham went to the window and watched the Countess, by the light of the link-boys' torches, being handed into the coach by Lord Willouby, who had been waiting for her patiently in the great empty drawing-room below.
Susannah saw them drive off, then let the curtains fall. She felt sad yet excited at a tension not to be explained. Everything had ended more quietly than she could have expected, yet she felt as if on the verge of great events.
Rose had met Sir Francis, and nothing had happened. The Gazette scandal appeared to have blown over; there had been no word from Selina Boyle since last night.
Marius had taken his answer quietly. She was sorry he had left them, frankly regretting his company, but she respected his motives, one of which she suspected to be the desire to avoid the Countess Lavinia, who could no longer, with any shadow of a decent excuse, seek him out for her amusement.
Poor Marius! Susannah thought of him with tenderness. He had behaved very well; he had finer stuff in him than had Rose, but—
Her reflections touched the state of the Earl's fortunes.
She told herself that it must be this casting a gloom over her spirits.
He would say so little, and that little a sneer, or mocking. He acted on such sudden desperate impulses, as in the matter of his marriage. Never had he been frank with her, and she, sensitive to his reserve, had equally never been able to bring herself to probe into his affairs. She knew that he must be entangled in debt. She feared a sudden downfall of his fortunes, but she knew—with certainty—nothing.
She sat down at the spinet and played a little madrigal by Orlando Gibbons that was associated with her earliest childhood. When her fingers fell still her hands dropped into her lap, and she sat motionless, staring across the gorgeous chamber.
The mirror behind her reflected her slender figure in the tight lilac silk, the loops of soft brown hair falling over the muslin fichu and the faint coloured keys of the spinet.
Her reverie was disturbed by the entry of my lady's black page; she thought he came to announce Marius, and her heart fluttered.
But it was a lady who desired to be admitted. She said she came from Lyndwood House, and the page thought her the maid of the younger Countess.
Susannah paled with anger and distaste. What impertinence was this on the part of the odious Honoria Pryse?
"My lady is at Ranelagh," she said. "I suppose this person hath come to see her."
"No, madam; she asked for you."
A swift stab of premonitory disaster prevented Miss Chressham from sending the message that was at first on her lips—a curt refusal to see the Countess Lavinia's maid. Surely something desperate must have occurred before Honoria Pryse would seek her out; but the boy might be mistaken.
"Bring her to me," she commanded briefly.
Then in the moment that she waited a sudden sense of helplessness, of loneliness, overcame Susannah Chressham. Something was going to happen—something perhaps had happened—to Rose, and she was here alone to meet it, to decide.
But when the door again opened she stood braced to face the person she had expected—Lady Lyndwood's maid.
Honoria Pryse entered softly. She was simply attired in a shade of dull purple that set off the rich gold colour of her hair; a chip straw shaded her face, and she wore a dark cloak; her manner and bearing was absolutely composed and quiet. She dropped an indifferent curtsey, and waited until the black boy had left them, summing up the while with keen eyes Miss Chressham, who kept her place at the spinet, and spoke as soon as they were alone.
"You have come to see me?" she inquired, with a coldness in great contrast to her usual manner.
"I cannot conceive on what subject."
"Do you know me. Miss Chressham? I am the Countess's woman, and have been with her since she was a child."
"I remember you very well," answered Susannah. "Will you please tell me your errand?"
Honoria, still completely at her ease, came further into the room.
"I expect, madam, you will be surprised that I come to you, but I believe you will be interested in what I have to say, and I have always known that you were a sensible, cool-headed lady."
This was said gravely, without a hint of flattery. Susannah was impressed with a sense of something weighty behind the words—the image of Selina, of Rose, flashed through her mind. What had happened?
"Sit down," she said, controlling herself, "and tell me your errand."
Honoria calmly seated herself on one of the gilt chairs, and clasped her mittened hands in her lap.
"My Lady Agatha is out?" she asked.
"Yes, I am alone."
Honoria regarded her shrewdly.
"You know, madam, that my mistress came here this afternoon?"
"No," answered Susannah. "I have been abroad all day."
"Will you listen to me for a few moments? I think you will find it to your interest, madam."
Miss Chressham twisted her handkerchief in agitated fingers.
"Say what you will."
A faint smile touched the maid's thin lips.
"You were at the masque last night? My lord and my lady were there, as you know. My lady returned about three of the clock, and found a letter from Mr. Hilton with ill news in it. She waited up for my lord, and there followed a scene of some violence—on her part."
Miss Chressham interrupted.
"What do you mean by recounting to me these things? I will not hear them."
"I tell you them merely to explain what follows, madam," answered Honoria, unmoved. "My lady, who beats herself in a vain passion of hatred against my lord's scorn, comes upstairs in a fever, talking incoherently of ruin, and falls into hysterics. She faints three or four times in the night, and lies in a stupor till midday. This morning a friend of Sir Francis Boyle comes with, I think, a challenge for my lord, who leaves the house, with no inquiry after the Countess."
"A challenge!" interjected Miss Chressham.
"I believe so, madam; but I am speaking of my mistress. She rose this afternoon, took the coach, and came here, though she was not fit to leave the house. Soon after she returned and told me that Mr. Marius—Captain Lyndwood—had left here and taken lodging in Westminster. She said she had the address."
"They gave it to her!" cried Susannah angrily.
"She said so," repeated Honoria. "She seemed very weak, and almost beside herself; she raved against my lord and his family, and talked of Bedlam and the madness in her family, but she insisted on going out again to drink tea with Lady Fulton. It was late then, and she would neither take me nor the coach, but got into a chair. There was none with her, only a page following."
"Go on," said Susannah faintly, as Honoria paused.
"My lord came home soon after. He and my lady were due at a ball at Trefusis House; he sent up to know if she was coming, and when I said she was yet abroad, he left without comment."
"And she has not returned?" broke in Miss Chressham. "You are going to tell me that she has not returned?"
"She had not, madam, when I left the house an hour ago; but the page returned, and the chair. My lady had dismissed them both by St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, and she gave the boy a gold piece not to hang round with the chair, nor yet to attract attention by going back immediately, which commands the little wretch carried out; but I frightened the truth from him. He said my lady seemed distracted—that she told him she would return in a hackney, and that she went, on foot, towards Westminster."
Susannah put her hand before her eyes, as if a fierce light burnt them.
"And—what do you think?" she asked hoarsely.
Honoria regarded her steadily.
"I think my lady means to run away with Mr. Marius."
"Oh, my God!" murmured Susannah. She rose desperately and looked wildly about her. "My God, what shall I do?"
"She has gone to his lodgings," continued Honoria. "She is there now. I never believed that she would do anything so desperate, but it is amazing how she hates my lord."
"Captain Lyndwood will bring her back," cried Susannah, remembering last night. "I can trust him for that. He will see her insanity, and bring her back."
"Do you think so?" asked Honoria, "If she throws herself on his pity, madam?"
The flash of hope died away. How could she tell what Marius would see as his duty? He was inflamed against the Earl, rejected by herself, bitter against his world. In a manner the Countess had always been on his conscience. She had no guarantee that he would not respond to my lady's madness, and her mind rushed forward to that piteous terrible picture of flight, pursuit, and an unworthy death for one of them by fratricide.
In her bitterness she turned on Honoria.
"Why have you come to me? You—you who have ministered to all this creature's vilest qualities, you who were at the back of this in the paper, you who have ever dragged her down—why have you come here smugly to tell me of this last shame?"
Honoria Pryse rose.
"I came to ask you if you cared to help me prevent it," she said, in no way stirred "It is not to my interest that my mistress should hurl herself into the gutter. What do I become but a target for the vengeance of my lord? I thought that you would not care to see your house disgraced. I believed that you would give a great deal to save the Earl of Lyndwood's name from infamy."
She paused, and Susannah, very pale, lifted her eyes.
"What makes you so sure of that?" she asked
The glance of the two women met.
"Is it not true?" demanded Honoria.
Miss Chressham drew a painful breath.
"Yes, it is true," she said quietly.
"Then our interests meet, madam. My lady would not listen to me; she—or Mr. Marius—might listen to you."
"You suggest I should pursue?" cried Susannah, her whole being shrinking from the thought.
"Yes," answered Honoria. "I ask you, madam, to come with me, at once, to Captain Lyndwood's lodgings to bring my lady home before my lord discovers."
Susannah put her hand to her brow. On what distasteful adventure, with what distasteful ally, was she invited to embark?
But it did not occur to her either to mistrust or question, or to hesitate as to what she must do.
"Very well," she said quietly. "I will accompany you at once, and I must thank you for coming."
Honoria gave her a look, curious, of admiration.
"I knew you would take it in this fashion," she said. "Many ladies would not have believed me—most, I think." She laughed.
"I think we all know the truth when we hear it," answered Susannah. "Nor can we choose our allies, or our instruments, I may not now question your motives in speaking to me. Again, I am glad of your assistance."
"If I have been of any use," said Honoria, "it is very well. Are you ready now, madam, to accompany me?"
Miss Chressham glanced at the timepiece. It was nine of the clock. The Countess Agatha would not return until perhaps two or three.
"It will be best," said Susannah, "if we avoid all observation. Will you walk to the end of the street and wait there for me? I can, I think, make some excuse to my maid."
"Very well, madam." Honoria Pryse turned quietly to the door. "Shall I call a hackney?"
Susannah observed her; she could not dislike her manner, and vulgar, mean little soul that she was, this Honoria Pryse, she seemed a person of control and resource.
Miss Chressham assented. "I shall not be delayed more than a few moments."
The Countess Lavinia's maid curtsied gravely, and left the room, as if she departed for the most ordinary errand.
For a second Susannah stood still and dazed. She had, all her life, been a spectator of, and a wise commentator on, other people's actions. Never until now had she been called upon to decide, to act, to accomplish, to put a thing through for the sake of a tremendous end. She could not reflect on what she did nor how she was going to do it. Why she did it was the one paramount fact in her mind. She put it to herself in so many words; and this strange creature who had come to her penetrated her motive.
"I think you would risk a great deal to save the Earl of Lyndwood's name from infamy."
Well, what did it matter if the whole world so thought? She set her teeth and threw back her shoulders. As long as she could save his name from this woman who bore it, she would.
The colour was in her face, and the fire in her eyes, as she went upstairs for her hat and mantle.
When the Countess Lavinia saw her chair and page disappearing down the street, when she found herself standing alone, with perfect freedom before her, a sudden giddiness seized her, and she caught at one of the street posts, utterly at a loss.
This part of the town was new to her, she had traversed it only once or twice before, and then in a coach.
The resolve that had brought her so far faded before the novelty, the extraordinary novelty of her situation; she looked about her with wondering eyes, hardly able to believe that she, a prisoner all her life to someone or something, had dared so much, that she really stood there, unnoticed, unquestioned, free.
Let whatever would happen hereafter, whether she had to pay or no, whether she failed or succeeded in her desperate attempt to alter her life, the next few hours were hers absolutely, to do what she would with.
She looked up at the clock and saw that it was close on seven. There were very few people about; on the steps of the church a woman sat selling roses in a green rush basket; an empty hackney rolled over the cobbles; above the irregular roofs of the houses the sky showed a faint flushed gold stained with little torn clouds of deep pink.
The Countess, acting on no impulse save that of her sudden freedom, turned in the direction where she knew the river must lie.
Following closely built, winding streets, noticing with an eager and unaccountable interest little things—a thrush in a wicker cage, a woman knitting in a doorway, a child playing with a white rabbit, a girl leaning from a window watering a pot of wallflowers—asking a direction once in a small baker's shop, and again of a chair-mender installed at the comer of a street, the Countess Lavinia found her way to the Thames.
The great river lay in a silver sullenness beneath the clear dome of the sky; its ceaseless ripples were outlined in threads of gold; gold shimmered in the sails of the brown boats floating by, and on the roofs of the houses on the Southward side. The Countess found it beautiful beyond anything she had imagined; an air of gay peace lay over it all, an atmosphere of pure contentment.
Where the bank sloped to the water a couple of plane trees grew, shaking their dusty summer foliage against the fading blue; the Countess crossed, stood beneath them and looked along the reaches of the river.
She thought of people who had drowned themselves in these waters, and tried to imagine the sensation of sinking beneath the sunset ripples.
A party of young apprentices came by, unmoored a boat, and went off down the river to the sound of laughter and the splash of oars, but they looked at her, and the manner of it reminded her of her appearance and the likelihood of causing comment she wore a thin muslin dress and a red silk mantle, her hair hung in powdered curls under her wide straw hat, and she carried a useless parasol. An unusual figure for this neighbourhood at this hour, and one that could not long go unquestioned.
Becoming conscious of the observation of the few passersby, she moved along the bank in the direction of the Abbey of Westminster.
The sun sank and the gold died swiftly from land and water; a little wind rose and clouds began to obscure the sky. The Countess shivered in her light clothing, and the exaltation in her freedom died as swiftly as it had come; she was aware only that she was lonely, unprotected, that she had missed her way and must find it, must find Marius.
As her thoughts dwelt on him, the old sore, passions that always accompanied her unnameable feeling for my lord's brother, sprang to life—hatred of her husband, of her father, bitter desire to be avenged, to pull them all down.
She moved on quickly. For all the chilling wind she shuddered with a sense of inward heat, and giddiness now and then clouded her vision. She remembered that she had been ill last night, that she had not slept at all, and a horrible fear of sudden death possessed her; she recalled tales of people dying without warning—in the street, at the table.
She hurried on. The clouds had silently and swiftly covered the sky. As she turned into the square by the Parliament House dusk had overspread the city, and a few drops of rain began to fall. Beneath the Abbey towers she paused, bewildered.
Somewhere near here Marius lived—but where? Before her marriage she had seldom travelled further than Bedford Row, and since she had kept completely to Lyndwood House and the resorts of fashion, and never before had she been in the streets alone. This part of the town was utterly strange to her; she felt weary, too, and frightened, a new sensation. What if Marius were abroad, or refused to see her—or scorned her utterly, as these men could?
Then her resolve and daring rose, running like a flame through her veins. She stopped a solitary hackney that passed and told the man to drive to Smith's Square; alighting there she paid him quietly as if 'twere a customary action, and looked about her. The Square was quite empty and the rain falling heavily in the gusts of the wind.
The third house, they had said, from the south side, at the Sign of the Lamb. She found it without difficulty and paused under the little portico, to stare with shuddering eyes at the great clumsy church that occupied the centre of the Square.
The chill dusk, the steady rain, the silent dark houses that yet had an air of watchfulness as if behind their blank windows spying eyes observed her, affected her with a terror that nearly brought her to scream aloud.
She made no attempt either to ring the bell or to move away. The rain swept in under the portico, wetting her thin dress, the dark gathered about her, and her hand, resting on the iron railing of the steps, became a white blur before her eyes.
Then the door opened. She stepped back. It was Marius' man.
"Is your master at home?" the words came instinctively, more natural than silence.
She wondered how much he could see of her, and spoke again, forestalling his curiosity.
"I am of Captain Lyndwood's family, you need not come up with me."
The man glanced round the deserted Square for her coach, chair, or servants.
"You are perhaps on your way to my lady's house for some of your master's things?" the Countess hazarded.
She could have laughed when he assented.
"Then go, there is no need to interrupt your errand," she felt the desperation in her heart must be touching her voice. "Please let me pass, it is important that I see Captain Lyndwood at once."
The servant stood aside and the Countess stepped across the threshold.
"Captain Lyndwood's chambers are on the second floor, madam;" the man still hesitated, holding the door open.
An inspiration came to the Countess to use her name—her husband's name; all she had learnt of the great dame flashed into her manner.
"I am Lady Lyndwood, and my lord is following me."
The man bowed, and she closed the door impetuously on him.
Now, what to do?
She looked about her. It was a modest hall pleasantly panelled with light wood; she heard someone singing below stairs and wondered about these others in the house.
Shivering in her damp clothes she mounted the narrow stairway with the cautious step that was natural to her; on the second landing a noise beneath attracted her attention; she leaned over the banisters and saw a girl in a flowered gown hanging a lamp in the hall.
When she had gone again and all was still, the Countess turned and opened the door opposite.
It led into an unlit chamber; the Countess entered and softly shut herself in; the room was empty, quietly furnished. On the floor were a couple of portmantles, over a chair a cloak and a sword; books, papers, and a bunch of white roses lay on the little spinet in the comer. Through the two long windows showed the cold blue of the wet summer evening and the dark shadow of a creeper blowing loose from the bricks.
The Countess noticed all these things as she shivered on the threshold; she gave a little suppressed cough and moved forward, then stood still.
An inner door opened and Marius Lyndwood came out, holding a lighted candle.
He saw her instantly.
"Lavinia!" he cried.
This was extraordinary to her, he had never used her name before. She stared at him as he stood, arrested with the glow of the candle full on his horrified face.
"You did not think to see me," she said foolishly, then she sank on to one of the stiff chairs. "I am very cold, and tired; I have walked from Saint Martin's Church."
Marius set the candle on the object nearest to his hand, the spinet.
"Is this with my lord's knowledge?" he asked.
Their eyes met.
"No," came her strained voice. "I have run away, it was no longer bearable."
Marius was quite silent; his face, as she watched it, seemed to grow older, sterner, and anguished; as she saw his lips quiver she realised the utter wrong she offered him and remorse shook her. She dropped her head into her hands.
He went to the window and looked out; when she raised her eyes again she could see only his back.
"Are you not going to speak to me?" she asked; she resolved, even against the pang of her pity, that she would not spare him—neither him nor his brother, and she shuddered with the force of this resolve.
"You expect I shall plead with you to go back, madam," he answered without looking round.
Madam! but what had he called her in his surprise? The Countess rose, unfastened her hat and flung it on to the chair.
"I am not going back," she said. "If you drive me away, turn me by force from your door. I—well, I shall not go back."
"How did you find me?" he asked, still not turning.
"Last night we spoke together, my lord and I. Well, you do not wish to hear what passed?"
"No," said Marius. "No."
"It was enough," continued the Countess. "I decided. I went this afternoon to find you. They gave me your address, and I—I saw only one thing to do, so I am here."
She trembled a little as he still did not move, and drew her mantle closer over her thin dress.
"I have been ill," she said. "How cold your room is."
"I am sorry," he turned now. "I think it hath not been inhabited for some time." He did not look at her. "Shall I light the lamp?"
"Yes," answered the Countess, shivering. "And draw the curtains."
He obeyed her in a quiet, mechanical way; the silver lamp cast a soft pleasant glow by which she could see the details of the chamber and the splendour of his embroidered dress.
"You were going out?" she asked.
"To the ball at Trefusis House." Still he avoided her eyes.
She laughed weakly.
"I should be there; I wonder if my lord is waiting for me!" Then she wished that she had not said that, for she saw him wince.
"Who else is in the house?" she asked abruptly.
"I do not know," his voice was low and laboured. "A woman downstairs, I believe, and some others."
"I met your man, he admitted me." She shook back her hair and flung open the mantle over her soft white dress; she drew her silk gloves off and laid them across her lap.
"Speak to me, Marius."
He seated himself at the spinet so that his profile was towards her; above the gold and pink glimmer of his brocaded coat, his face showed ill and suddenly and strangely worn. She, intensely observing him, thought that never had she seen him look so like her husband, and she hated him for it. She either hated him or loved him—and after all, it came to the same.
"Will you not speak to me, Marius?"
With his eyes on the ground he answered her.
"What do you think we can do?"
"Take me away," said the Countess, breathing deeply. "Somewhere—there is the place in Genoa, you must know?" She gave a wild little laugh. "I suppose we have no money, but there is only ruin here; my lord has beggared me, my father is a ruined man; I brought some of my jewels with me; take me away, Marius."
He raised the grey eyes that were so like the Earl's.
"You cannot know what you say, for if you do, honour hath no meaning."
Her face flushed with the feverish blood his words roused to action.
"Maybe it hath a different meaning to you and me. I think so." She rose and caught hold of the back of the chair. "Perhaps you despise me, but you have no right."
She coughed, stifled it, and went on.
"You speak from your code, but I at least have this to my credit—I have been very faithful."
He got to his feet and faced her.
"To you," she said, and looked at him straightly.
His face blanched so it seemed he must faint; he pressed his handkerchief to his lips and leant heavily against the window frame.
"Why did you woo me?" cried the Countess, at the
H high tide of nameless passion. "What was your honour then to dare to let me think I was all in all to you? Were you absolved because I was forced into a loveless marriage? But there is no need to say all this, you know what I mean."
"You are my brother's wife," said Marius hoarsely. "You are the Countess of Lyndwood."
"Is that fact paramount with you?" she mocked. "Oh, a man's honour!"
He seemed to catch at the word.
"Honour," he repeated; "my honour!" Then, "Which way, which way?" he cried.
She thought that he would say, "You do this from hatred to our house, because we turned our backs on you, that day at Lyndwood Holt," but his next words took her by surprise.
"By what right," he asked, "do you come to me—by what right do you put me in this position?"
She found at once her answer. She knew her winning card, and instinct told her the moment for playing it, for, lie or no, this was what she had come to say.
"Because I love you," she said, and knew not if it was the truth.
In the pause that followed she saw that her speech had had all the effect, and more, that she could have hoped, or dreaded, or desired.
She saw the shock drive the blood into his face, saw him put out his hand as if to stop her—open his lips and stand dumb.
"You must have known," she said.
He could not speak. He thrust back the pomaded curls from his flushed forehead and stared on the ground; she felt herself swept into the position of conqueror, felt herself in full measure repaid.
"You wooed and won me," she breathed. "You made me love you, I—it cannot happen twice, words are so foolish—but you must understand that I gave myself to you, and you cannot dare reject me now, only, I am at your mercy."
"No," he answered, lifting his head. "I am at yours—what do you want with me?"
His expression frightened her, but she clung to her advantage.
"Take me away. Do I ask so much? I pleased you once."
"Lavinia," again he used her name naturally, "if you ask me this, if you so appeal to me, if you tell me I am bound to you, I will."
His tongue failed him, he put his hand over his distracted eyes; a burst of genuine feeling, passion maybe, brought her swiftly to his side.
"Say you care for me, Marius. I could have been happy with you, or having never met you been happy; but you do not tell me," she touched his sleeve, "that you are even sorry."
He turned his face from her.
"What my life has been!" she whispered, drawing closer. "Marius, you cannot think of those trees in the Luxembourg and not say you are sorry."
A groan broke from him.
"Rose is a villain!"
"Take me away," she repeated intensely.
She put her hot palm over his hand that rested on the spinet. Neither spoke nor looked at each other; both gazed at the blue night showing through the uncovered window, and the spray of creeper quivering in the rain.
"I have been wrong," he said at last; "but I can die to expiate it. I can go to my lord—"
She caught his meaning and thrilled to it. She had done something at last; the Earl, laughing now with Miss Trefusis, would know that she was not so insignificant, and—but a cloud, a sudden darkness seemed to overspread her brain, her surroundings assumed a ghostly unreality, she found herself wondering what had happened, why she was here; who this was standing motionless beside her.
"Marius!" she shrieked. "I am going mad!"
He turned fiercely and caught her by the arm.
"I will take you away," he said desperately, "I will take you away, Lavinia."
She fell to laughing.
"Why do you touch me? Do you not hate me? Will you meet your brother, because of me—me?"
Then she seemed to collect herself. She clung to his coat, his heavy lace cravat, and let the weight of her slight figure fall across his arm.
"You are not going to turn me away, Marius?" she asked in a quick breathless voice, and her powdered hair brushed his cheek.
"No," he answered wildly. "On my honour, no."
The door opened and Susannah Chressham stepped into the chamber.
Miss Chressham closed the door, and the Countess Lavinia was again surprised in Marius, for he did not thrust her from him nor give any sign of start or shame. His hand remained where it was, resting on the spinet behind her, but she loosened her clasp on his lace and drew herself erect.
Susannah was the most ill at ease of the three.
"What shall I say," she murmured, halting within the door—"to either of you?" she added; but her speech was directed wholly to her cousin. She ignored the Countess.
"I am sorry that you have come," he answered, not looking at her, "for here, madam, is a matter you cannot mend."
"Have you followed me?" demanded the Countess violently.
Miss Chressham brought herself to address Rose's wife.
"Your maid came to me," she said, with pallid lips, "and informed me of this visit. She is below now, waiting for you, my lady."
The Countess Lavinia laughed.
"What manner of woman do you think I am, madam?" she cried. "You do not know me."
"I did not think of you at all, madam," answered Miss
Chressham quietly, "for, as you say, I do not know you; but Captain Lyndwood I do know, and to him have I come to appeal."
He stood unnaturally still, with slightly parted lips and averted eyes. The lace falling round the hand he rested on the spinet shook noticeably.
The Countess, braced by hatred of the other woman, inspired by the fury of this interference, stepped into the centre of the room, a slender, almost childish figure in the clinging white dress.
"Will you begone, madam?" she said thickly. "This is no affair of yours."
"No affair of mine, madam?" answered Miss Chressham proudly. "I, my lady, am of the house of Lyndwood."
"And I am not," cried the Countess; "but a tradesman's daughter."
"I speak of honour, madam, which belongeth not to birth," retorted Susannah.
Lady Lyndwood flung back her head.
"There was nought of honour in the bargain," she said. "Your house hath had the money and spent it, and now I think it is my turn."
"Marius!" cried Miss Chressham. "Help me—help me in what I have come to do!"
He moved forward slowly, with his head bent, and at sight of him both the women were silent, so clearly was he labouring with an almost unendurable agony of soul.
"How shall I adjust this?" he asked. "How?"
"There is nothing to adjust," said the Countess. "You have decided."
"I also," said Miss Chressham. "I have decided that you return to-night—that you shall return, madam, and before my lord notices your absence. Do you suppose that your insanity can be permitted to work this mad mischief?"
It was Marius who answered.
"You should not have come on this errand. It can do no good. My lady has appealed to me."
The sudden bright flash of wrath with which Susannah spoke was like the unsheathing of a sword.
"What have we fallen to that a woman alone must try to defend the honour of Lyndwood? Will you for this "—she turned her gleaming eyes on the Countess—"deliver your house to infamy?"
"I am bound," said Marius. Then he also turned to the Countess. "Speak!" he cried passionately. "Tell me again what it is you ask of me; but reflect, in the name of God, what this means. Is it going to be worth it to you?"
She moved away both from him and Miss Chressham; she sank on to the stool in front of the spinet, and her hands fell slackly into her lap.
"Abandon me if you will," she said faintly. "I have no claim I can enforce; only I am not going back. I can end it now as well as another time."
Susannah moved impulsively forward.
"Madam, I beseech you!" Her voice was softer. "You have much to forgive—I have not come to judge you—but no wrongs can be righted this way. You must come back."
The Countess looked at her bitterly.
"You use words you do not know the meaning of. What have you and I in common, madam, that you should dare to interfere with me? We have always disliked each other; do not have the hypocrisy to disclaim it."
"You are my lord's wife," interrupted Miss Chressham, withdrawn again into a cold reserve, and armed with angry pride.
"My lord's wife!" repeated the Countess Lavinia. "That to you, and no more. My lord's wife to be reclaimed like a straying dog and sent back shivering to my post! My lord's wife! But I am more, madam; I am a woman."
She rose impetuously and leant against the spinet, her muslin ruffles touching the white roses.
"What's to do?" muttered Marius. He looked from one woman to another in a desperate, helpless fashion, as if he sought some cue. In his eyes was the bewildered, appealing reproach of a wounded animal.
Miss Chressham spoke to the Countess with her glance and her gesture as well as her words.
"Do you think I can retire leaving you here? If it be useless to quote honour or shame, ye cannot ignore decency. Ye cannot, under my eyes, leave the house in the company of Captain Lyndwood; also your maid is below."
"Wretch to have betrayed me!" exclaimed the Countess. "What is her motive? She wishes to keep me in my place because it means to her so much in money, in comfort, in this and that. What is your motive? You wish to save my lord's face before the town. Neither you nor she care what becomes of me!" She shivered with scorn. "No one would—not my Lady Agatha. I might go to damnation for all of you, did it not suit your convenience or your pride to keep me honest. What would my lord care for any sin of mine, did it not touch him?"
She pressed her hands to her bosom, and took a step or two towards Miss Chressham, her whole slight body trembling.
"Away with your flimsy morality!" she said. "You speak for yourself, I for myself, and your object is no worthier than mine. My lord and the name of Lyndwood is as little to me as my happiness is to you. There is no argument that you can touch me with."
"Lavinia!" interrupted Marius, in a low and terrible voice, "I will not hear you speak in such fashion."
She turned and gave him a curious, quiet look.
"Are you going to ask me to go back?" she said.
"I would thank you on my knees," he answered, "if you could listen to my cousin; if you could find it in you to return." He paused a second; both the women looked at him intently. With a quick breath and added force, he continued: "Yet I think you speak the truth, and I know I have been wrong, and that our house hath not been so honourable in this matter, and—" He paused again, then frantically, "Oh, God!" he cried, "there are things impossible to speak of—things that sear the lips! I am a coward, and I would that I were dead!"
"Marius!" cried Miss Chressham, wan and rigid, horror in her eyes. "I cannot find you in this behaviour. Why do you hesitate? What is there to weigh with you against the fact that this woman is Rose's wife?"
The Countess gave a sudden laugh.
"He knows this woman loves him, and that fact weighs something with a man."
Marius put his hand before his face, and Susannah drew back aghast.
"You outrage all shame!" she said hoarsely. "Are you without all honour that you dare say this to my face?"
The Countess turned her back on her.
"Take me away," she held out her hands to Marius, "or kill me! This woman does not understand."
He looked at her, but shrank, and she fell suddenly to her knees. Susannah sprang forward and caught her up. There was a cry, an exclamation among them, and the door was flung open on Rose Lyndwood.
His eyes travelled from one to another. He took off his hat.
"Ah, you also, Susannah!" he said, and closed the door behind him.
He was splendidly dressed in black velvet and satin. His magnificence and superb looks put the chamber to shame. He came across the room gaily, with his head high, and Miss Chressham, at least, saw he was in a passion of wrath and scorn that uplifted him above them all.
Marius waited. Stealthily the Countess drew away from him.
"Rose," began Susannah feebly; but the bare truth was so obviously abroad among them, the facts lay so clearly before them, that all attempts to soften or excuse were futile. She could not get the foolish words across her lips.
My lord dropped the rich cloak he carried on to a chair.
"I did not go to the Trefusis ball," he said, addressing his brother, "but to my lady's house, and there I learnt enough."
"Of what you already suspected?" asked Marius, in a dreary way.
"I warned you," said my lord. He smiled, and the eyes he kept on his brother's face were black in their intensity. "Well, we are all worthless knaves and fools, but I have done with this."
"Take my lady home," broke in Susannah.
"Not yet," said Rose Lyndwood. He drew his rapier with a soft, bright sound, and laughed in Marius's face.
"Ah, that!" cried the younger man; and his eyes began to shine. "Do you force bloodshed on me, my lord?"
The Earl struck him on the breast with the flat of his sword.
"Do you want me to strike you across the face, you poor weak hypocrite?" he cried. "Cannot you answer for what you have done?"
Marius put his hand to his hilt. The Countess gave a sobbing laugh, and kept her eyes on them, gloating over my lord's fury.
She came forward.
"My lord," she said, "I am not here by chance. I love your brother, even to the same measure that I hate you."
He thrust her away from him, for in her passion she had stepped so close that her distorted face almost touched his shoulder, and Marius snatched his weapon from the scabbard.
Miss Chressham stepped between the sword-points.
"Marius," she whispered, "do not fight."
Her fingers touched his sleeve for a second, and she looked into his eyes.
"Stand back, madam!" cried my lord fiercely, but Marius answered her gaze.
"Have pity!" she murmured, and she glanced past him at the Earl.
"Oh!" muttered Marius. His rapier slipped from his fingers and rattled on the polished boards; he staggered back against the mantelshelf, staring at Susannah.
"Do not fight!" she stammered, and laid her finger on her white lips.
That was all, but Marius understood.
"Take up your sword!" commanded my lord.
He obeyed, picked up the weapon, and returned it to the sheath.
"You may do what you will, my lord," he said, in a changed voice, "but you and I cannot adjust anything in this way."
"I am not here to discuss expediency," returned the Earl, "but to cross swords with you. It has come to that. We cannot both live with honour."
Marius looked from one woman to another—the Countess urging him on with fiery eyes and passion in her very breath, Miss Chressham, still and cold, forbidding. One hated the man who stood opposed to him; the other—what of that other? And he was bound to obey her because he held her very dear.
"I do not fight, my lord," he said. He folded his arms and moved away.
"By God!" cried the Earl, transported. "Are you coward, too—in this fashion, too—that you can put a last insult on me—on your house?"
The Countess flung herself before Marius, adding her fury to that of her husband.
"Have you failed me now? Will you shame me utterly?"
He looked, beyond them, at Miss Chressham.
"I will not fight," he said. "I dare not. I think I might kill you."
"Oh, what miserable folly are we reduced to in this boy?" exclaimed the Earl. "Unfortunate have we been, and our records are wild enough, but never have we touched this shame."
Marius turned on him.
"Take the Countess home, my lord," he said, "and set your own life straight. In mine own eyes I do right. And, insult me as you please, I will not, I swear, cross swords with you. As for my lady here, blame yourself, not her. I have scarcely touched her hand since her marriage, and there have been few words between us."
"Spare me any speech!" broke in the Earl, restraining himself proudly. "I see now what I deal with." He slipped his sword back into the scabbard, and addressed his wife. "You will return with me, madam."
The Countess fixed her eyes on Marius, and gave a foolish laugh.
"With me." He picked up his cloak, then flashed round on his brother. "As for to-morrow morning—"
"Hush!" breathed Marius quickly. "Not here, not now!"
The Earl smiled
"What do you mean? I speak of my duel with Sir Francis. I will find another second."
Miss Chressham, in the shadowed background, started convulsively, shivered and drooped.
"No, no!" struck in Marius, sharply. "I will be there."
"What is my affront from Sir Francis compared to this I take from you?" said my lord, still with glowing eyes, and that fixed, proud smile. "I do not wish to see your face again, my brother. You will not come tomorrow."
Marius stood silent, and Susannah made a little moaning sound.
"Come, my lady!" commanded the Earl. "Your confidante is waiting below. Shall we not end this miserable comedy that we have not wit nor courage to carry through?"
In a slow, mechanical way she gathered up her hat and gloves.
"I am accursed!" she said under her breath. "Well, God judge you, Marius!"
He did not move nor speak.
The Earl crossed to the door; his eyes flashed to Miss Chressham.
"Are you coming with us, madam?"
She shook her head dumbly.
My lord lifted his shoulders.
"Then au revoir. Maybe I shall see you again."
The Countess arranged her hat and joined her husband. Her demeanour was quiet, yet resolute, as if she saw what to do and was satisfied. Susannah, even through her own agony, wondered at this sudden taming and resignation in her; she found something more deadly and horrible than open passion and despair in the way in which the Countess averted her face as she passed her husband, he holding the door open for her, and following her slight figure with his unforgiving eyes, as she went out on to the stairs.
Still Marius did not speak.
"We are of an unfortunate house," said Rose Lyndwood, smiling at his brother. Then he followed his wife and closed the door after him.
Susannah lifted her hands to her forehead; it seemed to her that she dragged them painfully through air grown unsupportably heavy.
"What is this duel?" she asked, with stiff lips.
"With Sir Francis," he answered. "I did not want you to know. There is nothing to be done."
"You were to be his second?"
She rose. The dim lamplight felt a weight upon her eyes.
"I had no business to ask you to hold back, Marius," she said dully. "Women should not interfere."
He made no answer. His head drooped a little on his breast, his eyes were cast down.
"But I could not bear it," continued Susannah. "That must be my excuse. I could not bear"—she stressed the words passionately—"to see you draw your sword on him; but I was wrong. It was unjust to you."
"He has done with me," said Marius, without raising his head. "But when you whispered to me, when I saw—understood, I decided, and I am glad."
"I cannot thank you," answered Susannah, "nor say what I should."
He glanced up.
"No. You think of this duel to-morrow."
She pressed her hand to her quivering mouth,
"You are right to speak so to me."
"No—no, forgive me—forgive me!"
Susannah did not seem to hear.
"Where do they meet?"
"The Park—as soon as it is light." He jerked the words out awkwardly. "My lord was engaged all yesterday."
"It is on Selina's account," murmured Susannah, in a colourless voice. "Well, he is a good swordsman."
Marius looked at her quickly; the Earl had chosen pistols.
She roused herself dully.
"Will you take me home? It is getting late. We must be glad Lavinia hath returned." She fixed her distracted eyes on Marius. "Shall we tell my lady, or—suppose they brought him home as his father was brought?"
"He hath been in duels before."
"But this is no fencing bout!" A sudden horror sprang into her voice. "Marius, this is not with pistols?"
He could not he to her; his silence was answer and confirmation.
She did not speak.
"I could do no more!" he cried, goaded by her face. "I let him strike me because of you. His blood is not on my sword, nor mine on his. As for this, it is not for his honour to interfere."
Susannah moved blindly across the room.
"She hath done it—she, with her hes."
A sharp silence fell. They could hear the rain beating without; the creeper was tapping against the window, and presently the Abbey clock chimed ten.
"Somehow we must put the hours through," murmured Susannah, "until—"
Her voice died away.
"I will take you home," said Marius hoarsely.
"Home!" she repeated; her eyes filled with tears, and sought his. What was between them could not be expressed by any words, but that one look expressed it all.
"Yes," she said. "We will go home."
Honoria Pryse lay in bed and listened to the rain. All night long it had poured steadily, and now, when the June day had dawned, there was no sign of its cessation. Honoria was always pleased to hear that comfortless beat of the rain when she lay warm and dry herself, just as it pleased her to think over what had happened yesterday and what would in all likelihood happen to-day. She herself had acted prudently to her own advantage, and yet in a way that no one could blame; even the proud Miss Chressham had been glad of her help, and the Earl owed, if he had not given, her thanks.
Marius Lyndwood had reason to be grateful to her, and if my lady loathed her for her interference it was not a matter to trouble about. The Countess was too dependent on her maid for Honoria to fear her wrath.
It was curious that the Countess had returned so quietly. Honoria could recall neither protest nor complaint, and the burst of passionate invective that she had been waiting to receive the moment they were relieved from the restraint of my lord's cold presence had never come.
Honoria was surprised, puzzled also by the curiosity my lady suddenly showed in the matter of the Earl's duel with Sir Francis. It was not to be marvelled at that she was interested in the fact itself, one that might mean a great deal to her, but her questions as to time, place, and weapons seemed to Honoria unusual and purposeless.
Sitting up in bed and shaking the yellow curls out of her eyes, she smiled to herself at all of it—at my lady, lying in a sick sleep in the next room; at Miss Chressham, awake certainly and praying for my lord; at the Earl and Sir Francis, meeting under the trees in Hyde Park—and for the sake of a few lines in the paper composed by her in this very room; at Miss Boyle, in a fainting agony, praying also for my lord. Honoria laughed aloud, yawned, and got out of bed.
As she dressed she wondered, with a sense of amusement, and perhaps a little anxiety, what would happen next. If they brought my lord home, shot through the heart; if Mr. Hilton failed; if they were sold up in a downfall that would be the talk of London—what would become of my lady and herself? Her mouth and eyes hardened as she stared at herself in the mirror. Well, suppose my lord shot Sir Francis?
She shrugged her shoulders, opened the shutters and looked out over London. The grey clouds were beginning to break, a light that was between gold and silver glimmered over the wet roofs. The rain was ceasing.
It was about eight; the duel must be over now. The Countess would surely be awake. Honoria was surprised that she had not been roused by her in the night—that she should still be sleeping on such a morning as this. After all, my lord's life or death meant something to her.
Honoria adjusted her muslin mob, her pink ribbons, her buckle shoes—she was always neat, though she served a slovenly mistress—and opened the door that led into the Countess's bedchamber.
As she stepped into the close dun light of the shrouded room she came to a stop with a great start. The heavy-curtained bed was empty. The clothes were flung back and the spaniel slept on the coverlet; an open novel lay on the pillow; garments, dead flowers, masks, fans, boxes, books and prints lay scattered over the chairs and floor. The Countess was not in the chamber.
"My lady," cried Honoria softly, "my lady!"
She crossed the room quickly and entered the apartment beyond it, her mistress's private withdrawing-room. The blue brocaded satin curtains were drawn close and the white rose-wreathed walls showed cold and luminous in the confined light.
"My lady!" cried Honoria again.
At a little Chinese cabinet in the comer, set open and covered with a confusion of papers and rich articles of gold and jewels, sat the Countess, resting her head in her hands. She wore again the muslin dress, red mantle, and straw hat of last night. Her clothes were wet, clinging to her, and stained with mud. Her hair hung uncurled and unpowdered on to her shoulders; her face was drawn and of an unhealthy pallid colour. At her elbow stood a lit candle, and on the carpet by the chair was a little pile of burnt paper.
She did not move at her maid's entry, and Honoria spoke again.
"Have you been out, my lady?"
The Countess Lavinia turned her head.
"Did you think I was asleep?" she asked in a weary voice.
Honoria crossed to her side.
"You are wet to the skin. Do you wish to kill yourself?"
"I do not feel it," answered the Countess, but she was shivering. "I have been to the Park, Honoria." She put the candle out and leant back in her chair.
"To the duel?"
"Yes." Her voice had a vague far-off sound. "I crept downstairs last night after you had left me, and unloaded his pistols, thinking he would have to fight without a second."
"You did that!" quivered Honoria.
The Countess turned wide glazed eyes on her. She did not seem to know to whom she spoke.
"And then I followed to see him shot." She coughed, laughed, and sat up.
"My God!" said Honoria, staring at her mistress.
The Countess thrust her fingers through her damp hair.
"Marius was there, that is why I am speaking of it. You can tell them afterwards."
"I do not understand," cried the maid. "Are you sane, my lady?"
"I want to say this," smiled the Countess, holding her head. "It becomes so difficult to say anything. Sir Francis fired into the air. Why are men such fools? I went to see him shot!"
"You accuse yourself of murder," said Honoria.
"When my lord's pistol clicked uselessly," continued my lady, "they thought it was Marius's doing—at least, my lord did. No one saw me. I was standing at the top of a little rise among the bushes. How it had rained! Now was my revenge, I thought. But useless, useless! And they must know."
"Ye are mad!" muttered Honoria.
The Countess caught up some of the letters lying before her and began to tear them across; but her fingers failed her, the pieces dropped from her grasp and her hands sank into her lap.
"There is no need for me to speak any more," she said, and her head fell against the satin and gilt chair-back.
"You are ill!" cried Honoria. "Get up, my lady, and take off these wet clothes."
The Countess made no movement, and her maid, who could not see well in this dim light, sprang to the window and pulled back the blinds. The rain of the night was over, the drops gleamed beautifully on the panes and a pale bar of sunlight fell across the chamber and struck the upturned face of the Countess Lavinia.
"What is the matter?" exclaimed Honoria. "Come to bed, my lady."
"I walked home," said the Countess. "How strange the city is at night! I beheld the dawn break behind St. James's Church."
"No one saw you?" asked the maid.
My lady shook her head.
"But you must tell them I was there."
"Ye talk madly! Why should I speak? It hath ended well; my lord lives."
"Marius hath the blame," said the Countess in an exhausted voice. "Honoria, I could have loved him."
"What matter for that? He can go abroad. Ye are safe. Come to bed." She caught her mistress by the arm and strove to raise her from the chair. "Will you not come to bed? What if any find you in this trim?"
The Countess raised herself languidly.
"I should put these papers to rights," she said feebly.
Honoria noticed with a little pang of horror that the letters scattered about were old, childish epistles dating from my lady's girlhood at the boarding-school, and long put away.
"What are you doing with these?" she asked.
"I do not know." The Countess dropped the keys of the desk from her limp hand and caught Honoria's shoulder. "Help me to bed. I am very cold."
"You risked your life in this wet!" cried the maid, terrified at her face. "You are certainly ill. Shall I fetch the doctor?"
"No—no doctor," answered the Countess. "I am very well."
Honoria helped her to the bedchamber and undressed her, huddling away the wet clothes with their treacherous stains of mud. The Countess flung a blue wrap over her tumbled petticoats and sank into a chair at the foot of her bed.
"Will you have your chocolate?" asked Honoria, kneeling before her and taking off her damp shoes.
The Countess nodded.
"It is early yet," continued the maid. "Will you not get to bed?"
The Countess Lavinia raised herself in her chair and looked round the room—rich, yet dishevelled and dreary with its confusion of articles of frivolity and vanity.
"No," she said vacantly. "Go make the chocolate."
Honoria gave her a pair of glittering slippers and went lightly into the next chamber, where, on an elegant table of kingswood, stood the silver chocolate service. Before preparing this she crept to the door, opened it, and went out upon the landing to peer over the lordly stairs. Everything was silent. But the Earl must have returned.
Honoria went back and cast a wondering glance on the pile of torn letters. There was insanity in my lady's family, and Honoria remembered it—recalled violent scenes between father and daughter—threats of Bedlam. The maid was convinced that the scene of yesterday had upset her mistress's brain. What was it but an act of madness, this wild attempt to cause my lord's death, this lonely adventure? And then this return to a desperate sorting and tearing up of old worthless letters?
She drew the rich heavy curtains back and let in the early sunlight, that shone gaily over the elegant, extravagant appointments of the chamber. When the chocolate was ready, frothed and milled, she poured out a cup and took it in to my lady.
The Countess sat where she had left her. The vivid colour of her wrap accentuated the curious pallor of her face; her tangled hair fell on her shoulders and her head was leaning back.
"Madam," said Honoria sharply, "you are indeed ill, and I shall send for the apothecary."
"No," replied my lady languidly. "Come here—"
The maid placed the cup on a side table covered with pots of pomade and bottles of Hungary water.
"Come here," repeated the Countess, and held out her hand.
Honoria caught the cold fingers.
"What is the matter?" she demanded anxiously.
The Countess slowly raised her handkerchief with her free hand and wiped her lips.
"You must tell them," she murmured. "I leave it very incomplete. I—yesterday I felt a fear of sudden death."
"God help us! Ye are not dying?" cried Honoria.
My lady shuddered, and closed her eyes. The maid caught her by the shoulder almost roughly.
"What is the matter? Are you dying?"
"I am not afraid," muttered the Countess without opening her eyes, "now—but tell the Earl."
"I will fetch him!" exclaimed Honoria.
The Countess made no answer but a faint moan, and as she stared at her Honoria saw the truth.
"You have taken poison," she said.
There was no answer from my lady. Her eyes fluttered open and stared blankly before her.
"So this is the turn it has taken!" said Honoria, very pale. "You are a fool, madam, and a wicked fool. I will go fetch a doctor."
"No, no!" wailed the Countess. "Do not leave me, I am dying."
But Honoria Pryse ran out of the room.
At that the Countess dragged herself into a sitting posture and gazed about her. The shrouded windows, the close light, the unmade bed, the untidy chamber, the profusion of useless, extravagant things scattered about, formed a dreary picture. There was luxury but no comfort; to my lady's hazing eyes it appeared a cheerless place.
The little dog awoke, roused himself, jumped oft the bed and came round to his mistress. She held out a shaking hand to him, and he leapt on to her lap.
"Honoria!" she said faintly, and looked towards the other room, where the sunshine lay strong and gold. Her fingers wandered over the spaniel's soft coat; she gave a little cough and passed her hand patiently to and from her brow. She was not thinking of anything at all; she felt that for the moment everything was suspended, but that presently she would be able to adjust it all in her own mind—think it out and put it straight.
When Honoria returned she had not moved. The maid was not alone; my lord, in his black ball dress, stained and tumbled with the rain and mud and the powder shaken out of his bright hair, followed her.
The Countess roused herself as she saw him.
"What is this?" he asked wildly.
"The end, my lord," she answered, coughing.
"Have you no remedies?" cried the Earl, turning on Honoria. "Have you done nothing for her?"
"One hath gone for the apothecary."
My lady's glazed eyes rested on her husband's face.
"It is no use. I have taken poison," she shuddered. "I bought it this morning. There is no need for me to say anything more."
"Why have you done this?" cried the Earl wretchedly.
She was getting fast beyond all questions or reproaches, getting beyond knowing or caring who spoke to her.
"Oh, I am in pain!" she said faintly. "This is a horrible way to die! Honoria will tell you." She made a writhing movement that caused the dog to jump from her knee.
Rose Lyndwood dropped to one knee beside her and caught her wrist.
"Why does not the doctor come?" he cried distractedly. "Speak to me, my lady, speak to me!"
"Give me some water," she murmured.
Honoria moved away to fetch it. The Countess shuddered and groaned.
"Shall I send for a clergyman—for your father?" asked my lord.
"Send for no one," she gasped. "What are any of them to me?"
Honoria brought the water, and as the Countess raised her head to take it she fixed her vacant eyes on my lord.
"You wait for me to ask you: forgiveness," she said with sudden strength; "but honour was—never in—the bargain. I told Susannah Chressham so."
She took the glass and held it a moment, staring at her husband; then it slipped through her fingers and broke on the gilt arm of the chair; the water was spilt over her blue wrapper and the floor.
"Oh," she murmured, and sank backwards, "save me from this!"
My lord sprang up and supported her frail body. She choked, struggled, and her eyes rolled in her head, her forehead grew damp and her face distorted.
There was a tap on the door of the outer room. The doctor, my lady's black page, a maidservant and the hairdresser entered, filling the chamber with the agitation of low talk. Honoria followed the physician to my lady's side.
"What can you do for her?" demanded my lord impatiently, and the maid's sharp face was keen as she waited for the verdict.
There was hesitation, talk, delay. Half the household gathered in the outer room; the Countess lay breathing heavily in a half-swoon. It was decided to bleed her.
"Make haste!" cried the Earl.
My lady opened her heavy eyes.
"Leave me alone," she whispered. "It is over."
The doctor took her arm and rolled back the loose blue sleeve. Honoria, watchful, quiet, held the basin and the linen.
"She is dying!" cried my lord hoarsely. For the first time he used her name. "Lavinia!"
She gave a great heaving breath, coughed, and sank sideways off the chair, her lips parted and her eyes turned up. The Earl caught her with an exclamation of horror. The Countess struggled a moment for breath, gave a sound like a laugh, and fell against my lord's breast.
"She is dead!" said the Earl.
Confusion and bewilderment fell on my lady's chambers; only Honoria Pryse was cool and unmoved. She gave one look at the face of the Countess as they carried her to the bed, then slipped away, picked up my lady's red cloak of last night, in the pocket of which still remained the casket of jewels she had provided for her flight, and quietly left the apartment.
"There is no hope," said the old doctor in a frightened voice. "She is dead or dying."
"Lavinia!" cried the Earl again. He bent over the bed on which they had laid her slight figure, and his tumbled hair touched her hollow cheek. The Countess did not speak.
In the outer chamber was sudden commotion.
"'Tis my lady's father, nor will he be stopped."
Through the gaping crowds of servants a man's figure thrust forward. The Earl moved to the door of the inner chamber. Mr. Hilton, motioning aside those who sought to speak to or impede him, caught sight of my lord.
"Where is Lavinia?" he cried at a pitch of passion that was regardless of all about him. "I will speak to her, and to you. Lord Lyndwood."
"You cannot see your daughter, sir," said the Earl.
"Is the idle jade still abed? No matter, I must speak to her." He forced past the Earl into the bedchamber.
"Stand back!" cried my lord, and caught his arm. "Can you not see?"
Mr. Hilton turned on him fiercely.
"I am ruined, you rake-helly fop! Do you hear me? Ruined!"
"We are not alone!" exclaimed my lord, glancing with horrified eyes on the older man.
"Where is Lavinia?" shrieked Mr. Hilton. "Lavinia, you have ruined me! I am a beggar! Do you hear? God curse you, my lady!"
A shudder ran through the room. The Earl stepped to where the Countess lay, and raised the heavy curtain so that the light fell over the bed.
"My lady does not care," he said wildly, and pointed to her face.
"You are so much engaged you are quite a stranger to me," said Miss Chressham. "Forgive me for having requested your company."
My lord answered smilingly.
"My time is yours; you must remember that it is you, not I, who have been from town."
Susannah raised rather weary eyes.
"Compliments apart, have you half an hour to give me. Rose?"
He glanced at the silver timepiece.
"I am due at Carlisle House at ten; there is a new singer—"
"And Miss Trefusis will be there."
The Earl raised his eyebrows.
"Perhaps—till then at least I am free."
Miss Chressham leant back in her chair. Though it was early spring a fire burnt between the brass and irons, and cast a red glow over the shining folds of her grey dress.
The Earl, in gold and scarlet riding dress, sat easily on the brocade settee and looked, rather curiously, at his cousin.
"I have to speak of painful things," said Miss Chressham; "but I can be silent no longer. I have been waiting—"
"For me?" asked my lord.
"For you!" Susannah picked up a drawn-silk handscreen and held it between her face and the fire; incidentally it concealed her from the Earl's observation.
"Rose," she said very gravely, "you have been free nine months, and everything goes on exactly the same."
His handsome face was expressionless.
"Why not, my dear?" he asked.
"Do you not understand me?" she returned. "But no, it is I who do not understand and you who must explain."
"You are wondering," said my lord, swinging his glass, "about the money."
"There shows no difference in the style of your living, of my Lady Agatha's living, since the—the ruin of Mr. Hilton."
"He is in Bedlam," said the Earl irrelevantly. "Did you know?"
Miss Chressham shuddered.
"Yes, I heard—it is very terrible; was he utterly ruined?"
"Faith, 'tis only I who keep him from the paupers."
"I am glad you do so much."
"I could do no less, she was my wife."
"We will not speak of it," said Susannah in a low voice, "but of the future." She dropped the hand-screen and faced her cousin. "Rose, what are we all living on?"
"Debts, maybe," smiled my lord.
Susannah frowned in a troubled way.
"You have never been sincere with me, and I think I have deserved some frankness; you were entangled before you flung up your post under Pelham."
My lord interrupted with an air of sudden weariness.
"There are always the Jews, and in one way and another one may float. I have been lucky of late at play."
"As you will," answered Miss Chressham quietly.
"My lady is content, but I cannot help—Ah! well, I have no right to play the monitor."
"You are the guardian angel of our house," smiled my lord, and gave her a soft, half-amused look. "Have you heard lately from Marius?"
Her face clouded.
"I do not care to hear you speak of him."
"You well know why. You believe that of him I never can nor will believe."
The Earl shrugged his shoulders.
"A woman's generous blindness, my dear."
"A woman's clearer vision," she retorted hotly. "You are bound, Rose, to have known Marius all his life and still imagine he could miserably intrigue for your death; he appeared at the meeting, after your insult, out of pure honour."
"He appeared as my second, against my will, and my pistol had been drawn," returned the Earl dryly. "Also he had refused to fight me."
"Because I asked it of him, and for that I can never forgive myself," said Miss Chressham bitterly.
My lord laughed.
"I think he was fond of you."
Miss Chressham looked into the fire.
"I have not seen him since he threw up his commission," she said thoughtfully; "nor may I see him again, but I shall believe in him always."
"He is still in Holland?" asked the Earl lightly.
"Yes "—Susannah roused herself—"but it is not of him I wish to speak."
She fixed her eyes searchingly on the easy rich figure of Rose Lyndwood and went faintly pale.
"You have heard that Sir Francis Boyle is married?"
"Yes "—he was still smiling—"to Miss Brett, a beauty and a fortune."
Susannah leant forward, resting her cheek in her hand, her elbow on the arm of the chair; her brow was anxious, and her gaze rested with painful attention on the Earl's calm countenance.
"When are you going to marry Selina Boyle?" she asked.
He gave her a quick look; she read nothing but surprise in his fair, fickle eyes.
"Of all things I had not expected this," he said, and laughed a little.
"You think I have no right to speak, but I am her friend, and I must ask how long will you keep her waiting?"
My lord slightly flushed.
"I am not betrothed to Miss Boyle."
"Oh, Rose," cried Miss Chressham, drawing a deep breath, "Will you use forever this formality to me? She, Selina, told me herself, and I—have I not been a faithful confidante?" She paused, collected herself and continued, "I heard to-day from Bristol; she does not mention you; but she must be wondering, and why are you delaying? Rose, you have been free nearly a year."
"By Gad, you put me in an awkward position," said the Earl. "On my honour: I do not know what to say to you."
He rose and leant against the top of the settee, looking at her curiously.
"Why delay?" Miss Chressham spoke earnestly, almost passionately. "Announce it, go down to Bristol; neither decency nor honour demand any further tribute to the memory of that unhappy lady."
"Susannah," he interrupted. "You speak under the influence of an error."
"An error?" she echoed.
"Yes, I do not intend to marry Miss Boyle."
"Rose!" the exclamation seemed wrung from her by sheer bitter surprise. She stared at him incredulously. He coloured, deeply now, to his powdered side-curls.
"I do not know what impossible romance you have been building, Susannah, but this you speak of I have never even contemplated."
"You—you do not intend to marry Selina?"
"You imagined I did? My dear, it would be the simplest folly."
Susannah rose and rested her hand against the mantelshelf.
"Please put this clearly," she said; "why would it be folly?"
"You yourself, my dear, have remarked the state of my fortunes—Miss Boyle is not wealthy."
"Money—again money!" cried Miss Chressham in horrified accents. "Do you dare to consider money—after all that has passed?"
"It is a necessary evil," said the Earl.
"But you love her!" broke from Susannah.
A pause followed. My lord took a half-turn across the room followed by his cousin's bewildered, appealing eyes, then he turned and faced her. His demeanour was changed, his voice when he spoke was low and grave.
"You have mistaken me," and he put his hand to his heart in some agitation. "I think you can never have known me; but it moves me that you should take this trouble in my affairs, and I can do no less than confess."
"Confess, and to me!" cried Susannah.
"To no one else could I speak," said the Earl; "what is the use, even to you? But it is strange that you should have so misunderstood me."
"I thought I knew you very well," breathed Susannah.
"Not so well, my dear," he returned half sadly. "I—I never loved this lady, it was a fair pretence, but no more; how could there be love when there was no knowledge? She was to me a faint, sweet figure who"—he shrugged his shoulders—"and I—why, she knew nothing of me but what I chose to show her. It was pleasant, a delicate episode; but to marry her!"
"You forget some incidents of this story," said Miss Chressham with lowered eyes; "you let her think you cared—if Marius and my lady had been willing, you averred, you would have married her—what of that?"
My lord laughed faintly.
"I could never have done it."
"Then your marriage was not for Marius, for your mother, it was for yourself."
"As this is my confession, I suppose you are right, Susannah. I could never have done other than I did—am I the man for an idyll? It happened to be charming to imagine it."
Miss Chressham raised her grave, dark eyes.
"And afterwards, when you dared to ask Selina to refuse Sir Francis?"
"That was a matter of vanity," confessed my lord, "and perhaps curiosity; I wanted to know. Ah, well, I had a number of motives."
Miss Chressham put her hand to her head.
"I think I understand, at last; indeed I see it very clearly. But there is something you do not see clearly—the position of Selina Boyle."
The Earl toyed with his glass.
"Can I flatter myself that she would recall an incident that touched her so little? The whole thing was but a matter of sighs and smiles."
"I do not credit you with believing what you say; even if you do," her voice strengthened, "I know that it is false. If you were well on the earth all the time, she was nevertheless in the clouds; if you found it a flattering diversion, she found it more."
My lord made a restraining gesture.
"Oh, but you must hear me!" continued Susannah. "She was sincere; if you did not consider her so you must know it now."
"You cannot answer for her," said the Earl, and again his natural pallor disappeared under a slow blush.
"I know," answered his cousin. "You spoke and she believed; she accepted you on her own level, and you must act up to it, Rose."
The Earl glanced at her under lowered lids.
"It would be no great honour to Miss Boyle," he said gravely, "to make her my second wife. Believe me, I respect and admire that lady too much to ever act with her the comedy my marriage must be."
Susannah clenched her hand impatiently on the mantelshelf.
"Oh, you talk, talk!" she cried, "and meanwhile Selina waits; do you suppose these sophistries occur to her, or if they do that they can comfort her in face of the fact that you do not write, you do not come, and she hears your name coupled with that of other women?"
"Still you speak under a misconception," said my lord. "I could never marry for love."
"You would marry again for money?" she flashed.
"I have confessed," he answered; "your sincerity has forced it from me. I do what comes naturally to me to do, that which everyone does—why not?"
"In other words you drift!" cried Miss Chressham, "as all the Lyndwoods have drifted, to destruction; you find nothing good but idleness and paltry pleasure."
"I have some conscience left," interrupted the Earl, "and in the matter of Miss Boyle."
"This talk is but to cloak your own convenience," replied Susannah. "What are you going to do?"
"The obvious thing," said my lord.
Miss Chressham flushed.
"Serena Trefusis has money; they are ambitious people; do you mean that?"
Rose Lyndwood laughed.
"You are a sweet moralist, my dear, and, by Gad! I don't deserve your interest."
She broke in, pushing back the heavy fair hair from her face.
"I am not talking of myself," she bit her lip in agitation, "but of Selina Boyle. I think you are going to behave dishonourably. Rose."
The Earl was silent. The glow of the fire, showing more strongly in the darkening room, struck vividly on his red dress, and cast a warm colour over his half-averted face.
"She hath been very faithful to you," said Susannah in a low voice. "Even had you not asked it of her she would never have married, for your sake, and she is a noble nature. Ah, you should be proud; there are not many such as she."
Still my lord did not speak, but his beautiful mouth trembled a little.
"And she thinks you care," continued Miss Chressham. "And if you do not, what has she for her devotion? She was the belle of two years ago. Sir Francis married the belle of this—all the town knew that he and you met because of her—all the town read that paragraph in the Gazette, and none of this is anything to her, if you care; if not—" she moved from the mantelshelf, and sudden passion touched her voice, "it is hard for women who wait."
The Earl raised his head.
"She does not know me," he said softly. "What can I do?"
"She must never know you," returned Susannah quickly.
"What am I to do?" repeated the Earl.
"Go to Bristol," said Miss Chressham. "See her, speak to her—by Heaven, you cannot find it difficult to love her, or to feign love to any woman; you do not need me to tell you what to do. I have told you she is waiting, that is enough."
My lord slightly smiled.
"Money, of course, you scorn, my dear; but it is a thing not so easily ignored. I am entangled in debt."
"You can do—you can do what Marius does."
"A fair prospect to offer Miss Boyle."
"That is between you and her. Go to her at least; put it to her, do not overlook her, pass her by—"
"You are a curious lady," said my lord with a half-amused, half-wistful glance. "And now I have confessed myself a shallow, empty person I fear I have your scorn, but these things—position, money, and other fooleries—are facts."
"It is also a fact that she is waiting," flashed Susannah.
"And one that perchance outweighs those others." The Earl spoke in a softer voice. "On my soul I have not thought of it in such a fashion."
"You are too fickle."
"I have told you what I am, like the rest or any other."
Miss Chressham turned her eyes away.
"Not quite like any other, Rose, in so far that you will go to Bristol."
"Ah, my dear, this is not the age of chivalry."
"Still, you will go to Bristol?"
She put out her hand, caught hold of the mantelshelf, and turning, faced him.
"These are not things to speak of, it is getting late; I have to dress."
Their eyes met across the twilit room; as a background to each was the glimmer of rich furniture, the handsome painted walls, the shifting shadows cast by the candle-light.
"Are you going?" she asked.
Rose Lyndwood paused a moment with his hand on the gate, and looked smilingly up at the sky, which was covered with dappled clouds, tinged with the gold pink of sunset.
The scent from the box hedges was freshly pungent in the clear air, and the roses climbing over the front of the old red brick house had their perfume too, that came in breaths faintly as the breeze stirred.
This was the home of Selina Boyle—where she had waited for him, Susannah said. My lord was not displeased with the thought; he persuaded himself that the affair had been sweetly romantic from the first. He almost persuaded himself that he had really cared for Miss Boyle. Certainly that night at the theatre—
He laughed a little; it could not but amuse him that he found himself there at all. His cousin's words had roused some emotion, exactly what he could not tell, but one strong enough to bring him here.
It might have been vanity. He himself thought it curiosity. He had not met her since that night at the masque, when Sir Francis had come between; he had not even thought about her much, yet she had been waiting until he chose to remember.
Certainly the reflection was pleasing. He had not the vaguest idea of what he should do or say. It was utterly against his nature to form plans on any subject, but the contemplation of her faithfulness softened him into a lover-like mood.
He entered the beautiful garden, and wondered was she at home. He had left London on an impulse, and had not announced to her his coming. To meet her unexpectedly was more in keeping with the idyll; and that it was, and always had been, a very perfect idyll my lord was now convinced.
As he neared the house, walking slowly between the box borders and the beds of pinks and roses, he saw her coming down an alley overarched by a trellis covered in sweet-brier. She wore a white dress and a wide straw hat that shaded half her face. On his arm was a flat basket filled with sprays of green.
The Earl took off his hat and waited. His elegant, rich appearance seemed out of place in the simple garden, just as the heavy perfume of his clothes mingled curiously with the odours of the flowers.
She came towards him, the lovely moving shadows of thorns and leaves cast over her muslin gown, and as she stepped out into the pure faint sunlight she saw him.
"Ah, you!" she cried, without restraint or confusion. "You!"
She held out her hands, and her face expressed nothing but radiant joy.
My lord was moved and thrilled. He kissed the hands that trembled at his touch, and smiled into her eager eyes.
"Were you expecting me—Selina?"
"To-day?" She was quivering, blushing. The same sweet face, the same low voice, unchanged. "Ah, how could I tell it would be to-day?"
"I never wrote," he said, probing her.
"I did not expect it. As if there was any need of letters, my lord!"
He swung his cane by the gilt tassels, wondering how he should feel his way to her mood.
"My father is in the house," she said, "but you have come to see me."
"Naturally—to see you!" He gave his half excited, wholly charming laugh.
"We will remain out here. Come, I will take you to a place I love."
There was no embarrassment nor agitation in her manner; she was calm, unaffected in her welcome. Evidently she had been very sure of his coming.
My lord thought of Miss Chressham as he followed her friend down the rose-covered alley.
"I am glad that you did not write." Selina Boyle spoke suddenly. He saw her eyes, dark and soft, in the trembling shadow of her hat as they turned to him.
She was grave now, and pale, but her expression was that of pure happiness.
"I should not have known what to say," answered my lord, also with some gravity, and truth.
"I understand it all, without any word from you," she smiled. "Of course, you knew that I should—"
They came out on to a square of grass, in the centre of which stood a stone fountain clasped by heavy crimson roses. Beyond was a grove of beech-trees; through the boughs the sunset light fell in a glory; facing the fountain was a garden wall, overgrown with moss and tufts of grass; beneath this a row of straw beehives; the other side was the rose garden, not yet in full bloom, but a revelry of green.
There was no water in the fountain. In the basin grew white, sweet-smelling pinks, and on the edge of it Miss Boyle seated herself and clasped her hands in her lap.
"Do you not find it sweet here?" she asked. "You have never seen my home before."
She might have added with truth that he had never known her before. There was something in her rapt face that he was afraid of. He felt an alien in the garden, a stranger by her side; yet his fickle taste found this sweet after the noisy life of town, and Miss Boyle, seated before her beehives, even more winning than Miss Boyle, the beauty of the Wells.
For a while they were both silent, looking at the clear space of sky above the beech-trees.
She was the first to speak.
"There is so much to say, and yet so little."
The Earl looked at her; her white dress touched the white flowers growing in the stone basin; her auburn hair hung lightly on to her slender neck, and her eyes rested on him intently.
"I should have come before," he said.
"Why?" she smiled, and he wondered why it was a sad smile. "Now we are both ready. At first it was bitter, but now—"
So it seemed she had never questioned he was bound to her, never questioned, either, his love. There was no mistaking the sincerity of her look, her voice. Miss Chressham was amazingly right.
The church-bells came up from the town of Bristol. It was Sunday, though till now my lord had forgotten it. He took a step or two across the grass, and the sun, growing stronger at the last, gleamed on his grey satin coat, and glittered in the brilliants at his throat.
"It was difficult for me," he said. "At first—"
"What of your brother?" she asked. "Susannah tells me that he has gone into business in Holland."
"He does well there." My lord's voice was disinterested.
"That was one of the things I wished to say to you. You do not believe the—the story they whispered of the duel?"
"Marius is better abroad," said the Earl evasively.
"But you do not believe it?" pleaded Miss Boyle. "No, you could not!"
He smiled down at her.
"Very well, as you wish. I will not believe it; but it was not to speak of Marius that I came to Bristol."
Inwardly he asked himself what had brought him—asked himself between tears and laughter. What he must do now he was here he could read in Miss Boyle's eyes.
"You have heard of me from Susannah?"
"A few words—sometimes—" she answered.
"I should have written."
"No, it was sweet to wait."
"Then you are not displeased with me?"
She laughed softly.
"How could I be displeased with you?"
The Earl blushed slowly.
"Ye abash me, Selina. Ye should be saying this to a better man."
Again Miss Boyle laughed.
"Oh, my dear, my dear!"
She put her hand quickly to her heart, to her lips, and rose, turning from him.
"I have something to show you—something still to say to you."
"I think it is I who have to speak," said my lord, and marvelled that she should be so sure of this perfect understanding between them, when in reality (and this was strange and piteous) she did not comprehend his motive in being here, nor in the least grasp his feelings towards her. He looked at her keenly, decided she was not foolish, but exalted, and wondered still more in a kind of shame.
Miss Boyle stood still. In a quite unconscious way she seemed to be listening to the sweet sound of the bells. Her bearing held no confusion nor agitation; she did not appear to be waiting for either confession or caresses. My lord found himself at a loss; his thoughts flew to Miss Chressham. He smiled to himself and watched the pure profile of Selina Boyle.
Presently she glanced round at him and gave a little sigh, as if she awoke reluctantly from a reverie.
"Will you tell me how she died?"
The Earl was startled beyond concealment.
"How she died? Who?"
Miss Boyle answered softly.
His face darkened.
"You must know. It was talked of enough."
"She died suddenly. I heard no more,"
"Let it go at that," said my lord.
Miss Boyle observed him intently.
"I mean the manner of her death—did she speak of me?"
"Of you? No."
"And you—how did she leave you?"
"There was little enough passed!" replied my lord gloomily. "The Countess fell ill and died before she could be even bled. Why do we speak of it? It is not one of my most pleasant recollections."
"Forgive me," said Miss Boyle tenderly; "only sometimes it has weighed on me that she might have died bitterly reviling us—and, also, I am sorry for her. It is so terrible a thing, my lord, to die suddenly."
He gave her a sideways look. It was curious that she had not at once, like Susannah Chressham and most other people, guessed the meaning of my lady's tragic end, yet there could be no doubt that she was sincere.
He was silent, and Miss Boyle spoke again, moving slowly over the long grass.
"Do you put flowers sometimes on her tomb?"
The Earl smiled. Her words did not jar; he could be sentimental himself. The garden and her company were both fitted to make him fall in with her delicate moods.
She did not give him time to compose an answer.
"I have some roses here I want you to take back with you—for that—her tomb."
She pointed out a tree on the edge of the rose-garden laden with heavy white blooms, then sank to one knee beside it, and, taking a pair of scissors from her basket severed the thick and thorny stems. As the roses fell one by one upon the grass, my lord felt the tears sting his eyes. He bent over her impulsively.
"Selina," he said, in an unsteady voice, "Selina, will you not lay flowers there yourself?"
She raised her face and looked at him.
"I am not likely to be in London," she answered.
He recollected that London, after the crash their marriage must involve, would not indeed be their home.
"I' faith we can go there—" he began, but her expression gave him pause.
"Why do you think I have come, Selina?" he asked, in an altered voice.
She rose, two flowers in her hand; her eyes had a startled look.
"To bid me good-bye," she answered calmly.
My lord was too bewildered and startled to answer. He stared curiously at her sweet gravity.
"What other reason could have brought you?" she continued, with a faint colour in her face.
"Can you conceive no other?" he replied. "I came to claim you, Selina—at last." He smiled in an agitated manner.
The blush deepened in her cheeks.
"You did not think, my lord, that I could ever be your wife?"
"I had that presumption." He was goaded by this unexpected attitude of hers to speak bitterly, to commit himself beyond the truth. "There is no obstacle now, Selina."
"I never thought of this," said Miss Boyle, under her breath. "I do not know if you are serious; but, surely it is needless for me to tell you, my lord, that it is impossible. Everything is impossible between you and me—save farewell."
"Why do you say so?" he demanded. "Have you not been waiting for this moment?"
"To bring—farewell. Yes, I believed you would come for that—to see me once more, to bid good-bye; but—ah, the idyll was broken so long ago." She turned her head away sharply. "We shall care always, shall we not? I—I do not dare express to you what I feel."
"We will not part, Selina!" he cried.
She faced him courageously.
"Nothing can move me, not even your sincerity. I am resolved; and you know in your heart that I am right."
The words held him silent with a shame she took for grief.
"What does it matter," she said, with a soft passion in her voice, "since we—"
"Since we have loved one another," finished my lord, lifting his grey eyes.
"Yes," breathed Miss Boyle.
A silence followed and the bells ceased; the sun had set, and all colour faded from the sky. Miss Boyle stooped and picked up the few roses still upon the grass.
"You understand?" she asked.
"I understand," answered the Earl.
"You must go."
"I would not," he said softly, "dare to stay."
She smiled in an absorbed manner, and turned down the rose alley. As they walked together they spoke a little, in low voices, of common things, words with no meaning, but of sweet sound, and a great regret touched my lord's fickle heart.
She came with him to the gate.
"Do you still bid me go?"
"Farewell!" she said.
He lingered, divided in himself, moved and sad. She put her hand to her bosom and drew from her fichu a white ribbon on which hung a little shell. She showed it to him and smiled.
"Must I—shall I go?" he said, asking himself.
Her hat had slipped from her golden head, and as she looked up at him the fine curls were displayed on her brow and shoulders.
She opened the gate. The Earl stepped slowly out on to the road. She took the roses from her basket and gave them to him.
"Farewell!" she repeated.
He bent and kissed the fingers among the rose-leaves.
"Farewell!" he said, on a half-sigh, yet smiling.
She moved away from the gate, back among the boughs of fragrant box. For the first time suddenly she used his name.
The Earl stood, looking at her; then she turned towards the house, and he down the road, wondering at her, at himself, and staring at the great mass of white roses that he was carrying, he knew not why.
The curtain fell on the last act of Zaire.
"I do not like Monsieur Voltaire," said Susannah Chressham. She and her companion. Miss Westbrook, moved on the outskirts of the crowd that filled the music-room in Villiers Street.
"Shall we go?" asked Miss Westbrook, unfurling her fan.
"Why, not yet. Where is my lady?"
"I saw her but now with my mother." They turned into the card-rooms that opened from the large hall.
"That tedious tragedy has given me a headache," remarked Miss Chressham, seating herself on one of the gilt chairs. A number of violins were playing, and the air was pleasantly heavy with the scent of hot-house roses and syringa.
"La, look at that beauty there!" cried Miss Westbrook.
Susannah glanced round; she coloured.
"Do you not know her? 'Tis Miss Trefusis."
"Ah, then a swinging fortune, too!" said Helen Westbrook.
Susannah understood her tone, but her answer closed the subject.
"There is Captain Lestrange coming for you, my dear; you promised to be of his party at a game of faro. If you see my lady tell her that I am waiting here."
Miss Westbrook laughed and moved away into the crowd. Susannah rested her elbow on the table and put her hand over her eyes. The glitter of the chandeliers, the gleaming of the gilt and satin walls, the bright colours of the dresses hurt her eyes.
She sat so for a while, indifferent to the crowd that passed and repassed, aware of the music, but listening to the insistent clamour of her own agitated thoughts. When she at last looked up it was to see my lord, splendidly dressed in white and silver and conspicuously attended by those eager to be in the fashion, entering the room.
Her vacant look was replaced by one of eagerness. She made a motion with her black fan. He saw it at once, left those who crowded round him and crossed over to her.
"So you are back—so soon," she greeted him a little breathlessly.
"I made post haste—I travelled all night." He was smiling, his manner as always of an indifferent gaiety; but to Susannah's keen observation his beautiful eyes looked shadowed and weary.
"You did not stay long in Bristol?"
"A few moments only."
"Ah!" She rose. "Let us walk about a little; you cannot say much here."
"It is very crowded to-night," he remarked, looking about him with distaste. "I hate the place."
"Then why have you come?" she challenged him.
"To see you. I was at my Lord Carlisle's for dinner; afterwards, in the Haymarket, I learnt you were here."
"Ah, forgive me, it is good of you, Rose," she answered gently; "indeed, I am very glad to see you. I want to speak to you—and on a second matter now."
They turned into the almost empty hall, where the play had been given. The dark curtain over the stage and the scattered few lights gave the place a mournful air. From the distance came the thin melody of the violins.
"I must tell you," said Susannah, "though this is not the place. Still, a few words are best, and we need never refer to it again."
Her powdered hair and bronze-coloured silk gown accentuated the pallor of her fair face. She looked tired, anxious, and her voice, for all her obvious effort at control, trembled on her words.
"I have heard from Honoria Pryse."
The Earl glanced at her sharply.
"Why does she write to you?"
"She writes concerning Marius "—Miss Chressham pressed her handkerchief to her lips. "Having fled with my lady's jewels, she kept silence at the time, nor does she now disclose her whereabouts; but she has had on her mind my lady's—the Countess Lavinia's—dying wish, and she writes to me. But I do not care to show you her letter. Rose."
"Tell me what she says."
"Yes, since it is by her—the Countess Lavinia's—desire that anyone speaks at all," answered Susannah. "I—I will strive to be brief and gentle." She took breath a moment. "It seems she followed you that night to Hyde Park," continued Susannah hurriedly; "she was there at the duel. God forgive her! She had previously drawn your pistol, finding occasion that evening when you left it set out in the library. I have not the details, but the bare facts suffice. She wished your death. I think perhaps she cared for—I would say she did not wish that Marius, your second, should bear the weight of her sin; so after she had made certain of her end she laid it on Honoria to confess to you. But the girl fled, thinking only of herself. Still, conscience has worked, and she sends to me this late avowal."
The Earl had kept silence, was silent now. Susannah could read nothing from his pale profile.
"I have to tell you, because it was her wish, and out of justice to Marius," she said, "not to blame the dead."
"I might have known," replied my lord, and he half smiled. "I will write to Marius."
"I always believed in him," breathed Susannah, "so did my lady. Do not let us speak of it any more. I must be leaving soon; but first"—she raised her eyes—"Selina?"
The violins were playing a gavotte. My lord's long fingers beat time to the measure on the hilt of his rapier.
"She hath refused me," he answered. "Is it farce or tragedy we play? I know not. She is a creature of gossamer, of sentiment. What has passed makes our marriage as impossible to her as sordid matters would have made it impossible to me."
"However, she believes you care," breathed Susannah, divining suddenly Selina's view.
The Earl bent his head.
"And hath taken farewell of me. Her affection is not of the earth. Better for her that she should never know the quality of mine."
"She is happy?"
"I do think so," said my lord.
Susannah faced him suddenly.
"And you—what are you going to do?"
He laughed sadly.
"For once I can answer you. I shall marry Miss Trefusis."
They stood facing each other under a silver sconce, the pale light of its candles over their faces. Susannah leant against the panelled walls and lowered her eyes.
"For the money?" she said in a repressed voice.
"Miss Trefusis is one of the most charming ladies in London," answered the Earl; "but to you I can say it. Yes."
"For the second time!" Susannah spoke in the same tone. "I wonder you can dare."
"Oh, my dear!"—there was sadness in my lord's sweet weary voice—"you are a lady of sense, not so simple. How have I been living but on the prospects of a marriage such as this? With Miss Boyle I should have had to face God knows what—the Fleet maybe, or a post with the Prince at Bois-le-duc. As it is—"
"Say no more!" broke in Susannah. "You will break her heart, that is all."
"Do you speak of Selina Boyle?"
"Of whom else? Miss Trefusis is aware of what she does. What do I care for her? I regard Selina—"
"She hath said farewell. She would say no other word."
Susannah broke out passionately.
"Oh, cannot you understand? She cares for you beyond anything in the world; she thinks that so do you care for her, and if you marry—Ah, but I can say no more!"
"There is no more to be said," answered my lord. "These ideas are sweet, but over-romantical. I shall ask for the hand of Miss Trefusis to-morrow, as I am a very ordinary gentleman and cannot go to ruin for a whim."
Miss Chressham pressed her brow wearily.
"My head aches, and we cannot converse on such things in the crowd, amid the light and music, neither can I recollect all I would say."
"You despise me," smiled the Earl. He laughed lightly.
Slowly they turned into the gay card-room, where the orchestra played to the gamesters and an Italian singer's voice rose above the murmur of talk.
My lord spoke again, with utter weariness in his voice.
"As you say, we cannot converse here. To-morrow I will wait on you and on my lady; perhaps I can a little justify myself."
She would not look at him.
"Ah, Rose, what do you care about justifying yourself to me? As for my lady, I think she will be pleased."
"I have confessed to you," he answered. "I have told you I do what comes, being in no way heroic or noble." He paused.
"You are going now," she said. "I cannot bear to listen to you here."
"Yes, I will get away from these people. I came only to meet you; I feel fatigued."
She saw Miss Westbrook approaching, and gave Lyndwood her hand. "To-morrow then we meet, and you will write to Marius?"
"In the morning—yes. I will bring you the letter "—he kissed her hand. "My duty to my lady."
He smiled at her, half appealingly.
"Good-night." So, in this hasty manner, in the midst of a crowd, they parted.
She moved away with Miss Westbrook, already rehearsing in her mind what she should say to him to-morrow when her head did not ache, when they were alone. There was so much to say and they had only had the fewest words together. She must write to Selina, too. What could she say there? Should she get him to write? And Miss Trefusis—he was fixed on that match. Ah, an ordinary gentleman, indeed! But her heart was crying out after him as she framed the sentences she would use to-morrow—to-morrow.
My lord left the music-room and the building, avoiding the crowds desirous of his company, and walked up the street towards the river where he had left his chair. Reaching it, from the white satin seat he took a bunch of white roses faded and drooping. Then he dismissed the men, bidding them go home.
Since his arrival in town that morning he had been playing with the idea of fulfilling Selina Boyle's strange request; he had meant to carry it out before the flowers should be utterly dead, and this that Susannah had told him of his wife's confession affected his wilful mood, moved him and made him whimsically desirous to lay Selina's roses on her tomb.
There was a cynical piquancy in the situation that pleased him. His relations with my lady had been so devoid of romance or sentiment, so devoid of anything save a final tragic horror, that this touch between mockery and bitterness appealed to my lord's fantastical mind.
She had tried to be the instrument of his death; she had taken her own life in despair at the ill-success of her desperate act; she had lain for nine months in her grave, and no one had dropped a flower on her tomb nor given her one regret. And now he, having learnt the truth, and on the eve of his second marriage, came to offer her memory roses from the garden of Selina Boyle!
My lord smiled, and drew his mantle closer round him, for the May night was chill, though clear and fair; the stars were few and faint and the moon high overhead. My lord sang a little to himself. As he passed St. Martin's-in-the-Fields the clock struck one. He glanced up at the steeple in surprise; he had not thought it so late. He quickened his pace. He must write to Marius to-night. Curious that Honoria Pryse should find a conscience, and how foolish of him not to guess the truth before! It seemed so obvious now that my lady—He glanced down at the roses in his hand, and laughed.
Meeting no one in the dreary ill-lit streets, he reached St. Ann's, Soho, where the Countess was buried; and then, for the first time, remembered that the church was locked and that he had no means of entry. Vexed at being thwarted, he crossed the churchyard and tried, despite his own reason, the heavy door. The cold iron ring of the handle rattled uselessly in his hand; some leaves fluttered from Selina's roses on to the steps.
My lord turned and looked about him. The moonlight spread softly over the tombstones, the dark houses beyond the railings and the plain lines of the church. A low wind swept through the thick grass and bore long wreaths of clouds over the sharp outline of the roofs. It was utterly silent; there seemed no one abroad. My lord pictured the dark lonely interior of the church and the draped urn in a niche in the nave. He had only looked at it once, but very clearly he could see the lettering, even the way it was placed, on the marble tablet below:
NEAR THIS SPOT
LIE THE MORTAL REMAINS
WIFE OF THE FOURTEENTH EARL OF LYNDWOOD,
Who died July 16, 1750, aged 23 years.
It was an inscription sinister in its brevity; the scandal, hushed as it was, attending my lady's death had allowed of no details, and my lord's humour permitted no eulogy, but it seemed to him now that he might have added some word of charity, for the sight of the churchyard and the thought of the cold church made him shudder with a feeling that was like pity for the unloved dead.
The locked door in no way shook his determination to place Selina's flowers where he had meant they should he, and to-night—it must be to-night. To-morrow there were other things to do. Well he knew himself fickle, and that he could not foretell his own next mood; but now, this moment, he must enter the empty church and lay the dead white roses in the niche that held my lady's urn.
He caught the mantle over his flashing dress and crossed the churchyard. He thought he remembered where the sacristan lived; he thought the man, knowing him, would give him the key or open the church, and he put his hand into his pocket to find his purse.
As he did so the sound of voices made him pause. Sounds of laughter, loud talking, the rattle of sword-hilts on the cobbles came up the narrow street.
The Earl frowned, hesitated, opened the churchyard gate and looked out. By the moonlight and the glimmer of the swinging overhead lamps he could see a party of gentlemen advancing towards him. With an exclamation of annoyance he closed the gate. Not so quietly, however, that they, almost on him now, did not hear it, and stopped instantly arrested.
"Is the churchyard open?" said one, and my lord knew the voice and figure—it was Lord Sandys.
"La! A footpad!" replied another.
But some of them had caught a glimpse of the Earl's white and silver under his cloak.
"By Gad! A gallant, wooing a ghost!"
Rose Lyndwood opened the gate and stepped out into the street. He felt a great and unreasonable anger against these men, all of whom he knew, and some of whom were chosen companions of his.
"Split me, it is Lyndwood!"
He faced them impatiently.
"I am on business of mine own."
Both tone and situation were so unusual for Lyndwood that a laugh ran round the group.
"Hast fallen lovesick at last, my lord?"
"Nay, he only is trying to cast a spell that he may retrieve his late ill-luck with the cards!"
"Ah, enough of your fooleries, Sandys!" The Earl tried to turn away from them.
"By Gad, there is something mysterious in this," the other was still laughing, not guessing my lord's mood. "What is the adventure?"
"At least I am in no humour for any other to-night," was the swift answer. It added to the Earl's unreasonable anger that not one of them recollected or cared that my lady was buried in the church behind them. "Stand aside, sirs," he added abruptly, for they, good-humouredly, were closing round him.
At this they laughed again, and Lord Sandys, who had been in Villiers Street, caught sight of the flowers my lord held.
"Have ye been gathering roses—and here?" He pointed to the ghostly churchyard.
"Ah, let me be," said my lord wearily.
His seriousness excited their malicious merriment. They did not guess at his inward anger, nor did he allow for their light-hearted folly. Then, in a second, it happened.
"Dead roses!" cried Lord Sandys, and tried to snatch them.
The Earl turned without warning and struck him across the cheek with his glove.
Instantly all were sobered. Lord Sandys gave a cry of rage, and drew his sword. My lord dropped his cloak the length of his arm, laid gloves and flowers on the churchyard step and unsheathed his rapier. The others moved back, ringing them round.
"Why did you do that?" breathed Lord Sandys.
Rose Lyndwood did not answer; his face was flushed and reckless.
Their swords crossed. The veiled moonlight was confusing, and both were angered to passion. The light rapiers clashed aimlessly for a second.
"Come to a better spot," cried one.
"Let him take what he asked for!" exclaimed Lord Sandys, and as he spoke the Earl fell backwards on the churchyard steps.
It was perhaps but five minutes since he had first met them, but one since he had drawn his sword. None of them could have told how it had happened. He had rushed wantonly into the quarrel. They were quieted and startled to see him lying there.
He made an effort to laugh into their faces.
"Sandys is not to blame," he gasped.
One of them stooped and held him up. There was talk of a doctor, of assistance.
He shook his head.
"I'm done for. Get Sandys away."
He tried to drag himself to a sitting posture, coughed and groaned.
"Is he dying?" asked Lord Sandys, horrified.
"Yes." Rose Lyndwood answered, fighting for his breath. "Susannah—and there is Marius. Not much miss—the debts—"
"Can no one get some water?" cried Mr. Harding, who supported him.
"Not in this church," whispered the Earl, "but at Lyndwood. Do you hear, Harding?"
He sank down on the white roses, the gloves, his mantle and his sword, his gorgeous clothes sweeping the dusty cobbles. He put his hand over his beautiful face as if he would hide its distortion.
"I always—believed," he murmured, "in the immortality of the soul. I don't need—the key."
And so it was over. Within a few feet of my lady lay my lord, dead, as suddenly, as recklessly, leaving behind him, as she had done, naught save mistakes and incompletion. It was over.
"Let us take him home," whispered Lord Sandys, and sheathed his sword.
It had rained all night heavily, but now, in the early morning, cleared into a bright sparkle and freshness, it was like to the morning on which my lady had died, Susannah thought as she opened her window on the clear pure sunlight.
She had never forgiven my lady, and the letter from Honoria Pryse had roused passive scorn into live anger; she disdained to allow herself to think of the Countess Lavinia, yet the image of Rose's wife would not be driven from her mind.
She pictured my lady creeping downstairs to unload my lord's pistol, following him through the wet streets, lurking among the trees in the Park, and in the early dawn, buying poison in some evil little shop off Drury Lane, and coming back in her wet muslins to her cheerless splendour to die.
Susannah shook herself and stared hard at the sunny sky; there were other things to think of—Selina for one.
My lord's marriage would be announced to-day; she must write to Selina, in some way soften or break the sharp pain of the news.
It was still so early that the Countess Agatha would be abed for a good while yet, but Susannah dressed herself and went quietly downstairs into the beautiful drawing-room. She liked this chamber at this hour, when there lay a hush over the house and the sun shone hazily through the silk curtain; she stepped softly and seated herself at the tulip-wood desk.
Early roses stood in the delf vases, and their fragrant pungent odour filled the unstirred air; on the gold settee lay the programme of last night's fete, and beside it a couple of tickets for a fete to-day; on a chair rested my lady's mask and fan, left there carelessly.
Susannah sighed and drew from one of the secret drawers of her desk the letter from Honoria Pryse.
She had read it more often than she could have told, but she read it again and with intent eyes:
"Madam,—I have a message for my Lord the Earl from my Lady the late Countess. You will understand why I never gave it before, and I cannot tell why I give it now, save that there seems no reason for withholding it, and it may ease you of some pain you have not deserved. My lord's Brother was guiltless in the matter of the duel; it was the Countess who unloaded the pistol; she followed to the Park, being, I take it, half Crazed, and when she was disappointed of her design to compass my lord's Death she took her own life. First she bid me tell the truth, and here you have it to use for any end you will.
"With it, Madam, accept my Advice, The Earl whom you favour has
nothing in him; Marius Lyndwood is a better man, albeit a
straight-laced fellow and not so pretty; let my Lord alone and take
"Madam, your servant,"
There was no address and no date on the letter, which had come through the threepenny post; Susannah folded it again and replaced it in the desk.
An extraordinary epistle and one that she could not dismiss from her mind; at first she had called its nature insolence, now it seemed to her to contain a strange kind of sincerity; she could not believe that the writer meant her harm.
And it was the truth, Marius was the better man; but she—
Miss Chressham checked herself with a smile. It was not her part to be thinking of herself; her own feelings, her own views had been repressed all her life; she was for ever acting for others, shielding others, defending others, encouraging others; who cared what she might feel or what passion might lie beneath her calm? No one excepting Marius.
Well, it was her own perversity, her own misfortune that she could not take the only affection that had been offered her.
She firmly turned her thoughts from her own affairs and proceeded to write to Selina Boyle.
But the words would not come; sheet after sheet was torn up and thrown aside: one sentence sounded foolish, another blunt, a third had no meaning.
A thousand things distracted her; the long ray of sunlight falling between the curtains, a rose that had dropped from its vase on to the mantelshelf, the title of a book lying on a table near; these and such foolish trifles.
She pushed back her chair in despair and, turning her head, caught sight of herself in the mirror behind the harpsichord.
She was astonished at her own extreme pallor; she told herself it must be the effect of the dead-white wrapper she wore.
With a little shiver she put aside pens and paper. She would write to Selina in the evening when she had seen my lord; there was still so much for her to say to him.
Again she glanced, almost guiltily, at the mirror; her ghastly appearance was no fancy.
The house was very quiet, surely it was time some of the servants were abroad; the clock pointed to close on six.
With a pang of surprise she heard her own heart beating furiously and felt the blood tingling in her head; she rose, expectant of something.
"Rose," she found herself saying, "Rose."
She thought he was coming, that any moment he would push open the door and greet her with his weary smile.
Then she told herself that this was pure folly.
"But something has happened," she said, "something has happened."
Should she call my lady, or her maid? The silence of the house was terrifying, the loneliness insupportable.
The clock struck six.
"Something has happened," repeated Susannah. "What is it?"
It was not her way to seek help or company. She went swiftly upstairs and put on her hat and pelisse; there was only one thing to do.
She must go to Lyndwood House and find out.
"What has happened?" she kept repeating to herself. "Find out what has happened."
Light of foot and with hushed breathing she descended into the hall that was now full of sunlight, and opened the door.
As she stood on the step looking up the Haymarket it did not seem strange that she should be leaving the house hastily attired, gloveless, agitated, to go to my lord at this early hour.
She had no thought for anything, so strong, so imperative had been the wordless summons.
Then, as she drew to the door, softly, for fear of waking my lady, a man moved from out the shadow on the opposite side of the street and crossed towards her.
Miss Chressham paused. It was Mr. Harding, one of my lord's friends.
She noted, with no surprise but with a sense of horror confirmed, his dishevelled appearance, his haggard, tired face.
Fixing his eyes on her, he raised his hat, with an air of astonishment.
"Do you come from my cousin?" she asked.
He hesitated, staring.
"I have come to see you or the Countess," he answered gravely.
She held open the door.
"Will you enter?" she said.
As he followed her into the house he spoke.
"It is almost as if you knew."
"I think I do know," she replied.
She led the way into the first room they came to, the dining-room; here the shutters were still closed and it was dark.
"Do you come from my lord, Mr. Harding?" she asked, and faced him quietly.
"Madam, I come from the Earl, from Lyndwood House," he said reluctantly. "And I am a coward before what I have to say."
Susannah raised her hand.
"A moment," she breathed, "give me a moment." She moved towards the window, then checked herself and came back.
"Sit down," she said. "Sit down, sir."
But he, as she, remained standing.
"I was starting for Lyndwood House," she continued.
"Has—has anyone told you?"
She shook her head.
"A feeling—but say what you have come to say, Mr. Harding."
He stood silent, looking away from her.
"You came to tell me," she urged, standing very erect, one hand resting on the table.
Mr. Harding could not bring himself to speak.
Susannah leant slightly towards him.
"Come, Mr. Harding, tell me how my cousin died."
He looked round startled.
"The Earl is dead," said Susannah. "You are here to say that the Earl is dead."
She interrupted him almost fiercely. "I knew—ah, I knew!"
"I have no speech suited to this need. Madam, my task is mournful—I was my lord's friend, and it was last night—I saw him fall—indeed I know not how it happened—my Lord Sandys—"
"He is dead," repeated Susannah; "dead—dead."
For a while there was silence, then she spoke again.
"A quarrel, an angry word, a pass or two, and my lord fell, the moonlight was confusing; it was all over too quickly."
Susannah gave a smile that made Mr. Harding blanch.
"A street brawl," she said slowly. "So, he died that way. Did he speak—tell me, did he speak?"
"He mentioned your name, his brother's, the debts; it—it happened outside St. Ann's, madam, and he desired, I think, not to be laid in that church."
"That was all?"
"He said: 'I have always believed in the immortality of the soul,' that was all; yes, madam."
"Thank you," said Susannah. "Thank you."
She drew her handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her lips.
"They took him home?" she asked.
"I was there."
She gave him a vacant look.
"Ah, yes, you helped them."
"My lord died in my arms, madam."
She closed her eyes.
"We took him to Lyndwood House; a doctor was brought, but—"
"He lies there now; I will go to him; we must tell my lady, Mr. Harding, and then we will go to him."
"Alas! madam," he answered, "I fear you cannot go to Lyndwood House."
"There are the creditors"—his voice was rough with distress at the sight of her proud, contained anguish. He had not guessed Miss Chressham's affection for her cousin or nothing would have brought him on this errand. "They have seized the house, and his effects."
"We are forbidden to see him?"
Mr. Harding was startled by her quickness; he bowed his head.
"He was most heavily in debt."
"What have his debts to do with this?" she asked.
Mr. Harding tried to evade her.
"My lord leaves his affairs in chaos; this is hardly the moment to speak of them, and to you, madam—"
She broke in calmly on his agitation.
"I suppose—I think—that he had been raising money on the prospect of a rich marriage, so he would leave nothing, and they could take everything?"
"Everything," repeated Mr. Harding.
"And we are forbidden the house?"
"Madam, I cannot tell."
Susannah untied her hat-strings slowly.
"There is my lady—her husband died this way, sir—and now I must tell her how my lord came home; and there is Marius."
"We have sent to him," replied Mr. Harding quickly, "One left for Holland at once to fetch the Earl."
"The Earl?" she repeated.
"Marius Lyndwood, madam."
Miss Chressham dropped her hat on to a chair.
"Ah, yes," she said under her breath, "he had no children!" Then she raised her wide eyes. "Marius is penniless, sir."
"Still, he must return; but this talk, madam—"
"You would spare me, you are in an unpleasant position. Sir, I thank you. There is no more for you to do. I must tell my lady."
"If I can be of any use, madam."
"I do not know," answered Susannah faintly. "I am grateful."
He thought she would fall as she spoke, and stepped forward.
"I shall not faint," she assured him with a piteous smile. "You can leave me now, sir, safely. Will you come later, if I might ask you?"
"I beseech you."
"You knew him," she continued. "You would do what you could now"—her eyes filled suddenly with tears—"he—he was what they call a worthless man, sir, no one was the better for his life; but for his death there are those who are sorry."
Mr. Harding could not bear to look at her.
"I am absolutely at your service, madam."
"We must sell the house, the furniture, and there are some jewels." Susannah looked slowly round the handsome room with its rich appointments. "Until Marius comes will you tell me what to do?"
He bent his head. "I will wait on you later."
"I thank you, sir."
With an instinctive, courteous sweetness she smiled at him and came to the door, and when, with some murmured words, he had gone, she came back into the room and sat down at the table.
So, she would not see him this afternoon. The tremendous fact seemed hidden by the trivial one.
And there was no need now to write to Selina Boyle; she would never know that he could not be faithful.
Susannah looked again round the chamber at the paintings, at the carvings, and every small detail seemed invested with unbearable meaning.
She leant back in her chair; she stared at the sunlight that shone through the crevices of the shutters; she rose and walked up and down the room; she seemed to see everything, to touch everything through a distorting mirror; her own body felt numb and strange.
She repeated his name.
"Rose—Rose Lyndwood," and the fantastic sound of it was beyond credence.
The house began to stir, there came to Susannah the noise of opening shutters, of the servants on the stairs; she heard the milk girl cedling without and the clatter of her pails.
Someone whistled in the street and a dog barked in the distance.
Miss Chressham left the room and went upstairs to tell my lady.
"A lady to see me?" asked Susannah, shrinking. She could not bring herself to face the sympathy or curiosity of acquaintances. The address of their present quiet lodging had not been published abroad, and the house in the Haymarket was in the hands of my lord's creditors. She could not imagine who, with any other motive but that of inquisitiveness, this might be inquiring for her. She thought there was none to take any interest in the survivors of the fallen house of Lyndwood.
"A lady," the little slim maid repeated. "Her name, madam, is Miss Boyle."
"Oh, Selina!" Susannah caught her breath. "Bring her here."
The servant closed the door and Miss Chressham gave a little shudder.
The dreary, heavily furnished room, the outlook through the long bare windows on to the blank houses opposite, the strangeness of everything, even to her own plain dark dress, were a fitting background to her secret tragedy. She wondered dully how she could bear it, and shuddered again.
But there were others to think of, as there always were in the life of Susannah Chressham.
She went to the folding doors at the back of the room and softly opened them on to a darkened bedchamber.
"Do you want anything, Aunt Agatha?" she asked gently.
From the curtained bed came a muffled answer.
Susannah looked pityingly at the outline of my lady's slight figure huddled on the tumbled pillows.
The Countess was attired in the gay silks of her former splendour. One hand was over her face; in the other she held a miniature, not that of her still unburied son, but that of her husband, fifteen years dead.
"Selina Boyle is here; she need not disturb you."
"Where is Marius?" moaned my lady. "Is he never coming?"
"He could not be here before to-night," said Miss Chressham for the hundredth time that day.
The Countess made no answer, and Susannah quietly withdrew, closing the doors as Selina Boyle entered the outer chamber.
For a moment the two ladies looked at each other with wild eyes, then Selina Boyle crossed the room and kissed Susannah on the cheek.
"Oh, my dear!" said Miss Chressham brokenly.
"I am very well," answered Selina, in a voice that sounded weak and hoarse. "I have just come up to town. I told my father; he brought me. I am very well."
She sank on to one of the torn striped chairs and loosened her black cloak. Her hair hung in disordered curls under her straw hat, her face was flushed, her lips feverish.
"I thought that you would come, but I did not expect you so soon," said Susannah, under her breath. "You received my letter?"
"Yes, and I saw it—in the paper."
Susannah looked at her tenderly.
"I fear you are wearied to death."
Miss Boyle took off her hat; there was a tacit avoidance in their speech of that which filled the thoughts of both.
"We have been travelling all night, but I am not tired."
"We will have some tea." Susannah rang the bell. "We are very humble here; it is but temporary."
"Why did you leave home—the other place—so soon?" asked Miss Boyle faintly.
"It was not ours; we had no right," answered Susannah. "And I could not bear to stay; we moved at once. This is our first day here."
My lord had been two days dead—only two days. They glanced away from each other.
"How is my lady?" breathed Selina.
"She is not well, I fear. She lives only for the coming of Marius."
"She is here?"
"Yes, but she will see no one."
The maid-servant, treading softly, in awe of the visitor who had driven up in a coach, entered and set the tea.
"What time is it?" Susannah asked. There was no clock in the room, and she had left her watch, with every other article of jewellery, behind in the house in the Haymarket.
"Nearly four o'clock, madam."
"Thank you." Miss Chressham dismissed her, and commenced pouring out the tea.
Selina took a cup obediently, but could not eat.
"I am a little sick with travelling," she said.
Susannah observed her covertly, wondering how much she guessed. Was she still in her fairyland? Miss Chressham thought so.
"Do you know Lord Sandys?" asked Selina.
"I have seen him," answered Susannah.
Miss Boyle raised blurred eyes.
"I saw him once, when they played The Rival Queens. My lord was in the box with me. The lady he married was with him."
Susannah looked into her cup.
"You saw my lord but recently?"
"We said good-bye. We—this does not matter for me; it was over."
"For you and him?" asked Susannah softly.
"What could there have been?" The tears ran slowly down her cheeks, but she smiled. "And what can it matter? He loved me, Susannah, he loved me!"
Miss Chressham was silent.
Selina wiped away the tears, and fixed her poor scalded eyes on Susannah.
"He came to tell me so again."
"I know; he told me that he was going to ask you to be his wife."
"We have always loved each other," said Selina simply, "and we have been unfortunate. For me this does not matter, and for him—"
"He might have died more nobly."
Selina shook her head.
"We do not know; it was some worthy quarrel."
Again Miss Chressham was silent; she, like Selina, was ignorant how exactly my lord had met his death—a flareup of temper, a wanton insult. Those who had seen him die had nothing more to say. No one knew why he was in the churchyard of St. Ann's at that hour. Susannah, who knew nothing of the flowers, guessed; Selina, who remembered them, did not.
"I never thought to see him again," continued Selina, with trembling lips; "but if it might have been I—"
"You must live to think of him," said Susannah tenderly. "Ah, my dear, he did not die wholly miserably if he left you behind to mourn him."
She rose and went on her knees beside Selina's low chair, and both were clasped tightly in each other's arms in an overwhelming impulse of sad affection.
Miss Chressham kissed the bowed, delicate head resting on her shoulder, saying in her soul: "She will never know, thank God! She will never know!" She herself, who did know the man for whom she grieved, she who had given all her love to one who did not ever hear of it, she who must guard her secret, uncomforted, to the end, could yet conceal her deeper anguish to soothe with her strong sympathy the woman who believed in her beloved.
"I think you must not weep for him," she said softly. "He lived his life. There were no better years before him than those that he had known. He died young and splendid; he did not have to face ruin, a fallen position; he had rich tastes and lordly habits; he did not have to feel the bitterness of inadequacy." And in her heart she added: He did not break the dream of a woman who truly loved him by selling himself a second time. He died while he was still, in one woman's eyes, all she would have had him. And for that Susannah Chressham was grateful.
"I do not weep for him," murmured Selina, "only I am tired."
She raised her head.
"Why should we mourn for him, Susannah? I do not think he could have wished to live."
Miss Chressham kissed her hot cheek.
"You are very brave, sweet—"
There was a little pause, then Selina spoke.
"Will you come with me—to see him?"
Susannah turned her face away.
"I—I dare not speak of that."
"It is very terrible," shuddered Selina, clinging to her, "but I think I must go."
"Do you know what they are doing?"
Miss Boyle closed her eyes.
Miss Chressham put her aside and rose.
"They are showing him for money," she said, in a tone of uncontrolled agony. "My God, how can one bear it?"
"You—you could do nothing?"
Susannah answered fiercely.
"Why do you ask me that, Selina? Do you think that I have not tried? And he has friends; but my lord's dead face was one of my lord's best assets, and there is not a woman in London hath not been to see him—paying gold for it."
"Ah, forgive me!" said Miss Boyle, in a broken voice. "I have been forgetting what it is to you—you who are of his house; and you were fond of him."
"Yes, I was fond of him," answered Susannah, with a short laugh, "but I could not spare him this. What are they, these men who make their profit of the dead?"
Miss Boyle rose.
"I must go," she said feverishly. "Would you forsake him, Susannah, because he hath strangers about him? When so many look on him for curiosity, shall not some look on him for love? I must go, if it kills me."
Susannah gazed at her questioningly.
"Could you bear it?"
"I could not bear to stay away," answered Miss Boyle, raising her wan face. "And my lady—hath my lady been?"
"No." Susannah clenched her hands.
"To-morrow they give him a fine funeral, a spectacle for the town; and then my lady will go to ride in the pageant, and weep at the window of her coach."
"You speak bitterly."
"God forgive me, I have no right; but I do not think that she loved him. It was always Marius."
Selina picked up her hat.
"I am going," she said. "And you—"
Their eyes met.
"I will come."
"At once," whispered Miss Boyle.
"Yes; I will fetch my cloak."
She went softly into the bedchamber, closing the door after her, and Selina stood leaning against the mantelpiece, fastening her pelisse over her grey dress.
It had been a cloudy day, but now the sun was shining fitfully through the long window on to the worn furniture and dark walls. A straight beam fell across a row of prints in black frames that hung opposite. Miss Boyle raised her eyes and looked at them.
The title, engraved finely beneath each subject, seemed to start out and be written on the sunlight:
"THE RAKE'S PROGRESS."
Mr. Hogarth's terrible pictures; she had seen them and shuddered over them before.
"The Rake's Progress."
"Susannah!" she cried on a sobbing breath.
Miss Chressham entered from the bedchamber.
"Hush! my lady sleeps."
"Susannah, those pictures; can you live with them?"
"My lord did not live to reach that final scene," answered Susannah; "so, they do not frighten me but make me thankful."
She glanced at that last plate with its Bedlam horrors, then again at Selina.
"My dear, you look ill," she said, a little wildly. "Can you face it?"
"Yes, ah, yes; I am ready."
She picked up her gloves, and they left the room and house.
It was a beautiful afternoon, of a mild splendour that touched and transfigured even the dull colourless street into a gracious warmth of pale magnificence; the sky was faintly coloured, but of a clear blue, the clouds were delicate but of a pure gold tint, the brick fronts of the houses glowed in the sun that dwelt on the plane-trees and the few flowers in the gardens, covering them with a wistful glory.
At the bottom of the street they got into a hackney coach. Susannah gave the address, after that they could neither of them speak; they held each other's hand and looked out of the window at the long familiar and now horribly distorted street, at the little trivial sights and objects, once pleasant and now terrible, that they passed.
At the comer of Panton Square they stopped the hackney and alighted.
It was Susannah again who paid the man and dismissed him.
"Have you," she asked, "been into my lord's mansion?"
Miss Boyle shook her head. The hackney rumbled off down towards the Mall; a chapman, shouting ballads and the last dying speech and confession of a famous thief hanged that morning, went by. The square was filled with sedan chairs, fashionable curricles and coaches, waiting footmen and pages.
"My lord's last reception seems well attended," said Miss Chressham quietly.
"Hold my hand again," whispered Selina, and she pulled her hat forward so that it concealed her face in its shadow.
Unnoticed they passed round the trees where the golden dusty light of late afternoon was burnishing the foliage, and reached the door of Lyndwood House.
A number of ladies, gaily dressed but wearing black favours, were leaving it; some were weeping, all seemed awed.
"He was very handsome," said one as she stepped into her chair.
"How much will the house fetch?" wondered her companion; and "La, I wish I had never come," sighed a third, who was very young.
"Hold my hand tight," breathed Miss Boyle.
They mounted the steps Susannah knew so well and entered the open door; here the crowd, coming and going, a little delayed them. They stood for a moment brushed by scented skirts and silk mantles and pierced by careless comment.
In the gorgeous hall stood some of the pictures my lord had delighted in, piled against the wall; cabinets of china, of gold and silver, and packing cases showed through the open door of the dining-room; men were making lists, numbering and valuing. The servants at the foot of the stairs were strange to Susannah.
She spoke to one, putting money into his hand.
"Where does my lord he?" she asked.
He answered with an air of one weary of replying to the same question. The place was on show, for two days the town had trooped through the rooms, looking at the furniture, at the extravagances of my lord, and at my lord himself.
Selina turned her wide vacant eyes on Susannah,
"Where is he?" she asked.
Miss Chressham grasped her arm warmly.
"Hush, my dear, my dear; upstairs, in his bedchamber."
On the wide stairway were, here and there, fallen flowers: a leaf, a fern frond, a rose petal.
On the landing the armour and the enamel ware from the library were piled, and great portfolios of the engravings my lord had always so lavishly bought.
Several people passed them. Susannah glanced away for fear they might know her, but Selina gazed before her as if not aware that any came near.
So they reached the door of my lord's chamber. A woman, flauntingly dressed, came out weeping violently; she dabbed at her eyes and looked round as Miss Boyle stopped.
"Ah, you, ma'am," she said in a hysterical voice.
"You, I remember you! You were in the box with him that night—"
Selina looked at her with expressionless eyes, but Susannah spoke.
"Who are you, madam?"
"I was 'Statira,' ma'am," answered the actress, "but I am as free as you to come and look at him now."
She lifted her head defiantly; tears had stained the rouge and powder on her face, and her powdered hair was disarranged under her fantastic hat.
"Poor soul," said Miss Chressham. "I suppose you cared too. Do not look at me so fiercely," she added softly; "it does not hurt us that you have come."
The actress burst into fresh tears.
"God bless you for that; I had no right—"
She snatched Miss Chressham's cold hand, kissed it and hurried on down the stairs.
Selina did not seem to have seen her; she caught Miss Chressham by the arm and drew her gently across the threshold of the Earl's bedchamber.
There were two servants inside the door, standing quietly; the blinds were drawn and the room close with the perfume of flowers. The thing was decorously done, Susannah told herself in a passionate bitterness.
My lord's personal furniture, even his clothes, were still about the chamber, only the clock had been stopped and the mirrors were covered up; a couple of gentlemen and three ladies stood at the foot of the bed, whispering together.
Selina and Susannah stepped closer.
The gold brocade curtains were looped back from the carved canopy, displaying to all who cared to gaze the body of Rose Lyndwood, clad in the white and silver in which he had died, and resting on the purple satin coverlet and silk pillows of his bed.
His head lay lightly to one side and tilted upwards, his hair, powdered and tied with a black ribbon, spread across the pillows; his hands, on which the rings still gleamed, were crossed on the heavy lace of cravat and shirt that fell over his breast; there were diamonds in his watch-chain that hung from his waistcoat pocket, in the buckles of his shoes and in the brooch at his throat.
By his side lay his gilt-hilted rapier in its gold scabbard; the coverlet was hid in flowers, and the floor about piled with wreaths of roses, lilies, syringa, violets and hawthorn, mostly tied with ribbons on which were written ladies' names.
Selina held the curtain yet further back and gazed into his face.
The shadow was over him, and so little changed was his expression that the colourlessness and distortion of death seemed to have hardly touched him; he had always been pale.
Others entered the chamber and passed round the bed. Miss Chressham stood behind Selina, who leant forward, and both looked at Rose Lyndwood with tearless eyes.
Neither touched him nor even the edge of his garments, neither dropped a flower on his couch nor spoke one word of anguish, nor sighed once in lamentation.
After a little while they moved and left the room, their hands clasped and their lips closed. A smile lay, like a ghost of former happiness, on Selina's face; she seemed to see nothing, to hear nothing; her soul was listening to distant music, and treading different ways.
They left the square on foot; neither looked back on the shuttered windows of Lyndwood House.
Selina spoke, and her pure voice was steady.
"Now I will go home; we return to Bristol to-morrow."
She added where they were staying, and remarked on her father's grief and patience.
"He will be waiting for me," she added, and spoke of the life that was before her; peace and yet not loneliness, quiet but not desolation.
"It is all over," she said, and kissed Susannah.
They walked together in silence until they came to the Strand and saw the river flash in the evening sun between the houses.
"Did any tell you," asked Miss Chressham then, "what he said: 'I always believed in the immortality of the soul?'"
"I did not know," answered Selina. "It was a strange thing to say."
"A strange thing for him to believe," said Susannah. "But I am glad, are not you?"
"Yes, I am glad."
They had reached her inn.
"Good-bye; will you write to me?"
"Good-bye, sweet; it hath gone beyond words, hath it not?"
"Beyond everything," said Selina. "I think it hath passed earth and reached heaven."
They clung together, kissed and parted.
Miss Chressham took a hackney and drove home. Everything was as she had left it; the tea service stood about, my lady lay heavily asleep in the darkened bedchamber; only the bar of sunlight had shifted and deepened its golden hue.
"Oh, Rose! Rose!"
She took off her hat and mantle and flung herself on the worn sofa, hiding her face in her white arms and dark dress.
Selina thought that he loved her; she had that to comfort her, but what was to console Susannah?
"Ah, Rose! Rose!"
My lady could sleep—Selina could take up her life saying, "It is over—"
"But what for me?" cried Susannah Chressham through her clenched fingers.
The door opened softly. She lifted dazed eyes and dropped her hands to her lap.
It was Marius Lyndwood who entered—Marius, plainly dressed and dusty, pale and weary-looking, of an infinitely quieter and older aspect than formerly.
They looked at each other, and she rose.
"I am glad you have come," she said simply.
Her eyes widened; he knew, he was the one person in all the world who knew.
"This has almost broken my heart," he said, "for your sake." She turned away sharply, rested her elbows on the mantelpiece and her head in her hands.
The Earl crossed over to her. "There are two of us," he spoke hoarsely, "two of the house of Lyndwood."
"You are heir to a ruined name and fortune," she answered in a muffled voice; "you have no cause to feel kindly to us, the dead or the living, Marius."
My lord laid his hand lightly on her arm.
"Have I your friendship, Susannah?"
She raised her face.
"Do you forgive me that I am the Earl, Susannah?"
Susannah answered unsteadily.
"You—do you forgive Rose?"
"There was nought to forgive," said my lord.
Miss Chressham looked into his steadfast, earnest eyes.
"As you say, there are two of us."
She gave him her hands.
"Will you come and see my lady?"